Ben Smithgall

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Interactive News Developer at the New York Times. Previously with Spotify, U.S. Digital Service, and Code for America.





2017 and 2018

January 4, 2018

A little less than a year ago I wrote about four things I wanted to accomplish in 2017. I thought that I would go back and take a look at those goals and then update it for 2018.

2017 Goals

Program a computer with something relatively modern: Sort of completed

When I wrote this, I was still working with the U.S. Digital Service and spent a lot of time away from writing software. When I was involved with software, I was working with older systems or quick prototypes. For this goal, I wanted specifically to focus on a side project. I made some progress throughout the year, but ultimately left the US Digital Service and ended up writing software full-time again. Since that move, I have largely stopped working on Biblio, though I am working with more modern technology in my day job. So I give this a partial success.

Do a bit more writing: Not completed

I wanted to write at least once a month. I stopped writing after April.

Learn enough Spanish to have a conversation: Sort of completed

I was a lot more diligent about this in 2017 than in previous years. I would say that I did pretty well in this regard – I’m much closer to being able to be able to at least get by in Spanish, if not fully able to have a conversation. I want to keep working on this one this year.

Break the 1,000 lb barrier: Completed

This one was sort of a gimme – I ended 2016 at 960, and continued to run the Wendler 5x3x1 program through 2017. I ended 2017 at 1025 total, though I had to deload about halfway through the year after taking some time off.

Other than the goals, 2017 was a pretty eventful year! I found a new job, moved back to New York, and got married (here’s a wonderful picture)! With all of this, here’s what I’m looking forward to trying in 2018:

1. Release some music

After moving to New York, I started studying the piano in a somewhat-serious fashion. I want to record and release some music this year.

2. Perform something live

I’ve been working on some Philip Glass works and want to play one of them live. This recording of Glassworks: Opening is one of my favorites. The second Piano Étude from the same album is also wonderful.

3. Track what I’m reading a bit better

Part of inspiration of Biblio was to track the books that I had read a bit better, but I wasn’t able to do that so well, so I’m going to abandon it for Goodreads. Eventually, I might try to figure out a way to host that information on this site directly, maybe through some sort of Jekyll yaml-header magic. Goodreads would obviously be easier to manage, but I wonder that if the increased labor would make me more likely to do it over the long haul.

4. Make some open source contributions

One of my biggest challenges here is figuring out a way to be helpful in an ongoing way. Over the years, I have contributed to some repositories in ways that I can, often small changes to improve or clean up documentation, fix broken links, etc. I recently contributed a small patch to the code code that powers a ProPublica tool. This was a nice small change where I could be confident that I was being helpful and came with a nice side-effect of being able to look at something totally new to me (Rust!). My patch didn’t touch any of the executing code, so I had confidence that I wasn’t going to cause any regressions. Looking for similar places to be helpful is somewhat challenging. It’s difficult to know where one-off improvements are both welcome and achievable without huge background domain knowledge.

This is by no means a criticism of maintainers of these open source projects – authoring and maintaining a popular open source library sounds like an extremely daunting task. I have read quite a lot of convincing writing on the subject. My goal in contributing to a project is to make small improvements and fixes without being a burden on the maintainers.

5. Do a small refresh on the blog

It’s been awhile since I’ve refreshed any of the styles on the blog. I’d like to clean it up a bit more and add some features, like generate anchor tag links for the headers, though some quick Googling seems to indicate that this is a feature of Github-flavored markdown that I could enable. I also know a bit more about page speed and accessibility than I used to – I wrote a lot of the core styles and js way back before I really know how to do anything, and tried to clean it up a few years later. I think overall, I could probably delete a lot of stuff I don’t need. I’m loading a bunch of chart styles and a webfont, and those could probably be done away with and managed better using _includes. I could also make the page a bit more readable by increasing the line height and font size.