Tags: society

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Tuesday, January 10th, 2023

Blood

I gave blood yesterday. It was my sixteenth donation.

Yes, that’s a humblebrag. I feel like the gamification of blood donation is entirely reasonable. Levelling up in blood donation feels like the opposite of frequent flyer points. Instead of a growing sense of shame at how your accumulated activity is destroying the planet, you get increasing affirmation that you’re helping others.

Besides, I don’t have Strava, or Peleton, or rings to close, or whatever. I don’t even do Wordle. So this is the only “streak” I can legitimately boast about.

The more I give blood, the more I enjoy it.

I know that sounds weird. Surely having a needle shoved in your arm isn’t meant to be enjoyable?

It’s true that the first or second time you do it, it can feel intimidating, maybe even a little scary. I’m lucky that I don’t have much of an aversion to needles—much respect to those who do, but donate anyway.

But once you’ve done it a few times, it becomes routine. Actually, it’s more than routine. It’s like a ritual.

Not to get all spiritual here when we’re talking about an entirely biological process, but there is something special going on…

You join together with other members of your community. Strangers. People from all walks of life, all of them gathered in one place to do the same thing: sacrifice a small portion of themselves for the greater good.

It’s like a more egalitarian version of most religious narratives. Instead of a single saviour making a grand sacrifice, you get many individuals partaking in their own mini crucifixations. A little discomfort and that’s it. Multiply that by the number of people gathered together and you’ve got a magnificent network effect. Less dramatic than the hero’s journey, but far more effective.

Usually in our society, if you want to do good, it’s tied to money. You inherit wealth or accumulate it through work and luck, and then you can choose to do good by redistributing some of that moolah. The more you’ve got, the more you can choose to give away. So the amount of potential good that can be done comes down to the whims of the people who have the most money.

Giving blood doesn’t work like that. We’ve all got the same amount of blood.

The memento mori that are scattered through the history of human culture are there to remind us that death is the great leveller. Prince or pauper, we all meet the same end. That also applies to our blood. Prince or pauper, we’re all equal when it comes to blood donation.

That’s one of the reasons I like returning to give blood every few months. It restores my faith in humanity. I look around the room and see all these people that I don’t know, but we’re all there to complete our individual rituals. We all contribute the same amount. It’s a very personal choice, but there’s a communal feeling that comes from being with all these strangers who have made the same choice.

Besides, it’s just a nice opportunity to step away from the day-to-day. Bring a good book to read during the waiting periods before and after donation. During the donation itself, you’ve got this time to think and reflect. It’s quite meditative, opening and closing your hand to help the flow. Almost trance-like.

And then you get free biscuits.

That isn’t quite the end though. A few days later you get a text message telling you where your blood will be used. I love that part. It feels like closing the loop.

It’s funny that we often use the language of blood to describe supply chains: arterial networks carrying goods in and out of hubs; the pumping systems that keep society alive. When that text message arrives, it’s like a little bit of you is part of an infrastructure for helping others.

You can find a donation opportunity near you on the blood.co.uk website.

Monday, December 26th, 2022

The Institutions of Science With Lord Martin Rees

I love just about every answer that Martin Rees gives in this wide-ranging interview.

Wednesday, November 16th, 2022

The Bledwel Test

  1. A film acknowledges that some people menstruate
  2. without any characters being ashamed of it
  3. or being shamed by someone else (without resolution)

Tuesday, August 9th, 2022

This is what you’re nostalgic for - The History of the Web

❤️

I believe we aren’t nostalgic for the technology, or the aesthetic, or even the open web ethos. What we’re nostalgic for is a time when outsiders were given a chance to do something fun, off to the side and left alone, because mainstream culture had no idea what the hell to do with this thing that was right in front of it.

Wednesday, July 13th, 2022

How normal am I?

A fascinating interactive journey through biometrics using your face.

