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Showing posts from July, 2020

122. Simultaneous ear fitted translators

Science fiction books have frequently featured gadgets which would translate different languages in real time. This was a cool idea (the weirdest would most likely be the Babel fish you insert in your ear in Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy’). Today, it is no longer an idea, and the technology is already available. It combines voice recognition and text translation and it is deployed through several hardware set ups, typically earpieces with a mic. It does not work perfectly yet, as anyone who uses Google Translate will imagine, but it is improving all the time. Our first reaction, when reading about it, is to imagine how helpful it would be on holidays, or even business meetings. But what I am really interested in is seeing whether it will foster understanding between cultures by allowing us to go directly to the source without mediation, to discuss politics, economy, etc. without language barriers. How much more informative would an unmediated Putin or Qi Jinping be? Le

121. The divisive nature of borders

The thought that borders are divisive is hardly ground breaking. Dividing is, in fact, what they are designed to do, and they do it very effectively. Modern humans think of borders as if they had always existed, we read and study national histories and assume that the border, as a limitation of the freedom of humans to roam, was part of this history. The fact is, it is not. Borders and passports are a XX Century invention, previously, there were no restrictions in movements between countries. You could pick up your stuff and go anywhere you wanted, if you had the means. This ability to easily migrate was one of the engines of development, progress and wealth redistribution. There is a lot of evidence that eliminating borders today would have similar consequences, greatly reducing poverty and increasing most people’s standard of living. The idea of removing, them, however, is anathema. Humans do not like change. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. But why not fix it if it is broken? Lengt

120. Even Donald Trump is sometimes right

Those who know me will know that I not often say Donald Trump is right. I am in profound disagreement with his extreme libertarian and individualistic agenda, his aim to minimise, to the point of destruction, the state, and above all, his complete disregard for the truth and his philosophy that business and politics are a zero sum game in which, to have a winner, you must have a loser. Trump is however right on one count. Europeans give China and Russia too much leeway, which they do not afford to the US. We are highly critical of any undemocratic or dishonest US practice, but less so of similar practices in China or Russia. We expect more of the country that has been a bastion of democracy for the last century. We are particularly disappointed to see it turn its back on the values that have taken it to the centre of global politics. But Trump is right. We should be equally as demanding of China or Russia as we are of the US. We have condescended to their practices for far too long Len

119. Have we given up as citizens?

It is not unusual for me to be involved in conversations with well meaning, caring people who tell me that we can’t change society, that the establishment has it all well tied up, that growing inequality, climate change or proxy wars are inevitable. Disappointment and frustration leading to political disengagement is the weapon of reactionary powers. As citizens, we have better tools than ever to engage, organise, communicate and fight for what we care about. But we must believe, and we must use them. If there is one thing the coronavirus taught us is how rapidly a virus, or an idea, can spread in our society. All it needs is an R over 1. We can, today, achieve anything socially or politically so long as we care and as we ensure that we are sufficiently contagious, that we engage others and pass on this idea to more than one person each. When you break it down like this, it does not seem hard. The result is not immediate, difficult for many today, but it could be ultimately inevitable

118. What universal income tells us about social democrats and conservatives

Universal income is one of the most interesting current social concepts. This is the idea of paying a salary to every citizen, sufficient for the basics of a dignified living, just because of being a citizen. The concept is particularly well researched and explained by the brilliant historian Rutger Bregman in, amongst others, ‘Utopia for realists’. Universal income is vehemently resisted by most of the population. This is surprising, as it would seem to benefit the great majority, whose standard of living would rise and whose long term security and work choices would be enhanced. The reasons are many. Some regard it as unaffordable, although Bregman’s analysis may tell you otherwise. I think, however, that the biggest reason is your belief, or lack of it, in human nature, and a generous or mean spirit. Acceptance of universal income hinges on your answer to the question: ‘What do I prefer, having honest unlucky people starve or lazy people taking advantage of society’s generosity’ Len

