Links 2018-03-04

Here’s How Cornell Scientist Brian Wansink Turned Shoddy Data Into Viral Studies About How We Eat – BuzzFeed

When even BuzzFeed is getting in on the p-hacking, you know you have a problem. The incentives here (media coverage, research grants, etc.) so clearly rewards this sort of behaviour it’s difficult to know what to do about it, but at least we’re on the verge of admitting we have a problem.

How Tiny Red Dots Took Over Your Life – The New York Times

Trying to understand the addictive corrosiveness of modern technology, starting with the red alert badge that appears on your app icons. Bonus points for quoting Human Interface Guidelines (I wish more people whose job it is to design apps would).

Monica Lewinsky: Emerging from “the House of Gaslight” in the Age of #MeToo – Vanity Fair

An interview with a wise person, who has a lot to say about misogyny and celebrity worship, because she’s been living with its effects for 20 years.

Six Degrees of Wikipedia

Find out the shortest link distance between any two Wikipedia articles. This got me for hours.

Links 2018-02-25

The Unchecked Influence of NRA Lobbyist Marion Hammer – The Trace

A sober account of how efficient lobbying works to horrific ends.

Inside the OED: can the world’s biggest dictionary survive the internet? – The Guardian

I’ve always had a weakness for dictionaries, and this is an interesting account of the most comprehensive. I hope the OED has a brighter future than Encyclopaedia Britannica: whatever about general knowledge, I think that analysis of language benefits from opinion, preferably weakly held.

The Tyranny of Convenience – The New York Times

You could read this as an anthology of First World Problems but privileged or not, we must face our ennui nonetheless, and this article feels like a good place to start.

Links 2018-02-18

The diabolical genius of the baby advice industry – The Guardian

I’m not (and won’t be) a parent myself but as many of my friends start to raise families I’m struck at how awfully difficult parenting can be for some, and how easy it can be for others. And how, if you’re having a difficult time parenting, everybody else judges you incessantly.

Email is your electronic memory – Fastmail

I’ve been a happy customer of Fastmail for a few years now. Leaving all your email to Google may be easy, and cheap, but it’s not a good place for memories.

The Good Room – Frank Chimero

A lovely article about libraries, train stations, the commons, the Amish, design, spiritual technology, and a whole lot more.

Goodnight Chrome Podcast

I never, ever sleep during the day. But this glorious podcast, which starts by reading out incredibly boring technical specs before injecting them with nonsense, had me dropping off after 5 minutes. If you’re an insomniac then you need this.

Links 2018-02-11

No one’s coming. It’s up to us. – Dan Hon

Making the case for humane technology. The photos of old Usborne futuristic books brought back a lot of memories. I particularly liked the phrase “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty”.

Don’t Be Evil – Fred Turner on Utopias, Frontiers, and Brogrammers – Logic

An interview with a Stanford professor about techno-utopianism (and there was I thinking I coined that phrase) and the ethical frameworks used by software engineers. Full of deep wisdom and throwaway wisdom.

The tech industry needs a moral compass – Rachel Coldicutt – Medium

Another new phrase (to me): Tech Humanism. While I’m not sure I 100% agree with all of the proposed solutions in this article, I’m absolutely in agreement that we need to start the conversation. It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that as technologists we are gaining increasing power, and we’re long overdue a conversation about the responsibility side of that equation.

Advice to the newish programmer – Tom MacWright

A wise article that also offers a pretty good explanation of programming for non-programmers (spoiler alert: everything is pretty much broken).

Has Anyone Seen the President? – Michael Lewis – Bloomberg

Michael Lewis has a really lovely writing style, and this article, ostensibly about President Trump but really about Steve Bannon and the politics of anger, offers some insight into how US politics arrived at its current state.

Links 2018-02-04

The Sierra Network – The Digital Antiquarian

Jimmy Maher runs a wonderful site where he posts deep dives into computer history. This post is about an online pre- (or rather proto-) internet network run by a games company, Sierra.

If You’re So Successful, Why Are You Still Working 70 Hours a Week? – Harvard Business Review

This research into over-work talks about “insecure overachievers”. Whatever about overachievement, I know that professional insecurity has been a cause of overwork for me in the past.

The punk rock internet – how DIY ​​rebels ​are working to ​replace the tech giants – The Guardian

Thanks to Georgia for sending this in! I think, or at least hope, that the indie/corporate tension will always exist on the internet, with both sides vying for dominance and succeeding for brief periods without completely destroying the other.

