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.

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