I follow 165 people on Instagram. A handful of these are what might loosely be described as ‘celebrities’: people famous for things other than social media.

Recently Facebook has started to recommend these people to me as potential FB friends. Only: they mostly go by pseudonyms, presumably so fans or trolls can’t find them by searching their names. But it’s obviously them. Their Facebook and Instagram accounts must be linked.

There are many ways to remain private on the internet, but The Dreaded Algorithms are killing these off as well.

The Gambler Who Cracked the Horse-Racing Code

Bill Benter did the impossible: He wrote an algorithm that couldn’t lose at the track. Close to a billion dollars later, he tells his story for the first time.

Source: The Gambler Who Cracked the Horse-Racing Code – Bloomberg

A great in-depth feature on how algorithms, and a lot of automated betting, were used to win on horse racing. Sort of—there’s something of a twist at the end.

The Miranda Grosvenor Obsession

She said she was a beautiful, well-connected blonde named Miranda, and she enchanted an astonishing circle of powerful men—Billy Joel, Paul Schrader, Buck Henry, and Quincy Jones among them—with her flirtatious, gossipy phone calls. But who was the woman behind the voice?

Source: The Miranda Grosvenor Obsession | Vanity Fair

This starts off a bit slow but is very interesting in the end. I’m surprised the various men in the story—all famous, and most were friends with each other—didn’t put two and two together sooner. But that’s the male ego, I suppose.

Sweden is going cashless, with an unexpected consequence. Thieves are now focusing on high-value goods and outlandish crimes, like stealing Apple products from moving trucks, and dealing in protected species. A single great grey owl can sell for $120,000 on the dark web.

The thinking error at the root of science denial

‘Science deniers’, who don’t believe in established theories such as climate change, evolution and childhood vaccination, employ false dichotomies to destabilise the public understanding of science. When someone makes a discovery which upends, disagrees with, refutes, rebuts or questions an existing accepted theory, the deniers denounce the theory as ‘false’ whereas we’ve actually just got a more accurate approximation to the objective, unreachable ‘truth’.

I have observed deniers use a three-step strategy to mislead the scientifically unsophisticated. First, they cite areas of uncertainty or controversy, no matter how minor, within the body of research that invalidates their desired course of action. Second, they categorize the overall scientific status of that body of research as uncertain and controversial. Finally, deniers advocate proceeding as if the research did not exist.

For example, climate change skeptics jump from the realization that we do not completely understand all climate-related variables to the inference that we have no reliable knowledge at all. Similarly, they give equal weight to the 97 percent of climate scientists who believe in human-caused global warming and the 3 percent who do not, even though many of the latter receive support from the fossil fuels industry.

This same type of thinking can be seen among creationists. They seem to misinterpret any limitation or flux in evolutionary theory to mean that the validity of this body of research is fundamentally in doubt. For example, the biologist James Shapiro (no relation) discovered a cellular mechanism of genomic change that Darwin did not know about. Shapiro views his research as adding to evolutionary theory, not upending it. Nonetheless, his discovery and others like it, refracted through the lens of dichotomous thinking, result in articles with titles like, “Scientists Confirm: Darwinism Is Broken” by Paul Nelson and David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute, which promotes the theory of “intelligent design.” Shapiro insists that his research provides no support for intelligent design, but proponents of this pseudoscience repeatedly cite his work as if it does.

Source: The thinking error at the root of science denial

How advertisers took a mallet to the English language

“In adland, we don’t call it language-mangling, we call it ‘Language DJing’ or ‘Langling’,” jokes Alex Myers, founder of agency Manifest. “In reality it’s just lazy creative work. Copywriting is a lost art. Ad agencies need to ‘Think more good’.”

Eagle-eyed bad-ad fans can quickly notice patterns emerging: “finding” something and it being “amazing” appear with the same clockwork regularity as Love Island contestants on Instagram. See, for instance, Rightmove’s “Find your happy” and Visit Wales’s “Find your epic”. Or Lexus’s “Experience amazing” and Deliveroo’s “Eat more amazing”.

Source: Smart knows that’s not English – how adland took a mallet to the language | Media | The Guardian

Baking the Most Average Chocolate Chip Cookie

We wondered if there was a way to leverage computers and hundreds of pre-existing recipes to create the most average chocolate chip cookie. Would it be bland and unremarkable? Or, perhaps like averaging human facial features, the results would be even better than each of its individual parts. Maybe an average cookie would be the most delicious of them all.

But what is an average cookie? We decided to interpret this idea using three different methods: a mathematical average, predictive text algorithms, and neural networks. After feeding each algorithm over 200 chocolate chip cookie recipes, they each generated something new. And, yes, we actually baked them.

Source: Baking the Most Average Chocolate Chip Cookie

Hello, my name is ________: Searching for names is not always straightforward

I really like names. There’s so much variation in the way people use their own names—formally and informally, at home, work, or online. And there’s even more variation in names across cultures. In this blog post I’m going to touch on some of my favorite kinds of name variation and how such variation can make it bafflingly hard to search for people “by name”, on Wikipedia or elsewhere.

