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.

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.

Accio Deathly Hallows

10 years ago today the Harry Potter series came to a close. With the publishing of The Deathly Hallows a large part of my, and many others, childhood came to an end. I find it strange that a decade has passed since, but probably for different reasons.

Whilst I was eager to read The Deathly Hallows when it first came out, I have to admit that the Potter franchise had lost its lustre for me. I grew up alongside the release dates, but as they stretched out over the last three books my own ageing overtook the target audience. By the close of the series I still counted myself a fan, but my life revolved far more around the likes of Lord of the Rings, Pratchett’s Discworld and authors like David Gemmell.

But the release of The Deathly Hallows does mark a pretty big event in my life, though I wouldn’t realise it for another three (!) years. Several days before the book was officially released, a little known channel on YouTube uploaded what would become a viral, fan-favourite and Harry Potter inspired song: Accio Deathly Hallows. The musician was Hank Green; the channel was “Brotherhood 2.0”, the fledgling website that would evolve into the Vlogbrothers. Whilst Hank and his brother John have become far better known for other reasons, ranging from writing The Fault in Our Stars (John) to creating VidCon (Hank), that song was what changed their experiment on YouTube into a community. Both brothers have pointed to Accio Deathly Hallows as a pivot point, the first time either had considered that their involvement in YouTube was more than just a one-year deal. The popularity it gave them on the platform ultimately changed both of their careers and, arguably, the face of both YouTube and the web in general.

That, for me, is the far bigger anniversary today. The Vlogbrothers, their content and their outlook on life have been a hugely impactful and important part of my life as I left home, went to University and officially began to “adult”. They remain one of my most watched YouTube channels, a huge inspiration and a brilliant example to the world of how to be humans. Whilst it feels like Harry Potter ended years ago (which I guess it did), the idea that the Vlogbrothers have been vlogging for over a decade is equal parts encouraging and terrifying. Forget Accio Deathly Hallows, I’m more interested in Accio DFTBA.

Factual Distrust [#21]

 

Text reading
Interested much?

I’m currently in the Outer Hebrides (actually, I’m currently somewhere on my way back from them, but that’s where I have been for the last two weeks). As a result, I’m dipping into my archive of forgotten almost-posts to make sure that whole New 52 thing keeps on a-rolling.

But I do expect you to believe that part. That’s not really what the image above is about. No, the image above is a link to a comic by the ever-brilliant Oatmeal, attempting to explain why it’s so damned hard to convince somebody they are wrong. Present all the evidence in the world, be reasonable and clear, provide a bullet-proof argument… and that still won’t be enough. There are a bunch of reasons why that is the case, but the big two are these: the backfire effect and the energy-cost conflict. The comic details the backfire effect much better than I ever could, so if you’re unaware of it (or even if you know everything about it, to be honest) go and give it a read. You won’t regret it.

The energy-cost conflict is a term I invented, so it’s unlikely that you know anything about it. Stuart Vyse created a pretty clever illustration to explain why superstitions are a thing for Ted Ed, which sums it up nicely and is also definitely worth your time. In brief, it takes a certain amount of energy to learn something and a second amount of energy to unlearn it (not to forget it, that’s free, but to take what you know and alter it). Our brains are designed to reduce energy expenditure as much as possible, for the simple reason that it helps keep us alive longer. As a result, we’re naturally resistant to facts that would cause us to alter what we’ve learnt.

Combined, these two phenomena create a pretty large obstacle for reasoned debate and progressive change. Once someone, or a group of people, have accepted a certain belief as fact it becomes pretty hard to get them to accept that it isn’t; once that belief has become the basis for multiple other beliefs and ideas, it becomes incredibly hard. There isn’t much that can be done about this problem, as it effects everyone in the world. The most effective method is to educate people, which is what both of the links above are attempting to do. Personally, as I come to understand the way my own brain attempts to helpfully undermine me, I’ve found it a lot easier to have productive discussions with people. I’ve also found that the world is a lot more gray than black-and-white, but that’s actually a lot more interesting.

It’s Been A While; Plus Thoughts on Pluses

So… it’s been a while.

