• Week 342

    28 July 2019

    Longridge is really beginning to motor. I finished writing a the initial preparatory work for a workshop in Week 343. That was harder than planned. Lots of variables are still up in the air, and the later stages of the work are highly dependent on these ones; as a result, I sometimes get tangled trying to think about all the possible outcomes. But: I got enough done to generate the raw materials I was required to for the workshop, which was most important.

    Also, the topic area is now well established around in my head, which means I have lots more thoughts still unwritten - some aren’t quite ready for that, others might emerge in the right context. I think that’s all fine: it’s the right place to be in at this point, and will be more things to feed in to the workshop next week.

    Towards the end of the week, a short piece of work for After The Flood came in. I’m going to be spending the rest of Week 343 with them, working on some product exploration around data for them - coding, talking, thinking work. Looking forward to working with that team again.

    I also have a small hardware project that has had some external encouragement to suggest it’s worth getting to the end of phase zero on it. Phase zero is, I suppose, the point where something reveals if it’s going to be A Thing or not. Sometimes, you do the work, and there’s just not a product there (or not one worth building); better to find that out with as little effort as possible. I’m going to finish up this exploration phase and see where it lands. For now, that means getting some PCBs spun and assembling them when they arrive.

    My little React prototype is in good shape. Something clicked and I tore out lots of component-spaghetti. Now there are just enough components. All of a sudden, passing state down looks tidy, rather than baroque. I spent some time adding a few little features, and continuing to refine my knowledge of new browser APIs. It still feels like a delight to find so many browser APIs being generally supported - I come from an era where most of the Good Stuff just wans’t standard enough. And, on top of it: the little tool is beginning to feel usable.

    And that’s about it. Week 343 is a busy one: in Leeds on Thursday for Longridge, and at ATF for the rest of the week.

  • Week 341

    20 July 2019

    I kicked off work on Longridge this week, with a remote meeting to go over the shape of the initial work, and some of the approach. That’s given me some grounding, some ideas for a deadline at the end of Week 342, and - most importantly - some homework before a workshop in week 343. That homework lead to some planning, research, and an afternoon of kicking tyres on the internet - amongst other things. I actually need to check what I can say about Longridge - I think I can be reasonably public - so I might describe that more next week.

    I spent a day brushing up on the state of web development in 2019. I’m a lapsed front-end developer back from the days when that primarily involved deep knowledge of HTML and awful, awful browsers. (I definitely have built some IE6-compatible sites in my time). Since then, I’ve seen front-end change a lot, and done a nice pile of work on Captionhub with the HTML5 media extensions and spec. But there’s still new things to learn, so I spent an afternoon bringing myself up-to-speed with CSS Grid. Gosh, it’s good, isn’t it? It solves a problem elegantly, and still gives - in many situations - completely acceptable fallbacks when it’s not available. A really elegant API, and a nice bit of technology. I have a small backburner project that I’m using to learn new things on, and I spent some more time on that this week, too; it’s nearly hitting a nice alpha point, so perhaps a concerted day or two in the future will push that over the hill.

    It’s nice catching up with technology once it’s a little established. I subscribed hugely to the notion of choosing boring technology. I’ve never been let down by boring technology, and, some days, it’s been reassuring to have my bacon saved by not picking something that goes out of fashion as fast as it came in, or doesn’t have support, or just ended up being the wrong horse. It’s why I still am entirely comfortable shipping Rails projects: it works, it’s expressive for developers, Performant Enough, and gets web-apps based around shipping content to/from databases over HTTP out the door quickly. Uncontroversial. So rather than hurtling to stay up-to-date with trends, I’m comfortable keeping one eye on them, and the other on the Unexciting Present. I’ll read, think, compare, but committing to using them is a very different process. Now that I’m in a lull, it’s time to catch up a little and explore.

    I also shipped a few small pieces of code related to things I’ve been doing recently.

    Firstly, some Javascript: wxr_to_json is a small command-line node tool for converting Wordpress eXtended Rss to JSON files, simply for ease of processing. It’s a little opinionated - it flattens some one-item arrays into objects - but it works very well for large WXR dumps; v8 and xml2js are very, very quick.

    Secondly, some Ruby. I packaged up a gist by Stefan Daschek into a gem to use as a Capistrano plugin. It’s ideal for deploying static sites (including build processes) with cap: it makes a clean local checkout, gives you hooks to run build processes, and then uses rsync to move built content to a server (and lets you use all of cap’s versioned deployment tools). The code worked, but it felt cleaner to turn it into a gem, rather than a lib file floating around my repository. So I finished the bundling job and wrote a pile of documnetation. No idea if either of these will be useful to other people, but they’re easily shared. So let’s do that, then, and perhaps someone else will find them useful. (Why are you using a server and not a CDN for a stic site, you might ask? To avoid yakshaving, primarily. Change one thing at once!)

