‘Our instincts for privacy evolved in tribal societies where walls didn’t exist’


An interesting read over at Aeon about our innate sense of privacy and how it affects what we do online.

Too much information: Our instincts for privacy evolved in tribal societies where walls didn’t exist. No wonder we are hopeless oversharers

Over time, we will probably get smarter about online sharing. But right now, we’re pretty stupid about it. Perhaps this is because, at some primal level, we don’t really believe in the internet. Humans evolved their instinct for privacy in a world where words and acts disappeared the moment they were spoken or made. Our brains are barely getting used to the idea that our thoughts or actions can be written down or photographed, let alone take on a free-floating, indestructible life of their own. Until we catch up, we’ll continue to overshare.




Malala Yousafzai’s speech to the United Nations (2013)

Malala Yousazai

In case you missed it, here’s Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai’s speech to the United Nations on her 16th birthday – her first public appearance since she was shot by a Taliban gunman on her way to school last October (2012).

Also worth a read is this rather haunting piece from Foreign Policy: Malala’s Forgotten Sisters | Girls as young as 5 are still being sold into marriage in Pakistan. And no one will stop it.

An excerpt from Malala’s speech:

The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. And that is why they killed 14 innocent medical students in the recent attack in Quetta. And that is why they killed many female teachers and polio workers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA. That is why they are blasting schools every day. Because they were and they are afraid of change, afraid of the equality that we will bring into our society.

I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist, “Why are the Taliban against education?” He answered very simply. By pointing to his book he said, “A Talib doesn’t know what is written inside this book.”

They think that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would send girls to the hell just because of going to school. The terrorists are misusing the name of Islam and Pashtun society for their own personal benefits. Pakistan is peace-loving democratic country. Pashtuns want education for their daughters and sons. And Islam is a religion of peace, humanity and brotherhood. Islam says that it is not only each child’s right to get education, rather it is their duty and responsibility.


Do I have to pay Duty or GST on things I buy online? (2013)

What's My Duty? breakdown

UPDATE July 23, 2013: The Government is considering imposing GST on all online purchases under $400. But it acknowledges that it might be problematic to do so.

Sometimes, yes.

I got stung with an unexpected Customs/GST bill a while back when I bought a flute through amazon.com from a United States music store. I’d never thought about Customs duty when buying things online before, I guess because I’ve mostly bought books and music, and in reasonably small quantities or as downloads. So I just went ahead and clicked and paid without further thought.

But my US$500 flute package attracted the attention of the New Zealand Customs Services as it made its way through New Zealand Post and I got a bill for NZ$145.32, which I had to pay before my flute could be delivered to my house.

The bill comprised GST of $107.25 on the flute, an import transaction fee of $22.00 +GST and a biosecurity levy of $11.10 +GST.

Flute transaction costs

If only I’d known about Customs’ online What’s My Duty? calculator.

Type in what you’re buying, how much it costs and how much freight you’re paying, and the calculator will give you an estimate of the duty/GST you will owe. If the duty/GST comes in under $60, it’s waived. Over $60 and Customs will assess it formally and send you a bill via NZ Post.

What's My Duty? calculator in action   What's My Duty? breakdown

The calculator is also available as a free download for Apple and Android tablets and mobiles.

There’s an overview of how the duty and GST is calculated in the FAQ.

On a related note, NZ Post’s YouShop lets you shop in America for things not available in New Zealand.

You Shop Screengrab


Alain de Botton on success and failure

A few insights to chew on in this TED talk from Alain de Botton on why we might be feeling more and more anxiety about our careers and our standing in the world.

He talks about how we think about success and failure, about envy, the dark side of meritocracy, and how tragedies such as Hamlet can teach us the difference between loss and being a loser.

I enjoyed this because there’s some crossover with ideas on innovation and how it occurs, which I’m reading a fair bit about at the moment – particularly in how we see success and failure in relation to our ideas, work, and willingness to take risks.

I’ve transcribed some excerpts below but recommend taking 15 minutes out of your day to listen.

The following are transcribed excerpts from this TED talk video by Alain de Botton:

On equality and envy

Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan. We’re told from many sources that anyone can achieve anything; we’ve done away with the caste system and we are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please. And it’s a beautiful idea.

Along with that has come a spirit of equality. We’re all basically equal. There are no strictly defined hierarchies.

There’s one really big problem with this and that problem is envy.

It’s a real taboo to mention envy, but if there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy, and it’s linked to the spirit of equality. Let me explain. I think it would be very unusual for anyone here to be envious of the Queen of England. Even though she’s much richer than any of you are and has a very large house. The reason why we don’t envy her is because she’s too weird. We can’t relate to her, she speaks in a funny way, she comes from an odd place. We can’t relate to her.

