King’s Mouth

What a return to form by The Flaming Lips. They’ve rediscovered melody.

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Three books that changed the way I think

I like to read, and usually have both a non-fiction and fiction book on the go at the same time. What I love about non-fiction books in particular is discovering new things that might just say with you for the rest for your life. Here are three books that months, years, and in some cases, decades on, I still think back to on a regular basis.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) – Tom Vanderbilt

Have you ever wondered about the psychology of road users, including yourselves? Doing so will make you a better driver. Facts I still remember a decade on:

  • Merging late is better for everyone overall, but people find it annoying when people merge in front of them because our brain feels although our personal progress is being inhibited.
  • The lane you chose probably feels like the slowest since we spend more time looking forward when driving, and so notice people passing us much more so than we notice people we pass.
  • One of the reasons people buy fancy cars is to make themselves feel important, because unlike many other aspects of live, on the road all drivers get equal priority, no matter their job title or bank balance.
  • Tailgaters can only keep it up for a few minutes because driving so close to someone requires a lot of attention.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari

Widely noticed as one of the most eye-opening books of the century so far, the cover of this book had quotes from both Barack Obama and Chris Evens (yes, the radio presenter) – quite a variation in gravitas. Some amazing facts or at least theories I learnt were:

  • What differentiates Humans from other animals is not our brain power, but our ability to hold a collective imagination together, which in turn allows us to cooperate in the millions, unlike any other animal.
  • Money, companies, countries and even football exist solely in our collective imaginations. They literally do not exist outside of it.
  • Prehistoric humans had the same brains we we did, and were as intelligent as we were. What changed was our ability to pass on information through generations.
  • Many diseases that have plagued humans throughout history were only passed to humans after we starting manipulating the environment and living in close quarters to other animals (e.g. started farming).

The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? – Paul Davies

Ever wondered why life exists? It turns out that if the laws of physics were changed ever so slightly, life probably wouldn’t exist. This books attempts to explain why this might be. Some interesting takeaways I recall were:

  • The basics of the “standard model” – how each of the forces interaction with each other to create the world we live in. We all know about gravity and electromagnetic, but I’d never heard of the strong or weak forces before.
  • Religion cannot explain how the universe started, if the answer is ‘God made it” then it simply pushes the question to “well, who made God then?”
  • There is a surprising number of serious consideration given to everything existing inside inside a simulation.

Back in Top Gear

The new lineup with Chris Harris, Freddie Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness is a breath of fresh air. Genuine chemistry and comedic timing that makes Jeremy Clarkson and his cohort’s version of the show feel tired and tedious in retrospect. You have to hand it to the BBC for turning this around.

Four years of ambient computing

It’s been four years since the Apple Watch was released, and I’ve worn a variant of the miniature device pretty much every day of my life for most of this time. You see them everywhere now, but in 2015, wearing a smart watch was a novel idea. I’ve always been interested in gadgets, owning my first “smartwatch”, as Casio Databank, when I was in secondary school. I remember the sum of £40 seeming like a huge amount when I bought the Casio watch, and to be fair, for a 12 year old in 1997, it was.  I would marvel with amazement that a Casio Databank watch could store and entire 50 names and phone numbers, schedule alarms way off into the future, and knew how many days were in each month (no need to manually skip over the date for shorter months). The idea of walking around with all that information and potential on my wrist was both mysterious and exciting. How exactly did such a small device know to sound an alarm at precisely the time I’d chosen? Where exactly did all those names and number go when I entered them? I studied computer science and got a job as a software developer and so now it’s much less of a mystery to me how it all works, but my curiosity for these kind of smart devices never went away.  

A UNIX Box on every wrist

Maybe it’s just because I’m now in my early thirties and relatively old, but it seems to me quite fantastical that the smart watches, especially the Apple Watch, are now mainstream. That it’s actually considered normal for someone to walk around with an always-on, UNIX-based computer strapped to their wrist – a computer far more powerful than any of the computers I grew up with back in the late nineties and early 2000s. 

