PhD in 300 Words a Day

I made a spreadsheet to reduce PhD writing anxiety. That writing only 300 words a day will fill out a thesis is a calculable truth, but who’s doing that? This spreadsheet is exactly to help do that.

Input the word count you want, the starting and due dates and it will calculate the work days involved, and the average amount you will need to write each day to reach your target. It will fill out up to year’s worth of dates for you to enter your daily word count. If the word count you type in meets the daily requirement, the cell is highlighted green. Keep at it daily. The goal is easy enough. Keep those cells in a green streak.

My hope is that using this spreadsheet will alleviate the perpetual anxiety around writing. When I meet my daily goal, I know I can feel safe in switching to other activities, such as reading and design.


Spritimator - Animating sprites.

Occasionally I still get asked about a 6 year old tool I made called Spritimator. This little .NET app allows you to import sprite sheets or individual textures and animate them then export the animations into XML data for your game engine as seen in this video:

Unfortunately I hadn't been supporting this app. However, in response to recent interest I got the app into a working state, fixing dependency issues, and providing a working binary via GitHub. Please feel free to try it out and I'll be around for some basic support :).

Social Writing Initial Reflections

We've been using our Social Writing design in the office this week (I previously introduced it here).

Initial Observations

The simple LED prototype is visible enough. If you deliberately look at it, as it is placed between two of ours desks, it is easy to see it and activity. When we paste our work into Slack, the system counts it immediately and the LEDs react within seconds. The interface does not distract or steal attention. If you are not engaging with the system, it's easy to ignore it and its activity. 

As we arrive into the office we check the system. Part of the responsibility of designing this involves checking up on it, making sure it's being powered and working out any potential technical difficulties. This perhaps enforces us to be more engaged with the system than other users would be who are not involved in its creation and maintenance.


Catalyzing Action

The system is catalyzing action - we are motivated to write more. We are mindful of the LEDs being switched off - indicating that we have not completed our daily goal. We want to complete this easy daily goal of 200 words we have established for ourselves. But that is not enough. The want itself doesn't directly turn into action. However, it has found its own way of working. By each having the same goal and motivation, we are cued to open a discussion about writing. "Let's have a writing session" we say, as Robert begins some classical music and I start a Pomodoro timer. I can say with certainty that we would have had these writing sessions without the Social Writing system.

Building Habits

If we can say that so far that Social Writing is catalyzing us to write, what effect will this have in the long term? Will we be dependent on this system or will it support long term behavior change? These are impossible to definitively answer, but I think this system will support lasting habit changes. Our initial motivation to write might be catalyzed by the system, arguably using extrinsic motivation and social pressures. However, speaking for myself at least, the process of writing is extremely rewarding. After being cued into writing, I find it enjoyable very quickly. Although I feel rewarded by having the LED turned on, it's really the accomplishment of having written that I feel great about. If I get into the habit of writing, I believe I will keep at it because I find it rewarding on its own right. I believe that after using this system I will have enough intrinsic motivation that I have been sensitized to that will keep me writing without the Social Writing system.

Reducing Pressure

I have noticed at least one downside with the system so far. When the LEDs turn on, I get a sense that I have accomplished my goal for the day. I no longer have any pressure to write. This is good if I have accomplished enough, but perhaps too under-encouraging if I have not. The momentum I have built while writing for the daily goal keeps me working on other productive activities (such as level design for a game I am working on), but without the joint writing with my peers I am not compelled to keep writing. Achieving so far about 600 words each session though might be enough. Quality is more important than quantity after all. It's interesting coming back to the design goal of this system - it is not about writing more, it's about engaging in the writing process. Perhaps we should also experiment with self-setting individual daily goals, while keeping in mind not to turn this into a competition.

