Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project

Yo-Yo Ma’s touring again, but his Bach Project isn’t just a series of concerts.

Yo-Yo Ma — The Bach Project
It is a journey motivated not only by his six decade relationship with the music, but also by Bach’s ability to speak to our common humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division. […] Alongside each concert is a day of action, a series of conversations and collaborations that explore how culture can help us imagine and build a better future.

As well as the concerts, he’s been meeting with students, community groups and artists to share the idea that culture connects us and is needed now more than ever.

Yo-Yo Ma’s days of action
Ma said that he had come to Anacostia because of the community’s efforts to strengthen itself through culture. “You give of yourselves from substance,” he said. “It’s not money, it’s not just work, it’s that you give of yourselves, and, when you do that, that’s when beauty emerges.” He then played the Prelude of Bach’s G-major Suite. Kymone Freeman, the station’s co-founder, approved. “This is the type of culture that should be exposed to our children,” Freeman told his listeners. “The first thing that gets cut is art. The last thing that gets funded is art.”

[…]

At the Bowl, Ma said little, disappearing into the music. For the cathedral concert, which was presented by Washington Performing Arts, he was in a more boisterous mood. He wore a colorful scarf around his neck, and explained that he had found it at an Anacostia boutique called Nubian Hueman. “I’m doing all of my holiday shopping there,” he said. At the halfway point—there was no intermission—he motioned for the audience to stand, which was taken as a signal for an ovation. But Ma wasn’t seeking adulation: he wanted everyone to stretch. He proceeded to do a few jumping jacks while holding his multimillion-dollar cello in one hand.

Here he is explaining the reasons behind the new album and tour.

Yo-Yo Ma – The Making of Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites

But I couldn’t resist also adding this video here, too. It’s quite remarkable, not just to Yo-Yo’s playing at such an early age, but for Bernstein’s wonderful introduction.

Leonard Bernstein presents 7-year-old Yo-Yo Ma’s high-profile debut for President John F. Kennedy
The New York Times reported that on November 29, 1962, a benefit concert called “The American Pageant of the Arts” was to be held with “a cast of 100, including President and Mrs. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Leonard Bernstein (as master of ceremonies), Pablo Casals, Marian Anderson, Van Cliburn, Robert Frost, Fredric March, Benny Goodman, Bob Newhart and a 7-year-old Chinese cellist called Yo-yo Ma, who was brought to the program’s attention by Casals.”

As biographer Jim Whiting noted, “the article was noteworthy in two respects. First, it included Yo-Yo’s name in the same sentence as those of two U.S. presidents and eight world-famous performers and writers. Second, Yo-Yo had been identified in a major newspaper for the first time. It would hardly be the last. In the years since then, the New York Times alone has written about him more than 1,000 times.”

From the comments:

It makes me weep to see how Bernstein articulates a vision of open internationalism and welcome in this nation, which has now become so closed.

Yo-Yo Ma played before President Kennedy at 7, and also played for President Obama’s inauguration. What a life for him!

Sign of the times

This is what happens when people stop paying attention to the details.

Holland Tunnel’s Christmas decorations are ‘OCD nightmare’
“I look at it and it makes me itch. It gives me anxiety and anger — why wouldn’t they just put [the tree] in front of the A?” fumed Cory Windelspecht, 38, of Tribeca, whose change.org petition notes that between one and three percent of Americans have obsessive compulsive disorder. One guy told me he avoids it completely and takes the Lincoln Tunnel because of the decorations.”

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The perfect size and alignment of that first O sets expectations way too high. I can almost see where they were going with the triangular tree against the diagonal of the N, but that second wreath is inexcusable.

The petition Cory set up to sort this out has close to 2,000 signatories now.

Petition: Move the Christmas Tree on the Holland Tunnel from the N to cover the A
The entrance to the Holland Tunnel (One of the busiest enterance ways into America’s most populated and famous city) is a majestic site of architecture and history. A site that should be celebrated. However, every Holiday Season it is decorated with 2 wreaths and a Holiday Tree. But for some reason the tree is over the letter N in the word Holland instead of the letter A where it would fit perfectly. This one small thing triggers anyone with the slightest hint of OCD every time they enter the city. On top of that, it’s just unsightly and ruins the holiday festivities for people to enjoy on such a great piece of architecture.

Cory’s not the only one bothered by this.

Budweister hates the Holland Tunnel’s decorations too
“We stand with @WhosCory. This is what our Newark Brewery will look like until they #MoveThatTree. #TunnelNotTonnel,” the Missouri-based company tweeted Wednesday, along with an image showing a wreath placed on top of the “U” in its Budweiser sign and a triangular tree slapped above the “E.”

Less talk, more thinking

Two recent articles, from within different contexts but with the same unconventional conclusion: most political debates are pointless and serve just to reinforce division and animosity.

Against debate
The confident assertion of a clear statement beats caution and caveats. Experiments tell us that people often mistake overconfidence for competence thereby selecting for it and against actual ability. Debates favour articulate overconfident posh folk who in fact know nothing – which is why we got into this mess.

Resolved: Debate is stupid
People — yes, even you — do not make decisions on an entirely rational basis. An audience is more easily won over with a one-liner that inspires applause or laughter than a five-minute explanation of a complicated phenomenon. A false statistic repeated confidently will be more convincing than a truth stated haltingly by some guy you’ve never heard of.

And here’s another article that I think is related. It’s from Slate and wants to be about how Twitter is finally proving itself to be a useful, benevolent platform for debate, with historians acting as fact-checkers and context-providers. I’m not so sure.

Viral history Twitter threads: 2018 was the year historians embraced the platform.
Historians used the Twitter thread to add context and accuracy to the news cycle in 2018. Here’s how they did it.

I’m growing more and more disillusioned with Twitter, and social media in general. Yes, these longer sets of tweets can provide ‘explanations of complicated phenomena’, and are interesting to read. But are we really saying that Twitter, with its average tweet length of about 50 characters, can overcome those problems with political debates, highlighted above? Or are they just preaching to the converted?

How many tweets have you seen that have included the words, “Oh yeah, you’re right, I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

Just Go+

The planned demise of Google+ isn’t going according to plan, it seems.

Google+ is shutting down sooner than expected
On Monday (Dec. 10), the company revealed that a security flaw could have exposed profile information such as names, email addresses, jobs, and ages of 52.5 million Google+ users without their permission in November. The Alphabet-owned company now says it will close down the main Google+ platform by April 2019, four months earlier than planned.

Well, at least they tried. Anyone remember this, from 2011?

Google takes buzz saw to Buzz, other appendages
“Changing the world takes focus on the future, and honesty about the past,” wrote Google VP for products Bradley Horowitz in a blog post on Friday. “We learned a lot from products like Buzz, and are putting that learning to work every day in our vision for products like Google+.”

By “honesty”, we can only assume that Horowitz means that Buzz – beset with a host of privacy problems from its inception – honestly never caught on.

Introducing children to data visualisation

The economist and dataviz blogger Jonathan Schwabish took on an unusual challenge, to introduce his son’s primary school classmates to data visualisation.

I wouldn’t know where to start — I’m still not sure of the difference between a histogram and a bar chart — but cleverly, Jonathan begins with examples of diagrams everyone is familiar with. Maps.

Teaching data visualization to kids
I then introduced the term “choropleth” and showed them this map of graveyards in the US and this map of McDonald’s (a couple of kids actually tied the two together!). I also showed them a clip of Aron Koblins’ Flight Patterns project (my son loves this one)—the simple and intuitive animation, and black and white color scheme make it easy to follow. I also showed them a video of Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas’ Wind Map, again, something I think they could all relate to.

He then asks the children to draw their own maps, of their homes rather than the whole world, and to add in any data they liked.

I then passed out tracing paper and, bringing up the graphs I showed them earlier in which color, dots, lines, and bubbles were placed on top of the map, I asked them to plot any data they liked. … Could they add differently-sized bubbles to their favorite rooms? Could they draw lines showing their paths through the house? What about smiley faces for the most fun room?

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What a fantastic idea. I hope others are similarly encouraged to spread the word in this way. As he says in his conclusion, helping children to understand graphs is a good thing for many reasons.

I’d love to see a way to make data visualization education a broader part of the curriculum, both on its own and linked with their math and other classes. Imagine adding different shapes to maps in their Social Studies classes to encode data or using waterfall charts in their math classes to visually demonstrate a simple mathematical equation or developing simple network diagrams in science class. The combination of the scientific approach to data visualization and the creativity it sparks could serve as a great way to help students learn.

(Via FlowingData.)

A year of (mostly bad?) news

They say we all love bad news, which is all we ever get these days.

The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences
News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”— or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up.

And so we have another something of the year article, this time a hundred news photographs from Reuters.

Pictures of the year 2018

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Lots of shouting, lots of people in dreadful situations, lots of heart-wrenching tragedies. None of it I really want to show here, to be honest.

It wasn’t all like that, though, thankfully. Remember these, for instance?

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And if you want more, there’s this year’s Atlantic In Focus series:

2018 in photos: How the first months unfolded

2018 in photos: A look at the middle months

2018 in photos: Wrapping up the year

Will 2019 look any different, I wonder.

Listening with your whole body

A fascinating report on the new wearable technology allowing deaf concert goers to experience music in a brand new way.

New wearable tech lets users listen to live music through their skin
Back in September, 200 music fans gathered at the Bunkhouse Saloon in downtown Las Vegas for a private live concert with a unique twist: several of the fans were deaf. The concert served as a beta test for new wearable technology that allows deaf and hearing users alike to experience musical vibrations through their skin for a true “surround body” experience. […]

People at the Vegas concert (both deaf and hearing) reported feeling like their bodies became the instrument and the music was being played through them. One woman likened the experience to “living inside the strings of a piano,” after experiencing the third (Presto agitato) movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata while wearing the kit.

Reading that reminded me of an incident when I was a university Deputy Registrar, helping to run the graduation ceremonies at York Minster, one of Europe’s largest cathedrals. Before the ceremony was due to start, I was outlining the proceedings to one of our deaf students and her supporter — showing her the stage and the route across the nave and so on — when she suddenly turned to me with a look of extreme anxiety and confusion.

The organ had started to play. She couldn’t hear it, but she could certainly feel it. It was like an earthquake, she said.

It’s currently being refurbished, so this year’s ceremonies had to make do with a digital organ.

The once-a-century refurbishment
York Minster’s Grand Organ is currently undergoing a major, £2m refurbishment, the first on this scale since 1903.

The instrument, which dates back to the early 1830s, is being removed – including nearly all of its 5,403 pipes – and will be taken to Durham for repair and refurbishment by organ specialists Harrison and Harrison.

whole-body-listening-1

Over three weeks, a team of eight people from organ specialists Harrison and Harrison dismantled the instrument – including nearly all of its 5,403 pipes – and transported it to their workshop in Durham for cleaning and repair works to be carried out. The pipes range in length from the size of a pencil to 10m long and the instrument overall is one of the largest in the country, weighing approximately 20,000kg.

Office moves?

How many of us spend all our working days with Microsoft Office products? It’s sobering to think that I’ve been staring at monitors full of Outlook e-mails, Word documents and Excel spreadsheets for more than 20 years now. Might that all be changing soon? We’ll see.

The new word processor wars: A fresh crop of productivity apps are trying to reinvent our workday
Nearly 30 years after Microsoft Office came on the scene, it’s in the DNA of just about every productivity app. Even if you use Google’s G Suite or Apple’s iWork, you’re still following the Microsoft model.

But that way of thinking about work has gotten a little dusty, and new apps offering a different approach to getting things done are popping up by the day. There’s a new war on over the way we work, and the old “office suite” is being reinvented around rapid-fire discussion threads, quick sharing and light, simple interfaces where all the work happens inside a single window.

The article lists the alternatives as Quip, Notejoy, Slite, Zenkit, Notion and Agenda for documents and Smartsheet, Airtable, Coda and Trello for spreadsheets.

Their informal, cartoony visuals and emphasis on chatty messaging collaboration makes everything feel a little juvenile and jokey.

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I wonder if my demographic is supposed to be represented on that Coda homepage by the grey-haired, casual-suit-no-tie coffee-drinker in the bottom right-hand corner. I’ve certainly never taken an ice-cream, a skateboard or a basketball to work, so I guess it must be, fist-bump-at-the-stacked-area-chart notwithstanding.

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Melancholy Gorey

The New Yorker magazine has a review of an Edward Gorey biography. I don’t think the reviewer cares much for the book, but greatly appreciates the life and work of this strange artist: “It’s nice to have a biography of Gorey, with whatever silliness.”

Edward Gorey’s enigmatic world
These dark territories give the book’s overt themes a place in which to burrow and ripen. Alison Lurie wrote that, in looking at such drawings of Gorey’s, “one of the things you want to remember is what the nineteen-fifties were like. . . . All of a sudden everybody was sort of square and serious, and the whole idea was that America was this wonderful country and everybody was smiling and eating cornflakes and playing with puppies.” Gorey’s hatching and cross-hatching were his answer to that—the shadows inside the sunny hedge.

melancholy-gorey-2

On the shore a bat, or possibly an umbrella,
disengaged itself from the shrubbery,
causing those nearby to recollect the miseries of childhood.

Stolen millions

More announcements of company data (our data) being stolen. The numbers involved each time are just incredible.

Hackers breach Quora.com and steal password data for 100 million users
Compromised information includes cryptographically protected passwords, full names, email addresses, data imported from linked networks, and a variety of non-public content and actions, including direct messages, answer requests and downvotes. […] In a post published late Monday afternoon, Quora officials said they discovered the unauthorized access on Friday. They have since hired a digital forensics and security firm to investigate and have also reported the breach to law enforcement officials.

Whenever these stories are reported, the articles often end with a little summary of other recent snafus. The one above ended with:

Quora’s post is only the latest disclosure of a major breach. On Friday, hotel chain Marriott International said a system breach allowed hackers to steal passport numbers, credit card data, and other details for 500 million customers. In September, Facebook reported an attack on its network allowed hackers to steal personal details for as many as 50 million users. The social network later lowered the number of accounts affected to about 30 million.

A post from The Register, about that massive Marriott breach, concluded with this reminder of previous losses.

Marriott’s Starwood hotels mega-hack: Half a BILLION guests’ deets exposed over 4 years
Few hacks of individual firm’s customer data have come close to the scale of this one. The Yahoo! breach in 2013 saw three billion email accounts breached, while Carphone Dixons, the UK electronics retail chain, managed to lose control of 5.9 million sets of payment card data. In the US, the US Government Office for Personnel Management (which handles sensitive files on millions of government workers) had the personal data of 21 million employees’ breached by hackers.

Big in Japan

I was inspired to search through my Pinboard bookmarks for things relating to Japan, following my son’s recent school trip there. Here’s some of what I found.

David Bowie memorialized in traditional Japanese woodblock prints
The recent release of two modern ukiyo-e woodblock prints featuring the rocker has caused such mass swooning among legions of Japanophile Bowie fans, the reverberations may well be powerful enough to ring temple bells in Kyoto.

We could all use a little more Chindogu, the Japanese art of useless inventions
A little bit Dada, a little bit “only sold on television,” intentionally useless inventions called Chindogu look like a bunch of plastic junk at first glance, but there’s more to it than that. And they’re not quite altogether useless. In fact, as creator Kenji Kawakami stated when he first revealed Chindogu to the world in 1995, these objects are “un-useless.” They have a purpose, but they take their halfway practical solution to a perceived problem and stretch it to maximum absurdity. It’s all kind of dumb, and that’s the point.

japan-1

Japan pampers its pets like nowhere else – A dog’s life
It is common for a parent taking a baby for a stroll to exchange a look of solidarity with another pram-pusher, only to glance down and realise the other’s contains a furry friend. Greying Japan is alert to animal ageing, too: there are acupuncture services for elderly pets, and several firms offer funerals.

In Japan, the Kit Kat isn’t just a chocolate. It’s an obsession.
There are also carefully chosen collaborations that capitalize on Japan’s culture of omiyage, which can be loosely defined as returning from travels with gifts for friends, family and colleagues. The Kikyou shingen mochi Kit Kat, which would go on sale in mid-October, would be sold right alongside the real Kikyou shingen mochi at souvenir shops and in service areas along the Chuo Expressway, a major four-lane road more than 200 miles long that passes through the mountainous regions of several prefectures, connecting Tokyo to Nagoya. With any luck, people would associate the Kit Kat with the traditional sweet and snap it up as a souvenir. But for this to be a success, for Kit Kat to expand into the souvenir market, consumers would have to believe that Kit Kat, originally a British product, was Japanese, and that although it was manufactured in a factory far away, it somehow represented the very essence of a region.

Miyu Kojima creates miniature replicas of lonely deaths
Twenty six-year old Miyu Kojima works for a company that cleans up after kodokushi (孤独死) or lonely deaths: a Japanese phenomenon of people dying alone and remaining undiscovered for a long period of time. […] Part art therapy and part public service campaign, Kojima spends a large portion of her free time recreating detailed miniature replicas of the rooms she has cleaned.

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An early 20th century guide to wave designs for Japanese craftsmen is now available online
In 1903, Japanese artist Mori Yuzan’s wave designs were published in a resource guide for Japanese craftsmen looking to add aquatic motifs to their wares. The three-volume series, titled Hamonshū, includes variations on contained and free-form wave patterns suitable for embellishing swords, religious objects, and ceramics.

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And their firework catalogue is a pretty interesting resource too.

Word on the street

Street art, but we’re not talking Banksy this time.

Fake News: Miniature signs around the city convey confusing messages
If all the official signage that can be found around an average city bores you, you might not even notice the ones that are a little bit off, warning you of dangerous pigeons and tiny sinkholes or explaining the history of awkward silences in the area. Some are so small, they’re easy to just pass right by – like the one situated next to some velvet ropes and a mouse hole that reads “please wait here until called.” Your loss, really, because in this case, sharp observational skills really pay off.

word-on-the-street-1

ATTENTION: Public warning signs by April Soetarman engage the emotions of unsuspecting pedestrians
Designer and artist April Soetarman has been producing and anonymously hanging custom street signs around her hometown of Seattle since 2016. The practice started as a way for her to diversify her art-making, which had previously been more architecture-based, in addition to working through some feelings she was processing at the time. After her original “NOTICE: I Never Stopped Loving You. Hope You’re Well” sign became viral, she began producing other rewrites of classic street and warning signs and adding them to her website Weird Side Projects.

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Here’s looking at you

A very interesting essay in the Paris Review about the self, the self portrait, selfies and celebrity.

Toward a more radical selfie
But I don’t mean to bemoan social media (boring, it’s been done, everyone’s worried but no one will change). Really, I want to use that labyrinth to try to find a route back to an entirely different type of self-portraiture, one that offers an alternative (and more positive) interconnection between character, work, and the female subject.

heres-looking-at-you-1

And by going all the way back to 1771, the author—the actor and filmmaker, India Ennenga—does indeed find that alternative.

What’s the rush?

Pinch and a punch for the first of the month, and all that. But doesn’t Christmas seem to start earlier and earlier each year?

How long before we see Santa in July? Consult Quartz’s Christmas Creep Calculator™
Quartz has fed the latest data into its Christmas Creep Calculator™, which for years has harnessed cutting-edge artificial intelligence, sophisticated machine learning, and the “Add Trendline” function in Microsoft Excel to project the path of the Christmas shopping season creeping ever earlier in the calendar. Behold:

whats-the-rush-2

In short, 2130. And they have a Mariah Carey calculator now, too.

Is this headlong rush into the festive season symptomatic of our culture speeding up more generally? This piece from the Verge thinks so.

Time is different now
There was an Olympics this year. Black Panther, too. If that surprises you to remember — as it surprises me — that’s because so much else has happened since. (“Everything happens so much,” wrote the Twitter account @horse_ebooks in the summer of 2012, which is as good a motto for these days as any.) Things are speeding up, or at least they seem to be.

I wonder, though. Maybe we’re just getting bored quicker, and more keen to move on to the next thing on the conveyor belt, and the next, and the next.

 

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Down the Amazon storefront rabbit hole

The list of Things I Just Don’t Understand Anymore continues to grow. I’m familiar with shopping. I’m familiar with online shopping. But then again —

A business with no end
Recently, one of my students at Stanford told me a strange story. His parents, who live in Palo Alto, Calif., had been receiving mysterious packages at their house. The packages were all different shapes and sizes but each was addressed to “Returns Department, Valley Fountain LLC.”

I looked into it and found that a company called Valley Fountain LLC was indeed listed at his parents’ address. But it also appeared to be listed at 235 Montgomery Street, Suite 350, in downtown San Francisco.

So were 140 other LLCs, most of which were registered in 2015.

And so begins another incredible journey down the e-commerce internet rabbit hole with Jenny Odell, as she tries to untangle the mess of connections between an evangelical church university, many spurious, scammy Amazon storefronts, and an American weekly news magazine.

Indeed, at some point I began to feel like I was in a dream. Or that I was half-awake, unable to distinguish the virtual from the real, the local from the global, a product from a Photoshop image, the sincere from the insincere.

I’ve highlighted Jenny Odell’s journalism here before, and this piece is just as fascinating. It’s being discussed on the Amazon Seller forums, with legitimate sellers worrying how they can possibly compete with fraudulent dropshipping at such a big scale.

A Business with No End — Much explained about shady Amazon sellers
The vast international illegal operation employs hundreds of fake companies, fake churches, fake bookstores, fake department stores that may or may not exist, fake brands, fake HB1 visas, fake reviews, a fake university in California full of “students” on student visas who write click-bait and fake reviews, and even a fake psychiatric hospital. Oh, and apparently a lot of shady fake Amazon sellers. Not confined to Amazon, the empire also involves multiple click-bait farms and fake review farms, and even Newsweek magazine. All part of a vast hidden empire run by a man named Park.

The only way is up

Whilst I’ve not worked in the HE sector for about four years now, I still like to keep an eye on what’s going on. And I see the grade inflation debate is continuing.

UK universities to hold inquiry into degree awards policies
The report led by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education concludes that while it is difficult to pinpoint the causes, perceptions of grade inflation could erode the usefulness of honours degree classes and undermine confidence in academic standards.

Perhaps the lecturers and students are just getting cleverer?

The report found that improvements in student performance, better teaching and increased efficiency “only explain a certain proportion of the uplift” in degree classes.

I wonder what could be causing this, then.

Public attitudes, including employers’ perceptions that first and 2:1 degrees are “good” degrees, may also act as incentives. Noting that institutions with a high proportion of upper degrees receive a boost in some league table, the report said: “Where competition to attract students is high, institutions have an incentive to perform well in league tables.”

Ah.

When I was a university Deputy Registrar, I was involved in Professor Bob Burgess’s nationwide HEAR implementation group, established, in part, to tackle this 2:1 issue.

HEAR: Higher Education Achievement Report
The Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) is designed to encourage a more sophisticated approach to recording student achievement, which acknowledges fully the range of opportunities that higher education institutions in the UK offer to their students. The HEAR was launched in 2008 (with 18 institutions) following recommendations that universities needed to be able to provide a more comprehensive record of student achievement.

Is that still a thing? (I note the © notice in their website footer is now three years out-of-date.) It’s a shame if it’s fallen away somewhat, as some of us thought it might, as it had some lofty aims. I was always frustrated, though, that it fell short of pushing for a replacement to the classification system that it deemed to be “no longer fit for purpose”.

Beyond the honours degree classification: Burgess Group Final Report October 2007 (pdf)
The diagnosis presented by the Scoping Group was simple – and one with which we swiftly concurred – the UK honours degree is a robust and highly-valued qualification but the honours degree classification system is no longer fit for purpose. It cannot describe, and therefore does not do full justice to, the range of knowledge, skills, experience and attributes of a graduate in the 21st century. Exploring how to reform or replace the classification system has not been easy. We have conducted extensive work to develop a practical set of proposals upon which we are all agreed.

One method I use to try to keep up-to-date with HE politics is to read Wonkhe, a website for “higher education wonks: those who work in and around universities and anyone interested and engaged in higher education policy, people and politics.”

This was their take on the HEAR, from 2007.

Degree classifications: just too good to lose
The report basically accepts that changing the traditional degree classification system is just too darn difficult and that we can only get round it by adding a new and improved transcript (with a new name – HEAR) to provide lots of extra info. […] Not the finest example of progressive thinking from UK universities. What proportion of students have to get a 2:1 before we change the system? Will anyone go it alone?

They have quite a few articles on grade inflation for me to catch up with; this debate has been churned over for a while now.

UK degree algorithms: the nuts and bolts of grade inflation (July 2018)

Signals for some or benefit for all: grade inflation in context (June 2018)

Bang! – grade inflation in TEF3 (June 2018)

Criteria or quotas for success? Grade inflation and the role of norm-referencing (June 2018)

Grade inflation: a clear and present danger (May 2018)

Taking on grade inflation in UK higher education (January 2018)

Are today’s degrees really first class? (January 2018)

Grade inflation could be the next battleground for higher education (January 2018)

‘Too many Firsts’ mean another discussion of GPA (October 2017)

Below standard: grade inflation in TEF (September 2017)

Another false dawn for Grade Point Averages? (June 2016)

REF results marred by fears over grade inflation (December 2014)

Technology can’t stand still (unfortunately)

Using Proterozoic geology as his unusual starting point, MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito takes a look at the past, present and future of the web and cultural technology.

The next Great (Digital) Extinction
As our modern dinosaurs crash down around us, I sometimes wonder what kind of humans will eventually walk out of this epic transformation. Trump and the populism that’s rampaging around the world today, marked by xenophobia, racism, sexism, and rising inequality, is greatly amplified by the forces the GDE has unleashed. For someone like me who saw the power of connection build a vibrant, technologically meshed ecosystem distinguished by peace, love, and understanding, the polarization and hatred empowered by the internet today is like watching your baby turning into the little girl in The Exorcist.

And here’s a look into the technological future with analyst Benedict Evans.

The end of the beginning
The internet began as an open, ‘permissionless’, decentralized network, but then we got (and indeed needed) new centralised networks on top, and so we’ve spent a lot of the past decade talking about search and social. Machine learning and crypto give new and often decentralized, permissionless fundamental layers for looking at meaning, intent and preference, and for attaching value to those.

The End of the Beginning
What’s the state of not just “the world of tech”, but tech in the world? The access story is now coming to an end, observes Evans, but the use story is just beginning: Most of the people are now online, but most of the money is still not. If we think we’re in a period of disruption right now, how will the next big platform shifts — like machine learning — impact huge swathes of retail, manufacturing, marketing, fintech, healthcare, entertainment, and more?

* of the year

December’s not quite here yet, but the best somethings of the year articles are starting already. Here are two I’ve spotted recently.

National Geographic’s best photos of 2018
National Geographic’s 100 best images of the year—curated from 107 photographers, 119 stories, and more than two million photographs.

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As well as the usual, and often quite grisly, natural history images, there are some remarkable human interest stories here too.

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Books of the year 2018: the TLS contributors decide
From autofiction to ‘unbooks’ and ‘Ancient Mariner novels’.

of-the-year

Having spent much of the past three years writing about a fictional piano-tuner I thought I had had enough of the instrument. Then along came Paul Kildea’s fascinating Chopin’s Piano: A journey through Romanticism (Allen Lane) and I was hooked again. The starting point for this beguiling journey is a somewhat basic piano – a pianino – made in Majorca in the 1830s on which Chopin composed and polished his 24 Preludes.

[…]

Hastings’s indictment of Washington policy after the South Vietnamese military coup of 1963 is lethal. America’s prolongation of the war was a mutilating act of self-harm which took generations to heal. It happened because US policymakers lied to the electorate, which is usual enough, but more culpably also lied to close colleagues and lied to themselves. In this sense, at least, Brexit is Britain’s Vietnam.

[…]

Schnackenberg has everything except (a) a snappy name, and (b) a recital voice powerful enough to overcome the uproar of gerbils mating. Listen to her on YouTube and you’ll think that the Americans are developing a new weapon: Stealth people. 

Sound mirrors

With parallels to that giant, concrete speaker in Taiwan, photographer Piercarlo Quecchia has tracked down all of Britain’s remaining strange and sculptural sound mirrors, built after World War 1 to detect incoming enemy aeroplanes.

Acoustic defense: photo series reflects on derelict British “sound mirrors”
“They represent an incredible demonstration of how sound can generate a physical form: both the curvature radius and the dimensions of the dishes are studied and designed according to the sound frequency that they must reflect,” explains the photographer. He hopes the series will continue to raise awareness of these artifacts.

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There are more images of these brutalist-looking structures on his website.

Sound Mirrors’ Portraits – Piercarlo Quecchia
They consist of concrete parabolas with a diameter of a few meters. In the twenties of the last century, their use combined with microphones, allowed to intercept planes directed towards the coast, discovering in advance any possible attacks. The need to be positioned near the coasts mainly in raised areas, the strong materiality of the concrete and their huge dimensions make them spectacular and extremely fascinating structures, able to dominate the entire surrounding landscape.

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Two contrasting technologies

Here are two technologies or tools that couldn’t be more different.

One started out around 1560 or 1795, has no moving parts, needs no manual and is still being sold in their billions…

A sharp look at the surprisingly complex process of pencil manufacturing by photographer Christopher Payne
The photographer, renowned for his cinematic images that show the architectural grace of manufacturing spaces, shares that he has held a lifelong fascination with design, assembly, and industrial processes. “The pencil is so simple and ubiquitous that we take it for granted,” Payne tells Colossal. “But making one is a surprisingly complex process, and when I saw all the steps involved, many of which are done by hand, I knew it would make for a compelling visual narrative.”

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…although for how much longer.

Children struggle to hold pencils due to too much tech, doctors say
His mother, Laura, blames herself: “In retrospect, I see that I gave Patrick technology to play with, to the virtual exclusion of the more traditional toys. When he got to school, they contacted me with their concerns: he was gripping his pencil like cavemen held sticks. He just couldn’t hold it in any other way and so couldn’t learn to write because he couldn’t move the pencil with any accuracy.”

The other, a highly complicated technological marvel that spread across the globe, revolutionising society, only to completely disappear within 30 years

VHS tapes
People have been able to consume their choice of music at home for more than a century, but it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that video was truly freed from the constraints of the multiplex and the network broadcast schedule—and not until the 1980s that it really became accessible. That heyday didn’t last long. Just three decades separated the first VHS-format VCR from the last Hollywood hit distributed on video tape. But in that time, a lot of memories were created, and a new template for consuming media was forged.

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… though fans remain.

From ignored ubiquity to design classic: the art of the blank VHS tape
When the company he worked at acquired a commercial printer with a scan bed on top, Jones began to scan tapes. Looking around on Google, he saw hardly any high-resolution images of these little pieces of everyday ephemera. There were plenty of horror and VHS box art scans, “but no love for the lowly home recording tape box that had been part of so many homes and families.” From this realization, the Vault Of VHS was born, a blog dedicated to the design of retail VHS packaging for both home and pre-recorded tapes.

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“The font, art, and tape dirt grey just feel like the gummy carpet of a grimy porn theater.”