Guns, Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond’s door-stop of a book has been on my to-read list for quite some time. Maybe not quite since it was released over twenty years ago but probably not far from it.

The gist is pretty much there in the title: in the last 13,000 years, the most successful societies used guns, germs and steel to conquer others. Why, for example, was it Europeans who had world-wide empires rather than Africans or Americans or Chinese?

The ideas are laid out in the first few chapters and the rest are used to justify it.

In that sense it’s a very academic work. It’s very, very thorough, perhaps too thorough for a “pop science” book. It could have been half the length without losing any significant ideas.

Like much academic text, the writing could have been better; there were quite a few awkward sentences. But it was clear and the anecdotes livened it up, meaning it wasn’t just a very long paper.

I was aware that some sentences made me cringe a little. I wondered if it had dated badly or just that it’s difficult to write about race without sounding at least a little politically incorrect. Worrying that I’m too PC, I’m practically a liberal caricature.

Having said that, I did enjoy it and I’m glad I finished it. There’s some thought-provoking ideas and answers to questions you maybe didn’t even consider previously and, ultimately, that’s why I read these kinds of book. But I think my next read will be a lighter, fiction book!

iOS 13 and iPadOS

As I normally do at this time of year, here are a few thoughts about Apple’s new mobile operating system. However, this year has been different in a few ways.

Betas are, well, betas. You don’t use them on devices that you actually need1. My normal pattern is put them on my iPad around the start of August. This is often the third or forth beta. Most of the worst glitches have been resolved by this point. Then, depending on how it goes on the iPad, I’ll probably put it on my phone towards the end of August, earlier if everything is going well.

As I write this, I still don’t have the beta on either my carry phone or my iPad pro. I’ve had it installed on my iPad mini 4 since the very first beta, but that’s not a device I use every day.

My caution is because of a combination of things. Firstly, I’m not doing this for a living. I need to have a functioning phone for work. But I still want to! The reason I didn’t is because these betas have been rough, especially the first few.

At the start of the beta cycle, there were stories of iCloud Drives getting corrupted and Too Much Stuff being broken.

Even now, on the most recent beta, there are still a few… oddities. One of my apps, when compiled with the latest GM SDK, comes up in lots of weird colours. Through the whole process I assumed that it was a glitch and that it would be fixed in the next seed. It turns out that this was my mistake. It’s a change rather than a bug. Still, in my defence, it’s rather surprising behaviour and it looks like a rendering bug.

Anyway, I mention this for two reasons, on both sides of the stability coin. First, the betas have been such that the idea that there was a serious rendering bug remaining wasn’t entirely implausible. Second, maybe that this affected my own app skewed my perspective and that they’re not as bad as I think. Your milage may vary, etc.

So, in summary, I’ve not been working with the new OS full time for a few weeks. This possibly means that my opinion isn’t quite as well informed as in previous years. If you can call my previous posts informed2.

The Good

  • Improved use of iPad screen. (Okay, this is technically iPadOS but I think they’re still close enough to not need a second post!) The “multi-app slide over” multitasking is nice, the widgets on the home screen is long overdue, the ability to have multiple windows of the same app open. Apple have been saying that the iPad is the future of the computer, now it’s finally starting to feel it can be used as one.
  • Text editing. I’m not sure that it’s perfect yet but it is dramatically improved. There’s a new keyboard, new cut-and-paste gestures, swipe keyboard, cursor navigation and selection, more keyboard shortcuts on iPad. Even with an external keyboard, this has always felt harder in iOS than it should.
  • Photos. I’ve not dug into all the improvements, but the design is greatly improved aesthetically.
  • Voice Control. I probably won’t use this very much, but I love that it exists. As I wrote on Twitter, it makes me feel like Deckard.

The Bad

  • Stability. See above, but, long story short, I’m not sure I can easily recommend that people dash out and install this on the first day. Even the early iOS 12 betas were stable enough that this was an easy choice. This year it’s not so clear. I hope I’m wrong.

The Ugly

  • Release schedule. What’s going on this year? iOS 13 is available on 19 September for the iPhone. But not at all for the iPad. For that you have to wait for iOS 13.1 at the end of the month (30 September). For the Watch, which is still closely tied to the iPhone, it’s out the same day as iOS 13. Unless it’s more than a couple of years old, in which case… at some later point. This is greatly preferable to releasing software before it’s ready, but see above about stability. It does seem that Apple bit off more than they could chew this year. Either it’s not been planned well and they’re just reacting or they’re not communicating well. I really hope it’s the latter.

There are some features that I wanted to mention but I’ve not actually used. The Reminders updates look good but I think the handover support from the Music app to the HomePod that I’m most excited by! And some things are probably true but I’ve not actually noticed, like the improved performance or reduced app sizes.

Overall, I think that has the potential to be a great release. There are some nice improvements. I just hope I’m wrong about the glitches.


  1. That Apple make them available for non-developers so early in the process is a rant for another time. ↩︎
  2. Answers on a postcard, please. ↩︎

Armada

Having read “Ready Player One” and seen the film recently, picking Ernest Cline’s next book, “Armada” was an easy choice. “Ready Player One” wasn’t my favourite book, but it was an entertaining read and that’s what I was looking for this time.

