I realised at the beginning of last year that I had become too comfortable with my job and craved a new challenge, so in April I left Makeshift to become a freelancer again.
Almost immediately I joined a small team working on Contributoria, a community funded journalism platform. In December Contributoria helped to fund over £22K worth of articles from journalists around the world.
In August I worked with Artangel and Paul Pfeiffer on a digital-only art piece for The Space, which gave me a chance to try out the latest web audio technologies.
Last year I gave one serious talk and two light-hearted ones.
Talking about cranes, a bridge, a boat list and a radio telescope made me many friends at Scottish Ruby Conference in May, and later at Converge in August. Who knew there were so many civil engineering fans out there.
Hannibal Lecter films taught me a great deal about user interface design, as I explained to the Design + Banter audience.
Watching films Doing research for this talk was time consuming, but rewarding.
I taught the Creative Coding course again for the second year design students at Goldsmiths. A write-up of that workshop could become a self-study book for a complete beginner. I’m not sure whether I will find the time to write it, given that I might not make any money off it. The new VAT rules put me off selling it as a digital book.
Last year I decided to write more, but who doesn’t do that in January? Instead, I read more, and wrote less, but I spent much longer thinking about every piece. I asked why Apple’s Health app doesn’t allow period tracking, explained why corporate hackdays are a bad idea, disapproved of the latest browsers obfuscating URLs, and talked about the loss of ownership that comes with connected products.
My best friend lent me a PlayStation 3 and a few games, so I spent many evenings and weekends having the greatest time of my life.
In Skyrim I killed hundreds of men on my way to find the man of my dreams. I found him, married him and bought a house where we moved in with our adopted children (I never finished the main story). I escaped from a psychopathic computer in Portal; in Portal 2 I saved that same computer, now transformed intoa potato. I caught a serial killer in Heavy Rain, and caused the deaths of my friends in Beyond: Two Souls.
But the most important game I played was The Last of Us. I developed a strong relationship with the game’s protagonists, Joel and Ellie. I missed them so much once I finished the game that I’ve started playing it again. As I move through an already familiar world I discover more things that delight me. The Last of Us is the best game ever made (that’s right!), and I urge you to play it yourself.
For a while I had been asking friends, family and colleagues to use gender neutral pronouns when talking about me. In 2014 I made it official (i.e. I sent almost everyone I know an email about it). I go solely by the name Nat, so if you know my previous name I request you never use it.
That change, though seemingly small, decreased the level of gender-related stress I deal with, especially at work. Words are incredibly powerful.
Here’s to another great year.
In 2014 I managed to mostly read books on a theme of making technology, and how it expresses our values.
Here’s a list of books I loved most last year. Let me convince you they’re worth your time.
In The Boy Kings Katherine Losse describes her time at Facebook, from the moment she took a customer support position, through becoming Mark Zuckerberg’s personal writer, to finally selling her stock and leaving.
It’s a brilliant story. Losse tells it through her experiences as a sole female humanities graduate thrown into the world of entitled and privileged engineers. A world in which truly they are kings. She details her increasing discomfort with the way Facebook mediated human relationships, the way it collected and presented data, and with the behaviour of her co-workers.
In her recollections, she is often the only person questioning the direction the product takes, and whether some of the features can have negative impact on site’s users.
Through the many anecdotes about engineers unable to see through their gender bias, unable to relate to people not like them, especially people with less money and privilege, a picture of a modern startup emerges. It’s a world filled with fanatical dedication to startup’s success, and disregard for the wider impact the product might have on the world, beyond making the shareholders rich and famous.
Losse made me feel exactly how she describes she felt. I felt the initial excitement of working on something that was going to be really big. I could then taste how the excitement slowly began turning into doubt and disillusionment. Losse was beginning to question the reality of the product and the workplace. Is it okay to take people’s stories and tell them back to them, stripping away their control? And is it okay to demand people devote their entire lives to their job and never question anything? The more the startup machinery demanded total commitment, and the more relationships were mediated through Facebook, the more doubt was taking over.
