Fire, smoke and steel on shifting sands

Port Talbot Steelworks
The area I grew up in is in the news in the UK this week.

There are to be major job losses at the steel works in Port Talbot, where my mother, father, and grand-father worked.

My dad was an engineer there, and my mother was a computer (at least until she married by dad and started their family.) I never met my grand-dad, he died before I was born, but he was an engineer at the steel works during its establishing years, who earned an MBE working on refining the steel-making processes there.

It is literally the crucible of my family, and massive part of the psycho-geography of my early life.

Port Talbot Steelworks

It is a huge industrial site, that dominates not only Port Talbot but can be seen for many miles – lit by flame and sodium-light at night, perched on the coast of Swansea Bay.

From the highlands surrounding – the rather-grandly named ‘Margam Mountain’ you can see it nestling/infesting the border between biomes – sandy, scrubby dunelands and lush welsh ‘rainforest’.

Port Talbot Steelworks

Port Talbot Steelworks

Glance to the left and you see Margam Castle, the grounds of which my mother and aunt grew up in – daughters of the Talbot family butler.

Margam Castle

You can also see the sands of Kenfig, and the lake at the centre of the nature reserve (a ‘SSSI’ – Site of Special Scientific Interest) – where I spent many weekends as a child in the early 1980s as part of a nature conservancy group for kids.

The lake has legends associated with it – most notably that of a sunken city beneath it, but the formation of the lake and the dunes has more to do with changing tides, climate and the forces they can wield.

And now, changing tides of capital and globalisation are at play on the landscape.

I wonder if subliminally I learned something about the history of power and landscape. Something of the disregard the rulers of the industrial age held for the environment, contrasted against the deep romantic love for nature from those who worked for them.

It’s more complicated than that though – not as clear cut.

Something as big as the steelworks becomes a force of nature, both in its impacts on the local ecosystems – and symbolically.

It becomes landscape.

Ridley Scott on the inspiration a similar industrial landscape had on him:

There’s a walk from Redcar into Hartlepool … I’d cross a bridge at night, and walk above the steel works. So that’s probably where the opening of Blade Runner comes from. It always seemed to be rather gloomy and raining, and I’d just think “God, this is beautiful.” You can find beauty in everything, and so I think I found the beauty in that darkness.

The steelworks imprinted something like this on me early – perhaps not beauty, but majesty in the industrial.

The news this week is very sad – overwhelmingly for the people and their livelihoods that it effects. Environmentalists probably won’t mourn the passing of the steelworks, but those of us who find ‘beauty in the darkness’ might.

Sold: One Brompton

The way to LDN's heart is on a brompton

I got my Brompton six years ago, while I was still reverse-commuting every day from central London to Hampshire. Nokia’s UK design studio was located in glamorous Farnborough at the time, and quite a few of us travelled west from Waterloo for an hour or so, where there was a incredibly-depressing shuttle bus to the anonymous office park where we drank a lot of tea and tried to seduce implacable engineers and product managers with endless flash mockups of what we thought were better UIs than s60.

But that’s a tale for another day.

The train ride you could cope with – competitive crosswording with Matt Brown, Joe McCloud’s stream of consciousness narration of the suburban landscapes we trundled through (think Jonathan Meades meets Bill Hicks), Eddie’s terrible puns – but wait for the shuttle bus and the cramped, smelly bus ride itself were the last straw for many, who opted to bike the last couple of miles to the office every day instead.

There were a few tribes – the fast and furious fixies of Adam and Silas, Tom and Mattias the oak-legged mud-loving MTBers… and then, me… initially on a Strida, with its rubber belt, tiny wheels, pennyfarthing-seating and terrifying twitch-steering.

1st commute

Despite it’s quirks, I loved the Strida – at least compared to the shuttle bus. It was perfect for the train -> work -> train -> pub -> first floor flat daily life I had back then.

Strida Day #1

The lack of gears started to be noticed on even the slight climbs between Farnborough station and Nokia HQ, so after only a few months, in September 2006 I upgraded to my Brompton.

Wheels for yr mind

Up until last year it was my primary bike – until I started cycling my entire route to work rather than folding up and getting on the train. It sat forlorn in the studio, and then my kitchen – until last Saturday when I sold it to welovebromptons.co.uk, from where it will hopefully find a new home.

I loved my brompton as I’ve not loved many of my possessions. Not only for it’s utility and efficency – but also for what it represented: British design, engineering and manufacture.

I was fortunate to be invited to the Brompton factory in 2010.

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 17

I believe that at the time it was (and it still maybe) the only full manufacturing site in London. It was fantastic to see the skill, care and attention to detail that was given to every process.

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 04

Also the integration of design, engineering and manufacture – the continuum of concern that the designers had for the material and human processes at work in the factory.

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 14

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 06

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 07

Design was not an abstract activity, but an integral one – with a tight feedback loop from the shop floor, the testing suites, the customer service.

