Category Archives: Blog

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

A Decade in Tory

A Decade in Tory” by Russell Jones was a shorter book than I thought. Ordinarily that might be a bad thing, but the reason for my confusion in this case is that there are nearly five hundred pages of footnotes and fifty for the index. There are plenty of criticisms you could make, but you can’t argue that it’s not well researched or that the events are made up.

Because, honestly, if you hadn’t lived through some of the stories, read about them as they occurred, you might well think they were fictional.

If it’s not obvious from the title, the book documents the various Conservative led governments from 2010 to 2022. It lists all the little twists and turns that you vaguely remember but had tried to forget.

That could all be a bit tedious and dry, but Jones has a way with words. He’s not going to win any literary awards but his description of some politicians are hard to forget.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the precise physical intersection of a cursed oboe and the concept of gout.

And:

He’s so devoid of personality that his official portrait is the curtains behind him.

You might be able to guess who this is.

She’s like a modern-day Cnut; and that’s not a typo, you just think it is.

It’s simply structured, easy to read and very self-aware.

It’s absolutely fine to scream occasionally while reading this book.

It’s not a classic. It’s not pretending to be unbiased. It won’t change anyone’s mind. In fact, you’ll likely know whether you’ll like it. Check out his feed on Twitter if you want a free preview.

It made Tory MPs feel very cross, and made everybody participating feel very cross, and it achieved absolutely nothing. A bit like this book.

If you’d forgotten how rotten the Torys have become, this book is a great reminder. But it’s important to keep some perspective and understand that politicians are not all the same. Many genuinely do get into politics to improve people’s lives and make the world better. I hope you voted for them in yesterday’s council elections, and not the bunch of Charlatans this book is about.

How Not To Be Wrong

How not to be wrong: The art of changing your mind” is a follow-up to James O’Brien’s earlier book, “How to be right.” The idea this time is that he walks through a number of areas where he has been wrong in the past and has changed his mind.

It’s such a simple concept, but, as a society, we have difficulty doing exactly that. Politicians are criticised for doing the wrong thing and then again for doing a u-turn. Tribal loyalty means that people won’t change their minds if that would mean agreeing with “the enemy.” I’m not putting myself above this1, sadly, and neither does O’Brien.

He explores a wide range of subjects, from corporal punishment in schools, to stop and search, tattoos, fat-shaming and trans rights. For some subjects, he admits he was wrong, others we discover that it’s all a bit more complicated than that, and that, perhaps, anyone with absolute certainty is missing something. We’d be better off as a society if people were willing to say “I don’t know” more often.

The debates are a mixture of personal anecdotes and transcripts from guests on his radio show. It’s simply structured and competently written. His earnest, chummy, man-of-the-people vibe, also present in his earlier book, grated on me more this time for some reason. Overall I’d say that I like the idea of the book more than the execution.

Like his previous effort, it’s not a bad book but nor is it an essential read.


  1. “Fortunately,” the current government isn’t giving me much opportunity to reluctantly agree with them. ↩︎

Jeremy Hardy Speaks Volumes

I have a problem with this book. Now that I come to write some notes on it, I find that there is so much that I want to quote that I may as well copy and paste the whole text.

I’m not going to, but here are a few.

I hate competitiveness, because I know I’m better than that.

And.

People say I’m self-deprecating, but I don’t think I’m very good at that.

While his one-liners are great, his rants are really his trademark. The book includes plenty of those.

The book is structured into categories, from Childhood and Settling Down to Identity Politics and Getting Older. Each subject dips into material from his entire career, placing some mid-eighties standup next to a 2017 rant on the News Quiz. I was initially annoyed that it wasn’t chronological, but as I continued to read it, I found that it worked well. Hardy hit the standup circuit fully formed, and his early routines were as sharp and well-written as his later material.

You think Van Morrison is poor people’s Ocado.

His material is a fascinating combination of cleverness, principles and silliness, and you could never tell which direction the next sentence would go. He’d start talking about family life and twist it into a surreal play on words.

I hate the gym so much. The only thing I like is the resistance training. We blew up a bridge yesterday.

I also enjoyed the pieces by friends. They captured aspects of his personality incredibly well. Like Andy Hamilton noting his playfulness: “The extraordinary mix of purpose, precision and imagination enabled him to develop arguments with total conviction, and yet be joyfully funny.” Or Sandi Toksvig remembering that Hardy heckled her wedding.

It was all a bit too much Boris. Because he’s a character in the sense it would be better if he were fictional.

I don’t remember when I first discovered Hardy, but I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time. I bought the audiobook of a bunch of his “Speaks the Nation” radio show. I was always pleased when he was a guest on the News Quiz, or Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. I never met him, I’m not even 100% sure I ever saw him at one of the many radio recordings I went to, but his passing hit me surprisingly hard.

I don’t get to say this often, but this book genuinely had me laughing out loud. Highly recommended.

Range

I’m biased. As Mulder did, I want to believe. Except, I want to believe that being a generalist can work. And that’s what “Range,” by David Epstein, claims. It’s subtitle is, “How generalists triumph in a specialised world.”

It’s not a challenging read. There is a lot of anecdata, examples of people who took a broad path and still succeeded. In that sense, maybe it’s like “Quiet,” which is about introverts. It doesn’t tell you how to succeed, only that it’s possible and that you’re not alone. Maybe that’s enough?

In that sense, it’s not a game changer for me. But there are some good lines in it, some scenarios that I could relate to. For example, I like this:

As education pioneer John Dewey put it in Logic, The Theory of Inquiry, “a problem well put is half-solved.”

This is absolutely my experience. The process of asking a well formed question often leads to the answer. I have started asking questions on Stack Overflow countless times but I’ve asked only twenty-one questions in the fourteen years I’ve been on the site.

