Stream

This is a collection of links, personal reflections, commentary and other miscellany. If twitter was just one person shouting into the void, it would look a bit like this.

Items more than twelve months old are automatically archived.

Sadly, demolition work will begin on Nakagin Tower this week. I have written of my admiration of the building before. Constructed in 1972, it took just 30 days to erect the two service towers and install the 140 prefabricated capsules that make up the residential accommodation. The capsules were to be rotated out every 25 years - but that never happened and now the entire structure is in an advanced state of decay.

Nakagin Tower - No attribution available

Interesting that the Guardian defines Telegram as a social media platform, rather than a messaging app. A quick google search shows that they have used this definition as far back as 2016, but more frequently since 2020 and more often than any of its peers (Whatsapp, Signal et al).

Why the distinction?

In his latest post, Giles talks about why RSS rocks:

To me, using RSS feeds to keep track of stuff I’m interested in is a good use of my time. It doesn’t feel like a burden, it doesn’t feel like I’m being tracked or spied on, and it doesn’t feel like I’m just another number in the ads game.

Yup.

Our workflow is roughly the same. I use Feedbin, then send interesting stuff over to pocket and dip in and out through the day. That’s the great thing about RSS: it puts YOU in control.

I’ve had a lump inside my eyelid for a couple of months. It’s not bothering me, but since it’s not going anywhere on its own, and there is a slight chance that something has burrowed in there and decided that it’s a good place to gestate, I figured I should get some advice about it.

I’ve not had contact with a GP for a long time, probably five years or more. Getting in touch with them used to be a real pain, and involved ringing again and again until the lines were free. Technology marches ever onwards, and the website says that I can now book online. I’m asked whether it is urgent or non-urgent, and then fill out a short questionnaire: where is it, does it hurt, is it speaking telepathically in an alien language? They will contact me within five days, I am told. That’s reasonable. I’m in no rush.

Twenty minutes later, I receive an SMS asking me to go back to the website and submit photos of my eye. Another SMS tells me that someone will be in touch. Two hours later, a doctor calls. He’s friendly, reassures me it’s benign, gives me some self-care instructions and tells me to let them know if it does anything ‘weird’.

Total time from start to finish: 3 hours. Cost to me: £0.

The NHS is brilliant.

Existential Comics never fail to make me laugh:

Uncomfortable Truths

Saving this for future use..

Our Samsung TV is over a decade old. It replaced an enormous rear-projection TV, that was also around a decade old. It’s only 1080p and doesn’t have any ‘smart’ features, but since we don’t watch a massive amount of TV, that’s just fine. I expect it to last a while yet.

How many TVs have you ever bought? Likely not many. You only buy a new one if the old one breaks, or becomes obsolete. That poses a problem for manufacturers, because there is an upper limit on the number of TVs that they can sell.

Now that TVs connect to Wi-Fi, an additional revenue stream opens in the way of advertisements. Samsung has been selling ad space on their smart TVs for a while, and makes a bunch of money from it. Now LG is getting into the game.

This bothers me. We’ve kind of accepted that we don’t have to pay hard cash to use Facebook and Google - and all the rest - and that instead we give them some personal data so that they can sell adverts. But TVs cost real money, and they ain’t cheap.

It’s increasingly difficult to buy a non-smart TV, so your only options are to never connect it to the internet (impossible on a Samsung), use router level DNS blocking (until the TVs start using encrypted DNS) or connect something like an Apple TV and use that exclusively.

This profile in Protocol is a great insight into what motivates one of the more interesting people in technology.

Most people wouldn’t know who Matt is. He is the CEO of Automattic: maker of WordPress, the internet publishing powerhouse, and steward of several other services you might have heard of: Day One, Tumblr & WooCommerce to name just a few.

Matt’s commitment to ‘open’ through WordPress saved RSS from extinction, while others (looking at you Mozilla) made short-term business decisions at the expense of open protocols.

Worth ten minutes of your time.

I keep one eye on what’s going on in crypto-land (oh, wait - someone wants to make that into a real place) because I feel like I should have at least a broad understanding of what it’s about, but man, it’s all just so.. awful.

Occasionally, I wonder whether I’ve got it all wrong. Is my age, my technical unsophistication, or my fond remembrance of an internet unencumbered by commerce blinding me to the opportunities that crypto offers me? But then I read something terrible and I recant my doubts, meditate for a while and get on with my life. This time the reminder comes from Norton, maker of a popular suite of security products, who shipped an Ethereum miner to consumers.

