📚 The Year Without Pants

Finished reading The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun. I picked this up as I’ve started to think about the potential shift back to the office as the pandemic abates here in the UK.

I’d previously read and enjoyed Berkun’s Confessions Of A Public Speaker. He has a very readable style with an honest approach to his writing, and that is also true of this book. It’s a quick read.

The book documents his life as an employee of Automattic, the company that runs wordpress.com. He worked there in 2011–2012, a time which feels like it was only yesterday, but clearly isn’t. I think this is a consequence of me getting old. Everything feels like yesterday as time speeds up.) At that time, the company had grown to 50 staff, an inflexion point where they felt that they needed to move away from a completely flat structure to having small teams. Berkun was appointed by the CEO, Matt Mullenweg, as team lead for group that developed the social features of WordPress. He’d agreed to join for at least a year, on the condition that he could write this book about his experiences. It’s interesting to note that ten years on the company has now ballooned to 1,486 employees.

The book gave me food for thought, but not always in the way that I was expecting. It isn’t a book of tips and tricks. As one Goodreads reviewer said:

It’s interesting that a book about the author’s experience working for a company with a distributed work model focuses so much on his time spent with his team during in person meet-ups.

In our Teams, Zoom and WebEx-fuelled existence of today it is difficult to remember how things worked ten years ago. In the book, the Automattic teams depend on IRC text-based chat, Skype and writing on their team blogs (known as P2s), as well as a little bit of email. Back in 2006 when I was working at a large investment bank I remember some of the executives getting desktop videoconferencing; a very expensive affair involving dedicated hardware at their office desks. We now carry this capability wherever we have a computer, tablet or smartphone. It would be great to understand what impact this technological shift has had within the company.

Almost nobody at my current firm would consider themselves to be a blogger, but writing has snuck in the back door in the form of threads on Teams channels. I see people using Teams chats and channels very differently, with the former being ephemeral, ongoing conversations similar to Automattic’s IRC, and the channel posts being longer-lived items under a common topic. Any further chat on that topic is effectively a comments thread.

There were a few passages in the book that really resonated with me. In the past I’ve said to team managers that “the reason the team are laughing at your joke is that you’re the boss”, something that nobody likes to hear but is often true. The power wielded by people in charge can be wielded on chats and blogs too, and there is a real danger from dipping in and out. It’s not clear whether the CEO was conscious of this:

An example was something that came to be known as “Matt bombing.” This was when a team was working on something on a P2, heading in one direction. Then late in the thread, often at a point where some people felt there was already rough consensus, Matt would drop in, leave a comment advocating a different direction, and then disappear (not necessarily intentionally). Sometimes these posts were cryptic, for two reasons. First, it wasn’t clear if he was merely offering an opinion for consideration or giving an order, and even if it was an order, it wasn’t clear what the order was. Other times it was unclear how much of the thread he’d read or what his counterarguments were that led to his disagreement. Matt was brilliant, but it was hard to believe he had the same depth of understanding on every aspect on the thread that those on the project did.

This isn’t quite as bad as the Jeff Bezos ‘question mark email’, but it would still leave staff guessing about what was meant. I assume that if everyone had been together and weren’t working asynchronously via blogs there would have been room for some quick clarifying questions. Could you just call Mullenweg up to ask? I assume not, and Berkun identifies the lack of co-working space as muting the understanding that develops in an organisation in terms of how to go about challenging and questioning those people in positions of authority:

Most companies have confusing politics about who is allowed to disagree with whom and how they’re allowed to do it. However, in conventional workplaces, everyone gets to observe how their boss handles different situations and how other leaders challenge and convince them.

This past year of home working has left me feeling both better and worse about different aspects of my day-to-day life. Berkun nails it when he talks about remote work resulting in the highs and lows being more muted than before:

But the best things about workplaces, like sharing an epiphany after working for hours at a whiteboard, were gone too. Working remotely mellowed everything out, dropping the intensity of both the highs and the lows. Depending on your previous experience, this made things better or worse.

Being at home when there is an occasional drama going on has been much healthier, but I do miss collaborating with the team and the little jokes and amusing incidents that peppered the days.

I did make emotional connections with my team, just as I would if I were working with them in the same building every day. But that connection was fueled and recharged by the intensity of our meet-ups. Rarely did I think our work suffered because we were working remotely. But I did have times where I thought our work would be even better if we were in the same place and time more often.

There’s definitely something about being in the same place with everyone on a regular basis. However, pre-pandemic my existence mainly consisted of sitting on desktop video calls in our office for most of the day, talking to our global team. I am hoping the days of doing this five days a week are now in the past. For me the advantages of working from home — exercising every day, seeing my wife and children, saving money on commuting and avoiding the stress of the terrible train service — makes it my preferred option.

