All posts by Stephen Darlington

Reading 2016

Coming into the beginning of last year I decided I would try to read more books. I do most of my reading on my commute and the previous couple of years I had not had to regularly go to an office, so I managed few books and no novels at all.

While my total of twelve books may not set the world on fire, I managed to read some interesting ones so I thought it might be worth writing a few words on each one.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life,” Scott Adams

It’s a good thing that I have the ability to compartmentalise things. Some of his recent writing about Trump has not been to my taste but this book is interesting. I’m not big on “self help” books but this one espouses a philosophy I can vaguely get behind. And Adams’ writing is always engaging.

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets,” Simon Singh

Not one of Singh’s best but still interesting. As a bunch of short mathematical stories tied together by episodes of the Simpsons (and a few from Futurama), it may be better as a hook to get people interested in science and maths than as a structure. I don’t regret reading it but I will concede that it took me a while to get through (with a few pauses while I read other books).

I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan,” Alan Partridge

Most books that are TV or movie tie-ins are terrible. I only got this one because it was on sale for £1 and, even then, it took me over a year to get around to reading. I’m happy to report that I was wrong. It’s surprisingly well written, you absolutely get the “voice” of The Alan, and there are some real laugh out loud moments. The sound-track is also spot-on.

The Kingdom by the Sea,” Paul Theroux

Theroux toured the UK in 1982 when it was the “sick man of Europe,” Margaret Thatcher was just starting out and the Falklands conflict was on-going. It made an interesting contrast with 2016. As ever, it was surprising how much had changed and how much stays the same.

I Think You’ll Find it’s a Bit More Complicated Than That,” Ben Goldacre

Like Singh’s, this is not Goldacre’s best book but, as a collection of essays, there’s still a lot of good stuff.

The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind,” Steven Pinker

Where language comes from, whether it’s biology or nurture or both, is clearly far from a solved problem but this is a fascinating discussion. Accessible for a layman (like me) but quite detailed.

It’s especially interesting right now as my two year old gets increasingly expressive.

And Another Thing…,” Eoin Colfer

I wrote a full blog about this. In short: it’s really hard to follow Douglas Adams. It’s not that Colfer did a bad job, more that Adams was an impossible act to follow.

Ready Player One,” Ernest Cline

I heard lots of good things about this and then I learned they were making a movie. I knew a had to read it before I saw the film.

I didn’t get into gaming culture as much as some, so I may have missed some of the references, but what’s there brings back some nostalgia and it’s mixed with a decent story and mostly believable characters.

How to win friends and influence people,” Dale Carnegie

I spent a lot of time ridiculing this book, mostly for the title if I’m honest – it sounds smarmy.

Then I read it. And, maybe I was wrong.

Like the Pinker book, it’s also fascinating to watch my kids and see the bits they understand purely instinctively. My son, at five, is already better at this stuff than I’ve ever been.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Stieg Larsson

I finished another book, got stranded on the Tube and, lacking anything else to read, started this. I’d seen the movie (both versions) and still couldn’t remember the end.

The writing is not great but it’s still a bit of a page-turner.

The Bug,” Ellen Ullman

Not as good as I wanted it to be. I think, perhaps, I’d have enjoyed it more if I weren’t a programmer. (I can’t really say much more without giving away some of the plot. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t read it.)

Having said that, it did encourage me to write my first Apple TV app so it wasn’t for nothing.

Inside the Machine,” Jon Stokes

I remember enjoying the articles about CPU design on Ars Technica that this book is based on. I added it to my Amazon wish list ages ago… and then it went out of print. Last year I found it on Safari Books Online.

The processors it talks about are pretty dated now – the newest are Intel’s Core and IBMs PPC 970 – but what’s important in many ways is the progression from early chips, so it stands up well. At times it feels that Stokes is trying a little too hard to write an academic text book, but I’ve not seen any books that are quite so accessible and detailed.

Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?” Ian Dunt

What a depressing year 2016 has been, and Brexit has been a big part of that. If it’s going to be a fixture in our lives for the next few years I figured it was probably a good thing to understand it.

