Archive — Current affairs

When you browse Instagram and find former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott’s passport numberAlex HopeThe Mango Zone

Montage including redacted screenshot of Tony Abbott's Instagram post

A highly entertaining read about how someone used a photo of a boarding pass posted by Tony Abbott on his own Instagram account to find out the former Australian prime minister’s personal details including his passport and phone number. Alex Hope embarks on an adventure to find out whether he broke the law, figure out how he can inform Tony Abbott that he knows his passport number, and let the airline know about their hair-raisingly bad information security.

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It’s time to go racing…Ben EdwardsBritish Motorsports Marshals Club

Ben Edwards with marshals

Formula 1 prepares to hold its first event of 2020 after the Australian Grand Prix had to be suddenly cancelled March, after everyone had arrived down under.

Now the first event takes place in Austria. A little easier to travel to. But the global nature of the sport — with personnel floating through Europe to congregate — seems particularly problematic.

Channel 4’s commentator Ben Edwards will be broadcasting this weekend from Silverstone, not Austria. But he thinks motorsport is more ideally suited to dealing with coronavirus than you might think.

At a circuit, awareness of gaps is crucial; a racing driver needs instantly to assess whether there is room to pass a piece of debris on the tarmac while marshals are constantly checking gaps between leaders and backmarkers to decide on blue flags, or positioning cars accurately in tightly formed assembly areas.

We are accustomed to checking distances, and unlike so many of the customers in supermarkets who appear to be oblivious to the rules that have been imposed, in my opinion the motorsport scene is naturally geared up for it and will cope accordingly.

I hope he’s right and there isn’t a situation like the one tennis has found itself in.

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Groundbreaking report reveals racial bias in English football commentarySachin NakraniThe Guardian

Footballers' legs of different colours

A very interesting-sounding study has analysed English language football commentary from seven broadcasters and 80 live matches.

RunRepeat ratio-adjusted its numbers to account for the fact there were 1,361 comments about lighter-skinned players and 713 about darker-skinned players and found the former group more widely praised for intelligence (62.60%), hard work (60.40%) and quality (62.79%). Commentators are also 6.59 times more likely to talk about the power of a player if he has darker skin and 3.38 times more likely to reference his pace.

The study also found that 63.33% of criticism from commentators in regards to the intelligence of a player is aimed at those with darker skin, while the figure for quality is 67.57%.

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A white woman, racism and a poodleCynthia FranksFranklyWrite

Merlin, a black dog, in the passenger seat of a car

How a white woman discovered what it’s like to constantly be spuriously pulled over by the police, because she had a black dog.

One day, sitting at a restaurant having breakfast with my Dad; our old neighbor came in and said, “There’s a black man stealing your van. He’s behind the wheel right now.” I paused a minute and realized he was referring to Merlin. Bells went off.

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There will be no “back to normal”Nesta

Faded out aerial view of an urban area taken on a fisheye lens

This is more than a month old. In terms of the coronavirus outbreak, that’s an eternity. But I still found this list of possible future scenarios interesting and thought-provoking.

It also comes with the major caveat that predicting the future is a mug’s game at the best of times, never mind during these times. This is inherently recognised in the fact that some of the predictions are contradictory.

I was particularly interested in the political, economic and sociocultural predictions. For instance, I have wondered if in the coming decades society will prioritise getting the basics right more over relentless innovation. This article suggests that may be the case, but that the shift may not last long.

The crisis may prompt a reappraisal of what society cares about most, with short-term attention focusing on the bottom of Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. (This may have the effect of, for example, boosting relative status of health workers and farmers, and diminishing ‘luxury’ industries, including leisure, gaming, arts – although history suggests that this will be short-lived, and the luxury status of some goods and services may ultimately be reinforced.)

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Ignore the customer experience, lose a billion dollars (Walmart case study)Good Experience

This case study would be seen by some as a reason not to understand users at all. “If I asked users what they wanted, they’d say faster horses. Hurr hurr.”

In fact, like the idea of faster horses, it demonstrates how important it is to understand your users in the right way, not just pay lip service to doing so.

