My computer usage has changed quite a bit over the last few years. Outside of work hours I now mostly use my iPad for casual computering, such as browsing, email, social media and so forth. My MacBook is reserved for heavier lifting, like bulk photography editing with Lightroom or Garageband loop creation.

This means, I now only open it up once or twice a week, or if I’ve been away on a trip, even less frequently. And coming back to it even after a couple of days is a fairly tedious and horrible experience.

And it’s all the fault of people like me (at least former me when I worked on apps).

It goes like this: I open up my computer, and immediately my password manager will need an update. Perhaps also my text editor. Or perhaps Little Snitch. I have to wade through a series of dialogs as usually at least one or two bits of software will be shouting “forget that task you wanted to do, I AM SO GREAT I HAVE NEW THINGS”, when all I want to do is some quick task. Oh, what’s that media editor app that’s cloud based, you’ve forgotten my login so I have to dig out my password again from my password manager (assuming it’s finished its update).

And so on and so forth. Mostly from apps that care about their user interface a lot, which is why I bought them in the first place.

Being a casual computer user is a fairly horrible user experience it turns out.

When I used this computer multiple times a day this didn’t bother me. Indeed, the periodic update was new and exciting. As indeed I felt when writing applications for people; I couldn’t wait to tell them about the awesome new things I’d just added for them! As developers our products are our things of which we’re rightly proud, and we’re eager to share. But we forget that our users aren’t like us a lot of the time. Oh, our echo chamber in twitter is just like us and reinforces the idea that we should be issuing an update every week or so. But outside of our social media bubble, things are more annoying.

It is made worse because I know things can be better. iOS updates my apps constantly without interrupting me. I just pick the device up and get on with my tasks. It’s painless and you forget it’s even happening unless you happen to review the updates list in the app store for some reason.

The alternative of not doing updates is terrible – mostly wearing my security hat for this. You really should keep your software up to date people.

But desktop app developers really do need to learn that your app isn’t actually the centre of your users world. Do update your app frequently, but give the user the option to just have them apply silently at some safe point. I know that’s hard, but solving hard problems is why your users give you money to make great products.

The obvious real time killer is when you turn on your computer and so many apps do this you spend half an hour writing a blog post about why they annoy you. What was it I was just about to do?

21 Jul 2017

Super proud of my brother and his pals who together have formed the band IKARI, who have their debut single launch today, Ghosts.

You can snag it on iTunes and Spotify etc. They’ve done a superb job, a great professional production.

I’m also just a wee bit proud too that the guitar my brother is playing on the single and in the video is the one that I built for him: it’s amazing to have built something that enabled him in some small part to create this single.

If the single takes your fancy then IKARI are playing at King Tut’s in Glasgow on August 11th, go to their site to get tickets!

19 Jul 2017

When I switched from my old Buell Ulysses adventure bike to the Brammo electric sports bike, the idea was that we’d hire a bigger bike occasionally for going longer trips (the Buell having seen us round both Wales and Scotland, not to say countless runs around the Norfolk coast). But in practice we didn’t do that, and we didn’t just miss the epic trips, the Brammo, as fun as it is, doesn’t even allow us midrange trips without logs of logistics around charging. So in the end we only ever were going out around the local countryside on the Brammo.

Thus, somewhat accidentally, we’ve now ended up with a new KTM Superadventure S 1290 adventure bike, so that Laura and I can go touring and exploring again.

KTM SuperAdventure parked in the Norfolk rain

Similar to the Buell, the KTM stands out in having some amazing engineering aspects to it. The dash is just a single TFT display, similar to an iPad mini in size, that lets you control everything you need. It has switchable engine and suspension dampening modes, that let me instantly move between touring, sports, town, and off-road optimised configuration. This may sound superfluous, but in the rain being able to drop the power and smooth the throttle is wonderful on a bike that can also do the fully loaded two up touring without breaking a sweat. I can tell it whether I have a pillion and/or luggage and it’ll similarly adjust.

