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March 2010

Breathtaking confession


What? He read T.S. Eliot?

Full story here. (Love the way reading T.S. Eliot is put on equal footing to inadvertently wearing two shirts and two ties to a meeting with Rupert Murdoch.)

Rip-wolf and the E-Puzzler

Most people will be familiar with that feeling you get in real-life situations where you find yourself looking for the 'undo' button, only to realise there isn't one. A bit like missing a key moment in a live football match and waiting for the players to reassemble and do it again in slow motion. In each case, you get that slightly wobbly, disconcerting moment when you realise the ruthless nature of 'real time'. Life has already moved on without you.

According to a story in The Times, the real world is now developing an 'undo' function. Dr. Bertram Nickolay, a scientist in Berlin, has been working on a computer programme capable of piecing together millions of fragments of torn-up documents, based solely on pattern recognition. His aim is to reconfigure classified documents destroyed in haste by the Stasi as the East German state crumbled in 1989, mostly using shredders known as 'rip-wolves', but also tearing some up by hand when the machines broke under the strain.

Known as the 'E-Puzzler', the software logs the unique characteristics of each piece — shape, colour, font, texture, handwriting, paper-type, edges and thickness — then uses an algorithm to group together similar fragments, before matching them up individually.

Of course, this is a job that human beings are capable of tackling, but it takes a long time, especially when faced with material on this scale:


The same technology is already being applied elsewhere to piece together ancient papyrus documents and earthenware. Seeing it in action must be quite something – all those little fragments dancing around the screen, until they resolve into a real object that hasn't existed for decades or millennia. Like watching Apple's Time Machine operating in the real world.


Someone will surely make a film about Dr Bertram Nickolay one day, probably starring Russell Crowe. Rip-wolf and the E-Puzzler would be a good title for it. I may write a script, shred it, then send it to Marty Scorsese with a humorous covering note.

Ironic footnote: After further research, it turns out the story in The Times is itself a remarkable reconstitution of a story that appeared in The Guardian three years ago. Hmm.

Free Dawit Isaak


I'm soon going to be taking part in 26:50, a collaboration between 26 and International PEN, marking the fiftieth anniversary of PEN's Writers in Prison Committee.

26 has paired fifty of its members with fifty writers whose causes have been championed by International PEN over the years. The idea is to find out as much as you can about your writer and then write (exactly) fifty words as a response.

The results are being posted up daily, in the run up to International PEN's Free The Word festival in April. They make for fascinating reading, not just as pieces in themselves, but as little windows into the much bigger stories that lie behind.

My writer is Dawit Isaak, an Eritrean-born Swedish citizen imprisoned by the Eritrean government for his work as a journalist on the country's first independent newspaper. He has been held without trial for 3,099 days, in prisons notorious for their inhuman conditions and use of torture. His family and friends (he has many) have no way of checking on his well-being.

There's an excellent website where you can find out more about his plight (click on the English language option at the top right of the page). One simple way to help is to sign the petition on the home page, which has over 18,000 signatures, mainly from Sweden. It would be a nice side-effect of this project if some more British names appeared.

I'll write in more detail when my contribution comes out in the next few weeks.

140 x 365

Today is the first anniversary of us joining Twitter – cards and presents to the usual address. Adrian Shaughnessy has written a good article in Design Week about the benefits of tweeting (you have to be a subscriber to read it). Here's my quick run-down of its pros and cons. 


It's a great way to find out things you wouldn't otherwise find out about, quickly

It stands to reason – you follow interesting people; they mention it when they see something interesting. It's a very effective way of editing the web, introducing a level of variety and unpredictability that you don't get with RSS readers.

It fosters a sense of community

As Adrian Shaughnessy and others have pointed out, things like Twitter are great at creating a sense of shared endeavour in a design industry that is otherwise extremely fragmented.

It's good fun and makes you laugh

This obviously depends on the quality of people you follow, but is generally true – like being in an office full of entertaining banter, which you can turn off whenever you like.

It's the right level of distraction

Some people criticise Twitter for being too distracting during a working day. I find it's about right – a nice level of background noise while you're working on something else. A good rule of thumb is not to follow any more than about 150 people. (Maybe it should be 140 characters.) We also stick to people who are vaguely within our field, rather than following celebrities or indiscriminately following anyone who follows us. (Other people use lists and applications such as Tweetdeck to manage larger numbers of followers, but I find I can't fit all that information in my head at once.)

It's good for self-promotion

If you have a blog or something to plug, or an idea you want to share and get people involved in, it's the best way to spread the word.


It's good for self-promotion

There's no getting round the fact that a lot of tweeting is about boosting the self-esteem of the tweeter, whether you're clearing your throat and pointing towards your spectacular number of followers, casually retweeting someone who just said you're great, or linking to a fantastic blog post you just happen to have written. This is OK though. We all do it. People know when you're overdoing it.

It's called Twitter

Tweeting on twitter with your tweeps will never be a manly activity.

It may not work for everyone

Like all media, it may suit some personality types more than others. Maybe you need to be reasonably confident with words, as it can be tricky to say what you want to say in such a short space. I like the fact that it's a conversation that no one dominates (again this depends who you follow). But a lot of people join Twitter, try it for a while, then tail off – there must be good reasons for this.

It's surrounded by annoying media coverage

The media is still in that mindset where any story becomes fifty times more newsworthy if you can get the word 'twitter' into it, usually in an entirely exaggerated or misleading way. Either they're mocking it for being all about telling people what you've had for lunch (a bit like saying the phone is all about telling people what you've had for tea), or they're overhyping its ability to single-handedly change the world (Iranian uprisings, Trafigura etc) – it does undoubtedly have important social uses, but so do the mobile phone and email and lots of other things. 

The continuing search to 'monetise' Twitter may lead to more cons, but hopefully not. (We would probably pay a small annual subscription based on number of tweets, if the first 500 or so were free.)

That's it for my Twitter reflections. Ha ha! Try saying all that in 140 characters, if Twitter is so damn great! an imaginary cynic cries. This is another misconception about Twitter – you don't have to say everything in 140 characters. You can say it here, then link to it. Which is what I'm about to do.