s2e17: Shockwave; The Top Priorities; Engagement; A Hostile Environment 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

10:59pm central daylight time on Wednesday, 12 August 2015,  at the undisclosed family farm location in rural Missouri. We just came in from lying down outside looking up at the Perseids and in the last hour seeing about three brilliant lines momentarily etched across the sky, like a sort of scratch test on our planet’s atmosphere. It’s the first time I’ve ever really *seen* a meteor shower – I mean, I’ve seen meteors before, but not like this, not in the middle of nowhere where there’s no light pollution and you can just step outside and *see* the milky way. Not like a line that covers two thirds the sky a bit like a literal punctuation mark but rotated around the sort of axis you’d need to write on the planet: a big long slash and then that explosive dot at the end.

Meteors. Pretty cool. Four stars (would have given five stars but you had to wait ages before seeing them and also the developer only releases them at certain times and hasn’t responded to feedback. Also there were literal bugs when I was using the Meteors and now I am scratchy and itchy).

A short one today. I’m officially on vacation.

1.0 Shockwave

Those videos – which I’m not going to link to, you can look for them and watch them if you want, but be warned that they’re not necessarily safe for lunch or mental health if you’re able to empathise with other people in tragic situations – of the explosion and then subsequent shockwave and blast front in Tianjin[0] juxtaposed with lying down in the rural midwest and looking up at the sky seeing debris that if it were a bit bigger would be a different kind of exclamation point, the kind that happens to a species when it looks up and then everything stops. The discussions and comments on the internet of other people watching the videos, of talking at and shouting at and telling the people in them to *get away from the window* and to *stop filming* because the pretty fireball is just the light show, the pressure wave is coming and that’s going to literally hit you. And then you see it literally hit people.

That, but on a planetary scale.

And then: looking for the signals – strong, weak, anything in between – of civilization-ending events[1]. A sort of stupendously scientific way of taking what we’re able to learn at a distance about a) stars, b) the planets that we infer exist around those stars, c) the type of life that might exist on those planets, d) based on what we know about ourselves, possible failure modes, e) the sorts of signals that those failure modes would emit. The title of the paper itself, “Observational Signatures of Self-Destructive Civilisations” sounds you could twist it just so and then rewrite as a really bad Glamour article[2]: The 7 Signs The Civilization Next Door Is Acting Self-Destructively (And How You Can Intervene).

But then, by the time you see the gamma ray burst that’s heading in your direction, by the time you’re doing the planetary equivalent of pointing all your cameras at it and livestreaming it to ten billion people – it’s too late, right? There’s no running away. You can’t step away from a shockwave that’s going to completely obliterate your planet.

There’s a potential answer to the Fermi paradox, I suppose. The reason why it’s so quiet out there is that industrial accidents and failure to apply proper safety protocol keep sterilizing life.

PS. Which one of you is starting http://jackpot.index/, hm?

[0] China blasts: fireball from Tianjin explosions injures hundreds and kills at least 17 – latest updates | World news | The Guardian
[1] [1507.08530] Observational Signatures of Self-Destructive Civilisations
[2] How to Make Men Love You: Taking Apart a Ridiculous ‘Glamour’ Article That the Whole UK Is Upset About | VICE | United States

2.0 The Top Priorities

I got an email about a conference to do with Government Technology but I won’t say who the conference is being run by suffice to say that you can look at the capitalized words in this sentence and try and guess. It was an invitation to either attend or sponsor (it wasn’t completely clear, to be honest) a conference about the top IT priorities for Washington State (to be clear: the bit of America that Seattle is in, not the bit of America that is a District and that gets blown up by invading aliens). I’d normally really want to go because now I’m quite interested in the top IT priorities of governments (or, at least, I get angry when I hear about the top IT priorities of governments because let’s politely and in a politic manner say that I believe that many of those priorities are what we call “misaligned” – and some people who’ve known me in a previous life will know what I get like when I get angry and start asking pointed questions with the training of a lawyer in a public forum), but I can’t, because it’s happening at the same time as some big work do[0].

