Scales of Material Things

Saturday May 16, 14.45.25

Scales of things and their relationships. A curious moment while out on a weekend’s Urban Scout, with these bicyclists, who could fit into the Smart Car that could fit into the ridiculous, shameless Hummer SUV. This scene reminded me of the image of relatives scales of occupancy between the same number of people, on bikes, public transportation buses, and in cars. Also in there is just how much space this same fixed number of people take up as normal, human pedestrians.

espacio coches

Why do I blog this? Curiosity pursues the relationships of things and their scales through the evolution of our propensity to measure and quantify. I’m curious about this history, as things have not always, nor do they necessarily have to always from now on, be measured with numbers. Why would one want to shift the units of measure from numbers and quantities to something else? Perhaps in some areas, because trust in numbers and bigger/smaller is better may not be the proper end-game. A larger number of features than the competitor’s thing-y does not always mean better experiences. More horse-power than your neighbor’s new fancy car does not always mean better for the environment. More room-y interior-ness leading to wider swaths of impermeable concrete does not mean a better world. Larger percentage returns/profits does not always mean a better future. We’ve come to a point of trusting numbers with such fluency and thoughtlessness that I think, at least for the Bureau of Counterweights and Alternative Measures, that it would be a good thing to think this all through, critically, historically, with good dose of introspection. What might other measures, counter to the ones we have now that appear so God-given and inalienable? So — how do you start making the case for other ways of coming to conclusions about what to make/design/do? First, figure out where all this came from, observe the scales of things in relation to the value of things. Think of alternative strategies.

Laboratories, Accelerometers And Kitchen Crockery

The Memsic 6202 Accelerometer, fresh out o’the skillet.

We’ve been out of the Laboratory proper — the place where things are constructed and soldered and heated up — for a bit now, not because we don’t go in there, or we haven’t been doing things that will go in there. No, rather, or because of a variety of curiosities that have attracted our attention and, in that way, have slung us around to be more in the mode of reading and observing so as to launch into the next, “next vector of interests.” We believe strongly here allowing things to stew and simmer in the reading-writing-intellect as much as in the making-things section of the young noggin. There is much good that comes from the process of tinkering as well as, err..think-ering, both simultaneously, perhaps. Doing things to help think through what one finds curious or helpful, tinkering our way to new, more habitable world. Making things is a great way to learn. It is also a great way to think-things-through. Rather than the still idle of pondering, as an adjunct to the quiet sit in the cafe — making something that helps add some weight to the thought. Perhaps closer to The Craftsman by Richard Sennett.

The interests today swing around the ways of framing things, explaining and demonstrating and communicating, especially future fictions, perhaps designed fictions, as a way of describing the sometimes peculiar imaginings that get brought upstairs from the boys in the basement in the Bureau of Coming Attractions. We have our Bureau of Urban Scouting, evolving its own practice of observation and, perhaps of more interest, a variety of instruments and procedures for seeing the world sideways. Nicolas and I are in the final stages of this short essay for the Situated Technologies project that will include this topic. Literally in the final stages. As in, right now I should be editing a Google Doc rather than writing this, but I let the morning coffee lead me.

So, this is all to say that this blog swerves constructively, probably baffling all eighteen readers into wondering — what the heck is going on here? Where is the editorial consistency? Where’s my code/diagrams/schematics?

To this I only ask that you look for such things even here, as they are always in-the-making, becoming the hardware in the midst of the thinking-through, in the ideas.

As the curiosity-seeker Jack Schulze recently intoned in a wonderfully Talmudic way"No one cares about what you think, unless you do what you think. No one cares what you do, unless you think about what you do. No one ever really cares what you say."

This may explain Jack’s characteristically quiet demeanor. We’re quite verbally agitated here, so we’ll let the last one slip by us. But, the yammering is the thinking-making-doing, sometimes in words, sometimes in thoughts, sometimes in the materialization of our imagination.

