‘Wonderfully Wacky Adult Commentary’

Score: 4/5

Jason Hazeley, Joel Morris

This was a lovely Christmas Day surprise from SWMBO. I hadn’t even heard of these books, but apparently there’s an entire series.

The basic idea, I think, is that someone went through the back-catalogue of pictures in children’s Ladybird books and added new captions or commentary for certain themes.

It’s a lovely idea. It’d have been even better if the book was a bit longer - it felt very short when I read it in one short sitting on Christmas Day.

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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‘Bit Out Of Date’

Score: 2/5

Johnny Long, Bill Gardner, Justin Brown

This book is a bit out of date, which is a shame. It's a 2016 edition (Third Edition, copyrighted 2016 although Amazon says ‘9 Dec 2015') but some of the content expired years ago. There are also plenty of instances of referring to something in the images that isn't there now, as if the images were updated and the text not, or maybe the other way around.

To give the most blatant example, the first chapter talks about Google keywords and says to use a '+' in front of a search term to make it mandatory. I remember the debacle when Google stopped using the '+' sign so they could use it for Google+ usernames. In 2011.

That's not to say the book is worthless. There's some interesting stuff in there, and many of the mistakes in the book could be cleared up by better proofreading and a revalidation of all the images/figures with their respective captions and mentions.

None of this is the authors' fault, of course. This all happens after they've done their work, and they could be unhappy with how their work has been treated too. Still, publishing this as a '2016' edition with so little effort put in to making a well-edited 2016 edition left a bad taste in my mouth so I won't be rushing to buy a Syngress-published book again.

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‘Great, But Wanted More’

Score: 5/5

James Gleick

I suppose I’ve been spoiled by some of James Gleick’s other works - like The Information or Chaos - but I anticipated a lot more science in this book than is actually there.

I like it - it’s a great book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s just that the focus is primarily on time travel in literature and popular culture rather than the science of time. It’s not that there’s no talk of what time is, because that’s there. There’s even discussions of some of the philosophical thinking behind it (even my favourite, McTaggart, gets a mention). Just that there’s less of that than talk of time travel in books. Maybe it’s because time is such a nebulous label and that we have such basic questions about it that are still unanswered by current science.

(Yes, I’d probably have known better what to expect if I’d read the blurb and read reviews, but I stopped reading things like that after the cover of War Of The Rats - a book about a duel between snipers - gave away the outcome. So I don’t read blurbs any more, I avoid reviews and I generally just want to be left alone to read a book on my own.)

Anyway, here is a snippet from ‘Time Travel’ (starting from page 137 in my paperback) to give you a flavour of the prose:

We have a tendency to take our words too seriously, which happens (paradoxically) when we are unconscious of them. Language offers a woefully meager set of choices for expressing what we need to express. Consider this sentence: “I haven’t seen you for a [?] time." Must the missing word be long? Then time is like a line or a distance - a measurable space. The language forces this upon us. Who was the first person to say time “passes” or time “flows”? We are seldom conscious of the effect of language on our choice of metaphors, the effect of our metaphors on our sense of reality. Usually we give the words no thought at all. When we do, we may well wonder what we’re really saying. “I’m terrified of the thought of time passing (or whatever is meant by that phrase) whether I ‘do’ anything or not," Philip Larkin wrote to his lover Monica Jones. The words lead us in a certain direction.

In English and most Western languages, the future lies ahead. In front of us. Forward. The past is behind us, and when we are running late we say we have fallen behind. Yet this forward-backward orientation is neither obvious nor universal. Even in English, it seems we can’t agree on what it means to move a meeting back one day. Some people are certain that back means earlier. Others are equally certain that it means later. On Tuesday, Wednesday lies before us, though Tuesday is before Wednesday. Other cultures have different geometries. Aymara speakers, in the Andes, point forward (where they can see) when talking about the past and gesture behind their backs when talking about the future. In other languages, too, yesterday is the day ahead and tomorrow is the day behind. The cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, a student of spatiotemporal metaphors and conceptual schemas, notes that some Australian aboriginal communities orient themselves by cardinal direction (north, south, east, west) rather than relative direction (left, right) and think of time as running east to west. (They have a strongly developed sense of direction, compared to more urban and indoor cultures.)...

