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.

For Amusement Only: the life and death of the American arcade

Fantastic piece about the history of arcades in the US on The Verge, by Laura June:

[Arcades are] a place for kids to be with other kids, teens to be with other teens, and early-stage adults to serve as the ambassador badasses in residence for the younger generation. It’s noisy, with all the kids yelling and the video games on permanent demo mode, beckoning you to waste just one more quarter. In earlier days (though well into the ‘90s), it’s sometimes smoky inside, and the cabinets bear the scars of many a forgotten cig left hanging off the edge while its owner tries one last time for a high score, inevitably ending in his or her death. The defining feature of a “real” arcade, however, is that there aren’t really any left.

Lots of interesting stuff in here. I had no idea that pinball was banned in most cities in the US between the 1940s and ’70s. I guess this means the Fonz really was a rebel.

I’d always thought that it was home video game systems that brought down the arcade business, but this piece reveals the rot had set in before they became popular. The golden age of arcades was really only a couple of years.

A lovely article that’s excellently presented and laid out, with an intro video, good typography, and panels of text that slide over nostalgic imagery.

How to time-shift the internet

Note: this was originally a couple of long emails to a friend who is getting into RSS but feeling a bit overwhelmed. Here it is, slightly tidied up to remove the personal attacks and spelling errors.

Most of my internet ingestion is time-shifted. I think most people do this to a greater or lesser extent; here’s my current set-up for those who might not be doing it at all or need more inspiration.

The problem: I don’t have time to do anything with this right now

Do people ever ask you if you read a particular article, or watched a certain video, and you reply “I saw it, but didn’t have time”? This article might help you.

The general principle I will describe is to expose yourself to more things that you might find interesting, educational and/or inspiring, while at the same time freeing yourself from having to stop what you’re doing and deal with them the moment you see them.

Carve out anywhere from 5 minutes to several hours of free time and you’ll be able to enjoy these things without feeling the pressure of a boss peering over your shoulders while you are avoiding work, or eating up mobile data on the move.

The bedrock: RSS

This article assumes you are somewhat familiar with the concept of RSS feeds and use a feed reader. If you’re not, it’s a service that allows you to subscribe to websites (hereafter ‘feeds’) and let their updates (‘items’) come to you in one place, rather than you visiting a few dozen bookmarks every day.

The obvious choice is Google Reader (GR). I find the GR interface a little ugly and I prefer to use Reeder as an interface on both OS X and iOS. There are services other than GR available but they tend to involve setting up your own server, which is beyond the scope of this article.

I subscribe to a reasonably large number of feeds (177, says GR) but I don’t feel overwhelmed. I tend to eschew feeds that publish dozens of items a day—more than half of my feeds only update with a new item once a day, or indeed less often. For purposes of alleviating chronic OCD, I keep them organised in different folders: A/V, football, technology, etc. I also have a folder called ‘High’ for the important feeds that I want to read before anything else. (Tip: It’s actually called ‘1: High’ so it appears at the top of the folder list.)

Two or three times a day I take a few minutes to triage my unread articles. Both GR (the website) and Reeder (the OS X application) support keyboard shortcuts for flying through your unread feed items quickly and easily. I only use a few on a regular basis, but even using a couple of fingers makes things so much easier. I go through with my right index finger on j, tapping s every time I get to something that needs more than a few minutes’ attention. Moving down with j marks each item as read, and you won’t see it again; you can optionally mark the entire contents of the current folder as read by pressing shift-a (GR) or a (Reeder).

When you get to the end you’re left with a list of things that you want to investigate further. I review this list of starred items most evenings. The longest anything will stay starred and therefore ‘unprocessed’ is a couple of days, if there is a backlog or if I am away. Going through this list, if I have time, I’ll read, watch or otherwise act on it there and then. If it takes longer, depending on the type of content, I’ll send it to different services to investigate when I have more time—more on these below.

When I’m done doing whatever it is I’m doing with it, I unstar it until there are none left. You can navigate your starred list using j and k, unstar with s, and open items in your browser of choice with v (GR) or b (Reeder).

