Tag: coronavirus

The clever man often worries; the loyal person is often overworked

Man in field sitting at desk and computer

👏 Blue sky thinking: is it time to stop work taking over our lives?

👍 Attitudes are skills

🤦‍♂️ How Not To Kill People With Spreadsheets

🕸️ Viral Effects Are Not Network Effects

🤯 Inventing Virtual Meetings of Tomorrow with NVIDIA AI Research


Quotation-as-title from a Chinese proverb. Image from top-linked post.

Saturday soundings

Black Lives Matter. The money from this month’s kind supporters of Thought Shrapnel has gone directly to the 70+ community bail funds, mutual aid funds, and racial justice organizers listed here.


IBM abandons ‘biased’ facial recognition tech

A 2019 study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that none of the facial recognition tools from Microsoft, Amazon and IBM were 100% accurate when it came to recognising men and women with dark skin.

And a study from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology suggested facial recognition algorithms were far less accurate at identifying African-American and Asian faces compared with Caucasian ones.

Amazon, whose Rekognition software is used by police departments in the US, is one of the biggest players in the field, but there are also a host of smaller players such as Facewatch, which operates in the UK. Clearview AI, which has been told to stop using images from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, also sells its software to US police forces.

Maria Axente, AI ethics expert at consultancy firm PwC, said facial recognition had demonstrated “significant ethical risks, mainly in enhancing existing bias and discrimination”.

BBC News

Like many newer technologies, facial recognition is already a battleground for people of colour. This is a welcome, if potential cynical move, by IBM who let’s not forget literally provided technology to the Nazis.


How Wikipedia Became a Battleground for Racial Justice

If there is one reason to be optimistic about Wikipedia’s coverage of racial justice, it’s this: The project is by nature open-ended and, well, editable. The spike in volunteer Wikipedia contributions stemming from the George Floyd protests is certainly not neutral, at least to the extent that word means being passive in this moment. Still, Koerner cautioned that any long-term change of focus to knowledge equity was unlikely to be easy for the Wikipedia editing community. “I hope that instead of struggling against it they instead lean into their discomfort,” she said. “When we’re uncomfortable, change happens.”

Stephen Harrison (Slate)

This is a fascinating glimpse into Wikipedia and how the commitment to ‘neutrality’ affects coverage of different types of people and event feeds.


Deeds, not words

Recent events have revealed, again, that the systems we inhabit and use as educators are perfectly designed to get the results they get. The stated desire is there to change the systems we use. Let’s be able to look back to this point in two years and say that we have made a genuine difference.

Nick Dennis

Some great questions here from Nick, some of which are specific to education, whereas others are applicable everywhere.


Sign with hole cut out saying 'NO JUSTICE NO PEACE'

Audio Engineers Built a Shield to Deflect Police Sound Cannons

Since the protests began, demonstrators in multiple cities have reported spotting LRADs, or Long-Range Acoustic Devices, sonic weapons that blast sound waves at crowds over large distances and can cause permanent hearing loss. In response, two audio engineers from New York City have designed and built a shield which they say can block and even partially reflect these harmful sonic blasts back at the police.

Janus Rose (Vice)

For those not familiar with the increasing militarisation of police in the US, this is an interesting read.


CMA to look into Facebook’s purchase of gif search engine

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is inviting comments about Facebook’s purchase of a company that currently provides gif search across many of the social network’s competitors, including Twitter and the messaging service Signal.

[…]

[F]or Facebook, the more compelling reason for the purchase may be the data that Giphy has about communication across the web. Since many services that integrate with the platform not only use it to find gifs, but also leave the original clip hosted on Giphy’s servers, the company receives information such as when a message is sent and received, the IP address of both parties, and details about the platforms they are using.

Alex Hern (The Guardian)

In my 2012 TEDx Talk I discussed the memetic power of gifs. Others might find this news surprising, but I don’t think I would have been surprised even back then that it would be such a hot topic in 2020.

Also by the Hern this week is an article on Twitter’s experiments around getting people to actually read things before they tweet/retweet them. What times we live in.


Human cycles: History as science

To Peter Turchin, who studies population dynamics at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the appearance of three peaks of political instability at roughly 50-year intervals is not a coincidence. For the past 15 years, Turchin has been taking the mathematical techniques that once allowed him to track predator–prey cycles in forest ecosystems, and applying them to human history. He has analysed historical records on economic activity, demographic trends and outbursts of violence in the United States, and has come to the conclusion that a new wave of internal strife is already on its way1. The peak should occur in about 2020, he says, and will probably be at least as high as the one in around 1970. “I hope it won’t be as bad as 1870,” he adds.

Laura Spinney (Nature)

I’m not sure about this at all, because if you go looking for examples of something to fit your theory, you’ll find it. Especially when your theory is as generic as this one. It seems like a kind of reverse fortune-telling?


Universal Basic Everything

Much of our economies in the west have been built on the idea of unique ideas, or inventions, which are then protected and monetised. It’s a centuries old way of looking at ideas, but today we also recognise that this method of creating and growing markets around IP protected products has created an unsustainable use of the world’s natural resources and generated too much carbon emission and waste.

Open source and creative commons moves us significantly in the right direction. From open sharing of ideas we can start to think of ideas, services, systems, products and activities which might be essential or basic for sustaining life within the ecological ceiling, whilst also re-inforcing social foundations.

TessyBritton

I’m proud to be part of a co-op that focuses on openness of all forms. This article is a great introduction to anyone who wants a new way of looking at our post-COVID future.


World faces worst food crisis for at least 50 years, UN warns

Lockdowns are slowing harvests, while millions of seasonal labourers are unable to work. Food waste has reached damaging levels, with farmers forced to dump perishable produce as the result of supply chain problems, and in the meat industry plants have been forced to close in some countries.

Even before the lockdowns, the global food system was failing in many areas, according to the UN. The report pointed to conflict, natural disasters, the climate crisis, and the arrival of pests and plant and animal plagues as existing problems. East Africa, for instance, is facing the worst swarms of locusts for decades, while heavy rain is hampering relief efforts.

The additional impact of the coronavirus crisis and lockdowns, and the resulting recession, would compound the damage and tip millions into dire hunger, experts warned.

