the wonders of wishing

(brelson's blog)

Finally, someone who’s more obsessed than me with the politics of public transport
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(crossposted from

Last year I wrote a piece about the strategies commuters use to get seats on trains. I ended up appearing on a few radio programmes that portrayed me as an expert on the social rules of public transport, or at least someone who was unreasonably obsessed with that topic.

So I’m heartened to hear about Esther Kim of Yale University, who has “chalked up thousands of miles of bus travel to examine the unspoken rules and behaviors of commuters” while working on a paper called Nonsocial Transient Behavior: Social Disengagement on the Greyhound Bus.

“I became what’s known as an experienced traveler and I jotted down many of the different methods people use to avoid sitting next to someone else,” said Kim. “We engage in all sorts of behavior to avoid others, pretending to be busy, checking phones, rummaging through bags, looking past people or falling asleep. Sometimes we even don a ‘don’t bother me face’ or what’s known as the ‘hate stare’.”

And I thought I was brave to spend 90 minutes a day on an Overground train from Highbury to Kensington. Esther’s exhaustive research has truly put me in the shade.

Read more at EurekAlert or try accessing the actual article, which is behind an academic firewall I can’t penetrate

Cheese or Font (slight return)
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(crossposted from

Does it break the game if the answer is “both”?

Cheese or Font (slight return)

The new iPad might not be very impressive on paper. But who cares?
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(crossposted from

Yesterday Apple revealed the new iPad. You can read all about it elsewhere or go right to the source if you want to buy one.

As usual the announcement was preceded by feverish speculation. Would the new device come with iOS 6? Was it going to allow users to ‘touch’ pixels (or tixels) through advanced haptic feedback technology? And what about Siri?

The answer to all these questions turned out to be “no”, but some new features did make it in. First and foremost was the Retina display, which doubles the screen resolution. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of this – talk about display resolution never really captivates ‘normal’ people – but it does matter.

The other enhancements possibly fall into the “so what” category. Take the support for 4G and LTE connections. If you’re in the UK you might well ask, support for what? These are new standards for mobile networks that are becoming common in north America, but they’re still some way off here. So that enhancement isn’t really relevant to British users.

And then there’s the new quad-core processor. The less said about that the better. It’s not that it isn’t important – it’s just that it really doesn’t excite consumers. Remember in the early 2000s when Windows devotees would mock the lower clock speeds of PowerPC CPUs, believing this proved the inferiority of Apple machines? You probably don’t: it turned out that no-one cared. Apple refused to join a CPU arms race and it turns out that they were right.

So this leaves Apple with a new product announcement that is evolutionary rather than evolutionary. No freaky futuristic stuff, no “one more thing”. But does it matter?

I don’t think it matters at all really. The iPad dominates the tablet market and there’s nothing on the immediate horizon that’s going to change that. When Windows 8 launches it’ll be in a battle against Android for second place, but that could end up being a pretty small prize to fight for. There’s a more tangible threat to the iPad from the Kindle Fire but Amazon has work to do if it’s going to convince people that these products belong in the same device category. Apple’s dominance of the tablet market is ensured for the foreseeable future.

Given all this, throwing new features at the dominant product in an attempt to revolutionise it would be a bad move. When you’re behind, the “hail mary pass” – a single recklessly ambitious scheme to stave off disaster – is a good strategy. But when you’re ahead that’s the last thing you want to do. It’s what Microsoft did with Vista, and it ended up spending millions giving the world a product it didn’t need. Apple isn’t going to be “doing a Vista” with the iPad any time soon.

Do not blog about Dad Club
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(crossposted from

My son Aidan was born just over 11 weeks ago. Since then I’ve not exactly been the most prolific blogger.

This isn’t due to a lack of things to talk about: becoming a parent is a profound and transforming experience, even for us fathers. Its impact is so powerful that it changes your personality. And when you go through a life event that makes you become a different person in the course of several weeks, you’ve definitely got a lot to talk about.

Aidan and Brendan

4 days into the experience

But the problem is that you’re knackered. Or else it’s that there’s never any time. For me, a big problem is that there’s so much to talk about you don’t know where to begin. Forget blog posts, I feel like I could write a book – but I’m too knackered, and there’s never any time. So I haven’t really been talking about it. Well, not here anyway.

It’s a shame that I haven’t written more about fatherhood here, though, because I’m starting to find that my memory of the first few weeks is fading. Cathy and I often wonder, is Aidan easier to deal with now that when he was back then? Neither of us know! We remember details – for example, I could tell you the precise time of Aidan’s first fart – but to get a sense of the patterns and rhythm of life in those early days seems very difficult.

