MotU #6: Babel fishes, colour clocks and really secret santas

Stuff you knew you needed to know… and stuff you didn’t

What colour is it? 
Specific colours are described by hex numbers. This is a neat way to catalogue 16.7m possibilities in just six characters. But what colour is #063551? Wonder no more with this web clock that constantly changes its background to match the hex equivalent of the current time. Put it on your second monitor and see when it’s time for teal.  
Douglas Adams foresaw our tech future perhaps better than anyone else. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was itself a premonition of Wikipedia, and contained wondrous – but surely impossible – concepts such as the real-time translating Babel Fish. Well, hang on to your comfort towels because the resurgent post-Ballmer Microsoft has had a go a doing this with Skype Translator – described by some as the most futuristic thing I’ve ever used.   
Fascist dystopian iPad game of the week 
Papers Please really shouldn’t work. In this showy, freemium era, charging $8 for a totalitarian border guard sim with 8-bit graphics from the ZX Spectrum era sounds crazy. But the game works by disconcertingly putting you in the shoes of a lowly passport checker, making life-changing decisions under pressure whilst protecting your family. The moral dilemmas hit home hard.  
Privacy international has created a neat bit of content marketing to highlight issues of personal freedom in an era of government spying. Santa has been ordered to turn over his nice or naughty list and has discovered unsettling modifications to the children’ presents he’s delivering…  
Mails of the Unexpected will be back in the new year. Merry Xmas.

MotU #5: Beautiful, untranslatable words

Stuff you knew you needed to know… and stuff you didn’t

It’s probably testament to the dangers of pride, but aren’t we often told how wonderful English is, how rich it is, and how its speakers are the only ones who really get puns? That is, of course, nonsense. The human condition consists of far too dense a weave to be defined by any single language. This humbling incompleteness is demonstrated brilliantly by Lost in Translation: an illustrated catalog[ue] of beautiful untranslatable words from around the world. How many of us recognise the bittersweet pleasure of Trepverter? 

Coca-Cola is getting into milk. If this feels slightly startling, it’s worth remembering that the Real Thing does far more than just the Real thing. It’s already a market leader in carbonates, energy drinks and water. The nationwide launch of premium priced Fairlife is due next year. 
Still on the topic of beverages, can the colour of cups affect your perception of flavour? This coffee-tasting study suggests that it can. Apparently, that flat white will seem more bitter in a white cup. Smileys are taking over the world. Emojis, those colourful little characters we add to messages, have become so popular that the gatekeepers of text standards arehaving to evolve their thinking to keep up. Not only are there now more diverse characters available, but a new system will ensure the Unicode standard is quicker at responding to new suggestions. Check out the wonderful Emojipedia (yes, really) for the most requested new characters.

MotU #4: Why we wear lucky pants

Stuff you knew you needed to know

Unfeasibly, there are people still watching Gangnam Style. So many in fact, that YouTube have had to update their view counter to 64 bits after after the video passed 2,147,483,647 views –  the largest integer presentable in 32 bits. The new max is a lasso-twirling nine quintillion. Op, op, op, op.

Microsoft closed the clipart library. What will leaden 60 page corporate decks be without 2D images of handshakes? Never forget – power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.

Google is getting rid of CAPTCHAs – those annoying identity checks where you have to re-type images of distorted text. Spambots have got too good at them, so they’ll be replaced by background algorithmic boffinry instead. Btw, did you know that CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart?

… and stuff you didn’t

The great glass elevator is real Remember Willy Wonka’s scary lift that could move up, down and sideways? Well, ThyssenKrupp, everyone’s favourite German multinational conglomerate, just announced a magnet-guided, ropeless system that will free architects from the tyranny of vertical shafts and open up options for very different building shapes.

One way that sci-fi movies convey a sense of otherness is through typefaces. Dave Addey did a quite beautiful teardown on 2001: A Space Odyssey earlier in the year and this fantastic look at the iconography of Alien has just, er, burst out of him.

