Monkigras 2014: Sharing craft

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After Monkigras 2013, I was really looking forward to Monkigras 2014. The great talks about developer culture and creating usable software, the amazing buzz and friendliness of the event, the wonderful lack of choice over which talks to go to (there’s just one track!!), and (of course) the catering:

coffee
cheese

The talks at Monkigras 2014

The talks were pretty much all great so I’m just going to mention the talks that were particularly relevant to me.

Rafe Colburn from Etsy talked about how to motivate developers to fix bugs (IBMers, read ‘defects’) when there’s a big backlog of bugs to fix. They’d tried many strategies, including bug rotation, but none worked. The answer, they found, was to ask their support team to help prioritise the bugs based on the problems that users actually cared about. That way, the developers fixing the bugs weren’t overwhelmed by the sheer numbers to choose from. Also, when they’d done a fix, the developers could feel that they’d made a difference to the user experience of the software.

Rafe Colburn from Etsy

Rafe Colburn from Etsy

While I’m not responsible for motivating developers to fix bugs, my job does involve persuading developers to write articles or sample code for WASdev.net. So I figure I could learn a few tricks.

A couple of talks that were directly applicable to me were Steve Pousty‘s talk on how to be a developer evangelist and Dawn Foster‘s on taking lessons on community from science fiction. The latter was a quick look through various science fiction themes and novels applied to developer communities, which was a neat idea though I wished I’d read more of the novels she cited. I was particularly interested in Steve’s talk because I’d seen him speak last year about how his PhD in Ecology had helped him understand communities as ecosystems in which there are sometimes surprising dependencies. This year, he ran through a checklist of attributes to look for when hiring a developer evangelist. Although I’m not strictly a developer evangelist, there’s enough overlap with my role to make me pay attention and check myself against each one.

Dawn Foster from PuppetLabs

Dawn Foster from PuppetLabs

One of the risks of TED Talk-style talks is that if you don’t quite match up to the ‘right answers’ espoused by the speakers, you could come away from the event feeling inadequate. The friendly atmosphere of Monkigras, and the fact that some speakers directly contradicted each other, meant that this was unlikely to happen.

It was still refreshing, however, to listen to Theo Schlossnagle basically telling people to do what they find works in their context. Companies are different and different things work for different companies. Similarly, developers are people and people learn in different ways so developers learn in different ways. He focused on how to tell stories about your own failures to help people learn and to save them from having to make the same mistakes.

Again, this was refreshing to hear because speakers often tell you how you should do something and how it worked for them. They skim over the things that went wrong and end up convincing you that if only you immediately start doing things their way, you’ll have instant success. Or that inadequacy just kicks in like when you read certain people’s Facebook statuses. Theo’s point was that it’s far more useful from a learning perspective to hear about the things that went wrong for them. Not in a morbid, defeatist way (that way lies only self-pity and fear) but as a story in which things go wrong but are righted by the end. I liked that.

Theo Schlossnagle from Circonus

Theo Schlossnagle from Circonus

Ana Nelson (geek conference buddy and friend) also talked about storytelling. Her point was more about telling the right story well so that people believe it rather than believing lies, which are often much more intuitive and fun to believe. She impressively wove together an argument built on various fields of research including Psychology, Philosophy, and Statistics. In a nutshell, the kind of simplistic headlines newspapers often publish are much more intuitive and attractive because they fit in with our existing beliefs more easily than the usually more complicated story behind the headlines.

Ana Nelson from Brick Alloy

Ana Nelson from Brick Alloy

The Gentle Author spoke just before lunch about his daily blog in which he documents stories from local people. I was lucky enough to win one of his signed books, which is beautiful and engrossing. Here it is with my swagbag:

After his popular talk last year, Phil Gilbert of IBM returned to give an update on how things are going with Design@IBM. Theo’s point about context of a company being important is so relevant when trying to change the culture of such a large company. He introduced a new card game that you can use to help teach people what it’s like to be a designer working within the constraints of a real software project. I heard a fair amount of interest from non-IBMers who were keen for a copy of the cards to be made available outside IBM.