And the shop floor itself was a treat for a designer – a rainbow of coated metal…

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 08

So, sadly it’s goodbye to all that for now, no longer will I be able to tuck my green machine into the convenient parking bay provided by The Shepherdess…

The Bromptronozord

But I dare say I’ll own one again, one day.

Handsome, handsome machines.

5 things I’m thinking about

Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Many have done this already. Here’s 5 of mine (sort-of). Bit of a scratchpad as don’t have much time for writing in length these days. Half-formed thoughts. But that’s the point. Right? No?

Oh well.

  • “Internet of things” ubicomp as a ‘lost future’ vs a world of glowing rectangles. This is a big deal for me a (and our little company) as I/we have been thinking about the former for years now, and believe that being in the world is a net Good Thing – and will win out. At the moment it seems like most of us (myself included) are voting with out feet for a world where our attention is consumed by glowing rectangles that live in our pockets, on our laps, in our houses and increasingly on the facades of our towns and cities. The seemingly-manifest-destiny of manufacturing and sourcing economics plays a huge role here – unseen and perhaps un-engaged with by most interaction designers. The world-factory is tooled for glowing rectangles of Cupertino’s design for quite some years. Aaaand of course our sociotechnical futures aren’t ever so neat – a gestalt of the two will probably emerge. At least until we hit Peak Indium. Which leads me to…
  • Going beyond PeakX: as a way of thinking = throw up hands and say hey-ho, that’s that then, isn’t everything complicated and terrible! Aren’t we wicked! There’s nothing to be done. How about ‘precious X’? ‘Resilient X’? ‘Chronodynamic design’ was something prententious that I wrote down a while back on a post-it, suggesting a Loewy-esque aesthetic celebration of an object’s resilience through time. Although at first blush, this might just be vernacular design – it might have legs as a more spectacular-vernacular. The High-Viridian Aesthetic. Moving beyond “Resource Constraints = design”, to source of ornament, cultural-invention, semantic-wealth. Charles & Ray Eames’s definition of the act of design still rings like a bell: do the best, for the most, with the least. Rhys, Raph and others work on Homegrown remains inspiring. I like Adaptive Path’s (at least that’s where I heard it first) conceit of ‘constraint-storming‘. Of course, most of the 1st-world isn’t even thinking about PeakX yet, and we don’t feel the pinch until we feel the pinch, so yeah. Anyway. I probably need to re-read “In The Bubble”, and wear a “John Thackara Was Right” (hair)t-shirt…
  • SpaceTime as a design material. Slow/long services. Still not done anything with it. Want to. Maybe/probably in an app context.
  • The boiling frog of population shock. More is different. Older is different. We don’t seem to get that. Many of our western/northern cultural tropes/beliefs/ways-of-living are based in the 18/19th century when world population was below 1 billion. We still believe it’s like in Britain, and it’ll kill us. Y’know – village green romanticism. We’re probably going to plateau at 10 billion in a couple of decades. We need a way to discuss the bigger/different crew of SpaceShipEarth without it sounding sinister. Permafutures not middle-class, ‘organic’, austerity-nostalgia that will only work for a less-crowded planet. I think it’s kind of exciting. 10 billion minds.
  • The longish-now of me. This is a bit self-centred to say the least. I’m going to be 40 soon. I find myself thinking about how to become a sustainable/resilient 50 year old. That is – well – 50 might be halfway through. Hell, it might be a third of the way through my life… I’ve been very lucky for the past 20 years. What the hell am I going to do with all that time? How am I going to pay my way? How do I stay involved and useful? More making? More teaching? Maybe.

If I could cheat and have six things I’m thinking about I’d say turning tablet computers into The Primer. But, then, I’m always thinking about the Primer, and Maneki Neko. So they don’t count.

Also, I just finished Anathem and it blew my mind. Between it, “Galileo’s Dream” and Ted Chiang’s “Story of your life” there’s something brewing I’m a bit scared to think about to hard in case I end up rocking and drooling. So. Yeah. A mess of things.

Interview with Ken Hollings for ResonanceFM

Did a fun 15mins chat with Ken Hollings on cities, futures, cosmism and many other things from an arcology floating in deep-space (via the magic of radio) which will be going out tonight at 7pm, and podcast shortly.

Here’s the description for the show:

“Enter Hollingsville at 7:00pm this evening. In this new series Ken Hollings and guests Steve Beard and Matt Jones discuss voodoo science parks, cities as battle suits, pods, capsules and world expos. Specially commissioned musical interludes are by the Hollingsville composer in residence, Graham Massey. Hollingsville is open for 12 weeks only”

http://resonancefm.com/archives/3638

Antichronos

Webb me sent just this:

“What he came up with was three different temporal dimensions – the first moving very fast, at the speed of light, the second very slow and “vibrating slowly back and forth, as if the universe itself were a single string or bubble”, the third – antichronos – in reverse. We experience them as one, creating a three-way interference pattern, which accounts for sensations such as foresight, déjà vu, nostalgia and precognition. The compound nature of time, Robinson writes, “creates our perception of both transience and permanence, of being and becoming”. He’s shown the novel to people who are “much more serious about the time travel stuff” and they’re “having a blast”. “They immediately map my three strands of time onto their system. They think I’ve partially discovered the real thing,” he says gleefully.”

