Category Archives: Blog

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

Factfulness

I didn’t mean to immediately buy Hans Rosling’s “Factfulness“. I saw it in a “recommended reads” list (both Bill Gates and Barak Obama suggested it, if I remember correctly), thought it sounded interesting and went to Amazon to add it to my wish list. Fat fingers meant that I tapped the “buy” button instead.

Anyway. As an antidote to all the bad news around at the moment, I decided to read it right away. The narrative that the world is getting worse by many measures, this book argues, is false. I want to believe that we’re progressing but the pictures on TV of Trump and Brexit, famine and war make it hard to accept.

It starts with a questionnaire and, without wishing to steal the book’s thunder, most people will do incredibly badly at it. Worse, in fact, than merely picking answers at random, or “the chimps” as the book calls it.

I’d like to think that I’m better informed than many, if not than the general public than some chimps, but I still did badly!

The book continues with a list of errors that we all make, examples of them and how to spot and avoid them in the future. It sounds dry but it isn’t. Hans Rosling is humble, keen to draw attention both to where he made mistakes and where he made a difference. If anything, his modesty often sounds misplaced. I think it’s fair to say that he had more achievements than failures.

“I don’t tell you not to worry. I tell you to worry about the right things.”

The curse of this book, if there is one, is that we all think we’re well informed and that we don’t need to read it. The numbers show that we’re wrong. I hope that doesn’t make it the least read, most important book I’ve picked this year!

Apple Watch Series 4


This was going to be my first thoughts on the new Apple Watch, posted about a day after I unboxed it. But then life got in the way and I’ve now been using it for a week. What I’d planned to be a little more than a “hot take” is now probably a little closer to an actual review!

From the picture above you can see what I was using before. It’s not an Apple Watch, it’s not a competing smart watch. It doesn’t even have a battery. (To be clear, my new watch isn’t a replacement. I still plan to wear the Marloe.)

I’ll be honest: until recently I wasn’t very interested in the Apple Watch. It was too big, didn’t look nice enough, was another thing to recharge every night and none of the things it did were compelling enough to overcome those annoyances.

Here’s the thing. The Series 4 is still too big — about twice as thick as the Marloe — and doesn’t look as good as a traditional watch. But I’ve been on a health kick for the last year, so partly I bought it as a new gadget, a reward for keeping going for twelve months, and partly, because of that, the health features became compelling enough.

As you’d expect for Apple, the hardware looks great and is well presented. The finish is beautiful, the controls click and rotate in a satisfying way. I found it odd that it came without the strap attached but I was able to get it up and running pretty quickly.

I’ve read about the Watch before but I’ve never got beyond playing around with one in a store. It surprised me how complicated it is. By which don’t mean it’s hard to use, rather that there are a lot of choices to make. Choices that you probably won’t know the answer to.

The new Infographic watch faces sound great, but what am I supposed to do with eight complications? Not having used the Watch before, I don’t know the best way of accessing apps versus having the information available instantly on the watch face. Should I use the app swarm? The most recently used list? Complications? Notifications? Then you find that some complications only appear in some locations. How am I supposed to know this stuff? It’s confusing. I’m sure I’ll figure this stuff out but I feel information overload just as I’m trying to play with my new toy. (Having started writing a Watch app I think I understand it better, but should I have to?)

I guess I was expecting an iPhone OS 1.0-type experience — just the bare minimum — but I suppose that’s an unfair comparison and an unfair expectation. We’re now at watchOS 5, so it’s had time to evolve. And in hardware terms the Watch is way faster than than the first few iPhones. (It is incredible that you can get a dual core 64-bit CPU on your wrist!)

Having waited until now to get a Watch, I’ve also seen features that I was concerned about. The main one: the not-always-on screen. Would I forever be wiggling my wrist to see the time?

No, is the short answer. It’s not 100% successful turning the screen on at the right times but it’s pretty close. The problems I’ve had have been more along the lines of the screen not staying switched on for quite long enough. Maybe I was too slow to read a notification, or I was showing my wife something neat, but I do occasionally find myself wiggle my wrist around just as I feared. Fortunately the times it happen lead me to think that, as I use the watch more, these occasions will happen less and less. I could be wrong, but I think this will work out fine.

Another example of complexity: if I want to go running, what app do I start? Strava is the obvious one. That’s what I use on my phone. But what about the Workouts app? Do I need that instead? As well? One of the features that attracted my to the S4 was the ability to see my pace for the last kilometre… but how do I get that while recording my GPS trail? Clearly this isn’t an insurmountable problem, but it’s one without an obvious solution. Some experimentation will be needed.

However, putting the niggles and unexpected complexity aside, how has it been? My experience in this first week has been great. Being able to quickly glance at notifications without pulling out my phone has been very handy. Walking around a strange city with it tapping my wrist with the directions is way more convenient, as are the notifications telling me which gate my flight boards. And being able to record a run without clutching my phone or have it strapped to my arm is surprisingly liberating.

I’ve heard people say that Watch apps are not great. Maybe that’s true on average but I’ve been impressed with Strava and, especially, Overcast.

All these things are slight reductions in friction or increases in convenience and are not necessarily compelling alone but when you add it all up it’s impressive. On paper, I thought the features were nice but not quite worth the asking price. I would still say it’s a luxury rather than a must have but the utility is certainly there.

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.