Sunday, July 31, 2011

Div Tags, Nodes, and Gentrification

Accomplishments are light compared to the week prior to this last one. Most weeks would in comparison. Job hunting distractions hit hard which meant fielding phone calls, writing emails, and doing research for interviews. The trade-off is it helps get me employed but takes away from project time. So here's what's happening.

Game PD – Div Research
The Game PD project's reliance on html tables for layout is embarrassing. To work towards fixing that problem, I experimented with organizing image files using css and div tags. It's a different way to manage things but I can see the degree of flexibility gained from doing it this way. The next step is to fix the tags in Game PD itself.

JMonkey – Node Experiement
This past week's JMonkey topic was the node system. JMonkey nodes are a little like css/div layout in that they help organize visual entities presented to the user. For my experiment, I took liberties with an existing tutorial on the topic. I gained experience in node set up, rotation, and scaling using the api. Aside from a snag with property settings, it went pretty well.

Blender Addons – Gentrification
A visit to New York City lead to research on gentrification, a topic that matters to Blender Addons. Gentrification refers to affluent people moving to poor neighborhoods and improving them. This causes the underclass to either adjust or move out because it becomes more expensive to live there. Some of the underclasses most affected are poor minorities and artists. This likely includes many 3D artists as well.  So gentrification serves as yet one more reminder that my audience is one of modest means.

This matters because I view Blender Addons as a business and the first rule of any business is to make a profit.  That means that the choice of target audience has consequences that cannot be ignored. I'll think this over carefully before making any decisions.

That's all for now. Aside from interviews, there's plenty of interesting work yet to be done. I'll keep you posted when I have new things to share. Cheers.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Blender Ops, MVC, and More Monkeys

I got a lot done last week. I'll do my best to keep this blog entry short. Let's get to the week in review.

Blender Addons - Blender Operators and CMS
String It got a point upgrade. It now has hook support so that the objects that the generated curve runs through actually attach to the objects themselves. Also, demo videos for this and my other scripts got posted to Youtube this past week. As an extra challenge, I wrote an operator that syncs rotation of multiple selected objects. This last script gave me good practice on modal ops but it probably won't make it to the site.

As Blender Addons grows, a cms system becomes more appealing. This and my web hosts support for it justified a local Joomla installation. However, it'll be awhile before a CMS switchover actually happens. Design issues need to be addressed first and it's not a trivial task. In the long run, it'll be worth it because the tools for managing and organizing content are pretty useful.

Game PD – MVC and the Javascript Bug Hunt
After spending time reviewing advanced PHP concepts, it became apparent that MVC style code layout could be done easily in Game PD. In Java web applications, it's pretty obvious what belongs in a data class, a controller servlet, and a JSP page. However, with the right amount of discipline and a few well placed require statements, you can have the same benefit in a PHP project too. This project now has the advantage of MVC style organization with none of the XML hassle.

A Javascript bug in the project taught me an important lesson about functional programming. Page navigation died when page reloads happened. The root cause turned out to be a function being accidentally passed to another function rather than it's result. It was a good debugging challenge and it served as a cautionary lesson about the kinds of traps you can fall into with this style of programming if you aren't careful.

JMonkey – The Red Ball
My latest baby step back into Java was a JMonkey project where I rewrote some code to turn a blue cube into a red sphere. What struck me as interesting was it felt like familiar territory already covered in tutorials I did on Python development for Blender. It was pretty easy stuff so I have to give credit where it's due. JMonkey, so far, is pretty friendly to newcomers.

In Summing Up
So between Blender Addons, Game PD, and JMonkey, my development endeavors have effectively evolved into a 3 projects. A lot got done and there's a lot more coming down the pipe. My backlog, as it stands, has 8 serious items to tackle and it's time to get to it. I look forward to sharing more next week.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Cookie, A Monkey, And A Linked List

Blender Addons has a ways to prove itself. Five add-ons is a good start but there's still much to do. Here's what's been happening.

Particle Tracer
Particle Tracer is an add-on I wrote that uses particle locations to create curves. The order and/or chaos in the end result reflects the intention or degree of skill the user has when configuring a particle system. It's a good script for creating simple curves that look like flailing noodles or something fancier if that's what's desired.

JMonkey Investigation
JMonkey is a compromise. When I code unpaid and open source, it's computer graphics and Python and PHP are the right fit for what I do.  However, I'm also looking for paid work.  When tech recruiters say they want Java and .NET, they mean it.  The idea of accepting programmers from other languages doesn't fly. Since JMonkey is both Java-based and generally known and respected in the open source graphics community, I went with it.

My first impression is it's good. You can get a Netbeans based environment with all the libraries you need to start. The “Hello World” it gives you for a default project comes with a 3D cube you can interact with. Judging by the demo videos, it has a lot of good capabilities. There might be future projects in this.

Linked List Challenge
A famous interview question asks “How would you write a function to iterate backwards through a singly linked list in C?”. Most interviewees from entry-level to kernel hackers get it wrong and get eliminated for it. I wonder if they should.

The first thing I take issue with is the candidate is asked to do it in C. Most people's programming background is pretty high-level which would make C seem pretty intimidating.  Candidates should be focused on the problem without being distracted by the syntax of the language and C often makes that task needlessly more difficult.  Candidates should be allowed to use either pseudo-code or their comfort language to tackle these sorts of questions.

I wrote a Python function to solve the problem in 10 minutes which brings up the second issue I have with it. It's easy to solve the problem if you can think recursively. Recursive thinking comes easy if you do a lot of functional programming.  I use that kind of thinking frequently in the Python and Javascript code I write.  

However, I suspect most good enterprise and business developers manage just fine without functional or recursive thinking in their daily work.  It doesn't apply in every situation.  Most of the time, it doesn't even apply in the context of the job the candidate is interviewing for.

Cookie Setting in Uncle Squirrely
I decided I wanted Uncle Squirrely to remember what game ordering and platform they were last on when they left the app and came back later. It was a good excuse to get into cookies.

I had the cookie setting happen on the server side. I let a JQuery plugin handle the job of reading cookies and turning the data into a GET request. This meant the server-side didn't have to worry about how the data was coming in. It was a pretty simple yet interesting experiment overall.

And That's It
Another satisfying week done. I'm looking forward to the next one and you'll hear from me again soon. Cheers to all.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Junior/Mid-Level and Independent

The other day, a guy called to talk about a PHP developer position for an e-commerce site in Washington state. Washington is friendly territory for Amazon affiliates which makes it very appealing just on account of my own web sites. Having a solid background in PHP with no financial incentives certainly doesn't hurt as credibility goes. The qualifications matched beautifully. With a list made up of PHP, Javascript, CSS, SQL, and HTML, it would be difficult to be a more perfect match to my own skill set.

The only warning sign was getting an email before the official phone screen that the position required 5 years of PHP experience. Now experience is a funny duck. Any developer whose history is even remotely interesting will not spend 5 years working with one core language for all projects. My own experience was a delicious sandwich of server and client side technologies for all kinds of projects. Since PHP was what I started and ended with, you could call that language the bread I guess.

Here is something I find interesting. Back in college, a 3D site called I.L.B. Productions was my first personal web project which I did in PHP.  Fast forward to present day and you have Uncle Squirrely and Blender Python Tutorials which were my other two. Very little money was made on any of these projects but much fun was had. However, when it came down to the REAL phone screen, the woman I spoke with was not impressed enough with this or any of my non-PHP work to give me much consideration for the job. Experience with large scale e-commerce projects was a biggie and they wanted someone senior level for it.

Now there is a general rule that "senior developer" and "5+ years experience" of paid experience go hand-in-hand. My caliber is absolutely junior to mid so being judged as under-qualified for a "senior" role is fair. Part of the issue was because it was largely expected to be remote work and the client likes their junior and mid-level people to be physically there. So while relocation at this point in the job search is absolutely back on the table, senior is senior and there is no getting around that.

The "senior" vs. "junior" problem is interesting as job hunting goes. searches show Connecticut has 26 senior developer job openings for every 1 junior position. The root cause of this situation is subject for debate. Still, this makes a layoff in the 2 to 5 year experience zone look like absolute death to such developers.

These are the challenges I face in the search for paid work. It's neither good nor bad but it is reality. So why on Earth do I still bang out code and throw that stuff out on the Internet if the odds are against me? Well, it's just plain fun. As for the job search itself, I like to quote Han Solo in Empire Strikes Back when he says...

"Never tell me the odds."

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Add-On Development and the New Mission

Non-Blender Project Updates
The past week has been interesting as projects went. I tackled some older web technologies in the form of a regular expressions project and some Apache configuration research focused around CGI. These are pretty old technologies but still very much worth knowing about.

More On String It
The bigger deal of the past week was completing a new version of “String It” and putting it up on my site. String It has an actual user interface as well as support for two spline types now. I posted about it on the Blender Artists forums and the response has been pretty positive.

More About the Change in the Mission
I've said before that Python app scripting tutorials don't work as a business model. There are some things that can work though. Developing and selling add-ons for 3D tools can work. Writing open source software can also work. If both of these business models can succeed, then combining the approaches to base a business on open source 3D add-ons might work too.

This is why the official mission of the site will be making open source add-ons for Blender. “Blender Python Tutorials” will be renamed to “Blender Addons” to reflect this new focus. The tutorials will stay for the time being because they do add value to the site. Those that come for the tutorials will find the add-ons with full source code provide useful examples to learn from. Those who don't care about programming will also benefit from those same scripts. It's a win for everybody.

The Coming Week
The coming week will focus on two tracks. On the web track, there is obviously some site work to be done. On the add-on track, there are some small improvements on String It planned. The API support for particle scripting also looks pretty promising and worth experimenting with at least. It should be interesting to see how it all works out.