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Technology

How come I end up where I started?

Adriaan Pels ran the popular Radiohead fan site At Ease for 20 years. The costs of running the website got out of control before his web host unexpectedly pulled the plug last year.

I used to be a very active participant on the At Ease forums, but that probably ended when I became a more active blogger / studies took over / I got a proper job / whatever. I stopped reading the website at some point as well. I still looked in occasionally, but I could tell that Adriaan didn’t seem to have as much time as he needed to look after it properly.

I didn’t even realise that At Ease had disappeared off the internet. It’s so long since I’ve tried to visit.

But it was good to see this update from Adriaan, although I’m sorry he’s lost the whole website.

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The generous act of tunking

We found out that tunking (pronounced “toonking”) is a word this team uses for blunt critique, made with the intentions of the people on the receiving end uppermost in mind. It’s honest feedback.

The people doing the tunking don’t hold back. They say what they really think. They do this because they want the people being tunked to succeed.

I really like this. And it’s important to appreciate that giving honest feedback can be just as difficult as receiving it, if not more so.

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Stylish browser extension steals all your internet history

If you use the Stylish browser extension, you ought to have a read of this. It might make you want to uninstall it immediately, as I did.

It appears that last year Stylish began collecting users’ data, including their full browser history, and even the contents of Google search results.

The above blog post explains exactly what is going on, and why it is a problem.

This is a great shame because Stylish provided a brilliant function enabling you to improve bad or unsuitable web designs very easily. I even created a style that improved the user interface for live timing on Formula1.com — which I still used up to last weekend, and has been installed by almost 500 others.

Not any more — I have uninstalled Stylish from my browser.

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✨🎧 tenori-off

I really love this take on the Tenori-on synthesiser, built in Javascript and very webby. I especially like how you can simply share the URL to send your music to someone else. 5/5 would Tenori-off again.

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The rise of business bullshit — and how we can fight it

The modern organisation is obsessive about collaboration and consultation – but encouraging everyone’s opinions on everything invites bullshit.

Social media should have taught us by now that more opinions aren’t necessarily better…

The same applies to work. More consultation = more bullshit.

This is so true. Increasingly, I find myself feeling exasperated if I’m asked the provide an opinion on something I have no evidence about. We are often pressurised into giving opinions — “you’re supposed to be the expert”.

Baseless opinions fly around left, right and centre in any workplace. The last thing the world needs is another middle class dude like me with yet another opinion.

Let’s find the evidence instead.

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Artificial intelligence for more human interfaces

A very balanced assessment of the benefits of artificial intelligence — and its dangers. It’s lengthy, but well worth your time, containing lots of great examples of how artificial intelligence can be a force for good, but tempering that with plenty of warnings against using it badly.

Nowadays, we expect any photo search to be able to understand “dog” and find photos of dogs… And this is where Deep Learning worked its magic.

The problem is that only a few interfaces of well-known, big companies give this convenience. And that makes people wonder who owns information and where they know all these things from.

Unless we democratise this convenience and build interfaces everywhere that are that clever, we have a problem. Users will keep giving only a few players their information and in comparison less greedy systems will fall behind.

The other big worry I have is that this convenience is sold as “magic” and “under the hood” and not explained. There is a serious lack of transparency about what was needed to get there.

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Facebook is a utility; utilities get regulated

I have only just discovered this article by Danah Boyd from 2010 (and I can’t remember how). But reading it today, it feels very prescient.

I hate all of the utilities in my life. Venomous hatred. And because they’re monopolies, they feel no need to make me appreciate them. Cuz they know that I’m not going to give up water, power, sewage, or the Internet out of spite. Nor will most people give up Facebook, regardless of how much they grow to hate them.

How many people — like me — hate Facebook, but find themselves unable to give it up?

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The problem of zero and one

Excellent piece by Wojtek Kutyla on why UX needs to get out of its comfort zone, and an excessive focus on technology — and the temptation to make binary declarations.

We are all reasonable creatures and we know how to seek rationale when we’re dealing with daily tasks. If we’re hungry, we’ll ask ourselves: “What do I want to eat? Eggs? Avocado? Or a burger?”. If we’re planning to buy a new car, we’ll consider it carefully, basing our ultimate choice on how functional the vehicle is and whether we can afford it.

Yet, when faced with a design problem in a professional setting we’d often go for a solution that does nothing else but fulfils a set of requirements based on assumed values communicated by stakeholders. All too seldom we’re doubting their choices and ask “what’s the rationale — where did this come from?”. Perhaps we should start doing that?

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It’s time to rebuild the web

A reflection from Mike Loukides on Anil Dash’s recent piece on the missing building blocks of the web (which I also wrote about a few weeks ago).

His remarks on the state of RSS particularly resonate with me. Ever since Google killed off Google Reader, I have relied on Feedly. I have always had an uneasy relationship with Feedly. It seems somehow both bloated, and lacking in useful features.