Badly-designed user research leads respondents to certain responses. This is often unintentional — avoiding bias is difficult.

Sometimes it’s intentional. Perhaps the survey designer has a pet idea. They might (subconsciously) skew the questions in a certain way to get the answers they want.

A classic example is asking someone if they would like a certain feature to be added to a product. The answer is almost always: “Er, yes, I suppose so.” People think they like choice, so more features sounds good. But in reality, too many features — or too much choice — leads to choice paralysis and greater frustration.

The lesson isn’t to ignore user research. But be aware of your biases. Be wary of surveys as a methodology. And don’t simply ask people what they want. Instead, understand what they do, and why they do it.

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Undemocratising user researchSaswati Saha MitraUX Collective

A magic triangle: "Choose two between sustainability, scale and quality"

This piece really challenged my thinking.

In my job I am currently trying to figure out ways to make quality user research scale across the organisation in a sustainable manner. It’s like one of those triangular diagrams outlining three goals: “you can have two of these things”.

Working in such a large organisation, central resources inevitably have their limits. My desire is to empower others to carry out their own user research. Our role becomes an education role. How we do that remains an unsolved problem. Various attempts have yielded variable results.

But Saswati Saha Mitra, reflecting on her experiences of trying to democratise user research, suggests that it is a bad idea.

A researcher is a dynamic thinker who has to adapt their methods and questions based on who is in front of them, how much they have already learnt and what new areas could be probed on. This did not happen. We got a lot of verbatim and videos which after a point became repetitive and did not add more to the analysis. This then led to analysis paralysis.

I’m inclined to continue trying to empower others to conduct user research. But this article is food for thought.

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UK infosec experts flag concern over NHSX contact tracing appLaurie ClarkeNS Tech

Mobile app displaying a text message from the government

This is the sort of reason why I don’t trust the state with my data as much as I trust many private companies. Apple and Google have worked together (itself a minor miracle) to develop a method of contact tracing that does not collect personal data and does not invade people’s privacy.

NHSX has rejected that model in favour of one that will enable them to deanonymise people, and store that information in a centralised database. This is the surveillance state. It risks reducing goodwill towards the NHS and other public institutions.

A statement for medical privacy campaign group Medconfidential reads: “Given NHSX has chosen to build an unnecessary massive pool of sensitive data, it must ensure that the data is well protected. With combined effort, GCHQ and NHS Digital will likely be good at defending the big pool of sensitive data. But there is no need to have that data. The best way to make sure data doesn’t leak, is to have chosen the method that never collected it.”

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How will humans, by nature social animals, fare when isolated?The Economist

Illustration of a glum-looking woman sitting at a desk in a dark room

I have worried about the social and mental health effects of the lockdown measures being implemented. But even I hadn’t anticipated quite how much conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder appear to be common following quarantines.

According to a rapid review of the psychological effects of quarantines, published on March 14th in the Lancet, a British medical journal, some studies suggest that the impact of quarantines can be so severe as to result in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder…

One study from 2009 looked at hospital employees in Beijing who in 2003 were exposed to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which, like covid-19, is caused by a coronavirus. The authors found that, three years later, having been quarantined was a predictor of post-traumatic-stress symptoms. Another study… found that the mean post-traumatic-stress scores were four times higher in children who had been isolated.

Elsewhere, the article highlights as a problem the fact that 67% of 18–34-year-olds are finding it hard to remain upbeat. But I’m more concerned about those who are managing to be upbeat among all this madness.

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Note — 2020-03-20

Me holding a bottle of Corona

Virtual birthday party — 9pm tonight

It’s my birthday today. But I couldn’t really be bothered to organise a physical get-together. Instead, I thought it would be fun to imagine there was some horrific virus that meant we couldn’t really leave the house much, and I had to celebrate it remotely.

Update: This will now take place at 9pm, not 7pm as before.

Join us at 9pm for 40 minutes of free Zoom-based party times.

Bring your own Corona.

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McKinsey: CEOs have no clue what chief design officers doMark WilsonFast Company

Picture of a hipster drinking coffee with headphones hanging of a massive Mac screen. I guess that's what a designer is.

