The Roundup for February 1-29, 2020 Edition

(Handy by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


This roundup is late, due to contemporary events in the news. So while late, each of the collated items are from the period before COVID-19 truly began shutting down North America; hopefully they’ll help you pass the time that you may be spending in quarantine or self-isolation.


Inspiring Quotation

“Despite how open, peaceful, and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you, as deeply as they’ve met themselves. This is the heart of clarity.”
— Matt Kahn

Music I’m Digging

My February 2020 ‘best of’ playlist features a lot of La Roux’s tracks, plus an (un)healthy number of tracks from Allie X and Phantogram. I also spent a lot of time going back into my library and listening to older stuff, so you’ll get a nice mix of rock, alternative, and some R&B.

  • La Roux-Supervision // A new year and a new album! The instrumentals, alone, are pretty great throughout the album with a downbeat 1970s-like sound, combined with Elly’s approachable lyrics. This is definitely not the high-voltage performance that we had in her breakout album that came out a little over a decade ago(!) but showcases that the DNA of her music can stay the same while shifting in its tonal balance.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • The Agenda-DIY Pensions: A Good Idea? // As a millenial who harbours a borderline terror of being unable to afford rent when I retire, I was curious about this episode of the Agenda: would it provide useful information about pensions, or significantly entail ‘professionals’ failing to appreciate and understand their confusing products, and assert that the existing systems were significantly the way forward? I got the latter. While the guests did acknowledge the need to develop better cultures of saving and education they fundamentally didn’t engage with the issues that affect me and the people that I know; we have more debt than any other generation due to our educations, pay higher rents than the past generation, and as such are significantly delayed in our ability to contribute to pensions. Combined with a bunch of scaremongering around ETFs and it comes across as more of the same: a bunch of professionals professing the value of the current system which isn’t working, while ignoring the conditions facing people in their late 20s to mid 30s.
  • The Current-Global Secondhand Economy // I always knew that there was a whole economy around secondhand goods, but didn’t really appreciate how extensive it is, nor how central Canadians purchases are to fuelling the summer-side of the economy, in particular.
  • The Economist-Thomas Piketty // *This was a great, and very combative, interview between the Economist and Piketty. He argued his basic thesis—that capital accumulation is the root of inequality and risks serious social harms—while fending off his interlocutors who asserted his positions lacked sufficient persuasive capabilities. Highly recommended.

Good Reads

  • Berlin Freezes Rents for 5 Years in a Bid to Slow Gentrification // The idea advanced by some stakeholders–that increasing rents will somehow only rise to the level that is equitable–is absurd, if not entirely asinine. Housing needs to be affordable in order to have vibrant, liveable cities; homes cannot be regarded as investments, but as places to live.
  • The Money Behind Trump’s Money // While Enrich’s article is, largely, a recitation of past articles detailing the fraught relationship between Deutsche Bank and Trump it’s a very cohesive recitation. Whereas past news articles have slowly added to the trickle of information that is known about the current President’s financial history, this article comprehensively stitches together everything that is known. Throughout, the bank is shown to have had a disregard for law, ethics, and propriety: this continues, to date, and led the International Monetary Fund to brand Deutsche Bank “the most important net contributor to systemic risks” in the global banking system as of a few years ago.
  • Interview with Mohamad Fakih, CEO of Paramount Fine Foods // Fakih is a star in Toronto: an immigrant businessperson who has grown a massive business while extensively giving back to the community. What is most revealing in this interview is how he engages with, and treats, his staff: they are the stars, and he actively works to get to know them and enable them. It’s a ‘traditional’ style of management that is underappreciated in an era where Silicon Valley-style managerial approaches tend to dominate the headlines, and refreshing to hear this older approach being championed and leading to positive results.
  • Wacom drawing tablets track the name of every application that you open // A solid bit of sleuthing by Heaton revealed that Wacom’s mouse drivers come bundled with Google Analytics, and that they are monitoring each and every application that is being opened. The most nefarious thing ever? Nope. But sketchy nonetheless? Hells yes.
  • Apple, Just Bundle News+ Already // I keep reading from the Apple Commentariat that Apple News is a failing service that is, depending on the commentator, too expensive, too poorly designed, too much, or (weirdly) too good a deal. A lot of the issues seem to boil down to this: it’s not super intuitive to find what you want and, even if you do, there is so much content offered that you develop stress hives because you’re never done. Plus, Apple offers so many services, now, that bundling them would be a better option for consumer. It’s only the last one that resonates with me, but only if bundles were to be made in an additive way—where the more you bundle the more you save—as opposed to having to pay for stuff I don’t want (I’m looking at you, Apple Arcade). I feel like, in Canada, the use case is that there are so many paywalls that it’s a pain to know what’s happening in this country at the time something breaks and the Apple News subscription means I can catch up on what matters. I’ll never read everything and that’s fine: I, like most people, made my peace with that a long time ago.
  • Bumble Bees Are Going Extinct in Time of Climate Chaos – “We Have Now Entered the World’s Sixth Mass Extinction Event” // The world is dying around us, and we are the cause of those deaths but are seemingly unable to affect sufficiently meaningful changes to save the world and, by extension, ourselves. And even if we manage to take actions that keep just enough of the world alive, and ensure that a mass of humans survive the next extinction, what will the survivors be able to say to the next generation to justify the dramatically less vibrant world we pass on to them?
  • Why Wealthsimple and robo-advisers aren’t scaring Bay Street anymore // *As a new robo-investor, this piece in the Globe and Mail caused me to reflect a bit about the underlying premises of the article. It begins with a bold—probably foolish—assertion that robo-investment companies would have trillions under investment in record time and that, absent achieving that lofty promise, it was challenging for the companies to turn a profit. Moreover, the target group—millennials—have $30,000 or less invested, on average. And thus the companies are at risk of collapse. Those facts may be true but, at the same time, I suspect that for most millennials who are at the crux of finishing paying off student loans and now struggling to decide whether, and if so how, to save for a home, or to start investing in retirement. In other words, everything is delayed by 10-15 years; as such, I expect these advisors to truly going to start paying off as an increasing number of millennials are in situations to invest in their long term futures, and I bet that’s still just a few years off. *
  • How to Be Healthy, in Just 48 Words // This is just pure and simple and obvious advice.
  • How My Worst Date Ever Became My Best // I loved how this Modern Love story unfolded, and the wry humour that comes through towards the end of the piece.
  • I’m Single and I’m Fine With It // There is so much in this personal essay that resonated with me, including being happy that a relationship has ended, and how that has taught me that it is appropriate and ok to end others that don’t live up to what I desire. And it speaks to things I still don’t really understand—‘casual’ relationships—and what they can mean as well. As someone who routinely wonders if the best relationship I could have had is behind me, columns like this help me revisit whether this is the case and, if so, whether that’s really as bad as imagined.
  • The Curious Case of the U.S. Government’s Influence on 20th-Century Design // This deep dive assessment of how the Office of Strategic Studies—the precursor to the CIA—developed contemporary techniques of information delivery and presentation is impressive, and showcases how much of contemporary design is based in conflict studies.

Cool Things

  • Mars Iwai / Mars Iwai Tradition // I really appreciated this review of the Mars Distillery products; it’s transparent in its evaluation and is honest in its assessment that some Japanese whiskey is just sorta ‘meh’. As someone who’s hosted a Japanese tasting I have to admit that an awful lot of what’s available in Canada is expensive without being particularly exciting, and this just reaffirms my experiences and doubts over the current state of sub-$100 Japanese whiskey.
  • Work/Play III Hardcover Notebook // I want, want, want, want these notebooks. I see them in my near future, given that I’m almost through my current sets.
  • Vertical Landscape Art Print by Eiko Ojala // This has to be some of the coolest three-dimensional art I’ve seen recently. Would love to have this for my walls!

The Roundup for May 21-June 22, 2019 Edition

(Tap! by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


So Apple has announced all the big changes forthcoming in iOS 13. While lots are great and exciting, the update still won’t bring baseline feature parity between MacOS and iOS core applications. The result is that serious users of consumer MacOS applications can’t fully transition to iOS or iPadOS. What’re just two baseline things that are missing, from my self-interested perspective?

1. Smart lists in Apple Music & Apple Photos

I get that smart lists may not be everyone’s deal, but self updating lists are pretty important in how I manage and organize data. To give an example, I use smart lists in Photos to determine what camera I used to take which photo. Does this matter for lots of people? Probably not, now that smartphones have colonized the photography business. But for someone like me who wants to know such metadata, the absence of it is noticeable.

2. Detailed information about photographs in Apple Photos

I don’t know why, it you can’t check aperture, shutter speeds ISO, or other basic camera features in Apple Photos, in iOS 12 or 13. Nor can you create a title for a photograph. Again, as someone who takes tens of thousands of photos a year, and reviews them all to select a rarified thousand or two ‘keepers’ each year and titles many of those kept, I really want to record titles.1 And it drives me nuts that I can’t.

I get that there are a lot of pretty amazing things coming in iOS 13. But can’t these pretty table-stakes things come along? These aren’t ‘Pro’ features: there’re the baseline features that have been available on consumer apps in MacOS for years. You shouldn’t need to own and use a Mac to enjoy these capabilities.


Inspiring Quotation

“Society is not some grand abstraction, my friends. It’s just us. It’s the words we use, which are the thoughts we have, which determine the actions we take.”

– Umair Haque

Great Photography Shots

I really appreciate some of the great shadows that come out in these shots over at Mobiography.

