• 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.

  • 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!

  • The case studies on this website were getting a little stale. No more! I’ve just published lots of new case studies of individual projects over the past three years.

    The big headline that I’m most keen to talk about is a long, detailed writeup of my work on CaptionHub - a project I worked on for 3.5 years, known in this feed as Selworthy. CaptionHub is an online tool for collaboratively captioning and subtitling video. I served as technical lead and pathfinder, taking the initial idea - the “what if?” - to a prototype and beyond into a shipping product, whilst the team grew and the product acquired clients. The write-up is detailed not just because of the length time I worked on the project, but because of the way the product changed as it developed and grew in scale. It’s a project that shows the breadth of my capabilities well, and the finished product is something I’m very proud of.

    But there’s lots more in there too. Highlights include: an open source tool for musicians; teaching on the Hyper Island MA; building a digital musicbox; creating a Twitter bot for an installation at the Wellcome Collection.

    The write-ups all include extended thought on process, and, of course, link back to the relevant weeknotes that I wrote during the process.

    You can find out more at the updated projects list.

    I’m currently looking for new projects to work on: technical leadership, early stage exploration, communication of ideas, are all areas I’m keen to continue in. Topic areas I’m particularly interested in include building tools for creatives and professionals, the bridge between the physical and digital, and audio and video. I’ve written more about my capabilities here.

  • Week 317

    27 January 2019

    Finally, a week with the regular number of days in that began on a Monday! (From my perspective).

    Over at Bulb Labs, there was a good groove of thinking, writing, and talking. Sounds so vague, doesn’t it? I worked on a pile of research and writing, where synthesis – writing – was as key as the research itself, so that felt good. I’m looking forward to seeing how that went down next week. I also spent some time just talking to colleagues on Slack as a way of building work-relationships; there were some fire-emojis by the end of the week, so perhaps I was doing something right.

    Thursday, I went back to CaptionhubSelworthy – for a day I owed them prior to Christmas, that illness got in the way of. Nice to see the gang again – I managed to wrap the feature I was working on end-to-end, leaving it in a good place to get to deployment. I also helped debug a slightly strange feature in code relating to a file format I’m reasonably expert in now – turned out the bug was just some naive code I’d written a long while ago, and the fix wasn’t too hard to roll out. Exciting to see lots of other developments there, too – so nice to drop by.

    I paid my taxes. Boring, slightly stressful, but out of the way. And now there’s some time in the coming week to sort out some accountancy. Admin has been a bit of an overhead recently: there’s not been too much, but finding space in the week to do it has been more challenging than normal. Hoping to get back on top of that fast enough.

    16n got featured on Hackaday, which was pretty nice!

    And finally, at the end of the week, I went along to Parallel Worlds at the V&A. I had a great day out, and it did what I hope conferences will do: blow some cobwebs out of my brain and open up some new ideas. My notes are reminders of small projects to pick up and continue with, alongside things I learned from the sessions. It was also great to catch up with friends across the London games scene, and hear what they’re up to. A good end to a good week.

  • Weeks 312-313

    21 December 2018

    The final two working weeks of the year. In the midst of kicking off at Bulb, wrapping up at CaptionHub, and Christmas party season… I got a truly horrendous cold and spent several days in bed. Yuck.

    So there’s not a vast amount to report. My personal Trello account tells me I spent much of those two weeks when not at clients mainly just doing admin. Otherwise, I tried to wrap up one last feature at CaptionHub – as well as a bit of troubleshooting around STL file formats – and started getting my handle on the role at Bulb in the few days I had there. So far, there’s been a lot to take in, but the little team in Labs is great, and I’m looking forward to getting underway a little more next year.

    When I wondered why I was ill, it turned out that moving house, a long weekend of teaching, and a new gig all at once is a lot to take on board, and I think my body just said ‘no’. Endoftermitis is real: it’s like technical debt for your body, where you can no longer stave things off and it all comes crashing down. The only thing to do is to roll with it: accept you don’t want to get colleagues ill, do what you need to recover, remember that’s what the rainy-day funds are precisely for.

    A quieter end to the year than perhaps I envisaged, then, but an end nontheless. Next up: two weeks out of the studio and the office, resting up, getting ready for 2019. And then we start again.

