Available hours in a year for personal projects

While planning ahead to finish my Open University studies, I’ve been testing how well I can study in my available free time; and my recent study with Coursera has provided a pretty good simulation.

It’s important to be realistic with yourself about how much time you actually have to do these things, on a sustainable basis, for a significant period of time. Especially with the tuition fees being as expensive as they are and if you’re making a commitment for a whole year of your free time.

My thinking has gone like this…

First I account for my time being a husband and dad, then my working hours, then sleep, then a few hours for getting/keeping fit and I’m left with around two hours per day, or 14 hours a week of ‘free’ time. For a couple of weeks at a time, it is possible to fill those 14 hours completely with study or to make progress on a project, but it’s exhausting, and over a longer period like a year, it just won’t work. In those 14 free hours I need some downtime. I need at least a couple of nights off to watch a film, kill some aliens in a computer game or enjoy a good single malt. If you don’t plan for downtime, you’re not being realistic and you will be less effective.

This is not an issue of direction, but of how much fuel is in the tank.

After my tests and calculations, what I’m left with is about nine hours each week for stretching myself with new things (there are new things to do in my working hours too, but that’s not quite the same).

I have many many lists of things I want to build, write, make, test, learn and do, so coming to terms with the finite number of hours available in a week, and therefore a year, is always a battle with myself. But it’s an important battle and I’m in one my more realistic planning phases right now.

Bringing this thought back to my studies, finishing my degree has become more complex than I first expected because my route to this current point doesn’t fit into the standard institutional boxes, which now excludes me from a student loan. I also need to choose modules that work with the time I can commit so I’ve been working through a few spreadsheets to make sense of my options. We’ll see what happens, but it might be I can’t afford a degree ‘with honours’, but I can live with that. It’ll still be a BSc, largely in computer science with a chunk of something random at the end. It suits me quite well.

My study will start again proper in October, so I have nine weeks left to fit in a final personal project for this year. All other ideas must be put on ice until late 2014.

Nine weeks is about 81 hours.

I had been toying with the idea of building a game of some sort, as my recent messing about was enjoyable, but after watching Indie Game The Movie (I recommend it by the way), I realise how much of an overcommitment that would be for 81 hours. Even a simple game would be unachievable in that time given the number of new tools I’d be learning in the process. All game ideas are frozen.

So I have another idea, one that should fit in the time.

But I’ll give it some more thought before talking about it here.

One parting thought for this evening.

Nine hours a week might not sound like much, but it adds up.

468 hours in a year is about the equivalent of three months of full-time work. That’s a useful reference point when planning what you want to get done in the next year.

You need a process to work effectively with so many small chunks of time, but think of what you could do with a quarter of a year of working time.

If you have an idea.

If you think you could do it in three months of regular working hours.

Get making.

This isn’t so scary:

3 x 2hr weeknight sessions
1 x 3hr weekend session

Concept Game – Simple Evolutionary Model

I’ve spent enough time on this now to submit it, even if it’s still a bit rough around the edges. I’ve included a bit of a write up below. This demo will run best in Chrome or Opera. Click to play.

I’ve built a simple ‘game’ called Digital Husbandry. It’s more of a time killer as it doesn’t have any serious game mechanics, but there is a visual reward to keep the user engaged.

It’s based on the idea of simulating progressive evolution through selective breeding. Much as generations of farmers have done with livestock. The player brings together critters on the screen based on visual qualities that appeal to them, and produces offspring that drive the overall appearance of the group closer to those qualities selected by the player. The ‘critters’ die when they reach the ‘deadzone’ at the bottom of the screen, freeing up space for new critters in the population. So choosing which critters to sacrifice is as important as choosing which ones to breed.

The critters are recursively drawn from a simplified ‘genetic’ code. This allows the game to have millions of possible variations of critters, and the longer you play, the more varied the critters will appear.

I ‘composed’ some music in http://www.beepbox.co (which is a hugely fun distraction from fixing bugs in code). The music gets more layered and complex in line with the number of critters in the population. The audio tracks aren’t perfectly synced, but I’m happy enough with the effect for now.

NOTE: I ran into problems publishing the sketch with audio and I’ve run out of time to do any more work on this, so I’ve had to submit this version without sound.

A quick review of the Coursera Creative Programming Course, and using Processing for this kind work:

  • It was nice to write some code that isn’t about capturing web form data or sanitizing user input!
  • The format of the course, and the challenge I set myself were a good way to revise some of the classic programming concepts I don’t actually have to use much these days
  • I was jumping between Java and JavaScript quite a bit – which is a good study exercise, especially when porting code from one to the other. My basic Java knowledge is rustier than I thought, but I got there in the end.
  • Processing isn’t quite right (yet) to take a project like this and polish it into a publishable product (which is partly why I haven’t worried too much about the finer details of this ‘game’)
  • Processing is excellent for teaching creative programming
  • It was a shame to loose the sound, I had a slightly mental retro game tune going by the end. This was the base tune, which built in complexity with each additional critter.
  • I wouldn’t want to put this project through a code review! But it does the job for this assignment.

 

Degrees of done

With life in a reasonably calm and sensible place right now, it seems like a good time to finish up something I started some time ago.

