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It’s time for a musical interlude. Not knowing what to expect, and at the behest of friends whose obsessions, like mine, intersect literature, nerdiness and everything musical, Michelle and I attended the UK filk convention last month.

Filk music eludes accurate description. It’s more of a mindset than a genre. Over a weekend steeped in its world, trying to identify what it is and why it exists, we were hurtled through a fairground of musical styles, and pondered the nature of people who keep filk alive.

Originally a misspelling of ‘folk’, filk assimilates as many interests and personalities as it’s able to touch. Practitioners are united by common loves that include music, beer and wordplay. An outsider art, performed by people who know they’re outsiders and don’t care, filk music was once rooted in English and American folk idioms, but today it ventures farther.

Fundamental to filk culture is the concept of the circle, a gathering where anything from four to thirty people elect just to listen, or to take it in turns to play music to one another. A democracy of nominating and volunteering evolves; listeners at once become backing singers or instrumentalists, trading songs and sharing harmonies. Fresh material is revealed, and shy newcomers are heard and honed. These circles sustain themselves through the night, pouring forth music and holding court until breakfast.

Starting in 1987, the annual convention now resembles a family reunion, but its atmosphere remains one of unconditional support and appreciation. Music is treated seriously enough for huge stores of material to be composed and practised over the year, but personal eccentricities are taken for granted. The quality of songwriting and professionalism varies hugely. A few hesitant bars of ukulele scraped from a chord chart by a novice may introduce a song performed by a professional chorister.

No matter what its influences, though, this remains folk art simply because it is not mainstream. Filk is weird, but the longer you stare at a subculture, the weirder it always seems. There are plenty of examples from the recent past: modern opera; psychedelic rock; disco; the New Romantics of the Eighties. As soon as they enter the mainstream, they seem less barmy. Rap music is a pertinent example. The self-aggrandising misogyny, violence and materialism that characterises much of rap is at once a billboard and a sticking plaster. Regardless of the salary earned, nothing is masculine about improvising rhyming couplets against a recorded drumbeat. For all the firearms and swagger, The Notorious B.I.G. was basically Percy Shelley, but with less privileged parents.

Where was I? Yes, filkers are absurd, but no more so than anybody else. Knowing this, they lovingly poke fun at most of the things they embrace. Songwriters may be science-fiction and fantasy enthusiasts, or irascible folkies belting out nasal renditions of protest songs in the Dorian mode. They may just as easily draw influence from the news, musical theatre, the Great American Songbook, or a trashy video box-set. Nothing is too cherished or too tacky for assimilation.

Much of the craft is in the performance, so filk music is best caught live. We beheld, for example, a marvellous arrangement of a Tweet about the theft of a Catholic relic, rendered as a doleful sea shanty. It was strongly reminiscent of Ivor Cutler. Another group shoehorned the theme of raising an adolescent boy into a Pete Seeger song (‘Where has all the Kleenex gone? Gone into the teenager’s room.’)

A novelty song about a German immigrant struggling to learn the delicate art of English understatement won a prize, as did a poignant ballad about what becomes of superheroes when they age. Given a room and time slot of her own, someone set the back-story of a computer game to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. There’s a lot of effort in arranging, rehearsing and performing such a work, but considerable patience is demanded of an audience to bear the hour-long punchline. The jokes are not always apparent to a newcomer: with many hours of such programming, one can overdose on filk.

Would I recommend it? Only to some. Subcultures are subcultures because they don’t set out to please everybody. You have to be a geek, a good musician, or a collector of cultural curios to be a filker: preferably all three. Would I go back to the convention? Yes. I admire it for the same reason I enjoy my walks through Hackney: there’s so much of the Earth’s flavour crammed into such a small space, bumping together, that sparks of inspiration are cast in all directions. Most of these sparks do nothing useful, but occasionally there’s a glimpse of something transcendental.

I have been left with strong but abstract inspiration. Art always plunders art, and artists fall into spirals of self-regard in a frenzy for inspiration. Filk can do this too, but that doesn’t diminish it. What I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t matter what you’re into. Hang around and listen. No matter how impoverished or dirty or incomplete your contribution, add it to the world. Catch enough sparks and you’ll make some of your own. Who knows: you too could be Percy Shelley, but with less privileged parents.

