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Blog posts from May 2011

Friday links: The future back then, colours, posters and pedal power

It’s Friday. Here are links to some of what’s been blowing around the studio this week.

There’s an interview Geoffrey Hoyle about his 70′s book 2011: Living in the Future looking back at looking forward with some lovely, yet not altogether pleasing to the author, illustrations. via @futuryst

Jones pointed us to filmonpaper.com, Eddie Shannon’s extraordinary archive of film posters.

Datamoshing rears it’s glitchy head again with Yung Lake – Datamosh via @philgyford and kottke. ‘sCool because it’s nerdy…. And made better by a bit of context in the form of a how to and David O’Reilly’s first compression transitions in 2005.

Timo points to Bluefin labs, an ambitious initiative growing from the Speechome project, building on Deb Roy’s work. Couple that with this and we should be about ready for an O’Reilly Baby Hacks book.

Glorious hues are revered from the golden age of comics and despised in 10 modern movies that are better in black and white.

And if you’re trying to make the most of your space too just be glad you don’t have this much stuff on your desk.

Of course, no week would be complete without an elaborate machine, and this human powered helicopter is quite something.

Happy Weekend!

Week 311

So. Week 311. A full studio, even without everyone here. Not too full to prevent the entertaining of visitors though.

Timo is away today in Berlin, braving the ash-related disruptions which threatened to keep me out of the studio for the last part of the week. Ash hasn’t kept Chaco away either – here for another couple of days workshopping with Jones and Jack.

Joe has been fleshing out some lovely UI ideas for Uinta bringing this phase to a close. This might leave him with some spare headspace for Jack to fill gleefully. It’ll be great to get his eyes on more things in the coming weeks.

Denise and Alex are valiantly making those final shuffles towards pressing the big PRINT button attached to the SVK machine. There’s black light at the end of the tunnel. Not. Long. Now.

Kari mentioned in our weekly all hands meeting, that this week, like most others, she’ll be doing the usual. We asked her to elaborate. A (partial) explanation followed: year end considerations; ordering parts; chasing project activity; payroll; contracts; property searches; insurance admin… leaving us all somewhat stunned and wholly grateful – spontaneous applause followed.

Nick’s engaged in high and low level project discussions in addition to briefing early-riser Tom Stuart who’s here to add some additional code sauce for a while.

Matthew’s been in contract negotiations, meetings around town, working through project timelines and architectures while bemoaning the lack of a compiler on his laptop. Still, he’s got iTunes and he’s not afraid to use it. Thursday morning’s BPM have nary been so high.

There has been more material exploration, sketching and treatment writing at the hands of Jack and Timo. Jack’s also been working with myself and collaborators to map out the next few weeks for Barringer. Lots of little pushes on a project with many, many parts. Such plans cause me to think in lists – something which has infected this week note.

Jones? Well, in addition to his (extensive) usual, he’s mostly been having his picture taken with William Gibson. Visitors are good.

Book watch: being human, being a teenage geek, retelling Shakespeare and good ol’ (new) science fiction

If you’re the type who makes up a summer reading list, here are a few that you may want to add to it. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read any of these books yet, so including them here does not constitute a personal recommendation.)

The Most Human Human by Brian Christian came to the studio’s attention via Matt Jones. In his review of the book, Peter Merholz says, “It’s a delightful and discursive book, wending its way through cognitive science, philosophy, poetry, artificial intelligence, embodied experience, and more. The author, Brian Christian, writes with a deft touch, in an episodic and occasionally meandering style that feels like you’re taking part in a good conversation.”

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School is unlikely to come as a surprise to any adult who would describe their teenage self as a geek. In the book author Alexandra Robbins explains “Quirk Theory”: “many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that others will value, love, respect, or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside of the school setting.” She also looks at how school teachers and administrators may be complicit in propping up conventional ideas of who is popular and who is not. Listen to an NPR interview with Robbins and read the prologue to the book here.

The Great Night by Chris Adrian takes the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and retells it, in a manner of speaking, in a San Francisco park setting. The San Francisco Chronicle’s review described it as “droll, dark and challenging”, adding that “through his own form of magical realism, Adrian boisterously and bravely tests the limits of our capacity to ‘actually understand anything’ about suffering and joy.”

