What’s a 9-Letter Word for a 100-Year-Old Puzzle?

A history of the crossword puzzle. Lots to enjoy here:

Meanwhile, dictionaries started selling at an unprecedented clip, including a miniature version that could be worn like a wristwatch. The Los Angeles Public Library reportedly had to limit its crossword-obsessed patrons to five-minute turns with its dictionaries, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad put dictionaries in its observation and club cars for the benefit of passengers.


Experts were also called upon to explain the craze. A Columbia University psychologist, for example, said that crossword puzzles satisfied 45 fundamental desires of the human species; Chicago’s health commissioner endorsed crosswords as a means of calming the nerves. But there was debate: The chairman of Maryland’s Board of Mental Hygiene worried that the puzzles “might easily unbalance a nervous mind” and even lead to psychosis.

(I should add that when you copy and paste anything from The Smithsonian, you get the most outrageous bit of extraneous appended text I’ve ever seen: a read more link, an advert for subscriptions, AND a link to their Twitter account. Crazy.)

Rap Genius is back on Google

Rap Genius, the user-generated content site for interpretations of rap lyrics, recently got busted by Google for shady SEO practices:

In this post we give more details about our misguided SEO strategies and how we got there. We also explain our process and the tools we used to fix the problem and return to Google. Finally, we apologize to Google and our fans for being such morons.

They offered other sites promotion through Twitter and Facebook in exchange for linking to Rap Genius using keyword-stuffed anchor text.

As much as most SEO is just best practice and common sense, it does pay to have a strategy and a plan for improving your site’s performance in search engine results. If you don’t know where to start, just do the polar opposite of what the Rap Genius team did.

The speech accent archive

I just lost nearly an hour listening to people from all around the world read this passage in their regional accent:

Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.

Recent Links: November 2013

More links from Pinboard:

  • How Wes Anderson made The Royal Tenenbaums. Matt Zoller Seitz has written a book about the films of Wes Anderson. Here’s an interview with Anderson, excerpted from the book, about the making of The Royal Tenenbaums, which some days is my favourite of his films. You can find a bunch of videos about the films on Roger Ebert’s Vimeo channel.
  • Let them eat MOOCs. I think a lot about MOOCs, the current buzzworthy method of presenting online education. MOOCs face all kinds of challenges: retention/completion, lack of accreditation and lack of educator support being just three. Here Gianpiero Petriglieri compares MOOCs to colonialism. It’s not the jump it sounds like.
  • What makes a sentence sad? What’s the saddest sentence you’ve ever read?
  • Annotation Tuesday! Gay Talese and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”. Talese’s piece on Sinatra is a hugely influential magazine article from 1966, a seminal piece of ‘New Journalism’. This is the director’s commentary.
  • Keep the things you forgot: An Elliot Smith oral history. I read lots of terrific pieces on singer-songwriter Smith over the past couple of months, most published to mark the tenth anniversary of his death. This is easily one of the best. Smith’s music made an indelible mark on me in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and I often wonder what he would have produced if he were still alive.
  • Choose your own philosophy adventure. A plug for something on our site: this is a Twine game, and I think it came out really well.
  • The Great Discontent: Merlin Mann. I find Merlin to be a very interesting guy, although I’m still not entirely sure what it is that he does for a living, other than podcasting. He doesn’t post much about his speaking gigs any more, and the productivity racket is clearly something he’s (rightfully) left behind. This is a nice interview, and that header image is fantastic.
  • Humanity’s deep future. This is where science fiction meets science: predictions of our species many, many years in to the future. What planet will we live on? Will AI have taken over? Is the march of technological progress unstoppable?

Recent Links: October 2013

  • Two good things about humourist Dan Kennedy, who you might know from McSweeney’s or The Moth. There’s an interview with The Rumpus and a chat with Jesse Thorn on Bullseye, both of which are worth your time. I want to read his novel, American Spirit, which is described in both those pieces, and sounds very funny.
  • Welcome to Night Vale. I’m not entirely sure how America’s no. 1 podcast passed me by for so long, but over the last month or two I’ve been catching up. Night Vale is a series of mostly self-contained episodes, delivered as local radio updates for a small town in the US. It’s a very strange town, with unexplained and unexplainable occurrences: glowing clouds that mysteriously appear and rain down dead animals; a dog park that you are neither allowed to enter or to acknowledge its existence; a menacing secret police department; any number of other weirdnesses. Quite Lovecraftian (despite the creators’ noted disdain for Lovecraft and his work). Strange, macabre, hilarious.
  • The warm thrill of confusion. I’ve always seen Fountains of Wayne as an intelligent pop band wearing a dumb band’s clothes. Here co-writer and co-vocalist Chris Collingwood lifts the skirt on his influences and impressionistic approach to songwriting.
  • Hemingway’s hamburger. Hemingway lived in Cuba during the ’40s and ’50s, ordering tinned and jarred foods from New York’s Maison Glass. Here’s an article on his food orders, notes and a terrific-sounding burger recipe he would have people make for him.
  • Why do we eat popcorn at the movies? Interesting! Surprising!

