Every Wednesday, from now until Christmas, I’m spending Wednesday afternoons with some friends doing a bit of R&D on Arduino, the open source microcontroller. I’m a novice, as are a lot of the others, but luckily there’s a couple of people who know a bit more about what they’re doing.
I’ve mentioned Arduino before, and shared this film too I think, but for a recap it’s lovely and worth watching when you have time.
Anyway, I thought I’d do a very quick weekly roundup of progress, as much for my own records as anything, so I can look back at progress. This is week one.
Arrived with Arduino in hand, a cable to connect to Mac, and that’s it. I actually missed the first week, so I spend the first hours learning how to do the basic first exercises, borrowing some of Matt’s peripheral electronics to do it; really simple, yet hugely gratifying stuff…
‘Here’s how to make a button send a 1 or 0 to the computer, here’s how to make a light go on, and off, and on, and off…’
There is a light that frequently goes out. Then comes on again. On a loop.
Suitably enthused, it’s a quick trip to Maplins to pick up some of my own peripheri.
“Don’t go mad, like I did, and buy lots of random stuff” says Matt.
I go mad, like Matt did, and buy lots of random stuff.
The rest of the afternoon is spent, with the the help of Pete, playing around with potentiometer (analogue turny dial things, if you prefer), writing code that determines how much the light goes on by, using two LEDs so that as you turn the dial one fades and one lights up.
Which gives me an idea for short term project to focus on, something to aim towards; a very basic sliding potentiometer, that has a series of LED lights that light up as it’s turned up, and then a “send” button that tweets the status.
A kind of sliding mood status, or perhaps a productivity gauge I can score out of ten, and find peak productivity times.
Or maybe something I can set as an aspiration for productivity, so that I set a level, and then force myself into an “8” for the next hour.
Maybe it’s a mixture of the Bachman Turner Overdrive level in Smashey and Nicey (enter a certain ZONE) and Mean Machine Angel’s Dial in Judge Dredd (set a level of desired performance). That’s a combination you don’t hear about often…
Anyway, once I got home, and had eaten dinner, I tried for a few hours to make the potentiometer tweet the value it was outputting, by cribbing various bits of code from examples here and there. But with absolutely no success.
Having hit the wall, I retired to bed, feeling both delighted with progress of the first day, and narked that I hadn’t managed to make a turny-knob write something stupid on the internet.
That’s next week’s aim sorted though.
And in eight weeks time, I’ll have a dial in the centre of my forehead…
It’s brilliant. I thought I’d write two quick things about it:
Firstly, run through an example of what it does, so that you can have a play yourself. It’s not a hardcore geek thing, either, it’s easy for anyone who has got an idea of something they want to do and a passable knowledge of the internet. DON’T BE SCARED.
Secondly, I’ll go through the glimpse of a brighter future of making, learning, sharing and doing that I think it gives us.
A demo of IFTTT.com
Their own description is pretty to the point:
Essentially, it’s turn of of your little web profiles and channels into Lego blocks of webness.
So you look at your lego box full of different blocks, and think ‘hmmm, wouldn’t it be great if this block connected to that block’, and you make something new…
Except, of course, the different lego bricks you’re using look like this:
Let’s give it a go.
I’d suggest the first thing you do once you sign up to IFTTT is head to the Channels page.
This is where you grant IFTTT access to all the channels you might want to use, Facebook and Twitter, LastFM and Instagram, Evernote and Dropbox. All the things that, for the most part, do what they do very well, but sit in isolation.
This is where you just have to think in terms of “If This Happens Here, I Want That To Happen There”. Here’s an example of one of the Plumpton Mornings tasks I created.
Every photo I put up for this project on Instagram has the #plumptonmornings tag, like so:
What I want to happen is for it to appear on a Tumblr blog as a new photopost, with a specific comment underneath that tells me when the photo was taken.
