Step 16 – Mixtape!

Somehow it seems I have even less free time. Between washing up after tea, settling the toddler at bedtime and making the baby’s bottles, we usually don’t get free until after 9pm. I have to get up at 5.20am the next day for work, so I can’t stay up too late either. But the biggest problem we have right now is that Gabe, our youngest, is a terrible sleeper. Not only that, he’s got teeth on the way and he’s currently ill with a virus. Even if he settles down quickly for bedtime at 7pm (not guaranteed) he often wakes up again at half past ten. He usually then just has a bit of milk and quickly goes back to sleep, and Sarah does the feeding. But it’s enough of an interruption that I just go to bed at that point too. It’s not uncommon for us both to get less than an hour of uninterrupted free time per day.

It’s not even much better at weekends. The kids take just as much time and effort through the day, and on top of that there’s a to-do list of jobs around the house that never seems to get any shorter. I bought a petrol strimmer for the garden and it’s already taken two weeks to even put it together and get it to start. Maybe this weekend it’ll actually cut its first blade of grass.

But things will improve. Gabe has to sleep eventually. And with every job we complete, things get that little bit more comfortable around the house. Plus, I’m soon going to be able to work from home for two days a week, which will recover six hours I’d otherwise spend on motorways.

With these things in mind, I need a Step for September. Something that can be done in short bursts. Something that won’t annoy me much when I get interrupted. In fact, something that won’t annoy me if I barely achieve anything. So I’m going to listen to music. REALLY? That’s the whole month is it? Listening to music? OK, I’ll explain.

The long commutes and DIY mean I’ve lost some free time, but our new house means we’ve traded time for space, and that means that for the first time in over five years I’ve had room to get my records and decks out. I’ve already enjoyed a couple of hours listening to almost-forgotten tunes since we moved in, and so has Toby, but I can probably fill countless more re-learning how to mix properly. I have to keep the noise down a bit so as not to wake the boys, but my office is two storeys above them so it’s not too big a problem. I might try to record some mixes once I’ve got the hang of it a bit again, though I’ll have to reorganise some cables for the PC to record, and I hate cables.

Secondly, as part of our ongoing chore of unpacking everything we own, we decided we’d leave all our CDs boxed and stored, but to do that I want to rip them all as mp3s. I’ve already done a lot of them in previous attempts at being organised, but there’s still plenty to go. It’s an onerous task, so I decided I’d just do three or four every time I work in the office and eventually I’ll get through them. Three or four CDs later and the DVD drive in my computer broke. Of course. So I’ve ordered an external Blu-Ray drive to replace it, which will arrive next week, after which I’ll crack on with the ripping. It’s an easy job, something I can do in parallel with other computer work, and nice that I can once again enjoy my collection of awful singles by unsuccessful 90s indie bands.


Toby, discovering De La Soul.



Step 15 – Modelling Workbench

Keen followers of my life and how I live it will know that I do some modelling every now and again. That’s right, I like to put on my most dapper clothes at the very heighth of fashion, style my full head of hair into a razor-sharp root-boosted alien megastructure, and paint Warhammer figures in my garage.

The problem with having virtually no free time is that your free time is limited to virtually nothing. And that’s a problem.

I’m fortunate if I get an hour here and there to concentrate on my hobbies, but I do get those hours. My main failing (just my main one, of many) is that I sometimes don’t use my free hours sensibly. In fact that’s largely what led to this whole “39 Steps” project in the first place. Last night, for example, I mucked around on the computer for fully 90 minutes, achieving nothing and annoying myself. I could have spent half that time doing something sensible and felt like I’d got somewhere. I have a long list of things to do, but as it was, when the baby started crying at half past ten, I just shook my head at my wasted evening and went to bed.

Painting Warhammer figures takes time. A long time. I can be quite obsessive over details, and modelling is one thing that definitely sets that off in me. There’s no such thing as a rush job when I get to painting. Having said that, it’s a hobby that can be done in spurts, like many of my favourite activities. In an hour I can airbrush the base coat on five Space Wolves Grey Hunters.

In practice, I can’t. The thing is, I’ve never had a dedicated place to do my painting. I’ve worked on the kitchen table, I’ve worked on old desks in the garage surrounded by clutter, I’ve worked at my computer desk in the office. All temporary setups, and the thing about temporary setups is the setting up, and conversely, the clearing away. I’m very organised with my paints and brushes and suchlike, but despite all that I need 10 minutes to get everything out and ready to go, and then 15 minutes when I’m done to clean up. Nearly half of my spare hour has gone already, to just do nothing.

So now that we live in a big enough house, with a bit of spare space for me to work, I’ve decided to set up a mostly-permanent crafts area for myself. Step 15 – here at last – was to build a workbench out of the remains of our Ikea wardrobe that got broken by the removals men.

