2013 in Review

This year I’ve learned lots, run events, helped mentor young people, contributed to open source, engaged in much community activity, made and developed some strong friendships and built myself a new career.

OH Digital

I began this year working as a web developer at OH Digital, having started there just two months before the previous Christmas. OH Digital are primarily a WordPress development agency; initially I was sceptical of the use of WordPress as a full CMS, but grew to realise its potential the more I used it in a range of commercial websites. We specialised in delivering a full build to a client, from specification, through design and development iterations to the launch, and also hosting, administration, third-party integration and maintenance. Our design work always was done externally, as we had no in-house designers, but had connections with quality local design companies. It meant we got to concentrate on development according to the specification (which we’d created ourselves by working directly with clients) and outsource the visuals and interfaces to professionals who could meet our clients’ needs and provide us with excellent designs to work from.

Working on all levels – specification, user experience, front-end markup and styles, back-end programming and Linux systems administration – gave me excellent experience in working professionally, being involved in the whole build, and meant I got to see a project through from concept to launch and see it in action once live. And being lucky enough to work alongside very talented designers meant I was always very proud of the piece of work we’d produce after each project – not only because of the delivery of the technical solutions involved but because the websites we made looked brilliant. I would be proud to say I worked on a site and would often show people the finished product. Here is a selection of the projects I worked on at OH Digital:

Manchester Raspberry Jam

Throughout the year I continued to run the Manchester Raspberry Jam. This started in July 2012 and I ran one every month since then, skipping just two (March, for the Jamboree, and September when I was in Berlin) which we usually had around 30 – 60 people attending. The Manchester Jam was the first in the UK and they soon spread all over the country and the rest of the world. The events I ran were very practical focused, and we regularly had a range of people attending – including young people and families, and everyone was encouraged to collaborate on projects and learning. At the event in November – Manchester Raspberry Jam XVI – we had 80 people signed up and a further 20 on the wait list. This event was attended by several members of the Raspberry Pi Foundation and we ran a full track of talks upstairs as well as the usual hacking downstairs. The talks were all video recorded by a volunteer AV Team (thanks Les, Dan, Olly & Tony).

A particular success of the Raspberry Jam has been one of the young people I have mentored for the last couple of years – 14 year old Amy Mather (known as Mini Girl Geek). Amy is a really keen and very bright young coder and maker. At last December’s Jam, we started a small coding exercise – a test-driven implementation of Conway’s Game of Life in Python, for her to learn coding techniques and the language of Python. She came back to the next Jam in January with a fork of the original code, ported to work with PyGame, a gaming library for Python, rather than just drawing ASCII characters in the terminal. She improved upon the PyGame version some more at that Jam, adding features and learning more about Python, and then came back the next month with a version of the code powering a small LED matrix from a Raspberry Pi and an Arduino. She was then asked to present this at the Raspberry Jamboree in March (just 13 years old at the time). The video of her presentation was a big hit online (currently over 50,000 views) and was praised by many people including Kent Beck and Jimmy Wales. The video was also featured on the Raspberry Pi blog.

Amy went on to speak at bigger events such as CampusPartyEU at the O2 in London (on stage with George Osborne and Jimmy Wales), Wired Next Generation, Wuthering Bytes, and won the European Digital Girl of the Year Award presented in Lithuania. I’m very proud of everything she’s achieved and I’m pleased to have been lucky enough to be one of the many people who helped her along the way – and given her the chance to shine.

STEM

I also attended an event at Manchester University for STEM Ambassadors to be introduced to the Raspberry Pi. After meeting the coordinators of STEMNET, we discussed the idea of running a Raspberry Jam for schools – and so over several emails and phone calls, we put an event together, invited schools to attend and ran the first STEM Raspberry Jam. This kickstarted Raspberry Pi activity in the STEM network of the North West and there have since been a number of Raspberry Pi sessions run by the STEM team with a team of trained Ambassadors – in schools and colleges around the North West, introducing young people to programming and making projects with the Raspberry Pi.

