Death of the Internet [#50]

December 14th 2017: The day the internet died.

It’s a weird thing to wake up to, the repeal of net neutrality in the US. There’s is absolutely nothing that I, as a British citizen, could do to prevent the FCC from taking this course of action. Which, to be fair, isn’t too far from the reality for American citizens either; the result is not particularly unexpected, despite widespread criticism.

There’s also no way of knowing the impact it will have. Worst case scenario, as a non-American, would be seeing other governments (particularly my own) mimicking the decision and formally handing the web over to corporations, rather than people. Except, outside of the US the ISP market isn’t dominated by monopolies, so the market would actually stand a chance at forcing effective neutrality. That means I’m fairly insulated from the most obvious repercussions. Harder to measure, but probably more likely, are the ripple effects. How many new services will simply never exist if US providers decide that road blocks are more profitable than open highways? How much innovation in Silicon Valley will be lost to firms spending less on R&D and more on bandwidth?

On the other hand, if ISP’s in the US do abuse their new powers it could lead to the slow (or relatively sudden, depending on perspective) eroding of the US as a global leader in technology and software. Whilst the UK is not exactly well placed to pick up that slack, countless other countries would likely benefit. Less of an American influence on the web could actually be widely beneficial (of course, not to Americans).

The result is that the loss of net neutrality, from a global perspective, is a bit of a grey area. We may benefit or we may lose, but ultimately we will be slightly more able to shape that destiny. The ridiculousness of the decision is that such luxury is not afforded to the US itself. They are the ones rolling the dice, but they’re also the ones with the highest stake, all balanced precariously on an unknown odd. No matter what happens next it’s pretty unlikely the US will benefit, but the rest of the world just might.

On that note, if you are in the US and are rightfully worried/angered by the decision that occurred yesterday, I’d point you towards Ethan Marcotte’s break down. It offers a slim silver lining which is plausible (unlike some of the others doing the rounds) as well as an even, yet irritated, overview of what it could actually mean. Well worth a read and well worth enacting.

Spiders, Dinosaurs and CVs [#49]

Well it’s been a long week of other distractions rather than writing, but I have built up several things to link out to, so I guess a round of links from the web is in order.

The Greatest Ignored CV Ever

Data visualisation of academic interests, achievements and major life moments, composed as a pseudo-CV
Now that’s a pretty (useless) CV

Originally created by Ritwick Dey (and weirdly hosted on Flickr), the mock-up data visualisation of Dey’s life has earned some serious kudos on Reddit and deservedly so. The visuals have an immediate impact and are just very aesthetically pleasing, even if (as many Redditors have pointed out) actually using it as your CV would be a quick shortcut to the reject pile. To be honest I’ve been dabbling in something similar (though far simpler) recently, so found seeing the execution of, and reaction to, something much superior to my own attempts kind of fascinating.

Spider Squeeee!

GIF image of an animated spider that is particularly adorable
Lucas the Adorable Arachnid

Lucas the spider has been doing the rounds of the internet this week and I fully understand why. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of spiders but I’m also far from arachnophobic, even finding certain real world spiders adorable. That said, nothing in nature (that I’m aware of) has been designed to tug at the heart strings quite so cleverly as this short animation test. Others have already called for it, but can I add my name to the petition for Lucas to be in the next Disney/Pixar movie?

Spider Awesome

Miles Morales, Spider-Man, swings into frame and lands on a skyscraper
Into the Spider-Verse? Yes please!

Weirdly, yet another piece of spider-based animation dropped this week which captured the hearts of the internet, though this time less Tumblr and more Reddit. The first trailer for Sony’s new animated Spider-Man film hit and just looks stunning. It’s Miles Morales meets Spiderverse so I was already intrigued, but those visuals mixed with that soundtrack has left me with extreme hype!

Wildlife Photo-Ark

Around twenty heaped tortoises each with a unique code engraved on the back of the shell
Madagascan ploughshare tortoises with anti-poaching codes

I’m a big fan of projects looking to archive information of endangered species, particularly quality images, biomechanics and video, so that if conservation efforts fail future generations still at least have good data. So when I discover a project like Endangered, created by photographer Tim Flach, it has to be shared. Flach’s photographs (see more at Gizmodo) are beautiful and frequently incredibly poignant, but they’re also paired with detailed information on the animals, and the threats they face, from biologist Jonathan Baillie. It’s conservation meets art, both noble goals in their own right that are only amplified by their intermixing. Definitely going straight on my future wishlist.

The Ones We’ve Already Lost: Palaeo Art

Two theropod dinosaurs with unrealistic iguana like physiology fighting
Two Dryptosaurus (at time Laelaps) fighting in an incredibly famous image from Charles R. Knight, 1897

From ensuring the animals we may soon lose are well documented to attempting to document those that have already been lost. It should be no surprise by now that I am a huge fan of the field of palaeo art and love both the finished pieces and the processes that go into their creation. There’s something incredibly interesting about decoding the past and trying to set it to understandable visuals which I just love. Stumbling on to an article taking a deep dive into the history of the field, then, was a fascinating read which has been put together very nicely. It’s great to see books I find particularly influential, such as All Yesterday’s, as well as their author’s (and respective blogs) being linked to and discussed on such a main-stream website as The Atlantic. It would also appear that some new books on the subject may be coming out soon, which is great news. An article I will want to come back to from time-to-time, if for no more reason than to explore all the linked resources. Top work.

Month in Media – November 2017 [#48]

Sigh I feel like I should just give up on the whole “I’ve achieved a MiM in a timely factor, maybe I can keep this up!” thing. It seems like every time I say that it guarantees I skip the next month. Still, considering I haven’t even finished October 2016 perhaps there is some hope for last month to surface at some point. For now, November will suffice, with a general step back away from media in general making it a lot easier to write up. With that said, as ever be aware of spoilers and on with the reviews.

On-Going Media

TV – Blue Planet II – Beautiful and fascinating but somehow hasn’t quite grabbed my attention yet. Will see how it develops.
TV – The Punisher – The Netflix arm of the MCU returns with an entertaining rip-off of Person of Interest (seriously, the cast even look the same).
Video Games – League of Legends – No, I won’t be stating this every month, but just thought it worth recording that League’s teeth have sunk in deep. I actually went ranked (Bronze III….woo?) and watched most of Worlds… so yes, well into the void.

