Weeknotes: Sunday 30th August 2020

There are a hundred little ways which the pandemic has changed our lives, often without us noticing. For example: despite being at home, work now dominates my life in a way which isn’t conventionally true. Although I’ve been pretty-religious about keeping to an eight hour schedule at regular times outside of these times, for quite a long period, there wasn’t much else to do, to get engaged with. The only rhythm left was the work.

The past two weeks of holiday have really hammered this home to me. I’ve always been someone who spends the first few days of holiday fretting about work: there is always something which has been forgotten or which I didn’t have time to finish, always some kind of loose end, and I spend those early days thinking about it and worrying. It’s ridiculous and unhealthy, but after a couple of days I’m fine.

Not this time – it took basically the whole first week – and I’m convinced it’s because the pandemic has made things worse.

We actually went out to a pub to meet people on Thursday, which meant I got drunk on two pints and very drunk on four. That was psychologically weird. Part of me didn’t want to go, and I have no idea why. Fear of the unknown.

In other COVID-related news, I was tested to see if I could donate convalescent plasma. And it turns out that my antibody levels were too low to be of any use. The actual result is just negative or positive: if it’s negative, it doesn’t mean you haven’t had COVID, it just means it’s below a set number, so it could be zero or it could be “quite a lot but not enough”. As five months have elapsed since I had the bug (I think – there were no tests available then) it was always likely that my antibody levels would have declined.

There’s also a 30% chance of a false negative. The parameters are set pretty high because taking plasma is a complex and expensive process so it’s better, as my dad would have said, to be safe than sorry.

I’m slightly glad that I now don’t have to have my own blood taken from me, filtered, and put back in – but on the other hand, I wish that I had been of some use.

Stuff I’ve been reading

There’s an interesting concept of your present-self and future-self at work in this post. It’s worth reading.

Related: Obsessions with self improvement aren’t always healthy. Sometimes it’s just good to let yourself be:

The urges are not based on anything meaningful. They come from reading a magazine, or someone’s blog, and thinking, “Oh, that would be cool!” I read lists of things I should do someday, places I should go, achievements others have done … and the idea pops into my head that I should do them. Hey cool, let’s suddenly pursue a new goal! But this new fantasy in my head isn’t based on anything that matters, just a cool image that I have in my head about how awesome my life will be once I achieve this goal.

BRB moving to Switzerland

Lunchtime is sacred time in Switzerland. When I was on maternity leave, my husband came home for lunch to help me care for our daughter. This strengthened our marriage. Many families still reunite during weekdays over the lunch hour.


The planet is fucked, redux

The madness of airline elite status:

The costliest manifestations of GS-MAD are unnecessary year-end trips, called “mileage runs” in the frequent-flier community, which are cousins to the flights Walter Kirn’s protagonist in “Up in the Air” takes to meet his goal of a million lifetime miles. I asked around to find the highest amount anyone had heard of being spent on mileage runs: the winner was fifteen thousand dollars, by a friend of a friend, in a month.

I know someone who constantly berated those of us who bought a car because we didn’t live in an urban centre with adequate public transport while flying enough air miles every year to maintain the highest tier of frequent flier class on his chosen airline. One of the flights they take has enough carbon emissions attached to run a family car for a year.

Everyone has their blindspots about the environment, and this is just one example. There’s the concerned parent that complains about air quality around their school while driving their child there in an SUV, just the two of them. There’s pretty much anyone who understands the impact of meat and dairy farming on global warming but doesn’t become vegan.

But those who travel the globe to speak and attend conferences, flying long haul more than once a year? Yeah. Those ones annoy me more than most.

Weeknotes: Sunday 16th August 2020

I missed last week’s note thanks to a huge bout of tiredness which left me pretty exhausted and sleepy all Sunday. Sorry about that. Still a bit knackered now, so this will be a pretty short one.

Antitrust is here again

Back in the mid-noughties I spent a while covering the Microsoft/European Commission antitrust investigate, the one which ultimately led to the “browser” choice” version of Windows (where everyone naturally chose Chrome, because at the time Chrome didn’t suck).

That meant I had to learn an awful lot of antitrust law, and – as I was writing for an American site – how European rules differ from US ones. The news that Apple is being sued by Epic Games means a whole new generation of technology journalists are about the learn a lot of the same stuff. It’s fun.

One thing to understand off the bat: in Europe, there’s an assumption that competition is good for consumers, and so things which restrict competition must have a VERY clear consumer benefit. No such assumption exists in the US, where immediate consumer harm is all that really matters.

This is going to make things pretty tough for Epic, because Apple can ask “where’s the harm?” and Epic needs to do the work to show it. Just a restraint on Epic’s freedom to do what they hell they want won’t be enough. And Apple has a strong case that a single app store with a fixed fee has benefited consumers by providing developers with a clear route to market, as well as something that’s much more secure than mobile app distribution used to be. Anyone who remembers the pre-App Store era will know what a shambles it was trying to get mobile software if you weren’t a nerd.

Stuff I’ve been reading

Ars Technica has a great interview with two of Apple’s leading AI experts. It’s worth remember that Apple believes machine learning is so core to what it does that it’s built in specialised ML hardware into its processors for years.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is all in on cutting its carbon emissions and making itself carbon negative. That’s both aggressive and admirable. Satya Nadella is some leader.

I’m incredibly proud of my former colleague Thomas McMullan, who has a book coming out. Tom is proper clever and you should read his stuff.

