Newsletter #5 – Video game analogies, Live life asynchronously, and MakeCode Arcade

“The goal isn’t just to finish the race of life, but to finish the race with nothing left to give”
-John R. Wood: Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Mission

Video game analogies

Thought experiment time.  If you had to describe your life as a video game (pick a gameplay mechanic, theme, story, character, etc.) what would you choose?  For me it would be one of the earliest games I ever played, the “Mario Bros” Game and Watch multi-screen game.  In the game (pictured below) you control Mario and Luigi at a bottling plant filling boxes that are moving back and forth on multiple vertical levels before finally loading them on a truck.  The gameplay mechanic of controlling each brother up and down separately, thinking ahead to when a box would need to be caught by one of the brothers, and the patterns of movement clicked with me from an early age.  How do you see your life as a video game analogy?

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Every week / month I hear developers, public speakers, etc. discussing “don’t live your life by default“, “start with why“, and more.  I’ll propose my own “phrase to live by” into the mix.

Live life asynchronously.

Live life asynchronously

Let me expand upon this idea a little bit further.

Asynchronous means not occurring at the same time, as in computers and programming when a method begins but releases control until it signals back to the system that the asynchronous method is finished.

In real life there are many tasks that can be started and then picked up when they have completed: laundry, cooking a meal, charging batteries, compiling code, etc.  The interesting part is to figure out when you can start one task and know that it will be ready to pick back up when it is done.

Personally I know that I can start a load of dishes in the dishwasher right after dinner and have them ready to put away shortly before bed.  When I get home from work I can play a game of chase around the house with my older kids and find toys / books / clothes that need to be picked up (doubles as some exercise for all of us).

The other aspect of doing things asynchronously is that it forces you to think about your future self (and others).  By doing X now I know that in Y hours / days / weeks I’ll be ready to finish it.  This ties in to investing (financially, academically, etc.) as well.  I could buy a fancy new electronic gadget now, or I could put that money towards my retirement account / kids’ school costs / donation to charity or plenty of other future needs.

Despite the natural tendency for some folks to minmax the optimal set of tasks that can be completed in a given 24 hr period, the first two words of the phrase mean the most: “live life”.  I’ve never thought to myself “I’m glad I fit in those additional 5 chores around the house today at the expense of spending time with my wife or kids”.  Go on and live life with people first.

MakeCode Arcade

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Recently I found a cool retro game programming platform called MakeCode Arcade.  MakeCode Arcade is free, open-source, and entirely accessible through a browser with no installs required.  Similar to MIT’s Scratch offering you can build games using predefined blocks (or JavaScript if you feel like going advanced) that include game logic, sprites, animations, controller input, and more.  You can also play your own games or a whole host of community games through the browser or download your games to a number of hardware devices (most cost less than $40 last I checked).  If you feel like collaborating you can also share your projects on GitHub for others to enjoy and work on.  I’m looking forward to introducing MakeCode Arcade to my daughter this year to see what she comes up with.

On a similar note I’ve also grown very interested in chiptune music and how it is created.  One of my favorite “artists” is Rich Vreeland who goes by the name Disasterpeace.  I highly recommend these albums:

If you are interested in creating your own chiptune music you can find a handful of tools below. Even though this article says for Windows 10 there are offerings that also have versions for Mac and Linux.

Chiptune music creators for Windows 10
https://www.ilovefreesoftware.com/19/windows-10/chiptune-music-creator-windows-10.html

Have you tried out any fun retro gaming platforms or found good chiptune music?  Share back if so.

-Frog Out

Newsletter #4 – Worthwhile gifts, MFA / password managers, and books

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Worthwhile gifts

Before I start, Christmas / birthdays / anniversaries / other important events != giving gifts as the primary focus in our house.  With that said, my wife and I have been reflecting on the gifts that we give to each other or other people.  For our kids we’ve been looking into more “experience” type gifts.  This could be a bowling night out, art classes, tickets to a kids musical, etc.  So far this is working well and helps our kids not to become consumed with “things” but instead making memories.  It helps that we take lots of pictures and then upload them to a digital frame that rotates through pictures from past years.