Anyway. Here are the top IT priorities of Washington State as communicated to me through the medium of an unsolicited marketing email:

Cyber security / Privacy
Digital evidence
Citizen engagement strategies
Wearables and The Internet of Everything
Big Data
Smart Cities
Workforce development
Enterprise architecture
Some of those are interesting. “Citizen engagement strategies,” for example. Which you might call “Encouraging people to get involved in local government”. The rest of them seem mostly like buzzwords intended to act as dogwhistles for, I dunno, “vendors” and again, after having been infected with the “meet user needs” memeplex as recently and forcefully delivered by the GDS lot, none of the things in the priority list feel particularly important compared to: “IT that helps people get things done”. Big Data: not focussed on outcome. Workforce development: maybe? Enterprise architecture: for what? Smart cities: how about ones that just work better? Cloud: *Seriously*. Wearables and The Internet of Everything: YOUR POLICE SEEM NEEDLESSLY MILITARISTIC. Digital evidence: YOU HAVE ENOUGH PROBLEMS WITH PHYSICAL EVIDENCE WHY COMPLICATE MATTERS. Cyber security: yes! Things that should be secure, should be secure! Privacy: This is a different thing from security! Mobility: THIS WORD DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING WHEN YOU USE IT LIKE THAT.


[0] The CFA Summit — Code for America – hey look it’s the Code for America summit that you should totally come to if you a) think government should work, b) should be better at technology and c) should serve its users. I *think* I might even be able to help with a coupon code or something. So if you’re genuinely interested or would like to come meet me and other people and talk about how we’re actually doing something about this, send me a note. See? That didn’t even feel like shilling, because it was *important*.

3.0 Engagement

Trigger warning 1: this is basically just another link to a Russell Davies blog post. Sorry.

Trigger warning 2: I suppose this has something to do with advertising. Sorry not sorry.

There are people who think they get to have conversations like this in their job and that they’re helping but the truth of the matter is that more often than not, engagement doesn’t actually help get anything done[0].

Bryan: I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for money, I can tell you I don’t have any. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you hire me now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will start the biggest social media mobile-enabled hashtag campaign you have ever seen.

[0] Russell Davies: You can’t fix services with engagement


4.0 A Hostile Environment


I got a few notes in response to the last – admittedly hastily written – piece on battlesuits and cities and other things that might be battlesuits to help people deal with and function in the environment they find themselves in. First: yes, I massively underestimated and maligned the science of urban planning. If you are an urban planner, I am sorry. If you are not an urban planner, I am sorry.

Second: the thought – thank you, Adrian McEwan – that had never occurred to me which was that some people might not want battlesuits. That the point is that we’re supposed to live in a civil society now and that perhaps not looking at everything in terms of being in an environment where both the landscape and actors and entities in it are actively trying to kill you, or at least, aren’t acting in your interests, doesn’t sound like a particularly fun one. You don’t want a battlesuit, you want, I don’t know. Just a nice suit. Some nice clothes. You want to not have to put on a suit of armor just to engage with the world. You don’t need an aggressive or adversarial outlook, you just need one that’s more collaborative than necessarily combative. This fires off a connection with Scott Alexander’s thoughts[0] on the thrive/survive theory of the political spectrum where left-leaning policies and people can be explained by optimizing for comfortable, safe environments where of course you’d want everyone to have a safety net and education and be able to maximise their own potential. Versus an environment where everything is out to get you and you could lose it all and it’s everyone for their own fucking selves. (Alexander’s piece is worth reading just for the thought experiment on what happens to liberal people – and I’d count myself as one – when the zombie apocalypse has actually happened. Practically speaking, what do your ideologies lead you to then?)

So. The battlesuit is something that’s needed in the increasingly brutish environment of postcapitalism[1]. You only get no-battlesuits when there’s enough of a safe environment for no-one to need a battlesuit because the existence of a battlesuit is competitive advantage, unfortunately. Which is all a bit depressing.

[0] A Thrive/Survive Theory Of The Political Spectrum | Slate Star Codex

[1] Bella Caledonia independence – autonomy – self-determination – a review of Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism by Irvine Welsh

I got lots of notes in response to the last episode that were basically calling bullshit on my lack of citation in asserting that the industrial revolution had no marketing and you’re all right: the industrial revolution had a shit-tonne of marketing. I think I still have a valid thought there but obviously one that I didn’t express right, and definitely one that I obviously haven’t thought through. So I’ll keep thinking about that one.

In other news, I’m very pleased to have had a proposal on empathy in design accepted for the O’Reilly Design Conference in January 2016. So I’m already freaking out about writing the talk. Expect more meandering thoughts about empathy and all that business over the next few months, probably.

I am about a quarter of the way through setting up a recurrent neural network and feeding it all of my newsletter output so that I can have a shadow me generating newsletters that I can then mine for inspiration. This would be *literally* spinning up another instance of a thought vector machine in a kind of weird crippled centaur-writing hybrid that I’m totally excited about.


11:39pm and 2,021 words, which is about fifty words a minute which still is THINKING TOO MUCH which is evidently SLOWING DOWN TYPING.

Send notes, etc.