The remote or office spectrum

I feel so fortunate to have been one of the minority of people in the UK that could work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. I found the initial stages of the pandemic completely terrifying, and my anxiety continued throughout the whole of 2020 while it seemed that everyone around me was relaxing their guard. I’m grateful to have now had two doses of a vaccine, and based on my perception of relatively low numbers of vaccinated people getting seriously ill, ending up in hospital or passing away, I’ve been tentatively out and about in society again.

My employer has asked for UK-based staff to come back to our office in London on a trial basis from October, for around 50% of the time. I don’t envy the people involved in making the decisions around this as they will never completely satisfy everyone. I know that they have put a lot of thought into it and I think that this request probably strikes the right balance for now.

I think of ‘where you work’ as a spectrum, from completely remote to completely in the office. In the future, where will the optimal point be?

I have not heard of anyone that promotes being completely remote, 100% of the time, as ideal. Technology companies such as Automattic (creator of WordPress, which powers around 40% of all websites) or Remember The Milk (creators of a very good to-do list application that I have used for many years) pride themselves on remote working as a core philosophy, but even they bring people physically together on a regular basis. When I read Scott Berkun’s book about his experience of working for Automattic for a year, it was amazing how much of the text was dedicated to their in-person meet-ups.

The founders and leaders of Basecamp also agree:

Back in August, my company organised a get-together in Hyde Park for all of our London staff. For many people, it was their first time getting back on a train into Central London since we first locked down. At the event, people expressed very different views about how much they thought that we need to be back in the office, but everyone seemed to enjoy being together again. More than one person commented that they were happy working from home, but they hadn’t realised just how much they had missed their colleagues.

My conclusion is that it seems to make sense to be in the same place with your team, or your organisation, for at least some points in the year. But how much is the right amount?

All about me

On a personal level, aside from the terror of a deadly disease sweeping through the population, I think that I am going to have very positive memories of my experience during the pandemic. Partly I think this is because I am wearing rose-tinted glasses — I was extremely anxious for a lot of 2020, and this has definitely abated since my vaccination — but looking back I can see so many positive things to take from the lockdown.

I am a 44-year-old man who has spent 22 years at work. I have two (almost) teenage children and a wife who doesn’t currently work long hours at her job. For many years my usual pattern of work was to leave the house at 7am, commute into London, spend the majority of my day in meetings, and then to work late in order to catch up with emails and messages, and to get other work done. So many times I would grab a sandwich for dinner on the way home and arrive back after the children were asleep. Sometimes I might go a couple of days without seeing them. The lockdown forced me to see that my staying late in order to be productive had been at the expense of seeing my family. Obvious, perhaps, but I hadn’t really felt it until I’d experienced the alternative.

We are so fortunate to have a house that is just the right size to ensure that we all regularly bump into each other but also to be able to get out of each other’s way. I have a comfortable space to work undisturbed with an excellent Internet connection. During the lockdown, I swapped my morning commute for exercise and I’m now the fittest I have ever been in my life. In the past 18 months, I’ve eaten dinner with my wife almost every night. My boys and I have much better relationships for me having been around — the proportion of poor-quality time spent with them moaning about picking things up and keeping the house tidy is much lower than it otherwise would have been. I feel so lucky to have been present as my eldest son moved into his teenage years.

Now that I’ve experienced all of this, it’s a lot to give up.

Being in an office

Since I started working with my current employer in 2017, my immediate team has always been global. We support and partner with our business colleagues in cities all over the world. Pre-pandemic, it was rare for a meeting not to involve one or more people dialling in. Before Teams became so central to our day-to-day work we used BlueJeans for video calling, and I was regularly in the top three monthly users of our 55,000-person strong organisation. Many times we’ve wrestled with meetings that involved a myriad of connections, usually wasting time at the start, connecting from large meeting rooms in our main offices as well as the odd person dialling in from home or more exotic places like the back of a taxi as it travelled along streets of Hong Kong. The pandemic has been a great leveller in that it pushed us all into our individual ‘Brady Bunch’-style video boxes, and now everyone joins our meetings on an equal footing. Colleagues in other locations have told me that their experience is much better now that they have an equal seat at the table and aren’t battling to contribute while a group of people in a meeting room have a discussion amongst themselves.

Going back to the office will mean a return to hybrid meetings, which in my mind are the worst kind. There is a hierarchy of good meeting configurations:

  1. Everyone physically together beats
  2. Everyone remote, which itself beats
  3. Some together and some remote.

People are now used to putting their virtual hands up in a Teams or Zoom meeting, but what does that look like when ‘the room’ puts a hand up? Matt Ballantine has recently experimented with a hybrid workshop and his conclusion is that it can work, but it needs a lot of planning and moderation, something that we won’t have the luxury of putting in place for most of the meetings that we have. My view is that we should be encouraging people to think about what kind of meeting they are running and how they will set it up to be effective and inclusive. As technologists, we should be leading the way in showing people how to use tools such as digital whiteboards and tablet devices more effectively, bridging the gap to the utopia of all being able to be in the same place.