For my wife and I we’ve been looking into gifts that give both of us more time to spend with each other or help keep us in the moment.  I’ll share some examples.

  • Smart home garage door opener – auto-closes at night if accidentally left open, provides peace of mind when going to bed.
  • Cordless Dyson vacuum – can move from room to room and vacuum in half the time it used to take with corded, heavy canister-style vacuum we previously had.
  • WeMo smart switches for lights – we are slowly helping our 2 older kids learn to turn off lights when they leave a room.  In the meantime the ability to turn off all the basement lights without needing to go up and down the stairs while cooking dinner / feeding baby / doing ten other things is a big help.  I think I’ll be adding more of these over time to other rooms.

 

MFA / password managers

Another worth-while gift that you can give to your family / friends / coworkers / etc. is the (strong) encouragement to turn on multi-factor authentication (MFA) and use a password manager.  I’ve recently read two interesting articles online that highlight the need to secure your digital / online accounts:

  1. Your Pa$$word doesn’t matter
    • In majority of credential theft scenarios, password doesn’t matter as bad actor can obtain them
    • Don’t focus on password limitations, instead implement MFA and threat detection processes
    • If using password manager, then max out the length of password
    • Use of MFA reduces credential theft by 99.9% [this was enough to cement my thoughts]
  2. All your creds are belong to us!

Regarding a password manager, I registered the majority of the accounts that my wife and I share (Netflix, banking, mortgage, retirement plan, etc.)  If she needs to access them (heaven forbid if I were in a coma, passed away unexpectedly, or similar) she would need to access them.  By using a shared password manager (currently Lastpass family plan) those shared accounts can be accessed by either of us.  For any accounts that aren’t shared (personal email, etc.) my wife is also the emergency contact who can gain admin access in the event that would be needed.  Overall this gives both of us more peace of mind about planning for the future.

 

Books

Reading (blogs, online magazines, books, etc.) can introduce you to new ideas and keep your brain active to help you boost your creativity (see newsletter #2).  In the past few months I’ve had the pleasure to read (still in progress on the 3rd one) 3 books that have had a profound impact on me.  I want to share these with you in the hopes that you read them, incorporate their ideas into your own life, and if you feel moved to do so pass them along to others.

  • Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box
    • We “put ourselves into a box” when we let our own emotions or thoughts obscure our view of other people.  We can get out of this box and see others clearly when we shift our attitudes.  The applications of these concepts can apply to family, work, and other relationships / environments.  I highly recommend this book and I plan to re-read this again in the future.
  • Bullshit Jobs: A Theory
    • Excuse the language in the title of this book, but this book has profoundly changed the way I see my own work and the work of others.  As we as a human race move towards more automation and less reliance on manual labor the rise of BS jobs has increased.  This book goes into the history and current state of jobs, how people as a whole value their job / life, and ways to address the changing nature of jobs in the future.  I’m still internalizing many of the ideas brought up in this book but can see this making large changes to my life / work.
  • Be the Master (4th edition)
    • I am 2/3 of the way through this book but wanted to list it as well.  Be the Master focuses on how to become a master (does not mean a “know it all” or “expert in everything“) in your career and also how to share that with the next generation of workers.  You may have heard of many of the concepts discussed in this book, but Don does an excellent job of succinctly reviewing them and sharing stories / analogies to illustrate all of the points.

Do you have any worthwhile gifts (or books) that have made an impact for you?  Please share back if so.

-Frog Out

Newsletter #3 – Tools / automation and the right song

Tools / Automation

I’m not an anthropologist or kinesiologist, but using a broad definition tools can be thought of as an extension of the human body.

  • A hammer allows you to swing your arm and impart more force than your hand could
  • A knife / scissors lets you cut apart materials with more precision than tearing with your bear hands
  • A bicycle lets you travel faster / more distance than your feet can carry you

I like to apply similar logic to computers, automation tools, etc.

