31 December 2021

The Atlantic: “The Best Time-Management Advice is Depressing but Liberating”

Pinsker: And yet people frequently postpone their time-intensive passion projects, like, say, working on a novel, because they have this sense that they’ll get around to them eventually. Psychologically, what gets in the way of us doing big things that we care about?

Burkeman: We all feel overwhelmed by lots of little stuff we feel we have to do, and we have these big things that we’d like to do. But to do them, it feels like you need long stretches of focus when all the other little stuff is out of the way—it feels like it would be selling the project short to try beginning to write your novel in 20 minutes on a subway commute, for example. So instead, you decide to go through your email and deal with other outstanding things—but for the reasons we’ve discussed, the time never comes when you clear all that [out of the way].

If I’m working on a difficult article, it’s not like I’m really happy doing it but Twitter comes and takes me away from it. Instead, I run away to Twitter because the article is challenging me and causing me to experience uncomfortable emotions, and Twitter promises the opposite.

So I think the reason that we seek distraction is that working on stuff that we care about is often scary. It brings us into contact with all the ways in which we’re limited—our talents might not be up to what we’re trying to do, and we can’t control how things will unfold. If you’re writing a difficult article, you don’t get to know in advance that it’s going to come out well, which can make you feel constrained and imprisoned by reality. Meanwhile, the internet feels limitless, like you’re an all-powerful consciousness surfing the unlimited waves of the web and social media. It’s very relieving.

Joe Pinsker

Short article, but the advice is sound and realistic – maybe that’s what makes it ‘depressing’ for the person who wrote the title: the key to better time management is not becoming more efficient at getting tasks done, but instead selecting which projects are personally important and prioritizing these over more pressing, but ultimately less rewarding things. Accept that time is in fact limited, and work within those constraints, not struggle fruitlessly against them.

30 December 2021

Popular Science: “Why Spotify’s music recommendations always seem so spot on”

Spotify has even been testing a neural network called CoSeRNN that weighs certain features such as past listening history and current context to suggest song recommendations that suit the moment.

As for testing whether music mirrors certain human characteristics, they published results from a small survey-based study last December to see how music preference matched up to certain personality traits. In a blog post, the researchers noted that there appeared to be some correlations between personality and music genre preference. Unsurprisingly, people who identified as “open to new experiences” checked out Discover Weekly more; those who identified them as extroverts listened more to playlists that other people had created, while those who identified as introverts preferred to delve into a newly discovered artist’s discography.

To stay ahead of our changing preferences, and keep their recommendations fresh, Spotify also needs to be able to understand how what we like can evolve over time. Earlier this year, researchers there built a model based on a dataset of 100,000 Spotify users who were continuously active from 2016 to 2020. They looked at the entire streaming history of every user, grouped their music into “micro-genres”, and mapped them across time. What they came up with was a connected graph that illustrated the transitions between different genres of music. As an example, their model suggested that to go from liking “EDM” to “nu jazz” or “gospel”, users were likely to pass through a phase of liking “tropical house”, which is chill but upbeat electronic music.

Charlotte Hu

Interesting overview of the various research and data crunching powering Spotify’s recommendations algorithm. I can’t say that I noticed some super-relevant suggestions from the app, but I admit that its autogenerated playlists (artist radio’s and genre mixes) are generally well tuned and enjoyable. The insights into microgenres have been put to good use in the Spotify Wrapped yearly recaps as well. I find these fascinating, and apparently so do a lot of other people (who wouldn’t want to feel unique and special?), as in 2021 we got a second similar event in June, Only You. Before then, I never heard of the music genre ‘Morna’, but apparently I am a regular listener.

29 December 2021

Quanta Magazine: “What Does It Mean for AI to Understand?”

These schemas were the subject of a competition held in 2016 in which the winning program was correct on only 58% of the sentences — hardly a better result than if it had guessed. Oren Etzioni, a leading AI researcher, quipped, When AI can’t determine what ‘it’ refers to in a sentence, it’s hard to believe that it will take over the world.

