Yearnotes: 2020

Looking back at my 2019 notes, it is tempting to say little has changed. My conclusion then feels prescient:

So, this is my inspiration for 2020 (reposting from November):

screenshot of tweet
“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” is Scottish writer Alasdair Gray’s rephrasing of a line from beloved Canadian poet Dennis Lee (the original was "a better world").

“The Jackpot” comes from William Gibson's novel The Peripheral, and is a distributed, slow-motion apocalypse of climate change, crop failures and famine, pandemic, political collapse, etc.

My resolution for 2020 has been going ok:

instagram image of embroidery saying "move purposely and grow things"

Perhaps we can skip the 'unprecedented' or 'strange' comments, and simply feel lucky that the challenges of this year for a lot of 'us' were not that significant compared to the challenges of this or other years for so many in our own country, let alone those in war-torn regions, or refugees, or imprisoned in labour camps, and so on. And it could have been - and perhaps will be - worse next time.

Leaving my main job (at lowRISC) at the end of January was perhaps not the greatest timing with hindsight, but it was definitely the right decision both short and long term. It meant I had the opportunity to use my skills and to do things I otherwise wouldn't've been able to do, and to find the right role for me at a good time in September. Some of the job-hunting experience was fascinating, too, and the extra time to reflect on what I really wanted to do was definitely helpful. 

It seems a long time since the start of the year, when I was regularly popping down to London on the train for a variety of activities. We had the kick-off board meetings for OpenUK, the anniversary celebration of the Machine Intelligence Garage (and it does feel like I've served on the Ethics Committee there forever, not for 2 years and a bit), and a bunch of Doteveryone workshops for a Big Mystery Client. 

It was bittersweet when Doteveryone closed in the spring, but having prepared and delivered those workshops made it feel like we'd crafted and created and landed the right ideas, and that others would excel at the next steps.

The rest of the spring was a mixture of job hunting and volunteer work, and part time endeavours at the Cambridge Computer Lab. Two very long and time-consuming recruitment processes saw me reach the very final stages before things stalled, which was tedious but not particularly distressing. I ended up mostly working on HelpfulEngineering, although there were no shortage of projects looking for help, whether in manufacturing or software or data or actually supporting local communities with things like food and essential support.  I had resolved to avoid doing community coordination, but in the end that was what I did quite a lot of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

screenshot of tweet

I hope our modest efforts around coordination of supply, demand and effort, and information, were useful. Who can tell? (I have no idea whether anyone was researching the various initiatives at the time, or whether they leave behind any records that will last beyond short donated periods of web services, scattered social media and so on.)

It all catalysed new communities, though; I leave the year with new friends, too. 

I also worked on the University of Cambridge's "rapid response" test, trace, isolate working group through much of the year. It's fair to say that my idea of rapid response is not aligned with this august institution's conception of the term. (This is not a surprise, and not the first time that my idea of a reasonable pace of things has been not been matched by the University.) Nonetheless, the working group worked exceptionally hard, and delivered both symptomatic testing and asymptomatic screening programmes. My main contribution to all this effort was, I think, ensuring that we did not make An App (and also did not waste effort attempting to). 

(I also helped the Computer Lab with some other projects this year, including working with an organisation nearly as old as the University, making some embarrassing videos, and muttering darkly about power and inequality at the launch event for the new data trusts initiative.)

The summer also saw great progress at CoFarm Cambridge, especially once volunteers cofarmers were able to get to the site. We weren't able to prove out the business model, as all the harvest this year was donated to local food hubs for those in need, but it was still a great first year:

After a slow period with few reasonable jobs being advertised, things picked up in the summer and there were suddenly a lot more opportunities to apply for, even with my fairly fussy standards as to what I might consider, even in a pandemic. Having experienced some unimpressive recruitment processes earlier in the year, it was a delight to go through the well structured and thought-out one at the OPEN, where I am now CTO. It's a lovely place to work with incredibly thoughtful, driven, smart and humane colleagues, and the same attributes apply across the network of progressive campaign groups we serve. I'm properly onboarded now and looking forward to doing more significant pieces of work in 2021. As one of the tech directors in the network noted, my role is a little like being CTO to 20 organisations (OPEN itself plus 19 members) which brings some interesting challenges in strategy development :)

That's two Opens I work with, then - one acronym and one actual word name. OpenUK has made great progress, all things considered, and the events this autumn were really lovely moments bringing together people from the various 'opens.' Amanda Brock has been a powerhouse of energy and drive, despite the challenges of getting a new/revitalised thing off the ground in a year full of distractions.  

My other new board role this year is with Now Play This, which feels a pleasantly light contrast to everything else. Our 2021 open call (closes 5th January) is for games with a climate angle.

