Weeknote: Sunday 5th July 2020

We’re starting to emerge from lockdown (too early, maybe) but the world still feels very weird. Boris Johnson is still the most useless prime minister in history and I fully expect the Tories to dump him before the next election unless they fail to learn the lessons that Trump is teaching Republicans about what happens to parties who put their full loyalty behind a leader who is massively out of his depth.

Closer to home, I want to start venturing out more, before I go weird.

Interesting note in my journal this morning: Five years ago, I bought Julian Barnes’ book “A History of the World in 10 and a half chapters” and noted that I had never finished a Julian Barnes book.

I still haven’t finished a Julian Barnes book.

Currently reading…

Make Time, by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. People have been raving about this book, but I’m not that massively impressed so far. It’s basically a set of three principles and some useful tips. They’re good principles, and good tips, but I suspect this book will only be life changing if you’ve never read another productivity book in your life. If that’s you, though, this will probably help!

Stuff I’ve been trying this week

I’ve been trying out Hey email. It’s interesting, but it should be an app, and I would expect its features to be rapidly copied by other email apps. It doesn’t seem to do much more than Sanebox does, at lower cost, without the faff of having to redirect emails and/or change your email address.

Of course, what Sanebox doesn’t do is give you a fashionable new email address and mark you out as a silicon valley hipster, so… 🤷🏻‍♀️

IPad OS 14, iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur are now installed on all my daily use devices. Don’t underestimate the impact of these updates: although the feature lists are relatively short, they all offer interfaces that it’s OK to fall in love with again. So far, Big Sur is the buggiest, and please Apple tone down that translucency on the menu bar, but also the one that has the most changes so that’s to be expected.

And I now have a single home screen on my iPhone, with very few apps on. I suspect my home screen will end up being mostly widgets.

I’ve also been trying out GoodLinks as my place for saving links to read later. This one is leaving me a little cold. It’s a simple and clean interface, but it’s not cross-platform so I don’t really see what makes it better than just using Safari’s built-in Reading List feature, unless you want to organise your links with tags and stars and all that jazz.

Things I’ve read this week

Perhaps understandably, I’m fascinated by the long term effects of coronavirus. This article looks at some of the experiences of those “long-termers”. I think this is going to be a persistent theme over the next thirty years.

Worth noting: my father died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a degenerative and fatal lung disease. Were COVID-19 to produce a spike in long term IPF, we are going to see a lot of people who have had few/mild symptoms die over the next few years.


A little more cheery, it looks like we might be on the trail of that illusive ninth planet again. Poor Pluto.


Just what we need: Pizzagate has been given a boost by TikTok. When will we learn that social networks have more cons than pros?


There is an appetite for change amongst the public, with only 6% of people wanting a return to the pre-pandemic economy. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the context of the fall in GDP: how many people actually feel a lot better off now than 2002, when GDP was the same size? How much of that growth went straight into the pockets of the most well-off, rather than the poor?


Microsoft is shutting down its retail store. While I enjoy visiting the London one, this is possibly the least surprising thing of the week.


Surprise surprise, Facebook is a horrible, lying, cheating company. Who knew?

Weeknote 27 June 2020: WWDC, social media, and a whole lot of linking

I think you basically have to not be looking at the state of the country to not be anxious about the state of the country. I keep trying to remind myself that I’ve lived through worse – when I left school aged 16, it was with the absolute certain knowledge that there were no jobs and would never be any jobs. Oh, and nuclear war would probably happen well before I ever had chance to do much anyway.

But if the combination of a madman in the White House, a man-baby in Number 10, Brexit and a global pandemic that the British people have unilaterally decided isn’t worth worrying about isn’t making you anxious then probably nothing will.

Of course the difference between 16 year old me and 53 year old me is that I have more to lose. Sure, back then I had my whole future to lose: but my generation was raised on their being no future. I sometimes think that the strangeness of my generation is down to us being perpetually surprised that we’re still here at all.

This is also the fiftieth anniversary of the first Glastonbury, which I attended religiously in the 1990s and completely stopped going to after that. I had to think very hard about which Glastos I went to – if you can remember them all, you were doing it wrong – but I think it was five. I don’t remember seeing many bands, but I remember very well the feeling of potential, of space to be yourself – or, if you preferred, someone else.

