September 21, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: September 21st 2020

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September 14, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: September 14th 2020

  • Answers on a postcard: how would you do technology differently? "Historical experience reinforces Mike’s point that there is rarely “one best way” for technology. Spaces for critical making and participatory technology occupy different vantage points and see the lie of the land differently, compared to the unreflective views of dominant institutions. Whereas dominant institutions tend to produce what Mike calls ‘present tense technology’ – technologies that perpetuate the status quo – other, more critical viewpoints inform prototypes that radically anticipate different future institutions."
  • Online Privacy Should Be Modeled on Real-World Privacy "The tracking industry is correct that iOS 14 users are going to overwhelmingly deny permission to track them. That’s not because Apple’s permission dialog is unnecessarily scaring them — it’s because Apple’s permission dialog is accurately explaining what is going on in plain language, and it is repulsive."
  • The Apocalyptic Red Western Skies Caused by Climate Change-Fueled Wildfires. The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed.
  • My Climate Journey: Episode 93: Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. The perfect antidote to the previous link. There's lots to do, we need to stop letting the few (admittedly loud and powerful) voices distract us.
  • . Everyone has been linking to this, but for good reason. I'm particularly taken with the concept of poetic technologies. "Contemporary, bureaucratic corporate capitalism was a creation not of Britain, but of the United States and Germany, the two rival powers that spent the first half of the twentieth century fighting two bloody wars over who would replace Britain as a dominant world power—wars that culminated, appropriately enough, in government-sponsored scientific programs to see who would be the first to discover the atom bomb. It is significant, then, that our current technological stagnation seems to have begun after 1945, when the United States replaced Britain as organizer of the world economy."
  • Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins on QAnon and disinformation and A baseless US conspiracy theory found a foothold in Europe. New research shows how for more background. There was a second QAnon/Anti-Vaxx/Anti-mask march in Liverpool the other day. Luckily there seems to be a growing awareness of it and local proponent "Sine Missione".
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September 07, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: September 7th 2020

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September 05, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser is an entertaining and terrifying history of the development of the control and safety (or lack thereof) of America's nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War.

My dog-eared sections, to give you a flavour...

Page 196

The usefulness of the Super [the first hydrogen bomb] wasn't the issue; the willingness to build it was. And that sort of logic would guide the nuclear arms race for the next forty years.

Page 223

On January 23, 1956, President Eisenhower recorded in his diary the results of a top secret study on what would really happen after a Soviet attack:

The United States experienced practically total economic collapse, which could not be restored to any kind of operative conditions under six months to a year. . . . Members of the Federal government were wiped out and a new government had to be improvised by the states. . . . It was calculated that something on the order of 65% of the population would require some sort of medical care, and in most instances, no opportunity whatsoever to get it.

Page 375

The BMEWS [Ballistic Missile Early Warning System] site at Thule had mistakenly identified the moon, slowly rising over Norway, as dozens of long-range missiles launched from Siberia.

Page 455

Half an hour later, a Missile Potential Hazard Team ordered them to reenter the silo. They found it full of thick, gray smoke. One of the retrorockets atop the Minuteman had fired. The reentry vehicle, containing a W-56 thermonuclear weapon, had lifted a few inches into the air, flipped over, fallen nose first from the misslie, bounced off the wall, hit the second-stage engine, and landed at the bottom of the silo.

Page 530

As the minutes passed without the arrival of Soviet warheads, it became clear that the United States wasn't under attack. The cause of the false alarm was soon discovered. A technician had put the wrong tape into one of NORAD's computers. The tape was part of a training exercise — a war game that simulated a Soviet attack on the United States. The computer had transmitted realistic details of the war game to SAC headquarters, the Pentagon, and Site R.

Page 533

NORAD had dedicated lines that connected the computers inside Cheyenne Mountain to their counterparts at SAC headquarters, the Pentagon and Site R. Day and night, NORAD sent test messages to ensure that those lines were working. The test message was a warning of a missile attack — with zeros always inserted in the space showing the number of missiles that had been launched. The faulty computer chip had randomly put the number 2 in that space, suggesting that 2 missiles, 220 missiles, or 2,200 missiles had been launched. The defective chip was replaced, at a cost of forty-six cents. And a new test message was written for NORAD's dedicated lines. It did not mention any missiles.

