If meditation and mindfulness can make you more depressed, what does that mean for Calm?

Don Draper, meditating to maximise his KPIs. Image credit: AMC

Meditation, mindfulness and the marketing industry which has driven their recent trendiness are hopefully about to get the backlash they deserve. My New Scientist colleague Clare Wilson reports on the first systematic review of the evidence about the practice, which finds that for a minority of people meditation and mindfulness can worsen depression and anxiety, or even provoke panic attacks, psychosis and thoughts of suicide.

The study does not deny that many people do benefit from these practices, some of whom are probably reading this, but it does allow a bit of space for more forceful criticism of the mostly invented world of “wellness”, and the marketing of mindfulness and meditation as the solution to all your problems. And the marketing messages are where the issues lie. If you want to overpay for an an app with prepackaged MP3s of celebrities whispering, that’s up to you. But don’t pretend it will reduce your stress, make your life better or solve any of your problems.

A few years ago I embarked on a body transformation, a rite of passage for most people who have worked at a men’s magazine. One of the things my fitness instructor recommended was trying mindfulness app Calm, which I found was close to a Black Mirror experience, a bit like voluntarily locking yourself in a room with a Tim Ferris wannabe in control of a surround sound PA system telling you to breathe in mysterious patterns, knowing that their net worth has probably increased by a London house-deposit sized proportion by the end of your 30 minute session. But maybe that’s just me.

Using Calm immediately increased my anxiety and I immediately stopped using it, which is fine because no-one is forcing me to use it, but it’s still very hard to escape the app and the pervasive marketing message of wellness. American Express even thought it wise to grant card members a premium subscription for a year, perhaps the best example of corporate wellness box ticking I’ve seen during this crazy year.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the most famous recent examples of meditation in popular culture is in the final episode of Mad Men, where the sum result of Don Draper’s meditation retreat is an idea for a new Coca Cola advertisement.

Life changing doesn’t necessarily mean positively life changing. Image credit: Calm

Although I do get some satisfaction imagining aspiring Silicon Valley entrepreneurs using their Calm sessions to try and channel their mind into discovering new organisational efficiencies (think: Amelie counting orgasms in Paris, but maler, pastier and with KPIs instead of cumming), they and we deserve better diagnoses and treatment for our modern day ails and ennui. And we certainly need to detach mental health from work efficiencies, and put it lower down the priority list for solving people’s problems.

One of the most disturbing elements of Clare’s newsletter about her story is that schools and the NHS are now recommending mindfulness, in some cases to schoolchildren with the intention of boosting their resilience against bullying. Should the NHS and schools really be recommending meditation if in some cases it is making people feel worse?

My form of meditation is practicing my trombone, looking up if I hear a distinctive aeroplane’s engine (and then looking it up on Flightradar24) and writing lightly researched polemics on my blog about how much the meditation industry annoys me. I couldn’t do any of this if I didn’t have a comfortable home, a good job and a healthy “fuck off fund.” Those are prerequisites for good mental health, and anything that doesn’t consider that first and foremost is arguably damaging.

Hopefully this study will be the beginning of the end of the marketing trend which suggest that closing your eyes and breathing a little deeper can have impact whatsoever on systemic problems. Even though we now have the evidence that meditation can make your mental situation worse, I can’t imagine that ever making its way into Calm’s marketing rules. 

The glamorous* things keeping me sane now that home is work and work is home

Two sprays of Byredo cedar scent which takes me on a dreamy night out with my fiancee, even though I’ve only been to a bar once in five months. With each push of the metal cap I imagine a 20p piece jangling into a piggy bank, the price of each expensive squirt.

The smell of suncream applied in the morning, even when it’s cloudy outside. It never fails in fooling my brain that I’m at the beach. My only worry is that I might overpower the sun and sand association and permanently replace it with a memory of my bathroom, circa 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

Updating my savings spreadsheet. Opening all the tabs and totting up the changes in the stock market or the miserly interest is a very soothing ritual for me. Some nights I go to sleep thinking of my financial cushion. If you’re looking for mental peace, you don’t need meditation: you need a “fuck off” fund.

