An Ode to Reading on Public Transit

It’s easy in our fast-paced digital age to forget how expansive time can be. An hour can zip by if you’re scrolling through Twitter or drag on for days during an exam. Once I started carrying magazines, my bus rides began to feel longer; the 45 minutes to Station North felt like 45 minutes. Soon, I began carrying books again, a habit that felt as comfortable as muscle memory. My progress was slow at first. I traveled with Swing Time for three months (and wrote a review that you can read here). I carried Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland in my tote during January. I devoured Song of Solomon in a week and God Help the Child after work one night. In the past six months, I’ve finished 15 novels, a record beating last year’s two—excluding every novel I skimmed or never completed for school. My thoughts have since kaleidoscoped; my dreams have evolved; my concentration has slowly but surely fortified over time. My political convictions deepened and expanded like the Texan sky. I use social media less and less each day, all because I stopped looking out the window on the way home.

The Millions : An Ode to Reading on Public Transit

I need reminding of this sort of thing once in a while. I’ve read quite broadly and deeply this year, but I could with unfollowing a few people on Twitter and subscribing from a handful of RSS feeds.

Selling pizza to Italians

How a British pizza chain is succeeding in Salina, Southern Italy:

Only a handful of restaurants overlook the seafront on the Via Marina Garibaldi in Lingua, one of the few villages on the Aeolian island of Salina. Among them is Da Alfredo, famous for granita – made with figs, peaches, melons, mulberries, citrus fruits or even pistachios – which has been here since 1968.

‘It’s perfect, isn’t it? Granita is just what you want to eat after pizza, so it is fantastic to have this place beside our restaurant,’ says Giuseppe Mascoli, who this summer opened a pizzeria, Franco Manca, in the shop next door.

Recognise the name? Franco Manca is a hugely successful British chain, founded by Mascoli in 2008 in a small unit in Brixton Market, south London.

Speaking of Italy, I recently completed the Italian language tree in Duolingo. Having started and stopped it a few times, it was good to get it finished. As expected, my spoken Italian is not great, but I can read and wrote fairly well. I’ve bought a book of short stories to assist with the latter; I will simply have to spent time at my local Italian bistro to improve the former. Oh well.

News story formats

Following the birth of my son I’ve just started an extended period of parental leave from work. Prior to my departure I was trying to better understand, rationalise and improve the way we used platforms and formats.

These are clearly linked: you cannot post audio to Twitter; you can’t post a long-form article to Instagram. But this is good! Most publishers are just doing the basic stuff and there’s room to easily reach a far larger audience by publishing in different formats or by repurposing archive content for different platforms. And within our faculties we have so many potential writers, presenters and collaborators! We were just beginning to get somewhere. Oh well. Something to pick up when I go back.

When I’m doing this sort of work I’m a sucker for this sort of visualisation:

This comes from Beyond 800 words: new digital story formats for news, a typology of news formats by Tristan Ferne for BBC R&D:

For the inception of a BBC R&D project to explore alternatives to these conventional formats I’ve conducted a review of the landscape of digital news, looking for innovations in article and video formats online. I’ve been looking particularly for story formats used for news that aren’t legacies from print or broadcast, that try to use the affordances of digital, that have been specifically designed for news and that are re-usable across stories and genres.

Elephas Anthropogenus

After the fall of the Roman Empire, elephants virtually disappeared from Western Europe.

Since there was no real knowledge of how this animal actually looked, illustrators had to rely on oral and written transmissions to morphologically reconstruct the elephant, thus reinventing an actual existing creature. This tree diagram traces the evolution of the elephant depiction throughout the middle ages up to the age of enlightenment.

Some of these are great, e.g. this from around 1400:

RapCaviar: music’s most influential playlist

Craig Marks for Vulture:

Moneybagg’s songs have already appeared on the regional playlist The Realest Down South (324,000 followers), but the dream is to be featured on RapCaviar — “one word,” reminds Basa, “because of Aristotle’s ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’” [Tuma] Basa selects the songs for RapCaviar on his own, utilizing predictive skills — “gut, gut, and gut,” he declares — honed at previous programming gigs at BET, MTV, and Revolt TV. “When something comes in and doesn’t smell right, I can detect it. ”

At Spotify, Basa also has access to a trove of data that enables him to gauge a song’s performance across the site: from how many times a song or artist has been searched for, to playlist-specific metrics such as percentage of people who skip the song (under 40 percent is desirable), percentage of saves to a user’s own playlists and percentage of users who listen to more than 90 seconds of a song, known as completion rate. When his instincts falter, Basa crunches the numbers. “Earlier this year,” he says, “one of my former co-workers at MTV called me. He’s business partners with XXXTentacion’s manager,” referring to the controversial underground rapper. “He said, ‘Yo, this guy is blowing up on Spotify.’ I said, ‘He is?’ I looked up his search results, and I’m like, ‘Oh shit. He really is.’” So I put it on Most Necessary, and reaction was instant.”

