Dissent in Russia, non-fungible tokens, the Gulf Stream and Slate Star Codex

Find some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last fews weeks below reflecting current events and wider trends and changes:

I’ve found reports of Vladimir Putin’s arrest of Alexei Navalny fascinating. On the one hand, he provides a selfless and invaluable check on a longstanding totalitarian regime. On the other hand he’s certainly not the liberal that many Westerners would like to see leading the Russia opposition (although criticisms are no doubt fuelled by Putin’s allies). Vox has created a valuable primer on why Navalny is such a thorn in Putin’s side:

What the actions of Putin’s critics has made clear is that Russia is a an environment that has few of the privacy protections that we have come to expect in Western society. This can prove something of a gold mine for journalists and opposition researchers as Ben Smith reports:

Probiv is only one of the factors that have made Russia, of all places, the most exciting place in the world for investigative journalism. There is a new wave of outlets, many using more conventional sourcing to pierce the veil of President Vladimir V. Putin’s power. And there is a growing online audience for their work in a country where the state controls, directly or indirectly, all of the major television networks.

I have been fascinated by the growth of blockchain technologies. At times it feels like it’s a solution searching for a problem. The growth of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) seems like an interesting use case, providing a new channel for creators to be rewarded for digital creations. That being said, it does raise some interesting questions as Marc Hogan reporting for Pitchfork:

The idea that a digital certificate of authenticity is valuable, but the infinitely replicable artwork itself is not, may raise interesting questions about what “art” and “authenticity” truly mean, but it’s a conversation for philistines, privileging financial worth above all else. There’s a reason that great art is often called “priceless.”

Growing computational power and a growing array of data has provided us with increasingly accurate weather and climate forecasts. Whilst there is definitely consensus on rising global temperatures, there’s far less consensus on exactly how this plays out. Moises Velasquez-Manoff and Jeremy White take the opportunity to look specifically at the impact of global warming on the Gulf Stream. Changes to this ocean current could see temperatues falling for those of us living around the North Atlantic. As an added bonus, the data visualisations accompanying the article are a feast for the eyes:

It’s one of the mightiest rivers you will never see, carrying some 30 times more water than all the world’s freshwater rivers combined. In the North Atlantic, one arm of the Gulf Stream breaks toward Iceland, transporting vast amounts of warmth far northward, by one estimate supplying Scandinavia with heat equivalent to 78,000 times its current energy use. Without this current — a heat pump on a planetary scale — scientists believe that great swathes of the world might look quite different.

Slate Star Codex provided a hub of sorts for the self described rationalist community that has a particularly strong following in Silicon Valley. The site’s creator recently got into a dispute with the New York Times over the latter’s plan to publish his full name in part of now published profile piece. Elizabeth Spier’s analysis of the dispute provides some valuable reflections on the community around Slate Star Codex and Silicon Valley:

I hope that someone does a longer more comprehensive story on the Rationalist community and the site—selfishly, because I love this sort of thing. But I’d also like to see people who self-identify as Rationalists be a little more self-aware about when they are letting their emotions trample their logic—when they’re tempted to argue that questions of justice are ancillary to question of progress, and when they, for example, get angry and project all manner of emotion onto reporters whose reporting they don’t like. 

But mostly, I want them to be more rigorous: to acknowledge that ideas are meaningless in a vacuum that does not include real world material conditions, and that people pursuing innovation are not the only people who matter, or even the people who matter most. And another structural reality is that organizations—companies, say, startups—are terrible at policing themselves. What journalism seeks to do is illuminate the areas where destructive means are being utilized to achieve ends that might actually be virtuous or worthy in some other way. This is useful, in the public interest, and good for the tech industry in the long term. It mitigates things that are destructive to the industry, and destructive to society. 

The departure of Donald Trump from the Oval Office means that TikTok will no longer be forced to sell off its US operation (at least for the foreseeable future). Eugene Wei provides a fascinating analysis of some of the key features and dynamics that make the platform such a powerful player in social media:

TikTok is a form of assisted evolution in which humans and machine learning algorithms accelerate memetic evolution. The FYP algorithm is TikTok’s version of selection pressure, but it’s aided by the feedback of test audiences for new TikToks.

Samanth Subramanian’s account of the takeover of the Wentworth Golf Club by wealthy Chinese billionaire Yan Bin is titled The rich vs the very, very rich. It makes for a fascinating tale of how even the Surrey’s well to do are not spared the excesses of global capital – although it is worth adding that this is impacting their ability to play a round of golf rather than feed their families:

In escalating the fees, he was looking for a new kind of member, which left the old kind of member out in the cold. Moss described it to me as a “culture clash. He made no attempt to understand the club. He thought he could do what he wanted, basically.” He had the right to think this, Moss said: it was his club.

A podcast that’s been getting a lot of love from me lately is Willa Paskin’s Decoder Ring. The show explores different cultural phenomenon with a recent favourite being a look at the rise of metrosexual and the Karen.

Cover photo is Palm Temple by Luke Jerram which was installed in Lewis Cubitt Square last year. You can find more photos here.

The realities of Brexit, the rise of vaccine nationalism and who is counter cultural

Now that Donald Trump has had the keys for social media and the White House taken off him, it feels like we can now get back to the more serious issues of Brext and Covid-19 (with a side serving of GameStop). Find below some of the stories that have caught my eye over recent weeks.

Brexit arrived and warnings which were being described as “Project Fear” are now proving all too true as George Parker, Peter Foster, Sam Fleming and Jim Brunsden lay out in this report from the Financial Times:

The bill for Johnson’s relentless focus on sovereignty is now due. The government’s deal does allow for the continuation of tariff-free trade for goods that qualify as British- or EU-made. However, Britain’s exit from the customs union and single market on January 1 created a thicket of customs declarations, health checks and other barriers to trade. Services, which make up 80 per cent of the British economy including its crown jewel — the City of London — barely get a look-in.

