Dark Matter: 18 August 2017

It’s a remarkable time to be alive — or, at least it was until my decade-in-the-making startup, Authenticanshad its thunder stolen in the Washington Post by something called Surkus.

If you like Dark Matter, you should probably be reading Scott Smith’s Changeist newsletter, too.

On to the Interweb.


This week in the hidden predictive power of Pop Will Eat Itself lyrics:

Separate, and yet inextricably linked: ArenaFPV bills itself as a next generation gaming platform (3min) — effectively a physical world arcade in which competitors can race drones and remote control cars through obstacle courses, but from home. Václav Mlynář has built what looks to be a board game version of a Monument Valley puzzle (2min) that uses object recognition to unlock levels and worlds in an accompanying tablet experience.

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Sam Rolfes has launched an entire genre of video performances recorded live inside game engines. His video for Lunice’s ‘Trust’ (4min) is absolutely mesmerizing.

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I love Frances Ng’s integration of coreML into ARKit : an augmented layer to her living space that handles real-time translation and object recognition. This is hella primitive, but you can absolutely imagine what it portends.

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From Jane Hu’s contribution to How We Got to Next, on real-life cyborgs and hacking our way to sensory amplification (18min):

there are already mundane devices that can detect and give us a readout of electromagnetic waves, but it’s different to sensing those waves. By translating them into something audible, we experience something new, just as people who lose their sight find that they can start to interpret other sensory information in new ways to “see”. Babitz explains this distinction between knowing and sensing by contrasting finding true north from reading a compass versus feeling the vibration from the North Sense magnet attached to him, which buzzes whenever he’s facing magnetic north. Consulting a compass takes conscious effort; getting a buzz when you’re facing north does not.

Read the whole thing, friends. It’s wonderful.


This week in it’s gonna be awesome:

I wrote last week about the potential of blockchain to transform microbusinesses — street merchants and remote vendors. This week a similar story from Knowledge @ Wharton on the capacity of blockchain models to enhance the process of environmental cleanup in Nigeria’s famously-dangerous Niger Delta (7min). The implications are staggering:

the blockchain coalition are looking to use “smart contracts” to bypass corruption and solve the problem of distrust in Ogoniland. These digital contracts automatically execute when all parties fulfill their responsibilities. For example, if Shell has set aside $10 million to clean up an oil spill, funds would be released to the contractor after the work has been verified as finished. “The total monies for the contract won’t be fulfilled until the community members have confirmed that this project has been completed,” Nnadi says. Ordinarily, he notes, the contractor helps himself to some of the money.

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Jeff Sauro’s post on coding and processing verbatims in research and testing feedback cycles (5min) is bookmark-worthy in every way.

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If you’ve not read it yet, Alexandra Samuel’s piece for JSTOR on smartphones and parenting behaviors (11min) makes for fantastic, if ever-so-slightly heavy-handed reading. This stuck with me:

if we’ve let smartphones run roughshod over our lives, it’s not just because they offer respite from our annoying kids, but because they offer respite from our annoying selves.

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Rick Webb talking about early Barbarian (30min) is still one of my favorite things.


This week in moving at the pace of ideas:

It’s not sexy, but spend a few minutes with Toby Park and Ariella Kristal’s piece for the Behavioral Insights team blog on cognitive biases that impact project planning and delivery teams (4min). Circulate it wildly.

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Matt Webb is a fantastic writer, and his Upsideclown project well merits any time you can give it. It was Matt’s observations on publishing and measurement interfaces (5min) though, that — as a long time writer of my own things for the Internet — caught my eye:

This isn’t because I want to optimise an audience; this isn’t because I want to sell ads. This is because it’s nice to know that 17 people read the website and 21 people opened the newsletter, and 36 people read the same story on Facebook, and 6 in an RSS reader — and gosh that’s like the whole top level of a double decker bus, all those people read my story! When companies deal with millions and billions, I think perhaps they forget how the intimate feels. How sometimes it’s not about a thousand retweets but instead about an audience of readers who come back. With whom you have a relationship. Who appreciate you, and you appreciate them. Yes it’s a pleasure to write, and yes I will do it without needing to get 1,000 likes on each and every story, but also let’s not forget that it’s more pleasant with company.

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“Are there any new aliens lately?” : I love this, and so will you: “Anab Jain is trading tiny Mars Orbiter probe models on the streets of India in return for stories of dreams and visions of the future.