I hope you can see what I mean about how good a book it is. That’s less than 2 paragraphs but look at how much it covered!

There’s a density to this work that made me read a bit, pause to think, then read a bit more. And it was all the more enjoyable because of that. Much as I wish it had covered more of the latest thinking in wormholes, or dwelled more on Lee Smolin or Julian Barbour or Kip Thorne, it’s lovely just the way it is.

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‘Didn’t Want To End'

Score: 5/5

Nick Harkaway

I thoroughly enjoyed Nick Harkaway’s first book The Gone-Away World. It was remarkable. 

Angelmaker, his second book, didn’t quite reach those same highs for me, but it was still excellent.

He’s back to brilliance with this one.

As with his other books, it’s really hard to try to describe what they’re about, the context or the characters. Suffice to say, this has all the richness of characters and textures of his previous works while having nothing to do with the worlds of those works.

I really didn’t want to finish the book. I’d have been happy to just read more and more.

I hope he writes another book soon.

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SWMBO broke a bone in her hand yesterday:

Not as nice as it looks

Technically, I think it’s a multiple fracture of the fourth metacarpal in her right hand.

We went to A&E as soon as we could, and after triage, X-rays, fracture clinic, more X-rays, fracture clinic again, I got to bring her home.

I am once again very grateful for our National Health Service.

Tags: Personal
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So, while I’m away in Iceland, Google again starts being irritating.

Suddenly, Newsstand decides to start telling me headlines. And giving me notifications about them too.

A few years ago I noticed that companies weren’t being accidentally annoying, but were instead deliberately pushing the boundary of annoyance as far as they could - far enough to benefit the company but just short of so far that you’d switch to a different company. I wrote a ranty blog post called ‘Maximising Tolerable Irritation’ and then never bothered posting it. I’ve hunted it out and posted it now, years later.

I have never asked Newsstand to do notify me about news stories. I’ve never used Newsstand. I’ve never even knowingly searched for and installed Newsstand. I’m fairly aware of is existence but it hasn’t exactly been a part of my life.

Until now when I'm in a foreign country and it decides to notify me with headlines from a newspaper I already get email from every day. It’s trying to get my attention to tell me something I already know.

I truly do understand that it doesn’t know I already know what is trying to tell me. But it’s hard to see its AI as anything other than dumb now, and why would I want something dumb interrupting me?

All the other notifications are switched off on this tablet whenever they start, and it’s not a big leap that it should say ‘Woah, all the other times this guy had been notified he’s turned the notifications off. Maybe I should shut up?'

But no. Newsstand doesn’t even give you the option of not downloading shit. The only option it gives is disabling it downloading shit over mobile.

So I stopped it downloading shit and notifying me about stuff I already know by just uninstalling the damned thing.

I really don’t think that was the intent the designers had behind their new notification system, but hopefully if they see a lot of uninstalls as a result of their actions they’ll Actually Think Things Through instead of being so blasé about interrupting people.

I don’t care. I'm done Tolerating this kind of Irritation.

Tags: Clueless Idiocy
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(Meta: I wrote this quite a while ago and for some reason never published it. I'm not sure exactly when it was written though - it was just after the first series of Netflix’s version of House of Cards came out, so that would probably put it around the second quarter of 2013.)

We all know companies don't have our best interests at heart, and the bigger the company, it seems, the less they care at all. I’ve grown used to this, but I’ve started to see a more worrying trend among companies’ approaches.

Everyone is told that the way for a company to succeed is to put the customer first, provide the absolute best customer experience, and that untold riches await for the companies that do it right.

Turns out that’s bunkum.

Companies these days have latched on to ‘Maximising Tolerable Irritation’ instead of delighting customers. They don’t want to provide the absolute best customer experience, they want to provide the one that suits their goals that is just good enough so that most customers can barely tolerate it.

Take Netflix as an example. They allow users to maintain a ‘List’, where users can add titles they want to watch in future, to make them easy to find. Great. Nice usability feature.

