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.
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.)
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.
This must be one of the best rockslides in the country. Below the observatory, overlooking the suspension bridge
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.
And with that, a happy Christmas to all!