Facebook crack down on clickbait

Alex Peysakhovich and Kristin Hendrix:

We’ve heard from people that they specifically want to see fewer stories with clickbait headlines or link titles. These are headlines that intentionally leave out crucial information, or mislead people, forcing people to click to find out the answer. For example: “When She Looked Under Her Couch Cushions And Saw THIS… I Was SHOCKED!”; “He Put Garlic In His Shoes Before Going To Bed And What Happens Next Is Hard To Believe”; or “The Dog Barked At The Deliveryman And His Reaction Was Priceless.”

To address this feedback from our community, we’re making an update to News Feed ranking to further reduce clickbait headlines in the coming weeks. With this update, people will see fewer clickbait stories and more of the stories they want to see higher up in their feeds.

Donald Trump’s fake Twitter followers

Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair:

The problem, like almost everything that comes out of Trump’s mouth, is that this number is drastically exaggerated. A large number of those followers aren’t potential voters. They are not even people. They’re bots.

The percentage varies tremendously according to who you ask: anywhere between 3.4 and 41 per cent.

I enjoyed the payoff to this paragraph:

Back in the early days of fake followers, the programmers who made the bots often just plucked pictures of people from Google, created a fake name, fake biography, and—voilà—you had a fake follower. But now, to subvert being found out, bots have become incredibly clever, even sometimes becoming indistinguishable from real people. They use semantic analysis to understand what people are tweeting about, and reply with answers that are mostly coherent, which also more or less describes how Trump uses the service, too.

Related: my friend Phil on the user experience of buying fake followers.

The Living Room: A film about Gavin Clark

The Living Room is Shane Meadows’ 2015 film about Gavin Clark, a musician and long-time collaborator:

I recently watched This Is England and its TV series follow-ups in a single weekend. (I’m unsure whether to recommend you do the same; my emotions remain utterly shot, not yet reverting to their previous state.) Clark’s music appears in all of Meadows’ work: as a solo artist, and as a member of a few short-lived bands.

The film takes us through Clark’s difficulty with solo live performance, struggling even to play a show for friends and family in his own living room. Meadows made it after finding out that his best mate—the most talented musician he’d ever met—was delivering pizza to make ends meet, his back catalogue having been critically lauded but largely ignored by the public. The idea is that Clark appears in several living rooms to build his confidence before tackling a full tour.

His work is instantly identifiable. Fairly sparse, mostly acoustic instrumentation, nods to blues and folk, disarmingly simple guitar playing, and that voice. The best I can describe it is: it carries the lyrics upwards while simultaneously pulling them down with gravitas and life experience. It’s half choirboy, half fags ‘n whisky. These are awful descriptions, so you should listen to him instead.

If you’ve watched This Is England then you might remember this cover of Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want:

I bought the (only?) Sunhouse album in ’98 after a glowing review in MOJO. I’ve gone through stages over the subsequent years of pulling it out and giving it more spins, always pleased at how it aged so well, always wondering why Clark wasn’t much more famous.

He recorded with UNKLE:

It was only when the credits on This Is England ’90 rolled that I saw the dedication to Clark. He sadly died in February last year, a week after The Living Room was uploaded to YouTube (although it was recorded several years earlier).

Clark had battled addiction to drink and drugs at various points in his life. His final work, with Toydrum, is celebrated as among his best. Time for me to give it a good listen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQeL2EdnVr4

Title case and sentence case

John Saito on the relative merits of title case and sentence case in UX:

Much like the word “gravitas,” title case gives your words a feeling of formality and importance. Sites like The New York Times and USA.gov primarily use title case. It’s Professional. Serious. Established.

Using title case is like dressing your words up in a suit. For certain brands, you might want your words to look like they mean business. If you’re in the business of security, for example, title case is more likely to feel professional and trustworthy compared to sentence case.

[…]

Just as title case looks more formal and serious, sentence case looks more casual and friendly. I’m a writer at Dropbox, and we intentionally write in sentence case because we want our brand to feel natural and approachable. We think our product’s voice sets us apart from our competitors, and using sentence case is one way for us to maintain that voice.

I greatly prefer sentence case, for the reasons John outlines and more. I get irrationally bothered when people unnecessarily (in my eyes) capitalise words—particularly long strings of them—in an attempt to make things sound more ‘important’.

However, the title case example he presents does make some sense. His final thoughts are sensible advice for all writers and interface designers:

Title case and sentence case both have their advantages. Whichever direction you decide to go, just make sure you make an informed decision that makes sense for your brand. The worst thing you can do is to not have any standards at all, which eventually leads to inconsistencies that’ll be a pain to fix later.

Once your users start noticing inconsistencies, that’s when they start losing trust in your brand.

Choosing baby names

Phoenicia Hebebe Dobson-Mouawad (yes, really) for The Guardian:

  • Have you heard the name before? If not, no one else will have.
  • Can you pronounce it without having to look it up? Because if you need to look it up, I can tell you firsthand that you will be the only person your child ever meets who has taken the time to do so.
  • Avoid hyphens unless both names are easily pronounceable. Dobson – that’s fine. Mouawad – more than enough effort on its own. Dobson-Mouawad – no comment.
  • Can a child of primary school age say it? If they look confused and say, “What?”, take that as a strong no.
  • Remember that your child’s name is for their happiness alone and not to prove to the world how cool and creative you are. That’s what Instagram is for. Take it from someone who knows or in 19 years’ time your child will be as fed up as I am.

My father, the YouTube star

Kevin Pang on his parents’ surprise hit—a Chinese cookery YouTube show:

The first few emails were marked “Fwd: Jeffrey Pang sent you a video,” so I ignored them. Statistics were on my side: In the history of parental email forwards, roughly 0.001 percent have been worth opening.

Later he followed up by phone. I told him I hadn’t found time to watch whatever it was he sent. Several seconds of silence hung between us before my dad replied: “Oh.”

This is how it had gone for 30-some years — a father-son relationship kept cordial and indifferent through habit and physical distance. I live in Chicago; he’s in Seattle. Once a week, we’d talk on the phone for five minutes and exchange the least substantive of pleasantries: “How’s the weather?” “Plans this weekend?” Not a meaningful conversation so much as a scripted set of talking points.

Only when my mom nudged did I open the video Dad had sent.

Fade in: the company logo for Creative Production, with the E-A-T in “Creative” highlighted. Cue soft piano melody, the type of royalty-free soundtrack that sounds like the hold Muzak when you call your dermatologist. Dissolve to title screen: “Catherine Mom’s Shanghainese Green Onion Pancake,” with its translation in Chinese. And then a photo of my mother (Catherine) and my grandma. A shot of our white kitchen island, and my mother’s hands, her unmistakable wedding band, digging into and massaging wet dough. My virulently anti-technology Chinese parents were starring in their own internet cooking show.

Then one video turned into a few dozen, and now, somehow, my retired, 65-year-old father has nearly a million views on his YouTube channel.

Vaguely sinister, possibly offensive nonsense

1: How new words are born

As dictionary publishers never tire of reminding us, our language is growing. Not content with the million or so words they already have at their disposal, English speakers are adding new ones at the rate of around 1,000 a year. Recent dictionary debutants include blog, grok, crowdfunding, hackathon, airball, e-marketing, sudoku, twerk and Brexit.

But these represent just a sliver of the tip of the iceberg. According to Global Language Monitor, around 5,400 new words are created every year (Oxford Dictionaries Online, evidently using different criteria, reckon 1.8bn). It’s only the 1,000 or so deemed to be in sufficiently widespread use that make it into print. Who invents these words, and how? What rules govern their formation? And what determines whether they catch on?

2: Passweird

This website will create for you a password that is not only secure, but is also so utterly repulsive that not even the most hardened criminal, identity thief, NSA agent, or jealous boyfriend would ever want to use it.

3: Sarah Palin’s English

In fact, a lot of what Sarah Palin says sounds like it’s been poorly translated from the Latin. With her “he who” and “one who,” she’d sound almost Ciceronian if it weren’t for the holes in her logic and the way those complicated sentences sometimes dribble off into vaguely sinister, possibly offensive nonsense.

See also The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth, an excellent book about turning the perfect English phrase.

4: Everything About Everything: David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ at 20

“Infinite Jest” is a genuinely groundbreaking novel of language. Not even the masters of the high/low rhetorical register go higher more panoramically or lower more exuberantly than Wallace — not Joyce, not Bellow, not Amis. Aphonia, erumpent, Eliotical, Nuckslaughter, phalluctomy! Made-up words, hot-wired words, words found only in the footnotes of medical dictionaries, words usable only within the context of classical rhetoric, home-chemistry words, mathematician words, philosopher words — Wallace spelunked the O.E.D. and fearlessly neologized, nouning verbs, verbing nouns, creating less a novel of language than a brand-new lexicographic reality. But nerdlinger word-mongering or “stunt-pilotry” (to use another Wallace phrase) can be an empty practice indeed. You need sentences to display-case the words, and here, too, “Infinite Jest” surpasses almost every novel written in the last century, maintaining a consistent and mind-boggling descriptive mastery, as when he portrays a sunset as “swollen and perfectly round, and large, radiating knives of light … It hung and trembled slightly like a viscous drop about to fall.”

5: The Fermi Paradox is not Fermi’s, and it is not a paradox

Two big ideas often come up in discussions about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. One is the Drake Equation, which estimates the number of civilizations in our Galaxy whose signals we might be able to detect—potentially thousands, according to plausible estimates. The other is the so-called Fermi paradox, which claims that we should see intelligent aliens here if they exist anywhere, because they would inevitably colonize the Galaxy by star travel—and since we don’t see any obvious signs of aliens here, searching for their signals is pointless.

The Drake Equation is perfectly genuine: it was created by astronomer and SETI pioneer Frank Drake. The Fermi paradox, however, is a myth. It is named for the physicist Enrico Fermi—but Fermi never made such a claim.

6: From Berlin’s warehouses to London’s estates: how cities shape music scenes

Most modern music is an urban animal. Cities regularly birth music scenes, and artists often claim to be inspired by “the streets”, or by their neighbourhood. Yet the actual link between the music they make and the built environment where they do so is generally underplayed – spoken about as a matter of mood, or a source of lyrics. Music historians generally cite a critical mass of musicians as being crucial to the birth of a scene: classical composers in 18th century Vienna, for example, or modern metal bands in Helsinki. But the city itself? Well that’s mainly just credited as a convenient place for the musicians to hang out – though David Bowie’s residency in Berlin, for one, took that relationship to particularly intimate levels. But what if a city’s role isn’t quite so one-note?

7: Frinkiac

Frinkiac has nearly 3 million Simpsons screencaps so get to searching for crying out glayvin!

8: Winona, Forever

 Like [Holden Caulfield], teen Ryder was the smart, ambivalent outsider searching for a place in a society that opposed those very things. Even into her twenties, in Reality Bites and Girl, Interrupted, she was more of a delayed adolescent than an adult. Ryder was unable to move on because of what moving on meant. And we weren’t either. Our Nonistalgia keeps her cloistered to this day in adolescence, alongside then-boyfriend Johnny Depp, before he cashed in on his eccentricity. But despite our attempts to resuscitate the past—Beetlejuice 2, Heathers: The Musical, Marc Jacobs—and as young as Ryder continues to look, she is no longer that ‘90s ingénue. In that sense she and Holden really are a team. “[Caulfield’s] central dilemma is that he wants to retain a child’s innocence, solipsism, and clarity,” wrote Harold Bloom, “but because of biology he must move into either adulthood or madness.”

All the city’s flotsam and jetsam

1: Cancer and climate change

I’m a climate scientist who has just been told I have Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

This diagnosis puts me in an interesting position. I’ve spent much of my professional life thinking about the science of climate change, which is best viewed through a multidecadal lens. At some level I was sure that, even at my present age of 60, I would live to see the most critical part of the problem, and its possible solutions, play out in my lifetime. Now that my personal horizon has been steeply foreshortened, I was forced to decide how to spend my remaining time. Was continuing to think about climate change worth the bother?

2: Ten thousand years of the mortar and pestle

3: Vader’s Redemption: The Imperial March in a Major Key

4: The tube at a standstill: why TfL stopped people walking up the escalators

It’s British lore: on escalators, you stand on the right and walk on the left. So why did the London Underground ask grumpy commuters to stand on both sides? And could it help avert a looming congestion crisis?

5: Google Earth fractals

The following is a “photographic” gallery of fractal patterns found while exploring the planet with Google Earth. Each is provided with a KMZ file so the reader can explore the region for themselves. Readers are encouraged to submit their own discoveries for inclusion, credits will be included. Besides being examples of self similar fractals, they are often very beautiful structures … not an uncommon characteristic of fractal geometry.

6: The digital materiality of GIFs

The history, present and future of GIFs.

7: A collection of Bat-labels

Collecting the explanatory labels on everything in the 1966-1968 Batman TV series.

8: Michael Wolf captures abstract, accidental sculptures in Hong Kong alleyways

For over 20 years Michael Wolf has been photographing Hong Kong. During that time he has captured the towering pastel facades of its high rise architecture in a vein similar to Thomas Struth or Andreas Gursky, but perhaps more interestingly he has delved into the hidden maze of the city’s back alleys. What he found and has faithfully documented, are the innumerable abstract urban still lifes seen throughout. All the city’s flotsam and jetsam, from clusters of gloves and clothes hangers, to networks of pipes and a full colour spectrum of plastic bags, are photographed in strange, but entirely happenstance arrangements.

9: A list of the 100 oldest rockstars still living

10: ‘Shocking celebrity nip slips’: Secrets I learned writing clickbait journalism

I spent six months writing traffic-baiting articles about ‘nearly naked’ red carpet dresses and Hollywood bikini shots. Here is my dispatch from the dark side of online celeb journalism.

11: Poachers using science papers to target newly discovered species

Academic journals have begun withholding the geographical locations of newly discovered species after poachers used the information in peer-reviewed papers to collect previously unknown lizards, frogs and snakes from the wild, the Guardian has learned.

12: Why I ignore the daily news and read The Economist instead (and how you can too)

But there’s one big downside to the The Economist: it’s a bear to read every week. Not because of the writing, which is crisp and engaging, but because of the volume. Each issue contains about 90 pages of densely packed 9-point type and few photos.

Here’s my 7-step system for reading The Economist every week.

A jigsaw everyone could put together differently

1: Simply everything: On David Bowie

But as much as Bowie borrowed and benefitted from the likes of Iggy Pop and Brian Eno, there was a there there. Bowie may not have had a soul, but he had heart (or maybe it was the other way around). Everything he absorbed was then refracted back through his unique sensibility, one that was at once and in no particular order sentimental and dead-eyed. With Bowie, you could never tell if you were being lured into feelings, if the whole thing was an elaborate prank, or if Bowie’s music was pulsating with emotion despite all its cunning and pretense. It almost doesn’t matter. Bowie’s music means so much to so many of us that artist intention seems beside the point. “Soul Love” projects warmth even if it’s meant as kitsch; the melodramatic “Life on Mars” soars; his over-the-top version of “Word on a Wind” still cuts to the quick.

2: David Bowie: Ground control to Davy Jones

Cameron Crowe’s 1976 feature for Rolling Stone:

“Rock & roll is a very accessible medium for any young artist. Don’t you think so? I like music but it’s not my life by any stretch of the imagination. I mean I was a painter before, but as a painter I couldn’t make enough money to live on. So I went into advertising and that was awful. That was the worst. I got out of that and tried rock & roll because it seemed like an enjoyable way of making my money and taking four or five years out to decide what I really wanted to do. I have no ideals on being a starving artist at all.”

3: David Bowie on the Ziggy Stardust years: ‘We were creating the 21st Century In 1971’

Having not really written any generational songs, I think maybe two or three of the songs that I’ve ever written have any bearing on the age of the listener. My stuff tends to be far more concerned with the spiritual, and with subjects like isolation and being miserable, so I think that sort of touches on really any age group. So in my terms, they’re just songs. The vehicle for those songs is a music that did indeed start as a youth-culture music, but it has aged well in itself and it has become a vast and complex thing now. There’s so many subdivisions and styles and variations. No, it’s just what I do. I wouldn’t know how to write and play any other kind of music, frankly.

4: Go put on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory

My friend Jeva:

But when I discovered David Bowie on my own terms, it was with 1971’s Hunky Dory — an album I still believe to be his greatest, if not one of the greatest albums of all time. For someone as prolific and ever-shifting as Bowie, the singer’s fourth album is still the best chance we have to hear all the different shades of him in one go — the outer-space song alongside the song for kooks, a track about Andy Warhol following up a command to fill our hearts. Hunky Dory is both a “start here” album and an “end here” album, even though so many of us never thought there’d truly be an end. Blackstar, Bowie’s latest album that was released on his 69th birthday Friday, is hailed to be as good as the stuff he was making in his so-called prime.

5: ohyouprettythings.com

6: The life changing power of discovering David Bowie

What you found wasn’t one Bowie, but layers of him, a jigsaw everyone could put together differently. Fit it together in the right way, and the jigsaw’s solution was a mirror—a way to understand yourself through this extraordinary man. For many, the mirror arranged itself in a way that let them realize who they were and who they wanted. The boxes of gender, style, self-expression or sexuality you were put into were just a push away from tearing open.

7: David Bowie’s top 100 must-read books

American classics of the 50s and 60s are strongly represented – On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – as are tales of working-class boys made good, which emerged in the postwar years: Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar and Room at the Top by John Braine, and The Outsider by Colin Wilson, a study of creativity and the mindset of misfits. RD Laing’s The Divided Self speaks to a fascination with psychotherapy and creativity, as does The Origin of Consciousness in the breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. There is no evidence that Bowie’s scientific inquries extend beyond psychology – Stephen Hawking’s cosmic theories are out – but his tastes are otherwise broad.

8: BowieNet: how David Bowie’s ISP foresaw the future of the internet

9: My husband’s stupid record collection: David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)

(The premise of this blog: ‘Where I listen to my husband’s record collection, one record at a time, and tell you what I think.’)

Oh okay, so The Spiders From Mars are the band members. I get it. I feel like if this is such a concept album that the lyrics should have been included in the liner notes to really pore over the story. I could tell he was trying to tell a story just by looking at the cover though! According to the website, “The album is the story of an alien rock superstar called Ziggy Stardust who reaches fame just as the Earth enters the last five years of its existence. He ends up the victim of his own success and becomes a “rock n roll suicide.” I didn’t exactly get that on my own. But that’s okay. Honestly, the meaning of the concept album isn’t that important to me, I just like the songs. I will definitely put this album on again, I feel like I’ll discover more and more layers with each listen, and I’ll remember to play it at maximum volume.

10: Queen and David Bowie – “Under Pressure” (isolated lead vocal tracks)

I want to be a 55-year-old black musician

1: Better as a Tweet

From John Herrman’s excellent Awl series, The Content Wars:

What’s unusual about text, and which helps explain why journalists’ reactions to this change are so confident and visceral—as opposed to the resigned and uncertain responses they have to changes in Facebook, which, to them, is much more powerful in ways they can control much less—is that, unlike, say, native Twitter images, which marginalized a small number of Twitter-specific companies, longer posts change a professional calculus for anyone who uses Twitter to promote writing online. An old boss used to say, half-joking and then eventually not joking at all, “maybe that story would be better as a tweet.” What was initially almost pejorative—said to mean “short” or “slight” or “unworthy of a longer post”—became a complex judgement. Could this piece of news be conveyed well in a sentence or two with an image or video? Could we just screenshot that statement, or release, rather than asking people to follow a link to a post where it’s quoted? If the answer is yes, then the corresponding reader question—would I rather see this on Twitter, or click on some site—is answered as well.

