Coignée, Pluviôse, 228; Power modes, mind control, ancient games

Oh boy, there’s a lot of self-centred guff in this one. If you're not interested (and who could blame you) I would skip through the 'Power Modes' section but there’s no point pretending we don’t have implicit algorithms that we use to make decisions and structure our behaviour. Maybe not everyone does, maybe some folks are just totally confident and comfortable in themselves and their choices that they don’t try and rationalise them.

Mrs Revell and I bought our first flat over the summer and we've been settling in gradually. While the rest of the place is very designerly and tastefully finished my 'office' (the name of this room is still contentious) is the dumping ground for stuff that has nowhere else to go and old furniture. I'm hoping to get some time over the summer to sort it out but for now this is where I write to you from.


I finished up *New* Program for Graphic Design by David Reinfurt over the tail end of last week while travelling and it was good. There's not much more to say really, if you're into design, design education and design history, read it. I learned lots and found it pretty easy to engage with. So at the weekend I moved onto clearing out some open tabs. The new edition of Continent is right up the Haunted Machines alley and featured great work from Stephen Connor, Nicolas Nova, Suzanne Triester and Peter Moosgard. I also read an article by one of the editors who I hadn't come across before – Anthony Enns on Apocryphal Psychotechnologies. This was an exhaustive history of mind-reading and control devices and the narratives and pseudoscience around them propelled principally by the belief that the mind is a machine and we could read and control it with the right gizmo. 

This provided a very neat segue into Simon Niquille's lates piece for e-flux – Too Much Information. Niquille has a real talent for connecting technical, historical and political ideas around technologies and does a great job here of really hammering the technical trait of believing that 'good enough' simulation means that you can read and control perfectly. Similar to Enns' critique of mind-reading evinced by the brain as an electro-magnetic machine, Niquille describes how the logic of FACS (Facial Action Coding System) – a system used to simulate human emotions on CGI models with a series of 'universal' facial movements – evinced technologists that human emotions could similarly be discretely read from a limited available set:
These applications follow the belief that the face holds the key to truth and reveals thoughts left unspoken. [psychologist Paul] Ekman refers to micro expressions as an “involuntary emotional leakage [that] exposes a person’s true emotions.” In the case of airport screenings, automated facial expression recognition takes on a predictive function by claiming to pick up signals of future intentions. Such expectation echoes the practice of physiognomy, a pseudoscience that originated in antiquity and resurged in Europe during the late Middle Ages to assess a persons character from their outer appearance. 
I would have liked to have seen more critique of the designerly qualities of the machines that Enns' examines, similar to the work that Andrew Friend and Sitraka's 2013 Prophecy Program but I suppose that's not his remit.

Power Modes

Sometimes I think about who we are in different places. If you ask Mrs Revell she’d (probably) say that I mostly like sitting on my own in silence. That’s the kind of ‘resting state’ and then I activate other states for other situations. When I’m in situations where I don’t know anyone or know very few people I seem to have two wildly different states: Either sit-at-the-back, hide in the shadows and crack on with work on the laptop (let’s call this low power mode) or everyone here is interesting, talk to them all, learn about them, soak it up (high power mode). And then I end up thinking – well which one am I really, given no external conditions? I’m not faking being interested in talking to other people or learning about them, their lives and concerns, and we all enjoy the feeling that comes with people giving you their time and attention. Then I’m resentful of the times I don’t make the most of the opportunities to meet new people and learn new things, and sit at the back and hide but also feel safe. 

