Online, some languages are more equal than others 

The problem is, we don’t know which language will desperately need the world’s attention next. When an earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, international organizations suddenly required Haitian Creole resources. Ebola outbreaks in West Africa affected speakers of languages like Swahili, Nande, Mbuba, Krio, Mende and Themne. Asylum seekers from Central America often speak languages like Zapotec, Q’anjob’al, K’iche’ and Mam. These speakers aren’t the ideal customers of big tech companies. They don’t have leisure time to edit Wikipedia. They may not even be literate in their mother tongue, communicating by voice memo instead of by text message. But when a crisis hits, internet communication tools will be crucial.

Source: The Widely-Spoken Languages We Still Can’t Translate Online | WIRED

The impact of climate change on language loss

One stressor that may be the tipping point for some communities is climate change. Many small linguistic communities are located on islands and coastlines vulnerable to hurricanes and a rise in sea levels. Other communities are settled on lands where increases in temperature and fluctuations in precipitation can threaten traditional farming and fishing practices.

These changes will force communities to relocate, creating climate change refugees. The resultant dispersal of people will lead to the splintering of linguistic communities and increased contact with other languages. These changes will place additional pressures on languages that are already struggling to survive.

Source: The impact of climate change on language loss

Tracing history with whale earwax

As whales go through their annual cycles of summer binge-eating and winter migrations, the wax in their ears changes from light to dark. These changes manifest as alternating bands, which you can see if you slice through the plugs. Much as with tree rings, you can count the bands to estimate a whale’s age. And you can also analyze them to measure the substances that were coursing through the whale’s body when each band was formed. A whale’s earwax, then, is a chronological chemical biography.

Stephen Trumble and Sascha Usenko from Baylor University have worked out how to read those biographies. And they’ve shown that whale earwax not only reveals the lives of their owners, but the history of the oceans. Hunting, abnormal temperatures, pollutants—it’s all there. If all of humanity’s archives were to disappear, Trumble and Usenko could still reconstruct a pretty decent record of whaling intensity by measuring the stress hormones in the earwax of a few dozen whales.

Source: The Astonishing History Locked in Whale Earwax – The Atlantic

Reclusive islanders kill anyone who tries to come ashore

In the years since India won independence from the British, groups of anthropologists have tried to study them.

But no one has managed to get through. Several times, Mr. Pandit said, the Sentinelese have turned their backs on anthropologists and squatted down, as if they were defecating.

In 2006, two Indian fishermen who accidentally washed up on their shores were killed. When a military chopper flew low over the island, some men fired arrows at it. These days, the Indian authorities aren’t taking any chances. The Navy enforces a 3-mile buffer zone around North Sentinel. But police suspect Mr. Chau went at night with the intention of circumventing the authorities.

It is unknown what the Sentinelese call each other, or whether any other group in the world understands their language. When an expedition brought members of another indigenous tribe to North Sentinel, thinking they might share linguistic similarities, neither side understood one another.

Source: Islanders Who Killed American Have a History of Guarding Their Isolation

A tale of three seafood sandwiches

This is an article about making seafood sandwiches for friends in New England. My main(e?) takeaway isn’t the methods or recipes, though—it’s the frankly bizarre dance of imports and exports that sends locally sourced fish around the world and back again before it reaches consumers:

Next up will be a squid sloppy joe. Squid is another extremely common animal we find off New England’s shores, but it is rarely available fresh in our fish markets. Like herring, it is often used as bait. What we do eat directly comes to us through a truly bizarre transport system that makes my Tennessee-waylaid FedEx delivery seem downright direct. New England squid is typically caught off Massachusetts and Rhode Island, frozen whole, shipped to China, defrosted, cleaned and ringed, refrozen, and sent back to us as a twice-frozen product.

Source: A Tale of Three Seafood Sandwiches | Hakai Magazine

Why brands are friendly on social media

Ian Bogost discusses the style, tone and “methods of engagement” used by #brands to surprise and befriend you, the potentially influential follower.

