Retail Therapy

September 20th, 2013

From McSweeney's, Retail Therapy: Inside the Apple Store

When Apple employees are asked what they love most about their job (and they are asked often) most invariably answer "the people." They mean their co-workers, not the customers.

Because the daily expectations for customer service go beyond anywhere else in retail, only those with managerial ambitions will invoke their commitment to helping people. Some thrive on that. Others get diagnosed with PTSD. Consider that the flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City is open 24 hours and has more annual foot traffic than Yankee Stadium, yet only one door. Every day, in every Apple Store, people flood to customer service, when what many truly need is therapy.

On the face of it, a typical set of retail customer service war stories. Until the last customer's story, which is something else entirely, a reminder of how personal our modern personal computers have become.

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Weird is good

September 20th, 2013

Dammit, another book to add to the reading list. On the face of it, Clive Thompson's Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better seems to capture somethng about the way I use tools like Evernote and Pinboard as an outboard brain. Here's an excerpt:

Is the Internet ruining our ability to remember facts? If you've ever lunged for your smartphone during a bar argument ("one-hit father of twerking pop star" – Billy Ray Cyrus!), then you've no doubt felt the nagging fear that your in-brain memory is slowly draining away. As even more fiendishly powerful search tools emerge – from IBM's Jeopardy!-playing Watson to the "predictive search" of Google Now – these worries are, let's face it, only going to grow.

So what's going on? Each time we reach for the mouse pad when we space out on the ingredients for a Tom Collins or the capital of Arkansas, are we losing the power to retain knowledge?

The short answer is: No. Machines aren't ruining our memory.

The longer answer: It's much, much weirder than that! […]

[Via Sidelights]

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20 after 20

September 19th, 2013

On the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Frasier, 20 Reasons "Frasier" Is The Best Sitcom Of All Time.

I'm not sure I'd crown it the very greatest of them all, but it was certainly a contender. See this 2004 post for my comments on the best ever UK sitcoms, including a few notes on US contenders for the global title. Other than not forgetting The Simpsons this time round, I don't know that I'd change a thing.1

  1. Which is either a sign of how few really good sitcoms have appeared in the last decade, or of my no longer being in the demographic the schedulers are aiming for. Or possibly a bit of both.

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Love in a cold climate

September 18th, 2013

The Wellcome Library blog tells the tale of the Common Cold Unit:

Volunteers were kept in strict isolation from the outside world and from others taking part in the trial. But as one CCU press release puts it, 'isolation is not as bad as it seems. All the flats are connected by phone so you can talk to that smashing blonde in the next flat'.

Another volunteer information sheet in the collection warns that 'chatting up other volunteers in a different flat can only be by telephone, or at a very long range outside.' Romances did bloom despite the isolation and blocked noses; on his ninth visit to the unit, one guitar-strumming volunteer wooed a neighbouring oboist by playing duets at 30 feet. Love in a cold climate.

I'm slightly surprised that nobody ever exploited such comedic gold for a sitcom. Probably made by the folks behind On the Buses or Mind Your Language or Man About the House.1

  1. I don't know why, but something about the premise just screams 'early 1970s sitcom' to me.

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On the Edge of Slander

September 18th, 2013

Reading Stephen Greenblatt's NYRB review of Joss Whedon's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing makes me keen to see it again, despite it being a fairly odd story to modern eyes:

In a curious way the central figure in the splendid new film of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers), is the house in which the events unfold. Not that the house – Whedon's own – is particularly remarkable. It is a comfortable, sprawling Santa Monica McMansion, no doubt very expensive, with more than a touch of a suburb about it. But that is the point: we are not in faraway Sicily, where Shakespeare set the story, or in glorious, technicolor Tuscany, where Kenneth Branagh set his admirable film adaptation twenty years ago. We are rather on familiar ground, and, as if to conjure up the ordinary accoutrements of modern American upper-middle-class life, the camera dwells lovingly on the kitchen counter and the wine glasses and the piles of dishes and the stairs that lead up to the pleasant patio and, discreetly hidden, the video screens scanned by the bumbling employees of a security company – Whedon's clever incarnation of Messina's night watchmen.

