Getting through it

Photos: Life in the coronavirus eraThe Atlantic
In an all-out effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, health and government officials worldwide have mandated travel restrictions, closed schools and businesses, and set limits on public gatherings. People have also been urged to practice social distancing in public spaces, and to isolate themselves at home as much as possible. This rapid and widespread shift in rules and behavior has left much of the world looking very different than it did a few months ago, with emptied streets, schools, workplaces, and restaurants, and almost everyone staying home.

Rather than the expected shots of empty streets, stadiums and train stations, I find more moving the photos of how this is impacting on individuals, of all ages.

working-through-it-1

Lori Spencer visits her mom, Judie Shape, 81, who Spencer said had tested positive for the coronavirus, at Life Care Center of Kirkland, the Seattle-area nursing home at the epicenter of one of the biggest coronavirus outbreaks in the United States, in Kirkland, Washington, on March 11, 2020.

working-through-it-2

Caidence Miller, a fourth grader at Cottage Lake Elementary, tries to figure out assignment instructions without working speakers on his laptop as he and his grandmother, Chrissy Brackett, navigate the online-learning system the Northshore School District will use for two weeks because of coronavirus concerns, at Brackett’s home in Woodinville, Washington, on March 11, 2020.

working-through-it-3

A woman makes a video call with her smartphone inside her home after the Italian government clamped down on public events, closed bars, restaurants, and schools, imposed travel restrictions, and advised citizens to stay at home in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus on March 15, 2020, in Turin, Italy.

working-through-it-4

A man wearing a mask looks up at a couple looking out of a house window on the 15th day of quarantine in San Fiorano, one of the small towns in northern Italy that has been on lockdown since February, in this picture taken by schoolteacher Marzio Toniolo on March 6, 2020.

Featured image: A student attends an online class at home as students’ return to school has been delayed in Fuyang, Anhui province, China, on March 2, 2020.

Sadly, I think there’ll be plenty of time for more of these photos.

Scientists warn we may need to live with social distancing for a year or moreVox
As Kucharski, a top expert on this situation, sees it, “this virus is going to be circulating, potentially for a year or two, so we need to be thinking on those time scales. There are no good options here. Every scenario you can think of playing out has some really hefty downsides. … At the moment, it seems the only way to sustainably reduce transmission are really severe unsustainable measures.”

Talking rubbish

Whilst I could be described as being a ‘knowledge worker’, I work in a place as far from Silicon Valley as it’s possible to be. There is no table-football or Lego in my office. We don’t have hot desks or use Slack. And there’s no expectation that we swap the 9-to-5 with 996, that is 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Less 24/7, more 7-and-a-half/5. Others aren’t so lucky, however.

Silicon Valley ruined work cultureWired
Lyons believes these new-agey corporate practices, along with perks like free snacks or beer on tap, are simply a misdirection from something rotten at the core. He blames worker unhappiness not just on Silicon Valley’s work culture but also on its business model—one he calls “shareholder capitalism.” The modern tech company is obsessed with growth and profit, at the expense of its employees and to the benefit of its investors. Some lucky employees might have stock options, but most don’t, and even then it’s a small percentage of the money flowing back to investors. The perks, then, function like trick mirrors, “a way to distract employees and keep them from noticing that their pockets are being picked.”

I’m imagining Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener’s new book on Silicon Valley and start-up culture, to be a Microserfs for millennials. It probably isn’t.

Seduced by Start-up Land: A new memoir about millennial ambition in Silicon Valley – The Cut
Uncanny Valley is a memoir about Wiener’s journey through start-up culture during its most bullish and self-aggrandizing era, and how her idealism gives way to disappointment and horror as society starts to suffer the consequences of tech’s unchecked fetish for growth.

Examining endemic ills of tech bros in ‘Uncanny Valley’The Boston Globe
The most valuable question Wiener asks is why we are allowing that to happen — why we have such blind faith in these “ambitious, aggressive, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs,” why we’re so seduced by their confidence that we assume their priorities should be our own, why we defer to them when we ought to be saying no.

As well as via some very suspect management practices, that culture is expressed by the choice of language being used.

Garbage language: Why do corporations speak the way they do?Vulture
Wiener writes especially well — with both fluency and astonishment — about the verbal habits of her peers: “People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling. Companies didn’t fail, they died.” She describes a man who wheels around her office on a scooter barking into a wireless headset about growth hacking, proactive technology, parallelization, and the first-mover advantage. “It was garbage language,” Wiener writes, “but customers loved him.” […]

I like Anna Wiener’s term for this kind of talk: garbage language. It’s more descriptive than corporatespeak or buzzwords or jargon. Corporatespeak is dated; buzzword is autological, since it is arguably an example of what it describes; and jargon conflates stupid usages with specialist languages that are actually purposeful, like those of law or science or medicine. Wiener’s garbage language works because garbage is what we produce mindlessly in the course of our days and because it smells horrible and looks ugly and we don’t think about it except when we’re saying that it’s bad, as I am right now.

She’s not the only one to spot this, of course.

Corporate buzzwords are how workers pretend to be adultsThe Atlantic
From a more cynical perspective, buzzwords are useful when office workers need to dress up their otherwise pointless tasks with fancier phrases—you know, for the optics. Coal miners and doctors and tennis instructors have specific jargon they use to get their points across, but “all-purpose business language is the language you use when you aren’t really doing anything.”

