• Week 383

    11 May 2020

    I wrapped up Bradnor this week. I just had a few tweaks left in the code based on client feedback, and a few more to infrastructure - notably, sending deploy notifications from our deploy pipeline through to our error reporting tool.

    With that done, the main job was handover. Part of that was to hand over various services to the client’s control; I always feel better knowing that the appropriate person ‘owns’ control of something, even if we’re at free or low-usage tiers.

    More importantly, it meant documentation. I tidied up the READMEs lying around the place, and then wrote a long document called What We Did which synthesized the various discussions and interim documents into one clear document that could be referred to in future. I find it easiest to write this for an imaginary future developer coming to the project.

    To do that, I assume relatively little specific technical knowledge. So I explain everything we’ve done that either deviates from norms, is domain-specific to the application and product, or that is our ‘configuration’ of existing tools. Beyond that, I link out to documents for open-source tools or products, rather than explaining them myself, but assume familiarity with the core language or framework being used.

    That future developer is, of course, easy to imagine because I think about myself returning to a project after a long gap. It’s also there for the client, who is themselves technical: whilst they’ve been making decisions I’ve put to them, this is a reference document for them, too, so they can see how the things we’ve spoken about join up, and have a final ‘map’ of the infrastructure and code we’ve put together.

    With the final pieces in place, I shipped the documentation, and the client seemed very pleased with it - and the project as a whole. A satisfying end to this phase of work, and perhaps we’ll work together on the project again in the future.

    I got some feedback from the University of Leeds about the courses I wrote for them on Futurelearn. In general, they sounded very pleased: really exciting numbers of sign-ups, and good responses from learners in the comments threads. However, one ‘step’ of a particular course was causing a little confusion. I asked learners to skip over some stages of an external tutorial without quite clarifying why; many of them wanted to do the missing steps, or hadn’t quite worked out how to skip things. They asked me if I could make a short screencast clarifying what to do, and why.

    So I spent a few hours this week back in my screencasting tools, making a short film to explain not just what to do, but why I thought this was a good idea.

    How do I record screencasts at the moment? I record video using the “record area of screen” function built into Quicktime Player, with the audio from my webcam microphone alongside it. At the same time, I am recording my external condenser microphone into Logic Pro, with a small voice channel set up inside the DAW. I usually have a script or notes laid out on a table in front of me. Then, I hit record in Quicktime and in Logic, and just keep going until I have decent takes of everything I need.

    Once that’s done, I fiddle with the voice channel in Logic, to get all the audio up to a nice level, and to remove any background noise. Careful application of the built-in compressor, and occasional Brusfri does the job here. Then, I bounce out the audio to a wav file.

    To edit it, I open all the media up inside Hitfilm, and synchronise the bounced audio from Logic against the ‘guide’ audio from the webcam. Once those are synced, I can remove the webcam audio entirely. Then it’s just a case of walking through the script, chopping and editing, and occasionally deploying small video effects to zoom in on an area, or making small comps to manipulate areas of the screen.

    My goal isn’t to get to something completely final. Leeds have an excellent video team who take this and make it sing, adding B-roll, tidying my edits or comps, and adding titles, stings, and transitions, in line with their branding. Instead, I’m trying to give them enough to work with, to make sure the script and technical video are watertight, and to make the intent of the film clear.

    Once we’d approved my short script, it (as ever) worked out at around an hour’s work per minute of footage - I’m pretty swift at this now, but never seem to be able to break that rule of thumb!

    Finally, I had a quick meeting with the Easington team about that work, and we arranged a kick off meeting for Monday 11th - Week 384.

  • Week 370

    2 February 2020

    Back to code, mainly, in week 370.

    I fixed up all the major issues the client had requested fixing on Hallin - two fairly chunky bugs I needed to take apart a little to fix, and two minor tweaks. With those resolved, the client’s tech lead gave my branch a thorough code review. They were very happy with the way I’d dived into their codebase, and most of the feedback came down to notes on minor formatting issues, and on code that was perhaps not so legible at first look. A few quick commits took care of some inconsistent formatting. More important was a second pass on the code that wasn’t so clear. That meant simplifying conditionals, reducing fragility of a few parts, and tidying things that hadn’t seemed overcomplex when I was writing them.. I also extracted some highly specific code into something more general - but not too general - that would set a good precedent for any future refactoring of related tasks. As ever, the integration/feature tests acted as an excellent safety net, and I wrapped up the code review in an afternoon.

    There was some brief discussion around a pacey second phase of Willsneck that will kick off in week 371. This time around, we have a firmer deadline, but also are much firmer in what needs delivering in that timeframe, so I sat down with the designer to go over what changes needed to be done, and wrote up a thorough document to cover my estimates and highlight anything I thought was a risk. I shall dive into that code on Monday.

    I spent some time on Wednesday continuing to work on the writing project that is Ninebarrow. I am making progress - not hugely quickly, but progress nonetheless. It is already proving more challenging than I expected, partly because I cannot quite write as fast as my brain can go, and so I begin to start doubting or questioning what I’m doing whilst in the process of doing it. Shutting down that critical voice long enough to work is going to be something I’ll have to practice!

