Tag: pandemic (page 1 of 2)

Entirely predictable

We’ve had some pretty bad governments in the UK during my lifetime, but has any been so underqualified, so inept, corrupt, and nepotistic as our current one? It would be bad enough in regular times, but during a pandemic it’s a tragedy.

Who knew that children go to school in September? Who guessed that hundreds of thousands of students head to universities where they – and easily shocked readers should look away – strive with every fibre of their being to mingle with each other as vigorously as they can? What clairvoyant might have predicted that, when the government offered the public cut-price restaurant meals at the taxpayers’ expense, the public would gobble them up? Or that, when the prime minister urged workers to go back to their offices and save Pret a Manger, a few brave souls would have returned to their desks and risked having “dulce et decorum est pro Pretia mori” carved on their gravestones?

Nick Cohen, The meritocracy has had its day. How else to explain the rise of Dido Harding? (The Observer)

Lifequakes

One way of thinking about the pandemic is as inevitable, and just one of a series of life-changing events that will happen to you during your time on earth.

Whereas some people seem to think that life should be trouble- and pain-free, it’s clear by even a cursory glance at history that this an impossible expectation.

This article is a useful one for reframing the pandemic as a change that we’re literally all going through together, but which will affect us differently:

Transitions feel like an abnormal disruption to life, but in fact they are a predictable and integral part of it. While each change may be novel, major life transitions happen with clocklike regularity. Life is one long string of them, in fact. The author Bruce Feiler wrote a book called Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age. After interviewing hundreds of people about their transitions, he found that a major change in life occurs, on average, every 12 to 18 months. Huge ones—what Feiler calls “lifequakes”—happen three to five times in each person’s life. Some lifequakes are voluntary and joyful, such as getting married or having a child. Others are involuntary and unwelcome, such as unemployment or life-threatening illness.

Arthur C. Brooks, The Clocklike Regularity of Major Life Changes (The Atlantic)

Pandemic-induced awkwardness

By this point in the year, I would have travelled away from my home office at least once per month to see real, live 3D human beings who aren’t other members of my family.

Even if you are ensconced in a pandemic pod with a romantic partner or family members, you can still feel lonely — often camouflaged as sadness, irritability, anger and lethargy — because you’re not getting the full range of human interactions that you need, almost like not eating a balanced diet. We underestimate how much we benefit from casual camaraderie at the office, gym, choir practice or art class, not to mention spontaneous exchanges with strangers.

Kate Murphy, We’re All Socially Awkward Now, The New York Times

As the author points out, our skills can atrophy just like muscles if we don’t use them, and interacting via screens is often quite different to interacting offline.

What man of energy does not find inactivity a punishment?

Base reality as it truly exists vs as presented to mind

🤯 Understanding Consciousness with Color-Coded Cartoons

👍 Four-day working week could create 500K new jobs in UK, study says

💀 The World Memorial to the Pandemic

🤩 Going all-in on remote work: The technical and cultural changes

🎲 How to Add More Play to Your Grown-Up Life, Even Now


Quotation-as-title from Seneca. Image from top linked post.

Saturday scrapings

Every week, I go back through the links I’ve saved, pick out the best ones, and share them here. This week is perhaps even more eclectic than usual. Enjoy!


Marcus Henderson

Meet the Farmer Behind CHAZ’s Vegetable Gardens

Marcus was the first to start gardening in the park, though he was quickly joined by friends and strangers. This isn’t the work of a casual amateur; Henderson has an Energy Resources Engineering degree from Stanford University, a Master’s degree in Sustainability in the Urban Environment, and years of experience working in sustainable agriculture. His Instagram shows him hard at work on various construction and gardening projects, and he’s done community development at organic farms around the world.

Matt Baume (The Stranger)

I love this short article about Marcus Henderson, the first person to start planting in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.


The Rich Are ‘Defunding’ Our Democracy

“Apparently,” comments [journalist David] Sirota, “we’re expected to be horrified by proposals to reduce funding for the militarized police forces that are violently attacking peaceful protesters — but we’re supposed to obediently accept the defunding of the police forces responsible for protecting the population from the wealthy and powerful.”

