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In praise of mediocrity

Tim Wu wonders why some people say they don’t have any hobbies.

Yes, I know: We are all so very busy. Between work and family and social obligations, where are we supposed to find the time?

But there’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time.

It’s a fascinating point, although I’m not sure what I think of it yet. I don’t derive much enjoyment out of being bad at something. Why would I pursue it?

If anything, I probably think the opposite to Tim Wu. There are many people out there struggling away at hobbies, perhaps dreaming big, only to be ultimately frustrated. These people might be better off quitting.

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Re-live the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix

Today it is ten years since the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, the most extraordinary championship decider since I started watching Formula 1 in the mid-1990s. Formula 1 have made the full race available on YouTube today.

The race was gripping. The Ferrari team believed they’d won the championship as Felipe Massa crossed the finish line to take race victory in front of his home crowd. Soon after, two corners further back, Lewis Hamilton made a vital pass for 5th, to clinch his first title.

But it’s the post-race events that live strongly in my memory. That year, ITV streamed F1 sessions online. There you could continue watching the raw FOM world feed after ITV’s transmission had finished. This was a novelty, before the days of the BBC’s extended Red Button forum, or the umpteen-hour-long post-race breakdown we now get as routine on Sky.

Felipe Massa’s dignity in defeat was deeply impressive. His conflicted face as the Brazilian national anthem played out on the podium said it all.

Despair at having lost his best chance to become champion. Pride at having done the best job he could.

Up to that year, Massa was a bit of a joke driver. Not since then.

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An Electric Storm cover

The Visitation — White Noise

White Noise was formed by David Vorhaus, Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. The latter two were pioneers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the facilities of which were covertly used for a couple of the tracks on their album An Electric Storm.

(For the uninitiated, Delia Derbyshire is best known for the original realisation of the Doctor Who theme tune, among many other revolutionary electronic compositions. Brian Hodgson made many sound effects for Doctor Who, including the sound of the Tardis.)

An Electric Storm was released in 1969. It somehow sounds both mind-bogglingly ahead of its time, while also being distinctly of its time.

White Noise didn’t have a studio, so they had to develop their own makeshift equipment by connecting tape machines together with basic electronics. An Electric Storm was made before Robert Moog developed his modular synthesiser.

Synthesisers were about to democratise the creation of electronic music. But they also made it less of a craft. Painstaking effort and skill were required for the tape manipulation techniques that created the otherworldly sounds pioneered by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and their peers. It became a lost art.

According to the liner notes on the 2007 CD reissue of An Electric Storm that I own, David Vorhaus was originally intent on releasing a single. The head of Island Records told him to make an album instead, giving him the £3,000 he said a hit single would be worth.

This track, The Visitation, took three months to complete alone. When Island Records enquired as to the whereabouts of the album they had paid for, White Noise were forced to complete it overnight by improvising drums over tape loops and other noises. Even that track sounds almost unbelievably ahead of its time.

But upon release, the album sold just 200 copies. The world wasn’t ready for electronic music. But An Electric Storm is the definition of a cult slow burner. And it was highly influential on the more commercially successful electronic musicians of the 1970s and onwards. Not that many of them pressed ahead with the tape manipulation techniques.

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Lottery math is human math

It’s irrational to buy a lottery ticket. And yet, millions do, even more when the prize is huge.

As economists will point out, people don’t buy a lottery ticket for an x% chance of winning millions. They buy a lottery ticket for to dream of winning millions.

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The BBC Domesday Project

A fascinating long article on the BBC Domesday Project from 1986. This huge project celebrated the 900th anniversary of the Domesday book, with an ambitious modern-day take on documenting all of Britain.

The technology was so unique that became obsolete almost immediately. It required a special LaserDisc player connected to a BBC Master computer with a special controller. The price tag put it out of reach of almost everyone, even schools and libraries.

It’s a prime example of the challenges of digital preservation.

Moreover, copyright issues — as well as the sheer volume of content — have raised questions over whether some the content could ever be used again. It is certainly difficult to replicate the original experience (although a few YouTube videos give a flavour).

