The idea that German television is necessarily terrible has to be reconsidered. I’ve recently started watching Deutschland ’83 which is amazing (more on that later) and yesterday I finished season two of the web series Mann/Frau by BR PULS.

Mann/Frau is a mirror format byte-sized episodic where each installment details the interactions of a man and a woman their relations and lives. It treats most of the themes occupying people around my age living in Berlin but manages to do so drawing more from slapstick than from cliché.

The series is helped enormously by the fact that each episode concludes somewhere under five minutes. Brevity unfortunately is a rare commodity in Germany. The benefits of it here are that it forces them to get to the point quickly, cut rapidly and finish. Episodes of this length also greatly facilitate binge watching. I had never considered you could make a traditional format series with episodes this short, but it works fine.

Halfway through I did develop an intense distaste for the man (Mirko Lang) and the man episodes. This isn’t just because the man character is a huge doofus, but also because it turns out that the man and woman episodes are written and directed by a brother and sister respectively. The woman episodes are more punchy, contain less whining and more action.

In this interview with the brother and sister directors the problem becomes painfully obvious. During the entire interview the brother does most of the talking but doesn’t say anything of substance.

I will keep watching when the next season comes out but I might just fast forward through most of the man’s episodes.

These series may have a catalytic effect on the German television landscape. By their very existence they educate the tastes of an audience that might not have known or expected something like this to be possible. And actually creating something good in turn makes it so that other tv makers can’t hide behind the excuse that the whole landscape is mediocre. Who knows what more may be possible.

Actually it’s about ethics in software engineering

This is an expanded transcription of a tweetstorm (based partially on conversations with Peter) that starts at this Tweet about the Volkswagen emissions scandal but actually as we go along it will be clear that it is about ethics in software engineering. First the news that started it all.

Volkswagen’s US head Michael Horn blamed his engineers during a testimony about the emissions scandal.

Does anybody believe a German multinational is agile enough for a couple of engineers to be able to ship a feature without oversight? Because on the one side as people have commented if this were true that would leave huge questions open when it comes to their quality control and delivery process. On the other side if true it would be a refreshing level of agility in a German corporation. A car maker that uses the tagline ‘move fast and break things’ would certainly be a novelty.

I would be curious to see what the codebase of a modern car looks like but thanks to the DMCA that will probably never happen. Unless maybe if somebody dumps the VW code during the CCC this year?

This isn’t about car manufacturing or recruiting engineers, this is actually about ethics in software engineering. How this will affect VW’s chances of hiring the best engineers (“Volkswagen, and how not to describe your employees”) is one issue. They couldn’t hire the best anyway but they will likely always be able to hire a fair level of talent. To write good code, having a clear vision and a stable process are more important than having a mythical 10x engineer on your team. The questions now are why this took so long to be discovered and what the consequences are for the various parties involved.

I will focus on the software engineers because I am one and because I think they will be underrepresented.

Programmers could get away not caring about ethics when it involved being callous with user data or new ways to serve banner ads. The proliferation of really weird privacy-invading ad tech used to be considered a perfectly acceptable way for engineers to spend their time. Even the leak of sensitive user data like in the Ashley Madison hack was more or less business as usual among digital companies. Software companies being liable for their errors and engineers engaging in ethical behaviour were considered optional.

Not anymore. You probably wish you hadn’t snoozed through that ethics class in university. Not that that would have helped that much. Unlike many others, in university we got courses in both ethics and in the history of science and technology. Courses which at the time were much maligned by my fellow students for their lack of practical application. They were right that that course wouldn’t have helped you much by itself, but some basic level of understanding on this subject is nice to have.

Besides continuing to teach ethics, schools should teach engineers about rights and liability. Those courses in ethics could be supplemented by a practical course about your rights and liabilities when you are working at somebody else’s company or at your own. It used to be that either nobody cared about this stuff or that the company would bear the consequences. Both of those notions seem fairly shaky right now.

What do you do when your boss tells you to implement a feature, or very very strongly encourages you to reach a certain outcome? What VW seems to be arguing is that nobody gave the order to build this specific feature but it arose from a rogue group of people. That seems just as unlikely as the case where this was mandated but VW management maintained the operational security required to keep it a secret. The investigation almost certainly will reveal that an order was given and who gave it.

