Upgrading my Dell XPS 13 to Ubuntu 14.04 LTS

But I’m really not that into football, so:

And while that was going (my Thinkpad is my work laptop which I’d brought home with me on Friday):

Back at the main story:

Meanwhile, Germany had won the Men’s World Cup for the first time since reunification (but their fourth if you count West Germany’s wins), the first European team to win in South America:

I decided to reinstall from scratch. I should probably have done this in the first place because the original installation was the one Dell did with all their custom packages to make the hardware work. The Dell XPS 13 packages (for the laptop I bought in July 2013 anyway) are now all in the official Ubuntu repositories. I think my problems were probably caused by clashes of some kind between the old and new packages.

Almost all my data files are backed up in Dropbox so that bit’s easy. The Windows 7 virtual machine I use for PhD software is about 26 GB but I can rebuild it if the HDD dies, so I don’t bother backing it up (the data on it goes into Dropbox). I figured, however, that backing it up to my USB stick might be useful and save me some time. Annoyingly, that’s the bit that took most of the time. Downloading the Ubuntu ISO and creating a USB installation disk took no time. Then installing it was pretty quick too.

It’s doubly annoying that the virtual machine took so much of the time (I finished about 1.30am, leaving Dropbox doing its thing while I slept). After waiting for the files to copy back to my newly-installed laptop this morning, I discovered that I’ve been working in a VirtualBox snapshot. So the 13 GB Snapshots folder that I’d not copied was kindof essential to things and the virtual machine wouldn’t boot without it:

I can’t find my Nvivo 10 CD either but I imagine installing Windows 7 and its updates will take most of today anyway. Fortunately it’s sunny so I might just leave it installing and go do (PhD) reading in the garden.

Monkigras 2014: Sharing craft

After Monkigras 2013, I was really looking forward to Monkigras 2014. The great talks about developer culture and creating usable software, the amazing buzz and friendliness of the event, the wonderful lack of choice over which talks to go to (there’s just one track!!), and (of course) the catering:

coffee
cheese

The talks at Monkigras 2014

The talks were pretty much all great so I’m just going to mention the talks that were particularly relevant to me.

Rafe Colburn from Etsy talked about how to motivate developers to fix bugs (IBMers, read ‘defects’) when there’s a big backlog of bugs to fix. They’d tried many strategies, including bug rotation, but none worked. The answer, they found, was to ask their support team to help prioritise the bugs based on the problems that users actually cared about. That way, the developers fixing the bugs weren’t overwhelmed by the sheer numbers to choose from. Also, when they’d done a fix, the developers could feel that they’d made a difference to the user experience of the software.

Rafe Colburn from Etsy
Rafe Colburn from Etsy

While I’m not responsible for motivating developers to fix bugs, my job does involve persuading developers to write articles or sample code for WASdev.net. So I figure I could learn a few tricks.

A couple of talks that were directly applicable to me were Steve Pousty‘s talk on how to be a developer evangelist and Dawn Foster‘s on taking lessons on community from science fiction. The latter was a quick look through various science fiction themes and novels applied to developer communities, which was a neat idea though I wished I’d read more of the novels she cited. I was particularly interested in Steve’s talk because I’d seen him speak last year about how his PhD in Ecology had helped him understand communities as ecosystems in which there are sometimes surprising dependencies. This year, he ran through a checklist of attributes to look for when hiring a developer evangelist. Although I’m not strictly a developer evangelist, there’s enough overlap with my role to make me pay attention and check myself against each one.

Dawn Foster from PuppetLabs
Dawn Foster from PuppetLabs

One of the risks of TED Talk-style talks is that if you don’t quite match up to the ‘right answers’ espoused by the speakers, you could come away from the event feeling inadequate. The friendly atmosphere of Monkigras, and the fact that some speakers directly contradicted each other, meant that this was unlikely to happen.

It was still refreshing, however, to listen to Theo Schlossnagle basically telling people to do what they find works in their context. Companies are different and different things work for different companies. Similarly, developers are people and people learn in different ways so developers learn in different ways. He focused on how to tell stories about your own failures to help people learn and to save them from having to make the same mistakes.

Again, this was refreshing to hear because speakers often tell you how you should do something and how it worked for them. They skim over the things that went wrong and end up convincing you that if only you immediately start doing things their way, you’ll have instant success. Or that inadequacy just kicks in like when you read certain people’s Facebook statuses. Theo’s point was that it’s far more useful from a learning perspective to hear about the things that went wrong for them. Not in a morbid, defeatist way (that way lies only self-pity and fear) but as a story in which things go wrong but are righted by the end. I liked that.

Theo Schlossnagle from Circonus
Theo Schlossnagle from Circonus

Ana Nelson (geek conference buddy and friend) also talked about storytelling. Her point was more about telling the right story well so that people believe it rather than believing lies, which are often much more intuitive and fun to believe. She impressively wove together an argument built on various fields of research including Psychology, Philosophy, and Statistics. In a nutshell, the kind of simplistic headlines newspapers often publish are much more intuitive and attractive because they fit in with our existing beliefs more easily than the usually more complicated story behind the headlines.

Ana Nelson from Brick Alloy
Ana Nelson from Brick Alloy

The Gentle Author spoke just before lunch about his daily blog in which he documents stories from local people. I was lucky enough to win one of his signed books, which is beautiful and engrossing. Here it is with my swagbag:

After his popular talk last year, Phil Gilbert of IBM returned to give an update on how things are going with Design@IBM. Theo’s point about context of a company being important is so relevant when trying to change the culture of such a large company. He introduced a new card game that you can use to help teach people what it’s like to be a designer working within the constraints of a real software project. I heard a fair amount of interest from non-IBMers who were keen for a copy of the cards to be made available outside IBM.

Phil Gilbert's Wild Ducks card game
Phil Gilbert’s Wild Ducks card game

On the UX theme, I loved Leisa Reichelt‘s talk about introducing user research to the development teams at GDS. While all areas of UX can struggle to get taken seriously, user research (eg interviewing participants and usability testing) is often overlooked because it doesn’t produce visual designs or code. Leisa’s talk was wonderfully practical in how she related her experiences at GDS of proving the worth of user research to the extent that the number of user researchers has greatly increased.

And lastly I must mention Project Andiamo, which was born at Monkigras 2013 after watching a talk about laser scanning and 3D printing old railway trains. The project aims to produce medical orthotics, like splints and braces, by laser scanning the patient’s body and then 3D printing the part. This not only makes the whole process much quicker and more comfortable, it is at a fraction of the cost of the way that orthotics are currently made.

Samiya Parvez & Naveed Parvez of Project Andiamo
Samiya Parvez & Naveed Parvez of Project Andiamo

If you can help in any way, take a look at their website and get in touch with them. Samiya and Naveed’s talk was an amazing example of how a well-constructed story can get a powerful message across to its listeners:

After Monkigras 2014, I’m now really looking forward to Monkigras 2015.


 

MOHOP sandals: A Kickstarter project I’ve backed

Every Summer, I wish for a pair of sandals that are comfortable but have some style so that they can feel a bit smart as well as casual. And I’m rubbish at finding them – I don’t really like shoe-shopping at all, which doesn’t help. Enter MOHOP sandals.

I was browsing Kickstarter projects over Christmas and came across the MOHOP sandals project. Basically, you get a pair of sandal bases, some ribbon, and some design cards. You then thread the ribbons on the bases according to the design cards (or your imagination). The bases are flexible with wooden heels and are suitable for vegans and people with a range of other ethical shopping goals (inc, if you’re from the US, made in the US).

(Although the bases shown have high heels, they’re also available as flats or different heights of heel.)

They’ve apparently been going for some time (at mohop.com and on Etsy) but were struggling to meet demand. They’re taking the Kickstarter route to fund expanding their production capabilities (inc creating local jobs).

I think the sandals are a great idea. They’re fun to look at, comfy to wear (according to the reviews), and infinitely re-designable, which appeals to my crafty side. You can thread decorations on to the ribbon or replace the ribbons completely with strips of sari, shoelaces, or anything else that occurs to you.

