730 – Days Since Nineteen Hundred

OK, so I’m (lightly) back.

There have been a few reasons for going quiet on all this.

The first was that I really had started to feel that the blog was a bit of compulsory displacement activity. The “write something every day” idea I started with had all the promise of the classic “pottery class” fable, and everyone who talks about the practice of writing says that it’s about “just showing up”.

The reality, of course, is a bit more nuanced.

I found that I was putting all my efforts into coming up with witty reasons for why I’d not managed to be any more interesting that particular day. Why I hadn’t made progress against the Big Idea. I was putting the energies I should put into work into ever more complex excuses. Which didn’t really feel healthy or ultimately useful.

Alongside this, it’s fair to say that Real Life suddenly became a lot moe complicated.

I’m writing this on a sun lounger in the garden, which is nice. However, as a soundtrack, I’ve got the loud rustling of tarpaulins from our still-in-progress loft conversion contrasting nicely with birdsong and the burbling of the pond. The loft was supposed to take six-to-eight weeks. We’re now in week sixteen. There are a lot of very good reasons for this, and I really wouldn’t want to cast any aspersions on our builder whatsoever, but it’s not where we expected to be.

So this means

  1.  I’m still not sleeping upstairs in our airy new loft room and enjoying that big reset
  2. We still haven’t started the “garden room” that was going to be the ultimate haven for my pondering and outpourings
  3. I’ve not managed to move my musical and lyrical projects into the little boxroom as an interim, because Daisy is still soldiering on with it as her interim bedroom.

Building aside, there’s also quite a lot of other stuff going on in our lives:

I’ve taken on a whopping great new project at work. My previous one got a bit mired up with lack of resources, and so I was asked to see what I could do with another product and team. Commodity webosting and the management cloud infrastructure was never going to be top of my list of dream projects, but the boss asked nicely and – well – I’m a contractor and I do what I’m told. Turned out to also have some big scary asks and deadlines associated, and some horribly complex questions to start answering. I’m slowly making a dent in that, but I’ve had to get my head round a ton of things where I previously would have said “that’s technical architect stuff”. So that’s used up a lot of spare brain space.

Meanwhile, there are also some looming medical things with one of the kids. We’ll hopefully be able to talk about that having gone successfully within a week or two, but the management of that – what with the inevitable uncertainty, beauracracy and multiple postponements of operations that happen when dealing with major surgery – has left me a long way from wanting to put my heart on my sleeve. In this case, it’s not a heart, but even if it was it wouldn’t really be mine to put on my sleeve anyway.

So it’s all got just a bit busy. I wonder whether we’re being surreptitiously filmed for “Grand Designs” at some points. Just when we think it’s all under control, something chucks in a bit more jeopardy, as though we were heading towards an ad break and needed to be sure people would stay tuned in.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some really nice afternoons in pubs sitting and typing musings into Evernote. There’s even been the start of some Actual Lyrics.

The more complex barrier eventually became, um….

“How many days am I on now, exactly”.

I couldn’t post, because I didn’t know which number to put at the stop, and it would be a bit anticlimactic to do a big run-in to my 50th birthday, only to end on day minus-one.

Way back when I was starting out in technology, and trying (occasionally successfully) to pretend to be A Normal IT Professional, there was an issue we had around sorting data. We were running Unix, but our applications were written in BASIC (that then got translated to C and compiled, but let’s skip over that). The company had been around for a very long time (it had a royal warrant and everything) and so all this meant that just using the Unix of epoch of 1/1/1970 to measure dates from wasn’t really an option.

Instead, we relied on a BASIC routine that got copied across all our programs called DSN. This worked out the “days since nineteen hundred”. This was normally stored as a 6-character string, or more commonly 999999-DSN to allow the optimal alpha-sort with most recent stuff at the top.(Yes, yes, I’m sure you could do it better these days, but memory was expensive, indexes really slowed things down, and there was all that translation/compilation shit to deal with).

