Improving bounce rate

Today I gave an informal presentation to colleagues about monitoring, investigating and improving the bounce rate of our website, OpenLearn.

We all have different levels of understanding and experience of using Google Analytics, so this was a reminder for some and an introduction for others.

Below you can see the slides—they’re very minimal. You can see the slides with accompanying notes here.

Underneath there are some Google Analytics dashboards and custom reports you can use. Log into GA and click on a link. Choose a profile to apply the dashboard or report to it. It will then be your local copy, so you can rename it or modify it for your own needs.

I’ve collected some of these resources from various places and not noted where from. If any of them are your work, let me know and I’ll give you credit and a link.

I know the following embedded thing breaks the column it’s in—sadly I can’t resize Haiku Deck embeds to make them smaller.

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app for iPad

(Remember, you need to be logged in to GA for these links to work)

Google Analytics dashboards

  • Brand monitoring. A dashboard that focuses on how people found you by searching for you. Change any mentions of ‘openlearn’ to your brand name.
  • No-bullshit. A summary of important data in plain English. This is especially useful if you’re not used to the terminology of Google Analytics.
  • Site usage/quality. Browsers, devices, top content and bounce/exit rates.
  • Visitors technology. Summary of devices, browsers, resolution, Flash capability, etc.

Google Analytics custom reports

  • Search performance. Apply this report and use advanced segments to explore paid and non-paid search traffic.
  • Browser version. How your traffic copes with different browsers.
  • Mobile performance. All about mobile.
  • Keyword analysis. Click the ‘engagement’ tab then look for troublesome pages. Click on the page title. Are there any keywords that are irrelevant? Solve with SEO.
  • Link analysis. Which sources are helping your goals?
  • PPC. How are your ads doing?
  • Social media. Judge the success of your social media campaigns.

Terms of service you can actually read

It might seem strange to write a blog post congratulating someone on writing good terms of service, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Editorially is a collaborative writing and editing service. You can use it to write something, send it to colleagues, have them edit or give feedback. It is Microsoft Word’s Review tab done properly.

Today they posted about their terms of service. You know—those ghastly pages you see linked to in a website’s footer, or the thing you check the box to say you’ve read when you haven’t. The reason we don’t read them is that they’re often impenetrable, doused in legalese and written in tiny all-caps.

Their desire was to make it completely human readable and understandable, to challenge the boilerplate text we usually see when we bother to look at other ToS:

[Keeping it readable] is the first, most difficult, and most important goal when drafting terms. There is no legal reason for your terms to be opaque or confusing. Approach the writing process the same way you would any other communication with your users: use plain language, and speak like a human. Keep your sentences short and simple. Make generous use of numbered and bulleted lists where possible.

Don’t assume that commonly-used legalese is required; much oft-repeated language is the result of laziness, not a legal mandate. If your lawyer suggests language that’s thick or confusing, ask for clarification about why it’s needed, or what it intends to communicate. Then translate that into language you’d be comfortable using if you were sitting across a table from a colleague or friend.

Most of their advice is best practice for writing on the web in general—keep it short, stress the important things, make yourself understood.

The whole thing is available under a Creative Commons licence, so there’s no reason why the ToS for your website or service can’t be just as readable.

I’m not suggesting this is the most interesting, amazing thing you’ll read today—hell, you’ll read something in the next hour that is better. But these ToS are increasingly important as we give use more services and give more data away. We frequently have to adhere to statements we don’t or can’t understand, so it is refreshing for Editorially to tell us exactly what we’re getting ourselves into.

Current iPhone home screen

Apropos of nothing, here’s my current iPhone home screen.

Stock Apple apps

There are a bunch of apps—Messages, Calendar, Camera, Safari, Photos, Weather, Mail—for which I’ve never found alternatives I like better.

Camera is the one I’ve experimented with the most, but you can’t beat the speed and ease of access of the Camera app. Sometimes I’ll take a photo and edit it in another app, like Snapseed.

Incidentally, I always keep the camera app in the top right, as that’s where the lens is.

