1. Did Flaubert foresee Google Earth?

    Posted January 2, 2013 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    In Gustave Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple (1877), Félicité’s nephew Victor has travelled to Havana. An uneducated and illiterate domestic servant, Félicité doesn’t know where Havana is and can’t form a mental picture of her nephew’s whereabouts, so she asks the solicitor Bourais to show her on a map.

    He reached for his atlas… picked up his pencil and pointed to an almost invisible black dot in one of the little indentations in the contour of an oval-shaped patch on the map. ‘Here it is,’ he said. Félicité peered closely at the map. The network of coloured lines was a strain on her eyes, but it told her nothing. Bourais asked her what was puzzling her and she asked him if he could show her the house in which Victor was living. Bourais raised his arms in the air, sneezed and roared with laughter, delighted to come across someone so simple-minded.

    Poor Félicité: she wasn’t simple-minded, she was just ahead of her time. If Bourais had a laptop running Google Earth her request would have been perfectly reasonable.

    Havana on Google Maps Satellite view

  2. A masterclass in subtle obfuscation

    Posted November 1, 2012 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    The apology Apple published after losing a UK court case to Samsung has not gone down well with the judge who told them to publish it. If you’ve read it you probably won’t be very surprised.

    The statement was meant to clarify that the Galaxy Tab did not copy the design of the iPad as Apple had claimed. Instead, it mainly painted Apple in a positive light by talking about cases in other countries that had gone in the company’s favour and quoting the judge’s favourable comments about the iPad. It didn’t take a legal expert to realise that the court would want to have a word about it.

    Looking past the specifics of this case, however, there’s something to be learnt from how the statement is written – especially its first section, which contains what is effectively the legal payload of the entire message. Here are the first two paragraphs:

    On 9th July 2012 the High Court of Justice of England and Wales ruled that Samsung Electronic (UK) Limited’s Galaxy Tablet Computer, namely the Galaxy Tab 10.1, Tab 8.9 and Tab 7.7 do not infringe Apple’s registered design No. 0000181607-0001. A copy of the full judgment of the High court is available on the following link www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Patents/2012/1882.html.

    In the ruling, the judge made several important points comparing the designs of the Apple and Samsung products:
    “The extreme simplicity of the Apple design is striking. Overall it has undecorated flat surfaces with a plate of glass on the front all the way out to a very thin rim and a blank back…”

    The most artful thing about the statement isn’t the point-scoring that follows (and which I’ve not included – see the full wording here) but the placement of the legally required statement within a thicket of technical-looking jargon that acts like chaff to the reader.

    The eye starts tripping over the words as the various Galaxy Tab model numbers are repeated and then, upon detecting the intimidating-looking patent number a bit later on, decides to move on the more welcoming second paragraph. With any luck many readers will abandon that first paragraph before they read the three legally meaningful words – “do not infringe”.

    Here’s that first paragraph again with the legal payload highlighted; see how it hides away from the reader, surrounded by stuff that your eye just wants to avoid:

    On 9th July 2012 the High Court of Justice of England and Wales ruled that Samsung Electronic (UK) Limited’s Galaxy Tablet Computer, namely the Galaxy Tab 10.1, Tab 8.9 and Tab 7.7 do not infringe Apple’s registered design No. 0000181607-0001. A copy of the full judgment of the High court is available on the following link www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Patents/2012/1882.html.

    It’s a deceptively simple trick but one that any devious writer would do well to master. If you’ve got an unwelcome message to deliver, boil its essence down to the smallest combination of words as possible, put it in a much longer and generally upbeat text, then clog up the sentence around the unwelcome words with as many numbers, hyphens and other gibberish as possible.

