Weeknotes, Second Week of 2014

We're back in Oxford this week after two weeks in Ireland for Christmas. Things are going well.

I bought myself a little bike to run around Oxford, and this has made getting to and from the gym and pool much easier. I'm back into an exercise routine, and while starting again with swimming is always tough after a long break, I'm happy to be back moving again.

For the last year I've been scraping together a dataset from news sources in Ireland. This week I've started to pull the data together, and think about projects I'd like to pursue to explore the data. Nothing revolutionary, just some visual and textual analysis of news and published sentiment over the last 12 months; maybe some things similar to my From Over Here project. It's exciting to have a home-made dataset, rich enough to address from a number of different angles.

I've been thinking about the purpose of a blog/personal site is in 2014, and I have arrived at an answer that lives somewhere between lab notebook (demonstrating work done in pursuit of some experiment or other), LEGO box (lots of tiny, pre-made components that can be re-fashioned into different forms), and a sort of public workspace or shop (A place where I am sitting at a bench making something, can gesture to others to look, contribute to others' work - the Shop at ITP basically).

As part of this exploration and thought-process, I've started to compile a lot of the data that's out there in my social networks into my own API, making it much easier for me to incorporate things like tweets, bookmarks, photos and other breadcrumbs I leave around the web into this site and other projects. Once I've gathered enough data, I'll dig into making endpoints, components etc.

Work is going well. I will be in New York w/c 20th to meet up with the folks from Sloan-Kettering. I'm looking forward to the trip.

That's all for now.

Final Year Projects at CIID

Last week I had the pleasure of attending some of the final student presentations and end-of-year show at the Copenhagen Institute for Interaction Design. Here are some of my favourite projects:

Indie Controls
Indie Controls: A novel, open-source, modular games controller by Daniel Lahar.

Pretotype
Preotype: A toolkit that supports the design and documentation of physical computing and electronics projects.

Griphint
Griphint: A pen that offers autistic children visual feedback on their pen grip as they learn to write.

Kwerkies
Kwerkies: Really beautifully designed wooden toys that operate as a network, and react to one another.

I also really liked:

  • hej_verden - A toolkit to help children learn computer programming.
  • Little Treasures - A thoroughly-designed service designed to teach children about the concept of value and the use of money.
  • Hand Made - An exploration of human hand gestures, and a platform to collect novel hand gestures.

The work from CIID students was, as ever, thorough and thoughtful. It's a great programme.

Paying for the Web we Need

I probably reacted to the Edward Snowden revelations in the same way that a lot of people did. Not with surprise that mass surveillance happens, but that it happens so completely and so effectively.

Months later, I've factored the revelations into my opinion of how governments tend to behave (slightly more competent, a lot less cautious), but otherwise, my behaviour remains unchanged.

The web that I use, and have helped to build, is one where acceptance of minute surveillance of my activities is a pre-condition for the use of the most basic services.

This web has laid the technical foundations for mass surveillance, but I believe that it has also laid the psychological/ethical groundwork for the acceptance of surveillance as just another facet of my daily life. (Why wouldn't governments put me under surveillance when I've accepted that companies are allowed to, in exchange for keeping track of my friends' birthdays.)

Technology introduces biases in the types of things it makes more or less easy. Things that are easy become normal. Things that are difficult become other. The Snowden leaks are the clearest demonstration of this at scale. Remaining private is difficult, and so demanding privacy now would disconnect me from the majority.

More importantly maybe, the leaks show me that technology has drastically skewed my sense of what is acceptable. I can't help but fit the NSA's activities into the moral framework I've built up around targeted advertising. And they are certainly not equivalent.

It'd be impractical, and lonely, to move my online life over to services that aren't funded via surveillance-marketing, but I can take a small step by paying for more parts of the web that I value in cold hard cash.

I can also try to evaluate things that might be technologically similar, but ethically different, with a much more critical eye.

Weeknotes, Colder Weather

Suddenly it's December. Work is going well. My home office is quite comfortable, and I have been more productive than I was when working from the local co-working space.

