Archive:
May 2018

Food: a class issue

Why Jamie Oliver’s stunts like trying to ban two-for-one pizza offers are counter-productive and damaging to the poor.

…there’s a deeper and nasty question here: if we can’t trust the poor to feed themselves properly, what can we trust them to do?…

The problem is capitalism, not the poor.

Some of you might have an inkling as to why the millionaire Jamie Oliver and old Etonian Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall don’t choose this route.

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After the hiccup

Most customer relationships don’t stumble because something went wrong. Your best customers know that mistakes happen.

It’s what happens next that can cripple the relationship.

I would be tempted to agree with Seth Godin here. But it actually reminded me of the recent incident with Ghostery.

Ghostery is a browser plugin that is supposed to protect your privacy online. But on Friday, when attempting to email its users about GDPR, they accidentally leaked the email addresses of hundreds of their users by CCing them into the email — the most basic and facepalm-worthy data breach of all.

I once briefly used Ghostery. But I uninstalled it after I found it kept on crashing my browser.

My response in this case was to find it deeply ironic that Ghostery should fail at the one thing they were meant to do. It’s true “you had one job” stuff, this. So I deleted my Ghostery account entirely.

Perhaps if my prior experience with Ghostery had been more positive, I would have been more lenient.

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This was England ’90

How the Stone Roses story was bastardised by the music media. I’m not a Stone Roses fan, so I don’t recognise this specific account. But you often do get the sense that at least half of what music journalists say about music is… well… made up?

It was around this time that I started to get the first stirrings of a nasty feeling that my past was being sold back to me…. Suspicious accounts were given of the Spike Island concert as some kind of harmonious pilgrimage to a utopian musical bliss, without a single mention of the smell, the dodgy sound system, the deep techno warmup acts, or the gangs of ne’er-do-wells who clearly weren’t there for the music (and, conversely, referring to the venue as a ‘derelict wasteland’ when it had actually been reclaimed as a ‘green space’ several years previously), almost as though they might not actually have been there.

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The problem with professionals

Paul Taylor argues that the professional class will bring about its own demise. He notes that organisations appear to be becoming more, not less, siloed (“whole sectors are still just talking to themselves”). Moreover, this “disconnection” is visible to the general public, who catch glimpses of this behaviour on social media.

A couple of weeks ago I was on holiday flicking through Instagram. By complete chance, the algorithm had placed two photographs directly above each other.

  • Firstly was the imposing black husk of Grenfell Tower – a monument to the dead and ignored.
  • Next to it was a picture from a sector awards ceremony, with a champagne bottle placed in front of some happy smiling ‘professionals’, celebrating how good we are at engaging communities.
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More frequent posting

More on the idea of writing more regularly.

In the Marshmallow Challenge there are two groups of individuals that tend to produce the best results. (Un)surprisingly, structural engineers do well (as you would hope!) but the other highest scoring groups are actually 2nd graders. Yeah, 2nd graders. Not project management teams, or programmers, or MBAs. The reason they were so good is because they didn’t bother wasting time deciding who was going to do what – they just started playing around and building, figuring out what did and didn’t work as they went along. These kids significantly outperformed most adults, other than those who had formal training on how to build things.

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A conversational hierarchy

An attempt to rank ten different types of conversation.

I am always amazed by how much people are willing to divulge on public transport. They list what they’re having for dinner tonight, they explain their aches and pains in detail, or they slag off Jennifer from Accounts. Of course what I forget is that when I’m on the bus with a friend we’re usually having similar conversations, and so engrossed that we never notice those sitting nearby can hear every word.

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Your employees’ user experience should be a strategic priority

Enterprise software is notoriously bad — and that’s bad for business.

A poor user interface sends a message to employees that their time and commitment have little value, and that — just as my engineer colleague believed — the problem is their own fault. Then leaders wonder why their people don’t innovate or embrace change…

There’s a lot of good stuff here, so I had some trouble picking just one thing to highlight. Read on to see why actually watching people try to use your design is vital.

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Good writing and analytics don’t mix

If you want to be a good writer then you can’t worry about the numbers. The stats, the dashboards, the faves, likes, hearts and yes, even the claps, they all lead to madness and, worst of all in my opinion, bad writing.

