Future historians probably won’t understand our internet, and that’s OK

The internet once promised to offer archivists an unprecedented opportunity to record and track our era. But with social media silos offering “pervasive, unique, personalized, non-repeatable” experiences, it is proving increasingly difficult to preserve our internet.

Every major social-networking service uses opaque algorithms to shape what data people see. Why does Facebook show you this story and not that one? No one knows, possibly not even the company’s engineers. Outsiders know basically nothing about the specific choices these algorithms make. Journalists and scholars have built up some inferences about the general features of these systems, but our understanding is severely limited. So, even if the LOC has the database of tweets, they still wouldn’t have Twitter.

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Google Maps’s moat

A brilliant analysis of recent improvements to Google Maps, and why Google is so far ahead of Apple.

Just two years after it started adding them, Google already had the majority of buildings in the US. And now after five years, it has my rural hometown — an area it still hasn’t Street View’d (after 10+ years of Street View).


Sticks in the ground for public services

You know I love a bit of brutalism. Well here, Ben Holliday draws a comparison between civic architecture of the mid-20th century, and modern-day digital local services.

Many of these buildings are now disused or in different states of disrepair. It’s an important reminder. The fact is, no matter how bold you set out to be. No matter how big or successfully your original statement of intent, eventually the roof will start to leak.

Buildings, just like ideas, need maintenance. They fall into disrepair over time.

I have written a few times before about the parallels I see between architecture and digital services. It’s well worth learning the lessons from the past and applying them to our own projects.


Talking to Léonie Watson about computer vision and blindness

Peter Gasston interviewed Léonie Watson, an accessibility consultant who is blind. In this extract, they discuss computer vision — technologies that can extract information from photos and videos using machine learning. It sounds like massively promising technology.

I was sitting in a hotel having breakfast not long ago and just held up my phone and took a quick snapshot and it told me I was sitting opposite a window, and told me what it could see out the window; and that’s just information I would never have had unless I’d happened to sort of ask whoever I was with to describe it to me. But having that ability to just do that independently is really quite remarkable.


Dave Gorman: Goodish bye

Dave Gorman has explained why he has decided to finish making his TV programme, Modern Life is Goodish.

With this TV show, Dave Gorman was churning out several hours of new comedy a year, and immediately burning it by televising it. Most comedians only produce one solid new hour a year, and tour it heavily before it goes anywhere near TV.

Only recently I was wondering how on earth he was achieving it. It seems we now have an answer: not very easily or healthily.

Hats off to Dave Gorman for his monumental achievement. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.


I told Alex once that I liked those weird items of matcha confectionary you get at the Chinese supermarket. Now I have all this, including a suspicious item called ‘Collon’.


Happy Christmas. I am planning on doing as little as possible over this break. Alex and I will be spending a few days in Fife before returning to Edinburgh. Enjoy your holiday!


Britain grows increasingly hostile to EU citizens

A German perspective on what’s going on in Britain right now.

Whenever Agnieszka Pasieczna opens the curtains of her children’s bedroom, she finds herself facing four electronic eyes staring at her. The cameras, each around the size of a fist, are mounted on a gray wall around eight meters away, like silent witnesses for the prosecution. “I see you, I see everything,” her English neighbor once shouted over at her. Since then Agnieszka has kept her curtains closed even during the day.


Facebook’s algorithm hijacked this $8 billion company to sell cat blindfolds

Online retailer Wish was developing a cult following for its incredibly bizarre Facebook ads. Among the products displayed to users: cat blindfolds, cocaine sweatshirts and “plastic tongue things”.

It’s yet another unforseen consequence of algorithms driving everything, and yet another indication that companies desperately need to stop giving so much weight to clicks alone.


This changes everything: Gutenberg is good now

I have only been keeping half an eye on the controversy surrounding the project to re-work the WordPress post editing experience, Gutenberg. Early versions of the new design were widely panned by the WordPress community. But according to this article, Gutenberg has turned a corner.

Having been a WordPress user since 2004, I am probably not the target audience for the change, and nor are most of the people complaining. WordPress’s challenge is to reach the people who are currently looking to Squarespace or Wix.

Given that WordPress powers 28% of all websites, I’m interested to find out how such a fundamental change is going to be communicated to its huge number of users.


I made my shed the top rated restaurant on TripAdvisor

Brilliantly entertaining article by someone who managed to game TripAdvisor into ranking his fake establishment as the number one restaurant in London.

When he staged a deliberately-awful opening night, some of the patrons asked to come again.

The Shed at Dulwich has suddenly become appealing. How?

