Archive — Current affairs

The privilege of free time in Open SourceDries Buytaert

Caption: "Free time to contribute is a privilege."

Dries Buytaert makes a very good point here. Time is the scarcest resource we have. This is making open source a closed shop.

Today, I’ve come to understand that inequality makes it difficult for underrepresented groups to have the “free time” it takes to contribute to Open Source.

He suggests some ways open source communities could take action on this.

Overall, being kinder, more patient and more supportive to others could go a long way in welcoming more people to Open Source.

The culture of coding seems nasty generally. I’m not sure if it’s specifically a problem with open source as opposed to developers generally.

But I always found it odd how unwelcoming, patronising and generally unhelpful people in open source communities (such as WordPress support forums) can sometimes be. Sometimes it doesn’t seem very open at all.

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I was a strong Brexiteer. Now we must swallow our pride and think againPeter OborneOpenDemocracy

UK and EU flags

Required reading, whether you are pro- or anti-EU, from a Brexiter who is seriously considering that he may have been wrong.

I don’t agree with all of it. But it is a crystal clear analysis.

Amid the increasingly hysterical attitude from significant elements of both sides of the debate, this is a highly valuable contribution. This is the standard of debate we should be aspiring to.

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People won’t stop staring at their phones, so a Dutch town put traffic lights on the groundNeha Thirani BagriQuartz

Experimental Dutch traffic crossing

An interesting experiment to place pedestrian crossing signals on the ground, “where everyone is already looking”. The Netherlands seems to be the place for experimental road safety design (see also: the squareabout).

This has got to be an improvement on the modern fad of placing pedestrian crossing signals at chest height to the side, where they simply get blocked by other people, rather than across the road where everyone can see it.

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Photo — 2019-03-30

Burgundy European Union passport

It just so happened that my passport needed to be renewed this month. So I’ll have this burgundy European Union document for the next 10 years.

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Chuka Umunna reminds us that centrism is not liberalism — Jonathan Calder, Liberal England

Chuka Umunna reminds us that centrism is not liberalism — Jonathan Calder, Liberal England

I’ve viewed the formation of the Independent Group with a mixture of interest, mild hope, and mild horror. Chuka Umunna’s latest vanity missive has tipped the balance further towards the horror end.

Chuka Umunna wish to bring in compulsory national service for 16-year-olds is a reminder that proclaiming you are in the centre does not make you a Liberal.

Amid Brexit, supported by the leadership of both the Conservatives and Labour, both of those parties are moving in ever-more extreme directions. With extremist views on the rise, I had begun to think of myself as a moderate. But the ‘moderate’ tiggers are little more appealing.

This is a reminder that liberalism isn’t merely moderate or centrist. It is a distinctive worldview. This reminds us of how liberalism should sell itself.

Both the Conservatives and Labour are authoritarian parties. Our job as liberals is to rail against those tendencies, not to split the (often very little) difference between them.

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Could Brexit break the BBC? The tensions, the bewildering question of ‘balance’ — and how to get it right — Mark Damazer, Prospect Magazine

Could Brexit break the BBC? The tensions, the bewildering question of ‘balance’ — and how to get it right — Mark Damazer, Prospect Magazine

An impressively thoughtful piece from the former Radio 4 controller, on why the BBC is struggling to remain unbiased amid Brexit.

One senior presenter put it like this: “We should encourage debate… while being more militant about our core approach—that we are fact-based, and question and test all sides of the debate. We should not be doing vanilla ‘on the one hand’ versus ‘on the other hand’ journalism. I am sympathetic to the arguments about the danger of ‘false equivalence,’ and think we should be clear about the weight of arguments. But if a substantial number of people believe, so to speak, that bananas are blue we have to treat that seriously. Seriously, but robustly.”

This article also briefly covers some of the limitations of TV news bulletins, and explains why in some aspects radio performs better. I do find it difficult to watch a bulletin like the 10 O’Clock News (I think I even watched the piece he mentions from Mansfield, with my head in my hands). In that format, it is impossible to cover anything in real depth — and that seems to be the true problem at the moment.

