• Week 131

    20 April 2015

    The big news this week was the broadcast of Future Speak, my BBC Radio 4 documentary (previously known as Periton). I’ve had lots of great responses to it, which have been really appreciated – and at the end of the week, Radio 4 themselves selected it for Pick of the Week. So that was all very positive. It’s rebroadcast tonight at 9pm, and is currently available for download as Documentary of the Week.

    Meanwhile, in the land of programming, Selworthy moves on apace. Last week’s big feature was moving from direct S3 upload to using Transloadit, which I’ve been really impressed with so far – it’s got great documentation, solid functionality, and has enabled lots of little features for Selworthy in the few days I spent porting to it. Impressive.

    I also spent a while writing up a lot of documentation and refining some of the features in Milestone 2; Week 132 sees the beginning of Milestone 3, which is going to be a big chunk of transactional code and lots of tests. So for now, tidying up and front-end polish was the way ahead, but next week’s going to be back to heavy-lifting and lots of Ruby.

  • I’ve been going on a bit about a project called Periton, which seems to have involved train travel, interviews, and recording things. That’s because Periton is a radio programme: a thirty minute documentary, called Future Speak about just what all the fuss about learning to code is, and what the value of programming is to society. Is it just about making more Java developers? Or is it about more than that?

    Look closely and you’ll see that computer code is written all over our offices, our homes and now in our classrooms too.

    The recent Lords’ Digital Skills report says the UK’s digital potential is at a make or break point, with a skills gap to be plugged and a generation gap to be bridged.

    As technologist Tom Armitage argues, there’s also a leap of the imagination to be made, to conceive of the wider benefits of reading, writing, and even thinking in code.

    Future Speak was first broadcast on Tuesday 14th April; it’s repeated at 9pm on Monday 20th April, and is available now at the BBC website. (It’s also Documentary of the week, so should shortly be available for download in podcast form).

    Documentaries are hard work, and they’re a team effort: massive thanks to all at Sparklab, particularly Kirsty McQuire who produced the programme. (What ‘producer’ means on a documentary like this is, if you don’t know: doing all the location recording, background interviews, booking studios, editing, pulling the script together, spending a long while discussing things with me and talking me out of bad ideas, and generally being very patient with a first-time presenter.) Thanks also to David Cook who originally suggested the idea many months ago.

  • Weeks 126-127

    22 March 2015

    Week 126

    A good week, setting up exciting foundations for Week 127. For starters: a couple of days on Bredon, a workshop with Max and the team at After The Flood. It’s always a pleasure to work with Max, and this was no exception: two intense days of good chat and brainfood.

    There were also a bunch of meetings – a few exploratory ones, and one setting up a project called Selworthy that would need a pitch writing next week.

    Week 127

    Week 127 saw the beginning of Selworthy: a fairly intense full-stack web project with a really interesting problem to solve.

    I spent Monday formalising a pitch, whilst also derisking the project. That meant writing small bits of code to explore particular issues – parsing particular formats, understanding Amazon S3’s security model, testing character encoding issues. I also researched my proposed architecture for the project a little.

    I always find it hard to balance the right amount of research and derisking: too much, and you end up starting to build the project; too little, and it impacts estimates and planning. In the end, I think I err on the side of too much, knowing that with any luck it’ll be re-usable in the course of the project.

    The client was happy with the proposal on Tuesday, so off we went. It turned out that the early derisking had paid off and in the rest of the week – including a Friday on-site – I managed to achieve most of the first milestone of the project.

    I’ve broken the project into three milestones. The required functionality won’t be complete until the end of milestone 3 – although milestone 2 could feasibly be described as a minimum viable product. At the same time, breaking the work down this way has been helpful for sharing my understanding with the client and getting their input. It’s also a way to keep risk contained – each milestone builds on the previous one and confirms that the next one is possible.

    That also assists estimates. Like almost all developers, I find estimating hard, and I also find that the easiest way to make an estimate more accurate is to do the work. To that end, each piece of work helps estimate the next one.

    Milestone 1 is basically a prototype; it tests all the core functionality and sets up the architecture of the code, as well as getting the production infrastructure good to go. By the end of the week, it was clear that my conservative estimates were reasonable, and we might well have some time spare. Rather than saying right now ‘it’ll be cheaper', I’m clarifying that it’s all time-in-hand within our current budget and it gives us room to breathe if future code turns out more complex.

