Let Colossal cheer you up

Colossal is one of the largest art, design, and culture blogs on the web, and I’ve been a big fan for ages. The trouble is I mainly use an RSS reader to keep up-to-date with its posts, rather than visiting it directly, and so I can easily mess changes to the design or layout of its website.

Take the ‘Editor’s Pick’ collections, for example, and this one — the best of humour.

colossal-humour-580

RSS is back. Again. Except it isn’t.

I’ve always used RSS readers to keep up-to-date with what my favourite websites are publishing. It’s just easier and quicker than checking them all individually. Yes I was sad to see Google Reader go in 2013for me that was more useful than Gmailbut moved on to Feedbin, then Feedly, and have been happily skimming the web there ever since.

I’ve not met anyone IRL that uses RSS, or even knows what I’m talking about. So when the tech pundits are saying RSS is back, was it ever here in the first place?

Here’s Thomas Ricker from The Verge back in 2015, trying to big-up RSS.

You can have your ad blockers, I’ll stick with RSS
RSS has never been fashionable — it’s always been a news gathering tool for nerds, not norms. But now, more than two years after the untimely demise of Google Reader, RSS almost feels cool — like listening to vinyl or hating things on Twitter.

One of the benefits of reading websites via their feeds is the lack of ads cluttering up the place.

With interest so low, RSS users like me can fly under the radar, quickly consuming vast quantities of news almost completely devoid of ads. Sure, some sites only feed headlines and a few choice blurbs, but many publish the entire content of their stories. Regardless, it’s still the best solution I’ve found for keeping up with news.

Three years later and here we are again. The emphasis isn’t on getting past the ads this time, but on avoiding the algorithm.

It’s time for an RSS revival
The modern web contains no shortage of horrors, from ubiquitous ad trackers to all-consuming platforms to YouTube comments, generally. Unfortunately, there’s no panacea for what ails this internet we’ve built. But anyone weary of black-box algorithms controlling what you see online at least has a respite, one that’s been there all along but has often gone ignored. Tired of Twitter? Facebook fatigued? It’s time to head back to RSS.

[…]

“There are multiple approaches to connecting to news. Social felt pretty interesting at first, but when you mix social and algorithmic, you can easily get into these noise bubbles, or areas where you don’t necessarily feel 100 percent in control of the algorithm,” says Edwin Khodabakchian, cofounder and CEO of popular RSS reader Feedly. “A tool like Feedly gives you a more transparent and controllable way to connect to the information you need.”

Wired’s call for a revival might be a little over-optimistic. Here’s TechCruch’s view.

RSS is undead
Don’t get me wrong, I love RSS. At its core, it is a beautiful manifestation of some of the most visionary principles of the internet, namely transparency and openness. The protocol really is simple and human-readable. It feels like how the internet was originally designed with static, full-text articles in HTML. Perhaps most importantly, it is decentralized, with no power structure trying to stuff other content in front of your face.

It’s wonderfully idealistic, but the reality of RSS is that it lacks the features required by nearly every actor in the modern content ecosystem, and I would strongly suspect that its return is not forthcoming.

Using RSS readers is seen as a way of taking back control over the updates you’re presented with, rather than relying on social media algorithms. Ben Evans has a great rundown of where Facebook’s algorithmic newsfeed came from and why it’s so difficult to get right. Say you ‘friend’ 200 or 300 people, “and each of them post a couple of pictures, tap like on a few news stories or comment a couple of times, then, by the inexorable law of multiplication, yes, you will have something over a thousand new items in your feed every single day.” …

The death of the newsfeed
This overload means it now makes little sense to ask for the ‘chronological feed’ back. If you have 1,500 or 3,000 items a day, then the chronological feed is actually just the items you can be bothered to scroll through before giving up, which can only be 10% or 20% of what’s actually there. This will be sorted by no logical order at all except whether your friends happened to post them within the last hour. It’s not so much chronological in any useful sense as a random sample, where the randomizer is simply whatever time you yourself happen to open the app. ’What did any of the 300 people that I friended in the last 5 years post between 16:32 and 17:03?’ Meanwhile, giving us detailed manual controls and filters makes little more sense – the entire history of the tech industry tells us that actual normal people would never use them, even if they worked. People don’t file.

This is the logic that led Facebook inexorably to the ‘algorithmic feed’.

 

Counting the uncountable

“Not all things worth counting are countable and not all things that count are worth counting.” — Albert Einstein

(Or was it?)

Chris Dillow reviews The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller, a book about “how the obsession with quantifying human performance threatens our schools, medical care, businesses, and government.”

The Tyranny of Metrics: a review
Muller provides lots of examples of this, mostly from the US. But you’ll all have examples of your own. In universities the Research Assessment Exercise (now the REF) contributed to increased administration costs and perhaps to the replicability crisis by incentivizing the publication of mediocre research. In schools, targets can encourage teaching to the test, endless revision and a focus upon the marginal student to the neglect of both the strongest and weakest. Waiting-time targets might distort clinical priorities. Immigration targets deter foreign students and lead to the harassment of people who have lived here for decades. Sales targets encourage workers to mis-sell financial products, cook the books, or increase risk by encouraging “liars’ loans. And so on.

It’s not all bad news, though. It’s just a question of balancing the quantitative with the qualitative.

The Tyranny of Metrics is not, however, a diatribe against targets. Muller points to the experience of some US hospitals to show that metrics can work. They do so, he says, when they are “based on collaboration and peer review”:

Measurements are more likely to be meaningful when they are developed from the bottom up, with input from teachers, nurses and the cop on the beat.

In other words, metrics can succeed when they are complements to knowledge: when they organize the tacit and dispersed professional judgements of people who know ground truth.

Literary pejoratives

Shakespearean insults for every situation
In addition to appreciating his literary contributions, Shakespeare enthusiasts understand and enjoy the snarky humor that is embedded in his work. His writing shows the power of language for its ability to make a statement and pack a punch. To celebrate the 402nd anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death, we’ve compiled the best insults from some of his most famous works into a Shakespearean insult generator.

As well as providing us with an infographic for us to generate our own insults, there’s a comprehensive list of his best put-downs, barbs and slurs, including:

“You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.”
Much Ado About Nothing

“Thy tongue outvenoms all the worms of Nile.”
Cymbeline

“I do desire that we may be better strangers.”
As You Like It

(Via At the BookShelf)

2001 was 50 years ago already?

It’s hard to believe this film is 50 years old. The Guardian marks the occasion with a piece that describes how the first audiences were baffled and walked out of the premiere, and how the critics of the day rubbished it: “trash masquerading as art”. I wonder what its own initial review was like. The article starts with news about mountains on a tiny moon orbiting Pluto.

Kubrick’s 2001: the film that haunts our dreams of space
As a result Kubrick Mons and Clarke Montes are now two of Charon’s major mountains. It is a fitting honour – and timely. The two men’s great collaborative work, the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, was released 50 years ago this month. By putting its creators’ names on the map of Charon, at the edge of the solar system, astronomers are repaying a debt to two visionaries who reshaped our thinking about the cosmos and created a film rated by some as the greatest ever made.

As well as being a major influence on a range of film-makers, its depiction of futuristic technology caught the eye of astronomers and designers alike.

Equally intrigued were young scientists desperate to witness technology that was credible and imaginative, something that had been entirely absent from feature films until then. “The film set new standards for ‘realistic’ portrayal of life in space, overcoming decades of Flash Gordon space-westerns,” says a former teenage astronomer, Professor Ian Christie of Birkbeck, University of London. “It also created a new soundtrack for cosmic spectacle – through the use of the opening of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and the music of Ligeti.”

One thing I love about the film is the unflinching slowness in the editing. It’s as is the whole film, and not just HAL, is trying to stare you out. Pinter would be proud of these pauses. This clip shows that beautifully, I think.

HAL 9000: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”

And that voice. Would the film be the same without Douglas Rain? Here he is eight years before.

Universe (1960 film)
After this work, co-director Colin Low worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. His work on this short may have influenced Kubrick to begin his project. Kubrick chose Universe narrator Douglas Rain as the voice of the HAL 9000 computer and also hired Wally Gentleman, who did optical effects for the NFB documentary, to work on 2001.

‘Universe’ – 1960 – science/ astronomy animation

That film starts off with a fascinating artistic impression of the moon. Here’s a slightly more up-to-date representation, care of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.

Tour of the Moon in 4K

Well I still like my Windows Phone. Mostly.

I’m fully aware that, by being a Windows Phone user, I’ve been backing the losing horse in what’s turned out to be a two—not three—horse race, but for the most part I still enjoy having it. Yes, the lack of key apps is a nuisance sometimes, and yes, it would be nice if the OS was a little more reliable, but there were many positives to the platform. Tom Warren from The Verge outlines a few of them, as well as some of the possible consequences of this reduction in mobile phone competition.

I miss Windows Phone
Windows Phone debuted in 2010 with Microsoft’s Metro design philosophy, and a focus on glancing at your phone for information instead of digging in and out of apps. Two obvious features I miss from Windows Phone’s Metro design are the dark mode and Live Tiles. … Live Tiles were one of Windows Phone’s most unique features. They enabled apps to show information on the home screen, similar to the widgets found on Android and iOS. You could almost pin anything useful to the home screen, and Live Tiles animated beautifully to flip over and provide tiny nuggets of information that made your phone feel far more personal and alive. I’m hopeful that Apple will eventually take the Live Tiles concept, or even one that was designed for iOS 8, and bring it to the iPhone. Widgets just aren’t enough. Rumors suggest Apple is planning to refresh the iOS home screen soon, so there’s hope that iOS might move away from its static and dull home screen.

Really New Windows Phone Ad

Diminishing returns of an expanding universe

Everyone‘s getting excited for the next big Avengers film, and I expect I’ll be taking the kids to see it. I’m sure it’ll be entertaining but I am starting to tire a little of this shiny soap opera genre now. And I don’t think I’m the only one; I found myself nodding along in agreement with this review of Black Panther.

Movies Watched, February 2018
And while I was impressed by the cultural significance of “Black Panther”—it’s a total triumph on that front—I found that, narratively, it was as messy, as poorly paced, and as unconvincing as any other Marvel film.

[…]

People do seem to adore this movie though and so maybe I ought to watch it again. But it used to be that the only time I’d want to rewatch a movie was when it was so good that I felt compelled to experience that excellence over and over. But with these movies that hail from heavily sequelized cinematic universes, the sensation is closer to feeling duty bound to watch so as to be sure that they’re not bad. Partly that comes from the sunk cost fallacy; I’ve invested so much into these franchises that I want to find something worthwhile in them, if for no other reason than to be able to properly consume and appraise the next sequel. That is a bad way to watch movies.

Facts and beliefs

Have we always had this ‘post-truth’ menace in our societies? Whilst the name might be new, the concept isn’t. There have always been spurious beliefs and conspiracy theories, but they seem more prevalent now. Can’t think why.

The conspiracy theory that says Trump is a genius
From these clues, a sprawling community on message boards, YouTube videos and Twitter accounts has elaborated an enormous, ever-mutating fantasy narrative about the Trump presidency. In the QAnon reality, Trump only
pretended to collude with Russia in order to create a pretext for the hiring of Robert Mueller, the special counsel, who is actually working with Trump to take down an inconceivably evil and powerful network of coup-plotters and child sex traffickers that includes Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros.

Diana Popescu at Aeon explains why we can’t always expect people to agree with us and share our beliefs just because we’ve explained some ‘facts’. As ever, it’s much more complicated than that.

What we talk about when we talk about post-truth
Objective facts and sound verification procedures are not what post-truth groups deplore but, specifically, what drives their dissent. What post-truth groups do deplore are established facts and agreed-upon truths. The issue is one of trust, not verification.

And as well as providing another explanation of how we ended up here, this post from Mark Lorch, Professor of Science Communication and Chemistry, University of Hull, offers some practical advice on how we might get out of this mess.

Why people believe in conspiracy theories – and how to change their minds
The simple answer is that facts and rational arguments really aren’t very good at altering people’s beliefs. That’s because our rational brains are fitted with not-so-evolved evolutionary hard wiring. One of the reasons why conspiracy theories spring up with such regularity is due to our desire to impose structure on the world and incredible ability to recognise patterns.

[…]

To make matters worse, presenting corrective information to a group with firmly held beliefs can actually strengthen their view, despite the new information undermining it. New evidence creates inconsistencies in our beliefs and an associated emotional discomfort. But instead of modifying our belief we tend to invoke self-justification and even stronger dislike of opposing theories, which can make us more entrenched in our views. This has become known as the as the “boomerang effect” – and it is a huge problem when trying to nudge people towards better behaviours.

It seems strange to think that we can’t rely on the facts of each case to get people to bin their conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, to avoid the backfire effect, ignore the myths. Don’t even mention or acknowledge them. Just make the key points: vaccines are safe and reduce the chances of getting flu by between 50% and 60%, full stop. Don’t mention the misconceptions, as they tend to be better remembered.

Also, don’t get the opponents gander up by challenging their worldview. Instead offer explanations that chime with their preexisting beliefs. For example, conservative climate-change deniers are much more likely to shift their views if they are also presented with the pro-environment business opportunities.

What a mad world we find ourselves in.

Dystopian Swedish sci-fi

Digital Arts has some images of wonderfully atmospheric paintings from Simon Stålenhag, an artist and designer from Sweden.

Simon Stålenhag’s incredible paintings show an alien invasion that has gone wrong
The artist’s near-photorealistic style provides a wonderful contrast to its otherworldly subjects.

They’re from his new book, The Electric State, due out this September. This is the description from Amazon of the hardcover version.

The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag
A teen girl and her robot embark on a cross-country mission in this illustrated science fiction story, perfect for fans of Ready Player One and Black Mirror.

In late 1997, a runaway teenager and her small yellow toy robot travel west through a strange American landscape where the ruins of gigantic battle drones litter the countryside, along with the discarded trash of a high-tech consumerist society addicted to a virtual-reality system. As they approach the edge of the continent, the world outside the car window seems to unravel at an ever faster pace, as if somewhere beyond the horizon, the hollow core of civilization has finally caved in.

And this is the description from the Kindle edition’s page.

The Electric State eBook by Simon Stålenhag
Stranger Things meets On the Road in this hypnotic, lavishly illustrated novel.

Set in a post-apocalyptic 1997, The Electric State is the story of Michelle who, accompanied by her toy robot Skip, sets out across the western United States in a stolen car to find her missing brother. Told in achingly melancholy, spare prose and featuring almost a hundred gorgeous, full-colour illustrations, The Electric State is a novel like no other.

Rights in The Electric State have already sold in thirteen territories and Deadline reports that the film rights were snapped up by the Russo Brothers’ production company (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War) with Andy Muschietti (Mama, It) attached to direct.

There are many more images from his various projects on his website.

More money for schools from the Co-op

The Co-op, what I still think of as that little corner shop on the high street, has announced a multi-million pound plan to expand its Co-op Academies Trust programme, and wants to treble the number of schools it sponsors.

Co-op to turbo charge academy schools plan
The Co-op is already the UK’s largest corporate sponsor of Academies, having opened three in the last year to take its current total to 12. Under the existing strategy, the Co-op takes over predominantly weak schools in economically challenged communities in the North, putting in place ambitious turnaround plans.

This announcement has made its rounds across the news websites, including The Sun.

Co-op plans to take over 28 more failing schools after turning around 12 academies
The group, best known for its stores and funeral services, took on its first academy in Manchester in 2010.

This one, from the Yorkshire Post newspaper, adds it on to an article about its announcement of a nationwide scheme to stock local products in its stores.

Co-op announces plans to support local producers
“W​e want these businesses to thrive in our communities and so we don’t seek exclusivity for instance – our ambition is for our stores to be at the heart of local life, connecting communities together and offering great quality products when and where our members and customers need them​,” he added.​

[…]

The ​Co-op ​said its a​cademies have enjoyed huge success, with a strategy designed to empower teachers and young people to work together for a better education and a better community, in line with the Co-op’s own values.

Tes.com emphasises the geographical aspect of the news.

Co-op ‘turbo-charging’ academies sponsorship in bid to boost the North
The announcement comes after a report by Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield last month highlighted that children from poorer homes in northern England face an education gap that starts before school and widens over time.

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership has also called on businesses in the North to do more to help close the skills gap with the South.

The Telegraph’s account is from a more financial viewpoint.

Co-op returns to profit as it bounces back from bank woes
The Co-operative Group’s boss shrugged off the chaos afflicting Britain’s high streets as the mutual announced it had returned to the black after selling its stake in the troubled Co-operative Bank.

The company, which runs food shops and funeral parlours as well as offering insurance and legal services, made a pre-tax profit of £72m in the year to Jan 6, up from a £132m loss the year before.

[…]

The Co-op also announced plans to sponsor 28 academy schools in the next three years in addition to the 12 it already has. It hopes to hire 250-300 workers from the schools by 2022, but Mr Murrells said the move was based on its aim to “do good in society” rather than for business reasons.

This must be all too much for the Independent. Yes, the Co-op’s doing well at the moment, but it won’t last.

Co-op: Roaring back and in the black but is it just a bit too busy?
That sort of thing is what might make long term watchers of this institution shudder. Just a bit. It has uncomfortable echoes of what the business used to do in the bad old days when it was cursed with executives who, as eventually became clear, were much better at politicking and unveiling grandiose plans with great fanfare than they were at business.