    And that was a week.

  • Week 340

    12 July 2019

    A good week! Most visibly, I updated the case studies on this site with lots of new projects over the past three-and-a-half years. Really pleased to have these write-ups done: they illustrate lots of nice angles on my work, and I’m glad to show off Captionhub in detail.

    Under the hood, I’ve moved everything over to Hugo and a lot of static files. That’s been a largely delightful process.

    I got a little blocked at deployment - I was hoping to move to some kind of CDN-backed deployment, but things were getting a little complex, so I simplified the problem, and just deployed to my existing host.

    That involved some neat wrangling of Capistrano. I like cap simply because I use it everywhere, be it for Wordpress (with the composer plugin), Ruby, or static sites. It versions directories, allows for rollbacks, and is a neat layer of glue around ssh.

    For this site, I took this sample rsync plugin, and then wrote my own cap tasks so that each deploy checks out the clean site to a temporary folder, runs yarn, runs hugo to build the site, rsyncs that to a server, and finally updates a symlink. It didn’t take long to have that running in my current setup - nice! I might wrap up that rsync plugin into a proper gem next week as nobody seems to have done that yet.

    Anyhow, enough about infrastructure.

    In new work news, it looks like there’s a writing project - to be known for now as Longridge kicking off next week, and that’ll run in the background for a couple of months. I’ll have more to say on that one in due course, but for now, I scheduled in an early workshop and some onboarding calls.

    However, I’m also looking for new projects to run in parallel with that. Ideally, something more technical - prototyping, exploration, or communication and technical consulting. Themes I’m particularly interested in: sound, video, and interaction with those; connected objects and whatever we’re calling “IoT” now; and, perhaps most vitally, tools to empower, enable, and enrich. Work on tools like CaptionHub and instruments like Twinklr and 16n scratches the same itch: giving someone the tool to do work with, to create, and to do things I couldn’t even imagine. I’m interested in continuing to explore that space. get in touch if that sounds like it’s up your street.

  • The case studies on this website were getting a little stale. No more! I’ve just published lots of new case studies of individual projects over the past three years.

    The big headline that I’m most keen to talk about is a long, detailed writeup of my work on CaptionHub - a project I worked on for 3.5 years, known in this feed as Selworthy. CaptionHub is an online tool for collaboratively captioning and subtitling video. I served as technical lead and pathfinder, taking the initial idea - the “what if?” - to a prototype and beyond into a shipping product, whilst the team grew and the product acquired clients. The write-up is detailed not just because of the length time I worked on the project, but because of the way the product changed as it developed and grew in scale. It’s a project that shows the breadth of my capabilities well, and the finished product is something I’m very proud of.

    But there’s lots more in there too. Highlights include: an open source tool for musicians; teaching on the Hyper Island MA; building a digital musicbox; creating a Twitter bot for an installation at the Wellcome Collection.

    The write-ups all include extended thought on process, and, of course, link back to the relevant weeknotes that I wrote during the process.

    You can find out more at the updated projects list.

    I’m currently looking for new projects to work on: technical leadership, early stage exploration, communication of ideas, are all areas I’m keen to continue in. Topic areas I’m particularly interested in include building tools for creatives and professionals, the bridge between the physical and digital, and audio and video. I’ve written more about my capabilities here.

  • Week 339

    8 July 2019

    I wrapped up the order for Thonk at the beginning of the week when the final parts arrived from China - another excellent job from AllPCB, after some wrangling over my slightly unusual Gerber files. So that was good to get shipped and invoiced.

    I also wrapped migrating the Foxfield site to Hugo and Netlify. Whilst I’ve moved a few sites to Netlify now, this was the first Hugo port, so getting things like the RSS feed behaving, and automatic build happening, were good to wrangle on a smaller project than this site.

    Speaking of this site, I finally started the big write-up of Selworthy. Unsurprisingly, this took longer than planned - primarily, to find a through-line and plot for describing it, and also to fact-check it. Fortunately, that’s an area where Weeknotes come in handy! I’m going to continue a second pass in week 340, but for now, these are pretty much there.

    I had a few phone calls with people I’d been speaking to about a couple of projects. No work really there - so making sure those don’t overrun - but good to consult at early stages if only for half an hour, and perhaps a project may emerge in the nearer term there.

