We sell the antidote to information overload: The Economist

The Economist’s Tom Standage spoke to Joseph Lichterman at Nieman Lab recently about the newspaper’s digital strategy and “the limit of a model based on advertising”.

I was struck by the clarity of purpose expressed in these paragraphs:

We sell the antidote to information overload — we sell a finite, finishable, very tightly curated bundle of content. And we did that initially as a weekly print product. Then it turns out you can take that same content and deliver it through an app.

The “you’ve got to the end and now you’ve got permission to go do something else” is something you never get. You can never finish the Internet, you can never finish Twitter, and you can never really finish The New York Times, to be honest. So at its heart is that we have this very high density of information, and the promise we make to the reader is that if you trust us to filter and distill the news, and if you give us an hour and a half of your time — which is roughly how long people spend reading The Economist each week — then we’ll tell you what matters in the world and what’s going on.

The article’s a good read. Recommended.

This is how you test a launch system rocket booster

Just for the wow factor: NASA tested its new space launch system rocket booster in Utah. Watch to the end to see the ‘quench tool’ in action.

Published on 11 Mar 2015

The largest, most powerful rocket booster ever built successfully fired up Wednesday for a major-milestone ground test in preparation for future missions to help propel NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft to deep space destinations, including an asteroid and Mars. The booster fired for two minutes, the same amount of time it will fire when it lifts the SLS off the launch pad, and produced about 3.6 million pounds of thrust. The test was conducted at the Promontory, Utah test facility of commercial partner Orbital ATK.

For more information, visit: http://go.nasa.gov/1C7abZl

The world according to Plato in 6 lovely minutes

A lovely bite-sized tour of Plato’s greatest hits from The School of Life.

Plato’s four big ideas for a more fulfilled life:

  1. Think more (and know yourself)
  2. Let your lover change you (love is based on admiration, we need to help each other)
  3. Decode the message of beauty (we sense in beauty qualities we need but don’t have)
  4. Reform society (a utopian thinker about government and society)

Plato wanted to end democracy in Athens because he observed that few people thought properly before they voted, which resulted in very sub-standard rulers. He wanted people to become rational thinkers, philosophers in fact, before they could vote. “The world will not be right until kings become philosophers or philosophers kings.”

Flow states feel awesome because: norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins

Dr Steven Kotler, Director of Research for the Flow Genome Project, talks in this 4:20 video about the neurochemistry of your brain when you’re in a flow state.

Transcript from YouTube:

Besides neuroanatomical changes in flow there are neurochemical changes, right. The brain produces a giant cascade of neurochemistry. You get norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins. All five of these are performance enhancing neurochemicals, right. So they make you faster, stronger, quicker and they do the same thing with your brain.

In the front end of a flow state you take in more information, you process it more deeply meaning you process it using more parts of your brain and you process it more quickly. There’s some debate about this but it does appear that you process it more quickly. This is norepinephrine and dopamine. So when people enter a flow state they talk about feeling like they’re senses are incredibly heightened. This is the performance enhancing aspect of norepinephrine and dopamine.

Where these chemicals really come in handy is how they affect motivation, creativity and learning. We’ll start with motivation. Besides being performance enhancing chemicals these are obviously all feel good drugs, right. These five chemicals are the most potent feel good drugs the brain can produce. As a result flow is considered the most addictive state on earth. Scientists don’t like the word addictive so instead they use autotelic. When something is autotelic it is an end in itself. What it means is that once an experience starts producing flow we will go extraordinarily far out of our way to get more of it which is why researchers now believe flow is the source code of intrinsic motivation.

Another thing that those neurochemicals do is they augment the creative process. So creativity is always recombinantory. It’s the product of novel information, bumping into old thoughts to create something startlingly new. So if you want to amplify creativity, you want to amplify every aspect of that process. Again, the neurochemicals help. So on the front end of the flow state when you get norepinephrine and dopamine they’re tightening focus so you are taking in more information per second. So you are boosting that part of the creative process. Norepinephrine and dopamine do something else in the brain which is they lower signal to noise ratio so you detect more patterns. They jack up pattern recognition so our ability to link ideas together is also an enhancer. Taking in more information we can link it together.