Losse’s account of the power games, and the dynamics involved in extracting as much work from employees as is humanly possible is thorough and gripping. In some ways it could be a story of any company, tech or not, but knowing more about the work culture at Facebook makes it a lot easier to see why Facebook is what it is.
In Cybernetic revolutionaries Eden Medina talks about Chilean Project Cybersyn, through which she paints the history of Chile from the time Salvador Allende was elected in 1970 to his execution in 1973 by the military who staged coup d’état.
Project Cybersyn was an attempt to use technology to help the government manage the economy, using near-real-time data about the state of different industries. It was an extremely ambitious undertaking at the time, and was going to be a huge innovation when finished, despite using only existing technologies. The ambition was cut short by Pinochet’s totalitarian regime that took over in 1973.
Before that, however, the people involved in the project made conscious decision to design technology to embody specific values. This is rare even today. Most technology seems like it’s made by people who think of it as a neutral and apolitical thing, and of themselves as neutral and unbiased. That, of course, can never be true, so to hear a story of people creating technology that can express the values and political leanings of its creators explicitly is particularly interesting.
It is even more interesting to hear that to encourage the use of technology, its values and politics needed to be downplayed, and it had to be presented to its users as a neutral tool.
Even when portrayed as neutral, reading of the technology helps realise the motivations of people who created it. As Medina says in the book’s introduction:
Technologies are historical texts. When we read them, we are able to read history.
As the project progressed, it was becoming clearer and clearer that many of its aspect were not going to work. So much of it relied on redesign of existing power structures within industries. Technological aspects of the project, though ambitious, turned out to be possible and useful, but the social aspects of it caused difficulties. The story of Cybersyn, against a backdrop of Chilean revolution, is absolutely fascinating.
In this very short book Anna Anthropy sets out to convince you that games need you. They need your contributions: the way you look at the world, and the way you think. Without them, she argues, games as a medium are poorer.
Anthropy takes you for a tour or the amazing things you can achieve with games that aren’t possible in other media. Games, she says, are the most powerful form of self-expression.
This book is a call for the democratisation of game-making tools, so that everyone can express themselves. The point isn’t to make great games, the point is to make games that describe many lives, and many worlds, and many different experiences.
I’m down with that.
Ostensibly, ZZT by Anna Anthropy is a book about a game.
I played ZZT as a child, with my little sister. Somehow it made its way to my home on a 5.25 inch floppy disk. I could play it on the first computer my family had, which had no hard-drive and the operating system had to be loaded into memory from a disk.
The disk with ZZT wasn’t labelled, and our copy was in German. I was too young to speak German, and I’m not sure my sister could even read yet. At the time we called the game “Robot” because that’s what we called the playable character (which looked a bit like ☻).
I remember being gripped by the game for months. It was full of puzzles and very difficult. Two of my cousins caught wind of that and decided to help. They spoke German so they were able to progress through the puzzles that required understanding of text. We kept figuring things out, but never finished it.
What we didn’t discover was that the game came with a level editor, essentially allowing you to make your own games from the pieces provided. You had some characters and colours at your disposal. Using a basic scripting language you could create new worlds.
I say that this book is ostensibly about ZZT, because it is really about a million different creations that the ZZT editor enabled. Anthropy describes a proliferation of incredibly personal stories of (mostly) young people, being told through interactive environments, only sometimes fitting a classification of a “game”.
Anthropy’s way of talking about games is still very new to me. She doesn’t talk about the games so much as she is talking about how they’ve impacted her life. It really speaks to me.
At one point she describes a game that questioned gender norms, which is pretty adventurous for a game even in 2014, never mind in the nineties. She talks about games in which she was able to really become a female character, and how it made her, a transgender kid, feel. Not everyone can relate to what it’s like to be a trans kid, but many of those feelings she talks about — of being isolated, unable to name one’s own feelings and thoughts, being focused on creative exploration to the point where one forgets the surrounding environment for days on end — those feelings are universal.
