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Blog posts from July 2012

Friday links

– “We took a rat apart and rebuilt it as a jellyfish”


– Cat Tunnel Sofa


Lightning at 7,207 FPS




5,500 pixels illuminated by digital light


The first CGI? From 1963


“Knightmare: Television for the videogame generation”


– And finally, retro-interactive-olympics themed niceness from the guardian.


Week 372

Without sounding a bit cheesy, I think we all missed the studio a lot when we were temporarily dislodged last week. It’s nice to be back.

So, week 372. Matt Jones seems to think I’ll work out a way of linking this to a car, but instead I’m going to link to a boat. The USS Williams (DE-372) was a destroyer escort acquired by the US during World War II – tasked to escort and protect ships in convoy.

We passed a massive Little Printer milestone early this week which had been at the forefront of Nick, Andy & Phil’s attention for a while. Work continues on everything else LP related though, mainly:

  • Denise managing the publications and making sure everything looks beautiful
  • Alice working wonders on the shop (and being very patient with me), so that we can sell them to people
  • Andy, Nick & Phil working on various LP Bridge bits, and Andy trying to navigate a bag of colour pellets which are somewhere in the world
  • I’m finishing a few print projects related to LP, and starting to work on the latest version of the mobile UI
  • Simon ran his super efficient planning meeting yesterday which was both terrifying and exciting, somehow
  • And Matt Webb is doing a bit of LP reach out.

James Darling was at a festival all weekend so I’m not sure what he’s doing. I hear rumours of there being quite a good Friday demo of it though.

A lot of other stuff is going on too. Joe is working with contractors (Eddie and Ruth) and clients making sure Lamotte is progressing smoothly, as well as revving up for the beginnings of Sinawava phase 2 later on in the week. Helen’s taken up key cutting as a hobby and is making sure we can both unlock and lock the doors on a daily basis, as well as planning studio space for the next few months with Simon. Matt Jones just had his hair cut, and is writing up a few things as well as planning for projects coming up. Jack wasn’t here for all hands on Tuesday but from what I know, he’s working on Vallecito and a few other bits.

Week 372, powered primarily by coke floats and desk fans.



BBC Dimensions: integrating with BBC News

Back in 2009, we started the work that would become and with the BBC, releasing those two prototypes over the last two years under the banner of “BBC Dimensions“.

Our intention from the beginning was to design the service as a module that could be integrated into at a later date if they proved successful with audiences.

Earlier this year, Alice worked with the engineers at BBC News to do just that, and now the first BBC News stories featuring the “How Big Really” module are starting to appear.

Here are a couple of examples – a story on the vast amount of space given over to car parking in the world, illustrated with the module juxtaposing the total space used by parked cars over the island of Jamaica! functionality integrated into BBC News

…and a more recent example showing the size of a vast iceberg that has just broken free of a glacier on Greenland. functionality integrated into BBC News

Of course, as with the original prototype, you can customise the juxtaposition with the post-code of somewhere you’re familiar with – like your home, school or office.

The team worked hard to integrate the prototype’s technology with BBC News’s mapping systems and the the look/feel of the site overall.

Here’s Alice on some of the challenges:

We worked with the BBC Maps team to create a tool that could be used by editors, journalists and developers to create How Big Really style maps. Chris Henden and Takako Tucker from the team supplied me with the BBC Maps Toolkit and did a great job of explaining some of its more nuanced points, particularly when I got into trouble around Mapping Projections.

The tool takes an SVG representation of an area, including a scale element, converts it to a JSON object that is then rendered onto a map using the BBC Maps Toolkit. Immediate feedback allows the map creator to check their SVG is correct, and the JSON representation of the shape can then be used to build the map in future.

It’s really satisfying for us to see something that started as a conceptual prototype back in 2009 find it’s way into a daily media production system of the scale and reach of BBC News.

Thanks to all the team there – also Chris Sizemore, Lisa Sargood and Max Gadney for shepherding the project from whiteboard sketches to become part of the BBC journalist’s digital toolkit.

Week 371

It’s currently Monday of Week 372, and I’m writing this regarding last week. So I’m late with these notes and I’ll not talk about what everyone’s been up to but instead I’ll talk about what’s in my head.

For one reason and another (I’ll tell you over a coffee, remind me) we were locked out of the studio for a couple days last week and had to variously bunk at the offices of generous friends in the neighbourhood, and work at home. Disruptive.

