I want to be a 55-year-old black musician

1: Better as a Tweet

From John Herrman’s excellent Awl series, The Content Wars:

What’s unusual about text, and which helps explain why journalists’ reactions to this change are so confident and visceral—as opposed to the resigned and uncertain responses they have to changes in Facebook, which, to them, is much more powerful in ways they can control much less—is that, unlike, say, native Twitter images, which marginalized a small number of Twitter-specific companies, longer posts change a professional calculus for anyone who uses Twitter to promote writing online. An old boss used to say, half-joking and then eventually not joking at all, “maybe that story would be better as a tweet.” What was initially almost pejorative—said to mean “short” or “slight” or “unworthy of a longer post”—became a complex judgement. Could this piece of news be conveyed well in a sentence or two with an image or video? Could we just screenshot that statement, or release, rather than asking people to follow a link to a post where it’s quoted? If the answer is yes, then the corresponding reader question—would I rather see this on Twitter, or click on some site—is answered as well.

The ability to post 10,000 characters will make the answer to that question “yes” in a majority of situations. Possibly a large majority! This post, for example, would fit in a 10,000 word text card. I doubt anyone reading it expanded in their Twitter feed would think, “damn, I wish I was reading this on a website instead of right here! I wish I had clicked a link, for some reason!” This is somewhat worrying if you’re in the business of making posts against which ads are sold.

2: What’s the plural of emoji?

You may well have seen this doing the rounds—just as interesting is Meyer’s follow-up note.

3: An isochronic map of the world, c. 1914

This is an isochronic map – isochrones being lines joining points accessible in the same amount of time – and it tells a story about how travel was changing. You can get anywhere in the dark-pink section in the middle [London] within five days – to the Azores in the west and the Russian city of Perm in the east. No surprises there: you’re just not going very far. Beyond that, things get a little more interesting. Within five to ten days, you can get as far as Winnipeg or the Blue Pearl of Siberia, Lake Baikal. It takes as much as 20 days to get to Tashkent, which is closer than either, or Honolulu, which is much farther away. In some places, a colour sweeps across a landmass, as pink sweeps across the eastern United States or orange across India. In others, you reach a barrier of blue not far inland, as in Africa and South America. What explains the difference? Railways.

4: After years directing indie films, Transparent star Jay Duplass found himself in an unlikely place: in front of the camera

It’s a choice that belies Jay’s relative lack of acting experience. He and Mark began making movies in New Orleans when they were very young, and because of their age difference — Jay is four years older than Mark — it worked out that Jay would operate the camera while Mark stayed in front of it. As they grew up, they lived what Jay calls an “uncultivated, un-curated” childhood, filled with street football and DIY art projects and a general improvisational spirit, including a deep involvement in music.

“When you grow up in New Orleans, like, the only way to be an artist is to be a 55-year-old black musician. That’s basically what we wanted to be,” he said. “If you had asked me very truthfully what I wanted to be when I was 16, the answer would’ve been, ‘I want to be a 55-year-old black musician.’”

5: Ruth and Martin’s album club: Ram by Paul McCartney

Martin Carr (The Boo Radleys) listens to Ram for the first time. Spoiler: he loves it. As he should. (See also Dave Depper’s The Ram Project, where he re-recorded everything you can hear on the album over the course of a single month.)

6: Pavement: 10 of the best

Where is ‘Shady Lane’?

Participation in a metaphysical polemic

1: The DNA of a London Underground Station

This is endlessly fascinating:

On 1st December 2015 Transport for London (TfL) unveiled its new design bible, the Design Idiom. Though the name may sound grandiose, the goal is simple: create a document that captures the design aesthetic of the Underground, so that good design can help drive decision-making at London Underground.

“It’s all about bringing good design to the forefront of our thinking.” explains Mark Evers, Director of Customer Strategy at TfL. “Very simply, setting out the key principles that can help us deliver well-designed stations in the future, every time.”

“This Design Idiom is about taking that step back and making sure that in the future we are thinking far more holistically about the way we should be undertaking work on our stations.”

2: My first book: Adventures in learning to read Japanese

All readers are familiar with the sensation of falling into a book. By their very nature, books invite you to immerse yourself in the world they have constructed. When it comes to a book in another language, however, such immersion feels both familiar and alien. While reading Kokoro no mori, I felt like a seasoned explorer suddenly sent to scope out Mars: the process was the same, but everything else was totally different. I had to attune myself to the rhythms of another language, to slowly gather an instinct for its patterns and structures, its particular logic. After spending so long in comfortable, well-trod terrain, finding myself in a new one was intimidating, exhilarating, and mesmerizing, all at once.