And when you can’t relate to somebody you don’t envy them. The closer two people are in age, in background, in the process of identification, the more there is a danger of envy.

We’re all the same, except we’re not

The problem generally of modern society is that it turns the whole world into a school. Everybody’s wearing jeans, everybody’s the same, and yet they’re not. So there’s a spirit of equality combined with deep inequalities which can make for a very stressful situation.

It’s probably as unlikely that you would nowadays become as rich and famous as Bill Gates as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would accede to the ranks of  the French aristocracy

But the point is it doesn’t feel that way. It’s made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets, that if you’ve got enough energy, a few bright ideas about technology, a garage, you too can make a major thing.

(Ed’s note – see Rowan Simpson’s take on ‘The Mythical Startup‘ on Idealog.)

The consequences of this problem makes themselves felt in book shops… If you analyse self-help books there are basically two kinds. The first kind tells you: you can do it, you can make it, anything’s possible. The other kind tell you how to cope with what we politely call low self-esteem.

There’s a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything and the existence of low self-esteem.

The dark side of meritocracy

There’s another reason why we might be feeling more anxious about our careers, about our status in the world than ever before. And again it’s linked to something nice. And that nice thing is called meritocracy.

Everybody, all politicians on left and right agree that meritocracy is a great thing and we should all be trying to make our societies really really meritocratic.

What is a meritocractic society? A meritocratic society is one in which if you’ve got talent, and energy and skill, you’ll get to the top. Nothing should hold you back. It’s a beautiful idea.

The problem is, if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you also by implication … believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom, get to the bottom and stay there.

In other words your position in life comes to seem not accidental but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.

From ‘unfortunate’ to ‘loser’: 400 years of societal evolution

In the Middle Ages in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described by as unfortunate. Literally someone who had not been blessed by fortune.

Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society they may unkindly be described as a loser. There’s a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser. And that shows 400 years of evolution in society and our belief in who is reponsible for our lives. It’s no longer the gods. It’s us. We’re in the driving seat.

That’s exhilarating if you’re doing well, and very crushing if you’re not. It leads, in the worst cases, in the analysis of sociologists… it leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides in developed, individualist countries than in any other part of the world. One of the reasons for that is that people take what happens to them extremely personally. They own their success but they also own their failure.

The number one organ of ridicule nowadays is the newspaper

One of the reasons why we fear failing is not just the loss of income, the loss of status; what we fear is the judgement and ridicule of others. And it exists.


The number one organ of ridicule nowadays is the newspaper. If you open the newspaper on any day of the week it’s full of people who’ve messed up their lives. They’ve slept with the wrong person, they’ve taken the wrong substance, they’ve passed the wrong piece of legislation – whatever it is – and they’re now fit for ridicule. In other words they have failed and they are described as losers.

Is there any alternative to this? I think the Western tradition show us one glorious alternative and that is tragedy.

Tragic art as it developed in the theatres of ancient Greece… was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail and also according them a level of sympathy which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them.

I remember a few years ago I was thinking about all this and I went to see the Sunday Sport [tabloid newspaper] … about certain of the great tragedies of Western art. I wanted to see how they would seize the bare bones of certain stories if they came in as a news item at the news desk on a Saturday afteroon.

So I told them about Othello… and I asked them to write a headline for the story of Othello. They came up with: ‘Love crazed immigrant kills senator’s daughter’

I gave them the plotline of Madame Bovary… and they wrote: ‘Shopaholic adulterer swallows arsenic after credit fraud’

And then my favourite. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King:  ‘Sex with mum was blinding’

If you like, at one end of the spectrum of sympathy you’ve got the tabloid newspaper and at the other you’ve got tragedy and tragic art and I suppose I’m arguing we should learn a little bit about what’s happening in tragic art. It would be insane to call Hamlet a loser. He is not a loser, though he has lost.

Success and failure

Here’s some insight I’ve had about success: You can’t be successful at everything. We hear a lot of talk about work-life balance. Nonsense. You can’t have it all. You can’t.

Any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is.

Any wise life will accept that there is going to be an element where we’re not succeeding.

A lot of the time our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people.  Chiefly, if you’re a man, your father; if you’re a woman, your mother…  We also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising, to marketing etc. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves.

What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.

– Alain de Botton

‘So let us begin anew’

Earlier today I tweeted a link to Business Insider’s post about Google’s latest doodle, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of former US President John F Kennedy’s inaugural speech:

Screengrab of Google doodle commemorating JFK's inaugural speech

We can’t see this in New Zealand on google.co.nz at the moment, but given we’re a bit ahead of the northern hemisphere time-wise we may see it yet (unless the folks at Google think we’re not interested – but since many of us grew up on a diet of US and UK television shows, re-runs and wire stories, we just might be:)

Anyway, it seems to have struck a chord so it prompted me to dig out the speech on YouTube (big thanks to CSPAN for posting it).