With this said, in response to Reader Number Fourteen’s request this morning for “some code”, I share with you this little thing: Code to Test the Memsic 6202 Accelerometer. You may remember this little guy. We used it in our early foray into fabricating surface-mount electronics. With kitchen skillets. We learned this bit of tinker-y hacker-y from our friends over at Spark Fun. It works great. And it’s cheap as rocks.

I can’t say we were super excited about this particular accelerometer, but that’s okay. It’s just an accelerometer after all. If you follow us down toward the foxhole of these things, you’ll find a whole world of accelerometer fanatics with plenty of material to fuss with — smart accelerometers, accelerometers that let you know when they’re falling, accelerometers that tell you the time as well as whether they’re falling, etc. You’ll find some material buried here in the blog archives, to be exhumed with the right incantation of search and category selection parameters.

This code was written for the Atmel 8-bit microcontrollers that live on the Arduino board. It also makes use of the Wire library for the Arduino, and, as well, the two-wire interface (TWI) hardware support on those microcontrollers, making the whole thing pretty easy-peasy.


// TWI (I2C) sketch to communicate with the Memsic MXC6202J accelerometer
// Using the Wire library (created by Nicholas Zambetti)
// On the Arduino board, Analog In 4 is SDA, Analog In 5 is SCL
// These correspond to pin 27 (PC4/ADC4/SDA) and pin 28 (PC5/ADC5/SCL) on the Atmega8
// Know You're Microcontroller. Check Which One Is On Your Board/Arduino.
// Newer (as of May '09) Arduinos Use The Atmega168. Can You See It?
// The Wire class handles the TWI transactions, abstracting the nitty-gritty to make
// prototyping easy.

void setup()
  Wire.begin(); // join i2c bus (address optional for master)

void loop()

  byte x_val_l, x_val_h, y_val_l, y_val_h;
  int x_val, y_val;
// transmit to device with address 0x1D
// according to the MXC6202xMP datasheet, the TWI/I2C address of is fixed
// at the factory depending on what the "x" in the part name is
// Read The Data Sheet section "I2C Bus Data Transfer" for descriptions
// of what the part expects to receive as its address. If you do not understand
// how this works, you are guaranteed to get lost/confusted/frustrated.
// 00010000b is the address of the chip I have, or 0x10

  // a little fuzzy in my recollection here. I think this initializes the chip
  // by setting some bits in the Memsic device's 8-bit internal register
  // Not 100% sure why I initialize two bytes.



  // request five bytes of data
  // first one is the internal register, we can ignore that, but lets look at it for giggles
  while(Wire.available()) {
    Serial.print(Wire.receive(), HEX); // drop the internal register on the floor..

  // next byte is the MSB of the X axis acceleration
  if(Wire.available()) {
    x_val_h = Wire.receive();
  // next byte is the LSB of the X axis acceleration
  if(Wire.available()) {
    x_val_l = Wire.receive();
  // next byte is the MSB of the Y axis acceleration
  if(Wire.available()) {
    y_val_h = Wire.receive();
  // next byte is the LSB of the Y axis acceleration
  if(Wire.available()) {
    y_val_l = Wire.receive();
  // cobble all of this together into 16 bit acceleration values
  // doing the usual bit-shift polka
  x_val = (x_val_h << 8); x_val |= x_val_l;
  y_val = (y_val_h << 8); y_val |= y_val_l;
  // spit it all out across the serial port so we can see it
  Serial.print(x_val_h, HEX); Serial.print(" "); Serial.print(x_val_l, HEX); Serial.print("n");
  Serial.print(y_val_h, HEX); Serial.print(" "); Serial.print(y_val_l, HEX); Serial.print("n");


 // loop and do it again.

Continue reading Laboratories, Accelerometers And Kitchen Crockery

Design Fiction at Belgrade Design Week 2009

Our friends from NONOBJECT, the studio in Palo Alto that is working on the NONOBJECT book of designed objects meant to provoke reconsiderations as to what things are, will be participating in the Belgrade Design Week 2009 this next week. Wish we could be there but in any case, if you attend, be sure to look out for their presentation, and keep abreast of the imminent release of their forthcoming book.

Dear Julian,

I hope all is well.
Just a quick news note, if you would like to push it on your blog:

NONOBJECT, Palo Alto based design and innovation studio was invited to open Belgrade Design Week 2009 (Serbia, EU) and will be presenting their design fiction innovation and philosophy, since they are hands on practitioners of design and innovation and in their past used to lead design for companies like frogdesign and IDEO their work is deeply rooted in success they provided to Fortune 500 companies. Along with this there will be the 2nd Design Fiction exhibition in influential downtown gallery O3ON, in Belgrade capital of Serbia. The worlds first design fiction exhibition happened on June 2007 in the same gallery.

With kind regards,


Continue reading Design Fiction at Belgrade Design Week 2009

Design Fiction Chronicles: Cylon Hybrids "Tweet" Prophecy or Prattle

BSG Twitter Hybrid from Julian Bleecker on Vimeo.

I’ll say it although you probably know the back story here. In the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica, “Hybrids” are the result of the early experiments to evolve the fully mechanical cylons into the more organic editions we saw in the most recent “re-imagining” of BSG. They are the ones that effectively control the giant Cylon basestars, it would seem.

Okay, besides this bit of science-fiction it occurred to me while reading/hearing the passage of “Tweets” (gah..) that the terseness of the typical Twitter message (140 characters, I believe it is) can give the messages in themselves a prophetic quality. As if there is more to be considered in the messages and one is forced, then, to consider what else there may be. Granted, this maybe the rare example, or perhaps it is also some characteristic of the receiver/listener of the messages. Nonetheless, I was immediately drawn to this correlation to the prophecy/prattle debate in the Battlestar Galactica show.

Here, a small selection of the Hybrid’s Tweets (we’ll forgive them for going beyond 140 characters..):

* Two protons expelled at each coupling site creates the mode of force, the embryo becomes a fish that we don’t enter until a plate, we’re here to experience evolve the little toe, atrophy, don’t ask me how I’ll be dead in a thousand light years, thank you, thank you. Genesis turns to its source, reduction occurs stepwise though the essence is all one. End of line. FTL system check, diagnostic functions within parameters repeats the harlequin the agony exquisite, the colors run the path of ashes, neuronal network run fifty-two percent of heat exchanger cross-collateralized with hyper-dimensional matrix, upper senses, repair ordered relay to zero zero zero zero.

* Mists of dreams drip along the nascent echo and love no more. End of line.

* The five lights of the apocalypse rising struggling towards the light, the sins revealed only to those who enter the temple only to the chosen one. The chosen one. The chosen one. The chosen one. The chosen one.

In the show there is a question as to whether what the Hybrids are saying has deep meaning, or is some reflection of things to happen — like prophecy — or if they are merely speaking random phrases for some reason — perhaps the “noise” in their systems that, rather than a shower of static is articulated as phrases from databases of information deep within their “system.”

This occurred to me with this particular project that was just dropped on the desk here. Visible Twitter reveals streams of “Tweets” (gah..again…) on one’s screen in a vaguely hypnotic pattern of words and phrases that appear and disappear according to certain transitory effects. This, together with other forms of data visualization, are meant to convey “meta” aspects of the thing in question. To reveal patterns that would only be cluttered by other forms of representation — say, just a list of Tweets (gah…) scrolling by, or seen on a web page, etc. The “raw” form as it may be understood can be massaged in various ways to obtain new levels of representation and, perhaps, insight and reflection. Like, the medieval style of rendering where one can see both the top of a table because the etcher/artist has decided to mix points-of-view, both straight on and from above.

Why do I blog this? Notes on the network effects phenomenon that arise in curious ways when the linkages between so many things/people/events/histories/present-events can be brought in front of you. Like this dispatch that can from someone I follow last night who wondered, about three minutes after an earthquake last night, why “#earthquake” did not elevate more quickly to a “trending topic” within the Twitter universe.

