Always Look On The Bright Side…

Following the so-called roadmap to reopening the Victorian economy, this week I was sorely tempted to vent my anger and frustration at the situation we find ourselves in Melbourne – a situation in large part due to the failure of the hotel quarantine programme, which has been identified as the source of the community transmission, and the consequent devastating impact on the aged care and health care sectors. (Unlike our politicians and civil servants, I refuse to use the term “settings” – “settings” are what you use on a microwave oven…..). I was going to describe how our current Federal and State leaders decline to take specific responsibility for their respective Administration’s mistakes, while continuing to treat the citizens of Melbourne like a political football…. Instead, I decided to be more hopeful, and reflect on some of the positive aspects of the continuing lock-down.

First, most of us are still here, and most of us remain healthy – and although I have not socialized with family or friends for 6 months, I can still have Zoom calls and virtual drinks.

Second, despite the lack of social interaction, thanks to “no contact” front doorstep drop-offs, friends and neighbours have provided small gifts such as home-made bread and home-grown herbs and vegetables.

Third, on-line shopping has got a lot better, despite some of the shipping delays – on the downside, I probably won’t be in a hurry to revisit bricks and mortar retail….

Fourth, by not eating out, and by not using public transport, I’m saving money – some of which is being redirected to small luxuries such as dine-at-home restaurant meals and domestic gadgets.

Fifth, my local green space, Yarra Park is thriving, because the lawns are not being used as a car park several days a week – it’s actually encouraging more people to use it for its original purpose of public recreation.

Sixth, courtesy of the 1-hour daily exercise regime, on my walks I have been exploring parts of the City that I thought I knew well, often discovering new historical aspects or architectural features I had never noticed before (and all within a 5km radius of my home, of course).

Seventh, when I do venture out for food shopping, thanks to the limits on numbers, the supermarket is less crowded and the experience is actually far more relaxing than when having to shop in normal peak hours.

Eighth, the enforced and extended work-from-home regime means I have come to appreciate my domestic surroundings, even though it can get a bit claustrophobic being cooped up most of the time.

Ninth, I have found time to finish and release a new album on Bandcamp (thanks to the few generous souls who have actually paid to download it!).

Tenth, notwithstanding some testing days, I find that after nearly 25 years, my relationship with my significant other has proven to be remarkably resilient.

So, on reflection, I can think of far worse situations and locations to be in. I know I will get through this, and although things will never be “normal” again, I think I will have re-set my personal priorities and regained a sense of what is or isn’t important. It’s been a hard lesson (and continues to be a challenging experience), but hopefully it will bring long-term benefits.

Next week: Revisiting Purpose

 

 

 

Blockchain and the Limits of Trust

Last week I was privileged to be a guest on This Is Imminent, a new form of Web TV hosted by Simon Waller. The given topic was Blockchain and the Limitations of Trust.

For a replay of the Web TV event go here

As regular readers will know, I have been immersed in the world of Blockchain, cryptocurrency and digital assets for over four years – and while I am not a technologist, I think know enough to understand some of the potential impact and implications of Blockchain on distributed networks, decentralization, governance, disintermediation, digital disruption, programmable money, tokenization, and for the purposes of last week’s discussion, human trust.

The point of the discussion was to explore how Blockchain might provide a solution to the absence of trust we currently experience in many areas of our daily lives. Even better, how Blockchain could enhance or expand our existing trusted relationships, especially across remote networks. The complete event can be viewed here, but be warned that it’s not a technical discussion (and wasn’t intended to be), although Simon did find a very amusing video that tries to explain Blockchain with the aid of Spam (the luncheon meat, not the unwanted e-mail).

At a time when our trust in public institutions is being tested all the time, it’s more important than ever to understand the nature of trust (especially trust placed in any new technology), and to navigate how we establish, build and maintain trust in increasingly peer-to-peer, fractured, fragmented, open and remote networks.

To frame the conversation, I think it’s important to lay down a few guiding principles.

First, a network is only as strong as its weakest point of connection.

Second, there are three main components to maintaining the integrity of a “trusted” network:

  • how are network participants verified?
  • how secure is the network against malicious actors?
  • what are the penalties or sanctions for breaking that trust?

Third, “trust” in the context of networks is a proxy for “risk” – how much or how far are we willing to trust a network, and everyone connected to it?

For example, if you and I know each other personally and I trust you as a friend, colleague or acquaintance, does that mean I should automatically trust everyone else you know? (Probably not.) Equally, should I trust you just because you know all the same people as me? (Again, probably not.) Each relationship (or connection) in that type of network has to be evaluated on its own merits. Although we can do a certain amount of due diligence and triangulation, as each network becomes larger, it’s increasingly difficult for us to “know” each and every connection.

Let’s suppose that the verification process is set appropriately high, that the network is maintained securely, and that there are adequate sanctions for abusing the network trust –  then it is possible for each connection to “know” each other, because the network has created the minimum degree of trust for the network to be viable. Consequently, we might conclude that only trustworthy people would want to join a network based on trust where each transaction is observable and traceable (albeit in the case of Blockchain, pseudonymously).

