Technology after Collapse

The philosophy underlying contemporary ‘seamless’ technology production seems to be one of endless energy, bountiful resources and waste being someone else’s problem. Naive working assumptions of some form are a requirement when designing for the future, but do we believe in these enough now to make them useful? Flashy ‘aspirational’ tech videos of ever thinning devices disappearing into the ‘cloud’ seem to be less common than they once were, so perhaps not.

Whenever a philosophy starts to look shaky, there are huge opportunities to try different ideas. For example, what happens if we instead use collapse as a working assumption for design? A sudden global societal collapse may be as unlikely as fusion power coming along to ‘solve’ climate change – but as a working assumption it shines a different light on usability – for a future that will mostly likely be somewhere between these two extremes. It’s also a view that is shared by some areas of research (particularly military) and I suspect by quite a few internal corporate future planning departments.

This research direction was triggered by Amber who found a paper called “Unplanned Obsolescence: Hardware and Software After Collapse”, this quote is from one of the papers it cites:

“In our present world of virtually unlimited resources, at least from the consumer’s perspective, acquiring the newest piece of technology is often considered a desirable lifestyle choice (e.g., for early adopters). A future of collapse might see a different picture…”

Sustainable Interaction Design: Obsolescence in a Future of Collapse and Resource Scarcity, Christian Remy, Elaine M. Huang

For this weeks seminar at the Institute for Music and Media in Düsseldorf, Julian Rohrhuber and I wanted to explore this area a little with the students. This is something that has been present in FoAM Kernow’s work for a long time – partly as we work closely with environmental researchers so it’s hard to avoid, but it’s also inherited from the history of the FoAM network.

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We started by discussing the great Atari video game burial of 1983 and the comparative durability of the technology used at this time in history compared to that of today. This was an important aspect of the What Remains, so we looked at how we recycled old cartridges to store new software on for that project.

The specific scenario of collapse used in this type of research is one where all electronics production has ceased, all logistic and communication channels are destroyed, damaged or restricted. This could be due to a global crash, or an area becoming cut off from the rest of the world. Each component in our devices has a lifetime, most of them less than 10 years. While its possible that we could salvage components and repair our devices, there is also the issue of the knowledge required – much of it currently restricted to specialist silos of expertise.

“Social networks or institutions of people interested in computer repair could be invaluable for sourcing parts and maintaining skills needed to keep computing alive until devices and power are no longer scarce.”

Unplanned Obsolescence: Hardware and Software After Collapse, Esther Jang, Matthew Johnson, Edward Burnell, Kurtis Heimerl

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Quote from Radix’s Adventures in Tech #3: Tanglebots, assemble! by Fiona Campbell-Howes

The starting point for our Tanglebots workshop for example, is an e-waste scrapheap we search through for things to take apart and reuse. Sustainability issues like this are often better presented implicitly, to set the scene – which then leads to a more interesting situation than starting with identical ‘kits’. You get to explore internal parts of cheap toys like dissecting natural organisms, and this process fits well with the haphazard reality of building technology, and working with family groups leads to knowledge sharing of the kind that would be needed to keep skills alive after collapse.

For the practical part of our seminar we wanted to focus on internet infrastructure, although originally developed to be resilient to war situations – the current scale involved, with undersea cables and centralised servers makes it one of the weakest aspects of our societies infrastructure to collapse, along with mobile technology:

“Long distance networking and information sharing becomes difficult with the decay of Internet infrastructure. Therefore, it may be crucial to establish communication channels, file sharing practices, and communities before the breakdown of mobile computing.”

Unplanned Obsolescence: Hardware and Software After Collapse

Some of the problems involved include software updates – as these become more challenging users become more prone to malware and viruses as they can’t be protected as effectively by the software authors. How would we manage software distribution post-collapse?

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Unknown signal, a composite morse/data packet combination.

Global data transmissions are happening all the time on short wave radio. Certain frequencies bounce from the ionosphere or micro-meteorite trails to cover the globe, and data ‘modes’ are used rather than voice as they can travel further at lower power. There is even a slow-scan TV data mode which is used by the International Space Station to transmit images to amateur radio operators around the world – and regular contacts are made with people on the ground using shortwave frequencies.

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We spent the afternoon scanning the airwaves using the websdr.org network (no radio hardware required). You can choose your global location and frequency band (and by extension the time of day too – as transmissions travel further in the night time). The web interface allows you to record sound as wav files, which we analysed using Audacity.

In order to figure out what a particular transmission is, there are some clues you can use. The first is the frequency used, which you can look up via this chart as there are rules for what frequencies can be used for. We also found these example data recordings which we used to figure out the type of transmission data based on listening.