All teams in our London office have selected a ‘team day’ where they will be together physically during the return to office experiment. A few months ago our entire global organisation implemented ’step-back Wednesdays’, where we don’t schedule any internal meetings. If the goal of being in the same physical space together is collaboration and culture, this seems like the ideal day for us to be together. Other days are inevitably filled with meetings, almost always with someone who is not based in the same country, so we’d be stuck at our desks on Teams calls. Using Wednesdays to collaborate means that we miss out on the ‘deep work’ focus time for which they were intended, so we’ll need to see how we get on.

The office is a great leveller in that everyone has the same space to work in, no matter whether they live in a palace or a studio flat. Having space at home is a luxury, one that many people miss out on. This may play a significant role in how often someone wants to work in the office:

“For me it [working from home] means I now sit on the sofa 16 hours a day as there is nowhere else in a small flat to work. It is uncomfortable, not like sitting at a desk and my hands and arms sometimes hurt. I miss the office banter, working from home when you live on your own and in lockdown is very isolating. It is all email and not much conversation, or if it is – it’s a meeting that is much more painful to do over zoom or skype or whatever.” Woman, 60s, London… (Source: Demos — Distanced Revolution: Employee experiences of working from home during the pandemic, June 2021)

There are many other factors at play too. An office may be a safe space for some, removing themselves from difficult or violent relationships at home. The Demos report also highlights that not all home working is equal; people in higher-paid jobs are likely to have a much better time of it than those on low incomes. Some may also experience the added stress of employee surveillance such as presence and content monitoring. I am lucky in that I am able to pay for a good home broadband connection; with inflation starting to take hold again in the UK, people on low incomes may be forced to make difficult choices.

A close friend of mine works for a very well-known giant technology company, and we were reflecting on our thoughts about returning to the office. He was a much bigger enthusiast than I was. Putting aside any fears about being on a train full of unvaccinated anti-mask commuters (of which there are many), I could see why:

  • His office is walking distance from the mainline station that we both travel into so he doesn’t need to take the tube; his train fare is almost £10 cheaper per day than mine.
  • He gets three free meals a day, along with endless snacks and barista-made coffee on tap.
  • He can wear his regular clothes instead of business attire, and therefore doesn’t need to spend money on regular dry cleaning.
  • His office has incredible facilities, including a running track, music room, rooftop cafe and many more things besides.

My office is a beautiful space in an incredible location, but it doesn’t quite compare on any of these fronts.

I think that in general there may be stages of life where people want to be more present in an office. The version of me in my early 20s, living in a tiny studio flat in London, would desperately want to have the structure of travelling to work every day. Living in such a small place, consisting of one sleeping/kitchen room and a tiny bathroom, was terrible for my mental health. The office was a big part of my social life; making friends in a big city can be hard. Now that I have a family and a bigger space to roam around in, my mental health is so much better and I don’t feel a desire to be at the office as much. If and when the children leave home, I may feel that I want to be back at the office a little more.

It will be interesting to see what the labour market norms and expectations will be in the future. It may be that people entering the workforce for the first time would prefer to work remotely, or at least be within a legal framework that allows them to work remotely by default, with the onus being on the employer to prove that the job needs to be done from an office some or all of the time. I can see a case being made for people wanting to be based anywhere in the country — or the world — so that they can afford to buy a property and lead the lifestyle they want outside of work as well. Some people are concerned that if a job can be done from anywhere, the person hired for that job could be hired from anywhere too, putting their roles at risk. At a macro level, I believe this ‘flattening’ of the world is something to be embraced; assuming that rich countries should keep hold of all of the high-paying good jobs doesn’t feel right. We might try and fight it individually, but this trend has been coming for some time and is unlikely to stop.

Obligations to each other

If we assume, possibly incorrectly, that the people at the start and towards the end of their careers are the ones who want to be at the office and we just let that happen, what would the impact be? What obligations do those of us in the middle of our careers have to our colleagues to be ‘present’ in a broader sense than just at the end of a phone, email, instant message or virtual meeting? I learned the ropes of work through observing other people and how they themselves interact with others, like Corporal Barnes in A Few Good Men:

One of the concerns about moving to being completely remote is a breakdown or erosion of company culture. Wikipedia tells me that:

Ravasi and Schultz (2006) characterise organizational culture as a set of shared assumptions that guide behaviors. It is also the pattern of such collective behaviors and assumptions that are taught to new organizational members as a way of perceiving and, even thinking and feeling. Thus organizational culture affects the way people and groups interact with each other, with clients, and with stakeholders. In addition, organizational culture may affect how much employees identify with an organization.

I don’t think that just learning how the company does things through reading manuals, watching videos or having formal interactions in meetings are sufficient by themselves to adequately absorb the culture of an organisation. Intuitively, there is a lot of value in being able to observe the ambient behaviour of your colleagues every day. A week’s business trip abroad to another office has immeasurable value to create a frame of reference for how that part of the company operates.