It’s been a while since I last posted an article. Part of that has been due to a month of incredible busyness where even the planned “down time” became frantic research time for car insurance, holiday planning, present purchasing etc. The rest has been Pokémon Go!, which has eaten free time like nothing else in recent history.

It’s been a while since I reviewed a movie. Sort of. The reality is, I’ve actually managed to keep on top of those over the last week or so, but I have a couple annoyingly outstanding from a time BPg (Before Pokémon Go!) and I’m not 100% happy with the current state of some of the others. July’s MiM is coming, with some interesting new ‘features’, but it may be a week or so late.

It’s been a while since I spent any time working on this website. Again, in a time BPg (historians will catch on, I’m sure of it) I was getting close to making some pretty big, radical changes to the backend here. They hit a slight snag which morphed into a major roadblock simply because I still haven’t really sat down to mull it over. Still, plans are slowly creeping forward!

It’s been a while since I did any photo editing. Despite weekend after weekend of major events in the past month, which have produced hundreds of photos I’m genuinely proud of, I haven’t posted to Flickr in coughmumblemumble… I’m not proud of that, but again, plans may finally be moving forward.

It’s been a while since I saw something truly exemplary online. There have been some great videos and some new passions, but nothing that’s made me sit up and go: yes! I agree! Let’s think about/act on that right now! Luckily, this waiting period has actually ended thanks to the ever inspiring Vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green. I don’t want to go too deep into my thoughts right now because, well, this post has ballooned into something else which I quite like, but lets just say they’ve struck a nerve.

In a handful of recent Youtube videos, they both touched upon a worrying trend online, specifically that angry voices, ranting and outrage are becoming increasingly prevalent. In some ways, that’s totally okay, but the ubiquity and degree of rage is getting out of control. Between the two videos they discussed why anger leads to poor conversations, why it builds so much traction online, why that may provoke certain elements to create and foster this emotion above others and, most importantly, presented one method for potentially combating this trend. In terms of the “whys”, rather than regurgitate their words I’d urge you to just watch the videos. If the virality of anger is something that interests you, I’d also thoroughly recommend this analysis by CGPGrey.

What really made me sit up and take note, though, was their suggestion to combat saltiness and flame wars on Youtube: “+” comments. Because Youtube ranks comments based on the number of Likes and Comments they get, but comments are weighted higher than likes, angry/flamebait comments tend to rise to the top, causing a circle jerk of ever increasing rage. Hank Green, instead, suggested that people should leave a comment with a simple “+” symbol on any comments they felt worthy of praise, discussion or both. In doing so, they’ve hacked their own Youtube comments section into one where bile and trolling isn’t rewarded and genuine discussion/ideas are. It’s by no means perfect, but I thoroughly agree with both brothers when they say that it is as much the community’s job to police themselves and maintain order as it is the platform’s.

Personally, I’m a big fan of “+” comments. It may be that Youtube eventually begins to remove them or negate their importance, but in the meantime they seem to be a power for good. In particular, I feel they may be much more effective than reporting negative/trolling/abusive comments. I’m a firm believer that a carrot will be more likely to provoke change than a stick (plus, over reliance on the stick reduces it’s power/thorniness).

Who Watches the Users?

How do you decide which use cases you should support and which you shouldn’t? This question has been hovering in the back of my mind for quite a while now, because it seems to be increasingly forgotten. When apps or websites are launched, they tend to have a specific goal in mind, a solution to a problem the developers have identified. But does this take centre stage during a redesign? What if your users believe you’re providing a different solution to the one you had intended?

These are very real problems and I don’t think tech firms are treating them with, well, any care at all. Facebook’s constant redesigns have largely worked but I also find myself looking for ways to refine what appears on my wall. Adverts I can manage, but scrolling through an entire page of content about people I’ve never heard of (friends-of-friends and liked activity) is boring, and boredom means my time on the service declines. Facebook appears to have forgotten its core goal: to connect you to your friends and make communication simple. Now it just wants to connect you, period, which ultimately just results in a lot of noise.

