After the Tech Wave is over

The Second Tiree Tech Wave is over.   Yesterday the last participants left by ferry and plane and after a final few hours tidying, the Rural Centre, which the day before had been a tangle of wire and felt, books and papers, cups and biscuit packets, is now as it had been before.  And as I left, the last boxes under my arm, it was strangely silent with only the memory of voices and laughter in my mind.

So is it as if it had never been?  I there anything left behind?  There are a few sheets of Magic Whiteboard on the walls, that I left so that those visiting the Rural Centre in the coming weeks can see something of what we were doing, and there are used teabags and fish-and-chip boxes in the bin, but few traces.

We trod lightly, like the agriculture of the island, where Corncrake and orchid live alongside sheep and cattle.

Some may have heard me talk about the way design is like a Spaghetti Western. In the beginning of the film Clint Eastwood walks into the town, and at the end walks away.  He does not stay, happily ever after, with a girl on his arm, but leaves almost as if nothing had ever happened.

But while he, like the designer, ultimately leaves, things are not the same.  The Carson brothers who had the town in fear for years lie dead in their ranch at the edge of town, the sharp tang of gunfire still in the air and the buzz of flies slowly growing over the elsewise silent bodies.  The crooked major, who had been in the pocket of the Carson brothers, is strapped over a mule heading across the desert towards Mexico, and not a few wooden rails and water buts need to be repaired.  The job of the designer is not to stay, but to leave, but leave change: intervention more than invention.

But the deepest changes are not those visible in the bullet-pocked saloon door, but in the people.  The drunk who used to sit all day at the bar, has discovered that he is not just a drunk, but he is a man, and the barmaid, who used to stand behind the bar has discovered that she is not just a barmaid, but she is a woman.

This is true of the artefacts we create and leave behind as designers, but much more so of the events, which come and go through our lives.  It is not so much the material traces they leave in the environment, but the changes in ourselves.

I know that, as the plane and ferry left with those last participants, a little of myself left with them, and I know many, probably all, felt a little of themselves left behind on Tiree.  This is partly abut the island itself; indeed I know one participant was already planning a family holiday here and another was looking at Tiree houses for sale on RightMove!  But it was also the intensity of five, sometimes relaxed, sometimes frenetic, days together.

So what did we do?

There was no programme of twenty minute talks, no keynotes or demo, indeed no plan nor schedule at all, unusual in our diary-obsessed, deadline-driven world.

Well, we talked.  Not at a podium with microphone and Powerpoint slides, but while sitting around tables, while walking on the beach, and while standing looking up at Tilly, the community wind turbine, the deep sound of her swinging blades resonating in our bones.  And we continued to talk as the sun fell and the overwhelmingly many stars came out , we talked while eating, while drinking and while playing (not so expertly) darts.

We met people from the island those who came to the open evening on Saturday, or popped in during the days, and some at the Harvest Service on Sunday.  We met Mark who told us about the future plans for Tiree Broadband, Jane at PaperWorks who made everything happen, Fiona and others at the Lodge who provided our meals, and many more. Indeed, many thanks to all those on the island who in various ways helped or made those at TTW feel welcome.

We also wrote.  We wrote on sheets of paper, notes and diagrams, and filled in TAPT forms for Clare who was attempting unpack our experiences of peace and calmness in the hope of designing computer systems that aid rather than assault our solitude.  Three large Magic Whiteboard sheets were entitled “I make because …”, “I make with …”, “I make …” and were filled with comments.  And, in these days of measurable objectives, I know that at least a grant proposal, book chapter and paper were written during the long weekend; and the comments on the whiteboards and experiences of the event will be used to create a methodological reflection of the role of making in research which we’ll put into Interfaces and the TTW web site.

We moved.  Walking, throwing darts, washing dishes, and I think all heavily gesturing with our hands while taking.  And became more aware of those movements during Layda’s warm-up improvisation exercises when we mirrored one another’s movements, before using our bodies in RePlay to investigate issues of creativity and act out the internal architecture of Magnus’ planned digital literature system.

We directly encountered the chill of wind and warmth of sunshine, the cattle and sheep, often on the roads as well as in the fields.  We saw on maps the pattern of settlement on the island and on display boards the wools from different breeds on the island. Some of us went to the local historical centre, An Iodhlann [[ ]], to see artefacts, documents and displays of the island in times past, from breadbasket of the west of Scotland to wartime airbase.