Perhaps, instead of using garbage language, we could flick through the pages of Eunoia, a diction of words that don’t translate.

Eunoia: The internet’s dictionary of untranslatable wordsBlog of the Long Now
Eunoia is itself an untranslatable word meaning a “well-mind” or “beautiful thinking.” The user can search Eunoia’s database by “language, tag, or the word itself. There are over 500 words in the database, across 50+ languages and 50+ tags.”

The language with the highest untranslatable words was German; from the well-known Schadenfreude, which means to be happy at someone else’s misfortune, to the complicated Jein, meaning both yes and no.

That last one, jein, reminded me of this new construction that I’m still looking for an excuse to use.

But/andRobin Sloan
I find that in my own writing, my own sequencing of ideas, what I most often want is “and,” except that “and” is so linear: it can’t capture a turn or a twist. The layers of “but/and” do it almost perfectly, and, as a bonus, its clumsiness basically admits, “I am no great rhetorician; this is not a mathematical proof; I’m just trying my best,” which, to me, is a great benefit. […]

“And” is the continuation, fine as far as is goes; “but” is the negation, even if you pretend it’s not; “but/and” is the turn, the twist, the resonance, the perfect fifth.

Valentines cards, but with added acetic acid

Happy Valentine’s Day! Did you get any cards this year? Let’s hope you didn’t receive one of these.

The rude, cruel, and insulting ‘Vinegar Valentines’ of the Victorian eraAtlas Obscura
In the 1840s, hopeful American and British lovers sent lacy valentines with cursive flourishes and lofty poems by the thousands. But what to do if you didn’t love the person who had set their eyes on you?

In the Victorian era, there was no better way to let someone know they were unwanted than with the ultimate insult: the vinegar valentine. Also called “comic valentines,” these unwelcome notes were sometimes crass and always a bit emotionally damaging in the anti-spirit of Valentine’s Day.

valentines-cards-3

valentines-cards-4

OK, so let’s assume your Valentine shares your feelings and agrees to go on a date. What could possibly go wrong?

Stupid Cupid: Valentine’s Day disasters, as seen by waitersThe Guardian
While some of us make too much effort on Valentine’s Day, others haven’t even mastered the first rule of dating: don’t perv on someone who is not your partner. Stephenson-Roberts observes that “wandering eyes” are a common feature of the evening. Digital flirting isn’t unheard of, either. Peppe Corallo, bar manager at London’s Kitchen at Holmes, remembers one woman who suddenly started screaming at her boyfriend during dinner. Why? He had been checking Tinder at the table. She hurled her champagne in his face before storming out. Unsurprisingly, her sodden lover soon paid up and left too. “I felt bad for him in some ways, but at the same time, don’t put your phone on the table where your girlfriend can see,” Corallo advises.

The need for collective action

Whilst we might agree with the impassioned speeches from Davos on the desperate need to address the climate emergency, we might struggle to think what we can do, as individuals, to help.

This rallying cry from Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology at University of Reading and author of The Self Delusion: The Surprising Science of How We Are Connected and Why That Matters, suggests a way forward.

Climate crisis: we are not individuals fighting a faceless system – we are the system that needs to changeThe Conversation
To gain all these benefits, we need a change of mindset. It is often said that when we are young and optimistic, we strive to change the world around us, but when we are older and wiser, we realise the futility of this and aspire to change ourselves instead.

Yet to solve the major environmental problems the world now faces, we actually need to do both – to change the world and ourselves. In fact, it is even more nuanced than that – because changing ourselves is a prerequisite for changing the world. Realising the true nature of our human connectedness actually engenders more ethical and environmentally responsible behaviours.

A little robot round-up #2

Another quick look at what our new robot overlords are up to.

Robogamis are the real heirs of terminators and transformersAeon
Robogami design owes its drastic geometric reconfigurability to two main scientific breakthroughs. One is its layer-by-layer 2D manufacturing process: multiples of functional layers of the essential robotic components (ie, microcontrollers, sensors, actuators, circuits, and even batteries) are stacked on top of each other. The other is the design translation of typical mechanical linkages into a variety of folding joints (ie, fixed joint, pin joint, planar, and spherical link). […]

Robotics technology is advancing to be more personalised and adaptive for humans, and this unique species of reconfigurable origami robots shows immense promise. It could become the platform to provide the intuitive, embeddable robotic interface to meet our needs. The robots will no longer look like the characters from the movies. Instead, they will be all around us, continuously adapting their form and function – and we won’t even know it.

Biological robots – A research team builds robots from living cellsThe Economist
But one thing all robots have in common is that they are mechanical, not biological devices. They are built from materials like metal and plastic, and stuffed with electronics. No more, though—for a group of researchers in America have worked out how to use unmodified biological cells to create new sorts of organisms that might do a variety of jobs, and might even be made to reproduce themselves. […]

Though only a millimetre or so across, the artificial organisms Dr Bongard and Dr Levin have invented, which they call xenobots, can move and perform simple tasks, such as pushing pellets along in a dish. That may not sound much, but the process could, they reckon, be scaled up and made to do useful things. Bots derived from a person’s own cells might, for instance, be injected into the bloodstream to remove plaque from artery walls or to identify cancer. More generally, swarms of them could be built to seek out and digest toxic waste in the environment, including microscopic bits of plastic in the sea.

little-robot-round-up-2-2

Sounds like (old) science fiction to me.