Here are some example recordings we made:

The first one was a bit of an enigma for a while – it sounds like really slow badly tuned music. We figured out it was probably an RTTY text messaging protocol called JT65 – for low power, long range short text communication:

jt65

The second one is still unknown, but there are a few clues. It’s a periodic burst of high speed data transmitted on a frequency band (6765 to 7000 kHz) that includes ‘FAX’ modes. It’s likely that this is some kind of weather map – but it doesn’t sound quite like any of the examples I’ve heard.

The third recording is a collection of simultaneous morse transmissions on similar frequencies. They all seem to be machine generated, a lot of repetition – probably some kind of beacons. I’ve tried to decipher them below but no hidden messages unfortunately!

decoded

This seminar was a good crash course for us all, and a way to get a handle on the sheer amount of activity on these not too well known global communication channels. A lot of these concepts are making their way into technology we are building, for example the penelope pattern matrix where we are using wood construction and modular circuits that we can adapt for different uses.

Future radio directions could be to set up a packet radio server to host some websites, even on a very tiny range (perhaps simply transmitted/received over audio) so we wouldn’t need a licence.

Additional reading material:

Report: Rethinking Diversity in a Rural Region Conference

FoAM Kernow is an organisation in one of the most disadvantaged parts of the UK. Many of the gaps in our society are particually obvious in Cornwall, the separation between those whom our social structures benefit and those who they do not are clear to see in the separation between the coastal and inland regions, and in many finer grained distinctions.

In our work we have gaps too – on the one hand there are projects like Future Thinging For Social Living and codeclub where we get out and go to people who can benefit most from our work, and on the other we have our workshops at Jubilee Warehouse where we do well in terms of gender and ethnicity, but not so when it comes to socioeconomic diversity. What makes this more important is that we are situated in a town that is in the bottom 10% of income levels nationally. One of the central questions for the next year is how we can combine our global collaborations and research projects and make use of them in the very local situation?

We had a chat with our friends at FEAST and Cultivator in Redruth at the end of last year who told us about a timely event: Rethinking Diversity in a Rural Region, a conference organised by the Cornwall Museums Partnership at Wheal Martyn in St Austell. Here are my notes from the day.

"[Many] people have no understanding of what you offer"

The event was kicked off by Rachel Bell, who has been working with museums across Cornwall as part of her creative intern role over the last year. She shared her observations of museums here (which was useful as I am new to this sector), such as the mix of global focus of Cornish museums as well as its local heretige, but an obvious lack of teenagers and people from different cultures visiting them.

Next to speak was Andrea Gilbert, who works for Inclusion Cornwall. Andrea listed the official Protected Characteristics of concern when we are talking about inclusion and diversity. Something I liked was that her organisation has a very open approach when talking to people about these matters, it's ok to get it wrong – to use the wrong descriptions for categories or the wrong words – the important thing is to muddle through and learn.

One focus for Inclusion Cornwall is working with people on health related benefits, there are 23,000 people here in this category making it an important group to target. Some others she mentioned included the 60 rough sleepers in Cornwall and the high number of migrant agricultural workers. There are currently 500 vacancies for these jobs – so it's not a case of "taking our jobs", and it results in 59 languages being spoken in the schools here! There were also 10 convictions involving modern slavery here recently, so many seriously disadvanted people are hidden from view.

When talking about inclusion and cultural organisations Andrea says that it's very much a simple matter that "people have no understanding of what you offer". It seems that there is much opportunity to change this.

"Diversity is about renewing your sense of belonging to your communty"

A provocative talk by Tehmina Goskar went a little more into the motivations and philosophy for increasing diversity. We need to start by understanding our own personal biases, as well as asking "who will miss you if you are gone?". One big motivation is that "diversity is about renewing your sense of belonging to your communty".

The places where we talk about this matter too, avoiding corporate meeting rooms and being in different environments is important – and the Wheal Martyn museum (although having acoustic issues) was a great example of this kind of consideration. We saw lots of government statistics and phrases that are important in order to understand the official interpretation of the problems. Cornwall has 1m tourists per year resulting in a £2bn economy, and 68% of small businesses (SMEs) are in rural regions, so it seems that the cities are largely the preserve of the big companies. 20% of people living here have never been online. There is a concept used by DEFRA of Rural Proofing where the needs of rural people are considered in policy. Problems such as mobile coverage, lacking access to skills, R&D and transport are considered relevant.