We slept.  I in my own bed, some in the Lodge, some in the B&B round the corner, Matjaz and Klem in a camper van and Magnus – brave heart – in a tent amongst the sand dunes.  Occasionally some took a break and dozed in the chairs at the Rural Centre or even nodded off over a good dinner (was that me?).

We showed things we had brought with us, including Magnus’ tangle of wires and circuit boards that almost worked, myself a small pack of FireFly units (enough to play with I hope in a future Tech Wave), Layda’s various pieces she had made in previous tech-arts workshops, Steve’s musical instrument combining Android phone and cardboard foil tube, and Alessio’s impressively modified table lamp.

And we made.  We do after all describe this as a making event!  Helen and Claire explored the limits of ZigBee wireless signals.  Several people contributed to an audio experience using proximity sensors and Arduino boards, and Steve’s CogWork Chip: Lego and electronics, maybe the world’s first mechanical random-signal generator.  Descriptions of many of these and other aspects of the event will appear in due course on the TTW site and participants’ blogs.

But it was a remark that Graham made as he was waiting in the ferry queue that is most telling.  It was not the doing that was central, the making, even the talking, but the fact that he didn’t have to do anything at all.  It was the lack of a plan that made space to fill with doing, or not to do so.

Is that the heart?  We need time and space for non-doing, or maybe even un-doing, unwinding tangles of self as well as wire.

There will be another Tiree Tech Wave in March/April, do come to share in some more not doing then.

Who was there:

  • Alessio Malizia – across the seas from Madrid, blurring the boundaries between information, light and space
  • Helen  Pritchard – artist, student of innovation and interested in cows
  • Claire  Andrews – roller girl and researching the design of assistive products
  • Clare  Hooper – investigating creativity, innovation and a sprinkling of SemWeb
  • Magnus  Lawrie – artist, tent-dweller and researcher of digital humanities
  • Steve Gill – designer, daredevil and (when he can get me to make time) co-authoring book on physicality TouchIT
  • Graham Dean – ex-computer science lecturer, ex-businessman, and current student and auto-ethnographer of maker-culture
  • Steve Foreshaw – builder, artist, magician and explorer of alien artefacts
  • Matjaz Kljun – researcher of personal information and olive oil maker
  • Layda Gongora – artist, curator, studying improvisation, meditation and wild hair
  • Alan Dix – me

book: The Laws of Simplicty, Maeda

Yesterday I started to read John Maeda’s “The Laws of Simplicty” whilst  sitting by Fiona’s stall at the annual Tiree agricultural show, then finished before breakfast today.  Maeda describes his decision to cap at 100 pages1 as something that could be read during a lunch break. To be honest 30,000 words sounds like a very long lunch break or a very fast reader, but true to his third law, “savings in time feel like simplicity”2, it is a short read.

The shortness is a boon that I wish many writers would follow (including me). As with so many single issue books (e.g. Blink), there is s slight tendency to over-sell the main argument, but this is forgiveable in a short delightful book, in a way that it isn’t in 350 pages of less graceful prose.

I know I have a tendency, which can be confusing or annoying, to give, paradoxically for fear of misunderstanding, the caveat before the main point. Still, despite knowing this, in the early chapters I did find myself occasionally bristling at Maeda’s occasional overstatement (although in accordance with simplicity, never hyperbole).

One that particularly caught my eye was Maeda’s contrast of the MIT engineer’s RFTM (Read The F*cking Manual) with the “designer’s approach” to:

marry function with form to create intuitive experiences that we understand immediately.

Although in principle I agree with the overall spirit, and am constantly chided by Fiona for not reading instructions3, the misguided idea that everything ought to ‘pick up and use’ has bedeviled HCI and user interface design for at least the past 20 years. Indeed this is the core misconception about Heidegger’s hammer example that I argued against in a previous post “Struggling with Heidegger“. In my own reading notes, my comment is “simple or simplistic!” … and I meant here the statement not the resulting interfaces, although it could apply to both.

It has always been hard to get well written documentation, and the combination of single page ‘getting started’ guides with web-based help, which often disappears when the web site organisation changes, is an abrogation of responsibility by many designers. Not that I am good at this myself. Good documentation is hard work. It used to be the coders who failed to produce documentation, but now the designers also fall into this trap of laziness, which might be euphemistically labelled ‘simplicity’4.