Sriracha is for Closers – Esquire

This profile of WeWork may be laden with snark but it’s still an entertaining read about what a boom feels like.

The Dirty War Over Diversity Inside Google – Wired

Why diversity is hard, and oh so vulnerable to attack.

Links 2018-01-28

The Follower Factory – New York Times

I’ve been aware of these “pay money for followers” schemes for a while now, but this was a really interesting deep dive into the companies who will sell you social media followers. Also it’s the first time in a while I’ve seen a page with JavaScript fanciness that didn’t completely suck.

How to Win Founders and Influence Everybody – Wired

In some ways this is just a profile of a PR hack but what I found interesting about this profile was that, amidst all the hype of new communications channels, good PR is about relationships.

A Conspiracy of Hogs: The McRib as Arbitrage – The Awl

Given that The Awl is shutting down this month, I’m reminded to post one of my favourite articles from that site. I just love this flight of fancy based around an everyday commodity.

Links 2018-01-21

A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop – Scientific American

A listener to Worst Case Scenario (thanks Jane!) listened to our latest episode where I was talking about trying to systematically use a paper notebook. I’m a relatively quick typist so the quoted researchers’ conclusions that writing forces you to summarise and therefore think differently rings true to me.

How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next – The Guardian

A timely article on how and why people are more suspicious of statistics post-Trump and Brexit

BuzzFeed Style Guide

I have a weakness for style guides, and this one is surprisingly comprehensive. Like pun-laden tabloid headlines you may not admire the content of BuzzFeed’s listicle-driven posts, but it’s difficult not to ignore the craft.

The 29 Stages Of A Twitterstorm In 2018 – BuzzFeed

While we’re on the subject of BuzzFeed, this is an amusing summary of most Twitter drama (with an odd number in the headline, natch).

The Invasion of the German Board Games – The Atlantic

I need to write a German board games blog post some day. A good summary if you’re new to the genre.

Links 2018-01-14

Legends of the Ancient Web – Maciej Cegłowski

Maciej, more commonly known as Pinboard on Twitter (the name of his bookmarking service that I use for these weekly links), is my internet hero. His talk on the history of radio, from anarchic beginnings as a peer-to-peer medium, through to centralisation and exploitation by astute political propagandists, offers relevant lessons for the future of today’s internet.

In less than four decades, radio had completed the journey from fledgeling technology, to nerdy hobby, to big business, to potent political weapon.

This trajectory must have come as a shock to its pioneers.

At its birth, it seemed like radio would only be a force for good. How could something that connects people together be anything but beneficial?

But radio waves are just oscillating electromagnetic fields. They really don’t care how we use them. All they want is to go places at the speed of light.

It is hard to accept that good people, working on technology that benefits so many, with nothing but good intentions, could end up building a powerful tool for the wicked.

But we can’t afford to re-learn this lesson every time.

Good Luck Spending Your KodakCoins – Matt Levine – Bloomberg

A friend sent this on – if you’re feeling weary about the incessant hype around the blockchain, this will depress you even further but at least the great writing will cheer you up. Levine starts with the whole silly KodakCoin business but makes a wider point that maybe nobody really believes in this stuff: like other pump-and-dump scams everyone knows it’s a scam, people just think they can make a quick buck before selling on to a greater fool.

The Good War – Mike Dawson and Chris Hayes – The Nib

I don’t know what to call this – a ‘graphic essay’? It’s a ‘graphic novel’ treatment by Mike Dawson of an essay by Chris Hayes identifying some of the origins of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the sugary nostalgia for World War II that broke out in the US in the late 1990s. Both are well worth a read.


A useful and very comprehensive collection of resources for naming things. Lovely typography too.

Birdcage Liners – Joel on Software

The article I wish I wrote about quitting social media. Joel Spolsky muses on why Twitter and Facebook make us unhappy, and how “when you design software, you create the future”.

I’m deleting my Facebook account tomorrow- Thomas Bibby

Yours truly with a much less eloquent ragequit of Facebook.

Softwear: How an Underground Fashion Label for Nerds Got Cool – Wired

I love articles about industries I know nothing about, like this one on mens fashion. Some interesting insights into the state of the modern fashion industry.

The Strange Brands in Your Instagram Feed – The Atlantic

Another article that starts with mens fashion, but takes a fascinating diversion into the world of generic brands, drop shipping and Instagram. Also starring a 17 year-old YouTube star from Ratoath, Co. Meath (Ratoath!) who is a leading light in this business, posting his video updates to his thousands of followers on how to get rich quick.

