Saturday Ramblings (31st July 2015)

Trying to condense some of the stuff I’ve read / watched / listened to this week into some semi-coherent thoughts, under some broad themes.

Outsider Startups

The first episode of The Awl podcast is out. Like the rest of The Awl, its very media, very New York. About 25 minutes in, though, there’s a really interesting discussion about a couple of startups using Instagram in interesting ways – celebrity gossip magazines and alternative, POC-centric, travel sites built on top of the base platform.

Possibly (probably) because these are female / POC centred businesses built on a platform that skews heavily female and is generally seen as fair game for mockery (lol white girls #nomakeup #nofilter), these haven’t exactly attracted a lot of attention from the traditional tech media.

Which makes me wonder what else I’m missing. Who else is out there quietly building solutions to problems I’m not even aware of?

Semi-related short bits:

# Other Valleys, a most excellent newsletter by Anjali Ramachandran focusing on tech / media developments outwith the UK / US / EU

# How textiles repeatedly revolutionised technology – not startup focused, but a good example of a whole sector of innovation that tends to be overlooked

Work

Been reading a lot on this, but I’m still not sure I can tie it all together yet, other than “everything is unrelentingly grim and we’re all fucked”.

Highlights:

How many vouchers we obtain and what we have to do to get them is the political question par excellence under neoliberal capitalism. But it’s this growing disconnect between labour as a biological/social requirement versus work as a cultural artefact that has seen it take on a life of its own, spiralling out of control, taking over everything else.

Herein lies the work paradox. At the very moment it is glorified as the highest civic virtue (on both the political left and right) it is drying up at an unprecedented rate.

Like it or not we are moving into a post-work future. According to some estimates, half the eligible global workforce is currently unemployed.

BBC – Viewpoint: Why do people waste so much time at the office?

Indeed Marc Bousquet suggests that managers everywhere want to learn how to emulate higher education “in moving from simple exploitation to the vast harvest of bounty represented by super-exploitation.” In the case of academics, according to Bousquet, this super-exploitation means the donation of quantities of free labor under the auspices of committed professionalism. Think of the adjunct who works endless hours to attempt to maintain a viable professional research profile while teaching hundreds of students for little pay.

Academic Labor, the Aesthetics of Management, and the Promise of Autonomous Work

A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2000 calculated that when one added contract workers , temps, the self-employed and part-time workers , the total percentage of contingent workers in the United States came to almost 30 percent of the workforce.

Women have historically made up about two-thirds of the part time contingent or casual labor force, according to labor historian Alice Kessler-Harris. This gender imbalance remains today: women are almost twice as likely as men to work part-time. With internships, the disproportion is even starker. According to one study by Intern Bridge, a research and consulting firm, more than three in four unpaid interns were women. The industries that rely on internships, such as fashion, media and the arts, are feminized ones.

Opportunity Costs: The True Price of Internships

Lots of interesting discussion in the third episode of the Gin & Innovation podcast about the automation of farming and the changing nature of agricultural work.

Welcome to the grim meathook future, everybody.

Infrastructure and Shipping

The recent Calais crisis (I think that’s the current preferred title for it) has obviously brought up a lot of discussions around immigration policy and foreign policy. These are super deep, difficult and interesting issues and I’m going to ignore them entirely and talk about the wonderful world of shipping instead.

One thing the crisis has really thrown into relief is the fragility of our supply chains. OK, nobody in the UK is going to starve because of this, but the knock-on effects in terms of lost business are already being felt. Here’s the thing, though – we’re only really seeing the beginning of these. Supply chains are so tight, so incredibly reliant on just-in-time delivery, that we’ll be seeing odd price spikes and shortages for months.

It’s interesting to me that, so long as the system is moving, it remains effectively invisible to us. Only when it stops – and oh boy, has it stopped, with literally thousands of lorries tailed back along the M20 – do we realise the scale of it.

In the infrastructure side of things, I’ve been thinking a bit about startups trying to get into this market and the problem of infrastructural monopolies. BT, for example, still own effectively all the actual physical communications infrastructure in the UK.

The problem here is the immense cost of installing new infrastructure. I recall seeing an estimate from a telecoms engineer in the US that it can cost anywhere up to $500,000 per km to lay new cable in built-up areas.

I had a work trip the other week to visit SSE’s site at Spittal, which will form one end of their new Caithness-Moray subsea link. The sheer scale of this thing is insane – the total project cost is just over £1 billion and they’ve dug out something like 260,000 cubic metres of rock on just one site.

