• Week 368

    20 January 2020

    A quiet week, as I was working until Sunday night last week teaching.

    It's an admin-oriented time of the year. I finished up all my book-keeping for the previous year to ship to my accountant. This was largely up-to-date thanks to regular FreeAgenting, but there were still a few bits and bobs to catch up on. I also sent a few invoices, and paid a few bills related to the studio fit-out in the autumn.

    I spent a day or so presenting a demo of the state of Hallin to the direct client. We worked out what would be necessary to do before we shipped a beta to staging. I finished up that code, wrote some appropriate end-user documentation, and shipped that off to them for testing.

    Over on my personal site, I wrote up the Spark AR filter I made one afternoon last week. It's not so much a technical write-up as it is an exploration of environments for making software toys:

    It’s a while since I’ve worked on a platform that’s wanted to be fun. I’ve made my own fun with software, making tools to make art or sounds, for instance. But in 2020, so much of the software I use wants me to not have fun.

    […]

    Twitter is now very hard to make jokes on. The word ‘bot’ has come to stand for not ‘fun software toy’ but ‘bad actor from a foreign state’. The API is increasingly more restricted as a result. I’m required to regularly log in to prove an account is real. My accounts aren’t real: they’re toys, automatons, playing on the internet.

    I get why these restrictions are in place. I don’t like bad actors spreading misinformation, lies, and propaganda. But I’m still allowed to be sad the the cost of that is making toys and art on the platform.

    You can read more (and see the filter in action) in Fun With Software, over at infovore.org.

    Finally, a longer-term personal project that I'm calling Ninebarrow began to take shape - or, at least, take a little more solid form. No huge developments here just yet; there's little more than thinking on it, so far, but I'm writing it down for the sake of tracking the progress of that project, if it happens, over time. Here is where it began.

  • 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 365-366

    31 December 2019

    No weeknotes over the Christmas break.

  • 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 363

    15 December 2019

    This week, I:

    • spent three days wrapping up a lot of Willsneck. That meant pairing on finishing up all the content edits, and working through the designer's snaglist, sanding off many rough edges in my work. Lots of fettling SVG files and learning about some of the esoteric bits of CSS that only apply to SVG. By the end of the week, I'd cleared almost all of my ‘todo’ column, and we're just in to some final bits of QA and layout tweaks.
    • had a long meeting-cum-workshop on Hallin to refine the specification we were agreeing to. No huge surprises here, but it helped a lot to meet the team and go over a lot of things in detail. I've got a clearer understanding of their product and domain model, and we've largely agreed on what's to be done.
    • found a few spare hours to prod at the electronics project I mentioned last week. Let's call it Mayhill. This week, I started work on the computer-based tool that will talk to it. I'm writing it in the browser, with a view to porting it perhaps to Electron later on. By the end of the week, I had a neat flow of information between hardware and browser, over MIDI Sysex, and a reactive UI built in Svelte playing ball with everything. Fun!
  • 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.

  • Week 359

    18 November 2019

    Very busy right now, so I'll break a habit and do weeknotes as bullet points:

    • Longridge is going well. Lots more review work, getting a second course to 1.0, filling in some blanks, re-recording and re-editing fragments of screencasts, and getting a first draft of the third (and final) course done. That course introduces UX design through the lens of designing a small mobile app. It begins with a look at the materiality of the modern smartphone (although not, for my target learners, using quite that language), before going through to a first look at user journeys, paper prototyping, clickable mockups, and what design teams look like. Phew. Nearly there on the content delivery.
    • It looks like another short technical project, Willsneck, will slot in in the run up to Christmas, kicking off next week.
    • …and had a phonecall about another short piece of software development for a little further into the future. That still feels like it's about 40% likely, but it was a good call, so we'll see what happens there.

    Wearing a lot of hats right now, and doing a lot of different kinds of work. As such, there's not a huge amount of time for reflection, right now: the goal is delivery. That means keeping the foot - gently - on the gas pedal for a bit.

  • Week 358

    10 November 2019

    Another week of writing, editing, and typing.

    I finished a first draft of the first half of the third (and last) course I'm writing. This one is an introduction to design and UX, through the lens of prototyping a simple mobile app.

    Explaining “design” from a standing start, in a limited space of time, is… challenging to say the least. If I had thousands words and many weeks it feels like it'd at least be easier - but I have hundreds of words, and two weeks of content. So the course is more of a whistle-stop tour, and I'm agonising over each paragraph, keeping them on point without introducing more questions than they answer.

    I spent a good chunk of time reviewing all of course 2, which - despite the picky detail that Track Changes likes to ask you to approve - was a relatively smooth process. I'd definitely learned a bit from writing course 1. About the single most challenging set of edits were having to come up with meaningful “wrong” answers for multiple choice quizzes, each with accompanying explanation. I'm no fan of multiple choice, but it's a format I've been given, so I'm just working with what I've got.

    I also recorded two screencasts for course 2, in which I walk through my own solutions to the exercises. Although they're meant to sound ‘off-the-cuff’, and involve me narrating as I type, I still require a degree of scripting. A short list of key points in front of me gives me marks to hit: just enough reminders of what's coming next that I don't ramble or waffle, and we keep the length down. A quick edit job on each and they were good to send to the video team.

    I also did a bit more wrangling for December's Hyper Island teaching. That meant finalising some timetables, and meeting up with our client for the students’ brief. Fortunately, things are firming up: the variables in the timetable are turning into constants, which makes everything a lot more straightforward.