From the monthly archives:

December 2022

Your platform is not an ecosystem

by Maria on December 8, 2022

Another day, another exhortation to join an “ecosystem” that’s anything but. I could pick a hundred examples, but one that recently caught my eye was an ad placed in the Financial Times by the Singapore stock exchange, SGX Group, promising “multiple growth avenues, one trusted ecosystem”. SGX wants companies to list on its exchange rather than, say, the Hong Kong one which has more or less the same exclusive offer. SGX promises “access (to) Asia through our trusted ecosystem anchored in Singapore.” Ecosystems can be a lot of things. ‘Trusted’, by which they mean centrally policed to achieve defined, lower-risk outcomes, is not one of them. Calling built environments ‘ecosystems’ is common everywhere from financial services to supply chains to – quite a stretch, here – a retirement living complex. But it’s most often used in the tech world to describe the relations between software, services and hardware typically owned by a single company. For example, it’s how Google describes everything that hangs off the Android operating system. These kinds of proprietary and deterministic architectures are called ecosystems so often that we’ve stopped noticing. And that’s kind of the point. We need to start seeing this metaphor again, and what it’s hiding in plain sight. But first, a reminder of what an ecosystem actually is.

An ecosystem is a set of unbidden organisms and the physical environment with and in which they interact. It’s constantly evolving, and the real interest, value and drive for change all come from the emergent properties of the relations between its many parts. An ecosystem is not the plaything of a pampered princeling, like Meta, but a set of living, striving things, both competitive and cooperative, and the place they live. The two kinds of system are almost impossibly different. One is biological, the other technological. One is complex and adaptive, the other only pretends to be.
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Jefferson rejected even voluntary emancipation

by John Q on December 6, 2022

The Washington Post has a long piece about a Virginia family whose current (substantial but not huge) wealth derives from their slaveholding forebears and who may now be greatly enriched by the discovery of uranium under their land. There’s an interesting discussion of the arguments for and against reparations

Buried in the middle of the article is something much more interesting, to me at any rate. One member of the family, Edward Coles, opposed slavery. He hid his views until he inherited ownership of 17 enslaved people, then took them to Illinois and freed them. None other than Thomas Jefferson wrote to Coles, seeking to dissuade him.

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On What we Owe the Future, Part 3

by Eric Schliesser on December 5, 2022

To illustrate the claims in this book, I rely on three primary metaphors throughout….The second is of history as molten glass. At present, society is still malleable and can be blown into many shapes. But at some point, the glass might cool, set, and become much harder to change. The resulting shape could be beautiful or deformed, or the glass could shatter altogether, depending on what happens while the glass is still hot. William MacAskill (2022) What We Owe The Future, p. 6

This is the third post on MacAskill’s book. (The first one is here which also lists some qualities about the book that I admire; the second one is here.)

A key strain of MacAskill’s argument rests on three contentious claims: (i) that currently society is relatively plastic; (ii) that the future values of society can be shaped; (iii) that in history there is a  dynamic of “early plasticity, later rigidity” (p. 43). Such rigidity is also called “lock-in” by MacAskill, and he is especially interested in (iv) “value lock-in.”

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Crosby beach- Another Place

Cold Calling. Or Warm Calling.

by Harry on December 2, 2022

I started cold calling after a student (a CT reader and commenter, who remembers this because I remind her of it [1]), many years ago, having sat silently throughout my senior-level class in political philosophy, explained why she wanted to attend Law School. “I’ve heard that in Law School they cold-call, so that all the students have done the reading, and everyone is engaged. I want to be in classes like that.” She reminded me of the old TV show, The Paper Chase, in which John Houseman, one of those American actors with an inexplicable English accent, would seemingly bully his Law students by constantly trying to catch them out.

Going to Law School solely in order to get cold called seemed a bit eccentric. But I got the point. She’d missed out on a lot of learning – the learning you do when you articulate your thoughts out-loud, sometimes discovering that they aren’t thoughts at all, and other times discovering that they are more interesting and/or more complex than you had realized. My job was to make sure she did that learning – the learning that other, louder, more aggressive students already did – and I had let her down.
At first it was difficult. It is socially awkward to ask a stranger what their thoughts are, especially when both you and they are completely unused to it. What makes it worse is that students enter the classroom expecting the standard norms of the campus to apply – that they can take a back seat and listen (or, more accurately, look as if they are listening), talking only when they feel like it. I wasn’t skilled at cold-calling at all, and for the first couple of years I would often lose my nerve after a few classes, and retreat to my usual, deficient, practices.

I discovered it was easier for me to call on students if I knew all their names. And it was easier to learn all their names quickly if I called on them to talk (who would have thought that it is easier to get to know people by talking with them than by talking at them?). And it got even easier when I realized that the average quality of the talking is higher if the people who always volunteer talk less, because shyer and more reserved students often have valuable things to say. And I discovered that cold calling elicits more diverse perspectives because the willingness to volunteer to talk is not equally spread across all demographics.

But how to avoid seeming like John Houseman? I want to draw them in, not catch them out. After I had started cold-calling routinely a student observer admonished me: “I know that you don’t mind if a student has nothing to say. But they don’t know that. You have to tell them that, and show them that you mean it”.

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