Tag: China (page 1 of 3)

Mastering a 5,400-character typewriter

I can’t even imagine how difficult this must have been to type on!

The IBM Chinese typewriter was a formidable machine—not something just anyone could handle with the aplomb of the young typist in the film. On the keyboard affixed to the hulking, gunmetal gray chassis, 36 keys were divided into four banks: 0 through 5; 0 through 9; 0 through 9; and 0 through 9. With just these 36 keys, the machine was capable of producing up to 5,400 Chinese characters in all, wielding a language that was infinitely more difficult to mechanize than English or other Western writing systems.

To type a Chinese character, one depressed a total of 4 keys—one from each bank—more or less simultaneously, compared by one observer to playing a chord on the piano. Just as the film explained, “if you want to type word number 4862 you would press 4-8-6-2 and the machine would type the right character.⁠”

Each four-digit code corresponded with a character etched on a revolving drum inside the typewriter. Spinning continuously at a speed of 60 revolutions per minute, or once per second, the drum measured 7 inches in diameter, and 11 inches in length. Its surface was etched with 5,400 Chinese characters,⁠ letters of the English alphabet, punctuation marks, numerals, and a handful of other symbols.

Source: How Lois Lew mastered IBM’s 1940s Chinese typewriter

There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it

Mental health, imagination, and post-pandemic futures

I guess, given that this is the third straight week I’ve written on the subject, that this could be considered a blogchain on post-pandemic reality. I’m fine with that, and although there’s no need to read the previous two posts, you might want to do so for background:

  1. People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character
  2. We have it in our power to begin the world over again

In this post I want to talk about the effect of this period of lockdown on our collective mental health and ability to imagine the future.

The caveat is that I don’t inhabit anyone else’s brain than my own, and therefore am extrapolating from one specific example. I’m told that in statistics that’s not recommended.


There are five very broad categories of people during this lockdown. You can imagine it as a spectrum, as there are those who are:

  • Working from home, and have done for a while
  • Working from home, and are new to it
  • Working at their usual place of work
  • Not working because they are unemployed
  • Not working because they are ill/retired

It’s fair to say that the lockdown affects these groups in different ways. However, I think that they share quite a lot in common.

For people in all five groups, whatever their current status, they had plans for the future. Let’s look at those out of work first: if you’re ill, your plan is probably to get better; if you’re retired you may have plans to visit the grandkids; or if you’re unemployed the chances are you’re looking forward to getting a job.


If you’re employed, no matter where you work, then you’re looking forward to any number of things: that promotion, the conference you’re attending in a few months’ time; or even just finishing the project you’re working on.

Muppets

Instead, you’re stuck at home. And as Christine Grové points out in this article about the longer-term effects of the coronavirus on education, that can have mental health implications ⁠— what some term a ‘social recession’:

A social recession can have profound physical, economic and psychological effects. Though we are in uncharted territory, data suggests that quarantine can seriously affect people’s mental health, leading to anger, confusion and post-traumatic stress symptoms. As this pandemic continues, the continuous provision of mental health information is critical. Honest and fast communication about how to reduce isolation and increase connection while physically distancing is essential. Health messages need to also include specific ways to look after your mental health. As governments and health regulatory bodies respond to the impacts of the pandemic, an interdisciplinary expert task force on the short- and long-term mental health effects is urgently needed to address the potential risks and repercussions for children, youth, adults, parents, families and the community.

Christine Grové

Thankfully, thanks to an unprecedented government intervention it seems most people in the UK don’t need to worry about being out on the streets. They’re covered in some way. Meanwhile, the Spanish government is apparently planning to roll out basic income, not temporarily, but in a way “that stays forever, that becomes a structural instrument, a permanent instrument”.

We’re all familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as represented as a pyramid, but these days it tends to be represented in sociological research in a more dynamic way, with overlapping needs that can take precedence at any given time.

Dynamic hierarchy of needs
Dynamic hierarchy of needs (CC BY-SA
Philipp Guttmann)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s great that most people in developed countries are going to be able to have their safety needs met throughout this crisis. What’s not certain is that psychological needs will be met, never mind those around belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

That’s because the short version of the problem with the world pre-pandemic is ‘capitalism’ but the slightly longer and more accurate version is ‘neoliberal capitalism’. That modifier is an important one.