Many Automatticians, including Mullenweg, believe that distributed work is the best possible arrangement. I don’t quite agree. There is personal preference involved in how people want to work and what they expect to get from it. For me, I know that for any important relationship, I’d want to be physically around that person as much as possible. If I started a rock band or a company, I’d want to share the same physical space often. The upsides outweigh the downsides. However, if the people I wanted to work with were only available remotely, I’m confident we could do great work from thousands of miles away.

I think his conclusion nails it, but doesn’t leave any easy answers for companies looking for a model to turn to post-pandemic. If we agree that remote can work, how much choice should employees get? It’s one thing to decide for a company where everyone is a technologist and does a similar job, but quite another with a less homogenous workforce — should it be one rule for one team and something different for another?

A worthwhile read, and one that I regret getting to so late. I’d love to read a follow-up ten years on.

📚 Mr Tambourine Man

Finished reading Mr Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of the Byrds’ Gene Clark by John Einarson. Such a waste of talent, with an end that comes far too soon. I’m only a couple of years younger than Gene Clark was when he died at 46, and its hard to understand how much damage he did to himself through alcohol and drugs. He seemed to be caught in a loop of being in the wrong place at the wrong time from a career perspective, exacerbated by his tendency towards self-destructive behaviour, lack of self-confidence and unwillingness to promote himself. The fact that No Other wasn’t recognised as a masterpiece in his lifetime, and how much that must have hurt, has parallels with the career and personal decline of Nick Drake.

His music is wonderful, straddling a wide variety of styles. Despite not being a reader his lyrics have an incredible poetic quality about them. When I read this passage it struck me as to how much of a double-edged sword his creativity must have been:

“A typical hour when we came home,” David continues, “was three or four in the morning, after we did the recording sessions, went out to dinner, went to the Sunset Strip, then went home. One night we came home, the sun was ready to come up, and he sat down at the kitchen table and started dragging pieces of paper, napkins, matchbook covers, and he laid them out on the table. He asked me for a pen and he asked me for some coffee. So I got the coffee on and he started writing. He would be working away and he would stop, sit back and look at it, scribble something out and write something else. This went on all night. It was a marathon. At one point he asked, ‘Can you make me a sandwich?’ So I made him a grilled cheese sandwich and he continued to down the coffee. It turned out what he was doing was working on three different ideas at the same time, flipping back and forth between them, taking things from one and putting them in another. By about noon I was completely fuzzy. I didn’t need drugs; I was already spacey. But he kept on working. I said to him, ‘You’ve got to get some sleep! You’ve got to be at the studio at two o’clock, and he said, ‘Nah, man, I’ve got to get these done. I’m just about done. We were two hours late getting to the studio and had no sleep whatsoever. But he had finished what he was doing. He had completed these three projects together in the space of from about four o’clock in the morning until four in the afternoon after being up the day before at the sessions all night on the Sunset Strip with about three bites of a grilled cheese sandwich and about a gallon of coffee. He was just so focused. When he got into something he had to see it through the way he wanted it. He would not settle for ‘that’s good enough’ and that’s why he couldn’t settle with what some people were doing in some of the bands he was in. He drove them nuts and they drove him nuts. It was a two-way street.

It was great to learn more about Gene Clark, but it’s such a sad story, with a terrible, pathetic ending.

📚 With Steinbeck in the Sea of Cortez by Audry Lynch

A really lovely supplement to the main Sea of Cortez book. This should probably have been attributed to ‘Sparky Enea with Audry Lynch’ as it is essentially his story, which Lynch put together through hours of interviews. There is much more substance and detail here than in Steinbeck Remembered, another of Lynch’s works that I read recently, which covers a greater expanse of his life at much less depth.

There are some fascinating insights, such as the fact that the boat hired for the trip, the Western Flyer, was hired for $2,500, which sounds like a gigantic sum of money for 1940. Carol Steinbeck doesn’t come across very well, and not just because the men on the trip seemed to assume that she would cook for everyone (she didn’t.) I plan to read Susan Shillinglaw’s Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of Marriage to get a much better understanding of this important person in Steinbeck’s life.

Hearing that Steinbeck and Ricketts took a bit of artistic licence with the things that happened on the trip when they wrote ‘Sea of Cortez’ doesn’t take anything away from their story.

It’s a tiny book — more of a pamphlet — and well worth a read if you are familiar with the story of the original journey.

Jenson Button — Life To The Limit

Finished reading Jenson Button’s autobiography this week. It’s very well-written, honest, and he has a great ‘voice’. I remember watching his first season in F1 with Williams where he seemed to come from nowhere and now here we are, all of a sudden at the other end of his career.

Having watched F1 since the early 1990s a revelation for me was that F1 cars need to keep greater speed through corners in order to sustain or increase their grip on the circuit. I have always known that the cars have mechanical grip (through the tyres) and aerodynamic grip (through the wings pushing the car onto the track) but I had never made the connection with cornering speed. Jenson said that this was the biggest change from karts and other cars with little or no aerodynamics and it must be quite a thing to get your head around when you start to drive these bigger cars.