This article goes into some of the thinking behind the technology decisions, and makes a valiant case that the Domesday Project is not a failure, as some like to think of it.

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The FAQ as advice column

FAQ sections are derided by most content designers, myself included. But (as usual) it is not necessarily the format itself that’s the problem. Normally, the real problem is bad implementation.

This piece by Caroline Roberts makes a provocative case in favour of FAQs, by comparing them with advice columns.

The FAQ structure has held up for so long because it is a brilliant pattern. Think the Socratic method. Or the catechism. Or Usenet. Or “FAQs about FAQs.” Or — you guessed it — “Dear Prudence,” “Dear Sugar,” or any other popular advice column. Users will always have questions, and they will always want answers.

What makes FAQs troublesome is incorrect or lazy use. Lisa Wright has already shared what not to do, but perhaps the best way to start an FAQ is to choose each question with great care. For example, advice columnists spend plenty of time selecting what questions they will answer each week.

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The Apple Podcasts Chart is screwed. How should we replace it?

This article by James Cridland lays bare just how widespread the gaming of Apple’s podcasts chart is.

I have heard presenters pleading with their listeners to unsubscribe, then resubscribe to help improve their position in the chart. Apparently it works.

What I don’t understand is why Apple let this happen? I’m sure it’s not an easy problem to fix. But it surely can’t be as hard as penalising dodgy SEO tactics or email spam filters. What’s in it for Apple?

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Whatever happened to Adur Liberals?

Jonathan Calder considers the decline of the Liberal Democrats in Adur:

Checking the relevant page on Wikipedia I find that, remarkably, the Alliance and then the Liberal Democrats had uninterrupted control of Adur between 1980 and 1999.

But something went terribly wrong after that. Today there are no Lib Dem councillors on Adur and a council by-election there this evening has no Lib Dem candidate.

He suggests that churn happens to areas as well as individual voters.

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Robert Peston: BBC not impartial during EU referendum campaign

I do think that they went through a period of just not being confident enough. Impartial journalism is not giving equal airtime to two people one of whom says the world is flat and the other one says the world is round. That is not balanced, impartial journalism.

It is often said (including by me) that if you are accusing the BBC of bias, it is probably because you are losing the argument.

But Robert Peston is not the first to make this point, that the BBC is giving equal platforms to viewpoints with very unequal merits.

It’s getting difficult to disagree that this is currently a major problem for the BBC. It is particularly acute on particular programmes, such as the Today programme, which is more interested in generating heat than light.

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Google is undermining one big reason why people flocked to Gmail in the first place

Jordan Novet wonders why Google hasn’t updated storage limits for years.

One reason [Gmail] was revolutionary was its gigabyte of free storage space — the idea being that you wouldn’t have to constantly be deleting email in order to keep things going.

But today, I’m in a jam. I’ve run out of space across Gmail, the Google Drive storage service and the Google Photos app.

It’s a problem I felt, until I started compressing photos in Google Photos (and I haven’t genuinely noticed a downside of compressing them).

Once upon a time it felt like storage would never be an issue. Charles Arthur noted that perhaps the world is running out of storage. “Wouldn’t that be a thing? No room left on the internet.”

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Security design: Stop trying to fix the user

On the tendency of security approaches to rely on somehow educating users on this complex problem.

I’ve read dozens of studies about how to get people to pay attention to security warnings. We can tweak their wording, highlight them in red, and jiggle them on the screen, but nothing works because users know the warnings are invariably meaningless. They don’t see “the certificate has expired; are you sure you want to go to this webpage?” They see, “I’m an annoying message preventing you from reading a webpage. Click here to get rid of me.”…

We must stop trying to fix the user to achieve security. We’ll never get there, and research toward those goals just obscures the real problems. Usable security does not mean “getting people to do what we want.” It means creating security that works, given (or despite) what people do.

The same could be said for usability of any kind — but it seems especially vital in this case.

Via Khürt Williams.

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“He cheated!” How Pérez mugged Grosjean at the virtual safety car restart

I’d read about concerns that some drivers were somehow exploiting some kind of loophole in the rules surrounding the virtual safety car (VSC), but I never understood what that loophole was. But this from Keith Collantine and Dieter Rencken is a crystal-clear explanation of what was going on when Sergio Pérez gained two seconds on Romain Grosjean during a virtual safety car period.

