Knit your own head tracker

As we all know, Knitwear is an anagram of IT wanker. But a friend of mine, of the former rather than the latter persuasion, has made it her mission to master industrial knitting. The appeal of this seems to be that it is equal parts art, programming, production engineering, and swearing at machinery that contains tiny moving parts which require regular maintenance. This is all eerily familiar. I am about to showcase two of her masterworks.

The first is a head tracker. It’s 20:1 scale (about 5 inches wide, and four metres long) and is based on Supperware’s flex-rigid printed circuit board.

See how far you can zoom in to the home-made mosaic image. Banana for scale.

It’s a scarf!

It’s a banner for the support group we put together to keep the product in production!

It’s a perfect centrepiece for a very specific seasonal feast!

If you want a head tracker scarf, we’ll sell them. Really! (If you want one that isn’t a scarf, go to our other site.)

The second thing that needs a special mention, although it gets one in a soon-to-be-published ADC21 talk for which I wore it with pride, is T-shirt with a pocket. The pocket encapsulates my golden rule about starting a hardware business, and subverts an omnipresent brand in the process.

We mean it.

Here at Supperware Ltd, we embrace the hypocrisy of embedding a warning not to manufacture objects into a manufactured object. It’s our thing. Our daily exercise — mine, yours, and all healthy people — is to shrug and contemplate the absurdity of the human condition.

ADC 2021 Lightning Talk : Isn’t it nice to be back?

I don’t flinch from controversy. The subject of today’s talk is: Isn’t it nice to be back?

I’ve tried to distil something from the last couple of years. Not the easiest time to run a conference, and definitely not the best time to start an electronics company based in England.

There must be, I think, a way to examine our shared adventures over the last two years that ends ADC on a high. Some kind of three-act structure that mixes two pertinent themes, and leaves us with a positive feeling about where we’re heading.

Yeah. I haven’t worked harder for five minutes of material in my life. 

Act I

We have every reason to be happy to work in audio. This is self-evident. The world will continue to be short of engineers long after it no longer matters to us. If we weren’t happy, we’d be sitting in a different office. Generally, most places that need our brains outside audio offer more money, nicer weather, and fewer of those customers with grand delusions and landmine detonators on their foreheads.

What, then, keeps us happy? Near the top of the tree is our resemblance to the entertainment industry that feeds us. We are driven by the same dreams. We and music-makers are united by a long apprenticeship, a deep love of the art, and a lifelong pursuit of self-set and ever-changing ideals. This in spite of the fact that we know how music is produced, and by whom.

Yesterday’s professional rivals are today’s stablemates, and will be tomorrow’s rivals again. The sense of community and shared destiny at these events is intoxicating. And, I must say, exhausting: who knew that social fitness was a thing? Or that I could get so out of shape in less than two years?

But our community is big enough that rivalries are real. It is good ethical practice to encrypt your firmware so that others aren’t led into temptation. It is folly to leave a valuable trademark unattended if you’ve ever used it. You must in all endeavours clap your hands and pretend to believe in money, or you won’t be taken seriously. We still must keep our own tribes defended, for some Music Tribes are led by bastards.

The unresolving forces of cooperation and competition are the most effective engine of creation that we have. In my experience, the best agent to bring these forces together is not venture capital. Nor is it any form of political system. It’s probably conferences like these, that force our little gangs to appreciate one another.

That and alcohol.

My most satisfying moments in engineering and commerce can be traced back to happenstance: the side-channel conversations we go to conferences to create. Sometimes they can send one weeping back to the drawing board. But some colleagues once formed a temporary alliance with a competitors to make our platforms compatible, which threw us a lifeline and reflected well on them. In another job, we fixed a messy problem by giving the community some work for free, and it wasn’t bad to start with, so they improved it for us. We ended up owning a de facto standard.

Not meeting in person has dulled these channels: we’ve been left entrenched in slo-mo since 2019 because the online world isn’t set up so much to build bridges as to dig moats, and control who gets in.

Act 2

I found a problem with my talk yesterday, ‘How to make hardware without losing your shirt.’ In its title is an implication that we can make watertight assumptions about what we’ll achieve before we set out to do something.

We have no idea how successful any mission will be. We can’t control or mitigate as much as we think. There are catastrophes we cannot predict every few years that create accidental winners and losers, and these won’t get easier as the planet gets hotter.

But it gets worse. Not only can we not control a complex world; we can barely measure it. Learning any lessons, let alone the right ones, involves turning an amorphous sea of inputs into an engaging story we can understand. The success or failure we feel, learn from and talk about doesn’t come from data, but whatever story we let the data tell us.

And how could that possibly misfire?

Act 3.

Did I lose money making head trackers? Of course I did: I launched in February 2020 with no sales or distribution channels. The world shut down before I could establish any, and we’re halfway through a two-year hiatus where I can’t physically manufacture any more.

Is it a failure? Well, the correct answer is that it’s my product and my company, and it’s a huge success, so shut up.

The story I’ll tell myself about my product for the next year is that it’s been rather like writing a textbook. Now, those who need to know and care about my work at least know about it. They can benefit from it, and tell me where it’s not right.

Will it turn into anything more? I hope so: no idea.