Source: Hello, my name is ________: Searching for names is not always straightforward – Wikimedia Blog

This is exactly my sort of blog post, comprising interesting facts about how names are used and constructed around the world, and how Wikipedia overcomes the myriad ways this can negatively impact search. (The Wikimedia blog has been consistently great lately. You should subscribe.)

When Homer envisioned Achilles, did he see a black man?

By and large, then, ancient Greeks probably looked generally like darker versions of modern Greeks (which, incidentally, sheds interesting light on Homer’s ‘black-skinned’ Odysseus and Eurybates). They were, of course, shorter too: the average height of the owners of surviving ancient Greek skeletons was around 5ft 4in (163 cm) for men and 5ft (153 cm) for women. Also, at the time that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written, there is likely to have been a greater variation at the individual level than at the time of the study, because of the extent of Greek reach across the Mediterranean and into north Africa, and the likelihood of immigration and intermarriage. In brief: the Greek warriors that Homer imagined probably did not look much like David Gyasi (Achilles in the BBC show), but nor did they look like Brad Pitt (Achilles in the Hollywood movie Troy).

Source: When Homer envisioned Achilles, did he see a black man? | Aeon Essays

Call them long reads if you must, but in-depth journalism online can’t begin with the word count

“Long reads” is a term I’ve quickly come to dislike, mainly because it’s often bastardised to mean something that’s been horribly over-written to imbue it with a sense of importance that is content doesn’t deserve. But it’s quicker than saying “journalism with so much detail, authority and colour that it needs a couple of thousands words to do it justice”, so I’ve had to learn to bear it.

Source: Call them long reads if you must, but in-depth journalism online can’t begin with the word count

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen someone share a link while summarising it as ‘good, but long’. Why the but? Surely if it is good then you would want if not as much as possible, then at least a bit more?

The article above discusses longer articles and features from a local publisher’s perspective. In my most recent job I would grit my teeth when I needed to commission an article from an academic and told to give them “500ish words”. For that site, a place to learn things, that’s often barely enough space to set the scene of the article. People who are interested in a topic, whether they’re novices or experts, will read something for as long as it remains interesting. That’s the key—it’s not ‘how long is it?’, it’s ‘how interesting is it?’.

Anyway, long live long reads, I guess? You have a stupid name but you are generally miles better than a 300-word amuse-bouche of a thing.

Don’t Skype Me: How Microsoft Turned Consumers Against a Beloved Brand

I was interviewed by Nate Lanxon from Bloomberg about Skype, specifically its confusing UX history and what it means to ‘Skype’ someone. A whole sentence of that conversation made it into the piece linked below:

Don’t Skype Me: How Microsoft Turned Consumers Against a Beloved Brand – Bloomberg

Here are my full comments for posterity:

Looking back 15 years, it’s almost hard to believe how well Skype did the difficult bit. They brought a groundbreaking technology—video calling—into any home or office that wanted it. The Skype app did one thing well, and it changed the way we communicate on the internet.

‘To Skype’ started to become a common phrase as the app enjoyed the same first mover or category leader status occupied by products like Google’s search engine and Adobe’s Photoshop. Yet as it grew, we saw the beginnings of an identity crisis. The middle period of its history, when it was acquired first by eBay and then Microsoft, saw multiple redesigns, each adding more ‘social’ features. This could only lead to confusion about the appearance and disappearance of different interface elements—particularly from the less tech-savvy users who were urged to install and use the app by family members wanting to keep in touch.

Skype 4.0 saw the return of video calls as the primary feature, but not for long. The launch of Skype 5.0 in 2014 gave a ‘Metro’ or Windows Phone-style UX to its iOS and Android apps. 6.0, released in 2015, ditched that in favour of a combination of iOS gestures and Android’s Material Design look. Meanwhile, Windows users on tablet, desktop and laptop have had to endure different app versions as Microsoft deals with a fragmented operating system base. 2017’s controversial redesign was broader in scope, with bold colour gradients, prominent emoji reactions and above all a renewed focus on messaging. This generated lots of negative feedback with users complaining of significant usability issues. Microsoft eventually backtracked over some of these changes.

In 2018 Skype is by most standards a mature app. Yet it still isn’t sure what it wants to be, and complexity and confusion reign. When I log in, I’m encouraged to update my temporary status with an ‘Highlights’ image. I can open a conversation with a brand’s automated customer service bot. I’m prompted to start group chats with my contacts. The app’s original core features are now widely available in other messaging and social apps and baked into mobile and desktop operating systems for even easier use. These apps and platforms have leveraged their huge install bases by adding video calling to their existing text-based chat, and it feels a natural extension of those services. For Skype to repeatedly try to retrofit an entire messaging infrastructure into their app feels unwieldy and is confusing for users.

There’s an old Saturday Night Live sketch with a couple arguing over a new product—is it a floor wax, or a dessert topping? Company man Chevy Chase reassures them: don’t worry, it’s both! And that’s what it feels like with Skype—in the face of huge competition, it tries to be all things to all people, and almost all those things are executed better elsewhere.

