Doomed

Have you ever compared Facebook’s algorithmic autonomy and global reach to a Cold War era mechanism for assured nuclear destruction? Perhaps you should.

Facebook is a Doomsday MachineThe Atlantic
[I]t took the concept of “community” and sapped it of all moral meaning. The rise of QAnon, for example, is one of the social web’s logical conclusions. That’s because Facebook—along with Google and YouTube—is perfect for amplifying and spreading disinformation at lightning speed to global audiences. Facebook is an agent of government propaganda, targeted harassment, terrorist recruitment, emotional manipulation, and genocide—a world-historic weapon that lives not underground, but in a Disneyland-inspired campus in Menlo Park, California. […]

Megascale is nearly the existential threat that megadeath is. No single machine should be able to control the fate of the world’s population—and that’s what both the Doomsday Machine and Facebook are built to do. […]

[T]here aren’t enough moderators speaking enough languages, working enough hours, to stop the biblical flood of shit that Facebook unleashes on the world, because 10 times out of 10, the algorithm is faster and more powerful than a person. […]

In other words, if the Dunbar number for running a company or maintaining a cohesive social life is 150 people; the magic number for a functional social platform is maybe 20,000 people. Facebook now has 2.7 billion monthly users. […]

If the age of reason was, in part, a reaction to the existence of the printing press, and 1960s futurism was a reaction to the atomic bomb, we need a new philosophical and moral framework for living with the social web—a new Enlightenment for the information age, and one that will carry us back to shared reality and empiricism.

Those were the paragraphs that Patrick Tanguay highlighted in one of his recent newsletters. As much as I love reading about the horrors of Facebook — and social media more widely — I’m left wondering what the point of this piece was. Will attitudes really change after reading this, or is this just more confirmation bias? Take this paragraph, for instance.

These dangers are not theoretical, and they’re exacerbated by megascale, which makes the platform a tantalizing place to experiment on people. Facebook has conducted social-contagion experiments on its users without telling them. Facebook has acted as a force for digital colonialism, attempting to become the de facto (and only) experience of the internet for people all over the world. Facebook has bragged about its ability to influence the outcome of elections. Unlawful militant groups use Facebook to organize. Government officials use Facebook to mislead their own citizens, and to tamper with elections. Military officials have exploited Facebook’s complacency to carry out genocide. Facebook inadvertently auto-generated jaunty recruitment videos for the Islamic State featuring anti-Semitic messages and burning American flags.

That’s an appalling summary, unconscionable, how can this continue, something must be done etc etc. And yet here we are, nearly 3 billion users. Is it all being dismissed as tabloid exaggeration, resulting in nothing changing? A Doomsday that nobody notices?

“Without adult supervision”

I enjoyed, if that’s the right word, this description of us from across the Atlantic, taken from The New York Times Morning Briefing: Europe Edition newsletter. Their description of us certainly feels quite accurate. Unfortunately.

Trump, Coronavirus, Sanda Dia: Your Monday BriefingThe New York Times

Britain, operating without adult supervision
Coronavirus cases in Britain are rising rapidly, with a record 12,871 new cases reported on Saturday evening. But as our correspondent Peter Goodman writes, you would scarcely imagine it on the streets of London, where masks hang below chins, punters cluster in pubs and cafes and rules around mask wearing or social distancing are frequently ignored.

Beyond the obvious ways that this cavalier behavior is disconcerting, it has enhanced a widely shared sense that Britain — famously rule-abiding — is now operating without adult supervision. Public confidence has plummeted, with more than half of respondents in a recent survey declaring the government has botched its handling of the pandemic, up from 39 percent in May.

The current crisis seems exacerbated by an offshoot of the very virtue celebrated in Britain’s conventional historical narrative — an admirable refusal to bend. A national mantra, “keep calm and carry on,” seems to have been reconfigured into the misguided notion that nothing is amiss.

And as if to further illustrate the point about a lack of supervision.

Botched Excel import may have caused loss of 15,841 UK COVID-19 casesArs Technica
Public Health England admitted on Sunday that the agency has under-reported COVID-19 infections by 15,841 cases in recent days due to a “technical issue.” The missing positive tests were conducted between September 25 and October 2 and have since been added to national statistics, the agency said.

Excel: Why using Microsoft’s tool caused Covid-19 results to be lostBBC News
“Excel was always meant for people mucking around with a bunch of data for their small company to see what it looked like,” commented Prof Jon Crowcroft from the University of Cambridge. “And then when you need to do something more serious, you build something bespoke that works – there’s dozens of other things you could do. But you wouldn’t use XLS. Nobody would start with that.”

It’s not about facts, unfortunately

A couple of years ago, writer and photographer Will Patrick was after a project during a dry spell. An upcoming Flat Earth Conference would be straightforward—we all love a good conspiracy, right? Two years later, he finally writes it up.

