• Week 380

    17 April 2020

    Where were we?

    I last wrote notes around Week 374. My Makefile tells me this is about Week 380. I think that’s correct. If not, well, time has slightly lost some of its meaning in recent weeks, and who’s counting? Week 380 it is.

    In week 375, I finally finished my career review, and [wrote that up]. That was a prelude to more formally seeking out new projects and clients. Of course, what then happened was COVID-19 made it quite clear that we were not proceeding as normal for a bit. I left the studio and went to work from home, and started trying to investigate new work from there.

    Which was not, at that point, particularly fast-moving, and, coupled with the strangeness of lockdown, everything slowed down a little. It was going to be a challenge to write ongoing weeknotes where I invented euphemisms for “not very busy over here”, so I went a little quiet.

    When I write down what I’ve been up to since then, though, it’s a decent amount:

    • I made voipcards. This was, initially, one of my one-line-gags turned into a small project. It was also a useful tool to prod at learning a bit more Svelte, to practice building PWAs, and to occupy my mind. It turned out quite popular on the internet, which led to me writing about the problems of solutionising, and why I’m still not sure it’s that good a project.
    • I released the 2.0.x firmware for 16n, and wrote about that here. This had been on the shelf for a different project - Mayhill - for a while, and I realised it could easily be ported to 16n. The big feature this introduces is configuring your hardware from the browser, over USBMidi. Really pleased with how this turned out, and the community feedback has been great.
    • I built up a personal electronics project over a few days, which turned out rather well after some fettling. Fun things I learned here included using naked board substrate as a transparent surface for LEDs to shine through, how to drive 256 LEDs off only 64 channels (four sixteen-LED drivers chained over I2C), and then tweaking the update rate of the LEDs so they don’t flicker on cameras as well as to the naked eye. (That involved moving the update rate to an integer division of 30 frames a second…)
    • been spending some time volunteering on Makerveristy’s PPE effort - primarily, on a tangential project to the 3D printing they’ve been launching, where I’ve been lending some support on digital logistics work as well as comms and lightweight project management.
    • pitching a bit and having phone-calls and chats.
    • quite a lot of business-related admin.
    • setting up two new projects. Let’s called them Bradnor and Easington. I signed the contracts for Bradnor, a short project around infrastructure for an IOT project, last week, and we’re nearly there with Easington.

    That felt like enough to finally write about. And now I’m back in the saddle, it should be harder to break the chain next week. As ever: onwards.

  • Week 374

    2 March 2020

    I’ve been freelance for over seven years. In that time, my work has slowly changed a little in its nature, along with my professional interests, and the shape of the wider market. In a quiet week, following just-about wrapping a few projects, it felt time for a more formal review of my work to date.

    I loosely followed Matt’s notes on his own career review as a starting point: looking at all my past work, and analysing it. What did the successes have in common? What would I like to do more of? Are there trends? As usual, it’s easy as a lone practitioner to assume that it’s all just gig-after-gig, but that’s not true.

    Some focused time with pen an paper let me look clearly at my work. It turns out that over all the wide range of projects, there really are trends, and there is definitely expertise built over time that is worth sharing. So it was definitely useful to take that time to do this properly.

    I then performed an extra step after Matt’s original list of questions: I looked at the how of each project. How did those circumstances occur? How did the work happen? Who is involved? Who is committed? That helped me gain a better focus on what circumstances are most successful for me, and how I enable the work to happen.

    Having done all that, there was a small piece of writing work to synthesize and explain everything. At which point, I promptly got a cold - not COVID-19, I should add - which knocked out the end of my week. So finishing up the review work would have to begin in week 375. Still, the groundwork was laid this week, and it was a good way to use some time off project work.

  • Week 373

    23 February 2020

    This week I:

    • spent a half day on Monday wrapping up a polish pass on Willsneck with its designer. I then gave a short talk about Willsneck to the direct client on Thursday Morning. Primarily, I talked about the deployment strategy we were using, and why it was a good fit for the project and client. It was good to validate the thinking we’d been doing as a team, and also to communicate that what looked like off-the-cuff decisions did still have a bunch of thought behind them. There were good questions and some nice feedback, so that was satisfying.
    • spent Tuesday workshopping with Tim. Early investigations into something, digging into what really interested him (and me) about a particular idea, and then some due diligence and research into prior art.
    • continued from my end-to-end breakthrough on Mayhill with further iteration. The firmware feels pretty complete; there’s one error at the level of hardware design that will need resolving before I can confirm that, but otherwise, I’m pleased. I also continued to iterate on the software end of things, adding features to the browser-based editor. I looked into the state of the hardware, but then got a bit downcast as I realised the effort required to take it beyond the workbench. With its own fast microcontroller in, it likely falls under FCC regulation of “unintentional radiators”, which puts another hurdle in front of selling or shipping it. Something to think about, but meant I largely parked thinking about it for a bit.
    • finally, snatched a victory from the work on Mayhill by realising there’s nothing to stop it working with 16n, so started working on a version 2.0.0 firmware for that, which should be ready soon. Early feedback from the community has been highly positive, so it’ll be good to ship that to as many people as possible.
  • Week 372

    16 February 2020

    Lots of work on Willsneck this week, to bring it into land. We wrapped everything up by Thursday PM, and I’ve got a half-day on this left over to finalise the production deployment. Happy with how it’s turned out, I think.

    Hallin got merged into master by the client, so I’m looking forward to hearing how they get on with it in production.

    I had a good chat with Christian and Miguel from Schema who were in town, having been introduced by a friend. Always nice to meet new people, and interesting to chat to them about designing for data, working with clients on that problem, and the tools used to do it. Thanks to Steve for putting us in touch!

    Finally, I spent some of Friday working on Mayhill, and had a really big breakthrough. That breakthrough is what we called end-to-end at Berg: a complete workflow up and running, even if every component is a bit ‘version one’. I began by working on overhauling some of the browser-based UI: making it look a lot tidier, and refactoring a lot of the large App.svelte file into smaller components, including a big wrapper component for handling the MIDI context. Then, I wrote the JavaScript to translate edits in the browser to Sysex data. Finally, back in firmware-land, I wrote the firmware code to intercept that stream of data and write it to Flash RAM. There were other small firmware kinks to iron out, too.

    By the end of the day, I had a system where you could open an editor in your browser, connect a physical object (that I’d both designed the electronics for and coded the firmware on) and see it appear automatically, and reconfigure it in the browser app. The browser app could transmit edits back to the hardware, which would persist those changes. Hugely satisfying: what’s largely left on this is polish, now, and working on the “1.0” hardware (rather than this ‘development board’) that I built for myself.

    Still not quite sure how I feel about Svelte. I like the compiled-up-front approach, especially for something that couldn’t really be done many other ways; I’m not quite sure about its idiosyncratic syntax, and whilst I quite like its two-way reponsiveness, that leads to a propensity to get yourself in a tangle. Still, it’s enabled all the things I’ve needed to do so far in a reasonably straigihtforward manner, and I’m a big fan of its Vue-style single-file components, so it’ll do for now. One thing in its favour is that it was easy enough to pick up after months away: most of it, most of the time, is just browser-based technologies.

    A good week, then: mainly code for clients, some more esoteric code for myself with a serious breakthrough, and some good conversations to round it out.

  • Week 371

    11 February 2020

    I’m writing these notes awfully late, so let’s rattle through them:

    • shipped all the final changes to the client on Hallin. They seem pleased, so hoping to wrap this next week.
    • kicked off a second phase of work on Willsneck. This was primarily focused on front-end design changes: new markup and CSS, and content updates. There was still some more unusual code to implement, though. Some of the content on the site is extracted from JSON files using Hugo’s ability to use JSON data in templates. These JSON files are derived from online sources, and needed to be regularly updated. How to do that with a static site? It turns out it’s now quite straiightforward. We’re already deploying the site using Github Actions on every push to master. Actions also supports cronlike functionality, with scheduled actions. I wrote some scripts to download and process the relevant JSON files, and then wrote some Actions workflows that, once a day, would run the script, commit the results back to master, and deploy the site. Really happy with this: I’m sure you can also do similar with CI, but Github Actions are really lightweight and straightforward out of the box. Might use this pattern again in future.
    • met up with Gabi from Hyper Island, who have moved their London office into Makerversity - just around the corner from me. We debrief on the module I’d worked on, and caught up more generally.
    • did a bit more writing on Ninebarrow. Slowly moving forward; still painful.
    • finally, booked all my accomodation for Loop this year. Really looking forward to this again: a neat combination of being personally interesting and enjoyable, and a good source of inspiration and thinking-time for my work-brain. Can’t wait.
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.