The Particular Finest

Presented by aurynn shaw

That PHP Graph

So by now you’ve probably seen this graph bouncing around the tech conversation in the last couple of days. It’s interesting data science! It’s a great way to see the sorts of trends around how people program and how people are learning to program.

You may have also encountered this idea of contempt culture that I’ve spoken about earlier, where tech communities use on demonstrating contempt towards tools outside what’s acceptable” in their group as a proxy for belonging to that group.

One of the biggest ways that’s manifested in my career has been a vicious contempt of PHP.

You should be able to see where I’m going with this. Contempt culture tells us to hate PHP, everyone knows” that PHP is bad and that PHP programmers are bad, and now we have some data science that backs it all up!

I haven’t seen it directly, yet, but this sort of data science is exactly what participants in a contempt culture thrive on. It’s data. It demonstrates that people who write PHP really are worse or less intelligent but most definitely don’t belong, and we have every right to be contemptuous and cruel towards them.

The data supports it, after all.

There’s a wonderful saying that covers this beautifully:

Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong

  • H.L.Mencken

Well, Actually

So there’s a couple of things about people in tech that are relevant here, namely that we are blazingly incompetent at cause analysis and understanding the consequences of our actions.

Let me explain.

What are you even doing

The one is the most bizarre to me. As a programmer, my entire job is doing cause analysis through debugging and finding out why things are failing, and asking very specific why”’s as a service.

But using that same set of skills and abilities to examine the cultures around us is apparently so horrifying to even consider that it is rejected out of hand, even where we have an oral record of misery and despair, like dysfunctional employment environments.

We know these tools are powerful, because we use them every day. We know we can do amazing things, because we do amazing things every day, but we refuse to just use the tools.

Action begets Reaction

The second one is the strongly held belief in tech that we don’t need to examine or consider the consequences of our actions. This is visible with an example that came out today, where Hacker News openly admits to censoring anything related to diversity.

In a culture where it’s already normal to not care what our technical choices will do to others, this provides reinforcement that we will never have to.

ASK WHY ALREADY

So the major question with that data that I have is why. Not why are they asking on Stack Overflow”, or why are they using PHP, but why did they learn to code this way”.

That is the giant neon sign question that comes out of this data, the fiery inferno of something is very wrong here.

So, why?

Well, let’s add some framings. One, tech culture is highly contemptuous of PHP, a state that traces itself back to Perl’s CGI/Web dominance and relevance being eroded, and the attendant contempt culture that reinforced. This has the effect that if one is trying to learn PHP, either to make their own website, or learn what they need to work with Wordpress, they are made to feel awful by anyone they discuss it with.

So, they’ll tend to puzzle it out on their own, working with some tutorial material they find online.

Ah-hah!” I imagine you saying, preparing to stop and tell me that the tutorials are awful and that these new programmers should know better.

And I have one response.

 How?

These people are making a rational choice to learn to work with, to take one example, Wordpress, which is one of the biggest projects around. There’s a huge market for making themes and providing plugins for Wordpress, why would I not want to be a part of that?

But we’re not considering the consequences of our actions. We act like contemptuous jerks, they wisely disengage, and then we use that disengagement and attendant insecure practises to reinforce our own contempt.

We don’t consider why people do what they do, and take into account all the inputs, and I say that because this has been happening to PHP users since the 90s.

We, technologists, programmers, all of us, through the adherence and perpetuation of contempt culture, drove early PHP programmers out by making them feel bad. So they built their own communities, and wrote tutorials, and learned on their own. Those cultural artefacts are still around, and we can see their effect in the data in front of us.

People don’t want to learn from us because they don’t want to be around us, and we mock them when they ask us for help. To this day.

Better Consequences

This data is a wake-up call. It’s a canary that tells us that our culture is poisonous, that we are not teaching people how to act securely, that we are pushing people outside our ability to help.

We are not making a better world. We are refusing to look at the consequences of our actions.

When we try to say we’re nice now, that we’re approachable and won’t bite is hollow and meaningless, because we’ve spent a lifetime being proactive with our contempt and hostility.

Which means we have to be proactive to fix it. We have to care and reach out, we have to do the work, because ultimately we’re responsible for the situation we’re in.