Gabriella Coleman spent a considerable amount of time on IRC listening and talking to various people who at some point identified as part of Anonymous. It formed a huge body of research she wrote up in Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy. It helps to understand what Anonymous is, how it works, and what are the group’s achievements.
She managed to gain enough trust to be invited to witness conversations happening in multiple secret channels. She also notes that she realised that even more secretive channels existed of which she wasn’t aware at the time, and many members of Anonymous remained so secretive that she never got the chance to find out about them, never mind speak to them.
She stressed that Anonymous never was a one, clearly defined group. Many people operated under that banner, and collectives came together and fell apart frequently, sometimes only in order to perform a specific task.
During Arab Spring I paid a lot of attention to Anonymous, as they frequently appeared in the press. This book took me again through some of the things I remembered: the role of the Anonymous in bringing certain information about Arab Spring to mainstream media, their principled stance on certain issues, like internet freedom, and their morally questionable destruction of companies they saw as enemies (for example HB Gary).
This book is a very rich account of the events as they unfolded, from a point of view the spectating public was not privy to. Coleman reports on the discussions within Anonymous about the validity and morality of certain tactics. There was no agreement on whether DDoS was a legitimate form of protest, and whether releasing private information was in every case justified. With the benefit of hindsight we get to understand the influence of FBI, as they turned some of the people heavily involved into informants and agent provocateurs.
Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower spy humanises the people involved. Coleman’s approach earned her enough trust for some people to open up about their lives. Sabu, for whom total secrecy was becoming no longer necessary once his involvement with FBI began, let Coleman understand his motivations much more deeply than other people involved.
Whether you followed the activities of the Anonymous and Lulzsec or not, it’s a gripping study of a group of people discovering activism, and realising that their skills allow them to grab headlines.
Apple has released a new version of iOS, which includes the Health app. Health is meant to be a central place where you can get an overview of your health and fitness, with data provided either by third-party apps, the Health app itself, or manually by the user.
The release of HealthKit (the developer framework for integrating other apps with Health) is delayed due to bugs, but the Health app is already available.
Before the new operating system was released, I was really interested in the Health app already, but something was missing from the promotional materials: tracking menstrual cycles. I thought perhaps that the materials presented “Jonh Appleseed” as the app’s user, and perhaps John doesn’t menstruate.
When I checked the documentation for HealthKit to see how cycle tracking data can be integrated into the Health app from third-party sources, I was disappointed to find out that Apple did not include anything related to menstruation and the reproductive health of roughly half of the world’s population.
In case you’re wondering whether Health is only concerned with a few basics: Apple has predicted the need to input data about blood oxygen saturation, your daily molybdenum or pathogenic acid intake, cycling distance, number of times fallen and your electrodermal activity, but nothing to do with recording information about your menstrual cycle.
I wanted to know more about whether people keep track of their cycles in any way, and why they do it, so I made a short survey about it. Eighty four people responded, of whom 89% have experienced menstruation, so the sample is small. The answers were interesting nonetheless.
Of my small sample 43% currently track their cycles, but two in three responded that they have done so in the past.
Of those who do not track, some respondents can predict when their next menstruation is likely to begin, either due to their contraception method dictating when it will occur (34%), or one in five through other means (potentially being able to read changes in the body signifying cycle stages, but I didn’t ask for details). Multiple answers were allowed, so there may be overlap between those groups.
Menstruation, changes in menstruation, or lack of menstruation can be signs of other health problems. One of the respondents to my survey only menstruates when they are ill due to treatment they had in the past, for example.
Things that could be signs of abnormalities:
However, those characteristics can be perfectly normal for some individuals, and this knowledge sometimes comes by tracking past data and seeing patterns on a larger scale. Especially in cases where one’s individual cycle characteristics are uncommon it can be harder to detect changes without tracking different aspects.