Film

Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold [Documentary]

Honestly, I had never heard of Joan Didion before watching this exceptionally personal and beautifully shot documentary. Now? Well, I have certainly heard of her, but certainly know more about her life from an emotional perspective than her works. The Centre Will Not Hold is much more a biography than an analysis, which makes a lot of sense considering her family were directly involved in the filming and direction of the documentary. The result is a surprisingly balanced and deeply personal introspective which is riveting to watch. Didion led a fascinating life even without considering her contributions to literature and journalism; the telling of her tale feels rightly deserved and rewarding to watch as a result.

The documentary also comes across as very fair, not eschewing the slightly less positive or beneficial elements of Didion’s character. She comes across as a caring but deeply practical and straight-talking person, which, at times, comes across as lacking empathy. By the end of the documentary any such accusations are firmly put in their place, but it remains incredibly refreshing to hear her directness. Most firmly implanted in my memory is the moment she, as a journalist, came across a young child taking heavy drugs, clearly addicted and in a hugely damaging situation. As a woman with a young child herself, and even just as a human, it would be forgivable and understanding had her reaction been to drop pad and pen and whisk the child out of such an abusive environment. Instead, her self-professed reaction was “What a story”; she saw life through the lens of her work and through, arguably, a clear perception of reality. It’s an uncomfortable, but also very human, reaction which makes her so much stronger for admitting it than glossing over or omitting it would have done. This boldness in the presentation of someone who is rightfully seen as a national treasure is refreshing and excellently executed. In no small sense it reminds me of Scott Card’s concept of “speaking for the dead”, an unbiased and inclusive summation of character that does not shy away from the darker elements of human experience and nature purely for the sake of presenting an elevated memory of an individual.

In the end, my one criticism of The Centre Will Not Hold is that the spotlight is cast away from her work a little too much. As someone approaching the documentary unaware, entirely, of Didion and her work I left with a good idea of who she is as a person but still lacking understanding of her contribution to culture on a broader level. I couldn’t quote a single line she’s penned, tell you the names of her works or discuss her famous articles. In all honesty, coming to write this review nearly a month after watching the documentary, I remember her quite visibly in my memory but had to double check with Google that she was, first and foremost, a writer and wasn’t more famous for other reasons. If you’re a fan already this will probably elevate the documentary but for the completely uninitiated it assumes a great deal of previous knowledge and is possibly the poorer for it.

Still, it is a mild criticism that is also intricately linked with many of the same reasons I feel the documentary, on the whole, is a triumph, so should be viewed as such. Overall, whether you are a fan of Didion already or not the documentary is an excellent watch and a brilliant example of the genre’s best qualities. It is observant, grounded and entertaining all at once and I cannot recommend it enough on those merits. If you’re interested in modern American culture, literature, the evolution of journalism, Didion herself or even just documentary production, The Centre Will Not Hold is a must watch.

tl:dr; A brilliant and deeply personal introspection of an incredible individual. A truly nuanced and exacting character analysis and a documentary style which I hope to see emulated much more in the future.

Mulan [rewatch]

Mulan is one of those classic Disney films which, I hope, will remain timeless. There are elements which appear a little dated and some of the dialogue definitely comes across as a little insensitive by modern standards, but we’re talking minor niggles rather than the blatant racism or white-washing that other films struggle with from the same era. That minor complaint aside, the animation, plot, voice work and overall design are just as brilliant now as when they were released and the film remains incredibly entertaining to watch, with classic songs throughout. One to sit proudly alongside more modern examples, like Moana and Inside Out, as a child’s film with a strong morality and beneficial message. Will definitely be a firm favourite for years to come.

tl;dr: Still a brilliant story with a moral underpinning that remains incredibly relevant. A children’s classic that is well enough made to be enjoyable for anyone.

Mulan 2

The straight-to-DVD sequel which is exactly what you would expect: nothing more than a meaningless, paint-by-the-numbers cash grab. To be honest, most of Disney’s spin-off work is exactly this, so I’m not surprised, but the sheer level of pointlessness to this movie left a slightly bitter taste. I can deal with sub-par plots, pointless cameos and even the lack of the original voice actors (though one of the few thing Mulan 2 did right was ensure that Ming Na-Wen returned for the titular role) but there’s much worse on offer here.

For starters, we get the strong vibe from the first film that Mushu is not particularly liked by the Ancestors, but the reason given is that he failed as a previous Guardian in his role. His actions throughout Mulan prove to be his reparation and by the end of the film he is back on his ancient pedestal, where it seems to be the case that he would remain inert until next called upon. Certainly, based on his general state when summoned for the first time in Mulan it would appear that he had been a statue for many years. On top of this, whilst a little cowardly, Mushu remains clearly honourable and never shows any hint of malice, particularly towards Mulan and her family. He is a likeable character with some emotional depth, which is part of his charm; he’s a lovable under-dog. All of this, however, is retconned for the sequel. Here, the Ancestors have a clear hatred for Mushu, probably because, as a Guardian, he is a complete dick. He’s self-serving, arrogant to an extreme, incredibly demanding and completely lacking in empathy. His scheming directly enables much of the storyline and therefore casts him as the antagonist, albeit one who does an about-face the moment the plot no longer calls for him to have these character traits. It makes him into a distinctly unlikeable character, makes the Ancestors seem petty and unkind and generally makes the spirit world seem quite manipulative. That’s problematic from a continuity point of view but it’s also pretty culturally insensitive.

Mushu’s character assassination isn’t the only big step backwards for Mulan 2 though, which seems to go out of its way to also trample on a large amount of the message from the first film. Whilst the core message of the sequel is that “love conquers all” (and also that arranged marriages are bad), it goes about it in a very ham-fisted way and leaves you feeling that Mulan herself is less the impassioned, head-strong female idol and more a victim of Hollywood’s notions of “romance”. Her relationship with Shang is pretty troublesome and it almost validates Mushu’s reaction that perhaps they shouldn’t be getting married (if his reasoning wasn’t so damned evil). They barely agree on anything, they don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company and, frankly, Shang comes across as a complete misogynist. Given how much the first film focused on female empowerment, seeing the sequel instead focus on why men should be manly and women should accept and value that felt backwards.