Doing the meter reading. You mean I have to go outside to do a task? Shall I get dressed up?

Rearranging my book shelves and rotating the books on my bedside table is so important. Want to escape the dishes? Better pick up some Cixin Liu and visit outer space. Frustrated with pandemic politics? Pick up Dark Money and get angry. I’ve been reading at a rate of knots ince I started putting the books that actually interest me within my eye line. Next up, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which is soon to graduate from propping up the fan to my reading list.

As a fair skinned man, tanning is not top of the list of my abilities. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to develop a healthy cyclist’s tan with a very noticeable threshold on my legs from pasty to almost healthy looking. Maintaining it with regular rides is what counts for fun in 2020.

Apparently the key to keeping house plants alive is spending your entire life at home. All they need is water, sunlight and the occasional chat.

*actually utterly unglamorous, but you wouldn’t have clicked that.

Freetrade makes it easier to lose your money on the stock market

gordon gekko and bud fox holding a phone with freetrade

Gordon Gecko. The Wolf of Wall Street. Christian Bale’s portrayal of Michael Burry in the Big Short. These characters embody the public idea of ruthless finance types who will use every trick in the book – including cheating pensioners out of their money – to make their own millions.

To that roster of characters I’d like to add me, Conrad Quilty-Harper, blogger, digital editor and the proud owner of £636.36 worth of stocks, commodities and bonds. I’m not going to make millions with my tiny pot of money, but to own those shares at least I didn’t have to move to Wall Street, don a double-breasted suit or set up an ISDA Master Agreement*: I simply downloaded an app on my phone.

Yours truly and my £199.28 Freetrade stock portfolio, back in December 2018.

This is a review of Freetrade.io, a new app, based in London, which allows its users to access a selection of shares available to buy in the UK and abroad. With a few touches and a thumb press, you can buy and sell shares, and have a very good reason to reinstall the iOS Stocks app.

Of course it’s always been relatively easy to buy shares if you really wanted to. MoneySavingExpert has a brilliant list of some affordable options. The difference with Freetrade is that, as the name suggests, it’s free to trade.

When the app launched, free trades used to be limited to 4PM every day, and you had to pay £1 per trade if you want to do it “instantly.” They’ve since made instant trading free. That compares remarkably favourably with existing competitors like AJ Bell (from £1.50 a trade), Interactive Investor (£7.99), X-O (£5.95) and Hargreaves Lansdown (£5.95, but you have to make more than 20 trades in one month). Some of these more established companies have reduced their prices since Freetrade launched, but that also might be to do with commission-free trading options from Revolut and eToro, and low fee options trading apps like BUX and Degiro.

What none of those more expensive or complicated options offer is a process as seamless as Freetrade. If you have online banking already, to gain access it’s only slightly more complicated than signing up for Netflix. Put in your details, your National Insurance number, transfer some money to a bank account, and within a few days you’re able to buy shares.

I’ll use this animated gif to show you how many touches it takes to sell my £13 worth of Vodafone shares.

Not many.

The app still isn’t perfect, nearly two years since its launch. It does a lot of those annoying fintech things like not put an axis on its charts (WHY?!) and uses language that developers think are cute but actually make you question whether you should give them your money at all (e.g. BT’s listing in the app is described as “slow internet”). On the other hand, when I encountered a bug they fixed it within a day and sent me a chat message within the app.

I signed up to Freetrade simply to play around with the app, but as the app has developed and the company continues to add new shares (the roadmap is quite comprehensive) it has started to replace my other investment platforms. I’ve even invested in the app itself via one of its Crowdcube funding rounds.