Did HAL Commit Murder?The MIT Press Reader
As with each viewing, I discovered or appreciated new details. But three iconic scenes — HAL’s silent murder of astronaut Frank Poole in the vacuum of outer space, HAL’s silent medical murder of the three hibernating crewmen, and the poignant sorrowful “death” of HAL — prompted deeper reflection, this time about the ethical conundrums of murder by a machine and of a machine. In the past few years experimental autonomous cars have led to the death of pedestrians and passengers alike. AI-powered bots, meanwhile, are infecting networks and influencing national elections. Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Sam Harris, and many other leading AI researchers have sounded the alarm: Unchecked, they say, AI may progress beyond our control and pose significant dangers to society.

Back in the real world, of course, the dangers are more mundane. Those “significant dangers to society” are more financial.

Could new research on A.I. and white-collar jobs finally bring about a strong policy response?The New Yorker
Webb then analyzed A.I. patent filings and found them using verbs such as “recognize,” “detect,” “control,” “determine,” and “classify,” and nouns like “patterns,” “images,” and “abnormalities.” The jobs that appear to face intrusion by these newer patents are different from the more manual jobs that were affected by industrial robots: intelligent machines may, for example, take on more tasks currently conducted by physicians, such as detecting cancer, making prognoses, and interpreting the results of retinal scans, as well as those of office workers that involve making determinations based on data, such as detecting fraud or investigating insurance claims. People with bachelor’s degrees might be more exposed to the effects of the new technologies than other educational groups, as might those with higher incomes. The findings suggest that nurses, doctors, managers, accountants, financial advisers, computer programmers, and salespeople might see significant shifts in their work. Occupations that require high levels of interpersonal skill seem most insulated.

Update 31/01/2020

Found another article about those biological robots, above, which serves as a great counter-point to all these wildly optimistic Boston Dynamics announcements.

Robots don’t have to be so embarrassingThe Outline
These stuff-ups are endlessly amusing to me. I don’t want to mock the engineers who pour thousands of hours into building novelty dogs made of bits of broken toasters, or even the vertiginously arrogant scientists who thought they could simulate the human brain inside a decade. (Inside a decade! I mean, my god!) Well, okay, maybe I do want to mock them. Is it a crime to enjoy watching our culture’s systematic over-investment in digital Whiggery get written down in value time and time again? […]

What these doomed overreaches represent is a failure to grasp the limits of human knowledge. We don’t have a comprehensive idea of how the brain works. There is no solid agreement on what consciousness really “is.” Is it divine? Is it matter? Can you smoke it? Do these questions even make sense? We don’t know the purpose of sleep. We don’t know what dreams are for. Sexual dimorphism in the brain remains a mystery. Are you picking up a pattern here? Even the seemingly quotidian mechanical abilities of the human body — running, standing, gripping, and so on — are not understood with the scientific precision that you might expect. How can you make a convincing replica of something if you don’t even know what it is to begin with? We are cosmic toddlers waddling around in daddy’s shoes, pretending to “work at the office” by scribbling on the walls in crayon, and then wondering where our paychecks are.

Things are on the up!

Well I, at least, can take a positive spin on this.

The mid-life crisis is real, study suggests, as economist pinpoints age of peak misery as 47.2The Telegraph
“Something very natural is going on here… maybe there’s something in the genes,” he said. “When you have this pattern in 132 countries, the reality is, it was really hard to not find it.”

In his paper entitled: ‘Is happiness U-shaped everywhere?’ and published yesterday by the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER), Professor Blanchflower said that averaging across 257 individual country estimates from developing countries gives an age minimum of 48.2 for well-being, and doing the same across the 187 country estimates for advanced countries gives a similar minimum of 47.2.

on-the-up

As a 47.8 year old, I’ve officially passed the nadir so can look forward to a continuing surge in happiness levels from now on!

Update 21/01/2020

Just parking this opposing article here, in case I need to refer to it later…

How to stave off depression in later lifePatient
Whether it’s moving from work into retirement or dealing with the loss of a loved one, it’s evident that the stresses and feelings of isolation in later life can take their toll. And it may come as little surprise that nearly half of all adults aged 55 and over said they had experienced depression, according to a recent survey by Age UK.

A year of unrest

It’s that time of year again.

Top 25 news photos of 2019The Atlantic
As we approach the end of a year of unrest, here is a look back at some of the major news events and moments of 2019. Massive protests were staged against existing governments in Hong Kong, Chile, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Haiti, Algeria, Sudan, and Bolivia, while climate-change demonstrations and strikes took place worldwide. An impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump was started, conflict in Syria continued, the United States won the Women’s World Cup, Hurricane Dorian lashed the Bahamas, and so much more.

a-year-of-unrest-1

a-year-of-unrest-2

a-year-of-unrest-3

See also 2019: The year revolt went global.

The year in pictures 2019The New York Times
5.6 million. That’s roughly the number of images photo editors of The New York Times sift through each year to find the perfect photographs to represent the news for our readers. This collection of images is a testament to a mere fraction of the conflicts and triumphs, catastrophes and achievements and simple but poignant moments of everyday life in the past 365 days.

a-year-of-unrest-4

a-year-of-unrest-5

a-year-of-unrest-6

Not an easy task.