Call to Action

Our culture is to blame, our culture of me, of you, of everyone who’s ever bashed PHP or its users.

But pointing fingers doesn’t help, we just get into another cycle of demonstrative contempt where I can assert that I am better than you because I didn’t do it as much.

It also doesn’t make the code secure, or help that they made these mistakes.

So how do we become proactive? How do we actually help?

Programming, tech as a whole, is a service entity. We exist to support and enable. You have knowledge on how this is harmful, and they don’t. You can help fix it, but not by being an ass about it.

So there’s a three step process to doing something constructive.

  1. find all the people around you who work with PHP, who have had to endure contempt culture, and apologise for perpetuating it. Really mean it.
  2. Humbly offer to help.
  3. Humbly actually help

You’re not here to show your superior knowledge or to shame people for not knowing what you know. You’re here to help others learn and grow, to show them that they’re not bad for not knowing, but that it can be harmful.

That there can be consequences.

So do the work. Reach out. Help your friends, acquaintances, neighbours. We can make the world better.

We can be better than what we are.

We just have to try.

Watching me Talk

Hey cool people!

Back in late July, I was honoured to get to speak at WDCNZ here in Wellington, and my talk was on the culture of technology and how contempt culture damages our communities and creates hostile and unpleasant environments.

I think it’s a great talk, and I’m honoured to be able to share the video with you today, right here, right now

A Collected Set of Data

Need

As a business aurynn, I keep finding out about conferences far too late to either submit to them or even attend.

Case in point: NDC in Sydney next week (Aug 1-5) that I found out about on Jul 28.

This. Keeps. Happening.

and it is frustrating.

Overarching Problem

I have not yet found a single point where I can go to discover AU/NZ tech conferences that are upcoming, or have open CFPs, or have opened ticket sales. I have yet to find anything that regularly issues reminders of conferences I may wish to be interested in.

There are a couple of data sources (Lanyrd, for instance) that cover the some of the necessary data, but as they are diverse data sources I don’t often think to go digging.

Even when something crosses my radar, it doesn’t stick the first time, and I will often forget about it.

Solution

A potential solution for this is a curated, human-run website which offers a data feed describing upcoming conferences, conferences with open CFPs, and conferences that have been announced.

There would be no automation around conferences being published to the blog or the mailing list.

The mailing list would be managed via a tool similar to MailChimp.

A human would vet each conference for suitability by the (at least) following criteria:

  1. The conference MUST have a Code of Conduct.
  2. The conference SHOULD be a full resolution process as part of the Code of Conduct.
  3. The conference MUST be applicable to the audience (Technical persons)
  4. The conference MUST have a commitment to outreach to diverse speakers and attendees. Predominately white-men lineups are not acceptable.

Comms strategy

Weekly

A post including:

This post would happen at most once a week.

Monthly

A post including

This post would happen at most once a month.

This places the mailing list or RSS feed at no more than 5-6 posts per month.

Post style

In each section above(New, CFP, ticket sales), a post should only have

to ensure that conference details are all fully up-to-date.

Monetisation

Assuming this hits a point where it needs to have itself paid for (IE it turns into a job and not just an aurynn-is-annoyed-at-the-things), monetisation should happen via a mechanism like The Deck:

We offer up to 4 sponsorships on the mailing list. Each one gets its own weekly post per month dedicated to their conference. This may be included in the normal weekly posting, or, a dedicated post for that conference. (TBD). In the event of an inclusion in the normal weekly, a paragraph dedicated to that conference would be made available.

All paid sponsorships would be included in the monthly post.

Monetisation WOULD NOT be pushed on any conference. It would be a mechanism to provide additional support, not as a means to badger conferences for money in exchange for greater publicity.

So!

Does this sort of data-source/site sound like it’ll be useful? It seems to cover my needs and cover the sorts of conferences I want to attend, as well as excluding conferences which reinforce contempt culture (anti-CoC, for instance).

It also provides a mechanism for regular reminders of conferences, to ensure that they don’t fall off my radar.

So, give me your thoughts and opinions! With, of course, the following caveats:

Your Team In Four Dimensions

So I had a meeting the other day, where a really interesting term came up, that of temporal teams”.