    Onwards!

  • Week 311

    8 December 2018

    A busy week, especially after the disruption of moving house.

    I spent one day at CaptionHub on Selworthy, finishing up some the smart-quotes work and moving on to refining the design of downloading data.

    On Wednesday, I finally finished some prototype builds of 16n, and they’ve come out beautifully. I’m hoping to open-source the whole thing before Christmas, and get those prototypes to the musicians I’m making them for.

    Otherwise, I spent Thursday-to-Saturday teaching with Hyper Island: the first campus days of the Digital Technologies module of the Digital Management MA. I spent time earlier in the week refining and revising the course materials I’d be teaching – on Invention, AI and Machine Learning, and Data. The students were, as ever, a great bunch: engaged, sharp, and full of insightful discussion and questions. The best kind of classes.

    I get Sunday off, and then on Monday, I go to Bulb for Highrigg. It’s going to be a busy end to the year.

  • Week 310

    2 December 2018

    Busy week, in and out of the studio.

    On Selworthy, I spent some time wrapping up work on a new ingest format, and then spending time staring into the maw of character encoding – and, in particular, working out what our policy on ‘smart quotes’ is – and coming to the conclusion that rather than doing something automatically, we should offer up an option to end-users as to what they want the default to be. And so there’s some more work to wrap up next week on the UI for that.

    I continued with a bunch of work for next week’s teaching at Hyper Island – overhauling another talk, refining the brief with our pretend-client, going over what our guests would be doing. It’s going to be a bit nip and tuck to get things into place for next week, but it’s all going well, so that’s a relief.

    As I hoped, the metal panels for 16n arrived – and they’re beautiful. Perfect fits, really gorgeous objects, ties the thing together. Good to know all my CAD worked out. Had to order some 1mm longer standoffs to fit the underside screws into, and so come week 311 I’ll have a final thing for myself.

    And that was all there was time for: I moved house at the end of the week, which took me out of the studio. Hopefully we’ll return to normal service quickly.

  • Weeks 306-309

    25 November 2018

    Time is elided at the moment: I’m having a deliberately quiet period between projects and whilst lots of non-work life is all rather busy. So weeknotes are a bit more spread-out. But still worth doing.

    I’ve also started work on a new piece of personal process to perhaps make this – and a few other things – easier to manage. (Nothing magic: just using Trello to treat ‘myself’ as a project). We’ll see how that works out.

    Sharphaw didn’t end up happening – at least, not in the planned format. There might still be some work there in the future, but for now, that codename and work is on ice.

    I’ve been dealing with some metal suppliers from Germany and Poland, who are making prototype panels for 16n. It looks like the panels will be arriving in week 310, which is exciting for that project (and also to determine if my CAD work has come out correct).

    In week 309, I spent the afternoon at After The Flood, taking part in a quick workshop. Always good to work with the teams they put together, and I think we got to some useful places in it.

    I’m gearing up for the Digital Technologies module on the Hyper Island MA I’ll be teaching on at the end of the year. Some of the work has needed minor touch-ups, although there’s one talk that’ll get more of a rewrite in week 310. I’ve also been securing final guests, and nailing down the project brief for the students.

    Longer-term plans are emerging, too. My time on Selworthy is winding down. I’m going to wrap up there by the end of the year. And I should really explain it properly, after 3.5 years! I’ll write it up in depth soon, I hope. Great ride.

    And, in the meantime: dotted the _i_s on Highrigg: a part-time contract that’ll kick off at the end of the year, and we’ll see how we go from there. Meaty, a new set of challenges for me: exciting and scary at once. Sounds like a good thing to go into 2019 with.

  • Weeks 298-305

    29 October 2018

    Lots of time without weeknotes. Oops. But: lots has been going on.

    Notably, Lambrigg wrapped up. The final weeks weren’t too crunchy, thankfully: just somesome busy, intense days to get to the finish line. In the final week we designed and wrote a new demo, re-coded both demos so that they could be more easily shared with colleagues, finalised two hardware prototypes, wrote our report and presentation deck, and got the whole thing into a shippable state. Phew.

