An Air Force in Your Pocket

The age of the self-bombing factory is here. Information age warfare looks as different to an industrial age bombing campaign as telecommuting does to a Chevy Impala.

In 1942, the Allies were desperate to prevent Nazi Germany from developing an atomic bomb. Thirty British Royal Engineers were given the job of sabotaging the heavy water plant in Vemork, in Norway. They were flown from Scotland across the Norwegian Sea in gliders towed behind Halifax bombers. Bad weather and equipment failures meant that both gliders and one of the bombers crashed, killing eleven crew and seven engineers. The remaining 23 engineers were captured, tortured, and shot by the occupying troops.


Continue reading “An Air Force in Your Pocket”

Newsletter: 27th May 2019

Build Your Own Superpower

From powerful weapons to rocket companies, you can DIY.

You Wouldn’t Download an Atom Bomb…

A subscriber to this newsletter once accused me of wanting to see the world burn. I don’t, of course, but there’s no denying that a fire is captivating to watch and that it’s fascinating to see how combustible the world is.

There’s a cyber-fire burning in Baltimore right now and it may just be faint flickerings of worse to come. We tend to think of cyberwarfare as something exotic, like sabotaging Iranian nuclear facilities or North Korean missiles, but there’s big business in more mundane attacks. In Baltimore this week the email is down, home sales are suspended, and you can’t pay your parking fines.

Critical infrastructure is highly vulnerable to cyberattack and the worst case would be as bad as a nuclear strike.


I’ve got a more detailed blog post in the works. Until then, please don’t download any weapons of mass disruption.

Height Speech

SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites on Friday afternoon (Thursday night in the US), with the initial deployment an hour later over the Southern Ocean. You can’t quite see my house from there.


The 60 Starlink satellites launched on Friday are a test run for a constellation of 12,000 low-cost satellites to provide Internet to places that don’t already have it. It may also provide censorship resistance. Governments around the world want to use ISPs to block “undesirable” traffic, whether that’s porn, politics, or payments. An Internet provider from an outside jurisdiction will make that harder. I wrote a bit more on the blog.

Now her eyes really follow you

If you thought making up fake quotes on Twitter was fun, you’re going to love this.

Every week brings a new creepy thing from AI researchers. This time, a technique for blending a face from a single still image onto a video. With just a photo, you can make anyone say or do anything.


Coming soon to an election campaign near you!

Trench Footage

Video technology doesn’t just make fake things real. It also makes real things more real.

Peter Jackson’s 2018 film They Shall Not Grow Old tells a human story of World War I using hundred-year-old footage. It’s wrong to say the film has been restored – it’s been enhanced by removing scratches and grain, fixing the speed, adding extra frames to replace splices, and colourising. A sound-track has been added to the silent movies with the help of forensic lip-readers and result is unbelievable.


If you haven’t seen it, take a look at the trailer and a short interview with Peter Jackson on the techniques he used.

My great-grandfather was in the 160th (Wearside) Brigade Royal Field Artillery (the “Idle and Dissolute”) at Passchendaele. Technology like this helps bring his near-forgotten experience a little closer.

Thanks for reading,


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Height Speech

SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites on Friday afternoon (Thursday night in the US), with the initial deployment an hour later over the Southern Ocean. You can’t quite see my house from there.


I’ve been watching SpaceX launches for years because, after decades of industry stagnation, they’ve made spaceflight exciting again. Partly it’s cool engineering but, as important, it’s economics. Making spacecraft reusable could slash costs and when prices crash interesting things happen. One of those interesting things is Starlink.

Continue reading “Height Speech”

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”