Rabid Hobbyist

Bob Davies – Manchester UK

Freedom, fortune and favours in a digital world

It’s been just over two years now since I made the jump to self-employment. Over that time I’ve learned a lot, not only about myself and my industry, but it has also widened my perspective on what it takes to experience a ‘happy’ working environment.

Some things about going out on my own have been hard, and others have been easier than I could ever have imagined. Before I left, I was concerned about pretty much everything; Would I have enough to work to fill my days, how would I pay the bills? Would/could anyone help me out if I got into financial trouble, and spending my days removed from the social environment of an office, would the day-to-day activities become dreary and dull?

I’m delighted however, to say that none of these concerns proved to be founded in reality. They were merely ‘frighteners’, the ghouls and wailing banshees of my own hesitations. When I jumped: it seemed I didn’t have to fall very far before landing on my feet.

I had a pretty limited contact list in the start of people at companies I’d been in touch with who might need software services, and of course I made sure they all knew I was available for work. Thankfully a few small jobs opened up (fix this, patch that stuff), and covered rent and bills for a few months.

With that headstart on my finances I decided to get a move on with my own products.
7 small websites, 2 mobile apps, 2 desktop application prototypes, and 6 months later: I eventually took a bit of a left-turn and found a market I liked, and a product I enjoyed creating.

So now I’m taking photos and creating illustrations for the bulk of my income, writing software for a little extra, and working with a bunch of interesting people all over the world. I work very long days, but enjoy every second, and I have not had to make the dreaded commute for years. My time is my own and I have the freedom to take an afternoon, a whole day, or even a week away from proper ‘work’ if the mood so takes me.

I just wish more people could take that same leap and join me in experiencing a world which isn’t filled with bad news and the endless 9-to-5 grind, but is instead filled with activities I enjoy, people I like, and ultimately with so much ‘leisure’ it’s hard to know what to do with it all. :)

Silent Start v0.1 – Launch windows console apps silently

I recently ran into a bug on Firefox which caused console-based executables launched from within a firefox extension to show the ugly console window when running on windows.

I need to execute the fantastic exiv2 application to read/write metadata and really didn’t want to be displaying ugly boxes to lots of people. The options were pretty much to either kludge it with vbscript (yuk), or do something a little less kludgy, hence Silent Start.

It still needs work, but for now it suits my purposes. The source is included in the archive so if anybody wants to improve it, please do so. It is licensed CC-BY-SA. It would be great to receive any fixes or amendments.

Name: SilentStart
Version: 0.1
Author: Robert.A.Davies (bobbigmac) admin@robertadavies.co.uk
Description: SilentStart is a very simple wrapper for the windows CreateProcess api call.

Usage:
silentstart.exe "c:\path\name.exe" [params...]

Instructions:
First command-line parameter should be the name or full path of the application you wish to execute.
All remaining parameters will be passed to that executable.
The SilentStart process waits for the silently called process to complete before terminating.
The exit code will be 1 if application fails to locate the executable and make the createprocess call.
The exit code will be returned from the called application if the call is made successfully.

Known issues:
1) Validation of command-line could be improved to check path format and existence of requested executable.
2) Attempts to write errors to stdout are non-functional (uses MessageBox as fallback).

Notes:
My C++ skills are limited at best, please ensure you check the source for problems or potential overflows before using in any production environment.

Licence: CC-BY-SA
Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
No guarantees. Use entirely at your own risk.
It would be nice if you let me know when/where you are using it and of any issues you encounter.

Unresolved… Freedom in the New Year

New Year always seems like a strange celebration; simply an arbitrary (and slightly inaccurate) measure of the Earth having circled the sun again, yet many people feel compelled to assess their standing in life, their path, their achievements and goals.

During this year I’ve been pretty well blessed with fantastic freedoms in the use of my time, in my goal-setting and with the ability to drive my own life. There is however, still much to accomplish in my business, and ways to continue the growth in my personal life.

As much I enjoy a good list-making exercise, and the self-satisfaction which comes with knocking items off it as they’re completed, I’ve decided this year to avoid the firm rules of a set of resolutions, and instead just to be content to say: I don’t know what I’m going to achieve this year.