At the moment, the cheapest pair is $45 for a pair of flats (though there are lower-cost ‘perks’ available if you just want to contribute without buying any shoes). I’ve gone for the $100 ones that have low heels. They’re looking for $50,000 of funding by the 25th January so that they can open their new production place. They’ve got some way to go yet so if you like the look of them, consider supporting this cool idea!

Here’s their video about manufacturing their shoes:

At ThingMonk 2013

I attended ThingMonk 2013 conference partly because IBM’s doing a load of work around the Internet of Things (IoT). I figured it would be useful to find out what’s happening in the world of IoT at the moment. Also, I knew that, as a *Monk production, the food would be amazing.

What is the Internet of Things?

If you’re reading this, you’re familiar with using devices to access information, communicate, buy things, and so on over the Internet. The Internet of Things, at a superficial level, is just taking the humans out of the process. So, for example, if your washing machine were connected to the Internet, it could automatically book a service engineer if it detects a fault.

I say ‘at a superficial level’ because there are obviously still issues relevant to humans in an automated process. It matters that the automatically-scheduled appointment is convenient for the householder. And it matters that the householder trusts that the machine really is faulty when it says it is and that it’s not the manufacturer just calling out a service engineer to make money.

This is how James Governor of RedMonk, who conceived and hosted ThingMonk 2013, explains IoT:

What is ThingMonk 2013?

ThingMonk 2013 was a fun two-day conference in London. On Monday was a hackday with spontaneous lightning talks and on Tuesday were the scheduled talks and the evening party. I wasn’t able to attend Monday’s hackday so you’ll have to read someone else’s write-up about that (you could try Josie Messa’s, for instance).

The talks

I bought my Arduino getting started kit (which I used for my Christmas lights energy project in 2010) from Tinker London so I was pleased to finally meet Tinker’s former-CEO, Alexandra Dechamps-Sonsino, at ThingMonk 2013. I’ve known her on Twitter for about 4 years but we’d never met in person. Alex is also founder of the Good Night Lamp, which I blogged about earlier this year. She talked at ThingMonk about “the past, present and future of the Internet of Things” from her position of being part of it.

ThingMonk 2013: Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, @iotwatch
Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, @iotwatch

I think it was probably Nick O’Leary who first introduced me to the Arduino, many moons ago over cups of tea at work. He spoke at ThingMonk about wiring the Internet of Things. This included a demo of his latest project, NodeRED, which he and IBM have recently open sourced on GitHub.

ThingMonk 2013: Nick O'Leary
Nick O’Leary talks about wiring the Internet of Things

Sadly I missed the previous day when it seems Nick and colleagues, Dave C-J and Andy S-C, won over many of the hackday attendees to the view that IBM’s MQTT and NodeRED are the coolest things known to developerkind right now. So many people mentioned one or both of them throughout the day. One developer told me he didn’t know why he’d not tried MQTT 4 years ago. He also seemed interested in playing with NodeRED, just as soon as the shock that IBM produces cool things for developers had worn off.

Ian Skerrett from Eclipse talked about the role of Open Source in the Internet of Things. Eclipse has recently started the Paho project, which focuses on open source implementations of the standards and protocols used in IoT. The project includes IBM’s Really Small Message Broker and Roger Light’s Mosquitto.

ThingMonk 2013: Ian Skerrett from Eclipse
Ian Skerrett from Eclipse

Andy Piper talked about the role of signals in the IoT.

IMG_1546

There were a couple of talks about people’s experiences of startups producing physical objects compared with producing software. Tom Taylor talked about setting up Newspaper Club, which is a site where you can put together and get printed your own newspaper run. His presentation included this slide:

ThingMonk 2013: Best. Slide. Ever.
Best. Slide. Ever.

Matt Webb talked about producing Little Printer, which is an internet-connected device that subscribes to various sources and prints them for you on a strip of paper like a shop receipt.

ThingMonk 2013: Matt Webb
Matt Webb

Patrick Bergel made the very good point in his talk that a lot of IoT projects, at the moment, are aimed at ‘non-problems’. While fun and useful for learning what we can do with IoT technologies, they don’t really address the needs of real people (ie people who aren’t “hackers, hipsters, or weirdos”). For instance, there are increasing numbers of older people who could benefit from things that address problems social isolation, dementia, blindness, and physical and cognitive impairments. His point was underscored throughout the day by examples of fun-but-not-entirely-useful-as-is projects, such as flying a drone with fruit. That’s not to say such projects are a waste of time in themselves but that we should get moving on projects that address real problems too.