It seems far from ideal that this is able to happen. Especially if drivers are beginning to focus on pre-empting when the VSC period might end, rather than on driving safely, at a time when the racetrack is meant to be neutralised.

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How good is “good”?

YouGov asked people to rate how positive and negative certain expressions are.

Warning: Contains pretty charts.

As it turns out, “good” and “bad” are not exactly mirrors of one another on the scale. Bad has an average score of 2.60, meaning its mirror equivalent on the scale ought to score 7.40. “Good”, by contrast, scores a 6.92.

This situation remains the case for the other examples where “good” and “bad” are used: “pretty good”, “really good” and “very good” are seen less positively than they should be to truly mirror “pretty bad”, “really bad” and “very bad”.

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Any Questions?

The radio institution celebrates its 70th birthday today. I enjoyed this history of the programme from Andy Walmsley.

I had no idea that Any Questions? was originally developed as a stop-gap to fill a hole in a regional schedule. From its beginnings on the West of England Home Service, within two years it was being regularly broadcast nationwide — first on the Home Service, but quickly also on the Light Programme.

Within quite a short time, sixteen million people were regularly listening to the programme. Frank Gillard had got his mass audience.

(Despite its appeal to the masses, it’s difficult to imagine a programme like this on the modern-day Radio 2.)

It seems that the programme has changed little in its 70 years, which is an extraordinary feat of longevity. Not only that, its carbon copy TV version, Question Time, appears as popular as ever. I can’t really stand to listen to or watch either of them.

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The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness — Cornelius

New Cornelius albums are few and far between. In fact, he has released just four albums in the past 21 years. But when one comes, it is always one of the highlights of the year. He is one of the most distinctive and innovative artists going.

I have just listened to his latest album, Mellow Waves. This song isn’t the most sonically interesting on the album — but it is probably the best. It’s the only song on the album to feature mainly English lyrics, written and sung by Miki Berenyi, who was the singer in Lush.

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Somehow we missed it

More on the hard work designers need to do to ensure they have a positive impact on society.

To create a platform designed to connect millions of people and not imagine its potential misuses is wilful blindness. When we imagine and design and build tools and technologies and platforms and services it’s as important, perhaps more important to ask ‘how might this be misused’ as it is to ask ‘how might this be used’.

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6 mistakes that prevent UX teams from having boardroom influence

A good list of don’ts when you’re trying to set up an effective user experience function.

In particular, the pitfalls of “cargo cult usability” could do with being more widely understood. But I also enjoyed this point about being too insular.

Newly formed UX teams have a tendency to quickly turn inwards and focus heavily on their own practices, tools and methods: heads down, working in a vacuum, doing great work that doesn’t actually influence anything. As a result, we hear frustrated stakeholders say things like: “I don’t involve the UX team because they always seem too busy”. We’ve even heard UX team members themselves complain that, “We’re so busy and so mired in the day-to-day that we don’t have time to work alongside the development team.”

This reminds me of the (hilarious but true) story of the Staffordshire UK bus company. In 1976 it was reported that the buses on the Hanley to Bagnall route were not stopping to pick up passengers. People complained that buses would drive right by long lines of waiting passengers. The complaints prompted Councillor Arthur Cholerton to make transport history by stating that if the buses stopped to pick up passengers it would disrupt the timetable!

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McLaren admits its Suzuka tyre selection was “wrong”

Despite the many management changes over recent years, this might be peak McLaren. Rumour has it that McLaren’s odd allocation of tyres for the Japanese Grand Prix is down to the fact that it forgot to submit its choice to Pirelli in time. Gil de Ferran insists that it was a deliberate decision, even though it’s clearly wrong. Wut? 🤔

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Formula 1’s first, and chaotic, use of the safety car

I had no idea that this was the first time a safety car was used during a Formula 1 race. It puts some modern controversies around race results into perspective!

When did Formula 1 first use the safety car? If your answer revolves around an introduction during the middle of the 1992 season, and first used in the Brazilian round early in ’93, then you’re wrong.