Anandamide which is another chemical that shows up in flow doesn’t just promote pattern recognition. It promotes lateral thinking. So pattern recognition is more or less the linking of familiar ideas together. Lateral thinking is the linking of very disparate ideas together, right. So more information per second, all kinds of pattern recognition, lateral thinking. All of it surrounds the creative process and amplifies all of it which is why, for example, studies run by my organization, the Flow Genome Project, we found creativity is increased 500 to 700 percent. To give you another example in a recent Australian study they took 42 people, gave them a very tricky brainteaser to solve, the kind that needs very creative problem solving.

Nobody could solve the problem. They induced flow artificially using transcranial magnetic stimulation to basically knock out the prefrontal cortex. They induced artificial transient hypofrontality technically.

As a result, 23 people solved the problem in record time. So massively amplified motivation, massively amplified creativity. The last thing flow does that’s really important is it jacks up learning.

(Transcript truncated)


Earth’s other ‘moon’ and its crazy orbit could reveal mysteries of the solar system

This great piece about Earth’s ‘other moon’ is from The Conversation, who published it under a Creative Commons CC-BY-ND licence and made it  easy to republish via a one-click button. Nice.

By Duncan Forgan, University of St Andrews

We all know and love the moon. We’re so assured that we only have one that we don’t even give it a specific name. It is the brightest object in the night sky, and amateur astronomers take great delight in mapping its craters and seas. To date, it is the only other heavenly body with human footprints.

What you might not know is that the moon is not the Earth’s only natural satellite. As recently as 1997, we discovered that another body, 3753 Cruithne, is what’s called a quasi-orbital satellite of Earth. This simply means that Cruithne doesn’t loop around the Earth in a nice ellipse in the same way as the moon, or indeed the artificial satellites we loft into orbit. Instead, Cruithne scuttles around the inner solar system in what’s called a “horseshoe” orbit.

Cruithne’s orbit

To help understand why it’s called a horseshoe orbit, let’s imagine we’re looking down at the solar system, rotating at the same rate as the Earth goes round the sun. From our viewpoint, the Earth looks stationary. A body on a simple horseshoe orbit around the Earth moves toward it, then turns round and moves away. Once it’s moved so far away it’s approaching Earth from the other side, it turns around and moves away again.

Cruithne from a stationary Earth position

Horseshoe orbits are actually quite common for moons in the solar system. Saturn has a couple of moons in this configuration, for instance.

What’s unique about Cruithne is how it wobbles and sways along its horseshoe. If you look at Cruithne’s motion in the solar system, it makes a messy ring around Earth’s orbit, swinging so wide that it comes into the neighbourhood of both Venus and Mars. Cruithne orbits the sun about once a year, but it takes nearly 800 years to complete this messy ring shape around the Earth’s orbit.

Cruithne close up

So Cruithne is our second moon. What’s it like there? Well, we don’t really know. It’s only about five kilometres across, which is not dissimilar to the dimensions of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which is currently playing host to the Rosetta orbiter and the Philae lander.

The surface gravity of 67P is very weak – walking at a spirited pace is probably enough to send you strolling into the wider cosmos. This is why it was so crucial that Philae was able to use its harpoons to tether itself to the surface, and why their failure meant that the lander bounced so far away from its landing site.

Given that Cruithne isn’t much more to us at this point than a few blurry pixels on an image, it’s safe to say that it sits firmly in the middling size range for non-planetary bodies in the solar system, and any human or machine explorers would face similar challenges as Rosetta and Philae did on 67P.

Possible clash: Venus
J.Gabás Esteban, CC BY-SA


If Cruithne struck the Earth, though, that would be an extinction-level event, similar to what is believed to have occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period. Luckily it’s not going to hit us anytime soon – its orbit is tilted out of the plane of the solar system, and astrophysicists have shown using simulations that while it can come quite close, it is extremely unlikely to hit us. The point where it is predicted to get closest is about 2,750 years away.

Cruithne is expected to undergo a rather close encounter with Venus in about 8,000 years, however. There’s a good chance that that will put paid to our erstwhile spare moon, flinging it out of harm’s way, and out of the Terran family.

