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Current affairs

Curiosity can save us when lies come dressed as numbers

How asking yourself some simple questions can help you detect bullshit statistics.

…A second virtue is that of curiosity, which we might think of as a hunger to know more, coupled with a tolerance for being surprised. Simple questions such as: “I wonder how they know that?”; “Is that better or worse than I might have expected?”; “What exactly do they mean?” often unlock far more insight than narrow technical queries.

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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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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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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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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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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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‘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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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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Health chiefs make urgent order for 112 ambulances amid Brexit shortage fears

When you’ve started stockpiling ambulances, maybe it’s time to admit that Brexit is a mistake.

The emergency vehicles, built by Mercedes in Germany and finished off in Ireland, are desperately needed by London Ambulance Service to help hit 999 response times over winter. Concern at the highest levels of LAS over a no-deal Brexit has seen the order rushed through to ensure they arrive before Britain leaves the EU on March 29 next year.

Thirty of the vehicles, which take months to build, will enter service by March, with 82 being “stockpiled” in case Brexit results in supplies drying up.

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Smart voice assistants and smart homes — from the past

A really enjoyable piece on the history of smart home devices, and how Google Home and Alexa aren’t such new ideas. The video is well worth a watch, particularly because it demonstrates 1970s technology from Pico Electronics in Glenrothes! It’s amazing to see it work so well.

The point of Thomas Baekdal’s piece here is to demonstrate how trends aren’t new, but they emerge over a long period of time. It reminds me a bit of Gartner’s hype cycle, and a recent Nile webinar about how to employ foresight to understand emerging trends. Not to forget the Nielsen Norman Group research demonstrating that intelligent assistants still have horrible usability problems.

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The carrot is not important — Chasing it is
“I’ve never had a goal”

Two related posts from Jason Kottke.

I think I fall into the camp of people who don’t want or need a goal. Alex once astutely pointed out that I will set myself a goal, then work towards it, and once I reach my goal, I stop.

Pedal for Scotland is a case in point. Last year I stopped cycling immediately after completing it, having spent all summer getting fit. Sure enough, I have done the same again this year.

I tell myself that it’s harder to cycle in winter, and Pedal for Scotland happens to fall at the point in the year where it’s getting darker in the evenings. But perhaps that’s just an excuse. I plan to start running and doing other forms of exercise to make sure I keep fit in winter as well.

Anyway, the point is, perhaps a goal is useless if you think of it as the only point. I love this idea — that chasing the carrot is more important than the carrot itself.

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Does the universal symbol for disability need to be rethought?

Details of a project to create symbols representing people with invisible disablities.

Today, disability is represented by the International Symbol of Access (ISA), which was created by Danish design student Susanne Koefoed back in 1968. It’s a strong graphic of a person in a wheelchair that has had tremendous success in conditioning societies all over the world to respect and give preferential treatment and access to disabled people.

[Liam] Riddler agrees that the current symbol is extremely powerful and successful. But he points out that it really only works well for people with more visible disabilities, like those using wheelchairs or other visual aids. “In some instances, someone with an invisible disability might be mistaken for an able-bodied person, and as a result be subjected to abuse and unfair judgment as to why they’re using disabled-access facilities,” he explains via email. This, he says, can lead to unwarranted embarrassment, shame, and withdrawal from society.

It’s a noble idea, but surely creating multiple distinct symbols would only create further ambiguity. I’m not even sure people seeing the ISA necessarily see it as a person in a wheelchair, just as a save icon doesn’t mean you’re using a floppy disk.

More: Visability93 — McCann London.

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5 thoughts on self-help

I have never read what I would think of as a self-help book. I’m sceptical of them. But at the same time I am interested in self-improvement. Or at least, keeping check on yourself and learning generally, which I guess is a form of self-help.

In this article, Austin Kleon points out that:

…the problem with self-help today is that it has returned to the very quick-fix pseudoscientific snake-oil cures that [the first self-help book, written by Samuel] Smiles (what a perfect name) was reacting to…

I would argue that this isn’t necessarily just a problem for the self-help genre either. I am inherently wary of anything that claims to provide a one-size-fits-all silver bullet solution. Because it’s bound to be more complicated than that.

One of the worst things that self-help can do is convince you that you as an individual are to blame for all of your problems, and that if you’re struggling it’s just because you aren’t making the right moves.

Worst of all, some self-help books imply that if the book fails to help you, it’s not the book’s fault, it’s yours.

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A lesson from Germany on how to cover far-right leaders

It’s a radical idea — interviewing extremists without pandering to their extremist ideas. It turns out that by asking them about their policy positions instead of just letting them bang on about their racist ideas, you can quickly show them up.

German television viewers found out Sunday night when the broadcaster ZDF ran a major interview with Alexander Gauland, a co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which capitalized on anti-refugee sentiment to earn its first-ever seats in the German Parliament last fall. Ahead of the interview, ZDF’s Twitter feed teased the interview as dealing with “climate change, retirement, digitalization—and without refugees.”

The resulting 19-minute interview, in which Gauland struggles to answer basic questions about his party’s positions on such issues, has been lauded by opponents of the AfD as masterful.

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Designers are defining usability too narrowly

Another call on designers to think more widely when they are working on digital products. Khoi Vinh saw a Nielsen Norman Group report on best practice on websites aimed at children — but he felt the report focused too narrowly on usability.

I don’t dispute the findings at all. But it’s disturbing that the report focuses exclusively on usability recommendations, on the executional aspect of creating digital products for kids. There’s not a single line, much less a section, that cares to examine how design impacts the well-being of children…

We’re moving past the stage in the evolution of our craft when we can safely consider its practice to be neutral, to be without inherent virtue or without inherent vice. At some point, making it easier and easier to pull the handle on a slot machine reflects on the intentions of the designer of that experience.

