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Computational thinking v. creative technology

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Had a great discussion about this, with Spike Island director & comms mgr, continued later at Pervasive Media Studio during our Open House there. This led to one of my conclusions about the residency: when it comes to embedding digital in arts organisations, ‘computational thinking’ is the wrong term; it’s less about technological things than about practices and processes.
Linda & Kevin & i-device

Linda & Kevin & i-device

Google’s brand of computational thinking involves breaking down a problem, looking for patterns in the data, generalising/abstracting, then developing algorithmic solutions. Now straight away you can see that this is a Google-centric approach, geared toward big datasets and a sort of engineering mindset. It assumes you have a well-defined problem, can rigorously collect lots of useful data, and either have the time to go through it, or can adequately instruct a computer to do so. Not even coming to the bit at the end about devising an algorithm.
Instead of trying to think like a computer, consider the opposite approach. Maybe your problem isn’t well-defined, or it’s a question or exploration or idea rather than a problem. Maybe instead of breaking it down into discrete steps, you build it up, serendipitously, pulling from disparate, sometimes unexpected, sources. Maybe it is derived from a pattern, or comes together in something we immediately recognise as a pattern. Maybe you don’t want to create instructions to be able to replicate it again and again; you want each outcome to be unique, contextualised. This is roughly the process of making art. Or curating an art exhibition.
We explored the distinction between rational and intuitive thinking in the workshops we ran; this comes from psychologist Daniel Kahnemann. We took up Spike Island’s challenge to break down walls and make things visible, approaching it using computational thinking. Breaking down the problem, we first wanted to find out about activity in different parts of the building, and we collected data about movement, information-seeking behaviour, collaboration and communication. Some patterns emerged – time-based cycles of activity for example, and spaces where people went to meet and collect information. (Perhaps not) coincidentally, Google Analytics makes it easy to collect such statistics about the Spike website; could we do the same for the physical space? It requires collecting data at key times and spaces (or at all times and spaces, if you have Google-sized resources). Then plotting and analysing, before generalising and programming.
Is there a middle ground between rational and intuitive, computational and creative? Maybe. Design patterns are a bit like computational thinking; they’re a similarly ordered set of steps to frame and share creative solutions. The problem comes first, framed in its typical context; then a solution, with cross-references to other patterns. It may or may not be informed by lots of data (many examples of the problem in the wild).
The common thing in all those approaches is patterns. This is the part that humans are much better at than machines. “We are hardwired to gain control of a situation by recognising patterns, even if they ignore current rationale” (says Shing-Tat Chung in a fascinating RCA project last year). It’s “about moving people into the thought space that an algorithm could operate with a very humane way of working.”
In other words, make computers intuitive, by breaking them apart, soldering them together, planting them into spaces and things, then programming those spaces and things. Arts organisation as computing platform, with open data for various applications.

Week 10 – the end of the Happenstance

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At our Open House yesterday we had an ‘In conversation’ kind of thing with our mentor James Boardwell and what we thought would be a chat for 30 minutes or so, ended up being nearer to 2 hours! I knew we could talk about the last 10 weeks of Happenstance, that we had ideas and theories about what happened and why, but I hadn’t anticipated there being so much to talk about… in front of an audience!

When I went freelance last summer and set up my company, ShedCode, I was planning on doing some client work and in between, hopefully working on some of my own ideas to see what would happen. In the end I did 99% client work and was planning, at some point, to pause and work on my stuff.

That’s when Happenstance came along and it is fair to say that I thought at the beginning that Happenstance may have been a pleasant and interesting detour for my career as a Software Engineer/Developer and Techie. Instead of returning back to the path I was treading before Happenstance, I’ve finished the project on what feels like a completely different path, going who knows where!