In an ideal company a manager of course will not tell their people how to do their work. Your boss should give you an ‘Auftrag’ (assignment) to reach certain strategic goals and leave it to you to determine the best way of getting there. They will trust that you will operate to the best of your ‘Fingerspitzengefühl’ (working knowledge) within the framework that is the norm in the ‘Einheit’ (unity) that is the company. This all borrowed liberally from Chet Richards’s excellent Certain to Win.

Even if an order was not given this points to an atmosphere in which exerting huge pressure is normal and where people consider it standard operating practice to cut corners maybe even without informing their superiors.

What recourse does a software engineer have in that situation? The current policy situation and broader environment suggest they have almost none.

Who’s responsible when that feature threatens the planet, evaporates shareholder value and leads to criminal investigations? Now that software is a determinant in one of the biggest industries in the world, bad actions have large consequences. Selling millions of faulty cars and exposing many millions more to pollution finally gives us a software malfunction that everybody can relate to.

This isn’t just the case for VW since other car companies are also implicated in fraud during emissions testing. It isn’t even exclusive for car makers since the sequence of events leading up to the financial crash were nothing but a large number of model/software malfunctions.

In the case of the financial crash nobody got punished. The American enthusiasm to extract punitive damages from VW may be attributed to the fact that the U.S.A. finally is a relevant player in (clean) car technology again.

Because these are the biggest industries in the world with immense resources and influence, normal or just rules of responsibility don’t really apply.

We need to answer these questions ourselves because if you ask the higher-ups it is clear who’ll get thrown under the VW bus. Software engineers can refuse to do work that they find ethically objectionable and find another job easily (the Snowden option). That is a luxurious position but it still remains to be seen how many actually do this.

What will likely happen is that the legal investigation will take forever and in the end some convenient people will take the fall. I think it’s unlikely that that will create a just outcome or improve the overall situation.

The criteria to which these emissions tests were held were already watered down thanks to the lobbyists of various car companies who also set the tests so that it would be easy to cheat on them. The tests may be fixed a little bit ostentatiously because they are the most visible point of failure.

The actual problem will go unfixed. We can’t independently verify the code that runs in cars now thanks to our broken copyright legislation. When cars become self-driving and dependent on remote services this will become infinitely harder. We are not be able to check software running in our devices to see whether it does what it promises to. That is the real problem and one I don’t think that is going to be fixed anytime soon.

Update: So today the word got out that some 30 managers at VW were involved in this. It looks like Michael Horn’s statement about the rogue engineers was not true.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann

I went to “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” yesterday in one of Berlin’s three operas thanks to this piece in the Guardian. Yes, I have to rely on a British paper for reliable cultural advice about Berlin.

The Komische Oper is a ten minute bike ride from my house and you can get a discounted ticket with some mild visual obstruction for €18. This makes it a fairly ideal way to spend a Sunday in Berlin which otherwise can be fairly quiet (stores aren’t open, most places close at five or six).

I’m not an expert on opera but I enjoyed the staging and the performances a lot. The Komische Oper’s productions can look a bit kitschy but this was all fairly in line. I can’t share anything from the play thanks to an extremely stringent copyright policy, so below is a recording of one of the major songs by the Met.

After having severed my relation with theater, opera is something that is still fun and interesting to me. What is especially interesting about opera is that despite it fielding some of the biggest budget stage productions we have, it allows a lot of space for weird things. That is not just the case for this opéra fantastique but reading the plot of any opera will leave you amazed at how cheesy it is.

The fact that opera is so open to even the dumbest of stories and at the same times is a spectacular confluence of the multimedia arts would indicate that it has a grand future. Unfortunately the average age of the attendees indicates that that is not the case yet.

Trying out the McB.

I finally got the chance of trying out the McB, McDonald’s new ecological burger tonight after a visit to the opera.

Trying out the McB, the McDonald's bio burger

First I think it’s great that McDonald’s is doing this. It would be nice if they switched all their meat to what is at least a nominally biologically produced variety. I’ve seen people hating on it but large food producers having to shift over is a sign of victory. Read this Fortune article about the war on Big Food.

