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.

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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…


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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.


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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.


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

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