A report on Science Hack Day Berlin (published on the excellent eLife website).
Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018
Monday, November 14th, 2016
Science Hack Day’s mission is simply to get excited and make things with science, and that’s just what everyone did. One of the remarks I made at the start of this year’s event was about how building community is one of the best things to be involved in right now after the election, and especially connecting different communities together as Science Hack Day does. Exploration is not a solo endeavor and thus it’s less about what you explore and more about the act of exploring. In community exploration, we build strength, support, and safe spaces.
Tuesday, November 8th, 2016
You just know that this will end up being made into a film one day. It’s like a downmarket Mr. Robot.
Monday, November 7th, 2016
The road to Indie Web Camp LA
After An Event Apart San Francisco, which was—as always—excellent, it was time for me to get to the next event: Indie Web Camp Los Angeles. But I wasn’t going alone. Tantek was going too, and seeing as he has a car—a convertible, even—what better way to travel from San Francisco to LA than on the Pacific Coast Highway?
It was great—travelling through the land of Steinbeck and Guthrie at the speed of Kerouac and Springsteen. We stopped for the night at Pismo Beach and then continued on, rolling into Santa Monica at sunset.
The weekend was spent in the usual Indie Web Camp fashion: a day of BarCamp-style discussions, followed by a day of hacking on our personal websites.
I decided to follow on from what I did at the Brighton Indie Web Camp. There, I made a combined tag view—a way of seeing, for example, everything tagged with “indieweb” instead of just journal entries tagged with “indieweb” or links tagged with “indieweb”. I wanted to do the same thing with my archives. I have separate archives for my journal, my links, and my notes. What I wanted was a combined view.
After some hacking, I got it working. So now you can see combined archives by year, month, and day (I managed to add a sparkline to the month view as well):
I did face a bit of a conundrum. Both my home page stream and my tag pages show posts in reverse chronological order, with the newest posts at the top. I’ve decided to replicate that for the archive view, but I’m not sure if that’s the right decision. Maybe the list of years should begin with 2001 and end with 2016, instead of the other way around. And maybe when you’re looking at a month of posts, you should see the first posts in that month at the top.
Anyway, I’ll live with it in reverse chronological order for a while and see how it feels. I’m just glad I managed to get it down—I’ve been meaning to do it for quite a while. Once again, I’m amazed by how much gets accomplished when you’re in the same physical space as other helpful, motivated people all working on improving their indie web presence, little by little.
Monday, September 26th, 2016
Indie Web Camp Brighton 2016
Indie Web Camp Brighton 2016 is done and dusted. It’s hard to believe that it’s already in its fifth(!) year. As with previous years, it was a lot of fun.
There was a design session looking at alternatives to simply presenting everything in a stream. Some great ideas came out of that. And there was a session all about bookmarking and linking. That one really got my brain whirring with ideas for the second day—the making/coding day.
I’ve learned from previous Indie Web Camps that a good strategy for the second day is to have two tasks to tackle: one that’s really easy (so you’ve at least got that to demo at the end), and one that’s more ambitious. This time, I put together a list of potential goals, and then ordered them by difficulty. By the end of the day, I managed to get a few of them done.
First off, I added a small bit of code to my bookmarking flow, so that any time I link to something, I send a ping to the Internet Archive to grab a copy of that URL. So here’s a link I bookmarked to one of Remy’s blog posts, and here it is in the Wayback Machine—see how the date of storage matches the date of my link.
The code to do that was pretty straightforward. I needed to hit this endpoint:
I also updated my bookmarklet for posting links so that, if I’ve highlighted any text on the page I’m linking to, that text is automatically pasted in to the description.
I tweaked my webmentions a bit so that if I receive a webmention that has a type of
bookmark-of, that is displayed differently to a comment, or a like, or a share. Here’s an example of Aaron bookmarking one of my articles.
But until this weekend, I didn’t have the combined view:
I didn’t get around to adding pagination. That’s something I should definitely add, because some of those pages get veeeeery long. But I did spend some time adding sparklines. They can be quite revealing, especially on topics that were hot ten years ago, but have faded over time, or topics that have becoming more and more popular with each year.
All in all, a very productive weekend.
Seb is going to be closing out the Brighton Digital Festival with a bang.
Seb unravels all the geeky details about how your favourite retro gadgets work, including Nintendo light guns, Casio keyboards and the cathode ray tube televisions that once dominated our living rooms.
It’s going to be like Seb: The Musical …with lasers.
Monday, July 25th, 2016
When I designed the Science Hack Day logo, I never expected to one day see it recreated with florescent E. coli.
