Tim Hunkin is a cartoonist, for fourteen years he authored a weekly strip for the Observer titled ‘The Rudiments of Wisdom‘, in which he poured over facts on the inner workings of everything. That was back in 1973.

He’s also an engineer and an artist, he’s built public artworks (such as the water clock in Neal’s Yard, near Covent Garden) and runs two penny arcades filled with funny home made arcade machines. The Novelty Automation in London, and The Under the Pier Show in Suffolk.

In addition, he’s the author of ‘The Secret Life of Machines‘, aired between 1988 and 1993 on Channel 4. ‘The Secret Life of Machines’ was an educational television series that stemmed from his previous work on the comic strip. He co-presented it with Rex Garrod.

During its eighteen episodes Tim and Rex enquire over the functioning of all kind of machines — from appliances like vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, refrigerators, the television all the way to the central heating system and the combustion engine.

They take everything apart, they slice stuff in half, they fiddle and break things in an attempt to see how these machines came to be, what kind of knowledge they rely upon, how they work or react when things go wrong.

It’s a pretty unique show, not merely informative. The episode on washing machines ends with a trembling pyramid of machines rescued from the scrapyard. The one covering the central heating system features a life-size working model of one which starts leaking water everywhere. In the secret life of the vacuum cleaner, piled up vacuums fitted with pyrotechnics fly and spark like rockets.

I watched them doing all of this and I couldn’t not notice how much fun they were having. The tribute Tim wrote in 2019 when Rex passed away gives a snapshot of how they worked together:

I learnt an enormous amount just watching him. He seemed to do everything in unconventional ways. When his guillotine got blunt, he didn’t send the blade away to be sharpened or even remove it from the machine, he just ran his angle grinder along the edge. Watching him use the lathe was particularly memorable. He always ran the spindle too fast and cut too deep, things I would never dare do myself, but it gave me a feel for the limits of what was possible. When things were going OK he always delivered a constant stream of bad jokes.

The days were always entertaining, he was so sociable there were always visitors and lots of tea breaks. Then there were the daily trips to Sackers, the local scrapyard. Here we would sift through the latest stuff to arrive at the yard and strip any parts that looked useful. The scrapyard was central to Rex’s life, he could never resist getting ‘useful stuff’ for free. Long before anyone talked about global warming and recycling, Rex just thought the scrapyard was a source of bargains and that companies were fools for throwing the stuff out. Perfectly working machine tools, full sheets of aluminium and stainless steel, hi tech factory automation modules, brand new milling cutters – we never knew what to expect, but there was always something.

All episodes are (or will be) available on Tim’s YouTube channel, with added commentary at the end of each video to review what’s changed since filming. ‘The Secret Life of Machines ‘ is the kind of TV production that I think today could solely exists on YouTube.

More than thirty years since it aired Tim is back with a new project, explaining things and making things. The new video series is called ‘The Secret Life of Components‘:

In the past, when people asked me how to learn practical skills, I’ve told them they just have to make things badly to start with but to keep going and they will improve. I made things badly for the first half of my life. However, I now learn a lot from watching practical youtube videos and realise that they can teach the sort of informal tips that used to be part of traditional apprenticeships. So I’m delighted to be contributing to this wonderful new learning resource! I hope my videos, each about 45 minutes long, are entertaining enough to be fun for beginners, but also detailed enough to be useful for pros.

A calming little website collecting 10 minute videos of someone’s else window. Displayed randomly, from anywhere in the world.

A moment of silence for Yahoo! Pipes 🙏

A talking mouth chanting algorithmically generated prayers. Given they’re nonsense to begin with, why not?

At the end: “I think one thing that people should remember is that nature is the biggest bio-terrorist. Nature wants to kill you.”

Bill Gates, back in 2015:

But in fact, we can build a really good response system. We have the benefits of all the science and technology that we talk about here. We’ve got cell phones to get information from the public and get information out to them. We have satellite maps where we can see where people are and where they’re moving. We have advances in biology that should dramatically change the turnaround time to look at a pathogen and be able to make drugs and vaccines that fit for that pathogen. So we can have tools, but those tools need to be put into an overall global health system. And we need preparedness.

The best lessons, I think, on how to get prepared are again, what we do for war. For soldiers, we have full-time, waiting to go. We have reserves that can scale us up to large numbers. NATO has a mobile unit that can deploy very rapidly. NATO does a lot of war games to check, are people well trained? Do they understand about fuel and logistics and the same radio frequencies? So they are absolutely ready to go. So those are the kinds of things we need to deal with an epidemic.

Kind of mind-blowing overview of the waste management of a specific item (Christmas tree lights), from Adam Minter.

I would also highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand recycling as a system (that exists outside of our daily reality) to follow Discard studies, which is how I stumbled upon the above:

Structures, not behaviours, uphold norms and practices of waste and wasting. In sociology and other fields, there is a constant tension between agency–what individuals and groups of people are able and want to do– and structure, the cultural norms and values, institutions, infrastructures, and power relations that constrain and even determine that agency. Because of this, we’ve argued against awareness as an ideal method for creating changes around waste and wasting, instead arguing for changes in infrastructure and other scaled up systems. To help understand this tension, we use concepts of scale and scalar mismatch to argue that waste occurs differently within different structures at different scales, and that action must match up with these scales. For example, if we want to address pollution and waste, then focusing 90% of our activist efforts on household waste that makes up less than 3% of a nation’s waste is not going to be effective. Consumer and citizen behaviour cannot impact 97% of the waste that’s out there.

The values change every time the universe changes, and that’s every time we redefine a big enough bit of it. Which we do all the time through the process of discovery that isn’t discovery: just the invention of another version of how things are.

Bryan Boyer built an epaper display that shows movies at 24 frames per hour (instead than 24 frames/sec). He has called it Very Slow Movie Player (VSMP): it slows a movie down so that it can be experienced differently, so that its frames can be seen as paintings.

VSMP is an object that contains a Raspberry Pi computer, custom software, and a reflective ePaper display (similar to a Kindle), all housed inside a 3D printed case. Every 2.5 minutes a frame from the film stored on the computer’s memory card is extracted, converted to black and white using a dithering algorithm, and then communicated to the reflective ePaper display. […]

Films are vain creatures that typically demand a dark room, full attention, and eager eyeballs ready to accept light beamed from the screen or projector to your visual cortex. VSMP inverts all of that. It is impossible to “watch” in a traditional way because it’s too slow. In a staring contest with VSMP you will always lose. It can be noticed, glanced-at, or even inspected, but not watched.

Inspired by the project, Jon Bell built Slow In Translation: Lost in Translation, stretched out over the entire year as a webpage background.

In Bob Burrough’s words (Burrough is the author of the demo):

An environmentally-lit interface takes information from the environment around the device and uses it to render physically-accurate things on the screen. It appears as if the lights around you are shining on the things on the screen. […]

This doesn’t mean you have to hold a flashlight over your phone to read the web in bed. What it means is, designers are empowered to use the design language of the physical world to design their interfaces. Gloss, glitter, glow-in-the-dark, or any other visual quality may be used. In the case of reading a website in a darkened room, the web designer may apply elegant backlighting or glow-in-the-dark treatments to maintain legibility. This is far superior to today’s method of making your phone act like a spotlight that shines in your face.