There are more elderly people in rural areas too, and small pockets of deprivation which are harder to identify and easily overlooked by institutions. Tehmina suggested that we take matters into our own hands and get out and map them ourselves, and get to know our community better.

In practical terms diversity leads to more talent in your organisation, and longer term security – while a narrow focus tends to actually be more expensive, and shorter term. Ultimately, diversity is a creative force in it's own right, not to be ignored.

"Diversity is a creative force"

We had some quick examples of case studies next, Jan Horrell told us about the Wheal Martyn Memory cafe, which provides help and social contact for people with memory loss and importantly also some time out for their carers. Over time their participants went from being simply provided for, to more active joining in and eventually running their own activities for the others in the group. They also worked with Story Republic to provide theatre and story telling activites.

Zoe Burkett from Penlee House gallery and museum wanted to attract younger volenteers to help out with the 150 or so existing ones. They worked with Carefree who provide a different service to the normal 'working with schools' approach commonly used by organisations. Instead of deciding on an activity to do with them, they asked them what they would like to do – and they decided on an artistic skillsharing event across the generations to provide something for all the volunteers working there.

Liz Shepherd from Royal Cornwall Museum has been working with migrant families whose transient lives mean their children tend to be working at lower academic levels for their age. She decided to focus on music, which has otherwise been pushed to the edges of the curriculum in the UK. Music provides a cross cultural link for Polish, Lithuanian and Romany and Gypsy traveller families. She worked with the Cornwall Music Education Hub to help both children and the wider families to mix.

"the need for inclusive practice in physical and intellectual access are greater than ever before"

The final talk was by Becki Morris from the Disability Cooperative Network who attended the Rio paralympics inclusion summit and said that "the need for inclusive practice in physical and intellectual access greater than ever before". Her talk contained a lot of practical advice too, and introduced the concept of Universal Design as a way to think about these issues, so building things to cater for diversity makes them better for everybody – rather than to specialise things for different people.

Her slides were black text on yellow, and using matt rather than gloss for signs were a couple of simple design choices she talked about which can make a big difference. Also if you are running a museum, or using a space for any public event you should be publishing an access statement to make clear what the facilities are.

It was also interesting to see open source mentioned in this context, as being important for accessability generally. Groups she mentioned included purple space, a network of disability employee networks and AXSChat, an "open online community of individuals dedicated to creating an inclusive world". Becki also mentioned the issues we are facing politically, and that the times are bad – but they do also represent an new opportunity to break down some very old barriers.

In the afternoon I took part in a couple of workshops, the first ran by Emma Saffy Wilson and Becky Palmer was "how to reach new audiences". Some of the good ideas that came up included using our own families – as they often represent in themselves a lot of diversity, we should use this. With disadvantaged groups, the main issue is really confidence, so long term relationships are needed to be fostered. One way is to talk to other organisations with a history of working with groups you want to reach – but these contacts need to be treated very gently in themselves. At the end of the day, genuine listening and long term thinking are needed.

The second workshop I took part in, run by Theo Blackmore was "What should museums be doing to be more inclusive?". Although I was a bit less able to contribute to this, there were a lot of interesting suggestions – just getting people used to spaces, simple things first like using toilets in museums to simply get inside, and understanding that it's their space as much as anyone elses – that they are allowed to "hang out" there, is very important. Doing pop ups in galleries and museums is good too, to get different people involved and opening late or at weekends for people who prefer more quiet times rather than when it's busy.

Another idea from this workshop that seemed to resonate well was the "mantle of the expert", this concept from drama and theatre sets up a situation where (usually) young people are assigned the role of expertise over a specific subject or object which they learn and research themselves and then report back. This flips the power relation in a teaching situation.

So, plenty of things to think about. One of the biggest things was simply to find out about the organisations we should be talking to in relation to upcoming projects we are working on. Also when we are talking to researchers and artists looking for new ideas for who they should be reaching with their work this gives us a big picture of the situation in the rural region.

Quipu: further experiments in Düsseldorf

A report on further experimentation with Julian Rohrhuber and his students at the Institute for Music and Media in Düsseldorf during our coding with weaves and knots remote seminar this week.

skype

As we have so little idea what the Inca are telling us in their Quipu, it seems appropriate to add a cryptanalysis approach to our toolkit of inquiry. One of the first things that a cryptanalyst will do when inspecting an unknown system is to visualise it’s entropy in order to get a handle on any structures or patterns in the underlying information. This concept comes from Claude Shannon’s work on information theory in the 40’s, where he proved that information obeys fundamental laws of physics. The concept that information and “cyberspace” may not be as intangible and otherworldly as we might believe (in fact is grounded in physical reality along with everything else) is one of the recurring themes of the weavingcodes project.