Sunday, July 24th, 2016
The story of Science Hack Day …as told in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America!
(a PDF version is also available)
Wednesday, July 13th, 2016
Save the dates for Indie Web Camp Brighton 2016
September 24th and 25th—those are the dates you should put in your diary. That’s when this year’s Indie Web Camp Brighton is happening.
If you haven’t been to an Indie Web Camp before, it’s a very straightforward proposition. The idea is that you should have your own website. That’s it. Every thing else is predicated on that. So while there’ll be plenty of discussions, demos, and designs, they’re all in service to that fundamental premise.
The first day of an Indie Web Camp is like a BarCamp. We make a schedule grid at the start of the day and people organise topics by room and time slot. It sounds chaotic. It is chaotic. But it works surprisingly well. The discussions can be about technologies, or interfaces, or ideas, or just about anything really.
The second day is for making. After the discussions from the previous day, most people will have a clear idea at this point for something they might want to do. It might involve adding some new technology to their website, or making some design changes, or helping build a tool. For people starting from scratch, this is the perfect time for them to build and launch a basic website.
At the end of the second day, everyone demos what they’ve done. I’m always amazed by how much people can accomplish in just one weekend. There’s something about having other people around to help you that makes it super productive.
You might be thinking “but I’m not a coder!” Don’t worry—there’ll be plenty of coders there so you can get their help on whatever you might decide to do. If you’re a designer, your skills will be in high demand by those coders. It’s that mish-mash of people that makes it such a fun gathering.
Saturday, November 21st, 2015
We’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching at Clearleft recently; examining our values; trying to make implicit unspoken assumptions explicit and spoken. That process has unearthed some activities that have been at the heart of our company from the very start—sharing, teaching, and nurturing. After all, Clearleft would never have been formed if it weren’t for the generosity of people out there on the web sharing with myself, Andy, and Richard.
One of the values/mottos/watchwords that’s emerging is “Share what you learn.” I like that a lot. It echoes the original slogan of the World Wide Web project, “Share what you know.” It’s been a driving force behind our writing, speaking, and events.
By the way—and this should go without saying, but apparently it still needs to be said—the internships are always, always paid. I know that there are other industries where unpaid internships are the norm. I’ve even heard otherwise-intelligent people defend those unpaid internships for the experience they offer. But what kind of message does it send to someone about the worth of their work when you withhold payment for it? Our industry is young. Let’s not fall foul of the pernicious traps set by older industries that have habitualised exploitation.
In the past couple of years, Andy concocted a new internship scheme:
So this year we decided to try a different approach by scouring the end of year degree shows for hot new talent. We found them not in the interaction courses as we’d expected, but from the worlds of Product Design, Digital Design and Robotics. We assembled a team of three interns , with a range of complementary skills, gave them a space on the mezzanine floor of our new building, and set them a high level brief.
This time ‘round, the three young graduates were Chloe, Chris and Monika. They each have differing but complementary skill sets: Chloe is a user interface designer; Chris is a product designer; Monika is an artist who knows her way around hardware hacking and coding.
Once again, they were set a fairly loose brief. They should come up with something “to enrich the lives of local residents” and it should have a physical and digital component to it.
They got stuck in to researching and brainstorming ideas. At the end of each week, we’d all gather together to get a playback of what they were coming up with. It was at these playbacks that the interns were introduced to a concept that they will no doubt encounter again in their professional lives: seagulling AKA the swoop and poop. For once, it was the Clearlefties who were in the position of being swoop-and-poopers, rather than swoop-and-poopies.
As the midway point of the internship approached, there were some interesting ideas, but no clear “winner” to pursue. Something else was happening around this time too: dConstruct 2015.
There was also plenty of inspiration to be had from the dConstruct talks themselves. One talk in particular struck a chord: Dan Hill’s The City Of Things …especially the bit where he railed against the terrible state of planning application notices:
Most of the time, it ends up down the bottom of the lamppost—soiled and soggy and forgotten. This should be an amazing thing!
Hmm… sounds like something that could enrich the lives of local residents.
Not long after that, Matt Webb came to visit. He encouraged the interns to focus in on just the two ideas that really excited them rather then the 5 or 6 that they were considering. So at the next playback, they presented two potential projects—one about biking and the other about city planning. They put it to a vote and the second project won by a landslide.
That was the genesis of Notice. After that, they pulled out all the stops.
Not content with designing one device, they came up with a range of three devices to match the differing scope of planning applications. They set about making a working prototype of the device intended for the most common applications.
Last week marked the end of the project and the grand unveiling.