Providing a more first hand account of Brexit is Philip Hammond’s interview with UK in a Changing Europe. The interview provides a fascinating account of UK’s relationship with Europe and what we’ve lost by going our own way:

As Foreign Secretary, I discovered that the European Union was a very useful platform and a multiplier of British influence because there were only 2½ countries that were credible foreign policy players in Europe: the UK, France, and the Germans in respect of certain areas of activity and certain geographies. Then smaller players, like the Dutch, Swedes and Danes who were absolutely present but small scale. The UK was able to exert significant influence through that medium, but it was the creation of the Single Market – frankly, a British, or we like to think, a British invention – that leveraged the value of Europe for the UK.

I have generally seen the European Union as acting in good faith in its negotiations with the UK on Brexit. Recent friction over the supply of Covid-19 vaccines signals something of what I’m hoping is a temporary departure from this as Daniel Boffey and Dan Sabbagh report for The Guardian.

“We were worried about vaccine nationalism – but the person we feared was Trump, that he would be able to pressurise a US company, and perhaps buy up the drug stocks,” said a former adviser at the Department of Health. “We never expected there would be a row with the EU.”

The roll out of Covid-19 vaccinations has given many Britons something to cheer about and the country’s tracking of different variants is admirable. That being said, there’s been much to criticise in Britain’s handling of the pandemic with politicians often making decisions far too late. The Lowy Institute provides visitors with chance to compare the performance of different regions, populations political systems and countries. Britain doesn’t come out particularly well:

Anthony Fauci has proven one of the stars of the Covid-19 pandemic providing words or reason when leadership from Donald Trump and the Republican Party was sorely lacking. Sam Adler-Bell provides a more critical take suggesting that if Fauci had taken a tougher stance, America could well have seen a less tragic outcome:

Anthony Fauci is no doubt a dedicated public servant, respected by his colleagues, beloved by many Americans. But the puzzle remains: why has the man most closely associated with the public health response to the pandemic entirely avoided accountability for its failure?

Providing a more personal perspective is the account of a NHS consultant anaesthetist working in intensive care who makes clear the pain felt by both the patients and the carers:

Three hours later, we are asked to intubate this patient. She bursts into tears, saying: “I’ve got children at home. I can’t go on a ventilator. I’m not ready. I can’t die.” She is 35 years old. I kneel down and hold her hand. I explain again that we are here to help her with her breathing. As she FaceTimes her children, we urgently get our equipment and drugs ready. Her young children are crying. I must look really scary to them. I can see them but can’t communicate with them at all, even as their mum is becoming increasingly hypoxic and agitated. “I love you, I love you, I love you… ” she says, until she finally presses “end” on the screen with her shaking fingers.

Britain will be hosting COP Climate Change Conference in Glasgow later in the year so it’s interesting to look where UK stands in terms of moves to a low carbon future. MIT’s Green Future Index points to Britain doing alright in global comparison but not so well against its Western European neighbours:

In a world of encroaching social media and influencers, what does it mean to be counter cultural? Caroline Busta takes a closer look for Document:

To be truly countercultural today, in a time of tech hegemony, one has to, above all, betray the platform, which may come in the form of betraying or divesting from your public online self.

Whilst Harvey Weinstein may represent the most predatory form of sexual harassment, there’s plenty of other cases of sexism in the workplace. Jennifer Barnett provides a demoralising account of life at The Atlantic under the leadership of James Bennet:

Adapt. Be one of the guys. It was a boy’s club after all, and it was celebrated as such. Despite the fact that my boss openly acknowledged and resented the reputation of being a boy’s club — he frequently pointed out the number of women working there (yet at the time, I was one of the few at the top of the masthead and he still shut me out of meetings) this was the culture that was actively fostered. The publisher at the time was quoted in an outrageous article extolling the manliness of magazines.

The maze like world of QAnon, where we’re at on climate change and views on British class identity

It has been an interesting couple of weeks with the fallout that accompanied the departure of Donald Trump and on a more personal note, my return to work coming back from furlough. Find below some of the stories that caught my eye, with lively coverage of QAnon, some guarded optimism on climate change and insights on how British see their own social class among other stories.

The debacle that was the storming of the U.S. Senate has left many of us thinking how could this happen. Kevin Roose interviews “QAnon meme queen” Valerie Gilbert, giving a more personal take on how people can fall down this particular rabbit hole:

What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, but patriots gathering “intel” for a righteous revolution.

David Gilbert on the other hand looks at how we can help family and friends step outside the maze of QAnon:

It’s not a one-time interaction process; it has to be incremental over time,” Hasan said. “That’s why family members and friends are the best agents to effect change over time, because they can also say, ‘Hey, I grew up with you, we used to play basketball together. Do you remember?’ That brings up warm feelings and your real self, not your cult self.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have begun to engage more actively with content moderation on their platforms – something which has came to the fore with the storming of the United States Senate recently. Alex Kantrowitz looks at how newer platforms to content moderation such as Substack, Spotify and Clubhouse are engaging with the subject:  

Though the big social networks have been the main focus in the debate over how — and whether — online platforms should moderate user content, the fight is migrating toward smaller platforms devoid of rollicking social feeds. They include email providers like Substack, podcast platforms like Spotify (hello Joe Rogan), and nascent startups like Clubhouse.

The departure of Donald Trump and America’s rejoining of the Paris climate agreement has provides us with some more hope on the subject of climate change. David Wallace-Wells argues we have turned a corner, although we’re still in for bumpy ride:

All year, a planet transformed by the burning of carbon discharged what would have once been called portents of apocalypse. The people of that planet, as a whole, didn’t take much notice — distracted by the pandemic and trained, both by the accumulating toll of recent disasters and the ever-rising volume of climate alarm, to see what might once have looked like brutal ruptures in lived reality instead as logical developments in a known pattern. Our time has been so stuffed with disasters that it was hard to see the arrival of perhaps the unlikeliest prophecy of all: that the plague year may have marked, for climate change, a turning point, and for the better.

