A short history of the letter J the alphabets last member

14 April 2011

While sitting in the tenth place in the English alphabet, the letter J, which split off from the letter I, was actually the last addition to the writing system.

“J” is a bit of a late bloomer; after all, it was the last letter added to the alphabet. It is no coincidence that i and j stand side by side — they actually started out as the same character. The letter j began as a swash, a typographical embellishment for the already existing i. With the introduction of lowercase letters to the Roman numeric system, j was commonly used to denote the conclusion of a series of one’s – as in “xiij” for the number 13.

Originally published Thursday 14 April 2011.


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A certain type of screw head in time saves almost 29

15 December 2010

types of screw heads

The more common, well-known, Flat and Phillips screw heads are just two of some 28 varieties of screw drive type… you may therefore need to expand the range of screwdrivers you own in case you encounter any of the not so common sorts. Image via Apartment Therapy.

Originally published Wednesday 15 December 2010.



Illustration by Eric Slager, the muppets go minimal

6 December 2010

Since I can’t get enough of minimal design and illustration… graphic designer Eric Slager’s Minimalist Muppets illustration series.

No Cookie Monster then?

(Thanks Jessica)

Originally published Monday 6 December 2010.


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The ghost stations of East Berlin by video train

6 December 2010

After the German cities of West Berlin and East Berlin were completely partitioned following the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, accessing one side of the city from the other — was at first — pretty much out of the question for all but a small number of people.

One group unaffected — to a degree — by the separation of the city were West Berlin train commuters who used a small number of underground services whose lines crossed into parts of East Berlin, as they travelled from one area of West Berlin to another.

While trains still ran through East Berlin, they did not stop at stations on the eastern side of the border. Many of these stations closed during the period the city was divided by the wall were dubbed “ghost stations”, and were usually heavily guarded by East German troops.

The YouTube video, above, contains footage filmed from the driver’s compartments of West Berlin trains as they passed through a couple of East Berlin’s ghost stations.

Update: unfortunately the original YouTube video has been taken down as a result of a copyright claim.

Originally published Monday 6 December 2010.


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The Social Network, a film dramatisation of the founding of Facebook, by David Fincher

10 November 2010

A scene from The Social Network, a film by David Fincher

A scene from The Social Network, a film by David Fincher.

The Social Network (trailer), directed by David Fincher, is based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, which he penned with the help of Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), one of the co-founders of social network Facebook, who later fell out with CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg).

Bookended between numerous litigation sessions in lawyers’ offices, The Social Network pieces together the early days of Facebook through a series of flashbacks. The story focuses mainly on the roles of Zuckerberg and Saverin in creating the network, and how they dealt with raising money and profile, while fending off people claiming they had stolen the Facebook idea from them.

After his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), ends their relationship, Zuckerberg, a technically brilliant but emotionally cold Harvard University computer science student, hastily builds Facemash, a hot-or-not style website that compares female Harvard students with each other. Zuckerberg sources the photos Facemash needs by effortlessly hacking the databases of Harvard’s colleges.

Although Facemash is quickly shut down, word of Zuckerberg’s programming and hacking skills spread, and he’s soon approached by twins, and fellow students, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer). They have an idea for an exclusive Friendster/MySpace clone, but want to restrict membership to only those with Harvard email addresses.

They ask Zuckerberg to help, but after agreeing he instead creates the first version of Facebook, then called The Facebook. His friend and roommate, Saverin, puts up one thousand dollars to cover web hosting in return for a thirty percent share in the venture, and role of CFO.

The Facebook proves a hit with Harvard students, and other universities in the US and Britain are soon admitted to the fold. Meanwhile Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) hears about The Facebook and arranges hefty financial funding for Zuckerberg. Saverin however sees Parker as a threat to his influence, which quickly becomes a source of tension between him and Zuckerberg.

Any dramatisation about an organisation as ubiquitous as Facebook is certain to be of interest to a large number of people. Unlike many highly anticipated films that might play on the hype surrounding their subject matter though, The Social Network does not create false expectations.

Facebook made clear before the film’s release that neither they, nor Zuckerberg, had any involvement in the production of The Social Network. And while Zuckerberg does not present as a villain per se, his portrayal by Eisenberg is far from flattering.

Facebook has certainly had a controversial history (are stories of the early days of Friendster and MySpace anywhere near as colourful?) and it seems every other week brings news of another alleged privacy breach, or a new court action of some sort. Is it therefore a portent of things to come that the final scene plays out in a lawyer’s office?

