• Internet of Dependent Things

    March 20, 2014

    In February, Berg unveiled a prototype internet connected washing machine.

    Connectivity holds out promise for something really new, these machines can become something actually different. Cloudwash is an expression of our thoughts on how to make this stuff matter and some steps to something better.

    Promising remote access and a better interface, this convenience comes at a price: lock-in. Lock-in comes in many sizes, big and small.

    Little Printer is certainly small. I’ve had it for a while now, and even though technically I don’t own it (I borrowed it from work) I call it ‘mine’. It’s in my bedroom. Messages and pictures addressed to me print out of it. It’s practically mine.

    But sometimes it reminds me that it isn’t — sometimes it suddenly wears glasses, or a mask. One time it grew a moustache. There’s a setting that allows me to change the appearance of the printer, but it only affects the hairstyle. I have no control over anything else.

    It will say things like “the Little Printer thought I looked cute in glasses” or “the Little Printer thought the glasses were too big and I had to give them back”, which reminds me that I don’t have full control of the device. The ‘Little Printer’ which the device refers to has control, but who is it? There is no explanation. Someone else is pulling the strings, controlling aspects of appearance and even gender expression (which I don’t get to pick).

    I’m assuming it’s designed to give this object an opportunity to appear as if it has a life and identity independent of the owner, to make it more lively, interesting and playful; but for me it just regularly reminds me that someone else is in control.

    Someone can remotely do what they please with a device that has been given access to my bedroom. What the printer can do is limited to printing stuff, of course, but I intensely dislike thinking about the reality: that it’s an expensive piece of single-use hardware that someone out there can make redundant in a heartbeat. Still, the Little Printer is just a toy, so i’m not so worried about the loss of control.

    It’s not so easy to trade off convenience for ownership with other appliances or devices. For my phone, the loss of control is too much to bear. The very idea that someone gets to decide what I’m not allowed to do with my pocket computer is unacceptable. Although i’m not as attached to my washing machine as my phone, the loss of control still scares me.

    It’s not a nightmare scenario, but there are plenty of things that could go wrong:

    • — What was once built in functionality becomes an in-device purchase. You used to just turn on the drying programme, but now you have to subscribe to it.

    • — The cloud service is unprofitable, and is switched off. The module that communicates with the cloud is tightly integrated into the appliance which is now obsolete.

    • — Instead of being sunsetted, it’s sold off. A new agreement, new pricing structures. Sign in with Google+ to enable pre-wash rinse. Like Zanussi on Facebook to get a free quick wash.

    • — Ads start appearing on the digital display. Remove them for $3 a month, or customise the machine with your own messages for $5.

    • — Someone hacks my washing machine and floods my home.

    • — NSA gets another way to monitor what I do and when I’m home.

    Third-party access to my domestic appliance creates a power disparity between the manufacturer (or service owner) and me. They can use their power to generate profit in ways that didn’t exist before, forcing me to pay in ways that go beyond the purchase of the appliance itself.

    I make trade-offs daily about which privacies and freedoms to give up, and in exchange for what. Some are worth it and buy me closer connection with friends, or some useful convenience; others are foisted upon me because I have to make them in order to do my work; but some just to go too far.

    I resent that the meaning of an acceptable trade-off is shifting toward less privacy, less control and towards tipping the balance in favour of for-profit companies and convenience for governments who want to spy on everyone.

    Maciej Cegłowski puts it way better than I can:

    What upsets me isn’t that we created this centralized version of the Internet based on permanent surveillance.

    What upsets me, what really gets my goat, is that we did it because it was the easiest thing to do. There was no design, forethought, or analysis involved. No one said “hey, this sounds like a great world to live in, let’s make it”. It happened because we couldn’t be bothered.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. Open projects could fill in the usefulness of adding connectivity to appliances. They could open-source the design of the hardware (or instructions on how to put it together), and the software it runs on. The owner wouldn’t be reliant on the manufacturer to make improvements, or to create versions that can work with different machines, or give them access from different kinds of devices. Ultimately, they could be in control of the hardware and the software involved.

    Just like I would like to see a trend towards decentralisation of the web, I would like the internet of things to become full of decentralised entities, built on the premises of freedom and empowerment, before it’s entirely normal for marketers and governments to live in my washing machine.

  • 2013 Yearnotes

    January 05, 2014

    Last year began with the realisation that as a Polish citizen it was going to be very hard for me to get a US working visa. I missed out on participating in a great secret project, but was looking forward to taking the whole ofJanuary off to have some space to think about things. In the end I never did, because I got tempted to work with my favourite clients on fun projects. Taking holidays is hard when you’re your own boss.

    In March I decided to leave Brighton for personal reasons. Many of my friends live in London, and that’s where most of my clients were, so it seemed like the time had come to embrace it. I didn’t think I was going to like it, but my wonderful friends have helped me make it my home.

