Francis's news feed

This combines together some blogs which I like to read. It's updated once a week.

2022-09-12

Adrian McEwen

Weeks 882-884 - Dark nights are drawing in, time for LEDS!

It's Chris on weeknotes this week, and last and...

Apart from a few little tweaks the Cathedral donation project is up and running. There's a few weeks left if you want to interact with the Peter Walker installation and make a donation to the cathedral. If you want to try it out, send a message including the word "cathedral" and your choice of colour from red, pink, blue, green, orange, yellow, purple, or cyan to 70152.

On product development I am still looking for local CNC manufacturers who can produce the frame for Acker's Bell. It's proving harder than we had anticipated and not helped by a shortage of plywood.

Circuit schematic showing an FB6276B boost circuit chip.

I am also looking at some potential development work to allow Museum in a Box to produce a new batch of devices. The current design uses hardware that is not easily available with current shortages so we're investigating alternatives.

Nikki is continuing to work on the marketing plan and looking at ways to reach new audiences for our products. With the dark nights drawing in attention is turning to the LED projects, My Baby's got LED and the portable version for cyclists, My Bike's got LED. We're also busy thinking about other ways we might apply internet connected lights.

Adrian did some long-overdue maintenance on our Gitlab server (where our projects are stored). It's got more memory now, so is running much more smoothly. That also prompted some housekeeping to tidy up old tasks and priorities and do some thinking about where we are on the product roadmap.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-09-12 06:00

2022-08-22

Adrian McEwen

Week 881 - Better Transitions and other updates

Nikki on the weeknotes this week! Now that we’re back on track with them.

Genrally quite short notes this week!

It has seen me mostly doing research in order to help us build a general company marketing plan, as well as looking at some potential tools for use to maybe start using. Obviously there’s the general social media posts and figuring out what other places might be a good way to get us known to a wider audience.

Chris spent some time tidying up the last few pieces of the cathedral Being Human project. We were having some issues around transition using a MAX485 based Arduino shield. This was swapped out for a more substantial and robust Enttec device. The local pi in the cathedral communicated with the lights via a serial connection to an Arduino. In the new setup we are able to communicate directly with the device. As part of this change we switched the Node red flow for a python script using the DMXEnttecPro library. Included with these changes was the addition of transition effects. Previously we swapped directly to the new colour chosen, now we convert RGB colours to HSV and increment a complete lap of the colour wheel before settling on the new colour choice. This gives a more impressive response from a donation and will hopefully drive more interest in the project for the cathedral.

Chris has also been chasing up potential suppliers who could manufacture the Ackers Bell for us, while Adrian has been working on some Bluetooth work with an ESP32.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-08-22 06:00

2022-08-19

Albert Wenger

The Low Energy Trap

I recently read Joseph Tainter’s outstanding book “The Collapse of Complex Civilizations,” which I recommend. It should be required reading for all politicians. Tainter’s theory is one of diminishing returns to bureaucracy, which we are clearly experiencing across many societies today. He also proposes one historic escape mechanism from such a collapse: a big energy unlock. We had a shot at that in the 1960s when we started building nuclear power plants, but then starting in the 1980s we instead chose to focus on energy efficiency. That has us now caught in a low energy trap.

It is extraordinary to see energy prices spiking in many parts of the world at the same time. Yes, there is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And we are experiencing a big heat wave as part of the accelerating climate crisis. But these are ultimately just excuses. We should have built an energy system with so much capacity that these events would just be blips that barely go noticed. Instead we are facing brownouts and blackouts and prices at ruinous levels for individuals and companies.

Degrowth advocates would have you believe that the answer is less. Less consumption. Less production. Less energy. I suppose that all of that is fine if you want to go backwards. If you advocate for that you should be required to spell out what human carrying capacity you believe is sustainable under degrowth, because it certainly isn’t 8 billion people. If a degrowth advocate came out and said point blank that under their proposals it would be only say 2 billion people, at least that would be intellectually honest and I would respect that as a coherent point of view.

Personally though I believe in going forward instead. As I have pointed out in The World After Capital, that doesn’t necessarily mean an ever growing population, as we are well on our way to peak population. But to avoid killing off billions along the way through societal collapse we need a lot more energy and we need it fast.

What does having a lot more energy let us do? For starters we can avoid the worst of the climate crisis by aggressively shifting to electrification of transportation, heating and cooling, production and so forth. We can also deal with water shortages through desalination. We can produce food in climate controlled environments. And we can fortify and upgrade our infrastructure to deal with more extreme weather. When we are done we will have extra energy for all sorts of amazing activities, like building great housing for everyone.

Now pessimists and defeatists will say: it is too late, we missed our chance and there’s nothing we can do at this point. And of course if we continue to operate at present course and speed they would be right. But this is not a physical or labor resource issue. This is entirely a question of political will. Because if we make a hard shift now we could build our way out within a decade. Extraordinary things become possible when we activate human attention and resources at scale, as we saw firsthand during the World War II production effort.

I wonder who will be the first politician to run on a wartime platform. For once not war against another country, but war against the low energy trap and the collapse of civilization that it leads to. I realize that we have abused the war metaphor with the war on drugs and other ill advised policies. But in this context it is called for because the level of mobilization required to escape the low energy trap will have to match that of World War II, which was roughly 50% of all economic activity.

With that level of resource deployment we could build massive energy capacity quickly (and would ideally do so globally). We should aggressively build out wind and solar further, but at the same time make massive investments in geothermal and nuclear power plants. Let’s get out of the low energy trap!

by Albert Wenger at 2022-08-19 23:42

2022-08-17

Nicholas Tollervey

Great Code Reviews

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I've just started a new role at Anaconda.

A week after joining I was asked to contribute an article to an internal newsletter called "Consider This!". The format is simple: write something thoughtful on a subject of interest to folks within the company, and, at the end, curate a list of questions to prompt further thought and reflection.

I was invited to explore what I considered important aspects of great code reviews. Thanks to Anaconda, the article is reproduced below. Additional thanks to my colleagues Elise and Dan who provided invaluable and stimulating feedback to significantly improve my first draft.


Ask a room of engineers what makes a great code review, and you’ll have as many different opinions as there are engineers. Yet, in my experience, common themes and archetypes emerge from the gloriously colourful and diverse descriptions of a great code review. This article aims to explore what they might be.

At its core, a code review is exactly what it says: asking another to review code.

Why might one do this? Often the simple answer is, “because I have to”.

Code hosting sites, like GitHub, make it easy for code reviews to be part of the development process through concepts like pull requests (PRs for short). Simply make a change to the code, bundle your changes into a PR, submit it and wait for feedback from maintainers or colleagues. Sometimes you have to submit code for review because of corporate governance, your employer or the open source project to which you’re contributing may have an existing review process for all contributions. Or it may simply be habit or herd instinct to follow so-called “best practices”... folks do code reviews because everyone else does code reviews and so they’re living up to expectations.

A code review could be an assessment to overcome, where someone in authority accepts or rejects your changes. It might involve checking your changes to ensure you’ve followed stylistic and technical conventions for a project, like a teacher correcting work with a red pen. Furthermore, opinions about the approach taken, methodology used or even the intention behind the change might be offered, like a critic describing a restaurant, film or concert.

But there’s another, more engaging reason to participate in code reviews: if done well, your world as a coder is enlarged by the process, be that as a reviewer or contributor. In so doing, engagement with the project is a process of growth, and the quality of the codebase is improved to reflect the shared goals, ideas and aesthetic of those bringing the project into the world.

If a code review is used as a means of exercising authority then it’s no better than pandering to another’s ego. Many projects have stylistic and technical conventions, and checking such things can be easily automated so contributors are confident their changes meet such minimum requirements before ever submitting their code for review. Finally, if a critique of the approach, methodology or intent is offered as part of a code review, then it’s happening too late; such things should be discussed before code is submitted for inclusion in the project, perhaps in early drafts (so called “code spikes”) or exploratory proofs-of-concept.

From the contributor’s point of view, a code review is an opportunity to share their work so others understand and see what they are offering. In other words, a code review is an exercise in education as others encounter and explore new aspects of the code base. From a reviewer’s point of view, a code review is an opportunity to explore, internalise and offer constructive feedback of another’s contribution. Once again, it’s an exercise in education as the contributor is invited to explore their own work through the fresh eyes and constructive commentary of the reviewer.

Earlier, I deliberately used the word “enlarge” when I said a code review enlarges the world of those who participate. Enlargement is not synonymous with “fun”, “positive” or “easy”. The process of enlarging one’s view of the code might feel uncomfortable (perhaps you’re trying to get your head around a difficult or unfamiliar concept), negative (you feel frustrated with yet another bug in a hard-to-fathom part of the project) or difficult (the task at hand is complex and requires much effort simply to engage effectively).

Yet, enlargement implies growth, understanding and progress, and I’m reminded of the types of fun mountaineers use to categorise climbs.

A climb that is type one fun is fun because it’s fun to do, type two fun is not fun at the time but fun to recollect afterwards because of the achievement gained or lesson learned, and type three fun is not fun at the time, nor fun to recollect because you realise you never want to be in that situation ever again. Given a receptive spirit of learning, a mountaineer’s view of the world is enlarged through a mixture of both positive and affirmative, as well as negative and difficult, experiences.

So, how do we foster a spirit of enlargement in code reviews?

I believe mutual respect is key. Respect involves showing empathy, gratitude and acknowledgement that, when difficulties arise, folks involved are acting with the best of intentions. Another key factor is trust, an attribute of a team that only comes through working together over time, making mistakes together, and seeing evidence that folks support each other. I’d add that compassion (an awareness of and sympathy for another’s feelings and situation, mixed with a proactive desire to engage) is a great way to show support. When things inevitably become difficult, then compassion for each other is a way to embody mutual respect and build trust.

In the context of code reviews, such attributes help our judgement to become deeper, more refined and aware of the wider context of the project and its participants. A code review is no longer just an arbitrary measurement of “quality” (have you followed our code conventions?), but becomes an exercise in mutual learning and improvement that encompasses both enjoyable and challenging aspects of participating in a coding project. At the heart of this process is a strangely humorous paradox, as demonstrated by this old joke:

STUDENT: O Guru, what is the secret of success?
GURU: Good judgement.
STUDENT: How do you get good judgement?
GURU: Experience.
STUDENT: How do you get experience?
GURU: Bad judgement!

Only when folks feel safe to exercise potentially bad judgement (through the code they offer or the feedback they give), will they be able to gain experience and learn good judgement. The code review is a place to pay attention to each other’s contributions to facilitate mutual learning and growth. This will, ultimately, improve the project as a whole, and help its participants better engage with the tasks at hand.

“But”, I hear you ask, “what things should one do in a code review?”

If you’re expecting a “top ten interventions to make in a code review” type post, you’re in the wrong place. In fact, such naive shopping lists demonstrate a rather transactional and limited view of the process of a code review, while completely missing the point I’m trying to make. I hope you focus on embodying and passing on the sort of attributes that make a project an enlarging place in which to contribute: mutual respect, trust and compassion.

Perhaps we could learn by examining what other disciplines do when something is offered and feedback is given. For example, such a process is at the heart of musicians rehearsing (no matter the genre of music).

This short fragment shows Leonard Bernstein rehearsing an orchestra. Clearly the triangle players are not playing to the high standard he expects.

I want to draw your attention to the relationship between the musicians involved. How do Bernstein and the percussionists appear to you?

Folks might think Bernstein is condescending, sarcastic and not particularly supportive. Others might see him as setting clear (and very high) expectations through humour. Others might focus on Bernstein’s clear ignorance of triangle playing and the resulting laughter from the percussionists. That we see the same thing in different ways is itself an interesting and important outcome of our diverse and multifaceted backgrounds (and it’s important to acknowledge and recognise such differences).

The important relationship, upon which I want us to focus, is that between Bernstein and the musicians. Only when there's mutual respect, a feeling of safety and trust can such potentially difficult conversations, involving the giving and receiving of constructive criticism to fulfil some important end, take place. How such discussions unfold will reflect the unique relationship cultivated between the participants. So long as both parties share a bond of trust and respect, and we recognise and respect such a bond reflects their unique relationship with each other, then we can engage with and learn from the feedback and what the outcome tells us about the endeavour. In other words, our world is enlarged by observing their interactions.

Questions to Explore:

  • How has your world been enlarged through a recent code review?
  • Remember a time when you received valuable feedback or an important lesson that enlarged your world; how was it revealed to you?
  • What is your team’s approach to code reviews?
  • How do you and your collaborators cultivate a place of mutual respect, trust, and compassion?
  • Put yourself in Bernstein’s shoes, what would you say to the percussionists?
  • Imagine you’re the percussionists, how would you respond to Bernstein’s feedback?
  • Think of a recent PR submitted for you to review. How did you help enlarge the world of the author? How was your world enlarged?

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-08-17 16:00

2022-08-15

Adrian McEwen

Weeks 877-880 - Choose Your Own Colour By Text Adventure

Adrian here, lifting us back onto the weeknote wagon because it was my fault we'd fallen off it. Basically a month to catch up, so let's get cracking...

Chris had been getting well-acquainted with the MQTT support in WLED, the software we use on the My Baby's Got LED boards. That lets you control the board over the Internet or a local network so that you can hook it into other services and events.

We use that here in our office at DoES Liverpool to monitor the coffee pot (as is the networked device tradition). A sensor on the coffee pot watches its power consumption, and some software uses that information to spot when a fresh pot is being brewed. Thanks to Chris' work, the Liverbird on the wall slowly fills up with colour while the brewing happens; then once the coffee is ready it celebrates with a colourful pattern. One of our Ackers Bell production prototypes also rings, triggered by the same software. No-one in the office then misses out on fresh coffee.

Chris wrote up a brief how-to guide, Controlling WLED using a public MQTT server, for anyone who wants to get started doing something similar.

Speaking of the Ackers Bell, Nikki has been sketching out some business canvases to work out who we should tell about it when it's on sale, and how we might reach them. Would you, or someone you know, like an Internet-connected bell? What would you connect it to? Which events would your team want to be alerted to, or to celebrate? We'd love to hear from you.

The rest of our time has been focused on client work. It's been a busy couple of weeks for that, although as ever, some of it we can't talk about.

We can talk about the sessions we've done with artist Laura Pullig. A while back we designed a wind- or solar-powered battery charger circuit. We've had a handful of test PCBs made for it, and Laura came in for an afternoon to learn how to use the reflow oven to solder them up. She's also been back for us to do some testing on it. The combination of wind and solar as power options plus the very varied power supplied by the wind resulted in a pretty broad set of design parameters; our tests so far have been inconclusive. The next step will be to put together a datalogger to allow some more methodical exercising of the boards.

The client job that Chris has been working on has also been unveiled to the public.

The inside of a large sandston cathedral.  A sculpture is centre-stage of two huge female hands with their forefingers reaching towards each other to make contact.  The scene is lit with a wash of purple light.

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral have a new exhibition of work by sculptor Peter Walker: Being Human. The centrepiece of the work is Connection—two 2-metre tall hands situated under the Dulverton Bridge and is lit with an array of spotlights.

We have integrated a text-to-donate system with the sculpture lighting, so visitors (or anyone else...) can send a text message to change the colour of the artwork to one of their choice. The text costs your standard message rate plus £2, which is donated to help fund the upkeep of the cathedral. If you want to try it out, send a message including the word "cathedral" and your choice of colour from red, pink, blue, green, orange, yellow, purple, or cyan to 70152.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-08-15 06:00

2022-07-22

Fairphone Blog

Five years of responsible gold

For the past five years, Fairphone has been an active participant in a broad coalition within the Dutch gold sector aimed at ensuring greater respect for human rights, the environment and biodiversity in the gold value chain. This “gold covenant” was spearheaded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and co-signed by a variety of groups with an interest in the gold sector, including HIVOS/Stop Child Labour, Philips, Closing the Loop, and the Dutch Gold and Silver Federation (FGZ), as well as other parties like trade unions, importers and recyclers. Fairphone chaired the Gold Agreement task force on improving artisanal gold mining and responsible supply during the duration of the initiative. In June, this covenant came to an end; now comes the time to apply the lessons learned and make responsible gold the norm.

 

Increased transparency: the first step towards fairness

Transparency has always been a core Fairphone principle; it is an important first step towards fairer supply chains. The gold covenant was well aligned with this principle by requiring annual due diligence reports from its signatories and then rating their quality. These reports enable companies to openly explain their due diligence approach and share a map of their supply chain. The gold covenant awarded Fairphone the highest possible score for our last rated due diligence report 20/21.
Our mission, however, drives us to go beyond due diligence; to develop scalable solutions that can drive real impact for the people in our supply chain. We do this by, for example, investing in suppliers who are most marginalized, building their capacity to reach required quality and sustainability standards, and connecting them to our supply chain. This comes with higher risks, of course, but with greater positive impact, which we hope inspires others in our industry to do the same.

You can read more about how we are driving impact in our material supply chains and beyond in our recently published 2021 Impact Report.

Sharing lessons learned from our child labor project

Between 2017 and 2021, Fairphone led a consortium of companies and organizations in a project in Busia, Eastern Uganda. Our aim was to improve and support the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) communities in the area by eradicating child labor and establishing a sustainable gold supply chain that creates a better future for miners and their families.

Together with our partners, we piloted a holistic landscape approach, in which all key stakeholders — including community members, mining groups and supply chain actors — joined efforts to address the root causes of child labor. The project provided valuable lessons on how to best engage with mining groups to improve and sustain safer production methods, while introducing these miners to the international supply chain of minerals. These lessons were shared broadly with the gold covenant members, and are being adopted by the second phase of this project in the form of Project Access.

Leveraging feedback of gold covenant members

One key aspect of Project Access—developed by Fairphone and our partners—is a route-to-market model aimed at improving artisanal gold from East Africa through sustainable investment and market access.

Using feedback we received from members of the gold covenant, we have chosen to develop a book and claim model, where companies can purchase credits for their gold consumption and this money is invested in improving the sustainability of artisanal gold mines. Government representatives of the gold covenant have endorsed the model and one member, Diamond Point, has already committed to purchasing credits to contribute to improving artisanal gold mining!

This is a great milestone and raises the bar for the other gold covenant and industry members to follow suit. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if your company is interested in improving the sustainability of artisanal gold mining too!

The post Five years of responsible gold appeared first on Fairphone.

by Monique at 2022-07-22 16:54

Nicholas Tollervey

EuroPython 2022

I had a wonderful time at EuroPython, last week, in Dublin.

The most important aspect of the conference, for me personally, involved giving my talk entitled "Music and Code". It was an opportunity for me to reveal and explore how I feel about programming, teaching and learning and the place of tech in our wider culture. I've wanted to give a talk like this for over ten years, but only recently have I figured out how to express what I wanted to say through music as a metaphor.

Another important aspect of the conference was friendship and it was a huge pleasure to be a small part of the organising team.

I especially want to highlight collaborating with Vicky (a remarkable friend who embodies so many of the wonderful aspects of our Python community: a pro-active "can do" attitude, an inclusive and compassionate outlook towards others, and a formidable determination to thoughtfully do "the right thing" for the benefit of the whole community). The two of us flapped and faffed to fulfil a Maker space within EuroPython. Given the amount of positive engagement from attendees, I hope this becomes a regular feature of the conference. A case in point being the DIY robots competing to solve a maze in the fastest time, organised by the energetic and enthusiastic folks at the Northern Ireland Jam:

I also want to mention Raquel, who chaired this year's EuroPython. Her clear leadership, from the front, her apparently infinite energy, displayed through her considerable efforts, and her humane connection with folks, embodied by her patience, friendliness and compassion are generous gifts she has shared with us all. I sincerely hope she's taking some post-conference time off, and I want to thank her for reaching out to me, all those months ago, to become a part of organising EuroPython. And I have to say all my fellow organisers were an absolute joy to work with. Their collective courtesy, hard work, enthusiasm and friendliness is a very rare and special thing that I hope we can sustain, nourish and cultivate.

One other group of friends deserves a mention - my fellow maintainers of the Mu code editor. It was a huge amount of fun for us to be together in the same place for the first time ever. I was especially delighted to meet Vasco, face to face, for the first time.

The final part of EuroPython were two days of "code sprints", where open-source collaborators work together on their projects, meet to discuss technical and other aspects of our collective work, and welcome new collaborators and friends to our efforts. We, the maintainers of Mu, had a wonderful time focusing on Mu related things, and collaborating with new contributors who have made welcome enhancements to Mu.

Here's a picture of all the Mu maintainers at EuroPython:

The five core Mu maintainers
The five core Mu maintainers: Tim, Tiago, Carlos, myself and Vasco.

Of course, I heard many wonderful talks, enjoyed the conversations with many friends old and new in the famous corridor track and took part in some really stimulating workshops (with my amazing daughter, who was attending her first PyCon as a proper attendee with an interest in data science - she especially enjoyed both Django Girls and Humble Data).

I love EuroPython's culturally cosmopolitan feeling, something that's hard to recreate at a national PyCon. I love how folks keep coming back to EuroPython, there are people who mean a lot to me, who I only ever see at this conference. I also love EuroPython's peripatetic nature, as a community we are welcomed to all sorts of fun places and have an opportunity to soak up the vibe of different countries and cultures.

Long may it last, and I hope to see you at next year's EuroPython.

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-07-22 14:20

2022-07-20

Adrian McEwen

Controlling WLED using a public MQTT server

A while ago now we linked a My Baby’s Got LED board to twitter using Node-RED for the Love to Play festival In this post we are looking at another way to get playful using MQTT with a My Baby’s got LED board. MQTT is a simple transport protocol, now commonly used to communicate in IoT. We’re going to set up a board to listen to a public MQTT broker and change the lights whenever a message is published. This will mean anyone can change our lights and any other My Baby’s Got LED boards connected in the same way will also change,

MQTT works by allowing devices to publish messages on topics and/or subscribe to topics to see what has been published. There’s a lot more information about this protocol here. MQTT connections are handled by a broker which revives and directs messages appropriately. It’s often desirable to run your own broker, and there are a range of options available. However, to create our MQTT ‘playthelights’ example we are going to bypass the overhead of running a broker ourselves; we will use one of the publically available brokers instead. In this case we want other people to be able to control our IoT device so we need our messages are public.

There are only really two steps needed to set this up. First we are going to configure the board to subscribe to a broker and then publish messages to the appropriate topics on that broker.

Connecting to the MQTT broker

If you have configured your board to connect to your network, go to the address you gave it during the setup. We will need to connect to the internet to access the broker so if you haven’t configured wifi and are connected to the board as an access point, or if you don’t know what this means, see the setup documentation.

  • Click on ‘Settings’ and then ‘Sync interfaces’ Scroll down until you find the ‘MQTT’ settings.
  • Click the checkbox to ‘Enable MQTT’
  • Set the broker to broker.hivemq.com and the port to 1883
  • For ‘group topic’ use ‘wled/playthelights’, this is the MQTT topic we are subscribing to for messages with information about changing the lights.
  • Scroll down to the bottom and click ‘Save’, the board will need rebooting for the changes to take effect.

MQTT settings on WLED showing broker:broker.hivmq.com, port:1883 and group topic:wled/playthelights

We have now set up our board to connect to the hivemq broker and listen for messages on wled/playthelights

Publishing messages to the topic

Now that the board is subscribed to the topic the next step is to publish messages to it, for this you will need an MQTT client. There are many options available for different devices. In this example I’m using an online tool from the same organisation that provide the public broker we are using.

Change the address in ‘Host’ to broker.hivemq.com and click connect.

MQTT websocket client settings

Now we are ready to start publishing messages to the topic to control the lights. Use the double arrows to exapnd the ‘Publish’ section and set the topic to ‘wled/playthelights’ In the ‘Message’ box type ‘ON’ and click publish. Now try publishing the message ‘OFF’. This should turn on the lights and then turn them off again. Sending ‘T’ toggles the On/Off state of the lights, try publishing the message ‘T’ a few times.

MQTT websocket publish to wled/playthelights topic settings

WLED also allows for changing colour over MQTT using the topic [mqttGroupTopic]/col by sending hex colour values. So change the ‘Topic’ to wled/playthelights/col and then publish a message containing a hex colour value Eg. publishing #ff0000 will turn the lights red.

The WLED interface also responds to messages posted to the topic [mqttGroupTopic]/api This responds to any of the HTTP API commands and gives a lot more control over the lights.

So, for example, publishing the message “FX=73” to wled/cheerlights/api will set the lights to the rainbow chase mode (Effect 73) A full list of WLED API effect settings can be found here.

The [mqttGroupTopic/]/api will also accept messages in the JSON api format. So, for example, publishing the message “{"seg":[{"col":[[0,255,200]]}]}” to this topic is another way to change the colour of the first segment.

Remember your board is set up to accept all messages published on these topics on a public server, so anyone else from anywhere can also publish messages that change your lights. Equally messages that you publish will change the settings of every other My Baby’s got LED board that is subscribed to this broker.

An alternative to the web based client used there are apps available for mobile phones that can provide the same function. One example for Andriod is MQTT Dashboard

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-07-20 06:00

2022-07-18

Adrian McEwen

Week 876 - WLED now in kit form

Chris on weeknotes this week, largely working on applications for My Baby’s Got LED. Which feels like a reasonable opportunity to mention we’ve just added MBGL kits to our store. So you can buy everything you need in one place to recreate these projects at home*.

*(Liverbird not included)

Apart from work for a client the two projects I’ve mostly spent time on this week have both used MBGL. One an interactive sign for a Bar/radio station and the other testing WLED mapping to give an new look to the DoES Liverpool coffee monitoring liverbird.

Melodic Distraction is a radio station and bar based in the fabric district. They were looking to improve the look of their street sign, and bought a My Baby’s Got LED kit to liven it up. They removed the old strip lighting and connections and replaced it with a strip of RGB Leds around the circumference. To prevent noise on the data line, we used twin core cable for the power and a seperate shielded line for the data to the lights. Now it’s up and running, the next job is to link it their music output.

In DoES Liverpool, the coffee machine is hooked up to a SONOFF, which publishes an MQTT message whenever a fresh brew is started. Also connected to the DoES network is a large liverbird sign, formerly on the side of the Liverpool Echo building. It’s now full of LEDs controlled by a MY Baby’s Got LED board. Usually, the liverbird flashes a different colour when the coffee is ready, I wanted to see if we could use the lights like a progress bar, to show how long it would be before the coffee was brewed.

By default, WLED expects the addressable lights to be sequential, starting at address zero and working up. In the liverbird the lights are threaded around the frame, up one leg and down the other. As a result the order of their physical addresses doesn’t fit a neat pattern of rows. Luckily, WLED has a mapping trick to get round this. It’s possible to add a JSON-formatted map which lists the physical address of each led in the order you’d actually like them to be used.

With this setup we can use Node-RED to trigger an event when the SONOFF publishes a message to let us know the brew has started. In this flow we can also calculate the time elapsed from when this notification is received. We happen to know that it takes 270 seconds for a pot of coffee to brew, so we can calculate the percentage of brew time elapsed. With the leds in a sensible order it is really easy in WLED to display this using the ‘Percent’ effect, with the percentage we want to visualise as the ‘Intensity’ value.

{
 "seg":[{
      "id":0,
      "on":"on",
      "fx":98,
      "ix":,
      "col": [[255, 0, 0],[0, 0, 0]]
  }]
}

This example JSON sets the effect to ‘Percent’ (fx:98) and uses the payload value to set the intensity (ix:).

