OPERATION: SHARDFOX

The observation deck in the Shard is opening tomorrow, so you’ll see lots of photos from the top, if you haven’t already.

I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to go round while the building was still being finished, with Ben, Chris and Russell, on a tour with one of the friendly civil engineers.

It’s been a while (September 2011), so here’s the bits I remember, and probably some facts I’ve exaggerated in the pub since then.

We just stood on top of that

We went through fingerprint security and took the lift up the 50-something floor, where all our phone reception promptly stopped working. Too much signal? Too little? Regardless I laughed at the thought of buying a $25m duplex apartment and not getting any texts. Sadly, I’m sure they’ve fixed it by now.

Here, some brave fellas were fitting the glass windows to the outside of the structure. It’s windy up there. I could barely watch, let alone take this photo.

09:36

It’s a cliché, but London really does look like a map beneath you, more compressed than you expect.

09:47

Here’s a photo from the ground:

T-10 minutes to OPERATION SHARDFOX

Do you see that little platform jutting out near the top on the left side of the building? It’s a loading platform, used to land materials from the cranes. It’s cantilevered against the floor and ceiling of that level, so it can be removed later. I think it’s on the 62nd floor.

That’s this:

09:57

And the view below:

Looking down

Now, I’m pretty comfortable with heights, but at that point my lizard brain kicked in. I couldn’t stay on the platform for long.

10:05

The lift hadn’t been fitted all the way to the top then, so we clambered around the husk of steel girders and concrete floors, through puddles and piping, all the way to the 72nd floor, which is now the top floor of the observation deck.

10:10

That’s Chris and Russell climbing from floor 71 to 72, on the north east corner of the building.

The building is supported on an internal concrete column. Concrete is poured into a frame, and as it sets, the frame pulls itself up on the concrete that just dried. The concrete column stops at the 72nd floor, as the building narrows and there’s not a lot of usable floor space left, the next 10 floors are hollow space to give it the building its shardiness.

10:14

Our guide said that on a clear day you can see from the south coast to Norwich cathedral. It’s a good pub fact, but seems a bit far to me. Still, I use it from time to time. Seems silly not to.

And finally, the view from the top:

10:15

It was a brilliant day out. More photos on Flickr.

Roll One

Roll 1/01

I shot my first roll of 35mm film in a very long time over the weekend. It was lots of fun.

While I had a film camera in my teens, by the time I was getting interested in photography again in my early twenties good digital cameras were starting to surface, so I stupidly blew my first month’s pay packet at my first proper job on a Nikon D70.

This time, I picked up a Nikon FE, second hand from a nice German man on eBay. It’s about the same age as me, but it’s a lovely piece of machinery.

Roll 1/04

Film people, like vinyl people, go on and on about all the unique qualities of their medium that make it the One True Way. So I don’t mean to sound like that, but the state of 35mm film in 2013 seems pretty good. You can still buy film on the high street (I bought some cheap Agfa stuff from Poundland!), and there seems to be plenty of good places in London that do development and scans for around a fiver. Kodak even released a new film in 2008 (Ektar 100).

It’s nice to know it’s all still there, but also a reminder of how quickly it all changed. It doesn’t seem that long ago my Mum was posting stuff off to Bonusprint.

Roll 1/05

I think one of the attractions for me with film, aside from the mechanics, simplicity and aesthetics, was the unpredictability of it. The inability to accurately predict whether that *click* was going to turn out to be a good photograph. The odd things that happen to the photons through twenty layers of glass and chemicals. The details forgotten in the delay between shooting and processing. The serendipity, I guess.

Of all the things we’re losing in the transition to digital media and online services, it still feels like this is the one that’s most valuable, least recognised, and hardest to design or engineer back in. (Despite some great efforts.)

Roll 1/12

Another Post About Cycling and Maps and GPS Like All the Other Ones

Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy some really good bike rides with friends and family, through lots of bits of the UK and Europe that most people don’t get to see. The best of those was Lands End to John O’Groats, but I’ve also done a Coast to Coast (the Way of the Roses), Amsterdam to Berlin, Canal du Midi, and plenty of day trips out of London.

I’ve got a nice Dawes Galaxy touring bike which I bought second hand. It’s like the Volvo of bikes. Comfy for long distances, decent amount of room for hauling stuff, lots of places to attach things, and a bit on the heavy side.