From 500,000 photos to 116: How our editors distill the year in picturesThe New York Times
Mr. Furst described the initial stage as daunting: “When you feel like you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, you’re reminded that you missed a dozen different news events or these 20 photographers or these 15 projects in the newsroom.” …

“One of the big balances is news value versus craftsmanship and beauty,” Mr. Henson Scales said. “We’re always having to juggle those kinds of elements.”

Getting just the right mix of images was the most challenging part. The editors considered a number of factors, such as the impact of a photo or its ability to delight, and the variety of images in each month. A beautiful, poignant picture could edge out a more newsworthy one, and vice versa.

It’s not all bad news

I think I might not bother keeping up with current affairs for a while, it’s all too ridiculous. Basically, another prime minister, another deal, another vote.

How much of Johnson’s ‘great new deal’ is actually new?
As MPs prepare to vote on Boris Johnson’s EU withdrawal agreement, Guardian analysis shows that less than 5% of the original deal has been renegotiated, despite it being rejected by parliament three times.

not-all-bad-news

Another lost vote.

‘House of fools’: how the papers covered Johnson’s latest Brexit defeat
Newspapers cast prime minister as either a fighter or a loser, with plenty of anger directed at Parliament, too.

not-all-bad-news-1

This current prime minister seems as prime ministerial as that president is presidential, i.e. not much.

Boris Johnson’s three letters to Brussels: what do they mean for Brexit?
Rather than writing one letter to the European Union, Johnson has sent three – almost. The first is less of a letter: rather an unsigned photocopy of a portion of of the Benn Act. Rather than asking for an extension on behalf of Johnson, the text merely points out that the Benn Act requires the government to seek an extension. After this, it adds that “if the parties are able to ratify before this date, the government proposes that the period should be terminated early”. In what seems a fit of pique, and reinforcing his determination simultaneously to write and refuse to write to Brussels, the prime minister declined to actually sign the missive.

Remember all those flow charts trying to explain how we might leave, back in March and April? Back to the drawing board with all those.

Brexit: What happens now?
It’s not clear that the whole process will be completed by 31 October. The government will seek to pass a “programme motion” to limit the length of debates in the House of Commons. MPs could reject that, though, and the bill must also pass through the House of Lords.

not-all-bad-news-2

And it’s not just the British press that’s struggling with politics.

Why Australia’s media front pages were blacked out today
Australia’s major media organisations blacked out their newspaper front pages and websites on Monday in a coordinated push for legislative change to protect press freedom and force the government to increase transparency.

According to the organisations – which include SBS, the ABC, Nine, News Corp Australia and The Guardian – a slew of laws introduced over the past 20 years have hindered the media’s capacity to act as the fourth estate and hold the government and other powerful figures to account.

not-all-bad-news-3

But what we need to remember is, if we step back from all this, it’s not all bad news. We just need to look in the right places.

Beautiful News
A collection of good news, positive trends, uplifting statistics and facts — all beautifully visualized by Information is Beautiful.

We’ll be releasing a chart every day for a year to move our attention beyond dramatic news headlines to the slow developments and quiet trends that go unseen, uncelebrated.

Amazing things are happening in the world, thanks to human ingenuity, endeavour and collaboration.

It’s the new initiative from David McCandless and his Information is Beautiful team. Here’s an example.

Everyone, everywhere is living longer
One of the greatest achievements of humanity is the increase in life expectancy. In 1960, the average life span was 52.6 years. Today it’s an impressive 72 years. The reasons are simple: improvements in child survival, expanded access to healthcare (including widespread vaccination), and people being lifted out of extreme, grinding poverty.

not-all-bad-news-4

And another.

More Afghan girls are being educated
Educating girls is probably the single most impactful thing we can do to make the world a better place. Women who spend longer in school have fewer, healthier and better-fed children, are less likely to die in childbirth, contribute more towards a country’s economy, participate more in politics, and are less likely to marry young or against their will.

not-all-bad-news-5

Just two of dozens of uplifting stories. I know which news website I’d rather read.

Update 22/10/2019

I should, of course, have added some links to Hans Rosling’s work after that.

Bill Gates on Factfulness
Bill Gates recently read Hans Rosling’s new book “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” In it, Hans offers a new framework for how to think about the world.

And here’s Hans in his own words about the need for fact-based optimism.

Good news at last: the world isn’t as horrific as you think
Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? War, violence, natural disasters, corruption. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and we will soon run out of resources unless something drastic is done. That’s the picture most people in the west see in the media and carry around in their heads.

I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s population live somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated. Perhaps not on every single measure, or every single year, but step by step, year by year, the world is improving. In the past two centuries, life expectancy has more than doubled. Although the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress.

Heavy questions for a Monday morning

I’ve just got round to reading this weekend’s Art & Letters Daily newsletter. More coffee is required before I properly engage with these questions, I think — the first, about the value of the arts; the second, the value of higher education.

What’s the point?
These feel like such dire times, times of violence and dislocation, schism, paranoia, and the earth-scorching politics of fear. Babies have iPads, the ice caps are melting, and your smart refrigerator is eavesdropping on your lovemaking (and, frankly, it’s not impressed).

