• Worknotes - November 2020

    20 November 2020

    I taught at Hyper Island this year for my fourth year now, as Industry Leader for the Digital Technologies module of their part-time Digital Management MA.

    At the end of the course, I give a paper where I talk about personal process and practice. It’s a bit left-of-centre: not so much Best Practice, as Things I Have Found Useful.

    I always tweak and rework the course a little each year. This year, I came to this paper, and found myself stuck. In it, I talked about the value of personal documentation: READMEs in every project and code directory, so you can always pick up a thread after months away; weeknotes as a ritual and way of evaluating work. I talked about the value of colocation - why I prefer studios to offices, why the right people together in the right space is such a winner for work, and how precious a Good Room can be. And at the end, I self-indulgently talk about the value of reading fiction

    At the beginning of September, I sat looking at the deck, and realised:

    I am doing none of that right now.

    Weeknotes, as you can tell, have fallen by the wayside. I’m Working From Home If Possible (and it is possible), not going up to my studio space. I’m working on projects on a succession of videoconferencing tools, all with their own quirks, and spending longer in my study than I’d like. I’m not reading as much fiction as I’d like.

    I felt like I’d be a hypocrite to say these things to students.

    In the end, I said it all anyway, dropping in a quick “recordscratch” sound effect to call myself on my own shortcomings, and to talk about the difficulty of espousing studio culture in an airborne pandemic.

    It went down well, but it also turned out to be not as foolish an idea as I thought. By acknowledging the fragility of ideals in the face of reality, we could explore why I was recommending those practices in the first place. By challenging myself as to why I wasn’t following my own advice, I could explore what the point of that advice might have been.

    The fact that I wasn’t writing at the moment didn’t mean that writing wasn’t a thing to recommend. It possibly meant that weekly notes were not quite serving a purpose now. After all, if I was busy, and getting the work done, and if the thing that fell by the wayside was talking about that, I might have to live with it, and work out how to change it.

    For now, weekly notes might disappear for a bit. I’ll work out what replaces them in due course.

    Meanwhile, let’s see where things are right now, in the middle of November 2020, and what’s happened in the past four months.


    Easington

    I delivered Easington in early September. I’d written about the project here previously; most notably, in this post on props and prototypes.

    But then writing about it dried up. This was partly because having worked out what the job was, I mainly had to work on delivering that. Having done bunch of Thinking About Stuff, much of the work was Making Stuff and Explaining Stuff (sometimes both at once). There often wasn’t much more I could easily say here other than “yep, getting on with things”.

    If you’ve read these notes for a while, you’ll know I’ve got all manner of ways of saying “yep, getting on with things”, but 2020 appeared to exhaust them.

    It was also challenging because Easington was under an NDA, and the specifics of the project meant there was almost nothing I could say without revealing things my NDA forbids me from revealing. And given that, I was largely quite quiet.

    What I can say:

    Easington was a fourteen-week R&D project for Google AIUX, who work at exactly that intersection: the user experience of future AI-driven products. I worked closely with design colleagues inside AIUX, especially in London, but also spoke to researchers and topic experts from internal teams around the world. It was challenging and rewarding in equal measure. I’m proud of what we delivered.

    It was also a project that almost directly mapped to what I laid out in March, when I wrote about what I do, before Everything Changed, and it was hugely rewarding to confirm that yes, that’s an excellent summation of my sweetspot.


    Vacation

    I went on vacation in the UK for two weeks after Easington ended. This was long-planned, and not an emergency “COVID holiday”. But I was very fortunate to be able to take that time off, and to do so in a safe and sensible way.


    Teaching at Hyper Island

    As mentioned above, I taught at Hyper again. Normally, this takes place in December and January of a year. However, as we were going to be teaching remotely this year, they decided to move my module to be the first the students took, not the second, and we delivered this in September and early October.

    I reworked a lot of the material, and will write more about the specific nature of that reworking in the future, because I learned a lot about delivering material online.

    In broad terms, we made everything shorter, denser, and with more breaks - lectures became more like “episodes”, nothing over 25m without a break. We also ran shorter days - 11-5pm, rather than 9-6pm, as we were all on Zoom for most of the day. In that reworking and condensation, I think I got to some of the best versions of those talks; condensation, and the clarity videochat requires, really helped to focus things.

    I also coached the teams on their client project, and this time around it was exciting to see them embark on their first project, with no idea of where they could go, or what they could get done, in such a short space of time. Everybody’s pitches came out great, and it was a delight to meet so many new people. I say something similar each year, but I say it anyway, because it’s true.

    I was also grateful to colleagues and peers we could invite in as guest speakers - to everyone who came, thank you.


    A change of venue

    As mentioned, I’m not really using my studio space at all at the minute: there’s just no reason to be commuting. By September, I realised that this was going to be a longer-term change. I’m lucky enough to have a private workspace at home, and with some rearrangement, it’d be suitable as a place to work from. So, with some sadness, I handed in my notice at Makerversity. I’ve been at MV for almost exactly five years now, and was greatly enjoying the new setup in Vault 7. But right now, I cannot justify the expenditure, given how little I need to be there. And so I’m going to say goodbye, and work from the home office for a bit. Not how I ever imagined I’d leave MV, and the excellent Somerset House community, but there you go.


    A return to CaptionHub

    Finally, in October, I returned to a three-month contract with CaptionHub. They had some extra work coming up on their slate and an extra pair of hands that knew the project would be welcome to help deliver it. Given the uncertain nature of 2020 - and, to be honest, 2021 - it felt like a no-brainer to take a three-month contract with them.