What he writes is pretty convincing, well structured and approachable. Kind of like the exact opposite of the current governments approach to it.

Write to your MP about Brexit!

I’m sick of last years referendum on our membership of the EU being used to justify… pretty much anything. And any criticism is met with “you have to respect the will of the people.”

Well, I’m a person and I don’t think my will is being respected by many politicians and much of the media. The result of the referendum doesn’t say that people are happy with a so-called Hard Brexit, dismantling the NHS or using EU citizens as negotiation pawns.

I don’t write to my MP very often but, especially because of our current lack of an effective opposition, this is the ideal time. My MP said “Now we need to influence best Brexit we can.” I agree, but uncritically voting for Article 50 and the governments haphazard approach isn’t it.

My wife has put together the above graphic. Please feel free to share on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Friendster, whatever social media you use. And if you’re willing to mail an actual postcard, please let me know — we have some that we’re willing to share.

February 12: contact form removed due to spam. Feel free to contact me on Twitter

Apple AirPods first thoughts

I got some Bluetooth headphones about a year ago as an experiment. They were cheap but more than lived up to expectations. The lack of wires really is a game changer, albeit a totally #firstworldproblems one.

But they had flaws. When Apple announced their AirPods I was intrigued. Would they fix the problems while keeping the benefits? At ten times more than my old headphones I hoped so.

They arrived only a few hours ago so this isn’t a thorough review but here are my initial thoughts.

Out of the tiny box, first impression is that they case has a surprising heft. Maybe the size makes you expect it to weigh the same as some dental floss but the reality is batteries are heavier than that!

The lid smoothly flips up and the headphones themselves don’t just fall out. Instead they’re held in by magnets and require a gentle tug to extract. Overall the hardware design is understated and thoughtful.

Open the lid and hold next to an iPhone and it pretty much immediately pairs. No pin codes, no janky on-off buttons, no confusing flashing lights or mystery buttons. Even better, the details sync between your devices. It appeared on my iPad and even my pre-Bluetooth 4 MacBook Pro (which doesn’t automatically “see” the AirPods but does connect just by clicking “Connect” in the menu).

The sound from my iPhone is fine. I’m no audiophile — I don’t even play one on TV — but it’s loud and clear. They don’t fall out of your ears, even if you try.

The one area I was skeptical about — Siri rather than real buttons — is still an area for concern. It took me a few attempts to activate it. It seems to require quite a decent jab to activate, which does eliminate the possibility of accidental usage. “Volume up,” “Volume down,” “Pause” and “Resume” all do what you’d expect. Siri even activates correctly on the Mac.

How well it works in practice will have to wait for “real world” testing. What I will say is that the “pause when you take one out of your ear” functionality works as advertised. I love it.

I’ve not reached the end of day one yet but impressions are good. They feel good and Just Work, which sounds like damning with faint praise unless you’ve used other Bluetooth devices.

But it’s going to take a while longer to determine whether they’re worth ten times the price of my old headphones.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Virtual Assistants

Virtual assistants are all the rage now, in the press if not in not people’s lives.

I am not claiming to do a thorough, like for like comparison. What follows is my subjective, personal experience. Your usage patterns, successes and failures may be different to mine, but I think my conclusions should broadly hold. We’ll see.

I’m comparing an Amazon Echo, an iPhone 6S and the Google app on that same iPhone. I know I’m not using Google Now in its native environment. That was unavoidable and may hobble it. You should bare that in mind if you use Android.

So this Sunday we were going to go to IKEA. It’s a Sunday and the opening hours are shorter than the rest of the week, but which ones?

“Alexa, Ikea Croydon opening hours today.”

Two things about this. First, I don’t really use a conversational style with my computers. That works in the adverts but I try to keep my interactions with inanimate objects short.

Second, none of the three systems had any real trouble understanding what I said. They may have difficulty understanding what I meant but the words themselves posed no problem. If you’ve used voice recognition software any time in the last twenty years this is amazing. (This is not to say that any are 100% accurate, just that the standard is very high and fairly consistent.)

Anyway, while Alexa completely understood the words I asked it, it wasn’t able to get an answer. It didn’t even punt it to Google or Bing.