All of this familiarity makes the circumstances that set the story in motion in Shakespeare and in his sources seem particularly discordant and weird. They were strange enough to begin with. […]

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September 18th, 2013

I'm indebted to Andrew Collins in his weekly Telly Addict video for the Guardian for pointing out how familiar one of the regulars in Bates Motel looks:

Nestor or Tony?

If I didn't know that Tony Perkins was long gone, I'd be thinking that he'd been invited to guest on the show as a bit of stunt casting. Spooky.

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The sound of a point being missed (by quite some distance)

September 17th, 2013

Notes from scholar and social critic W W Crotch, written in 1933 for the New Statesman, on his occasional encounters over the preceding decade or so with the new German chancellor. No huge surprises as regards what a misfit Hitler was before he ascended to the national stage, but I couldn't help but boggle at this tale of what might just be the most woefully inadequate headline of the 20th century:

One thing that struck me about Hitler was his extreme abstemiousness. He ate every night a dish of vegetables, and mineral water was his only drink. He never smoked. This reminds me of an amusing incident when Hitler became Chancellor. The German vegetarians have a central organ of their league, and this paper came out with flaming headlines:


[Via LinkMachineGo!]

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'Those who love sausage and the scriptures shouldn't watch either of them being made.'

September 15th, 2013

Jim Macdonald leads us on a romp through the story of which books did and didn't make it into the most epic piece of fanfic ever written:

Speaking of tours of Heaven and Hell, there's the Book of Enoch. This is in the Old Testament of the Ethiopian Church, but didn't make it into Athanasius's list. (Since Ethiopia didn't belong to the Empire they didn't care.) Enoch himself gets about one line in Genesis. But it's in the Book of Enoch, all about his adventures after being taken up to Heaven by the angel Uriel and told the secret history that we get the story of the Watcher Angels. Angels, as I'm sure everyone knows, get all turned on when they see human women's hair and they go on and seduce and boink those women. The women then have children who turn out to be man-eating giants (don't you hate when that happens?) Which is where the "giants in the earth" come from in Genesis (right before the story of the Flood). Didn't make the cut because it doesn't include the genealogy of Jesus or any New Testament prophecies but this story, the Book of Enoch, would have been known to Paul and he'd have no way of knowing that it would be left out of orthodox scripture a few centuries later; that's why he admonishes women in church to cover their hair, because angels hang out around churches and you don't want them to pull out the flowers and chocolates, do you?

But every woman praying or prophesying with her head not covered, disgraceth her head: for it is all one as if she were shaven. … Therefore ought the woman to have a power over her head, because of the angels.
1 Corinthians 11:5-10

Enoch inspired the 16th century con artist Edward Kelley, Dr. Dee's running buddy, to come up with the Enochian Alphabet for communicating with angels. (What the angels said was "Edward Kelley should totally boink Mrs. Dee." Dr. Dee was all, "Well, if the angels say so we don't have a choice." What Mrs. Dee thought of this I don't know.)

[Via MetaFilter]

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NOAH Short

September 14th, 2013

Fresh from the Toronto International Film Festival, NOAH Short does a nice job of portraying a teen relationship drama via the medium of the main character's computer screen.

NB: NSFW due to some male nudity/sexual exhibitionism in places during the scene showing the main character browsing Chatroulette.

[Via links]

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When Harry Met Ayn

September 10th, 2013

When Harry Met Ayn: A Laissez-faire to Remember.

When Harry Met Ayn

Oh my.

[Via Pop Loser]

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September 7th, 2013 lets you view all the documentation for Unix/Linux command line arguments in one go, without needing to go near a manpage. Nifty.

Try ssh(1) -i keyfile -f -N -L host to get an idea of how this works in practice.


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Number 20

September 4th, 2013

25 Celebrities When They Were Young.

Some of these you've probably seen before. Most of them (IMHO) would be perfectly recognisable even if the pictures weren't labelled. I'd say that Charlize Theron, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Helen Mirren, Steve Jobs, Michael Stipe and Steven Tyler's lips fall into that category.

A few are US-only celebrities like Ryan Seacrest and Martha Stewart; I've heard of them and am vaguely aware of what they do,1 but I've never seen them on-screen and couldn't pick out of a line-up at any age.