Page 537

And as a final act of defiance, SAC demonstrated the importance of code management to the usefulness of any coded [safety] switch. The combination necessary to launch the missiles was the same at every Minuteman site: 00000000.

Page 640

An investigation later found that the missile launches spotted by the Soviet satellite were actually rays of sunlight reflected off clouds.

Page 642

When Minuteman missiles first appear above Kansas, launched from rural silos there and rising in the sky, the film conveyed the mundane terror of nuclear war, the knowledge that annihilation could come at any time, in the midst of an otherwise ordinary day. People look up, see the missiles departing, realize what's about to happen, and yet are powerless to stop it. About 100 million Americans watched The Day After, roughly half of the adult population of the United States.

Page 656

After studying a wide range of "trivial events in nontrivial systems," Perrow concluded that human error wasn't responsible for these accidents. The real problem lay deeply embedded within the technological systems, and it was impossible to solve: "Our ability to organize does not match the inherent hazards of some of our organized activities." What appeared to be the rare exception, an anomaly, a one-in-a-million accident, was actually to be expected. It was normal.

Page 657

When a problem arose on an assembly line, you could stop the line until a solution was found. But in a tightly coupled system, many things occurred simultaneously — and they could prove difficult to stop. If those things also interacted with each other, it might be hard to know exactly what was happening when a problem arose, let alone know what to do about it. The complexity of such a system was bound to bring surprises. "No one dreamed that when X failed, Y would also be out of order," Perrow gave as an example, "and the two failures would interact so as to both start a fire and silence the fire alarm."

Page 661

The nuclear weapon systems that Bob Peurifoy, Bill Stevens, and Stan Spray struggled to make safer were also tightly coupled, interactive, and complex. They were prone to "common-mode failures" — one problem could swiftly lead to many others. The steady application of high temperatures to the surface of a Mark 28 bomb could disable its safety mechanisms, arm it, and then set it off. "Fixes, including safety devices, sometimes create new accidents," Charles Perrow warned, "and quite often merely allow those in charge to run the system faster, or in worse weather, or with bigger explosives."

Page 670

The only weapons in today's stockpile that trouble Peurifoy are the W-76 and W-88 warheads carried by submarine-launched Trident II missiles. The Drell panel expressed concern about these warheads more than twenty years ago.

Page 685

High-risk technologies are easily transferred across borders; but the organizational skills and safety culture necessary to manage them are more difficult to share. Nuclear weapons have gained allure as a symbol of power and a source of national pride. They also pose a grave threat to any country that possesses them.

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August 24, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: August 24th 2020

This week's RSS additions (see if you don't know what RSS is, RSS is how I find most of these Interesting Things...):

  • Electric Flapjack build blog. I realised that I'd only been keeping up with my mate Michael's blog posts about his guitar building by spotting the links on his Mastodon feed, and so had missed some. Rectified that by adding it to my RSS reader.
  • … My heart’s in Accra. Ethan Zuckerman seems to be working in an interesting public interest tech areas.
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August 17, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: August 17th 2020

  • Paul Peter Piech in 2020. I hadn't come across Paul Peter Piech before, but I'm really liking his work. There are lots of examples in the "Eye on Design" article linked from Matt Jones'.
  • UN Sustainable Development Goals – Let’s Not Sleepwalk to Disaster. A critique of the UN's SDGs, which sadly rings true.
  • Why is This Idiot Running My Engineering Org?. I think, I hope, I'm the sort of leader who embraces death.
  • Impact Measurement: A Cautionary Tale. "too often impact measurement is middle class people demonstrating to rich people the worthiness of poor people to receive some small portion of the funds expropriated from them". Good to see this sort of self-reflection happening. All the measurement seems logical, but ends up excluding so much good work and often just privileges a different set of chancers. This quote rings true too: "No one in this field enters it or stays in it to perpetrate harm. Quite the opposite. Every single person I have met in impact measurement is passionately committed to making the world a better place. That is the reason they decided to do this work in the first place. But intentions are not enough." I don't have a better idea for how to set up the system, which is why I continue working outside it, in the hope of replacing it, or at least (and most realistically) showing that other ways are possible.
  • "when might production *be* the product?" Interesting framing of how Patreon, etc. could be people paying for the future process, rather than an expected product. I have similar conflicting thoughts around my work and the topic of getting paid for it; so far I partly dodge the issue by being able to do well-paid (and mostly interesting) work that subsidises the rest, but that doesn't scale as well to a collective/group (I think...)
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August 03, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: August 3rd 2020