When I was up in Edinburgh last week I was definitely in high power mode and it was great. I suppose I wonder if there are specific starting conditions or triggers that I can proactively make sure are in place to make sure I get into that mode and make the most of these opportunities. At LCC I’m almost always entirely in that mode but then I already know most people who work in that building and they’re all super interesting so it’s quite comfortable. Anyway, it was fortuitous to listen to David Mitchell on the Adam Buxton podcast while tidying the flat (it’s an old one, I’m playing catch up between bouts of Islamic philosophy) talking about how he deals with small talk as a relatively new parent:
It’s not like I mean to be unfriendly, but I don’t mean to be friendly enough and that is being unfriendly and maybe it’s better that everyone expect me to be unfriendly and then they won’t try and talk to me. Then I can be friendly with my actual friends who know what I’m like and I’m less shy with them and so I will talk to them but I haven’t really got the energy or concentration or courage to be a normal chatty guy. Just generally.
He was referring specifically to small talk at the ‘school gates’ which I suppose I’m unfamiliar with but I am familiar with forced social proximity from other things (cursed ‘networking’ sessions at conferences being a chief culprit or large group meals with people I don’t know) and in those situations the triggers are definitely fired off to go into low power mode. I think when I can’t control, direct or structure the social circumstances I go low power mode: I have to be in that space for a certain amount of time and with a pre-ordained set of people and there’s no control over that. I think I go high power mode when I get to set the rules, chiefly; I can always walk away. There’s much less risk involved if you’re setting at least some of the terms of the social interactions. Mitchell wraps up this line of thought with the specifics of his career:
What I like about being a comedian and performing in general is that there are occasions where you have to be energised and think and in certain situations be chatty – I’m trying to be chatty now. But you sort of know, while doing it, that that’s part of a certain discrete project and the when that project ends you can go back to being unfriendly and morose and quiet. You know, it’s nice to put on an ironed shirt and have a wash but it’s also nice not to have to be just generally ‘clean’
I remember saying to Wes once (when he was spending every day in silence on his own working on his PhD) that I often don’t want to socialise because I spend all day in meetings and talking or teaching and lecturing and being enthusiastic, and energised and trying to bring people along with me with their own ideas and energy and it’s exhausting. So, when I’m not doing that I just like to sit in quiet on my own. I guess it’s a similar thing.

Things I learned this week

  • I learned about the Royal Game of Ur which, when you think about the longevity of games (or even specific artefacts) is kind of remarkable. Invented in the early third millenia in Mesopotamia, spread across most of the Indo-European world and beyond up until late antiquity (500 AD-ish in Europe). I like the way the rules were learned; an astronomer from Babylon wrote a tablet to his Greek friends with a more complex variation on the game from which modern scholars were able to reverse engineer the standard rules. 
  • I really liked this article which is from a few years back but seems a bit ever green. Basically, people can say mean things, not because they're mean but that's just how we build social bonds. I deleted my 'small' (read: private) Twitter account a few years ago because I didn't like how mean it was. I don't like being mean to people who aren't in the room (not to say I can't be mean to people to their face) I didn't really learn anything there but it's a nice articulation of the vicious joy of being mean on the Internet.

Flagon, Pluviôse, 228: Donkeys and baskets

Hi, sorry I don't have much for you this week. I was away at the weekend and I haven't really sat down and thought about much at all for the past seven days. Tom Armitage (he also has a blog) sent me an article about Disco Elysium which begins with a quote form one of the developer's (ZA/UM) founders on their name:
"It just looks hella cool, that slash there. It looks like the technical name of something that definitely exists and weighs eight tonnes."
As Tom said in his email: 'ZA/UM appear to be more rock and roll than I can conceive.' I guess in my own janky, inappropriate way I try to be a bit rock and roll. Maybe we could all try being more rock and roll.


I have the videos and images from What if Our World is Their Heaven to sort out and write up. This was the workshop slash studio that Natalie Kane and I ran with MA Graphic Media Design at London College of Communication. We looked at the cultural and political dimensions of 'automated image production and dissemination.' This is slightly selfish as I'm trying to kick off a research project at LCC on the same theme but it proved fruitful; the students really got on with it and pulled out a dizzying array of interesting projects and practices.

Anyway, I'm off to Edinburgh in 30 mins to do an event on speculative design at Edinburgh Napier's Creative Informatics Lab. I'm still not sure exactly what to talk about. The easy version would just be to go on about some work I've done but I don't know if people are interested in that. Then on Friday afternoon I'm back in London for the 'Designing for Alternative Futures' event at the Design Museum. Just check out the lineup on that. What a corker.