The growth of single person households and the relative decline of the traditional nuclear family norm is encouraging suburbs to rethink how they can attract and retain residents. June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones talk about the phenomenon of “suburban retrofitting” in the US:

The suburbs largely sold themselves on the value of the terrific private realm that they present. The suburbs emphasize privacy. As these demographics are changing, there’s more and more people recognizing, “I’m lonely. I would like a little bit more of a public realm.”

Have you got an interesting product idea that you would like to turn into a viable business? Digits to Dollars provide a look at what’s involved in turning an idea into a viable business and it makes you realise why many people choose to stick to purely startups that are all code:

That being said, the realities of hardware can be daunting. Take the $3 million the company needs to get a product out the door, a similarly sized team could build a software application that can potentially grow much faster and they would still have a million dollars to do customer acquisition. Compounding this, the software would come with a recurring revenue stream. The trouble with hardware is that for the company to grow, they have to come out with the Smart Horn 2 and the Smart Horn 3, and go through all of the above again, and again.

Hardware has immense financial leverage, but the upfront costs and more crucially the time required are daunting.

Having spent much of my formative years growing up in New Zealand, I find it fascinating when academics provide a more critical look at that strange species known as the English. Sam Friedman, Dave O’Brien and Ian McDonald’s recent work on class identity definitely fits the bill:

Why do people from privileged class backgrounds often misidentify their origins as working class? We address this question by drawing on 175 interviews with those working in professional and managerial occupations, 36 of whom are from middle-class backgrounds but identify as working class or long-range upwardly mobile. Our findings indicate that this misidentification is rooted in a self-understanding built on particular ‘origin stories’ which act to downplay interviewees’ own, fairly privileged, upbringings and instead forge affinities to working-class extended family histories. Yet while this ‘intergenerational self’ partially reflects the lived experience of multigenerational upward mobility, it also acts – we argue – as a means of deflecting and obscuring class privilege. By positioning themselves as ascending from humble origins, we show how these interviewees are able to tell an upward story of career success ‘against the odds’ that simultaneously casts their progression as unusually meritocratically legitimate while erasing the structural privileges that have shaped key moments in their trajectory.

A friend who is really into film introduced me to Letterboxd as a way of tracking wanted and watched films. I was more than happy to move part of my digital life out of the clutches of Amazon (via IMDB) and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s a New Zealand startup that’s nourishing a new breed of film critic as Calum Marsh reports:

Although May said she is “first and foremost a fan of film,” and The unedited, anything-goes spirit of Letterboxd can be off-putting: D’Angelo confessed he finds it “maddening” when writers “use all lowercase” or refuse “to use normal grammar or punctuation,” which on the site is often. But the lack of rules or structure can also lead to some interesting, unconventional criticism, and offers a platform to voices that might otherwise not be heard. On Letterboxd, you can discover not only new movies to watch, but new critics to follow.

Science moves forward, verdicts on BoJo, Trump and Amazon

Lucy McLauchlan mural in Leytonstone for London Mural Fest

A look at some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. These include science’s impact on the coronavirus pandemic, verdicts on the leadership of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and a closer look at tech giant Amazon.

Ed Yong looks at the scientific research community’s successes and occasional failures in addressing the coronavirus pandemic:

The scientific community spent the pre-pandemic years designing faster ways of doing experiments, sharing data, and developing vaccines, allowing it to mobilize quickly when COVID‑19 emerged. Its goal now should be to address its many lingering weaknesses. Warped incentives, wasteful practices, overconfidence, inequality, a biomedical bias—COVID‑19 has exposed them all. And in doing so, it offers the world of science a chance to practice one of its most important qualities: self-correction.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the difficult but necessary decision of “cancelling Christmas” this year. Despite this, it’s hard to feel too sorry for him given the lack of leadership shown in managing the pandemic as ably described by Andrew Rawnsley:

The coronavirus crisis could not have been more cunningly engineered to expose Mr Johnson’s flaws. He was made prime minister not because anyone thought that he was a cool and decisive head with the leadership skills and moral seriousness required to handle the gravest public health emergency in a century. He was put there because he was a successful representative of the entertainer branch of populist leadership that prospered in the pre-virus era. “We elected him to be a ‘good times’ prime minister,” comments one senior Tory. “His curse is to be prime minister in bad times.”

Few of his strengths as a politician have been of much utility in this emergency. All of his weaknesses have been searingly exposed. A man who spent his career ducking responsibility was suddenly confronted with a challenge that could not be run from, though that didn’t stop him vanishing at the outset when he went missing from critical meetings. In the coronavirus, he met an opponent impervious to glib slogans and empty promises. Here was a disease posing hideous and inescapable dilemmas that confounded the “have your cake and eat it” philosophy by which he had lived his life.

Being single during the coronavirus pandemic left me reflecting on how rules and regulations have predominantely been designed for couples/families rather than the growing number of people living alone. Megan Nolan provides a personal take on how “lockdown life” has hampered her and many other singles natural quest for intimacy:

Mostly, the government here in Britain — as in many other places — pretended that sex doesn’t take place except between cohabiting couples. When public health advocates have brought themselves to allude to the existence of sex, the advice is usually unrealistic and inadequate, instructing couples who don’t live together to meet up outside and not touch. News releases from sex toy companies began filling my email inbox, advertising remote-controlled vibrators, as though the loss of physical connection was purely about missing an orgasm.

There has been no serious effort to confront the particular challenges of what it is to be single — to be alone — in 2020. There have been no major harm-reduction initiatives, just the deluded implication that all of us who failed to partner up by March 2020 should live without meaningful connection until there is a vaccine.

Despite Donald Trump’s loud protestations, he’s going down as one of the most inept American presidents of all time. Given this, it’s interesting to read David Frum pointing (through clenched teeth) to 12 achievements that Trump has made during his time in power:

Yet nobody does nothing as president, not even someone who watches television for five or six hours a day. There were achievements in the Trump years, and even if they hardly begin to compare to Jimmy Carter’s, they are still worth noting as this presidency comes to an end. 

