1. A Bad Idea, Beautifully Expressed

    Posted February 20, 2015 in user centred design  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve been ploughing my way through this long New Yorker interview with Jony Ive over the last few days. In it, he says this:

    “There are some people who can draw something that’s fundamentally ugly, but draw it—hint at detailing—in such a way that it’s seductive.”

    It’s probably not the most quotable part in the interview, but it struck a chord with me. The phenomenon Ive refers to is something I’ve noticed over the last few years in my own job as a user experience designer, but it isn’t something I’ve heard discussed a lot.

    The thing is, some people are very good at coming up with ideas. Some people are very good at expressing the ideas they have, in the form of sketches, documents or diagrams.

    In an ideal world these two sets of people would overlap to such an extent that they formed a single set of people who had great ideas and could express them beautifully. People outside that set would have awful ideas and you’d be able to tell they were awful because they’d be drawn in a horrible, messy way.

    But in reality, there is not a perfect overlap between these sets of people. And this is where the danger creeps in, for anyone who runs design processes, or whose organisation depends on their success.

    Sometimes a good idea can be disguised in a messy drawing or a badly written document. If you don’t look carefully it’ll pass you by. Other times—and these are the dangerous times—you find yourself looking at a bad idea, beautifully expressed. What makes it dangerous is that you might go forward with that bad idea, and only learn that it’s bad long after you’ve committed to it, when it’s too late.

    I believe that designers must be able to sell their ideas. But Ive’s remark highlights the fact that there’s another side to that coin and that it’s possible to oversell an idea.

    I love working with people who are really great at drawing, and I wish I had that skill too, but it’s important to remember that an idea doesn’t become great simply because it’s been drawn well: and that a bad idea, beautifully expressed, can be a dangerous thing.


  2. “I wanted to do something that was not melodic”

    Posted February 16, 2015 in music  |  No Comments so far

    The Quietus have published a brilliant interview with Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad.

    It’s brilliant because it goes a bit deeper than you might expect into Shocklee’s philosophy of sound, which was—and still is—ambitious, avant-garde and futuristic.

    And keep in mind that none of these records have got reverb. I’m not using reverb on any of these records. Because reverb softens the sound. And that’s not Public Enemy’s sound. Public Enemy has to be brimstone and fire. Thunder and lightning. It can’t be soft and warm and familiar. Otherwise it won’t create agitation. So with each sample I was pulling up the high frequencies, in order to pull up, not just the snare of the guitar or whatever, but also pulling up the ambience, and even the imperfections in the vinyl itself. So that’s why people started talking about “noise”.

    As a kid I was really into Public Enemy. You can imagine me as a more boring, Home Counties version of John Connor from Terminator 2, in a PE t-shirt, doing my paper round every day while deafening myself with Fear of a Black Planet.

    Later on I got into My Bloody Valentine as well, thinking of myself as some sort of eclectic connoisseur, but as this interview makes clear, there was always much more in common between MBV and Public Enemy than early-1990s indie tribalism would have dared acknowledge.

    One of the records I thought was really cool recently was the My Bloody Valentine record. Dope. It stayed true to what it was.

    I always had a lot of respect for Shocklee but that interview made me have even more.


  3. Philip Sherburne and the Resurgent Sound of the Loon

    Posted January 28, 2015 in music  |  No Comments so far

    Pitchfork has a great piece up in which Philip Sherburne explores the origins of the “Loon” sound, most famously used on 808 State’s “Pacific State” and Sueño Latino’s eponymous house classic.

    I’m approaching 40 so obviously didn’t realise that the “Loon” is making a comeback, having appeared on new tracks by Nicki Minaj and Rustie. If so it’s nice to hear. And it’s nice to read such an extensive investigation into a single sound.

    The article made me wonder, though: if, as Wikipedia claimed, a macaque can own the copyright to a picture it took, should the loon whose utterance was immortalised be afforded the same privilege?

