The Jolly Teapot

Freshly brewed links, served by Nicolas Magand

My name is Nicolas Magand and I live in Paris, France. I work as a social media and engagement editor at the Global Editors Network, a non-profit aimed at promoting innovation and sustainability in the news industry. Here I blog mostly about tech and media, but many other topics can face my enthusiasm.

Redesigning the word “design”

On his website, Carl MH Barenbrug quotes Dieter Rams on how the word ‘design’ has slowly been stripped out of a precise meaning, especially in English. The famous – well huh – designer believes using the German word Gestaltung instead, with a meaning closer to what he considers design, would be an improvement. Barenbrug explains:

The word ‘design’ is frequently misused, much like the word ‘minimal’ is also. Quite often, I suspect this essentially comes down to a sheer misunderstanding of what design actually means. So what is Gestaltung exactly? According to Rams, it is observing, thinking, and understanding. It is also strongly related to three basic principles expressed by Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio: Firmitas (engineering), Utilitas (science), Venustas (aesthetics).

This reminded of a quote from Steve Jobs –who was a huge admirer of Rams – from an interview with the New York Times in 2003, which I think fits nicely here:

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!´ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

I truly wonder what Jobs would say about the Apple Watch and the AirPods: two truly iconic designs which enabled huge hits for Apple, and also what he would say about the terrible, unreliable keyboards of the current MacBook Pro line-up.

Tashkent Metro photographs

Amos Chapple – photographer for Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty – visited the Tashkent Metro after the ban on taking pictures of it was lifted a few months ago.

The resulting photographs are incredible. I especially like the blue wall around famous Soviet cosmonauts portraits, where the colours of the ceramic mimic the different layers of the atmosphere.

Each caption reveals a different piece of trivia about the Uzbekistan capital and its glorious subway stations, built by the Soviet Union in the seventies. My favourites:

Photography inside the the heavily policed Metro was forbidden until June 2018 because of the military sensitivity of its second role: as a nuclear bomb shelter.

During the Soviet period, planners required a city’s population to top 1 million before work would begin on a subway. Tashkent’s population reached the milestone in the early 1960s.

Artists were brought in from across the Soviet Union to work on the Tashkent Metro. These 5-meter chandeliers were designed by Latvian artist Haim Rykhsin.

Fascinating. These photographs also reminded me to buy this book from Christopher Herwig, so I can reminisce easier my wonderful visit of the Moscow Metro last year.

If it looks good, it must sound good right?

Dan Nosowitz, writing for The Verge:

Online, the phenomenon is known as “Chi-fi” — a mashup of “Chinese” and “high-fidelity.” It’s usually used to refer to portable audio gear […] that come from essentially anonymous Chinese companies. […] The names of the companies are fluid, the prices are incredibly cheap, and the listings are bare bones or confusing. As a reasonable consumer, you assume that nothing priced at six dollars can possibly be good. But Chinese hi-fi offers the best possible version of that world. What if the brands were unknown and the prices bizarrely low — but the product was actually good?

I just love that this online shopping and enthusiasm for unknown Chinese hi-fi brands is named “Chi-fi.” Also – despite the fact that most of them are design rip-offs of MMCX earbuds from Shure or RHA – I love the minimal and industrial design of a few models: they look like tiny, beautiful spaceships.

Subscription cannot be the only business model for journalism to survive

This week I learned that my previous employer, the Global Editors Network, had been shut down. Like I said on Twitter, I loved working right in the center of the media industry crisis: advertising revenues shrinking, fierce competition for subscribers’ money, misinformation and distrust, platforms-dependency, &c. This crisis has many, many faces and it is just sad to see one organisation like GEN – who was trying to help journalism – close doors like so many other journalism entities, mostly newspapers.

The topic of journalism sustainability is obviously very close to my heart, and the other day I stumbled upon this very good post by the journalist David Bauer, currently head of visuals at the Swiss newspaper NZZ, in which he lists “challenges, questions, assumptions” around the media industry. Every entry of this list had me nod in agreement; this point in particular is worth noticing:

Media organisations need sustainable business models, but (hard) paywalls are at odds with maximum impact and public service, especially for less affluent people. How can we make it work for all sides?

Exactly. Subscription cannot be the only business model for journalism to survive. Affordable and accessible news have to be quality news too. In a recent interview, the Information’s Jessica Lessin said:

Getting existing and new news organisations to see [subscription] as a path for them is really important to me because I really feel it’s how premium content journalism will survive.