In the context of the conversation, we were discussing teams that come together to achieve some goal, but disband after the project is completed. It’s a model that’s used extensively in the film industry, where contractors are brought together for the project and part ways at the end.

This is a workable model for projects that don’t have an extended lifecycle, but isn’t really appropriate for ongoing software development, as so much state is held inside the heads of the team working on it, and bringing new people in later without the original team means they’ll be fumbling in the dark.

But we have onboarding, and our teams don’t disband, and we’re sad but happy when our teammates leave us for other things. But our team lifecycles aren’t that they grow and shrink, by gaining and shedding people.

Instead, I think our teams only ever grow.

Standing On Shoulders

Wait, what?” you might ask - people are leaving all the time! My team is staying roughly the same size!

That may look true, but consider what you do as a developer and how you build new things on top of existing tools and techniques. Those things that you build on aren’t just pieces of code, they are also expressions of the culture in which you build them. After all, culture isn’t what you say, it’s what you do.

These pieces of underlying software are your foundation. They determine what makes sense and what paths you can take, impose their design choices upon you and limit possibilities. Your culture, what you do is founded on the culture of what came before and what they did.

So how does this relate to teams?

Similar to the external libraries you use, what team members have done before you limits what you can do now. They made decisions that are now part of the foundation upon which you build, and the culture of those decisions is encoded in that foundation.

Decisions of what library to use, how to deploy the software, how the architecture is intended to work. These are decisions that you couldn’t affect, but still affect you.

Exponential Complexity

But I said earlier that your team size only grows, and I still haven’t explained why I said that.

If you think about the idea that what you can build is determined by others’ past choices and past culture, then, when did they actually leave the team? Every day that you interact with the choices they made you are having a conversation with them, communicating with their ideas, ideas that form the basis of the ideas that you can have.

So why is this important?

Well, Metcalfe’s Law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users, which tells us that the number of communications we need to make with our team members is also proportional to the square of the number of members. A team of 6 members requires 36 potential communication events to discuss ideas and approach a consensus.

So why is that important?

Your past team members are a part of that. They aren’t full members as far as the communication properties of the graph goes, since they’re only ever telling you things, but they are communicating with you across time.

A potential revision to Metcalfe’s Law to account for this is n^2 * m, with n representing current team members, multiplied by past team members. Past team members no longer communicate with each other, and no longer communicate with current members, and the longer they’ve been gone from the team, the less relevant their input.

So why is this important

Modern software development is a team sport, and the complexity of team communication is a vital aspect of team dynamics. As a result, removing *m from the equation means not rebuilding the culture of the team but ripping out its foundations. Since the foundations are often encoded into the software and datasets that the team works with, this can mean replacing large pieces of the software codebase or backing datasets, either through a clean rewrite” or an evolutionary process.

And this is necessary! Choices that were correct in the past may no longer correct in the present, and will always need re-examination in the future. We implicitly know this and feel bad that we’re making the wrong” decision now for expediency or other constraints.

Thinking of how our software must always evolve in terms of Metcalfe’s Law means that understanding our communication around our decisions is important and must be an intentional act. Because software is a team sport and the quality of our software rests solely on our ability to communicate and collaborate, treating the future team as non-existent is an act that disrupts future cohesion and teamwork.

The Future Tense

It’s a disruptive act because it increases the communications complexity far beyond the size of the team and the number of departed members. The reasons for decisions are lost and, like the bugs and edge cases embodied in our code, must be continually rediscovered and lost again.

The most obvious cause is a lack of good documentation. From no comments in source code to poor README or wiki or other up-to-date resources, you are not communicating with future team members.

And for your current teammates, this doesn’t seem to matter since they can just come and ask you, after all. Even more, they’re in the middle with you, they understand what’s going on and where things need to go, what the plan is.

That information is your context, and we already understand that we need to communicate that when we’re onboarding a new teammate and gett them up to speed. But instead of treating this as an intentional act, we treat this as an implicit function of the current team, passing on context using osmosis through immersion.