    (via Kent Williams)


  4. Radio Signals from a Parallel World

    Posted January 23, 2015 in news  |  No Comments so far

    A funny thing happened to our radio this morning.

    It normally turns itself on at 7am or so and tunes into the Today programme on Radio 4. At first I thought it had done just that, but after a few minutes I realised something very strange had happened: it was receiving radio signals from a parallel universe.

    What with it being very early in the morning, I wasn’t in a state to figure out exactly how it had managed to do this. As a general rule I try not to get my head around issues of transdimensional communication at least until I’ve had my morning coffee. All I knew was that I was listening to news from another timestream.

    This parallel timestream had a lot in common with ours. Radio 4 existed, as did the Today programme, and it even had the same presenters. And, just as in our world, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had only just died.

    The main difference, however, was that in this parallel universe Saudi Arabia was a progressive, liberal country, having undergone decades of root-and-branch reform. In fact, from the way it was talked about in this radio broadcast it sounded like a beacon of religious freedom and equal rights for women.

    It was really exciting to listen to and I found myself wishing that I inhabited that parallel universe and not this one, the one in which Saudi Arabia is a barbaric theocratic dictatorship which regularly beheads its citizens, treats women who drive as though they were terrorists and brutally flogs people who have done absolutely nothing wrong.

    Oh well.


  5. An interview with the actor who played Ziggy in The Wire

    Posted January 21, 2015 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    I enjoyed this interview with James Ransone, who played Ziggy in Season 2 of The Wire.

    As every fan of The Wire knows, the second season was the show’s apogee. It put the larger-than-life characters (Omar, Stringer) to one side and focused instead on the struggles of the working class community around the Baltimore dockyards. But although those struggles might initially seem dull compared with the high-stakes gangland drama of Season 1, the second outing of The Wire is the clear winner in terms of high Shakespearean tragedy.

    The only people who really dislike the second season are white people. People got mad that they moved it out of the hood. And look, there might be an element that the character is annoying, but there’s that feeling of familiarity too. That the blue collar worker might hit a little close to home rather than the projects of East Baltimore. Ziggy is more like a family member you might have; there’s not this cognitive dissonance. You’re much more likely to know someone like Ziggy than to know someone like Omar.

    Ziggy might well be the Jar Jar Binks of The Wire, but he’s a deeply tragic character, and it must have been weird for the actor who played him to only start being recognised on the streets 6 years after the show originally aired.


  6. Some Light Cyber-Dystopian Reading Recommendations

    Posted January 6, 2015 in comment  |  No Comments so far

    It might be lunchtime or nearly lunchtime where you live. If so, you’ll probably want some lighthearted cyber-dystopian reading material to peruse at your desk while you eat your Pret sandwich. Well here you go.

    Ai Weiwei Is Living In Our Future by Hans de Zwart on Medium: a famous artist’s experience of live under permanent, overt surveillance, a life we may all be experiencing in the not too distant future. But it’s not all about the state eavesdropping on us, because guess what? We’re doing it too:

    Put a collar with a GPS chip around your dog’s neck and from that moment onwards you will be able to follow your dog on an online map and get a notification on your phone whenever your dog is outside a certain area. You want to take good care of your dog, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the collar also functions as a fitness tracker. Now you can set your dog goals and check out graphs with trend lines. It is as Bruce Sterling says: “You are Fluffy’s Zuckerberg”.

    On Nerd Entitlement by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman: triggered by, among other things, a discussion thread on Scott Aaronson’s blog, this piece looks critically at the sense of persecution often experienced by male geeks. It’s not unsympathetic but rightly points out that teenage trauma, although authentic, doesn’t negate the privilege that male geeks enjoy later in life. Now, you might say this isn’t really cyber-dystopian, but I’d say it is. As technology exerts a greater influence of our lives, the great risk is that it will be used to enforce and amplify the social advantages enjoyed by those who control it: and, for the time being, that tends to be white male nerds (like me). Addressed the issues raised in this article would go a long way to making a technology-driven future far more inclusive and a little less dystopian.