It seems to be increasingly pitched at teams and businesses — the sort of audience Slack attracts. But RSS needs to be pitched at everyday individual users of the web who want to keep abreast of blogs and the like. That is the spirit of the web we have lost, and we need to return to.

Simplicity is a discipline, and not an easy one. However, by losing tons of bloat, we’d end up with a web that is much faster and more responsive than what we have now. And maybe we’d learn to prize that speed and that responsiveness.

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This ancient laptop is the only key to the most valuable supercars on the planet

McLaren used the most advanced (and expensive) parts and materials to build the F1s, like kevlar and gold. But despite all those motorsport-grade cables, early ’90s technology means they were also equipped with early ’90s microchips.

One irony of using cutting-edge technology is that it can in fact date the most quickly. The legendary McLaren F1 requires an early 1990s Compaq laptop with a bespoke conditional access card in order to be serviced. Despite being old technology, the laptop is so valuable for this purpose that it is worth thousands of pounds itself.

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Childish Gambino’s This is America and how the internet killed the cultural critic

How considered criticism has been replaced by mindless churnalism collating stuff an under-pressure journalism has hurriedly gathered up on Twitter.

Floating to the top of my feed was an article in the Guardian: “This is America: theories behind Childish Gambino’s satirical masterpiece”. This video is popular, it said, then asked: “But what does it mean?”. Yes, I thought, that’s exactly what I’m here to find out. But instead of an answer, I got a summary of tweets and notes from Genius. No interpretations were drawn, no conclusions reached. Was it a masterpiece? The headline said so, but the piece just linked to tweets by Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu.

I grew tired long ago of news stories that are basically just lists of other people’s tweets. I have even noticed BBC News doing this. Yet again, I’m left wondering if most of the media’s problems are with their own unwillingness to pursue quality.

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We are all trapped in the “Feed”

Om Malik summarises the problem with the big social media companies whose algorithms are causing us to drown in junk content.

Many have forgotten, but services like Digg helped popularize the idea of what I call intellectual spam. Headlines, followed by vapid content, meant to attract the likes. Against such a backdrop, a decade ago, we all assumed that the rise of the personal web, shaped by individual data would result in signals that will help us dampen the noise. We thought that our systems would get smarter, learning from our behavior, and we would be able to separate signal from noise. And this would allow us to focus our attention on the meaningful and essential.

Unfortunately, the reality of capitalism and turned that dream into a big giant popularity contest, shaped by crude tools – likes, hearts, retweets, and re-shares. We have created systems that boost noise and weaken signals. Every time I tune into news and all I see is noise rising to the top. Whether it is YouTube or Instagram — all you see are memes that are candy-colored candy, mean to keep us hooked.

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The cult of the complex

Jeffrey Zeldman becomes the latest voice to bemoan the increasing and unnecessary complexity of modern web development.

As a designer who used to love creating web experiences in code, I am baffled and numbed by the growing preference for complexity over simplicity. Complexity is good for convincing people they could not possibly do your job. Simplicity is good for everything else.

See also: Why the cruel culture of coding is damaging society

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The internet is going the wrong way

A short and snappy summary of why and how the internet has gone wrong.

The Internet is a place for the people, like parks, libraries, museums, historic places. It’s okay if corporations want to exploit the net, like DisneyLand or cruise lines, but not at the expense of the natural features of the net.

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Flashback: How Yahoo killed Flickr and lost the internet

This page was published in 2013 as a flashback to an article seemingly written in 2012. It underlines just how slow and painful a death Flickr had. Reading this six years on is a fascinating reminder of just what could have been.

By 2012, Flickr was already on its knees, having suffered years of mismanagement under Yahoo. That mismanagement is picked apart in excruciating detail here. The article ends by asking, is it too late to save Flickr?

Flickr’s last best hope is that Yahoo realizes its value and decides to spin it off for a few bucks before both drop down into a final death spiral. But even if that happens, Flickr has a long road ahead of it to relevance. People don’t tend to come back to homes they’ve already abandoned.

Six years on, Yahoo has lurched from laughing stock to irrelevance, while Flickr has finally been sold off to SmugMug. It’s a good time to reflect on this early days of Flickr and wonder if it could ever return. But as I already noted this year, it is probably far too late.

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How much would I have to pay you to quit Facebook?

Many people may feel like they are addicted to Facebook. But it’s amazing to see just how little people actually value it.

Economists have been carrying out experiments to see how much people would have to be paid to do without certain types of websites. By this measure, social media appears to be the very bottom of the pile — worth almost 60 times less than search.

Their rough-and-ready conclusion is that the typical person would have to be paid about $17,500 a year to do without internet search engines, $8,500 to abandon email and $3,500 to quit using digital maps. Video streaming through sites such as Netflix and YouTube is worth over $1,150 a year; ecommerce $850, and social media just over $300.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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