God, what a cop-out! Imagine being this Panglossian fool, sitting pompously on this stage going, ‘Oh, look at me! Everything resolves to a qualified success! Every voyage is a golden adventure into the unknown! What a wonderful profession; aren’t we so lucky?’

… Achievement has several opposites, and I’ve shared a meeting room with most of them. One opposite of achievement is squinting into a crystal ball.

Predictions can’t be falsified and don’t last, but principles can and do. This year’s first is never to gamble so much that you can’t give the wheel another spin. The second is to take risks in the first place. Embrace imposter syndrome, because it means you’re in a place where you might be challenged, rewarded, and appreciated.

Luck is partly skill, and most of the rest is rotten. Failure is most likely not to be your fault, because the counterexample is Roland and he isn’t here tonight.

And if your luck doesn’t improve, you’ll just get up again. No matter how badly things sometimes go in the recesses of our industry, keep at it, because the data tells me that you’re bloody loving it.

Passover 5781

Here’s something a little different from my usual subject matter: an attempt at some Jewish philosophy. Posted here by request.

This is our second year of video seders. While we’re enjoying religious freedom but our ability to move around and meet each other is curtailed, it seems fit to talk about freedom as one of the big themes of Pesach.

The first chapter of Exodus is a masterpiece of compact narration: a despot uses a spurious pretext to divide his nation and enslave a group of people in just six verses. Two more verses describe the unchanging scenery of oppression: cruel guards, demeaning labour, and the casual repression of what we would now call liberties.

This happens in a historical context when slavery is a part of life: it’s how a country would exploit its power. There is no mention of a struggle, because a conquest of people may be achieved by attrition instead of war. To modern readers, this too looks familiar.

The Hebrew word for ‘free’, chofshi, is used to express the dream of nationhood in the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. But it doesn’t get its first Biblical mention until Deuteronomy 15, concerning the liberation of slaves in the seventh year. Incidentally, the other expression we use in the seder, ‘free men’ (b’nei chorin) doesn’t appear in the Bible at all.

We are bound by laws concerning slavery that allowed us to participate — albeit in a way that our contemporaries, who maintained permanent slave castes, would not have recognised. Incidentally, the commandments relating to the seventh year serve as an ancient precaution against unchecked accumulation of wealth and debt, and of the abuse that follows. As the Israelites both acknowledged this eternal problem and presented an early mitigation strategy, we should not be surprised that Jews ended up taking the blame for both Capitalism and Communism.

Moses was not asking for absolute freedom for his people, but for permission for them to take a holiday to acknowledge a better master. In fact, the concept of absolute freedom has no meaning in our philosophy. Pharaoh, we are told, was given the strength to make his decision freely but, in the very next verse [Exodus 7:4], his answer is predicted before he utters it himself. A question clearly arises from this: if somebody is given an apparently free choice but their answer is assumed to be inevitable, is it actually a free choice? Modern philosophy will tell you that chaos is a cost of freedom: if you are truly free to choose, your decision, and humanity en masse, will be unpredictable. But the Plagues are seen to our commentators as an inevitable demonstration of supremacy, intended to be seen by every participant in the Exodus story. We express pity; our rabbis debate adding plagues in the Haggadah; but our text does not contemplate that some might have been subtracted.

The word avodim: avodim chayyinu — ‘we were slaves’, is always translated as slaves in this context, but simply means labourers. The work carried out in the Temple by priests is called avodah: the same word repurposed as a verb. Freedom in our religion was, and still is, the chance to bypass as much human bureaucracy, corruption, and tyranny as possible, and work directly for our boss’s boss. The inexorable power struggles play out over the next three books of the Bible: the Golden Calf, Yithro, Korach, Moses and the rock … Israelites are called a stiff-necked people with good reason. A redeemed slave has many reasons to distrust Moses and Aaron’s mediation even while witnessing God’s intercession on their behalf.

At the root of Judaism, then, is a philosophy of choosing your master, and living with the consequences. You might, for reasons of your own, elect to become a slave. Jewish law will let you, but only for a time. You may enslave yourself to your passions or to wealth, but we are warned of the many ways in which this will go badly. And when we live within any nation, however it values liberty, we are urged to pray for its peace and welfare, and to adopt their laws as closely as we keep our own: we must wear two yokes of servitude.

Stuck at home, preparing for a Zoom seder, one can become hyper-aware of the weight of these and other yokes: those of maintaining our own wellbeing; those of our employers; those that our country demands, and those we have borrowed from less fortunate people around us whose shoulders are not so broad. We carry more than usual, and risk the danger of fewer people around when we start to stumble.

Tonight, as in every seder, we acknowledge at both ends of the night that we cannot know where our next seder will be. In good times, our hope is a product of freedom and, in bad times, of servitude. It is as true this year as it has ever been, and it is never a consolation that Jews have proclaimed the same words in far darker times.

What I hope is a consolation, then, is to focus on the message of Jewish redemption. Life must be lived in servitude either to God or to Pharaoh; an authentic God or a despot; a merciful and understanding master or a manipulative tyrant.

This coming year, with so many voices calling for our attention, may we all be given the strength and wisdom to contemplate and choose whose yokes we will wear.