MacOS Big Sur

It’s officially macOS 11, which ends an era which, for me, began on a Eurostar train coming back from Apple Expo Paris. Myself and MacUser technical editor Keith Martin spent the journey back installing the prized CD-ROM copy of the beta version of Mac OS X on a translucent blue iBook G3, and cooing at the “lickable” interface.

I think the new interface is lovely. It looks like “iPadOS Pro”, with a dock that’s rounded and raised from the bottom of the screen, just like the iPad’s. The design language is the same as iPadOS 14, including iconography, translucency and colour schemes.

To me, that’s a good thing. I love the look of iPadOS and I’m really pleased that my Mac will look as sleek and modern. Some long-term Mac users might baulk at first, but I’m willing to bet they will love it after a while. And it once again raises the bar, making Windows 10 and ChromeOS look like they really need a refresh.

I really like it.

Social media is a kind of hell

We are all in a collect space of political angst which we are communicating every day by social media. With social, you find what you’re looking for: if you sign into Twitter looking for a fight, looking for some negativity, you’ll find it. If you look for good, you’ll find that too. But that anxiety means we look, actively, for the bad.

Some stuff I’ve been reading

“I feel like I’ve been dragged into being a poster child for something I don’t believe in.” Fascinating interview with Gary Vanerchuk, who is a much more nuanced person than his fans might expect.

One of those quotes about business that really makes me stop and think: “Don’t ship the org chart”. And, related to that, any business which puts together these three things has a decent chance of success.

TikTok is awesome, but jeez it’s also a massive piece of spyware.

The use of Google Docs as a kind of surrogate for web publishing is fascinating. I’ve been meaning to do something interesting with it for a while – but I haven’t worked out what. Could you write a semi-collaborative blog just with Google Docs? I bet someone’s already doing it.

Is it really a year of Boris Johnson?

I don’t think that Skylake’s abysmal QA was really the reason for Apple to transition to its own processors – I think that was always going to happen at some point – but it probably tipped things along.

Weeknote, June 21st: a big ol’ week of very little

In technology it’s the calm before the storm: Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC to most, dub-dub inside Apple) is kicking of tomorrow in its new virtual guise. I don’t think I’ve missed a single WWDC keynote in a decade and this will not be the exception.

I’m really keen to see how Apple plans to improve iPadOS. If they announce support for multiple apps running across monitors without those hideous black bars at the side I’ll be racing to download the preview version as fast as my oh-so-shoddy broadband can carry me.

Currently reading

The Bullet Journal Method, by Ryder Carroll. I read this every few months to remind myself that productivity is fundamentally about mindfulness, rather than some kind of uber-style pumped up hyper masculinity. All productivity starts with awareness: what do I want to achieve, what do I want to do, how do I get there, and – arguably most important of all – who do I want to be?

If your experience of Bullet Journaling extends only to those hyper-hashtag-aesthetic books that you see on YouTube, I’d really recommend you read this book. Lovely as those are, a lot of them bare only a tangential relationship to Bullet Journaling proper. Bullet Journaling at its core is minimal; a single set of three “bullets”, an index and spreads for a month, and rolling simple daily notes. I’m happy for people who find the aesthetic stuff helpful, but that’s really not what it’s about.

Stuff I’ve been reading this week

It’s been a while since Google launched a thing, and Keen is a classic GoogleThing: no discernible reason for it to exist from a customer perspective.

Link

Come on guys, Alien is over.

Link

Weeknote: Sunday 14th June 2020

One of the things they don’t tell you about COVID: you’ll still be feeling it weeks later. It’s now 15 weeks since I felt ill, and my symptoms back then were very mild. However, I’m still getting very occasional chest tightness (imagine you’ve eaten something that gives you mild heartburn, but it’s not where it’s supposed to be) and occasional days when, by about 3pm, I’m done.

This week was a little like that on a couple of days. I’m lucky enough to be doing an MSc in Senior Leadership (thank you, wonderful employer) and of course at the moment all the classes are virtual. Sensibly, the two full days we do on each module is now split into four half days, spread over two weeks – but three to four hours on a Teams call definitely takes it out of you.