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Last week, I looked at parks. I continue the ‘free Hackney’ theme this week, turning my attention (mostly) indoors.

Ridley Road Market: Opposite Dalston Kingsland station lies another Dalston. Ridley Road Market is some half a mile long. Barrows run down the middle, and the shops on either side are essentially open-fronted cubicles. The last terrifying, blotchy Cockneys shout from their stalls, while first- and second-generation immigrants browse and patter amid the salted cod, bootlegged music, and strange, strange vegetables. A cluster of North African butchers display an astonishing magnitude of slaughter, garnering their windows with plucked poultry still replete with heads and claws. Pallid lower legs of goats and cows teeter stickily on trestle tables outside, foretelling bowl after bowl of marrowy, greasy soup.

Easily the most enticing wares are the towers of plastic bowls filled with cheap fruit and vegetables, in one case stacked six feet tall. The familiar leitmotifs of a British market are, of course, in evidence too: tatty clothes; chunky jewellery; the guy who cracks phones. There’s a bored-looking lady who appears to be playing Patience with the underwear she sells, arranging it lovingly in three fanned columns, and preciously straightened over her trestle table.

Hackney Museum: The council’s museum is aimed principally, but not entirely, at children. It chronicles Hackney’s history as a Saxon village, then a town, then a part of the Greater London sprawl. In this century, wave after wave of immigration has changed whole quarters of Hackney before dispersing, assimilating, or being bombed into oblivion. All have left their bric-a-brac in the museum, and there’s too much to cover in one review. A Yiddish printing press that stopped turning a century ago asks questions that Jews and poor immigrants still ask today, about Communism and Zionism and charity and life back in Eastern Europe. The arrival of war is symbolised by a static display with a gas mask, enamelware, and a cutaway diagram of the V-2 rocket. Bombs hit Hackney particularly hard, and the scars they left are still evident in Dalston.

Arguably, the slum clearances after the war damaged Hackney as much as the Nazis. The utopian planners who filled Hackney with high-rise communities lived to see their shiny vision fall to pieces, and could only cringe as their buildings were dynamited. We are still playing the high-altitude game all over London of course, but the tower blocks of tomorrow have never seen a Socialist. Commissioned by investment fund managers and bought by private landlords, they are inhabited by the nouveau riche. These new visionaries really understand human psychology, and the recent story of Hackney is, in large part, written by them.

This might be why a cute replica of a 1990 squat is particularly memorable. The Thatcher-excoriating decor and grubby domesticity might intimidate a school child, but its nostalgic comforts are almost romantic to anybody who remembers the demise of the Cold War or the Poll Tax Riots. The world may have seemed cruel and elitist then, but squatters would find fewer sympathisers in Parliament today. They’d be back on the street before their Blu Tac hit the wall.

Dalston Library: Hackney Council’s haphazardly-curated birdcage of the muses illustrates why libraries across the country are quietly closing forever. A walk through the maze-like shelves prompts questions that start ‘Is it just me … ?’ After some time, the Dewey Decimal shelves yields A-level textbooks, spin-off publications from faded TV celebrities about how to paint your house and sell it at a profit, and less fathomable choices of subject matter that (with a few exceptions) add a pitifully sparse garnish to the gestalt of human endeavour.

The Kingsland Road Oxfam Shop is both more coherent and more interesting, while the Internet promises a cheap lifetime of second-hand reading. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend a visit to the library. If only because you’ll have to tell your grandchildren one day why we sold it to Costa Coffee.

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Winter is a bad time to visit a park. The benches wring with rainwater, the grass suffers and squelches, and the wind howls through bare branches and sears skin. But parks are free at any time of year, and they can sometimes beat sitting around the office in a pool of existential angst.

I could have reviewed cafes instead. There are more of these in a five-minute radius than I could visit in a forty-year career, and they’re warm and generally friendly. But they’re not free and what they’re selling is fundamentally the same.

So, over the last two weeks, I have attempted to visit every significant park lying within a two-mile walk of the office, and condense my sojourns into miniature reviews.

