All posts by Stephen Darlington

Two Brothers

It’s been fascinating watching Ben Elton grow as a writer. I read his first book, Stark, when it first came out. It was political and funny, as you might expect for a stand up comedian. It wasn’t terribly well written, though.

Next came Gridlocked, which was better written but not as funny.

I’d argue that he finally hit his stride with Popcorn, which was a real page-turner, with structure and humour and it was well written.

Two Brothers dispenses with the humour almost entirely, but keeps the drama and everything he’s learned about story writing. The rise of the Nazis provides a familiar structure but the believable characters and unpredictable twists are what makes it work.

His first couple of books may have had me close to tears of laughter. This one has emotion and I was on the verge of very different tears. I say this without hyperbole.

Overall, highly recommended.

Grenoble


It’s a Monday night and no one that lives here goes out for dinner. Most of the restaurants are shut for one thing.

It’s dark and starting to get a little cold so I don’t feel like wandering around for too long. I manage to find somewhere open on a square near a tram stop.

The restaurant is pleasantly busy. There’s a family and a few couples. There are also three men, other than me, dining alone.

One arrives after me and finishes his meal super-humanly quickly. Then he fastidiously counts out a large pile of coins on the table and pays the bill with them. I don’t think he enjoys eating out alone.

Another has a huge fist of rings. I wonder what he could possibly do for a living. I invent a backstory for him, which includes a leadership position in an organised crime syndicate. He’s unhurried, finding plenty of entertaining activities on his phone. As you might expect of a mobster.

Meanwhile, the family wish their daughter would find their phone entertaining. She enthusiastically moves around non-stop. They keep shushing her and finding new programmes for her to watch, largely unsuccessfully.

The couple next to me speak English to the waiter, French to a waitress and German to each other. They eat their burgers with a knife and fork. I suspect they’re Swiss.

Me, I read on my phone and people-watch. I laugh when the waiter notices my English accent and automatically brings me ketchup rather than the mayonnaise he’s brought for everyone else.

Toll

If you read my thoughts on the first book in the Kestrel series, “Changer” you’ll have a good idea of my thinking about the second, “Toll.”

It’s an entertaining, light read. I think that’s the intention, so I don’t mean that as a back-handed compliment.

Compared with last time, the MacGuffin didn’t bother me as much. What jarred were the constant info-dumps.

“[Barcelona is] the sixth most populous urban area in the European Union. Within Spain, it is second only to Madrid. But globally, it does not appear in the first ninety.”

I didn’t choose to read Wikipedia! There are even discussions about climate change and Brexit, which I’m not sure is a good idea. The former, at least, is relevant to the story-line (if a bit preachy) but the latter stands only to date the book.

Anyway, none of that is really a big problem. After “Guns, Germs and Steel” I needed something less strenuous and this totally hit the spot.

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. ↩︎