Pi Weekly

About six months ago I had an idea to set up a weekly Raspberry Pi email newsletter featuring news and projects from the community – and invited Ryan Walmsley to join me in running it. We called it Pi Weekly. We grew steadily and a few weeks after launch it was featured on the Raspberry Pi blog – which sent out subscriber count through the roof. We then sought sponsorship to continue running at the new capacity, and developed new features as time passed. I worked on the website, the newsletter and the generator over time, and wrote up a full account of its evolution on my blog. At the end of 2013, we’d sent out 28 issues and had over 5,600 subscribers. This week, Pi Weekly was translated in to French by a Pi enthusiast with a Raspberry Pi news website.

Manchester CoderDojo

Another project I’ve been involved with in the last year has been the Manchester CoderDojo. This is a youth club for kids learning to code and make things. This was started in December 2012 by Steven Flower, and we started out at Madlab but after a few months outgrew the space and moved to a new venue at the Sharp Project. I volunteered as a mentor and coach at each of the events in 2013 up to November, where I ran sessions in Python, HTML/CSS, WordPress and using the Raspberry Pi. I recently revamped the website and set up a Pi Weekly style newsletter we now send out to parents and supporters.

User groups and Conferences

I have been attending user groups in Sheffield and Manchester since late 2009 / early 2010, and this year has been my peak in attendance. This year I’ve been regularly attending Python North West, PHPNW, XP Manchester, manc.js, Manchester Maths Jam, IMA North West TalksManchester Werewolf and Preston GeekUp, as well as helping out with Manchester Girl Geeks, volunteering for Manchester CoderDojo and running Manchester Raspberry Jam. I visited a few events further from home, as one-offs, such as the York Raspberry Jam and Blackpool GeekUp I gave many talks at these user groups throughout the year, the majority related to Raspberry Pi. I gave a total of 32 talks in 2013, including a discussion panel at the Raspberry Jamboree and a couple of talks at user groups in Berlin.

I also attended the first Raspberry Jamboree (Manchester), my first MozFest (London), my second Oggcamp (Liverpool), my third Barcamp Blackpool, my third Code Retreat, my third U3, my third Maths Jam Conference (Stone) and my fifth PHP North West conference (Manchester).

Open Source

This year I submitted my first patch to Ubuntu – a fix for the Guake package (Quake-style dropdown terminal) which was merged in to Ubuntu 13.10 (Raring Ringtail) and then-upcoming 13.10 (Saucy Salamander). See the changelog on launchpad.

guake-fix

I also fixed minor bugs in a number of smaller projects such as the Python Koans, as well as working on a number of small personal and community projects which are open source, such as Python Intro, Acacia Acuminata, Acacia Vanilla and Pi Weekly.

My (public) GitHub contributions of 2013:

bn-github-2013

from github.com/bennuttall on 4th January 2014.

Bravery Award

I was also presented with an award for the river rescue I conducted the previous September with friends from the canoe club. We each received the Chief Fire Officer’s Commendation for bravery at a presentation in the Ramsbottom Fire Station. See the articles from the Manchester Evening News: Award for Brave Kayakers who Saved Man’s Life and the Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service: River Rescuers Presented with Bravery Award

Raspberry Pi Foundation & 2014

In mid-October, around the time I celebrated 1 year at OH Digital, I was invited to visit the Raspberry Pi Foundation and was offered a job there. Obviously I accepted, and made plans to move to Cambridge. Prior to this opportunity I had no intention to leave Manchester, and certainly wasn’t looking for a reason to move on from my job or from the city – but the chance to work full time promoting the thing I have dedicated much of my time and effort to advocate purely because I believed in it and the Foundation’s mission – meant that there was no hesitation in taking the opportunity to move. I moved at the end of November, two weeks after my final Jam – which was a huge success, and a great chance for me to show the Foundation what I’ve been building up over the last 18 months.

Around the time this happened I had just started taking driving lessons again, and I managed to pass my test a week before I moved to Cambridge – although I didn’t get a car until around Christmas. Finally at the age of 25 I am no longer a pedestrian!

ben-pass-test

My role at the Foundation will be in development and outreach. Initially I’ll be working on a revamp for the website, which will be launching early 2014, diversifying the content to include educational resources, projects and such in a way that helps young people learn and aids teachers delivering material, so as to progress with the Foundation’s educational objectives. Also I will be working with young people, speaking about Raspberry Pi at events, helping to make the learning experience with Raspberry Pi more engaging, doing general outreach and fulfilling the Foundation’s mission as well as writing educational material, building tools, working on Pi projects and doing further development and maintenance on the website. I was there for three weeks before heading back to Sheffield for Christmas, and loved it so far. I’m getting on really well with the team, and getting the chance to see the amazing things we have in development. Big things coming in 2014! We hit the 2.3 million sales mark at the end of 2013, which is incredible. We also have the wonderful award winning teacher and new author Carrie Anne Philbin joining the team (starting tomorrow!) which I’m particularly excited about, and very pleased for her to (like me) be getting the chance to work on what she loves. See my introduction: Welcome Ben! and my first contribution to the Raspberry Pi blog: Pi Powered Ping Pong Pursuit.

I plan to start a CodeClub in Cambridge in 2014. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, but never had the chance. Now I’m working for the Foundation it’s important for me to get involved in this and see how young people learn, how they interact with technology and other people, and what they find interesting and engaging. As well as providing the means for a group of young people to learn to code and build things, I will be learning lots about the process for myself. Starting a CodeClub is something of a resolution of mine for the new year – and I’ll also try to personally do more hands-on projects, particularly with the Pi. I’ll also aim to make my way through some books I’ve had but not worked through yet – particularly Seven Languages In Seven Weeks. It’s about time.

Thanks to all the friends I made in Manchester – particularly those involved in the machinery of the tech community, who really do make things happen for people, and often (without realising it) get the ball rolling for many people’s personal and professional lives, and put them on a path to where they ought to be. Special thanks to Madlab founders Dave Mee & Hwa Young, who gave me the chance to learn, and then the chance to shine; to Andrew Disley, who ran Manchester GeekUp – which was my gateway to all of this; to Jag & Hannah Goraya who ran the Sheffield tech scene (Jag hosted my first ever tech event); to Steven Flower for doing what he does so well, and bringing out the best in people; to Sam Tuke who helps me understand and appreciate freedom; to Jeremy Coates for always keeping an eye on me; to Jon Spriggs for helping me and others do anything we want to do, and for sharing all he has with the world (with such passion); to Robie Basak and Sam Headleand for being alongside me all this year; to Lisa Mather for being like a second Mum; to Les Pounder for making great things happen and living the dream; and to all the geeks of the North West scene who’ve been like a family to me the last few years.

Fix Ubuntu

Today I saw fixubuntu.com featured on Hacker News. I assumed it was to be yet another rant about why you should use distro X instead of Ubuntu, and how Canonical are ruining it. I was half-right. I clicked the link to see what it was about and found a large box containing a list of Linux commands, with the instruction to copy and paste the block in to your Terminal and hit enter:

The instructions were followed with “Enjoy your privacy” and an explanation of what the code does underneath. It explained that it is designed to turn off the remote search (so your Dash searches aren’t sent to the internet) and other Dash scopes, to uninstall Amazon ads built in to Ubuntu, and block connections to Ubuntu’s ad server “just in case”.

It also explained what the problem they’re trying to solve is – that with default settings in Ubuntu, each search you type in the Dash (to search your computer for files and apps), your searches are sent to third parties. It expressed that Ubuntu should protect its users’ privacy by default.

As an Ubuntu user (and advocate), I had mixed feelings about this. I do believe there are genuinely useful purposes for the Dash as a desktop based web search tool – as developers strive to invent and innovate for the future of technology, the most obvious move at the moment is the move towards an integration of desktop and the web. The lenses in Unity have potential uses – for example hitting a YouTube icon from the Dash searching for videos could be useful (see other examples on askubuntu), and the technology is still young and yet to be proven – it’s probably used by a very small percentage of Ubuntu users right now. One way Ubuntu have aimed to demonstrate its potential is to include an Amazon search – and enable it by default. Searching ‘Moby Dick’ and seeing results where you can buy the book – naïvely looking at this, one might “that’s cool” but most people would find this intrusive and pushy – particularly with it being Amazon (see Richard Stallman’s notes on Amazon). I did disable this feature once I considered that every search keystroke I typed in to the Dash was actually sent to Ubuntu’s server and on to third party ones such as Amazon. For me, if I wanted this feature, it should be opt-in on both being enabled at all, and per use (i.e. clicking a particular lens icon).

I don’t have a problem with Ubuntu’s development process, nor with Canonical’s directive, nor with third party partnerships in general – but these should be options for users, and I believe better choices could have been made when implementing demonstrative default lenses. Ubuntu and Canonical are getting a lot of stick from the open source community at the moment for things like this, and should be doing their best to preserve their reputation as being a user-friendly Linux distribution. Privacy issues and general careless manipulations of user data should be avoided.

I still believe Ubuntu to be the best all-round Linux distro – and will continue to use, recommend and advocate it. But I will be keeping an eye on things like this and disabling invasive defaults.

So it looks like the author of this page has similar views to mine. He’s not just whining. I imagine he wants to continue to use Ubuntu the way he wants and feels safe – and encouraging others to do the same.

Unity Doesn’t Suck

Like a lot of other Ubuntu users, when I installed Ubuntu 10.10 I hated the new desktop environment Unity. I wanted to get back to the Gnome desktop with the ‘Applications | Places | System’ menu where I knew where things were, I didn’t feel comfortable with the silly oversized icons on the left, and I didn’t know where any settings were. I really didn’t give it time to grow on me, I just changed back to Gnome 2.

While working at Magma, using Fedora 16, I grew to like Gnome 3, but started having problems with something so Adrian suggested I try Cinnamon, a project from the Linux Mint distro. I loved it at the time, and started using it over Gnome 2 on my personal Ubuntu machines. However one night at a user group, on the topic of the release of Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Jon Spriggs demonstrated Unity, saying he thought it was great and the features he showed were really simple and useful. He pointed out that you can change the width of the Unity bar and commented that he preferred having a bar on the side of the screen, not at the top or bottom, because he used a widescreen monitor and he had more spare free space there (though I must say it takes up too much on my netbook which only spans 1024 pixels in width). Hit the “super key” (windows key) and you get a search/explorer box – start typing the name of a file or application and it starts suggesting things (hit enter at any point and you open the top result, or use the arrow keys to navigate), hit the alt key and you get a little command prompt called HUD (Head Up Display), pin app icons to the Unity bar, drag them to where you want them to stay. Hold down the super key and you get a list of shortcuts.

unity

Personally I’m a huge fan of workspaces, and I usually have a particular setup of windows strategically placed for ease of access and avoiding constant alt-tabbing (with multiple monitors I have commonly paired applications in the same workspace) – currently I’m sporting a 3×3 grid where I start with my browser and twitter client in the middle and work my way out. Unfortunately because Unity’s management of workspaces in multiple display setups keeps sets of displays together (so a 3×3 grid on a 2 monitor setup is 9 workspaces, not 18), which means you can’t move what’s on your right monitor to your left monitor and drag the next window along to the right monitor, you only move sets of 2 displays at a time (or however many monitors you have). Some would see this as a problem (some even such a problem they would stop using Unity), others quite like them being tied together. I find the fact it’s quite easy to move windows across workspaces quite useful (Ctrl + Alt + direction moves workspace – add Alt to that and you take the current window with you).

Also, for someone who is not used to workspaces (or just your arrangement of them), it can be incredibly difficult for a friend or colleague to navigate between your open applications if the layout for them is in your head (I remember Adrian describing my setup as being “like a Rubik’s Cube”) – but with Unity you click the icon in the Unity bar and it takes you to the open instance of that application, wherever it is! I noticed how powerful this is when working with someone a couple of months ago, and one day he came over to my machine, took over the keyboard and tried to alt-tab between code and browser, and it must have seemed to him that there were no other open applications running, because that was the only one in the alt-tab switcher. He had to ask me how to get to the browser. I was a Cinnamon user at the time, but that day I had fallen back to Gnome 2 to overcome a bug with Netbeans. The next day I had resolved the Netbeans issue and reverted to Cinnamon – he did the same thing – tried alt-tab and remember he didn’t know how to use my computer, and asked me to move it again. The following day I was using Unity (I don’t remember why, exactly – it was before I was converted by Jon) – but I remember the same thing happening – he just saw the Chrome icon, clicked it and said “well, that’s easier”.

I still see people on forums and on twitter complaining, or even just blindly sticking to their original opinion – “Unity sucks”. To these people I say give it a try. But as my friend Mike said to me recently on this topic:

So true.