Personally, I have found that the discipline of documenting (in the few times I have observed it!) is in fact a great driver of simple design. Indeed I recall a colleague, maybe Harold Thimbleby5, once suggested that documentation ought to be written before any code is written, precisely to ensure simple use.

Some years ago I was reading a manual (for a Unix workstation, so quite a few years ago!) that described a potentially disastrous shortcoming of a the disk sync command (which could have corrupted the disk). Helpfully the manual page included a suggestion of how to wrap sync in scripts that prevented the problem. This seemed to add insult to injury; they knew there was a serious problem, they knew how to fix it … and they didn’t do it. Of course, the reason is that manuals are written by technical writers after the code is frozen.

In contrast, I was recently documenting an experimental API6 so that a colleague could use it. As I wrote the documentation I found parts hard to explain. “It would be easier to change the code”, I thought, so I did so. The API, whilst still experimental, is now a lot cleaner and simpler.

Coming back to Maena after a somewhat long digression (what was that about simplicity and brevity?). While I prickled slightly at a few statements, in fact he very clearly says that the first few concrete ‘laws’ are the simpler (and if taken in their own simplistic), the later laws are far more nuanced and suggest deeper principles. This includes law 5 “differences: simplicity and complexity need each other”, which suggest that one should strive for a dynamic between simplicity and complexity. This echoes the emphasis on texture I often advocate when talking with students; whether in writing, presenting or in experience design it is often the changes in voice, visual appearance, or style which give life.

Unix command line prompt

the simplest interface?

I wasn’t convinced by Maeda’s early claim that simple designs were simpler and cheaper to construct.  Possibly true for physical prodcuts, but rarely so for digital interfaces, where more effort is typically needed in code to create simpler user interfaces.  However, again this was something that was revisited later, especially in the context of more computationally active systems (“law 8, in simplicity we trust”), where he contrasts “how much do you need to know about a system?” with “how much does the system know about you?”.  The former is the case of more traditional passive systems, whereas more ‘intelligent’ systems such as Amazon recommendations (or even Facebook news feed) favour the latter.  This is very similar to the principles for incidental and low-intention interaction that I have discussed in the past7.

Finally “The Laws of Simplicity” is beautifully designed in itself.  It includes  many gems not least those arising from Maeda’s roots in Japanese design culture, including aichaku, the “sense of attachment one can feel for an artefact” (p.69) and omakase meaning “I leave it to you”, which asks the sushi chef to create a meal especially for you (p.76).  I am perhaps too much of a controller to feel totally comfortable with the latter, but Maeda’s book certainly inspires the former.

  1. In fact there are 108 pages in the main text, but 9 of these are full page ‘law/chapter’ frontispieces, so 99 real pages.  However, if you include the 8 page introduction that gives 107 … so even the 100 page cap is perhaps a more subtle concept than a strict count.[back]
  2. See his full 10 laws of simplicity at[back]
  3. My guess is that the MIT engineers didn’t read the manuals either.[back]
  4. Apple is a great — read poor — example here as it relies on keen technofreaks to tell others about the various hidden ways to do things — I guess creating a Gnostic air to the devices.[back]
  5. Certainly Harold was a great proponent of ‘live’ documentation, both Knuth’s literate programming and also documentation that incorporated calculated input and output, rather like dexy, which I reported after last autumn’s Web Art/Science camp.[back]
  6. In fairness, the API had been thrown together in haste for my own use.[back]
  7. See ‘incidental interaction” and HCI book chapter 18.[back]

Dhaval Vyas’ PhD

I was very pleased to be part of the committee for Dhaval Vyas‘ PhD defense last Friday.

Dhaval’s thesis “Designing for Awareness: An Experience-focused HCI Perspective1 is well worth a read with ethnographic studies of academics (!) and designers at work; and also technical interventions in both situations: Panorama a public screen photo-montage-style display and CAM a way to tag and discuss physical objects.

While reading the thesis I also realised that ‘awareness’  is one of those slippery words, that has a slightly technical meaning in CSCW, and one you sort of understand by example and diffusion, but is surprisingly hard to pin down. Dhaval does not have a precise definition and neither do I: the HCI textbook says “generally having some feeling for what other people are doing or have been doing” – hardly precise!  I have some half-formed thoughts on this, but will leave them for another post.