## 2. Bit more detail on Skype as a verb

Since it launched, ‘to Skype’ has become a phrase that means ‘to start a video call with someone’. Skype joined the likes of Google, Photoshop, Xerox, Hoover and many other companies and products for whom their brand name has become a generic name, which stands in for similar products and services in that category.

This is a double edged sword. Your name gets out beyond your existing customer base and there’s a sense that you’ve ‘made it’. You’re automatically seen as the category leader—the ones that did it first, and perhaps the best. But it’s not all great news. There are lots of companies—Adobe is a great example—that don’t like you using their product names as verbs. Their legal teams worry that this process of ‘genericisation’ will lead to ‘genericide’, a huge problem where it becomes harder to renew their trademarks if a product name is too widely used.

But perhaps Microsoft shouldn’t be worried. With so many newer features that take the product away from its original core service, it’s less obvious what it means to ‘Skype’ someone. Users of Apple products are more likely to say “I’ll FaceTime you” to each other when they mean to start a video call. Millions of people around the world are comfortable saying “I’ll WhatsApp you” when they want to start a text chat. If Microsoft aren’t careful, ‘to Skype’ might end up meaning ‘to confuse someone’.

Nate had a couple of follow up questions, to which I responded:

Currently, users fire up Skype for two main purposes. One is contact-centric: for ongoing, intermittent conversation that’s typically text-based and either one-to-one or one-to-many. The other is task-centric: one-off, focused communication, such as a video call with another user or group. These are very different types of intent and communication.

Skype’s current UX is very contact-centric. You’re presented with a prominent list of people—”who do you want to communicate with?”—then you decide which of these communication types you want to happen. This is fine for users who primarily want to use Skype as a messaging tool and is well executed. All the features you would expect from such an app are present and it’s easy and intuitive to use. It serves the first purpose and works well on mobile, where users are more likely to dip in and out.

But many power users—e.g. businesses, podcasters, the sorts of people who’d gladly pay money for a robust service that’s dedicated to their needs—think in a more task-based way, considering the communication type first—”what do you want to do?”. Typically they’ll be using the desktop version. Their need is to start a video call with person x, for example, or start an audio call with persons y and z. For this type of user, the current UX is problematic. There are too many features and UI elements that they don’t need or want, and they’re all in the way.

All of this means that the app as it stands is squarely in competition with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and other apps which already have a loyal group of dedicated users. For successful group messaging, all participants need to be intimately familiar with the service and its UX. I wouldn’t be comfortable asking a group of my friends to start a Skype chat. Despite it’s UX similarities with its competitors, many of my friends won’t be familiar with the interface and, once they are, I fear that it will change again, leading to confusion within the group.

These different user needs are subtly incompatible. Skype’s identity crisis has lead them to an UX dilemma that interface adustments alone can’t solve, and another major redesign is the last thing its users want.

Real People Are Turning Their Accounts Into Bots On Instagram — And Cashing In

In late February, an Instagram account called Viral Hippo posted a photo of a black square. There was nothing special about the photo, or the square, and certainly not the account that posted it. And yet within 24 hours, it amassed over 1,500 likes from a group that included a verified model followed by 296,000 people, a verified influencer followed by 228,000, a bunch of fitness coaches, some travel accounts, and various small businesses. “I really love this photo,” one commented.

The commenter wasn’t a bot; nor were any of the accounts that liked the black square. But their interest in it wasn’t genuine. These were real people, but not real likes — none of them clicked on the like button themselves. Instead, they used a paid service that automatically likes and comments on other posts for them. Instagram says this is against its terms of service, but it continues to operate. It’s called Fuelgram and, for a few dollars a month and access to your Instagram log-in credentials, it will use the accounts of everyone who paid that sum to like and comment on your posts — and it will use yours to do the same to theirs.

Really strange that lots of people don’t see this as a shady thing at all. See also: Confessions of an Instagram influencer from 2016.

Source: Real People Are Turning Their Accounts Into Bots On Instagram — And Cashing In

Designing page previews for Wikipedia 

Wikipedia recently launched page previews for their content—hover over an internal link (i.e. from one Wikipedia entry to another) and you’ll reveal a pop-up with summary information about the destination page.

The link at the bottom of this post summarises some of the design and UX work that went into the new feature. But why so much thought? It’s a simple, straightforward new feature, right? Well:

  • Nearly ~28 percent of Wikipedia’s traffic comes from clicking on internal blue links. a.k.a going down the rabbit hole
  • Blue links account for ~230 million page views per month
  • ~2 million links get hovered per minute across all Wikipedias

In other words, blue links are the most frequently-used interactive elements on Wikipedia. This makes messing with or changing any feature related to blue links a bit more… delicate and challenging.

Not only that, but not every destination page has the same content. They can have long or short titles or descriptions; images of any size or aspect ratio; differing licence information; or other textual formats such as mathematical formulae or musical notation. The post gives a good idea of the challenges and how the feature might develop from here.

Source: How we designed page previews for Wikipedia — and what could be done with them in the future – Wikimedia Blog