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Posts Tagged ‘disaster

“Speed is carrying us along, but we have yet to master it”*…

Kitchen #26 (2021) by Samuel Richardson

A call to contemplate the potential negative effects of internet technology along with its promise…

Conversations about technology tend to be dominated by an optimistic faith in technological progress, and headlines about new technologies tend to be peppered with deterministic language assuring readers of all the wonderful things these nascent technologies “will” do once they arrive. There is endless encouragement to think about all of the exciting benefits to be enjoyed if everything goes right, but significantly less attention is usually paid to the ways things might go spectacularly wrong.

In the estimation of philosopher Paul Virilio, the refusal to seriously contemplate the chance of failure can have calamitous effects. As he evocatively put it in 1997’s Open Sky, “Unless we are deliberately forgetting the invention of the shipwreck in the invention of the ship or the rail accident in the advent of the train, we need to examine the hidden face of new technologies, before that face reveals itself in spite of us.” Virilio’s formulation is a reminder that along with new technologies come new types of dangerous technological failures. It may seem obvious today that there had never been a car crash before the car was invented, but what future wrecks are being overlooked today amidst the excited chatter about AI, the metaverse, and all things crypto?

Virilio’s attention to accidents is a provocation to look at technology differently. To foreground the dangers instead of the benefits, and to see ourselves as the potential victims instead of as the smiling beneficiaries. As he put it in Pure War, first published in 1983, “Every technology produces, provokes, programs a specific accident.” Thus, the challenge becomes looking for the “accident” behind the technophilic light show — and what’s more, to find it before the wreckage starts to pile up. 

Undoubtedly, this is not the most enjoyable way to look at technology. It is far more fun to envision yourself enjoying the perfect meal prepared for you by your AI butler than to imagine yourself caught up in a Kafkaesque nightmare after the AI system denies your loan application. Nevertheless, if Virilio was right to observe that “the invention of the highway was the invention of 300 cars colliding in five minutes,” it would be wise to start thinking seriously about the crashes that await us as we accelerate down the information superhighway… 

The work of Paul Virilio urges us to ask: What future disasters inhere in today’s technologies? “Inventing the Shipwreck” from Zachary Loeb (@libshipwreck) in @_reallifemag. Eminently worth reading in full.

For a look at those who don’t just brush aside Virilio’s caution, but actively embrace speed and the chaos that it can cause:

Accelerationism holds that the modern, Western democratic state is so mired in corruption and ineptitude that true patriots should instigate a violent insurrection to hasten its destruction to allow a new, white-dominated order to emerge. Indeed, some of the foremost exponents of accelerationism today were at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. They included: the Oath Keepers, whose grab-bag ideology states that “paranoid anti-federalism envision[s] a restoration of ‘self-government’ and ‘natural rights’;” QAnon adherents, who remain convinced that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and that former President Donald Trump was thwarted from saving the world from a Satan-worshipping pedophilia ring run by Democrats, Jews, and other agents of the deep state; and, of course, Trump’s own die-hard “Stop the Steal” minions, who, against all reason and legal proof, seek to restore the former president to office.

The objective of accelerationism is to foment divisiveness and polarization that will induce the collapse of the existing order and spark a second civil war…

Read the full piece: “A Year After January 6, Is Accelerationism the New Terrorist Threat?

* Paul Virilio

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As we practice prudence, we might recall that it was on this date in 1854 that Anthony Fass, a Philadelphia piano maker, was awarded the first U.S. patent (#11062) for an accordion.  (An older patent existed in Europe, issued in Vienna in 1829 to Cyrill Demian.)

“Music helps set a romantic mood. Imagine her surprise when you say, ‘We don’t need a stereo – I have an accordion’.”  – Martin Mull

“A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn’t.”  – Tom Waits

accordion_patent

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“History is humankind trying to get a grip. Obviously its not easy. But it could go better if you would pay a little more attention to certain details, like for instance your planet.”*…

A blast from the past…

In 1938, 20-year-old filmmaker Richard H. Lyford directed and starred in As the Earth Turns, a science-fiction silent movie about a mad scientist who purposely induces climate change as a way to end world violence.

But the 45-minute film became “lost,” only to resurface 80 years later, in 2018, when Lyford’s grandniece, Kim Lyford Bishop, discovered it. (After creating the film, Lyford went on to work at Disney and earn an Oscar for the 1950 documentary “The Titan: Story of Michelangelo.”)