Notes from a Flat Earth ConferenceWill Patrick
If you find yourself wondering how they can resolve their belief in a flat earth against such apparently contradictory things like the International Space Station, rocket launches, GPS, pilots who see the curvature of the earth, the moon landings and, at a bare minimum, the collected works of Aristotle, Archimedes and Eratosthenes, then I’ll just cut right to it: they can’t. Of course, they don’t know that, but then they don’t really seem to care, either. […]

It is as if you could have taken the entire attended gathering of the conference, shot them all into a low earth orbit to circle our very, very round planet several times, then landed them back again to find their beliefs even stronger than before. They would emerge, removing their helmets, to kiss the flat earth beneath them and exalt their claims with even greater fervor.

All this is to say that rational questions and arguments miss the point entirely. These are not rational beliefs, nor even really beliefs. They are more like identities, firmly established and fiercely defended. Their existence is not a happy one, either. It seemed to me that they were commonly the product of deep personal and social tragedy.

Getting galleries right — for all of us

It’s been months since I’ve been to a gallery or museum. More of them are reopening, though many are still facing a difficult future. But how they are dealing with their past and present is just as challenging.

Black artists and gallerists on what a more inclusive art world would look likeArtsy
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Brandon explained her comment. “Ever since I started working at SFMOMA, I have watched leadership tokenize their non-white employees all while trying to silence them by implying that their concerns, frustrations, and experiences are not real,” she said. “The events that transpired regarding the Instagram post highlights leadership’s inability to recognize the racism within museums amongst employees and donors.” In recent weeks, five senior leaders have resigned from SFMOMA amid a growing chorus of accusations of institutional racism.

Penn Museum to remove skull collection of enslaved peopleHyperallergic
The objectionable collection belongs to Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century Philadelphia-born, UPenn-educated physician who collected hundreds of skulls, including those of enslaved Africans, Native Americans, and Cubans to try to reinforce his white supremacist, pseudoscientific theory that the brains of some races are larger than others.

Anish Kapoor says art gallery ‘tokenism’ with diversity must endThe Guardian
As he prepared to open the UK’s first large-scale art exhibition since the lockdown began in March, Kapoor delivered blistering criticism of the museum world. “Contemporary museums, they need to stop tokenism. Collect an Iranian artist here, a South African artist there or whatever. They need to really begin to try to properly take on … what is contemporary culture today? How do we represent it in objects in our museums. It is not straightforward. But tokenism can’t happen any longer.”

How recent anti-racism protests have pushed a longstanding debate about colonial looting in EuropeThe Art Newspaper
“All these things are connected,” says George Abungu, an archaeologist and former director of the National Museums of Kenya. “If the museums had dealt with it a long time ago, it wouldn’t have been looked at like this. But now history has caught up. Repatriation is part of this discussion about colonialism and racism.”

The museum where racist and oppressive statues go to dieAtlas Obscura
The museum’s message is clear: A monument is not a descriptive account of history, but instead a historical artifact that tells a story about power. In a setting that invites scrutiny, visitors can study Berlin’s monuments to grasp more clearly who had power and how that power was used. […]

“It is a great mistake to describe the monuments as history or heritage,” Neiman goes on. “We don’t memorialize every piece of our histories. We pick and choose those men and women whose lives embodied values we want our communities to share.”

Staying in

It’s a crazy world out there sometimes, for some of us.

Introverts are excluded unfairly in an extraverts’ worldPsyche Ideas
The main cultural problem is that introverts are widely seen as not adapted to the environment, instead of it being acknowledged that the environment is designed to profit extraverts. Society’s praise and acceptance of extraversion as the norm has led many introverts, along with many ambiverts, to suppress different aspects of their personality, or to see them as flaws. This state of affairs is bad not only for introverts, but for society as a whole.

By way of example:

The ritualised excess of life aboard a cruise ship is tragic and parodic by turnsAeon Videos
The observational documentary All Inclusive drops viewers head-first into the strange rituals of tableside conga lines, captain meet-and-greets and pool cannonball contests that characterise the cruise experience. While the Swiss director Corina Schwingruber Ilić’s tongue-in-cheek tone permeates throughout, the film offers more than just an invitation to gawk, as ‘fun’ plays out in a series of over-the-top pastimes, hinting at the economic and social stratification between guests and workers.

I’d much rather watch this than be there. The film’s style reminds me of that short documentary about the drive-in church service, something else I’m happy I’ve seen—from a distance.

Walk a mile in someone else’s screen

TheirTube – How do the recommended videos look on their Youtube home page?
This whole project started when I was in a heated discussion with a person who thought climate change was a hoax and 9/11 was a conspiracy. Through conversations with him, I was surprised to learn that he thought everyone’s YouTube feed had the same information as his own feed. When we showed each other our YouTube homepages, we were both shocked. They were radically different. And it got me thinking about the need for a tool to step outside of information bubbles.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.