Distribution made us more resilient

From a technology perspective, one of the major advantages of having a distributed workforce has been that IT issues tend to only impact a single person at a time. A failure in a firewall or Wi-Fi system at the office can take everybody offline, whereas an issue with a home router or even a regional Internet provider outage is unlikely to be a widespread problem. Working remotely made our technology setup more resilient.

Where do you work?

When I first joined the WB-40 podcast community a few years ago, the question being asked by co-host Matt Ballantine was whether work is something you do or a place that you go:

But the world of work is becoming much more ambiguous. Whereas twenty years ago workplace was boundaried by the limitations of availability of equipment and people, information technology has broken those dependencies. When work was a place, charging by the hour made sense. The concept of “Compensation” (what a shit term that is) to reward you in return for your physical presence.

Today work can be anywhere for many of us. For many of us we are taking advantage of that. For many others they are being taken advantage of.

The pandemic has accelerated us to a position where ‘work can be anywhere for many of us’ is now true. It has resulted in some interesting observations, such as how remote working allows someone to avoid the post-resignation ‘no-mans land’ at their old employer:

Over the last three months, our new Technical Architect unconstrained by physical location has been ramping down his old job and ramping up his new. He’s been attending new team meetings when old team commitments allowed, and generally getting his head around the new place. The last two weeks of his old job were actually quite busy as his former colleagues stepped out of denial that he was actually leaving, but otherwise the transition has felt far smoother than the usual new employer experience of “3 months of waiting”.

None of this would have been possible if not for the fact that both old and new employers were working completely remotely throughout.

Working online

I’ve come to the conclusion that my answer to the question of ‘where do you work?’ is now ‘online’. Being forced to work digitally has many advantages. I remember pre-pandemic that we might have an impromptu discussion in our London office that would lead to some important decisions or action points. A number of days later we might realise that nobody wrote down and published what was discussed, so everyone who wasn’t in that office at that moment was out of the loop. Being remote means that you are more deliberate about communicating, and the chances of someone in a different office not knowing what’s going on is vastly reduced.

The main contact at one of our key vendors got in touch a couple of weeks ago to see about meeting up in person. Pre-pandemic, I had already developed a preference for meeting via Teams as opposed to asking people to travel to our office for an hour. If we had work to discuss then we should do it remotely as it would save both of us time. But if the reason for meeting up is to be social and build on our relationship, getting together in person makes sense.

I don’t see working primarily online as a net negative. For all of the reasons that my life has improved since we locked down, I prefer working remotely to going to the office. The technology to bring us closer together, towards the experience of all being in the same room despite being physically remote from each other, is only going to get better as time goes on. With all the recent talk of metaverses, my bet is that while our need for connection and developing a common culture will remain, the need to be physically together will gradually disappear, allowing us to be wherever we want to be and to pursue as fulfilling a life ‘outside of work’ as we want to. It will be interesting to see what norms emerge.

The loveliest place on the Internet

A close friend of mine recently asked, out of the blue:

In a word, the answer is yes. For the past few years I’ve been using micro.blog, which I’ve come to think of as the loveliest place on the Internet. It isn’t lovely by chance, it has been deliberately designed that way, and is lovingly nurtured to keep it full of positive vibes across its wonderful community.

On the surface, micro.blog is selling blog hosting. For $5/month, you can sign up and host your blog posts there. The monthly fee makes sure that your site isn’t cluttered with any adverts. You can post using apps for iOS, iPadOS, MacOS and Android as well as via the web. Blog posts can be ‘micro’ status updates of 280 characters or less, and if you go over this limit, the official apps and web interface reveal a ‘title’ field to accompany a more traditional blog post. You can syndicate your posts to Twitter, Medium, Mastodon, LinkedIn and Tumblr, with the full text being posted if it can fit in a tweet, and a title and link posted if it is longer. Photo uploads are included; the official apps helpfully strip out any EXIF metadata, such as where the photo was taken, in order to protect your privacy. A $10/month plan gives you the ability to host short videos or even podcasts (‘micro casts’), which you can record using the Wavelength iOS app.

But this is just where the magic starts. You don’t actually need to host your content on micro.blog. I’ve had my own blog for many years, and have recently started to take my content off of other platforms such as Instagram and Goodreads and host it myself — I want my content on my own platform, not somebody else’s. If you have an existing blog like I do, you can create an account and link it to your existing website via an RSS feed. Any post you write on your own blog then gets posted to your micro.blog account, and syndicated to wherever you want it to go. You can even set up multiple feeds with multiple destinations for cross-posting:

I post at my own blog and micro.blog picks up the feed

I post at my own blog and micro.blog picks up the feed

Once you have an account set up, you can start to use the main micro.blog interface. Here’s where you will see posts from everyone that you have ‘followed’, whether they have a micro.blog hosted account or syndicate from their own site. It’s a bit like a calmer, happier version of Twitter:

Here’s where some of the thoughtfulness of the design comes in. Discovering people to follow actually takes some effort. You can click on the Discover button to see a set of recent posts from a variety of users, lovingly hand-curated by the micro.blog Community Manager Jean MacDonald. If one of these posts catches your eye, you can click on the username or profile photo and press ‘follow’. That person’s posts will now appear in your timeline. By default you will also see their ‘replies’ to other members of the community. You can click on a button to view the whole conversation thread, which can lead you to explore and discover more people. This effort means that the emphasis is on quality over quantity, with gradual discovery.