Recent Links: September 2013

Some recent links from my Pinboard:

  • The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume I. The full text from Richard Feynman’s lectures, originally given to Caltech students in the 1960s.
  • What did the Nazis know about the Manhattan Project? Operation Epsilon was a Second World War programme where ten German scientists were detained at a house near Cambridge and spied on to see if they revealed anything about the Nazi programme to create atomic weapons. This article looks at the time where they were told that the US had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
  • SubToMe. A service and bookmarklet for subscribing to feeds in a variety of feedreaders. (I’m using Feedbin these days and I love it.)
  • Status Update. Heiko Julien’s Facebook statuses.
  • Clean Links. An iOS app for taking a shortened URL or one with tracking code and returning something a little nicer.
  • Remove to improve. Make your charts better by simplifying them. An animated guide.

Terminal Cities

I made a little video about Terminal Cities to accompany the new BBC series Airport Live.

It was produced in a slightly back-to-front fashion. Due to limited availability, instead of setting a voiceover to a pre-existing video, I did it the other way around. I asked Simon Bell (who you might remember from the Guide to Diagrams I described a few months ago) for his thoughts on the issues and complexity of modern air travel. He recorded his thoughts on ‘terminal cities’, the huge collection of buildings, vehicles and people that comprise a large airport.

It was then a case of digging through the BBC/Open University video archive for some footage of Heathrow, the airport in question for the duration of the series. Luckily there were some programmes that had covered the subject during previous features on Terminal 5 and the ongoing discussion around a third runway.

I grabbed a bunch of tiny clips, most only lasting a few seconds, put them in an order that seemed to fit with what Simon was saying, then added a music bed courtesy of johnny_ripper. It all fell into place really quickly and easily.

Simon was the academic advisor to the series. Although it will be live, and inherently difficult to prepare for, he’s helped ensure that the production team cover some really important and interesting topics that might otherwise go missing during a prime-time TV series.

In keeping with his fondness for understanding situations through diagrams, Simon produced a rich picture and spray diagram to make some sense of the inherent complexity of terminal cities. The fact they aren’t completely polished and they’re scanned from lined paper is kind of the point—see those guide to diagrams videos I mentioned earlier for an explanation. You can see the diagrams by using the tabs at the top of the page.

Unlike, say, Design in a Nutshell, this was a project with a £0 budget, so I was pleased to produce something at all. It would have been great to take this a little deeper and explore some of the issues in more detail, but I hope the series and the videos and articles on our website encourage more people to think about the enormous issues around modern air travel as well as the challenges faced by everyone involved at an airport like Heathrow.

Airport Live starts on Monday 17 June on BBC Two at 8pm. It broadcasts on four consecutive nights.

Airport Live

Design in a Nutshell

Design in a Nutshell‘ is our attempt to explain a few key design movements for the uninitiated. It’s six short animations, and a way to share your design alter-ego based on your design preferences.

The movements are Gothic Revival, Arts and Crafts, Bauhaus, American Industrial Design, Modernism, and Postmodernism.

To make this, I worked with Clive Hilton, from The Open University’s Design department, and Thought Den, a bunch of talented and handsome designers, developers and animators from Bristol.

With more time or money I’d have loved to include a couple more design movements. But I really like how this came out—there are some genuinely funny moments in the videos, and the quiz/diagnostic tool thing is pretty great. People seem to really like sharing their design alter-ego on Facebook and Twitter.

One thing to note is that the design department at the OU is based in the Maths, Computing and Technology faculty, and so is more focused on product design than what we might naïvely term art and design. I don’t think this is a problem, though: these design concepts should be of interest to designers of all types and help us all understand how we got where we are.

(Btw, my design alter-ego is Ludwig Georg Van Der Pound, modernist. Have a play and see what yours is.)

Design in a Nutshell launch image

Image copyright The Open University, used with permission.

Improving bounce rate

Today I gave an informal presentation to colleagues about monitoring, investigating and improving the bounce rate of our website, OpenLearn.