Bishop then asked music composer Ed Hartman, who was her daughter’s percussions teacher, to score it.

Although “As the Earth Turns” was finally released in 2019 and took part in 123 film festivals, it will finally premiere on television on Halloween night, this Sunday on Turner Classic Movies at 9pm PST…

From The Seattle Times:

… “As the Earth Turns is the work of an exuberant, ambitious young man: Lyford wrote, directed and shot the film, and managed to corral a stable of actors and crew to capture his vision. You can see his fascination with the craft of filmmaking: Lyford experiments with miniatures and models (then used in Hollywood films, and a remarkable accomplishment for a barely-out-of-his-teens hobbyist), explosions, earthquakes and special makeup effects, all on a budget of next to nothing.”

A 1938 sci-fi film about climate change was lost. It’s making its TV debut 83 years later,” from Carla Sinclair (@Carla_Sinclair) and @BoingBoing.

* Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140

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As we ponder prescience, we might recall that it was on this date in 2012 that Hurricane Sandy (AKA Superstorm Sandy) hit the east coast of the United States, killing 148 directly and 138 indirectly, wreaking nearly $70 billion in damages, and causing major power outages. In New York City streets, tunnels, and subway lines were flooded.

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“People in any organization are always attached to the obsolete – the things that should have worked but did not, the things that once were productive and no longer are”*…

Ed Zitron argues that America has too many managers, and managers misbehaving at that…

In a 2016 Harvard Business Review analysis, two writers calculated the annual cost of excess corporate bureaucracy as about $3 trillion, with an average of one manager per every 4.7 workers. Their story mentioned several case studies—a successful GE plant with 300 technicians and a single supervisor, a Swedish bank with 12,000 workers and three levels of hierarchy—that showed that reducing the number of managers usually led to more productivity and profit. And yet, at the time of the story, 17.6 percent of the U.S. workforce (and 30 percent of the workforce’s compensation) was made up of managers and administrators—an alarming statistic that shows how bloated America’s management ranks had become.

The United States, more than anywhere else in the world, is addicted to the concept of management. As I’ve written before, management has become a title rather than a discipline. We have a glut of people in management who were never evaluated on their ability to manage before being promoted to their role. We have built corporate America around the idea that if you work hard enough, one day you might become a manager, someone who makes rather than takes orders. While this is not the only form of management, based on the response to my previous article and my newsletters on the subject, this appears to be how many white-collar employees feel. Across disparate industries, an overwhelming portion of management personnel is focused more on taking credit and placing blame rather than actually managing people, with dire consequences.

This type of “hall monitor” management, as a practice, is extremely difficult to execute remotely, and thus the coming shift toward permanent all- or part-remote work will lead to a dramatic rethinking of corporate structure. Many office workers—particularly those in industries that rely on the skill or creativity of day-to-day employees—are entering a new world where bureaucracy will be reduced not because executives have magically become empathetic during the pandemic, but because slowing down progress is bad business. In my eyes, that looks like a world in which the power dynamics of the office are inverted. With large swaths of people working from home some or all of the time, managers will be assessed not on their ability to intimidate other people into doing things, but on their ability to provide their workers with the tools they need to measurably succeed at their job.

In order to survive, managers, in other words, will need to start proving that they actually do something. What makes this shift all the more complicated is that many 21st-century, white-collar employees don’t necessarily need a hands-on manager to make sure they get their work done…

The pandemic has laid bare that corporate America disrespects entry-level workers. At many large companies, the early years of your career are a proving ground with little mentorship and training. Too many companies hand out enormous sums to poach people trained elsewhere, while ignoring the way that the best sports teams tend to develop stars—by taking young, energetic people and investing in their future (“trust the process,” etc.). This goes beyond investing in education and courses; it involves taking rising stars in your profession and working to make them as good as your top performer.

In a mostly remote world, a strong manager is someone who gets the best out of the people they’re managing, and sees the forest from the trees—directing workers in a way that’s informed by both experience and respect. Unfortunately, the traditional worker-to-manager pipeline often sets people up for inefficiency and failure. It’s the equivalent of taking a pitcher in their prime and making them a coach—being good at one thing doesn’t mean you can make other people good at the same thing. This is known as the Peter principle, a management concept developed by Laurence J. Peter in the late ’60s that posits that a person who’s good at their job in a hierarchical organization will invariably be promoted to a position that requires different skills, until they’re eventually promoted to something they can’t do, at which point they’ve reached their “maximum incompetence.” Consistent evidence shows that the principle is real: A study of sales workers at 214 firms by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that firms prioritize current job performance in promotion decisions over whether the person can actually do the job for which they’re being considered. In doing so, they’re placing higher value on offering the incentive of promotion to get more out of their workers, at the cost of potentially injecting bad management into their organization.

