Newsletter: 5th August 2019

Asteroid Apocalypse Edition

Abundance and apocalypse both lurk in the dark

Humanity dodged a bullet a week ago. By “bullet” I mean “100-metre wide rock travelling at a hundred times the speed of sound”. And by “dodged” I mean “sailed on blissfully ignorant of our possible doom”.

Asteroid 2019 OK streaked past Earth at lunchtime (NZ time) on 25th July, getting within 80,000 km, which in space terms is thinner than an after-dinner mint.


The asteroid was only noticed a day before its closest approach – no time for any planet-saving heroics, even if we knew what to do.

The only comparable event in recent history is the Tunguska event in 1908, when an asteroid or comet about the same size came down over Siberia, causing an explosion that flattened 80 million trees over 2,000 square km. Fortunately, Siberia is only slightly more populated that interplanetary space.

Asteroids, Climate Change, Farming, and Measles

Asteroids, appearing unbidden from the black emptiness of space, make for a great plot device when you need some unlikely magic to push your story along.

12,000 years ago the climate cooled rapidly. Nobody knows what caused the change, but one candidate is an asteroid strike. An asteroid strike at the dawn of human history is too good for a pseudo-archaeologist to pass up and this asteroid strike also gets the blame for destroying Atlantis.

Try searching for anything serious on this prehistoric cold snap, known as the Younger Dryas, and you’ll soon be neck deep in lost civilisations.


The Younger Dryas may have triggered the shift from foraging to farming, which in turn gave us measles, a disease originally transmitted from domesticated sheep. Now the same online recommendation engines that are twisting our early history are also helping to bring back our ancient diseases. (See my post Measles Goes Viral.)

T. rex and the Crater of Doom

The asteroid impact that we all know best is the one that killed the dinosaurs. For a readable and lively retelling of the scientific detective story that led to the discovery of the impact crater in Mexico, see T. rex and the Crater of Doom.

From the book of rocks comes the history of the Earth

The book is written by Walter Alvarez, the son in the father-son team that made the discovery. It vividly describes what happened that day 65 million years ago, the battle between the gradualists, who believed nothing in geology happens quickly, and the catastrophists, and the final discovery of the vast submerged Chicxulub crater.

This short, personal story is an easy, fun introduction to one of the milestone events in Earth’s history.


Asteroids are not all death and destruction. They’re also a trillion-dollar opportunity. Metallic asteroids contain vast quantities of valuable raw materials. Commercial ventures are already under way, looking to stake their claim, and NASA recently announced construction of its first mission to a metallic asteroid, Psyche, which will launch in 2022.

For what happens when a quadrillion dollars worth of gold shows up, see my recent post: Who Wants to Be a Trillionaire.


Try and avoid any extinction events before next week. Until then, thanks for reading,


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Newsletter: 17th June 2019

Prepper Edition

Protecting yourself from Russians, riot police, and rainfall

Lights Out – Moscow Edition

Last week I wrote about how warfare was moving into the information age in The Laptop Luftwaffe. This week the New York Times published a report detailing how the United States has deployed cyberweapons into the Russian electrical grid. You know, just in case.


United States Cyber Command has been probing the Russian grid for years but, according to the report, has recently shifted to “forward defense,” a phrase you can draw your own conclusions from.

Russia and the United States have been meddling with each other’s infrastructure for years. One of the dangers from cyberwarfare is the lack of a clear boundary that marks an act of war. Is placing malware in the grid a deterrent or an attack? That lack of a boundary encourages escalation. Expect chaos and missteps as we explore these edges.

Umbrellas vs Oppression

High tech surveillance is a key part of modern Chinese authoritarianism. Watching protesters in Hong Kong resist Chinese authority this week has been instructive.


Some technologies favour offensive uses and others favour defensive uses. Some require the machinery of a large organisation to run and some can be used effectively by individuals. If we value political freedom, defensive technologies that can be used by individuals are important.

Hong Kong residents in huge numbers have been protesting against new laws allowing extradition to mainland China. Protesters have used a variety of tools to protect themselves from Chinese surveillance.

Social media has been important in organising protests, as it has been since the Arab Spring, but the platform matters. WeChat is a no-no as it can easily be tracked and censored by the government. Telegram is probably the best option but it needs to be used carefully.

People traveling to protests have been queuing to buy single-use train tickets to avoid being tracked by their stored-value Octopus cards. Cash is a simple, decentralised, censorship-resistant technology. We shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to get rid of it.

The other image that struck me was of protesters using umbrellas. Word got around that the government was using aerial drones to watch crowds and identify people. So, up went the umbrellas – a wonderful example of a cheap, low-tech countermeasure.


Amongst Silicon Valley billionaires, the go-to plan for surviving the apocalypse is to buy a house in New Zealand. I already own a house in New Zealand and so I feel as if I’m one step ahead of the game, particularly as I’ve done it without the hassle of becoming a Silicon Valley billionaire.

