Newsletter: 20th May 2019

Christchurch and Westeros

The way we tell our stories matters

Thanks to everyone who’s signed up in the last few days. I’d like this newsletter and the blog to be a bigger conversation on our central question: how can we survive and prosper in a changing world? Please hit ‘Reply’ on this email, on blog articles, or on Twitter.

Handling Made-for-social-media Violence

Entrepreneurial made-for-social-media violence came to my home town a few weeks ago when fifty Muslims at prayer were murdered in a shooting spree in two Christchurch mosques. How can we prevent copy-cat attacks?


New Zealand politics is now dominated by the debate on how to regulate social media and what changes will to be made to censorship laws. In Inhuman Resources: Recruiting for Terror, published this week, I argue that over-reaching censorship could itself be a radicalisation tool. We need to be careful that we don’t end up doing the terrorist’s dirty work for him.

Sociological Storytelling and Game of Thrones

Twitter and Tear Gas convinced me that Zeynep Tufekci is an author worth reading, so even though I’ve never watched an episode of Game of Thrones, I read her article on The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones.

Tufekci writes about the intersection of technology and society, the same area that I’m interested in. She notes, “our inability to understand and tell sociological stories is one of the key reasons we’re struggling with how to respond to the historic technological transition we’re currently experiencing.”

She talks about psychological vs sociological storytelling (i.e. do you care about what happens to the people or what happens in the world), which not only explains the high death rate among key Game of Thrones characters but also why we’re so bad at understanding history. She also shows how to answer the old time-travel conundrum “should you kill baby Hitler?”

An Unlikely Segue into the Gulf of Mexico

Speaking of Zeynep Tufekci, who wrote the book on the Arab Spring, which was triggered by rising food prices, which would be the major effect of the Port of South Louisiana closing, Weather Underground published a fascinating set of articles about how the Mississippi River is trying to jump its banks and shortcut its way to the Gulf of Mexico, bypassing New Orleans.

The piece covers why the river is trying to change course, how it might happen, and the impact if it did. In summary: very, very bad.


I blogged a short overview, One Mississippi, No Mississippi, but if you’ve got time I recommend the whole thing on Weather Underground.

Nothing New in the World

Remember when innovative new taxi companies were fighting regulation that protected an entrenched industry? No, me neither. It was in 1635. Hat tip: Jamie Catherwood, the Finance History Guy.

Thanks for reading,


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One Mississippi, No Mississippi

The Mississippi could jump its banks in a flood and go somewhere that isn’t New Orleans, shutting off 60% of America’s grain exports.

During this year’s flood, Dr Jeff Masters posted a fascinating series of articles (pt2, pt3) on Weather Underground, describing why the river is trying to change course, how it might happen, and the impact if it did.


For the last thousand years, the Mississippi has flowed down its current path, down the middle of America and then taking a gentle left turn to New Orleans and out into the Gulf of Mexico. Geography suggests that the water should be flowing down the shorter, steeper Atchafalaya. Continue reading “One Mississippi, No Mississippi”

Inhuman Resources: Recruiting for Terror

We have better tools than ever to start a race war. The power of the rifle that Brenton Tarrant brought to two Christchurch mosques in March was greatly magnified by the Go Pro strapped to its barrel and an easy-to-use video streaming platform.

The same tools that have made it possible for small-time entrepreneurs to take on big brands have made it possible for small-time terrorists to steer global events.


There are practical reasons for restricting terrorist propaganda, but we need to make sure we don’t do more harm than good.

Continue reading “Inhuman Resources: Recruiting for Terror”

Many-to-many Propaganda

Politics as We Know It Is Doomed

Politics as we know it is doomed and the democratisation of propaganda is to blame.

Politics has been dominated by large “broad church” political parties for a century or more. Most democracies have evolved into a left-right duopoly. Conservative vs Labour, Republican vs Democrat. Nationalists, socialists, and greens, cling onto the sides.


But this system is doomed. Large political parties that appeal to broad swathes of the population were a product of broadcast media. Branded political parties manufactured packages of beliefs and left- or right-leaning newspapers and television stations broadcast them to the mass market.

The advent of social media has broken apart the media business. The branding power is gone. The broadcast channels are gone. The mass market is no longer massed. Political parties are adapted to an environment that no longer exists. They will go extinct.

Continue reading “Many-to-many Propaganda”

The Medieval Hiroshima

The Castello di Monte San Giovanni Campano, just outside Naples, is the medieval Hiroshima. It was destroyed in February 1495 by a powerful new weapon. The world was changed forever.


A dispute over the succession to the throne of Naples, stoked by Pope Innocent VIII, led to the invasion of Italy by King Charles VIII of France. His army, at 25,000 men, was large but not unlike many other medieval armies – except for one thing. His siege train included forty heavy bronze cannon, powered by gunpowder.


Continue reading “The Medieval Hiroshima”

Happy Cosmonautics Day

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space. At 06:07 UTC a Vostok rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in what’s now Kazakhstan and lifted the 27-year-old Soviet air force pilot into orbit and into history.


The launch fixed the Soviet Union’s place at the head of the Space Race, when spaceflight marked the leading edge of superpower technology.

Spaceflight is no longer a superpower monopoly. Today, 58 years later, the Space Race is led by SpaceX, one of many private companies opening up spaceflight.

This morning (NZ time), an Israeli non-profit organisation came painfully close to landing the first privately-funded spacecraft on the moon. The probe was launched in February this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It got within a few hundred metres of the moon’s surface before its main engine failed and it was unable to slow its descent enough to land softly.

Three hours later, SpaceX launched the world’s most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, carrying a Saudi Communications satellite. The satellite was nothing out of the ordinary, but the Falcon Heavy’s centre core and both side boosters, made near simultaneous landings and will be used again. Not only is this an extraordinary technical feat that puts traditional launch providers to shame but it will transform the economics of spaceflight.


After decades of stagnation, spaceflight is exciting again!