The Festival of Maintenance did not take place as a day long in person event, but instead moved online, running a range of sessions, some in collaboration with The Maintainers. We'd already noted that we think there's an ongoing conversation here, not just an annual festival, and to mark that we rebranded, and opened up our Slack.     

We also helped out with a design class at CMU, which was enlightening and fun. Thanks Dan for the opportunity, and the shared philosophy. 

screenshot of tweet

One of our best Maintain events was our festive chat in December, where a bunch of new and existing community members came along and discussed all kinds of things. We spoke of D=darning, and the hours of daylight available for maintenance in the past and today; the interestingness of maintaining an old ship, and the excruciating boredom of maintaining a modern ship; maintaining analogue hifi systems where the community of skilled people is so small, that individual deaths have a huge impact. Whether it is easier to maintain charismatic megastructures than other things; whether you get an unloved system to be cared for, by encouraging people to care for individual components; maintaining biodiversity, maintaining trust. 

Someone there noted that perhaps one thing we might lose through Brexit could be our sense of complacency; that might be a general benefit from 2020.

screenshot of tweet

Indy always has a refreshingly different take on things:

screenshot of tweet

Brexit is less worrying than the structural issues with how our politics is working, illustrated by eg

screenshot of tweet

Maybe it should be an offence for MPs to mislead the public - there's a petition for that.

Then there's:

screenshot of tweet

However we interpret "build back better" or the hopes for "green new deals", there's a bunch of practical work around these systems and institutions too, to tackle the populism and cronyism and so on. That's on top of local needs for very basic societal infrastructures after a decade of austerity. 

There's nothing like working with civil society around the globe to put things in perspective, and help priortise what really matters.

My first "unexpectedly online" event this year was the Open Hardware Summit, which was really wonderful, even if one hadn't known that the team had turned it around from happening in New York to on the internet in just a few days. I wouldn't've been able to go in person. This was followed by quite a few events - some of which I'd have been to in person, and some of which I wouldn't. OPEN2020 (yes, I know, a third OPEN, honestly) was a highlight as usual. Overall I suspect it was a year with no more or less events than I would have gone to in an average previous year. 

I listened to, and read, a lot less news than normal. From March the news was so relentless and yet somehow without content; switching from Radio4 in the morning to the World Service was a refreshing change, but eventually even that was replaced by silence.  I think my online news reading diminished similarly, and I continue to curate my Twitter feed quite heavily to avoid too much of anything.

My non-fiction book pile grew, and I consumed almost entirely fiction.

Equally I have tried to find content which has been less popular in my circles, and to avoid the ephemeral hot takes, and to slow down my information consumption. I think that's working, but it does seem to take time.

This whole thread of cartoons about bullshit jobs in China was interesting but depressing - one highlight was Automation:

cartoon from tweet
Spotted thanks to Mark Mellors.

There are many positive things at the close of 2020.  I include only a random selection here.

Africa has not suffered as much from the pandemic as many thought it would - here's an article from November suggesting some reasons.

The rules for international plastic waste trade are changing, so it will be harder to just ship waste to other countries.

screenshot of tweet

Unexpected innovation:

screenshot of tweet

Energy labels change in 2021, a nice example of a structural shift towards better performance:

screenshot of tweet

2020 was also fun. 

The online games and playful experiences of Now Play This at Home were great, especially the guided tour and photo walk in-game. I think my most memorable moments were during Coney's Remote Socials, which were hugely different and immersive and provocative. Check out their play at home stuff.

We tasted wine and cheese and beer and chocolate and coffee in entertaining and educational sessions online with people near and far. I arranged for M to be trained in the making of bagels and pretzels. We grew 385 tomatoes and quite a variety of other things, which we did not count. I balanced all this food with an unprecedented amount of exercise. Huge thanks to Kerry and Lara!  Early 2020 purchases of coffee brewing equipment, and a Switch with Ring Fit Adventure, were more valuable than anticipated.

screenshot of tweet

The best end of year message, out of the many more or less personally relevant newsletters I received, was from Ann Copestake at the Computer Lab. Her message was so clear, compassionate and thoughtful, sharing gratitude for the collaboration and cooperation across the department this year. Ann suggests that we don't look back to 2019 and see such years as "normal" and aim to get back to that, but to strive for something better.

... maybe, in hindsight, we'll look back at 2020 as a year that helped [us] get better at change.

Her email also introduced me to the great work of First Dog on the Moon, through the Seabirds for Climate Justice end of year review.  The final two panels are superb.

I wrapped up the year at a party, which was delightful, with cheeses and mulled wine. Unstructured activity with groups of strangers is not really my thing, but it's much easier online. Thanks Mark W for the opportunity.

Thanks to Jonathan Coopersmith for this:

practice social solidarity as well as physical distancing