Monday, 8 April 2013

London Design Museum

The London Design Museum. From [1].
A friend's birthday drinks near Tower Bridge provided me a nice excuse to tick off the London Design Museum from my list of unvisited London attractions (despite having studied, lived and now worked London for what feels like forever, that list is a fair bit longer than it should be - for example The London Eye is one really rather shameful entry...).  Located on the corner of Shad Thames and Butler's Wharf, the LDM is an unassuming white building, with two floors of exhibitions, a cafe, and a rather lovely (if not teeny tiny) shop.

On the top floor the Collection of Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things was a fun exercise in looking at the interesting side of really boring items.  The history of the design and uptake of chairs (wooden, tubular, plastic, vanity, useful), biros (with both transparent and opaque cases) and anglepoise lamps (with two or four springs!) was a bit random.  However, having only relatively-recently passed my driving test, I did find the section on British road signs really quite interesting.  A 1963 review of road signs (The Worboys Committee) had made several contraversial changes, for example the move to mixed (instead of all caps) type, and that the size of the informational signs is determined by content and fixed spacing rules - and is not a set of fixed sizes that the content is made to match.

On the first floor, one of the first things that hits you is this really irritating electronic chirping sound every minute or so.  Only after walking round for a bit do you discover it's an installation of a mobile (ahem, iOS) app called Chirp, which allows iOS devices to share content using sound.  Yup, that's the future - not content with bumping phones to share content, iOS people can deafen their neighbours and make their devices literally tweet!

Walking around, the first floor was a bit of a mad mix of really interesting things.  For example, products that took liquid plastic, mixed it with iron fillings, and applied magnets, moulds and movement in the right way to produce crazy looking stools.  Or, remember lego? k'nex? sticklebricks?  Wish there was a way to mix them together, so you can build super mega things?  Well thanks to 3D printers, it's now possible to home-print converter pieces for any combination of the above and about half a dozen other toys.

One other tid-bit I picked up was an insight into the redesign of Exhibition Road.  This is the main road that runs through South Kensington's museum district (and happens to be directly adjacent to where I work!).  Next to a rather lovely wooden model of Exhibition Road and the surrounding buildings the text description describes how the designer chose to remove all standard road signs to make an unfamiliar environment for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.  The intent of the unfamiliarity is to cause all shared-road users to pay more attention and take more care, while mingling together on a large pavement-road.  I'm not entirely convinced, but, to be fair, as a pedestrian I'm sure to be bloody careful when meandering down that stretch of concrete!

The final notable piece from the LDM was a superstitious fund -- an automated trading algorithim that buys and sells based on superstition.  It won't trade if the day is the 13th, or a full moon.  It also has "lucky" and "unlucky" beliefs that affect it's choices.  Ignoring the obvious statements about the randomness of markets and the place of "luck" on a trading floor, there was something that really struck me about the presentation of this piece.  There was a piece of explanatory paper on the desk that tried to explain the algorithms running this experiment.  On that paper was printed code - from what I could tell, it was a variant of C that actually was incredibly clear, mostly because the logic was reasonably straightforward set of "if condition then action" statements.  Unfortunately the code had been wrapped, as the lines were slightly too long for the columns that it had been forced into, making it (and the lovely comments it contained) appear really ugly and unreadable.

The code was also quite obviously assumed to be inaccessible to the exhibition goer, and was deliberately faded out and overlaid with some very simplistic boxes that crudely outlined some parts of the logic of the algorithm (e.g. do not buy if the date is the 13th, etc).  However there was no rhyme or reason to the boxes, their arrangement, and they didn't really clarify anything.  If only the code could have been made clearer, then everything would have been explained perfectly!  Sigh.

Actually, what really, really struck gets me while walking around the LDM was that many exhibits invoked computers as if they were "magic".  I came away with the feeling that "algorithms" are perceived to be like Dragons, with mystical abilities to do things that normal people couldn't - and must only be handled by skilled warriors lest the simple villager gets burned.  Maybe I took that too far, but the point remains. I know I've spent a long time immersed in code, computers and well formatted comments, but surely the ability to understand an algorithm can't be beyond the reach of, well, anyone?

[1] By Oxyman (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons