The End of Blogs

(Observer by Christopher Parsons)

I’d been deliberately putting off reading Ming Thein’s last several blog posts. Not because I wasn’t excited but because they seemed to have stopped being published. I feared that either something had happened to him, or that the blog had reached an end. 

Fortunately he continues to do well. Sadly, his blog is done. 

Ming has been writing for a whole lotta years, and has focused his blog on photography writ large. There’s some gear reviews but the real thing I learned, and still learn, from his work is how to think more deeply about making images, about telling stories with them, and letting narratives emerge as years of images are collected, edited, and set aside until a time they should be made public. 

His explanation for ending the blog is, well, that he’d written everything. There was no topic he hadn’t covered, and he stated that:

… I’ve done enough thinking and dissection about how and why I shoot that the whole enormous mass has become intuitive – and I want to go back to applying that and shooting the things that interest me, for me, without feeling the need to create content for the entertainment of somebody else.

His blog isn’t alone—I was inspired to blog more than two decades ago by blogs and bloggers that are long-lost to the link rot of the Internet—but is the most recent of the sites that are just over. He plans to keep it alive and running for the foreseeable future but, as the Internet has taught us, it’ll eventually fade away from sight. 

On the one hand I’m a bit morose about this state of affairs, and feel like maybe our digital artifacts should just operate this way: as present, delightful, and ephemeral. But, on a more positive note, I guess I see it as an author hanging up their keyboard because a given work is concluded. As a professional writer I can appreciate and respect, and deeply understand, why that happens even as I wish the writing would just continue ad infinitum.

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Finding a Foreign Policy for the Internet

Justin Sherman and Trey Herr have an outstanding essay that clarifies the need for Washington and its allies to build a cohesive foreign policy for the Internet instead of simply opposing the strategies presented by competitors such as China.1 Poignantly, they write:

Washington needs a foreign policy for the internet that advances a vision for the internet that speaks to the language of trust and embraces the need to focus on the role of individuals, grasps the utility of iterating small changes instead of grand bargains, and embraces the reality that the clock cannot be turned back. This strategic product must do more than reject the sovereign and controlled authoritarian internet model, based on principles of tight state control over internet data routing, tight state control over data storage, and limited content freedom. A foreign policy for the internet must build on not just U.S. government agencies but allies and partners overseas, and leverage the influence that the American tech industry has over internet infrastructure. It must realistically address the shortfalls and risks of a free and open internet but seek to maximize and revitalize that internet’s benefits—across everything from speech to commerce. A foreign policy for the internet should rest on three assumptions; there are myriad others but these three are systemically significant.

These strategies absolutely must be developed and cohere given the importance of the Internet for day-to-day life; the Internet underlies everything from trade coordination, military engagements, and is increasingly lifeblood for civic life or organizing. It is time for the West to make clear what it is for, and how it plans to navigate the challenges that the Internet has wrought, without succumbing to fear or abandoning the democratic principles which have undergirded the Internet and its composition for the last several decades.


  1. Should you doubt that China has a cohesive strategy for the Internet, I’d recommend reading about the prospect of a splinternet forming as a result of China and its allies building out competing standards that prioritize placing control in centralized and obedient-to-government hands. ↩︎
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Towards A Genuinely Progressive Feminist Foreign Policy

Gabrielle Bardall has written an article on the current failings of Canada’s feminist international assistance policy, which is part of the government’s broader feminist foreign policy. In part, she writes:

A feminist approach to democracy development must be more than a simple numbers game to increase the number of women and minority groups in democratic institutions that sustain existing power structures. A feminist approach must instead involve people of all genders working together to advance democratic institutions, processes and values that disrupt those patriarchal power structures and prioritize gender equality across diverse populations and partisan lines. It is measured by the extent to which those institutions and processes are transformed by feminist principles and feminist actors (male and female), not just by the percentage of seats held by each sex.

In past professional settings I’ve been critical of Global Affairs Canada’s modes of applying gendered lenses and feminism into foreign policy processes, not because I disagree with doing so conceptually, but because it has so routinely felt non-progressive by focusing less on feminism and more and sex. Bardall‘s framing, of needing to move towards a non-neoliberal concept of feminism, nicely captures my disquiet and does so far more elegantly that I’ve managed in the years I’ve been stewing on this issue. Until a mode of feminism is adopted into Canada’s foreign affairs policies that is explicitly anti-patriarchal then any adopted feminist approach will serve to principally adjust who is at the table without striving to redistribute power itself in a more equitable manner.