We all have different levels of understanding and experience of using Google Analytics, so this was a reminder for some and an introduction for others.

Below you can see the slides—they’re very minimal. You can see the slides with accompanying notes here.

Underneath there are some Google Analytics dashboards and custom reports you can use. Log into GA and click on a link. Choose a profile to apply the dashboard or report to it. It will then be your local copy, so you can rename it or modify it for your own needs.

I’ve collected some of these resources from various places and not noted where from. If any of them are your work, let me know and I’ll give you credit and a link.

I know the following embedded thing breaks the column it’s in—sadly I can’t resize Haiku Deck embeds to make them smaller.

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app for iPad

(Remember, you need to be logged in to GA for these links to work)

Google Analytics dashboards

  • Brand monitoring. A dashboard that focuses on how people found you by searching for you. Change any mentions of ‘openlearn’ to your brand name.
  • No-bullshit. A summary of important data in plain English. This is especially useful if you’re not used to the terminology of Google Analytics.
  • Site usage/quality. Browsers, devices, top content and bounce/exit rates.
  • Visitors technology. Summary of devices, browsers, resolution, Flash capability, etc.

Google Analytics custom reports

  • Search performance. Apply this report and use advanced segments to explore paid and non-paid search traffic.
  • Browser version. How your traffic copes with different browsers.
  • Mobile performance. All about mobile.
  • Keyword analysis. Click the ‘engagement’ tab then look for troublesome pages. Click on the page title. Are there any keywords that are irrelevant? Solve with SEO.
  • Link analysis. Which sources are helping your goals?
  • PPC. How are your ads doing?
  • Social media. Judge the success of your social media campaigns.

Terms of service you can actually read

It might seem strange to write a blog post congratulating someone on writing good terms of service, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Editorially is a collaborative writing and editing service. You can use it to write something, send it to colleagues, have them edit or give feedback. It is Microsoft Word’s Review tab done properly.

Today they posted about their terms of service. You know—those ghastly pages you see linked to in a website’s footer, or the thing you check the box to say you’ve read when you haven’t. The reason we don’t read them is that they’re often impenetrable, doused in legalese and written in tiny all-caps.

Their desire was to make it completely human readable and understandable, to challenge the boilerplate text we usually see when we bother to look at other ToS:

[Keeping it readable] is the first, most difficult, and most important goal when drafting terms. There is no legal reason for your terms to be opaque or confusing. Approach the writing process the same way you would any other communication with your users: use plain language, and speak like a human. Keep your sentences short and simple. Make generous use of numbered and bulleted lists where possible.

Don’t assume that commonly-used legalese is required; much oft-repeated language is the result of laziness, not a legal mandate. If your lawyer suggests language that’s thick or confusing, ask for clarification about why it’s needed, or what it intends to communicate. Then translate that into language you’d be comfortable using if you were sitting across a table from a colleague or friend.

Most of their advice is best practice for writing on the web in general—keep it short, stress the important things, make yourself understood.

The whole thing is available under a Creative Commons licence, so there’s no reason why the ToS for your website or service can’t be just as readable.

I’m not suggesting this is the most interesting, amazing thing you’ll read today—hell, you’ll read something in the next hour that is better. But these ToS are increasingly important as we give use more services and give more data away. We frequently have to adhere to statements we don’t or can’t understand, so it is refreshing for Editorially to tell us exactly what we’re getting ourselves into.

Current iPhone home screen

Apropos of nothing, here’s my current iPhone home screen.

Stock Apple apps

There are a bunch of apps—Messages, Calendar, Camera, Safari, Photos, Weather, Mail—for which I’ve never found alternatives I like better.

Camera is the one I’ve experimented with the most, but you can’t beat the speed and ease of access of the Camera app. Sometimes I’ll take a photo and edit it in another app, like Snapseed.

Incidentally, I always keep the camera app in the top right, as that’s where the lens is.

There are a fair few apps organised in folders on the second screen, so I like to keep them updated. Having the App Store app on the home screen is a good visual prompt.


Still really love it. I’m nervous about its future, but for now I’m happy that my friends are still using it.


My Wikipedia app of choice and used at least once a day.


Where I keep my text files and notes, synced with nvALT on my Mac. I use a system somewhat similar to Tyler Reinhard’s semantic notes to keep them organised and easy to use. (Maybe I’ll write that up someday.)


RSS is still my main source of information and it’s the bedrock for many other services I use. Reeder, for iOS and OS X, is the best-looking and easiest-to-use app I’ve found. And believe me, I’ve tried lots.


