Sunday seven: universities, notebooks, mobile and journalism

So perhaps I don’t reach the target of seven great tech articles to share with you today, but I spend pretty much all day yesterday at an amazing wedding and I have a hangover. It’s not so much that coherent thought is a problem this morning, it’s more that I can’t get the dance floor song “I Will Survive!” out of my head…

What happened to universities? – via the LA Review of Books

A powerful article describing the decreasing importance of knowledge and understanding, and the disservice this does to the students. A long read, but worth it.

“If you think I overstate the matter, consider this: I know of faculty members who have been summoned by student services staff members to “discuss” a grade with which one of their students was unhappy. Never mind that grades are not designed to make students happy but rather to encourage them to grow intellectually by setting goals just beyond their reach; and never mind also that in the university, students are considered adults who are required as a matter of policy to take their complaints directly to their professors. Partially educated student services staff members are able to intervene in academic matters for which they have no qualifications because the institution in which they work allows them to do so. As a result of their actions, your sons and daughters may well feel happy and empowered and valued in their programs. What they won’t be, however, is educated — the only true and lasting way really to experience these sentiments.”

I’ve heard professor friends say the same, although perhaps not quite so eloquently. That the reason most of their students are there is that they need to have somewhere to be. We all know that’s not right. That it’s not fair to students, teachers or society. That there is so much at stake. But, not much seems to be done to change the situation.

“Why was it impossible to educate my students, in any meaningful sense of the word, when we (me, my colleagues, even some administrators) knew perfectly well how to do so? It was like wondering why that sweaty, panting guy in the gym clothes standing next to the fountain with a cup in his hand refuses to drink.

But then I had an epiphany. It occurred one evening while I was giving a seminar to a small group of students from a large first-year course I was coordinating at the time. If all the financial, physical, and intellectual equipment necessary to educate these people were present, and yet they remained uneducated even after spending five or even six years in our classrooms, then the problem was not that we were unable to cultivate their intelligence but that we did not want to, and that participation in the world we had created for them somehow did not require it of them either.”

I was at a business lunch last week at which the table conversation revolved around everyone agreeing that our kids should leave Spain to go and study and/or work abroad if they possibly can. I am also guilty of encouraging my kids to do the same. But no-one could explain to me what was being done about this. Why we encouraged the young to leave is fairly obvious: “lack of opportunity”. But what would it take to change that? Why are we accepting that this is the situation, rather than fighting to change it? What do we need to do for Spain to become a brain magnet, rather than suffer from brain drain? How do we inject the opportunity back in to our society? No-one at the table had ever given this any thought.

“The worst fate for our children, yours and mine, is that because their education has been about little more than fun, self-affirmation, and “skills acquisition,” when the easy pleasures of youth run out and self-affirmation is all they’ve got left, because the student services cheerleaders aren’t around any longer to reinforce that particular illusion, what will remain for them is not just bad work, unappetizing fare, and the dreary distractions of the modern entertainment industry — all of which can be tolerated, as bad as they may be — but the absence of something to live for, the highest and most beautiful activity of their intelligence. To cheat them of that is the real crime, and the most profound way in which modern universities have betrayed the trust of an entire generation of young people.”

— x —

The whole-brain notebook – via Design Milk

I don’t subscribe to the right-brain/left-brain school of thought (he he, see what I did there?). But I do have two separate notebooks, one for tech-related stuff and one for mind wanderings. So you can understand why I covet this notebook.

via Design Milk

via Design Milk

And even more so, these (Moleskin notebooks covered in fabric! – on my Christmas list – if I’m going to have two Moleskins on the go, one has to be different, right?):

via Design Milk

via Design Milk

— x —

16 mobile theses – by Benedict Evans, via a16z

Benedict Evans’ thoughts on mobile technology are worth reading. He has a knack for putting things into perspective, for making far-reaching ideas seem obvious and for delivering complex opinions with a down-to-earth humour.

His walk-through of the mobile scene brings up such surprising nuggets as:

“We should stop talking about ‘mobile’ internet and ‘desktop’ internet –  it’s like talking about ‘colour’ TV, as opposed to black and white TV. We have a mental mode, left over from feature phones, that ‘mobile’ means limited devices that are only used walking around. But actually, smartphones are mostly used when you’re sitting down next to a laptop, not ‘mobile’, and their capabilities make them much more sophisticated as internet platforms than the PC. Really, it’s the PC that has the limited, cut-down version of the internet.”

“Mobile isn’t about small screens and PCs aren’t about keyboards – mobile means an ecosystem and that ecosystem will swallow ‘PCs’.”

“…talk of standards for IoT misses the point – ‘connected to a network’ is not any more a category’ than ‘contains a motor’, and there will be many different platforms and standards. More important is that, especially in the enterprise, this explosion in sensors means an explosion in data – we’ll know far more about far more, and that allows fundamental system redesign.”

What I most love about Benedict’s writing is that he shows you unexpected conclusions in a straightforward way that takes you back a bit, turns you around to face another way, gives you new ground to stand on, and makes you feel like you were there all along.

— x —

Dronestegram

A web for photos and videos taken by drones. Totally spectacular. Taking photography to new heights (sorry).

by Zayedh, via Dronestagram

by Zayedh, via Dronestagram

— x —

Predictions for journalism 2016 – via Nieman Lab

Nieman Lab’s usual annual round-up of predictions for journalism is an inspiring read at any time of year. I still dip into their 2015 version every now and then. This collection will also n o doubt become a classic.

The collection covers live journalism, platform wars, monetization, frictionless video, local news, distraction, indie publishers, virtual reality, design, comments, chat, measurement, empathy and much, much more…

— x —

Vertical dwellings inside test tubes – via Colossal

I’m not sure why I find these totally fascinating. The encapsulation of life? The working around nature? The freezing of time? Or the hypnosis of miniaturization?

by Rosa de Jong, via Colossal

by Rosa de Jong, via Colossal

— x —

Huge MIT Media Lab inventions that transformed our world – via Wired

The MIT Media Lab sounds like a pretty cool place to work. An inspirational video that leaves you wondering what they’re not telling us.

— x —

The rise of self-help tech – via TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

An overview of the growing market for and selection of self help apps for the on-demand user. Mental health guidance in your pocket. Wisdom at an affordable price. Technology as guru? How will this change our relationship with our mobile devices?

And, what about the data the ecosystem collects?

— x —

Drones in dance – via FastCoDesign

So that’s what else drones can be used for. This totally extraordinary ad for a fashion market in Japan relies on drones to keep it, um, safe for work. You have to admire the drones’ precision.

— x —

Two things I’m enjoying this week

(although it’s such a great time of year that the list could easily grow ten-fold):

1) While in Copenhagen a few weeks ago with my daughter, we bought what must be one of the craziest advent calendars ever: the Lego Star Wars Advent Calendar. And it is so much fun. Every day in December you open a little flap to extract a tiny Lego Star Wars character or accessory. You click the pieces together, you perch them on the edge of your bookshelf and you hope that the rambunctious dog doesn’t knock them over.

star wars lego advent calendar

star wars lego advent calendar 2

2) A friend of mine runs a game every Christmas. Anyone who wants to can play, the scoring is done on Facebook, and the winner is the last one to not hear the song “The Little Drummer Boy”. When you hear it, the honour system requires you to publicly disqualify yourself. Personally, I love the song, so I’m quite happy to lose. This is the best version I’ve heard: Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing a beautiful duet. Two amazing voices, two very different styles and a cosy Christmas setting.

Happy emoji to you 2015

We can’t leave the year without a look at the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of 2015. A word that reflects the ethos and mood of 2015. A word that embodies the density and immediacy of modern communication. A powerful word that transmits a wide range of meanings within context, and adds emotions and subtlety to a conversation. Here it is, the Word of 2015:

emoji crying with tears

 

 

 

Perhaps you’re sputtering that that’s not a word.

But, who says?

The official definitions tend to go along these lines:

“A single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed.”

Or,

“A single distinct conceptual unit of language, comprising inflected and variant forms.”

Nowhere does it specify that a word can only consist of letters. A word is an element, a conceptual unit, including variant forms. And that could be an image.

Originally developed in the late 1990s by Japanese telecom firm NTT DoCoMo as a way to entice teens onto the platform, they spread like a viral meme, capturing teens’ love of communication, abbreviations and cliqueness. Teens throughout time have developed their own vocabulary to facilitate recognition, to label and to exclude stuffy grownups. Adapted language becomes a way to show that you’re cool or you’re “in”. Emojis satisfied both the communication and the “belonging” needs unlike any other language evolution had done before, and leveraged this by belonging to the era of messaging and networks.

Which makes them a deeply fascinating evolution of language that has far exceeded its initial intention. Emojis have spilled over from the realm of teenhood into the mainstream, without losing the passionate adoption of their initial base. They have become an integral part of the messaging experience, for all ages, while still forming part of teen culture. And the messaging experience is integral to emoji’s rise in popularity. Messaging has become an important part of our communication, and rather than focus on how it limits the amount of verbal interaction going on, we need to take into account how it expands the scope of connection by making it more convenient and immediate. In August of this year, the Pew Research Center published a report that shows that almost a third of online adults use a messaging platform such as WhatsApp, Kwik or iMessage. Amongst young adults (18-29) the percentage is almost half.  Surveying amongst my friends (and we’re not exactly, cough, young adults), I’d say 100%.

And the concept is so easy to grasp. We intuitively get that a smiley face means happiness or friendliness, a frown means that you’re pissed off, a martini glass means that you’re in the mood for a celebration. The beauty is in the nuances and implications. That is what makes emojis a language tool rather than just a decoration. That smiley face may seem simple, but its interpretation is entirely dependent on context. For example:
emoji smiley face= I’m happy
= I want you to like me
= (innocent face) I didn’t really mean what I just said
= (covering it up) I’m mad as hell but not letting it show
= (it doesn’t bother me) I can’t go on holiday but I’m okay with that (okay maybe not really please call)

For a comparison, think of the word “great”. It could mean a wide range of things. The context is important, but perhaps even more so is the tone. Try saying the word in a range of different pitches – high and low, fast and slow – and see how the meaning changes, even to yourself. Now imagine all these nuances in the context of a conversation.

And that’s what those that accuse emojis of dragging us back to the pictograph days are missing. That emojis are so much more than icons, that they are so much more than pictographic representations of a state of mind. They depend on context, they add tone and they transmit complex nuances in a surprisingly simple format. They convey emotion in a more condensed, efficient and graphic form than words can. To get an idea of how pervasive they have become, both in our culture and in our psyche, imagine if they were wiped out, disappeared, unavailable. If you message at all, you will feel a stab of dismay. Take emojis away, and our texting conversations become flatter.

While messaging is their obvious home, the intimacy and connection of this new language is spilling over into more mainstream uses.  A Pew Research Center study in 2008 found that 25% of students had used emoticons in their school work. Emojis are used in art:

emoji mandala vedran misic

(emoji mandala by Vedran Misic, via Behance.net)

In literature:

emoji nativity scene

(emoji nativity scene via emojipoems.tumblr.com, season appropriate!)

In fashion:

emoji fashion

Even in home furnishings:

emoji pillows

Brands are joining the party: Domino’s Pizza and JC Penney entered into a hilarious marketing-oriented dialogue after Domino’s started tweeting the pizza emoji.

emoji dominos

emojis

Brands can even design their own emoji now. These are from Burger King.

emoji burger king

Finland issued its own emojis:

finnish emoji metal

finnish emoji sauna

The emoji field is constantly being updated and enriched. IoS 9.1 incorporated new and much needed emojis such as the nerd, the unicorn and the popping champagne bottle.

This will lead to more messages being even more sprinkled with amusing images, adding emphasis and content with a single tap.

Which is why calling emojis a new “language” is missing the point. Despite hilarious attempts to limit communication to images, emojis only really shine when used in conjunction with our alphabet language. They are counterpoint, texture and embellishment. They help to organize thoughts, to add information and even to categorize. They are not “another” language. They are a new form of punctuation. Just as our commas, dashes and quotes help to organize sentences, just as our question marks and exclamation points help to add emotion, emojis reduce the need for words. They make our phrases more understandable, or they pack them with even more information, and in so doing, they make our language richer.

Incorporating emojis into our daily use will not displace words. We collectively produce many more (oh, so many more) words than at any other time in our history. Words have not gone away. And it is important that, with the increase in communication, we find tools that help us deal with the overwhelming opportunities and the imperative to connect. We need tools that help to deflect in some way the pressure that our increased power of communication creates. Emojis don’t replace, they extend. And in simplifying communication, they help us to bridge gaps between generations and cultures. Is that not what language is for?

Sunday Seven: freedom, communication, predictions and media

Seven articles I came across this week that I think are important and relevant enough to share. Oh, and some cool art. Because why not?

— x —

Are we liberated by tech, or does it enslave us? – via The Guardian

“Technology makes us more productive, but it’s also accused of unreasonably extending the domain of work. So does tech liberate us, or enslave us? And what does it really “intend” to do?”

We don’t know the answer to these questions. But that’s not important. What is important is the asking.

“Our devices present us with simulacra of beautiful, fit, fulfilled people pursuing their dreams and falling in love, and none of them are browsing the web at 11pm on a Saturday night – unlike us. We click and swipe our woebegone way through a vibrant world where nobody who is anybody spends their free time in front of a glowing screen, painfully aware that our only access to that world is through that very glowing screen.”

Is that the relationship with technology that we want? If the answer is “yes”, that’s absolutely fine. But at least we’re choosing, not having the choosing done for us.

“But even if tech companies aren’t really trying to enslave us, or to make us feel inadequate, that doesn’t mean that the current situation is a case of good intentions gone awry. There’s no more reason to think that tech is intrinsically good, but occasionally getting it wrong, than there is to think that it’s a remarkably successful villain.”

A tech-filled life is the default option. If we change that and make it a conscious choice, we’ll get so much more out of it.

— x —

The modern world – via Bored Panda

Some of these are very funny…

by Jean Jullien

by Jean Jullien

by Jean Jullien

by Jean Jullien

— x —

Messaging is just getting started – via Medium

Many argue that instant messaging is the most important function to come out of the new networking technologies. Its impact on economies, on communities and on individuals seems obvious, but is still being explored. It’s not comfortable, the keyboards are tiny, and does anyone actually like autocorrect? But it connects and it builds and it solves problems more efficiently than almost any other invention since the first computer was switched on.