Sam Pizzigati (Inequality.org)

A lot of people have been shocked by the calls to ‘defund the police’ on the back of the Black Lives Matter protests. The situation is undoubtedly worse in the US, but I particularly liked this explainer image, that I came across via Mastodon:

Teapot with label 'Defund the police' which has multiple spouts pouring into cups entitled 'Education', 'Universal healthcare', 'Youth services', 'Housing', and 'Other community investments'

Peasants’ Revolt

Yet perhaps the most surprising feature of the revolt is that in-spite of the modern title, Peasants’ Revolt didn’t gain usage until the late nineteenth century, the people who animated the movement weren’t peasants at all. They were in many respects the village elite. True, they weren’t noble magnates, but they were constables, stewards and jurors. In short, people who were on the up and saw an opportunity to press their agenda.

Robert Winter

I love reading about things I used to teach, especially when they’re written by interesting people about which I want to know more. This blog post is by Robert Winter, “philosopher and historian by training, Operations Director by pay cheque”. I discovered is as part of the #100DaysToOffload challenge, largely happening on the Fediverse, and to which I’m contributing.


Red blood cells

Three people with inherited diseases successfully treated with CRISPR

Two people with beta thalassaemia and one with sickle cell disease no longer require blood transfusions, which are normally used to treat severe forms of these inherited diseases, after their bone marrow stem cells were gene-edited with CRISPR.

Michael Le Page (New Scientist)

CRISPR is a way of doing gene editing within organisms. sAs far as I’m aware, this is one of the first times it’s been used to treat conditions in humans. I’m sure it won’t be the last.


Choose Your Own Fake News

Choose Your Own Fake News is an interactive “choose your own adventure” game. Play the game as Flora, Jo or Aida from East Africa, and navigate the world of disinformation and misinformation through the choices you make. Scrutinize news and information about job opportunities, vaccines and upcoming elections to make the right choices!

This is the kind of thing that the Mozilla Foundation does particularly well: either producing in-house, or funding very specific web-based tools to teach people things. In this case, it’s fake news. And it’s really good.


Why are Google and Apple dictating how European democracies fight coronavirus?

The immediate goal for governments and tech companies is to strike the right balance between privacy and the effectiveness of an application to limit the spread of Covid-19. This requires continuous collaboration between the two with the private sector, learning from the experience of national health authorities and adjusting accordingly. Latvia, together with the rest of Europe, stands firm in defending privacy, and is committed to respecting both the individual’s right to privacy and health while applying its own solutions to combat Covid-19.

Ieva Ilves (The Guardian)

This is an article written by an an adviser to the president of Latvia on information and digital policy. They explain some of the nuance behind the centralised vs decentralised contact tracing app models which I hadn’t really thought about.


Illustration of Lévy walks

Random Search Wired Into Animals May Help Them Hunt

Lévy walks are now seen as a movement pattern that a nervous system can produce in the absence of useful sensory or mnemonic information, when it is an animal’s most advantageous search strategy. Of course, many animals may never employ a Lévy walk: If a polar bear can smell a seal, or a cheetah can see a gazelle, the animals are unlikely to engage in a random search strategy. “We expect the adaptation for Lévy walks to have appeared only where they confer practical advantages,” Viswanathan said.

Liam Drew (QUanta Magazine)

If you’ve watched wildlife documentaries, you probably know about Lévy walks (or ‘flights’). This longish article gives a fascinating insight into the origin of the theory and how it can be useful in protecting different species.


A plan to turn the atmosphere into one, enormous sensor

One of AtmoSense’s first goals will be to locate and study phenomena at or close to Earth’s surface—storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mining operations and “mountain waves”, which are winds associated with mountain ranges. The aim is to see if atmospheric sensing can outperform existing methods: seismographs for earthquakes, Doppler weather radar for storms and so on.

The Economist

This sounds potentially game-changing. I can see the positives, but I wonder what the negatives will be?


