The Moro Islamic Liberation Front

Threes! is one of the best, and most painful, games of the year. “I would play a quick game of Threes! while waiting at the dentist’s office. It was my friend during delays at the airport. I’m embarrassed to say how many trips to the restroom it artificially lengthened. I didn’t have any free moments in 2014; I just had stolen seconds in which I played Threes!.”

The Satori Generation. “The new reality is affecting a new generation around the world. Young Americans and Europeans are increasingly living at home, saving money, and living prudently. Technology, as it did in Japan, abets their shrinking circles. If you have internet access, you can accomplish a lot in a little room. And revolution in the 21st century, as most young people know, is not about consumption—it’s about sustainability.”

Meet the amateur street photographer taking China by storm. “The young street photographer Tao Liu became an overnight sensation. His witty images poke fun at contemporary issues in China—from overindulging parents to commercialism and the boundless urban expansion.”

Headlines about the Moro Islamic Liberation Front never ever disappoint.

A short music round: Thom Yorke is on Bandcamp. Juliana Hatfield’s cover of Dinosaur Jr.’s Raisans. Bill Evans on piano jazz.

♫♫ That’s not something that props can fix… that’s gonna be a little harder to fix. ♫♫.

The Salt and Pepper Diner. John Mulaney recounts the best meal he’s ever had, feat. Tom Jones.

Insulting someone to show affection

MOOCs are closed platforms… and probably doomed. “The word “open” has been perverted beyond belief, but let us be clear: Facebook is not an open platform. It is public, certainly, in the sense that everyone can join… but it is a closed platform. The content is locked up. If search engines cannot index the content, then it is closed. It is that simple. If your course requires that prospective students “register” to access the content, then it is not an open course. It might be an online course, it might even be massive, but it is not open.” Just call them online courses. 99% are nothing more than that.

Signifyin’, or signifyin(g) (vernacular), is ”a form of wordplay. It is a practice in African-American culture involving a verbal strategy of indirection that exploits the gap between the denotative and figurative meanings of words. A simple example would be insulting someone to show affection.”

Workflow. A fantastic app that chains together multiple iOS services, scripts and third-party app actions. You can make some really useful and complex (think: nested) workflows. I’m particularly interested in the ones that you can run as an action extension from the iOS share sheet. I have one that takes (a) a URL from Safari or any other app’s web view, trimming it of any tracking cruft and (b) the page title, converting it to sentence case, then combines them with any copied text into a Markdown link that is automatically appended to a running note I use for publishing these posts. So handy and a huge time-saver.

Eight illustrators turn their favorite childhood video games into works of art. “We asked eight artists to illustrate the video-game obsessions of their childhoods—from The Legend of Zelda to Minesweeper to Final Fantasy.”

Why we painted over Berlin’s most famous graffiti. “Last week, from late Thursday night to early Friday morning, I and several others painted over two murals by Italian artist Blu in Kreuzberg, often referred to as Berlin’s most iconic street art […] few realised that the people behind it were the ones who created it in the first place. So we have decided to tell our side of the story.”

Those shitty Hobbit films

Films stupid people think are clever. I have to argue against the inclusion of The Life Aquatic, but mostly, yeah. “People who liked these films also liked Forrest Gump”, said the Netflix algorithm, when pressed. “Also, I’m going to keep putting those shitty Hobbit films at the top of your recs even though you keep telling me you aren’t interested.”

Million-mummy cemetery unearthed in Egypt. The site has been continually excavated for the past 30 years. The mummies date from when the Roman Empire ran Egypt, approx. 1-7 CE.

Reduplication without RED (pdf). “Diddly-infixation is a novel language game made famous on the television show The Simpsons. The process involves infixation of the nonsense word diddly into a base word with initial stress as well as reduplication of the rhyme of the stressed syllable.” E.g. welcome becomes ‘wel-diddly-elcome’ and action becomes ‘ac-diddly-action’. See also expletive infixation.

Mathematicians make a major discovery about prime numbers. “Understanding large prime gaps could ultimately have implications for cryptography algorithms. If there turn out to be longer prime-free stretches of numbers than even Cramér’s conjecture predicts, that could, in principle, spell trouble for cryptography algorithms that depend on finding large prime numbers.”

The most important recipes you should master by age 30. A basic but useful set. Make your pesto in a pestle and mortar though, like a gentleman, please.

Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me (33 1/3), by Nick Attfield. I received and started reading this today. So far it’s excellent.

