Francis's news feed

This combines together some blogs which I like to read. It's updated once a week.


Adrian McEwen

Weeks 910 and 911 - Spin All the Plates

Adrian here, with an update on the happens at MCQN Ltd over the past fortnight.

As a tiny company one of the continual challenges is balancing the amount of work to do with the available capacity to do it. The start and end of projects tend not to neatly line up; and even when you think they will then an unexpected bug can still throw your planning out as it's an art as much as it is a science.

The product side of the business—particularly developing new products where there isn't any fixed timescale—helps to smooth that out a little. Filling in any gaps with useful work, and allowing people to be drafted in to help with client work at the cost of a delay to the product work.

The Ackers Bell has definitely suffered from that in the past. At the moment that's not the case. Right now the sticking point is finding CNC services who will give us a quote for making the frames; not helped by the supply chain issues around plywood caused by the Russian invasion. Ross is chipping away at this, and slowly making progress.

Things have been especially congested over the past two weeks. A combination of lots of different things: wrapping up one client project; quoting for a new one; sending out My Baby's Got LED orders; making up some new boards to re-stock the shop after the orders exhausted the existing stock; helping a couple of Museum in a Box customers with some support niggles as they ready boxes for new projects; and more.

Another project I've been closing out is the Metroscopes work for FACT. The code was all written a while back, and we just needed to find a suitable time to check the operation of the Ethernet-to-RS422 bridge which will let the code talk to the Metroscope lampposts. It all went smoothly. So this week had some devops to schedule the code to get new search results to run periodically; and another system service to automatically start (and monitor) the code to send the results to be displayed.

Alongside all that, I've had some more strategic thinking to do. Tbat also involved chatting to the accountant, plus some company structure research. Not the best timing, but there should—fingers crossed—be some exciting news to share if/when it gets worked out.

Render of a 3D model in FreeCAD, an L-shaped part with a few chamfers cut out of it

Chris has been back in FreeCad making a part for Museum in a box. It's an add-on for travelling boxes to hold their Raspberry Pi more securely. Some of our customers have been sending boxes out on tour, to take the collections to the people rather than the other way round. Spending so much time in the post means the boxes suffer more vibration than we'd anticipated. This, we hope, will beef up the connections. Tha's shown an unexpected benefit of working with folk who are 3D printing objects in their museum projects. We can email them a design for a new part, and they can print it out to upgrade their box themselves! It's particularly handy when they're over in the US.

On the My Bike's Got LED front, Chris is working on some data logging. He's setting up an INA219 i2c Current module to gather some data from the battery charging circuits. This will give us a more detail of the charging profile and help us optimise the circuit. And we can use it for some more objective testing of the circuit in its windmill charging form.

by Adrian McEwen at 2023-03-20 05:00


Albert Wenger

The Banking Crisis: More Kicking the Can

There were a ton of hot takes on the banking crisis over the last few days. I didn’t feel like contributing to the cacaphony on Twitter because I was busy working with USV portfolio companies and also in Mexico City with Susan celebrating her birthday.

Before addressing some of the takes, let me succinctly state what happened. SVB had taken a large percentage of their assets and invested them in low-interest-rate long-duration bonds. As interest rates rose, the value of those bonds fell. Already back in November that was enough of a loss to wipe out all of SVB’s equity. But you would only know that if you looked carefully at their SEC filings, because SVB kept reporting those bonds on “hold-to-maturity” basis (meaning at their full face value). That would have been fine if SVB kept having deposit inflows, but already in November they reported $3 billion in cash outflows in the prior quarter. And of course cash was flowing out because companies were able to put it in places where it yielded more (as well as startups just burning cash). Once the cash outflow accelerated, SVB had to start selling the bonds, at which point they had to realize the losses. This forced SVB to have to raise equity which they failed to do. When it became clear that a private raise wasn’t happening their public equity sold off rapidly making a raise impossible and thus causing the bank to fail. This is a classic example of the old adage: “How do you go bankrupt? Slowly at first and then all at once.”

With that as background now on to the hot takes

  1. The SVB bank run was caused by VCs and could have been avoided if only VCs had stayed calm

That’s like saying the sinking of the Titanic was caused by the iceberg and could have been avoided by everyone just bailing water using their coffee cups. The cause was senior management at SVB grossly mismananging the bank’s assets (captain going full speed in waters that could contain icebergs). Once there was a certain momentum of withdrawals (the hull was breached), the only rational thing to do was to attempt to get to safety. Any one company or VC suggesting to keep funds there could have been completely steamrolled. Yes in some sense it is of course true that if everyone had stayed calm then this wouldn’t have happened but this is a classic case of the prisoner’s dilemma and one with a great many players. Saying after the fact that “look everyone came out fine, so why panic?” is 20-20 hindsight – as I will remark below there were a lot of people arguing against making depositors whole.

2. The SVB bank run is the Fed’s responsibility due to their fast raising of rates

This is another form of blaming the iceberg. The asset duration mismatch problem is foundational to banking and anyone running a bank should know it. Having a large percentage of assets in long-duration low-interest-rate fixed income instruments without hedging is madness, as it is premised on interest rates staying low for a long time and continuing to accumulate deposits. Now suppose you have made this mistake. What should you do if rates start to go up? Start selling your long duration bonds at the first sign of rate increases and raise equity immediately if needed. Instead of realizing losses early and accepting a lower equity value in a raise, SVB kept a fiction going for many months that ultimately lost everything.

3. Regulators are not to blame

One reason for industries to be regulated, is to make them safer. Aviation is a great example of this. The safety doesn’t just benefit people flying, it also benefits companies because the industry can be much bigger when it is safe. The same goes for banking. You have to have a charter to be a bank and there are multiple bank regulators. Their primary job should be to ensure that depositors don’t need to pour over bank financials to understand where it is safe to bank. If regulators had done their job here they would have intervened at SVB weeks if not months ago and forced an equity raise or sale of the bank before a panic could occur.

4. This crisis was an opportunity to stick it to tech

A lot people online and some in government saw this as an opportunity to punish tech companies as part of the overall tech backlash that’s been going on for some time. This brought together some progressives with some right wing folks who both – for different ideological reasons – want to see tech punished. There was a “just let them burn” attitude, especially on Twitter. This was, however, never a real option because SVB is not the only bank with a bad balance sheet. Lots of regional and smaller banks are in similar situations. So the contagion risk was extremely high. The widespread sell-off in those bank stocks even after the announced backstopping of SVB underlines just how likely a broad meltdown would have been. It is extremely unfortunate that our banking system continues to be so fragile (more on that later) but that meant using this to punish tech only was never a realistic option.

5. Depositors should have taken a haircut

I have some sympathy for this argument. After all didn’t people know that their deposits above $250K were not insured? Yes that’s true in the abstract but when everyone is led to believe that banking is safe because it is regulated (see #3 above), then it would still come as a massive surprise to find out that deposits are not in fact safe. As always what matters is the difference between expectation and realization. If SVB depositors would take a haircut, then why would anyone leave their funds at a bank where they suspect they would be subject to a 5% haircut? There would have been a massive rush away from smaller banks to the behemoths like JP Morgan Chase.

6. The problem is now solved

The only thing that is solved is that we have likely avoided a wide set of bankruns. But it has been accomplished at the cost of applying a massive patch to the system by basically insuring all deposits. This leaves us with a terrible system: fully insured fractional reserve banking. I have been an advocate for full reserve banking as an alternative. This would let us use basic income as the money creation mechanism. In short the idea is that money would still enter the economy but it would do so through giving money to people directly instead of putting banks in charge of figuring out where money goes. The problem of course is that bank investors and bank management don’t like this idea because they benefit so much from the existing system. So there will be fierce lobbying opposition to making such a fundamental change. I will write more posts about this in the future but one way to get the ball rolling is to issue new bank charters aggressively now for full reserve banks (sometimes called “narrow banks”). Many existing fintechs and some new ones could pick these charters up and provide interesting competition for the existing behemoths.

All of this is to say that this whole crisis is yet another example of how broken and held together by duct tape our existing systems are. That’s why we are lurching from crisis to crisis. And yet we are not willing to try to fundamentally re-envision how things might work differently. Instead we are just kicking the can.

by Albert Wenger at 2023-03-14 14:37


Adrian McEwen

Week 909 - It's a knockout

Back to Chris for this week, still in the singular, we're on a roll.

This week I've mainly still been chasing down the last few quirks on the My Bike's Got LED boards before we commit to getting the new boards made. The changes we've made mainly relate to the battery management and charging. So mainly data sheet rabbit holes and testing. It looks very much like we've ironed out the last of the snags and are ready to go.

We also picked this week to move away from the nightly builds of Kicad and onto Version 7. There's plenty of new features to like, who's not going to get excited about a hierarchical viewer in the schematic editor? Alongside the new functional tools we've got to play with there are a few cosmetic changes too. While rerouting some tracks it seemed like a waste not to play with the text highlighting 'knockout' feature. The difficulty here seems to be knowing when to stop..

A screen shot from kicad version 7 showing the new knockout feature.

As well sending out more My Baby's got LED boards I've also been looking at some little bits for ongoing client work.

As usual, Adrian has been busy doing things he (mostly) can't talk about. One of the client projects is involving a lot of work with the Nordic nRF91 platform - a microcontroller with on-board NB-IoT and LTE-M modems and GPS. So far it's proving a nice, capable set-up if you need some low-power mobile-phone-level communication options alongside the computing.

The software platform that goes with that is Zephyr OS. That's a new one to learn and add to the assortment we already know. Given the variety of hardware it works on, it has some very fine-grained configuration options; almost (as he's been climbing the learning curve with it) to a fault!

This week he's been working through the threading and synchronization to allow the board to (appear to) do multiple things at the same time, and as a result found—and fixed—a bug in the Cucumber testing framework that we're becoming fans of around here.

by Adrian McEwen at 2023-03-08 06:00


Albert Wenger

India Impressions (2023)

I just returned from a week-long trip to India. Most of this trip was meeting entrepreneurs and investors centered around spending time with the team from Bolt in Bangalore (a USV portfolio company). This was my second time in India, following a family vacation in 2015. Here are some observations from my visit:

First, the mood in the country feels optimistic and assertive. People I spoke to, not just from the tech ecosystem, but also drivers, tour guides, waiters, students, and professors, all seemed excited and energized. There was a distinct sense of India emerging as a global powerhouse that has the potential to rival China. As it turns out quite a few government policies are aimed at protecting Indian industrial growth and separating it from China (including the recent ban on TikTok and other Chinese apps). Also, if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend watching the movie RRR. It is a “muscular” embodiment of the spirit that I encountered that based on my admittedly unscientific polling was much liked by younger people there (and hardly watched by older ones).

Second, air pollution in Delhi was as bad as I remembered it and in Mumbai way worse. Mumbai now appears to be on par with Delhi. For example, here is a picture taken from the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, which is en route from the airport, where you can barely see the high rise buildings of the city across the bay.

Third, there is an insane amount of construction everywhere. Not just new buildings going up but also new sewer lines, elevated highways, and rail systems. Most of these were yet to be completed but it is clear that the country is on a major infrastructure spree. Some of these projects are extremely ambitious, such as the new coastal road for Mumbai.

Fourth, traffic is even more dysfunctional than I remember it and distances are measured in time, not miles. Depending on the time of day, it can easily take one hour to get somewhere that would be ten minutes away without traffic. This is true for all the big cities I went to visit on this trip (Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore). I don’t really understand how people can plan for attending in person meetings but I suppose one gets used to it. I wound up taking one meeting simply in a car en route to the next one.

Fifth, in venture capital there are now many local funds, meaning funds that are not branded offshoots of US funds, such as Sequoia India. I spent time with the team from Prime Venture Partners (co-investors in Bolt) and Good Capital among others. It is great to see that in addition to software focused funds there are also ones focused on agtech/food (e.g. Omnivore) and deep tech (e.g. Navam Capital). Interestingly all the ones I talked to have only offshore LPs. There is not yet a broad India LP base other than a few family offices and regulations within India are apparently quite cumbersome, so the funds are domiciled in the US or in Mauritius.

Sixth, the “India Stack” is enabling a ton of innovation and deserves to be more widely known outside of India (US regulators should take note). In particular, the availability of a verified digital identity and of unified payments interfaces is incredibly helpful in the creation of new online and offline experiences, such as paying for a charge on the Bolt charging network. This infrastructure creates a much more level playing field and is very startup friendly. Add to this incredibly cheap data plans and you have the foundations for a massive digitally led transformation.

Seventh, India is finally recognizing the importance of the climate crisis both as a threat and as an opportunity. India is already experiencing extreme temperatures in some parts of the country on a regular basis (the opening of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future extrapolates what that might lead to). India is also dependent on sufficient rainfall during the Monsoon season and those patterns are changing also (this is part of the plot of Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock). As far as opportunity goes, India recently discovered a major lithium deposit, which means that a key natural resource for the EV transition exists locally (unlike oil which has to be imported). India has started to accelerate EV adoption by offering subsidies.

All in all this trip has made me bullish on India. Over the coming years I would not be surprised if we wind up with more investments from USV there, assuming we can find companies that are a fit with our investment theses. In the meantime, I will look for some public market opportunities for my personal portfolio.

by Albert Wenger at 2023-03-07 01:18


Mine Wyrtruman (pagan religion)

Check Out The Podcast

Wes hāl!1 It occurred to me today they I never created a blog post about my podcast. It’s been going for a little over a month, so I’m overdue for an official announcement, I suppose. Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell. ↩

by Byron Pendason at 2023-03-04 00:00


Fairphone Blog

Sticking with Cobalt Blue

A call upon the industry to engage more – not less! – in ASM cobalt mining.

Seven years after Amnesty International’s report “This is what we die for”, cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is again in the headlines, with a focus on the continuous dangers and challenges connected to artisanal cobalt mining, and with companies being pointed out for using cobalt from these mines while not doing enough to support improvement.

Cobalt is a mineral used in our Fairphone battery, and is a crucial material for the global transition to green energy, including in the electronics and automotive industries amongst others. At Fairphone, we are the first to say that the working conditions in artisanal cobalt mining in the DRC are still not acceptable, that miners are still exposed to dangers and don’t have protective equipment, and that there are still children working in hazardous and damaging environments at mine sites. In the last seven years, not sufficient progress was made in addressing these issues.

And it’s precisely because of these extreme issues that we co-founded the Fair Cobalt Alliance (FCA) in 2020. With the FCA, we choose to directly engage at the mines on the ground in DRC – because we believe we have a responsibility to invest in and contribute to improvements that are needed to positively change the conditions for these miners and their communities.

The FCA brings together industry, civil society and government and has been working to improve working conditions and health and safety at the Kamilombe mine site. The FCA also established a holistic program to address and remediate child labor in and around mine sites, and is enabling mining communities to diversify their economic opportunities. 

Beyond addressing these risks and harsh conditions that are still a reality in our sectors’ supply chain, the reason why we engage with artisanal miners in the DRC is also that this sector has a huge potential to help develop the region and reduce poverty. Artisanal miners in DRC produce about 13% of cobalt globally, providing income for up to 100,000 people (depending on seasonality and commodity prices), and the DRC (combining both artisanal and industrial production) accounts for about 70% of global cobalt production in total.

But profound and lasting change won’t happen overnight.

With the FCA, we have set out to support the reform of an entire sector. There are no simple or quick solutions to formalize and improve artisanal mining. Demonizing the miners will harm rather than help because banning or excluding the most vulnerable and marginalized in our industry from global supply chains will push them out of their livelihood.

Instead, artisanal mining is a way for the local population to benefit from the increasing demand of critical minerals such as cobalt, needed for the energy transition. Artisanal cobalt miners can earn a significant income (depending on seasonality and prices), in a context where poverty is widespread and few other gainful employment opportunities are available, especially for those with little formal education or job prospects, those who have lost their land due to climate change or other land uses (including industrial mining), or those who have migrated to the area fleeing from conflict.

At Fairphone, we are therefore convinced that artisanal mining can be transformed into responsible and safe small- and medium-scale enterprises over time, creating a multiplier effect in the local economy.

So, we need to ask ourselves, as an industry: If we distance ourselves from artisanal- and small-scale miners, do we help ourselves, or do we help them? For Fairphone it is clear: we want to engage and be part of the solution, rather than disengage to have a ‘clean west’ – which we believe is akin to greenwashing.

A fair transition to an inclusive and green economy means engaging with and investing in the artisanal- and small-scale mining sector in DRC, and it means sticking to it over the long term. From the start, Fairphone’s approach has been to foster progressive improvement, to take one step after the other, to listen to and bring along everyone. 

This is why things take time, and also why so much more still needs to be done: Artisanal miners need legal status and productive mine sites, expertise and infrastructure to build safer mines, protective equipment, and fair compensation for their labor. Children, youth and their families need a safe space and support to go back to school or to learn a trade that can help them provide for themselves or their families, without being exposed to the hazardous environment of a mine- and not just at one mine site, but across the sector. Communities should be able to save their earnings and invest them into health, education and economic activities, and not only bear the brunt of the negative impacts of mining.

All this can only be achieved in a multi-stakeholder effort, such as the FCA. Businesses along the cobalt value chain have a crucial role to play, and so does the government, by helping to create an enabling legal and political context. And of course civil society, to make the voices of miners and communities heard. We can only achieve a transformation of the sector if it is a joint effort with everyone making a long-term commitment. Only in this way can we make sure that the green energy transition does not lead to further exploitation of the vulnerable, and that local communities and the DRC as a country benefit.

We call upon our industry peers to engage and not look away. Collaborate, invest – and above all, listen to the producers, the miners, and their communities. If we truly want a fair transition, we have to do more and we have to do it faster.

You are still reading and want to know more details about Fairphone’s approach to cobalt sourcing?  Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions:

  1. Where does Fairphone source its cobalt from?

Fairphone does not mine or source cobalt directly – rather, cobalt is used in the Fairphone’s battery. Until it gets into the battery from the mines, there are many actors, manufacturing stages and geographical locations in between: from the extraction point at the mine, cobalt typically goes to a processing plant, then a refiner, to precursor manufacturing, to cathode manufacturing, to battery cell and finally battery packaging, before the finished battery is assembled into our phone. At each of these stages, cobalt from different mines and sources is typically mixed together, making it very difficult and uneconomical to differentiate individual mines and sources. However, we know that the DRC accounts for a very large proportion of global cobalt production (74% of globally mined cobalt in 2021), and within that, artisanal sources alone amount to 13% of global production. Therefore it is safe to say that there is a high likelihood of cobalt from the DRC and from artisanal mines flowing into the electronics supply chain, including into Fairphone’s.

This is precisely why we established the Fair Cobalt Alliance – we want to engage and invest where the issues are biggest and where we can have a positive impact on the livelihoods of many thousands of people. We choose to engage and support rather than exclude and marginalize those who are already the poorest and weakest in our supply chain.

  1. How can Fairphone prove that its cobalt is mined ethically?

A significant share of global cobalt production, about 13%, is produced by artisanal and small-scale miners, mainly in the DRC. This cobalt is refined, mixed and processed with other sources at various stages and through that ends up in global value chains – with a high likelihood also in Fairphone’s. 

This is why from the very beginning, Fairphone has been investigating how to improve the cobalt supply chain and production. Instead of turning away from DRC and artisanal miners because there are high human rights and environmental risks, we want to stay engaged on the ground and be part of a solution. ASM is a very important livelihood in DRC, and we want to help improve it and make it safer. This is why we co-founded the Fair Cobalt Alliance.

The Fair Cobalt Alliance’s work is based on an in-depth assessment of the conditions at ASM sites in DRC – this assessment was done in 2020 and published by our partner The Impact Facility here: Digging for Change. Today, the FCA works directly with an ASM cooperative on an ASM mine site in DRC. Two of the key pillars of the program is to professionalize and improve the mine site and working conditions, and to ensure that child labor is prevented and remediated in a holistic way.

Fairphone and the FCA recognize that current conditions are not acceptable and at the same time are convinced that ASM can be done in a responsible way. That is why we focus on a step-by-step continuous improvement approach and why Fairphone, together with the FCA, developed an ASM Cobalt Framework which provides Environmental, Social & Governance benchmarks to measure the progress and improvements at the mine site over time.

All of this takes time, investment and most of all, collaboration with partners on the ground. We are the first to recognize that the conditions on the ASM mine sites are not yet good. But over the course of the last two years, some first improvements have materialized. This includes the training of health and safety captains at the mine site, a system for the provision of personal protective equipment for the women cobalt washers, and establishing a health and safety committee to monitor incidents. For more detailed information on activities and progress, you can access the FCA’s quarterly and annual report here.

There is still a lot to do and many challenges and difficulties to face. And Fairphone is in it for the long term – because only with long term engagement can we get to a point where ASM cobalt production is safe and responsible.

  1. How does Fairphone check its supply chain of cobalt?

On an annual basis, Fairphone requests its suppliers to provide information on all the cobalt refineries in our and their supply chain. This is done by using the Extended Minerals Reporting Template (EMRT) of the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI), which forms part of the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA). We then analyze the data from our suppliers and check the reported refiners against the RMI’s list of certified cobalt refiners. These are refiners that are undergoing or have undergone the RMI’s Responsible Minerals Assurance Process (RMAP) – meaning they have been audited against the RMI’s Cobalt Refiner Due Diligence Standard, which certifies that the refiner has put in place the necessary measures to check, prevent and mitigate gross human rights abuses related to the sources and mines it buys from. Where we find refiners that have not yet undergone an audit, we aim to conduct outreach to convince the refiner to undergo such an audit. Where we find a refiner that has failed an audit, we aim to first engage and request improvement and only disengage from it as a last resort if no improvements are made over time. As a small company, we cannot do all of this outreach alone, and also rely on support from industry associations such as the RMI and industry peers.

We publish the list of our cobalt refiners, their location and their certification status in our Supply Chain Engagement Report, which is published annually. Here the link to the report for 2021; the report for 2022 will be published in April 2023.

  1. Why doesn’t Fairphone just use cobalt from other countries than the DRC?

Our goal is to stay engaged and use our buying power to drive for a positive change where improvements are most needed, instead of walking away from difficult contexts and ignoring the challenges there. Artisanal cobalt mining in the DRC is a crucial livelihood for thousands of people who have little other alternatives, due to poverty and the lack of gainful employment. We recognize that this is linked to a lot of challenges and impacts, but this is precisely why we want to engage and invest in this context. We choose to engage and support rather than exclude and marginalize those who are already the poorest and weakest in our supply chain. It is in contexts like the DRC where Fairphone can have the most positive impact.

  1. What does Fairphone concretely do on the ground in DRC to improve things? What has been achieved so far and what are Fairphone’s goals for its cobalt sourcing?

Fairphone engages and invests on the ground in DRC through the Fair Cobalt Alliance (FCA), which it co-founded in 2020. The FCA works directly with artisanal mining cooperatives and surrounding communities around the city of Kolwezi in DRC, where most cobalt is mined. Fairphone’s goals are aligned with the FCA’s, namely: 

  • to professionalize the ASM sector by investing in and supporting responsible and safe mining practices, creating dignified working conditions, and enabling fair compensation of workers
  • to work towards child-labor-free communities, where the root causes of child labor are tackled in a holistic manner
  • And to enable sustainable livelihoods and economic diversification of mining communities.

This year, we aim to work especially on the integration of artisanally mined cobalt into responsible supply chains, linking ASM producers with responsible markets. Ultimately we want to see an ASM sector consisting of responsible and safe small and medium-sized mining enterprises, contributing to the development of local communities and DRC as a whole.

Details about the FCA’s overall goals, its workstreams and activities, and the progress to date can be found on its website.

  1. Can recycled cobalt be an alternative option?

In general, using recycled materials is a first step towards a circular economy, and is therefore something Fairphone aims towards. While cobalt is recyclable in principle, and industry is using recycled cobalt already, there are a few barriers that we still encounter:

  • First, until now, one of the main sources of recycled cobalt came from consumer batteries (such as in mobile phones). But due to the limited quantity and concentration of cobalt in consumer batteries, the corresponding development of recycling infrastructure to recover cobalt from such batteries has been limited. In other words, the available amount of recycled cobalt that can be re-integrated into new batteries is still small. It is not economically attractive at present, because the collection rate and the amount of cobalt are low.
  • Second, the demand for electric vehicles (EV) is now growing fast, leading to enough incentive for recycling cobalt from these EV batteries. However, along with the huge demand growth driven by the green energy transition and EVs, car batteries may last 6-10 years, and only then are they expected to become a large source of recycled cobalt. And even so, there are still challenges in purification and economic feasibility for recycling cobalt from EV batteries to be used in consumer batteries (such as in Fairphone products). We are currently exploring this with our suppliers. Ultimately, researchers predict that recycled cobalt will only account for 15% of the estimated global demand in 2030. It shows that with rapidly increased demand and relatively long battery life, cobalt mining will remain relevant and in need of our attention.
  • Thirdly, collecting more waste consumer batteries is surely an option. But batteries are classified as a hazardous good and therefore their transport, storage and handling are subject to strict safeguards and standards. This is why our take-back program of e-waste from informal waste dumps in Africa with our partners Closing The Loop does not yet cover batteries.

Overall, we are exploring the use of recycled cobalt in our batteries when and where we can, but we also see the need to accompany this with two other measures: 1) Engage in improving mining, because we will remain dependent on mined sources for some time, and 2) contribute to improving recycling rates of batteries.

The post Sticking with Cobalt Blue appeared first on Fairphone.

by Angela at 2023-03-02 15:20


Adrian McEwen

Week 908 - Cycling Protocol

Adrian here, managing for once to get the weeknotes out while they're still just for one week.

Following last week's clamber into the software stack of protocols and, given the amount of work I've done over my career reading protocol specs and writing code to implement them, probably my most comfortable zone of development; I could crank out the code and got everything working nicely.

As a result, I could use an ESP32 to update the firmware on an Arduino Mega, over the serial line. As the client project happens to contain both of those, it will let the system download new firmware from a USB drive or over the WiFi using those features of the ESP32S2 and then update the code running on the ATMEGA2560 chip with its greater I/O capabilities.

Rows of people sat watching Kirsty presenting the welcome session at the Merseyside Cycling Campaign AGM

On Saturday the Merseyside Cycling Campaign held their AGM at DoES Liverpool. That brought over sixty cyclists along to the space for a series of talks and presentations alongside the formal agenda. It was a celebration of the wealth of community groups getting more people riding and forged lots of new links and friendships.

We were there as attendees, but also took the opportunity to show off My Bike's Got LED. Chris spent some of the week working on the Atuline sound reactive fork of WLED, as we thought it would be good to show off the lights changing in time to some music. Plus we could have a couple of bikes with their lights synchronized over WiFi, making it even cooler!

In the end, the event was too packed to show anything beyond a single bike. You'll have to keep an eye out for when we get it set up and running on one of our group rides instead.

He's also been chipping away at the redesign work for the updated version of My Bike's Got LED. Checking over the fixes to the bugs in the first prototypes and starting to fold that back into a revised design.

by Adrian McEwen at 2023-03-01 06:00


Adrian McEwen

Week 907 - Tracing rainbows

Chris again this week. Less fanfare and sparkly new board photos, more hard slog chasing down bugs on the new boards. The new charging circuit for the boards isn't playing very nicely with the existing battery protection circuit. We think we have traced the issue and will hopefully we'll soon have a version 2 V2 board ready to go.

Connected to this has been the ongoing issue of updating the DoES relfow oven, Florence. Nothing particularly exciting in a technical sense, we added a new temperature sensor and cailbrated the new firmware. It feels weeknote worthy though because these updates to off the shelf kit have relied on the shared work of people I've never met who bumped up against the same problems we were having. It's how we work at MCQN and how DoES is run, and proabably perfectly normal to most people who read these weekenotes. It's good sometimes to remember the wider community we're part of.

I've also been looking at a sound reactive demo of the V1 boards for the Merseyside Cycling Campaign AGM at DoES on Saturday 25th Feb. We've looked at sound reactive uses for My Baby's got LED before, but using signals generated on other machines. With this application we're taking an audio line in and creating the effects on board. Using UDP the effects can then be synchronised across all bikes in the Peloton. Syncronisation is a feature of these boards I'm keen to exploit more. It needs a bike mounted router solution to provide a network to connect devices, but I think it will make for impressive effects.

Logic analayser trace of communication between an ESP and Arduino.