Recently I have been thinking a bit about what stats trackers I should be running on my blog, particularly in light of GDPR. I currently run three, and I wonder if I should cut this back.

Robin Rendle’s blog post has got me wondering further if it’s just a bad idea to worry about — or even be aware of — how many people are reading.

It’s always tempting to look at the stats. But I also know that the most-viewed posts are not the highest quality ones. So perhaps it’s better to focus on improving something other than the numbers.

See also: Escaping Twitter’s self-consciousness machine, on what happens when you remove all metrics from the Twitter interface.

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Will this three-storey slice of British brutalism be the hit of the Venice Biennale?

On the V&A’s section of Robin Hood Gardens, to be exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

The condition of the structure has made it even harder for the demolition team, who are used to turning up with the wrecking ball and mechanical munching jaws, but were suddenly charged with dismantling part of the building piece by precious piece, with some components over three metres long and weighing more than two tonnes.

“The demolition crew started to see the design in a whole new light,” says V&A curator Olivia Horsfall Turner. “Having thought this was just another concrete monstrosity they were tearing down, their outlook was really transformed.”

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Design Notes podcast, episode 9

During this Google Design podcast interview with Cameron Koczon, I was particularly struck by the section on making design truly meaningful.

You thought that, that was a cool photo to show. You wanted to share the photo, but you didn’t really want to share the photo. You wanted to collect little hearts. That says something about the tool. It’s not a photo sharing tool, it’s a heart collecting tool, which is a little casino that you put in your pocket and you carry it around. It’s no good.

When I stopped posting directly social media last year, I had to stop using Instagram altogether because there is no way to post to it without using Instagram. I thought this would be a problem. Because I liked collecting those little hearts. And I did miss it at first. But now I don’t miss it at all, and I recognise that Instagram was ultimately unfulfilling.

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There are better ways to get around town

A New York Times piece on how New York could take inspiration for European cities to make its streets safer. But these aren’t just lessons for New York. There are lessons for everyone.

Some old-school traffic engineers in America will tell you that many of the Dutch ideas are unsafe. What they mean is that they make streets unsafe for fast driving. In 2016, the Netherlands had 33 traffic deaths for every million people. America had 118 traffic deaths per million.

As cities become ever-more crowded, and with an autonomous revolution about to kick off, now is the time to radically rethink how our streets are designed. The days of cars taking priority have to end, and to encourage active travel — cycling and walking. It will make us all feel better and be safer.

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The national standard kilogram

Diamond Geezer reflects on a visit to see the national standard kilogram, the UK’s copy of the block of metal that officially defines how much a kilogram weighs. Highly interesting and informative — not least because I didn’t realise the definition of a kilogram is about to be updated, making the international prototype redundant.

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Cousin Chris — The Fiery Furnaces

It was a delight to listen to Adam Buxton’s recent podcast interview with Eleanor Friedberger, half of the Fiery Furnaces (with her brother Matthew) and now a solo artist.

The Fiery Furnaces are one of my favourite bands. Their quirky and decidedly different music was actually quite important to me as I struggled my way through university.

Despite that, I’m don’t think I have ever heard an interview with either of the Friedbergers. I don’t often seek out interviews with musicians because (with a few exceptions) it is often disappointing — a topic touched on in the podcast. So I found it quite strange to learn new things about the Fiery Furnaces, whose music I know so well to listen to, but whose story (I have suddenly realised) I don’t know too much about.

This is one of my favourite Fiery Furnaces songs. Unfortunately for some reason the music in this video is really glitchy, but the visuals are awesome.

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I don’t know how to waste time on the internet anymore

I did not know what to type into the address bar of my browser. I stared at the cursor. Eventually, I typed “nytimes.com” and hit enter. Like a freaking dad. The entire world of the internet, one that used to boast so many ways to waste time, and here I was, reading the news.

On the loss of the old culture of the internet, “made for dicking around”.

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The subtle sexism of your open plan office

When the architect responsible for an open plan office that made women feel watched compared it to being on a nudist beach, he undermined himself.