I realise what it is: the appointments, lack of address and general exclusivity of this place is so alluring that people can’t see sense.


How the sandwich consumed Britain

An absolutely fascinating long read about sandwiches. It finds dozens of angles on the topic, and they all prove to be fascinating.

I hadn’t realised that packaged sandwiches were such a recent invention. This article outlines the way M&S’s innovation has transformed people’s behaviour and expectations.

[M&S sandwich boss Richard Whiteside] confronted the lunchtime queue in Boots and asked people why they weren’t coming to his store. “They said: ‘Well, I am not crossing the road’,” he recalled.

I still treat buying a sandwich as a bit of a luxury. I make sandwiches for me and Alex the night before work, thinking of the money it’s saving.


The media perspective on burger emoji: An unexpected analysis

The burger emoji: A first-hand analysis of the media coverage

Media analyst Thomas Baekdal unexpectedly went viral last month when he tweeted about the inconsistencies between the burger emojis for Apple and Google. He has published two articles about it. The first examines why his tweet went viral. The second investigates how the media reacted.

The analysis paints a rather negative picture of the media.

…look at the very familiar pattern of the stories posted by the media. They are all focusing on Google’s CEO saying he will do something.

Think about all the other stories that journalists cover on a regular basis. How many of those have the same inherent problem of being antagonistically focused, with a scandal-first lens regardless if the underlying topic is politics, business, or general human interest?

For what it’s worth, of course the cheese should be on top.

(I have written before about ambiguous emojis.)


Designers, it’s time to move slowly and fix things

Another reflection on how the culture of tech and design probably needs to change, this time from Basecamp product designer Jonas Downey.

Designers and programmers are great at inventing software… Unfortunately we’re not nearly as obsessed with what happens after that, when people integrate our products into the real world. They use our stuff and it takes on a life of its own. Then we move on to making the next thing. We’re builders, not sociologists.


John Bult: Julie’s Sixteenth Birthday

The story of one of the worst record covers of all time.

“During the photo shoot, Ted kept telling her to look serious, like her dad is talking to her,” Bult said. “But she just kept looking sad to me.”

When the final album was pressed, and Bult saw the finished product, he was livid.


The most popular strategies companies use to save money also kill innovation

An interesting take on business process improvements such as Lean and Six Sigma. It suggests that while such process improvements improve reliability, they also make innovation plummet. Moreover, the effects are difficult to spot because they take so long to emerge.

Innovation requires different ways of doing things, and this is exactly what this system ends. But they don’t tell you that in the ISO9000 handbook, do they?


The worst car I ever drove — Lapped dog

What happens when you get your dream drive in Formula 1 — only for it to become a nightmare. Julian Bailey on the Tyrrell 017.

I climbed in and they fired it up. Just as they did that the right hand mirror fell off..

From the archives of Motor Sport Magazine, this article is from 1999, but still an entertaining read.


Woman reports rape to police — and is arrested on immigration charges

The woman, who was five months pregnant at the time of her arrest, attended a London police station in March to report that she had been kidnapped and raped in Germany between September 2016 and March 2017.

Officers took her to the Havens sexual assault centre, which provides care for women who have been sexually assaulted.

But while there, she was suddenly arrested and taken into custody at an east London police station. She was then interrogated over her immigration status.

This country needs to end its obsession with immigration. There comes a point when you need to treat people as humans. I think treating a rape victim as a criminal is way beyond that point.


Wealth inequality is even worse in reputation economies

Cory Doctorow on how reputation economies (like the rating system satirised in the Black Mirror episode Nosedive) have a series of undesirable effects.

…reputation is useless as a hedge against the real nightmare of a setup like Ebay: the long con. It doesn’t cost much, nor does it take much work, to build up sleeper identities on Ebay, fake storefronts that sell un­remarkable goods at reasonable prices, earning A+++ GREAT SELLER tickmarks, even for years, until one day, that account lists a bunch of high-value items on the service, pockets the buyers’ funds, and walks off.

Reputation works badly and fails badly – it’s a lose-lose situation all around.


When alumni interviewers screw up, things get weird

The perils of using alumni to reach out to prospective students.

This article mainly pertains to examples found in the US. I am not sure how common this technique is in the UK.

There is a tricky balance to be struck between two of universities’ main sources of income. On the one hand there is the need to keep alumni engaged, which is thought to make them more likely to donate. But if it turns off students — particularly the right kind of students — the long-term risks could be greater.

