The Prodigal Tongue

Lynne Murphy writes a great blog, which this book is at least partly based on, about the differences between American and British English. Or should that be that this book is based on?

Books like this really make you question everything you write.

Some of the material I was already familiar with, having read it elsewhere, possibly even on her blog, but there were plenty of new facts to keep me entertained. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember where a word of phrase came from. Did I always say that or did I learn it more recently? How do you pronounce words? When it came up in conversation a few months ago, I genuinely couldn’t remember whether I normally said “skedule” and “shedule.” I kept second-guessing myself!

I didn’t, for example, realise that I’d learned so much American baking terminology. I guess I’ve made more cakes since I got married and picked up the lingo. Part of me did think that “batter” was what you use for pancakes and Yorkshire puddings, but, equally, I couldn’t think of a better word for cake mixture. (Turns out there’s a reason for that.)

The other thing I realised is that one consequence of such a heavy US bias on the Internet is that companies such as Grammarly are continually suggesting American English grammar and spelling corrections. (The spelling I’m normally confident enough to override, punctuation less so.) Before reading this book I always thought that the advice was suspect but I thought it was mostly a matter of taste rather than geography.

Even if you’re not into the details of how the two nationlects — a word she coins to distinguish between American and British Enlgish — differ, the last chapter still might be of interest. It’s about the growth of the language outside the UK and the US, how it’s now the most popular second language.

Native speakers in Britain and the US make the mistake of thinking that they have no language learning to do: everyone speaks English, so we’ve got it made.

This is absolutely my experience. Many people — including past me — thought that this was true. I guess it’s where the stereotype of Brits talking slower and louder to foreigners comes from. (I don’t think I ever went that far!)

I’ve learned the hard way that just because people speak English, it’s not necessarily my English. They may understand most of the words but there are idioms and pronunciations that don’t translate. Dealing with non-native speakers requires care and thought, which, frankly, is the least we can do since they made the effort to speak our language. I can’t say I always get it right, but I’m conscious of it and make an effort.

Anyway, if you like the blog, you’ll probably like the book. As you’d imagine, it’s well written. It has lots of nice, little facts you can sprinkle into conversation and it’s nicely structured and feels fairly complete.

Changer

I first knew of Matt Gemmell as a Mac and iOS developer on Twitter, so I was curious when he decided to become a full-time writer instead. “Changer” is his first novel, his second came out late last year.

Overall the story hangs together nicely. It’s well structured, the characters are not especially well developed but work well enough for a page-turner-thriller, which is clearly what it was aiming for.

There were a couple of things I wasn’t terribly keen on. The detailed descriptions of the guns and their model numbers did nothing for me. You’d think my love of “exploding helicopter” movies would make me a fan but I’m not sure it added much. On the other hand, the shoot-out scenes generally worked well. In other similar books I’ve often been left confused with who was where and doing what, but no such complaints here.

The other thing that’s generally not to my taste is all the supernatural stuff. I wasn’t really expecting it in a thriller and when it first appeared I had to read the section twice to make sure that I understood it properly! Mostly, though, it was a bit of a MacGuffin, supporting the characters without overwhelming the story, by which I mean that the “solution” was more about the characters than some “magic.” In that sense, my objection is that it was unexpected rather than bad.

So did the author made the right choice, giving up software and moving into writing? Well, I never read his code so I can’t compare but “Changer” was an enjoyable, if slightly unmemorable, romp. I didn’t buy the follow up yet but I wouldn’t discount the possibility.

Note: it’s currently available for 99p on Amazon. Well worth that!

Fragile Development

The problem with “agile development” is that it is both a methodology and a buzzword. What this means in practice is that people who do not understand it implement parts of it without appreciating the whole. This usually results in more overhead but without the benefits.

I’ve come across this multiple times in my career. The usual refrain is “we’re agile so we don’t need documentation.” The “agile” aspect is more often than not, merely the assertion that the project is agile. Or someone says that the code is the documentation.

Another common one is “we need to improve communication so we’ll have have a daily stand-up.” This often ends up being an opportunity for senior managers to give ten minute monologues about what they might get up to if they didn’t have so many meetings to attend. (Cue unheeded calls for sympathy.) Updates from people at the coal face often get cut due to time pressures. After a few weeks people stop attending…

Agile as it was originally designed was clever because it went up against the common wisdom of the day by jettisoning certain elements of bureaucracy but balancing them with other carefully considered, and hopefully less onerous, procedures. Less documentation might work if you increase the amount of teamwork; less formal requirements gathering is counteracted by including a user in the team; regular cadence of releases means you can get away with less rigid planning.