ThingMonk 2013: Patrick Bergel
Patrick Bergel, @goodmachine, on Thingdom Come

The talk which chimed the most with me, though, was Claire Rowland‘s on the important user experience UX issues around IoT. She spoke about the importance of understanding how users (householders) make sense of automated things in their homes.

IMG_1587

The book

I bought a copy of Adrian McEwan‘s Designing The Internet of Things book from Alex’s pop-up shop, (Works)shop. Adrian’s a regular at OggCamp and kindly agreed to sign my copy of his book for me.

ThingMonk 2013: Adrian McEwan
Adrian McEwan and the glamorous life of literary reknown.

The food

The food was, as expected, amazing. I’ve never had bacon and scrambled egg butties that melt in the mouth before. The steak and Guinness casserole for lunch was beyond words. The evening party was sustained with sushi and tasty curry.

ThingMonk 2013: @monkchips
Mr Monk himself, @monkchips (or James Governor, as his parents named him).

Thanks, James!

Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu: 12.04 bug fixes

Back in July, I bought a Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu (aka Developer Edition) laptop. It is a thing of beauty; the screen, awesome (1920 x 1080; full HD). The XPS 13 comes with Ubuntu 12.04 installed by default, along with some additional software from Dell to make the hardware work. 12.04 was, afterall, a year old already by then.

Unfortunately, not everything works out the box. This post is about how to make them work. I might, another time, write about the pleasant but frustrating Dell ’24/7′ ProSupport  warranty process (though @DellCaresPRO is pretty responsive).

 Problems in 12.04 for the Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu laptop

These are the problems I found (almost all of them had already been reported as bugs on Launchpad or on Dell’s dedicated community forum):

    1. Intermittent freezing.
    2. Wifi dropped out frequently.
    3. Logitech wireless trackball frequently not detected on boot.
    4. Problems mounting devices as harddrives using USB2.0 port.
    5. Touchpad ‘edge scrolling’ doesn’t work and the acceleration/sensitivity settings don’t seem to do anything.
    6. Bluetooth file transfer from my phone doesn’t work.

 Fixes

I installed the following two packages from the Ubuntu repositories:

linux-generic-lts-quantal
xserver-xorg-lts-quantal

These install kernels and associated graphics drivers from future versions of Ubuntu. Basically, it means that when the bugs are fixed in future versions, you can use those fixes without having to upgrade the rest of the machine. The packages you’ll get are listed on the Ubuntu wiki. You can check which kernel version you’re using on your laptop by running the command ‘uname -a’.

The newer kernel version fixed problems 1 to 4. It also seems to have fixed most of problem 5 except for ‘edge scrolling’. I now use two-finger scrolling on the rare occasions I use the touchpad so I’m not too worried about this.

Problem 6 (for anyone, like me, who didn’t know this) is intentional. Receiving files by bluetooth is switched off by default in Ubuntu 12.04. I can see why that might be, but it’s not obvious how to switch it on. Someone pointed me to the answer on Ask Ubuntu.

Upgrading Ubuntu

Alternatively, you could just try upgrading the whole laptop to a newer version of Ubuntu. A friend bought an XPS 13 at the same time as me and he immediately installed Kubuntu 13.04 (same as Ubuntu 13.04 where it matters here) on it and had no problems. Similarly, a recent post on Dell’s forum suggests 13.10 works well.

There were three reasons I didn’t upgrade:

  1. I wanted to stay on the LTS (long-term support) version of Ubuntu which is currently 12.04.
  2. The XPS 13 Developer Edition is sold as working so I was keen for this to actually be the case!
  3. I use a Logitech universal receiver trackball and there were problems with the drivers in later kernels. However, I think this has now been fixed.

My opinion

I think it’s pretty bad that all this stuff isn’t installed and working out-of-the-box and that the 24/7 ProSupport warranty isn’t really worth much in practice (the support people I spoke to were fine but Dell needs to improve its support processes for this product).

