Black lives, history, respect, status matters

From across the USA …

These pictures show just how large the protests against police brutality really areBuzzfeed News
Across major cities and small towns, people turned out en masse to demonstrate against the police killing of George Floyd and to call for change in the US.

… and across the decades …

This is what 100 years of racial protest looks like in AmericaBuzzfeed News
From the 1917 silent protests in the streets of Manhattan to the recent national unrest following the killing of George Floyd, these pictures capture the long and tumultuous struggle for racial justice in the US.

… to cities all around the world, right now.

Images from a worldwide protest movementThe Atlantic
Over the weekend, demonstrations took place around the world, with thousands of people outside the United States marching to show solidarity with American protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. In many places, marchers also voiced their anger about systemic racism and police brutality within their own countries.

From our streets, to our museums …

‘Time to give back the swag, guys!’ British Museum unleashes Twitter storm with statement on Black Lives MatterThe Art Newspaper
“Look, I love you guys, but maybe you ought to sit this one out,” said one Twitter user, Jeff Pearce, a novelist and historian. “Unless you plan to return the looted Ethiopian treasures, the stolen Elgin Marbles and permanently return the Benin Bronzes.”

… and living rooms.

Little Britain pulled from iPlayer and Netflix because ‘times have changed’BBC News
In 2017, Lucas said: “If I could go back and do Little Britain again, I wouldn’t make those jokes about transvestites. I wouldn’t play black characters. Basically, I wouldn’t make that show now. It would upset people. We made a more cruel kind of comedy than I’d do now.” Walliams has also said he would “definitely do it differently” in today’s cultural landscape.

Times may have changed for some, but change is moving too slowly for others.

Windrush scandal: only 60 victims given compensation so farThe Guardian
Only 60 people have received Windrush compensation payments during the first year of the scheme’s operation, with just £360,000 distributed from a fund officials expected might be required to pay out between £200m and £500m.

Styles of “law” “enforcement”

Why does the Minneapolis police department look like a military unit?The Washington Post
Such protests have become common in a country where more than 1,000 people annually are killed by police, with black people three times as likely as whites to be the victims. Also common is what happened soon after demonstrators gathered to protest Floyd’s death: Police in riot gear shot tear gas canisters into the crowds and fired stun grenades and “nonlethal projectiles” at demonstrators, injuring many. It was stunningly easy to point to the same department’s gentle treatment weeks ago against white anti-lockdown protesters while those protesting against police violence were met with militarized violence.

But this too should not surprise us. Police departments have come to resemble military units, contributing to deadly violence disproportionately against black Americans. While many policies related to policing and mass incarceration happen at the local level, the militarization of police has been promulgated by federal policies.

Writing for The Conversation, Tom Nolan, an associate professor in Sociology and a former police officer of 27 years, has the research to back up this shift he’s seen first-hand.

Militarization has fostered a policing culture that sets up protesters as ‘the enemy’The Conversation
Night after night, angry protesters have taken to the street. So too have police officers dressed in full riot gear and backed by an arsenal that any small military force would be proud of: armored vehicles, military-grade aircraft, rubber and wooden bullets, stun grenades, sound cannons and tear gas canisters. […]

A study of police-involved deaths between 2012 and 2018 found that on average, police kill 2.8 men every day in the U.S. The risk of death at the hands of an officer was found to be between 3.2 and 3.5 times higher for black men compared to white men.

And there appears to be a correlation between militarization and police violence. A 2017 study analyzed spending by police departments against police-involved fatalities. Summarizing their results in The Washington Post, the authors of the study wrote: “Even controlling for other possible factors in police violence (such as household income, overall and black population, violent-crime levels and drug use), more-militarized law enforcement agencies were associated with more civilians killed each year by police. When a county goes from receiving no military equipment to $2,539,767 worth (the largest figure that went to one agency in our data), more than twice as many civilians are likely to die in that county the following year.”

As those articles show, this militarisation is not a recent shift. This is from 2014.

Why are police using military-grade weapons in high schools?Rolling Stone
For Laura Aguilar, another high school senior who co-leads Taking Action along with Davis, the weapons program is illustrative of the way students of color are treated regularly. “A mine-resistant vehicle isn’t a thing that exists for our safety. It exists for our harm,” she says. “Why are we providing all these resources to the wrong side of education?” Both Aguilar and Davis said that, while they were disturbed by the level of militarization of school police, they were not surprised. “A lot of us have already internalized it. It’s the norm for students,” said Aguilar. “We’re being policed already in our communities, and now a second time in our schools.”