    I launched the Futurelearn courses that were previously known as Longridge, and wrote them up here. I’m pleased that they’re now out in the world. Next week, I’ll check in on how the learners are getting on in their discussion and comments threads.

    And finally, I payed my tax bill. Thank god that’s done.

  • In the second half of 2019, I worked on a project I called Longridge. This project was to write three online courses in a series called An Introduction to Coding And Design, for a programme of courses from the Institute of Coding launching in 2020. I worked with both Futurelearn - the MOOC they’re hosted upon - and the University of Leeds to write and deliver the courses.

    Those courses are now live at Futurelearn, as of the 27th January 2020!

    The courses are designed as two-week introductions to topics around programming and design for beginners interested in getting into technology, perhaps as a career.

    I’ve written up the project in much more detail here; you can read my summary of the work here. I cover some of the reasoning behind the syllabus, the choice of topics, and the delivery. And, most importantly, I thank the collaborators who worked with me throughout the process, and collaborated on the courses.

    Find out more.

  • Week 369

    27 January 2020

    Another largely admin-focused week, for now.

    I completed everything to do with taxation at the end of the tax year. My bookkeeping was largely up-to-date, so that just involved going over it all, a quick check-in with my accountant, a few final reports, and then getting everything sent to HMRC.

    I did some final tweaks to material for the Longridge courses, which launch on Futurelearn on Monday 27th. They’ll get their own project page and announcement on this site in Week 370.

    I finally wrote my yearnotes for 2019. Useful to reflect everything I got up to, and perhaps how I might want the shape of work to change this year.

    I got some feedback from the client on Hallin, so triaged those issues ready to return to writing code next week.

    I started writing on Ninebarrow. Not for long enough, but enough to break the ground, and leave a few dangling threads that I’d like to return to - usually the easiest way to get me to want to Keep Writing.

    I ripped out Adobe Fonts from this site. I’d been using Typekit since way back when. Adobe absorbed it and, for a while, provided it cheaply. However: when my free year of “Adobe XD” (which includes their fonts) expires, the pricing will go up to £120 a year, which is just too much for the odd typeface around the internet. I was reminded of this by a friend getting a ‘surprise’ credit card charge. My renewal turned out to be due in April, so I used the time to remove this dependency.

    So I ripped out all reference to Typekit from my live sites, and, where necessary, found alternatives on Google Fonts (where the open-source faces are decent enough for my needs). On this site, that meant moving to a more traditional sans as a face for headlines and display, and adjusting alignment a little across the site. I am happy with the slight refresh. But: if you noticed the design change, this is why.

    End-of-year admin out of the way, next week should see a return to more head-down productivity, and perhaps more writing.

    Finally, worth noting a little about how I use weeknotes here. Weeknotes on this site are, for me, a diary of work and things I’m doing in a professional capacity. I have a personal blog as well, and I continue to write and link there; subscribing to its RSS feed will keep you up-to-date. I like to (try to) separate work from non-work, although it’s not always 100% straightforward. When I write here, though, it’s equally to log what I was up to for myself, and share the way I work - and how I think about work - publicly. So if they seem dry, that’s a little deliberate - but they’re certainly not the sum total of myself.

  • Yearnotes, 2019

    24 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.

    Clients

    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.

    Teaching

    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.

    Products

    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.

    Onwards!

  • 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 364

    24 December 2019

    Week 364 was my last working week of 2019.

    I spent one last day on Willsneck, cranking through snaglists from the designer and content strategist. We got to where we wanted to be at the end of the day, after a lot of tweaking and polishing.

    I didn’t really spend any time on Mayhill - too busy with clients this week.

    I added one final edit to one of the Longridge courses, which had me wracking my brains for ages to find the right thing to drop in. But: I did, and it’s in, and I’m happy with the choice I made there.

    Most notably, I kicked off Hallin. It’s really nice to be writing Ruby after so long away, and to be working against a nice, well-laid out codebase. It’s not a small codebase by any means - all monolithic Rails apps of a certain size have their own quirks of patterns, after all - but the choices and trade-offs made in it are all pretty understandable, and it didn’t take me too long to fit into the house style. Good to have a comprehensive test suite, too: it’s encouraged me to keep adding to it generously, and has caught several regressions I might otherwise have missed. The state of automated browser-based testing these days always impresses me. Testing interaction flows with Capybara and headless Chrome as part of our regular test suite is a delight. Tests are written from the perspective of the user - go here, click on this, and you should see that - and they work fast enough that they can be run regularly. Of course, this type of testing has been pretty standard for a good while now, but having been away from large web applications for a few months, it’s nice to return to them and be reminded of both the performance and impact of automated acceptance testing.

    It looks like by the time I’m about halfway through the work - early next year - I’ll have an end-to-end demo of everything in the statement of work. That’s good. I like getting to end-to-end as fast as possible. It doesn’t meant that I’m going to finish earlier. Rather, it means I get at least one more pass at the whole piece of work, having explored the depths and edges of the problem. Unknown unknowns rear their heads faster when you can see the entire workflow laid out.