Embassytown, the latest from China Miéville, came out earlier this month. Reviewing it in the Guardian, Ursula LeGuin called it a “fully achieved work of art” and said, “In Embassytown, [Miéville's] metaphor – which is in a sense metaphor itself – works on every level, providing compulsive narrative, splendid intellectual rigour and risk, moral sophistication, fine verbal fireworks and sideshows, and even the old-fashioned satisfaction of watching a protagonist become more of a person than she gave promise of being.”

The Quantum Thief is the first novel from Finnish author Hannu Rajaniemi. It came out in the UK last year but has just been published in the US by Tor Books. In a science fiction round-up in the Guardian, Eric Brown said, “No précis does real justice to Rajaniemi’s unique, post-singularity vision. Nothing is as it is now, and the author makes no concessions to the lazy reader with info-dumps or convenient explanations. Patience is required and rewarded: the author knows his future and reveals it piecemeal with staggering intellectual legerdemain… A brilliant debut.”

Tuesday Links: Historic film titles, airshows, public figures and Thatcher’s death-gesture

It was a busy week last week, so Friday links have rolled over to Tuesday.

Lots of historical things this week. A brilliantly curated and annotated collection of movie title cards and trailers. A work of incredible devotion by Christian Annyas via @LukeScheybeler:

An early colour autochrome photograph of equally early airshows, via Claes Källarsson:

Some early photos of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Matt Webb says: “There’s something uncanny about these unstudied portraits of people taken before they got to be such presences in the world.”:

And another historical artefact from Steve Jobs on marketing, branding and values, this is why Steve is absolute #1 mind-gangster. Via O’Reilly radar / gnat:

In one of the stranger moments last week Durrell Bishop reminded us of Maggie Thatcher killing a multi-million pound British Airways branding project with a simple gesture:

Week 310

Week 310 from BERG on Vimeo.

Machines of loving grace

Adam Curtis’ new documentary, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, drops next Monday (May 23rd) on BBC2. In an interview with Kath Viner in the Guardian, he promises an exploration of the way that power functions in self-organising systems and whether, in fact, systems can self-organise at all in a way that is sustainable.

The documentary’s title comes from a poem of the same name by Richard Brautigan:

I’d like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace

Looks like it will almost certainly be worth a watch. Here’s the trailer:

Sensor-Vernacular

Consider this a little bit of a call-and-response to our friends through the plasterboard, specifically James’ excellent ‘moodboard for unknown products’ on the RIG-blog (although I’m not sure I could ever get ‘frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future’).

There are some lovely images there – I’m a sucker for the computer-vision dazzle pattern as referenced in William Gibson’s ‘Zero History’ as the ‘world’s ugliest t-shirt‘.

The splinter-camo planes are incredible. I think this is my favourite that James picked out though…

Although – to me – it’s a little bit 80′s-Elton-John-video-seen-through-the-eyes-of-a-’Cheekbone‘-stylist-too-young to-have-lived-through-certain-horrors.

I guess – like NASA imagery – it doesn’t acquire that whiff-of-nostalgia-for-a-lost-future if you don’t remember it from the first time round. For a while, anyway.

Anyway. We’ll come back to that.

The main thing, is that James’ writing galvanised me to expand upon a scrawl I made during an all-day crit with the RCA Design Interactions course back in February.

‘Sensor-Vernacular’ is a current placeholder/bucket I’ve been scrawling for a few things.

The work that Emily Hayes, Veronica Ranner and Marguerite Humeau in RCA DI Year 2 presented all had a touch of ‘sensor-vernacular’. It’s an aesthetic born of the grain of seeing/computation.

Of computer-vision, of 3d-printing; of optimised, algorithmic sensor sweeps and compression artefacts.

Of LIDAR and laser-speckle.

Of the gaze of another nature on ours.

There’s something in the kinect-hacked photography of NYC’s subways that we’ve linked to here before, that smacks of the viewpoint of that other next nature, the robot-readable world.


Photo credit: obvious_jim

The fascination we have with how bees see flowers, revealing animal link between senses and motives. That our environment is shared with things that see with motives we have intentionally or unintentionally programmed them with.

As Kevin Slavin puts it – the things we have written that we can no longer read.

Nick’s being playing this week with http://code.google.com/p/structured-light/, and made this quick (like, in a spare minute he had) sketch of me…

The technique has been used for some pretty lovely pieces, such as this music video for Broken Social Scene.

In particular, for me, there is something in the loop of 3d-scanning to 3d-printing to 3d-scanning to 3d-printing which fascinates.

