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Follow The Money

23 May 2019 06:06PM climate-election

If you can make it rational, easy and normal for people to do something for the planet, they'll do it. So let's put that into practice!

Our case study for today? Banking.


I think it's pretty fascinating to look at consumer banking technology in different parts of the world. It's almost like looking into alternate histories, in an aspect of our lives that mostly tends to fade into the background and get taken for granted.

Like... if you lived in the US, you'd apparently either still be slinging cheques (checks?) around, or be sending money in some kind of publically accessible feed.

But I guess we can apply the same kind of thinking to the actual past as well. The criteria I used to pick my first bank were something like:

I can't remember the last time visited a branch, and the idea that I once chose a service provider based on how many metal boxes they have scattered across the landscape seems insane. But we tend to stick with banks, even when our criteria change, because there's this perception that switching is much harder than it really is - but more on that in a second.

By comparison, here's what I'd look for today:

This is a pretty huge shift. We've gone from physical infrastructure and having the cash to sign on with credit card providers, to an almost entirely digital landscape. These are services that much smaller players can provide just as well as larger ones - often better. In terms of "can I get shit done," larger banks used to have a clear advantage. Now, that's pretty much gone.

But it's that last one that really gets me, because tying someone's payment details to their phone number or email address suddenly opens up a world of possibility.


One of the neat things about owning a domain name (and you'll have to excuse me as I dive from banking minutiae to email minutiae) is that you can separate your contact details from your service provider. If your primary online identity is, then you're pretty much tied to Gmail forever. If it's, you've suddenly got a whole range of options. You can swap out the back-end service provider without having to update your contact details.

(I guess the less geeky version of this, and perhaps the comparison I should have picked to start with, is being able to take your mobile number with you when you change providers)

And that's what we're just seeing the beginnings of in banking. If your payment details are tied to something you control, like a phone number, and not something your bank controls like an account number, it suddenly gets much easier to change the underlying service provider. You can change banks like you'd change mobile providers, and your money can still reach you.

On top of that, the payment platform it's built on top of makes it way easier to run accounts with multiple banks in parallel.


So we're reaching a point, thanks to technology, where:

  1. Smaller players can actually give you the service you need - maybe even better, and;
  2. The friction of switching is starting to drop, which means;
  3. Changing banks is probably actually viable for a lot more people.

Which is pretty neat! Because it turns out banks are one of the best places to get money to fund fossil fuel projects. If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you don't want your money to be a part of that - and it's never been easier to switch.

Now, there's two ways of framing this. We could see it as a largely symbolic (depending on your finances) attempt to get yourself out of some awful guilt. Or, we could see it as a prudent strategy to get yourself out of an awful investment.

Not just because these investments are bad for the planet (and that's increasingly going to be a financial step rather than a moral one) but because they're expensive and unreliable and risky, where renewables are cheap and reliable and safe. We're not going to have to wait long before supporting fossil fuels is totally untenable anyway - why not avoid the crash?

The best thing you can do to sell that change is to do it. And then, if it does come up, you can say with confidence that you've done it yourself. That it took you an afternoon, and that it's no big deal. Act like it's the most sensible, obviousl thing in the world, because it is. Make it normal.

I know all of this because I actually did it myself a couple of months ago, and it didn't only take an afternoon, and it wasn't a big deal, and I've been waiting for the chance to write about it ever since.

In the desolate, hand-wringing wasteland of election shock, this is something you can actually do, a conversation you can actually have, and an change you can actually convince someone to make.

Because it's rational. It's easy. And all the cool kids are doing it.

Have I convinced you yet?

Weaponised Self-Interest

22 May 2019 08:29PM climate-electionscicomm

We might not agree on the problem - but we maybe we can agree on the solution.

It's tempting to froth about the majority of voters this election by claiming that they're stupid or irrational for ignoring the climate and voting based on, for example, tax policies instead.

The truth is that they're perfectly rational and intelligent humans. They've very rationally voted on the things that matter to them - their own well-being, and the opinions of people close to them.

They can know that climate change is real, understand what the global effects are, and still make the perfectly rational decision that their, and their children, and their community's immediate wellbeing is more important, because it is. Humans are hard-wired to care about this sort of stuff, because deep down we're just upright monkeys. We need food and shelter, and we need our tribe to accept us, and caring about those is the most rational thing in the world.