Phil Gilbert's Wild Ducks card game

Phil Gilbert’s Wild Ducks card game

On the UX theme, I loved Leisa Reichelt‘s talk about introducing user research to the development teams at GDS. While all areas of UX can struggle to get taken seriously, user research (eg interviewing participants and usability testing) is often overlooked because it doesn’t produce visual designs or code. Leisa’s talk was wonderfully practical in how she related her experiences at GDS of proving the worth of user research to the extent that the number of user researchers has greatly increased.

And lastly I must mention Project Andiamo, which was born at Monkigras 2013 after watching a talk about laser scanning and 3D printing old railway trains. The project aims to produce medical orthotics, like splints and braces, by laser scanning the patient’s body and then 3D printing the part. This not only makes the whole process much quicker and more comfortable, it is at a fraction of the cost of the way that orthotics are currently made.

Samiya Parvez & Naveed Parvez of Project Andiamo

Samiya Parvez & Naveed Parvez of Project Andiamo

If you can help in any way, take a look at their website and get in touch with them. Samiya and Naveed’s talk was an amazing example of how a well-constructed story can get a powerful message across to its listeners:

After Monkigras 2014, I’m now really looking forward to Monkigras 2015.


 

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MOHOP sandals: A Kickstarter project I’ve backed

Filed in Making Things | Other Interests 1 Comment

Every Summer, I wish for a pair of sandals that are comfortable but have some style so that they can feel a bit smart as well as casual. And I’m rubbish at finding them – I don’t really like shoe-shopping at all, which doesn’t help. Enter MOHOP sandals.

I was browsing Kickstarter projects over Christmas and came across the MOHOP sandals project. Basically, you get a pair of sandal bases, some ribbon, and some design cards. You then thread the ribbons on the bases according to the design cards (or your imagination). The bases are flexible with wooden heels and are suitable for vegans and people with a range of other ethical shopping goals (inc, if you’re from the US, made in the US).

(Although the bases shown have high heels, they’re also available as flats or different heights of heel.)

They’ve apparently been going for some time (at mohop.com and on Etsy) but were struggling to meet demand. They’re taking the Kickstarter route to fund expanding their production capabilities (inc creating local jobs).

I think the sandals are a great idea. They’re fun to look at, comfy to wear (according to the reviews), and infinitely re-designable, which appeals to my crafty side. You can thread decorations on to the ribbon or replace the ribbons completely with strips of sari, shoelaces, or anything else that occurs to you.

At the moment, the cheapest pair is $45 for a pair of flats (though there are lower-cost ‘perks’ available if you just want to contribute without buying any shoes). I’ve gone for the $100 ones that have low heels. They’re looking for $50,000 of funding by the 25th January so that they can open their new production place. They’ve got some way to go yet so if you like the look of them, consider supporting this cool idea!

Here’s their video about manufacturing their shoes:

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At ThingMonk 2013

Filed in Energy and Environment | HCI & Usability | Making Things | Open Source | Technology 17 Comments

I attended ThingMonk 2013 conference partly because IBM’s doing a load of work around the Internet of Things (IoT). I figured it would be useful to find out what’s happening in the world of IoT at the moment. Also, I knew that, as a *Monk production, the food would be amazing.

What is the Internet of Things?

If you’re reading this, you’re familiar with using devices to access information, communicate, buy things, and so on over the Internet. The Internet of Things, at a superficial level, is just taking the humans out of the process. So, for example, if your washing machine were connected to the Internet, it could automatically book a service engineer if it detects a fault.

I say ‘at a superficial level’ because there are obviously still issues relevant to humans in an automated process. It matters that the automatically-scheduled appointment is convenient for the householder. And it matters that the householder trusts that the machine really is faulty when it says it is and that it’s not the manufacturer just calling out a service engineer to make money.

This is how James Governor of RedMonk, who conceived and hosted ThingMonk 2013, explains IoT:

What is ThingMonk 2013?

ThingMonk 2013 was a fun two-day conference in London. On Monday was a hackday with spontaneous lightning talks and on Tuesday were the scheduled talks and the evening party. I wasn’t able to attend Monday’s hackday so you’ll have to read someone else’s write-up about that (you could try Josie Messa’s, for instance).