Are there correlations and meanings to be found simply reading and hearing the chatter on all of these channel? And, if so — who are they for?

What are the new kind of literacy to following so much stuff — feeds, streams, dispatches of all kinds?

What sorts of bitter, cranky nostalgia will arise when today’s parents, for example, lament the days when you only got email? Or complain about how it was easy back when you could just subscribe to a few New York Times RSS feeds and be done with it? What will the near future bring in terms of mechanisms for discovery and participation in the world? Will there be screens?
Continue reading Design Fiction Chronicles: Cylon Hybrids "Tweet" Prophecy or Prattle

Measuring the Immeasurable

Good, Fast & Cheap, a measure of things. Designed by Rhys Newman, modeled & machined by Simon James. A useful epistemological wrench — a conversation piece to discuss the measures of things and the things lost and gained when some things gain priority over others. It’s a wonderful, crucial instrument that shifts perspectives hopefully towards more habitable creations.

Everybody needs Money. That’s why they call it Money.
(From “Heist” by David Mamet. Danny DeVito playing Mickey Bergman.)

In the Laboratory’s Bureau of Instrumentation, Weights-and-Measures and Ways-and-Means, we’ve been curious for a time, and more so recently, about the history of quantification and, as well, why numbers as such have a kind of primacy over other things that are more qualitative. Most specifically, why do we measure the things we measure, and why do some things get to be measured while other things do not get measured, or are seen as immeasurable?

This question is a thorough-going one in the effort to find other measures that can be prioritized, perhaps even more so than the things we consider without even thinking about where these “natural” (they never are..) measures come from. For example, we measure things designed based on such things as their monetary cost, and how much profit can be obtained. With this measure, to simplify things, many principles that would be invested in a design get tossed out. The accountant or the engineer would sooner shrug in such a circumstance — this is the way it should be. I want to consider the “natural” way of such things, and consider how other sorts of measures can be prioritized that are not necessarily about money first, but always first about creating more habitable future worlds. What are the other measures of things that maybe previously have been thought of as “immeasurable” or incapable of being quantified? Thus, this interest in how things got to be the way they are. What are the measures of quantities and where did they come from? How could they be different? What things can be designed/made/prototyped the experiment with other measures?

There must be a variety of histories here, skirting up against the science of calculation and computation and close to the Laboratory’s interests in the history of things, such as sciences, design, technology and always deeply imbricated and layered and inextricably tied to all of these things — the histories of cultures.

Where to start?

Our Studio Library Day reading book last month was Alfred W. Crosby’s intriguing “The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600” which I’m happy Manuel Lima mentioned at his talk during SHiFT 2008 in Lisbon. It took a holiday to actually finish the book, which lead me in a zillion other vectors and converged in a recent interest in the meaning and technology of money. It now takes me early mornings when fresh and not muddle-headed to re-read it for the over-arcing traces of Crosby’s perspective.

I’ll have my overdue book report on “The Measure of Reality”, but first a short trek down the footnote rabbit hole to Joel Kaye‘s essay “The impact of money on the development of fourteenth-century scientific thought” found in the Journal of Medieval History 14(1988), p. 251-270. (Wonderful these academic essays tucked away in journals nearly impossible for anyone except academics to get a hold of, truly. Sadly, the availability of this essay is quite limited unless you have an “in” at a university or such, or a particularly flush public library system somewhere. So much for the academician’s edict to create and circulate knowledge.)


No matter. Onward…

Continue reading Measuring the Immeasurable

UCLA DMA MFA Exhibtion 2009

Here are some visuals and notes from the current UCLA DMA MFA Exhibition, 2009.

Yiyun Kang ( “BETWEEN” video installation attempts to seek the sensory engagement of the audience with multiple projections & life-size screens. These were curiously dimensional projections that gave an eery sense that there was someone behind the panels.

Nova Jiang’s work “Tethered Selves” and good-humored tracing of the wires and bits and controls (Criteria 13) to see how it all works. All in good fun. Lovely, melodic, unsettling sculpture. Nice work Nova.

