Recent links: December 2012

A few recent links of note:

Cape Tribulation

Maciej Cegłowski writes about the dangers of jellyfish and crocodiles in north-eastern Australia:

The box jellyfish is one of those Australian animals that are venomous beyond reason. It is a transparent creature about as big and as clever as a handbag, and although it subsists entirely on small fish and crustaceans, its three-meter long tentacles contain enough venom to kill an orchestra.

The article is fascinating and rather scary:

Visitors’ guides stress the importance of “crocodile safety” in the same gentle language they use to warn against sunstroke. The universal theme in crocodile attack stories is that of complete surprise, the victim usually disappearing under the water before they can get out one good yell. The crocodile prefers to store its supper to age a little bit before eating, so the aftermath of many crocodile attacks is a grisly hunt for both the reptile and the cached body.

In a better world, box jellyfish and crocodile would be mortal enemies, battling each other out in the shallows like the kraken and the whale, but as best I can tell the creatures coexist in the tidal zone in perfect friendship and harmony, possibly buying each other beers after a hard day’s work of making it impossible for a hot and weary traveler to put so much as a toe in the water.

Maciej also runs Pinboard, the site I use to save links like these. He also recently announced his Pinboard Investment Co-Prosperity Cloud, a hilarious attempt to help prospective start-ups. Each of the six winners gets $37, a sum Maciej notes are the only costs involved in the startup and operation of an online project. The winners get publicity, the biggest obstacle to success.

At once a piece of satire yet a sincere offering, it’s especially amusing for the various ways he describes it: for people with no concept of humour, in words of one syllable, and in PR-speak.

Testing, Testing: 12/12/12 12:12:12

Matt Strassler looks at our fascination with numbers and dates/times, with a particular focus on the recent run of twelves. Why do we use particular lengths for our minutes, hours, years? How would time be if it was base-10? Why twelves? Are we really in 2012?

See also more on dozenalists, the people who are very obsessed with base-12.

The Stuff of Knightmare

In the UK, Knightmare was a popular children’s TV series in the 1980s and ’90s:

On paper, Knightmare is a terrible idea. It’s a kids’ TV show that simulates the experience of playing a computer game, as if kids wouldn’t rather just play a computer game. The bulk of each episode is comprised of three children staring at a television screen and shouting at a fourth kid, who is wearing a giant hat. They are constantly interrupted by a man dressed as a camp Hobbit. It’s a game show, but winning is almost impossible, and the penalty for failure is death.

The videos in the article are an uncomfortable reminder of how it really looked, outside our memories. Very funny, very comprehensive, and very nostalgic for anyone about my age.

How the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine gave rise to modern animation

Josh Weinstein, formerly of The Simpsons, gives his recollections of The Beatles classic animation. Supremely interesting in and of itself, the film’s influence on modern animation is unarguable; you should also read the linked article about how the voice talent was anything but the Fab Four, and what happened to them:

Director George Dunning had overheard [Peter] Batten talking in a Liverpudlian accent in a London pub. He cast him on the spot as George Harrison, although Batten had never acted before. Towards the end of the production, Batten was in bed with one of the young women on the production team when the military police burst in and arrested him for desertion. He has not been seen or heard of since.

Why Theories Don’t Go Into Hospitals

Second appearance for Matt Strassler’s blog Of Particular Significance, in which he discusses the progress of science, and how theories are accepted or dismissed. You don’t need to be a physics expert to read this, but you’ll need to pay close attention and not get hung up on the details of the likes of supersymmetry, and try to pay attention to the broader themes.

If this sort of thing interests you, try the classic literature on the subject, particularly Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

The Moth Presents Anthony Griffith: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

This is a difficult video to watch. It’s about trying to make sense of tragedy. Anthony Griffith is a comedian and actor and this is his appearance on The Moth, a sort-of arena for storytelling. I’m not a parent, and if I was, I don’t think I’d be able to watch this.

the web

Mike Harrison writes sci-fi books, none of which I’ve read, but after the past few months reading his blog, I really want to. Every day you get a paragraph, two if you’re lucky, about something. Some are taken from his books, and attributed thusly; maybe they all are, I don’t know. But they’re so brilliantly written: so easy to visualise, so tricky to decipher if he’s talking literally or metaphorically.