It’s not just Cruithne

The story doesn’t end there. Like a good foster home, the Earth plays host to many wayward lumps of rock looking for a gravitational well to hang around near. Astronomers have actually detected several other quasi-orbital satellites that belong to the Earth, all here for a little while before caroming on to pastures new.

Secrets: solar system

So what can we learn about the solar system from Cruithne? Quite a lot. Like the many other asteroids and comets, it contains forensic evidence about how the planets were assembled. Its kooky orbit is an ideal testing
ground for our understanding of how the solar system evolves under gravity.

As I said before, it wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that we even realised that bodies would enter such weird horseshoe orbits and stay there for such a long time. The fact they do shows us that such
interactions will have occurred while the solar system was forming. Because we think terrestrial planets grow via collisions of bodies of
Cruithne-size and above, this is a big new variable.

One day, Cruithne could be a practice site for landing humans on asteroids, and perhaps even mining them for the rare-earth metals our new technologies desperately crave. Most importantly of all, Cruithne teaches us that the solar system isn’t eternal – and by extension, neither are we.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Impressive automated bicycle parking in Japan

Automated cycle parking in Japan: roll bike in, machine whips it underground and parks it. Come back later, tap your membership card, bike is retrieved and away you go. Genius.

Filming a bike entering the bike park


Danny Choo did a TV piece about these clever EcoCycle bike parking facilities a while back. He also did a great photo post of images shot during filming, which includes details on the machines’ workings (the bikes are parked in underground wells, each with the capacity for 200 bikes, for example) and instructions on where to find them in Tokyo.

If you want to take a look at Eco Cycle in action, you need to first get off at Shinagawa station and head towards Kounanhoshi Park [こうなん星の公園] at the location on the map below.
Or copy paste the following into your mobile device maps app.

The company that created the EcoCycle, Giken, describes the technology on its website thus:

Eco-cycle is an anti-seismic mechanical underground parking lot. Giken aggregated own long term experience of press-in technologies and developed the Eco-cycle with the design concept of “Culture Aboveground, Function Underground”. If bicycle parking is available near final destination, people use the facility more often. It eventually eliminates nuisance parking at footpath. Such space at footpath can be utilised for cultural activities.

Quite so. Giken also does automated underground car parks.

Antiseismic Underground Car Parking, ECO Park from 株式会社 技研製作所 on Vimeo.


How printing ink is made

Take 8 minutes out of your day to watch how a printing company makes and tests great big, blobby, beautiful barrels of ink. Or just listen: it’s accompanied by “Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73, “The Emperor”: II. Adagio un poco mosso” by Apollo Symphony Orchestra (Google PlayiTunes).

See also this lovely piece from Mary Pilon on Backchannel about the last typewriter repairmen in New York. Includes some very pretty typewriter pron photos with a nicely written story:

He pointed at the wall of photographs and news clippings with weathered hands, which he concedes have been ink-stained since the Eisenhower administration.




Maths, locks & sewing machines: the beauty of educational GIFs

Loving the educational GIFs popping up around the place. This one, which I saw on an IFLS post that pulls together 21 maths GIFs, demonstrates ‘how to make an ellipse’. It’s from giphy.com.

This one I find so simple but so illuminating. A GIF from NikolayS that shows how a sewing machine makes a stitch.

LockstitchCopyright Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.You can re-use this file so long as you say who created it and share it under the same licence.


Lee LeFever of CommonCraft is creating a guide on how to create GIFs to use as explainers. He blogged about it (which is where I found this sewing machine GIF) and you can sign up for the guide at explainergif.com.

He also wrote a nice post about the power of GIFs to explain as well as entertain: Welcome to the Next Golden Age of Animated GIFs.

That post includes a number of GIF-making tools including:

gifyoutube.com — Simply add “gif” to any YouTube URL (gifyoutube.com/…) to open this tool.

Imgur.com — The popular image hosting site recently rolled out a new GIF conversion tool that converts GIFs to smaller mp4 videos.

LiceCap — Free, works on Windows and OSX

This GIF one shows a key opening a lock. Weirdly mesmerising.


Then there are the lovely GIFs created for the GIF It Up competition run by Digital NZ and the Digital Public Library of America. The winners are here and you can see more of the GIFs on the GIF It Up tumblr.

