Quiet time

This post was written 12 years ago.
Thu, 20 Dec 2012

It is just a few days to Christmas and I feel quite reluctant to organise things (still some presents to buy or make, all the cards to write, and a suitcase to pack). But I am writing my end/start-of-year blogpost early.

So, let me start with work, as per usual. At this time last year I was just about to finish a website for a group of architects which I was quite happy about, as were the clients.

screenshots architects and holistic community

The most visible of this year's output: DHV Architects (www.dhva.co.uk) and Relaunch of Holistic Community (www.holistic-community.co.uk)

Apart from that I mainly worked on websites I had inherited. The biggest project was relaunching the Holistic Community website - implementing a lovely new design by Gary Bristow, and making some structural and functional changes. I also adapted the site for use on mobile (and yes, I know it would be better to factor it in from the start, mobile first!). I was especially busy just before the summer holidays, where all clients wanted things done at the same time. From September on, things were a bit more quiet regarding work, and I focused more on own projects, and on learning!

Learning all the things (and teaching one)

In October, an experiment started that is called Mechanical MOOC and aims to teach a large number of participants Python, without there being any tutor. There are weekly emails that get sent out according to a previously devised plan. The material is aggregated from various sources like an MIT course and a freely available textboook, oh, and Codecademy not to forget. You also get assigned to a study group, corresponding via email, if you want.

I decided to take part in this experiment, I had made an attempt at learning Python before, with the book that was used in the course. One reason I've been wanting to learn Python is that it seems to be a good language to learn programming concepts, and this book had been recommended to me for this purpose. Also if I ever seriously wanted to teach kids programming, I find this would be a good language to use. Talking of programming concepts, a bit earlier I had hit upon a site called computerscienceforeveryone.com which kind of takes you by the hand and makes you see how basic programming operations are represented in memory, albeit in a simplified way. I found strangely fascinating learning about pointers and bitmasks, and I feel it actually did help me with my programming work. It felt like I had found the missing link that had made me want to study for a Computer Science MSc. I saved £8000! (Not saying I learned all I would have learned there!)

Then I was also made aware of a site called udacity.com, and I started doing a course on there. They have quite an attractive format, with small units and interactive screencasts. The courses on there also use Python.

I still need to finish the last exercises of the MOOC - there is no deadline you see, and no certificate either. But I want to do the last examples, writing classes for Conway's Game of Life and Tetris, should be interesting. So far anyway I think I have learned more than previously on my own. I will try to apply some of it next year, but even if I don't it was good widening my programming horizon.

I've not only been learning, but also done a bit of teaching. I am now running a Code Club at the school my children attend, using Scratch. And my children are even part of it. This deserves its own blog post really, which I hope I will write soon. Suffice to say, despite some variation in how organised sessions were, and how focused the children, it did work quite well. The children were at the lower end of the age spectrum (which is 9 to 12) and struggled a bit with some projects, but they were always interested and followed along, with one exception (and this child consistently did unrelated things right from the start, and tried to distract others). One boy was really keen and virtually ripped the script from my hands each time. They all needed some help from me, but they did get an idea of how they had to put things together to make them work. And they enjoyed looking at the finished games and playing them! I also once brought my Raspberry Pi, the kids were fascinated by it and one of the boys insisted on doing the Scratch exercise on there. (Unfortunately it crashed after a while and he lost some stuff, luckily he was fine with that.)

scratch butterfly game

Building a self-invented game in Scratch


On a personal level, this year I was often reminded how fast time is passing. The most obvious measuring sticks are my children. I feel like pinching myself almost every day: I really have 8 and 6 year old kids. I remember Matin writing 9 years ago on a card, congratulating a friend on her new-born baby: "Tomorrow she will be off to university". Half way there! (given she does actually go to Uni). It is striking how much the children understand now, and they often talk so much sense. It becomes even scarier when you realise they sometimes talk more sense then you. Not to mention the fact they speak perfect English unlike me.