Originally published Wednesday 10 November 2010.


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Flip from left to right when driving from Hong Kong to China

16 June 2010

Hong Kong/China traffic flip bridge

A proposal by Dutch designers, NL architects, could result in the construction of a far from ordinary bridge roadway connecting Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland, which would include artificial islands serving as car parks and bus stations.

Hong Kong/China traffic flip bridge

Under the proposal, a “flipper” would be incorporated along the connecting roadway, allowing Hong Kong motorists – who drive on the left – to switch safely and effortlessly to the right, the side Chinese drivers use, and vice versa.

Originally published Wednesday 16 June 2010.


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An online revenue model for independent content producers

12 April 2010

Independent online publishers, content producers, and bloggers, who are looking for a way to earn an income, or make money online, could do worse than take a few cues from Daring Fireball, the website of John Gruber, who lives and breathes all things Apple.

Daring Fireball serves over two million page views, and generates an estimated revenue of US$15-20,000 each month, making Gruber’s methods well worth scrutinising. Let’s find out how we, as independent content producers, can do likewise.

Become a member of a private advertising network

Daring Fireball is part of The Deck, a private ad network created by Jim Coudal. Collectively, member websites have a very large audience made up mainly of creative, web and design professionals.

Members, who are admitted by invitation only, are required to display an image 120 by 90 pixels in size, and cannot carry any other forms of advertising on their website.

When you consider that 26 advertisers pay US$7900 per month, to advertise across 43 member sites though, the return, even allowing for The Deck’s cut, is going be very worthwhile.

Sell weekly sponsorship slots on your RSS feed

Gruber estimates that in excess of 150,000 readers (though the actual number is probably far higher) subscribe to Daring Fireball’s RSS feed, and this level of interest has allowed him to offer exclusive weekly sponsorship at US$3,500 a slot.

Do the maths there, that’s an income of US14,000 every four weeks, not bad at all for a one person operation.

A number of other high profile bloggers have attempted to monetise their RSS feeds, many of whom incidentally are members of “The Deck”, though very few have emulated Daring Fireball’s success.

A recent discussion with Jason Kottke on The Pipeline, Dan Benjamin’s online radio show, both conceded that Gruber is one the few people to make RSS feed sponsorship work.

Sell merchandise and website memberships

Daring Fireball offers readers the chance to become members for a cost of US$19 annually.

While membership isn’t worth much in itself though, aside from gaining access to a separate RSS feed which apparently includes a few extra items not published to the main feed, it is really a way for supporters of the site to make a contribution should they wish to.

T-shirts are also sold, they are usually made available once a year, and with a purchase comes an automatic one year membership.

The income from t-shirt sales and memberships, while handy, would be far less than that generated by “The Deck” membership and RSS sponsorships though.

Leverage your online profile to earn income offline

Someone with the high profile of John Gruber could probably do well on the speaking and appearance circuit, so there are definitely opportunities in that regard.

Don’t charge your readers a cent to access your website

Despite publishing one of the most highly regarded news and information resources of all things Apple and Mac, Daring Fireball does not charge the casual reader anything to visit the site.

Sure, the super-motivated can take out a US$19 annual membership, or buy a t-shirt, but there is no compulsion whatsoever to do so.

I want a piece of the action, what do I do next?

Who wouldn’t want to be an independent online content producer earning in the region of $20,000 a month? I’d happily settle for a quarter of that amount.

Without telling you how to go about it, I can say that there are two important things you need to do, and that both require inordinate amounts of time and effort.

One is always to work on boosting your profile (marketing and promotion), the other is producing quality, useful, content.

While nowhere near the traffic levels of Daring Fireball, it’s my thought that an independent online publisher could make a reasonable, self supporting, income from around 30,000 unique visitors a day.

At least it’s a nice round number to aim for.

Originally published Monday 12 April 2010.



Classical recital etiquette protocols? Thought you’d never ask

22 February 2010

Classical, or chamber, music recitals were not events I went along to a whole lot until I was introduced to the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) last year.

Going to see a band, either in concert or at the local pub, seems — to me — like something that requires no thought it’s so natural, but what about a classical music performance, isn’t that, you know, different?

Aren’t there dress codes (top hat and tails?) and other protocols to be observed? Or, you’ve been asked to go along to a show with the company’s CEO, have no idea what happens, and are keen not to distinguish yourself for the wrong reasons?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person to have ever wondered about such things, so here we go, a guide and some tips to the etiquette and protocols of attending classical music recitals.