They’ve done a great job. All the details are on the website, including this little note I wrote about the project:
This internship programme was an experiment for Clearleft. We wanted to see what would happen if you put through talented young people in a room together for three months to work on a fairly loose brief. Crucially, we wanted to see work that wasn’t directly related to our day-to-day dealings with web design.
We offered feedback and advice, but we received so much more in return. Monika, Chloe, and Chris brought an energy and enthusiasm to the Clearleft office that was invigorating. And the quality of the work they produced together exceeded our wildest expectations.
We hereby declare this experiment a success!
Personally, I think the work they’ve produced is very strong indeed. It would be a shame for it to end now. Perhaps there’s a way that it could be funded for further development. Here’s hoping.
As impressed as I am with the work, I’m even more impressed with the people. They’re not just talented and hard work—they’re a jolly nice bunch to have around.
Sunday, November 8th, 2015
It looks like this year’s Science Hack Day in San Francisco was particularly excellent.
Tantek told me about building a portable home planetarium—sounded like a blast.
Monday, August 10th, 2015
Any sufficiently advanced hacking is indistinguishable from a haunting. In the same way that many Internet of Things objects are referred to as ‘enchanting’ or ‘magical,’ with an intervention, they can very quickly become haunted.
Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
Small independent pieces, loosely joined
It was fascinating at Indie Web Camp Germany to see how much could be accomplished by taking some pre-existing small things and loosely joining them.
For example, there are already webmention and micropub plug-ins for quite a few CMSs. If you’re using Wordpress or Jekyll, you can get pretty far pretty quickly by making use of what people have already provided. And after that Indie Web Camp, you can add Drupal and Kirby to the list of CMSs with readily-available components.
I was somewhat surprised—and very pleased—that people made use of some little PHP snippets that I had posted as gists. I deliberately posted them as gists to show how minimal and barebones the code could be—no need for a whole project, or installers, or dockering the node to yeoman the gulp, or whatever it is the cool kids do these days.
By the end of the second day, I was amazed to see how much progress people had made. Like Johannes says:
I was pretty impressed by how much people got done. At the final demo session, everyone had something he or she had done to update their website – although I’m pretty sure that the end of this event will not be the end of their efforts to try and own their stuff online.
It was quite inspiring. In fact, I think I’ve been inspired to have an Indie Web Camp in Brighton. I’m thinking we could have it at the same time as Indie Web Camp Portland, which is on July 11th and 12th.
Save the dates.
Sunday, May 10th, 2015
100 words 049
The second day of Indie Web Camp Germany was really productive. It was amazing to see how much could be accomplished in just one day of collaborative hacking—people were posting to Twitter from their own site, sending webmentions, and creating their own micropub endpoints.
I made a little improvement to the links section of my site. Now every time I link to something, I check to see if it accepts webmentions and if it does, I ping it to let you know that I’ve linked to it.
I’ve posted the code as a gist. Feel free to use it.
Wednesday, March 25th, 2015
Still a few days left to back this great project for Brighton:
Build, tinker, make and play! For anyone with imagination, The Brighton Makerlab lets ages 8 to 80 create cool stuff with technology.
Monday, February 16th, 2015
Our new intern—L’il James—demonstrates good .gif skills in his write-up of the project he worked on at Hack Farm.
It’s like Downton Abbey and Silicon Valley had a baby.
Saturday, February 7th, 2015
Hackfarming Blood Buddies
Hack Farm usually takes place around November, but due to various complexities, Hack Farm 2014 wound up getting pushed back to the start of 2015. Last week we formed a convoy, stocked up on the bare essentials (food, post-it notes, and booze), and drove west for four hours until we were in Herefordshire at a place called The Colloquy—a return to the site of the first ever Hack Farm.
I kept notes on each day.
We arrive in the late afternoon, settle into our respective rooms, and eat some wonderful home-cooked food. After dinner, even though everyone’s pretty knackered, we agree that it’s best to figure out what everyone will be working on for the next few days.
Everyone gets a chance to pitch their ideas, and then we all do some dot-voting to whittle down the options. In short order, we arrive at four different projects for four different teams.
One of my ideas is chosen. This is something I’ve been pitching every single year at Hack Farm, and every single year it ends up narrowly missing out. This year, it’s finally going to happen!
We choose a room to use as our home base and begin.
We start by agreeing on a hypothesis—more of an assumption, really—that we’ll be basing everything upon:
People are more like to give blood if they are not alone.
We start writing down questions that people might ask related to giving blood. Some of these questions might well turn out to be out of scope for this project, or can already be better answered by an existing service like blood.co.uk e.g.:
- Can I give blood?
