Weeknote, w/e 23 May 2021

Greetings everyone, it’s been a while hasn’t it? There’s been quite a bit going on.

This week our dear old cat George finally passed on to the great mouse hunting fields in the sky. Kim took her to the vet to get her checked over before renewing her prescriptions to the wide variety of chemicals that were holding her together — she didn’t have a single organ that was entirely functional, but she was happy enough gently pottering around finding places for a snooze, so we had never had to take the tricky decision to have her put to sleep. And when you are a cat and get to 19 years of age, you deserve to go on as long as you’re not in pain.

Unfortunately, she didn’t survive the trip to the vets. After the check-up, she had what was probably a heart attack — she had had a heart murmur since she was five — and it was time to let her go on.

It’s odd not having a small creature around the place. Over the past few years she had moved from being a very independent little cat to wanting our company all the time, from hating too much human contact to wanting to be in your lap or poised on your shoulder. She’s much missed, already.

My health hasn’t been at its finest. I’ve been suffering from excessive tiredness during the day, and finally bit the bullet and saw a doctor about it a few weeks ago. Cue a referral to the sleep clinic, but routine tests also found that my blood pressure was high, and some blood tests found some minor anomalies which will need further investigation.

The worst part of the blood pressure tests is that I had to be strapped to a monitor for 24 hours, which every 20 minutes would go “beep… WHOOOSH… put… put… put… beep” as the pressure cuff inflated and checked how much of a THWACK my heart was using to slam blood down my veins.

Overnight it slowed to once an hour, but try sleeping when every sixty minutes your arm is squeezed tightly — it’s not fun, and really I barely slept at all. Then I was so tired on Saturday (no sleep, remember?) that I missed the trip into London we had originally planned.

We got out to the cinema and saw Nomadland which was brilliant. Before the last lockdown, going to the Curzon had become a weekly treat, seeing movies which we wouldn’t normally have seen — with no blockbusters around, cinema became a very different experience. The blockbusters are coming back, but I hope that the weekly small film habit will stick.

This week also saw the arrival of the new iPad Pro 12.9in, with its whizzy M1 processor which makes it embarrassingly faster than any computer in the house other than the similarly equipped Mac mini. And the Mac mini doesn’t have the incredible screen which this iPad has. In theory, you shouldn’t be able to notice much difference compared to the previous generation. In practice, it just looks better every time I look at it.

It will be interesting to see what Apple has in store at WWDC in a few weeks time, when we might finally see the improvements to iPadOS which make it more of an option as a Mac replacement, rather than a powerful but slightly haphazard cousin.

Thinking about the iPad Pro

Want to see the best example of why the iPad isn’t really a multi-tasking professional machine yet? Try opening up Apple TV while you’re connected to an external monitor. Yes, you can play a video file and you will see the movie play on the big screen. Meanwhile, your iPad screen will be black. And try and open up another application so you can do something else on the iPad while watching that movie, and up will pop the application you just opened on the big screen.

Bear in mind that the processor on the iPad that I’m using – last year’s 12.9in iPad Pro – is a pretty powerful thing. And the iPad can do lots of things at the same time: I can have music playing, watch something using Picture in Picture, have two apps on split screen and another one via SlideOver, all cramped on to the iPad’s screen, and it will work perfectly. What I absolutely can’t do have anything on a monitor that’s not mirrored, unless the developer has worked to create an extended view – which most don’t – and even then I can’t really do much else at the same time.

Here’s what you can do: open up the TV app (or any other application which supports something on an external display. Put the app you want to also work on into the other side of the screen, making it split with TV. Play your movie. And it all works! But what a kludgy, useless kind of hack this is.

You can even have have another app on screen as a SlideOver window, and it works! But forget for a minute that you have had to make this crazy fudge of a way of working, and open up another app… and all of a sudden whatever you have on the big screen will stop working, and you’re back in mirroring hell. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will stop (don’t judge me) and you will need to work out how to juggle the windows all over again.

