12 of the smartest history TikToks

TikTok isn’t just lip dubs, pranks and pouting teenagers. It can also be clever interpretations of Latin songs, political and historical messages about inequality, racism and Communism, and chemical formulas for exothermic reactions.

1. A succinct depiction of inequality told through the lens of Kreayshawn’s 2012 hip hop hit “Go Hard.”

By NikJWells on TikTok

2. The Brexit negotiations told through the medium of the Spice Girls

By Sonam on TikTok

3. The history of the Atlantic slave trade, pretty much

By Nich
@urlocalblackguy on TikTok
4. The inevitable disappearance of creativity on nascent social media platforms’ due to their design promoting vapidity
By LeahMarii on TikTok

5. Men started wearing wigs in the 1600s and 1700s because King Louis XIV had syphilis

By Michael McBride
@idea.soup on TikTok

6. World War Two plus Eddy Grant in a Tik Tok (with lots of typos)

By Rhys.b1999 on TikTok

7. In which I discover the Latin lyrics of “O Fortuna” in a TikTok comment

By Rreygaer95 on TikTok

8. A critical analysis of the use of Seventies music in contemporary cinema

By Alisha.GTFO on TikTok

9. Meanwhile in the 1800s…

By Nich
@urlocalblackguy on TikTok

10. Of course you know the chemical formula for a thermite reaction (iron oxide or rust, plus aluminium equals fire)

By S3xyEnzyme on TikTok

11. Algebra is useful so you don’t fall for stupid memes

By MrBlah69 on TikTok

12. The parallels between the Great Depression of 1929 and the Financial Crisis of 2008

By adamp161 on TikTok

Succession TV show alternatives

Now that Succession season 2 – aka the best TV show of 2019 – is over, here are some alternative to tide us over until Succession season 3 begins in summer 2020.

Veepwatch Veep now on NowTV

Succession’s creator Jesse Armstrong worked with Veep’s Armando Iannucci on Peep Show, The Thick of It and the first season of Veep, a cynical and knowing workplace comedy about the barely functioning and mostly irrelevant office of the Vice President and the awful but loveable people who wield its power.

The Loudest Voicewatch The Loudest Voice now on NowTV

The Loudest Voice is emphatically not a comedy. Russell Crowe plays the monstrous Roger Ailes, founder of Fox News and executive producer of Donald Trump’s political career, tracking his and his network’s steady rise to the top of cable news in the US. The slow burning style of this seven part series (with the exception of the dramatic second episode) makes it incredibly satisfying to see him being brought down by the brave and wily Gretchen Carlson, played by Naomi Watts. There are many crossovers with Succession including several scenes shot in the same locations, and not least the epilogue dedicated to his successor Bill Shine. Where is he now? Working for Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign, of course.

Storyville The PM, the Playboy and the Wolf of Wall Streetwatch it now on BBC iPlayer

A real life Wolf of Wall Street story which won’t end until its fugitive protagonist fixer Jho Low is brought to justice, this documentary shows how dogged journalism and brave activists exposed corruption at the heart of the Malaysian government, and how Western finance and Hollywood bent over backwards to get its cut of the dirty money. The most compelling moments include the Blackberry messages as Jho Low procured an “18 carrot [sic] pink heart diamond” for the wife of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, and the intrepid Alex Ritman of Hollywood Reporter confronting Robert De Niro about his son’s Raphael’s role in selling $55 million worth of real estate for Jho Low.

Channel 4 Dispatches The Prince and The Paedophilewatch on Channel 4 now

This investigative documentary offers shocking new details about the alleged close relationship between convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and the Queen’s favourite son Prince Andrew. Epstein’s connections to powerful figures from the worlds of science, technology and politics are troubling but not unsurprising: a ticket to the world of unimaginable luxury, wealth and privilege is available to anyone who can pay the price. No legal checks, due diligence or even common sense appear to be required to get an entry to this club of billionaires, media moguls and tech innovators. If you’re careful, you can also see the Queen’s press team reacting to this documentary by placing soft touch stories about the Queen’s cameo at the Olympics and seeding doubts about the veracity of the photograph of Prince Andrew with Virginia Roberts Giuffre and the snap of him with Jeffrey Epstein in New York in December 2010 (which originally featured in the now defunct News of the World).

