Newsletter 87 – Change

Published on Author malmLeave a comment

Change

Avatar

“The sun shone over Auschwitz, too.”  Umair Haque

Australian environmental activist Michael Mobbs who wrote the book on living off grid is retreating from his Sydney home after over 20 years and:

moving to a remote coastal location to prepare for what he predicts will be impending societal collapse induced by climate change.  That is, he says, a total breakdown within the next three to five years.

His struggle to find meaning in the face of Ecopalypse Now echoes that of Tim Morton on the challenge of how to confront the Hyperobject that is Anthropocene global climate:

“It’s hard to work out how to live in the face of impending collapse and my solution – aside from whisky and wine and gardening – is to do things that have meaning for others and to show faith that it’s possible to do this stuff.”

We are close to, if not already past, the point of no return.  Even if there were some slim possibility of a last minute dramatic turnaround, we have become inured to the mainstream trope that there is little that any of us as individuals can do about the climate.  That at best we are in a state of cognitive dissonance fiddling with our smartphones while our Rome burns perhaps calculating that we will make it out like the Doctor Strangelove and his coterie at the end of their world:

We are a society in denial, trying to collectively whistle past the graveyard. Our weather men won’t even talk about it on the local news. It might be construed as political. It might upset people. We are so polite and civilized in our denouement.

The metamodern response to tech disillusion is to emphasise that after all, however bad it gets, humanity will endure somehow:

That’s because apocalypse is well-nigh impossible. We’re like ants: We’re vulnerable to being killed en masse, but the species will survive because, like ants, we’re numerous and dispersed. No matter how many supposedly humanity-ending threats you hurl—literally, in the case of ballistic missiles—humans will continue to crawl the Earth. This comfort may be cold, but it’s still a fact

And that those left behind will still be able to work with scavenger electronics and post-apocalyptic tech like Collapse OS and get by:

The journey to this neo Zion is likely to be brutal. Umair Haque suggests that the beginning of the end of the world will resemble a desperate Mexican standoff between the ultra-rich, the merely rich and the poor.  The big unknown is how the sides will line up and whether feet on the street will end up counting for anything:

The only way to fight the 0.1% laughing and ruling and becoming something very much like neofeudal overlords, as the 90% grimly, desperately battle the 10% for air, water, food, energy, jobs, shelter, subsistence…is for the 90% and 10% to ally and strip the 0.1% of the looted wealth and power they don’t deserve in the first place…and invest all that instead in themselves, each other, the planet, life on it, and democracy across it.

An existential level event is headed our way.  It’s not possible to say who gets out alive or where we end up afterwards.  There is no strategy that can prepare us for the shape of things to come.  What started as a distant manufactured drone, as cosmic background radiation in our 21st century lives, is growing louder and louder.  It will shape and define the rest of our lives.  I felt it in the room when Hannah Peel and Will Burns reprised the electric pastoral shimmer of Chalk Hill Blue, their sonic collaboration at the Barbican this month.  You sense it surrounding you in their track Change:

Climate Emergency

Jeff Bezos’ ambitious Climate Pledge announcement to make the company carbon-neutral by 2040 is hugely ambitious and on the face of it represents a moment of triumph for the hardy internal employee activist group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) highlighted in last week’s newsletter.  It’s unlikely he would have made the announcement without  pressure from a group that “has demonstrated its members are willing to risk their reputations and livelihoods to push Amazon to improve its climate policy“.  When Gizmodo looked into the details, however, they were unconvinced and suggest that for all the grandstanding the plan is “full of holes” for one simple reason:

despite the clean energy plans, the electric vehicle investments, the talk of achieving carbon neutrality, Jeff Bezos is unwilling to do the simplest thing of all: decline to help oil companies continue to exacerbate the climate crisis in the first place.

Artificial Intelligence and Robotics

The body politic.  AI thinks like a corporation or a hyper-efficient bureaucrat depending on whether it is a capitalist or statist form of totalitarianism that is driving it.  The ultimate blank slate weapon can be instantiated into a faceless tool mirroring ourselves and our impulses to cybernetic control:

A central promise of AI is that it enables large-scale automated categorisation. Machine learning, for instance, can be used to tell a cancerous mole from a benign one. This “promise” becomes a menace when directed at the complexities of everyday life. Careless labels can oppress and do harm when they assert false authority. In protest at inadequate labels that are used to “know” the world, many young people today proudly defy unwelcome categorisations, be they traditional gender binaries or sexual binaries.

Quartz Obsession on Cybernetics includes a definition and a hauntological link to a 1968 video of an ICA exhibition called Cybernetic Serendipity which is striking for the focus on creativity:

Cybernetics is essentially the theory of how dynamic systems—factories, ecosystems, artificial intelligence, human relationships—change, learn, and adapt based on information, and for what purpose.

The teleology of cybernetics has always been ripe for deification.  The view that God is revealing Himself through mystical robots carrying us to the rapture of the Singularity now passes for conventional mainstream Transition to Theosis belief in the Silicon Valley Transhumanist school:

What if God does exist and has been slowly guiding us to make machines that would help us to discover God just as our lenses eventually helped us to see stars and atoms?