And this illustration is from 2011.

Police confront demonstraters, then and nowPhil Ebersole’s Blog

Here’s a fascinating visual essay from Nate Powell on how the police, paramilitaries and (other) fascist groups are adopting the style and symbols of pop culture, as highlighted in various images from the past few days.

About facePopula
At its core, this is a child’s power fantasy finally enacted in adulthood, speaking only the language of power, the intellectual crudeness of reaction, contrarianism, opposition.

This is a canary in the coal mine (just one of many): that aggrieved, insecure white Americans with an exaggerated sense of sovereignty have officially declared their existence as above the law, consistent with a long tradition of acting and living above it – propped up by apolitical consumer trends’ normalising impact.

I think I’ll leave this here as a final word, an attempt to lighten the mood a little.

Update 05/06/2020

I’ve found a few links that go to illustrate that last chilling line in Nate Powell’s essay, about “future fascist paramilitary participants and their ushers”. There’ll be no shortage of volunteers.

The armed white men who terrorized Philadelphia’s Black Lives Matter supportersThe Guardian
Protesters reported men ripping up signs, yelling homophobic slurs, and spitting on people. And the police greeted them as friends.

And here’s one to show that this is neither a new nor a US-only sentiment.

Update 12/06/2020

Something else I’ve found that relates to Nate’s essay, above.

Creator of the Punisher is organizing a Black Lives Matter benefit to reclaim the skull symbol from policeBoing Boing
“It’s disturbing whenever I see authority figures embracing Punisher iconography because the Punisher represents a failure of the Justice system. He’s supposed to indict the collapse of social moral authority and the reality some people can’t depend on institutions like the police or the military to act in a just and capable way.” […]

Unfortunately, Conway’s insistence on what’s plainly obvious for anyone who’s actually familiar with the Punisher has not stopped the character from becoming a symbol of fascism, proudly worn by law enforcement agents who probably shouldn’t be boasting about their love of fascism.

It’s infected our language too

What to ask instead of ‘How are you ?’ during a pandemic – The Atlantic
How are we? People are sick and dying in alarming numbers all around us. Maybe we’re lucky enough not to be sick or dying, but any of us could be soon. Everyone we know is in danger. Our jobs, and really our entire financial futures, are in jeopardy. Are we really going to paper over these grim truths with the usual, compulsorily breezy “I’m good! You?”

(It feels a little stupid and pointless to be carrying on with this blog, with all this anxiety and stress swirling around us. The future is so uncertain—jobs, schools, buses even—and yet the view out of my window, as I type this, looks perfectly normal (the lack of traffic notwithstanding). Nothing has changed, everything has changed. But I’ve started now, so I may as well continue. I guess it’s just the Monday Blursday blues.)

Other questions might work better as a conversational warm-up or quick check-in. Tannen is partial to “What am I interrupting?” as a conversation starter for phone calls. Meanwhile, Butler recommends “Are you still holding up okay?,” which can work as a succinct check-in before moving the discussion to other matters: It tacitly acknowledges the circumstances but nudges the respondent toward a succinct yes-or-no (or “More or less!”) answer.

It’s not just how we speak to each other that’s changing, but the words themselves.

Coronavirus has led to an explosion of new words and phrases – and that helps us copeThe Conversation
Established terms such as “self-isolating”, “pandemic”, “quarantine”, “lockdown” and “key workers” have increased in use, while coronavirus/COVID-19 neologisms are being coined quicker than ever. These include “covidiot” (someone ignoring public health advice), “covideo party”(online parties via Zoom or Skype), and “covexit” (the strategy for exiting lockdown), while coronavirus has acquired new descriptors – including “the ‘rona” and “Miley Cyrus” (Cockney rhyming slang).

‘Iso’, ‘boomer remover’ and ‘quarantini’: how coronavirus is changing our languageThe Conversation
What is interesting about COVID-lingo is the large number of creations that are blended expressions formed by combining two existing words. The new portmanteau then incorporates meaningful characteristics from both. Newly spawned “coronials” (corona + millennials) has the predicted baby boom in late 2020 already covered.

Perhaps language is a virus after all?

And then what?