Recent links: October 2012

A few links, taken from my Pinboard account.

Social login buttons aren’t worth it

Call us control freaks, but we built this brand and we “feel strongly” about shaping its direction ourselves. One logo on our login page is enough. Who the hell wants their app to look like it was designed by NASCAR?

I dislike the proliferation of social sharing and login buttons on websites.

Sure, the login buttons help users sign up for your service quickly and easily. But the user has to remember which service they signed in with, and they look ugly. By their nature, they tend to be brightly coloured and eye-catching—the eye is drawn to them rather than what the website or service is or does. I’d rather people used this space to give me more reasons why I should sign up in the first place. If I’m eager, I’ll find a way to sign up.

The sharing buttons are more irritating to me. Their intention is obvious: get more people to the site who wouldn’t otherwise have noticed it. My hugely anecdotal experience is that their primary use is for a small and relatively unimportant minority of users: those who don’t know how to copy and paste. These people aren’t likely to be socially ‘influential’, for want of a better phrase—is it going to be a huge boon for your site if Joe Bloggs, who tweets once every three months and has only a handful of equally unengaged followers, shares a link to an article?

This is vital screen space. Wouldn’t it be better to remove these buttons (or consolidate them under a single ‘share’ button, which pops up the myriad social services) and give more room to services that help users find reasons to stick around? Like links to other content in the same category (hand-picked, not just autogenerated WordPress bullshit), or perhaps more by the same author? Even if you don’t replace them with anything, you just made your content stand out that tiny bit more.

The site I work on has a curious policy of putting the sharing buttons before the article, as a way of suggesting that what you’re about to read is worthy of sharing. Look—all these other people have already done it. I certainly don’t like this any better. We’re giving people decisions to make and opportunities to do something other than reading the article, and I hope we change it.

Read the update after the article too: there are some good counter-points made by commenters.

The No Homophobes guide to language on Twitter

What kind of language do you use on twitter? Are you unconsciously using homophobic words? Did you even know that #NoHomo was a real hashtag on Twitter?

Look at all those morons that throw the word ‘faggot’ around on Twitter.

Stop Pagination Now

Does anyone really think breaking up articles into several pages is a good idea? No, they don’t.

Grizzly Bear Members Are Indie-Rock Royalty, But What Does That Buy Them in 2012?

For much of the late-twentieth century, you might have assumed that musicians with a top-twenty sales week and a Radio City show—say, the U2 tour in 1984, after The Unforgettable Fire—made at least as much as their dentists. Those days are long and irretrievably gone, but some of the mental habits linger. “People probably have an inflated idea of what we make,” says Droste. “Bands appear so much bigger than they really are now, because no one’s buying records. But they’ll go to giant shows.” Grizzly Bear tours for the bulk of its income, like most bands; licensing a song might provide each member with “a nice little ‘Yay, I don’t have to pay rent for two months.’ ” They don’t all have health insurance.

The Grizzly Bear album is terrific, so you should buy it and see them live.

Related: Corin Tucker, formerly of the amazing Sleater-Kinney and now the Corin Tucker Band, has a day job.

The Brief

My pal Richard has an easier way to cope with the onslaught of tech-related news. He reads it for you, and selects the most important stuff.

Cheers: an Oral History

This article is interesting on its own terms—if you didn’t know, Kelsey Grammar is nothing like his character Frasier, and Shelley Long was kinda hard work—but more interesting to me is the suggestion that Cheers, for so long the pinnacle of TV comedy, doesn’t get enough respect. The last episode aired twenty years ago: enough for a generation to grow up and not know what it is.

Breaking the seal

There is no seal to break, either in a literal or metaphorical sense. Urine production isn’t regulated by how long you wait or how often you go.

Learn about ADH and impress your friends!

The Old-Fashioned

The old-fashioned is at once “the manliest cocktail order” and “something your grandmother drank,” and between those poles we discover countless simple delights, evolutionary wonders, and captivating abominations. Because of its core simplicity and its elasticity—because it is primordial booze—ideas about the old-fashioned exist in a realm where gastronomical notions shade into ideological tenets. It is a platform for a bar to make a statement, a surface on which every bartender leaves a thumbprint, and a solution that many a picky drinker dips his litmus paper in. You are a free man. Drink your drink as you please. But know that your interpretation of the recipe says something serious about your philosophy of fun.