I have been living in Bristol for 10 years now, which also seems a very long time. I have not always stayed for very long in places, that's why it perhaps feels more strange to me than to other people. Especially during the first decade of my life I moved around a lot, between Cape Town, Paris, Heidelberg and Munich. It was exciting, but not all of it was pleasant. At age five, I spent a year in a French nursery and never learned the language. I was basically mute among my peers for a year, mostly ignored, occasionally bullied. I think this period has influenced my life quite a bit, while I don't even always understand exactly in what ways.

When I have met people with a similarly nomadic childhood (compared to some, mine actually isn't!), there is a sense of recognition, we come from the same place - nowhere. And whenever that's been a topic of conversation, they all agreed with me they want their children to grow up in one place. I was struck by somebody who grew up in three different places in Africa before moving to Wales at age 12, who said he wanted his children to grow up "Bristolians". Yes, that is probably a good way of putting it.

Rockslide near Clifton Suspension bridge

This must be one of the best rockslides in the country. Below the observatory, overlooking the suspension bridge

Post Twitter

This year I have struggled a bit with something possibly related to the above. I hope I can write about it in abstract terms without too much detail, but I do want to write about it. I have recently been a bit withdrawn, not been to as many meetups, and the biggest change has been with social media. And by social media I mean Twitter, as I'm not really on any others (nominally on Facebook, but log in about once a month and hardly ever post). Even this fact probably sets me apart from many of my Twitter friends. You get the drift, I am "apart" at the moment, rather than "a part of". But it's of my own choosing, so it's okay, although I'd wish I just could be part of it with ease.

Twitter can be so many different things to different people. My Facebook-loving sister-in-law tweeted "Twitter - metaphor for life? occassionally fun but mainly utterly pointless and confusing". I don't share that experience. I landed on Twitter out of curiosity, then gradually it became a door to something new. It is hard to overestimate the (positive!) impact it has had on my life. For a start, almost everybody I know in the Bristol web dev world, I know directly or indirectly through Twitter. Some of these people are close friends now, and there are many that I care about.

How this withdrawal came about (real-life and Twitter), I don't want to write too much about. I ended up in this place where I didn't feel that confident and found it difficult to be part of it all; most of all, I found it exhausting. Ultimately, it probably has to do with just accepting who you are and trusting that you will do and say things that are acceptable to the people that matter (and the others don't matter - as in that Dr Seuss saying). It also has to do with the paradox of not taking yourself too seriously while respecting yourself enough; which I think is a good way of relating to others, too.

That is not the whole story, but part of it. Incidentally, I found staying off Twitter (and I don't even check it much now, that hasn't happened in the 3+ years I've been on it) quite beneficial. I think it makes me calmer and able to focus better. These effects have been described by a lot of people - who then tweet about it. People usually have the reverse problem of mine, being on Twitter too much!

It's a bit of a shame because I am also missing out on some real-world socialising that goes with it, which I previously enjoyed. But I am quite sure now that it will come again, if maybe not in the exact same way. In fact, I was perhaps overdoing it a bit at some point, too!

In any case this whole episode has given me the chance to examine some unhealthy beliefs and question them, and find better ways of responding when I feel overwhelmed by things. Maybe I will elaborate on this some time in case it might be helpful to others. I guess I first have to practice more and see if there really is a long term improvement. Also I have written so much now, this exhausts my capacity for a while!

Writing anyhow is something I still want to do more! It is more important to me that I'll be able to write more blogposts than being on Twitter a lot. And I am glad I have written this one now. It is out of the way. And I hope it will make space for lots of interesting new things, which hopefully will involve some code as well.

baking xmas cookies

And with that, a happy Christmas to all!

This post was written 12 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: christmas / twitter / mooc /

Summer of 2009 - Learning journeys and inhabiting the web

This post was written 15 years ago.
Thu, 09 Jul 2009

Is the web of today a place mainly for teenagers and geeks? You are reading the blog of someone whose "social network" (I mean the offline one) is in big parts not represented on the web, not even on facebook (which I myself don't like very much).

Whose friends seem to regard blogging as a slightly strange and obtrusive activity. - This is only in one case based on direct evidence. But I can certainly say it's unusual. I don't know of any of my friends that they are writing a blog. Maybe they do it in secret ;) Saying that, I have not told many people about mine, but that might change soon. Let's face it. Many people my age (and please, I am not ancient!) do not really participate in online life as it exists today. I have one friend in Germany whom I could imagine exclaiming now "What do you mean? Online life? That's not life."

I first became aware of how big that generation gap was through a very insightful and funny article in the "Berliner Morgenpost" - "Brauche ich das wirklich :-)!" ("Do I really need this :-)!" ) In it a journalist describes discussions and arguments with his teenage children regarding social networking and online games. His children are way superior to him in their ways on the web, their virtual world is their very own space that the parents don't understand. The children wind their father up about his cluelessness, while people his generation are romanticizing the past without the web. Of course there are parents and generally, middle-aged people, who move on the web as skillfully as today's teenagers. And where could that be more true than in the world of web development? The geeks embraced Twitter years ago. I assume most of them won't take the social networking as far as the digital natives - they are probably more interested in building the technology behind social networks-, in any case, they are much closer to the youngsters' experiences than your average end-thirty/forty-plus parent.

For me, one big difference between somebody "inhabiting the web" and someone who doesn't is whether you bring some of your personality to the web. That means that people you have never met have the possibility to get to know you a little. It is up to you to determine the level of personal detail and how sincere you are. As a reader of (mainly web developers') blogs, I have enjoyed learning about other people's thoughts. Often it is not the "47+ ways of promoting your website" that get my attention but when people write about big or little incidents in their lives that gave them new insights, or just ideas they have about a certain topic. In fact, in my case there is the danger that I get too interested in learning about people rather than web development!!

So far I am not that connected on the web. This is not a problem as I have enough friends in "real" life. Also, for a long time I've been suspicious of the online networking because of the time it will take up. Still, it would be more fun to know more people online. Especially on Twitter. I joined Twitter out of curiosity and because I was interested in working out how you can pull your tweets on your homepage. But what I found then was totally unexpected. People writing witty comments in just 140 characters, passing on useful links I'd missed out on otherwise, chatting with their friends. Even people giving a running commentary on their baby's birth ("Wife 7cm dilated" - not what I would have liked my husband to blurt out to the world, but as I said, it's up to you). My own tweets are pretty daft most of the time, although I have passed on links that I found interesting. I don't know if my followers even read them. I'm curious how it will all develop . It's kind of funny, the social networking I so long refused by not joining facebook sneaked in through the backdoor, and now I find few people to network with ;) I could do it through facebook, of course, I just still can't warm to it.. So I will see that I get more people I know onto Twitter or meet more people on the web ;)

It is time to wrap this post up. One of our digital natives has joined me, and we'll soon set off to the Tobacco factory to watch "Pinocchio". But as I was thinking to point friends and relatives to this post, I will quickly write about what we've been up to otherwise. Our daugther received her very first school report on Friday. It was really good and I am very proud of her.She has progressed well on her "learning journey" as it is called in school speak. The report also stated that she "enjoys using the computer and demonstrates excellent mouse control". That's my girl! Matin last week went to the "World Conference of Science journalists" in London where he chaired a panel discussion about the role of blogs (!) in science jorunalism. Luckily this event took place in a bigger hall than most of the other talks. The conference happened during the tropical heat wave of last week and it was incredibly hot in the old Edwardian building, but that specific room was okay. Tube and train though must have felt like sitting in an oven, and it only took Matin two seconds to get under the shower after he had arrived home.

As for me, I would have liked to write about a recent development regarding an organisation I am part of, and what I have learnt from being there. I might do it another time, but maybe it's better to leave some things unsaid. Apart from that, I am still determined to progress further in my web development, and to some time earn a proper income from it. It should be easier when both children go to school. I might be an unlikely candidate, but that could also be an advantage as I see things from a different angle than many of the younger developers. That of a 30+ year-old digital immigrant ;) . As you can see, we are on the way to becoming a "digital family". Curiously, screens don't play a big role in my children's life, they hardly spend any time with them. They still mostly play as I used to as a child. Some things change, some things stay the same.