This isn’t good enough. Not for a device that costs north of £1000 and that has the processing power which the M1 delivers. Apple has a lot of work to do with iPadOS, and I would expect it to arrive at this year’s WWDC.

Weeknote: Sunday 4th April

Bank Holiday weekends are traditionally the time when everyone piles into a car and heads for the coast, or has a big party, or has a barbecue with friends and neighbours. This time around of course things are different. Although we are out of the first phase of lockdown, there are still limits on how many people we can meet, and where we can meet them. The shops and pubs remain shut. The grand commercial part of our social lives remains under firm lock and key.

However, keeping traditions alive we piled into the car and headed for the coast, a few tens of miles down to Margate. For those expecting mass disobedience and bad behaviour, you’re going to be disappointed. It was quiet: compared to a normal Easter Bank Holiday it had perhaps a tenth of the number of people. With temperatures reaching the giddy heights of 12 degrees we didn’t stay too long, but long enough to remind me how much I love the sight of the sea.

This week has been very much like every other week over the past year, a long parade of working from home, being at home, focusing on the home and avoiding contact with the rest of humanity beyond these four walls.

Last week, though, I was vaccinated. I went along to the Odeon cinema, where I’ve seen many a Marvel epic, and in the spot where I’ve waited for a screen to open while chomping away on the world’s worst nachos I waited to be shown through to have AstraZeneca’s wonder drug injected into my arm. It felt incredibly emotional: not so much because the end of this awful pandemic is in sight, although I’m glad enough for that, but for the kindness of the volunteers, spending free time guiding us around, for the pharmacist who injected me underneath the disused Pick N Mix display. Because collectively, we have done a wonderful thing.

What Boris Johnson doesn’t want to say is that the AZ vaccine exists and was deployed successfully so quickly not because “greed is good” but when the government invested hundreds of millions of our money into making it happen faster. That we can do this kind of thing through collective action rather than fierce individualism isn’t a lesson that we should forget.

There are so many other challenges that need this level of attention, most notably climate change. The way of life we have “enjoyed” (in places) over the past 150 years is over. The kind of globalised capitalism that has spent the last forty years ignoring climate change and kicking the can down the road is over. Either we choose to change it, or climate change changes it for us. Things are not going to be the same.

Related: I’m currently reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Klein, not to be confused with the COVID-denying conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf, doesn’t pull any punches and that’s absolutely the right approach. The time for gentle remedies and the equivalent of soothing lullabies about how everything will be alright in the end is long past. It was long past six years ago, when Klein wrote the book, and it’s even more long past now. The nature of the catastrophe is us.

In more personal and less doom-laden news, I had another epiphany this week – I think it’s the time of year for them – in which I realised that I spend far too much of my time focusing on tools and apps and things and stuff rather than looking after my own wellbeing. So instead of the usual cavalcade of SMARTER goals I’ve decided to keep my attention on just two things: meditation, and re-establishing my practice; and morning pages, the three page long brain dump which clears my head of so much when I do it every day. That’s all. Just those things.

Anyway, that’s all for this week.

Weeknote: Sunday 21st March

Hello again. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I wish that I could tell you that I have somehow had a lot on, but in fact, the opposite is true: I’ve had so little on apart from the grinding dullness of lockdown that I haven’t found much to write about.

This week, almost exactly a year to the day of my getting COVID-19, I booked an appointment to get vaccinated against it. There’s a neat symmetry to this. But more importantly what a feat of technology and science going from zero to multiple vaccines in a short period of time is. It’s not likely COVID-19 will ever become an eradicable disease in the way smallpox is, but it will be a controllable one that isn’t going to overwhelm health services and decimate the population, anywhere. That’s something to celebrate.