This week Adrian has been getting an ESP32 microcontroller to program an Arduino. That involved a lot more wielding of logic analyzers and oscilloscopes than he'd have liked, thanks to some peculiarities in the particular hardware for this project. Thankfully he's made it out into the sunlit uplands of software and protocol implementation; and he's the sort of weirdo where reading protocol definitions for the STK500v2 firmware procedure is classed as "sunlit uplands".

There's a free MCQN coaster for the first person to correctly identify what's happening in the trace above. Answers on whatever the twenty first century equivalent of a postcard is.

by Adrian McEwen at 2023-02-24 06:00


Paul Fawkesley

The speech I gave at my Just Stop Oil trial

Di, Oli, Alan, Paul, Harley, Jon and I gave testimonies at trial on Wednesday.

Judge Wilkinson responded with an extraordinary speech that’s quoted towards the end of this press release.

Here’s why I disrupted an Esso oil terminal for 11 hours last April.

My daughter Robyn will turn three next week.

But she very nearly didn’t exist.

You might have heard that young people don’t want children because of the climate crisis.

That was me. I agonised over whether it was fair to bring a child into this world.

  • Will I be able to protect them?
  • Will they grow up in an unstable, dangerous world?
  • Will they resent me for having them, despite knowing what they’ll face?

Eventually, and with some uncertainty, we decided to have just one child.

Since Robyn was born we’ve spent every Thursday together.

We spend most days outdoors, collecting leaves, talking to “woof woofs”, and discussing endlessly about “why”.

Why are leaves green? Why does the moon come out at night?

She is a perfect, tiny human.

I love her so much.

She has done nothing to deserve the future that we’re currently all facing with 2.4° of warming.

She does not deserve to live in fear of food shortages and rationing.

But by the time she’s 30, many countries we import food from will be too hot for growing crops. The Global Center for Adaptation forecasts a global yield reduction of up to 30% by 2050. And that’s with a projected additional 2 billion mouths to feed.

She does not deserve to see her home, Liverpool, ruined by rising sea levels and worsening storm floods.

But by 30, the street where we live is predicted to be underwater once a year, according to the IPCC’s 2021 leading consensus model.

Robyn doesn’t deserve a society that’s polarised by the impossible stress of hundreds of millions of climate refugees.

But by the time she’s 30, there will be between 25 million and one billion climate migrants, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration.

As I watch her little mind growing, I think about her grasping the climate situation like I did.

She’s going to say to me,

“Dad, you knew this would happen. What were you doing? Did you do everything you could?”

I need a good answer.

I gave up my car and spend thousands a year on trains.

I stopped eating beef and lamb, the highest emitting foods.

I spent £1000s and hundreds of hours insulating our home.

I invested my savings in renewable energy co-operatives.

I stopped flying and faced the idea I may never leave Europe again.

I joined the Green Party, I wrote to my MP, went on marches, and signed petitions.

I did all these things, but global emissions kept going up.

The IPCC kept publishing reports, and they kept getting worse.

And our Government kept granting new fossil fuels licences.

That means giving permission to dig up brand new oil and gas from the north sea.

So what’s wrong with that?

Remember how the Government declared a climate emergency in 2019?

We committed, in law, to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050.

But Net Zero by 2050 is not compatible with granting new fossil fuel licences.

The IPCC and the International Energy Agency are the world’s independent experts. They say that to achieve Net Zero by 2050, there should be no new fossil fuel licences.

So our Government set a goal in law, but is acting in a way that means we will not meet that goal.

At the start of 2022, the Government had approved 40 new fossil fuel projects.

The emissions from those new fossil fuels will be equal to three times that of the whole UK.

As the metaphor goes, the house was on fire, but we just kept throwing on petrol.

I felt guilty for being part of the problem.

I felt bitter that people in our Government must know how urgent the situation is, but are too cowardly to upset the status quo.

I felt anger that fossil fuel companies spend millions of dollars funding climate deniers. Corrupting our democratic process.

But most of all I felt hopeless and I felt despair.

I was watching us lurch towards the edge of the cliff, but was powerless to stop it.

What else could I do?

How could I look my daughter in the eye, and tell her I did what I could?

I heard about a thing called Just Stop Oil.

They had a simple demand of Government.

Stop granting new fossil fuel licences.

This wasn’t a radical or unreasonable demand.

It’s exactly what the IPCC and the International Energy Agency have said is necessary.

So that was Just Stop Oil’s demand.

Their tactics were simple, and borrowed from history.

The same tactics that got women the right to vote, and all races to be considered equal in the US.

Protest in a way that the government can’t ignore.

Force them to negotiate the demand.

Then came the uncomfortable bit

They were asking me to get arrested.

I didn’t much like the sound of that…

It didn’t sound like me!

I’m an Engineering graduate, a business owner, a hands-on dad.

The only brush I’d had with the law was a speeding ticket when I was 17.

This all seemed very extreme.

It wasn’t for me. I said I’d help out with leaflets and “think about it.”

But over time, I met a few more people involved with Just Stop Oil.

They weren’t what I was expecting. They were… gentle, principled people.

Vicars, teachers, nurses.

Doing this because it’s necessary, not because they enjoy protesting.

At one point, I heard someone ask:

“What are you more afraid of, getting arrested or the climate emergency?”

That was a hard thing to face up to.

I was afraid of getting arrested, and the consequences, of course I was.

But if I was honest with myself, there was no comparison.

Of course it’s the climate emergency. It terrifies me.

It’s just easier to ignore because it’s creeping up on us slowly.

Getting arrested is an extreme thing to do.

But we are in extreme danger.

The more I thought about it, the more reasonable and necessary it seemed.

Successive Governments had ignored the protests and the petitions.

The normal democratic process had failed. The situation had become an emergency.

I felt that I had no choice.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. The day after my arrest, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a speeech:

…most major emitters are not taking the steps needed to fulfil even these inadequate promises.

Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals.

But, the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.

We rely on our Government to protect us.

It’s their most important duty.

But they aren’t doing that.

They are contradicting the IPCC and the International Energy Agency.

By granting new fossil fuel licences, they are destroying our future.

I didn’t want to sit on the road for hours in minus 1 degrees

I didn’t want to get arrested.

I didn’t want to be here today.

But I had to demand that the government protects us.

I had to tell them to listen to the desperate cries of their own scientists and experts.

And I had to demand that they stop granting new fossil fuel licences.

Taking action with Just Stop Oil.

This was something I could do.

This is what I can say to Robyn.

Thank you.

My daughter’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

Other #Esso9 speeches

by Paul Fawkesley at 2023-02-17 00:00

Paul Fawkesley

Paul Barnes' speech from Just Stop Oil trial

Di, Oli, Paul F, Alan, Paul B, Harley and Jon gave testimonies at trial on Wednesday.

Judge Wilkinson responded with an extraordinary speech that’s quoted towards the end of this press release.

Here is the speech Paul Barnes’ gave.

I want you to all think of outer space.

Think about the planets, the moons and all the stars floating in a vacuum of nothingness.

All made from the same gasses and elements that make our planet possible too, but still… a lifeless void of nothing.

What WE have here on OUR planet, OUR earth, is a miracle… Life is a miracle.

The conditions for our very existence here on Earth have worked in perfect balance with all life on our planet for millions of years… and what we have is incredibly precious.

Devastatingly, species decline and extinction rates are accelerating and we are no exception.

We must protect what we have left.

From an early age, around 7 years old, I’ve been scared of dying.

I would routinely ask my parents about what happens when we die, what’s outside the universe, when did it start, how did it start?

At that time our atmosphere had a CO₂ concentration of 350 parts per million. My parents couldn’t offer me any answers to my questions, they comforted me, but ultimately couldn’t help me.

Now I’m a parent and I’ve two young children of my own. Leo is 4 and our eldest, Isaac is now 7 years old himself, and that CO₂ figure is now at 420 parts per million, the highest it’s been in modern human history.

According to Nasa the last time it was this high was around 400,000 years ago.

8 billion people have never faced this before. I’m now scared for Isaac & Leo’s lives and how the climate crisis will impact them.

At this time in history, I have the chance to save my children from the worst impacts of climate breakdown before it’s too late, and as a parent I will do all I can whilst I am able, to protect them.

Before I was a dad, I didn’t care for politics or had any idea there was a looming climate disaster unfolding…

But since becoming a parent my levels of awareness about everything in life has changed.

I feel like I’m more aware than I’ve ever been. Naturally, when we worry about things we’re told to research the facts, and this is what i’ve been doing since Isaac was born and even more so after hearing more about the climate emergency, as highlighted by Extinction Rebellion, the school strikers and many more, including those from the scientific community.

This came just after Leo was born in 2018, and to be honest knowing what we know now, we wouldn’t have had Leo and Isaac wouldn’t have a little brother.

But to think of our 4 year old bundle of joy not having ever existed is heartbreaking. We cherish every second we have with them both.

This is it, it’s all we get… one life….. ‘You only live once’ YOLO.

Make the most of every day we’re gifted.

Why would you not do anything?

Why would you not do everything you could to save what we have? .. what you have? It’s not too late to make a change, to use the power you have to make a difference.

In the plea hearing, you asked us not to labour on the science, but as mentioned that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for years and my conclusion is that we all need to understand just how serious this situation is.

After disinformation and denial campaigns that have lasted longer than I’ve been alive, doubt and confusion is the result, which was and is the exact intention of ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies.

There is a stack of evidence proving this… that for over 50 years, ExxonMobil in particular have known the catastrophic risks to life and actively tried to cover this up in a pursuit of profit over people.

I acknowledge that fossil fuels have helped us in many many ways and we should all be thankful for the privileged lives we all lead as a result of that.

But I also understand the reasons why, now, we must rapidly move away from them.

The bottom line is: If we don’t move in the time scale required, dictated to us by the laws of physics, presented to us by the scientists, the Intergovernmental panel on climate change, the UN, the international energy agency and the UK’s own committee on climate, then we may never be able to bring the global average temperature down to safe levels.

We risk multiple climate and ecological tipping points falling like dominos, and could be facing irreversible feedback loops out of human control, and face no way back.

Put bluntly, the effects of what we are currently risking will result in an unlivable world for many many species including humans and could lead to our extinction.

This decade is make or break, we either create the will to save ourselves or we don’t.

When we hear the warnings and know the risks and have learned from history how food and water scarcity result in conflict and war.

It’s easy to see how scenarios could play out in the near future as our global crisis worsens.

I worry about all the obvious things: flooding, extreme heat, wildfires, crop failure and food shortages leading to starvation and death.

But I also worry about public order and societal collapse.

Public order exists to prevent breach of the peace. it’s there to keep the public safe from harm.

It’s there to prevent chaos and danger appearing in our organised societies.

Who protects you when law and order breaks down? When most days are disrupted, not by protests, but by violence as people fight for food, water and medical supplies, and justice itself completely disappears.

All my life I believed the law and justice system protects people from danger.

I now know they are protecting the system.

The system that is directly damaging the people it was supposed to protect and is set to destroy the futures of billions.

I’m protecting myself and my family but also you, everyone in this room and their families….simply because our government, police and justice system is favouring business as usual at all costs, even if that cost is life itself.

And then I learn our own government is literally doing the ‘opposite of what is recommended to keep us all safe’, by issuing consents for 40 new fossil fuel projects…

That was then…now it’s looking like 130 plus..

We all have a choice, either ignore it, bury it deep down and accept that we have no way of changing anything and should then accept that our children face a dystopian hell of a future.

Or we try everything we can to fight to change the future.

Once all lawful means have been exhausted the only thing left is nonviolent direct action as a last and final option.

And due to the unique time scale constraints of this insane situation it is the only option left to those of us facing the truth head on, for those of us who aren’t willing to bury it deep and hide away from the reality.

We’re hoping to get guinea pigs soon.

Isaac and Leo love nature and these will be their first pets.

We’ll be in control of their living conditions and we’ll make sure we look after them well. It’s conceivable and highly likely that our new arrivals will live out their full happy lives with us.

We could choose to neglect our duty of care and subject the animals to certain factors like leaving them with no water & food, or we could leave them outside in the garden under various weather conditions and see what happens.

But we won’t because we’re in control of the situation.

I only hope that my children live a full happy life under the control of our leaders who have the power to decide our fate.

But just hoping isn’t enough.

Those already dead, displaced and decimated by climate change also hoped, but hoping didn’t change anything.

We must all act together for the sake of all those less fortunate than us, for those already in a dystopian hell.

We don’t know how lucky we are to have this small window of opportunity to do something.

But our luck will run out too, and this is the future for my children and yours,

Thank you

Paul’s children’s names have been changed to protect their identity.

by Paul Fawkesley at 2023-02-17 00:00


Mine Wyrtruman (pagan religion)

What I Believe

Wes hāl!1 I’m going to do something a little different today. I’m going to provide the fundamentals of what I believe as far as religion goes. I doubt anyone is going to agree with everything, and some people might not agree with any of it. That’s okay, I don’t base my friendships on agreement, but rather mutual interests and respect. Still, I think it could be helpful to some to see what one version of Fyrnsidu might look like (and again, this is only one version of it). My beliefs are always in flux, so these might not be applicable in a year, but since I’m providing the fundamentals upon which I have built my religion, I doubt any of these will change any time soon. Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell. ↩

by Byron Pendason at 2023-02-15 00:00


Adrian McEwen

Weeks 905 and 906 - Get on Board

Adrian here. I'm typing this on my long-awaited new laptop. It's a StarBook. I ordered it last March(!) and after a bunch of chip-shortage and supply-chain delays it finally turned up a few weeks back.

Switching over—given how many bits of software, and project environments I have on my computers—has taken a few weeks in itself. There are still a couple of projects which haven't fully migrated, but I moved my email-and-RSS across last week, which feels like the true marker of which is my main machine.

I'm enjoying the new screen lots. The keyboard is nicer than on my old Thinkpad (I think the fold-back-on-itself tablet mode of that meant the keyboard design suffered), but I'm still retraining my muscle memory for the new position of the ancillary keys. I'm not a huge fan of the trackpad; it's missing a middle button, and it's a bit wide, so I keep catching the right edge of it when scrolling around. I'm sure I'll get used to it.

Aside from commissioning a new laptop, I've been busy with client work. There's been rather too much re-jigging the build system for an ESP32-plus-Arduino project for my liking, but I do now have a better understanding of how those different parts can be configured.

A collection of cardboard boxes containing lots of bags of electronic components, some PCBs and a stainless steel stencil

Chris has been cracking on with more photogenic work.

Green circuit board plugged into a USB supply with perhaps more components than is justified for the single lit red led

The bare PCBs and all the components for the test samples of the version 2 My Bike's Got LED boards arrived. Chris got a couple soldered up in the reflow oven and has been working through getting code on them and testing the various areas of functionality.

It's looking like we might need to tweak things, but this is why we got a few boards to test first. However, as you can see, we have got lights from it!

by Adrian McEwen at 2023-02-13 06:00

Adrian McEwen

Week 904 - Always look on the bright side of life…

Chris here, picking up the baton, and getting on with weeknotes early to keep up the streak. I’m aiming for cheerful, upbeat positivity. Those who know me well can stop giggling, I see you. Days are getting longer, the weather is getting warmer, we can put the long cold winter behind us and look forward to sunny days ahead.

Last week was definitely a setback, we’re working on some great products and thought we’d solved all the difficult technical problems. Leaving just the difficult marketing problems, but the improvements to My Bike’s got LED should mean it’ll sell itself. Right? I know the ever growing Friday night ‘Folk riding bikes’ will have plenty of ideas for the solar battery charging option.

With a bit of rejigging from Adrian, we’ve found a way through to get closer to production. Test PCBs are ordered and components coming, so we’re not much more than a re-flow away from having version two boards for testing.

Part of the process of has introduced me to a couple of Kicad hacks that I think are worth documenting here. If nothing else so I don’t forget them myself.

Alt-3 in the Kicad PCB editor jumps to the 3d viewer. Really nice to look at and remind you of what you’re working towards as you wrestle with rats nests. It’s also a very useful way to help nudge the silkscreen design without losing things in the complexity of all the pcb layers in design view. Then clicking on raytracing in preferences moves things on to a whole new level. (and why for the second week in a row we’ve got a render of an as yet unmade board at the top of the post.)

1 click BOM is all the way down the other end of the utility scale, unless csv lists of components and where to buy them is your idea of beauty. It can be integrated into Kicad and used to generate a list of all the components needed for a board. This can be sent to manufacturers or, via a browser extension, used to fill shopping carts from component suppliers.

The client work continues to move forward, as code is written and logic analysed. Hopefully by the next time weeknotes are being written there’ll be more good news on the products side to talk about. Ideally a video or two with some interconnected bike boards to show off.

So while it might feel like we’re still pushing rocks uphill I’m going to try to follow the advice of the wisest of philosophers. “Don't grumble, give a whistle, and this'll help things turn out for the best.”

by Adrian McEwen at 2023-01-30 06:00


Adrian McEwen

Weeks 897-903 - Completed Designs and Testing Times

Adrian here. Lots to catch up on as it seems it's been seven(!) weeks since we last reported on things. Some of that was the festive break, but still. Happy New Year and all that.

I'm in a mixed mood writing these weeknotes to be honest. But, working in the open means sharing the downs as well as the ups. And these aren't big downs, just the regular bumps of business life. Onwards.

Chris has been splitting his time between some early exploratory development work that we can't talk about yet, and getting the updated version of the My Bike's Got LED boards finished.

He's had the big chunks of functionality laid out for a while, and has been (re-)learning that the last 20% takes 80% of the time. However, this week he got it over the line and sent out for quotes for production.

I've been getting to grips with testing frameworks, and working out how to use Cucumber with embedded systems and microcontrollers. I've dabbled with it in the past on small web projects, but the approach has never quite stuck. I think part of that is because the projects have been smaller, with me as the sole developer; when I can (mostly) keep how it all works in my head at once, it hasn't seemed worth the extra up-front work to build the test scaffolding.

Now that I'm working more in teams again, that calculus has shifted. While looking for something suitable for testing in the embedded world I came across this project to bridge between Cucumber and microcontrollers over a serial connection. We've been using it on a couple of projects and I'm liking it so far. The more human-readable test cases of behaviour-driven development (BDD) are useful; and the ability to mix native Ruby-scripted steps with others on the target hardware lets us set up parts of the test on a companion PC to check that, for example, transmitted data has made it out to the "cloud".

The initial codebase was targetting the nrf51 platform, but it was fairly simple to port to nrf91 and ESP32—they're the platforms our current projects are using. We've also been extending it to add more features and other improvemens. All of which is available in our fork on Github.

I've really enjoyed getting my head down and cranking out some code for that. I've also started to appreciate laying out the edge cases and general functionality of code I'm developing in the test cases before the code is written. Hoping that's a habit that starts to take root.

Outside of the "proper" work, the other work has been getting me down this week. One of our clients is dragging their heels a bit paying invoices. I expect it will get sorted, but the background concern and chasing adds some drag to the work of the company. Including to the work that this client wants to be finished.

On top of that, we had an initial quote back for the My Bike's Got LED production run and it's a fair bit more than I'd expected. It's probably just a mis-match in comms between us and the supplier—usually they're really good—and it should be something we can work out. But I could have done without the extra admin and working-through-the-issue that results. What seemed like a milestone passed mid-week, turned out to not quite be the case.

The joys of a small indie hardware manufacturer, eh?

by Adrian McEwen at 2023-01-23 06:00


Mine Wyrtruman (pagan religion)

The Cardinal Virtues

Wes hāl!1 One of the things that Heathenry lacks is a definitive cohesive theory on ethics. The reason for this is due to its tendency to be based upon reconstructionist methodology, and the fact is that no records from the pre-Christian Heathens survive. The closest we have is parts of the Poetic Edda, but even that comes to us from the Christians that wrote it down and probably modified it to better fit their worldview. Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell. ↩

by Byron Pendason at 2023-01-22 00:00


Albert Wenger

Termination Shock (Book Review)

Over vacation I read Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson. Unlike many other recent books tackling the climate crisis, it is entirely focused on the controversial issue of geoengineering through solar radiation modification (SMR). The basic idea of SMR is to let slightly less sunlight into the Earth’s lower atmosphere where it can heat things up. Even a tiny decrease in solar radiation will have a big impact on global warming.

To put upfront where I stand on this: I first wrote about the need to research geoengineering in 2009. Since then Susan and I have funded some research in this area, including a study at Columbia University to independently verify some chemistry proposed by the Keith group at Harvard. The results suggest that using calcite aerosols may not be so great for the stratosphere which includes the Ozone layer that protects us from too much UV radiation. That means spreading sulfites is likely better – this is what happens naturally during a big volcano eruption, such as the famous Mount Pinatubo eruption.

Artificially putting sulfur into the stratosphere turns out to be the key plot device in Termination Shock. Delays by governments in addressing the climate crisis have a rich individual start to launch shells containing sulfur into the stratosphere. In a classic life imitating art moment, Luke Iseman, the founder of Make Sunsets, is explicitly referring to reading Termination Shock as an inspiration for starting the company and releasing a first balloon carrying a tiny amount of sulfur into the stratosphere.

Termination Shock does a good job of neither praising its lone ranger character for attempting to mitigate the climate crisis, nor condemning him for kicking off something with obviously global impact. Instead, the plot extends to several nation states that might be positively or adversely affected and the actions they take to either support or interfere with the project. While these aren’t as fully developed as I might have liked (the book still clocks in at 720 pages), they do show how different the interests on SMR might wind up across the globe.

In that regard I loved that India gets a starring turn, as I believe we are about to see a lot more of India on the global stage. I only wish Saskia, Queen of the Netherlands, played a more active role, like the female protagonists of Seveneves do. To be fair, she is a very likable character, but mostly with events happening to her. As always with books by Neal Stephenson, there are tons of fascinating historical and technical detais. For example, I had no idea that there were tall mountains in New Guinea.

Overall Termination Shock is a great read and an excellent complement to Ministry for the Future in the climate crisis fiction department (can’t believe I didn’t write about that book yet).

by Albert Wenger at 2023-01-21 16:34


Mine Wyrtruman (pagan religion)

Stoicism and Heathenry

Wes hāl!1 I have recently become a student of Stoicism, but as I said in my last blog post Stoicism is not a Germanic philosophy. It was born in the Hellenic world, and was later adopted by the Romans. In this blog post, I want to discuss the relationship between Stoicism and Heathenry. What are the similarities, the differences, and are they even compatible? So let’s dive in! Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell. ↩

by Byron Pendason at 2023-01-15 00:00


Fairphone Blog

An Update on Fairphone 2

Well friends, it is time. *Cue the music* After an unprecedented seven years of supporting our beloved Fairphone 2, we will finally stop software support for the Fairphone 2. After March 2023, we will no longer deliver software updates for the Fairphone 2.

This is an incredibly bittersweet moment: the Fairphone 2 has far surpassed our initial hopes to offer three to five years of software support, but in an ideal world, we would be able to support our devices indefinitely. The Fairphone 2 makes it clear how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.

 But let’s jump to the recipe: what does this mean for Fairphone 2 owners? It’s important to us that you are all informed of possible impacts well ahead of time.


What does this mean for active Fairphone 2 users?

 In March 2023, we will share a final Fairphone 2 software update for Android 10. After this is installed, users can continue to use their device as normal. However, in terms of software support, that will be the final update. If there is a bug that users hope will be fixed, that won’t happen anymore. 


Will it be safe to continue using the Fairphone 2?

From March 2023 onwards, the device will start lagging behind in terms of security updates, so the device will become more insecure over time. We recommend that you avoid using apps that access sensitive data after May 2023; if there is a severe vulnerability that the Fairphone 2 is susceptible to, we won’t be able to fix it. 

Some security-critical apps – like banking apps – will, over time, view the device as out of date and stop running entirely. This is likely to be a few years away, but it is app dependent, so hard to know when it could happen. Regular apps will continue to run for years to come. 


Will spare parts for the Fairphone 2 still be available?

 We have a limited supply of some spare parts available in our webshop, including display modules. These will help to keep your Fairphone 2 going even longer. We expect to be able to continue offering this hardware for as long as supplies last or as long as we have a reasonable amount of active users.

Some spare parts are no longer available to purchase, such as the bottom module, which are only available for devices still in warranty.

 Obviously, in our ideal, indefinite-support world, we’d have spare parts for as long as needed, without running into electronic waste or supply chain issues, but we’re not quite there yet!


What options do Fairphone 2 owners have now?

This doesn’t have to be the end of your Fairphone 2. After March 2023, you’ll have a few options of what to do with your Fairphone 2:

Keep using the device

You can keep using the Fairphone 2 as normal, but at your own risk. Or, if you’re an experienced user interested in installing an Android alternative, we would recommend you learn more about alternative operating systems like /e/OS and LineageOS, which are still actively supported.

 Use it in offline mode

Switch your Fairphone 2 to flight mode to make sure it’s safe from security concerns that come with being online, then continue enjoying the remaining services the device can safely offer – like the camera, music player, offline games and photo gallery.

 Send your Fairphone 2 to our Reuse & Recycling Program

 If you decide that now is the time to wish your Fairphone 2 a fond farewell, you can send it to our Reuse and Recycling Program. As a thank you for returning your device to the circular loop, if you register your device with our program 31 March 2023, we’ll gift you a 50EUR voucher for the Fairphone webshop.


Recycle your Fairphone 2


How can you keep your Fairphone 2 going?

Do you want to keep your phone going for as long as possible? Fairphone users are pretty amazing (as you would know!), and our online community is a great resource for tips. Go to our marketplace and forum to learn what our community has to say on increasing the longevity of your phone. We’ve also shared some tips on how to make your Fairphone 2 last longer in a blog post here.

 And to all of you…

 This is just the beginning in a long line of farewells to active support for the Fairphone 2; we hope you’re comfortable receiving compliments, because over the next few months a lot of them are coming your way – starting now!

 Fairphone 2 users have been through it all with us: huge successes (Modularity! Seven years!) and real failures (Supply issues with spare parts, hold the exclamation point). You have repaired and replaced, upgraded and updated, and lived the Fairphone vision in your everyday life for seven years.

You made the ordinary extraordinary, proving that product longevity is a real, viable choice that is better for people and planet. Thank you. Thank you for being a part of the Fairphone journey, and for choosing Fairphone to be a part of yours. 

If you would like to bid adieu to your Fairphone 2 and send it for recycling before 31 March 2023, we’ll gift you 50EUR for our web shop – where you can get a new Fairphone to replace your well-used Fairphone 2. Let’s continue to build a fairer future together.


Get your 50EUR voucher



The post An Update on Fairphone 2 appeared first on Fairphone.

by Agnes at 2023-01-09 09:08


Albert Wenger

A Philosophical Start to 2023

We are once again at a transition moment in history. Where our journey goes from here could be exceptionally good or absurdly bad. This mirrors past moments, such as the transition into the Agrarian Age, which gave us early high cultures but also various dark ages. Or more recently the transition into the Industrial Age, with democracies flourishing, but also fascism and communism killing tens of millions.

In the past few years we have had incredible unlocks across many fields. To name just a few, in computation we are making real progress on artificial intelligence; in biology, we can now read and write genetic code; in energy, we are closing in on nuclear fusion.

At the same time we are facing unprecedented threats. The climate crisis is accelerating at a pace faster than most of the dire predictions. Our democracies are moribund with bloated and risk-averse bureaucracies. With social media and easy image/video manipulation and creation we live in post-truth world. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has edged us closer to the possibility of nuclear war.

The threats are truly scary and I completely understand why some people find it hard to get out of bed. The opportunities can be anxiety inducing in their own ways, even if you don’t think a superintelligence will wipe out humanity any day now. At all times there are people seeing that opportunity is elsewhere, finding themselves trapped in stagnant fields. Personally I am excited by the opportunities. But even excitement carries potential failure modes with it, such as “all work and no play.”

So where does this leave me? Aristotle was wrong about a lot of things, but I quite like his conception of virtues as intermediates between too little and too much of something. For example, courage sits between cowardice and rashness. In a similar vein I try to find middle paths between ignoring threats and despairing about them, between dismissing opportunities and glorifying them, and between asceticism and hedonism.

Finding these balance points is an ongoing process as it is easy to be drawn away to either extreme. The story of Odysseus needing to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis can be read as a metaphor for this challenge. As an aside, the same is true for making choices in startups and I have a series of blog posts about that.

I am sharing this framework in the hope that it may be helpful to others. Also if more people start thinking and operating this way, maybe we can get past the current state of discourse which favors extremes.