    I also spent some time writing some Go. I know, deep down, very, very little Go, but it felt like it might be useful for a script I had an idea for: fast, built-in HTTP library, compiles to a single binary. So I spent half a day writing a script I could probably have written in a hour in Ruby in something new. I greatly enjoyed the process, in the end: the tooling available makes it nicely straightforward, there are good docs, and there was lots to enjoy, such as gofmt everywhere, and slices. A pleasant afternoon feeling competent and productive at code.

  • Week 338

    1 July 2019

    I’m making progress on the latest Thonk order, but kitting is taking a little longer than planned, broken up over the course of days, as parts arrive, or inaccuracies in BOMs reveal themselves (notably - when multiple suppliers are involved). So I push forward, doing what I can when I can, and spending the rest of the time on other work.

    That other work has included overhauling some of my websites - and where, and how they’re hosted. I’m trying to work out I can offload to simpler hosting setups in order to reduce my workload and responsibilities. That’s included porting a few sites from Wordpress to Hugo and moving to CDN-style hosting, through services such as Netlify.

    Of course, by moving to flat files, I’m not locked in to those services: HTML is HTML, and can be hosted almost anywhere. So the work to simplify and strip down actually means I can be confident that should my hosting needs change, hosting them anywhere else is also straightforward.

    Hugo’s been really satisfying to work with. I’ve poked at a fair few static site generators in my explorations before settling on this. The decision making came down to a few points:

    • I’d love incremental-build (where only dirty changes are compiled) to be working, but even SSGs that say they support it don’t really. So, rather than prioritising incremental build, why not prioritise pure speed? Hugo is very, very fast.
    • I like that it’s a compiled Go binary; it works “everywhere”, is easily portable, and doesn’t require huge module dependencies just to run.
    • Because it’s precompiled, it doesn’t have a dynamic plugin structure. That may sound limiting. But, in fact, it forces me to do more with ‘just template language’. The Go template language is a bit idiosyncratic, but I like templating languages a lot, and it forces me to think about markup and structure, rather than just bodging everything with dynamic code. I mean, I used to work with Velocity a lot, so I’m used to getting a lot out of limited tools. (I should note - Velocity was… 13 years ago. I’d rather not ever use it again now…)

    And, of course, by getting me to reduce content to Markdown and templates, not only is the output easily portable, but the source code is also relatively easily portable - if I ever move away from Hugo, obviously templates will need rebuilding, but the content is in a neat portable format - not tied up inside a database schema that will need exporting.

    So that’s been productive, and largely changed my opinion on SSGs for my own personal use.

    I greatly enjoyed playing with Ableton’s Learning Synths earlier in the week. Not just because I’m interested in the subject area, either! It made lots of smart pedagogical choices that I really enjoyed, as someone thinking about explanation and education a fair bit:

    • before introducing anything technical, start with abstract tools and aesthetic output. In Ableton’s case, that meant: boxes that make noises as you drag around. Things that sound satisfying. Descriptions of things you’ve heard. Supply the learner with context for what you’re about to present.
    • only then is it time to start mapping those things to terminology such as pitch or timbre.
    • using pitch to illustrate modulation options - envelopes and LFOs - makes it very easy to hear their input. Even though other controls are more common destinations for modulation, starting with pitch makes understanding the metaphor clearer, quicker.
    • making all the later examples Just Work with any attached keyboard attached is a superb idea

    There’s so much care in the implementation of the project, too, from the delightful animations through to the richness of the tools. And, a common strand with Ableton: note their willingness to promote applicable knowledge, rather than their own tools, in their education work.

    Full marks, and ideas I’m sure I’ll keep thinking about.

    And that was Week 338.

  • Week 337

    24 June 2019

    On Wednesday, I went over to Method. They regularly get outsiders in to give lunchtime talks, and they asked me to deliver something for them. I worked up an edit of “How Computers (Don’t) Think”, a lecture I do for my Hyper Island students around “AI”, Machine Learning, and implementations of it such as computer vision or speech recognition. Of course, as the title suggests, it also dives into the language and manner in which these technologies are communicated, unpacking what Marvin Minsky called suitcase words, to understand that more often than not, we’re talking about counting, arithmetic, or statistics rather than new forms of cognition. (Mike Mallazzo’s recent The BS-Industrial Complex Of Phony AI is a good point of reference on this). On the way, we took in MENACE, Clever Hans, and looked at other futures for AI beyond lazy Skynet metaphors.

    Re-editing and prepping that took a moderate amount of time, but the effort was definitely worth it: the talk came out the tightest it’s ever been, and better suited to a design-agency audience. I was particularly pleased to be able to talk to one of Method’s machine-learning experts (of the very much non-bullshit kind) who clarified a few points for me but otherwise was highly enthusiastic about the accuracy and clarity of the talk.

    What else?