Fiona Harvey (The Guardian)

The knock-on effects of COVID-19 are going to be with us for a long time yet. And these second-order effects will themselves have effects which, with climate change also being in the mix, could lead to mass migrations and conflict by 2025.


Mice on Acid

What exactly a mouse sees when she’s tripping on DOI—whether the plexiglass walls of her cage begin to melt, or whether the wood chips begin to crawl around like caterpillars—is tied up in the private mysteries of what it’s like to be a mouse. We can’t ask her directly, and, even if we did, her answer probably wouldn’t be of much help.

Cody Kommers (Nautilus)

The bit about ‘ego disillusion’ in this article, which is ostensibly about how to get legal hallucinogens to market, is really interesting.


Header image by Dmitry Demidov

Saturday shiftings

I think this is the latest I’ve published my weekly roundup of links. That’s partly because of an epic family walk we did today, but also because of work, and because of the length and quality of the things I bookmarked to come back to…

Enjoy!


Graffiti in Hong Kong subway station (translation: “We can’t return to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem.”)

FC97: Portal Economics

Most of us are still trapped in the mental coordinates of a world that isn’t waiting for us on the other side. You can see this in the language journalists are still using. The coronavirus is a ‘strategic surprise’ and we’re still very much in the ‘fog of war,’ dealing with the equivalent of an ‘alien invasion’ or an ‘unexpected asteroid strike.’ As I said back in March though, this is not a natural disaster, like an earthquake, a one-off event from which we can rebuild. It’s not a war or a financial crisis either. There are deaths, but no combatants, no physical resources have been destroyed, and there was no initial market crash, although obviously the markets are now reacting.

The crisis is of the entire system we’ve built. In another article, I described this as the bio-political straitjacket. We can’t reopen our economies, because if we do then more people will die. We can’t keep them closed either, because our entire way of life is built on growth, and without it, everything collapses. We can give up our civil liberties, submitting to more surveillance and control, but as Amartya Sen would say, what good is a society if the cost of our health and livelihoods is our hard fought for freedoms?

Gus Hurvey (Future Crunch)

This is an incredible read, and if you click through to anything this week to sit down and consume with your favourite beverage, I highly recommend this one.


Coronavirus shows us it’s time to rethink everything. Let’s start with education

There’s nothing radical about the things we’re learning: it’s a matter of emphasis more than content – of centralising what is most important. Now, perhaps, we have an opportunity to rethink the entire basis of education. As local authorities in Scotland point out, outdoor learning could be the best means of getting children back to school, as it permits physical distancing. It lends itself to re-engagement with the living world. But, despite years of research demonstrating its many benefits, the funding for outdoor education and adventure learning has been cut to almost nothing.

George Monbiot (The Guardian)

To some extent, this is Monbiot using a different stick to bang the same drum, but he certainly has a point about the most important things to be teaching our young people as their future begins to look a lot different to ours.


The Machine Pauses

In 1909, following a watershed era of technological progress, but preceding the industrialized massacres of the Somme and Verdun, E.M. Forster imagined, in “The Machine Stops,” a future society in which the entirety of lived experience is administered by a kind of mechanical demiurge. The story is the perfect allegory for the moment, owing not least to its account of a society-wide sudden stop and its eerily prescient description of isolated lives experienced wholly through screens.

Stuart Whatley (The Hedgehog Review)

No, I didn’t know what a ‘demiurge‘ was either. Apparently, it’s “an artisan-like figure responsible for fashioning and maintaining the physical universe”.

This article, which not only quote E.M. Forster, but also Heidegger and Nathaniel Hawthorne, discusses whether we really should be allowing technology to dictate the momentum of society.


Party in a spreadsheet

Party in a Shared Google Doc

The party has no communal chat log. Whilst I can enable edit permissions for those with the party link, shared google docs don’t not allow for chat between anonymous animals. Instead conversations are typed in cells. There are too many animals to keep track of who is who. I stop and type to someone in a nearby cell. My cursor is blue, theirs is orange. I have no idea if they are a close friend or a total stranger. How do you hold yourself and what do you say to someone when personal context is totally stripped away?

Marie Foulston

I love this so much.


Being messy when everything is clean

[T]o put it another way, people whose working lives can be mediated through technology — conducted from bedrooms and kitchen tables via Teams or Slack, email and video calls — are at much less risk. In fact, our laptops and smartphones might almost be said to be saving our lives. This is an unintended consequence of remote working, but it is certainly a new reality that needs to be confronted and understood.

And many people who can work from a laptop are also less likely to lose their jobs than people who work in the service and hospitality industries, especially those who have well-developed professional networks and high social capital. According to The Economist, this group are having a much better lockdown than most — homeschooling notwithstanding. But then, they probably also had a more comfortable life beforehand.

Rachel Coldicutt (Glimmers)

This post, “a scrapbook of links and questions that explore how civil society might be in a digital world,” is a really interesting look at the physicality of our increasingly-digital world and how the messiness of human life is being ‘cleaned up’ by technology.


Remote work worsens inequality by mostly helping high-income earners

Given its potential benefits, telecommuting is an attractive option to many. Studies have shown a substantial number of workers would even agree to a lower salary for a job that would allow them to work from home. The appeal of remote work can be especially strong during times of crisis, but also exists under more normal circumstances.

The ongoing crisis therefore amplifies inequalities when it comes to financial and work-life balance benefits. If there’s a broader future adoption of telecommuting, a likely result of the current situation, that would still mean a large portion of the working population, many of them low-income workers, would be disadvantaged

Georges A. Tanguay & Ugo Lachapelle (The Conversation)

There’s some interesting graphs included in this Canadian study of remote work. While I’ve written plenty about remote work before, I don’t think I’ve really touched on how much it reinforces white, middle-class, male privilege.

The BBC has an article entitled Why are some people better at working from home than others? which suggests that succeeding and/or flourishing in a remote work situation is down to the individual, rather than the context. The truth is, it’s almost always easier to be a man in a work environement ⁠— remote, or otherwise. This is something we need to change.


Unreal engine

A first look at Unreal Engine 5

We’ve just released a first look at Unreal Engine 5. One of our goals in this next generation is to achieve photorealism on par with movie CG and real life, and put it within practical reach of development teams of all sizes through highly productive tools and content libraries.