Other notable highlights were that he has driven with three of the Verstappens:

I’d joined Paul’s team, GKS, in 1995 when I moved into Formula A. It was a great team, where I found myself temporary teammates with Sophie Kumpen, who was dating Jos Verstappen and two years later had a baby with him. In other words, I raced with Max Verstappen’s mum, which is one of those things, like policemen getting younger, that you try not to think about.

…and that he really has been in F1 for a long time:

I was introduced to a dozen or so big names in the sport, including Patrick Head, Frank Williams and even Keke Rosberg, who used to be my dad’s favourite driver back in the day. Keke had his son Nico with him, who’s five years younger than me but was acting even younger that day. He was pulling at his dad’s arm as we were talking, trying to pull him away. I remember looking down at him, silently cursing him for messing up my introduction to Keke, thinking, ‘God, just leave us alone.’

If you’re into F1 this is worth picking up.

F1: Truly astonishing

Started reading Total Competition by Ross Brawn and Adam Parr. Early on in the book he gives an explanation of why Formula One cars are so incredible; it’s not just outright speed, it’s also how quickly they accelerate, brake and the extreme downforce and drag the aerodynamics generate. Fascinating.

The overall performance of a modern Formula One car is truly astonishing. The acceleration time from zero to 60 mph is a ‘modest’ 2.4 seconds, but this is because the car cannot put enough power down through the tyres. In reality the car’s acceleration accelerates: the next 60 mph to 120 mph requires only an extra two seconds. And the braking is astonishing: from 200 mph to a standstill in 3.5 seconds. The forces experienced by the drivers are also impressive, 5g in braking and 4g in cornering. By comparison, a high-performance road car might achieve 1g braking and cornering. The excessive g-forces explain why the drivers have to be superb athletes, comparable with any Olympian.

The cars can generate downforce equivalent to their mass, ¾ of a tonne at 110 mph, which means theoretically that, at that speed, they could drive along upside down and stick to the ceiling. At top speed, the cars generate 2.5 tonnes of downforce. The drag is so high that just lifting off the throttle at maximum speed will give over 1g of deceleration –the same level as a performance road car braking hard. In other words, an F1 driver who lifts his foot off the throttle will decelerate as quickly as a Porsche 911 driver doing an emergency brake.

The Punch Escrow

I picked up this book after attending Map Camp at the start of the month. The author, Tal M. Klein, was the final speaker at the conference and gave the day a lovely lighthearted ending with his application of Wardley Mapping to the technology in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. From what I can gather, the author had used Wardley Mapping in his day job as VP of Strategy at Lakeside Software and then applied the same thinking to writing his novel. He used the technique to reason about technology advances that could be achieved in the not-too-distant future — by the year 2147, to be precise — and built a science-fiction adventure novel around them. Simon was handing out copies of the book to the speakers at Map Camp and after enjoying the author’s talk I was very intrigued.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to. At the start I was worried about the amount of footnotes which seemed to come thick and fast, explaining technologies and concepts. I don’t find these distracting in a non-fiction work, nor in a good translation of a foreign-language novel where there is an explanation of a nuance to the text that has been lost when turned into English, but they did grate here. Thankfully they are less frequent as the novel progresses and the key concepts are established. They feel too awkward, being in the first person of the main character/narrator sometime in the mid-22nd century, addressed to a future reader, but actually (and somewhat self-consciously) to a real reader in our time. For example:

In case you’ve devolved back to barter or evolved to something else, chits were the elastic global block-chain cryptocurrencies that underpinned our global economy. They were secure and unforgeable by design and made most financial crime obsolete…

Some of this is also in the main text:

I jumped up from the couch, sweeping aside several gaming windows on my comms with a wave of my hand. In case you guys in the future all speak telepathically or something, comms were neural stem implants that pretty much everyone got on their second birthday.

I didn’t feel any empathy with the characters. In the best novels I have read I find myself gripped by their plight; I am literally willing them to either step forward into or back from the course of action they are taking. This didn’t happen for me here. Partially I think this was because of the main character’s flippant style and tone:

As I tucked and buttoned, I silently cursed myself for not setting an alarm. True, my marriage had been trending downward for the past year, but the last thing I wanted was to initiate the Big Talk. And to be fair, we were both to blame for our relationship bottoming out.

…and partially from the way in which his relationship with his wife doesn’t seem believable. They don’t seem to have a strong enough bond, at least not one that is built up in the book. Without spoiling the story, I didn’t feel anything for them when their relationship — and their lives — are in peril. Not enough time is given to their backstory.