Why would Norton include a crypto miner in a security product? The why is easy. Norton will take a 15% commission (or pool fee) for the privilege. That’s about 12% higher than the standard pool fee, so Norton is really gouging its customers here, and by the time you’ve considered gas fees (ethereum transaction fees) and increased electricity consumption, it’s hard to see how anyone other than Norton can turn a profit.

Robert Breen has written a nice overview of why he’s settled on Craft for his note-taking. We both tried Obsidian before arriving at Craft, and seem to have arrived at the same conclusion.

Link: The Craft App —A Year of Magical Linking

Finding personal websites is increasingly difficult. I usually find new people through blog rolls, or word of mouth. That works, to an extent, but it feels a bit hit and miss. Enormous websites, with carefully crafted SEO, pollute search engine results and make them almost useless for blogs unless you specifically know who you are looking for.

Good things are happening, though. Several web-rings and directories have popped up in recent years that aid serendipitous discovery, and if you’re a regular consumer of RSS, The RSS Discovery Engine is a useful tool. Feed it with an RSS feed, and it will crawl through the feed looking for other links that have RSS feeds.

Pretty neat!

From The Guardian:

Mark Billingham, the writer of the Tom Thorne crime novels. Speaking at Cheltenham literary festival, he said that if a book hadn’t gripped you after 20 pages, then it was OK not just to give up on it but to “throw it across the room angrily”.

My rule is 10% or 100 pages, whichever comes first. If I’m not enjoying it by then, I’ll put it down and know that I’ve given it a fair crack.

There is always a feeling of regret, though, like it’s my fault for not getting it. But any regret is outweighed by not having to go through the slog of reading a book that I am not enjoying. Reading is supposed to be fun, not a chore.

Alan Ralph got me thinking about ‘productivity’ apps and culture.

It’s taken me a long time to realise that I need to treat productivity tools and systems like prescribed medication. They’re fine in limited doses and for specific purposes, but overindulgence is risky.

There are apps that might make you more efficient, but that’s not the same as being productive. Productivity isn’t born from a system, or an application. It’s a mindset. It’s good habits. It’s discipline. It’s being aligned with your responsibilities.

When I’m being unproductive, it isn’t because my system failed, or that my software needs replacing. It’s because I’m tired, or bored, or unhappy. It’s because I ate that massive Cornish Pasty at lunch and my blood sugar is through the roof. It’s because I’d rather be doing something else.

It’s important to be happy with the tools that you use, and there’s nothing wrong with changing up your systems and processes. But at some point you have to stick with something, because any gains in efficiency are lost in the time spent looking for a solution.

I have a long, self-inflicted and complicated history with email. I self-hosted for many years (stupid, don’t do it), then moved to Fastmail (too expensive), on to Zoho (too business focussed) and then for the past year, Migadu. Migadu have been great, and I’ve no complaints. It’s a cheap, reliable & no-nonsense service. But now that we can use custom domains with iCloud Mail, it makes sense to sense to move over there because the cost is included in Apple services that I already pay for.

The process was super-easy, and I was up and running in around fifteen minutes. I’m trialling it with my personal domains for a couple of weeks. If all goes well, I’ll move our communal domain over too.

There are two systems of measurement in use in the UK: Imperial and Metric. There is no good reason to use two. That’s just the type of people we are.

The Imperial system uses yards for distance, pounds for weight and gallons for volume. Dividing a ‘yard’ into three gives you a ‘foot’, and one ‘foot’ is divisible by twelve to create an ‘inch’. A mile is 1760 yards (or eight furlongs). A ‘pound’ is divisible by 16 to make an ounce. Going the other way, multiply it by 14 to make a ‘stone’, or by 2000 to make a ‘ton’. A gallon is made up of 8 pints, and pints are divided into fractions.

Make sense? No. No, it doesn’t.

Metric, which we all know and love, is a decimal system based on meters for measuring distance, kilograms for weight and litres for volume. It’s easy to remember and calculate. One meter is a hundred centimetres. A thousand meters is a kilometre. One thousand millilitres is a litre. All very sensible, and the UK standardised on this system in the 1960s.