This mostly works, but over time the knowledge around why the team or organisation decided to do something is lost. The ultimate failure mode of this effect is the normalisation of deviance, where extremely harmful behaviour has been so accepted and internalised that potentially lethal results can occur.

How do we fight this? We write down why we’re doing something, what the context we had when we made that decision is and what the cultural requirements were. If we don’t the culture forgets, the reasons are lost, and you aren’t communicating with your team.

Knowledge Sinks

Another failure mode of future team communication is the Knowledge Sink. You’ve likely encountered this person, someone who’s worked to make themselves indispensable on one particular aspect of knowledge, who refuses to write things down or allow others to encroach on their domain.

Again, while annoying, this can seem somewhat harmless as you can just go ask them, but we all know that that doesn’t work over time. We have terms for this like vulnerable to busses” where we try to recognise and joke about the fact that we will be remarkably crippled if we lose them.

Again, these people are very toxic to the team. They’re safe enough today, but that knowledge and context is lost when they leave. These people aren’t useful repositories of knowledge or context that other team members can ask, they are knowledge sinks, absorbing knowledge as a black hole absorbs light that leaves only the what we are doing, not the why, or, depending on their efforts, the how. We are prevented from effective communication.

Contempt Culture

These behaviours are strongly rooted in contempt culture, and are performative examples of we are better than you” directed towards the future. The person who refuses to document code because it should be self-documenting holds contempt for those who lack the time to learn code as well as he does, for the future who will need to dedicate more energy to improve things. He thinks that if you aren’t smart enough to understand the code, you shouldn’t be coding.

The person who acts as a knowledge sink has contempt for the healthy communication and function of his team, he demands that others perform more work to route around the damage that he causes.

But more importantly, poor communication is contempt for the future. He sacrifices the future to his own need for importance and devalues the future of the team by increasing their communication cost of each decision we make and each cultural norm we adopt.

But I actually don’t have time right now

Not having time is valid, and important to acknowledge. Like all things, this is not meant as a you are bad for doing this, but a you really need to think about this. By considering what we do under new lights and within new framings, we give ourselves better tools and ways of acting with considered intent.

We often don’t have time in the here and now to broadly define our decisions and our culture. We have deadlines, milestones, and business needs that must be considered. But we can talk about our future selves and make them a part of today’s communications. We can think of steps towards including our future.

When we discuss that inclusiveness and think of what that entails, we discuss when we can put the communications we need on our roadmap and the intentionality of what we will say. Instead of relying on implicit cultural osmosis and the potential for harmful normalisations, we begin to explicitly define our own culture by what we choose and what we do.

And I think the future is worth it.

Linear A

Oh hey

So you saw my post about Fly not that long ago, with the announced ebook that you can go look at right now! It’s pretty awesome stuff.

But a lot of people don’t know that this isn’t my first book!

Fly is my third collection of work. My first collection was made to help me own a sense of achievement and victory, and my second was a collaboration, resulting in a book of Photo Poetry of New Zealand.

My first work holds a lot of meaning to me. It’s the first time I ever went through the agony of trying to filter a meaningful collection out of a lot of random photographs and started learning the skills around making coherent works.

Not very many people have seen my first book. It sold 14 physical copies, was never published in as a free ebook as Fly has been and the images are meant to be in a collection, not standalone.

Until today.

Today I’d like to share my first ever work, the first book I ever made, Linear A.

You can download it right here, for free, right now.

Thanks!

Stellaris, an Update

So the Clarke” update for Stellaris came and went, and I gave it another go after my initial enjoyment of playing Space Kitties Bastards Edition, wherein I was a domineering warlike species that was busy subjugating half the galaxy.

It was fun. 😀

After the patch, I decided to have a go at playing a pacifist species, focussed on a small empire with great tech research speeds. I never grew to need a sector, because every planet now slows down research by another 10%.

Ouch.

I decided on a hyperspace game, with a spiral galaxy. This ended up being a really interesting choice, as the hyperlanes just follow the spirals, making early-game exploration very very linear, and ensuring that empires mostly flow along the spiral lines (except for the few that have warp or wormhole drives).

I was bordered by a sort-of-expansionist empire, and a Fallen empire. The expansionist ate the other empire near me, and then ignored me the rest of the game. The Fallen empire was a watch the tiny little people” variety, and also ignored me.