(‘lines and shadows‘ by @arpixa)
(‘Shadow casting‘ by @poetry fish)
(‘Untitled‘ by @lasina)
(‘On the dark side‘ by @jawdoc2)
(‘ RED ‘ by @dviviano)
(‘high light reverie‘ by @chasread)

Music I’m Digging

Having figured out the problem of songs not being added to my ‘Songs I Love’ lists, my monthly lists are going to be a lot more expansive than those in the past. My May 2019 list clocks in at around 5 ½ hours, with a mix of hip-hop, rap, pop, and a bit of alternative and rock.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • Lawfare – Avril Haines, Eric Rosenbach, and David Sanger on U.S. Offensive Cyber Operations // This is an insightful, and nuanced, consideration of the equities which are taken into account when the United States engages in different classes of cyber operations. While the title of the podcast is focused on offensive cyber activities, the same logics can clearly be applied to defensive activities such as those linked with vulnerabilities equities processes or development of activities intended to mitigate harms emitted from foreign adversaries.
  • Lawfare – Jim Scuitto on ‘The Shadow War’ // While Scuitto doesn’t necessarily talk about anything excitingly novel in the summary of his book, he does an absolutely terrific job in summarizing the high-level threats to American (and, by extension, Canadian and Western) national security. From submarine threats, to space threats, to cyber, the threat landscape is remarkably different today as compared to twenty years ago. In terms of responses or solutions, key to the American approach is reconsidering and re-engineering the responses to aggressive actions. Clearly American responses have failed to dissuade actors such as Russia and China in certain spheres, such as aggressive military engagement and cyber espionage and propaganda, and so more directed cyber-based activities meant to expose the corruption of foreign leaders might represent the next logical step for the U.S. military establishment.

Good Reads

  • When the Hard Rains Fall // Welsh has done a terrific job in both outlining the policy and financial and scientific causes that lead to serious, and dangerous, flooding in Toronto while marrying it with superb storytelling. Not only does the article provide a huge amount of information in an impeccably understandable format, but the graphics that accompany the piece in certain sections are almost certain to elicit an emotional reaction. Stories like this demonstrate why it’s important to pay for investigative reporting, while also showcasing how contemporary technologies can improve narratives for clarity and impact.
  • ‘Botanical Sexism’ Could Be Behind Your Seasonal Allergies // In an ironic turn, when trees were routinely planted in urban environments in the 1960s, males of the various species were chosen on the basis that they wouldn’t promote litter by dropping seeds. However, these trees expel significant amounts of pollen which has had the effect of creating ‘pollenpocalypse’ events that both severely aggravate seasonal allergies and leave vast swathes of pollen coating the city.
  • Female Spies and Their Secrets // As in so many fields, women’s contributions to the intelligence and security services were largely erased from history as men replaced them. However, newly recovered and disclosed histories are showcasing the role(s) that women played throughout the second world war to lead underground resistances and otherwise facilitate Allied intelligence efforts.
  • Your threat model is wrong // Robert Graham’s abrasive and direct writing is refreshing, especially when he writes about phishing: “Yes, it’s amazing how easily stupid employees are tricked by the most obvious of phishing messages, and you want to point and laugh at them. But frankly, you want the idiot employees doing this. The more obvious phishing attempts are the least harmful and a good test of the rest of your security — which should be based on the assumption that users will frequently fall for phishing.”
  • After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown // In the United States, some big box stores are attempting to (and succeeding in) reduce their property tax bills by arguing their stores should be valued at millions of dollars less than their current valuation. The result is that small towns, many of which invested in significant infrastructure projects to lure these stores, are at risk of having to reduce their services or defer additional investments that are less-focused on the company in question. Activities like this, combined with the general massive reduction in corporate taxes following the US government’s taxation changes under President Trump, threaten the very ability of small and large towns and cities to invest in infrastructure for the betterment of their residents.
  • The Secret to This Brazilian Coffee? Ants Harvest the Beans // In another instance of how weird and amazing the ecosystems of the earth are, ants that have inhabited an organic coffee farm in Brasil are affecting the taste of the beans in the process of removing the fruit around the beans to feed to their young. Apparently, this has effects on the acidity and taste of certain stronefruits, while also showcasing the interdependence of organic beings in the same ecosystem.
  • How To Make A Relationship Last // The guidance in this piece spoke to me, and reflect how I personally view long- term relationships and choice. Cage nicely summarizes that challenges of continuously choosing to stay in love, and in doing so provides a good set of instructions for others to follow and innovate upon.
  • How To Be A Leader — For Someone Who Hasn’t Been A Leader Before// This is really, really good and quick advice for someone who holds a leadership role, or is about to assume one. They key bits that stuck out include: put others before yourself, act as a role model instead of a boss, and be transparent about where you have weaknesses and work with your team to make sure they’re covered off. In effect, leadership under this model involves being humble, supportive, and aware of the need to improve the life and lots of your team.

