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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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The Facebook algorithm mom problem

An excellent description of one of the reasons I developed a distaste for Facebook for.

I write my content on my own personal site. I automatically syndicate it to Facebook. My mom, who seems to be on Facebook 24/7, immediately clicks “like” on the post. The Facebook algorithm immediately thinks that because my mom liked it, it must be a family related piece of content…

The algorithm narrows the presentation of the content down to very close family. Then my mom’s sister sees it and clicks “like” moments later. Now Facebook’s algorithm has created a self-fulfilling prophesy and further narrows the audience of my post. As a result, my post gets no further exposure on Facebook…

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Support the DCA Cinema

Apparently there are plans afoot to build a multiplex cinema behind Groucho’s in Dundee. While there might be a case to build a cinema in central Dundee, it would be perverse to position it literally in the back yard of the DCA, a pivotal venue of Dundee’s creative scene.

I have written before about a certain contingent in Dundee that would rather not have the DCA Cinema, on the basis that a mainstream cinema would magically sprout up in its place.

I personally think that having a cultural hub that commits to showing independent films is much more valuable to Dundee than a cookie-cutter multiplex that you can find in any town.

A drop-in consultation on the proposed new multiplex is taking place on Tuesday 1 May at the Malmaison, from 3pm to 7pm.

As Creative Dundee summarises it:

…A multiplex so close to the DCA cinema would negatively impact its revenue, ability to show these films and still be around… This is the type of space that is needed in Dundee at the moment.

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Bill Grundy Looks at Aylesbury (1972)

I love pretty much everything about this.

Bill Grundy is notorious now for goading the Sex Pistols into swearing on prime time ITV. But before that, he found himself in Aylesbury for unclear reasons. He was none too impressed with its recent brutalist redevelopment, and his curmudgeonly commentary is highly entertaining.

His villain is Fred Pooley, Aylesbury’s planner, the man who invented the imaginary Buckinghamshire monorail town in the sixties, which actually became the motorway town of Milton Keynes in the 70s. Pooley was brilliantly talented. Grundy dismisses him as ‘smug’ – not that we ever get to find out, as he makes no effort to interview him. And so, rather it’s Bill Grundy who comes across as smug instead, drinking beer from a tankard and opining about fibreglass ducks and the ills of modern life, while undoubtedly being a major beneficiary of the improved communications and technology of the day in his work as a TV presenter.

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The Rip — Portishead

They say a song is like a fart — if you have to force it out, it’s probably shit. So when a band leaves a gap of 11 years between albums, it means one of two things:

  • Option 1 — They have been enduring the worst form of musical constipation, and the album will be shit.
  • Option 2 — They have taken their time, let it come to them, and the album will be excellent.

When Portishead’s Third came out, there wasn’t much indication that option 2 would be on the table. In the words of Armando Iannucci, the second album by Portishead had nothing new to say.

Portishead were pioneers of trip-hop, but by 2008 it had become a cliched genre.

But Portishead avoided all those traps with their third album, which is actually probably their best. It conspicuously avoided the now-cheesy trip-hop tropes. It was a new sound, but still unmistakably Portishead.

The album was released 10 years ago today. There is no indication of when their fourth album will arrive. But we are still ahead of schedule by Portishead’s standards.

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How can we incentivise the digital world to make safer services?

How regulation came to be in railways, engineering and cars — and what this tells us about how digital services may be regulated.

Trigger points for regulation have varied depending on the field, the period of history and the country. However, the thing all these triggers have in common is a change in attitudes. People need to demand change to incentivize companies to make their products and services safer.

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Conversational solitude

On the Tuesday morning after Easter I waved goodbye to my brother and nephew at Norwich station and wandered off to catch a train back to London. Last night I walked over to BestMate’s in Plaistow and we had dinner and watched telly. Inbetween, I met and spoke to absolutely nobody I know. That’s 15 days, 9 hours and 12 minutes of conversational solitude. And I coped fine.

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Google AMP for Email: What it is and why it’s a bad idea

I have been following the controversy around AMP fairly closely. A lot of people whose opinions I respect are against AMP generally, although I still cautiously think AMP is generally a good thing. At least, it is in my view clearly better than Facebook Instant Articles.

