Yearnotes, 201924 January 2020
Another year - the seventh full one of working for myself. Just enough distance from the 31st of December makes for a good time to review what I got up to in 2019, and match up some codenames to projects.
Client work is, as ever, the major focus of my work.
I wrapped up my engagement with Captionhub at the beginning of the year. CaptionHub had been a highly successful project for me. I took the technology aspect of the project from a prototype to a fully-fledged product. The small team grew; the client built a technology capacity; I learned a great deal in the process. I finally had a chance to write this work up at length, and I’m glad I’ve done so.
I spent much of 2019 working at Bulb as Lead Technologist inside their Labs department. I’d summarise Labs' role as “product invention and business development”. That is to say: we did R&D around future products and the business units they might spawn. We then worked out what would be necessary to bring those to fruition, from both a business and customer perspective. My role was to understand, explain, and prototype technology, leading technology inside Labs, working with the designers in the unit, as well as other developers, and colleagues throughout the business.
I learned a great deal about the nature of the power and energy industry, a little the specifics of high-voltage electricity, and a fair chunk about electric cars along the way! I greatly enjoyed everyone I worked with inside Labs - Alex, Claire, James, Jenna, Lachie, and Daphne - as well as colleagues throughout the organisation, many of whom went above and beyond to assist us with our projects and research. We also got to partner with some great people outside the business, and in particular, I enjoyed working on prototypes with Pam and Ling from Intellicharge; Bulb’s trial with Intellicharge kicked off in November, a little while after I left.
My engagement at Bulb wrapped up around Week 322 of last year. My time there was codenamed Highrigg.
Since then, client work has included work with After The Flood, IF, and the New Left Review.
There’s been more teaching this year. With Hyper Island, I delivered the Digital Technologies module on their Digital Management MA for two cohorts: at the beginning of the year, in January, for the part-time cohort (who’d meet in London every month). This year, I also performed this role for the full-time students, in Manchester, in March.
I also worked on three courses for the Institute of Coding that will launch on Futurelearn in January 2020. Targeting beginners, they are two-week introductions to programming, web development in HTML/CSS, and UX design. I’ll write about them more very shortly. These courses were codenamed Longridge.
In the background, I continued to explore a few avenues around physical products.
I continued to ship kits under the Foxfield label, although I’ve not introduced any more projects. Being honest, I find product support much harder than product development, and adding new products just adds new things to support. So I’m thinking hard about what to do there: how to simplify.
The big product I worked on was 16n. This had been rolling in the background for a while in 2018; in January 2019, I decided to stop dawdling and release it to the world. 16n is a hardware-and-firmware product, sure - but it’s also an open-source product. I don’t actually make any. (Well, that’s not quite true: I have hand-built a few. But in general, I don’t make them). Instead, other people - hobbyists, small businesses - around the world have built their own - and, because of licensing, sold them to others.
I’m happy with that trade-off. The thing is in the world; other people are enjoying it and making music with it. Every time I see a picture of one in somebody’s setup, I’m happy. Also, Richie Hawtin has one.
I continued to support and provide firmware patches for 16n through the year. And now I’m thinking about what successors to it might be in 2020: I have a few ideas about how to improve the core experience of the product. How I get those to market remains to be seen.
Still: without shipping very much beyond data, I shipped a thing.
There were also perhaps a few too many prototypes behind the scenes, which fitted around work during downtime. Some of these were no-goes; a few stalled at around 90%, as I baulked at what it might take to push them over the top. Next yea,r a lesson has to be only working on things with a more defined goal, and a commitment to make them real. If it looks like it’s fun, but might not go anywhere… probably something to stop sooner. A lesson learned.
And, of course, physical/electronic products are a small part of my practice. It’s often easy to chat about them in weeknotes when other, larger work is harder to talk about - and that doesn’t always present an accurate picture of my work’s balance. Again, something to think about next year.
And that was 2019. 2020 begins by wrapping up a few pieces of client work. And then it’s time to look for new projects!
As ever, do get in touch if you’re looking for someone to work with on the shape of projects - technology (particularly on the web), invention, R&D, prototyping and strategy, playful interaction, the boundary between digital and physical - that you read about here.
Weeks 332-33328 May 2019
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 33112 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
yarntasks 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
rsyncincantation. 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 3306 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.
Week 32928 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 32822 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 32714 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 3251 April 2019
At the beginning of the week, I made headway at Highrigg with a code integration. I don’t normally go in for code generation, but for a quiuck prototype, feeding someone else’s Swagger-based api into
swagger-codegenfeels like exactly the right thing to do (and, of course, just what Swagger is designed for. And: it largely worked! By which I mean, we had a command-line Typescript demo in around an hour. That means I can take a stab at prototyping something else in due course, and perhaps move to something more bespoke in time. But it’s a starting point, and nice to see all the moving pieces working.
I also continued to work on wrapping up the workshop from the week before with some review work, as well as pushing a web project a little further forward.
Thursday was first non-client day in the studio in around a month. I put together some new boards of an internal electronics project that’s been going on for ever. for the first time, I managed to solder QFP packages without a hitch (mainly thanks to a good magnifier and a lake of flux).
The QFP package in question is a SAMD21. I’m making a board that has a microcontroller on it, but also a USB port. Thanks to Microsoft’s UF2 bootloader (which is a brilliant bit of engineering), it should then be possible – once i’ve correctly flahsed the bootloader to the chip – to either program the board from inside the Arduino IDE… or to just drag a .uf2 file over to it and let it flash itself automatically. The idea is that hobbyists can hack on the object, but people uninterested in code can patch firmware with a usb cable and drag/drop – a nice way of doing post-launch patching.