    Finally, in Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty, Eric Meyer talks about the emotional effect of Facebook’s “Year In Review” app appearing uninvited on his timeline. The app chose, as its main image, a photo of Eric’s six-year-old daughter, who had tragically died that year. As you can imagine, it was a deeply upsetting experience. Yes, it’s an example of the insensitivity of computer algorithms, but it’s also an example of the failure of design (not for the first time at Facebook) for reasons similar to the ones mentioned above. Eric Meyer has since posted a follow-up where he states, rightly, that this isn’t a Facebook problem but one common to design teams everywhere — worst-case scenarios or even slightly unusual ones are often labelled “edge cases” and then dismissed. Either way, this is a horrible example of how technology can still cause harm without anyone intending to be harmful.


  7. Trial by PowerPoint

    Posted January 1, 2015 in ephemera, visualisation  |  No Comments so far

    John Naughton linked to this fascinating piece about the use of PowerPoint in American courtrooms.

    Just like Naughton, I didn’t know that American prosecutors were allowed to deliver rebuttals with accompanying PowerPoint decks. Nor did I know that they resort to such manipulative, tabloid-esque techniques in the slides they create – techniques that can, in some cases, result in mistrials.

    The prosecutor had dressed up her closing argument to the jury with a series of slides, complete with “sound effects and animation,” the appellate court wrote. On one slide, footprints materialized across the bottom of the screen. Other slides exhibited “concentric rings of a target,” with each ring corresponding to an item of evidence; the defendant’s name, Sergey Fedoruk, was in the bull’s-eye. The prosecution’s final slide, the pièce de résistance, opened with a header that said “Murder 2.” Then, under the header, a single word flashed, in all capital letters, in 96-point red type: GUILTY

    Defendants are not forced to attend court wearing prison garb, because this would create an association of guilt in the minds of the jury and taint the trial. Prosecutors often use PowerPoint to get around this by using mugshots and shifty-looking CCTV footage of defendants and then plastering the word “GUILTY”, in red text, all over their faces. Very subtle.

    Read the full piece over at the Marshall Project.


  8. “I thought Jim Jarmusch was going to walk in and shout, ‘Cut!'”

    Posted December 28, 2014 in music  |  No Comments so far

    I was sad to hear on Christmas Day that Matt Cogger, aka Neuropolitique, had passed away from cancer. He was a Brit who was closely involved in the first wave of Detroit techno, even living and working in the city for a while, but his own music retained a unique, distinctive personality. His work on Irdial in particular was outstanding.

    Over at Bleep43, this extended anecdote from Matt about an incident while he was working for Transmat in Detroit is an entertaining read.

    And here’s one of Matt’s tracks from 1993:


  9. Jo Johnson writes about her album “Weaving”

    Posted December 22, 2014 in music  |  No Comments so far

    If you’re into electronic or ambient music in any way whatsoever, you should pick up a copy of Jo Johnson’s outstanding album “Weaving”. I’m lucky enough to count Jo as a friend, but if that makes you question my impartiality just read this review over at Pitchfork for corroboration.

    Getting you to buy Weaving isn’t really the main point of this post, though. Instead I wanted to share this piece that Jo wrote about the album’s genesis.

    “Weaving” started out as a working track title. It originally described the way two arpeggios interplay but it took on more meaning over time and stuck. The word isn’t exactly cool or poetic but for me, now, “weaving” evokes a legacy of women’s work, art and activism, and conjures up a scrapbook of extraordinary images: women working together at colossal machines in a Lancashire cotton mill in the 19th century; Dora Thewlis, the young mill worker and suffragette, who was famously photographed being arrested after breaking into the Houses of Parliament – one of many working class women who nurtured the early suffrage and the labour movements; the art of Bauhaus weavers like Gunta Stolzl and Anni Albers, and the stunning photos of Michiko Yamawaki and Leonore Tawney at their looms, looking like they’re controlling some kind of retro-futurist synthesiser.