However, the ability of AI programs to solve Winograd schemas rose quickly due to the advent of large neural network language models. A 2020 paper from OpenAI reported that GPT-3 was correct on nearly 90% of the sentences in a benchmark set of Winograd schemas. Other language models have performed even better after training specifically on these tasks. At the time of this writing, neural network language models have achieved about 97% accuracy on a particular set of Winograd schemas that are part of an AI language-understanding competition known as SuperGLUE. This accuracy roughly equals human performance. Does this mean that neural network language models have attained humanlike understanding?

Melanie Mitchell

I mean, the answer to this question is obviously no. It’s one thing to statistically infer the right answers to increasingly convoluted tests, and quite another to understand the meaning of the questions. In some ways, the machine learning approach to passing this linguistic test reminds me of ‘Dieselgate’: a system designed not to perform a proper task, but instead to fulfil requirements in a predefined scenario. In other words, you can always find a way to cheat when you know the questions in advance. The AI model may incorporate more and more examples into its training data, but that doesn’t mean it can spontaneously understand the concepts behind sentences and perform equally well in a random situation.

28 December 2021

Ars Technica: “The secret Uganda deal that has brought NSO to the brink of collapse”

A few months after the initial approach, NSO’s chief executive, Shalev Hulio, landed in Uganda to seal the deal, according to two people familiar with NSO’s East Africa business. Hulio, who flew the world with the permission of the Israeli government to sell Pegasus, liked to demonstrate in real time how it could hack a brand-new, boxed iPhone.

The eventual business was small for NSO. A person familiar with the transaction said it brought in between $10 million and $20 million, a fraction of the $243 million that Moody’s estimated the privately owned NSO made in revenues in 2020.

But about two years after the sales pitch, someone deployed Pegasus to try to hack the phones of 11 American diplomats and employees of the US embassy in Uganda, according to two US officials, who spoke after notifications were sent out by Apple when the iPhone maker discovered and closed a flaw in its operating system in November.

It is not clear who tried to hack the US citizens. Uganda’s neighbor, Rwanda, had also been using Pegasus to hack phones inside Uganda, but the revelation shocked the US. NSO has always told its customers that US phone numbers are off-limits. In this case, all 11 targets were using Ugandan numbers but had Apple logins using their State Department emails, according to the two US officials.

Mehul Srivastava

A story about smartphone security at first glance, to me it blatantly exposes the ingrained hypocrisy of US foreign policy. Earlier this summer, an investigative report revealed how NSO’s Pegasus spyware was used to target tens of thousands of prominent personalities from all over the world (with the exception of the United States). The US response at the time: crickets… The same software was apparently used by the Polish government to hack an opposition senator, and the list of examples certainly wouldn’t stop here.

24 December 2021

The Verge: “Microsoft PowerToys get a Windows 11 UI, universal mute, and find my mouse feature”

Alongside the design tweaks, PowerToys is also getting two new features with this 0.49 version update. Video Conference Mute debuts with this release, a feature that lets you mute your microphone or disable your webcam globally across Windows 10 or Windows 11.

You can bind Video Conference Mute to a keyboard shortcut, and pick the webcam and microphone you’d like to disable. There’s even a toolbar that appears when a webcam or microphone is in use. Microsoft had been planning to launch Windows 11 with its own universal microphone mute button, but this feature didn’t make the release and should be coming at some point in the future.

Tom Warren

I have paid little attention to PowerToys since the initial release because I didn’t find much use for its range of small utilities, with the exception of Image Resizer – it’s perplexing how after decades of development Windows doesn’t have such a basic feature built-in, and starting the Photos app for a simple resizing seems excessive. But the addition of Video Conference Mute suddenly made it a lot more useful, especially since I was able to install PowerToys on my current work laptop. The company is using Teams and Zoom in parallel, so it’s easier to remember a single keyboard shortcut for muting your microphone. On top of that, this utility can mute/unmute while the conference app is not in focus, so you can continue working during the meeting if you choose to, and quickly get back into the conversation when needed without scrambling to return to the right window and click the right button.

22 December 2021

The Guardian: “How big tech is dragging us towards the next financial crash”

No matter what the Silicon Valley giants might argue, ultimately, size is a problem, just as it was for the banks. This is not because bigger is inherently bad, but because the complexity of these organisations makes them so difficult to police. Like the big banks, big tech uses its lobbying muscle to try to avoid regulation. And like the banks, it tries to sell us on the idea that it deserves to play by different rules.

I began digging for more on the topic, and about two years later, in 2018, I came across a stunning Credit Suisse report that both confirmed and quantified the idea. The economist who wrote it, Zoltan Pozsar, forensically analysed the $1tn in corporate savings parked in offshore accounts, mostly by big tech firms. The largest and most intellectual-property-rich 10% of companies – Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) among them – controlled 80% of this hoard.

According to Pozsar’s calculations, most of that money was held not in cash but in bonds – half of it in corporate bonds. The much-lauded overseas “cash” pile held by the richest American companies, a treasure that Republicans under Trump had cited as the key reason they passed their ill-advised tax “reform” plan, was actually a giant bond portfolio. And it was owned not by banks or mutual funds, which typically have such large financial holdings, but by the world’s biggest technology firms. In addition to being the most profitable and least regulated industry on the planet, the Silicon Valley giants had also become systemically crucial within the marketplace, holding assets that – if sold or downgraded – could topple the markets themselves. Hiding in plain sight was an amazing new discovery: big tech, not big banks, was the new too-big-to-fail industry.

As in any transaction, the party that knows the most can make the smartest deal. The bottom line is that both big-platform tech players and large financial institutions sit in the centre of an hourglass of information and commerce, taking a cut of whatever passes through. They are the house, and the house always wins.

Rana Foroohar

Smart analysis in this two-year old article. Since then, throughout the pandemic, the world economy has become even more dependent on Big Tech companies to keep things running, from video conferencing to home deliveries, cementing their status as ‘too-big-to-fail’. At the same time, some resistance to their dominance is slowly taking shape, from US presidential candidates arguing for the breakup of Big Tech to increased antitrust scrutiny, to a global initiative to set minimum tax rates for multinational corporations. I am somewhat skeptical that these measures will have the desired effects – it feels more likely that these megacompanies will slowly lose steam under the weight of their own complexity and opacity.

The Wall Street Journal: “Venezuela’s Fatal Embrace of Cuba”

Venezuela’s implosion isn’t simply the case of a Latin American basket case doing the things that basket cases do. For much of the 20th century, Venezuela was the poster child for the successful South American republic: democratic when its neighbors were despotic, prosperous when its neighbors were poor, and stable all through the vagaries of the Cold War. Venezuela carved out a niche as the country that the U.S. State Department could highlight to make its case that democracy could work in Latin America.

That a nation once as prosperous as Venezuela could regress to this dystopian state is the first and most sobering lesson of the Venezuelan experience—proof that development gains aren’t permanent. Mismanage an economy badly enough, and the progress achieved in a generation evaporates dizzyingly fast.

Another lesson is that bad government can be as destructive as a great physical calamity. The scale of Venezuela’s implosion would suggest that the country had endured a war or a string of ghastly natural disasters. No such affliction came to Venezuela. Rather, it turns out that a country can endure wartime levels of destruction without a war—stemming from no force more destructive than the terrible policy decisions of its own government.

Moisés Naim

A cautionary tale for people who blindly assume progress is a one-way street, from poor to wealthy, from autocracy to democracy, from war to peace. There are similar signs of decay in many countries around the world: rampant inflation in Turkey, fueled by Erdoğan’s obstinance to impose his own economic policies; erosion of democratic institutions in Hungary and Poland, despite being members of the European Union; money laundering and tax evasion in London and US states from Wyoming to South Dakota. But in Venezuela, unfortunately, all these factors acted in unison to the country’s ruin.

21 December 2021

24 Accessibility: “The Trials and Tribulations of the Title Attribute”

The title attribute gets a lot of flack. And largely the disdain towards the attribute is quite justified.

In June of 1993, twenty-four and a half years ago, title was proposed as part of the HTML 1.2 draft. It is primarily displayed as a native tooltip in desktop browsers, and revealed when a user mouse hovers over markup elements the title is set to. Because of this, it has been a universal usability challenge since its inception, as not all users have been consistently able to interact with it.

If all of that weren’t enough, the guidance from the W3C HTML specification is pretty damning:

Relying on the title attribute is currently discouraged as many user agents do not expose the attribute in an accessible manner as required by this specification (e.g., requiring a pointing device such as a mouse to cause a tooltip to appear, which excludes keyboard-only users and touch-only users, such as anyone with a modern phone or tablet).

Scott O’Hara

An informative article, but the dismissive tone of the author towards a HTML attribute is misguided and reveals more about the state of web standards and development than the title attribute itself. In this particular case, a vicious cycle has been in effect from the start: most browsers never bothered to implement more accessible ways to reveal titles, so developers rarely used them, so browsers didn’t feel compelled to work on this feature, and so on. And when Internet Explorer 10 and later Microsoft Edge started displaying tooltips on focusable elements with titles during keyboard navigation, another common, but rarely acknowledged, bias in web development intervened: it’s almost fashionable to dismiss anything proposed or introduced by Microsoft, so no other browser considered following suit.

20 December 2021

The New York Times: “Jack Dorsey’s Twitter Departure hints at Big Tech’s Restlessness”

As Recode’s Peter Kafka wrote this year, this year’s big wave of tech executive departures partly reflects the fact that the biggest Silicon Valley giants are so huge and profitable that they no longer need visionary founders in charge — just competent managers who can keep the money-printing machines running and avoid any catastrophic mistakes.

But it also hints at how little fun the titans of tech seem to be having. The founders of today’s biggest tech giants are growing tired of managing their empires, which are increasingly burdened by political controversy and hard-to-fix problems like misinformation and hate speech. They don’t see an easy way out, and they’re more excited by building new things than fixing old ones. So they are turning those empires over to others and heading off in search of new frontiers.

It seems obvious what Mr. Dorsey’s next frontier will be. He’s obsessed with Bitcoin (it’s the only thing in his Twitter bio), and he talks about cryptocurrency and the decentralized web with the kind of zeal he once used to describe Twitter.

Kevin Roose

On some level it’s hard to fault people for moving on with their lives if they feel that they no longer belong, that they don’t make meaningful contributions anymore, or have other business ideas to pursue. But leaving (or attempting to rewrite the story, as Mark Zuckerberg is doing with the Meta rebranding) when things get rough does suggest a degree of immaturity, a lack of responsibility which should make us cautious of future initiatives from these co-called ‘visionaries’ – and there are ample reasons to distrust both Bitcoin and Facebook’s metaverse.

14 December 2021

The Verge: “Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss on making The Matrix Awakens with Epic Games”

A big reason for doing the demo is to demonstrate how Epic thinks its technology can be used to blend scripted storytelling with games and much more, according to Epic CTO Kim Libreri, who worked on the special effects for the original Matrix trilogy. We really believe strongly in big, massive open worlds not just for games, he tells The Verge. You want to be able to navigate massive, huge spaces just like you can in our world. So we’ve made that a lot easier to do in the engine.

The main sandbox experience in The Matrix Awakens isn’t a game as much as it’s a tech demo that Epic plans to release for developers to build on and replicate. Everything in the virtual city is fully loaded no matter where your character is located (rather than rendered only when the character gets near), down to the detail of a chain link fence in an alley. All of the moving vehicles, people, and lighting in the city are generated by AI, the latter of which Libreri describes as a breakthrough that means lighting is no longer “this sort of niche art form”.

Alex Heath, Vjeran Pavic & Phil Esposito

Judging from the demo video, the rendering does look impressive. The cityscapes, buildings, highways, cars, and so on, looked indistinguishable from real-world footage to me – at least at that resolution. People’s movements and faces still have a noticeable artificial quality though – perhaps a reflection of our human perception, which is more sensitive to minute changes in facial expressions.

12 December 2021

The Roots of Progress: “Why has nuclear power been a flop?”

Excessive concern about low levels of radiation led to a regulatory standard known as ALARA: As Low As Reasonably Achievable. What defines “reasonable”? It is an ever-tightening standard. As long as the costs of nuclear plant construction and operation are in the ballpark of other modes of power, then they are reasonable.

This might seem like a sensible approach, until you realize that it eliminates, by definition, any chance for nuclear power to be cheaper than its competition. Nuclear can’t even innovate its way out of this predicament: under ALARA, any technology, any operational improvement, anything that reduces costs, simply gives the regulator more room and more excuse to push for more stringent safety requirements, until the cost once again rises to make nuclear just a bit more expensive than everything else. Actually, it’s worse than that: it essentially says that if nuclear becomes cheap, then the regulators have not done their job.

Further, the NRC does not benefit when power plants come online. Their budget does not increase proportional to gigawatts generated. Instead, the nuclear companies themselves pay the NRC for the time they spend reviewing applications, at something close to $300 an hour. This creates a perverse incentive: the more overhead, the more delays, the more revenue for the agency.

The result: the NRC approval process now takes several years and costs literally hundreds of millions of dollars.

Jason Crawford

Complaining about excessive regulation stifling innovation has been a favorite refrain of the tech industry for years, but this story about nuclear power exemplifies how excessive regulation actually looks like. As I was reading it, I was tempted to attribute these exaggerated safety concerns to public fears resulting from nuclear plant accidents such as Chernobyl – except these standards were implemented a decade earlier than Chernobyl, so perhaps the negative perception around nuclear stems from its association with nuclear arsenal and the constant threat of nuclear conflict during the Cold War. Safety regulations are certainly necessary in an area as sensitive as nuclear, both regarding the ongoing operation of reactors and for waste disposal, but they shouldn’t be so overbearing by design that they drive up the costs of nuclear power and prevent it from becoming an economic alternative to fossil fuels.

11 December 2021

The Atlantic: “The Bad Guys are Winning”

All of us have in our minds a cartoon image of what an autocratic state looks like. There is a bad man at the top. He controls the police. The police threaten the people with violence. There are evil collaborators, and maybe some brave dissidents.

But in the 21st century, that cartoon bears little resemblance to reality. Nowadays, autocracies are run not by one bad guy, but by sophisticated networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services (military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance), and professional propagandists. The members of these networks are connected not only within a given country, but among many countries. The corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with corrupt, state-controlled companies in another. The police in one country can arm, equip, and train the police in another. The propagandists share resources—the troll farms that promote one dictator’s propaganda can also be used to promote the propaganda of another—and themes, pounding home the same messages about the weakness of democracy and the evil of America.

Anne Applebaum

Some interesting points in this article, but I think its central premise – that the autocratic state of the 21st century is somehow fundamentally different than autocratic states of the past – misses the mark considerably. Sure, some of their methods for spreading propaganda have been updated considerably and have vastly more reach in a digital age, and they lack a shared ideology, but other aspects are quite similar to the 20th century. I mean, the Soviet Union and its client states formed a literal military defensive treaty to counter NATO, and their economic ties were extensive as well – how much more collaborative could they get? The Soviet Union has supported China and Cuba on numerous occasions, invaded countries to either install a puppet regime or quell uprisings such as the Prague Spring. That’s hardly different from the actions of Russia in neighboring states during recent years, or China’s in Hong Kong.

10 December 2021

CSPI Center: “The effect of population structure on transmission”

As we have seen, in order to study the spread of infectious diseases, epidemiologists use models that make various simplifying assumptions. In particular, they typically assume a homogeneous mixing population, which means that contacts between people are totally random, so everyone is equally likely to infect everyone else if they are infected. However, this assumption is totally unrealistic, because in the real world transmission occurs in a highly structured population and contacts are not random. If you are infected, the probability that you are going to infect most people in the population is effectively zero, because you’ll never have any contact with them. Of course, there are many people you will never have any contact with, but whom you could nevertheless indirectly infect by starting a chain of infections that goes through them, but for most people the probability that this will happen is infinitesimal, whereas it’s much higher for people you interact with often because they are your colleagues, friends, members of your family, etc. and people who frequently interact with them. In reality, the virus doesn’t spread in a homogeneous mixing population, but in a highly structured one where each individual has different patterns of interactions with different people. How the virus spreads depends on who interacts with whom, how often they interact and what type of interaction they have, since those facts determine what chains of infections can exist and how likely each of them is depending on where the virus starts from in the population.