Over the week Matt Jones pointed me at a Wikipedia article about black start. A black start is (and let me quote from the article here) “the process of restoring a power station to operation without relying on the external electric power transmission network.”

Like, let’s say you have a hydroelectric plant. You need falling water to drive the turbines. But how do you open the sluices without a pre-existing supply of electricity?

Or let’s say it’s summer and the power grid has been down for a while. As soon as you boot it up, aircon will come on all over the city, a demand much greater than aircon switching on and off in the “steady state” situation, so suddenly you’re overloaded. Which means you need a rolling power-up.

“Black start” is full of considerations and strategies.

Like bootstraps: a battery starts a diesel generator, starts a hydro station, energises a subset of the grid, ignites a coal station, restarts the nuclear plant.

I was burgled recently, and between my partner and myself we had no house keys (all gone), no cash and no cards, and the knowledge somebody might come back. The boot-up was all from our phones. Use the phone to get an emergency credit card; scrabble around for pennies to get the bus to get the card; get cash, get a locksmith, get security on the house. Once stable and secure, get more cards, get replacement gear, etc.

You know, I remember reading this great book, Lion’s Commentary on UNIX, an annotated version of the source code of an early operating system. And in it you can see the very first moment of the sun, the code that runs to declare what is a “file” anyway, and what a “process” is, and then you can use those concepts to bootstrap the next level of complexity.

I find these deeply fascinating ideas!

Because we’re in our own black start right now.

Not just getting back into the studio last Friday morning, although that’s what made me draw the connection.

But we’re starting a design studio whose mission is to use the network to transform every existing product, and to invent new ones.

Little Printer is a part of that — bringing into the world something that isn’t quite a product, isn’t quite a service, and isn’t quite media. Something new. And meanwhile battling such immaterial forces as radio (don’t talk to me about radio frequency interference, although we’re past that particular corner now) and risk/finance/law (which turns out to be a hideously complex part of setting up the supply chain and sales).

Also the consultancy. We just finished our first unabashed product design work right in the middle of the “smart product” sector. Networked kitchenware with [redacted] as a client. And I’m super proud of it. It’s beautiful, inventive, and – mostly importantly for me – accessible. This product won’t be just for smart product connoisseurs, it’ll be for everyone. We’re just starting on the second phase now.

Other consultancy work touches various parts of what smart products mean, to experience, for interfaces, in terms of new norms, for companies and for humans. So one our ways of transforming products will be influencing their design by collaborating with the R&D departments of major technology firms. But this kitchenware work is the sharp end of it: thinking through making, in order to invent products that end up in people’s homes. More of that please.

And all this is tough, you know, starting up an autopoietic system from scratch, trying to get every single part to move simultaneously.

So getting a studio like this up-and-running feels like a black start.

One day we’ll be our own power station, humming along and lighting up a city of smart products, ones touched by particular BERG values — happiness and hope, whimsy, socialising, play, excitement, culture, invention.

In the meantime: we do what has to be done. Fire up the diesel generators! Jump start the heavy turbines by flashing the electricity grid with a solar flare to create a potential difference across 2,000 miles! (Can we arrange that? I suppose not, but it’s worth a go.)

You take on work to build capabilities to generate experience and expertise. You punt the ball as high as possible into the air, judging that you can get a team beneath it before it comes down. You jumpstart. You do things during the process that you wouldn’t do in operation. But during the start, there’s no point waiting. It’s the order that matters. Order and speed.

And I look at the things that I’m doing, and when my intuition tells me that something isn’t right – because that’s not what a fully operating machine would do – or when my intuition tells me something is necessary but my logic queries it — I try to remember that this is just where we are in the process, and double-check my assumptions. Remember this: These are the revolutionaries going town to town in Cuba, doing what needs to be done to close in on Havana. One day someone will have to figure out the national endowment for the arts. But not today. This is the bootstrap, where you cut through and do what has to be done because this is what you’ve got, and you gotta get to the point where the run loop runs. This is the colonisation of Ka, of Thalassa, of Reiradi, of Sindychew. It’s the runway, it’s why people take funding (we didn’t, we’ve been going 7 years and every 24 months it’s a bigger bootstrap), it’s what you do to make the reaction self-sustaining so you can light up the city. It’s the black start.