I also like this, which I read as an argument for diverse teams.

“When all members of the laboratory have the same knowledge at their disposal, then when a problem arises, a group of similar minded individuals will not provide more information to make analogies than a single individual,” Dunbar concluded.

It’s no good to have a team where you have a lone genius and a bunch of grunts. It’s much better to have a team of differently smart people who can learn from each other; I can “trade” my deeper knowledge in one area for your experience in another. It seems that it’s not just good for the individuals but for the team, and possible society as a whole, too.

I come across this a lot:

The best forecasters view their own ideas as hypothesis in need of testing. Their aim is not to convince their teammates of their own expertise, but to encourage their teammates to help them falsify their own notions.

I share some half-formed theory or idea, with the expectation that other people find the holes and tell me how much of an idiot I am. I am then surprised when people take them as a finished item and run with them.

Generalists … believe employers will view their varied background as a liability, so they downplay it.

And this is certainly me. Employers are almost always looking for a very specific list of requirements and often see detours in an unfavourable light. I found that including my iPhone development activities on my CV sometimes worked against me, for example.

I’ve started to “own” my background much more recently. It becomes self-selecting. The companies that don’t value that extra experience won’t want to hire me, but nor would I want to work for them. A win for us both.

Back to the book. In the end, it’s a fine but not an essential read.

In The Open

I recently shared a blog post entitled “The Most Successful Developers Share More Than They Take” with the comment:

I try to practice “public by default” though, because of my work, it’s often “on the internal wiki” rather than fully open.

Unfortunately the article spends a lot of time talking about blogging and podcasting which, perhaps, undermined the point I was trying to make. If you want to write blogs, speak on podcasts, and present at conferences, good luck to you1. Not everyone will want to do those things, and that’s fine. I’m not advocating for that. I think most people can do what I meant.

Here’s the key point: make your “content” as widely available as practicable. Allow people to pull when it’s convenient for them rather than you push the information you assume they’d be interested in.

In this context, “public” doesn’t have to mean on the internet or even visible to your entire company. Nor does it mean pushing it to everyone. Updates do not need to land in everyone’s inbox.

Here are a few examples.

I work on multiple projects with a number of different clients. When I make notes, or update the status, or write meeting minutes, I put them on the company wiki rather than keep them on my local machine. My manager might be interested in how often I’m meeting with a specific client. The product team might be interested to learn which clients are using Kubernetes. I wouldn’t share most of this outside the company, but internally it’s not confidental.

If I build a small demo for a client or play with some software, I push my toy project to GitHub. Depending on what it is, it might be limited only to my team, more widely to any of my colleagues or it might be public, but I’ll be as open with it as I can.

If I’m researching something, a new technology or how to implement a particular use case, I’ll put my notes on the wiki.

If I ask a question, I will typically ask it in a public Slack channel rather than as a direct message.

An important aspect of all of these things is that I was already typing the information. The only difference is that instead of keeping it on my local machine or sharing with individuals, it’s “public.”

It means that other people can see the current state of my projects without asking for it. This immediately benefits me because I’m lazy. But in a distributed environment, where timezones are significant, it can save everyone time.

Asking questions in public can get answers from unexpected sources. That new guy might have experience you didn’t know about. Someone in a nearby timezone might get you an answer hours earlier than you were expecting. The person you would have asked might not know or be on vacation.

There are downsides, of course. If you ask a stupid question in public, then everyone will see how dumb you are. Your notes might document a terrible, old technology that you shouldn’t be using at all, or your solution might fail horribly.

But here’s the thing: you’re not stupid. I bet other people have a similar misunderstanding. And the journey itself can be interesting. As Kepler noted:

“What matters to me is not merely to impart to the reader what I have to say, but above all to convey to him the reasons, subterfuges, and lucky hazards which led me to my discoveries.”

Those “lucky hazards” might help other avoid the same mistakes. Can we fix the documentation? Include it in the company induction? Is there a blog or a conference talk in it?2 These steps may require a little extra work but they have benefits for everyone, from future you, to your colleagues and your customers.

Someone is wrong on the internet.

The other thing is that it’s a good strategy for getting the right answer. People can be too busy to respond, right up to the point where they find that Someone On The Internet Was Wrong. People are more likely to offer to fix your work more readily than they will be to come up with a working solution from scratch.

What if no one looks up your status updates? What happens when your notes go unread? Well… nothing. You were already writing the notes and no one except you read them. Worst case, you’re exactly where you were.

In short, this is a terrible process if you want to be seen as being right all the time. However, if you value getting to the right answer and acknowledge that you’re a fallible human, if your ego can handle it, then I find it works well.

And, best of all, there is no need to speak on a podcast or to have a website.


  1. Again, possibly undermining my argument, I do write blogs — hello! — and have spoken at conferences. I’ve never appeared on a podcast, though! ↩︎

  2. I said I wasn’t advocating podcasting or blogging, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t if it’s the best way of sharing the information. ↩︎

Reading 2022

I’ve been working from home for five years. I started well before the pandemic and, like many who have tried it, would have a hard time going back to an office full time. However, I used to spend my commute reading. In those years I have not managed to consistently find time to just sit and read.

What I’m saying is that 2022, from a book reading perspective, has gone not got well, even worse than 2021! I have only completed four books. I enjoyed two of them, the other two were a bit meh. Not actually bad but I wouldn’t say that they justified their word count.

Next year I am, possibly masochistically, sticking with a target of twelve books. I hope I can do better, even though history suggests I won’t. My backlog of reading material continues to grow and they are not going to read themselves.

At the same time, I am migrating from the Amazon-owned Good Reads to community-owned BookWyrm, which is federated like Mastodon. I’m here if you want to follow my progress.