Here’s the map for those who aren’t local.

Stonebridge Gardens: Crammed between two roads and the Overground, from its all-weather pitch to Snake Park, it’s already a friend of ours. All Hackney parks are a variation upon the same theme. It is a silent bastion of photosynthesis amid tomorrow’s slums, crawling skywards around it and threatening a perpetual dusk. It may not be beautiful, but Stonebridge Gardens will always be ours.

London Fields: An unremarkable patchwork of flat, boggy grass. The best thing about London Fields is making the pilgrimage. Reach it via Regent’s canal and its council housing projects, then up Broadway Market to see what happens to a neighbourhood when the hipsters declare victory. Return to HQ via Middleton Road, just because it’s preternaturally straight and will make you feel like an aeroplane.

Haggerston Park: The entrance is a gap in a twenty-foot brick wall that would better grace a prison. Once formal in design, it’s now looked after about as well as any other park in Hackney: competently, but without imagination. The windbreak is a shelter on the park side, and makes it possible to linger in winter. Its public toilets have very suggestive and angry notices on them from Hackney Council and are, of course, always closed.

De Beauvoir Square: Handy for the office, and very genteel. In Summer, it would be a handsome alternative to the ROLI sofa.

Fassett Square: The archetype for EastEnders’ Albert Square. Its garden is now crowded with sculpture and exotic plants, and not necessarily open for trespass. The houses that surround it are freshly painted and pretty, its Cockney patter replaced with public school cadences, while its fictional twin has been allowed to decay in mock authenticity.

Rosemary Gardens: I passed this. It looks inviting on Street View, but foreboding in January. Rosemary Gardens borders one of the prettier parts of the canal, and Southgate Road, which isn’t the prettiest part of anywhere. About fifteen minutes from HQ, it deserves a more considered visit when the weather improves.

Victoria Park: Even with a full hour, it’s a struggle to reach Victoria Park’s perimeter and return to the office in time. I wanted to explore it more fully, and ended up getting lost and returning at about half past two. It’s the only London park within walking distance that wouldn’t shame London’s other great parks. There’s a duck pond, formal pavements, and a miniature pagoda. What more could you want? If I’d timed trains instead of walking, a return to Hackney Wick would have allowed a more leisurely exploration.

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As you’re possibly reading this because you’re bored of the Yuletide festivities and the wall-to-wall children’s TV, I’m taking advantage of your compromised boredom threshold, and tackling a subject that will take me about twice as many words as usual.

It’s Christmas, and Seaboard hasn’t shipped yet. Somewhat happily, the reason behind this isn’t our fault: a supplier made a catastrophic error of judgement that has cost us a month, and these things happen. Fortunately, it won’t kill us. In fact, it gives us time to do a bit more testing. But the road to delivery is seldom smooth, and the more you’re innovating, the more violently it undulates.

Experience improves foresight. What ROLI has ended up doing is what, upon reflection, we might have done all along. The Seaboard is currently a brilliant controller with a small ecosystem of third-party software synths that play really nicely with it, and that’s what our first customers will get. What we’ve had to postpone is our own synthesiser. Seaboard is supposed to make its own sounds: just switch it on, plug in headphones, and perform. Now we’ll be providing that later, as a free upgrade.

Our synthesiser runs (users: ‘will run’) on its own microprocessor inside Seaboard. There are another couple of chips that take care of getting the playing surface and Sound Dial to work, so making sounds is pretty much all that this microprocessor has to do.

Now, remember that we’re a startup, and what startups do best is schmoozing like mad and building a community, seeding goodwill, and making people stop in their tracks to smile and gaze in wonder at the smart execution of a brilliant idea. What we can’t do is pretend we’re Microsoft (or even Native Instruments). We’re terrible at working on several fronts at once, and even our talented brigade of red-eyed, caffeinated programmers cannot successfully produce a minimum viable product that is neither minimal nor technically viable.

This article isn’t going to be a reflection on what’s pushed us into this manoeuvre so late. That will come when things aren’t so sensitive. What it will describe is one of the larger and more interesting bumps on our road to delivery. ROLI used a lot of open source software in order to speed up the design of the synthesiser. This got us started quickly, enabling non-specialists to make huge contributions, but it turned out to be a mixed blessing in the long run. Perhaps using free software didn’t save us time or money after all.