    Anyhow: it’s going well so far, and it’s exciting to work on something that’s challenging in all the good ways. The next few weeks are going to be head down on Selworthy, and that’s going to be good.

    (Oh, and I almost forgot: on Tuesday, I finished the script record for Periton. So that’s all in the can, from my end.)

  • Week 125

    10 March 2015

    I wrapped recording interviews on Periton this week, with a studio session on Thursday and an on-location set of interviews on Saturday. All that remains is a script and one final studio session for voiceover. I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s turned out shortly.

    On Thursday, Richard was invited into BBC R&D to chat about Rubato, so I went over with him to see their reactions and hear him chat. It’s always nice to see other people’s responses to which inevitably vary with their expertise, and so to hear from people with experience of all manner of broadcast platforms and approaches was interesting.

    At the beginning of the week I spent a day sketching and thinking on Walbury, planning out some simple interactions and working out how they map to a third-party vendor’s API.

    Midweek was a conversation about future work with a gang convened by George at Good Form & Spectacle, which were as always super-interesting. And I spent a while in the week tinkering with a small Elasticsearch project, porting an application previously reliant on a relational database to use a big-bucket-of-documents. By the end of the week, I had a really solid port that was remarkably snappy.

    Code, design, talking; a little of everything, then.

  • Week 124

    28 February 2015

    Tuesday saw the second performance of Rubato, at the Apple Store on Regent Street. Not quite the same acoustic as St John on Bethnal Green, but it was still a cracking performance. This time around, the animated words were also projected onto a pair of large screens in the front of the audience; though this occasionally removed some of the intimacy, it meant it was possible to take in the live performers whilst also seeing the words – something that the audience earlier in the month mentioned they’d have liked. So it was more useful information about how the project worked, and we had some lovely feedback from the audience members.

    Otherwise, though, I’ve been running around the country for Periton: to Newcastle and Cambridge, to several locations throughout London and, on Saturday, up to Cardiff. I’m writing these weeknotes on the train back; it’s been a tiring week of travel and lots of talking. We’ve got lots of strong material from a variety of different voices and I’m looking forward to how everything will come together over the coming weeks. More in due course, but probably worth explaining: Periton is a radio programme.

    And as ever: the usual sprinkling of meetings and phone calls to fill out the week. One phone call in particular helped me understand a lot of the parameters for Walbury which I’ll be starting work on next week – a short piece of specification and exploration.

  • Week 123

    23 February 2015

    Week 123 was really short owing to holidays and family events. Still, a few significant things happened!

    We started recording on Periton this week; one session in Week 123, with the majority of Week 124 also going to be spent on recording. A decent start, though, and I’m hoping I’m going to relax more into it as we do more sessions and interviews.

    I helped Richard confirm Rubato was in shape for next week’s gig: Richard’s playing at the Apple Store on Regent Street, London, the evening of 24th February. Do come along if you’d like to see Rubato in action, and to hear some fantastic music!

    And finally, over at my own personal site, I wrote a bit about connected objects. Or rather: I wrote about a passage in Philip K Dick’s Ubik that’s been doing the rounds, and tried to unpack the relationship between connected objects and the financial structures they’re made within:

    Joe Chip clearly lives in a connected future. We know his homeopape machine talks to some kind of network, requesting news in a particular tone and fabricating it for him.

    We know that the devices that make up his conapt know about his credit rating, and hence can refuse to work without either a line of credit or cash money.

    The question really is: why does the apartment and its devices know about his credit rating? Why should it matter?

    More, about capitalism, the internet of things, and some Bruno Latour, over at infovore.org.

    That’s it for Week 123; as I write, I’m on the East Coast mainline to kick off recording for Periton in week 124. More about that next week.

  • Week 122

    15 February 2015

    Quick weeknotes for a short week:

    • Periton moves ahead, with some planning, research, and wrestling with booking travel. Plans are coming together, and real work starts next week.
    • One last bugfix on Rubato/Burton – an issue around Internet Explorer’s handling of negative margin. I seem to have spent about ten years of my professional life wrestling with Internet Explorer’s esoteric handling of the CSS spec, and that doesn’t look like it’s changing any time soon. As ever, Browserstack proved itself invaluable.
    • Continued tinkering with Elasticsearch. I’m playing around with it on a few little experiments, following my experience of it on Swarmize. I’m continuing to learn things: the best way to map and structure data to support aggregation, the simplest way to spit data out. It’s a tool I’m finding increasingly valuable not as a search tool, but a data exploration tool.
    • Continued pipeline work: not super-aggressive, but a few new leads on potential small projects upcoming.

