Last year began with the realisation that as a Polish citizen it was going to be very hard for me to get a US working visa. I missed out on participating in a great secret project, but was looking forward to taking the whole ofJanuary off to have some space to think about things. In the end I never did, because I got tempted to work with my favourite clients on fun projects. Taking holidays is hard when you’re your own boss.
In March I decided to leave Brighton for personal reasons. Many of my friends live in London, and that’s where most of my clients were, so it seemed like the time had come to embrace it. I didn’t think I was going to like it, but my wonderful friends have helped me make it my home.
But why just change one thing at a time? In the spirit of total upheaval I’ve joined Makeshift full-time. I liked the idea of being able to work on a project for an extended period of time, and having the chance to properly immerse myself in it. At Makeshift we work on multiple products simultaneously, so my favourite things about freelance work remain, while I get to work on a project from the beginning and stay with it as it matures. To date I’ve worked on Help Me Write, Attending?, Wrangler and Linkydink.
Despite getting excited about the idea of ”blogging like it’s 2004” and promising myself that I would write more, in 2013 I didn’t actually do that. Partially because I was busy reorganising my life, but also because I was writing and practicing two conference talks.
I spoke at the Design and Artists Copyright Society and Scottish Ruby Conference about Thinking through Making (video), which was a compilation of some of the reasons for making stuff. You don’t always make things for the end result; sometimes the exploration of a problem space is just as important.
I also gave a more serious talk, trying to convince the audience of the importance of considering the consequences of design decisions taken when making software. It was titled “Make world less shit NOW” and I’ve presented it at Nordic Ruby, JS Conf EU, as well as a shortened version at Apps World in London. You can watch the video from JS Conf EU.
In 2013 I had two long-running side projects. I started recording the Amazeballs podcast with my Best Friend Forever, Linda (♥♥♥). I also realised that even though a very small number of people still use Offbott, those who do really care about the service. I’ve been working on making it more maintainable so I can make some small improvements this year.
I started asking people to use singular they as the third person pronoun when referring to me.
It’s been chaotic, but fun, and I have enjoyed the pace.
Two years ago, Ed Balls began his journey towards becoming his own horse_ed_balls account with his famous “Ed Balls” tweet. This year he even retweeted that very piece for the amusement of the people on the second anniversary of its creation. Not to be outdone by his first creation, he continues to experiment with the medium.
The man who literally named the concept of the meme, and thus made it possible to talk about it, cannot see it when it stares him in the face. Priceless.
The honeygate, as it quickly came to be known, was a gift that kept on giving. I could have included all the tweets that were generated by the STUPID waste, because there were so many golden ones, but I decided against making this post a Dawkins vs. Honey special.
This isn’t even funny, but I thought I’d smuggle in some genuinely good advice.
If your heart didn’t break at the news of horse_ebooks being run by two guys from BuzzFeed then you’re probably just an emotionless Markov chain generator. Extra point for multiple memes in one tweet.
This is a tricky one to pull off, but maybe not as tricky as “SEXY ASSET PIPELINE”, which was my Halloween outfit of choice.
I’ll take “That’s Not A Category” for $200, Alex.
“That’s not a category.”
Yes, that’s right.
“That’s not a category.”
How to cook the perfect amount of pasta:
1. Pour out how much you think you need
In a similar vein:
And finally, facts can and do become poetry:
Cats doing cat things: being petted, awaiting food, playing with toys, sitting on people, meowing, purring, running after a ball, sleeping.
Look at you, yes, good dog, so happy jumping on my leg, greeting me, making happy noises, yes, you’re a good dog, so happy.
A shot of the train station platform. You recognise it immediately, and now you know their ETA. Excellent, time to put the tea on.
We’re having fun and we miss you. Why are you not here? Come here and have fun with us. Here’s the empty space we’ve left for you. Look, it’s empty, and it is sad. You won’t keep it empty for long, will you?
This busker accepts bitcoin. There a croissant on the top of the pedestrian crossing button box. There’s a new place selling burritos. Look at this funny dog. THE SHARD. A post-it note reading “misandry”, on fire.
New hair colour and length has to be communicated to peers in order to receive validation and satisfy peers’ curiosity. It’s nice to know that you’ve only indulged that need for mere seconds and that you’re not that self-centred.
These snippets of surrealism escape other classification. My favourite ones begin innocently enough, promising a short memory of a mundane moment, and then suddenly become something else, like someone making tea suddenly punching the tea in the cup, or the toast coming out of the toaster just to be picked up, thrown on the floor and stomped on.
Contrary to popular belief sexts never contain body parts. I have received snapchats of the following things that have been labelled “sext”:
You see feet moving on the ground. Left, right, left, right, one after another. The seconds counter is going down, and you’re growing restless, your curiosity piqued: what is it, what is it? Suddenly, at the last second, the camera pans up and
Nick and I went yesterday on a Makeshift field trip to Chilbolton Observatory. It’s one of the research facilities supported by Science & Technology Facilities Council, which occasionally organises open days at interesting places under their care.
Nick is excited by the giant radar dish
Apart from an impressive collection of meteorological instruments, Chilbolton Observatory is home to one part of the huge LOFAR connected telescope. LOFAR (LOw Frequency ARray) is a radio telescope which works at frequencies below the FM band. There are multiple locations for these all over Europe to provide maximum coverage of the sky, and it’s supposed to be the largest radio telescope built to date (a larger one is currently being built).