Anne Helen Petersen looks at the financially precarious position of many people in the American middle class which she describes as the hollow middle:

Forty years ago, the term “middle class” referred to Americans who had successfully obtained a version of the American dream: a steady income from one or two earners, a home, and security for the future. It meant the ability to save and acquire assets. Now, it mostly means the ability to put your bills on autopay and service debt. The stability that once characterized the middle class, that made it such a coveted and aspirational echelon of American existence, has been hollowed out.

It has been over 13 years since the launch of the first iPhone and the various iterations on the smartphone has changed the world we now live in. Benedict Evans looks at what technologies are likely to make an outsize impact in the coming years but also forecasts that the smartphones will continue to drive plenty of changes in years to come:

Amazon like many of the tech giants has seen its market position strengthen during the coronavirus pandemic as more people push their shopping online. Dana Mattioli examines how Amazon’s intense competitive spirit has increasingly brought it to the attention of both competitors and market regulators:

He still exhorts employees to consider Amazon a startup. “It is always day one,” he likes to say. Day two is “stasis, followed by irrelevance, followed by excruciating, painful decline, followed by death.” Mr. Bezos originally considered calling his company Relentless, and www.relentless.com still redirects to Amazon’s site.

Providing an interesting compliment to Mattiolis’ piece is Logic’s interview with an anonymous Amazon employee. There’s plenty of coverage of Amazon’s efforts to provide a secure environment for its web services. Where I found it particularly interesting was its commentary on Amazon as a workplace, particularly as it compared to the other tech giants:

I think your question kind of misses the forest for the trees. For most people at Amazon, glancing at the Apple News feed on their iPhone is about as much of the discourse as they consume. They don’t care about the news. It doesn’t contribute anything to their life. There are colleagues I’m friends with who don’t really know who ran for president. They figure it’s all going to be the same anyway, so why bother.

But by the same token, if they hear someone criticize Amazon, they’re not inclined to be super defensive. There aren’t a lot of intense loyalists. People at Amazon are mercenaries. The company doesn’t have great benefits. Office life kind of sucks and it’s not that fun of a place to work. It’s a grind. People work there because it pays a little bit better than the competition and it looks good on a resume. They can go in, do their job, go home, spend time with their kids, watch sports. That’s the good life.

Amazon has around a million employees worldwide. The majority work in shipping and logistics and delivery. There are maybe eighty thousand corporate employees. And I would estimate that fewer than two thousand of them have participated in discussions around organizing.

Joe Cascarelli looks at the world of music fandom which reflects the increasingly polarised world of politics:

n what is known as Stan Twitter — and its offshoots on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Tumblr and various message boards — these devotees compare No. 1s and streaming statistics like sports fans do batting averages, championship wins and shooting percentages. They pledge allegiance to their favorites like the most rabid political partisans or religious followers. They organize to win awards show polls, boost sales and raise money like grass roots activists. And they band together to pester — or harass, and even dox — those who may dare to slight the stars they have chosen to align themselves with.

Thought starters: growth of Substack, dominance of NY Times and China vs USA

A look at some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. These include the impacts of the coronavirus, the growth of Substack email newsletter platform and competition between China and the USA.

It’s no secret that the coronavirus has seen ecommerce experience something of a purple patch in 2020. Benedict Evans does a good job of pulling figures together from the UK and the US. It will be interesting to see what happens when lockdowns ease and fears of infection subside:

Substack is the new kid on the block providing a new outlet for journalists and commentators to reach audiences and earn a crust. Clio Chang looks at the opportunities it provides but also suggests that it doesn’t necessarily upend barriers to new voices emerging:

Substack, established in 2017 by three tech-and-media guys—Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi—is a newsletter platform that allows writers and other creative types to distribute their work at tiered subscription rates. Newsletters go back at least as far as the Middle Ages, but these days, with full-time jobs at stable media companies evaporating—between the 2008 recession and 2019, newsroom employment dropped by 23 percent—Substack offers an appealing alternative. And, for many, it’s a viable source of income. 

You can find more commentary and writings about Substack here. Among the writers who have joined Substack recently is ex Vox editor Matthew Yglesias who writes about the dominance of the New York Times in the US media ecosystem:

But fundamentally the digital media startup dream of obtaining massive scale and disrupting the incumbents hasn’t really worked. So we’re left with a giant that’s incapable of self-scrutiny, because that might lead to implosion, paired with a set of institutions that increasingly all reflect the same worldview and do so in very strange ways.

Language is often not as neutral as we would like it to be and the technology sector is certainly no exception. The NYT Open Team look at what theyre doing to create more inclusive language in the way they talk about technology:

Whether it’s terminology like “master” or “blacklist,” words with harmful connotations have been baked into tech communication for decades. Words like these bring with them the weight of slavery and discrimination, and signal that those who have held power in the tech industry have had the privilege to ignore the impact of these antiquated terms. People of color are still underrepresented in tech, and the industry’s continued use of these terms acts in direct opposition to an inclusive and equitable culture.

America’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic hasn’t exactly done wonders for the country’s international reputation. Despite this, Tyler Cowen still sees the country in a favourable position when compared to its key global competitor, China:

Overall, it would be a mistake to be pessimistic about China. Its on-the-ground campaign against Covid-19 was very effective, its leadership pays great heed to science, it just signed on to a large Asia-Pacific trade deal, and its economic growth has resumed. Chinese supply chains proved remarkably robust through the major global crisis of the pandemic.

Still and all, the fact remains: When it comes to the ideas and the people that matter, America and the West are not losing the lead.

US government imposed restrictions on the supply of technology to Huawei have exposed how vulnerable elements of China’s economy is to global supply chains. Pranay Kotasthane and Rohan Seth take a look at the challenges the Chinese government faces in developing a semiconductor sector that would free it from the dependence on US technology:

Does this silicon rush mean that China will become self-sufficient in semiconductors soon? Not quite. China’s state-backed funds may well spur private investment, even producing a few champions, but such moves are unlikely to result in a self-sufficient Chinese semiconductor industry any time soon.

