3 Alveston Place: The epicentre of British music

David Beer on the inauspicious Midlands address that’s likely to evoke nostalgic memories to anyone who bought music in the ’90s (and probably earlier):

3 Alveston Place, Leamington Spa is an address that is likely to ring a familiar tone. Anybody who bought their music on vinyl, CD or tape is almost certain have come across this address. These formats usually carried a second-class free-post card that was almost always made out to the same address — with the band or singer’s name added at the top. The card invited you to write your details on the reverse before posting. Returning the card registered you for postal updates. The slow speed of this all seems quaint on reflection.

What is at this address now? If you’re around my age, and you sent away for information, you won’t want to know.

New allotment

Over the weekend we got a new allotment:

New allotment plot. Brambles to clear, sheds to rebuild, 🍏🌽🍑🍆🍕 to grow

A photo posted by Matthew Culnane (@coldbrain) on

For those who know Stony Stratford, it’s on the Wolverton Road site, which I’m told has a strong community feel.

All the plots on the site have roughly the same area, but the shape of ours is dramatically affected by a neighbouring garden. The plot resembles an L-shape, with the ascender tapering off into a long point, where this photo was taken from. I hope this means there’ll be a mixture of sunny and shady spots.

Coincidentally, the previous tenant of the plot is one of our friends, and he planted a few fruit bushes before having to give up the plot. There are a couple of sheds too, so I’m hoping to fill one up with mugs, books, tools and so on.

Our overall aims for the allotment aren’t necessarily to save money. I’d just like to eat more seasonally, grow crops that aren’t readily available in supermarkets, and try out less-obvious varieties of things that are.

How to keep a reading journal

Sarah Ditum:

I don’t really – not really-really – know anything until I’ve copied it out, by hand, with pen and paper. Note-taking helps me to memorise the most useful, interesting, beautiful or aggravating parts of a book. It also means that whenever I want to retrieve a reference from something I’ve read, I can find it in my notebook. Not marked with a torn-up train ticket and then replaced on a bookshelf but I’ve forgotten which bookshelf, or given to a charity shop in the hopeful belief I’d never need to think about it again; but in my notebook, with a page number, marked on the contents page.

Ditum goes on to describe her method and tools. See also this post about keeping a journal and collecting.

75 years of Desert Island Discs

To celebrate 75 years of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, The Guardian has selected 75 ‘defining moments’ from the show. Here some highlights:

  • Asking guests to choose a luxury only began on 16 September 1951, when the actor Sally Ann Howes modestly requested garlic – this was still the era of rationing, remember.
  • The singer and comedian George Formby appeared in November 1951. He chose his trademark instrument, the ukulele, as his luxury. But not just any old ukulele. “I’d take the first one I ever had – the one I serenaded Beryl [his wife] with when we were courting, the one I taught myself to play on first of all. It would keep my spirits up, and I might even be able to find a monkey who liked listening to it.”
  • Alfred Hitchcock was cast away on 19 October 1959. Just seven and a half minutes of the interview survive. Plomley asks if he is working on a new film. “I’m planning a psychological film,” replies Hitchcock in that unforgettably slow, mournful voice. “It’s called Psycho. It’s in the nature, shall we say, of a rather gentle horror picture.”
  • In the first of his two appearances, in July 1971, the comic writer and actor John Cleese chose a “life-sized model of Margaret Thatcher and a baseball bat”. On his second appearance, in January 1997, Cleese chose Michael Palin – as long as he was stuffed.
  • The rumbustious Oliver Reed was cast away in November 1974. All that remains is a six-minute segment, which sadly doesn’t include Reed’s infamous luxury – a blow-up doll.
  • The castaway on 15 December 1979 was another legend, the American writer Norman Mailer. He chose “a stick of the best marijuana” as his luxury. “This is illegal talk, Mr Mailer,” says Plomley sternly.
  • The most controversial guest ever, cast away in November 1989 when she was almost 80, was Lady Mosley – Diana Mitford before she married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Lawley asks her what she felt when she met Hitler. “Of course at that moment he was the person who was making the news, and therefore extremely interesting to talk to,” she replies. “He had extraordinary, mesmeric eyes, and had so much to say. He was so interesting, fascinating.” And the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis? “Oh, I don’t think it was that many,” says Mosley.
  • It is frequently claimed that Brigitte Bardot caused consternation when she asked for “a penis” as her luxury item, only for it to become quickly apparent that she was asking for “happiness”. It’s a lovely story – and completely apocryphal. La Bardot has never been on the programme. The closest we have is artist Cornelia Parker’s choice, in February 2003, of a “solar-powered vibrator”. “Not that I’ve ever used one,” she says, “but I’d love to have the chance.”
  • George Michael’s death this past Christmas Day was accompanied by clips from his memorable Desert Island Discs interview in September 2007 – how often this archive provides a significant memorial. Michael was ready to talk truthfully about his life – the public successes and private traumas – and Young didn’t need to do much more than prompt and pace him. He is likable, funny, clever, highly articulate, painfully honest: he explains how difficult it was to be a young gay man in the 1980s living in the shadow of Aids, and talks movingly of his first love, Anselmo Feleppa, who died from the disease in 1993. He chooses Amy Winehouse’s Love is a Losing Game as his favourite disc – prophetically wondering if she might succumb to unnamed demons – and an Aston Martin DB9 as his luxury.