One of the LOFAR antennas arrays
Instead of dishes that can be steered, LOFAR’s antennas are omnidirectional and plentiful, and the direction in which the telescope is pointing is controlled with software instead.
In Chilbolton there are two sets of antennas. The first set looks randomly positioned, but their placement is in fact very carefully designed: they are all at different distances and angles from one another. This means that when the radio waves come in at an able and hit the antennas at different times their source can be calculated by applying a delay until the frequencies are in phase again when read.
The other set uses a different approach: over 700 antennas are tightly packed into a small space, making it possible to only use certain readings to figure out where the radio waves came from.
Antennas inside polystyrene boxes
LOFAR antennas all have precisely the same length of cable leading from the antenna to the small building where the signal is collected before being sent for processing to a supercomputer in Netherlands. This computer, callled Blue Gene, collates data from all 48 LOFAR stations across 5 countries. The delay necessary to keep readings in phase is applied using software instead of mechanically. This means that it’s possible to capture all of the available data, and then get 976 different angle readings from every set. Essentially, the telescope is ‘pointing’ at 976 different spots in the sky all at once, all through the magic of software! The antennas themselves are relatively low-cost and most functionality is made in code. Super cool.
Cables leading into an insulated box
The cables are of course the most interesting bit, and LOFAR had the most organised cabling I have seen in person. They are all exactly the same length and lead into the box where a bunch of electronics is encased in a faraday cage to prevent disruptions of the telescope readings. A fibre optic connection then transports the data to the observatory and then to Blue Gene.
LOFAR can be used ford studying the atmosphere, Earth’s geology as well as the rest of the Universe, so it’s pretty universal (see what I did there?).
Chilbolton also has plenty of radars, including the largest steerable meteorological radar (25m in diameter), and also lidar used for studying the clouds.
Nick used for scale
The radar control room has an impressive collection of servers and screens displaying current analysis of the data collected from all the radars.
Okay guys, let’s talk about Snapchat.
I know that when you try to download it, or you go to the website, you get a creepy photo of two young women excitedly taking selfies, but please ignore that for a moment. I also know that what you read on popular sites is mainly “Teens use it for sexting, I don’t understand, I am now old, should I worry”, and again, please ignore that for a moment while you imagine a whaaambulance coming over to help the commentators in distress.
Neither of those are what Snapchat is really like.
I twice rage-quit Instagram, and kept coming back for something that was an approximation of what I wanted from the service, but that wasn’t really there: a way to talk to my friends through images, that somehow, like Twitter, would feel a bit ephemeral.
But Instagram, despite feeling a little bit like it before the publicly visible profiles were launched, was never like that. It was always a permanent record of keepsakes, stylised moments, sometimes of importance, reflection, sometimes just fleeting feelings captured as mementos of the fun that’s been had.
So I made a little project while I thought about these things (I wrote about it here), and while I was making it I thought about how I craved temporality, a way to communicate present moment which didn’t require me to build up a permanent record.
Because what permanent record essentially is a representation of your persona.
This isn’t a problem, after all we all build multiple personas online all the time and as human beings it’s one of the things we enjoy–communicating facets of our identities to represent us as we understand ourselves.
But to communicate within the moment this presents an obstacle: you need to, even briefly, think about how what you are about to post fits within the persona you’ve created. After all, you are presenting yourself to an audience and creating something that will last. You make editorial choices on the content of communication, and then again on its presentation.
i wish poetry occured spontaneously, or that there were poem bins, where you could put a poem without building your identity around it
Poetrybin addresses the need to sometimes communicate with the world without creating a stylised persona by removing the identity entirely. The author is always unknown, and the words are read and understood on their own merit.
Another way to remove the need to build and maintain a persona is limiting the audience to people you know. Texting, to me anyway, was a fleeting form of communication, especially back when SIM cards could only store a limited number of messages. While you no longer have delete messages, they are still a rather immediate mode of communication. More importantly, they are private between you and the recipient, so it’s easier to not have to censor yourself–your audience is known to you, and not as asynchronous as the audience that may enjoy your Instagram feed for example.
But of course sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and a video even more (duration x framerate x 1000). And of course you could shoot a short video, send it to your friend via iMessage, or maybe they don’t have an iPhone too, and also maybe it seems stupid to dedicate a permanent piece of footage to something silly you just wanted to say, and maybe it doesn’t quite communicate without a caption, and maybe it’s a joke that won’t be funny anymore once a couple of days have passed and they look at it again, and…
Snapchat by design removes all obstacles to taking still or moving pictures, and by design removes all other decision making. You don’t get to edit anything, there are no filters, and you cannot load in any here’s-one-I-made-earlier images or videos. You can only capture what’s happening right now around you. Context is always present. You can add a caption, or scruffily draw over your footage, but that’s it. Once you send it, it no longer exists on your device.
But once viewed, it also no longer exists on the recipient’s device, which means you now both share the result of the communication–the memory of it–and not the piece itself. This is poignant and powerful in ways that people obsessing about teen sex don’t seem to grasp: it has some of the characteristics of spoken communication (being in the constant present, lack of permanence, contents of it can only be recalled from memory), while being mediated and enhanced by technology. And it’s beautiful.