Archive for the ‘Resident’ Category

Week 4 – stutter stutter

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This week has been a bit wonky.

Saturday was a triumph, getting Cathy and Heathcliff doing something useful as part of Bill Drummond’s sixth form workshop. It certainly warmed the cockles & Leila has written some more about it on her post.

Tuesday was a day where we were part of Site’s Brand Innovation task force, looking at Site’s ‘Brand Promise’. This was jam packed and a bit of a brain strain, but we made a contribution and as we were observed by our illustrious researcher, we hopefully gave him something to write about!

Wednesday went a bit wonky as my daughter was poorly meaning the day was very broken up. I started having a look at Ruby, the programming language whilst thinking about how we could get Cathy & Heathcliff to interact a bit more with Twitter.

Thursday was the day of working out how to get Cathy and Heathcliff mobile. A frustrating day as the components and bits and bobs we bought didn’t work or wouldn’t work how we wanted them to. We ended the day though with a 3G dongle and an ethernet to USB connector which hopefully means that if we can take a Mac, a dongle, a lead, a printer & some sort of power supply then we can take them anywhere where there is a mobile signal and they’ll work.

We also spent a fair bit of time thinking about our contribution to Future Everything which is next week, meep!

Week 3 – Cathy & Heathcliff’s amazing adventures

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This week has given us a real opportunity to do something interesting with Cathy & Heathcliff, we spent two of our three days out of the Site office to get our heads down.

The first challenge was to allow 6th Formers to send messages to Cathy & Heathcliff. At first we thought of hooking them up directly to twitter accounts, but as Leila had a Twilio account, it meant that we could do something clever with SMS Text messages. With a bit of PHP magic on an intermediary server (timescales demanded a quick turnaround!) we managed to get the SMS messages sent to the two printers. Hooray!

The next step was to bypass the button on the Arduino device which you had to push each time a message arrived. We edited the C code and uploaded the new code to the devices so that instead of waiting for the button to be pushed, the green light flashed and it printed without intervention. Hooray x 2!

Finally, we wanted to get the messages sent to Cathy and Heathcliff’s twitter accounts – @CathyPrinter @HeathcliffPrinter – initially we looked a using the PHP OAuth libraries to authenticate and send the message to twitter, but as neither of us are particularly adept at PHP, we decided on a different solution. Using If This Then That and some server side magic, we send an email from the server, via their gmail accounts to If This Then That, which then passes them on to their twitter accounts.. Hooray x 3!

You can see us setting them up on our tumblr site:

Say “Hi” to Offbott

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This is an exciting week for me and James, as we have gotten our tool, Offbott, to the minimum viable prototype stage and introduced it to the Lighthouse team this afternoon.

Offbott (your mostly-friendly office bot) is a tool for collecting thoughts and insights that often get lost when working on long term projects. While there’s a plethora of tools for organising, planning and managing teams and processes, there aren’t many successful ones for capturing these processes as they happen, or for reflecting upon them once they’re over. While sometimes these things are recorded through blogging, that’s only true of public-facing projects – and some things can only be spoken about between team mates. There are things you might think about and not consider them useful or significant to record, but together they make up a story of the process that provides a rich insight into the project and the team. One of the aims of Offbott is to help communicate better how the organisation works to external stakeholders; but seeing these thoughts collected over time could also be a catalyst for improvement.

Once a day, the Offbott will email you to ask you how you’re doing. You don’t know when the email will come in. By prompting you out of the blue it tries to catch you slightly off guard, so you record the first thing that comes into your head. There is no set reply format. You’re free to tell it about your whole day, the last five minutes, or your plans for later. You may choose not to reply at all.

It will then gather updates from all team members on the project into a timeline of thoughts, a kind of Twitter for offices. At the end of the project you will be able to see patterns emerging: which things kept being mentioned, where the difficulties have caused frustration, which parts were easiest and most fruitful.

Offbott is not intended to gather data on individual’s performance. In fact, it tries to stay away from office politics – there is no hierarchy built in. It demands trust from everyone involved: every team member can edit the project or add new team mates.

We’ve only just began using it with the team here at the Lighthouse, but we already have lots of ideas how we could improve it and take it further – including opening it up to the public. It feels like we have been so busy trying to get it to this stage that we barely had time for anything else! Next time we talk about it we should have some feedback from our hosts, maybe they can even be convinced to write a little bit about it too.

Offbott is built in Ruby using Ruby on Rails

Week 2 – how do you do?

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This week has all been about pairs of trousers. It has rained a lot and usually when you are equidistant from where you are going and where you want to go, the heavens open and you get absolutely soaked. I’ve been through three pairs of trousers and counting.