The only catch was that I worked out the DSN function was wrong. It had missed out the non-leap-yearness of 1900 and assumed it had a 29th Feb. So all DSN dates were already a day out, and had been forever.

Changing it would have meant rewriting all the programs, migrating all the databases, figuring out how we’d explain it to the VAT people etc etc. This was clearly never going to happen. The illusion just had to be maintained.

And so I was the same here. I just couldn’t face restarting the blog, only to realise I’d missed th boat, and would have to redo all of the posts for two years. Or pretend my 50th was on a different day to the one it really was, out of sheer embarrassment.

But today is the two year mark. Today I know where I am, albeit with the curse of “48” now hanging over me, and can do the sums. These posts might end on zero or they might end up on one, but I’m definitely not going to end on 2 or -1.

And so we are off again.

But probably not quite as regularly. At least not within the next week or so, fingers crossed.

958 – theory of constraints

Tonight was music night! A night to sit down in front of the piano and computer and get some real work done.

Unfortunately, tonight was also sort out the laundry and do the ironing night – so that we all have paired socks and flat shirts to wear.

Sadly the extreme volume of the latter meant the former didn’t happen.

Consoled myself with ten minutes of improvising lightly-widdly minimoog solos over one of a friend’s prog-rock tracks, before admitting defeat and heading to bed.

Tomorrow, we try again.

959 – nostalgia fights back

There’s a reverence for analogue gear in the music industry that I can understand but also find slightly self-deceiving.

Firstly, it’s not just the cachet of price. If you want to buy yourself a proper digital legend – the PPG Wave I mentioned yesterday, for example, eBay can currently do you one for just over four and a half grand. It’s beautiful and sounds amazing, but bloody hell.

Even my hybrid synths are starting to get expensive again – the JX10 now goes for more than I paid for it second-hand in 1992, and I might even make a profit on my Poly800 from 1985 soon.

But, after a really lovely evening playing with ProTools – which like so much other software is layer upon layer of glue, tape and string – I think it’s worth noting that the ‘variability’ of analogue is no longer exclusive. Plugins going missing, distortion effects spontaneously coming from nowhere, countless routing options within a soft synth that don’t quite do what the manual says they should.

These days, software is so large, it can give analogue a pretty good run for its money on the serendipity stakes. And I find that quite exciting really.

 

960 – stubbly yaks

There are days when you need to remember to show up. And days when you need to show up to do the right thing.

After some fine advice by a friend, I’ve installed a nice bit of software on the Mac to fix one of my quandaries from about ten days ago. Blue Cat Audio’s Patchwork allows me to get a whole load of old-skool music plugins working within my rather more modern Pro Tools setup. For less than a hundred quid, my PT setup was reunited with ImpOSCaR, Oddity and the Korg Legacy Collection. The first two of these are particular favourites as they are a bit weird and so you get taken in a different direction from Native Instruments’ Kontakt or Arturia’s Jupiter-8V, which loads of people already have.

But then I got thinking.

What about my Waldorf Collection DVD up in the loft? The one with the PPG Wave virtual instrument? Wouldn’t it be great to get that up and running – having the amazing sounds of Propaganda and Frankie (and yes I’m looking at you too Roisin Murphy!) back under my fingertips.

[fade to black, the bits about 32-bit compatibility and java updates and licensing rabbit holes never made the final cut. I was there and they were boring for me, even with the dopamine rush.]

Suffice to say, I pulled away from this challenge after less than an hour – without having spent any more money or installed any new operating systems. I went to play with Milo instead.

I nearly fell down the rabbit-hole again this evening, but somehow managed to pull back after about twenty minutes.

Instead of yet more displacement activity, there was some tentative progress. A new sound led to some poking around with a new effect, that led to a little exercise in how to play around that sound’s challenges, which sort of led to some interesting chords…

There are always more yaks to shave. And sometimes that’s fine – you can only be nearby the things you’re supposed to be doing, because you’re really not ready to actually start. But it’s also good to know that – just occasionally – you can Do The Work as well.