Similarly, Youtube have just redesigned their smart TV app. I like the redesign, but Subscriptions are now hidden behind a menu rather than being on the home screen. Youtube may think that Search or Recommendations are more important, but that’s not how I use their service. Hiding the content I want behind two menus (i.e. two clicks away) is bad practice on a PC, but ultimately manageable. On a smart TV, with clunky controls and latency issues, every click counts. A barrier has been placed in between me and what I want to do. Far from solving my problem, Youtube have just created another one.

On the flipside, Instagram recently implemented the ability to control multiple accounts from within their app. When Instagram first launched it enabled you to take a photograph and share it with your friends; over time though, it has become a portfolio platform that people run businesses from. The inclusion of account switching confirms that Instagram are actually listening to their users and, crucially, how those users are actually using the service. They may even end up enticing some of those business users to setup secondary, personal accounts as a result, furthering their initial concept. They’ve managed to branch out their service to solve not just one, but two problems, simultaneously.

And yet… despite this positive step, searching your own photos on Instagram is practically impossible. I can’t be the only one wanting this functionality (though I imagine my own personal use case is a little… unusual) because an entire industry has evolved to fit this niche. Yet Instagram themselves aren’t listening. There is a disconnect here between how I want to use the service and the way the developers think the service is used. Right now, I’m willing to put up with that and hope for a better future. But given time, as with Facebook, doubts will begin to gnaw. And unlike Facebook, I have no intimate connection with Instagram; cutting that cord would be fairly painless.

John Oliver’s Back in the UK, Free and Legal!

I am a huge fan of the ever insightful talk show Last Week Tonight, hosted by John Oliver. I love the directness of the opinion pieces, agree with many of the stances taken and largely find the script (and Oliver himself) extremely entertaining and hilarious. Most of all, though, I appreciated and was won over by their clever usage of social media.

During the show’s first season, which was seen as somewhat of a gamble for both HBO and John Oliver – who looked set to be the next Daily Show host with ease – I avidly awaited each weeks “tirade” on Youtube. At the time I was living in New Zealand, but even back in the UK watching the full show, legally, was impossible as no networks had picked it up for local release. Despite that, because the show’s team decided to embrace web culture and new media, pretty much all the heavily scripted pieces of the program were available on Youtube, Facebook and other popular social sites. As a result, when I started picking up on the buzz surrounding the show through favourite Youtubers and web journalists, I actually had a point of reference: I could log on and watch Oliver’s brilliant ripostes on all manner of subjects. They were fantastically well put together, he made me laugh and I became on instant fan.

So I was over the moon when BSkyB, the company behind the largest “cable” TV network in the UK (Sky, if you hadn’t worked that out) acquired the distribution rights for the second season. I don’t actually subscribe to Sky (or any other TV package, for that matter) but it was great news for the show and would hopefully mean many more seasons to come. Unfortunately, it had an unforeseen side effect which was completely gutting and has meant I’ve not seen anything more from the program since the conclusion of Season 1.

Apparently, Sky has a much stricter licensing contract than HBO (or, more likely, either don’t see the positives in creating their own equivalent Youtube outlet or HBO wouldn’t let them). The end result was that my weekly video drop from John Oliver became nothing more than a dark gray screen with the overlaid text “This video has not been made available in your region”. Yep, the dreaded region lock had now been applied to my favourite news segment. Now, if I wanted to catch up on John Oliver’s witty social commentary, I would have to turn to illegal methods, which I don’t like doing (and yes, I accept I could also spend the £40+ a month to subscribe to Sky, buy an actual TV and get a UK TV license, pay for and install a satellite cable etc. but that was blatantly not worth it). The result was that I stopped watching and have spent the last year with pangs of frustration every time an American friend or news outlet tells me that I “must watch the latest John Oliver video”. I want to, believe me, but unfortunately I can’t.

Or at least that’s what I had thought. It turns out, it’s not as simple as all that. I have no idea when this began but certainly, right now, The Late Show also has a Facebook page. On that Facebook page are a large chunk of their Youtube videos, not simply linked to from Youtube but actually re-uploaded to Facebook. And therein lies the rub, because Facebook currently doesn’t do region locking on video content, so all those videos are openly available in the UK. Joy of joys, John Oliver can once more be a part of my weekly life! It’s like he’s coming home all over again!