Below is a list of several services which could be new to you, or you might find different ways to use services you already use.

Saving text to read later: Instapaper

Instapaper is the grandaddy of read later services. Much imitated, it’s still my favourite. Initially an iOS app, there is also an Android version, although it is maintained by a different developer.

Instapaper strips the ads, menus, comments and other unneccessary cruft from a page and leaves you with just the nicely formatted text for you to read at your leisure. Everything you save to Instapaper is added to your reading list. You can use the bookmarklet, a button that sits in your web browser’s bookmarks bar, or from other apps that it integrates with, like Reeder. I tend to save non-time-sensitive articles to Instapaper in case I get a backlog of articles to read and don’t get it in time.

Once you’ve read an article in Instapaper you can send it to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc to share with your friends.

Instapaper has a ‘sister’ blog called The Feature, which links to a selection of longer articles on varying topics.

Video: YouTube, Vimeo and Pocket

Almost everyone I know uses YouTube but relatively few have (or use) YouTube accounts. You don’t need to be a video-maker to make use of an account; just by signing up you can use various features to bring things of interest right to you.

First, sign up for accounts with YouTube and Vimeo and subscribe to your friend’s uploads. Then, every time you see a video on YouTube or Vimeo that you like, and you’d like to see more by that account, subscribe to its upload channel.

Then grab the two RSS feeds (one for your YouTube subscriptions, the other for Vimeo) and add them to GR. Anything uploaded by your favourite video makers will then appear in your GR list.

Tip: Keep an eye on the ‘suggested feeds’ bit in YouTube: I’ve found a few interesting and informative channels in there.

Pocket started as ‘Read It Later’, an Instapaper clone. But while Instapaper is best for text, Pocket is better for videos. Sign up for a Pocket account and add the bookmarklet. Whenever an interesting video pops up in your GR, open it in your browser and click the ‘Save to Pocket’ bookmarklet. Even when the irritating pre-roll ad is playing. Reeder for iPhone and Mac (but strangely, not iPad) has a ‘send to Pocket’ button to make things even easier.

Tip: Using ifttt you can also use the ‘watch later’ buttons in YouTube and Vimeo to send things to Pocket.

Later, when you have time, open Pocket (they have free apps for many OSs/devices) and see your lovely list of interesting/educational/amusing/cat videos. Feel free to cancel your TV subscription and watch these instead. Again, you can share to social services after you’ve watched each video.

Another tip: add videos you like to your ‘favourites’ playlist within YouTube or hit the ‘like’ button on Vimeo. Then, whenever you’re with a group of people and you’re watching videos (I know you think this is dumb but I bet you’ve been in this position many times), you can whip out your list of favourites and off-handedly say, “Hey, don’t suppose you saw this”, and BLOW THEIR MINDS with your excellent taste in cat videos.

A few suggested channels to help you learn new stuff

  • Crash Course: two concurrent topics (currently ecology and English literature) explained by brothers John and Hank Green. It’s fast-paced and engaging.
  • PBS Idea Channel: Mike Rugnetta examines ‘the connections between pop culture, technology and art’. Contains lots of Arrested Development references.
  • OU Learn: A plug for my department’s channel. Educational videos from The Open University.

Podcasts: Huffduffer and iTunes/Podcast.app

For a long time I was a huge podcast fan. I lived a 30 minute walk from work and often wanted something to listen to other than music on my journey. I subscribed to dozens of them in iTunes, which synced to my iPhone. After a couple of years I struggled to keep up with the many podcasts that sat there unlistened to. In the summer of 2012, I gave up. I deleted all my subscriptions in iTunes and simply stopped listening. I missed the good shows I was listening to, but not the self-imposed pressure of having to keep up.

I’ve reently started using Huffduffer instead, picking and choosing individual episodes to listen to. Sign up for an account and add the bookmarklet. Whenever you happen upon a link to a podcast episode that interests you, you can hit the bookmarklet.