Thus, while standard epidemiological models represent the population as a collection of particles that interact randomly with each other, it’s better seen as a complex network where nodes are individuals and edges represent potential interactions between them that could result in transmission. Each edge in the network has a weight that indicates how easily transmission can occur along that edge if one of the individuals it connects happens to be infectious, which is determined by the frequency and nature of the contacts between them. Epidemiologists of infectious diseases have produced a voluminous literature on models that assume a virus spreads on these kinds of networks, so it’s not as if they didn’t know that real epidemics don’t spread in a homogeneous mixing population and hadn’t studied how population structure can affect transmission, but this literature had essentially no effect on applied work during the pandemic, perhaps because the kind of data that would be necessary to model real epidemics in that way is almost never available. Yet I think that population structure could hold the key to the mystery I have identified above, namely that the effective reproduction number often undergoes large fluctuations that, as far as we can tell, can’t be explained by changes in people’s behavior. Indeed, what I’m proposing is that we can solve this mystery by postulating that the network on which the epidemic spreads has what in network science is called “community structure”, which means that it can be divided into subnetworks whose nodes are internally densely connected while the subnetworks are only loosely connected to each other.

Philippe Lemoine

Interesting study about a conundrum that has puzzled many since the start of the pandemic, yet few have offered plausible solutions: why does transmission fluctuate so much even in the absence of clear measures or changes in human behavior? There are multiple examples for this, and the author mentions some of the more known, such as Florida and the Indian Delta wave, which subsided almost as abruptly as it started. The recent surge in Romania has also ended relatively fast, despite scarce measures from the authorities – as before, I mostly attribute these swings to schools openings, and the current reduction in cases comes after schools were closed again all over the country.

05 December 2021

O’Reilly Media: “Frank Herbert: Chapter 5: Rogue Gods”

In Dune, Herbert used heroic myth elements from the Western tradition in an effort to awaken in his readers a sensitivity to the needs that prompt a messianic religion. But even so, it is too easy to see messianism as something that happens only to desert peoples like the Fremen. Less immediately apparent is the fact that to Herbert the neurotic use of science in modern Western civilization betrays the same pattern as messianic religion.

Herbert’s feelings about science are most clearly presented in Dune and in three short novels that followed its publication, The Green Brain, Destination: Void, and The Eyes of Heisenberg. Each of these works reveals the two faces of science: it may he used to help man come to terms with the unknown, or to help him hide from it. In the latter case, it is a kind of religion, whose false god inevitably turns on his worshippers.

The irony is that Paul is not a freak but an inevitable product of the Bene Gesserit’s own schemes. Although he has come a generation early in the plan due to Jessica’s willfulness in bearing a son instead of a daughter, the real surprise is not his early birth but the paradox of the Sisterhood’s achievement: the planned instrument of perfect control, the Kwisatz Haderach, was designed to see further than his creators, He could not help but know the emptiness of their dreams. The universe cannot be managed; the vitality of the human race lies in its random generation of new possibilities. The only real surety is that surprises will occur. In contrast to the Foundation trilogy’s exaltation of rationality’s march to predicted victory, Dune proclaims the power and primacy of the unconscious and the unexpected in human affairs.

Tim O’Reilly

With the renewed interest in the Dune universe following the recent movie, I have discovered this book on its subreddit. While I have only read this chapter yet, the insights into Herbert’s thinking are fascinating. The parallels with Asimov’s Foundation were always apparent to me, but I considered its closest analog in Dune to be the Mentats’ abilities, Paul’s prescience, and later Leto’s Golden Path. Instead, the author reveals that the Bene Gesserit and their breeding program were intended as a commentary and reaction to Asimov’s psychohistorians – which does make a lot of sense in the context of Herbert’s themes for the series.

