All posts by Stephen Darlington

How to argue with a cat

Anyone else read Scott Adams’ blog? The guy who does Dilbert? He seems to have gone off the rails a bit recently with all his Trump stuff but the idea behind some of it — the art of persuasion — is potentially interesting. I wanted to learn more.

Jay Heinrichs’ “How to argue with a cat” seemed like a good introduction, in that it didn’t look too sleazy or too serious. As an added bonus, it’s also very short.

It’s well written, humorous (“But most of us humans look ridiculous when we swivel our ears,” “Cats rarely change their expression. That’s one reason they look so dignified. It also helps them hide their ploys.”), entertaining and clearly organised, so I wish I could recommend it more. However, I’m not really sure how much new I learned by reading it. If you’re truly a beginner — maybe I knew more than I thought — it’s possibly worth a read otherwise you might want to consider something a little more advanced.

Creativity, inc

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I started “Creativity, inc.” In the end, it’s a bunch of anecdotes strung together to explain certain business practices that Ed Catmull believes has made Pixar successful. Half biography, half management guide if you like.

While the stories are engaging, and he has a surprising degree of humility, it’s difficult to see how many of the ideas can be successfully translated to other industries. Which is not to say that he’s wrong just that I wouldn’t expect to take his advice and immediately apply it to your workplace.

For example, he spends time talking about how the Braintrust has helped identify or solve many problems. But how would that work for a software product? (Is software engineered or crafted as other creative endeavours are? That’s a longer discussion for another time but, in short, I think it qualifies as creative.) I can see how it might help a review of the UX or visuals but the most helpful people for a code review would likely already be on the project. You need so much domain specific knowledge that I have a hard time seeing how an independent third party could provide anything other than high-level or generic development advice.

The other thing that stood out is that much of the advice would only work for companies awash with cash. I absolutely see the value in, say, teaching a designer how to code or engineers how to draw (two examples from Pixar U) but calculating that value and showing an ROI? Even the “rich” companies I’ve worked for have generally shown a preference for “shareholder value” and profits than hard to justify benefits for employees. Maybe that is why Pixar is successful where so many others are not, but you’d need a lot of spare money to support these endeavours, and not every enterprise is in an industry where they could afford do so even if they were willing.

Ultimately I’m a sucker for anything Pixar, so I found it to be an enjoyable read, and it certainly gives food for thought. Maybe that’s all it’s supposed to do. But will I be directly applying many of these lessons to my day job? Sadly not.

Yeah Yeah Yeah

If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to pop music, from the 1950s to around 2010, Bob Stanley’s “Yeah Yeah Yeah” is it. It’s roughly chronological and covers everything from the introduction of vinyl (the “official” start of pop music) to downloads (the end).

Every page leaves you with a list of songs you want to listen to. The volume is such that you’ll never get around to finding all of them but I did end up listening to a bunch of stuff that I wouldn’t ordinarily have thought to. Ironically, by being published in 2014 it misses the mainstreaming of the very streaming services that allowed me to do that!

No genre is left uncovered and it’s all nicely pieced together, connecting the people and the styles. It’s enthusiastically, if not well, written and very thorough. You probably already know if you’ll like it.

C25K Diary (Part 3)

To recap: I started doing the Couch to 5K programme to improve my general fitness. I picked it because it provided a goal and because it didn’t require any specialised gear. I had a few struggles along the way (see parts 1 and 2) but eventually completed week 6 of 8. It should be simple to complete the last two weeks, right?

Sadly, no.

I finished part two with the following advice to myself:

the lesson was to push myself but not to push too hard, to back off a little and not to be afraid to repeat either individual days or whole weeks.

Of course, I didn’t follow my own advice for week 7.

There was a reason for my cavalier attitude: it was coming up to Christmas and I wasn’t sure how much I would be able to keep jogging over the break. I ambitiously thought that I might be able to complete a 5km run before the end of the year. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t.)

But, whatever the reason, I surprised myself by managing it. I successfully completed week 7, day 3 on December 18. I did slow down bit by bit over the week, but I achieved my goal of jogging for the whole time (which was 25 minutes without stopping at this point).

But I’m writing this in March! What happened?

First: life.

I went away for Christmas so I wasn’t able to continue my normal routine. I did bring my jogging gear with me and slightly surprised myself by actually going out. I didn’t even try to start week 8 at this point, instead I just set a rough target of being out for about thirty minutes. I didn’t even really plot a route in advance which was probably a mistake. You don’t get hills and traffic lights and pedestrians on a treadmill!

Running on real roads and paths gave a nice sense of camaraderie that you don’t get in the gym, with people smiling and saluting as I lumbered and sweated along.

Back in the UK in January I tried to pick up where I left off but immediately hit difficulties. Given that I’d not maintained my routine for a few weeks this was not entirely unexpected, but the amount of time it took to get back on track did.

After a number of failed runs and false starts I ended up going all the way back to week 6. I settled on day 2 for a while (jog ten minutes, walk three, jog ten) for a few runs, feeling unable even to progress to the last day (22 minutes run).

And this is where things stayed for over a month. Not only was I not really progressing, I was also not very consistent. One time I would manage twenty minutes straight, the next ten minutes was a challenge.

I’d gradually inched up my speed over the previous month, so I tried slowing down again but it didn’t have much effect. It seemed to be the amount of time running rather than strictly the speed.

I was still getting way more exercise than I was previously, so while I wasn’t failing exactly, I did want to have the satisfaction of completing the programme. This lack of progress was getting frustrating.

Then I hit on a theory: I wasn’t resting enough between runs. At this point I had been continuing to run three times a week, typically on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. While I hadn’t really been recording my progress, anecdotally my better runs were on Mondays.

To test my theory I switched my runs to Mondays and Thursday. It turns out my hunch was right. It took a couple of weeks from this point but on 3 March I completed the programme, running for the full thirty minutes. A week later I managed it again but at the higher speed.

5K!

So technically I’ve still not run 5km yet. It turns out the programme is for 5km or thirty minutes (I guess the full name is less snappy). My exercise session, including the warm-up and cool-down, is over 5km now so I don’t feel that I’m cheating too much!

So, what now? I have two goals. First, I want to improve my consistency. I still have some better and some worse days. I think mostly I just need to keep at it. Secondly, I want to up my speed. For the next few months I want to get to doing the full thirty minutes at 10km/h so I can say that I actually did a full 5km.

Non-goals: running further or longer. I only have so many hours in the day!

Anyway, I kind of amazed myself by finishing. If you’ll excuse me, I’m tired and need a nap.

The Establishment

The Establishment” by Owen Jones is another Brexit-inspired read, though it was actually written before the referendum and some of it has dated remarkably quickly because of that.

It reads like a long Guardian article. Or, maybe, as a collection of Guardian columns strung together, in the sense that some turns of phrase seem to repeat often. If they’d not been in one book it might have been less noticeable? And the politics are similarly left-leaning.

Overall it’s an easy read if you agree with the thrust of the argument that the West is controlled by the wealthy. It’s supported by copious notes but many are from newspapers rather then original research so I’m not sure how convincing they are.

To me the weakest bit was the “conclusions” section where suggestions are made for fixing things, but that’s probably because I wasn’t convinced they were the right ones. Of course, like any armchair pundit, however, I don’t have any better ones…

Mpow fitness tracker

I recently tried to improve my fitness levels. I decided to pick some simple options that required little in the way of equipment: swimming and jogging. After a while, I wanted to better track my activities and started looking at what gadgets were available. My requirements were simple and cheap (less than £50), ideally tracking heart rate as well as steps. Waterproof would be nice to have so I could swim with it too.

This wouldn’t be my first attempt. A few years ago I had one of the original Jawbone Up bracelets. It tracked my steps and sleep. It synced with my iPhone using the headphone jack, which was a bit fiddly but worked. How has the market progressed since then?

FitBit seems to be the leader if you discount the Apple Watch (which I did, for price reasons). Their gear seems to be well regarded but was a bit pricier than I’d hoped. Then I stumbled on this MPOW bracelet. I’d had good luck with MPOW before (with these wireless headphones) and decided to give it a try. It met all my criteria: cheap, waterproof, step and heart rate monitors. And, like most modern trackers, it synced using Bluetooth. It was about half the price of the cheapest FitBit and a third of the price of their equivalent unit that has a display and heart-rate monitor. Too good to be true?

First impressions were good. It fits well on your wrist and the display is clear. The step counter seems accurate and the heart-rate monitor fairly closely matches the (less convenient) equipment in the gym. The sleep tracking seems a little dubious but works about as well as the Jawbone Up I had a few years ago. I get about a week’s usage on a single charge.

Contrary to some of the comments I’ve seen, the software does sync with the Health app on the iPhone.

The biggest complaint I have is that, despite being waterproof, it doesn’t really understand swimming; it records your heart-rate but it doesn’t register as exercise. You may also be disappointed if you’re hoping to be able to see notifications from your phone. I found that it didn’t work reliably. Maybe it works better on Android?

Finally, the app sometimes appears to go a bit crazy and takes a ridiculous amount of my phone’s battery.

I’m not clear what triggers it but it’s annoying.

Overall, though, they’re really just quibbles considering the price. Is it as good as the equivalent FitBit? Probably not. But it’s great for the price.