How the internet is trying to design out toxic behaviour


A few years ago, Facebook managers noticed a rush of complaints from users about friends posting photographs of them that they didn’t like. The pictures weren’t explicit; they just reminded users of something they would rather forget, or made them look stupid. These complaints were invariably rejected because no rules had been broken, yet friendships were being strained as a result. “We tried saying, ‘Why don’t you just message the person?’, but people didn’t quite know what to say,” says Milner, adding tactfully that not everybody “has the social skills” to resolve such petty squabbles. So, Facebook introduced social reporting, which works like a teacher gently helping kids in a playground dispute to resolve things between themselves. Complainants get a template message to send to their friend, explaining how the picture makes them feel and asking politely for its removal. Usually, that’s all it takes – it is, says Milner, “helping you have an empathetic response” that leaves everyone feeling good. “We set up our systems to encourage people to be nice – to think about things before you post.” It’s a classic example of what BJ Fogg, a Stanford-based behavioural scientist who specialises in the psychology of Facebook, calls persuasive design: if you want people to do something, don’t explain why, just show them how. Humans learn by imitation, which means modelling nice behaviour beats lecturing people to be nice.

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How to write the shortest joke in the world

A deer

Quite an interesting article here on how to write short jokes, which should also be of use to writers, especially advertising copywriters.

It begins by suggesting that one of the funniest and shortest jokes is Jimmy Carr’s ‘venison’s dear, isn’t it?’.

Micro-gags like Carr’s also illustrate a central tenet of classical joke craft: for some jokes to work, the teller must remove certain details from the transmission. In the joke above, the spoken information is just four words: (1) venison’s (2) dear (3) isn’t (4) it. Everything else, everything that makes the joke a joke – “venison meat comes from deer, and is also quite expensive, so you could say that deer is dear” – is carefully omitted. This extra information is called the exformation – deliberately discarded, but semantically essential detail. Carr’s joke simply wouldn’t work if all the exformation was included with the transmitted information. But why?

By whittling away the joke to its leanest form and leaving the rest implied through exformation, Carr invites the audience to connect up the dots. Our servile brains jump at the chance to fill in the blanks – automatically and with synaptic haste – and it’s this that makes us laugh. I’m not sure that we have the philosophical or scientific tools to understand exactly why this is, but it probably comes down to an atavistic pleasure mechanism where our neural circuitry is rewarded for empathic behaviour. In other words, the laughter is your brain patting itself on the back for catching Carr’s drift. What could be more social, more communal and more team-building than reading another’s thoughts and understanding more or less what they mean? Certainly, pseudo-mindreading like this would have been evolutionarily advantageous for our ancestors waging war with elemental beasts out there on the pre-metropolitan plains.

Read the full article here

Walden for the 21st century – Kickstarter plan to update Thoreau

Walden Pond

A Kickstarter project is seeking support to publish an ‘updated’ version of Thoreau’s Walden. I’ve backed it, because I like the idea of helping people read the book by making the language more accessible.


Typically, the feedback has not been positive with charges of dumbing down. But what’s more important, that a book remains unread by all but a few, or that its message is more widely understood? I have several ‘translations’ of texts written in other languages: Dante’s Divine Comedy, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, several Chinese novels. And in Italy, Russia and China many people have translations of Shakespeare, Harry Potter and Agatha Christie. And, I’m guessing, Thoreau.

I also have, somewhere, a copy of Romeo and Juliet with the original on one side and an ‘updated’ version on the other for use by schoolchildren. This approach has a long heritage.

Nobody is replacing the original. And they’re not saying the new version is better than the original. It’s just a way of making it more accessible.

In the days before recorded music, major orchestral works were transcribed for piano or chamber groups so they could be performed at home. Liszt transcribed Beethoven’s symphonies, and I’ve heard a chamber version of Mahler’s fourth symphony written by the composer himself. This isn’t dumbing down, it’s levelling up.

There’s no point in treasuring cultural artefacts if in doing so you restrict others from experiencing them.

The Guardian reported on the project:

The poet Robert Frost found that “in one book … [Thoreau] surpasses everything we have had in America”. But according to John Updike, “Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset … that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible”. Now the designer and writer Matt Steel is setting out to address Walden’s declining readership, with a new edition of the public domain text that adapts Thoreau’s 19th-century language for modern readers. Steel launched a Kickstarter to raise funds for his project on Tuesday, aiming to raise $104,000 (£72,000) to print 2,000 cloth hardback, illustrated copies of his adapted version. The finished book is due out in spring 2017 if the campaign is successful. I want to shorten the distance between 1854 and today so that the lyrical beauty of this excellent text can shine “While widely quoted, Walden is rarely read anymore, and our society’s familiarity with the story is fading,” Steel said. “My theory is that there’s nothing wrong with the story. It’s the 19th-century language that’s problematic. By creating an updated version of Walden, I want to create more opportunities for other people’s lives to be enriched by this book.”

I think that’s a noble aim.

Sadly, I just discovered that because of the negative feedback, Matt has decided to produce an annotated version of the book instead. I think that’s a mistake. Annotated books are for scholars – valuable but not exactly accessible to the lay reader. I hope he changes his mind again and returns to the project people backed in the first place.