Fascists, bigots, and guys who plan to name their sons Adolf wake up every day with a hateful leer on their faces and the Horst Wessel Song in their hearts—if you’re an ignorant, misogynist, xenophobic, racist against science, I guess times have never felt better. But for the vast rest of us—and please know, please believe, you and I greatly outnumber them—for the rest of us, things can seem so much worse than they did back in 2010, when a decent, thoughtful, level-headed, rational, and humane black man was living in the White House.

It has all seemed to fall apart so quickly. Looking around, it’s hard not to wonder who or what is to blame. I think it might be me. No, hear me out.

(This quote from George Bernard Shaw might help here.)

Does meritocracy stall social mobility, entrench an undeserving elite, and undermine trust in higher education?
An attack on meritocracy is invariably an attack on higher education, where meritocrats get sorted and credentialed. So the turn against meritocracy prompts big questions. Has meritocracy in fact failed? Is it time for universities to rethink the definition of merit, and, more broadly, higher education’s role in American life? Are meritocracy’s critics too sweeping in their indictment? Is it still — flaws and all — the fairest way to organize society? If we do away with it, what comes next?

We put these questions to 10 scholars and administrators from across the academy. Here are their responses.

Global protests for a global crisis

Lots of attention, rightly, on the school climate strikes today.

Greta Thunberg is leading kids and adults from 150 countries in a massive Friday climate strike
It’s a big moment for Thunberg and the legions of youth and adult activists and leaders she’s inspired since August 2018, when she began skipping school on Fridays to protest outside the Swedish Parliament. Thousands of young people in the movement, called Fridays for Future, now strike every Friday to demand more aggressive action from their governments and the international community. The last large-scale coordinated climate strike on May 24 drew participants from 130 countries.

The huge youth climate strike is about courage, not hope
As children and young people in more than 150 countries skip school, university, or work, to strike against climate inaction, they aren’t just creating a new form of activism. They are also creating a platform that presents a united front to a multi-pronged global problem.

It’s not just for teenagers this time.

Global climate strike: how you can get involved
The global climate strike kicks off on Friday and will ripple across the world in more than 4,000 locations, the start of a weeklong movement to train international attention on the climate emergency. It’s the latest of a succession of strikes on Fridays led by schoolchildren – but this time adults are invited to join in.

The scale of the problem can feel a little overwhelming, but here’s a possible way forward.

Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot make short film on the climate crisis
Environmental activists Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot have helped produce a short film highlighting the need to protect, restore and use nature to tackle the climate crisis. Living ecosystems like forests, mangroves, swamps and seabeds can pull enormous quantities of carbon from the air and store them safely, but natural climate solutions currently receive only 2% of the funding spent on cutting emissions. The film’s director, Tom Mustill of Gripping Films, said: ‘We tried to make the film have the tiniest environmental impact possible. We took trains to Sweden to interview Greta, charged our hybrid car at George’s house, used green energy to power the edit and recycled archive footage rather than shooting new.’

(Speaking of videos that are trying to change hearts and minds, have you seen the absolutely heart-wrenching film from Sandy Hook Promise, Back-To-School Essentials?)

The most interesting links of the day, I think, are all these from The Conversation, bringing together climate science with economics, culture and the media.

Five things every government needs to do right now to tackle the climate emergency
I would never argue against setting climate targets. They are necessary – but far from sufficient. We must guard against politicians hiding behind distant and possibly empty promises, and demand climate policy that impacts the carbon ledger here and now.

I stand with the climate striking students – it’s time to create a new economy
My research area remains marginal, and its results neglected, because to accept it would require a fundamental transformation of the prevailing economic philosophy. We would need to pay less attention to growth and profit as the measures of prosperity, and replace them with sufficiency and equity – a fair division of resources to provide what is sufficient for well-being and not more. After centuries of entrenchment, that’s no easy feat.

How getting rid of ‘shit jobs’ and the metric of productivity can combat climate change
But suppose we stopped chasing productivity growth. What might happen? It would make it easier to decarbonise. We’d no longer be stuck on the production-consumption treadmill. It would mean less stuff too. But do we need all the crap we have?

Humanity and nature are not separate – we must see them as one to fix the climate crisis
Scholars such as Timothy Morton and Bruno Latour remind us that viewing the natural world as separated from humans is not only ethically problematic but empirically false. Microorganisms in our gut aid digestion, while others compose part of our skin. Pollinators such as bees and wasps help produce the food we eat, while photosynthetic organisms such as trees and phytoplankton provide the oxygen that we need in order to live, in turn taking up the carbon dioxide we expel.

Climate change: children are carving out a place in politics – now adults must listen and act
It’s not enough to put children on the covers of newspapers and call them “heroes”. It’s not even enough to listen to the concerns they’re raising through the global strikes for climate action. Adults in positions of authority need to give young people the means to change the world and create their own visions for the future.

Why is climate change still not top of the news agenda?
Journalists with a better grasp of the science (and indeed social science) of climate change would be less reliant on press releases, reducing the impact of corporate lobbyists and the need to include their public relations activity as part of the news. However, these suggestions are optimistic considering the wider power structures that constrain how journalists operate.

#ShowYourStripes: how climate data became a cultural icon
Helping science to make this leap from the lab to social media is crucial to changing mindsets. My research has often focused on communicating the impacts of climate change to new audiences. The more people that see and understand this huge problem, the better chance we have of solving it.

