You’re wearing a dustbin liner

When the NME was the best place in the world to be. Harking back to the glory days. “Like many titles, the NME is under pressure. Britain’s last-remaining weekly music magazine, the champion of new bands for generations, has just denied reports of staff discussions about plans to become a free publication as its circulation nears the 15,000 mark and threatens its value to the industry—and its existence.” For context, a few magazines and their circulations: Q (50,161), Mojo (70,693), Uncut (53,282), Kerrang (30,300), Metal Hammer (24,552). The current NME circulation is less than half that of the Melody Maker when it folded in 2000. The fat lady may not be singing yet, but she’s doing a very thorough soundcheck.

Don’t call it a Britpop comeback. “Call it what you will, stoke the flames of a no longer existing feud, but this ‘comeback’ isn’t really a return of Britpop; it’s a return of bands that used to be Britpop. Neither Blur nor Oasis is going to stir the nation, or young music fans, the same way they once did. Part of why a ‘Battle of Britpop’ won’t work this time around is that Blur hasn’t been very ‘British’ in about 20 years. These aren’t the same chaps who made ‘Parklife’—nothing from Blur (or anyone, for that matter) will ever sound as British as that. The sound of guitar pop cum middle-class hedonism that once defined them is lost in the past. Albarn’s other, far less British projects have made that kind of stylistic cloister impossible.”

Booze, Blood and Noise: The Violent Roots of Manchester Punk. A fantastic retrospective. “Still, that didn’t stop me the next week from chopping off my Bryan Ferry-style hairdo, buying a dog collar and black garbage bag on which I stenciled ‘I Hate Pink Floyd,’ much to the amusement of my poor Irish mom. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, just look at yourself,’ she said between gales of laughter. ‘You’re wearing a dustbin liner.’ ”

A new lease of life for Italy’s aqua vitae? “The French have brandy, the Scots and the Irish have whisk(e)y and the Italians have… grappa. Outside Italy it’s often been seen as a rough old stomach-burner, and even inside Italy it’s not exactly fashionable. But could this ancient drink be on the verge of a revival?” I haven’t had enough grappa in my life to say that I love it, but a few post-prandial sips during an Italian holiday a few years ago told me I’m going to be a fan, long-term. (Incidentally, the BBC’s new responsive site serves m.bbc.co.uk URLs, even full-screen on my desktop Mac. How odd.)

Magazine apps are about to get better, but will anyone use them? “With this new suite, Adobe is softening its all-in approach to putting magazines on mobile devices and creating a publication that is a smarter halfway point between the static traditionalism of print and the ephemeral rush of the web. This means that the publications you currently subscribe to on mobile devices and download month-to-month will now update constantly instead of periodically. In other words, they’ll be more like websites and less like print magazines.”

It is expected that passive voice will continue to annoy me. “To me, someone who writes ‘snowfall is expected to end about lunchtime’ just doesn’t sound all warm and fuzzy that what they’re saying is true. Passive voice is the unconfident, if subconscious, mind’s trick of deflecting responsibility from itself into abstract nothingness. I mean, who expects snowfall to end about lunchtime? The writer? The local news station meteorologist? Dark Sky? Nostradamus?”

Amplitude of the mouth may be limited

Incredible photos from the construction site of the new Bay Bridge. “A photographer spent more than a decade shooting from hellish, confined spaces and fog-shrouded eagles’ nests.”

Jim Gordon’s answer to ‘What are the big problems of sandwiches and how do you solve them?’. “The ideal ingredient has a nice flat shape, a structural consistency and cohesiveness, and conforms to the adjacent ingredients. Thin is indeed a highly useful characteristic that enhances the tongue’s access to flavors. An ingredient should also have some moisture to aid chewing and flavor sensing, but with a minimum of surface wetness/lubrication or leakage — this is why tomato slices are so dangerous. Thick bread, as Bob suggests, has its attraction, but it steals space when the amplitude of the mouth may be limited.”

The beginner’s field guide to dim sum.

64 ways to think about a news homepage. Information architecture and design ideas to steal.

Human data. Cities visualised by human movement. “Human helps people move almost twice as much in six weeks. Every day, people track millions of activities with our app. We visualized 7.5 Million miles of activity in major cities all across the globe to get an insight into Human activity. Walking, running, cycling, and motorized transportation data tell us different stories.”

Under the covers: second hand songs that matter. An extremely comprehensive overview of cover versions. “Artists have performed other people’s music since the beginning. Here we salute the best and worst, the career-making, the career-breaking and other highlights from the wide world of borrowed sounds.”

“My friends are holding their official band meetings in Shane Warne’s Instagram comments.”