There is no good reason to use anything other than metric, but we intermittently use imperial measurements for weight, height and area. Ask anyone in the UK how much they weigh and you’ll get an answer in stones and pounds. Sales brochures for houses display the floor area in square feet. The entirety of our transport system is in imperial.

I’m replacing our bathroom, and I can tell you that the people that manufacture plumbing supplies also missed the news that we switched to metric forty years ago. If I want some pipe, it comes in meters. But if I want to buy a tap connector, it will be in fractions of inches. Occasionally, they mix the two on one product.

This is no way to run a country.

Wendy Molyneux makes an impassioned and eloquent plea to vaccine sceptics:

Hi, if you are reading this essay then congratulations, you are still alive. And if you are alive, then you have either gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, or you still have the opportunity to get the vaccine against COVID-19. And holy fuck, if you aren’t fucking vaccinated against COVID-19, then you need to get fucking vaccinated right now. I mean, what the fuck? Fuck you. Get vaccinated. Fuck.

Many fucks are given in the full essay.

Link: McSweeny’s Magazine

How much energy does your digital self consume, and what can you do to minimise it? Scott Nesbit has been thinking about it this week, and it’s worth a read.

The amount of energy used for internet applications is staggering. In 2018, Google estimated that a typical search used as much energy as a 60-watt lightbulb does in 17 seconds1. Imagine that, billions of times over.

Of course, the overall environmental impact depends on where the energy comes from. Many data centres in Europe are transitioning to renewable energy, as are our homes with the rise of wind and solar. Regardless, it’s something worth thinking about as we wander around our digital universe.

Link: Weekly Musings 125 - On Digital Footprints


  1. Yale.edu ↩︎

I lose stuff all the time. AirTags are the hi-tech solution from Apple, but I don’t feel like buying another product to micro-manage my deficiencies.

Still, this tweet from Dan Guido offers an interesting insight into their possibilities.

Matt Ruby opines at length on the world before smartphones. It is a lovely chunk of nostalgia, and the whole piece will have a specific age group nodding along in agreement.

News was not breaking and I was not alerted. Being elite was a good thing and being a Nazi frowned upon. Scientists were trusted and conspiracy theories were for tinfoil kooks. The only content users generated was letters to the editor.

I consumed news once a day by reading a paper that stained my hands. I stumbled upon random articles I would never have selected based on the headline. The ads I saw were untargeted shotgun blasts. Quizzes were just for students and I did not know which ice cream flavor matched my personality, who should play my BFF in a movie of my life, or which Disney prince I should have a threesome with. I rarely got to feel outraged by the words of people I’d never met. For that, I had to rely on family.

I could use a lot more offline in my life.

Link: The most unbelievable things about life before smartphones

Some lovely photos here, and quite a few taken with older models.

La vue des filles, by Valerie Helbich-Poschacher

There’s that saying: ‘the best camera is the one that you have with you’ - and it’s true. I can tell the difference between a shot taken with my iPhone and one taken with my Sony NEX, but the iPhone (or any other phone) is good enough, and it’s always with me.

Link: https://www.ippawards.com/2021-winning-photographers/

There are interesting philosophical discussions around whether the costs associated with locking down the economy can be offset by the number who then do not die of COVID-19. The answer is probably no, but that’s a tough sell.

Somewhere in the bowels of government, someone (or some people) has determined that a certain number of deaths is the pill that has to be swallowed to allow the economy to open up again. They’ve been pretty cagey about what that number is. Prof Andrew Hayward, the head of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College London, says that it is in the ‘low tens of thousands’ - if we are cautious.

In the last 24 hours, more people tested positive for COVID in the UK than in any other country.

The Terror is now streaming on BBC iPlayer, three whole years after the US release. I watched the first two episodes tonight and it’s every bit as good as I hoped it would be.

It’s based on the novel of the same name by Dan Simmons which tells a fictionalised account of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find the North-West Passage. It’s terrifying, but one of my favourite books.

HMS Erebus in the Ice - Francois Musin. 1846.

HMS Erebus in the Ice - Francois Musin. 1846.

The real story of the expedition is a good tale on its own. Michael Palin has done as good of a job as anyone in putting it down on paper in ‘Erebus’, which is well worth a read too.

“The truth is machines have not taken over, but they are here to stay. We need to make our peace with them.”

Nick Clegg. Head of Global Affairs and Communications at Facebook

Christ, Nick. That’s a bit much.