Fast Cars And Free Power

So shouting that the planet is dying is not going to work. Everyone that was going to be convinced by that message has been. Shouting it louder isn't going to help. It's time for a different approach.

We need to change the way we talk about climate change - and more importantly, about climate solutions, and the way we do that is by framing the conversation differently.

There's a couple of ways we might approach this. Some of them have even been tested. In particular, we know that it's more effective to talk about climate change in terms of what we can save, not what we're losing, and in terms of local and familiar things rather than abstract and distant things.

We could talk about it in economic terms - it's going to be cheaper to do mitigation now than it will be to build flood barriers in ten years. That it's already costing us, in water trucking and desalination and fish kills and crop failures.

But even here we're still talking about the problem. What if we - hear me out - we started talking up the solutions instead? Becuase here's the thing - the transition to a clean economy isn't just necessary, it's really exciting.. The problems are bad, yes - but the solutions are very, very good. The solutions are independence from unreliable grids, and adding value to your house. They're fast cars you can charge at home, and power that's too cheap to even think about. They're cargo ships with carbon-fiber sails, and electric blimps dotting the sky. And they're the chance to get filthy Elon Musk-level rich by investing in those solutions. The renewable future is awesome, fossil fuels are a dying industry, and anyone who says otherwise is a wowser.

Yes, writing that felt bit gross, but that's the point - these messages aren't for us. They're for the people we've failed to convince. This is hard! It means you have to put yourself in your audience's head, and that's a skill that takes time and practise to master.

The goal here is that in three years' time it is normal and socially acceptable to say "I don't give a shit about the climate, but don't you dare touch my electricity and transport prices or do anything to negatively impact my investment portfolio"

This is how you change behaviour. Not by changing people's values, but by showing how what you want them to do aligns with what they want anyway. You have to make it rational, and then they'll do it.

Elections Are A Trailing Indicator

For the person up the back who's had their hand up for the last paragraph to say that individual actions aren't going to cut it, I see you. Don't worry, we're getting to that. We've got a couple of tricks up our sleeve.

First, we'll be creating more demand for renewable energy, and reducing the market for non-renewables. If we shift demand, shift sales, and start to shift investment, we're starting to speak a language that the big players - governments, corporations, and so on, understand - at least more than they do platitudes about the planet. One of the reasons climate change has gotten this far is that there's no financial penalty for polluting, but as clean energy gets cheaper and supply and demand starts to shift, that will start to change.

They've made this fight about jobs and money, and that will be their undoing, because ultimately this is where the jobs and the money are. Because pretty soon nobody will be buying from or working in coal mines.

Second, in the long run, this is how we change values. We like to think that we make choices based on what we believe, but in reality it's the other way round - we shape our values based on the actions we take. Make it cheap and easy to do, make it obvious that it's what everyone is doing, and you can change people's behaviour. Change people's behaviour, and cognitive dissonance will do the rest

Show people a 5c refund, and they'll become passionate recyclers. Show them free power, and they'll become passionate advocates for renewable energy.

And that's how we change the government next time - whether that comes through changing policy or changing party is irrelevant. We shift the conversation, we shift the behaviour, we shift the market, we shift the values, and then, only then, once voters are clamouring for renewable incentives the same way they clamour for negative gearing, do we get to change the policy. Democracies are reactive, not proactive - they give people what they want, not what they don't. So if you want to change climate policy, you have to make them want it.

This climate election, the people didn't want it. But we can make sure that next time, they do.

Nothing that I've written here is new. It's also not guaranteed to work. But if, like me, you're looking for something to do that isn't just despair and shouting into the void, maybe it's worth a shot.

The world's most cautious optimism

20 May 2019 04:00PM lifeclimate-election

I'm increasingly glad didn't rage tweet about this weekend's election result.

I slammed some doors and walked a block or two to grab some of my favourite beer instead, and I'm glad that I did, because having taken some time to process things I'm not actually sure the things I would've tweeted would have been warranted.

the damage doesn't look as bad from out here...

The truth is that last night was a shock, but it wasn't from the end of the world. At least, not yet.

