I thought I’d share some things that have really opened my eyes recently.
The first is a two-part interview with Vinay Gupta from the Emerge podcast in 2019. I’ve followed Vinay’s work ever since we tried to get Firecloud (a P2P publishing platforming using WebRTC) off the ground in 2013 when I was working at Mozilla. Ten years ahead of the curve, as always.
Working with Vinay absolutely blew my mind, and although we haven’t met up in person for a few years, he’s been changing the world in the meantime. He was the release manager for Ethereum, and he’s currently CEO of Mattereum.
The difference with Vinay, though, is that he’s enlightened. I don’t mean that in a LinkedIn kind of way. I mean that in a studied-under-a-Hindu-guru kind of way. This underpins all of the humanitarian work he does, some of which you can see at myhopeforthe.world
The two episodes on the Emerge podcast are entitled Waking Up in the Monster Factory (Part 1 / Part 2). I guarantee they are worth your time.
The late, great Dai Barnes implored me to watch Curtis’ 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation. I’m only half way through the new documentary series, and it’s having a similar effect as when I watched that. A feeling of waking up, and seeing the world as it really is. It’s kind of counter-conspiracy theory.
The crucial thing for me, and my reason for sharing both of these, is a recognition that there’s no-one coming to save us. But, unlike those people discussed in the 99% Invisible podcast episode The Doom Boom, it’s up to us to figure out how to pull together collectively — instead of hunkering down and just making sure that our immediate family and friends are OK.
The world doesn’t particularly need my opinions on NFTs (‘non-fungible tokens’) as there’s plenty of opinions to go round in other newsletters, podcasts, and blog posts.
After doing a bunch of reading, though, I think that the main use case for NFTs will be ticket sales. That is to say, when there is a limited supply of something with intrinsic value, and both the original buyer and seller want to ensure authenticity.
The rest is speculation and gambling, as far as I’m concerned, with a side serving of ecological destruction. I’m also a bit concerned about the enforcement of copyright everywhere on the web it might lead to…
NFTs, explained — “Non-fungible” more or less means that it’s unique and can’t be replaced with something else. For example, a bitcoin is fungible — trade one for another bitcoin, and you’ll have exactly the same thing. A one-of-a-kind trading card, however, is non-fungible. If you traded it for a different card, you’d have something completely different. You gave up a Squirtle, and got a 1909 T206 Honus Wagner, which StadiumTalk calls “the Mona Lisa of baseball cards.” (I’ll take their word for it.)”
NFTs are a dangerous trap — “The more time and passion that creators devote to chasing the NFT, the more time they’ll spend trying to create the appearance of scarcity and hustling people to believe that the tokens will go up in value. They’ll become promoters of digital tokens more than they are creators. Because that’s the only reason that someone is likely to buy one–like a stock, they hope it will go up in value. Unlike some stocks, it doesn’t pay dividends or come with any other rights. And unlike actual works of art, NFTs aren’t usually aesthetically beautiful on their own, they simply represent something that is.”
Cryptodamages: Monetary value estimates of the air pollution and human health impacts of cryptocurrency mining — “Results indicate that in 2018, each $1 of Bitcoin value created was responsible for $0.49 in health and climate damages in the US and $0.37 in China. The similar value in China relative to the US occurs despite the extremely large disparity between the value of a statistical life estimate for the US relative to that of China. Further, with each cryptocurrency, the rising electricity requirements to produce a single coin can lead to an almost inevitable cliff of negative net social benefits, absent perpetual price increases.”
🍲 Introducing ‘Food Grammar,’ the Unspoken Rules of Every Cuisine — “Grammars can even impose what is considered a food and what isn’t: Horse and rabbit are food for the French but not for the English; insects are food in Mexico but not in Spain. Moreover, just as “Hey, man!” is a friendly greeting for a buddy but maybe not for your boss, foods may not be suitable in all grammatical contexts. “A Frenchman would think it odd to drink white coffee with dinner and an Italian probably would resent being served spaghetti for breakfast,” writes Claude Fischler in “Food, Self and Identity.” By the same token, rice is appropriate for breakfast in Korea but not in Ireland.”
The essence of this article is that food is a reflection of culture, and our views of other cultures can become ossified. A good read.
