A Plethora of Options for Mapping Out My Mind

I want a mind map driven task manager for someone with a Mac laptop and an Android phone.

My life is much too complicated to manage without a digital brain, but the last thing I want to do is face the fact that I have too many interests and not enough time. My To Do list scares the hell out of me, which is why I only really use it for shopping lists. I know I’d get a lot more done if I could ride herd on my long list of intentions better, so I’m looking for a new tool. Enter mind maps.

Scott's Life

Mind maps are a way of seeing ideas that fits better into my brain. Like any worthwhile viewpoint, *I* am at the center, and major points of interest radiate out from there. Ideas flow into each other the way I think about them, instead of as collection of lists. But, with the right software, tasks I want to do related to these ideas can be converted into task lists. That last part, connecting the two technologies, is the part that seems hardest to pull off, particularly as a Apple user.

There’s quite a variety of free and for-pay apps for mind mapping. So far I’ve examined FreeMind, XMind, and Mindomo. The tricky part is the integration with the task management software.

Specifically what I want is to be able to create tasks from either the mind map on my laptop or the task manager on my phone and have them automatically synchronized. I think the mind map will provide the high-level coordination my system has been missing. I’ve also seen a good case for using all-day tasks in Google Calendar as a task list, because it allows one to see their tasks and calendar on the same page.

At the moment I’m leaning toward XMind Free to start with. It’s fully featured, open source, and free, and will get me started. For around $100 it has project management features that would be useful for my game development process also. There are also third-party plug-ins that automatically sync with popular task managers, but so far the only ones I’ve seen run on Windows, not OS X.

If necessary, I will manually do the syncing to try the whole system. I can create categories or tags in ToodleDo or Google Calender/Tasks for each node on the Mind Map. I will then have to manually keep them in sync by checking them completed in each location, etc. Once I decide if the system generally has merit, I can then do a free 30 day trial and see if I can accomplish the same thing automatically before forking over my cash.

I’ll keep you posted as to my results, and I’m open to suggestions about what works for other people.

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Double Low-Carb Pound Cake Muffins

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One of the biggest struggles in living small is trying to fit a full sized kitchen into a 113 sq. ft. living space. These delicious low-carb pound cake muffins have been a staple of my low-carb diet for quite a while, but only half a pan of muffins would fit in my small combo oven, until today!

I tried using the included rack to stack another half pan on top, and it worked! The thing I most dislike about this oven it that it doesn’t seem to support turning off the convection fan. Convection is great for meat and veggies, but terrible for baking. Although it evens out the temperature, it also causes the outside to cook faster than the inside. This is why I use a muffin pan instead of a normal pound cake tin. However, this oven only has burners on top, so if it *didn’t* use the convection fan, it’s almost certain the top muffins would be burned and the bottom ones would be under-done.

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There’s no way to disable the fan with the oven’s built-in controls, so I’ve been thinking about installing a manual switch just for that. It also occurs to me, though, that simply baking at a lower temperature for a longer period of time might fix the problem also. I’d get the more even heat of a convection bake, but there would be more time for the heat to penetrate into the inside of larger baked goods instead of just burning the outside. I’ll try some experiments and report back.

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Envisioning a New Future Review: Aven Colony

My main focus as a game developer is helping people envision positive, achievable futures to counteract the prevailing negativism and dystopian-tinged zeitgeist. Naturally I’m interested in other’s efforts along the same lines.

I scored a free copy of Mothership Game’s Aven Colony at a an excellent recent presentation by their CEO, Paul Tozour, which I covered earlier.

Aven Colony is a city-builder narrating the creation of human kind’s first colony beyond Earth. Starting with less than the basics, the player assumes the roll of governor, managing resources, growth, and human happiness to create a large, bustling city in the face of a hostile environment. Various biological threats blow in on the wind, massive lightning strikes can level buildings, and without careful management the colonists themselves can protest, strike, and cause general chaos. The underlying narrative of first exploration and subsequent discover of ancient and potentially dangerous alien tech is un-original but well executed.

The game does a good job of bringing the player up to speed on how to use the dense interface to create and manage the colony using some initial tutorial levels. They don’t cover everything, but provide enough to get started, with the rest filled in by on-the-job experience made sane by the ability to stop the passage of time.

Though there is a tension at the resource-poor beginning of each level, I found the external threats to be pretty innocuous and easy to keep out of my base, even on the Hard difficulty level I used for most of the game. Rather than dealing with an infestation, I tended to re-load an earlier save and change my strategy. Due to this, it wasn’t until more than half-way through the game that I finally had to deal with spores in my base wrecking havoc. Most of my problems had to do with the more prosaic challenges of growing a city fully of needy colonists who needed to eat, drink, breath, shop, work, and be entertained. Striking a careful balance is the name of the game, and being well-prepared for contingencies before embarking on new projects provides the colony with a high degree of immunity from various threats, both internal and external.

One of the more aspirational aspects of the game didn’t occur to me until I was almost done. Although there are a huge variety of foods, there is no meat. All inputs are either from plants or the ground. I’m not a vegetarian myself, but there seems to have been a deliberate decision to exclude meat from the menu. In the absence of obvious thrift stores, I was a bit disappointed to see that people were still shopping, but while you as the manager buy everything with nanites, the colonists themselves don’t seem to have money. The city building mechanism is very much a top-down proposal — no one can veto your choices, only punish you for making them poorly. What the game models well is the organism-like complexity of managing a large closed system of living creatures in a hostile environment. Various needs must be constantly kept in balance, and sometimes what seemed to be a minor problem, like a small drop in air quality, can suddenly snowball into protests and strikes. It teaches the laudable view that taking the time to things right makes dealing with problems as they come up much easier, but moving too quickly can lead to catastrophe.

Overall I really enjoyed my week-long vacation of playing the game until late into the night. I was engaged with my colonists, who can be viewed and interacted with on a personal level, cared about them and worried about them when they were unhappy. I also admire the game’s Star Trek-like focus on keeping the violence to a minimum, and its cautionary tale about the excesses of lies from high places and out-of-control religious zealotry. Although I missed the raining body parts a bit, it was refreshing to play a game where the aim was consistently to avoid violence instead of pursue it.

The weakest part of the game, which Paul acknowledged in his presentation, is the Expedition mechanism where ships can be equipped to leave the colony and explore beyond. Unlike the main game which runs in some multiple of real-time, the Expedition interface is simply a map with waypoints that can be assigned to each ship. The interface, especially for changing plans to take advantage of a recent discovery, is a bit clunky, and nothing actually happens until the player returns to the colony screen. The action all happens off-stage and is simply reported by status updates, which I found disappointingly disconnected from the flow. All of this could be greatly improved by cleaner real-time interaction and maybe a series of mini games for the various types of mission involved. Instead of stopping the action, the fact that both the main city and the expedition were happening in real-time could add to the tension. One mechanism might be that being present on the mission increases the chances of success, but a default (or upgrade-path) auto-pilot takes over if one has to jump back to the colony to deal with a crisis. This would further re-enforce the overall ethos that taking care of business at home opens up the bandwidth take risks elsewhere. The lack of newness at the end of game was also a little disappointing, with the final action to simply be to survive for one more solar “day” after other actions had occurred.

Overall I really liked the game, and found it hard to believe it was created by a four-person studio. It goes a long way to prove many of the priorities revealed by the Game Outcomes Project, an amazing and in-depth project that sought to determine which elements do and don’t contribute to successful game-making. Aven Colony kept me engaged learning, balancing, and exploring for several days, has a well thought out interface for its complexity, but doesn’t get so bogged down in details to feel overwhelming. And there’s always that Stop Time button.

Wouldn’t it be great to have *that* in real life? 🙂

Even on my wildly-below-minimum-spec Macbook Pro, I really enjoyed the visuals, and would love to see it on a more powerful gaming rig at full detail.

Aven Colony is a well-envisioned and executed space colony builder experience, and I’m happy I spent a few days living on Aven Prime.

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Plastic Welding for The Win

I can now heal broken plastic things and make stuff out of plastic pieces! Very exciting!
It all started with this broken plastic cover for Junior’s clutch fan:

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It had both the Big Tear all the way through on top here:
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…and the Big Chunk ripped out by the helpful drunk claiming to be an aircraft mechanic in Abilene here:

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I had welded it with a soldering iron several times before without adding material, but it just kept breaking. The repair was too thin and brittle. It was very hard to find a replacement part, so it looked like repairing it was my best option. A bit of Googling lead to this:

Viola! With a simple soldering iron, some zip ties for feed stock, and thin wire for re-enforcement, anything is possible!

This longer video with more details was the main one I used:

The key is to keep the temperature low enough that it doesn’t smoke. The smoke is toxic, and also the plastic gets more brittle if it’s burned. This technique can be used to repair any compatible plastic, and also starts to make any random bit of plastic garbage look useful!

The ability to add metal wire re-enforcement and extra plastic fixed everything! Here I used the zip ties not only for feedstock, but also to bridge large gaps in the material like a mesh.

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I sunk some thin wire into weak points like corners to make them stronger. You just heat up the metal and it sinks into the plastic, then you cover it with more plastic afterward.

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Here it is fat and happy back in the van!

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My biggest issue was that none of my soldering irons had wide chisel tips, but instead had needle tips, which suck for this kind of work. I also used too much heat to speed things up, generating a lot of toxic smoke and making the repair more brittle. However, the final result was flexible, strong, and will probably last the lifetime of the part. And I’m very excited to be able to make things out of plastic without having to use a 3D printer or special tools. This technique could also be combined well with 3D printing, where the printer is used to make the detailed, fussy part, but a large block of plastic is added to the end to be welded to something bigger using this technique.

Bonzai! Please work in a well-ventilated area and use a respirator. The smoke is awful!

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The Discipline of Indie Development

Now that I’ve gotten my expenses reduced, it’s time to focus on my income. I’m transforming Junior, my urban stealth RV, into a posh pod apartment for festival rentals to cover my basic needs. This buys me the financial breathing room to get back to my game design career!

I really liked the more systematic, disciplined by Paul Tozour of Mothership Entertainment presented at this month’s Austin Mobile and Indie Gaming Group at the Capital Factory. Paul is a 20+ year game industry veteran, and the small 4-person Mothership studio he runs has recently released Aven Colony, a colonization city-builder about humanity’s first sojourn beyond Earth’s solar system.

My main focus is on solo and small-studio Indie games, and one major factor in Mothership’s continued existence is their insistence on staying small. They’ve come through a lot of trials since starting Aven Colony in 2013, and Paul believes that has a lot to do with their corporate culture. A culture that works at a large AAA studio is necessarily different than a small one, but it’s the small ones that interest me. My plan is to release a game or two using my fledgling Unity3D skills as a working portfolio, then look for other people interested in illuminating a better future through gaming.

Here’ what I remember off the top of my head. I find that it’s useful to write this out *before* looking at my notes to see how much of the presentation simply sticks in memory alone. Paul’s main thrust was that looking at game making through the lens of risk management was a great way to get all the different types of people working on a game to see it as a cohesive whole. Work hard to identify risks early, then take on the riskiest parts *first*, saving the easier and less risky parts for later. Look at inevitable setbacks like a doctor trying to find the root cause rather than pointing fingers or laying blame. Keep politics, both electoral and corporate, out of the office. Stay focused on getting things done and what’s next rather than wasting time celebrating what’s already done. Understand that luck plays a large role. Controlling for as many other things as possible in a disciplined manner stacks the deck in favor of success. Also stay nimble to dodge and weave as factors beyond one’s control change. This can mean ditching a given path that’s lost its viability, or jumping on an opportunity before others who are slower or less organized. As your team “what is blocking you?” and work to remove those blocks first.

Paul’s presentation was focused and covered a huge amount valuable of ground in a short period of time. My only minor criticism was less the feeling that he was reading from the slides, and more that what was on the slides was what he was already saying. I think this is the result of having so much great info and such a short period of time to convey it all. With all of Paul’s experience, condensing more always means leaving out something critical. I suspect, though, that this presentation would have been even better if the level was zoomed out just a bit, with the same major points being covered in slightly less detail, but more tied together as a cohesive whole.

I really admired how focused Paul is on improving the *process* of game making. His Game Outcomes Project is an excellent example. The industry has historically been very roll-your-own, whether it’s design, gaming engines, or visual tools. As he mentioned, it’s been skeptical of outside input on how to improve, leaving especially indie developers to constantly re-invent the wheel. It’s long been an interest of mine to see the process *as* a process, one than can be optimized, tweaked, and integrated with wisdom from other disciplines. Even as a solo studio, I’d like to start incorporating these in preparation of working with more people later, and as a way of improving my own ability to give birth to more of my ideas. Although it seems like honing those skills takes time away from “actual game-making”, the truth is that one can make more successful games in less time by constantly improving one’s process. That and risk management only constrain creativity when they’re done wrong. Properly deployed, they create the ideal environment for personal creativity to actually see the light of day. And, with enough work and focus, maybe pay the bills.

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Turning Junior Into Festival Income – Mud and Grime Addition

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I’m back! Been working to re-stabilize my Austin life after my three-month six-week trip. 🙂

Since I decided to sell my house, I’ve made huge progress in reducing my expenses. I have no mortgage, no debt, and a much, much cheaper life. My next major step is income, which I’ve largely been without since 2010. My first big stab will be renting Junior like a Tiny House for the many Austin festivals like Austin City Limits, SXSW, Formula 1, etc. My plan is to partner with someone already running an AirBnB for these events who has a spare driveway and needs an extra room. People already do this with Airstreams, tiny houses, and spare sheds, so the business model is well-developed. No one but me will drive the van, it will just be used as a tiny apartment.

But first Junior must be fixed and poshed up! After my long trip, he’s making subtle-but-terrible scraping noises. At first I thought it was a transmission leak, but now I think Lee was right when he said it was the center bearing on the driveshaft. Much cheaper! Yay! There’s also a pop in the steering, so today’s going to be a Boost-a-thon where I lift both the front and back ends to nail down the problems.

So naturally it rained for about three hours this morning. 🙂

The central bearing isn’t very expensive or hard to replace. In the meantime, it’s not hurting anything. Yet.

I already got the supplies to change the transmission fluid when I thought a leak was the problem. Originally Mercedes said “you never have to change it for the lifetime of the vehicle!” but later said “we were just kidding, you should do it every 30-60,000 miles.” Junior has over 220,000! There’s also an electrical plug that evidently fails often and causes a tranny leak, and I have the upgraded version for replacement. Finally, there’s a speed sensor that gets dirty in there, and it can be clean during this service. If I do this now, I probably won’t have to do it again for years.

For the steering click, I’ll be boosting the front end off the ground and having Lee move the wheels back and forth while I listen for the source of the clicking. I’ve checked the power steering fluid, and it looks ok. It’s probably a tie-rod that’s gone bad, which would be great because it’s also cheap and easy.

Maintenance on Junior will probably be my biggest expense after food going forward. By renting him out for festivals, I can turn that expense into an asset. If I can make even half of what people usually charge for a cooking-enabled bedroom, it will probably be enough to support my new lifestyle. More on the numbers soon!

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Home

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I’m finally home after twelve weeks on my six week trip! My plan to reduce my expenses drastically while improving my quality of life is really coming together.

The yurt is musty and needs a good cleaning.
The van is making funny noises and needs repair.
But, for the first time, both of my full-time residences are in the same place. I’ve already stayed in town for a few days in Junior, and can see the potential. Less driving, less money spent on gas, more seeing friends who’ve been too far away.

Time to finalize the new budget, get myself re-centered in Austin, and decide what’s next! One goal is to get the van posh enough to rent as an extra room/tiny apartment for festivals like SXSW and ACL. Why should the land owners make all the money? 🙂 I bet I could cover a huge percentage of my expenses with that one thing alone.

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