I really admire Lessin’s success with the Information, and I am very interested in their upcoming product, Ticker, but I hope “premium content journalism” will be something limited to a few organisations or specific verticals, like tech and business news; another business model ought to be successful for newspapers. I believe that’s why Lessin says “a path” and not “the path.”

Like Bauers writes: “How can we make it work for all sides?” Indeed, a journalism split between “premium content” and “regular content” would not, in my opinion, serve the purpose of journalism well.

The Fitbit acquisition is the easy way for Google to appear relevant in wearables

If you need to read one article about the acquisition of Fitbit by Google, look no further than Neil Cybart’s detailed and inspired take on Above Avalon:

How did Fitbit go from being considered the wearables leader to viewing a $2.1B acquisition as its best hope for shareholders to recoup any value? What led Fitbit to run out of options as an independent company? Two words: Apple Watch.

Today the Apple Watch is bigger than the iPod ever was.

Many manufacturers a few years ago looked at the Apple Watch and probably thought “we can do this,” and many observers keep thinking more or less that “since the iPad, Apple hasn’t come out with anything new and innovative.” Truth is, it is very hard to compete with Apple in wearables.

When it comes to miniaturisation of computers, design, and user experience, it is nearly impossible to follow Apple, as very few brands control both the hardware, the software, and the services on top of it as much as Apple does. Cybart writes:

Fitbit was squeezed as the company had no viable way to compete directly with Apple Watch. Fitbit’s existing business wasn’t profitable enough for management to ramp up R&D in an effort to go up against Apple. Fitbit had generated just $200M of free cash flow over the past five years. Apple spends that much on R&D in a few days.

Samsung is trying something interesting with Tizen on its smartwatches, and maybe Google will reboot its wearable strategy with Fitbit. But for now, when it comes to true smartwatches, nobody really competes with Apple in terms of revenue, profit, market share, and most importantly for Apple: customer satisfaction.

It is interesting to see how late Amazon is on consumer wearables, and how Microsoft just gave up a long time ago. Both are now tiptoeing towards the wearables market through wireless headphones and earbuds,1 but guess who is already there, crushing everyone else? I cannot spend one day, take one subway train, or sit in one subway car without seeing someone wearing AirPods. 2 

With the release of AirPods Pro, Apple is putting another smart foot in the door of wearables: I wouldn’t be surprised if we witness another Fitbit-like acquisition in the coming months from one of the other big names left in the dark. Bose? Jabra? Plantronics? Your guess is as good as mine, but I see this happening rather sooner than later. 3 


  1.  Google too with the Pixels buds, and you can see how a Pixel smartwatch – with Fitbit’s cred – could fit in their line-up; doesn’t mean it will be any good or succeed. ↩︎
  2.  I won't even mention another big player in the field: Apple's Beats. ↩︎
  3.  Good to know that Harman International, owner of harman/kardon, JBL, Mark Levinson, AKG, and Bang & Olufsen, was acquired by Samsung in 2016 for US$8 billion. ↩︎

Hello, my name is Nicolas and I am a Xennial (apparently)

On Twitter, Ian Dunt started this thread about generation X and millennials. The second tweet of the thread caught my eye:

My lot – born 82 – never really got a name. I know we're technically millennials, just about, but we're not really. Fuck I never heard that word until it referred to people who were plainly young than me.

And then Mike Hall quoted a definition of a word that was new to me, “Xennials”:

‘Xennials are described as having had an analog childhood and a digital adulthood’.

Obviously the generation you are part of depends not only on the year you were born, but also where you grow up, the average income of your household, how “open” your parents were towards new technologies, &c.

Knowing all this, of what generation am I exactly, looking through the technology glass?

I was born in 84, so I am technically part of gen Y, a millenial by the book. I believe I had an ordinary childhood for a French kid. My mother was very open when it came to watching movies and shows on TV, or playing video games. But when it came to the questions of computers and the internet, my home was very much stuck in the eighties, probably more for financial reasons than open-mindedness, but still. Exhibit A: I perfectly remember watching hours of Dragon Ball Z on a black and white TV, that had a dial for changing channels, no remote; that must have been the year 92 or 93.

I got my first “real” computer when I was already 20, and we got the internet at home a few months after. I got my first mobile phone when I was 18 – right after my high school years – which later always made me feel left out in conversations seeing how the others millennials – my coworkers, my friends – were already using Facebook like crazy at the university, and spent their time in middle school texting their classmates. My memories are quite different than theirs.