“I think it’s like going to a nudist beach. You know, first you’re a little bit worried that everyone’s looking at you, but then you think, hang on, everybody else is naked, no one’s looking at each other,” he told the researchers. “I think that’s what’ll happen, they’ll get on with it.”

The only problem is that sociological research of nudist beaches has shown that people do continue to watch each other–“men in particular, often in groups, look obsessively at women,” the researchers write. This kind of all-glass, no-privacy environment leads to a subtle kind of sexism, where women are always being watched and thus judged on their appearances, causing anxiety for many employees.

See also: What makes the perfect office?

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Hand-coded digital artwork “Francine” is skewing your online reality

I never used to see the point in stunts like “I created Bart Simpson in pure HTML and CSS, look at me!” But I have to admit that the work of Diana Smith is seriously cool.

It is all the more awesome when you consider how viewing it on older browsers turns the work into wonderful, glitchy, accidental versions that look like they were inspired by De Stijl.

This is like a modern version of the Acid tests. I remember showing examples of the Acid II test during presentations some years ago to explain how different browsers could interpret the same code differently. But I think this example gets it across so much better.

It’s also a warning not to build our webpages for Chrome only.

In a cultural moment where reality distortion is rampant, and it’s hard to get a consistent version of facts from person to person, it’s critical to understand that something as basic as a browser update, or switching from one browser to another, can drastically change the way we perceive information.

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Google Duplex is not creepy

Further to my point yesterday about why I don’t agree that Google’s new AI-powered phone calling technology is creepy.

…we live in a world where most restaurants and shops can only really be dealt with by phone – which is very convenient and nice, but (to varying degrees) it doesn’t work for deaf people, introverts, anyone with a speech impediment or social anxiety, or people from Glasgow. Those people have every right to a nice dinner and this makes it possible – or at least much easier.

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Lots of people think Google’s new AI-powered phone calls are creepy. I don’t quite follow this. Big companies have been making normal people speak to robots for decades. This isn’t a new concept. The difference is that this gives ordinary people the opportunity to do to big companies what big companies have been doing to them all along.

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Ethics can’t be a side hustle

Why ethical design starts with you.

How is ethics in design (or tech) even debatable? Can you imagine any other industry debating whether they needed to consider ethics? Can you imagine doctors debating whether ethics are important? Actually, they do. They debate ethics every day. But they’re far beyond debating whether they’re important, and on to deliberating the more interesting fine points. Where, honestly, is where we need to be if we’re writing software for self-driving cars and smart vibrators.

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How F1 has changed – for better and worse – in my 300 races

I really enjoyed this look back by veteran F1 journalist Dieter Rencken, who has been covering the sport since 1997.

I was particularly struck by his observations on how the costs of running a team have evolved over that time.

[In 1997] No fewer than seven [engine manufacturers] – Ferrari, Ford, Hart, Mercedes, Mugen, Renault and Yamaha – were represented, with engines then typically costing up to $40m for a season supply. Against that, budgets peaked at around $80m, so engines accounted for 50 per cent of spend.

2018 budgets run to $300m (plus), with engines pegged at around $25m, yet team bosses complain the power units are too expensive… while kicking against budget caps!

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The societal benefits of smart speakers

There is a tendency to focus on the negative aspects of new technologies, and smart speakers are no different. This article focuses on the benefits that smart speakers are bringing to society.

We don’t always think of these type of use cases when we’re designing. Creators of a home assistant robot were surprised when their first real user, a quadriplegic man, immediately asked the robot to fetch a towel to wipe his mouth. It was certainly not the top capability the creators of the helper robot had designed it for, but sometimes these automated devices give us something we don’t always think enough about: our dignity.

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Do academic disciplines engage society?

An idea for how academia can make itself more relevant and accessible:

[I]t has been my view that universities should present their ‘shop windows’ in a more thematic way, with less of an emphasis on traditional Faculty structures (law, economics, physics, engineering, and so forth), and more on issues of general public and social concern. This will be easier if we do not construct all academic argument around the single subjects in which we were once trained.

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The Facebook current

The Senate hearing into Facebook has come to be seen as a bit of a sideshow, partly because the questioning was so inadequate. But this article outlines why it was a bigger deal than it might seem at first glance.

