A quick update

As you're likely to have noticed, I've not been keeping up with this blog. That's because my wife and I have been busy at work preparing for various events that are happening in September and October. In addition to building costumes for the New York Renaissance Faire, we've also got four lined up for two conventions that are rapidly approaching, one of them being New York Comic Con. In addition to that, there's also...

  • two current clients
  • one to two Extra Credit episodes to edit (With one having recently been finished!)
  • a ten hour workday at my current job
  • That project that can't be named
  • the looming threat of the holiday season right around the corner

So, as you can see, time is a very rare luxury around these parts.

Not to fret, however, as I have been keeping up progress with personal projects. In addition to a drum soundboard and a technical documentation page that I've recently uploaded, I've also gone back and cleaned up a few of my earlier projects. I'm planning to go through and touch up the rest of them shortly, and to have the code available on Github. On the graphic design side of things, I'm checking to see which of my work designs I'm allowed to upload here. In short, things are continuing to move along, I just don't have the time to be vocal about it. Which is not to say I won't make time to talk, however.

Posted on 2018-09-09 Filed under Site Update

Don't Hang in There: Realizing When It's Time to Move On

Recently, I found myself struggling to splice together audio from a podcast recording session. Due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, we were missing the audio files of one individual. The recording was nearly a year old at this point, and had been passed around from editor to editor, before being relegated to gathering dust in our audio archive. "I've got this," I thought as I came across the files. "I've handled worse." I quickly realized how wrong I was. With the absense of those audio files, the recording was completely incomprehensible. I quickly came to realize that, despite not being the host for this particular episode, the missing person was intregal to the recording itself. She had introduced the subject, and had led most of the recording session, and was even behind a lot of the funny moments in the episode. I know this because, while spending hours of fruitlessly trying to Frankenstein together a coherent narrative from the other recording members, I managed to hear her voice coming through as background noise in the other audio files. I realized then that I had two options: I could continue trying to stitch together the remaining audio in order to cover up her absesnse, or I could try to salvage her recording by extracting it from the background noise. Imagine which one I chose.

Or rather, don't, since you've likely read the title of this post. After speaking with another editor about ways we could salvage the episode, we quickly realized there was little reason to try doing so. Either option would have been very time consuming, and would have led to turning out an inferior final product. After spending the better part of a year trying to bring up everyone's audio recording quality, it would be a huge step backwards to turn out an episode that sounded worse in comparison to previous episodes. The Frankenstien version I originally wanted to try could have ended up sounding decent given enough time, but that brought up a second question: would the large time invesment be worth it? Ultimately we decided that, no, it wouldn't. The only thing that would be gained would be another episode to add to our release schedule, at the cost of an editor's time and sanity. A lot of the original humor would be lost, the subject matter might not be as pertinent as it would have been had we released it when it was first recorded... there were a lot of reasons why it wouldn't be worth it compared to just recording a new episode. The podcast is first and foremost a passion project for everyone involved, so the fact that these members were able to get together and have fun recording it means that it served its purpose. The other editor and I were satisfied with this conclusion.

So, I suppose the takeaway from all this is to be cognizant of the amount of effort you're putting into a project, and make sure that the payoff is worth it. This is easily done when it comes to personal projects, since you'll ultimately know how much has been too much, and when it's time to break out the parachutes. When it comes to dealing with a client, things become immensely more difficult. Speaking from personal experiences (what kind of blog would this be otherwise?), it's important to be notify your client about potential issues as they come up. If certain aspects become time-sinks, let them know upfront, have alternatives ready, and let them know how to proceed. Be very clear about the issues at hand in order to minimize confusion as to why something can or can't be done, and as always, make sure to document everything just in case disputes arise in the future. In the end, having an open conversation is ultimately the best way to resolve matters just as this, regardless of whether the conversation is with a client, a partner, or just yourself.

Posted on 2018-07-20 Filed under Personal Ancedote

Embrace the 80/20 principle

Last week, I wrote about how the Pareto principle can be a hinderance when it comes to scheduling, and how to keep yourself on guard when it's working against you. However, when it comes to web design, there's plenty you can do to make the 80/20 rule work for you. Without further ado, here are some quick tips to keep in mind.

Nailing the 80% from day one

When laying out the rough concept for a website design, you need to have a clear focus on the ultimate goal you're trying to achieve. Seems like an easy thing to remember, but you'd be surprised how quickly scope creep can take over a project even during the early stages. A "quick little" addition suddenly turns into two, then three, then six... and all of a sudden, you find your attention split between various different elements. Once you've identified the main goal that your site is attempting to resolve (be it selling a product or making a superior lorem ipsum generator, you need to make sure that any additions supplement that goal, and aren't vying for attention. Without this level of focus, you risk diluting whatever it is that makes your site stand out, and it's highly unlikely that you'll be able to create something that meets everyone's needs and expectations.

Enhancing user experience

Keeping the Pareto principle in mind can help a great deal when it comes time to craft a compelling user experience. How so?

  • Autofill options and item orders in forms

    Have a dropdown input for countries, and you know most of your audience is in the United States? Plop down the US right on top of the list, followed by other countries in alphabetical order. Tailor your site to work for your audience in this manner, and they'll be able to navigate it easier and faster.

  • Placement of elements on page

    Items that are more commonly used on your website should be larger, easily accessible, and idealy can be reached without scrolling. Meanwhile, infrequently used items can afford to be placed lower on the page, or tucked away in a dropdown menu with other simmilar items.

  • Focusing on a mobile-first approach

    As the years progress, website traffic is driven more and more by mobile users than desktop users. If you're hoping to capture that mobile traffic, you'll need to trim the excess from your site in order to make it fit better onto smaller screens.

So there you are, some light food for thought. Ultimately, having the best user experience setup requires that you know your audience well. To that end, there are various resources online to help gather user's opinions, create a heatmap of a viewer's attention, and cull the various elements spread throughtout your site. At the time of writing this, I'm busy packing for an out-of-state trip, so I'm likely to miss next weeks post, so I hope you have a great Fourth of July.

Or a happy Wednesday, if you weren't part of that 80% I was aiming for with that statement.

Posted on 2018-06-30 Filed under Unsolicited Advice

Beware the 80/20 principle

Ever hear of the Pareto principle? Even if you haven't, you've more than likely butted heads against it a few times. Named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, the Pareto Principle is a truism about how 20% of a cause lead to 80% of an effect. Of course, the 80/20 split may not be an exact ratio, but it does serve as a decent approximation. You can see this principle in action in many different places, for example:

So why does the post title begin with "beware" as opposed to "praise" or "you can take an early lunch thanks to"? Because the inverse of the 80/20 rule is also true. Which is to say, if you're looking to attain perfection, it'll take roughly five times more effort just to nail down the final 20% of your goal. That unfortunate little tidbit might be hard to reconcile, especially when trying to explain the billable hours to a client. So, what's one to do in a case like that?

Don't be caught off guard

The best you can do is remain cognizant of the fact that things will get harder when you reach this point. Seems like a no-brainer, right? It may not seem that way once you're well into the thick of things, however. There'll be times when you're late into production, hitting your head against the wall wondering why it's suddenly so hard to get a simple div tag to remain fixed without breaking the entire site, I swear to god Greg, I know this is your fault somehow! This is probably a good moment to take a step back and recognize the situation for what it is. Speaking of which...

Plan your schedule accordingly

Not for the time needed to catch your breathe, though that couldn't hurt. What you need to do is plot out your production time while keeping Pareto's principle in mind. When you're first coming up with a time estimate as to when a project will be completed, take stock of the necessary workload and add in some extra time for safety. Not only are you covering yourself in case your workload reveals itself to be more complicated than expected, you're also lending yourself more credibility in the eyes of your client. After all, which would you rather deal with? The designer who estimates a completion time of four weeks, but has to ask for an extension at the end of the month? Or the designer who estimates five weeks, and gets the product out on time? If by chance everything works out perfectly and you finish early, great! You've won some extra time to proofread the final draft before sending it to the printers, or to do some additional future-proofing of your code, or any other extras that you originally couldn't plan for.

Know when to cut your losses

That being said, always keep an exit plan in mind for the worst case scenario. If you're coding a site and you're not sure that certain features can be implemented, let your client know. Work with them to prioritize a list of features that could be dropped if necessary. Have a backup plan in case the intricate standee you're designing can't be engineered to handle it's own weight. While chasing for a perfect 100%, make sure you leave yourself options in case time's running out and you can only reach 95%. With time and experience, you'll come to learn how to reach a near perfect score every time.

Posted on 2018-06-22 Filed under Unsolicited Advice

You need to back up your data

Imagine yourself back in high school, nervously sitting in your chair. You're anxiously watching other students going up one by one to the front of the room, each one presenting their final project to the rest of the class. All too quickly, it's your turn to make the dreaded march. You plug in your USB drive into the teacher's computer, ready yourself to launch into your speech, and launch your PowerPoint presentation.

An error notification greets you. The file is corrupted. The culmination of two months of work is suddenly gone. You stand up in shock, hoping to find yourself in your underwear, hoping that this is all some cliche nightmare. Unfortunately, you're still wearing pants, and still without your homework.

Over the years I've developed a very, let's say, fanatical habit of backing up my data. Much of my routine has been built over a course of mishaps that caused me to lose important files, usually at the eleventh hour. For better or for worse, this is one topic that I've become particularly well-versed with, having even written about it in the past a few times, so what better way to christen my portfolio's blog than by recounting the tale of how I lost nearly half of it in the first place?

What follows is a list of tips that you should really consider incorporating into your data maintenance routine regardless of your profession, as well as a few cautionary tales to hopefully keep you from repeating my mistakes

No, seriously, back up your data

Don't think you're somehow excluded from having to do so. I know there are some who like to imagine their computers as being infallible machines, and that their information will always be kept safely. That loud squelching noise you just heard was the sound of an IT worker rolling her eyes so hard that they flew out of their sockets. Hard drives can and will fail at a moment's notice, and the type of person who thinks otherwise is the type who will inevitably find themselves shelling out hundreds of dollars to one of those data recovery services.

"What a computer?" you wonder aloud, struggling to multitask between reading this and getting all three stars in the latest Candy Crush level. "All I have is this iPad, and maybe my phone." If it's electronic and contains information you'd rather not lose, then it's worth backing up. Thankfully, most phones and tablets will have apps built in that will automate backing up information for you, so you don't need to worry about losing your contacts, or all ten thousand pictures of your pets.

Have a backup available before a big event

That nightmare scenario I laid out in the opening paragraph? It's happened to me a few times over the last decade. When it first happened in high school, it was devastating, since the best I could do was wait until I returned home and copied the file again onto the USB. The next few times it happened during university, I learned to have a backup accessible either in an email to myself, or in my Dropbox account. In case you're planning to be in an area that doesn't have WiFi, you could keep another copy on your phone or on a second USB drive.

Keep your backups up to date

Alright, so you went out and bought yourself a nice external drive with plenty of space. You go ahead and copy your entire hard drive into it, then set it aside and wait for disaster to strike. Sure enough, on the eve of an important business project, your hard drive decides to punch out early and leave you hanging. You confidently plug in your external drive ready to boot up the file you were working on, only to find out the version you have saved is a few months old. Oops.

Backups are only as useful as long as they are maintained, otherwise you'll find yourself having to recreate a lot of work you've already done. I know I've been guilty of this myself a few times in the past. The best thing you can do is to make a schedule for yourself and stick to it. Thankfully, there are plenty of programs out there that help automate the process for you, oftentimes already preinstalled into the external drive itself. The general rule of thumb is to back up your files weekly at minimum, and upping the frequency depending on the level of importance. So those pictures and videos you saved? Once a week. Working on an important job for one of your clients? You may want to bump it up to once every couple of days. Doing something very critical that needs to be maintained every step of the way? In addition to setting up RAID mirroring, go ahead and backup daily or even hourly if need be. Speaking of which:

Follow the 3-2-1 rule

The best practice for maintaining backups is to have three copies of everything. Two copies should be saved locally, on separate storage media in order to guard against hardware failure. A third copy should then be stored offsite, to mitigate any issues where something physically happens to your storage devices. Nowadays, the safest option for an offsite copy would be to store it on the cloud. There are various companies out there that sell storage on their servers for a monthly fee, or per GB. Companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Dropbox even offer a few GB of free storage up front, and have convenient apps to help keep your backups up to date.

Don't assume cloud backups are foolproof

With all that being said, don't be lulled into a false sense of complacency: having a cloud solution does not mean you can neglect your local backups. For starters, a loss of internet connectivity may keep you from accessing your files when you most need them. Things can only get worse if there's an error on the company's side instead of yours, because all you can do is wait for them to bring services back online. If you want to take a paranoid look on the matter, consider that these services could be shut down at any moment, and most term of service contracts stipulate that they only need a small window of time to notify you about such drastic changes. Or, for a more pragmatic example, consider that these services can be switched off for you the moment you fail to keep up with payments. I'm ashamed to admit that I nearly fell prey to this when it came time to change my server host; I almost lost access to the information stored on my old server when I canceled my old account, and would likely have been in trouble if I didn't have local copies of everything on my end.

Make peace with the fact that things will fail

Don't stress yourself out trying to make things 100% foolproof, because things will fail eventually. This statement stands in stark contrast with everything else I've written, but it's really something you should keep in mind. After everything I had gone through in the past, despite all the precautions I had put in place due to experience, I still found myself losing nearly all the files I had amassed since 2005.

At the time of the incident, I had recently begun using Dropbox. Being the typical cash strapped college student that I was, I didn't have enough money to afford anything past the introductory 2GB plan. I stored the most important files on the cloud, and I had full copies of all my data both in my desktop computer, and on a 2TB external drive. For whatever reason, the hard drive on my desktop decided to call it quits, leaving me no choice but to scrounge up some funds to order a replacement. Once the replacement came in, I hooked up the external drive immediately and started transferring the data back. I left the drive standing on the desk, and left the room to do some other work while waiting for the transfer to complete. The moment I left the room, I heard a faint little "thunk" noise, and poked my head through the frame to find that the drive had tipped over. It had tipped over somehow, apparently having fallen about 3 inches at most.

That small fall was enough to kill the drive outright. Just like that, I had lost years of photos, dozens of classwork portfolio pieces, even a few game prototypes I had been playing with since I had begun learning how to code. I can't begin to describe the small twinge of anxiety I get to this day thinking about what I lost, wishing I could have done more. But, I know that I did the best I could have done in my situation at the time, and I've since gotten better at letting go of what what lost, and striving to recreate everything to be better.

Ultimately, it does not do well to dwell on the past. At the end of the day, work you've done can ultimately be rebuilt. The photos and videos may be gone, but you'll always have the memories. Simply try to follow best practices for safeguarding your information, but don't go overboard trying to create a digital Fort Knox.

Posted on 2018-06-13 Filed under Unsolicited Advice

Is that it?

I've noticed that I've been getting a bit more visitors than expected, which is strange since I've yet to make any major updates. So, to those people: interested in the stuff I've made that's not quite ready for prime-time? Feel free to check out the following links:

I'm happy to report that certain-projects-that-can't-yet-be-mentioned have been going well, and my schedule should be returning back to normal shortly. So, exciting site updates should be just around the corner.