Open source software is software that is written by somebody you didn’t pay, that is distributed for free under fairly generous conditions. There are many good reasons why people write open source software. Books have been written on this subject, so it’s beyond the scope of this article.

The two main lumps of open source software we used are Linux and JUCE. Linux is the world’s largest open source project: a complete operating system into which volunteers have poured cumulative lifetimes of work so that it can do pretty much anything. To many coders, it is a work of unsurpassable beauty. Its progenitor, Linus Torvalds, has not made a penny from selling it, but does very nicely out of lecture tours.

JUCE is a series of utilities that provide graphics, audio, and control capabilities in such a way that a program written in C++ can simultaneously run on Linux, Mac OS, or Microsoft Windows. Jules Storer put ten years of work into this and it’s remarkable. He makes money from it when people commercialise projects that contain JUCE.

Let’s consider JUCE first, as it’s simpler. Using JUCE, our synthesiser can run in a window on Mac OS, on Linux, or on Microsoft Windows, and also inside Seaboard. Four separate products are therefore one lump of code: we fix a bug or add a feature on one, and it’s fixed everywhere. Here’s the catch, though: managing a cross-platform project (as it’s called) is easier than managing four separate ones but, even with JUCE, a great deal harder than managing code for one platform. There are a lot of reasons for this:

  1. It remains possible to write code that is fine on one system but stops with errors on another. In practice, every time the code changes, every platform has to be retested.
  2. The chip we’re compiling onto inside the Seaboard is very, very different from the Intel Core chips inside Macs and PCs. It’s also our most important target. Every time we change code, the embedded build (the code that runs on Seaboard) requires special attention.
  3. There are no graphics on Seaboard, so we’ve had to do some work to make sure that no vestige of the graphical stuff finds its way there.
  4. Every time our files are changed or reorganised, each computer’s compiler instructions need to change too. JUCE provides a way of automating this, but we still need to hack it manually.

The second reason has given us the greatest headache. We’ve had to rewrite large tranches of the synthesiser to get it to perform acceptably as a standalone musical instrument, and have needed to have some external expertise to help us do this. We’ve also needed to automate builds for Seaboard. Our engineers work and audition their code on Macs. To allow them to keep working, an external computer automatically takes the code they’ve written, builds it for Seaboard, runs some elementary tests (does it crash?) and checks that these tests pass. The programmer can check that it still compiles, and download the latest build to test on a Seaboard once they’re ready. Time taken to get this build system working: about a week. Open-source software helped us to get it going, or it might have taken a month.

Jules has kindly made a no-graphics version of JUCE, and we’ve helped him in turn by putting considerable work into optimising JUCE for our little Cortex-A8 chip. This may seem like a small detail, but there were a lot of people waiting for it: Seaboard and Raspberry Pi share the Cortex-A8 as a microprocessor, so we’ve also optimised for the world’s best-selling project board. ROLI also opened the books on the special control protocol that Seaboard uses to communicate with its own synthesiser. Why MIDI is no good for this is a posting in itself.

That’s JUCE; now Linux. Linux contains millions of lines of code, comprising things such as the Unix command line and ‘make’ that are their own little environments; the bootloader that starts Linux requires learning yet another language. The kernel has its own tools to build correctly, once the compiler has been set up properly: it’s compilers within compilers within compilers.

Linux has been under development for over twenty years. That’s an unusually long journey in software terms, and consequently it takes hours and hours to gain proficiency in just using it, let alone extending it. Very few people are experts in many parts of Linux, but the advantages of using it are that it’s been widely tested, has ways of adding any feature you can imagine, and is comparatively very quick to get started. These are very big advantages. Writing an OS from scratch is hard, and the whole point of Linux is that nobody should ever have to again. The problems with Linux, though, are the inconsistency of documentation and the lack of an easy way in. A build of Linux that works on our little chip isn’t the same as the thing that runs on a PC. To get it working, even with people who knew what they were doing, took days. When we wanted to make the chip work with raw data inside the Seaboard, we had to write a driver that required knowledge of the innermost workings of Linux and the chip itself: a very arcane combination of skills that took a while to find.