“Information wants to be immediate, global, and expressive. Like a stream of water finds a crack in the rock and expands it, information will always find a way to develop a more efficient channel.”

As a form of communication, messaging has the advantage of being 1) asynchronous, 2) easy to consume, 3) informal, 4) always with you and 5) expressive.

“Communication is a fundamentally human act, and anything that allows us to connect with each other is going to connect with us. Messaging can emulate the intimacy of a private conversation or the fun of group banter.”

This article looks at the importance of the function, and shows how its development is just getting started. Which on the one hand is puzzling: it feels like it’s been around forever, how come it’s just getting started? On the other hand it’s encouraging: so it might get even easier to use?

“Just a couple of years ago we were sending clipped, plain text SMS messages back and forth. But today it’s common for a chat to consist of text, emojis, stickers, photos, videos, and audio recordings. Our digital conversations have almost imperceptibly morphed into a rich, evocative form of communication.”

The potential for embedding commerce could open up the concept to a new level of functionality, making messaging an ever more important feature in our lives. Ordering taxis, getting movie tickets, sending flowers…

And with the tiny details that make up our existence increasingly tapped onto a messaging platform, it will be so much easier for data collecting to produce a pretty accurate picture of who we are and who we will be.

— x —

The ebook is dead, long live the ebook – via The Memo

I read. Not nearly as much as I would like, but I need books around me like I need air around me. And I am a staunch defender of books on paper. I love the feel, the heft, the dimensions, even the smell.

Ebooks are great for research. I love the highlighting capabilities, and the search function. The accessibility, the low cost (for older books), the portability are definitely in their favour. But the swiping can get annoying, the convenience detracts from the experience, and other old-school gripes entrench us publishing luddites in our “paper is best” dogma.

So you can understand why I celebrated the news earlier this year that ebook sales were stagnant or even falling, while print book, paper book sales were increasing.

Not so fast. This article sends up a warning flare to all who thought the digitalization front had met its match. Ebook sales had simply reached a plateau, that is all. They are now ready to regroup and to continue advancing. Technological progress does not sleep, and innovations and new formats a breathing new life into a format that we had become accustomed to.

And yet. According to Michael Tamblyn, CEO of ebook company Kobo, we will end up with a truly hybrid industry. The experience of e-reading is improving with better interface and intriguing novelties. So is the experience of print reading, with innovative formats, better design and new genres.

“’Digital continues to perform incredibly well with some types of non-fiction and genre fiction like romance, sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers and crime, but publishers have also upped their game with types of books that are best experienced in print – incredibly beautiful cookbooks and art books, books that are beautiful physical objects and make great gifts. I think what we are seeing is publishers and retailers of all types refining their approach to what readers want, and that’s always a good thing.’”

— x —

Some media predictions for the next 5 years – via Medium

An enjoyable dash through the changing media landscape.

“One theme across this entire post is power shifts — and it’s the thing I most expect to see in media. Distribution has long been held and gated by corporate interests, and we’re going to a place where content creators hold far more leverage.”

A summary of the major predictions:

1) Virtual reality journalism is a while off from becoming a thing.

2) Podcasts are becoming a very important medium.

3) Citizen journalism is getting its act together – stuff to be worked out still, but we’re getting there.

4) Television is history. This will change advertising. And series is the new cinema.

5) Continued shift from print ads to online. Big and small newspapers should be ok, mid-sized ones will struggle.

6) Buzzfeed is the king of low-brow journalism, and will continue to grow.

7) In spite of a shift away from email, newsletters will continue to work. Expect some Slack-first newsletters to show up soon.

8) Platforms such as Facebook and Apple will help publishers earn money.

9) We’ll see more stories created especially for platform media.

10) Medium will have a bigger impact than many people realize.

11) The quality of discussion in the comments will improve.

12) Media revenue will come from a diverse assortment of streams.

13) Streaming music will continue to shift, with live-stream concerts and the entrance of Google into the field.

14) Always-on media has led to a power shift in politics (the only way to explain the success of Donald Trump).

— x —

Frames in nature – via Colossal

Artist Daryll Fox fuses tree branches with ornate wooden picture frames to create something that looks as if nature tried to encapsulate itself. Quite extraordinary.

by Daryll Fox

by Daryll Fox

— x —

The fault lines reshaping audio – via TechCrunch

Having looked at the text media landscape, let’s turn our attention to audio. What big changes in the listening industry are coming?

1) Access: smartphones have replaced MP3 players and iPods. Multi-purpose wireless systems are replacing home and car stereos. Social media is a more powerful recommendation tool than search, in all media. This should give audio an extra push.

2) Blurred lines between audio and text: audiobooks, speech recognition…

3) Ads: with smartphones and cars the main listening devices, will we see the development of targeted audio ads?

4) Aggregators: expect movement in the spoken word platforms, with Apple’s leadership in podcast downloads threatened by online streaming via Soundcloud, Pandora, Google, etc. Will paywalls become a thing?