I remember showing my late grandmother FIFA 18 and her not being able to tell the difference between it and the football she watched regularly on the television.

Even if you’re not a gamer, you’ll find this video incredible. It shows how, from early next year, cinematic-quality experiences will be within grasp of even small development teams.


Grand illusion: how the pandemic exposed we’re all just pretending

Our pretending we’re not drowning is the proof we have that we might still be worth saving. Our performing stability is one of the few ways that we hope we might navigate the narrow avenues that might still get us out.

A thing, though, about perpetuating misperceptions, about pretending – because you’re busy surviving, because you can’t stop playing the rigged game on the off-chance somehow that you might outsmart it, because you can’t help but feel like your circumstances must somehow be your fault – is that it makes it that much harder for any individual within the group to tell the truth.

Lynn Steger Strong (The Guardian)

Wouldn’t be amazing if we collectively turned to one another, recognised our collective desire not to play ‘the game’ any more, and decided to go after those who have rigged the system against us?


How to improve your walking technique

What research shows is that how we walk, our gait mechanics, isn’t as “natural” as we might believe. We learn to walk by observing our parents and the world around us. As we grow up, we embody the patterns we see. These can limit the full potential of our gait. Some of us unconsciouly prevent the pelvis and arms from swinging because of cultural taboos that frown upon having a gait as being, for example, too free.

Suunto

My late, great, friend Dai Barnes was a barefoot runner. He used to talk a lot about how people walk and run incorrectly, partly because of the ‘unnatural’ cushioning of their feet. This article gives some advice on improving your walking gait, which I tried out today on a long family walk.


Header mage via xkcd

Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say

Post-pandemic surveillance culture

Today’s title comes from Edward Snowden, and is a pithy overview of the ‘nothing to hide’ argument that I guess I’ve struggled to answer over the years. I’m usually so shocked that an intelligent person would say something to that effect, that I’m not sure how to reply.

When you say, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ you’re saying, ‘I don’t care about this right.’ You’re saying, ‘I don’t have this right, because I’ve got to the point where I have to justify it.’ The way rights work is, the government has to justify its intrusion into your rights.

Edward Snowden

This, then, is the fifth article in my ongoing blogchain about post-pandemic society, which already includes:

  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
  3. There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it
  4. The old is dying and the new cannot be born

It does not surprise me that those with either a loose grip on how the world works, or those who need to believe that someone, somewhere has ‘a plan’, believe in conspiracy theories around the pandemic.

What is true, and what can easily be mistaken for ‘planning’ is the preparedness of those with a strong ideology to double-down on it during a crisis. People and organisations reveal their true colours under stress. What was previously a long game now becomes a short-term priority.

For example, this week, the US Senate “voted to give law enforcement agencies access to web browsing data without a warrant”, reports VICE. What’s interesting, and concerning to me, is that Big Tech and governments are acting like they’ve already won the war on harvesting our online life, and now they’re after our offline life, too.


I have huge reservations about the speed in which Covid-19 apps for contact tracing are being launched when, ultimately, they’re likely to be largely ineffective.

We already know how to do contact tracing well and to train people how to do it. But, of course, it costs money and is an investment in people instead of technology, and privacy instead of surveillance.

There are plenty of articles out there on the difference between the types of contact tracing apps that are being developed, and this BBC News article has a useful diagram showing the differences between the two.

TL;DR: there is no way that kind of app is going on my phone. I can’t imagine anyone who I know who understands tech even a little bit installing it either.


Whatever the mechanics of how it goes about doing it happen to be, the whole point of a contact tracing app is to alert you and the authorities when you have been in contact with someone with the virus. Depending on the wider context, that may or may not be useful to you and society.

However, such apps are more widely applicable. One of the things about technology is to think about the effects it could have. What else could an app like this have, especially if it’s baked into the operating systems of devices used by 99% of smartphone users worldwide?

CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The above diagram is Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects, which is a useful frame for thinking about the impact of technology on society.

Big Tech and governments have our online social graphs, a global map of how everyone relates to everyone else in digital spaces. Now they’re going after our offline social graphs too.


Exhibit A

The general reaction to this seemed to be one of eye-rolling and expressing some kind of Chinese exceptionalism when this was reported back in January.

Exhibit B

Today, this Boston Dynamics robot is trotting around parks in Singapore reminding everyone about social distancing. What are these robots doing in five years’ time?

Exhibit C

Drones in different countries are disinfecting the streets. What’s their role by 2030?


I think it’s drones that concern me most of all. Places like Baltimore were already planning overhead surveillance pre-pandemic, and our current situation has only accelerated and exacerbated that trend.

In that case, it’s US Predator drones that have previously been used to monitor and bomb places in the Middle East that are being deployed on the civilian population. These drones operate from a great height, unlike the kind of consumer drones that anyone can buy.

However, as was reported last year, we’re on the cusp of photovoltaic drones that can fly for days at a time:

This breakthrough has big implications for technologies that currently rely on heavy batteries for power. Thermophotovoltaics are an ultralight alternative power source that could allow drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles to operate continuously for days. It could also be used to power deep space probes for centuries and eventually an entire house with a generator the size of an envelope.

Linda Vu (TechXplore)

Not only will the government be able to fly thousands of low-cost drones to monitor the population, but they can buy technology, like this example from DefendTex, to take down other drones.

That is, of course, if civilian drones continue to be allowed, especially given the ‘security risk’ of Chinese-made drones flying around.

It’s interesting times for those who keep a watchful eye on their civil liberties and government invasion of privacy. Bear that in mind when tech bros tell you not to fear robots because they’re dumb. The people behind them aren’t, and they have an agenda.


Header image via Pixabay

Saturday seductions

Having a Bank Holiday in the UK on a Friday has really thrown me this week. So apologies for this link roundup being a bit later than usual…

I do try to inject a little bit of positivity into these links every week, but the past few days have made me a little concerned about our post-pandemic future. Anyway, here goes…


Radio Garden

This popped up in my Twitter feed this week and brought joy to my life. So simple but so effective: either randomly go to, or browse radio stations around the world. The one featured in the screenshot above is one close to me I forgot existed!


COVID and forced experiments

Every time we get a new kind of tool, we start by making the new thing fit the existing ways that we work, but then, over time, we change the work to fit the new tool. You’re used to making your metrics dashboard in PowerPoint, and then the cloud comes along and you can make it in Google Docs and everyone always has the latest version. But one day, you realise that the dashboard could be generated automatically and be a live webpage, and no-one needs to make those slides at all. Today, sometimes doing the meeting as a video call is a poor substitute for human interaction, but sometimes it’s like putting the slides in the cloud.

I don’t think we can know which is which right now, but we’re going through a vast, forced public experiment to find out which bits of human psychology will align with which kinds of tool, just as we did with SMS, email or indeed phone calls in previous generations.

Benedict Evans

An interesting post that both invokes ‘green eggs and ham’ as a metaphor, and includes an anecdote from an Ofcom report towards the end about a woman named Polly that no-one who does training or usability testing should ever forget.


Education is over…

What future learning environments need is not more mechanization, but more humanization; not more data, but more wisdom; not more
objectification, but more subjectification; not more Plato, but more Aristotle.

William Rankin (regenerative.global)

I agree, although ‘subjectification’ is a really awkward word that suggests school subjects, which isn’t the author’s point. After all of this, I can’t see parents, in particular, accepting going back to how school has been. At least, I hope not.



What Happens Next?

This guide… is meant to give you hope and fear. To beat COVID-19 in a way that also protects our mental & financial health, we need optimism to create plans, and pessimism to create backup plans. As Gladys Bronwyn Stern once said, “The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.”

Marcel Salathé & Nicky Case

Modelling what happens next in terms of lockdowns, etc. is not an easy think to understand, and there are many competing opinions. This guide, with ‘playable simulations’ is the best thing I’ve seen so far, and I feel I’m much better prepared for the next decade (yes, you read that correctly).


Sheltering in Place with Montaigne

By the time Michel de Montaigne wrote “Of Experience,” the last entry in his third and final book of essays, the French statesman and author had weathered numerous outbreaks of plague (in 1585, while he was mayor of Bordeaux, a third of the population perished), political uprisings, the death of five daughters, and an onslaught of physical ailments, from rotting teeth to debilitating kidney stones.

[…]

The ubiquity of suffering heightened Montaigne’s attentiveness to the complexity of human experience. Pleasure, he contends, flows not from free rein but structure. The brevity of existence, he goes on, gives it a certain heft. Exertion, truth be told, is the best form of compensation. Time is slippery, the more reason to grab hold.

Drew Bratcher (The Paris Review)

Montaigne is one of my favourite authors, and having recently read Stefan Zweig’s bioraphy of him, he feels even more relevant to our times.


Clarity for Teachers: Day 42

There’s a children’s book that I love, The Greentail Mouse by Leo Lionni. It plays on the old theme of the town mouse and the country mouse. In this telling, the town mouse comes to visit his cousins in their rural idyll, and they ask him about life in the town. It’s horrible, he says, noisy and dangerous, but there is one day a year when it’s amazing, and that’s when carnival comes around. So the country mice decide to hold a carnival of their own: they make costumes and masks, they grunt and shriek and howl and jump around like wild things. But then, at some point, they forget that they are wearing masks; they end up believing that they are the fierce creatures they have been playing at being, and their formerly peaceful community becomes filled with fear, hatred and suspicion.

Dougald Hine

Dougald Hine is taking Charlie Davies’ course Clarity for Teachers and is blogging each day about it. This is from the last post in the series. I’m including it partly to point towards Homeward Bound, which I’ve just signed up for, and which starts next Thursday.



BBC Archive: Empty sets

Give your video calls a makeover, with this selection of over 100 empty sets from the BBC Archive.

Who hasn’t wanted to host a pub quiz from the Queen Vic, conduct a job interview from the confines of Fletch’s cell, or catch up with friends and family from the bridge of the Liberator in Blake’s 7?

I love this idea, to spice up Zoom calls, etc.


People you follow

First I search for my new item of interest, then I filter the results by “People I Follow.” (You can try it out with some of my recent searches: “Roger Angell,” “Captain Beefheart,” and “Rockford Files.”) Depending on the subject, I might have pages and pages of links, all handily selected for me by people I find interesting.

Austin Kleon

In his most recent newsletter, Austin Kleon referenced this post of his from five years ago. I think the idea is a great one and I’ll definitely be doing this in future! Twitter move settings around occasionally, but it’s still there under ‘search filters’.


68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice

Perhaps the most counter-intuitive truth of the universe is that the more you give to others, the more you’ll get. Understanding this is the beginning of wisdom.

Before you are old, attend as many funerals as you can bear, and listen. Nobody talks about the departed’s achievements. The only thing people will remember is what kind of person you were while you were achieving.

Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists. To be an optimist you don’t have to ignore all the many problems we create; you just have to imagine improving our capacity to solve problems.

Kevin Kelly (The Technium)

The venerable KK is now 68 years of age and so has dispensed some wisdom. It’s a mixed bag, but I particularly liked these the three bits of advice I’ve quoted above.


Header image by Ben Jennings.

Saturday sandcastles

The photos of brutalist sandcastles accompanying this week’s link roundup made me both smile and really miss care-free walks on the beach. Although technically we’re still allowed to visit the coast, our local council has closed nearby car parks.

This week I’ve been busy, busy, but managed to squeeze in a bit of non-fiction reading, the best of which I’m sharing below. Oh, and one link that I can’ really quote is UnblockIt which was shared via our team chat this week. If your ISP filters certain sites, you might want to bookmark it…


There will be no ‘back to normal’

In this article, we summarise and synthesise various – often opposing – views about how the world might change. Clearly, these are speculative; no-one knows what the future will look like. But we do know that crises invariably prompt deep and unexpected shifts, so that those anticipating a return to pre-pandemic normality may be shocked to find that many of the previous systems, structures, norms and jobs have disappeared and will not return.

Nesta

I’m going to return to this article time and again, as it breaks down in a really helpful way what’s likely to happen post-pandemic in the following areas: political, economic, sociocultural, technological, legal, and environmental.


