Last weekend, BERG invited a selection of friends to participate in their first Little Printer hackday. Over the course of a short Saturday, we were asked to explore the API for making “publications” for Little Printer, and test them out on sample devices.

I had a few ideas, but decided for expediency to return to my “Hello World” of connected things: Tower Bridge.

My publication would be something you could schedule at pretty much any time, on any day, and get a list of bridge lifts in the next 24 hours (if there were any).

I could have made this a very small, simple paragraph, to fit into a busy list of publications. Instead, I decided to explore the capacities of the Little Printer delivery as a medium.

I was interested in the visual capacity of the Printer: what could I communicate on a 2-inch wide strip of paper? All of BERG’s publications to date have been very beautiful, and the visual design of publications feels important – it’s one of the many things that distinguishes Little Printer, and I wanted to try to aspire to it at the very least.

So I built an Observer’s Guide to Tower Bridge, based on a chlidhood of Observer’s Guides and I-Spy books. As well as listing lifts for the next 24 hours, I’d show users pictures of the boat that would be going through, so they could identify it.


I also visually communicated which direction upstream and downstream are. I don’t think it’s immediately obvious to most people, and so the “downstream” icon shows that it’s towards Tower Bridge, whilst the offset of the “upstream” icon illustrates that it’s towards Big Ben and the Millennium Wheel. It felt like a natural way to make this clear visually, and was economical in the vertical dimension (which is one of Little Printer’s bigger constraints).


Early versions showed a photo for every lift, which turned out to make the publication too big: I needed to shrink that vertical axis. I did this by only including photos of an individual boat once per delivery – you don’t need multiple pictures of the same boat. The second time a boat passed through the bridge, I instead displayed a useful fact about it (if I knew one) – and otherwise, just the lift time.


By making the publication shorter, I also avoided an interesting side-effect of running the printhead too hard. The grey smudging you see above is where the printhead is running very hot having printed eight inches of bridge lifts and photos (it prints bottom-to-top, so the text is the “right way up”). Because I’d printed so much black up top, it seemed like the head had a bit of residual heat left that turns the paper grey. This is a side-effect of how thermal printers work. You don’t get this if you don’t go crazy with full-black in a long publication (and, indeed, none of the sample publications have any of these issues owing to their careful design) – a constraint I discovered through making.

The Observer’s Guide was an interesting experiment, but it made me appreciate the BERG in-house publications even more: they’re short and punchy, making a morning delivery of several things – bridge lifts, calendar details, Foursquare notes, a quote of the day – packed with information in a relatively short space.

I was pleased with my publication as an exploration of the platform. It’s not open-source because the LP API is very much work in progress, but rest assured, this was very much a live demo of real working code on a server I control. If I were making a functional tool, to be included with several publications, I’d definitely make something a lot shorter.

It was lovely to see Little Printer in the world and working away. It was also great to see so many other exciting publications, cranked out between 11am and 4:30pm. I think my favourite hack might have been Ben and Devin’s Paper Pets, but really, they were all charming.

Lots of fun then, and interesting to design against the physical constraint of a roll of thermal paper and a hot printhead.

  • "I'm super happy with the resulting portrait of where the studio is now: 13 people, working in a garden in the middle of a vibrant city, a strong ethic, and maps and visualizations in active use by the public." A lovely description – it's a brilliant office to be in. Also, they totally have a piano. And: how lovely to see the maps laid out: seeing this issue, it reminds me just how beautiful many of them are, and how well they stand the test of time – Cabspotting, for instance, is increasingly iconic.
  • "What was quite nice is seeing the piles of paper at the end of the day. It’s very visible that Work Has Been Done Here. The sawdust, as Bridle points out, that’s missing from software development. You get to see the failed experiments and the changing versions printed throughout the day which would normally be hidden away in git." It was a fun day, and this is a nice thought from Dan. I kept all my sawdust, which I'll be writing about when I get a minute.

Following writing about my books to catalogue each year of my bookmarks, several readers had questions, which (rather than responding to in a comments thread), I thought I’d get around to here.

  • Matt Edgar commented on the thickness of the spines, and what they represented in terms of my time/attention each year. All I can say is: I got a bit better at the process (more on this later) as time went on; I got quicker at both reading and writing. Also, during my time at Berg (2009-2011), part of my job was writing and researching, so the size of those volumes is in part because I had deliberate time during my work for reading and bookmarking.
  • James Adam asked if the body text is from Pinboard or the page. It’s usually a combination of both, with the majority being a salient quotation.

    If you’ve ever seen the format I use for my links, it tends to be a long quotation followed by a single line or two. James mentioned this because it seemed like a lot of writing. To which my answer is: it is and it isn’t. It’s a lot of words, but most of them aren’t mine.

    To explain, it’s probably worth talking a little about how I bookmark:

    I have the Safari extension for Pinboard installed. When I’m reading a page I like, or have found useful, I highlight a particularly salient quotation and click the extension button. This loads the Pinboard form with the contents of the clipboard loaded into the body copy field. I then wrap it in quotation marks, and perhaps add the first line or two of commentary that comes into my head. Then, I fill out the tags – as fast as I can, with the first thing that comes into my head. This tends, for me, to be the most valuable way of tagging.