Siri did better. It thought “Ikea Croydon” was ambiguous and asked me to confirm its guess (it had it right) and then spoke the correct answer.

Google Now went straight to the answer, though it only showed it on screen and didn’t speak it.

Of the three responses, I’d put Siri first and Alexa last. I think speaking the responses makes it more useful, even though I had to say exactly which IKEA I was going to and Google guessed correctly. Reasonable people could argue that Google’s response was better.

Next I asked for the weather: “What’s the weather in Croydon in Fahrenheit.” The catch is the ‘in Fahrenheit’ part, since I normally work in metric. Both Siri and Google Now got it right. Apple’s agent remembered my preference for Imperial measures for the current session, so immediately asking for another city gave the answer in Fahrenheit but later in the day it reverted to the correct measure.

Alexa wasn’t quite as good. It got the right weather but kept the default units. I won’t make the argument that this is another reason for people to give up Imperial measures.

Finally I asked all three whether there had been any problems reported on the Northern Line, the nearest line on the London Underground to my house.

Siri and Google both went to a search engine for the answer, just showing a list of sites that might have the answer but not actually showing the results.

Alexa doesn’t natively know the answer but it has an extensive directory of “skills” that you can add. I used one called “Tube Status.”

It can answer the question but you have to talk to it in a specific way. “Alexa, are there any problems reported on the Northern Line” fails. Instead you have to say, “Alexa, ask Tube Status about the Northern Line.” The “ask Tube Status about” bit is critical; without it, it doesn’t work.

In this case, Alexa comes first but with some caveats. Google and Apple come joint last. This is odd as both companies have the transit data available in their respective Maps app, but they’re currently not surfacing it to their voice assistants.

That experience is actually a pretty good overall summary. Alexa can do a lot, possibly more than either Siri or Google Now, but it’s not so good at understanding what you’re asking without help. Google has its vast trove of data to virtual hand and uses it to make clever inferences about what you mean rather than what you asked. Siri tries to have more of a personality and otherwise falls somewhere between the two. In some areas the fact that it has less data than Google is a feature (privacy!) but that can limit its options.

I have a hard time saying one is better than the other. They’re all flawed, they all got some stuff right and wrong. It’s early days and rather than showing one is better than the others, it really shows differing priorities. Amazon emphasises its API, Apple its privacy, Google its data. They’re all right. An ideal system would have all of those. And in the future they probably will.

Dongles

When I got my new MacBook it wasn’t complete. I sat it down on my desk and nothing would connect.

I tried to plug in my monitor, but I needed a dongle to connect to my DVI monitor. My FireWire external hard-drive needed an adapter. I had to get a card reader as my camera takes CompactFlash cards. Even my USB hub needed replacing because my new computer came with a newer, faster USB standard.

This wasn’t last week and this wasn’t a 2016 MacBook Pro. This was in 2011 when I replaced by Core2 Duo MacBook with a MacBook Pro 15″. Different monitor port. FireWire 800 rather than FireWire 400. The USB ports upgraded to USB 2.

This is why I am mystified that, a week after Apple’s event, people are still complaining that they might have to buy some dongles when they upgrade. I have to buy a few adapters every time I buy a new computer.

Am I saying that I love to carry round a bag of adapters (and lose them)? No, of course not. But I do love carrying around a computer that doesn’t have all the legacy crap that most Windows laptops still have. A colleague got a new laptop last month and it had a VGA port (first launched in 1987) that he’ll almost certainly never use!

In a short time we’ll have Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C peripherals and everything will be much better. This is the price we pay for being trailblazers but I, for one, think it’s worth it.

1000

According to WordPress, this is my one thousandth post here. I’m not sure how (or whether) I should celebrate this occasion but thought it was worth noting.

ZX81.org.uk has been around in one form or another since 1999. It’s survived the dot com boom and bust, it made it through the financial crisis and austerity. It’s been my “home” for longer than any physical location. It’s outlasted six employers (excluding myself, when I was self-employed) and I’ve had it longer than I’ve known my wife or had children.

Time constraints mean that I don’t post here as often as I used to so who knows how long the next thousand will take to write…?