About 10 years ago, when I finished art college I came to the conclusion that going to university would lead to a big old pile of debt, and that I could find a better way to navigate the requirements of professional life.

My studies were in fine art which was a useful exercise in creative and critical thinking, but was never going to pay the bills. And I’m not planning to die a starving artist. Alongside my studies, I’d been building websites (and earning a few pounds doing it). I’d learned enough about writing code that I wanted to study computer science (CS) more formally, but even a distinction in fine art wouldn’t get me into any regular university courses in computer science.

Academically, and even now with professional job opportunities, the venn diagram of visual art and computer science rarely overlaps. I think this needs to change, and probably will. Code and composition are just tools and the more closely they work together the better.

So anyway, the solution I found to my dilemma of not being ‘qualified’ to study for the qualification I wanted, and not being happy with the cost of getting it either, was to study computer science with the Open University (OU).

I was an edge-case OU applicant back then, as very few people at ‘standard’ university age considered the OU as an option. Their students were typically older working professionals or the recently retired. The choice for my peers was typically between a bricks-and-mortar university or to start work. Via the OU I was able to study and start work, avoid any debt and get some significant professional experience at the same time. And by typical graduation age, I had been happily employed for some time. Sometimes I’d get up at 4am to study, other times I’d work through the night on weekends, but I enjoyed it.

And all in all, I’m still very pleased with the choice that the young me made.

Over four years of studying while working, I completed two thirds of a CS degree, mostly using coding skills I’d actually been learning on the job, and then in 2008 I decided to take a year off. In that year-off from study I took a new job working at WWF and have had enough personal projects and general life things to keep me busy in the five years since. The degree is unfinished business, and I’m thinking about finishing it now.

The thing is, I don’t need this degree to get a job (I have a dream job already), but I don’t like leaving it undone. And it’s been bugging me.

So I’ve been looking at what courses are left to finish my degree and I discovered a couple of things.

  1. The OU have swapped around the modules for their courses while I’ve been absent, so I no longer have two thirds of a CS degree. I instead have about a sixth of many of their new CS based degrees. I do not want to do another five sixths of a CS degree. It’s not bugging me that much.
  2. Dave and Nick have been screwing around, and the last third of my degree is going to cost 50% more than the first two thirds of my degree combined. Damn you Dave and Nick.

But there is some good news. For now at least, the OU offer a slightly unusual degree called simply an Open Degree. You can study modules in any topic so long as you have the right number of credits from each level of study to add up to a regular honours degree’s worth of qualification (either BSc or BA). So while my original CS degree has gone out the window, I still have two thirds of an Open Degree.

My plan now is to complete a few more modules in the next couple of years and finish off my degree, even if it’s not the one I started. The “openness” of the Open Degree also allows me to diversify my study a bit, rather than repeat the skills I already use professionally, and that makes it more interesting. I’m particularly looking forward to a course on modeling ecosystems.

The downside to this plan is that the recent increases in UK tuition fees may now require me to look into a student loan after all. Again, damn you Dave and Nick. This is going to be an expensive itch to scratch.

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying I’ll be doing some studying later this year.

Saying that, I’m doing some studying now so that’s not really news. And on the aforementioned issue of the computer science and visual art venn diagram, the overlap is captured wonderfully in this Coursera course that’s currently running:  “Creative Programming for Digital Media & Mobile Apps” https://www.coursera.org/course/digitalmedia

This course has been so enjoyable, that it’s partly to blame for the expensive year now ahead. Damn no, thank you Coursera. Damn you Dave and Nick.

Digital Spring Clean

I’m pleased to say Bibliofaction has a new team taking it over, so the site will begin to get the love we’ve been denying it. I have some admin and bits to do for this though.

I’m employed in a full-time role again, so I’ve been updating my various profiles around the interwebz, removing “I’m a freelancer” messages and so on.

This blog has been quiet as I’ve been moving house, country, job and so on. It will be quietish here for a while I suspect.

I’ve not been working on many of the projects I’ve been talking about on this blog, but have been stewing over some other creative ideas; ideally things that don’t require constant maintenance but allow for some interesting learning opportunities.

Another Coursera course is taunting me, I signed up a while back and it kicked-off today. It will be hard to ignore a chance to play with Processing.org and some creative musical driven programming experiments. We’ll see.

Bibliofaction short story website needs a new home

Free to a good home
Free to a good home

Would you like to run Bibliofaction.com?

Despite our best efforts, Andrew and I are no longer finding the time to properly look after the Bibliofaction website and community. So it’s time to find someone new to take care of it.

It’s going free to a good home (though it has some costs involved and would benefit from some technical work).

We’d like the website to be run by someone who supports the original goals of the site – to encourage everyone to have a go at writing a short story. It should be a welcoming, inclusive and inspiring place – but we won’t have ongoing involvement in the site, so really it’s your call!

Here are some top-level facts that might be useful to you:

  • 3,500+ published stories
  • ~10,000 visits per month (it was a bit higher when we were actively running competitions etc) – see stats screenshot below.
  • The Bibliobucks virtual currency system doesn’t make us any money (but did a good job encouraging conversations when it was launched)

Beyond that, have a look around the site to see how it works. If you can’t spare the time to look at the site now, you won’t have the time to run the site in the long run. I say this from experience.