The technology side of the book is really thoughtful and interesting and there are some fascinating ideas here. I particularly liked how the author seemed to join self-driving cars, Google AdSense-type auctions and Uber surge pricing together into a simple believable concept:

Hurry meant that the cart would actively pay the occupants of other vehicles on the road to prioritize [his] route above theirs. It worked like an auction system, in which everyone could bid on getting to their destination as soon as they wanted. It could become incredibly expensive…

Despite everything I’ve said here, reviews for this book are not bad so you may well enjoy it. It is even being made into a film (warning: don’t click that link unless you want to read a one-line spoiler). For me, it was a worthwhile read, but isn’t life-changing and won’t be a book that I come back to.

Not Quite Paradise

I picked up the audio version of this book after returning from our recent holiday in Sri Lanka. I had so many lingering thoughts about the country and I wanted to get another perspective before it all faded out of my memory.

This is very different to Elephant Complex, a book that I started before we departed and had accompanied me on my journey. Not Quite Paradise takes a much more personal approach. The book is narrated by the author who moved from Arizona, USA to Sri Lanka with her 15-year old son soon after 9/11. The first part of the book serves as a pretty straightforward travel diary. I had seen a review on Goodreads which said that the book was “a so-so travelogue by another author whose observations are rather standard” but for me it was lovely to indulge a little bit in hearing someone talk first hand about places that we ourselves had recently visited and and to understand what it had felt like for her. However, as another reviewer notes, she “never explains what initially attracted her to Sri Lanka” and this remains a mystery. It must have been a great upheaval for her teenage son; they eventually decide that he will return home while she stays on for a little longer. Nothing very dramatic happens throughout this part of the book, but the pleasure is in the small details of life and interactions that she has with the people, her house and the landscape.

The second half is quite different. It starts during Christmas 2004 where she hears the awful news of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami which brought devastation and death to the island. She is almost immediately compelled to return there to…I’m not quite sure what. See it first-hand? Report on the damage? Complete the book? She doesn’t give too much away about why she wanted to make the journey, but make it she did, and her writing covers a much broader scope of the island and its recent history as she travels around in this part of the book. Some of the accounts of the tsunami are devastating, even more so as they are weaved together with details and evidence of the long Sri Lankan Civil War. The book was a useful compliment to the topics covered in Elephant Complex and I was grateful to it filling in quite a few gaps in my knowledge and clearing up my misunderstandings from the other, denser, book. The timeline covered stops short of the brutal end of the civil war and felt slightly unfinished because of it.

I don’t think this will ever be held up as one of the greatest travelogues of all time but I did find it a very pleasant read — just what I was looking for after my own Sri Lankan journey.

Postlight’s birthday

Great to read about Postlight turning two years old. Starting up a small business as an independent contractor is scary enough, I can’t imagine what it feels like to have responsibility for over two dozen people from the get-go:

Tip: Don’t start a company with a 25 person payroll, the usual accompanying costs and barely a plan.

We had some commitments from clients, and stable footing. But within a few months the bedrock client would fall away. We’d call a meeting and stare at each other. I’d love to tell you we walked out and left a jammed whiteboard with a birds-eye view of a broad strategic plan. We didn’t. We just kept trying stuff.

Their Track Changes podcast is excellent. I’m a little behind but have been listening since episode one. Each show has smart people (Paul and Rich, the co-founders) talking to smart guests about a broad range of topics. Their candour about what the podcast is and does for them as a marketing tool is refreshing, and makes me wish I was back in New York so that I could pay a visit to one of their events. Last year they even sent me a book with highlights from their first few episodes. Cool company and I wish them every success.

The Devil In The Flesh

A really good read, particularly when put in context of the author’s short life and the time it was written. I read the Melville House edition of the book and enjoyed the afterword by the translator almost as much as the work itself.

There is a farcical scene in the book where a former town councillor, Monsieur Marin, and his wife host a gathering, which when I read it made me think of readers of The Daily Mail:

“I discovered that the entertainment the Marins were planning was to stand under our bedroom later in the afternoon and catch us in the act. They had probably acquired a taste for it, and wanted to broadcast their little pleasures. Being respectable people, the Marins naturally attributed this prurience of theirs to moral decency. They wished to share their indignation with all the other upright folk in the district.”

The translator’s afterword covers this point, as well as a larger one that the work shone a light of truth on the relationships that must have taken place while men were away fighting in World War I. That this must have been a feature of those times had never occurred to me; it must have been shocking to read about this when the book was published. We still talk today about conscientious objectors being given white feathers, but don’t hear so much about those people who weren’t directly affected negatively by the war:

“The narrator symbolizes the generation who witnessed the Great War from the safe distance of their “four-year-long holiday”, resenting how it intruded on their personal gratification in the same way their suburban calm was occasionally spoilt by the echo of serious events in the capital. In this it is impossible not to see a reflection of the hedonistic, predominantly suburban Western society of the present day, its spiritual vacuity that seems content to consume while creating little of lasting value.”

Time and again I find myself surprised by ‘old’ works of fiction and how modern and relevant they are. I tend to think of World War I as all-consuming for the people that lived through it but for some of course this may not have been the case.