Nikki’s week consisted of filming the liverbird filling up with the coffee pot and editing the video to make it social media friendly, which took more steps than she’d like to admit and had some minor technical difficulties in the form of a dodgy cable when trying to get the laptop to read the camera. But despite that, it’s now up on Twitter!

She’s also been looking at canvas models for the Ackers Bell and trying to make some headway with that, though progress is slow. The big thing was sorting out the pricing for the My Baby’s Got LED starter kits, and finally getting those on Tindie ready to be sold!

And finally, Adrian is continuing with some really exciting client work, but nothing that can be discussed here yet. You’ll have to trust us for now, and find out more as soon as we can share!

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-07-18 06:00

2022-07-13

Adrian McEwen

Week 875 - Brainboxes

This week saw us all visiting Brainboxes with the IoT Liverpool meetup group They are a Liverpool based company that develop and manufacture communication devices from their base in Speke. It was great to see an example of local tech industry, boards designed and manufactured in Liverpool, used throughout the world. The British Antarctic Survey have sensors connected to Brainbox analog input boards gathering data all year round. When decision makers are talking about new tech businesses in the city region, this is surely the kind of model we should be looking to have more of.

The MCQN team in blue lab coats on the factory floor of brainbox, where they manufacture their circuit boards.

I was particularly taken by their Pick and Place machines in action, and look forward to the days when we’re operating similar with MCQN to turn out My Baby’s Got LED boards in high volume. While I was asking many questions about the processes involved in placing components the rest of the group moved on to see a robot arm printing cases.

Away from our trip I spent the week continuing a project for a client that is still at the development stage. I’m also still trying to find a local CNC manufacturer who can create Ackers Bell bases at volume for us. A shortage of plywood is working against us. For Liverpool Makefest we installed a My Bike’s got LED board into the 3d printed ‘DoES Tower’. That led to some work sending instructions to WLED over MQTT using a public broker. A blog post is coming soon, if you’d like to try it yourself!

Nikki has been putting videos together, organising meetings to move the Ackers Bell forward and working through various ideas Arthur had been working on. She’s also looking at business canvases, which has required some delving into the DoES wiki to get printers working.

Adrian was busy with client work, that sadly he can’t talk about. He did, however, manage to track down and fix a particularly elusive bug, which had a small chance of occurring once every 49 days. Folk who know how many milliseconds you can fit into a 32-bit number may have an idea of where the problem lay…

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-07-13 06:00

2022-07-11

Albert Wenger

The Meaning of Machine Creativity

For a long time there was a narrative that computers would only be good at automating routine tasks, leaving creativity to us humans. I never believed this because creativity isn’t some kind of magic but rather much of it is based on exploring variations either based on known rules or based on precedents. For example, I titled a post in 2016 “Machine Creativity: Possibly Sooner than Anticipated.” Also in my book The World After Capital, I have a section on the universality of computation that includes a few paragraphs on creativity.

Recently we have had several breakthroughs, first starting with large language models that can tell stories, and now with DALL-E2 and midjourney, two models that can generate amazing imagery based on textual input. For example, here is an image “imagined” by midjourney based on the prompt “Sailing across the alps”

It is mind-bending to sit with this image for a while. A machine created it and did so within a space of minutes, yet it is full of imagination and detail and could easily be on the cover of a book or the walls of a museum.

So what does it mean that we now clearly and demonstrably have creative machines?

First, more than ever it means that we need to come up with a new social contract. People who have earned a living with logo design, or illustration, or music composition, or code authoring, or any number of other creative pursuits are suddenly facing stiff competition from machines (related: here is another 2016 post on “Programming without Programmers”). In The World After Capital I have an section on the “lump of labor fallacy” versus Leontieff’s argument that humans are just a factor of production, much like horses were at one point. I am firmly in the camp that the central building block of a new social contract needs to be some form of Universal Basic Income.

Second, while I don’t believe that artificial general intelligence is imminent, we are definitely now finding ourselves on an accelerated timeline, relative to just a few years back. Humans still have a unique capability to reason and be creative over “open domains” or across vastly different domains. Also we humans can base our creativity on a deep understanding as opposed to the shallow approach taken by the models. But it would be silly to dismiss these latest models as just a parlor trick, as some have argued. What we are seeing now is profound. It is high time that we start getting serious about what it means to be human and how we should be treating other humans.

We are experiencing an extraordinary expansion of technological capabilities. If we can figure out how to get past our industrial age thinking, what comes next could be truly amazing. If you want my thoughts on that, I have pulled them together as a book: The World After Capital.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-07-11 11:59

2022-07-06

Albert Wenger

Progress vs. Categories

As humans we like to put things into categories. It makes communicating and thinking easier. Scratch that. It makes communicating and thinking possible. Categories go hand in hand with words as providing us with crucial compression of reality. Just like a 1:1 map is completely useless (it is the terrain itself), so would be a need to describe every detail of every person or object before being able to make a point. We would never get anywhere.

Not surprisingly then, categories are everywhere. For instance in venture we tend to put things into boxes such as “B2C” or “enterprise software.” Or in academia people study a discipline like “physics” or “chemistry.” The government classifies workers as “contractors” or “employees.” But here’s the tricky part: the world isn’t static and progress undoes categories.

The admonition to “think out of the box” when it comes to innovation is apt. Such thinking is both a source of progress and necessitated by progress. Here are just some examples. As we have deepened our understanding of what matter consists of, some of the historic boundaries between chemistry, physics and biology have stopped making sense. With computers dispatching labor we have erased many of the distinctions between contractors and employees. Self-service consumer grade software is taking over the enterprise market with product-led growth companies outperforming sales-led companies.

If you are trying to invent the new (or fund it), it helps to let go of existing boxes, instead of trying to jam innovative ideas into them. One of the reasons really disruptive startups often have a hard time raising money is because they often don’t fit an existing category. At USV we have benefited greatly from having a thesis-based rather than category-based approach for that reason.

People and institutions who derive their power from controlling one of the existing categories will fight progress that might undo the importance of the category. For example, in academia the chairs of existing departments resist the creation of “inter-disciplinary” degrees (a coinage that by itself is meant to appease the existing disciplines). They also resist the creation of new departments that represent categories that make more sense on a go forward basis. For example, Information Theory, despite its importance, tends to be spread out and shoehorned into math, economics and physics departments.

The bigger and more important the categories, the more vicious the fights to protect the status quo at all cost. And that is at the heart of the gender and sex wars we are now finding ourselves in. With progress we have started to understand that these categories don’t have the clear dividing lines we imagined – for example, the biology of sex in humans is far more complex than simply what chromosomes you have. And progress allows us to make profound changes, whether that’s hormone therapy, cosmetic surgery, or reproductive technologies. Even without these changes, technological progress has often rendered historic reasons for the category distinction mute. For example, soldiers used to rely on brute strength a lot, but that matters not one bit if you are remotely flying a drone.

The ultimate intervention here will be based on technologies such as CRISPR that allow us to manipulate the genome. It is only a question of time before athletes will show up crushing it in various sports who have been designed to be dominant at those sports (e.g. lung capacity for swimming). If you don’t think that will happen, I suggest reading up on the sordid history of “performance” sports programs anywhere in the world. Any edge that could be had has been exploited in the past and that won’t be any different going forward (especially when the interventions will be extremely hard to detect).

There are people and institutions who derive their power based on a clear distinction between the male and female categories today. They will fight progress all the way. That’s why change will be hard and take a long time. Categories everywhere persist far past their usefulness because of vested interests. Anyone interested in inventing the future instead of clinging to the past will need to overcome that. The work of establishing new categories is hard and success in doing so a huge accomplishment that moves all of us forward.

PS Someone asked me how we could have new categories in sports. To answer this it is important to recognize that we already have some sports that have a single field, such as dressage or ocean sailboat racing. It is equally important to note that other sports have categories in addition to sex, such as weight classes in boxing and wrestling. We simply need to be willing to experiment with categories in other sports as well. One approach could be to have classes based on direct measurement of a key attribute. For example, I love tennis. We now have the tools to measure the speed of balls at all times. Imagine tournaments based on speed classes. Slow, Medium, Fast. If you want to compete in a class you have to stay within the speed limit of that class. It’s just another rule, not really different from that you have to stand behind the baseline to serve. I believe we would have many more interesting matches with these categories than we have today!

by Albert Wenger at 2022-07-06 00:33

2022-07-04

Albert Wenger

Happy 4th of July: Think Independently!

Every 4th of July I like to reflect on what it means to be independent. Today I wrote nearly an entire post on production independence, starting with energy independence. But I have decided to post that another day because there is a different type of independence that I have decided is more important at this particular moment in time: independent thinking.

It has never been easy to be an independent thinker but it has become considerably more difficult in our always online, always connected world. There are several reasons for this. First, we are surrounded by suggestion algorithms that drive us ever deeper into clusters. One really has to make a strong conscious effort to follow people of different views, or one will not see those views as at all. I have long argued for what I called the “Opposing View Reader” and would happily use that if it were available as a product. In the meantime, I have added people to my Twitter feed who I strongly disagree with on almost everything.

Second, whatever we post ourselves is scrutinized and deviation from what the bulk of one’s followers think takes an extra level of conviction. So often people will stay silent on a topic rather than express their opinion for fear of having to deal with an online backlash. And of course when one does post something there are also the other type of comment (mostly from non-followers) that tries to for “guilt by association” through throwing out a label such as “liberal” or “racist” instead of engaging with the substance of the comment.

Third, with more and more time spent online, people are suffering from loneliness. And unlike IRL, where people can get to know you over time in your fullness, online we tend to have just a relatively narrow representation of ourselves. So the pressure to conform to a group and its views is growing for fear of being excluded and feeling even more lonely. Having strong real world friendships is one good antidote to that. Not giving a shit is another.

In the early days of Union Square Ventures we were often asked if we could be successful being in New York and not in Silicon Valley. Our answer was that we prefer to think independently and that’s a lot easier when you are somewhat geographically separate. It is also the reason we spend very little time with other investors, rarely going to VC conferences. It turns out that independent thinking is extremely powerful when it comes to investing (likely also one of the reasons for Warren Buffet’s success, although I have been meaning to write a post about how I think he’s a hypocrite).

So on this 4th, maybe take a few minutes to add people you strongly disagree with to your feeds. This is a great first step towards thinking independently. As a second step set aside time, ideally every week, to query which of your beliefs are ones you have spent time considering independently and which ones have you adopted simply by virtue of being part of a group. For inspiration on independent thinking I suggest following Aella, who recently had a good thread on how challenging it can be.

Happy 4th of July! And happy independent thinking!

by Albert Wenger at 2022-07-04 19:09

Adrian McEwen

Weeks 873 - 874 Makefest!

Hey all! Nikki doing week - well fortnight - notes this week.

Adrian has continued work on the EV charger project but there’s not much we can talk about publicly there. He’s also been working with Snoof from STEAM Engineers on the design for the new Factoree website, working out how to open up the sensor graphing dashboard to let people see part of it without logging in.

Chris spent most of the last two weeks doing client work and doing preparations for makefest; Including adding a MBGL board to the DoES Tower and setting up a Node-RED flow to listen for tweets, and send MQTT messages to change the colour of the lights, as well as setting up the Acker’s bell with the new design.

He also looked at the WLED interface to communicate with MBGL over MQTT using a public broker in order to write up a blog post that’ll be up soon, and had a less successful experiment with LEDFx.

A table featuring several MCQN projects including Museum in a Box - a pink box with a volume dial, surrounded by post cards and 3D printed objects which can be used with it and the Ackers Bell - a brass bell in a pentagonal housing. There is also a screen showing video and the edge of the Peleton MBGL disco breastplates can be seen on the edge of the frame.

The main event of everything of course was Makefest this weekend over in Liverpool Central Library. We had an amazing time and can only extend a great amount of thanks to the organisers and everyone who came out to the event.

It was a wonderful day and it was a lot of fun to get to share the things we do and what we’ve made with everyone who came out. Seeing everyone interacting with things, asking questions and being excited about the things we make the same way we are is always the best part of making.

So what did we take away from it? Well Museum in a Box seemed to be a particular favourite and there was also a great deal of interest specifically in the My Bike’s got LED/ Disco breastplates, a community project that Jackie Pease and others worked on for Peloton Liverpool. Apparently wearable lights are very popular, Who knew?!

It’s all given us a good idea of what things we should be focusing our energy on in the future which is good and allowed us to connect with many other makers throughout liverpool which is always a joy. Overall we had a lovely time and we’re looking forward to next year and hopefully by then we’ll have even more new, cool stuff to show off to all of you.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-07-04 06:00

2022-06-22

Adrian McEwen

Weeks 871-872 - Probing and Charging Ahead

Adrian here, as you'd probably guessed from this being fortnight-notes rather than week-notes.

It's been a fortnight full of client work, on a variety of projects.

I've been bringing up a new hardware board. Working out how to get software loaded onto it and getting it to parity with the version we've been developing on a dev-board while waiting for the hardware design to be ready.

A red PCB on a white table with two probes placed onto points on the PCB.  The probes are held in place with gooseneck connectors which arch over to magnetic bases which are held steady on a steel ruler

As part of that I got to try out the new hands-free probes I bought a while back from Sensepeek. They made it much easier to test things out (these photos I staged afterwards with a My Bike's Got LED board as I can't show the actual hardware)

Zoomed in version of the previous photo showing a closer view of the probe pins connecting to points on the ESP8266 on the board

The real hardware is using an ESP32-SOLO-1 module, which only has a single-core unlike the more common (including our development hardware) two-core ESP32. Despite not needing a second core, running on single-core ESP32 modules is a path far less travelled and so getting it all building and running was more of a slog than we'd anticipated. We're through to the other side of that now, thankfully, and can crack on with developing further features.

Chris wrapped up the work on the charging station for Peloton Liverpool Cooperative. That will let them recharge the batteries for the My Bike's Got LED boards in their Disco Breastplates.

We dropped it off at their workshop, and it slotted neatly onto their repurposed-shopping-trolley mobile charging point as intended.

With that done, he's moved onto a new client project, learning how to mint a new ibal number in the process. Hopefully we'll be able to talk more about it as we get further along with it.

Among the client work we did find time for an update to My Baby's Got LED.

The WLED software that powers the board has an active community and there are regular new releases withh bug fixes and new features. The stock WLED software will work on our boards, but we have a couple of additional features (usermods in the WLED parlance) to provide better feedback. We hadn't updated our version for a little while and there was a new release — v0.13.1 — available, so we pulled the new code into our version and made a new release to use on the boards we're shipping out.

The new release has also fixed an issue with the older version where the OTA updater ("over the air", where you upgrade the software over the WiFi) wasn't working; so now you'll be able to upgrade your My Baby's Got LED software without needing a serial cable. And if you've got an older board that you'd like upgrading, but don't have a serial cable, drop us a line and we can help out.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-06-22 06:00

2022-06-21

Nicholas Tollervey

Pastures New

I have been a freelance software engineer for almost 17 years. In that time, as is usual for a freelancer, I have changed roles every 18 months to two years. Often I took time off between gigs to work on personal projects, write, reflect or learn something new. For instance, in 2008 I left my role as a senior .NET developer for an investment bank in London to learn Python, then reset my career as a junior Python coder three months later and never looked back.

I've relished my freedom and independence, and it has been a privilege to work on a huge variety of projects for a diverse range of companies in many different sectors. I have been enriched by my colleagues, made many wonderful friends, and learned a huge amount from folks.

Thank you everyone.

Yet change is in the air... Since January I've been in discussions with Anaconda and from today (the Northern Hemisphere's summer solstice no less!), I'm delighted to reveal I'll be joining them as a principal engineer. Long may the sun shine on this endeavour. 🌞

The very big change for me and my family is that I'm an employee rather than freelancer.

A big factor in persuading me to step away from freelancing were the folks I met in interviews and the company culture I encountered leading up to my offer of employment.

Another important factor was the nature of the work I'll be doing. I can't go into details, but I'm very excited to work with an exceptionally talented group of folks, on something that I'll relish getting my teeth into. Importantly, it is an opportunity for me to bring together and use skills from many different aspects of my background.

Finally, Anaconda understand what motivates folks passionate about creative coding: I'll still be active as an open source contributor and will continue to develop projects such as CodeGrades in my own time, as has been the case so far.

Here's to new adventures.

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-06-21 08:00

2022-06-15

Fairphone Blog

Fairphone Easy: a smartphone subscription for a fairer future

The world needs a new business model. The electronics industry focuses on selling new devices as often as possible to make a profit, driving rapid product life cycles, overconsumption and waste. Fairphone knows that while profit is important, a fairer, cleaner future is most important of all; we must move towards a circular economy that makes the most of the resources we have. That’s why we love longevity and design longer-lasting, easily repairable smartphones – while encouraging others to embrace longevity too. After all, the longer you keep your phone, the lower its environmental and social footprint. That’s where our new business model comes in.

Introducing Fairphone Easy

We are proud to announce the launch of Fairphone Easy, a smartphone subscription service that takes our circular ambitions to the next level. We’re giving users in The Netherlands the option to use our most sustainable and modular phone yet, the Fairphone 4 (in green, with 8GB/256GB), for a fixed monthly fee, rather than buying it.

Fairphone Easy subscribers don’t need to worry about replacing their phone or about fixing it when something breaks. We take care of any maintenance or upgrades needed. Users are also rewarded with lower monthly fees if they take care of and use their phone for longer: for every year the phone stays damage free, the monthly discount increases, rewarding users for taking part in our mission for smartphone longevity.

 

Is Fairphone Easy more sustainable?

How is a subscription service more circular and sustainable than simply buying a phone, you may wonder? The current business model of our industry sees about 1.4 billion mobile phones sold globally. Users keep their phones for an average of 2-3 years, yet only 15% of discarded phones are collected for recycling. This adds to the growing world’s e-waste problem – and increasing CO2 emissions, as 70% of a smartphone’s lifetime emissions occur during production. The more new phones, the larger the environmental impact. These rapid lifecycles not only have a negative impact on the planet, but also on the people working in the supply chain. The longer a phone (and all its materials) are in use, the lower the impact on people and the planet. Fairphone Easy maximizes the lifetime of our phones and their materials, while ensuring a great user experience and providing a more sustainable business model for the smartphone industry.

What makes Fairphone Easy circular?

Fairphone Easy encourages subscribers to increase the lifetime of their phone by ensuring they enjoy keeping their phone in use longer. If the subscriber stops, Fairphone ensures the phone ‘lives on’ by refurbishing it and giving it to a new subscriber, or re-using the parts to repair another phone. At the end of the phone’s life, Fairphone will make sure it is properly recycled. This way it won’t become e-waste, or end up in a drawer where its valuable materials cannot be utilized.

This business model has been a long-time wish of ours; until now we’ve mostly been working on making the process of designing and producing a phone fairer for people and planet. But, after the customer buys the phone, the process is out of our hands. With Fairphone Easy’s service model, we can now make the phone’s entire life cycle fairer and more sustainable, by encouraging longer use and ensuring its re-use and proper recycling.

 

Want to know more about Fairphone Easy? You can find all the details here, and if you’re in the Netherlands and in need of a new phone, join us, and become part of the circular solution!

The post Fairphone Easy: a smartphone subscription for a fairer future appeared first on Fairphone.

by Ronald at 2022-06-15 09:00

2022-06-07

Adrian McEwen

Week 870 - Generating toolpaths for milling circuit boards

Somehow it’s come back round to Chris for the weeknotes again already, those three (and a half) weeks have flown.

I’ve mainly been working on a battery charger for our friends at Peloton. We needed to connect ten 4056 charging chips to a PSU so they could charge all their My Baby’s Got LED power lights.

As it is a one off, MCQN had a lot of copper board and DoES Liverpool has CNC mills it made sense to mill a circuit board for this.

A CNC milled copper circuit board with a 4056 charging circuit and a JST connector

For the next time I need to, and possibly to help other members of the DoES community make woodcut prints, I thought it would be useful to record the various options I looked at to generate the toolpath.

For each I’m starting with an SVG of the tracks generated in Inkscape, with a footprint for the JST socket exported from Kicad.

FreeCAD

Naturally my first approach was FreeCAD, why wouldn’t it be? I’ve written a quick overview on crearting 3d models from 2d SVG files for DoES here

It’s a work in progress and will probably need a refresh after Friday’s(?) release of v0.20.

With a 3d rendering the Path workbench can create and export the toolpath. This approach works and I’d never discourage using FreeCAD but for a job like this which is essentially only a 2d path it’s probably a little overkill.

Jscut

JSCut is an online toolpath generator that imports an SVG and then has options to select the shapes within this file to generate tool operations.

By drawing a perimeter rectangle around the board it’s possible to generate a path that engraves away all the copper that isn’t track.

The trick here is to select all the internal path objects first, and then the bounding rectangle. In the drop down menu for the engrave operation is a ‘Combine’ property. Setting this to ‘XOR’ gives the desired result.

I’ve found selecting objects is a little tricky, reminiscent of the pixel perfect precision needed to complete a ZX Spectrum platformer, but with patience it can generate useful results.

Also you are probably going to need to edit the resulting Gcode in a text editor, in our case adding the leading and trailing “%” character and stripping out comments.

Krabzcam and Kiri

Krabzcam and Kiri offer a similar approach to Jscut and both have their strengths, I guess it’s down to personal preference here.

I ended up using Krabzcam but I've included them so we have the links.

On this project I decided against etching away all the copper as described above with Jscut and just profiled the paths using Krabzcam.

One eccentricity I spotted with this tool was the creation of some extra drilling operations when I added the operations for the through hole components.

I suspect it was adding a drill operation into every enclosed shape found and not just the circular holes I’d intended.

I am very prepared to admit this was user error and not a fault in the software, but I couldn’t find the solution. This was easily fixed in NC Viewer though.

HT to Jo Hinchliffe for the steer on the various web CAM tools.

Ten 4056 charging circuits connected by a milled copper board recharging batteries

Along with client work Adrian took part in an epic biking expedition in North Wales.

Nicki will be back to weeknotes after her European festival adventures.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-06-07 06:00

2022-05-31

Adrian McEwen

Week 869 - New Week, New CNC Software

Adrian writing this week.

My week was almost entirely taken up with client work and quoting for a new project, none of which I can talk about. However, I did find time to update our fork of the WLED software which the My Baby's Got LED board uses to get the latest features. Chris found one or two niggles with it, so I'll need to do a bit more work on it before it's ready for release.

The inside of a church showing the ornate iron columns and decorative ironwork of its construction

I also had a day off to catch up with some of the city's art while a friend was in town. Plus an afternoon out of the office in the beautiful (and architecturally-significant as the first iron-framed church) St. George's Church. It's a short walk from our studio, on top of Everton Brow with fantastic views across the city, and just over the road from the neglected but also gorgeous Everton Library. I was there alongside STEAM Engineers to talk about makerspaces and how DoES Liverpool helps us to do our work.

Chris has been continuing to work on the charging circuit for the Joyride implementation of My Bike's got LED. He has started work on milling the PCB to connect the charging units together. The new tool in the CNC prep repertoire this week was JSCut. Taking SVG files from inkscape this online tool creates suitable GCode to drive our mill.

Nikki spent the week working on the Ackers Bell. Revisiting the bill of materials spreadsheet to update potential production costs and figure out how many components we already have in stock for an initial production run.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-05-31 06:00

2022-05-30

Albert Wenger

Joseph Tainter: The Collapse of Complex Societies (Book Review)

Given the ongoing decay of our institutions and their utter failure to address the climate crisis it is not far fetched to ask whether we are headed for some kind of societal collapse. A highly relevant book is Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, published in 1988. I had two key takeaways from reading it.

First, there are way more examples of complex societies collapsing than I was aware of. I was of course familiar with the collapse of the Roman Empire and was also aware of Mayas in the Yucatan (having visited there) but Tainter provides at least a dozen examples, including several societies that I had never heard of before. He also rightfully points out that complexity so far is the historical exception and widespread complexity (meaning the world being dominated by complex societies is a particularly recent phenomenon). So the takeaway here is in part that we really aren’t very deep into the current complexity phase and that the past track record over longer time periods isn’t exactly encouraging.

Second, Tainter proposes a very simple and general mechanism leading to collapse: declining marginal returns to complexity. Over time the benefits of complexity diminish and its costs increase. When that happens societies become prone to collapse from (a) having not enough reserves to deal with shocks and/or (b) parts of society that are bearing a disproportionate share of the cost of complexity resisting. He then analyzes the role of this mechanism in three collapses in some detail, including for the collapse of the Roman Empire. One striking feature of that particular collapse is the massive currency devaluation over hundreds of years that has strong echos in today’s world.

Tainter gives many reasons for why the benefits of complexity decline over time and its cost rise. One that he doesn’t discuss much but that is particularly pertinent to today, is the accretion of laws and regulations. While these are essential tools for maintaining complex societies it is particularly easy to see how over time their benefits decline and their costs rise when you only ever add laws and regulations but never do a partial or complete rewrite. It is the societal equivalent of the accumulation of technical debt in startups.

Are there ways of avoiding collapse? First, as Tainter points out, quite a few societies don’t collapse but simply go into a long decline and then get taken over by other societies. He thinks that this is a possible scenario for many societies today because they are surrounded by other complex societies (this does, however, leave open the possibility of many societies collapsing at about the same time). Second, Tainter also points to examples of avoiding collapse through a big resource or energy unlock. Deploying solar at massive scale could be such an unlock, as could be fusion if we get it working.

All in all a very worthwhile read combining a ton of history with an analytical framework. I find most historical writing to be replete with ad hoc explanations that don’t sound much more compelling than CNBC talking about why the market went up or down. The Collapse of Complex Societies stands out from that and all the more so coming in at only 215 pages. Highly recommended.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-05-30 14:48

2022-05-26

Albert Wenger

How Much is Enough?

I had lunch the other day with a friend. He has a has a reasonably high paying job in consulting which he sort of enjoys but would rather be an artist. So the question he posed was “How much is enough?” – meaning how much money does he need to become an artist. We spent the rest of the lunch talking about different options for approaching this.

Here’s a recap of what we have come up with so far:

1. Don’t wait, just start trying to sell some art right now on the side while going full steam with his work. We concluded this was hard given the demands of his job, which involves a fair bit of travel and dinners with clients. So this makes it difficult for him to carve out time consistently to work on art. We agreed though that with a high degree of will power this might still be possible. There are some examples of people having succeeded this way, notably singer John Legend who was at BCG while also launching his music career.

2. Dial back work a lot but keep some income going. This will require him going freelance and losing health benefits. Definitely felt more doable than option #1 but also somewhat riskier. Two conditions seemed important here. First, making sure his expenses were low enough / his income high enough to not require digging into savings (see next option for that). Second, having fairly reliable repeat clients so that there isn’t a lot of uncertainty about his income or a lot of time spent finding clients. I have a musician friend (not a breakout artist) who has been doing this for two decades now consistently putting out new music.

3. Save up enough for a time period of just art. We tossed around having at least two, but better three or more years of “runway.” Enough time for him to really give art a try, and then still some more time for him to restart a consulting job should the art thing not pan out. Definitely more risky than option #2 financially, but it would allow him to focus 100% on art. That might have the highest likelihood of succeeding at art, although as my friend pointed out: “I doubt that I could handle the stress of seeing my savings decline every month.” Fair point. The attractiveness of this option also depends a lot on how confident he is in the ability to restart consulting after a multi-year break. He wasn’t sure about that.