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Ben Terrett has a brief, provocative piece on desire paths and pace layering (1min). Now you’re going to see it everywhere you look.

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Martin Weigel wrote what might be my favorite post of the Summer, an extended treatise on the modern corporation, unified theories, and Allan Wilson’s famous milk seal experiments. A particularly great slice:

For once you squeeze out creativity’s ability to surprise, disrupt and delight, once you’ve taken human imagination out of the equation, you’re entirely reliant on buying as much timely, well-located, well-branded real estate as you possibly can.  And as analyses by both Nielsen and the IPA have shown, you’re going to have to spend in excess of your current market share if you want to see any growth. Some lazy readers have bastardised or skim-read the work of marketing scientists to arrive at the belief that well-branded, broadly distributed wallpaper is all that is required. But the simple truth is that as Binet and Field have shown, creativity makes marketing monies work harder.


I’ll be off next week, and back at it the week after. Have a great few weeks.


Dark Matter: 11 August 2017

A day or two late this week, as I was on the road for a bit.

Before we dive into the newsletter, a quick plug: Jed Hallam writes an absolutely wonderful, if infrequent, newsletter of his own called Love Will Save the Day, focused on music and the people who give generously of their love for it. If that appeals to you, please subscribe. His is an enthusiasm to which I aspire.

As always, thanks to those of you who share this with a friend or with a follower. Thanks also to those of you who’ve replied to this email with personal notes. I found a trove of unread messages in my TinyLetter inbox from old friends and new readers, and they made my week. You are beautiful.


This week in admitting — however reluctantly — that ‘The Net’ > ‘The Circle’

The BBC’s R&D blog continues to be one of the best sources around for new thinking on content workflows and design. Jasmine Cox’s writeup on adaptive stories workshops (4min) — built around the team’s previously-cited idea of object-based media — is another fantastic example. It’s a brilliant blend of speculative design and user experience thinking.

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Ryo Takahashi published an on-point piece on the role that blockchain technologies can play in creative economies (8min) on the McKinsey blog. I’ve had quite a few conversations at work lately stemming from inquiries by colleagues looking to ‘understand’ or ‘wrap my head around’ blockchain, and I almost always end up back at smart contracts and reputation management. While plenty has been written about the ways in which these technologies will benefit large enterprises, I get most excited about the transformative effect that they might have for sole proprietors — street merchants, artists, and musicians.

Speaking of which, Plasma looks very interesting.

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I got a kick out of Lakshmi Mani’s illustrated guide to hyperbolic discounting (3min) — a concept with which I was admittedly unfamiliar. Used in a sentence: ‘why do [these clients] insist on locking themselves in a perpetual loop of hyperbolic discounting?’


This week in the dulcet tones of Dunkirk:

Now you’re going to hear the Shepard Tone everywhere (3min).

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Do read Page Laubheimer’s argument against dispensing with personas altogether in favor of Christensen’s ‘Jobs to be Done’, as some have espoused. A point that I (among many, many others) have frequently made, as well:

Unfortunately, many personas (really, marketing segments being masqueraded as personas) don’t go any deeper than the demographic or personal level, which is why personas can often be derided as less valuable for making design decisions than jobs-to-be-done…rich personas typically will include information related to specific goals that users must achieve when they use the product; these goals are directly comparable to the information found in the jobs-to-be-done definition.

Related, via Chris Smith: Tanjo’s animated personas are especially intriguing (11min).

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The industrial 3D printing world is having its mainframe moment (3min):

Just as with traditional manufacturing, there’s a drive to provide a more dynamic, live environment for factory automation and analytics.

Interestingly, it’s both a software and a hardware opportunity.

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The Paris Review published an absolutely must-read profile of electronic composer Suzanne Ciani. A gem of an excerpt:

For Ciani, phrases like having a voice and agency had long taken on new meaning through technology (to say nothing of taking on an industry). Part of her—which is also the part that got her into the Pinball Hall of Fame—lives inside the stroboscopic pinball game Xenon. Vocoded and then sampled onto a vocalizer chip called a “daughter card,” hers is the first female voice in the arcade. This distinction may thrill gamers more than it does Ciani herself, though she’s cool with taunting generations of boys out of their lunch money. (A friend of mine was introduced to pinball while in the womb, just hours from the world, his mother, a professional therapist yelling, “You mother funhouse!” back at the machine, smacking flippers in the back of of a deli on Seventy-Second Street.)

