November 16, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: November 16th 2020 Edition

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

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November 09, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: November 9th 2020 Edition

  • A Total Fiasco. George Monbiot lays out how little interest there is from anyone in charge in making the Test and Trace programme work. "£12bn is more than the entire general practice budget. The total NHS capital spending budget for buildings and equipment is just £7bn. To provide all the children in need with free meals during school holidays between now and next summer term, which the government has dismissed as too expensive, is likely to cost about £120m: in other words, just 1% of the test and trace budget.". We should be working out how to migrate to a system that works, senior people—at least Dido Harding, probably also Matt Hancock—should resign, we should be enacting whatever clauses there are in the contract to retrieve the £12bn from Serco and preferably fine them more. We need to move away from the culture of plausible deniability and blame avoidance and giving people the benefit of the doubt because they've designed a system to make it unclear who is really at fault. We need to start holding people responsible for their failings. Maybe Hancock and Harding and Serco are just unlucky to be the ones left standing when the music stops, but even the worst making-an-example of them won't be as bad as the multitude of deaths that their inability to do their job properly has cost.
  • 30 things I’ve learned in 30 years.
  • LRB: Dark Emotions. An interesting history of the Women's Liberation Movement. Reminds me of some of the experienced and energising activists I met at Activism By the Numbers, and made me think about the work and factions and solidarity in the Maker Movement. So much experience and knowledge in previous forward steps? How do we find and pick up the batons and lessons? How do we help the next generation expand the beachhead in the directions that interest them?
  • I revisited Brian Eno's John Peel Lecture. Fantastic thoughts on art, culture, UBI and open source.
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November 07, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Lo-TEK Design by Radical Indigenism by Julia Watson

Lo-TEK Design by Radical Indigenism by Julia Watson. I had mixed feelings reading this, but I think that's because I'm not really the target audience. I grew up in the countryside, with plenty of exposure to farms. It was really interesting to read about these alternate systems from round the world, and plenty seem under threat from Western ideas about how to "do farming/conservation right" or just the endless appetite of capitalism. If it helps protect any of it, then that's more than enough good for the book. I'm less convinced that there's lots for the UK, for example, to take from it specifically, as our environment is very different—it felt a bit like it was fetishizing the indigenous technologies a bit, and I think we should also be looking to similar traditional, in-touch-with-the-land, long-term tacit knowledge from our own cultures too.

Page 70

The living root bridges are built along the natural routes connecting two villages. In the absence of any means to lift and carry heavy stone slabs to suspend them across river and streams, they are left with no option but to turn to mother nature in their endeavour to cross to the other side. The rubber tree (Ficus Elastica) growing in the region beyond Cherrapunjee (Sohra) provided the natural solution. Timber would not have been able to withstand the ravages of the harse monsoons and the scourge of termites and pests.

Page 93

The Balinese term subak refers to both the rice terrace systems unique to this region and the self-governing associations of farmers who share water and planting schedules that are coordinated by calendrical rites in water temples. There are approximately twelve-hundred of these associations across Bali, each made up of fifty to four hundred farmers who continue the tradition of the subak. Traditional subak rice paddies are the most biodiverse and productive agrarian systems known to man. Using local cycles of nutrient dispersal and seasonal rainfall, the same subak terraces have produced rice for thousands of years at the scale of watersheds.

Page 102

In the 1970s the Bali government led a Green Revolution, forcing the introduction of massive quantities of fertilizers and pesticides to the subak, wreaking havoc on the ecology of the rice paddies. Within several seasons, growing cycles failed, soil structure degraded, insect biodiversity diminished, and the subak water temples were forgotten. The Green Revolution replaced native rice varieties with hybrid seeds that were genetically engineered for fast growth, high grain production, and commercial fertilizer application. This led to an ecological catastrophe which, when multiplied by the expansion of the tourist industry, triggered uncontrolled commercial development, aquifer privatization, water shortages, and pollution increase from illegal dumping of sewerage and solid waste. In response, World Heritage status was granted in June 2012 in an effort to save the subaks and water temples.