I first knew Dhaval when he was doing his MSc at Lancaster in 2001/2002.  He has always been dedicated to pursuing an academic career and it is wonderful 10 years on to see this come to fruition.  There have been a lot of barriers on the way and so this is a testament to Dhaval’s strength of character as well as intellectual attainment.

  1. Dhaval Vyas (2011). Designing for Awareness: An Experience-focused HCI Perspective. University of Twente. download thesis (PDF 4.9Mb). DOI: 10.3990/1.9789036531351 (not yet resolving).[back]

announcing Tiree Tech Wave!

Ever since I came to Tiree I’ve had a vision of bringing people here, to share some of the atmosphere and work together.  A few of you have come on research visits and we have had some really productive times.  Others have said they wished they could come sometime.

Well now is your chance …

Come to Tiree Tech Wave in March to make, talk and play at the wind-ripping edge of digital technology.


Every year Tiree hosts the Wave Classic, a key international wind surfing event.  Those of us at the edge of the digital wave do not risk cold seas and bodily injury, but there is something of the same thrill as we explore the limits of code, circuit boards and social computation.

iconsThe cutting edge of wind-surfing boards is now high technology, but typically made by artisan craftsfolk, themselves often surfers.  Similarly hardware platforms such as Arduino, mobile apps for iPhone and Android, and web mashups enabled by public APIs and linked data are all enabling a new maker culture, challenging the hegemony of global corporations.

artworkThe Western Celtic fringes were one of the oases of knowledge and learning during the ‘dark ages’.  There is something about the empty horizon that helped the hermit to focus on God and inspired a flowering of decorative book-making, even in the face of battering storms of winter and Viking attacks of summer; a starkness that gave scholars time to think in peace between danger-fraught travel to other centres of learning across Europe.

Nowadays regular Flybe flights and Calmac ferries reduce the risk of Viking attacks whilst travelling to the isles, broadband Internet and satellite TV invade the hermit cell, and double glazing and central heating mollify the elements.  Yet there is still a rawness that helps focus the mind, a slightly more tenuous connection to the global infrastructure that fosters a spirit of self-reliance and independence.

LEDsOver a long weekend 17 – 21 March (TBC), we plan what I hope will be a semi-regular event.  A time to step out, albeit momentarily, from a target-driven world, to experiment and play with hardware and software, to discuss the issues of our new digital maker culture, what we know and what we seek to understand, and above all to make things together.

This is all about technology and people: the physical device that sits in our hands, the mashup that tells us about local crime, the new challenges to personal privacy and society and the nation state.

Bring your soldering iron, and Arduino boards, your laptop and API specs, your half-written theses and semi-formed ideas, your favourite book or even well-loved eReader (!).  The format will be informal, with lots of time to work hands-on together; however, there will be the opportunity for short talks/demos/how-to-do-it sessions.  Also, if there is demand, I’d  be happy to do some more semi-formal tutorial sessions and maybe others would too (Arduino making, linked data).

Currently we have no idea whether there will be three or three hundred people interested, but aiming for something like 15 – 30 participants.  We’ll keep costs down, probably around £70 for meeting rooms, lunches, etc. over the five days, but will confirm that and more details shortly.

Follow on Twitter at @tireetechwave and the website will be at However, it is still ‘under development’, so don’t be surprised at the odd glich over the next couple of weeks as we sort out details.

If you are interested in coming or want to know more mail me or Graham Dean

Struggling with Heidegger

Heidegger and hammers have been part of HCI’s conceptualisation from pretty much as long as I can recall.  Although maybe I first heard the words at some sort of day workshop in the late 1980s as the hammer example as used in HCI annoyed me even then, so let’s start with hammers.


I should explain that problems with the hammer example are not my current struggles with Heidegger!  For the hammer it is just that Heidegger’s ‘ready at hand’ is often confused with ‘walk up and use’.  In  Heidegger ready-at-hand refers to the way one is focused on the nail, or wood to be joined, not the hammer itself:

“The work to be produced is the “towards which” of such things as the hammer, the plane, and the needle” (Being and Time1, p.70/99)

To be ‘ready to hand’ like this typically requires familiarity with the equipment (another big Heidegger word!), and is very different from the way a cash machine or tourist information systems should be in some ways accessible independent of prior knowledge (or at least only generic knowledge and skills).