Rapid Form by Flora Parrot

It’s the lossy-ness that reveals the grain of the material and process. A photocopy of a photocopy of a fax. But atoms. Like the 80′s fanzines, or old Wonder Stuff 7″ single cover art. Or Vaughn Oliver, David Carson.

It is – perhaps – at once a fascination with the raw possibility of a technology, and – a disinterest, in a way, of anything but the qualities of its output. Perhaps it happens when new technology becomes cheap and mundane enough to experiment with, and break – when it becomes semi-domesticated but still a little significantly-other.

When it becomes a working material not a technology.

We can look back to the 80s, again, for an early digital-analogue: what one might term ‘Video-Vernacular’.

Talking Heads’ cover art for their album “Remain In Light” remains a favourite. It’s video grain / raw quantel as aesthetic has a heck of a punch still.

I found this fascinating from it’s wikipedia entry:

“The cover art was conceived by Weymouth and Frantz with the help of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Walter Bender and his MIT Media Lab team.

Weymouth attended MIT regularly during the summer of 1980 and worked with Bender’s assistant, Scott Fisher, on the computer renditions of the ideas. The process was tortuous because computer power was limited in the early 1980s and the mainframe alone took up several rooms. Weymouth and Fisher shared a passion for masks and used the concept to experiment with the portraits. The faces were blotted out with blocks of red colour.

The final mass-produced version of Remain in Light boasted one of the first computer-designed record jackets in the history of music.”

Growing up in the 1980s, my life was saturated by Quantel.

Quantel were the company in the UK most associated with computer graphics and video effects. And even though their machines were absurdly expensive, even in the few years since Weymouth and Fisher harnessed a room full of computing to make an album cover, moore’s law meant that a quantel box was about the size of a fridge as I remember.

Their brand name comes from ‘Quantized Television’.

Awesome.

As a kid I wanted nothing more than to play with a Quantel machine.

Every so often there would be a ‘behind-the-scenes’ feature on how telly was made, and I wanted to be the person in the dark illuminated by screens changing what people saw. Quantizing television and changing it before it arrived in people homes. Photocopying the photocopy.

Alongside that, one started to see BBC Model B graphics overlaid on video and TV. This was a machine we had in school, and even some of my posher friends had at home! It was a video-vernacular emerging from the balance point between new/novel/cheap/breakable/technology/fashion.

Kinects and Makerbots are there now. Sensor-vernacular is in the hands of fashion and technology now.

In some of the other examples James cites, one might even see ‘Sensor-Deco’ arriving…

Lo-Rez Shoe by United Nude

James certainly has an eye for it. I’m going to enjoy following his exploration of it. I hope he writes more about it, the deeper structure of it. He’ll probably do better than I am.

Maybe my response to it is in some ways as nostalgic as my response to NASA imagery.

Maybe it’s the hauntology of moments in the 80s when the domestication of video, computing and business machinery made things new, cheap and bright to me.

But for now, let me finish with this.

There’s both a nowness and nextness to Sensor-Vernacular.

I think my attraction to it – what ever it is – is that these signals are hints that the hangover of 10 years of ‘war-on-terror’ funding into defense and surveillance technology (where after all the advances in computer vision and relative-cheapness of devices like the Kinect came from) might get turned into an exuberant party.

Dancing in front of the eye of a retired-surveillance machine, scanning and printing and mixing and changing. Fashion from fear. Quantizing and surprising. Imperfections and mutations amplifying through it.

Beyonce’s bright-green chromakey socks might be the first, positive step into the real aesthetic of the early 21st century, out of the shadows of how it begun.

Let’s hope so.

Week 309

We’re all back in the studio.

The week begins early monday morning with Webb and myself wondering whether we can move the desks around to accomodate some more people. This week feels like a gathering of momentum, a breath before another push, change-down, dig-in.

As the evenings get longer and lighter, and our little room gets fuller – so do the pavements outside the studio with drinkers in the local pub.

Summer is coming.

Constructive Summer, hopefully.

This week Schulze is co-writing seven documents at once, like some kind of crazy prog-rock rick-wakemanesque figure on keyboards. He’s continuing to direct the work overall on Chaco, planning that a bit more after some great leaps with the combined BERG/client team on that last week. He’s also having fun with lawyers, and writing an article for Eye that I’m looking forward to reading. He’s also working a bit with Denise on Barringer.