Succession Season One – hurry, you can only rewatch Succession’s first season until 6 December on Now TV

Worth it just to relive the moment Tom met Cousin Greg.

More Succession alternatives

The Insider – Michael Mann’s gripping drama about Big Tobacco and the investigative journalist who gets a whistleblower to speak out, which pivots midway into a gritty and tense depiction of corporate pressure in American television news. Watch The Insider now on YouTube

Arrested Development – Was there really any money in the banana stand? Watch Arrested Development on Netflix (but skip the last season whatever you do)

The Big Short – Succession executive producer Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning punchy but shallow explanation of the roots of the financial crisis and its short selling traders. Watch The Big Short now on Netflix

Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World – the title says it all really. Oliver Bullough’s book about how the ultra rich stay that way. Buy it now on Amazon.

Further reading

35 interesting things I learned in 2019

13 of my favourite history TikToks

What makes a great magazine cover?

40 interesting things I learned in 2019 (so far)

Emmet Gowin's aerial picture of the Nevada test site
Credit: Emmit Gowin

Inspired by Tom Whitwell’s list of 52 things he learned last year, I created my own list (with a focus on science, aviation, technology and food) which I’m still adding to throughout 2019.

  1. There is only about one atom per cubic metre of space in the universe. Source: George Gamow’s book One Two Three Infinity
  2. In the late 1700s Oxford had a climate similar to that of present day Edinburgh. Source: The Times
  3. Commercial airline pilots sometimes greet fellow pilots at cruising altitude by flashing their landing lights. Source: FT
  4. Sesame Street has a venture capital firm. Source: The Times
  5. Japanese researchers once invented a wasabi fire alarm which can wake deaf people up in the night. Source: Quartz
  6. Moby is the great-great-great-nephew of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, hence the nickname. Source: The Times
  7. The first cultivated carrots were purple and yellow, not orange. Source: Pop Sci
  8. Ciabatta bread was invented in 1982 by an Italian jealous of the popularity of the French baguette. Source: The Guardian
  9. The word “blazer” comes from the colour of the red ivy flowers growing on the side of the St John’s College building, Cambridge University, which the rowers of the Lady Margaret Boat Club used as inspiration for their outfits. Source: The Telegraph
  10. In parts of New Orleans the graves are overground concrete tombs because of the city’s water level. Source: Itotd
  11. Until 1987 it was common to operate on newborn babies without anaesthetic. Source: The Times
  12. Reuters News Agency was founded in 1850 with a flock of 45 messenger pigeons which filled a “telegraph gap” between Brussels and Aachen in western Europe. Source: Reuters
  13. Sharks have been around for at least 420 million years and survived four of the “big five” mass extinctions. Source: New Scientist
  14. Ordnance survey, the UK mapping company, was set up because the English were worried about revolutions in Scotland and France and wanted to know where they could easily transport their troops in case of war. Source: Ordnance Survey
  15. Mosquitos may have killed half of the 108 billion people who have ever lived across our 200,000 year existence. Source: New Scientist
  16. Only 20 per cent of Americans can do a single push-up. Source: The Atlantic
  17. Fanta was developed in Nazi Germany in response to an embargo on Coca-Cola. Source: The Local via Frank Swain
  18. Finland has a government committee called the “Committee for the Future” dedicated to discussing and solving big, future problems. Source: Jared Diamond interview in New Scientist
  19. Gold smugglers have set up fake gold mines in Uganda which are designed to legitimise gold that’s been smuggled in from Congo. Source: The Economist
  20. Over millions of years of chimp and human evolution there have been, on average, six changes to the roughly three billion letters in our genetic code every year. Source: The Guardian
  21. Spandex, the material used in most leggings, was invented during the Second World War when the military was trying to find a new material for parachutes. Source: The Guardian
  22. Almost all bananas sold today are direct descendants of one plant grown in the early 1800s in the greenhouse of Chatsworth House in the peak district. Source: BBC News
  23. The Nike “Just Do It” slogan was inspired by the last words of a murderer who was about to be executed by firing squad. Source: New Yorker Mar 18 2019
  24. The brain consumes about a fifth of a person’s metabolic energy each day. Cooking was essential for human evolution, because it means we don’t need to spend all day chewing — unlike chimps. Source: 1843 Magazine
  25. Swatch once invented a new unit of time for the internet called the “beat” which split the day into 1000 parts. Source: BBC News
  26. The first reference to a “freelancer” in literature is Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe, where a feudal lord talks about his army of solders for hire taking over shipping in Hull. Source: Anna Codrea-Rado’s (excellent) freelancing newsletter
  27. Candle flames are hollow. Source: Massimo
  28. San Francisco has a dedicated human faeces removal team. Source: New York Times
  29. Honey found in Egyptian tombs for thousands of years is still unspoiled and edible thanks to its sugar content, acidity and low moisture. Source: Smithsonian Magazine
  30. Medical scanners are built with steel from sunken battleships because the steel has not been contaminated by the decades of nuclear testing. Source: Science Made Simple
  31. The yellow traffic signal was first conceived in 1920. Source: The Register
  32. Naturally occurring radioactivity in the body from isotopes like carbon-14 and potassium-40 disrupts the DNA of 85,000 cells every single day. Source: New Scientist
  33. China has only one time zone for the whole country, despite covering five time zones geographically. Source: New Scientist
  34. As many as 100,000 people are buried in mass, unmarked graves in Spain after decades under General Franco’s rule. Source: The Guardian
  35. The National Insurance fund which pays for everyone’s state pensions in the UK will run out by 2032. Source: FT Money Podcast and FT Adviser
  36. More nuclear bombs have been dropped on or have exploded in or above American soil than on that of any other country in the world. The true scale of US nuclear testing (1,054 tests in total) was unknown publicly until May 1993. Source: Emmet Gowin in The Nevada Test Site
  37. One of the best (open) sources of air pollution in Beijing is the US embassy’s RSS feed reporting the real-time air quality index. Source: Adam Vaughan
  38. Quorn, the “original” meat replacement product based on starch and protein, took decades to develop and cost £2 billion in today’s money to develop. Source: The Bottom Line
  39. Tom Hanks is related to Abraham Lincoln. “The maiden name of Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, was Hanks, and yes, it’s the same Hanks.” Source: The New York Times
  40. One of the major causes of plane crashes in Israel and Lebanon are bird strikes caused by migrating pelicans and hawks flying to Africa every spring and back again in the autumn. The Israeli Air Force has lost many aircraft to flocks of birds which are too small to be picked up on radar. To prevent this, Israel and Lebanon have an arrangement involving birdwatchers who warns each other’s air traffic control about migrating flocks. Source: TAUVOD

AI and algorithms are useless if it takes a decade to fix simple problems

I’d like to talk about a simple problem on Google which I think partially explains why technology companies seem so utterly useless at preventing the spread of terrorist content.

In November last year, Google said it had fixed a bug on the visa waiver search engine results page after an investigation by the BBC forced Google to pay attention to the problem.

This “bug” was allowing people to use Google’s advertising network to set up sites that charged to file visa waivers. Instead of going directly to the US Government’s website – which still costs about $14 – they would charge users up to $99 for “checking” their application. 

The problem was first identified in 2009. It wasn’t “fixed” until 2018, eight years later.

I even fell for it in August 2009:

Why did it take so long?

Google’s solution to this problem – like a hammer which only sees nail – was to “develop a machine learning process to wipe out unofficial Esta ads.”

That process took eight years.

In the meantime, countless numbers of people were paying over and above what they should have for entering their details into a very simple online form.

Of course, Google met its minimum standard obligation of investigating and taking down any links that users reported were incorrect, but the companies taking advantage of Google’s incompetence could very simply edit the domain name and resubmit, a relatively trivial operation.