My especial annoyance with the hammer example stems from the fact that my father was a carpenter and I reckon it took me around 10 years to learn how to use a hammer properly2!  Even holding it properly is not obvious, look at the picture.

There is a hand sized depression in the middle.  If you have read Norman’s POET you will think, “ah yes perceptual affordance’, and grasp it like this:

But no that is not the way to hold it!  If try to use it like this you end up using the strength of your arm to knock in the nail and not the weight of the hammer.

Give it to a child, surely the ultimate test of ‘walk up and use’, and they often grasp the head like this.

In fact this is quite sensible for a child as a ‘proper’ grip would put too much strain on their wrist.  Recall  Gibson’s definition of affordance was relational3, about the ecological fit between the object and the potential actions, and the actions depends on who is doing the acting.  For a small child with weaker arms the hammer probably only affords use at all with this grip.

In fact the ‘proper’ grip is to hold it quite near the end where you can use the maximum swing of the hammer to make most use of the weight of the hammer and its angular momentum:

Anyway, I think maybe Heidegger knew this even if many who quote him don’t!


OK, so its alright me complaining about other people mis-using Heidegger, but I am in the middle of writing one of the chapters for TouchIT and so need to make sure I don’t get it wrong myself … and there my struggles begin.  I need to write about ready-to-hand and present-to-hand.   I thought I understood them, but always it has been from secondary sources and as I sat with Being and Time in one hand, my Oxford Companion to Philosophy in another and various other books in my teeth … I began to doubt.

First of all what I thought the distinction was:

  • ready at hand — when you are using the tool and it is invisible to you, you just focus on the work to be done with it
  • present at hand — when there is some sort of breakdown, the hammer head is loose or you don’t have the right tool to hand and so start to focus on the tools themsleves rather than on the job at hand

Scanning the internet this is certainly what others think, for example blog posts at 251 philosophy and Matt Webb at Berg4.  Koschmann, Kuutti and Hickman produced an excellent comparison of breakdown in Heidegger, Leont’ev and Dewey5, and from this it looks as though the above distinction maybe comes Dreyfus summary of Heidegger — but again I don’t have a copy of Dreyfus’ “Being-in-the-World“, so not certain.

Now this is an important distinction, and one that Heidegger certainly makes.  The first part is very clearly what Heidegger means by ready-to-hand:

“The peculiarity of what is proximally to hand is that, in its readiness-to-hand, it must, as it were, withdraw … that with which we concern ourselves primarily is the work …” (B&T, p.69/99)

The second point Heidegger also makes at length distinguishing at least three kinds of breakdown situation.  It just seems a lot less clear whether ‘present-at-hand’ is really the right term for it.  Certainly the ‘present-at-hand’ quality of an artefact becomes foregrounded during breakdown:

“Pure presence at hand announces itself in such equipment, but only to withdraw to the readiness-in-hand with which one concerns oneself — that is to say, of the sort of thing we find when we put it back into repair.” (B&T, p.73/103)

But the preceeding sentance says

“it shows itself as an equipmental Thing which looks so and so, and which, in its readiness-to-hand as looking that way, has constantly been present-at-hand too.” (B&T, p.73/103)

That is present-at-hand is not so much in contrast to ready-at-hand, but in a sense ‘there all along’; the difference is that during breakdown the presence-at-hand becomes foregrounded. Indeed when ‘present-at-hand’ is first introduced Heidegger appears to be using it as a binary distinction between Dasein, (human) entities that exist and ponder their existence, and other entities such as a table, rock or tree (p. 42/67).  The contrast is not so much between ready-to-hand and present-to-hand, but between ready-to-hand and ‘just present-at-hand’ (p.71/101) or ‘Being-just-present-at-hand-and-no-more’ (p.73/103). For Heidegger to seems not so much that ‘ready-to-hand’ stands in in opposition to ‘present-to-hand’; it is just more significant.

To put this in context, traditional philosophy had focused exclusively on the more categorically defined aspects of things as they are in the world (‘existentia’/present-at-hand), whilst ignoring the primary way they are encountered by us (Dasein, real knowing existence) as ready-to-hand, invisible in their purposefulness.  Heidegger seeks to redress this.

