Summer of Code, aka Computer says, “No”

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So I thought I’d test myself with the Open University’s Summer of Code. Each day, a new problem is set, requiring participants to write a script to solve it. It’s mainly for transitioning second to third years, but as I’ve done a bit of coding in my spare time in the past (using Python) I thought I’d give it a shot.

For my uni course, I’ve been using Sense to do assignment scripts, though not by choice. Sense is a basic programming language using command ‘blocks’, as opposed to having to write out the commands yourself. The OU uses this programming language to teach coding. Sense is ok, but it does ignore certain principles that Python uses, such as the first character in a string in Sense is at position 1, not 0 as it is in Python. It’s also pretty limiting … as I was to find out.

I managed, with a few hiccups, to do the first two day’s tasks using Sense. However, the third task highlighted how basic Sense is. There’s no easy way to convert from letters to the equivalent alphabet numbers. Or rather, not without using a hell of a lot of if-elseif-else blocks that would grind my laptop to a halt. It also didn’t help that it took me half an hour to actually figure out what the problem entailed, as it was written in a rather unclear fashion. After two hours of struggling, and realising I’d left my Python course notes several 100 miles away in Amsterdam, I had to give up. I was rather irked, to say the least. Especially, considering I’d aced the previous two tasks.

Day four wasn’t much better, but by this point, I was getting the impression it was because the questions were overly complicated, rather than the coding itself. If I couldn’t figure out how to do them on paper, how was I expected to do them in code? The tasks were supposed to take two hours to solve, but most of that time was taken up with me going, “WTF??” It also didn’t help that the questions would sometimes have mistakes in their convoluted explanations, making things even less clear.

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I gave myself a break from day 5, and tried afresh on day 6. This time, I did progress a little further in answering the question than I had the previous couple of days, but again, I got stymied, so I decided to call quits on the whole thing.

It wasn’t an entirely defeatist move. As it is, I’m also doing a free Open Learn badged course on “English: skills for learning“, which is designed to help “develop the English reading and writing skills needed to succeed” with university work. As I have my final module assignment to do (it’s a doozy), and as one of my next modules will be “English for academic purposes online” I prioritised, and figured out of the two time-sinks, learning how to write a proper assignment was more important than goofing around with unintelligible questions, and contrary scripts.

The past week or so has also made me realise I’ve pretty much forgotten all the Python I’d learnt. Though, in fairness, I haven’t touched the language since 2015. So it looks like I’m going to have to shoe-horn in some refresher learning. Codecademy do a lot of free programming courses, and I’ve already covered jQuery, HTML, CSS and Java with them. However, I did my Python with Coursera (when it used to be a good MOOC provider), which means I can do some Python refresher with Codecademy. I just need to find the time!

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A Second Life in Second Life

So I’ve recently done a section on virtual worlds in my Open University module (My Digital Life), and a lot of it was about the use of Second Life in the realms of education, business and pleasure. It got me thinking and intrigued about the place again. Many years ago I tried logging in, but my old PC simply couldn’t handle it, and my foray into the world died before it even started.

By the end of the section, I had succumbed to curiosity. Armed with my more powerful Linux laptop, I signed up again, got a new avatar, and I entered the world at the OU’s remaining island (Deep Think).

I didn’t meet anybody while I was there, which was probably a good thing. It gave me a chance to wander round and get a feel of the place undisturbed. But more importantly, I had major problems using the edit avatar menu, and on several occasions I inadvertently ended up butt naked. Being alone certainly saved my avatar’s blushes.

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I’ve called my cat Mor’du

After my wander, I went and visited the International Space Flight Museum, which was actually pretty cool.

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I went back a couple of times, mainly to tweak my avatar’s look. I also visited another museum, namely the Museum of Natural History of Vienna, where I looked at dinosaurs, and managed to get trapped under the floor. But again, I didn’t see anyone else.

Do I think I’ll be going back to Second Life? Probably not. But it’s handy having an avatar if a get-together is ever on the cards.

Everything is (Buffer) Awesome

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Since Hootsuite decided to downgrade its free version options, I’d been seriously considering Buffer’s Awesome Plan, especially after my fortnight’s free trial of their Businesses Plan. However, at $102 per year (and that’s with their 15% yearly subscription discount) and me not having an income, it seemed rather a large fee. Then one day I was scrolling through Twitter, reading what people had been saying about the plan, when I saw something that immediately made me sit up…. The words student discount…. And there’s me being a student!

The tweet was old, so I had two questions to get the answer to. Did they still do a student discount, and was it available to Brits?

Armed with only my university email address, I shot Buffer a message, and soon got the answers back…. Yes & Yes!

Thanks to the 15% annual discount, and a student discount, The yearly fee dropped to $51 (a manageable £38!). I signed up on the spot, and ho-boy, has it changed my morning routine for the better.

