1. Battling the weaponised drones of popular opinion

    Posted November 3, 2014 in comment, politics, twitter  |  No Comments so far

    Kevin at Strange Attractor on what the tactics of Gamergaters tell us about the future of online political discourse.

    When you look at the techniques being used by some of these groups, you quickly get a sense of how the next partisan political scorched earth campaign will be fought. Sockpuppets will become the weaponised drones of popular opinion, amplifying marginal views so that they swamp mainstream opinion.

    The article’s broadly pessimistic tone resonates with me, but I feel more positive when thinking about the countermeasures that could protect against these tactics. The Eliza chatbot set up to engage these sock puppets is just one example, acting more as chaff—attracting attackers and wasting their resources—than as an offensive weapon.

    If ideas like that proliferate and evolve we might just escape a future where we have to abandon the web to swarms of hate-spewing bots.


  2. Something strange is going on at the bus stop on Southgate Road

    Posted October 30, 2014 in London, transport  |  1 Comment so far

    Every now and again I get the bus down to Moorgate. This involves going to a stop on Southgate Road where three suitable buses regularly turn up.

    It’s an unremarkable bus stop by Islington standards. There’s no Countdown machine—these are being phased out now that we all have direct synaptic links to TfL’s data feeds—but it does have a roof, and a thin red bench, and the nearest overpriced delicatessen is just fifteen seconds away.

    So far, so normal. But if you come to this bus stop during rush hour on a rainy weekday morning, you will see something very strange indeed.

    A bus queue. In London. In 2014.

    A bus queue. In London. In 2014.

    London is a place where the bus queue died out long ago. It got replaced by a new system for deciding who boards first. It’s a system that we all understand but could never describe. One thing we do know about it, however, is that it doesn’t involve what is shown in that picture.

    What is shown in that picture—a single-file queue that takes up an alarming length of the pavement—is what I’d expect to see in the event of a tube line being shut down, a nuclear strike on the capital, or a sudden influx of zombies. It’s crisis behaviour.

    When I first saw it, my first thought was that something terrible must have happened. I considered walking, or getting a taxi, or just running away as fast as I could. But curiosity overcame fear and I took my place in the queue. And you know what? It worked pretty well.

    The first bus was so busy we couldn’t get on. Stress levels rose. The second bus was stern, keeping its front doors shut until a few passengers had stumbled out, at which point the queue was able to shuffle forward a bit. That felt better. Then the third bus turned up practically empty and we were on so quickly I could barely get my Oyster card out in time.

    Now, when I arrive at the bus stop and see that the single-file queue has formed, I am eminently relaxed about it. I can’t say the same for the new people who, seeing it for the first time, stare open-mouthed in shock and devastation, just as I did. But they’ll get over it.


  3. If Only Your Icon Would Take This A Bit More Seriously

    Posted October 7, 2014 in user centred design  |  No Comments so far

    The other day I wanted to find out if I could move Skype credit from one account to another. If I could, I’d have been fairly happy as I’d have saved money. A quick Google found this page on the Skype website:

    Bad icons

    Yes, you did answer my question—but I’m not happy about it


    It was slightly jarring to see the happy-face icon beaming at me like a puppy seeking approval. Yes, you did answer the question, little website, but it wasn’t the answer I wanted. Can you please stop grinning?

    Sometimes the substance of an answer is more important to the reader than its clarity or precision.


  4. “If Everyone Jumped Off a Cliff…” — A New Perspective

    Posted October 3, 2014 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    In late 2012 I appeared on one of those comedy-panel quiz TV programmes. It didn’t get commissioned, thank god, so you won’t have heard of it. In front of the studio audience, Sara Cox cracked a joke about the graphics I’d made for my tube seat strategy post of 2011. The good news, dear reader, is that I managed to come up with a witty and suitably risqué retort. But the bad news is that it only came to me in the summer of 2014, approximately eighteen months too late.

    In the early 1980s I was in junior school. Something happened—I forget what it was—which prompted a teacher to say to me, “if everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?”

    She didn’t expect an answer, of course, and I didn’t offer one. But last night, fully thirty years after she posed this rhetorical question to me, I finally thought of a retort. Here it is.

    “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, and I decided not to, what kind of world would be left for me, an eight-year-old child, to live in? After all, everyone else would have jumped off a cliff: my loved ones, my friends, the adults I rely on for food, wisdom and emotional support—not to mention all those others who keep society’s wheels turning.

    Yes, I might go home and, for a time, enjoy the unbounded access to toys and property offered by a landscape newly bereft of a human civilisation which had recently chosen to jump, en masse, off a cliff. But before long starvation, depression and insanity would surely begin to take their toll. How long would I last? And how lonely and drawn-out would the end be for me, when it finally came? Perhaps, then, to have jumped off that cliff, along with everyone else, might have been the best thing after all.”