117. Is free market fundamentalism bad for your health?

Free market fundamentalism is a fast spreading philosophy (cult might be a more appropriate noun) built on a specific interpretation of Adam Smith and David Ricardo by Frederik Hayek and Milton Friedman. It prioritises individual freedom and decision making above all else, it believes against significant evidence on the market behaving perfectly to optimise outcomes in the absence of interference and, as a result, it aims to minimise, or even eliminate, the size and influence of the state apparatus. Fundamentalist practitioners put their ideology above all else, including practicality. The consequences of this at a time of difficulty such as the coronavirus pandemic have been devastating. The US, Brazil and UK are topping both the free market fundamentalism tables and the coronavirus catastrophe tables (as they also did with the 2008 financial implosion). Totally free markets may be good for good times, but they once and again prove to be completely inadequate in difficult times Length

116. The Way... Middle Ages marketing

I come from Santiago de Compostela, in Northwest Spain, best known for the Way, a pilgrim route that saw many travellers cross Europe on foot in the Middle Ages, a trip which has been revitalised in the last 30 years, with modern travellers undertaking it as a combination of challenge and adventure. Nowadays, close on half a million people walk to Santiago every year, and the numbers were not dissimilar at its heyday 800 years ago. A lot has been written about The Way’s contribution to building European culture by the connections that pilgrims on foot established along the way, and the ideas and technologies they spread. But also very interesting is how it originated. At a time when European powers needed to stop the Muslim hordes’ advance through the Pyrenees to France and the heart of Christianity, the grave of St James was providentially (sic) found on the very spot that would unite all of Christianity on the defence of an open path through the Pyrenees to the backwaters of Galicia

115. Political misnomers

Few things are more dangerous or effective in social change than the surreptitious revision of commonly held concepts. When I was growing up, socialism, centrism, conservatism and extremism had a meaning. Today, these terms are still used, but their meaning has changed. Slowly, and under cover of night.  The centre has moved to where the moderate (or even not so moderate) right used to be, liberal economy, small state. Today’s socialism would not be recognised by a 1970s socialist, never mind by Marx and his acolytes. Conservatism has usurped the political space of ultranationalism. These changes are dangerous, as they get the less attentive citizens to make, by inertia, choices they would not otherwise make. They exploit our tendency to oversimplify by self defining to lead us to make choices we would not subscribe if well understood. Today it is more important than ever to attentively analyse. Beware names and labels, they are exercises in misdirection, may not be what they seem Leng

114. So, what are headlines for?

Newspaper and article headlines were born as a means to summarise the content of the article, allowing readers to make a judgement, when prioritising, as to what to read. They were a significant innovation, as they allowed newspapers to be read in a different way to books, and thus spread their usefulness beyond the dilettante classes who had the time to read the whole thing. As a result, newspaper reading became, over time, a mainstream activity. Headlines have evolved, however. At some point, they became marketing means to get readers to select your article or pick your newspaper. Tools to cloud your judgement, getting you to read what each media producer wants, not what you would otherwise select. I am not sure who to blame (or credit) or when this happened, although I imagine it was contemporaneous with the incorporation of behavioural psychology to marketing in other industries in the 70s. But, nowadays, the headline mainly tells me what I will not be able to find in the article L

113. Is retirement at 65 a reasonable expectation nowadays

One of the main challenges, or even threats, to the welfare state is the pension load, which grows as life expectancy increases, already well over 80 in some countries, making the pension system unaffordable. Many citizens expect the state (or the government, most don’t understand the difference) to solve this problem, but there are no magic bullets. In finance, contrary to what Wall Street will tell you in periods of exuberance, 2 plus 2 equals 4. The solution lies with us, the citizens, with legislative collaboration. Whilst it may be sensible for a factory worker or farm labourer to retire at 65, there is no good reason for a business manager or museum curator to do so. We develop expertise throughout our lives and one day when our economic value to society and ourselves is at its highest, whatever our fitness and capability, we retire. This needs to be re-evaluated. Remaining active, with flexibility and autonomy, can be rewarding for the worker and a lifeline for the welfare state

112. Science is not an expense, it is an investment. And a smart one.

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the role and importance of science in society, bringing it into the public consciousness, sharing some space in the public imagination. This presents an opportunity for countries to increase their public investment in fundamental science and in Research and Development, which often suffers badly during recessions, fluctuating between 3% of GDP and nothing, depending on the country. The problem is that society perceives science as expense and not investment, because we look at it with a short term eye, the eye we use for climate impact, sustainability, etc. But it is not. Scientific developments create high quality companies and high quality jobs, and therefore, short term economic returns for the public purse in the form of taxes. But today we don’t account for this, we don’t know, as an economy, the direct short term returns of investment in science and, whilst we don’t, we’ll continue to perceive it as an expense, and to cut it when trouble hits