This is a really enjoyable book and well worth the short time to read it.

Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka

Read this book before and during my holiday in Sri Lanka. Gives an excellent overview of the country and its history which reveals itself to the reader gradually, culminating in an account of the end of the civil war. The chapters are sequenced and themed in a general anti-clockwise journey around the island starting in Colombo/Negombo.

On my travels I met a scientist from England who said that he found this book quite dense; I was grateful to find that it wasn’t just me who felt this! I think that the subject matter is so complex (as per the title) that it couldn’t be anything but.

A very worthwhile read if you are visiting or have been to the island. A fascinating book about a unique country.

More to follow about our amazing holiday when I get the chance to write up my notes.

Mary MacLane

I stumbled across Mary MacLane’s first book on the Melville House Publishing website where it features as part of their Neversink Library series. Instead of picking that up, I discovered Human Days: A Mary MacLane Reader and bought it with the hope that it would give me all three of her books as well as historical context and commentary.

MacLane has been called ‘the first blogger’ and I think that this is a fitting description. Her first book, The Story of Mary MacLane (also known as I Await The Devil’s Coming) reads like an introspective LiveJournal, all meandering thoughts, feelings and rumination on her place in the world. Completely fascinating.

Whenever I pick up an old book I am regularly jarred by the contrast between my automatic assumption that it will be a difficult text and the reality of how readable and modern the thoughts and feelings of the author can be. When you look at pictures of MacLane it seems that she belongs to another world but upon reading her it feels as though she would not have been out of place whatsoever on an early blogging platform 100 years later.

The book is in equal parts compelling and frustrating. In retrospect, reading a ‘complete works’ in one go was probably the wrong thing to do. My initial excitement about her writing wore off somewhat when I read the articles she had published once her first book was a success. Her second book, My Friend Annabel Lee was much less enjoyable and felt more contrived — as I read it I could feel that this was someone who knowingly had an audience and was now performing in public.

I would have loved to have had more context and commentary about MacLane the person and her works, particularly at this point, but the text that had been added was very brief and devoid of detail. I appreciate that this addition could have added massively to the length of the book but I felt that as presented there was little advantage to buying all of the books together, unless you wanted to read all of her non-book articles as well.

By the time we got to her third book, I, Mary MacLane, it had started to feel like a bit of a slog. I was reading so much of her thoughts but felt I was learning so little; perhaps that was her intent. A couple of times I thought about stopping but as soon as I did so I would get hit by a brilliant chapter and be compelled to keep going. Highlights for me at this point were the following chapters, which are worth reading by anyone:

I regularly found myself going off to look up some of the names that she mentions, for example Theda Bara, a famous actress of her time but now tragically unwatched due to her films being largely lost in a 1937 fire. There are many of these rabbit holes to disappear down. At the end of the book I discovered an extensive notes section which I only wish was hyperlinked in the eBook so that I could have read them in real time — going back to notes on a chapter some 600 pages before was not that useful.

So, overall this is well worth picking up but be warned — for me this was like diving into the ‘director’s cut extended special edition’ when I wasn’t even sure if I was going to like the main feature in the first place.

Building an eBook library at minimal cost

Update November 2017: Amazon have changed the way that wish lists are presented in that the full list is loaded and then locally sorted in the browser, taking a significant amount of time if you have a large list. This has broken the process — the visualping.io snapshot is taken too soon and therefore continually reports false positives. If you have any suggestions for alternative solutions I’d be glad to hear them.

Update January 2021: This seems to be working again.

Quote from 'A Life With Books' by Julian Barnes

Quote from ‘A Life With Books’ by Julian Barnes

I highlighted this sentence while reading Julian Barnes’ ‘A Life With Books’ as it really resonated with me. Among my many faults I am a book kleptomaniac and find it very hard to resist when someone recommends something to read. This isn’t something I want to change — I love having a large library looking back at me every time I want to quickly pick up something a new book — but it can be expensive.

A few years ago I developed a workflow which has allowed me to slowly build a big library at minimal cost. Here’s how it works.

If I get a book recommendation from somewhere and think that it sounds like it is of interest to me I will search for the Kindle version on Amazon and add it to my wish list:

Add to list

Add to list

I’m pretty liberal with what goes on there. I harvest book recommendations from friends, newspaper articles, blog posts, podcasts etc. and as a result I have hundreds of eBooks on my list. Putting Kindle books on there is only really useful as a reminder to yourself as for some reason we are still not able to buy eBooks for other people from their wish lists.

Once you have a number of books on there, the next thing to do is to navigate to your list page:

Navigate to your wish list page

Navigate to your wish list page

You can use the filtering and ordering options to show only ‘items with price drops’, sorted by ‘price (low to high)’:

Select ‘Filter & Sort’

Select ‘Filter & Sort’

Choose the correct filter and sort options

Choose the correct filter and sort options

You will now see anything on your wish list that has dropped in price since you added it, with the cheapest item at the top. At this point it is a good idea to either bookmark this URL or save it somewhere so that you can come back to it.

