Not written here for a while. That’s not deliberate; just been busy, keeping up with work, keeping up with life. Lots ticking away in my head, for sure. So, as a way back into keeping the ball in the air, I thought I’d take another pass at five things that are currently in my head (five years ago, that list looked like this).

Non-traditional (and irregular) ways of composing music

I’m working with Richard on building a music box. You know: holes in paper, a handle you crank, tines being struck. Although ours is electronic: there’s no paper, and no tines; you punch holes in virtual paper with your finger, and can easily remove them if you don’t like them. The handle’s very much real, though, and that leads to all manner of analogue compromises – lumpy rhythms, the ability to play melodies backwards, and so forth. I write about this in my Weeknotes from time to time.

It’s an interesting way of coming up with music, though: sometimes, it’s cranking the handle at the right speed – or right selection of speeds – that makes the music happen. Sometimes, it’s the notes you choose. Sometimes, you don’t even choose them: it’s just a picture you paint with your fingers. It’s an interesting UI for composition, and it leads to all manner of interesting irregularities.

It also can talk to other MIDI devices. As of the latest stable release, Chrome supports WebMIDI, which means it can talk to MIDI ports from inside the browser, just using Javascript. And that means our music box can control anything with a MIDI input, from a software synthesizer, to external hardware. And that’s exciting: the idea that the browser is a platform for experimenting with note-generation.

That leads to interesting sound experiments, but also things that aren’t musical: I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of using grids like the Launchpad as a UI, and now that’s all doable inside my browser. I keep wondering what a render() method within Backbone for a Launchpad would look like.

(I’ve also been thinking about this having seen my friend James’ work on a sequencer for modular synthesizers, and the way unusual UIs force you into different compositional habits. There’s so much beyond timelines and steps to explore!)

The music box – Twinklr – has inspired the next item on the list, too.

Making PCBs

I’m spending a while at the moment thinking about making PCBs.

I’m really bored of the slightly amateur stripboard I tend to make circuits from, so am hoping to manufacture the PCBs inside Twinklr myself. That means learning how to route PCBs from schematics or ideas in my head, for starters. I’m using Fritzing of all things – EAGLE makes me feel stupid – but am making progress on some PCBs that are getting passable elegant. I even have a ground fill:


Of course, the next thing is manufacturing them, and I have all manner of tabs open with different recommendations on chemicals, techniques, and so forth. But it’s moving forward slowly, and I’m hoping that there won’t be any more unpleasant stripboards in future. Initial prototypes are suggesting that my homebrew PCBs might not be a go-er, and I might want to move to letting professionals manufacture them. But for now, I’m going to feel the materials with my own hands, and try not to get Ferric Chloride on anything.

Writing music

I’m slowly, carefully, returning to writing music again. I’ve produced music – largely electronic – since my late teens. Back then, it was on a variety of esoteric hardware. Now, it’s mainly inside computers, but with a growing tangle of instruments outside it.

I find this really hard.

What I find is: I will disappear into textures and sound design and harmonies and rhythms for hours on end, possibly just exploring the possibilities of a single sound… and by the time I ‘come up for air’, I hate everything I’ve done. Finding a way to compose with constant forward momentum, not looking back, not comparing myself to anything else I’ve heard… is so challenging.

It’s also rewarding: when I come back to something a day later and even if it’s not the best thing in the world, it’s a thing I’m happy to spend time with, a thing I have new ideas with. I hate the creative rollercoaster, and what I’m finally finding a way to do is to cling on and not let go. I still don’t like it, but I’d stopped riding it because I was afraid. And now I’m not. I’m working on finding ways to not repeat myself, not to fall into the same shaped holes, the same patterns and riffs. Which is also hard. But I’m turning up, at least.

I don’t mention the output, much. The Internet made our past-times and interests performative: sharing and showing-off are easy to confuse, and sometimes, I’m making sounds and music for myself. I’m so used to sharing things to all manner of services but, for the time being, it’s mainly just staying on my hard disk. It’s giving me pleasure; it’s time well spent. One day, I might share it.