I do, however, love the laptop. Now it’s working, I’m very pleased with it. Did I mention how lovely the screen is?

Happy birthday, Tony!

Today is Tony‘s birthday. Tony is a life-long Doctor Who fan. Here’s a short video from when he appeared on WAC90, a children’s Saturday morning TV programme in 1990:

When the new WAC90 ‘The Fanatic’ segment was announced, Tony wrote in about his love of Doctor Who. In no time at all, he and his family (Mum, Dad, and brother) were whisked up to Manchester and put up in a hotel overnight, ready for their very early start in the Granada TV studios the next morning. This wasn’t his family’s only beyond-the-call-of-duty support for Tony’s Doctor Who enthusiasm but, this time, I think it may have been mitigated somewhat by getting to meet Michaela Stracken.

His Mum once took him to an auction at Bonhams where she helped him bid on, and buy, some costumes from the TV show. On another occasion, his Dad, having chauffeured Tony to a convention, struck up conversation with Colin Baker in the foyer and made him late getting on stage for his panel!

Ever since I met Tony’s family, they’ve told me gleefully about this WAC90 appearance. But it’s taken us 14 years to dig out the VHS tape and digitise the recording so that I could actually watch it for myself.

We felt we should share this moment from TV history.

Ubuntu Podcast revealed!

We’re now into our sixth series of the Ubuntu Podcast (@uupc) and we’ve been asked many (well, some) times why we don’t stream video of our recording sessions, especially as we live-stream the audio during the recording sessions. The sad truth is that our (Tony and my) broadband connection just hasn’t been able to hack it. We were pleased the audio stream worked; video was but a dream. Then BT ran ‘fibre to the cabinet’; specifically, and importantly, fibre to our cabinet (the one that serves our house, anyway). So now we have BT Infinity and 18 times the broadband speed that we had before.

So, this week, we decided to try video, using Google Hangouts On Air.

And here’s how it went for episode S06E25 – Night of the Living Ubuntu (I think it went pretty well, as you asked):

(If you wondered why I disappeared at about 13:55, it was because I was quite ill. I started the evening feeling a little queasy but figured it might pass. As the opening music started, I realised it wasn’t going to pass. By about 10:00, I’d pretty much stopped listening to the others and just wished they’d shut up so I could read my news item and get it over with. I think I actually managed to hang on for a bit after that but lots of lip-biting and a gulp of water didn’t help and I eventually gave up. Ah well, maybe next time.)

We also videoed episode S06E26 (we record two episodes in a single evening). Subscribe to our Ubuntu Podcast YouTube channel to get it when it appears and, of course, find the podcast in its usual place at: podcast.ubuntu-uk.org.

The Ambient Kettle

Back in 2007, my Mum and I got a pair of Internet-connected Nabaztag bunnies. Aside from all the online content we could subscribe to using the bunnies, the most fun thing for me was that we could ‘pair’ our bunnies so that they would talk to each other. If I moved the ears on my bunny, the ears on my Mum’s bunny would move to match, and vice versa. The 250 physical miles disappear for a few seconds when you see the ears move and know that it’s because Mum is physically moving the ears of her bunny. I know exactly what she’s doing at that particular pointing in time, as if we’re briefly in the same room. The technical term for this is, apparently, ambient awareness.

My Nabaztag bunny
My Nabaztag bunny

The bunny ears experience of ambient awareness inspired my first (and, so far, only) Arduino project: Monitoring electricity using Christmas lights. The red/orange lights indicated the current electricity usage of my house and the blue/green lights indicated the current electricity usage of Mum and Dad’s house. The more electricity currently being used, the faster the lights flashed. Again, it was just that tiny tiny insight into what was happening 250 miles away. Just the mundanity of everyday life shared.

So I was curious about the Kickstarter project for the Good Night Lamp. The Good Night Lamp is a really nice and simple concept. One person has a Big Lamp (shaped like a  house) and they give Little Lamps, associated with the Big Lamp, to friends and/or family anywhere in the world. When the owner switches off the Big Lamp (when they go out or go to bed), the associated Little Lamps also switch off. An appealing part of it is that you can collect a Little Lamp from each of your family or group of friends and arrange them on a shelf so that before you go to bed at night, you can see each of them ‘say goodnight’ as their respective lights go out.