How I Roll Today

Since touring is mostly about going places you’ve never been, without assistance, you need a way of navigating. You can use paper maps, but you’ll be stopping every few minutes to check your route, or you’ll be mounting a waterproof map case to the handlebars and refolding it every 10 miles.

Or you can use a GPS device. There are expensive bike specific models with cadence meters and competition modes, but those are for carbon fibre roadies, and you just want one with a screen and a simple map.

I’ve got an old Garmin eTrex Legend HCx, since discontinued. The battery lasts about 24 hours on a decent pair of NiMH AAs. The screen is a bit dim in sunlight, but the backlight works well when night falls. It’s durable: I can guarantee that it’s more waterproof than me, and I’ve dropped it numerous times as well as covering it in bike oil, etc.

09:30

We’ve usually got some paper maps for backup, but the GPS is just so useful that unless the batteries fail, or we decide to go off the route, they rarely get used.

It’s mounted to the handlebars, with the official Garmin mount. Because it rattles, I have some blu-tack that I shove underneath it to dampen the vibrations. You might fare better with a third-party manufacturer’s model.

On the 2GB Micro SD card I’ve got the whole of UK OpenStreetMap loaded. I download it from Velomap and update it every few months. It’s a bit slow at rendering in built up areas, but it’s totally usable and way better than buying the expensive Ordnance Survey maps which are basically the same, with more out of date bits. If you can, grab the version with the hill contours – it’s useful to see them.

09:27

The GPS is great for a few things:

  1. Showing you a predefined track, and keeping you on it.
  2. Telling you your mileage, moving average speed, and so on.
  3. Logging your route for later.
  4. Working when your smartphone has run out of battery.

It is rubbish at:

  1. Routing you to a waypoint. It’ll often try and take you along footpaths and motorways.
  2. Discovering what’s around you. The 2″ screen makes it difficult to see any distance at a usable level of detail, and the Points of Interest database is a complete pain to navigate. For that, use a paper map or your phone, unless you’re really stuck.

Lots of well known trips have GPS tracks available for download already – just do a search for “A to B gpx” – but often you’ll want to draw out a new route.

For this, I usually use Google Maps. I often plot a driving route from A to B, and then override it by dragging the route around to take it off the main roads and along quiet country lanes. It always snaps to the road network, so however you drag it you get a usable track. The topography isn’t always obvious, so I look at the satellite and terrain imagery on Google Maps, to make sure I’m not routing us up an unnecessary hill or similar.

Then I export and download it as a KML file, and convert it to a GPX file with GPS Babel, before loading it onto the Garmin with the Basecamp software.

I’d much rather use an OpenStreetMap based tool for all of this, but I haven’t found the right thing. Suggestions greatly appreciated!

Lots of the rides we’ve done from London have been absolutely brilliant, but took a while to plan, plot and prepare for the GPS. I thought it’d be helpful to put a few of the best ones on their own site so they might appear in search results, saving people some time.

The result is Good Bike Rides from London – a collection of day-rides we’ve done out of London, often to the coast, returning by train. There’s just four routes up there at the moment, but I’ve got quite a few track logs still to plough through and tidy up.

Anyway, they’re all good, all recommended, and all ready for sticking on your GPS and hitting the road. Happy cycling.

Update: I completely forgot to mention how useful CycleStreets is for cycle route planning, both long and short distance. I often check my customised route in Google Maps against it, and I love the altitude profiles it displays.

The Full Spectrum White Noise of the Network

I wrote this a while ago, as part of a project I was working on. It ends abruptly, as I switch to talking about stuff relevant to the project at hand.

Earlier today I found myself scanning through a High Frequency WebSDR station from the University of Technology Eindhoven (don’t ask), and the screenshot below reminded me of what I meant by the “full spectrum white noise of the network”. The rest of the piece is nonsense, but there’s something in there somewhere, and one day I’ll try and work out what it is.

The Full Spectrum White Noise of the Network

The phrase “cloud computing” almost certainly originates from the symbols drawn by engineers on networking diagrams. When representing the rest of the internet – the amorphous blob of computing just beyond the horizon – scribble a cloud and be done with it.

I never drew a cloud: I preferred to the draw the earth/ground symbol. You don’t connect to the cloud, you ground off to the internet. It seems like a better metaphor: computing flows through physical pipes, popping up in data centres and road-side boxes and telegraph poles. The cloud is a lie.

And I never understood the “ether” in Ethernet. By taking the radiation and constraining it in a waveguide (cable), we’ve taken it out of the ether. It’s the wireless technologies that should be called Ethernet.