4. Earn enough to be able to generate sufficient passive income. We talked about buying a place that’s so big that he can live in it but also generate rental income to cover the costs of a mortgage, taxes, maintenance and living. This actually seemed doable in due time given his savings and income level but with one important caveat. He loves New York City and, well, real estate here is ridiculously expensive making this challenging. We talked about moving somewhere cheaper, which he’s not super thrilled about (understandably). We are still working through the numbers on this though.

Sorry if you were looking for precise numbers based on the title of the post. We didn’t get that far (yet). In writing this up though, I came up with a combination idea: #4 + #2 (could also do #4 + #3 potentially). Basically buy real estate somewhere outside of New York City, have that generate passive income and be a place he could live should everything fall apart, but pursue art here in the city.

If you know of someone who has successfully made such a transition or have made it yourself, it would be great to hear in the comments how they/you approached it.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-05-26 12:26

2022-05-25

Adrian McEwen

Week 868 - Yet more Ackers Bell

Hi all, Nikki on the week notes this week.

Where do we begin?

Now that Chris is wrapping up the CNC work on the Ackers Bell we’ve been taking a slightly wider look at it. We had a good planning session about what’s left to get it into a product that you can buy.

As part of that there are a couple of minor tweaks to make to the PCB for it. As part of the design work we’ve moved the status LEDs and reset button a few mm closer to the edge of the case so that they aren’t tucked so far under the bell. And because we’re making some changes there, Adrian is wondering if we should look at the connector to attach the solenoid (which is what strikes the bell) to the PCB. The connector we’ve got works, but can be a bit fiddly to assemble. So we’ve found a couple of possible alternatives and got a few of each ordered so we can make a decision on whether to change things or not. Then we can get some PCBs made up to check and build a few sample units for marketing and testing.

I’ve been doing a lot of research into marketing plans and where the best options to promote Ackers Bell will be so that the people who may actually want to buy it will see. As well as expanding on ideas of potential applications to go alongside that.

Chris is continuing to look for a suitable manufacturing partner to get Ackers Bell manufactured for us. He also started work on the charging unit for the Joyride lights that use My Bike’s got LED

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-05-25 06:00

2022-05-16

Adrian McEwen

Weeks 867 - Complete Ackers Bell Prototype

It's Chris at the reins this week, so it's going to be quite a lot of sawdust again.

The headline is I now have a full prototype of the Ackers bell ready for larger scale manufacture.

Brass bell on a pentagonal plywood base supported by five shaped upright supports.

The next steps are to gather consensus on a suitable finish to complement the brass bell, and find local manufacturers who can scale up production.

I also wrote a brief guide to transfering 2d vector files from Inkscape to our CNC mill via Freecad for the DoES wiki.

With the imminent release of Freecad v0.20 this may be due for some editing very shortly, but it's a start for people new to this workflow.

Sophie Huckfield's Break the Frame has been collected and is in the process of being installed.

Adrian wrote a method to generate gcode in Inkscape for Break the Frame. As an alternative I've also written a method using Kiri Moto

Nicki has been video editing, working out some of the final details for the soon to be available My Baby's got LED kits and scheduling posts.

She's also been investigating the availability of APIs in donation systems to communicate to connected devices for some potential future work.

Of the things he can talk about, Adrian donned his very-under-used data scientist hat for some analysis work on air quality data. That involved breaking out his even-more-under-used R coding skills for some preparatory processing.

That let him port some existing R code written by one of the actual data scientists into Javascript, so it could be added to an online dashboard.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-05-16 06:00

2022-05-09

Albert Wenger

Personal Update: Rage Against the Dying of the Light

I have been away from writing here for an entire month. It was a combination of travel followed by a health crisis that is now thankfully nearly over (a “routine” surgery that turned out to be anything but). But there is also an underlying frustration that makes it at times difficult to know what to say at all. We are living in times of the omnicrisis and yet so many people seem to just want to get on with their lives. They want to do their thing, whatever that may be, as if there was nothing wrong with the climate and democracy wasn’t under attack (and along with it women’s rights).

People seem to recognize for brief moments that there are massive problems. But then they immediately return to just wanting to continue with their lives. Maybe it is out of a sense of helplessness. What could I do about these crises? Maybe it is because they believe that others are on the case. These problems can’t be so bad, someone must be solving them. Maybe it is out of a sense of entitlement. I have worked hard so I can afford X and so X is what I am going to do now. I can’t tell. All I know is that I often feel surrounded by people sleepwalking into hell. It is the real life version of “Don’t Look Up.”

It is a profoundly frustrating feeling. Especially when it comes to people who have the means to spend aggressively on both climate and democracy but choose not to do so. Frustrating maybe isn’t quite enough. Enraged is more how I have felt lately at those with means who refuse to spend aggressively. Thankfully I have ways of channeling those feelings into action and I am resolved to double down on many of the efforts that Susan and I have already kicked off ourselves and/or supported. In that regard having been sick was a blessing as it has helped focus my mind.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-05-09 12:59

Adrian McEwen

Weeks 865-866 - Charging; CNC Choreography; and Community Tech

Adrian back at the weeknotes, which is also why they're fortnight-notes. The short week last week didn't help with getting the weeknotes written, but I was definitely more of the reason they didn't get posted 🤣

It's been a couple of busy weeks but with some satisfying ticking off of tasks/projects. A couple of bits of admin — a VAT return; and prepping accounts to give to the accountant for the year-end accounts — but also...

A rendering of a letterbox-shaped circuit board.  It's split into two halves: one marked 'Rectifier' and the other 'Charger'

I wrapped up the design for (at least a prototype of) the wind- or solar-charger board that I've been working on with Laura Pullig. The design has been sent off for a handful of boards to be produced to see if it all works as expected. More on that in a couple of weeks when the PCBs and parts arrive and we get some soldered up.

At the end of last week's work on Sophie Huckfield's Break the Frame artwork we hadn't quite gotten the software side of it finished.

Although when testing things manually it would home nicely and then play through a gcode file of movements, once that was set to run automatically it struggled.

Debugging that took a few iterations. Firstly I improved my code to initialise and home the controller; but it would then usually reset the machine coordinate system and so try to move beyond the limits of the machine.

Eventually I wrote a full custom Python script which uses the gcodesender library and that got it running repeatably and smoothly, as you can see below.

A nice, and much needed, result — it'll be on display in a gallery all summer!

I also had a half-day off away from MCQN Ltd, with my DoES Liverpool organiser hat on, when I attended an interesting workshop arranged by Careful Industries to discuss community tech.

It was interesting to compare struggles with how-tech-can-help-communities with other groups. Given the make up of the DoES Liverpool community, our challenges are more to do with finding enough time and people; whereas other folk at the workshop either don't know what's possible, or lack the technical skills to build things themselves. It brought to mind my previous thoughts on the "DoES ethos"; Aaron Straup Cope's exhortations to the museum sector around tech; and my #LiverpoolHannahLinks local network of interesting organisations.

Nikki has been keeping up with what Chris and I are up to, and sharing details of that on social media.

Alongside that she's been looking into content design, researching marketing and doing some social media probing to get ideas on how people are likely to find our products.

She also published a new blog post — Dancing Lights — documenting her experiments with getting our My Baby's Got LED board to react to sound and music.

A stop-frame animation of a stack of wooden pentagon bases building up, with each one getting more finished and refined, ending with the stack topped off with a brass bell

Chris asks 'How many ways can I say "It's a simple job in FreeCAD, it'll be finished this week"??' We now have an (almost) entirely complete route from SVG to KineticNC gcode via Freecad. If he could crack the inability to change the origin for imported models he'd be happy. We also have a growing pile of pentagonal plywood, as seen above.

He's also been making some initial forays into exploring finishes for the wood. That will be the next step in the Ackers Bell adventure.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-05-09 06:00

2022-04-21

Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Complete

For completeness, here's a list of all the Offa's Dyke related blog posts in chronological order.

  • Day 1 - Chepstow, pizza and first steps.
  • Day 2 - Monmouth to Pandy over rolling countryside.
  • Days 3, 4 and 5 - Things don't go to plan.
  • Day 6 - The Centre for Alternative Technology.
  • Days 7, 8 and 9 - Shropshire hills, Welsh lakes and castles.
  • Days 10, 11 and 12 - Improvising and going with the flow to our destination.

Enjoy!

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-21 15:30

Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Days 10, 11 and 12:

We found our relaxing rhythm during the final few days of our holiday. Our lack of a plan allowed us to follow our noses, and intuitively improvise an itinerary during each day. As you'll see from the photos below, we spent a lot of time focusing on four things: historic monuments, gardens, food and travel through beautiful places.

Our tenth day started with breakfast in Ruthin, at Gail's coffee and tea rooms on Upper Clwyd Street. Many of our stop overs have provided us with spectacular food and drink, and the vegetarian full cooked breakfast at this modest and out of the way cafe was up there with the best. Their friendly chef suggested a few sights to see in Ruthin and furnished us with a map. And so our typical modus operandi of chatting with locals and improvising on the spur of the moment led us to the grounds of Ruthin castle.

Peacocks in the gardens of Ruthin Castle.
Peacocks in the gardens of Ruthin Castle.

The chef at Gail's had explained the peacocks who live in the castle grounds were a friendly bunch, and we were not disappointed to find several of them displaying to the peahens.

Ruthin Castle gardens.
Ruthin Castle gardens.

The castle itself was undergoing renovation, since the original fortified remains had been converted into a stately pile during the 19th century, and were now used as a hotel of some sort. With the abundance of dramatic castles in this part of the world, it was inevitable we'd find a few that had been repurposed.

Our chef at Gail's also suggested we visit the Ruthin Arts Centre, and we spent an extended period of time wandering the relatively small but open plan galleries. Both Mary and I particularly enjoyed the exhibition of husband-and-wife artists Pauline Burbridge and Charlie Poulsen. We immersed ourselves in the artworks and lost track of time... as we encountered the art in three distinct phases:

  • slow wandering around the exhibition as we let our intuition guide us as we were drawn different pieces,
  • a sort of inquisitive "deep dive" as we read the prose attached to the exhibitions and watched a couple of videos where the artists describe their works, process and intents,
  • a recapitulation as we explore the exhibition one final time now that we're more familiar with the pieces, the artists and the story being told.
A fragment from a Charlie Poulsen piece.
A fragment from a Charlie Poulsen piece.

This was a wonderful state of mind to inhabit and we both wished there had been more of this to explore and encounter.

Having put us both in a thoughtful mood, and given the glorious weather, Mary suggested we go visit Bodnant garden to continue our pensive strolling. Since we had the car and we felt like touring through North Wales, we instructed the sat-nav and slowly wound our way to our destination.

We were not disappointed.

Bodnant gardens.
Bodnant gardens.

We found ourselves in a large and varied garden containing an abundance of benches on which we could both sit, look, listen and soak up our surroundings. I think my favourite aspect of the gardens were the woods containing paths and shallow brooks and many different sorts of tree and woodland life.

As with the art gallery, our slow meandering meant we encountered and re-encountered aspects of the garden in a manner that encouraged a slow and thoughtful attention to all the ways the garden stimulated our senses: the colourful floral displays, smell of pine, sound of running water or warmth of the sun touching our faces.

Bodnant gardens terraces.
Bodnant gardens terraces.

In the evening we found ourselves staying at a community run inn that was holding a quiz night. After an early dinner we joined the locals and had a friendly evening answering questions about such diverse topics as the game of Cluedo, Elton John's back catalogue, the plural noun for crows (it's a "murder" of crows, in case you're wondering), and other out of the way trivia. The quiz was both taken seriously, yet in a spirit of silliness, as many of the locals made humorous commentary of the emerging themes in the questions.

Once again, our modus operandi of chatting with locals and improvising on the spur of the moment led us to something fun.

Our penultimate day started with the realisation that it was our penultimate day. So, we decided to make use of the car and go visit the seaside, since that was the only type of terrain we'd not yet visited during our break. We chose to head towards Porthmadoc since it would mean driving through the beautiful Welsh mountain range called Snowdonia.

The journey was, indeed a sight to behold as we made our way to the coast, yet upon our arrival at Porthmadoc we both felt underwhelmed by the place. Wondering what our options might be, and in the spirit of improvisation, we spotted a castle on the coastline in the distance and pointed the car in that general direction only to pick up signs for Harlech Castle.

Harlech castle.
Harlech castle.

This well preserved ruin is an imposing sight so we imagined it would be very busy with tourists, due to its prominence. Yet the village was relatively empty and we easily got into the castle.

Not only was the castle an amazing sight, but the views from it were magnificent as we were able to take in a full panorama from the Irish sea to the mountains of Snowdonia.

The view of Snowdonia from Harlech.
The view of Snowdonia from Harlech.

Because of its good state of repair, it was possible to explore many different parts of the castle. For instance, we walked up and down spiral staircases to get to the battlements and then to the very highest tower. I'm OK with heights but Mary (and several others) found the drop from the walls rather intimidating and so we didn't spend that long up there. Luckily it was a bright sunny day with little wind to speak of, otherwise I imagine the reaction of folks might be very different.

Walking the castle walls of Harlech.
Walking the castle walls of Harlech.

As we were having our lunch we noticed a cameraman and several people faffing about and talking about "positioning", "shots" and "delivery". One of them, a lady in sunglasses, spotted us watching the events unfold and came over to explain what was going on.

It turned out she and her colleague were professional story tellers specialising in Welsh legends (particularly, the Mabinogion), and were at Harlech to tell stories in both English and beginner level Welsh, to help keep this beautifully musical language alive. The UK's ITV news had turned up to do a short feature on their work and were just filming a talking head segment in front of the castle before filming the actual story telling in the castle.

We didn't realise such bardic activity was going on, but both of us love listening to a well told yarn, so quickly finished our lunch and headed back over the bridge into the castle.

Inside we found perhaps a hundred people sitting on benches, low walls and the grass as our bespectacled friend started to tell us a story. I won't describe stories she and her colleague told. Rather, I heartily encourage you to seek out such folk and let them cast their magic. In our case, as they told their tales in Harlech, the story tellers embodied and communicated the worlds they described in a way that only an oral story teller can. The best special effects happen as part of the story seen inside one's head, the interaction between the story teller and their audience adds an extra dimension of connectivity to the telling of tales that our screen laden world often lacks and, ultimately, our stories are just that... connections between ourselves that deeply and fundamentally move and speak to us through distances of time and space.

Here's the video segment broadcast by ITV, it is but a shadow cast by the brilliance of their story telling:

We must have spent hours in the castle, since we both mentioned exploring the village of Harlech at the same time. Almost immediately we discovered a small ice cream shop, selling home made produce made earlier in the day. This was some of the best ice cream either of us have ever tasted, and the owner explained how she hand made the produce fresh each day. Clearly this woman had a passion for ice cream, and we could taste it in abundance.

Mary, with her amazing ice cream.
Mary, with her amazing ice cream.

Just around the corner was an knick-knack shop in which I found a piano. On the music stand was Debussy's Clair de Lune (which I know), so I rattled it off, after finding a very convenient candelabra to help free up a hand.

Nicholas on the piano, but where is his ice cream?
Nicholas on the piano, but where is his ice cream?

It was lovely to play after more than a week away, and I even got a round of applause!

Upon leaving Harlech we decided to take the long and winding road over the mountains of Snowdonia, just to take in the views and make space for enjoying a slow and gently winding journey together.

Snowdonia.
Snowdonia.

On the morning of our final day (today), we finished the last of many full breakfasts and set off for Prestatyn to conclude our walk.

The sign to Chepstow.
The sign to Chepstow.

Little did we realise, almost a fortnight ago, how different our adventure along Offa's Dyke would be, compared to what we had imagined or prepared for. We certainly enjoyed walking the first third of the trail (almost 60 miles), and we both reflected that the injuries and improvised change to a touring holiday had taught us a lesson: go with the flow, and unexpected change is to be embraced and welcomed if you're going to make something of it.

The stone marking the end of Offa's Dyke.
The stone marking the end of Offa's Dyke.

In the end, as I write this back at home in Towcester, both Mary and I feel glad to have returned after our journey together. We're especially looking forward to seeing our children again and giving them gifts we found on our way.

But I think this won't be the last time Mary and I do this.

We've had too much fun not to do it again.

The two of us, at the end of our adventure.
The two of us, at the end of our adventure.

Onwards!

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-21 14:40

2022-04-20

Paul Fawkesley

A tweak to increase blood stocks & improve donor experience

A suggestion to NHS Blood and Transplant management from a blood donor of 17 years, a hypothesis on increasing blood stocks, and an approach to start testing it right now.

Who the heck am I?

First off, I’m not a health professional and I have no experience running something as huge as the NHS Blood and Transfusion Service.

However, I have been donating blood for 17 years, recently hitting 50 donations, so I’m probably an “expert” when it comes to donating.

I’m an efficiency and user experience nerd, having worked on digital transformations at NHS Alpha, GOV.UK, Co-op Digital and more.

Blood stocks are low

I was told at my donation that stocks are extremely low. I see from the website that there currently are 4-5 days of stocks for certain blood groups, against a target of 6 days.

I presume there are several levers for increasing stocks, such as:

  1. recruiting new donors
  2. encouraging “lapsed” donors to come back
  3. maximising / optimising the frequency that regular donors attend

This suggestion is concerned with 3.

How booking used to work

I give blood every 12 weeks. I donate at a dedicated donor centre. That’s a building that’s permanently set up for donation, rather than a van that sets up in church halls, schools and so on.

I usually donate at the same time of the week, on the same day. That’s extremely easy to plan around as it’s a habit and there’s nothing to think about each time.

Pre-COVID, I’d attend the session, do my donation, have a cup of tea and a biscuit, then get up to go.

On the way out, I’d ask the front desk to book me in for next time. I’d open my calendar on my phone and we’d negotiate. It was extremely efficient because:

  • They already have my details: I’m “authenticated” already.

  • Everyone needs an appointment in either 12 or 16 weeks, so the reception person can keep the diary open on the right day (OK 2 days).

  • They can suggest the same time of day. They were fast at finding lunchtime appointments across different days, if exactly 12 weeks wasn’t available.

I estimate this occupied the staff for approximately 1 minute, possibly 2 as an absolute maximum.

As a result, I used to donate every 12 weeks like clockwork.

Now I can’t book at the front desk

In recent years, I’ve tried to book as I’ve left and been told (apologetically) that I have to book online or on the phone.

OK, that was slightly irritating because it disrupted something that was working well, but not a huge drama. I left and got on with my life…

And forgot all about it. The habit was broken. Two months later, I was wondering if a donation was coming up, and I realised I never booked one.

By that time, the only slots available at the donor centre were sixteen weeks from my previous donation. That’s four weeks where I was eligible but unable to donate.

Putting the burden onto the user also puts the onus on them

By shifting the burden of remembering to book onto me, it also put the responsibility on me.

I’m an organised person, but life’s full of competing demands. Remembering to book a blood appointment is not at the top of my list.

Booking online had other problems

The next time I donated, I tried to form a new habit.

After donating, I was sitting in the recovery bit, sipping my squash (Aside: tea and coffee went away and still hasn’t come back “because COVID”. Seriously.)

I thought, ah-ha, what a great time to book my next appointment! So I logged into the website on my phone, no bother.

But alas, the website didn’t realise I’d already donated. It wouldn’t let me look for another appointment.

So once again I failed to make an appointment at the desk, walked out, and forgot all about it.

Once again, I couldn’t get an appointment at 12 weeks after my previous donation.

Sometimes appointments aren’t created in time

The next time - yesterday - I actually set myself an alarm for the next day. I logged in, and was told my blood donor centre was “fully booked”.

So I phoned the number, went through the whole security thing, and was told that the diary hadn’t been released yet for July (12 weeks away.)

Oof.

How this impacts blood stocks

I used to donate every 12 weeks, pretty much on the dot.

Now, it seems if I don’t book a repeat appointment ASAP, I can’t get one at 12 weeks after the last one.

The change in policy where I can’t book at the desk has led to my donation period increasing from 12 to probably 14 weeks.

Let’s extrapolate a bit: let’s assume I’m not the only one.

Let’s assume that this change of policy added 1 week on average to some chunk of regular donors’ period.

If that could be reversed, Every donor that can be “optimised” from 13 weeks to 12 weeks equals 8% more blood donated. That’s a lot!

It’s kind of obvious: donate more often, give more blood.

But perhaps less obvious is the effect of booking user experience on a donor’s average donation frequency.

Hypothesis, and what I propose

Hypothesis:

Disallowing repeat bookings on the front desk at a donation centre leads to an measurable decrease in donation frequency.

And, secondarily:

The effect is significant enough to outweigh the additional time taken by front desk staff.

Disagree? Great! Let’s put our opinions aside and run an A/B test!

A simple way to A/B test the hypothesis

OK, “simple” insofar as anything is simple inside the NHS.

Here’s an approach:

  1. Pick a bunch of donor centres and identify regular donors.
  2. Take a snapshot of the donation frequency for those donors.
  3. Tell half of the donor centres to allow / encourage booking a repeat appointment before donors leave.
  4. After 12 months, compare the donation frequencies in the A and B groups (doing some stats to adjust for any inherent differences visible in step 2.)

User experience matters

The overall experience at my local donor centre is excellent. This is due mostly to the warm, chatty and efficient staff.

The user experience of booking an appointment is inconsistent. Sometimes it’s perfect, sometimes it’s just frustrating.

That has knock-on effects too: I’m less able to recruit new donors as I know they’re going to have an awkward time. (Anecdata: two people I nearly recruited dropped off because they couldn’t find an appointment close to mine.)

User experience matters! Reduce friction, make it simple, make it automatic.

Feedback welcome

I’ve made a few assumptions and I’m not privy to real data. If you’ve got some more insight, I’d love to hear from you.

Also, I have an idea for a microservice to help recruit new donors. If you’re interested, let’s chat!

by Paul Fawkesley at 2022-04-20 01:00

2022-04-18

Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Days 7, 8 and 9:

Since we are supposed to be on a walking holiday, Mary and I decided to try out a shorter walk, and one with which we were familiar, on day 7. We were in Mary's part of the world (the beautiful Shropshire hills) and so we found ourselves driving to Stiperstones.

The two of us walking along the ridge at Stiperstones.
The two of us on the ridge at Stiperstones.

We arrived relatively early in the morning and easily found a parking space, gingerly put on our boots and started to make our ascent. Given we were both injured in some sense (me with my blisters and Mary with her knee) we went at a slow and steady pace.

An outcrop at Stiperstones.
An outcrop at Stiperstones.

Once at the top of the ridge (one of the highest points in Shropshire), the outcrops of quartzite rock make obvious waypoints for hiking. We found several folks bouldering on the rock formations and paused to watch them and take in the glorious views and drink in the fresh clear air.

Conditions underfoot at Stiperstones.
Very poor conditions under foot at Stiperstones.

Conditions underfoot on many parts of the ridge are not good, and it's easy to go over on one's ankle or painfully stub a toe.

Our slowness was thus more compounded by both the injuries and rough-shod rocks strewn all over the paths. Yet we made progress and walked the full extent of the ridge in glorious sunshine and accompanied by larks chirruping away:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;


The Lark Ascending ~ George Meredith

All told we walked almost five miles:

In the afternoon we visited the small town of Bishop's Castle, having heard the high street contained a number of book shops and a Poetry Pharmacy, which sounded like it was just what we needed.

Bishop's Castle high street.
The high street at Bishop's Castle - including a poetry pharmacy.

In the end we spent most of our time in the wonderful House on Crutches Museum where I was able to examine some of the old brass instruments from the former town band (not in a good state), and learn all about local Morris dancing troupes.

The poetry pharmacy was another highlight, although I was unable to find anything to read that suited my mood. Perhaps, given that I usually have my nose in a book, this holiday is also a holiday from reading.

In the evening we stayed near Welshpool and found evidence of the local knitting circle's guerilla Easter decoration operation:

Easter knitting in Welshpool.
Easter knitting in Welshpool.

The next day started with a drive to lake Vyrnwy (you pronounce it, "ver-in-wee"). The lake is man-made and to reach the car park involves crossing this rather imposing dam.

The dam at Lake Vyrnwy.
The imposing dam at Lake Vyrnwy.

We timed our arrival perfectly since the car park was empty and hardly anyone appeared to be around.

We decided to walk around the lake until we found a quiet beach on which we could sit, relax and simply ponder the world. It can't have taken more than 20 minutes to find such an isolated spot, and we spent over two hours just chatting, relaxing or throwing skimmers into the lake.

Over the course of the morning we were joined by various passers-by: a young family, a Polish couple with their daughter, a group of students. Everyone was friendly and happy to be by the lakeside and the opportunity for moments of reflection that it offered.

Lake Vyrnwy.
Lake Vyrnwy.

On our walk back to the car we appeared to meet a bank holiday weekend tour for the "young fellers with souped-up cars" motoring club. The sound of noisy exhausts, the look of go-faster stripes and the thinness of sports tyres (clearly, for country roads) were much in evidence. A massive traffic jam was also in evidence as the posse (what is the correct plural noun?) of young men in souped up cars, took on the overweight hairy bikers and caravan owners in a three way battle for the junction leading to the dam. It wasn't a pretty sight as helpful bikers attempted to direct the traffic, only to be ignored by one of the other tribes (in the end, the old fellers just stood in the way of the traffic to control the flow). Well, done to the hairy bikers for their public service!

We took our time getting back to the car, not wishing to be involved in the traffic chaos, but in the end the blockages had been cleared and the route to the dam was clear.

We ended up driving to our overnight rest stop at Llanymynech and spent some time exploring the remains of the lime industry in the area. This included a lovely walk in some woods reclaiming the area used for processing and delivering treated lime into barges on the Shropshire Union canal. Among the thickets we found a huge abandoned lime kiln.

Lime kilns in Llanymynech.
Lime kilns in Llanymynech.

Today started with a trip to Chirk Castle.

As members of the National Trust we got in for free and spent the morning wandering the amazing gardens and grounds.

Chirk Castle.
Chirk Castle.

The gardens ranged from managed woodland to formal gardens with statues and topiary.

Chirk gardens.
Chirk gardens.

Inside the castle were displays depicting different aspects of the castle's history, including the dungeon, the clockwork for the clock tower, the servant's hall and a collection of knight's helmets. These final items made me smile, as each helmet appears to bear a different expression, much like a medieval metal emoji.

A selection of knight's helmets.
A selection of knight's helmets.

In the afternoon we visited the town of Llangollen. It being bank holiday Monday, the small town was heaving with visitors (like us) and the tourist traps were doing a swift trade.

A highlight was watching canoeists tackle the Dee river running through the town (they had hung slalom gates over the river). This led us to the railway station, run by volunteer enthusiasts, and we ended up escaping the scrum of tourists by taking a trip up the valley in an open train to the village of Berwyn.

The river Dee at Llangollen.
The river Dee at Llangollen.

As we enter the final stretch of our holiday, we're both starting to feel like all this relaxing and touring is quite tiring. It means our holiday has done its job: we're looking forward to throwing ourselves back into our usual day to day routines.