Overall, then, the film is a shambles. When it isn’t actively erasing the messages and characters of the original classic, it’s scraping by on a poorly written plot full of deus ex machina and pointless side-quests, badly attempted homages at fan favourite moments from the first film or odd attempts at humour (there’s a lot about how women find shoes enrapturing). Overall, it’s not even worth it for kids to watch as it will only serve to annoy or undercut the original. Just rewatch Mulan instead.

tl;dr: Terrible, character blind and very poorly conceived.

Thor: Ragnarok

It’s that time of year again: the winter film release season, bringing with it the next big hitters from both Marvel and DC. Marvel is arriving first with the third (and final?) film in the Thor franchise. Personally, Thor is one of those characters who I find brilliant in ensemble but haven’t really latched onto any of his solo outings. The first film was decently entertaining but didn’t leave a huge impression and then the second was easily the worst Marvel misstep since the creation of the MCU. That said, I get excited for each film because I love the mash-up of Norse mythology and science fiction and see a huge amount of potential for films there. The question, then, is: does Ragnarok finally find that sweet spot?

Well, yes and no. Of the three films Ragnarok is a clear leader, improving on everything the first film did well whilst increasing the stakes and generally feeling a lot more comfortable within itself. Chris Hemsworth has truly become Thor, much like other big Marvel heroes such as Iron Man and Cap, allowing his performance to shine through. Standing head-to-head is Tom Hiddleston as Loki, proving yet again that he deserves the fan fervour he garners. Luckily, as opposed to The Dark World, the new characters introduced (and returning characters) all fit the world(s) they inhabit and aren’t irritating. There were moments I felt the inhabitants of Sakaar were sliding dangerously close to the farce of film two, but luckily they always pull back at the brink and make the punchlines land.

The tone of Ragnarok helps massively in this respect, ensuring that any flatter moments are brushed out of your mind quickly by a break neck pace and styling itself in a much less serious and more colourful manner. The influence of certain Guardians in this change of pace is clear and the right decision to have made. There’s also the absence (now permanent) of Jane Foster, whose presence was tolerable in Thor 2 but largely forced the plot to find reasons (not particularly good ones) for her to even be involved. She became less of a character and more of a crutch for the stakes, a classic damsel-in-distress plot point. Without that, Thor is very literally unleashed, allowing him to be a lot more arrogant and effective in battle. Combined with enemies that are a realistic challenge for a demigod, we finally get to see Thor demonstrate his much lauded fighting abilities and the result is awesome.

Which is another area of Guardians influence. Seeing Mjolnir explode through demons and zombies is just as spectacular as watching Yondu’s whistle carve up bad guys, except it feels so much heavier and fittingly forceful. They’re great scenes (whilst they last) and involve some brilliant camera work and choreography. Later, with Mjolnir gone and replaced by the Odin force, Thor’s lightning warfare is stunning and wonderfully visceral. In other words, the action scenes in Ragnarok are great, and that’s before even discussing the much-anticipated gladiatorial fight with the Hulk!

Speaking of which, one area the film is a little, well, hard to process, is the “adaptation” of the Planet Hulk storyline. Personally, this is an aspect of Ragnarok that will improve on rewatch, now I know how it fits in the greater story arc and which parts have been left. As a huge fan of the original comic arc I was a little disappointed, but if you see the Thor story as an homage rather than adaptation it helps a lot. Plus, ultimately, I quite like how it weaves into the greater story of Hela and Ragnarok. It may trample all over the Sakaar I love (and especially the associated characters) but the world it creates still feels interesting, vibrant and alive, plus it makes the ending both a lot more unexpected and interesting. Had the Asgardians just escaped via the bifrost then the destruction of Asgard would have been less impactful and their options far more restricted. Having a literal ark of Asgard floating through space gives future stories a lot more scope to work with (even if the next step seems to be fairly concrete at this point, given what we know of Infinity War and the post-credits scene).

That said, I did struggle with how much they had changed Korg’s identity and can’t help but feel that if they had left him out of the trailer my hopes for the Planet Hulk inclusion would haven’t been quite as high. That element did muddy the water significantly, making me a little less engaged with a lot of what was happening on Sakaar, a little more annoyed at the way the Hulk was behaving and a little less accepting of Valkyrie as a character. That last one is the least fair, as she is a brilliant character done absolute justice, but I had hoped she might have been Caiera Oldstrong, Hulk’s queen, and the trailer shot of her riding a Pegasus was her bringing the Valkyries to battle. As it is, both Caiera and the Valkyries were missing, which was a double-whammy of disappointment.

Also, the plot isn’t exactly the most cohesive. There are plenty of ideas here which could have been much more fleshed out and I can’t help but feel that they just tried to cram too much into the plot. You could easily have removed the Sakaar part entirely and just had Thor pick up Hulk to help him out; plus that would explain how a Terran quin-jet somehow made it to Sakaar? I realise repulsor technology is a little hand-wavey in terms of fuel efficiency, but I do think that a short-flight, terrestrial based transport craft shouldn’t be that efficient at interstellar flight…

The result is that quite a bit of the plot is just left to progress by happen chance. Some of it feels acceptable, like the cameo by Dr Strange to cut out an “Odin hunt” sequence, whilst at other times a little callous, such as when Thor just leaves Loki incapacitated and with a death sentence over his head. That would fly if Thor seemed at all upset with Loki, which would be understandable considering that he is the one responsible for Odin’s death, thereby the destruction of Asgard, Thor’s predicament on Sakaar and the release of Hela, but he just never seems that bothered at all. Or that he shows no worry over how Loki was going to escape from Odin’s Vault after releasing the world-eating demon Sutur. Then there are the pieces which were good but could have been great, like Sakaar or even Scourge, who never really makes it into the character equivalent of the third dimension despite a solid performance from Karl Urban.