You can also discover people by selecting someone’s profile and clicking through to see who they follow that you aren’t following:

One of the best design choices made on the platform is that there are no follower counts. I have no idea how many other users follow me, or anybody else. There are also no ‘likes’, just a button to privately bookmark a post for you to access again easily in the future. Reposts (or ‘retweets’) don’t exist either — if you like a post that you read and want to amplify it, you need to create a new post of your own. Hashtags are also not supported. Again, the emphasis is on quality and not quantity, on conversations instead of engagement metrics. This works to reduce people posting content just to ‘go viral’, and keeps the noise down.

So far, so straightforward. But there’s more magic.

The creator of micro.blog has authored an iOS app called Sunlit, which allows the creation of photo posts on your blog, whether you are hosting your content on micro.blog or externally. You can also see posts from other people that you follow on micro.blog. It’s like viewing the micro.blog content through an Instagram-type lens. The photos you see are from the same timeline that you see in micro.blog. You can comment on and bookmark posts, and switch between the Sunlit app and the main micro.blog apps or web interface. I love an occasional browse through the timeline using this app if I’m in the mood just to see some wonderful photos.

So, this means that all of your content sits on your own blog. No more silos of posts on different platforms.

But here’s the thing that feels most magical to me. If someone reads a post of yours on micro.blog, they can reply to it. But in the spirit of you owning your own content, these replies get posted as comments on your original blog post, even if the blog is hosted on your own independent website. Every time this happens, it blows my mind a tiny bit. Here’s an example — I recently posted about how exhausting the Clubhouse app is, which sparked a few comments and conversations. People responded on micro.blog and these ended up as comments on the post on my site:

It really is a wonderful place to spend some time. If you’re looking for an alternative to the noisy, regularly hostile place that the traditional social media platforms have become, and/or owning your content is important to you, it is well worth checking out. It’s been a source of joy over the past couple of weeks to see a real-life friend regularly posting there, and I know from talking to him that he’s loving it.

“Yes, it really sucks.”

Probably confirmation bias, but Bill Plaschke’s column in the Los Angeles Times on his relatively mild experience with COVID-19 has strengthened my resolve to keep safe.

I wore a mask everywhere. I followed all the rules, but a couple of weeks ago I didn’t follow my instincts. I briefly let my guard down. The coronavirus came out swinging.

The weekend before my symptoms appeared, for the first time in four months, I met friends for two dinners at two socially distanced patio tables. Nobody is required to wear masks at the tables, so I removed my mask when I sat, as did my dining partners, and we left them off during the entire time we were at the table.

I didn’t do anything that was prohibited, right? I was just following the rules, right?

My guess is that I caught it there.

Coronavirus anxiety

Although I’m now five months into new routines and a new way of life, I’ve been finding that my anxiety level has been creeping back up during the summer. The vast majority of my friends and family seem to have gone back to normal, pretty much giving up on social distancing. I feel that I want to shout out loud that there is still a pandemic on — the phrase that keeps coming back to me is the one uttered by Clark Griswold in the original National Lampoon’s Vacation when his family appeal to him to give up on their road trip to Wallyworld. “I think you’re all ****** in the head!” I understand the massive desire to get back to some kind of normality, I just don’t agree with taking the risks. I know that because of this, people think I am being ridiculous.

“You’re unlikely to get sick from it as you are relatively young and fit.” Yes, thankfully that’s true. But there’s a chance I could get it and be one of the unlucky ones for whom it has serious implications. The idea of having ‘long COVID’ doesn’t sound good either. And then, even if I caught it and had no symptoms at all, I could easily spread it to anyone else I come in contact with.

“I think it’s ok to sit in a restaurant as long as they have the windows open.” Yes, airflow reduces the risk, but why take the risk in the first place? Is it worth it? This is a highly contagious airborne virus; you need to take your mask off to eat, and you’ll be sitting close to your friends at the same table and potentially exposing yourself unnecessarily to the virus over a number of hours.

“There are lots of other things out there that you could get, or could happen, that could kill you.” That’s true, but there’s not many of those that we end up shutting down half of the world for because of the potential harm that they bring.

The more that people I know go back to normal, the less I want to see them, as I don’t trust that they have been careful in managing their own risk. I’m currently not prepared to sit in a restaurant indoors, visit my friends or family in their homes or have visitors to our house where they would spend their time inside. It has been difficult at times over the past few weeks where even those of us living under the same roof have had different opinions about the risks, but we’re managing our way through it.

