2016 personal review

Saturday 7 Jan 2017

I quite enjoyed writing a review for 2015, so I thought I'd continue the ritual for another year. Here's a bunch of things about 2016.

Things I'm proud of

Most of this year was work-heavy, as we were trying hard to double our income and bring Belle on board, so compared to last year this is more about Hello Code things I'm afraid.

  • I built and launched Larder, a bookmarking app for developers, first as a web app and then launching its Android client as well. This was initially Belle's idea, but I took her requirements and added some of my own to build something with a specific developer focus. Larder doesn't bring in much revenue yet, but it's something I use on Android and the web almost daily. I'm proud that I'm now at the point in my career that, using my tried-and-true set of tools (Python, Django, MySQL, Sass and plain old Javascript on the front-end), I can build new apps to a decent standard fairly quickly. I also build to launch far more often, rather than abandoning projects when they get tedious or difficult. I think this ties in to being very familiar with my tools rather than chasing the new and shiny.
  • I spent a month or so learning Elm, in an attempt to build Larder in it. I ultimately abandoned this as I was moving too slow, and worried the community was still too nascent (there were few options for things like routing, form layout and validation, etc). I liked thinking functionally and learning something new, but it came down to launching something stable more quickly than I could hope to do with Elm.
  • Late in the year I built and launched (into beta, anyway) Changemap, a public roadmap and changelog for transparent businesses. We're using this ourselves for Exist, and soon Larder too, moving away from Trello which isn't a great fit for either roadmaps or taking user suggestions. I'm pretty enthused about this one and just need to find the time to get to it to a point where others can use it.
  • I was fortunate enough to be interviewed about Exist three times this year, for The Stuff of Life (a How Stuff Works podcast), the Workable blog, and for SGB Magazine, although this hasn't yet been published and might not be now I guess.
  • I helped grow Exist from around 540 paid users at the start of the year to over 600 at its end. This was an arbitrary milestone we were hoping to hit, but I'm happy we kept growing our user base and outrunning the churn enough to make it.
  • I worked some more on scratching my "design a programming language itch", building on the Braid language I've talked about previously but turning it from an interpreter into a compiler with an LLVM backend. I didn't get far with this before deciding it was a bit of a waste of time (it's a huge undertaking to write a language and standard library, and who'd ever use it?) but it was good to learn about LLVM, and I wouldn't mind more tinkering in this area in future.
  • I wrote one blog post, not including my year in review, about how tools like LLVM make it easier than ever to write a toy language.
  • In lieu of blogging I wrote 197 logs on Littlelogs about my progress with various projects.
  • Right at the end of the year I designed and sent out a Year in Review email for Exist users, which I think turned out to be more interesting and valuable than similar reports from Exist's competitors. I felt proud of the results, given my lack of design chops.
  • I tried intermittent fasting to various degrees of seriousness and lost a couple of kilos. This result could've been better had I kept at it more strictly, but I'm still pleased that the long-term trend is slowly downward.
  • I had more happy (4 out of 5) days than okay days (3 out of 5) as measured by Exist. I feel like outwardly I'm a grumpy, pessimistic guy a lot of the time, so it's nice to have the data to show I do actually enjoy being alive more often than not.

Following up on goals from last year

I'd like to do more interviews, if possible. Press for Exist has been quite hard to predict, and it's always when the press has the idea, never when we reach out. But if the opportunity comes to me, I'll take it.

I did 3 interviews this year, giving some to Belle but handling most of them myself. I still find this quite rewarding. It was still just luck that we got the chance to be interviewed about Exist, though, rather than any explicit efforts on our part.

More blogging in general. I find it quite boring and time-consuming when I could be building things that do stuff instead. But I like having written, so I'll try to find time to blog if I have thoughts worth sharing.

I wrote a single post, as mentioned earlier. Writing is still an effort that I find it hard to justify. I've thought about updating my old blog to something like WordPress to make it easier to publish posts, so as to lower the barrier to writing more, but to be honest I don't expect to write more in 2017 anyway. There's too much else to do that always seems to be a higher priority.

Build our Hello Code income to the point where it can support Belle as well. I know we can do it, but we need to push it harder.