Paths of desire: lockdown has lent a new twist to the trails we leave behind

Desire paths aren’t anything new – the term has been traced back to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who wrote of “lignes de désir” in his 1958 book The Poetics of Space. Nature author Robert Macfarlane has written more recently about the inherent poetry of the paths. In his 2012 book The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Macfarlane calls them “elective easements” and says: “Paths are human; they are traces of our relationships.” Desire paths have been created by enthusiastic dogs in back gardens, by superstitious humans avoiding scaffolding and by students seeking shortcuts to class. Yet while illicit trails may have marked the easier (ie shorter) route for centuries, the pandemic has turned them into physical markers of our distance. Desire paths are no longer about making life easier for ourselves, but about preserving life for everyone.

Amelia Tait (The Guardian)

I’ve used desire paths as a metaphor many times in presentations and workshops over the last decade. This is an article that specifically talks about how they’ve sprung up during the pandemic.


Header image by Hans Braxmeier

Saturday signalings

I’ve been head-down doing lots of work this week, and then it’s been Bank Holiday weekend, so my reading has been pretty much whatever my social media feeds have thrown up!

There’s broadly three sections here, though: stuff about the way we think, about technology, and about ways of working. Enjoy!


How Clocks Changed Humanity Forever, Making Us Masters and Slaves of Time

The article with the above embedded video is from five years ago, but someone shared it on my Twitter timeline and it reminded me of something. When I taught my History students about the Industrial Revolution it blew their minds that different parts of the country could be, effectively, on different ‘timezones’ until the dawn of the railways.

It just goes to show how true it is that first we shape our tools, and then they shape us.


‘Allostatic Load’ is the Psychological Reason for Our Pandemic Brain Fog

“Uncertainty is one of the biggest elements that contributes to our experience of stress,” said Lynn Bufka, the senior director of Practice, Research, and Policy at the American Psychological Association. “Part of what we try to do to function in our society is to have some structure, some predictability. When we have those kinds of things, life feels more manageable, because you don’t have to put the energy into figuring those things out.”

Emily Baron Cadloff (VICE)

A short but useful article on why despite having grand plans, it’s difficult to get anything done in our current situation. We can’t even plan holidays at the moment.


Most of the Mind Can’t Tell Fact from Fiction

The industrialized world is so full of human faces, like in ads, that we forget that it’s just ink, or pixels on a computer screen. Every time our ancestors saw something that looked like a human face, it probably was one. As a result, we didn’t evolve to distinguish reality from representation. The same perceptual machinery interprets both.

Jim Davies (Nautilus)

A useful reminder that our brain contains several systems, some of which are paleolithic.


Wright Flier and Bell Rocket Belt

Not even wrong: ways to predict tech

The Wright Flier could only go 200 meters, and the Rocket Belt could only fly for 21 seconds. But the Flier was a breakthrough of principle. There was no reason why it couldn’t get much better, very quickly, and Blériot flew across the English Channel just six years later. There was a very clear and obvious path to make it better. Conversely, the Rocket Belt flew for 21 seconds because it used almost a litre of fuel per second – to fly like this for half a hour you’d need almost two tonnes of fuel, and you can’t carry that on your back. There was no roadmap to make it better without changing the laws of physics. We don’t just know that now – we knew it in 1962.

Benedict Evans

A useful post about figuring out whether something will happen or be successful. The question is “what would have to change?”


Grandmother ordered to delete Facebook photos under GDPR

The case went to court after the woman refused to delete photographs of her grandchildren which she had posted on social media. The mother of the children had asked several times for the pictures to be deleted.

The GDPR does not apply to the “purely personal” or “household” processing of data. However, that exemption did not apply because posting photographs on social media made them available to a wider audience, the ruling said.

“With Facebook, it cannot be ruled out that placed photos may be distributed and may end up in the hands of third parties,” it said.

The woman must remove the photos or pay a fine of €50 (£45) for every day that she fails to comply with the order, up to a maximum fine of €1,000.

BBC News

I think this is entirely reasonable, and I’m hoping we’ll see more of this until people stop thinking they can sharing the personally identifiable information of others whenever and however they like.


Developing new digital skills – is training always the answer?