    It’s been a really nice shape of project. A research and development piece beginning – about three months ago – with background research, interviews, design reporting, a bit of strategy, and helping colleagues in the management team develop strategy further. Then, we moved into prototyping some preferred approaches in a manner that could be taken further if needed.

    Across the project, I’ve conducted research interviews, done desk research into design and technology, explored possible technical approaches, designed some game prototypes, built software and firmware in Python, Ruby, Java/Processing, and C++. I’ve designed, fabricated and built up two different custom circuit boards that interface with one another, and built end-to-end prototypes that interface with a computer. I’ve produced CAD models for those boards for Tim to design around. By the end, we had turned all that into coherent physical prototypes with working demos.

    That feels like a lot. Meaty work.

    And then, I promptly got ill with endoftermitis: the come-down after pushing perhaps a wee bit hard. So I was off for a bit, and I think that threw my weeknotes muscle.

    Since then, I’ve been working on a few things.

    Firstly, decommissioning Holmfell – Erica Scourti’s _Empathy Deck_ – now that the Twitter API no longer supports, well, doing anything fun. We’ve said goodbye, and now we’re working out how best to properly archive a web project. That’s entailed not just taking dumps, but writing documentation for future users on what they are and how to interact with them. For instance, I’ve been turning some of the most significant Postgres tables into CSV – after all, as I say a lot, Excel is the prototyping tool everybody has on their desk, so it’s good to leave things in a state that doesn’t require me.

    It also turns out the project generated around 17gb of images in its lifespan, so I’ve been trying to archive that in the most space- and time-efficient way possible. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that a little rsync goes a long way.

    Over on Selworthy, we’ve been thinking a bit about infrastructure and operations, and choosing our next focus for incremental, ongoing improvement. I’ve also been prototyping some new interactions, which are going to be much easier to integrate with the existing front-end after the overhaul the team made to our front-end stack more recently.

    I’ve started the work around preparing for this year’s Hyper Island Digital Technologies module. This year, it’s more of an incremental overhaul on last year, but it’s been good to start thinking about the structure and narrative of the module up-front. There’ll be more work on that in the weeks to come!

    I’ve started conversations about a small R&D project called Sharphaw, which ties together some of my experience and expertise to help a company explore taking the objects they make and connecting them to internet services – a bit of IOT prototyping, a bit of thinking about service design, and fabricating a few things.

    And, over on the music technology side: a small production run of kits for Thonk, and wrapping up an open-source community project I’ve been working on for a good while. I’m hoping to release that in week 306!

    Phew. That’s a lot. Let’s try to do this more often.

  • Weeks 296-297

    3 September 2018

    Fortnightnotes, owing to a long weekend away over the bank holiday.

    At the end of week 296, Lambrigg had its own internal demo; Tim and I were cranking fairly hard to get that done – three days of code, audio recording, hasty art direction and game design.

    The demo went very well: really well received, clearly understood, and loads of good questions (which is always a good sign). Initially I was relieved – everything worked, we met our goals – but I also left the demo highly satisifed with the positive response and enthusiastic feedback: I thought we’d done a fair pile of work to get it to where it was, and the team communicated that they could see that. So that’s great. Tim and I regrouped at the beginning of week 297 to set direction for the final phase of the project, and that’s now underway.

    Only one day on Selworthy this fortnight. I sat down with Erik and we went over his first spike of some heavy front-end replacement work he’s been doing. This ended up being a great day of remote pairing, with two notable successes. Firstly, the brief feedback I had so far was resolved easily and by the pair of us, and this proved that the new code was much more maintainable. We could add features and develop atop it easily – one of the things we hoped would be true already proving itself. And secondly, I managed to transfer a lot of knowledge to Erik about the next steps for that code – not just what would need doing, but how the systems he was replacing would work. Lots of things trapped in tangly Javascript and my head now out and shared in the world. I’m really looking forward to seeing the team’s progress with this pile of code in week 298.

    The bank holiday weekend extended a few days either side for family obligations, and then, just as I got back to work in week 297, I had a day sick at home with a brief headcold. Annoying! I recovered over the weekend, so week 298 begins on Monday (with these notes).