One final thing: Freetrade made me realise how poor most of the news and information is there about the stock market for retail investors. You can use the iOS Stocks app, for instance, but that often has no recent news about relevant companies. A better source is the FT’s Markets section, but again their coverage isn’t universal. Surely there’s an opportunity there…

More information about Freetrade and investing apps in the UK

Can I use Robinhood in the UK?

Not at the moment. Robinhood, a similar app which launched in the US in 2013 and also offers “commission-free” trading, has “indefinitely postponed” its UK launch. The company announced in August that it had regulatory approval to operate as a broker in the UK and it planned to allow UK customers to buy and sell shares from 2020.

What is Freetrade app?

Freetrade is a stock and shares investment smartphone app which allows you to trade for free. The company is still an early stage start-up, and has raised money several times using crowdfunding platform CrowdCube. More than 200,000 people have accounts with Freetrade, and it’s been operating for nearly two years.

How can I trade for free?

It’s possible to trade “for free” using Freetrade, a mobile app which lets you invest in a limited selection of stocks, shares and exchange traded funds (ETFs).

How can I get Freetrade?

Sign up to Freetrade with this link and you’ll get a free share. Here’s some more information about the offer.

Further reading if you’re interested in finance

• Reddit’s UKPersonalFinance is fascinating if you’re interested in money

You really should be reading more about pensions 

• Better Have My Money is a very entertaining newsletter by a newbie investor

(This blog was originally published in December 2018. *A plot point in The Big Short.)

Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty is the best Succession TV show alternative to tide you over until season 3

Some alternative TV shows to tide you over until Succession season 3 begins.

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty watch it on BBC iPlayer now

If Succession‘s writers made a documentary, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty is what you’d get. It covers the rise of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, the brief years in the wilderness after the phone hacking scandal, and his comeback after Donald Trump’s election and Brexit. It shows how much of Rupert Murdoch’s life was guided by his father Keith Murdoch, and how his childrens’ fates are dictated by his. There are so many direct parallels in the business and Logan Roy’s: after Murdoch’s fall on his yacht during negotiations with Disney, the company claimed he was merely “working from home”; there’s the new wife who drives a wedge between the father and his children; and, there’s his dismissive and opportunistic attitude to politics, prime ministers and presidents. It’s full of imagery that appears in Murdoch Dynasty, too, including Super 8 footage of Rupert and his children in the pool in the 1980s, black Mercedes in the Scottish countryside and helicopter pads in lower Manhattan. As for the real life succession, the three part series ends with a drone shot of Lachlan Murdoch’s palace in Beverly Hills. But that’s not the end of the story.

Veepwatch Veep now on NowTV

Succession’s creator Jesse Armstrong worked with Veep’s Armando Iannucci on Peep Show, The Thick of It and the first season of Veep, a cynical and knowing workplace comedy about the barely functioning and mostly irrelevant office of the vice president and the awful but loveable people who wield its power.

The Loudest Voicewatch The Loudest Voice now on NowTV

The Loudest Voice is emphatically not a comedy. Russell Crowe plays the monstrous Roger Ailes, founder of Fox News and executive producer of Donald Trump’s political career, tracking his and his network’s steady rise to the top of cable news in the US. The slow burning style of this seven part series (with the exception of the dramatic second episode) makes it incredibly satisfying to see him being brought down by the brave and wily Gretchen Carlson, played by Naomi Watts. There are many crossovers with Succession including several scenes shot in the same locations, and not least the epilogue dedicated to his successor Bill Shine. Where is he now? Working for Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign, of course.

Storyville: The PM, the Playboy and the Wolf of Wall Streetcurrently unavailable on BBC iPlayer, but someone has uploaded it to YouTube

A real life Wolf of Wall Street story which won’t end until its fugitive protagonist fixer Jho Low is brought to justice, this documentary shows how dogged journalism and brave activists exposed corruption at the heart of the Malaysian government, and how Western finance and Hollywood bent over backwards to get its cut of the dirty money. The most compelling moments include the Blackberry messages as Jho Low procured an “18 carrot [sic] pink heart diamond” for the wife of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, and the intrepid Alex Ritman of Hollywood Reporter confronting Robert De Niro about his son’s Raphael’s role in selling $55 million worth of real estate for Jho Low.