  • The New Stability. "Before I become your doctor, you have been intubated for weeks. I am a point in time, unattached to the greater narrative." Life as a doctor in a pandemic. Sad. Powerful.
  • Lab Notebooks. Doesn't need to be a physical notebook, but this captures why my github/gitlab issues and files have lists of the things I tried.
  • Ask a Sane Person: Jia Tolentino on Practicing the Discipline of Hope "I try to expect nothing and hope that everything is possible. I want the courage to need very little and demand a lot."
  • Not an Amazon Problem. "There’s lots more to complain about but little of it is specific to Amazon, it’s all about 21st-century-capitalism". Tim Bray refusing to sit neatly in the clickbait headline pigeonhole that people want to sit him in. More of this please, from more of us.
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July 20, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: July 20th 2020

  • Why does DARPA work? Interesting look at one of the few research "innovation agencies" that has worked. This should be something that anyone setting up things like Innovate UK.
  • When data is messy. AI thinks a tench looks like human fingers against a green background. This is why we need to be able to explain why machine learning has made the choices it has, and why we need regulation to cover unexpected cases and consequences.
  • Ten Things I Have Learned by Milton Glaser.
  • History Will Judge the Complicit. You could write a similar article to this replacing Trump et al with Johnson, Commings etc. The country needs more of the Tories outside the inner cabal to find their decency and speak out.
  • Just Too Efficient. More efficiency is the sort of maxim that at first glance seems sensible, but really it's one that should be "as efficient as necessary, but not more".
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July 18, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

I first read Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland in the early 2000s. Obviously before I'd started blogging all dog-eared pages. The overriding message I took from it then was that at some point you have to declare your "art" finished and release it into the world to be judged or ignored or... The quotes around "art" there are mine, because back when I first read it I was applying it to my product development work rather than any art.

I still don't identify primarily as an artist, but it is part of what I do these days. Not that it matters, the wisdom in the book is similarly applicable to anyone developing their professional practice. I felt like I could do with a reminder of the importance of getting things out into the world, that "real artists ship", so I've read it again.

Since reading it, the work is the work has become a new mantra, a way to remind myself that producing any of the things that I want to bring into the world is work and isn't always meant to be fun. It's been a practical means to shake myself out of more reading-interesting-things-on-the-Internet or whatever and to get on with the thing I'm subconsciously putting off.

Page 3

[...] the fear that your fate is in your own hands, but that your hands are weak.

But while talent — not to mention fate, luck and tragedy — all play their role in human destiny, they hardly rank as dependable tools for advancing your own art on a day-to-day basis.


Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work.

Page 4

The sane human being is satisfied that the best he/she can do at any given moment is the best he/she can do at any given moment. That belief, if widely embraced, would make this book unnecessary, false, or both. Such sanity is, unfortunately, rare. Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork. The viewers' concerns are not your concerns (although it's dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.

Page 14

More often, though, fears rise in those entirely appropriate (and frequently recurring) moments when vision races ahead of execution Consider the story of the young student—well, David Bayles, to be exact—who began piano studies with a Master. After a few months' practice, David lamented to his teacher, "But i can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers."

To which the Master replied, "What makes you think that ever changes?"

Page 17

As Stanley Kunitz once commented, "The poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance begins when you try to convert it into language." And it's true, most artists don't daydream about making great art—they daydream about having made great art.

Page 21

Control, apparently, is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous. What's really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way. Simply put, making art is chancy—it doesn't mix well with predictability. Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.

Page 28

Artists get better by sharpening their skills or by acquiring new ones; they get better by learning to work, and by learning from their work. They commit themselves to the work of their heart, and act upon that commitment. So when you ask, "Then why doesn't it come easily for me?", the answer is probably, "Because making art is hard!" What you end up caring about is what you do, not whether the doing came hard or easy.

Page 36

The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them, you need only look at the work clearly—without judgement, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs, not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.

Page 52

Making art is bound by where we are, and the experience of art we have as viewers is not a reliable guide to where we are.

Page 54

Today artists often back away from engaging the times and places of Art. But it's an artificial construct that begins and ends at the gallery door. Apart from the readership of Artforum, remarkably few people lose sleep trying to incorporate gender-neutral biomorphic deconstructivism into their personal lives. As Adam Gopnik remarked in The New Yorker, "Post-modernist art is, above all, post-audience art."