You’ll be able to subscribe to this RSS feed in your podcatcher of choice (mine is the iOS Podcasts app). The obvious analogy is Instapaper for audio: you’ll have a list of things you want to listen to at a more appropriate time.

You can also follow people within Huffduffer by adding them to your ‘collective’. There aren’t a huge number of people that use Huffduffer, but once you start saving podcasts, you’ll see a list of people that saved similar things to you. Add them if they seem interesting. Your collective has its own RSS feed, so add this to GR. Then you’ll get probably-interesting podcast episodes in your GR list. For anything you want to listen to, open it in your web browser and hit the ‘Huffduff it’ bookmarklet.

These general principles will work for other audio services, like audioboo.

Suggested podcasts

  • Back To Work #95: I love Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin’s podcast, ostensibly about work and productivity and contraints and comics. This episode is the first in a series talking about David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. If you’d like to apply more workflows to your wider life like the ones discussed here, it’s worth reading.
  • Things I have Huffduffed

Albums you want to listen to: Spotify

This one is simple, but underused. If you subscribe to any music blogs in GR, chances are you’ll come across reviews of albums you want to listen to, but you don’t have 45+ minutes right there and then. Or, you might get a recommendation from a friend while you’re out and about. In each case, I simply search for it on Spotify and star it. If you use Rdio, add it to your queue.

Whenever I want to listen to something new, I have a list of 50 or so starred albums waiting for me.

Twitter

The obvious way to time-shift Twitter is to use the favourite button. If you come across an interesting tweet that you don’t have time to act on (i.e. send to any of the services above, or reply to, or whatever), you can hit the favorite button. Later, review your favorites, do whatever you need to do, and unfavorite it until there are none left. Easy.

For what it’s worth, I don’t do this. I use favorites as ‘likes’ for things I, well, like, or find funny. If I see a tweet and don’t have time to do anything with it, I’ll email it to myself.

Gmail

Which leads me on to email, and Gmail in particular. This is slightly different, in that you likely don’t treat email as ‘entertainment’ (unless you get several hundred emails a day, which I’d say is hilarious). In any case, the system of triaging GR works just as well in email, enabling you to separate the processes of reviewing your inbox and doing the work.

The setup I’ll describe is for using the web version of Gmail, but the theory can probably be applied to any email client. You likely already use a variant of it.

You can set up your view of Gmail into sections. If you hover over ‘Inbox’ in the left-hand list, you’ll see a button to reveal various inbox options. Choose ‘Priority Inbox’. This should give you the following sections, from top to bottom: Important and unread; All starred; Everything else. I can’t remember if it does this by default, so customise them if not.

All the email that Gmail thinks is important and that you haven’t opened goes at the top. The middle section is where the email to follow up will go. The bottom section is for email that is less important. You can teach Gmail what is important and what isn’t, but it has a pretty good stab at it anyway.

Triaging your email is no different to triaging GR and requires exactly two fingers. Start at the oldest unprocessed email and keep your right hand little finger on the ] key. If the email requires no action or follow up, press it. If it takes more than a couple of minutes to read or reply to, press s to star it and move on with ]. If you can act on it quickly, then do so. By the time you’ve gone from oldest to newest, you’ll be at inbox zero, a place few people get to. Celebrate with your beverage of choice.

You’re left with starred email (hopefully not too many) that each need some action—whether the action is ‘read’, ‘do’, ‘defer’, or ‘delegate’ or whatever. Everything else is safely archived for you to search for later should you require. You can then go through your email without the burden of not knowing what else is hiding in your inbox, and without a too-high number of unread items looming at you.

Tip: If you’re into labelling your email, you can easily do that with just a couple of keystrokes as you go. In Gmail, press the ? key for a list of shortcuts.

Over to you

There you go. A 2,300 word article that you probably should have Instapapered in the first place. But also, a list of pretty easy methods that will enable you to:

  • Expose yourself to a greater number of interesting things;
  • Quickly triage and mark what is (or just looks like it could be) important/interesting;
  • Do something with it at a more appropriate time.

Any similar ideas I’ve missed? Let me know on Twitter.