Firstly, I can link up to 10 social media accounts to one buffer account. As it stands, I’ve now linked:

*I still post to the charity’s Facebook account via Facebook’s scheduler as it allows other admins to see the posts, and make changes if necessary.

And at 100 post slots available for each, the time, it is being saved.

Before, thanks to being constrained by post slots, I would have to fill up different applications. Buffer for my retweets, Facebook posts, and LinkedIn; Hootsuite for plain text posts; Tweetdeck for posts with images, and when I’d run out of room on Hootsuite and Buffer; Facebook scheduler when I’d run out of room on Buffer; Pinterest didn’t even factor in; and I had bookmark folders for tweets and posts that simply couldn’t be fitted in anywhere at the time (e.g. for the charity account and my LinkedIn). I would quite often have to generate multiple copies of the same post, switching between scheduling platforms as space and post type dictated. Not anymore! Now I can create one post, and instantly have it schedule across all my different social media accounts, with the barest tweak to any text before they go (like adding hashtags to tweets). Plus, I no longer have to worry about backlog posts because I have more than enough available slots for each account.

Another time saver has come from being able to cross post between different account types. My social media accounts can be divided into three profiles: Charity org, me as a marine biologist, and me as a sci-fi novelist. I had different buffer accounts for each hat I wear, and I would have to log in and out of them to schedule posts. So, say, I came across an a marine-related article when scheduling stuff for my marine platforms, that I fancied sharing on the charity’s profile. I would have to wait until I’d done all my scheduling for my marine accounts, log out of the accounts, log into the charity’s accounts, recreate the posts, and schedule them again. Not so now. Now, if I find a post that I want to share across several profiles, I can simultaneously schedule them across several profiles. Job done!

The biggest issue I have is getting into the new posting rhythm. It doesn’t feel right just creating one post for multiple accounts. Several times I’ve sat there, staring at the post, second-guessing myself whether everything’s ok with it, and that I’m good to press the ‘Schedule’ button. Also, I have to be wary to make sure I deselect all the unnecessary platforms before publishing (I don’ think MARINElife’s followers are too interested in my science fiction posts).

Despite that, my time spent scheduling posts has been cut from approximately 2.5 hours, to about 1.5 hours. It’s come to the point that I’m able to slot in some Open Learn studying in the morning.

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So, if you’re contemplating signing up for the Buffer Awesome Plan, I heartily recommend it, especially if you’re a student or a charity (the 50% discount applies to you too).

Decisions Decisions

The time finally arrived for me to choose my second lot of modules for my Open University degree, something that I’d been waiting excitedly for.

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As you may know, I chose to do the Open Degree, basically to give myself a bit more flexibility in the modules I can choose, and I’m basically doing Information and Computing Technology combined with Creative Writing. Sort of an ICT major, Writing minor kinda deal. I’m still in the midst of doing ‘My Digital Life’, which, though a little outdated (it’s the last time it’s running), I’ve found to be interesting and informative, but I had 60 credits left to fill, to complete what will technically be my first year of study. And so, choices had to be made.

Since beginning this degree, I’ve already known one of the other first year modules I wanted to take, which is ‘English for Academic Purposes Online’, and which’ll be my first languages module. But at 30 credits, this left me having to decide on another 30-pointer, which wasn’t easy. I didn’t want to learn a language, or retail management, or delve into essential mathematics. This left me with two options:

  1. An introductory statistics module.
  2. A module delving into robotics, networking and Linux.

The sensible part of my brain told me to do statistics. After all, I’m a scientist, and if I ever manage to get a science-based job, statistics may well be needed. The other part of my brain said, “But robots!” As I was having trouble deciding, I put some feelers out to my social media followers, asking what they’d do. To be honest, the masses weren’t much help. My Twitter poll got one vote, for robots, and my Facebook post got one comment, again for robots. However, the FB post was the clincher, as they basically said I could do a statistics course anytime, and thinking about it, they’re right. I’m sure if I did a Google search now, I could find any number of free statistics MOOCS online. So, with that in mind, I’ve chosen ‘Technologies in Practice’ as my third first-year module.

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These choices mean I also know what type of degree I’ll end up getting in six year’s time. My second and third years will be split 50:50 between computing and language modules, but my first is going to be split 75:25 between computing and language modules. Meaning the majority of my modules will be science ones, therefore, my final degree will be a BSc. Woo, another science degree!

As an aside, did you know the first year Open University modules don’t count to the final pass mark? I didn’t! I’ve been busting my hump to try and keep my overall grade for TU100 within distinction level, panicking whenever I’ve got a low(ish) mark, only to find I’m stress over nothing. Basically, I just need to get a passing grade to make it to the second year. Still, I guess it shows I’m making an effort, and setting my personal bar high.

But robots! Yay!