Good Night Lamp
Good Night Lamp

The problem I see with the Good Night Lamp is similar to the one with the Nabaztag. While I think it’s great having simple devices that do just one thing well, it doesn’t half clutter up the place. These kinds of devices need shelf-space. And it has to be shelf-space you can see easily in a place you’ll often be or they don’t work. Maybe as people replace all their books with the more easily stored ebooks, living-room bookcases will become filled with ambient devices instead. I got to chatting with Ambient Orb fan Andy Stanford-Clark about it.

While my and my Mum’s’ Nabaztags have now died or gone into hibernation and the Christmas lights never made it as far as the tree, our more lasting providers of ambient awareness don’t even have their own physical forms. Instead, they’re software on our smartphones and tablets, devices that we have around anyway, wherever we are. In particular, SMS updates of my Mum and Dad’s Tweets.

Every morning, my Mum wakes up, has a coffee with my Dad, and reads interesting articles on her iPad. I know this from when I’ve visited them and because when she reads an interesting article, she tweets or retweets it and I receive about half-a-dozen txts in quick succession. Later in the afternoon, after they’ve got home from wherever they’ve been that day (or have found free wifi somewhere while they’re out) and are drinking another cup of coffee or tea, I receive another half-a-dozen txts pointing to interesting articles online. Just receiving the txts gives me an awareness of them waking up or sitting down to read the paper. Clicking the links to the articles gives me an insight into what they’re reading and how they’re probably feeling about the topics of the articles. The fairly mundane, everyday things that we wouldn’t remember, or bother, to talk about on the phone a week or so later.

As drinking coffee or tea seems to play a regular, if side, part in the activities I’m notified about, Andy and I came up with the idea of the Ambient Kettle. In my house, we have a whole house Current Cost monitor that is connected to a server out on the Internet. It was the feed from this server that we used in my Christmas Lights project. Since then, though, I’ve added individual appliance monitors (IAMs) to a few of the appliances around the house, including the kettle. The feeds from these IAMs also go to the server and so can be used by applications that know which data to request.

So Andy hacked up a (private) Twitter account, @ambientkettle, which my Mum follows. Each time the kettle boils in my house, the @ambientkettle account tweets to my Mum:

@ambientkettle tweets
@ambientkettle tweets

Without being physically present or explicitly letting her know that I am making a cup of tea, she can get a sense of what I’m doing. The messages in the tweets that @ambientkettle sends are pre-canned and chosen at random but made to be chatty enough that it seems a bit like the start of a conversation. Indeed, Mum sometimes tweets back to it to say that she and Dad are also having a cup of tea or are looking forward to one when they get home, or whatever. As I say, it’s mundane but it’s those kinds of mundane things that make everyday life.

I’ll be interested to see how the Good Night Lamp gets taken up. It was featured in the very mainstream Daily Mail yesterday and its founding team has a good record of startups, product design, interaction design, and Internet of Things creativeness. And there’s something very appealing about having ambient awareness of friends and family when we’re geographically spread apart.

Sam Shaw Appeal

This is Sam when I met him at just 4 days old:

Me and Sam at 4 days old
Me and Sam at 4 days old

This is Sam with his Dad, Carl, at New Year 2013, just before Sam was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma cancer:

Sam
Sam with his Dad, Carl

Yesterday was Sam’s 4th birthday but because he has to have chemotherapy every 10 days at the moment, he’s having to spend it in hospital, sharing his massive chocolate cake with the rest of the ward. When he gets home at the weekend, he’ll get a proper birthday with balloons and more cake!

He has to have chemotherapy for the next 5-6 weeks (80 days in all). The neuroblastoma had woven itself around his internal organs and through his bones but his tests at the six-week half-way point showed that he’s responding really well to this stage of his treatment. All being well, he’ll have a series of other types of treatments for the rest of the year. So the year he turned four won’t be the most fun in his life but it could be one of the most important.

