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.

And:

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!

Recent Links: September 2013

Some recent links from my Pinboard:

  • The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume I. The full text from Richard Feynman’s lectures, originally given to Caltech students in the 1960s.
  • What did the Nazis know about the Manhattan Project? Operation Epsilon was a Second World War programme where ten German scientists were detained at a house near Cambridge and spied on to see if they revealed anything about the Nazi programme to create atomic weapons. This article looks at the time where they were told that the US had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
  • SubToMe. A service and bookmarklet for subscribing to feeds in a variety of feedreaders. (I’m using Feedbin these days and I love it.)
  • Status Update. Heiko Julien’s Facebook statuses.
  • Clean Links. An iOS app for taking a shortened URL or one with tracking code and returning something a little nicer.
  • Remove to improve. Make your charts better by simplifying them. An animated guide.

Terminal Cities

I made a little video about Terminal Cities to accompany the new BBC series Airport Live.

It was produced in a slightly back-to-front fashion. Due to limited availability, instead of setting a voiceover to a pre-existing video, I did it the other way around. I asked Simon Bell (who you might remember from the Guide to Diagrams I described a few months ago) for his thoughts on the issues and complexity of modern air travel. He recorded his thoughts on ‘terminal cities’, the huge collection of buildings, vehicles and people that comprise a large airport.

It was then a case of digging through the BBC/Open University video archive for some footage of Heathrow, the airport in question for the duration of the series. Luckily there were some programmes that had covered the subject during previous features on Terminal 5 and the ongoing discussion around a third runway.

I grabbed a bunch of tiny clips, most only lasting a few seconds, put them in an order that seemed to fit with what Simon was saying, then added a music bed courtesy of johnny_ripper. It all fell into place really quickly and easily.

Simon was the academic advisor to the series. Although it will be live, and inherently difficult to prepare for, he’s helped ensure that the production team cover some really important and interesting topics that might otherwise go missing during a prime-time TV series.

In keeping with his fondness for understanding situations through diagrams, Simon produced a rich picture and spray diagram to make some sense of the inherent complexity of terminal cities. The fact they aren’t completely polished and they’re scanned from lined paper is kind of the point—see those guide to diagrams videos I mentioned earlier for an explanation. You can see the diagrams by using the tabs at the top of the page.

Unlike, say, Design in a Nutshell, this was a project with a £0 budget, so I was pleased to produce something at all. It would have been great to take this a little deeper and explore some of the issues in more detail, but I hope the series and the videos and articles on our website encourage more people to think about the enormous issues around modern air travel as well as the challenges faced by everyone involved at an airport like Heathrow.

Airport Live starts on Monday 17 June on BBC Two at 8pm. It broadcasts on four consecutive nights.

Airport Live