Weeknote: Sunday 19 July 2020

I’ve been on holiday this week. Of course that means I spent the first few days being anxious about work, something that’s a pattern I’ve had throughout my working life. At the back of my head there’s always the feeling that something is going wrong, that there are things left open that I absolutely must deal with. It fades after a few days, but on a one-week holiday by the time that feeling has declined I am almost at the point where I want to start working again.

I have a terrible relationship with work and relaxation, but that’s an improvement over what it used to be, which was basically catastrophic. Back in the late 90s/early 00s I would end up with four weeks holiday left to take in December, which both made my managers want to strangle me and also meant I was constantly on the edge.

But eventually, I switch off, usually just in time to go back to work. This time round it will be a bit strange, of course, as I won’t physically be going anywhere. While the government is urging companies to open up, sensible ones are promoting working from home for everyone that can feasibly do it. It is great we’re getting re-evaluate work and office spaces. It’s worrying that not every company has the leadership to carry it off.

The very real ways that agility can just mean “work more”

I’m fortunate to work for a business which takes management training seriously, and I’m keenly aware this isn’t the same for every company.

There’s a language around internet-era working which is all about wanting employees to be engaged with their work, to work it out for themselves, to be flexible and agile and work at internet speed. Often, that comes from managers who operate that way themselves: who send emails outside of hours because they work outside of hours, who work all the way through weekends and simply don’t understand if people aren’t as “engaged” with work as they are.

They’re adopting the tropes of modern management, without recognising that people have different needs and desires and this kind of working just doesn’t work for everyone. It’s not agile, it’s abusive. And weirdly, I often see this pattern in the most liberal (with a small l) people, who are horrified if they’re challenged about it.

I’ve seen a similar pattern in others, who start off wanting to remake the establishment, then they become the establishment. In every new role, they hire the same faces, so they can “get things done quickly”, and don’t realise that what they are doing is outdated now — and of course also means they’re operating a new kind of the old school tie. The New Slogan T-Shirt maybe?

Keep on moving

I sometimes think I’ve been incredibly lucky, in that I’ve been able to constantly move and accept challenges to the way I do things. I wish I knew back in the early 00s what I know now about leading people, and I’m glad I’ve learned, both formally and informally, along the way. It’s glorious that I’m able to understand that whatever I know, there’s more to learn.

One of the things I’ve said for years is that doing what I do you have to relearn new stuff every few months because things move all the time. I thought that applied mostly to web publishing, but now I realise that it’s the same for people management too.


Stuff I’ve found this week

Ulysses 20 for macOS is out and includes two brilliant new features: a dashboard which shows you data about the sheet you’re working on; and a revision mode which highlights suggestions for improving the grammar, punctuation and language of your document.

The dashboard also shows you the document’s structure with a nested list of headings, and all the links you have included in it. Clicking on a heading or link takes you directly to that point of the document, which is very handy.

More good news: there is a new version of Ulysses for iPadOS out which not only includes the dashboard feature, but also doesn’t crash on IPadOS 14. Hurrah!


At last, the Pixel Buds

Google’s Pixel Buds arrived in the UK finally this week — hurray! — and I had them on pre-order since they were first announced almost nine months ago. First impressions are very positive. They’re really nice and light, easy to wear, and having the Google Assistant there on demand is nice. Bluetooth’s performance is adequate. The range is great — I can basically leave my Pixel 4 XL in the living room and wander round the whole house without drop-outs — but there’s an occasional crackle and drop out and back in again, which many people have complained about.

How do they compare to the AirPods Pro? I think the Pixel Buds are a little more comfortable to wear, but they’re not as comfortable as the Surface Earbuds, which I can happily wear all day (and thanks to their larger size and bigger battery, I really can wear them all day).

One thing that really stands out is the material design. Google is so good at this. The case, which has a beautiful weight and delicious snap to its opening mechanism, feels the kind of slightly matte smoothness of an egg or a stone that’s been in the river for a few years. It’s genuinely lovely. I wish that Apple would start to design its products with this level of attention to material, and less of the “yes we overdosed on Dieter Rams at design school” aesthetic.