“If we look at Things just ‘theoretically’, we can get along without understanding readiness-to-hand.” (B&T p.69/98)

Heidegger wants to avoid the speculation of previous science and philosophy. Although it is not a Heidegger word, I use ‘speculation’ here with all of its connotations, pondering at a distance, but without commitment, or like spectators at a sports stadium looking in at something distant and other.  In contrast, ready-to-hand suggests commitment, being actively ‘in the world’ and even when Heidegger talks about those moments when an entity ceases to be ready-to-hand and is seen as present-to-hand, he uses the term circumspection — a casting of the eye around, so that the Dasein, the person, is in the centre.

So present-at-hand is simply the mode of being of the entities that are not Dasein (aware of their own existence), but our primary mode of experience of them and thus in a sense the essence of their real existence is when they are ready-to-hand.  I note Roderick Munday’s useful “Glossary of Terms in Being and Time” highlights just this broader sense of present-at-hand.

Maybe the confusion arises because Heidegger’s concern is phenomenological and so when an artefact is ready-to-hand and its presence-to-hand ‘withdraws’, in a sense it is no longer present-to-hand as this is no longer a phenomenon; and yet he also seems to hold a foot in realism and so in another sense it is still present-to-hand.  In discussing this tension between realism and idealism in Heidegger, Stepanich6 distinguishes present-at-hand and ready-to-hand, from presence-to-hand and readiness-to-hand — however no-one else does this so maybe that is a little too subtle!

To end this section (almost) with Heidegger’s words, a key statement, often quoted, seems to say precisely what I have argued above, or maybe precisely the opposite:

“Yet only by reason of something present-at-hand ‘is there’ anything ready-to-hand.  Does it follow, however, granting this thesis for the nonce, that readiness-to-hand is ontologically founded upon presence-at-hand?” (B&T, p.71/101)

What sort of philosopher makes a key point through a rhetorical question?

So, for TouchIT, maybe my safest course is to follow the example of the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, which describes ready-to-hand, but circumspectly never mentions present-to-hand at all?

and anyway what’s wrong with …

On a last note there is another confusion, or maybe mistaken attitude, that seems to be common when referring to ready-to-hand.  Heidegger’s concern was in ontology, understanding the nature of being, and so he asserted the ontological primacy of the ready-to-hand, especially in light of the previous dominant concerns of philosophy.  However, in HCI, where we are interested not in the philosophical question, but the pragmatic one of utility, usability, and experience, Heidegger is often misapplied as a kind of fetishism of engagement, as if everything should be ready-to-hand all the time.

Of course for many purposes this is correct, as I type I do not want to be aware of the keys I press, not even of the pages of the book that I turn.

Yet there is also a merit in breaking this engagement, to encourage reflection and indeed the circumspection that Heidegger discusses.  Indeed Gaver et al.’s focus on ambiguity in design7 is often just to encourage that reflection and questioning, bringing things to the foreground that were once background.

Furthermore as HCI practitioners and academics we need to both take seriously the ready-to-hand-ness of effective design, but also (just as Heidegger is doing) actually look at the ready-to-hand-ness of things seeing them and their use not taking them for granted.  I constantly strive to find ways to become aware of the mundane, and offer students tools for estrangement to look at the world askance8.

“To lay bare what is  just present-at-hand and no more, cognition must first penetrate beyond what is ready-to-hand in our concern.” (B&T, p.71/101)

This ability to step out and be aware of what we are doing is precisely the quality that Schon recognises as being critical for the ‘Reflective Practioner‘.  Indeed, my practical advice on using the hammer in the footnotes below comes precisely through reflection on hammering, and breakdowns in hammering, not through the times when the hammer was ready-to-hand..

Heidegger is indeed right that our primary existence is being in the world, not abstractly viewing it from afar.  And yet, sometimes also, just as Heidegger himself did as he pondered and wrote about these issues, one of our crowning glories as human beings is precisely that we are able also in a sense to step outside ourselves and look in wonder.