The current module is on business resilience – couldn’t really have come at a better time, given Our COVID Lives…

Links for this week

Thundering comment from The Observer. The COVID-19 crisis in the UK, which has the second highest death toll in the world, is the result of a combination of 10 years of austerity gutting our ability to cope with crises, and unfashionably bad management by this government.

Link

I like my first generation Surface Go a lot, but trick the new version out and you’re basically at close to £1000. You can get an awful lot of iPad for that money – or a very good Windows laptop.

Microsoft Surface Go 2 Review – Thurrott.com

A lovely collection of links from Rachel on digital civil society.

Being messy when everything is clean | Glimmers

Weeknotes, Sunday 7th June

Some notes on anger

I’ve found myself getting astonishingly angry over the course of the week. There’s a lot to be angry about, but anger never sits well on me for long. The anger is, of course, well placed. Whether you’re angry about the government’s utter incompetence over COVID-19, the structural and personal racism which oppresses black people the world over, or a famous author’s transphobia (and yes, please, let’s not call it anything else), there is much to be angry about.

I’ve come to see social media in general and Twitter in particular as forces for ill in society, not good. That puts in me a small minority: there’s still plenty of people in tech who see the effects of social media as, on balance, a social good. When you see the impact that the awful death of George Floyd had, amplified to billions of people via social media, then you can see their point. Perhaps, now, we will get real change.

But anyone who has worked in social media management will tell you that the way to maximise your reach isn’t to make well-honed arguments but to to provoke emotion, and there is no better emotion to provoke in politics than anger. Twitter is a hate machine. We mock Trump’s Twitter use, but he’s a master at it, because he understands the fundamental rule: when you have people angry, if you want to reach more people, get them more angry still. Pile anger on to anger, until the world is burning.

Social media spread the news of George Floyd’s death further and with more impact than any other medium in history could have, and that is undoubtedly a good thing. But social media doesn’t give us any way out of the anger. It doesn’t give us any “and now what”. All it can do is keep making us more angry, because it rewards making you feel, not making you think.

But anger alone isn’t enough to solve social problems and, worse still, it’s addictive. It feels good, and it overrides the moral brakes in your brain. Anger drives hate-filled cops as well as justified protests. It’s a way to feel powerful in the moment, to feel in control of things that they have no control over.

That makes it doubly dangerous. Not only does it mean you lose control and do things beyond your own moral framework, but it’s gives you the delusion that you’ve already achieved something. Protestors throwing rocks today will have no more power tomorrow than they had yesterday, but get a sense of accomplishment. They feel like they’ve already made a difference.


Getting off social media

Related to all this: Inspired by a conversation with Phil Gyford I’ve set myself the task of writing something on how to remove yourself from Facebook while preserving the benefits of Facebook.

Technically, of course, it’s easy. There’s plenty of platforms which deliver the functionality of Facebook in a more open and ethical way. The challenge is actually discoverability.

The one unalloyed good that Facebook has brought to my life is that it’s genuinely brought me closer to my family. When your parents are alive, they’re often the glue that binds together you and your relatives. They tell you what’s going on, they keep track of who is where, and who has done what to whom. Then they die, and that bond with the extend family vanishes.

Facebook lets you preserve those bonds, but also makes it easier to rediscover them. Without Facebook, I wouldn’t be in touch with my Aunt Shiela, my dad’s last remaining sibling, who lives in Cypress. I wouldn’t be in touch with so many of my cousins, who prior to everyone being on Facebook I wouldn’t have known how to contact. And none of them would have been able to find me, either.

So the real issue with replacing Facebook isn’t “how do you remake the experience” but “how do you make yourself as easily discoverable”? That’s a much harder one to crack.

Things I’ve been reading

These examples of early computing design are almost heart breaking for me. Machines like the PET had the promise of science fiction about them.

The early days of home computing – in pictures | Technology | The Guardian

Nearly Half Of The Twitter Accounts Discussing ‘Reopening America’ May Be Bots – there isn’t much doubt in my mind that social media is, on balance, bad for democracy.

Link

I’m fascinated by Ian Schrager – from Studio 54 to basically inventing boutique hotels, via a spell in prison.

Ian Schrager Is Still Creating Buzz – The New York Times

I’ve noticed these meeting notes generated by AI creeping into Outlook at work. One of Microsoft and Google’s key words when talking about AI is “useful” – think of Google calling the Pixel 4 “the most useful phone”.