So here in the UK we’re to have another three weeks of lockdown. I’m not sure what state I’ll be in after that, I’m already starting to fray at the edges. What’s keeping me up all night isn’t so much how we’ll get through these next few weeks, but what comes after?

Our pandemic summerThe Atlantic
The pandemic is not a hurricane or a wildfire. It is not comparable to Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Such disasters are confined in time and space. The SARS-CoV-2 virus will linger through the year and across the world. “Everyone wants to know when this will end,” said Devi Sridhar, a public-health expert at the University of Edinburgh. “That’s not the right question. The right question is: How do we continue?”

Not a clue. We sit around and wait for a vaccine, but until then— what?

After social distancing, a strange purgatory awaitsThe Atlantic
We will get used to seeing temperature-screening stations at public venues. If America’s testing capacity improves and results come back quickly, don’t be surprised to see nose swabs at airports. Airlines may contemplate whether flights can be reserved for different groups of passengers—either high- or low-risk. Mass-transit systems will set new rules; don’t be surprised if they mandate masks too.

Can things just go back to how they were before?

Welcome to our new timelineKottke
I’m wondering — how many people are aware that this is going to be our reality for the next few years? There is no “normal” we’re going back to, only weird uncharted waters.

We’re all struggling with it. I know I am. Thankfully, help is still around.

Stephen Fry’s tips for managing virus-based anxietyBBC News
Stephen Fry has been giving advice on dealing with anxiety and stress whilst self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic. He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr “anxiety and stress are almost as virulent as this coronavirus”.

Some people, however, are less than helpful.

Facebook will add anti-misinformation posts to your News Feed if you liked fake coronavirus newsThe Verge
Today’s update follows a scathing report by nonprofit group Avaaz, which called the site an “epicenter of coronavirus misinformation” and cited numerous posts containing dangerous health advice and fake cures. The company pushed back on this accusation, saying it’s removed “hundreds of thousands of pieces of misinformation” in the past weeks.

Feeling isolated? You’ll be fine

Going a little crazy stuck indoors? Get some advice from the experts.

How Mandela stayed fit: from his ‘matchbox’ Soweto home to a prison cell – The Conversation
He’d begin with running on the spot for 45 minutes, followed by 100 fingertip push-ups, 200 sit-ups, 50 deep knee-bends and calisthenic exercises learnt from his gym training (in those days, and even today, this would include star jumps and ‘burpees’ – where you start upright, move down into a squat position, kick your feet back, return to squat and stand up). Mandela would do this Mondays to Thursdays, and then rest for three days. This continued even during his several spells in solitary confinement.

Jacob Solome survived the Holocaust by hiding in a small basement for two years with up to 15 others.

My cousin Jack survived the unimaginable. Here’s his advice for right now.The Cut
This is my philosophy, and so far it has helped. Because I compare myself to other people who worry all the time, and always when you see them, they are telling you about their tsuris and their problems. Some people are optimistic, but some people are more pessimistic. I am in the first category. Really, that’s the nature of a person. I’m always thinking how worse it was when we were under the German occupation, where every minute, our lives were at risk; literally, being in the ghetto and being in hiding. So if I was able to live through that, what the heck is coronavirus?

For some, it’s a calling.

I’m a nun and I’ve been social distancing for 29 years. Here are tips for staying home amid coronavirus fears.nj.com
People say they want peace and quiet. Then when it is thrown in their lap, they panic. They don’t know how to be alone. They are afraid to confront their “shadow side,” the hard truths about themselves that they don’t like. They fill their lives with noise to run away from their emotions. Life isn’t meant to be rushed. Use this time to get to know yourself.

And from The Economist, advice from a former hostage, a writer with chronic fatigue and an astronaut.

Stories of an extraordinary world – Notes on isolation, from those who know it wellThe Economist
When I was in space, Mission Control scheduled my days to the minute. Every evening the information they sent would come out like a fax machine, a long thin bit of paper telling me exactly what time I should get up, when I should eat, what experiments I should do and when. I didn’t mind – it was efficient – but I did get comfort from the small things that I could control, like what juice I drank and the time after dinner when I really could do whatever I wanted. Now my days are restricted like everyone else – my speaking engagements have been cancelled and my work for Imperial College London is moving online – but I still take pleasure in the small things; deciding my morning run and what path I take. I remember that lesson from space, letting go of what you can’t control and focusing on what you can. We have all been told to stay at home – but we can still decide how we use our time.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.