Writing

Twelescreen updated for 2017

Keeping several projects up-to-date is like spinning plates (is that still a thing people do?). Sometimes things get out of date / crash to the floor. I just updated Twelescreen / picked up a plate.

That’s enough metaphor. I wrote about Twelescreen in 2013 but to recap, it is (a) a scary-looking broadcast system for our rulers’ announcements via Twitter and (b) a Node.js app that is a fullscreen, one-Tweet-at-a-time display with customisable themes, Twitter lists, and so forth.

Thing (a) was so out of date that the UK Twelescreen was still displaying David Cameron’s tweets, never mind the US one featuring Barack Obama’s. Now both are fully updated for the new order of 2017 in which the humour of displaying these terse announcements feels a little less humorous.

Thing (b), the code itself, needed some polish. Given I last (and first) used Node when I wrote this code over three years ago, I thought it might be a huge pain to update it from Node v0.10 up to the current v6.9. Six versions!

Thankfully it was pleasantly easy, the main difference being that a lot of things bundled into Node back then have been broken out into separate packages. But they seem to operate much the same as before, and it took me less than half a day to update that, and all the packages, and get it working again. Finished!

Except, of course, it took about another whole day to fix a bunch of bugs and otherwise tweak things. The other 20% of the work.

As far as I know, no one uses the site or the code but it still amuses me occasionally, so I may as well keep it ticking along.

Screenshot: 'President Trump: JOIN US LIVE! - DJT'

It’s funny right? Right?!

In Projects on 15 February 2017. Permalink

US maps from 1963

In 1963 my mum, Janet Gyford, travelled across America, and dipped into Mexico, and collected a load of stuff along the way. I’ve scanned in the covers of the 66 road maps she collected.

You can see them all in this Flickr album. While many are quite nice individually, they do look great all together on that page. Many of them were collected at gas stations, presumably why so many are branded by oil companies.

I wasn’t sure which to choose as examples here, so here are the only four whose covers are in landscape format (that Alaska one is probably the classiest of the lot, to my modernist eyes):

Alaska Highway Map 1961

Missouri Official Highway Map 1962

Nevada Highways 1962-1962 map

Esso Western United States map

It might be interesting to scan some of the actual maps themselves but (a) time and (b) I wasn’t sure where to start. If you’re eager to see any particular parts of any of those 54-year-old maps, then let me know.

In Misc on 15 February 2017. Permalink

Last.fm added to Django Ditto

Last year I wrote about Django Ditto, a collection of Django apps for copying your Flickr, Pinboard and Twitter “stuff”. I’ve now added the ability to copy your Last.fm listening data.

You can see the default public templates on the demo site, see the code on GitHub or read the documentation.

Screenshot of the website

Using Last.fm’s API Django Ditto can store records of your listening and produce the usual charts of your top artists, tracks and albums, along with a page per artist, track and album. As with Flickr, Pinboard and Twitter, it can do this for multiple accounts. And, as with the other services, you can see everything from a single day (for example).

I initially thought I might pull in more data, given Last.fm often supplies MusicBrainz IDs, but this was a bit unreliable, especially when it comes to artists sharing the same name. This isn’t Last.fm’s fault, given their data comes solely from the names of tracks played, but I ended up walking away from that idea and doing nothing more than link to MusicBrainz if an ID is present.

Using Django Ditto don’t have to use the templates (which use Bootstrap v4), or the Django views. You could use the app to store copies of your listening (or Tweets, or photos, or bookmarks) and use them however you like on your own Django website. There are some template tags to make it easier to output common things in your own templates.

Thankfully, the Last.fm data was simpler than dealing with Tweets or Flickr photos, the last parts I added, as this has been taking, inevitably, longer than I planned. I hope to add Foursquare/Swarm check-ins next but I might write some different code first, to have a change.

As ever, if you or your organisation need some web stuff making, particularly this kind of thing — APIs, wrangling data, archiving, etc — do email me.