Things I Learnt This Week

This week I did make sure to note some things I learnt. 
  • I learnt what a freakshake was from a menu in a cafe in Bakewell. They are...  alarming. 
  • I learnt the etymological origins of the gay slang 'Twink' which is connected to the confectionary. I honestly didn't know. When you think about it, it's kind of obvious. 
  • Finally, in the podcast at the moment we're doing Sufi mysticism and Nasreddin came up who I learnt about from Slavs and Tartars a while back but h regaled the story of the basket and the donkey which tickles me (and because I can't find the original I paraphrase here):

    Everyday Nasreddin rode his donkey into the town and every day the customs officer inspected the donkey and Nasreddin's empty basket and found nothing Years later the customs officer – now retired – ran into Nasreddin in the market and asked him; 'I've retired now, you can tell me, what were you smuggling?

    'Donkeys and baskets.'

Night x

Chat, Nivose, 228; Time has Eaten Me Again but Maybe Some of This Content will Satisfy You.

Is knowledge always a product of its technical constraints? Donald Knuth’s precise mathematical description of the letter ‘S’ owes its existence to the switch to papyrus and wax that enabled early Latin scribes to make curved shapes. Without that switch from carving stones to marking paper; no s, no Knuth on mathematics of typography. So what knowledge was lost because some arbitrary technical decision or necessity was bypassed? You see, I was doing really well at finding time to read articles and do bits of writing in the morning until the first week back at my real job, now I am back to being exhausted and frenetic, unable to concentrate on a single thing.

Common Design Studio

I’ve spoken to some folks about this but I suppose since we got some money it’s worth going a bit public. With my colleague Eva Verhoeven, I’m going to be working on a big design education project this year – Common Design Studio. This is a follow-up to the Global Design Studio that itself was a follow up to Interact, an exchange programme between LCC and some Australian counterparts. Global Design Studio was an online project with 60 students from three institutions around the world all working together for ten days. We wrote up the results of Global Design Studio into a paper and identified that one of the missed opportunities of online projects like this is that they could be done cheaper by maximising the use of resources where they were plentiful and giving more access to others where they weren’t and that they have the possibility to connect folks who may not normally have access to the institution. As a result the Common Design Studio is a proposal for a completely free, open online design learning project run out of LCC that anyone with a phone can join. This makes it sound deceptively simple but there are already hurdles.

Because the project is committed to transparency and freedom we are documenting everything online totally openly. I’m currently using a Trello board for this purpose which you can get to here. It contains all the important documents and will be populated with meeting notes and discussions as the project evolves. I’m not sure if it’s the most suitable thing but it allows for anyone to drop in and check it out which is what we’re aiming for. If you want to help out or have any ideas or references please also shoot them over.


I decided I don’t like Vanished Kingdoms and stopped reading it. I like my history with a bit of allegory and, frankly, a bit of narrative and the thing was getting quite a slog to read through, for instance in the case of Aragon, over a thousand years of names of Kings and what they did. Also, I didn’t realise when picking it up (despite being on the cover) that it focuses exclusively on European history which I’m already pretty au fait with and I was hoping to learn more about places I didn’t know so much about.

So, beyond revisiting a bunch of design research for the PhD (Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, Cross’ Designerly Ways of Thinking, Frayling’s Research in Art and Design and Design Research Through Practice) I started to read A *New* Program for Graphic Design from David Reinfurt which so far has been brilliant. It's basically a book version of the lecture series and exercises he gives his students but all really well illustrated and paced. Because it's verbatim from a lecture it also has a conversational quality that makes it really engaging. I often thought that I should just write down my talks rather than try to be a smart writer and this one is winning me over. It's broken into three sections; Typography, Gestalt and Interface and these give a super interesting overview of histories and futures of design, computation, social change and psychology.

I also read On Nonscalability by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing recommended by Anab Jain. It gives a remarkably accessible history of the scalability project and its eclipsing of the possibilities of diversity. Tsing draws a logical equivalence between the idea of the ‘pixel’ and something she calls the ‘nonsocial landscape elements’ or, ‘nonsoels.’ These are discrete units that allow for scalability. In her example, slaves from Africa and sugarcane clones. I read Tsing’s book a year or two ago and this paper helpfully includes a short version of that as an example of nonscalability.

