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June 18, 2009

Mark's 20 Percent Time Experiment - Introduction

What happens when a geek, full time wage slave, husband and father gets fed up with his life being wholly consumed by obligations to other people? I don't know, but I intend to document the procedure here as best I can.

If I were a full time wage slave for a little tech company in Mtn. View that you might have heard of called Google, I'd have 20% of my professional time to work on projects that interest me personally. In exchange for one day a week to effectively do what I want, Google would get first right of refusal on anything I create. Basically, if they like it, they get it and I get a fat check. If they don't like it, then I get to keep it. Some of Google's best projects have come out of this (confession: don't ask me to name any, but they claim this to be the case.)

Alas, I don't work for Google. I work for CreateSpace, a subsidiary of, who, like the vast majority of the rest of the industry, does not have a similar policy. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE the company I work for, and I'm _NOT_ just saying this because this is a public Blog. Seriously. For the first time in my life, I can honestly say that I can see myself working for the same company in 10 or 20 years, and I'm saying this after having worked for this company longer than I've ever worked for anyone before. As much as I love what I do, who I do it for, and most importantly who I do it WITH, my job still doesn't give me the opportunity to scratch that creative itch I've been feeling lately.

So, I decided to make my own "20% time" policy. I've shifted my work schedule from 5x8 hour days to 4x9 hour days, and plan to take half a PTO day a week. I'll leave the math as an exercise to the reader, but the outcome is that this is not quite sustainable, especially if I plan to, oh I don't know, take an _ACTUAL_ vacation, or heaven forbid I get sick. So I won't be doing this year round. But given the >100 hours of PTO I have built up now, I can do this for at least a few months at a time, which will give me several days of personal productivity, which is several more days than I've really had in the last few years.

I've discussed this with friends and coworkers, and people oscillate between extreme jealousy at my willingness to take such a risk, and thinking I'm completely nutters. Honestly, I'm not sure which camp I'm in. I guess we'll find out.

It is my intention to treat this time as a real job, with all the regimentation that goes along with that. I plan to keep a TODO list of projects with relative priorities and time sensitivities. I plan to write a daily status report (hence, this blog). Some of my projects are public, some the details of which will be kept private; I'll give status updates on both, just with varying levels of detail as appropriate.

This post sort-of establishes what I'm doing here and why. It's really intended to keep me honest more than anything. If no one else reads this blog, I'll still write it, though I would love to share my experience with others, and they theirs with me.

I'm available on Twitter, Gtalk and AIM as SmittyHalibut. I'm always interested (if not available) in talking with others who are considering trying something similar. Please feel free to poke me and chat.

And, with that, I'm going to go get to work. Today's tasks: Finish cleaning our spare bed room (we have a friend moving in with us later today) and finish building a chicken coop in the back yard so our four beautiful hens can move outside (and take their stinky poop out of my office). If I've got more time after doing all that, I'll probably start working on an Ethernet project I've been throwing around for a while.

Status report to come later tonight. Thanks for reading.


Status: 2009-06-18

- (Obviously) Setup the blog to be used for brainstorming and status reports and whatever else strikes my fancy. I'm not heart set on a blog format for this, so I may migrate the data to another format (Wiki, maybe?) but I already had the blog system setup (See my Root Beer blog) so this was easy to get started.

- Finished cleaning Natasha's room in the nick of time for her to move in.

- Finished the chicken coop! Here's a picture of the completed coop. We decided it would be better for their first 12 hours or so to be spent in the warm day light rather than the cold night time, so The Lovely Ladies will move in tomorrow morning. Read: Just one more day of the stinky chicken poo in my office! W00-H00!

Project List (as of 2009-06-18) UPDATED 2009-07-12

UPDATED 2009-07-12: Added "Multi-channel loop pedal"

On the short list of things to work on:
- Code Name: Curious George
I have an EE project that has a sort of deadline (June 30th, though earlier is better) that I don't want to talk too much about just yet. It might lead to a speaking position at DefCon this year (hence the deadline) so I kinda want to keep it under wraps for a bit longer.

This project involves some simple EE hacking that I just haven't gotten around to starting yet. It's something that, given enough table space (the lack of which has prevented me starting this project already) I should be able to at least provide a proof of concept in just a few hours, so I might attempt it after Zoe goes to bed. Otherwise, I'll do this next Thursday.

- The Seebeck Clock
I've built a clock out of old school analog panel meters (picture here; ignore the gargoyles, they're just for looks), but the micro controller that runs the thing uses more power than I'd like (about 50mA or so). I'm working on an ATmega168 (or smaller) program to control the thing that will run on as little as 1.8vDC at 100uA; the 1mA it takes to drive each meter will be the long pole in the tent. I also plan to add a WWVB receiver (another 100uA) so the clock can set itself.