  • PowerShell / Bash / can automate processes or tests rather than needing to manually run them
  • Automated alerting / bill pay keeps my financial accounts in check without needing to manually monitor them
  • My blog engine (WordPress at the current time) handles cross posting to Twitter and LinkedIn as well notifying any followers instead of my manually taking those actions
  • Azure DevOps allows my customer to create build and release pipelines to automate the tedious work of building and deploying an application with little to no manual steps

There is (almost) always an upfront investment in configuring, purchasing, etc. these types of tools or automating processes but the end result is generally an improvement in productivity / time to complete / etc.  Well-defined and / or simplistic processes are great targets for automation, but be careful that you don’t fall into the trap of automating the wrong things or spending more time building the automation than you’ll gain.  When in doubt check XKCD for funny examples like below.

Don Jones has a good article on “What’s not worth automating?” if you are interested in reading more on this topic.

The right tool (song) for the job

My dad is an electrical engineer who moved into sales many years ago.  He is also very handy around the house and likes to help me with house projects when he visits.  On many occasion a part, a bolt, or some other thing will get stuck.  Rather than trying to force what we are working on he always seems to know the right tool, compound, etc. to solve the problem with the least amount of effort needed.

Since I personally work with computers more than I do with my hands I find it helpful to get in the right mindset when I have a task to complete.  The task could be a blog post to write, some code to review, a set of screenshots to edit, etc.  Rather than fighting with myself (i.e. forcing it too much), I find it better to tune out my brain and let the words, code, or ideas flow more easily.

In order to help tune out my brain I have a playlist (called “Repeat All Songs”, link here) that I’ve moved with me from music service to service (now Spotify).  This playlist contains dozens of songs that I can (and frequently do) listen to on single-song repeat over and over.  These span classic rock, techno / house, instrumental, and other genres.  I don’t categorize the songs on my playlist but when I need inspiration or help getting into a specific mindset I browse through there, find a song that fits what I’m looking for, and hit play.

For those looking for some new songs to listen to on repeat here are a few from my recent rotation:

  • Achilles Last Stand – Led Zeppelin (rock)
  • In My Mind – Dynoro (electronica / dance)
  • Fly – Ludovico Einaudi (contemporary piano)
  • Nostos – Jean-Michael Blais (contemporary piano)
  • Lazy Eye – Silversun Pickups (rock, one of my fav bands)
  • Amsterdam – Guster (alternative / rock)
  • Brighton Rock – Queen (rock)
  • This World [Westworld Season 1] – Ramin Djawadi (instrumental)

How about you, do you have any favorite songs for single-song repeat?  Feel free to share back a link or recommendation.

-Frog Out

Newsletter #2 – Creativity, Times of Day, and Email Productivity Hack

If you saw my post yesterday “Starting a New Tiny Newsletter“, I’m starting up a new way to share out my smaller, more “informal” thoughts, articles, and other topics.  It’s called “Frog Pond Thoughts” and I’m publishing the 2nd one below.  I haven’t decided if I want to cross-post on my blog long term or keep them separate in TinyLetter.com / Twitter.  If you have any feedback or suggestions please do share in the comments, email, or on Twitter @BrianTJackett as I’m listening.  For now though enjoy this 2nd one as I expect it will be after the USA holiday of Thanksgiving before then next is published.


#2 – Creativity, Times of Day, and Email Productivity Hack

Creativity

How do I become more creative?

    1. Do creative things.
    2. Share with others.

 

  • Repeat #1 and #2 on a regular / scheduled basis.

 

Yes at first these sounds silly or simplistic but I’ve found them to be true (for me personally at least).  What does “do creative things” mean though?  It might be drawing in a notebook, writing a blog post, creating a new presentation, building blocks with my kids (see pictures below), playing a musical instrument, learning a new language (computer or spoken), etc.  Just as exercising your muscles during a workout needs variety, so do you need variety in the creative things you do.  Additionally doing something creative on a regular basis (once a week, once a month, or whatever works for you) ensures that it isn’t a “once and done” type of activity.

“Thanks Brian but what does sharing with others have to do with creativity?”  Glad you / I asked.  Have you ever had a friend, coworker, or family member who told you about a new TV show / game / restaurant / etc. and your first reaction is “that’s cool, have you heard about…?”  By sharing more not only do you become someone that people rely on finding out new things from but they may reciprocate by sharing their own things to you.