This morning was also a reminder that I’ve been writing a personal diary more or less daily for over 11 years. This is something that the iPad changed for me. Before its release in 2010 I was an intermittent journaler, writing occasionally in Word or Google Docs to a lesser or greater degree, and very much off and on. After the iPad was released, and once the wonderful Day One app appeared, I started writing much more. There’s something about the form factor of the iPad, even then, which encouraged the daily habit of writing for me.

Writing privately is always cathartic but what makes tools like Day One more valuable is their ability to surface what you were writing, how you were feeling and where you were over time. You start to see the repetitions and rhythms of your thoughts and your life and that is what allows you to grow and develop. When you see the same themes cropping up, year after year, you start to understand the habits and considerations that have become ingrained in you, filtering out (or at least better understanding) the shorter term worries and joys.

It also lets you see the periods of your life which became dominated by the events of family and friends around you and see how for a period of time they came to define a large part of who you were. For me, and for Kim, a large part of the last ten years was defined by caring for her mother and father and for my mother. My forties were defined by caring, death and grief. So strange to think that a decade of your life can vanish like that.

The pile of books that I want to read expands with every issue of the London Review of Books which arrives. Reading more is the yin to the yang of writing more:when I don’t do one, I don’t tend to do the other either. Whenever I reacquaint myself with one the other quickly follows. Of the many parallel lives that someone shaped like me is living in the multiverse, I sometimes wonder if the most content of all Ians is the one who reads and writes the most.

In the garden, one of our jackdaws — dubbed the CORVID-19 because there’s so many of them — has discovered that if he perches just so on a particular part of the bird feeder, he can happily peck at the one containing the fat balls with their delicious crop of worms and seeds. And, of course, he’s also worked out that pecking at bottom one will ultimately lead to all the other fat balls dropping down: like a bottomless soft drink at the restaurant, this is the gift that never stops giving. Meanwhile the blue tits, sparrows, long tail tits, robins and occasional woodpecker also come to feed, and are looking fat this year already. I suspect a crop of chicks will be getting well fed soon. The rabbits who feed on the lawn continue to mostly ignore me, and the healthy country foxes continue to patrol every now and then, making the rabbits scatter.

Our cat, George, continues to be old. At nearly 19 and with virtually every organ having a slightly different level of wonkiness, her hunting days are over and she has taken to sleeping in my armpit. She will even happily let me cover her with a blanket, which would have been anathema not that long ago. Old cats are often anxious — every fibre of their instincts are telling them they are likely to be eaten soon — and so they often tend to seek the company of their owners. George will now come and settle with me whenever I sit on a sofa.

In a week and a bit, the first quarter of the year will be over. How’s yours going? Or, like mine, has it just… gone?

Some thoughts on the Surface Duo

Despite Microsoft pricing the device to fail in the UK I’ve somehow ended up buying a Surface Duo. Yes, the cost here is ridiculous – £1300 at a time when the price has been reduced to $999 in the US – but I’ve always loved Microsoft’s Surface line and was curious about it. And I’m in the incredibly fortunate position of being able to support curiosity purchases. Not spending £700 on commuting tends to do that.

Some quick thoughts:

  • Microsoft is on to something when it talks about the productivity of dual screens, and I think it’s correct that dual screens are better than a single large foldable screen for this purpose. I’d really like to see this in a larger format as a tablet, which was obviously the intention behind the now-canned Surface Neo. Even though it’s a lot smaller, I prefer having two screens versus a single one which splits virtually. I can’t quite explain why, but it feels much more natural.
  • Apps which span are few and far between — basically Microsoft’s own and a hand full of others. However, I’ve actually found myself almost never using it in this mode, even with Microsoft apps. It works nicely, and the apps are — in my experience — now pretty rock solid but I just don’t use it. Much more often I’m using a pair of apps to do something, such as Outlook on one side and To Do on the other, dragging and dropping neatly between the two.
  • The hardware really is beautifully designed, and you can see that the team who created it have poured their heart and soul into it. The hinge on its own is a thing of joy: incredibly smooth, just the right resistance, and firm enough to hold in place without accidentally getting knocked into another position. Well done, Microsoft.
  • When I say it is beautifully designed, I mean that it pases my “pick up” test: this is a device that you constantly want to pick up and use.
  • Lack of 5G, NFC and so on do not feel like limitations at this point. Likewise, the camera: it’s good enough for the things it is designed to so (video calling, quick captures of documents and whiteboards). No one is going to use this as their main camera.
  • Software performance is fine. Microsoft seems to have got the bugs out, and it never feels slow, which probably goes to prove that if you take out the need for lots of performance for image processing and AI, you really don’t need to have the latest generation of chip.
  • The one area that Microsoft needs to work on more is typing, as the experience of the on-screen keyboard is hit and miss. It’s perfectly fine when you are thumb typing with it folded over, and when you have a split screen and are holding it like a little laptop, thumb typing away. However, when it tries to shift the keyboard over to the side a little so you can type one-handed, it doesn’t quite shift over enough if you have small hands. Most of the time I find myself holding it with one hand and swiping with the other instead – and that is fine.

Overall I think Microsoft is on to something with this form factor, but I really wish it was larger and a tablet rather than smaller and a sort-of phone. Microsoft is absolutely correct not to market this as a smartphone, because it never really feels like one — but it does feel like a tiny, interesting and highly usable mini-tablet.

John Gruber on Jason Snell on iOS Markdown Editors


“I have no idea why there are now apps that use Markdown as their back end storage format but only show styled text without the Markdown source code visible… If you want Markdown, show the Markdown. Trust me, it’s meant to be shown.”

Simple answer to the “why”: for compatibility. I use Ulysses for writing most of my content. But it’s not always the place where words get originated. Quite often, anything longer than a quick post (like this one) will start its life on my Freewrite rather than my Mac, particularly if it’s written somewhere other than my home office1.

Because Ulysses uses Markdown as its underlying format, if I want to switch the app I use to write that’s not a problem. Likewise, it makes getting words into Ulysses incredibly easy.

Not everyone wants to see every piece of source code behind an interface, but everyone should be able to write without worrying that the underlying format will mean no ability to read those words in the future. As a kind of lingua franca for structured words, Markdown is great, but not everyone wants to see [links looking like this](http://daringfireball.net) when they are writing. For some people – like me – it’s distracting and a little irritating to see everything. If anything, I would like an option in Ulysses to just hide all the formatting stuff.

For me, Ulysses offers just the right balance: a really good editor, using Markdown so I know I can always read those words no matter what platform I am using in the future, and an excellent client on both Mac and iPad. Markdown might have “meant to be shown” but it doesn’t have to be shown.

  1. After using the Freewrite’s keyboard I bought a DasKeyboard Pro with the same switches, and since then the keyboard on the 16in MacBook Pro feels like mushy crap. Sorry Apple.

I don’t think I can disagree more with this. If you asked 100 people what freedom means to them, you’d also get 100 different answers, some of them stupid. But that doesn’t mean freedom isn’t a thing, isn’t important, or that companies should have the right to abuse it.

Weeknote: w/c 31st January 2021

I always have a temptation with these notes to begin them with “this week, I have mostly been eating elderberries” which will make absolutely no sense to anyone younger than about 40.

I’ve been reflective this week. Is there any other way to be when you’re more or less confined to the house? And what I’ve been reflecting on is balance, and how out of kilter things have become. Because I’ve lacked energy, all my energy has been going into work, and not enough into other parts of my life. Because of lockdown, the other areas of my life have also had other kinds of neglect: there’s no visiting friends, the opportunities to get out and do things are limited, and like everyone I feel like my horizons have shrunk.