The talks

I bought my Arduino getting started kit (which I used for my Christmas lights energy project in 2010) from Tinker London so I was pleased to finally meet Tinker’s former-CEO, Alexandra Dechamps-Sonsino, at ThingMonk 2013. I’ve known her on Twitter for about 4 years but we’d never met in person. Alex is also founder of the Good Night Lamp, which I blogged about earlier this year. She talked at ThingMonk about “the past, present and future of the Internet of Things” from her position of being part of it.

ThingMonk 2013: Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, @iotwatch

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, @iotwatch

I think it was probably Nick O’Leary who first introduced me to the Arduino, many moons ago over cups of tea at work. He spoke at ThingMonk about wiring the Internet of Things. This included a demo of his latest project, NodeRED, which he and IBM have recently open sourced on GitHub.

ThingMonk 2013: Nick O'Leary

Nick O’Leary talks about wiring the Internet of Things

Sadly I missed the previous day when it seems Nick and colleagues, Dave C-J and Andy S-C, won over many of the hackday attendees to the view that IBM’s MQTT and NodeRED are the coolest things known to developerkind right now. So many people mentioned one or both of them throughout the day. One developer told me he didn’t know why he’d not tried MQTT 4 years ago. He also seemed interested in playing with NodeRED, just as soon as the shock that IBM produces cool things for developers had worn off.

Ian Skerrett from Eclipse talked about the role of Open Source in the Internet of Things. Eclipse has recently started the Paho project, which focuses on open source implementations of the standards and protocols used in IoT. The project includes IBM’s Really Small Message Broker and Roger Light’s Mosquitto.

ThingMonk 2013: Ian Skerrett from Eclipse

Ian Skerrett from Eclipse

Andy Piper talked about the role of signals in the IoT.

IMG_1546

There were a couple of talks about people’s experiences of startups producing physical objects compared with producing software. Tom Taylor talked about setting up Newspaper Club, which is a site where you can put together and get printed your own newspaper run. His presentation included this slide:

ThingMonk 2013: Best. Slide. Ever.

Best. Slide. Ever.

Matt Webb talked about producing Little Printer, which is an internet-connected device that subscribes to various sources and prints them for you on a strip of paper like a shop receipt.

ThingMonk 2013: Matt Webb

Matt Webb

Patrick Bergel made the very good point in his talk that a lot of IoT projects, at the moment, are aimed at ‘non-problems’. While fun and useful for learning what we can do with IoT technologies, they don’t really address the needs of real people (ie people who aren’t “hackers, hipsters, or weirdos”). For instance, there are increasing numbers of older people who could benefit from things that address problems social isolation, dementia, blindness, and physical and cognitive impairments. His point was underscored throughout the day by examples of fun-but-not-entirely-useful-as-is projects, such as flying a drone with fruit. That’s not to say such projects are a waste of time in themselves but that we should get moving on projects that address real problems too.

ThingMonk 2013: Patrick Bergel

Patrick Bergel, @goodmachine, on Thingdom Come

The talk which chimed the most with me, though, was Claire Rowland‘s on the important user experience UX issues around IoT. She spoke about the importance of understanding how users (householders) make sense of automated things in their homes.

IMG_1587

The book

I bought a copy of Adrian McEwan‘s Designing The Internet of Things book from Alex’s pop-up shop, (Works)shop. Adrian’s a regular at OggCamp and kindly agreed to sign my copy of his book for me.

ThingMonk 2013: Adrian McEwan

Adrian McEwan and the glamorous life of literary reknown.

The food

The food was, as expected, amazing. I’ve never had bacon and scrambled egg butties that melt in the mouth before. The steak and Guinness casserole for lunch was beyond words. The evening party was sustained with sushi and tasty curry.

ThingMonk 2013: @monkchips

Mr Monk himself, @monkchips (or James Governor, as his parents named him).

Thanks, James!