Helping an arts organisation learn new things, to be inspiring and to fix stuff is what I thought would happen. We did some of that, but also I learnt what a Technologist could be, that we could make things, real things with lives of their own which will live on after the project has finished. I’ve met new people, made friends and found out about interesting things. An interest in electronics has been rekindled, thanks to arduinos and I’ve started to pick up some Ruby and a bit of Rails. Speaking at Future Everything, TedX Sheffield and at the Open Houses has given me some confidence in public speaking.

People have been so encouraging! Thanks to all who have had kind words to say, shared their knowledge, wisdom, contacts, experience, advice, tea and biscuits. Thanks too to those at Site who have been incredibly open, helpful and friendly during the project, I’ve really appreciated it. Special thanks of course go to my co-resident, Leila, who has put up with some of my more, er, random ideas, given me confidence to do stuff, been a great sounding board, co-speaker and partner in crime. She’s been so generous to me and I think we’ve been a great team (even if I say so myself!). I hope we can work together on more stuff soon!

I wrote a couple of blog posts about what to do next, both for me in general and technically and really it’s a work in progress. We’ve got debrief next week, then I’m on holiday for a couple of weeks. I think I really need a break, but I don’t want to lose the momentum I’ve built up during Happenstance. So, those who’ve become my friends over the last 10 weeks and those who’ve known me for ages, don’t let me slip in to old habits and ways & please bear with me as I bounce ideas around like fleas on space hoppers. I hope that life post-Happenstance is going to get even more interesting!

Going somewhat Agile

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Generally speaking tech companies try to get good at investigating and reflecting on their own processes. Often this results in exciting ideas that challenge the traditional ways of running organisations. At GitHub there is pride in the lack of managers, or, as Ryan Tomayko puts it, the fact that “everyone at GitHub is a manager”; “each responsible for managing a single person: their self”. Valve has no formal corporate structure. Everyone can pick what project they work on, so the desks are furnished with wheels for setting up impromptu temporary teams. Decisions are made by getting enough supporters across the company who will want to work on the specific project. Their employee handbook describes exactly how it works and it’s a fascinating read.

But there is a philosophy that at first doesn’t seem quite as radical, though it seems like the entire software making world is practicing it: the Agile philosophy. I can quote the entire Agile manifesto in here, it’s this short:

We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Agile Manifesto

Happenstance was supposed to help consider was whether any of the Agile philosophy of making software could be useful to arts organisations. Obviously, there are many differences between the ways in which software and art are made. The biggest difference is probably in the way they are funded – arts funding is mired in bureaucracy, paperwork and reliance on relatively few bodies, who can grant money to projects that fit within their goals and agendas.

For a while I was wondering whether the Agile approach is even useful – Lighthouse is a small team working in the same room. Most of the work they do is about strategy, planning and managing, rather than making things. But as I kept it brewing on the back of my mind I realised that the agility comes from a specific culture within the organisation and has relatively little to do with making things or technology. The idea that face-to-face conversation is the best way to convey information surely applies outside of the software-making world. Agility comes from not fearing change or small mistakes and learning to respond to them quickly and efficiently. It’s about responding to change.

Recently I felt like I’ve gained enough trust among the team the Lighthouse to be able to propose anything and that they would at least try it out, knowing that I’ve got their best interests at heart. So I decided to give it a go, and completely banned email as a means of internal communication. Now, obviously I have no way of of checking up on everyone, but judging from the feedback and the amount of work related discussions that are happening in the office they decided to follow it.

I’ve also introduced daily stand-up meetings, when we very briefly describe what we were working on yesterday and what we’re going to be doing today. Somehow the format stuck and we describe what we did on days off, too – and it’s actually really nice to be always in the loop, and occasionally hear a funny weekend story. It made me realise how much and what kinds of work everyone does, all the boring bits: catching up on emails, reviewing things, etc etc. that even Offbott doesn’t always hear about.

So after these things were practiced for a while, what good did they do? I find it hard to quantify it after a short period of time, partly because I don’t actually work on any of their projects, so I can’t tell whether things are easier, better, worse or without change yet. I will gather more feedback and then I will report on it.