The ability to post 10,000 characters will make the answer to that question “yes” in a majority of situations. Possibly a large majority! This post, for example, would fit in a 10,000 word text card. I doubt anyone reading it expanded in their Twitter feed would think, “damn, I wish I was reading this on a website instead of right here! I wish I had clicked a link, for some reason!” This is somewhat worrying if you’re in the business of making posts against which ads are sold.

2: What’s the plural of emoji?

You may well have seen this doing the rounds—just as interesting is Meyer’s follow-up note.

3: An isochronic map of the world, c. 1914

This is an isochronic map – isochrones being lines joining points accessible in the same amount of time – and it tells a story about how travel was changing. You can get anywhere in the dark-pink section in the middle [London] within five days – to the Azores in the west and the Russian city of Perm in the east. No surprises there: you’re just not going very far. Beyond that, things get a little more interesting. Within five to ten days, you can get as far as Winnipeg or the Blue Pearl of Siberia, Lake Baikal. It takes as much as 20 days to get to Tashkent, which is closer than either, or Honolulu, which is much farther away. In some places, a colour sweeps across a landmass, as pink sweeps across the eastern United States or orange across India. In others, you reach a barrier of blue not far inland, as in Africa and South America. What explains the difference? Railways.

4: After years directing indie films, Transparent star Jay Duplass found himself in an unlikely place: in front of the camera

It’s a choice that belies Jay’s relative lack of acting experience. He and Mark began making movies in New Orleans when they were very young, and because of their age difference — Jay is four years older than Mark — it worked out that Jay would operate the camera while Mark stayed in front of it. As they grew up, they lived what Jay calls an “uncultivated, un-curated” childhood, filled with street football and DIY art projects and a general improvisational spirit, including a deep involvement in music.

“When you grow up in New Orleans, like, the only way to be an artist is to be a 55-year-old black musician. That’s basically what we wanted to be,” he said. “If you had asked me very truthfully what I wanted to be when I was 16, the answer would’ve been, ‘I want to be a 55-year-old black musician.’”

5: Ruth and Martin’s album club: Ram by Paul McCartney

Martin Carr (The Boo Radleys) listens to Ram for the first time. Spoiler: he loves it. As he should. (See also Dave Depper’s The Ram Project, where he re-recorded everything you can hear on the album over the course of a single month.)

6: Pavement: 10 of the best

Where is ‘Shady Lane’?

Participation in a metaphysical polemic

1: The DNA of a London Underground Station

This is endlessly fascinating:

On 1st December 2015 Transport for London (TfL) unveiled its new design bible, the Design Idiom. Though the name may sound grandiose, the goal is simple: create a document that captures the design aesthetic of the Underground, so that good design can help drive decision-making at London Underground.

“It’s all about bringing good design to the forefront of our thinking.” explains Mark Evers, Director of Customer Strategy at TfL. “Very simply, setting out the key principles that can help us deliver well-designed stations in the future, every time.”

“This Design Idiom is about taking that step back and making sure that in the future we are thinking far more holistically about the way we should be undertaking work on our stations.”

2: My first book: Adventures in learning to read Japanese

All readers are familiar with the sensation of falling into a book. By their very nature, books invite you to immerse yourself in the world they have constructed. When it comes to a book in another language, however, such immersion feels both familiar and alien. While reading Kokoro no mori, I felt like a seasoned explorer suddenly sent to scope out Mars: the process was the same, but everything else was totally different. I had to attune myself to the rhythms of another language, to slowly gather an instinct for its patterns and structures, its particular logic. After spending so long in comfortable, well-trod terrain, finding myself in a new one was intimidating, exhilarating, and mesmerizing, all at once.

I’m currently learning Italian and, a few weeks ago, I opened up La Gazzetta dello Sport. Big mistake. I could feel the motivation evaporating out of me. I can hardly imagine reading a novel in another language.

3: Toward a new fantastic: Stop calling it science fiction

This is a wonderful paragraph:

This attitude toward science is widespread and can be found in both the resurgence of the popular television show Cosmos, as well as with popular websites like “I Fucking Love Science,” both of which exist in some form to produce questionably accurate infographics for social network sites. In terms of the latter, we are able to see the confusion: When my cousin posts a picture of a wild-looking insect from an exotic part of the world with the caption “I Fucking Love Science,” I am not sure what I am supposed to be celebrating. Is my cousin an enthusiast of the natural world? An advocate of empirical methodologies? Is his participation in a metaphysical polemic willing or unwitting? Either way, science did not give us the tap-dancing mating ritual of the rainbow spider, and it sure as hell is not the gatekeeper for my enjoyment of it.

4: Why we all dream of being jewel thieves

Stories about burglaries and heists don’t often appeal to me. But using them as jumping off points to discuss city topology, that’s something else entirely:

These examples are not only fascinating on their own as infrastructural factoids or as urban esoterica: They are also evidence that the logic of the city of London is already a logic of secret connections and startling proximities. Putting this knowledge to work in order to access bank vaults or to plunder safe deposit boxes is thus, in some ways, just an everyday temptation encountered by living in England’s capital city—as if cutting holes through walls, or digging tunnels between buildings, is, perversely, one of the more efficient ways of moving through the city.