So if AMP is Google’s response to Facebook, I am in favour of it. Facebook’s interest is clearly to keep people in the Facebook ecosystem. AMP may give Google some a bit of control over content, but it still keeps it fundamentally of the web. At least you don’t have to use Google to use AMP.

However, AMP for Email seems far more obviously bad. Not least because, as this article points out, it appears to be a solution looking for a problem.

There may be cause to be wary of Google’s intentions after all.

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Was there a civilisation on Earth before humans?

This is mind-blowing.

Perhaps, for example, some early mammal rose briefly to civilization building during the Paleocene epoch about 60 million years ago. There are fossils, of course. But the fraction of life that gets fossilized is always minuscule and varies a lot depending on time and habitat. It would be easy, therefore, to miss an industrial civilization that only lasted 100,000 years—which would be 500 times longer than our industrial civilization has made it so far.

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Dear developer, the web isn’t about you

A call to stop the madness and focus on making the web a better platform for people, and not the technologist’s playground it’s becoming. It’s lengthy, but well worth it.

There is so much good stuff here, but I particularly enjoyed this section on the obsession with JavaScript.

Instead of HTML being generated on, and delivered from, the server, a JS bundle is sent to the client, which is then decompressed and initialised and then requests data, which is then sent from the server (or another server, as now everything is a service) as JSON, where it is then converted on the fly into HTML.

Permit an old lady to rant here…

Because to me, this is rather akin to building a Boeing 747 to commute to work.

🙌

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Boards of Canada ‘Music Has the Right to Children’ turns 20

More on the 20th anniversary of Music Has the Right to Children.

The music imprints ideas in your head, subliminally or through uncanny association: opener “Wildlife Analysis” sounds like an old TV ident left to wander into the woods, the treated, wobbly synth harmonies of “Olson” could’ve come from a half-remembered Stevie Wonder or Gary Wright song heard as background music during some family car ride, and “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” sinks its minimalist, graceful melody in so deep through repetition that the realization you can hear indistinct voices in the background is almost startling. There’s something deeper in the music than just music…

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An Eagle in Your Mind — Boards of Canada

Music Has the Right to Children (cover detail)

It is 20 years to the day since Boards of Canada released Music Has the Right to Children.

Seminal is a word that is bandied around easily when talking about music. But it may be genuinely applicable in this case. Simon Reynolds in Pitchfork notes how the album seemed to kick-start a transformation in electronic music.

Before this point, electronic music was unashamedly futuristic. Boards of Canada set the template for a nostalgic yet dark genre known as hauntology, since explored further by the Ghost Box label among others.

The album’s cover, featuring a weathered, decades-old family photograph with each person’s facial features redacted, sets the scene. Following a short introductory track, Music Has the Right to Children introduces the listener to the Boards of Canada sound in uncompromising fashion, with An Eagle in Your Mind.

A wistful drone slowly evolves into a darker, brooding melody. Crunchy, syncopated beats and glitching speech samples then take precedence, while narration from a nature documentary subliminally slips beneath. Things get psychedelic, before an unpredictable abstract hip-hop vibe takes over. A childlike melody discordantly tinkles on top, hammering home the sense that something has gone horribly wrong.

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Design flaws in electronic health records can harm patients, study finds

We know that poor usability can lead to disastrous consequences. Think to the recent case of the accidental missile alert in Hawaii.

This is a more rigorous, academic investigation into the negative consequences of poor usability in electronic health records. The study even suggests that bad usability may have caused deaths.

Some 557 (0.03 percent) reports had “language explicitly suggesting EHR usability contributed to possible patient harm,” and among those, 80 caused temporary harm, seven may have caused permanent harm and two may have been fatal.

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MySpace Tom beat Facebook in the long run

“Wouldn’t you rather be a rich nobody than whatever Mark Zuckerberg is?”

I love this perspective. Tom from MySpace may have been a bit of a laughing stock for a while. But you have to say, he must be feeling a bit better than Mark Zuckerberg is right now.

It puts MySpace’s failure to evolve in a new light, as perhaps the healthy thing is for a platform to die and for everyone to move on.

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