I’ve always wondered what would have happened if we’d developed wireless networking first. If it had just happened to look easier at the time. An internet grown out of Ham Radio enthusiasts, rather than military hard lines. If cabled technology happened to be a recent development, designed to tunnel the radiation through a waveguide to get more distance and less interference.

How would that have changed the infrastructure and the topology of the network? Would the tragedy of the commons have killed it early, as we battled for the same spectrum space amongst our neighbours? Or would we have reached a steady equilibrium, careful to share this precious resource? What social or political environment would have made that possible?

And what technologies could have mediated this? If we’d never licensed the spectrum, would we have evolved devices that could negotiate between themselves, across all frequencies, in the full spectrum white noise of the network. Or would we be limited to a more local internet, rooted in the physical geography? More like to a loosely coupled collection of Wide Area Networks. “I’m trying to get a YouTube video from Manchester and it’s taking bloody ages.”

And would the bandwidth limitations of a shared spectrum have encouraged a internet that’s halfway between broadcast and P2P? Something between pirate radio and teletext++.

Could the mobile phone be considered to be an integral, structural, deep point in the network, or something that always feels like an edge node, flitting in and out of existence? Could you pull it out of your pocket and watch the data soar through it, as packets spool in and out, trying to find their way?

Satellite Eyes Tweaking

Satellite Eyes is brilliant.

A handful of people have asked me what happens to the images that Satellite Eyes produces, and how to get hold of them.

There’s nothing particularly magic going on: they’re just normal files on your disk, and the recent ones are kept around to make sure they’re quick to load the next time you need them.

They’re stored in ~/Library/Application Support/Satellite Eyes (the ~ is your home directory). They’re PNG images, called odd things like map-f41aa9f2abf22c9d9f54f0e1a5775fc0.png. (The alphanumeric name is used to indicate which file references which map image. It’s an MD5 sum of map style, corner coordinates, image effect and zoom level.)

To prevent them filling up your disk, only the last 20 are kept, and anything older is cleaned out when the application starts up. If you want Satellite Eyes to never clean out old images, you can change cleanCache to NO by running the following in Terminal:

defaults write ~/Library/Preferences/uk.co.tomtaylor.SatelliteEyes cleanCache -bool NO 

Beware, they will fill your disk up eventually!

rolling through the landscape with satellite eyes

The other day I spotted a superb little IFTTT recipe which will automatically upload all the new images to a Tumblr, by passing them through a Dropbox account.

To do this you need to move the Satellite Eyes directory in ~/Library/Application Support into your Dropbox folder, and then redirect Satellite Eyes there using a symlink. The recipe notes have slightly mangled formatting, so here’s what you need to run:

mv "~/Library/Application Support/Satellite Eyes" "~/Dropbox/Public/" &&  ln -s "~/Dropbox/Public/Satellite Eyes" "~/Library/Application Support/Satellite Eyes" 

Activate the recipe, and voila, they should be automatically uploaded as soon as IFTTT processes them.

Incidentally, any of the Stamen map styles, including the one everyone loves: Watercolor, can be quickly turned into big downloadable images using their brand new Map → Image service.

Nice.

A Thing to Think At

Olympic Live Stream Loop

One of the things I’ve been enjoying the most about the Olympics and Paralympics are the live streams put out by the Olympic Broadcasting Service, on digital TV and online.

The pacing is wonderful, without the pressure to fill every second with action. A few minutes of sport; some cheering; a minute or two of stadium murmur and shuffling; a few minutes of medal ceremonies: proud athletes, whatever that synthey Olympic background music is, a national anthem; then more shuffling, this time with a distant entertainer buoying the crowd; a bit more sport; repeat.

The commentary is light, and only when there’s actually something to comment on. In between the action the video is slow, with wide panning shots of the venues, and the audio soft, distant, ambient.

To me it feels less like broadcast television, and more like inviting a bit of the stadium, velodrome or aquatic centre into your life for a few hours. Sports Hurtigruten.

They’re places full of buzz and excitement, but I think I’d like to watch and listen to something more mundane, but equally interesting (to me): the road I grew up on, the Bristol to Bath cycle route, Denham airfield, or the A431.

One of the things I remember doing online with any quasi-regularity was watching the Hawaii Traffic Cameras online. It was just astounding to me. It’s on the other side of the world! It’s midnight there! The roads are so wide! I think it made me realise all the trivial things the web made possible, and the massive interconnectedness of it all. It seemed important at the time anyway.