Writing in The Financial Times, author Arundhati Roy writes about India’s response to the coronavirus. She explains how it could be a great leveller:

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Arundhati Roy (The Financial Times)

Normality for too many people in this world is predicated on a logic that enriches a very small number of people while hollowing-out the world for the 99%. This is done through markets and competition being introduced to every area of life, so that ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in life is reduced to an individual’s responsibility.

Shaun the Sheep

Under such conditions, neoliberal societies are geared towards short-termism, as evidenced by our woeful response to the dangers of climate change. As Dark Matter Labs put it:

Our underlying structural capacities and incentives are deeply coded to advance short-term thinking and decision-making. This fundamental societal deficit in future-oriented thinking, permeates our psychological, cultural, technological, legal, financial and political infrastructures—amplifying a bias towards the present—resulting in short-sighted and vulnerable subjects, short-term financial investments, waste economies and a growing political fracture between intergenerational relations.

Dark Matter Labs

This is an unprecedented opportunity for societies to change track and to get off the neoliberal rails. One way of doing that is to use tools to think about the potential impact of the changes we’re experiencing. Only then can we think about potential solutions that benefit the many instead of the few.

In a preview for a new book coming out soon, Scott Smith explains a simple technique to map impacts and implications:

Source: How to Future, Changeist, 2020.

He gives the example of the majority of people in ‘professional’ occupations now working from home. What are the first, second, and third level impacts? What kind of impacts are they?

Image via Scott Smith (S=social, T=tech, E=economic, P=political/legal, V=values)

Some of these are positive impacts, some negative, and some neutral. Some have individual effects, some are felt at the organisational or societal level. Either way, now is probably a good time to be thinking about a new venture that will both help people and be profitable in the post-pandemic landscape.


One thing we’ve taken for granted over the last couple of decades is that everything is manufactured in China. However, Matt Webb has been reading the runes and thinking about this:

The hegemony of manufacturing in China is assumed. But my feeling is that the threshold between centralised and local is a fine line, and it’s closer than it looks.

I was reading recently about loo paper, because of course I was. Apparently it’s always made close to the place of sale because it’s cheap and not very dense and so disproportionately expensive to ship. So where else are these fine lines, and how quickly could we tip over them?

Matt Webb

We no longer live in a world where there are defined groups of people that neatly fit previous pre-conceived media groups. I can remember reading about DINKYs (Dual Income No Kids Yet) back when I was doing Media Studies as a GCSE student. The world has moved on.

But now we’ve got micro-targeted advertising and e-commerce. It’s absurd to stock physical stores with items that probably won’t be bought, just to make a particular size and colour available. And there’s no ABC1 sociodemographic group now, people form their own communities. You can launch a micro-brand on Instagram in an instant (and either keep it niche or scale it to billions). Where’s the requirement for mass anything? The logic collapses.

So maybe the logic supporting centralised supply chains has collapsed too.

Matt Webb

There’s many people coming together to think through the implications of the coronavirus and what a post-pandemic landscape could (or should) look like for them and their sector. One I found particularly illuminating was on Subpixel Space, where Toby Shorin had a chat with his friends and shared the result.

Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck

I don’t agree with all of the predictions, but a few really jumped out at me. For example:

Media and content brands with membership models will likely do very well, as will games, both indie and platforms like Roblox. We’ll see more brands which do not hold any assets whatsoever, but are simply groupings of individuals giving themselves a name and a presence.

Toby Shorin, Drew Austin, Kara Kittel, Kei Kreutler, Edouard Urcades

I think this is already happening. For example, a few educators banded together to create the (now quite slick-looking) Higher Ed Learning Collective. This started with one guy sitting on his couch creating a Facebook group.

Given all of the digital tools at our disposal, there’s no reason for people to wait in order to experiment, or even to gain financing for their idea. In fact, getting people in on the ground floor is a great way of sharing ownership of the project.

Building brands around shared ownership with customers will probably be increasingly important. Expect to see more crowdfunding, patronage, community, and membership-based go-to-market strategies which make ownership an explicit part of the brand experience. Several crypto-adjacent teams are exploring this territory already.

Toby Shorin, Drew Austin, Kara Kittel, Kei Kreutler, Edouard Urcades

We’ve spent the last decade living most of our social lives online out in the open. That’s becoming less and less tenable now that pretty much everyone is online. We’re collectively looking for smaller spaces to share ideas with people who will read us in the right way.

