• Week 361

    30 November 2019

    I submitted the last of the content for Longridge this week. That means that project is now into review, and should be going live next month. It's been a bit longer to get here than planned, but I'm very pleased with the results.

    I started getting into the meat of Willsneck. That mainly involved more old-fashioned front-end code: HTML, CSS, and the lightest sprinkling of Javascript where appropriate. I also spent some time applying CSS keyframe animation to SVGs, which led to results swiftly.

    And I kicked off building out the deployment infrastructure. I always like to get deployment up and running early: it's one less thing to worry about later in the project. In this case, I'm doing things a little differently. We're deploying the site to Github Pages, and using the just out-of-beta Github Actions as a continuous integration to do so.

    I really like this setup. It's similar to the way tools like Netlify work, but with a little more control in exchange for a little more complexity. Rather than being reliant on the few static-site builders that Github Pages allows you to use, we're using Actions as our builder. That means on every push to our master branch, an Action runs on a virtual machine. That Action checks out our code, installs dependencies (and caches them for future runs), and builds the site to a dist/ directory. And then it commits the contents of that directory back to our gh-pages branch.

    That means we get continuous deployment of a static site on every push to master, but without having to store the compiled artefacts in the repository. Which is exactly as it should be: the repository contains the source for the site, not the compiled code as well; it's generated as necessary. This setup is working well with my temporary Parcel-based site, and it'll be straightforward to move to using Hugo for the final site.

    I'm impressed with Github Actions, and will consider it more for future tooling - the ability to run actions on a schedule means that many of the sites I've not moved to simpler builds or platform largely because of a lack of cron on them… might now be possible to move to a static site, and a few scripts running on GitHub.

    Finally, I took a quick look at the code for Hallin and got it spun up on my own machine - good enough going to be able to schedule a first meeting for that project.

    A good week: lots of code, nice to be back in a client office again, and one project nearly on the runway.

  • Week 360

    24 November 2019

    Longridge is properly coming into land now. That's meant almost all my work on it has been dealing with feedback: minor edits, checking the content on the platform itself, final feedback on videos. There's a big deadline next week, and there's about the right amount of things left in the right state, which is about the best you can ask for. It helps that, having taken a while to come together, I'm pretty pleased with the content we settled on, and how it's come out. I'm hoping the peer review process will go smoothly.

    Willsneck kicked off on Thursday: a short website build gig. I'd already been briefed by the team, and so hit the ground running, working on building up basic infrastructure for developing the site, and the first pass of the flat pages. Working in the browser in 2019 is really rather satisfying compared to twelve years ago: the promise of web standards is finally truly paying off, and Grid and Flexbox make life a lot easier.

    One of the new things I've decided to learn on this project is Parcel, which I'm using as a bundler/build tool for writing the flat pages. Normally, the minimum I need is compiling SCSS (which I like for tidiness), so that means integrating with PostCSS for compilation. This time, I'm also using posthtml for processing my static markup. posthtml is doing two things for me. By using posthtml-include, I can use very, very simple templating - just including one HTML file in another. But that's enough to handle repetitive elements like headers and footers, before I port the whole static build to a content management system. I've also found that posthtml-expressions will let me include data and simple JS expressions in my templates. That's particularly handy for some pages that are going to be driven from JSON-based data - I can prototype with the real data before we even get near the CMS. Always useful to add new tools to the belt, and I've found these libraries combined with Parcel to be the Right Level of Simple for the job at hand. Willsneck continues next week, as I get into the thornier detail work around art direction, SVGs, and CSS animation.

    Hallin, the other small software development job that's on the table, edges closer to likelihood. I spent an hour or two going over the existing code and writing enough documentation for myself to be able to spin up the project from a bare checkout. That was… neither as easy as I'd like, nor anywhere near the hardest spin-up I've had to do. But it's useful for getting a feel for what adding functionality to someone else's long running codebase will feel like, and useful feedback to the potential client.

    Finally, for an entirely separate personal project, I ordered an electronics prototype from JLCPCB. I've used JLC a few times for prototype boards. This time around, I'm also taking advantage of their prototyping service to build up the boards (or, at least, about 75% of them, the remaining components being things they don't have, or that I can source cheaper). Exciting to see how those will come out. This is also the first board I've designed in KiCad. This article and the scripts in it were highly useful for generating a positioning file.

    Looking at those notes reinforces what I already was feeling in my bones: it's going to be a busy end to the year.

  • Week 359

    18 November 2019

    Very busy right now, so I'll break a habit and do weeknotes as bullet points:

    • Longridge is going well. Lots more review work, getting a second course to 1.0, filling in some blanks, re-recording and re-editing fragments of screencasts, and getting a first draft of the third (and final) course done. That course introduces UX design through the lens of designing a small mobile app. It begins with a look at the materiality of the modern smartphone (although not, for my target learners, using quite that language), before going through to a first look at user journeys, paper prototyping, clickable mockups, and what design teams look like. Phew. Nearly there on the content delivery.
    • It looks like another short technical project, Willsneck, will slot in in the run up to Christmas, kicking off next week.
    • …and had a phonecall about another short piece of software development for a little further into the future. That still feels like it's about 40% likely, but it was a good call, so we'll see what happens there.

    Wearing a lot of hats right now, and doing a lot of different kinds of work. As such, there's not a huge amount of time for reflection, right now: the goal is delivery. That means keeping the foot - gently - on the gas pedal for a bit.

  • Week 358

    10 November 2019

    Another week of writing, editing, and typing.

    I finished a first draft of the first half of the third (and last) course I'm writing. This one is an introduction to design and UX, through the lens of prototyping a simple mobile app.

    Explaining “design” from a standing start, in a limited space of time, is… challenging to say the least. If I had thousands words and many weeks it feels like it'd at least be easier - but I have hundreds of words, and two weeks of content. So the course is more of a whistle-stop tour, and I'm agonising over each paragraph, keeping them on point without introducing more questions than they answer.

    I spent a good chunk of time reviewing all of course 2, which - despite the picky detail that Track Changes likes to ask you to approve - was a relatively smooth process. I'd definitely learned a bit from writing course 1. About the single most challenging set of edits were having to come up with meaningful “wrong” answers for multiple choice quizzes, each with accompanying explanation. I'm no fan of multiple choice, but it's a format I've been given, so I'm just working with what I've got.

    I also recorded two screencasts for course 2, in which I walk through my own solutions to the exercises. Although they're meant to sound ‘off-the-cuff’, and involve me narrating as I type, I still require a degree of scripting. A short list of key points in front of me gives me marks to hit: just enough reminders of what's coming next that I don't ramble or waffle, and we keep the length down. A quick edit job on each and they were good to send to the video team.

    I also did a bit more wrangling for December's Hyper Island teaching. That meant finalising some timetables, and meeting up with our client for the students’ brief. Fortunately, things are firming up: the variables in the timetable are turning into constants, which makes everything a lot more straightforward.

  • Week 357

    5 November 2019

    These are a bit late, so let's keep them quick.

    On Longridge I wrapped up the draft of the HTML/CSS course I started in Week 356.

    I'd written all the content already; all that was left was the two practical exercises, where the learner first marks up a webpage, and then adds CSS in step two to bring it to life. These took a little ‘rehearsal’, making sure the instructions lined up with the results, and adding as much clarity as possible to the instructions.

    In the end, I framed them a little like a puzzle. I made sure included each exercise included a bit of boilerplate code that learners might be able to use to help them with solutions to their own exercises. After all, problem-solving on the front-end often comes down to a combination of your own knowledge and a looking at what you've already got.

    I also rehearsed my own screencast walkthrough of one of the exercises, and discovered that I'd have to script the key points I needed to hit, or else it'd get rambly fast. I'm planning to record those at the end of week 358.

    I did a little planning for this winter's Hyper Island teaching on their part-time Digital Management MA. The structure of this year's days is coming together, but there are still has some gaps in the schedule, which we had a phone call to try to fill in.

