1000 Years of Popular Music


Richard Thompson is a solo musician and former guitarist in the folk rock group Fairport Convention.

When Playboy magazine blithely asked him to list his favourite songs of the last “millennium”, Thompson drew on his formidable knowledge of music to do exactly that.

The resulting list, spanning the years 1068 to 2001, was deemed unsuitable by magazine staff who decided to run more editorially viable charts by other personalities instead.

Nevertheless it gave Thompson a unique concept for a show – and album release. Live or on record, Thompson offers performances of one of the oldest known songs in the English language Sumer Is Icumen In, the Gilbert and Sullivan penned There is Beauty In the Bellow of the Blast and among other more contemporary songs Oops!…I Did It Again, originally performed by Britney Spears.

Despite the diversity, he admits to gaps in his coverage of the 17th and 18th centuries and “too much weight on Music Hall and Rock & Roll”.

Thompson’s background is in the folk tradition. In its original sense folk music happens in a live setting – songs are memorised, passed on and adapted, sometimes for hundreds of years. Often in our culture “folk” music has become a byword for a certain style of acoustic guitar music. But it originally signified a word-of-mouth community where ideas of authorship, strict copyright and “original” versions were secondary or non-existent. With that knowledge maybe it’s less of a surprise that Richard Thompson is a walking archive of songs ready to be shared, a commons if you will.

Richard Thompson photograph by 6tee-zeven

The Father of User-Centered Design: “The Measure of Man”

The Measure of Man: Human Factors in Design

The Measure of Man: Human Factors in Design is the most incredible book. Written by celebrated industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, the book was first published in 1959, and is now available as the politically correct The Measure of Man and Woman. The tri-fold pocketed second edition you see above (with contents below) was published in 1967.

The Measure of Man: Anthropomorphic Charts

The book contains 32 black and white anthropometric charts on heavy card, which describe every detail of how the human body functions – from movement to growth – covering both sexes and different body types.

Life-size human charts

Two life-size human figure charts are included (one male, one female, white on blue); I’ve shown one above with a CD for scale. These would look great on the wall of any modern design or usability agency.

Reaction Times

Human Versus Machine

My favourite part is also the least exciting aspect of the package (in terms of physical format): the tables of data in the 20 page book. That sounds like a fairly thin book, but it’s packed with incredible data and insight into human-focused design. These don’t just cover typical ‘ergonomic’ topics, but also more modern subjects that include the accuracy and function of displays.

It’s not the kind of book you can sit down and read on the train, but it’s a breath of fresh air to read something so well researched, and full of quality data, with none of the filler so-typical of modern books.

The Credit Crunch started with the Credit Lunch

Diners Club Card 1951

In the UK alone, we now owe £54 billion in credit card debt. How did it ever get to this? Like many of the great inventions, it all started with an innocent story and a genuine solution to a genuine problem.

In 1949, successful businessman Frank McNamara was eating with business friends in a New York restaurant. When the check arrived, he realised he had forgotten his wallet. The story then gets a little hazy; he was either recognised by the restaurant owner and allowed to pay at a later date, or was rescued by his wife bringing him cash.

Whatever the situation, his embarrassment prompted him to develop the Diners Club Card, initially accepted in 14 New York restaurants and issued to 200 members.

Originally, the card didn’t charge interest, allowing members to ‘buy now, pay later (in full)’, with the Diners Club initially paying the restaurant as the middle-man. Instead of charging interest, the restaurants were charged a 7 percent fee of each transaction, and each member paid $3 annually.

Even though 20,000 Americans signed-up during the first year, McNamara thought his idea was a fad, and after three years, sold-out to his partners for $200,000.

Unfortunately for us, it seems, the fad has lasted a little longer than he predicted.

Image copyright Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The Decline of The Sexy Spy Camera

Minox Model B

The Minox camera was first manufactured in 1937. Designed as an ultra-portable camera, it first found favour at the luxury end of the market.

Due to it’s sub-minitaure size and ability to focus on nearby objects (around 18-20cm+), it soon became popular as a tool of espionage. Intelligence agencies from America to Germany were ‘snapping it up’ for use in-the-field.

With stylish gadget looks and well-earned notoriety, film studios were bound to adopt the Minox; most famously James Bond films, but also modern titles such as Grosse Point Blank and Charlie’s Angels.