This obviously acts as a major barrier to entry for new companies trying to get into the infrastructure business – most startups just don’t have a spare billion kicking about, unless they’re backed by some kind of eccentric billionaire.

Which brings us rather neatly to Elon Musk and the Tesla Powerwall, which has been making waves recently. Musk basically wants to change the way the electricity market works which is… ambitious, to say the least (let us not forget that Musk is, of course, the founder and, I believe, majority shareholder in SolarCity – he’s not doing this out of the goodness of his heart).

If it were anyone other than Musk, I’d write it off as techbros being techbros (disrupt all the things!), but the guy has serious form, having led the charge on the privatisation of space travel, which is not exactly a cheap or easy market to break into.

This will all take some time to shake out, but there are a couple of immediate problems here. One is that the classic startup model (launch, iterate, fail, pivot, cash out) is not really something you want within a million miles of critical infrastructure. I suspect there are also last-mile issues here – public and regulated utilities generally have a duty to treat customers equally and to ensure that service delivery happens everywhere. Privately owned utility startups, unburdened by similar legislation, have no such duty, and my fear is that we end up with a service gap and a two-tier utilities network (immediately obvious divides being rich-poor and urban-rural).

Short related bits:

# Stowaways and Crimes Aboard a Scofflaw Ship – a really interesting, human-centred look at some of the problems surrounding shipping and international maritime law

# Gin & Innovation 007 covers a lot of the interesting things around Powerwall

# The economic aftermath of the 921 earthquake in Taiwan caused a worldwide tripling in the price of computer memory because of a six-day factory shutdown

Gender & Sexuality

A short one, here, as I am even more laughably unqualified to talk about this than anything that has come before. Nonetheless, a couple of interesting points.

Deb Chachra on Gin & Innovation 002 (I’ve been listening to this rather a lot, can you tell?) mentioned that one of the issues with getting women into STEM is the leaky pipeline problem – if you look at the numbers, women drop out at each stage (high school, uni, etc). The interesting point to me is that, as she pointed out, the way to address this is not to throw more numbers at the problem, but to examine the systemic issues that are causing dropouts in the first place.

Which I guess sounds obvious, but it does seem that too often the proposed solution to issues like this is “get more women into the pipeline”, not “find out why the pipeline is leaking women”.

An interesting interview with Lisa Diamond, a professor of developmental health and health psychology, on sexual fluidity:

It is time to just take the whole idea of sexuality as immutable, the born this way notion, and just come to a consensus as scientists and as legal scholars that we need to put it to rest. It’s unscientific, it’s unnecessary and it’s unjust. It doesn’t matter how we got to be this way. As a scientist, I think it’s one of the most fascinating questions out there and one that I will continue to investigate. As a lesbian and a progressive, I think it’s totally irrelevant and just politics.

Fin

My lovely girlfriend is moving up today and I’m supposed to be tidying, not waffling.

Currently listening: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell, which is surely a sign that my dissolute lifestyle has finally started to dissolve my brainmeat, causing major personality changes.

Notes on Slow Internet

Some half-formed thoughts I’ve had rattling around my head all day. This is partly prompted by a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading and listening to recently – I’ve kind of spiralled into a whole series of things about infrastructure and infrastructural concerns – and partly by a chat with a pal last night (over Facebook Messenger) which touched on discontent with the current social media landscape.

The problem, I think, is that we very much live in an era of Fast Internet – both infrastructurally and socially. Everything available all the time, always on, likes and retweets and reblogs and tumblr spats, Internet of things connected fridges badgering us with passive-aggressive updates because we haven’t bought fresh milk in a week (this last one may not yet be true but is not exactly a hundred miles off).

I was talking to someone in work the other day about the sense of guilt I feel over the unwatched stuff in my list on Netflix. There’s almost a sense of dread every time I open it up, because I know I’m going to deliberate for half an hour and then end up rewatching old episodes of Chuck or something.

It’s not just Netflix, either, I have “to listen” playlists of thousands of songs on Spotify, piles of Xbox games I’ve barely touched, a Kindle library full of books and magazines and articles I never quite get round to reading. Fast Internet has allowed me to turn my leisure time into work.

Very first world problem, so sad. I know, believe me.

But something on the podcast I was listening to (Gin & Innovation, highly recommended) on the bus today made me think about the things I actually look forward to getting. Newsletters, certain podcasts, certain blog posts.

Discrete chunks of dense information, delivered across glacial – by Fast Internet standards – intervals of time. Weeks of waiting for minutes or hours of focused consumption.

A silly phrase coalesced. Slow Internet.