Personally, I find this resurgence of interest in the spoken word as a form of entertainment and art very exciting. I love podcasts, and I’m going to start experimenting with audiobooks. So much creativity and professionalism, as well as innovation and talent, make it a very exhilarating field to follow.

“Looking across the span of 200,000 years of human existence, audio is arguably the media format for which humans are most naturally wired. While reading and writing are relatively recent innovations that have emerged during the last 5 percent of that time span, we have always been able to speak and listen.”

— x —

The next frontier for wearables – via TechCrunch

The field of wearables has come a long way since I wrote about it months ago. This article looks at some of the trends that will change our relatively limited view on the sector, and makes you realize that, hey, this will probably be something that improves my life after all.

1) Batteries will become more flexible, lighter, more longer-lasting.

2) “Tattoos”, or ultra-thin patches that adhere to your skin, will come down in price and save more lives.

3) Nanotech: Google has been working on magnetic nanoparticles that can seek out cancer cells.

— x —

Does exercise help keep our brains young? – via The New York Times

I include this because it was my birthday yesterday and “staying young” is something that I think about a lot more than I used to.

The opening is a bit depressing:

“For most of us, our bodies begin to lose flexibility and efficiency as we enter our 40s. Running and other movements slow down and become more awkward, and something similar seems to occur within our heads. As middle age encroaches, our thinking becomes less efficient. We don’t toggle between mental tasks as nimbly as we once did or process new information with the same aplomb and clarity.”

But then you can skip the science in the middle of the article and head straight to the encouraging conclusion:

“The upshot of the findings… is that daily mild exercise such as walking and mild jogging may affect the way the brain works, so that an older person’s brain ‘acts like a younger brain.’”

So, off for a brisk jog now…

— x —

Speaking of which, I took this photo from my bedroom window yesterday morning. Once a year a bunch of crazy people run a mini-marathon around Madrid dressed up as Santa Claus. Many with fake beards and all. I even saw several dogs trotting alongside their owners, also dressed up in little doggy Father Christmas outfits. Crazy.

runners

— x —

2 things I’m particularly enjoying this week

1) The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

the big sleep

Beautifully written, with a gripping plot. Very dry, very “noir”, amazing language. For example:

Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.

Or:

“If I sound a little sinister as a parent, Mr. Marlowe, it’s because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy.” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, then opened them again suddenly. “I need not add that a man who indulges in parenthood for the first time at the age of fifty-four deserves all he gets.”

2) Calm

Calm 2Calm 1

For improving concentration, this is my secret weapon. I discovered recently that I’m not the only one who thinks that she is terrible at meditating – it turns out that most people do. Huge relief. So, knowing that, I let Calm help me focus on my breathing and quiet my mind, and remind me to let thoughts go. I really like the voice behind the guided sessions, the background sounds, and the beautiful, peaceful videos that accompany. Enhanced focus, here I come!

— x —

Have a great week, and good luck with the holiday shopping!

Twitter bots: The weird, the strange and the truly odd

I’ve talked about Twitter bots (automated Twitter accounts – the “bots” is short for “robots”) before, about their role in education and the weirdness that is social media. Today, however, I’m going to show you a different type of example: some are quirky, others interesting, and a few are downright entertaining.

One of my favourites is the Big Ben bot. On the hour, every hour, it tweets Big Ben’s bongs. This is possibly more useful if you live in the UK, but it would provide a fun distraction no matter where you are. Although I confess that I do not understand why so many people favourite and re-tweet this one. “News” it is not.

 

Do you remember the movie The Sound of Music? Of course you do, we all do, or at least you do if you’re over 30. So, you remember the song “My Favourite Things”? Of course you do, that movie has the most inexplicably memorable songs of any movie, ever. There is a Twitter bot that will send you a snippet of the song’s lyrics, with certain key words substituted. Very amusing. The annoying part is that once you see the tweets, it will be impossible to get that song out of your head the rest of the day. Trust me on this.

 

This is really very clever. Dear Assistant is a search-engine-based bot created to answer your questions. Sure, Google could do that as well, but this is more fun.

 

I actually follow this one: a bot that tweets random images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, several times a day. Eye candy, or brain candy, or whatever, it’s a break from so much tech stuff.

 

The MomaRobot does the same, from New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

 

CongressEdits is one part surreal, one part worrying, and one part encouraging. It detects when a Wikipedia entry is edited from a government IP address. The surreal aspect is obvious, I suppose (why would we care?), the worrying part comes from the “why aren’t they revising policies and improving accountability?”, and the encouragement comes from realising that the people running the US government know a lot about a lot of different things.

 

Mothgenerator uses Javascript to generate images of imaginary moths, assigns them believable names, and shares them with the world. Why? No idea, but it’s cool.

 

This one is actually quite beautiful. Micropoetry on @poem_exe. I don’t know how they do it, but some of them almost make some sort of sense.