Times of Day

Semi-related to creativity, I find that I am more productive with specific categories of tasks at different times of the day.  Every day is different with   I don’t have anything written down or a routine (perhaps I should) but the following is a rough order for my day:

  • 7am
    • Plan out day, create tasks or to-do list, review day’s meetings, send out meeting agendas if needed
  • 8am
    • Write up documentation, blog post, or other creative writing
  • 9am
    • Deep focus on code, prototyping, etc.
  • noon
    • Read up on blogs / Twitter / LinkedIn from the previous day
  • 1pm
    • Deep focus on code, prototyping, etc.
  • 3pm
    • Emails and other communication

Schedules will always be changing depending on meetings, customer questions, etc. but knowing what types of activities I will be most productive at during different times helps me plan out when I should schedule those tasks.  If you open your email first thing in the morning, blink, and then it is suddenly 3 hours later then that is a good indication that you should either time box how long you spend on email and / or schedule it for a different time of day.

Email Productivity Hack

Speaking of email, I don’t like to send email after 5pm local time.  It’s my own personal guideline.  After 5pm is family / me time and if I’m sending emails to peers, customers, etc. it sets the expectation that they should also be reading and responding to emails “after hours”.

Instead of sending emails in the evening, if I have open time after my kids and wife go to bed I’ll draft up a number of emails that I need to write or respond to and then use the “delay delivery” feature of Outlook
(desktop version).  I then specify not to deliver those emails until at least 7am the following morning.  This way when I open my laptop in the morning, usually around 7:15-7:45am, all of those emails will be sent then.  This helps reinforce my personal rule that email is only for during business hours and also clears those emails off my plate to focus on other tasks that I’m more productive at (see above section).



Do you have any productivity hacks that you use?

-Frog Out

Starting a New Tiny Newsletter

If you’re reading this post (thanks to the handful of you out there), I wanted to let you know I’m starting something new.  I’ve been publishing my blog for over 10 years now but there are times I’d like to post something more informal.  It deserves more than a tweet but a full blog post is too much.  I found out about a service called TinyLetter from my friend Jeff Blankenburg.  I plan to write a tiny letter 2-3 times a month.  In it I’ll share interesting articles I’ve read, thoughts on various topics, or projects I’m following.  Think of it as a way to find out what is ticking in my brain that week.  Feel free to subscribe to Frog Pond Thoughts and share with others.  I’m posting the first letter to my blog for now as well.  Enjoy!


#1: Is this mic on? Starting something new…and why frogs?

Why write a tiny newsletter?

When someone does something new I like to think about “why did they do that?”.  I’ll share my own answer for why I’m starting up this tiny newsletter.  Over the past 6+ months I’ve been tossing around the idea of having some way to share out the various articles, topics, and thoughts I explore on a weekly basis.  During my 1:1 meetings with my mentor (you should have at least 1 mentor, topic for another day) I send him half a dozen or more links, stories, projects, etc. that I store in a OneNote (see example below).

While it is great discussing these items with my mentor I’d love to share them out to a broader audience.  I looked into a number of platforms.  I could extend my existing blog or share posts on LinkedIn but each of those didn’t feel like the right platform.  After seeing my friend and fellow Stir Trek Conference board planner Jeff Blankenburg starting up his Tiny Letter again (Blankenthoughts) I thought this would be a great experiment to see how easy it was for composing, distributing, and engaging with others.  Look for a new newsletter at least 2 times a month.

Why frogs?

If you’ve ever read my blog https://briantjackett.com/ (“The Frog Pond of Technology”) you may be asking “Brian what’s the deal with frogs?”.  Glad you asked.

For all of my life I’ve always liked the color green.  I also like to do new things on a regular basis which also means.  I liken this to frogs who are amphibious and able to live in many environments.  In the water, on land, in trees, and more.  Frogs are traditionally green and the change of scenery for frogs’ environments led to me have a natural liking of frogs.  That’s the short and simple answer.

Conclusion

I’m keeping this first newsletter short so that is all for now.  Please subscribe and share with your friends, coworkers, or anyone else who might be interested.

-Frog Out