And Bartleby provides the text of the speech here. Here are a few pull-out quotes that may seem familiar:

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.

So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Ah Montaigne, you’ve done it again

A few of my summer reads have overlapped in the realms of history and philosophy. In the mix was Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy.  And there is consolation indeed in the words of long-dead men who could, but for their turn of phrase, be speaking today.

Montaigne won my heart a little, not least for these quotes which allowed me to imagine him dispensing advice and bile from a blog today.

Books or news stories?:

“I am not prepared to bash my brains for anything, not even for learning’s sake, however precious it may be. From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honourable pastime… If I come across difficult passages in my reading I never bite my nails over them: after making a charge or two I let them be… If one book wearies me I take up another.”

Books or blogs?:

“There are more books on books than on any other subject: all we do is gloss each other. All is a-swarm with commentaries: of authors there is a dearth.”

A drubbing for the long-winded (this one was directed at Cicero):

“His introductory passages, his definitions, his sub-divisions and his etymologies eat up most of his work… If I spend an hour reading him (which is a lot for me) and then recall what pith and substance I have got out of him, most of the time I find nothing but wind.”

My brother was shot in the head on a Monday night

My brother was shot in the head on a Monday night.

He was shot pretty much between the eyes. And that was that. Small hole at the front, big hole at the back.

But here’s a thing. Me and dad remember it differently. We were the ones who went into the Coroner’s Office to identify him.

Dad went in because he was, well, Dad. Me, because I was spirited and young and desperate to see my brother whom I loved very much. I mean, you can’t knock on my door and tell me he’s dead and not let me see him. I need to see him so I know. You know?

The policeman who met us said I shouldn’t go in. It was ‘not a pretty sight’. And I guess he meant unsuitable for the young woman I was. I was 23. At that stage we knew he’d been shot but not what with. I didn’t know if I would recognize him, if half his face would be missing. It wasn’t. He looked just like him, but dead.

I remember a band-aid across the small hole in his forehead. Dad doesn’t. He remembers a wound. I’m inclined to believe his memory over mine, but I’m not sure why. We probably sank equal amounts of booze in subsequent years to numb the pain (or unleash it) while we sifted through the what-ifs and memories.

My brother was lying on something; can’t remember if it was a table or gurney or what. He was in small room and we were in another with a glass wall between so we could see him to identify him; but we weren’t allowed to touch. He had not been autopsied yet. There was a police investigation into the cause of death: small hole in the front, big hole in the back was evidently not evidence enough.

I started to kick up because I really wanted to go in. It was a very strong and I think primal instinct I felt. To reach out, to sit with him, to touch his forehead and check his chest for signs of breathing. To talk to him and ask what happened. To start understanding the fact of it.

But Dad silenced me with a look. I demurred and forced down a flash of anger: fuel for the pool of grief and rage taking shape inside.

We went home then and drank tea and talked to the police when they came and talked to friends when they came and tried to make sense of it among ourselves with the few details we had. We stared at the walls, and at each other, and wandered round the house with no particular intent. We slept, and didn’t sleep, and drank more tea.

Reporters called us at home to ask for details and see if we wanted to talk about it. We didn’t.

We were in shock and disoriented and in no mood for strangers. We wouldn’t have had the words anyway.

I suppose we could have said: It’s such a shock. We just can’t believe it. It’s like the rug’s been pulled out from under us. He was such a lovely guy. He didn’t deserve this. We’re devastated. He was so young. We don’t know what we’re going to do without him.

But really there aren’t words to describe all that we felt in those bewildering days.

So why did the reporters call?

Because my brother died in a murder-suicide. He was the murdered party. The guy who shot him killed himself soon after. They were buried in the same cemetery three days later, a few hours and a few hundred yards apart.

Why did it happen? No idea. Men, booze, guns and inner demons is probably explanation enough. As far as we know there was no underlying quarrel, no bad debt or bad blood or infidelity. But who knows?

Would changing the gun laws have prevented his death? No. The guy had a licence for his guns.

Would a public awareness campaign about firearm safety have helped? I doubt it. The guy knew about firearm safety. But he was, I think, drunk.

Would a ban on alcohol have saved them? No. They’d have been high on bootlegged something or other instead.

Could a law change or a campaign or a charitable trust set up in his memory have spread the lessons of this tragic event and prevented someone else’s death?

I don’t think so.

It was a personal tragedy.  One of 2,229 deaths in New Zealand that month.

Everyone dies, you know. Sooner or later, one way or another. Some deaths are more spectacular, sure. But is my brother’s death any more tragic or painful than the guy down the road who died of cancer that day?