Although highly selective colleges have become racially and socioeconomically diverse, alumni interviewers tend to be white and affluent. That can lead to awkward moments, said Ari Worthman, director of college counseling at Lakeside School, in Seattle. He recalled a low-income student who sat down with the graduate of a big-name college a couple of years ago. I’m so glad you’re looking at our school, the applicant was told, because we don’t normally interview students like you.


Making good decisions as a product manager

While this article was originally aimed at product managers, the author concedes that it is relevant to any role.

Essentially, it argues that the key to good decision-making is not just understanding what the correct decision would be, but also how quickly you should make each decision. In other words, you need to know which decisions to agonise over, and which to make quickly.

You can be right 99% of the time, but if you’re wrong the 1% of times when it really matters, you’re not an effective decision maker. The takeaway is that when the stakes are high, you should work a lot harder at making the right decision.


Twice this year I have been sent customer feedback surveys before I have even received the items, because they were delayed so badly. Arse, meet elbow.

If you’re interested, the guilty parties are Specsavers (my glasses took 6 weeks to arrive) and Currys PC World (I’m still waiting on my new Chromebook).


Ashamed to work in Silicon Valley: how techies became the new bankers

It definitely feels like there has been a sea-change in people’s perceptions about Silicon Valley in the past year or so. This article goes some way to explaining why.

MBA jerks used to go and work for Wall Street, now wealthy white geeks go to Stanford and then waltz into a VC or tech firm…

The focus of Silicon Valley used to be innovation with the wonderful bonus of money on the side of that, but those two things seem to have switched – just as the pencil-pushing mentality of finance in the 70s became the champagne lifestyle in the 2000s.


Secrets from the BBC newsroom

A delicious article by Robin Lustig. It recounts the time BBC Radio 4 newsreader Neil Sleat met “the ultimate challenge to his professional skills” with relish. His task? To pronounce the name Janice Keihanaikukauakahihuliheekahaunaele.


Hooked and booked

Following on from an article I linked to a few weeks ago about the dark patterns used by to pressurise its users into making decisions, Jeremy Keith follows up with this reflection on why A/B testing used badly makes things worse.

A/B testing is a great way of finding out what happens when you introduce a change. But it can’t tell you why.

Part of this is also about a narrow focus on the wrong metrics. If a business decides it simply wants to increase the percentage of people hitting a partiuclar call to action on a webpage, this is the path they will end up on.

If, however, they can find a more sophisticated way to measure long-term customer satisfaction, surely users will feel less stressed, and the business will improve more in the long run.


RSS: there’s nothing better

This article summarises why social media services like Facebook and Twitter are a totally inadequate way of receiving updates from blogs and other websites. We had the perfect system all along: RSS.

Yes, the technology is dated, but it remains the best at what it does and isn’t closed source or tied to some Silicon Valley company. It still works, is widely supported and does what it does better than any alternative that’s come out since. Sometimes, newer isn’t better. Sometimes the problem has already been solved. No blog or news website should be too new or too minimal to support RSS.


Nick Clegg meets Richard Thaler: ‘All it would take to stop Brexit is a couple of dozen brave Tories’

The Guardian set Nick Clegg up for a Skype interview with Richard Thaler, who has recently been awarded the Nobel economics prize.

Thaler was a big influence on the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition and it is clear from this interview that Thaler and Clegg admire each other somewhat.

At times the interview may come across to some as typical smug metropolitan centrist dadism, with the pair shaking their heads at how stupid everyone else is being. But when you read Nick Clegg’s anecdote about speaking to a voter in Chesterfield, you understand why he feels that way.

I remember speaking to a guy leaning on the fence outside his house and saying: “Any chance you’ll vote for the Liberal Democrats?” And he said: “No way.” And I said: “Why not?” And he said: “Because of all these asylum seekers.” And I knew for a fact that not a single asylum seeker had been dispersed to Chesterfield. So I said to him: “Oh, have you seen these asylum seekers in the supermarket or the GP’s surgery?” And he said something to me that has remained with me ever since. He said: “No, I haven’t seen any of them, but I know they’re everywhere.”

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The improbable origins of PowerPoint

A history of PowerPoint, a piece of software that has taken over office life more than any other.

Many of us rely on it. But on the downside, PowerPoint persuades pencil pushers that they are designers. The result is that highly-paid people end up spending hours on end mucking about with fonts.


Faux grid tracks

Now that we have CSS grid, people apparently want to know how to style the divisions between the rows and the columns. Here, Eric Meyer explains one way to do it.

At this stage, I can’t help feeling that no matter how many features get added to CSS, it always results in more gnarly hacks.