Monday 22 March, 2021

Gravity’s Apple

An apple from the tree in the front garden of Woolsthorpe, Isaac Newton’s home in Lincolnshire.

One year on

On this day, exactly a year ago, I entered lockdown. As an experiment, I started keeping an audio diary, a recording of which appeared on this blog for 100 days. Here’s Day 1.


I stopped after a hundred days, partly because I was becoming increasingly busy and recording and editing a five-minute audio segment every day turned out to involve more work than you’d think. But because I was using a wonderful piece of software called Descript which makes a pretty good transcript as one talks, I wound up with a set of scripts for the 100 episodes. I then edited them into a short volume which is now available as a Kindle book for a modest charge — 100 Not Out! A Lockdown Diary.

Editing the diary for publication was an interesting exercise in repressing the wisdom of hindsight. After all, the whole point of a diary is that you don’t know at any point what the future holds. C’est la vie.

And while we’re on the subject of hindsight. . .

… The Plague Prophets

From Contagion to World War Z to Palm Springs, what the artists who foresaw the pandemic are thinking now.

Nice idea by Alissa Wilkinson on Vox:

To mark the one-year anniversary of lockdowns in the US, and the American death toll having crossed half a million and counting, I talked to seven of those artists — “plague prophets,” as I came to think of them. I wanted to hear about what crossed their minds when the pandemic hit, what they’ve learned in the past year, and what they’re thinking now. Like so many others, they’re sorting through unexpected resistance to mitigation efforts, what they’ve done to survive, and the disastrous consequences of misinformation. In their thoughts I hear echoes of my own — along with some hope for the future, if only we can pay attention.

One of the people to whom she spoke was Scott Z. Burns, screenwriter of Contagion — Steven Soderbergh’s film about a deadly novel virus that spreads around the world with horrifying results. The film was praised by experts for its surprisingly accurate depiction of a hypothetical pandemic. Not surprisingly, in early 2020, with news of a novel coronavirus on the rise, Contagion rocketed back up to the top 10 charts on iTunes.

“I expected that many of the panic-related phenomena we saw would happen,” Burns told her,

— hoarding of goods, fake cures, collapse of health care, and conspiracy theories about the origins and the effects of the disease. I also expected that the internet would become filled with misinformation and once again, science was unable to respond in a compelling way.

One of the problems with science is that it tends to move more slowly than conspiracy, as it relies on facts and experiments and repetition. Many of those things take time, and ideally, that time should be filled with leaders encouraging calm and focusing on what we do know. In the absence of clear information, we need to rely on leadership — and that was woefully lacking.

I did not expect that at all. I did not anticipate that wearing a piece of fabric over your mouth and nose in order to save lives would become so controversial.

Quote of the Day

”Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy”

  • Franz Kafka

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Garth | Cello Concerto in G Major, Op. 1, No. 6 | II. Siciliana


Long Read of the Day

The end of Silicon Valley as we know it


A fascinating essay by Tim O’Reilly, who is the nearest thing that the tech industry has to a sage. It’s long but worth reading in full if you have the time. If not, Andrew Curry has quite a good dissection of it on today’s edition of his blog.

Sherry Turkle on empathy and tech

Terrific interview with my colleague Ian Tucker on the publication of her new book, The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir.

Q: It’s quite unusual for an academic to put themselves central to the story. What was your motivation for writing a memoir? A: I see the memoir as part of a trilogy. I wrote a book called Alone Together in which I diagnose a problem that technology was creating a stumbling block to empathy – we are always distracted, always elsewhere. Then I wrote a book called Reclaiming Conversation, which was to say here’s a path forward to reclaiming that attention through a very old human means, which is giving one another our full attention and talking. I see this book as putting into practice a conversation with myself of the most intimate nature to share what you can learn about your history, about increasing your compassion for yourself and your ability to be empathic with others.

I also wanted to write this book because I’ve wanted to read this kind of book. That is to say a book where you learn about the backstory of somebody whose work life has truly been animated by the personal story. Many people have this book to write but daren’t because they think their work life should be pristine, that it should come from a purely cognitive place. And I knew that in my case, that wasn’t true.

Wonderful woman. And a great scholar.

Much of the Orwellian language that’s endemic in the tech business reminds me of Heidegger’s definition of ‘technology’ as “The art of arranging the world so that you don’t have to experience it.” Just think how Facebook has perverted the word ‘friend’, or how nearly every company has perverted ‘share’. As Sam Goldwyn might have said, in Silicon Valley if you can fake empathy you’ve got it made.

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