Photoshop yourself into a celebrity’s Instagram feed

Until a few minutes ago, I didn’t know who Kendall Jenner was, but it appears she’s a Kardashian clan celebrity. Superfan Kirby Jenner (which may not be his real name) runs an Instagram account where he Photoshops himself into Kendall’s pictures, and it’s absolutely hilarious:

 

How Tom Zhang proved a theorem that had stumped mathematicians for a century

Michael Segal writes for Nautilus about an unexpected mathematics success story:

Yitang “Tom” Zhang spent the seven years following the completion of his Ph.D. in mathematics floating between Kentucky and Queens, working for a chain of Subway restaurants, and doing odd accounting work. Now he is on a lecture tour that includes stops at Harvard, Columbia, Caltech, and Princeton, is fielding multiple professorship offers, and spends two hours a day dealing with the press. That’s because, in April, Zhang proved a theorem that had eluded mathematicians for a century or more. When we called Zhang to see what he thought of being thrust into the spotlight, we found a shy, modest man, genuinely disinterested in all the fuss.

The first part is a description of the work Zhang has completed within the field of prime numbers. The second part is a hilarious interview—he’s not especially forthcoming, which makes it all the more endearing.

Did you experience any emotions when you realized you’d solved the problem?

Not so much. I am a very quiet person.

Were you excited?

A little. Not too much.

Would you describe yourself as famous now?

Yes.

Would you accept a medal?

Yes.

What would you do with the money?

Maybe the best way would be to give the money to my wife. Let her deal with this issue.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a problem related to the Goldbach conjecture.

Is your current research being slowed down by all the interviews?

A little bit.

The popular genie movie that never existed

Amelia Tait for the New Statesman, on a ’90s movie starring Sinbad that never existed but to some Redditors is proof of media conspiracy and/or alternate universe timelines. Obviously.

On 11 August 2015, the popular gonzo news site VICE published a story about a conspiracy theory surrounding the children’s storybook characters the Berenstain Bears. The theory went like this: many people remember that the bears’ name was spelt “Berenstein” – with an “e” – but pictures and old copies proved it was always spelt with an “a”. The fact that so many people had the same false memory was seen as concrete proof of the supernatural.

“Berenstein” truthers believe in something called the “Mandela Effect”: a theory that a large group of people with the same false memory used to live in a parallel universe (the name comes from those who fervently believe that Nelson Mandela died while in prison). VICE’s article about the theory was shared widely, leading thousands of people to r/MandelaEffect, a subreddit for those with false memories to share their experiences.

It was there, just a few hours after the article was posted, that discussions of Shazaam – or the “Sinbad Genie movie” – took off.

Designing headlines to make them more useful

Nieman Lab is running their annual predictions for journalism. Melody Kramer’s piece about designing headlines caught my eye:

In other words, how can we encode as much useful information as possible in a headline? Colors, fonts, shading, size, position, pictures, interactivity, history, metadata — basically all the design elements of information encoding across multiple dimensions. Which of those are most helpful to enhancing the headline? How can we test them?