May you all find the right middle paths in 2023!

by Albert Wenger at 2023-01-02 15:47


Nicholas Tollervey

8-Bit Archaeology: Part 1

This is the first in a semi-regular series of posts about digital archaeology relating to 1980s era 8-bit microcomputers. In a strange turn of events, not only am I the archaeologist, but it is my own code that is to be uncovered and interpreted.

The aim was to democratise computing. We didn’t want people to be controlled by it, but to control it.

~ David Allen, Project Editor, BBC Computer Literacy Project.

As a child, the first programming language I learned was Sophie Wilson's BBC Basic, written for Acorn's BBC Micro. Without this formative experience, I wouldn't have become a professional software engineer.

Most of my childhood was spent in the 1980s, and in 1982-ish the UK Government ensured every school in the UK had a BBC micro.

A BBC micro from the 1980s
A BBC Micro from the 1980s. Source: StuartBrady, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

My father was headteacher of a school, and so brought his newly arrived computer back home one holiday to figure out how to use it. It didn't take very long to prize the device away from him, and so I started to explore the "Welcome" software, loaded from a tape via a sequence of squeaks and growls (representing the bytes to load into the computer's memory). Since I would have only been eight at the time the user guide was beyond my understanding, so a trip to the local library furnished me with a new book aimed at kids who wanted to play games on their computers. The book in question was Computer Spacegames published by Usborne, a title in their famously brilliant series of colourful and engaging books about coding.

The first proper program I ever typed into the BBC can be found on page 5. It's a sort of text based rocket pilot game... you have to take off before the aliens get you:

10 CLS
30 LET G=INT(RND(1)*20)
40 LET W=INT(RND(1)*40)
50 LET R=G*W
80 FOR C=1 TO 10
120 IF F=R THEN GOTO 190
140 NEXT C
180 STOP

I have a vivid memory of my aunt, uncle and cousins visiting at the time. My cousin Michael (five years older than me) shared a fascination with computers. As a teenager he was clearly at a more advanced level of understanding, and it was from him that I got lots of tips, tricks and encouragement to goof around.

So I did.

I changed line 160 to read:


Then I persuaded my unsuspecting Uncle Colin to play.

Since he's an engineer I think he got the impression there was some sort of simulated Newtonian mechanics going on and took it quite seriously. Of course, if you read the code, it's just a glorified guessing game. When he inevitably failed to take off, I remember he exclaimed "how rude", muttered something about the computer being broken then wandered off to escape any further computer-related space piloting catastrophes. But my eight-year-old self was delighted. I spent the next ten minutes laughing like a maniac at having hoodwinked an adult with my modified code.

Emboldened by this turn of events (and Michael's mischievous teenager-y encouragement) I soon graduated to a new form of entertainment when dragged shopping by my parents. I'd wander off on my own to find the computer stands in retailers. Being a kid, I was mostly ignored as I typed code into the demonstration machines.

Code like this:

10 CLS
30 GOTO 20

I'd walk away (after typing RUN) and surreptitiously observe the next person to encounter the demonstration machines... all telling them they were an idiot ad infinitum. I soon realised the shop assistants could clear my school-boy silliness by pressing the ESCAPE or BREAK keys. Yet I also realised it was possible for the function of such keys to be modified: some of the code ran on my school's BBC micro clearly made sure any accidental or deliberate use of ESCAPE or BREAK didn't interfere with whatever software the teacher had set up for us to use.

I had to wait for the next visit of my cousin Michael to learn how to "improve" my code so it defeated shop assistants. To cut a long story short it's possible to rebind the ESCAPE and BREAK keys to the extent that the only way to stop the machine from doing what it's doing is to switch it off and on again. My cousin pointed out that the answers to such problems could be found in the (afore linked) user guide. In fact rebinding BREAK was explained on page 143 and disabling ESCAPE involved this magic incantation at the start of your source code:

10 *FX 200,3

I was off!

Most importantly, I realised the user guide wasn't a boring manual for adults but, if approached in the right way, it was the source of all sorts of useful knowledge and information and I merely had to figure out how to find it. I was also helped by yet-more-computer-books from Usborne and my local library, a subscription to Acorn User Magazine and various aspects of the BBC's magnificent Computer Literacy Project, including TV programmes like this one:

You can watch all the original 146 programmes online.

But in the end I learned an important ethical lesson.

After leaving my unstoppable and mildly insulting code running on a BBC micro at the Mansfield branch of WHSmith, I was horrified to see one of the retail assistants reprimanded by their supervisor. My joke wasn't funny and I realised my code had consequences for others. A lesson that stays with me to this day.

I also learned that revealing technical skill and knowledge can be tricky and, at times, intimidating to others.

I remember getting a severe telling-off after I tried to help one of my parent's teaching colleagues, the subject matter specialist for computing. I was still at Primary school (probably around ten years old) and the ensuing conversation, in front of my class mates, revealed the teacher's ignorance of some aspect of how the BBC micro created sounds.

The conversation went something like this:

TEACHER: "You can only make sounds like this."
ME: "But Mrs.S, it's easier to make sounds like that."
TEACHER: "You're wrong Nicholas. That simply won't work."
ME: "Oh yes it will."
(I demonstrate the damn thing working.)

In my enthusiasm to share a cool hack, I undermined the teacher and paid the price with a bollocking.

To be clear, I wasn't rude. But I was certainly a confident enough ten-year-old to know I had an easier way to make things work, while being naive to think this would be welcomed. To be fair, I don't think they did themselves any favours by telling me it simply wouldn't work. A more open minded teacher would have said something like, "OK Nicholas, show me your way and let's compare notes", and used the situation as an opportunity for learning. Yet, as a former teacher myself, I know that it's often impossible to go off piste in a tightly structured or time constrained lesson.

Such reminiscences are a prelude to the real digital archaeology.

Last year I found my old BBC micro, and a box full of floppy disks, in my parent's loft. With their permission I took my finds to the UK's National Museum of Computing (based at Bletchley Park ~ a mere 15 minute drive from where I live). I'll describe the details in a follow-up post, but with the generous help of others, I was able to extract the content of the disks.

By way of preview, this link takes you to an online BBC emulator running a sort of "greatest hits" compilation of programmed musical performances.

I put together the disk from various sources floating around my friendship group, and included some of my own code too. The disk's menu system is of my own creation but based upon two other fragments of code I found in a magazine: one for driving a disk menu, the other for using arrow keys for selecting items. I'm also responsible for the rather awful renditions of "The Swan" and "The Road Goes Ever On" (a musical setting of some of J.R.R.Tolkien's poetry from the Lord of the Rings, by Donald Swann). If I remember correctly, I was thirteen years old (in year 9, 1987) when I put this disk together. As we'll see in future posts, it was a significant year for me in terms of coding and music.

Use the up and down arrows on your keyboard to navigate the menu. Keys like RETURN (to make a selection) and ESCAPE (to stop a piece and return to the menu) will behave as usual. However, I'm sorry to report I used the *FX 200,3 trick with "The Swan" ~ you're just going to have to sit through that monstrosity in its entirety without the use of the ESCAPE key.

"You're welcome", says my thirteen year old self. ;-)

This is but a small example of some of the fascinating things I've found.

In future posts I'll reveal more about my programming, dive a little into the technology I was using and try to place it all into the context of my life at the time. As some of you already know, I'm actually a classically trained musician, and this has some bearing on what I've managed to find... or more accurately, what I've managed to find has some bearing on why I'm a classically trained musician, who works as a software engineer with a passion for computing education.

Finally, it turns out that the BBC micro didn't create a legacy of fond memories and technical skill just for me. There are many folks of my age who have similar stories to tell.

Happy new year! More soon...

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2023-01-01 20:00


Yuriy Akopov

My theatres and museums of 2022

My theatres and museums of 2022

This year was eventful in a very bad way, and so this is an attempt to look at what still feels like good spots in it. I have written about books, music, films and video games on similar occasions before, but this time the physical experiences, for the lack of the better word, somehow feel more memorable.

I was inspired to write it by this Francis Irving's post which you also might want to read, so I am starting with the event both of us have attended.

History exhibitions

The world of Stonehenge (British Museum)

Alongside with Madame Tussauds museum, Stonehenge is known as perhaps the most overrated tourist trap, so I am glad I still decided to go as this was about so much more than Stonehenge despite the naming (guess it was still luring in more people that way).

The eerie combination of some items produced with such great skill and attention to detail, and yet their application or true meaning of carvings remaining a mystery was very impressive. It was like visiting an alien space ship.

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt (British Museum)

This one was interesting because it was arranged with a clear educational spin - there is a lot of material explaining the theory behind hieroglyphs and their evolution into more familiar forms of writing, and yet you still felt like to properly enjoy it you had to do your homework. The artefacts themselves somehow felt less 'self-contained' and I felt like I wasn't getting everything I could from looking - and unlike with the Bronze age exhibition above, I also knew the answers were out there, but I just didn't bother to learn them.

You can still visit in the new year before February 23.

Art exhibitions

This is so good I went twice. Lucian Freud is one of my favourite artists and I think didn't miss a single exhibition of his in my time in London - and yet I can say this one can easily be the best so far. It has a lot of pieces from private collections that are a rare sight otherwise, and while it isn't too heavy on his early works, it is still very very good.

And it's still open until January 22.

This wasn't on my radar and I only went because of my friend's invitation, so I experienced that special kind of joy when you don't expect much and then get overwhelmed.

A very good painter, with many scenes feeling very contemporary in their composition and dynamics. It is also on in 2023, but you only have until January 8.

Khoren Ter-Harutyunyan (permanent collection)

An honorary mention of something that impressed me outside of London - a small museum next to a cathedral complex in Armenia (that enjoys much more tourist traffic) full of sculptures in a very recognisable mid-century style usually associated with Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and yet showing enough individuality (Ter-Harutyunyan had his first exhibition at 1945 in the US).

If you happen to visit Armenia in the future, put this on your list as it is otherwise easy to overlook.


I am not a sophisticated theatre-goer and so have to admit my choice is primarily driven by the presence of familiar Hollywood faces. That said, while I am likely missing out on a lot, the chance of not enjoying the play is also fairly low that way.

Straight Line Crazy (Bridge Theatre)

My theatres and museums of 2022
More at the Bridge Theatre website

I loved this one because it felt very contemporary with cities like London experiencing the same planning problems I'm trying to follow closely. That could be the reason why the main character felt less one-sided to me than it was probably intended. Some of the arguments he made in favour of his vision were really good and sound, and the flaws laid bare in the final act felt to me like a change of his own spirit (the timeline of the play stretches across s few decades) rather than a proof of why he was wrong from the start.

The conflict between the visionary implementing bold ahead of the time ideas despite the resistance from the public vs. the public organising to stop the selfish and ignorant outsider from wrecking their lives? This will never get old.

The Seagull (Harold Pinter Theatre)

My theatres and museums of 2022
More at the Harold Pinter Theatre website

The play was well edited with parts of the original Chekhov's plot removed but leaving no holes in the flow and the main conflict only becoming more prominent. I actually prefer it that way, I think.

The chemistry between Nina (Emilia Clarke's West End debut) and Trigorin was really good, which I realised many other performances were lacking. This was really important as her decision to follow him is what eventually ruins everything - so making it clear it didn't just happen randomly or because she was bored or silly was a thoughtful accent.

by Yuriy Akopov at 2022-12-31 13:50

Paul Fawkesley

Adding a minimal Go backend to my Hugo static site

Go code showing an HTTP handler returning the result of a function called random email

This site is built with Hugo, a static site generator. The site lives on a tiny VM as a bunch of HTML files. I use nginx with Let’s Encrypt to serve the directory of files.

The site doesn’t have a backend: there’s no server-side rendering and no API calls. Any dynamic functionality must be implemented with Javascript.

This has served me well for a decade. But recently I’ve wanted to try out a few ideas where a backend would be helpful.

I had a spare hour and I wanted to throw up a minimal backend written in Golang. Speed and simplicity were the most important thing.

Here’s how it works

Idea: randomly generated contact email address

I’m minorly tired of all the spam I get to the email address I used to publish on the site’s contact page.

I thought it would be fun to try two things:

  1. hide the email address until the visitor clicks “reveal”
  2. generate a random email address for every site visitor (and log their IP and user agent)

I hope that 1. will thwart basic scrapers and bots. I’m assuming most bots won’t click “reveal”.

When I do get a spam email, I can look up the random email address in my logs and find the IP address that scraped the page. Then I’ve got the option to send an abuse report to the administrator of the IP address.

Frontend code to reveal the email address

This year I keep coming across HTMX. I love its simplicity and the associated book, Hypermedia Systems is an interesting technical read.

With HTMX, the frontend code is extremely simple:

<a hx-get="/email" hx-trigger="click" hx-swap="outerHTML">
Click to reveal email address

Translated, that means, “when the <a> tag is clicked, fetch /email and replace the <a> tag with the result.”

Here’s how that renders:

Click to reveal email address

Go server to generate email addresses

I wanted the email address to be consistent for a given User Agent, IP Address combination. This way, a user will normally see the same email address if they reload the page.

To achieve this, the codes takes the SHA256 hash of the User Agent and IP Address. It uses the first 8 bytes as the seed to Go’s random function. It then generates an email address with 10 randomly picked characters, e.g.

Here’s the code:

// main.go

package main

import (

func main() {
	http.HandleFunc("/email", func(w http.ResponseWriter, r *http.Request) {
		ip := r.Header.Get("x-forwarded-for")
		ua := r.Header.Get("user-agent")
		eml := randomEmail(ip, ua)

		fmt.Printf("%s|%s|%s|%q\n", time.Now().Format(time.RFC3339), eml, ip, ua) // log to stdout
		fmt.Fprintf(w, "<a href=\"mailto:%s\">%s</a>", eml, eml)

	log.Fatal(http.ListenAndServe(":8081", nil))

func randomEmail(ip, userAgent string) string {
	hasher := sha256.New()

	sha := hasher.Sum(nil)

	fmt.Sprintf("hash: %s\n", string(sha))

	seed := int64(binary.BigEndian.Uint64(sha))

	chars := make([]string, 10)

	for i := 0; i < 10; i++ {
		randi := rand.Intn(len(letters))
		chars[i] = letters[randi : randi+1]

	return fmt.Sprintf("", strings.Join(chars, ""))

var letters = "abcdefghjkmnpqrstuvwxyz23456789"

Building and deploying with make and scp

I used a simple Makefile to build and deploy the Go code:

# Makefile

randomemail: main.go
	go build -o randomemail main.go

.PHONY: run
run: main.go
	go run main.go

.PHONY: deploy
deploy: deploy_binary deploy_supervisor_config

.PHONY: deploy_binary
deploy_binary: randomemail
	scp randomemail
	ssh 'mv /opt/randomemail/ /opt/randomemail/randomemail && sudo supervisorctl restart randomemail'

.PHONY: deploy_supervisor_config
	scp config/etc/supervisor/conf.d/randomemail.conf
	ssh 'sudo supervisorctl reload'

Running the server with Supervisor

I used supervisor to start the server and keep it running if it crashes.

This took a single config file:

# /etc/supervisor/conf.d/randomemail


Reverse proxying the server from nginx

Requests to /email need to be directed to the backend rather than from static files.

I added a location rule to the server section of my nginx config:

# /etc/nginx/sites-available/paul.fawkesley.com_HTTPS

server {


    location /email {
        # forward to the `randomemail` service located at /opt/randomemail/randomemail
        proxy_pass http://localhost:8081;
        proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-For $remote_addr;

And that’s it… have a play and let me know what you think!

Click to reveal email address

by Paul Fawkesley at 2022-12-31 00:00


Mine Wyrtruman (pagan religion)

Accepting Fate

Wes hāl!1 As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been studying philosophy lately. Stoicism, to be precise. An important concept of Stoicism is the idea of accepting one’s fate and not fighting against it. People familiar with Heathenry may know that in Heathenry, it is generally thought that our Wyrd (the Heathen concept of fate) is not predetermined nor is it pre-ordained by some god. So, how can we translate this idea of accepting fate to Heathenry? Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell. ↩

by Byron Pendason at 2022-12-30 00:00


Mine Wyrtruman (pagan religion)

Video Review: Why Are We Afraid to be Pagan?

Wes hal!1 An ally recently posted^4 a video to her YouTube channel entitled Why Are We Afraid to be Pagan? She poses some interesting questions, in an attempt to start a conversation on the matters in the video. Before getting into the video itself, though, let’s talk about the author a little bit. Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell. ↩

by Byron Pendason at 2022-12-23 00:00


Fairphone Blog

A message from our CEO

Dear all,

I’m reaching out to share some tough news with you. It’s something that’s been weighing on my mind, and – led by one of our core values – it’s important to be transparent about it. We recently discovered that two employees privately received commission payments from a third-party supplier and, with that have disadvantaged Fairphone. An external whistleblower tipped us off, and our thorough investigation confirmed the allegations.

Needless to say, we have a clear zero-tolerance policy against any form of misconduct, deceit, or dishonesty. This guides our team and procurement policies; it’s implemented in contracts and guidelines, and it is deeply embedded in the culture of Fairphone’s day-to-day interactions. As you can imagine, this came as an incredible shock to all of us at Fairphone. Since day one, we’ve been all about creating a value chain based on care, fairness, trust, and transparency, so we’re definitely feeling let down right now.

There was no impact on our business or any significant financial consequences. Instead, we are dealing with a cultural impact. It has opened our eyes to vulnerabilities in our internal organization, which we’re improving and stepping up on. Also, we’ve stopped working with the supplier in question and the two employees are no longer with the company.

Despite everything, I don’t believe their mistakes define who they are as people, but they did make several wrong decisions that they – although in hindsight – also regret taking.

This incident has tested our faith, yet we will not let it limit our beliefs in the importance of trust. Trust in what unites us, our mission, and our core beliefs. While this situation has been disheartening, it will not change Fairphone’s guiding values – and it will not change our deep-rooted trust in people. We’re committed to learning from this and staying true to our focus on humanity in business.

I appreciate your understanding and want to give a special shoutout to all the other Fairphone employees who collectively took a stand and have been incredibly supportive through it all.

Take care,

The post A message from our CEO appeared first on Fairphone.

by Eva at 2022-12-22 10:46


Mine Wyrtruman (pagan religion)

Farewell, Twitter! How to Follow Mine Wyrtruman

Wes hāl!1 Some of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed my conspicuous absence. Twitter has become so toxic. Part of it, I’m sure, has been Elon Musk’s acquisition of the platform. But to be honest, it’s been this way for a long time. I’ve just failed to see it. Being betrayed by a couple of people I considered allies really opened my eyes to the way Twitter operates, and I don’t want to have any part of it any longer. I’ve been a lot happier since deleting the app, and my mental health has gotten a lot better! Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell. ↩

by Byron Pendason at 2022-12-20 00:00


Albert Wenger

The Eutopian Network State

If you are not familiar with it, I encourage you to check out the Network State Project. The basic idea is to form new states online first, with an eventual goal of controlling land in the real world. While I disagree with parts of the historic analysis and also some of the suggestions for forming a network state, I fundamentally believe this is an important project.

In my book The World After Capital, I trace how scarcity for humanity has shifted from food to land (agrarian revolution), from land to capital (industrial revolution), and now from capital to attention (digital revolution). The states that we have today were first formed during the Agrarian Age and were solidified during the Industrial Age. As a result they carry the baggage of both of these periods. When it comes to states we have serious issues of “technical debt” and “cruft.” One way to tackle these is through gradual rewrites of existing laws and constitutions. That’s a slow process under the best of circumstances and in an age of increasing polarization likely an impossibility. Another mode of change is to create a new system elsewhere, with the goal that it might eventually replace the existing one. Given that pretty much all the habitable space on Earth is taken up by existing nation states, the best place to get started is virtual.

Now what would a Eutopian network state look like? I am still trying to figure a lot of that out but fundamentally it would seek to embrace the values described in The World After Capital in order to build a state for the Knowledge Age. As such it would aim to recognize how much progress has been made since most states were first established and how much more progress lies yet ahead of us. It would take into consideration that the right to bear arms or the functioning of free speech should likely be different in an age of nuclear bombs and global social networks than when we had muzzleloaders and town criers.

I am particularly interested in the idea of a “minimum viable state.” What are the core concepts that need to be in place to get going and what can be filled in over time or maybe omitted entirely? For example, does a Eutopian Network State, have to define what constitutes a family? What is the minimal set of rules? I am currently reading the fourth book in Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series. In the series humans voluntary join Hives but even those who don’t, the Hiveless, must follow eight universal laws.

There are many other fascinating questions. For example, what does it take to become a Eutopian? Does one simply declare membership or is there some application process? Is there a pledge of some kind? Does Eutopia need to have fees or taxes to support itself financially? Once members have joined how are decisions made? And so on.

So far the Networkstate Dashboard is tracking 26 startup nations. I am curious to see how they have been answering some of these questions. I believe getting the answers to some of these baseline questions right is essential as they will determine who feels initially attracted to the state. And these core concepts should intentionally be difficult to change as they speak to the foundational nature of the society.

If you have thoughts on a minimum viable Eutopian state, I would love to read them in the comments!

by Albert Wenger at 2022-12-12 00:52


Adrian McEwen

Weeks 895-896 - Bells, Bikes and Lots of LEDs

Chris here this time. Two weeks worth of notes in one week but plenty to talk about.

Acrylic prototype of ackers bell frame, a pentagonal base with curved upright struts supporting a brass bell..

Ross has made great progress with updates to the Ackers bell design. Pictured is the prototyping in acrylic plastic via Freecad, to help fine tune the design clearances. The final build will still be wood, we've had some postive chats with a local manufacturer, and along the way learned about the growth (literally) of local bamboo sheet. Although the transparent acrylic may have set some of us wondering if there is room for a cross over internet connected colour changing bell?

The client work we can't talk about even though we'd really like to continues, adding SD card reading to the ESP32S2 microcontrollers USB reading capability. Adrian also visited a PCB manucaturer in the midlands. We don't really need any excuses to post photographs of production line tools. I'm not sure, but I suspect these three pcb drills are called Mick, Ron and Nick.

PCB tool on a production line, three drills used to make holes in pcbs

My Bike's Got LED

We're well into dark nights and that means more (and more) My Bike's Got LED boards.

The V2 board design is very nearly complete, the next version will have on board charging via USB, or the option of solar charging. The board connectors have been reworked as well to reduced the overall size and still make it easy to plug and unplug lights. We've also made some updates to the onboard circuitry to make everything a bit more battery efficient. We're also mulling over ideas for some new effects, hopefully more news on this very soon.

Thanks to the good folk over at Peloton there are plenty of chances for folks riding LED equiped bikes to get out for a Joyride On the end of season finale there was a child focused ride that met up with a group of regulars for a ride around Sefton Park, accompanied by DogShow on the disco cargo bike.

And we broke out a My Baby's Got LED board and a string of LED lights for the DoES Liverpool Christmas tree. Of course, it's connected over the Internet to Cheerlights, so you can tweet #cheerlights and a colour to change the lights here in the studio.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-12-07 06:00


Albert Wenger

Not-Yet-Full Self Driving on Tesla (And How to Make it Better)

We have had Full Self Driving (FSD) Beta on our Tesla Model Y for some time. I had written a previous post on how much the autodrive reduces the stress of driving and want to update it for the FSD experience. The short of it is that the car goes from competent driver to making beginner’s mistakes in a split second.

Some examples of situations with which FSD really struggles are any non-standard intersection. Upstate New York is full of those with roads coming at odd angles (e.g. small local roads crossing the Taconic Parkway). One common failure mode is where FSD will take a corner at first too tightly, then overcorrect and partially cross the median. Negotiating with other cars at four ways stops, which are also abundant upstate is also hilariously entertaining, by which I mean scary as hell.

The most frustrating part of the FSD experience though is that it makes the sames mistakes in the same location and there is no way to provide it feedback. This is a huge missed opportunity on the part of Tesla. The approach to FSD should be with the car being very clear when it is uncertain and asking for help, as well as accepting feedback after making a mistake. Right now FSD comes off as a cocky but terrible driver, which induces fear and frustration. If instead it acted like a novice eager to learn it could elicit a completely different emotional response. That in turn would provide a huge amount of actual training data for Tesla!

In thinking about AI progress and designing products around it there are two failure modes at the moment. In one direction it is to dismiss the clear progress that’s happening as just a parlor trick and not worthy of attention. In the other direction it is to present systems as if they were already at human or better than human capability and hence take humans out of the loop (the latter is true in some closed domains but not yet generally).

It is always worth remembering that airplanes don’t fly the way birds do. It is unlikely that machines will drive or write or diagnose the way humans do. The whole opportunity for them to outdo us at these activities is exactly because they have access to modes of representing knowledge that are difficult for humans (eg large graphs of knowledge). Or put differently, just as AI made the mistake of dismissing the potential for neural networks again and again we are now entering a phase that is needlessly dismissing ontologies and other explicit knowledge representations.

I believe we are poised for further breakthroughs from combining techniques, in particular making it easier for humans to teach machines. And autonomous vehicles are unlikely to be fully realized until we do.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-12-05 12:45


Adrian McEwen

Weeks 892-894 - Goodbye Nikki, More Bike LEDs, and a New Mastodon

Adrian here. Lots to update you on from the past three weeks.

First off some sad news. Nikki left us for pastures new at the start of November. It's a shame to see her go, but we wish her all the best in her new job! That leaves just Chris and me for now. We will, I'm sure, look to recruit a replacement, but I'm also taking this opportunity to zoom out a little and think through what we need now before kicking off the search.

The client work has continued ticking along. Not much we can report on it, as ever, but we have been getting to grips with USB host support on the ESP32S2 microcontrollers—it's cool to be able to read data off a USB stick from a micro!

My Bike's Got LED

Chris has been busy working on the My Bike's Got LED boards.

We'd switched the type of solder paste for the latest batch of soldering, and ended up with a reflow profile (how the oven heats up to melt the solder to connect all the components) that wasn't properly dialled in; so some of the boards weren't working properly and needed some rework by hand.

Blue instrument control panel screen for reflow oven.

We've been steadily working through them, and only have a couple left now. Chris has updated the frimware on the reflow oven to the Unified Engineering open-source firmware, which will allow us better control over the profile in future.

And he's been getting on with the design work for the next version of the boards. We've already mentioned the redesign of the 5V boost circuit and he's added a charging circuit so you can just plug in a USB cable to recharge the battery. The design for that is based on the one we made for Laura Pullig.

We've been getting good feedback from the new batch of illuminated cyclists, after kitting them out for the parade, and getting new enquiries from folk wanting to buy a kit themselves. It's going to b great when the V2 boards land!

More Sociable on Mastodon

There's been a lot of activity (and talk) over the past couple of weeks on Twitter with lots of folk deciding to move on from there, mostly over to Mastodon and the Fediverse. Mastodon is the most Twitter-like, but the Fediverse includes other options: Pixelfed is more like Instagram; PeerTube is for video sharing; and there are others. The great thing about them all is that they talk to each other! It's like being able to follow someone's Instagram account from your Twitter account and just having their posts show up in your feed.

I've been on Mastodon since 2017, and it's something we've occasionally talked about here since.

Last year we gave some thought to how MCQN Ltd should approach it. We decided that the best approach would be for us to host our own instance (the term for a Mastodon server), which would be on our own domain; just like we do for email. Then folk would know that it's the official MCQN Ltd account, because it had an address; and, just as importantly, any folk who didn't want to engage with commercial accounts could decide not to federate with the entire instance. I expect we're not at a level where anyone would care one way or the other, but it's us playing our part in helping to set the culture of the Fediverse to help nudge larger brands to do the right thing.

The recent uptick in activity gave us the final push to put the plan into action and so there's now a MCQN Ltd Mastodon server at!

There is only one account so far: As is the convention on the Fediverse, we posted an #introduction to let folk know what we're about and interested in.

Hello 👋 An #introduction. We are #MCQN_Ltd, an #IndieMfg company in #Liverpool. We make (and sell) gentle, Internet-connected objects, and help others build their #embedded and #IoT projects. So expect anything from Internet-connected bubble machines to sensors on wave-energy #prototypes. We're strong believers in #OpenSource; both #firmware and #electronics/#PCB. #OpenHardware #OSHW. And we work with many #microcontrollers including #ESP32 #ESP8266 #Arduino and #RaspberryPi.

If you're on the Fediverse then give us a follow. And if you're Fedicurious, this guide will help you get started.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-11-21 06:00

Paul Fawkesley

Reducing gas reliance with a solar diverter

Image of a white plastic box with an electronic screen and a picture of solar panels in the background

In September 2021 we installed a solar diverter called iBoost as a measure to reduce our gas consumption.