Imagining both utopian and dystopian climate futures is crucial – which is why cli-fi is so important
When now is the time that we need to act, the rarer utopian form of cli-fi is perhaps more useful. These works imagine future worlds where humanity has responded to climate change in a more timely and resourceful manner. They conjure up futures where human and non-human lives have been adapted, where ways of living have been reimagined in the face of environmental disaster. Scientists, and policy makers – and indeed the public – can look to these works as a source of hope and inspiration.

global-protests

Do we know what’s really going on?

It seems there are three kinds of people in the world: fools that believe in ludicrous conspiracy theories; bullies that want to persuade us that established facts are conspiracy theories when they’re plainly not; and us, stuck in this post-truth world, trying to get to the bottom of it all.

What you think you know about the climate is probably wrong – new UK poll
But our lack of understanding of the scale of the issues doesn’t mean we’re not worried. In fact, recent polling of Britons by Ipsos MORI measured record-breaking levels of concern. Our new polling also shows that two-thirds of Britons reject Donald Trump’s assertion that global warming is an “expensive hoax” – and instead two-thirds agree with the recent UK Parliament declaration that we are facing a “climate change emergency, with the threat of irreversible destruction of our environment in our lifetime”.

Things are confusing enough without all these concerted efforts to massage the truth.

Five climate change science misconceptions – debunked
This organised and orchestrated climate change science denial has contributed to the lack of progress in reducing global green house gas (GHG) emissions – to the point that we are facing a global climate emergency. And when climate change deniers use certain myths – at best fake news and at worse straight lies – to undermine the science of climate change, ordinary people can find it hard to see through the fog.

It’s not just the climate crisis, of course. Remember that damned bus?

Citizens need to know numbers
The message on the bus had a strong emotional resonance with millions of people, even though it was essentially misinformation. The episode demonstrates both the power and weakness of statistics: they can be used to amplify an entire worldview, and yet they often do not stand up to scrutiny. This is why statistical literacy is so important – in an age in which data plays an ever-more prominent role in society, the ability to spot ways in which numbers can be misused, and to be able to deconstruct claims based on statistics, should be a standard civic skill.

The future of the 90s

Nothing wrong with indulging in a little nostalgia now and then, right?

Do you remember Suck.com, the web’s first and best snarky internet/pop-culture magazine? It owned the show in the 90s, and I was a huge fan. It stopped publishing in 2001, but for the last four years the “Suck, Again” project has been serialising its archives as a daily email newsletter, each article sent out twenty years to the day since the original.

Gen Xers rejoice: Suck.com comes back as a daily newsletter
Launched in 1995 by Wired staffers Joey Anuff and Carl Steadman — the same year as Salon.com and a year before Slate — Suck offered a daily riff on early Web culture, politics, pop culture and dating. It was done with a characteristically Gen X flare: arch, wry, ironic and smart. It was massively influential.

It’s fascinating to see just how deeply the internet and the other new technologies have become embedded into our societies since then — and just how ‘on the money’ the Suck.com team were in highlighting the issues that we’re still grappling with today, two decades later.

Like this from April 1999 — fifteen years before Alexa first appeared, for example.

Bit Rot
In the December 1998 Wired, Negroponte – director of MIT’s Media Lab and sharp-dressed retailer of broader-bandwidth tomorrows to corporate America (and to the unwashed AOL millions in his best-selling book Being Digital) – announced that he was vacating his bully pulpit on the magazine’s end page. After six years there, the man, whose audio-animatronic prose is to literary style what the Parkinsonian tics of Disneyland’s Mr. Lincoln are to fluid human movement, had decided to step down.

Negroponte’s departure marks the end of an era when Magna Cartas for the Knowledge Age and Declarations of the Independence of Cyberspace were taken seriously, at least by the self- anointed “digital elite.” Oddly, Negroponte himself seems not to have noticed how retro his Jetsonian visions of digital butlers and supercomputing cufflinks seem in the politically turbulent, economically anxious late-’90s. At the end of a century that has witnessed acid rain and global warming, Bhopal and Chernobyl, he beckons us toward a future where technology never fails, corporations are always benign, and there’s a high-tech magic bullet for every social malady.

Here’s a more favourable piece on him for 21C magazine.

Net prophet
In his immaculate Italian suit, Nicholas Negroponte looks more like an international financier than one of the leading thinkers of the information age. His new book, Being Digital, may have propelled the head of MIT’s Media Lab into the spotlight, but is he a true visionary or just a well-connected hype merchant?

For all that I might now think that Nicholas Negroponte was a little wide of the mark politically, I’ve had his Being Digital book on my bookshelf since it was first published in 1995, just next to Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. They’re still two of my favourites. 

(Featured image c/o Phil Gyford on Flickr)

Everything is political, nothing is neutral

Remember last year I mentioned how the Design Museum’s exhibition on political graphic design had itself become political? Those kinds of debates are still ongoing. Should museums just be preserving cultural heritage, or using their collections to promote social justice and equality? (Is it not obviously the latter?)

Are art institutions becoming too ‘ideological’? A debate breaks out at the International Council of Museums Over Politics in the galleries
What is at stake at the Kyoto meeting on September 7 is more than a battle over terminology. It reflects a debate that has been taking place for the past four decades around whether museums can ever be ideologically neutral spaces. It also reflects a desire since at least the 1980s for museums to be meeting places where ideas can be discussed, turning the museum from a traditional “temple” to a more democratic “forum.” The debate has been given added urgency as institutions in the West face increasing pressure over their colonial-era collections, sources of funding, and historic under-representation of women’s history in particular.