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A Clubhouse for Whom?

(Photo by Stephen Crowley on Unsplash)

Mark Stenberg has a good assessment of the challenges facing Clubhouse, the newest ‘hot’ social media app that involves individuals having audio discussions in real-time with one another in rooms that are created on the platform. He suspects that Clubhouse may work best in quarantine:

A glimpse of Instagram brings a fleeting burst of serotonin, but a second’s worth of Clubhouse is meaningless. Will you then, at night, leave your family in the other room so you can pop your headphones in and listen to strangers swapping their valuable thoughts on the news of the day?

When commutes and daily life return, people will once again have a few parceled-off periods of the day in which they can listen to audio entertainment. If there are no good Clubhouse conversations at those exact times, the app is far less valuable than a podcast platform or music-streaming service. The very characteristic that makes it so appealing — its real-time nature — will make it challenging for listeners to fold it into their lives when reality returns.

Whether a real-time app that depends on relative quiet and available time, and which is unsuitable for multitasking, survives in its current form as people emerge from their relative isolation will be interesting to measure in real-time once vaccines are widely spread throughout society. But, equally interesting (to my mind) are the assumptions baked into that very question: why not just ask people (e.g., essential workers) who continue to commute en mass and inquire about whether they are, or will be, using Clubhouse? Why not ask those who do not have particularly fungible or quiet lives at the moment (e.g., parents who are homeschooling younger children while working their day jobs) whether the app is compelling during quarantine periods?

To put it another way, the very framing of Clubhouse presupposes a number of affordances that really mostly pertain to a subset of relatively privileged members of society. It’s lovely that some tech workers, who work from home, and journalists who have similar lifestyles are interested in the app. But that doesn’t mean that it’ll broadly interest people, just as most people are dismissive of text-based social media applications (e.g., Twitter) and even visual-based apps (e.g., Instagram).

But, at the same time, this may not matter. If the founders are aiming for growing and sustaining the existing platform and not for the typical Silicon Valley viral growth, then their presently suggested modes of deriving profits might work. Specifically, current proposals include, “tipping, subscriptions, and ticketing” which, if adopted, could mean this is a social networking platform that doesn’t rely on the normal advertising or data brokerage models which have been adopted by most social media platforms and companies.

Will any of this work? Who knows. Most social media companies are here today, gone tomorrow, and I bet that Clubhouse is probably in that category. But, at the same time, it’s worth thinking through who these kinds of apps are designed for so that we can appreciate the politics, privilege, and power which are imbued into the technologies which surround us and the ways that we talk about those technologies.

Aside

2021.2.16

Ran into a weird iPhone 11 Pro issue today. When I took it off it’s charger this morning it registered as draining down the battery at a rate of around 1% every couple of minutes and couldn’t detect all the AirPlay 2 devices in my home. After rebooting the phone I went from 78% to 94% battery and could connect to everything around me. So utterly random!

Link

The Value-Add of Apple TV

Jason Snell over at Six Colors recently asked the question, “Why does the Apple TV still exist?” In the course of answering the question, he noted that Apple TV lets consumers:

  1. Play some games;
  2. Use Homepods for a nice, if somewhat problematic, Atmos sound system;
  3. Use HomeKit on their TV;
  4. Use the…remote?1

He goes on to discuss some of the things that could make the Apple TV a bit better, including turning it into a kind of gaming system, make it better at doing HomeKit things, or maybe even something to do with WiFi. Key is that as Apple’s content has migrated to other platforms and AirPlay 2 has rolled out to manufacturers’ TVs there is less and less need to have an Apple TV to actually engage with Apple’s own content.

I think that Snell’s analysis misses out on a lot of the value add for Apple TV. It’s possible that some of the following items are a bit niche, but nevertheless I think are important to subsets of Apple customers.