    I spent an afternoon ordering parts and components for a new Foxfield kits run, which also involved a while fettling gerbers and liasing with my Chinese producer; I do some funky things with silkscreening that aren’t always straightforward to produce. That’s all ordered now, so should be coming together in the coming weeks.

    I finished my studio move: all the cruft is now tidied away on storage shelves, and my storage boxes have gone. Glad to have all that dealt with.

    Beyond that, some good conversations; notably, a pleasant catch-up with Max from After The Flood, about design, strategy, and the various roles that agencies serve for their clients.

  • Week 336

    14 June 2019

    I think what I’m doing at the moment is akin to gardening: tending to things that need tending to, spending time in my workspace, going at the pace of things around me. Perhaps that’s a little poetic, but that’s where I am right now: resting and reorienting, spending time on many little things.

    I was on holiday until Wednesday, so a short week. I had some really pleasant meetings on Wednesday with a couple of colleagues; one a more generic catch-up about life, work, and process, and the other, a chat with Gabi from Hyper Island about what we might turn our attention to next year. It was great to hear feedback, and exciting to see what might be next - and to start thinking about what topics we might turn to.

    Some PCBs cleared customs from China, and so I built up a small personal project, which appears to be working correctly (good) and will get put into place next week.

    I worked on a pull request for the monome Ansible documentation (which is not currently live yet). A new mode - a port of Earthsea - is nearly ready to go live in the main branch, and a while back, I worked up some documentation for that. I think documentation’s an important thing, especially for tools and instruments; it’s all too easy for us to work on new features without thinking about explaining them. So whilst scanner darkly worked on the code, I wrote some docs. I spent my flight back from Berlin on Tuesday making a few new images and updating the docs to reflect the latest state of the patch. That got merged in and will go live when the new firmware is completed. A nice community contribution to be able to make in my downtime.

    And, to wrap up, I did a quick stocktake to work out what I needed to order for a new run of Foxfield kits. With that out of the way, I can put a few orders into China and get the house in order.

    Not much else to report, in a good way. Reading, clearing up, admin, ordering storage for the new studio.

  • Week 335

    10 June 2019

    I had a few meetings throughout the week, speaking to somebody about a very early-stage startup, and the role technology might play in it. Nothing very firm right now, but an interesting conversation with an interesting peer, which, right now, is exactly the sort of thing I have time for. Also, a quick conversation about something that may become more concrete in the coming weeks - but it’s at that level of liklihood that doesn’t warrant a codename yet.

    I also spent some time on Thursday evening comparing notes with a former colleague about particular aspects of design, and sharing what I’d learned in my career so far around that.

    I moved studio this week. I’ve shared with the PAN/Location Games crew for about five years, and they’ve been excellent studio mates and good time. But an opportunity came up for a space perhaps more suited to my freelance needs, so I’m now a couple of doors down - still inside Makerversity - with a small gaggle of freelancers in a shared studio space. It’s a really nice crowd, and I’m hoping it’ll suit my needs and practice well.

    Finally, a bit of tinkering with some SAMD51 microcontrollers - the big brother of the SAMD21 chips I’ve been playing with. This are Cortex M4F chips, with floating-point support, and Adafruit have ported the Teensy Audio library to them. So I’ve been tinkering with running some(body else’s) DSP code on them, and seeing if they’ll make a suitable generic bare-chip solution for audio projects… with USB firmware upload, of course.

    The project-based work I do always leads to an ebb and flow, and as periods of deep attention end, it’s useful to spend some time in reflection. So I’m not rushing into any new projects too fast. I’m taking a brief breather from client work, working on some personal projects and exploration. I’m collating past project work not just for my website update, but also for my own contemplation - it’s useful to look back on a body of work. And I’m spending some time tinkering with new things, rather than just skimming documentation before I get back to work. Alongside all this: conversations with new people, catching up with peers and old friends. Stocking back up after a period of flow.

  • Week 334

    31 May 2019

    A quiet week in the studio, looking to the future, and taking some downtime.

    I spent some afternoons writing up a fair few more projects. No, they’re not live on this site yet - there’s one big one to go and then the copy for the new site is largely in place. Next up will be sorting out the infrastructure and deploying it!

    As part of that, I added a simple Makefile to the application to handle some basic tasks, and, following Alice’s example wrote a simple make week task to make a new blogpost file with the correct week number. Good!

    Otherwise, I spent time meeting colleagues and peers and having a good chats about all manner of topics; good to reset my head, open up some new ideas, think about some new topics, and root myself back in the world. A few tickles of potential work via email, but mainly, a week spent tending the (metaphorical) garden.

    Next week: office move, some more meetings, starting to get my head back into work again.