Shannon’s innovation was to separate the concepts of data quantity from information value, and he claims that information is equivalent to surprise – the more surprising a piece of data is, the more information it contains. Conversely a piece of information which we expect to hear by definition doesn’t really tell us very much. The potential for some data to be surprising (or more specifically it’s potential to reduce our uncertainty) can be measured statistically, with a quantity he called entropy, as it is analogous to states in thermodynamic systems.

slide

Shannon defined a generalised communication system, which is handy to give us a way of reasoning about our situation in relation to the Inca. Our main unknown is the source of the messages they are sending us, are they accounting information, calendars or stories? We know a bit more about the transmitters of the messages, the khipukamayuq – the knot makers and quipu keepers. At the time Shannon was working on information theory, he was part of the start of the movement away from analogue, continuous signals and towards digital signals – with advantages that they are highly resistant to noise and can be carried further and combined together to increase bandwidth. Quipu are also mainly comprised of digital information – the type of a knot, the number of turns it’s comprised of or the twist direction of a thread are all discreet (either one thing or another) and therefore highly robust to material decay or decomposition. We can still ‘read’ them confidently after 500 years or more without the digital signal they represent being degraded too badly, if only we could understand it. At the same time, none of us working on this have access to a real quipu, so our receivers are the archaeologists and historians who study them, and compile archives such as the Harvard Quipu Archive we are using.

Although entropy is a very simplistic approach mathematically, it’s main use is to give us a tool for measuring the comparative information carrying potential of data which we have no idea about. Here are all the quipu in the Harvard database in order of average entropy bits they contain (only listing every other quipu ID):

entropy-per-quipu

This graph is calculated by making lists of all the discreet data of the same type, e.g. knot value, type, tying direction, pendant colours and ply direction (ignoring lengths and knot positions as these are continuous) – then calculating Shannon entropy on histograms for each one and adding them together.

We can also compare different types of information against one another, for example the main data we currently understand has some specific meaning are the knot values, partly derived from the knot type (long, single or figure of eight), which represent a decimal notation. If we compare the entropy of these we can expect them to have roughly similar average amounts of information:

entropy-values-types

The meanings of colours, ply and structure are largely unknown. Here are the knot values compared with the colours:

entropy-values-colours

And this is pendant ply direction compared with knot values for each quipu:

entropy-values-ply

At this point the most useful aspect of this work is to give us some outliers to inspect visually and sonically – more on that soon.

Photos from the machine wilderness workshop

Busy times at Foam Kernow, here are some photos from the Machine Wilderness Workshop weekend before last. This was a project between Foam Amsterdam and us, with 30 participants from all over the place geographically and professionally. My role was as facilitator, so mainly obtaining raw materials (electronic toys, recycled trash and e-waste) as well as a bit of cooking and general running around which I found very enjoyable. The machines invented and prototyped were grounded in the environment of the Penryn river in Cornwall, so common themes were seaweed biomimicry and experiments with estuarine mud, both as a surprisingly rich power source as well as a design medium in it’s own right.

I’ll leave the in-depth write ups to those leading the event, but one of my interests was to see how a workshop involving e-waste would work, practically and as an inspiration – with an eye to doing this with primary school kids and teachers. We managed to locate a good quantity of old toys from various local second hand stores and warehouses, quite a modest outlay in return for some very good mechanics, motors and electronic parts. Resisting the temptation to take them to bits beforehand meant that the participants could open them up and discover what they could use, one of the best items was a bubble machine – inside was a good air pump and lots of mechanics (total cost ~£1.50). This was incorporated into a robot lifeform that was in part augmented by moss growth and LED lights.

See the rest of the photos here.

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Training teachers in coding at Truro School

I’m part of a UK Department of Education funded project to join up 10 primary schools in Cornwall and get them programming. The teachers are very important people in this equation, so our first activity was a training day for them. The idea of this was to get them familiar with using the Raspberry Pi and try out some programming, while at the same time allowing me to gather some research on feasible projects that can result in long term benefits for the schools involved.

We gave Sonic Pi and our Minecraft Python architecture coding a go, and I also briefly demoed the weavecoding project via flotsam – as one of our eventual aims is to produce teaching materials for this too. I’ll start with some of the broader things we discussed, see below for more specific observations for these programming systems.