©

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-18 18:00

2022-04-16

Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Day 6:

Yesterday was our first proper "touring" day, and we made the most of our relative (but not actual) closeness to Machynlleth to visit the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) - an inspiring organisation that specialises in sustainable living.

When we first visited CAT back in 1995, it turned out to be a perfect day both of us fondly remember. We have returned several times since and enjoyed watching the site, educational work and influence of the CAT organisation flourish and grow.

As someone fascinated with technology (and I'll informally define that as, crafting the world through creativity and coherent invention to better engage and interact with it to some valuable aim or benefit), the "alternative" part of the CAT name has always appealed to me.

I'm a software engineer, a job most folks imagine is at the heart of "new" or "hi"-tech. Yet I, and many of my colleagues, will tell you that "new" and "hi"-tech is not necessarily the same as "good". The focus on "alternative" appeals to the engineer in me: it means I'm not constrained to frame my thinking via the tired stereotypes found in our culture.

A good example of what I mean is the first thing you see upon arrival at CAT, a water powered funicular railway.

Arrival at the Centre for Alternative Technology involves ascending a mountain in a water powered funicular railway.
Arrival at the Centre for Alternative Technology involves ascending a mountain in a water powered funicular railway.

Clearly there is a lot of technology going on here, but it's not a computing "tech" mode of transport like a Segway or self-driving car. If you understand simple physics, it's easy to figure out how it works. That it runs on water, an abundant resource in rainy Wales, means the energy cost of running the system is very small and doesn't involve polluting the environment (rather, it complements and integrates the ambient environmental conditions).

The lake at the top of the railway is the source of the water.
The lake at the top of the railway is the source of the water.

I like this enlarged view of technology, beyond just the thing being imagined or a "tech" mode of creation.

Sustainability, impact and the life-cycle of the "tech" is carefully considered. This is a very different approach to "smaller, faster, cheaper" gizmos and apps inflicted upon "consumers", created and made with a development process based on the mantra of "move fast and break things", whose aim is to maximise shareholder profit. Put simply, there is a philosophical aspect to tech that is, in my experience, often missing or actively discouraged in "tech" culture.

And so, we chose to take part in the guided tour because we wanted to see and hear about the centre from our guide: someone intimate with the ethos and practicalities of such an enlarged outlook to technology.

Despite being semi-regular visitors over the past 27 years or more, both Mary and I learned so much from our guide, Joel, who patiently fielded questions and engaged our group both with the story of CAT and the various things found therein (such as modular Segal method buildings, or the diverse number of energy solutions, such as the hydroelectric generator shown below).

The hydroelectric generator.
The flow of water from the top lake to the lake used by the railway drives the hydroelectric generator.

CAT is a very stimulating and eye-opening place, with much of the location taken over with practical educational projects that both illustrate and explain the many aspects of "alternative" technology.

As a teacher, I enjoyed their approach to engaging with folks wishing to learn. Rather than a "how to use" video or documentation that fills your head with facts, we were left to experiment and engage directly with "alternative" tech. For instance, the wind-powered seat (shown below), beautifully illustrated how little wind is needed to achieve some useful end (in this case, lift and lower a person).

A wind powered chair that moves up and down.
A wind powered chair gently moves the occupant up and down.

What you don't see in this photograph of me sitting on the chair, is the relatively small windmill attached by a pulley system to the seat. I have to say this was a pleasantly gentle and rather fun way to prove a point.

Architecture is also an important aspect of CAT, with many of the buildings demonstrating interesting approaches to creating space for living, working and enjoying life. Often unusual but sustainably sourced materials are used (straw bale, or rammed earth for instance) and those aspects of the building are thoughtfully brought to visitor's attention.

CAT is also a thriving educational organisation and, while we were wandering the site, we noticed groups of students learning about "alternative" technology in buildings built with such technology, created by the folks running the educational programme.

I rather like the directness of this approach. If I were a student looking to engage with these things, who wouldn't want to learn in such a way?

The sustainably built conference and education centre.
The sustainably designed and built conference and education centre.

Finally, CAT isn't just about "alternative" tech, but also contains information about alternative uses of "traditional" tech. For instance, as a space-nut, I was fascinated by their interactive display on using small earth observation satellites to gather data and monitor changes in the landscape. Space bound technology is no longer just the preserve of large governmental agencies like NASA, and the open data received can be put to all sorts of interesting and important uses.

A small earth observation satellite.
A small earth observation satellite.

If you're ever in mid-Wales, I heartily recommend CAT. Mary and I have always had thought provoking visits. Clearly CAT won't appeal to everyone, but nobody can ignore their hard work to promote a much needed different perspective... an alternative vision of "technology".

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-16 07:30

2022-04-14

Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Days 3, 4 and 5:

Our meal at the end of day 2 was lots of fun. As we walked into the pub we met again the lady who had found Mary's phone on day 1, struck up a conversation, and she joined us for a sociable evening of chatter over rustic grub. It turned out Caroline was a teacher and so we had a fine old time going over teacher talk. We shared classroom based triumphs and tragedies and the usual moans and gripes about the state of the education "system" that all teachers appear to share.

The next morning, as expected, it was raining and the country was covered in low rolling mist. Nevertheless we set off in good spirits and determined to climb up onto the ridge for the views.

Little did we know how different our situation would be by the end of the day.

Walking towards the Black Mountains.
Walking towards the Black Mountains, in the rain.

After a couple of relatively swift miles tramping the rolling countryside to Pandy, we started to ascend the edge of the Black Mountains. Since we were laden with all our clobber this took a while: but our mantra was "slow and steady does it". We could have stomped up, like I usually do, but we decided to save ourselves for the 15 miles of walking over the ridge we would need to complete to get us to Hay-on-Wye by the end of the day.

The first sight to greet us upon completing our ascent was an ancient hill fort from pre-Roman times. Even after 2500-3000 years, the dykes and ditches that marked the boundaries of the fort were an imposing site, especially as they loomed ominously out of the mist.

The ramparts of a 2500 year old hill fort.
The ramparts of a 2500 year old hill fort.

And so, it was at this point, we resigned ourselves to the fact that the weather would be against us for the day. There would be no beautiful views over mountains or down into valleys for us. In fact, we could only see about 20 metres ahead of ourselves. Fortunately the path for the Offa's Dyke trail was obvious, so we just had to trudge on (and on, and on).

It's hard to remain motivated when all around you is freezing fog. There's no sense of progress and it's impossible to look back to see how far you've come, or look ahead to a marker in the distance as a target to aim for. Yet sometimes we would pass way-points that marked the tops of peaks, and this photo, taken perhaps just before lunchtime, is a good indication of our conditions.

Wet conditions on the ridge.
Wet conditions on the ridge.

We also felt quite alone: by lunch we hadn't met a soul. Yet we were not the only ones tramping the hills that day. Huge piles of steaming dung alerted us to the presence of others, just out of sight.

And then suddenly, we came upon the group of wild horses grazing the grass. They took a look at us, pondered for a few seconds why on earth two humans would be up there with them, and then returned to the more pressing task of grazing again.

Wild horses.
Wild horses.

At some point mid-afternoon the conditions under-foot became much more boggy and the path turned into a set of paving slabs. We joked that Offa must have sourced them from the local garden centre...

Offa's paving slabs.
Offa's paving slabs.

...but we were thankful that they helped us avoid tramping through the black peaty mud. Perhaps this is how the mountains got their "black" name?

We also started to realise that not all was well for either of us.

My feet and ankles ached and while Mary found it comfortable to walk up hills, and over the levels, descending was very painful because of her right knee. This got gradually worse throughout the day, to the point that it couldn't be ignored, and we started to talk about what we might do about the situation.

As you can see from this photo, we were determined to put a brave face on things but I think we both realised things were not going as they should (we're no longer spring chickens!).

Drying off for an afternoon snack.
Drying off for an afternoon snack.

Then, around mid-afternoon we met the first people of the day. Two fellow walkers appeared out of the mist towards us, and we shared some encouraging words. Yet just as we were commenting how deserted the ridge was, a young man came from the same direction as us at a fast pace. He stopped to say a quick "hello" only to realise his small back-pack had come undone. He checked his things (nothing missing), re-adjusted his equipment and stomped off in the direction of Hay -- a momentary mist-clad apparition accelerating into fog. We parted company with the other couple and wished them well, only to encounter a group of Duke of Edinburgh participants (in the UK we have something called the "Duke of Edinburgh Award" for teenagers, that encourages them to explore and encounter nature and outward bound activities). We helped them with some map reading and then, gazelle like, off they sprang into the mist leaving us to ponder our ever slowing pace and the fact that, like London buses, we had met nobody all day only for three different parties to turn up within minutes of each other.

The mist lifted, and we could see the way down into the valley.
The mist lifted, and we could see the way down into the valley.

As we got to the end of the ridge, the mist lifted and we were able to finally see some views. Yet these were not to last since we had to make our descent, and it was here that things got very tricky.

My poor Mary had to endure intolerable pain in her knee as we made our way down the side of the mountain towards Hay-on-Wye. The first of several steep descents should have only taken us perhaps 20 minutes but, in fact, took an hour. We had several more descents to go until we reached our destination.

Yet we spied a line of cars parked in the distance, and this proved to be our way out of the difficult and painful situation.

It was clear the final couple of miles to Hay were all down hill with difficult conditions under foot. My feet were a constant source of a dull ache, and if I stopped walking the pain would become strong and resuming the walk took lots of effort. Mary was clearly in a lot of pain with her knee, and so our journey was no longer the happy, if tiring, adventure we had enjoyed up until this point.

As we approached the parked cars I tried a few local taxi companies, but nobody picked up.

Thinking we may need to just press on, I spotted one of the cars was occupied. I tapped on the window to find a man of a similar age to ourselves inside. He told me he was there just to enjoy the view and to get out of the house for a while. I explained our situation and he very kindly offered to drop us off in Hay.

What a relief.

Except, he suddenly remembered, "by the way, I have COVID".

He had driven to the beauty spot just to get out of the house since he had been isolating for the past few days.

We had a quick (socially distanced) chat about the potential logistics of the situation and worked out a way for us to get a lift, but with him masked up with the addition of a scarf around the lower part of his face, and us sitting away from him with all the windows of the car open.

I have to admit, we made the right decision because our speed due to the knee situation was at a snail's pace and it would have taken several hours to cover the final two miles into town.

In the end, we had a fun chat with Carl (our impromptu driver) and I think he enjoyed the sense of adventure the situation presented. We were deposited right outside our guest house in Hay, got to our room and collapsed into the shower.

After a couple of hours of rest we had stiffened up.

I examined my feet and found they were covered in blisters and Mary's knee was, to use her words, "shot to pieces".

It was clear that our journey to walk Offa's Dyke was coming to an end and we both felt sad and deeply frustrated by the situation. As Mary put it, "I feel fine from the right knee up", and I was also in fine fettle from the ankles up.

Yet we could not continue given our different ailments.

And so, we decided to change plan.

Over dinner in the Blue Boar Inn (excellent food and beer), we worked out what to do next. We'd booked places to stay along our route, and we certainly didn't want to abandon our holiday, yet we clearly couldn't walk to the extent that we would need to, and it was clear our current situation required us to rest and recover before attempting any further distance by foot.

In the end we decided to transform our holiday from a "by foot" affair to a touring holiday with a car on hand, which leads us to day 4's adventures.

We booked a taxi to pick us up at 9am the next morning and take us to Hereford station. From there we took a train to Shrewsbury and another short taxi hop to the village where Mary grew up, her parent's house, and the place where we'd parked our car.

The journey was uneventful, the highlight being the local taxi driver from Hay-on-Wye.

Within seconds of picking us up he had asked us about our reason for being in the place and Mary reciprocated by asking what living in such a beautiful place as Hay-on-Wye was like.

"Well", he ruefully started, "there's us, and then there's them."

Knowing he had a captive audience for at least the next 45 minutes, he went on to explain that Hay-on-Wye has a highly stratified population. By "us" he meant those born and bred in the place scraping a living via a few relatively menial jobs. By "them" he meant, "city folk who sell up, move here and lord it all over the place like they're millionaires". This included the owners of various "lifestyle" shops, coffee houses in the town, and artisanal crafty places.

We hadn't seen that much of Hay-on-Wye so didn't have any evidence to check his appraisal of the situation. We were sympathetic to his cause and he was clearly enjoying putting the world to rights. As he dropped us off he even commented that he'd had a jolly old time getting things off his chest. Clearly, we were good (captive) listeners.

Once we picked up our car, we made our way back into Wales and our place of rest for the next night: Kington. During the journey we realised we were passing close by the village where Mary's widowed aunt (who we hadn't seen since before the pandemic) had settled with her new partner. We called ahead and made arrangements to drop our stuff off in Kington before joining our relative for a lovely meal and evening of catching up. It was lovely to see she was so settled and happy with her new partner.

This morning, after a good night's sleep and a lovely relaxed breakfast we decided to drive back to Hay-on-Wye and look around... with both of us being avid readers, the thought of all the book shops, for which Hay is so famous, was a real draw.

Yet, within minutes of our arrival we could see yesterday's taxi driver was onto something.

Hay-on-Wye was clearly a beautiful place, but had transmogrified into a sort of unintentional parody of itself. We found shops full of pointless crap, new age treatment centres that gave the place a smell of cheap incense, and a faux farmer's market full of "artisans" selling yet more nick-nak crap (there wasn't an actual farmer in sight).

Mary's knee was also playing up again.

Despite our very gentle pace we ended up in the chemist's shop to buy a knee support to try to help with the pain. After following directions to the local public toilets (so Mary could put on the strap under her trousers), our poor opinion of Hay-on-Wye was cemented by finding the cost of taking a pee was 30 pence.

Our experience of Hay is that it's a tourist trap of the worst kind, with no actual investment in the local community. Just scratching the surface indicated that most activities involved extracting money from naive visitors with no sustainable local economy to speak of.

We quickly escaped Hay-on-Wye and decided to follow our noses to Hergest Croft gardens. On the way Mary called the UK's 111 service (our NHS's first point of contact for non-emergency medical situations). A callback with a physiotherapy nurse was duly arranged, and we subsequently found ourselves walking in some magnificent spring gardens.

The house in Hergest Croft gardens.
The house in Hergest Croft gardens.

There are over 70 acres of different types of garden at Hergest Croft, and the house had a wonderful cafe full of vegetarian food. Our slow and steady wandering through this place was just the antidote we needed to the plastic pastoral fakery of Hay-on-Wye and the travails of the previous days walking.

Spring flowers.
Spring flowers.

Whilst exploring the rhubarb patch in the kitchen gardens the phone rang again and Mary found a park bench to talk to the friendly nurse tasked with triaging her knee.

In the kitchen garden.
In the kitchen garden.

To cut a long story short, I'm currently typing this in the waiting area of Llandrindod Wells hospital's minor injuries unit while Mary is being seen by a physiotherapy nurse. All told, it has taken around three hours from Mary's first contact to her receiving treatment for her knee.

Minor injuries.
Waiting in the minor injuries unit at Llandrindod Wells hospital.

We'll check into this evening's rest-stop and find a good pub for this evening's meal. Tomorrow will be another day of gentle poddling andante con spirito.

Just like real life, our Offa's Dyke journey is turning up all sorts of unforeseen and challenging situations... yet Mary and I continue to support and encourage each other as we improvise and adapt to an unforeseen touring holiday.

My feet are feeling fine today, so perhaps -- assuming the nurse doesn't tell Mary she needs a new knee (highly unlikely) -- we'll even get some more walking in before we've finished.

A few hours later, in our B'n'B for the evening: After a series of tests, it turns out that Mary's knee is not permanently injured, but just over-worked, bruised and thus complaining. The nurse told her she needs to rest it for the next three days or so, while still keeping it moving so it doesn't stiffen up.

After that, I guess we'll be playing it all by ear when it comes to rambling Offa's Dyke (of which we've already walked almost 60 miles in three days).

I get the feeling we're not done yet.

Onwards!

©

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-14 18:20

2022-04-11

Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Day 2:

Music is a gift and it's a privilege to listen to highly skilled and engaging musicians. We wondered what sort of music might be on at the Queen's Head Inn yesterday evening, and we were pleasantly surprised by the quality, versatility and mellow tones of the unnamed guitarist shown below.

He played a selection of classic pop music, some of his own compositions and plenty of folk music. At the end he was joined by two others, a mandolin player (a mandolinian?) and a soprano saxophonist (who confirmed that the only difference between a lawn mower and a saxophone, is the fingering). Actually, joking aside, the sax player was quite virtuosic. ;-)

Music night at the Queen's Head Inn, Monmouth.
Music night at the Queen's Head Inn, Monmouth.

We had an unplanned and unexpectedly lovely evening just sitting back and letting someone else perform a set of toe tapping music in such a friendly and warm atmosphere (the locals were all pleased to make our acquaintance).

After a continental breakfast, at which Neil gave us advice about the next pub at which to eat (and his advice about yesterday evening's Italian restaurant was spot on), we packed our bags and headed for the high street to stock up on picnic supplies. As a result, we were relatively late setting off from Monmouth at 9:30am.

Clearly, we arrived yesterday by the more welcoming direction of travel. Because, here's a photo of the Welsh facing gate house / toll booth / fortified bridge out of which Mary and I left the town.

Leaving Monmouth via the gate house bridge.
Leaving Monmouth via the gate house bridge.

A few miles out of Monmouth were some wooded hills. This, I thought to myself, would be a repeat of yesterday's wonderful forest walking: at the foot of the hill I heard a woodpecker and the birds were singing fortissimo con animato. Here's a recording of the ambient sounds of the woods at the foot of the hills... including the odd tapping noise of the distant woodpecker.

I also took this photo immediately after making the audio recording and have decided to name this place "woodpecker grove".

The grove in the woods with the woodpecker.
The woodpecker grove.

However, the hills took a sharp turn in an upwards direction (as hills are wont to do). It's not so much that the hills were huge, it was just that conditions under foot were very bad and the path was exceptionally steep. Also, at this point early in the walk, my boots and ankles had a disagreement and I'm afraid I suffered the painful consequences. Honestly, how Mary put up with the constant irritated chuntering coming from my direction, like the sound of a grumpy steam locomotive, I will never know. But she did, and I was glad she did, because that steep incline was a struggle for all the wrong reasons.

Yet, despite the pain, difficulty under foot and exceptional effort needed to climb up the steep inclines, we eventually reached the top... as Mary kept insisting we would.

We met a family resting on the bench, who made encouraging sounds about it being downhill all the way out of the forest from this point on. We suspected they were being generous with their encouragement, especially given all the "bloody backpack" type comments coming from my direction.

This was not, actually, the first time we had encouragement on our walk. Yesterday evening, just as we were walking over the welcoming, less fortified bridge into Monmouth, a woman drove past, wound down her window and shouted at Mary, "you go girl!". At that point in the day, Mary probably had a grim look of determination on her face as the hotel was in sight.

In any case, our downward route was a mixed experience. Mary's knees decided to complain, yet we found ourselves surrounded by flowers, the forest and the sounds of nature. Mary's knees also encouraged us to make many stops to make a closer examination of the flora and fauna we might see. This common dog violet being a prime example of Mary's knees' keen interest in nature.

Flowers in the woods.
Flowers in the woods (a common dog violet).

After the ups and downs (literally) of exploring the wooded hills, we felt we deserved elevenses. And so, once we found a suitable spot (perching on a bridge over a stream) we soon made short work of some banana Soreen bars.

Elevenses, sitting on a bridge over a stream.
Elevenses, sitting on a bridge over a stream.

Suitably fuelled up, we pressed on over the rolling countryside (or, as Neil at the Queen's Head described it, gently undulating farmland) and made good progress. Especially now that I had intervened in the argument between my boots and ankles. A quick examination of the lacing situation caused me to reconsider my options. I realised that the boots were simply too helpful in offering unneeded support for my ankles. So I just ignored a bunch of hooks on my boots, that seemed to be causing my discomfort, much to the relief of my ankles.

Our lunchtime picnic was in the middle of a wonderfully tranquil orchard. We sat down, took off our boots and just let ourselves relax into the grass. It was lovely.

Lunch time orchard.
The orchard in which we had our lunch.

Getting up a head of steam after lunch took a bit of time, but we managed it. We also encountered some hills that were less inclined to incline, if you see what I mean. Actually, they were not too much of a challenge to walk and I, true to form, fell into my habit of stomping allegro con brio up such hills as I found my rhythm. Mary has had to deal with such an enthusiastic response to hills for over 25 years, and can usually be found a little way behind me insisting that I slow down and take in the views, dammit.

This photo, is a case in point:

Stomping.
When I see a hill, I tend to stomp my way up it, and Mary is VERY patient with me.

Once again, we lamented the various aches and pains we were coming to know and love. For both of us, mid-afternoon, these took the form of the first, dreaded, blisters. Yet we pushed on through, despite an enforced detour due to an unsafe bridge that took us off the Offa's Dyke route. This took us through several flocks of unamused sheep and lambs. Mary reckons we added at least another couple of miles to our (14.5 mile) route. I think that's the blisters talking!

Eventually, we rejoined the route and could see our destination ahead with tomorrow's challenge, the Brecon Beacons, on the horizon. It was at this point we realised there had only been four kissing gates on today's route.

Looking over the rolling countryside to the Brecon Beacons.
Looking over the rolling countryside to the Brecon Beacons (tomorrow's challenge).

This evening, we have a meal booked at a recommended pub. In fact, it's the only damn pub for miles and miles. Let's see if they've even heard of vegetarians in this part of Wales.

Tomorrow will be a challenging day. It's going to rain, both of us have blisters, and it's going to be tough walking up and over the Black Mountains towards Hay on Wye.

Even the name sounds ominous... surely the Black Mountains belong in Mordor..?

Mary put a positive spin on things: at least we get to try out our new waterproof trousers.

Onwards!

©

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-11 20:50

2022-04-10

Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Day 1:

As mentioned in the previous blog post, we want to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in style. Mary suggested we walk Offa's Dyke and I only went ahead and actually booked it all for a twelve day hike. You see, as a devoted husband, I do as I am told!

To say we've been looking forward to this with some trepidation is an understatement. Since early January we've been doing several long practice walks to ensure our equipment behaves, we understand how to pace ourselves and feel what long (20 mile or more) walks feel like.

And today, the moment came for us to start our walk.

We arrived by train at Chepstow, and booked into a guest house called, appropriately enough, The First Hurdle. It happened to have an award winning pizza parlour attached to it, so that was our evening meal sorted. Afterwards we looked at the map and realised that we'd be walking the first mile or so to the starting stone, only to have to retrace our steps to within a short distance of the guest house. Given that day 1 was also the longest day by quite some distance (19.5 miles) we thought we'd give ourselves a head start and walk the first mile in the evening, thus saving us some time in the morning. And so, as the dusk was falling, we trekked south from Chepstow to the starting stone.

The stone in Chepstow, that marks the official start of the Offa's Dyke walk.
The stone in Chepstow, that marks the official start of the Offa's Dyke walk.

We were very excited to find the stone, look across the Severn estuary and take in that we were taking our first steps together on a very very long journey. This was just as we had done so (metaphorically speaking) all those years ago on the day of our wedding.

Proof we made the start.
Mary and I besides the starting stone.

In the morning, we were met at breakfast with a full English (vegetarian) and lots of coffee. That seemed to do the trick and put the fire in our bellies. The helpful waitress took this photo of us, just as we were about to set off.

Setting off from The First Hurdle.
Setting off from The First Hurdle.

Yes dear reader, independently of each other we have purchased pretty much the same GorTex jackets and trousers. We definitely look like the middle aged "Mr. and Mrs." that we so clearly and unwittingly are. :-)

I have on my phone an Ordinance Survey app into which I can load pre-planned GPX files that define our route. I created our GPX routes back in January (based upon the official "Offa's Dyke" guide - sadly Offa is no longer with us to sign such books), and careful testing during our training sessions showed the Ordinance Survey app was the clear winner for ease of use and simplicity.

However, we could have saved ourselves the trouble: a squirrel like ranger, with a love of acorns had clearly marked our route at every turn. Actually, because the Offa's Dyke route is designated a National Trail (and there are several of these in the UK) an acorn logo is used to tell you you're on such a long distance footpath, administered and maintained by Natural England and Natural Resources Wales.

Follow the acorn logo to stay on route.
Follow the acorn logo to stay on the route.

Another unexpectedly common feature of our walk was the large number of kissing gates. I always thought they were so named because, if you were walking with someone, the tradition when passing through such gates, was to share a kiss. I've just looked at the Wikipedia page (linked to above), and it appears I was wrong.

Apparently...

The name comes from the gate merely "kissing" (touching) the inside of the enclosure.

We counted 34 such gates, and we kissed at each one. I'm not going to tell Mary that we've got our "kissing gate" story wrong, just to see if she actually reads this blog post..! I think our reason is far better, and certainly more appropriate given our 25th wedding anniversary. :-)

Lots of kissing gates.
The route contained lots of kissing gates (34 on today's leg, we tried them all).

The weather was wonderful. We had a crisp April day that was full of sunshine, but not unbearable heat. Conditions under foot were good and we were treated to all sorts of wonderful moments where we allowed ourselves to be in nature.

We mostly walked three types of terrain: wood, hills and river banks. I think my favourite was the woodland walking (perhaps because I'm originally from Sherwood Forest).

We were treated to all sorts of sensory stimulation: the smell of wild garlic, the fresh April breeze, the sound of the river Wye along whose banks we walked, and, of course, a lot of birdsong. I made this recording in the woods at the top of the cliffs that overlook Tintern.

Talking of Tintern... for much of the walk we were following in the august footsteps of William Wordsworth, who wrote Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. — Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.

Here we are, a few miles above Tintern Abbey.

We tramped the steep and lofty cliff, saw plots of cottage ground in the villages below, and carefully found our way through woods and copses as we travelled over the wild green landscape.

The two of us at the top of the cliff above Tintern Abbey (in the background).
The two of us at the top of the cliff above Tintern Abbey (in the background).

As we descended into Brockweir we started having thoughts of food. Sadly, there wasn't the hoped for pub, cafe or other means of nourishment. Brockweir hasn't a lot going for it apart from the beautiful river Wye and the scenery more than made up for the lack of food and drink!

It was as we walked north along the river bank that today's "incident" took place. At some point, and we're not sure where or how, Mary dropped her mobile phone. We had got about 2 miles north of Brockweir when Mary discovered it was missing. At this point we put on the hand-brake, did a swift 180° turn and stomped in completely the wrong direction while regularly phoning Mary's missing mobile to no avail. After perhaps 1.5 miles the phone was answered by a friendly lady.

To ensure I was easily identified as the husband of the owner of the phone, I described myself as, "a middle age chap, wearing a TUBA t-shirt, with a heavy backpack and staff".

She replied that she was heading north.

At this point, I could see a lady in the distance talking on a phone. So I mentioned I was furiously waving my staff above my head and she replied,

"Oh yes, I see you. I'll be there in 5 minutes."

Happily, Mary was reunited with her phone, but not after adding 3 miles to our total for the day.

I wish I could say this was the only incident on day 1.

But, our naivete about the culinary qualities of Brockweir meant we didn't have anywhere to grab lunch. As a result, we drank all our water (which was rather concerning) and cracked open the emergency supply of chocolate Easter eggs. (Just writing this down, makes me feel stupid, dear reader.) And so the last few miles into Redbrook were more of a struggle than they should have been given our empty tummies and the onset of thirst.