Second I don’t think McDonald’s understands why it is that people eat organical food. I and many others eat it because it tastes better than the other stuff. There are other reasons to eat organically but if those were the only ones then it would be nowhere near as popular as it is now. The problem with the McB is that it’s just as bad a hamburger as you are used to eating from McDonald’s but now with a bio patty.

This makes it a great burger for the staunch McDonald’s customer who was thinking of switching away because they started worrying about meat quality. For Berlin’s actual burger lovers this is irrelevant and you should just keep going to Tommi.

Insurance in the age of big data and personalized tracking

Last week there was some debate spurred by some of the larger insurers of the Netherlands who want to use tracking data to personalize insurance coverage. A piece in the Reformatorisch Dagblad of all places and Rob Wijnberg talking about it at DWDD.

The problem is that insurance by definition is not personalized and we should be protected from each other’s best interests. I tweetstormed about it and have recorded it below.

This is particularly salient from a design perspective if you see the tweets below. What this comes down to is a policy design problem of a vast scale, a level of abstraction up again from service design. People aren’t well equipped to make these decisions for themselves and they probably shouldn’t have to be. They should be aware of which expertise they are lacking and they should know who they can trust. Creating those two competencies are the two hardest problems of our time.

Straight outta Compton 


I would have preferred Straight Outta Compton to be a documentary cut together from real footage and narrated by the guys themselves. There is a lot of that available which you can see bits of during the credits of this movie. The biopic is well done but the dramatization does not add much and in many parts the movie devolves into melodrama.

What is amazing is how music executives are universally portrayed as the terrible human beings which they are. This is a recurring theme up until the late movie slithering appearance of Jimmy Iovine. If you read up on the stuff that went down with Ruthless you could even argue that the movie downplays it.

The record executives bring the money which in the movie is portrayed as breaking the relationships that make the music. The main characters regularly bail out of collaborations to start from zero because their contracts won’t let them retain ownership of their work. Thinking about that and the outrageous claims still made by record companies made me look into the argument for copyright. It turns out that there’s only a fairly flimsy justification for a system that controls our lives.

I would like to see 12 O’Clock Boys now. Fuck the police.

Chat as an important new platform for user experience

Talk about this is increasing all around us (see this piece by Cennyd) and I think it’s time for me to share some of our recent thinking on the topic as well. We believe that conversational user interfaces will be the way that most people will interact with digital systems from the near future on. That can be chat or voice or something else constrained to offer only specific responses or fully freeform. Natural language processing has improved to a point to make this workable and will continue to improve further.

Chat apps are the sine qua non of mobile devices. They are essential, they are everywhere and many of them are cross-platform. People use chat to connect to people but increasingly chat applications are used to interface with non-humans. Chat apps can offer a flat channel to a digital system or facilitate any and all kinds of persistent bots and application logic to be deployed. A great example is this a16z piece on the wide applications of WeChat in China.

The fact that chat apps are cross-platform creates a new smallest common denominator on which you can build applications that are guaranteed to work on all the devices the app runs on. This is a new OS. That people are used to these interactions and normally use them to connect to other people also creates a convenient habituation.

I argue that the bits of conversational logic deployed through chat can be called applications and do most things that apps do.

Most apps allow you to retrieve information or to perform an action. This is glued together with some chrome filled with awkward ever-changing (hamburger menu in or out?) architectures. They need to conform to stringent visual design guidelines while looking recognizably the same across lots of different devices.

Information retrieval and performing actions can be done via chat as well where an AI/bot counterparty will keep track of your context and give you the right cues at the right time. “Slackbot give me a GIF.” “Domoticz turn off the light.”

I am the purveyor of a small app to find good coffee called Cuppings. There is no reason why that same experience could not be delivered through a chat interface. No reason in fact why it could not be delivered better through a chat interface.

Add to that that making good apps is becoming an increasingly difficult endeavour because of device proliferation (mainly on Android), API bloat (on all platforms) and increasingly high visual and interaction design standards. Increasingly making a pixel perfect app that feels nice and works well is something that only larger companies can afford.

Most of the effort we spend right now into user interfaces could be moot if the experience would be delivered through a chat interface. That every app has a different UI and information architecture and that it has to be learned anew is a huge impediment to its adoption. We have recently built several chat based apps & games inspired partially by Lark. During testing we found that users don’t need to be explained anything because they are so familiar with the paradigm.