Plan for 5 years of lockdown

I’m attempting to be pragmatic. I think this is one of those times where we should hope for the best but plan for the worst. Crucially, I think that a terrifying number of people are in denial about the timescales of disruption that Covid-19 will cause, and this is causing them to make horrible personal and professional decisions. I believe that we have a responsibility to consider any reasonably likely worst case scenario, and take appropriate steps to mitigate it. But to do that we have to be honest about the worst case.

Patrick Gleeson

It’s hard to disagree with the points made in this post, especially as the scenario planning that universities are doing seems to point in the same direction. Having said that, I don’t think ‘lockdown’ will mean the same thing everywhere and at each stage of the pandemic.


‘Will coronavirus change our attitudes to death? Quite the opposite’

For centuries, people used religion as a defence mechanism, believing that they would exist for ever in the afterlife. Now people sometimes switch to using science as an alternative defence mechanism, believing that doctors will always save them, and that they will live for ever in their apartment. We need a balanced approach here. We should trust science to deal with epidemics, but we should still shoulder the burden of dealing with our individual mortality and transience.

The present crisis might indeed make many individuals more aware of the impermanent nature of human life and human achievements. Nevertheless, our modern civilisation as a whole will most probably go in the opposite direction. Reminded of its fragility, it will react by building stronger defences. When the present crisis is over, I don’t expect we will see a significant increase in the budgets of philosophy departments. But I bet we will see a massive increase in the budgets of medical schools and healthcare systems.

Yuval Noah Harari

Some amazing writing, as ever, by Harari, who argues that, because our secular societies focus on the here and now rather than the afterlife, science has almost become a religion.


Brutalist sandcastle 02

A startup debt to talk about more: emotional debt

We incur emotional debt whenever there’s an experience we’ve had, but not fully digested in all aspects of it. In my trauma therapy training I learned that this is in fact a natural and important human survival skill. Imagine you’re living in a pre-historic village and it gets raided by a neighboring tribe. Although no one gets killed, a number of houses have been burned down and food has been stolen. The next morning the most important tasks for everyone are to protect the village again, rebuild the houses and hunt for food to survive. Many of the villagers will have been deeply traumatized from the fears and terror they experienced in their bodies. Since food and shelter takes first priority to humans, not processing these emotions for now is a debt that’s necessary and important to incur. We can put it aside and leave it stuck in our bodies, ready to reengage and digest it later. It’s a great survival feature if you will.

A couple of weeks later when everything has been rebuilt, there might be a chance for the local shaman to offer a ritual around the fireplace where everyone can gather and re-experience the emotions that were too difficult to deal with at the actual event of the raid: the rage and anger towards the attackers, the fear and the terror over their lives and eventually the grief for the loss of their goods and most importantly their safety. Once that has been felt and integrated, everyone is able to move on and the night of the village raid can safely go into the history books, fairy tales and heroes journey accounts that luckily everyone survived, yet learned from.

Leo Widrich

While this is framed in terms of startups, I think every organisation has ’emotional debt’ that they have to deal with. I like this framing, and will be using it from now on to explain why teams need times of compression and decompression (instead of never-ending ‘sprints’).


Don’t let remote leadership bring out the worst in you

Recognize that the pressure you apply is a reaction to a construct of control. You think you can control people – and things – and the reality is you can’t. The quicker you can realize this, the sooner you can shift to a frame of mind where you can focus constructively on the things that actually help your team, such as: (1) Making it clear why the work matters (2) Creating milestones to help that person achieve that work (3) Giving as much context as possible so they can make the best decisions (4) Helping them think through tough problems they encounter.

Claire Lew

I’ve led a remote team for a couple of years now, and worked remotely for six years before that. Despite this, it’s easy to fall into bad habits, so this is a useful article to remind all leaders (most of whom are remote now!) that the amount of time someone spends on something does not equate to progress made.



Google Apple Contact Tracing (GACT): a wolf in sheep’s clothes.

But the bigger picture is this: it creates a platform for contact tracing that works all across the globe for most modern smart phones (Android Marshmallow and up, and iOS 13 capable devices) across both OS platforms. Unless appropriate safeguards are in place (including, but not limited to, the design of the system as described above – we will discuss this more below) this would create a global mass-surveillance system that would reliably track who has been in contact with whom, at what time and for how long. (And where, if GPS is used to record the location.) GACT works much more reliably and extensively than any other system based on either GPS or mobile phone location data (based on cell towers) would be able to (under normal conditions). I want to stress this point because some people have responded to this threat saying that this is something companies like Google (using their GPS and WiFi names based location history tool) can already do for years. This is not the case. This type of contact tracing really brings it to another level.

Jaap-Henk Hoepman

This, by a professor in the Netherlands who focuses on ‘privacy by design’ is why I’m really concerned about the Google/Apple Contact Tracing (GACT) programme. It’s only likely to be of marginal help in fighting the virus, but sets up a global surveillance network for decades to come.


Brutalist sandcastle 03

In this Zombie Apocalypse, your Homework is due at 5pm

Year in and year out, when school’s in, children know that they are to be at certain places at certain times, doing particular tasks in particular ways. And now, weeks loom ahead where they are faced with many of the same tasks, absent of all the pomp and circumstance. This is the ultimate zombie apocalypse nightmare—a pandemic has hit the world with a mighty force, schools and tuition centers are shut, and homework is still due. Children are adaptable creatures, but it will be challenging for many, if not most, to do all that they are expected to do under these altered conditions.

Youyenn Teo

I was attracted to this article by its great title, but it’s actually an interesting insight into both education in a Singaporean context and the gendered nature of care in our societies.


Free Money for Surfers: A Genealogy of the Idea of Universal Basic Income

As cash transfers are increasingly seen as the ideal way to confront the magnitude of the coronavirus threat, it is unclear whether our political imagination is truly up to the task. The current crisis might accelerate rather than decrease our dependency on the market, strengthening capital’s grip on society. Large-scale public works are evidently unfeasible with physical distancing. But, with a clear medical equipment shortage and lacking trained personnel, there is obvious space for public planning responses, and “production for use value” seems ever more necessary. None of these ills will be solved by cash transfers.