Think ESKiMO:

– Environment (E) – are the reasons its not happening outside of the control of the people you identified in Step 1? Do they have the resources, the tools, the funding? Do their normal objectives mean that they have to prioritise other things? Does the prevailing organisational culture work against achieving the goals?

– Skills (S) – Are they aware of the tasks they need to do and enabled to do them?

– Knowledge (K) – is the knowledge they need available to them? It could either be information they have to carry around in their heads, or just be available in a place they know about.

– Motivation (Mo) – Do they have the will to carry it out?

The last three (S,K, Mo) work a little bit like the fire triangle from that online fire safety training you probably had to do this year. All three need to be present for new practice to happen and to be sustainable.

Chris Thomson (Jisc)

In this post, Chris Thomson, who I used to work with at Jisc, challenges the notion that training is about getting people to do what you want. Instead, this ESKiMO approach asks why they’re not already doing it.


xkcd: estimating time

Leave Scrum to Rugby, I Like Getting Stuff Done

Within Scrum, estimates have a primary purpose – to figure out how much work the team can accomplish in a given sprint. If I were to grant that Sprints were a good idea (which I obviously don’t believe) then the description of estimates in the official Scrum guide wouldn’t be a problem.

The problem is that estimates in practice are a bastardization of reality. The Scrum guide is vague on the topic so managers take matters into their own hands.

Lane Wagner (Qvault)

I’m a product manager, and I find it incredible that people assume that ‘agile’ is the same as ‘Scrum’. If you’re trying to shoehorn the work you do into a development process then, to my mind, you’re doing it wrong.

As with the example below, it’s all about something that works for your particular context, while bearing in mind the principles of the agile manifesto.


How I trick my well developed procrastination skills

The downside of all those nice methods and tools is that you have to apply them, which can be of course, postponed as well. Thus, the most important step is to integrate your tool or todo list in your daily routine. Whenever you finish a task, or you’re thinking what to do next, the focus should be on your list. For example, I figured out that I always click on one link in my browser favourites (a news website) or an app on my mobile phone (my email app). Sometimes I clicked hundred times a day, even though, knowing that there can’t be any new emails, as I checked one minute ago. Maybe you also developed such a “useless” habit which should be broken or at least used for something good. So I just replaced the app on my mobile and the link in my browser with my Remember The Milk app which shows me the tasks I have to do today. If you have just a paper-based solution it might be more difficult but try to integrate it in your daily routines, and keep it always in reach. After finishing a task, you should tick it in your system, which also forces you to have a look at the task list again.

Wolfgang Gassler

Some useful pointers in this post, especially at the end about developing and refining your own system that depends on your current context.


The Great Asshole Fallacy

The focus should be on the insistence of excellence, both from yourself and from those around you. The wisdom from experience. The work ethic. The drive. The dedication. The sacrifice. Jordan hits on all of those. And he even implies that not everyone needed the “tough love” to push them. But that’s glossed over for the more powerful mantra. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that not only are there other ways to tease such greatness out of people — different people require different methods.

M.G. Siegler (500ish)

I like basketball, and my son plays, but I haven’t yet seen the documentary mentioned in this post. The author discusses Michael Jordan stating that “Winning has a price. And leadership has a price.” However, he suggests that this isn’t the only way to get to excellence, and I would agree.


Header image by Romain Briaux

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 scramblings

I’ve spent a lot more time on Twitter recently, where my feed seems to be equal parts anger and indignation (especially at Andrew Adonis) on the one hand, and jokes, funny anecdotes, and re-posted TikToks on the other.

In amongst all of that, and via Other Sources™, I’ve also found the following, some of which I think will resonate with you. Let me know on Twitter, Mastodon, or in the comments if that’s the case!


School Work and Surveillance

So, what happens now that we’re all doing school and work from home?

Well, for one thing, schools are going to be under even more pressure to buy surveillance software — to prevent cheating, obviously, but also to fulfill all sorts of regulations and expectations about “compliance.” Are students really enrolled? Are they actually taking classes? Are they doing the work? Are they logging into the learning management system? Are they showing up to Zoom? Are they really learning anything? How are they feeling? Are they “at risk”? What are teachers doing? Are they holding class regularly? How quickly do they respond to students’ messages in the learning management system?