I don’t have a proper definition for Slow Internet, yet. I’m not 100% I can define it. Like pornography, I know it when I see it. It’s not always technological – Slow Internet coexists with, shares structures with – Fast Internet. Time is a factor, but it can be hard to say how exactly – I’m tempted to say no more often than once per day, but there is bound to be an exception.

(There’s definitely an exception in the opposite direction – something like NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast feels very Fast Internet to me, despite the weekly release schedule).

There is definitely an overlap with the principles of Calm Technology

Slow Internet brings joy. Slow Internet is those notifications that excite and enthuse, rather than enervate and exhaust.

(Really, Slow Internet is only definable by what it is not. Slow Internet is not Fast Internet, is not part of the daily technological condition in which we all live)

All I really have at the moment is a list of the things that feel, to me, like Slow Internet:

Newsletters

Plain text newsletters, or those with very limited HTML, are generally Slow Internet (high volume mailing lists excluded).

Warren Ellis’ Orbital Operations – weekly updates on work, on reading, on living in South-East England

Deb Chachra’s Metafoundry – irregularly delivered chunks of thought on design, tech, infrastructure

More at Internet of Newsletters, although most seem to be dead (or perhaps in extended hibernation, as befits a true Slow Internet service).

Podcasts

Gin and Innovation – wonderful hour-long blocks of clever people talking in gentle English accents about technology, design and infrastructure. Seems to come out every two months or so.

Shut Up and Sit Down – Slow Internet is not entirely pompous and self-important. Very funny English blokes being funny and nice and interesting about boardgames. I think the release schedule is supposed to be monthly, but as far as I can tell this has never been accurate, which is very Slow Internet.

Radio Etiopia – music, mostly in the sort of ambient / soundscape / downbeat sort of field, although really all over the place. Seems to be released whenever they feel like it – sometimes a couple in one week, sometimes a month-long gap.

Blogs

Philip Sandifer – More about content than speed of delivery, here. Particularly with regards to the Last War in Albion series of posts, covering essentially the entire history of British comics through the lens of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. I think it’s just hit the 100th 2000-word post. This is so not Fast Internet that it almost has to be Slow Internet

Adactio: Journal – daily 100 word posts, often on web design but just as often on living and working in Brighton.

MORNING, COMPUTER – occasional chunks of thought from Warren Ellis. Originally intended as a daily, first thing in the morning update, in true Slow Internet fashion the schedule slipped almost immediately.

Other Stuff

tilde.club – I’m not sure I can fully explain this, but the background to it is very well covered in this episode of Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything

Little Emma – really everything surrounding BERG’s Little Printer is Slow Internet, but this particular hack caught me. Prints (or printed, probably no longer in existence), a daily update on the current position of Emma Maersk, at that time the largest container ship in the world.

Fin

I am old and very tired and not even making a huge amount of sense to myself any more. This jumble of thought may come together into something semi-coherent later, but I needed to get it out of my head.

(Little Emma was the thing that kicked off this entire ridiculous exercise.)

(The running joke throughout the episode about the First Church of Intermodal Shipping will have to wait)

Dave Does the Crossword – Scotsman Cryptic 2015-05-14

First one of these, so a bit of general background first. I started doing cryptics about a year ago, and one thing I really could have used was examples of someone actually trying to work out the clues, and their reasoning behind the answers they gave.

I try to do the Scotsman cryptic every day now (try usually being the operative word there), and I thought it might help both me and others if I were to start posting what I’ve managed each day, along with the reasoning.

Onwards.

The state of play thus far

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Today’s puzzle is by Hugh Johnson, who is my cryptic nemesis. Progress has not been great.

Clues I’ve solved

Across

3/34 Commit to memory, and leave with some enthusiasm (3-2-3-2)

A) Get up and go. Not 100% sure of the logic on this one. It definitely fits the clue phrase (with some enthusiasm), “go” fits with (leave), and I guess “get” kind of fits with (commit to memory) if you stretch it.

Seems to fit, but I never like an answer I’m not sure of.

11 Aimed to drink gin up, as one visualised (8)

A) Imagined. Straightforward anagram of “aimed” (up) with “gin” inserted in the middle (to drink). Clue phrase is (visualised)

12/28 Was everyone ready and champing at the bit (3, 3)

A) All set. Relatively straightforward word substitution. “All” (everyone) and “set” (ready). Clue phrase (champing at the bit)

13 In relation, writer got back in front of hack (6)

A) Nephew. This one took me ages, and may need a little more deconstruction. Word substitution with a couple of added tricks. “Pen” (writer), (got back) gives us “nep”, (in front of) means it goes before “new” (hack). Clue phrase (relation)

Hated this one

14 Advance with assurance, using borrowed term (8)

A) Loanword. Confident I’m right, but not 100% on my logic. Clue phrase is definitely (borrowed term), and I reckon the rest is substitution. “Loan” (advance) + “word” (assurance). It’s the second part of that I’m not sure of, as it seems a bit tortured and an odd use of a primarily American idiom.