I find the decline of organised religion interesting as a sociological phenomenon. What happens when the structure and philosophy underpinning our legal and moral frameworks falls away?

Church membership in the USA has dipped below 50% for the first time(1). That’s a big deal, because the USA is one of the most devoutly Christian countries in the West, and its religious leaders wield a great deal of political influence. The figures reflect what has been happening in the UK for decades—an accelerating decline of membership and attendance across all demographics.

The number of people in the UK self-identifying as Christian stood at 58% in 2011, dropping 12% since 2001(3). The average Church of England service now fills less than thirty seats(2).

No one can agree on why, but I think the following quote is as good an answer as any:

It’s not about churches not being able to answer questions clearly; the reality is just that fewer people believe in gods.

Freak_NL / Hacker News_

  1. Gallup
  2. What is happening to CoE attandance?
  3. Wikipedia - Religion in the UK

There is a complicated ‘scientific explanation’ to explain how this ship appears to be floating in the air, but a more logical one would be that those pesky kids from Hogwarts are running riot again.

The origins of Valentines day as a celebration are thought to have begun with the Roman festival of Lupercalia, where, to celebrate the mythological founders of Rome, the Romans would do very odd things.

The festival involved the sacrifice of a goat and a dog; the goat’s hide would be cut into strips and dipped in its blood, and priests, called Luperci, would then carry these strips and gently slap crop fields and women with them, with the latter being eager for this treatment as they believed that it would make them more fertile in the coming year.

Ancient.EU

That sounds more fun than trudging around looking for greetings cards.

We’re getting pretty good at lobbing robots across the cosmos.

The new photos from NASA’s Perseverance rover are incredible. I can’t wait to see what it discovers.

Looking out from the Hazard Camera - NASA

The view from Jezero Crater - NASA

Zanib Hussain Alvi writes of her love of blogs as a part of her media diet:

The last best thing I read was the blog of some random British woman at the edge of the Cotswolds, writing about cross breeding heritage varieties of peas like Gregor fucking Mendel and how to save seeds to cross breed your own plants. Her last post was two years ago. There’s something about the longer format and distribution or, rather, lack of distribution that makes blogs so special. It was interesting to me because it was interesting to her. I didn’t have to like, subscribe, or make an ongoing commitment to continue to read her blog. She wasn’t selling anything. It felt so refreshing and wholesome to consume information that no one was really trying to actively monetize. She wasn’t trying to be a “plant influencer” but it did reshape what I thought was accessible to me. I have no idea if she’s conventionally attractive, nor do I care. The contrast makes all these apps and their onslaught of notifications seem so absolutely desperate. 

I can also get behind her views on podcasts. Why are they all two hours long? Who has the time?

Podcasts have absolutely no respect for my time. Most of them could be five minutes.

Jamie Todd Rubin laments at length on the variety and complexity of rating systems on his blog today. Here is his suggested rating scale:

1-star: Distraught. Way below my expectations.

2-stars: Disappointed. I’d expected more.

3-stars: Satisfied. Met my expectations.

4-stars: Delighted. Exceeded my expectations.

5-stars: Blown away. Far exceeded my expectations.

I think it might be slightly in jest, but this is precisely the sort of triviality I can get behind.

This is an interesting question:

For public forums, the evidence shows that anonyminity isn’t conducive to good community. Twitter is a toxic mess, mostly because people can hide behind fake names and profile pictures and spunk out whatever is on their mind without consequence.

Matt Levine continues to write very good copy on the unfathomable things that happen when a bunch of Redditors get involved in the stock market.

Today, he lays out some scenarios of how this is likely to play out (one, albeit unlikely, being the collapse of capitalism), but it sounds like it’s not easy to predict, even for those that do this stuff for a living.

It is just the case, just inevitably the case, that if you are going to have financial markets that are optimized for those purposes—that are liquid and complete, that attract smart people, that are open to everyone—they are also going to have a certain amount of nonsense. It’s not like WallStreetBets invented financial nonsense! Financial-market nonsense is, like, 70% of what we talk about around here on a normal day. How many times have I have written about hedge funds tricking each other using credit default swaps? Financial markets exist to foster price discovery and capital formation, but the way they do that is mostly by letting smart people mess with each other all day. WallStreetBets is a new class of smart people messing, quite effectively, with the old ones.