And that… characterised everything else. Being ignored, researching tech, being ignored, researching more tech… being ignored some more, and now I’m in the late game, I formed a federation, I’m sitting at the end of the tech tree and wondering, well, now what? I have the best jump drive, I can strike deep and hard with my big ships full of best guns and shields, but everyone is just not. paying. attention. to. me.

It’s boring. There’s nothing to do in diplomacy. The only win conditions are conquer everyone” or conquer everyone, but differently.” There’s nothing do do at the top of the tech tree except research more 5% better!” techs. As a tiny, tech-focussed nation, there is nothing to do after the first third of the game, except pick what to research next.

So yeah. I’m excited for the DLC, but don’t actually bother until there is some DLC.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

I’ve had this game in my library for a while now, having initially wishlisted it for an interesting intro trailer. Puzzle solving murders? Wandering around a beautifully realised village in the Pacific Northwest? Why yes, yes please.

I didn’t play the original version, opting for the more recently released redux” version, touting improvements to the checkpoints, graphical upgrades, and fixes to an area.”

My major impression of this game is that it’s really pretty. The environment was very well-realised and rather stunning to just meander around in from the very beginning, walking out of a train tunnel into a secluded glade. Wind rustled in the trees around me. It’s close to sunset, with warm summer light trickling through the branches.

I wandered around the glade, taking in the rocks, trees and other sounds of nature. And then, discovering traps leaping out at me. The first was definitely startling, but are clearly designed to never hit the player, acting as a somewhat passive jump scare. As first puzzle of the game, it provides an incentive to wander around the forest, look at it all, and find the rest. After solving the puzzle pushing the appropriate X To Continue, I was … transported to a hillside.

Covered with skeletons.

Yep, it was pretty shocking.

The game continues in this vein, throwing shocking imagery in the midst of beautiful scenery, until the very, touching, end.

Except that one bit, that was the area” that was fixed.” That area was a major, major thematic jump from the rest of the game. Until that point it was a dark, moody and consistent experience of background horror through safe but disturbing scenery. There was some WTF? moments, but nothing ever felt like I was in danger. By contrast, this area had me being actively hunted by a something, requiring that I be Sneaky McSneakface and deal with that anxiety and stress.

The best way to describe it is that instead of the pervasive dread, the game went for cheap jump scares and it broke the atmosphere.

Fortunately, after that point it’s back to the calm and beautiful environments dripping with unseen malice.

I won’t comment on any other details, but, overall, I think it’s worth playing.

A Pile of Things

So I recently went on a trip to the Northlands in New Zealand, around the Whagarei region which is about a two hour drive north of Auckland. Auckland is its own entertaining adventure in sprawl, so 2 hours” is sort of from city centre, but also sort of not.

But I digress.

So we went on this vacation, and as a photographer I’m always hauling a backpack full of Kit around, lenses and cameras and my tripod and a remote trigger and and and and it’s a lot of very heavy stuff to just have with you! Especially when, a lot of the time, I don’t end up using it.

For this trip, I wanted to try something different, to see what I could pull off with the fewest things possible, with the aim of determining how dissatisfied I’d be with the camera and lens I’d chosen and the processes available to me.

My everyday camera is a fairly normal DSLR, with a fairly normal size and weight profile that’s somewhat exacerbated by my habit of using glass-and-metal lenses that are several decades old.

Instead, I took a Panasonic Lumix GX1, a 14-42mm pancake lens, the 25mm ƒ1.4 lens, my iPhone 6S (with MicroSD adaptor), and my tripod (in checked luggage). And that’s it.

A camera, a spare lens, an iPhone, a tripod, and a carry strapA camera, a spare lens, an iPhone, a tripod, and a carry strap

And the question from there being, can I get the photos I want, edit them, and share them in ways that make me happy?

In short, the answer is no”, but as with all of these things the full answer is far more nuanced.

Weight, Size, and Quality.

As far as mass and density goes, this setup was extremely great. I can fit the GX1 and the pancake into the pocket on my hoodie, the iPhone naturally fits wherever, and the 25mm lens can, somewhat grumpily, sit normally in my purse.