Page 60

Equally, it must have been just plain helpful when J.S. Back committed to writing a prelude and fugue in each of the twenty-four keys, since each time he sat down to compose he at least had a place to start. ("Let's see, I haven't begun to work on the F-sharp minor yet...") Working within the self-imposed discipline of a particular form eases the prospect of having to reinvent yourself with each new piece.

The discovery of useful forms is precious. Once found, they should never be abandoned for trivial reasons.

Page 66

Many attempts to introduce art to the larger world simply give evidence of the uneasy fit in our society between economics and beliefs.

Page 68

A reminder from history: the American Revolution was not financed with matching Grants from the Crown.

Page 72

Fear that you're not getting your fair share of recognition leads to anger and bitterness. Fear that you're not as good as a fellow artist leads to depression.

Page 73

In not knowing how to tell yourself that your work is OK, you may be driven to the top of the heap in trying to get the rest of the world to tell you.

In theory this is a perfectly valid approach—the tricky part is finding the right yardstick for measuring your accomplishments. What makes competition in the arts a slippery issue is simply that there's rarely any consensus about what your best work is.

Page 89

Books on art, even books on artists, characteristically have little to say about actually making art. They may offer a sprinkling of romantic parables about "the artist's struggle", but the prevailing premise remains that art is clearly the province of genius (or, on occasion, madness). Accepting this premise leads inescapably to the conclusion that while art should be understood or enjoyed or admired by the reader, it most certainly should not be done by the reader. And once that kinship between reader and artist has been denied, art itself becomes a strange foreign object—something to be pointed to and poked at from a safe analytical distance. To the critic, art is a noun.

Clearly, something's getting lost in the translation here. What gets lost, quite specifically, is the very thing artists spend the better part of their lives doing: namely, learning to make work that matters to them. What artists learn from other artists is not so much history or technique (although we learn tons of that too); what we really gain from the artmaking of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared—and thereby disarmed—and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits. To the artist, art is a verb.

Page 108

What gets lost in that interpretation [that art is about self-expression] is an older sense that art is something you do out in the world, or something you do about the world, or even something you do for the world. The need to make art may not stem solely from the need to express who you are, but from a need to complete a relationship with something outside yourself. As a maker of art you are custodian of issues larger than self.

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July 11, 2020

Small Groups and the DoES Liverpool Salon

A few weeks ago in her fortnightnotes Laura James pointed to The Small Group, an article exploring what defines the je ne sais quoi of groups like the Bloomsbury Group or the Homebrew Computer Club and the like.

I held off reading it for a while, as it felt like something that I'd want to write about and would need a bit of time for that. Seems I was right.

I'm a firm believer that these long-lived, small and reasonably close-knit groups of peers are important places to nurture each other's practice, encourage explorations of new ideas and to change things. Brian Eno calls this a scenius, and there's a reason I often quote him in talks I give about DoES Liverpool.

I think I've been part of a few small groups, although only with any "success" (more on that later) since I moved to Liverpool.

Initially it was the Geekup Liverpool group, which basically gave birth to DoES Liverpool. That's been a key group for me over the past decade.

Francis Irving and I also explicitly tried to conjure up one, based loosely on his experiences with a group in Cambridge that spawned mySociety and other civic tech, and my occasional appearances at the sadly-victim-of-Covid-and-London-property Shepherdess "salon". While it led to an enjoyable regular breakfast crowd, it didn't quite spark in the way we'd hoped.

That sense of something missing, of almost-but-not-quite, lingers on.

It's not something I can ever properly pin down.

It could be that it's a more diverse group and so isn't as focused on coding, given my current feeling of going-it-alone with my "15 minute city" experiments, despite the group exploring interesting maker and activist avenues.

There's probably a hefty dose of the perennial grass-is-greener of watching other groups seem more successful.

And I think a lot is a frustration that we're not fully realising our potential. I see so many ideas and work lying around, not having the impact they could, seemingly perpetually overlooked, with people picking away at them often as an extra-curricular activity, rather than being able to devote themselves to it full time. I think that's what I mean when I put "success" in quotes earlier.

Maybe this is always what it feels like in the middle of the scenius, and it's only truly apparent to outsiders or with hindsight. Maybe we're just not as good as I'd hope we are. Maybe we just need to talk about what we're doing, and about what we see each other doing, more. Maybe it just needs one of us to break through to the next level and then help the rest up.

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