Russell wrote something (I can’t find it, sorry) a while back about turning CCTV into something a bit less weird. I’m probably not remembering this right, but he wondered what it’d be like if there was a mechanism for the camera operator to not just watch, but to communicate back. Maybe you could ask the CCTV operators to keep score in a game of football, or to keep an eye on your bike.

That’s fun, and a nice way to rebalance to odd power relationship around CCTV, but I’d like to suggest something else. I’d make it a law that all CCTV cameras pointing at a public place must have a publicly accessible live stream available online.

For a start, it’d be a amazing resource to build useful things with. Quite astounding — but that’s another post. But also it’d make it possible to invite a million street corners, parks, libraries, roads, railway stations into your life for a little while.

I’ll concede that could seem weird, but I don’t want it to be like a vigilante or reality TV thing. I’d like it to be more like staring out of a cafe window: a thing to think at, something to unfocus on.

Like the Goodyear blimp circling over our house, I’m going to miss these live streams when it’s over.

Blimp over the Olympic Park

There Was a Warehouse Here

There was a warehouse here

There was a warehouse here. It was shared with a troupe of acrobats. There was a massive shoe. You could row to Tesco. It’s a little thing, but it seems so significant.

From Satellite Eyes

I’ve just released a little Mac app I’ve been working on for a while. It’s called Satellite Eyes. It’s pretty simple. It just sits in your menu tray, and changes your desktop wallpaper to the satellite image or map view from overhead.

There’s a proper little site for it and everything.

It’s taken much longer than expected. I tried to put it into the Mac App Store, but frankly I got bored and gave up.

The app was rejected for using personal data without consent or option. Apparently they meant that because it requires Location Services, and it quits if it isn’t granted access, that that might confuse people. I disputed that, but them’s the rules.

I might have done something about that, such as adding a demo mode, or something similar, but Location Services is broken in the sandbox in 10.7.x (acknowledged by Apple in my bug report), and the Mac App Store now requires all apps to be sandboxed.

I could’ve waited for 10.8, or maybe a patch release for 10.7, but I’ve got enough unreleased projects making me feel guilty.

So, anyway, here it is. Enjoy!

A Networked Thought

I’ve been enjoying the work of two friends over the last few months, and the other day, sitting in a cafe in Edinburgh, I tried to work out why it was I liked them so much.

The two things in question are Matt Irvine Brown’s modern boogie yus Spotify playlist, and James Bridle’s New Aesthetic Tumblr.

First, you should assume I’m reading way too much into this. They’re just good things, and don’t need justifying with pseudo-intellectual blogging.

With that out the way, I think there’s something about them both that feels new and interesting.

Matt’s playlist is a collection of recent electronica with a decent beat. Every few days Matt comes back to it, adds a few tracks to it, moves a few around, maybe deletes a couple. Because it’s on Spotify you don’t have to download anything to listen to it – it’s all there and instant-on and legal.

At its most clinical, Matt has taken a slice of music and given it a name and a place on the web. Because it’s got a URL we can point at it, share it, and when Matt updates it, everyone’s copy updates with it. As he discovers new music he adds them to the playlist, but adjusts the older tracks to flow better too.

Matt has a good taste and knowledge of music, so it feels like I’m getting to watch over the shoulder of someone I respect as they thumb their way through a record shop, slowly building up the perfect playlist. It’s a bit like a mix tape which is always shipping.

James’ New Aesthetic Tumblr is in a different area entirely, but perhaps has some similarities.

James has coined a thing: a word, a patch of culture, bounded by a thought in his head. We’re watching James work through this thing he’s named, and the act of collecting these examples of the New Aesthetic is his way of working out what it is.

I’m not sure he’s always right, or that I agree with all his choices – but that’s fine because it’s his thought, not mine, and we’re all just watching.

Both of these seem like something new to me: something approaching a networked thought. They’re slow, evolving over months, but in full public view, as they both work through something that’s interesting to them through the act of curation and collection.

The playlist and the Tumblr are just containers for other people’s work, but the thought is in the connections, not the nodes.

I suppose part of my interest in them is a natural extension of the curiosity about the working process of creative individuals. A bit like the way people want to know what software was used to design a website, or what tools an author uses.

By watching the work evolve we might get a better understanding of how they both think and some of that might rub off on us.

And regardless, they’re both just good.