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Pippin Barr has released a game in which the player is confronted with a history of computer-rendered water (3 minutes or maybe forever) — traditionally a benchmark for the level of visual sophistication of an interface. I know, really I do — but check it out anyway.

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This is what happens when we strap human will and effort to the yoke of machine pace: a fashion model capable of completing 30 poses in a 15 second window.


This week in the hidden subtext of face with head bandage:

Alex Palma’s written a genuinely-great piece for the Cyborgology blog of The Society Pages on cyberpunk as a roadmap for navigating consumerism (5min). A particularly smart point:

Those interested in Cyberpunk can quote William Gibson ad nauseum on this: “The Street finds its own uses for things – uses the manufacturers never imagined.” What Gibson is saying: characters in Cyberpunk overcome the assigned manufactured purpose of the things around them. Cyberpunk fiction is filled with individuals owning what they own but simultaneously do not “own.” It’s filled with individuals who subvert prescribed use.

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As a rule, one should avoid prognostication on future tech from sites that make excessive use of CSS-based drop shadow, but the article on body-area networks (4min) on the Institute for the Future site is worth a read. File this among your copious notes on the battleground that our personal preference profile has already become:

As the next decade unfolds, our body area networks will take advantage of this new science of decision-making—the biomarkers and personal histories that affect the ways we decide—and remind us to do things like eat protein bars before tense conversations. Our bodies are becoming one of the new frontiers in contextual computing. In much the same way our phones can guide us toward different routes based on traffic patterns, our body area networks will guide us toward different decisions based on the patterns of our biomarkers—altering us when our decision-making ability is impaired or even taking action to get us in a better decision-making mindset.

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As part of a larger, infinitely-fascinating body of work, MIT researchers have slayed that darkest of dragons — the sarcastic use of emoji. Ups to Patrick Tomasiewicz for the link.

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At the intersection of The Wayback Machine and a Trump Tweet for Every Occasion, there’s Neal Agarwal’s amazing, perfect Ten Years Ago. You’re welcome.


Jobs for Misfit Toys

Boston residents: Tetra Science is hiring for a Customer Success Manager. This is an absolutely fascinating company, with some brilliant people behind it.

Also in Boston: a company close to my heart, Pillpack, is hiring a Consumer Product Manager. One of the best teams anywhere.

Made Movement is hiring a Senior Strategist in Boulder. You could do much, much worse.

Siberia is hiring Design Leads and other such things in fancy cities across the US. Management is even-handed, if unable to suffer fools.

Until next week.


Dark Matter: 2 August 2017

A reader called me out this week for my ‘men-only recommendations policy’ — and it cut. And while it’s hardly been an intended policy, it’s a completely fair critique: over the last three months, 84% of the links I’ve referenced (I’ve gone back and counted) have been written been by men, almost all of them white. Like me.

The truth is that I don’t read enough blogs and journals written by people who aren’t like me. I don’t follow enough women — and not nearly enough women of color — on Twitter. Dark Matter is a little less than it could be because of that, which is a disservice to those of you who take the time to read it.

I can do better, and I will.


This week in aggressively-smoothed multimodals:

From Eliza Brooke’s fantastic piece for Racked on the tyranny of startup cultures’ sans-serif, whitespace-fueled aesthetic (8min):

Simple branding also reinforces many startups’ pitches, which go something like this: They’re making great-quality products and selling them straight to you at a low price, because they’ve cut out the retail markup. They offer at-home try-ons and free return shipping, with the label pre-printed and included in your delivery. Not only does pared-down branding mimic the straightforwardness of the customer experience, but, as Critton points out, it holds the brand responsible for the quality of its service. There are no trimmings to disguise a shoddy product or user experience — unless, of course, startup minimalism has become that very trimming.

It’s not an unreasonable indictment — one that parallels the oft-cited argument that an over-reliance on a handful of UX-ey conventions has sapped the fun from the Interweb.

Personally, I think the same thing is happening to Pitchfork-endorsed neo-soul — but that’s a different topic for a different newsletter.

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Look really smart at work this week, and use Andrew Allen’s illustration of the learning gap in design in your next internal presentation. Bookmark and use liberally — with permission, natch.