    Next time you have an awkward email to write, why not give it a go? Although admittedly it may be difficult to pad an “it’s not me it’s you” type of email with technical specifications and patent numbers…

  3. When cyclists jump a red light, it’s not just their safety at risk

    Posted August 25, 2012 in ephemera  |  1 Comment so far

    Yesterday I was coming home from work on my bike. I rode up Goswell Road, then turned right on to the cycle lane that connects City Road with St John Street, keeping cyclists at a safe distance from Angel junction and its constant, deadly game of bus Tetris.

    If you cycle from north or east London into the centre you might know this cycle lane. It’s shared with pedestrians and has a few red lights where it crosses the major roads. You never have to wait all that long at the red lights, but being London cyclists, it’s fairly common to see people jumping them anyway.

    So yesterday I was waiting at the red light on City Road, facing east, when one cyclist zipped past me. I did my usual thing of tutting but the road was quiet so it didn’t seem like much of a big deal. Then another cyclist came past. She crossed on to the northbound lane of City Road right into the path of an oncoming bus, which was – quite legitimately – about to drive through the green light we were waiting at.

    The next bit seemed to happen in slow motion. An emergency stop was carried out by the bus driver, and the bus tipped forward as it came to a halt. The cyclist didn’t stop, but instead continued on a bit more slowly, looking at the bus in confusion, perhaps wondering if the bus was the transgressor. Another waiting cyclist behind me shouted “idiot!”, which probably cleared things up for her. She cycled off.

    I looked inside the bus. The driver looked rattled. Buses that do crash stops are dangerous places, especially at rush hour – when gravity goes horizontal all of a sudden and people start flying along the aisle, serious injuries can happen. Luckily though this bus was nearly empty so it didn’t look as though anyone on it was hurt.

    The cyclist who caused that bus to do a hard stop may or may not have considered the safety of the bus passengers. What seems more surprising is that she didn’t seem to consider her own safety either. There are enough dangers facing cyclists in London, enough deaths and injuries, but it doesn’t help at all when cyclists put themselves and others in danger to shave a couple of seconds off their journey time.

    The guy who shouted “idiot!” had a point.

  4. Would you buy a used laptop from this man?

    Posted August 17, 2012 in ephemera  |  4 Comments so far

    “It fell off the back of a lorry, honest”
    "It fell off the back of a lorry"

  5. Cheese or Font (slight return)

    Posted July 25, 2012 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    Does it break the game if the answer is “both”?

    Cheese or Font (slight return)

  6. Pattern recognition, LEGO, interaction design and the Simpsons

    Posted January 23, 2012 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve written a piece on the Tobias & Tobias blog about pattern recognition, inspired by this amazing example of streamlined visual communication:

    LEGO Simpsons

    I'm sure you don't need to be told what these shapes represent

    This image gives our brain the chance to show off one of its most impressive skills – pattern recognition. Pattern recognition allows us to understand complicated things even when we’re only given limited information about them. So even though the object on the right is made up of three Lego bricks, representing only nine bits of information, pattern recognition makes our brain ‘see’ something far more intricate…

    Read the full piece here.

  7. Drew Breunig about the creeping, corrupting allure of ‘content’

    Posted January 13, 2012 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    This article by Drew Breunig about the growing emphasis on “content” is worth a read.

    Lots of organisations today have stopped thinking about themselves as creating photography or literature or artworks or music or whatnot. Eclipsing these old categories is the notion of “content”, a more fungible substance whose value can be easily determined by a uniform set of metrics such as page views or revenue-per-impression:

    This is the allure of “content”: it allows comforting, structured data which simplifies the complexity of a large business and makes decisions less intimidating. Executives aren’t making qualitative picks regarding art or an artist, they’re merely signing off on whichever “content” produces more valuable metrics.

    Breunig’s central point is that good writing is good for reasons that are difficult to quantify – something that’s always been the case, but is especially pertinent now that we have modern metrics for determining content’s “effectiveness”. These modern metrics don’t tell us much about the content’s intrinsic quality, nor help us respond correctly when these metrics take a nosedive.