Talk about designers “having a seat at the table” generally leaves me cold. But this useful article explains why it can matter — but why designers have a duty to do more than simply be at the table.

Evidence has long suggested that companies with a strong design focus are more successful. The example of Logitech outlined here bears that out.

But if some CEOs don’t understand the value of design, it’s up to designers to articulate it properly.

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Coding is for everyone — as long as you speak EnglishGretchen McCullochWired

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, so there’s been a lot of pixels spilled on “the initial promises of the web”—one of which was the idea that you could select “view source” on any page and easily teach yourself what went into making it display like that.

This article makes a great point about how this promise only truly works if you can speak English.

The process described above is exactly how I learned HTML. The fact that I would have to use “color” instead of “colour” is a mildly amusing inconvenience. I hadn’t really considered before how it must feel if you don’t speak any English.

I don’t speak Russian, and assuming you don’t either, does <заголовок> and <заглавие> and <тело> and <п> still feel like something you want to tinker with?

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How community politics became customer service politics (and then consumed British politics from within)Nick Barlow

A history of community politics, how it morphed to become people pointing at potholes, and ultimately undermined politics completely.

Activism was no longer about helping people get the power to solve their own problems, but rather demanding someone at “the council” solve them for them. Rather than “we can help you do things”, the message was now that “something must be done” and “somebody must do something”, but that somebody is almost always somebody else…

Activism based around ideology, empowering people and giving them the ability to sort things out is hard, activism based around being the most efficient local busybody and delivering the most leaflets is comparatively easy.

I have often wondered about political leaflets that are all about a hodgepodge of local issues, but are strangely noncommittal about what should be done about them. All of the leaflets, in every colour, say largely the same noncommittal things about small-to-medium-sized local issues. They almost always fail to adequately explain why Candidate X is the person to deal with it.

It’s all so uninspiring. Perhaps we need to present some actual political ideas again.

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Dutch “singing road” silenced after villagers complain: “I’m going nuts”Palko Karasz and Yonette JosephThe New York Times

A car driving over the musical rumble strips

This must be the most spurious “road safety” feature ever conceived.

A Dutch town decided to install rumble strips that are set at certain frequencies so that cars “play” the regional anthem as they drive over them.

This article focuses on the fact that this feature is driving residents crazy as they repeatedly have to hear this raspy version of the same melody all day (and night) long.

But surely the spurious justification is more deserving of ire.

Local officials hoped the strips would encourage drivers to stick to the speed limit.

Because, apparently, the melody would only play when drivers are driving at the right speed. Except, as officials concede later in the article, that’s not even true. If you drive at a different speed, the melody still plays — just at a different speed. Perhaps drivers may even speed up just to end the din more quickly.

What a terrible idea!

This article also contains a brilliant video from Tom Scott demonstrating an even more disastrous version of the same idea, in California.

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The strange death of libertarian EnglandChris DillowStumbling and Mumbling

Related to the idea that British people just aren’t interested in liberal ideas at the moment, Chris Dillow wonders whatever happened to right-libertarianism.

The Tories won on policies that repudiated many of their professed beliefs: a higher minimum wage; increased public spending; and the manpower planning that is a points-based immigration policy.

After outlining some reasons why this shift has occurred, he notes some less respectable explanations:

One is that we have lost the cast of mind which underpins right-libertarianism — that of an awareness of the limits of one’s knowledge. We need freedom, thought [Friedrich] Hayek, because we cannot fully understand or predict society…

We live, however, in an age of narcissistic blowhards who are overconfident about everything. This is a climate which undervalues freedom.

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Opera: Phantom of the TurnaroundHindenburg Research

Screenshot of one of Opera's predatory loan apps from the Google Play store

If you still have the Opera web browser installed anywhere, now might be the time to stop.

With its browser business in decline, cash flow deteriorating (and balance sheet cash finding its way into management’s hands…), Opera has decided to embark on a dramatic business pivot: predatory short-term lending in Africa and Asia.

The article goes on to outline evidence of some seriously dodgy practices. What a sad end to the Opera story.