I’m currently learning Italian and, a few weeks ago, I opened up La Gazzetta dello Sport. Big mistake. I could feel the motivation evaporating out of me. I can hardly imagine reading a novel in another language.

3: Toward a new fantastic: Stop calling it science fiction

This is a wonderful paragraph:

This attitude toward science is widespread and can be found in both the resurgence of the popular television show Cosmos, as well as with popular websites like “I Fucking Love Science,” both of which exist in some form to produce questionably accurate infographics for social network sites. In terms of the latter, we are able to see the confusion: When my cousin posts a picture of a wild-looking insect from an exotic part of the world with the caption “I Fucking Love Science,” I am not sure what I am supposed to be celebrating. Is my cousin an enthusiast of the natural world? An advocate of empirical methodologies? Is his participation in a metaphysical polemic willing or unwitting? Either way, science did not give us the tap-dancing mating ritual of the rainbow spider, and it sure as hell is not the gatekeeper for my enjoyment of it.

4: Why we all dream of being jewel thieves

Stories about burglaries and heists don’t often appeal to me. But using them as jumping off points to discuss city topology, that’s something else entirely:

These examples are not only fascinating on their own as infrastructural factoids or as urban esoterica: They are also evidence that the logic of the city of London is already a logic of secret connections and startling proximities. Putting this knowledge to work in order to access bank vaults or to plunder safe deposit boxes is thus, in some ways, just an everyday temptation encountered by living in England’s capital city—as if cutting holes through walls, or digging tunnels between buildings, is, perversely, one of the more efficient ways of moving through the city.

The fabric of London, then, is one defined by perforation: serendipitous adjacencies that allow for movement out of sight and across property lines, through walls, from one building to another. After all, in a city where you can open a door in the base of a statue and walk underground to an entirely other neighborhood, in a sense, why not dream of bank tunnels?

5: When San Diego hired a rainmaker a century ago, it poured

As California endures its worst drought in 1,200 years, residents of the Golden State are turning to extreme—and desperate—measures to quench their collective thirst. Sun-baked farmers are hiring “water witches” to divine underground water sources with forked branches, while a company called Rain on Request has pledged to end the drought by building electrical towers that would induce rainfall by ionizing the atmosphere. When California found itself in a similar parched position exactly 100 years ago, the city of San Diego did something that seems even more bizarre—it hired a rainmaker. The thing is, it might have worked. After Charles Mallory Hatfield began his work to wring water from the skies, San Diego experienced its wettest period in recorded history. So was the rain an act of God or an act of Hatfield?

6: Dear architects: sound matters

A nice interactive look at how architects should consider sound in their plans. (This works on all devices but is best on a desktop with headphones.)

7: Windows 95 on a Nintendo 3DS is as strange as you’d think

8: Word count for web pages

Key takeaway:

Word counts can be harmful to usability. Structured, user-centred, well researched content is all you need.

9: 25 years after its imperial phase: Who killed shoegaze?

With the release of MBV’s Loveless, 1991 marked the high water mark for shoegaze before the music press turned its back with a nose-high snort of derision. Ben Cardew looks over the history of the genre and asks if its decline was simply because the music just got boring.

10: Style guide best practices at Beyond Tellerrand

Brad Frost:

Last month I was in beautiful Berlin for the wonderful Beyond Tellerrand conference, where I had the opportunity to talk about style guide best practices and all that goes into creating and maintaining successful pattern libraries.

Optimising a WordPress news site for content editors

I’ve produced OU News, a news and media WordPress site for my employer, The Open University (OU). It complements and may eventually replace an existing press release repository.

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It’s aimed at a wider audience than just journalists: students, staff, alumni as well as the general public.

I approached it with a firm focus on content strategy, and this post outlines some choices I made to make it useful and usable for its readers as well as making the content publishing process as quick and easy as possible for editors.

The existing OU news site

I believe the press release site to be nearly 15 years old. It’s had minor incremental improvements since then, but mostly to stop things breaking rather than proactive enhancements.[1] Various features have been removed or deprecated, such as the RSS feed.