Unknowing

I could fish up some statistics on how many people actually stick to their resolutions, and highlight the post-january blues commonly seen in white-collar workplaces as resolutions slip and slide, and people are imbued with a failure-sense, however valid or otherwise.

Though I’m not going to do that, because I know for every failure there’s a success… for every dropped goal, there’s an unintentional gain, even if it’s just a simple lesson for life or recognition of some aspect of one’s own character.

So this year, don’t resolve simply to resolve, embrace the uncertainty in life and be prepared to learn something more about yourself and the others around you…

Simply, resolve to remain unresolved.

Happy New Year :)

Planes, Trains and Ohne Automobiles

I’ve spent the last week in Berlin, perusing the city, taking in the sights, and learning in brief what there is to learn about the history of Germany, from Prussia to ‘the war’, and onto the fall of the wall.

For the most part it seems much like any other western European city, with the exception of the clear east-west divide, and the associated fallout from communist rule.

Grand designs

Oddly, from the Reichstag, to the palaces, museums, domes and other grand achievements, none of them struck me as quite as significant an accomplishment as the Berlin public transport system. Simply put, it’s phenomenal.

Of course I say this from the standpoint of a British transportee, we’re very familiar with late or slow trains, shifting (and disappearing) bus timetables, constant roadworks and seemingly ineffective infrastructure refits.

The Berlin transport system was by comparison a blissful experience to use, even at peak hours the trams weren’t too crammed. Not once did I have my face pushed up against the inside of an automatic door, which is a London-based experience I’m never keen to repeat. The buses were peaceful (no chavs playing crappy songs through even crappier speakers every second row of seats), and the waiting time for any bus, train or tram was never more than 7 minutes.

All trams ran almost as often during the night as the day, and on a network where you would rarely be more than a 5-minute walk from your final destination. Each stop was announced by voice and by a handy little screen at the end of each carriage, along with the final destination, so I’m happy to say we always alighted exactly where we’d intended to.

Just the start

Amazingly, it’s not just the big things they get right, it’s all the little ones: the ticket machines are fairly easy to use, and provide multiple languages (my German is worse than my Klingon :)), we had at least 2 two trams actually wait for us to finish running down the platform without it passing us with a head-shake from the driver (any British commuter will be very familiar with this head-shake).

I’m estimating we made about 30 separate journeys over the course of the week, most very short, just a few stops at a time. This was not a problem given the ticketing system validated a weekly ticket once and once only. The ninja ticket-inspectors dressed in plain-clothes with nothing but a discreet badge on requesting your ticket were polite and patient: digging through 6 layers of jacket, jumper, shirts and wallet would probably have you thrown from any moving british vehicle 😉

Add all that to the cleanliness and comfort of the carriages and cabs, along with the generally smooth rides, and lovely little tunes on the S-Bahn (Overground train) before each stop, and even then there are still more good things to be said.

I was even nosy enough to watch a few of the tram drivers as they worked, they smiled and waved at the other drivers, they didn’t look quite so dour and depressed as you average British driver, and even noticed one brushing his hair as he fiddled with the assorted dials and buttons at his convenience.

Emergence

When considering the effort required in managing a workflow on this scale, I obviously find it hard to model exactly how something can be that well run. Transport in the UK has always seemed something of a slap-dash affair, maybe I’ll get there, maybe I wont; maybe for dinner, maybe for tea, supper if I have to change at Watford Junction or take a rail-replacement bus.

Perhaps it’s as much else in Britain, a case of decentralisation causing the worst of all worlds for everyone (except of course the politicians selling their policy votes and the City VCs raking in the profit). I’ve worked in large scale transport projects in the UK in my corporate past, and it’s usually farmed out to so many consultancies and contractors that no-one piece knows what any other is doing. That may be a great way to build a ‘Cube‘, but not so useful for any public system :)

Home

Well anyway, despite all I’ve said, I’m home now, and it’s back to long waits, unknown delays, dour drivers and chavs, upset schedules, replacement buses, long ticket queues and broken machines.

But you know what?

As much as I enjoyed Berlin, and can appreciate it’s successes… there’s just not enough ‘crazy’ there for me, for now I’ll stick with being British :)

…but to Kindle Minds

Last month after a few years of waiting for an international version to become available, I became the proud owner of an Amazon Kindle.

