The odds of utter destruction

Personal Histories. “Humility. Intention. Empathy. Clarity. These concepts are easy enough to understand, but they take work to get right. As writers and strategists and designers, that’s our job. It’s up to us to think through those what-ifs and recognize that, at every single moment—both by what we say and what we do not say—we are making communication choices that affect the way our users feel, the tenor of the conversation we’re having, the answers we’ll get back, and the ways we can use that information.”

How to read Gawker in 2015. Gawker will post stories to existing and new sections, but the homepage will be more newspaper-like: more static, and showcasing ‘stronger’ content rather than merely the newest: “It’ll be messy, a lot of our most dedicated readers might hate it, and traffic will take a hit. But I think that we’ll be rewarded in the long run by providing readers with more focused ways to get the stories they want, and by giving writers more freedom to experiment without “front page” pressure.”

Spotify has six years of my music data, but does it understand my tastes? “Spotify has my big music data, just like it does for all 50 million of its active users. In 2014, it bought a music technology company called The Echo Nest to help it make sense of all this data, and understand its listeners better. So, does it understand me? I asked the company, which agreed to compile a report of my “taste profile” and talk me through it.”

Dark Sky has a new owner. You all have Dark Sky installed on your mobile devices, right? This is how you write a change-of-ownership blog post: “Are they going to fuck things up? I’m not going to lie, it’s a real possibility. We’ve never done anything like this before, and any time you introduce new partners you’re taking a significant risk. In fact, I’d put the odds of Dark Sky crashing and burning in the next couple years (or worse: turning into something we no longer love) as high as 50%. But really, that’s a big improvement. If it were just Jay and myself, the odds of utter destruction would be much higher; closer to 100%.”

Earth View from Google Maps. A nice Chrome extension: “Earth View displays a beautiful and unique Satellite image from Google Maps every time you open a new tab.”

The Punctuation Guide. “In creating this guide, I have consulted dozens of authorities, both online and in print. Where the authorities disagree, I either have explained the various positions or have presented the style I believe to be most useful. Fortunately, in most aspects of punctuation, there is general agreement.”

A dreadful start. A Twitter-based choose-your-own-adventure game. UPDATE: how it was made.

Numerous caravan parks surround the Fantasy Island amusement park in Skegness, United Kingdom.

Hiding under the banner of ‘parody’

When a Twitter parody account isn’t actually a parody. “But there’s another kind of parody account that’s gained traction in recent years, one that, in my opinion, skirts Twitter’s rules about running impostor handles and aims to deceive the users who retweet and follow it […] hiding under the banner of ‘parody’ to mask its real intention: capitalizing on the celebrity of others in order to amass followers and influence.”

To fall in love with anyone, do this. “I explained the study to my university acquaintance. A heterosexual man and woman enter the lab through separate doors. They sit face to face and answer a series of increasingly personal questions. Then they stare silently into each other’s eyes for four minutes. The most tantalizing detail: Six months later, two participants were married. They invited the entire lab to the ceremony.”

The one user touchpoint almost every mobile app ignores. “The only thing I love more than receiving [app] updates is reading the release notes that accompany them. I read literally every single one, because it seems almost rude not to. A team of really talented people spent weeks or even months making this gift for me—the least I could do is at least skim the notes, you know? But after reading dozens (if not hundreds) of release notes, I have to ask: why are so many of them so bad?” “Make sharing from music services better. We match album and track links from Rdio, Spotify, Deezer, Beats Music, Google Music and iTunes and give you back a link with all of them.”

First Listen: Sleater-Kinney, ‘No Cities To Love’. Stream the new S-K. (As well as the new Belle and Sebastian.)

Spectacular Back to the Future prints by Andy Fairhurst.

Piece of hovering funk

Tsundoku. “I fear that the Japanese have been peeking into my bedroom. I can think of no other explanation for tsundoku, which is their word for a pile of books that you’ve bought and haven’t got round to reading yet.”