Matt Levine / Bloomberg

I know nothing about the stock market, and I’m not making any judgement on whether all this is good or bad, but it is absolutely fascinating and at least a tiny bit funny.

From Matt Levine’s “Money Stuff” newsletter, on what happened when /r/wallstreetbets directed their collective might on Gamestop, precipitating $17 billion dollars of stock trades and inflating the stock by 180%:

Here (via Robin Wigglesworth) is a post on Reddit’s r/wallstreetbets forum asking “Can I get a flair for buying GME at the literal top ($155.29)?” (It was not the literal top, but close.) “This is the way,” a chorus of redditors replied. It is a way! Gleefully getting top-ticked on a stock—buying it at its highest price ever and then bragging about it as the price collapses—in order to earn the strange respect of your friends on Reddit: That is a thing you can do. You might enjoy it. I am not going to say it is irrational; people have spent their money on worse things. But it is not the sort of rationality that the stock market is set up for. “When stock prices get too high, sensible value motives will take over”: Nope.

The stock exchange is weird. People on the internet are weirder.

Success, whether massive or modest, shouldn’t be the goal of any experiment that you undertake. The goal can, and perhaps always should, be to learn something new. And, by extension, to learn something about yourself at the same time.

Scott Nesbit / Weekly Musings

Experiments don’t have to be grand in scope and scale. It’s obvious, really, but easy to forget.

I knew that if I kept blogging for long enough that it would become fashionable again, and it is, sort of, but not in the way that I imagined. While more people are blogging from their own domain — which is fabulous — an enormous number of people are choosing newsletter platforms like Substack and Buttondown instead.

Blogging isn’t easy. Ask for advice on the internet and you’ll end up with something like this:

Innocent: “Oh, hi. I’d like to start a blog. Can you help?”

Nerd: “No problem. That’s easy! Just connect your GitHub account to Netlify and run a custom build pipeline from Hugo and some markdown files”.

Blogging is a technical and creative endeavour, requiring a whole host of different skills, a large amount of time, and for most people no recompense other than the joy of doing it. It’s not for everyone.

Newsletter startups have solved the problems of difficulty and monetisation, so if people find that newsletters are the best way to distribute their content, and get paid for it (if they want to), then more power to them.

New to the world of newsletters? Here’s a few of my favourites to get you started:

RSS aficionados will be pleased to know that both Buttondown and Substack provide RSS feeds by default, though my preference is to subscribe via my NewsBlur email address so that authors know they’ve got a reader.

I’ll be forty in a few months. When I was young, I couldn’t imagine what being forty years old would be like. It seems like such a large and distant number. But it feels smaller now that it approaches, and I’m not particularly fussed about it.

A couple of months ago, someone asked an open question Hacker News - ‘What is it like to be old?’ among the hundreds of responses was this:

‘Once you hit 40 you start feeling random pains in places. Sometimes pretty intense pain. Your doctor will have no idea what caused it and tell you it’s normal, but let them know if it happens again. And after a while you’ll just stop telling them, because it’s just a thing that happens now’.

Well, at least I haven’t got that to deal with, I thought.

This morning, my arm decided that it would not play its usual role. My elbow is red, hot & swollen with fluid. I didn’t do anything to it, that I can recall.

So, I guess this is how it is now.

Last Sunday, one of the large panes of glass in our french doors exploded. There was no external impact. It just gave up on life. That, I thought, just finishes the year perfectly. A final fuck you from 2020.

Many words have been written and will be written, about what a crap year 2020 has been. For me, putting aside externalities, it hasn’t been as bad as it could have been. I’ve missed the get-togethers, cinema, museums and country houses. But there was also much to be glad about: our eldest daughter moving away to university, getting a job and revealing that she can function as a human without our input or opinions; switching jobs and recovering some sanity, building a space of my own, driving less and walking more.

Coronavirus changed our lives in ways that were unimaginable twelve months ago. I’m looking forward to the new normal being replaced by the old normal.

I’m hugely grateful to the bloggers that plug away at their sites week in, week out. I’m grateful for the brief glimpses into your lives and the knowledge that while we’re all going through same thing, we deal with it in our own ways. I’ve made an effort to reach out and tell you that. I’ll continue doing the same in 2021.

I have no willpower and fragile self-esteem, so there are no goals or resolutions for next year. What will be, will be, and it will be enough.

All the best.