The Making of Apple’s Emoji: How designing these tiny icons changed my life – Angela Guzman

A sweet story on the design of the iPhone’s first emoji, from an intern who worked at Apple. Don’t read if you’re particularly fond of the ice cream emoji ;-]

I’m deleting my Facebook account tomorrow

I’m about to lose touch with a lot of people. Tomorrow I will ‘unfriend’ all my contacts on Facebook, delete all my content, and finally remove my account. Not that Facebook will actually remove my account, they’ll keep all my data in case I have a change of heart, and they will continue to monitor my online movements in the service of their creepy advertising system, even though I’ve asked them not to. I’m not the first to do this, and indeed many before me have written posts like this one. As such there’s nothing new in this post. But I still think it’s important to outline the reasons why I feel Facebook has become such a negative thing in my life.

The dopamine hit

Facebook’s service is obsessively engineered by some of the best software engineers and designers in the world to be addictive. The algorithm used to order items on your timeline, the notifications you get, the specific animation you see when you ‘like’ something – it’s all designed to keep you on the site and looking at ads. What I’ve noticed is that this addictiveness often makes me feel tremendously unhappy after an hour or two on the service and I’m not the only one – I’ve had many conversations with friends that centred around the fact that Facebook was making them unhappy.

Creepy behaviour

All those ‘like’ buttons on almost all websites I visit these days are not there primarily to allow me to share content on Facebook (that’s just an added bonus) – they’re present so that Facebook can track what I’m looking at even when I’m not logged in to Facebook. The company is proud of its ability to collect information on its users allowing advertisers to ‘target’ their ads to my interests and behaviour.

Facebook has become a force for bad in the world

Even if I was happy to trade the creepiness and the addictiveness of Facebook for the ability to keep in touch with lots of wonderful people – there’s still the undeniable fact that Facebook is enabling poisonous ideologies and repressive regimes to spread. Dark ads, fake news and other things that I don’t want to be a part of anymore.

Alternatives exist

Thankfully the internet is still (just about) designed to be open. I’ve had my phone number, email address and location of my house online for the past 15 years. I publish articles like this one on my own site that I control. Recently I set up a ‘microblog’ that I also control. I’m still on Twitter for the moment (although that platform’s role as a harassment vehicle is giving me second thoughts) but now I publish all my status updates on my own site first. There is a new service,, that I joined recently which simply shows me a list of updates from people that I follow, in time order, with no ads. They even charge for the service so I can be more confident that I’m a customer of the service, not a product of it. Hopefully I’ll still get to be ‘social’ on the internet, but without the downsides.

Links 2018-01-07

The surprising thing Google learned about its employees — and what it means for today’s students – Washington Post

I’m not sure about the implications for education mentioned in this article but this is a great summary of Google’s Oxygen and Aristotle projects – where they found that the skills that most highly correlated with successful software engineers were soft interpersonal skills (e.g. being a good coach; listening) and not hard skills like algorithms or data structures. The stereotype of the socially toxic yet brilliant programmer needs to die.

My Internet Mea Culpa – Rick Webb

As a GenX tech worker, this piece struck close to home. Rick Webb says sorry for his tech utopianism (and by implication, the rest of we GenXers who thought that information wanted to be free) that resulted in the terrordrome of awfulness that is today’s web.

The Smart, the Stupid, and the Catastrophically Scary: An Interview with an Anonymous Data Scientist – Logic Magazine

A long anonymous interview with a data scientist, who maintains that data science, machine learning artificial intelligence fields are so full of stupid marketing that close to nobody actually knows what they’re talking about anymore.

China’s Selfie Obsession – New Yorker

An article about beauty, celebrity culture, photo filters and plastic surgery in China.

The Objective-C Runtime & Swift Dynamism – Roy Marmelstein – Realm

A transcript of a 2016 talk. I love deep dives like this into the Objective-C runtime – in particular how simple things like classes are implemented in Objective-C.

An epic treatise on scheduling, bug tracking, and triage – apenwarr

This is a gloriously meandering take on the state of modern software development. It should be required reading for programmers, project managers, and anyone who ever wondered why software is late.

SQL Keys in depth – Joe Nelson

I learnt loads from this article, not just about databases, but about uniqueness and the abstractions we use to represent the real world in our programs.