What’s the dress code, what should I wear?

This seems to be the main concern of many first time recital-goers, and I’m pleased to report that top hat and tails are generally not necessary.

For me though, someone who only wears a suit once in a Blue Moon, dressing up is part of the fun of going along to a recital. I don’t usually bother with a tie though, I only wear those once every couple of Blue Moons, but at the very least think “smart casual” if wondering what to wear.

Be punctual, there’s nothing worse than being shut out

The best idea is to plan to arrive early.

There’s an important difference between going to a movie and being late, and a recital and being late, the recital is a live performance.

Unlike their big screen counterparts, live performers find it a lot harder to ignore the distraction of latecomers trying to find their seat, which is invariably at the front of the house.

Then there’s the matter of trampling on the toes of audience members sharing your row, and blocking the view of others behind.

In all likelihood though, if you are late, you’ll be barred from entering the auditorium, until there is a significant break in the music, or at intermission.

So, arrive early, have a drink at the bar, and acquaint yourself with the show program, while you wait for curtain up.

Applause, when do I clap?

While pauses during a song or composition are common to all musical genres, classical music is replete with silences and breaks. This can often confuse those unfamiliar with the music being performed, who often think it is complete, and start clapping.

You don’t want to be that person. Unless you are well acquainted with the music, wait until everyone else is applauding before you join in.

Also watch the performers for end-of-play cues, members of the ACO for example usually raise their violin or cello bows above their heads at the conclusion of a piece.

Photos, recording, and mobile phones

Taking photos and video recording during a recital are generally a big no no. A few snaps of the concert hall, and empty stage, before the performance may be ok though, but the check show program, or ask someone, before you pull your camera out.

Needless to say mobile phones should be switched off or set to silent mode.

Take some time out at intermission

Most recitals have an intermission break after about 45 minutes, which tend to last for about 20 minutes. If you need to go to the bathroom, or return an urgent call from the boss, intermission is the time.

It’s also a good idea to get up and stretch your legs, the show will be a little more enjoyable if you don’t feel restless.

How long does the show usually last?

While it depends on the pieces being performed, recitals tend to run for about 90 minutes with a 20 minute intermission about half way through, so all up, about two hours. The show program should have the exact times of the performances.

Read the show program

I’ve mentioned the show program a few times, and trust me, it’s a good idea to read through it, especially if you are not a regular recital goer. They usually include details of recital and intermission times, and of course information about the music being played.

There’s nothing like looking as if you know what you are doing.

Originally published Monday 22 February 2010.


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How does the Oscar nomination and voting process work?

16 February 2010

NOTE: this is a legacy article published in 2010. Much of the information presented is likely now out of date.

While the movie buff in me takes an avid interest in who wins what in the Academy Awards each year, I’ve never given much thought to how a film reaches the winning list, aside from the fact it must be good — or reasonably good — and was favoured by members of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), who preside over the venerable award.

And as it turns out, after doing a little research into the process, garnering an AMPAS member’s favour is the very first thing a film must do, if it is to set itself along the Oscar winning pathway.

Favour, choices, AMPAS branches, and nominations

The nomination process commences when each of the 5,777 members of AMPAS, or the Academy, are asked to select their favourite eligible 1 films — usually five — from the preceding year.

The Academy is split into 15 branches, which represent the various aspects of the film production process, and include actors, directors, writers, producers, and visual effects branches, to name a few.

Branch members are only able to nominate “in-house” however. For instance members of the Writers Branch can only nominate film writers for an award, they cannot, for example, choose actors or directors.

Member numbers can vary across branches, and the Academy as a whole, from year to year, and this can have an effect on the overall process, but more on that shortly.

Preferential voting and magic numbers

The choices made by branch members, which are ranked preferentially from one to five, are sent to accounting and auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), who then count the selections — manually — and after much sifting of paper, eventually determine the top five choices — or nominations — in each Oscar category.

To be in the running a film must receive at least one number one ranking from a member, or it is eliminated from the count. PwC go through all the votes, or selections, short-listing the top five number one ranked films in each category.

Taking the Animated Feature Film category as an example, here’s how the nomination selection process might work. This year the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch of the AMPAS has 340 members.

PwC divides this number by 6 2, which equals about 56. To make the grade therefore, a film must secure at least 56 number one votes from members of this branch.