Google’s ATAP lab

Harry McCracken has got a look inside Google’s secretive ATAP research lab. While putting radar into a phone doesn’t sound like the most obvious or user-focused development, it’s worth remembering that most of a phone’s actual value now comes from the sensors in it: camera, GPS, Bluetooth, UWB (in Apple’s case), motion, tilt. In a sense, what defines mobile technology is its sensors.

Link


German court bans Tesla ad statements related to autonomous driving

How Tesla has got away with actually selling this as a feature that’s coming “really soon now” for years is beyond me.

Link


Labour suspends Brighton councillor over alleged antisemitism

What gets me most about this is the sheer inability to see that this was a racist trope even back then.

Link


How come New Zealand got the pandemic so right?

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, got profiled a while ago in Vogue and it’s no wonder she ended up dealing with the pandemic so well.

Link


Ambitions

When I left school in 1983 my ambitions boiled down to owning a van and being in a band. The two things were not unconnected: I was a terrible keyboard player (punk, yo) but if I owned a van the band would still need me to cart the equipment around from gig to gig, free festival to free festival.

I never bought a van – in fact, I never learned to drive – but neither did I replace that ambition with another. Leaving school at the age of 16, with four CSEs at the height of Thatcher’s era of mass unemployment basically meant I had no expectation of ever even working. And if I did, it would be a shitty job, probably in a shitty shop. When a local Wickes store opened, I applied and didn’t even get a reply, let alone an interview.

The trajectory of my escape from that world is long and complex and deserves its own piece of writing, but the important point is this: I had no ambitions. Ambitions were something that other people had, but not working class kids from Derby. I had dreams, sure. But there was no possible path from here to there.

Since then, though, ambitions have become the playground of the young, and there’s been an expectation actually rooted in reality that a young person’s ambitions can be fulfilled. You could travel and work in Europe. You could go to university. You could get a job, buy a house, something that so so few of your parents were able to do. Some of these simple things moved from ambitious dreams to expectations.

The past ten years have chipped away at this. A house has become something no one can afford unless they can rely on the bank of mum and dad, while the media bombards you with messages about how it’s your own fault you can’t save a hundred thousand pounds. Jobs which offer long-term careers and progression have been eroded, to the point of destruction. There is no such thing as job security if you are young.

Brexit and COVID, though, have been the twin hammer blows which have destroyed the opportunities of the young. Brexit’s retreat to cosy little Englander fantasies of an idealised 1950s Britain mean putting up borders and robbing the young of a core part of their identity, while reducing the ability of the poorest to up sticks and work wherever they can across the continent. Looking abroad for work was one of the few routes out of Thatcher’s newly-impoverished Britain when I left school, and that option just won’t exist the young poor in a few months time.

But it is probably COVID which will have a longer term impact, and which will break the back of ambition, particularly for those reaching maturity now. In a long and brilliant Twitter thread, David Hayward wrote that “a pandemic is a killer of the dreams of the young” and nothing could be closer to the truth. I have been lucky to live for 53 years in a bubble of safety, with the freedom to roam and to dream. Until we find a vaccine, that freedom is basically gone. Who can have ambitions, who can have dreams, when the next person you meet might be the one that passes on a deadly virus rather than the person who changes your life for the better?

Weeknotes- Sunday 12 July 2020

I have a week on holiday! Because I am an idiot this is the first time off that I’ve had this year, not counting being sick with COVID (and that wasn’t really a holiday). I have no idea what to do with the time off though, particularly as Kim is actually doing some work.

Expect next week’s post to be either a celebration of my enlightenment after a week of doing little, or the most dull post I’ve ever written.

Onward…

Ulysses in iPadOS 14 and a bit about the workflow I use for these posts

Obviously I’m using iPadOS 14, and obviously there’s bugs which affect applications. One of these is in Ulysses, which I use to do most of my writing, and which crashes under the current developer beta.

I should add at this point that it’s not their fault, and it’s almost certainly a bug in this developer beta which is nothing to do with Ulysses. It worked fine with the previous version, it crashes now. It happens.