Perhaps my anxiety partly comes from getting so wrapped up in following politics over the past half decade or so. I am deeply distrustful of our government and the people around them. I’m highly sceptical that they have our best interests at heart, or are competent enough to do a good job even if they did. Managing a pandemic at a government level must be unimaginably complex, and our collection of ministers are second-rate at best. I know that I have to take complete personal responsibility for myself.

“Look at the case numbers in the UK though, they are flat.” That’s been true for the past few weeks, but they are on the rise again. Have we ever had a good test and trace regime that we can rely on here in the UK? Would the government tell us the truth if the numbers were not good? We know that there is probably a two-week lag time between exposure and developing symptoms or becoming contagious yourself, so who knows how many cases are really out there.

I am in an extremely privileged and fortunate position of having a very caring employer who has allowed us to work from home since mid-March. We are unlikely to be asked to go back to the office any time soon. I know that for a lot of people things haven’t stopped or changed during this whole pandemic — they have had to get out to work, my wife included — and I am in awe of them. I also understand that we are social creatures and there is a need for us to meet and connect with each other. I just don’t understand why people would take unnecessary risks such as dining in restaurants with friends or meeting in each other’s houses when there’s no need to.

This weekend my wife and I took a rare walk into town together to buy a coffee. As soon as we got anywhere near other people I put my mask on and didn’t take it off until we were almost home, well clear of everyone else. Maciej Ceglowski’s post from back in April, called Let’s All Wear A Mask, is the kind of logical argument that speaks to me as he outlines his case brilliantly. But it’s clear from my stroll around town that masks are generally seen as an inconvenience and only worn for going into shops, if at all.

I am trying to check and question myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m probably the one in the wrong as everyone else seems to be taking it easy with a relaxed attitude to the risks, but then I just work through the logic again and find myself right back at the start.

Album Club #100

I’m so excited to be attending Album Club #100 tonight. I’ve no idea what album will be in store, but our host Matt has promised some “very special vinyl”. Where did 100 months go?

Our current members have nominated their five favourite tracks that they discovered through Album Club, which have been assembled into this Spotify playlist. We’ve heard some fantastic music over the past eight years and this is great reminder.

It’s still the best night of the month.

https://open.spotify.com/user/matthewprice17/playlist/0pnU6T1E4oAzH7tSxF1Y3z?si=WP3fSsodTSyMh8hA0yKxkw

The best night of the month

Last night I hosted Album Club #79. That’s 79 months — almost seven years — of Album Club evenings, so I thought it was about time I wrote about them.

Way back at the start of 2011, my friend Bill dropped me an enthusiastic email with a link to a BBC News magazine article about Classic Album Sundays:

A growing number of music-lovers unhappy about the way album tracks are enjoyed in a pick-and-mix fashion have decided to take action.

The rules are strict. No talking. No texting. You must listen to every song on the album.

Classic Album Sundays treat our best-loved records like great symphonies and are being set up in London, Scotland and Wales.

Groups of music fans sit in front of a vinyl turntable, with the best speakers they can afford, dim the lights and listen to a classic album all the way through.

This monthly club in north London is run by Colleen Murphy and for her it is a strike against “‘download culture”, the sense that music has just become an endless compilation of random songs used as background noise.

”Everyone, stop multi-tasking, sit down, open your ears and do some heavy listening.”

Bill’s questions to me: Shall we start an album night of our own? Did I know anyone who might be interested? Yes and yes! This was great — it sounded like a book club without the homework. I was definitely in.

Five of us gathered on a February evening at Bill’s place. A lot of what happened that night set the tone of all Album Club evenings to come. We arrived, had a few beers and crisps in the kitchen and about 45 minutes in we were ushered through to the lounge. Bill revealed that he was going to play us a vinyl copy of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. He’d printed the Wikipedia notes for the album and gave a small speech about why he had chosen it. Then the music began.

We sat there, in complete silence, listening intently. His stereo sounded amazing. I’d never heard the album before and from the opening notes of Changes to the fading sounds of The Bewlay Brothers it was a revelation. On this particular evening, and for the next couple of Album Club nights, the enjoyment of the music was mixed with the self-consciousness of sitting there in silence with everyone. Where do you put your eyes? Is it okay to jiggle my legs as the music takes me? Could I cough? Eye contact was strictly avoided.