Having done a weekend tour around Norfolk to complete the run-in interval before the first service, we can happily attest it makes a great touring bike. The functional but not pretty aluminium boxes are particularly nice. Most side boxes are side loading, whereas these are top loading, which is much more convenient, and you can fit a helmet in two of the three boxes. We also have fitted bags for the two side boxes which makes rocking up to your day’s destination and unloading a breeze.

I can also attest, despite being somewhat large as bikes go, it does off road, and I took the heaviest and most expensive bike I’ve ever owned for my first go at green lane riding:

Me taking the KTM down some of the green lanes cutting between Cambridgeshire fields.

My friend Wil from work is an experienced green lane rider, often commuting into work along these lanes in his BMW 1200GSA which he makes look like a wee 125 given how effortlessly he flicks it around, and he took me along his usual route so I could try the KTM in its other natural habitat. It was a lot of fun, and a lot of effort – standing up to ride offroad is not something I’m practiced at, and I suspect my technique is all off. But it was great, and the bike was more than happy despite its size and weight – though I think I’ll save up for some crash bars before I do another such excursion :) But it did enjoy it, and have signed up to be a member of the Trail Rider Fellowship that promotes sensible and sustainable green lane usage by motorcyclists.

Another example of the KTM forging down a green lane.

I put together a short video about my second guitar build (for those keeping count, I’m currently building 3 and 4). This guitar was a build for my brother, who currently is playing metalcore band Ikari, and wanted something that was atypically metal, so I made him a tele that sounds like something more grungy.

This guitar really took way longer than I expected, and was way more challenging that I had anticipated. Partly this is due to work getting in the way, but partly because I unintentionally broke my own rule of keeping things simple and only incrementally stepping out if my comfort zone. This is basically the rule that should prevent me trying to do too much and being overwhelmed in a project: each time (in this case, each guitar) stick with what you know but change just one thing to something new that you don’t know how to do.

With the first guitar, I mostly took existing bits and tweaked them to build a guitar that is to my tastes. So whilst I did have to do some woodwork, it was nothing too scary, and mostly it was within my comfort zone. And that worked: I still play that guitar most every day. For the second one I thought I’d try to increment in two ways (as a guitar has two major parts, why not do a small step on both?): I made the body from scratch, and I did the fretwork on the neck. Turns out, both of these were quite bigger challenges than I’d anticipated, so I should, in retrospect, have only done one. As such the project dragged on and on and risked never getting finished as it became more of a burden than a thing of fun.

But thankfully my second rule of that I apply to this sort of thing saved the project: I had a customer. Had I been making this guitar for just me, then I’d probably have just stalled and it would have languished. But to try and make sure I had a focus for the build, I started out by deciding I’d make one for my brother (who is a totally awesome guitarist), and I’d make it to his requirements. This meant that when the project seemed not fun, I still had a reason to drag myself into makespace and take yet another run at those darned annoying frets.

The guitar was originally meant to be finished for last christmas, and it’s only now in late May that I’m finally handing it over to my brother. I still am not happy with the guitar: I can see all the things I’d do differently, but there comes a time when you have to just ship it, take those lessons, and move on. I have impossibly high standards of what I’d like to achieve, but the only way to get there is keep trying, rather than just endlessly refining on thing. Making this video was actually quite cathartic; for the first time I actually just enjoyed playing it in the endless takes that didn’t make the video. Would I do things differently if I was building this guitar again? Of course. But actually, making the video enabled me to see actually I’d made something pretty cool, that if you asked me 12 and a bit months ago could I build, I’d have struggled to believe you.

Which is a good point to reflect: I set out to build my first guitar based on watching too many youtube videos on luthiers about 12 months ago, having not done any woodwork for 25 years. by having some simple rules in place to try and make sure the project didn’t stall, I’ve actually built two guitars, and I’m in the process of building two more. When people look at my guitars they mostly look at them and thing, “wow, I could never do that”, which is what I’d‘ve thought 13 months ago. I now mostly preach these two rules of personal project management to people: you can do it, you just need to set yourself up for success correctly by limiting scope and having a delivery target to hold yourself to to get through the bad times.

26 Feb 2017

As part of my adventures in amateur luthiery, part of understanding what to build is researching what’s gone before, so I’ve been brushing up on my knowledge of vintage guitars. Less that I want a vintage guitar (although I’d not say no to a Tele from my birth year, if you happen to have a 76 spare), more I want to see what’s gone before to inspire me on what to build next.

I find it somewhat fascinating how little guitar design has evolved in the last half century; the popular guitars of today are now knocking on 70 years old now: the Fender Telecaster was designed in 1949, the Gibson Les Paul, came out in 1952, and the Fender Stratocaster in 1954. But then I guess classical string instrument design hasn’t changed much either in the last few hundred years, at least in terms of superficials.

Anyway, as part of that I’ve amassed a set of links I thought I’d share incase anyone else was interested in having a look at guitar history.

Book-wise, I can recommend The History of the American Guitar by Tony Bacon, and for my particular go-to guitar Six Decades of the Fender Telecaster, also by Mr Bacon. Neither book is vastly deep, but both give you a good overview over how things have evolved over the last 100 years in terms of guitars, both in terms of sound and use, but also the trends in both taste and business that have driven them.

As ever, YouTube is a treasure trove of things. For a quick look at a lot of vintage guitars, then I can highly recommend the Guitar of the Day playlist from Norman’s Rare Guitars. Five days a week they produce a five minute video showcasing another rare guitar they have in stock, give you a little history, and play it through a clean amp so you can hear it too (“all the EQs at noon, just a little reverb…”).

For a longer dive into the world of a vintage guitar addict, this programme about the buying habits of blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa is well worth a watch:

A hat tip to Andy Field for pointing me at that video. If you actually play too, then I also enjoyed this interview with Bonamassa on how he gets his tone to be like that of the 60s blues starts like Cream, Jeff Beck, etc.

Finally, if you like fiddling with guitars, I can also recommend the Mod Garage column in Premier Guitar; they have loads of columns about how wiring evolved for old Teles etc., and some variations to make them suitable for modern ears.

If you have any recommendations for other sources, please let me know!

22 Dec 2016

I forget what depressing bit of news made me aware about how little I know about the global planet patterns beyond the obvious ones like the gulf stream, but it gave me an idea to try and find a way to make me more aware of the planet’s ebb and flow.

A little looking around the Internet later, I found this wonderful site, which gives an up to date animation of various metrics for the planet around the sea, air, particulates, and pollutants, which is simply called earth.

A picture of the earth website showing the wind patterns

Armed with this our wall mounted monitor in the kitchen now just slowly cycles through various of these maps, showing us the evolving global state of things like precipitation, ocean currents and wave heights, CO2 emissions, and dust particulates. Hopefully over time I’ll get a better understanding of how the planet behaves.

If you want to see why China’s efforts to green its economy are important, you can have a quick look at these maps of sulphur dioxide emissions and carbon monoxide emissions.

17 Dec 2016

I was posting more regular guitar videos earlier in the year as I tried to improve, but then I started taking actual guitar lessons, so I stopped for two reasons: I had a motivator to practice (which was why I was doing them originally), and because for a while I became a much worse guitarist as my teacher tried to undo my bad habits and build me back up.

But, after four months or so of lessons, I’m really pleased with how I’m progressing, so I thought I’d share this little take on the intro to Hideaway, as originally performed by John Mayal and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Claptop (They were covering Freddie King, but it’s the Claptop version I’m covering here):

It’s only really the first 12 bars I’ve learned, but I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made over the last third of a year, particularly (as a friend already commented to me) my picking technique, which has come a long way.