I’ve never been a huge user, but (along with lots of other people) I’m getting back into it.




I read Instapaper more on my iPad than iPhone, but unlike the iBooks and Kindle apps, it’s opened often enough to warrant a home screen position.


I use it less than I used to, but Tumblr is still terrific fun and some great writers use it for their blogs.


Like Articles, I probably use this once a day to look up films and people. Side note: if you find yourself asking which film starred actor A and actor B, or which actor was in film X and film Y, try Double Feature.


Drafts is my starting point for most things I write on my iPhone. I’m using it to start writing this piece—I’ll send it to Byword where I’ll finish it up on my Mac or iPad before publishing. Other bits of text get pushed to Mail, Simplenote, OmniFocus, Pastebot, etc as required.


I track my listening habits using Last.fm, so I use their music player instead of the stock Apple app.


I’m getting back in to podcasts using Huffduffer. I’ve tried the alternatives—which are pretty good—but the Podcasts app is fine for my needs.

My Minutes

I’m currently trying this out as a way to spend more time doing the things I want (or have) to spend more time on. These are things that don’t fit too well in OmniFocus. You specify a ‘thing’, the time you want to spend doing it, and the days you want to track it. So far it is keeping me motivated but I’m aware I’ve started and given up things like this in the past.


The best Twitter client by far.


This app tells me what I should be doing instead of checking everything else. All the work and personal projects I want to complete are broken down into discrete actions and saved in OmniFocus.


I use Spotify as a music audition service. I star albums when I hear about them, listen to them a few times, then buy them on iTunes if I like them. It’s more like Instapaper for music than it is an iTunes replacement.

What’s not here?

All the rest of my apps are organised in folders on the second screen. For some, muscle memory gets me to them without thinking; for others, I search using iOS Spotlight.

Where’s your phone? Well, obviously it doesn’t need to be on the home screen to receive calls, and I open all the other apps on this screen more times a day than I call someone. I’ll usually search for a contact using Spotlight before calling them. So no need for it to be easily accessible.

Zite is probably my other most-used app—I find it surfaces articles and links of interest that I’m less likely to see in RSS or social networks.

How to create a personal, searchable link archive with ifttt and Pinboard

Building a personal archive is one of those things that only reveals its usefulness once you have one and start using it. I search mine on a daily basis to find useful links, background reading and general inspiration for work and personal projects. The more you add to it, the more useful it becomes.

Below are some examples of using Pinboard and If This Then That (ifttt) to automate saving things you like for future reference.

Pinboard: your link archive

I use Pinboard as my personal archive. Pinboard is a faster, better version of Delicious (indeed, it is run by a former Delicious engineer). You add useful links along with optional tags and a description—things that you enjoy, or that you might find useful in future.

There is a small one-time sign-up fee that increases with new users—an interesting way to ensure the service can scale well. If you currently use Delicious, you should definitely switch; if you don’t currently save bookmarks at all (or just use your browser’s bookmarking facility), I urge you to sign up for an account. The cost is currently $10.

You can optionally pay an annual fee of $25 for full-text searching of your bookmarks and notifications of 404 errors. I recommend this, as it will make the ifttt recipes below more useful.

ifttt: how to automatically add links to your archive

I’ve previously mentioned ifttt in passing on this post about time-shifting the internet. If you’re yet to use it, it is a way to automate links between different services. You connect your various accounts (known as ‘channels’), pick triggers, then actions. As well as social networks and other web services there are channels like weather, email and SMS.

There are some banal examples (‘Tweet my Facebook status updates’, for example), but once you start thinking about the range of possible triggers and actions, you can quickly think of some potentially interesting and useful combinations:

  • Email me in the morning if it’s going to rain today
  • Send starred items in Google Reader to Instapaper to read later
  • Post my Flickr favourites to Tumblr

And so on. These combinations are known as ‘recipes’ on ifttt.

A lot of the examples on ifttt are connected to publishing—i.e., given a certain trigger, post something to a social network. All of the examples below are the opposite. The triggers are all based on you liking or favouriting something on a social network, but the action is is silent and private—the only person who will see it will be you, in your personal archive.

My Pinboard recipes on ifttt

The idea here is that when you explicitly like something on a social network or website, ifttt will grab the URL along with any relevant metadata and save it to Pinboard as a private bookmark. The recipes below are for services that I use; there are others available that you can apply the principle to.

All these recipes use the original item’s tags and description where possible and appropriate. Sadly you can’t save Twitter favorites via ifttt, although you can configure Pinboard to automatically add links from your Twitter favorites as bookmarks. You could probably hack something together with your favorites RSS feed, but it’s not something I’ve explored yet.