Compared to the sheer volume of stuff I carry for my DSLR, this was amazing. I normally use a cross-body strap for my camera, and the GX1 is lightweight enough that I don’t feel it. The 25mm fits in my bag with ease, and I don’t feel it.

I didn’t carry the tripod with me on outings, reserving that for long exposures near where we were staying.

What I found was that for the most part I rarely shifted off the pancake lens, its focal range generally being what I wanted, going wide enough for lovely work in forests, and long enough for some interesting close-up work.

For night shots, the 25mm was indispensable, being fast enough for good low-light photography.

A picture of the night sky, with the Milky Way across it from the right corner and going up and to the left.A picture of the night sky, with the Milky Way across it from the right corner and going up and to the left.

The GX1 takes full RAW photos, so I was able to get the quality of images I’m used to from my DSLR. Not as good, because it’s a much smaller sensor, but more than good enough for my happiness.

I was also surprised at how much I used my iPhone. The 12MP sensor and good optical performance made for some shots I was very happy with. That they’re in JPEG and the sensor is minuscule compared to the GX1 does mean the quality is markedly lower. However, I’m often surprised at the extent to which good edits are possible on JPEG images in Lightroom, leaving my concerns more minimal.

The Process, or, The Meat of Things

The goal of this trip was also to test whether or not iOS was good enough” for being the sole point of travel editing and sharing. Modern iOS is geared around sharing, from first-party actions to share to Facebook and Twitter to a share system that allows for relatively straightforward uploading to your alternative Sharing System Of Choice.

This gives me a good photos into the world” part of the process.

What about the other components, the saving and the editing? Well, with the MicroSD adaptor, it’s easy to dump my SD card to my iPhone for review and edits. Photos supports RAW directly, so the photos are Just There and trivial to look at and enjoy. Other apps are intended to link in to Photos and provide an editing ||intent|| share action, allowing for customisation and expansion.

Photos on iOS is good but on OSX it’s a travesty, a pale and sad shadow of how good Aperture once was, and the result of that is I want to use Lightroom, and Adobe makes Lightroom for iOS, as well as a smattering of Photoshop-branded editing enhancements.

This should mean Problem Solved, right? Import, edit, and allow Adobe’s sync magic to, well, sync magic?

Well.

No.

Adobe, in typical Adobe style have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, in a variety of ways. First up is that Lightroom can’t read RAW files. That’s right, the entire purpose of Lightroom, to be organisation and RAW processing for photos, cannot be done on iOS.

Lightroom allows you to import files from the Camera Roll on iOS. iOS allowed me to import RAW files from my camera. Lightroom could not read those files, they just didn’t show up, leaving curiously empty folders still visible within Lightroom when I tried to import.

In order to get a photo into Lightroom, I had to:

  1. Import the photo into one of the Photoshop for iOS apps
  2. Do some base processing on the RAW file
  3. Save it back to the Camera Roll as a JPEG
  4. Import it into Lightroom

Photos and iOS were smart enough to treat the JPEG as descended from the RAW file, and Photoshop was able to re-process from that RAW file as desired.

But still.

What.

I don’t even.

Second, Photoshop Express can’t import from Lightroom. Photoshop Fix can, though? So I don’t know what’s going on here.

Third, Lightroom can’t import from your Creative Cloud library or Dropbox, only the Camera Roll. Not that I have one, because why would I use that when I can use Dropbox, but I can’t import from Dropbox! Photoshop Express and Fix can both import from CCL and Dropbox, of course.

There’s also the weirdness around Lightroom and PS Express having different sets of editing tools, meaning it would make sense to go back and forth (or starting over a few times in LR) to get an edit that one likes.

Overall, this makes the process extremely clunky, difficult to work with, and unsatisfying. I was able to share 20 photos that I really enjoyed from the trip, so the process, while crippling, wasn’t a full impediment.

a path winding through trees in the Waipoua Forest in Northland, New Zealand.a path winding through trees in the Waipoua Forest in Northland, New Zealand.