I find this especially interesting because these days, other consumer hardwire such as smartphones and laptops (or tablets) just aren’t that interesting. Phones don’t really do anything new anymore. Nicer screens, easier ways to log in, slightly better cameras – incremental updates that make the experience a little bit nicer. Smart watches on the other hand are vastly more compelling from a geek’s point of view.

First, there is room for a variety of styles: some of the designs released by LG and Fossil look genuinely beautiful, though Apple Watch is in a league of its own on that front.

Secondly, there is plenty of potential for new sensor input on the wrist. At the moment we have heart rate, accelerometer, and now ECG sensors with the latest Apple Watch, and there is so much more potential for a device that’s always on, and always being worn. Will the smart watch eventually displace the smartphone, just as the wrist watch displaced the pocket watch? I don’t think it will be as clear cut but I think they will eventually surpass mobile phone usage for many tasks. I certainly find that I need my phone less when wearing a smart watch – I just prefer to use it for certain tasks, mainly idling time reading the news or Facebook, or using the camera – the former is something I want to cut down on anyway.

Yes, I'm pretty proud of that time!

Despite my initial skepticism, I’m now hooked on the Apple Watch.  My home is strangely devoid of clocks. Apart from various computing devices, and my microwave, I have no clocks that I can easily glance at (partly due to finding ticking annoying!).  Apart from making daylight saving days less of an event, it does mean I rely on a watch or smartphone to keep me on track during the morning. Outside of just telling the time, I’ve found the Apple Watch useful for using Siri to do things like set timers and reminders. This means I have no need for a dedicated smart assistant like Amazon Echo, a smart watch beats a stationary cylinder in many respects because it’s always with me. It’s now second nature to dictate reminders into my wrist. Those reminders can always be location based (“At work”, “when I leave my car” etc.), unlike an Echo or equivalent.  Admittedly, I’m not going to listen to music on the watch’s speaker, and the inability to easily control Sonos via the watch is disappointing (there are 3rd party apps, but they’re pretty clunky). Apart from this, I do occasionally reply to text messages and emails I receive while at home, more often though I’ll initiate a text via the watch using Siri to dictate.  Initially I thought I’d use the remote control ability for Apple TV more than I do, partly because there’s no volume control for the TV on the watch, nor the ability to send Siri input to the TV (for example to search for something), and so I end up usually needing the Apple TV remote anyway.

Wearing a fitness tracker like the Apple Watch has also helped motivate me to keep active. I was an occasional runner before I owned an Apple Watch, but since, I’ve really progressed in part due to the ability to easily measure my pace and exertion using the GPS and heart rate sensor. The built in activity app is pretty minimal, and so I find exporting to Strava useful to get some more useful insights into my progress. The ability to go for a run with just a watch and some headphones, and still have access to music, podcasts and statistics while I run is truly amazing.

The downside of wearing a computer all the time is that it can be difficult to switch off.  Whether it’s BBC News or Strava, companies and apps are desperate for our attention, and the watch can make it easier for them to grab it from us.  I’ll address this in a future post, but I feel the Apple Watch’s fitness goals and achievements are focused on gaining “streaks” and never missing a day. I’d love to see Apple admit that once in a while, disconnecting is also good for your health and reward users for doing so.

Overall though, I’ll admit I’m hooked.

Renting music

I’ve been an Apple Music subscriber now for two years now. For some reason, Spotify never sold me on the premise of renting music instead of buying it to own.  Back in 2012 when I briefly subscribed to it, my internal argument against it was that I tended to listen to the same albums again and again a lot for a month or so, before coming obsessed with something else and listening to that on repeat for a month, and so on. Just buying the music (either as a download as a CD I would immediately rip) seemed like better value to me. 

Gradually though I warmed to the idea, and invested in a Sonos system. The Sonos Play 1 is a brilliantly piece of kit. Affordable at £200, and expandable (For six months I only had one speaker and it still sounded great, eventually I saved up make it a stereo pair making it sound amazing), it’s not really designed for people with local music collections however. While you can play music from your iTunes library but then it’s dependant on the device that hosts the music being switched on. I succumbed and subscribed to Apple Music. I considered Spotify again, but really liked how Apple Music integrates with the Apple Watch. Being able to download a playlist onto my watch and listen while running with no phone is extremely useful. 