  1. Privacy: Smart TVs have an incredibly bad rap. They can monitor what you’re doing nor are they guaranteed updates for a long-time. Sure, some are ok, but do I trust a TV company to protect my privacy or do I trust a company that has massively invested its brand credibility in privacy? For me, I choose Apple over TCL, Sony, LG, or the rest.
  2. Photo Screensavers: I use my Apple TV to display my photos, turning that big black box in my living room into a streaming photo frame. Whenever people are over they’re captivated to see my photos, and frankly I like watching photos go by and remind me of places I’ve been, people I’ve shared time with, and memories of past times. There’s nothing like it on any Smart TV on the market.
  3. Reliable Updates: As Apple develops new features they can integrate them with TV environments vis-a-vis the Apple TV, meaning they’re not reliant on TV manufacturers to develop and push out updates that enable features that Apple thinks are important. Moreover, it means that when a security vulnerability is identified, Apple can control pushing out updates and, thus, reduce the likelihood that their customers are exploited by nefarious parties. TV manufacturers just don’t have the same class of security teams as Apple does.
  4. Family Friendly: Look, it’s great that lots of TVs can stream Apple content and that you can throw your screen/content onto Smart TVs using AirPlay 2. But what about when not everyone has an iPhone on them, or you don’t want to let people onto the same wireless network that your TV is on? In those cases, an Apple TV means that people can find/show content, but avoid the aforementioned frustrations.
  5. HomeKit: I know that Snell mentioned this, but I really think that it cannot be emphasized enough. Apple TV—and especially an updated one that may support Thread—will further let people control their Internet of Things in their home. Assuming that Thread is included in the new Apple TV, that’ll also make the Apple TV yet another part of the local mesh network that is controlling all the other things in the home and that’s pretty great.
  6. Decent Profits: Apple TV has long been a premium product. While Apple won’t earn as much on the sale of an Apple TV as on an iPhone, they’ll earn a lot more than what is being made when someone buys a Sony, TCL, or LG TV.
  7. Brand Lock-in: Let’s face it, if you have a lot of Apple products you’re increasingly likely to keep buying Apple products. And providing an alternative to Google or TV manufacturers’ operating systems is just another way that Apple can keep its customers from wandering too far outside of their product line and being tempted by the products developed and sold by their competitors.

On the whole, I think that there continues to be a modest market for Apple TV. I’d bet that the biggest challenge for Apple is convincing those who have abandoned their Apple TVs to come back, and for those who are using their Smart TVs to pick up an Apple TV that offers a lot of similar uses as their existing TV operating systems. That’ll be a bit easier if there are cool new things associated with a new Apple TV—such as positioning it as a gaming platform with AAA gaming titles—but regardless there is value in the Apple TV. The challenge will be communicating that value to Apple’s current and potential customers but, given their track record, I’m confident that’s a challenge that Apple’s teams can rise to!

Update: Snell catalogues many of the above reasons to get an Apple TV–as well as some others–in a new post based on what his readers told him.


  1. I actually really like the remote, but recognize I’m in the minority. ↩︎
Link

Externalizing Costs- The Table Saw Edition

Steve Gass, a physicist and lawyer by training, gave an interview about SawStop, which is a table saw that’s designed to detect and immediately stop and retract the blade if it detects human flesh. He discussed how and why he created it, but also addressed the pressing social need it serves: there are around 150 injuries a day with table saws, and about 8 of them are amputations.

Given that he’s designed a technology to massively cut down on these injuries,1 you may wonder why it hasn’t been widely adopted. The reason, unsurprisingly, is that other table saw manufacturers just externalize the harmful social costs of their products. As Gass notes in his interview with MachinePix Weekly:

The fundamental question came down to economics. Almost a societal economic structure question. The CPSC says table saws result in about $4B in damage annually. The market for table saws is about $200-400M. This is a product that does almost 10x in damage as the market size. There’s a disconnect—these costs are borne by individuals, the medical system, workers comp—and not paid by the power tools company. Because of that, there’s not that much incentive to improve the safety of these tools.

As depressingly normal, even if companies did want to integrate Gass’ technologies it’d add somewhat to their current bill of materials and, as such, run the risk of making their products less competitive in the market when juxtaposed against other companies’ table saws. With the result being a massive cost to the economy that is borne by taxpayers and insurance companies.


  1. Pardon the pun. ↩︎
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Earth’s Rock Record Warns of the Effects of Climate Warming

Some really terrific writing from Peter Brannen at The Atlantic:

We live on a wild planet, a wobbly, erupting, ocean-sloshed orb that careens around a giant thermonuclear explosion in the void. Big rocks whiz by overhead, and here on the Earth’s surface, whole continents crash together, rip apart, and occasionally turn inside out, killing nearly everything. Our planet is fickle. When the unseen tug of celestial bodies points Earth toward a new North Star, for instance, the shift in sunlight can dry up the Sahara, or fill it with hippopotamuses. Of more immediate interest today, a variation in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere of as little as 0.1 percent has meant the difference between sweltering Arctic rainforests and a half mile of ice atop Boston. That negligible wisp of the air is carbon dioxide.