The Republican Party has traditionally been happier to cosy up with big business. Given this, it’s interesting to read research which suggests American CEOs are increasingly favouring the Democratic Party in a trend that pre dates the arrival of Donald Trump. I like to think we might see a growing counterbalance to the likes of the Koch Brothers and other associated libertarian and conservative voices:

We demonstrate that since the early 1990’s, it is becoming increasingly common for firms to be run by CEOs who are aligned with the Democratic Party, which we refer to as the blue trend. We find evidence that at least one factor driving this trend appears to be the rise of the role of women, who tend to have values that align with the Democratic Party. Further, we find that the blue trend is stronger in industries that are more considerable to women as a source of employees or customers (e.g., hospitality, computers, etc.).

The rise in Donald Trump, Brexit and various other contentious subjects has not always helped in the fostering of intelligent debate. Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement provides a valuable way of filtering out those critics who are well off the mark:

I have found debates over Corbyn’s sacking and reinstatement both interesting and tricky given the need to differentiate between anti semitism and criticism of Israel’s policy towards Palestinian territories. I found this post definitely saw me take a more critical stand towards Corbyn and David Schneider’s write up helped in understanding where lines are that should probably not be crossed:

It’s obviously not my place to tell Palestinians how they should define their oppression, but for the rest of us, people need to be able to criticise Israel and Jews need to be reassured at a time of rising antisemitism.

With careful language, we can do both.

Sarah Zhang provides a thoughtful look at the introduction of widespread prenatal testing for Down Syndrome in Denmark. This has seen the condition become increasingly scarce among the country’s children:

Denmark is unusual for the universality of its screening program and the comprehensiveness of its data, but the pattern of high abortion rates after a Down syndrome diagnosis holds true across Western Europe and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the United States. In wealthy countries, it seems to be at once the best and the worst time for Down syndrome. Better health care has more than doubled life expectancy. Better access to education means most children with Down syndrome will learn to read and write. Few people speak publicly about wanting to “eliminate” Down syndrome. Yet individual choices are adding up to something very close to that.

Any media consumption now has to compete with our ever present smartphones for attention. Kyle Chayka points to Emily in Paris as an example of the growth of ambient TV thats designed to complement the distracted viewer rather than require close attention.

But all of that barely matters. The purpose of “Emily in Paris” is to provide sympathetic background for staring at your phone, refreshing your own feeds—on which you’ll find “Emily in Paris” memes, including a whole genre of TikTok remakes. It’s O.K. to look at your phone all the time, the show seems to say, because Emily does it, too. The episodic plots are too thin to ever be confusing; when you glance back up at the television, chances are that you’ll find tracking shots of the Seine or cobblestoned alleyways, lovely but meaningless. If you want more drama, you can open Twitter, to augment the experience. Or just leave the show on while cleaning the inevitable domestic messes of quarantine. Eventually, sensing that you’ve played two episodes straight without pausing or skipping, Netflix will ask if you’re still really watching. Shamed, I clicked the Yes button, and Emily continued being in Paris.

Header image: Mural by Thierry Noir by Zetland House in Shoreditch, London

Thought starters: gatekeepers, the spread of Covid-19 and the growth of ecommerce

Coronavirus lockdown and the American elections are dominating the headlines and these are some of the stories that have caught my attention recently.

There were rumours circulating on social media that there was a large story about to land that would seriously damage American presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign. Ben Smith reports on how the Donald Trump’s campaign tired and failed to seed the story with the Wall Street Journal and sees it as a strong argument for the continuing role of journalists as gatekeepers:

The media’s control over information, of course, is not as total as it used to be. The people who own printing presses and broadcast towers can’t actually stop you from reading leaked emails or unproven theories about Joe Biden’s knowledge of his son’s business. But what Mr. Benkler’s research showed was that the elite outlets’ ability to set the agenda endured in spite of social media.

England is heading into lockdown after some dangerous procrastination on the part of the government. El Pais’ data visualisations provide a handy review of the imporance of social distancing:

For more coronavirus related visualisations, check out the New York Times’ look at how face masks reduce the spread of the pandemic:

One of the more thoughtful commentators on how to slow the growth of the coronavirus pandemic was sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. As attention moves to the Amercian elections, her analysis on the limitations of election forecasting provides a useful antidote to some of the wilder predictions:

This is where weather and electoral forecasts start to differ. For weather, we have fundamentals — advanced science on how atmospheric dynamics work — and years of detailed, day-by-day, even hour-by-hour data from a vast number of observation stations. For elections, we simply do not have anything near that kind of knowledge or data. While we have some theories on what influences voters, we have no fine-grained understanding of why people vote the way they do, and what polling data we have is relatively sparse.

Benedict Evans looks at some of the implications of recent changes in the retail landscape catalysed by the coronavirus pandemic. These changes aren’t just limited to the retail sector with flow on effects in the shape of our urban landscape and in how brands develop relationships with consumers:

Physical retail itself has been a ‘boiling frog’ for 20 years. Every year ecommerce gets a little bigger and the problem gets a little worse, but the growth in any given year was never big enough for people to panic, and you could always tell yourself that sure, people would buy that other industry’s product online, but not yours. I think we all now understand that anyone will buy anything online, given the right experience, and if your retail model is based on being an end-point to a logistics chain then you have an existential problem. 

For more of Benedict Evans with co-host Toni Cowan-Brown, check out Another Podcast, looking at tech’s impact on society we live in.