The fabric of London, then, is one defined by perforation: serendipitous adjacencies that allow for movement out of sight and across property lines, through walls, from one building to another. After all, in a city where you can open a door in the base of a statue and walk underground to an entirely other neighborhood, in a sense, why not dream of bank tunnels?

5: When San Diego hired a rainmaker a century ago, it poured

As California endures its worst drought in 1,200 years, residents of the Golden State are turning to extreme—and desperate—measures to quench their collective thirst. Sun-baked farmers are hiring “water witches” to divine underground water sources with forked branches, while a company called Rain on Request has pledged to end the drought by building electrical towers that would induce rainfall by ionizing the atmosphere. When California found itself in a similar parched position exactly 100 years ago, the city of San Diego did something that seems even more bizarre—it hired a rainmaker. The thing is, it might have worked. After Charles Mallory Hatfield began his work to wring water from the skies, San Diego experienced its wettest period in recorded history. So was the rain an act of God or an act of Hatfield?

6: Dear architects: sound matters

A nice interactive look at how architects should consider sound in their plans. (This works on all devices but is best on a desktop with headphones.)

7: Windows 95 on a Nintendo 3DS is as strange as you’d think

8: Word count for web pages

Key takeaway:

Word counts can be harmful to usability. Structured, user-centred, well researched content is all you need.

9: 25 years after its imperial phase: Who killed shoegaze?

With the release of MBV’s Loveless, 1991 marked the high water mark for shoegaze before the music press turned its back with a nose-high snort of derision. Ben Cardew looks over the history of the genre and asks if its decline was simply because the music just got boring.

10: Style guide best practices at Beyond Tellerrand

Brad Frost:

Last month I was in beautiful Berlin for the wonderful Beyond Tellerrand conference, where I had the opportunity to talk about style guide best practices and all that goes into creating and maintaining successful pattern libraries.

The result is this garbage

1: The website obesity crisis

A typically great talk by Maciej, who appears on this site more than most:

Let me start by saying that beautiful websites come in all sizes and page weights. I love big websites packed with images. I love high-resolution video. I love sprawling Javascript experiments or well-designed web apps.

This talk isn’t about any of those. It’s about mostly-text sites that, for unfathomable reasons, are growing bigger with every passing year.

While I’ll be using examples to keep the talk from getting too abstract, I’m not here to shame anyone, except some companies (Medium) that should know better and are intentionally breaking the web.

2: What’s a species, anyways?

The search for the red wolf’s origins have led scientists to a new theory about how evolution actually works.

3: All I want for Christmas is MIDI

i put “All I Want for Christmas is You” through a MIDI converter, and then back through an mp3 converter

the result is this garbage

4: The Music Word Processor: Who we are

In short: rather than music criticism, The Music Word Processor is music criticism criticism. This blog is a space to explore questions like: what is the state of music writing in the 21st century? Is the corporatization of music writing inevitable? What are the kinds of narratives constructed by music writers and publications?

5: Make Believe Mailer Vol. 6: ナイス ニューズレター! 力限りない

From a newsletter by Patrick St. Michel about supposedly “Japanese” artists on the web:

At some point in 2015, these badly photoshopped, boring homages to the first generation of vaporwave — which had been released unobtrusively through Mediafire for the most part — outnumbered releases from real Japanese artists. For a while, I just stopped using Bandcamp as a place to explore new Japanese music, because everything tagged “Japan” seemed like a lie. it was annoying, but not as annoying as toggling over to the “best-selling” section and seeing the exact same thing. And all of the albums seemed to come primarily from one place.

6: The science myths that will not die

Some dangerous myths get plenty of air time: vaccines cause autism, HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. But many others swirl about, too, harming people, sucking up money, muddying the scientific enterprise — or simply getting on scientists’ nerves. Here, Nature looks at the origins and repercussions of five myths that refuse to die.

7: What I’m currently reading

Let’s see what the dog will do

12 weird, excellent Twitter bots chosen by Twitter’s best bot-makers

This includes several of my favourites. (A reminder that I have an ebooks bot (also created by Brett), @cold_ebrains. If you follow it it might talk to you.

Noel Gallagher talks to GQ

I’m not quite sure it deserves its own subdomain, but it’s typically good value from Gallagher. A typical quote:

And I hate pop stars who are just… neh. Just nothing, you know? “Oh, yeah, my last selfie got 47-thousand-million likes on Instagram.” Yeah, why don’t you go fuck off and get a drug habit, you penis?

How we became the heaviest drinkers in a century

Everyone in alcohol research knows the graph. It plots the change in annual consumption of alcohol in the UK, calculated in litres of pure alcohol per person. (None of us drinks pure alcohol, thankfully; one litre of pure alcohol is equivalent to 35 pints of strong beer.) In 1950, Brits drank an average of 3.9 litres per person. Look to the right and at first the line barely rises. Then, in 1960, it begins to creep upward. The climb becomes more steady during the 1970s. The upward trajectory ends in 1980, but that turns out to be temporary. By the late 1990s consumption is rising rapidly again. Come Peak Booze, in 2004, we were drinking 9.5 litres of alcohol per person – the equivalent of more than 100 bottles of wine.