Butts or sometimes farts

[Aside: The 2014 great newsletter experiment is officially over. Sending a daily (or at least nearly-daily) newsletter was lots of fun but hugely time-consuming. I’ll be putting links here instead. Once or twice a week, I should imagine, but more frequently over the Christmas and New Year period.]

The year in dinner. Loved this: “I send her a message asking what she feels like for dinner. “Dicks,” she responds immediately. Or “butts.” Or, sometimes, “farts.” There are no further replies. I turn to look out the window, inhale deeply, sigh audibly, then open a new tab and start searching for a recipe.”

How much can one express in 140 characters? Information density of languages used for social media. Sadly no exploration of emoji use, 👎

Frequently asked questions. Why you should avoid FAQs on your site. In my experience, FAQs are very rarely ‘FA’ and only marginally more likely to be written as a ‘Q’. NNg (Jakob Nielsen’s posse of standards bearers) defend the format, which surprised me.

Do hyperlinks change the meaning of content? Yep. Our choice of anchor text definitely affects how readers understand our emphasis and intention. See also delinkification.

The truth about smart cities. A critical take: “The smart city is, to many urban thinkers, just a buzzphrase that has outlived its usefulness: ‘the wrong idea pitched in the wrong way to the wrong people’. So why did that happen – and what’s coming in its place?”

Cuba’s ‘offline internet’: no access, no power, no problem. “He copies the latest terabyte-sized package of global films, TV dramas, comedies, magazines, applications and anti-virus software […] she then takes those digital files to the home of her employer so he can download it and sell it on to his customers.” See also Fighters for a Free North Korea.

Those awkward growing years

A year in the Metabolist future of 1972. Metabolism emerged in Japan in the 1960s, fusing large-scale architecture with biological principles of growth and change. Over 40 years after its construction, two architects discuss a year living in Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower.

How farming almost destroyed ancient human civilisation. Why, after sustained growth, did the size of settlements drop dramatically 7,000 years ago?

NYU music professor gives D’Angelo an A+. Jeff Peretz digs in to the rhythm, harmony, melody and lyrics of Black Messiah.

Xmas or bust: the untold story of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Another oral history. This has some good Chevy Chase quotes:

I never knew John [Hughes] that well. If you see his films, he had a great vision of teenagers growing up; in a way he was a teenager, still battling those awkward growing years. Maybe he was a genius, and God bless him if he was. There’s so few of us.

Please adhere to our biker gang’s style guide. “We chose the ampersand because it’s the cleaner, more elegant option, and it resonates with our target audience. We may be vandals, but we’re not savages.”

A daily breakfast of porridge and steroids

What does it feel like to live in a super-large house? A couple of summers ago—during the London Olympics, of which I have no great lasting memory, unlike seemingly most of the British public—I stayed for a week at my friends’ house, and for a couple of those nights we house- and dog-sat for two of their friends who happened to live in an 18-bedroom house in semi-rural Norfolk. It had been converted into a retirement (“old people’s”) home at some point in the late 19th or early 20th century. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to heat and look after. You’d likely go weeks without going in a particular wing, let alone room. The garden was incredible: tennis courts, summer houses, private paths down to a wide, flowing stream, huge areas for pigs and chickens to strut about, a fucking hedge maze, greenhouses with bigger square footage than the house I’m sitting in now. I wondered at the time what it would be like to be a child in such a huge property. This Quora answer is a lovely account of growing up in a large house in new England.

The triumphant rise of the shitpic. You know what a shitpic is, even if you don’t: crappy text and image memes, multiply watermarked, screencapped and shared until the filtering and compression algorithms begin to erode it. (Aside: what is it with people sharing screencaps of images on Facebook, rather than the images themselves? Do people generally not know how to do that? Twice today I’ve seen people upload screengrabs of landscape images, but held in portrait orientation with huge black bars above and below.)

A couple of articles on the linguistics of swearing: 1, 2.

A couple of articles on Vince Guaraldi: 1, 2

What colour is it right now?

To quote my friend Drew: Remember how Adult Swim started as a showcase for cancelled animated sitcoms and then evolved into surreal nightmare cinema? (That Dan Deacon track starting at ~7 mins tho!)

What Casey Kolderup didn’t do in 2014.

Here’s a version of ‘Moon River’ that I recorded at about 6am on Wednesday:

It should be noted that I have been off work most of this week with a severe chest infection, and this was recorded before I had my daily breakfast of porridge and steroids. And because I know shit-all about mixing, it’d be best if you put some headphones on first.