Page 181

Damming today is environmentally destructive, with impacts that range from altering river hydrology to stopping sediment transportation downstream and species migration upstream. In contrast, the dams of the Enawenê-nawê are porous, multi-functional, productive, responsive, seasonal, and temporary, supporting a unique forest fishing life.


The emerging trend of microgrids for localized energy generation and the design of microdamming infrastructures may lead to designs that respond to more adaptable, sustainable, and temporal conditions. This would allow the world's largest watersheds, river systems, and the human and non-human species which these mighty hydrological systems support, to thrive.

Page 277

An island is simultaneously a floating village, an aquaculture farm, and an artificial wetland synthesized into a single living infrastructure. Designed for mobility, islands are secured to the lakebed with anchors of rock and rope, but are able to migrate to deeper water locations. Today, two thousand six hundred and twenty-nine people live in a group of ninety-one reed islands. Each island hosts several thatched houses that belong to an extended family. Smaller islands measuring ten meters hold one to three families in twelve to fifteen huts. The huts are positioned to face a central clearing, occupied by a watchtower, while one side of the island is left open to dock boats. Interspersed between huts are fishponds, vegetable gardens, and living totora reed beds planted for privacy.

Page 311

For the past fifty years, architects have been imagining futuristic, floating cities that offset environmental problems like rising seas and increasing floods. In the remotest places on earth, a handful of isolated island communities, like the Ma'dan of Iraq exist having evolved technology that enabled aquatic living. The Ma'dan have survived for thousands of years in the cradle of civilization on simple, habitable, adaptable, and biodegradable buoyant infrastructures that rival contemporary, non-biodegradable floating island technology. Commonly used in water treatment or wetland construction, floating islands improve water quality, while also offering a diversity of habitat. Local building technologies are so versatile that a single reed species is used to construct islands, houses, boats, furniture, and meals, literally using biodiversity as a building block upon which these cultures float.

Page 323

The bheri wastewater aquaculture system in the East Kolkata Wetlands is a living and incredibly resilient urban circulatory system. The system is synonymously a fishery, waste management system, agricultural field, rice paddy network, community hub, grazing land, and heritage site. For the community who live around the wetlands, the filtration of water is an act of giving back to the gods. Spiritual connection to the Mother Ganga, whose river water flows through the wetlands, plays its own role in this ecosystem, with Ganges water believed to cleanse the body and mind. At twelve thousand, five hundred hectares of land, the East Kolkata Wetlands is the largest wastewater-fed aquaculture system in the world.

Page 336

Not only are the wetlands environmentally and socially beneficial, they offer enormous financial incentives to the city. With wetland fish being fed by the city's sewage, the city saves approximately twenty-two million USD on the running expenses of a waste treatment plant annually, while water from the bheris being used for irrigation additionally saves approximately five hundred thousand USD in water and fertilizer costs. Wetland activities lead to the production of thirteen thousand tons of fish per year, sixteen thousand tons of rice per year, and about one hundred and fifty-six tons of vegetables per day, all of which are sourced locally and save the city millions in transportation costs.

Passed down verbally through generations, the traditions of the wetland system have been kept alive through careful stewardship of the land. Not only are these processes a way of life and means for survival, they also maintain historical richness, ingenuity, cultural pride, and a spiritual connection to this place. Many fishermen are members of fishing cooperatives, an equitable model of management and profit distribution.

Page 354

Ganvie, meaning 'we survived', is a lake city made of bamboo and teak stilted houses of Tofinu fishing families. The city is a collection of eleven villages organized around a canal system and navigated by dugout canoes. Surrounding the village is an artificial reef of twelve thousand enclosed fish paddocks that sustain waters teeming with fish and wildlife. A healthy relationship between a growing city and a lake is rare, making this an extraordinary civilization that has evolved an aquaculture that embodies advanced ecological design thinking. They use symbiotic species relationships to feed an entire city, while making a healthier ecosystem for its native flora and fauna. Made from mangroves, the 'acadja brush park' is an indigenous reef aquaculture system and technology that has spread from the waters of Lake Nokoue to many other aquatic Beninese communities.