I remember fondly trips to Amsterdam’s supermarkets some years ago where conveyor belts would swallow up used packaging, providing consumers with a credit and brands with their packaging for reuse. Trips to Britain’s supermarkets even now feel like a step back with their tendency to wrap everything in plastic and limited attempts to close the loop. It’s no surprise to find UK near the top of the podium when it comes to the use of plastics according to reports in The Guardian:

Music is one of those passions I’ve held close to me through the years. My music collection started as CDs, flirted with MiniDiscs and migrated with time to MP3/AAC/FLAC. The impending demise of Google Play has seen me scrabbling towards Double Twist’s CloudPlayer but I’ve always been fascinated by people’s obsession with vinyl. The format struck me as a retrograde step but there’s a lot to be said for a record’s role as a cherishable artifact in your hand. I enjoyed Adam Gonsalves’ descriptions of the ups and downs of vinyl for the listener:

The vinyl LP is a format based on technology that hasn’t evolved much over the last six decades: in some ways, it’s the audio equivalent of driving a Ford Pilot. Sonically, vinyl has both strengths and weaknesses compared to digital files, just as movie buffs have argued over the pros and cons of 35mm film against 4K digital.

Header image: Mural by Iker Muro in Stratford, London for London Mural Fest

Thought starters: Trump’s base, the increasingly global internet and life off the beaten path

Life working from home continues with the prospect of a tightening lockdown looming. Coronavirus continues to dominate headlines along with the looming American elections. Here are some of the stories and podcasts that have been getting my synapses snapping recently:

I’ve made no secret of my distaste for Donald Trump and sometimes find myself wondering how he manages to garner support given his polarising politics. Anne Helen Peterson gives a thoughtful view on why many people continue to support him, not because they like him but because he is the one that is least likely to upset their precarious middle class existence:

These are the people who get lost when the media focuses on the stereotype of the Fox News-addled backwoods Trump voter. There are so many well to do suburban and small town women — mostly, but certainly not entirely, white — for whom all the ideological stuff, all the character issues, all the racism and white supremacist baiting, all the stuff so many people find morally repugnant, it just doesn’t figure. Part of that is because their class (and, often, race) means that it just doesn’t have to. But part of it has to do with an eagle-eyed focus on their own financial future. Other concerns, no matter how morally pertinent, fall to the side.

Donald Trump’s call for restricting TikTok’s access to the US market has illustrated how America no longer rules the internet like it once did…something that Benedict Evans explores in a recent blog piece:

You can argue about the details of these all day, but it does seem clear that we should just presume a global diffusion of software creation and internet company creation. It doesn’t really matter if Silicon Valley ends up as 25% or 75% of the next 100 important companies – America doesn’t have a monopoly on the agenda any more.

Increasingly accessible international travel (Covid aside) and advances in telecommunications often give the sensation that the world is shrinking. So it’s great to read Sarah Gilman’s account of St Matthew Island which continues to prove resistant to human habitation (and adventure tourism):

It occurs to me that to truly arrive on St. Matthew, you have to lose your bearings enough to feel the line between the two blur. Disoriented, I can sense the landscape as fluid, a shapeshifter as sure as the rootball and whale bones—something that remakes itself from mountains to islands, that scatters and swallows signs left by those who pass across.

Mark O’Connell provides a rather different travelogue with his trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, with a rather critical and personal look at disaster tourism:

I wondered whether Igor and Vika held us in contempt, us Western Europeans and Australians and North Americans who had forked over a fee not much lower than Ukraine’s average monthly wage for a two-day tour around this discontinued world, to feel the transgressive thrill of our own daring in coming here. If it were I in their position, I knew that contempt is exactly what I would have felt. The fact was that I didn’t even need to leave my own position in order to hold myself in contempt, or anyone else.

Listening Pleasures

Lockdown life has scuppered many of my original holiday plans. A pleasing substitute has been taking on cycling trips around the UK (Cymru, Wessex and Norfolk). This has given me plenty of time to spend listening to podcasts and these have been more recent discoveries:

Rabbit Hole: Kevin Roose looks at what happens when we spend more of our time online for the New York Times with star turns from Pewdiepie and QAnon.
Wind of Change: Patrick Radden Keefe looks into how music is used as a tool of propaganda and social change and asks whether the German band the Scorpions acted as CIA stooges.
Interdependence – Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst talk about culture and technology with a range of guests. Participants have included Evgeny Morozov, David Turner (Penny Fractions), Kate Crawford (AI Now), Dr Larisa Kingston Mann (DJ Ripley) and Bruce Sterling.
Home Cooking: Cooking show hosted by Samin Nosrat (Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat) and Hrishikesh Hirway (Song Exploder) with a healthy dose of personality.
Imaginary Advice – The Golden House series This is something of an outlier given that pretty much all my podcast listening is factual but it’s definitely managed to get under my skin. File under odd but amusing.

Header image: Mural by Will Vibes at New River Studios in Finsbury Park, London

Thought starters: the spread of coronavirus, the next Zoom and the perils of facial recognition

The New York Times has done a great job of creating a data visualisation of the spread of coronavirus pandemic across the United States. It also makes for an interesting illustration of how interconnected our societies now are:

If you’re interested at a more global level, check out the data visualisation from Washington Post.

Kashmir Hill’s account of Robert Julian-Borchak Williams’ wrongful arrest based on facial recognition provides a stark warning of the limitations of facial recognition technology.

Mr. Williams knew that he had not committed the crime in question. What he could not have known, as he sat in the interrogation room, is that his case may be the first known account of an American being wrongfully arrested based on a flawed match from a facial recognition algorithm, according to experts on technology and the law.

Benedict Evans looks at what left Zoom so well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the coronavirus pandemic but also speculates what the next big thing might be

Taking this one step further, a big part of the friction that Zoom removed was that you don’t need an account, an app or a social graph to use it: Zoom made network effects irrelevant. But, that means Zoom doesn’t have those network effects either. It grew by removing defensibility.

Ofcom has just released a report looking at Briton’s habits online. Great if you want a quick snapshot of what people are doing online, how they are served by online content providers and platforms, and their attitudes to and experiences of using the internet.

Whilst we’re on the subject of all things internet, Kaitlyn Tiffany takes a fascinating look at the intersection between My Little Pony and white nationalism…an intersection I wasn’t expecting:

Even a quick glance at the history of My Little Pony fandom serves as a valuable template for how not to build an online community. The fandom was born on 4chan, the largest den of chaos and toxic beliefs available on the internet. In 2012, a message board called /mlp/ was set up because My Little Pony conversation was taking up too much space on boards for TV and comics. It took off because there is nothing 4chan likes better than things spiraling out of control.