Let’s bring UX design to the news experience

I read a great post by Jared Spool this morning on ‘The curse of a mobile strategy’. The killer pull-out quote for me is this one:

The problem with a mobile strategy is it’s about the medium of delivery, not what is being delivered. It focuses on the technology questions. Do we build a native app or a web-based solution? It doesn’t ask, what’s the best experience for the customer?

I’ve noticed a tendency in news organisations I’ve worked with to focus on technology – the new platform, new storytelling device, new bells and whistles – without ever really rethinking the underlying proposition of what works best for readers.

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of thinking along these lines:

  • We should do an app, everyone’s got apps these days.
  • Why don’t we look like the Guardian? We should look more like the Guardian.
  • We need to do more video, it’s getting clicks and we can sell ads into it.
  • Data journalism’s a thing, let’s do some.
  • Love that New York Times Snow Fall thing, let’s do more stuff like that!
  • Wow, Serial. Let’s do stuff like that!
  • Lists are working great for Buzzfeed. Let’s do lists!
  • Mobile, mobile, mobile, we need to do more mobile!

Which is fine, as far as it goes, and some of those things are going to prove useful to the business and to readers (I like – and have said – some of that stuff too).

But it’s really a variation on the “Let’s do what we’ve always done but stick it online too!” of the 90s and “Let’s do what we’ve always done but stick it in an app too!” of the early 2000s.

The question/s that tend to be asked are: where/how else can we publish our content to better suit our readers? And that’s cool.

But what I’ve never heard in a newsroom or boardroom is anyone asking the more fundamental question:

How can we make a great experience for our readers?

Or the follow-up questions:

What do people want to know? What do they want to understand? (Which is a very different question to ‘what do people want to read?’)

What’s missing? What are readers looking for and not finding? What are those things people know they’re hankering for but can’t quite describe?

What’s getting in people’s way? What’s making it hard for people to find the stuff they want to read? What’s turning people off?

What do people want to do with the things they’re reading, the information they’re finding? What do they do with them?

If, at any one time, reader x is in a queue at the Post Office swiping through his phone, and reader y is hopping between news sites and Facebook and email in her office, and reader z is having an idle iPad moment in his tractor, and reader b is having lunch in his hair salon and has just picked up his phone to see what’s changed since two hours ago, and reader c is having a serious news catch-up at home before returning to writing her thesis, then how do we create experiences that work for each of them?

These kinds of questions feel important to me.

They’re partly about navigation and platform and functionality and storytelling devices:

If I don’t want to read about crime or court or celebrities or tragedies, how well does the news homepage serve me? Can I subscribe to an email of daily news that excludes these categories? How long will it take me to set up? To change? Can I set it up on my phone while I’m in the queue at the Post Office?

Can I subscribe to Government news but not political news (i.e. not the stories about what he said about the thing she said about the thing that may or may not happen in 2020)?

I was in meetings all day, have you got a 3-minute summary of what happened that I can read? Actually, scratch that, I’m too tired to read, can you give it to me in a video?

My internet connection’s gone batshit slow and I can’t watch the video. Got a transcript?

But they’re also about the substance of the stories themselves:

If I want to understand what the Government’s doing, am I going to be best served by over-worked gallery journalists firing off quick questions to politicians while they’re walking into the Debating Chamber, then writing up the quick answers?

If I want to understand social housing in New Zealand (in the wake of the Government’s announced social housing programme), how much will reading a couple of news stories help me? Is there another way you can help me?

If I want to understand child poverty, which is an ongoing issue much discussed in New Zealand, will reading news stories only when a report has been released or a politician has delivered a stump speech help me? Is there a way you can walk me through the complexity of the issues over time? Can I easily find what you’ve published using your on-site search engine? Are your videos and timelines and slideshows and stories titled and marked up and written in a way that will make sense to someone reading them a week later? A year later?

It seems to me that UX designers would be really helpful in news product and story development – to help frame these questions and figure out how to test and design around them, within the inherent constraints and challenges.

So, check out Mr Spool’s piece. He makes a lot of great points and it’s well worth a read.

Also, Min Ming Lo has a pretty accessible outline of what various kinds of designers do (UX, UI, Research, Motion, Visual etc).

 This post is also on Medium.