After a few months the format was well-established and we consciously agreed some rules as follows:

  • Album Clubs are held monthly. In the case of being unable to book a date that people can make (August and December are particularly difficult) we can double up with two in the following month.
  • Hosting follows a round-robin format, with each member taking a turn in succession. In the case of sudden illness or force majeure on behalf of the host someone else can step in, ideally the next person in line so that you can simply swap places in the hosting order.
  • The host has to supply all of the drinks (ale, lager, wine) and snacks.
  • Most importantly, the host gets to choose the album. As host, your responsibilities for picking a suitable album are:
    • You must love it.
    • You are not allowed to play an album that you yourself have never heard before (see previous point).
    • Strictly no compilations.
    • No live albums. (This point is controversial with opinions on the rule split down the middle; I personally think these are legitimate albums in their own right but others believe that the inevitable presence of live versions of the artists’ own songs mean they are a type of compilation.)
    • Albums are played as if they had been bought on vinyl, with the end of a side giving people time to pop to the loo, have a brief chat about what they’ve heard so far and top up with beer. If you don’t have the vinyl and are playing the CD or streaming the album, make sure you do your research to know when to press pause. Double albums will have three breaks, triple albums (and you have to be very brave or completely infatuated by the album to choose one) will have five. If streaming, a top tip is to make some playlists of the various sides in advance.
  • At the end of the album, everyone can completely relax and enjoy the rest of their evening. Typically we end up lining up records on the host’s hi-fi that are linked to the album or fit with the vibe in some way. If it’s a Friday, a lot more beer is consumed.

Picking an album can be a difficult affair. Do you go with the one you really love or do you play something that you think people haven’t heard but are likely to like? Experience now tells me that you should go with your heart instead of your head and don’t over-think it. When everyone loves what you play (for me, Siren by Roxy Music, Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams and Tommy by The Who have all been successes) it’s a great feeling; when they don’t (see Human Racing by Nik Kershaw) it can be a bit deflating, but you get over it quickly.

Over the past six and a half years we’ve seen a few people come and go; two of the original five founding members moved away which made membership impossible and with a bit of recruitment we now have a ‘full team’ of eight. This is probably the perfect number — sometimes one or two people can’t make it at the last minute but it still leaves you with enough of the crew to make it worth it. For a while we had six but this means you always have the same two months of the year, no good if you find yourself lumbered with August or December. “Who’s turn is it next?” can always be answered by looking at our back catalogue of events lovingly put together and maintained by Mat.

It’s been brilliant to have an evening every month where I know I can just sit back, relax, listen to (typically) a great album and enjoy the company of a cracking group of friends. For me the best nights have been when I’ve discovered a truly brilliant album that I had never heard before: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Cosmo’s Factory and Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle have been the pinnacle for me, closely followed by the unexpectedly punky eponymous The Pretenders. John famously loved Cosmo’s Factory so much he bought a CD copy of on Amazon before the first track had even finished playing.

Massive love and thanks to Bill for creating what is now commonly known as ‘the best night of the month’. We miss you, fella!

Response hierarchy

It was really interesting to read Michael Lopp’s latest blog post showing his relative probability to respond to an incoming communication based on the medium through which it is sent:

…I realized that I had updated the prioritized hierarchy to how likely I will respond to a piece of communication. From least likely to most likely, this is the hierarchy:
Spam < LinkedIn < Facebook < Twitter < Email < Slack < Phone < SMS < Face to Face

This struck a chord with me. A while ago I wrote down a list of all of the electronic inboxes that were playing a part in my life as I needed to take a step back and see it all. Discounting the ones that are both from and to myself (namely my unprocessed Drafts entries and my Evernote inbox), my own response hierarchy today looks something like this:

Spam < Flickr comments < LinkedIn < Voicemail < Facebook Messenger < Blog comments < Personal email < Goodreads/Strava comments < Facebook mentions < School governor email < Work email < Phone < Twitter < Skype for Business < Telegram/WhatsApp < SMS < Face to Face

Maybe I am over-thinking it as the comments and mentions don’t always require a response (although the notifications do nag at me on my phone and I have a lingering guilt about not looking at them as often as I perhaps should). Anyway, let’s remove those:

Spam < LinkedIn < Voicemail < Facebook Messenger < Personal email < School governor email < Work email < Phone < Twitter < Skype for Business < Telegram/WhatsApp < SMS < Face to Face

Lopp’s analysis of each form of communication is interesting. I’m impressed that he manages to get to Inbox Zero every day both at work and home. I get there sometimes, but it isn’t as frequent as I would like.

My hierarchy isn’t always consistent. Voicemails on my mobile from strangers get much less attention than voicemails from people I know, but even then iOS doesn’t do a great job of nagging me about the ones that I have listened to but not actioned. Occasionally I’ll flick across to voicemail and find six or seven that stretch back over the past few months.

I don’t answer the phone to external numbers on my work phone as 95% of the time it is a sales call; unfortunately for those callers I have also removed my work Voicemail so I don’t need to deal with changing the security PIN every month. The value of voicemail is far outweighed by the inconvenience of accessing it — most of the time my missed calls list is sufficient for me to know who to get in contact with. People who really need to contact me in a work context from outside my company will have my email address or mobile number.