So I’ve resolved to try to write more about fatherhood, if only because my memory has proved that it’s not up to the job. But if this site starts turning into a “daddy blog” please promise you’ll throw some virtual cold water into my virtual face.

Pattern recognition, LEGO, interaction design and the Simpsons
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(crossposted from

I’ve written a piece on the Tobias & Tobias blog about pattern recognition, inspired by this amazing example of streamlined visual communication:

LEGO Simpsons

I'm sure you don't need to be told what these shapes represent

This image gives our brain the chance to show off one of its most impressive skills – pattern recognition. Pattern recognition allows us to understand complicated things even when we’re only given limited information about them. So even though the object on the right is made up of three Lego bricks, representing only nine bits of information, pattern recognition makes our brain ‘see’ something far more intricate…

Read the full piece here.

Drew Breunig about the creeping, corrupting allure of ‘content’
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(crossposted from

This article by Drew Breunig about the growing emphasis on “content” is worth a read.

Lots of organisations today have stopped thinking about themselves as creating photography or literature or artworks or music or whatnot. Eclipsing these old categories is the notion of “content”, a more fungible substance whose value can be easily determined by a uniform set of metrics such as page views or revenue-per-impression:

This is the allure of “content”: it allows comforting, structured data which simplifies the complexity of a large business and makes decisions less intimidating. Executives aren’t making qualitative picks regarding art or an artist, they’re merely signing off on whichever “content” produces more valuable metrics.

Breunig’s central point is that good writing is good for reasons that are difficult to quantify – something that’s always been the case, but is especially pertinent now that we have modern metrics for determining content’s “effectiveness”. These modern metrics don’t tell us much about the content’s intrinsic quality, nor help us respond correctly when these metrics take a nosedive.

It’s true that when we look at a piece of online content these days we’re like EEG-wired chimpanzees being given fruit in an experimental research lab. What feels to us like a simple transaction (you want the content, you ask for it, you’re given it) is in fact taking place under the bright glare of forensic analysis, with a dizzying array of analytics algorithms, advertising platforms and social networking hooks lurking underneath the source code watching our every move. What’s important to us – the content itself – is increasingly irrelevant to the content providers, who are more interested in the metrics we generate for them.

Thankfully, though, this isn’t a fatalistic condemnation of a corrupted artless modern world:

All this would be tremendously depressing if it wasn’t creating an enormous opportunity for people with the courage to look beyond the numbers, where it’s too messy to measure, and invest in journalism, videos, photography, and art people might actually enjoy.

I agree with Drew here – people are able to tell the difference between SEO-gaming hackery and decent writing, and in the long run the smart money is on them choosing the latter. Read the full article here.

My Top Ten Albums of 2011
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(crossposted from

Now that I’ve got with the program and started tagging MP3s properly, I can use to see what I’ve been listening to. So, in the spirit of the end-of-year retrospectives that are customary around now, here are the ten albums I’ve listened to the most in 2011*.

* hardly any of these were released in 2011

Barafundle10. Barafundle by Gorky’s Zygotic Minci (1997)

Gorky’s were a psychedelic rock band favoured by John Peel and highly prolific in the 1990s. Their outlandish and experimental approach to instrumentation is combined with a knack for haunting and sometimes decidedly catchy melodies. This album is more polished and refined than some of their earlier work and is on this list because Cathy regularly plays it to our baby son.
Notable track: Patio Song

Blackout9. Blackout! by Method Man & Redman (1999)

The first of several hip-hop albums on this list, Blackout! is a collaboration between the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man (who also plays Cheese in The Wire, fact fans) and New Jersey-based rapper Redman. It’s a really playful album that’s powered by the interplay and dynamic between two MCs who couldn’t sound more different from one another, yet whose styles are mutually complementary. There’s nothing serious or thoughtful here though. It’s an energetic and cartoony album and sometimes that’s what you want from hip-hop (although not always – of which more later).
Notable track: Cheka

Camino Del Sol8. Camino Del Sol by Antena (1982)

In the early 1980s Antena, a French pop trio headed by singer Isabel Antena, recorded and released a mini-album, Camino Del Sol. The one I’ve been listening to is a more recent reissue with an expanded tracklist. As an electro-pop act Antena weren’t as pioneering as the likes of OMD or the Human League, but their gentle tropically tinged electro-pop is definitely unique to them. It’s just a shame they didn’t make more of it.
Notable track: Camino Del Sol

John Maus7. We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves by John Maus (2011)