In Web Development on 9 February 2017. Permalink

MoMA Exhibition Seplunker

I recently worked on another site with Good, Form & Spectacle, the MoMA Exhibition Spelunker, exploring sixty years of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

MoMA released a lot of data about their exhibitions from the museum’s opening in 1929 to 1989 and commissioned GF&S to make something from it.

Screenshot of the home page

A spelunker, according to Chambers, is “a person who explores caves as a hobby” and we aimed to explore MoMA’s raw data and make it more visible and penetrable by everyone else. It’s hard to get a decent sense of the shape of lists of data so we set off to explore.

The fundamentals of this are to make the huge amount of rows and columns of data easily browsable. So you can view the list of exhibitions in date order. You can see all the artists who have been featured or, for example, all the curators involved. Or see all the people, no matter what they’ve done. Or you can get a sense of the museum’s directors and departments over time.

Visualising the data

Such lists are much more friendly than raw data but they’re still hard to take in at a glance. We wanted to be able to get a better overview of those sixty years, and so we created various graphs to depict activity over time. These, made using D3.js, sometimes act both as sort-of sparklines and also as forms of navigation.

For example, a simple chart of the number of exhibitions per year can be clicked/tapped to jump to a particular year:

Screenshot of the exhibitions-per-year chart

Or you can compare how the number of people performing different non-artist roles has changed over time:

Screenshot of the roles charts

Or, for one of those roles, see which people performed them when. Here are the people who were curators most often, and you can see when their work overlapped:

Screenshot of the curators list

A bigger chart was designed to show MoMA’s different departments, to give a sense of when they began and also who was in charge of them. Here we can see that William S. Lieberman was director of three departments:

Screenshot of the departments chart

More media

It’s always nice when you can use raw data to fetch more related data or media.

MoMA had already done some work finding reviews of exhibitions in the New York Times, so we were able to tie that in to the existing data to show summaries of, and links to, the articles. For example, here’s a review of the first exhibition, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh from 1929:

Screenshot of a New York Times review

MoMA’s data also included different kinds of identifiers for the people involved, which meant we could use the Wikidata ID to fetch an image for many of them. Seeing faces makes the whole thing much more alive… and makes clear how the most involved people over six decades are white men:

Screenshot of the people list

Because this was a project for MoMA we also had access to their images — brilliantly they have a large collection of photographs of the exhibitions themselves. It’s great to see artworks in place. For example, here’s an exhibition about the Bauhaus in 1938-9:

Screenshot of the Bauhaus exhibition page

I like it when you occasionally catch sight of a person in the otherwise empty galleries.


Another nice project, making a large amount of data easy to take in and easy to explore.

This was built using Django as the back end. Read more about the project on the Good, Form & Spectacle work diary.

In Projects on 6 February 2017. Permalink

The Waddesdon Bequest website

Towards the end of 2015 I helped create a website for The Waddesdon Bequest, a collection at the British Museum, with Good, Form & Spectacle.

(I’ve realised how behind I am with posting about work I’ve done, and so in the interests of having some record of it all, here we all are.)

The Waddesdon Bequest is a collection of nearly 300 objects left to the British Museum in 1898 by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild. It’s all exhibited in a single glittering room and so makes for a nicely contained set of objects, and associated data compiled by the museum, to work with.

Screenshot of the home page

The foundations of the site are what we might, without diminishing their importance, think of as “The Basics”: a page per object (e.g., The Holy Thorn Reliquary), browsable lists of objects (e.g., all objects that include rubies), simple explanations, responsiveness. That kind of thing.

Beyond that, there are a number of things I particularly like about the finished site:

Representing the physical space

Part of the point of the website was to create something useful for visitors to the museum, not just those at their computers/phones who are curious. Consequently, it’s possible to view the objects according to where they are in the room, with a clickable map oriented according to how visitors enter. For example, here’s the case of objects a visitor sees when they enter the room.