🌍 Scientists begin building highly accurate digital twin of our planet — “The digital twin of the Earth is intended to be an information system that develops and tests scenarios that show more sustainable development and thus better inform policies. “If you are planning a two-metre high dike in The Netherlands, for example, I can run through the data in my digital twin and check whether the dike will in all likelihood still protect against expected extreme events in 2050,” says Peter Bauer, deputy director for Research at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) and co-initiator of Destination Earth. The digital twin will also be used for strategic planning of fresh water and food supplies or wind farms and solar plants.”
This is the kind of thing that simultaneously fills me with hope and fear. On the one hand, such a great idea; on the other, if we get the model wrong, it could make things worse…
🤑 Why an Animated Flying Cat With a Pop-Tart Body Sold for Almost $600,000 — “The sale was a new high point in a fast-growing market for ownership rights to digital art, ephemera and media called NFTs, or “nonfungible tokens.” The buyers are usually not acquiring copyrights, trademarks or even the sole ownership of whatever it is they purchase. They’re buying bragging rights and the knowledge that their copy is the “authentic” one.”
I’ve got a blog post percolating in my mind at the moment about digital reserve currencies, NFTs and deepfakes. There’s something here about an emerging hyper-capitalist dystopia, for sure.
Tim O’Reilly is a funny character. Massively talented and influential, but his political views (broadly right libertarian) seem to mean he miss things when he’s neverththeless heading in the right direction.
In a long article published recently, O’Reilly introduces his readers to scenario planning from a very US-centric point of view. It’s also a position that, on first reading at least, is a bit techno-solutionist.
He starts by explaining that just because we date decades and centuries a particular way (“the 90s”, “the twentieth century”) it’s actually cataclysmic events that define the start and end of eras:
So, when you read stories—and there are many—speculating or predicting when and how we will return to “normal”, discount them heavily. The future will not be like the past. The comfortable Victorian and Georgian world complete with grand country houses, a globe-spanning British empire, and lords and commoners each knowing their place, was swept away by the events that began in the summer of 1914 (and that with Britain on the “winning” side of both world wars.) So too, our comfortable “American century” of conspicuous consumer consumption, global tourism, and ever-increasing stock and home prices may be gone forever.
For me, the 21st century began on September 11th, 2001 with the twin towers attack. The aftermath of that, including the curtailing of our civil liberties in the west, has been a defining feature of the century so far.
O’Reilly, however, points to the financial crisis:
Our failure to make deep, systemic changes after the financial collapse of 2009, and our choice instead to spend the last decade cutting taxes and spending profusely to prop up financial markets while ignoring deep, underlying problems has only made responding to the current crisis that much more difficult. Our failure to build back creatively and productively from the global financial crisis is necessary context for the challenge to do so now.
All of these things compound one another, with financial uncertainty leading to political instability, and the election of populist leaders. That meant we were less prepared for the pandemic than we could have been, and when it hit, we’ve suffered (in the UK and US at least) from an incompetent response.
If you are a student of history, you know that the massive reduction of the workforce in post-Black Death Europe forced lords to give better terms of tenure—serfdom all but disappeared, and the rise of a mercantile middle class set the stage for the artistic and scientific progress of the Renaissance. Temporary, but catastrophic, events often usher in permanent economic changes. Sometimes the changes appear to be reversed but it just takes time for them to stick. World War II brought women into the workforce, and then victory ushered them back out. But the wine of opportunity, once tasted, was not left undrunk forever.
I’m hoping, like O’Reilly, that there are silver linings that come out of the pandemic related to climate change. Unlike him, I don’t think the answer is more consumption. As an article I shared recently points out, not only can we not have billionaires and solve climate change, but the whole edifice of over-consumption needs to collapse under its own weight.
Developing Questions “(And) what kind of X (is that X)?” “(And) is there anything else about X?” “(And) where is X? or (And) whereabouts is X?” “(And) that’s X like what?” “(And) is there a relationship between X and Y?” “(And) when X, what happens to Y?
Sequence and Source Questions “(And) then what happens? or (And) what happens next?” “(And) what happens just before X?” “(And) where could X come from?”
Intention Questions “(And) what would X like to have happen?” “(And) what needs to happen for X?” “(And) can X (happen)?”