- How often can I give blood?
- Will it hurt?
- How long will it take?
Other questions are potentially open to us providing answers:
- Where can I give blood?
- When I can I give blood?
- Who else is giving blood?
That last one is a question that doesn’t seem to be answered anywhere else.
We brain-dump potential data sources that answered the “who”, “when”, and “where” questions? The data from blood.co.uk could potentially answer the “when” and “where” questions e.g. when and where is the next donation? Data from Twitter, Facebook, or your address book could answer the “who” questions e.g. who are you, and who are your friends?
We brainstorm potential outputs of the project. The obvious choices are a website or a native app, but there could also potentially be email, SMS, or even posters and postcards.
We think about potential incentives for the users of this service: peer pressure, gamification, bragging rights, reassurance, etc.
So there’s a lot of divergent thinking going on: at this stage, there are no bad ideas (no, really!).
We also establish the goals of the project—what we would like to see happen as a result of this service existing. The very minimum success criteria is:
Someone gives blood who hasn’t given blood before.
There’s a follow-on criteria for measuring longer-term success:
A group gives blood regularly.
We split into two groups to work on a propositional statement, then come together to merge what we came up with. Here it is:
For people who want to give blood, who need encouragement and motivation, Blood Buddies brings together people you know to make it a shared experience. That way, you’re more likely to give blood.
Unlike blood.co.uk, it frames giving blood as a shared, rewarding activity.
Blood Buddies is a codename for now. The final service might have a different name, like Bluddies maybe.
After lunch, we start to work on user stories and personas. After a while, we think we’ve got a pretty clear idea for the minimal viable user journey.
Now we take a little break and stretch our legs.
When we regroup, we start researching technical possibilities (like Twitter authentication, GMail address book, Facebook contacts, etc.), while also throwing ideas around to do with branding, tone of voice, etc. James Box comes in and helps us out with a handy branding exercise.
In an effort the name the thing, we create a page filled with relevant words that might be combined into a name. Eventually we reach the “just fucking end it!” moment. The service is called “Blood Buddies” after all. The tagline is …drumroll… “Get plastered together!”
Meanwhile, having investigated the technical possibilities, it looks like Twitter’s API will be the easiest (relatively) to start with.
We write out our epics and create a little kanban board. We have our tasks figured out:
- implement sign-in with Twitter,
- create a style guide,
- mock up the homepage,
- mock up a sign-up form,
- and more.
Tomorrow everyone can assign a task to themselves and get cracking (some people have started already).
After a late Superbowl night, we arise and begin tackling the day’s tasks.
I managed to get a very rudimentary Twitter sign-in working (eventually!) so now my task is to do something with the data that Twitter is returning …namely, storing it in a database. And because this relies on signing in with Twitter to get any results, this needs to get on to an actual web server as soon as possible.
Cue a day of wrangling with PHP, MySQL, OAuth, Git, Apache, SSH keys, and DNS settings …with an intermittent internet connection that drops out at the most inconvenient of times.
Andy is storyboarding the promo video that will help sell the story of Blood Buddies.
Meanwhile James and Tessa are hammering out a visual language for Blood Buddies. So the work is being approached from two different ends: the server side (how it works behind the scenes) and the interface (how it looks to the end user). In the middle is the user flow, and that’s what Richard is working on, also looking ahead past the minimal viable product to include features that can be added later.
By late afternoon the most basic server-side functionality is done, and the site is live at bloodbuddies.co.uk. Of course, there’s very, very, very little to see there, but at least our team can start adding themselves to the database.
So now the task is to join up the back-end functionality with the visual design and copy. As these strands come together, it feels like we’re getting back to a more collaborative phase: whereas yesterday involved lots of group activity, today was more splintered. But that’s going to change now that we’re going to join up the individual pieces into a unified interface.
Today felt quite productive considering that three out of the five people on our team are on cooking duty.
Today is a day of rest. It’s a beautiful day. We go for a drive through the countryside, pop into a pub for some grub, and go walking on the hills.
We’re down to just three team members today. Tessa is working on a different project and Andy is spending the day sleeping, puking, and generally recovering from a heavy night. N00b.
We get cracking on with integrating the visual design with the back-end functionality. That means bashing out some CSS. After an hour or two, we’ve got something basic in place.
While James works on refining the visuals—including a kick-ass logo—Richard is writing lots and lots of copy, and figuring out user flows.
Meanwhile I’m trying to get server-side stuff in place, fiddling with DNS and email; not my favourite activity.
