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Technology

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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Everything bad about Facebook is bad for the same reason

How Facebook’s focus on the connections between users, rather than the humans who use it, is its core problem.

Underlying all of Facebook’s screw-ups is a bumbling obliviousness to real humans. The company’s singular focus on “connecting people” has allowed it to conquer the world, making possible the creation of a vast network of human relationships, a source of insights and eyeballs that makes advertisers and investors drool.

But the imperative to “connect people” lacks the one ingredient essential for being a good citizen: Treating individual human beings as sacrosanct. To Facebook, the world is not made up of individuals, but of connections between them. The billions of Facebook accounts belong not to “people” but to “users,” collections of data points connected to other collections of data points on a vast Social Network, to be targeted and monetized by computer programs.

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Friday furnace

This is exactly why it’s worth investing the effort to own your content.

Medium owner/operator Ev Williams is Mark Zuckerberg. You remember when Facebook enticed publishers to pivot to video for Facebook and then killed news/opinion video on Facebook? Medium has pivoted something like five times, and each time it’s severely injured a whole tranche of publishers and writers who it invited in.

I really don’t understand why companies and professional media organisations are using Medium at all.

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“Google was not a normal place”: Brin, Page, and Mayer on the accidental birth of the company that changed everything

Fascinating article about the early days of Google. One eye-popping section recalls how they originally tried to sell their technology to other search engines, only to be knocked back.

I remember going to this one meeting at Excite, with George Bell, the C.E.O. He selects Excite and he types “Internet,” and then it pops up a page on the Excite side, and pretty much all of the results are in Chinese, and then on the Google side it basically had stuff all about N.S.C.A. Mosaic and a bunch of other pretty reasonable things. George Bell, he’s really upset about this, and it was funny, because he got very defensive. He was like, “We don’t want your search engine. We don’t want to make it easy for people to find stuff, because we want people to stay on our site.” It’s crazy, of course, but back then that was definitely the idea: keep people on your site, don’t let them leave. And I remember driving away afterward, and Larry and I were talking: “Users come to your Web site? To search? And you don’t want to be the best damn search engine there is? That’s insane! That’s a dead company, right?”

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Why Gov.uk content should be published in HTML and not PDF

How to give up PDFs and improve your higher education website’s user experience

The crusade against PDFs has been one of my constant hobby-horses over the years. It has also led to some of my toughest battles in my work.

Users hate PDFs, because it makes it harder to use content. But content owners love PDFs, because it makes it easier for them to create content. It is the ultimate in user-hostility. “Who cares about the users? PDFs make my job easier for me.”

So it was great to see two trusted sources reiterate the importance of getting rid of PDFs, within days of each other.

This has also reminded me of a small project I promised I would do, but never got around to — to publish my dissertation as an HTML webpage. The idea was to demonstrate how versatile HTML is, even for things like technical or academic writing. Maybe I’ll return to that this autumn.

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How a Google Maps update lead to the promotion of fringe views

Google Maps made a small tweak to its interface so that the fully zoomed-out view displayed as a globe, rather than the Mercator projection it use before.

Peter Gasston noticed that the angle many news publications found was to cover the reaction from flat Earthers.

This gave ad-funded publishers their opportunity to get some attention money: a simple product update isn’t a story, but a manufactured controversy is…

The result is that a manufactured controversy about a minor product update has given false equivalency to the fringe views of a small band of crackpots so everyone can get a few pennies in advertising revenue. This is the attention economy in action, and it’s rotten.

Remember that repeating a lie — even while you make clear that it’s a lie — makes people more likely to believe it’s true.

This is how the media works these days. And it explains a lot about what’s going on in the world right now.

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Evolving floorplans

The rooms and expected flow of people are given to a genetic algorithm which attempts to optimize the layout to minimize walking time, the use of hallways, etc. The creative goal is to approach floor plan design solely from the perspective of optimization and without regard for convention, constructability, etc.

I’m not sure this would work in real life. But it’s a fascinating idea, and the floorplans are certainly interesting to look at.

Via Boing Boing.

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Scotsman screenshot

It’s no wonder newspaper websites are in trouble. Their latest scheme is to “lock” content by turning it into squiggles unless you watch at least 6 seconds of an advert. Needless to say, this is a horrible experience, and only makes it all the more likely that I’ll turn away from certain websites.

I’m afraid to say that I know I’m going to have a dreadful time any time I try to read anything on the Scotsman or any other Johnston Press website. Every time, I am bombarded with a cacophony of offensive adverts, which grind my computer to a halt. And when they deign to show me the content I came for, more often than not it’s badly written, and clearly a rush-job by a stressed-out writer being made to churn out any old crap in the name of volume.

Why would I bother following a link to the Scotsman website again?

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The sound of silence: What we’re not saying about Siri and her AI gal pals

Why are digital assistants almost always given female-sounding voices?

While stakeholder preference might sound like a perfectly good reason at first, it hides an ugly reality. To make this clear, let me tell you a story about a talented young woman who I managed. She designed voice features for our clients’ prototypes. Although she created a voice that was meant to be genderless, the client kept referring to the voice in feminine terms. In other words, he heard what he expected to hear.

…BMW learned the hard way that female voices aren’t always the right route to take when German drivers of its 5 Series vehicles complained about “taking directions from a woman.” Yes, really.