Amazon Kindle books change their prices all the time so you need to check the page frequently. I have a personal rule that if a book on my wish list drops below £1.99 I will buy it, as this is around the same minimum price that you would have to pay for someone to send you a physical second-hand copy.

For a long time I regularly visited this bookmarked page to see if anything had dropped in price. This was a pain to have to remember to do, especially as most of the time it resulted in discovering that nothing had changed. Then I discovered VisualPing.

The VisualPing homepage

The VisualPing homepage

VisualPing is a webpage monitoring service. On the homepage, you give it a URL to monitor. VisualPing will retrieve a copy of the webpage as it is right now and display it for you. You then need to select the area that you want to monitor; for my Amazon wish-list page (filtered for items with price-drops and ordered from low price to high) I have found that just monitoring the top few items gives the best results:

Selecting the area that you want visualping to monitor

Selecting the area that you want visualping to monitor

The VisualPing service will check the webpage on a regular basis and if there is a difference found it will send you an email alert, complete with screenshots showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ views. You can then navigate to the page and buy the new cheapest items that have made it to the top of the list.

VisualPing will allow you to monitor your wish list with a daily check every day, free, forever. This will catch all of the major price movements at the top of your list which usually occur on the start of the month. However, I have occasionally found that some books are dropped in price late in the evening UK time and don’t stay cheap for very long. It is therefore worth considering upgrading to a paid account so that you can check the page more frequently. I have mine set to check every six hours which seems to be about right:

Now, if only there was a workflow for sitting down and spending more time reading the books…


Beautifully and immaculately presented, this book was a delight from the moment it landed on my doorstep to when I finished the last page. It documents the history of the UK home computer and gaming industry through a variety of first-hand accounts from people who played key roles at the time.
At the age of nine I was given my first home computer, an Acorn Electron, and it changed my life. Looking back and reading this book, I think I was probably just a few years too young to be hit by the first wave of computers such as the Acorn Atom, ZX80, ZX81 etc. when they came out. By the time I started programming in 1986 the games industry was already well-established.

My dad worked at an airport cargo terminal and used to be given sample copies of magazines that were being imported or exported — he used to bring the computer titles home for me to read, which I did so avidly, even when I didn’t have any experience whatsoever of the machines they were covering. Despite being an Acorn owner, I have so many fond memories of reading both Zzap! 64 and Your Sinclair, magazines that had a lot of personality and humour running through them. Magazines were a massive part of UK computing culture in the 1980s and Britsoft brought it all back.

The first couple of sections of the book gave me itchy fingers. Although I have a technical Computer Science background my work has taken me in a different direction and I haven’t coded in a very long time. Stories of starting off with a BBC BASIC program and slowly refactoring parts of the code into assembly language (in-line with the BASIC) made me want to go and explore again. I never learned much assembly the first time around; in our age of massive computing power it doesn’t feel as relevant anymore but there would still be some joy and satisfaction in it.

It is very interesting to look at the industry arc of hundreds of one-person bedroom developers in the early 1980s turning into smaller numbers of ever larger teams, which were eventually culled when the consoles came along at the turn of the 1990s. It hadn’t occurred to me that the rise of mass mobile platforms such as Android and iOS coupled with Internet distribution means that we once again have a large number of single-person developers who are able to get their games and applications out there. We’ve come full circle.

If you have any interest in the history of computer games or home computing in the UK then I strongly recommend this book.

On Christmas

Yes, I know it’s not quite even mid-November yet. I just started reading the Vintage Classics book ‘Dickens at Christmas’ (I need a good run at it and don’t want to still be reading it in February) and think that the preface is splendid:

“Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused by the recurrence of Christmas. There are people who will tell you that Christmas is not to them what it used to be; that each succeeding Christmas has found some cherished hope dimmed or passed away. Never heed such dismal reminiscences. Do not select the merriest of the three hundred and sixty-five for your doleful recollections, but draw your chair nearer the blazing fire – fill the glass and send round the song – and if your glass be filled with reeking punch, instead of sparkling wine, put a good face on the matter, and empty it off-hand, and fill another, and thank God it’s no worse.” — Charles Dickens

Makes me determined to make it a good one this year.

Plunging into ABBA

Me on stage with ABBA, Stockholm, 2014For a very long time the extent of my relationship with ABBA has been to get annoyed at ‘Dancing Queen’ being played at parties, right at the point where lots of people have been dancing and enjoying themselves. The song has always sounded so downbeat and melancholy to me and although it was a classic I never understood why people would think it fitted in with people partying and having a good time. It always killed the mood for me.

I went to Stockholm for my wedding anniversary this year. We didn’t plan much into our schedule, preferring to walk around, eating (a lot), drinking (what we could afford) and taking in the sights. On one of the days we decided to go for a walk from our hotel in Södermalm to the island of Djurgården with the vague intention of visiting the Vasamuseet, apparently Stockholm’s top tourist attraction. However, when we got there we were dismayed to see a queue of top-tourist-attraction proportions. Not wishing to spend a significant chunk of our holiday waiting in line for something we only vaguely wanted to see we decided to wander on. This is when we stumbled across the ABBA The Museum and the Swedish Music Hall of Fame, conveniently located in the same building.

My first thought was something along the lines of “Really?” Of course, I knew a lot of ABBAs hits—just from having turned on a radio over the course of the past few decades—and had to concede that they had some good tunes but my thoughts immediately went back to ‘Dancing Queen’. After a bit of debate and not having concrete plans of what else we should do (plus my hope that there may be one or two items about Roxette in the ‘Swedish Music Hall of Fame’ bit) we decided to go in.

It was such a pleasant surprise. I’ve always been a big music fan ever since I was a young boy and used to spend lots of my pocket money on music magazines such as Vox, Mojo, NME and later Uncut, reading detailed articles even about bands whose sounds and songs I had never heard. Wandering around the museum for two or three hours with no children in tow, being allowed to absorb the story of a very famous pop band about whom I knew very little beyond their biggest hits took me right back to those days where I pored over those magazines.

We both paid for the portable audio guide and were treated to Björn, Benny, Anni-Frid and Agnetha talking about the things we were seeing and hearing as we wandered around. I wasn’t familiar with a lot of their lesser-known songs and particularly their earlier work (‘People Need Love’ and ‘Ring Ring’, anyone?) nor about how they came to be, the boys being massively famous in the bands The Hep Stars and The Hootenanny Singers (yes, really) and the girls starting off as solo artists. We had a lot of fun in there and the verdict was that it was very well put-together and worth it even if you aren’t the world’s biggest ABBA fan.

I have a bit of an obsessive personality and when I get into something I really want to learn all I can about it and absorb myself in it. ABBA The Museum lit a spark for me. I started in the obvious place, listening to all of their back catalogue through Spotify and reading the Allmusic album guides as I went along. (You can find a playlist of tracks I found interesting that I wanted to go back to here if you want to hear them yourself—a particular highlight is Björn singing in an imitation Noddy Holder voice on ‘Rock Me’!) I also looked around for a good biography of the group and came across Carl Magnus Palm’s ‘Bright Lights, Dark Shadows’ which seemed to be the definitive work. On a hunch I picked up an audiobook copy, £7.99 from Audible.co.uk with a monthly subscription, and I’m very glad I did. At just over 26 hours in length it is a bit of a commitment but it is well worth it—listening to the book felt just like an extension of the audio tour that we took around the museum which is exactly what I was after. The story is very interesting and goes far beyond just a chronological sequence of events in the lives of the group. There are touchpoints with Swedish and European cultural history such as in the ‘schlager’ song traditions that they started out with and which where intertwined with the Eurovision Song Contest. Their tale is closely woven with Polar Music and in particular their manager and early songwriting partner Stig Anderson, someone who had such an impact on Sweden that he was given a televised funeral which is traditionally something reserved for “distinguished statesmen or royalty”. The story reflects the decades in which it takes place, for example the focus on songwriting and music publishing in the 1960s and 1970s and how this changes as we moved into the 1980s and beyond as well as the ABBA revival in the 1990s that was kicked off by Erasure and the multitude of tribute acts. I finished the book on the way home from work this evening and like any good story I’m sad to finish it. If you’ve an interest in popular culture, pop music or just like long and detailed biographies then it is well worth the time.

The joy of Readmill

It has been over six months since I stopped using Readmill and I still think about it regularly. If you are not aware, Readmill was a social reading platform that let you track and log your reading, make highlights in ebooks (or if you were really enthusiastic type them in manually from physical books), ‘follow’ other readers, and have conversations about each other’s readings and highlights. They also made a simply beautiful ebook reader for iOS and Android. When they announced that they had sold the company to Dropbox and would be shutting it down I was heartbroken, an emotion that I don’t think I had ever experienced with a service on the web. They admitted that they had failed to create a sustainable platform and even if their (generally enthusiastic) users started to pay for the service they would not be able to make it viable. All of their work had a touch of class to it and this included the point where they left us—each reader was given the ability to download a beautiful Readmill ‘story’ containing details of all of the books they have read and highlights they have made and ‘liked’. I still go back to mine frequently when I want to refer to a particular quote.

For me, the joy of Readmill came from the conversations that a simple highlight could spark. I followed a large number of users, almost all of whom I didn’t know before I started using the service. The resulting activity feed showing all of the books they were reading and the highlights they were making was always worth scrolling through and I spent many hours browsing these as well as contributing my own as I went along.