Streaming, and its relationship to craft

I watch a surprising amount of Twitch: a service through which people stream themselves playing games. They’re not just sharing a screen; high-end streamers have chromakey rigs to insert themselves into the image, and manage large communities of people… who watch them playing videogames. It’s usually not nearly as interesting as it has the potential to be – although it’s great to tune into Evo live.

I know I said hobbies weren’t performative, but I’m fascinated by streaming things that aren’t games; streaming crafting, perhaps. (I greatly enjoyed BBC Four’s Handmande strand, three half-hour films of craftspeople at work as part of Four Goes Slow)


This chap does glassblowing on Twitch. I’ve watched a few people produce or compose music on camera. I watched a Counterstrike streamer get a hugely enthusiastic channel chatting whilst they watched him chilling out, putting together plastic model kits, one camera on his hands, the other as usual on his face:

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It works surprisingly well. Obviously, it’s very time-consuming for large projects, but consider how sharing works in analogue craft: the tradition of ‘stitch and bitch‘ is as much about injecting a social element into a potentially solitary craft as it is about sharing with others. Recently, I have often wondered what Stitch On Twitch would look like. Not watching someone make a whole quilt: an hour of tuning in to chat to them whilst you craft too.

Slightly unformed, but it’s floating around my head. Streaming isn’t particularly great, but I think it’s suited to things people aren’t broadcasting on it yet.

Windows of time: schedules rather than moments

I really like the Spotify Weekly Discover Playlist. I like it because, so far, it’s been really good at recommending things to me. But I also like it because it’s weekly. It’s not updated every time I go to it; I have time for those selections to bed in, to listen to it like a mixtape. And because it comes around once a week, it then generates anticipation – looking forward to my new mixtape from the Spotify machinery. It’s not manufactured scarcity; it’s not the fiddly, artificial limitations of so many dual-currency free to play games; it’s just schedule. It’s a fixed window of time, rather than a right-now moment.

I still regularly play Destiny (Bungie’s MMO-FPS hybrid) and one of its strong points is its weekly calendar. (Apologies for the brace of jargon incoming – I’ll do my best to explain). Every week, the universe resets: a new Strike (like a Dungeon in World of Warcraft) gets picked to be the ultra-challenging “Nightfall”; a new Strike is slotted into the weekly ‘heroic’ strike slot, for players not up to a Nightfall; new playmodes are rotated into PVP; sometimes, a new temporary event runs for the week. On a Friday, the Trials of Osiris – hardcore endgame PVP for the very few – start, and run over the weekend. On Friday morning, the mysterious vendor Xûr turns up for 48 hours, and everybody sighs as he doesn’t have the three things they want. And if you don’t finish it all by Monday night – well, it’ll reset at 10am GMT Tuesday anyway.

Sometimes, the schedule enforces scarcity – trying to finish the Iron Banner event before the week is out; sometimes, it enables planning – getting friends together to run a Nightfall at the beginning of the week, so as to benefit from the XP boost. Sometimes, it’s just a reason to check back in to the universe. And if there’s nothing that week to do for you – well, you don’t need to turn up. Maybe swing by in the future. It gives the game a long tail to players who enjoy it, without forcing them to check in to “top up”, like so many Free To Play games.

I like schedules because they’re actually surprisingly easy to fit into life: if they don’t fit into your schedule this week, it doesn’t matter, because it’ll all start again next week anyhow – you’ll get a new playlist; you’ll get a chance to run a different Nightfall. But at the same time: it’s not constant newness, all the time; the weekly schedule gives you a chance to stick your finger in the page for a period of time.

I am not sure what this will get applied to in my own practice, but it’s a thing at the back of my mind.

And that’s five. A bit malformed, but what’s floating around in my head for now. When I’m quiet, it’s usually because I’m busy.

  • "When Smith describes the raids as “linear,” which allows the developers to “build on your knowledgebase,” he’s really describing something profound in the context of Destiny: the Vault of Glass is a game, where Destiny overall is merely a series of loops." Oh, that's a good way of putting it. (This is a strong article about one of the most interesting parts of Destiny – its first Raid. The Kirk Hamilton interview linked off it is excellent, too.)