Audrey Watters (Hack Education)

Good stuff, as always, by Audrey Watters, who has been warning about this stuff for a decade.


We’re knee-deep in shit and drinking cups of tea

Of course this government are failing to deal with a pandemic. At the fag end of neoliberalism, they don’t exist to do much more than transfer public assets into private hands. What we’re living through is exactly what would happen if we’d elected a firm of bailiffs to cure polio.  That’s not to say that they won’t use this crisis, as they would any other, to advance a profoundly reactionary agenda. The austerity they’ll tell us they need to introduce to pay for this will make the last decade seem like Christmas at Elton John’s house.

There’s an old joke about a guy going to hell. The Devil shows him round all the rooms where people are being tortured in a variety of brutal ways. Eventually, they come to a room where everybody is standing knee-deep in shit and drinking cups of tea. The guy chooses this as the place to spend eternity, and the Devil shouts “Tea break’s over lads, back on your heads!” That, I suppose, is how I feel when I hear people crowing about how the government are being forced to implement socialist policies. Pretty soon, we’ll all be back on our heads.

Frankie Boyle (The Overtake)

As comedy has become more political over the last decade, one of the most biting commentators has been the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle. I highly recommend following him on Twitter.


Novel adventures: 12 video games for when you’re too restless to read

A few keen readers have turned to essay collections, short stories or diaries, which are less demanding on the memory and attention, but video games may also offer a way back into reading during these difficult times. Here are 12 interesting puzzle and adventure games that play with words, text and narratives in innovative ways, which may well guide you back into a reading frame of mind.

Keith Stuart (The Guardian)

I hadn’t heard of any of the games on this list (mobile/console/PC) and I think this is a great idea. Also check out the Family Video Game Database.


Career advice for people with bad luck

The company is not your family. Some of the people in the company are your friends in the current context. It’s like your dorm in college. Hopefully some of them will still be your friends after. But don’t stay because you’re comfortable.

[…]

When picking a job, yes, your manager matters. But if you have an amazing manager at a shit company you’ll still have a shit time. In some ways, it’ll actually be worse. If they’re good at their job (including retaining you), they’ll keep you at a bad company for too long. And then they’ll leave, because they’re smart and competent.

Chief of Stuff (Chief’s newsletter)

Most of this advice is focused on the tech sector, but I wanted to highlight the above, about ‘friends’ at work and the relative importance of having a good boss.


Are we too busy to enjoy life?

“You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on,” supposedly said Heraclitus. Time is like a river. If you’re too busy to enjoy life—too busy to spend time with friends and family, too busy to learn how to paint or play the guitar, too busy to go on that hike, too busy to cook something nice for yourself—these moments will be gone, and you will never get that time back.

You may think it’s too late. It’s not. Like many people, I personally experience time anxiety—the recurring thought that it’s too late to start or accomplish something new—but the reality is you probably still have many years in front of you. Defining what “time well spent” means to you and making space for these moments is one of the greatest gifts you can make to your future self.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff (Ness Labs)

Quality not quantity. Absolutely, and the best way to do that is to be in control of every area of your life, not beholden to someone else’s clock.


Labour HQ used Facebook ads to deceive Jeremy Corbyn during election campaign

Labour officials ran a secret operation to deceive Jeremy Corbyn at last year’s general election, micro-targeting Facebook adverts at the leader and his closest aides to convince them the party was running the campaign they demanded.

Campaign chiefs at Labour HQ hoodwinked their own leader because they disapproved of some of Corbyn’s left-wing messages.

They convinced him they were following his campaign plans by spending just £5,000 on adverts solely designed to be seen by Corbyn, his aides and their favourite journalists, while pouring far more money into adverts with a different message for ordinary voters.

Tim Shipman (The Times)

This article by the political editor of The Times is behind a paywall. However, the above is all you need to get the gist of the story, which reminds me of a story about the CEO of AT&T, the mobile phone network.

