“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.

Weeknote, w/e 23 May 2021

Greetings everyone, it’s been a while hasn’t it? There’s been quite a bit going on.


This week our dear old cat George finally passed on to the great mouse hunting fields in the sky. Kim took her to the vet to get her checked over before renewing her prescriptions to the wide variety of chemicals that were holding her together — she didn’t have a single organ that was entirely functional, but she was happy enough gently pottering around finding places for a snooze, so we had never had to take the tricky decision to have her put to sleep. And when you are a cat and get to 19 years of age, you deserve to go on as long as you’re not in pain.

Unfortunately, she didn’t survive the trip to the vets. After the check-up, she had what was probably a heart attack — she had had a heart murmur since she was five — and it was time to let her go on.

It’s odd not having a small creature around the place. Over the past few years she had moved from being a very independent little cat to wanting our company all the time, from hating too much human contact to wanting to be in your lap or poised on your shoulder. She’s much missed, already.


My health hasn’t been at its finest. I’ve been suffering from excessive tiredness during the day, and finally bit the bullet and saw a doctor about it a few weeks ago. Cue a referral to the sleep clinic, but routine tests also found that my blood pressure was high, and some blood tests found some minor anomalies which will need further investigation.

The worst part of the blood pressure tests is that I had to be strapped to a monitor for 24 hours, which every 20 minutes would go “beep… WHOOOSH… put… put… put… beep” as the pressure cuff inflated and checked how much of a THWACK my heart was using to slam blood down my veins.

Overnight it slowed to once an hour, but try sleeping when every sixty minutes your arm is squeezed tightly — it’s not fun, and really I barely slept at all. Then I was so tired on Saturday (no sleep, remember?) that I missed the trip into London we had originally planned.


We got out to the cinema and saw Nomadland which was brilliant. Before the last lockdown, going to the Curzon had become a weekly treat, seeing movies which we wouldn’t normally have seen — with no blockbusters around, cinema became a very different experience. The blockbusters are coming back, but I hope that the weekly small film habit will stick.


This week also saw the arrival of the new iPad Pro 12.9in, with its whizzy M1 processor which makes it embarrassingly faster than any computer in the house other than the similarly equipped Mac mini. And the Mac mini doesn’t have the incredible screen which this iPad has. In theory, you shouldn’t be able to notice much difference compared to the previous generation. In practice, it just looks better every time I look at it.

It will be interesting to see what Apple has in store at WWDC in a few weeks time, when we might finally see the improvements to iPadOS which make it more of an option as a Mac replacement, rather than a powerful but slightly haphazard cousin.

Thinking about the iPad Pro

Want to see the best example of why the iPad isn’t really a multi-tasking professional machine yet? Try opening up Apple TV while you’re connected to an external monitor. Yes, you can play a video file and you will see the movie play on the big screen. Meanwhile, your iPad screen will be black. And try and open up another application so you can do something else on the iPad while watching that movie, and up will pop the application you just opened on the big screen.

Bear in mind that the processor on the iPad that I’m using – last year’s 12.9in iPad Pro – is a pretty powerful thing. And the iPad can do lots of things at the same time: I can have music playing, watch something using Picture in Picture, have two apps on split screen and another one via SlideOver, all cramped on to the iPad’s screen, and it will work perfectly. What I absolutely can’t do have anything on a monitor that’s not mirrored, unless the developer has worked to create an extended view – which most don’t – and even then I can’t really do much else at the same time.

Here’s what you can do: open up the TV app (or any other application which supports something on an external display. Put the app you want to also work on into the other side of the screen, making it split with TV. Play your movie. And it all works! But what a kludgy, useless kind of hack this is.

You can even have have another app on screen as a SlideOver window, and it works! But forget for a minute that you have had to make this crazy fudge of a way of working, and open up another app… and all of a sudden whatever you have on the big screen will stop working, and you’re back in mirroring hell. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will stop (don’t judge me) and you will need to work out how to juggle the windows all over again.

This isn’t good enough. Not for a device that costs north of £1000 and that has the processing power which the M1 delivers. Apple has a lot of work to do with iPadOS, and I would expect it to arrive at this year’s WWDC.

Weeknote: Sunday 4th April

Bank Holiday weekends are traditionally the time when everyone piles into a car and heads for the coast, or has a big party, or has a barbecue with friends and neighbours. This time around of course things are different. Although we are out of the first phase of lockdown, there are still limits on how many people we can meet, and where we can meet them. The shops and pubs remain shut. The grand commercial part of our social lives remains under firm lock and key.

However, keeping traditions alive we piled into the car and headed for the coast, a few tens of miles down to Margate. For those expecting mass disobedience and bad behaviour, you’re going to be disappointed. It was quiet: compared to a normal Easter Bank Holiday it had perhaps a tenth of the number of people. With temperatures reaching the giddy heights of 12 degrees we didn’t stay too long, but long enough to remind me how much I love the sight of the sea.

This week has been very much like every other week over the past year, a long parade of working from home, being at home, focusing on the home and avoiding contact with the rest of humanity beyond these four walls.

Last week, though, I was vaccinated. I went along to the Odeon cinema, where I’ve seen many a Marvel epic, and in the spot where I’ve waited for a screen to open while chomping away on the world’s worst nachos I waited to be shown through to have AstraZeneca’s wonder drug injected into my arm. It felt incredibly emotional: not so much because the end of this awful pandemic is in sight, although I’m glad enough for that, but for the kindness of the volunteers, spending free time guiding us around, for the pharmacist who injected me underneath the disused Pick N Mix display. Because collectively, we have done a wonderful thing.

What Boris Johnson doesn’t want to say is that the AZ vaccine exists and was deployed successfully so quickly not because “greed is good” but when the government invested hundreds of millions of our money into making it happen faster. That we can do this kind of thing through collective action rather than fierce individualism isn’t a lesson that we should forget.

There are so many other challenges that need this level of attention, most notably climate change. The way of life we have “enjoyed” (in places) over the past 150 years is over. The kind of globalised capitalism that has spent the last forty years ignoring climate change and kicking the can down the road is over. Either we choose to change it, or climate change changes it for us. Things are not going to be the same.

Related: I’m currently reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Klein, not to be confused with the COVID-denying conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf, doesn’t pull any punches and that’s absolutely the right approach. The time for gentle remedies and the equivalent of soothing lullabies about how everything will be alright in the end is long past. It was long past six years ago, when Klein wrote the book, and it’s even more long past now. The nature of the catastrophe is us.

In more personal and less doom-laden news, I had another epiphany this week – I think it’s the time of year for them – in which I realised that I spend far too much of my time focusing on tools and apps and things and stuff rather than looking after my own wellbeing. So instead of the usual cavalcade of SMARTER goals I’ve decided to keep my attention on just two things: meditation, and re-establishing my practice; and morning pages, the three page long brain dump which clears my head of so much when I do it every day. That’s all. Just those things.

Anyway, that’s all for this week.