There will need to be new types of interface and digital social environment to support the continued proliferation of lifestyles. We’ll probably see a flourishing of new, social micro-networks. They will not be for everyone. They will be private in nature, and will support between 20 and 1000 people.

Toby Shorin, Drew Austin, Kara Kittel, Kei Kreutler, Edouard Urcades

Although life may feel a bit boring and repetitive right now, we’re in a period of time where the scale is about to tip. The thing is, we’re not just not sure which way.

Scales

Although it’s difficult, especially when we’re feeling anxious, or lonely, or uncertain, now is the time to band together with like-minded people and to create the future we want to inhabit. Let’s be the change we want to see in the world.


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Quotation-as title from George Eliot. Header image by Martin Widenka.

Friday festoonings

Check out these things I read and found interesting this week. Thanks to some positive feedback, I’ve carved out time for some commentary, and changed the way this link roundup is set out.

Let me know what you think! What did you find most interesting?


Maps Are Biased Against Animals

Critics may say that it is unreasonable to expect maps to reflect the communities or achievements of nonhumans. Maps are made by humans, for humans. When beavers start Googling directions to a neighbor’s dam, then their homes can be represented! For humans who use maps solely to navigate—something that nonhumans do without maps—man-made roads are indeed the only features that are relevant. Following a map that includes other information may inadvertently lead a human onto a trail made by and for deer.

But maps are not just tools to get from points A to B. They also relay new and learned information, document evolutionary changes, and inspire intrepid exploration. We operate on the assumption that our maps accurately reflect what a visitor would find if they traveled to a particular area. Maps have immense potential to illustrate the world around us, identifying all the important features of a given region. By that definition, the current maps that most humans use fall well short of being complete. Our definition of what is “important” is incredibly narrow.

Ryan Huling (WIRED)

Cartography is an incredibly powerful tool. We’ve known for a long time that “the map is not the territory” but perhaps this is another weapon in the fight against climate change and the decline in diversity of species?


Why Actually Principled People Are Difficult (Glenn Greenwald Edition)

Then you get people like Greenwald, Assange, Manning and Snowden. They are polarizing figures. They are loved or hated. They piss people off.

They piss people off precisely because they have principles they consider non-negotiable. They will not do the easy thing when it matters. They will not compromise on anything that really matters.

That’s breaking the actual social contract of “go along to get along”, “obey authority” and “don’t make people uncomfortable.” I recently talked to a senior activist who was uncomfortable even with the idea of yelling at powerful politicians. It struck them as close to violence.

So here’s the thing, people want men and women of principle to be like ordinary people.

They aren’t. They can’t be. If they were, they wouldn’t do what they do. Much of what you may not like about a Greenwald or Assange or Manning or Snowden is why they are what they are. Not just the principle, but the bravery verging on recklessness. The willingness to say exactly what they think, and do exactly what they believe is right even if others don’t.

Ian Welsh

Activists like Greta Thunberg and Edward Snowden are the closest we get to superheroes, to people who stand for the purest possible version of an idea. This is why we need them — and why we’re so disappointed when they turn out to be human after all.


Explicit education

Students’ not comprehending the value of engaging in certain ways is more likely to be a failure in our teaching than their willingness to learn (especially if we create a culture in which success becomes exclusively about marks and credentialization). The question we have to ask is if what we provide as ‘university’ goes beyond the value of what our students can engage with outside of our formal offer. 

Dave White

This is a great post by Dave, who I had the pleasure of collaborating with briefly during my stint at Jisc. I definitely agree that any organisation walks a dangerous path when it becomes overly-fixated on the ‘how’ instead of the ‘what’ and the ‘why’.


What Are Your Rules for Life? These 11 Expressions (from Ancient History) Might Help

The power of an epigram or one of these expressions is that they say a lot with a little. They help guide us through the complexity of life with their unswerving directness. Each person must, as the retired USMC general and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, has said, “Know what you will stand for and, more important, what you won’t stand for.” “State your flat-ass rules and stick to them. They shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.”

Ryan Holiday

Of the 11 expressions here, I have to say that other than memento mori (“remember you will die”) I particularly like semper anticus (“always forward”) which I’m going to print out in a fancy font and stick on the wall of my home office.