Podcast of the week covers the Post Hoc fallacy and explains why pattern-matching humans can’t help linking up things that just shouldn’t be linked up (and how con men use it to rip us off). As no schoolboy these days knows, the full latin phrase is post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) but you can think of it as ‘why people wear lucky pants’.

MotU #2: Edison and the brass balls

Stuff you knew you needed to know

Hotel California has been found in Cupertino. Sir Jony Ive revealed that the design team at Apple is a suitably minimalist 18 people. And no-one has ever left. That tight-knit crew just unveiled Apple Watch kit – the tool for making apps for next year’s wearable wonder. Two new UI concepts to note: Glances and Actionable Notifications.

Hoodie-fan Mark Zuckerberg has been cracking the whip at Facebook. After successfully (but not without friction) spinning off Messenger into a separate app, he’s rumoured to be working on Facebook for work and has also just released a separate Groups app. This is very on-trend and reflects the move to single-purpose apps. Making an app for your company? Beware the false idol of the ‘one stop shop’.


Monetising content has long been a thorny problem. Startups like Millipay are focusing on micropayments for publishers whereas Google is testing Contributor – a paid service that replaces ads with thank you messages. 

… and stuff you didn’t

25 years ago, an artist installed an encrypted sculpture called Kryptos outside the CIA’s headquarters. It contained four encoded puzzles designed to challenge the spooks eating their lunch. Three of these brain teasers have longed been cracked, but the fourth has withstood all-comers. The artist this week revealed a clue that might finally uncover its hidden secrets. Cryptography is arguably the most important science of this century, and I recommend Simon Singh’s book as a readable primer.

Alongside managing distraction mentioned last week, another theme I expect to return to regularly is accessing creativity. John Cleese is (not?) surprisingly a champion of this, and this week told a wonderful anecdote about the prolifically inventive Thomas Edison,

“[Edison] thought that he got his best inventions when he was on the verge of falling asleep, and he used to sit in a chair holding ball bearings in his hands, with a brass bowl under his hands, so that when he fell asleep he’d drop the ball bearings and the noise would wake him up, and in that way he could spend quite a long period of time in that twilight area between being very tired and actually falling asleep, and that’s when he said he got most of his ideas”

Mails of the Unexpected

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Stuff you knew you needed to know

Twitter released the most awkward strategy statement in interweb history to widespread snorting.

Reach the largest daily audience in the world by connecting everyone to their world via our information sharing and distribution platform products and be one of the top revenue generating Internet companies in the world.

Surely the sweating fruit of an overlong meeting, it waddles in at 220 characters and ambitiously contains the word ‘world’ three times. As Jon Gruber points out, if any company should be able to fit its strategy into a single tweet, it’s Twitter.

Generate your own Twitter Strategy Statement here

The reinvention of Microsoft continues apace. Things that would have been previously undoable are blinking into the Redmond daylight. Office for iOS is now (sort of) free and whilst the Microsoft Band may not be as tasteful as the Apple Watch, it is here.

And what’s up with Amazon? The Fire phone appears to have been a damp squiband the new Kindle disappeared off my wishlist after this review. Their new “Siri in a can” Echo device feels like a solution in search of a problem. Imagine the faff of moving it from room to room when you already have a phone with you.

… and stuff you didn’t

Managing distraction is something I expect to return to regularly. I think history will characterise this era as when we struggled to balance the sudden, wonderful access to everything with finding the protected calm we need to process thoughts.

That’s why the Hemingwrite is both brilliant and contrary. A typewriter with a simple screen, it reimagines the word processors of the 1980s and creates a distraction-free writing environment. The kicker is that it does have internet access, but only for Dropbox and Google Drive backup.

Spot when a salesman is playing you. Be aware of the feel, felt, found sales technique. I understand that you don’t want to click that link, but I showed someone yesterday – and he loved it!

Simplifying things. I love the anecdote that design isn’t finished when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away. This calculator app is beautifully minimalist and even manages to remove the ‘equals’ button.