Email is fine for business type things but completely broken for ‘proper’ correspondence in that the more important a personal note is to me, the longer I’ll tend to leave it until I find the time to sit down and write a considered, meaningful response. I fully understand that this may be no more email’s fault than it is the fault of the letter-writing paper that also goes untouched in our house. Perhaps the long-form two-way personal communication is dead in the era of instant responses, or only useful when you have a lot to say to the other person and don’t want to be interrupted or get a reply.

We use Skype at work for instant messaging but it is almost completely on a 1:1 basis with barely any shared channels. It feels like a missed opportunity but multiple attempts to get it started have never caught on. Perhaps our company is too small, or we don’t have enough geeks.

Slack doesn’t feature at all as an inbox for me yet — I’m a member of three ‘teams’, none of which are directly linked to my employer. I mainly lurk and therefore don’t get many communications that way.

Twitter used to occupy a giant amount of time but my usage has tailed off significantly over the past couple of years. For a long while it felt like a real community and that I was part of something — I even organised a small handful of well-attended ‘tweetups’ in our town for everyone to meet — but over time I had subconsciously given up trying to keep up and have gone back to reading blogs and books. I get very little direct communication from it and when I do I’m pretty responsive. The main role it plays in my life now is as an aggregation source of interesting things to read via the wonderful Nuzzel app.

It’s interesting to me to write this down as it gives me a realisation of how complicated things are these days and how much of a cognitive burden it is to keep up with it all. It’s no longer sufficient to get to Inbox Zero with my three email accounts and feel that I am ‘done’; all of the others need to be checked and drained as well on a regular basis.

James Alexander Doran, 1920-2011

On Monday we said goodbye to my grandad, James Alexander Doran, who passed away aged 91 years. It was lovely to see so many people there. I had the privelige of being asked to read the two speeches that were prepared by my aunty Di (with a little added from me) and uncle Ronnie and thought I would share them here in case anyone would like to read them again:

It was interesting to find out that everyone celebrated grandad’s birthday on 26 January whereas his birth certificate said he was born on 27 January – my Dad had a similar experience with his birthday being celebrated two days after the actual day for quite a few years until someone stumbled across his birth certificate, so this seems to run in the family!

I also took along some photos of my grandad to the funeral and some of my relatives asked where they could get copies so – here they are:

Four generations of Doran:
Four generations of Doran!

The Dorans plus a couple of Hibberts:
The Dorans plus one Hibbert

The Doran boys plus one Hibbert:
The Doran boys plus one Hibbert

Dad and Grandad:
Dad and Grandad

Nan and Grandad:
Nan and Grandad

We’ll miss him lots.

Stag weekend in Cardiff

I have just had a cracking couple of days in Cardiff on my brother’s stag weekend along with 24 other like-minded fellows. It has to have been the most organized event of it’s type I’ve ever been on – we had a multi-page PDF before we went complete with full venue addresses (hotel, club, karting etc) and were all given business card-size laminated mini-itineraries when we got there. The best man, Chris, even came up with the idea of a ‘stag phone’ – he had a pay-as-you-go phone in his possession with the phone number on the back of all of our obligatory comedy tops, the idea being that fellow drinkers could text the number with our nickname and get us to have a shot.

I’m still a little worse-for-wear some 48 hours after the event. Good times, but I’m glad we don’t do it too often!

A selection of photos can be found on the web courtesy of a fellow attendee. Stag phone results as compiled by Chris are also available. Next stop, the wedding.

Visitors from NYC

We recently had the pleasure of Marc, Rachel and Jonah staying with us for a week on a trip over from NYC.  They’re even lovelier than we remembered, and it was great to meet Jonah.

Rachel has put up some photos from their trip.

Turning 30 on New Year’s Eve

New Year's EveI just had to get this post in before January was over!

I turned 30 on New Year’s Eve and to mark the occasion we had hired The Old Neptune, a wonderful 15th century house in the centre of Ipswich. My wife had arranged everything (wonderful as she is); in order to secure the house over the New Year period we had to get a committed bunch of friends together and book it up in early 2005, which we managed to do. Although at first glance it seemed quite expensive, when divided up between 24 people and paid for in stages it didn’t seem that much.

The place looked amazing on the website and the rooms looked gorgeous. In order to make sure that everyone got a fair chance of bagging one of the bigger/ older rooms, a couple of weeks before we went we put everyone’s name into a bag and made a video of a ‘live’ draw which we then posted on YouTube for all to see.

In reality the place was even better than it had looked on the website. To be able to enjoy the gorgeous front room and fire, lovely big kitchen and the wonderful dining room with so many good friends was just great.

A few of us had organised a quiz for the first night and we had karaoke and dancing on the second (which degenerated into a bizarre hatfest) – it was only by the third evening that I went to bed even vaguely sober!

For my 30th my wife made me a wonderful book with photos from my very early years all the way up to present day – a really great gift.

In the daytime we headed off to some of the lovely surrounding villages for some winter walks and pub lunches – Felixstowe was lovely (cheese and pineapple toasties, anyone?), we had a bite to eat at the King’s Head in Woodbridge and an enjoyable wander around the pretty village of Aldeburgh.