One of only two new albums to make my 2011 top ten, We Must Become… is a dazzling piece of work. Although it’s ostensibly a synth-pop album it has none of the irony, nostalgia or kitch overtones that tend to plague deliberately retro music. You’d never think this was old. It’s intensely modern and complex in a way that becomes more obvious with each listen. As a piece of electronic music it’s excellent, but it’s the baffling, revolutionary lyrical material that makes this album endlessly fascinating for me.
Notable track: Cop Killer

Head Over Heels6. Head Over Heels by Cocteau Twins (1984)

In 2009 and 2010 I was obsessed with the Cocteau Twins’ later album, Victorialand, but in early 2011 I picked up a copy of Head Over Heels on vinyl. Today the Cocteau Twins are seen as an early influence on what people now call ‘dreampop’ and while Head Over Heels is less dreamy than Victorialand – it actually has beats, for example – its indie/gothic songs are surrounded by a spacey, drifting atmosphere and Liz Fraser’s voice is otherworldly as always.
Notable track: Musette And Drums

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx5. Only Built For Cuban Linx by Raekwon (1995)

This was Raekwon’s first solo album and was released during east coast hip-hop’s second golden age in the mid-1990s. Raekwon’s like a modern-day Raymond Chandler – a noir storyteller whose prose style is itself a rich backdrop for his crime stories. Cuban Linx is experimental in a way – its cinematic narratives and dense lyrics were definitely unlike anything that came before – but it’s not in the least bit noodly or arch, this is pretty raw stuff. I listened to its 2009 sequel, Cuban Linx II, a lot in 2011 also, but it doesn’t appear in this chart due to some ID3 tag problem that’s too boring to explain.
Notable track: Criminology

4. Fishscale by Ghostface Killah (2006)

Ghostface Killah appeared extensively on the abovementioned Raekwon album so in a way it’s fitting that this comes next in the chart. If Raekwon is modern hip-hop’s Raymond Chandler then Ghostface might be its James Joyce – hyper-lucid and loquacious, wildly associative, more versatile than most, Ghostface can move from street-soaked crime stories to tales of puppy love and heartfelt accounts of an impoverished childhood at the drop of a hat. Fishscale marked a major return to form for him when it came out in 2006, but I only got into it this year after being sucked back into the world of Cuban Linx.
Notable track: Beauty Jackson

Fear Of A Black Planet3. Fear Of A Black Planet by Public Enemy (1990)

This album was a blast from the past for me in 2011. I was obsessed with this when it first came out, but what made me dig it out and start playing it again this year? I’m not sure. Maybe I was infected by the zeitgeist in what TIME magazine eventually labelled “the year of the protestor“. Public Enemy definitely made protest music with a businesslike precision and work ethic which came together to produce a sound that was as industrious and motivated as it was confrontational and revolutionary. Most critics will tell you that Nation Of Millions was their best album, and they’re probably right, but I think Fear Of A Black Planet is more immersive.
Notable track: Revolutionary Generation

The Infamous2. The Infamous by Mobb Deep (1995)

Like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, this album came out of New York’s resurgent hip-hop scene in the mid-1990s and quickly became a milestone in the genre. But while Cuban Linx is ambitious and panoramic, The Infamous is closer in spirit to hardcore hip-hop albums of the late 1980s. There’s no concept or back-story, just a collection of strong tracks making for a solid album. It concludes with the phenomenal Shook Ones Part II, which plays a key role in the Eminem movie 8 Mile. Indeed, it was an article about the mysterious sample used in this track back in March this year that led to me getting sucked into this album.
Notable track: Shook Ones Part II

Let England Shake1. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey (2011)

So the album I listened to most this year was Let England Shake by PJ Harvey, which also won the Mercury Music Prize for 2011 so it’s not exactly obscure. Its subject matter is the centrality of war and military adventurism to English history, which proved newsworthy enough to get the attention of broadsheets, Andrew Marr, and so on. So I was expecting to find a series of worthy polemical songs set to grandiose or dirge-like music, but within the first few seconds of the first track I found myself gripped by the sound and the melodies which jump right to the forefront. You almost have to go back to rediscover the lyrical material after the first couple of listens, as the music itself is so arresting.
Notable track: Written On The Forehead

So that’s that! The 10 albums I’ve listened to most in 2011. I’ll try to remember to do this again at the end of 2012. Happy new year everyone!