There are a fair few apps organised in folders on the second screen, so I like to keep them updated. Having the App Store app on the home screen is a good visual prompt.

Instagram

Still really love it. I’m nervous about its future, but for now I’m happy that my friends are still using it.

Articles

My Wikipedia app of choice and used at least once a day.

Simplenote

Where I keep my text files and notes, synced with nvALT on my Mac. I use a system somewhat similar to Tyler Reinhard’s semantic notes to keep them organised and easy to use. (Maybe I’ll write that up someday.)

Reeder

RSS is still my main source of information and it’s the bedrock for many other services I use. Reeder, for iOS and OS X, is the best-looking and easiest-to-use app I’ve found. And believe me, I’ve tried lots.

Flickr

I’ve never been a huge user, but (along with lots of other people) I’m getting back into it.

Facebook

Sorry.

Instapaper

I read Instapaper more on my iPad than iPhone, but unlike the iBooks and Kindle apps, it’s opened often enough to warrant a home screen position.

Tumblr

I use it less than I used to, but Tumblr is still terrific fun and some great writers use it for their blogs.

IMDb

Like Articles, I probably use this once a day to look up films and people. Side note: if you find yourself asking which film starred actor A and actor B, or which actor was in film X and film Y, try Double Feature.

Drafts

Drafts is my starting point for most things I write on my iPhone. I’m using it to start writing this piece—I’ll send it to Byword where I’ll finish it up on my Mac or iPad before publishing. Other bits of text get pushed to Mail, Simplenote, OmniFocus, Pastebot, etc as required.

Scrobbler

I track my listening habits using Last.fm, so I use their music player instead of the stock Apple app.

Podcasts

I’m getting back in to podcasts using Huffduffer. I’ve tried the alternatives—which are pretty good—but the Podcasts app is fine for my needs.

My Minutes

I’m currently trying this out as a way to spend more time doing the things I want (or have) to spend more time on. These are things that don’t fit too well in OmniFocus. You specify a ‘thing’, the time you want to spend doing it, and the days you want to track it. So far it is keeping me motivated but I’m aware I’ve started and given up things like this in the past.

Tweetbot

The best Twitter client by far.

OmniFocus

This app tells me what I should be doing instead of checking everything else. All the work and personal projects I want to complete are broken down into discrete actions and saved in OmniFocus.

Spotify

I use Spotify as a music audition service. I star albums when I hear about them, listen to them a few times, then buy them on iTunes if I like them. It’s more like Instapaper for music than it is an iTunes replacement.

What’s not here?

All the rest of my apps are organised in folders on the second screen. For some, muscle memory gets me to them without thinking; for others, I search using iOS Spotlight.

Where’s your phone? Well, obviously it doesn’t need to be on the home screen to receive calls, and I open all the other apps on this screen more times a day than I call someone. I’ll usually search for a contact using Spotlight before calling them. So no need for it to be easily accessible.

Zite is probably my other most-used app—I find it surfaces articles and links of interest that I’m less likely to see in RSS or social networks.

How to create a personal, searchable link archive with ifttt and Pinboard

Building a personal archive is one of those things that only reveals its usefulness once you have one and start using it. I search mine on a daily basis to find useful links, background reading and general inspiration for work and personal projects. The more you add to it, the more useful it becomes.

Below are some examples of using Pinboard and If This Then That (ifttt) to automate saving things you like for future reference.

Pinboard: your link archive

I use Pinboard as my personal archive. Pinboard is a faster, better version of Delicious (indeed, it is run by a former Delicious engineer). You add useful links along with optional tags and a description—things that you enjoy, or that you might find useful in future.

There is a small one-time sign-up fee that increases with new users—an interesting way to ensure the service can scale well. If you currently use Delicious, you should definitely switch; if you don’t currently save bookmarks at all (or just use your browser’s bookmarking facility), I urge you to sign up for an account. The cost is currently $10.

