• Weeks 268-269

    19 February 2018

    Week 268 saw the launch of Variations on a Weekend Theme, the project formerly known as Gummershow.

    I worked with artist Emma Smith on a digital rendition of her piece Variations on a Weekend Theme. In 2015, the piece took the form of a pop-up apothecary that Emma dispensed prescriptions from; now, it’s available on tablets within the gallery, and on the internet at the Kettle’s Yard site – where you can find out more about the project and visit the apothecary.

    I spent the days before the launch fine-tuning a few issues, and then headed down to Kettle’s Yard itself on the Thursday for the launch night. The new extension is excellent, and will allow for larger temporary exhibitions for them, though as ever, it’s the original space – and its 1970’s extension – that really lift the spirits. What a place; how nice to make something for their re-opening.

    With Gummershow out of the way, it feels like I’m now into a new year: things have wound down, and I’m taking some time to recuperate and refocus. Week 269 was deliberately quiet: some time spent continuing some work on Selworthy, working on some personal engineering projects encompassing electronics, CAD, 3D fabrication and music, and starting to take stock. I also began setting up a few meetings about future projects and consultation. I also took time to catch up with friends and colleagues – something I’ve just not had space to do for a while.

    What’s next? Thinking a bit more about the future, finishing up some hardware projects, having some conversations. If you’d like a chat, do get in touch.

  • Weeks 257-258

    4 December 2017

    Oops. Missed a week. There’s a lot going on at the moment:

    • I set up a first meeting with my collaborator on Gummershow. I tend to find that a day sat with an artist to confirm the brief and spec is much better than any number of phone calls. So we organised a day to sit with each other and sound out the idea. I think that’ll also lead us to discovering some unknown unknowns much faster, and hopefully lead to some new conclusions. I’m looking forward to that.
    • I started writing lots of course materials for Lowick. To briefly decloak: in week 259 I’m going to be running workshops for Hyper Island’s MA in Digital Management. I’m the ‘industry lead’ for the digital technologies section of the course; over two intensive sets of campus days, we’re going to be diving deep on some ideas around digital technology practice and culture, and exploring some of the squishier, important edges of these issues, particular around cultural and ethical issues. I’m excited by the guest speakers we’ve got to challenge and provoke our students. Should be good.
    • I spent my time on Selworthy working a lot with APIs: continuing to expand our inbound API, and then working on some integrations with third party systems. Great to see what was once architectural work turning into features.
    • And finally, I wrapped up a phase of Longcrag collaboration work, with the largest circuit board I’ve designed to date. The firmware’s all working and the BOM’s pretty much good to go, so it’s time to share it with the community that are interested in it.

    aaand: onwards!

  • Weeks 255-256

    20 November 2017

    Two weeks with some time off in the middle.

    Selworthy is settling into a bit of a rhythm now. Reviewed some pull requests, discussed architecture, fettled some infrastructure, and found time to review how the renderer works and tweak the way we’re using FFmpeg on it. Up and down the stack like a yo-yo, but we’re seeing some sizeable features being released much more quickly.

    Some prototypes arrived for new Longcrag/Foxfield products from Aisler. I’d been seeing how Aisler compared to OSHpark, who for me, are still the gold-standard for prototyping. (Mainly because: their software tooling is clear and excellent, and their turnaround times, despite posting from the US, are about the fastest I’ve found). Aisler have pretty good tooling and previews (despite a confusing checkout process) and the turnaround time was comparable to OSH. I’d hoped being in Europe it’d be a tad faster, but it worked out about the same. Still, very high quality boards.

    I built up the prototypes and they worked well – in that they worked, were clear to build, and had almost no silking errors on my part. So that means I’ve got three new products to get out early next year – there’s still documentation to write, BOMs to get made up, and see if the wholesaler will take them. That also means that once some admin around them is done, I can return to the Arm prototype I was working on a few weeks ago.

    On Lowick, I started conversations about the content of the course and what I’d need to get done. I also started phoning and emailing colleagues from across – and outside – the technology industry to see if I can get them involved. That seems to be going alright.

    In the middle of the fortnight, I went out to Berlin for Ableton Loop. I really enjoyed Loop last year; I equivocated a little about going this year, but then remembered how it left me feeling, and that made it a no-brainer. A good few days: met some new folks – perhaps even made some new friends; went to some great sessions (especially the electro-acoustics and haptics sessions); saw some great artists perform; played a bit of music myself; and put my brain into a different context. It’s an engaging, thought-provovking event that’s well-run, and so very different to many of the contexts I’m usually in. It was thought-provoking as a designer and instrument-maker; challenging as a musician; but it was also a bit of fresh-air, warm, welcoming, open; good for my head. I can recommend going to event and conference that might be more tangential to your practice than you’re used to: with any luck, it’ll probably provoke far more new ideas than what might pass as rearranging the furniture.