So yeah, that’s what was on my mind last week, in week 371. And then over the weekend I relaxed by spending a couple of days in the sun watching the cricket. South Africa methodically trounced England, if you really want to know.

The black start.

How Big Really, 1940’s style

Our friend Will Wiles, erstwhile deputy editor of Icon and author of “Care of wooden floors” unearthed this brilliant vintage visualisation: the scale of the Golden Gate Bridge overlaid on central London.

The Golden Gate Bridge in London

It really is 70 years earlier!

Perhaps we should have called it “EMPHATIC COMPARISON”

Week 370

It’s week 370. The eye of the storm. We have a week with fewer deadlines than we’ve become used to, but we can see more on the horizon. An opportunity to perhaps prepare and regroup, but also to attack the things that are important, have been at the back of our minds, but aren’t directly deadline driven. This is good. Structural plussing.

Most of our client work seems to be in this middle stage, phases have ended, time to think about the next phase for each. Thoughts, proposals, flights, meetings and workshops.

This is also where Little Printer is. In this post-hackday world we are now in, we are buoyed by the relief that the fundamentals have worked, and the beauty of the things made. Our foundations have been proved, and we can continue building upwards. Phew and wahoo!

In celebration, we have been getting deep into re-working a lot of BERG Cloud’s internals, rethinking how every component works, and how they work together with the new knowledge we have from the last year of work.

There is also the online shop being built, hardware moving around the world, being tested and debugged, printers primed, plastics perfected and finances prepared.

Regroup, prepare and onwards.

Week 369

3, 6, 9
The goose drank wine
The monkey chew tobacco on the streetcar line
The line broke, the monkey got choked
And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat


Aside from all that, week 369 is shaping up nicely. We’ve almost got a full house and we’ve just about recovered from a very productive Hack Day at the weekend.

Like everyone this week, I’m pretty busy, so here’s a lightning fast tour round the studio in the time it takes a kettle to boil:

Helen is knee deep in VAT returns, travel planning and finance.

Joe is working with Eddie on Lamotte, video prototyping, gesticulating wildly, and looking forward to presenting a finished piece of work on Friday.

Alex is dealing with print. He’s getting samples and talking to suppliers about things for Little Printer, while also working with Timo, who’s in the UK for a few days. Together they’re working on the photography for the updated BERG Cloud site, and it’s going to look rather nice. Timo is also working on a proposal document, and generally catching up with what’s been going on in his absence.

James is refactoring. Anything, everything. If you put it down for long enough, he’ll refactor it. This is a good thing.

Nick is looking at database models, and processing some of the excellent feedback from Hack Day. (And Alice, is taking a few days off after doing brilliant job of organising it.)

Andy is working on more CAD models and taking care of the larger Little Printer supply chain. He’s juggling about 10 things at once, but still managing to do it with a smile. This could be due to the fact there are biscuits left over from Hack Day.

Vanessa is busy writing documentation, and Simon is keeping everyone under control, juggling projects both present and future.

Matt W is working with Helen on some of the financial aspects of the business, dealing with client contracts and looking at some of the internal BERG processes, with Matt Jones and Jack

Matt Jones is working with Jack and I on Ouray, and like Joe and Eddie, we’re also aiming for a finished piece of work for Friday.

Which means I’d better get on with it.

Our practice Little Printer Hack Day

As Little Printer gets closer to launch, we’re figuring out how to best work with publishers — not just creating the simplest possible way to get content on LP, but also how to share design tips and work closely to invent the handiest, most delightful publications.

So to learn, we asked a couple dozen of our smartest – and most forgiving – friends to the BERG studio for a practice Little Printer Hack Day. (A Hack Day is a day spent with a load of people all coding side-by-side to make and show off neat ideas.)

It was hugely energising. Lots of pizza, beer, and demos of the publications everyone made.

Alice organised, and did a fantastic job! It was fun, super creative, and we received incredibly valuable feedback and ideas on the technical method of integrating with Little Printer, and more generally on the usage and service.

I got my hands dirty too, and I’ve not coded for ages. The publication I made wasn’t as pretty as the other dozen or so demos, but hey it’s me writing this blog post so I get to show what I made:

Alice has a write-up of Little Printer Hack Day — go read it!

And just to say: Now we have a better idea what we’re doing, we’re keen on having more events like this soon. Thank you Alice, and thank you everyone who was able to come!

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