Migraines, for example, can be triggered by periods (or more accurately, falling oestrogen levels just before menstruation), so it’s useful to be able to predict when it’s likely that your ability to work will be affected.
For the majority of those who answered my survey, the reasons for tracking were mainly detecting irregularities (68% of people picked this answer), knowing when to purchase sanitary items (81%), and learning about one’s cycle (52%).
Many respondents mentioned the effects of their cycle on other areas of life.
I can predict my cycle in my head, but I want info relevant to the momentary state of my health, like a body-weather report, e.g. “likely to be achey today; try for extra water and sleep”
Commonly mentioned is the ability to plan work and leisure activities away from days which are likely to be very painful.
ALL the period tracking apps are trying to get me pregnant. I just want to know if I need to pack my cup on a weekend trip and when the first day of my last period was so I can book paps
Checking that contraceptive methods work was also mentioned as one of the reasons for recording cycles, whether the respondent used barrier protection, UID or hormonal methods.
In many cases, health professionals will ask you about the date of your last period. There are many reasons for this. One is to detect variations from the norm as previously mentioned. Knowing the cycle pattern might be useful to detect various health problems and any unwanted effects of medication. It’s common to arrange or adapt body examinations depending on the stage of the menstrual cycle (e.g. colposcopy, cervical smear, breast and pelvic examinations, urine tests).
Emergency health workers will ask about your last period so they know whether they should act as if there’s a possibility of pregnancy, in which case some treatments can be withheld or substituted. This is the kind of information that should have found its way onto Apple’s Medical ID so it could be made available to emergency services.
The average age of the first period is thirteen years, and last one on average happens when the person is fifty-one years old.
I wanted to know how many people are of menstruating age at any given time. Worldwide data from the US government census for 2013 is banded by age groups, so to be err on the side of caution I’ve selected ranges between 15 and 49 as the menstruating ages. Of course not all of those people will actually menstruate, but I hope that the difference is insignificant.
By this estimate, over 1.8 billion people are currently of menstruating age. That’s just over a quarter of the population. If you also include people who have menstruated or are yet to menstruate then of course that number is approaching half the world’s population. That’s a huge potential audience, of whom a large proportion might be interested in recording their cycles at some point in their lives.
Tracking cycles isn’t anything new, it has been done since the dawn of time, in many different forms. I am pretty sure it was the first ever occurrence of Quantified Self movement, although for reasons I cannot understand cycle tracking doesn’t feature very prominently in it.
Apple did take the lead on something they thought was important even though it didn’t affect a high percentage of the user base: accessibility. It was so important that making apps made with built-in components are accessible by default, without the developer needing to know anything about accessibility. Apple took care of it, because it was the right thing to do, not because it was the killer feature that everyone demanded.
In the same way, the iPhone includes the Stocks app by default, because Apple decided that checking stocks is a very important thing to do. So important in fact, that no user should be able to delete Stocks from their phone. I haven’t found any data on the total percentage of the population that owns stocks, but I can’t imagine it’s bigger than the percentage of people with disabilities or a menstrual cycle.
Perhaps it’s because some people are opposed to knowing about the bodies of nearly half the population in such detail, and opposed to giving people tools to help them be in control of their own bodies. This could affect sales among certain kinds of people. That is however inconsistent with Apple’s stance on issues they care about. Despite the fact that support for LGBT rights is not universal, Apple openly supported marriage equality. Tim Cook gave an impassioned speech about human rights and immigration reform, and said that some things have to be done “because they are right and just”.
Perhaps it’s because Health is intended to collect data from sensors rather than manually input information? Apple explicitly states that manually entered data is to be collected too:
HealthKit makes it easy for apps to share health-related information, whether that information comes from devices connected to an iOS device or is entered manually by the user. (source)
In addition, there are already many apps designed for tracking periods, although many of my survey respondents mentioned that they’re too gendered (there were many complaints about colour schemes, needless ornamentation and twee language), difficult to use, too focused on conceiving, or not taking into account things that the respondents wanted to track.