Saturday, June 4th, 2022

The ‘Form’ Element Created the Modern Web. Was It a Big Mistake? | WIRED

Paul Ford:

The web was born to distribute information on computers, but the technology industry can never leave well enough alone. It needs to make everything into software. To the point that your internet browser is basically no longer a magical book of links but a virtual machine that can simulate a full-fledged computer.

Wednesday, June 1st, 2022

What the Vai Script Reveals About the Evolution of Writing - SAPIENS

How a writing system went from being a dream (literally) to a reality, codified in unicode.

Tuesday, December 7th, 2021

morals in the machine | The Roof is on Phire

We are so excited by the idea of machines that can write, and create art, and compose music, with seemingly little regard for how many wells of creativity sit untapped because many of us spend the best hours of our days toiling away, and even more can barely fulfill basic needs for food, shelter, and water. I can’t help but wonder how rich our lives could be if we focused a little more on creating conditions that enable all humans to exercise their creativity as much as we would like robots to be able to.

Tuesday, September 7th, 2021

Monday, September 6th, 2021

Solarpunk Is Not About Pretty Aesthetics. It’s About the End of Capitalism

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank:

At its core, and despite its appropriation, Solarpunk imagines a radically different societal and economic structure.

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021

Letters to a Young Technologist

A handsome web book that’s a collection of thoughtful articles on technology, culture, and society by Jasmine Wang, Saffron Huang, and other young technologists:

Letters to a Young Technologist is a collection of essays addressed to young technologists, written by a group of young technologists.

Wednesday, July 28th, 2021

Rationality Is Not A Way Out Of Group Action Problems like Climate Change and Covid – Ian Welsh

Rationality does not work for ethical decisions. It can help you determine means, “what’s the best way to do this” but it can’t determine ends.

It isn’t even that great for means.

Tuesday, July 20th, 2021

What is a woman? - Prospect Magazine

An excellent thoughtful piece from Angela Saini (as always):

Popular opinion, “common sense” and the closely related priors of scientific enquiry have never been reliable guides when it comes to decoding human difference. After all, European biologists once thought it was obvious that colour-coded races were different species or breeds that had evolved separately on each continent. It was obvious to taxonomist Carl Linnaeus that monster-like and feral races of humans surely existed somewhere in the world. More recently, neuroscientists were happily insisting that women were innately less intelligent than men because they had smaller brains. A few neuroscientists still do.

History shows that many supposed “facts” about human nature were actually always cultural constructions. Race is one. Gender is another. Now, some researchers believe that sex—generally seen as determined by anatomy, including chromosomes, hormones and genitalia—may to some extent be constructed, too. Binary categories of male and female, they say, certainly don’t fully encompass all the natural variation and complexity that we see in our species.

Monday, July 19th, 2021

Solarpunk

My talk on sci-fi and me for Beyond Tellerrand’s Stay Curious event was deliberately designed to be broad and expansive. This was in contrast to Steph’s talk which was deliberately narrow and focused on one topic. Specifically, it was all about solarpunk.

I first heard of solarpunk from Justin Pickard back in 2014 at an event I was hosting. He described it as:

individuals and communities harnessing the power of the photovoltaic solar panel to achieve energy-independence.

The sci-fi subgenre of solarpunk, then, is about these communities. The subgenre sets up to be deliberately positive, even utopian, in contrast to most sci-fi.

Most genres ending with the -punk suffix are about aesthetics. You know the way that cyberpunk is laptops, leather and sunglasses, and steampunk is zeppelins and top hats with goggles. Solarpunk is supposedly free of any such “look.” That said, all the examples I’ve seen seem to converge on the motto of “put a tree on it.” If a depiction of the future looks lush, verdant, fecund and green, chances are it’s solarpunk.

At least, it might be solarpunk. It would have to pass the criteria laid down by the gatekeepers. Solarpunk is manifesto-driven sci-fi. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s one thing to apply a category to a piece of writing after it’s been written, but it’s another to start with an agenda-driven category and proceed from there. And as with any kind of classification system, the edges are bound to be fuzzy, leading to endless debates about what’s in and what’s out (see also: UX, UI, service design, content design, product design, front-end development, and most ironically of all, information architecture).