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The worst design of 2016 was also the most effective

Illustration of Donald Trump wearing a Make America Great Again hat

The worst design of 2016 was also the most effective — Diana Budds, Fast Company

Why Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again hat, was a wildly successful design, despite being reviled by gatekeepers of good-taste design.

The “undesigned” hat represented this everyman sensibility, while Hillary [Clinton]’s high-design branding — which was disciplined, systematic, and well-executed — embodied the establishment narrative that Trump railed against and that Middle America felt had failed them. “The DIY nature of the hat embodies the wares of a ‘self-made man’ and intentionally distances itself from well-established and unassailable high-design brand systems of Hillary and Obama,” Young says. “Tasteful design becomes suspect… The trucker cap is as American as apple pie and baseball.”

This reminds me of the story that the most “tasteful” office spaces are less productive. When given a clean-looking office cubicle, people fill it with garden gnomes.

I don’t agree with the article’s premise that this challenges the idea of design thinking. Surely it means that Hillary Clinton’s designers simply didn’t do a good enough job at it (because nice typefaces ≠ design thinking).

But this does provide a challenge to the received wisdom of what good design is, and whether tasteful design is desirable.

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Why data is never raw — Nick Barrowman, the New Atlantis

A man checking dials

Why data is never raw — Nick Barrowman, the New Atlantis

Why it’s wrong and perhaps even dangerous to expect “raw data” to be neutral and strictly factual.

How data are construed, recorded, and collected is the result of human decisions — decisions about what exactly to measure, when and where to do so, and by what methods. Inevitably, what gets measured and recorded has an impact on the conclusions that are drawn.

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Why big companies squander brilliant ideas — Tim Harford

Why big companies squander brilliant ideas — Tim Harford

How inflexible organisational structure could be one of the main inhibitors of innovation. This article is full of fascinating examples, but I found the Sony example the most striking.

…the silo that produced the PlayStation had almost nothing to do with the silo that produced portable CD players. The Memory Stick Walkman was like the tank: it didn’t fit neatly into any category. To be a success, the silos that had been designed to work separately would have to work together. That required an architectural change that Sony tried but failed to achieve.

Seemingly, there’s no straightforward answer to this:

Kodak’s position may well have been impossible, no matter what managers had done. If so, the most profitable response would have been to vanish gracefully.

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How harmful is the net promoter score? — Jeff Sauro, MeasuringU

Someone using a screwdriver as a hammer

How harmful is the net promoter score? — Jeff Sauro, MeasuringU

A very useful contribution to the debate surrounding the usefulness/harmfulness of net promoter score. Jeff Sauro transcends the often polemical nature of the debate, by analysing actual research on the effectiveness of net promoter score.

The news still isn’t all that great for proponents of net promoter score. But at the same time, it’s not quite as bad as its detractors make out.

Kudos to Jeff Sauro for doing some actual research on this.

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Note — 2019-01-06

It’s 10 years since Woolworths closed down. I worked there at the time. To this day, the whole experience is among the most surreal of my life.

At the time, I wrote a lengthy series of blog posts detailing my own story of the goings-on around the failure of one of Britain’s most iconic businesses.

Being on the shop floor while a British institution collapsed around me taught me a bit about business. But it taught me a lot about people. Enjoy this look back.

(These used to be linked to each other using a WordPress plugin, but these were lost during a migration — so here they all are.)

  1. Woolworths: The curiously British US-based company
  2. Woolworths as it was known and loved, and neglected
  3. Woolworths: Childhood memories and adult gripes
  4. It wasn’t just the credit crunch
  5. The blunder of Woolworths
  6. Identity crisis
  7. The beginning of the end
  8. The nasty side of human nature
  9. Woolworths: Final thoughts and wrapping up

For more on Woolworths 10 years on from its collapse, check out Graham Soult’s excellent report.

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Samaritans — Idles

I’ve become obsessed with this song. It contains an important message that is beginning to be heard, but still needs to be heard more widely. This is a song for now.