Some, like Bruce Willis and Steve Carell, have pretty much the same face, albeit a lot younger, but very different hair styles. (Or at least a different facial hair style in Carell's case).

All pretty routine, you might think, and I probably wouldn't have posted this link. But then there's the one that Blew My Mind.

Number 20:

Guess who. Go on, guess...

Unless you're already familiar with the picture, I defy you to guess who that is.2

[Via MetaFilter]

  1. Respectively, hosting/producing reality TV shows and being a domestic goddess with a brief detour into a jail cell, correct?
  2. No cheating by checking the MeFi link below – the URL gives the game away.

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Frederik Pohl (1919 -2013)

September 3rd, 2013

It's a terrible shame to hear that Frederik Pohl has died at the age of 93. One of the last of that generation of writers and editors and fans who defined the genre of science fiction in the middle part of the last century, he certainly shaped my view of what science fiction was as I started working my way through the Science Fiction section of my local library some forty years ago. Pohl, Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Norton – not a bad introduction to the genre.

Satisfying as Pohl's late burst of creativity in the late 1970s and 1980s was, when he wrote Man Plus and Gateway1 I can't help but wonder if in the long run Pohl will be remembered as much for his influence on the field as an editor. I mean, this is the man who published the stories of Cordwainer Smith (not to mention coming up with the titles for some of those strange, strange stories of scanners and Norstrilia and The Game of Rat and Dragon). That has to count for something, doesn't it?

  1. The sequels to which were enjoyable, but less so as that series went on.

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'Make no mistake: She's a dancer.'

September 2nd, 2013

John Lahr profiles Claire Danes in The New Yorker.

Lahr's profile touches on many of the highs and lows of her career, with particular attention paid to Homeland for obvious reasons, but for me the highlight is – and probably always will be, no matter what she's cast in for the rest of her career – the role that made her famous, that of Angela Chase. Picture the scene, with My So-Called Life's producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz and the show's writer Winnie Holzman auditioning two actresses for the role:

[Alicia] Silverstone auditioned first. Zwick, impressed, told Herskovitz, "It's done. Just cast her." But Herskovitz thought she was too pretty for Holzman's messy high-school universe, which included subplots about drug addiction, bullying, binge drinking, promiscuity, and homosexuality. "Alicia is so beautiful that that would have affected her experience of the world. People would have been telling her she was beautiful since she was six years old. You can't put that face in what's been written for this girl," he argued. Linda Lowy, the casting director, suggested that they see Danes before deciding. "From the minute she walked in the room, Claire was chilling, astounding, and silent," Lowy said. "There was so much power coming out of her without her doing much." One of the scenes that Danes read – which involved a nervy bathroom breakup with Angela's best friend, Sharon – required her to cry. "Tell me what I did, Angela. I mean, I would really like to know," Sharon says. "We get to that line and Claire's face turns entirely red," Herskovitz said. "Her body starts to vibrate and tears come into her eyes. You realize that she's having a physical experience that is beyond acting." Even then, Danes's defining quality as an actress – a combination of thoughtfulness and impulsiveness – was on display. "She seemed to have been born fully grown, you know, out of a seashell," Herskovitz said. Zwick claimed that Danes was his first sighting of a "wise child," a rare species that show business occasionally tosses up. As he put it later, "What she knows cannot be taught." Danes also satisfied another quality that Holzman's script called for: her face could transform in an instant from beautiful to ordinary.

Holzman's pilot for "My So-Called Life" (then titled "Someone Like Me") was meant to trap "a naked quality, not a person but a feeling of freedom and bondage, shyness and fearlessness," she said. Holzman found herself staring at this protean paradox in the flesh. Danes "was sexy and not sexy, free and bound up, open and closed, funny and frighteningly serious," Holzman recalled. Her performance freed Holzman's imagination. "We gave birth to each other," she said. "I was looking at someone who literally could do anything, and so I could, too." The novelist and television writer Richard Kramer, who worked on "My So-Called Life," places Holzman's writing for the show on a continuum of original television voices that leads from her to Mike White, Larry David, and Lena Dunham. "Winnie wouldn't be Winnie without Claire," he said. "And Claire wouldn't be Claire without Winnie. There was something mythological about their meeting."