The REAL fun part about this project is that I want it to be powered by a candle. Stolen directly from the pages of Make: magazine, the Seebeck generator is just a Peltier device run backwards: heat one side, keep the other side cool, and it will generate electricity. The guy who wrote the article got about 5vDC at 1A. That's a LOT of power. Dump that into a large cap (2F at 24vDC is the one I picked up on sale from Frys for $25) and use efficient switching voltage regulators and I figure you can run the clock for at least a week from a single candle, maybe longer.

- Code Name: Shakespeare
I have an idea for a Web 2.0 application that I think could be very popular, and it even has a decent chance of making money. It has to do with lending and borrowing money ("Neither A Lender Nor A Borrower Be," hence the code name.) I'm not much of a software developer, so I'm likely to get help on this project.

- Motorcycle Audio
I'm a Ham Radio operator (KR6ZY for those who care), a motorcyclist, and an rabid, card carrying, punch drinking, iPhone lover. I want to build an system that will mix audio from my ham rig (Kenwood D700a) and my iPhone (both iPod audio and phone audio) and send it to my helmet. Big easy-to-use-with-gloves knobs on the console of the bike will control volumes of each device. There will be a single large start/stop button for the iPhone. There will be a PTT and channel up/channel down control on the left handle bar for the ham rig. The microphone audio from my helmet will go to both the radio and the iPhone so I can answer and make phone calls (thank you, Apple, for adding voice control to the iPhone 3GS!), and carry on a conversation on the ham rig. Oh, and the iPhone will be charged while connected (obviously.)

I've already done a lot of the work for the radio half of this project, just in time for the body of my radio to die on me (I screwed up the wiring of the remote head and burned out a component on the radio.) I'm either going to steal the radio body from the truck, attempt to fix the one I've got, or find a used one on eBay. The audio mixing component of this project has been thought about a lot, but nothing has actually be done yet.

- Upgrade
I run a Unix system, It's old. It's very old. It runs an OS circa 2000 (RedHat 6.2). I plan to build a new system on CentOS 5.2 (or whatever is out at the time I get around to it) and migrate users and features to it from the old system.

On the Long List of "Maybe Some Day" Projects:
- Fish Tank Controller:
Build a microcontroller based fish tank control module. Sensor to monitor, report and record: temperature and pH. Light control to turn on and off a moon light, "east" and "west" lights as appropriate at sunrise and sunset for my local region, so the fish get seasons (No reason other than "because I can.") An LCD display to show the current time, sunrise and sunset times, temp, pH, etc. Use pH, time-of-day, and total-on-time information to calculate when to turn on and off a CO2 injection system for my plants. Possibly include a control for an automatic feeder for while we're away.

- Nerdly Les Paul:
Get a new pair of 5 wire humbucker pickups for my Les Paul and devise a new wiring scheme that will allow ultimate flexibility in how each pickup is wired: Single coil, serial in-phase, serial out-of-phase, parallel in-phase, parallel out-of-phase. The of course the same configuration option for the two pickups themselves. Change the output to be shielded balanced.

- Multi-channel loop pedal:
A large pedal (ala "guitar pedal") that controls multiple tracks of live recorded loops. People make these so this is not anything original, but I think it would be cool to make my own. Could be used for music like what KT Tunstall (live) and Zoe Keating (live and studio) do.

- Internet controlled HF station:
I used to belong to a ham radio club at a company I worked for. When the company went under, I ended up with the gear from the club (Yaesu FT-920 HF radio, Cushcraft R8 vertical HF antenna, computer interface for digital modes, etc.) It is my intention to hook all this up and allow the old club members (and probably any ham for that matter) to control and use the radio over the Internet. When I first thought of this idea, the control software didn't exist to do this; it does now, so I just need to put it all together.

I've got more 2m radios and TNCs than I know what to do with. Why not run an APRS IGATE: receive ARPS traffic from my area and transmit it to the APRS clusters on the Internet.

- 12vDC Solar Power System:
Stick a 100(ish)W 12vDC solar panel on the roof and use it to charge a large battery to run the radio gear listed above. Add an inverter and it could be used for emergency power in the event of an extended power outage.

- My Perfect Keyboard:
Take a Kinesis keyboard, split it in half, spread it apart by about 4 inches, and you've got my perfect keyboard. Alternatively, take each half and mount them to the arms on a large comfy desk chair with good back support, mount a track ball off to the left (where $Deity had intended pointing devices to live, thankyouverymuch) and I'd have my ideal captain's chair for work on the computer.

- Writing:
I've never written fiction in my life, but listening to all the podcasts I do, I feel like I want to try.

- Audio Production:
Take either my own fiction, or fiction written by others, and produce it into audio productions. I'm already involved in Between The Lines Studios so this itch is being scratched to some degree, but I'd love to do my own stuff too.

- Music:
I love writing music and want to continue.