Travel Machinery

In the future, I want to keep with this extremely lightweight” mode of enjoying my vacations and travel photography. It’s nice to not carry a full laptop around, nor a backpack full of heavy glass and aluminum. It’s nice to have that single camera and a couple of lenses and just be okay with just that.

An iPad Pro would have fit brilliantly into this. It’s extremely light, with a best in class screen and excellent third-party support, but the lack of competent support from Adobe is crushing, and I’d end up fighting the tools more than I would enjoying sharing what I’ve done. As a result, I’m extremely hesitant to invest in this path.

For right now, it seems that the better tool for a lightweight travel editing solution is a Surface Pro or a Macbook, since they can run the real versions of Lightroom and Photoshop.

Fly

So if you’ve noticed me on Twitter recently, I’ve been talking about the project I’ve slowly been working on in my Infinite Free Time1.

It’s called Fly, and you can download the ebook right here, right now. There’s also a pre-order up on my store, right here, if you’d like to own a physical copy of the work.

The project is nearing completion, and I’d like to start talking about it.

Setting the Stage

In mid-2014, I collapsed, and I couldn’t function anymore. A combination of unrelenting depression and burnout over much of the previous six months left me unable to work on anything, unable to do much more than stare blankly into space, feeling worthless and unable to complete or do anything. I hadn’t completed anything in months, hadn’t been able to bring anything beyond an initial I think this is an idea I like?”

I knew I needed to fight that feeling, and so I did, and it was hard. Like, really hard, but I pushed, and the result was a month of effort spent on my first ever book of photography, Linear A.

This was groundbreaking, for me. I’d posted photos I’d taken online, kinda-sorta-not-really organised them into sorta-not-really-groups, mostly getting distracted and irritated before I could properly curate a collection.

What making the book taught me was that curation is exceptionally hard! It’s always been easy to go through my expansive collection and find one or two images that are good and post those. It’s quite another find a group of images that work well together from a large corpus, and then order them in a way that is pleasing and meaningful, enhancing the works as a whole.

Most excitingly, people bought Linear A! A grand total of 12 books, which I thought was stellar! 12 copies! Of something I’d made! For actual money! I had taken the components, assembled, and found a point where I was happy to call it complete”, and people agreed that it was good.

Professional photographer, aw yeah.

Do it Again

Fly is my second attempt at seriously curating my own work, and it really began one day when I went flying. Not flying to anywhere in particular, but because a friend of mine is a pilot, looks for any excuse to go, and invited me along. The weather was gloriously sunny, clear, and the wind was even behaving itself.

It’s remarkable how different the experience is, without the hassle of the commercial air experience. Walking out to the plane and climbing in without security checkpoints or narrow windows of a jet or interminable waiting, the thrill of listening to the pilot interacting with the tower, the sense of being overwhelmingly small as you taxi out onto the endless runway.

Looking down the runway, Wellington AirportLooking down the runway, Wellington Airport

That day, we went flying over Marlborough Sound in New Zealand, about an hour south of Wellington. The plane is like sitting in a small car, there’s barely any room to move around, no space to stand, and an incredibly cramped back seat.

We went up because I wanted to take pictures of the sound. I’d flown over it before in commercial flights at sunset, and failed to take any pictures that I was really happy with. Some that were beautiful, but there was always a wing, or the corner of the windowframe, or my cellphone was noisy and ugly in low light.

A sunset over marlborough sound, new zealand, with a plane's wing in the foreground.A sunset over marlborough sound, new zealand, with a plane's wing in the foreground.

It’d never been right.

We were up for several hours flying back and forth, from Picton out over Tasman Bay, and it was magical. I’d never flown that low over land before, never seen both the majesty of height while retaining the details of the land. I’d never seen the way farms flow, fences and roads carving variations in colour.

Aerial shot of farmland in New Zealand. A farmhouse is in the bottom, with zigzagging roads and fences moving up through the frame.Aerial shot of farmland in New Zealand. A farmhouse is in the bottom, with zigzagging roads and fences moving up through the frame.

I took over a thousand images in those short hours, filling memory cards and figuring out what worked, what didn’t, what lenses were right, where the distortions in the glass were going to distort the most.