Having said all of that, on balance, the film was very enjoyable and a huge amount of fun. By the end I had warmed to the new characterisations of Mieek and Korg, thoroughly fallen for the gorgeous design and palate of Sakaar and the Master, and become completely enthralled by Cate Blanchett’s turn as Hela (which, just to be clear, was on par with either Thor or Loki). I found the mythology intriguing and well explained, whilst retaining a semblance of mystery, the characterisation solid and the design stunning. The action is brilliant (as mentioned) but so is the dialogue, with a sharp wit which should become grating but actually never gets there. The one major flaw is that the film never really has that moment of emotional connection. There’s plenty of laughs and the stakes do feel high, but at the same time you never get a gut punching moment. There’s no feel-good emotional overload, like at the end of the first Guardians film, or crushingly sad instance, such as the second Guardians film. Ragnarok just continues focusing on the humour and the action, right to the very last moment. That lack of depth means I won’t be classing it amongst the finest in the MCU but it sits just outside of that band by a very narrow margin and leaves me extremely excited for Infinity War and some more Norse god mayhem!

tl;dr: An extremely fun, vibrant and action packed ride that lacks emotional depth. Easily the best Thor film but not quite worthy of inclusion in the MCU’s greatest hits.

TV

Archer [Season 6]

How did I forget this absolute gem? Archer is one of those shows which just shouldn’t be as good as it is. The principle ought to lend itself to a lacklustre, episode churning filler program: animated spy parody with just enough humour to hook the lowest common denominator. The Big Bang Theory of the action genre, if you will. For some reason, though, the team decided to go full tilt on the parody, crank up the adult humour to the point of obscenity (though never really going full gross-out, which I thoroughly applaud) and embrace geek culture harder than a Joss Whedon online-only franchise. It was a bold move but has resulted in a very deserved cult status and extremely loyal fan base.

But then they tried to switch things up completely in season five with Archer: Vice. It was a fascinating switch, again very antithetical for a now profitable American comedy, turning the premise of the show on its head and really forging forward with a whole new outlook. Fans opinions were, shall we say, mixed. At the start there was uproar, though like many I personally persevered and placed faith in the showrunners. Still, I feel like that initial kick-back was sufficient for them to do a second 180 turn into season six.

So here we are, back with ISIS, back in the spy industry and back to the same old stories. Barry’s back, Archer’s an employee again, they’ve all been to rehab and the days of drug smuggling are just glossed over with no real implications. Really, you could jump from season four to six without really missing a beat, and apart from the odd meta reference your only confusion would be having missed Lana’s pregnancy. I’ll admit to having enjoyed Vice quite a lot by the end of its run but I’m still glad to see ISIS return. Somehow, the spy genre is just so much more lucrative for parody.

That said, season six is firm proof that, for the show to continue, shaking up the plot will need to happen. The first four seasons worked so well because they leaned so hard on tropes from classic franchises like James Bond and Mission: Impossible but that well has slightly dried up. The big plots have been done and the result is that there isn’t much left for them to play with in season six. It’s still a very enjoyable ride and the humour is back on point but there aren’t many truly, genuinely stand-out episodes. For the most part the show skates by on old plot lines (a la Barry the Cyborg) and the slight shake up that having a baby in the cast was bound to provide (though what exactly has happened to Woodhouse?). That works well enough and has both appeased fans of the first four seasons whilst proving that the fifth really wasn’t all that bad.

As a result, I’m a huge fan of how season six ends. Yes, it was great getting back to the spy-based roots of Archer, but I’m seriously pumped for where they’re going to go next now that ISIS is, once again, toast. There are a lot more action genres out there ripe for parody and the core group of characters are just so well developed and hilarious together that I doubt any are beyond the show’s scope. Hopefully there are several more seasons left for the taking!

tl;dr: A fun if somewhat tired return to the show’s roots, providing both a solid entry to the franchise and a strong argument for shaking things up a bit more as it moves forward.

Archer [Season 7]

Well I wanted them to shake up the settings, plot and genre again after a slightly lukewarm season six and the Archer team have once again delivered. Season seven sees the team leave the espionage business behind (again) to pursue more grounded, yet legal (mostly), work in L.A. as private investigators. For the most part it leaves the show open to tread fan favourite paths, without needing quite so strong of a character shake-up as Archer: Vice did, but still leaves plenty of wiggle room.

As with most previous seasons the main areas of character development are focused on Archer and Lana’s on-going will-they-won’t-they personal life. Whilst it looked like season six was a turning point for Archer in particular, season seven doubles down on the (understandably) shaky grounds of trust the relationship is founded on. Largely this takes the form of sticking Hollywood starlet Veronica Deane in the crews path repeatedly, providing a clear temptation for Archer himself and a point of jealousy for Lana. Honestly, I feel like the show handles this part well, keeping their interactions fluid and funny without overly leaning on it to move the plot forward. There’s much less of AJ herself, which is fine, and it leaves the rest of the cast open to less serious side plots. I will say that the increased cast, including two brilliant cops and a host of Hollywood elite stereotypes, leaves almost too little time for the normal diversions. Having spent several seasons really fleshing out the side characters to more than 2-D punchlines, season  seven appears to largely reduce them back to these rolls, with Pam and Cheryl particularly badly hit. It’s a shame but, overall, not a huge hindrance.

Possibly the biggest let down of the series was the complete lack of pay-off to the “big mystery”. Clues are dropped from the very first episode that Deane and friends are involved in something a lot more sinister, with files and papers alluding to a particular scheme which never really appears. It is wrapped up in the two-part finale but I didn’t even realise that the reveal was happening until Archer explicitly mentions it. The finale did a good job of resolving several subplots whilst setting up one hell of a closing shot/cliff hanger, but it definitely feels like they dropped a couple of balls near the end of the season. Perhaps the number of episodes was suddenly cut, which would explain quite a lot, or maybe (in true Archer fashion) the whole point was to be pointless, but it results in the series feeling slightly rushed.

Still, a small gripe that allows for the show to lead itself, once again, in a very different direction. I’m pumped for the concept of Archer: Noir and very much looking forward to seeing how they cope with the characters being the versions of themselves that Archer sees. I feel like there is a huge amount of comic potential there and, possibly, an interesting way of having Archer himself go through a series of character strengthening self-realisations. I’m not sure if season eight is going to be the last but it does present a very nice way of tying off the series as a whole. Whatever happens, I’m certain I’ll be watching it very soon!

tl;dr: Another interesting twist and a refreshing switch-up. Definitely puts certain characters on the back burner, but overall a competent dive into new territory which sets up an exciting further abstraction.

