Tag: death

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

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.

It is the child within us that trembles before death

So said Plato in his Phaedo. I’ve just returned from a holiday, much of which was dominated by finding out that a good friend of mine had passed away. It was a huge shock.

A few days later, author Austin Kleon sent out a newsletter noting that a few people he particularly admired had also died, and linked to a post about checking in with death. In it, he quotes advice from a pediatrician who works with patients in palliative care:

Be kind. Read more books. Spend time with your family. Crack jokes. Go to the beach. Hug your dog. Tell that special person you love them.

These are the things these kids wished they could’ve done more. The rest is details.

Oh… and eat ice-cream.

Alastair McAlpine

Despite my grandmother dying last year, I was utterly unprepared for the death of my friend. I had thought that by reading Stoic philosophy every day, and having a memento mori next to my bed, that I was somehow in tune with death. I really wasn’t.

I shed many tears for the first couple of days after hearing the news. While I was devastated by the loss of a good friend, I was also affected by the questions it raised about my own mortality.

I’m thankful for the strong support network of family and friends that have helped me with the grieving process. One friend in particular has a much healthier relationship with death than me. They said that they’ve come to see such times in their life as a useful opportunity to re-assess whether they’re on the right course.

That makes sense. I don’t want to waste the rest of the time I have left.

Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly – so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets: ‘It is a small part of life we really live.’ Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time.

Seneca

Some people seem to pack several lifetimes into their short time on earth. Others, not so much.

When I studied Philosophy as an undergraduate, I was always puzzled by Aristotle’s mention of Solon in the Nichomachean Ethics. He thought events and actions after a person’s death could affect their ‘happiness’.

On reflection, I think it’s a way of saying that the effect that someone has during their time on earth ⁠— for example, as a teacher — outlasts them. Their lives can be viewed in a ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’ light based on how things turn out.

When someone close to you dies before they reach old age, we also mentally factor-in the happiness they could have experienced after they passed away. However, after the initial shock of them no longer being present comes the realisation that they (and you) wouldn’t have been around forever anyway.

Back in 2017, Zan Boag, editor of New Philosopher magazine, interviewed Hilde Lindemann, Professor of Philosophy at Michigan State University. In a wide-ranging interview, she commented:

Premature death is a tragedy, but I don’t think death at the end of a normal human life span should be met with anger and indignation. We humans can only take in so much, and in due season it will be time for us all to leave

Hilde Lindemann

As a husband and father, perhaps the hardest teaching from the Stoic philosophers around death comes from Epictetus in his Enchiridion. He expresses a similar thought in several different ways, but here is one formulation:

If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own… Exercise, therefore, what is in your control.

Epictetus

There are some things that are in my control, and some things that are not. Epictetus’ teachings can be reduced to the simple point that we should be concerned with those things which are under our control.

Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations we should remember were designed as a form of practical philosophical journal, also mentioned death a lot.

Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to throw away. Death stands at your elbow. Be good for something while you live and it is in your power.

Marcus Aurelius

I think the best thing to take from the experience of losing someone close to us other is to begin a life worth living right now. Not putting off for the future right action and virtuous living, but practising them immediately.

It’s certainly been a wake-up call for me. I’ll be reading even more books, giving my family more hugs, and standing up for the things in which I believe. Starting now.

Memento mori

As I’ve mentioned before on Thought Shrapnel, next to my bed I have a memento mori, an object that reminds me that one day I will die.

My friend Ian O’Byrne had some sad news last week: his grandmother died. However, in an absolutely fantastic and very well-written post he wrote in the aftermath, he mentioned how meditating regularly on death, and having a memento mori has really helped him to live his life to the fullest.

I believe that it is reminders like this one that we desperately need in our own lives. It seems like a normal practice that may of us would rather ignore death, or do everything to avoid and pretend is not true. It may be the root of ego that causes us to run away from anything that reminds us of this reality. As a safety mechanism, we build this comfortable narrative that avoids this tough subject.

We also at times simply refuse to look at life as it is. We’re scared to meditate and reflect on the fact that we are all going to die. Just the fact that I wrote this post, and you’re reading it may strike you as a bit dark and macabre.

With all of our technological, surgical, and pharmaceutical inventions and devices, we expect, almost demand, to live a long life, live it in good health and look good doing it. We live in denial that we will die. But, previous civilizations were acutely aware of their own mortality. Memento mori was the philosophy of reflecting on your own death as a form of spiritual improvement, and rejecting earthly vanities.

So having a memento mori isn’t morbid, it’s actually a symbol that you’re looking to maximise your time here on earth. When I used a Mac, I had a skull icon at the top of the dock on the left-hand side of my screen.

Ian suggests some alternatives:

There are multiple ways to include this process of memento mori in your life. For some, it is as simple as including artwork and symbols in your home and daily interactions. These may be symbols of mortality which encourage reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life. In my home we have skulls in various pieces of art and sculptures that help serve as a reminder.

I had opportunity last week to revisit Buster Benson’s 2013 influential post Live Like a Hydra. In it, he references an experiment he called If I Lived 100 Times whereby he modelled life expectancy data for someone his age. It’s interesting reading and certainly makes you think. How many books will you read before you die? How many new countries will you travel to? It makes you think.

Back to Ian’s article and he turns to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus for some advice:

Memento mori is an opportunity, should you take it, to reflect on the invigorating and humbling aspects of life. By no means am I an expert on this. I still struggle daily with understanding my role and mission in life. In these struggles, I also need to remember that I may not wake up tomorrow. As stated by Epictetus, “Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.” These opportunities to reflect and meditate provide an opportunity to create and enjoy the life you want.

Wise words indeed.

Source: W. Ian O’Byrne

Nasty:

After entering someone's body—usually via the eyes, nose or mouth—the influenza virus begins hijacking human cells in the nose and throat to make copies of itself. The overwhelming viral hoard triggers a strong response from the immune system, which sends battalions of white blood cells, antibodies and inflammatory molecules to eliminate the threat. T cells attack and destroy tissue harboring the virus, particularly in the respiratory tract and lungs where the virus tends to take hold. In most healthy adults this process works, and they recover within days or weeks. But sometimes the immune system's reaction is too strong, destroying so much tissue in the lungs that they can no longer deliver enough oxygen to the blood, resulting in hypoxia and death.

Source: Scientific American

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