Weeknote, Sunday 17th April

A sunny bank holiday feels like such a pleasure after the winter. Our ancestors knew a thing or two about how to break from the bleakness of the cold. Although I’ve always preferred the cold to the warm (my northern roots showing) there’s definitely something about the spring which lightens the mood.

Every time there is a four day week it reminds me how uncivilised five day working weeks are. I never feel like I’ve had time to actually catch up on the rest which I don’t get around to having during the week when there’s only two days. And if I actually do anything on the two day weekend I’m exhausted. So thank the lord – literally in this case – for Bank Holidays.

Next week is even better: just the three days before we head to Oxford for a weekend.

I spent a little bit of time this week writing some notes for an article about the cult of productivity, inspired by am “AITA” post from a parent who talked about their child being “unproductive” for a long period of time. There’s a lot of productivity gurus out there, and the core advice they have is often decent, but all too often people either beat themselves up for “failing” to be productive, or forget to allow themselves time for things which just bring them joy and aren’t time-blocked, scheduled, turned into a project or worse.

Reading

Low-life: Irreverent reflections from the bottom of a glass by Jeffrey Bernard. Bernard falls into that category of “men who are a bit of a shit but life intriguing lives”. What’s interesting about him is the way that his writing manages to sidle away from the pub bore, despite very little ever happening to him down the Coach and Horses. Other than drinking himself to death of course.

Release the Bats: Writing your way out of it by DBC Pierre. Another fascinating character – I hope that reading both Bernard and Pierre at the same time doesn’t indicate some kind of impending mid-life crisis. Decamping to Mexico, buying a boat or spending the rest of my life drunk don’t feel like quite the right path.

Writing

The only things that I’ve written this week have been notes on articles which I might write – it has been dreadfully unproductive and I really do need to get back into the habit soon, before my brain atrophies.

Watching

Marvel’s Moonknight is alternately baffling and hilarious. I have only the vaguest idea what is going on. What’s interesting is how Marvel is using the TV series format to explore characters which are a little bit deeper and have more to them than the standard movie heroes. With the movies, you don’t have the benefit of time to explore the character: it needs to be straight into the action. TV offers more depth, which is ironic when you consider how often TV is seen as the lesser medium.

Meanwhile, on the Internet

You might have heard that some guy called Musk threatened to buy Twitter. When a man with a lot of money gets this jollies from shitposting, the world is a worse place no matter how many spaceships they build. And of course Marc Andreessen – a man who coded a browser 30 years ago and has been coasting on achievement ever since – is just as bad.

One of Pebble’s founders wrote a really nice insightful piece on why it failed. The important point for students of leadership: while he had a vision of where he wanted to go, he could never articulate it properly and never used it as a point of reference for what they were doing at the moment.

I’ve also been doing some reading of accounts of Steve Jobs’ return to Apple, and came across this excellent piece by Tim Bajarin. I remember the return for many reasons but one stands out: the announcement went out at about 4pm on 20th December 1996, which also happened to be my 30th birthday. Cue one evening where I didn’t get home in time to celebrate much. I also remember the following year’s Macworld Boston keynote which Tim refers to, where the giant face of Bill Gates appeared on screen and some in the audience booed. Jobs scolded the audience, saying that we needed to let go of this idea that in order for Apple to win, Microsoft had to lose.

I am very much looking to optimise my computer set up at the moment, so this post about an M1 Mac mini and iPad Pro caught the eye. My setup at the moment just feels wrong: I’m trying to do too much on too many devices and it’s confusing and causing me vague angst. I need to sell a load of equipment, bite the bullet and just buy a new Mac. Argh. The one thing that’s really stopping me is there are no Macs to buy: delivery dates for every single one of Apple’s machines apart from the 13in M1 MacBook Pro are backed up to the end of May, with some a lot longer than that.

Related: a great quote from James Clear: “”Look around your environment. Rather than seeing items as objects, see them as magnets for your attention. Each object gently pulls a certain amount of your attention toward it.”

#Weeknote- 10th April 2022

It took me a few days but I feel like I’m finally over the bought of Covid which I wrote about last week. I still have a cough, but it’s getting better and of midnight on Wednesday the “government advice” was that I didn’t need to isolate.

That was good, because on Thursday and Friday I was down in Brighton for BrightonSEO. It’s always good to go to something which sharpens my skills a bit and makes me feel connected to the industry I make a living in. It’s very easy, in any job, to become inward-facing and focus so much on your own company that you never really learn from outside.

It was also a good chance to see Brighton again. I lived there for about eight years and had a tremendous time. It cemented that I love to live by the sea, and it’s still surprises me how much just sitting listening to the waves and watching the open ocean relaxes me. I spend too much time cooped up indoors, and not enough time sitting on beaches.

The only downside was getting up at 5am to get there. Despite looking pretty close on the map, Brighton and Canterbury are between two and a half and three hours apart by train. It’s something I’ve said before, but Kent is a big place. It’s also quite isolated: once you get past the comfy commuter belt, it’s a generally poor place, with a lot of both rural and urban poverty. The countryside is pretty, but it’s largely working farmland, and as anyone who has lived in that kind of environment knows that means scrub, old buildings, and industrial-scale agriculture rather than pretty cottages with thatched roofs. Those are all owned by bankers, now, who don’t live in them during the week.

Reading

Reading has been a bit underwhelming this week, which is my polite way of saying I haven’t done much.

Writing

No public writing, either. I did though polish up a couple of short pieces of science fiction I’ve written.

Watching

A lot of sport, and the next episode of Picard.

Meanwhile, on the Internet…

Megan McArdle wrote a really good piece on why it’s time for major institutions to get employees off Twitter. It’s actually mostly a piece about why Twitter is bad for journalists, and to that extent I agree with a lot of what Megan is saying. Journalists massively overestimate Twitter’s importance, largely because all their journalist friends are on it. It’s an echo chamber for media and that leads to some pretty horrendous results: journalism is already too much of a chummy club without it being amplified online.

Something which will surprise no one who has being paying attention: UK offices are emptying as large numbers of employees get Covid. Who could have possibly predicted that bringing people back into the office in uncontrolled large groups would lead to lots of them having to take chunks of time off sick? You can see this affecting services too: I was delayed coming back from Brighton on Thursday after two trains in a row were cancelled owing to a lack of train crew.

Weeknote: 3rd April 2022

It’s a week since I tested positive for Covid which means it’s been a week when not much has happened other than a large amount of lying in bed and feeling sorry for myself. Having done exactly that on Monday, I tried doing some work on Tuesday, only to collapse back into bed in the afternoon. Friday was the first day where I could actually get through an entire day without feeling so drained that I had to retire and I still feel ill. Bearing in mind that I am vaccinated, boostered and have had it before I dread to think what I would have been like without the essential jabs. And let no one tell you it’s “just like a cold now”, because it isn’t. It’s like the worst flu you’ve had, but lasting longer and being far more infectious.

All of which means I’m in isolation, possibly until Wednesday. Legally of course I could just completely ignore the fact I’m infectious and wander around maskless giving every vulnerable person I meet a disease, but I have more morals than the government so I’m not going to do that.

Annoyingly the enforced isolation comes at precisely the moment I was feeling like emerging from the wintering I’ve been going through – getting the bike out, travelling more (we are supposed to be down in Brighton next week, but with Kim also now isolating there’s no guarantee we can). The past few weeks I have finally started to feel like life is getting moving again, and enjoying it.

Being sick, and so being unable to do the amount of energy-sapping meetings (virtual) as normal also meant I had time to do more writing, and it’s underlined for me how much I miss it. It’s really only in the past five years that my work has moved from writing words to doing spreadsheets/presentations/management and having some space and time to write made a huge difference to how I feel. All of which means I need to carve out time (and protect it) for writing.

Some of that writing – shock, horror – was actually fiction, which is an area that I don’t normally delve into at all. It started with a simple writing prompt and ended up as a solid couple of thousand words in a couple of hours. I’m not saying they are good words, but they’re words.

Reading…

Astounding Days by Arthur C Clarke. This is Clarke’s “science fictional autobiography”, packed full of anecdote about the mid-century science fictional London and his own work. I’ve been listening to a lot of Clarke short stories lately, as I have all five volumes of them via Audible, and they’re great to fall asleep to. I have heard the first half of “The Sentinel” many times: its end, less so.

Writing…

What will it take to change people’s minds about Brexit?

“We survived”

Time lies

Watching…

Picard: it’s getting good.

Meanwhile, on the Internet…

Terry Pratchett pockets a palmtop PC: A short video clip of Terry being interviewed about libraries caught my eye and thanks to some super-sleuthing from Rob Manuel and Jay Grooby I was able to identify the device that he was using to write – an Olivetti Quaderno from 1992. This was a pretty unique mini-laptop which had no pointing device at all, and a really weird placement for the numeric keypad. It also has one of the most weird promo videos of technology history, which is an hour long. The first minute is entirely composed of a women’s gym class and the camera’s focus is mostly the instructors breasts. If any Italian speakers can tell me why, I’d love to know.

Neil Cybart wrote about how Apple is now in a league of its own, and looking at tech at the moment it’s hard to disagree. A great example of this is Universal Control which is an absolute game-changer, and something that only Apple can do thanks to the degree of work they put into underlying technologies and integration.

Jason Snell reviewed the Apple Studio Display and like everyone else loved the display while hating the webcam. Apple really messed up with the software for this.

What will it take to change people’s minds on Brexit?

I do wonder what the level of poverty and misery is that Brexit supporters are willing to inflict on their fellow citizens before they start to think “hang on, I might have made a bit of an error here”.

I suspect the answer is “quite a lot” for a couple of reasons. First, for many, winning the referendum was the first time in maybe a decade they had felt like they had any control over their lives, and were on the “winning” side. Once you have had that feeling, it takes a lot to shift you away from the position of winning: you’re emotionally attached to it in a way which is very, very deep.

Second, though: Brexit was largely delivered by the old, the conservative (small c) and less well-educated. None of those demographics are known for changing their minds often.

What’s also interesting is how the number of people who believe we were right to leave is remarkably consistent. Yes, as of today, 49% believe we were wrong to leave compared to 39% who believe we were right, and the gap has been widening since the middle of last year, but the gap widened in 2020 to about the same amount and then bounced back.

I would love to understand more about the factors moving those polls, because I think it’s almost certainly less obvious than most people think. But it’s clear that there is a rump of probably around a third of the country which believes Brexit was right no matter what the consequences they have seen so far, and are likely to believe the same in the future.

While it’s tempting to think that people are sick of hearing about it and tone down the anti-Brexit rhetoric (I’m looking at you Keir) it’s clear that the underlying attitudes and issues which are driving that 39% are going to be influencing British politics for a long time.

“We survived”

You see a lot of this: “we survived”. It’s called “survivorship bias”, and it’s the error of focusing on those who got past an event while ignoring those who did not. It’s VERY common with people who want to make out “the good old days” were great.

The classic example is in war, of course. You’ll have seen this image on various Twitter threads, from WW2 research: The bullet holes on returning aircraft show areas where a plane could take damage and still fly well enough to return safely to base. Engineers were smart enough to then reinforce the other bits. Clever engineers!

So how about our survivor of poverty? Well we all know that mortality rates for children under 5 have fallen dramatically, as you can see from this graph.

In 1800 in Britain, a whopping 329 children failed to survive their first five years of life. Today that number is four. And the progress is global: since 1990, the number of child deaths per 1000 has fallen from 93 to 37 – still far too high, but a huge improvement in a short space of time.

What does this have to do with Sylvia and her indoor toilets? Well, as you can see in the graph above child mortality rates declined massively from 1900 – 228 per 1000 – to 1950 (44). So those post-1950 boomer births benefitted massively from improved sanitation, vaccination, and living conditions. When Harold MacMillan said in 1957 “you’ve never had it so good”, he wasn’t lying.

But this dramatic fall between 1900 and 1950 masks a further one since: the child mortality rate in the UK is now… 4. Since 1950, we have reduced the number of children dying in early childhood by 90%.

So yes, Sylvia remembers a happy, healthy childhood. But that’s partly because if weren’t healthy you were much less likely to survive to the age of five. And of course, you aren’t around to talk about it today.

Time lies

(Thanks to Lee Woodard for the title!)

This kind of attitude is only possible if you either didn’t live through “the good old days” or now have lost your marbles. I was born and grew up in a council house. It wasn’t a bad area when I was growing up, it was definitely rough round the edges. When I did my CSE social studies and went on a court trip, it wasn’t that surprising that one of our neighbours was up for soliciting. But it was classic working class – as in, most people were working, because jobs existed. Thatcher changed that, but I digress.

When the houses were built, they were new and shiny and everyone wanted to be in them. They were replacements, further out of town, for the slums in the west end of Derby. And those were proper slums: back to back terraces in awful conditions built in the 18th/19th century where disease was rife, plumbing was non-existent, and there was a pub on every corner. When Marx and Engels wrote about the condition of the English working class, they could have been writing about Derby’s west end.

The estate I was born on though was new, and offered a huge upgrade in living standards. There was running water in every house. Actual plumbing. A bath! Three separate bedrooms, a living room and kitchen. A front garden for roses, and a back garden to grow your vegetables. Compared to where my father had grown up, this was luxury. But: there was no central heating. No double glazing, and no insulation to speak of. There was a coal fire in the living room, and the family spent all their time there. There was a toilet – but it was outside, built into the house in a weird arrangement which meant you had to leave the house by the back door and go back in to the toilet. For the first ten years of my life, the toilet was outside, and you get used to checking if the water is frozen before you do a poo. The cold is still something I can feel. All I have to do is close my eyes and that cold comes back.

It was better than working class people had before. But compared to today? It was shit. Anyone who reminisces about then as “the good old days” is deluding themselves. Today I sit in a nice house with double glazing and if I want a pee, I can do it in comfort and warmth. I’m not huddled around a fire on freezing mornings trying desperately to get warm, because the blankets – no duvets – never kept you warm enough at night.

People like “Buy British” and others who harp on about the good old days would last about five minutes if you took away all their creature comforts. As of course would I – and that’s a good thing!

There is this weird attitude amongst idiots like him (and we all know it is a him) that somehow increased prosperity and better living conditions is a bad thing, that people “don’t know they’re born”. It’s nonsense of course. Their parents will have said the same thing of them.

And of course it’s all rosey-tinted bullshit. I grew up with the National Front marching on the streets, gay bashing being run of the mill, black people suffering terrible racism. Women being raped and assaulted and it never being reported. Paedophilia being so unremarkable that “he got a 14 year old pregnant and ran off” was a common topic of conversation (literally everyone knew a bloke who had done something like that). Families all had secrets. The food was shit too, and I could write a hole essay on how food in he old days was crap.

There are no good old days. We have been lucky enough to live in a period where the standard of living has consistently improved, where the basic necessities of life of have been met in ever-better ways. And people like Buy British, with their Rosie-tinted bullshit, conspire in excusing the Tories (for it is them) who are actually now taking us backwards, in every respect. Back to an era when “men were men and women were grateful”. Back to shit housing, poverty food (or no food). Back to when being gay was something you kept silent, or you’d suffer the consequences. Back to black people and women knowing their place and being grateful to white middles aged blokes. Well, Buy British and his chums can all just do one. I don’t want that world back, because I’m old enough to remember it with clearer eyes than theirs.

One more thing. I’ve reminded by posts like these of the wonderful scene in Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman episode “Men of good fortune”, where an old man in 1489 is complaining about how chimneys and handkerchiefs are making people soft. Plus ça change…

Paul Thurrott is very unhappy

Paul Thurrott is really unhappy with the current direction of Windows (subscriber only link, and I think he has a lot of good points:

“Naturally, this made me think of Windows, and of Microsoft’s incessant, slow boil moves to forever ruin its user experience with crapware bundling, forced telemetry tracking, and, yes, advertising. These are the times that try one’s soul, as Thomas Paine once opined of an admitted more serious historical crisis. But I feel the pain all the same. And as time goes on, and Windows 8 becomes Windows 10 becomes Windows 11, it just gets worse.”

I think there’s a lot to like about Windows 11, but after using it extensively for a while I tend to agree with Paul. I like Windows 11’s simplicity and the way that’s stripped away a lot of what I see as legacy cruft in favour of something that looks clean and modern. But Microsoft being Microsoft, you can already see the temptation to put in ads, prod you towards using Bing, make you love Microsoft News (no really that’s not going to happen guys).

You can see how this happens: every team in Microsoft sees how it can “add value” to Windows and without really strong leadership this turns into a mess. It seems like the company has learned nothing since the days which Steven Sinofsky is describing in his excellent “Learning by shipping” series of emails.

Weeknote w/e 13th March 2022

This week I have mostly been working – which is not, of course unusual. We did manage a trip out to Sissinghurst yesterday to see our friend Jen, who I haven’t had chance to meet up with since the start of the pandemic. There’s a lot of friends who fall into that category and if you are one of them, I apologise and will get round to you soon!

Last weekend we ventured out to the local Curzon to see The Batman. It’s long, but very, very good: a proper Batman detective story, rather than the gadget-laden superhero tale of Affleck’s DC Universe version. And Robert Pattinson is always worth watching: I thought he was one of the highlights of Tenet, too.

Working on my writing workflow

I’ve wanted to write more for a while, but one thing which has been stopping me is that my writing workflow has been an absolute mess. I’ve been doing a little work this week to tighten it up.

I’ve started using GoodLinks to collect together all the things that I’ve read during the week and which I think are worth sharing. I’ve really struggled with how to do this well: Matter (my current offline reading app of choice) isn’t great at collecting together stuff which might be quite short. I hate using bookmarks for this kind of thing. And Ulysses, which I used to use for a lot of writing, can collect links and has the advantage of using the iOS/MacOS share sheet but isn’t really designed for it.

GoodLinks on the other hand, is perfect for this. Not only can it function as a simple, but decent, offline reader, it includes comprehensive tagging which makes content much easier to find. The way I’m working with it is to save everything that I might want to read later to it, short and long. If I read it later and decide I definitely want to write something about it, I add a star – and once I have written about it, or included it in a weeknote like this one, I remove the star so I know it’s been used.

Posts at the moment usually start their life in one of two places: Roam Research, if it’s an idea which needs a lot of fleshing out; or Typora if it’s something I can start drafting straight away. Actually that’s not quite true: drafts or some kinds of writing start their life on the Freewrite, particularly if I’m trying to just get down something out of my head quickly. Posts which begin in Roam get exported as flat Markdown files for editing and polishing in Typora, then once I’m happy with them they are put into Ghost or WordPress.

Why Typora and not a Mac/iOS app like Ulysses or IA Writer? Partly that’s because I want something which works across platform, but it’s also because I now prefer to keep my writing as boring plain Markdown files in a simple folder structure, rather than an automatically synced iCloud location.

And Typora is lovely. It’s simple, unfussy, and it has a neat system which hides the Markdown until you click in it, which means it’s the best of both worlds between the “purist” editors which show you everything (messy) and the “simple” ones which hide everything (annoying if you want to edit the code). It’s available for Mac, Windows (both Intel and ARM) and Linux and I recommend it.


Links

You might have noticed Apple released a new Mac. The Mac Studio which uses the M1 Ultra is nearly a kilo heavier than its M1 Max sibling. That’s down to “a larger copper thermal module, whereas M1 Max has an aluminium heatsink” – in other words, twice the size equal twice the thermals.

Inside the Mac Studio is the M1 Ultra, which basically is a pair of M1 Max’s connected using a super-fast bus. Anandtech has a lot of good coverage.

Ryan Britt pointed out on Twitter that the M1 Ultra appears to the Metal API as a single graphics process, which means if you’re using Metal there’s no need to concern yourself with rewriting any code in order to take full advantage of it.

I missed this when it was first announced, but Huawei are producing an e-ink tablet called the Huawei MatePad Paper. It looks like it ticks all the boxes: high quality e-ink screen with backlighting, ability to take notes with a pen, and it mounts as a drive when connected to a computer so you can just drag and drop files to it. Pricey – €499 has been cited in some places – but if it delivers it could be a really good device.

Substack announced an app, and Adam Tinling does not like it one bit. I agree with Adam, and it’s one of the reasons that I moved my blog and email newsletter from Substack to Ghost. This put me in mind of Anil Dash’s piece on the broken tech/content culture cycle: Substack has resolutely refused to think about anything but the most cursory content moderation, and yet wants to be seen as a platform, with all the future financial benefits that accrue from ownership of the audience.

Michael Tsai recently wrote about how Google search is dying, and I largely agree: Google has become much less useful than it used to be. I think this is down to a set of algorithm changes that the company made last year which dramatically favoured large general news sites and local new sites over specialised information sources. The rationale behind this was explicitlly about rewarding publishers, and supporting local sources. But the result has been two fold. First, it’s crowded out higher-quality specialist information sources. Second, because local news sites are overweighted, it has rewarded them for writing generic SEO-driven articles, as their content ranks highly even for topic areas which aren’t local to them. It’s a real problem, but as with most thing Google-related, I expect them to rebalance it at some point.

This 14 year old post from Matt Webb reminded me just how broken the internet is. Follow the link to the formerly-excellent Atlas of the Universe, and you just got a for-sale parking domain. What is the solution to this?

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.