So, for the first time in ages, I’m attempting to collaborate on something at which I am a novice, and have little chance of substantially improving my knowledge on my own. I’ve had to accept my ignorance and trust my team: those who built this structure know, and will always know, more than I do. Meanwhile, we’ve paid host to a horde of consultants specialising in:

  • Setting up the right flavour of Linux with the right features;
  • Getting the Linux kernel compiling on our embedded system;
  • Getting JUCE compiling on our embedded system;
  • Writing drivers to massage our raw incoming data and outgoing audio;
  • Making the USB output work reliably;
  • Optimising the C++ compiler, and then the synthesiser code, for the Cortex-A8.

This has all been in addition to Jules’s work for us. Most of the rest we’ve done ourselves. So, a considerable team of consultants has been hired, for a few days at a time. Many of these clever and expensive people have been needed just to help us with ostensibly ‘free’ software, and many were delayed or floored by having to grasp the complexity of our cross-platform code base.

What do we have to show for it? We have a reasonably good software synthesiser that runs on four platforms. However, it’s questionable whether this has contributed any more to the appeal of Seaboard than would writing two separate and far smaller programs: a dedicated synthesiser for the Cortex-A8 only, and a MIDI remote control in JUCE that would tell it what to do. There may yet be long-term strategic value in our cross-platform endeavour, but we cannot realise it until after we’ve got the work to an acceptable quality, and shipped it inside a Seaboard.

Linux running on Seaboard makes certain things (such as debugging and managing the on-board sample library) easier for our engineers. Currently, though, it provides no advantage to the user, and actually means that Seaboard takes longer to start up than it otherwise would.

In fact, we might have avoided the cross-platform chimera altogether by not running an operating system at all. Most stand-alone synthesisers don’t run one: the only benefits they bring are better debugging and a decent file system. But in paring down, we would have sacrificed or delayed the Mac and PC builds of our synthesiser, and made it harder for our programmers to test and iterate their work. This might have created other problems.

Lessons so far, only some of which I already knew:

  1. The best software is no software. The fewer things your first product does, the better it will do them.
  2. Remember Hofstadter’s Law: ‘It always takes longer than you think, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.’ Engineers are optimists: they must be or they couldn’t turn up to work. There are always distractions, extra tools to build, bottlenecks and impasses in a project that cannot be fully anticipated. If a project is fundamentally innovative, multiply engineers’ resourcing estimates by about 4; otherwise, it depends on the engineer, but the average is about 2.
  3. Basing your technology on free software is not a panacaea, but a technically subtle decision. It can end up costing more, or causing people to overpromise. The ramifications of a decision either way are potentially ruinous. Research licensing costs. Get the most experienced practitioner you can afford to inform the final decision based on expected implementation time and technical difficulty. Ignore all commercial pressures and trust their advice, or there’s no point in paying for it.
  4. Use Agile, because it is designed to get the simplest software out as quickly as possible.
  5. Employ a product manager to prevent stakeholders, be they testers, product specialists, or the CEO, from adding features once work has started and a milestone has been agreed.

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Every couple of years, the University of Surrey honours me by inviting me back to talk to students for an hour about what I do for a living. I’m made to feel so welcome that I barely know where to put myself, and I will be presenting my fourth such talk on Tuesday afternoon.

As I get older, and my career changes, my ability to connect where I am today to where I started slackens, as does any connection between the undergraduate course I was taught and what today’s students must learn. Many of this year’s undergraduates were born the same year that I first strolled onto campus.

Although it doesn’t feel like it, I’m conscious of the fact that I’m now of a different generation, and my talk plan is becoming more reflective and somewhat generalised.

In case they help, here are echoes from previous talks I’ve given, that I wrote for Focusrite’s blog.

How to get into software engineering, Part 1
How to get into software engineering, Part 2

Finally, because he’s the only acoustics lecturer I’ve ever heard of who was also a self-made billionaire, I feel obliged to post the late Dr. Amar Bose here. In the last six minutes (from 54:10), he sums up everything I would want to tell a University student about starting their career.

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