[T]here was a significant amount of agreement amongst the Senators… that something needed to be done about Facebook. Forget the specifics, for a paragraph, because this is a notable development: while these hearings usually devolve into partisan cliches with the same talking points — Democrats want regulations, and Republicans don’t — yesterday Senators from both sides of the aisle expressed unease with Facebook’s handling of private data; obviously Democrats tried to tie the issue to the last election, but that made the Republicans’ shared concern all-the-more striking.

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The gardens where ideas grow

We tend to think of musicians as architects, who fully control the sound they compose. But here, Austin Kleon outlines how it is in fact more like gardening. Top musicians like Prince, Ralf Hütter and Brian Eno appear to subscribe to this approach.

Brian Eno says:

One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life. And that life isn’t necessarily exactly what you’d envisaged for them.

The analogy certainly works well with Brian Eno’s generative music. I remember a radio interview where he described being the opposite of a control freak — a surrender freak. (This is the only reference I can find to it.)

It also reminds me of how Autechre appear to make music. In an Ask Autechre Anything session on WATMM in 2013, one person asked:

I would like you to tell me how you feel about “see on see”.

Sean Booth replied: “surprised”.

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Design navigation for clarity and fidelity

There is nothing worse than a vague, meaningless link. Well, there is. It’s a link that promises much more than it can deliver. I call that sort of link a dirty magnet.

Left out of Gerry McGovern’s list of dirty magnets is my personal favourite — Further information.

Think about it. Everything on a website is further information (at least, it should be). There is nothing more useless or uninformative than a page called Further information.

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The media vs tech battle that nobody can win

Yet again, Thomas Baekdal has a genuinely informative and enlightening take on the turf war the media is trying to wage against tech companies.

Essentially, traditional media and technology are trying to solve a similar problem — but from different directions.

We accept that newspapers can’t cover everything in exchange for a demand for higher quality reporting for the things they do pick. And we accept that, on channels such as YouTube, we will always be able to find the occasional piece of bad content, in exchange for the flexibility and the wealth of things that we can see.

It strikes me that we need to have both. We already knew that good journalism and high-quality media products will always exist. But they need to focus on making those high-quality products rather than constantly reacting in counter-productive ways to the perceived threat of technological change.

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WhatsApp founder plans to leave after broad clashes with parent Facebook

Jan Koum, the co-founder of WhatsApp, is leaving. Apparently, he clashed with Facebook over how they use WhatsApp users’ personal data.

This comes just months after the other co-founder of WhatsApp, Brian Acton, left — and endorsed the #DeleteFacebook hashtag.

[E]ven in the early days, there were signs of a mismatch… Koum and Acton were openly disparaging of the targeted advertising model…

The WhatsApp co-founders were also big believers in privacy. They took pains to collect as little data as possible from their users, requiring only phone numbers and putting them at odds with data-hungry Facebook.

All of which gets me wondering, why did they even sell up to Facebook in the first place? 🤔

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Formula 1 has trademarked Daniel Ricciardo’s shoey

This seems like a bit of a dick move from Formula 1.

It doesn’t mean F1 is going to go about suing Australian drivers from other categories indulging in sock juice, but it does mean that anyone selling Shoey-themed drinking vessels could be slapped with a strongly-worded ‘stop-what-you’re-doing-or-else’ letter from Liberty Media.

…But when Ricciardo retires, or races in a different category, won’t it seem absurd that the celebration he made famous is trademarked by Formula 1? And not Ricciardo, nor even the Mad Hueys who originally came up with it?

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The guide to getting into Autechre

That question when someone is trying to get into a band — “Where should I start?” — is perhaps especially difficult to answer in the case of Autechre. Their music is unique and uncompromising. You almost need to learn to read Autechre, because it is sonic world lives by itself. It is difficult to relate it to anything else.

That situation escalates when the artist has 13 albums over 25 years under their belt, the latest of which is eight hours long.

This article makes a good attempt at introducing Autechre to the uninitiated, by splitting their music into different types: club-friendly, austere, strangely beautiful, melting computer, endurance test.

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