What I’m talking about here is a fundamental shift in how we view talent in the workplace. Usually, when someone is good at their job, they are given a soft remit to mentor people, but rarely is that formalized into something that is mutually beneficial. A lack of focus on fostering talent is counterintuitive, and likely based on a level of fear that one could train one’s own replacement, or that a business could foster its own competition. This is a problem that could be solved by paying people more money for being better at their job. Growing talent is also a more sustainable form of business—one that harkens back to the days of apprenticeships—where you’re fostering and locking up talent so that it doesn’t go elsewhere, and doesn’t cost you time and money to have to recruit it (or onboard it, which costs, on average, more than $4,000 a person). Philosophically, it changes organizations from a defensive position (having to recruit to keep up) to an offensive position (building an organization from within), and also greatly expands an organization’s ability to scale affordably…

The problem is that modern American capitalism has equated “getting the most out of someone” with “getting the most hours out of them,” rather than getting the most value out of them. “Success,” as I’ve discussed before, is worryingly disconnected from actually succeeding in business.

Reducing bureaucracy is also a net positive for the labor market, especially for young people. Entry-level corporate work is extremely competitive and painful, a years-long process in which you’re finding your footing in an industry and an organization. If we can change the lens through which we view those new to the workforce—as the potential hotshots of the future, rather than people who have to prove themselves—we’ll have stronger organizations that waste less money. We should be trying to distill and export the talents of our best performers, and give them what they need to keep doing great things for our companies while also making their colleagues better too.

All of this seems inevitable, to me, because a remote future naturally reconfigures the scaffolding of how work is done and how workers are organized. The internet makes the world a much smaller place, which means that simple things such as keeping people on task don’t justify an entire position—but mentorship and coaching that can get the best out of each worker do.

Hopefully we can move beyond management as a means of control, and toward a culture that appreciates a manager who fosters and grows the greatness in others.

The pandemic has exposed a fundamental weakness in the system: “Say Goodbye to Your Manager,” from @edzitron.

* Peter Drucker

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As we reorganize, we might recall that it was on this date that Henri Giffard made the first first powered and controlled flight of an airship, traveling 27 km from Paris to Élancourt in his “Giffard dirigible.”

Airships were the first aircraft capable of controlled powered flight, and were most commonly used before the 1940s, largely floated with (highly-flammable) hydrogen gas. Their use decreased as their capabilities were surpassed by those of airplanes- and then plummeted after a series of high-profile accidents, including the 1930 crash and burning of the British R101 in France, the 1933 and 1935 storm-related crashes of the twin airborne aircraft carrier U.S. Navy helium-filled rigids, the USS Akron and USS Macon respectively, and– most famously– the 1937 burning of the German hydrogen-filled Hindenburg.

The Giffard dirigible [source]

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 24, 2021 at 1:00 am

“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth”*…

Preserving precious publications…

It all started in 1994. The flooding of the Po river and its tributaries had just swept away entire villages in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, leaving behind only death and debris. The whole of Italy was shocked. Of all the damage broadcast on television, one caused a particular sensation: In the village Santo Stefano Belbo, the historical archive of Cesare Pavese, one of the most famous and beloved Italian writers, was buried in mud.

The debacle particularly impressed a man named Pietro Livi, president of Frati & Livi in Bologna, a company that had been restoring and conserving ancient texts for nearly 20 years. At that time, however, no one in Italy was equipped for this kind of rescue. In the past, flooded and muddy documents were entrusted to companies that used basic restoration methods that proved both invasive and ineffective: The books were simply placed in ovens or air-dried in large rooms, which often left the texts unusable and made mold only proliferate.

So Livi decided to find out if anyone in Europe had found a more effective way to save these invaluable records of human achievement. Finally, in Austria, Livi found a freeze dryer that held some promise, but it was too big and costly for a small artisanal company like his. Then, in 2000, the Po river overflowed again. In the city of Turin, entire archives belonging to distinguished institutes and libraries ended up underwater.

At a loss for what to do, Italy’s Archival Superintendency of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage summoned Livi. By this time, Livi had established a solid reputation as a master restorer, having studied the art of book restoration with Benedictine friars. But he realized that for a project of this scope, his expertise was no longer enough; he needed a kind of Renaissance workshop, where he could collaborate with professionals from a variety of disciplines. Livi believed that the time had come where the world of artisan knowledge and the world of technology, too often considered as opposites, had to talk to each other—for the benefit of one another…

Then, on November 12, 2019, the city of Venice, one of the world’s most mythical and most admired locales, suffered its worst flood in 53 years. The swollen lagoon soaked roughly 25,000 valuable texts, including the last surviving original of one of Vivaldi’s musical scores. Frati & Livi was quickly called to the scene…

In the city of Bologna, home to the western world’s oldest university, Pietro Livi developed an unusual machine shop—part artisanal and part high-tech—built to restore damaged ancient texts to their former glory. And then came Venice’s historic floods of 2019: “Italy’s Book Doctor,” from @CraftsmanshipQ.

* “For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.” – Anne Lamott

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As we celebrate craft, we might we spare a thought for publishing pioneer Condé Montrose Nast; he died on this date in 1942.  After serving as Advertising Director at Colliers, then a brief stint in book publishing, Nast bought a small New York society magazine called Vogue— which he proceeded to turn into the nation’s, then the world’s leading fashion magazine.  While other periodical publishers simply sought higher and higher circulation, Nast introduced the “lifestyle” title, targeted to a group of readers by income level or common interest.  By the time of his death, his stable of monthlies also included House & Garden, British, French, and Argentine editions of Vogue, Jardins des Modes, (the original) Vanity Fair, and Glamour; subsequently, the group added such resonant lifestyle books as Gourmet, New Yorker, and Wired.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 19, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”*…

A bonfire burned on Berlin’s most important thoroughfare, Unter den Linden, just opposite the Friedrich Wilhelm University on May 10, 1933. Watched by a cheering crowd of almost 40,000, a group of students marched toward the flames, carrying the bust of the Jewish intellectual Magnus Hirschfeld, and threw it atop thousands of seized books by other “un-German” writers. Rows of young men in Nazi uniforms gave the Heil Hitler salute, while similar scenes took place in 90 other locations across Germany. The bonfires were a warning sign of the attack on knowledge about to be unleashed by the Nazi regime; more than 100 million books may have been destroyed during the Holocaust.

“There is no political power without power over the archive,” the French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote in his classic work Archive Fever. Authoritarian rulers have long understood the truth of this statement. But what does it mean in the Digital Age?

To many, libraries seem less important than ever—everything’s online, isn’t it? Yet control of knowledge remains a key battleground in the fight for democracy. At the outset of the Trump presidency in January 2017, his adviser Kellyanne Conway was claiming “alternate facts.” By the end of his presidency, after years of dishonesty, Trump sought to reverse his electoral loss with a “firehose of falsehood” strategy, persisting with the obfuscation even after a mob of supporters stormed the Capitol.

Protecting democracies against “alternate facts” means capturing the truth as well as statements that deny it, so that open societies have reference points to trust and rely on. For over three millennia, librarians and archivists have developed systems, methodologies, techniques and an ethos for preservation to ensure that knowledge persists. Their focus on facts underpins integrity in public decision-making; enables a sense of place in our communities; and ensures diversity of ideas, opinions and memory.

By contrast, recent cases of “book-burning” remind us of how ominous the destruction of information is. During the Bosnian War, the mass murder of humans went alongside the destruction of libraries and archives. Serb forces targeted the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina with incendiary shells in August 1992, while forces raided provincial archives across the country to destroy records of land ownership as a means of eradicating the official memory of where Muslims had lived. Millions of books and documents in libraries and archives all over Bosnia and Kosovo were destroyed in the ethnic conflicts of the former Yugoslavia—attacks that became part of the charge sheets at the International Criminal Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia.

Officials in South Africa’s apartheid regime destroyed documents on a massive scale too. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was hampered by this; in its final report, it devoted an entire section to the destruction of records. “The story of apartheid is, amongst other things, the story of the systematic elimination of thousands of voices that should have been part of the nation’s memory,” it said. “The tragedy is that the former government deliberately and systematically destroyed a huge body of state records and documentation in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence and thereby sanitize the history of oppressive rule.”