At a time when AT&T were known for patchy coverage, technicians mapped where the CEO frequently went (home, work, golf club, etc.) and ensured that those locations had full signal. Incredible.


We can’t grow our way out of poverty

Poverty isn’t natural or inevitable. It is an artifact of the very same policies that have been designed to syphon the lion’s share of global income into the pockets of the rich. Poverty is, at base, a problem of distribution.

Jason Hickel (New Internationalist)

There’s some amazing data in this article, along with some decent suggestions on how we can make society work for the many, and not just the few. Also see this: wealth shown to scale.


On Letting Go of Certainty in a Story That Never Ends

Possessed of no such capacity for superior force, fairytale characters are given tasks that are often unfair verging on impossible, imposed by the more powerful—climb the glass mountain, sort the heap of mixed grain before morning, gather a feather from the tail of the firebird. They are often mastered by alliances with other overlooked and undervalued players—particularly old women (who often turn out to be possessed of supernatural powers) and small animals, the ants who sort the grain, the bees who find the princess who ate the honey, the birds who sing out warnings. Those tasks and ordeals and quests mirror the difficulty of the task of becoming faced by the young in real life and the powers that most of us have, alliance, persistence, resistance, innovation. Or the power to be kind and the power to listen—to name two powers that pertain to storytelling and to the characters these particular stories tell of.

Rebecca Solnit (Literary Hub)

What was it Einstein said? “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”


Private gain must no longer be allowed to elbow out the public good

The term ‘commons’ came into widespread use, and is still studied by most college students today, thanks to an essay by a previously little-known American academic, Garrett Hardin, called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968). His basic claim: common property such as public land or waterways will be spoiled if left to the use of individuals motivated by self-interest. One problem with his theory, as he later admitted himself: it was mostly wrong.

Our real problem, instead, might be called ‘the tragedy of the private’. From dust bowls in the 1930s to the escalating climate crisis today, from online misinformation to a failing public health infrastructure, it is the insatiable private that often despoils the common goods necessary for our collective survival and prosperity. Who, in this system based on the private, holds accountable the fossil fuel industry for pushing us to the brink of extinction? What happens to the land and mountaintops and oceans forever ravaged by violent extraction for private gain? What will we do when private wealth has finally destroyed our democracy?

Dirk Philipsen (Aeon)

Good to see more pushback on the notion of ‘the tragedy of the commons’. What we need to do is, instead of metaphorically allowing everyone to graze their own cows on the common, we need to socialise all the cows.


Header image by Jaymantri. Gifs via Giphy.

The old is dying and the new cannot be born

Education for a post-pandemic future


Welcome to the fourth instalment in this blog chain about post-pandemic society:

  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

This time, I want to talk about education. It’s been a decade since I left the classroom as a school teacher and senior leader but, just after doing so, I co-kickstarted a project called Purpos/ed: what’s the purpose of education? While the original website has long since gone the way of all digital bits and bytes, it can still be accessed via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (which may take significantly longer to load than most websites, so be patient!)

There were some fantastic contributions to that project, each of which were 500 words long. We followed that up with image remixes, audio contributions, and even a one-day unconference at Sheffield Hallam university! All of the written contributions were compiled into a book that was published by Scholastic (I’ve still got a few copies if anyone wants one) and the campaign ended up being featured on the front page of the TES.


My reason for returning to this project is that it seems that many people, especially parents and educators, are once again thinking about the purpose of education. There is even a UNESCO Commission on the Futures of Education to which you can add your voice.

Below are some of my favourite responses to the Purpos/ed campaign, right after a video clip from Prof. Keri Facer, whose work (especially Learning Futures) served as our inspiration.


Before the first Purpos/ed post was written, I jotted down my own off-the-cuff answer: “the purpose of education is to aid our meditation on purposes — what should we do, why and how?”. I know that’s a bit glib, but it adds a reflexive twist to this debate: how sophisticated and sensitive to changing context are our education systems and discourse? I worry we may be in for a rude awakening when the education squabbles of the Easy Times are shown up as an irrelevant sideshow when the Hard Times bite.