Thanks to everyone for making my 30th such a fun and special one. More photos in the Flickr group.

Antenna

AntennaA few weeks ago my wife and I went along to the wonderful NFT to see Antenna 18, the latest in a long line of evenings where they present a number of music videos and have some of the directors and producers there to be interviewed and answer quesitions from the audience.

We had a great time – two videos that I would recommend viewing are New Me by Jamie Lidell and Geisterschloss by Oliver Laric – both fantastic. In fact, Oliver Laric can be seen in the first video as well – he’s the guy bopping along dressed in white – as it was directed by his girlfriend, Aleksandra Domanovic. Finally, if you haven’t seen the Plan B video to No Good, you should definitely take a look – it’s like Sledgehammer revisited!

It was fab to do something different – London offers so many great cultural events and we don’t go to enough of them. We may well be back!

A strange Friday night at the pub video

Well, it all started with a suggestion from Mat that we meet for a beer after work at The Boat in Berkhamsted. Now that he and Steph are living so close to us we thought that we should be taking more advantage of it by getting out there and socialising. However, Friday night at the pub is always dangerous as everyone is tired and the beers don’t take quite as long as usual to take effect. We had a good time, but…well, I remember taking a video of Mat but I don’t remember it being quite this bizarre. The dangers of alcohol for all to see.

Mat, what on earth were you doing?

Cycle for Cystic Fibrosis

Chloe Catling Cycle ChallengeSpeaking of cousins, one of my relatives has organised a sponsored cycle ride around West London on Saturday 24 June 2006 to raise money for Cystic Fibrosis. My cousin Chloe suffers from the disease and has to undergo a lot of physiotherapy, drugs and spells in hospital – by raising money for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust we hope to help her and others.

If you’re not doing anything on the 24 June why not join us for a ride? If you’re not a rider you can still donate using the justgiving.com page. Every penny helps!

Boys night out in Berko

Trevor and Stuart murder James Blunt's You're BeautifulHad a great night out on the town last night with Mat, Trevor, Stuart and Iain, visiting a few local pubs that we hadn’t been to before. We started off with a couple of beers at my place before wandering down to the High Street and into the Rose & Crown, a small and friendly ‘locals’ pub. Everyone was busy watching the football so we amused ourselves with a few games of ‘killer’ on the pool table – for money – where Stuart and Mat cleaned up and were very happy to take their winnings. After a couple of pints it was time to go – Trevor decided to take a last-minute trip to the loo and we took the opportunity to leg it and hide from him. Very amusing. We then progressed on to The Lamb which was a bit more lively – they had some good beer on tap and a comfy place for us to sit and talk rubbish for a bit. Once again Trevor thought it would be great to take a trip to loo land when we were about to move on and once again we did a runner. I don’t think I could get tired of that.

Next on the agenda was a pit-stop at the Curry Garden – a place that I seem to be visiting all the time these days – for a lovely meal and a couple of Cobras. Unfortunately we didn’t get the opportunity to leave Trevor this time.

On the way to Mat’s place, where we planned to continue our evening, we wandered past The Bull. Mat was paying more attention than the rest of us and shouted “It’s karaoke!” which is a temptation that I just couldn’t miss. We had a fantastic time, singing, dancing and laughing with the regulars and Stuart and Trevor entertained us all with a murderous rendition of You’re Beautiful at which point the organisers donned their ear protectors. Magic. Unfortunately it felt as though it was all over too soon but we consoled ourselves by heading back to Mat’s for some late-night Mighty Boosh (“I’m Old Greg”) and Halo 2.

Iain and I finally made it back to my place at a quarter to five so consequently I’m feeling pretty knackered today. Great night out though – thanks guys!

Christmas over again for another year!

We’re now back at home after a few days away visiting lots of our relatives all over the southern reaches of England over Christmas. We had a lovely time – the first few days were spent in picturesque Ross-on-Wye with my wife’s family; I over-indulged on the local Wye valley ales on Christmas Eve and spent most of Christmas Day with a slight headache, which I made up for by staying in bed until midday (!!) on Boxing Day. After a lightning quick trip to Bournemouth to see my lovely nan and other relatives we then had a couple of days in Ascot with my folks – more drinking, eating and good times. Still, it’s great to be back home. We’re planning a bike ride or two over the next couple of days and will be spending New Year’s Eve in the company of our great Berkhamsted friends, which is a fab way to end the year. I’m looking forward to a great 2006.

Will’s and Alice’s wedding

Will and AliceBeen meaning to blog this for a bit! A couple of weekends ago we attended the marriage of Will and Alice at the lovely Buckland Hall in Bwlch, Wales. Had a fabulous time – in the words of the registrar, I don’t know why so many people get married in the summer when a winter wedding, with candlelight, log fires and mulled wine, is just as romantic!

It was great to catch up with so many friends from university that I don’t see as much as I would like to and drink the wonderful organic ale that was on offer all night. Top-notch wedding!