Not having any bandmates, I’ve had to make do with filling in for them myself when practicing, and so I’ve gone the way of using a combination of computer generated drums and a looper pedal. The looper pedal just lets me record bits and play over them, probably best demonstrated by KT Tunstall when she does Black Horse and the Cherry Tree live, which I remember being amazed by when I first saw, and still a great performance today. The drums come from GarageBand on the Mac, which has a bunch of algorithmic drummers that can create backing drums for a wide range of play styles and beats. Put the drums together with a looper, you have a nice backing track.

The main joy though of learning guitar has been learning to go off the beaten track. I’m starting to learn not just to play songs, but why songs are the way they are: understanding the scales that make up a solo and the patterns than make up a blues rhythm, etc. Allowing me not to just try play songs I love, but just mess around and explore. It definitely is a liberating experience to use the looper to just lay down a rhythm and noodle over it for a while and see where your playing can take you.

In my younger, idealistic, /. reading days, Linux was the true way, and Microsoft as portrayed as the big bad, reduced to a dismissive two letters, and one of those wasn’t even a alphabetic character (M$). That younger me (this was pre OS X zealotry, and my current general platform ambivalence), would have been quite shocked to see this: my zsh based environment running happily, natively, under Windows 10:

zsh terminal runs happily in Win 10 on my MacBook

For total cross platform love, that’s running on my Apple MacBook in boot camp :)

So far it’s working very nicely – there’s a little complexity with the file system view, but the fact that apt-get works and I can install common Linux tools the way I’m used to from Ubuntu is quite nice.

After a couple of months of effort, I’ve finally finished building my first guitar.

A simple telecaster with a twist, but I’m still very pleased with the result. It’s been over a quarter of a century since I last did any woodwork, and this project had me in Makespace wielding the plunge router and pillar drill.

It really is a testament to the learning potential of the Internet. Most of what I needed to know here I learned from YouTube tutorials, particularly the Crimson Guitars channel. Ten years ago there was no YouTube, and I think we tend to take it for granted now, but as an education tool for things like this, it’s just wonderful – I doubt I would have ended up with a finished guitar had it not existed, given the other demands on my time.

The finished result looks lovely, but also plays great. It’s a common twist on a common guitar, but this exact combination of bits makes this one unique.

I’m looking forward to doing more and slowly making more and more of the parts. The second guitar will be made for my brother to his specification, and I plan on building the body from scratch this time, doing the rough shape on the CNC router at Makespace and then finishing it by hand.

After many years making software, it is rather nice to build something physical.

3 Jul 2016

When I was around five or six my Dad took us a couple of times to the Formula One, both at Brands Hatch and at Silverstone. My only real memories of the event now are the traffic jams and my being sick so Dad had to bring us home early, something I feel most guilty about now I’m an adult and understand the pain in getting to such events, sorry Dad. But these memories, as vague as they may be, still made it all the more special when this week I got to drive the circuit at Brands Hatch for a day: I’d one been here as a kid besotted with F1, and now I was going to be challenging myself on the twists and turns of that famous circuit. Something my 35 year ago self would never have believed would happen.

Driving a Caterham onto the Brands Hatch start/finish straight

Brands Hatch is a track I’ve become quite familiar of in the last year, thanks to its inclusion in Forza Motorsport 6. Some friends and I would run a weekly fastest lap challenge, and we used both circuit configurations on Brands Hatch, so I put a lot of hours into it, and learned to love it for its technical challenges, particularly the the longer GP circuit configuration. This configuration is actually not used much these days due to noise restrictions, so when I spotted a track day open up on the GP circuit, that same circuit I’d’ve watched as a kid, I leapt at the opportunity to go.

Having long ago read Jonathan Gitlin’s piece in Ars Technica about whether you can learn to race a real track using video games, I was curious to see how well the countless virtual hours I’d spent lapping Brands Hatch in Forza would help or hinder me in real life. Would it just be too different that it’d not help, would I have learned some bad habits in the virtual game that I’d need to unlearn? I was already aware from doing track time previously that virtual driving, as fun as it is, really doesn’t come close to the physical experience of real driving. Track driving is not like regular driving – you’re having to constantly pay attention to every detail, you’re accelerating hard, you’re breaking even harder, it’s both physically and mentally quite a workout, something impossible to recreate properly in your living room.

Waiting to get on track

When I got to Brands Hatch for the first time in over three decades, the first thing that became immediately obvious to me was that the virtual video game experience just does not convey properly the elevation changes in the track. I know from Forza that Brands was hilly, but the two dimensional projection on your TV that is free from really world effects like gravity and momentum acting on your body just do not get across to you how steep a lot of the track is. This meant a lot of my assumptions about the track were out of the window immediately. I’ve no idea what Forza can do to get this across – whether it is just the lighting in the game, or they need to make it slightly more caricatured to get it across better, but it was quite an eye opened that after the steep dip down as you turn right off the start/finish straight, what in Forza feels like a gentle climb up to the hairpin is in fact an immediate steep climb, like a sharp drop and climb in a roller-coaster. Quite sensational to drive and master. Similarly, the slightly less aggressive dip and climb on the back section of the track is visually conveyed in Forza, but I was unprepared for the G-force shift on my body, as you’re going quite quick at that point, and as the road takes your car up your body takes a moment or two to realise it’s not still going down.

About to head from hill to dale

And these differences made me love Brands Hatch as a track all the more. What I like about track driving, over regular driving, is it’s a challenge to master, at the same time as being quite exhilarating. Anyone with a right foot (and, given technological advances, those without too) can make a car go fast in a straight line: just press the accelerator hard. There’s no challenge to that. What I love about track driving is being able to string corners together whilst keeping speed up to get a fast lap, better than the one I did previously. That takes planning, experience, judgement; the fastest line through a corner does not mean having the most velocity, it means balancing speed and position perfectly, something that is hard to get right, but feels great when you nail it. And then there’s trying to nail it consistently, which is another challenge too.

Thankfully, given that my learning on Forza was out the window due to the elevation changes, I had some one on one tuition booked (included as part of hiring a car with book-a-track, I assume to make sure you hand the car back in one piece). After twenty minutes adjusting to the elevation changes and learning the lines, Brands Hatch came back to me. Thus by the time I had my afternoon tutorial session, I was actually on top of where the racing line was, so rather than continue to learn the track, we worked on my technique, which was wonderfully educational (many thanks to Richard, my tutor, for that). So although I had to relearn the track, my time in Forza did make that settle in much more quickly, allowing me to get more consistent earlier in the day than for my friend attending who hadn’t experienced the track before.

Hitting the apex on a corner

In the afternoon there was light rain, forcing us to slow down, but that was actually quite good from a learning perspective, as it forced you to slow your pace, and you could work on your lines, an opinion I found shared amongst fellow drivers in the paddock at Brands Hatch for the first time. There’s one particularly hard corner on the back section, called Sheene Curve, which is a medium tightness right hander at the top of a climb; what makes it really quite tricky is you need to commit to turning into it before you’ve crested the hill if you want to get the best line through it. In the dry, I was carrying sufficient speed my nerve wouldn’t let me, forcing me to ironically go slower through the corner. But the damp afternoon conditions gave me more space to place and anticipate and work on my position, so by the end of the day I had the line nailed, and I was taking that section quicker despite the damp.

By the end of the day, despite being hugely tired, I was very happy. I’d got the privilege of driving a classic racing circuit from my childhood, and managed to unlock some of its secrets at the same time as improving my overall technique.

I went back to Forza the following day just to check how it compared, and elevation issues aside, it’s pretty damned spot on. All the breaking markers were in the right place, even the painted line on the track in one section that I used to judge an apex was there. As true testament though, I was able to disable all driver hints, and just drive the line I drove on the real track and nail the corners fine, including the blind apex.

Forza has a limited selection of UK tracks, making it hard to repeat this education before going on tracks that I’d like to tackle next (at least until I realise my dream and get on track at Laguna Seca). Thankfully there’s another racing simulator, Project Cars, that includes tracks like Cadwell Park, Donnington, and Snetterton, so now I can get to planning my next track day.