    Week 123 will be short as well: family events and long weekends taking up a few of the days.

  • Week 121

    9 February 2015

    Week 121 saw the launch (or first performance) of Rubato, in Richard’s gig at St John’s on Bethnal Green.

    I inevitably find live events nervewracking; there’s so much that’s out of your hands. Perhaps I protest too much – by the time we had the gig, my work was done, while Richard still had to perform eight songs. It all went very well: everything worked fine over 3G/4G data, on a very wide range of devices – but more to the point, the experience came out wonderfully. It was a great venue, and the intimate stories, told through a very personal device whilst the church filled with Richard’s guitar and the string quartet was remarkably atmospheric. We had loads of positive feedback from the audience; many of them found it very powerful. It all managed to deliver what we hoped it might, and I think Richard was very pleased. He’s performing again with Rubato at the Apple Store on Regent Street on the 24th of February, so do come if you’d like.

    Periton moves ahead apace; I spent Wednesday having a great chat and discussion with the researcher/producer on it, and we’ve begun to line up interviews already; I’m also beginning to think about how I prepare for it, because it’s not a kind of work I’m very used to.

    I had a few meetings with a team at Good, Form and Spectacle, discussing our pitch for NESTA’s Cultural Open Data Challenge. I think the pitch we came too was good – now we’ll just have to see how the whole thing pans out.

    And, to cap it all, there were some leads on a few projects, and one short piece of work for next week, all of which keeps the pipeline flowing a little, so the January nerves are beginning to abate a little. Good; onwards.

  • Week 120

    5 February 2015

    Various good meetings this week:

    • A kick-off meeting on Periton, brainstorming ideas and working out angles for the thing; also getting to know the producer, and understanding making something of a shape I’ve never really done before.
    • A lunch and a catch up with Marie, who’s Digital Design Curator at the V&A.
    • A trip to the Hardware-ish Coffee Morning, which was smaller than the last time, but a bunch of good chat and ideas that rattled around my head for hours later.

    I also finished up the final few fixes to Rubato/Burton in advance of its premier in Week 121. Which reminds me: I never linked Richard’s second video of the project in progress. In this case, a test of the whole thing with as many devices as he could muster:

    By the end of the week, I was as confident as I ever get about live projects: it all worked under all manner of constraints, and Richard was comfortable performing with it. On the 3rd, we’d see how it turned out.

  • Weeks 117-118

    17 January 2015

    Two weeks in one – last week had enough blogposts, what with launching the V&A Spelunker, the first public post about Rubato, and my yearnotes – so I thought I’d save any other news for this week.

    Week 117 was spent getting the Spelunker, a project with George Oates at Good, Form & Spectacle, into the world. George wrote more about the project at the V&A site, and I wrote a little on Sketching and Engineering over at the GF&S Work Diary:

    Early on in the process of making the V&A Spelunker – almost a few hours in – I said to George something along the lines of “I’m really trying to focus on sketching and not engineering right now“. We ended up discussing that comment at some length, and it’s sat with me throughout the project. And it’s what I wanted to think about a little now that the Spelunker is live.

    More here.

    Rubato is the project I’m working on with Richard Birkin, and I wrote about the first public material to come out of it here. After getting that post into the world, Richard ran a more intensive test with many devices over the weekend, which helped feed into the work for Week 118. The good news is that the code turned out to be surprisingly robust. That meant that my week was more focused on improvements and streamlining, rather than bugfixing, and I was able to be more responsive to Richard.

    I spent a day or two in week 117 overhauling infovore.org, my personal site, and updating some of the front-end practice on it. It’s now both more legible and built a bit better, which made me happy.

    I also took the opportunity to write up a piece of design I did about seven years ago, all about encouraging users to understand that their list of subscriptions is ephemeral. It came up in conversation at the hardware-ish coffee morning I attended on Thursday of week 118.

    And finally, a good bit of news on a relatively unusual piece of work for me, provisional coded Periton: it looks like it’s going ahead. A few little days in February and March, from the sounds of things. Will keep you posted!

    Back in the saddle, then – and still firming up work commitments for the beginning of the year, so do get in touch if you have what you think might be a Tom-shaped hole, be it prototyping, development, or bashing heads about design.