    It’s true that when we look at a piece of online content these days we’re like EEG-wired chimpanzees being given fruit in an experimental research lab. What feels to us like a simple transaction (you want the content, you ask for it, you’re given it) is in fact taking place under the bright glare of forensic analysis, with a dizzying array of analytics algorithms, advertising platforms and social networking hooks lurking underneath the source code watching our every move. What’s important to us – the content itself – is increasingly irrelevant to the content providers, who are more interested in the metrics we generate for them.

    Thankfully, though, this isn’t a fatalistic condemnation of a corrupted artless modern world:

    All this would be tremendously depressing if it wasn’t creating an enormous opportunity for people with the courage to look beyond the numbers, where it’s too messy to measure, and invest in journalism, videos, photography, and art people might actually enjoy.

    I agree with Drew here – people are able to tell the difference between SEO-gaming hackery and decent writing, and in the long run the smart money is on them choosing the latter. Read the full article here.

  8. Diane Abbott uses the nu-around

    Posted January 3, 2012 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    I used to call this the “new media around” but nowadays I prefer the label “nu-business around”, coined by Max Duley:

    “They’re calling this public health but it’s just a glorified advertisement for big business. This is a government that doesn’t take its responsibility around public health seriously.” (emphasis mine)

    That’s Diane Abbott talking about the government’s Change 4 Life public health campaign. What’s wrong with saying “responsibility for public health”? This ‘around’ thing isn’t going away any time soon.

  9. Eating your boxer shorts on live TV

    Posted November 18, 2011 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    When reading that the “neutrino cheat” is still working after a second experiment I was reminded of this quote from Professor Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey:

    “[If these results] …prove to be correct and neutrinos have broken the speed of light, I will eat my boxer shorts on live TV”

    My first thought was, well maybe after this new development he’ll have to eat his boxer shorts on live TV after all, and won’t that be fun to watch.

    But then my second thought was, what self-respecting TV station is going to broadcast a physics professor eating a pair of boxer shorts? It just seems unrealistic, doesn’t it? I mean, the BBC isn’t about to cut short an episode of Eastenders so that this important event in the nation’s cultural life can be recorded for posterity.

    Even if Professor Al-Khalili is proved wrong he won’t be eating his boxer shorts on live TV, and I’m sure he knows it. The “live TV” part of his promise is a clever ploy, intended to make us think he’s confident when he really isn’t. And it nearly worked on me. The guy’s clearly smart. I guess that’s why he’s a professor.

    Anyway, I bet he’d love to eat a pair of boxers shorts on live TV so he can be the next Kevin Warwick. He might as well have said “I’ll eat my boxer shorts on the moon”. I bet he’d love to go to the moon even if he had to eat a pair of boxer shorts when he was there. I know I would.

  10. Sinthpop – is it a musical genre or is it just a typo?

    Posted November 9, 2011 in ephemera  |  3 Comments so far

    In a café on Upper Street I saw a poster for a club night. It seemed innocent and unremarkable but my eye kept being drawn to it for some reason. Then I realised why:

    80' night with Sinthpop

    Ironic or accidental?

    There are two things wrong with the poster.

    The first is that it says “80′ the way it should be” when presumably it’s supposed to say “80’s the way it should be”. This is obviously a typo.

    But the second one is more mystifying – “Sinthpop” instead of “Synthpop”. At first you might think it’s a typo as well, but maybe it isn’t? Maybe “sinthpop” isn’t a typo but is in fact a genre of music? Does anyone know?

    If it is, it wouldn’t be the first time a typo gave rise to a genre of music. In the early 1990s some people mis-spelt the word “techno” as “tekno” and before long “tekno” became a distinct genre which even has its own Wikipedia page.

    So maybe “sinthpop” is the same. Maybe it’s pop music with a sinful nature. Maybe “It’s a Sin” by The Pet Shop Boys is a seminal sinthpop track. Stranger things have happened.

    I know I could use Google to answer these questions but I don’t want to. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.