Part data scientist, part romantic laboring over a cassette mixtape, Basa sees himself as part of a hip-hop tradition. “Hip-hop has always valued curators: DJs, mixshow hosts, radio personalities,” he says. “This is just a different manifestation.” Officially, RapCaviar is updated weekly, whereby five or so new songs get cycled in, but Basa is often fiddling with it. Later in August, on a trip to Atlanta to kick off RapCaviar’s new series of branded concerts, he stops our conversation mid-sentence and grabs his Mac to add a track by rapper Ugly God, “Stop Smoking Black & Milds.” Over the weekend, he says, site search spiked for Ugly God, a leading indicator for Basa of vitality. To make room, he studies the data on a pair of J. Cole songs. One, “Change,” has a fairly high skip rate. With a couple of keystrokes, the song is ethered from the playlist. “If Tuma moves your song down on RapCaviar, your shit’s not working too well,” says Atlantic’s Greenwald.

What does “OK” stand for?

The Straight Dope, via All Things Linguistic:

Baloney. The etymology of OK was masterfully explained by the distinguished Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read in a series of articles in the journal American Speech in 1963 and 1964.

The letters, not to keep you guessing, stand for “oll korrect.” They’re the result of a fad for comical abbreviations that flourished in the late 1830s and 1840s. Read buttressed his arguments with hundreds of citations from newspapers and other documents of the period. As far as I know his work has never been successfully challenged.

The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 and spread to New York and New Orleans in 1839. The Boston newspapers began referring satirically to the local swells as OFM, “our first men,” and used expressions like NG, “no go,” GT, “gone to Texas,” and SP, “small potatoes.”

Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of OK was OW, “oll wright,” and there was also KY, “know yuse,” KG, “know go,” and NS, “nuff said.”

Tagging fake news on Facebook doesn’t work

Jason Schwartz for Politico:

Facebook touts its partnership with outside fact-checkers as a key prong in its fight against fake news, but a major new Yale University study finds that fact-checking and then tagging inaccurate news stories on social media doesn’t work.

The study, reported for the first time by POLITICO, found that tagging false news stories as “disputed by third party fact-checkers” has only a small impact on whether readers perceive their headlines as true. Overall, the existence of “disputed” tags made participants just 3.7 percentage points more likely to correctly judge headlines as false, the study said.

This is particularly disappointing:

The researchers also found that, for some groups—particularly, Trump supporters and adults under 26—flagging bogus stories could actually end up increasing the likelihood that users will believe fake news.

You are the product

John Lanchester:

What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

I finally got round to reading this—I currently, and temporarily, have a lot of free time on my hands, so I’m reading everything—and it’s fantastic. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the nascent subject of web platforms (in fact this piece is reminiscent at times of John Herrman, who is currently the writer of the most interesting and relevant articles on the topic).

The amateur cloud society that (sort of) rattled the scientific community

Jon Mooallem wrote a wonderful piece last year about clouds, their identification and classification, and being part of a group of likeminded people:

He was, by then, closing in on his 10th year as head of the Cloud Appreciation Society and, as he’d done after 10 years with The Idler magazine, he was questioning his commitment to it. Somehow, being a cloud impresario had swallowed an enormous amount of time. He was lecturing about clouds around the world, sharing stages at corporate conferences and ideas festivals with Snoop Dogg and Bill Clinton and appearing monthly on the Weather Channel. Then there was the Cloud Appreciation Society’s online store, a curated collection of society-branded merchandise and cloud-themed home goods, which turned out to be surprisingly demanding, particularly in the frenzied weeks before Christmas. The Cloud Appreciation Society was basically just Pretor-Pinney and his wife, Liz, plus a friend who oversaw the shop part time and a retired steelworker he brought on to moderate the photo gallery. It was all arduous, which Pretor-Pinney seemed to find a little embarrassing. “My argument about why cloud-spotting is a worthwhile activity is that it’s an aimless activity,” he said. “And I’ve turned it into something that is very purposeful, that is work.”

At the same time, he realized that he’d conjured a genuine community of amateur cloud-­lovers from all over the world but regretted never doing anything to truly nourish it; it felt so “fluffy,” he said, “with no center to it, like a cloud.” Soon, that spectral society — that cloud of people on the Internet — would be celebrating its 10th anniversary. “I’m thinking that it might be a nice reason to get everyone together,” he said.

The challenges of translating a maritime novel into a ‘landlocked’ language

From an obituary of linguist Ognen Čemerski:

Čemerski spent about 12 years working on the translation of “Moby-Dick,” a project initiated during his undergraduate studies at Graceland University in Iowa, USA. He conducted it as a scientific endeavor, and used it as basis of his masters’ thesis in linguistics.

This was not the first translation of “Moby-Dick” in Macedonian. There was one edition published in the 1980s, translated from Serbo-Croatian, which did not produce a lasting impact.

The main problem of translating a book from 1851 about sailing and whaling was that the Macedonian language lacked maritime terminology. Most of the ethnic Macedonian population had been landlocked during the last centuries, having little contact with the sea in general and sailing in particular. In order to overcome this, Čemerski had to re-construct the vocabulary by first discovering the origins of the English terms, and then trace their equivalents in Macedonian or other Slavic languages.