The site isn’t terribly useful for its intended audience: navigation isn’t great, and it is quite restrictive in terms of what can be included in a post. Just text and a thumbnail image. I understand the content publishing process can be laborious and time-consuming.

New OU sites are typically built using Drupal[2] and OU ICE, a front-end HTML, CSS and Javascript framework for quick and easy production of accessible and brand-compliant sites. This suitable for the vast majority of cases. In the 5–10% where something more is needed, OU IT will produce and support custom Drupal themes or sub-themes. In this case, IT weren’t able to support the design and build, so we embarked upon it ourselves.[3]

Building a WordPress replacement

I hadn’t used WordPress in anger for several years and, if I’m honest, I didn’t have terrific memories of using it. When I started this site (the one you are reading) I didn’t even consider it.

I spent a couple of days downloading, installing and testing a dozen or so CMSs. The majority were wholly unsuited for this project. They required technical expertise beyond what would be expected of the team who manage the content—their skills are in media relations, not wrangling static site generators using the command line.

It was obvious that I should leave any bias behind. WordPress ticked the most boxes: a couple of the team had used it before, it’s thoroughly extensible, and there’s a huge support community in case things go wrong.

CMS chosen, I looked at themes. The intention was always to buy a flexible theme and to customise it to better suit our needs. We chose Sense. It has good navigation and UX out of the box while being much more visually appealing than the previous site. There are a large number of ways to organise and lay out posts.

There are several other good things about Sense. It has a highly usable drag and drop interface for building page layouts and uses widgets to build sidebars and footers in a intuitive way. Site editors can drop in URLs from media and social media sites and they automatically embed the content—no need for shortcodes or embed codes.[4]

Choosing plugins to help editors

Part of the reason I hadn’t had a terrific experience with WordPress on a previous project was that I had bad experience with plugins failing or being incompatible. This time round, I spent a lot of time searching for reliable plugins to make my life and the editors’ lives easier.

Here’s a rundown of the plugins I used:

  • Advanced Custom Fields. I ended up using this less than I expected. It allows you to customise the fields used in your posts in order to structure your content in a much more useful way. One for the content modellers out there. As the project developed, it was apparent that most of our content types were well served by WordPress’s standard content types and fields.
  • Avatar manager. Allows me to upload images of the site editors rather than them using Gravatar.
  • Better writing. Adds a readability score to all posts using the Flesch reading ease test. As a university we’re prone to unnecessary verbiage; this plugin is a reminder to editors to speak plainly for a general audience.
  • Broken Link Checker. Periodically scans your site for 404s (internal and external). Prints the results on the admin dashboard and emails them to the editor who published the post. I’m unsure how resource-intensive this plugin will be as the site grows, so I’ll keep my eye on it.
  • Google Analytics (Yoast). Makes it easy to add tracking code regardless of theme and see headline metrics in your WordPress admin interface.
  • ImageInject. Lets editors insert Creative Commons images based on the post title or a search string of their choosing. Adds them in the body of the post or as a featured image, and includes attribution information consistent with the licence.
  • Inline Tweet Sharer. Lets you turn quotes or other short passages of text into anchor text for Tweetable links. I might remove this as the editors haven’t really taken to using it.
  • P3: Plugin Performance Profiler. If you’ve looked at this list and thought, “That’s a long list of plugins”, you’ll like this one. It undertakes an on-demand scan of your site to see if any plugins are drastically affecting site performance. (For the record, there isn’t anything in this list causing alarm.)
  • Radio Buttons for Taxonomies. I have a compulsion that all posts should sit in a single category and have multiple tags, so I’ve enforced that on the editors using this plugin. Forces editors to choose one term from your taxonomy or taxonomies.
  • UK Cookie Consent. Adds a cookie banner to the site and produces a cookie information page. I discarded the default text, preferring to rewrite the OU’s existing cookie information into slightly better text so that it explains what a cookie is, why we use them, and which cookies are used.
  • WP Help. This is pretty great—it allows administrators to add custom help documentation for editors. I’ve made it quite granular, so there are entries for how to source and use images, guidelines for categorising and tagging content, improving readability scores, that sort of thing.
  • WP Hide Post. Allows you to publish a post to the live site but hide it from the main page, or its category page, or the author page, etc. Limited use cases, but potentially very helpful.
  • WP Super Cache. If you’ve used WordPress before then you probably know this one: a fast caching plugin to speed up sites. I adjusted the settings while building the site so I could see changes as I made them.
  • Yoast SEO. Probably the most important plugin we use, and another one you’ve probably heard of. We expect the posts to be shared widely on social media, and it makes it trivially easy to add Open Graph and Twitter metadata for better presentation in Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. It reminds the editors to optimise their posts for search by adding a primary keyword and ensuring that it is included in the title, URL, metadata and body content. The editors seem to like it as it focuses them on the user and what they might search for. There’s a useful analysis tab where you can review how well your content is optimised for search and readability. There’s now an equivalent Drupal module which I’d like IT to add to our standard distribution.