    This is not your typical techno-utopian ambient fare. Buy it here.


  10. A track I made called “Lake Manitou”

    Posted December 20, 2014 in music  |  No Comments so far

    Here’s another track I made recently, called Lake Manitou. I’ve been told it sounds like a cross between Bobby Konders and the Aphex Twin. Worse things could have been said.

    I thought I’d write about the origins of this track, for my own benefit, and because I think electronic musicians should talk more about their creative process and less about technology and gadgets. Be warned: you almost certainly have better things to do than to read the next 700 words.

    “Lake Manitou” started life on a Sunday evening in late October. I was playing around with some new melodies but the process was closer to musical doodling than to serious or even semi-serious composition. A pentatonic scale stopped everything sounding like a mess, but even still the different melodies just weren’t connecting, they sounded like they came from different pieces of music. This doodle, I felt, would go no further than the margin of my metaphorical notebook.

    Later on I isolated each of the melodies, wondering if any might be spared oblivion before I moved the whole thing to the trash. Most were forgettable and insipid but one stood out, a two-bar descending riff that had a lot more character than anything else in the doodle. That riff ended up becoming the backbone of Lake Manitou.

    The riff’s journey from its doodle origins to Lake Manitou was not a straightforward one, however. At first it was meant to be a background part of a faster electro track, which was what the original doodle had sounded like. But I couldn’t really come up with an idea for what that track would do, or for other sounds that might complement the two-bar descending riff. I had reached a creative impasse.

    A week later, while walking through Bermondsey to a friend’s housewarming party, the riff was playing in my head. It suddenly struck me that it should be part of a much slower house- or disco-oriented track, and that, instead of being in the background, it should take centre stage. I thought about how it might sound: dreamy, languid, tropical, subtly euphoric. I thought about post-disco tracks like “Adventures in Success“, about “Sweet Harmony” by The Beloved. It was a big change in direction from the uptempo electro track I’d been planning, and from anything else I’d done before. But the more I thought about this new track, the more determined I became to make it.

    When I sat down to work on it, most pieces fell into place quite neatly. Slowing it down, backing up the main melody with some warm chords, adding some space to the sound with delay and reverb: these things didn’t take long and I was happy with the results. The choral pad sound was a challenge, however. I’ve often tried to use a sound like that in a track—Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity” being a kind of exemplar for me—but always got it wrong. Would Lake Manitou be undone by yet another botched choir pad? Trying the preset choir sounds on various synths just made me even more downhearted. In the end I spent about an hour making that sound, using a combination of synth pads, reverb, filter and actual samples of a choir.

    With everything in place the next job was to arrange the track. Arrangement is stressful. Sometimes you uncover major problems with your composition, with everything else sounding awful when the one strong element is taken away. Sometimes your mistake is to reveal the key idea too early, or too late. Lake Manitou ended up being quite hard to arrange, going through two major iterations over several days before it was eventually finished.

    One thing that might be worth mentioning is the fade out. I always like it when bands start to do different things while a track is fading out. You can hear that on happen on some Parliament songs. It leaves you wondering what else the band went on to do after you left the room. In Lake Manitou there’s a subtle nod to that gimmick, when the flute changes tack right at the end and starts jamming along with the main melody. I like the idea that the flautist was just embarking on an epic, self-indulgent jam session which the producer had to kill before it all went a bit Jethro Tull.

    Anyway, that’s the origin story of Lake Manitou. I’m not going to write stuff like this about every track I make, you’ll be pleased to hear, but if you make music yourself I’d be interested in reading similar notes about your own creative process. It’s a lot more interesting to me than gadgets and VSTs at any rate.

    (Oh yes, I nearly forgot: the title is a reference to an internet thing)