Meanwhile Spotify is approximating Godlike abilities in being able to know with increasing spooky accuracy exactly what you wanted to listen to.  It does it through an complex brew of algorithms essentially built around the exploit-explore approach at the heart of Reinforcement Learning:

When Spotify exploits, it’s using the information it knows about you, the user. It takes into account your music listening history, which songs you’ve skipped, what playlists you’ve made, your activity on the platform’s social features, and even your location. But when Spotify explores, it uses the information about the rest of the world, like playlists and artists similar to your taste in music but you haven’t heard yet, the popularity of other artists, and more.

James Dyson’s electric car is dead.  Interestingly it appears he wasn’t able to find anyone to sell his 500+ person electric vehicle (EV) unit to and it’s not even clear the tech that has been developed to date can be licensed.  A full stack multi billion £ write-off.  The Dyson EV has the feel of a classic tech overreach story and worthy of an eventual chapter in the ill-omened charge of the fight brigade that are pushing Brexit.  About which more later.  Chutzpah is no substitute for a failure to disastrously miscalculate your role within a complex global supply chain:

Dyson, who is one of the most prominent business figures to back Brexit, confirmed in 2017 that he planned to invest £2.5bn in technologies including a battery-powered vehicle, which was due to roll off production lines in 2021.

Software Engineering

This InfoQ post on Software Engineering culture at Google contains a number of interesting links.  It also references the Google Project Oxygen study on managerial excellence which has now been expanded with the addition of 9 and 10:

Google manager behaviors 1 Is a good coach 2 Empowers team and does not micromanage 3 Expresses interest/concern for team members’ success and personal well-being 4 Is productive and results-oriented 5 Is a good communicator 6 Helps with career development 
7 Has a clear vision/strategy for the team 8 Has important technical skills that help him/her advise the team 9 Collaborates across Google 10 Is a strong decision maker

Will Larson on why Nobody Cares about Quality until you show them why it matters:

Showing problem impact requires strategy work, proving effective execution depends on effective metrics, and crisp build from subject-matter expertise.

Based on the Stack Overflow 2019 data set, the happiest job in tech is somewhat surprisingly Exec/VP.  Some way behind are Scientist and SRE:

Code

A million lines of pi in JavaScript in a console in one hour:

let i = 1n;
let x = 3n * (10n ** 1000020n);
let pi = x;
while (x > 0) {
        x = x * i / ((i + 1n) * 4n);
        pi += x / (i + 2n);
        i += 2n;
}
console.log(pi / (10n ** 20n));

JavaScript async-await and promises explained like you were five through the analogy of vegetable soup.

Amazing Snake.  A collection of 36 Python open source projects including rebound, a CLI that pulls Stack Overflow results whenever you get a compiler error:

Placeholder Demo

Science

Advice on sleep for times of bad dreams which states, among other things, that if you slept well you shouldn’t remember your dreams good or bad.

Cognitive dissonance again.  Our brain shields us from awareness of death:

“in modern societies people embraced what he called the “escape treadmill”, where hard work, pub sessions, checking mobile phones and buying more stuff meant people were simply too busy to worry about death.”

Culture and Society

We live in the age of the idiot both big and little in Umair Haque’s world and we face a huge problem as a result:

my friends, the next question is: then how do you unmake an idiot? And the answer to that is: nobody knows, and good luck.

Trump’s “perfect call” to the Ukrainian President exerting pressure to conduct an investigation on Joe Biden represents very bad news in his attempts to avoid impeachment.  Sure as the sun follows the moon, it is coming:

Each GOP member now knows that their personal legacy is bound up in Trump. They will have to proactively choose whether to sanction this gross, bumbling, clear-cut corruption… or not. They are now playing to history. The essential facts of this scandal are already written. There’s no avoiding it anymore, and no way to muddy up the waters after “I would like you to do us a favor.”

Auschwitz 1945.  The sun also shone then and one not only imagines but sees the Nazis enjoying life.  There are Bad Dreams that won’t go away:

Brexit

The last word to Brexit and the wonderful @ByDonkeys and their mournful take on the will of the people and how it has shifted:

Brexit is “a necessary crisis“, one that will reveal Britain’s “true place in the world” and in so doing bring us back down to earth as one nation in a sea of others.  In Greek Tragedy terms its dramaturge Boris Johnson will understand, we can expect at some point in the years to come a moment of horrible Anagnorisis not just for Johnson but for all the homesick crew egging him on while living abroad:

Today there is no such thing as British national capitalism. London is a place where world capitalism does business – no longer one where British capitalism does the world’s business. Everywhere in the UK there are foreign-owned enterprises, many of them nationalised industries, building nuclear reactors and running train services from overseas. When the car industry speaks, it is not as British industry but as foreign enterprise in the UK. The same is true of many of the major manufacturing sectors – from civil aircraft to electrical engineering – and of infrastructure. Whatever the interests of foreign capital, they are not expressed through a national political party. Most of these foreign-owned businesses, not surprisingly, are hostile to Brexit.

200 years on from the Peterloo massacre, the fight for facts remains an enduring theme perhaps more relevant and important than ever given the stakes are so high.  What’s different about today is that trust in news channels has been eroded to such a degree its hard to see what could possibly reverse the situation:

200 years after Peterloo, the proportions of communication – and, in some ways, its influence – have been reversed. True or false, the testimony of citizens will spread immediately and to a vast and receptive audience. The press struggles to compete on speed, audience and, on some metrics, trust. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer found that just 37 per cent of Britons trust mainstream media.

Leave a Reply