As humans we have this innate desire to tell stories about what happened, to try and explain phenomena larger than we can possibly comprehend. If that helps you, go for it, but I'm not sure that speculation is particularly useful right now - at least not for me. Everyone who voted on Saturday did so for their own reasons. Thanks to the wonders of the secret ballot, we can never know what those are.

Here is what we do know. As a nation, we are not morons. We do not deserve every inch of sea level rise and every degree of warming, or to be alternately boiled alive and flooded to death in our negatively geared homes.

(All very real thoughts, which I definitely thought on my walk to the shops, and which I have definitely seen articulated on Twitter since.)

We are selfish, and short-sighted, and overly concerned with what others think of us, but that doesn't make us bad people - it just makes us people.

Getting involved in this election was all about feeling like I could do something. Six months ago, I sat in a room and helped write what I thought our goals should for the Swan campaign on post-it notes. Two themes showed up pretty quickly - we wanted to get enough senate votes to return our senator, and we wanted the current member for Swan to have "a really uncomfortable evening."

Jordon is almost certainly back, and Steve Irons has scraped re-election with a 4% hit to his primary vote.

All things considered I'd say we actually did pretty well.

But I still need to feel like I'm doing something, and if you're reading this I suspect you might too.

The reality is that not much has changed. Our goalposts are exactly where they were before. We have a biosphere to maintain and a government that's not interested in doing so. We have put the people whose job it is to fight for this kind of stuff back where they need to be, and they are sure as shit going to keep doing it. But electing a government is just a tiny part of our job.

So I'm going to be doing some writing, because that's going to help me. And I am going to write about some things that you can do to feel like you're doing something too. I hope you can join me!

Artefacts of light

07 April 2019 01:49PM lifeintrospection

For Christmas last year, Grace got me this gorgeous beast:

a nikon nikkormat ft2

Yeah, that's right. I shoot on film now.

In all seriousness though: I've gone from having one phone camera about 18 months ago to having three cameras now - two of which are actually quite nice. And I think it's fascinating the way I think about them and use them differently.

My phone camera is all about remembering. It's always with me, it's small and quick to use. The photos it takes are spontaneous, and the picture itself is often less important than the memory it jogs.

My "proper" digital camera is for sharing. It's more powerful and more flexible and more importantly, produces photos that someone else might want to look at. It's a purposeful storytelling tool, whether that's illustrating a blog post or standing on its own.

This new camera - old camera? - is a different beast entirely. It's got a limited roll and no playback, so every shot is composed. The settings are simple, but they're all manual, so every shot is meditative and mindful. The other cameras are about the result, but this is about the process. It's about enjoying every step of making a thing. This camera is fun.

But I there's something else I want to dig into there as well, something that's a bit deeper than just "it's fun". And to figure out what that is, you have to look at why you'd take pictures on film at all.

When I got them back from the developer, I was blown away by how right these photos looked. Maybe some of that is because I'm used to noisy smartphone pics. But these are crisp and dreamy and awash with style without any kind of filter. The colours are true, in the absence of white balance, but somehow also reflect how the thing felt. They're not photons on pixels, they're so clearly beams etched on film. They are artefacts of light, and they are beautiful, and they are real, and that is worth something.

Because the photos are real. There is no abstraction. There is no digitisation, noise reduction, white balancing or lens correction. There's no fixing the exposure or tweaking the curves. This is nothing more or less than physics slamming into chemistry at 300 000 kilometres a second.

And the camera is real too.

With a frankly astonishing combination of shaped glass and layered chemicals and precision engineering we figured out how to catch light. We did this with a completely mechanical device that moves reliably and accurately in thousandths of a second, that lets in just the right amount of light into a box that's otherwise completely dark. And somehow, on top of all that, it's a joy to hold and use. It is nothing short of genius that we were able to achive this.

We thought of and measured and built this by hand, and it is beautiful.

It's early days yet, but that's what I think I love about this camera. It's closing on 50 years old, and not only does it still work perfectly, it's also still pretty much the pinnacle of its technology. Sure, we've tinkered around the edges since then, adding autofocus and other tweaks to make the job easier, but in terms of exposing a rectangle of film to precisely the right amount of light there's really no further to go.

Computers have eaten the world. We're so used to the idea of machines thinking for us - or at least I am - that when something comes along that's entirely analogue it kind of just leaves me reeling. It's completely dumb, but it's so clever. Cameras, and clocks, and record players and printing presses, and the Saturn V moon rocket - they're works of collective human genius, built bit by bit by thousands of minds. They remind us that we were capable of so much. And when we put our minds to it, we still can be.