    In one sense, this project is ‘just’ a software development gig. But it’s a particular kind of engineering I quite like: a careful, almost standalone set of features that need as much planning as they do implementation. I’ve been focusing on swapping out some of the underlying premises in the code, in order to support future features, which has led to a lot of diagrams and thinking before embarking on a careful switch from one shape of the world to another. I have described this as indianajonesing, in reference to the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark (and I should note, this is not my metaphor - I just cannot remember where I got it from). In our case, I’m swapping one set of code for another, and making sure nobody notices the changeover, and no-one gets squished by a giant boulder.

    It’s going well, although it takes a lot of my brain and concentration (which is not quite in the supply it was in 2019). That often means there’s not space for much else at week’s end (I’m taking Fridays as days for personal work). But good work, with a lovely, thoughtful team, is highly appreciated right now.


    Appreciation is the right note to end on. I’ve been very lucky to be able to take on all these projects this year, in a time when work hasn’t necessarily been easy for everyone, and I’m always careful to acknowledge that when talking about my own practice.

    Right now, I wanted to acknowledge where everything was, and share what I could about the last few months. I imagine worknotes continuing in perhaps a less frequent format for the coming weeks and months, whilst I get back in the habit, and maybe find new ways to share my practice.

    What I concluded, talking to the students, was not the frequency, but the act. Some writing beats no writing.

    And hence: some writing.

  • Week 367

    13 January 2020

    And we’re back in 2020, with the first full week of the year being Week 367.

    I did a small amount of work on Hallin, getting things shipshape for the client demo that was moved to the beginning of Week 368. Most things were in place, though I spent a few hours making one slight improvement to better reflect the existing domain model in the work I was doing.

    Some of my time was taken up with typical beginning-of-year admin.

    I spent a pleasant afternoon building a toy for myself in SparkAR. Spark turns out to be a highly pleasant development environment, and simple results can be worked up surprisingly quickly. Node-based programming environments aren’t always my favourite, but they make a lot of sense of things involving realtime video or pipelines, and I soon settled into Spark’s mental model.

    By the end of the week, I’d sent the toy off for review. Of course, I immediately found a serious number of UX improvements to make the moment I’d hit submit. So I imagine a 1.1 release will be submitted fairly soon after, and that’ll be the one I release for people to play with.

    Really, though, the big work this week was preparing for the second weekend of teaching on the MA course with Hyper Island, and then delivering those classes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. A few talks, including one that’s a crash course in cryptography, that goes on to use that knowledge to better evaluate blockchain (and cryptocurrency, with a brief digression into What Money Is). This is always a hard one: really, it’s about critically evaluating technology by refusing to be told that something is too complicated to describe clearly. Lots of good questions and analysis from the students, and it led nicely into a wonderful session (as ever) from Wesley Goately on critical thinking around AI and related technologies. That seemed to go really well too.

    Mainly, though, the weekend focused on the students finishing up their pitches to deliver to the client on Saturday night, and they all delivered excellent, interesting, and varied outcomes. As ever, I greatly enjoyed myself: I don’t just get the chance to think about the ideas and content I’m delivering, but also I get to learn from my students: seeing how they engage, watching what examples they bring to the table, as well as how they merge their learning with their own professional practice and workplaces. They’re always a diverse, international crew, and so my perspectives are always widened. And I’m always learning about how to convey and express ideas: what sorts of coaching and information people best respond to, how to find ways to help them come to solutions for themselves. Hugely satisfying and rewarding, as ever.

    The card that says ‘yearnotes’ is still in my TODO column. I hope I can get those out the door soon.

  • Week 362

    10 December 2019

    A very busy week. Longridge is clearly in the home stretch, owing to the small number of minor tweaks and bits of polish that needed applying. Hopefully I’ll have more to say on that soon.

    Over on Willsneck, I ported the site to be built and managed with Hugo. Whilst the static prototype isn’t quite complete - there’s one major page that still needs designing - there was enough in place to start. It helped that the structure of my Parcel-based prototype was highly similar to how I’d go about building the site in Hugo. So I bit the bullet and dived in.

    This all went quite smoothly. I took the opportunity to port some pieces of content that I was generating from JSON files to using headless page bundles, meaning adding new content objects is as easy as adding new markdown files.

    Once the templates ported over, the rest of the process was very smooth. CSS was still being processed with PostCSS, so I could just drop all the SCSS over. JS, for now, is just being loaded as-is. And fixing up deployment was as straightforward as changing a few lines in our Github Action workflow. The fundamental model - download some dependencies, build a static site, force a commit of that static site to the appropriate branch - is exactly the same. The only thing that’s changed is what the dependencies are, and how to build the site. I was pleased that the previous week’s decision had paid off so neatly.

    On Wednesday, some fabricated prototypes for an electronics idea I’m working on arrived. The fabrication quality was excellent, and definitely worth investing in for this project. I rigged up a USB-C port on the board, and started on writing firmware. A few hours on Wednesday got me to a point where we had a bootloader on the board, code flashing over USB-C, USB MIDI working, and a microcontroller writing and reading data from a small flash RAM module. There’s still a way to go, and there’s definitely bugs on the board - I had to remove a few pre-soldered components and bodge one jumper wire before we could bring anything up, and that took an hour to work out - but progress was largely encouraging. I’m probably going to spend a few hours each week working this up.

    And then, at the end of the week, I spent three days teaching with Hyper Island again, acting as industry lead for the “Digital Technologies” module of their MA in Digital Management. As ever, it was an intense, exciting opening few days: several talks from me, some excellent guest speakers, a workshop, and then coaching the teams on their work for this module. I’ll be returning in January for another intensive weekend to wrap up my teaching on that module.

    That was a lot. It’s going to be a little quieter in the final two weeks up to Christmas, but it’s still a fairly full slate to the end of the year.

  • Weeks 323-324

    18 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 SQUARE, or 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.