Unaddressed needs of teachers

Despite a big push in coding in schools, there are still plenty of areas where support is lacking or even misguided. The focus on hardware platforms (Raspberry Pi, BBC’s Micro Bit) is not so relevant as schools have plenty of existing hardware, also the mass of community open source activity needs a lot of work to translate for classroom use. A further problem is that a lot of existing initiatives tend to be high visibility but too short term in their scope. Codeclub is a notable exception in this area. Technology also tends to get considered as a distinct subject – whereas it needs to be linked with other topics (i.e. teaching local history by making computer games about it) in order to make sense.

IMG_3478s

Long term thinking

Events for teaching a small proportion of children programming has short term benefit unless it is to enable the children to teach each other. This turns out to be successful in after school code clubs, so is it possible to design events and workshops with this aim specifically in mind?

Teachers need access to people who work with technology when they need it, but how can this be done – a local support network perhaps, we also discussed hacklabs for teachers where they can drop in and get advice. Hacklabs could provide teachers with feedback on their ideas, perhaps some small one on one training to help realise them – as well as perhaps building hardware or software specifically according to their needs. The funding for this is an open question at the moment.

One of the issues reported by the teachers is that it takes a lot of effort to get students to a certain tipping point with technical ability, after which they shoot ahead and quickly overtake the teacher. I’m not sure if this is seen as a problem in itself, but it does seem like there needs to be a situation designed where this can easily feed back into the collective knowledge of the group.

Classroom materials are worth their weight in gold, like the ones supplied with Sonic Pi or those provided by Code Club – and they take a long time to check and get right. The problem is that it’s actually hard to get funding to make these, relative to teaching hours. Releasing all teaching materials as creative commons to pool resources nationally (and beyond) is key. One thing that came out clearly with the worksheets we used for both Sonic Pi and the ones we wrote for Minecraft coding was that they are not really very well suited for primary school use. We seem to tend to write documentation that focuses on example recipes to follow rather than encouraging exploration – this was a surprise to me. The teachers were more keen on simple lists of commands (and liked the dropdown menus in Sonic Pi for example) which were then left for the children to discover how they fit together, and less wordy explanations.

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Hardware problems

Many schools have already moved away from desktop PCs, whether using laptops or (shudder) tablets exclusively. The Raspberry Pi has considerable extra hardware needs – we discussed whether recycling hardware being thrown out from local businesses was one option to help with this.

We came to the conclusion that one promising area to look at is robotics, making use of the Pi’s easily accessible hardware interface. The problem then is where to get the required motors and other hardware from – one potential resource are the forgotten boxes of lego, electronics and bits and pieces gathering dust in school storage. Again the challenge is how to make effective use of this rather than spending money on new kit.

Systems we tested

We tried following some worksheets for two coding projects on the Raspberry Pi, the aims were twofold – to get some initial experience with them as well as getting feedback for how we can improve them from the teachers point of view.

Sonic Pi

This was the first time I’ve used the new version of Sonic Pi in a class room. We used the version that comes pre-installed on the ‘2015-02-16-raspbian-wheezy’ release. I’m not very familiar with Ruby, the language it uses but I’d had a bit of a play with it in the days prior and had a bit of feedback from Sam Aaron on some specifics too.

One of the big questions I had was whether typing skills would be an issue with the primary age group. They are used to using drag-drop programming languages like Scratch and Espresso but would this translate to using the keyboard? The teachers thought that Sonic Pi’s minimal syntax would be really good with their children – the syntax highlighting (using colour and little lines to denote indentation) would be important to make it easier for them. One problem we noticed is that the syntax colouring might be able to go a little further – it could, for example be more context sensitive – e.g. the difference between a symbol that is user defined and one that is part of the system would be better to differentiate for explanation.

They considered the documentation, both ‘online’ as part of the interface and the wording of the tutorials was probably too prescriptive and in-depth (which to be fair is written for older children). More importantly the teachers loved the musical aspect, and immediately got into creating their own tunes (all mixing with the amen break :) Initially the concept of MIDI notes was a confusion – “why is 60 middle C?”. A popular request was for some pre-written examples of familiar tunes to fiddle with.

The interface including visible debugging/errors was very popular, as it seems a lot of existing commercial software they use in classrooms does not to this well. Being able to ‘hear’ bugs was also important. It was also good to explain Sonic Pi in terms of musical livecoding and Supercollider, as this culture gives it a kind of extra spice which is exactly what we need when ‘coding’ can so easily slip into being about boring product-centric thinking.

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Minecraft/Python

To contast Sonic Pi, in the afternoon we switched to the Minecraft world and the system we developed for teaching teenagers programming with Python. I’ve recently been using this for one-on-one teaching with an 8 year old, so I wanted to find out if they thought it would be useful in the classroom for this age group.