The amazing life of sand. “There’s a story in every grain of sand: tales of life and death, fire and water. If you scooped up a handful of sand from every beach, you’d have a history of the world sifting through your fingers. From mountain boulders to the shells of tiny ocean creatures, follow the journey that sand takes through thousands of years across entire continents to wind up stuck between your toes.”

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.

Recent links: October 2012

A few links, taken from my Pinboard account.

Social login buttons aren’t worth it

Call us control freaks, but we built this brand and we “feel strongly” about shaping its direction ourselves. One logo on our login page is enough. Who the hell wants their app to look like it was designed by NASCAR?

I dislike the proliferation of social sharing and login buttons on websites.

Sure, the login buttons help users sign up for your service quickly and easily. But the user has to remember which service they signed in with, and they look ugly. By their nature, they tend to be brightly coloured and eye-catching—the eye is drawn to them rather than what the website or service is or does. I’d rather people used this space to give me more reasons why I should sign up in the first place. If I’m eager, I’ll find a way to sign up.

The sharing buttons are more irritating to me. Their intention is obvious: get more people to the site who wouldn’t otherwise have noticed it. My hugely anecdotal experience is that their primary use is for a small and relatively unimportant minority of users: those who don’t know how to copy and paste. These people aren’t likely to be socially ‘influential’, for want of a better phrase—is it going to be a huge boon for your site if Joe Bloggs, who tweets once every three months and has only a handful of equally unengaged followers, shares a link to an article?

This is vital screen space. Wouldn’t it be better to remove these buttons (or consolidate them under a single ‘share’ button, which pops up the myriad social services) and give more room to services that help users find reasons to stick around? Like links to other content in the same category (hand-picked, not just autogenerated WordPress bullshit), or perhaps more by the same author? Even if you don’t replace them with anything, you just made your content stand out that tiny bit more.

The site I work on has a curious policy of putting the sharing buttons before the article, as a way of suggesting that what you’re about to read is worthy of sharing. Look—all these other people have already done it. I certainly don’t like this any better. We’re giving people decisions to make and opportunities to do something other than reading the article, and I hope we change it.

Read the update after the article too: there are some good counter-points made by commenters.

The No Homophobes guide to language on Twitter

What kind of language do you use on twitter? Are you unconsciously using homophobic words? Did you even know that #NoHomo was a real hashtag on Twitter?

Look at all those morons that throw the word ‘faggot’ around on Twitter.

Stop Pagination Now

Does anyone really think breaking up articles into several pages is a good idea? No, they don’t.

Grizzly Bear Members Are Indie-Rock Royalty, But What Does That Buy Them in 2012?

For much of the late-twentieth century, you might have assumed that musicians with a top-twenty sales week and a Radio City show—say, the U2 tour in 1984, after The Unforgettable Fire—made at least as much as their dentists. Those days are long and irretrievably gone, but some of the mental habits linger. “People probably have an inflated idea of what we make,” says Droste. “Bands appear so much bigger than they really are now, because no one’s buying records. But they’ll go to giant shows.” Grizzly Bear tours for the bulk of its income, like most bands; licensing a song might provide each member with “a nice little ‘Yay, I don’t have to pay rent for two months.’ ” They don’t all have health insurance.

The Grizzly Bear album is terrific, so you should buy it and see them live.

Related: Corin Tucker, formerly of the amazing Sleater-Kinney and now the Corin Tucker Band, has a day job.

The Brief

My pal Richard has an easier way to cope with the onslaught of tech-related news. He reads it for you, and selects the most important stuff.

Cheers: an Oral History

This article is interesting on its own terms—if you didn’t know, Kelsey Grammar is nothing like his character Frasier, and Shelley Long was kinda hard work—but more interesting to me is the suggestion that Cheers, for so long the pinnacle of TV comedy, doesn’t get enough respect. The last episode aired twenty years ago: enough for a generation to grow up and not know what it is.

Breaking the seal

There is no seal to break, either in a literal or metaphorical sense. Urine production isn’t regulated by how long you wait or how often you go.

Learn about ADH and impress your friends!

The Old-Fashioned

The old-fashioned is at once “the manliest cocktail order” and “something your grandmother drank,” and between those poles we discover countless simple delights, evolutionary wonders, and captivating abominations. Because of its core simplicity and its elasticity—because it is primordial booze—ideas about the old-fashioned exist in a realm where gastronomical notions shade into ideological tenets. It is a platform for a bar to make a statement, a surface on which every bartender leaves a thumbprint, and a solution that many a picky drinker dips his litmus paper in. You are a free man. Drink your drink as you please. But know that your interpretation of the recipe says something serious about your philosophy of fun.

What more needs to be said and read about this drink? Plenty more, it seems.