Anyway, enough navel-gazing. Go look at some photos:

flickr album preview and link

The Problem With Twitter.

24 February 2019 12:00AM rants

It's about using the platform, not letting it use you.

The sludge

Twitter is a a microcosm of the internet as a whole. It's public. It's anonymous. It's divorced from any sense of humanity. Anyone can comment on anything, and that means some truly horrible stuff is only a click away. You might control what tweets you see initially, but the context you see them in - the replies - that's under the control of complete strangers with nothing to lose.

That's easy enough to control, just as it is on the rest of the internet - don't read the comments. But Twitter's developed this odd habit of inserting random content into your feed from complete strangers, like bizarre intrusive thoughts.

I get why. It comes from the desire to 'surface' new content and drive your follow count up and boost your engagement time and sell more ads. I understand it, but that doesn't mean that I consent to it.

I keep my feed deliberately low-politics for my own sanity, and Twitter are pushing that junk into my face and I don't want it. It's intended to drive engagement, but that increased engagement comes at a cost of decreased enhjoyment.

We seem to have fallen, as a society (and this is a much larger issue that I am really only touching on) into the delusion that getting angry at people is a) a fun pastime, and b) the best way to change minds. And neither of those is true.

So either because people have come to enjoy shouting, or because the platform can't tell the difference between constructive dialogue and horrific trolling (they're both increased platform engagement after all) - or maybe both - the interface injects stuff into my feed when I don't want it there, with the hope that I'll take the bait.

In other words, the platform itself is trolling me.

The rush

Once you actually stop and think about it, notifications make exactly zero sense. Why do I need to know if i've been liked or retweeted? I cannot action that in any way - it's just to give me a nice little dopamine rush.

A little more insidious, though, is the little "pull to refresh" action at the top of your feed. It's a literal Skinner box, conditioning you into pulling that lever over and over because you never know what kind of tasty snack will fall out.

And sometimes, just to keep you on the hook, it refreshes on its own, pulling you out of wherever you're at to take you off to something fresh and new. You can never be finished, you can never be focused. The stream moves ever onwards. The more people you follow, the longer it takes to swim against that stream.

I - and I suspect I'm not alone - like to feel like I'm up to date, and I will keep checking until I am. I want to batch process my twitter feed the way I scrub my inbox - once a day, all at once. An unpredictable streaming timeline makes that impossible.

And again, I get why. It drives engagement, which drives ad sales. But what's good for advertisers isn't necessarily a good experience for users.

The noise

Let's get right down to it - the real problem with Twitter is that there's no single clear reason to use it. Instead you get all your friends, all your interests, all your news, running down one continuous timeline. Which sounds attractive in theory, perhaps even seductively so - one place for all my things, and so many things I like in one place!

Those are actually very different uses for a platform though, and I don't want them all jumbled up together.

I broke mine down by category, and there's about five distinct things I use Twitter for:

  1. I use it to keep up with my friends.
  2. I use it as a platform to directly consume content (mostly bots)
  3. I use it to stay on top of news (mostly science)
  4. I use it to get updates for content on other platforms (mostly blogs)
  5. I use it for service provider notifications

That's a lot of conceptually separate stuff all in the same channel, and it's enough to do your head in.

The solution?

Here's the kicker - none of that is inherent to the platform. Twitter was - and still is - a collection of users posting public timestamped messages. These odd behaviours are entirely an artifact of the interface they've layered on top of that database. Nothing about tweets necessitates streaming updates, or 'surfacing content', or having a single timeline. Those are interface decisions, and you can work around them.

So I've turned off push notifications and automatic updates. I don't get updates on likes and retweets. I use the pro clients, built for the people who sell ads, not the ones who consume them, which have no intrusive content.

And suddenly Twitter is a nice place again.

So what?

If you've come here from Twitter: I will respond to your mention or your DM... eventually. I probably won't pay any attention to what you like and retweet though, so go nuts.

But in terms of a moral? The simple message is that you don't have settle for the interface you're given. The broader message is maybe think about the way you use your technology - and the way it uses you.

< Method Of Loci