Channel 4 Dispatches: The Prince and The Paedophilewatch on Channel 4 now

This investigative documentary offers shocking new details about the alleged close relationship between convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and the Queen’s favourite son Prince Andrew. Epstein’s connections to powerful figures from the worlds of science, technology and politics are troubling but not unsurprising: a ticket to the world of unimaginable luxury, wealth and privilege is available to anyone who can pay the price. No legal checks, due diligence or even common sense appear to be required to get an entry to this club of billionaires, media moguls and tech innovators. If you’re careful, you can also see the Queen’s press team reacting to this documentary by placing soft touch stories about the Queen’s cameo at the Olympics and seeding doubts about the veracity of the photograph of Prince Andrew with Virginia Roberts Giuffre and the snap of him with Jeffrey Epstein in New York in December 2010 (which originally featured in the now defunct News of the World).

Succession Season One – hurry, you can rewatch Succession’s first season on Now TV

Worth it just to relive the moment Tom met Cousin Greg.

More Succession alternatives

The Insider – Michael Mann’s gripping drama about Big Tobacco and the investigative journalist who gets a whistleblower to speak out, which pivots midway into a gritty and tense depiction of corporate pressure in American television news. Watch The Insider now on YouTube

Arrested Development – Was there really any money in the banana stand? Watch Arrested Development on Netflix (but skip the last season whatever you do)

The Big Short – Succession executive producer Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning punchy but shallow explanation of the roots of the financial crisis and its short selling traders. Watch The Big Short now on Netflix

Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World – the title says it all. Oliver Bullough’s book about how the ultra rich stay that way. Buy it now on Amazon.

Further reading

35 interesting things I learned in 2019

13 of my favourite history TikToks

What makes a great magazine cover?

What to write in a blank Valentine’s Day card at 5AM on Valentine’s Day

You’re in bad company.

It’s 5AM on Valentine’s Day, and you’ve got a problem. Your partner is soundly asleep, oblivious to the fact that you have yet to write a message in the Valentine’s Day card that they are very shortly to receive.

First, the good news: you physically have a card in your possession, thanks in part to the train station M&S and a last minute reminder from Lynn at the office (what a lifesaver!). You’ve also managed to wake up early and get to another room without alerting your significant other, like some kind of romantic ninja who hates to plan ahead.

But what now? What do you actually *write* in your Valentine’s Day card? That question has brought you here, to a blog post written by a journalist who noticed that lots of people search “What to write in Valentine’s Day card” at 5AM on Valentine’s day. Writing a letter to your lover, your partner or your significant other is simple with this helpful guide…

Step one: Don’t panic

Just imagine how the people who forgot to buy a card are feeling.

Step two: What to write in Valentine’s Day card

First off, this kind of grammar really won’t fly. If you’re going to write anything this morning, you have to write. in. complete. sentences. And definitely don’t start with a joke about how the first thing you did this morning was Google, “What to write in Valentine’s Day card.” This isn’t a best man’s speech.

Step three: Think

I know this is difficult without coffee – and you have a seriously pressing deadline – but thinking is key to writing a successful Valentine’s day card.

Close your eyes and think about your partner. What do you like about them? How do they make you feel on a good day? Make a list of these fond feelings on your phone or on the back of an envelope (you do have a pen, right?).

(Note: If at this stage nothing comes to mind, maybe writing a card isn’t the most pressing problem in your relationship.)

Step four: Do your research

Look around you. Are there any pictures of the two of you together? Do you remember anything about that moment, or from that day in the sun? Read some of your early Whatsapp messages from your honeymoon phase. Think about what things you have coming up together that you might be looking forward to. Anything specific is good.