This resonated strongly with me—I’ve worked in several offices where people really wanted the social channels to talk in Innocent-ese or jump on the back of whatever the John Lewis ad was that year or surprise followers with “random acts of kindness” (which of course were neither random nor kind).

It’s a bit gross, horribly transparent once you start to notice it, and of course it works. So it will continue forever.

Social media has made it easier than ever for companies to connect with people. These new, personal bonds between companies and customers feel uncanny—the brands are not real human friends, exactly, but neither are they faceless corporations anymore. Isn’t that the point, though? Branding’s purpose is to get under your skin, to make you remember an otherwise forgettable company or product. When the surprise wanes, that feels a lot less delightful.

Source: Why Brands Are Friendly on Social Media – The Atlantic

The constraints that shaped grime

It’s interesting to read about how art is created in spite of—or perhaps because of—constraints and limitations. This tale of the tools used to make early grime singles is fascinating:

London’s unique, lickety-split digital version of rap was built by teenagers with little-to-no formal musical training, taking whatever cheap (or free, illegally “cracked” and downloaded) software they had to hand, creating strange, glowing, sci-fi sounds from whatever tools they could find.

Grime’s early-2000s pioneers like JME, Skepta, Wiley, and So Solid Crew broke the mold with none of the synths, samplers, and drum machines that had been vital to hip-hop production, instead doing much of their world-building on basic PC software like FruityLoops Studio. Inevitably, the sound was determined by the technology itself.

One of grime’s only consistent formal attributes is that, like its sibling genre dubstep, it runs at around 140 beats per minute — the consistency is important for DJs to be able to mix records seamlessly. Producer Plastician is not the only one to have observed that FruityLoops’ default tempo is set to 140bpm, which “may have a lot to answer for.”

Source: UK grime couldn’t exist without ringtones, Playstations, and other low-fi tech

The best Mario Kart character according to data science

Here are a couple of sentences I didn’t ever expect to read:

The question for an aspiring Mario Kart champion nowadays is “How can I pick a character / kart / tire combination that is in some sense optimal, even if there isn’t one ‘best’ option?” To answer this question we turn to one of Mario’s compatriots, the nineteenth century Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who introduced the concept of Pareto efficiency and the related Pareto frontier.

Source: The best Mario Kart character according to data science

Brutalist web design guidelines

Don’t tell anyone, but the Brutalist web design guidelines are simply guidelines for intuitive, usable web design:

  • Content is readable on all reasonable screens and devices.
  • Only hyperlinks and buttons respond to clicks.
  • Hyperlinks are underlined and buttons look like buttons.
  • The back button works as expected.
  • View content by scrolling.
  • Decoration when needed and no unrelated content.
  • Performance is a feature.

Source: Brutalist Web Design

The bizarre story of the Seattle mystery vending machine

In the city of Seattle, Washington there exists a vending machine that over the years has become something of a local landmark amongst residents who are familiar with its mysterious history. Situated on the corner the John Street and 10th Avenue East in the bustling Capitol Hill neighbourhood, the seemingly ancient machine is well known for dispensing random, sometimes rare, cans of soda- a fact that’s made all the more intriguing when you consider that nobody seems to know who stocks the machine or where it came from.

Source: The Bizarre Story of the Seattle Mystery Vending Machine

Why I Taught My Son to Speak Russian

One of my downfalls as Raffi’s Russian teacher is that I am bad at scheduling. There are constant Russian parent meetups in Brooklyn that I can’t attend or just don’t care to drag myself to. Nonetheless, a few weekend mornings ago I took Raffi to a kids’ sing-along in a bar in Williamsburg. A Russian parent had booked the space and gotten a singer, Zhenya Lopatnik, to perform some children’s songs. There we were—a bunch of Russian-speaking parents with our two-and-three-year-old kids. Most of us were more comfortable in English than in Russian, and none of us had any wish to repatriate. Why, then, were we doing this? What did we want to pass on to our children, exactly? Certainly nothing about Russia as it is currently constituted. Perhaps it was fitting that we were listening to children’s songs. There was something magical about our childhoods, we were sure of that; what we couldn’t know was whether any of it was due to the music we listened to or the books we read in Russian or to the very sound of the language. Probably none of these things; probably it was just magical to be a child. But as we couldn’t rule out that Russian had something to do with it, we had to give it to our kids as well. Maybe.