Once the DNS is pointed to the Digital Ocean server, and with the Twitter sign-in working okay, we realise that we’ve actually launched! Admittedly it’s very basic and it needs plenty of refinement, but it’s a start.
We head out for the evening meal together. Just one more day to go.
James starts the day by finishing up his kick-ass Blood Buddies logo.
Richard is writing and editing lots of witty copy.
Andy is storyboarding a promotional video.
I’m trying to get emails working, so that when someone you know signs up to Blood Buddies, we can email you to let you know. By lunchtime, we’ve got it all working.
Lots of the details are in place now: the logo, web fonts, an error page, a favicon …it feels good to be iterating on a live site.
After lunch, James, Richard, and I work on expanding out the home page. Once everything is in pretty good shape, we all come together (with Andy and Tessa) to talk about what the next steps could be after this minimum viable product.
There’s consensus that the most important step would be adding more ways of signing into the site, instead of just Twitter. Also, there’s a lot of functionality we could add if we can scrape the data from blood.co.uk
But that’s for another day. Right now we’ve got a barebones site, but it’s working.
Friday, January 23rd, 2015
Tuesday, December 16th, 2014
The Session trad tune machine
I’ve never had much exposure to this world of hacking electronics. I remember getting excited about the possibilities at a Brighton BarCamp back in 2008:
I now have my own little arduino kit, a bread board and a lucky bag of LEDs. Alas, know next to nothing about basic electronics so I’m really going to have to brush up on this stuff.
I never did do any brushing up. But that all changed last week.
Seb is doing a new two-day workshop. He doesn’t call it Internet Of Things. He doesn’t call it Geocities Of Things. He calls it Stuff That Talks To The Interwebs, or STTTTI, or ST4I. He needed some guinea pigs to test his workshop material on, so Clearleft volunteered as tribute.
In short, it was great! And this time, I didn’t stop hacking when I got home.
First off, every workshop attendee gets a hand-picked box of goodies to play with and keep: an arduino mega, a wifi shield, sensors, screens, motors, lights, you name it. That’s the hardware side of things. There are also code samples and libraries that Seb has prepared in advance.
Now, remember, I lack even the most basic knowledge of electronics, but after two days of fiddling with this stuff, it started to click.
On the first workshop day, we all did the same exercises, connected things up, getting them to talk to the internet, that kind of thing. For the second workshop day, Seb encouraged us to think about what we might each like to build.
I was quite taken with the ability of the piezo buzzer to play rudimentary music. I started to wonder if there was a way to hook it up to The Session and have it play the latest jigs, reels, and hornpipes that have been submitted to the site in ABC notation. A little bit of googling revealed that someone had already taken a stab at writing an ABC parser for arduino. I didn’t end up using that code, but it convinced me that what I was trying to do wasn’t crazy.
So I built a machine that plays Irish traditional music from the internet.
The hardware has a piezo buzzer, an “on” button, an “off” button, a knob for controlling the speed of the tune, and an obligatory LED.
The software has a countdown timer that polls a URL every minute or so. The URL is http://tune.adactio.com/. That in turn uses The Session’s read-only API to grab the latest tune activity and then get the ABC notation for whichever tune is at the top of that list. Then it does some cleaning up—removing some of the more advanced ABC stuff—and outputs a single line of notes to be played. I’m fudging things a bit: the device has the range of a tin whistle, and expects tunes to be in the key of D or G, but seeing as that’s at least 90% of Irish traditional music, it’s good enough.
Whenever there’s a new tune, it plays it. Or you can hit the satisfying “on” button to manually play back the latest tune (and yes, you can hit the equally satisfying “off” button to stop it). Being able to adjust the playback speed with a twiddly knob turns out to be particularly handy if you decide to learn the tune.
I added one more lo-fi modification. I rolled up a piece of paper and placed it over the piezo buzzer to amplify the sound. It works surprisingly well. It’s loud!
I’ll keep tinkering with it. It’s fun. I realise I’m coming to this whole hardware-hacking thing very late, but I get it now: it really does feel similar to that feeling you would get when you first figured out how to make a web page back in the days of Geocities. I’ve built something that’s completely pointless for most people, but has special meaning for me. It’s ugly, and it’s inefficient, but it works. And that’s a great feeling.
(P.S. Seb will be running his workshop again on the 3rd and 4th of February, and there will a limited amount of early-bird tickets available for one hour, between 11am and midday this Thursday. I highly recommend you grab one.)
Monday, December 15th, 2014
Seb will be running this workshop again at the start of February—details here. I can’t recommend it highly enough—it’s so, so good!