That’s me, sitting on the ground in the Cosmodrome in Old Russia.

The Cosmodrome is an environment from Bungie’s Destiny. I played it during its public beta last week.

One of my favourite things in Destiny is its sit down button.

The directional pad is used to ’emote’ in a very limited manner in the game. Two of the emotes are very specifically non-verbal forms of communication, useful for players without headsets: you can wave, either into space or at another player, and you can point. I used these quite a lot with both strangers and friends.

One of them is daft self expression: the dance button. This is probably the most popular emote; it feels like many players hadn’t played enough MMOs to have had their fill of daft emotes, and so the idea that one can just dance – not just on your own, but with other people – for no reason other than you’d like to is a new and exciting one.

It’s actually how dancing ought to be, when you think about it: a fun thing you can do whenever. There was lots of dancing in Destiny.

My absolute favourite emote, though, is sitting. And the main reason for that is the sitting down animation.

If pushed, I’ll take the female sitting down animation over the male one for one simple reason. Male characters look more like they’re sitting down to kill time, staring either into their hands, or just above them – it’s hard to tell, and it feels critical. It’s how you might sit by a campfire with friends (if you were looking up) or in a dreary queue for a gig or festival (if you’re looking down).

The female characters, though, always look like they’re sitting down to look at something. Which is so apt, for Destiny; the skyboxes and vistas the game presents (when it’s not throwing Dregs and Thralls at you) are beautiful. They’re the sort of things you want to take in with friends; pass time watching the day-night cycle. I love seeing the massed Guardians in the Tower, all sitting at the edge, watching the clouds roll across the sky. What are they doing? What are they talking about in their Fireteams and Private Parties?

The idea that sitting is active – that you might sit to do something with your friends, not to indicate an absence of activity – is a lovely thing to be reminded of. It applies tenfold – no, far more, hundredfold at the very least – to the world outside Destiny.

I like that my Guardian reminds me of this every time she sits down.

But sitting down also had a functional purpose for me: I’d also sit down in Destiny to indicate I’d wandered away from my games console.

There’s no pause button in Destiny – it’s always online – but there are enough quiet areas of a map, especially when you’ve cleared out enemies, that you can just sit down and wander away with few ill results. You might even discover how lenient Destiny’s respawning is (as long as you’re not in a Darkness zone).

I was playing with some New York friends at the weekend. They were playing pass-the-pad, and I was on my own. They didn’t have a headset, so we IM’d on our phones to explain the things we couldn’t show with a point or a wave.

Could we pause 30 secs while I put the kettle on,” asks my friend. And why not? There’s nothing around threatening. I say that I’ll go and do the same and wave when I’m back.

I push down on the d-pad, and I/my Guardian sit(s) down for a break. I wander into the kitchen to make tea and toast.

I’d been meaning to write about how much I liked the sitting in Destiny – the “looking into space” aspect of it. And today, somebody else reminded me the other reason that its sitting felt important to me.

Jenn Frank is right when she describes how infuriating her husband’s behaviour is when confronted with a game that has no pause button.

She’s entirely right to be annoyed. Reading her post, I recognised a kind of bad behaviour it’s easy to slip into – and remembered what I used to do about it.

I know that whilst online games of all shapes and sizes encourage you to keep playing – and have no pause button – they also have a reasonable number of safeguards against it in their systems. Or, at least, they should. World of Warcraft has towns, safe from attack; PVE servers, where other players aren’t a threat. Lots of ways to park your character (although not, say, in dungeons or raids, just as all the multiplayer shooters I played lock you in for the scope of a single game). I had no idea how anybody played on a PVP server – it seemed to require permanent, always-on concentration.

Back in the months I played WoW, whenever I wandered away or alt-tabbed for a bit, I’d make sure my character sat down, showing the world they were absent. A little bit of playacting – something better than afk.

I’m glad it still works in 2014.

You can do it almost anywhere. Take a step back. Find a quiet corner. Down on the d-pad. Your Guardian will sing a campfire song, and you can sign that rental agreement, hold the step-ladder to the loft, and talk to your relatives on the phone.

Sit the heck down.