    I’m sure you’ll agree that my teacher would have struggled for a comeback if my eight-year-old self had come up with that. It’s a shame it took so long to think of though. Compared to that, my Sara Cox retort was lightning fast.


  5. Possibly the most enigmatic wayfinding device ever

    Posted September 28, 2014 in ephemera  |  1 Comment so far

    While walking around my new office the other day I came across this mysterious wayfinding device.

    "You can go in one of two directions"

    “You can go in one of two directions”

    You can go left and you can also go right. But what will you find?

    Ah, now that would ruin the surprise.


  6. A track I made called “Birthday”

    Posted September 22, 2014 in music  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve been meaning to get back into making music for a while now. Here’s a track I made over the weekend, called “Birthday”. It’s been described by those in the know as “a bit Cbeebies.”


  7. Alex Salmond

    Posted September 20, 2014 in politics  |  No Comments so far

    Alex Salmond resigned as First Minister of Scotland yesterday, having failed to win the referendum on Scottish independence.

    He was fighting against the might of the Westminster establishment, the media (no newspapers supported him), the major financial institutions and the vested interests of the wealthy in this country.

    His opponents used the weapons they know best—negativity, condescension and intimidation—and did not hold back.

    Despite all this he gained the support of 45% of Scots, and a majority in Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow, backed his vision of an independent nation in charge of its future. To have done so in the face of that level of opposition is a huge achievement, and I hope history will recognise that.


  8. The worst yes/no dialog ever

    Posted September 8, 2014 in ephemera, user centred design  |  No Comments so far

    If I was better organised and had more time to spare, I’d collect pictures of dodgy dialog boxes and probably set up a tumblr for them.

    As it is, I only take these pictures when I come across a particularly dodgy example. Here’s one.

    "Yes to abort, No to continue"

    “Yes to abort, No to continue”

    It appeared when trying to buy petrol from a self-service machine. You’re quite stressed in those situations as you sometimes have a queue of cars waiting for you to get on with it. The last thing you need is a woeful piece of design like this that forces you to lay aside your preconceived notions of what “Yes,” “No” and big red X’s actually mean.


  9. The gap is growing between London house prices and what you might call reality

    Posted February 26, 2014 in London, visualisation  |  No Comments so far

    During lunchtime, for a laugh, I downloaded this spreadsheet and made a chart from it.

    The data in the spreadsheet shows the house-price to earnings ratio for all London boroughs, from 1997 to 2013. This number tells us how affordable local property is for people who live and work in a particular area.

    In an ideal world you’d want it to be relatively stable—if property is expensive in one high-income area and cheap in another low-income area they might still have similar house-price/earnings ratios. And over time, you would want salaries and house prices to go up or down more or less together—if you wanted the affordability of property to remain constant, that is.

    Anyway, here’s the chart. You’ll need to click on it to see the full-size version.

    House price to earnings ratio in inner London boroughs

    House price to earnings ratio in inner London boroughs

    The biggest surprise for me upon making this was not so much that this ratio has grown over the years, or the fact that this growth has occurred in every borough. It’s more that the gap between boroughs has become so vast.


  10. Meeting chicken

    Posted January 17, 2014 in office  |  2 Comments so far

    You have a regular meeting in your calendar. It’s with just one other person. Sometimes you have things to talk to them about and sometimes you don’t. But as long as your calendar says you both have to go, you will both go.

    The day of the meeting comes round. There are lots of things that need to be done that day. You look at that meeting sitting obstinately in your calendar and think how useful it would be to get that time back.

    Inspiration strikes: why not cancel the meeting? A couple of mouse clicks, an automatic notification sent out, a joyously blank calendar. It seems so easy.

    But you can’t bring yourself to do it, to cancel a meeting at such short notice. It would make you look disorganised, unprepared. And what about the other person? They might have lots of important things to discuss with you. Maybe they’re really looking forward to the meeting; maybe they’ve worn smart clothes they otherwise wouldn’t have worn, or have regretfully cancelled other interesting meetings in order to have this one with you. How would they feel, if that was indeed the case, about you sending a cancellation out of the blue like that?

    So you get your head down and try to make the most of the productive time you have, although it’s hard to concentrate because you have one eye on the clock. The time is approaching when you’ll need to drop everything and go to this meeting. The meeting hasn’t even happened yet and it’s already wreaking havoc on your day.

    It’s now only five minutes until you need to leave. And, suddenly, your computer makes a bleeping noise or a swooshing noise or whatever noise it makes when you receive a new email. You look up from your keyboard.

    Meeting cancellation

    They blinked first

    Congratulations: you have just won a game of Meeting Chicken.