Are we all under surveillance?

We’re used to seeing CCTV cameras absolutely everywhere in this country, but this creepy introduction of facial-recognition technology is something I thought only happens in places like authoritarian China.

‘Deeply concerned’ UK privacy watchdog thrusts probe into King’s Cross face-recognizing snoop cam brouhaha
It emerged earlier this week that hundreds of thousands of Britons passing through the 67-acre area were being secretly spied on by face-recognizing systems. King’s Cross includes Google’s UK HQ, Central Saint Martins college, shops and schools, as well as the bustling eponymous railway station.

“I remain deeply concerned about the growing use of facial recognition technology in public spaces, not only by law enforcement agencies but also increasingly by the private sector,” said Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham in a statement on Thursday.

“We have launched an investigation following concerns reported in the media regarding the use of live facial recognition in the King’s Cross area of central London, which thousands of people pass through every day.”

So, not only is GDPR’s notion of consent being ignored in our online life, but we are being tracked without our consent outside in the real world, too.

It’s good to see some people are fighting back.

Adversarial fashion designed to trick automated license plate readers
When hacker and fashion designer Kate Rose learned – through a conversation with Dave Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation – that the plate readers kind of suck at their jobs, she got an idea. Her new line “Adversarial Fashion” is the result. Unveiled at the DefCon cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas last week, the garments spell out the words of the fourth amendment of the US constitution, which protects Americans from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

under-surveillance.jpg

That dystopian future creeps nearer every day. And here’s more evidence that “Years and Years” will end up being a fact-based documentary rather than a far-fetched satire.

Robotic contact lens that allows users to zoom in by blinking eyes revealed by scientists
The lens is made from polymers that expand when electric current is applied. It is controlled using five electrodes surrounding the eye which act like muscles. When the polymer becomes more convex the lens effectively zooms in.

Scientists hope one day this could help create a prosthetic eye or a camera that can be controlled using eyes alone.

Don’t give up on social media just yet

Most of the social media articles I share here are quite negative. I think it’s got a lot to answer for, in making us less social. But perhaps there are some pockets of positivity out there, as this Scientific American blog post explains.

The technology of kindness
People’s ability to connect is the glue that holds our culture together. By thinning out our interactions and splintering our media landscape, the Internet has taken away the common ground we need to understand one another. Each of us is becoming more confident about our own world just as it drifts farther from the worlds of others …

Diagnosing technology’s damaging effects is the first step toward reversing them. Harris co-founded the Center for Humane Technology to encourage developers and investors to build “regenerative,” rather than extractive, online platforms. The idea is that our capacity for empathy runs just as deep as our vanity, outrage or fear, and technology should highlight healthier forces.

Rather than thinking that Twitter and Facebook are the only options, we’re introduced to ChangeAView, RareConnect, Koko and 7 Cups.

Sites such as ChangeAView and 7 Cups can appear like oases of connection in a landscape bereft of it—exceptions that prove the rule. But what sets connected platforms apart is their break from common, antisocial online practices. They allow people to be vulnerable and visible to one another and reward them for listening rather than shouting. Other social media companies could follow suit: by reforming their incentive structures such that open-minded, positive posts rise more quickly or by facilitating longer, richer communication between users. But they must make progress on this mission intentionally and soon.

Perhaps there’s hope for them (and us) yet.

Falling short

I think I need to make a bigger effort to find more positive stories. Everything I read convinces me more and more that we’re a planet of idiots.

Scarecrow’ statue of Melania Trump unveiled in Slovenia to mixed reviews
“I can understand why people might think that this falls short as a description of her physical appearance,” Downey told AFP, but insisted that he found the end result “absolutely beautiful”.

intellectually-challenged-2

If he’s saying this isn’t a good description of her ‘physical’ appearance, does he mean he was trying to represent her — what? Intellect?

Has humanity reached ‘peak intelligence’?
Whatever the cause of the Flynn effect, there is evidence that we may have already reached the end of this era – with the rise in IQs stalling and even reversing. If you look at Finland, Norway and Denmark, for instance, the turning point appears to have occurred in the mid-90s, after which average IQs dropped by around 0.2 points a year. That would amount to a seven-point difference between generations.

Lost your wallet? Don’t worry

An article to show that honesty might not be as rare in people as the media would have us believe.

Majority of people return lost wallets – here’s the psychology and which countries are the most honest
Overall, 51% of those who were handed a wallet with smaller amounts of money reported it, compared with 72% for a larger sum. The most honest countries were Switzerland, Norway and the Netherlands whereas the least honest were Peru, Morocco and China.

So why is this and what does it tell us about the psychology of honesty? To get an idea, I ran a very informal focus group to find out what kinds of things people may ask themselves when making a decision to return a found wallet. A common view was that no one wanted to appear to act in a socially unacceptable way, and nobody wanted to appear to be a thief. And, of course, the more money in the wallet, the greater the crime.

Is there anything you can do to increase the changes of your wallet being returned? Try this.