    It also means that I’ll have learned enough about the real problem, which enables me to make an informed second pass. My first pass, which I’ve nearly wrapped up, is a highly literal interpretation of the brief. It achieves the tasks and pass the tests, but that’s about it. There is room for polish, and also room to refine the brief based on what we now know. So we’ll look at how well everything works, what assumptions I’ve made that are incorrect, and what assumptions the brief made, and see how we can refine everything in a second pass.

    That’s a job for a meeting in the first week of 2020. For now, though, that’s a cap on the year. I’ll write up a quick summary of the year’s work over the winter break, I imagine.

  • 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.

  • Week 361

    30 November 2019

    I submitted the last of the content for Longridge this week. That means that project is now into review, and should be going live next month. It’s been a bit longer to get here than planned, but I’m very pleased with the results.

    I started getting into the meat of Willsneck. That mainly involved more old-fashioned front-end code: HTML, CSS, and the lightest sprinkling of Javascript where appropriate. I also spent some time applying CSS keyframe animation to SVGs, which led to results swiftly.

    And I kicked off building out the deployment infrastructure. I always like to get deployment up and running early: it’s one less thing to worry about later in the project. In this case, I’m doing things a little differently. We’re deploying the site to Github Pages, and using the just out-of-beta Github Actions as a continuous integration to do so.

    I really like this setup. It’s similar to the way tools like Netlify work, but with a little more control in exchange for a little more complexity. Rather than being reliant on the few static-site builders that Github Pages allows you to use, we’re using Actions as our builder. That means on every push to our master branch, an Action runs on a virtual machine. That Action checks out our code, installs dependencies (and caches them for future runs), and builds the site to a dist/ directory. And then it commits the contents of that directory back to our gh-pages branch.

    That means we get continuous deployment of a static site on every push to master, but without having to store the compiled artefacts in the repository. Which is exactly as it should be: the repository contains the source for the site, not the compiled code as well; it’s generated as necessary. This setup is working well with my temporary Parcel-based site, and it’ll be straightforward to move to using Hugo for the final site.

    I’m impressed with Github Actions, and will consider it more for future tooling - the ability to run actions on a schedule means that many of the sites I’ve not moved to simpler builds or platform largely because of a lack of cron on them… might now be possible to move to a static site, and a few scripts running on GitHub.

    Finally, I took a quick look at the code for Hallin and got it spun up on my own machine - good enough going to be able to schedule a first meeting for that project.

    A good week: lots of code, nice to be back in a client office again, and one project nearly on the runway.

  • Week 360

    24 November 2019

    Longridge is properly coming into land now. That’s meant almost all my work on it has been dealing with feedback: minor edits, checking the content on the platform itself, final feedback on videos. There’s a big deadline next week, and there’s about the right amount of things left in the right state, which is about the best you can ask for. It helps that, having taken a while to come together, I’m pretty pleased with the content we settled on, and how it’s come out. I’m hoping the peer review process will go smoothly.

    Willsneck kicked off on Thursday: a short website build gig. I’d already been briefed by the team, and so hit the ground running, working on building up basic infrastructure for developing the site, and the first pass of the flat pages. Working in the browser in 2019 is really rather satisfying compared to twelve years ago: the promise of web standards is finally truly paying off, and Grid and Flexbox make life a lot easier.

    One of the new things I’ve decided to learn on this project is Parcel, which I’m using as a bundler/build tool for writing the flat pages. Normally, the minimum I need is compiling SCSS (which I like for tidiness), so that means integrating with PostCSS for compilation. This time, I’m also using posthtml for processing my static markup. posthtml is doing two things for me. By using posthtml-include, I can use very, very simple templating - just including one HTML file in another. But that’s enough to handle repetitive elements like headers and footers, before I port the whole static build to a content management system. I’ve also found that posthtml-expressions will let me include data and simple JS expressions in my templates. That’s particularly handy for some pages that are going to be driven from JSON-based data - I can prototype with the real data before we even get near the CMS. Always useful to add new tools to the belt, and I’ve found these libraries combined with Parcel to be the Right Level of Simple for the job at hand. Willsneck continues next week, as I get into the thornier detail work around art direction, SVGs, and CSS animation.

    Hallin, the other small software development job that’s on the table, edges closer to likelihood. I spent an hour or two going over the existing code and writing enough documentation for myself to be able to spin up the project from a bare checkout. That was… neither as easy as I’d like, nor anywhere near the hardest spin-up I’ve had to do. But it’s useful for getting a feel for what adding functionality to someone else’s long running codebase will feel like, and useful feedback to the potential client.

    Finally, for an entirely separate personal project, I ordered an electronics prototype from JLCPCB. I’ve used JLC a few times for prototype boards. This time around, I’m also taking advantage of their prototyping service to build up the boards (or, at least, about 75% of them, the remaining components being things they don’t have, or that I can source cheaper). Exciting to see how those will come out. This is also the first board I’ve designed in KiCad. This article and the scripts in it were highly useful for generating a positioning file.

    Looking at those notes reinforces what I already was feeling in my bones: it’s going to be a busy end to the year.