Nova Jiang work Alternate Endings, replications of what is worn. Recently seen at Milan during that Design Week.

Nova Jiang “Tethered Selves” is a series of electro-mechanical sculptures exploring the implicit violence within the domestic sphere, presumably via the tiny dead flies that are stuck to the fly paper that lies on the perimeter of the wheel. As the wheel rotates, a small player piano is plays a melody, with each dead fly serving as what would be the holes one finds on an old-fashioned player piano.

Also Nova exhibited Alternate Endings, where fashion is made on location that replicates what one is wearing. This is intriguing as it adds a certain kind of craft-performance in the location.

Continue reading UCLA DMA MFA Exhibtion 2009

Design Fiction Chronicles: The Interlaced Histories of Star Trek & Mobile Phones

Star Trek Communicator

A mobile phone, functional of course, designed by colleague Andrew Gartrell.

Sunday April 26, 16.56.56

In slightly delayed commemoration of a rather enjoyable Star Trek movie, I share this bit of design work done by my colleague Andrew Gartrell, together with a posse of model makers, a functioning Communicator, an object in conversation with the future fiction of The Old Star Trek. It’s a fantastic bit of craftsmanship. It’s important that it works (as a cell phone..), of course, and that it accents itself with a variety of Star Trek signatures, such as chip-chip-chirp birdsong for the clamshell opening, a great Star Trek background screen, appropriate LED annunciators, etc.

The object emphasizes the interminglings of fact/fiction, real/novel stories and the points of entry provided for entering into the construction of futures and their stories. I’ve made this point along with others about the role of design, science, fact and fiction in creating opportunities to imagine and test possible futures through “props” and “prototypes.” I see this object (and others) operating in this way — providing a chance to enter into and participate in the construction of new, hopefully more habitable worlds.

The Star Trek Communicator is often quite deliberately linked to some motivations for the creation of the normal, human cell phone communicator. This point is made in the fun, campy, docutainment film “How William Shatner Changed The World”, which I highly recommend. It shows the many ways that people and objects have been shaped in various ways from the science fiction of Star Trek, including this fellow from Motorola, Martin Cooper, presented as the father of the mobile phone, who happened upon an episode of Star Trek that got him thinking.

A designed fictional electronic schematic for a Star Trek Communicator (TOS), done by draftsman Joseph Franz for his New York Times Bestseller (1976, along with Helter Skelter!) book, “Star Trek: Star Fleet Technical Manual”.

Making things, drawing them, are ways of imagining and linking those imaginings to their materialization. Without prioritizing what kinds of materialization happen, the point is that the fiction inspires. All of these things are, in many ways, similar to what Joseph Franz did when he constructed the Star Trek Technical Manual — it’s as much an exploration of the corners of the Trek world that did not enter the teleplays directly as it is an expression of the curiosity and passion of fans to help make that future imaginary world. Why?

Continue reading Design Fiction Chronicles: The Interlaced Histories of Star Trek & Mobile Phones

Practice Observed: Designed For Rest And Activity


Mobile, personal, urban shelter.

Where I live there are quite a number of transient mobile home dwellers. I don’t know quite what the history of this is — I’m intrigued and only imagine at this point. It will take a more concerted effort to discover the larger story of why many people come here with their mobile homes and trailers, park them on the side streets of Venice Beach and effectively live there like that. It’s a different category of transience and homelessness than what I have been used to in the past such as, for example Seattle, Santa Cruz, Brooklyn or Manhattan where a box and a blanket or nothing was the stock shelter.

This shelter is constructed by EDAR – Everyone Deserves A Roof – creates an easy to establish structure that has its own wheel base for mobility and transforms into a cart of sorts for collecting and recycling during the day.

Why do I blog this? Two things are going through my mind. The first is the interesting relationships between a specific geographic place or city and the kinds of shelter for homeless and mobile transients you find there. So, all of these big RVs in Venice Beach – what’s the story there? Certainly I understand that going from a nice home to a trailer is a distinct possibility for people for a whole variety of reasons, I wonder why and how Venice Beach has become the place to drive those trailers?