One year on I looked at the figures to review how effective this gadget has been.

Spoiler: in 14 months it displaced 1.89kWh per day on average, around 18% of our total gas usage. We might be able to improve this with a new hot water tank.

What’s a solar diverter?

A solar diverter detects when our rooftop solar panels are generating more than we are using.

Rather than sending that excess to the grid (called “exporting”), it “diverts” it to an immersion heater in our hot water tank.

By heating the water in the tank, we don’t need to use gas to heat that water. The idea is that the excess solar displaces some gas usage by pre-heating the water.

Gas reduction so far

In the 422 days since installation (22/09/21 to 18/11/22), the unit has displaced 797 kWh of gas energy with solar electrical energy.

Extrapolating gives a daily, yearly and lifetime estimate:

Period Gas reduction (kWh)
22/09/21 to 18/11/22 797
per day* 1.89
per year* 689
10 year lifetime* 6,893

*Estimated based on 422 day period. It’s probably a bit better since that period contained two October and November months which are overcast.

From smart meter readings, I estimate that the tank takes about 5 kWh per day to heat. We’ve therefore reduced the gas usage for water heating by a bit over a third.

Return on investment

This project wasn’t about money, it was about reducing gas reliance. But it’s useful to understand the cost of different measures. Let’s take a look at the numbers and see how it works out.

There are two costs to consider: the installation and the running cost.

Installation cost

It cost £450 to install the unit. That includes a morning’s work of an electrician.

Running cost (or income)

When we export excess energy to the grid we get paid around £0.05 for every kWh (called a “unit”).

At the time of installing, it cost £0.04 to buy gas from the grid.

So back then it would effectively cost us £0.01 per unit to heat the hot water using the excess solar rather than buying gas. (But don’t panic, that only works out £9 / year.)

However, since installing, gas prices shot through the roof. At £0.07 per unit, we now make £0.02 per unit for saving gas. Great!

Lifetime cost

Assuming the device works for 10 years and displaces 6,893 kWh over its lifetime.

Scenario 1: Gas prices stay high, averaging £0.07 over the 10 year lifetime. The saving of £0.02 becomes £0.038 per day, £13.79 per year, £138 over the lifetime. That subsidises the £450 installation cost to a lifetime cost of £312.

Scenario 2: Gas prices drop again. It seems unlikely they’ll drop below their previous value, so let’s say an average of £0.05 over the 10 year lifetime. That means the gas unit rate versus export unit rate is neutral. The lifetime cost is therefore £450.

Cost per tonne of carbon saved

Again, assuming a lifetime gas reduction of 6,893 kWh.

According to this website, the carbon intensity of burning domestic gas is 0.23314 kg CO2e per kWh.

That’s a carbon saving of 1.60 tonnes over the 10 years.

That works out as £195 to £285 per tonne of carbon for the two gas price scenarios.

For comparison, it currently costs Climeworks about £900 to permanently remove a tonne of carbon from the atmosphere. So at today’s prices, this measure is about 3-5x cheaper than burning gas then sucking back up the carbon it releases into the atmosphere. (Lesson: don’t think carbon capture gives us an excuse to carry on burning stuff.)

Note that this doesn’t take into account the carbon cost of manufacturing the iBoost device, solar panels, inverter and so on. I’ll try to improve this.

Possible improvements

Replace the hot water tank?

Even on very sunny days, the iBoost never diverts more than 2.5 kWh. The gas kicks in to heat the water even after these days. I believe the water tank takes about 5 kWh to heat, so the iBoost is only heating about 50% of the water.

My best theory is that the immersion heater is not long enough to heat the bottom of the tank. This is a bit strange as it’s a 32” immersion which matches the tank’s documented maximum. But perhaps the tank designers intended that an immersion is only a backup so doesn’t need to heat the whole tank?

More investigation required, but if that’s the case, we could upgrade to a tank with two immersion heater positions. The iBoost supports this configuration, heating one first then the next. The tank would also have to have a primary coil, so it would be quite cramped. Need to look into this.


Saving 0.16 tonnes of carbon per year is great and it’s nice to be moving towards full electrification.

But how much of our entire gas usage has that knocked out?

In the same period (22/09/21 to 18/11/22) that we diverted 797 kWh, we still consumed 3,535 kWh of gas.

Assuming the iBoost measured correctly, we would have consumed 3,535 + 797 = 4,332 kWh without it.

(As a sanity check, this roughly tallies with a comparable period, 22/09/2018 to 18/09/2019 in which we consumed 4,821 kWh of gas.)

18% gas reduction so far

So the iBoost reduced our gas consumption by 797 / 4,322 = 18%

I’m pleasantly surprised how large that reduction was.

Insulate first…

For the remaining gas usage, I’m going to take fabric first approach. That means improving the insulation of the building before installing renewables. Despite subscribing to this approach, I got distracted by cool shiny technology (solar, battery, iBoost) when I should’ve started with the building.

In summary, if you already have solar PV, a hot tank with an immersion, and you’re exporting lots of electricity, a solar diverter is a good option (but sort out your draughts, loft, windows and doors first!)

by Paul Fawkesley at 2022-11-21 00:00


Yuriy Akopov

"What do you know about fear?"

I have translated the last post of a recently killed Ukrainian soldier, who used to be a fairly well known restorer and photo blogger in Kyiv before the war. The original, written in Russian, is truly harrowing:

What do you know about fear?

The whistle of bullets overhead. The muffled thumps as they hit the ground next to you. The ricochets from the branches of an old black locust tree.

The rumble of the afterburner of a plane that comes at you to launch missiles.

The sound of a diesel engine of the tank, which has long been maneuvering somewhere 600 meters away, in the milk of thick fog, preparing to fire. And it sees you in its powerful thermal imager, it knows where you are. And you hear the clanging of its tracks, the rumble of the engine ... then deathly silence and an explosion. Just explosion, because you don't hear the sound of a shot.

The vibration of the air from the helicopters, which, invisibly to you, assume the position for a rocket strike from behind the trees.

Someone spotted red dots in the grove in front of us, in their shitty thermal imager. To shoot or not to?

The long whistle of a 152 mm that flies along an elliptical trajectory in your direction, and all you can do is fall to the ground and pray.

The noise of incoming Grad missiles - one-three-five-twelve; roughly 20 km away from you. Then, explosions. One-three-five-twelve. Got lucky this time. What about the next one?

The abrupt smack of the mortar and the whistling before that - so short you don't always have time to fall to the ground.

The hissing in your radio, incomprehensible word fragments can be barely picked out. You have to climb out of the foxhole and stand fully up for a better reception - what if you have to be running away already?

Explosions are getting closer and closer. More and more dirt poured on your head. Fragments whistle by increasingly louder. The artillery correction drone floats in the sky over you day after day, simply doing its job. Every next blast can be your last, but what can you do? The luck of the draw.

The rustle of bulrush in front of you. The crunch of branches a few meters from the parapet of a freshly dug and such a shallow foxhole. The ghostly silhouettes in the shimmering moonlight that you see because you haven't slept for two days while being shot at from everything that shoots. Your swollen eyes, still veiled after the thermal imaging camera. Your buzzing head, full of terrible, fearful thoughts. The stare of your brother in arms, in which, as in the mirror, you see the animal fear of dying in this damned mud of goddamn Donbas.

And what do you know about fear?

The top comment under his post is by his Russian friend from St Petersburg - she says that in grief she went through their whole message history, and that he always wanted to visit.

Just some WWI level shit harmless peaceful people get sucked into. It was supposed to remain in Remarque's books.

A black and white photo portrait of Serhiy Mironov, the author.
Serhiy Mironov (source)

Rest in peace.

by Yuriy Akopov at 2022-11-18 09:23


Mine Wyrtruman (pagan religion)

Lost in Translation- Ettins in Old English

I came across a blog post recently, alleging to reevaluate ettins in Old English literature (Moniz, 2022). I read it with interest, because I’ve interacted with the author on various Discord servers and have had nothing but positive experiences with them. I feel that their argument in this case, though, is unconvincing. It takes most every instance in Old English literature that is translated as giant in modern English, and proposes that it is talking about ettins. This reflects a problem that is not entirely new, the conflating of all giants in Old English literature. However, there isn’t enough evidence to say with the kind of certainty that the author uses that this is the case.

by Byron Pendason at 2022-11-08 00:00


Adrian McEwen

Weeks 889-891 More Bikes got LED

Chris here and getting this one in today before it has to become month notes. The last three weeks have flown and there hasn’t really been much time to reflect and record what we’ve been up to. Alongside the regular client work we have been getting ready for a special Halloween parade wiith our friends Katumba Drumming and Peloton

A group of regular Joyriders lead by Danny on the DogShow trike paraded down Bold Street for a post-apocalyptic bike ride. MCQN provided the lights with My Bike’s Got LED kits. Along with a fire breathing bat and the Katumba drummers we paraded down Bold Street, Church Street and Paradise Street. Finishing outside John Lewis for a drumming and dance finale.

As well as the lights on his bike Adrian was sporting this excellent light up suit for the event. Using more flexible LED strips, expertly sewn by Robotorium and a MbiGL board he had a boiler suit suitable for any post-apocalyptic occasion.

Special mention to Jackie who created some additional effects using segments to create this spectacular effect.

At the heart of this light show was the My Bike’s Got LED board. An ESP8266 running WLED with onboard power management for use with Li-Ion/LiPo batteries.

In keeping with the advice from the wise Giles Turnbull, I thought it would be useful to record a little bit of what didn’t go quite as well too.

“The best way to write weeknotes is as a genuine personal reflection of the week. Allow them to be personal. Allow thoughts and feelings to creep in, alongside news. Be open, be candid, be the sort of refreshing honesty that most colleagues are yearning for. That will result in excellent weeknotes” - Tips for writing good weeknotes

So, all the above turned out really well and was well received but it’s worth capturing a little of the frantic paddling by MCQN beneath the surface. We had sufficient boards and components to make up all the kits we needed. We used a new brand of solder paste and hit some snags with the reflow process leaving a lot of reworking to squeeze in.

Lessons learned for me were, if you’re using a new brand of solder paste don’t assume the heating profile for reflow, and complete a single test board committing all the available stock.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-11-02 05:00


Albert Wenger

My Super Short Twitter Wishlist

Elon Musk has successfully acquired Twitter. Many people seem convinced he will ruin it in short order. And while that’s of course conceivable, it is also possible that he will fix some long running problems. It’ s not like Twitter had been a well-run company. So now seems like a good time to resurface what I had tweeted in April.

Restoring full API access would dramatically shift power back to endusers. We could run apps other than the official Twitter client for interacting with Twitter, which would enable, among other things, a proliferation of different timeline algorithms. I first started speaking about this seven years ago and have an entire section on it in my book The World After Capital.

Fixing the blue check mark mess is something I first wrote about in 2017. Here is a quote from that post:

The net result of all of these mistakes was that the verified checkmark became an “official Twitter” badge. Instead of simply indicating something about the account’s identity it became a stamp of approval. Twitter doubled down on that meaning when it removed the “verified” check from some accounts over their contents …

Twitter had conflated identity verification with this account is “important” or “good” in a completely arbitrary fashion. And yes this has been allowed to fester for five years which is a perfect example of the failure of prior management to address basic problems in the service. I sure hope this gets fixed quickly and my post makes some suggestions. Since then a number of crypto-based self sovereign identity systems have started to come up, such as Proof of Humanity, and it would be great to see support for those.

So I for one am taking a bit more of a “wait and see” attitude with regard to what changes to Elon Musk will bring to Twitter. And if these two changes were to be implemented, I could see Twitter becoming a fertile ground for badly needed innovation in the relationship between endusers and networks.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-10-28 12:53


James Smith

Yours Disgustedly

I wrote to my MP again…

Dear Jeremy Quin,

I’ve been disgusted in the actions of the Government in which you serve for years now, and yet your party keeps finding more scrapings at the bottom of the barrel, and keep finding new depths of ineptitude and mendacity.

How can you be OK with all this? Boris’s disdain for the law and consitution was bad enough, but then to elect undoubtedly the most incompetent leader we’ve ever had, and finally finish off the UK’s standing in the world? What are your party thinking? What are YOU thinking? How can you stand with these people, how can you take their instructions and toe the party line when that party line is set by obviously completely inept people who seem to have wandered into Westminster by accident and are mainly just confused about where they are.

You have a job to do. You are failing. Your constituents deserve better, and your country deserves better.

I was going to ask politely, but the time has passed for that. There are three things you need to do to salvage some semblance of integrity:

  1. Publicly support calls for a General Election - you may not want it, but the country demand it. I’m sure your seat will be safe anyway.
  2. Do not let Boris Johnson anywhere near the leadership of the Conservative Party.
  3. Resign the whip and sit as an independent. You should be ashamed of your party and if you have any integrity, I’m honestly not sure how you could remain part of it.

I have stepped back from active politics in the last few years, because truth and reason have been completely undermined and honestly I don’t know how to operate anything I believe in in that environment. But I’m reconsidering; if there’s a General Election, I’m sorely tempted to stand again just so I can be on stage with you at a husting and say all this to your face in front of hundreds of people, and demand an answer for them.

Yours in severe disappointment and anger,

James Smith

If you’re as angry as I am, maybe do the same.

by James Smith at 2022-10-21 10:00

Zarino Zappia

Learning design: resources for non-designers

Every now and then, a programmer, product manager, or marketing person will ask me how they can “learn design”.

It’s understandable that they think I can help. The problem is, I learned the principles of visual design through osmosis, growing up in a household with two graphic designers as parents. I learned front-end web development through a decade of experimentation, back when “web 2.0” was just becoming a thing. And I learned user research and UX design on the job, first at ScraperWiki, then at mySociety.

But I appreciate “spend 20 years doing it” isn’t a very useful answer to people asking me how they learn. So here’s a list of resources that might actually help. Some of them I’ve used myself, but most are just resources I’ve seen recommended by people I trust. YMMV!

This list is by no means exhaustive. I’ll try to keep it up to date with new resources as I discover them. If you know of something that helped you learn design, and you think I should add it to this page, drop me a line on Twitter.

All-round guides

  • Hack Design – a free, 50-lesson, self-paced course for “hackers” learning design, that touches on everything from visual design principles, to UX research, UI design, and some basic front-end skills.
  • Ben Brignell’s archive of third party Design Principles – the guides that other organisations use to guide their product decisions, covering ethics, accessibility, performance, user research, and everything in between.

Visual design


There are a few foundational texts here, that are well worth your time, if you don’t mind a more theoretical introduction to the way designers think:

There’s a small cottage industry in Tumblr-like microblogs poking fun at poorly designed experiences online. These are two I follow in my RSS reader:

Modern web technologies

Things move fast here, so it’s hard to recommend specific resources!



by Zarino Zappia at 2022-10-21 00:00


Nicholas Tollervey

PyCon Ghana 2022

It was an extraordinary privilege to be one of the keynote speakers at this year's PyCon Ghana. I was also very lucky to have the support of my employer (Anaconda) who covered the costs associated with the trip for myself and my colleague, Cheuk.

While this was my first trip to Ghana (actually, it was my first trip to Africa), this was not my first Ghanaian interaction.

I can't begin to describe how important and nourishing the stimulating interactions I've had with Ghana based friends Mannie and Michael have been. Two years ago we were introduced by our mutual friend Conrad Ho, and since then have met every month, in video calls, to discuss Python in education. The work done by the Ghanaian Python community to engage in educational activities is truly inspiring, and you can find out more here.

That both Mannie and Michael are part of the PyCon Ghana organising team, and this year's focus was on Python in education give a clue as to how I got invited.

A view from our accommodation
The view of Accra from our accommodation.

After an eventful flight to Accra, both Cheuk and I went exploring during our first full day. Adjacent to our accommodation was Oxford Street, containing lots of shops, banks and other useful things we needed to visit. My immediate impression was very positive... the Ghanaian folk we met were all friendly and welcoming. "Good morning", "Hello", "Welcome to Ghana" and other such greetings were common as we walked through the streets.

We also met the PyCon Ghana organisers at the venue. Having been involved with community organising for well over a decade, I looked on in sympathy and (where possible) got stuck in trying to help get everything set up. Like most aspects of the Python community, PyCon Ghana is run by volunteers, and I'd like to acknowledge their strength of character, friendliness and can-do attitude, led by their chair, Francis. I saw first hand, that the Ghanaian Python community is in good hands.

Sadly, I was ill on Thursday's tutorial day. My son had shared his cold with me and it meant I had to stay home instead of attend Cheuk's amazing humble data workshop. But the enforced day of rest meant I was ready for Friday and Saturday at the conference.

I was honoured to meet Nii Quaynor a Ghanaian gentleman who is often described as the father of the African internet and an inductee to the Internet Hall of Fame. Nii eloquently spoke with considerable experience and authority of the challenges and opportunities for working with governmental and international agencies. I hope folks were paying attention since the Python community in Ghana could be a significant contributor and collaborator in the technical growth of the country.

There were also many other interesting talks, panels and workshops happening at the event which made it feel like a typical Python conference found anywhere in the world.

My first proper contribution to the conference was to run a two day workshop on MicroPython on the micro:bit for young people. I have to say this was an absolute joy and, assisted by Anthony and Joanna, we were also joined by a collection of teachers, tech folk and IoT curious. The vibe was friendly and the young people brought lots of energy and enthusiasm.

Here's a video, shot on the second day while folks were building a project with their micro:bit, to give a flavour of what went on.

Many thanks to the MicroBit Foundation for supporting PyCon Ghana via the donation of 20 devices for participants to use and then keep. Every device found a safe home, with many asking where they can be obtained in Ghana..!

My keynote, on the subject of Python in Education, went well and as usual, I especially enjoyed answering the questions at the end.

I was especially pleased to channel my "inner teacher" by (half jokingly) setting the conference some homework.

I pointed out that somewhere will become known as a place of African technical innovation. Somewhere will be lauded as having the most accessible and creative coding education programme in Africa. Somewhere will famously contribute a uniquely African story to our global technical community.

I asked, "why not you..?".

My homework task to the audience was to discover and become their own unique, colourful and extraordinary community. They already have a small but strong, vibrant and close knit nucleus from which to grow.

I hope, in ten years time, to visit Ghana again and have some of today's community say to me, "see what we did, and look where we're going...", and for me to be amazed.

Ghanaian friends.
Ghanaian friends.

Another aspect of the conference was its friendliness.

During the breaks I spoke to many different people, from all over Africa, and drew energy from their passion, enthusiasm and openness.

I also enjoyed the warmth of their conversation and willingness to share games with me... I especially appreciated learning how to play Oware from PyCon Ghana organiser, Hillary. I enjoyed it so much I managed to buy a board in a market in Accra and have taught my kids and wife how to play..! It's a big hit in our house.

The amazing view of a beach from the old presidential residence.
The amazing view of a beach from the old presidential residence.

On my final day, the day after the conference, we hung out with the conference organisers and visited tourist sites in Accra. It was wonderful to see non-Pythonic aspects of Ghana... its cultural spaces, historic monuments, the university and glimpse some of its natural beauty.

Through the course of my stay, I saw the twi word "akwaaba" in many places.

When I asked what it meant I was told it was a sort of very hospitable form of "welcome".

"Akwaaba" is a pretty good word to describe my experience of PyCon Ghana.

Long may the Ghanaian Python community flourish and I look forward to 2032. ;-)

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-10-20 14:30


Adrian McEwen

Week 888 - Cargo bikes and some Ackers Bell Updates

Nikki doing the weeknotes this week! There’s not much for me to show as marketing strategies aren’t very interesting.

Adrian hasn’t too much he can share publicly, but did spend some time test-driving a couple of electric-assist cargo bikes. Agile Liverpool loaned them to Aeternum to see how well they’d work for getting out and about round Liverpool to install and maintain their fleet of air quality sensors. They’re great fun to ride!

Meanwhile Chris has been milling copper boards to test a new boost convertor chip for My Bikes got LED. The test circuit was designed in Kicad and then exported to jscut to create a tool path for the milling machine. Hand soldering smd resistors has given him a renewed appreciation of reflow soldering.

He also met with Ross Dalziel who we’ve drafted in to help out with the Ackers Bell. He’s working out how to standardize the production and looking for manufacturing partners for the CNCing work on the plywood frames. Drop us a line if you’ve got any good leads on that!

They also discussed making some final tweaks to the Acker’s Bell design to get ready for the first production run.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-10-12 06:00


Adrian McEwen

Weeks 885-887 - ESP USB, CNC PCB

Adrian here. I'm cycling in the dusk and dark now, so my My Bike's Got LED setup is on and people are asking about it.

We sold an initial bunch of boards last winter—in the Disco Breastplates for Peloton Co-op, plus a couple elsewhere—but I wanted to revisit the 5V boost circuit before making them generally available. Other work took priority while the nights were light, but now is the time to get back to it.

Chris has been laying out the test PCB he was working on last week. We'd ordered some samples of a different chip to use for the 5V boost circuit, and this will let us try them out. It should provide more current to allow MOAR LEDs!

With the test PCB designed, he moved on to bringing it into the real world—milling the PCB out with the CNC router. Next step is to solder it up.

A sheet of copper-clad board with an intricate pattern carved away in the copper

While Chris is the only one of us with something to show off, Nikki and I have still been busy.

There's continued client-confidential contract work, which has seen me getting to grips with the USB stack on some of the newer ESP32 modules.

And in addition to the bike-light season arriving, the main LED season is looming. There's Halloweed at the end of this month and Christmas won't be too far behind that. Nikki has been making sure we're ready and we've ordered a cornucopia of LEDs to make sure the shop remains well-stocked. (We've also got a few new types and are looking forward to sharing details when they land.)

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-10-07 06:00


Albert Wenger

Burning Man: Experiencing Rationing

Susan and I went to Burning Man this year for our first time. We had a wonderful experience together with our friends Cindy and Robin (who is an experienced Burner and acted as our guide). There are many justified criticism of Burning Man and the festival will likely to have to change substantially over the coming years (a subject for a future post).

Today I want to write about the absence of prices at Burning Man. Once you get to Black Rock City, everything is free (well, not everything, as ice was $20/bag – more on that shortly). People have written about hopes and aspirations for a gift economy before but my key takeaway was about the importance of allocation mechanisms.

Without prices at Burning Man everything is rationed. You can go have a free drink at any of the bars (remember to bring your own cup and your ID – yes, that’s strictly enforced). But the bartenders will pour you a limited amount and then send you on your way. Same goes for all other goods and services. There are defined quantities available and that’s what you get.

Now “rationing” has a negative connotation but it isn’t inherently bad. It is a different allocation mechanism that has pros and cons when compared to the price mechanism. One advantage is that rationing treats people equally independent of their financial means, which can be desirable from a social cohesion perspective (well, rationing does that at least in theory – back to that shortly). A disadvantage is that the signal of demand relative to supply are inventory and queue based. If you run out of stuff and have long queues, demand clearly exceeds supply. That is a lot harder to track than price and unlike price doesn’t provide any inherent incentives for changing the supply (high prices usually provide high profits, which in well-functioning markets results in expansion of supply – important note: we don’t have a lot of well functioning markets these days due to concentration).

Now ice, one of the most important items given the extreme heat, did have a price of $20/bag. But because that price was fixed at $20 rationing was still needed. One day for example the ice trucks were only giving out three bags per person, which turns out to be a challenge if you are trying to pick up ice for your entire camp.

Keeping money out of the system entirely is actually quite hard. Why? Because rationing and queuing make a fertile ground for favoritism and bribes. If you know someone who can let you in the back door or you come “bearing gifts” you may be able to skip a line and obtain far more goods than you would be entitled to under the official rationing scheme. Susan and I were at Burning Man for five days and witnessed quite a few instances of this.

Experiencing all of this firsthand is exciting because it turns allocation mechanisms from a dry subject into a lived reality. Many discussions of the trade-offs involved in social and economic systems would be more honest if people had access to more diverse experiences (e.g. through travel).

Consider for example the discussion around higher education. To be clear upfront, I believe the US system of higher education is fundamentally broken and badly needs deep reforms. Still, too many people who advocate for free higher education seem to have given zero thought to the allocation questions that arise. In places where higher education is free, there are rationing schemes in effect. Some of these schemes are based on prior grades and admission testing, such as in Germany. Others, such as Switzerland, put up gating classes where early on a large percentage of students are failed.

Again, I am not saying these systems are bad and the US system of outrageous tuition and fees is good (especially because it still includes rationing). I am arguing that you cannot get around having some kind of allocation mechanism for limited resources (such as lecture halls and professors’ time). That is of course why I am a huge proponent of making as much human knowledge digitally accessible as possible in my book The World After Capital, because with zero marginal cost we can in fact let everyone have access. I am also not advocating for attempting to use the price system everywhere because some of the most important things cannot have prices.

Instead my point here is as follows: (1) for limited resources when you don’t have prices, you need rationing. And (2) rationing is hard to get right, which means you need to put a lot of thought and effort into it, including considering capacity signals and avoiding corruption. This is worth keeping in mind whenever you propose that something should be free.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-10-02 19:50


Mine Wyrtruman (pagan religion)

The Essentials of Fyrnsidu

It’s all too easy to lose sight of why you’re doing something. I started this blog almost three years ago when I was still a baby on this path. My intention was to take what I was learning and put it into my own words in order to help fellow newbies learn about Fyrnsidu. Since then, it has become my passion to promote and contribute to Fyrnsidu, in order to help it grow. But sometimes, you have to return to the basics. So in this post, I want to outline what the essentials of Fyrnsidu are, and link to resources to help those interested in learning what Fyrnsidu is all about.

by Byron Pendason at 2022-09-24 01:00


Mine Wyrtruman (pagan religion)

Fyrnsidic Cosmology- Wyrd and Orlæg

My first post on this blog was about wyrd. Like most Heathens, I looked at it on the personal level. We each have our individual wyrd, and this should probably be our basic understanding of it. But the universe itself also has a wyrd, and I think we’ve reached the point in this series on Fyrnsidic cosmology that wyrd is the next logical concept to address. Before we dive into that, though, let’s recap what wyrd is on a personal level.

by Byron Pendason at 2022-09-20 01:00


Mine Wyrtruman (pagan religion)

Giants in Fyrnsidu

One of the big differences between modern Norse Heathens and Fyrnsideras is our views on ettins/Jotnar1. The two are cognates, but understood very differently. They are both generally translated as giants, but this can be misleading because they aren’t necessarily always large. Modern Norse Heathens tend to look at the Jotnar as a third tribe of gods, albeit at war with their main gods the Æsir and Vanir. Fyrnsideras tend to look at ettins as god-like beings, but are not gods because they don’t maintain the cosmic order. They are best avoided because they are not bound by the cosmic order that requires the gods to honour reciprocity. This is speaking in general terms, of course. You will probably find exceptions in both groups. ↩

by Byron Pendason at 2022-09-18 01:00


Adrian McEwen

Weeks 882-884 - Dark nights are drawing in, time for LEDS!

It's Chris on weeknotes this week, and last and...

Apart from a few little tweaks the Cathedral donation project is up and running. There's a few weeks left if you want to interact with the Peter Walker installation and make a donation to the cathedral. If you want to try it out, send a message including the word "cathedral" and your choice of colour from red, pink, blue, green, orange, yellow, purple, or cyan to 70152.

On product development I am still looking for local CNC manufacturers who can produce the frame for Acker's Bell. It's proving harder than we had anticipated and not helped by a shortage of plywood.

Circuit schematic showing an FB6276B boost circuit chip.

I am also looking at some potential development work to allow Museum in a Box to produce a new batch of devices. The current design uses hardware that is not easily available with current shortages so we're investigating alternatives.

Nikki is continuing to work on the marketing plan and looking at ways to reach new audiences for our products. With the dark nights drawing in attention is turning to the LED projects, My Baby's got LED and the portable version for cyclists, My Bike's got LED. We're also busy thinking about other ways we might apply internet connected lights.

