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.

The redesign of Moritzplatz roundabout

This is turning into a traffic blog more than anything else. After taking stock of the plans for the new Maaßenstraße which is very slowly nearing completion, now let’s take a look at another place close to my heart: Moritzplatz. The square is right underneath my office and as such I cross it several times daily both on foot and by bike.

Cyclist get hits on MoritzplatzA couple of weeks ago week an accident took place there where a cyclist was touched by a car. No big deal in his case, but it could have been worse considering the way motorists behave here. I have to pay close attention every time I cross this roundabout otherwise this could happen to me as well.


Two weeks ago they started marking what is to be the revamped Moritzplatz. I had my hopes up that it would be a serious improvement but judging from the plans it is mostly going to be a new paint job.

New lines on MoritzplatzThe paint job will separate the bicycle lane with stripes from the car lane narrowing the space the cars get and widening the space the bicycles get. The cycle lane itself will be painted bright red. New lines on Moritzplatz

Cycling on the new markings and adhering to the new situation is a bit weird but it does feel like it’s going to be an improvement. It is however not going to fix the most important problem with the square.

Redesign Moritzplatz

The new situation for cyclists

Cyclists get their lane doubled in width and protected by markings. Whether that protection will mean anything in reality remains to be seen. Cars in Berlin will drive anywhere they please. What is a bigger problem on this roundabout and what will remain so in the new situation is that it is unclear who has precedence on the points where cyclists and cars have to cross each other. The angle with which the two cross has also remained the same so you really have to pay attention not to hit a cyclist and not to get hit by a car. A real solution would have been to mark the roundabout with Sharks’ teeth and maybe even to elevate the cycle path. That way cars entering and leaving the roundabout notice that they do so physically. Physical separations on the road make the power dynamic a little less unbalanced like you can see in this example from California. They are of course also expensive. There are roundabouts in the Netherlands that are laid out this defensively even though that usually is not necessary. Schermafbeelding-2012-07-03-om-13.52.56-480x309

The new situation for pedestrians

Pedestrians around Moritzplatz have really been shafted and they are getting a tiny improvement in the new situation. For a pedestrian there is no safe way to cross the square. The underground crossing through the U-Bahn station does not count. Going down and up stairs isn’t an option for disabled people and it’s too much effort for most people in general. Traffic should be safe for its weakest participants so that it benefits everybody. Let’s take a look at the various options to cross Moritzplatz. Keep in mind that you will often have to cross at least one arm of the roundabout to get anywhere. West – There is no way to cross the road here except for the traffic light at Stallschreiberstraße. This traffic light feels broken for pedestrians because during rush hour it gives you about 12 seconds to make the crossing. Almost nobody makes it across during the green phase and everybody knows that the red phase takes forever so people also cross when it’s already red. The traffic light is not an option for crossing Moritzplatz since it is 50m away. That is too far. North – On this side there is an island in the road where pedestrians are relatively safe so at least they don’t have to make the entire crossing in one go. It is still unsafe because there isn’t a zebra crossing but it’s better than nothing. East – There is no way to cross here except for the pedestrian crossing 50m down Oranienstraße. South – A new pedestrian island is planned here. Unfortunately it is 15m off the main arm but that is better than 50m. Just like at the other islands, there won’t be a zebra crossing there which makes any pedestrian trying to cross still a potential victim. Redesign Moritzplatz

It doesn’t matter if there is no way to cross the road, people still do of course. Even if you pay attention and cross the road when there is no traffic, incoming cars expect to be able to push you off the road. At which point you are forced to run across or be killed.

The main flaw here is that people shouldn’t be forced to walk ten or fifty meters more to make things more convenient for motorized traffic. People are more important than cars.

Update: The work is nearing completion and actually the new markings do not seem to make that much of a difference except to cause everybody on the square to be fairly stressed out.

I guess this adequately describes all of us.

The Glomar Response

A couple of weeks ago already, James Bridle opened his first solo show The Glomar Response at NOME gallery here in Berlin. The opening was attended by more or less everybody I got to know when I first got to Berlin, a reunion of sorts.

James Bridle opening

The exhibition is a collection of recent work and is still exhibited there for this entire month. James is one of the few artists who creates thoughtful work from the conflation of state power and information technology. His work is only made stronger by the writing that underpins it which is all worth reading and listed neatly over on booktwo.