The other things I’m thinking about is the “new interactive city” sorts of design/urban/ubiquitous/computing discussions and how these sorts of ‘below the grid’ designs and people and practices become part of this, or do not become a part of this. Either way could be argued to be desirable or not. For instance, staying off the grid, out of the database has a complex of normative arguments that come at the question of “on or off” from all sides. Off the grid, anonymous, beyond jurisdiction, microsocialnetworked, etc., could sound quite good and intriguing. It could also provide problems, say, if one is incarcerated with no database record – you could imagine the exception algorithm for the query dumping you into a Kafkaesque swamp of detention and rendition.

In any case, these EDAR structures are intriguing to me as design artifacts that do a simple thing to pull into context the activities of their intended owners in a really simple way. I’ve seen other homeless structures done by fancy architects who wear slender flat-front trousers and flat pointy shoes and they’re shit structural dome things that glow as they become occupied, meaning to raise awareness of the homeless problem in Los Angles. Which is crap concept architecture, if only because turning the lights on like this could make it (a) difficult to get a short night’s rest after a hot day of recycling, and (b) draw attention that may not be the ultimate goal of someone who has enough to worry about without being bothered or robbed. (If anyone can get me a pointer to that project I would appreciate it. I saw it a few years ago at a talk at USC from an LA based architect to whom I apologize for my rough but passionate crit above.)

Update — I recalled who it was from USC — Electroland who designed this Urban Nomad.
Continue reading Practice Observed: Designed For Rest And Activity

Mobile Surveillance

A mobile surveillance box which Duncan spied on his ride to the studio. This area might be a gathering place for day laborers to meet prospective employers. So, the question then is has this been installed to discourage them from gathering here? Has there been crime of some sort, beyond something that this rather conservative, law-and-order part of the world would call an illegal gathering, or loitering, despite the fact that such workers would be the ones to mend one’s fence or till one’s rose garden? This object was found here.

I’m not an out-and-out anti-surveillance person. I enjoy observations, especially one’s involving image-making. When you can’t have a conversation with the man behind the curtain, or the observations are not easily accessible for review, comment, dispute, etc., something may be quite wrong, then.

There are things that should be watched closely to make the place more habitable. For example, refugee camps where rape, murder and all things horrible happen should be watched the same way citizen patriots watch the US-Mexican border..but they’re not. The politics of surveillance are often always authoritarian and about control through observation. Things can be turned about, as they often are in order to disrupt the despotic eyeball, observing through a passive, psychological influence.

This thing, a mobile surveillance platform affixed to a far corner of a 7-11 parking lot, is a preposterous, laughable evil eye. It looks almost retro and steampunk — a hand-made affair that drives the comedy of its pathetic influence. It talks to you, which adds to the carnival. It’s got a bunch of off-the-shelf motion detectors bolted to each side that, I’m guessing, detect motion, set off a timer and then belt out a canned, recorded announcement of warning…warning…you have been observed…the authorities have been notified, which sent me into tears of laughter. I felt like I was confronting a home-made RoboCop, built with whatever scraps could be found at the local Radio Shack. @kurt wondered whether you could pop on a set of tires and tow the thing off before anyone knew, which would be hysterical if only to imagine what the “home base” operator would see from their hatch-like monitoring station. Not that I’d do it, of course, but in my imagination — I’d even go through the trouble to gin up a power source so that the kit would keep running. Err…but maybe there’s a tiny man in the box, like the guys who live in small trailers at construction sites to watch over them?

Why do I blog this? A curious, irresistible assemblage of crappy DIY surveillance that just was begging to be taunted. I’m so happy it talks, I just may have to go back and interact with it/him again. It’s like an old, urban robot in this century, made of wood and with an axle for wheel-born mobility. Proto, or Neo RoboCop sort of stuff. could be Interactive Art, even. Maybe a thesis project is lurking behind this, complete with a faux company website!
Continue reading Mobile Surveillance