Anton Jäger & Daniel Zamora

This, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, considers a new work by Peter Sloman entitled The Idea of a Guaranteed Income and the Politics of Redistribution in Modern Britain. Having previously been cautiously optimistic about Universal Basic Income (or ‘cash transfers’) I’m not so sure it would all work out so well. I’d rather we funded things like the NHS, but then that might be my white male privilege speaking.


How we made the Keep Calm and Carry On poster

I first found the poster in 2000, folded up at the bottom of a box of books we had bought at an auction. I liked it straight away and showed it to my wife Mary – she had it framed and put up in the shop. The next thing we found was that customers wanted to buy it. I suggested we make copies but Mary said: “No, it’ll spoil the purity.” She went away for a week’s holiday, so I secretly got 500 copies made.

Stuart Manley (interviewed by malcolm jack)

This ridiculously-famous poster was discovered in a wonderful second-hand bookshop not too far away from us, and which we visit several times per year. I love the story behind it.


Images via The Guardian: For one tide only: modernist sandcastles – in pictures

Saturday scrubbings

This week on Thought Shrapnel I’ve been focused on messing about with using OBS to create videos. So much, in fact, that this weekend I’m building a new PC to improve the experience.

Sometimes in these link roundups I try and group similar kinds of things together. But this week, much as I did last week, I’ve just thrown them all in a pot like Gumbo.

Tell me which links you find interesting, either in the comments, or on Twitter or the Fediverse (feel free to use the hashtag #thoughtshrapnel)


Melting Ice Reveals a “Lost” Viking-Era Pass in Norway’s Mountains

About 60 artifacts have been radiocarbon dated, showing the Lendbreen pass was widely used from at least A.D. 300. “It probably served as both an artery for long-distance travel and for local travel between permanent farms in the valleys to summer farms higher in the mountains, where livestock grazed for part of the year,” says University of Cambridge archaeologist James Barrett, a co-author of the research.

Tom Metcalfe (Scientific American)

I love it when the scientific and history communities come together to find out new things about our past. Especially about the Vikings, who were straight-up amazing.


University proposes online-only degrees as part of radical restructuring

Confidential documents seen by Palatinate show that the University is planning “a radical restructure” of the Durham curriculum in order to permanently put online resources at the core of its educational offer, in response to the Covid-19 crisis and other ongoing changes in both national and international Higher Education.

The proposals seek to “invert Durham’s traditional educational model”, which revolves around residential study, replacing it with one that puts “online resources at the core enabling us to provide education at a distance.” 

Jack Taylor & Tom Mitchell (Palatinate)

I’m paying attention to this as Durham University is one of my alma maters* but I think this is going to be a common story across a lot of UK institutions. They’ve relied for too long on the inflated fees brought in by overseas students and now, in the wake of the pandemic, need to rapidly find a different approach.

*I have a teaching qualification and two postgraduate degrees from Durham, despite a snooty professor telling me when I was 17 years old that I’d never get in to the institution 😅


Abolish Silicon Valley: memoir of a driven startup founder who became an anti-capitalist activist

Liu grew up a true believer in “meritocracy” and its corollaries: that success implies worth, and thus failure is a moral judgment about the intellect, commitment and value of the failed.

Her tale — starting in her girlhood bedroom and stretching all the way to protests outside of tech giants in San Francisco — traces a journey of maturity and discovery, as Liu confronts the mounting evidence that her life’s philosophy is little more than the self-serving rhetoric of rich people defending their privilege, the chasm between her lived experience and her guiding philosophy widens until she can no longer straddle it.

Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing)

This book is next on my non-fiction reading list. If your library is closed and doesn’t have an online service, try this.


Cup, er, drying itself...

7 things ease the switch to remote-only workplaces

You want workers to post work as it’s underway—even when it’s rough, incomplete, imperfect. That requires a different mindset, though one that’s increasingly common in asynchronous companies. In traditional companies, people often hesitate to circulate projects or proposals that aren’t polished, pretty, and bullet-proofed. It’s a natural reflex, especially when people are disconnected from each other and don’t communicate casually. But it can lead to long delays, especially on projects in which each participant’s progress depends on the progress and feedback of others. Location-independent companies need a culture in which people recognize that a work-in-progress is likely to have gaps and flaws and don’t criticize each other for them. This is an issue of norms, not tools.

Edmund L. Andrews-Stanford (Futurity)

I discovered this via Stephen Downes, who highlights the fifth point in this article (‘single source of truth’). I’ve actually highlighted the sixth one (‘breaking down the barriers to sharing work’) as I’ve also seen that as an important thing to check for when hiring.


How the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory tore through the internet

The level of interest in the coronavirus pandemic – and the fear and uncertainty that comes with it – has caused tired, fringe conspiracy theories to be pulled into the mainstream. From obscure YouTube channels and Facebook pages, to national news headlines, baseless claims that 5G causes or exacerbates coronavirus are now having real-world consequences. People are burning down 5G masts in protest. Government ministers and public health experts are now being forced to confront this dangerous balderdash head-on, giving further oxygen and airtime to views that, were it not for the major technology platforms, would remain on the fringe of the fringe. “Like anti-vax content, this messaging is spreading via platforms which have been designed explicitly to help propagate the content which people find most compelling; most irresistible to click on,” says Smith from Demos.

James temperton (wired)

The disinformation and plain bonkers-ness around this ‘theory’ of linking 5G and the coronavirus is a particularly difficult thing to deal with. I’ve avoided talking about it on social media as well as here on Thought Shrapnel, but I’m sharing this as it’s a great overview of how these things spread — and who’s fanning the flames.


A Manifesto Against EdTech© During an Emergency Online Pivot

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented moment in the history of social structures such as education. After all of the time spent creating emergency plans and three- or five-year road maps that include fail safe options, we find ourselves in the actual emergency. Yet not even a month into global orders of shelter in place, there are many education narratives attempting to frame the pandemic as an opportunity. Extreme situations can certainly create space for extraordinary opportunities, but that viewpoint is severely limited considering this moment in time. Perhaps if the move to distance/online/remote education had happened in a vacuum that did not involve a global pandemic, millions sick, tens of thousands dead, tens of millions unemployed, hundreds of millions hungry, billions anxious and uncertain of society’s next step…perhaps then this would be that opportunity moment. Instead, we have a global emergency where the stress is felt everywhere but it certainly is not evenly distributed, so learning/aligning/deploying/assessing new technology for the classroom is not universally feasible. You can’t teach someone to swim while they’re drowning.

