• 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.

  • Weeks 332-333

    28 May 2019

    All change!

    The work I was doing on Highrigg wrapped up. Between weeks 332 and 333, I wrapped up my end-to-end demo, with a fully working backend, front-end authentication, and some basic live updates. As well as the text documentation, I recorded a quick screencast of the demo in operation - that’d make it easy to share with colleagues who couldn’t run the software on their setups.

    And with the alpha goal hit, my contract came to an end. So I’m taking a bit of a breath, and wondering what’s next. For now, that involves wrapping up a variety of small personal pieces of work - notably, an up-to-date version of this website with several years’ worth of projects written up!

    I’m also moving studio. Not very far - a new space has come up at Makerversity, so, after several years sharing with current studiomates, I’ll be moving a few doors down into a small space with some freelancers I know. It suits my needs well right now, and will be a lovely bunch to share a space with. Many thanks to Ben, Sam, and the rest of the PAN/Location Games crews for the past five years.

    I also had a prospective meeting about a small workshop which sounds positive, so I’m working out how best to fit that in around studio change-around and some upcoming travel.

    And, of course, this all means that I potentially have upcoming availability. If the sort of thing I do - technology strategy, prototyping engineering, interaction design - sounds like a fit for you, now’s a good time to get in touch!

  • Week 331

    12 May 2019

    A short week, owing to a bank holiday at the beginning and a day largely not working at the end.

    Over at Highrigg, I worked on the spec from last week, getting something closer to a list of things to be achieved, as well as making it easier to specify what other assistance we’d require. I met with some colleagues to share that and understand how best to secure that assistance.

    I also had some technical successes: fleshing out my GraphQL service backend and, after some assistance spinning up some Google Cloud services, rewriting a service to store files there (rather than locally) and auto-update them. All the yarn tasks to do that are all completed - now I just need to set up whatever the equivalent of a cron job is to run it. And, on another piece of work, I deployed some updates around error logging. Finally, we reviewed some colleagues’ excellent UX research around some changes we were proposing, and gained useful insight into both those changes, and wider issues effecting a particular slice of end-users. A productive couple of days!

    On Thursday and Friday, I reached feature-parity on my port of this site to Hugo, and also managed to port all the legacy content over, I think. So at some point, I’ll consider swapping over, and possibly refining the appropriate rsync incantation. But I’d also like to spend some time writing up all the projects that have happened since Rubato, if only to see if this new platform works a little better.

    Anyhow, a good few days.

  • Week 330

    6 May 2019

    Highrigg continued: a series of meetings with partners, an excellent lunchtime lecture and discussion, and more programming.

    After a day spent wiring the backend I started putting together last week with the front-end, I ended up with a shell of an application, and at least one screen with real live data. Which was the time to hit the pause button. Why? Well, I was beginning to tip over from learning (about the project) and into production, and it’s not quite the right time for that yet. What I was learning was that it was probably not a one-person job, and it’d go a lot faster with a more experienced React engineer focusing on the client implementation. I was also learning what pace of work would be like on it, and already gaining some confirmation that the architecture I’d settled on was sensible. I was also exposing some of the requirements not captured in our initial documents - for instance, approaches to live updates and data push - that only became more obvious as I began implementing. So that’s something to turn into specification in Week 331.

    In the rest of the week, I spent some time exploring updating this website. I’m aware that there’s a long backlog of projects to write-up (especially Selworthy), and I’d like to make it easier to do that. At the same time, I also think I could probably move to something like a static site generator, if only I could find one I could settle on. That’s some work, but would then mean that all my content exists as files, and is relatively easy to port to other platforms in future.

    I settled on Hugo. I’ve used it on another project, it’s remarkably fast, and whilst its compiled nature means a lot of implementation comes down to template tricks… it also means it’s not the ‘piece of string’ that Javascript-based engines can be. A solid day and a bit of coding got me to an end-to-end implementation of this site, with all the blogposts up and running, and most of the work done to start importing project pages. When they’re done, it’ll be time to consider making the switch, and also seeing how easy it is to write up new projects. But I’m hoping it’ll be reasonably straightforward. Also: pleasant to work on a new, greenfield project.

  • Week 329

    28 April 2019

    A four-day week after the bank holiday.

    Two days at Highrigg. Last week, I was forcing myself into a deep dive on in React, building a prototype front-end that talked to a third-party API. This week, I decided it was worth introducing our own server-side API between us and the third-party.

    This decision - which my colleague Lachie helped me come to, in a highly useful brief rubberducking session - came about for a few reasons. Firstly, so we could separate some responsibility, and make the front-end code a bit less brittle. It also meant that if we wanted to start using other service - notably, some internal data-sources - rather than making growing number of calls on the front-end, we could keep front-end calls down and instead combine all the data from multiple server-side calls into a single payload. That also means we can take a little bit of responsibility for caching in the right place - the server-side.