The first two questions: “What kind of X (is that X)?” and “Is there anything else about X?” are the most commonly used.
As a general guide, these two questions account for around 50% of the questions asked in a typical Clean Language session.
I had a great chat with Kristian Still this week, for the first time in about a decade. Kristian was part of EdTechRoundUp back in the day, and early EduTwitter. Among the many things we discussed is his enthusiasm for “clean questioning” which I’m going to investigate further.
Even our throwaway habits can add up to a mountain of carbon. Consider all the little social emails we shoot back and forth—“thanks,” “got it,” “lol.” The UK energy firm Ovo examined email usage and—using data from Lancaster University professor Mike Berners-Lee, who analyzes carbon footprints—they found that if every adult in the UK just sent one less “thank you” email per day, it would cut 16 tons of carbon each year, equal to 22 round-trip flights between New York and London. They also found that 49 percent of us often send thank-you emails to people “within talking distance.” We can lower our carbon output if we’d just take the headphones off for a minute and stop behaving like a bunch of morlocks.
Clive Thompson (WIRED)
Small differences all add up. Our design choices and the decisions we make about technology all have a part to play in fighting climate change.
When you boil it down, neumorphism is a focus on how light moves in three-dimensional space. Its predecessor, skeumorphism, created realism in digital interfaces by simulating textures on surfaces like felt on a poker table or the brushed metal of a tape recorder. An ancillary — though under-developed — aspect of this design style was lighting that interacted realistically with the materials that were being represented; this is why shadows and darkness were so prevalent in those early interfaces.
Jack Koloskus (Input)
The dominant design language over the last five years, without doubt, has been Google’s Material Design. Will a neumorphic approach take over? It’s certainly an interesting approach.
He called on those in the tech industry to look at the bigger picture regarding their work and its implications beyond simply a project—and to think deeply and take a stronger stand with regards to who their labor actually serves.
“It’s not enough to read, it’s not enough to believe in something, it’s not enough to write something, you have to eventually stand for something if you want things to change,” he said.
Kevin Truong (Motherboard)
The tech industry is an interesting one as it’s a relatively new and immature one, at least in its current guise. As a result, the ethics, and the checks and balances aren’t quite there yet.
To my mind, things like unions and professional associations show maturity and the kind of coming together that don’t put moral decisions on the shoulders of individuals, but rather on the whole sector.
[T]here is a narrative chasm between the twee and borderless dreamscape of fantasy Britain and actual, material Britain, where rents are rising and racists are running brave. The chasm is wide, and a lot of people are falling into it. The omnishambles of British politics is what happens when you get scared and mean and retreat into the fairytales you tell about yourself. When you can no longer live within your own contradictions. When you want to hold on to the belief that Britain is the land of Jane Austen and John Lennon and Sir Winston Churchill, the war hero who has been repeatedly voted the greatest Englishman of all time. When you want to forget that Britain is also the land of Cecil Rhodes and Oswald Mosley and Sir Winston Churchill, the brutal colonial administrator who sanctioned the building of the first concentration camps and condemned millions of Indians to death by starvation. These are not contradictions, even though the drive to separate them is cracking the country apart. If you love your country and don’t own its difficulties and its violence, you don’t actually love your country. You’re just catcalling it as it goes by.
Laurie Penny (Longreads)
I always find looking at my country through the lens of foreigners cringe-inducing. I suppose it’s a narrative produced for tourists but, sadly, we seem to have believed our own rhetoric, and look where it’s gotten us…
The idea that Big Tech can mold discourse through bypassing our critical faculties by spying on and analyzing us is both self-serving (inasmuch as it helps Big Tech sell ads and influence services) and implausible, and should be viewed with extreme skepticism
But you don’t have to accept extraordinary claims to find ways in which Big Tech is distorting and degrading our public discourse. The scale of Big Tech makes it opaque and error-prone, even as it makes the job of maintaining a civil and productive space for discussion and debate impossible.
Cory Doctorow (EFF)
A tour de force from Doctorow, who eviscerates the companies that make up ‘Big Tech’ and the role they have in hollowing-out civic society.