Step five: Write a draft and read it back

Since it’s very early and you’re probably tired, writing a draft is key. You’ve only got one chance.

For the beginning and end of the card, you can borrow some simple and well established formats. Start your letter with “Dear [Insert partner’s name or nickname here],”. End your letter by saying you love them. Leave them kisses if you like.

That leaves the middle bit, where you should form a few sentences that combine some of those positive thoughts and feelings with a reminder of a past moment where you felt in love, and maybe a mention of an upcoming engagement where you will be together. A helpful technique in all form of writing is to say what you want to write in your head, and then write that down. If you love them, say how much you love them.

Then: write that all of that into a draft. Read the draft to yourself. Change anything that doesn’t sound like something you might say.

Key thing to get right: the spelling of your partner’s name.

Step six: Write on your card

This bit’s easy. Take a pen (ideally black, definitely not a biro, and no, a pencil is not acceptable) into your hand and carefully write your final draft in your best handwriting. A smudge or a small correction is fine.

You’ve got this.

Step seven: Make your partner a cup of tea, bring them the card and while looking them in the eye say the words “Happy Valentine’s day”

See you next year!

With all my love,

Your friendly SEO expert blogger,

spalpeen.co.uk

xxx

12 of the smartest history TikToks

TikTok isn’t just lip dubs, pranks and pouting teenagers. It can also be clever interpretations of Latin songs, political and historical messages about inequality, racism and Communism, and chemical formulas for exothermic reactions.

1. A succinct depiction of inequality told through the lens of Kreayshawn’s 2012 hip hop hit “Go Hard.”

By NikJWells on TikTok

2. The Brexit negotiations told through the medium of the Spice Girls

By Sonam on TikTok

3. The history of the Atlantic slave trade, pretty much

By Nich
@urlocalblackguy on TikTok
4. The inevitable disappearance of creativity on nascent social media platforms’ due to their design promoting vapidity
By LeahMarii on TikTok

5. Men started wearing wigs in the 1600s and 1700s because King Louis XIV had syphilis

By Michael McBride
@idea.soup on TikTok

6. World War Two plus Eddy Grant in a Tik Tok (with lots of typos)

By Rhys.b1999 on TikTok

7. In which I discover the Latin lyrics of “O Fortuna” in a TikTok comment

By Rreygaer95 on TikTok

8. A critical analysis of the use of Seventies music in contemporary cinema

By Alisha.GTFO on TikTok

9. Meanwhile in the 1800s…

By Nich
@urlocalblackguy on TikTok

10. Of course you know the chemical formula for a thermite reaction (iron oxide or rust, plus aluminium equals fire)

By S3xyEnzyme on TikTok

11. Algebra is useful so you don’t fall for stupid memes

By MrBlah69 on TikTok

12. The parallels between the Great Depression of 1929 and the Financial Crisis of 2008

By adamp161 on TikTok

Got a NEST pension? Consider changing your default fund

The government’s pensions auto enrolment fund has been wildly successful. Today, 87 per cent of people have a UK pension scheme, up from 55 per cent in 2012 when the rules changed to mean that you had to opt-out of saving (rather than opt-in). The numbers are even more impressive for young people: 84 per cent of people aged 22-29 now have a workplace pension, up from 24 per cent in 2012.

A huge number of these new savers are investing their money in a NEST pension, one of the government’s main pension scheme options which now has more than six million members.

99 per cent of these six million savers are invested in NEST’s “default funds.” In other words, of the millions of new automatic savers, only 1 per cent have made a manual decision about where their money goes.

I’m one of those 1 per cent.

The default fund option in NEST is not right for me, and I think many other savers who, like me, have many decades until retirement, should consider moving their money too.

What was the NEST default fund wrong for me?

The objectives of the default fund are threefold: maximising the total size of the retirement pots; ensuring that cohorts who contribute similar amounts have similar outcomes; and, to “dampen volatility” while people are saving.