In my spare time this week I've been mapping out some changes I want to make to this site, and planning a few personal projects and longer articles I'd like to complete in 2014. Just sketches and post-its for now, but progress nonetheless.

My real reason for writing today is that I am in a little bit of a physical activity slump. From training 6 days a week up until August, I now find myself with a gorgeous new racing bicycle, access to the Oxford University gym, and every opportunity to exercise, but no motivation whatsoever.

Part of it, no doubt, has to do with being in a new city with absolutely no training buddies to call on. Part of it has to do with the lack of a concrete goal. Part of it has to do with the weather and scant daylight. Part of it has to do with overcoming the inertia of taking a few months off. A big part of it has to due with the accumulation of injuries, and the creeping realisation that I can't really run anymore.

I suppose I realised a few weeks ago that this is the slump that people get into when their body starts to weaken a little, and their legs start to thicken a little. Maybe this is a slump that a lot of people don't get out of. It certainly feels different from the familiar fraying of good habits I experience before I make an adjustment. I hope that writing about it helps me figure it out.

Cliona is in New York this weekend, then in California next week. I will be spending some time in Copenhagen, and maybe New York, before heading back to Dublin for Christmas.

I am not quite at ease today.

Life in Run Mode

Hey there. Things have been settling into a nice routine here in Oxford.

I have moved into, then out of a local co-working space - and I'm now working out of a little home office. The co-working space was nice, but I've been traveling to New York every 4-5 weeks, and it was hard to justify the cost. Working at home has some familiar challenges, but I've done everything I can to make sure that the home office feels comfortable and somewhat separate.

I bought a bike, and joined a local cycling club. I haven't really put many miles into my legs yet - but I am looking forward to getting into the rhythm of weekend spins out in the countryside.

Cliona is doing well; she bought a car, which has made her commute to work much more manageable. This week she's in Donegal visiting some colleagues. Next week I'm in New York, then she's in California. We are both working very hard, and traveling a bit - but we'll get a break towards the end of the year and Christmas.

We have been thinking about getting a dog for quite a while. It was never really practical in New York, because we knew that our time there was likely to be brief. Now that we're starting to feel at home in Oxford, and have some more space, we've started to look around for an animal-pal. We visited Oxford Animal Sanctuary, and met three lovely dogs. Two of them were great, but too big for us, and one was small, but seemed to be a little on the grumpy side. Anyway, now that we've dipped our toes in the water, we're going to think about the type and size of dog that we can handle, and in the New Year go out and see if we can find that dog. We know that he or she is out there.

I have not been taking many photos, mostly because I can't find a good lab in Oxford. Nowhere, and I mean nowhere that I can find will process black and white. Most places are reluctant to take film at all. Given that I am only shooting on film these days, that's putting a cramp on things. Anyway, I might need to shoot film, then take day trips to London to get rolls processed. It's not ideal. Anyway, we'll see what happens - but I would like to get back to the camera as soon as possible.

So, that's what's happening right now.

Allentown, New York - Week 10

Me and Simon taking part in the 2013 Donut Derby.

What an amazing week. I've been in the US since Saturday.

I spent the weekend with Simon, Amy, and Trotsky in Allentown, which was lovely. We ate great food, watched Total Recall and Predator. Super chilled and fun times.

On Monday, me and Simon took part in a 36-mile bike race, the Donut Derby. In the Derby, racers have 3 minutes deducted off their time for every donut eaten at the rest stops.

Me and Simon managed a total of 6 donuts each. We then managed to get lost - adding 5 miles onto our race, and wiping out both our donut-adjusted time, and our chances of finishing in the respectable half of the field. Next year I am going to pay closer attention to the road markings, bring a GPS device, and eat more donuts. It was still a great ride, and was actually the first time me and Simon have been on bikes together since we were kids.

On Tuesday I relocated to New York, and spent the working week meeting with the folks at MSKCC. In the evenings I got to spend time with my super-amazing NYC friends , eat ice-cream sandwiches, eat delicious bagels, eat more donuts, go to the theatre, and see some great live music. The whole week was like a highlights reel of everything I love about New York. I didn't get to see everybody I'd like to see, but I hope to be back soon. Special thanks to Ross and Natalie for letting me stay with them for a couple of nights.