Does retweeting your own praise make you a monster? “But perhaps the one Twitter-specific human behavior that Twitter most vocally and consistently disapproves of is retweeting praise. ‘If when I start following you the first thing I notice about your twitsyle is that you RT praise, bye,’ tweeted Emily Gould last year, and this is just one such representative reprimand.”

Edgar Wright – How to do visual comedy. Talking about the Ant-Man trailer, I was reminded that Wright was initially attached to write and direct it. His visual flair is fantastic and would have been a terrific choice. Anyway, Paul Rudd.

Locked out of the alt: why one woman turned to alt twitter for a room of her own. “Some of Lily’s online friends had started creating ‘alt’ Twitters, private accounts with curated follower lists, where they felt comfortable speaking without self-censorship. Lily thought that this seemed unnecessary—her account was already locked, after all—but she tried it anyways.”

Second coming. You may say: “Not another D’Angelo piece again, Matthew.” I may say: “Oh yessiree.” Sasha Frere-Jones may say: “There have been musical comebacks as strong as ‘Black Messiah,’ but not many. Like a New York City radiator, the record is warming and intermittently noisy, too intense to hold tightly but powerful enough to change an entire apartment’s atmosphere. Like ‘Voodoo,’ a hazy, unified piece of hovering funk, ‘Black Messiah’ resembles one piece of music rather than a series of songs. It is so texturally inviting that I played it on loop for three straight days. I didn’t want to get out of it.” And I will agree with him.

JSTOR daily. A neat site which combines accessible articles about newsworthy stories with journal articles. I’m hoping to implement something similar as part of a long overdue redevelopment of our decrepit news site. We already have Open University academics writing similarly accessible pieces for OpenLearn and The Conversation, as well as ORO, a huge collection of open-access academic publications. Bringing them closer together sounds intriguing.

Roderick on the Line: A minimum of eels. Discussed: the ‘contiguous Macklemore’ haircut; problems with recurring advertising and attention eels; profound conformity in male fashion; hoarding.

Dirt, filth, or squalor

The rise of the hashgag. “I don’t have a good word to describe this phenomenon, so I’m going to term it “hashgags.” This is a joke in an animated movie, usually input at the behest of marketing forces, that is used to sell the movie. It’s usually inserted late into production and test screened to within an inch of its life. Some are used repeatedly, some are one-offs that do well with trailers. And it is crippling the entire industry.”

What Is Editorial Labs?. CMS/publishing chat: Gawker’s Adam Pash introduces how he hopes to improve their systems to smooth annoyances and include more interesting functionality.

Exporting Safari Reading List to Pinboard and/or Markdown. Brett Terpstra’s latest cool tool. I haven’t run this script yet, but I dread to think how many articles are in my list.

Animated GIFs and surreal mechanical heads by Sholim, aka Milos Rajkovic.

Help me coin a new word. “The word for ‘one’ in Burmese is ‘tit.’ The word for ‘eight’ is ‘shitt.’ […] So far, there doesn’t seem to be a name for these words. I’d like to propose, ‘sordophone.’ It’s like homophone—a word that’s pronounced like another word but has a different meaning—but includes a version of the Latin word ‘sordes,’ which means ‘dirt, filth, or squalor.’ Basically, it means ‘filthy sounding.’”

Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” verbs. “From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use ‘thought’ verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.”

Tediously unable to proceed

Who was America’s most well-spoken President? “We crunched the data on more than 600 presidential speeches and addresses to see how they changed over time, and had Bill Clinton’s speechwriter check the results. Our findings may surprise you.”

Are some diets “mass murder”? “From low fat to Atkins and beyond, diets that are based on poor nutrition science are a type of global, uncontrolled experiment that may lead to bad outcomes.” Fun footnote: “Competing interests: RS is chair of the Cochrane Library Oversight Committee and heavier than he once was and would like to be.”