London is sometimes portrayed as a godless home of hedonists and technocrats so it’s interesting to find that the city is actually more religious than the rest of the country according to research from Theos:

The proportion of people identifying as religious is 62% in the capital, compared with 53% in the rest of Britain – a profile likely to be driven by immigration and diaspora communities, according to the thinktank’s report, Religious London: Faith in a Global City.

Graphic designer Milton Glaser died recently and you can get an inkling of the importance of his work in this review from Dezeen. What I found more impactful was Glaser’s run through of ten things he had learned which included the following:

Deeply held beliefs of any kind prevent you from being open to experience, which is why I find all firmly held ideological positions questionable. It makes me nervous when someone believes too deeply or too much. I think that being skeptical and questioning all deeply held beliefs is essential. Of course we must know the difference between skepticism and cynicism because cynicism is as much a restriction of one’s openness to the world as passionate belief is. They are sort of twins. And then in a very real way, solving any problem is more important than being right.

Header image: Michael Takeo Magruder manipulates photographs from the British Library’s collection for the Imaginary Cities exhibition at the British Library, 2019. 

Thought Starters: Britishness, Trump goes AWOL and Black Lives Matter

Laurie Penny explores the notion of Britishness in a country that seems increasingly wrapped up in nostalgia:

But there is a narrative chasm between the twee and borderless dreamscape of fantasy Britain and actual, material Britain, where rents are rising and racists are running brave. The chasm is wide, and a lot of people are falling into it. The omnishambles of British politics is what happens when you get scared and mean and retreat into the fairytales you tell about yourself. When you can no longer live within your own contradictions. When you want to hold on to the belief that Britain is the land of Jane Austen and John Lennon and Sir Winston Churchill, the war hero who has been repeatedly voted the greatest Englishman of all time. When you want to forget that Britain is also the land of Cecil Rhodes and Oswald Moseley and Sir Winston Churchill, the brutal colonial administrator who sanctioned the building of the first concentration camps and condemned millions of Indians to death by starvation. These are not contradictions, even though the drive to separate them is cracking the country apart. If you love your country and don’t own its difficulties and its violence, you don’t actually love your country. You’re just catcalling it as it goes by.

Fintan O’Toole profiles Donald Trump and his divergence away from Americas traditional democratic norms:

All of these historical surpluses—the afterlives of slavery, of the deranged presidency, and of the threat of terrorism as permission to set aside legal and democratic rights—have raised the stakes in the present struggle. This mass of unresolved stuff is being forced toward some kind of resolution. That resolution can come in only one of two ways. What has come to the surface can be repressed again—but that repression will have to be enforced by methods that will also dismantle democracy. Trump’s boast that he can do whatever he wants will have to be institutionalized, made fully operational, and imposed by state violence. Or there will be a transformative wave of change. All of this unfinished business has made the United States semidemocratic, a half-and-half world in which ideals of equality, political accountability, and the rule of law exist alongside practices that make a daily mockery of those ideals. This half-life is ending—either the outward show of democracy is finished and authoritarianism triumphs, or the long-denied substance becomes real. The unconsumed past will either be faced and dealt with, or it will consume the American republic.

As Black Lives Matter focuses increasing scrutiny on American police, David Brooks explores how their record differs so much from other developed economies:

We’re tracing the etiology of dehumanization here, the gradual closing-off of natural sympathy between one person and another. Almost all cops resist this pressure most of the time, and we owe them our respect, honor, and gratitude. Many of us know warm and compassionate police officers, who have rejected the worst parts of their environment—but the cultural pressures are there, nonetheless.

The Slate’s visualisation provides a strong indication of the scale of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Recent unemployment figures from the US suggested that Donald Trump had me concerned that he might be spared the wrath of voters come in November. America’s failure to deal with coronavirus paints a rather different story and suggests the country may be faced with a U rather than V shaped recovery.

New confirmed cases of Covid-19 in United States, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, India and Pakistan

These figures from Reuters whilst not comparing apples with oranges, do give a clear indication of the generational divide between podcast and radio listeners.

Proportion that used a podcast in the last month and radio news in the last week by age

On a similar note, Benedict Evans looks at the growth and the more recent decline of the newspaper sector, rattled by decline consumption and advertising revenues…a point of real concern if we are expecting the fourth estate to keep a check on power.

US newspaper industry metrics

Of long been fascinated by cities, their form and how they’ve evolved to what we’re presented with today. Colouring London provides a great opportunity to explore one of the world’s great cities with overlays for age, construction, streetscape, sustainability and more.

Colouring London: age overlay

I was one of those people that happily fled the suburbs for the inner city…Ian Bogost reviews the role of suburbs in the age of coronavirus suggesting that it has strengthened their hand although this is the quote that stuck in my mind:

The tax base that suburbia generates often can’t support the infrastructure required to sustain it—roads, sewers, schools, emergency services, and all the rest. Along with federally backed mortgages and mortgage-interest deductions, the suburban lifestyle amounts to an enormous government subsidy, or else it slowly decays into disrepair.

Header image: Photo taken on visit to Heatherwick Studio during Open House London in 2019.

Thought starters: coronavirus, intergenerational equity and the real Lord of the Flies

A look at interesting articles, features and opinion pieces that have caught my attention since I last posted here…

The UK media has been consumed by speculation over what rules Dominic Cummings broke in his trip to Durham. Unfortunately this attention has left the government off the hook for the bigger picture. John Burn-Murdoch and Chris Giles estimate that the UK has suffered the second-highest rate of deaths from the
coronavirus pandemic after Spain according to excess mortality figures:

Many politicians have claimed their decisions have been driven by science. In Israel epidemiologists have been sidelined which has apparently led to government forecasting to be well off target according to reporting from Meirav Arlosoroff:

All their models were based on mathematical assumptions on the rate of contagion that in the end proved wrong. To their immense disappointment, it turns out the coronvirus is a biological phenomenon that doesn’t fit the rules of mathematics. The bastard killer didn’t study math at an advanced level and to the shock of those doing the calculations tended to change its behavior over time. Why? Maybe because of the change in temperature, maybe because of genetic diversity. The bottom line is all the models predicted a rise in cases with the end of the lockdown and yet the opposite has occurred.