In 2009, a researcher carelessly “dropped” a number of wallets all over Edinburgh to see what would happen. He got 42% of the wallets back, but wasn’t not the most interesting finding. It wasn’t only the money in the wallet that influenced whether it would be returned. Where a family photo, an image of a cute puppy, a baby or an elderly couple were included, the chances of the wallet being returned significantly improved.

lost-your-wallet

You may want to cut this out and put it in your wallet.

Thefts do happen, of course, but some have happy endings.

Found: 15 wallets from the 1940s, stolen and stashed behind a bathroom wall
The pastor took to Facebook to wage a longshot campaign to return the wallets to their owners. His post—which featured a photo of the find along with eight names from the discovered student identification cards—has since picked up more than 3,000 shares, and has so far helped facilitate one reunion. Betty Sissom, 89, currently living more than an hour away from Centralia in Chesterfield, Missouri, is now back in possession of treasures once lost, such as her old social security card, a photo of herself with her childhood crush, and a picture of her brother, who had been fighting in World War II at the time and has since passed away. “I was just so glad to get that,” CNN quoted Sissom as saying, “because I don’t have a picture of him.”

And let’s not forget this from NBC News, under its ‘Criminal weirdness’ heading:

Man’s two ‘page one’ photos lead to arrest
Michael Millhouse, wearing a blue and black checkered coat, is painting decorative Christmas greetings on storefront windows in one photo published Dec. 13 in the Lewiston Tribune. The other image was taken from surveillance video footage that reportedly showed a then-unidentified man slipping a women’s wallet in the pocket of that same coat and walking away.

lost-your-wallet-2

Satire or harmful deception?

Fake videos — they’re just a bit of fun that we’re happy to spread around on social media, right? Whilst they play a part in the BBC dystopian future drama, Years and Years, helping to sway a general election, we’re not really fooled by them, are we?

Well, perhaps not yet, but they’ve got US politicians worried enough about their upcoming presidential election in 2020 to officially look into it all.

Congress grapples with how to regulate deepfakes
“Now is the time for social media companies to put in place policies to protect users from this kind of misinformation not in 2021 after viral deepfakes have polluted the 2020 elections,” Schiff said. “By then it will be too late.”

At the outset of the hearing, Schiff came out challenging the “immunity” given to platforms under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, asking panelists if Congress should make changes to the law that doesn’t currently hold social media companies liable for the content on their platforms.

Another example.

Deepfakes: Imagine All the People
Of course this isn’t real. The video was done by a company called Canny AI, which offers services like “replace the dialogue in any footage” and “lip-sync your dubbed content in any language”. That’s cool and all — picture episodes of Game of Thrones or Fleabag where the actors automagically lip-sync along to dubbed French or Chinese — but this technique can also be used to easily create what are referred to as deepfakes, videos made using AI techniques in which people convincingly say and do things they actually did not do or say.

A ‘fake’ arms race, for real

This essay from Cailin O’Connor, co-author of The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, frames the issue of online misinformation as an arms race.

The information arms race can’t be won, but we have to keep fighting
What makes this problem particularly thorny is that internet media changes at dizzying speed. When the radio was first invented, as a new form of media, it was subject to misinformation. But regulators quickly adapted, managing, for the most part, to subdue such attempts. Today, even as Facebook fights Russian meddling, WhatsApp has become host to rampant misinformation in India, leading to the deaths of 31 people in rumour-fuelled mob attacks over two years.

Participating in an informational arms race is exhausting, but sometimes there are no good alternatives. Public misinformation has serious consequences. For this reason, we should be devoting the same level of resources to fighting misinformation that interest groups are devoting to producing it. All social-media sites need dedicated teams of researchers whose full-time jobs are to hunt down and combat new kinds of misinformation attempts.

I know I’m a pretty pessimistic person generally, but this all sounds quite hopeless. Here’s how one group of people is responding to the challenge of misuse of information and fake videos — by producing their own.

This deepfake of Mark Zuckerberg tests Facebook’s fake video policies
The video, created by artists Bill Posters and Daniel Howe in partnership with advertising company Canny, shows Mark Zuckerberg sitting at a desk, seemingly giving a sinister speech about Facebook’s power. The video is framed with broadcast chyrons that say “We’re increasing transparency on ads,” to make it look like it’s part of a news segment.

“We will treat this content the same way we treat all misinformation on Instagram,” a spokesperson for Instagram told Motherboard. “If third-party fact-checkers mark it as false, we will filter it from Instagram’s recommendation surfaces like Explore and hashtag pages.”

We’re all in this together. Right?

Hanna Rosin from NPR has noticed a worrying trend. It’s not just that we’re caring less, but that we’re reducing who we care for.

The end of empathy
Konrath collected decades of studies and noticed a very obvious pattern. Starting around 2000, the line starts to slide. More students say it’s not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else’s perspective. By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!

It’s strange to think of empathy – a natural human impulse — as fluctuating in this way, moving up and down like consumer confidence. But that’s what happened. Young people just started questioning what my elementary school teachers had taught me.

But surely we’re all in this together.

I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people
Personally, I’m happy to pay an extra 4.3 percent for my fast food burger if it means the person making it for me can afford to feed their own family. If you aren’t willing to fork over an extra 17 cents for a Big Mac, you’re a fundamentally different person than I am.

I’m perfectly content to pay taxes that go toward public schools, even though I’m childless and intend to stay that way, because all children deserve a quality, free education. If this seems unfair or unreasonable to you, we are never going to see eye to eye.