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Things Fall ApartMark O’Neill

This articulates something I’ve been pondering for a while. Is the current political climate the result of a gradual erosion of the unwritten rules of civil society?

It turns out that the Civil Society in Britain is built on very shaky foundations. In the past few months we have seen the illegal suspension of Parliament, an act that carried no consequences whatsoever; we have seen Civil Servants bullied out of their jobs by politicians who were then rewarded for their harassment by promotion and increased status; we have seen the government spend £100s of millions on trying to deny the consequences of its own policy on Brexit and, in doing so, do possibly irreparable damage to the global reputation of the UK.

The post also makes an interesting point about how the BBC covers the UK in a way that assumes it is a stable democracy, and turns a blind eye to developments that would see other countries being scrutinised heavily.

Leaders in the past were guided by a strong sense of right and wrong — doing what’s right in the name of stability. Those days are now gone.

Via Strategic Reading

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The complex task of simplicityPaul Taylor

Sainsbury's Basics food packaging - washing powder, flower, canned tomatoes

It is human nature to add things, making them more complex. This feels like you’re doing something, but actually you’re probably making the situation worse.

We see this in web design. People like adding pages to their websites because it feels productive. But actually, the most effective websites are the ones with fewer, simpler pages.

The same can be true for any design, including the way we structure our work.

We often anchor around the wrong thing. That’s why some big institutions have no chance — they are hit by random plans and transformations rather than anchoring around purpose and iteration.

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It is easy to despair. But I say let’s foster hope insteadJo SwinsonLiberal Democrats

Jo Swinson

I found this a difficult election result to digest. Never would I have expected the Liberal Democrats to get fewer than 20 MPs, never mind with one fewer MP than at the last election.

Given that they increased their share of the vote, there is clearly a strategy problem at play. (My previous post suggests some serious organisational problems as well.) Uniquely, they increased their share of the vote in every region of the UK.

But it’s also difficult to escape the conclusion that voters are simply not interested in (or convinced by) liberal ideas at the moment.

It would be arrogant to assume that the voters are wrong. Yet, Jo Swinson was right to boldly stand up for liberal ideas of openness, tolerance and bringing communities together.

She is also right to highlight that Labour are every bit as dangerous as the other nationalist parties — the Conservatives and the SNP. Those parties are all dealing in the politics of easy answers — blaming others, and seeking to divide rather than unite people.

There’s a big challenge ahead. The ideas are not wrong, and we must fight for them. But liberals must figure out how to sell this story more convincingly.

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Why xHamster is so much better at content moderation than FacebookLux AlptraumOneZero

A clue on how social media can be better regulated, by looking at the porn industry.

Before anything can be posted to an adult site, it must be rigorously screened to make sure it’s not opening the site up to legal liability…

“Because we’re very aggressive in our patrol of content, the criminals know not to use us.”

It suggests that major social media services can have an active moderation policy and still “survive — even thrive”.

…given some of the horrors that the existing version of Facebook has unleashed, it’s worth considering whether a version of the site that had focused more on moderation and less on rapid growth might have been better for us all.

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Labour’s broadband plan won’t work — but let’s have a national debate to find a plan that doesBryan GlickComputer Weekly Editor’s Blog

A balanced piece that considers the pros and cons of Labour’s proposal to nationalise Openreach and promise free broadband for all.

What’s notable is that the only reason we’ve reached this stage is because of the utter failure of BT to do this job properly (particularly in rural areas). It is constantly being “dragged kicking and screaming” to do the basics. This has left the UK needlessly lagging behind.

Still, they’ve got the Champions League rights, huh?

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The Liberal Democrats need to stand firm if Corbyn is to be kept out of Downing StreetCharlotte HenryTheArticle

Jo Swinson campaigning with other Liberal Democrats

Why the Liberal Democrats are right to put candidates up against Labour.

Never mind that Labour would use its majority, should it get one, to negotiate a Brexit deal, and potentially campaign for it – to campaign for Brexit. This is an institutionally antisemitic organisation. It has, for years now, failed to tackle this issue. It is absolutely not suitable to be a party of government. The Liberal Democrats must play no part in helping put it there.