Dark Booking Patterns [#47]

I just fell down a rabbit hole learning about Dark Patterns, thanks largely to a link in an, as ever, well thought out Adactio post. To be clear, I knew what a Dark Pattern was, I just hadn’t come across the term for them before. In brief, then, a Dark Pattern is a UI decision created to get a user to do something without really knowing why or how. It’s trickery and marketing merged into one and can be used to generate actual sales, push you to a specific part of a website or article, draw your attention away from negative elements or get you to agree to participate in some way. Basically, Dark Patterns aren’t great. They’re a bit morally dubious, they can leave a bad taste in your mouth and they can actively confuse or negatively impact people.

Sounds like something that should be avoided and shunned by any morally conscious designer, right? And probably something that, when noticed, should be shamed, yes? Good, we’re on the same page. But then I read a well reasoned break down of why Booking.com is a pretty awful abuser of exactly this type of user experience design. The full article, titled How Booking.com Uses Stress to Rush Your Decisions and written by Roman Cheplyaka, is a smorgasbord of dodgy design decisions. From fake urgent messages (“Someone just booked the hotel you’re looking at!”) to hiding negative reviews, Booking.com does not fare well when analysed with a Dark Pattern mindset. Time for a boycott then, right?

Well, put simply, no. I use Booking.com quite a lot. I’m a registered member and a recipient of their “Genius” discounts, which have saved me a fair amount over the past few years. I like the wide selection of hotels that are on offer, I like how key information is displayed and I particularly like their search functionality which makes drilling down through results incredibly quick and easy. I’ve recommended the service to countless friends and family and I’m not about to stop anytime soon. Do I find the urgent messages and dire warnings of inaction irritating? Yes. Have I occasionally found myself booking a room faster than I probably ought to have because of a fear of missing a deal? Yes. The Dark Patterns are clearly working, and are definitely reducing my enjoyment of the service being provided, but it isn’t a big enough issue to tip the balance away from all the positives.

Interestingly, it seems like Roman comes to a similar conclusion. Somehow, Booking.com has done such a good job in their general, overall experience that the little irritations can be happily ignored. Some of them I don’t even agree with. Is cherry picking reviews a bit dubious? Yes, I guess so, but at the same time I would expect promotion to skew those results a little. I’ve left negative reviews in the past and know they haven’t been censored or removed, so I trust the reviews that are present to be indicative of general opinion. I would also never, personally, go on three reviews alone to inform my decision; as with eBay and Amazon I will always read the most recent couple of reviews, a couple of the best reviews (and note when they were made) and a couple of the worst reviews (also noting date posted) to get a good spread. Booking.com makes finding those reviews so painless that I’ve never really noticed the ones on the main page are curated.

I will also defend their five-step rating system. You can always expand a review score to see how the aggregate has been calculated and having five specific categories makes doing so a lot easier. In the example given in the article, Roman states that:

A great location will not compensate for sleepless nights

But I have to disagree a little bit. Obviously, it depends on what you’re looking for, but I will happily sacrifice comfort for location if that’s a priority. If I’m going to a big city and planning on being out until the early morning anyway, I don’t really care about late night noise but I do care about walking distance to the venue (for example) that I’ll be visiting. It’s a bit of a pedantic argument, but I feel like their ratings scheme is genuinely useful and wouldn’t, personally, regard it in anyway “Dark”, which shows that the concept can be a little subjective.

At any rate, agree or not, the article is well put together and is worth a read if you use Booking.com, if for no other reason than to be a little more aware of the strategies the are employing. If you do find it a stressful experience, perhaps it may even help.

Fair Phones & Mobile Woes [#46]

I’ve had my current Sony Xperia for nearly three years, which is a good run, but it’s definitely starting to show its age. First of all the headphone jack broke; it still works, it just doesn’t know when you plug something in. The first time this happened I had it fixed, the second was just out of warranty so instead I’ve been using a software override (an app called Soundabout) for the last two years whenever I want to use headphones. Irritating, sure, but manageable. The next thing to die was the camera. It has become quite scratched (which is my fault for not using a case) and has now fogged up on the inside lens and crystallised, leaving photos looking like they’re taken through a piece of cling film. Still manageable but I wouldn’t want to use it as an actual camera any more. The battery has been slowly dying for the last year, possibly because of an increase in general usage, but it’s at the point where the charge can suddenly disappear over a matter of hours. Finally, the memory is full. Despite having an expandable SD with 64GB of space, mostly unused, the core phone memory of 16GB has hit maximum. I’ve moved everything I can to the SD card, uninstalled a lot of apps but still I’m hovering around the 15GB mark and the phone behaves like it, lagging and generally crawling through tasks.

The problem is, I hate upgrading my phone. Part of that is just how used to the Xperia I am. I know all of its quirks and special features, I can navigate the menus with only the slightest of glances and have it setup just so for my particular tastes. The other part is that it feels so wasteful. Yes, the phone has seen better days, but it still ostensibly works. What’s more, the environmental impact of smart phones is pretty scary. Taken together, no matter how much I love new toys, I try to make my mobiles last as long as possible.

Which brings up another issue: what to replace it with. Because I want my phone to last several years and don’t plan on upgrading constantly it needs to be future-proof, durable and also something I will enjoy using. That means it needs to have all the functions I want, stuff like NFC and a good camera, whilst also being comfortable in the pocket and hand, easy to use with good software, and also look good. The last point feels shallow but if you think something is well designed I believe it makes using the device feel that much more fun. Unfortunately, the mobile phone market appears to have become incredibly stale over the past few years. With the exception of biometrics, which I’m completely nonplussed by, there really haven’t been any exciting new innovations in the field and, from a design point of view, your options are iPhone rip-off (square, thick bar top and bottom, black and mild bevel) or Samsung rip-off (curved, all screen, no bevel). I was hoping the release of the iPhone X would shake the market up a little, but instead the only talking point is more biometrics and whilst the design is no longer classic Apple, ironically, it now looks like a Samsung rip-off instead. Repetitive and boring design coupled with an increasing trend to get rid of core requirements for daily use, like headphone jacks and expandable memory, and honestly I haven’t been this unexcited by the phone market in almost a decade.

Part of that lack of excitement is knowing where I had hoped the industry would be by this point. When I picked up the Xperia it was with a mindset that this would be the last ‘fixed’ smartphone I would ever own. At the time, the web was buzzing with news about projects like Project Ara and Puzzle Phone. The future of mobile was modular, focused on handsets that could be tweaked and customised to meet an individual’s requirements. Phones would be easier to upgrade, modify and fix, leading to much less e-waste and, hopefully, lower upfront costs. That lower barrier of entry could have even created a large third-party landscape of modular accessories. We might even have phones with removable batteries again! Unfortunately that utopian vision has somewhat faltered and, with a couple of lacklustre exceptions, the modular ecosystem has utterly failed to reach consumers.

It was therefore with some excitement that I saw an advert for a fairly different kind of phone (hehe). The “FairPhone”, on paper, is a perfect fit for me. It’s ecologically sensitive, designed with environmental principles at the core of the process and actually has a modular design. They are selling genuinely interesting ‘upgrade’ modules, like better cameras, proving that the concept works. Had I picked up the FairPhone 2 at launch I would now be looking at an upgrade cost of only about £70 to get the latest specs, rather than around £400 to upgrade the whole device. Core specifications weren’t bad either. The FairPhone is designed to be maintained by anyone and last several years, so the chassis is deliberately aimed at durability. The screen seemed decent, it has a replaceable battery, headphone jack, duel SIM and large expandable SD slot. Even screenshots of the custom rolled Android OS looked solid.

But then I read some reviews and the dream screeched to a halt. First of all, whilst the specs are by no means awful they’re also far from top-end. The CPU and OS are already a generation or two behind, RAM is comparable to what I currently have and the camera has pretty awful output. The latter can be upgraded, as mentioned, but the base phone itself is already sitting in the price range of top-end competitors. It’s not quite as inflated as an iPhone, but it’s pretty far from good value for money. I realise eco-friendly resources and the R&D required for a modular layout will mean a higher price, but it’s a shame the price is top-end when the result is distinctly mid-tier. On top of which, it’s incredibly ugly, even if you go for a non-see-through case, and the battery is getting some pretty shoddy scores. There’s a lot to love about the FairPhone and I truly hope they continue forging ahead. Perhaps, with a couple more iterations under their belt, the price will drop or the quality will improve to match it. It’s definitely the most exciting phone on the market right now, but as tends to be the way with eco-tech the actual tech part leaves something to be desired. Maybe the Xperia has a few more months left after all.

Insta Inspiration [#45]

The recent update to Lightroom (and descent into League) means that photography has taken a bit of a backseat once again, but I have actually managed to turn posting to social media into a bit of a trend. I’m enjoying it so far, which is good, but have discovered that my reasons for enjoyment are very different across the two platforms I’m utilising.

On 500px, the kick I get from uploading a new image is very much a stereotypical social-media hook. I enjoy seeing people’s enjoyment; getting likes, follows and comments. Sure, each upload comes with a slight worry about how it will rank compared to those that came before, but each image that reaches Upcoming or Popular status feels like an achievement, which makes me want to upload again. It’s a simple feedback loop that keeps me engaged with their website, even if some photos do unexpectedly well or bizarrely poorly (seriously, as far as I’m concerned my shot of the Old Man is the best photograph I’ve edited to date).

However, my engagement with Instagram has come from a very different source, which has surprised me. Possibly because I’ve been using the service as a log book for several years, I really don’t care how much traction my images get. In fact, unlike 500px, I basically view likes on Instagram as irritations, creating notifications on my phone to be swiped into oblivion. That does change if I know the person that has liked the image, especially if they’re someone who enjoys photography or creative outlets themselves, but otherwise I’m completely nonplussed by direct engagement metrics on the platform. So why bother uploading there in the first place?

It sounds completely strange, but I actually find Instagram much more valuable as a tool than as a service. Uploading an image is less about the sharing as having a very quick and intuitive way of tweaking settings and playing with filters to see if I can improve it a little more. Once that’s been done, I’ll often fire up Lightroom again and actively compare the two images, slowly tweaking Lightroom’s settings to make it more Instagram-like before re-exporting a ‘final’ version for 500px. I strongly believe that the style of images presented on both platforms should be different, and never try and copy Instagrams filters wholesale, but they do tend to point me in a new direction or just help with refinement.

That’s the process that I used on my Old Man shot and is largely why I love the outcome as much as I do. I thought it was a great photo before I ran it through the Instagram tweaking process, but the version that came out the other end blew me away. Taking those changes and reproducing them myself ultimately led to a final image that I think is better than either of the previous two outcomes. Other times I’ve decided to just upload to 500px, partially because I couldn’t see how Instagram could make the image better and partially because the process of getting a file onto Instagram is incredibly frustrating. In pretty much every instance that I’ve chosen this route I’ve regretted it, often re-uploading to 500px at a later time having flip-flopped on my decision.

Just to show what I mean, here’s my latest upload, a shot of a snow leopard checking out his recently snow-bedecked surroundings at the wonderful Hellabrun Zoo in Munich, Germany (taken on a trip almost two years ago):

Snow Leopard, Winter, Munich Zoo by Murray Adcock on 500px.com

I uploaded the image to 500px first because I didn’t think it could be tweaked any more. I also wanted to retain a very natural feel, which isn’t exactly Instagram’s forte. That said, here’s the same image uploaded a few minutes later and tweaked subtly in Instagram:

Now, I wouldn’t ever consider copying that style wholesale to 500px. It definitely isn’t as natural looking, with a weird purple haze, and it’s lost some of the ruggedness of the environment as a result. However, something about that combination of settings on Instagram really makes the leopard pop, creating a much nicer sense of depth and focus. I was extremely tempted to try and replicate the look, except for the colour, and re-upload to 500px. Unfortunately, I can’t picture in my head what settings to push around in Lightroom to achieve the outcome I want, so right now the original remains.

How I’ve come to use Instagram is not at all what I expected, but speaks volumes about how clever their rendering algorithms are (or how much I still have to learn about Lightroom, of course). For now, it feels strangely inspiring knowing I can quickly iterate a number of ‘looks’ for my image and then replicate the bits I like. That’s a creative process which seems to be providing quite a hook.

Asking the Right Answers [#44]

I have been taking part in Google Rewards for over a year now. For the most part, I complete the various surveys to feed an ongoing habit without feeling like I’m being too indulgent or wasting money. It’s a fast and easy way to make a bit of completely disposable income and, honestly, the service works well.

Broadly, the surveys I get fall into three categories: store feedback, google reviews and marketing surveys. Store feedback is usually a case of confirming that I visited a given location and then rating them out of five. It’s quick, interesting enough to see which businesses feel the service is worthwhile and lets me provide some limited feedback. I don’t really imagine that the data is all that worthwhile, but enough stores do it, some of which having done so for an entire year at this point, that they must get something from the results.

Google reviews are a little more tedious but also have a higher reward, so I quite enjoy receiving them. I’m one of those people that routinely reviews online purchases, fills out in-store questionnaires and generally says “yes” when asked if I have a minute. I totally understand why most people ignore these types of things, but I try to do them whenever I have spare time for two main reasons. The first is that I’ve worked retail, I’ve been the person with the clipboard and I am fully aware how much that role sucks. I literally spent two months, for 4-5 hours a day, wandering around Durham trying to get people interested in taking a flyer for a store I worked for, and that was difficult enough. Getting people to actually engage with you for longer than ten seconds… that sounds like hell on Earth. The second reason is that I like having a record of my opinions, which should be fairly obvious from this website (and elsewhere), and that extends out to the services I’ve used and the items I’ve purchased.

So, the first two groups are easy for me to understand and pretty common. But once every month or so I’ll get a survey from group three: marketing research. Not market research, but questioning me on the adverts that I remember having seen or my awareness of brands. I imagine most of these are Google trying to gauge how well its own advertising algorithms are, something which is totally apparent when I get a survey like the one I received this morning.

That survey was incredibly quick and began by showing me a thumbnail of a Youtube video by Philip DeFranco. The video was several years old (I could see the uploaded date on the image) and the survey wanted to know if I had watched it. Now, I’ve been subscribed to Phil since I first created a Youtube account back in 2009 and had already been watching him for over a year before that. I quite literally created my account just to be able to track which of his back catalogue of videos I had watched. As a result, I could say with pretty high certainty that I had watched the video they were showing me. I also assume, considering that Youtube is tied to my Google account, that they already knew that I had watched the video. The first question on these surveys tend to request confirmation of known information, so that made sense.

But then they did something which I don’t understand, at all. I think what they were trying to do was refine their suggested videos algorithm but the way they went about it was just weird. There were two more questions to the survey and both showed another thumbnail of one of Phil’s videos from over a year ago. Both asked me to rate, out of five, how useful these would be as suggested videos on Youtube. Now, I don’t propose to understand the exact results or answers Google are looking for here, but I can imagine that they’re hoping to confirm that, yes, someone who wants to watch a video on current affairs would like to watch more videos on current affairs. The problem, though, is that their survey is completely ignoring my own video watching history. I am subscribed to Phil’s channel; I have watched every video he’s uploaded in the past decade. I don’t need to have his old videos suggested to me because I’ve already seen them. However, none of that information has been requested by the survey, so from the perspective of the questions I’ve been asked then, yes, based on the fact I enjoyed watching the first video I would want the other two videos to be suggested.

Yesterday I was reading an A List Apart article on why asking the right questions in user testing is key to not screwing up. Perhaps because that was on my mind, this survey through me round a loop. On a personal level, completely honestly, those videos are useless suggestions to me and I would have liked to rate them 0 out of 5 (which is, irritatingly, never an option). However, I’m a huge fan of Phil and want his channel to keep growing. Saying “Yes, I watched that one video of his and never want to watch another” seems wrong. I don’t want Google to take that message away from this survey. On the other hand, I hate how my current suggested videos feed is full of videos I’ve already seen and content from channels I’m already subscribed to. It’s a personal pet peeve of the current Youtube setup because it makes that page incredibly pointless, so I really don’t want to reinforce that behaviour and say that these are good suggestions.

At this point, I’m definitely over analysing what’s going on, but you would hope a company the size of Google would understand that the way they present a survey will have differing impacts. The questions are needlessly broad and non-specific, leaving the interpretation open to the user, but the subject matter leaves me stuck trying to guess what data Google actually want from me. Do they want me to know if I like those types of videos or do they want me to ‘confirm’ that suggesting other videos from channels I’ve watched before is a good thing? Unfortunately, I don’t know which it is, which means I don’t really know what the question is, and if I don’t know that, how can I answer it?

In the end, I just stuck them both at 4/5 stars. Typing this up now I feel that was probably the wrong thing to do, but oh well. At the end of the day, Google asked what seems like a fairly innocuous question, but one which has two wildly different answers. I doubt I’m the only person getting that question but I’ll probably be an outlier in my response. Still, it’s a prime example of where the phrasing, setting and simplicity of a question can leave it horribly ambiguous. The result will likely go on to inform some form of policy at Youtube, which is a shame, because no matter what question they thought they were asking I doubt it’s the one they’re actually having answered.

Welcome to the Grid [#43]

There are a lot of new web technologies emerging at the moment which really feel like we’re entering a new era. Over the last decade, the likes of HTML5, ES6+, flex box etc. have brought the web, and the technologies on which it is built, very much into the modern day. Accessibility, responsiveness and flexibility have become standards, instead of the nice-to-have pipe dreams they were when I first built a website. Still, a lot of the new features and developments have been addressing limitations of what the web was back in the early noughties.

Right now, then, is a little different. There are still plenty of problems with how the web operates, limitations to its functionality and misuses of its resources, but with a little time and effort a website can become everything it was ever designed to be, and much more. The next round of technological implementation, then, is redesigning the way the web works. Do you need an active internet connection to be ‘online? Not any more. Want a website to do more than simply house and interlink static text? That’s getting pretty common.

Despite these huge leaps forward in terms of functionality, one element of those old, dark days has remained missing. Right when I started to learn HTML the standard approach was to mimic page setting from magazines by using <table> elements. That practice died a deserved death, but ever since the web has been slightly restricted in how it can display information in a dynamic, yet rigidly structured, manner. There have been improvements, such as display:table, flex box and semantically clearer HTML (section, article, aside etc.), but ultimately none have met the ease of application of a table layout.

Hopefully that’s about to change, thanks to CSS Grid. It’s a technology I’ve heard bits and bobs about for some time, but I’ll admit it hasn’t excited me like service workers or PWAs have. Thanks to (yet another) great article from A List Apart, I’m now firmly on board the Grid train and willing it to go faster, and faster, and faster. Honestly, I love the whole concept, but for me one of the most exciting aspects is the quick prototyping available through template-areas. For a full breakdown, read the article, but the “aha!” moment for me was seeing how this:

.cards {
        display: grid;
        grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr 1fr;
        grid-gap: 20px;
        grid-template-areas:
               “a a b”
               “. d d”
               “c e e”;
}

Is automatically translated into this:

Layout of 5 grid blocks and 1 empty cell, showing how CSS Grid can span columns and rows, auto-fill containers and be easily spaced.
The beauty of CSS Grid.

That’s not just replicating all the functionality of the table-based layouts of yesteryear, it’s taking the best part of it, the flexible rigidity, and removing all the irritating parts, leaving just the essence. It’s wonderfully simple yet extremely powerful and has clearly been thought through to an obscene degree. The fact that even blank cells are inherently catered for, rather than having to just set a blank <div> or similar, is just fantastic. Vendor/browser support will be the next big hurdle, but by the sounds of things that’s coming along extremely well. Give it a year and CSS Grid looks like it could well be the new standard approach.

Forgotten & Surreal Instruments [#42]

Two nights ago we had the privilege of listening to the latest show put together by the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments. Never heard of them? Well, neither had I. In fairness, had we not known one of the musicians (who, it turns out, was stepping in for another member) we still wouldn’t know about the Society and certainly wouldn’t have heard them perform.

Which is rather lucky, because both the members and the performance itself were brilliant. I had absolutely no idea what to expect and, frankly, even if I’d read a blurb or heard an explanation I doubt my expectations would have fitted the reality. In brief, the hour-or-so performance was a string quartet playing a medley of medieval and modern compositions, interspersed with readings from Sir Francis Bacon, the 16th century philosopher and naturalist. Oh, except the string instruments on which they played were not your standard violins, cellos etc. but rather the likes of the trumpet marine (one of the only ones in the world), viola bastarda (the only one in the world), gothic bray harp and utterly bizarre looking nyckelharpa (to name only a few, with each musician swapping instruments at least once throughout the performance). Layered on top of these medieval instruments were sound recordings, (occasional) electronic music and various distortions – these being the remit of the fifth musician, whom we know.

The result is a fascinating walk down both scientific and musical history. Francis Bacon has some wonderful excerpts on the nature of sound, the concept of his titular “Sound Houses” (from his New Atlantis, which I really must read) and Medieval anecdotes about noise in general. I doubt that a group of revellers truly did clap hard enough to “make the air thinner and cause the birds to fall from the sky” [paraphrased] but his observations on sound propagation are wonderfully modern and his vision for the future of music consumption is, at times, eerily prophetic. The excerpts were performed brilliantly by a live actor, lending a very clever degree of wit, movement and comedy to proceedings.

Alongside, and greatly overshadowing, the classical excerpts from Bacon was the music itself. For the most part, the musical performance was just incredibly well played Medieval fare. It’s a genre which I love, because it feels somehow incredibly alien whilst the core rhythms and structures, at times, feel almost pop like. The sound mixing was brilliant, allowing the whole medley to produce a wonderfully lyrical and complementary music whilst still permitting you to hone in on individual instruments, which you absolutely wanted to do from time-to-time. In particular, the trumpet marine was fascinating. A single stringed instrument with dozens of hidden vibration panels and sympathetic strings it could produce a bizarre array of sounds. I’m not so convinced as to the claims likening it to a trumpet, whose sound is much fuller and cleaner, but there is definitely a level of reverb and rasp which I’ve never heard from a stringed instrument before. I’m genuinely tempted to donate to their crowd funding campaign to get four of them made, just to hear what several of these instruments could produce together! Personally, though, my favourite was the weirdly altered bray harp, with small pegs fastened to the end of each string creating a very harsh, discordant noise completely antithetical to the classically perceived sounds of a harp.

Whilst there were new compositions interspersed with ancient, you really couldn’t tell them apart, and although the mixture of Medieval strings and modern audio sampling sounds odd on paper, in reality it worked extremely well. One of the last pieces performed, with the most electronic overlays, in fact felt ripe for sampling beneath a grime track, a combination I would happily pay to listen to. When paired alongside the esoteric poetry of Bacon’s prose and the atmospheric setting, an equally ancient church in the centre of a mist enshrouded town on the Moor, the result was wonderfully evocative and utterly riveting. An extremely fun way to spend the evening!

Capital Numbers

A List Apart has long been a fantastic source of knowledge and inspiration in terms of both website design and writing, but on top of these accolades every now an then it manage to completely floor me. Sometimes it’s because an explanation finally hits home after years of misunderstanding, but other times it’s simply by providing a piece of information which is simultaneously brand new and yet perfectly obvious. The type of fact which leaves you a little wide-eyed, questioning your very purpose of existence. A mind-blower, if you will.

That’s what happened today whilst reading the (brilliant) article/excerpt on Web Typography: Numerals. The article is well worth a read just for the thoughts on how the web finally makes footnotes genuinely useful (and, in doing so, guilt trips me about how these same ideas have been sat unacted upon in my head for years). However, it was a simple comment near the start that struck me like lightning:

We have at our disposal ‘uppercase’ numbers 0123456789 called lining or titling numerals, and ‘lowercase’ numerals 0123456789 called old-style or text numerals.

Wait… what?! Numbers can have cases? I read the sentence once, thought “that’s strange”, then read it again and noticed the different cases. These different glyphs are subtle but still instantly recognisable, yet I have never realised they existed before. Such a simple little thing which makes complete sense. Much like the recent viral expose of Papyrus or the infamous Fight Club burn marks, I get the feeling that text numerals are now going to be one of those things I just can’t not notice. Which is equal parts infuriating and awesome.