When I met up with Steph to discuss our talk topics and she described the various schools of thought that reside under the umbrella of solarpunk, it reminded me of my college days. You wouldn’t have just one Marxist student group, there’d be multiple Marxist student groups each with their own pillars of identity (Leninist, Trotskyist, anarcho-syndicalist, and so on). From the outside they all looked the same, but woe betide you if you mixed them up. It was exactly the kind of situation that was lampooned in Monty Python’s Life of Brian with its People’s Front of Judea and Judean People’s Front. Steph confirmed that those kind of rifts also exist in solarpunk. It’s just like that bit in Gulliver’s Travels where nations go to war over the correct way to crack an egg.

But there’s general agreement about what broadly constitutes solarpunk. It’s a form of cli-fi (climate fiction) but with an upbeat spin: positive but plausible stories of the future that might feature communities, rewilding, gardening, farming, energy independence, or decentralisation. Centralised authority—in the form of governments and corporations—is not to be trusted.

That’s all well and good but it reminds of another community. Libertarian preppers. Heck, even some of the solarpunk examples feature seasteading (but with more trees).

Politically, preppers and solarpunks couldn’t be further apart. Practically, they seem more similar than either of them would be comfortable with.

Both communities distrust centralisation. For the libertarians, this manifests in a hatred of taxation. For solarpunks, it’s all about getting off the electricity grid. But both want to start their own separate self-sustaining communities.

Independence. Decentralisation. Self-sufficiency.

There’s a fine line between Atlas Shrugged and The Whole Earth Catalog.

Thursday, April 22nd, 2021

The Infrastructural Power Beneath the Internet as We Know It - The Reboot

I’ve lately been trying an exercise where, when reading anything by or about tech companies, I replace uses of the word “infrastructure” with “means of production.”

Brilliant!

Wednesday, November 18th, 2020

The Long Now Foundation: “Nadia Eghbal Talk”

This is a great talk by Nadia Eghbal on software, open source, maintenance, and of course, long-term thinking.

Sunday, August 30th, 2020

mnot’s blog: RFC8890: The Internet is for End Users

RFC 8890 maybe the closest thing we’ve got to a Hippocratic oath right now.

A community that agrees to principles that are informed by shared values can use them to navigate hard decisions.

Also worth noting:

Many discussions influenced this document, both inside and outside of the IETF and IAB. In particular, Edward Snowden’s comments regarding the priority of end users at IETF 93 and the HTML5 Priority of Constituencies were both influential.

Friday, August 7th, 2020

Rainbow spacecraft and how humanity might end (Interconnected)

I too am a member of The British Interplanetary Society and I too recommend it.

(Hey Matt, if you really want to go down the rabbit hole of solar sails, be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed of Centauri Dreams—Paul Gilster is big into solar sails!)

Saturday, July 4th, 2020

The Machines Stop

The Situation feels like it’s changing. It’s not over, not by a long shot. But it feels like it’s entering a different, looser phase.

Throughout the lockdown, there’s been a strange symmetry between the outside world and the inside of our home. As the outside world slowed to a halt, so too did half the machinery in our flat. Our dishwasher broke shortly before the official lockdown began. So did our washing machine.

We had made plans for repairs and replacements, but as events in the world outside escalated, those plans had to be put on hold. Plumbers and engineers weren’t making any house calls, and rightly so.

We even had the gas to our stovetop cut off for a while—you can read Jessica’s account of that whole affair. All the breakdowns just added to the entropic Ballardian mood.

But the gas stovetop was fixed. And so too was the dishwasher, eventually. Just last week, we got our new washing machine installed. Piece by piece, the machinery of our interier world revived in lockstep with the resucitation of the world outside.