Because relapse rates are high for neuroblastoma, his oncologist at Manchester Children’s Hospital has recommended that Sam receives immunotherapy treatment. This will help Sam’s body fight off any future return of the cancer. The specific type of treatment he needs is currently only available in the US. It will cost £250,000 and can’t be funded by the NHS. So his family have set up the Sam Shaw Appeal on JustGiving with the support of The Neuroblastoma Alliance for anyone who would like to help them by making donations, large or small.

Sam as Bob the Builder
Sam as Bob the Builder

I met Sam’s Mum, Christine, at ballet classes when we were just slightly older than Sam is now. We went to primary and secondary school together and have stayed friends ever since. My little ballet friend is now a grown-up having to deal with this unimaginably shocking and stressful news. She (and her husband and family) are experiencing a year of spending days in hospital for treatment, then days at home while Sam recovers, then more days in hospital for more treatment, interspersed with unscheduled trips to hospital when he gets ill, and accompanied by constant stress, worry, sleeplessness, and pain. “Putting their lives on hold” seems quite a glib expression but they really really are.

On top of all that, they need to raise more money than a house would cost. The treatment this money could buy should help ensure that they don’t have to repeat this experience in future years.

If you can donate anything, that would be brilliant. You can donate online or you can text SAMS67 followed by your amount: £1, £2 £3 £4 £5 or £10, to 70070. If you’re a UK taxpayer, you can Gift Aid donations using either method. Carl has started a Twitter campaign to ask 250,000 people to donate £1 each – some people have more followers than 250,000 followers on Twitter, so if you can retweet his message to your own followers, that would be great too.

Tony blogged about Sam on Monday and we’ve been so touched to see our friends, who don’t know Sam or his family, donating money and sending messages of support. That’s amazing; you’re all amazing! :)

Update: What I didn’t properly realise back when I wrote this is that they need to raise the money by about June this year to be able to send him for the treatment. As of today (10th April), they’ve raised an amazing £26,000. Still a long way to go in a very short time but they’re getting more and more support every day.

Update 28th May: By bank holiday weekend, Team Sam (everyone raising money for the Sam Shaw Appeal) had raised £90,000! They’re over a third of the way to their target.

Christine, Carl, and Sam
Sam, Christine, Carl

Monkigras 2013: Scaling craft

Monkigras goody bag
Monkigras goody bag

The work of William Morris, my GCSE history teacher said, was a bit of a moral dilemma. Morris was a British designer born during the Industrial Revolution. British (and then world) industry was moving rapidly towards mass production by replacing traditional, cottage-industry production processes with the more efficient, and therefore profitable, machines. One thing that suffered under this move to mass production was the focus on function and quantity over decoration and quality. Morris reacted against this by designing and producing decorations like wallpaper and textiles using the traditional craft techniques of skilled craftspeople. My history teacher’s point was that although Morris, a passionate socialist, was able to create high quality goods by using smaller-scale production methods, only wealthy people could afford to buy his designs; which was hardly equality in action. On the other hand, the skills of craftspeople were being retained, quality goods were being produced, and the craftspeople were getting paid for that quality of their work.

My pretty, handcrafted latte
My pretty, handcrafted latte

Monkigras 2013, in London last week, took on this theme of ‘scaling craft’ in the context of beer, coffee, and software. All parts of this trinity of software development can benefit hugely from a focus on quality over quantity. Before I went to Monkigras, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from a tech event advertised as having a lot of beer. It did have a lot of beer (and coffee) available but if you didn’t want it you could avoid it (several people I talked to said they didn’t usually drink beer). And no one seemed to get ridiculously drunk. And there were a lot of very cool talks.

The beer was also a fun analogy to apply to software development. Despite pubs in the UK closing hand over fist at the moment, microbreweries are on the rise. Microbrewing is about producing beer in small quantities on a commercial basis so that quality can be maintained whilst still viable as a business. One of the things we learnt from a brewer at Monkigras is that the taste of water varies according to where it comes from. Water is a major component of beer so if the taste of your water supply changes, the taste of your beer changes. To maintain the quality of the beer you brew, you must work within the natural resources available to you and not over-expand. Similarly, quality comes from skilled and knowledgeable people who need to be paid for their skill. If you take on cheaper staff and train them less so that you can make more profit, you will end up with a poorer quality product. You get the idea.