For example, could we think of a headline as something that one can hover over, and immediately see source material? Or how many times the headline has changed? Or how other publications have written the same headline? (How does that help readers? How could that help publications?)

Let’s go broader. Why are headlines text? Could they be something else? What is the most important element at the top of a page? Is it five to fourteen words or is it something else entirely?

The whole piece is interesting and (typically for Mel) full of good ideas. Later she discusses the role of text:

Do we only think of mainly-text-based solutions because of the current nature of the platforms we share on? What if that changes? How could that change? A lot of current restrictions around headlines come from social and search restrictions and it would be interesting to think about that impact and how publications might bypass them with headline-like constructs (like Mic’s multimedia notifications or BuzzFeed’s emoji notifications.) They’re take the headline space and reworking it using images. What could we use besides images? In addition to images?

This is key. We use text because, well, text. It’s demanded by the channels we use to disseminate content. As readers we can react in non-textual ways: Facebook, Buzzfeed and others allow us to offer what might be very nuanced reactions using (barely?) representative icons and emoji. But as publishers, our platforms—both those that we own and third-party sites in our extended IA—generally haven’t evolved to a point where we can implement much of what Mel imagines.

This is a shame, as there’s plenty wrong with text and how it is used. Alan Jacobs wrote a short post in November, disagreeing with another post that championed text over other forms of communication:

Much of the damage done to truth and charity done in this past election was done with text. (It’s worth noting that Donald Trump rarely uses images in his tweets.) And of all the major social media, the platform with the lowest levels of abuse, cruelty, and misinformation is clearly Instagram.

No: it’s not the predominance of image over text that’s hurting us. It’s the use of platforms whose code architecture promotes novelty, instantaneous response, and the quick dissemination of lies.

This is problematic, and brings me back once again to Mike Caulfield’s excellent take on the layout and purpose of Facebook’s news distribution:

The way you get your stories is this:

  • You read a small card with a headline and a description of the story on it.
  • You are then prompted to rate the card, by liking it or sharing them or commenting on it.
  • This then is pushed out to your friends, who can in turn complete the same process.

This might be a decent scheme for a headline rating system. It’s pretty lousy for news though.

[…]

So we get this weird (and think about it a minute, because it is weird) model where you get the headline and a comment box and if you want to read the story you click it and it opens up in another tab, except you won’t click it, because Facebook has designed the interface to encourage you to skip going off-site altogether and just skip to the comments on the thing you haven’t read.

No conclusions this end, but plenty of interrelated issues to ponder:

  1. How do we (re-)engineer headlines to be more useful by revealing more information than is currently available in a few short words?
  2. How do we maintain the curiosity gap without ever-increasing reliance on clickbait?
  3. How do we continue the battle against fake news and propaganda masquerading as unbiased thought?
  4. How do we reconcile this with third-party distribution platforms that can only (barely) cope with text, and that treat content as a title and comments box only?

There’s something else in here about headlines and metadata and their role in content discovery and dissemination, and how users decide what to read and when. I was talking about this today with Richard Holden from The Economist and it’s sparked a few assorted thoughts that are yet to coalesce into anything new or meaningful. Perhaps in time.

Do emojis have their own syntax

Rachel Tatman on emoji order (ignoring the singular/plural discussion):

So a while ago I got into a discussion with someone on Twitter about whether emojis have syntax. Their original question was this:

As someone who’s studied sign language, my immediate thought was “Of course there’s a directionality to emoji: they encode the spatial relationships of the scene.” This is just fancy linguist talk for: “if there’s a dog eating a hot-dog, and the dog is on the right, you’re going to use , not .” But the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that maybe it would be better not to rely on my intuitions in this case. First, because I know American Sign Language and that might be influencing me and, second, because I am pretty gosh-darn dyslexic and I can’t promise that my really excellent ability to flip adjacent characters doesn’t extend to emoji.

So, like any good behavioral scientist, I ran a little experiment. I wanted to know two things.

  1. Does an emoji description of a scene show the way that things are positioned in that scene?
  2. Does the order of emojis tend to be the same as the ordering of those same concepts in an equivalent sentence?