- iPhone Development:
I run a Citadel BBS that I never login to anymore because SSH on the iPhone, while it does work, it far from convenient. I'd like to write a native Citadel Client for the iPhone so I'd be more likely to login to my own dang BBS again.

I'm sure there are more, but this is about all I can think of off the top of my head. (Is that all?!)


June 20, 2009

More than 20%?

Some times, I'll actually have time outside of my Thursdays to get some work done. For example, Cindy and Zoe just left, leaving me home alone for a few hours. Time to get some work done! :-D

I'll send a status report when I'm done.

It's alive. It's Alive! IT'S ALIIIIVEHAHAHAHAHA!

Pandora: Let's celebrate! *plays "We Are The Champions" by Queen*
Me: I love you, Pandora. And get out of my head.

You know that project that might lead to a DefCon talk? Yeah. I just got a working proof of concept. It effing works. Now. Off to write up a presentation.

Status: 2009-06-20 - Project Code Name: Curious George

- Made a proof of concept for Project Code Name: Curious George. It works. :-D This gives me a) motivation to keep going, and b) confirmation that I won't be wasting my, and other peoples', time with this project.

- Wrote up an outline for the presentation I hope to give at DefCon this year on this project. Still a lot of work to be done, but the bulk of the written content is there.

- Sent a follow up email to @Niki7a, the gal who's coordinating the talks at DefCon, to see if my CFP submission is still under consideration. She stated they wanted to make decisions by June 1st, but I asked to be given until June 30th (the deadline for materials) to see if I could get a working hardware setup. I've not heard a "yes" or "no" on the talk yet, so I hope that means I'm still under consideration. We'll see.

- Sent image to friend to print up a custom T-Shirt for this sucker. It'll be way cool if it comes out. :-D

- Draw up diagrams of concepts and take pictures of hardware for the presentation.
- Move the presentation to some sort of a slide show format (Powerpoint, or the OpenOffice equivalent there-of.)
- Clean up the presentation. Sucker a few friends into sitting through it, then get comments and make changes as appropriate.

June 25, 2009

Status: 2009-06-25 - The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Today was very mixed.

The Good:
- Went into the office and took many pictures of Project Code Name: Curious George. Why pictures were taken at the office and not at home will be obvious when I release the slides.
- Taking these pictures, and drawing some things up in Visio, I was able to finish the first draft of the slides for the presentation. Exported to PDF and distributed among friends asking for comments. Got some good ones and will be making some changes.
- I'm glad I was in the office today: Lots of things I had ordered showed up:
- The new motherboard for my home server (Intel Atom 230 based low power system)
- AC chargers for my iPhone (some of the ones I had for the 1st Gen don't work on the 3GS)
- At home, I also got the "second skin" protector thingie for my 3GS

The Bad:
- Looks like the good folks at DefCon don't have space in the normal speaking schedule for my talk. This is my fault to a large degree; when I submitted my talk to the Call For Papers, I put a huge disclaimer on it saying that it may or may not be ready in time and that I'd pull my request if it wasn't. I had hoped they'd consider the talk anyway, but apparently they didn't want to take the risk of a cancellation; I suppose I can't blame them, really. Anyway, they tried to fit it in and were unable. I made it clear that I'm flexible (in the schedule sense, not in the Yoga sense) and that if a spot _DID_ open up, to let me know. I'm not holding my breath. On the bright side, there are other opportunities to give presentations at DefCon: Skyboxes, the Hardware Hacking Village, B-Sides. So all hope is not lost. I just won't be getting a green badge. :-(

The Ugly:
- Well, poo. I received the new mother board for my failing server at home. I hoped to fix the system before leaving for the weekend so my neighbors (who use us for their Internet connection; yes, this is intentional) actually have a working Internet connection while I'm gone. To make a long story short and bulleted:
- The old mother board completely gave out (expected)
- The new mother board takes FOR-FRIGGIN'-EVER to POST. Seriously, the screen is blank for a good 120 seconds before anything shows up. The first time I installed it, I thought I had bad RAM. Anyway. It works.
- The hard drive (which was showing no signs of problems at all before this) is not being detected by either the new or the old motherboard.

So, now, I have a spiffy new low power server with no hard drive, no OS, and no time to fix it before the weekend... To say nothing of the 1TB of data on that drive... I made the call to the neighbors informing them that their DHCP/DNS/SMTP server is horked and instructed them on how to statically configure things to make it work for the weekend.

This is so bad, I can't find the words to express it...

Anyway. I'm getting prepped to go camping this weekend, to which I am very much looking forward. Not a great feeling to depart on, but I'll probably forget all about it this weekend and will deal with it on Sunday night when I return.

Be good humans.


About June 2009

This page contains all entries posted to Mark's 20 Percent Time in June 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

July 2009 is the next archive.

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