So why isn’t cycle tracking present in the Health app? I don’t know, but the only valid reason I can think of is that it didn’t occur to anyone to include it.
There has been a lot of discussion about corporate hack days, prompted by the Unilever hack day called Re.Hack with the tagline “reinventing Commerce”.
I know people working for design agencies who do spec (speculative) work. It’s risky and disheartening, but impossible to avoid for some companies. One person I spoke to a long time ago used to spend two thirds of their time doing spec work, and win only a third of the contracts. Not a desirable position to be in if you have several employees.
For a freelancer, attending a two day event is not as damaging as putting a whole agency on a project for a week, but that time still costs money in missed opportunities.
I’ve heard of day rates in tech from as low as £200 per day to well over £1500. Two days not working for other clients works out at anything between £400 and £3000+. That’s not including any time spent working in the evening or even through the night.
3beards, the organisers of Re.Hack pointed out in their blog post that intellectual property rights remain with the participants, they all have chances to win prizes, and potentially a commercial contract with Unilever. I don’t think this is enough: simply retaining ownership of what you produce is not adequate payment for consultancy services. Nor is a chance to win a Fitbit.
I don’t mean to pick on this one event, it’s far from the worst I’ve seen, but it’s a good recent example of a multinational corporation either being misguided or downright cynical in their approach to generating new ideas for as little as possible.
The Cadbury Olympic hack day springs to mind. It generated so much vocal criticism that the rules of the event were changed to highlight the benefits of participation, mainly through stipulating what prizes could be won and that participants would retain the IP.
And can you remember the one where you had to pay cash money (i.e. buy a ticket) to do some free work for McDonald’s (event is now password protected)?
Big companies often cite the freshness of the ideas coming from hack days as the primary reason for hosting one, and organising that kind of event is a perfectly valid way to explore some challenges. However, there’s no reason for these events to be exploitative to achieve their aims.
One approach is to organise internal hack days, where people who already have domain knowledge, or people from other departments, can use their strengths to bring about new ways of thinking. They don’t have to work for free, you keep all the IP, and your costs are low. There are additional benefits: tightening up of existing internal networks, creation of new ones, generation of new interests and enthusiasm, and the opportunity to try out and learn new things. All those benefits are retained within the organisation. It’s such a successful model that even the government organises events like that.
Another one is simply paying people for their time. The BBC runs an event called Connected Studio (which I have participated in) where groups are given a subject area. Then they have some time to develop and pitch ideas. Interesting ones may be further developed in conjunction with the BBC and potentially commissioned. All participants are paid a fixed day rate for their work.
I have been to hack days of both kinds, and some that mixed the two approaches: bringing in professionals to an internal hack day can bring some new ideas and approaches and encourage collaboration. I have a very positive view of what was accomplished during the events that I have attended.
But organising a hack day is not the only way to get similar results. You can for example make multiple small commissions. When the Royal Shakespeare Theatre wanted to see lots of small projects developed for the World Shakespeare Festival they made a number of tiny commissions from technologists, artists and students. Instead of hosting a single event, the projects were developed over a longer time and provided many interesting ways to think about Shakespeare’s work and influence. A similar approach is something Thayer Prime suggests in her blog post too:
As well as paid hack days, companies/brands could consider another professional alternative: do prototyping days with developers who can create apps and products for you in quick time frames at relatively low cost compared to fully developed projects, so you can fail fast on stuff you don’t like and move forward with the innovations you like.
Because there are so many ways to both spend little money and source a variety of ideas, it is really disappointing when companies think they can get away with soliciting work for a promise of a chance to win something, exposure, and so on. For someone like Unilever, who made 5.3bn€ profit just last year, it smacks of cynical opportunism. They clearly value the work so little that they are unwilling to commit to paying a fair price for it. Either that or it has become normal to assume that developers have so much spare time and expertise that they will produce original ideas (or, as the Unilever event page puts it, ”Ideas need to be 100% original and not based on existing products”) for some beers and pizza. I doubt the event hosts, organisers and judges are working for the same remuneration.