    I also got a little while to spend on Dent. I built the board up and, other than one missing trace, this time, it worked correctly! I managed, after some wrangling, to get the UF2 bootloader onto it, and then get some test firmware on. I'd say the work was about 75% successful: all the UI elements are working correctly, and I'm reading the SD card over SPI fine. But the DAC audio out is proving troublesome, so when I get another moment, I guess there's more debugging to be done.

    And that was it. Mainly: typing, thinking.

  • Week 356

    28 October 2019

    Another week of writing: this time, writing a course on HTML and CSS for total beginners. This is slightly more practical than last week's: more about doing than thinking.

    But gosh, it's hard. It's a very short course, and so we're going at a lick to cover a reasonable tour of the environment. Very quickly, we get into jargon and complexity, despite my best attempts to avoid it. One reason for this is my avowal to avoid jargon when I can, but to never tell you things that aren't correct. So when I have to introduce a thing as a declaration or property or selector… I do exactly that.

    Fortunately, the browser, and markup, are forgiving environments: they do their best to render whatever you throw at them, regardless of mistakes (and in part for long historic reasons). And we're doing everything in the browser, without having to install software - CodePen makes for a great beginner IDE.

    I'm also relying a little on asking the learner to trust me in the course of a short article. I hope that's justified. What I'm really asking them is: “if things have briefly stopped making sense, can you trust me for a little? I promise to bring things into land in a little while - but we might have to briefly leave the ground." Or, in plain English: I can give you clarity paragraph-to-paragraph, but not always sentence-to-sentence. Perhaps that's a weakness in my writing style.

    Still, having just written a course about more imperative styles of code, it's nice to look at languages where I can show a learner the majority of the syntax in a few hundred words - and where the complexity is located in the implementation detail.

    Of course, there are still cans of worms that I'm finding and then having to write my way out of. Writing about CSS, I was talking about styling rules overriding one another, and used this as an example:

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    p.intro {
      color: #ff0000;
    }
    

    I am most familiar with writing CSS colors in the format #RRGGBB, where RR, GG, and BB are two-digit hexadecimal numbers; it's also what I've seen used most in the world.

    And yet this adds extra complexity for the absolute beginner. I have a limited word count, and do I all of a sudden want to lose 100 words to explaining hexadecimal numbers? Not really. So I replaced it with this, for the time being:

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    p.intro {
      color: red;
    }
    

    which lets us focus on the real idea I wanted to write about (namely, how p.intro overrides and extends p).


    In some down hours, I spent some time wrapping my head around KiCad. All my electronics work to date has been done with EAGLE. I've spent long enough with that piece of software that I've developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome for it, despite its unintuitive nature (along with a large parts library). But a particular open-source project I'm working on is not ideally suited to EAGLE, especially if other people are to work on it, and I feel that future versions of it may be better supported in an open-source tool. Hence investigating KiCad.

    I've never really got my head around KiCad before. Partly that's time; partly that's it behaving much more like most schematic capture/EDA tools (where you do one, then the other), unlike EAGLE's merging of the two functions. It required a shifting of my mental model.

    What helped me overcome this hurdle was Chris Gemmell's Getting to Blinky 5.0, and I wanted to write about that quickly because it's helped me thinking about teaching new topics.

    Getting To Blinky teaches KiCad by going through the whole process of making a circuit board. It's a simple circuit: a timer that flashes an LED, with a coin cell battery. The course takes the viewer through making a schematic symbol, drawing up a schematic, annotating it and matching it to footprints, making a new footprint where one is missing, laying out a board, and getting their board fabricated.

    What I like about the course that it covers “one of everything”: at the end of it, you have done each major task that you'll ever need to do exactly once. You can then adapt what you've learned to your own work. I found it particularly helpful coming from another tool as, at each stage, I was mapping what Chris showed me to what I knew. I like the focus on end-to-end, with a simple (eight component) board - and in particular, teaching making symbols/footprints early on.