Yet, as with our journey through life, we both enjoyed ourselves during the good times (for instance, walking in the woods), and supported and encouraged each other when faced with a challenge. I can happily report both Mary and I, on different occasions, helped the other overcome their moaning. ;-)

Here's Mary, descending into Redbrook with Monmouth in the distance.

Into the Wye valley and Monmouth.
Into the Wye valley and on towards Monmouth.

Happily, Redbrook had a pub.

Unhappily, we were too late for food.

However, I think I consumed the world's best pint of bitter and packet of salt and vinegar crisps whilst in that drinking establishment... or at least, that's how it felt, and after 20 minutes of resting and enjoying our repast, we creaked back into gear for the final push to Monmouth.

When we arrived at the Queen's Head Inn we were cheerfully greeted by Neil, the publican, who made us feel very welcome and recommended a fantastic Italian restaurant for our evening meal. I'm not sure what the waiters made of us, but I think we set some sort of speed-of-eating record in their restaurant, because we woofed down some amazing, fresh and locally sourced Italian cuisine.

As I write this post, below us we hear live music from the bar, and Mary and I will soon descend for a final drink, and listen to the music for a while before a well deserved sleep.

Finally, here's a map of the route we covered today. We're not quite sure how far we actually walked, given the unplanned repeat of the river walk, but we think we managed somewhere north of 22 miles.

Tomorrow we head to Llangattock Lingoed, which is, as far as we can tell, completely in the middle of nowhere. As a result, we've spied a good bakery in Monmouth and will stock up with picnic provisions for tomorrow and the day after (which will end in Hay-on-Wye).

Onwards! :-)

©

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-10 20:30

2022-04-08

Albert Wenger

Ishmael (Book Review)

Recently someone tweeted at me that I should read Ishmael by David Quinn in response to a piece I posted about the need for unlimited growth in a finite world. Well I have read it and now find myself wondering if people endorsing it, including Jack Dorsey, have spend much time thinking about it. 

The book consists mostly of a dialogue between a teacher (an astute and telepathic gorilla) and a student (a somewhat befuddled human who slowly learns how to see the world as desired by his teacher). The short summary of the core insight is that humans have two cultural narratives: “takers” and “leavers.” Leavers are the (mostly) hunter gatherer cultures who believe that “man belongs to the world” and takers are the agrarian cultures that believe “the world belongs to man.” The book venerates leaver cultures and despises taker cultures.

Now before launching into a criticism, there are two arguments in Ishmael that I agree with. First, culture is an incredibly powerful force that deeply shapes our behavior, while simultaneously being essentially invisible to us. This is of course much like in the old joke where the wise fish meets the young fish and asks “how are you enjoying the water today” to which they reply “what is water?” Second, the current dominant cultural narrative, the one Quinn refers to as takers, is broken in important ways and needs to be replaced.

The idea though that leaver culture is a viable replacement is, however, just as deeply flawed. Ishmael is full of both internal contradictions as well as inconsistencies with what we can observe in the world. Ultimately the book is a combination of elegantly phrased ideas with a profound lack of intellectual rigor. As the author admits in the foreword, he had taken several prior cracks at the same material, often running at way more pages, before arriving at the current condensation. I believe the chosen format is no accident, as it allows kitting over the inconsistencies much more easily (hey, it’s just a novel).

So let me point out a few of the biggest problems. First, there is a claim that evolution is good per se or even the will of the gods and that takers are bad because they have removed themselves from evolution. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of some of the utter horrors that evolution has produced would likely disagree with this. Consider for example species that take over and zombify other species for reproduction. There is no morality built into evolution and it doesn’t somehow magically produce self sustaining outcomes or necessarily continue to ever higher complexity. It is also useful to point out that the humans of the taker cultures are themselves a product of evolution, which is an internal contradiction of the premise that evolution produces only longterm good outcomes.

Second, there is the parenthetical remark in the book that leaver cultures can go on forever subject to environmental conditions. It is extraordinary to me that this receives zero subsequent treatment in the book. Of course there have been multiple mass extinction events on Earth before the current human caused one. Should we simply ignore our knowledge of the deep history of Earth? This is particularly ironic in a book that makes the argument that taker culture is myopic because it only consider the time since the invention of agriculture to be history. Ishmael makes the same mistake by going back only to the beginning of humanity but ignoring all the history of our planet before that. 

Third, there is absolutely no comment at all on how we could broadly adopt a leaver culture, without killing off billions of people. There is a weak aside on how it is possible to have an agrarian leaver culture but that’s not pursued further — there are, however, several remarks on how leavers abandoned agriculture and went back to foraging. Instead, the comment that really stands out is how it is OK in leaver cultures for droughts to result in human starvation. In fact being OK with people starving due to insufficient food is held up as central to leaver culture (according to the book). So how many people are we prepared to let starve? To get to anything that would seem remotely sustainable with the type of mental and cultural model the book promotes, the answer would have to be in the billions. Anybody who seriously wants to argue for a return to leaver culture should spell out this number to at least be intellectually honest.

Now to be clear: I believe we are in fact on track to kill billions of humans because taker culture is so far vastly underinvesting in the fight against the climate crisis. So yes, we absolutely need an alternative narrative, to which end I propose a new humanism. We can act responsibly towards ourselves and toward other species in ways that don’t require killing or starving billions of humans. We can achieve peak population in a gentle fashion and then shrink from there. This is another big mistake in Ishmael which claims that more food will always lead to population growth, but this is not born out by the data. Ishmael tries to get around this by pointing to population growth in Africa. For that argument to make sense though it needs to assume that Africa will not be subject to the pattern of fertility decline that has taken place everywhere else where the standard of living has gone up, infant mortality has declined, and women’s educational attainment has increased.

With my book The World After Capital, I have started to develop this alternative humanist narrative that embraces the potential for progress, while also firmly insisting on human responsibility.

If you are interested in helping develop such a humanist narrative, I would love to hear from you.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-04-08 16:44

2022-03-24

Albert Wenger

To Infinity and Beyond

“Infinite growth in a finite world is an impossibility” goes a popular quote. It is usually rolled out to illustrate that sustainability requires humanity to impose limits. Sometimes people then point to a specific element that they argue we will run out of in relatively short order, for instance phosphorus. I believe that this view is fundamentally wrong and ultimately dangerous. Instead, I propose a different motto “A finite world requires infinite growth.”

To explain my disagreement let me go back to a pivotal early moment in my personal development. I was about 8 years old or so when I learned in school that the sun, like all stars, would eventually exhaust itself and in the process first expand and then collapse, likely destroying Earth in the process but certainly making it uninhabitable for humanity. This insight resulted in an existential crisis for me. What is the point of anything, if everything will eventually disappear?

This may strike people as comical, after all we are talking about billions of years from now and there are so many pressing problems in the here and now, so why waste one second on the ultimate fate of the planet? But just ask yourself whether anything would matter, if you knew that Earth was going to explode later tonight. Yes, you might want to spend time with loved ones for mutual comfort, but it ultimately wouldn’t matter. There would be nobody left to remember. The only difference between today and the cosmic fate of the planet is time. And seeing this clearly, I spent several sleepless nights before realizing that humanity could carry on beyond that horizon by becoming space faring.

Ever since that moment, I have been thinking about what it means for Earth to be finite. Yes, Earth’s time is finite. But humanity’s time doesn’t have to be. It is also important to realize that the sun’s death is an upper limit on Earth’s habitability for humanity. There are many ways that could go away much sooner, from self-induced ones, such as the climate crisis or global thermonuclear war to external ones, such as a massive meteorite strike.

OK so maybe becoming space faring is some hypothetical way of dealing with the Earth’s finite life span. But isn’t Earth also obviously finite in terms of its resources?  And shouldn’t we be focused on that? People who like the first quote treat the resource finiteness of Earth as a given. As something that is self-evident.

And yet, any resource finiteness of earth, is strictly a function of the knowledge available to us. Why? Because we have access to extraordinary amounts of energy. A lot of it comes to us every day from the sun. And a lot of it we can release by turning mass into energy. We simply need to get much better at both of these. For solar this is entirely a question of deployment of existing technology. For nuclear it is a combination of building more fission but also of unlocking fusion.

We can have nearly abundant energy and that will let us do all sorts of amazing things (including collect more raw material from space). We can recycle materials to a much greater extent than today. We will even be able to transmute materials, i.e. turn elements into other elements. We know this to be physically possible, just requiring energies and processes that are far beyond present day capabilities.

So there are fundamentally two mindsets about the future. A pessimistic one where we see the Earth as finite in resources and conclude that we must limit ourselves. And an optimistic one where we see the Earth as finite in time and conclude that we must grow our knowledge towards infinity. The former mindset is not only uninspiring but will ultimately bring about human demise – with certainty, given enough time. We would knowingly be like the dinosaurs. The latter mindset points to a future of ongoing discovery. An exciting future of human growth and development. It this future that I argue for in my book The World After Capital.

I had been meaning to write this post for a while, but was inspired to do so by watching this video by Cleo Abram yesterday

PS Some people may point to the universe itself being finite and either contracting back into a singularity or expanding ever out into coldness. As it turns out, unlike the death of our sun, we don’t know nearly enough yet to understand which of these two scenarios will happen and it is also still possible that neither is the case. Also the relevant time scales here are absurdly large, although I grant that billions of years is a long time also ;)

PPS I am grateful to David Deutsch for his book The Beginning of Infinity which makes the case for the optimistic mindset

by Albert Wenger at 2022-03-24 19:51

2022-03-10

Fairphone Blog

Taking it step by step: An update on the Fairphone True Wireless Earbuds

Since day one, we’ve been leading the push to empower consumers with viable alternatives to the make-use-dispose trend in electronics. Keeping products in use longer decreases their environmental footprint, therefore easy repairability of products is essential. No surprise that Fairphone fully supports the Right to Repair. It’s a huge part of our mission to change the industry.

In 2013, we started by turning an off-the-shelf product into the most repairable phone simply by offering spare parts and repair guides, that was the Fairphone 1. It wasn’t perfect, but we had to start somewhere. From there, we’ve continually raised the bar by challenging ourselves and the industry by making modular smartphones that are durable and easy to repair. Our design proved that doing something unconventional can deliver significant benefits. It also proved that our chosen path was never going to be a cakewalk. Since then, we’ve come a long way, long shots and setbacks included. It has always been a continuous process towards fairer supply chains and products – And the same holds true today.

Along with the launch of our Fairphone 4 in late 2021, we took a leap of faith into a new category: True Wireless Earbuds. Truth be told, it was a humbling experience that took us back to our beginnings. Essentially, we did our best to find the earbud equivalent to the Fairphone 1; to launch a product that kickstarts our trajectory in the audio segment. The challenge was to find a product that we could get behind from a supplier willing to commit to our impact strategy. Unfortunately, very few remained, and none of the products was highly repairable. This left us with a tough decision to make: Either drop it altogether or stick to our tried and true concept of taking things step by step.

We have risen to the challenge to start into this new segment. We are proud of the work with our new supplier so far: integrating Fairtrade Gold into the supply chain, using 30% recycled materials in the housing of the earbuds and including low voltage charging that increases the battery life up to 800 charging cycles. But like our first steps in the phones segment, it isn’t perfect. For instance, the batteries are not replaceable and the earbuds are not repairable.
In the spirit of transparency, we’ve added this information clearly to our product page because our customers might not be aware of the challenges this new category still brings us and we are working to offer the separated replacement parts in our webshop in the next few weeks. Where do we go from here?

Keep raising the repair bar

As we did with the Fairphone 1 we will continue to raise the bar amongst others improving the repairability. To prove the feasibility of and our support to Right to Repair standards. And we are confident we can get there with the partners, relationships and experience we have now. Stay tuned!

The post Taking it step by step: An update on the Fairphone True Wireless Earbuds appeared first on Fairphone.

by Miquel at 2022-03-10 08:00

2022-03-06

Albert Wenger

Fighting the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Other than a few tweets I have stayed quiet on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as I was reading a ton to try and form an opinion. I am writing this post as much for myself as anyone else, as writing helps me clarify my thinking and also records it so I can go back to it at a later point. For those who just want the conclusion up front: I believe NATO needs to push back hard on Russia now, including supplying much more equipment to Ukraine. We also urgently need to stop our energy purchases from Russia.

First, what about any historic promises to Russia not to expand NATO eastward and aren’t we at fault here? Shouldn’t the Ukraine have been guided to a neutrality stance instead? Sure, that absolutely could have been a better approach but happens to be completely irrelevant now as we will never know how that would have played out. The same, incidentally, goes for the opposite view, which is that we should have already had Ukraine in NATO by now. Most of the people writing about these alternatives are some version of: “if you had only done what I had been suggesting there wouldn’t be a war today.” Again: totally unknowable and also irrelevant.

Why am I saying it’s irrelevant? Because we are not dealing with a rational actor on the other side but with a deranged dictator. Putin has been in power way too long and has killed off opposition leaders. He also doesn’t appear to be in the most stable place mentally, as a clear-headed Putin is unlikely to have let all those pictures get out of him sitting way on one end of a super long table making him appear sick or paranoid. Putin has time and again revealed his ambitions in writing and in speeches to build a Russian world that includes many of the places that have previously been part of the empire/union. Ignoring those expressions is like ignoring Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” where he laid out his ambitions.

What about the nuclear threat? Born in Germany in 1967, I grew up with that threat still very much on everyone’s mind and have often found myself surprised by how much it had receded into the background. First, I believe that there is a non-zero risk of a nuclear war and that’s been the case ever since we had large arsenals of nuclear weapons (another reason to try to live your life well every day). Second, unless he’s managed to change the system, Putin cannot simply push a button and launch nukes. According to detailed descriptions of the set up, the Russian code book is in three parts, all of which need to be assembled to arm weapons and Putin has only one third of that. Third, Putin is already calling sanctions an act of war. So to think that there is some bright line on one side of which we are safe and on the other we are doomed makes no sense. Fourth, the nuclear threat is no different if Putin were to attack a NATO country and so you really would have to believe that he would stop at Ukraine (counter his own words). So yeah, it sucks to have this threat out there but it ain’t going away and we will only come closer to it no matter what. Put differently, this risk is going up with inaction, not down.

Pushing back hard now will make this war go longer and cost more human lives. So why do it? There is no endgame in Ukraine right now that doesn’t result in massive bloodshed. Does anyone seriously think the Ukrainians will just happily be ruled by a puppet regime installed by Moscow? If this war drags on there is a real chance that Putin is in fact toppled, as he and the war are clearly unpopular in Russia. And if he’s not, then at least the chances of a subsequent attempt to invade a NATO member such as Estonia are diminished dramatically (not because Putin himself might not attempt it, but because the opposition around him can grow).

So I find myself in the hawkish position here. I would, however, add that we should focus on much more targeted sanctions than we have. Russia is very much a controlled media environment and it does not help if citizens there start to believe the West is targeting them without reason, driving them to support Putin. Our two biggest levers as going after oligarchs (by the way here I think freezing assets is much better than seizing them outright – what’s the point, if oligarchs think they can never have them back?) and stopping our energy purchases. The latter is going to hurt us a lot and if we are at all serious about supporting Ukraine we have to be willing to pay that price. Right now we have the worst possible combination: targeting the broad population while at the same time still giving tons of money to the Putin regime every day.

The second order effects of this war are likely to be terrible. The Ukraine is a major food producer and would need to be seeding right now. That’s likely to be massively disrupted if not outright impossible. Given the amounts involved we are talking about more than just a spike in prices. There is a high chance of famines that might kill thousands if not millions of people. Along with this will come political unrest and destabilization in many more parts of the world.

All in all then it is hard to overestimate the extent to which this will get worse before it gets better. Despite all of this there are also reasons for hope. There’s been an awakening globally to just how dangerous a dictator Putin is (something that had been denied by too many for far too long). I admire the Ukrainians who are willing to fight for their freedom and the Russians who are openly demonstrating against the war, despite the threat of draconian punishment. They all deserve our every support.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-03-06 15:22

2022-03-04

Jeff Atwood

The 2030 Self-Driving Car Bet

It's my honor to announce that John Carmack and I have initiated a friendly bet of $10,000* to the 501(c)(3) charity of the winner’s choice:

By January 1st, 2030, completely autonomous self-driving cars meeting SAE J3016 level 5 will be commercially available for passenger use in major cities.

I am betting against, and John is betting for.

By “completely autonomous”, per the SAE level 5 definition, we mean the vehicle performs all driving tasks under all conditions – except in the case of natural disasters or emergencies. A human passenger enters the vehicle and selects a destination. Zero human attention or interaction is required during the journey.

alt

By "major cities" we mean any of the top 10 most populous cities in the United States of America.

To be clear, I am betting against because I think everyone is underestimating how difficult fully autonomous driving really is. I am by no means against self driving vehicles in any way! I'd much rather spend my time in a vehicle reading, watching videos, or talking to my family and friends … anything, really, instead of driving. I also think fully autonomous vehicles are a fascinating, incredibly challenging computer science problem, and I want everyone reading this to take it as just that, a challenge. Prove me wrong! Make it happen by 2030, and I'll be popping champagne along with you and everyone else!

(My take on VR is far more pessimistic. VR just… isn't going to happen, in any "changing the world" form, in our lifetimes. This is a subject for a different blog post, but I think AR and projection will do much more for us, far sooner.)

I'd like to thank John for suggesting this friendly wager as a fun way to generate STEM publicity. He is, and always will be, one of my biggest heroes. Go read Masters of Doom if you haven't, already!

And while I have you, we're still looking for code contributions in our project to update the most famous programming book of the BASIC era. Proceeds from that project will also go to charity. 😎

* We may adjust the amount up or down to adjust for inflation as mutually agreed upon in 2030, so the money has the desired impact.

by Jeff Atwood at 2022-03-04 18:53

2022-02-26

Albert Wenger

Startups and Macro Risk

I find it difficult to think of another time with as much macro risk as the present at least since the financial crisis and likely much longer than that. There is a shooting war in Europe with no clear endgame. China might make a move on Taiwan at any moment. We have an ongoing pandemic that could still produce a dangerous variant. US democratic institutions appear incapable of mounting a coherent response to pretty much anything and are under attack from within.

The broader stock market has held up surprisingly well in light of this. Yet many public tech stocks have already pulled back substantially. Bluechip names like Cloudflare and Shopify are down 50% off their all time highs. This is a reflection both of anticipated higher interest rates and lower growth. Still I would not be surprised if we wound up with a much bigger and broader correction, if any of these macro risks are realized.

Is this something a startup founder/CEO should be paying attention to? In order to answer this question it is useful to look at the interaction between private and public markets.

Private market valuations tend to lag public market valuations. This is fantastic for venture investors when you invest in a sector where public market valuations are just starting to expand because you can still get into deals at reasonable prices. This is when the best venture returns are achieved. That’s why being early (but not too early) to a new sector is so powerful and has been the underlying rationale for our thesis-based approach at USV. Once there have been great public market returns for quite a while private valuations go up accordingly and venture returns normalize.

Of course now we have entered the opposite part of the cycle. Public market valuations are down by lot in tech but private valuations are lagging behind and high priced private rounds are still getting done. This period will likely see some of the worst returns.

Now if you are the founder/CEO of a venture-backed company you might say that compression of venture returns isn’t your problem and you would be right as long as you don’t need to raise more money.

The biggest risk exists for companies that have raised at high valuations but can’t get to cash flow positive on the money in the bank and thus will need to raise again in the future. Once private market valuations catch up (and they will do so first for later stage companies) they may fall into what I have previously called the “post money trap.” You may find yourself in a situation where you have made a fair bit of progress with your business but the contraction of valuations has more than offset this and you would need to raise a down round which are notoriously hard to pull off.

If one of the severe macro risks is realized and the public market really tanks there is another problem that will significantly worsen the contraction. Pension funds and endowments the largest sources of money for venture firms will suddenly find themselves with too high an allocation to venture on a percentage basis as their public portfolios melt. That would happen at a time when most are already struggling with keeping up with the ever faster deployment cycles of venture funds and so feel stretched as is.

In the worst scenario only the very best performing funds will be able to raise again and even they may need to shrink their size. Put differently just as there are positive feedback effects that have accelerated the rise over the last couple of decades, there will be similar feedback effects that will accelerate a fall.

To be clear: there is no certainty about this. Public markets could also go up, especially if people conclude that the Fed will abandon its efforts to shorten its balance sheet. This would appear to have been true during the first couple of days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But just because the market is up a bit doesn’t mean that the macro risk has gone away.

So how should you approach this as a startup founder/CEO? If you have raised a round at a really extended valuation in the last 6-12 months I would strongly advise making this cash last a lot longer than you had originally planned. Ideally see if you can get to cash flow positive or within striking distance of that on the money you have. And if you have the opportunity to take some more money right now by all means do so.

You can always choose to reaccelerate spending at any time. But you can’t count on being able to raise when everyone else is running out of money also. Now, more than ever, is the time to make your business antifragile.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-02-26 16:39

2022-01-31

Albert Wenger

Web3: Wallets Needed

I wrote a post recently as to why web3/crypto matter. A logical follow on question is: why aren’t we further along, given that Bitcoin is over ten years old? Part of the answer is that blockchain technology is complex and there is still a lot to figure out. But another part of the answer is that there is a chicken and egg problem to be solved that has echoes of the historic adoption of the web itself.

I remember well discovering the web in a lab at MIT due to the Mosaic web browser showing up on a workstation that I was using for one of my stats classes. But at home people faced a conundrum. They had heard of the web but how could they get on it? For that they needed a web browser and where was that going to come from? Today there isn’t a phone or laptop or desktop that doesn’t ship with one or more browsers pre-installed, so it is easy to forget this initial problem. Most people had never used something like FTP and so asking them to figure out how to do so in order to download a browser was a non-starter.

As it turned out there were two solutions to this problem. The first was AOL mailing CDs to pretty much everyone. That of course was aimed at keeping people inside AOL’s walled garden, but AOL software did include a web browser. The more important solution, however, was Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer with Windows. Yes, this was part of the infamous strategy to “cut off Netscape’s air supply.” And yes, I don’t like monopoly power bundling strategies. But it is indisputable that the widespread availability of Internet Explorer is what allowed the web to take off. Here’s an annotated chart of early web growth that shows this quite clearly:

Web3 very much needs a similar moment today. Apple is notoriously anti crypto because it would make it so much easier to go around their lucrative Appstore business. That’s why it is a bit more surprising that Google hasn’t already made a crypto wallet part of Android (and/or simply included it in Google Pay).

The vast bulk of endusers is no more likely to install a crypto wallet today than they were a web browser back then. That leaves dapps/web3 developers with a huge hurdle, much like early websites: someone without a pre-installed wallet is basically impossible to convert into a user.

So if someone at Google is paying attention: include a multi-currency wallet in Android pronto and watch Apple squirm.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-01-31 14:30

2022-01-17

Albert Wenger

Humanism’s Twin Goals for Society: Freedom and Solidarity

Many leaders and also parents mistakenly believe that the only way to be demanding is to be a jerk. I had found myself trapped in this flawed thinking at times. What made a huge difference for me was understanding that there are actually two dimensions to leadership (parenting): the demanding and the caring dimension, as shown here in a graph from Angela Duckworth’s wonderful book Grit:

image

It has recently occurred to me that much of the debate about society is caught in a similar one-dimensionality trap. There appears to be a believe that all that matters is freedom versus oppression. And yes that is absolutely an important dimension. But it is not the only one. The other dimension that really matters to the functioning of a society is one of solidarity versus selfishness.

By pulling these two axes apart we get a two-by-two of societies. And yes of course this is a multi-dimensional problem with probably several other relevant axes but even just adding this second one significantly opens up the set of possibilities. I have taken a crack at filling in what the resulting quadrants may represent:

Much of my writing here on Continuations and also in my book The World After Capital, is about establishing a vision for what the top right quadrant might look like. I have started to take notes for a second book that will explore this further.

One obvious question is: where does solidarity come from, if it isn’t forced by the state? My answer is belief systems that are supported by philosophy, as well as by cultural and behavioral norms. We know that people are capable of feelings of altruism and solidarity, as well of course the opposites of egotism and selfishness. Which of these become dominant in an individual and in a society is thus a question of what stories are being told, who is celebrated,  etc. Historically a big role here was played by religion, but I believe it is entirely possible to bring out solidarity in a secular approach by embracing Humanism.

I am super interested in reactions to this two dimensional view of where we should be headed and how to get there.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-01-17 16:11

2022-01-15

Nicholas Tollervey

Wedding Anniversary Plans

Mary and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary on the 2nd of August this year.

Our wedding, 2nd August 1997 at Bourton Manor, Shropshire.
Our wedding, 2nd August 1997 at Bourton Manor, Shropshire.

I first encountered Mary late on an autumnal Friday afternoon in the library of the Royal College of Music. Mary and I were the only two people in the Donaldson Room, a study area with large oak desks, and she happened to be sat opposite me. I think there was an immediate attraction because we kept surreptitiously looking at each other. When I idly chewed my pen to try to hide that I was really checking her out, she caught my eye and smiled at me. I involuntarily bit down on my pen in panicked shyness (I'd been found out!) and split the pen lid while also chipping the corner of my front tooth. I soon fled in embarrassment. Later, I felt the roughness where my tooth had chipped and reflected that it would be a permanent reminder of that pretty girl in the library. For the rest of my life, when I felt the roughness on my tooth, I'd ask myself "I wonder who she was?".

It didn't take long for me to find out.

The following Wednesday, just after lunch, (yes, I have all the dates, times and places recorded in my diary of the time) I returned to the Donaldson Room with a buddy only to find Mary sat at a desk with her friend and fellow cellist, Ellen. I sat down at the opposite end of their table (realising I'd found the pretty girl again) and soon found they were not working on an academic assignment, but goofing around playing the game of hang man.

Mary had a unique tactic... whereas most people do something sensible like start with the vowels or other common letters (to help figure out the skeleton or shape of the word), Mary used the least expected letters. She started games with "X", followed by "Q", then "W" or "Z".

I found this hilarious and, after watching her play for a few minutes, couldn't resist to interrupt and say,

    "You really have no idea how to play hang man, do you?"

    "Oh yes I do. I'm just choosing to play it like this", was her mock-offended response.

We struck up a conversation, our friends (bored of our flirting) soon left us in peace and we spent the afternoon chatting. We talked about all sorts: science, philosophy, plants, gardens, music, books and many other things. All too soon Mary noticed the time ~ it was 5pm and we had spent three hours in deep joyful conversation. Time just flew by, but Mary was late for a rehearsal.

I'll never forget how we parted.

    "I'm afraid I'm going to have to go to my rehearsal," she said, "but I'd much rather be talking with you."

That was it.

Over the following weeks and months we got to know each other, talked a LOT and eventually shared our true feelings for each other in the spring. It didn't take much longer for us both to realise we'd found our life-long soulmate and by the end of the year we were announcing our engagement. A couple of years later, only a few weeks after Mary graduated from the RCM, we were married. She was 22, I was 23 and we've been an "us" ever since.

Meeting Mary was the most important moment in my life. Living life's journey with Mary has been my life's greatest privilege and full of wonderful moments - the most important highlights being the arrival and growth of our three beautiful children, Penelope, Sam and William.

A serious family selfie from 2018.
A serious family selfie from 2018.