Screenshot of the page for Case 3a

Often digital versions of physical things, such as exhibitions, seem like entirely separate experiences. I think it’s important to relate the two kinds of experience more closely. If you’ve been to the museum then this makes it easier to find information about something you remember seeing, because you can probably remember roughly where it was, or what it was near.

Representing the objects’ physicality

Another way in which we tried to bring the physical experience to the website was by making it easy to compare physical aspects of the objects. Thanks to the detailed data kept by the museum we were able to create lists of the objects ordered by size, height and weight.

Screenshot of the 'By Height' page

To help visualise the size of objects we created graphics that represent the three dimensions with a cuboid next to a graphic of a tennis ball. We chose this as a fairly internationally-recognisable object and it helps make clear the largeness or smallness of objects, which isn’t clear from their very detailed photographs.

For example, this Ram amulet is pretty small:

Screenshot of part of the Ram Amulet page

While this statue of St George and the Dragon is much larger:

Screenshot of part of the St George and the Dragon page

Showing everything

The museum keeps a huge amount of detailed data about every object and it was great to be able to make all that visible in clear and simple ways.

In addition the museum has very detailed photos of the objects, and some objects have been photographed a number of times over the years. We could have just shown nicely-sized versions of the very best photos. But why not show it all? So, if there are many photos of an object, you can see them all (e.g. the Holy Thorn Reliquary has 46). And for each photo you can zoom in very close which, given how intricate many of the objects are, can be fascinating.

Screenshot of part of the Holy Thorn Reliquary page



So there you go. A lovely little interesting project. The rest of the team was Good, Form & Spectacle’s George Oates and creative technologist Frankie Roberto.

Go and explore the collection and read more about the work on the Good, Form & Spectacle work diary.

In Projects on 6 February 2017. Permalink

Some kettle suggestions

The other day I asked on Twitter whether anyone could recommend a good kettle. I didn’t expect much but ended up with lots of suggestions, many for kettles I hadn’t seen before. So I thought I’d share them here.

I said:

Anyone got a kettle they really like? We need a new one. I’m not sure one can feel excited about a kettle but they’re all a bit mehhhhh.

Our current kettle, a chrome Kenwood, dribbles when pouring, although it was fine for most of its life (15+ years). Our criteria for a new one:

  • Water gauge (common, but missing on our current one)
  • Fast and quiet boiling
  • Looks nice
  • Not stupidly expensive

I was quite keen on a variable temperature kettle – less-than-boiling is better for coffee – but not at the expense of the other criteria.

We made targeted strikes on a few department stores and came away uninspired. Most kettles were ugly or boring or both. So, to Twitter!

As Peter Merholz reminded me the first stop for recommendations should be The Sweethome, and their top pick is:

Cuisinart CPK-17 PerfecTemp kettleCuisinart CPK-17 PerfecTemp kettle

It’s about £70, which seems a bit much for a water-boiler, and that button-filled handle looks a bit too Star Trek for my taste. Variable temperatures and a Sweethome recommendation sound good, but reviews on Amazon say the kettle’s blue light stays on all the time, even when it’s not boiling, which puts me right off.

Peter also said:

This is ours: https://www.amazon.com/Oster-2-Liter-… Inexpensive, use it everyday, doesn’t make us angry, does what you want.

I should have added “doesn’t make us angry” to my list of requirements.

Oster 5965 kettleOster 5965 kettle

It looks interesting but I’m a bit put off that when I try and visit Oster’s page for this kettle I’m redirected to the front of osterblenders.co.uk. It’s not for us Britons, obviously.

Philip Bragg said:

I’m keen on our purple kenwood kettle, it feels right, might be discontinued. Also Severin WK 3389 great for ppl with arthritis

I hadn’t heard of Severin (“Tasteful Technology”) but they do some fairly simple-looking kettles. And that WK 3389 is a pleasing shape:

Severin WK 3389 kettleSeverin WK 3389 kettle

About £35. But it only holds 1.2 litres (about 0.5 litres less than most) and is only 1500 watts. Fast-boiling kettles seem to go up to 3000 W, so I guess this would be a bit slow.