Discovering Idles has felt a bit like discovering Pulp when they released Common People. Although 9-year-old me didn’t really understand what appealed to me about Pulp, now I think I do. Distinctive-sounding music, yes. But also lyrics that are interesting (a rarity in and of itself), and important, and for right now.

The first time I knowingly heard Idles it was when another song was played on the radio in the morning, Great. I remember sitting up in my bed, astonished at the lyrics. You don’t often hear songs that are so political, especially ones that actually hit the nail on the head — and say what I would want to say, but so much better.

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A love letter to high street music shops — Lis Ferla, last year’s girl

Image from last year's girl

A love letter to high street music shops — Lis Ferla, last year’s girl

Another perspective on the troubles faced by HMV. Lis Ferla echoes my thoughts on why bricks-and-mortar record stores of all sorts are a vital part of the music ecosystem.

But for me, it’s about the ceremony. The owning of a tangible product. It’s the reason behind the hall cupboard stacked high with CDs I lack the immediate capacity to play, and the records that take pride of place in the living room. It’s why I’ve never gotten on board with streaming, preferring the relative “ownership” of a digital download when it’s the cheapest, easiest way to get my fix.

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No, we don’t really care about your privacy

No, we don’t really care about your privacy

“We value your privacy” have been the hollowest words of 2018. I am instantly suspicious of any website that displays a flashy pop-up about privacy. Like a small man with a fancy car, it looks like they’re compensating for something.

It’s what happens when you want to be seen to be GDPR compliant, rather than actually GDPR compliant.

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Dirty dealing in the $175 billion Amazon Marketplace

"Prime and punishment"

Dirty dealing in the $175 billion Amazon Marketplace

A fascinating article about the various dirty tricks and scams that independent retailers are playing on each other on Amazon Marketplace.

For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced…

Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court…

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Remainers condemn Jeremy Corbyn pledge to push on with Brexit

Jeremy Corbyn

Remainers condemn Jeremy Corbyn pledge to push on with Brexit

Anyone surprised that Jeremy Corbyn is keen to continue with Brexit simply hasn’t been paying attention. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have done nothing more to stop Brexit than the Conservatives have.

Remember, Jeremy Corbyn was the first senior politician to call for Article 50 to be invoked — within minutes of the referendum result being announced. He was more enthusiastic about Brexit than any Conservative leader.

The idea that Labour Party is pro-Remain is the greatest lie in politics today. That this perception ever existed was perplexing, given that you could figure that out simply by listening to Jeremy Corbyn.

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TalkRadio host kept suicidal caller on phone until ambulance found him

Iain Lee

TalkRadio host kept suicidal caller on phone until ambulance found him

Radio host Iain Lee kept a suicidal caller to his show on the line for half an hour while emergency services tracked him down after he revealed he had taken an overdose.

I didn’t hear this particular call. It sounds like it must have been an extraordinary piece of radio, handled brilliantly by Iain Lee and Katherine Boyle.

This is another example of why Iain Lee’s Late Night Alternative is one of the most important programmes on radio.

Mental health has been a running theme of the programme almost since day one. I have probably learnt more about mental health from the Late Night Alternative than anywhere else.

But above all, it’s a programme about life.

Last week, one highly amusing caller talked about how her family had accidentally walked in on her father masturbating. The next caller apologised for making a clunky gear change, before talking about how his wife had died that day.

How extraordinary to think that people in this sort of position would turn to a radio show. Iain Lee sets out to provide an alternative to endless Brexit phone-ins. Continually, this programme demonstrates why we need that alternative.

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Thoughts on vulnerability

Illustration of a woman in a workplace

Thoughts on vulnerability

This is a really enlightening and enjoyable article about how vulnerability can sometimes be a strength.

What I’ve realized is that sometimes being vulnerable is a really powerful feeling, like being bilingual: being present and making clear decisions in a meeting while rocking a baby, or confidently stopping someone mid-presentation to ask what an acronym means. Or having my waters break and calmly finishing a meeting. Like, that’s bad-ass, right?