A brilliant piece about raising a bilingual child.

Source: Why I Taught My Son to Speak Russian | The New Yorker

Why influencer marketing lacks trust and credibility

It’s one thing for brands to work out that influencer marketing is mostly a scam but quite another to stop investing marketing budgets in it. If we have learned anything over the past decade about digital it’s that evidence of malpractice and fraud has absolutely zero influence on the prevailing levels of investment that a platform subsequently receives.

Keith Weed can ask for as much transparency as he wants; the problem with influencer marketing is axiomatic. Which is a $2,000 way of saying that its fucked from the outset but that this won’t stop brands spending money on it regardless.

Specifically, there are three contiguous, ever-decreasing circles of bullshit surrounding all influencer marketing. Let’s break them down one by one and reveal the fundamental issues that all brands should be aware of before they start paying Mr Sixpack and Ms Perky to start pumping their products.

This is very good. Influencer marketing is gross and I don’t know why anyone can seriously defend it.

Later, an experiment:

I decided that the best option would be to take a picture of my arse (obviously) and ask my 18 newly recruited influencers to post it on their Instagram feeds with a complementary comment. I took the photo (shown above in all its glory) and then pixelated it using a graphics program from 1996. The resulting image was then titled ‘The Colour of Influence’ and I asked my new-found influencer army to proclaim it “amazing” or “my best work ever”.

How many of the influencers would lower themselves to that standard within the 12-hour time limit I set them? How many would refuse the commission and prove themselves trustworthy and credible? Would my bottom become a new social media sensation that would propel me to global arse-driven fame? A Kardashian, if you will, for the marketing industry. In just 12 hours’ time I would find out.

Source: Mark Ritson: Why influencer marketing lacks trust and credibility

The Gambler Who Cracked the Horse-Racing Code

Bill Benter did the impossible: He wrote an algorithm that couldn’t lose at the track. Close to a billion dollars later, he tells his story for the first time.

Source: The Gambler Who Cracked the Horse-Racing Code – Bloomberg

A great in-depth feature on how algorithms, and a lot of automated betting, were used to win on horse racing. Sort of—there’s something of a twist at the end.

The Miranda Grosvenor Obsession

She said she was a beautiful, well-connected blonde named Miranda, and she enchanted an astonishing circle of powerful men—Billy Joel, Paul Schrader, Buck Henry, and Quincy Jones among them—with her flirtatious, gossipy phone calls. But who was the woman behind the voice?

Source: The Miranda Grosvenor Obsession | Vanity Fair

This starts off a bit slow but is very interesting in the end. I’m surprised the various men in the story—all famous, and most were friends with each other—didn’t put two and two together sooner. But that’s the male ego, I suppose.

How advertisers took a mallet to the English language

“In adland, we don’t call it language-mangling, we call it ‘Language DJing’ or ‘Langling’,” jokes Alex Myers, founder of agency Manifest. “In reality it’s just lazy creative work. Copywriting is a lost art. Ad agencies need to ‘Think more good’.”

Eagle-eyed bad-ad fans can quickly notice patterns emerging: “finding” something and it being “amazing” appear with the same clockwork regularity as Love Island contestants on Instagram. See, for instance, Rightmove’s “Find your happy” and Visit Wales’s “Find your epic”. Or Lexus’s “Experience amazing” and Deliveroo’s “Eat more amazing”.

Source: Smart knows that’s not English – how adland took a mallet to the language | Media | The Guardian