What's Next

Call to action

As we found ourselves socially creating writing sessions to meet our daily goals, we thought it would be helpful to have an extension to Social Writing to support this, especially given the distributed nature of the design where not everyone is able to set up group Pomodoros or writing sessions. To achieve this, we will add the "call to action" button. This is effectively start a 30 minute timer that is shared with all of the distributed offices. With the timer on, a blinking LED and possibly a starting and finishing buzzer, indicate to writers that "we are now writing". Feel free to join in and press the button yourself to make sure the timer is reset to include you arriving late. It is our hope that this button will give us the option to engage in the process of writing, as opposed to the goal of having written. The timer is not enforced and does not require participation, it is merely a cue, an invitation to start writing because others have committed to.

International Set Up

Finally we are setting up Social Writing internationally. This will be very exciting to have more writers participating, but also writers from different time zones. What will it mean to arrive at the office and the LED is already on, indicating that they have already completed their daily goals? When is it fair to reset daily goals? Do we manage time zones separately? These are things to find out, but the infrastructure in our node.js backend is there to support it all. Furthermore it will be exciting to have more cross-pollination to different research topics. 

What if Pokemon Gyms were real?

What if Pokemon Gyms were real? This question inspires a part of my vision in game design research.

Think about it for a moment. Can you image a world where the Pokemon you encountered were determined by where you were, as opposed to where your character was? A world where players could run their own gyms, in a similar fashion to the way that you created a game server, and players could only visit the virtual world by stopping by a real coffee shop mapped to your gym. A world where getting the exclusive Pokemon from a specific place in the world meant forming a trade network inspired by the historic silk-road, a trade route supporting the exchange of culture and material.

There is something powerful in the locatedness and situatedness of this kind of game. The internet has empowered us to play with friends from all over the world and removed the barriers in play, for example by playing a match without being together or trading items over large distances. On the other hand this has also changed the nature of these interactions. It is now easier to play online than to travel to a friends place or the arcade. It is easy to trade an item through an auction house with someone half way across the world. I feel like this has taken some of the richness out of the experience of playing and some of the side-effects that come with it, such as the location-based communities that form around games and the play that can be trading.

Geographic distance can bring meaning to a game through scarcity and exclusivity. I want to re-envision a world where nearness matters - sharing a game with someone means sharing a disc or a memory card, trading a Pokemon means using link cables, etc. That the wherever you are has an impact on the game you played, such as the CDs you physically owned meant you could recover particular creatures in Monster Rancher. But I want to do this moving forward.

To this end, this is an embrace of part of the ubiquitous computing and ubiquitous games philosophy, where games become omnipresent. In some ways I would say this is inspired by slow food, especially in its embrace of local. This is also a rejection of the internet of games, and the internet-of-things influence ubiquitous computing. Not only are the games and their respective technologies to be located and ubiquitous, but their communication, their networking is to be located. This is ultimately a world where games connect with each other only in nearness, using cables or wireless ad-hoc networks.

Social Writing w/ Arduino

Want to set writing goals with your peers and share real achievement? There's an app for that!

Social Writing is a cloud-Slack-Arduino app to help socially contextualize the writing process. Designed for distributed office space for use by PhD students, Social Writing shares your daily milestones with the group.

Social Writing - Early prototype - each LED indicates that a distributed user had met their writing goal.

Social Writing - Early prototype - each LED indicates that a distributed user had met their writing goal.

How it works

  1. Do some writing (notes, thesis, project details)
  2. Paste your work into your group's Slack #writing channel
  3. A bot in the cloud counts your work
  4. Receive notification when you meet your word count goal
  5. Your LED turns on at each workspace in the network
  6. Grab a coffee with everyone for meeting your goal
Two locations currently set up with Arduino interface

Two locations currently set up with Arduino interface


We want to improve productivity AND social activity in the workplace. We're not entirely sure what we expect out of our first prototype, but it's promisingly simple. 

Productivity & Engagement

By setting and working toward goals, even tiny goals, we hope that it will improve our productivity and our overall engagement with work. Writing a thesis is a long process and can involve periods of inactivity. By creating a system to support regular, if only small, commitment we hope this design mitigates this disengagement.

Peer Visible Writing

Writing can also be a very independent activity. We hope to bring some social elements to it, to create a sense that we are working with others.