Now, I’ve never done much DIY before, certainly not scratch-built stuff like this, but I figured that it’s just like making Warhammer stuff, only bigger. I drew up a rough design using Modo (3D modelling software), and started sawing some wood. Three weeks and five trips to B&Q later, I’d built my workbench and installed it in the garage. I say “installed” because it’s semi-attached to the wall. I say “semi” because really it sort of hangs there on a clever slot system, and can be lifted away if we ever need to move it. Cunning. It’s also designed to have an angle-poise lamp and other tools clamped on to the edge, to save space on top. Cunninger. And finally, the wipe-clean PVC covering is clamped in place on top by the back rail and just stapled underneath so it’s easy to replace it if it gets slashed with a scalpel. Cunningerer.


Of course I haven’t had time to use it yet, but at least now I know that when I do get to paint, I can spend my time actually painting. And the filing cabinet next to it will contain all my models, sheet materials, clays, bits, bobs etc. so even stuff that’s not left out is easy to access when needed.

So, on to Step 16. What next? Who knows?

One Step Beyond

Hello. Long time, no see. Haven’t you grown? Let’s have a wee catch-up shall we?

I shouldn’t say “wee” any more, because I’ve moved out of Scotland. News item number one.

We’d considered moving back to the north-west of England for a while. In particular, we wanted to move before Toby reached school age. The Scottish and English school systems are sufficiently different that moving later would have been very disruptive for him. We also wanted to be closer to the rest of the family. All the kids’ grandparents are around the area – Blackpool and South Lakes.

Things that had been rumbling away behind the scenes all came to the foreground in May. I got an offer to take my old job back, in Manchester. We found a house to buy, in a nice town somewhere in the middle of a triangle of job and family. And our house in Dunfermline sold after only nine days on the market. It was all a bit of a whirlwind in the end, but we’ve weathered it together, and find ourselves settling into our new lives.

That does mean my “39 Steps” project has been on hold while all this all shook out. If my calculations are correct I should have been up to Step 15 this month, but the last one I mentioned was Step 10. That was to reread Foundation by Isaac Asimov, which I did, and thoroughly enjoyed.

In the interests of continuing the process, and to retrospectively patch the gaping hole, I’ll do the only fair and logical thing: I’ll cheat my way out of it.

So, Step 11 (April) was to get my old job back. Step 12 (May) was to sell our house. Step 13 (June) was to find somewhere new to live. And Step 14 (July) was to move house. I’m happy to report that I completed all these totally pre-planned projects on time and under budget. Well done me.

I’ve almost completed Step 15 already too, though that is a proper mini-project that I’ve actually done this month. I’ll post something about that separately over the weekend. I’ll also post some stuff about the new house when I get chance, and update you on what’s been going on with Thrunt too.

Step 10 – Foundation

I’ve been pretty snowed under with making Thrunt for the last couple of months, and Step 9 overran by almost a whole month. I’ve also been a bit removed at home, working in the office most evenings and not spending as much time as I’d like with Sarah.

So Step 10 is a simple, brief and somewhat sociable thing: sit on the sofa with Sarah in the evenings and reread Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi “Foundation” series.

I first read Foundation when I was in my teens. I got the books out of the library one after another and loved every word. But since then I’ve only ever reread the first book in the series. It’s time to revisit it, so I bought the core trilogy of books in a single volume last weekend. It’ll be nice to have some time away from the computer.

I might still do some Thrunt work here and there thought, as I know there are a few things I’d like to improve quickly and release a first update soon.

Step 9 – Eat My Thrunt!

Well now, what’s this? Thrunt! is now finished and available to buy with actual money? And only nearly a month after I’d hoped?

Here’s the trailer…

And you can go to the Thrunt page to buy it, or for more info.

Yes, it’s true. Despite visits from my mother-in-law and my wife’s mother in law, cold-suffering teething children, much stress at work and other things on my mind, I’ve actually got the damned thing into a releasable playable state. And I’m super-proud of it.

It’s not the end for Thrunt! though, only the beginning. The £2 price tag also buys you all future updates. I plan more levels, better graphics and sound, and various new features too. But Step 9 is done at last, and Step 10 can begin. Tomorrow. It won’t involve programming. Probably a nice easy book.

Step 9 – Let’s Thrunt! Again…

…Like we did last summer. Or, more accurately, like I did last October and November.

Remember back in the day, do you? Do you remember? I started making a video game. It was way back when Step 5 was the big thing. Nowadays it’s all about Step 9 and if the kids hear you talking about Step 5 they’re all “get back in your hearse Grandad, roflmao.”

Anyway, it’s time I finished Thrunt! off and released it. I estimate I have twelve evenings work left to do on it. Given the accuracy of my estimates, coupled with the… variable, let’s say… amount of free time I can devote to it, I guess I might finish it this month.

In case you’d forgotten how it was looking when I left it, here’s the last video of gameplay footage.