    But why just change one thing at a time? In the spirit of total upheaval I’ve joined Makeshift full-time. I liked the idea of being able to work on a project for an extended period of time, and having the chance to properly immerse myself in it. At Makeshift we work on multiple products simultaneously, so my favourite things about freelance work remain, while I get to work on a project from the beginning and stay with it as it matures. To date I’ve worked on Help Me Write, Attending?, Wrangler and Linkydink.

    Despite getting excited about the idea of ”blogging like it’s 2004” and promising myself that I would write more, in 2013 I didn’t actually do that. Partially because I was busy reorganising my life, but also because I was writing and practicing two conference talks.

    I spoke at the Design and Artists Copyright Society and Scottish Ruby Conference about Thinking through Making (video), which was a compilation of some of the reasons for making stuff. You don’t always make things for the end result; sometimes the exploration of a problem space is just as important.

    I also gave a more serious talk, trying to convince the audience of the importance of considering the consequences of design decisions taken when making software. It was titled “Make world less shit NOW” and I’ve presented it at Nordic Ruby, JS Conf EU, as well as a shortened version at Apps World in London. You can watch the video from JS Conf EU.

    In March and December I ran workshops for BA Design students at Goldsmiths for the second and third time. In four days I taught them about the basics of HTML, CSS and JavaScript so at the end they could play with APIs and use data as their medium.

    In 2013 I had two long-running side projects. I started recording the Amazeballs podcast with my Best Friend Forever, Linda (♥♥♥). I also realised that even though a very small number of people still use Offbott, those who do really care about the service. I’ve been working on making it more maintainable so I can make some small improvements this year.

    I started asking people to use singular they as the third person pronoun when referring to me.

    It’s been chaotic, but fun, and I have enjoyed the pace.

  • Best tweets of 2013

    January 02, 2014

    Fabulous — Ed Balls (@edballsmp)

    Two years ago, Ed Balls began his journey towards becoming his own horse_ed_balls account with his famous “Ed Balls” tweet. This year he even retweeted that very piece for the amusement of the people on the second anniversary of its creation. Not to be outdone by his first creation, he continues to experiment with the medium.

    I get daily messages, apparently from different people but all using identically illiterate spelling: “Your a dick”. Coordinated campaign? - Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins)

    The man who literally named the concept of the meme, and thus made it possible to talk about it, cannot see it when it stares him in the face. Priceless.

    Bin Laden has won, in airports of the world every day. I had a little jar of honey, now thrown away by rule-bound dundridges. STUPID waste. - Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins)

    .@RichardDawkins your a dick and your honey deserved it - Pookleblinky (@pookleblinky)

    Richard Dawkins begins to sweat. He is next in line at airport security. Inside his anus, four jars of honey clink softly #NaNoWriMoOpeners - nerd emergent (@badsnacks)

    The honeygate, as it quickly came to be known, was a gift that kept on giving. I could have included all the tweets that were generated by the STUPID waste, because there were so many golden ones, but I decided against making this post a Dawkins vs. Honey special.

    Making a bad first impression is the most efficient way to keep everyone’s expectations at a manageable level - Dan (@littlmanlvdfire)

    This isn’t even funny, but I thought I’d smuggle in some genuinely good advice.

    If you would like me to leave, simply say so. Don’t start telling me about Reddit - Alice O’Connor (@asponge)

    damn girl are you horse_ebooks because so many dudes got upset when they found out that you are a real human being - brian droitcour (@briandroitcour)

    If your heart didn’t break at the news of horse_ebooks being run by two guys from BuzzFeed then you’re probably just an emotionless Markov chain generator. Extra point for multiple memes in one tweet.

    “I saw your horrendous syntax and questionable sense of humour and thought you were hot” - Lewis Greener (@damnson)

    I found a pumpkin! In my excitement, however, I accidentally crushed it. And ate it. I am a bear. - A bear (@A_single_bear)

    Halloween Costume Idea: “SEXY SATURN” - spin hula-hoops around your body, let NASA take pics of you, be made of mostly gas. - SarcasticRover (@SarcasticRover)

    This is a tricky one to pull off, but maybe not as tricky as “SEXY ASSET PIPELINE”, which was my Halloween outfit of choice.

    Staying in the shower: Pros: Time goes quickly and warm and lovely Cons: Getting out and 70 years have passed and everyone you loved is dead - TechnicallyRon (@TechnicallyRon)

    I’ll take “That’s Not A Category” for $200, Alex.

    “That’s not a category.”

    Yes, that’s right.

    “That’s not a category.”

    I chose that, yes. - stefan (@boring_as_heck)

    How to cook the perfect amount of pasta:

     1. Pour out how much you think you need

     2. Wrong - Millsy (@PFPTMillsy)

    You are hurtling through the void on a rock with a few other lucky beings interrupting the lifeless order of existence. What do you carry? - Joshua, damn it (@joshuadamnit)

    In a similar vein:

    You’re a ghost driving a meat coated skeleton made from stardust, what do you have to be scared of? - Cher (@Porkbeard)

    And finally, facts can and do become poetry:

    most terrifying fears that always come true: the dark, yr heart, death, what’s under the bed, being forgotten, running out of time, tomorrow - lazarus (@eidolonhex)

    Happy 2014!

  • Classification of Snapchats

    December 25, 2013


    Cats doing cat things: being petted, awaiting food, playing with toys, sitting on people, meowing, purring, running after a ball, sleeping.

    Who’s a good dog, who

    Look at you, yes, good dog, so happy jumping on my leg, greeting me, making happy noises, yes, you’re a good dog, so happy.

    I’m here

    A shot of the train station platform. You recognise it immediately, and now you know their ETA. Excellent, time to put the tea on.

    Your empty space

    We’re having fun and we miss you. Why are you not here? Come here and have fun with us. Here’s the empty space we’ve left for you. Look, it’s empty, and it is sad. You won’t keep it empty for long, will you?

    Look at this

    This busker accepts bitcoin. There a croissant on the top of the pedestrian crossing button box. There’s a new place selling burritos. Look at this funny dog. THE SHARD. A post-it note reading “misandry”, on fire.

    Look at my hair

    New hair colour and length has to be communicated to peers in order to receive validation and satisfy peers’ curiosity. It’s nice to know that you’ve only indulged that need for mere seconds and that you’re not that self-centred.

    Weird Snapchat

    These snippets of surrealism escape other classification. My favourite ones begin innocently enough, promising a short memory of a mundane moment, and then suddenly become something else, like someone making tea suddenly punching the tea in the cup, or the toast coming out of the toaster just to be picked up, thrown on the floor and stomped on.


    Contrary to popular belief sexts never contain body parts. I have received snapchats of the following things that have been labelled “sext”:

    • coffee
    • delicious food
    • amazing desserts (a special category of food)
    • heavy machinery
    • sunsets and sunrises
    • water faucets
    • soap dispensers
    • Abba videos

    The Big Reveal

    You see feet moving on the ground. Left, right, left, right, one after another. The seconds counter is going down, and you’re growing restless, your curiosity piqued: what is it, what is it? Suddenly, at the last second, the camera pans up and

  • Cables, radars and telescopes

    September 11, 2013

    Nick and I went yesterday on a Makeshift field trip to Chilbolton Observatory. It’s one of the research facilities supported by Science & Technology Facilities Council, which occasionally organises open days at interesting places under their care.

    Nick is excited by the giant radar dish

    Apart from an impressive collection of meteorological instruments, Chilbolton Observatory is home to one part of the huge LOFAR connected telescope. LOFAR (LOw Frequency ARray) is a radio telescope which works at frequencies below the FM band. There are multiple locations for these all over Europe to provide maximum coverage of the sky, and it’s supposed to be the largest radio telescope built to date (a larger one is currently being built).

    One of the LOFAR antennas arrays

    Instead of dishes that can be steered, LOFAR’s antennas are omnidirectional and plentiful, and the direction in which the telescope is pointing is controlled with software instead.

    In Chilbolton there are two sets of antennas. The first set looks randomly positioned, but their placement is in fact very carefully designed: they are all at different distances and angles from one another. This means that when the radio waves come in at an able and hit the antennas at different times their source can be calculated by applying a delay until the frequencies are in phase again when read.

    The other set uses a different approach: over 700 antennas are tightly packed into a small space, making it possible to only use certain readings to figure out where the radio waves came from.

    Antennas inside polystyrene boxes

    LOFAR antennas all have precisely the same length of cable leading from the antenna to the small building where the signal is collected before being sent for processing to a supercomputer in Netherlands. This computer, callled Blue Gene, collates data from all 48 LOFAR stations across 5 countries. The delay necessary to keep readings in phase is applied using software instead of mechanically. This means that it’s possible to capture all of the available data, and then get 976 different angle readings from every set. Essentially, the telescope is ‘pointing’ at 976 different spots in the sky all at once, all through the magic of software! The antennas themselves are relatively low-cost and most functionality is made in code. Super cool.

    Cables leading into an insulated box

    The cables are of course the most interesting bit, and LOFAR had the most organised cabling I have seen in person. They are all exactly the same length and lead into the box where a bunch of electronics is encased in a faraday cage to prevent disruptions of the telescope readings. A fibre optic connection then transports the data to the observatory and then to Blue Gene.

    LOFAR can be used ford studying the atmosphere, Earth’s geology as well as the rest of the Universe, so it’s pretty universal (see what I did there?).

    Chilbolton also has plenty of radars, including the largest steerable meteorological radar (25m in diameter), and also lidar used for studying the clouds.

    Nick used for scale

    The radar control room has an impressive collection of servers and screens displaying current analysis of the data collected from all the radars.

    I was slightly disappointed that the server naming system seemed a little random, but at least I was reassured that most of them run on Debian, just like my personal server. Phew.