Dark Horse Discord

In a hypothetical world, you could get a Discord (or whatever is next) link for your new job tomorrow – you read some wiki and meta info, sort yourself into your role you’d, and then are grouped with the people who you need to collaborate with on a need be basis. All wrapped in one platform. Maybe you have an HR complaint – drop it in #HR where you can’t read the messages but they can, so it’s a blind 1 way conversation. Maybe there is a #help channel, where you ping you write your problems and the bot pings people who have expertise based on keywords. There’s a lot of things you can do with this basic design.

Mule’s Musings

What is described in this post is a bit of a stretch, but I can see it: a world where work is organised a bit like how gamers organisers in chat channels. Something to keep an eye on, as the interplay between what’s ‘normal’ and what’s possible with communications technology changes and evolves.


The Edu-Decade That Was: Unfounded Optimism?

What made the last decade so difficult is how education institutions let corporations control the definitions so that a lot of “study and ethical practice” gets left out of the work. With the promise of ease of use, low-cost, increased student retention (or insert unreasonable-metric-claim here), etc. institutions are willing to buy into technology without regard to accessibility, scalability, equity and inclusion, data privacy or student safety, in hope of solving problem X that will then get to be checked off of an accreditation list. Or worse, with the hope of not having to invest in actual people and local infrastructure.

Geoff Cain (Brainstorm in progress)

It’s nice to see a list of some positives that came out of the last decades, and for microcredentials and badging to be on that list.


When Is a Bird a ‘Birb’? An Extremely Important Guide

First, let’s consider the canonized usages. The subreddit r/birbs defines a birb as any bird that’s “being funny, cute, or silly in some way.” Urban Dictionary has a more varied set of definitions, many of which allude to a generalized smallness. A video on the youtube channel Lucidchart offers its own expansive suggestions: All birds are birbs, a chunky bird is a borb, and a fluffed-up bird is a floof. Yet some tension remains: How can all birds be birbs if smallness or cuteness are in the equation? Clearly some birds get more recognition for an innate birbness.

Asher Elbein (Audubon magazine)

A fun article, but also an interesting one when it comes to ambiguity, affinity groups, and internet culture.


Why So Many Things Cost Exactly Zero

“Now, why would Gmail or Facebook pay us? Because what we’re giving them in return is not money but data. We’re giving them lots of data about where we go, what we eat, what we buy. We let them read the contents of our email and determine that we’re about to go on vacation or we’ve just had a baby or we’re upset with our friend or it’s a difficult time at work. All of these things are in our email that can be read by the platform, and then the platform’s going to use that to sell us stuff.”

Fiona Scott Morton (Yale business school) quoted by Peter coy (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Regular readers of Thought Shrapnel know all about surveillance capitalism, but it’s good to see these explainers making their way to the more mainstream business press.


Your online activity is now effectively a social ‘credit score’

The most famous social credit system in operation is that used by China’s government. It “monitors millions of individuals’ behavior (including social media and online shopping), determines how moral or immoral it is, and raises or lowers their “citizen score” accordingly,” reported Atlantic in 2018.

“Those with a high score are rewarded, while those with a low score are punished.” Now we know the same AI systems are used for predictive policing to round up Muslim Uighurs and other minorities into concentration camps under the guise of preventing extremism.

Violet Blue (Engadget)

Some (more prudish) people will write this article off because it discusses sex workers, porn, and gay rights. But the truth is that all kinds of censorship start with marginalised groups. To my mind, we’re already on a trajectory away from Silicon Valley and towards Chinese technology. Will we be able to separate the tech from the morality?


Panicking About Your Kids’ Phones? New Research Says Don’t

The researchers worry that the focus on keeping children away from screens is making it hard to have more productive conversations about topics like how to make phones more useful for low-income people, who tend to use them more, or how to protect the privacy of teenagers who share their lives online.

“Many of the people who are terrifying kids about screens, they have hit a vein of attention from society and they are going to ride that. But that is super bad for society,” said Andrew Przybylski, the director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, who has published several studies on the topic.

Nathaniel Popper (The New York Times)

Kids and screentime is just the latest (extended) moral panic. Overuse of anything causes problems, smartphones, games consoles, and TV included. What we need to do is to help our children find balance in all of this, which can be difficult for the first generation of parents navigating all of this on the frontline.


Gorgeous header art via the latest Facebook alternative, planetary.social