However, this does give me a chance to experiment with other workflows, so I’m using a combination of Drafts and IA Writer as a bit of an experiment.

The workflow I usually use is pretty simple: through the week, I jot down little notes in Ulysses, which go into a “Weeknotes” project. These then get shifted around and edited, and I write an introduction at the start. Once done, it gets grouped together and exported into WordPress, then the whole post is archived.

With no Ulysses, I’m using IA Writer instead. However, annoyingly IA Writer doesn’t have a Share extension, so there’s no easy way to capture something, which means I need to use something else: in this case, Drafts is the best option.

The workflow looks like this:

  1. Capture a though, or a URL and some text in Drafts, tagged with “weeknotes”
  2. When I’m collating the post, use the “Send Multiple to IA Writer” action to copy everything into iA Writer
  3. Write my intro, then use the Content Blocks feature in iA Writer to add in the other pieces of content
  4. Send everything to appropriate archives

It’s obviously not as elegant as just using Ulysses, although in theory it allows me to do some automation to archive everything once I’ve done my post. But it’s fun to tinker.

Why is Apple exposing tracking apps and websites?

Interesting point from Dieter Bohn on The Verge podcast. Dieter says that things like exposing tracking done by apps nudges developers towards the business model that Apple favours – paid, not ad supported – which happens to dovetail with giving Apple a cut of the money.

Another way to look at it: Apple has consistently prevented developers from using methods of monetisation that are user-hostile, and is exposing the tracking that developers do which everyone – including the developers – would rather hide from users. And the reason that prefer it hidden from users is they know users wouldn’t like it and would regard it as an unacceptable invasion of their privacy.


Things I’ve been reading this week

Apple began work on the Watch’s handwashing feature years before COVID–19 | TechCrunch

I’ve turned this on and – surprise surprise – I don’t wash my hands for long. It’s surprisingly accurate in terms of spotting when you’re washing your hands, although it does seem to get triggered sometimes by washing dishes…


How the Apple Watch tracks sleep – and why – CNET

“You can’t really coach yourself to have more or less REM stages,” he says. “We felt like that wasn’t the best way Apple could add value here on sleep. We focused on the transition to the bed, which we think is way more actionable, and will result in people getting a better night’s sleep, which then has secondary effects of perhaps your REM stages sorting themselves.”

Absolutely: when it comes to sleep, duration is the only thing you can really impact. It’s not the only thing worth measuring but it’s the thing you can personally change


The iPadification of macOS: What Does it Mean for Developers of Productivity Software? – The Sweet Setup

Some really good points about the implications of Apple’s current direction with macOS and iPadOS on pricing models for software.


What’s really behind “tech” versus “journalism” | Revue

But what if you take the whole discussion of “tech versus journalism” and reframe it as “managers versus employees”? Then, I think, you get closer to the truth of what’s going on.

What it comes down to is simple: powerful people do not like scrutiny, they do not like criticism, and they do not like being exposed for their terrible opinions and practices.


Francois: ‘If called upon I will form a military junta’ – The Daily Blether

Your weekly reminder that the Brexiteers are a bunch of liars and hypocrites. In this case, Mark Francois, a former TA officer who seems to regard himself as the best of the best of the best, claiming that if Brexit didn’t happen last October he would form a military junta. Reader, Brexit did not happen on 31 October, and mark did not man the barricades.


How Prosperity Transformed the Falklands | The New Yorker

The Falkland Islands were now among the richest places on earth—with an income, per capita, comparable to those of Norway and Qatar. Despite its spending, the government had also put aside several years’ income for a rainy day: it had no debt at all.

The story of the Falkland Islands is utterly fascinating. From a sheep farming station to a level of prosperity it hasn’t seen before.


Gender Spectrum: A Scientist Explains Gender Isn’t Binary

For all too long, the government, the medical system, and even our parents have assumed that sex (and gender) are binary. Based on science, this is not biologically or medically accurate. What is true is that sex characteristics tend to be bimodal, meaning there are clusters of characteristics that tend to be associated with people that we call “female” or “male.”

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.