We’ll likely add Yoast’s Google News plugin in order to create a dynamic XML sitemap that conforms with the Google News schema.

All in all I’m hugely impressed with the options available to optimise a WordPress site for better content strategy. And I only managed to delete all the site content once! (That was a hairy hour or so while I arranged for it to be restored from a recent backup. Don’t tell my boss.) WordPress and its community hardly need my patronage but I’ll definitely use it for future projects (where appropriate). I’m considering moving this site across to it.


  1. I haven’t worked at the OU for this long, so this is what I’ve heard rather than experienced.  ↩

  2. The major exception being the prospectus site, which was rebuilt using Kentico in 2014.  ↩

  3. This explains the current URL. The site may well move to become part of the main OU information architecture, but for the moment it uses a non- *open.ac.uk domain name and is hosted externally.  ↩

  4. I think this is the theme doing this—since this site was produced I’ve played with other themes where it hasn’t done this.  ↩

Beyond personal hygiene

1: Reclaiming social: Content strategy for social media

This is one of the best things I’ve read about content strategy or social media. Terrific.

“We want to go viral!” says the chief communications officer. “Can’t help you” used to be our standard answer. But by doing this, we’ve left social media in the hands of marketers and self-appointed “gurus” more concerned with Klout than user needs. It’s about time we reclaimed social media.

2: Please be patient–this page is under construction

‘Under construction’ GIFs rescued from Geocities by the Archive Team.

3: Sad Topographies on Instagram

Places on Google Maps with desperately sad names.

4: What’s really hot on dating sites? Proper grammar

Dating site Match asked more than 5,000 singles in the U.S. what criteria they used most in assessing dates. Beyond personal hygiene—which 96% of women valued most, as compared with 91% of men—singles said they judged a date foremost by the person’s grammar. The survey found 88% of women and 75% of men said they cared about grammar most, putting it ahead of a person’s confidence and teeth.

5: When I’m gone

Death is always a surprise. No one expects it. Not even terminal patients think they are going to die in a day or two. In a week, maybe. But only when this particular week is the next week.

6: Lessons From Five Years in Mobile News Apps: #1 Don’t have a news app

I spent five years working on a mobile news app — first as an editor helping curate and package content and then as a product manager shepherding it through a complex visual and technical redesign.

And here’s the #1 lesson from my experience: If you are a small or medium sized publisher don’t have a news app. If you already have one, shut it down. Use your resources to make your mobile web site better. Kudos to The Atavist for making this decision.

7: Think the floppy disk is dead? Think again! Here’s why it still stands between us and a nuclear apocalypse

When was the last time that you used a floppy disk? While still used as the save icon in modern software packages like Microsoft’s Office suite, it’s unusual to see one out in the wild. Given that a typical floppy disk offers up a minuscule 1.44MB of space — not even enough to house a three-minute pop song in MP3 format — there’s seemingly no reason for these disks to stay in circulation.

But while the average user might not have any cause to use a floppy disk, there are those out there who can’t settle for anything else. They’re in dire need of the disks, which most manufacturers have stopped producing. The floppy disk might seem like something better left in the 1990s. Instead it’s a product that’s alive and well in the 21st century.

8: Uncovering the secret history of Myers-Briggs

Not one article details how Myers, an award-winning mystery writer who possessed no formal training in psychology or sociology, concocted a test routinely deployed by 89 of the Fortune 100 companies, the US government, hundreds of universities, and online dating sites like Perfect Match, Project Evolove and Type Tango. And not one expert in the field of psychometric testing, a $500 million industry with over 2,500 different tests on offer in the US alone, can explain why Myers-Briggs has so thoroughly surpassed its competition, emerging as a household name on par with the Atkins Diet or The Secret.

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…  ↩