But there’s no reason to put too sunny a spin on what’s happening. Research has shown that anticipation can be a linchpin of well-being and that looking ahead produces more intense emotions than retrospection. In a 2012 New York Times article on why people thirst for new experiences, one psychologist told the paper, “Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age,” and another referred to human beings as a “neophilic species.” Of course, the current blankness in the place of what comes next is supposed to be temporary. Even so, lacking an ability to confidently say “see you later” is going to have its effects. Have you noticed the way in which conversations in this era can quickly become recursive? You talk about the virus. Or you talk about what you did together long ago. The interactions don’t always spark and generate as easily as they once did.
Spencer Kornhaber (The Atlantic)
Part of the problem with all of this is that we don’t know how long it’s going to last, so we can’t really make plans. It’s like an extended limbo where you’re supposed to just get on with it, whatever ‘it’ is…
If you’re going after a career moat now, remember that the best skills to go after are the ones that the market will value after the recession ends. You can’t necessarily predict this — the world is complex and the future is uncertain, but you should certainly keep the general idea in mind.
A simpler version of this is to go after complementary skills to your current role. If you’ve been working for a bit, it’s likely that you’ll have a better understanding of your industry than most. So ask yourself: what complementary skills would make you more valuable to the employers in your job market?
Cedric James (Commonplace)
I’m fortunate to have switched from education to edtech at the right time. Elsewhere, James says that “job security is the ability to get your next job, not keep your current one” and that this depends on your network, luck, and having “rare and valuable skills”. Indeed.
This is hard stuff, and acknowledging it comes with a corollary: We, as a society, are not particularly special. Vinsel, the historian at Virginia Tech, cautioned against “digital exceptionalism,” or the idea that everything is different now that the silicon chip has been harnessed for the controlled movement of electrons.
It’s a difficult thing for people to accept, especially those who have spent their lives building those chips or the software they run. “Just on a psychological level,” Vinsel said, “people want to live in an exciting moment. Students want to believe they’re part of a generation that’s going to change the world through digital technology or whatever.”
Aaron Gordon (VICE)
Everyone thinks they live in ‘unprecedented’ times, especially if they work in tech.
But disasters and emergencies do not just throw light on the world as it is. They also rip open the fabric of normality. Through the hole that opens up, we glimpse possibilities of other worlds. Some thinkers who study disasters focus more on all that might go wrong. Others are more optimistic, framing crises not just in terms of what is lost but also what might be gained. Every disaster is different, of course, and it’s never just one or the other: loss and gain always coexist. Only in hindsight will the contours of the new world we’re entering become clear.
Peter C Baker (the Guardian)
An interesting read, outlining the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis, but of course what comes next (CLIMATE CHANGE) is even bigger.
This tendency to rally around even incompetent leaders makes one despair for humanity. The correct response in all cases is contempt and an attempt, if possible, at removal of the corrupt and venal people in charge. Certainly no one should be approving of the terrible jobs they [Cuomo, Trump, Johnson] have done.
All three have or will use their increased power to do horrible things. The Coronavirus bailout bill passed by Congress and approved by Trump is a huge bailout of the rich, with crumbs for the poor and middle class. So little, in fact, that there may be widespread hunger soon. Cuomo is pushing forward with his cuts, and I’m sure Johnson will live down to expectations.
I’m genuinely shocked that the current UK government’s approval ratings are so high. Yes, they’re covering 80% of the salary of those laid-off, but the TUC was pushing for an even higher figure. It’s like we’re congratulating neoliberal idiots for destroying our collectively ability to be able to respond to this crisis effectively.
Yet ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later. It is a lesson Americans learned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, civil liberties experts say.
Nearly two decades later, law enforcement agencies have access to higher-powered surveillance systems, like fine-grained location tracking and facial recognition — technologies that may be repurposed to further political agendas like anti-immigration policies. Civil liberties experts warn that the public has little recourse to challenge these digital exercises of state power.
Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun (The New York Times)
I’ve seen a lot of suggestions around smarpthone tracking to help with the pandemic response. How, exactly, when it’s trivial to spoof your location? It’s just more surveillance by the back door.
Have you ever noticed that when you argue with someone smart, if you manage to debunk their initial reasoning, they just shift to a new, logical-sounding reason?