    The time-consuming part is reading the articles; I try to make bookmarking as lightweight as possible.

    Bookmarks are published to this site via Postalicious.

    So: whilst it looks like a lot of content, most of it is not mine, but it is copied/pasted into Pinboard. Really, though, I’ve got this down to a fine, swift art.

  • In answer to Joel and Dave: I used Lulu for printing. I simply uploaded the completed PDFs to them for the inners. The covers were made in Photoshop, a bit by hand, and a lot by maths (because I wanted to use the same typeface on the cover that I do in the book.
  • Justin Mason asked about cost. The first book, which is the pamphlet at the bottom for 2004, is about 30 pages, and cost around £2. The largest volumes – 2008/2009 – cost £7 or £8. 2010, which is volume 7, and my first proof of concept, was about £4.50. It was about £30 for the lot, plus delivery, though I saved a bit through some canny Lulu discount codes that I had.

And, finally, a big shout-out to Les Orchard, as the first person who wasn’t me to get the code up-and-running and make some books!

A Year of Links

26 February 2012

A Year of Links

I made a book.

Or rather, I made eight books.

If you’ve read this site for any particular length of time, you’ll be aware that I produce a lot of links. Jokes about my hobby being “collecting the entire internet” have been made by friends.

I thought it would be interesting to produce a kind of personal encylopedia: each volume cataloguing the links for a whole year. Given I first used Delicious in 2004, that makes for eight books to date.

A Year of Links: interior

Each link is represented on the page with title, URL, full description, and tags.

Yes, there’s also a QR code. Stop having a knee-jerk reaction right now and think carefully. Some of those URLs are quite long, and one day, Pinboard might not exist to click on them from. Do you want to type them in by hand? No, you don’t, so you may as well use a visual encoding that you can scan with a phone in the kind of environment you’d read this book: at home, in good lighting. It is not the same as trying to scan marketing nonsense on the tube.

A Year of Links: contents

Each month acts as a “chapter” within the book, beginning with a chapter title page.

A Year of Links: index

Each book also contains an index of all tags, so you can immediately see what I was into in a year, and jump to various usage.

A Year of Links: colophon

Wait. I lied. I didn’t make eight books. I made n books. Or rather: I wrote a piece of software to ingest an XML file of all my Pinboard links (easily available from the Pinboard API by anyone – you just need to know your username and password). That software then generates a web page for each book, which is passed into the incredible PrinceXML to create a book. Prince handles all the indexing, page numbering, contents-creation, and header-creation. It’s a remarkable piece of software, given the quality of its output – with nothing more than some extended CSS, you end up with control over page-breaks, widows and orphans, and much more.

The software is a small Sinatra application to generate the front-end, and a series of rake tasks to call Prince with the appropriate arguments. It’s on Github right now. If you can pull from Github, install Prince, and are comfortable in the terminal, you might find it very usable. If you don’t, it’s unlikely to become any more user-friendly; it’s a personal project for personal needs, and whilst Prince is free for personal use, it’s $4800 to install on a server. You see my issue.

So there you are. I made a machine to generate books out of my Pinboard links. Personal archiving feels like an important topic right now – see the Personal Digital Archiving conference, Aaron and Maciej’s contributions to it, not to mention tools like Singly. Books are another way to preserve digital objects. These books contain the reference to another point in the network (but not that point itself) – but they capture something far more important, and more personal.

They capture a changing style of writing. They capture changing interests – you can almost catalogue projects by what I was linking to when. They capture time – you can see the gaps when I went on holiday, or was busy delivering work. They remind me of the memories I have around those links – what was going on in my life at those points. As a result, they’re surprisingly readable for me. I sat reading 2010 – volume 7, and my proof copy – on the bus, and it was as fascinating as it was nostalgic.

Books also feel apposite for this form of content production. My intent was never to make books, not really to repurpose these links at all. And yet now, at the end of each year, a book can spring into life – built up not through direct intent, but one link at a time over a year. There’s something satisfying about producing an object instantly, even though its existence is dependent on a very gradual process.

So there you have it. I made a book, or rather eight books, or rather a bottomless book-making machine. The code is available for you to do so as well. It was hugely satisfying to open the box from Lulu at work one morning, and see this stack of paper, that was something I had made.

  • "…one point I wanted to make, to all those agencies that have decided that making products is the future. That's a laudable and intelligent aim, but it took five years for BERG to go from here to here. And they're really good. They had to be focused and ambitious, working really hard. This isn't stuff you can just chuck out the back of a creative technology department  Just a thought." Yeah, there is that.
  • "Little Printer lives in your home, bringing you news, puzzles and gossip from friends. Use your smartphone to set up subscriptions and Little Printer will gather them together to create a timely, beautiful mini-newspaper." Little Printer sees the light of day. So, so excited to finally see it in the world; can't wait to see it in other homes. (And: beautiful work on the design – industrial, brand, web, the whole package).