Kumail Hunaid said:

I haven’t gotten it yet but I really like the Delonghi kettles

http://www.delonghi.com/en-au/products…

http://www.delonghi.com/en-gb/products…

Here’s the first of those:

De'Longhi IconaDe’Longhi Icona kettle

About £50. Another, private, correspondent said of their De’Longhi Icona, “it hasn’t broken and boils water”. Aside from these important criteria, I’m not crazy about the design.

You could say that this style is not my… wait for it… cup of tea.

I couldn’t resist that any longer.

Matt Croydon said:

we’re ridiculously happy with our Breville Tea Maker. It’s a bit over the top but has been making several pots a day for 2+ yrs.

Breville Tea MakerBreville Tea Maker

This “revolutionary tea experience” (also the strapline of the Boston Tea Party) looks fairly clean and simple if you only need hot water for tea. But we need it for coffee and for boiling water for cooking (quicker than a saucepan). It also appears to cost about £200. So, no.

A private correspondent admired the look of the Skandium Emma kettle, although they hadn’t used it:

Skandium Emma kettleSkandium Emma kettle

It does look classy, as you’d hope for £120. My first thought was that the handle looks like it’d break off easily, but that’s based on no evidence. Only 1.2 litres and no details on the wattage, but still desirable.

Nick Marsh said:

here’s an electric kettle with a pleasing form http://www.muji.eu/pages/online.a… - N.B I have no personal experience of this kettle

Muji kettleMuji electric kettle

Nice to see something that’s not metal or glossy plastic, but £60 seems a lot for such a small kettle (0.5 litres).

Nick also said:

I have this kettle. It’s very pleasing to look at and use: http://www.davidmellordesign.com/cooking-and-ba…

Gateway Japan kettleGateway Japan kettle

I can imagine this £90 kettle is very satisfying but we’re planning to stick with a kettle powered directly by electricity.

While we’re on the topic, Tom Coates suggested:

I have the oxo good grips stove top one and I like it a lot, but I’m not a huge kettle user

Oxo Uplift Anniversary Edition kettleOxo Uplift Anniversary Edition kettle

I do love the ease and comfort of OXO products but, leaving aside it being a stove-top, it doesn’t appear to be available in the UK. It’s about US$50.

Paul Pod said:

I don’t feel strongly about it, but this has been alright http://www.johnlewis.com/russell-hobbs…

Russell Hobbs Oxford kettleRussell Hobbs 20090 Oxford kettle

That looks perfectly fine. About £20, 1.7 litres, 2400 watts. Probably just the kind of thing we’d buy unless this exhausting search turns up something that ticks all the boxes in a better way.

Tom Hostler said:

Four years and counting with this one … https://m.johnlewis.com/dualit-jug-ket… #philgyfordneedsanewkettle

Dualit Jug kettleDualit Jug kettle

Dualit’s toasters seem to have a great reputation so I’m interested in their kettles. But for some reason I’m not keen on that handle. Otherwise though, it’s 1.5 litres and 3000 watts for £50+ so sounds good if you like the look of it.

Aegir Hallmundur said:

Very late to this, but the Burco 2 litre catering kettle is good. Just a plain old un-fancy kettle.

Burco KTL02 2 Litre catering kettleBurco KTL02 2 Litre catering kettle

That’s an interesting idea. Something designed to Just Work for industry. Nothing fancy. £50. Also available in a 4 litre version if you really like your tea. However its claimed “5 minute heat up time” is double that of a lot of domestic kettles.

David Thompson said:

I like our Bosch TWK8637.

Bosch TWK8637 kettleBosch TWK8637 kettle

I’d seen this before, when looking for variable-temperature kettles, as there aren’t many options. It’s around £45. I quite like the cylindrical business-like design but find the size of the base a bit off-putting. I guess it keeps the kettle itself simpler, unlike that Cuisinart we saw first, or this alternative, also from Bosch:

Bosch TWK86103 kettleBosch TWK86103 kettle

That’s around £40. Both of those Bosch kettles are 3000 watts.

Finally, a private correspondent reminded me to look at Which?. You have to pay to see their exhaustive reviews, although if you cancel after a month you’ve only spent £1… so I signed up again.

I find Which? of varying use… I’d never consult them when looking for something like a laptop or a camera. And sometimes their domestic appliance reviews are frustrating because the things they’ve reviewed are never available. Partly because the manufacturers do their best to confuse everyone with their product numbering and availabilities in different stores.

But kettle reviews seem more practical. Although, as usual, Which?’s priorities — some might say “obsessions” — are often different to mine. For example, they seem very interested in how easy or hard it is to clean inside a kettle. Is that something you’re supposed to do?

It’s also interesting to read the reviews from users. Although Which? rate the Dualit kettles (seen above) extremely highly, there are lots of people complaining about theirs leaking from around the water level indicator. Another, the Russell Hobbs Buckingham was found to be extremely quiet… except the user reviews are full of people complaining that it gets noisy after a few months. Of course, one has to balance user reviews — people who are quietly satisfied rarely seem to review their products.

Anyway, one kettle I hadn’t seen before that I like the look of is the Bosch TWK6A1031GB (catchy!):

Bosch TWK6A1031GB kettleBosch TWK6A1031GB kettle

That rated well (80%), looks a bit different but not stupid, is 3100 watts, and costs £40. It also has a good limescale filter, one of Which?’s obsessions which, this time, coincides with our needs given the hardness of London’s water.

That’s about it. I’m not sure which to get yet but we have a different, and more interesting, shortlist than before I asked Twitter. So thanks everyone!

In Misc on 28 November 2016. Permalink

Thanks Leonard

Twenty years ago I used Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man to begin a phone message on a dating service. Ridiculous. The chances of me “stepping into the ring” for anyone are remote. And few of us could match up to the sound of Leonard’s voice. Despite all that, it worked.

I’d found an ad in the Guardian’s Soulmates listings that stood out, for reasons I no longer remember. I called and listened to the woman’s message. She began with part of a song I now forget so, having liked the rest of her message, I felt obliged to respond in kind.

I looked through the track listings on every CD trying to find the few seconds of music that would sell me appropriately. I hate promoting myself and doing so with a song can only be embarrassing. Whatever my shortlist was I assume I’m Your Man’s directness was the quality that won out:

If you want a lover
I’ll do anything you ask me to
And if you want another kind of love
I’ll wear a mask for you
If you want a partner
Take my hand, or
If you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand
I’m your man
If you want a boxer
I will step into the ring for you

Fortunately the sound of my voice following the gravity of Leonard’s hadn’t been too disappointing because Tanja called me and we chatted and we got on. She knew the guy I sat next to at work and, after we hung up, she asked him about me. Thankfully he was complimentary.

We chatted a few times before she suggested meeting. We met upstairs at Maison Bertaux in Soho; her choice; I’d never heard of it. It was my birthday — I’d had no other plans — and she gave me a present of a toy gun.

Atomic gun

It was a good evening, a pleasant birthday to remember. We went on to a pub in Fitzrovia, had dinner at Mildred’s (then on Greek Street), followed by coffee on Old Compton Street.

We got on fine but, despite the promise of “Soulmates”, we’d never be more than friends. After that we spoke on the phone occasionally and we hung out a few times before we gradually drifted apart a few months later.

I hope Tanja’s doing OK now, two decades on. I can’t remember her surname but it was nice to have her as a friend briefly.

Thanks Leonard.

In Personal on 11 November 2016. Permalink

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