Category Archives: Blog

General thoughts on life, the universe and everything. Stuff that doesn’t fit in the other categories!

How not to be a boy

I’m not generally big on memoirs or autobiographies, but I’ve liked a lot of things Robert Webb has done and the title “How not to be a boy” worked for me.

There’s a lot I can relate to in here. I may not have wanted to be an actor or comedian but there are definite parallels to people, like myself, who were not interested in “boys” things like football. While that’s not necessary in a memoir, it did make the more rant-y, less autobiographical parts make sense to me.

One of the things that most people wonder when they watch Peep Show is, how much of the characters are, well, characters and how much is the actor. This book doesn’t really help. There are paragraphs where you can totally imagine it coming from Jeremy. Is that Webb playing to his audience or is it really him? We still don’t know.

I guess it’s good to know that there are people out there like you, who don’t fit the social norms of what a real man is supposed to be. In that sense, maybe it’s a bit late for me (like the book for introverts, Quiet, I already know that!) but it might have been helpful to a teenage me. Then again, when I was that young I probably would never have watched Peep Show or That Mitchell and Webb Look, and therefore wouldn’t be interested in this book. A catch-22…

Overall, it’s mostly well written, there’s a narrative connecting it all together (unlike many memoirs), but I wouldn’t say that it’s “must read.”

Real World Problems

I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people who know me In Real Life have no idea what my job is. Most think I sit in front of a computer all day, programming. That’s not really true. Well, I sit in front of a computer but I actually spend surprisingly little time actually writing code.

There are lot of ways to explain what I do, but many quickly get too technical for most people. At a high level, I’m a client-facing engineer. Most often, I sit between engineering — the people who do spend all day coding — and the end users of the product.

As I explain at job interviews, I like to solve useful problems. And being close to customers, the real end users of what products are for, I get to see both the pain and the joy when some gnarly problem is solved well. Sure, there’s an intellectual buzz when you fix or make something abstract but I find there’s something extra when I solve a real world problem.

Another aspect that I like, is that I get to see how the money is made. What I do has a direct impact. If I’m billable, every hour I spend working for a client is both helping the client and making my company money. If I’m doing pre-sales, when they sign on the dotted-line the same thing happens.

I say this not because it’s absolutely necessary to have the relationship that clear, but I do think it’s important to understand the impact you’re having.

For example, here’s a quote from an article I read earlier today:

There are certain things you do not in good conscience do to humans. To data, you can do whatever you like.

Maybe this is inevitable when you get to Facebook’s scale, but by losing track of what the company provides to end users, by losing sight of what you’re doing, much is lost. You don’t see what value you’re bringing any more; it’s all too abstract. And, by extension, you fail to see the harm that you’re potentially causing.

I’m not saying that by having to look a client in the eye you’re always going to be 100% ethical (some people don’t care either way) but I like the obviousness of the connection. I don’t have to theorise about how the product might be used as I can see it right in front of me, I’m helping people actually make it happen.

So, if you don’t know what I do, you probably still don’t have a significantly clearer idea. But you might better understand why I do it.

What if…?

What if…?” is a totally ridiculous idea for a book and pretty much perfect because of it. The concept is asking all kinds of silly questions and seeing where they go. For example, what if a the earth suddenly stopped spinning? (Spoiler alert: it’s not good.)

There’s a beauty to both asking and taking the time to answer “absurd hypothetical questions.” It’s one of those things you’ll either “get” or you’ll think is utterly stupid. (Check out the reviews on Goodreads if you have any doubt.) To be fair, the people in the latter camp are probably not wrong but they’d be missing a lot of fun.

Will you learn anything from this book? A qualified yes. Yes in the sense that you’ll learn the odds of getting full marks on the SATs and the practicality of the human computer in “The Three-Body Problem“. But it’s not a pop-science book in the sense that there’s nothing useful in it.

And, frankly, that’s what I love about it.

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.