I’ve had some past experience with broad-format digital text readers (Usually as a secondary function of personal organisers), going way back to my first Palm around ’94. Back then, they were an incredibly poor substitute for the real thing. I read a lot of books on the more recent incarnations of the XDAs in Microsoft’s .lit format, and even for a while on the Stanza app for iPhone (Which is as awesome as it’s possible to get for reading on a phone).

Despite the shortfalls of previous devices… I’ve been hopeful. Every time I’ve needed to spend even a single night away from home, to carry enough books to cover the train/plane, transfers and hotel; I’ve given thought to the day which seemed ever so distant, that I could take just one piece of tech to store them all. OK, to be honest, my dream was either for an eBook reader OR Mary Poppins’ infinity-bottomed bag :) but I think we’ve all a while to wait for that one.

Now I’m very happy to have the best ever ‘approximation’ of a real book, capable of taking most of my library with me, weighing and sized little more than a light hardback. However…

Still an approximation

The device is bulkier than the typical paperback, and though not much heavier, it has some significant design flaws.

The large margin for one seems completely unnecessary, the keys are small and difficult to press, making it unwieldy to use annotations and other advanced tools. The lack of a previous-page button on the right-hand side means two handed reading if you’re skipping back and forth.

The user-interface needs some work, it’s clearly well put together, and is responsive providing your battery is kept well charged (between 20%-80% is the butter-zone), though it was kind of strange to discover that turning off the wireless makes the screen-refresh faster and produces less artifacts. Weird, but useful to know.

I’ve had a few friends pick it up for a quick look, and the first thing I’ve had to say to each of them as they’ve tried to interact with the user-interface is: “Nooooo, it’s not touch-screen”, which of course gets a sigh and a look that asks “Why not?”. I’ve seen some of the newer Sony readers have touch-screens, and even though the Kindle is over $100 less expensive than these, I’d certainly like to see it in the next generation.

The most critical design flaw for me is the lack of a built-in reading light. The currently available goose-neck light accessories are merely typical lights for traditional books, with no consideration in their design for the shape or ergonomics of the kindle itself. A simple embedded LED array would be more than sufficient (anyone who’s ever taken apart an LCD mobile phone will know what I mean here).

Even with those flaws, it’s core functionality is flawless… to read books. Select a book, proceed through it, and have it save your place, I cannot fault it for that.

Extra Goodies

The Kindle even has some useful features I didn’t think I’d use, but I do.

The MP3 player is painfully simple (you can skip forward but can’t skip back a track), though I’ve loaded on some Johann Johannson, which with the warm timbre of the built-in stereo speakers, makes sitting and reading anything a delight.

The web-browser although a little glitchy (and currently somewhat gimped for users outside of the US) is very handy for checking Wikipedia for the background of a subject I’ve been reading about.

I’ve recently been trying to learn to speak French, and as my girlfriend will testify, I’m not very good at it. However, with the help of Merriam-webster’s french-english dictionary set as my default dictionary: I can (although slowly) work my way through french literature, with a start in the original works of Jules Verne, downloaded from the wonderful Project Gutenberg for free. I can’t wait to see this improve further in future updates.

Amazonian Service History

Not so long ago, I was paid fairly well by my corporate overlords, and working long hours, travelling around the UK 3-4 days a week left me plenty of time to read. Subsequently I ‘suffered’ from Amazon-Addiction: £300+ a month spent on books, mainly from the recommendations list on many topics branching out from my main interests.

In all that time I’ve never had cause to doubt the quality of Amazon’s service, that’s probably why they became one of the world’s top retailers.

In some ways, the experience of getting their Kindle was both the best, and the worst I’ve ever had when dealing with Amazon. Everything was perfect as per usual, especially unusual given the scale of operations they must be facing for such a big launch (that of the internationalised device).

But it IS the first time they’ve made me (as a non-US citizen) ‘feel’ less important than our colonial counterparts (how’s that for flame-bait? ;)). Why?

Well, I’ll tell you why.

The wireless connection was one of the main reasons I’ve wanted this particular device for so long, and have been patient simply because we all knew it was the network operators causing the delay. I was happy to wait, safe in the knowledge that it would get sorted out eventually, and we’d all have a basic free-wireless internet (albeit even just for plain text).