 

While not exactly Artificial Intelligence, these Twitter bots are surprising, uplifting and sometimes hilarious. Although usually the hilarity stems from the split between their apparent depth of meaning and their beautiful irrelevance.

Sunday Seven: cryptography, education, IoT and data

Some articles from this week that I think are important, and a couple of non-reading things that I’m enjoying:

This war on math is bullshit – via TechCrunch

A brilliantly insightful and entertaining article by Jon Evans, told mainly through tweets (why aren’t I following all these clever people?) about encryption and how legislators just don’t understand it.

“It’s not actually important whether or not the Paris attackers didn’t use encryption, except that the canned and pre-planned reaction to the attacks shows the disingenuous bad faith of the authoritarians who want back doors and “secure golden keys.” The important thing is to realize how useless those back doors would be even if they were implemented.”

The title is misleading, however. We’re not in a “war on math”, we’re in a war against powerlessness. I don’t think that anti-encryption politicians hate math. They hate not being able to control communication. They know that freedom is good, but have a hard time reconciling that with threats to our way of life. And it seems that most of them don’t understand cryptography.

All of which is not exactly unreasonable. And totally beside the point. Jon does a beautiful job of pointing out how the lack of understanding of what cryptography is, distracts from the lapses in intelligence and security, which have little to do with encryption. It also distracts from the sinister current of restriction.

Often throughout history, fear has led to a crackdown on liberty. That in itself is not the worrying part – we all seem to accept that some restrictions are necessary for us to live in safety. The worrying part is the over-reaction, which sets of a polarising chain of events which doesn’t end well. Articles like this, and tweet storms, think pieces and other examples of unencrypted transparency will keep those that don’t understand encryption on the sidelines.

While the title may be misleading in its evocation of a battle against arithmetic, it is perfect in that it indirectly points out the futility of the anti-encryption lobby. Technically, we’re witnessing a war on cryptography, which is an extension of math, which is part of nature. Whether you understand it or not, it’s there. It’s not going away. Trying to control the use of encryption is like trying to control the use of fire. Equally tempting. Equally futile. Yet even more difficult, because at least fire is easy to see.

— x —

How the Internet talks – via FiveThirtyEight

Five ThirtyEight has come up with a brilliantly graphic way to isolate trends and to keep up with the language. If you say “emoticon” instead of “emoji”, you’re dating yourself. “Bespoke” is more in than “artisanal”. And “IMO” (in my opinion) has totally eclipsed “IMHO” (in my honest opinion), which is a bit worrying.

Oh, and the hahas have it…

reddit-haha-hehe-etc

— x —

Why (is) school? – via Medium

This is part of a series of letters between education leaders, re-thinking the concept of education. Thought-provoking and at the same time frustrating, as we realise how woefully inadequate current schooling systems are (at least in Spain, where I live).

Part of the exercise involves going back to the basics and asking questions such as “why do schools exist?”. To prepare kids for the future? How many of us really think that schools are doing that today?

“We can’t predict the future, but we might be confident that any future will favor people who know themselves and can shape the conditions around them to meet their needs and the needs of their communities.”

Psychology needs to play a more important role, but not in the way that we have been led to believe:

“One of the primary misnomers about personalized education is that kids should do only what they want. The opposite is true: Personalization is most valuable for getting kids to challenge themselves more and to stick with learning that ultimately serves their long-term interests.”

Technology should by no means replace teachers, but should give greater flexibility to formats and outputs. It is praised for how it allows greater personalization. But its main gift is connection.

“Moreover, without exercising that agency muscle in students, schools can’t prepare kids for a lifetime of making decisions for themselves in a world that no longer presents a clear road map for success. Our students need, above all, to learn how to ask their own questions and solve the problems they deem most important. Schools should then become the curated setting to introduce kids to potential passions, to foster perseverance, to demonstrate excellence, and to cultivate independence.”

My daughter’s school recently suppressed Information Technology classes, which she loved. Yet they still have Latin as a requirement. I could cry.

— x —

Top Ed-Tech trends of 2015 – by Audrey Watters, via Medium

“I’m not sure why I worry. As education technology entrepreneurs and investors and politicians like to remind us, education has not changed in hundreds of years, right?. Or at least, it never ever changed until education technology entrepreneurs and investors came along to “disrupt” things. LOL. #thanksSiliconValley.”

I love how Audrey systematically punches holes in the easy justifications we come up with for our current enthusiasms (I was about to say fetishes, but though that sounded a bit strong). In this article, a precursor to several more going into detail about recent edtech trends, she takes a left swipe at education history revisionism, a right swipe at the fear that technology is overly distracting, and a short straight-punch to learning management systems.

She also summarizes the recent OECD report on technology in education, which concludes that it doesn’t make much of a difference. Here’s her diagnosis:

“One interpretation of all this is that building deep, conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking requires intensive teacher-student interactions, and technology sometimes distracts from this valuable human engagement. Another interpretation is that we have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology… If we want students to become smarter than a smartphone, we need to think harder about the pedagogies we are using to teach them. Technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching.

But let’s be honest. There is a dearth of “great technology.” Most ed-tech is crap.”

I’m looking forward to the upcoming series on the edtech hype, which, if this introduction is anything to go by, will be sobering, refreshing, and also cleansing. Ideal in the run-up to the Christmas festivities.

— x —

The freedom of recycling – via Colossal

Too beautiful not to share… Artist Paul Villinsky picks up old aluminum cans and turns them into images of freedom, flight and fantasy.

by Paul Villinski

by Paul Villinski

by Paul Villinski

by Paul Villinski

— x —

IoT: smart things we don’t really need – via Quartz

A hilarious dose of “what are we doing?” by Mike Murphy, that just might make you re-think your Christmas list.

Some of the gems:

“Toothbrushes: The Beam brush is a bluetooth toothbrush—a bluetoothbrush, if you will—that tracks how you brush your teeth and has an app that orders you new brushes every three months.”

“Dogs: The FitBark is an activity tracker like a FitBit, but for your dog. Soon, there will also be an app that lets you understand your dog’s emotions. Now you’ll be able to see how sad he is when you aren’t walking him enough.”

“Cups: A web-connected cup called Vessyl tells you what the liquid you’re drinking is—in case you have a habit of imbibing things without looking at what they are first.”

“Babies: For new, terrified parents who don’t want to leave their baby alone even when they do, there’s the Mimo connected onesie, and the Owlet connected socks. Both monitor baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels, and will alert you if something is wrong, which you’ll now constantly be worrying about if you weren’t already.”

I would add:

The smart bra – that only unclasps when it detects an elevated heart rate. I know, don’t ask.

The smart toilet paper roll – which lets you know when the paper’s about to run out. That sounds useful, but why should you be the one who always has to replace the toilet paper?

smart toilet paper roll

The smart jar – Neo tracks what’s inside, what it means for your health, and can shop for you when the jar runs low. Micro-management, much?

The smart egg tray – it tells you how long the eggs have been there, which ones you should use first and you can even check how many eggs you have while you’re at the store. Actually, this one sounds kinda useful.

— x —

The Green Tech Solucion – viaThe New York Times

“You’re asking people to impose costs on themselves today for some future benefit they will never see. You’re asking developing countries to forswear growth now to compensate for a legacy of pollution from richer countries that they didn’t benefit from. You’re asking richer countries that are facing severe economic strain to pay hundreds of billions of dollars in “reparations” to India and such places that can go on and burn mountains of coal and take away American jobs. And you’re asking for all this top-down coercion to last a century, without any enforcement mechanism.”

David Brooks gives us a fairly depressing sobering and realistically cynical look at the Climate Change talks, that ends on a hopeful tech-based note.

“The larger lesson is that innovation is the key. Green energy will beat dirty energy only when it makes technical and economic sense.”

Innovators, entrpreneurs and investors take note: that is a technological revolution worth focussing on.

— x —

The new med-tech – via The Memo

Google has filed a patent for a way to draw blood… without needles!! Without going into too many gory details, their device seems to “suck” the blood through your skin (it would be so cool if they named it “bloodsucker”).

The article also mentions Jawbone’s idea of putting sensors in your bloodstream that can adjust your home heating according to your body temperature, and will disable your car if you attempt to drive while drunk. Sensible. ¿But perhaps a bit intrusive?

— x —

I want one of these – via MyModernMet

Does this not sound like one of the most brilliant why-did-it-take-them-so-long ideas ever? A transparent toaster. No more burnt bread.

toaster

— x —

What I’m enjoying this week:

The Christmas lights in Madrid! My favourite part of the season is seeing this city even more sparkly than usual.

Christmas lights Madrid 2015

And, I’ve discovered a new podcast that is so much fun to listen to when pottering around the kitchen! Dinner Party Download. Stylish, funny and interesting, it does feel a bit like being part of a very interesting gathering.

dpd-logo-w-apm

— x —

Have a wonderfully Christmassy and not-to-stressful week!

Fintech, the economic crisis and pointed fingers

“Fintech exists because there finally is a need, and that need was born in the economic crisis.”

This is a verbatim (translated) quote from a talk given by a financial technology expert here in Madrid just last week. I have been to so many conferences where the economic crisis has been credited with the explosion in fintech enthusiasm and creativity. And I would like to take this opportunity to say that that just doesn’t make any sense. It may be a good sound bite, and it may provide an easy-to-sell story line, but we’re looking back along the wrong path. And in so doing, we are being very unfair to the innovation that the fintech movement is generating.

fintech

from Death to the Stock Photo

First, we can agree that the economic crisis was brought about by dubious leverage and weak compliance on the part of banks. Not all banks, but many. Subprime mortgages, securitization and shadow banking built a flimsy structure based on the delusion that money would always generate more money, and that free markets are self-sustaining. So far so good (or bad, whatever).