19 Famous dignitary, in particular, just can’t operate (7)

A) Notable. Quite liked this one as I got it by a stretch and then realised there was a more obvious route. My initial way to the answer was a slightly tortured “no table” for (can’t operate), by way of operating table.

Soon as it was in, I realised the right way to get it was probably “not able” for (can’t operate).

Clue phrase (famous dignitary)

23 Refuse to go to a place in Northern Ireland (4,4)

A) Turn down. Another one I’m not 100% on. This is why I hate Hugh Johnson – he makes me doubt myself, and I’m rarely happy with even a correct answer.

It fits with the clue phrase (refuse), but I’m not sure where the “turn” comes in – maybe for (go to), but that’s a bit of a stretch. Second part is fine, “down” for (a place in Northern Ireland).

Down

3 Understands a method to follow, so manages to escape (4,4)

A) Gets away. Another substitution one – “gets” (understands) + “a way” (a method). (To follow) simply tells us that “a way” is the second part of the answer. Clue phrase (manages to escape)

4 Excites first two thirds, getting over small streams (7)

A) Thrills. Took ages as well. (Excites) is the clue, (first two) (thirds) gives us “th” and (small streams) are “rills”. (Getting over) tells us that “th” comes first.

Horrible, nasty, tricksy hobbit of a clue.

5 Find a ferocious fish in US state I drove into (6)

A) Pirana, I think. Really unsure here. Pretty sure (US state) gives us “PA”, which I think is Philadelphia. (I drove) gives us “I ran”, and (into) tells us that goes in the middle of “PA”.

(Ferocious fish) then is the clue phrase, but Hugh Johnson must be using a variant spelling, WHICH IS JUST NOT COOL. Or I’m massively wrong.

6 Hold a formal examination of a survey in an editorial (6)

A) Review. Pretty sure I’m right, and I think this is just a case of giving us two clue phrases which kind of mean the same thing, (formal examination) and (editorial).

An aside – one of my favourite ever clues was simply “spice club” (4), which is a classic example of this form. (Spice) and (club) are both clues which fit the answer, “mace”

13/16 Nearly time to line up to get retirement wear (5,5)

A) Night dress. (Nearly) gives us “nigh”, plus (time) is “t”, and (to line up) gives us “dress” – think the second part is in a military sense of the word. Clue is (retirement wear), which does this lovely thing of leading you down the wrong path unless you read the term “retirement” in the alternate sense of retiring to bed.

Basically all cryptic setters are barstuds, but especially Hugh Johnson.

(Also I’ve never liked the thing of using a word, like “time”, to stand for a single letter. Sometimes, as possibly in this case, it’s justified – I think t for time comes from notation in physics maybe – but other times it’s a bit of a guessing game)

15/18 It’s all right, as there’s nothing wrong with it (3,3)

A) Not bad. Clue phrase here, I think, is (all right), reread as “alright”. (Nothing wrong with it) gives us “not bad”.

21 Worried about mixing gin and soda with the last wine (8)

A) Agonised. A relatively straightforward anagram of (gin) (soda) and “e” (the last) (wine). Clue phrase (worried about).

22 In the place of a new set of farm buildings, not in good order (7)

A) Instead. This is fucking awful work. (Set of farm buildings) gets us “steadings”, and in the twisted mind of Hugh Johnson, (not in good) is a perfectly acceptable way to tell us to remove the letter “g” before treating it as an anagram (order). Clue is (in the place of).

24 Moneylender was certain to be accepted by an ancient city (6)

A) Usurer. Quite liked this one. Clue is (moneylender), (certain) gives us “sure” and (an ancient city) is “Ur”. (Accepted) tells us to put t’one inside t’other.

26 Would some modern Homer take a vow of silence (6)

A) Omerta. First use of this type of clue. (Vow of silence) is the clue, and (some) usually tells us that the answer is hidden in the text. In this case, it’s inside (Homer take)

Fin

I was going to do my speculations on the ones I haven’t got, but this already took longer than expected.

Hopefully someone find this useful / entertaining. Next one won’t be quite as detailed, having hopefully established the pattern here.