But what struck me most about this article was the point about how a thoughtless office space design in a less-than-diverse workplace created an unforeseen problem for a woman who needed a little privacy.

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Adding value, by adding values

Electric scooter in San Francisco

Adding value, by adding values

Ben Terrett from Public Digital has written something similar to I tried to write last week about designing for society, not just for individuals. Of course, this is much clearer and more succinct than (and written before) mine.

To illustrate the point, the article uses the example of an electric scooter hire scheme in San Francisco:

This is a service where every detail has been designed for the user. It’s unbelievably convenient—for the user alone, and no-one else.

The downside is streets swamped with dumped scooters. There’s nowhere “official” to put them, so like me, no-one knows what to do with a scooter once they’ve finished using it. They just get dumped anywhere.

These scooters are absolutely meeting a user need, but at the expense of a societal need.

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Note — 2018-12-11

This week I found out I won’t make the cut of that Scottish independence referendum documentary I was filmed for a few months ago. Due to a change in editorial focus, apparently.

It’s actually a bit of a relief because, as you’ll see from the original post, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with how it panned out. I could actually do without any hassle resulting from being on TV.

When I texted Alex about it, her reply was: “Oh good!!!!” You know it’s serious when four exclamation marks come out.

When I asked why, she said, “I was worried about your political views being on the BBC.” (To be honest, I think we should worry about all sorts of other people’s political views that are allowed on the BBC these days, but there we go…)

Still, it was interesting to be part of the process, and good to know my blog could still get noticed in this sort of way.

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UX past, present, and future

Desire paths

UX past, present, and future

An enjoyable and informative history of user experience. Some familiar themes, but not entirely your standard take. A reminder that people have been doing something like user-centred design for longer than we sometimes think.

…UX is not really a new thing. It might seem new to your organisation and its design process, but in fact it’s been emerging since before the dawn of the internet, back in the 80s, and people have been looking to solve similar problems for almost 140 years.

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Keeping it weird

Keeping it weird

Or, more accurately, stopping it being weird. This refers to the problem that most psychology research is conducted on people that are western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.

Tim Kadlec considers the implication this has on our understanding of how people use the web.

We’ve known for a while that the worldwide web was becoming increasingly that: worldwide. As we try to reach people in different parts of the globe with very different daily realities, we have to be willing to rethink our assumptions. We have to be willing to revisit our research and findings with fresh eyes so that we can see what holds true, what doesn’t, and where.

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Nine ways to unlock creativity in your organisation

Nine ways to unlock creativity in your organisation

A reminder why finding the right problem is often more important than finding the right ideas.

[M]ost of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having…

Creativity is not innovation. Creativity is a prerequisite for sure. Innovation, however, is the practical application of creativity.

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Making work meaningful: A leader’s guide

Making work meaningful: A leader’s guide

McKinsey report on how to engage employees.

People who find meaning at work are happier, more productive, and more engaged. Four practical interventions can help make the search more likely to succeed.

I am struck by how two of the four interventions listed are fundamentally about understanding your users better.

Reduce anonymity

Talk with employees about who their customers are, and encourage each employee to connect with one.

Build regular, face-to-face interactions with customers into existing processes, stimulating employees to learn who is most affected by their work.

Help people grasp the impact of their work

Invite customers who have had the best—and worst—experiences with your products to talk with employees in person so your team can see how their work affects customers.

Another reason why user experience is worth it.

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Six secrets from the planner of Seville’s lightning bike network

Cycling in Seville

Six secrets from the planner of Seville’s lightning bike network

Lessons on how Seville transformed its cycling infrastructure, and why doing so is a no brainer.

The whole network is €32 million. That’s how many kilometers of highway — maybe five or six? It’s not expensive infrastructure. … We have a metro line that the cost was €800 million. It serves 44,000 trips every day. With bikes, we’re serving 70,000 trips every day.

It’s going to become more and more important that cities encourage active travel. With car ownership set to decrease with the advent of autonomous vehicles, this is the opportunity to do cycling infrastructure properly.

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Curiosity can save us when lies come dressed as numbers

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

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

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

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?

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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