To achieve these objectives, the default fund invests a maximum of 55% of its portfolio in equities, presumably because any major volatility in the stock market would mean a temporary fall in the value of their pension, which would put off savers who will then choose to withdraw their money entirely.

Even worse, in the first five years of investing, only 35 per cent of your default fund money is in the stock market, and up to 30 per cent of your money could be invested in cash (in other words, inflating away!).

The portfolio for the default NEST pension fund in its least conservative phase puts a maximum of 65% of its assets in the stock market, which I feel is very conservative

I want my retirement fund to make me as much money as possible and for me the best way to do that is to put it all in the stock market. Read my Freetrade review for more detailed reasons why.

Since I won’t be able to access my retirement fund for at least 30 years, I’m not worried about monthly or even annual fluctuations. NEST does provide alternative options for those who want to take on more risk, but even its “higher risk” fund targets a portfolio that is 70 per cent equities. The only option that is 100 per cent equities is the Sharia fund, (which also happens to be the fund that’s performed best since inception.)

In summary: the default fund is an incredibly conservative and risk-averse option, and you should consider changing it. Even if you don’t change, you should know where your money is going.

Further reading

NEST’s different funds and how they invest your money

UK Post Box review: my most luxurious digital service

Is your pension plan water?

40 interesting things I learned in 2019 (so far)

Emmet Gowin's aerial picture of the Nevada test site
Credit: Emmit Gowin

Inspired by Tom Whitwell’s list of 52 things he learned last year, I created my own list (with a focus on science, aviation, technology and food) which I’m still adding to throughout 2019.