If you plan to do the same, make sure you bring your umbrella. Not because of the drone surveillance but because it does, you know, rain a lot.

Thanks for reading,


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Newsletter: 10th June 2019

Crypto-Sutra Edition

Cryptography as a weapon, as fiction, and as a lifestyle choice

Press Any Key!

For the last five weeks I’ve been doing a writing course, called Write of Passage. Ironically, it has slowed down the rate I post stuff to my blog. I’m hoping it’s because my standards are higher. The final piece of writing I did for the course is The Laptop Luftwaffe, the long-promised and much-delayed piece on cyberwarfare.

The thesis is that the shift from explosive power to computing power is as big as the shift from swords to gunpowder. I take a stab at what that change might mean but, “it’s tough to make predictions,” as Yogi Berra noted, “especially about the future.”

Writing is a type of thinking. The reason I write about the way technology is changing the world is not because I know the answer but because I want to know and writing about it is part of the discovery process. Feedback is part of that process too, so if any of these articles spark curiosity, further research, or disbelief at how wrong I am, please reply.

In the meantime, press any key to continue…


A Race Against Time

This morning I finished the second book in Quicksilver, the first volume of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. The series is a sprawling monster of a story, set at the birth of the modern world. The frame for the story is the battle between Newton and Leibniz and it covers computation, cryptography, gold, plague, alchemy, wars, and slavery. It’s populated by kings, puritans, pirates, and vagabonds. Reviews have varied from “magnificent” to “ridiculous” and I love it.

Stephenson has a new book, Fall, or Dodge in Hell, out. I was hoping to get through the Baroque Cycle before Fall arrived but, at a nightstand-busting 3000 pages, it was never going to happen.


One of the less likely-sounding pieces of press for Fall is this one from Reason: If We Told You Neal Stephenson Invented Bitcoin, Would You Be Surprised? Er, yes, I would, but not because he couldn’t. He’s probably too busy smashing out the next thousand-page epic.

The Crypto-Sutra

The Kama Sutra isn’t all eroticism, despite what you may have seen carved into the pillars of Hindu temples. It contains advice on all aspects of good living and contains a list of the arts and sciences to be studied by all men and women. Number 44 on the list is mlecchita vikalpa, or “the art of understanding writing in cypher.” Cryptography isn’t just for princes and generals, it’s for anyone who wants to live the good life.


Everyone should be able to leave saucy notes for their lovers without the neighbours reading over their shoulders, which is why mlecchita vikalpa makes it into the top-64 life skills list. As a society we have laws respecting confidentiality between patients and doctors and clients and lawyers. When we sent letters through the post, we use envelopes; we don’t write everything on postcards.

We also expect our financial dealings to remain private. Number 36 on the Kama Sutra’s essential arts and sciences list is “knowledge about gold and silver coins.” I can’t promise to help you with dancing, sword-fighting, or teaching parrots to speak – a Neal Stephenson book is where you go for that sort of variety – but this newsletter will at times cover both money and writing in cypher, two essential life skills for the price of one.

Grab an acidulated drink or spirituous extract with proper flavour and colour (life skill #24) and join me.

Thanks for reading,


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Newsletter: 3rd June 2019

This Message Will Self-destruct

So will factories and political parties.

An Air Force in Your Pocket

“Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” Mae West once asked of a police escort. The wonders of modern technology mean that you can now fit a lot more than a pistol in your pocket.

Last week I promised a blog post on cyberwarfare. I posted the first installment this afternoon, An Air Force in Your Pocket, featuring Nazis, atom bombs, and derring-do. In the next installment, I’ll look at what the shift from industrial age warfare to information age warfare might mean.


(If you’re interested in how changes in weapons technology have changed society, also have a look at Nobbling the Nobility (about the Iron Age) and The Medieval Hiroshima (about gunpowder)).

Electile Dysfunction

My uncle introduced me to the idea that there was more to political life than the two big parties. He stood in Reading East for the Ecology Party, forerunner of the Greens, in 1983. A couple of decades later, and on the other side of the world, I stood for the Libertarianz in Wellington Central. Opposites in many ways, we both dreamed of knocking the big guys off their perches, but knew it was a long game.

I wrote recently about how mainstream political parties are doomed. “Broad church” political parties are enabled by broadcast media. As those media fragment, they’ll take the political parties with them. Even with that in mind, recent opinion poll results from the UK have shocked me.


The two-party system we’ve known forever looks wrecked. Whether this is a temporary blip due to the Brexit shambles, whether the old Labour-Conservative duopoly is going to be replaced by a different duopoly, or whether the whole two-party system is falling apart remains to be seen.

Upload progress: 0%

The first selfie was not very “insta”. Robert Cornelius sat motionless in front of his camera for a minute to take this portrait. The wifi would have been even slower, with radio waves not being discovered until 1888, 49 years after the picture was taken.


It took until 2009 for duck face to start trending.

Thanks for reading,


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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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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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