For example 63 members might have selected “Coraline” as their first choice. Another 62 might have chosen “Fantastic Mr. Fox” as their first choice, another 61 “The Princess and the Frog”, 60 “The Secret of Kells”, and finally 57 “Up” 3.

Any other animated features that may have been voted as a top choice by members of the branch are now eliminated, as they did not receive enough votes to make the top five in the category.

It gets complicated — sometimes very complicated — however if five movies do not reach the minimum vote threshold, and this is where the preferential voting system comes into play.

They [the PwC team] then look at the piles still left on the table and get rid of the one with the smallest amount of votes, redistributing them to other piles ranked on the 2nd favourite film on the ballots. If the number 2 choice has already been eliminated then they go to the 3rd choice and so on. Once that’s taken place they count again, if a film hits the magic number it’s taken off the table and is a nominee.

Changes to the number of Best Picture nominations

This year, for the first time since 1943, there are ten movies competing for the Best Picture gong, rather than the usual five, meaning the PwC team would have short-listed the top ten, rather than top five, number one voted films for this category.

The Visual Effects and Make Up categories are the only other exceptions to the five nominations per category rule this year, each sporting three contenders.

Voting and electing the winners

The final voting process is relatively similar to the nomination process.

Once nominations have been finalised, Academy members are sent ballot papers, and again using a preferential voting system, make their selections.

At this stage though, just two people at PwC are involved in counting the votes, and they remain the only ones to know the final results, until the winners are announced on Oscars night.

Controversy in Best Picture decisions

For all its mathematical precision, there is still no guarantee that the best film will be accorded the Best Picture award. 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, a superbly made movie in my opinion, could be considered a case in point.

Despite winning a slew of other film awards, and five Oscar nominations, it nevertheless missed the Best Picture award. It was suggested the Academy shunned the movie in the final round of voting as members were uncomfortable with a gay love story.

After “Brokeback Mountain” won an unprecedented number of precursor awards for best picture — 26 — it entered the Oscars with the most nominations and was considered a shoo-in to win best picture. That is, until the majority of its members — straight, ole, self-absorbed, guy geezers, as legend has it — refused to embrace the gay movie and so they gave their top prize to “Crash.”

That said, “Crash” was still a very good film.

And, to date, no science fiction or animated films, have received a Best Picture award, suggesting the Academy prefers only certain film genres.

Other factors influencing Oscar nominations

While nominations ultimately boil down to the individual tastes of the Academy’s 5,777 members, certain factors may sway their decision.

For example in 2008 sociologists from Harvard University, and the University of California, found female actors appearing in dramas, rather than comedies, were more likely than their contemporaries to score an Oscar nomination.

Academy Award nominations tend to go to performers in dramas, who are female, who have been nominated in the past and who command a high rank in the movie-credit pecking order.

And finally if I were a member of the Academy…

My ten choices — for Best Picture — this year would be:

  • An Education
  • Up
  • The Road
  • Up in the Air
  • Watchmen
  • Star Trek (a long shot, but…)
  • Looking For Eric
  • (500) Days of Summer
  • Beautiful Kate
  • Is Anybody There?

These are not, unfortunately, ranked preferentially (though “An Education” would still be very near the top), plus I’m not 100 per-cent sure that all titles are eligible for this year’s awards.

And just so you know, this year’s Oscar awards take place on Sunday, 7 March, 2010, or Monday afternoon, 8 March, as it will be in this part of the world.

(Sources: Wikipedia, Radio 1 Movies Blog, Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Live Science, Gold Derby.)

  • 1. To qualify for an Oscar nomination, a film must open in the previous calendar year, from midnight of 1 January to midnight at the end of 31 December, in Los Angeles County, California.
  • 2. Dividing the total branch membership by six ensures there will be at least five nominees. If it were divided by five the qualifying vote threshold, or “magic number” may be too high, which could result in only four films making the grade.
  • 3. The numbers I have used here are of course fictitious.

Originally published Tuesday 16 February 2010.


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There was once a place called Doggerland in Europe

3 September 2009

Doggerland, map by National Geographic Magazine staff

A landmass that connected what is now Great Britain to continental Europe, once existed up until about eight and half thousand years ago, and is known as Doggerland… at least by more contemporary geologists and scientists, that is.

Map/illustration by National Geographic Magazine staff.

Originally published Tuesday 3 September 2013.