The idea that the Labour Party would be any less problematic than the Conservatives is deeply odd. Even beyond the frankly fanciful notion that Labour would put any effort into stopping Brexit, their appalling record on antisemitism makes them truly beyond the pale.

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Photo — 2019-11-09

Blurred-out photo of Labour leaflets that don't mention Labour

Received two big leaflets from our local Labour MP. But you have to get the microscope out to find out which party he’s from. Maybe it’s to practice looking for their votes.

Also, zero mention of Brexit-enabling Jeremy Corbyn.

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Agile is not a solved problemSam HogarthScott Logic

A reflection on the Agile Manifesto, 18 years on, “making it old enough to drink in pubs”.

The point about the “subtle use of language” in the original Agile Manifesto particularly resonated with me.

When you read it, its simplicity is striking, and it’s actually difficult to disagree with any of it.

The problem is, simple doesn’t sell textbooks, training or consultancy. So over time, agile has been bastardised to become this monstrosity (courtesy of Deloitte).

Deloitte's Agile Landscape v3 - an impenetrable mapping of agile methods depicted as a subway map

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The tipping point: Who is best placed to do strategic design?Anish Joshi

If you can bear another article about whether non-designers should get involved in design work, this isn’t a bad one.

Designers — if you think strategic design is a realm reserved just for you, I’m afraid not.

Other professionals — if you think you can just pick up strategic design like any other general skill, then I’m afraid not.

…the best and most effective use and impact for many people, is actually just to incorporate design thinking techniques into their day jobs.

I have long held the view that user experience is best thought of not as a role, but as a mindset. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for professional designers and user researchers — there absolutely is. But anyone can adopt the techniques and set off on the journey to become more user-centred.

We should encourage more people to do so.

Via Katie Murrie.

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Why much of the internet is closed off to blind peopleJames JeffreyBBC News

Visually impaired person using the web

The most notable thing about this article is the sorry list of weak excuses offered up by businesses who can’t be bothered to make their websites accessible.

“…a blind person can always ring Domino’s toll-free number and order that way…”
Why should they have to?
“…there is no clear objective guidance on what constitutes an ‘accessible’ website.”
O rly?
“The online environment was never intended to be covered by the ADA…”
Says who?

How about just doing the basics that will help include your customers, and your fellow human beings?

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The Technology God is fakeGerry McGovern

In the grand delusion that is Brexit, the grandest delusion of all is the Brexiteers’ fawning adoration of the Technology God. According to Brexiteers, the Technology God will banish all problems, particularly those associated with the border on the island of Ireland. Grand Boffo Johnson ascended the mountain, and the Technology God conveyed the message that there existed no need for a border because the Technology God would solve everything. No evidence, no detail required, just faith in the Technology God.

Outsourcing your decision-making to vague promises from technology is a way of avoiding thinking about the people your policies will impact.

Technology isn’t neutral. It’s only as good as the intentions behind it. Technology is created by humans. It impacts humans. If you’re creating the technology, you must think of the impact on your fellow humans.

As people say in the technology world, “garbage in, garbage out”.

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Boris Johnson’s secret plan to gather “targeted and personalised” data before BrexitAlex SpenceBuzzFeed News

Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has secretly ordered the Cabinet Office to turn the government’s public internet service into a platform for “targeted and personalised information” to be gathered in the run-up to Brexit, BuzzFeed News has learned.

In a move that has alarmed Whitehall officials, the prime minister has instructed departments to share data they collect about usage of the GOV.UK portal so that it can feed into preparations for leaving the European Union at the end of next month.

This is why I am unlikely ever to work for a government.

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Do MotoGP riders get depressed?Mat OxleyMotor Sport Magazine

Johann Zarco listening to a mechanic

In the wake of Johann Zarco’s request to be released from his contract with KTM, Mat Oxley uncovers a side of MotoGP riders not often talked about.

Do MotoGP riders — surely some of the strongest people on Earth — get depressed? Of course they do! Motorcycle racing may be a macho game, but machismo never stopped anyone getting depressed, quite the opposite, in fact.

It’s also fascinating to see Valentino Rossi talking so openly about his mental health issues when he raced for Ducati.

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