  • Week 254

    6 November 2017

    This week:

    • I spent a couple of days on Selworthy. We’re really getting into the new cardwall/standup routine, and I think it’s helping visualise and communicate velocity well. Codewise, I was mainly fixing some Javascript issues throughout the GUI, and beginning to look into some changes to one of our subsidiary services – I should wrap that up in week 255.
    • I also spent a day for an existing client helping them move their site to a new webserver. They wanted to enable SSL, but it turned out it’d be easier to provision a new server than update a slightly old version of Ubuntu. So I used a bunch of Ansible provisioning tools I had on hand to build out a PHP/Apache box, talking to Amazon RDS. I probably spent longer wrangling EC2’s security groups and VPCs than I did writing provisioning code. Once moved over, there was a moderate amount of fettling to do to bring their CMS up, but it all got accomplished in the allotted time, and setting up Let’s Encrypt was a piece of cake on the new box. We moved their DNS over to Route53 to wrap up the migration work.
    • I spent a little time on Wednesday tidying up some Foxfield work – sorting out BOMs for future products and finding suppliers of specific Amphenol Jacks.
    • And on Thursday, I met up with Jason and Sukhvir from Curious Chip, who showed me Pip, and we had a really interesting chat about what they’re up to. Nice to talk to other inventors and designers wrangling code and hardware into product.
  • Week 253

    1 November 2017

    Bullety notes for a handful of projects:

    • I wrote a pitch document for Gummershow, as a way of unravelling the problems, presenting them back to the client, and making reasoned estimates. It’s given them something to think over, and has helped frame what’ll be required to pull it off.
    • I said “yes” to Lowick, and started seeing what getting the ball rolling on that would be like.
    • I ordered some prototypes for Longcrag/Foxfield from Aisler – I needed new protoypes for the latest round of changes, and want to see if Aisler is a viable alternative to OSHpark – they seem about as fast, cost about the same, but are based in Europe which might become an advantage.
    • The Selworthy dev team sat down and chatted about how we’d like to modify our process, and I think we came to some good conclusions. Otherwise, I’ve been up and down the stack again, looking at issues with modern Javascript compilation that have been arising, adding some new front-end validations to improve users’ quality-of-life, and diving in on some pull requests to stay on top of what’s going on.
  • Week 252

    23 October 2017

    Lots of things to talk about, plus a story about debugging, because I’ve not talked much about what working looks like.

    Not a lot to report from Selworthy: post-deploy, we’re beginning to work out what’s next, corralling future plans, and I think now is a good time to re-examine process. It also looks like I have a few days of sysadminning ahead of me – never my favourite task, but doing just enough to hand it off to somebody else at least means it’s a finite task.

    I continued typing away at Cleeve. Only a few big projects left to write up, but there are definitely some second drafts to come.

    A couple of phonecalls and meetings mean that there are two new things on the horizon and inches from actualisation. Let’s call them Gummershow (gummers-how, not gummer-show) and Lowick for now. Should have more about these next week.

    And over on Longcrag, I continued hacking away at some embedded code and learning a few things on the way. Let’s talk about how that’s going.

    My development setup looks like this:

    Dev setup

    At the top is the Silicon Labs development board. At the bottom is my test harness: rather than having a messy breadboard, I designed and built a simple circuitboard containing my test hardware – a button, a switch, some jack sockets and LEDs, and a pinheader to connect them all up. That can just be put straight into my breadboard as an intermediate between it and the pinouts of the development board. Much easier to work with. (Why isn’t it a ‘shield’? a) It’s cheaper – PCBs are priced by size but also b) I don’t know which pins I want to work with yet. This lets me choose and change my mind).

    The code is all running on the Silabs board, and I’m able to debug it over the USB line. Proper watching of expressions and variables here – a huge quality-of-life improvement over printing strings to a serial port.

    I had the code working end-to-end last week, and had been compiling it in the ‘debug’ profile. I swapped over to the ‘release’ profile to see what would happen, and the answer is: a bunch of things broke in unexpected ways. After eyeballing my code, I altered my approach to debouncing, but no dice.