Some banks behaved badly. Although it wasn’t the banks as much as it was the people running and working for those institutions. And in most cases, those people are no longer there. In most cases, the banks in question were rescued, bought or shut down. Regulations were tightened, transparency increased and measures put into place to avoid the same mistakes. While it may seriously rankle that justice was not fairly dealt, we can’t reasonably claim that our current banks are eager to repeat what happened.

And sure, we may be pissed off with the banking sector, we may have lost a lot of respect for it (if we had it in the first place). But that does not mean that we don’t trust them with our money. Let’s face it, the big banks are insured. And governments around the world have shown that they will not let their big banks fail. However much we blame the banks for the economic crisis, we are still more likely to trust a bank with our money than an uninsured startup.

Here’s another way to look at it: if our traditional banks were better, faster, cheaper and more transparent than the new solutions cropping up, we would stick with them, trust or no trust. If the new solutions turn out to offer better conditions, better returns and better security, then it is likely that we would overcome our resistance to change and switch, especially if we see our friends doing the same.

The economic crisis is not responsible for the interest in fintech.

So, what is responsible for the surge in fintech solutions? Innovation and connectivity. Smart entrepreneurs coming up with clever solutions started the ball rolling well before the crisis hit. The concept actually goes back to the 1950s, with the introduction of the credit card. Online stock trading can be classified as fintech, and that’s been around since the early 90s. Paypal revolutionised payments in 1998. Zopa and Prosper started the peer-to-peer lending upheaval in 2005. Lending Club joined them in 2006, the same year in which online personal financial management became possible with Mint. The innovation was well under way by the time of the banking collapse of 2007-8.

To be fair, the economic crisis may have contributed to the boldness of some of the entrepreneurs, who for the first time in living memory saw the powerful incumbents become politically weak. It’s possible that several were emboldened by the fact that the established business fortress was vulnerable. And the freeze on loans helped the P2P platforms (crowdfunding and crowdlending) appeal to a wide market. Had the banks been eager to lend to individuals and businesses, one of the key fintech sectors would not have enjoyed such explosive growth. Furthermore, the closure of many financial institutions and the bleak outlook for the sector gave many financial experts the push they needed to become entrepreneurs. So the crisis and resulting banking crunch were certainly peripheral factors. But they’re not the reason.

Innovation does not need a crisis to flourish, or even to sprout. While “necessity is the mother of invention”, and creativity often results from having a problem to solve, the connectivity of new technologies has created the ideal environment for ideas and solutions to proliferate. Almost all sectors are being questioned, poked at and disrupted, and it’s not because of lack of trust of the incumbents. It’s because it is now easier than ever to get new ideas off the ground, and to find tech-savvy people willing to give them a try, open-minded businesses prepared to collaborate, and a news-hungry media eager to talk about it. We innovate because we can, and because we are tinkerers by nature.

The past decade has seen staggering upheaval and innovation in retail commerce, which did not arise because of cataclysmic crash in the traditional retail sector. It arose because there was finally a more convenient way for a segment of the population to purchase things. We have seen huge “disruption” in media, without a high-profile ethics-based media crisis. Transport is being reinvented, and we haven’t suffered a get-rich-quick-damn-the-ethics transport crisis. Ideas generate ideas, technologies build on each other, and all this is happening in real time, in our homes, on our screens and in our wallets.

So, again, the economic crisis is not responsible for the interest in fintech. It would have happened anyway.

As for a lack of confidence in our banks, a recent Gallup poll from September 2014 shows that US banks’ image is on the whole positive for the first time since 2007. It seems that we trust our banks again. And yet fintech is booming. Investment in fintech in the US in 2014 was almost $9.9 bn, three times greater than the previous year. Venture capital investment in London-based fintech companies jumped from £24 million in 2010 to £312 million in just the first 6 months of 2015. And the map is getting more and more crowded.

Few fintech startups want to replace banks. Several have applied for banking licenses, but most would like to work with banks, offer a complimentary service, or improve on something that the banks are not doing particularly well, like lending, payments, financial planning or international transfers. We are seeing an increasing number of established banks working with or even buying fintech startups, and this trend is likely to accelerate. Banks realise that they need to modernise, focus on the client and improve their image. They can do this by increasing transparency, lowering fees and showing that they are aware that the future will be very different from recent history. Fintech startups may well be a strong threat to the banks of the past. But they will more likely prove to be an ally or a colleague of the banks of the future.

We have today more choice than ever in the providers of our banking services. And most of us no longer rely on just one institution to handle all our financial needs. The innovation in the financial sector puts more opportunity and responsibility in our hands. But the long-term effects of this will probably not become clear until the next financial crisis rolls around. Then we will see if the upheaval has generated more stability or not. Then we will see what happens to trust, of both the banks and the alternative solutions. And hopefully we will realise that innovation is inevitable, that crises create opportunity, and that easy explanations don’t do justice to complex situations.

(I also write about fintech – with a focus on Bitcoin – at fintechblue.com.)