Step 8 – The Doodle Bug

As you’ve no doubt come to expect from these mini-projects, I haven’t spent as much time sketching as I had originally intended. I’ve done a few doodles here and there. In particular I’ve been practicing the proportions of the face and head. I’m still unable to reliably draw an imagined face that doesn’t look like a misshapen ham with marbles jammed in its forehead, but I’ve learned a lot.

I’ve also spent some time learning how properly to use the digital painting tools in Photoshop. I’ve tinkered with it for years, but mostly as an editor for photography and a texturing tool for games. I’ve rarely tried it out as an art package.

So, here’s a digital painting I did this week, based on a portrait I came across on Flickr. I don’t know the photographer or model – if it’s you or your wife I hope you don’t mind.

Chairoscuro Portrait

I’ll put up the Step 9 intro post tomorrow.

New Lenses – Wide Angle Astro

Sarah and I decided that, rather than spend a fortune on Christmas crap we neither need nor want, we’d put our combined present funds into buying some camera equipment. We take a lot of pictures between us, and are both interested in improving our photography. Technique is everything of course, but spending a few hundred quid on fancy glass can’t hurt.

We got a 50mm f/1.8 prime and a 10-18mm wide angle, to add to the 85mm prime we bought earlier last year. The 50mm is good for general photos of the kids when space is limited, and also when we don’t want to lug larger lenses around as it’s quite compact. The 85mm would still be the weapon of choice for true portrait shots, but often we need something that’s just a little wider.

Then we have the really wide option of the 10-18mm, which is primarily a landscape lens, but has other uses. I haven’t had time to take it out in the daylight yet, but last night I had a go with it out in the garden under the stars. Alas the light pollution has been pretty terrible ever since they started illuminating the Forth Rail Bridge, a national icon of engineering that has to be lit up with the power of a thousand suns all night every night. Anyway, here’s a couple of wide shots full of stars. They’re definitely an improvement over my previous attempts at this kind of thing. Hopefully won’t be too long before we can go camping again and get out under properly dark skies.



Next time: the inevitable Forth Rail Bridge photos.

Step 8 – Get Sketchy

Let’s go ahead and shock a flatline and then quit.

Step 7 is over, and it was a bust. I’d planned to do as much painting as I could over the Christmas and New Year period. The problem, obviously, was having Christmas and New Year getting in the way. Three weeks off might sound like a lot of spare time, but it disappears quickly when you’ve got two little kids to entertain while ferrying them hundreds of miles around the country to visit grandparents. I wasn’t even set up to get started. My craft stuff was all over the place in the office, garage, even in the downstairs toilet. I needed to clean my airbrush, but to even get to it I needed to clear the garage. On top of all that I had a bunch of admin stuff to get through, which I can’t discuss yet for one reason or another (and is a lot less intriguing than it sounds) but which is part of a bigger plan for my and our family’s future.

Anyway, excuses aside, I could have done more and I’m a bit frustrated at myself for not being focused (and letting Fallout 4 drag on and on and on). In the end I only managed to cut and trim the parts of one Terminator model. Useless. But at least the garage is tidy! And we had a wonderful Christmas as a family. We even managed to see the new Star Wars movie, which was excellent. That was the first time Sarah and I have been out together without the kids since last Easter. Even though it was only for a few hours it was lovely to have some time off and remember what life (was and) will be like when we have time for ourselves.

So, I come to Step 8. This will be a two-week Step in order to get back into the monthly sequence. February and March will be full months on Steps 9 and 10, and I already know what they will be. For this fortnight, Step 8 will be sketching.

Earlier this week I tried an hour of quick gesture sketching – quickly drawing human poses one after another. I used a website called PoseManiacs for reference. It’s a simple but brilliant idea: the site shows you a randomly selected pose and you draw it. Then it shows you another. It changes pose once a minute, so you only have long enough to capture the basic flow and weight of the pose before moving on. I found it virtually impossible at first, but over the hour my sketches improved dramatically. This was the second-to-last page:


Anyway, that inspired me to spend a little more time drawing. I’m going do a bit of both pencil-and-paper and digital sketching, and try to draw on two out of every three days until the end of the month, even if it’s only a doodle of whatever is in front of me. I’m not going to promise “every day” because I still have other things to do and that game of Fallout 4 isn’t going to finish itself. I’ll post the best results on here at the end of the Step.



Tea Loaf Tradition

I’ve baked all our bread for the last couple of years now. I don’t usually do anything fancy, just a simple white or brown loaf for sandwiches and toast. Sometimes it seems I’ve made a rod for my own back, but the taste of freshly baked bread is well worth the effort. I’m in the groove now, I’ve got my technique down, I bake on autopilot.

It’s a rare occasion that sees me push the boat out, but Christmas has become one of those occasions. This is the third time that I’ve baked a raisin and cranberry tea loaf for the festivities, and it looks like a really good one this year. (Oh, and a bun on the side, maybe something for Father Christmas…)

Three times is a tradition. Another rod.