And we’re not even referring to the F1 statisticians’ favourite anomaly that the Indianapolis 500 was – for a time – part of the world championship. There was one occasion before its modern-day introduction that the safety car, or pace car as it was known, was employed. The 1973 Canadian Grand Prix, 45 years ago. And given the experience, it’s little wonder the concept was then dropped for near enough two decades.

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Facebook is giving advertisers access to your shadow contact information

Facebook is not content to use the contact information you willingly put into your Facebook profile for advertising. It is also using contact information you handed over for security purposes and contact information you didn’t hand over at all, but that was collected from other people’s contact books, a hidden layer of details Facebook has about you that I’ve come to call “shadow contact information.”

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‘For me, this is paradise’: life in the Spanish city that banned cars

Pontevedra banned cars from its centre, pedestrianising 300,000 square metres.

Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores has been mayor of the Galician city since 1999. His philosophy is simple: owning a car doesn’t give you the right to occupy the public space.

“How can it be that the elderly or children aren’t able to use the street because of cars?” asks César Mosquera, the city’s head of infrastructures. “How can it be that private property – the car – occupies the public space?”

There are some interesting details in here about exactly what causes most congestion, and why car-filled cities are so undesirable.

Reading between the lines of the end of the article, the scheme isn’t without its critics, or its problems. But I think the time has come for us to more seriously consider how many car journeys in city centres we really need — and how much better the city might be if more people could walk and cycle around without having to watch for motorised vehicles.

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The hunt for missing expectations

Jared Spool tells the story of a bookkeeper who became frustrated using Google Sheets because it didn’t have a double underline function.

To keep [usability] testing simple and under control, we often define the outcomes we want. For example, in testing Google Spreadsheet, we might have a profit and loss statement we’d want participants to make. To make it clear what we were expecting, we might show the final report we’d like them to make.

Since we never thought about the importance of double underlines, our sample final report wouldn’t have them. Our participant, wanting to do what we’ve asked of her, would unlikely add double underlines in. Our bias is reflected in the test results and we won’t uncover the missing expectation.

He suggests interview-based task design as a way of finding these missing expectations. Start a session with an interview to discover these expectations. Then construct a usability test task based on that.

I recently ran hybrid interviews and usability tests. That was for expediency. I didn’t base tasks on what I’d found in the interview. But it’s good to know I wasn’t completely barking up the wrong tree. I plan to use this approach in future.

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Does benchmarking really save companies from failure?

Why comparing yourself against your competitors often leads to mediocrity.

Best practice and benchmarking are often just a race to be first at being average. The chances of someone else’s best practice working in a different environment is unlikely.

Not only is it unlikely but the very act of best practice and benchmarking can drive standards down. It encourages all organisations to think alike. At sector level it creates groupthink, and we all know groupthink is the avowed enemy of innovation.

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The centrist fallacy

Fascinating piece from Nick Barlow on why it is problematic for the Liberal Democrats to attempt to chase centrist voters. Because while most people report having centrist views, when you analyse what their views actually are, more people are actually economically-left authoritarians.

These views are the effective centre of views in Britain, but they’re not really at the centre of political debate and in conjunction they tend to be the most unrepresented.

What is concerning for a liberal is that there do not seem to be many of us generally. Moreover, Nick Barlow’s analysis suggests that liberals tend to be on the economic left, not the centre.

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UK’s worst-selling map: The empty landscape charted by OS440

The story of Glen Cassley and Glen Oykel, the country’s least-popular Ordnance Survey map.

On my visit last week, Dave Robertson and I strolled through these wonders that were only intermittently blighted by rain or midges. We met only one set of fellow walkers – who looked aghast when I explained that I would be writing about the region. “Please don’t let everyone else know about this place,” they pleaded.

It’s a bit surprising and disappointing that the ten least popular Ordnance Survey maps are all of areas in Scotland. I’m not so sure about Kilmarnock and Irvine, but Glen Cassley sounds like it might be worth a visit.

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Wow and Flutter — Stereolab

I’ve recently been digging this old Stereolab song. By chance, this Peel session was recorded 25 years ago today.

Promo video

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