Things will change, though. This week was the first week of The Focus Course, which is created and curated by Shawn Blanc and seems pretty-much designed to start the process of lifting your eyes and focusing on the horizon. This week was all about examining the roles in your life and working out what your values are. Although you make a big long list of them, you’re asked to boil it down to the two which are really import and which are consistent across all the roles, interests and responsibilities you have. Mine came down to two: self-improvement (I am very definitely a life-long learner at heart) and service. I wasn’t expecting that, but as soon as I wrote it down I realised how much of my love of life comes when I’m doing something which contributes to the well-being of others, whether that is on the small scale of friends and family or the wider view of the environment and society. And the two values are tightly linked: the more capable I make myself, the more I look after myself, the better I can contribute. And the more I contribute, the more I learn and improve.

Perhaps because I’ve been going through this kind of self-reflective exercise I’ve also found myself getting into my flow a few times. Flow is often talked about like a semi-mystical thing among the kind of people who buy every single productive book ever written, but all it boils down to is clarity about what you want to do in the moment. Once you have that clarity, you have to actively resist to stop yourself doing something: distractions melt. Lots of tools can help you make the most of that clarity when you reach it, but there are no tools which can help you get there is the first place.

I also found some time to play some Elder Scrolls Online. I’m fascinated by tit as a game and an experience: the depth and breadth of story is like nothing else I’ve ever played, and it manages to tread the line between being a good and highly playable game for soloing and a group experience. It’s a shame that the Mac client is a piece of crap, but there’s a reason why I always have a decent PC in the house.

Unconnected — I hope — but I don’t feel like I’m getting enough sleep at the moment. Although I’ve long thought that much of my sleepiness is related to long COVID-19, I think it’s more likely to be a combination of things: not enough fresh air and irregular bed times being the main culprit. Nothing that I can’t fix.

Related: if you have an Apple Watch, it’s worth trying out the “Time To Walk” series. These are combined podcasts and walking workout with an interesting person talking to you as if you were just going on a walk together. It’s a surprisingly nice idea and really well executed: I had no idea who Shawn Mendes was, but he was an interesting walking companion.

Two things appeared from the online shopping fairies this week. The first was a penknife. Yes, a Swiss Army penknife, something that I haven’t owned for about thirty years. The Victorinox Super Tinker, which they describe as “the ideal companion for all crafty men and women”. Mostly I bought it because I’m fed up with never being able to find a small pair of scissors, but it’s also a nod towards the post-lockdown world and how much I want to travel and camp and do outdoorsy things in the middle of nowhere. It can sit in my Goruck, ready for the next phase of the world.

The other thing that arrived was a Paperlike screen protector for my iPad Pro. This is another example of something which occasionally happens to me, where I buy something, and it offers such a better experience that I have to do some kind of upgrade for other devices. For example, after buying the Freewrite I had to get a proper mechanical keyboard for my Mac mini, as it basically ruined my relationship with every other keyboard I had.

In this case, using the Remarkable 2 tablet with its exceptional writing feel utterly destroyed the experience of writing and drawing on the iPad Pro. To get it to the point where I could use the iPad Pro again, I needed to get a Paperlike which gives a much better writing surface: not as good as the Remarkable, but good enough to stop me from never wanting to use the Apple Pencil again. It also has the advantage of giving the screen a nice matte look which takes away some brightness but massively increases the readability in sunlight and just makes the whole thing more pleasant. Again, not as good as the Remarkable, but a big improvement.

I have written a draft of a longer article about the Remarkable 2 which I’ll edit and post later in the week. The short version: I like it, but if you’re buying one you have to be clear about where it fits in your life and what it’s replacing/augmenting. The use for it is more fuzzy than something like the Freewrite, where it’s obvious where it drops into your workflow and so you can either use it (if you write everything as an initial draft) or not get one (if you write differently). That makes it harder to recommend unreservedly because there are several ways you could use it, some of this are stronger than others. But as a piece of industrial design, it’s an absolutely lovely piece of work. If Apple can ever get the iPad this thin and light, the rest of the industry should just give up making tablets and go home. If they haven’t already.