So IF THIS (Instagram photo with the #plumptonmorning tag)…
…THEN THAT (create Tumblr photo post with date tag)…
Which means that rather than have to collect them all together and load them up to a separate site myself, I can automate a very personal, particular service to make life easier. Off the picture goes to the Tumblr, without me having to lift another finger…
The possibilities of what I could do with just the #plumptonmornings photos are almost endless… I could add all the photos to Dropbox or Evernote if I wanted to keep them somewhere, or upload to a specific Flickr group…
…I could make a note in Google Calendar to say “in London”, to work out how often and when I tend to go up to London…
…or I could check in on FourSquare automatically to a certain location (trains, by time, stations, by the direction, or just Plumpton station itself). If I used FourSquare anymore.
As soon as I’ve completed a task, and found that it works, the final thing I can do is share the Recipe – so that other folks don’t have to recreate what you’ve successfully done, they can just copy your recipe and make a new task of their own from it.
Which also means that the Recipe page is a great place to go and
In short, if you haven’t guessed already, I love IFTTT.com – it’s not just a wonderful service in its own right, but it also gives us a peek of a bright future…
What does IFTTT.com mean for the future?
I’m really bad at coding. I mostly operate on a cut, paste, stick & guess level.
That is, I basically know how to use Google, so I ask it questions about doing things in code, it returns a page that might have some code that’s useful on it, I read it, understand as much as I can, guess where to tweak it and stick it in, then press save to see what I’ve broken, or inadvertently changed.
It’s really haphazard, and only works after a fashion. It’s hacking, but only in the mental image of someone blindly swinging a machete though an overgrown jungle path, looking for something…
But the very principle of IFTTT works at a meta level for what the service itself succeeds at doing… someone has sat down and thought…
“If there was THIS site that took away some of the harder work of coding from APIs, then THAT would mean lots more people could do fun/good/useful things with their internet stuff…”
As a very broad principle, all technology tends to become easier to use over time, and at the same time as a larger percentage of the population knows how to use it…
And at the centre of these two trends, occasionally ideas crop about how to make the technology a good bit simpler, and there’s a little boost in the speed of change.
Which is great news not just for us, as it helps us do things today we couldn’t do yesterday, but for the generations coming up behind us too.
Not only will they be more attuned from an early age to the devices and platforms available, and the instructions & gestures they employ to affect them, but they have access to lots and lots of material and learning resources online to help them get under the skin of making the internet work for them.
And every time someone comes up with another IFTTT.com, a way in which to simplify the complexity, they will to bring people into a world they thought was previously beyond their grasp.
Which, given the increasingly unattainable cost of going to University for many kids, offers hope that the disenfranchised can find a different path in the world.
Anyway, enough talk, more action – spend a bit of lunchtime today, or this evening, playing with IFTTT.com – I’ve no doubt you’ll be delighted to find out what you can make.
Happy hacking 🙂
For further reading on teach children or novices about coding, Emma Mulqueeny, who runs the excellent Rewired State / Young Rewired State, have an excellent post all about those resources:
I’m delighted to be taking part in the 50/50 project, powered by the guys at Pipeline and Made by Many. It kicks off officially tomorrow for World Food Day, and is raising money for East Africa Famine Relief.
I need your help to help raise money.
I can come round your house and bother you till you help, or you can just read this post. It’s up to you. If we do it the easy way, you don’t need to make me a cup of tea and dig out some biscuits…
So, how does this work? Well, I’m creating a series of physical artworks from the ongoing digital ephemera that is Plumpton Mornings on Instagram…
Plumpton Mornings is a digital art project, exploring the relationship between physical and digital, certainty and uncertainty.
Every morning as I climb the stairs at Plumpton Railway Station, I load up a photography application on a mobile phone, and ‘shake to randomise’.
As I reach the same midpoint on the bridge, I take one picture, looking down the line towards Lewes, Eastbourne, Hastings and Ore, before jumping on the train to head north to London.
Any beauty in the picture depends not on the photographer, nor the people on the periphery of the picture; we are all just the dumb meat on the edges of technology.
What atheistic qualities are simply derived as a result of the randomised digital combinations, the processors of the phone and the instructions of the programs dealing with fluctuations in light and focus.
If there are human artists involved at all, they are unwitting ones; they are the programmers who set the code in motion, many miles and many oceans away.