Firstly, as writing is shared in Slack, your work is visible to peers that have joined the channel. This could catalyze discussion and support peer feedback by allowing people to see your work who may never have had the chance.

Secondly, as peer's goal achievements are shared, users are afforded the opportunity to take action on that. Are you meeting your goal, but your friends aren't? You're doing great! Are others starting to make progress, leaving you behind? Time to get to work! We aim for this to allow users to set their own goals and to use personal and social elements to support users to self-motivate and be more productive.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

This design isn't about extracting every drop of juice of productivity from the users. We don't want to overwhelm users. We don't want people to compete on how much they've written - with themselves or others. Therefore Social Writing isn't about how much you've written. There are no graphs, numbers or leaderboards. It's just about if you make your small little goal. There are no rewards and there are no penalties. You can cheat the system - that's on you.

Passive Emphasis

This design aims to avoid being obtrusive. It's a passive engagement other than a simple copy/paste into the Slack channel. We don't want it to chew up your time or make any extra work for you. We don't want your managing excel sheets or task lists. Consequently, the activity happens in the background, via the cloud, and the LEDs come on automatically with an achievement completion. As the LED interface is placed non-disruptively, but visibly in the office space, you can passively notice progress in achievement making.


Robert Cercos and me!

Hand-crank Arcade Machine

I've been musing over the concept of a hand-crank powered arcade machine.

The idea is to use low powered devices that would be powered by a rotary generator either by a person spinning the hand-crank, or by pedaling in a bicycle style power generator.



There's a few motivators for this project: portability, energy as a game design resource, and awareness.


By making the device self-contained for power generation, the arcade machine becomes somewhat portable. You could cart the machine if designed appropriately through the streets of the city, where pedestrians can casually drop in and play, perhaps part of a public game event such as run by Hovergarden.

There is a new role perhaps somewhere in between being a spectator and being a player, by contributing to the game with power generation. This can contribute to the spectacle as a public performance of power generation for gameplay and possibly foster new social interactions or relationships through social dependence.

Energy as Game Mechanic

Moving the power generation one step further, from simply powering the games at play, the next step would be to measure the power output as a design resource in games. This could manifest as simply as in a game where players compete on how much power they can generator, perhaps by filling up a water balloon. Alternatively, this could become part of a more complex game where players have to juggle power generation with coordinating normal controls. Too much power generation could also be considered.

Energy Use Awareness

The immediacy of the power generation will make the concept of energy more apparent. The source of the energy is juxtaposed with players and spectators and furthermore they are required to engage with power generation using physical exertion.  This contributes a sort of slow design aesthetic about engaging in the local production and consumption the electricity used in digital play.


An idea for implementing this arcade machine would be to cut out a screen space on a small table for a screen. The hand-crank would be added on top, along with conventional arcade controls. To keep the power profile to a minimum, an Android tablet might be a suitable all-in-one solution, along with a breakout board or Arduino chip for the controllers. The biggest concern would be the boot-up time. Alternatively for a super simple and low-powered game, simply an Arduino could suffice as a proof of concept.

Bibliographies and Reference Lists

The unavailability of the bibliography in non-hard science publications is absurd. The bibliography as in the "I consulted with this text, but didn't cite it" I find is invaluable to theoretical papers.

How can I include an essay for example that fundamentally shaped the way I thought about my research, but didn't give me a golden nugget to reference? I have to shoehorn a line out of it, or make some awkward and intangible reference to how it influenced my work.

The emphasis on tangible links, in my opinion, works against theoretical papers - such as on the philosophy of design. By emphasizing specific points,  the writing is afforded a more specific, more positivist or scientific way, thereby constraining the thinking that occurs during writing. While it's not impossible to overcome this, and to make sure great works are mentioned, it is not the most natural or appropriate means at times.

It would be great if bibliographies were supported, alongside reference lists. On that note, perhaps even a creative works section too (as in the published artifact as opposed to the scholarly writing about the artifact).