Many people in the industry are passionate about things they care about to the extent that they will give up their weekends to tackle some challenges, or think about problems and possible solutions, and I’m not criticising that. NHS Hackdays regularly bring together people who want to help solve real problems faced by the health system. There are others that often attracti large numbers of participants, dealing with questions of privacy, civic involvement, communication of complex issues, collaboratively learning something, making music, and so on. Participants are unpaid, but they get some clear value out of those events. Meeting new people, learning new things, thinking about challenges that interest them. These are all great motivations, as long as they are not exploited by for-profit companies to generate more value for their shareholders, at the cost of participants’ expertise and spare time.
I don’t often have the opportunity to play with the latest browser technologies in client projects, unless they’re quick prototypes. When Artangel approached me about a project bringing Paul Pfeiffer’s work to the Space I realised that it would be best done using the Web Audio API. At the time, the Web Audio API was so new that the day I began building the prototype Mozilla shipped a way of inspecting the audio nodes in Firefox Aurora for the first time.
Paul Pfeiffer’s work is based around footage from the 1966 World Cup match between England and Germany from which most of the players were algorithmically removed — done in cooperation with machine vision expert, Brian Fulkerson. Jerusalem isn’t the first piece in which Paul Pfeiffer erases elements from iconic imagery, but it’s the first to be presented exclusively online.
Jerusalem blends the archival, reworked footage with audio and video clips that bring in context from 1966 and link it to other themes present in Paul’s work.
When I began working on the first prototype there were a few ideas about when the audio tracks should become available to play. I decided to implement simple rulesets which could be combined together to express complex relationships between each track and the main video. For example, some tracks might appear only on the second play through, but only to 40% of viewers, as long as the viewer has already heard at least two of the other tracks. This was intended to give the work a bit of unpredictability and make it seem a little different every time it’s viewed.
Rules were expressed as data attributes on each additional audio and video track, meaning that combining or changing them was trivial to do. It also meant that adding new types of rules was straightforward.
As the work began taking shape most of my initial assumptions about rules were abandoned, as we realised that the experience seemed too confusing. Instead, we decided to present the viewer with an interface to play each additional audio track after thirty seconds. To help understand what the interface represents, some of the audio tracks play for a set duration at certain times, highlighting the UI elements - little previews if you like. Again, that information is communicated through rules in the markup. Here’s an example:
<audio id="bees" preload="auto" data-offset="30" data-preview-length="19" data-on-loops="1"> <!-- sources --> </audio>
This track plays 30 seconds into the main track, lasts 19 seconds and only appears on the first play of the main track.
There are also video interruptions, over which the viewer has no control. These are timed using information specified in the markup.
Specifying rules this way turned out to be very flexible and accommodated many changes that were made since the initial prototype. Despite throwing out a bunch of sample rules I dreamed up at the beginning, the structure for defining and applying them made it easy to expand and develop the work.
Very light browser feature detection is being done, mainly to check for the presence of HTML5 audio and video support. If it’s not possible to play media natively then the work cannot be viewed. If it is, then depending on the Web Audio API availability the viewer either has a basic or slightly richer experience.
In the basic version the audio tracks are crossfaded using just the volume property on the audio elements. When the Web Audio API is available, then a subtle low pass filter is added during the crossfade and to the main track, which is always audible in the background, making it seem a little muffled.
AudioParam, part of Web Audio API, allows you to do a bunch of really cool things: you can ramp the value of an effect to a specific value at a specific time in multiple ways (linear or exponential) for example, which allows fine-grained control over sound. Though Jerusalem is relatively simple when it comes to audio manipulation, I can see how powerful the new features would be in the hands of someone who really knew what they were doing.
I don’t know very much about audio, so it’s hard for me to imagine just what is possible with the new browser capabilities, but Chris Lowis showcases interesting projects and new Web Audio API features in his weekly newsletter.