Weeknote: Sunday 27th December

This is the last week note I’ll write this year. So, how did 2020 feel to me? I’m struck by the similarities to space travel. We have endured stretches of boredom, unable to move from the safe havens of our homes. But underneath the ennui and routine of occupying our little ships there has been a constant level of background anxiety, as our limbic systems dealt with the uncertain future by levelling up our cortisol, cranking the alertness until we are left constantly fuzzy and tired.

We have all lived on the edge. For me, this year has been yet another one that has been a holding pattern. Since my father got sick and died in the latter half of the ’00s, for one reason or another our lives have been on hold. And now, a global event that has forced all of us into shelter, put a stop to movement both physically and mentally.

Of course that’s not the only major even of the year which has dripped anxiety into our lives. For anyone who understands its potential impact Brexit has been a constant source of concern, and — until the moment it became obvious he had lost — the prospect of another four years of Trump putting American democracy to the sword didn’t help.

And yet… you would have to be extremely unaware of yourself for this year not to have forced you into some reflection about yourself and what you find important. Times like these change everyone in ways that are unpredictable, but they also coerce you into a better appreciation of what is important what, possibly, you have taken for granted. For me, it’s the ability to travel, both within the UK and overseas, and once we’ve all been saved by science I intend to spend a great deal of time on the road.


Roam

I’ve been trying out Roam Research, currently the hottest note-taking application among the kind of people who like “personal information management” as a topic. It combines three concepts in a simple way to good effect: Daily notes; two-way linking between notes; and the ability to reuse blocks of writing anywhere in other notes.

What do I think of it? The temptation with a tool like this is to try and do too much too quickly. You could try and create the perfect Zettelkasten note-taking system, and try and impose too much structure, but I think the best approach is probably the most simple: Just write daily notes, creating pages for projects and topics as you go along. If nothing comes of those projects or topics, no harm done.

It’s definitely useful for putting together Weeknotes. All I have to do is write snippets during my daily notes, then pull them together with block embeds at the end of the week. No additional writing required. Of course, the only down side to this is I need to write my notes as if they were going to be published, or sharpen them up later (embedding is two-way: if I amend a block in the weeknote, it’s changed in the daily notes too).


Chore of the week: we finally swapped the old Prestcold fridge from the kitchen for a newer one which had been in Kim’s old flat years ago. This means we’ve exchanged a 60-year-old fridge, which was still working but tended to get iced up, for one that’s a mere 20 years old. Domestic appliances, eh? They really don’t build them like they used to.


The excellent BookTrack app tells me that I have read 23 books this year. I’m not 100% sure that’s correct — I definitely don’t feel like I’ve read that many books — but I’ve definitely been reading much more than I used to. That’s been one positive of 2020: there’s been so much more time available to read.

An M1 Mac vs the Surface Pro X: How do ARM devices compare?

I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who own both an M1 Mac and a Surface Pro X is small. I fall into that section in the middle, so I thought it was worth summarizing how the two compare.

I should say from the start that the Surface Pro X is by far and away my favourite Windows device. I also have a Surface Book 3, which is a pretty powerful laptop in its own right, but which I just don’t love as much.

The hardware design of the Surface Pro X is exceptional, and it is one of the few non-Apple devices that I’ve owned which matches Apple’s level of industrial design. Using an ARM processor with its much less hefty thermal requirements than Intel chips has freed Microsoft’s hardware designers to make the Surface that they have clearly always had in their heads. It’s thin and light, with an exceptionally lovely screen, and in my experience it just never gets hot, something that I can’t say of any Intel-based computer I’ve ever used.

For some categories of user, myself included, the performance is actually good. Performance is a relative thing: what’s acceptable for someone who lives in the browser would be glacial for a designer who spends their life in Photoshop.

My work life is solidly in Office 365 and a browser, and for this kind of work–which we should remember is a huge chunk of users across the globe—the Surface Pro X is perfect. Office and Edge have never felt slow, no matter how many tabs or documents I have open. And the ability to use it anywhere thanks to built-in LTE makes it more useful than a conventional laptop.

My M1 Mac mini is… well, it’s a Mac. It does everything I have ever used my Macs for, including audio and video editing, and subjectively does it as well and as fast as anything I’ve ever used. It feels faster than my year old 16in MacBook Pro, which has double the memory and on paper at least ought to be easily quicker. And it does it while being silent, cool and snappy with everything.

Using it with third party hardware has also been a very Mac-like experience. Whatever third party hardware I have plugged in has worked from an old Logitech webcam to a Blue Yeti USB mic. Even the software which allows me to programme my Corsair gaming mouse works perfectly. I don’t even know if it’s running ARM or Intel code.

That’s the crucial difference between the two devices. You don’t have to think about the Mac mini as anything other than a Mac. With the Surface Pro X you need to remember that it’s not a Windows device, it’s an ARM Windows device, and limit what you can do accordingly. If your requirements sit within those limitations, it’s a great machine. If they don’t, you won’t be able to use it at all.

This is why Microsoft’s marketing language about Windows on ARM devices focuses on how they are “a new category of PC” and why it talks about the Surface Pro X as for “mobile professionals”. The company isn’t confident—rightly—that ARM devices can replace an Intel PC except in those specific circumstances. Apple thinks of the M1 as making the Mac just a better Mac, first for low-end customers where it can deliver performance that’s already close to the top end, and in 2021 and 2022 for its most demanding users.

What can Microsoft do? I honestly don’t think there’s much it can, at the moment. To get to where Apple is, Microsoft needs to persuade Qualcomm that it should devote time and effort to build chips optimised for higher thermal envelope devices, such as laptops and desktops. That’s not as easy as it sounds. It also needs to persuade Qualcomm that building in features to make it easier to emulate or translate Intel code is worth the effort.

On the software side, it also needs to sort out the mess that is Windows development. Windows Presentation Foundation, Universal Windows Platform, Progressive Web Apps… the entire system is a mess that makes it harder, not easier, to choose how to develop for Windows. This is something that Apple has been very good at managing in the past.

Can Intel or AMD keep up? Apple is already a larger processor company than either of them in terms of units shipped, thanks to its wholly owned designs for the A- and no M-series. Combine iPhone and iPad and Apple ships more than 250m devices per year. Most of those devices will share a great deal in terms of processor design as the M1, meaning that the Mac gains from the economy of scale and design cost amortisation that Intel can only dream of. There are of course big differences between an M1 and an A14, but they share the same cores, the same Neural Engine, the same image processing and secure enclave designs. Perhaps over time the high performance cores in iPhone and Mac will diverge, but at the moment Apple doesn’t need to do it, so it can benefit from being able to design one processor core which ships in 250m devices a year—more than the number of PCs shipping over the same time scale.

I think all this adds up to Microsoft and Intel being in a bigger boatload of trouble than most people think. The shift to ARM feels like a classic Clay Christiansen transformational technology moment, with M1 the tipping point when a technology moves from cheaper but not as powerful as the incumbent to beating it. The path that Microsoft and Intel must take is a radical rethinking of their own businesses, and I am not clear that the internal forces in either company have accepted that yet.

Weeknote Sunday 6th December

Sometimes weeks drift by with only one or two things to write about, and because those things often involve super-commercially-confidential work-stuff I can’t always write about them at all. This has not been one of those weeks.

On Tuesday, I co-wrote an obituary piece about Adam for the PPA, which my old colleagues at Dennis Publishing had kindly thought of me to write (and a massive thank you to James Tye and Tim Danton for this).

I realised after writing this that it wasn’t the first time I have had to write a tribute for a friend who has passed away. A few years ago, Adam asked me to do the same for Paul Nesbitt, MacUser columnist and one of the formative influences on my writing career. Paul was both a brilliant reporter and — in his guise as Paul Hofner — a fantastic musician too. Another of the MacUser polymaths. Doing the annual MacUser columnists’ lunch with Paul, Tony Tyler and Charles Shaar Murray was both an exercise is extreme drunkenness and a huge privilege. The stories that Tony, in particular, would tell about the music business that he had been a close part of for many years while working on the NME were mainly libellous and definitely unprintable.

There’s been a bunch of work stuff too. Completing the first draft of a document to help print teams create better digital content; some work on a Big International Project; some social media auditing. Most importantly, working on the essay for the next module of my M.Sc. coursework, which is all about change management.

The spooky thing about this course has been how the modules have magically mapped on to real world events. We looked at business resilience just as COVID-19 hit, which unsurprisingly meant our assignments were all about looking at our response to COVID-19. This, I will state publicly, was actually incredibly impressive. In particular, the IT teams ability to get a lot of previously desk-bound workers set up to work from home within days was amazing. I’m sure a lot of IT teams did the same, but ours did a brilliant job.

Two things on the personal side. I’ve picked up my meditation practice again: although I have been meditating regularly for a good couple of years it had slipped from daily to a couple of times a week. So, I’m back to daily, as I really feel the need (and feel the difference it makes to my stress levels). Taking a hint from Matt D’Avella, I’m adding a degree of semi-public accountability by having the chart where I mark off the days in the kitchen, rather than just in my notebook. Yes, only Kim can see it: but having that degree of just-enough public notice is important.

I have also picked up my Bullet Journaling practice again. My current notebook is the fifth that I’ve used as a Bullet Journal, but over the past few months I had drifted away from it. As I was spending more time in front of screens than ever, thanks to working from home, I had got it in my head that an all-electronic system would be better.

That meant plenty of faffing with different task managers, note taking apps, and so on — until I ended up just realising that for 90% of my purposes, handwritten is just better.

One other thing from this week: I wrote about 750 words about my experience of post-COVID fatigue. Since I got the dreaded bug back in March I’ve struggled with a level of tiredness (particularly in the afternoons) that I’ve never experienced before. I’m also struggling with whether to write about it or not, at least publicly. It feels like whining — my symptoms are so minor compared to people who got it bad and still really suffer. It affects my work and life but in ways that can be worked around and managed. Perhaps I’ll publish it, though. I don’t know yet.

Adam

I almost didn’t answer the message. When Chris popped up asking if he could call, I was just pondering going to bed and wondered if it wasn’t something that could wait until the morning. Something, though, told me I should answer.

Chris wanted to pass on the news: our friend and former colleague Adam Banks had died the previous day, after suffering a sudden heart attack.

Adam was the second MacUser editor I worked under, after Stuart Price had recruited me out of college and straight into the basement of the MacUser labs. He had more influence, though, over the course that magazine was to take and more widely too: it’s fair to say that Banksy did more to move the design of technology magazines out of the dark ages of a PC on every cover than anyone else. But the design work he fostered pushed forward not just tech but all magazines, something that’s almost lost to memory today. When The Guardian made a MacUser cover one of its covers of the century in 2013, it wasn’t just about one cover: it was saluting 20 years of amazing and award-winning work.

The design culture Adam built, alongside creative director Paul Kurzeja, launched the careers of a bunch of fantastic young designers. How many computer magazines would have their staff profile pics by Rankin or Steve Double?

And that design-led ethos lasted for years, first under Karen Harvey, then me. I don’t think I was good at it, but even under me the impetus was strong enough for us to win a PPA Cover of the Year. I made our art editor, the brilliant Aston Leach, go up and collect it because it was far more his award than mine.

There’s a million stories about that era of MacUser. The time that our big boss Felix Dennis rang up the office to complain about a particularly abstract cover, while Adam was in San Francisco for a Macworld show, for example. Paul Price took the call and thought it was a prank, as it was his birthday. We wore the phrase that Felix had used to describe the cover — “Art Wank Shit” — with pride, and of course Adam laughed as much as the rest of us. I think he saw Art Wank Shit as what he was trying to achieve.

None of this really captures what a nice man Adam was, too. No matter what the level of stress — and magazine editing can be super-stressful — he still didn’t end up losing his temper or raising his voice about anything. I can’t tell you how rare that is in publishing.

I’m also not going to tell you the story of his stag night. Of course, Adam being Adam, this involved absolutely no unacceptable behaviour on his part (and the funniest part also needs mime actions to truly bring it to life).

He’ll be sadly, sadly missed by everyone that knew him.

Note: There won’t be a weeknote this week.

Weeknote: Sunday 22nd November

Writing this weeknote started out as a kind of training wheels for getting back into blogging. Having not written regularly for years I needed some kind of structure to hang my writing on, and having a regular appointment which summed up what I had been doing and reading each week seemed like a good idea.

Of course, this my weeknote and not anyone else’s and because such a lot of what I do at work falls into the category of “business confidential” that precludes me talking much about it. I spend a lot of my time managing people, and intrinsically that’s not something that I can often write about publicly.

This week though, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a bunch of young people who have applied to work on some paid internships we’re running, and it’s been incredibly rewarding. It’s part of the government’s Kickstarter programme, which is designed to help employed people to get work experience and training to give them a foot in the door towards a permanent job.

Doing ten interviews in two days is always hard work, but what’s been brilliant is just how fantastic and smart and engaged the people have been. None of them have been over 21, some have been graduates and some not, but all of them have been great. What’s also heartening — and I think important — is that all of them have honed in on the fact that we do a lot of campaigning and support for mental health in the workplace, and that diversity is an enormous and important issue for us.

I think companies need to think about this: these are issues that are important to young people in particular when choosing an employer, and if you’re not focused on them, you could lose out on talent. There’s a demographic time bomb coming down the line, as the lower rates of birth impact on the number of young people entering the workforce (exacerbated by Brexit), which means that companies will need to compete for new employees in a way they haven’t had to do since the era of full employment in the 1960s.

But most important of all: the kids are alright.

Meanwhile, of course my new M1-powered Mac mini arrived. I’ve written about why I got it a bit, and I’m not going to do anything like benchmarking (the world does not need another M1 benchmark) but I’ll write more about my experience this week. So far… well, it’s a Mac. It is incredibly snappy, and with one exception, every Intel-code app I’ve run has worked well. In fact, what code the app is running is basically invisible to you: after the first time you run Rosetta, when it asks you if you want to install it, it’s hard to even se what kind of code you’re running (you have to go and look in the Info for each app, checking if it says “Universal” or not).

The exception, sadly, is Elder Scrolls Online, which has been my favourite MMORPG since I stopped regularly playing World of Warcraft a few years ago. ESO is great if you love a huge, sprawling world with enough story to keep you interested for years, a lot of variety in play styles (any character class can fill any role) and a really nicely developed world.

Unfortunately, its developers have also said they have no plans to support the M1 Macs, which basically means that over the long term they are throwing in the towel on Mac development — in two years, all Macs will be M1. Not only that, they won’t support it running under emulation, which is a shame as other games which run under emulation seem to run, and run well.

I guess they won’t be the only ones: some developers, particularly in AAA games, could use this as a chance to stop supporting the Mac. And that would be a shame because ultimately, I don’t have much doubt that the graphical and game play capabilities of this new generation of Mac will be exceptional.

So… I think it might be time to go back to WoW. Anyone got a friendly guild?