Meeting Insights: Contextual assistance for everyone – Microsoft Research

Unsurprisingly, this had the MAGA crowd foaming at the gills, and even drew a tweet from El Presidents himself.

Donald Trump, the Most Unmanly President – The Atlantic

“What I was hired to do was to create a 21st-century media company,” Lynch told me in his glass-enclosed office on Condé’s new executive floor, once the company’s dedicated gallery space. “Part of that is defining what that means, because they don’t really exist yet.”

Condé Nast’s Future Under Anna Wintour and Roger Lynch

Oh Vice.

Vice Media Was Built on a Bluff

31 May 2020 Weeknote

Habits, as I’ve learned over the past few months, are a good thing. They’re also something I resisted like the plague in the past owing to a misplaced idea that creativity and all things good came out of spontaneity not repetition.

I’m not sure I even believed that myself at the time, so it’s good to get it out there and over with.

One habit that I’ve been meaning to get into for about fifteen years is the habit of blogging regularly, something that I really haven’t done for a good ten years, possibly more. Prompted by the appearance in my feeds of this post from the redoubtable Ben Hammersley (were you twiddling with your feeds, Ben?) I’ve decided that a regular weeknote of my own will be in order.

Unlike many weeknotes, there won’t be much about work in these. There’s a couple of reasons for that: first, much of what I do these days is connected to people management, or in some way sensitive to the business. I can’t really write much about that, although I might write more generally about digital publishing every now and then (I have, as you can guess, opinions.)

So the focus is going to be a bit more personal. I hope that’s OK.

Covid exhaustion

In common with a surprisingly small percentage of the population I’ve had the coronavirus in my system. For me the symptoms at the time I got it were minor: a raised temperature for a whole day, a very intermittent cough for a couple of days, a couple of other things. The biggest impact was tiredness, which was like nothing I’ve ever encountered before. I felt ill first thing in the morning, so I started writing an email to my manager – and something which should have taken me five minutes to compose took nearly half an hour. I couldn’t concentrate, and my eyes just started closing.

I promptly slept from 9am till 9pm, when I woke up and soon enough fell asleep again.

Since then tiredness has been an ever-present factor in my life, and I’ve learned to manage it so I get the most important things done in the morning. This week, that feeling has been back with a vengeance. I don’t know if this is the start of some kind of post-illness fatigue syndrome or what, but at one point in the early evening I was lying on the small sofa and was so tired that I literally felt my arms slump to my side as I passed out.

I’m hoping this will pass, but if not, I’ll embrace it and just get up earlier. You can only do what you can do.

Big-picture productivity

A few weeks ago I signed up to Pater Akkies’ “Big Picture Productivity” course, and I’ve just completed the second module. I discovered Peter through YouTube – where I discover 90% of people these days – where he’s put a series of really nice videos on setting up Things, OmniFocus and some other tools.

The course is really good, and I’d recommend it to most people. The modules released so far have been on the basic productivity strategies of thinking about your values and roles then working through what your goals are. Once you’ve done that it’s time to work out what the actionable projects are which lead to your goals.

I like Peter’s avoidance of the SMARTER framework which everyone uses for goals. One thing that I’ve come to understand is that some goals don’t have an end: for example, a goal of reducing your carbon emissions isn’t ever going to end, but it’s still a goal. The projects you put together to achieve that should have something closer to a smarter framework, but the goal itself can be ongoing.

Peter has also finallygot me using Notion, which I’ve resisted for a long time. A notes app that is really a database sounds too much like the kind of thing that I would spend about a year tinkering with to get it just so while never actually using. But Peter’s course shows you how you can use it to track goals and projects in a way that I really like. I’ll still use my Bullet Journal for my day-to-day note taking, but when I need something more serious I can see how Notion fits in.

Tot

The other big discovery of the week is Tot, which I’ve written about extensively already so I won’t dwell on it too much. However, it’s a great example of an application which uses a limitation as a fundamental feature to nudge someone towards a better behaviour. We need more of that.

Music

For some reason I ended up listening to “I’m a tree” by Imani Coppola AKA the single that almost sank her career. After having a big hit with her first song, top 20 worldwide and all that kind of thing, this one was released and promptly charted… absolutely nowhere. Well, it scraped the top 200 in Australia.