Rolin Moe

Rolin Moe is a thoughtful commentator on educational technology. This post was obviously written quickly (note the typo in the URL when you click through, as well as some slightly awkward language) and I’m not a fan of the title Moe has settled on. That being said, the point about this not being an ‘opportunity’ for edtech is a good one.


Dishes washing themselves

NHS coronavirus app: memo discussed giving ministers power to ‘de-anonymise’ users

Produced in March, the memo explained how an NHS app could work, using Bluetooth LE, a standard feature that runs constantly and automatically on all mobile devices, to take “soundings” from other nearby phones through the day. People who have been in sustained proximity with someone who may have Covid-19 could then be warned and advised to self–isolate, without revealing the identity of the infected individual.

However, the memo stated that “more controversially” the app could use device IDs, which are unique to all smartphones, “to enable de-anonymisation if ministers judge that to be proportionate at some stage”. It did not say why ministers might want to identify app users, or under what circumstances doing so would be proportionate.

David Pegg & Paul Lewis (The Guardian)

This all really concerns me, as not only is this kind of technology only going be of marginal use in fighting the coronavirus, once this is out of the box, what else is it going to be used for? Also check out Vice’s coverage, including an interview with Edward Snowden, and this discussion at Edgeryders.


Is This the Most Virus-Proof Job in the World?

It’s hard to think of a job title more pandemic-proof than “superstar live streamer.” While the coronavirus has upended the working lives of hundreds of millions of people, Dr. Lupo, as he’s known to acolytes, has a basically unaltered routine. He has the same seven-second commute down a flight of stairs. He sits in the same seat, before the same configuration of lights, cameras and monitors. He keeps the same marathon hours, starting every morning at 8.

Social distancing? He’s been doing that since he went pro, three years ago.

For 11 hours a day, six days a week, he sits alone, hunting and being hunted on games like Call of Duty and Fortnite. With offline spectator sports canceled, he and other well-known gamers currently offer one of the only live contests that meet the standards of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

David Segal (The New York Times)

It’s hard to argue with my son these days when he says he wants to be a ‘pro gamer’.

(a quick tip for those who want to avoid ‘free registration’ and some paywalls — use a service like Pocket to save the article and read it there)


Capitalists or Cronyists?

To be clear, socialism may be a better way to go, as evidenced by the study showing 4 of the 5 happiest nations are socialist democracies. However, unless we’re going to provide universal healthcare and universal pre-K, let’s not embrace The Hunger Games for the working class on the way up, and the Hallmark Channel for the shareholder class on the way down. The current administration, the wealthy, and the media have embraced policies that bless the caching of power and wealth, creating a nation of brittle companies and government agencies.

Scott Galloway

A somewhat rambling post, but which explains the difference between a form of capitalism that (theoretically) allows everyone to flourish, and crony capitalism, which doesn’t.


Header image by Stephen Collins at The Guardian

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 forebodings

I think it’s alright to say that this was a week when my spirits dropped a little. Apologies if that’s not what you wanted to hear right now, and if it’s reflected in what follows.

For there to be good things there must also be bad. For there to be joy there must also be sorrow. And for there to be hope there must be despair. All of this will pass.


We’re Finding Out How Small Our Lives Really Are

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…


Career Moats in a Recession

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.


Everything Is Innovative When You Ignore the Past

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.


‘We can’t go back to normal’: how will coronavirus change the world?

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.


The Terrible Impulse To Rally Around Bad Leaders In A Crisis

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.

Ian Welsh

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.


As Coronavirus Surveillance Escalates, Personal Privacy Plummets

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.


How to Resolve Any Conflict in Your Team

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.

Dave bailey

Great advice here, especially for those who work in organisations (or who have clients) who lack emotional intelligence.


2026 – the year of the face to face pivot

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.


Now’s the time – 15 epic video games for the socially isolated

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.


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Header image by Alex Fu

People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character

Actions, reactions, and what comes next

We are, I would suggest, in a period of collective shock due to the pandemic. Of course, some people are better at dealing with these kinds of things than others. I’m not medically trained, but I’m pretty sure some of this comes down to genetics; it’s probably something to do with the production of cortisol.

It might a little simplistic to separate people into those who are good in a crisis and those who aren’t. It’s got to be more complex than that. What if some people, despite their genetic predisposition, have performed some deliberate practice in terms of how they react to events and other things around them?

I often say to my kids that it’s not your actions that mark you out as a person, but your reactions. After all, anyone can put on a ‘mask’ and affect an air of nonchalance and sophistication. But that mask can slip in a crisis. To mix metaphors, people lose control when they reach the end of their tether, and are at their most emotionally vulnerable and unguarded when things go wrong. This is when we see their true colours.

A few years ago, when I joined Moodle, I flew to Australia and we did some management bonding stuff and exercises. One of them was about the way that you operate in normal circumstances, and the way that you operate under pressure. Like most people, I tended to get more authoritarian in a crisis.

What we’re seeing in this crisis, I think, are people’s true colours. The things they’re talking about the most and wanting to protect are the equivalent of them item they’d pull from a burning building. What do they want to protect from the coronavirus? Is it the economy? Is it their family? Is it freedom of speech?


Last week, I asked Thought Shrapnel supporters what I should write about. It was suggested that I focus on something beyond the “reaction and hyperaction” that’s going on, and engage in “a little futurism and hope”. Now that it’s no longer easier to imagine the end of the world as the end of capitalism, how do we prepare for what comes next?

It’s an interesting suggestion for a thought experiment. Before we go any further, though, I want to preface this by saying these are the ramblings of an incoherent fool. Don’t make any investment decisions, buy any new clothes, or sever any relationships based on what I’ve got to say. After all, at this point, I’m mostly for rhetorical effect.