After Danes left the audition room, Lowy recalled, "no one could really speak." In the excitement of the moment, the production team found themselves faced with a conundrum. Silverstone was sixteen and "emancipated," meaning, in Hollywood's piquant terminology, that she could work very long days. Danes was thirteen and, by law, had to go to school. If they cast Silverstone, they could move ahead with the show they'd written; if they opted for Danes, they'd have to adapt later scripts to accommodate her schedule. "We turned to Winnie," Herskovitz recalled. "Winnie said, 'Let's change the nature of the show.' " He added, "In that moment, we decided to include the lives of the parents more."

A fortunate day for everyone except Alicia Silverstone.1

[Via Longform]

  1. But then, had she been contracted to a TV show in 1994/5 and waiting to see if it would be renewed Silverstone might not have been free to play Cher Horowitz. Which would also have been a shame.

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September 1st, 2013

For Once in My Life: James Jamerson's Bass Line Visualized:

Vulfpeck's Jack Stratton sent us this cool video he made saying, "[James] Jamerson belongs with Bach, Debussy and Mozart, and that includes graphical scores on Youtube."

We couldn't agree more. […]

[Via MetaFilter]

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Pretty picture

September 1st, 2013

Red Kite by Kulu40.


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Why The Sharing Economy Isn't

August 31st, 2013

Tom Slee is unimpressed by an attempt to hijack the 'sharing economy' for the benefit of venture capitalists:

So a couple of months ago Douglas Atkin, head of Community and E-staff Member at AirBnB, took to the stage of the Le Web conference in London (video) to announce the formation of Peers: "a grassroots organization that supports the sharing economy movement." I like grassroots organizations and I like the co-operative impulse, but this… Well here is his speech (in quotation marks) in its entirety with comments from yours truly.


Now why should you do this? Well it's the right thing to do. We literally stand on the brink of a new, better kind of economic system, that delivers social as well as economic benefits. In fact, social and economic benefits that the old economy promised but failed to deliver. As Julia, an AirBnB host, told me just last night, "the sharing economy saved my arse".

The sharing economy is not an alternative to capitalism, it's the ultimate end point of capitalism in which we are all reduced to temporary labourers and expected to smile about it because we are interested in the experience not the money. Jobs become "extra money" just like women's jobs used to be "extra money", and like those jobs they don't come with things like insurance protection, job security, benefits – none of that old economy stuff. But hey, you're not an employee, you're a micro-entrepreneur. And you're not doing it for the money, you're doing it for the experience. We just assume you're making a living some other way.


Well worth reading in full.

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WTF Visualizations

August 31st, 2013

WTF Visualizations collects examples of the terrible things people do with infographics.

My favourites are the many ways to abuse the humble pie chart. Like this:

Slices of pie?

… and this:


… and this:

Stacked pie slices

If you have no particular affection for the poor old pie chart, rest assured you'll find horrific things being done to your favourite graph type too.1

[Via Flowing Data]

  1. What do you mean you don't have a favourite type of graph? Next you'll be telling me you haven't spent hours tweaking Excel's options until it deigns to produce a PivotChart that's halfway usable.

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Noctilucent Clouds and Aurora Over Scotland

August 26th, 2013

Noctilucent Clouds and Aurora Over Scotland.

Best viewed in full screen mode at the highest available resolution.1

  1. Actually, that should read 'Best viewed in person.' But this video is the next best option.

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WildHelp App

August 26th, 2013

The WildHelp App is a really nice idea:

Every day, people encounter wild animals in need of help. Animals are found sick, injured, displaced, trapped, entangled, and in serious trouble, but, the task of finding help can be arduous.

Too often, finders must make multiple phone calls, using critical minutes, even hours, in search of the right person or organization that can help.

Delays in finding qualified help is one of the greatest, most pervasive issues faced by wildlife casualties and the people who find them.

There is a missing link. WildHelp is the missing link.

The WildHelp mobile application will streamline the reporting process, expediting aid to wild animals in need and the people who find them, helping save thousands of lives every year!

[Via Chuq Von Rospach]

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