  1. In common with much of the literature the page references to Being and Time are all of the form p.70/99 where the first number refers to the page numbers in the original German (which I have not read!) and the second number to the page in Macquarrie and Robinson’s translation of Being and Time published by Blackwell.[back]
  2. Practical hammering – a few tips: The key thing is to focus on making sure the face of the hammer is perpendicular to the nail, if there is a slight angle the nail will bend.  For thin oval wire nails, if one does bend do not knock the nail back upright, most likely it will simply bend again and just snap.  Instead, simply hit the head of the nail while still bent, but keeping the hammer face perpendicular to the nail not the hole.  So long as the nail has cut any depth of hole it will simply follow its own path and straighten of its own accord.[back]
  3. James Gibson. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception[back]
  4. Matt Webb’s post appears to be quoting Paul Dourish’ “Where the Action Is”, but I must have lent my copy to someone, so not sure of this is really what Paul thinks.[back]
  5. Koschmann, T., Kuutti, K. & Hickman, L. (1998). The Concept of Breakdown in Heidegger, Leont’ev, and Dewey and Its Implications for Education. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 5(1), 25-41. doi:10.1207/s15327884mca0501_3[back]
  6. Lambert Stepanich. “Heidegger: Between Idealism and Realism“, The Harvard Review of Philosophy, Vol 1. Spring 1991.[back]
  7. Bill Gaver, Jacob Beaver, and Steve Benford, 2003. Ambiguity as a resource for design. CHI ’03.[back]
  8. see previous posts on “mirrors and estrangement” and “the ordinary and the normal“[back]

Phoenix rises – vfridge online again

vfridge is back!

I mentioned ‘Project Phoenix’ in my last previous post, and this was it – getting vfridge up and running again.

Ten years ago I was part of a company aQtive1 with Russell Beale, Andy Wood and others.  Just before it folded in the aftermath of the crash, aQtive spawned a small spin-off  The virtual fridge was a social networking web site before the term existed, and while vfridge the company went the way of most dot.coms, for some time after I kept the vfridge web site running on Fiona’s servers until it gradually ‘decayed’ partly due to Javascript/DOM changes and partly due to Java’s interactions with mysql becoming unstable (note very, very old Java code!).  But it is now back online 🙂

The core idea of vfridge is placing small notes, photos and ‘magnets’ in a shareable web area that can be moved around and arranged like you might with notes held by magnets to a fridge door.

Underlying vfridge was what we called the websharer vision, which looked towards a web of user-generated content.  Now this is passé, but at the time  was directly counter to accepted wisdom and looking back seem prescient – remember this was written in 1999:

Although everyone isn’t a web developer, it is likely that soon everyone will become an Internet communicator — email, PC-voice-comms, bulletin boards, etc. For some this will be via a PC, for others using a web-phone, set-top box or Internet-enabled games console.

The web/Internet is not just a medium for publishing, but a potential shared place.

Everyone may be a web sharer — not a publisher of formal public ‘content’, but personal or semi-private sharing of informal ‘bits and pieces’ with family, friends, local community and virtual communities such as fan clubs.

This is not just a future for the cognoscenti, but for anyone who chats in the pub or wants to show granny in Scunthorpe the baby’s first photos.

Just over a year ago I thought it would be good to write a retrospective about vfridge in the light of the social networking revolution.  We did a poster “Designing a virtual fridge” about vfridge years ago at a Computers and Fun workshop, but have never written at length abut its design and development.  In particular it would be good to analyse the reasons, technical, social and commercial, why it did not ‘take off’ the time.  However, it is hard to do write about it without good screen shots, and could I find any? (Although now I have)  So I thought it would be good to revive it and now you can try it out again. I started with a few days effort last year at Christmas and Easter time (leisure activity), but now over the last week have at last used the fact that I have half my time unpaid and so free for my own activities … and it is done 🙂

The original vfridge was implemented using Java Servlets, but I have rebuilt it in PHP.  While the original development took over a year (starting down in Coornwall while on holiday watching the solar eclipse), this re-build took about 10 days effort, although of course with no design decisions needed.  The reason it took so much development back then is one of the things I want to consider when I write the retrospective.

As far as possible the actual behaviour and design is exactly as it was back in 2000 … and yes it does feel clunky, with lots of refreshing (remember no AJAX or web2.0 in those days) and of course loads of frames!  In fact there is a little cleverness that allowed some client-end processing pre-AJAX2.    Also the new implementation uses the same templates as the original one, although the expansion engine had to be rewritten in PHP.  In fact this template engine was one of our most re-used bits of Java code, although now of course many alternatives.  Maybe I will return to a discussion of that in another post.