    With that decision made, I wanted to write just enough code to confirm that I’d picked appropriate tools, as well as architecture. I began exploring building a small GraphQL service. GraphQL is very trendy right now, but it feels like an appropriate fit. I’m making something resembling a small mobile app, and being able to serve up all the data for a ‘page’ or ‘view’ in a single lump is ideal. My data model is also fairly hierarchical, and largely read-only, which made life simple.

    Unlike last week’s battles with React, this work went more smoothly, and it turns out that I don’t just like the idea of GraphQL, I also really like the implementation. By the end of the second day, I had the beginnings of a service shelled out. More to the point, I’d done enough to decide that this felt like a viable technology to use for the project going forward. I finished up my technical review documents with this knowledge, and updated some architecture diagrams.

    On Thursday and Friday, I finished bagging up a run of Foxfield kits for Thonk, and spent some time in the workshop - firstly, starting to brush up some woodwork skills, and secondly, building up an electronics prototype. This second electronics prototype was another SAMD21-based build, which I’ll probably write up, to share my approach for building these boards. It worked first time - and also confirmed that a new footprint was highly viable for what I wanted to do with it.

  • Week 328

    22 April 2019

    Lots of meetings at Highrigg, across a range of projects; some good time thinking through design interactions with colleagues, and then, around that, spelunking an API I’m coding against.

    At the same time, forcing my brain through the React mincer possibly faster than is ideal. I am finding getting up-to-speed with React challenging, and often end up frustrated.

    Learning new things is hard, yes, and it’s of course sometimes the work of a technologist to stay up-to-date. What I’m finding hard is the gulf between the basic tutorials and guide (which I’ve completed and re-read a few times) and the real-world project I have to operate in. I know this means I haven’t fully internalised the information - going from knowing to knowing - but it’s a while since I’ve felt like this. It doesn’t help that it feels like something I ought to have some faculty with, as a former front-end developer.

    Why am I putting myself through this? Because I think it’s important even if I’m spelunking or prototyping to work in the platform other colleagues are most familiar with, and inside a React+Typescript shop, I think it’s reasonable to work with those. (They also, lack of familiarity aside, seem like highly reasonably technology choices). There’s real internal value to playing ball, especially in a larger organisation, and so a balance between ‘output from prototyping’ and ‘lasting value of prototype’ needs to be trod.

    We’ll get there. But a frustrating few hours trying to achieve things I know I could do in other platforms or languages, and resisting the urge to chuck in the towel.

    On Thursday, I found that Fedex had failed to deliver parts for a Foxfield run, so delayed that until next week. I spent some time in CAD and lasercutting, wrapping up a prototype panel, and then finishing the electronics of the prototype I’ve been working on. This went well: my workflow from panel to cutter is much tighter now, and a single iteration got things spot on. The prototype is working well, too. Time to make a decision about that prototype soon.

    And then, a long weekend. Back Tuesday for a four-day week 329.

  • Week 327

    14 April 2019

    Highrigg continued. There’s not a lot I can really say easily in public about my work there; suffice to say, an amount of prodding at code, exploring APIs, discussing interactions with colleagues, and drawing up a technical overview of a future product.

    On my couple of days in the studio, I made good headway with the electronics project I was working on in Week 325. I managed to get a better understanding of flashing the device over SWD - and managed to do it with a BlackMagic Probe, which is a more affordable, open-source alternative to the full JLink (though the Segger tools are excellent). By the end of Thursday, I could program the bootloader and application code via gdb. I also finished porting the code over, and discovered the board worked entirely correctly. A few pin alterations in the firmware, and it looked like it was end-to-end working. I spent a little while thinking what programmer or test boards might look for it, and ordered some material to laser-cut a front-panel in week 328.

    Broadly, though, I’m quite excited, as the whole SAMD21 unit can be placed into other projects in future relatively easily.

    On Friday, I started working up an order for Thonk of some Foxfield products. That entailed a quick stocktake, work out what I already had lying around, and then ordering parts from Mouser and a few runs of PCBs from China. I also stuck on a new prototype to test some EAGLE part layouts I was playing with, potentially as a future revision to 16n.

    I also had some nice meetings this week. On Thursday, I had an excellent chat with Ben Pawle from Nord. Ben and I discovered we were both teaching on the same Hyper Island course, so he suggested catching up - last time we’d spoken was at an IoT Coffee Morning that Matt Webb ran. It was great to talk to another practitioner; we talked about design practice, and making bots, and balancing own work with client work, and it was good to be reminded I’m not the only person doing this.

    I also spent some time with a colleague at Makerversity who’d initially asked for some assistance with ESP8266 - but we ended up having a deep dive on designing the connected component of IOT products, and it was good to be able to share some experience across that shape of product design. Namely, I ended up recommending against technical complexity too early in the process, and instead we looked at doing the bare minimum to get to end-to-end - and to find out what making a product connected felt like. By doing that, you get to discover surprises on the way sooner, rather than engineering to spec and not leaving space for serendipity.

  • Week 326

    8 April 2019

    On holiday. No weeknotes! Back for week 327.