This setup relies on an IDE (we use Geany) which communicates with Minecraft via network messages running in a different window. The multiple windows and strange ‘always on top’ OpenGL rendering of the Raspberry Pi GPU makes this a fiddly business until you get the hang of it, but the upside is that this is the same approach as programming in the games industry – and kids like it when you tell them this. However it would be wonderful to be able to ‘dock’ minecraft in a Python IDE in a friendly way and have some of the features of Sonic Pi.

The projects we made with this system are again pre-created recipes without much information on things like how to get the coordinates right rather than just following the instructions. One of the teachers found out that you can use the player’s position to figure out what the coordinates should be, we need to include these kinds of hints and think a bit more broadly how to describe the creative process.

On thing I picked up from the teachers was that they had high expectations of the scale of what would be needed to capture interest for the children – for example that we’d need to write programs to create entire cities and a worry that the amount of code needed for a simple house seemed so much. However, what I’ve noticed when using this for teaching younger children – is that we’ve sometimes spent an entire hour on a single line of code. For example creating a block, changing it’s position and size in 3 dimensions and then trying changing the block type – seeing how water or lava acts in different circumstances. The strength of Minecraft is that it contains a lot of complexity which is already understood by children who play it, so they don’t really need to be convinced so much as given space to explore possibilities.

Foam Kernow mini update

A short update on the things currently going on at Foam Kernow alongside the stuff I’ve been blogging about lately. We are near completion of a new version of the butterfly hunting game – this time being developed for the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, where it will be a citizen science exhibit to collect data on visitor’s perceptions of the wing patterns. A brand new Open Sauces web tool is under development as well, much conversation concerning database models for cuisines, menus, recipes, ingredients and flavours.

We’re planning our first ever biohacking workshop, in Cornwall led by the London Biohackspace. As part of that we need to construct a bunch of high power LEDs to expose yeastograms to UV light to create pictures. With all the precautions required for this (you don’t want to get too close to them), it seems like we’re constructing a giant space laser.

The beginning of the year has also been about moving long running projects on to their next stage. Mongoose 2000 has now had 4 months of parallel data collection in Uganda at the same time as their old system, and they agree by 98%, which is good enough for them to move completely over to the Raspberry Pi and android tablets. We’ve also incorporated a ton of feedback from this testing time. Symbai also has been improved ready for it’s next outing to India in May, mostly synchronisation fixes as this system needs to sync photographs and audio files as well. Also a bit of in depth reading about SQLite’s query planner has led to a dramatic speedup for both these applications.

Also in the workshop vein – this year’s Raspberry Pi Minecraft hacking workshop will be happening on April 2nd at dBsMusic in Cornwall College. Bring on the networked mayhem!

Minecraft Easter Taster2

Organisation hacking (part 1)

Over the last six months I’ve been taking a crash course in company formation, treating it like any other investigation into a strange and esoteric technology. Last year I registered FoAM Kernow as a UK non profit organisation in the mould of FoAM Brussels. Starting off with absolutely no knowledge at all (but with a lot of help from FoAM’s wider friends and relations) I found a lot of confusing fragments of information online so I thought I’d document the process here as much as I can. It’s important to state that I’m not a lawyer or professional in these matters at all, so no substitute for proper legal advice – and any corrections would be most welcome.

What does non-profit mean?

A non-profit company is simply one that is not allowed to have shareholders. A for-profit company can pay a set of people who own shares part of the profits called dividends. In a non-profit the money outflow is more tightly controlled and can only go to employees or to pay costs for the company. Contrary to popular belief, there is no limitation on the size of the company, how much it pays employees or the money it makes in total (there are some very large non-profits out there).

In place of shareholders, a non-profit is “limited by guarantee” – a more legally correct term for this type of organisation. Individuals guarantee a set amount against liability (debts). The default is a whopping £1 each.

As far as I understand it “limited by shares” and “limited by guarantee” are the two main different types of organisation in the UK. There are also a cluster of other subcategories: charities, community interest groups, co-operatives and social enterprises for example. These are a little bit more fuzzy it seems, but they tend to be different flavours of limited by guarantee companies with more legal paperwork (especially in the case of charities) to determine the precise purpose and role of the organisation, and ultimately access to profits – what the money can and can’t be used for.

Why form a company?

Having a legal entity with which to work from rather than being an individual (sole trader) is better for larger projects, and bigger institutions are happier collaborating with legal entities. This is partly a matter of indirection or abstraction, e.g. if I get hit by the proverbial bus, the legal entity continues to exist. More importantly, it means multiple people can work together as part of a legal structure with a publicly stated set of shared values (called the articles of association). There is also a well established democratic process to make organisational decisions (more on that later).