Page 398

Climate change has shown us that our survival is not dependent upon superiority, but upon symbiosis. In the shift towards designing resilient cities, Lo-TEK and indigenous technologies are critical in the conversation for designers addressing climate change, as they are living examples that embody resilience thinking. We need to expand our definition of sustainable technology to encompass the Lo-TEK movement, and in this effort alter the course of collapse. Acknowledging the mistakes of modernity and the failure of conservation, we can shift our position of authority to one of collaboration with Nature.

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October 26, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: October 26th 2020 Edition

[I happened to notice that this Interesting Things on the Internet... series has been running since February 2014! And they were called Editions back then, which is much better than the plain date I've been using for who-knows-how-long. So I'm going back to that from this edition]

  • Why Didn’t Anyone Go to Prison for the Financial Crisis? Entertainingly depressing podcast about elite deviance and how the powerful abuse their position. "if what we want less of is, y'know, lead in children's toys and giant financial crises"
  • Comradery. A co-operative alternative to Patreon.
  • How to Build Your Own Living Structures by Ken Isaacs. WikiHouse but from 1974. The fact that there aren't loads of these sort of houses around shows how much impact our modern equivalents will have, unless we can do something differently to make them more mainstream. An idea and a nice website of instructions isn't enough.
  • Helsinki Design Lab Ten Years Later. Good to see histories being written of contemporary efforts too. This quote dovetails nicely with my last comment: "studying Fuller’s stream of inventions, most of which are compelling technically and intellectually but socially implausible. For example, Fuller’s concept for the Dymaxion house was brilliant as a shelter, but challenging as a home. It asked occupants to live outside of comfortable domestic norms and it never caught on.".
  • Bootprints in butter and failures of imagination- an update on the Food bank. A great blog post, as in, that blend of lifting the curtain and sharing both the day-to-day and the wider reasons, that made blogs such a great medium. Mutual aid, not charity. "no, you don’t have to open a food bank. But you do have to do something."
  • Tackling climate change seemed expensive. Then COVID happened. "If just 12 percent of currently pledged COVID-19 stimulus funding were spent every year through 2024 on low-carbon energy investments and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, the researchers said, that would be enough to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F), the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious climate target. At present, countries’ voluntary commitments put the world on track to warm 3.2 degrees C (5.8 degrees F) or more by the end of the century."

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

  • Ella Fitzsimmons' blog. I've been a fan of Ella for ages, but for some reason didn't have her in my blogroll. She's just started #weeknoting her new job at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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October 12, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: October 12th 2020

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September 28, 2020

Interesting Things on the Internet: September 28th 2020

  • When open source design is vital: critical making of DIY healthcare equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. A good summary of the collaborative, slightly-messy, international, open source critical making approach that we, along with the rest of the UK #maker community, took in the early days of the COVID19 crisis.
  • The anthropologist in an economist world.A lovely tribute to David Graeber, which also manages to illuminate some of the water-we-swim-in with our existing economic systems. "We find ourselves stuck in these systems, and they pose constant contradictions. I, for example, have had a long and difficult relationship with the idea of… well… monetising my work on alternative money, asking people to transfer to me digital bank deposits in exchange for my thoughts on alternative economic systems. In my first encounters with David I sensed the same struggles. He, like me, believed in solidarity networks, and wasn’t there measuring his time and putting a monetary price on it. [...] He told me how tough it was trying to help out all the groups that needed support, but he nevertheless kept at it. This is why David was an anthropological hero to me, because he explicitly politicised and lived his anthropological knowledge." I feel seen (apart from the being an anthropologist bit...)
  • How to Climate Change in a (different kind of) crisis. Alex providing some good things-to-think-about for designers and technologists. I was going to add "who are thinking about the Climate Emergency", but all designers and technologists should be thinking about that.
  • Amina Atiq. Excellent interview of Amina Atiq by Laura Brown, covering art and business and identity and culture.
  • 👁🚁 Oh, this wont be hacked immediately!. In his latest newsletter, Bryan Boyer explores some of the wider effects of the Amazon video "security" drone. "Closed technologies are only a means to an end, but open technologies are a starting point for indeterminate future economic, social, and political happenings. Closed technologies are extensions of power. Open technologies are empowerment." True, but the past two decades have taught us that we also need to be careful who we're empowering.
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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.
  • Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit. 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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