In recent times, improved miniaturisation and optical technologies have produced smaller and better devices; today most of us carry around the equivalent of a high-quality spy camera on our mobile phones. In keeping with modern technologies, a digital Minox was recently released – the DSC (‘Digital Spy Camera’) – but it lacks the beautiful aluminium styling of the earlier models, or the pleasing mechanical sounds of exposure.

Minox Digital Spy Camera (DSC)

In some ways the camera represents the transformation of the spy industry; from the analog days of relying on charisma and stealth, to the modern digital age where spying is often nothing more than a $5 USB stick and open source key-logging software. Sure, it’s better, safer and easier, but it doesn’t look as good in the movies.

Minox Model B photograph by david4bruce, Minox DSC photograph copyright Amazon

How to Get Someone's Attention (The Hard Way)

Recently I listened to the audiobook version of Free by Chris Anderson.

Like Anderson’s previous book The Long Tail, the book is rich with observations – and speculation – and is provoking debate in the worlds of business and technology. In particular, it got me thinking about the nature of attention.

Anderson expands on the observation that the internet is an economy of attention.

You may identify with a variation on this idea, perhaps the scenario of having seemingly endless spam and email to wade through, reports to read and information nagging to be filtered down to the useful, the essential and the interesting. (Put it this way, I’d been intending to listen to the audiobook for several weeks. Anderson got my attention because I was bedridden with flu with little else to occupy me. This is apt.)

Back in the office, while our filters continue to fail us, incoming information is abundant.

What’s concerning is that people on whom we depend to get things done for us (politicians, public sector workers, companies, organisations and the like) are subject to the same limitations as we are.

Attention is finite. In economic terms, attention is a scarcity. Each email that arrives devalues all the others.

Therefore something has to give – and very often it’s your message that gets drowned out.

A great example from social media is the Twitter whinge. If you’ve spent any time on Twitter you’ll have seen other people moaning, complaining or otherwise airing their grievances and probably done it yourself. In particular, there’s something very appealing about sharing a moan about poor service from an airline, hotel or even government agency. But does it result in any real improvement? In truth, a tweet is the easiest kind of message to publish and is often therefore one of the most insignificant forms of complaint in existence. Unless the company or target in mind is directly monitoring mentions of their name and has a policy of acting on them, it’ll probably achieve nothing.

Part of the problem is that a tweet has zero weight and zero cost. Examples of good attention-grabbing via 140-character tweets, usually when they become “trending topics”, are celebrated because they remain rare. Sometimes you want to make a strong point and really influence a big, sluggish organisation. For that purpose, without the boost of a trending topic, your solitary tweet can be easy to ignore or miss.

In the realm above 140 characters, it can be a similar story. Even the well known blogger Jeff Jarvis had to count on the support of fellow bloggers to build momentum around his Dell complaint. Obviously it helps if you have gathered profile and reputation through consistent blogging, as Jeff Jarvis has done (not to mention his substantial offline media activities).

In the meantime, the subject of your complaint might not see your email or a tweet in the first place. Even if they do see it, they’ll know it was very easy for you to create. Just as every virtual gift you receive via Facebook increases the comparative value of an edible box of chocolates or tangible bunch of flowers, maybe we should all be trying harder.

What are people doing to bypass the online attention economy totally?

Examples abound. Here are three.

  1. Maybe it’s time to rediscover what we consider to be older technologies, such as sending a fax. Write To Them is a UK-based service, built mainly by volunteers, which helps you to fax your Member of Parliament. It explicitly advises against copying and pasting standard emails because such emails are prone to being ignored.
  2. Many charities resort to street fundraisers, or “chuggers“, who pester people into donating. For the charity, these services can be expensive. They can also be highly annoying if you’re the target. Much more intrusive than an email. But that’s the point.
  3. The US television network CBS was forced to air the remainder of a series after cancelling it. Fans complained about the initial cancellation of Jericho by sending peanuts to CBS offices. A reported 18,000 kg of nuts were sent before bosses changed their minds. Arguably no amount of email or tweets would have matched that, although admittedly social media were vital in the coordination of the stunt (more background on this story in the book Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky).

As a wise man once said, the medium is the message. In each of these cases, the physicality of the medium can be a burden for you, the would-be communicator. But the inherent bulkiness of the medium can also be its strength. If you can wield that strength, you might just get things your way.