111. Investing in preparation for uncertain events

One argument I have been hearing of late which seems sensible at first sight is that it is not possible for societies to prepare well for something that we don’t know is going to happen. It has been used, to good effect, to defend the fact that we were fairly (not completely) unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic. The argument sounds sensible, but it does not stand careful analysis. Firstly, we did know something like this was going to happen, and the same is true of the next global problems, climate change, antibiotic resistance, the diabetes pandemic and growing inequality. We know they are coming, we should be preparing much better. Secondly, the same politicians and leaderships who use the argument as an excuse disprove it daily with their security and military investment. Countries spend annual fortunes in military capability and exercises, to prepare for the uncertain eventuality of conflict. But the wars that really matter will be fought against the challenges listed above Len

110. How far are we from our biological ancestors

As school children we soon learn that man descends directly from monkeys. I am reminded of this in the last few days when observing attitudes to face mask wearing exhibited by my fellow humans. I could write many Twitteretters, or even a short book, on this. But maybe the behaviour that most catches my eye is seeing families, walking together, on the beach or in town, with one member wearing a mask and the others not. This is, in practical terms, completely nonsensical, and shows that, as monkeys would, they wear the mask without any understanding of what they are doing. It is obvious that if coronavirus was to infect any of the non mask wearing family members, it would also, at home, infect the mask wearer. And the reverse is true, if the wearer were infected, the non wearers would be infected too and passing it to others. This split, let’s do both, approach to mask wearing shows a complete lack of understanding of the policy’s rationale, in addition to peculiar disunity in the family

109. The immigration lie

One of the defining drivers of nationalistic populist movements coming to the fore in the last few years, not for the first time as history teaches us, is the belief by the working class that immigrants will take their livelihood, lower wages, increase insecurity and crime rates. America First, Brexit, the rise of Vox in Spain or La Lega in Italy all owe their popularity to this idea. This is an amazingly executed subterfuge by an elite that takes more and more of the pie whilst convincing those left with less that they need to fight each other. The tactic is not new. Julius Caesar famously postulated it as a strategy with ‘Divide et Impera’ and Sun Tzu even before him, in ‘The Art of War’. Well, I have news for you. There is absolutely no evidence, whatsoever, that immigrants will do any of this. There is, in fact, some evidence that they will do the opposite, they work harder and engage in crime less than natives and, often, raise wages for locals, who become their supervisors Length

108. The sorry story of GDP and how a simple tool became the master of our thinking

GDP was initially developed, in modern terms, maybe by Simon Kuznets, as a simple measurement of how well an economy was doing, and started being taken seriously after the Bretton Woods Accords. It is a huge simplification of an economy’s success. The fact that it is a simplification is its strength. Humans, even those with very little knowledge of economics and social sciences, can engage in one of our favourite activities, pointless competition. How is my country doing against others? Let’s look at GDP. As a result, it has become the driving objective of government. A drop in GDP defines a recession, and a recession is the sure fire way of getting a government fired. But GDP does not measure wellbeing in a society. It tells us nothing about the distribution of the wealth generated. It excludes any activity not performed in exchange for payment, such as voluntary cooperation. It says nothing about environmental impact, public health or citizen happiness. The tail is wagging the dog Le

107. Teenage kicks, or is the half better than the whole?

Have you ever listened to a teenage boy while he is playing in an online console party? If you have not, you should. It is an experience. If you don’t have one, borrow him from a friend who does. It’s hard to know whether the one sided chat you are privy to is better or worse than the complete dialogue. Incompleteness does deprive it of context, which may well be a blessing. Although it’s hard to imagine how the whole could be worse than the part. When listening to it, you marvel at how humans can have changed so much so quickly. What’s happened since you were their age, and eminently normal? And then you remember the Ramones, the punk movement, those steel toed Doc Martens, techno and the oversized shoulder pads… You remember your parents, regarding you with a mix of marvel and aversion, sometimes even helpless bewilderment. Wondering how humans could have possibly changed so quickly since they were teenagers, and eminently normal. Is this the price of maturity? Is it indeed maturity?

