Hi! I’m Duncan, I’m an information designer, and this is the newsletter I send every ten days where I talk about what I’m working on, what’s interesting me and what I think might interest you.
This is quite a bumper issue, so let’s get started!
Why did no-one tell me about A Pattern Language before today? It’s a 1977 book on architecture, urban design and improving the liveability of communities by architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander. It’s also online in its entirety.
There’s so much fascinating stuff in it, I hardly know where to start. It goes massively broad in places, and fascinatingly specific in others. Here are a few of my favourite bits from a quick browse this evening.
From 204 SECRET PLACE:
Make a place in the house, perhaps only a few feet square, which is kept locked and secret; a place which is virtually impossible to discover - until you have been shown where it is; a place where the archives of the house, or other more potent secrets, might be kept.
From 79 YOUR OWN HOME:
Do everything possible to make the traditional forms of rental impossible, indeed, illegal. Give every household its own home, with space enough for a garden. Keep the emphasis in the definition of ownership on control, not on financial ownership. Indeed, where it is possible to construct forms of ownership which give people control over their houses and gardens, but make financial speculation impossible, choose these forms above all others. In all cases give people the legal power, and the physical opportunity to modify and repair their own places.
From 156 SETTLED WORK:
Give each person, especially as he grows old, the chance to set up a workplace of his own, within or very near his home. Make it a place that can grow slowly, perhaps in the beginning sustaining a weekend hobby and gradually becoming a complete, productive, and comfortable workshop.
I’m extremely tempted to buy myself a copy immediately, but I’m gonna obey my rules and put it on my “I want this” list instead because I definitely don’t need it right now. Maybe mapping out how the different parts of A Pattern Language interrelate to each other would be an interesting future visualization project…
Part of the Cadence system that I use for tracking longer-term goals involves the creation of a “personal canon”, a collection of artistic works that make you feel more like yourself. One of the key entries in mine is the Scott Pilgrim series, a magical collection of graphic novels which reminds me of a very specific time in my life.
It’s been about a decade since Edgar Wright’s excellent movie adaptation came out, and there’s a wonderful opportunity cast read-through that was just published on Entertainment Weekly. Michael Cera, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman and more. If you’re as much a fan of the film as I am, you’ll love it. It’s all in aid of a Water for People, a charity that goes exactly that, so if you do enjoy it then please donate some money!
I was writing up a note on how I’ve improved my generative art process so that I can go as quickly as possible from having an idea to starting to code, but then I realised that (a) it was getting pretty long, and (b) it’s a bit technical. So I wrote it up as a blog post instead.
The long and the short of it is that I’ve set up a nice template system, and coded a few little helper tools that automate some of the procedural annoyances. Now I can go from nothing to writing my code in about 30 seconds. Click through if you want to read more about how I did it.
I made a sonification today. That might sound somewhat expected given that I’ve been working on a data sonification podcast for more than half a year, but actually my collaborator Miriam made the first two and I just helped out a bit on the sides, so this was the first sonification I made myself from beginning to end.
I pulled data from the Guardian API, logging all the articles the newspaper wrote about Brexit between the referendum and the data of Britain leaving the EU. I then sonified that data like a geiger counter (those crackly radiation detectors), with high “radiation” corresponding with periods where lots of articles were published and vice versa. It was fun to write something from scratch in a new coding language (Ruby).
There’s more to do. I’m going to fold in opinion polling data, currency exchange rates, and petitions too. It needs a beginning and an end, and some samples from key moments in the whole Brexit saga.
It’s going to be released towards the end of the year as part of season one of Loud Numbers, which will comprise of six podcast episodes and an EP that’ll be available on all good streaming services.
I’ll talk about it more here nearer the time, no doubt, but if you want even more detail then you can and should sign up to the super-secret Loud Numbers members club. Put your email address in the form on this page and we’ll be in touch.
So I bought an e-book reader. My first in about a decade, actually - after a third generation Kindle that I got as a review sample in late 2010, which perished a few years later. I chose a Kobo Libra H20, which not only lets me avoid the Amazon ecosystem, but also borrow e-books from my local library, and read my Pocket backlog.
It’s a nice bit of kit. Good screen, backlit with the ability to make the light warmer in the evenings (essential for reading before bed), waterproof and with a battery life of weeks. I’ve not used it much yet, but I’m excited about taking it out and about - it’s small and light enough that it’s very easy to just throw in a bag.
I’m less excited about re-buying various books that I want to read in e-book form. There should really be some license to format-shift media you already own. In many cases, the e-books cost more than the paperbacks, which is ludicrous. Similarly insane is that my library has only a certain number of copies of each ebook, and I have to “place a hold” on them if someone else currently has it downloaded. I assume this is down to some insane licensing system, but it’s just ones and zeros that can be infinitely replicated for free. Just track the downloads, and divide up the license fees to the authors accordingly. This is a solved problem in other industries. No wonder e-book piracy is still such a big deal.
Anyway, I’m kicking off with Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, which a few people have recommended to me and is available from my local library. Got an e-book recommendation for me? Hit reply and tell me what it is and why you think I’d love it. Hopefully my library will have it.
IMPORTANT! THERE IS A NEW YO LA TENGO RECORD AND IT IS AN AMBIENT RECORD!