Albums of the year? Oh, I don’t know. I tend to star albums in Spotify to listen to later but the list goes back more than a year. My Bandcamp wishlist is ever-extending too. I listen to more music than ever, though, and things pop through: Grouper, Alex G, Beck and Spoon all come immediately to mind. I just deleted three further names from that list because their albums came out in 2013, 2008 and 2012 respectively. Whoops. Oh, and D’Angelo too. I’ve listened to that several times since the weekend and it is everything we wanted it to be.

New job: digital content curator

I’ve had huge fun working in The Open University’s Open Media Unit, but time is up and I’ve started a new role in the OU’s Communications unit working on content strategy for the university.

OpenLearn, the website I worked on, is a terrific thing: there can’t be many sites that offer such a wide range of free (in both senses) educational content on every subject and in every medium, serving millions of people over the years. But I’m excited by the challenge of the new role—I have broader responsibility for ensuring the content of all the university’s websites (and they are legion) is properly commissioned, produced and maintained for them to be as effective and useful for all users [1] as possible.

I’m sad to leave OMU and my amazing colleagues, many of whom I consider good friends after my three years there. It was a creatively satisfying job and I had the encouragement and confidence of others to try new things out on a regular basis. There are lots of ongoing challenges to make the site as usable, accessible and successful as possible. Luckily, they’re all experts and I know they’ll be successful. I’ll stay in touch with them and with the field of Open Educational Resources in general.

So, onto the new thing. Lots to do already. I’ve joined a team who are complete experts in web standards, including content strategy, information architecture, search, visibility, optimisation and analytics—I’m going to learn lots from them, and if I can add something on the way, I’ll be delighted.

  1. I dislike the impersonal users as much as the next person, but in this case I can’t think of anything better that communicates the vast array of potential students, current students, alumni, staff, collaborators, interested parties…  ↩

Britain’s Great War

My latest project is live: Britain’s Great War.

It’s a BBC One series presented by Jeremy Paxman as part of the BBC’s long-running season marking the hundreth anniversary of the First World War.

We made two things to go support the programme:

A free booklet, The First World War Experienced:

Have you ever wondered why you might be wearing a poppy in November, or just how many people fought and died in the First World War?

This free booklet provides a close-up look at some of the experiences of the First World War and its commemoration. It highlights how the war affected soldiers and civilians while it was being fought, as well as once the guns had fallen silent.

And a series of articles (all around the 1,000 word mark) that look in detail at the causes and early stages of the war: in particular the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the July Crisis and the Schlieffen Plan, along with profiles of protagonists and an overview of the historiography of the war.

The booklet and the articles were written by my colleague Annika Mombauer, who I don’t mind telling you I have a total and utter brain-crush on.

I previously knew very little about the First World War, other than the series of terrible band names it bequeathed. My work on the project has opened a door to something that is both fascinating and horrifying yet fundamentally important to who we are today; something I think I could read and read and read about. I’ll be doing that very soon, as I just bought one of her books.

This is one of my final projects working for the Open Media Unit at The Open University. It’s been a delight—more on my next move soon.

Britain’s Great War starts on Monday 27 January at 9pm on BBC One.

Etcetera, the newsletter

2014-08-10: Currently on summer hiatus, soz

I don’t want to bury the lede: I started a little newsletter of links called Etcetera. You can see the letters so far if you want to know what it’s about.

I did this for a few reasons. Lots of people use their Twitter account solely or mostly for links. I don’t really want to do that—I tend to use Twitter sporadically and in torrent rather than for continual conversation or for sharing links. Ditto Tumblr (where I’ve started and abandoned something similar to this before). And I haven’t quite worked out what this blog is for, other than occasional life and work updates, but after trying and giving up a few times, it’s not a linkblog.

There are a bunch of good newsletters that do this sort of thing already, and they do it well: Rusty Foster’s Today in Tabs is terrific, although mostly consists of the terrible things we wish we hadn’t read; Alexis Madrigal’s 5 Intriguing Things goes deep on, well, five things. Dave Pell’s NextDraft is great too. You should subscribe to them all.

I don’t yet know what this will turn out to be. At the moment I take approximately five minutes when I get in from work to list a few things that I read over lunch. I’d love it to be something more than that. It’s currently only read by a handful of friends, and I hope to turn it into a more special, unique snowflake as I get learn more about the processes and routines and generally think more about what’s interesting to me (and hopefully others).

The takeaway: subscribe to Etcetera or I will destroy you.

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

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

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


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

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

Rap Genius is back on Google

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

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

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

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

The speech accent archive

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

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

Recent Links: November 2013

More links from Pinboard:

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

Recent Links: October 2013

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