Cool Things

  1. Ok, what I really want is to be able to add a title to a photo in Apple Photos on iOS, and then when I export the photo to, say, Instagram for the title to be automatically updated. But I realize I shouldn’t dream of such ‘exceptional’ capabilities and so will settle for adding titles manually in iOS and Instagram. Like an animal.

Review of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Mongomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, explores how decades of urban design are destructive to human happiness, human life, and the life of the planet itself. He tours the world — focused mostly on Vancouver, Portland, Bogotá, Atlanta, and Hong Kong — to understand the different choices that urban designers historically adopted and why communities are railing against those decisions, now.

The book represents a tour de force, insofar as it carefully and clearly explains that urban sprawl — which presumed that we would all have cars and that we all wanted or needed isolated homes — is incredibly harmful. The focus of the book is, really, on how designing for cars leads to designing for things instead of people, and how efforts to facilitate car traffic has been antithetical to human life and flourishing. His call for happy cities really constitutes calls to, first and foremost, invest in urbanization and densification. Common social utilities, like transit and parks and community spaces, are essential for cities to become happy because these utilities both reduce commutes, increase socialization, and the presence of nature relieves the human mind of urban stresses.

While the book is rife with proposals for how to make things better, Montgomery doesn’t go so far as to argue that such changes are easy or that they can be universally applied everywhere. The infrastructure that exists, now, cannot simply be torn up and replaced. As a result he identifies practical ways that even suburban areas can reinvigorate their community spaces: key, in almost all cases, are finding ways to facilitate human contact by way of re-thinking the structures of urban design itself. These changes depend not only on — indeed, they may barely depend at all upon! — city planners and, instead, demand that citizens advocate for their own interests. Such advocacy needn’t entail using the language of architects and urban designers and can, instead, focus on words or themes such as ‘community’ or ‘safe for children to bike’ or ‘closer to community resources’ or ‘slower streets’ or ‘more green space’. After robustly, and regularly, issuing such calls then the landscape may begin to change to facilitate both human happiness and smaller environmental food prints.

If there is a flaw to this book, it is that many of the examples presume that small scale experiments necessarily are scalable to broad communities. I don’t know that these examples do not scale but, because of the relatively small sample-set and regularity at which Montgomery leverages them, it’s not clear how common or effective the interventions he proposes genuinely are. Nevertheless, this is a though-provoking books that challenges the reader to reflect on how cities are, and should be, built to facilitate and enable the citizens who reside within and beyond their boundaries.

Quote

We are now learning that the effect of density is nuanced. For one thing, wealthier people do better in apartment towers than poor people. Not only do they have the money to pay for concierges, maintenance, gardening, decoration, and child care, but, having chosen their residences, they tend to attach greater status to them. Home feels better when it carries a different message about who you are. (A building’s status can be altered without any physical change at all. When they were sold on the open market, once-despised social housing blocks in central London became objects of desire for middle-class buyers who fetishizes their retro modernism.)

  • Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
Quote

We need the nourishing, helping warmth of other people, but we also need the healing touch of nature. We need to connect, but we also need to retreat. We benefit from the conveniences of proximity, but these conveniences can come with he price of overstimulation and crowding. We will not solve the conundrum of sustainable city living unless we understand these contradictory forces and resolve the tension between them. How much space, privacy, and distance from other people do we need? How much nature do we need? Are there designs that combine the benefits of dispersal with the dividends of proximity?

  • Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
Quote

… the meeting place, the agora, the village square are not trivial. They are not civic decoration or merely recreational. The life of a community is incomplete without them, just as the life of the individual is weaker and sicker without face-to-face encounters with other people.

  • Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
Link

Stop trying to sell me wrist-worn smartphones

Stop trying to sell me wrist-worn smartphones :

It absolutely baffles me who, exactly, smart watches are being designed for. The notion that something would be buzzing on my wrist (in my own, very anecdotal case) hundreds of times a day as I receive email, retweets, LinkedIn invites, text messages, hangouts messages, and so forth is absolutely absurd. That’s noise that I want to avoid or minimize, not enhance and maximize.

I own one, very nice, watch that I wear on special circumstances. It’s beautiful and is powered by kinetic motions. It’s light enough that it doesn’t annoy the hell out of me, but heavy enough that it’s comfortable on my wrist. And, in all cases, it doesn’t beep, buzz, or otherwise interfere with my daily life.

To my mind, the ‘rationale’ for smart watches is really predicated on the absurd sizes that smartphones are reaching. With phones increasingly being sold with 5 inch, or larger, screens the devices are eyesores whenever they’re pulled out and their screens examined.

That’s a very, very bad rationale to build a product on and (to my mind) indicates the failure of smartphone design. And the solution that failure isn’t smart watches but more humane-sized phones.