It pretty much exactly met those expectations. It’s well written and easy to read. There are all the retro-references you’d expect in a Cline book. The story moves along at a reasonable clip. The characters mostly make sense, though they could have been better developed.

My main problem is that the twists are so well sign-posted that they barely qualify. I suppose that just adds to the “easy to read” quality?

It’s not going to make you see the world differently or amaze you with new insight into the human condition. But not every book needs to do that. As a little light reading it totally hits the spot.

App Store pricing

Like Spotify’s complaint before it, yesterday’s “App Store Principles and Practices” document from Apple got me thinking.

Apple talks a lot about free apps not paying anything (which isn’t entirely true of course), and it’s always pitched as a feature.

But the more I think about it, the more I think it might be a bug.

This effectively means that all paid apps have to subsidise all free apps. Is this what’s preventing Apple from reducing the 30% fee?

Why should free apps get a free ride? How much value is Facebook getting from Apple? My apps don’t take your personal data and use it for advertising purposes — something that Apple seems to be in favour of — yet I have to pay 30% and Facebook pay nothing.

Of course, we have to consider unintended consequences. It would be fair for Google and Facebook to pay, but what about a game I wrote in my spare time? Or that useful utility I wrote for myself that I’m altruistically sharing?

I don’t know is the short version. Should they charge for each download? Or each App Review? They’d probably need exceptions for certain categories, but also to be very careful that the system doesn’t get gamed.

The other thing Apple doesn’t directly address is Spotify’s most compelling argument: the fact that Apple charges 30% commission for apps that provide digital services, such as streaming music or books, means that no one other than Apple can actually allow in-app purchases in those categories. Apple only allow in-app purchases with the fee yet many of these services just don’t have 30% “spare” that they can give Apple. Apple Music and Apple Books don’t have to play by the App Store rules and they don’t have to pay the 30% fee.

If anything, this is harder than than the free freeloaders problem. It doesn’t seem right that Apple couldn’t compete in these categories, yet the platform owner clearly has a huge advantage here.

Anyway, at least two issues here and no firm conclusions. They always say “bring me solutions, not problems.” Sorry, I failed.

Fuzzy Nation

After reading quite a few non-fiction books I decided that this time I would pick a novel. Having read “Red Shirts” a couple of years ago, I randomly selected another John Scalzi book, “Fuzzy Nation.”

The history of this is a little unusual: it’s not an entirely original story. It’s based on an older story by H. Beam Piper called “Little Fuzzy.” (“Think of this as a ‘reboot’ of the Fuzzy universe, not unlike the recent J. J. Abrams ‘reboot’ of the Star Trek film series (but hopefully with better science.)”) Not having read that, I can’t compare but I did enjoy this one.

The story revolves around Holloway, a surveyor of a remote planet who finds both a huge seam of sunstones (beautiful, rare) and a race of small, fuzzy creatures who may be sentient (in which case they’d own the sunstones). Holloway is a self-professed asshole and disbarred lawyer, which provides some humour and a dynamic with other characters.

It’s neither long nor complicated, but it’s easy and fun to read; a bit of a page-turner.

It’s not as good as “Red Shirts” but it’s entertaining and worth your time.

The Incomplete Book of Running

After all my fun with Couch to 5K and the Parkrun, The Incomplete Book of Running, about Peter Sagal‘s running experiences, looked like it might strike a chord.

One thing that didn’t strike a chord was the author. I guess if you’re American and listen to NPR and Wait wait… don’t tell me! you might know what you’re letting yourself in for. But I’m British and am more likely to be listening to The News Quiz on Radio 4. I don’t think that this missing knowledge affected my enjoyment of the book, though.

Anyway, his experience didn’t exactly mirror mine. He’d flirted with running earlier in life and got into running longer distances later. The book starts with him running the Boston marathon. I’m still at the point where 5km feels like a long distance and I barely did any exercise beyond walking previously. Still, there were enough parallels that I didn’t feel lost and the writing was easy and accessible.

It’s more about stories and anecdotes than running hints and tips, but it still covers a lot of ground, from training to motivation to the benefits and downsides.

There were certainly some bit where I wasn’t entirely sure if it was funny or just, sadly, true:

The problem with being a midlife-crisis runner is that once you start, you’re already in decline.

Then, towards the end, was this important passage:

The differences between running as a lifestyle and “jogging” as exercise are many and much debated, but the key one is this: You “jog” as necessary exercise, something to endure. You run with the expectation that this outing, today, will be the day when it all comes together.

I’ve not really thought about it before, but I’ve never been quite sure how to describe what I do. “Running” feels optimistic; the speed I go is hardly running. Then again, “jogging” conjures up some of the worst stereotypes, the bright Lycra, the headband.

That paragraph seals the deal: I run. I do do it for exercise, but I wouldn’t say that I endure it. If it wasn’t fun — or at least give a sense of achievement after I finish — I wouldn’t do it, I’d find some other form of exercise.

Overall, it’s hardly essential reading but if you like him from his radio programmes, you might get a kick out this book. For me, it was worth it as a way of figuring out my vocabulary.

Photography, opinions and other random ramblings by Stephen Darlington