Eating your boxer shorts on live TV
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(crossposted from

When reading that the “neutrino cheat” is still working after a second experiment I was reminded of this quote from Professor Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey:

“[If these results] …prove to be correct and neutrinos have broken the speed of light, I will eat my boxer shorts on live TV”

My first thought was, well maybe after this new development he’ll have to eat his boxer shorts on live TV after all, and won’t that be fun to watch.

But then my second thought was, what self-respecting TV station is going to broadcast a physics professor eating a pair of boxer shorts? It just seems unrealistic, doesn’t it? I mean, the BBC isn’t about to cut short an episode of Eastenders so that this important event in the nation’s cultural life can be recorded for posterity.

Even if Professor Al-Khalili is proved wrong he won’t be eating his boxer shorts on live TV, and I’m sure he knows it. The “live TV” part of his promise is a clever ploy, intended to make us think he’s confident when he really isn’t. And it nearly worked on me. The guy’s clearly smart. I guess that’s why he’s a professor.

Anyway, I bet he’d love to eat a pair of boxers shorts on live TV so he can be the next Kevin Warwick. He might as well have said “I’ll eat my boxer shorts on the moon”. I bet he’d love to go to the moon even if he had to eat a pair of boxer shorts when he was there. I know I would.

Sinthpop – is it a musical genre or is it just a typo?
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(crossposted from

In a café on Upper Street I saw a poster for a club night. It seemed innocent and unremarkable but my eye kept being drawn to it for some reason. Then I realised why:

80' night with Sinthpop

Ironic or accidental?

There are two things wrong with the poster.

The first is that it says “80′ the way it should be” when presumably it’s supposed to say “80′s the way it should be”. This is obviously a typo.

But the second one is more mystifying – “Sinthpop” instead of “Synthpop”. At first you might think it’s a typo as well, but maybe it isn’t? Maybe “sinthpop” isn’t a typo but is in fact a genre of music? Does anyone know?

If it is, it wouldn’t be the first time a typo gave rise to a genre of music. In the early 1990s some people mis-spelt the word “techno” as “tekno” and before long “tekno” became a distinct genre which even has its own Wikipedia page.

So maybe “sinthpop” is the same. Maybe it’s pop music with a sinful nature. Maybe “It’s a Sin” by The Pet Shop Boys is a seminal sinthpop track. Stranger things have happened.

I know I could use Google to answer these questions but I don’t want to. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.

Kerry & Mick – a love story that deserves to be told
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(crossposted from

Back in 1999 I was living in Whitechapel, near a couple called Mick and Kerry who spent a year or so having a passionate love affair.

We all knew this because their affair was being conducted in full view of the public. On several walls near my flat, they’d been having the written-language equivalent of fantastic sex for all to see.


Love's light shines brighter than the BNP's

The graffiti started appearing in March 1999, appearing first on the wall pictured above and then spreading slowly onto a disused old doorway across the street. These spray-painted messages of love became quite wild and transcendental at one point; this next one sees both Kerry and Mick touching the infinite.


"Kerry is god... Love is god..."

But being extremely versatile communicators they weren’t limited strictly to the grandiose; they knew how to be succinct as well.

Always You Kerry

The small sign says "Oil fill to be kept locked at all times"

By the summer there was quite a lot of Mick and Kerry graffiti. Who were Mick and Kerry? Where did they live? What kind of a strange relationship did they have, that their intimate pledges of love were spilling out in front of an intrigued if bemused public?

Mick I love you Kerry god knows

I'm pretty sure Kerry was behind this one but it's hard to tell

The messages stopped appearing in early autumn 1999. I imagined several possible reasons for this.

Firstly, I honestly couldn’t think of anywhere else they could spread their messages to. They’d taken up almost all of the available free space, and it wouldn’t have been in the spirit of things to expand to another street.

Secondly, the graffiti could have been a by-product of the honeymoon phase of their affair. Maybe their relationship was at a more mature stage with dinner parties starting to replace amorous late-night graffiti.

Thirdly, their red spraycan might have finally run dry.

As time went by, it seemed that we’d heard the last from Mick and Kerry, that their story would remain an enigmatic mystery. But several months later a new message appeared – from a devastated Mick.

Kerry - miss you like mad - Mick

Maybe Mick scratched this into the wall with his bare hands?

Our local love story had reached a tragic conclusion, made all the more poignant by Mick’s last lament being scratched on to a door with a piece of metal.

And that was that for Mick and Kerry. None of the questions I had about them would ever be answered, but there’s one thing I did know for sure; somewhere, in a flat near mine, was a failed graffiti artist with a broken heart. And somewhere else – maybe very far away by this time – was a mad girl called Kerry with a red spraycan.

The whole doorway

The whole doorway


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