04 December 2021

The Guardian: “The disastrous voyage of Satoshi, the world’s first cryptocurrency cruise ship”

The difficulty in starting a new form of government, said Friedman, was simply a lack of space. All the land on Earth was taken. What they needed was a new frontier, and that frontier was the ocean. Let a thousand nations bloom on the high seas, he proclaimed, with Maoish zeal. He wanted seasteading experiments to start as soon as possible. Within three to six years, he imagined ships being repurposed as floating medical clinics. Within 10 years, he predicted, small communities would be permanently based on platforms out at sea. In a few decades, he hoped there would be floating cities with millions of people pioneering different ways of living together.

The final entry on the FAQ page, regarding the possibility of having pets on board, gave a bracing insight into the tension between the idea of freedom and the reality of hundreds of people closely cohabiting on a cruise ship. The answer linked to a separate document, containing a 14-point list of conditions including one that declared no animal should exceed 20lbs in weight, and any barking or loud noises could not last for longer than 10 minutes. If a pet repeatedly disturbed the peace – more than three times a month or five times in a year – it would no longer be allowed to live on board. Any pet related conflict, instructed point 13, shall be resolved in accordance with Section V (F) of the Satoshi Purchase Agreement or Section IV (F) of the Satoshi Master Lease, where applicable. Dogs would only be permitted in balcony cabins, and it was advised that owners buy a specific brand of “porch potty”, a basket of fake grass where your pet could relieve itself. (Pet waste thrown overboard would result in a $200 fine.)

Sophie Elmhirst

This bizarre and unlikely story initially remined me of Jules Verne’s novel L’Île à hélice – mostly the general outline, as I read the book decades ago in my youth and I wouldn’t consider it one of Verne’s best works. But I doubt some of the characters mentioned throughout the piece ever encountered his books. One of them recounts how he used to work 17 hours a day – that doesn’t leave much room for reading, or anything else for that matter. If they had a more diverse education, maybe these people would reflect a bit on planning and consequences before launching such projects doomed to failure. The idea that a pocket of people could exist completely isolated from modern society and without a set of rules regulating the community is utter fantasy. By the end, I was happy to read that the cruise ship they bought survived this whole adventure and is awaiting better days for tourism, whenever the pandemic finally subsides.

01 December 2021

The Guardian: “Inside the airline industry’s meltdown”

The airline industry’s metabolism is ordinarily slow – planes ordered years in advance, routes plotted and pilots trained with measured care. During the pandemic, though, decisions had to be made with uncommon speed. Late in March, for instance, a KLM flight somewhere above Novosibirsk, bearing towards Shanghai, was told that every incoming flight crew now had to quarantine for 14 days in a Chinese state hospital. This rule was so new that it hadn’t existed when the plane left Amsterdam; circumstances had changed mid flight. Executives scrambled to get an approved exemption from Dutch and Chinese authorities so that the crew could stay aboard the plane in Shanghai and bring it home 18 hours later.

The same month, Elbers retired three Boeing 747s – huge, fuel-guzzling craft that were on the verge of being put out to pasture anyway. Mere weeks later, they had to be hastily pulled out of storage and pressed into service to ferry medical equipment and PPE from China to the Netherlands. There were complicated repatriation flights to be flown. Two thousand Dutch travellers had to be retrieved from Australia. The first repatriation flight to Sydney had to leave with 48 hours’ notice, but it had been 20 years since KLM had flown there – so long that the routes and permits had to be plotted afresh and reloaded into flight computers.

Samanth Subramanian

Interesting insight into some of the lesser known aspects of the airline industry, and how it was brutally disrupted by the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic early last year. Unfortunately for the people in this business – and for those of us who enjoy traveling and can’t wait to get on a plane to a new destination – the future appears increasingly turbulent. The new omicron variant of the virus has prompted new travel restrictions, echoing the measures put in place at the beginning of the pandemic, though on a much smaller scale. And the migrant crisis at the EU border with Belarus has been partly defused by stopping incoming passengers from the Middle East. Another incident from earlier this year, also involving Belarus, which forced a Ryanair flight to land in order to capture a dissident, points to the increasing uncertainty and risks when boarding a flight caused by rising international tensions.