Reasons are like a salamander’s legs — if you cut one off, another grows in its place.
When you’re dealing with a salamander, you need to get to the heart. Forget about reasoning and focus on what’s causing the emotions. According to [non-violent communication], every negative emotion is the result of an unmet, universal need.
Great advice here, especially for those who work in organisations (or who have clients) who lack emotional intelligence.
When the current crisis is over in terms of infection, the social and economic impact will be felt for a long time. One such hangover is likely to be the shift to online for so much of work and interaction. As the cartoon goes “these meetings could’ve been emails all along”. So let’s jump forward then a few years when online is the norm.
Martin Weller (The Ed Techie)
Some of the examples given in this post gave me a much-needed chuckle.
However, now that many of us are finding we have time on our hands, it could be the opportunity we need to attempt some of the more chronologically demanding narrative video game masterpieces of the last decade.
Keith Stuart (The Guardian)
Well, yes, but what we probably need even more is multiplayer mode. Red Dead Redemption II is on this list, and it’s one of the best games ever made. However, it’s tinged with huge sadness for me as it’s a game I greatly enjoyed playing with the late, great, Dai Barnes.
This week’s roundup is going out a day later than usual, as yesterday was the Global Climate Strike and Thought Shrapnel was striking too!
Here’s what I’ve been paying attention to this week:
How does a computer ‘see’ gender?(Pew Research Center) — “Machine learning tools can bring substantial efficiency gains to analyzing large quantities of data, which is why we used this type of system to examine thousands of image search results in our own studies. But unlike traditional computer programs – which follow a highly prescribed set of steps to reach their conclusions – these systems make their decisions in ways that are largely hidden from public view, and highly dependent on the data used to train them. As such, they can be prone to systematic biases and can fail in ways that are difficult to understand and hard to predict in advance.”
The Communication We Share with Apes(Nautilus) — “Many primate species use gestures to communicate with others in their groups. Wild chimpanzees have been seen to use at least 66 different hand signals and movements to communicate with each other. Lifting a foot toward another chimp means “climb on me,” while stroking their mouth can mean “give me the object.” In the past, researchers have also successfully taught apes more than 100 words in sign language.”
Why degrowth is the only responsible way forward(openDemocracy) — “If we free our imagination from the liberal idea that well-being is best measured by the amount of stuff that we consume, we may discover that a good life could also be materially light. This is the idea of voluntary sufficiency. If we manage to decide collectively and democratically what is necessary and enough for a good life, then we could have plenty.”
3 times when procrastination can be a good thing(Fast Company) — “It took Leonardo da Vinci years to finish painting the Mona Lisa. You could say the masterpiece was created by a master procrastinator. Sure, da Vinci wasn’t under a tight deadline, but his lengthy process demonstrates the idea that we need to work through a lot of bad ideas before we get down to the good ones.”
Why can’t we agree on what’s true any more?(The Guardian) — “What if, instead, we accepted the claim that all reports about the world are simply framings of one kind or another, which cannot but involve political and moral ideas about what counts as important? After all, reality becomes incoherent and overwhelming unless it is simplified and narrated in some way or other.
A good teacher voice strikes fear into grown men(TES) — “A good teacher voice can cut glass if used with care. It can silence a class of children; it can strike fear into the hearts of grown men. A quiet, carefully placed “Excuse me”, with just the slightest emphasis on the “-se”, is more effective at stopping an argument between adults or children than any amount of reason.”
Freeing software(John Ohno) — “The only way to set software free is to unshackle it from the needs of capital. And, capital has become so dependent upon software that an independent ecosystem of anti-capitalist software, sufficiently popular, can starve it of access to the speed and violence it needs to consume ever-doubling quantities of to survive.”
Tomorrow, pupils at some schools in the UK will walk out and join protests around climate change. There are none in my local area of which I’m aware, but it has got me thinking of how I talk to my own children about this.
The above infographic was created by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas and is featured in an article about the most effective steps you can take as an individual to tackle climate change.
While these are all important steps (I honestly didn’t know quite how bad transatlantic flights are!) it’s important to bear in mind that industry and big business should bear the brunt here. What they can do dwarfs what we can do individually.
Still, it all counts. And we should get on it. Time’s running out.