To celebrate 25 years of sharing our journey through life together, Mary and I have decided to make another (symbolic) journey together. We're going to walk over 170 miles, during the Easter holidays, along Offa's Dyke, a 1300 year old earthwork barrier created by Offa, king of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Nobody knows why the dyke was built, but the modern Welsh/English border roughly follows its path and it passes through some of the most beautiful parts of Wales and England.

We'll start in the south and walk an average of 15 miles a day, staying in bed-and-breakfasts or hotels along the way. It being April we expect fresh showers, but hope for sun to encourage spring flowers.

We're not the first to have had the idea of an April journey:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

We expect our adventure to take us 12 days.

Over the coming weekends we'll spend our time training by rambling similar daily distances in the rolling Northamptonshire countryside that surrounds Towcester. We'll also blog each day of the journey as a memento of our progress - we both suspect our adventure along Offa's Dyke will be something we'll want to remember.

If you're at a loose end in the weekends before Easter, get in touch, come visit and share a walk with us as we prepare... we forgot to mention there are many wonderful pubs on our local rambles, and we'd love to share their hospitality with any of our friends who happen to be passing by.

Happy new year for 2022 and here's hoping you find fulfilment and flourish over the coming 12 months.

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-01-15 20:30

Albert Wenger

A Plea for Focused Bills

Among a lot of Democrats, Senator Manchin is persona non grata. And while I am not exactly a fan of his either, there is something profoundly wrong about how Democrats are approaching crises with massive bills. I was asked to publicly support the Build Back Better Act because of its climate provisions and there is no way I would do that given that it is a bloated monstrosity.

Going back to the American Recovery and Re-investment Act of 2009 (ARRA), the Democrats’ approach has been to throw everything and the kitchen sink into these massive rescue bills. So much in these bills is pork of the worst kind. It also makes it easy for Republicans to vote against the bills because every one can point to something that their constituents will find offensive (especially the ones who vote in the all important primaries). Martin Gurri has a great section in Revolt of the Public about how the ARRA helped foment the rise of the Tea Party movement.

Instead, I would pursue a laser focused strategy. For example: a bill to cut fossil fuel subsidies. This would put real pressure on Republicans. Yes many of them come from coal, oil and gas states but others don’t and in general they will be on the record then as voting to keep up subsidies which makes them look bad on climate, competition, and fiscal responsibility. Enough so that it will help swing moderate voters in the next election.

Then do a separate bill for a national high speed rail system modeled after the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 sponsored by a Republican and signed into law by Warren G. Harding. Again, it may not pass but get Republicans on the record about holding back a specific initiative aimed at affordable mass transport that would modernize the country’s infrastructure.

I believe that this focused strategy has the potential to re-open the door for bipartisanship. For sure that won’t happen overnight and the first few attempts may well be duds. But there is no way ever to even swing a single Republican with the current monster bill approach. So there is nothing to lose from trying the exact opposite.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-01-15 18:57

2022-01-11

Albert Wenger

A Short Note on Persistent Practices

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.
- Yogi Berra

Yoga works. Meditation works. Conscious breathing works. By “works” I mean that these practices have positive effects for people who observe them. They can help build and retain strength and flexibility of both body and mind. The fact that they work shouldn’t be entirely surprising, given that these practices have been developed over thousands of years through trial and error by millions of people. The persistence of these practices by itself provides devidence of their effectiveness.

But does that mean the theories frequently cited to explain these practices are also valid? Do chakras and energy flows exist? I don’t want to rule this out – there have been various attempts to map chakras to the nervous and endocrine systems – but I think it is much more likely that these are pre-scientific explanations not unlike the phlogiston theory of combustion. I will refer to these as “internal theories,” meaning the theories that are generally associated with the practices historically.

Interestingly, we are now developing scientific theories that explain why these practices work. I will call these “external theories” as they are often developed outside the mainstream community of practitioners. For example, there is a great recent study that looks at changes in the brain from intense meditation.

Religions are another example of a practice that has a positive impact for many people in terms of giving them meaning and purpose in their lives. The internal theory of religions tends to be that they represent a higher truth told by prophets and/or the result of direct appearances of gods on earth. The external theory is that people have a psychological need for meaning and purpose and religion is one way to meet that need.

Do all persistent practices work? I guess it depends on what one means by “work.” Consider astrology. It is easily dismissed as completely useless, but then what explains its persistence? Well a psychological explanation might be that people like to have rationales as to why they are a certain way or why certain things are happening to them. These rationales – even if they have no scientific basis – might reduce stress for people (not dissimilar from religion). Beyond that it is of course possible that there is some yet undiscovered mechanism by which the planets and stars influence people’s characters and fates (the internal theory). I consider this quite unlikely, but not impossible.

Another interesting example of persistent practices are expressions in languages. Consider “I have a gut feeling” or “I have butterflies in my stomach” (which exist in both German and English) that relate one’s mental state to one’s digestive system. Unlike practices, these expressions tend to come without a theory altogether. They are simply part of the language we use. And yet, as science has progressed we have discovered the vagus nerve, as well as the fact that there are neurons throughout the gastrointestinal tract.

So what should we take away from this? 

There are two failure modes here. The first is to simply accept the internal theory of a practice unquestioned. The older the practice the more like that theory is hokum and subscribing to it risks the danger of being trapped in a pre-scientific view.

Conversely it is a bad idea to simply dismiss the power of a practice or the information content of language on the basis that its internal theory is bunk or non-existent. Instead, for everything that is a persistent practice or a common language feature, we should expect that there is some external scientific theory that explains why and how this practice works or why this language feature arose. To the extent that we don’t understand that yet, these are all interesting potential research projects.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-01-11 14:37

2022-01-05

Albert Wenger

Some Thoughts on the Elizabeth Holmes Verdict

Elizabeth Holmes was convicted on 4 counts of fraud related to her role as founder & CEO of Theranos. Was she treated differently than male entrepreneurs? It is certainly true that there hasn’t been a high profile criminal case against a male entrepreneur in quite a while, at least not one that I can recall (although I am old enough to remember Bernard Ebbers’s conviction in the Worldcom case and Jeffrey Skilling’s conviction in the Enron case). But beyond that observation, I believe that it’s hard to draw strong conclusions about fairness from this verdict.

Let me start by acknowledging that entrepreneurs tend to exaggerate. It takes a high degree of optimism (“irrational exuberance”?) to start a company and so entrepreneurs will err on the side of saying that they are further along than they actually are. For example, when a customer asks about a feature in software, an entrepreneur might say it is about to ship, even though coding hasn’t really started. I see this all the time and most investors are pretty adapt at looking through it. Generally this doesn’t rise to the level of criminality.

There are, however, lines that can eventually be crossed. For example if a company reports revenues that it doesn’t have (Worldcom and Enron) or keeps raising ever more money with product claims that are manufactured (Theranos). I remember one call with someone who asked if USV was interested in investing in Theranos (I forget the exact year). When I remarked that these were pretty extraordinary claims which we would need to diligence, I was told that we would simply have to go on the diligence done by other investors (extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence - Carl Sagan and many others). That was the end of that conversation. Based on who wound up on the Theranos cap table it appears to have been the end of the conversation with other venture investors as well. By the way this isn’t necessarily unique to Theranos. I was recently offered an “opportunity” to invest in a battery startup and when I asked what the basic chemistry for the battery was, I was told that it was secret and not being disclosed to investors (again a very short conversation).

So instead of venture investors, Holmes raised money from individuals, family offices, and corporates. That was ultimately bad news for her because she was able to keep going and going, long past the point where she went from early enthusiastic exaggeration to full on fraud. These investors also made for witnesses in the government’s case in a way that venture investors would have unlikely have been — after all VCs would have had to admit that they didn’t do their homework, which is a bad look for professional investors.

What about WeWork? Shouldn’t Adam Neuman be convicted of something? This too is a deal that I had seen at USV and while I loved the overall idea, I was deeply uncomfortable with the model, which had a ton of embedded financial leverage in the form of an asset liability mismatch (long term lease obligations, but short term rental income). But here are two salient differences. First, this problem was easily visible (for anyone who cared). Second, most of the money was raised from institutions, which were taking a risk they understood (or at least wouldn’t admit to not understanding). The rest of the shenanigans that went on at WeWork are spectacular in some of the details (that sauna!) but don’t really amount to fraud. By the way, if excess management compensation or privileges were fraud, then a lot of managers of corporations should be charged (that’s a discussion one can have in earnest, but is different from the one at hand).

What about those venture investors who have spoken out defending Holmes? As far as I know there are only a few of them and I get their overall point that in general we should be encouraging entrepreneurial activity and that this could be seen as chilling that. I disagree with that view though. The Theranos case stands on its own, without drastic implications for entrepreneurs or venture capital. I don’t believe for one minute that it will stop people from starting or funding companies.

Oh, there is one more thing though. If you believe that this case “proves something about female entrepreneurs” then you are in fact a sexist idiot.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-01-05 15:59

2021-12-31

Jeff Atwood

Updating The Single Most Influential Book of the BASIC Era

In a way, these two books are responsible for my entire professional career.

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With early computers, you didn't boot up to a fancy schmancy desktop, or a screen full of apps you could easily poke and prod with your finger. No, those computers booted up to the command line.

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From here, if you were lucky, you might have a cassette tape drive. If you knew the right commands, you could type them in to load programs from cassette tape. But that was an expensive add-on option with early personal computers. For many of us, if we wanted the computer to do anything, we had to type in entire programs from books like 101 Basic Computer Games, by hand... like so.

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Yep, believe it or not, circa 1983, this was our idea of a good time. No, we didn't get out much. The book itself was a sort of greatest hits compilation of games collected from Ahl's seminal Creative Computing magazine in the 1970s:

As soon as Ahl made up his mind to leave DEC, he started laying the groundwork for Creative Computing. He announced intentions to publish the magazine at NCC in June 1974 and over the next few months contacted prospective authors, got mailing lists, arranged for typesetting and printing, and started organizing hundreds of other details.

In addition, he also moved his family to Morristown, NJ, and settled into his new job at AT&T. He had little spare capital, so he substituted for it with "sweat equity." He edited submitted articles and wrote others. He specified type, took photos, got books of "clip art," drew illustrations, and laid out boards. He wrote and laid out circulation flyers, pasted on labels, sorted and bundled mailings.

By October 1974, when it was time to specify the first print run, he had just 600 subscribers. But Ahl had no intention of running off just 600 issues. He took all the money he had received, divided it in half, and printed 8000 copies with it. These rolled off the presses October 31, 1974. Ahl recounts the feeling of euphoria on the drive to the printer replaced by dismay when he saw two skids of magazines and wondered how he would ever get them off the premises. Three trips later, his basement and garage were filled with 320 bundles of 25 magazines each. He delivered the 600 subscriber copies to the post office the next day, but it took nearly three weeks to paste labels by hand onto the other 7400 copies and send them, unsolicited, to libraries and school systems throughout the country.

I also loved Creative Computing, but it was a little before my time:

  • 1971 – Ahl ports the programs from FOCAL to BASIC.
  • 1973 – 101 BASIC Computer Games is first published by DEC.
  • 1974 – Ahl founds Creative Computing magazine and acquires the rights to the book from DEC.
  • 1977 – the “trinity” of Apple II 🖥️, PET ️🖥️, and TRS-80 🖥️ microcomputers are released to the public, all with BASIC built in, at prices regular people could mostly afford 🙌
  • 1978 – a second edition of BASIC Computer Games is released, this time published by Ahl himself.

As you can see, there’s no way average people in 1973-1976 were doing a whole lot with BASIC programs, as they had no microcomputers capable of running BASIC to buy! It took a while for inexpensive personal computers to trickle down to the mainstream, which brings us to roughly 1984 when the sequels started appearing.

There was a half-hearted attempt to modernize these early BASIC programs in 2010 with SmallBasic, but I didn't feel these ports did much to bring the code up to date, and overall had little relevance to modern code practices. You can compare the original 1973 BASIC Civil War with the 2010 SmallBasic port to see what I mean:

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Certainly we can do a bit better than merely removing the line numbers? What about our old buddy the subroutine, merely the greatest invention in computer science? It's nowhere to be seen. 🤔

So it was with considerable enthusiasm that I contacted David H. Ahl, the author, and asked for permission to create a website that attempted to truly update all these ancient BASIC programs.

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Thankfully, permission was granted. It's hard to understate how important this book was to an entire generation of programmers. At one point, there were more copies of this book in print than there were personal computers, period!

... in 1973, DEC published an anthology, 101 BASIC Computer Games. The book quickly went into a second printing, for a total of 10,000 copies sold. “That was far more books than there were computers around, so people were buying three, four, five of them for each computer.”

It went on to be the first computer book to sell a million copies. Quite a legacy.

I think we owe it to the world to bring this book up to date using modern, memory safe languages that embody the original spirit of BASIC, and modern programming practices including subroutines.

So let's do this. Please join us on GitHub, where we're updating those original 101 BASIC games in 10 memory safe, general purpose scripting languages:

  • Java / Kotlin
  • Python
  • C#
  • VB.NET
  • JavaScript
  • Ruby
  • Perl
  • Lua

(Edit: as of March 2022, we've a) offered Kotlin as an alternative to Java, b) removed Pascal since we can't guarantee memory safety there, and replaced it with Rust, which very much can, and c) added Lua which just cracked the top 20 in TIOBE and strongly meets the scripting and memory safe criteria.)

Now, bear in mind these are very primitive games from the 1970s. They aren't going to win any awards for gameplay, or programming sophistication. But they are precious artifacts of early computing that deserve to be preserved for future generations, including the wonderful original art by George Beker.

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We need your help to do this right, and collaboratively together, as with all modern programming projects. Imagine we're all typing these programs in simultaneously together online, all over the world, instead of being isolated alone in our room in 1984, cursing at the inevitable typo we made somewhere when typing the code in by hand out of the book🤬.

Thanks Mr. Ahl. And a big thanks to everyone who contributed to this project when it was in beta, announced only on Twitter:

To encourage new contributions, by the end of 2022, for every functioning program submitted in each of the 10 indicated languages, I'll donate $5 to Girls Who Code. Before beginning, please read the guidelines in the readme, and if you have questions, scan through this discussion topic. And most of all, remember, this stuff is supposed to be fun.

(I don't want to be "that one guy", so I'm also looking for project co-owners who can help own and organize this effort. If this is a project that really appeals to you, show me what you can do and let's work together as a team.)

Perhaps as your new year's resolution you can see fit to carve off some time to take part in our project to update a classic programming bookone of the most influential books in computing history – for 2022 and beyond! 🎉

by Jeff Atwood at 2021-12-31 23:49

2021-12-29

Albert Wenger

Web3/Crypto: Why Bother?

One thing that keeps surprising me is how quite a few people see absolutely nothing redeeming in web3 (née crypto). Maybe this is their genuine belief. Maybe it is a reaction to the extreme boosterism of some proponents who present web3 as bringing about a libertarian nirvana. From early on I have tried to provide a more rounded perspective, pointing to both the good and the bad that can come from it as in my talks at the Blockstack Summits.

Today, however, I want to attempt to provide a cogent explanation for why bothering about web3 makes sense. This requires telling a bit of a story and also understanding the nature of disruptive innovation. The late Clayton Christensen characterized this type of innovation as being worse at everything except for one dimension, but where that dimension really winds up mattering a lot (and then over time everything else gets better also as the innovation is widely adopted).

The canonical example here is the personal computer (PC). The first PCs were worse computers than every existing machine. They had less memory, less storage, slower CPUs, less software, couldn’t multitask, etc. But they were better at one dimension: they were cheap. And for those people who didn’t have a computer at all that mattered a great deal. It is exactly this odd combination that made existing computer manufacturers (making mainframes down to mini computers) ignore the PC. They only focused on all the bad parts and ignored the one positive dimension or to the extent that they understood it they tried to compete by making their own product cheaper. Other than IBM, they never embraced the PC and went out of business or were absorbed by other companies.

A blockchain is a worse database. It is slower, requires way more storage and compute, doesn’t have customer support, etc. And yet it has one dimension along which it is radically different. No single entity or small group of entities controls it – something people try to convey, albeit poorly, by saying it is “decentralized.”

Ok, so how is this remotely the same as PCs being cheaper? Well because to some people this matters a great deal. Why? Because much of the power held by large companies (and by governments) comes from the fact that they operate and control databases. Facebook alone gets to decide who can read and write from their database and what parts of it anyone can see. They alone can make changes to this database. This turns out to be the source of Facebook’s power in the world. Many people rightly see this power as a problem, but fail to see how the structure of the original web technology directly contributed to this extreme centralization.

It is useful to go back to the beginning of the web to see how we got here. When (now Sir) Tim Berners-Lee invented the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) he unleashed what we now think of as permissionless publishing. Anyone can put up a web page and anyone with a browser can access it. This was an amazing breakthrough, as pretty much all publishing previously had required going through a publisher of some kind, who decided what should and should not be published. And while some people bemoan this as a loss, I consider it a gain in access to knowledge for many creators and learners who previously were kept at the margins or shut out entirely.

HTTP though is a so-called stateless protocol. That means there is no memory built directly into the protocol. It doesn’t have a notion of a database. So for example if you want to build something as simple as a shopping cart that can hold multiple items, you need to implement the data storage somewhere that’s not part of HTTP itself. Marc Andreessen and his team at Netscape invented cookies to help solve this problem (sadly a far less elegant mechanism than what Roy Fielding proposed in his dissertation on REST years later).

Cookies are files that get sent along with HTTP requests and can be read by and then written to by the web server. In the early days people would literally write the items in a shopping cart directly into cookie files. But because these files sit locally on a client computer, it meant that someone couldn’t start shopping on their desktop computer at work and then finish shopping once they got home. So instead these days cookies tend to just contain user IDs and all the other database functions reside on the servers.

As a first approximation all the big powerful internet companies are really database providers. Facebook is a database of people’s profiles, their friend graphs and their status updates. Paypal is a database of people’s account balances. Amazon is a database of SKUs, payment credentials and purchase histories. Google is a database of web pages and query histories. Of course all of these companies have built a great deal more over time, but operating a database has stayed at the core of why they are powerful. Only they get to decide who has permission to read and write to this database and which parts of it they get access to.

Put differently: it turned out that permissionless publishing alone was insufficient. We also need permissionless data. Why do we need this? Because otherwise we are left with a few large corporations controlling much of what happens on the internet, which then leads us to all sort of regulatory contortions aimed at rectifying the power imbalance but in practice mostly cementing it. We of course know where this winds up and that’s why pretty much everyone hates their cable company and their electric utility.

Now the important part to keep in mind here is that prior to the Bitcoin Paper we literally didn’t know how to have permissionless. Yes, we had distributed databases. And yes, we had federated databases. But all of those still had a small group of entities in charge (cf pretty much every financial network such as ACH or VISA). We didn’t have a protocol for maintaining consensus – meaning agreeing on what’s in the database – that would allow anyone to join the protocol (as well as anyone to leave).

It is difficult to overstate how big an innovation this is. We went from not being able to do something at all to having a first working version. Again to be clear, I am not saying this will solve all problems. Of course it won’t. And it will even create new problems of its own. Still, permissionless data was a crucial missing piece – its absence resulted in a vast power concentration. As such Web3 can, if properly developed and with the right kind of regulation, provide a meaningful shift in power back to individuals and communities.

And if widely adopted Web3/crypto technology will also start to improve along other dimensions. It will become faster and more efficient. It will become easier and safer to use. And much like the PC was a platform for innovation that never happened on mainframes or mini computers, Web3 will be a platform for innovation that would never come from Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc.

by Albert Wenger at 2021-12-29 00:52

2021-12-26

Albert Wenger

The Failure of Peacetime Governments in Wartime: COVID and Climate

In the startup world we sometimes talk about the difference between being a peacetime CEO and a wartime CEO (cf this famous essay by Ben Horowitz). While some people may be turned off by this martial metaphor, it is profoundly relevant to the government’s failure to properly deal with the COVID crisis. We must take a close look at this, if we want to stand a real chance of fighting the climate crisis, which is substantially more difficult to address.

I am writing this in late in 2021, essentially two years into the COVID crisis. And here we are with a shortage of at home testing, a lack of availability of antibody treatment, minimal access to antiviral pills and an insufficient vaccination rate. This is an abject failure of government here in the US and in pretty much most other democracies. To be clear, since I sometimes get accused of being partisan, the Biden administration had plenty of time to fix this and they have failed just as badly as the Trump administration did before them.

What should have been done instead? The FDA should have been instructed to approve at home tests and these should have been manufactured at scale under the Defense Production Act. I and many others wrote about the importance of pervasive testing (to break transmission chains) in, checks notes, yeah April of 2020. The same goes for antibody treatment and antiviral pills. The FDA should have fast tracked all of these and production should be at wartime scale through government-led procurement. I have a whole section in the Appendix to my book “The World After Capital” on how quickly we can ramp production when governments really commit to it. Here is a picture of Ford’s famous Willow Run factory which at the peak of production completed one B-24 bomber every hour:

It was of course also known from the get go that the virus will mutate. Duh. That’s what viruses do. So the other crazy part here is that we aren’t massively sequencing here in the US and new variants are detected late and/or in other places. More importantly, we then start the whole slow process over, instead of jumping into fast action. What would fast action look like? Immediately start new batches of vaccines. mRNA technology makes this possible. Run challenge trials right away to assess their safety and efficacy (this could be done in weeks). Same goes for making new monoclonal antibody treatments. 

This must be government directed. The private market moves too slowly, especially given that the FDA is still taking way too long. Yes you may want to fault Pfizer for not making tons of doses of Paxlovid before being granted a EUA by the FDA. But that’s simply wishful thinking. The second there was any inkling that Paxlovid might be effective the government should have placed a large order to remove the risk from Pfizer. In war, if you have a new weapon, you don’t wait around to produce it. 

So what is the lesson? We have peacetime governments, but we are in wartime. And that sucks. It means we cannot rely on government to defend us. And as always, when that’s the case, the impacts are disproportionately born by those most in need of protection, such as the poor and the ill.

And it is sadly the same for the climate crisis. We should be in wartime mode but governments are stuck in peacetime mode instead, conducting business as usual while the world is burning.

I am not saying this to bum everyone out at Christmas. Rather understanding this distinction is crucial for figuring out how to engage. If more people get that we need to be in wartime mode, it will let us apply pressure to governments to switch gears entirely, instead of wasting our energy fighting one grinding battle after the other.

by Albert Wenger at 2021-12-26 14:37

2021-12-23

Albert Wenger

The World After Capital Print Edition

After many years of writing in public, I am super thrilled to finally announce that my book The World After Capital is now available in print

The digital version will remain online for free and the content continues to be creative commons licensed. There is no subtitle and the back cover is free of annoying blurbs (just a beautiful blue). All four of those points are meaningful to me and yet every publisher I talked to insisted that those are terrible ideas and they wouldn’t publish the book that way. So I am publishing it myself. Suck it.

A great many people have contributed to the book over the years and the acknowledgments are an attempt to thank some of them. The print edition wouldn’t exist without Mona Alsubaei’s amazing work on charts, bibliography, last minute edits and more. The design of the print edition was created by the wonderful team at Looping Group who are amazing to work with. Any remaining errors are of course my responsibility.

Here is me beaming while I hold the first copy:

All net proceeds will go to the Eutopia Foundation (outdated website – a project for another day). For now suffice it to say that Eutopia is how Susan and I are supporting projects that are inspired by some of the thinking in The World After Capital.

So GO BUY THE BOOK and tell all your friends about it – no matter if you like it or if you hate it ;)

by Albert Wenger at 2021-12-23 15:07

2021-12-14

Albert Wenger

University of the People: A Crypto-First Endowment for Borderless Learning

A bit over a decade ago, Susan and I stumbled over a piece in the New York Times that announced plans for a “Free Global University That Will Be Online Only.” We reached out to Shai Reshef, the entrepreneur who had announced this audacious idea, and have been supporters ever since. “Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not” is a great summary of the problem that University of the People is helping to address. And from those early days when it was really just a glimmer in the eyes of a determined founder, University of the People has grown to over 100,000 students globally, with no sign of slowing down.

There are many revolutionary aspects about the University of the People model, but two are particularly worth noting. First, except for a small paid core team, everyone is a volunteer. It is an extraordinary way to give back for people who want to facilitate learning and help people all around the world. Second, at the heat of the University of the People courses is peer learning with students helping each other but also holding each other accountable. This is possible not just because University of the People has invested extensively in a pedagogy to facilitate it, but also because the students don’t see themselves as high paying customers to be catered to, but as learners on a common quest.

Susan and I are excited to help lay the foundations for longterm financial independence of University of the People by making a $1 million contribution in BTC and ETH to what will be a crypto-first endowment. University of the People is about borderless learning and so it feels apt to build an endowment in borderless assets. If you don’t have the time or background to volunteer as an instructor, but want to support the endeavor you can send BTC to 3M9hekcTQcxkHMe1ikqkaZCWWuUxM7o55o and ETH to 0xf3491c788071c4a295a0525ae6ed443697993a6b – if you have other assets you can contact Sion Schlanger (VP of Finance for University of the People).

by Albert Wenger at 2021-12-14 21:18

2021-12-09

Fairphone Blog

Digging deep for responsible aluminum

You probably don’t think about aluminum a lot. We do – it’s one of our 14 focus materials. But we really dug deep when we decided the Fairphone 4 was going to have an aluminum case rather than plastic. And it turns out, aluminum is really interesting.

Start with this: It’s the most common mineral in the Earth’s crust. It’s forged in stars when magnesium picks up an extra proton. So when it comes to supply, there’s a lot of it. But it’s hard to make usable. In 1825, Danish chemist Hans Christian Oersted managed to produce the first malleable aluminum, but it was an outrageously expensive process. For decades, aluminum was as expensive as gold. Napoleon III’s state dinners were proudly served on aluminum plates, and his son waved an aluminum rattle.

In 1886, two inventors simultaneously came up with a process in which aluminum oxide is melted in cryolite (sodium aluminum fluoride) and subjected to an electric current. And to this day, that’s how aluminum is made.

It’s a toy bird, it’s a plane, it’s a soda can

And once it’s made, aluminum’s life span is essentially indefinite. It retains many of its most important properties no matter how many times you remelt and reuse it. And while recycled aluminum isn’t yet of sufficient quality for food-grade and many electronics uses, once it’s made most aluminum can be reused in some way. Some industry estimates claim that 75% of all the aluminum that’s ever been made is still in use thanks to recycling.

But, aluminum isn’t the holy grail of sustainability. It takes a huge amount of energy to get from the stuff in the ground to the stuff that can make a train or a phone. And while it takes only 5% of that energy to recycle the material, the initial carbon and chemical footprint is enormous. And there are lots of ways it gets done wrong, either from an environmental or human rights perspective.

Swipe right for socially and environmentally responsible partners

So when we went looking for the material that would go into the Fairphone 4, we signed up as a downstream supporter of the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI). ASI’s mission is to recognise and collaboratively foster the responsible production, sourcing and stewardship of aluminium. It is a global standard-setting and certification organisation that lays the foundation for a responsible aluminum supply chain, supported by a broad range of stakeholders.

 ASI is laying the foundation for a responsible aluminum supply chain.