Punctuation matters: See how novels look without words


It’s an author’s words, rather than their punctuation, that we think of as defining their style. But as Adam J. Calhoun found out this week, the periods, colons, semicolons, and commas a writer uses can have just as much impact on their output as their choice of language. In a Medium post, Calhoun stripped the words out of some of his favorite books, leaving them as streams of pure punctuation. The results showed a stark contrast between the way authors use the tools in their texts, with some exhibiting a preference for dialogue, some using commas and semicolons to construct breathless sentences, and some making almost exclusive use of the most common marks to tell their stories.

Via The Verge

BBC Record Review 20 February 2016

This is the playlist for the 20 February 2016 edition of BBC Radio 3’s Record Review. As usual, the items listed here as not available on Apple Music may well appear after broadcast and I’ll come back occasionally to update it.

You can access the whole playlist using this link (all 10.5 hours of it). Alternatively, individual albums are listed below. You’ll need an Apple Music subscription – the first three months are free.

Is Apple Music worth it?
I have to say, it’s the best £10 a month I’ve ever spent; it’s saved me hundreds of pounds already and helped me listen to music I otherwise would never have found. So yes, I’d say it’s worth it!

Song Info

Paris Joyeux & Triste Alexei Lubimov (piano), Slava Poprugin (piano)Water Music Suites Nos. 1-3

Continue reading BBC Record Review 20 February 2016

More thoughts on digital design education

I was invited to share my thoughts on digital design education over on Medium as a contribution to the Interaction Design Education conference being held at the end of the month in Helsinki.

It’s a more considered response to the original article that sparked all this off – this time with some rather interesting facts and figures that demolish the argument that digital design education is ‘broken’.

For example:

According to the Design Council, digital design contributed £30 billion to the UK economy and £12 billion in exports in 2013. This grew 39.3% domestically and 58.3% globally from 2009–13. It the fastest growing design sector in the UK representing one in four design companies operating in the UK and employing 608,000 people (nearly 40% higher than in 2009). 68% of those working in digital design have a degree or higher — the largest proportion of all design disciplines.

Head on over to Medium to read the article, and please add your voice – whether you agree or not:

No, digital design education is not broken

Statue inspires ducking protestors

An actual mallard, after which the famous train was named.
An actual mallard, after which the famous train was named.

According to The Guardian, all is not well in the train aficionado community:

A statue of Sir Nigel Gresley is due to be unveiled in April, marking the 75th anniversary of the death of the designer of the Mallard steam engine. But there is a risk that his achievements will be eclipsed by an arcane dispute that started in the letters pages of local and national newspapers and quickly escalated on social media. At the heart of the row is the decision by the Gresley Society to drop its commitment for the statue’s original design to include a mallard at Sir Nigel’s feet. Campaigners are plotting to make their own avian additions when the 7ft-high bronze of Gresley, commissioned from sculptor Hazel Reeves, is unveiled at London’s King’s Cross station on 5 April.

So basically, the idea was to put a duck at the base of the statue as a reference to the Mallard, the famous steam engine. The Gresley Society dropped this after raising a lot of money on the back of the idea. Now campaigners are threatening to put plastic ducks on the statue at every opportunity.

Sir Nigel Grisley. Not a duck.

Here’s the thing. You’re walking with your kids through King’s Cross Station and there’s the Harry Potter trolley attraction (which now seems to have a permanent queue even late at night) or a statue of a famous, but not that well-known, engineer. Which is likely to fire their imagination more? The statue of the engineer, or the statue of the man with the duck? Which one encourages your kids to learn about the story of the man’s achievements? It’s the duck.

The Mallard. Not a duck.
The Mallard. Not a duck.

This seems to be an example of design (or redesign) by committee. A really good idea gets dismissed because someone thinks it’s silly. But the duck was a masterstroke. What a shame it’s been ditched.

Ducking idiots.

US road signs ditch new font for old

image by CountyLemonade on Twitter

The Verge reports on changes to road signs in the USA:

Unless you’re a typography buff, you might not have noticed the new font that’s been popping up on highway signs over the past decade. It’s called Clearview and it’s been around since 2004. For much of its life, researchers (including its designer, Meeker & Associates) believed the font could provide for better legibility at night and at longer distances. But, it turns out, later research has not backed up this initial belief. It turns out that all that research suggesting the new font might be more legible was more due to the fact that older, worn signs were being replaced with nice, fresh, clean signs which were, naturally, more legible. Clearview also made legibility worse on signs with what’s called negative-contrast color orientations — dark letters on light backgrounds — like speed limit or yellow warning signs. As such, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is killing off Clearview after 12 years, and all new highway signs again be labeled in Highway Gothic, the old standard font.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how simple things like roadsigns can make you feel at home, or far from it. When I visited Limerick in the Republic of Ireland about ten years ago, almost everything made me feel like I was still in the UK. The only thing that made me think ‘I’m in a foreign country’ were the road signs and road markings which were almost – but ever so slightly not – the same as in Britain.

And of course we always think our own approach to these things is the best. Which in the case of British roadsigns is, of course, entirely true…

Elderly crossing sign UK

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Japan gives Harry Potter the manga treatment

 Manga Harry Potter

The Harry Potter franchise continues to enjoy huge success in Japan, 15 years after the release of first movie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The seven films in the series have grossed more than US$893 in the country and been seen in cinemas by more than 78 million people, while Philosopher’s Stone is the country’s fourth highest-grossing film of all time. In 2007, Tokyo was chosen to host the world premiere of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, while The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, an attraction that opened at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka in July 2014, has been credited with bringing record numbers of visitors to the park.

I’d happily pay good money to see a Manga Harry Potter movie.

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