Snip

Having over a thousand photos from one outing and hundreds more from all the years of photography is a daunting collection, especially as I’d been lax about organisational strategies previously. The problem was compounded by a second trip to the Kaikoura side of the South Island and hundreds more photos.

The first cut was just to remove photos that were obviously bad. These were photos where the glare was was overwhelming, or reflected cabin detail into the landscape, or where I’d shot through the propeller and it blurred across the image. Photos where the focus was wrong, the motion jitter was too much, or there was an unwanted wing in view, or engine heat distortion. Photos that were very similar are grouped together, or have the extras deleted.

Anything that was clearly wrong got dropped, which gave me about a thousand photos from which to start refining a collection.

The next pass was all photos that I liked. During this phase, I never questioned whether or not there was a grandiose theme that I wanted to capture or explore, and only went with Do I like this photo in isolation?” If I did, it carried through. This phase of the process left me around 300 photos.

The third stage was the same, asking if I really really liked it, leaving me around 150 photos.

At this point, I started looking at structure, and converting photos to black and white. I started paying closer attention to how a photo would work with others, what shapes it had, where it could fit in the work as a whole. This is the stage where a number of photos that I thought were great fell apart, as the black and white process revealed limited structure, uninteresting dead space and boring work. All in all, I ended up with around 80 pieces.

The final stage is assembling a work. What pieces go together, and where do they fit together? What is the story that comes out of the pieces?

How does this puzzle fit together?

Order

Modern photography is experienced through 500px or instagram or Tumblr, where isolated individual photos exist in a timeline stream beside countless other works of broad and diverse theme. Instead of a piece that fits into a work, we consume a jumble, structureless and discordant. This isn’t bad or wrong, but it does encourage us to think of photographs as single entities. They are rarely paired with broader stories or themes, leaving scattered metadata the only connection to the wider world.

Linear A sort of followed this model. Each image is strong, the collection as a whole is stronger, but there is only a limited sense of connection or flow through the work. The majority of it is just that it is stronger together, not that there is a journey, or a beginning, or an end.

Fly, by contrast, was much more of a struggle. By performing the first passes as though I was operating in the world of single images, I had a lot of good photographs but almost no story. What was my story? What about the book is interesting, what about it matters and is worth paying attention to?

I stared at the photos side by side, in the contact sheet mode of Lightroom, reordered them and tried to find a story in the work, some thread that drew me through.

I don’t advise this strategy.

I did find a theme, the story of a journey and finding my way home. In finding that theme, I found that the images I picked to be Excellent weren’t necessarily the right pictures to represent my journey. Some of the images were correct, others weren’t, and the process of really finding the theme cut the remainder even further.

The project hadn’t started when I found I had a lot of images, the project started when I knew I needed more, and in knowing could seek them.

From over a thousand photos, Fly is a collection of just 29. 29 photos represent the journey I wanted to take, the thread and story that flows through my work.

Always Looking

Linear A came entirely out of reviewing my photos and finding I was shooting a lot of minimalism and hard lines. Fly came out of the occasional annoyingly imperfect aerial photograph trying to capture the beauty of New Zealand, needing to capture those moments that had been, to that point, elusive.

My next work will centre on That’s Wellington and urban ephemera in general. I don’t know where the story ends, or even where it begins. I do know that it’s in there, somewhere.

Finding it, well, that’s the fun bit.


  1. My free time is anything but infinite

Civ 6

So you may have see Civilisation 6 get announced recently, complete with fancily animated trailer narrated by the delightful gravel of Sean Bean. Exceedingly nice stuff!

But, well, how do I say this?

After Beyond Earth I really can’t say that I’m excited to play a new Civilisation game. as you may have read I wasn’t a big fan of Beyond Earth, as it failed to capture the magic of Alpha Centauri and was best described as Civ 5, but in space.” Read the full post if you care to hear more about why I was sad about Beyond Earth.

Reviews of the expansion are that it fixed some of the problems in the base game, and (naturally) introduced others.

I worry that Firaxis has lost the plot when it comes to Civ games, and that this latest iteration will, similarly to Beyond Earth, fail to be anything but a drab reminder of the greatness that once was Civ, and how far we’ve now fallen.

And after Stellaris, I’m not sure I actually care if Firaxis still has it.