106. The impossible battle against misinformation in social media

I think it was Mark Twain who said something like: ‘Never argue with an idiot, they will drag you to their level and beat you with experience’. I can imagine this quote was coined at a moment of exasperation after one such argument. We could adapt it, today, to something like: ‘Never challenge misinformation in social media. It will fight you with continuous, mindless repetition and beat you using your good intentions to help its spread’. This is a tough problem. Social media, particularly short form one such as Twitter, is not designed as a forum for reasoned thoughts and exhaustive information, which should be the weapons deployed in this particular battle. This is a problem, because social media provides a more suitable voice for agitation and deceit than it does for reason. We must find other media, but it is true today that the length of content is inversely proportional to the numbers that consume it, and only if we can buck that trend the truth will out, as the old adage says Le

105. Fake news and lies

I promised myself not to write about Donald Trump when I started writing Twitteretter, and I’ill continue to stick by this, but it’s hard not to when musing about fake news and lies, as he provides an extremely apt case study. Trump continuously complains about the fake news media, mainstream media such as CNN or the Washington Post. In doing so, he shows he does not understand, or does not want to understand, the concept. The news these media deliver have a provenance, an author and a legally responsible editorial team. They may be inaccurate, in which case they can be challenged with facts, but they are not fake. Of course, challenging with fact requires more work and it is only possible if they are indeed inaccurate. Much easier to just call them fake news. But fake news are something else, they are anonymous misinformation with no provenance designed to elicit an emotional response which will lead to viral spreading by both those that believe them and those who try to challenge the

104. The slow but essential transition towards green politics

The last few days have seen important successes for so called green parties, particularly in the municipal elections in France, but before that in Germany too. These parties propose the furthering of ecological interests ahead of GDP growth. Given that climate change is probably the biggest threat not only humanity but also GDP face today, this is not only good news, but eminently sensible. The green wave, however, is rising only in a few European countries, precisely those that are less threatened by climate change consequences. The main discriminating factor in the success of these political forces seems to be economic level and living standards. The richer countries are, the better green parties do in them. And that raises another observation. This clear tendency is not present in the US or the UK, where green parties are politically inexistent. It seems to me that GDP per capita is not the key, but rather its distribution. The US and the UK are rich, but their people are not Length

103. Is upward solidarity a thing?

I am occasionally saddened, sometimes even shocked, by our (modern humans) general inability to empathise with those whose lot is worse than ours. This is a generalisation, unfair to some as they all are. Some people do empathise, and even do much more to help than the occasional, guilt assuaging direct debit. But, for the majority, empathy with the poorer is a very sporadic, even chimeric thought. I am not surprised by this. To empathise, you have to put yourself in the place of the other. And practice makes perfect. We have built an aspirational rather than compassionate society, in which our reveries are spent imagining how great it would be to be rich and famous. This is what we practice, and therefore, where our skills are at. And so, we create a strange aberration, upward empathy. We feel more, and identify more with, the pleasures of the wealthier than with the suffering of the poorer. In doing so, we give up action and solidarity in exchange for inane, voyeuristic window gazing

102. The fallacy of the willing poor

An insidious, dangerous narrative has developed in what is euphemistically called conservative political movements, also known as the right. This is the fallacy of the willing poor. According to it, those who are poor are choosing to be, they don’t want to work, they rather live off benefits, subsidies and other social help. This argument is used to outcast solidarity from national and international systems. The middle classes withdraw support from the unemployed and those genuinely on benefits. Richer countries refuse to help poorer countries during recessions, etc. The ultimate effect is a breakdown of our society, which becomes more individualistic, more materialistic and abandons community. This fallacy is particularly grievous in countries without full employment. It is obvious that, when structurally full employment is not available, some will have no work, however willing. When you look at the evidence, which authors like Rutger Bregman do, there is none to support this narrativ

101. The day Twitteretter will end

I did an interesting exercise today, at least interesting for me. I calculated the date on which I’ll publish my last Twitteretter, post 1,001. 22 nd December 2022. Firstly, this is very fitting. When growing up in Spain, 22 nd December was the start date of the Christmas holidays, packed with the excitement of the break and festivities ahead, and with the feeling of having completed an important stage, the first term of the academic year. Ending Twitteretter on such a date works serendipitously. I wonder what I will be writing about at the time. I can promise you it will not be coronavirus, hopefully because it is gone and not just because I am fed up with it as a subject, which will happen much, much sooner. I expect I will still be writing about social injustice, inequality and political cloak and dagger. I hope I will, however, also be writing about amazing achievements in science and technology and the paradigm changes they may bring to our society and politics. I look forward t