  1. There is only about one atom per cubic metre of space in the universe. Source: George Gamow’s book One Two Three Infinity
  2. In the late 1700s Oxford had a climate similar to that of present day Edinburgh. Source: The Times
  3. Commercial airline pilots sometimes greet fellow pilots at cruising altitude by flashing their landing lights. Source: FT
  4. Sesame Street has a venture capital firm. Source: The Times
  5. Japanese researchers once invented a wasabi fire alarm which can wake deaf people up in the night. Source: Quartz
  6. Moby is the great-great-great-nephew of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, hence the nickname. Source: The Times
  7. The first cultivated carrots were purple and yellow, not orange. Source: Pop Sci
  8. Ciabatta bread was invented in 1982 by an Italian jealous of the popularity of the French baguette. Source: The Guardian
  9. The word “blazer” comes from the colour of the red ivy flowers growing on the side of the St John’s College building, Cambridge University, which the rowers of the Lady Margaret Boat Club used as inspiration for their outfits. Source: The Telegraph
  10. In parts of New Orleans the graves are overground concrete tombs because of the city’s water level. Source: Itotd
  11. Until 1987 it was common to operate on newborn babies without anaesthetic. Source: The Times
  12. Reuters News Agency was founded in 1850 with a flock of 45 messenger pigeons which filled a “telegraph gap” between Brussels and Aachen in western Europe. Source: Reuters
  13. Sharks have been around for at least 420 million years and survived four of the “big five” mass extinctions. Source: New Scientist
  14. Ordnance survey, the UK mapping company, was set up because the English were worried about revolutions in Scotland and France and wanted to know where they could easily transport their troops in case of war. Source: Ordnance Survey
  15. Mosquitos may have killed half of the 108 billion people who have ever lived across our 200,000 year existence. Source: New Scientist
  16. Only 20 per cent of Americans can do a single push-up. Source: The Atlantic
  17. Fanta was developed in Nazi Germany in response to an embargo on Coca-Cola. Source: The Local via Frank Swain
  18. Finland has a government committee called the “Committee for the Future” dedicated to discussing and solving big, future problems. Source: Jared Diamond interview in New Scientist
  19. Gold smugglers have set up fake gold mines in Uganda which are designed to legitimise gold that’s been smuggled in from Congo. Source: The Economist
  20. Over millions of years of chimp and human evolution there have been, on average, six changes to the roughly three billion letters in our genetic code every year. Source: The Guardian
  21. Spandex, the material used in most leggings, was invented during the Second World War when the military was trying to find a new material for parachutes. Source: The Guardian
  22. Almost all bananas sold today are direct descendants of one plant grown in the early 1800s in the greenhouse of Chatsworth House in the peak district. Source: BBC News
  23. The Nike “Just Do It” slogan was inspired by the last words of a murderer who was about to be executed by firing squad. Source: New Yorker Mar 18 2019
  24. The brain consumes about a fifth of a person’s metabolic energy each day. Cooking was essential for human evolution, because it means we don’t need to spend all day chewing — unlike chimps. Source: 1843 Magazine
  25. Swatch once invented a new unit of time for the internet called the “beat” which split the day into 1000 parts. Source: BBC News
  26. The first reference to a “freelancer” in literature is Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe, where a feudal lord talks about his army of solders for hire taking over shipping in Hull. Source: Anna Codrea-Rado’s (excellent) freelancing newsletter
  27. Candle flames are hollow. Source: Massimo
  28. San Francisco has a dedicated human faeces removal team. Source: New York Times
  29. Honey found in Egyptian tombs for thousands of years is still unspoiled and edible thanks to its sugar content, acidity and low moisture. Source: Smithsonian Magazine
  30. Medical scanners are built with steel from sunken battleships because the steel has not been contaminated by the decades of nuclear testing. Source: Science Made Simple
  31. The yellow traffic signal was first conceived in 1920. Source: The Register
  32. Naturally occurring radioactivity in the body from isotopes like carbon-14 and potassium-40 disrupts the DNA of 85,000 cells every single day. Source: New Scientist
  33. China has only one time zone for the whole country, despite covering five time zones geographically. Source: New Scientist
  34. As many as 100,000 people are buried in mass, unmarked graves in Spain after decades under General Franco’s rule. Source: The Guardian
  35. The National Insurance fund which pays for everyone’s state pensions in the UK will run out by 2032. Source: FT Money Podcast and FT Adviser
  36. More nuclear bombs have been dropped on or have exploded in or above American soil than on that of any other country in the world. The true scale of US nuclear testing (1,054 tests in total) was unknown publicly until May 1993. Source: Emmet Gowin in The Nevada Test Site
  37. One of the best (open) sources of air pollution in Beijing is the US embassy’s RSS feed reporting the real-time air quality index. Source: Adam Vaughan
  38. Quorn, the “original” meat replacement product based on starch and protein, took decades to develop and cost £2 billion in today’s money to develop. Source: The Bottom Line
  39. Tom Hanks is related to Abraham Lincoln. “The maiden name of Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, was Hanks, and yes, it’s the same Hanks.” Source: The New York Times
  40. One of the major causes of plane crashes in Israel and Lebanon are bird strikes caused by migrating pelicans and hawks flying to Africa every spring and back again in the autumn. The Israeli Air Force has lost many aircraft to flocks of birds which are too small to be picked up on radar. To prevent this, Israel and Lebanon have an arrangement involving birdwatchers who warns each other’s air traffic control about migrating flocks. Source: TAUVOD

UK Post Box review: the most luxurious digital service I use

uk post box interface
The UK Post Box interface which lets you send snail mail (physical letters!) using a computer

Sending physical letters or “snail mail” in the age of email is still necessary sometimes. Whether it’s banks who refuse to accept PDF statements via email or magazines who won’t let you unsubscribe unless you physically write to them (GAH!), you might still have to go through the rigamarole of typing something up, printing it, finding an envelope and stamps and heading down to a post office to send a letter. Fortunately, there’s a solution. Virtual post service UK Post Box lets you do all this from a web browser.

UK Post Box review

Using UK Post Box is simply a case of uploading a PDF and pressing a few buttons, and the company will print out your message, put it in an envelope and send it off for you, first class. The price is a little higher than it would cost for you to do it yourself, but it more than makes up for itself in time saved.