Adrian did some long-overdue maintenance on our Gitlab server (where our projects are stored). It's got more memory now, so is running much more smoothly. That also prompted some housekeeping to tidy up old tasks and priorities and do some thinking about where we are on the product roadmap.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-09-12 06:00


Mine Wyrtruman (pagan religion)

The Human Era

In 1993, the Italian-American scientist Cesare Emiliani proposed the Holocene Calendar, a simple reform to our current calendar: adding 10,000 years to the Common Era (also known as the Gregorian Calendar) year that is the dominant calendar of the world. The reason is that the vast majority of Human development and civilization took place before the beginning of the Common Era. It’s difficult to grasp the scale of this history- actually stretching back into prehistory- with our current system. Take the famous city of Jericho, for example. It’s history stretches back to about 9,000 BCE. To figure out how long ago that was, you have to add 9,000 to our current year (2022), and then subtract 1 (because there is no year 0 in the Gregorian Calendar). Let’s now take that same year and convert it to this calendar, and we get 1000 HE1. Consider that it’s currently 12,022, and it’s easy to figure out in an instant that’s about 11,000 years ago. Our brains are likely to do the math for us subconsciously, whereas with the Common Era most of us have to consciously do the math to figure out how long ago it was. Actually, 9,000 BCE translates to 1,001 HE, but since it’s a rounded number anyways, 1,000 HE will do to demonstrate the point. ↩

by Byron Pendason at 2022-08-30 01:00


Adrian McEwen

Week 881 - Better Transitions and other updates

Nikki on the weeknotes this week! Now that we’re back on track with them.

Genrally quite short notes this week!

It has seen me mostly doing research in order to help us build a general company marketing plan, as well as looking at some potential tools for use to maybe start using. Obviously there’s the general social media posts and figuring out what other places might be a good way to get us known to a wider audience.

Chris spent some time tidying up the last few pieces of the cathedral Being Human project. We were having some issues around transition using a MAX485 based Arduino shield. This was swapped out for a more substantial and robust Enttec device. The local pi in the cathedral communicated with the lights via a serial connection to an Arduino. In the new setup we are able to communicate directly with the device. As part of this change we switched the Node red flow for a python script using the DMXEnttecPro library. Included with these changes was the addition of transition effects. Previously we swapped directly to the new colour chosen, now we convert RGB colours to HSV and increment a complete lap of the colour wheel before settling on the new colour choice. This gives a more impressive response from a donation and will hopefully drive more interest in the project for the cathedral.

Chris has also been chasing up potential suppliers who could manufacture the Ackers Bell for us, while Adrian has been working on some Bluetooth work with an ESP32.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-08-22 06:00


Albert Wenger

The Low Energy Trap

I recently read Joseph Tainter’s outstanding book “The Collapse of Complex Civilizations,” which I recommend. It should be required reading for all politicians. Tainter’s theory is one of diminishing returns to bureaucracy, which we are clearly experiencing across many societies today. He also proposes one historic escape mechanism from such a collapse: a big energy unlock. We had a shot at that in the 1960s when we started building nuclear power plants, but then starting in the 1980s we instead chose to focus on energy efficiency. That has us now caught in a low energy trap.

It is extraordinary to see energy prices spiking in many parts of the world at the same time. Yes, there is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And we are experiencing a big heat wave as part of the accelerating climate crisis. But these are ultimately just excuses. We should have built an energy system with so much capacity that these events would just be blips that barely go noticed. Instead we are facing brownouts and blackouts and prices at ruinous levels for individuals and companies.

Degrowth advocates would have you believe that the answer is less. Less consumption. Less production. Less energy. I suppose that all of that is fine if you want to go backwards. If you advocate for that you should be required to spell out what human carrying capacity you believe is sustainable under degrowth, because it certainly isn’t 8 billion people. If a degrowth advocate came out and said point blank that under their proposals it would be only say 2 billion people, at least that would be intellectually honest and I would respect that as a coherent point of view.

Personally though I believe in going forward instead. As I have pointed out in The World After Capital, that doesn’t necessarily mean an ever growing population, as we are well on our way to peak population. But to avoid killing off billions along the way through societal collapse we need a lot more energy and we need it fast.

What does having a lot more energy let us do? For starters we can avoid the worst of the climate crisis by aggressively shifting to electrification of transportation, heating and cooling, production and so forth. We can also deal with water shortages through desalination. We can produce food in climate controlled environments. And we can fortify and upgrade our infrastructure to deal with more extreme weather. When we are done we will have extra energy for all sorts of amazing activities, like building great housing for everyone.

Now pessimists and defeatists will say: it is too late, we missed our chance and there’s nothing we can do at this point. And of course if we continue to operate at present course and speed they would be right. But this is not a physical or labor resource issue. This is entirely a question of political will. Because if we make a hard shift now we could build our way out within a decade. Extraordinary things become possible when we activate human attention and resources at scale, as we saw firsthand during the World War II production effort.

I wonder who will be the first politician to run on a wartime platform. For once not war against another country, but war against the low energy trap and the collapse of civilization that it leads to. I realize that we have abused the war metaphor with the war on drugs and other ill advised policies. But in this context it is called for because the level of mobilization required to escape the low energy trap will have to match that of World War II, which was roughly 50% of all economic activity.

With that level of resource deployment we could build massive energy capacity quickly (and would ideally do so globally). We should aggressively build out wind and solar further, but at the same time make massive investments in geothermal and nuclear power plants. Let’s get out of the low energy trap!

by Albert Wenger at 2022-08-19 23:42


Nicholas Tollervey

Great Code Reviews

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I've just started a new role at Anaconda.

A week after joining I was asked to contribute an article to an internal newsletter called "Consider This!". The format is simple: write something thoughtful on a subject of interest to folks within the company, and, at the end, curate a list of questions to prompt further thought and reflection.

I was invited to explore what I considered important aspects of great code reviews. Thanks to Anaconda, the article is reproduced below. Additional thanks to my colleagues Elise and Dan who provided invaluable and stimulating feedback to significantly improve my first draft.

Ask a room of engineers what makes a great code review, and you’ll have as many different opinions as there are engineers. Yet, in my experience, common themes and archetypes emerge from the gloriously colourful and diverse descriptions of a great code review. This article aims to explore what they might be.

At its core, a code review is exactly what it says: asking another to review code.

Why might one do this? Often the simple answer is, “because I have to”.

Code hosting sites, like GitHub, make it easy for code reviews to be part of the development process through concepts like pull requests (PRs for short). Simply make a change to the code, bundle your changes into a PR, submit it and wait for feedback from maintainers or colleagues. Sometimes you have to submit code for review because of corporate governance, your employer or the open source project to which you’re contributing may have an existing review process for all contributions. Or it may simply be habit or herd instinct to follow so-called “best practices”... folks do code reviews because everyone else does code reviews and so they’re living up to expectations.

A code review could be an assessment to overcome, where someone in authority accepts or rejects your changes. It might involve checking your changes to ensure you’ve followed stylistic and technical conventions for a project, like a teacher correcting work with a red pen. Furthermore, opinions about the approach taken, methodology used or even the intention behind the change might be offered, like a critic describing a restaurant, film or concert.

But there’s another, more engaging reason to participate in code reviews: if done well, your world as a coder is enlarged by the process, be that as a reviewer or contributor. In so doing, engagement with the project is a process of growth, and the quality of the codebase is improved to reflect the shared goals, ideas and aesthetic of those bringing the project into the world.

If a code review is used as a means of exercising authority then it’s no better than pandering to another’s ego. Many projects have stylistic and technical conventions, and checking such things can be easily automated so contributors are confident their changes meet such minimum requirements before ever submitting their code for review. Finally, if a critique of the approach, methodology or intent is offered as part of a code review, then it’s happening too late; such things should be discussed before code is submitted for inclusion in the project, perhaps in early drafts (so called “code spikes”) or exploratory proofs-of-concept.

From the contributor’s point of view, a code review is an opportunity to share their work so others understand and see what they are offering. In other words, a code review is an exercise in education as others encounter and explore new aspects of the code base. From a reviewer’s point of view, a code review is an opportunity to explore, internalise and offer constructive feedback of another’s contribution. Once again, it’s an exercise in education as the contributor is invited to explore their own work through the fresh eyes and constructive commentary of the reviewer.

Earlier, I deliberately used the word “enlarge” when I said a code review enlarges the world of those who participate. Enlargement is not synonymous with “fun”, “positive” or “easy”. The process of enlarging one’s view of the code might feel uncomfortable (perhaps you’re trying to get your head around a difficult or unfamiliar concept), negative (you feel frustrated with yet another bug in a hard-to-fathom part of the project) or difficult (the task at hand is complex and requires much effort simply to engage effectively).

Yet, enlargement implies growth, understanding and progress, and I’m reminded of the types of fun mountaineers use to categorise climbs.

A climb that is type one fun is fun because it’s fun to do, type two fun is not fun at the time but fun to recollect afterwards because of the achievement gained or lesson learned, and type three fun is not fun at the time, nor fun to recollect because you realise you never want to be in that situation ever again. Given a receptive spirit of learning, a mountaineer’s view of the world is enlarged through a mixture of both positive and affirmative, as well as negative and difficult, experiences.

So, how do we foster a spirit of enlargement in code reviews?

I believe mutual respect is key. Respect involves showing empathy, gratitude and acknowledgement that, when difficulties arise, folks involved are acting with the best of intentions. Another key factor is trust, an attribute of a team that only comes through working together over time, making mistakes together, and seeing evidence that folks support each other. I’d add that compassion (an awareness of and sympathy for another’s feelings and situation, mixed with a proactive desire to engage) is a great way to show support. When things inevitably become difficult, then compassion for each other is a way to embody mutual respect and build trust.

In the context of code reviews, such attributes help our judgement to become deeper, more refined and aware of the wider context of the project and its participants. A code review is no longer just an arbitrary measurement of “quality” (have you followed our code conventions?), but becomes an exercise in mutual learning and improvement that encompasses both enjoyable and challenging aspects of participating in a coding project. At the heart of this process is a strangely humorous paradox, as demonstrated by this old joke:

STUDENT: O Guru, what is the secret of success?
GURU: Good judgement.
STUDENT: How do you get good judgement?
GURU: Experience.
STUDENT: How do you get experience?
GURU: Bad judgement!

Only when folks feel safe to exercise potentially bad judgement (through the code they offer or the feedback they give), will they be able to gain experience and learn good judgement. The code review is a place to pay attention to each other’s contributions to facilitate mutual learning and growth. This will, ultimately, improve the project as a whole, and help its participants better engage with the tasks at hand.

“But”, I hear you ask, “what things should one do in a code review?”

If you’re expecting a “top ten interventions to make in a code review” type post, you’re in the wrong place. In fact, such naive shopping lists demonstrate a rather transactional and limited view of the process of a code review, while completely missing the point I’m trying to make. I hope you focus on embodying and passing on the sort of attributes that make a project an enlarging place in which to contribute: mutual respect, trust and compassion.

Perhaps we could learn by examining what other disciplines do when something is offered and feedback is given. For example, such a process is at the heart of musicians rehearsing (no matter the genre of music).

This short fragment shows Leonard Bernstein rehearsing an orchestra. Clearly the triangle players are not playing to the high standard he expects.

I want to draw your attention to the relationship between the musicians involved. How do Bernstein and the percussionists appear to you?

Folks might think Bernstein is condescending, sarcastic and not particularly supportive. Others might see him as setting clear (and very high) expectations through humour. Others might focus on Bernstein’s clear ignorance of triangle playing and the resulting laughter from the percussionists. That we see the same thing in different ways is itself an interesting and important outcome of our diverse and multifaceted backgrounds (and it’s important to acknowledge and recognise such differences).

The important relationship, upon which I want us to focus, is that between Bernstein and the musicians. Only when there's mutual respect, a feeling of safety and trust can such potentially difficult conversations, involving the giving and receiving of constructive criticism to fulfil some important end, take place. How such discussions unfold will reflect the unique relationship cultivated between the participants. So long as both parties share a bond of trust and respect, and we recognise and respect such a bond reflects their unique relationship with each other, then we can engage with and learn from the feedback and what the outcome tells us about the endeavour. In other words, our world is enlarged by observing their interactions.

Questions to Explore:

  • How has your world been enlarged through a recent code review?
  • Remember a time when you received valuable feedback or an important lesson that enlarged your world; how was it revealed to you?
  • What is your team’s approach to code reviews?
  • How do you and your collaborators cultivate a place of mutual respect, trust, and compassion?
  • Put yourself in Bernstein’s shoes, what would you say to the percussionists?
  • Imagine you’re the percussionists, how would you respond to Bernstein’s feedback?
  • Think of a recent PR submitted for you to review. How did you help enlarge the world of the author? How was your world enlarged?

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-08-17 16:00


Adrian McEwen

Weeks 877-880 - Choose Your Own Colour By Text Adventure

Adrian here, lifting us back onto the weeknote wagon because it was my fault we'd fallen off it. Basically a month to catch up, so let's get cracking...

Chris had been getting well-acquainted with the MQTT support in WLED, the software we use on the My Baby's Got LED boards. That lets you control the board over the Internet or a local network so that you can hook it into other services and events.

We use that here in our office at DoES Liverpool to monitor the coffee pot (as is the networked device tradition). A sensor on the coffee pot watches its power consumption, and some software uses that information to spot when a fresh pot is being brewed. Thanks to Chris' work, the Liverbird on the wall slowly fills up with colour while the brewing happens; then once the coffee is ready it celebrates with a colourful pattern. One of our Ackers Bell production prototypes also rings, triggered by the same software. No-one in the office then misses out on fresh coffee.

Chris wrote up a brief how-to guide, Controlling WLED using a public MQTT server, for anyone who wants to get started doing something similar.

Speaking of the Ackers Bell, Nikki has been sketching out some business canvases to work out who we should tell about it when it's on sale, and how we might reach them. Would you, or someone you know, like an Internet-connected bell? What would you connect it to? Which events would your team want to be alerted to, or to celebrate? We'd love to hear from you.

The rest of our time has been focused on client work. It's been a busy couple of weeks for that, although as ever, some of it we can't talk about.

We can talk about the sessions we've done with artist Laura Pullig. A while back we designed a wind- or solar-powered battery charger circuit. We've had a handful of test PCBs made for it, and Laura came in for an afternoon to learn how to use the reflow oven to solder them up. She's also been back for us to do some testing on it. The combination of wind and solar as power options plus the very varied power supplied by the wind resulted in a pretty broad set of design parameters; our tests so far have been inconclusive. The next step will be to put together a datalogger to allow some more methodical exercising of the boards.

The client job that Chris has been working on has also been unveiled to the public.

The inside of a large sandston cathedral.  A sculpture is centre-stage of two huge female hands with their forefingers reaching towards each other to make contact.  The scene is lit with a wash of purple light.

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral have a new exhibition of work by sculptor Peter Walker: Being Human. The centrepiece of the work is Connection—two 2-metre tall hands situated under the Dulverton Bridge and is lit with an array of spotlights.

We have integrated a text-to-donate system with the sculpture lighting, so visitors (or anyone else...) can send a text message to change the colour of the artwork to one of their choice. The text costs your standard message rate plus £2, which is donated to help fund the upkeep of the cathedral. If you want to try it out, send a message including the word "cathedral" and your choice of colour from red, pink, blue, green, orange, yellow, purple, or cyan to 70152.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-08-15 06:00


Fairphone Blog

Five years of responsible gold

For the past five years, Fairphone has been an active participant in a broad coalition within the Dutch gold sector aimed at ensuring greater respect for human rights, the environment and biodiversity in the gold value chain. This “gold covenant” was spearheaded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and co-signed by a variety of groups with an interest in the gold sector, including HIVOS/Stop Child Labour, Philips, Closing the Loop, and the Dutch Gold and Silver Federation (FGZ), as well as other parties like trade unions, importers and recyclers. Fairphone chaired the Gold Agreement task force on improving artisanal gold mining and responsible supply during the duration of the initiative. In June, this covenant came to an end; now comes the time to apply the lessons learned and make responsible gold the norm.


Increased transparency: the first step towards fairness

Transparency has always been a core Fairphone principle; it is an important first step towards fairer supply chains. The gold covenant was well aligned with this principle by requiring annual due diligence reports from its signatories and then rating their quality. These reports enable companies to openly explain their due diligence approach and share a map of their supply chain. The gold covenant awarded Fairphone the highest possible score for our last rated due diligence report 20/21.
Our mission, however, drives us to go beyond due diligence; to develop scalable solutions that can drive real impact for the people in our supply chain. We do this by, for example, investing in suppliers who are most marginalized, building their capacity to reach required quality and sustainability standards, and connecting them to our supply chain. This comes with higher risks, of course, but with greater positive impact, which we hope inspires others in our industry to do the same.

You can read more about how we are driving impact in our material supply chains and beyond in our recently published 2021 Impact Report.

Sharing lessons learned from our child labor project

Between 2017 and 2021, Fairphone led a consortium of companies and organizations in a project in Busia, Eastern Uganda. Our aim was to improve and support the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) communities in the area by eradicating child labor and establishing a sustainable gold supply chain that creates a better future for miners and their families.

Together with our partners, we piloted a holistic landscape approach, in which all key stakeholders — including community members, mining groups and supply chain actors — joined efforts to address the root causes of child labor. The project provided valuable lessons on how to best engage with mining groups to improve and sustain safer production methods, while introducing these miners to the international supply chain of minerals. These lessons were shared broadly with the gold covenant members, and are being adopted by the second phase of this project in the form of Project Access.

Leveraging feedback of gold covenant members

One key aspect of Project Access—developed by Fairphone and our partners—is a route-to-market model aimed at improving artisanal gold from East Africa through sustainable investment and market access.

Using feedback we received from members of the gold covenant, we have chosen to develop a book and claim model, where companies can purchase credits for their gold consumption and this money is invested in improving the sustainability of artisanal gold mines. Government representatives of the gold covenant have endorsed the model and one member, Diamond Point, has already committed to purchasing credits to contribute to improving artisanal gold mining!

This is a great milestone and raises the bar for the other gold covenant and industry members to follow suit. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if your company is interested in improving the sustainability of artisanal gold mining too!

The post Five years of responsible gold appeared first on Fairphone.

by Monique at 2022-07-22 16:54

Nicholas Tollervey

EuroPython 2022

I had a wonderful time at EuroPython, last week, in Dublin.

The most important aspect of the conference, for me personally, involved giving my talk entitled "Music and Code". It was an opportunity for me to reveal and explore how I feel about programming, teaching and learning and the place of tech in our wider culture. I've wanted to give a talk like this for over ten years, but only recently have I figured out how to express what I wanted to say through music as a metaphor.

Another important aspect of the conference was friendship and it was a huge pleasure to be a small part of the organising team.

I especially want to highlight collaborating with Vicky (a remarkable friend who embodies so many of the wonderful aspects of our Python community: a pro-active "can do" attitude, an inclusive and compassionate outlook towards others, and a formidable determination to thoughtfully do "the right thing" for the benefit of the whole community). The two of us flapped and faffed to fulfil a Maker space within EuroPython. Given the amount of positive engagement from attendees, I hope this becomes a regular feature of the conference. A case in point being the DIY robots competing to solve a maze in the fastest time, organised by the energetic and enthusiastic folks at the Northern Ireland Jam:

I also want to mention Raquel, who chaired this year's EuroPython. Her clear leadership, from the front, her apparently infinite energy, displayed through her considerable efforts, and her humane connection with folks, embodied by her patience, friendliness and compassion are generous gifts she has shared with us all. I sincerely hope she's taking some post-conference time off, and I want to thank her for reaching out to me, all those months ago, to become a part of organising EuroPython. And I have to say all my fellow organisers were an absolute joy to work with. Their collective courtesy, hard work, enthusiasm and friendliness is a very rare and special thing that I hope we can sustain, nourish and cultivate.

One other group of friends deserves a mention - my fellow maintainers of the Mu code editor. It was a huge amount of fun for us to be together in the same place for the first time ever. I was especially delighted to meet Vasco, face to face, for the first time.

The final part of EuroPython were two days of "code sprints", where open-source collaborators work together on their projects, meet to discuss technical and other aspects of our collective work, and welcome new collaborators and friends to our efforts. We, the maintainers of Mu, had a wonderful time focusing on Mu related things, and collaborating with new contributors who have made welcome enhancements to Mu.

Here's a picture of all the Mu maintainers at EuroPython:

The five core Mu maintainers
The five core Mu maintainers: Tim, Tiago, Carlos, myself and Vasco.

Of course, I heard many wonderful talks, enjoyed the conversations with many friends old and new in the famous corridor track and took part in some really stimulating workshops (with my amazing daughter, who was attending her first PyCon as a proper attendee with an interest in data science - she especially enjoyed both Django Girls and Humble Data).

I love EuroPython's culturally cosmopolitan feeling, something that's hard to recreate at a national PyCon. I love how folks keep coming back to EuroPython, there are people who mean a lot to me, who I only ever see at this conference. I also love EuroPython's peripatetic nature, as a community we are welcomed to all sorts of fun places and have an opportunity to soak up the vibe of different countries and cultures.

Long may it last, and I hope to see you at next year's EuroPython.

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-07-22 14:20


Adrian McEwen

Controlling WLED using a public MQTT server

A while ago now we linked a My Baby’s Got LED board to twitter using Node-RED for the Love to Play festival In this post we are looking at another way to get playful using MQTT with a My Baby’s got LED board. MQTT is a simple transport protocol, now commonly used to communicate in IoT. We’re going to set up a board to listen to a public MQTT broker and change the lights whenever a message is published. This will mean anyone can change our lights and any other My Baby’s Got LED boards connected in the same way will also change,

MQTT works by allowing devices to publish messages on topics and/or subscribe to topics to see what has been published. There’s a lot more information about this protocol here. MQTT connections are handled by a broker which revives and directs messages appropriately. It’s often desirable to run your own broker, and there are a range of options available. However, to create our MQTT ‘playthelights’ example we are going to bypass the overhead of running a broker ourselves; we will use one of the publically available brokers instead. In this case we want other people to be able to control our IoT device so we need our messages are public.

There are only really two steps needed to set this up. First we are going to configure the board to subscribe to a broker and then publish messages to the appropriate topics on that broker.

Connecting to the MQTT broker

If you have configured your board to connect to your network, go to the address you gave it during the setup. We will need to connect to the internet to access the broker so if you haven’t configured wifi and are connected to the board as an access point, or if you don’t know what this means, see the setup documentation.

  • Click on ‘Settings’ and then ‘Sync interfaces’ Scroll down until you find the ‘MQTT’ settings.
  • Click the checkbox to ‘Enable MQTT’
  • Set the broker to and the port to 1883
  • For ‘group topic’ use ‘wled/playthelights’, this is the MQTT topic we are subscribing to for messages with information about changing the lights.
  • Scroll down to the bottom and click ‘Save’, the board will need rebooting for the changes to take effect.

MQTT settings on WLED showing, port:1883 and group topic:wled/playthelights

We have now set up our board to connect to the hivemq broker and listen for messages on wled/playthelights

Publishing messages to the topic

Now that the board is subscribed to the topic the next step is to publish messages to it, for this you will need an MQTT client. There are many options available for different devices. In this example I’m using an online tool from the same organisation that provide the public broker we are using.

Change the address in ‘Host’ to and click connect.

MQTT websocket client settings

Now we are ready to start publishing messages to the topic to control the lights. Use the double arrows to exapnd the ‘Publish’ section and set the topic to ‘wled/playthelights’ In the ‘Message’ box type ‘ON’ and click publish. Now try publishing the message ‘OFF’. This should turn on the lights and then turn them off again. Sending ‘T’ toggles the On/Off state of the lights, try publishing the message ‘T’ a few times.

MQTT websocket publish to wled/playthelights topic settings

WLED also allows for changing colour over MQTT using the topic [mqttGroupTopic]/col by sending hex colour values. So change the ‘Topic’ to wled/playthelights/col and then publish a message containing a hex colour value Eg. publishing #ff0000 will turn the lights red.

The WLED interface also responds to messages posted to the topic [mqttGroupTopic]/api This responds to any of the HTTP API commands and gives a lot more control over the lights.

So, for example, publishing the message “FX=73” to wled/cheerlights/api will set the lights to the rainbow chase mode (Effect 73) A full list of WLED API effect settings can be found here.

The [mqttGroupTopic/]/api will also accept messages in the JSON api format. So, for example, publishing the message “{"seg":[{"col":[[0,255,200]]}]}” to this topic is another way to change the colour of the first segment.

Remember your board is set up to accept all messages published on these topics on a public server, so anyone else from anywhere can also publish messages that change your lights. Equally messages that you publish will change the settings of every other My Baby’s got LED board that is subscribed to this broker.

An alternative to the web based client used there are apps available for mobile phones that can provide the same function. One example for Andriod is MQTT Dashboard

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-07-20 06:00


Adrian McEwen

Week 876 - WLED now in kit form

Chris on weeknotes this week, largely working on applications for My Baby’s Got LED. Which feels like a reasonable opportunity to mention we’ve just added MBGL kits to our store. So you can buy everything you need in one place to recreate these projects at home*.

*(Liverbird not included)

Apart from work for a client the two projects I’ve mostly spent time on this week have both used MBGL. One an interactive sign for a Bar/radio station and the other testing WLED mapping to give an new look to the DoES Liverpool coffee monitoring liverbird.

Melodic Distraction is a radio station and bar based in the fabric district. They were looking to improve the look of their street sign, and bought a My Baby’s Got LED kit to liven it up. They removed the old strip lighting and connections and replaced it with a strip of RGB Leds around the circumference. To prevent noise on the data line, we used twin core cable for the power and a seperate shielded line for the data to the lights. Now it’s up and running, the next job is to link it their music output.

In DoES Liverpool, the coffee machine is hooked up to a SONOFF, which publishes an MQTT message whenever a fresh brew is started. Also connected to the DoES network is a large liverbird sign, formerly on the side of the Liverpool Echo building. It’s now full of LEDs controlled by a MY Baby’s Got LED board. Usually, the liverbird flashes a different colour when the coffee is ready, I wanted to see if we could use the lights like a progress bar, to show how long it would be before the coffee was brewed.

By default, WLED expects the addressable lights to be sequential, starting at address zero and working up. In the liverbird the lights are threaded around the frame, up one leg and down the other. As a result the order of their physical addresses doesn’t fit a neat pattern of rows. Luckily, WLED has a mapping trick to get round this. It’s possible to add a JSON-formatted map which lists the physical address of each led in the order you’d actually like them to be used.

With this setup we can use Node-RED to trigger an event when the SONOFF publishes a message to let us know the brew has started. In this flow we can also calculate the time elapsed from when this notification is received. We happen to know that it takes 270 seconds for a pot of coffee to brew, so we can calculate the percentage of brew time elapsed. With the leds in a sensible order it is really easy in WLED to display this using the ‘Percent’ effect, with the percentage we want to visualise as the ‘Intensity’ value.

      "col": [[255, 0, 0],[0, 0, 0]]

This example JSON sets the effect to ‘Percent’ (fx:98) and uses the payload value to set the intensity (ix:).

Nikki’s week consisted of filming the liverbird filling up with the coffee pot and editing the video to make it social media friendly, which took more steps than she’d like to admit and had some minor technical difficulties in the form of a dodgy cable when trying to get the laptop to read the camera. But despite that, it’s now up on Twitter!

She’s also been looking at canvas models for the Ackers Bell and trying to make some headway with that, though progress is slow. The big thing was sorting out the pricing for the My Baby’s Got LED starter kits, and finally getting those on Tindie ready to be sold!

And finally, Adrian is continuing with some really exciting client work, but nothing that can be discussed here yet. You’ll have to trust us for now, and find out more as soon as we can share!

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-07-18 06:00


Adrian McEwen

Week 875 - Brainboxes

This week saw us all visiting Brainboxes with the IoT Liverpool meetup group They are a Liverpool based company that develop and manufacture communication devices from their base in Speke. It was great to see an example of local tech industry, boards designed and manufactured in Liverpool, used throughout the world. The British Antarctic Survey have sensors connected to Brainbox analog input boards gathering data all year round. When decision makers are talking about new tech businesses in the city region, this is surely the kind of model we should be looking to have more of.

The MCQN team in blue lab coats on the factory floor of brainbox, where they manufacture their circuit boards.

I was particularly taken by their Pick and Place machines in action, and look forward to the days when we’re operating similar with MCQN to turn out My Baby’s Got LED boards in high volume. While I was asking many questions about the processes involved in placing components the rest of the group moved on to see a robot arm printing cases.

Away from our trip I spent the week continuing a project for a client that is still at the development stage. I’m also still trying to find a local CNC manufacturer who can create Ackers Bell bases at volume for us. A shortage of plywood is working against us. For Liverpool Makefest we installed a My Bike’s got LED board into the 3d printed ‘DoES Tower’. That led to some work sending instructions to WLED over MQTT using a public broker. A blog post is coming soon, if you’d like to try it yourself!