100. The complexity of making sound environmental decisions

Espresso and printed press, my ideal weekend morning. A long established family tradition, passed down through generations. Now I must decide whether it is sustainable on environmental grounds. Papermaking has significant environmental impact, not only tree cutting, but intensive use of water and electricity, associated worker commuting and similar issues with ink making and the production of printing presses. On the counterbalance, we have the impact on lost jobs of going digital, with printers and other factory workers potentially joining the doll queues. And will trees still be planted if not used for paper, as most papermakers do plant trees to sustain production these days, evolving from purely extractive business models. All in all, this is a complex decision, which I struggle to make with the easily accessible information. There is a need, I think, for services which lay facts and consequences clearly and easily for the public, so that we can make choices that reflect our aims L

99. Are the new Charles Chaplin or Buster Keaton on TikTok?

New social media platforms keep on coming. Not surprisingly, whenever a new industry explodes a goldrush ensues which only stops well after newcomers have nothing to contribute. Inertia is not only an inescapable force in physics, but also in society. I have just been exposed to Tik Tok, the Chinese video sharing platform which relies for its content on users recording making fools of themselves and sharing this with the World. The egocentrism, self-absorption and obsession with meaningless limelight that it exposes in our young does not bode too well for the future, but let us see how it evolves before we judge it too harshly. The silly, slapstick humour is at first sight reminiscent of Chaplin or Keaton, the hapless falls and overchoreographed stunts. But then you remember, it was not the kicks on the butts of unfortunate policemen that made Chaplin great, but the social, political and human meaning of his content, as far removed from the empty Tik Tok content as one can imagine Leng

98. Choosing the best sources

One of the biggest changes that we as humans had to deal with in the last couple of decades is selecting information in the face of a huge increase of availability of sources through the appearance of digital and social media. Knowledge is as important as ever, if not more, as we now also have a public voice through social networks, and as what we publish and re-share, matters. This is a challenge, but the opportunities are wondrous. For me, an illustrative example of this is Hay Player. This tool gives us access to all the talks presented at the wonderfully inspiring literary festival held in Wales annually. Our top thinkers, writers, scientists, philosophers, economists and politicians discuss the subjects they regard as critical, openly and in a climate of tolerance. Every one of these talks and discussions is available to you and me through Hay Player. Check it out, you will be amazed by how much you learn, and how much you enjoy doing so. May easily be your best decision of the da

97. USA, that bastion of democracy

I had my early formative years in the XX century, when the US was globally regarded as a bastion of democracy. It was a bit too commercial, Americans a bit na├»ve, but they could be relied on to stand up for democracy and protect the international rule of law. They had a big hand in developing some of the still somewhat ineffective but aspirational global institutions we enjoy today, such as the UN, the IMF or the WHO. But things have gone badly wrong for US democracy since the turn of the century, first with the War on Terror and the rogue Iraq invasion, led more by Halliburton’s economic interest than by a genuine concern about WMDs, and now with the election of Donald Trump, America’s irreparable loss of credibility due to abandoning long held and trusted international commitments and shocking scenes of police violence we are more used to associating with banana dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. Democracy needs a new champion, and the only candidate at present seems to be Europ

96. The public's perception of the importance of science

The coronavirus pandemic has brough along an understanding by the public of the value and importance of science in society. This should, of course, have been there before, science did not become important in 2020, but it was not. The fact is, those who work in science must do more to expose it to the public eye but, more importantly, to explain its utility and value. This is something which has been understood by some Universities, which now have Chairs for the Public Understanding of Science, or similar. But everyone working in science must further its public understanding, we don’t need to be given the job to do so. We must make it an item of conversation, in social media and at the bar, now that they are reopening in many places. Only when the public understands its importance will science get the investment and support it needs to increase its impact and, hopefully, prevent the next pandemic or similar disaster. And only by numbers can we beat those that deal in confusion and mayhe