ASI has a performance standard made up of 11 sustainability principles and certifies suppliers who meet them. These principles have 59 criteria that address issues including responsible management where worker health and safety are protected, no child labor is used, and biodiversity is safeguarded. We wanted to support workers’ health, rights, and well-being with our supply chain choice, so we set out to find an ASI-certified supplier.

Shining a light on imperfection

We tested both virgin aluminum and post-consumer recycled aluminum and learned about one of the challenges recycled aluminum faces: impurities. To give the phone the highly polished, premium feel that we wanted, we have to anodize the aluminum, which makes the metal shiny. When anodized, those impurities become more visible and make the metal look, well, scratched. Even though it’s not. Try as we might, we couldn’t make recycled aluminum come up to a high enough cosmetic standard that it wouldn’t scare off our sellers and customers.

 Proudly framed by Alumnium from ASI Performance Standard certified suppliers: The Fairphone 4.

After much trial and error, we settled on sourcing virgin aluminum. While we pay a higher price for our aluminum, we’re proud to say our supplier is ASI Performance Standard Certified and they’re as proud to be working with us as we are with them.

Closing the loop

In keeping with our vision for a fair transition to a circular economy, we will continue to explore using post-consumer recycled aluminum in our phones in future. We may have to find a way to make recycled aluminium as ‘clean’ as new aluminum, or come up with a process that makes the imperfections less obvious, but it’s a worthy challenge and one which could have important implications. We look forward to engaging our suppliers and the wider industry on this.

But in the meantime, we’ll continue to make our case: the best way all of us in the electronics industry can reduce the environmental cost of production is to do as we do: ensure that every phone we make is easily recyclable, repairable and that they are made to last as long as is humanly possible.

That seems only fitting for a phone made out of the stuff of stars. Explore it here >>

The post Digging deep for responsible aluminum appeared first on Fairphone.

by Tirza Voss at 2021-12-09 14:50

2021-12-06

Albert Wenger

The Power of Culture

The first time I came to the United States was in 1983 for a one-year host family stay in Rochester, Minnesota. Before leaving Germany, there was a weekend long preparation meeting. We were told we would feel homesick, that we might feel alienated and even experience culture shock. Throughout the weekend the instructors mentioned at least a dozen of times “whatever you do, don’t walk around the house naked.” OK, something to pay attention to I noted to myself.

I arrived in Rochester after a very long day of travel from Germany. And right from the start I felt like a fish in water. My host family had two somewhat younger children and everyone was simply wonderfully welcoming. Rochester is a small town but it is home to both the Mayo Clinic and a large IBM facility and so has an unusually high percentage of doctors and engineers. I attended the public high school (John Marshall) and loved it. I also successfully avoided walking around the house naked, which did indeed require some attention as this is a very common thing to do in Germany. And so after six months and feeling completely at home I walked naked out of the bathroom and right into my host mother who shrieked loudly at the sight. We all wound up laughing about it as soon as I had found a towel, but now I understood why the instructors had made such a big point about it. Still, I was left completely puzzled by all the other stuff on culture shock and alienation.

Well, I eventually found the answer to those, but not in the United States. My culture shock and alienation occurred upon my return to Germany. All the sudden many behaviors and attitudes in Germany, that I had never really questioned growing up, seemed exceedingly odd to me. I was not longer a fish in water, many times instead I felt like a fish on land, gasping for air. How could people be so negative? So narrow minded? My immediate reaction was: how do I get back to the US as quickly as possible? And it was only a couple of years later that I wound up returning as an undergraduate student.

This is now nearly forty years ago and I have since developed a much more differentiated appreciation of both cultures, seeing the positives and negatives in each of them more clearly. And of course the cultures themselves haven’t been static. For example, young entrepreneurs in both places are much more alike today.

Still, I came away from this early experience with a fundamental insight that I wish was much more widely understood: so much of what we attribute to “human nature” are really culturally shaped attitudes and behaviors. While it is one thing to grasp this intellectually, it is another to have it as a lived experience. If I could wave a magic wand, everyone would get to live in a different culture for a year at a relatively young age, when one’s mind is still open. I believe we would have much more empathy for each other globally and recognize how much of what we do every day is culturally determined.

To be clear, saying that something is culturally determined doesn’t mean it is easy to change. It simply says that it is to a large degree arbitrary and can be changed, given enough time and effort. For an individual that can happen quite quickly, for societies as whole enough time is measured generations.

by Albert Wenger at 2021-12-06 13:42

2021-12-02

Fairphone Blog

iFixit Guest Blog: Important Notes to Take From Fairphone’s Design Team

Last week at iFixit we did a teardown of the Fairphone 4, which earned an exceedingly rare 10/10 on our repairability scale. During that teardown, I was impressed with many of the decisions the Fairphone design team made. With repair legislation around the corner in most markets around the world (and already in effect in some places like France) there has never been a better time for smartphone makers to take a few notes from Fairphone 4’s design, and this company’s methods. Here are some that stuck out to me during our teardown.

#1 Make it modular

The most important message I can relay to smartphone designers—and users—is just how crucial modularity is to the longevity of any device. Modularity often dictates whether a device can be useful for an extra year or two, and how efficiently and effectively a device can be recycled at the end of its life.

A modular thing is one whose components can be separated and replaced individually, and the concept scales up and down with the size of different devices. You probably take for granted the modularity of larger everyday things, like cars or bikes. Imagine needing to replace your whole bike when the tires wear out, or pulling out the engine of a car to replace a headlight.

 No part of Fairphone 4 is glued shut, so you can choose to easily repair it yourself with a standard screwdriver.

Scale that concept down to smartphones, and you’re looking for modularity in critical components to a device’s functionality, such as the screen, cameras, ports, and battery. Fairphone 4 gives users access to all these components and more, in just a few simple steps, requiring only a Phillips screwdriver and their fingers.

#2 Keep it simple

I emphasize using only their fingers and a Phillips screwdriver because simplicity is an important part of design for repairability. Something modular but unnecessarily complicated to disassemble is sometimes just as bad as not being modular at all.

A great example of this sort of conundrum is Apple’s iPhone. Our iPhone 12 battery replacement guide is a whopping 42 steps long. It requires tools for heating and cutting adhesive, four different screwdrivers, and involves removing unrelated components around the battery. Anyone with repair experience will tell you iPhones are among the easier smartphones to repair (and they do regularly earn up to a 6/10 on our repairability scale), but show that guide to most repair newcomers and they’d likely let the Apple store handle it.

And that’s the rub. A modular device whose repair procedures are overly complicated, is—you guessed it—less likely to be repaired, reducing its useful lifespan, and increasing the complexity of the recycling process at the end of its life.

Compare that to a Fairphone 4 battery replacement, which doesn’t yet have iFixit guides for an apples-to-apples comparison, but I can assure you it would be under 10 steps.

#3 Don’t fear the compromise

Smartphone design is inherently an exercise in compromise—you are fitting as much technology as a laptop has, or more, into a thin handheld slab.

Fairphone made some great compromises when they built Fairphone 4, and it is time for other companies to start thinking about the compromises they can make to create more useful but sustainable products.

The most important—and most controversial—compromise Fairphone 4 makes has to do with its ingress protection (a.k.a. IP, or water and dust resistance). By aiming for a less ambitious IP rating, Fairphone avoids using adhesive and instead uses a combination of clips and screws to hold their phones together. This one compromise knocks 5–10 steps and a great deal of complexity off any repair.

That’s a big win, but it comes at a cost. IP certification is a spec many users look for in a new smartphone, so a lower IP rating can put Fairphone at a disadvantage in a head-to-head comparison. Less ingress protection also means the phone is technically less durable than, say, an iPhone. Here I will point out that most people do not need an IP68 certified smartphone though; IP ratings have become, like many smartphone specs, something expected to only ever go upwards. Fairphone 4’s IP54 rating will keep it safe from rain, accidental splashes, and encounters with sand or dust.

That’s why I’m glad Fairphone made this compromise. IP54 isn’t perfect, but it’s a good start, especially given the repairability it enables. The smartphone industry hasn’t found the sweet spot for ingress protection yet. Other gadgets that have been around longer are closer to it: cameras and mechanical watches, for example, both have more moving parts than smartphones, yet neither typically relies on adhesive to achieve their IP ratings (which, in some cases, are even higher than iPhones).

Several other complicated decisions make Fairphone 4 a compelling, repairable, sustainable smartphone: the type of screws, the hard-shell Li-ion battery, processor and wireless chip selection, warranty support, and many others. The last one I’ll highlight here is Fairphone’s choice to combine some of their spare parts.

#4 Combine with care

Combining parts is a hot-button issue at iFixit. Bundling two or more components into one integrated “part” can raise the cost of what would otherwise be an inexpensive repair, and taken to an extreme, can become the antithesis of modular design. Admittedly, we’re jaded by experiences with a few bad actors over the years. For example, Apple (not the only bad actor, but an easy one to make an example of) has a recent history of building fragile cables into expensive displays, and serializing components within their devices, then hiding behind software bugs or paper-thin security claims.

Ultimately, combining parts is a tradeoff—when you integrate one or more components, you lose modularity, but (hopefully) gain simplicity.

In Apple’s case, repair seems a distant consideration when combining (and serializing) parts. Fairphone, on the other hand, has ably walked this line for the past few years. Fairphone 3 was an almost unbelievably modular device, with every component in its own spot, easy to access and remove on its own.

 This device is a challenge to the industry to rethink the modern smartphone: True innovation should be about solving problems, rather than creating new ones.

Fairphone 4 changes up this formula by combining some of those parts. Despite my inherent apprehension, it works. By designing the combined parts to be further disassembled when necessary, and only integrating with low-cost parts like the black antenna (shown above), they keep spare part costs low. It’s a great compromise.

There are a lot of good things to say about Fairphone 4. It was a treat to take apart after a long string of glued-shut devices this year. It’s a shame so many companies release products with very little thought about where they will end up at the end of their useful life, or how long that will take. I’m thrilled that Fairphone continues to buck that trend, and I hope other companies start to copy their homework.

Curious? Explore the world’s most repairable phone >>

The post iFixit Guest Blog: Important Notes to Take From Fairphone’s Design Team appeared first on Fairphone.

by Taylor Dixon at 2021-12-02 14:33

2021-12-01

Fairphone Blog

Raising the bar on smartphones in the EU

We have already proven that it is possible to make a smartphone that is more sustainable and better for people and planet. But, you know us, we always aim to improve and encourage others in the industry to follow suit.

What is the next thing we are planning, you ask? We want to influence the review of the EU Ecodesign Directive (2009/125/EC) for mobile phones, cordless phones and tablets – so that smartphones with less environmental impact will be a legal requirement for all manufacturers selling to the EU. As a result of this review, the European Commission has the opportunity to raise the bar and set new rules for the smartphone and tablet industry.

Our mission is to change the electronics industry and influencing the Ecodesign Directive would be a big jump in the transformation we are striving for.

Current status

Current Information and Communication Technology (ICT) CO2 emissions are 5% of the global carbon footprint and that number is expected to rise to 15% by 2040 – smartphones cause 11% of the ICT industry’s share. This large carbon footprint is partly a result of mining and processing the over 50 different materials found in each phone. Since most emissions occur during the production phase, the most important way to reduce that number is to keep our phones much longer than the average 2-3 year lifespan.

Aside from emissions, e-waste is also a huge issue caused by the short average usage time of smartphones. Electronic waste (e-waste) is the fastest growing waste stream on a global scale and is not projected to slow down. Recycling is often presented as the way to solve this issue, however, even if a phone is recycled, only around 30% in weight of the materials can be recovered. Smartphones, which often end up in landfills or incineration plants, cause pollution by emitting hazardous substances into the air and the soil which are harmful to people and the planet. In order to curb the amount of electronic waste that we produce, it is critical to (re)use our phones for much longer!

The responsibility of using our phones longer does not fall squarely on the shoulders of consumers. The context created by the manufacturer doesn’t allow for or incentivize us to use our phones longer. Therefore, the industry must step up to the plate and do its part and create a more sustainable and fairer smartphone to protect people and planet.

The plan

We must make smartphones that last longer, are more durable and are able to be repaired without sending it to the shop! Wait, we already do that! We have proven that all of that is possible and on top of that, we keep software support going for at least five years.  Even though we try to encourage more movement in the industry toward offering more sustainable product choices, what if this was not a voluntary commitment but compliance with legislation? The smartphone industry would be on the right track to reducing its large-scale environmental impact and every company would have to innovate their business practices equally.

However, there are some loopholes for manufacturers and missing points that need to be addressed before the above could happen. Loopholes, which allow manufacturers to focus on profit without considering the environmental impact of their smartphones and making it increasingly difficult and expensive for consumers to get their phones repaired. Therefore, we would like the European Working Group to close any loopholes and make repairs possible, affordable and accessible for everyone. There is no reason why ordering spare parts should be difficult and expensive. There is no reason why you, as a consumer, shouldn’t be able to repair your own phone.

Our demand

It’s time to demand that we, as consumers, should own all parts of our phone, including the repair, are in control of our software, and having access to spare parts and repair information. It’s time more sustainable smartphones become mainstream and it’s time that consumers and manufacturers demand the same

The post Raising the bar on smartphones in the EU appeared first on Fairphone.

by Thea at 2021-12-01 15:16

2021-11-30

Fairphone Blog

We’ve scaled Fairtrade gold

We have paved the way to source more Fairtrade gold! Together with Fairtrade, we have partnered with Hirose Electric Co., Ltd. in Japan in order to integrate more Fairtrade gold into our supply chain. Our relationship with Hirose and Fairtrade continues our support of ASM gold projects and miners. This is an incredible stepping stone for the larger vision of a Fairtrade and Fairphone partnership to scale responsible gold in the electronics sector.

Going for (fairtrade) gold

While there are over 40 different materials in a smartphone, gold is one of Fairphone’s 14 focus materials announced earlier this year and has been a target material for us since day one. It is a material often mined artisanally.

Since 2016, we have been able to integrate Fairtrade gold into the supply chain, yet, this accounted for just a small percentage of all the gold used in our devices, as gold is used in very small quantities, spread across many different components of the phone. Though a good start, we always aim to do better and find ways to encourage the industry to adopt similar practices. This means we needed to build a supply chain model that could easily be replicated and scaled in the electronics sector. So in great Fairphone fashion, we put our heads together with our partners – Fairtrade and other suppliers – to come up with the best solution to increase fairly sourced gold in our supply chain. We are still exploring how this can be further replicated in the average electronics supply chain.

The model

With the Fairphone 3, we, along with the Fairtrade Foundation, have begun to explore a mass-balance sourcing model to begin to scale Fairtrade gold in the electronics sector. Under this model, gold mined in a more responsible fashion from the Fairtrade certified mine remains separated from other non-certified gold until leaving the refinery. However, after this point it gets shipped to the Shanghai Gold exchange and can enter many different supply chains, which means it is no longer traceable. To ensure that we are able to calculate the amount of gold we are using in our phones, and to ensure that we pay an equivalent amount of Fairtrade Premium, Fairphone has its own internal robust due diligence and tracing system.

We are continuing to work with Fairtrade to explore how we can bring more of our supply chain into the Fairtrade system, so that we, and you our customers can be confident that our materials are sourced sustainably, and that the gold miners we source from receiving a fair price and a Fairtrade Premium for their gold. While the electronics supply chain is rather complex, our ongoing innovation in this space will enable us to develop smoother, more logistical and less expensive supply chains. Without this model, neither Fairphone or our customers are able to be in the Fairtrade system or create the desired impact at the level of mines.

Fairtrade gold on the go

With the development of Fairphone 4, we started our creative thinking journey by examining what would be the key next step to scale up Fairtrade gold in the electronics sector, knowing supply chains are intertwined. We came to the conclusion that by onboarding a components manufacturer with global market reach and the potential to supply most electronics brands, we can lead the way for exponential growth of Fairtrade gold. Win, win!

So far, we have eight China-based suppliers committed to Fairtrade and we have just onboarded a ninth – our first Japan-based supplier, Hirose Electric Co., Ltd. Hirose is that top-tier player in the electronics industry that we were searching for. What does this mean exactly? It means that by collaborating with Hirose, we were able to increase the volumes of Fairtrade gold that we source through inclusion of our latest model’s connector supply chain.

This is another step in the evolution of the Fairtrade gold used in the electronics model from Fairphone 2 (2016), to Fairphone 3 (2019) now to Fairphone 4 – we tailored the scalable (gold) integration model so that it is suitable for international component manufacturers, in this case Japan.

 

Note: Fairphone calculates the amount of gold used and pays an amount equivalent to the Fairtrade Premium to the refiner who sources this amount of gold from the Fairtrade mines.

Similar to the Fairphone 3 model, the Fairtrade certified gold remains separate until the refiner level. Once at the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) it is then mixed with non-Fairtrade gold. Our component supplier in Japan (Hirose) then purchases enough gold from SGE to cover the amount of Fairtrade gold claimed by Fairphone. With this model, Fairphone contributes to the equivalent premium of the Fairtrade gold claimed for its supply chain and production volume.

 

Since Fairtrade gold is mass-balanced with non-Fairtrade gold in the SGE, that means that the certified gold is not guaranteed to be in the product. However, our Japan pilot model builds on the mass-balance model and tracks the gold used along the value chain between factories owned by the same supplier. We are continuing to work with Fairtrade to explore how we can bring more of our supply chain into the Fairtrade system.

Keep striving

The Fairtrade Foundation and Fairphone are working together to understand how we can integrate responsible gold throughout the supply chain as a part of the European Partnership of Responsible Minerals (EPRM) Responsible Peruvian Gold project. The project supports ASM miners in South Peru and aims to formalize their activities and further adopt responsible practices – enabling them to operate more safely, safeguard the environment and improve their productivity.

By piloting this model with Hirose, we aim to bring learnings to this program and support the promotion of responsible mining practices and the sustainable development of our supply chains.

Increasing the demand for and the supply of responsible gold has a positive impact on the ASM communities mining the gold. And, in addition, we keep our promise of continuing to strive for a fairer electronics industry and a more sustainable phone.

Get in touch with Fairphone or Fairtrade to learn more about the current model and how to become an early adopter of the updated gold guideline, which Fairtrade and Fairphone are currently working on.

The post We’ve scaled Fairtrade gold appeared first on Fairphone.

by Chingchih at 2021-11-30 10:41

2021-11-24

Fairphone Blog

Pioneering the path to circularity

The “circular economy”, a concept that is becoming more and more prominent in the current Zeitgeist. In short, it’s an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and facilitating the continual use of resources. A world in which we are genuinely circular is one where materials can be used, recycled and reused to their fullest extent.

There’s a catch, of course: for most materials, it’s quite unlikely that recycling alone will be able to meet humanity’s growing demands for them, at least in the coming decades. In addition, recycling also causes waste and we lose a notable amount of materials during the process. While globally we are recycling more, there are barriers.

On the journey towards a circular economy, it is critical to assess opportunities and acknowledge the limitations. Developing a mutual understanding of the needs and requirements will ultimately drive the preservation of resources and promote longevity. This is where the KPN-led initiative of the product circularity report comes in.

Enter the product circularity report

KPN identified the need for frontrunners of circular initiatives in the telecom sector. As one of the first telecom operators to actively work on circularity with its suppliers, KPN sought a way to measure and visualise the circularity of products. This is when KPN decided to become a launching customer of Circular IQ and KPMG’s software-based approach to collect and analyze product data, to produce insights into the level of circularity of a product, and give recommendations for further improvement.

To further refine the standards and dial in the reporting, Fairphone collaborated on the report. It took several multi-layered, critical discussions to demonstrate the complexity of this joint task.

So what do we have to show for it?
The Product Circularity Report of the Fairphone 3 >>

Lessons learned

Now that the Fairphone 3 has been analyzed and the insights discussed, the parties involved are looking back to evaluate the lessons learned and share insights from diving into product circularity.

 

Thea Kleinmagd, Fairphone

“Since Fairphone has been the first smartphone manufacturer participating in KPN’s project, we experienced that there is no one-size-fits all approach in circularity reporting. Every product group has its own big sustainability challenges and thus opportunities to yield the highest positive impact. The tool reconfirmed longevity as the most impactful intervention for smartphones and highlights the dilemmas between fair mined material benefitting people, versus circular materials benefitting the planet.”

 

Edwin Rutten, KPN

“In the electronics industry, there is still a way to go when it comes to transparency in the supply chain. Having product data available on the material level is not yet an industry standard. Companies like Fairphone show good practice, but the challenge is to scale up and standardise. Next to this, we need to understand and show the impacts of circular design during the lifecycle of a product. This allows for common understanding and working together on systemic improvement. The cooperation with Fairphone, KPMG and Circular IQ is a good example of this.”

   

Mart Beune, KPMG & Rolf Gelpke, Circular IQ

“A mobile phone is a very complex device with lots of different materials needed for production, with lots of different materials needed for production. Finding the right balance between what aspects to focus on brings dilemmas. Challenges that, to us, Fairphone has very well spotted and makes conscious decisions to step-by-step improve every day. Presenting and communicating these trade-offs in a clear and understandable way is a key challenge since organizations and consumers are more demanding on sustainability and transparency every day. These insights are often hidden in complex LCA studies, but can now be visualized more effectively.”

Insights and key findings

There are numerous insights and findings to share, which are available in the detailed report >> (link). We want to highlight a few takeaways that were the direct result of the open collaboration and discussions.

The newly found insights and their presentation sparked an in-depth discussion between KPN and Fairphone, allowing both parties to understand better where their sustainability agenda’s meet. An example of this is the trade-off between focusing on recycled content or fair mined (e.g. Fairtrade gold). The recycled supply of various materials will only be able to cover a minor share of the total demand in the coming decades, just because there is not enough which could be recycled. Although fostering the use of secondary resources is important, improving the environmental and social conditions of mining for numerous materials is therefore at least as crucial. Trade-offs like these are inevitable in a circular economy but often not transparent. The data-backed insights helped steer the conversation to understand Fairphones efforts better and the reasoning behind them.

 Visual adapted from KPMG’s and Circular IQ’s Product Circularity Improvement Report.

Fairphone strives to promote recycling since every electronic product will become e-waste one day. However, understanding the limits of recycling has strengthened their conviction that repairability and lifetime extension are just as important to keep the value of the materials used in our products at their highest level for as long as possible. This approach is not yet mainstream, but it’s starting to gain recognition. The reason is simple: if we use our phones twice as long, we only need to produce half the amount of phones, lowering the industry’s environmental and material footprint. By focusing on simple DIY repairs – replaceable parts, modular upgrades, and extended software support – Fairphone makes it easier to use phones far beyond the average industry lifespan.

In the case of the Fairphone 3, we are talking about at least five years, which is about double the average market lifespan of smartphones. This is enabled by the modular architecture of the phone, allowing for module upgrades and easy repair. Thereby, the impact of e.g. a battery replacement can easily be compensated by a longer lifespan (see graph). The product system entails a phone and module take-back program which provides reusable or refurbished parts for repairs, goods to the secondary market or input for recycling.

 Visual adapted from KPMG’s and Circular IQ’s Product Circularity Improvement Report.

Where do we go from here?

Findings of the investigations into the Fairphone 3 have found their way into strengthening its successor, the Fairphone 4. To underline Fairphone’s commitment to longevity, the newly released model comes with a 5-years manufacturer warranty – an industry first. Overall, the recyclability of the phone has climbed up to 75% and Fairphone 4 contains 60% recycled plastics as compared to 40% in the prior model. Furthermore, the scope of the focus materials has been extended from 8 to 14 materials, e.g. leading to sourcing of ASI certified aluminium.

“It’s encouraging to see that topics like these start to take root in the wider electronics industry. Real change will be driven by a joint effort from small players like Fairphone, major industry players like KPN, policymakers and the consumer.” – Thea Kleinmagd, Fairphone

“We are very enthusiastic about our product circularity program and are expanding this with more products that are being assessed. On the one hand, we need in-depth insights and supplier dialogue to identify focus areas and dilemmas. On the other hand, we are seeking ways to scale up to address our full operations and supply base. This will continue to drive change in the telecom sector and achieve our circular goals.” – Edwin Rutten, KPN

The post Pioneering the path to circularity appeared first on Fairphone.

by Thea at 2021-11-24 12:16

2021-10-30

Zarino Zappia

Notes from the Far East: Part 3

This is the last in a series of three blog posts. Read the first one, about our three days in Beijing, here and the second one, about Fukuoka, Taipei, and Hong Kong, here


The ethics of cruising

Before I pick up my story on the way to Da Nang in Vietnam, I want to follow up on a comment I made in an earlier post acknowledging the negative environmental and economic impacts of the cruise industry.

I love cruises. They’re an almost unmatchable way to sample the history and culture of a whole set of neighbouring countries, in a short period of time, and in total comfort.1

They’re also incredibly good from an accessibility point of view – wide, flat walkways and wheelchair-accessible facilities are everywhere on the ship, and there’s typically one or two wheelchair-accessible tours already pre-organised in each port, for relatively hassle-free exploring.

But, with the entire world effectively burning right now, I can’t ignore the environmental impact of a cruising holiday. Cruise lines are wise to this too, and they do their best to give the impression that they’re cleaning up their act.

For example, the ship we were on, the Quantum of the Seas built in 2014, was one of the first in Royal Caribbean’s fleet to have an in-built AEP system,2 which sprays exhaust gasses with a fine water mist inside the ship’s funnel, removing 98% of suflur dioxides (a cause of acid rain and lung cancer), 40-60% of particulates, and 12% of nitrogen oxides. 60% of RCI’s ships have an AEP system like this. Sounds good right? Well, not if that pollutant-filled waste water is then just dumped into the ocean.3

RCI is also keen to note their upcoming ‘Icon’ class of ships will run on Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG),4 dramatically reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. …But it’s still a non-renewable fossil fuel.

Their promotional materials are full of fluff pieces about phasing out single-use plastics on their ships (straws, coffee stirers, etc), their 62-turbine wind farm in Kansas (offsetting half a million tonnes of CO2e per year), their partnership with WWF (yay, pandas). …But none of this can make up for the fact that each ship still guzzles upwards of 66,000 gallons of diesel a day.5

Sadly, fully electric long-distance ships aren’t viable right now (I’m guessing, as with all-electric airplanes, the limitation is battery capacity). But some ships do connect up to the electrical grid when in port – Royal Caribbean converted a further two ships to do this in 2019.4 Power from the grid is likely to be greeener than power generated from the ship’s onboard fossil fuel engines, so at least ships can be a bit greener when docked. Although it’s worth remembering that most countries still generate around 90% of their grid power from polluting, non-renewable sources.6

So what does it all add up to?

“RCL has achieved a 35% reduction in their emissions from their 2005 baseline”, says their 2019 Sustainability Report,4 alongside a graph showing the “carbon footprint per berth” dropping from 362 somethings in 2005, to 235 somethings in 2019. Great that they can’t even be bothered to give us a unit for these figures. (Maybe they mean 235 kgCO2e per berth per day, or maybe per berth per kilometre,7 who knows – they haven’t published the source data.)

The underlying truth is that cruise ships are dirty beasts. A large ship can put out an amount of CO2 equivalent to tens of thousands of cars, an amount of nitrous oxide equivalent to hundreds of thousands of cars, and an amount of sulphur dioxide equivalent to millions of cars.5 Each ship.