This didn't happen for another year, and in fact Belle has just committed to a part-time job because we're still not anywhere near reaching this goal. I'm really disappointed about this one, and I feel quite guilty for getting to work on what I love while Belle continues to work for others. I wish we could be doing it together. Being realistic, I'm not sure this will change in 2017, but I do hope we get a lot closer by the close of the year.

Attempt to write more music. I have a low bar for this one, and really anything that sounds good but is unfinished would be fine.

Nope. I did start a few experiments, but I didn't spend a lot of time here and so nothing bore fruit.

Pick up another programming language, or make some more progress using OCaml. There are other languages like Pony and Elixir that look promising to me too, so building something with any one of these would do.

I did learn and attempt to build something in Elm, but I didn't stick with it.

I've felt a bit like a shut-in this year, and would like to do more socialising. I've always had trouble feeling confident about initiating catchups and seeing people, but I'm trying to just do the thing and assume that friends do want to see me.

I made minor progress this year by catching up with an old friend regularly, increasing my regular social interactions outside the house from zero to one. I'm calling that a win.

Related to the above, I've withdrawn from social media a lot in 2015, except to talk about work, which is easy, and to promote myself, which helps our startup. I've found that I feel quite timid about interacting now, like I have nothing of value to add, and I'd like to change that because I used to quite enjoy discussions on Twitter. I think this is affecting my empathy too, as I find I often respond with internal snarkiness to a lot of the opinions I read. I'd really like to change this. I don't want to approach the syrupy-sweet positivity of the Buffer account, or start writing tweets ending in "#blessed", but I would like to be able to relate more positively to other humans.

More minor progress here. I did interact a little but mostly felt the same about not having anything to say, except to promote things. I'm guessing this is a lack of confidence, or perhaps a negative feedback loop where lack of social interaction leads to further withdrawal? Regardless, this barely changed.

Things to do in 2017

  • Build our Hello Code income to the point where it can support Belle as well. This one will continue to be on the list until it happens. Maybe this is the year.
  • Plan some international travel. I doubt we'll actually be able to go anywhere this year, with my current meagre funds, but perhaps by the end of the year we'll have a trip and a budget planned for 2018.
  • More social interaction and/or more events. Even attending something like a talk or going to a meetup counts, and I think that'll be a good way to ease into feeling more social, leading to more active interaction later. Maybe?
  • Create and finish something unrelated to work. This could be code (I have a game idea I'd like to try out), but also making some music or drawing or painting something would be good.
  • Recommit to some kind of fasting/diet. I know this works when I do it properly, so I just need to find a way to stick to it.
  • I'd like to organise or create something tangible that goes against the unceasing cycle of "working for a living" — in my case, making things and attempting to sell them to people. I resent having to sell things, and I don't want people to have to buy my things. Overcoming this could be as simple as making something open source, or purely to give away, or it could involve some more complicated arrangement. It's hard to know yet.

Media of 2016

Things I consumed in 2016, sorted by medium, discovered but not necessarily published this year.

Music

I continued the trend of attempting to support indie artists by mostly finding and purchasing music through Bandcamp.

Books

Once again I'm going to pilfer shamelessly from my Goodreads reviews.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

An enjoyable mix of slower-paced dialogue and world-building, and outright action. It definitely feels like the author hit her stride. The universe of the Radch remains as detailed and believable as ever, and after this book might resemble the Culture even more (which is a good thing!), although it has its own lovely humanity and customs that will keep it apart. It is its thoughtfulness and humanity that endears it to me so much, I think.

In summary this is my favourite sci-fi series in recent history, defeating Hyperion, and perhaps my favourite sci-fi universe. If not, a close second. Very much recommended.

I read both the second and third books in this trilogy in 2016 and loved them both.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

The book tells the story of a physicist named Shevek, and his journey from his anarchist, insular planet to its sister planet, and its most powerful, capitalist, democratic country. Pretty sure it's an analogue for the USA. The differences between the societies is explored through his journey, and much description of the workings of his home planet, Anarres, is given. This was my favourite part, really. Shevek is a sympathetic character, and his relationship with his partner is moving, but the book spoke to me most when it spoke against capitalism, and described an alternative. The alternative may have been poor, and humble, and still plagued with petty politicking all the same, but it's all the more real and vivid for its flaws. (For what it's worth, it also criticised communism pretty harshly at one point. It's happy to point out flaws in every system.) I enjoyed imagining this society very much.