    I am not sure what it's like for the total beginner - it goes quite fast, for sure (although the pause and rewind buttons are underrated features of video content). But for me, it gave me exactly enough of the tour that with a little bit of time each day across the week, I had designed a development board for a potential project from to-to-bottom in it:

    Also, it has a surprisingly good 3D layout preview and raytracer in it.

    This project is to be filed away for November, but it was nice to pick up a new tool, and thinking about how somebody else was teaching it helped me think about my own teaching.

  • Week 354

    20 October 2019

    Weeknotes this week are dry, I'm afraid. I am still writing Longridge. I'd hoped to move onto writing my second course, but spent much of the week wrangling feedback on the first.

    On the flipside, the feedback was all useful, and easily sorted, by and large. It should also help to make the other two courses a bit faster to write, now I have a better idea of what's expected. But it's put me back a bit.

    Mainly, I rewrote exercises, edited an interview, drew up some quizzes, recorded one more voiceover, and then two more chunky screencasts that had me deep in Hitfilm's composite clip editor to tell the story correctly. Phew.

    I did get some time on Tuesday afternoon to spend thinking about an exercise for the second course - actually taking the plan in my head and walking through it myself. The good news is that at least half of it should be reasonably straightforward; however, I'm going to have to solve the second half of the exercise in the course of writing next week. Still, it's had me ruminating on the issues ahead, so that's a good thing.

  • Week 353

    11 October 2019

    A week on Longridge.

    I wrote an end-to-end draft of the first of the courses. Primarily, that was writing prose, but it's more than just long articles: I'm writing a mix of informative essays, the odd quiz, and exercises for learners.

    The exercises were versions of ones I've run before, but they prove particularly time-consuming - as well as writing them, I need to run them myself to check they work, and write scripts or articles to describe successful outcomes.

    But they're done, and now they're being reviewed by other members of the team.

    I also spent some time on my end of the videos for all three courses. That meant more assemblies of interviews to end the week, once the course content was shipped, and also submitting sample screencast videos recorded at home to see if they'd pass muster with the production team. It sounds like they will - so now I've just got to get on with the recording there.

    My home screencast recording setup goes like this: I record screen and audio simultaneously. I use Quicktime Player to capture the screen, and record audio from my external microphone as I do - a Red5 condenser mic going into my audio interface. At the same time as recording the audio+video in Quicktime, I also set the audio recording in Logic Pro, where a simple channel strip is setup on a mono channel. When I finish the recording, I open the video and both audio tracks in a video editor, align the Quicktime audio with the processed audio, and then disable the Quicktime-recorded audio. That way, I get the captured video with the processed audio. It sounds and looks pretty good to my eyes and ears.

    That made for a full week - not much time for much else. Next week, we move onto writing a full draft of course number two.

  • Week 352

    6 October 2019

    Back after a few weeks away, and straight to the studio. No time to build up the boards and stencils that arrived for Dent: instead, I went straight into writing and content review on Longridge.

    I got my head down on writing content so the team could review my style and give me some pointers. I managed a first draft of about a third of one course; I need to wrap up the rest by next Wednesday.

    I also reviewed the interview films that had been shot whilst I was away. The team kindly provided transcripts and timestamped footage to go over, and I had to work out what should go into the final film. It's hard to do this solely from a transcript - you end up finding that intonation is key, or that sometimes the way somebody's said something just flows more naturally in a different take. So I sat down with the footage and Hitfilm and hammered out a couple of ‘assembly’ edits - nothing final, and they wouldn't contain any of the cutaways or B-roll that the video team had for the final film - but enough to get a feel for if the final edit we were hoping for would flow. I know I could have just supplied a script or a cut-list, but it helped reassure me that what I hoped was possible would work.

    In a spare moment, I fixed a firmware bug on 16n that had been nagging a lot of people for quite a while. No great breakthrough on my part; instead, a well-framed bug report suddenly made the issue very clear, and half an hour in an editor got the bug fixed. Now I'm just finding people to help me confirm there's been no regression, and then I'll try to package that up into a release in the coming weeks.

  • Week 350-351

    22 September 2019

    Out of the studio, on vacation. Back at the beginning of October!