Denise is in the final pre-press throes of SVK, discussing last details with the printers. She’s also writing a ‘bible” for barry – editorial and design choices that will define it. I keep glimpsing it over her shoulder – it’s full of the sort of care and detail I’d expect from her.

Joe is into the last two week of the current project for Uinta, teleporting between 30,00ft views of the system concept to the detail of individual interactions and aesthetic touches. He’s cranking. I make him a lot of tea.

[I forgot that I put the kettle on when I started writing this and had promised a lot of people in the studio tea. BRB.]

[Ok. Back]

Kari is working on monthly dashboard stuff that she and MW produce to figure out how we’re all doing. She was also chasing our SVK torches around the UK’s customs infrastructure.

And got results!!!

SVKs

They arrived yesterday.

MW is on Barry planning, meetings, consolidating our project management tools and processes, trying to find us new property, scrutinising our sales and resources pipeline for the coming months. I am making him a lot of tea also.

Timo is Brussels, and joining us occasionally as a little floating head, via Skype. He’s co-writing with Jack, working on some awesome material and video explorations for Chaco, doing some process and planning work.

He’s also thinking about making. We had a conversation at the end of our weekly ‘all-hands’ meeting about better ways of recording and presenting the various experiments we do (that don’t have a direct client or product outcome, we’re always fiddling with something or scratching some itch) without slowing down the work or becoming less nimble about it. There are little curiosities and tests that might be half-formed in our studio that could be public, faster.

MW recalled his lab book from university (he was a physicist, once, after all) as a great quick structure for writing up experiments.

This isn’t it – it’s one of Alexander Shulgin’s – but it’s nice to think of a template or format where things can be methodically and quickly observed and shared.

I just bought one of these.

It’s a weatherproof bird-watching journal, and it’s structured to capture all of the information a bird-watcher would want. What notebooks should we have for material explorations, or for prototyping?

Anyway.

Alex is working on Chaco, Uinta, SVK final bits and bobs – and he’s out this afternoon teaching at the LCC.

Nick’s been meeting some freelance developers, working on a Barry sprint with Denise, looking after SVK online shop work, hardware chatting with andy, and beginning writing a technical spec for some of the Chaco work. Andy’s chatting about documentation with suppliers, Chaco planning/speccing, and thinking about how to use contractors on it.

And finally, I guess, me.

I’ve been helping Joe on Uinta, a bit of writing and thinking for Chaco, and lots of admin stuff for the studio. Mainly that’s been looking at the pipeline with Jack and Matt.

I’m learning more and more (primarily through talking it out with MW) about the ‘biodynamics’ of a small-but-growing studio like ours. Where you need to leave things to grow, and what needs to be encouraged or watched more carefully. Iterating and improving the tools and ways to do that is something that sometimes feels like wasted time when you could be designing or making something, but it’s not.

You have to have macroscopes for these tides and turns in the system you’re embedded in or you can’t see them creeping up on you. It’s good to spend a bit of time on that, so that you can really focus on the quality of the work being produced without too much worry.

Our friend James Wheare built a bit of a macroscope – called twitshift. It sends you your twitters from exactly a year ago.

Exactly a year ago I was congratulating Matt Brown and Tom Armitage on launching Schooloscope.

They’re no longer in the room with us (and Matt Brown’s not even in the same country anymore – it was his first week at Apple this week I think…), so I’ll put my 1st birthday congrats to our awesome alums here…

Lab-books, macroscopes, Shenzen, hardware, people, place.

All in this busy little room. All in week 309.

Culture “comfort food”

Due to a lack of time and a lack of inspiration, I asked my Berg colleagues to help write my blog entry this week. Inspired by a recent NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, I asked them what they would consider their pop culture “comfort foods”: music, movies, books, TV shows, games, etc that they return to time and again because they are comfortable and familiar, bring you back to a happy place, create a certain feeling in you, etc. NPR’s Linda Holmes described it as things that “we turn to when we get into a cultural rut and want to reawaken our love of the things we love, as it were.”