When I did not feel like an old millennial, I felt like a very young member of the gen X. My former flatmate, who was only three years older than me, was definitely part of the gen X, judging by his still-growing collection of DVDs. At that time, not owning a TV made me feel part of the younger generation.

I guess I am indeed a Xennial, perfectly in-between gen X and gen Y. It does not mean much, but it feels good to have a word that translates my life experience so well.

Now the question is: How are people between boomers and gen X called? Xoomers? Booxers? And what about young millennials who feel part of the gen Z? Zillennials?

This attempt at defining generations reminds me of the “back cover” of the great book The End of Absence, by Michael Harris:

Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet. What does this unavoidable fact mean? For future generations, it won’t mean anything very obvious. They will be so immersed in online life that questions about the Internet’s basic purpose or meaning will vanish. But those of us who have lived both with and without the crowded connectivity of online life have a rare opportunity. We can still recognize the difference between Before and After.

Highly recommended read.

If you want to accomplish anything today, you need to avoid this game

This Sunday I had all the time I needed to write a few blog posts, finally. A quiet, lazy Sunday at home. It was raining outside almost the entire day, nothing was planned. The kind of day where you enjoy reading a good book and drinking a cup of tea.

Waking up this morning I had big plans, continuing with my big November engagement in mind: publish seven posts a week. I thought had enough time to read, prepare two or three posts, do some cleaning, cook, spend some time playing one or two Apple Arcade games (which are great: special mention to Tangle Tower), and maybe watch the first episode of For All Mankind.  1 

I barely did any of it, of course. And tonight, as I was searching my Twitter bookmarks for something to post today, I found a tweet from Tim Holman mentioning this little game called Little Alchemy. So I tried it.

A few hours later, I am now sure that I won’t have time to do any of the things I hoped to do today. This game is fantastic and pretty simple: You start with the four classical elements, and you mix them two-by-two to see what happens, and unlock new items to play with. For instance: “Earth” plus “Water” equals “Mud”; “Mud” plus “Fire” equals “Brick” and so on.

When I reached 40 new items or so, I felt I was getting very close to the end of the game, finally. But there are apparently 720 different elements to discover. So I decided to share this fantastic piece of entertainment right here, so that everyone reading this can try Little Alchemy 2 and get nothing done.  2 


  1.  A rather good first episode, but one big question remains: what is the font used in the opening credits? I was suspecting Alto Mono or Rubik at first, but maybe it is a custon DIN font? ↩︎
  2.  Oh great there is an iOS app too… ↩︎

How a network of scammers keeps on exploiting Airbnb’s users

Allie Conti was feeling a bit suspicious of her hosts after she had a very bad Airbnb experience. She decided to investigate, and reported back her findings in a brilliant article on VICE.

If you ever booked a flat on Airbnb, you should read the article: this is what happened when she managed to reach someone behind the nationwide scam freshly uncovered:

Approximately 30 minutes after the call, I tried to go back on Abbot Pacific’s website. But I couldn’t. It had disappeared, replaced only five words in all caps: “THIS WEBSITE IS CURRENTLY UNAVAILABLE.” I called “Patrick” back to ask what happened. “I think it went down yesterday,” he said. “We’re adding some new stuff to it. New properties and stuff like that.” When I told him that I had just been on the site moments before our initial conversation and found it strange that the website went down right after, he agreed that it was “weird.”

Busted.

As surprising and fascinating as this whole scam operation is, I believe the most shocking part of this story is the lack of proper answer from Airbnb: their flawed verification process, their users getting scammed, they basically did nothing about the issues exposed by Conti.

“We are suspending the listings while we investigate further.”

The best part of the article is this update, added at the end:

The morning after this article was published, the FBI contacted VICE about the claims made above.

I am sure this is not the last time we hear about this.

The coldest decade on record was caused by a series of volcanic eruptions

Fascinating article by Ann Gibbons, writing for Science, about what a team of researchers learned from analysing polar ice cores, and matching their results with historical records:

At a workshop at Harvard this week, the team reported that a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland spewed ash across the Northern Hemisphere early in 536. Two other massive eruptions followed, in 540 and 547. The repeated blows, followed by plague, plunged Europe into economic stagnation that lasted until 640, when another signal in the ice—a spike in airborne lead—marks a resurgence of silver mining.

The title of the article Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’ could not have been more on point. Now you have to wonder: What if such eruptions were to happen in our times?