Nikki has been putting videos together, organising meetings to move the Ackers Bell forward and working through various ideas Arthur had been working on. She’s also looking at business canvases, which has required some delving into the DoES wiki to get printers working.

Adrian was busy with client work, that sadly he can’t talk about. He did, however, manage to track down and fix a particularly elusive bug, which had a small chance of occurring once every 49 days. Folk who know how many milliseconds you can fit into a 32-bit number may have an idea of where the problem lay…

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-07-13 06:00


Albert Wenger

The Meaning of Machine Creativity

For a long time there was a narrative that computers would only be good at automating routine tasks, leaving creativity to us humans. I never believed this because creativity isn’t some kind of magic but rather much of it is based on exploring variations either based on known rules or based on precedents. For example, I titled a post in 2016 “Machine Creativity: Possibly Sooner than Anticipated.” Also in my book The World After Capital, I have a section on the universality of computation that includes a few paragraphs on creativity.

Recently we have had several breakthroughs, first starting with large language models that can tell stories, and now with DALL-E2 and midjourney, two models that can generate amazing imagery based on textual input. For example, here is an image “imagined” by midjourney based on the prompt “Sailing across the alps”

It is mind-bending to sit with this image for a while. A machine created it and did so within a space of minutes, yet it is full of imagination and detail and could easily be on the cover of a book or the walls of a museum.

So what does it mean that we now clearly and demonstrably have creative machines?

First, more than ever it means that we need to come up with a new social contract. People who have earned a living with logo design, or illustration, or music composition, or code authoring, or any number of other creative pursuits are suddenly facing stiff competition from machines (related: here is another 2016 post on “Programming without Programmers”). In The World After Capital I have an section on the “lump of labor fallacy” versus Leontieff’s argument that humans are just a factor of production, much like horses were at one point. I am firmly in the camp that the central building block of a new social contract needs to be some form of Universal Basic Income.

Second, while I don’t believe that artificial general intelligence is imminent, we are definitely now finding ourselves on an accelerated timeline, relative to just a few years back. Humans still have a unique capability to reason and be creative over “open domains” or across vastly different domains. Also we humans can base our creativity on a deep understanding as opposed to the shallow approach taken by the models. But it would be silly to dismiss these latest models as just a parlor trick, as some have argued. What we are seeing now is profound. It is high time that we start getting serious about what it means to be human and how we should be treating other humans.

We are experiencing an extraordinary expansion of technological capabilities. If we can figure out how to get past our industrial age thinking, what comes next could be truly amazing. If you want my thoughts on that, I have pulled them together as a book: The World After Capital.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-07-11 11:59


Albert Wenger

Progress vs. Categories

As humans we like to put things into categories. It makes communicating and thinking easier. Scratch that. It makes communicating and thinking possible. Categories go hand in hand with words as providing us with crucial compression of reality. Just like a 1:1 map is completely useless (it is the terrain itself), so would be a need to describe every detail of every person or object before being able to make a point. We would never get anywhere.

Not surprisingly then, categories are everywhere. For instance in venture we tend to put things into boxes such as “B2C” or “enterprise software.” Or in academia people study a discipline like “physics” or “chemistry.” The government classifies workers as “contractors” or “employees.” But here’s the tricky part: the world isn’t static and progress undoes categories.

The admonition to “think out of the box” when it comes to innovation is apt. Such thinking is both a source of progress and necessitated by progress. Here are just some examples. As we have deepened our understanding of what matter consists of, some of the historic boundaries between chemistry, physics and biology have stopped making sense. With computers dispatching labor we have erased many of the distinctions between contractors and employees. Self-service consumer grade software is taking over the enterprise market with product-led growth companies outperforming sales-led companies.

If you are trying to invent the new (or fund it), it helps to let go of existing boxes, instead of trying to jam innovative ideas into them. One of the reasons really disruptive startups often have a hard time raising money is because they often don’t fit an existing category. At USV we have benefited greatly from having a thesis-based rather than category-based approach for that reason.

People and institutions who derive their power from controlling one of the existing categories will fight progress that might undo the importance of the category. For example, in academia the chairs of existing departments resist the creation of “inter-disciplinary” degrees (a coinage that by itself is meant to appease the existing disciplines). They also resist the creation of new departments that represent categories that make more sense on a go forward basis. For example, Information Theory, despite its importance, tends to be spread out and shoehorned into math, economics and physics departments.

The bigger and more important the categories, the more vicious the fights to protect the status quo at all cost. And that is at the heart of the gender and sex wars we are now finding ourselves in. With progress we have started to understand that these categories don’t have the clear dividing lines we imagined – for example, the biology of sex in humans is far more complex than simply what chromosomes you have. And progress allows us to make profound changes, whether that’s hormone therapy, cosmetic surgery, or reproductive technologies. Even without these changes, technological progress has often rendered historic reasons for the category distinction mute. For example, soldiers used to rely on brute strength a lot, but that matters not one bit if you are remotely flying a drone.

The ultimate intervention here will be based on technologies such as CRISPR that allow us to manipulate the genome. It is only a question of time before athletes will show up crushing it in various sports who have been designed to be dominant at those sports (e.g. lung capacity for swimming). If you don’t think that will happen, I suggest reading up on the sordid history of “performance” sports programs anywhere in the world. Any edge that could be had has been exploited in the past and that won’t be any different going forward (especially when the interventions will be extremely hard to detect).

There are people and institutions who derive their power based on a clear distinction between the male and female categories today. They will fight progress all the way. That’s why change will be hard and take a long time. Categories everywhere persist far past their usefulness because of vested interests. Anyone interested in inventing the future instead of clinging to the past will need to overcome that. The work of establishing new categories is hard and success in doing so a huge accomplishment that moves all of us forward.

PS Someone asked me how we could have new categories in sports. To answer this it is important to recognize that we already have some sports that have a single field, such as dressage or ocean sailboat racing. It is equally important to note that other sports have categories in addition to sex, such as weight classes in boxing and wrestling. We simply need to be willing to experiment with categories in other sports as well. One approach could be to have classes based on direct measurement of a key attribute. For example, I love tennis. We now have the tools to measure the speed of balls at all times. Imagine tournaments based on speed classes. Slow, Medium, Fast. If you want to compete in a class you have to stay within the speed limit of that class. It’s just another rule, not really different from that you have to stand behind the baseline to serve. I believe we would have many more interesting matches with these categories than we have today!

by Albert Wenger at 2022-07-06 00:33


Albert Wenger

Happy 4th of July: Think Independently!

Every 4th of July I like to reflect on what it means to be independent. Today I wrote nearly an entire post on production independence, starting with energy independence. But I have decided to post that another day because there is a different type of independence that I have decided is more important at this particular moment in time: independent thinking.

It has never been easy to be an independent thinker but it has become considerably more difficult in our always online, always connected world. There are several reasons for this. First, we are surrounded by suggestion algorithms that drive us ever deeper into clusters. One really has to make a strong conscious effort to follow people of different views, or one will not see those views as at all. I have long argued for what I called the “Opposing View Reader” and would happily use that if it were available as a product. In the meantime, I have added people to my Twitter feed who I strongly disagree with on almost everything.

Second, whatever we post ourselves is scrutinized and deviation from what the bulk of one’s followers think takes an extra level of conviction. So often people will stay silent on a topic rather than express their opinion for fear of having to deal with an online backlash. And of course when one does post something there are also the other type of comment (mostly from non-followers) that tries to for “guilt by association” through throwing out a label such as “liberal” or “racist” instead of engaging with the substance of the comment.

Third, with more and more time spent online, people are suffering from loneliness. And unlike IRL, where people can get to know you over time in your fullness, online we tend to have just a relatively narrow representation of ourselves. So the pressure to conform to a group and its views is growing for fear of being excluded and feeling even more lonely. Having strong real world friendships is one good antidote to that. Not giving a shit is another.

In the early days of Union Square Ventures we were often asked if we could be successful being in New York and not in Silicon Valley. Our answer was that we prefer to think independently and that’s a lot easier when you are somewhat geographically separate. It is also the reason we spend very little time with other investors, rarely going to VC conferences. It turns out that independent thinking is extremely powerful when it comes to investing (likely also one of the reasons for Warren Buffet’s success, although I have been meaning to write a post about how I think he’s a hypocrite).

So on this 4th, maybe take a few minutes to add people you strongly disagree with to your feeds. This is a great first step towards thinking independently. As a second step set aside time, ideally every week, to query which of your beliefs are ones you have spent time considering independently and which ones have you adopted simply by virtue of being part of a group. For inspiration on independent thinking I suggest following Aella, who recently had a good thread on how challenging it can be.

Happy 4th of July! And happy independent thinking!

by Albert Wenger at 2022-07-04 19:09

Adrian McEwen

Weeks 873 - 874 Makefest!

Hey all! Nikki doing week - well fortnight - notes this week.

Adrian has continued work on the EV charger project but there’s not much we can talk about publicly there. He’s also been working with Snoof from STEAM Engineers on the design for the new Factoree website, working out how to open up the sensor graphing dashboard to let people see part of it without logging in.

Chris spent most of the last two weeks doing client work and doing preparations for makefest; Including adding a MBGL board to the DoES Tower and setting up a Node-RED flow to listen for tweets, and send MQTT messages to change the colour of the lights, as well as setting up the Acker’s bell with the new design.

He also looked at the WLED interface to communicate with MBGL over MQTT using a public broker in order to write up a blog post that’ll be up soon, and had a less successful experiment with LEDFx.

A table featuring several MCQN projects including Museum in a Box - a pink box with a volume dial, surrounded by post cards and 3D printed objects which can be used with it and the Ackers Bell - a brass bell in a pentagonal housing. There is also a screen showing video and the edge of the Peleton MBGL disco breastplates can be seen on the edge of the frame.

The main event of everything of course was Makefest this weekend over in Liverpool Central Library. We had an amazing time and can only extend a great amount of thanks to the organisers and everyone who came out to the event.

It was a wonderful day and it was a lot of fun to get to share the things we do and what we’ve made with everyone who came out. Seeing everyone interacting with things, asking questions and being excited about the things we make the same way we are is always the best part of making.

So what did we take away from it? Well Museum in a Box seemed to be a particular favourite and there was also a great deal of interest specifically in the My Bike’s got LED/ Disco breastplates, a community project that Jackie Pease and others worked on for Peloton Liverpool. Apparently wearable lights are very popular, Who knew?!

It’s all given us a good idea of what things we should be focusing our energy on in the future which is good and allowed us to connect with many other makers throughout liverpool which is always a joy. Overall we had a lovely time and we’re looking forward to next year and hopefully by then we’ll have even more new, cool stuff to show off to all of you.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-07-04 06:00


Adrian McEwen

Weeks 871-872 - Probing and Charging Ahead

Adrian here, as you'd probably guessed from this being fortnight-notes rather than week-notes.

It's been a fortnight full of client work, on a variety of projects.

I've been bringing up a new hardware board. Working out how to get software loaded onto it and getting it to parity with the version we've been developing on a dev-board while waiting for the hardware design to be ready.

A red PCB on a white table with two probes placed onto points on the PCB.  The probes are held in place with gooseneck connectors which arch over to magnetic bases which are held steady on a steel ruler

As part of that I got to try out the new hands-free probes I bought a while back from Sensepeek. They made it much easier to test things out (these photos I staged afterwards with a My Bike's Got LED board as I can't show the actual hardware)

Zoomed in version of the previous photo showing a closer view of the probe pins connecting to points on the ESP8266 on the board

The real hardware is using an ESP32-SOLO-1 module, which only has a single-core unlike the more common (including our development hardware) two-core ESP32. Despite not needing a second core, running on single-core ESP32 modules is a path far less travelled and so getting it all building and running was more of a slog than we'd anticipated. We're through to the other side of that now, thankfully, and can crack on with developing further features.

Chris wrapped up the work on the charging station for Peloton Liverpool Cooperative. That will let them recharge the batteries for the My Bike's Got LED boards in their Disco Breastplates.

We dropped it off at their workshop, and it slotted neatly onto their repurposed-shopping-trolley mobile charging point as intended.

With that done, he's moved onto a new client project, learning how to mint a new ibal number in the process. Hopefully we'll be able to talk more about it as we get further along with it.

Among the client work we did find time for an update to My Baby's Got LED.

The WLED software that powers the board has an active community and there are regular new releases withh bug fixes and new features. The stock WLED software will work on our boards, but we have a couple of additional features (usermods in the WLED parlance) to provide better feedback. We hadn't updated our version for a little while and there was a new release — v0.13.1 — available, so we pulled the new code into our version and made a new release to use on the boards we're shipping out.

The new release has also fixed an issue with the older version where the OTA updater ("over the air", where you upgrade the software over the WiFi) wasn't working; so now you'll be able to upgrade your My Baby's Got LED software without needing a serial cable. And if you've got an older board that you'd like upgrading, but don't have a serial cable, drop us a line and we can help out.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-06-22 06:00


Nicholas Tollervey

Pastures New

I have been a freelance software engineer for almost 17 years. In that time, as is usual for a freelancer, I have changed roles every 18 months to two years. Often I took time off between gigs to work on personal projects, write, reflect or learn something new. For instance, in 2008 I left my role as a senior .NET developer for an investment bank in London to learn Python, then reset my career as a junior Python coder three months later and never looked back.

I've relished my freedom and independence, and it has been a privilege to work on a huge variety of projects for a diverse range of companies in many different sectors. I have been enriched by my colleagues, made many wonderful friends, and learned a huge amount from folks.

Thank you everyone.

Yet change is in the air... Since January I've been in discussions with Anaconda and from today (the Northern Hemisphere's summer solstice no less!), I'm delighted to reveal I'll be joining them as a principal engineer. Long may the sun shine on this endeavour. 🌞

The very big change for me and my family is that I'm an employee rather than freelancer.

A big factor in persuading me to step away from freelancing were the folks I met in interviews and the company culture I encountered leading up to my offer of employment.

Another important factor was the nature of the work I'll be doing. I can't go into details, but I'm very excited to work with an exceptionally talented group of folks, on something that I'll relish getting my teeth into. Importantly, it is an opportunity for me to bring together and use skills from many different aspects of my background.

Finally, Anaconda understand what motivates folks passionate about creative coding: I'll still be active as an open source contributor and will continue to develop projects such as CodeGrades in my own time, as has been the case so far.

Here's to new adventures.

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-06-21 08:00


Fairphone Blog

Fairphone Easy: a smartphone subscription for a fairer future

The world needs a new business model. The electronics industry focuses on selling new devices as often as possible to make a profit, driving rapid product life cycles, overconsumption and waste. Fairphone knows that while profit is important, a fairer, cleaner future is most important of all; we must move towards a circular economy that makes the most of the resources we have. That’s why we love longevity and design longer-lasting, easily repairable smartphones – while encouraging others to embrace longevity too. After all, the longer you keep your phone, the lower its environmental and social footprint. That’s where our new business model comes in.

Introducing Fairphone Easy

We are proud to announce the launch of Fairphone Easy, a smartphone subscription service that takes our circular ambitions to the next level. We’re giving users in The Netherlands the option to use our most sustainable and modular phone yet, the Fairphone 4 (in green, with 8GB/256GB), for a fixed monthly fee, rather than buying it.

Fairphone Easy subscribers don’t need to worry about replacing their phone or about fixing it when something breaks. We take care of any maintenance or upgrades needed. Users are also rewarded with lower monthly fees if they take care of and use their phone for longer: for every year the phone stays damage free, the monthly discount increases, rewarding users for taking part in our mission for smartphone longevity.


Is Fairphone Easy more sustainable?

How is a subscription service more circular and sustainable than simply buying a phone, you may wonder? The current business model of our industry sees about 1.4 billion mobile phones sold globally. Users keep their phones for an average of 2-3 years, yet only 15% of discarded phones are collected for recycling. This adds to the growing world’s e-waste problem – and increasing CO2 emissions, as 70% of a smartphone’s lifetime emissions occur during production. The more new phones, the larger the environmental impact. These rapid lifecycles not only have a negative impact on the planet, but also on the people working in the supply chain. The longer a phone (and all its materials) are in use, the lower the impact on people and the planet. Fairphone Easy maximizes the lifetime of our phones and their materials, while ensuring a great user experience and providing a more sustainable business model for the smartphone industry.

What makes Fairphone Easy circular?

Fairphone Easy encourages subscribers to increase the lifetime of their phone by ensuring they enjoy keeping their phone in use longer. If the subscriber stops, Fairphone ensures the phone ‘lives on’ by refurbishing it and giving it to a new subscriber, or re-using the parts to repair another phone. At the end of the phone’s life, Fairphone will make sure it is properly recycled. This way it won’t become e-waste, or end up in a drawer where its valuable materials cannot be utilized.

This business model has been a long-time wish of ours; until now we’ve mostly been working on making the process of designing and producing a phone fairer for people and planet. But, after the customer buys the phone, the process is out of our hands. With Fairphone Easy’s service model, we can now make the phone’s entire life cycle fairer and more sustainable, by encouraging longer use and ensuring its re-use and proper recycling.


Want to know more about Fairphone Easy? You can find all the details here, and if you’re in the Netherlands and in need of a new phone, join us, and become part of the circular solution!

The post Fairphone Easy: a smartphone subscription for a fairer future appeared first on Fairphone.

by Ronald at 2022-06-15 09:00


Adrian McEwen

Week 870 - Generating toolpaths for milling circuit boards

Somehow it’s come back round to Chris for the weeknotes again already, those three (and a half) weeks have flown.

I’ve mainly been working on a battery charger for our friends at Peloton. We needed to connect ten 4056 charging chips to a PSU so they could charge all their My Baby’s Got LED power lights.

As it is a one off, MCQN had a lot of copper board and DoES Liverpool has CNC mills it made sense to mill a circuit board for this.

A CNC milled copper circuit board with a 4056 charging circuit and a JST connector

For the next time I need to, and possibly to help other members of the DoES community make woodcut prints, I thought it would be useful to record the various options I looked at to generate the toolpath.

For each I’m starting with an SVG of the tracks generated in Inkscape, with a footprint for the JST socket exported from Kicad.


Naturally my first approach was FreeCAD, why wouldn’t it be? I’ve written a quick overview on crearting 3d models from 2d SVG files for DoES here

It’s a work in progress and will probably need a refresh after Friday’s(?) release of v0.20.

With a 3d rendering the Path workbench can create and export the toolpath. This approach works and I’d never discourage using FreeCAD but for a job like this which is essentially only a 2d path it’s probably a little overkill.


JSCut is an online toolpath generator that imports an SVG and then has options to select the shapes within this file to generate tool operations.

By drawing a perimeter rectangle around the board it’s possible to generate a path that engraves away all the copper that isn’t track.

The trick here is to select all the internal path objects first, and then the bounding rectangle. In the drop down menu for the engrave operation is a ‘Combine’ property. Setting this to ‘XOR’ gives the desired result.

I’ve found selecting objects is a little tricky, reminiscent of the pixel perfect precision needed to complete a ZX Spectrum platformer, but with patience it can generate useful results.

Also you are probably going to need to edit the resulting Gcode in a text editor, in our case adding the leading and trailing “%” character and stripping out comments.

Krabzcam and Kiri

Krabzcam and Kiri offer a similar approach to Jscut and both have their strengths, I guess it’s down to personal preference here.

I ended up using Krabzcam but I've included them so we have the links.

On this project I decided against etching away all the copper as described above with Jscut and just profiled the paths using Krabzcam.

One eccentricity I spotted with this tool was the creation of some extra drilling operations when I added the operations for the through hole components.

I suspect it was adding a drill operation into every enclosed shape found and not just the circular holes I’d intended.

I am very prepared to admit this was user error and not a fault in the software, but I couldn’t find the solution. This was easily fixed in NC Viewer though.

HT to Jo Hinchliffe for the steer on the various web CAM tools.

Ten 4056 charging circuits connected by a milled copper board recharging batteries

Along with client work Adrian took part in an epic biking expedition in North Wales.

Nicki will be back to weeknotes after her European festival adventures.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-06-07 06:00


Adrian McEwen

Week 869 - New Week, New CNC Software

Adrian writing this week.

My week was almost entirely taken up with client work and quoting for a new project, none of which I can talk about. However, I did find time to update our fork of the WLED software which the My Baby's Got LED board uses to get the latest features. Chris found one or two niggles with it, so I'll need to do a bit more work on it before it's ready for release.

The inside of a church showing the ornate iron columns and decorative ironwork of its construction

I also had a day off to catch up with some of the city's art while a friend was in town. Plus an afternoon out of the office in the beautiful (and architecturally-significant as the first iron-framed church) St. George's Church. It's a short walk from our studio, on top of Everton Brow with fantastic views across the city, and just over the road from the neglected but also gorgeous Everton Library. I was there alongside STEAM Engineers to talk about makerspaces and how DoES Liverpool helps us to do our work.

Chris has been continuing to work on the charging circuit for the Joyride implementation of My Bike's got LED. He has started work on milling the PCB to connect the charging units together. The new tool in the CNC prep repertoire this week was JSCut. Taking SVG files from inkscape this online tool creates suitable GCode to drive our mill.

Nikki spent the week working on the Ackers Bell. Revisiting the bill of materials spreadsheet to update potential production costs and figure out how many components we already have in stock for an initial production run.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-05-31 06:00


Albert Wenger

Joseph Tainter: The Collapse of Complex Societies (Book Review)

Given the ongoing decay of our institutions and their utter failure to address the climate crisis it is not far fetched to ask whether we are headed for some kind of societal collapse. A highly relevant book is Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, published in 1988. I had two key takeaways from reading it.

First, there are way more examples of complex societies collapsing than I was aware of. I was of course familiar with the collapse of the Roman Empire and was also aware of Mayas in the Yucatan (having visited there) but Tainter provides at least a dozen examples, including several societies that I had never heard of before. He also rightfully points out that complexity so far is the historical exception and widespread complexity (meaning the world being dominated by complex societies is a particularly recent phenomenon). So the takeaway here is in part that we really aren’t very deep into the current complexity phase and that the past track record over longer time periods isn’t exactly encouraging.

Second, Tainter proposes a very simple and general mechanism leading to collapse: declining marginal returns to complexity. Over time the benefits of complexity diminish and its costs increase. When that happens societies become prone to collapse from (a) having not enough reserves to deal with shocks and/or (b) parts of society that are bearing a disproportionate share of the cost of complexity resisting. He then analyzes the role of this mechanism in three collapses in some detail, including for the collapse of the Roman Empire. One striking feature of that particular collapse is the massive currency devaluation over hundreds of years that has strong echos in today’s world.

Tainter gives many reasons for why the benefits of complexity decline over time and its cost rise. One that he doesn’t discuss much but that is particularly pertinent to today, is the accretion of laws and regulations. While these are essential tools for maintaining complex societies it is particularly easy to see how over time their benefits decline and their costs rise when you only ever add laws and regulations but never do a partial or complete rewrite. It is the societal equivalent of the accumulation of technical debt in startups.

Are there ways of avoiding collapse? First, as Tainter points out, quite a few societies don’t collapse but simply go into a long decline and then get taken over by other societies. He thinks that this is a possible scenario for many societies today because they are surrounded by other complex societies (this does, however, leave open the possibility of many societies collapsing at about the same time). Second, Tainter also points to examples of avoiding collapse through a big resource or energy unlock. Deploying solar at massive scale could be such an unlock, as could be fusion if we get it working.

All in all a very worthwhile read combining a ton of history with an analytical framework. I find most historical writing to be replete with ad hoc explanations that don’t sound much more compelling than CNBC talking about why the market went up or down. The Collapse of Complex Societies stands out from that and all the more so coming in at only 215 pages. Highly recommended.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-05-30 14:48


Albert Wenger

How Much is Enough?

I had lunch the other day with a friend. He has a has a reasonably high paying job in consulting which he sort of enjoys but would rather be an artist. So the question he posed was “How much is enough?” – meaning how much money does he need to become an artist. We spent the rest of the lunch talking about different options for approaching this.

Here’s a recap of what we have come up with so far:

1. Don’t wait, just start trying to sell some art right now on the side while going full steam with his work. We concluded this was hard given the demands of his job, which involves a fair bit of travel and dinners with clients. So this makes it difficult for him to carve out time consistently to work on art. We agreed though that with a high degree of will power this might still be possible. There are some examples of people having succeeded this way, notably singer John Legend who was at BCG while also launching his music career.

2. Dial back work a lot but keep some income going. This will require him going freelance and losing health benefits. Definitely felt more doable than option #1 but also somewhat riskier. Two conditions seemed important here. First, making sure his expenses were low enough / his income high enough to not require digging into savings (see next option for that). Second, having fairly reliable repeat clients so that there isn’t a lot of uncertainty about his income or a lot of time spent finding clients. I have a musician friend (not a breakout artist) who has been doing this for two decades now consistently putting out new music.

3. Save up enough for a time period of just art. We tossed around having at least two, but better three or more years of “runway.” Enough time for him to really give art a try, and then still some more time for him to restart a consulting job should the art thing not pan out. Definitely more risky than option #2 financially, but it would allow him to focus 100% on art. That might have the highest likelihood of succeeding at art, although as my friend pointed out: “I doubt that I could handle the stress of seeing my savings decline every month.” Fair point. The attractiveness of this option also depends a lot on how confident he is in the ability to restart consulting after a multi-year break. He wasn’t sure about that.

4. Earn enough to be able to generate sufficient passive income. We talked about buying a place that’s so big that he can live in it but also generate rental income to cover the costs of a mortgage, taxes, maintenance and living. This actually seemed doable in due time given his savings and income level but with one important caveat. He loves New York City and, well, real estate here is ridiculously expensive making this challenging. We talked about moving somewhere cheaper, which he’s not super thrilled about (understandably). We are still working through the numbers on this though.

Sorry if you were looking for precise numbers based on the title of the post. We didn’t get that far (yet). In writing this up though, I came up with a combination idea: #4 + #2 (could also do #4 + #3 potentially). Basically buy real estate somewhere outside of New York City, have that generate passive income and be a place he could live should everything fall apart, but pursue art here in the city.

If you know of someone who has successfully made such a transition or have made it yourself, it would be great to hear in the comments how they/you approached it.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-05-26 12:26


Adrian McEwen

Week 868 - Yet more Ackers Bell

Hi all, Nikki on the week notes this week.

Where do we begin?

Now that Chris is wrapping up the CNC work on the Ackers Bell we’ve been taking a slightly wider look at it. We had a good planning session about what’s left to get it into a product that you can buy.

As part of that there are a couple of minor tweaks to make to the PCB for it. As part of the design work we’ve moved the status LEDs and reset button a few mm closer to the edge of the case so that they aren’t tucked so far under the bell. And because we’re making some changes there, Adrian is wondering if we should look at the connector to attach the solenoid (which is what strikes the bell) to the PCB. The connector we’ve got works, but can be a bit fiddly to assemble. So we’ve found a couple of possible alternatives and got a few of each ordered so we can make a decision on whether to change things or not. Then we can get some PCBs made up to check and build a few sample units for marketing and testing.

I’ve been doing a lot of research into marketing plans and where the best options to promote Ackers Bell will be so that the people who may actually want to buy it will see. As well as expanding on ideas of potential applications to go alongside that.

Chris is continuing to look for a suitable manufacturing partner to get Ackers Bell manufactured for us. He also started work on the charging unit for the Joyride lights that use My Bike’s got LED

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-05-25 06:00


Adrian McEwen

Weeks 867 - Complete Ackers Bell Prototype

It's Chris at the reins this week, so it's going to be quite a lot of sawdust again.

The headline is I now have a full prototype of the Ackers bell ready for larger scale manufacture.

Brass bell on a pentagonal plywood base supported by five shaped upright supports.

The next steps are to gather consensus on a suitable finish to complement the brass bell, and find local manufacturers who can scale up production.

I also wrote a brief guide to transfering 2d vector files from Inkscape to our CNC mill via Freecad for the DoES wiki.

With the imminent release of Freecad v0.20 this may be due for some editing very shortly, but it's a start for people new to this workflow.

Sophie Huckfield's Break the Frame has been collected and is in the process of being installed.

Adrian wrote a method to generate gcode in Inkscape for Break the Frame. As an alternative I've also written a method using Kiri Moto

Nicki has been video editing, working out some of the final details for the soon to be available My Baby's got LED kits and scheduling posts.

She's also been investigating the availability of APIs in donation systems to communicate to connected devices for some potential future work.