Each morning’s photo is a mystery which will unfold only after the fact, much like the day itself.
I thought it would be interesting, and very Smithery, to create a project where the object wasn’t just to get people to donate money, but to give them something special in return; a tangible something.
A piece of art.
There are MANY plans for what these artworks may be, and in all likelihood, it will be a series of bigger and smaller pieces, at a range of different prices.
But in the meantime, I would ask of you just one thing…
If you think your, or your office/company/agency/international-confederation-of-superheroes MIGHT be interested in buying an artwork and donating to East Africa Famine Relief, then…
I spent some time this afternoon putting together the first concept testing kits for the Artefact Cards.
They’re being sent out over the weekend to the first group of people who signed up to the mailing list for the cards the first time around, and to some folks who work in various different ways and fields, to see how other folk use them.
Over the last couple of months, I’ve found them to be a helpful way to order, reorder and refine individual thinking, and as a better, cleaner way of creating things as a group.
They’re also great for telling stories; you can easily shuffle different elements of the story forwards and backwards, or lose them all together, depending on audience reaction as you go.
It avoids that moment in presentations when someone says ‘But what about..?’, and you say ‘Yes, we’ve covered that… but let’s go through the rest of the presentation first…’
I’ll write more at length another day on them, especially when I’ve had the first reports back from the testers.
I’m re-reading Cory Doctorow’s ‘Makers’, before the first day of Laptops and Looms tomorrow. It’s a novel on the near future of manufacture, industry, corporate America and so on.
Whether this quote squirrelled itself into my brain when I read it over a year ago, I don’t know…
“Any moderately skilled practitioner can build anything these days, for practically nothing. Back in the old days, the blacksmith just made every bit of ironmongery everyone needed, one piece at a time, at his forge. That’s where we’re at. Every industry that required a factory yesterday only needs a garage today. It’s a real return to fundamentals. What no one ever could do was join up all the smithies and all the smiths and make them into a single logical network with a single set of objectives…”
It’s about labels, and anti-brands, and t-shirts, and twitter. It’s about digital transience, and physical permanence. It’s also about inverse frequency weightings, Chris tells me. Which sound amazing.
PS: the other two t-shirts above are from a lovely project called “We Are Numbers” by Dutch designer Twan Verdonck, that my wife and I are part of, and a t-shirt that my friend Alice made & sent to me after I wrote a column about rubbish t-shirts (it’s how we know each other).
This is, to be frank, a ramble through some ideas on making things.
Ironically, I’ll be happy if the only thing I make at the end of it is a little sense.
It’s a loose assembly of thoughts, a margarine tub of lots of interesting pieces of LEGO I’ve found down the back of my mental sofa, which might go together well, or at least not offensively.
And it’s in the run up to something called Laptops & Looms, a thing-that-is-not-conference in the Derbyshire hills, being run by Russell, Toby, Dan and Greg.
It’s not a conference. I’m repeating myself because I get the sense this is important. It helps sets everybody’s expectations at the right level, I guess. Not least about what sort of biscuits there might be.
Maybe it’s a bit like a summit. Fittingly, given it’s in the hills.
Though maybe because it’s in Derbyshire, it’s not a summit, it’s just summat.
(OK, that’s Yorkshire perhaps. But it was too good a bad joke to miss…)
So what am I thinking about? Well, two tracks, I guess… the wider issue of living in a country that doesn’t really make anything, and then an interesting thought on how that might change. Might.
“VC-centric future visions suggest we’re going to rebuild the British economy by innovating social networks into synergised transmedia content platforms. That’s both implausible and wasteful.
We need an economy that makes things again. And I’m not alone in thinking this. The generation that built the web is tiring of the immaterial and is turning back to objects: to 3D printing, to laser-cutting, to Arduinos. And maybe they can — as with the web — transform hobbies and eccentricities into industries.”
What do we make? You know, as a country, as companies, as people? Well, I suppose the country has been making headlines, all around the world. But that’s hardly proving productive. Unless you make and fit windows.
The great shift to becoming ‘a service economy’ meant we stopped making things. Because it was cheaper to do that elsewhere. And, to a certain extent, Britain suddenly thought making things was, well, beneath us.
God forbid we should get our hands dirty. Except in wars.
No, we’d become a service economy!! Genius. Then the people in charge decided it was cheaper to do the service thing elsewhere, and moved that out too.
The very fact that Plusnet can make such a big deal out of having a call centre in Yorkshire underlines that point.
If you’re leaving school nowadays, and you can’t afford to go to Uni (which will cost you £50k for three years…), well, you might find an office job, or a job in a call centre. If of course they lower expectations and stop looking for graduates for jobs that don’t need degrees.
What’s troubling is that there’s this underlying assumption that everyone’s cut out for the cube. Or at the very least can be forced into that squarest of holes.
We can’t be an economy where everyone sits behind a desk with a screen in front of them, servicing the needs of other people at other desks on other screens. It doesn’t make any sense.
So we do need a considerable portion of the economy doing other things. Making things would be great.
“Oh, but we can’t make things as cheaply as China… we can’t compete…”
Well, maybe not. But cheap isn’t the only way forward.
In my erstwhile meanderings around economics and all the Adam Smith malarkey, I fell down a rabbit hole called The Labour Theory of Value…
“The labour theory of value held that the value of a thing was determined by the labor that went into its production. This contrasts with the modern understanding of mainstream economics, that the value of a thing is determined by what one is willing to give up to obtain the thing.”
It’s started by Smith, goes through a bit of evolution by Ricardo and Marx (it’s a great idea to protect the worker, if the efforts of his labour can only ever be sold for what they’re “worth”, as opposed to what the market dictates), and eventually falls down when modern economic reality determines that somethings only worth what people will pay, and people are only willing to pay for things made cheaply.
At least, they are if they behave rationally. But really it’s how people react emotionally that counts for more, as all the Behavioural Economics stuff holds true.
And I think you can make a case for returning to the Labour Theory of Value through emotionally connecting people to the stories of the labour put in. The manufacture.
Is essence, ‘show your workings’. Tell the complex, varied, and interestingly niche bits of what you get up to.
Which you couldn’t really do before, because conventional advertising dogma for the last forty years has told you that you’ve got to show a happy man in a car racing fast round corners, because that’s what made for the best, most effective telly ad.
People don’t really care about your company, sang the advertising man. They care about themselves, and their unconscious desires… which is all the stuff Adam Curtis pointed out in The Century of The Self in 2002:
Just watch the first minute or so of this, you’ll get the point…
…although it’s the whole FOUR FECKING HOURS in one Youtube video… isn’t the modern world amazing?
So amazing, in fact, that 97% of advertising fails utterly to set it alight; it’s too shallow and unsophisticated.
The ways in which we can tell stories now offers too much depth for flimsy, throwaway projections of ‘how you might feel if you chew this gum’, or can be celebrated by too small and focussed a group for advertising’s clumsy, catchall stereotyping that ‘appeals to all 18-34 men’.
But thinking about the Labour Theory of Value, it occurred that you can use storytelling (and great storytellers) to show people all the parts of your company you threw out of the story before, all of which added up to the value of what you’d made.
Where you sourced raw materials, how you processed them, how does what in the factory, little stories that happened in the making, what you do with the money besides make more of the thing…
Because of the way in which we can tell stories now, can we tell better, real stories of manufacturing companies, that builds in value the the goods produced. Secure that emotional attachment. Make everything that comes out a talking point…
What if you can use the modern world to demonstrate the value of the labour that went into a thing, and reset the value accordingly?
And what if you can do that more ably in Britain, for anyone else who still attaches any sort of cultural significance to things, than elsewhere? We use cultural ability to increase the value of the things we make.
I’ll leave you with an example, from Spain.
How much would you pay for this cycle cap?
It’s nice, and it comes in a nice box.
There’s a CD too, it seems. But still, it’s just a cycle cap.
Now watch this. And when you’re done, think about how much you’d pay for it now, and why that’s changed…