This week: getting woolly

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getting woolly

Spike Island director Helen Legg's first Arduino project

Full-on with training the staff this week in programming and electronix. Blinky lights, spinny motors, tinny speakers, woolly beards. Workshops for artists and designers also booked in for next couple of weeks. And haven’t forgotten about sensoring the building – only it’ll be done by the Spikers themselves, not me. Here director Helen Legg tests out a distance sensor controlling an LED, prototype for monitoring people in the gallery. Curator Marie-Anne McQuay helped make the worlds simplest theremin, in preparation for an upcoming exhibition which features a proper one (and the granddaughter of Leon Theremin playing it, to boot). Asst Curator Charlotte Heatherington made a twisty knob motor thingie, for no good reason in particular. Cafe manager Nemia MacLachlan made a momentary-button-triggered LED (AKA a light switch), aiming to create a whole LED grid related to coffee drinks.

Week 6 – Polargraph working, mobile printers and Open House

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Leila has done a top job of writing up about the Open House we held at Site Gallery on Friday. We had a great time talking about Happenstance so far to a full house (well cafe anyway).

Having the Polargraph finally up and running on the correct voltage was great and a fantastic drawing of Lord Jarvis of Cocker appeared as the event went on.

We also had Heathcliff Printer working (although he did conk out at one point for some unexplained reason) and Leila got her Kinnect set up doing some Minority Report style magic.

One of our conductive paint houses was there too, but it was too dark really to see it in action. Winter time for those I think.

We had a little Q&A after our talk and one of the questions really got me thinking about being a creative software engineer – what does that mean in practice and how can we encourage techies to embrace their creativity, smashing through the constraints of institutional methodologies. Sounds like that might be a future blog post!

A lot of cake was eaten and a good time was had by all. Thanks to all who helped and all who came along!


Spike Island Open House 21 May

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On Mon 21 May we held our first Open House showcasing the work we’ve been doing. Little ‘exhibits’ were arranged on tables and walls of the cafe, which we introduced then let people explore at will. These included:
– Live Kinect peopletracking, projected and with a subtle emergent piano soundtrack. Testing of the Soundbug feonic speaker revealed that it’s just not loud enough. Jambox is much better.
– Speaking of quiet audio, our interactive donation box was tested for the first time. This too however suffered from low volume: the tiny speaker that comes with the Arduino wave shield was too meagre when encased within two layers of 1/2″ plywood. Having to put your ear to the money slot was, however, an interesting (if unintended) user interaction.
Wish You Were Here interactive postcards installation. I also announced Daniel Eatock’s idea for people to actually use the postcards he designed, for their intended purpose, and send them to Spike Island.
– An introductory hardware hacking activity (thanks Oomlout for the excellent kit) using Arduino to make an LED light blink. One (nontechnical) participant went further to successively blink a whole mini-Las Vegas array of LEDs. That alone was a success!
– Results of information/interaction mapping exercise
Workshop outcomes including computer drawings, personal interaction ‘scores,’ apple drawings, and slides on rational v. intuitive thinking.
– Printouts of Spike website source code, with particular tags highlighted, to prompt thinking and discussion about the head, body, dividers, scripts etc in the organisation.
– Printouts of assorted blog posts and ideas

Week 5 – a bit of a blur

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The final week of Sprint 1 was all a bit of a blur. As we had the Future Everything conference on the Friday, my thoughts were on the presentation.

We also did some work on our Polargraph which was not behaving very well at all. This was disappointing as we’d hope to get it working before Future Everything. What was cool though, was that we saw some Polargraphs in action at the conference, Stuart Childs and Matt Venn had their super machines in action. Matt is doing stuff with Energy Monitoring

The Manchester Museum of Science and Industry is a great place, I especially enjoyed looking at the big steam engines and railway engines in the Power Hall. Took my mind of our talk which went OK! It was fun to see Linda and Nat our fellow residents from Bristol and Brighton galleries respectively.