Of the things he can talk about, Adrian donned his very-under-used data scientist hat for some analysis work on air quality data. That involved breaking out his even-more-under-used R coding skills for some preparatory processing.

That let him port some existing R code written by one of the actual data scientists into Javascript, so it could be added to an online dashboard.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-05-16 06:00


Albert Wenger

Personal Update: Rage Against the Dying of the Light

I have been away from writing here for an entire month. It was a combination of travel followed by a health crisis that is now thankfully nearly over (a “routine” surgery that turned out to be anything but). But there is also an underlying frustration that makes it at times difficult to know what to say at all. We are living in times of the omnicrisis and yet so many people seem to just want to get on with their lives. They want to do their thing, whatever that may be, as if there was nothing wrong with the climate and democracy wasn’t under attack (and along with it women’s rights).

People seem to recognize for brief moments that there are massive problems. But then they immediately return to just wanting to continue with their lives. Maybe it is out of a sense of helplessness. What could I do about these crises? Maybe it is because they believe that others are on the case. These problems can’t be so bad, someone must be solving them. Maybe it is out of a sense of entitlement. I have worked hard so I can afford X and so X is what I am going to do now. I can’t tell. All I know is that I often feel surrounded by people sleepwalking into hell. It is the real life version of “Don’t Look Up.”

It is a profoundly frustrating feeling. Especially when it comes to people who have the means to spend aggressively on both climate and democracy but choose not to do so. Frustrating maybe isn’t quite enough. Enraged is more how I have felt lately at those with means who refuse to spend aggressively. Thankfully I have ways of channeling those feelings into action and I am resolved to double down on many of the efforts that Susan and I have already kicked off ourselves and/or supported. In that regard having been sick was a blessing as it has helped focus my mind.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-05-09 12:59

Adrian McEwen

Weeks 865-866 - Charging; CNC Choreography; and Community Tech

Adrian back at the weeknotes, which is also why they're fortnight-notes. The short week last week didn't help with getting the weeknotes written, but I was definitely more of the reason they didn't get posted 🤣

It's been a couple of busy weeks but with some satisfying ticking off of tasks/projects. A couple of bits of admin — a VAT return; and prepping accounts to give to the accountant for the year-end accounts — but also...

A rendering of a letterbox-shaped circuit board.  It's split into two halves: one marked 'Rectifier' and the other 'Charger'

I wrapped up the design for (at least a prototype of) the wind- or solar-charger board that I've been working on with Laura Pullig. The design has been sent off for a handful of boards to be produced to see if it all works as expected. More on that in a couple of weeks when the PCBs and parts arrive and we get some soldered up.

At the end of last week's work on Sophie Huckfield's Break the Frame artwork we hadn't quite gotten the software side of it finished.

Although when testing things manually it would home nicely and then play through a gcode file of movements, once that was set to run automatically it struggled.

Debugging that took a few iterations. Firstly I improved my code to initialise and home the controller; but it would then usually reset the machine coordinate system and so try to move beyond the limits of the machine.

Eventually I wrote a full custom Python script which uses the gcodesender library and that got it running repeatably and smoothly, as you can see below.

A nice, and much needed, result — it'll be on display in a gallery all summer!

I also had a half-day off away from MCQN Ltd, with my DoES Liverpool organiser hat on, when I attended an interesting workshop arranged by Careful Industries to discuss community tech.

It was interesting to compare struggles with how-tech-can-help-communities with other groups. Given the make up of the DoES Liverpool community, our challenges are more to do with finding enough time and people; whereas other folk at the workshop either don't know what's possible, or lack the technical skills to build things themselves. It brought to mind my previous thoughts on the "DoES ethos"; Aaron Straup Cope's exhortations to the museum sector around tech; and my #LiverpoolHannahLinks local network of interesting organisations.

Nikki has been keeping up with what Chris and I are up to, and sharing details of that on social media.

Alongside that she's been looking into content design, researching marketing and doing some social media probing to get ideas on how people are likely to find our products.

She also published a new blog post — Dancing Lights — documenting her experiments with getting our My Baby's Got LED board to react to sound and music.

A stop-frame animation of a stack of wooden pentagon bases building up, with each one getting more finished and refined, ending with the stack topped off with a brass bell

Chris asks 'How many ways can I say "It's a simple job in FreeCAD, it'll be finished this week"??' We now have an (almost) entirely complete route from SVG to KineticNC gcode via Freecad. If he could crack the inability to change the origin for imported models he'd be happy. We also have a growing pile of pentagonal plywood, as seen above.

He's also been making some initial forays into exploring finishes for the wood. That will be the next step in the Ackers Bell adventure.

by Adrian McEwen at 2022-05-09 06:00


Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Complete

For completeness, here's a list of all the Offa's Dyke related blog posts in chronological order.

  • Day 1 - Chepstow, pizza and first steps.
  • Day 2 - Monmouth to Pandy over rolling countryside.
  • Days 3, 4 and 5 - Things don't go to plan.
  • Day 6 - The Centre for Alternative Technology.
  • Days 7, 8 and 9 - Shropshire hills, Welsh lakes and castles.
  • Days 10, 11 and 12 - Improvising and going with the flow to our destination.


by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-21 15:30

Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Days 10, 11 and 12:

We found our relaxing rhythm during the final few days of our holiday. Our lack of a plan allowed us to follow our noses, and intuitively improvise an itinerary during each day. As you'll see from the photos below, we spent a lot of time focusing on four things: historic monuments, gardens, food and travel through beautiful places.

Our tenth day started with breakfast in Ruthin, at Gail's coffee and tea rooms on Upper Clwyd Street. Many of our stop overs have provided us with spectacular food and drink, and the vegetarian full cooked breakfast at this modest and out of the way cafe was up there with the best. Their friendly chef suggested a few sights to see in Ruthin and furnished us with a map. And so our typical modus operandi of chatting with locals and improvising on the spur of the moment led us to the grounds of Ruthin castle.

Peacocks in the gardens of Ruthin Castle.
Peacocks in the gardens of Ruthin Castle.

The chef at Gail's had explained the peacocks who live in the castle grounds were a friendly bunch, and we were not disappointed to find several of them displaying to the peahens.

Ruthin Castle gardens.
Ruthin Castle gardens.

The castle itself was undergoing renovation, since the original fortified remains had been converted into a stately pile during the 19th century, and were now used as a hotel of some sort. With the abundance of dramatic castles in this part of the world, it was inevitable we'd find a few that had been repurposed.

Our chef at Gail's also suggested we visit the Ruthin Arts Centre, and we spent an extended period of time wandering the relatively small but open plan galleries. Both Mary and I particularly enjoyed the exhibition of husband-and-wife artists Pauline Burbridge and Charlie Poulsen. We immersed ourselves in the artworks and lost track of time... as we encountered the art in three distinct phases:

  • slow wandering around the exhibition as we let our intuition guide us as we were drawn different pieces,
  • a sort of inquisitive "deep dive" as we read the prose attached to the exhibitions and watched a couple of videos where the artists describe their works, process and intents,
  • a recapitulation as we explore the exhibition one final time now that we're more familiar with the pieces, the artists and the story being told.
A fragment from a Charlie Poulsen piece.
A fragment from a Charlie Poulsen piece.

This was a wonderful state of mind to inhabit and we both wished there had been more of this to explore and encounter.

Having put us both in a thoughtful mood, and given the glorious weather, Mary suggested we go visit Bodnant garden to continue our pensive strolling. Since we had the car and we felt like touring through North Wales, we instructed the sat-nav and slowly wound our way to our destination.

We were not disappointed.

Bodnant gardens.
Bodnant gardens.

We found ourselves in a large and varied garden containing an abundance of benches on which we could both sit, look, listen and soak up our surroundings. I think my favourite aspect of the gardens were the woods containing paths and shallow brooks and many different sorts of tree and woodland life.

As with the art gallery, our slow meandering meant we encountered and re-encountered aspects of the garden in a manner that encouraged a slow and thoughtful attention to all the ways the garden stimulated our senses: the colourful floral displays, smell of pine, sound of running water or warmth of the sun touching our faces.

Bodnant gardens terraces.
Bodnant gardens terraces.

In the evening we found ourselves staying at a community run inn that was holding a quiz night. After an early dinner we joined the locals and had a friendly evening answering questions about such diverse topics as the game of Cluedo, Elton John's back catalogue, the plural noun for crows (it's a "murder" of crows, in case you're wondering), and other out of the way trivia. The quiz was both taken seriously, yet in a spirit of silliness, as many of the locals made humorous commentary of the emerging themes in the questions.

Once again, our modus operandi of chatting with locals and improvising on the spur of the moment led us to something fun.

Our penultimate day started with the realisation that it was our penultimate day. So, we decided to make use of the car and go visit the seaside, since that was the only type of terrain we'd not yet visited during our break. We chose to head towards Porthmadoc since it would mean driving through the beautiful Welsh mountain range called Snowdonia.

The journey was, indeed a sight to behold as we made our way to the coast, yet upon our arrival at Porthmadoc we both felt underwhelmed by the place. Wondering what our options might be, and in the spirit of improvisation, we spotted a castle on the coastline in the distance and pointed the car in that general direction only to pick up signs for Harlech Castle.

Harlech castle.
Harlech castle.

This well preserved ruin is an imposing sight so we imagined it would be very busy with tourists, due to its prominence. Yet the village was relatively empty and we easily got into the castle.

Not only was the castle an amazing sight, but the views from it were magnificent as we were able to take in a full panorama from the Irish sea to the mountains of Snowdonia.

The view of Snowdonia from Harlech.
The view of Snowdonia from Harlech.

Because of its good state of repair, it was possible to explore many different parts of the castle. For instance, we walked up and down spiral staircases to get to the battlements and then to the very highest tower. I'm OK with heights but Mary (and several others) found the drop from the walls rather intimidating and so we didn't spend that long up there. Luckily it was a bright sunny day with little wind to speak of, otherwise I imagine the reaction of folks might be very different.

Walking the castle walls of Harlech.
Walking the castle walls of Harlech.

As we were having our lunch we noticed a cameraman and several people faffing about and talking about "positioning", "shots" and "delivery". One of them, a lady in sunglasses, spotted us watching the events unfold and came over to explain what was going on.

It turned out she and her colleague were professional story tellers specialising in Welsh legends (particularly, the Mabinogion), and were at Harlech to tell stories in both English and beginner level Welsh, to help keep this beautifully musical language alive. The UK's ITV news had turned up to do a short feature on their work and were just filming a talking head segment in front of the castle before filming the actual story telling in the castle.

We didn't realise such bardic activity was going on, but both of us love listening to a well told yarn, so quickly finished our lunch and headed back over the bridge into the castle.

Inside we found perhaps a hundred people sitting on benches, low walls and the grass as our bespectacled friend started to tell us a story. I won't describe stories she and her colleague told. Rather, I heartily encourage you to seek out such folk and let them cast their magic. In our case, as they told their tales in Harlech, the story tellers embodied and communicated the worlds they described in a way that only an oral story teller can. The best special effects happen as part of the story seen inside one's head, the interaction between the story teller and their audience adds an extra dimension of connectivity to the telling of tales that our screen laden world often lacks and, ultimately, our stories are just that... connections between ourselves that deeply and fundamentally move and speak to us through distances of time and space.

Here's the video segment broadcast by ITV, it is but a shadow cast by the brilliance of their story telling:

We must have spent hours in the castle, since we both mentioned exploring the village of Harlech at the same time. Almost immediately we discovered a small ice cream shop, selling home made produce made earlier in the day. This was some of the best ice cream either of us have ever tasted, and the owner explained how she hand made the produce fresh each day. Clearly this woman had a passion for ice cream, and we could taste it in abundance.

Mary, with her amazing ice cream.
Mary, with her amazing ice cream.

Just around the corner was an knick-knack shop in which I found a piano. On the music stand was Debussy's Clair de Lune (which I know), so I rattled it off, after finding a very convenient candelabra to help free up a hand.

Nicholas on the piano, but where is his ice cream?
Nicholas on the piano, but where is his ice cream?

It was lovely to play after more than a week away, and I even got a round of applause!

Upon leaving Harlech we decided to take the long and winding road over the mountains of Snowdonia, just to take in the views and make space for enjoying a slow and gently winding journey together.


On the morning of our final day (today), we finished the last of many full breakfasts and set off for Prestatyn to conclude our walk.

The sign to Chepstow.
The sign to Chepstow.

Little did we realise, almost a fortnight ago, how different our adventure along Offa's Dyke would be, compared to what we had imagined or prepared for. We certainly enjoyed walking the first third of the trail (almost 60 miles), and we both reflected that the injuries and improvised change to a touring holiday had taught us a lesson: go with the flow, and unexpected change is to be embraced and welcomed if you're going to make something of it.

The stone marking the end of Offa's Dyke.
The stone marking the end of Offa's Dyke.

In the end, as I write this back at home in Towcester, both Mary and I feel glad to have returned after our journey together. We're especially looking forward to seeing our children again and giving them gifts we found on our way.

But I think this won't be the last time Mary and I do this.

We've had too much fun not to do it again.

The two of us, at the end of our adventure.
The two of us, at the end of our adventure.


by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-21 14:40


Paul Fawkesley

A tweak to increase blood stocks & improve donor experience

A suggestion to NHS Blood and Transplant management from a blood donor of 17 years, a hypothesis on increasing blood stocks, and an approach to start testing it right now.

Who the heck am I?

First off, I’m not a health professional and I have no experience running something as huge as the NHS Blood and Transfusion Service.

However, I have been donating blood for 17 years, recently hitting 50 donations, so I’m probably an “expert” when it comes to donating.

I’m an efficiency and user experience nerd, having worked on digital transformations at NHS Alpha, GOV.UK, Co-op Digital and more.

Blood stocks are low

I was told at my donation that stocks are extremely low. I see from the website that there currently are 4-5 days of stocks for certain blood groups, against a target of 6 days.

I presume there are several levers for increasing stocks, such as:

  1. recruiting new donors
  2. encouraging “lapsed” donors to come back
  3. maximising / optimising the frequency that regular donors attend

This suggestion is concerned with 3.

How booking used to work

I give blood every 12 weeks. I donate at a dedicated donor centre. That’s a building that’s permanently set up for donation, rather than a van that sets up in church halls, schools and so on.

I usually donate at the same time of the week, on the same day. That’s extremely easy to plan around as it’s a habit and there’s nothing to think about each time.

Pre-COVID, I’d attend the session, do my donation, have a cup of tea and a biscuit, then get up to go.

On the way out, I’d ask the front desk to book me in for next time. I’d open my calendar on my phone and we’d negotiate. It was extremely efficient because:

  • They already have my details: I’m “authenticated” already.

  • Everyone needs an appointment in either 12 or 16 weeks, so the reception person can keep the diary open on the right day (OK 2 days).

  • They can suggest the same time of day. They were fast at finding lunchtime appointments across different days, if exactly 12 weeks wasn’t available.

I estimate this occupied the staff for approximately 1 minute, possibly 2 as an absolute maximum.

As a result, I used to donate every 12 weeks like clockwork.

Now I can’t book at the front desk

In recent years, I’ve tried to book as I’ve left and been told (apologetically) that I have to book online or on the phone.

OK, that was slightly irritating because it disrupted something that was working well, but not a huge drama. I left and got on with my life…

And forgot all about it. The habit was broken. Two months later, I was wondering if a donation was coming up, and I realised I never booked one.

By that time, the only slots available at the donor centre were sixteen weeks from my previous donation. That’s four weeks where I was eligible but unable to donate.

Putting the burden onto the user also puts the onus on them

By shifting the burden of remembering to book onto me, it also put the responsibility on me.

I’m an organised person, but life’s full of competing demands. Remembering to book a blood appointment is not at the top of my list.

Booking online had other problems

The next time I donated, I tried to form a new habit.

After donating, I was sitting in the recovery bit, sipping my squash (Aside: tea and coffee went away and still hasn’t come back “because COVID”. Seriously.)

I thought, ah-ha, what a great time to book my next appointment! So I logged into the website on my phone, no bother.

But alas, the website didn’t realise I’d already donated. It wouldn’t let me look for another appointment.

So once again I failed to make an appointment at the desk, walked out, and forgot all about it.

Once again, I couldn’t get an appointment at 12 weeks after my previous donation.

Sometimes appointments aren’t created in time

The next time - yesterday - I actually set myself an alarm for the next day. I logged in, and was told my blood donor centre was “fully booked”.

So I phoned the number, went through the whole security thing, and was told that the diary hadn’t been released yet for July (12 weeks away.)


How this impacts blood stocks

I used to donate every 12 weeks, pretty much on the dot.

Now, it seems if I don’t book a repeat appointment ASAP, I can’t get one at 12 weeks after the last one.

The change in policy where I can’t book at the desk has led to my donation period increasing from 12 to probably 14 weeks.

Let’s extrapolate a bit: let’s assume I’m not the only one.

Let’s assume that this change of policy added 1 week on average to some chunk of regular donors’ period.

If that could be reversed, Every donor that can be “optimised” from 13 weeks to 12 weeks equals 8% more blood donated. That’s a lot!

It’s kind of obvious: donate more often, give more blood.

But perhaps less obvious is the effect of booking user experience on a donor’s average donation frequency.

Hypothesis, and what I propose


Disallowing repeat bookings on the front desk at a donation centre leads to an measurable decrease in donation frequency.

And, secondarily:

The effect is significant enough to outweigh the additional time taken by front desk staff.

Disagree? Great! Let’s put our opinions aside and run an A/B test!

A simple way to A/B test the hypothesis

OK, “simple” insofar as anything is simple inside the NHS.

Here’s an approach:

  1. Pick a bunch of donor centres and identify regular donors.
  2. Take a snapshot of the donation frequency for those donors.
  3. Tell half of the donor centres to allow / encourage booking a repeat appointment before donors leave.
  4. After 12 months, compare the donation frequencies in the A and B groups (doing some stats to adjust for any inherent differences visible in step 2.)

User experience matters

The overall experience at my local donor centre is excellent. This is due mostly to the warm, chatty and efficient staff.

The user experience of booking an appointment is inconsistent. Sometimes it’s perfect, sometimes it’s just frustrating.

That has knock-on effects too: I’m less able to recruit new donors as I know they’re going to have an awkward time. (Anecdata: two people I nearly recruited dropped off because they couldn’t find an appointment close to mine.)

User experience matters! Reduce friction, make it simple, make it automatic.

Feedback welcome

I’ve made a few assumptions and I’m not privy to real data. If you’ve got some more insight, I’d love to hear from you.

Also, I have an idea for a microservice to help recruit new donors. If you’re interested, let’s chat!

by Paul Fawkesley at 2022-04-20 01:00


Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Days 7, 8 and 9:

Since we are supposed to be on a walking holiday, Mary and I decided to try out a shorter walk, and one with which we were familiar, on day 7. We were in Mary's part of the world (the beautiful Shropshire hills) and so we found ourselves driving to Stiperstones.

The two of us walking along the ridge at Stiperstones.
The two of us on the ridge at Stiperstones.

We arrived relatively early in the morning and easily found a parking space, gingerly put on our boots and started to make our ascent. Given we were both injured in some sense (me with my blisters and Mary with her knee) we went at a slow and steady pace.

An outcrop at Stiperstones.
An outcrop at Stiperstones.

Once at the top of the ridge (one of the highest points in Shropshire), the outcrops of quartzite rock make obvious waypoints for hiking. We found several folks bouldering on the rock formations and paused to watch them and take in the glorious views and drink in the fresh clear air.

Conditions underfoot at Stiperstones.
Very poor conditions under foot at Stiperstones.

Conditions underfoot on many parts of the ridge are not good, and it's easy to go over on one's ankle or painfully stub a toe.

Our slowness was thus more compounded by both the injuries and rough-shod rocks strewn all over the paths. Yet we made progress and walked the full extent of the ridge in glorious sunshine and accompanied by larks chirruping away:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;

The Lark Ascending ~ George Meredith

All told we walked almost five miles:

In the afternoon we visited the small town of Bishop's Castle, having heard the high street contained a number of book shops and a Poetry Pharmacy, which sounded like it was just what we needed.

Bishop's Castle high street.
The high street at Bishop's Castle - including a poetry pharmacy.

In the end we spent most of our time in the wonderful House on Crutches Museum where I was able to examine some of the old brass instruments from the former town band (not in a good state), and learn all about local Morris dancing troupes.

The poetry pharmacy was another highlight, although I was unable to find anything to read that suited my mood. Perhaps, given that I usually have my nose in a book, this holiday is also a holiday from reading.

In the evening we stayed near Welshpool and found evidence of the local knitting circle's guerilla Easter decoration operation:

Easter knitting in Welshpool.
Easter knitting in Welshpool.

The next day started with a drive to lake Vyrnwy (you pronounce it, "ver-in-wee"). The lake is man-made and to reach the car park involves crossing this rather imposing dam.

The dam at Lake Vyrnwy.
The imposing dam at Lake Vyrnwy.

We timed our arrival perfectly since the car park was empty and hardly anyone appeared to be around.

We decided to walk around the lake until we found a quiet beach on which we could sit, relax and simply ponder the world. It can't have taken more than 20 minutes to find such an isolated spot, and we spent over two hours just chatting, relaxing or throwing skimmers into the lake.

Over the course of the morning we were joined by various passers-by: a young family, a Polish couple with their daughter, a group of students. Everyone was friendly and happy to be by the lakeside and the opportunity for moments of reflection that it offered.

Lake Vyrnwy.
Lake Vyrnwy.

On our walk back to the car we appeared to meet a bank holiday weekend tour for the "young fellers with souped-up cars" motoring club. The sound of noisy exhausts, the look of go-faster stripes and the thinness of sports tyres (clearly, for country roads) were much in evidence. A massive traffic jam was also in evidence as the posse (what is the correct plural noun?) of young men in souped up cars, took on the overweight hairy bikers and caravan owners in a three way battle for the junction leading to the dam. It wasn't a pretty sight as helpful bikers attempted to direct the traffic, only to be ignored by one of the other tribes (in the end, the old fellers just stood in the way of the traffic to control the flow). Well, done to the hairy bikers for their public service!

We took our time getting back to the car, not wishing to be involved in the traffic chaos, but in the end the blockages had been cleared and the route to the dam was clear.

We ended up driving to our overnight rest stop at Llanymynech and spent some time exploring the remains of the lime industry in the area. This included a lovely walk in some woods reclaiming the area used for processing and delivering treated lime into barges on the Shropshire Union canal. Among the thickets we found a huge abandoned lime kiln.

Lime kilns in Llanymynech.
Lime kilns in Llanymynech.

Today started with a trip to Chirk Castle.

As members of the National Trust we got in for free and spent the morning wandering the amazing gardens and grounds.

Chirk Castle.
Chirk Castle.

The gardens ranged from managed woodland to formal gardens with statues and topiary.

Chirk gardens.
Chirk gardens.

Inside the castle were displays depicting different aspects of the castle's history, including the dungeon, the clockwork for the clock tower, the servant's hall and a collection of knight's helmets. These final items made me smile, as each helmet appears to bear a different expression, much like a medieval metal emoji.

A selection of knight's helmets.
A selection of knight's helmets.

In the afternoon we visited the town of Llangollen. It being bank holiday Monday, the small town was heaving with visitors (like us) and the tourist traps were doing a swift trade.

A highlight was watching canoeists tackle the Dee river running through the town (they had hung slalom gates over the river). This led us to the railway station, run by volunteer enthusiasts, and we ended up escaping the scrum of tourists by taking a trip up the valley in an open train to the village of Berwyn.

The river Dee at Llangollen.
The river Dee at Llangollen.

As we enter the final stretch of our holiday, we're both starting to feel like all this relaxing and touring is quite tiring. It means our holiday has done its job: we're looking forward to throwing ourselves back into our usual day to day routines.


by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-18 18:00


Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Day 6:

Yesterday was our first proper "touring" day, and we made the most of our relative (but not actual) closeness to Machynlleth to visit the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) - an inspiring organisation that specialises in sustainable living.

When we first visited CAT back in 1995, it turned out to be a perfect day both of us fondly remember. We have returned several times since and enjoyed watching the site, educational work and influence of the CAT organisation flourish and grow.

As someone fascinated with technology (and I'll informally define that as, crafting the world through creativity and coherent invention to better engage and interact with it to some valuable aim or benefit), the "alternative" part of the CAT name has always appealed to me.

I'm a software engineer, a job most folks imagine is at the heart of "new" or "hi"-tech. Yet I, and many of my colleagues, will tell you that "new" and "hi"-tech is not necessarily the same as "good". The focus on "alternative" appeals to the engineer in me: it means I'm not constrained to frame my thinking via the tired stereotypes found in our culture.

A good example of what I mean is the first thing you see upon arrival at CAT, a water powered funicular railway.

Arrival at the Centre for Alternative Technology involves ascending a mountain in a water powered funicular railway.
Arrival at the Centre for Alternative Technology involves ascending a mountain in a water powered funicular railway.

Clearly there is a lot of technology going on here, but it's not a computing "tech" mode of transport like a Segway or self-driving car. If you understand simple physics, it's easy to figure out how it works. That it runs on water, an abundant resource in rainy Wales, means the energy cost of running the system is very small and doesn't involve polluting the environment (rather, it complements and integrates the ambient environmental conditions).

The lake at the top of the railway is the source of the water.
The lake at the top of the railway is the source of the water.

I like this enlarged view of technology, beyond just the thing being imagined or a "tech" mode of creation.

Sustainability, impact and the life-cycle of the "tech" is carefully considered. This is a very different approach to "smaller, faster, cheaper" gizmos and apps inflicted upon "consumers", created and made with a development process based on the mantra of "move fast and break things", whose aim is to maximise shareholder profit. Put simply, there is a philosophical aspect to tech that is, in my experience, often missing or actively discouraged in "tech" culture.

And so, we chose to take part in the guided tour because we wanted to see and hear about the centre from our guide: someone intimate with the ethos and practicalities of such an enlarged outlook to technology.

Despite being semi-regular visitors over the past 27 years or more, both Mary and I learned so much from our guide, Joel, who patiently fielded questions and engaged our group both with the story of CAT and the various things found therein (such as modular Segal method buildings, or the diverse number of energy solutions, such as the hydroelectric generator shown below).

The hydroelectric generator.
The flow of water from the top lake to the lake used by the railway drives the hydroelectric generator.

CAT is a very stimulating and eye-opening place, with much of the location taken over with practical educational projects that both illustrate and explain the many aspects of "alternative" technology.

As a teacher, I enjoyed their approach to engaging with folks wishing to learn. Rather than a "how to use" video or documentation that fills your head with facts, we were left to experiment and engage directly with "alternative" tech. For instance, the wind-powered seat (shown below), beautifully illustrated how little wind is needed to achieve some useful end (in this case, lift and lower a person).

A wind powered chair that moves up and down.
A wind powered chair gently moves the occupant up and down.

What you don't see in this photograph of me sitting on the chair, is the relatively small windmill attached by a pulley system to the seat. I have to say this was a pleasantly gentle and rather fun way to prove a point.

Architecture is also an important aspect of CAT, with many of the buildings demonstrating interesting approaches to creating space for living, working and enjoying life. Often unusual but sustainably sourced materials are used (straw bale, or rammed earth for instance) and those aspects of the building are thoughtfully brought to visitor's attention.

CAT is also a thriving educational organisation and, while we were wandering the site, we noticed groups of students learning about "alternative" technology in buildings built with such technology, created by the folks running the educational programme.

I rather like the directness of this approach. If I were a student looking to engage with these things, who wouldn't want to learn in such a way?

The sustainably built conference and education centre.
The sustainably designed and built conference and education centre.

Finally, CAT isn't just about "alternative" tech, but also contains information about alternative uses of "traditional" tech. For instance, as a space-nut, I was fascinated by their interactive display on using small earth observation satellites to gather data and monitor changes in the landscape. Space bound technology is no longer just the preserve of large governmental agencies like NASA, and the open data received can be put to all sorts of interesting and important uses.

A small earth observation satellite.
A small earth observation satellite.

If you're ever in mid-Wales, I heartily recommend CAT. Mary and I have always had thought provoking visits. Clearly CAT won't appeal to everyone, but nobody can ignore their hard work to promote a much needed different perspective... an alternative vision of "technology".

by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-16 07:30


Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Days 3, 4 and 5:

Our meal at the end of day 2 was lots of fun. As we walked into the pub we met again the lady who had found Mary's phone on day 1, struck up a conversation, and she joined us for a sociable evening of chatter over rustic grub. It turned out Caroline was a teacher and so we had a fine old time going over teacher talk. We shared classroom based triumphs and tragedies and the usual moans and gripes about the state of the education "system" that all teachers appear to share.