Tidying up and editing

By following this process, you’ll end up with a lot of private bookmarks that aren’t as meticulously tagged as the ones you add yourself. This isn’t a huge problem—if you pay for the $25 archival account, searching your archive will still surface relevant links—but you can still do some tidying up.

I find it useful to review my recently added bookmarks as part of a wider weekly review, adding or editing descriptions and tags as necessary. The process of scanning my bookmarks is useful in its own right and only takes a few minutes.

Extra: using email to make the most of your important tags

I add a lot to my archive, both public and private. I add stuff that I think would be useful to other people, but other than a few other Pinboard users, no-one pays any attention my bookmarks. In addition, I usually want to save something to my archive without having to think about what else to do with it. So I’ve started experimenting with some email alerts based on particular tags.

At work my team often share useful tools that others might want to investigate. So, whenever I save something to Pinboard with the tag tools, an email is sent from my personal email account to my work one with the link and a prompt ‘Worth sharing with the team?‘. The majority of my bookmarks are saved in the evenings, so when I get to work the next day I have a reminder so I can choose whether or not to share the link.

You could could skip this bit and share the URLs directly with other people, but I find the intermediary step is helpful for me to consider whether others would really find it useful.

Another use would be to remind you of links to blog about. If your blog is about software or design or writing or whatever, have ifttt send you an email whenever you bookmark a link with that tag. This avoids having to use a toBlog tag or similar. (I prefer to use tags based on content only, rather than anything workflow-related.)

If you’re confident that you want to blog about every link with a particular tag, you could use ifttt to send the links and descriptions directly from Pinboard to a blogging system like Tumblr or WordPress.

I’m sure you can think of other uses based on this concept—let me know on Twitter.

A minor success as well as a monumental failure

A great article by Chris Higgins on competitive Tetris:

Neither competitor can actually win. NES Tetris cannot be defeated, even in a so-called “max-out” game, in which the top possible score of 999,999 points is achieved. Every game ends with a player topping out and losing. Yet the best possible loss is exactly what these men seek, though each hope to win the Championship first.

I played my fair share of NES Tetris as a kid and I got nowhere near these guys. I know the strategy—build up a stack of tesselating shapes and clear four lines at a time (a Tetris) with the long shape, but maneuvering those blocks in the correct direction at high speeds was a task too far for my childhood brain.

The piece is notable also for it’s separate special features companion post, with related links and a Q&A.

If this interests you, seek out Seth Gordon’s 2007 film The King of Kong, one of my favourite documentaries on any subject, ever. And here are some fabulous long articles about Tetris.

20th century composers: making the connections

This week we published a new connections tool on OpenLearn that looks at some of the most prominent 20th century classical and avant-garde composers and the connections that exist between them.

The work was commissioned as part of a wider partnership with the BBC and London’s Southbank Centre. Next Tuesday sees the start of a three-part BBC Four documentary series, The Sound and the Fury, that looks at 20th century composers and the broader cultural impact of their work. The Southbank Centre is part-way through The Rest Is Noise, a year-long festival of weekend events, with concerts, films, interviews and talks by prominent critics, commentators and academics.

The common thread that binds all these projects together is Alex Ross’s 2007 book, also called The Rest Is Noise.

Research and writing for the connection tool was done by the OU’s Ben Winters, with support from colleagues Jonathan Rees and Naomi Barker.

The technical work and illustrations were handled by the excellent Stardotstar, who previously built some other connection tools for OpenLearn.

This was a really nice project to work on. It’s a subject I have an interest in, but not a great understanding of, so I spent the duration of the project reading about the composers and listening to their music. It was fascinating (but not a total surprise) to find out that some of this music comes from maths: Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis have used the Fibonacci series to structure pitches and rhythm, for example, while George Benjamin and Kaija Saariaho have undertaken mathematical analysis of sound spectra as the basis for their compositional decisions.

It’s also interesting to see the way someone like Hans Werner Henze is linked through a real spider’s web of connections to so many of the other composers through his background, styles, techniques and personal relationships. Whereas names that are more famous to me, like Leoš Janáček, have less in common with the other composers that are profiled.

Of course, this is just one lens through which to view these composers. Their work is so broad and varied that it’s difficult to summarise—there’s so much still to explore. Still, I think this is a great way to introduce yourself to a type of music that is generally considered to be quite aloof and difficult, and to find points where you can jump off and do more of your own digging around.