Why is English so weirdly different from other languages

Nevertheless, the Latinate invasion did leave genuine peculiarities in our language. For instance, it was here that the idea that ‘big words’ are more sophisticated got started. In most languages of the world, there is less of a sense that longer words are ‘higher’ or more specific. In Swahili, Tumtazame mbwa atakavyofanya simply means ‘Let’s see what the dog will do.’ If formal concepts required even longer words, then speaking Swahili would require superhuman feats of breath control. The English notion that big words are fancier is due to the fact that French and especially Latin words tend to be longer than Old English ones – end versus conclusion, walk versus ambulate.

Alvin and the Chipmunks played at 16 RPM

Super sludgy and very listenable.

What can a technologist do about climate change?

A hugely comprehensive look at what Silicon Valley’s best could do to tackle a rather bigger problem.

This is a “personal view”, biased by my experiences and idiosyncrasies. I’ve followed the climate situation for some time, including working on Al Gore’s book Our Choice, but I can’t hope to convey the full picture — just a sliver that’s visible from where I’m standing. I urge you to talk to many scientists and engineers involved in climate analysis and energy, and see for yourself what the needs are and how you can contribute.

This is aimed at people in the tech industry, and is more about what you can do with your career than at a hackathon. I’m not going to discuss policy and regulation, although they’re no less important than technological innovation. A good way to think about it, via Saul Griffith, is that it’s the role of technologists to create options for policy-makers.

The archive of eating

One 84-year-old librarian has spent more than half her life building a comprehensive database of cookbooks throughout history. […] From ladyfingers to latkes is a prose poem suggestive of whole worlds. The list runs on and on, from aal (German for eel) to zucchini, seeming to contain the promise of a universal cookbook of European and American cuisine, pieced together from all the recipes ever written — a Borgesian feat of quixotic and fantastical taxonomy.

The new New York skyline

This is beautifully presented.

Manhattan is in the midst of an unprecedented boom in tall buildings. Before 2004, Manhattan was home to 28 skyscrapers 700 feet and taller. Since then, an additional 13 have been built, 15 are under construction, and 19 are proposed—47 more in all. These additions are rapidly—and radically—changing the skyline.

Quiz: The pieces everything is made of

A quiz about the elements of the periodic table by Randall Munroe.

Several years ago, Munroe, the creator of the Web comic “xkcd,” published his own blueprint of a Saturn V rocket, the launch vehicle that sent the Apollo astronauts to the moon. He called it “Up Goer Five.” The blueprint, he explained in a parenthetical note, was annotated “using only the ten hundred words people use the most often”—that is, the thousand most common words in English. It was aerospace engineering made simple. The rocket’s tower-jettison motor became the “thing to help people escape really fast if there’s a problem and everything is on fire so they decide not to go to space.” The Apollo command module became the “people box.”

Buster Keaton – The art of the gag

Before Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson, before Chuck Jones and Jackie Chan, there was Buster Keaton, one of the founding fathers of visual comedy. And nearly 100 years after he first appeared onscreen, we’re still learning from him. Today, i’d like to talk about the artistry (and the thinking) behind his gags.

Brown acid black leather: The story Of The Jesus And Mary Chain’s Psychocandy

We couldn’t understand why people couldn’t love both things and that combination of melody and extreme noise was so obvious to us. And they were equally as important. And so was Motown. Take ‘Just My Imagination’ – that’s three chords with really strange reverb on it. Everybody talks about The Velvets but we were more than that. Nobody really mentions the Motown influences or glam rock. You know, stuff like Gary Glitter and that were a huge thing in our life when we were young. The first thing we bought was T-Rex.

Optimising a WordPress news site for content editors

I’ve produced OU News, a news and media WordPress site for my employer, The Open University (OU). It complements and may eventually replace an existing press release repository.

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It’s aimed at a wider audience than just journalists: students, staff, alumni as well as the general public.

I approached it with a firm focus on content strategy, and this post outlines some choices I made to make it useful and usable for its readers as well as making the content publishing process as quick and easy as possible for editors.

The existing OU news site

I believe the press release site to be nearly 15 years old. It’s had minor incremental improvements since then, but mostly to stop things breaking rather than proactive enhancements.[1] Various features have been removed or deprecated, such as the RSS feed.

The site isn’t terribly useful for its intended audience: navigation isn’t great, and it is quite restrictive in terms of what can be included in a post. Just text and a thumbnail image. I understand the content publishing process can be laborious and time-consuming.

New OU sites are typically built using Drupal[2] and OU ICE, a front-end HTML, CSS and Javascript framework for quick and easy production of accessible and brand-compliant sites. This suitable for the vast majority of cases. In the 5–10% where something more is needed, OU IT will produce and support custom Drupal themes or sub-themes. In this case, IT weren’t able to support the design and build, so we embarked upon it ourselves.[3]

Building a WordPress replacement

I hadn’t used WordPress in anger for several years and, if I’m honest, I didn’t have terrific memories of using it. When I started this site (the one you are reading) I didn’t even consider it.