In Iraq, after the American-led coalition invaded in 2003, U.S. forces moved many of the key state records to the United States, where some, such as the archives of the Ba’ath Party, remained until recently. Just as the eradication of records can presage violence, the recent return of these documents can, I hope, form part of a process of national “truth and reconciliation” in Iraq.

Librarians today are not the stereotype of tweed-wearing introverts obsessed with enforcing silence. They are skilled professionals, often with subject-domain specialisms, adept at navigating physical and digital forms of knowledge–trained in project management and budgetary controls, and well-versed in deploying new technologies to support the public in identifying bogus online information, while using digitization to preserve fragile documents.

Digital technology lends itself to extraordinary archival projects, as in the work of the organization Mnemonic, whose Syrian Archive contains millions of online records about the civil war, alongside a Yemeni Archive and a Sudanese Archive, providing historians, journalists and international criminal lawyers the information to understand these conflicts. Other archival projects online include the Xinjiang Victims Database, which aims to document the Chinese campaign against the Uyghurs and other indigenous groups in northwest China.

As for institutional libraries and archives, they are highly trusted by the public—yet are experiencing declining levels of funding. This is happening when knowledge is increasingly held in digital form, controlled not by public institutions but by tech companies. How can we protect society from the “power over the archive” exercised by private corporations? Greater regulation should sit alongside a new role for libraries as citizens’ data sanctuaries, accountable to the public, and funded by a tax on tech-industry profits.

Looking back at the Nazi book-burnings in 1933, this low moment for human truth had lesser-known responses that should not be forgotten. Exactly a year later, on May 10, 1934, the Deutsche Freiheitsbibliothek (German Freedom Library, also known as the German Library of Burnt Books) opened in Paris, founded by German-Jewish writer Alfred Kantorowicz, with support from writers and intellectuals such as André Gide, Bertrand Russell and Heinrich Mann. Rapidly, it collected more than 20,000 volumes—not just the books that had been targeted for burning in Germany but also copies of key Nazi texts, in order to help understand the emerging regime.

The Brooklyn Jewish Center in New York established an American Library of Nazi-Banned Books in December 1934, with noted intellectuals on its advisory board, including Albert Einstein and Upton Sinclair. The library proclaimed itself a means of preserving and promoting Jewish culture at a time of renewed oppression.

If we are to heed George Orwell’s warning in Nineteen Eighty-Four—“The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth”—then we must ensure that libraries and archives have the resources and public support to serve as our guardians of knowledge.

Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden (@richove), author of the essential (and gripping) Burning the Books- A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge, explains why rampant dishonesty reminds us that we must preserve documents. Even– indeed, especially– in the Digital Age, archivists are crucial: “Facts in Flames.

Your correspondent supports institutional archives like Richard’s (Oxford’s Bodleian Library), the Harvard Libraries, and The New York Public Library; and the digital archive that’s the mother of them all, the remarkable Internet Archive. You might consider contributing to them or to the archives of your choice.

And, of course, we should all support our public libraries, which democratize access to information and knowledge and build community in ways that are critical to a healthy society and to constructive civil discourse.

* George Orwell, 1984

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As we prioritize preservation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that fiery hot molasses poured into the streets of Boston, killing 21 people and injuring scores of others– the Great Boston Molasses Flood:

The United States Industrial Alcohol building was located on Commercial Street near North End Park in Boston. It was close to lunch time on January 15 and Boston was experiencing some unseasonably warm weather as workers were loading freight-train cars within the large building. Next to the workers was a 58-foot-high tank filled with 2.5 million gallons of crude molasses.

Suddenly, the bolts holding the bottom of the tank exploded, shooting out like bullets, and the hot molasses rushed out. An eight-foot-high wave of molasses swept away the freight cars and caved in the building’s doors and windows. The few workers in the building’s cellar had no chance as the liquid poured down and overwhelmed them.

The huge quantity of molasses then flowed into the street outside. It literally knocked over the local firehouse and then pushed over the support beams for the elevated train line. The hot and sticky substance then drowned and burned five workers at the Public Works Department. In all, 21 people and dozens of horses were killed in the flood. It took weeks to clean the molasses from the streets of Boston.

This disaster also produced an epic court battle, as more than 100 lawsuits were filed against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. After a six-year-investigation that involved 3,000 witnesses and 45,000 pages of testimony, a special auditor finally determined that the company was at fault because the tank used had not been strong enough to hold the molasses. Nearly $1 million [over $15.5 million in today’s dollars] was paid in settlement of the claims…

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