You can optionally pay an annual fee of $25 for full-text searching of your bookmarks and notifications of 404 errors. I recommend this, as it will make the ifttt recipes below more useful.

ifttt: how to automatically add links to your archive

I’ve previously mentioned ifttt in passing on this post about time-shifting the internet. If you’re yet to use it, it is a way to automate links between different services. You connect your various accounts (known as ‘channels’), pick triggers, then actions. As well as social networks and other web services there are channels like weather, email and SMS.

There are some banal examples (‘Tweet my Facebook status updates’, for example), but once you start thinking about the range of possible triggers and actions, you can quickly think of some potentially interesting and useful combinations:

  • Email me in the morning if it’s going to rain today
  • Send starred items in Google Reader to Instapaper to read later
  • Post my Flickr favourites to Tumblr

And so on. These combinations are known as ‘recipes’ on ifttt.

A lot of the examples on ifttt are connected to publishing—i.e., given a certain trigger, post something to a social network. All of the examples below are the opposite. The triggers are all based on you liking or favouriting something on a social network, but the action is is silent and private—the only person who will see it will be you, in your personal archive.

My Pinboard recipes on ifttt

The idea here is that when you explicitly like something on a social network or website, ifttt will grab the URL along with any relevant metadata and save it to Pinboard as a private bookmark. The recipes below are for services that I use; there are others available that you can apply the principle to.

All these recipes use the original item’s tags and description where possible and appropriate. Sadly you can’t save Twitter favorites via ifttt, although you can configure Pinboard to automatically add links from your Twitter favorites as bookmarks. You could probably hack something together with your favorites RSS feed, but it’s not something I’ve explored yet.

Tidying up and editing

By following this process, you’ll end up with a lot of private bookmarks that aren’t as meticulously tagged as the ones you add yourself. This isn’t a huge problem—if you pay for the $25 archival account, searching your archive will still surface relevant links—but you can still do some tidying up.

I find it useful to review my recently added bookmarks as part of a wider weekly review, adding or editing descriptions and tags as necessary. The process of scanning my bookmarks is useful in its own right and only takes a few minutes.

Extra: using email to make the most of your important tags

I add a lot to my archive, both public and private. I add stuff that I think would be useful to other people, but other than a few other Pinboard users, no-one pays any attention my bookmarks. In addition, I usually want to save something to my archive without having to think about what else to do with it. So I’ve started experimenting with some email alerts based on particular tags.

At work my team often share useful tools that others might want to investigate. So, whenever I save something to Pinboard with the tag tools, an email is sent from my personal email account to my work one with the link and a prompt ‘Worth sharing with the team?‘. The majority of my bookmarks are saved in the evenings, so when I get to work the next day I have a reminder so I can choose whether or not to share the link.

You could could skip this bit and share the URLs directly with other people, but I find the intermediary step is helpful for me to consider whether others would really find it useful.

Another use would be to remind you of links to blog about. If your blog is about software or design or writing or whatever, have ifttt send you an email whenever you bookmark a link with that tag. This avoids having to use a toBlog tag or similar. (I prefer to use tags based on content only, rather than anything workflow-related.)

If you’re confident that you want to blog about every link with a particular tag, you could use ifttt to send the links and descriptions directly from Pinboard to a blogging system like Tumblr or WordPress.

I’m sure you can think of other uses based on this concept—let me know on Twitter.

A minor success as well as a monumental failure

A great article by Chris Higgins on competitive Tetris:

Neither competitor can actually win. NES Tetris cannot be defeated, even in a so-called “max-out” game, in which the top possible score of 999,999 points is achieved. Every game ends with a player topping out and losing. Yet the best possible loss is exactly what these men seek, though each hope to win the Championship first.

I played my fair share of NES Tetris as a kid and I got nowhere near these guys. I know the strategy—build up a stack of tesselating shapes and clear four lines at a time (a Tetris) with the long shape, but maneuvering those blocks in the correct direction at high speeds was a task too far for my childhood brain.

The piece is notable also for it’s separate special features companion post, with related links and a Q&A.

If this interests you, seek out Seth Gordon’s 2007 film The King of Kong, one of my favourite documentaries on any subject, ever. And here are some fabulous long articles about Tetris.

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.