Handcrafting a wooden spoon.
Handcrafting a wooden spoon.

This principle applies to all areas of craft, whether it’s producing quality coffee, a quality wooden spoon, quality conference food, or organising a quality conference, you have to focus on quality and ensure that if you scale what you do so that it’s more readily available to more people, you don’t sacrifice quality at the same time. And, importantly, that you know when to stop. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Software is misleadingly easy to produce. Unlike making physical objects, there is very little initial cost to producing software; you can make copies and then distribute them to customers over the Internet at very little cost. Initially, at least, it’s all in the skill of the craftspeople and their ability to identify their target users and market. If they can’t make what people will buy, they will go out of business very quickly. As software development companies get larger, the people who make the software inside the company become further removed from the selling of their software to their customers. So they become more focused on what they are close to, the technology but not who will use it.

Phil Gilbert on IBM Design Thinking
Phil Gilbert on IBM Design Thinking

Phil Gilbert, IBM’s new General Manager of Design, comes from a 30-year career in startups, most recently Lombardi, where design was core to their culture. IBM has a portfolio of 3000 software products so, when Lombardi was acquired by IBM, Phil set about simplifying the IBM Business Process Management portfolio of products, reducing 21 different products to just four and kicking off a cultural change to bring design and thinking about users to the centre of product development. Whilst praising IBM’s history of design and a recent server product design award, he also acknowledged at Monkigras: “We are rethinking everything at IBM. Our portfolio is a mess today and we need to get better”. Changing a culture like IBM’s isn’t easy but I’ve seen and experienced a big difference already. Phil’s challenge is to scale the high-quality user-focused design values of a startup to a century-old global corporation.

One of the things that struck me most at Monkigras, and appealed to me most as a social scientist, was the focus on the human side. Despite it being a developer conference, I remember seeing only one slide that contained code. The overriding theme was about people and culture, not technology; how to maintain quality by maintaining a culture that respects its craftspeople and how to retain both even if the organisation gets bigger, even if that naturally limits how much the organisation can grow. Personal analogy was also a big thing…

Laser-scanned model of the engine
Laser-scanned model of the engine

Cyndi Mitchell from Logspace talked about her family’s hog farm and working within the available resources. Shanley Kane from Basho used Dante’s spheres to describe best product management practices. Steve Citron-Pousty from RedHat use his background as an ecologist to manage communities and ‘developer ecosystems’ (don’t just call it an ecosystem; treat it like one). Diane Mueller from ActiveState talked about her 20%-time project to build a crowdsourced database of totem poles and the challenges of understanding what gets people to want to contribute to such projects. Elco Jacobs talked about his BrewPi project: automatically managing the temperature of his homebrewing fridge using a RaspberryPi based controller, and how he has open-sourced to build a community to kick start it as a potential small business. Rafe Colburn from Etsy more directly makes the link between craft and software engineering in his slides.

3D printer making a spoon
3D printer making a spoon

I don’t know much about William Morris so I don’t know which presentations he would have enjoyed or disagreed with. Morris was a preservationist and started the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to ensure that old buildings get repaired and not restored to an arbitrary point in the past. So maybe he would have found laser-scanning and 3D printing interesting. Chris Thorpe is a model train geek and likes to hand-make his own models of real-life objects. He too is interested in alternatives to mass manufacturing and has started to look at how to make model kits. He uses a laser to scan the objects and a 3D printer to prototype the models. He can then send the model to a commercial company who can make it into kits for him to sell. He has recently used his laser-scanning technique to scan a rediscovered old Welsh railway engine to preserve it, virtually at least, in the state in which it was found.

I had a great time with lots of cool and fun people. Well done to @monkchips for scaling a conference to just the right level of intimacy and buzz. The last thing I saw before I left was the craftsman making a wooden spoon pitted in competition against the 3D printer making a plastic spoon.

You can find many of the slide presentations and more about the conference Lanyrd.

PhD, environment and energy, UX, open source, technology…