I'm at Newark airport now, heading to Dublin via London. Tomorrow I get to see my family and my Dublin friends, attend Kevin Cannon's birthday, and see Verona Riots in concert.

I'll be back at home in Oxford on Sunday night. Maybe on Monday I will not get on a plane, or cross a border.

Life is good at the moment.

Goodbye Hackney

An addendum to Everywhere I Have Ever Lived:

Having left New York in the Summer of 2013, we moved to London. Cliona looked for a new job while I continued to work on projects with Sloan-Kettering from a co-working space in Hackney Wick.

We sublet a cute little apartment fom Maria Zahle. It's our happy Hackney home for two months before Cliona finds a job in Oxford, and we opt to move up there.

Satellite photo of Sandgate House, Hackney, London

I will miss Hackney quite a bit, but new adventures await.

Seamus Heaney - The Underground

Leaving is difficult. Moving is difficult. Starting is difficult. Doing all three at once has been, at times, difficult.

I heard this today for the first time, to my shame. I thought of Cliona, our journey forward together, and not looking back.

This line.

To end up in a draughty lamplit station After the trains have gone, the wet track Bared and tensed as I am, all attention For your step following and damned if I look back.

Quite something.

Somewhere Week 9

A busy week, a tiring week. While Cliona was settling into her new job, I stayed in London to tidy a few things up.

Yesterday I moved out of the co-working space in Hackney Wick, rented a little van, and drove our stuff up to Oxford. Our little house there is the bees' knees, and I'm looking forward to getting settled.

Today, I'm back in London to lock up our sublet in Hackney. Tomorrow morning I fly to the US. I am staying with Simon and Amy in Allentown for a couple of days, then I'll be in New York to see the good people at Sloan-Kettering.

Obituaries; not to become a regular feature.

This week we lost the founder of ITP, Red Burns. The reaction to her death on the ITP Alumni mailing list has been quite intense. Some people loved Red. Some really didn't. I think there is a consensus that she was a hardworking, whip-smart, opinionated, and uncompromising woman.

We also lost Seamus Heaney. At school we read and studied him, but I didn't hear him. Today, for the first time, I feel like I heard him.

Red Burns

Red Burns, founder of ITP, and true force of nature, died yesterday.

I first met Red during my impromptu interview for ITP. Cliona and I were visiting New York for just one day. We were engaged, and spent the morning buying our wedding rings in the diamond district. We stopped by ITP for a tour with George Agudow.

Red heard that I was on the floor, and called me into her office. She asked Cliona to come in too, and found a comfortable chair for her to sit in while we talked.

"So, I've read your application and I can't make head or tail of it."

Any idea that this was going to be a casual chat went out the window. She proceeded to grill me for a solid hour about what I had written, why I wanted to come to ITP, what my ideas were.

Truth be told, I didn't know exactly why I wanted to come to ITP. I was worried that I was becoming a talker and not a doer. I wanted to make things again. I was interested in health and the human body. Instead of just saying that, I had written thousands of words of the worst sort of bullshit.

Red called me out, and I had very little to say for myself.

Afterwards, Cliona and I sat quietly eating a slice of pizza in the corner deli. I was grumpy. How dare she do that in front of my future wife!? Maybe ITP wasn't for me. (Cliona rightly pointed out that I should have expected her to interview me, or at least talk to me, if I was visiting all the way from Ireland).

Anyway. I got into ITP. I got to make things again. I got to meet the most wonderful people. I learned and grew more in two years than I had in the previous ten. I got to do all of this thanks to Red.

I had many more encounters with her over the years. She took an interest in some of my projects, and made sure I talked to the right people about them. She was constantly working to make sure that our work was as good as it could be, and had the maximum impact.

Whenever I start to lose my nerve, or I feel myself drifting into excuses, I think of my interview with Red. I summon some of her clarity, and I get myself back on track.

Red Burns changed my life. Thank you Red.