UK Post Box is mostly designed for individuals who want a post forwarding service, or a fixed post box address in the UK which can receive letters and parcels (the company will even scan in your post and send it you as a PDF) but personally I find the snail mail element the most useful. I haven’t tried any of the other services, but I can imagine any UK expats, frequent travellers or people looking for a private address would find the other bits of UK Post Box useful.

How does UK Post Box work?

The company has a sorting facility which is based in Poole which is the base for their post boxes and their sending and receiving service. You use a web interface similar to an email inbox to upload documents and input addresses.

How much does UKPostBox cost?

It cost me £2.35 to send a three page letter to my bank. You do have to load up your account with credit (I added £25 at the start of the year), and this eventually expires after a year. As I said, this is a luxury service. It will always be cheaper to do the posting yourself.

How do I sign up to UKPostBox?

Sign up to UK Post Box using my referral link and you’ll share a small discount with me on your membership.

AI and algorithms are useless if it takes a decade to fix simple problems

I’d like to talk about a simple problem on Google which I think partially explains why technology companies seem so utterly useless at preventing the spread of terrorist content.

In November last year, Google said it had fixed a bug on the visa waiver search engine results page after an investigation by the BBC forced Google to pay attention to the problem.

This “bug” was allowing people to use Google’s advertising network to set up sites that charged to file visa waivers. Instead of going directly to the US Government’s website – which still costs about $14 – they would charge users up to $99 for “checking” their application. 

The problem was first identified in 2009. It wasn’t “fixed” until 2018, eight years later.

I even fell for it in August 2009:

Why did it take so long?

Google’s solution to this problem – like a hammer which only sees nail – was to “develop a machine learning process to wipe out unofficial Esta ads.”

That process took eight years.

In the meantime, countless numbers of people were paying over and above what they should have for entering their details into a very simple online form.

Of course, Google met its minimum standard obligation of investigating and taking down any links that users reported were incorrect, but the companies taking advantage of Google’s incompetence could very simply edit the domain name and resubmit, a relatively trivial operation.

The BBC even sent some unofficial ads to Google, which its algorithms dutifully allowed to be displayed.

(It turns out that this process didn’t even fix the problem. It’s still possible to see unofficial advertising for ESTA visa waivers on Google. This story found dozens of fake ads charging up to $100, days after Google said it had fixed the problem.)

Now apply this problem to media savvy terrorist attacks

A Google mindset of do it first, collect data, and improve it over time (or Facebook’s “move fast and break things”) has dramatic consequences when more malicious operators take advantage of their weaknesses.

Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have all been far too slow in taking down videos of the New Zealand terrorist attack. Even though they all have large, dedicated and sophisticated moderation teams seeking to remove this information, they are unable to stop people re-uploading videos. 

The obvious question is, why don’t technology companies do it manually? I agree with Alex Hern who says, they could have, “one person – just one – to sit there searching for ‘New Zealand terror attack’ and just delete the obvious reposts that keep popping up on that search term.”

So why don’t they do it? I also agree with Alex’s reason, that they have, “a desire to build scalable systems rather than one-off applications of human labour.”

Technology solutions: 
-Create a new algorithm to identify suspect terrorist uploads
-Use content ID matching algorithms
-Use AI-enhanced moderation
Human solutions:
-Disable video uploads temporarily
-Manually delete videos
-Employ editors to approve questionable content first

Technology companies can’t fix every problem with an algorithm

Just as big tech doesn’t invest in ideas that don’t “scale”, they won’t invest in solving problems unless there’s a scalable solution. Technology companies think they can “fix” unsolvable problems with maths. They think they can “fix” the problem of terrorists sharing their content with an algorithm, just like they can “fix” the problem of people being scammed for ESTA forms.

As the ESTA example show, they can’t. 

Humans might not be as fast than algorithms, but they’re cleverer, and technology companies need to wise up too.