The BBC even sent some unofficial ads to Google, which its algorithms dutifully allowed to be displayed.

(It turns out that this process didn’t even fix the problem. It’s still possible to see unofficial advertising for ESTA visa waivers on Google. This story found dozens of fake ads charging up to $100, days after Google said it had fixed the problem.)

Now apply this problem to media savvy terrorist attacks

A Google mindset of do it first, collect data, and improve it over time (or Facebook’s “move fast and break things”) has dramatic consequences when more malicious operators take advantage of their weaknesses.

Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have all been far too slow in taking down videos of the New Zealand terrorist attack. Even though they all have large, dedicated and sophisticated moderation teams seeking to remove this information, they are unable to stop people re-uploading videos. 

The obvious question is, why don’t technology companies do it manually? I agree with Alex Hern who says, they could have, “one person – just one – to sit there searching for ‘New Zealand terror attack’ and just delete the obvious reposts that keep popping up on that search term.”

So why don’t they do it? I also agree with Alex’s reason, that they have, “a desire to build scalable systems rather than one-off applications of human labour.”

Technology solutions: 
-Create a new algorithm to identify suspect terrorist uploads
-Use content ID matching algorithms
-Use AI-enhanced moderation
Human solutions:
-Disable video uploads temporarily
-Manually delete videos
-Employ editors to approve questionable content first

Technology companies can’t fix every problem with an algorithm

Just as big tech doesn’t invest in ideas that don’t “scale”, they won’t invest in solving problems unless there’s a scalable solution. Technology companies think they can “fix” unsolvable problems with maths. They think they can “fix” the problem of terrorists sharing their content with an algorithm, just like they can “fix” the problem of people being scammed for ESTA forms.

As the ESTA example show, they can’t. 

Humans might not be as fast than algorithms, but they’re cleverer, and technology companies need to wise up too.

What makes a great magazine cover?

Print magazine covers are having a bit of a renaissance. Perhaps it’s the fact that the Instagram-loving public cares and understands more than ever what goes into a good image, or that global political turmoil has given editors and designers more material, but it definitely feels like there’s growing emphasis on striking and adventurous imagery on magazine covers.

AdWeek recently, and rather cynically, suggested that in the US, a decline in magazine newsstand sales has led to a corresponding emphasis on more exciting and adventurous covers aimed at subscribers. Whatever the reason, there’s been copious discussion lately about magazines on social media. It’s also been the subject of two events that I’ve been lucky enough to attend.

The other week I went to a very interesting talk on the topic of great magazine covers, chaired by Ian Birch, the former editorial director of Hearst who has recently released a book about this subject, Uncovered – Revolutionary Magazine Covers. It also included Penny Martin, the editor of the Gentlewoman, Paul McNamee, editor of The Big Issue, and Robin Derrick, former creative director of British Vogue who is now pursuing a beauty project.

The talk comes a few weeks after a brilliant Somerset House exhibition on British independent magazines, “Print! Tearing It Up”, where I picked up a small poster of Paul Gorman’s “mindmap” of British magazines, which connected It to Suck, Blast to Crash!, The Face to New Musical Express and Private Eye to Passing Wind. (It reminded me a bit of Jeremy Deller’s “History of the World / Acid Brass 1997“.)

That excellent exhibition, which mostly focused on how independent magazines influenced mainstream publishers, introduced itself by saying that reading a magazine, smelling the ink and flicking through its glossy pages is “one of the great pleasures in life.” What Ian Birch’s discussion at the British Library argued is that without a good cover for that magazine you would never have picked it up in the first place. Here are some selected thoughts and notes from that talk, which I hope you might find useful.

Magazines aren’t magic

As Robin Derrick said in the discussion at the end, “It was Nick [Coleridge, chairman of Condé Nast Britain] who said [magazines] are bought on station forecourts with a sandwich and a packet of crisps.” They need to grab the reader’s attention and satisfy a need, in this case a need for a bit of entertainment for a train journey. When I have the time to buy and read a magazine, it’s often when I’m travelling. If I have an international flight I love to pick up a New Yorker or another glossy, and often it’s the cover or cover lines that will make me decide whether to pick up a copy. Robin later hammered this home by saying, “People at Vogue think they work in fashion. They don’t, they work in publishing.” Hmm.