Sweden is continuing to prove an interesting source of discussion with its more liberal approach to quarantining and social isolation. Like many countries, the jury is still out and what was right and wrong on its approach as Sam Bowman and Pedro Serodio explore:

Ultimately, Sweden shows that some of the worst fears about uncontrolled spread may have been overblown, because people will act themselves to stop it. But, equally, it shows that criticisms of lockdowns tend to ignore that the real counterfactual would not be business as usual, nor a rapid attainment of herd immunity, but a slow, brutal, and uncontrolled spread of the disease throughout the population, killing many people. Judging from serological data and deaths so far, it is the speed of deaths that people who warned in favour of lockdowns got wrong, not the scale.

I’ve lived in London for the last 20 years where I have seen countless changes and endless waves of gentrification. The Economist looks at whether coronavirus is going to put a stop on its outsize role in the UK economy:

London is unlikely to slip back into the dismal state it was in before the mid-1980s. It is likely to remain richer and more productive than the rest of Britain. It will remain Europe’s most powerful magnet for talented immigrants. Still, its pulling power is likely to wane. If that happens, Britain’s economy will probably suffer. But a less centralised country, in which opportunity was more evenly distributed, might be a better place in other ways.

Coronavirus has caused further distress to pubs which were already declining in Britain. It was apparently a rather different story after the Black Death swept through the country according to Richard Collett:

By the 1370s, though, the Black Death had caused a critical labor shortage, the stark consequence of some 50 percent of the population perishing in the plague. Eventually, this proved a boon for the peasantry of England, who could command higher wages for their work and achieve higher standards of living. As a result, the alehouses that were simply households selling or giving away leftover ale were replaced by more commercialized, permanent establishments set up by the best brewers and offering better food.

Intergenerational equity has many different facets but economics is one of the areas where inequities can most clearly be seen. Many of us grew up with the expectation that our situation would be better than that of our parents. Reporting from Andrew Van Dam in the US (situation may well be different in emerging markets) paints a different picture for millennials whose poor showing is now being compounded by the coronavirus pandemic:

Donald Trump has at times been a savvy user of social media, using it galvanising his political base and often paying little heed to the facts. Twitter calling out one of his tweets recently which has brought an inevitable backlash from Trump but Peter Baker and Daisuke Wakabayashi speculate this could be counterproductive for the US president:

But the logic of Mr. Trump’s order is intriguing because it attacks the very legal provision that has allowed him such latitude to publish with impunity a whole host of inflammatory, harassing and factually distorted messages that a media provider might feel compelled to take down if it were forced into the role of a publisher that faced the risk of legal liability rather than a distributor that does not.

In a sign of changing times, China now exports more to South East Asia than it does to USA as trade tension rise according to reporting from Dan Kopf:

Ben Smith posits that new tools such as Cameo, Substack and Patreon are making it much easier for creators, celebrities and opinion makers to earn a comfortable living off a small but passionate audience:

In fact, in this new economy, some people may be able to make a living off just 100 true fans, as Li Jin, a former partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, argued recently. Ms. Jin calls this new landscape the “passion economy.” She argues that apps like Uber and DoorDash are built to erase the differences between individual drivers or food delivery people. But similar tools, she says, can be used to “monetize individuality.”

I moved to New Zealand when I was 7, living there for 17 years (1982-1999) but don’t think I ever felt the sense of national identity that many of my Kiwi friends did. That being said, I definitely think the country matured in the time I was there and think this process continues. This ode to New Zealand and Jacinda Ardern from Umair Haque had me feeling a tad ‘homesick’

When I say “new leader of the free world,” I don’t just mean Jacinda Ardern. I mean New Zealand. As a society. New Zealand is a textbook example of what it means to be a thriving, functioning, modern society in the 21st century. It is a leader in that sense. It ranks seventh in the Social Progress Index — and is going to rise far higher after Coronavirus, easily cracking the top five or three. America, meanwhile, ranks a dismal…26th. And it’s going to plummet. There’s something special about New Zealand, happening in it, right about now. The world should pay attention.

There was a lot of noise recently of Rutger Bregman’s story of 6 Tongan boys stranded on a deserted island, providing a counterpoint to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Meleika Gesa provides a more nuanced view of the story pointing to the importance of the boys upbringing and questions who owns the story:

The original article could’ve done more for the six men. The story should have been told by a Tongan. The story should have been told by the men themselves and their families. This is their story, will always be their story. The article doesn’t mention how the boys felt or why they made the choices they made. It lacked their perspective. It lacked the very Tongans the story was about, with the exception of Mano. But even then, Mano was sidelined. He deserves to share his story how he would want to.

Another story of resilience comes from Marga Griesbach’s life which saw her survive her survive the Holocaust in an account relayed by Rebecca Traister:

In late September, the SS told prisoners they were seeking volunteers to work on a job outside the camp. “I said to my mother, ‘Let’s try to be sent away to work.’ Because I can’t go on here.’ ” Therese worried that her daughter’s emaciated frame would keep her from being chosen for the job. “She put the lipstick on my cheeks,” Marga said, “and some on her cheeks, to make her look younger, and make me look older and healthier.”

If you are looking for some aural inspiration, Open Culture’s list of podcasts is well worth a trip with many that are already on my subscribe list.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for something for your reading list, you could do worse than reading John Lanchester’s The Wall (unless what you want is something more escapist).

Finally, if you’re looking for something more calming, O Street’s Roadliners video could be just the trick.

Header image: Concentric Eccentric Circles by Felice Varini at the fortress of Carcassonne in 2018. More photos of the installation here.