Another interview. This one is with, as part of their series on “How I Work”, in which they ask people about their working routines and try to get them to reveal productivity tips. I was very happy to do this interview because I’ve long been interested in life hacking, but I’m quite sceptical about it; in my experience, reading life-hacking tips is what you do when you are trying to avoid doing any work. As I explain in the interview:

I have a connection with life-hacking that goes back quite a long way, and I’ve internalized some of its earliest and most effective nostrums. I’ve known Danny O’Brien, who coined the term, since the 1990s when we were both covering the emergence of the Internet. Then in 2006 Cory Doctorow was telling me about how Danny and Merlin Mann had been asked to write a book on life-hacking to improve productivity but had hilariously not managed to get around to it. So I asked Cory to write a piece for The Economist on life-hacking and we did a box with a few of the best hacks. My favorites: parking on a downhill slope; declaring vertical days dedicated to a single project; use a “dash” to make a task seem more approachable. I’ve been using all of those hacks ever since. My son, who is nine, loves watching life-hacking videos on YouTube, but they are all useless things like how to open packets of Doritos more efficiently, as far as I can tell. I think the life-hacking movement identified the easy wins early on. It’s now become an industry that helps people put off doing real work, but in a way that convinces them that they will be much more productive when they get back to doing real work, which is kind of ironic. The old life-hacks are the best, it would seem.

You can read the entire interview at “I’m Tom Standage, Deputy Editor of The Economist, and This Is How I Work”


Earlier this year I was interviewed by Joseph Lichterman of Nieman Lab about my approach to digital strategy at The Economist. The interview lasted a bit less than an hour, and I said essentially the same things to him that I say to everyone else when I’m asked about this. (Our strategy isn’t secret, in part because we think it would be difficult for anyone else to emulate, because it depends on historical factors that are difficult for other publications to copy.) The difference is that Joseph transcribed every single word, and put it all in the interview—even the part where my phone rings. This happens rarely, which is why I don’t divert it when doing an interview; and, as in this case, it’s quite often someone trying to sell an IT product to me in the mistaken belief that I’m responsible for IT procurement. You can imagine how this happens: they call the Economist switchboard and ask for the person responsible for IT, and they get put through to the digital editor (which is what my title used to be). Anyway, the result is the longest and most detailed description of where I’m coming from. I’ve found it rather useful as a summary I can point people towards. So, here it is. And no, that’s not me. That’s George Bush, with a copy of The Economist, which has been read by every US president since JFK.

Nieman Lab: The Economist’s Tom Standage on digital strategy and the limits of a model based on advertising


To my great surprise I won a prize at the British Media Awards:

The Pioneer of the Year Award is being given to Tom Standage in recognition of the role he has played in spearheading innovation and building new products at The Economist, expanding the brand while remaining true to its core values. Through developing products such as In Other Words and Economist Espresso, he has challenged the conventional relationship between editorial and commercial teams, and shown how powerfully editorial talent can drive product and business development in media.

I would like to thank my wife, my agent, etc etc

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One of the things I have been grappling with lately is how to develop new digital products within a news organisation: something I’ve been doing for a while, most notably with Espresso last year. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a particular problem in the news business because of the traditional church-state divide between editorial and commercial sides of the business. This makes the co-operation between editorial, commercial and technology functions hard to co-ordinate, so it’s even harder for news organisations to go digital than it is for most companies. I was asked to summarise my thoughts at the Digital Media Strategies 2015 conference. Here’s the video of my talk. The Economist’s Tom Standage on successful product development in a newsroom

The other day I realised that I’m now more likely to express my thoughts publicly in the form of talks and interviews than articles or blog posts. (In long form, at least; short-form thoughts go on Twitter, obviously.) So I might as well post those talks and interviews on this blog. That way it will continue to serve in some way as my outboard brain. I think this approach is perhaps best described as “pseudo-blogging”. On with the pseudo-blog posts!

Having built PumpkinBot last year, Ella and I have just completed another Arduino-powered creation for her Latin homework. She wrote a long essay on the Oracle of Delphi, and to accompany it we decided to build our own version, called OracleBot. You shout your question into a microphone at the top, and it then replies using one of nine canned replies that are, supposedly, actual replies given by the oracle. And they really are canned replies: the whole thing is mounted in a Pringles tin. Here’s what’s going on inside:

Essentially it’s a very similar set-up to PumpkinBot, only with a sound sensor instead of a motion sensor, and a little amplifier board so we don’t need to rely on the Jambox for sound playback. That means we can fit the whole thing into the Pringles tin, powered by a USB battery. Ella recorded the sayings of the oracle herself, and we messed her voice around a bit using various apps. The software measures the ambient noise level when OracleBot powers up, and then looks for a deviation from that noise level that lasts more than a couple of seconds before playing back one of its replies (“Pray to the winds”, “With silver spears you may conquer the world”, etc). Because the oracle’s answers were always ambiguous, you can read a lot into its responses, and even have silly conversations with it. We’ve had a lot of fun building it over the past few weeks, and we hope her teachers like it!

Together with my daughter Ella I’ve been working on a special project for Halloween, which we call PumpkinBot. We have just installed it on the front porch to amuse (or terrify) visiting children as they come trick-or-treating. This is what it looked like when we finished it this afternoon (above). There’s a box of electronics and, of course, a pumpkin, for which Ella chose an “Eye of Horus” design. (She actually wanted a giant Lord Vaati from Zelda eye, but we couldn’t find a suitable version of it online, and decided this was just as good.) Here’s what’s inside the box:

The whole thing is powered by an Arduino Uno board, which is essentially a tiny computer. We fitted it with an MP3 playback shield so it can play audio, and plugged that into a Jambox speaker/amplifier so it’s nice and loud. We loaded a selection of spooky sound files (including some from “Portal”) onto a micro-SD card that slots into the shield. Playback of sound files is triggered by the motion sensor at the front of the box. At the same time, we switch on two high-power LEDs, which are on long wires so we can put them inside the pumpkin. Ella’s friend Georgia brought her pumpkin round, with a Mockingjay design from “The Hunger Games”, so we ended up putting an LED into each pumpkin. When someone comes up the path, they hear a spooky sound, and the pumpkins light up like this. Behold, the PumpkinBot!


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