I also liked Paul McNamee’s practical thoughts about covers. When he found himself deciding to put Bob the Big Issue cat in a Santa hat on the cover of the magazine for the Christmas issue, he said, “I’m a commercial editor. When we put that cat on the cover, it goes like crazy. There are no rules. If the cat works for you, put it on the cover. Not every week though. That might get a little tired.” He did admit, though, that he had another cat cover in his bag, planned for publishing within a few weeks.

Magazine covers can be markers for political progress

Ian Birch dwelled for a minute on International Times (It), “the newspaper of resistance” and Britain’s first underground paper. Talking about his March 1969 cover featuring an interracial couple kissing — which was still a taboo at the time — then-editor Peter Stansill said, “This might have been a provocative cover, but not to us. I never asked anybody outside of our readership what they thought about it. It was of no interest to me whether it would be accepted or not in the wider world. There were no cover lines, no accompanying story, it was just let’s send a visual message.” That’s certainly a common theme in what makes a great cover: an absence of cover lines, and letting a strong image do the talking. Also, read this excellent story by the photographer Horace Ové, who was the first black director to make a full length feature film in Britain, Pressure, in 1975.

Great magazine covers echo a feeling

Robin Derrick’s favourite cover of all time is also one of the most simple. British Vogue’s October 1945 cover was no more than a painting of a blue sky with a few clouds and haze, signifying the end of the second world war. After half a decade of twisting contrails left behind by bombers and fighters striking through the sky, the sky evokes a feeling of freedom which must have felt completely correct to people at the time. Derrick said it’s one of the few magazine covers he can think of that is of a blue sky. I can only think of one other, which happens to cover the same event: Time magazine’s July 1985 cover showing the cloud after the Trinity test, marking the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima and the birth of the Atomic age.

Are commercial ideas killing great magazine coverlines?

Gentlewoman editor Penny Martin made a point about the influence of digital formats on magazines, particularly in the women’s market. Despite being the former digital editor for Nick Knight’s SHOWStudio, she said, “I think there’s been a misunderstanding where magazines are chasing the digital form and they’re trying to replicate the tone and the content of what’s online. I think they should draw back from that and [do] the opposite. Because you know what you want when you’re doing that [mimes using a smartphone], don’t you?”

She also decried the tendency of copy in the fashion industry to mimic e-commerce styles. She said, “People are speaking to readers as if they are consumers. It’s to do with the dominance of e-commerce. Especially in my sector, where there this whole shoppable content thing, this nonsense that kind of hijacked the argument meant that now people are writing copy as if you’re talking to a shopper. It’s just so patronising. People underestimate how sophisticated the audience is.”

Great magazine covers are collaborative

Finally, some thoughts from me about how I’ve seen the process of magazine covers change. Today, it’s quite common to see editors and art directors taking a collaborative approach to selecting a cover, or at least being a bit more open about the process.

For instance, I really enjoy seeing Sunday Times Magazine Art Director Dan Biddulph posts “options” after he’s finished every cover, so I can see what they’re up to and give an opinion about which one I like the most; British GQ, where I used to work, recently experimented with teasing covers before they were released and making them available to buy on their digital app before it’s out on newsstands; and British Vogue has made the cover reveal an event in itself, sometimes including tickets, and often accompanied by equally compelling videos.

When it comes to fully animated covers, no-one has topped Teen Vogue‘s gun control issue with Tyler Mitchell, and their video series about the process behind finding new figures for the cover is great too. And in fashion, you only know you’ve made a compelling image if PortisWasp has remixed it.

To end, two questions for you:

  • What is your favourite cover and why? Leave a comment below.
  • If magazine covers are so important for popular culture and mainstream debate, why is there no magazine equivalent of #TomorrowsPapersToday, where every cover gets collated, shared in high definition and can be shared and debated? Tweet me if you think that should happen.