When it comes to trust and risk assessment, it still amazes me the amount of personal (and private) information people are willing to share on social media platforms, just to get a “free” account. We seem to be very comfortable placing an inordinate amount of trust in these highly centralized services both to protect our data and to manage our relationships – which to me is something of an unfair bargain.

Statistically we know we are more likely to be killed in a car accident than in a plane crash – but we attach far more risk to flying than to driving. Whenever we take our vehicle out on to the road, we automatically assume that every other driver is licensed, insured, and competent to drive, and that their car is taxed and roadworthy. We cannot verify this information ourselves, so we have to trust in both the centralized systems (that regulate drivers, cars and roads), and in each and every individual driver – but we know there are so many weak points in that structure.

Blockchain has the ability to verify each and every participant and transaction on the network, enabling all users to trust in the security and reliability of network transactions. In addition, once verified, participants do not have to keep providing verification each time they want to access the network, because the network “knows” enough about each participant that it can create a mutual level of trust without everyone having to have direct knowledge of each other.

In the asymmetric relationships we have created with centralized platforms such as social media, we find ourselves in a very binary situation – once we have provided our e-mail address, date of birth, gender and whatever else is required, we cannot be confident that the platform “forgets” that information when it no longer needs it. It’s a case of “all or nothing” as the price of network entry. Whereas, if we operated under a system of self-sovereign digital identity (which technology like Blockchain can facilitate), then I can be sure that such platforms only have access to the specific personal data points that I am willing to share with them, for the specific purpose I determine, and only for as long as I decide.

Finally, taking control of, and being responsible for managing our own personal information (such as a private key for a digital wallet) is perhaps a step too far for some people. They might not feel they have enough confidence in their own ability to be trusted with this data, so they would rather delegate this responsibility to centralized systems.

Next week: Always Look On The Bright Side…

 

Distractions during Lock-down

As Melbourne enters its second week of Stage 4 lock-down, I must admit to feeling a little frustrated by the whole “working from home” scenario. Even though, up until 18 months ago, I had worked from home for the previous 8 years, the past 6 months of enforced #WFH is starting to lose its appeal. The lack of social interaction is another factor, although I know we could be in a worse situation. This week I was supposed to be travelling overseas for a family wedding and to visit elderly parents – that’s not going to be happening for a while. In an attempt to cheer myself up, here are some lighter observations on how we have been keeping ourselves amused during lock-down.

  • Daily exercise – at least I can still get out for an hour’s walk each day, and perhaps grab a takeaway coffee in the process (but don’t take liberties by walking the 5kms with your mask off and empty latte cup in hand…)
  • Gadgets – online shopping has been a boon. I’ve acquired Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones, a new iPad, a DAB+ radio, a stand-up desk, a ring-light, plus another batch of expensive Apple adaptors to cope with domestic hot-desking
  • Lounge wear – following on from the above, I haven’t worn a shirt with a collar, let alone a suit, in 6 months, so I’ve extended my informal wardrobe to embrace pyjamas that masquerade as lounge wear (or vice versa)
  • Hobbies – first it was sourdough, now my friends are into making butter, cheese and home-made gin. Others are into jigsaws, or acquiring puppies, while I read somewhere that sales of craft supplies are on the increase. Me, I’ve been catching up on home recording studio
  • Dine at home – I’m not a huge fan of takeaways (the food is often cold, and doesn’t travel well), but I’ve grown a liking for “prepare at home” meals that are keeping some local restaurants busy
  • Alcohol – latest data suggests daily consumption is up, which is understandable (but also a concern). I’ve been trying to maintain 2-3 AFD’s each week, and make sure I opt for quality over quantity
  • Clearance corner – I’m sure like me, most people have accumulated a pile of domestic items they no longer need; we are spending more time at home and discover the limits of our domestic space (and need to make room for the online shopping). Now we are waiting for the op-shops and council dumps to re-open…
  • Radio – I’ve mostly given up on TV; despite the “choice” presented by wall-to-wall streaming and end-to-end bingeing, I’ve actually found less to watch. Instead, I listen to more radio – ABC Jazz, SBS Chill, BBC Radio 4 Extra, and BBC Radio 6’s Freak Zone.
  • Small luxuries – if I can’t get to cafes and restaurants (and therefore, I’m not spending as much money on eating out), I figure I can bring some of those luxuries into my home. In addition to the Dine at home option above, I’ve also been buying quality produce from local suppliers – coffee beans, cheese, meat, small goods, wine (subject to the requisite numebr of AFD’s) and honey.
  • Reading – there have been some very timely novels published in the last 6-12 months, some of then scarily prescient.
  • Brain training – finally, because Lock-down is like Groundhog Month, I am getting into something of a daily routine, and with the lack of some external stimuli, I don’t want my brain to atrophy, so I’ve started using a brain training app – not sure of the results, but at least it passes a few more minutes…

Next week: Responsibility vs Accountability

 

 

Life During Lock-down

As I write, Victoria is witnessing record numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the so-called second wave of the pandemic. Even as the State Government maintains the Stage 3 lock-down in Greater Melbourne (and most recently mandated the wearing of masks), some members of the public are trying to challenge these restrictions, while others have to keep being reminded to comply with the pandemic measures. Frankly, the way I have been feeling about the latest events, I don’t know whether to laugh, scream or cry.