    I decided to stop using my eyeballs and start using the right tool for the job – so I fired up the oscilloscope. One pin in particular, which ought to light an LED for 50ms, was blinking imperceptibly. I used the scope to time it. In ‘debug’, it was blinking for 50ms; in ‘release’, it was blinking on for 390µs or so. Not what I had in mind.

    I continued poking to no avail; I ended up wiring a pin into the oscilloscope and using it to debug all manner of variables. The system clock was running correctly; all the timing code was behaving correctly; evidently the error was somewhere else.

    I decided to look at something else – another output that ought to toggle on button presses and would, unreliable. I discovered that it was not staying lit but bouncing, imperceptibly – a tiny square wave of pulses before it settled into a state. And the scope told me those pulses were 390µs wide.

    And that was the key that cracked it.

    The bounce indicated that the variables was altering, but far too fast – it was being changed in the main loop, when it really ought to have been changed in the system tick. That was a mistake – when I corrected it, things started working correctly.

    The real key to understanding the problem, though, was the duration – 390µs – being exactly the same as the burst on the other LED. It turned out that in the ‘debug’ profile, when the board runs slower owing to all the other things it’s doing, the main loop was taking more than 1ms, and so the problem never emerged. In the debug profile, the main loop was taking less than 1ms – probably around 390µs, in fact – and the problem reared its head.

    It took what felt like an absurd amount of time to solve this problem – about a day and a half, I reckon, over this week and the previous one. But when I solved it, I felt satisfied: I’d gone from ‘trying everything’ to real diagnosis – and debugging software on an oscilloscope. (It also reminded me about the value for the right tool for the job. Sometimes, I wonder if the scope is a bit of an indulgence – and every time it turns out to be exactly what I need, I am super grateful for it).

    Embedded code, eh. I’m hitting a point with this where I think it might be time to think about building a full prototype. Erk.

  • Week 251

    16 October 2017

    Three main pieces of work this week.

    Over on Cleeve, I continued write-ups of projects. They’re nearly done – although the largest ones are still left – and I need to dig out some imagery and artwork at some point.

    I spent a while on the Silicon Labs board, hacking up this Longcrag project. A good chat with a friend convinced me it might be worth prodding it for longer. If it’s a goer, it’d be interesting to see if I could manufacture a physical product properly – a short run, for retail sale. That’d be an interesting way to learn a lot of things, even with a relatively niche product.

    I’ve been battling C – learning more about structs, getting better at writing headers, and tearing my hair out about the quality of documentation. The Silicon Labs stuff is pretty well documented, too! It’s just not quite what I’m used to, and it’s been a long while since I’ve been stuck for hours on what feel like the most basic of problems. At the end of the week, I had most of the functionality done, but everything decided to stop working once I moved the code into the release profile. So there’s a bit more to be done there.

    Selworthy saw a huge release. I’d been working on a parallel track since late summer, overhauling some of the underlying concepts and conceits – real foundational stuff that would have a knock-on to all the higher-level systems. Some of the change was, for a while, a bit experimental, but once the experiment looked like it’d come to fruition, it was time to cloose the loop. This week, I merged 291 commits into master. The merge was relatively seamless, thanks to regular rebasing, some code review with colleagues, and freezing our master branch shortly before the deployment.

    The dev team deployed it early on Thursday morning. It was pretty seamless for a deploy involving small team distributed around the world, a moderate amount of DNS wrangling, and a long-ish data migration. We’d rehearsed the process on a set of rehearsal servers, and that helped iron out the kinks of the data changes. By 9am Thursday, Selworthy was running in its new world. We had almost no glitches post-launch, and users were already commenting enthusiastically on new features that day. A big job, well done, and it frees us up to do less infrastructural work in future.

    Some good impromptu chats in the week, too, including a nice coffee with Johanna who was working down the hallway. We compared notes notes on design process and practice – good stuff, and great to step away from the C for a while.

  • Week 250

    9 October 2017

    Weeknotes are easier when you only have to write them for a single week. Let’s get back on that.

    Selworthy is gearing up for a fairly major deployment, incorporating the work I’ve put in over the summer that will form our new foundations. So I’ve been shepherding small pull requests around that, making sure we have a clean deployment branch, and planning out the deployment process and rehearsals. The little team is now motoring – someone else has taken the front-end by the scruff of the neck and is dragging it into the future, and our pull requests feel like they’re getting real reviews. It’s good.