What more needs to be said and read about this drink? Plenty more, it seems.

Guide to diagrams

My most recent OpenLearn project was a guide to using diagrams to solve complex problems. Working with a team of Open University academic colleagues, we made a series of videos and a quick scenario-based quiz.

Shall I draw you a picture

At the outset, I had very little awareness or understanding of diagrams, at least in a technical or academic sense. Sure, I’d heard of and had occasionally used mindmaps, but wasn’t sure what else there was.

A quick telephone call with OU academic Simon Bell was enough to both open my eyes and scare the living bejesus out of me. Here was a seemingly sane man talking to me about Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the role of rich pictures in historical human storytelling, the Book of the Dead, modern hieroglyphs, and fighting a fight against the ‘gravity of dullness that permeates diagramming and systems thinking in academia’. All in the same sentence.

I had to work with him to make something about diagrams that the general public would be interested in and want to learn from. He wanted something that would make people want to “draw the picture or die”. At this stage, I wasn’t not totally sure what I was in for. Weren’t we supposed to be talking about Tony Buzan?

What the hell is a systems map anyway

Fast-forward a few weeks and I’d had further chats with Simon and his colleagues and I’d seen examples of other, different diagram types. A rich picture about flood management looked bonkers: seemingly childlike in its simplicity, somehow this collection of stick men, doodles, symbols and landscapes helped me understand the set of problems faced by a variety of people in a single situation. Systems diagrams were a sort of huge Venn showing what was part of what (and, importantly, what wasn’t). Multiple cause diagrams helped you see how different factors produced different effects. It was quite overwhelming, but I could see there was something there that could be useful and interesting to people other than university professors.

We quickly settled on video as the ideal medium to demonstrate how these diagrams could be created and why they should be used. Finding a narrative to hang it together was more of a challenge—I was working with a group of academics that used these diagrams to model complex environmental problems. Would this hold the interest of people brand new to diagramming, let along environmental decision making?

The final product

We took the view that people could use different diagram types depending on the amount of understanding they have of a situation. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but I quickly learned that it can be a useful approach. For example, when your understanding is a mess, and there are multiple viewpoints to consider, a rich picture can help get everything down in one place. A spray diagram helps organise and group these components. As understanding grows, systems maps and influence diagrams help define the boundaries and relationships within the context. Once this understanding is in place, multiple cause diagrams help you form causal chains that can explain why a particular event has happened.

Simon picked a suitable topic and we filmed him drawing these diagrams in sequence, beginning with a mess of understanding and, while not arriving at an answer per se, ending up with a thorough understanding of the main context and its associated factors. A complex problem now had two or three key areas that needed focused attention to bring about resolution.

The final product is a video player that takes one long YouTube video and breaks it into 7 smaller pieces. We’ve got two introductory animations, one that explains why we use diagrams in the first place, and one that sets the scene for Simon’s chosen topic. Then, for each of the 5 diagram types, there are speeded-up videos of Simon drawing each diagram with a voiceover (recorded later) where he explains what he’s doing. There is an extra example of each diagram type at the end of the 5 videos, explained by Simon’s colleague Kevin Collins.

This is followed up by a quick quiz—the viewer is given 5 different scenarios (including supermarkets, game developers, and a hospital A&E department), each with a different problem facing them. He or she is then asked to suggest a suitable diagram to help approach the problem.

Here’s the final thing. Please don’t be one of the people who wonders how Simon learned to write backwards so well.

Yes, but is it any good

This was a tough project. We took a subject that the Open University teaches at postgraduate level, and tried to make it accessible for the interested layperson. I think we succeeded. I’d have liked to develop the quiz functionality into something slightly richer and more personal, possibly allowing the user to try different diagramming types out. But time and money only go so far.

Still, I’m happy, and the videos have been popular so far. I’ve used a couple of the techniques when faced with complicated problems at work, and I hope that others get something useful out of it.