Up until the point that I found Readmill I had always considered myself to be a reader but in truth I spent many more hours in front of Twitter or Instapaper than I did with books. Readmill changed all that for me and soon became my favourite activity. It got me reading books again—a lot of books—which is probably the highest praise I can give it.

Since Readmill disappeared I’ve been searching for a replacement with limited success. The Marvin iOS app was the obvious place to go to read my large backlog of ePub books; it’s a brilliant reading app but it completely lacks the social features and website that made Readmill so great. Glose looks interesting and is one to keep an eye on—it has social features and looks very similar to Readmill but at the moment you can only read books available on their store and not upload your own. I’ve also been trying out The Pigeonhole which takes things in a slightly different direction—you sign up to a book which is then delivered to you over a number of weeks in the form of ‘staves’ along with additional related content such as videos, author insights etc. and the ability to discuss the staves with other readers. Publishing books as a series is very reminiscent of how Charles Dickens’ works were originally released in periodicals and indeed they are making Great Expectations available in this format for free so you can try them out.

The folks at Readmill had really made something special and it was such a shame it didn’t work out. Six months later I am still in contact with a few of the ex-users as we stumble across new reading services and platforms—it’s as if we’re all trying to find a new place to live. Sadly, we haven’t found anywhere quite as nice just yet.

Ten books that have stayed with me

When I recently saw people participating in the Facebook meme ‘ten books that have stayed with me’ I started thinking about what mine would be. I posted this up in response to a friend tagging me in and it felt like a shame to leave it to rot as a status update so I have reproduced it here.

Here goes:

  1. Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig: Possibly the best novel I have ever read. I literally could not put this down and every day wanted to stop whatever I was doing and read some more. The whole story is so perfect and such a rollercoaster—it leaps from comedy to thriller to tragedy and often multiple times within a few pages. An almost perfect book.
  2. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: I read this in December one year and it was so good I even avoided drinking at my work Christmas bash so that I could enjoy more of it on the train ride home. I’m not sure that the book intends to be amusing but there were parts of it that I found very funny. All of the characters seem to ham it up and be over dramatic and some of them (Zossimov, anyone?) add some light relief to the goings-on. Super important to get a good translation (I love a footnote!) Was my favourite until Beware of Pity knocked it off the top spot.
  3. The Principles of Product Development Flow by Donald Reinertsen: I think this book contains the secret sauce for the best way to go about ‘product development’ work such as building and maintaining IT systems or anything else that is bespoke and intangible. Unfortunately the book is so dense that I think it requires multiple readings to really absorb its points and to think about how to apply them at work. I need to go back and start my second reading soon.
  4. The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste by Rose George: Gives you so much to think about in terms of how most of the world live (without sanitation) and how lucky we are to have the things we take for granted. Soon after I read this I was in South Africa and heard a news story about a young schoolboy who died after he fell into an open pit latrine and couldn’t get out. Explores such questions as ‘why do we use dry toilet paper?’ which I had never given a second thought.
  5. Estates: An Intimate History by Lynsey Hanley: Raised lots of interesting questions for me. In the UK we are so proud of our social healthcare system but the complete opposite is true of social housing. Going to the NHS has no stigma but coming from a council estate does. Again, challenged some things I took for granted. Very interestingly goes into the author’s own experience and how she got out of the ‘council estate mindset’ and realised that there were things that she could do with her life that everybody (teachers, society) assumed and said that she couldn’t.
  6. What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes: Recommended by Dan Carlin on his Hardcore History podcast. This is a book written by someone who has been at war and explains the psychology and myriad of emotions surrounding being involved in a conflict on the ground. So many good points and completely challenged my ideas of being a pacifist; I’m not sure I am anymore.
  7. Moonshot by Dan Parry: Written by a guy who lives a few doors from me. Absolutely brilliant and brings home just how amazing the first moon landings were. Very well-written and had me scurrying off to Wikipedia multiple times to look stuff up (such as Neil Armstrong’s career of flying X-series rocket jets for the Air Force which are still the fastest things to have ever flown!)
  8. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg: Every bit as good as its title. You can download this for free as it was written in 1824 and is well out of copyright. I was amazed at how readable this was. Scary and macabre,a good one to pick up as we go into winter.
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: My uncle Pete got me into John Steinbeck by buying me a copy of East of Eden when I was a teenager. I was hooked straightaway and even more so when we studied Of Mice and Men at school. I think there are only a couple of books that he wrote that I haven’t read and I have also ploughed through a 1,000-page biography as well as his Life in Letters. Grapes is for me his best book—not only is the writing amazing and the story excellent but it also had such a big influence on American politics that reverberated for years.
  10. Room at the Top by John Braine: Another book given to me by uncle Pete when I was a teenager. I’ve read this a few times over the years and each time have got something different from the book. When I was young I wanted to be the main character and then as I got a little bit older I started to look at him with pity and realise the tragedy of it all.

I have other ‘notable mentions that didn’t quite fit’ but I’ll leave it there as I’ve already written too much.