Sole traders on the other hand can employ as many people as they want, but the structure would be fixed as a simple hierarchy – and the organisation has no legally defined purpose. Also things like insurance are different, but I won’t get into that yet!

Why form a non profit company?

A non-profit fits well with the goals of FoAM. Generally we focus on exploring ways of doing independent research, we are strict on non-exclusive rights to our work (participating in free software and creative commons) and finding a place between arts and sciences. None of this requires conventional fund raising by selling shares.

Another big reason is an issue of trust. We work mainly with people in spheres of arts and research – and it turns out a lot of people don’t want to work with companies that are run on a for-profit basis. In fact I would go so far as to say that some of the most interesting people we work with are wary of this. There is a somewhat justifiable worry that their contribution may be exploited via pressures to make a return on investments made by third parties.

The downsides are mainly tax related – for-profit companies can use dividends to pay investors (who can be employees too) which are not taxed – this is a very common practice. Usually small companies employ people at the minimum taxable wage then pay the rest by dividends. There is no way to do this with a company limited by guarantee – all payments to people need to be accounted for as normal employment or subcontracting and subject to income tax. It turns out that there are other upsides to being non-profit that may counteract this in the long run as you get treated differently in some contexts (e.g banking). For the next installment (if I find time!) I’d like to talk more about that and the formation process too…

Thinking Digital 2014

Last week I had the honour of both performing with Alex and presenting at Thinking Digital 2014. Suzy O’Hara invited me to represent the intersection of art, science and education of FoAM kernow and present the work I’ve been doing with the Sensory Ecology Group at Exeter University. I did a quick Egglab game demo and related some thoughts on working with scientists and how it connects with my experience teaching programming in the classroom.

It was an interesting and unusual venue for me, organiser Herb Kim is very much developing on the TED theme – so lots of extremely well considered, motivating and inspiring talks. Much of the context was one of venture capital and startup business so it was interesting to see an explosive talk by Aral Balkan on the implications of Facebook and Google’s business models on the future of our society (he included some of the other presenter’s companies too). This reminded me very much of the themes we explored in Naked on Pluto, but coming from a new angle.

Personally his talk was challenging to me as he roundly attacked the free software movement, for essentially providing a great sandbox for enthusiasts and well funded companies – but incapable of doing much more in terms of data security for real people. As a designer, he sees this as essentially a design problem – one that these companies have solved for themselves but is utterly lacking in devices such as the Firefox phone OS. For Aral, this is fundamentally a design problem that needs it’s own movement, and new business models to be developed. These business models need to take into consideration long term usability (for which user privacy is an essential feature) rather than ultra short term profit ‘pump and dump’, selling of people’s information for vast amounts – i.e. silicon valley ‘business as usual’.

Two things are apparent to me following this talk – one is that I have been labouring under the impression that a particular focus on design is somehow implicitly tied with specific business practices – simplification as wallpapering over data harvesting, and other tactics. This is very much a short sighted developer view, and is wrong – they can of course service different types of businesses.

The other point came during his 3 slide explanation of how to start your own social network (1. fork a github repo, 2. set up a server and 3. install it). Clearly even this satirical simplification is beyond all but existing software developers (many of whom are working for companies reliant on user surveillance in some indirect or direct way). The challenge for me is that I can’t ultimately see a way to make ‘interface as user experience’ ever converge on anything other than exploitation. Can ‘user experience’ ever regard people philosophically as anything but consumers – regardless of the underlying business model?

The problem in solving that is that we now have two problems – the terrible state of software engineering preventing accessibility (i.e programming at large still stuck in the 70’s) and the lack of understanding in society of what a computer is and how it works. The second of these problems is being addressed in some part by the activities of CodeClub (Aral is [correction: was] a director of this organisation) and similar education initiatives. Regarding pushing software engineering forward, in some way I think recent livecoding takeup by musicians over programmers is a fascinating development here, in terms of showing us how programming – when it’s taken and twisted into very strange and new forms, can start to make sense and work for ‘real people’.

Dagstuhl – Collaboration and learning through live coding

Dagstuhl seminars are week long free form meetings between different disciplines centred around computer science. The location is a specially designed complex in the German countryside, and activities include long walks in the surrounding hills, a well equipped and beautiful music room and a well stocked wine cellar.

Our seminar was called ‘Collaboration and learning through live coding’, organised by Alan Blackwell, Alex McLean, James Noble and Julian Rohrhuber and included people from the fields of Software Engineering, Computer Science Education as well as plenty of practising livecoders and multidisciplinary researchers.