Two years later it’s become something I am just used to. Any song I want, I can have it within seconds. Part of this makes me feel a sense of remorse – we used to wait, as the Arcade Fire once sang, but now everything has to be instant. Could I go back to buying music? It turns out, I actually quite like disassociating the act making a purchase with actual consumption. Somehow it now feels crude to link artistic enjoyment to capital. I get that I own none of it – there’s no option for me to sell my CDs secondhand to make some money should the need ever arise, and if I stop subscribing then I’m left with no music at all. But being able to enjoy music purely on its merits, and not have to think whether it was worth £9 is strangely liberating.

Manic Street Preachers album
This Manic Street Preachers album was released in 1998, not 2018

Apple Music isn’t perfect however, there’s a few issues I’d love to see them solve:

  • Support for Amazon Echo (they have this in the US, so I’m hoping the UK won’t be too far behind)
  • Some albums have been uploaded carelessly, they have demos play as part of the main album, or missing tracks.  We need a way to report such errors.
  • When albums get remastered, they are just added as a new album for the the artist with the current year as the release date. Instead, it should show the original release date and a separate field saying “remastered in”. Kind of like how you see the “first published” date along with the edition date in books.
  • Again with remastered albums, you end up with duplicate songs. It would be great if your playlists (and shared playlists) automatically got the remastered versions of a song, and the old versions were hidden. I understand not everyone likes modern remastering techniques, so maybe make it a checkbox “Prefer remastered songs” ?
  • Don’t ever recommend to me Boyzone again 🤣

An Echo from the void

I bought an Amazon Echo back in January, unusually late for someone who is usually an early adopter of the latest gadgets. I had visions of all the endlessly useful conversations I would have with Alexa. I would always know the traffic on my route to work, train times would be available at a shout’s notice, and any song I could think of in history would be playing moments after barking the appropriate command across the room. I was ready for the Amazon Echo lifestyle.

To my surprise, and much like the Kindle, Amazon’s previous foray into selling hardware, my usage of the Echo in the months since I bought it has dwindled to be at the point where I’m seriously considering whether or not I should simply sell it. It’s very disappointing.

I should state now that I have no ‘smart home’ appliances – while it’s a pretty cool demo I’ve seen at friends’ houses, I’m quite OK with setting my thermostat on a timer or pressing a light switch when I need some light. I’m even OK with opening curtains manually, and don’t get enough visitors to warrant a smart doorbell. So perhaps I’m the wrong audience.

I also don’t have an Amazon Prime account, and although I’ve considered it, Amazon’s pushy sales technique of trying to trick me into signing up has made me actively avoid it. They’ve tried trick me, and I’m not going to give in! I’ve also seen what’s on their video service and wasn’t at all impressed. Again, maybe the Echo simply isn’t aimed at people like me?

Music could be good though, right? For roughly £3 a month the Echo can set itself up with Amazon Music Unlimited. That seemed fair enough. A small amount on top of what I pay already for Apple Music that’s worth it for the convenience of being able to shout the name of any song, artist or album and have it play immediately. (As long as it’s easily pronounceable.) Indeed it was good, great even as I was able to connect my Sonos speakers and therefore command Alexa to play songs would would in turn start playing on my Sonos Play: 1 stereo setup. The sound was brilliant. Until that is, Amazon (or maybe it was Sonos) released an update which stopped Sonos from working with the £3 Music Unlimited subscription. It now wants me to upgrade to something that’s substantially more in order to enjoy Sonos integration. So I cancelled the music subscription. It felt dishonest of Amazon to allow this to work, and then take it away. I still have Apple Music on my Sonos, but that doesn’t work with the Echo. I could switch to Spotify, which works on both, but that doesn’t work on my Apple Watch, which I do enjoy using when running. Vendor lock-in is brilliant, isn’t it?

As it happens though, using an Echo for music for a month or so while I had the subscription taught me something significant: I actually quite like browsing music visually. If I have to recall a song or album from memory then I tend to only play the big hits or albums that for some reason stuck in my mind as being great. That means lots of U2’s Achtung Baby but far fewer obscure album tracks from Manic Street Preachers’ Know Your Enemy get played.

It’s quicker to look at my phone to see the weather. Timers are annoying on the echo because you have to keep asking how much time is left – there’s no visual indication. The National Rail skill for Alexa is a joke. It asks me every time if I mean ‘Reading station in Reading’. It’s actually quicker to use my phone than try and have a conversation with this awful app. Most other skills seem more of a novelty than an innovation.

I thought being able to wake up and say ‘Alexa good morning’ and have the Echo read out the traffic, weather and BBC News might be good, but I’ve ended up setting the Echo to start playing BBC Radio 4 every morning. I get the news and weather, without having to articulate anything first thing in the morning, the traffic was mostly useless anyway as it would have changed in the 15 minutes I take to eat breakfast and shower. Yes, I paid £90 for a clock radio.

Don’t get me wrong, the Echo does have some good uses. I’ve moved it into the kitchen and now use it as a Bluetooth speaker for podcasts. It’s good for quick maths questions, adding appointments to calendars, querying random facts. On the whole however, I feel it’s basically a gimmick rather than the next evolution of personal computing. Maybe that’s OK?

With my Sonos, iPhone, laptop and Apple Watch I feel as though if any of these broke I would want to replace them. With the Echo, I don’t think I’d miss it at all. Just as my Kindle sits on the shelf (I call it a ‘black hole for books’ because I usually forget about the books that are on it, unlike physical books which I almost always finish because they are sat there on my bedside table), I wonder if the Amazon Echo will be a passing craze and that the product category will need to evolve in some significant way before it can really become a mainstream device like smartphones or televisions.

We need better standards

What would the world be like without standards? We take for granted that all of our electrical appliances fit into the same plug sockets, not giving it a second thought. We assume that that tires purchased from any manufacturer will fit our cars, given the correct wheel size and width. Who would even doubt that a lightbulb will screw into its socket no matter where it was bought from or who fitted the light socket. Even the fact that an email can be sent using an Apple iPhone, from a Yahoo email service only to be received by a computer on the other side of the world running compatible email software is pretty amazing when you think about it. In fact, anyone can create their own email service by just registering their own domain and having a computer that is always switched on with an Internet connection. Whether it be the width of railway tracks or the audio encoding on a CD, interoperable standards were key to our way of life in much of the 20th and 21st century. TCP/IP and HTTP famously made the World Wide Web possible, while other Internet standards such as IRC, NNTP and FTP gave us realtime chat, debates and discussions and two-way files-transfers.

What do these technologies have in common though, apart from their interoperability?

They were invented in the distant past.

If I take the apps and services I now use regularly that were invented within the past 10 years, I struggle to think of one that supports interoperability. SMS was replaced with Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger or iMessage. Two of which are owned by the same company, all of which are designed to keep users locked into vendor ecosystems. Slack, which raised billions of dollars in 2015 is essentially 1990’s IRC with support for logins and cute emoji, and of course it’s closed. Twitter, the debate forum of our time, tightly controls which 3rd party clients can access the service in any meaningful volume, and decides who and what is deemed appropriate content.

This problem highlighted itself further recently when I realised that if I wanted to access a music streaming service on both my Apple Watch and my Amazon Echo, I’d have to pay for two separate streaming services. Apple do not allow users to play music from 3rd parties on the watch, only their streaming service Apple Music. Amazon does not support Apple Music however. How ridiculous is this? Can you imagine Sony releasing a CD player in 1980 that only played songs from artists on the Sony record label?

My worry is that email is next. Google is pushing users towards its Gmail app, and withdraws features such as Push email from users who choose to use a different app. We are lucky that at the low-level, technical details such as how to implement HDR are still agreed as standards. But for how long? What we need is government regulation or oversight to ensure that technology companies compete on the merits of their products, rather than the vendor lock-in they manufacture. Interoperability didn’t stifle innovation or harm profits in the previous century, and it won’t in this one.