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Salmond’s £80,000 warning to Sturgeon

I had sort of missed this story while I was on holiday, but this from Torcuil Crichton seems to be a useful summary.

Salmond’s fight for “fairness”, as he labels it, only serves to telegraph to them, and us, what forces are stirred when women choose to cross a powerful man, as he undoubtedly is.

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Thinking in triplicate

This is a very strong piece by Erika Hall, raising some seriously good points and questions about where user experience design is, and where it needs to go. It is well worth reading the full piece, and me pulling out a quote cannot do this justice. But here are some selections I particularly liked:

If good design entailed good business, women’s clothes would come in a wide range of sizes with usable pockets and our social media feeds would unfurl in reverse chronological order with an unremarkable absence of Nazis.

While most of the designers I know are far from objectivists, design as it is currently practiced is tantamount to Ayn Rand’s radical selfishness. We design for the experience of a single user at a time and expect that the collective experience, and the collective impact, will take care of itself.

It’s much more pleasant for designers to talk about empathy in one room and MBAs to talk about profits in the other and have marketers in the middle like an injectable filler.

This is exactly the sort of article we need to be seeing more of.

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Designing Google Maps for motorbikes

Some nice work from Google Maps on how they immersed themselves in their users’ world to understand how to improve Google Maps for motorbike users in places like Delhi and Jakarta.

The research team included engineers, UX designers, product managers, and marketing leads, all from different parts of the world. We met with two-wheeler drivers from Jaipur, Delhi, Bangalore, and Jakarta, in environments from bustling transportation hubs to kitchen tables in people’s homes. Our intention was to understand and relate to people in a way that felt authentic — we wanted to learn through immersion.

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Keeping digital teams happy versus keeping customers happy

Gerry McGovern tells the story of trying to persuade a digital team of what they needed to fix.

“It would be nice to fix these problems,” one person said. “But the team needs also to be able to do exciting things. We need to be able to innovate.”

Unfortunately, people at work often place too much emphasis on their own enjoyment. But our work only has meaning if it is providing value to someone.

Work shouldn’t be exciting. There’s a job to do.

See also:

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How to set up a website: a guide for the alt-right

Are you a fascist? Have you been throwing your toys out the pram because some digital platforms have finally grown a pair and removed you? If so, Bruce Lawson has some advice for you on how the open web works.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible no-one will visit your website to read how Bin Laden faked the moon landings in order to draw attention from the fact that Marilyn Monroe was a CIA-funded muslim who invented income tax and fluoridated water in order to seize your guns and pollute your precious bodily fluids. But that’s freedom.

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Proactive UX design: A big leap requiring baby steps

An excellent article from Jared Spool on the difference between proactive design and reactive design — and the importance of making your work more proactive.

Reactive UX design is just what it sounds like: reacting to a problem in the moment. “Oh, can you fix this?” “Help! Users are complaining this is too hard! What can we do?”

Without also having proactive UX design efforts, the design team is only fixing problems caused by decisions the product team has already made.

Interestingly, he also makes the point that it is easy for design teams to get sucked into doing reactive design, because it becomes comfortable for teams to do:

They like the wireframes and usability tests.

They believe this is what design work looks like. They believe design work always happens at the end of the process.

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Glasgow’s urban decay risks squandering 30 years of progress

More on the decline of Glasgow — and the lack of any action plan to reverse it.

Go west along the river and you’ll see a hotchpotch of development, wasteland and missed opportunity that literally only takes you so far – Glasgow must be one of the few cities in Europe where it’s not possible to walk or cycle right along the banks.

The urban realm of Glasgow is deteriorating through fire, desertion and neglect in a quite ghastly way, and what is most alarming is the seeming lack of a strategic plan to reverse it.

See also: What next for Sauchiehall Street?

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The danger of listening to people who talk a lot

Those who talk well and talk lots can command attention in meetings – and they get an unprecedented amount of airtime in modern organisations.

Whilst extroverts put it all out there for the world to see, introverts often keep their best ideas inside. If you’re ignoring them, you’re at risk of missing the problem and the solution.

As Paul Taylor says here, it is more important to widen and deepen connections with everyone. We need to prioritise ways of doing this, and preventing hippos and loud voices getting their way each time.

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Testing the sound mirrors that protected Britain

I very rarely link to (or even watch) a video. But I am happy to make an exception for Tom Scott’s excellent entertaining and educational videos.

Here, he tests concrete sound mirrors with drones. I’m fascinated by sound mirrors — an early 20th century technology designed to provide early warning of approaching aircraft, which became obsolete quickly as aircraft speeds increased, and radar took over.

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Big tech warns of ‘Japan’s millennium bug’ ahead of Akihito’s abdication

To be filed under ‘you learn something new every day’ — a series of potential millennium bug-style issues that could be faced when Emperor Akihito of Japan abdicates. Japanese calendars effectively begin from zero with a new era every time there is a new emperor.

Akihito has been on the throne for almost the entirety of the information age, meaning that many systems have never had to deal with a switchover in era.

Moreover, Unicode will have to create a new character to represent the new era — which has not yet been named. This clashes awkwardly with the planned release of Unicode 12.0.

But this is the most incredible scenario:

Many older computers, with aspects dating back to before the end of the Shōwa era in 1989, have never been updated to reflect the new era, and still think the year is Shōwa 93. That means Japan could face another mini Y2K problem in 2025, as those systems attempt to tick over to a three digit Shōwa year they can’t cope with.

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