961 – small steps and green-faced wobbles

Today started with aches and pains. I fought off a slight hangover and headed out to Parkrun, down at Wanstead flats.

Normally I do parkrun with Milo. When we started this was a fairly leisurely activity – physically at least. But, as he’s slowly come down from 39 minutes towards 32, it’s got progressively more challenging – even if some of the early emotional trauma has gone for us both.

Today, however, I was on my own. I didn’t have an alibi. I had to run Like A Grownup Would. Liberating in some ways, but bloody horrible in others. Mainly all the ones after the first kilometre.

The last time I did this I slightly surprised myself and went quite quickly. There was someone I’d managed to follow quite closely back then, so I decided to latch onto them again. This proved to be a very very bad idea. They were younger, fitter, and had clearly been spending all the intervening time, well,  running Like A Grownup Would. (They eventually finished three minutes ahead of me).

But somehow, despite massively peaking way too soon and dealing with the aftermath of said hangover, I got round faster than before. Odd what bodies can do, isn’t it?

Musically, there’s been a few little bits today. I think I finally understand the Prophet VS synth in a way I hadn’t really before. Ooooh, it can sound proper nasty – but it’s very very different from a traditional wave table synth like the PPG Wave2.3 or Native Instruments’ Massive. And I’ve started to tackle my very rusty singing as well – ‘finding my voice’ in more ways than one. Bit of work to do tomorrow but I’m hoping for some proper practice at some point soon.

But the delight of the day has been some family time with the Playstation VR. Particularly the game “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes”. It’s been around for over a year as a Steam game/PDF pair, but it turns out to be absolutely perfect for VR.

In my VR goggles, I get to see this:

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The rest of the family get to read manifold pages of this:

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…and it’s only by talking to eachother like mad that we can stop the bomb going off before five minutes are up. I had a go, Daisy had a go, Vicky had a go. Milo was an expert manual-navigator throughout. Can’t recommend this highly enough.

In other PSVR news: Tumble VR remains good fun, if a bit heavy on the non-skippable tutorials. Bought it though – and it does get a lot harder quite quickly. And I tried Eve: Valkyrie but got really bad motion sickness from it. I think it’s the inverted controls for the spaceship that just push me over the edge.

 

962 – curmudgeoning ourselves to poverty

I got proper cross at the Today programme yesterday morning.

John Humphrys was interviewing experts on maths learning, pointing out that we need to get better at thinking mathematically.

17 million adults have primary-school levels of maths. John was almost proudly adding himself to the 17 million. “Does everyone need to be a mathematician? I don’t have any problems, I can get along” he says.

He’s then presented with OECD data – good numeracy is best protection against unemployment, low wages and poor health; numeracy has a 26% premium on salary, and is a good indicator of lower mortgage default.

And yet he carries on being a contrary bugger. (God bless Mishal Hussein for pointing out all the statistical stories they have to work their way through).

Unemployment is as much about skills shortage and skills fit, and while software carries on eating the jobs of yesteryear it’s just irresponsible to carry on acting as though this doesn’t matter. The media genuinely is talking down the economy here, and it doesn’t even understand it’s doing so.

Have a listen – fifty minutes in.

963 – belatedly learning

So I didn’t post last night. I just got in too late after too many glasses of wine a bit too tired and – well, sod it it’s only a blog.

I was feeling full of thinks though.

There’s a wonderful mini-conference series called ProductTank, and I try to go whenever I can. Sometimes it’s to see friends, sometimes it’s to refresh what I know, sometimes it’s to be reminded how far I’ve come in my adopted career. My latest adopted career.