David Jennings

Education should not be just be about the ‘system’ or the schools, it should be about the community and drawing on the skills and knowledge that is within our local communities.  Enabling our children to learn from what has gone before to ensure that they enhance their own future. For many education provides an escape, a way out that broadens their horizons and provides them with opportunities that they did not realize existed, that can ultimately provide them with richness and most importantly happiness.

Dawn Hallybone

The internet provides us with rich and free spaces for expansive learning. The institutions only have left their monopoly on funding and on certification. And so capitalism has begun a new project. The first aim is to strike out at democratization of learning by privatizing education, by deepening barriers to equality and access. And the second more audacious aim is to privatize knowledge itself, to turn knowledge and learning into a commodity to be bought and sold like any other consumer good.

Thus we find ourselves at a turning point for the future of education. The contradictions inherent in the different views of the purpose of education do not allow any simple compromise or reform minded tinkering with the system. For those that believe in education as the practice of freedom there are two challenges: to develop a societal discourse around the purpose of education and secondly to develop transformative practice, as teacher students and student teachers.

Graham Attwell

"Education should disrupt as much as it builds" (David White)
CC BY-NC-SA Josie Fraser

Education should critically ensure children, young people and adults are equipped to be unsettled, to be confronted by difference, to be changed, and to effect change. Education is a conduit to different cultures, different places, different times – to different ways of thinking about things and doing things. Education provides us with an introduction to things unimagined and unencountered. It should provide the critical challenge to examine our beliefs, interpretations and horizons, the ability to reexamining ourselves in new contexts, to develop new interests, to review the ways in which we understand ourselves and our place in the world. The purpose of education should be to expand expectations, not to confine them – to support our learners in understanding the impact they can and do have on their world. We cannot expect education built upon, and educators who model, a fixation with certainty and inflexibility to meet the urgent and ongoing needs of pressing social, economic and political change.

Josie Fraser

For me, the purpose of education is to become a better human being; recognising that we share a commonality with others around us and that we are bound to the ones who walked before and the ones to come. It allows us to draw on the experiences of the past and help prepare us to face the future (with all its attendant opportunities and issues). Conceived in this sense, it allows us to remove the primacy of the veneer (worker, teacher, student, friend) and reinstates these (important) roles within the context that they form part of a larger whole. Doing so would also allow us to rethink the relationship of means and ends and unlock the powerful impact this reconfiguration can have for the lives of people around us when we do treat them as they should be.

Nick Dennis

The desire to learn is woven into the concept of contentment and that, for me at least, is the basic purpose of any education system. Contentment can flourish into happiness, riches, recognition or any other myriad of emotional and material gain. But without a content society, with an ambition to continually discover and question the world around them throughout life, we end up with society’s biggest enemies: complacency, stagnancy, apathy and ambivalence.

Ewan mcintosh

CC BY-NC-SA ianguest

An educated population is probably the least governable, the most likely to rebel, the most stubborn and the most critical. But it is a population capable of the most extraordinary things, because each person strides purposefully forward, and of their own volition, together, they seek a common destiny.

Stephen Downes

Education, it seems, is the method by which we attempt to make the world come out the way we want it to. It is about using our power to shape and control the world to come so that it comes into line with our own hopes and dreams. In any way we move it, even towards chaos and anarchy, we are still using our power to shape and control the future.

Dave Cormier

It is make or break time for humanity and we have a responsibility to draw a line in the sand, admit our mistakes and create a system of education that can begin to undo the harm that we have done to the world. For all the talk over the last twenty years of the ‘global village’, it has not stopped us continuing to destroy our planet, to wage wars and to continue to ignore the inequalities in society. What is the purpose of education? Surely, it is to create unity by helping future generation to recognise the values that humanity share.

James mIchie

As Purpos/ed was a non-partisan campaign, Andy Stewart and I didn’t give our views on the purpose of education. But perhaps, in a follow-up post, it’s time to explicitly state what, for me, it’s all about? I’d certainly like to read what others are thinking…


Quotation-as-title from Antonio Gramsci. Header image via Pixabay.

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