Culture

Grayson’s Art Club is of course fantastic. There’s a long-running battle in our house over which of is Grayson and which is Philippa. I’m also really enthused by the amount of talks that museums and art galleries are making available virtually while we’re all stuck at home, plus the new range of plays and ballets available on YouTube. At least, the internet is enabling democratic culture.

As well, of course, as resurgent nationalism, but we will talk no more of that.

Tot

I hadn’t heard of Tot before I read MacStories’ article about its new share extension in iOS, but when I did I was intrigued. And when I used the Mac version I knew it was something I really wanted on my Mac.

At its heart, Tot is a scratch pad. It’s just a place to jot down little snippets of text, often that you will use elsewhere.

There’s only seven documents, called dots, represented by – you guessed it – a series of dots along the top of the window. If a dot has text in it, it has a colour fill (you can change this for accessibility purposes – a nice touch).

This conceit of seven and only seven possible “documents” is what makes Tot so good. It places a limitation on what the user can do which nudges you towards a particular kind of behaviour. Applications like Drafts or Apple Notes allow you to keep on making more and more new documents and that encourages you to never actually look back on what you’re written.

The seven-dot limitation of Tot means you can’t do that: if you keep taking notes, as soon as you hit that seven dot limit you’re going to have to go back through what you’re written and either delete something or, if it’s still valuable, move it elsewhere.

There are some other cute little interface touches, all of which remind me quite why I love the Iconfactory’s software. You can have Tot set up either as a menu bar icon or a dock icon. If you have it in the dock, the icon changes to match the colour of the front-most dot.

You can set a keystroke to invoke it on the Mac and there’s a smart set of keyboard shortcuts which let you move forward and back through dots without taking your hands off the keys. You’d be surprised how many text applications don’t have proper navigation like this. There’s also, I’m pleased to say, Touch Bar support.

The Mac version is free: the iOS version is $20. That sounds like a lot for an iOS app, but in the great history of what you can charge for software it’s peanuts. I paid more than that for ridiculous shareware games in the past. And as Mike Schmitt on Sweet Setup points out, for an app this simple a subscription model just doesn’t make any sense.

And the iOS version is excellent, working exactly how you would expect it. If you’re using an iPad with a keyboard then you will find all the keyboard short cuts you have on the Mac version. To switch between dots, you can just swipe across the screen with a single finger. Again, it’s simple, but you can see and touch (literally) the thought that has gone into making it easy.

The iPadOS version really comes into its own when used in a Slide Over window. It’s ideal in this kind of scenario. Of course you can use it full screen, or split view, but when you have it in Slide Over you can see the screen and take notes easily from what you’re working on, or just drag and drop text or links from your “main” view.

The key question with any new software, though, is “what can you actually use it for?” For me, it’s all about jotting down random thoughts and ideas that I’ll take and do something with later – this blog post started life as a set of jottings in a single dot, and then moved to Ulysses once I thought I had enough to start writing a full blog post on it. And the nice thing is that when I exported to Ulysses, all my links and formatting just dropped right in.

COVID 19 is tailor made for our culture

I should start with this: I’m not an expert. You should listen to those that are.

COVID is an almost perfect virus. It rarely kills its host. Unlike its distant relative MERS, which makes people ill fast and kills them before they get chance to infect many others, it creeps up on you.

In fact, for the majority of sufferers, they will remain ambulatory. They may have outward signs, like a cough, but they may not – and our culture has trained us to keep going if we feel under the weather, to ignore symptoms.

It hits us when economically we’re weak to it. Zero hours contracts mean there is a pool of people who have no choice but to keep working, and a set of businesses that are built around the idea that you don’t have to keep people on staff. If you’re under 50, you’ve never really experienced a dangerous infectious disease that spreads like this. Yes, there was HIV, but that could mostly be avoided. COVID can’t.

But it also hits us when we’re mentally unprepared.

I’m 53, and as a child I was vaccinated against two things: smallpox (one of the last wave of children to get the smallpox vaccine); and polio. I got my immunity (such as it is) to measles, mumps, scarlet fever and German measles the hard way, by contracting the disease. And I remember the steps my parents had to take to keep me isolated (no playing outside, stuck in my bedroom, no friends visiting, EXTRA COMICS) because some of those diseases could kill other children. And, of course, could have killed me, although their undoubted worry didn’t register at the time.

If you’re younger than me, you’ve grown up in a world where most of the major childhood infectious diseases didn’t exist: you’re used to infection being something that either you didn’t have to worry about (colds, seasonal flu) or affected someone else, somewhere else.

And if you’re older than me (OK, boomer)… well, you should know better.

The generations currently alive are probably the first in history not to have anyone who remembers the last global pandemic in them. The influenza of 1918 was a distant memory to my grandmother, born in 1910, but for anyone of my mother’s age or younger – everyone currently alive – the danger of pandemic has faded from the collective memory.

Having lost the folk memory, all we have to keep us cautious and keep us alive is the knowledge of experts, and yet we also live at a time when major Western countries have turned away from an understanding of the important of expertise. Brexit, the pride in ignorance that characterises Trumpism, all show us that the respect for expertise which built post-war prosperity has vanished. Even amongst my generation, the notion of the “wisdom of crowds” tell us that while everyone can’t be an Einstein, if we all click our heels and wish three times, a hundred of us can add up to one.

No one is going to crowdsource a new treatment for COVID. Wikipedia isn’t going to discover a vaccine.

Social media allows accurate information to pass faster than before, which would be a ray of hope were it not for the fact that rumour, speculation and outright lies spread faster. The old, early internet idea that “good information drives out bad” is probably still being touted by the Digerati somewhere, but it’s really now pretty laughable.

And of course the news that your local supermarket is running out of bread can spread faster than ever, letting the well-off drive down in their cars and buy up the last remaining stocks to put in their chest freezers, while the poorer wait for a bus and find shelves empty. We have even forgotten that “panic buying” doesn’t mean everyone gets a fair share, it means that the poorest and weakest will go hungry.

Never has a culture been less prepared for a pandemic, and never has a virus had a better chance to become endemic in a population. COVID almost seems tailor made to capitalise on every single weakness in our culture, from expert denial and anti-vaccine madness to our lack of experience of pandemic to the way our economy is structured. I said earlier it was almost perfect. I was underplaying it. I think it actually is the perfect virus for our times.

But it’s not hopeless, and life will go on. These are obstacles, and it is down to each of us as individuals to use them as ways to improve ourselves, to do what we can for others, to make ourselves better people for the experience. “Amor Fati”, as the Stoics said.

Scamware, malware, viruses. Who cares?

John Gruber:

Computer viruses are called viruses because like biological viruses, they spread by themselves. What Malwarebytes is talking about are scam apps — things that trick or otherwise convince the user to install voluntarily. Dan Goodin had a piece at Ars Technica last month about the scourge of fake Adobe Flash installers — which work because unsophisticated Mac users had been truthfully told they needed to upgrade their version of Flash for a decade. It’s a real problem — but third-party antivirus software is not the answer. As usual, Tsai has a wonderful compilation of links to commentary on the matter.

Sigh. I can’t believe John is still making this distinction as if it matters. The vast majority of malware on Windows and pretty much any platform is scamware, not viruses. This has been true on Windows for probably a decade, maybe longer.

What matters is, as I argued 12 years ago, that the Mac is now a large enough target to bother creating malware for. There’s money to be made out of those Mac users, particularly the ones who bought the line that the Mac is immune from malware.

Thinner, lighter, faster

John Gruber, on the “thinner, lighter faster” Galaxy Book S compared to the MacBook Air:

Well, there’s the small notion of, you know, the operating system. And let’s see if it really does get 25 hours of video playback. But the point stands. A lot of people using MacBooks today aren’t devoted to the MacOS experience, and might switch, based on hardware alone. The ARM revolution for notebook PCs is coming, whether Apple is ready or not.

John’s right that a large chunk of people using MacBooks today aren’t devoted to macOS. But… macOS also just isn’t as good as it used to be. That’s not about software quality, something that bothers technical users more than ordinary ones. It’s just that Windows 10 has got better, to such a degree that unless you’re bought into the whole Apple eco-system there’s not much point in going for a Mac.

The Mac is now Apple’s weakest link.