So trousers.. and marketing/branding innovation labs, meeting with yet more interesting people, fixing the internet and eating flapjack.

To distract us from the weather and all these other things we’ve had the excitement of two receipt printers which we are bringing to life. The illustrious James Adam has written a fantastic article about how to build internet enabled receipt printers. My advice would be to go away and read that, when you’re done, come back here!

So we have been guinea pigs, taking delivery of two printers complete with special arduino kits, leads and other gubbins. Of course, all we needed to do was plug them in (following the instructions) and BOOM! The little printers would burst in to life….

… except they did not 🙁

The little light flashed to say that it was talking to the internet, but the internet didn’t want to speak back. This was a blow, was it the printer, was it the lead, was it the network, was it the circuitry, was it the ‘sketch’ (the arduino program)? So we put on our best Worzel Gummidge problem solving heads and got to work. We broke in to the server room and tried a direct connection (rather than through all the office switches and routers), fired up skype and waved the laptop in the direction of the kit whilst the illustrious one watched from afar. No joy.

We knew that one of the other tenants in the building used a different internet connection, so we took one of the printers up there and plugged it in. It burst into life and the backlog of messages we’d sent it arrived in a semi-orderly fashion, hurrah! We knew the printer, leads and circuitry worked, but why didn’t it work on the other network?

The next day the magic serial-USB debugging lead arrived and it was time to download the Arduino app and work out what on earth was happening. Once hooked up, the little bundle of electronic joy started telling us debug messages from the sketch.. which was nice, but it still didn’t work. Time for some coding I thought.

I don’t think you can actually see what code is being run on the device as it is compiled in to assembler, so all I could do was add some further debugging information and upload it. I had some theories about the network too, what would happen if I put in the explicit IP address? Tweaked the URL it was using? Nothing, still didn’t work. At this point I thought we may was well upload the original sketch with the relevant bits tweeted…


Heathcliff lives…

Heathcliff Lives

and after lunch, we got Cathy working too!

Next week we’ll send them off to Wuthering Heights and see what happens..

Week 1

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We’re three days in to our residency and time is already flying along. We’ve spoken to a lot of people, fixed some niggly problems in the office and had some ideas which I’m sure any Technologist in Residence would be proud of!

Our esteemed directors at Site have been storing up interesting people for us to talk to which has been great. It’s striking how we’ve met people who are passionate, not only about what they do, but about the greater tech community in Sheffield, Sheffield itself, Yorkshire and the North! This resonates with me as a Yorkshirebod and as someone who would like to see the economic balance tip in our direction.

Site have a new Technical expert starting at the beginning of May so there is a small backlog of  outstanding techie issues for the organisation. I find it impossible to sit in the office without diving in to help when the printer doesn’t work or the wi-fi has gone screwy! Hopefully now we’ve fixed some of the more pressing issues but it is highlighted for me that I have to be careful with my time. We had decided that we would spend three days a week on-site in the office but actually it makes sense to spend a day elsewhere to allow us to focus on bigger tasks without interruption. We’ll try that next week to see how we go.

Our bigger ideas are still fermenting, but two Arduino kits arrived on Friday and as it is about 25 years since I last played with electronics in anger, I’m excited to see what we end up using them for. I think I had something like this when I was a kid… you should have heard the stylophone I made!

Getting started – James Bridle

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I first visited Lighthouse in the October of 2010. I was speaking at dConstruct, and to accompany the conference Lighthouse was showing a small exhibition of digital work entitled “Suspending Disbelief“. Among the works on show was Caleb Larson’s “A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter“, which I’d read about but had never seen, didn’t expect to see, certainly not here, by the sea, on a sunny day, by accident. “A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter” is a sculpture which, when connected to the network, continuously tries to sell itself on eBay, with each owner required to pass itself on to the next. A work which explicitly questions the notion of value in art, and uses the digital sphere not as a gimmick, but as a valid and necessary part of that questioning.

Two years later, I’m honoured to be taking part in the Happenstance residency at Lighthouse. For the last couple of years, I’ve had the odd experience of approaching and being approached by the art world while knowing little about it. A lot of the work I like doesn’t work in galleries, but I love visiting them. My work has appeared in art galleries but I have a troublesome relationship with the term “artist”. I’m interested in how galleries and arts organisations in general “do” digital because I believe in curatorial and editorial values and want to see them extended through the network. I am here to learn, and if I can help Lighthouse do more of what it does already, I’m here to do that too.

Something inspiring.. for Sheffield!