As of today, pubs will be open. I won’t be crossing their thresholds just yet. We know so much more about the spread of the virus now, and gatherings of people in indoor spaces are pretty much the worst environments for transmission.

I’m feeling more sanguine about outdoor spaces. Yesterday, Jessica and I went into town for Street Diner. It was the first time since March that we walked in that direction—our other excursions have been in the direction of the countryside.

It was perfectly fine. We wore masks, and while we were certainly in the minority, we were not alone. People were generally behaving responsibly.

Brighton hasn’t done too badly throughout The Situation. But still, like I said, I have no plans to head to the pub on a Saturday night. The British drinking culture is very much concentrated on weekends. Stay in all week and then on the weekend, lassen die Sau raus!, as the Germans would say.

After months of lockdown, reopening pubs on a Saturday seems like a terrible idea. Over in Ireland, pubs have been open since Monday—a sensible day to soft-launch. With plenty of precautions in place, things are going well there.

I’ve been watching The Situation in Ireland throughout. It’s where my mother lives, so I was understandably concerned. But they’ve handled everything really well. It’s not New Zealand, but it’s also not the disaster that is the UK.

It really has been like watching an A/B test run at the country level. Two very similar populations confronted with exactly the same crisis. Ireland took action early, cancelling the St. Patrick’s Day parade(!) while the UK was still merrily letting Cheltenham go ahead. Ireland had clear guidance. The UK had dilly-dallying and waffling. And when the shit really hit the fan, the Irish taoiseach rolled up his sleeves and returned to medical work. Meanwhile the UK had Dominic Cummings making a complete mockery of the sacrifices that everyone was told to endure.

What’s strange is that people here in the UK don’t seem to realise how the rest of the world, especially other European countries, have watched the response here with shock and horror. The narrative here seems to be that we all faced this thing together, and with our collective effort, we averted the worst. But the numbers tell a very different story. Comparing the numbers here with the numbers in Ireland—or pretty much any other country in Europe—is sobering.

So even though the timelines for reopenings here converge with Ireland’s, The Situation is far from over.

Even without any trips to pubs, restaurants, or other indoor spaces, I’m looking forward to making some more excursions into town. Not that it’s been bad staying at home. I’ve really quite enjoyed staying put, playing music, reading books, and watching television.

I was furloughed from work for a while in June. Normally, my work at this time of year would involve plenty of speaking at conferences. Seeing as that wasn’t happening, it made sense to take advantage of the government scheme to go into work hibernation for a bit.

I was worried I might feel at a bit of a loose end, but I actually really enjoyed it. The weather was good so I spent quite a bit of time just sitting in the back garden, reading (I am very, very grateful to have even a small garden). I listened to music. I watched movies. I surfed the web. Yes, properly surfed the web, going from link to link, get lost down rabbit holes. I tell you, this World Wide Web thing is pretty remarkable. Some days I used it to read up on science or philosophy. I spent a week immersed in Napoleonic history. I have no idea how or why. But it was great.

I’m back at work now, and have been for a couple of weeks. But I wouldn’t mind getting furloughed again. It felt kind of like being retired. I’m quite okay with the propsect of retirement now, as long as we have music and sunshine and the World Wide Web.

That’s the future. For now, The Situation continues, albeit in looser form.

I’ve really enjoyed reading other people’s accounts throughout. My RSS reader is getting a good workout. I always look forward to weeknotes from Alice, Nat, and Phil (this piece from Phil has really stuck with me). Jessica has written fifteen installments—and counting—of A Journal of the Plague Week. I know I’m biased, but I think it’s some mighty fine writing. Start here.

Sunday, May 3rd, 2020

The Coronavirus and Our Future | The New Yorker

Science-fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now.

Kim Stanley Robinson knows the score:

Margaret Thatcher said that “there is no such thing as society,” and Ronald Reagan said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” These stupid slogans marked the turn away from the postwar period of reconstruction and underpin much of the bullshit of the past forty years.