The next morning, as expected, it was raining and the country was covered in low rolling mist. Nevertheless we set off in good spirits and determined to climb up onto the ridge for the views.

Little did we know how different our situation would be by the end of the day.

Walking towards the Black Mountains.
Walking towards the Black Mountains, in the rain.

After a couple of relatively swift miles tramping the rolling countryside to Pandy, we started to ascend the edge of the Black Mountains. Since we were laden with all our clobber this took a while: but our mantra was "slow and steady does it". We could have stomped up, like I usually do, but we decided to save ourselves for the 15 miles of walking over the ridge we would need to complete to get us to Hay-on-Wye by the end of the day.

The first sight to greet us upon completing our ascent was an ancient hill fort from pre-Roman times. Even after 2500-3000 years, the dykes and ditches that marked the boundaries of the fort were an imposing site, especially as they loomed ominously out of the mist.

The ramparts of a 2500 year old hill fort.
The ramparts of a 2500 year old hill fort.

And so, it was at this point, we resigned ourselves to the fact that the weather would be against us for the day. There would be no beautiful views over mountains or down into valleys for us. In fact, we could only see about 20 metres ahead of ourselves. Fortunately the path for the Offa's Dyke trail was obvious, so we just had to trudge on (and on, and on).

It's hard to remain motivated when all around you is freezing fog. There's no sense of progress and it's impossible to look back to see how far you've come, or look ahead to a marker in the distance as a target to aim for. Yet sometimes we would pass way-points that marked the tops of peaks, and this photo, taken perhaps just before lunchtime, is a good indication of our conditions.

Wet conditions on the ridge.
Wet conditions on the ridge.

We also felt quite alone: by lunch we hadn't met a soul. Yet we were not the only ones tramping the hills that day. Huge piles of steaming dung alerted us to the presence of others, just out of sight.

And then suddenly, we came upon the group of wild horses grazing the grass. They took a look at us, pondered for a few seconds why on earth two humans would be up there with them, and then returned to the more pressing task of grazing again.

Wild horses.
Wild horses.

At some point mid-afternoon the conditions under-foot became much more boggy and the path turned into a set of paving slabs. We joked that Offa must have sourced them from the local garden centre...

Offa's paving slabs.
Offa's paving slabs.

...but we were thankful that they helped us avoid tramping through the black peaty mud. Perhaps this is how the mountains got their "black" name?

We also started to realise that not all was well for either of us.

My feet and ankles ached and while Mary found it comfortable to walk up hills, and over the levels, descending was very painful because of her right knee. This got gradually worse throughout the day, to the point that it couldn't be ignored, and we started to talk about what we might do about the situation.

As you can see from this photo, we were determined to put a brave face on things but I think we both realised things were not going as they should (we're no longer spring chickens!).

Drying off for an afternoon snack.
Drying off for an afternoon snack.

Then, around mid-afternoon we met the first people of the day. Two fellow walkers appeared out of the mist towards us, and we shared some encouraging words. Yet just as we were commenting how deserted the ridge was, a young man came from the same direction as us at a fast pace. He stopped to say a quick "hello" only to realise his small back-pack had come undone. He checked his things (nothing missing), re-adjusted his equipment and stomped off in the direction of Hay -- a momentary mist-clad apparition accelerating into fog. We parted company with the other couple and wished them well, only to encounter a group of Duke of Edinburgh participants (in the UK we have something called the "Duke of Edinburgh Award" for teenagers, that encourages them to explore and encounter nature and outward bound activities). We helped them with some map reading and then, gazelle like, off they sprang into the mist leaving us to ponder our ever slowing pace and the fact that, like London buses, we had met nobody all day only for three different parties to turn up within minutes of each other.

The mist lifted, and we could see the way down into the valley.
The mist lifted, and we could see the way down into the valley.

As we got to the end of the ridge, the mist lifted and we were able to finally see some views. Yet these were not to last since we had to make our descent, and it was here that things got very tricky.

My poor Mary had to endure intolerable pain in her knee as we made our way down the side of the mountain towards Hay-on-Wye. The first of several steep descents should have only taken us perhaps 20 minutes but, in fact, took an hour. We had several more descents to go until we reached our destination.

Yet we spied a line of cars parked in the distance, and this proved to be our way out of the difficult and painful situation.

It was clear the final couple of miles to Hay were all down hill with difficult conditions under foot. My feet were a constant source of a dull ache, and if I stopped walking the pain would become strong and resuming the walk took lots of effort. Mary was clearly in a lot of pain with her knee, and so our journey was no longer the happy, if tiring, adventure we had enjoyed up until this point.

As we approached the parked cars I tried a few local taxi companies, but nobody picked up.

Thinking we may need to just press on, I spotted one of the cars was occupied. I tapped on the window to find a man of a similar age to ourselves inside. He told me he was there just to enjoy the view and to get out of the house for a while. I explained our situation and he very kindly offered to drop us off in Hay.

What a relief.

Except, he suddenly remembered, "by the way, I have COVID".

He had driven to the beauty spot just to get out of the house since he had been isolating for the past few days.

We had a quick (socially distanced) chat about the potential logistics of the situation and worked out a way for us to get a lift, but with him masked up with the addition of a scarf around the lower part of his face, and us sitting away from him with all the windows of the car open.

I have to admit, we made the right decision because our speed due to the knee situation was at a snail's pace and it would have taken several hours to cover the final two miles into town.

In the end, we had a fun chat with Carl (our impromptu driver) and I think he enjoyed the sense of adventure the situation presented. We were deposited right outside our guest house in Hay, got to our room and collapsed into the shower.

After a couple of hours of rest we had stiffened up.

I examined my feet and found they were covered in blisters and Mary's knee was, to use her words, "shot to pieces".

It was clear that our journey to walk Offa's Dyke was coming to an end and we both felt sad and deeply frustrated by the situation. As Mary put it, "I feel fine from the right knee up", and I was also in fine fettle from the ankles up.

Yet we could not continue given our different ailments.

And so, we decided to change plan.

Over dinner in the Blue Boar Inn (excellent food and beer), we worked out what to do next. We'd booked places to stay along our route, and we certainly didn't want to abandon our holiday, yet we clearly couldn't walk to the extent that we would need to, and it was clear our current situation required us to rest and recover before attempting any further distance by foot.

In the end we decided to transform our holiday from a "by foot" affair to a touring holiday with a car on hand, which leads us to day 4's adventures.

We booked a taxi to pick us up at 9am the next morning and take us to Hereford station. From there we took a train to Shrewsbury and another short taxi hop to the village where Mary grew up, her parent's house, and the place where we'd parked our car.

The journey was uneventful, the highlight being the local taxi driver from Hay-on-Wye.

Within seconds of picking us up he had asked us about our reason for being in the place and Mary reciprocated by asking what living in such a beautiful place as Hay-on-Wye was like.

"Well", he ruefully started, "there's us, and then there's them."

Knowing he had a captive audience for at least the next 45 minutes, he went on to explain that Hay-on-Wye has a highly stratified population. By "us" he meant those born and bred in the place scraping a living via a few relatively menial jobs. By "them" he meant, "city folk who sell up, move here and lord it all over the place like they're millionaires". This included the owners of various "lifestyle" shops, coffee houses in the town, and artisanal crafty places.

We hadn't seen that much of Hay-on-Wye so didn't have any evidence to check his appraisal of the situation. We were sympathetic to his cause and he was clearly enjoying putting the world to rights. As he dropped us off he even commented that he'd had a jolly old time getting things off his chest. Clearly, we were good (captive) listeners.

Once we picked up our car, we made our way back into Wales and our place of rest for the next night: Kington. During the journey we realised we were passing close by the village where Mary's widowed aunt (who we hadn't seen since before the pandemic) had settled with her new partner. We called ahead and made arrangements to drop our stuff off in Kington before joining our relative for a lovely meal and evening of catching up. It was lovely to see she was so settled and happy with her new partner.

This morning, after a good night's sleep and a lovely relaxed breakfast we decided to drive back to Hay-on-Wye and look around... with both of us being avid readers, the thought of all the book shops, for which Hay is so famous, was a real draw.

Yet, within minutes of our arrival we could see yesterday's taxi driver was onto something.

Hay-on-Wye was clearly a beautiful place, but had transmogrified into a sort of unintentional parody of itself. We found shops full of pointless crap, new age treatment centres that gave the place a smell of cheap incense, and a faux farmer's market full of "artisans" selling yet more nick-nak crap (there wasn't an actual farmer in sight).

Mary's knee was also playing up again.

Despite our very gentle pace we ended up in the chemist's shop to buy a knee support to try to help with the pain. After following directions to the local public toilets (so Mary could put on the strap under her trousers), our poor opinion of Hay-on-Wye was cemented by finding the cost of taking a pee was 30 pence.

Our experience of Hay is that it's a tourist trap of the worst kind, with no actual investment in the local community. Just scratching the surface indicated that most activities involved extracting money from naive visitors with no sustainable local economy to speak of.

We quickly escaped Hay-on-Wye and decided to follow our noses to Hergest Croft gardens. On the way Mary called the UK's 111 service (our NHS's first point of contact for non-emergency medical situations). A callback with a physiotherapy nurse was duly arranged, and we subsequently found ourselves walking in some magnificent spring gardens.

The house in Hergest Croft gardens.
The house in Hergest Croft gardens.

There are over 70 acres of different types of garden at Hergest Croft, and the house had a wonderful cafe full of vegetarian food. Our slow and steady wandering through this place was just the antidote we needed to the plastic pastoral fakery of Hay-on-Wye and the travails of the previous days walking.

Spring flowers.
Spring flowers.

Whilst exploring the rhubarb patch in the kitchen gardens the phone rang again and Mary found a park bench to talk to the friendly nurse tasked with triaging her knee.

In the kitchen garden.
In the kitchen garden.

To cut a long story short, I'm currently typing this in the waiting area of Llandrindod Wells hospital's minor injuries unit while Mary is being seen by a physiotherapy nurse. All told, it has taken around three hours from Mary's first contact to her receiving treatment for her knee.

Minor injuries.
Waiting in the minor injuries unit at Llandrindod Wells hospital.

We'll check into this evening's rest-stop and find a good pub for this evening's meal. Tomorrow will be another day of gentle poddling andante con spirito.

Just like real life, our Offa's Dyke journey is turning up all sorts of unforeseen and challenging situations... yet Mary and I continue to support and encourage each other as we improvise and adapt to an unforeseen touring holiday.

My feet are feeling fine today, so perhaps -- assuming the nurse doesn't tell Mary she needs a new knee (highly unlikely) -- we'll even get some more walking in before we've finished.

A few hours later, in our B'n'B for the evening: After a series of tests, it turns out that Mary's knee is not permanently injured, but just over-worked, bruised and thus complaining. The nurse told her she needs to rest it for the next three days or so, while still keeping it moving so it doesn't stiffen up.

After that, I guess we'll be playing it all by ear when it comes to rambling Offa's Dyke (of which we've already walked almost 60 miles in three days).

I get the feeling we're not done yet.



by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-14 18:20


Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Day 2:

Music is a gift and it's a privilege to listen to highly skilled and engaging musicians. We wondered what sort of music might be on at the Queen's Head Inn yesterday evening, and we were pleasantly surprised by the quality, versatility and mellow tones of the unnamed guitarist shown below.

He played a selection of classic pop music, some of his own compositions and plenty of folk music. At the end he was joined by two others, a mandolin player (a mandolinian?) and a soprano saxophonist (who confirmed that the only difference between a lawn mower and a saxophone, is the fingering). Actually, joking aside, the sax player was quite virtuosic. ;-)

Music night at the Queen's Head Inn, Monmouth.
Music night at the Queen's Head Inn, Monmouth.

We had an unplanned and unexpectedly lovely evening just sitting back and letting someone else perform a set of toe tapping music in such a friendly and warm atmosphere (the locals were all pleased to make our acquaintance).

After a continental breakfast, at which Neil gave us advice about the next pub at which to eat (and his advice about yesterday evening's Italian restaurant was spot on), we packed our bags and headed for the high street to stock up on picnic supplies. As a result, we were relatively late setting off from Monmouth at 9:30am.

Clearly, we arrived yesterday by the more welcoming direction of travel. Because, here's a photo of the Welsh facing gate house / toll booth / fortified bridge out of which Mary and I left the town.

Leaving Monmouth via the gate house bridge.
Leaving Monmouth via the gate house bridge.

A few miles out of Monmouth were some wooded hills. This, I thought to myself, would be a repeat of yesterday's wonderful forest walking: at the foot of the hill I heard a woodpecker and the birds were singing fortissimo con animato. Here's a recording of the ambient sounds of the woods at the foot of the hills... including the odd tapping noise of the distant woodpecker.

I also took this photo immediately after making the audio recording and have decided to name this place "woodpecker grove".

The grove in the woods with the woodpecker.
The woodpecker grove.

However, the hills took a sharp turn in an upwards direction (as hills are wont to do). It's not so much that the hills were huge, it was just that conditions under foot were very bad and the path was exceptionally steep. Also, at this point early in the walk, my boots and ankles had a disagreement and I'm afraid I suffered the painful consequences. Honestly, how Mary put up with the constant irritated chuntering coming from my direction, like the sound of a grumpy steam locomotive, I will never know. But she did, and I was glad she did, because that steep incline was a struggle for all the wrong reasons.

Yet, despite the pain, difficulty under foot and exceptional effort needed to climb up the steep inclines, we eventually reached the top... as Mary kept insisting we would.

We met a family resting on the bench, who made encouraging sounds about it being downhill all the way out of the forest from this point on. We suspected they were being generous with their encouragement, especially given all the "bloody backpack" type comments coming from my direction.

This was not, actually, the first time we had encouragement on our walk. Yesterday evening, just as we were walking over the welcoming, less fortified bridge into Monmouth, a woman drove past, wound down her window and shouted at Mary, "you go girl!". At that point in the day, Mary probably had a grim look of determination on her face as the hotel was in sight.

In any case, our downward route was a mixed experience. Mary's knees decided to complain, yet we found ourselves surrounded by flowers, the forest and the sounds of nature. Mary's knees also encouraged us to make many stops to make a closer examination of the flora and fauna we might see. This common dog violet being a prime example of Mary's knees' keen interest in nature.

Flowers in the woods.
Flowers in the woods (a common dog violet).

After the ups and downs (literally) of exploring the wooded hills, we felt we deserved elevenses. And so, once we found a suitable spot (perching on a bridge over a stream) we soon made short work of some banana Soreen bars.

Elevenses, sitting on a bridge over a stream.
Elevenses, sitting on a bridge over a stream.

Suitably fuelled up, we pressed on over the rolling countryside (or, as Neil at the Queen's Head described it, gently undulating farmland) and made good progress. Especially now that I had intervened in the argument between my boots and ankles. A quick examination of the lacing situation caused me to reconsider my options. I realised that the boots were simply too helpful in offering unneeded support for my ankles. So I just ignored a bunch of hooks on my boots, that seemed to be causing my discomfort, much to the relief of my ankles.

Our lunchtime picnic was in the middle of a wonderfully tranquil orchard. We sat down, took off our boots and just let ourselves relax into the grass. It was lovely.

Lunch time orchard.
The orchard in which we had our lunch.

Getting up a head of steam after lunch took a bit of time, but we managed it. We also encountered some hills that were less inclined to incline, if you see what I mean. Actually, they were not too much of a challenge to walk and I, true to form, fell into my habit of stomping allegro con brio up such hills as I found my rhythm. Mary has had to deal with such an enthusiastic response to hills for over 25 years, and can usually be found a little way behind me insisting that I slow down and take in the views, dammit.

This photo, is a case in point:

When I see a hill, I tend to stomp my way up it, and Mary is VERY patient with me.

Once again, we lamented the various aches and pains we were coming to know and love. For both of us, mid-afternoon, these took the form of the first, dreaded, blisters. Yet we pushed on through, despite an enforced detour due to an unsafe bridge that took us off the Offa's Dyke route. This took us through several flocks of unamused sheep and lambs. Mary reckons we added at least another couple of miles to our (14.5 mile) route. I think that's the blisters talking!

Eventually, we rejoined the route and could see our destination ahead with tomorrow's challenge, the Brecon Beacons, on the horizon. It was at this point we realised there had only been four kissing gates on today's route.

Looking over the rolling countryside to the Brecon Beacons.
Looking over the rolling countryside to the Brecon Beacons (tomorrow's challenge).

This evening, we have a meal booked at a recommended pub. In fact, it's the only damn pub for miles and miles. Let's see if they've even heard of vegetarians in this part of Wales.

Tomorrow will be a challenging day. It's going to rain, both of us have blisters, and it's going to be tough walking up and over the Black Mountains towards Hay on Wye.

Even the name sounds ominous... surely the Black Mountains belong in Mordor..?

Mary put a positive spin on things: at least we get to try out our new waterproof trousers.



by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-11 20:50


Nicholas Tollervey

Offa's Dyke - Day 1:

As mentioned in the previous blog post, we want to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in style. Mary suggested we walk Offa's Dyke and I only went ahead and actually booked it all for a twelve day hike. You see, as a devoted husband, I do as I am told!

To say we've been looking forward to this with some trepidation is an understatement. Since early January we've been doing several long practice walks to ensure our equipment behaves, we understand how to pace ourselves and feel what long (20 mile or more) walks feel like.

And today, the moment came for us to start our walk.

We arrived by train at Chepstow, and booked into a guest house called, appropriately enough, The First Hurdle. It happened to have an award winning pizza parlour attached to it, so that was our evening meal sorted. Afterwards we looked at the map and realised that we'd be walking the first mile or so to the starting stone, only to have to retrace our steps to within a short distance of the guest house. Given that day 1 was also the longest day by quite some distance (19.5 miles) we thought we'd give ourselves a head start and walk the first mile in the evening, thus saving us some time in the morning. And so, as the dusk was falling, we trekked south from Chepstow to the starting stone.

The stone in Chepstow, that marks the official start of the Offa's Dyke walk.
The stone in Chepstow, that marks the official start of the Offa's Dyke walk.

We were very excited to find the stone, look across the Severn estuary and take in that we were taking our first steps together on a very very long journey. This was just as we had done so (metaphorically speaking) all those years ago on the day of our wedding.

Proof we made the start.
Mary and I besides the starting stone.

In the morning, we were met at breakfast with a full English (vegetarian) and lots of coffee. That seemed to do the trick and put the fire in our bellies. The helpful waitress took this photo of us, just as we were about to set off.

Setting off from The First Hurdle.
Setting off from The First Hurdle.

Yes dear reader, independently of each other we have purchased pretty much the same GorTex jackets and trousers. We definitely look like the middle aged "Mr. and Mrs." that we so clearly and unwittingly are. :-)

I have on my phone an Ordinance Survey app into which I can load pre-planned GPX files that define our route. I created our GPX routes back in January (based upon the official "Offa's Dyke" guide - sadly Offa is no longer with us to sign such books), and careful testing during our training sessions showed the Ordinance Survey app was the clear winner for ease of use and simplicity.

However, we could have saved ourselves the trouble: a squirrel like ranger, with a love of acorns had clearly marked our route at every turn. Actually, because the Offa's Dyke route is designated a National Trail (and there are several of these in the UK) an acorn logo is used to tell you you're on such a long distance footpath, administered and maintained by Natural England and Natural Resources Wales.

Follow the acorn logo to stay on route.
Follow the acorn logo to stay on the route.

Another unexpectedly common feature of our walk was the large number of kissing gates. I always thought they were so named because, if you were walking with someone, the tradition when passing through such gates, was to share a kiss. I've just looked at the Wikipedia page (linked to above), and it appears I was wrong.


The name comes from the gate merely "kissing" (touching) the inside of the enclosure.

We counted 34 such gates, and we kissed at each one. I'm not going to tell Mary that we've got our "kissing gate" story wrong, just to see if she actually reads this blog post..! I think our reason is far better, and certainly more appropriate given our 25th wedding anniversary. :-)

Lots of kissing gates.
The route contained lots of kissing gates (34 on today's leg, we tried them all).

The weather was wonderful. We had a crisp April day that was full of sunshine, but not unbearable heat. Conditions under foot were good and we were treated to all sorts of wonderful moments where we allowed ourselves to be in nature.

We mostly walked three types of terrain: wood, hills and river banks. I think my favourite was the woodland walking (perhaps because I'm originally from Sherwood Forest).

We were treated to all sorts of sensory stimulation: the smell of wild garlic, the fresh April breeze, the sound of the river Wye along whose banks we walked, and, of course, a lot of birdsong. I made this recording in the woods at the top of the cliffs that overlook Tintern.

Talking of Tintern... for much of the walk we were following in the august footsteps of William Wordsworth, who wrote Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. — Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.

Here we are, a few miles above Tintern Abbey.

We tramped the steep and lofty cliff, saw plots of cottage ground in the villages below, and carefully found our way through woods and copses as we travelled over the wild green landscape.

The two of us at the top of the cliff above Tintern Abbey (in the background).
The two of us at the top of the cliff above Tintern Abbey (in the background).

As we descended into Brockweir we started having thoughts of food. Sadly, there wasn't the hoped for pub, cafe or other means of nourishment. Brockweir hasn't a lot going for it apart from the beautiful river Wye and the scenery more than made up for the lack of food and drink!

It was as we walked north along the river bank that today's "incident" took place. At some point, and we're not sure where or how, Mary dropped her mobile phone. We had got about 2 miles north of Brockweir when Mary discovered it was missing. At this point we put on the hand-brake, did a swift 180° turn and stomped in completely the wrong direction while regularly phoning Mary's missing mobile to no avail. After perhaps 1.5 miles the phone was answered by a friendly lady.

To ensure I was easily identified as the husband of the owner of the phone, I described myself as, "a middle age chap, wearing a TUBA t-shirt, with a heavy backpack and staff".

She replied that she was heading north.

At this point, I could see a lady in the distance talking on a phone. So I mentioned I was furiously waving my staff above my head and she replied,

"Oh yes, I see you. I'll be there in 5 minutes."

Happily, Mary was reunited with her phone, but not after adding 3 miles to our total for the day.

I wish I could say this was the only incident on day 1.

But, our naivete about the culinary qualities of Brockweir meant we didn't have anywhere to grab lunch. As a result, we drank all our water (which was rather concerning) and cracked open the emergency supply of chocolate Easter eggs. (Just writing this down, makes me feel stupid, dear reader.) And so the last few miles into Redbrook were more of a struggle than they should have been given our empty tummies and the onset of thirst.

Yet, as with our journey through life, we both enjoyed ourselves during the good times (for instance, walking in the woods), and supported and encouraged each other when faced with a challenge. I can happily report both Mary and I, on different occasions, helped the other overcome their moaning. ;-)

Here's Mary, descending into Redbrook with Monmouth in the distance.

Into the Wye valley and Monmouth.
Into the Wye valley and on towards Monmouth.

Happily, Redbrook had a pub.

Unhappily, we were too late for food.

However, I think I consumed the world's best pint of bitter and packet of salt and vinegar crisps whilst in that drinking establishment... or at least, that's how it felt, and after 20 minutes of resting and enjoying our repast, we creaked back into gear for the final push to Monmouth.

When we arrived at the Queen's Head Inn we were cheerfully greeted by Neil, the publican, who made us feel very welcome and recommended a fantastic Italian restaurant for our evening meal. I'm not sure what the waiters made of us, but I think we set some sort of speed-of-eating record in their restaurant, because we woofed down some amazing, fresh and locally sourced Italian cuisine.

As I write this post, below us we hear live music from the bar, and Mary and I will soon descend for a final drink, and listen to the music for a while before a well deserved sleep.

Finally, here's a map of the route we covered today. We're not quite sure how far we actually walked, given the unplanned repeat of the river walk, but we think we managed somewhere north of 22 miles.

Tomorrow we head to Llangattock Lingoed, which is, as far as we can tell, completely in the middle of nowhere. As a result, we've spied a good bakery in Monmouth and will stock up with picnic provisions for tomorrow and the day after (which will end in Hay-on-Wye).

Onwards! :-)


by Nicholas H.Tollervey at 2022-04-10 20:30


Albert Wenger

Ishmael (Book Review)

Recently someone tweeted at me that I should read Ishmael by David Quinn in response to a piece I posted about the need for unlimited growth in a finite world. Well I have read it and now find myself wondering if people endorsing it, including Jack Dorsey, have spend much time thinking about it. 

The book consists mostly of a dialogue between a teacher (an astute and telepathic gorilla) and a student (a somewhat befuddled human who slowly learns how to see the world as desired by his teacher). The short summary of the core insight is that humans have two cultural narratives: “takers” and “leavers.” Leavers are the (mostly) hunter gatherer cultures who believe that “man belongs to the world” and takers are the agrarian cultures that believe “the world belongs to man.” The book venerates leaver cultures and despises taker cultures.

Now before launching into a criticism, there are two arguments in Ishmael that I agree with. First, culture is an incredibly powerful force that deeply shapes our behavior, while simultaneously being essentially invisible to us. This is of course much like in the old joke where the wise fish meets the young fish and asks “how are you enjoying the water today” to which they reply “what is water?” Second, the current dominant cultural narrative, the one Quinn refers to as takers, is broken in important ways and needs to be replaced.

The idea though that leaver culture is a viable replacement is, however, just as deeply flawed. Ishmael is full of both internal contradictions as well as inconsistencies with what we can observe in the world. Ultimately the book is a combination of elegantly phrased ideas with a profound lack of intellectual rigor. As the author admits in the foreword, he had taken several prior cracks at the same material, often running at way more pages, before arriving at the current condensation. I believe the chosen format is no accident, as it allows kitting over the inconsistencies much more easily (hey, it’s just a novel).

So let me point out a few of the biggest problems. First, there is a claim that evolution is good per se or even the will of the gods and that takers are bad because they have removed themselves from evolution. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of some of the utter horrors that evolution has produced would likely disagree with this. Consider for example species that take over and zombify other species for reproduction. There is no morality built into evolution and it doesn’t somehow magically produce self sustaining outcomes or necessarily continue to ever higher complexity. It is also useful to point out that the humans of the taker cultures are themselves a product of evolution, which is an internal contradiction of the premise that evolution produces only longterm good outcomes.

Second, there is the parenthetical remark in the book that leaver cultures can go on forever subject to environmental conditions. It is extraordinary to me that this receives zero subsequent treatment in the book. Of course there have been multiple mass extinction events on Earth before the current human caused one. Should we simply ignore our knowledge of the deep history of Earth? This is particularly ironic in a book that makes the argument that taker culture is myopic because it only consider the time since the invention of agriculture to be history. Ishmael makes the same mistake by going back only to the beginning of humanity but ignoring all the history of our planet before that. 

Third, there is absolutely no comment at all on how we could broadly adopt a leaver culture, without killing off billions of people. There is a weak aside on how it is possible to have an agrarian leaver culture but that’s not pursued further — there are, however, several remarks on how leavers abandoned agriculture and went back to foraging. Instead, the comment that really stands out is how it is OK in leaver cultures for droughts to result in human starvation. In fact being OK with people starving due to insufficient food is held up as central to leaver culture (according to the book). So how many people are we prepared to let starve? To get to anything that would seem remotely sustainable with the type of mental and cultural model the book promotes, the answer would have to be in the billions. Anybody who seriously wants to argue for a return to leaver culture should spell out this number to at least be intellectually honest.

Now to be clear: I believe we are in fact on track to kill billions of humans because taker culture is so far vastly underinvesting in the fight against the climate crisis. So yes, we absolutely need an alternative narrative, to which end I propose a new humanism. We can act responsibly towards ourselves and toward other species in ways that don’t require killing or starving billions of humans. We can achieve peak population in a gentle fashion and then shrink from there. This is another big mistake in Ishmael which claims that more food will always lead to population growth, but this is not born out by the data. Ishmael tries to get around this by pointing to population growth in Africa. For that argument to make sense though it needs to assume that Africa will not be subject to the pattern of fertility decline that has taken place everywhere else where the standard of living has gone up, infant mortality has declined, and women’s educational attainment has increased.

With my book The World After Capital, I have started to develop this alternative humanist narrative that embraces the potential for progress, while also firmly insisting on human responsibility.

If you are interested in helping develop such a humanist narrative, I would love to hear from you.

by Albert Wenger at 2022-04-08 16:44