Technical bits:

  • The website is a bespoke platform, developed in ASP.NET, in C# with a MSSQL database.
  • It was written for ASP.NET 2.0
  • It’s a 3-tier application (Website, BLC, DALC) so has a pretty solid code structure
  • It was best-of-breed in 2007 – you wouldn’t write it quite like this today, but it won’t cause a new developer too much panic to look at it now.

What’s included:

  1. Transferring ownership of current Easyspace VPS hosting to you (including billing)
  2. All source-code and database files
  3. Google Analytics account including 7+ years of historic stats
  4. The bibliofaction.com domain name – it’s an old domain name now, so good for search engines
  5. Social media accounts (@bibliofaction, Facebook, G+)
  6. Any artwork files I have (logos, PSDs etc)
  7. Transfer of any copyright (logo, brand, code etc)

What’s not included:

  • Tech support. I wish I had time to spend on this, but if I did, we wouldn’t be looking for a new owner. You will need access to the appropriate development skills (whether you are them, know them or buy them).
  • Existing email provider (only because this is tied up with some other services I use). You’ll have to set something new up and point the DNS records.
  • Any form of guarantee, warranty, liability etc ad infinitum

Some immediate opportunities to improve the site:

  1. Integration with social media
  2. Short story apps for tablet and phone
  3. Build on the existing platform, or migrate data to another platform
  4. Anything else you can think of!

I’m interested! What now?

  • Send us your proposal, in any format you like to press [at] bibliofaction.com
    • In an ideal world, we’d like to see someone who can offer ongoing community management, and the technical investment to bring the site up to scratch.
    • The closing date for applications is 31 May 2013
  • Post  questions in the comments below, as we won’t be providing feedback on the proposals or replying to individual questions by email (too little time, sorry).

Thanks and good luck!

Stats for Bibliofaction.com
Stats for Bibliofaction.com

Learning Backbone.js and Single Page Applications

Following up my post about the backbone.js book I downloaded, I’ve been playing, testing and learning as much as I can. So much so that I’ve neglected my Coursera design course, though I think this is a better use of my time in the long run. This particular Coursera course was mainly to test out the MOOC process first-hand, and it’s pretty cool on the whole. I’ll still be taking part in the Game Theory course that’s coming up, and I’d give Coursera a big thumbs up overall.

I’ve studied design previously, so the content in the course (while very good) was mostly a re-hashing of old stuff for me, whereas delving into the world of Backbone.js and Single Page Applications has been a great way to challenge my existing approach to web design and development. It’s been a real brain stretch at times, but every new step in the learning process is rewarding, and you can never afford to stop learning if you work with the internet.

I’ve hacked about with Backbone enough now, that I’m starting to apply the learnings to Done by When, and though this equates to almost an entire re-write of the website front-end it’s going to make the app so much more responsive that I’m desperate to get it live. The demos I’ve put together already feel like so much more like software than web pages.

I’m not making any promises for a release date at this point as client work takes priority but I may be able to share something within a couple of weeks.

Also, though I’ve bailed on the Coursera course, I won’t give up on the menu planner, or my intentions to open source this.

I’ll keep you posted.

On aiming high

Testing, testing… This little chunk of the internet is coming at you via space.

Sure, lots of our data and information bounces around satellites these days, but this is the first time I’ve personally aimed a big metal dish at an object ‘floating’ thousands of miles above the Earth.

This also means we’re ready for winter, when the wind and the storms tend to knock out the phone lines around here for a few days at a time. Back up connectivity like this makes my little web business a bit more resilient.

On my next pet project and @Coursera

My most recent ‘pet project’, Done by When, grew up today.

It’s 3 months to the day since I announced a vague plan to test out an idea that had been floating around my head, and now it’s out of beta, taking payments and I’ve just notice our Mandrill email reputation has crept up to ‘Excellent’. Woohoo.

I’m delighted with where it’s going and all the helpful (positive and negative) feedback I’ve had from the first brave group of testers.

I’ve added some screenshots to my portfolio on Behance, but the interface has progressed even further since then.

Now that Done by When has a “business model” and all that, it will be given a serious amount of time and attention going forwards. But importantly, as it has an active user base I won’t be using it as a playground for new ideas and technology. It will first and foremost serve the needs of the users. Which means it’s no longer a ‘pet project’.

I needed another project/playground so I’ve enrolled (and completed my first week) in Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society with Coursera. I’ve studied design before, so mainly wanted to see what the Coursera experience was like in relation to the Open University courses I took a few years back. I’m more interested in the content of the Game Theory course, but that doesn’t start for a while yet, and all learning is good learning.

So I’ll be writing some posts about the Coursera experience, but more importantly I’ll use this as a framework for my next pet project. There are 7 weeks left to go and I’ve set myself the brief to somehow contribute to dealing with the issue of food waste.

Food is core. If we solve food, we solve most things.

Not that I’ll solve food, but I may contribute something.

I’ll keep you posted.