Context: Yo La Tengo is my favourite band, a fact I decided upon about a decade ago after my previous favourite band (The Divine Comedy) kept putting out crappy records. I based my decision, like any good data scientist, on my Last.fm listening data which showed I was listening to far more Yo La Tengo than any other band. Which I guess makes them statistically my favourite? Either way, I have not regretted my choice.
Anyway, here’s the new record.
One-third-of-the-band Ira Kaplan says:
If you’ve spent any time hanging out with us at our rehearsal space in Hoboken—that pretty much covers none of you—you’ve heard us playing formlessly (he said, trying to sidestep the word “improvising”). Most of the songs we’ve written in the last 25 years have begun that way, but often we do it for no other reason than to push away the outside world.
In late April, with the outside world weighing on everybody, we determined that the three of us could assemble in Hoboken without disobeying the rules laid out by Governor Murphy, and resumed… “practicing” hardly describes it, because we’ve done no practicing per se, and anyway what would we be practicing for… playing. James set up one microphone in the middle of the room in case we stumbled on something useful for the future. Instead we decided to release some of the things we did right now.
It’s minimal and the right amount of interesting, perfect for working to. Give it a listen.
I started trying to program some of the plotter artworks that I want to show at my upcoming exhibition. I have a good picture in my head of what they should be like, but I need to translate that into code.
Unfortunately, I started trying to do this at 8pm and two frustrated hours later I hadn’t made much progress and I was exhausted. As a result, I’m now dreading picking them up again, because I feel like they’re going to be really hard - even though I know in reality that it was just hard because I was tired.
Lesson learnt: don’t try to do hard things when you’re tired, because not only will you fail and feel bad about that, but you’ll also be put off trying again.
I’m going to try again.
If you’re not a scientist and you never have been, you probably aren’t aware of the concept of a Lab Notebook. I’m giving it capital letters, because it’s a Very Important Thing. Lab notebooks aren’t where you doodle pictures of shake flasks or autoclaves, they’re a very formal thing with strict rules. They’re essentially a record of everything you do and think, which can be used in legal situations - a bit like a journalist or a police officer’s notebook, I suppose.
Sam Bleckley has written a great post about how software engineers could and should have a similar notebook of their own. Not because they frequently come up against legal situations (though you never know), but because the lab notebook is a great way to track what you’re up to, what’s working, and most importantly what’s not working. As he writes:
too many developers rely on their working memory, and end up burning out because they are afraid to leave a problem halfway. If the entire plan of attack exists only in your head, taking a lunch break can be disastrous. A lab notebook makes it safe to stop work at any time.
I think the concept could be useful much more widely than just software development, and if I wasn’t already maintaining slightly too many productivity systems then I might give it a go myself. If you do, let me know how it goes.
On a tangential note, Bleckley also links to a concept that I’ve not come across before - the Eudaimonia Machine. It’s a workspace layout designed to avoid the challenges of an open-plan office, invited by architect David Dewane and popularised by writer Cal Newport. There’s a blog post here about applying its principles to a home office. I’d love to hear if anyone else has any links to share on the subject - I’m planning to rework my home office soon, and I’d be interested in incorporating some of these principles into it.
If you’re in Gothenburg, then there’s now a Facebook event for my aforementioned generative art exhibition. I’ll be hanging out in the cafe on the first day for a while, so please do drop by and say hello. If you can’t make it then, drop by any other time. Let me know in advance and I’ll see if I can meet you there.
If you’re not in Gothenburg, well, maybe you can visit by train soon? As I predicted for WIRED last year, night train routes are reopening across Europe and people are loving them:
A new summer night train linking five EU member states – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia – had barely started setting off from Prague on 30 June when the level of demand from holidaymakers heading to the coast ensured it was upgraded to a daily service.
The Swedish rail company Snälltåget said in June it planned to quadruple the number of night trains on its Stockholm-Malmö-Copenhagen-Hamburg-Berlin route. A new Alpine-Sylt night express that began operating between Sylt in northern Germany and Salzburg in Austria was also due to run for only two months but will continue until November due to demand.
As I think I mentioned somewhere above, I’m working my way through Cal Newport’s “[Digital Minimalism” at the moment. Here’s a good summary.
Some bits are good. Some bits are over-sensationalised (portraying people who try to use Facebook less as the “attention resistance”, or feigning astonishment at the idea that people might prefer board games to video games). Some bits veer too close to Luddism.
But it did just spark a thought in me. Is this the first time in history when removing features from technology (by deleting apps from your phone, for example) can deliver a powerful productivity increase? I’m sure one of you will have an example that disproves that (hit reply!) but I can’t think of one off the top of my head.
I have written a lot about Minecraft over the years, and as a result I have also read a lot about Minecraft. I’ll leave you this week with one of the best things I’ve read about Minecraft, capturing its weirdly domestic joy perfectly in a way that even non-gamers will appreciate.
I started a new game two days ago, and early on in it I gathered up all sorts of good things. I found chests already full of iron and gold and magic swords and hoes and things I didn’t understand—any of which would take a long time to gather or build on my own. Naturally, I picked up everything I could carry. I took the best things from everywhere I went, sometimes leaving behind rocks or chunks of dirt I had no space for.
Then I died and lost everything. And born again where I first began, the chests were now empty, or offered chunks of dirt and the like. But I walked on further away and again collected more precious goods. But at last I was again killed, and again lost everything.
And when I came back, I started to think that I shouldn’t be taking everything out of these chests. What I took was not mine for long, whereas what I left behind I might still have.
Read the whole, poetic article here.