This post was written 15 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: twitter /

Twitter, politics and the web

This post was written 15 years ago.
Sat, 04 Jul 2009

It has been so hot here over the past few days, this doesn't feel like England anymore. A light, but persistent headache plus a toddler who was going berserk at times, did the rest to make me stumble, more than walk, through the day. But the headache is gone, and the heat seems to be subsiding. So, what do I have to report? My online life has clearly been dominated by Twitter.

While I've been following a lot of the links to web resources, I didn't get round to reading most of them. For a while, I also got distracted by politics. One thing was a series in the Guardian - published in May - about this year's Bilderberg conference (Matin laughs at my sudden interest in "conspiracy theories" - except they are not, Bilderberg does exist!). And then there was the fervent discussion in Germany about internet censorship. This was in many ways remarkable. It demonstrated once again how politics and political propaganda work, but also, it showed that there is a new group of young people taking on the conventional parties, and this can only be positive for the German political landscape.

The discussion was about a law proposed by the governing coalition which would introduce access blocking of certain web pages. Seemingly, this was being introduced to combat child pornography, but in more than one publication by the governing parties themselves it transpired that they were also, in the long run, interested in protecting copyrights, especially of the musical industry. The power to blacklist the sites would lie in the hands of the "Bundeskriminalamt" (federal crimnal police office).

Now, how could you be against something that is combating child pornography?? The question is, is access blocking an effective means to do this? Apparently it is pretty easy to get round the "stop sign" posted on the internet when you try to access and indexed site. And why not force the sites to be taken down altogether? A lot of people spoke out against the law, people working with the internet day by day, saying they were ineffective methods (leading to the slogan "Löschen statt sperren" (don't block, delete) and also that this was paving the way for a general censorship of the net, and the power shouldn't lie in the hands of the federal police. There was an e-petition, the most successful to date, to prevent this law. Over 130.000 people signed it. - Still, the law was passed on the 18th of June. But while this might seem a victory to main-stream politics, it has caused so much stir and made many people aware of how poor the understanding of middle-aged politicians of the internet is, that it might just give the pirates a lot of winds in their sails.

The pirate party are pretty much a single issue party, one could paraphrase the issue at heart as "freedom on the web" I would say. Is that the most pressing problem in politics at the moment? Maybe not, but it is an important issue I think, and definitely worth fighting for. In this country, we already have a technology called "cleanfeed" cleaning up the internet, and you won't even notice it, as you just get an error message "page not found" when you try to access a blocked site.

It might be working fine and serving its cause, but can we ever be sure someone won't abuse it for blocking out sites that they just don't agree with? - On a wider level, also taking in other articles/radio programmes etc. there is one thing in politics I am now convinced of. We have to resist the state gaining too much control over our private lives, private data. I understand a lot better than I used to when people say "NO to identy cards". I cannot mention Twitter and politics without writing about Iran and the protests there, following the elections of 12 June. But I have read less about it than the previous topic. There was a lot going on on Twitter, that is one thing I can say, and quite a few of the people I am following coloured their avatars green. Also, people changed their locations to Teheran. There was a massive wave of support for the protesters in Iran. Hopefully, in the end they will prevail.

It is getting very late once again. I should better stop soon, although I would have liked to write much more, about what we've done and seen in the past month. So, when is this going to become a web design blog :) Well, it was a lot about the web, at least. Good night/good morning for now.

This post was written 15 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: twitter / censorship /

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work - and Twitter

This post was written 15 years ago.
Wed, 27 May 2009

Alright. This will be a round-up of a talk I heard last week(!), plus my own thoughts on the topic. I have very little time to write.. The talk was called "The pleasures and sorrows of work", by Alain de Botton who has written a book of the same title. This event was part of the "Festival of Ideas" in Bristol.

The topic is close to my heart, as it must be for many people, but I was also interested in seeing AdB as a speaker. He turned out to be a very good one. He went straight "in medias res" and gave what I suppose was a summary of his book with extensive explanations of his thoughts. It was also very entertaining. He talked about people with various professions he had come across during his research. In one case this was everyone who had handled a fish on its way form the Indian Ocean to - Bristol.