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Platforms, agile, trust, teams and werewolves

Sometimes you go to conferences or meetups and they feel like a bit of a chore. You end up listening to a lot of PR spin from people who only want to share the best good news they’ve got. They’re usually under pressure to show their best side, and to sell their own success. We get why that happens, but it can be a dull experience if you’re in the audience.

This point from Giles Turnbull at Public Digital chimes with something that has been on my mind a bit recently.

People often talk about “failing fast” or being “unafraid to fail”. But those same people are often suspiciously unwilling to speak about their failures.

In a way that is understandable. But it would be good to hear more people genuinely opening up about the things that have gone wrong. Don’t just constantly trumpet the things that are going great (or the things that aren’t going great, but you say they are). If it’s true that you learn from failure, help others by sharing that — as well as your success stories.

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Broadband speed map reveals Britain’s new digital divide

It turns out that it is not just rural areas that are suffering due to BT/Openreach’s inability install broadband infrastructure fit for the 2010s, never mind the future.

The UK’s status as a fibre laggard has been the subject of intense debate within the telecoms industry, with only 4 per cent of residential and small business premises connected to full-fibre networks capable of delivering ultrafast speeds, compared with 80 per cent of units in Portugal.

It transpires that some of the slowest postcodes are within our largest cities, including London and Edinburgh.

With rural areas and second cities saying they have been left behind in the race to install ultrafast broadband networks, it is surprising to see that areas of London, including Kensington, Millwall on the Isle of Dogs and Rotherhithe, have clusters of postcodes with average speeds below the minimum required by the government. Central Manchester is a broadband blackspot, as is the Baltic Triangle in the heart of Liverpool, according to the postcode-level data.

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From tomorrow, Facebook will stop allowing automated posts to personal Facebook profiles. Dodgy ads, fake news and inflammatory content are all still allowed of course. But that’s how Facebook make their money. So normal people’s automated updates is what they’re clamping down on.

As a result, updates from my blog have stopped appearing on my Facebook profile.

In the words of an email WordPress.com have sent out about this:

We believe that eliminating cross-posting from WordPress is another step back in Facebook’s support of the open web, especially since it affects people’s ability to interact with their network (unless they’re willing to pay for visibility).

Funny that. 🤔

So if you would like to stay up to date with me on Facebook, I have now set up a page for my website — where it will still be possible for the updates to be pushed out to Facebook.

Follow Duncan Stephen on Facebook

However, I would encourage you to stay up to date another way. I don’t push everything out to Facebook. So the only way to be updated on everything I post is to subscribe to the RSS feed or email notifications.

Since this was pretty much all I used Facebook for by now, my Facebook profile will probably become very quiet.

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Designing the UI of Google Translate

I’m not too keen on user interface design showcases, because they usually boil down to: “look me make shiny thing”. But I really enjoyed this case study of how Google Translate redesigned their interface to make people more aware of some of the app’s most useful features.

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Annoying online ads cost business

Results from a study of users of Pandora has quantified the effect of shoving adverts in users’ faces. As part of the experiment, a section of users were served fewer ads than normal, and another section were served more ads than normal.

…after 1.5 years of being exposed to the experimental conditions, people did use the service more, the fewer ads they were served. At the end of the experiment:

  • The low-ad group listened for 1.7% more hours weekly than the control group.
  • The high-ad group listened for 2.8% fewer hours weekly than the control group.
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Guardian Media Group digital revenues outstrip print for first time

The company’s annual report, which covers the 12 months to April 2018, shows the Guardian website attracted an average of 155m monthly unique browsers, up from 140m the year before, with an increased focus on retaining regular readers rather than chasing traffic by going viral on social networks.

Digital revenues — which include reader contributions and online advertising income — grew 15% to £108.6m, as income from the print newspaper and events business fell by 10% to £107.5m.

Could it be that — shock horror — focusing on quality rather than vapid clickbait is the sustainable business model journalism was looking for all along?

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Four modes of seeking information and how to design for them

This is an old article, but some good brain food for those information architects out there. A good primer on some different ways people try to find content.

In my work on intranets and complex websites, I noticed a range of situations where people didn’t necessarily know what they needed to know. Additionally, when I opened my browser history to look for examples from recently-visited sites, I noticed that the majority of my own time was spent trying to find things that I had already discovered. These two modes didn’t fit into the concepts of known-item and exploratory information seeking. I call these “don’t know what you need to know” and re-finding.

I spent a while letting this rattle around my head, talking with IAs and designers, and realized that most only thought in terms of known-item searching. When discussing the other types of tasks, they’d ask with a horrified look, “So how do you design for that?”

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Thermostats, locks and lights: digital tools of domestic abuse

How smart devices are being used by perpetrators of domestic abuse.

We are becoming increasingly aware of some of the darker side of technology. Perhaps this is a challenge to designers and technologists — to ensure that their products can’t be used in this sort of way.

The people who called into the help hotlines and domestic violence shelters said they felt as if they were going crazy.

One woman had turned on her air-conditioner, but said it then switched off without her touching it. Another said the code numbers of the digital lock at her front door changed every day and she could not figure out why. Still another told an abuse help line that she kept hearing the doorbell ring, but no one was there.

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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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