I have even resurrected the old mobile interface.  Yes there were WAP phones even in 2000, albeit with tiny green and black screens.  I still recall the excitement I felt the first time I entered a note on the phone and saw it appear on a web page 🙂  However, this was one place I had to extensively edit the page templates as nothing seems to process WML anymore, so the WML had to be converted to plain-text-ish HTML, as close as possible to those old phones!  Looks rather odd on the iPhone :-/

So, if you were one of those who had an account back in 2000 (Panos Markopoulos used it to share his baby photos 🙂 ), then everything is still there just as you left it!

If not, then you can register now and play.

  1. The old aQtive website is still viewable at, but don’t try to install onCue, it was developed in the days of Windows NT.[back]
  2. One trick used the fact that you can get Javascript to pre-load images.  When the front-end Javascript code wanted to send information back to the server it preloaded an image URL that was really just to activate a back-end script.  The frames  used a change-propagation system, so that only those frames that were dependent on particular user actions were refreshed.  All of this is preserved in the current system, peek at the Javascript on the pages.    Maybe I’ll write about the details of these another time.[back]

Reflection in practice: Schön and science

I have just finished reading Schön’s “The Reflective Practitioner“. It is one of those books that you feel you ought to have read years ago, resonating so much with many of my own thoughts and writing about creativity and innovation. However, I found myself at odds slightly with the adversarial dualism between science and practice, but realise this is partly because it is a book of its time. I will return to this later.

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names – a file by any other name

Naming things seems relatively unproblematic until you try to do it — ask any couple with a baby on the way.  Naming files is no easier.

Earlier today Fiona @lovefibre was using the MAC OS Time Machine to retrieve an old version of a file (let’s call it “fisfile.doc”).  She wanted to extract a part that she knew she had deleted in order to use in the current version.  Of course the file you are retrieving has the same name as the current file, and the default is to overwrite the current version; that is a simple backup restore.  However, you can ask Time Machine to retain both versions; at which point you end up with two files called, for example, “fisfile.doc” and “fisfile-original.doc”.  In this case ‘original’ means ‘the most recent version’ and the unlabelled one is the old version you have just restored.  This was not  too confusing, but personally I would have been tempted to call the restored file something like “fisfile-2010-01-17-10-33.doc”, in particular because one wonders what will happen if you try to restore several copies of the same file to work on, for example, to work out when an error slipped into a document.

OK, just an single incident, but only a few minutes later I had another example of problematic naming.

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not for itself

While writing the last post and searching for a references, I noticed that I’d never made available the notes of a talk I gave at the “Design and Non-Place Workshop” in Edinburgh back in 2005. So I have just put “Not for itself: insider/outsider orientation of place and signage and systolic flows?” online. The talk reflects on some of the events of the exciting non-place network including a meeting at B&Q in Edinburgh and another at Stanstead airport.

I  pick up just a few of the threads from those visits, looking particularly and the way ‘place’ transforms over time, the way signage addresses itself, and the different kinds of flow in populated space.  At B&Q especially I was fascinated by the back of the store, the place that gets ignored and yet which was critical for services and the actual delivery of goods.

I can’t recall why (five years ago now!), but the talk slides only tenuously connect to the text of the notes, I think maybe because I was touching on too many issues in the brief notes.

not quite everywhere

I’ve been (belatedly) reading Adam Greenfield‘s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing. By ‘everywhere’ he means the pervasive insinuation of inter-connected computation into all aspects of our lives — ubiquitous/pervasive computing but seen in terms of lives not artefacts. Published in 2006, and so I guess written in 2004 or 2005, Adam confidently predicts that everywhere technology will have  “significant and meaningful impact on the way you live your life and will do so before the first decade of the twenty-first century is out“, but one month into 2010 and I’ve not really noticed yet. I am not one of those people who fill their house with gadgets, so I guess unlikely to be an early adopter of ‘everywhere’, but even in the most techno-loving house at best I’ve seen the HiFi controlled through an iPhone.

Devices are clearly everywhere, but the connections between them seem infrequent and poor.

Why is ubiquitous technology still so … well un-ubiquitous?

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