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Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu: 12.04 bug fixes

Filed in Open Source | Technology 2 Comments

Back in July, I bought a Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu (aka Developer Edition) laptop. It is a thing of beauty; the screen, awesome (1920 x 1080; full HD). The XPS 13 comes with Ubuntu 12.04 installed by default, along with some additional software from Dell to make the hardware work. 12.04 was, afterall, a year old already by then.

Unfortunately, not everything works out the box. This post is about how to make them work. I might, another time, write about the pleasant but frustrating Dell ’24/7′ ProSupport  warranty process (though @DellCaresPRO is pretty responsive).

 Problems in 12.04 for the Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu laptop

These are the problems I found (almost all of them had already been reported as bugs on Launchpad or on Dell’s dedicated community forum):

    1. Intermittent freezing.
    2. Wifi dropped out frequently.
    3. Logitech wireless trackball frequently not detected on boot.
    4. Problems mounting devices as harddrives using USB2.0 port.
    5. Touchpad ‘edge scrolling’ doesn’t work and the acceleration/sensitivity settings don’t seem to do anything.
    6. Bluetooth file transfer from my phone doesn’t work.

 Fixes

I installed the following two packages from the Ubuntu repositories:

linux-generic-lts-quantal
xserver-xorg-lts-quantal

These install kernels and associated graphics drivers from future versions of Ubuntu. Basically, it means that when the bugs are fixed in future versions, you can use those fixes without having to upgrade the rest of the machine. The packages you’ll get are listed on the Ubuntu wiki. You can check which kernel version you’re using on your laptop by running the command ‘uname -a’.

The newer kernel version fixed problems 1 to 4. It also seems to have fixed most of problem 5 except for ‘edge scrolling’. I now use two-finger scrolling on the rare occasions I use the touchpad so I’m not too worried about this.

Problem 6 (for anyone, like me, who didn’t know this) is intentional. Receiving files by bluetooth is switched off by default in Ubuntu 12.04. I can see why that might be, but it’s not obvious how to switch it on. Someone pointed me to the answer on Ask Ubuntu.

Upgrading Ubuntu

Alternatively, you could just try upgrading the whole laptop to a newer version of Ubuntu. A friend bought an XPS 13 at the same time as me and he immediately installed Kubuntu 13.04 (same as Ubuntu 13.04 where it matters here) on it and had no problems. Similarly, a recent post on Dell’s forum suggests 13.10 works well.

There were three reasons I didn’t upgrade:

  1. I wanted to stay on the LTS (long-term support) version of Ubuntu which is currently 12.04.
  2. The XPS 13 Developer Edition is sold as working so I was keen for this to actually be the case!
  3. I use a Logitech universal receiver trackball and there were problems with the drivers in later kernels. However, I think this has now been fixed.

My opinion

I think it’s pretty bad that all this stuff isn’t installed and working out-of-the-box and that the 24/7 ProSupport warranty isn’t really worth much in practice (the support people I spoke to were fine but Dell needs to improve its support processes for this product).

I do, however, love the laptop. Now it’s working, I’m very pleased with it. Did I mention how lovely the screen is?

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Happy birthday, Tony!

Filed in Other Interests Leave a comment

Today is Tony‘s birthday. Tony is a life-long Doctor Who fan. Here’s a short video from when he appeared on WAC90, a children’s Saturday morning TV programme in 1990:

When the new WAC90 ‘The Fanatic’ segment was announced, Tony wrote in about his love of Doctor Who. In no time at all, he and his family (Mum, Dad, and brother) were whisked up to Manchester and put up in a hotel overnight, ready for their very early start in the Granada TV studios the next morning. This wasn’t his family’s only beyond-the-call-of-duty support for Tony’s Doctor Who enthusiasm but, this time, I think it may have been mitigated somewhat by getting to meet Michaela Stracken.

His Mum once took him to an auction at Bonhams where she helped him bid on, and buy, some costumes from the TV show. On another occasion, his Dad, having chauffeured Tony to a convention, struck up conversation with Colin Baker in the foyer and made him late getting on stage for his panel!

Ever since I met Tony’s family, they’ve told me gleefully about this WAC90 appearance. But it’s taken us 14 years to dig out the VHS tape and digitise the recording so that I could actually watch it for myself.

We felt we should share this moment from TV history.

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