.. and relax! (Chris the researcher, me and Nat looking interested.. I think!)

Postcards 2.0

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On Tue 15 May we attended a talk at Spike by artist and designer Daniel Eatock. He designed a postcard for the current exhibition – a copy of which visitors can take away. I had thought it was simply a minimal, abstract composition – similar to a Malevich, or Moholy-Nagy. But in the talk he showed another variation; the composition was actually made up of the graphic elements found on the back (written) side of a postcard – the line down the centre, little box for the stamp, lines on which to write an address. He had had a friend write an algorithm to randomise their placement.

This made perfect sense in the context of his other work, which was about process and had a kind of ‘circular logic’ as he described it. A frame with the same dimensions as the display area; a spray can painted with its own paint; a piece of paper with instructions printed at an angle – instructions to pin it to the wall such that the text was level.

At the start of the talk he handed a digital camera to the audience, instructing each person to photograph the person next to them then pass it on. This, he explained, was a way of transferring his nervousness over to the audience.

It also was similar to what we were doing at Spike – using computational tools and thinking to focus on processes, operations, instructions. What Eatock demonstrated was that every act, every process could result in an artwork.

I had also done something for the postcards exhibition – prompted a collaboration between artists and a writer through technology. After his talk I asked Eatock whether he would be open to handing over the postcards he designed to other artists for them to adapt for an emergent work. But he had a better idea: ask people to fill it in, write or draw something, and then address it – jumbled lines and all – to Spike Island.

We’ll see how/whether the Post Office likes that.

(Info on Postcards 1.0 is here)

Future Everything notes

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Polargraph at #futr

On Friday the Happenstance representatives, including me, Linda, Leila and James, were speaking at Future Everything about changing arts organisation via the medium of hacking, disobeying and prototyping.

Linda and Katy (Caper) chilling in the green room

Linda showed us the Twitter kettle, and the collaborative postcard project involving Spike’s artists and writer in residence.

Leila and James talked about their thermal printers, Cathy and Heathcliff, and about helping out in the absence of a tech assistant.

I spoke about the Offbott a little, and about how inspiring it is to see the excitement my Friday Coding Club generated among supposedly non-technical people.

It would have been brilliant to have more opportunities to meet with other residents. Swapping stories about host organisations, discussing challenges particular to each place, and giving one another tips and advice was great. I learnt so much from them in one day!

I did plan to abduct others and bring them back to Brighton with me, but then I had some Cumberland Pale Ale and in the excitement of the moment I forgot about it. Maybe next time.


Friday Coding Club defaces the BBC News website

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In which I try not to giggle at rude news on the BBC website

One early morning we were just chatting, and the subject of my own experience of learning to code came up. I must have described it in incredibly fun terms, because everyone in the office declared they’d like to learn too. I had no choice but to organise a weekly lunchtime coding club so I could share what I know. I’ve also invited Lighthouse’s tenants and students who attend their MA in the building to join us.

The club is aimed at complete beginners, and even though a few people here have had a little bit of experience making or editing websites I hope they can still have lots of fun with the rest of us.

I’ve explained a little bit about what happens behind the scenes when you visit websites and gave a quick overview of HTML. Everyone looked at real examples of it in the wild using X-Ray Goggles, which allows you to edit the code of the site you’re looking at on the fly. This led to inevitable defacing of BBC News website and Lighthouse’s programme page. Possibly my proudest moment as a teacher.

Once we got making simple websites out of the way I want the participants to try out programming in Ruby, write simple programs that pull in some interesting data and do stuff with it. Maybe build their own Twitter clone? Maybe simple electronics with Arduinos? I’ll be adapting the pace and the content based on feedback from previous sessions, so I don’t know exactly what we will be doing yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be fun.