Where a typical car might produce 69.4 gCO2e per passenger per kilometre, or a Boeing 737 on an international flight (say, 950 km, the distance between Hong Kong and Da Nang), would produce twice as much, at 158 gCO2e per passenger per kilometre – cruise ships can produce twice as much again, at 285 gCO2e per passenger per kilometre.8

But cruise ships aren’t just transportation, they’re floating hotel resorts. So maybe we should compare them as such…

One study estimated that cruise ships’ energy use per passenger, sometimes as high as 1600 megajoules per night, is more than 6–12 times that of an equivalent land-based hotel.9 Another study, looking at a typical cruise trip between Germany and Norway, estimated energy use of 2500 megajoules per passenger per day, compared to 700 megajoules per day if the trip had been completed with airplanes and hotels instead.8

Cornell University data10 puts the carbon footprint of an overnight stay for one person, in a full-board hotel in each of the cities I visited on my cruise at:

Hotel location Carbon footprint kgCO2e per night
Beijing 58.6
Japan (Fukuoka) 68.8
Taiwan (Taipei) 77.3
Hong Kong 87.6
Vietnam (Da Nang) 42.4
Ho Chi Minh 55.4
Singapore 42.7

Equivalent data for my cruise ship isn’t available. But even if we take the most favourable figures – say we interpret Royal Caribbean’s ‘235 somethings’ as 235 kgCO2e per berth per day, and we halve that because a ‘berth’ is two people – we get:

Ship Carbon footprint kgCO2e per day
Quantum of the Seas 117.5

So, at best, double the carbon footprint of an equivalent hotel.

And this is even before we’ve considered the non-environmental impacts of the cruise industry on ports. Factor in the overcrowding of port towns; the heavy incentives to book cruise-operated tours rather than local tours, and to eat/drink on the ship where restaurants are all-inclusive rather than in the port; the unfair employment practices that fill the ships with cheap labour from the Philippines and Far East; and the industry’s dirty secret that, as ships get bigger in a race to the bottom for affordability/ticket prices, the wealth of passengers drops too, reducing the amount they spend at port11 – and it all starts looking a bit grim for cruise fans like me.

It breaks my heart, because I know, with two ageing parents, one of whom uses a wheelchair, we’ve been able to see parts of the world, share unforgettable moments, that simply wouldn’t have been possible if we had to arrange individual transfers and hotels at each location. I want everyone to be able to experience that feeling of waking up in the morning to find the view outside your window has changed, and suddenly a whole new country is on your doorstep.

But I also want the world not to be burning, and the sea life not to be choking, and the historic cities not to be crumbling into the sea.

However amazing this Asian cruise has been, it’s impossible to ignore that journeys like mine are worsening the climate and ecological emergency we’re all currently experiencing. I just hope I can make up for it, though my other actions, now the trip’s over.


An early departure from Hong Kong

When we finished the previous post, we’d just sailed away from Hong Kong.

The original itinerary had us scheduled to stay in Hong Kong port overnight, to see the Symphony of Lights show along the waterfront. But Royal Caribbean decided we should leave early evening instead, to avoid the protests that had started taking place at night.

(I’m sure the fact that we’d be spending an extra evening and day at sea, and therefore captive to the onboard (paid) bars, rather than spending our money at Hong Kong venues, didn’t factor into Royal Caribbean’s decision at all.)

Now well into the second half of our cruise, there was one show we hadn’t yet seen on board the ship – Starwater.

The show is custom designed to make the most of the high-tech performance space in Two70, at the very back of Decks 5 and 6.

Two70 is named after the 270° view you get from its large, two-storey windows during the day. But come night time, those windows become a backdrop for eighteen seamless 12K projectors. We’d seen the projections in action a few days earlier, in a virtual sail-away from Taipei.

The Starwater performance combines these projectors, with one of the ship’s USPs – 6 huge LCD screens mounted on robotic arms, that move and shapeshift with incredible accuracy, alongside and behind human dancers and singers. They’re cleverly worked into the choreography, and the effect is mesmerising.

The show itself is a Las Vegas / Broadway style mixture of dance, acrobatics, music, and singing. There’s supposedly some sort of storyline running through it, but it’s really just one visual set piece after another – and it’s produced so well, you really don’t mind. A segment where they recreate a storm at sea had everybody’s hairs standing on end!


Da Nang

We stepped off the ship in Da Nang to, frankly, biblical amounts of rain. You know, that type of rain that’s so dense, so fast, that even wrapped up in plastic cagouls, you still get soaked through, like you’d waded through a river? Yeah, that.

Anyway, somehow, through these sheets of mist and rain, our adorable tour guide, Key (“like you put in a lock”), spotted us from the other side of the car park. Wearing a raincoat, shorts, and flip-flops, he ran across the tarmac, holding an umbrella outstretched for his guests. “First proper day of monsoon season,” he told us as we approached the car, “Still, get a free car wash!”

As we ‘dried off’ (yeah right) in the car, he explained that yesterday, the rain was so strong, the hydroelectric dams that normally generate power for the area had to be opened up, causing huge amounts of flooding downstream – “some parts of Da Nang and Hoi An flooded up to the first floor.” I got the impression this wasn’t the first time they’d had to do this.

Da Nang would be a brief respite from a string of dense cities on our cruise, so we were looking forward to seeing some of the natural splendour of rural Vietnam – come rain or shine! We talked to Key about life in Vietnam, on the way to our first stop.

He explained how lots of factories are moving from China to Vietnam, “to bypass the US-China trade war”. He said Samsung had already moved some factories, and Apple would be moving some soon. Meanwhile, Chinese people move to follow the jobs and also to avoid Chinese censorship.

We noticed lots of scooters on the road beside us. Key nodded – “60 million scooters in Vietnam.” Aparently lots of them are now reaching end of life, causing extra pollution, and then even more waste when they’re thrown out and replaced. He said everybody buys scooters because—and I’m not sure how much I believe this figure—cars in Vietnam are sometimes taxed as much as 300%, making even a cheap car the equivalent of 100,000 USD. Eeek.

Beside Key, as he drove, was a picture of a Buddha, hanging from the dashboard. “The Lady Buddha” he said, smiling. Aparently in Vietnamese Buddhism there are three main figures: Buddha (representing power), Lady Buddha (representing mercy), and Happy Buddha (the fat, smiling Buddha we’re most accustomed to in the West, representing contentment and abundance). People have a close relationship to the Lady Buddha, Key explained. She’s seen as familial, protecting, friendly.

Our drive to the Bà Nà Hills took us past fields and fields of oyster farms, built in sea-level lagoons. As we’d find out later, pearls are one of Vietnam’s main exports. We also drove through the longest tunnel in South East Asia – the Hai Van – at 6.3 km.

Bà Nà Hills is a town (or “station” as colonial settlements were often called) built high up in the mountains west of Da Nang, by French colonists in the early 1900s. The altitude results in Summer temperatures up to 10° cooler than at ground level, which made it perfect for colonial generals looking to escape the heat of Da Nang city.

When the French left the area, their mountain-top villas fell into disrepair. But over the last few decades, companies have been redeveloping the area into a sort of Disneyland-style (or maybe Alton Towers-style) resort. The original French colonial buildings have now been surrounded by manicured parks and gardens, museums, theme park rides, restaurants and photo spots.

The French used to reach Bà Nà on foot (or—more likely—sedan chair), up a steep, winding, 20km pass, taking about a day to get to the top.

These days, however, tourists reach the resort by cable car – the longest (5800 metres) and highest (1500 metres above sea level) in the world.

The walk to the cable car station was very cute (in a Disneyland sort of way) with little fake buildings, water features, Koi Carp, and—once you get into the station itself—boats on the ceiling!

The cable car ride takes about 20 minutes. And even on our incredibly wet, grey, misty day, the views were amazing.

As we disembarked from the cable car station at the top, Key pointed out an office on the left – “Clinic,” he said, “for treating people with altitude sickness.”

We continued on, past a flower garden, to the resort’s most famous attraction – the Golden Bridge. Built in 2017, the 150 metre long curved bridge is held up by two massive hands. It’s left intentionally ambiguous as to whether the hands are those of Buddha or Jesus.

On a normal day it’d look like this:

The day we visited, it looked like this:

Still, the mist inside the cloud made it a very ethereal experience. A dull, even light, coming at you from all directions. A golden bridge, glistening wet, and fading off into the far distance, with no end in sight. And then, out of nowhere, a massive stone thumb or finger shoots up alongside the walkway.

Very weird!

After the bridge, we ascended to the village on the top of the hill. We wandered around, literally surrounded by the cold, wet soup of a raincloud, taking a few photos.

The surreal lighting, and the sheer amount of water in the air, made all the colours around us pop. So strange!

Before leaving, we enjoyed a buffet lunch in the big beer hall, and met a lovely lady from Australia.

After descending in the cable car, Key asked whether there was anything else we’d like to do on the way back to the ship. He’d originally planned to take us back via the old mountain-top pass, but apparently the rain had caused huge tailbacks, so he said it was probably safer to take the Hai Van tunnel back instead.

We mentioned it would be nice to stop somewhere for real Vietnamese coffee (not the tourist crap in Bà Nà Hills), and Key knew just the place – a little spot on Lang Co Lagoon, with a small coffee shop and pearl trader. On the way there, he told us the place was a popular photo spot for newly married couples, and indeed, as we pulled up, two of them were being punted out on a raft, into the lake.

Floating restaurants aparently sell fresh oysters from the lagoon, with chilli salt and a squeeze of lime, catering mostly for a local (rather than tourist) market. But, Key told us, the proliferation of restaurants is ruining the lagoon. They’re empty most of the year, and only really busy during summer.

Still, the coffee was lovely!

The sleepy little pearl shop was cute. Fishermen harvest oysters from the lagoon. Most get bought up by the big corporations, but some of the fishermen, like the guy here, sell a few on the side, for a fraction of the international price. He put together a matching necklace and earrings for mum – something to remember Vietnam by!


Ho Chi Minh City

Pulling into port the next day, the weather had completely changed. The air was hot and dry, and the sun shone in a bright blue sky. We’d booked onto a group tour, starting with the Independence Palace, followed by a cyclo ride through the city, lunch, and some free time to walk around the old town.

On the drive from the port to the city, our tour guide, Van, filled us in on some the history of the area, explaining how the Vietnam/America war was only a small part of a 70 or 80 year struggle for independence that started in the 1870s.

“For America, the war ended,” she said, “But for the Vietnamese, the war still hasn’t ended.” Millions of Vietnamese still suffer illnesses and deformities as a result of American use of biological weapons like Agent Orange.

Our first stop in town was the Independence Palace, built in the 1960s as the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam. The complex features dozens of reception rooms and meeting rooms. “All green and yellow,” Van said, “to calm heads during heated discussions!”

The building has a lovely Mad Men-era 1960s aesthetic, and you can just imagine men in suits, puffing away on cigars, planning how to keep hold of Vietnam from the socialist forces massing in the North.

The building was last used in the early 1970s – in fact, some say the Vietnam war ended when a North Vietnamese tank came crashing through the building’s front gates, signalling the fall of the European puppet government. A decision was made to keep the building as a time capsule, exactly the way it looked in the 70s.

After a morning sauntering round the hushed corridors of what was effectively a museum, it was time for a shot of adrenaline before lunch. Perhaps most of all amongst Vietnamese cities, Ho Chi Minh is famous for the number of bikes and scooters on its streets. The tour we booked on attempts to show you these streets from a scooter’s perspective, in a ‘cyclo’ or cycle rickshaw.

We turned a corner outside the Independence Palace, and were descended upon by dozens of orange-clad cyclo riders. After spending a little while working out how to get Dad out of his wheelchair and into the deep bucket seat, the three of us were all set, and we headed off on what was—looking back—simply the craziest 30 minutes of the entire cruise holiday.

Slung low to the ground, and gripping tightly onto Dad’s folded-up wheelchair, I simply couldn’t stop maniacally laughing at first. Eventually I settled in for a bizarre perspective on the city, surrounded by other cyclists, all within touching distance, and many of them saddled with increasingly implausible cargoes – baskets, boxes, ladders, window frames.

We passed old Saigon cathedral, and the custard-yellow city post office. Rows and rows of shops and businesses. A secluded Buddhist garden, and a massive banyan tree.

After the ride, we had lunch at Nhà Hàng Ngon, a restaurant with a really sweet internal courtyard…

…and then headed over to another tourist hotspot – Bến Thành Market.

Built in the early 1900s by the French, the market was originally a hub of local economic activity. These days, however, it’s a tourist honeypot, selling mostly overpriced tat. Still, there were parts of the market which were clearly still popular with locals, and the sights and smells of the place were outstanding.

With a bit more time to burn, I went for a walk around the block to take a few more photos, before we hopped on the coach back to the ship.


Singapore

Our cruise finished at Singapore, but we arranged to stay an extra day in the city, so we could really get a feel for it, before flying back to the UK.

We said goodbye to the Quantum of the Seas, our home for the better part of the last two weeks, and with all our luggage in the hold of our tour bus, the guide, Justin, filled us in on some of the history of the city.

Singapore, it turns out, is named after a mythical lion-like “Singha” animal, “Singha-pura” translating to “lion city”. Justin said, while there had never been lions on the island, there did used to be tigers.

The country’s population is 75% Chinese, 15% Malay, and 9% Indian. The national language is Malay (chosen for political reasons, to show solidarity with Malaysia and Indonesia), but there are four official languages: English, Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin. Justin said almost everything is done in English, including business and law, and kids are taught English first, then Malay second.

Justin told us how, before Singapore’s independence from the British, the birth rate was far too high, with many families having 8–10 kids. So in 1965 they instituted a 2-child-per-family law, with a £300 dollar fine and de-prioritised school places for each further child. The plan worked too well. By the 1980s, the birth rate was dropping too fast. They removed the 2-child limit, and ran national adverts saying “two is good, but have three or more (if you can afford it)” but the birth rate still didn’t increase. Justin said they started paying mothers £3000 for each baby. No effect. They upped it to £5000. But that was still only twice the average monthly income, and it didn’t change with inflation. Eventually the birth rate crept up to 1.2 children per family – much lower than most countries in this part of the world.

Apparently one of the country’s main challenges is drinking water. While Singapore receives almost as much rainfall as the Amazon rainforest, at just 42 km from east to west, there simply isn’t enough space to collect and store the water. Instead they buy water from Malaysia. The price has been pinned since 1961 at 3 cents per 1000 gallons. Justin said Malaysia hates the contract, and they won’t renew it when it expires in 2061. So Singapore has made moves to become self-sufficient, bolstering their existing (and expensive) de-salination of sea water with a massive waste water recycling programme – like a space station! They call it, ironically, “new water”.

Before we knew it, we were at the National Orchid Garden. It was a gorgeous place to stroll around.

Justin told us how, traditionally, ladies wear an orchid flower on top of one or both of their ears. If it’s on their right ear, they’re single. Left ear – married. “Both ears,” he joked, “married but available.”

Many of the orchids in the garden are dedicated to famous figures from around the world – like this one, for Princess Diana.

Singapore’s first prime minister, in the 1970s, establised a massive tree planting programme across the city. Justin told us the Rain tree (“five o clock tree”) is still very popular with locals – it’s umbrella shaped, and the leaves unfurl in the sun, providing shelter, and then curl up when it’s dark, revealing the stars.

Next, we travelled to China Town, to visit the Bhudda Tooth Relic Temple. The statues outside were particularly characterful!

I’m not at all religious, but I don’t think I could ever get tired of the atmosphere inside temples like this. It’s like a silent riot of colours and details and aromas.

We finished our tour with a drive through Little India, the old Colonial area…

…and a first glimpse at the massive shopping and nightlife area around Marina Bay.

Justin told us how all of this land was initially reclaimed using sand and rock bought from Malaysia – until Malaysia realised that they were helping their closest competitor expand a little too much! Singapore started buying their rock from Indonesia instead. The area is now home to a golf course, massive gardens, two sports stadiums, and a huge shopping a leisure complex.

After checking in at our hotel for the night, we returned to the Marina Bay area, to see the Gardens by the Bay – a massive, 250 acre park with, among other things, 18 light-up ‘Supertrees’, ranging 7–15 storeys tall.

We’d been told how spectacular the Supertrees were at night, but nothing could prepare us for the full effect when the sun went down and the lights came on.

We managed to time our visit just right to be up there, in the tree canopy, just as the sun was setting. All of the heat and humidity of the daytime evaporated, and a fresh, cool breeze took over. The gardens below us started to light up and pulse like deep sea anemones. It was eerie and spectacular.

When we got back down to the ground, a light show started, with the trees dancing and changing colour to match the music.

Light show number 1 complete, we knew another one would be starting imminently along the Marina Bay waterfront. We legged it over, arriving just in time to catch it. The animated projections onto sheets of water were amazing! What an end to our first day in Singapore!

The next morning, after breakfast (featuring my new favourite condiment – Kaya, a coconut-based jam), Mum and I left Dad in the cool of the hotel, while we went to explore the city a little by water taxi.

Where most cities might have a hop-on-hop-off tour bus, Singapore has a hop-on-hop-off water bus. The boat took us from the riverside village (previously home to the city’s cramped opium dens, now trendy waterside dining), past the old colonial Ministry of Information, and the South Bank where the city’s first Chinese workers originally settled. All the while, massive skyscrapers loomed in the distance.

We passed under the Cavanaugh suspension bridge—built in Scotland, and brought here, only to find it was too low, preventing large ships from travelling further up the river—and next to it, a really cute sculpture of four kids jumping into the river. On a day as hot as this, I almost wanted to join them!

Along the waterfront, we got a different view on the massive skyscrapers that had formed the backdrop of our light show the night before.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also include these two incredibly touristy photos that the boat operator forced us to take:

A quick stop at Louis Vuitton (modestly declining their offer of a free 11am Singapore Sling) and it was time to whizz back to the hotel, to pick up Dad, and visit our final destination of the trip.

Named after the British founder of colonial Singapore, the world famous Raffles Hotel has been a symbol of luxury in Southeast Asia for over 130 years. It’s famous, among other things, for being the home of the Singapore Sling cocktail.

We were met at the entrance by one of the infamously polite Raffles doormen:

Previously, the Long Bar would have been inaccessible to Dad with his wheelchair, but a year or two back, the hotel underwent a massive renovation, which included the addition of a lift, allowing us to go up and see what all this Singapore Sling fuss was about.

There are bags of peanuts on all of the tables – by tradition, once you’ve eaten them, you discard the spent shells on the floor. It smacks of spoiled colonial man-babies happy to make a mess because they’ve never had to clean a floor in their lives. A bit ridiculous, to be honest.

Still, the Singapore Slings were a lovely way to end the day – and the entire cruise!


Part 3 verdict

I really enjoyed our day in Da Nang, despite the torrential rain. Perhaps more than any other city on our trip, the people of central Vietnam were thoroughly friendly and welcoming to visitors. Nothing was too much effort for them, and they seemed to take pride in sharing their country with us.

But our days in Vietnam also made us realise just how precarious many of these peoples’ lives are. There was incredible poverty on display, and it was heartbreaking to hear our tour guide talk about the exploitative corporations and cheap Chinese labour that cut down even further on the opportunities available to Vietnamese people just trying to get by.

Then, to travel from the poverty of Vietnam, to the bombastic hyper-technological richness of Singapore – what a contrast. The light shows in Singapore were spectacular, especially considering they’re put on every night, entirely for free. There’s an unease here though, too, with places like Raffles putting a highly polished sheen on what is still, shamefully, a history of cruelness and erasure under British colonial rule. (As I said last time, when will we learn to stop fucking up other people’s countries?)

Overall, looking back on the entire holiday, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam stood out as places I’d love to explore in more detail – Japan in particular. At the other end of the spectrum, China was indifferent—verging on outright hostile—to us as visitors, and no matter what museums or attractions were available, I simply never felt safe in the country. Hong Kong, too, was a disappointment – dirty, tired, and dumbed down for tourists.

As mentioned above, I still feel conflicted over the environmental and economic impacts of cruise holidays. No matter how much the cruise lines attempt to green-wash their operations, the truth is they’re not doing nearly enough, nearly fast enough.

That said, cruises are so easy, so comfortable, and so horizon-expanding. They’re also pretty much the only way a wheelchair-user like my Dad could have seen so many parts of the Far East in so short a time. As a result, we had a really memorable family holiday, on a side of the world I’d always wanted to visit. And now I have the three blog posts to prove it!

by Zarino Zappia at 2021-10-30 00:00

2021-10-28

Fairphone Blog

Fair Tungsten: From conflict-free to building community

Studies show we’re making an impact in Rwanda

In the north of Rwanda, near the city of Kidao, one of the country’s oldest tungsten mines is proving us right.

Fairphone started out as a campaign to prove the phone industry could stop using materials that finance conflict and human rights abuses. That we could support conflict-free materials sourcing. Today, we’re excited to be focussing on going “beyond conflict-free.” We don’t want to simply certify that we’re not putting money in the pockets of thugs, but to really ask whether a mine is improving the lives of its miners, reducing its environmental impact, and strengthening its community. We believe that raw material suppliers and purchasers, and every actor in the entire supply chain for modern phones, can wield their purchasing power to improve the health, safety, and working conditions for millions of miners and their families around the world.

 

The New Bugarama Mine has been one place we’ve been testing that idea. The mine owners, the smelter that buys from them, and Fairphone itself have been cooperating to improve the mine’s management and operations. We and our partners were keen to evaluate the impacts we were having, and look for ways to improve. We’re proud of two new reports that we jointly commissioned to independently evaluate the New Bugarama Mine’s treatment of workers, impact on the environment, and role in the community.

When Fairphones buzz, they buzz fair

We use tungsten in the vibration motors of all our Fairphones – it’s the thing that makes them buzz when plugged into power or to alert you to incoming messages. Back when we started building the Fairphone 2, it would have been easier to source conflict-free tungsten from Portugal or the United Kingdom. We chose instead to transform and improve sourcing from the African Great Lakes Region, where genocide and war had ravished the region. The New Bugarama Mine had been almost completely destroyed during Rwanda’s genocide in the 1990s, and had for some time been run illegally as an extremely unsafe artisan mine. But in 2009 The New Bugarama Mining Company (NBM) took over, and set out to improve a chaotic situation.

From war-torn and unsafe to award-winning

When we visited the area in 2014 conditions had markedly improved. That year, NBM was named as the best company in terms of corporate social responsibility in Rwanda.

We began conversations with smelters and miners and NBM’s main shareholder, Specialty Metals Resources (SMR) about sourcing fair materials. We partnered with Wolfram Bergbau und Hütten AG (WBH) which in April 2015 successfully passed the audit of the Conflict-Free Smelter Program. Both partners invested heavily in safety equipment, infrastructure, and training. They transitioned the mine from entirely manual labor, introducing mechanizations that had a direct impact on overall productivity and average income per miner. This also meant NBM now had a sustainable income to invest in continuing health, safety, infrastructure and other improvements. They put audit systems in place to guarantee no financial “leakage” to armed groups.

Beyond conflict-free

Levin Sources, an independent social enterprise consultancy, visited the mine in 2021 to assess the impacts of NBM’s transition from a fully manual-labor Artisan small mine to a semi-mechanized mine site. Their findings are contained in two reports, Case Study: Learnings From the New Bugarama Mining Company’s Progress Journey and the Beyond Conflict-free Tungsten report.

 

Levin Sources found benefits that go beyond ensuring the mine site is conflict-free. They include improvements in working conditions and health and safety, reduced environmental pollution, improved education and professional development, local added value and socio-economic contribution, and community and stakeholder engagement. In other words, efforts to engage in improvements are making a positive impact. It’s what we call fair: when communities that are providing raw materials to make our phones tangibly share in the benefits.

NBM has been improving general working conditions by providing formal contracts and reimbursing health care costs and building safer tunnels. They’ve also made directed efforts to address gender equality at the mine, supporting the presence of women in technical roles and providing a nursery to accommodate breastfeeding. The presence of women in technical roles was also reported by communities as having a positive impact on girls from surrounding villages, as they see women working at the mine in more specialised roles.

Investments in water recycling systems, waste management, tree planting, and replacing diesel generators with grid-powered ones have reduced negative environmental impacts and emissions. Contributions to education both in the mine — especially in the area of health and safety — and contributions to community education were noted. Most miners’ children now attend school regularly, and miners can afford books and fees. The report also found that the company is hiring locally, so spending goes back into the community. NBM is also nurturing relationships with local authorities, building partnerships and creating channels for stakeholders to raise concerns and make recommendations.

The report also observed some areas where things could be better. For instance, miners could be better informed about potential diseases and health risks such as diabetes, high blood pressure, non-transmissible diseases and sexually transmitted
diseases. Management should continue efforts to emphasize the importance of personal protection equipment. And while miners are learning new skills through the company’s training programmes, the acquired skills are not always officially recognized.

In keeping with our Fair Sourcing Policy’s principle of continuous improvement, NBM and project partners will take these into consideration. We also aim for more regular monitoring of the mine’s impact to ensure an accurate overview of improvement, benefits, and negative impacts alike.

Conclusion: small is beautiful

Together, the report and case study tell us that we can deliver significant environmental and social benefits to war-torn areas and communities by investing in artisanal small mines (ASM).

 

As we point out in our “Fair Materials 101” series, many companies won’t buy from ASM due to fears of being associated with conflict and unfair practices. But by not investing in these small-scale mines, which employ many millions more people than large-scale mines, we can push them even further away from environmental and social responsibility. Prioritising engagement over exclusion strategies builds trust, improves lives, and strengthens communities. It can inspire downstream purchasers to invest in legitimate and responsible mines. And with the kind of recurring impact monitoring that NBM and WBH are considering, the industry can bring new transparency to the supply chain, and use it to make real and lasting improvements in more mines around the world.

Tungsten purchasers need to stop boycotting historically conflict-impacted communities and small mines, or looking no further than conflict-free certification. Truly positive impacts require commitments across the supply chain — from the ground up. That’s what we call fair sourcing.

At Fairphone, we take care to ensure that the money we pay for the buzz in your pocket goes back to the communities that help make it. We invite more in our industry to do the same. Ultimately, that’s only fair.

The post Fair Tungsten: From conflict-free to building community appeared first on Fairphone.

by Tirza Voss at 2021-10-28 15:36

2021-10-16

Tom Darlow

This & That #22

A tiny pause in what has been a hectic year has made way for This & That #22. New music and mixes from Dosem, Vintage & Morelli, Cinnamon Chasers, Hausman & MBX and a cheeky 10 year old bootleg from yours truly.

Hope you enjoy.

Tracklist

1. Highway Pacific (Beatless Version) - Cinnamon Chasers

2. Highway Pacific - Cinnamon Chasers

3. Almost Home (Above & Beyond Extended Deep Mix) - Above & Beyond

4. Hey Now (Sasha Remix) - London Grammar

5. Thomas Schwartz & Fausto Fanizza - Dawn To Dusk

6. Feel Free (feat. Christina Coronel) - Shur-I-Kan

7. Parfume (Dosem Remix) - Eli & Fur

8. All Locations - Dosem

9. Rios - Alfonso Muchacho

10. Solarcoaster (Marsh Extended Remix) - Solarstone

11. Put ’Em High (Afroleft Bootleg) - Paul Keeley & Stonebridge (Download)

12. Maheno (Extended Mix) - Genix

13. Voyager (Extended Mix) - Hausman & MBX

14. Afterglow - Vintage & Morelli

by Tom Darlow at 2021-10-16 15:37