    I continued some prodding on Longcrag/Foxfield work. I’m really trying to finalise the next line of products. Three of them are so nearly there – one is done, one is on the edge of done but might get a last minute redesign… and one I’m umming and ahhing about. It’s the most complex kit I’ve got, and it’s causing me a few last minute issues. All the fun of hardware.

    I also continued the ‘bring-up’ of the Silicon Labs devkit I’m working on. That’s going moderately well, now – I’m wrapping my head around the board a little more and have most features working, although, as ever, debouncing buttons continues to be a fun adventure. One last major feature to get into it, and then I’m going to have a think about what I’ve done there.

    I did a small amount of work for the Good Night Lamp team – fettling the management tool a little with some feature requests to improve quality of life.

    And I kicked off a new piece of work for myself called Cleeve. Cleeve is unexciting but important. You might note that my Projects page is about 2.5 years out of date. That is not deliberate. But it’s time to update it – so I’m working on writing everything up, researching the stuff I can’t remember, and getting it all nicely up-to-date. You’ll know when it’s all live, but in the meantime, that’s a thing to be working on.

  • Weeks 246-249

    2 October 2017

    Week 246 and the majority of 247 were spent on holiday. Mid-week 247, I got back to work.

    I shipped a new batch of Foxfield products to Thonk – 90 kits in total, to restock some that had sold out entirely and bolster the stock of other. That was a couple of days of bagging and wrangling shipping, at the end of Week 247 and early into week 248, but we got there!

    I spent a handful of days in week 248 building out a small software utility for Sensible Object. In the end, slightly tighter timewise than I’d have liked, but we got the key features deployed and running in the time we had.

    In week 249, I spent a day in Newcastle running an afternoon workshop on the digital landscape for filmmakers, on behalf of Northern Film + Media – half of it an extension of previous works about promoting and extending your projects online, half of it focused on technology as a material for artists to work with.

    I spent some R&D time exploring working with a Silicon Labs Happy Gecko development board, porting a prototype based around Arduino to it. Why? Partly to get a feel for what more serious embedded development looks like; partly because the devtools are surprisingly alright (compared to some other offerings); partly because it offers perhaps a more practical route to market than ancient old Atmega chips. Slow progress, but not no progress – and exciting to see things come to life, as always.

    And around all that I brought the big branch of Selworthy I’ve been working on into land. That’s involved some challenging code, and some particularly challenging rebases. But by the end of week 249, it was all lined up and ready to go. I’m looking forward to seeing that in the wild. Selworthy has also acquired a new front-end developer, who’s dragging some of my clunky front-end code kicking and screaming into 2017; it’s becoming more complex, also more organised as a result. More importantly, it’s already feeling better to an end user, and I think we’re going to reap some benefits from that.

    Onwards!

  • Weeks 244-245

    4 September 2017

    A good couple of weeks.

    I’m working on a second production run of Foxfield products. I’ve got all the PCBs and panels already – all that remained to do was order up the components for the kits. These all arrived and in week 245, I started packaging up the second run. I’m halfway through after a day or so’s work.

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time working on the course material for the circuit board design course I’m running in October. That’s been going well, too – working out what we’ll be doing, testing out my teaching material, making sure we have a good combination of practical exercises and some short talks.

    I also confirmed details of a workshop later in the month in Newcastle for film-makers (and primarily artist-filmmakers):

    Aimed at artists and filmmakers this session will explore two core topics: using technology as a means of developing artistic and creative practice; and using the internet to develop audiences for your work in the ways most appropriate for it.

    Always pleasant to work with Northern Film – I’ve done a few courses with them before – so I’ll be working on bashing this into shape shortly.

    I ordered up some Longcrag prototypes to get made whilst I’m away on holiday for the next two weeks – hopefully they’ll be the production prototypes for a few new products to get made before the end of the year.

    I’ve started some explorations into Silicon Labs microcontroller hardware – trying to get away from writing Arduino-based C and into something that might be more suitable for production products. The world of firmware programming is a bit hairy, but this is easing me in moderately slowly, and I hope to spend a little more time with it in the coming months.

    And finally, over on Selworthy, I had a meaty, big breakthrough: the large feature I’ve been hacking on all summer suddenly came into focus and, frankly, works. It changes some of the core concepts within the system and the net result it was aiming for had really paid off. Really pleased – it’s been a brain-twisting few months, and I now know more about frame-rates than I ever imagined possible.

    And with that: I’m off on a proper vacation. Back Week 247; see you then.