Posts by Ian Betteridge

Director of content and audience development at Bauer Media UK. Views my own, duh, so don't bother my employer with them.

Flotsam

I wrote this piece 17 years ago for fun as part of a series about the life I was living at the time. Some of the elements of it had completely slipped my mind. I’m publishing it now basically to put it to bed. It’s waiting a long time.


On beaches, the sea delivers its bounty. Driftwood, old bits of net, occasionally even valuable items are washed up from the oceans on to the edges where sea meets land. Yet wherever there’s a seaside town, the process is reversed: human beings are washed up from the land on to the edges of the sea, attracted by casual jobs, easy sex, or the sense of freedom that inevitably comes from living by what always looks like an infinite ocean.

Wonderboy is a classic example of the kind of person that washes up in Brighton, the most glorious and transient of all British seaside towns. Escaping from a semi-feudal village in the East Midlands, that hinterland of the imagination where I too was born and bred, she moved down to live with her girlfriend after spending far too long as the real only gay in the village. That’s a common story, here. Although few other Brighton refugees have ever snorted drugs off the back of a man wearing a woman’s Tesco uniform, at least to my knowledge. 

What’s less common is what happened next. She split from her girlfriend, and, returning from holiday, Wonderboy found the locks changed, her stuff in the street, and (worst of all) her prized sofa’ssofas sold. Other people would at this point have fled to parents or friends back home, but like many of those who wash up here, Wonderboy was made of sterner stuff. Instead, she slept on the beach, sharing cans with drunks; opened squats and lived with odd South American men; and sold henna tattoos to the tourists to make enough money to buy the essential Marlborough Reds.

We met through mutual friends, andfriends and cemented that friendship over pints of cider at the Earth and Stars, Doctor Brighton’s, and the Marlborough, followed by early mornings dancing like idiots at Revenge. Asking her to share a flat with me was so obvious I can’t believe it took me as long as it did to ask her if, in the vernacular, she was up for it.

She said to me once that I pulled her out of the gutter, but that’s bullshit. She needed a place to live, I needed a flatmate after discovering that living on your own is very, very boring, and we got on. The person who pulled her out of the gutter was herself, because she was always ready to move on, to jump up whenever there was a chance there to be taken. All she needed was an opening. All I did was offer a chink of light.

The irony of it is that our council has actively sought to destroy the kind of peripheries that attract people like Wonderboy, in favour of the smooth, slick, New Labour vision of a family-friendly, everyone-friendly cosy little whitewashed picket fenced Islington-On-Sea. But what they don’t understand is that, no matter how many overpriced new “apartment developments” (“CITY LIVING! BY THE SEA!”) they approve, no matter how many times they try and push out the drunks, the druggies, the detritus, they’ll always fail. Because, at the end of the day, those looking for somewhere to find a little freedom will always wash up here. It’s the sea, you see.

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

Gruber:

“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.