Channel Recommendation

I can't stop thinking about how good Disco Elysium was. I can't and won't play it again but a lot of the soundtrack is on YouTube. It was all done by British Sea Power and has a wonderful horrifying melancholy to it. There's very little spoken dialogue in the game so the music sticks with you most.

Marbre, Nivôse, 228: How do you know if you produced knowledge?

Sometimes it’s hard to think big when your weekly ambition is just to read all your emails. I tweaked the design of this thing again. Blogger's current favourite thing is not saving HTML changes so I have to edit offline then 'restore' the HTML. It’s been a few weeks since the last post and now we’re in a glorious new Gregorian decade so this is a long one, sorry.

There’s still a lot of these 'decade/year in review' things going out on the social networks where folks list what they consider to be achievements over the period. I won't be doing one, I feel pretty divided about them. It feels vainglorious, boastful and my internal logic suggests that getting things done is in and of itself the validation rather than having other people acknowledge that you did it. On the other hand, it’s been really nice reading all the incredible things that people have been up to in the face of what to many has been years of adversity and struggle. I don’t know. If you know me well you know that I feel ‘sticky’ about talking about my own work. I don’t like it because a) if it was any good it would speak for itself b) if it’s not good then it’s not worth talking about and I’m just taking up airspace from people doing good work which is why (barring one attempt) I never do these year/decade in review things. Anyway, moving on from thoughts that will inevitably land me in trouble on twitter dot com forward slash replies…

Upcoming: Reciprocal Studio - What if Our World is Their Heaven?

Today Natalie and I are starting teaching one of the Reciprocal Studios for MA Graphic Media Design at LCC as Haunted Machines. These are small, short and directed specialist briefs run by creative practitioners that the students can sign up to. We’ve decided to run it about automated image production and the imagination, inspired heavily by the work of Joel McKim but using Carl Di Salvo’s strategies for designerly responses. We’ll do our best to document outcomes and process as we go on the Irish microblog and Instagram (there’s no Haunted Machines Instagram, you just have to follow us as individuals).

How do you know if you produced knowledge?

I’m putting together the ‘methodology’ bit of my PhD. 'Methodology' is such a vague word but I’m summoning the courage to look at the work I’ve been doing the last three years and ask why I did it that way. At some point I decided that speculative and critical design wasn’t doing what I wanted intellectually as far as furthering discourse goes. But I’m forced to consider why I chose to switch into a more artistic approach as in Augury, Finite State Fantasia and Charismatic Megapigment. I’m pretty comfortable describing and arguing about how it’s still ‘designerly;’ I’m always considering legibility of communication, the audience’s needs and experiences and using technical strategies to steer thoughts and behaviours. And in terms of 'research for design' I subscribe to the idea that we learn from doing and I can talk more authoritatively about, for example, machine learning, by actually making something that plays around with machine learning than speculating on it at some intellectual and technical distance.

But then why is this artistic, installation-style approach of Augury, Charismatic Megapigment and Finite State Fantasia effective at engaging audiences. Some of the speculative design work I’ve done is quite measurable – it went into policy papers, was presented at the Hour of Commons etc. So why does weird-tech-art feel better. I put it out on Irish microblog Twitter dot com and got some nice responses when I asked if anyone knew of ways of measuring the impact of critical practice. A couple of folks got back in touch saying that it’s about how things influence the zeitgeist, enter the canon or start to steer conversation. I think this is perhaps the right lead so Ill head down that rabbit hole for a while. I got some good links to things as well which I’ve listed here:
I also figure I should chuck in Matt Malpass' Critical Design in Context and Carl Di Salvo's Design and the Construction of Publics as brilliant sources. Steph suggested that impact/change assumes a testable hypothesis which I can see a problem with when it comes to critical creative practice, but these projects are in some way hypothesised. For instance, to take Augury, a hypothesis might be; 'Can we have a different type of conversation about machine learning if we talk about it as a semi-occult thing in the context of thousands of years of occult practice?' How then, can I test that hypothesis; of course standing in the gallery led to conversations, and it got a little traction in articles and blogs, but does that change the cultural assimilation of machine learning?