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Sheffield is the city of Seven Hills, George Orwell wrote in ‘Road to Wigan Pier’

“The town is very hilly (said to be built on seven hills, like Rome) and everywhere streets of mean little houses blackened by smoke run up at sharp angles, paved with cobbles which are purposely set unevenly to give horses etc, a grip”

We don’t have many horses heading up and down hills any more, nor are our houses mean, but it does feel like we are missing a bit of a trick. The city centre has its ups and downs, steps, ramps and in one particular office block, a slide..

So if an office building can have that, how about a slide in some other parts of the city. At this point I should fire up a photo editing app with a picture of the site in the city and overlay an amazing ‘artist’s impression’ of a slide. Maybe I’ll do that another time. For now though, here is an example of some outdoor thinking in the Netherlands at an entrance to a railway station in Utrecht

This is what we want, some super duper slides installed, imagine what an economic edge it would give to Sheffield!

In the mean time, until we do get more slides, here is one way of getting down an escalator in a hurry…

First-ish impressions – Site Gallery

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Last summer, when I set up my own company, ShedCode, I was fortunate to be able share an office with 3 friends, all of whom I’d worked with before. We were able to get an office on the top floor of the Site Gallery building, so my relationship with Site was already established on a different footing, that of a happy tenant.

That is not to say that I had any real idea what happened in the building! Sure, there was a cafe and a shop, but I was not that familiar with the rest of the space, the actual gallery. I’d have a look at each new exhibition, but it was usually a quick zoom around whilst waiting for a coffee.

Fast forward to this week, Tuesday 27th March 2012, when the Happenstance induction began and ignorance would no longer be an excuse! Leila (my co-technologist-in-residence) & I spent a couple of days finding out much more about our place of work for the 10 weeks. We had many chats with the two directors, Laura Sillars and Judith Harry, sat in a staff meeting, had a tour around the secret rooms of the gallery, unearthed old AV kit, basked in the sun on one of the balconies, met our mentor, James Boardwell, met our  researcher, Chris Bilton, went to our fantastic local pub, The Rutland Arms and visited some of the art spaces within a 10 minute walk of the Site.

Now we have a much better idea of where Site Gallery sits in relation to the city of Sheffield, the UK and Internationally. The gallery is located a few minutes from the Railway Station, in the middle of a real creative area of the city. Apparently there are over 300 studio spaces within 10 minutes walk! We were fortunate to be able to have a sneak peak in some of these places, Yorkshire Art Space, Access Space, the Archipelago Works, Bloc and S1 Artspace. Many of these buildings I would walk past each day on the way to work, without realising that behind the walls, doors and windows, incredible things were taking place.

As for Happenstance, well, I’m looking forward to working with Leila, we have different, yet hopefully, complementary skill sets and I feel I have a lot to learn from her. We’ve discussed some of the challenges that appeal to problem solving techies and we have a few ideas which we’ll be looking to explore further when we start officially after Easter. The Gallery itself has recently been going through a period of organisational and strategic change. Laura and Judith have been able to look, with fresh eyes, at the potential for growth of the organisation and it’s role as a connector within the city. It is exciting talking to them about the future and I hope we can help!

The first *real* impression I remember being able to do was Windy Miller from Camberwick Green. Well actually, it was Windy Miller’s windmill, but you know what I mean…

Working at the Lighthouse

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The Lighthouse is an interesting organisation – it describes itself as a digital culture agency, rather than simply a digital arts agency, emphasising its broad interests that go beyond the arts sector. It’s an organisation that is forward looking and welcomes the challenges presented by technology. Perhaps this is why they are confident enough to let me and James Bridle drive the process without necessarily having a clear idea of the outcome (or direction) just yet.

Their openness was what attracted me to the project. I could work using the process in which you gradually narrow your problem space to eventually define the project’s objectives is what they would like to happen. This kind of approach from my experience can result in something much more interesting than when the outcome is clearly defined at the beginning. While it may not be suitable for every type of project, it feels exactly right for Happenstance, where the goals are much wider than simply delivering a product. You can probably tell by now that I am excited about having an opportunity to further develop my practice.

I haven’t worked with any arts organisations before, so it will be interesting to find out more about the work they do and how they do it. Lighthouse not only exhibits existing work, but also acts in a commissioning capacity, as well as doing administrative and supportive work that is largely hidden from public view. Any impact that this project will have on the way Lighthouse operates will be felt by many more organisations, so this is a brilliant opportunity to do something great… no pressure then!

James Jefferies

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Resident at Site Gallery

James has spent many years working with technology, as a software
engineer, architect and consultant. Having worked for big banks,
utility companies and digital agencies, he now runs his own company
ShedCode based in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. He enjoys helping other
people solve their techie problems, whether large or small. Apart from
geeky things, James is interested in industrial archaeology,
transport, music, books and film.