Ago weeks of couple a Utrecht in DxF2009 at gave I talk this to link to way nice a is which.

Get Excited And Make Things!

"GET EXCITED AND MAKE THINGS" arrives in the Howies store,  Carnaby St

It’s fair to say this post is a little behind-the-times, but I finally want to get round to recording the story behind my “Get Excited & Make Things” image – and also releasing the files, which was always my intention…

I was a little frustrated with myself and the world one day, and went to sit in Hoxton Square to do the Guardian crossword as a remedy.

Flicking through the G2 section I came across a short article about the “Keep Calm & Carry On” WW2 poster phenomenon.

18/03/2009

It occurred to me that this was exactly the wrong sentiment for this age – and in fact the stoicism it recommends was been viewed ironically in the main by those who purchased it.

I started sketching on the paper a contrary statement, where stiff upper lip was replaced by a stiff upper arm from soldering…

GET EXCITED AND LASERCUT THINGS

The royal crown was replaced by one made of spanners (or wrenches, for our yanqui friends) – and Get Excited & Make Things was born.

Don't keep calm and carry on.

I posted it to flickr, where to date it has had over 90k views. It got turned into t-shirt of the week by my friends at Howies (and became their fastest selling shirt ever, apparently!) with the proceeds going towards their Do Lectures.

howies® - t-shirt of the week

Then, an art print by Jen and friends at 20×200 – with proceeds going to Creative Commons.

Along with that, It got featured in various press articles, and there’s a flickr pool for spottings in the wild.

Get Excited & Make Things Pool

It’s still available via my mates at Mule Design – with the proceeds going to Smallcanbebig.org.

Apparently "sullen" is a "thing" which can be "made"

I only mention it’s success (though gratifying personally, obviously – and I’m very happy that it’s provided some small contributions to good causes) – because it seems that it has resonated with so many people.

And that’s the really amazing thing – that there might be a determination, en-masse – to really get the blood pumping and make our way out of the messes we’ve created.

With that in mind, I’m offering the original files under a CC-non-commercial, attribution, share-alike licence.

If you want to use the images for commercial means, we can talk of course – about you giving some donation to a good cause in exchange. I say that, as it’s cropped up in a few places being used without prior permission for commercial ends…

So here they are.

Thank you to everyone so far who has bought a shirt, a print – or just printed it out and stuck in up in their work place or college.

Please stay excited, please stay making.

Semagram

Wall of BERG

“In the next report I submitted, I suggested that the term ‘logogram’ was a misnomer because it implied that each graph represented a spoken word, when in fact the graphs didn’t correspond to our notion of spoken words at all. I didn’t want to use the term ‘ideogram’ either because of how it had been used in the past; I suggested the term ‘semagram’ instead.

It appeared that a semagram corresponded roughly to a written word in human languages: it was meaningful on its own, and in combination with other semagrams could form endless statements. We couldn’t define it precisely, but then no one had ever satisfactorily defined ‘word’ for human languages either. When it came to sentences in Heptapod B, though, things became much more confusing. The language had no written punctuation: it’s syntax was indicated in the way the semagrams were combined, and there was no need to indicate the cadence of speech. There was certainly no way to slice out subject-predicate pairings neatly to make sentences. A ‘sentence’ seemed to be whatever number of semagrams a heptapod wanted to join together; the only difference between a sentence and a paragraph, or a page, was size.

When a Heptapod B sentence grew fairly sizeable, its visual impact was remarkable. If I wasn’t trying to decipher it, the writing looked like fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance. And the biggest sentences had an effect similar to that of psychedelic posters: sometimes eye-watering, sometimes hypnotic.”

– “Story of your life“, Ted Chiang

This week we became BERG.
This is BERG.

Wall of BERG

From Business to Buttons, Malmo

My talk at “From Business To Buttons” in Malmo has been recorded and is online with all the rest of the event here.

It was a gentle ramble through some territory Tom Coates and myself explored last year, with some added detail about the Dopplr Personal Annual Report.

It’s about 40 minutes or so if you’re really bored…

Malmo was a blast (literally, in terms of the weather and horizontal rain) thanks for the invite and hospitality from the Business-to-Buttons crew, especially all the interaction design student volunteers I hung out with and pointed us to the best bars and art exhibits in the city, including the fantastic Sonic Youth exhibition I snuck away and saw…

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The Helsinki City Run

is tomorrow, and I’m in it (with my Arphid chip…)

Thanks to everyone who has donated money in support at http://www.justgiving.com/moleitau: we’ve made about £700 for research into Parkinson’s Disease. Brilliant. I just have to run the 21k now, which according to this brilliant page on wikipedia, is about the length of Manhattan.

There’s still a little time left to donate if you want to pile some last-minute pressure on me…