Last night there was a session on AI and machine learning. Which I genuinely know nothing about. Well nothing recent. I watched some Horizons on the subject in the 80s and 90s and know what Wired can tell you about Google’s latest statistical magic – the latter of which will be about 50% dubious anyway. So I thought it was about time I learned.

I’ve recently become a subscriber to New Scientist, and it’s made me realise how much I’d started to slip into the mindset that the world was largely fixed and most of what could be solved had been solved. There is a continual trickle of crazy amazing near-magic happening all the time, redefining the world for our children, and we don’t hear enough about it because the media don’t really do science and lots of this work will eventually just be one cog in someone else’s product.

So yes, machine learning and AI. That should be good.

The talks were amazing. Azeem Azhar (ironically even his name turns into a veritable battle with autocorrect) framed the work going on around the world, and talked of some of the ethical concerns in this area – particularly reminding us that a) all of our assumptions and features are inherently political, b) beware of your machine learning “normal” from early users who will be ‘a sea of dudes’. I’ve followed him on twitter for ages, and we’ve been one degree of separation from each other for probably sixteen years, but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen him speaking in the flesh.

Shaona Ghosh was amazing on the techniques behind machine learning and I think everyone came away realising that there are no quick and easy solutions here. Not one. It’s a long time since there’s been a ProductTank talk where the slides contained sigma signs – and I bloody loved it. Little long-unused corners of my brain started fizzing slightly – I think it’s an area to carry on looking at, although I also know enough to understand I’ll be forever an amateur.

Finally Chris Auer-Welsbach from IBM Watson talked about interface, and on the idea that AI should be part of serving the user (and I think a there was some stuff about GPUs in there too).

But these three talks together all gave me a slight sense of unease. This is a really hard area with ethical troubles even if you are acting in good faith. But, and this is my big worry, I don’t think most startups truly want to serve their users. I think the temptation to abuse and exploit users is far too strong. I was reminded of the early days of interactive drama when one of my pleas when I gave talks was “for all of our sakes, if any of you do get that massive commission, please don’t take the easy route. Don’t blow it. This medium only has so many chances, and every failed project is another of the nine lives lost. Try to remember the greater good!”

And this is my worry about AI and machine learning – that it only takes a tiny number of bad actors to completely discredit the whole movement, for government to introduce legislation “for the good of consumers” that cuts off whole avenues of potential benefit forever.

And, while I’m often an optimist and believe the best of people, on this occasion I’ve got a feeling of dull inevitability. Someone somewhere Just Won’t Be Able To Help Themselves. Or there will be boardroom pressure and a few shortcuts will be taken.

But please don’t let it be you.

965 – take ten minutes

Tomorrow I know I’m going to be slightly useless at work. Well, not useless, more…silent. As a reluctant extrovert, over the course of four meetings I rather used all of my words up today.

So tomorrow will be largely spent with headphones on, avoiding speaking to people, so that I can – well – avoid speaking.

I didn’t much fancy heading to the piano this evening, but knew I needed to do something. Similarly, turning on that big music computer just to do payroll for our chold minder felt like a wasted opportunity. That I really wouldn’t have been that bothered about wasting.

Rather surprised then to have got an unexpectedly nice evolving melodic chord sequence out of the piano and a viciously nice sync lead out of G-Force Oddity.

I then quit – while I was still ahead.

966 – sticking to (one of) my (many) guns

Today was another day of wearing very many hats. Delivery manager, product manager, crap DBA, salesman, user researcher, copywriter, reluctant show off.

With a bigger team, as we are starting to be, this is better than being paralysed and unable to move, but there’s a lot to do. And a lot to get myself and the whole team better at on every front. The context switching comes at a cost.

Tonight that cost is “everything else”.

Sod payroll, music, social media, ironing, even sod the brand new PlayStation VR. Tomorrow is a new day, and I want to be up and awake to enjoy it.

I’m in bed with a small glass of red and a copy of New Scientist. While my eyes very very slowly close. Creation can happen tomorrow.