The common trait in the examples I gave is that they lack that balance. Not writing documentation is a mistake if there is no other method of retaining knowledge inside an organisation. Poor communication is not solved by managers broadcasting how out of touch they are.

As with any problem, you can’t fix it if you don’t understand it.

TED Talks: The Official TED guide to public speaking

Over the years my job has required me to do varying amounts of public speaking. A few years ago I was doing it weekly to audiences ranging from a handful of people to dozens. I’ve done less recently but it’s something I wanted to get back into, hence this book. TED talks are slickly produced and the speakers almost always appear to be, at the very least, competent, and usually much better than that. That made “TED Talks” a good place to start.

While reading the book I ended up speaking at a conference and I was able to put some of the lessons into practice. Of course I’d only read half of it so I did make some avoidable mistakes. However, it also showed some practical limitations of the book: naturally it’s about the kind of talks given at TED, but most people rarely do that.

My talks are often given at fairly short notice, frequently with a “standard” slide deck that you’re not supposed to edit significantly. The last talk I gave was written entirely by someone else and I only had the time to adjust the slides to work with my delivery style better.

Other than the logistics, the subject matter also differs. If you gave a presentation about your companies product roadmap in the style of a TED talk you’d get laughed out of the room! (That doesn’t stop so many companies trying to ape Steve Jobs, but those are usually also seen as inauthentic.)

And, perhaps unlike at TED, at most places you don’t get to choose how the stage looks. I like to walk around a little. This, I feel, makes the presentation look more dynamic but also means that I can’t look at my notes all the time and I have to engage with that audience; double win! But you can’t always do that. Maybe the stage is too small; perhaps they’re recording and they don’t like you moving out of shot continually; maybe the microphone is attached to the lectern.

What I’m saying is, while the advice is probably great for when you give your TED Talk, you’re going to have to allow for a much greater degree of outside control for most presentations you have to give.

But overall, the advice is good. It covers everything from how to structure the talk, to preparation (including your slides, and whether you should even use any), stage presence, voice and how to work best with your strengths and weaknesses.

Where it lost me, though, are the last few chapters (“Reflection”). After talking about how to give a great talk only at the end does it discuss why it’s important and why you should do it. The little bit of TED history is quite interesting but the book probably could have done without it — presumably if you’re reading the book you’re already convinced — or maybe put it at the beginning as a form of motivation for reading the rest.

Ironically, people who don’t want to ever give a talk are the very people that the last section is really aimed at, unfortunately they’re never going to read it.

Of course, that’s mostly a quibble in an otherwise decent guide. Not everyone is going to want to give talk, but if you do it’s worth a look.

Productivity

I just can’t figure how to follow all those “improve your productivity” guides. I’m sure you know the ones I mean: they suggest exercising at 6am; or switching off your email and Slack during the day to avoid distractions; or to schedule all your meetings in the mornings; or…

Can anyone make those things work?

The problem I have is that I work and live with other people. So, sure, I can try to schedule my meetings in the morning but I don’t think my American colleagues will appreciate having to get up at 4am to make my 9am daily standup; if I don’t have Slack running I’ll miss the notification that the database server is going down; without email I won’t learn that the client meeting I’m preparing for has been cancelled; and going to the gym at 6am would be great except who is going to look after the kids while I’m out?

All these productivity guides fail to recognise that we all have external commitments, that we work in places with existing infrastructure and conventions. The best you can do is cherry-pick the bits from the guides that work for you and try to figure out your own process for everything else.

Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, is what we were already doing.

Reading 2018

It’s been an interesting year. Half way through 2018 I started working from home basically full time. While that may not sound like it’s relevant, my time on the Tube was my “reading time.”

What I’m saying is: I didn’t reach my twelve book target this year.

I need to do better, allow myself to carve out some dedicated time as I did for exercise. Looking back over my list, I also want to read more fiction. I enjoy novels too much to only read one in a year!

You can read my full thoughts on my reading material by looking through the “Reading2018” tag, but if you want a theme drawing them together it might be “disappointment.” While pretty diverse — covering politics, persuasion and management — many of them didn’t quite live up to expectations.

On the other hand, What if… might be the best pop-science book I’ve read in a while and, in these turbulent times, Factfulness really is an important book. (I generally don’t like that term, so the fact I’m not using it ironically does mean something!)

Even without the library and new acquisitions, I already have a dozen unread books lined up for 2019. Let’s do this!

Photography, opinions and other random ramblings by Stephen Darlington