After a few hours of soldering in the morning, I then spent an afternoon working on trying to get UF2 bootloader onto the board. SAMD21 For Dummies has been a useful port of call but it was Tod Kurt’s notes that got me over the hump (along with remembering a key detail from an earlier error message). I spent ages with no avail trying to flash it with an STLink debugger; a Segger JLink proved to be just the ticket. And then, having flashed it with the debugger… it appeared on my desktop and behaved over USB.
A good victory to end the week on.
Week 326 is a vacation. I’m actually writing this from a sofa in the Lake District, where I can say I did a first: I climbed the hill an active project is named for! Yesterday, I took myself to the top of High Rigg. I wonder if that coincidence will ever a happen again.
Weeks 323-32418 March 2019
As expected, the past couple of weeks have been really intense: Monday and Tuesday up in Manchester, teaching the Digital Technologies module up at Hyper Island, before three days at Bulb back in London.
Teaching has gone well. Lots of content delivery up-front in the first week – skewed that way perhaps more so than was ideal, owing to time. As well as my usual lectures on Innovation & Trends (picking apart how technological trends are perceived and the major ones that have really underpinned the past decade) and AI (“How Computers (Don’t) Think”, a favourite of mine) I ran an afternoon workshop on programming.
I’m always wary of teaching programming and coding – especially in short periods of time. It can be really unsatisfying to deal with syntax errors or tooling issues early on when you have a very limited window; I’d rather spend that time usefully learning something. So what I did was focus on the feel and practice of programming. We used Google’s Blockly visual language, and, having learned a little about it, focused on its visual interpretation of Logo.
It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of Seymour Papert and his team’s work on Logo. It’s such a smartly designed domain-specific tool – but it also manages to take us on some useful journeys. By using it with the visual Blockly language in a browser, we avoid needing development environments or having ugly syntax errors. My idea then was to anchor what was happening in the Logo world back to programming practice. To that end: we learn about algorithms, and iteration, and variables and function (nouns and verbs) – before going into problems that require more conceptual modelling. Logo even gets you to debugging and ultimately refactoring quite nicely – going from describing individual turtle movements into abstracting them into verbs like
HOUSE, and then improving those to take sizing as a variable. You go on a useful journey without having to do too much tooling.
As a first run of a new workshop, it was alright – it’s a little longer than I realised, and it’s appropriate to spend a good while on the first few training runs to get everyone up to the same level. But hopefully some insight emerged, and it’s certainly something I’d like to revisit.
We also got a brief from our client in the first week, and much of my time in the second week was spent coaching the teams on their responses, helping them focus their discovery and ideation phases. In week 325 I’ll be doing some more coaching and then visiting their client to watch their final pitches.
Back in London, Highrigg entailed a moderate amount of coding and refactoring, a decent number of (useful and/or interesting) meetings, prepping a short talk for an offsite workshop, an excellent day workshopping with a good number of colleagues, and beginning to write that workshop up. Hopefully I’ll finish that delivery in week 325.
And that was it. A circuit board arrived for build-up, but I’m not going to have space to do that til at least week 326. In the meantime, it can sit on my desk, tantalizing me.
Weeks 318-31910 February 2019
A lot of Week 318 spent writing on Highrigg. For a lot of my work, writing is a solitary activity. I’m writing for myself, or I’m writing to deliver to someone else. Here, it’s more important that it’s a team sport: something that origins within our team, but passes a series of eyes to fettle, fact-check, and generally improve it. I’m learning to navigate this process, but also working out how best to embrace it and write for a team. By the end of the week, the piece was looking up and had been through some good drafts.
The team’s also been deploying code, which is exciting. Pull requests are getting approved, other colleagues are commenting on them, and by Thursday of week 318 I had a whole back-end tool going through the wash (that is, continuous integration), getting deployed, and working correctly. Small steps, but I’m always a big fan of getting to end-to-end fast, and this is a big chunk of this.
Back at the studio, I started putting together a new Foxfield order from Thonk. Stock levels meant it just required some new parts from Europe – which is good, because Chinese New Year means that anything coming from there would take a while. Those parts should be arriving towards the end of week 319, and then there’s a morning of kitting to be done.
I also returned to the project with the EFM32… and set about replacing the EFM32. Yes, this is yakshaving, but there’s a plan behind it. My plan is to make the final product easier to hack or update. To that extent: something you can hack in the Arduino IDE is an order of magnitude easier than getting going in Simplicity Studio. And: something that you can upgrade firmware on just by dragging it over a USB connection, rather than having to use the Arduino IDE. To do that, I’m moving to SAMD21 and UF2. The SAMD21 is what’s in a lot of the new Adafruit boards (and the Arduino Zero), and UF2 is a magic bootloader that handles all manner of IDEs and platform and seems to Just Work. An afternoon in EAGLE had a new layout routed; another morning had the firmware ported back to Arduino. So that’s something to get fabbed up soon.
Over at my personal site, I wrote up an e-ink display I made for my living room, a continuation of years of interest in e-ink displays, and something to keep tinkering with.
I spent a lot of Week 319 being ill – the dangers of working in a large office, I fear, as there’s definitely something going around. A couple of days on Highrigg made some good progress with pairing on code, and continuing some comms work.