The Village of Eyam – Image sourced from National Geographic

Laugh, because I can’t believe how crass or stupid some of these refuseniks are. Scream, because I am so angry at the State Government’s failure to properly manage the hotel quarantine programme (which has led to the widespread community transmission), and the delayed decision to require masks in public. Cry, because the whole situation is incredibly sad, given all the people who have lost loved ones to the virus, and the many more who are experiencing financial hardship.

The Premier keeps saying that now is not the time to debate the whys and wherefores of who is responsible for the failure in hotel security arrangements, what caused the community transmission, or why so many people continued with their normal routines despite being symptomatic or while waiting for coronavirus test results. OK, fair enough – the Government’s main focus is on protecting public health (and shoring up the local economy), but hopefully there will be plenty of time for analysis and debate once the virus is under control (and hopefully well before the next State election, due in 2022…).

Meanwhile, I don’t know why politicians and health administrators are so surprised when members of the public fail to “exercise common sense”. Maybe the public kept hearing the Government was doing a such a great job (hey, remember Lock-down Pt. I?). Perhaps they over-compensated after a few weeks’ social distancing, became complacent and let down their guard. Or maybe they took their lead from public messages about “returning to normal” – and going to the footy and getting on the beers again….. Perhaps there is a sizeable portion of the community who can’t be trusted “to do the right thing” (or maybe they just don’t trust politicians, public servants, health experts or mainstream media).

As for why those people carried on as usual (despite being symptomatic or awaiting test results): there may be economic factors at play (to be discussed another day, but if that doesn’t include a debate on a Universal Basic Income, it will be a lost opportunity). It could be a lack of information and awareness. It could simply be human nature. But for a culture that celebrates “chucking a sickie” (indeed, one former Prime Minister even suggested it would be a point of national pride to do so following Australia’s success in the Americas Cup), something has gone wrong somewhere if people don’t feel any responsibility or obligation towards the health of their fellow citizens.

In my more existentialist moments (and I seem to have so much more time for that these days…), I can’t help thinking the pandemic is a three-fold challenge to the future of the human race: 1) the virus is nature’s way of inoculating itself against homo sapiens; 2) it will prove Darwin’s theory of evolution (survival of the fittest) by exploiting our weakness as social creatures – it’s figured out how to get us to spread the virus on its behalf; 3) the reduced levels of human activity and pollution will give the earth some time to heal (at least for a while).

At other times, I think about Talking Heads’ song “Life During Wartime”* – especially the line “I got some groceries, some peanut butter to last a couple of days”. With the need to limit shopping trips, the various shortages, and the focus on being prepared for a total lock-down, is it any wonder we may feel some anxiety? Of course, we could be in a far worse situation than what we are currently experiencing in Melbourne, both in terms of the number of cases and the breakdown in social order we see elsewhere. Yet that just underscores how inconsiderate and selfish those people are who can’t bring themselves to wear masks, or observe Stage 3 restrictions. Yes, the restrictions are inconvenient, and at times tedious, but they are hardly onerous compared to a full scale health crisis. And if anyone wants to discuss public sacrifice in the face of a virulent disease, I suggest they do some research on the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England.

For myself, I know I have been very fortunate so far (probably thanks to some “compound privilege”). I have been able to work from home since March (although as an independent contractor, my monthly income has been reduced), but I have not seen any friends or family face-to-face either, and I won’t be traveling overseas next month for a family wedding, or to visit elderly parents. I am able to walk each day in the nearby park, but apart from food shops and the post office, I’ve not been inside any other retail premises. I haven’t been to pubs or restaurants, but I try to support the local hospitality sector by ordering prepare-at-home meals about once a week. I can’t get to see live music, but this has forced me to revisit my own music-making. And I don’t have to do any home-schooling, but I have friends and relatives who work in the health and education sectors.

My biggest concern, apart from the pandemic itself, is that we miss the opportunity to re-think the large areas of the economy that need restructuring. Politicians keep talking about “jobs, jobs, jobs”, as if the archaic labour structures inherent in the traditional master and servant relationship is the be-all and end-all of social economics. But where are these jobs coming from? COVID19 shows we can consume less, make do with less stuff, and so it can’t just be a demand-led stimulus. Nor should it just be a construction-led recovery (more “Big Build”), unless it is combined with innovation, sustainability, hi-tech, smart cities, etc. There is definitely a need to think about national self-sufficiency, and figure out what to do about supply chains, manufacturing and renewable energy.

Somehow, we have to turn this uncertainty and these challenges into positive outcomes.

Next week: The Limits of Technology

* The whole album, “Fear of Music” is the perfect soundtrack for the nervous paranoia and unease of the pandemic…..