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Discussion was wide ranging and intense at times, and the first job was to sufficiently explain what livecoding actually was – which turned out to require performances in different settings:

1. Explanatory demo style livecoding: talking through it as you do it.
2. Meeting room coffee break gigs: with a closely attentive audience.
3. The music room: relaxed evening events with beer and wine.

So Dagstuhl’s music room was immediately useful in providing a more ‘normal’ livecoding situation. It was of course more stressful than usual, knowing that you were being critically appraised in this way by world experts in related fields! However it paid off hugely as we had some wonderful interpretations from these different viewpoints.

One of the most important for me was the framing of livecoding in terms of the roots of software engineering. Robert Biddle, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carleton University put it into context for us. In 1968 NATO held a ‘Software Components Conference’ in order to tackle a perceived gap in programming expertise with the Soviet Union.

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This conference (attended my many of the ‘big names’ of programming in later years) led to many patterns of thought that pervade the design of computers and software – a tendency for deeply hierarchical command structures in order to keep control of the arising complexity, and a distrust of more adhoc solutions or any hint of making things up as we go along. In more recent times we can see a fight against this in the rise of Agile programming methodologies, and it was interesting to look at livecoding as a part of this story too. For example it provides a way to accept and demonstrate the ‘power to think and feel’ that programming give us as humans. The big question is accessibility, in a ubiquitously computational world – how can this reach wider groups of people?

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Ellen Harlizius-Klück works with three different domains simultaneously – investigating the history of mathematics via weaving in ancient Greece. Her work includes livecoding, using weaving as a performance tool – demonstrating the algorithmic potential of looms and combinations of patterns. Her work exposes the hidden shared history of textiles and computation, and this made a lot of sense to me as at the lowest level the operations of computers are not singular 0’s and 1’s as is often talked about, but actually in terms of transformations of whole patterns of bits.

Mark Guzdial was examining livecoding through the lens of education, specifically teaching computer science. The fact that so many of us involved in the field are also teaching in schools – and already looking at ways of bringing livecoding into this area, is noteworthy, as is the educational potential of doing livecoding in nightclub type environments. Although here it works more on the level of showing people that humans make code, it’s not a matter of pure mathematical black boxes – that can be the ground breaking realisation for a lot of people.

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Something that was interesting to me was to concentrate on livecoding as a specifically musical practice (rather than also a visual one) as there are many things about perceiving the process with a different sense from your description of it that are important. Julian Rohrhuber pointed out that “you can use sound in order to hear what you are doing” – the sound is the temporal execution of the code – and can be a close representation of what the computer is actually doing. This time based approach is also part of livecoding working against the notion that producing an ‘end result’ is important, Juan A. Romero said that “if you’re livecoding, you’re not just coding the final note” – i.e. the process of coding is the artform.

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In terms of a school teaching situation sound is also powerful, as described by Sam Aaron, livecoder and creator of Sonic Pi. A child getting a music program to work for the first time in a classroom is immediately obvious to everyone else – as it is broadcast as sound, inspiring a bit of competition and ending up with a naturally collaborative learning experience.

It’s impossible to cover all the discussions that we had, these are just the ones I happened to get down in my notebook, but it was a great opportunity to examine what livecoding is about now in relation to other practices, where it came from and where it might go in the future.

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Sonic Bike Hacklab Part 2: FM accelerometer transmissions

[Continued from part 1] On day one, after we introduced the project and the themes we wanted to explore, Ryan Jordan had a great idea of how to prototype the bike-bike communication using FM radio transmissions. He quickly freeform built a short range FM transmitter powered by a 9v battery.

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The next thing we needed was something to transmit – and another experiment was seeing how accelerometers responded during bike riding on different terrains. I’d been playing with running the fluxa synth code in Android native audio for a while, so I plugged the accelerometer input into parameters of a simple ring modulation synth to see what would happen. We set off with the following formation:

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The result was that the vibrations and movements of a rider were being transmitted to the other bikes for playback, including lots of great distortion and radio interference. As the range was fairly short, it was possible to control how much of the signal you received – as you cycled away from the “source cyclist”, static (and some BBC radio 2) started to take over.

We needed to tune the sensitivity of the accelerometer inputs – as this first attempt was a little too glitchy and overactive, the only changes really discernible were the differences between the bike moving and still (and it sounded like a scifi laser battle in space). One of the great things about prototyping with android was that we could share the package around and run it on loads of phones. So we went out again with three bikes playing back their own movements with different synth settings.

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