A review of Super Mario Bros. 3

I’ve recently gotten back into videogaming. My platform of choice has always been Nintendo (I realise that some self-styled ‘hardcore gamers’ just rolled their eyes and stopped reading) and I like nothing more than the Mario and Zelda series of titles.

As I’ve been out of the loop for so long, I was interested to see what new videogame blogs and sites are out there. I haven’t found many that I like, but I’m forever grateful to whoever pointed me in the direction of this article on Super Mario Bros. 3 by Tim Rogers on Action Button Dot Net.

A 10,000 word essay about a 25-year-old game, it’s one for your Instapaper or lunch break. It’s written in the mildly offhandish way of someone who knows all there is to know about their chosen subject: in this case, every mushroom, every warp whistle, every Kuribo’s Shoe (clue: there’s only one, and it’s in world 5-3).

It might be my favourite article I’ve ever read about video games.

There’s so many passages I could quote, and they are all quite long, so I’ll try and exercise restraint. This is how it starts:

Super Mario Bros. 3 was born of a multi-tiered adolescence: it was our first, it was games’ only, it was Shigeru Miyamoto’s second. Videogames, born to be the entertainment industry’s stepchild, had nearly drowned under a flood of Atari 2600 E.T.: The Game cartridges; rescued by a kind-hearted and inexplicably Japanese farmer just around the river bend, they overcame the amnesia that comes when the brain is deprived of oxygen in the best possible way: by never remembering the past. Urban legend tells us that Shigeru Miyamoto was introduced to Nintendo because his father knew the then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Urban legend continues to tell us that Miyamoto walked into the interview with some tentative sketches of a toy-like phone. He was told, yeah, that’s nice, though we want you to make a videogame. Shigeru Miyamoto went on to prove himself the most boring kind of genius: the kind who can walk face-first into anything and excel at it. There can be no higher compliment for a creator of world-class entertainment, really.

Rogers gives a potted history of Nintendo and Miyamoto, from Donkey Kong through the Mario and Zelda series, taking in game physics, level design, music and–repeatedly–world maps, a clear bugbear. Rogers is unerringly precise when it comes to SMB3’s influence:

Super Mario Bros. 3 is Miyamoto and friends adapting on the spot to a subtly warped world. At the time of its release–and even today, if you ask the right person–it was the biggest and most generous videogame that had ever existed, impenetrable to strategy guides, as short or as long as you wanted it to be, imaginative, bright, bold, flowing, absolutely effortlessly natural at all times. The following years would see dozens of money-sign-irised game developers attempt to slap together something reminiscient of Super Mario Bros. 3; they’d write their design documents like they were filling out a checklist, expecting lightning to strike as many times as they wanted. These people were burglars walking right into a house where the alarm was already ringing, and getting their faces smashed into the pavement; they will spend the rest of their lives being asked where the fucking diamonds are, and they will never be able to answer, because they don’t know.

Simply put, the morbid success of Super Mario Bros. 3 changed videogames for the bizarre, the way any and all success by Nintendo has ever changed videogames. There was so much love, attention to detail, generosity, and artistic conscience […] evident in Super Mario Bros. 3, and it’s all so ruthlessly accessible and playable and joyful, thanks to those amazing physics, that it’s near-unbearably heavy to think about how great it is, much less try to write about.

As you’ll have gathered, the article is as much a love letter as it is a retrospective review, and so it ends:

Super Mario Bros. 3 will remain my treasure, my precious hobby, my stay-at-home vacation, my one-man conversation, my lifelong birthday party.

Brilliant. I could hear the soundtrack in my head as I read it.

See also:

  • Master of Play, Nick Paumgarten’s 2010 profile of Shigeru Miyamoto from The New Yorker.
  • The World in a Chain Chomp, Kyle Orland’s shorter piece on SMB3.
  • Saving Zelda, Tevis Thompson’s plea for the Zelda series to return to what he sees as its heyday.
  • Game Over), David Sheff’s excellent 1993 book on the history and fortunes of Nintendo.

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.