I don’t think so.

Death sucks. It hurts. It takes ages to get over. It’s unbeatable and frightening. But it just is, so we may as well get used to it.

I started writing this a while ago because it started to form itself in my head. I started finishing it after I read Emma Woods’ eloquent piece in the Sunday Star Times describing how she feels about her son Nayan’s death and the sentence passed on the driver who killed him. And I’m posting this as the families of 29 trapped miners wait to find out what’s happened to them.

I don’t know how those families are feeling right now, nor how they feel about the media circus that’s temporarily set up in town.

But it seems to me that what Emma Woods was saying – to Michael Laws, who’d written a column about the court case, and the media in general – was that they weren’t representing her right. She didn’t feel what they implied she should.

And nor do I.

I tire of the terminology of death. People with cancer are brave battlers, every loss is terrible, every death a tragedy, a life snatched away in its prime; every family is reportedly on a mission to prevent anyone else dying in this sad and terrible way, no matter how uncommon the cause of death, or how ordinary.

You know what I’d like?

I’d like reporters to stop hounding people if their father or son or sister has died a spectacular death and ignoring them if not.

I’d like a moratorium on asking people then and there if they plan to lobby for a law change, or set up a fund to raise awareness and try to save others. Leave it for a year, eh. Give them time to think.

And I’d like news writers to make an effort not to be patronizing. To treat death more as the inevitable part of life that it is and less as the senseless work of a dark reaper.  To treat grieving families as people doing their best in a tough situation, and not as emotional simpletons.

If no death is a good death, then we are failures all.


Startups: they’re emotional

I love the term Pandora founder Tim Westergren has for the emotional rollercoaster you strap into when you launch a startup – the wall of worry.

“If you’re an entrepreneur you have to steel yourself… Unless you’re very very lucky and wind up on a fast trajectory, you’re going to [be] climbing the wall of worry for some duration,” he says in this interview with Om Malik. I recommend listening to the whole thing. It’s a nice unhyped human interview.

Tim’s comments about the early years of Pandora resonate with me.

It’s almost a year since we launched allaboutthestory.com.

In that time I’ve ridden the rollercoaster through highs and lows. Moments when I thought, yep, this might just work; and moments when I wondered what on earth I was doing taking risks at my age and putting in long hours with no guarantee of a return.

The ride’s barely begun for us. We have a good first year under our belt but years of growth and hard work ahead. So I don’t feel qualified to give advice on how to run a startup.

But this much I know: the first step (and one you’ll have to repeat often) is to give yourself permission.

Permission to quit your job or live off a part-time job for a year or three while you work on an idea that may or may not succeed.

Permission to forgo a steady income and deepen your debt or dip into your savings or remain financially neutral for a couple of years – possibly at a time of life when your earning potential is higher than it’s ever been.

Permission to keep doing so.

Startups are not just for Christmas. They require patient attention pretty much all day every day and seldom do they provide instant gratification of any kind.

So you have to keep the faith. “Believe in your basic idea,” as Tim says. And you have to continue to believe in your basic idea throughout your daily successes and failures. You have to fall in love with your idea over and over again.

You have to tell yourself you’re not crazy – not once or once in a while but often and convincingly. You have to learn that at times you will feel like a fool but you will keep going anyway.

You have to feel okay about a group of smart people working on your idea, putting in hours and hours and hours for nothing more than the remote possibility of a return and perhaps some fun and learning along the way.

You have to feel okay about people using your website in the hope it will make their lives better, even though you don’t know for sure that it will; at least not everyone’s, not yet.

You have to get used to being waist-deep in question marks. This feature first or that? Do the licences work? Are we clear about what we’re asking people to do? Is our language right? Our emails? Are we talking to the right people? Are we talking too much? Not enough?

Eric Ries, the lean startup guy, describes a startup as an unknown problem with unknown solutions.

I’ll say.

But, wow, what a ride. If you like a challenge, it’s hard to imagine a better source of good, clean fun. The rollercoaster analogy is not a bad one – screams of terror subsiding into squeals of joy.

It’s Global Entrepreneurship Week this week. Sam Morgan, the founder of Trade Me and patron of GEW NZ, is quoted on the New Zealand GEW website saying: “Stop talking about entrepreneurship and just go build businesses.”

Well, I’m working on it. Are you?

There’s no shortage of advice out there. You can read Eric Ries and Jason Cohen. Read the Trade Me story, the ClueTrain Manifesto, What Google Would Do, whatever you can get your hands on. Get ideas off TED, go to Webstock or drink the cool-aid at a conference near you. Search for startup lessons in Google or Delicious or Twitter. Ask questions on Quora.

Then you just have to take the first step: give yourself permission.

Here’s the interview with Tim: