One of my ambitious goals for the year is to take on 12 programming projects.  The projects I’ll undertake for this challenge have a couple of requirements:

  1. It should be something that I can complete in 1 month of calendar time
  2. it should take less than 40 hours of effort
  3. it should ideally challenge me to learn something new
  4. it should maximize impact for someone other than myself

Trying to think of project ideas that can have a big impact with less than 40 hours of effort is not easy.  Luckily Kenneth Reitz serves as a model for how to accomplish this.  He is best known for authoring the awesome requests library, which is ubiquitous. Over the last while he’s been on a tear.

  • typy.io – a service for sharing text snippets
  • pipenv – a wrapper that combines pip and virtual envs
  • maya – datetimes for humans
  • saythanks.io – a way to send thank you to open source developers

These are potentially high impact projects compared to the effort required to create them. It’s something that I will try to replicate this year with my own projects and an approach to open-source development that I wish more people took.  Flooding the community with high impact contributions enriches us all.

Impact can be a trade off.  A large impact can come from a small improvement for many people or a large benefit for a small number of people. And of course these are all relative to what leverage you have to help.  The audience that Google can have an impact on is vastly different than the number of people I can reach. So I’m trying to be realistic about what kind of impact a 40 hour project can have.

Optimizing for impact seems to be a great goal.  It re-frames the importance of a project; If I could do something in 40 hours that would double someone else’s business it might be a worthy project to consider.  If I could contribute a wrapper for an API that is used by 1000s of developers it could have a wider impact.

Scratching your own itch is the common motivation for open-source development, but in a sense it is inward focused and self-serving. In a world where we increasingly don’t talk to our neighbors or contribute to our communities doing things to help others sounds radical.

Be radical, make an impact.

Part of my fascination about economics is peoples desire to oversimplify a dramatically complex system. The reality is that there are 7 billion individual active entities that all act in complex ways. The human mind simply cannot comprehend the motives and interactions between all 7 billion individuals that make up the system. This makes it a fun thought experiment, how many complicating motivating factors can you think of and what are their relative strengths on a human mind across different personalities.

Last night I was pondering a currently popular topic of Universal Basic Income. And it occurred to me that perhaps there is a win-win way that governments could slowly introduce them without breaking the bank.

The most common objection to basic income is ‘who pays for it?’ and certainly the most straight forward answer is to raise taxes on the rich and re-distribute the wealth downwards. This is a tough sell, especially since wealthy people hold sway with the government to protect their wealth, while the lower income earners hope to be wealthy one day and don’t want to experience higher taxes when they are. I don’t think this approach is viable for a substantial UBI scheme.

What is needed is an approach that makes business owners happy too.

Where could the government get the money to pay a UBI if not from increasing taxes?

The wealthy people themselves serve as an example of how to make a income that isn’t tied to work which we can model the government on. Wealthy families put their money to work for them and can live off the dividend payments forever. This is a model that may work at a national level with the government making the investments and passing the dividends through to citizens.

Are there any precedents for this kind of arrangement with other governments around the world? Yes! The Alaska Permanent Fund was established in 1976 as part of an amendment to their constitution. It was designed so that a portion (25%) of revenue from oil royalties flowed into an investment fund for future generations to enjoy. As of 2015 the fund is worth $55B and over the last 5 years the average annual payout has been $1352. That has proven to be a significant boost to the economy especially in rural areas where cash and jobs are scarce. While $1352 is not enough to be considered a basic income, it is a start, and proves that it’s possible to give money directly to citizens without raising taxes.

What would it look like to scale this up to a country like Canada? The population of Canada is 50x bigger than Alaska so a per capita equivalent wealth fund would be nearly $3T. That’s a massive number. It will take a long long time to reach that level, but it’s not as completely insane as it sounds. The execution of this plan would look a lot like Quantitative Easing. The government makes use of it’s ability to borrow at very low interest rates (currently about 0.5%) and use that money to buy assets. Those assets would yield income back and the spread between interest and yield is a profit that could be used to pay down the debt principal initially, but ultimately get passed down to citizens.

Instead of buying bonds and mortgage backed securities typical of the US Quantitative Easing approach, I’d suggest investing in equities and infrastructure as well. Pumping money directly into the TSX should make the elites happy.

Isolation of both the debt and assets into a ‘Canada investment Fund’ that is mandated to provide transparency would, I hope, ease the concerns of the added debt since people can see that there is $xB in debt but it’s offset by $yB in assets which generated $z in profit for all Canadians. If the government continued to finance more and more into this fund it could eventually reach the desired levels.

Quantitative Easing in the USA resulted in $12T worth of assets being bought by the government. Between 2005 and 2015, the Fed generated a profit of $700B for the US Government which is generated through these kinds of investments.

By making an investment directly in profitable businesses and infrastructure projects now, you help spin up the economy as that money gets put to work. And the government gets something in return for the investment (equity) instead of it being a more typical hand-out (grant or tax-break). Equity provides some accountability for an ROI. The fund can pass profits back to the government which could create the base of a universal basic income that is not based on raising tax rates.

My project for the month is a stock trading bot that will ingest tweets from accounts I consider to be market influencers and do some parsing and sentiment analysis to help create and execute a trade through my broker.

For years I’ve wanted to build something to do automated trading and this is something that seems simple enough to accomplish in a month.  That makes it a worthy experiment.

There are several steps to this process:

  1. connect to the twitter stream API and listen to specific user accounts
  2. for each tweet that comes in, parse it for a company name or CEO name
  3. if there is a company or CEO mentioned, find the ticker symbol
  4. run a sentiment analysis on the tweet
  5. look up the current price of the stock
  6. decide on a trade (long/short) and size, limits and stop loss
  7. execute trade through broker

This project will be open-source for those of you interested in watching the progress or curious to see how it works. Twitter Trading Project

For the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about budgets.  Businesses, particularly large ones, have very advanced budgets and therefore tools in place to monitor and analyse cash flows and budgetary concerns, sometimes even in real-time.

You can bet that a company like Facebook has the ability to show ad revenue per hour and probably per minute.  Obviously this is outside the scope of nearly any small business to put together, but the concepts are still valuable.  Tracking your income and expenses as accurately as possible allows for quicker decisions and possibly the ability to identify trends that might disappear in aggregate.

There’s the old adage that What gets measured gets managed.  To that end tools like Mint help with personal finances a bit, but sometimes you need some better real-time feedback on your spending behaviour.

Something that I want to get a better feel for personally is how spending matches up to my budget, if a couple of purchases blow the budget I want to know about it as quickly as possible so that I can adjust before sitting down at the end of the month to review my accounts.

I may try to put together a custom system to create budget alerts for this kind of thing by scraping credit card transactions.  It could be very beneficial.

I’m ramping up a couple of eCommerce websites as part of a strategy to create a home based business that my wife can take charge of when our daughter starts school in 9 months.  Part of building the foundation for a business like that is to get re-acquainted with the world of internet marketing… something that I was deep into several years ago but am now way out of date.

Facebook Ads seems to be an interesting platform for advertising now and is significantly different from Search advertising.  I’ve been reading and learning about various strategies for marketing on Facebook and I’m hearing about some really crazy and convoluted advertising funnels, like leveraging cheaper advertising markets for likes and engagement to help drive down costs and help improve social proof in the target market.

The interesting marketing psychology is that people are not on Facebook to look to buy products and so ads which sell things stand out as an ad and are not engaging. There really needs to be some kind of entertainment or curiosity value.  Like paid advertorials in print media the goal should be to mix in with the rest of a person’s news feed and not stand out as an advertisement.

To that end I’m going to be pumping a fair bit of money into Facebook over the coming months to test ad campaigns and find viable ways to run an eCommerce business.

 

For software developers there is an unhealthy prevailing belief that being a great programmer is some innate skill that others have. Brilliance with developing code is difficult to train for because it either requires some gift you don’t have or years of on the job experience.  There is a large amount of impostor syndrome within the community which is not healthy or productive.

Of course people who are top developers know that it takes a lot of hard work to understand core concepts. It helps to have a mentor and a solid education and access to training.

There is a tactic to getting better which more programmers should be using.  Deliberate practice is the most critical aspect to improving any craft and programming software is not an exception.  Like playing piano or painting or ceramics there is creativity and technical skill which can be improved on with deliberate practice.

If you want to get better at your craft it is not good enough to simply work on job tasks. For work you typically do something once and then it’s done, there’s few opportunities for repetition and critical evaluation.  If you were learning to play piano and you had a sheet of music the equivalent to developer workflow would be to play through the song once, stopping to go back and fix your mistakes then when you finished you’d put the song away move on to a new song.  Practising piano requires playing the same song hundreds of times, you start by playing and focusing on not making mistakes, when that is accomplished there is still practice at making the song sound good with appropriate pedal usage, tempo and dynamic, and finally when that is good enough you can continue to practice the same song and add your own touches – arpeggios, slurs, delays etc.

How many times have you implemented a deck of cards?  Can you write one top to bottom without looking up examples on stack overflow, or querying the documentation or searching through code completion lists? Could you write a deck of cards in a procedural, functional and object oriented styles?  Could you meta program a deck of cards? Could you make a deck that is thread safe? distributed? Web scale? Obfuscated?

Practice. Do it often, and do it deliberately.

Writing code everyday has been an interesting challenge.

In 2015 I started to work towards a long streak on GitHub which eventually capped out at 250 days. The questions I wanted to answer was:

  • Can I apply ‘deliberate practice‘ to programming and get better?
  • Can ‘free coding’ (like free writing) be effective way to push through writers block?
  • How important is memorising to your coding performance?
  • If syntax and API unknowns don’t present bottlenecks to your flow how fast can I translate an idea into code – can it be limited by typing speed?

I started a repository for my daily coding.  It had a simple script to generate a blank file everyday for me to code in and I would try to code something.  Sometimes it would be to explore a new python module, or fiddle with syntax, or challenge myself with a rosetta code example or replicate a previous day’s code from memory.  I wrote dozens of Flask apps, memorised the methods of lots of APIs, and gained a level of confidence with writing Python that I don’t have with any other language.

At the end of the streak I had a repository with hundreds of small scripts.  Only a handful of them were multi-day efforts or had any real value.  The variety of this collection proved to be useful on it’s own too – several times I have referred back to these examples to help with my actual work and to copy/paste snippets from.  Some of them started me down a path of exploration – like calculating the return on investment for solar panels.

Part of what enabled me to maintain this streak as long as I did was a simple script I wrote to check GitHub for daily activity and email me if I hadn’t yet committed any code.  This simple hack was enough of a reminder to keep me focused even when I was otherwise distracted.

This past week I turned that script into a web service anyone can use.  CodeStreak.io will watch your public github activity and email or SMS you if you haven’t yet pushed any code for the day.  This is the first project of 2017 that I plan on building to expand on my previous streak.

In 2017 I want to build 12 projects.  Each should be roughly 10-20 hours of effort and result in something that provides value for other people.  CodeStreak.io is an example of the kind of project that I want to undertake this coming year, but it is also a tool to help ensure that the momentum is sustained for 12 months.  Blocking out 4 hour chunks of time is a helpful way to really focus and be productive, but 4 hours once per week has been (for me) too sparse to maintain interest in something long enough to finish it.  A little bit everyday keeps a project on your mind.  Attempting to maintain a streak will be a tool to power through the bits that are otherwise uninteresting or difficult.  CodeStreak.io is a foundational tool necessary to accomplish my 2017 goal.

The questions I want to explore with this new goal are:

  1. Without a concern for generating revenue can I just write cool things and get them out there?
  2. Can I get deeper into something new and create something useful out of it with less than 20 hours of effort?
  3. Can you get good at seeing a project from start to finish – what skills or traits will improve the odds?

Hopefully, I’ll have some answers at the end of 2017.

One of the welcome additions to Amazon’s AWS offerings is a simplified server provisioning service to compete directly with Digital Ocean called Lightsail.  Lightsail provides a nicer web UI for launching instances, many quick launch options for common apps like WordPress or GitLab and simplified billing (yay!).  With Lightsail you don’t need to pre-pay for Reserved Instances to get a good price on an EC2 server.

Dokku is mini heroku you can run on your own servers.  It uses the same buildpacks that Heroku does to enable git push deployments. By building on top of Docker a collection of available dokku plugins make it easy to start up databases, caching or tie in other services.  In this tutorial I add Postgresql and get an SSL cert using Let’s Encrypt

Together, Lightsail and Dokku create an easy way to manage your application deployment on an inexpensive server.

Get started on Lightsail by starting up a new virtual server:

And then selecting an Ubuntu Image:

There’s a spot here for ‘Add launch script’ where you can drop in these commands to automatically install dokku on first boot:

wget https://raw.githubusercontent.com/dokku/dokku/v0.7.2/bootstrap.sh
sudo DOKKU_TAG=v0.7.2 bash bootstrap.sh

Give it a name and press Create to start booting up the server. You should be able to SSH to the new server very quickly though you can connect before dokku and package updates have been applied (it’ll take a couple minutes for the dokku command to become available)

After a couple of minutes have passed and things are installed and running visit your server in a web browser:

For the public key you’ll want to grab the key on your computer.  if you have linux or macOS you can grab the contents of ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub.  If you need to generate a key there’s a good How-To on Github about generating them.

Set the hostname you’ll use for the server if you have one and Finish Setup.

Next step is to SSH to the server and fiddle with it there using the private key you can download from Lightsail:

ssh -i LightsailDefaultPrivateKey.pem ubuntu@<YOUR PUBLIC IP ADDRESS>

And create the app you will be deploying:

dokku apps:create your-app

Add a postgres database (there are other great plugins available for dokku too)

sudo dokku plugin:install https://github.com/dokku/dokku-postgres.git
dokku postgres:create database-name
dokku postgres:link database-name your-app

Now, back to your local app add a git remote to this new server and deploy it:

git remote add dokku dokku@<PUBLIC IP OR HOSTNAME>:your-app
git push dokku master

If that is successful then the project should be visible online. Yay!

Then there are some next steps to help complete the app. Set any environment variables you need for the app:

dokku config:set your-app ENV=prod

You can install an SSL cert using Let’s Encrypt very easily:

sudo dokku plugin:install https://github.com/dokku/dokku-letsencrypt.git
dokku letsencrypt your-app

You can configure some pre and post deploy hooks inside the app.yaml file in your project repository to run checks or execute database migrations.

That’s about it! git push deploys to update your project whenever you want.

Recently I’ve been interested in finding a business investment – something like a B&B that allows me to put some of my retirement savings into a business that I have some control over its success.  The normal process for something like this would be to write a business plan or at least do some back of the envelop estimations for how much revenue is expected from the property.

The usual tool of choice is a spreadsheet.  And those are excellent ways to work through the numbers and visually see things.  However, the flexibility of a spreadsheet is somewhat limited for even more advanced analysis.

I wanted to take things to a different level.

What information could I get from looking at the market and scraping webpages that I could feed into a bigger model to see how other owners of similar businesses do.  By pulling in 1000+ comparables and running them all through a similar model to estimate each of their profitability it becomes possible to identify the traits of a successful business.

Applying this sort of ‘big data’ analysis is proving interesting.  There is an amazing amount of information freely available on the internet, but much of it exists in different silos.

In the example of running a B&B, there are lots of them listed on booking.com and similar travel booking sites.  These provide a partial picture of how popular a place is (from it’s availability) and the revenue (from the cost to stay there). Another big piece of the picture is the costs – which you can estimate by checking real-estate listings.  By putting all this information you can see many interesting things.

If your model is accurate then you can get answers to these questions:

  • What percentage of B&Bs turn a profit each year
  • Is there an optimal size / number of rooms
  • which attributes of the property correlate most to it’s profitability

You can take a deeper dive into the best performing properties to see if they do something unique – do they have nicer websites / photos? Do they do aggressive advertising? Are they active on social media?  Answers to these questions can help you find the strategies that are working best in the market – and perhaps things that are a waste of time.

This type of analysis is something I think more people should be doing.  It provides some competitive advantage in terms of the information that you bring with you into a potentially big investment, and reduces the risk that you inadvertently buy a lemon.

 

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of starting a new project idea and seeing it all the way through to finished and published.  It’s a feather in your cap that you can look back on and say “I built that”.  Regardless of if it is a big hit or not, it will make you a stand out – very few people get something all the way to done on their own.

Ambition can act against you in this.  The larger the project the more opportunties there are to hit roadblocks which derail it. The size of a project is a risk that should be minimized.

That’s why I believe it’s important to create momentum with smaller projects.  A small win still gives you a great amount of confidence.

This applies both to home projects, or code projects or hobbies.

Small is a relative term.  You may be able to handle a small 40 hour project, while someone else cannot yet tackle something that big.  Small may be as simple as fixing a wall hook or creating a pull request to fix a typo in the documentation of an open source project.

By putting a lot of these small projects together you create something bigger than the sum of them.  Fixing all the small things around your house can turn it into a relaxing home, Contributing to Open Source projects could gain you some notoriety and help you get a dream job.

Derek Sivers said “the best option is the one with the most options” and doing many small projects gives more options than one big one.

37 signals (now basecamp) started out with 6-10 individual products. When starting they didn’t know which would be a success so creating many smaller ones diversified their risk and helped them succeed.

Small projects are going to be a core part of my strategy for 2017.  Launching micro-sites, simple tools, or open-source libraries that can be finished in 8-10 hours of effort.

Think small, get out there, and finish it.  It’s a step to something bigger.