The first and obvious thing that I think will happen as a result of the pandemic is that people will get sick and some will die. Pretty much everyone on earth will either lose someone close to them or know someone who has. Death, as it has done for much of human history, will stalk us, and be something we are forced to both confront and talk about.

This may not seem like a very cheerful and hopeful place to start, but, actually, not being afraid to die seems to be the first step in living a fulfilling life. As I’ve said before, quoting it is the child within us that trembles before death. Coming to terms with that fact that you and the people you love are going to die at some point is just accepting the obvious.


If we don’t act like we’re going to live forever, if we confront our mortal condition, then it forces us to make some choices, both individually and as a society. How do we care for people who are sick and dying? How should we support those who are out of work? What kind of education do we want for our kids?

I forsee a lot of basic questions being re-asked and many assumptions re-evaluated in the light of the pandemic. Individually, in communities, and as societies, we’ll look back and wonder why it was that companies making billions of dollars when everything was fine were all of a sudden unable to meet their financial obligations when things weren’t going so well. We’ll realise that, at root, the neoliberalist form of capitalism we’ve been drinking like kool-aid actually takes from the many and gives to the few.

Before the pandemic, we had dead metaphors for both socialism and “pulling together in times of adversity”. Socialism has been unfairly caricatured as, and equated with, the totalitarian communist experiment in Russia. Meanwhile, neoliberals have done a great job at equating adversity with austerity, invoking memories of life during WWII. Keep Calm and Carry On.

This is why, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, despite the giant strides and inroads into our collective consciousness, made by the Occupy movement, it ultimately failed. When it came down to brass tacks, we were frightened that destroying our current version of capitalism would mean we’d be left with totalitarian communism: queuing for food, spying on your neighbours, and suchlike.

So instead we invoked the only “pulling together in times of adversity” meme we knew: austerity. Unfortunately, that played straight into the hands of those who were happy to hollow out civic society for financial gain.

Post-pandemic, as we’re rebuilding society, I think that not only will there be fewer old people (grim, but true) but the overall shock will move the Overton Window further to left than it has been previously. Those who remain are likely to be much more receptive to the kind of socialism that would make things like Universal Basic Income and radically decarbonising the planet into a reality.


Making predictions about politics is a lot easier than making predictions about technology. That’s for a number of reasons, including how quickly the latter moves compared to the former, and also because of the compound effect that different technologies can have on society.

For example, look at the huge changes in the last decade around smartphones now being something that people spend several hours using each day. A decade ago we were concerned about people’s access to any form of internet-enabled device. Now, we just assume that everyone’s gone one which they can use to connect during the pandemic.

What concerns me is that the past decade has seen not only the hollowing-out of civic society in western democracies, but also our capitulation to venture capital-backed apps that make our lives easier. The reason? They’re all centralised.

I’m certainly not denying that some of this is going to make our life much easier short-term. Being on lockdown and still being able to have Amazon deliver almost anything to me is incredible. As is streaming all of the things via Netflix, etc. But, ultimately, caring doesn’t scale, and scaling doesn’t care.

Right now, we relying on centralised technologies. Everywhere I look, people are using a apps, tools, and platforms that could go down at any time. Remember the Twitter fail whale?

The Twitter ‘fail whale’

What happens when that scenario happens with Zoom? Or Microsoft Teams? Or Slack, or any kind of service that relies on the one organisation having their shit together for an extended period of time during a pandemic?

I think we’re going to see outages or other degradations in service. I’m hoping that this will encourage people to experiment with other, decentralised platforms, rather than leap from the frying pan of one failed centralised service into the fire another.


In terms of education, I don’t think it’s that difficult to predict what comes next. While I could be spectacularly wrong, the longer kids are kept at home and away from school, the more online teaching and learning has to become something mainstream.

Then, when it’s time to go back to school, some kids won’t. They and their parents will realise that they don’t need to, or that they are happier, or have learned more staying at home. Not all, by any means, but a significant majority. And because everyone has been in the same boat, parents will have peer support in doing so.

The longer the pandemic lockdown goes on, the more educational institutions will have to think about the logistics and feasibility of online testing. I’d like to think that competency-based learning and stackable digital credentials like Open Badges will become the norm.

Further out, as young people affected by the pandemic lockdown enter the job market, I’d hope that they would reject the traditional CV or resume as something that represents their experiences. Instead, although it’s more time-consuming to look at, I’d hope for portfolio-based approaches (with verified digital credentials) to become standard.


Education isn’t just about, or even mainly about, getting a job. So what about the impact of the pandemic on learners? On teachers? Well, if I’m being optimistic and hopeful, I’d say that it shows that things can be done differently at scale.

NASA Earth Observatory images showing emissions dramatically reduced over China during the coronavirus outbreak (via CBS)

In the same way that climate change-causing emissions dropped dramatically in China and other countries during the enforced coronavirus lockdown, so we can get rid of the things we know are harmful in education.

High-stakes testing? We don’t need it. Kids being taught in classes of 30+ by a low-paid teacher? Get over it. Segregation between rich and poor through private education? Reject it.


All of this depends on how we respond to the ‘shock and awe’ of both the pandemic and its response. We’re living during a crisis when it’s almost certainly necessary to bring in the kind of authoritarian measures we’d reject at any other time. While we need to move quickly, we still need to subject legislation and new social norms to some kind of scrutiny.

This period in history provides us with a huge opportunity. When I was a History teacher, one of my favourite things to teach kids was about revolutions; about times when people took things into their own hands. There’s the obvious examples, for sure, like 1789 and the French Revolution.

But perhaps my absolute favourite was for them to discover what happened after the Black Death ravaged Europe in particular in the 14th century. Unable to find enough workers to work their land, lords had to pay peasants several times what they could have previously expected. In fact, it led to the end of the entire feudal system.

We have the power to achieve something similar here. Except instead of serfdom, the thing we can escape from his neoliberal capitalism, the idea that the poor should suffer for the enrichment of the elite. We can and should structure our society so that never happens again.

In other words, never waste a crisis. What are you doing to help the revolution? Remember, when it comes down to it, power is always taken, never freely given.


BONUS: after writing this, I listened to a recent a16z podcast on Remote Work and Our New Reality. Worth a listen!


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Quotation-as-title by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Header image by Ana Flávia.

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