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When I finish my current reading list, I’m going to buy a 30 day copy of Lucy Kimball & Jocelyn Bailey’s paywalled-AF article for CoDesign on prototyping in public policy making. From the abstract, this:

This conceptual paper discusses the use of Co-Design approaches in the public realm by examining the emergence of a design practice, prototyping, in public policy-making. We argue that changes in approaches to management and organisation over recent decades have led towards greater flexibility, provisionality and anticipation in responding to public issues. These developments have co-emerged with growing interest in prototyping.

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Sound researcher/designer Wesley Goatley marked up Apple’s product page for HomePod to reflect the gap between the ways we talk/write about products and technologies, and the ways in which they actually work. Language is important, and we’re dangerously casual with it at the moment.


This week in it’s no better to be safe than sorry:

Patricia McDonald wins the week with this, from a Campaign piece on brand building in an age of invisible technology (5min):

Thinking not just about tone of voice or look and feel, but about the body language of a brand in the digital space. How do our brands feel, swipe and gesture? What are the ergonomics of our brand?

I’ve never been a fan of applying human traits to brand behaviors, but what are the ergonomics of our brand? is a wonderful framework that combines aesthetics, usability, and tactile experience into an elegant heuristic.

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Joanne McNeil on augmented reality’s role as an advertising medium, rather than a creative one (3min):

Why isn’t VR as good as music videos were in the 80s? This week people went wild over an AR recreation of A-ha’s “Take on Me.” It’s a technical achievement but not a creative one. A creative achievement would be to this moment what “Take on Me” was in 1984. Something doesn’t need to be technically advanced to capture people’s imaginations as that video did, but I don’t see any entry points in the industry or attempts to nurture that kind of talent.


This week in vesting periods for OODA loops:

I loved Justine Lai’s open letter to herself, exploring her last nine months (6min) at August — particularly her acknowledgement of the attendant challenges of self-management:

What doesn’t feel great is that for all the processes, systems and governance structures that we construct, humans are still humans. They are flawed and bring their previous experiences and biases with them. As your coworker Sasha has said much more eloquently, until we really do the work to understand and address our own biases, blind spots, and privilege, the same power and hierarchy dynamics that affect every other work place do affect August, and hinder the legitimacy of our self-organizing system.

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I just came across Rod Jacka’s piece on evidence-based (vs. data-driven) processes (4min) on the Panalysis blog, and thought this made for a wonderfully-succinct description:

An evidence based approach:

  • Gathers data (in its broadest sense) and weighs this according to its credibility
  • Analyses and interprets this data
  • Creates hypotheses that can be tested
  • Designs experiments that are used to test these hypotheses
  • Accounts for our many cognitive biases
  • Runs these experiments and assesses the results
  • Documents what is learnt and then plans the next steps.
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If you read nothing else in this week’s missive, spend six minutes with Leisa Reichelt’s three notes from a brief career in the public service . I’ve got a rather well-documented love affair with various governmental digital service types, and Leisa’s points are a wonderful distillation of lessons learned elsewhere, namely:

  1. Your organisation will benefit more from you being user centred than the users ever will.
  2. Orient everything you can in your organisation around real user journeys
  3. Seek the truth, even if it’s ugly

This week in Supreme x visvim flash sales:

Brad Feld has realized that money is just an illusory conensual agreement to honor an arbitrary social pact (2min) — and he has the historical citations to prove it.

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For those of you with a stash of CERN images stored in a folder on your desktop, quietly browsed while dreaming of the job in materials science you could have had, if only: Google’s expertise in machine learning is being applied, at scale, to the advancement of plasma fusion study (6min).

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Wait, wha?

Retailers like Kmart have been known to buy up liquidation stock when companies go under, selling the cut-price bulk orders for a tidy profit. Supreme has never revealed where it gets its blank T-shirts from, but many have long pegged American Apparel as a key supplier. When American Apparel went bust, instead of the tees going to Supreme, they’ve instead been sent to Kmart. ​

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An occasionally-difficult, completely rewarding read: a paper on a new ‘attack algorithm’ : an approach to understanding the ways in which road signs can be altered/vandalized/’perturbed’, this rendering them unrecognizable/misrecognized to machine learning systems like Google StreetView. It’s a fascinating paper, worth scanning to the end even if you find yourself lost in the mathematics of it all.