I work at a public library. A fun Tumblr: “What makes a public library amazing is that we welcome everyone. Everyone!”

How cities have been shaped by defense. “You can learn a lot about a city’s history by looking at a map of it. If you know what to look for, you can see how high places, walls, and other fortifications had a major effect in shaping our cities.”

The origins of the blink tag. “I am widely credited as the inventor of the blink tag. For those of you who are relatively new to the Web, the blink tag is an HTML command that causes text to blink, and many, many people find its behavior to be extremely annoying. I won’t deny the invention, but there is a bit more to the story than is widely known.”

Toward a critical theory of podcasting. “The progress bars of the best podcasts trace elevating trajectories, and this sensation of momentum relates to a formal fact about them: They are precision-engineered to be easy to get through. The thing that happens when you find yourself reading and re-reading a single sentence, no longer seeing the words, tediously unable to proceed till you’ve broken through your own fog and untied the sentence’s knots? There is no podcast equivalent.”

Avoid contact with evil beings

The man who saved Japanese Chess by blowing Western minds… Or?. “As an abstract game, it carries no political allegiances. We are free to interpret the game as we like. Whether Masuda invented his radical reinterpretation of Chess after the fact or actually delivered it as an apologia before the occupational government, it demonstrates just how much room there is to reinterpret a game and infuse it with any politics or ethics one wishes, when really it’s all just a few wooden pieces moved on a board with squares on it according to a simple, abstract set of rules.”

This year in music by Sarah Badr. Sarah’s tastes lean toward ambient/drone, electronica and minimalist techno, so if that sounds like your sort of thing, there’s plenty to discover here. Some very beautiful album art, too.

Related: by some distance, my favourite Pitchfork column is Evan Minsker’s Shake Appeal. His best of 2014 is perfect if you’re into ‘garage and garage-adjacent’ music.

The Big Lebowski: Now preserved for all time. Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

King of Clickbait. Another dispiriting profile of someone who runs one of those ghastly viral sites that your dumb friends share on Facebook.

You Will ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ . “¯_(ツ)_/¯ is so 2014. Here are the emoticons you’ll be overusing in 2015.” One of 39 reasons to be optimistic about 2015.

SEO using force-directed diagrams. “Sometimes, the only way to understand a site is to look deep into the technology stack and gaze upon its dark, dark soul. But we at Portent try to avoid contact with evil beings. Instead, we use force-directed diagrams.” Visualising site structure and page influence. Looks very useful.

Transparent). I started watching this today and it’s just as good as I’d heard from others. Jeffrey Tambor is superb.

The buffet beaters

The economists who studied all-you-can-eat buffets. The psychology of pricing, the buffet beaters, and managing waste.

Amazon offers all-you-can-eat books. Authors turn up noses. Book buffets and the effects on authors. “Holly Ward has much the same complaint about Kindle Unlimited. After two months in the program, she said, her income dropped 75 percent. She immediately left the program. Kindle Unlimited is not mandatory, but writers fear that if they do not participate, their books will not be promoted.”

Old Fashioned 101. A foolproof way to make an Old Fashioned. Consider this a fundamental part of your life-long learning.

Cracking the sitcom code. “From The Simpsons to Seinfeld, from Everybody Loves Raymond to Everybody Hates Chris, from Taxi to Arrested Development to Parks & Recreation, there is a highly-specific, minute-by-minute recipe used to write the vast majority of sitcoms out there. And once you know the formula, it makes it much easier to write them, and much harder to watch them without seeing that formula—the “sitcom code”—everywhere you look.”

How Colonel Sanders became Father Christmas in Japan. “Not having KFC on Christmas in Japan is a real bummer. In what appears to be one of the most successful fast food marketing campaigns of all time, KFC has for more than thirty years maintained a uniquely on-brand alternate history in Japan, one that makes fried chicken ubiquitous on the day of Jesus’ birth.”

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.