That the wireless connection has been crippled for users outside the US to only wikipedia has been a gut-punch for us all. I can understand why, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I’m hoping once they’ve proved the revenue model to the network operators throughout the rest of the world, they’ll be able to open up the lines a little and make more sources available (Wikipedia does NOT know all… yet).

This sums up my feeling that the international launch was just a little too early, and too poorly considered, as evidenced by the fact the price was reduced just 2 weeks after launch. Though it was pretty awesome of Amazon to refund us all the $20 difference, I’d like to see Sony do that for the Playstation for example… exactly, fat chance :)

Pub. Lic. Do. Main.

One thing I’d have very much liked to see in the Kindle store is something which has done really well on the iPhone app-store. Simply put it’s Free-ness.

When I first booted the Kindle, I had 2 books: the user-manual, and a quick-start guide. No books at all. That’s a scalextric without cars, or meccano without screws… So I ask here:

Please please please Amazon, give us some free books. With digital delivery costing mere cents, stick a copy of something from the Gutenberg archive, or get involved with Feedbooks, or do something to get us free texts.

Yes sometimes I’ll want to buy Sun Tzu from you (I think I already did a couple of years ago), but honestly, I’m not going to pay $15 for a digital version only, no way. For those prices I want the paper in my hands, hey, sell me the paper version and transfer a digital copy to my kindle so I have both. Since it costs you guys almost nothing to distribute public domain works, please give them to me for free if I buy a ‘real’ copy.

Don’t try and charge me full price for something I can get from Gutenberg for nothing more than the effort of plugging in a USB plug. :)

On a related note, it would be really nice if I could download digital copies of the books I’ve bought from you in the past, I’d be happy to pay a little for the privilege of being able to read anything on my home-bookshelf when I’m hundreds of miles away.

A Flawed Masterpiece

I’ve used the Kindle to read several novels now, and despite the flaws, perhaps even because of them, I’m as enamoured with the device as I was the day it arrived.

It’s broader purpose is perfectly realised; and the small things it does, it does them well.

It’s not a toy, it’s clearly a tool… for learning, for inspiration, for growth and experience. There aren’t many devices in my box of gadgets that I can say that about. If you enjoy reading it’s simple, go buy one.

Welcome to another new blog

I’ve had a few personal blogs before, and to be honest, I never really embraced the format. I always started out with the good intentions to keep it upto date, to keep it relevant, useful, entertaining and individual.

Then a few weeks later, I’d forget to post on the day I’d set out to, end up one post behind ‘the plan’, then two, three, and so on. Or I’d spend only a few minutes to put out a half-hearted post, only to delete it when I read it the next day.

This was due to a few reasons:

  • I didn’t read many blogs (apart from technical articles) so hadn’t grasped how to write them, or what to write about.
  • I never understood why people would spend their time reading lifespam, thus why spend time writing it.
  • Doing anything on a ‘regular schedule’ has always been somewhat hit-and-miss for me.
  • My intentions were good, but they weren’t really ‘for me’, I was trying to blog about things I thought people might want to read rather than things I ‘wanted to write’.

So why start another one?

Since I left my ‘corporate’ job in April last year to start my own business, I’ve been able to spend time discovering the ways I like to live my life.

At first glance it’s been a tough 18 months, working round the clock, stretching to make ends meet… but, I’ve had balance, for the first time in my life I’ve been able to freely decide for myself, what time to get up, when to eat, how much and which work to do, how much play to indulge in, how much and when of almost everything.

As a result, I spend more of each and every day creating than I ever did before. I’ve worked to improve my programming and design skills, my problem solving and analytical abilities, photography, illustration, drawing, painting, writing, guitar and piano playing, even papercraft, plasticene, electronics and others, all in small breaks spread throughout the day.

I now see that life isn’t about work-eat-sleep, it’s about much more than that. Life is about LIFE. So to encourage myself to continue to indulge in my own creativity, I’ll be creating posts highlighting the sometimes-mundane, and the sometimes inspiring.

So you see, I’m making this blog not for you, the reader… but for me, and while I can aim to make the posts inspiring, informative and entertaining to others… this time around, with this blog: I make no promises.

Welcome :)