Then there was a careers counsellor, people at an accountancy firm, people marketing a biscuit (did I get this right?)... He also talked about his work as a writer which I found particularly interesting. What also stuck with me, were thoughts about the nature of work. One thing was his view that the main criterium to see a job as fulfilling is that it makes a positive difference in people's lives. The more I think about it, I think this is really true - for most people. AdB observed that the sense of making somebody's life a little better was often lost these days. For example, if you are a worker on a production line, making biscuits, you are not involved in selling the biscuits and seeing the satisfaction people get from it. (By the way there was a really funny reply to a question at the end - the question was staged I suppose - about what biscuits people in the South West were inclined to eat. AdB confessed to being a huge fan of fig rolls)

Also very notable was his account of seeing the careers counsellor being called in to conduct a session with workers that were being made redundant. AdB stated that he was initially very "suspicious" of this approach, it seemed forcefully optimistic in an American way, which he thought was often rousing suspicions with British people. However, he found it extremely moving when he saw people taking part in this session. It involved them being asked to stand up and talk about their childhood dreams. AdB recalled what a huge impression it could make when a burly 45-year-old man stood up and started talking about what he had wanted to become as a child. The approach the careers counsellor generally took was, first of all, giving people a piece of paper and making them write down everything they liked. This would bring to light what people's real interests were. It would very often turn out that a very little thing had made them veer off course. A throw-away remark by somebody, the wish of their father, some discouraging experience.

Interestingly, according to AdB, the notion that a job should bring fulfillment and also the idea that a job - kind of - defines who you are, is relatively young. AdB jokingly fixed the turning point to "middle of the 18th century". Before that, apparently people didn't expect to get any joy out of work. At this point I was thinking how starkly this contrasts with Tom Hodgkinson's view who in his book "How to be free" often cites the middle ages as providing a much better work environment, where people knew where there place was, didn't work too long hours, and often sang while they were doing their work. Maybe the two authors were talking of different things. In any case I cannot speak for or against either of them, as I don't know about that long gone-by past.

There would be so much more that one could mention about this talk. I'm sure it has been done somewhere on the web (I haven't looked) but more so certainly in his book. Which makes me think I should probably buy it. He has marketed it well to me ;) Shall I really speak about my own experience now? - Why not: I had a completely analogue childhood. The only times first signs of the dawning digital age showed up were when my father brought home funny coloured cards with lots of rectangle-shaped holes in them. (what are these called in English? - in German it's simply "Lochkarten" [punch cards of course!]) . So I couldn't possibly dream of becoming a web person. But as soon as I had discovered the principle of how to create websites, I was hooked. Without actually realising how much so. For a long time something has been missing - the belief and the will to go through with something you really like, I think, and the ability to take the necessary steps. I had mentioned to friends - and once even to a boss - that what I would really like to do is create websites. But it never occurred to me that I could actually try to make that my profession. I still sometimes have doubts about it. The worst thing is to compare yourself with other people, especially looking at other people's stylish websites. As Tim van Damme (the maker of http://madebyelephant.com) once wrote: Don't look at CSS galleries (although I think he certainly shouldn't have a problem with that).

But as mentioned before, I HAVE to re-design this my own website - or have several themes that can be selected, Jeremy Keith style. Keep on dreaming, baby ;) . Anyway, I do think I have found/will soon find a way to apply my skills in a meaningful and money-earning way, and I am quite glad about that. I think I love web design - because it is all about communication. Communication was not always easy for me as a child - mostly for external reasons - but something always important to me - it makes me see beauty in other areas of life. Since seriously learning about web design, I learn more and more about design principles and I have started to look at why things appear beautiful . I can only recommend to everyone doing it. - Because I like the marriage of creativity with the technical, logical. As a child I loved things like "Einstein's riddle" (different coloured houses, different nationalities, whose pet is the fish?) - more reasons I have not time to list.

I actually wanted to write about my Twitter experience as well. But that would be too much now, and is off topic. Just one thing, Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton) actually started following me after I had tweeted about him. But I think that's an app that just follows everyone who mentioned his name on Twitter. Still, looks quite nice to read "Alain de Botton" is now following you on Twitter! ;)

This post was written 15 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: books / work / webdev / twitter /