Tag Archives: review

ReWork

The gist of “ReWork” is that anyone can be an entrepreneur but you don’t have to follow the Silicon Valley tradition of seeking venture funding and providing foosball tables. If you do things right — different — you can make a sustainable business in a more traditional, bootstrapped way, and you don’t have to continually grow to be considered a success.

Many of the “lessons,” however, apply to almost any knowledge work. They subscribe to a less-is-more philosophy, and the book follows that example by being a quick read. Like the less-is-more outlook, that doesn’t make it bad, only very targeted.

If you’re looking for a complete framework for running your business, this isn’t it. (But then you’re probably not the kind of person who is likely to start a business I guess.) Instead, it’s a collection of related vignettes touching on varied aspects, from funding to focus to culture.

Much of the advice is so obvious that you wonder why more people don’t do it. But the fact that people don’t is exactly why their business (was 37signals, now Basecamp) has been a success and that writing about how it works doesn’t give away any “secret sauce.” It’s not that people don’t know the “secrets.” It’s more that people don’t have the discipline to stick to the programme.

Overall, there’s a lot of good material in here. If you own or work for a small company where you can potentially put the advice into practice, it’s probably worth a read.

The Prodigal Tongue

Lynne Murphy writes a great blog, which this book is at least partly based on, about the differences between American and British English. Or should that be that this book is based on?

Books like this really make you question everything you write.

Some of the material I was already familiar with, having read it elsewhere, possibly even on her blog, but there were plenty of new facts to keep me entertained. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember where a word of phrase came from. Did I always say that or did I learn it more recently? How do you pronounce words? When it came up in conversation a few months ago, I genuinely couldn’t remember whether I normally said “skedule” and “shedule.” I kept second-guessing myself!

I didn’t, for example, realise that I’d learned so much American baking terminology. I guess I’ve made more cakes since I got married and picked up the lingo. Part of me did think that “batter” was what you use for pancakes and Yorkshire puddings, but, equally, I couldn’t think of a better word for cake mixture. (Turns out there’s a reason for that.)

The other thing I realised is that one consequence of such a heavy US bias on the Internet is that companies such as Grammarly are continually suggesting American English grammar and spelling corrections. (The spelling I’m normally confident enough to override, punctuation less so.) Before reading this book I always thought that the advice was suspect but I thought it was mostly a matter of taste rather than geography.

Even if you’re not into the details of how the two nationlects — a word she coins to distinguish between American and British English — differ, the last chapter still might be of interest. It’s about the growth of the language outside the UK and the US, how it’s now the most popular second language.

Native speakers in Britain and the US make the mistake of thinking that they have no language learning to do: everyone speaks English, so we’ve got it made.

This is absolutely my experience. Many people — including past me — thought that this was true. I guess it’s where the stereotype of Brits talking slower and louder to foreigners comes from. (I don’t think I ever went that far!)

I’ve learned the hard way that just because people speak English, it’s not necessarily my English. They may understand most of the words but there are idioms and pronunciations that don’t translate. Dealing with non-native speakers requires care and thought, which, frankly, is the least we can do since they made the effort to speak our language. I can’t say I always get it right, but I’m conscious of it and make an effort.

Anyway, if you like the blog, you’ll probably like the book. As you’d imagine, it’s well written. It has lots of nice, little facts you can sprinkle into conversation and it’s nicely structured and feels fairly complete.

Changer

I first knew of Matt Gemmell as a Mac and iOS developer on Twitter, so I was curious when he decided to become a full-time writer instead. “Changer” is his first novel, his second came out late last year.

Overall the story hangs together nicely. It’s well structured, the characters are not especially well developed but work well enough for a page-turner-thriller, which is clearly what it was aiming for.

There were a couple of things I wasn’t terribly keen on. The detailed descriptions of the guns and their model numbers did nothing for me. You’d think my love of “exploding helicopter” movies would make me a fan but I’m not sure it added much. On the other hand, the shoot-out scenes generally worked well. In other similar books I’ve often been left confused with who was where and doing what, but no such complaints here.

The other thing that’s generally not to my taste is all the supernatural stuff. I wasn’t really expecting it in a thriller and when it first appeared I had to read the section twice to make sure that I understood it properly! Mostly, though, it was a bit of a MacGuffin, supporting the characters without overwhelming the story, by which I mean that the “solution” was more about the characters than some “magic.” In that sense, my objection is that it was unexpected rather than bad.

So did the author made the right choice, giving up software and moving into writing? Well, I never read his code so I can’t compare but “Changer” was an enjoyable, if slightly unmemorable, romp. I didn’t buy the follow up yet but I wouldn’t discount the possibility.

Note: it’s currently available for 99p on Amazon. Well worth that!

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.”