Weeknote: Sunday 2nd August 2020

I try not to grumble too much when I’m writing these notes. However, 36 degree heat isn’t really the kind of thing that I enjoy, and it’s not the kind of thing that British homes are built for.

Autumn is my season. I have always thought that the reason I love autumn is that I spent a long time in education – seven years including my degree and post-graduate studying – and autumn still feels like the start of the year. I’m not an academic, but I still feel the rhythms of the academic calendar in my blood.

Most of what I’ve been working falls firmly into the bucket marked “business confidential” so I can’t really talk about it much. Meanwhile the garden is dry and needs more watering, every time I look at the lawn at the back I’m reminded that it’s actually mostly composed of moss, and the roses have got too high and really need pruning right back. When your roses are higher than your bird feeders, something has gone a bit wrong.

The errant roses
The errant roses

Meanwhile, in tech world…

Google got accused of retaliation against Blix for the company’s cooperation with antitrust investigations. Of course, this is only part of the story, but imagine for one second that this was Apple booting someone out of their App Store – how much coverage would you have seen in the tech sites, compared to how much coverage this got?

(A small break, while I decamp to the shade of the living room – the iPad Pro can deal with quite a bit of heat, but not as much is the Sun is giving it right now…)

Steven Soderbergh’s version of 2001: A Space Odyssey? Yes please.

The dreary hand of politics

The de-skilling and reduction in competitiveness caused by Brexit and the Tories lack of understanding of modern management will continue to the point where Britain falls out of the G8. A lot of this is down to the Tories perverse misunderstanding of the outside world: the idea that “high cost labour” and “rules” are “holding Britain back” rather than poor management, low training, and lack of technical investment. They look at Singapore as a role model and learn the wrong lessons.

Their ideology means they can’t look at Germany (say) abs ask “what can we learn from high German productivity?” because their Brexit thinking is that Germany is rich because it’s been ripping off Britain via the EU.

Because the EU is seen through the lens of empires, it contains two kinds of state: dominant, and subjects. In their heads it’s a Franco/German empire, and so the reason Germany does well is because it exploits Britain.

All this, of course, is nonsense. But it’s their ideology.

Myths of decline is an interesting look at how the “two cultures” approach, coupled to a view that British science is second-rate thanks to the dominance of liberal arts in universities, isn’t really true. There is so much to unpick here: the British view that technical education should happen at school and university, delivering a pipeline of skills that companies want, for one thing.

This idea is nonsense for a lot of reasons, but perhaps the biggest error is that it attempts to absolve business from the hard work (and expense) of training. Ironically, in the polytechnics we had a great collaborative system: polytechnics often specialised in degree-level technical education focusing on the needs of local business. That’s why, for example, Hatfield Polytechnic had brilliant aeronautical engineering degrees, as BAE was a big local employer.

There’s some great points in this piece on ”8 Lessons from the Best Remote Companies in the World”. So many companies struggling to catch up on this, especially in the UK where the culture of “presenteeism” has been historically strong (and clearly believed-in by the government, who are desperate to reopen offices rather than support remote working).

Weeknotes: Sunday July 26th 2020

I started writing a post this week about the two major trends in computing devices at the moment: pervasive computing (voice activated wherever you are); and multi-posture (devices which enable different modes of work by physically changing).

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this (much of which I’ll save for the actual post) but one is that companies are tending to be good at either one or the other, but not both. Apple and Microsoft have both produced high-quality multi-posture devices in the form of Surface Pro X and iPad Pro; Google has produced great pervasive hardware in the form of the Hub stuff. But when Apple or Microsoft has tried pervasive, it’s been second-rate (Siri, Cortana, HomePod). Likewise, when Google has tried its hard at multi-posture, it’s been terrible (Pixel Slate).

I’m very curious about why this should be. What is it, attitudinally, which pushes companies into one camp or the other?

Related to this, apparently the Surface Duo is edging towards a release. The Duo is interesting because it’s all about that approach of multi-posture hardware which can be one thing or another – in this case, a “book”, or a simple single flat screen.

How is that different to a folding single screen? A folding single screen is only ever one thing: its small screen is simply a smaller version of the whole thing unfolded. Two screens on the other hand have to be true to what they are – they can’t really pretend to be a single spread with a huge bar in the middle. Folding the device makes it into a different thing.

Danny wrote a terrific thing about the fundamental unit of news being the story, not the article, to which I say a resounding YES. Hub pages, which encapsulate the story of the story, as it were, are a truly web-native way of doing news (and Google likes it too).

Om found his first post about Twitter, or Twttr as it was at the time. Two things:

  1. You can understand every single problem Twitter has by its origins as a presence notification function. It was never designed to be a social network where strangers followed you, reply to you, etc. It was just designed to tell other people what you were up to.
  2. I’m pretty jealous that Om still has all his ancient blog posts.

Tim Bray does not like the way Safari organises lots of tabs.I don’t know, maybe, just maybe, having 20-30 tabs open is stupid…

To put that in a way that’s a little less facetious, I’ve always struggled to understand the use case for having 20-30 tabs open at the same time. You can’t actually work on that many tabs. You probably shouldn’t be context-switching between that many applications at the same time (the more you context-switch, the less focus you have on the task at hand). And if you’re just saving something to come back to later… use a reading list app?

(Related: people who talk about “how they multitask” set my teeth on edge. You can’t multitask: it’s just called “making it harder to focus” and it’s one of the reasons I love working on the iPad)

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.


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.


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.


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.


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: 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.


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