Chat is here to stay and I’m incredibly excited to see how far we can push this new medium.

Understanding the Connected Home

The great Peter and Michelle have written a book called “Understanding the Connected Home” based on current developments around the topic and both of their professional interests.

I talked about the topic with Peter a bit and thought it to be a natural extension of his work in the connected devices spaces and their recent visit to Casa Jasmina in Torino.

I hope to get around to reading it soon since right now I have no desire or opportunity to live in a connected home. The housing stock in Berlin is old and does not lend itself well to connectivity. Our current house has a central water heater but even then most faucets are heated locally using electricity. Internet connectivity (let alone Fiber to the Home) is hard to find in many houses and you can count yourself lucky if you can get a Kabel Deutschland connection.

I think I would like to take the best of what these technologies can bring but they probably only make sense if you innovate in the other layers of a house as well as in what is built and the way it is built.


If you look at the six Ss, connectivity consists of things at the manufactured level of Stuff (cheap consumer grade electronics from China). It latches onto the Space Plan and I would guess it has considerable effects on that and would benefit from changes in that plan. More problematically it pierces these layers and as such deteriorates the structural integrity of the house further. Connected things need to either interface with the Services layer or call for new Services to be deployed throughout the house. These move from the inside out but also from the outside —Skin layer— in when it comes to things like solar power and geothermal connectivity.

It seems an interesting though complicated time to be an architect. The API and expectation surface of a house is exploding while the margins and expertise of your average architecture practice leave a lot to be desired.

What would then seem obvious is that we need systematic and generative ways of creating our dwellings in which the inhabitants of a house are participants as much as the traditional experts are. It seems like connected homes will make more sense and sense made of them when you consider the movements of self-built buildings and open source dwellings.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

Yesterday I saw the documentary on the Nakagin Capsule Tower by Rima Yamazaki as part of the DOKU.ARTS festival here in Berlin. I wasn’t aware of this landmark during my last visit to Tokyo though I must have passed close by while cycling through the city. I’ll make a point to see it when next I visit if it still stands because that is exactly the topic of the documentary.

The tower is a prime example of Metabolist architecture by Kisho Kurokawa. Metabolism is a hard to define but influential strand of architecture that is described in the documentary as an architecture without timelag. It turns out that the tower by now, though charming with its tiny rooms, is outdated and unmaintainable. Most of the owners want to tear it down and have something new built there that makes more economic sense. Among architects and historians there are voices for preserving it as a monument to an important movement in Japanese architecture and other who think it could indeed be torn down.


The main reason why I wanted to see this movie is because next week I’m moving into a building in Berlin designed by a metabolist architect Arata Isozaki. He appears in the movie as a member of the metabolist movement and as an proponent of conservation. I found his reasoning to be somewhat incoherent and overly sentimental. I’m not sure what that means for the building I will be living in but we’ll see. I’ve only been there once, but I absolutely love the building pictured above. Time will tell whether that is justified.

Another architect Toyo Ito who expressed a disillusionment with metabolism was in favor of tearing it down. His reasoning is that buildings just like people are finite and that if they have fulfilled their purpose they should be allowed to disappear to be replaced by something new. This is a way of thinking about architecture that is mostly alien if you live in Europe but that I find to be extremely refreshing. I think our local hangups on history and current efforts to construct buildings in a historicized fashion are morbid but this is the way we do things in Europe.

All along during the documentary I had to think about some William Gibson I read about Tokyo but which I cannot find right now. So instead I’ll post this from My Own Private Tokyo that I came across.

The Japanese, you see, have been repeatedly drop-kicked, ever further down the timeline, by serial national traumata of quite unthinkable weirdness, by 150 years of deep, almost constant, change. The 20th century, for Japan, was like a ride on a rocket sled, with successive bundles of fuel igniting spontaneously, one after another.

Breaking into the English speaking world

Last week we finally got featured with Bycatch on Boingboing and Fast Company thanks to our invitation to the XOXO festival. It is amazing to see what that attention does and what kind of effect that has on sales.

Now that we have finally arrived in the English speaking world we can relax a bit and keep pushing out the marketing we had planned all along. I would be curious to see whether something similar happens at some point for Japanese and Chinese speaking online communities.