This book gave me much to think on, and suspect I happened to read it at just the right time.

Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack

This book is the diary of Lola, a twelve-year-old girl in New York, sometime vaguely in the near future. This is an America that is not doing so well. People are rioting, inflation is out of control, presidents keep getting assassinated, and it's hard to find any work. Lola faithfully documents all this and her journey is deeply affecting. This is a story you read with a growing sense of dread. I almost didn't want to finish it because nothing good could come of it.

It's also a shame that this is lumped in with sci-fi because there's nothing particular here that really makes it so. It's pre-apocalyptic speculative fiction, maybe. But it's approachable to anyone. No space operas here, just a girl's story.

Don't be turned off by the title, or the "science fiction" genre. It's a scarily plausible story of how America might collapse that has returned to my mind often after reading it.

Honourable mentions:

  • Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
  • The Peripheral by William Gibson
  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  • Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Film

Under The Sun

Documentary about North Korea. The filmmaker was occompanied everywhere by minders, and provided a script by the government, but secretly kept filming before and after official scenes, smuggling the extra footage out of the country upon their departure. The result is a disturbing exposť of the levels of propaganda that have infilitrated every corner of society.

The Lobster

A strange story about a future where people are forced to have a partner at all times, and those who cannot find one are turned into animals. Although it loses something in tone in the latter half, I found it a compelling watch.

The White Helmets

A deeply affecting short documentary on Netflix about the White Helmets, unpaid volunteers in Syria who find and rescue civilians after bomb and missile strikes.

TV

What Do Artists Do All Day?

BBC doco series with one episode per artist. There's a broad range covered, from traditional oil painting and photography to sculture and performance art. I very much liked understanding the artists' processes and the feeling of kinship that came from just spending time with people making stuff. Better than co-working.

You're the Worst

Snappy comedy that isn't afraid to break the formula. Seriously, the dialogue is great, the writing is mostly pretty clever and respects the viewer, and one running joke culminated in a season 3 finale that made me laugh so much I cried a little bit. I didn't expect this to be as good as it is, and season 3 is the best.

Alone

I don't normally go in for reality TV (I watched an entire series of Masterchef — never again) but this is compelling for its constraints. Ten North Americans go into the wild and attempt to survive, each on their own, bringing no food and limited resources. Each contestant films themselves with provided cameras, and as interesting as it is to see people build shelter and the means to find and catch food (nets, traps, canoes, etc), their psychological journeys as they deal with complete solitude and isolation are just as rewarding to watch.

Black Mirror

A little hit and miss, but mostly hits, and definitely benefitting from its increased budget. Best near-future dystopia on TV.

Humans

From last year:

Thoughtful exploration of the birth of strong AI and what it might be like for humanoid AIs learning what it means to be human. This could so easily be cliched or full of plot holes, but mostly it isn't, and covers a lot of the angles I think would be interesting in this scenario.

We're into season two and this is still accurate, though it's not quite as interesting as last year. Westworld might've been a very entertaining exploration of strong AI, but Humans approaches it much more thoughtfully.

The Crown

Borgen with fancier outfits and accents.

Honourable mentions

Mr Robot, House of Cards, Silicon Valley, Orange is the New Black, Westworld, Bob's Burgers, Detectorists

Games

The Witcher 3

The first time I ever bought DLC was because I wanted to spend more time in Witcher's world. I couldn't get into The Witcher 2 at all, but 3 is as near to a perfect open-world RPG as is possible to make. I used to be mostly a Bethesda RPG kind of guy, but Fallout 4 was disappointing, and Witcher swept in to make up for it.

INSIDE

Creepy platformer that absolutely nails the tone it is going for. The ending is, uh, pretty unexpected, but doesn't diminish the experience.

Firewatch

I was turned off by the hype initially, but this is a lovely, beautiful example of how to do storytelling in a game. The ending made me so frustrated I almost hesitate to recommend it, and it's pretty short, but the journey is worth it.

Honourable mentions: Oxenfree, Life is Strange, Kathy Rain, RimWorld.

About the Blog

I'm a developer in Melbourne, Australia, and co-founder of Hello Code.

I am joshsharp on twitter.