I can think of so many things that fit in this category for me. Here’s a few:

  • The Sound of Music (both the film and the soundtrack)
  • Pride and Prejudice – both the book and the films (both the Colin Firth & Jennifer Ehle version and the Keira Knightley & Matthew Mcfadyen version)
  • The West Wing
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • U2 – Achtung Baby (brings me right back to my first year at university)
  • Hem – Eveningland
  • A House Like a Lotus and A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle

I’m happy to say that everyone in the studio humoured my request. Here’s what they had to say:

Jack Schulze:

  • Point Break
  • Winnie the Pooh

Timo Arnall:

  • Midnight Run, must have watched it 50 times. The most re-watchable film of all time.
  • Also Rhubarb and Custard (As a kid I slept under the animation table at Bob Godfrey Studios on Neal St, still remember Bob doing the voices).
  • I still return to many of Kieslowski’s films, they were formative in my understanding of film.

Matt Jones:

  • Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade
  • The Invisibles
  • “Can’t buy a thrill” by Steely Dan

Andy Huntington:

  • Princess Mononoke
  • Yo La Tengo – Little Honda just for the distortion sound if nothing else
  • Any video of Sister Rosetta Tharpe I can find
  • The drum battle where Steve Gadd (he starts at 2.45 in the clip below) launches a stomp attack on Vinnie Colaiuta and Dave Weckl and their supple wrists.

Joe Malia:

  • Spirited Away
  • Mario
  • Robocop

Nick Ludlam:

  • Asimov’s “Robots of Dawn”
  • Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episodes
  • Underworld’s “Second Toughest In The Infants”

Matt Webb:

  • Once Upon a Time in the West, which has the single best concentrated set piece scene of any film at any period in history. It is beautiful, epic, speaks truth to humans, society, and history, and I can watch it infinitely.
  • Starship Troopers, the book, and actually any sci-fi stories from the 1940s to the 1970s I can find in second hand shops or Project Gutenberg
  • 30 Rock

Alex Jarvis:

  • ‘F-Zero’ / ‘Unirally’ for games
  • Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder for music
  • ‘C’était un Rendezvous’ for moving image

Denise Wilton:

  • Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler
  • And the films: My neighbour Totoro (for the scene at the bus stop)
  • Bourne Ultimatum (for the scene at Waterloo station)
  • This nutrigrain ad from a billion years ago, which I don’t think ever got aired but gets better every time you watch it:

So how about you? What are your culture “comfort foods”?

Week 308

Lots has happened since I wrote the weeknote I did before. As ever, there is far more going on than I know about.

Timo and I are working pretty solidly on project Chaco. We have lovely guests from Chaco in the studio with lots of early material exploration going on and conceptual unpacking of the things we want to make. We’re recording everything and have unearthed some fantastic early material through video sketching.

Timo and I have also been visiting lawyers to develop a stronger footing in some new areas we’re exploring. We had to go to Hammersmith for one meeting which is bloody miles away. Timo was cross because he ordered a new lens and it hasn’t arrived as expected.

Denise has been chasing down some of the remaining edges of SVK, proofing it, tweaking the last ads, specifying packaging details and such. She is also working on Weminuche. She and I have enjoyed evolving the physical details of the product form. I’m personally enjoying working with her hugely and her experience in service product domain is brilliant, essential stuff.

Joe has continued embedding himself into the studio culture. He’s been applying the fantastic wood chipper of his mind on the service design and UI elements for Uinta. Picking pixels from under his finger nails and aligning the detail in the grit and grain with the high level strategic thinking. It’s terrific.

Nick has been thinking hard on new hires and chasing some of the technical issues ahead of the SVK launch. He’s begun some research into the deep technical darkness involved in project Chaco. He and Timo have been experimenting with some fantastic stuff. Occasionally, as we discuss designs and possibilities, Nick gets a look in his eyes, like he’s going to have to punch physics in the brain. Physics looks back at him like a spoilt four year old teasing a doberman. It’s the best stand off you’ve ever seen.

Andy has been laying out circuit boards and looking to organise contractors for all sorts of hardware developments. He is also winning an enormous game of Gantt Chart Tetris, restructuring the fabric of time to make all eventual awesomeness possible. He also found a secret German supplier for some highly coveted components we need for a Chaco strand.

Alex has been designing an article for a magazine. As ever, he’s deeply involved with tweaking detail in SVK and testing parts of the payment system. He’s also been in meetings on Chaco strands and we expect him to begin designing concepts for that over the next few weeks.

Matthew and Jones have been out the studio this week working with a client in the UK out of London, I hear snippets on the Twitter vine but as far as I can tell all is going well with them both.

I’m enjoying being in the UK for more than three days at a time. Lots of potential is finding traction and leaping forward into some of the largest, most ambitious design work I’ve personally encountered.

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