I spent a couple of days downloading, installing and testing a dozen or so CMSs. The majority were wholly unsuited for this project. They required technical expertise beyond what would be expected of the team who manage the content—their skills are in media relations, not wrangling static site generators using the command line.

It was obvious that I should leave any bias behind. WordPress ticked the most boxes: a couple of the team had used it before, it’s thoroughly extensible, and there’s a huge support community in case things go wrong.

CMS chosen, I looked at themes. The intention was always to buy a flexible theme and to customise it to better suit our needs. We chose Sense. It has good navigation and UX out of the box while being much more visually appealing than the previous site. There are a large number of ways to organise and lay out posts.

There are several other good things about Sense. It has a highly usable drag and drop interface for building page layouts and uses widgets to build sidebars and footers in a intuitive way. Site editors can drop in URLs from media and social media sites and they automatically embed the content—no need for shortcodes or embed codes.[4]

Choosing plugins to help editors

Part of the reason I hadn’t had a terrific experience with WordPress on a previous project was that I had bad experience with plugins failing or being incompatible. This time round, I spent a lot of time searching for reliable plugins to make my life and the editors’ lives easier.

Here’s a rundown of the plugins I used:

  • Advanced Custom Fields. I ended up using this less than I expected. It allows you to customise the fields used in your posts in order to structure your content in a much more useful way. One for the content modellers out there. As the project developed, it was apparent that most of our content types were well served by WordPress’s standard content types and fields.
  • Avatar manager. Allows me to upload images of the site editors rather than them using Gravatar.
  • Better writing. Adds a readability score to all posts using the Flesch reading ease test. As a university we’re prone to unnecessary verbiage; this plugin is a reminder to editors to speak plainly for a general audience.
  • Broken Link Checker. Periodically scans your site for 404s (internal and external). Prints the results on the admin dashboard and emails them to the editor who published the post. I’m unsure how resource-intensive this plugin will be as the site grows, so I’ll keep my eye on it.
  • Google Analytics (Yoast). Makes it easy to add tracking code regardless of theme and see headline metrics in your WordPress admin interface.
  • ImageInject. Lets editors insert Creative Commons images based on the post title or a search string of their choosing. Adds them in the body of the post or as a featured image, and includes attribution information consistent with the licence.
  • Inline Tweet Sharer. Lets you turn quotes or other short passages of text into anchor text for Tweetable links. I might remove this as the editors haven’t really taken to using it.
  • P3: Plugin Performance Profiler. If you’ve looked at this list and thought, “That’s a long list of plugins”, you’ll like this one. It undertakes an on-demand scan of your site to see if any plugins are drastically affecting site performance. (For the record, there isn’t anything in this list causing alarm.)
  • Radio Buttons for Taxonomies. I have a compulsion that all posts should sit in a single category and have multiple tags, so I’ve enforced that on the editors using this plugin. Forces editors to choose one term from your taxonomy or taxonomies.
  • UK Cookie Consent. Adds a cookie banner to the site and produces a cookie information page. I discarded the default text, preferring to rewrite the OU’s existing cookie information into slightly better text so that it explains what a cookie is, why we use them, and which cookies are used.
  • WP Help. This is pretty great—it allows administrators to add custom help documentation for editors. I’ve made it quite granular, so there are entries for how to source and use images, guidelines for categorising and tagging content, improving readability scores, that sort of thing.
  • WP Hide Post. Allows you to publish a post to the live site but hide it from the main page, or its category page, or the author page, etc. Limited use cases, but potentially very helpful.
  • WP Super Cache. If you’ve used WordPress before then you probably know this one: a fast caching plugin to speed up sites. I adjusted the settings while building the site so I could see changes as I made them.
  • Yoast SEO. Probably the most important plugin we use, and another one you’ve probably heard of. We expect the posts to be shared widely on social media, and it makes it trivially easy to add Open Graph and Twitter metadata for better presentation in Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. It reminds the editors to optimise their posts for search by adding a primary keyword and ensuring that it is included in the title, URL, metadata and body content. The editors seem to like it as it focuses them on the user and what they might search for. There’s a useful analysis tab where you can review how well your content is optimised for search and readability. There’s now an equivalent Drupal module which I’d like IT to add to our standard distribution.

We’ll likely add Yoast’s Google News plugin in order to create a dynamic XML sitemap that conforms with the Google News schema.

All in all I’m hugely impressed with the options available to optimise a WordPress site for better content strategy. And I only managed to delete all the site content once! (That was a hairy hour or so while I arranged for it to be restored from a recent backup. Don’t tell my boss.) WordPress and its community hardly need my patronage but I’ll definitely use it for future projects (where appropriate). I’m considering moving this site across to it.


  1. I haven’t worked at the OU for this long, so this is what I’ve heard rather than experienced.  ↩

  2. The major exception being the prospectus site, which was rebuilt using Kentico in 2014.  ↩

  3. This explains the current URL. The site may well move to become part of the main OU information architecture, but for the moment it uses a non- *open.ac.uk domain name and is hosted externally.  ↩

  4. I think this is the theme doing this—since this site was produced I’ve played with other themes where it hasn’t done this.  ↩