After that captivating lede, you quickly get to the real thrust of the article: that humanity is both failing to appreciate how devastating climate changes are for the inhabitants of Earth and, also, that we are seeing changes take place at far faster rates than scientists’ models had predicted. The result?

To truly appreciate the coming changes to our planet, we need to plumb the history of climate change. So let us take a trip back into deep time, a journey that will begin with the familiar climate of recorded history and end in the feverish, high-CO2 greenhouse of the early age of mammals, 50 million years ago. It is a sobering journey, one that warns of catastrophic surprises that may be in store.

The near-to-mid term consequences of what humanity has been doing–injecting massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere–can only really be appreciated when looking at the Earth’s geological record and trying to model what life might have been like in past periods. Critically, we find that:

[t]his sauna of our early mammalian ancestors represents something close to the worst possible scenario for future warming (although some studies claim that humans, under truly nihilistic emissions scenarios, could make the planet even warmer). The good news is the inertia of the Earth’s climate system is such that we still have time to rapidly reverse course, heading off an encore of this world, or that of the Miocene, or even the Pliocene, in the coming decades. All it will require is instantaneously halting the super-eruption of CO2 disgorged into the atmosphere that began with the Industrial Revolution.

We know how to do this, and we cannot underplay the urgency. The fact is that none of these ancient periods is actually an apt analogue for the future if things go wrong. It took millions of years to produce the climates of the Miocene or the Eocene, and the rate of change right now is almost unprecedented in the history of animal life.

The decisions which are made over the coming decade or two will have compounding effects that will reverberate in ways that human minds are ill-suited to considered. It is critical to appreciate the need to mediate current actions which release CO2 and actively work to mitigate such activities, while simultaneously planning for a world that is radically different from anything that the history of humanity has dealt with in its past.

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CANZUK as a failure of middle power imagination

From Open Canada, we see why CANZUK is a failure of middle power imagination:

The answer for Haass (as it is for Judah) is leadership. But middle power leadership is not the same as great power leadership. Middle power leadership cannot trade in vague (if lofty) ambitions or general concepts. To be effective, middle powers must be focused, detail-orientated and technically proficient. This was the approach Canada used to lead on peacekeeping, organizing the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals, the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel landmines and the Responsibly to Protect. All of these were clear-eyed, focused attempts to improve the international system. By leveraging their technical acumen and accumulated diplomatic capital, Canada and other middle powers got things done. These successes built international reputations and skills that could then be applied to parochial state interests. CANZUK’s supporters do not have this focus. Instead, facing complex problems, they offer vague gestures to shared liberal values.

This is probably the most direct explanation of why middle powers, as often considered amongst the Anglosphere, are routinely unable to actually achieve their goals or stated objectives. Dangerously, states and their foreign ministers may enter into arrangements in the hopes that doing so will re-create a past golden age only to realize, years later, that looking backwards has caused their respective nations to further fail to take hold of their individual and collective futures in the world stage.

While building alliances and tightening friendships can be helpful, they must be accompanied with clear and specific areas of policy coordination. Doing anything else will not enable middle powers to exert substantial power on the world stage.

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Explaining WhatsApp’s Encryption for Business Communications

Shoshana Wodinsky writing for Gizmodo has a lengthy, and detailed, breakdown of how and why WhatsApp is modifying its terms of service to facilitate consumer-to-business communications. The crux of the shift, really, comes down to:

… in the years since WhatsApp co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton cut ties with Facebook for, well, being Facebook, the company slowly turned into something that acted more like its fellow Facebook properties: an app that’s kind of about socializing, but mostly about shopping. These new privacy policies are just WhatsApp’s—and Facebook’s—way of finally saying the quiet part out loud.

What’s going to change? Namely whenever you’re speaking to a business then those communications will not be considered end-to-end encrypted and, as such, the communications content and metadata that is accessible can be used for advertising and other marketing, data mining, data targeting, or data exploitation purposes. If you’re just chatting with individuals–that is, not businesses!–then your communications will continue to be end-to-end encrypted.

For an additional, and perhaps longer, discussion of how WhatsApp’s shifts in policy–now, admittedly, delayed for a few months following public outrage–is linked to the goal of driving business revenue into the company check out Alec Muffett’s post over on his blog. (By way of background, Alec’s been in the technical security and privacy space for 30+ years, and is a good and reputable voice on these matters.)