It's much easier to blog about this stuff than write it up academically, that's for sure.


I made some slow progress on Voyager over the break. Now that the Arduino knows where Voyager is relative to its position on Earth, the next stage is getting the Arduino to know where north is so it can make sure it’s pointing the right way. To do this I’m going to attach a BNO055 to the arm of the sign so that it will know what way it’s facing and at what angle it is. This is most important for when it first turns on and perhaps running occasional checks for drift.

Of course there’s always a little problem. In the image you can see the BNO055 using pins A4 and A5 for I2C communication with the Arduino Uno. I’d assumed that it would be the same pins on the Rev 2 (which I thought was just an Uno with a WiFi chip) but no, it actually has two special pins near the top of the digital pins for I2C stuff. So that was a few wasted hours trying to figure that out. The second problem is calibration. This takes a long time and requires moving the board around every time it turns on. Luckily Bohle Bots is a library that actually stores the calibration to the Arduino’s memory once done. Now that's all done I need to actually start making the thing so I can figure out where all the components will go and begin working on the motors. That's probably a little way off though, there's a lot of other things to do first. 

Things I learned this week:

  • I’m at the bit of the philosophy podcast about Jewish Andalusian ethics which is really good. I just heard all about Bahya Ibn Paquda (1050-112) who wrote the ‘Duties of The Heart’ which was a curiously accessible book on Aristotelean ethics in the context of the revealed Jewish texts. 
  • My commuter bike has a Sturmey-Archer coaster brake hub on it which hasn’t been shifting properly for the last few months. I finally decided to give it a look over and discovered that the cable just wasn’t moving in the housing. Easy enough to replace but along the way I learned that brake and gear cables are teflon-coated. So that was new. Not important, but new.
  • I went out for the first ride of the year at the weekend, intending to do the 80 mile loop from my place to Box Hill and back. What i learned was it was very cold. Which was fine once I got going. However, for some reason, the bolts holding the cleats on my right shoe protrude a little too far into the shoe and were literally conducting cold into my toes so they were numb for 41.9 miles. Again, not super interesting but true. I need to put some spacers on that little guy. 

Channel Game Recommendation

Amazingly, I haven't been on the YouTubes much over Christmas so don't have a new channel recommendation. I finished up playing This War of Mine and I don’t think I’ll go back for a second game. The game focuses on a group of survivors in a war-torn city and involves a mix of scavenging, crafting and occasionally fighting. It was really good at the beginning but a bit like with other resource management games, the middle-end is pretty repetitive. Once you’ve got your shelter set up and have all your crafting gear it’s mostly just a rinse and repeat job to manufacture and trade stuff. Also, the game is quite long for that amount of repetitiveness. So, on the recommendation of the Internet and Wes I went in to buy Disco Elysium for my Christmas game and HOLY SHIT what. a. game. 

I genuinely struggle to think of an indie story-driven RPG I’ve been so engaged with. It’s a small but super-rich world, everything appears to have meaning and connection, the writing is wonderful, the gameplay is tense and the world is weird af. You play an alcoholic, amnesiac detective in a surreal China Mieville-esque fictional city where you’re trying to figure out who killed a man who’s been hanged behind your hotel and also who the hell you are any why you tried to drink yourself to death. The character development works on different parts of your ‘self.’ Things like logic, rhetoric, drama, composure, electro-chemistry, empathy, reaction speed etc. What’s more, these different parts are also characters in the story, intervening in conversations to talk with you or bicker with each other, meaning that you most often fail to trust your self in the way that you make decisions. It’s a bleak, funny, horrifying, surreal and wonderful game which I can’t recommend enough. It's probably about 30 hours all in to get the full experience, so if you've got a couple of evenings, get on it. Amazing.