In the previous version of their Android app, the first thing you saw on the screen was the recent things you watched (allowing you to pick up where you left off). Next was your own List, giving you easy access to things you'd cued up to watch. After that were various auto-recommendation lists and other nonsense.

With the latest version they've taken to Maximising Tolerable Irritation and moved the List - the things you've decided you want easy access to - much further down and the very first thing you see is a very big advert for something Netflix wants you to watch. Not something you want to watch, something they want you to watch.

The first time it appeared for me, it dedicated 25% of the screen to an advert for the first series of House of Cards - a Netflix-only show that Netflix knows I've seen because I watched it on Netflix.

Now my List is appearing down after the ‘Random picks for Geoff’ list! Yes, they think it’s better to give me easy access to random picks for me rather than things I’ve tried to set for easy access.

This is, in many respects, trivial. I know this. But it kinda shows contempt for the user, saying ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know you want this, but tough luck, we're going to push this on you instead’. It’s not user-focused, it’s Netflix-focused and it's designed to be both annoying and interruptive enough that you notice their advert and have more difficulty getting to what you actually want, while at the same time not being a big enough deal that you switch to something else.

So, no-one will switch away because of this irritation because it’s tolerable, but they're really trying to maximise the irritation for their own benefit.

I’m not just saying Netflix do this - it’s just one example. There are plenty of non-Netflix examples. It's like all companies have taken the wrong message from Nudge. It’s not accidental bad usability or an anti-pattern of usability, it’s an actually user-hostile dark pattern that seeks to make things deliberately unpleasant for the user, just not so unpleasant that the user doesn’t use the service.

Like call handling systems that never seem to have the option you actually need, even though you've explored several levels deep. It’s terrible, but is it enough to make you switch bank (or whatever the company is)?

Or Amazon - try buying MP3s without using your gift card balance. Workarounds include - buy yourself a gift card and send it to yourself, redeem it after you've made your purchase. Or ‘pre-order’ (urgh) a ridiculously expensive book and cancel it when you’ve made your purchase. All just to try to get you to fit in with Amazon’s desires. It’s possible to work around them, they’re just irritating enough that you probably won’t take your business elsewhere.

Another example - we would regularly get letters addressed to The Occupier about overhead power lines. These didn’t really seem to come from a reputable company (at the very least on the grounds that we’d used the Mail Preference Service to make sure we wouldn’t receive junk mail) so we ignored them for the first few years. They kept coming. And they provided a form to allow you to stop receiving them. The options on the form were:

  • I have already received a large compensation...
  • I am aware that compensation was paid to a previous owner...
  • I have instructed another company to act...
  • I do not have pylons or high voltage lines near...
  • I am not the registered owner...

No option that says ‘would you just fuck off and stop bothering me’. It’s like they figure if they don’t give me the option of just choosing not to do business with them, I’ll suddenly start doing business with them.

OK, that last one doesn't really fit with the notion of Maximising Tolerable Irritation but it’s still pretty fucking irritating. It’s the same people who think it’s oh so clever to have ‘Rate This App’ or ‘Later’ as the only options on a dialog, instead of a ‘Never, Ever, Ever - Now Stop Begging’ button. (Or better still - a button that allows you to punish the app developer for putting such a bad dialog in front of the user in the first place.)

Signing up for Windows Azure is a better example. Microsoft require (and check) a mobile phone number, and say they’re going to text your number with drivel like ‘information for new subscribers’ - information that:

  1. I don’t want,
  2. I certainly don’t want on my phone - I use that for stuff I think is important or urgent, not drivel spam from Microsoft,
  3. I have no way of opting out of - the Privacy Statement says ‘You will not be able to unsubscribe from these communications.'

In fact, Microsoft’s approach to spam emails generally is an example of maximising tolerable irritation. They don’t have unsubscribe options on their emails (at least, not the ones I get), they have a link saying ‘Review our privacy statement’ or some such. If you sign up for something from Microsoft, they take it as you being contractually obliged to receive their emails. Maximising tolerable irritation - it’s irritating, but is it irritating enough?

Is it irritating enough to get you to stop using Microsoft? Or Amazon? Or Netflix? Or...?

Tags: Clueless Idiocy
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‘Shoulda Read Years Ago’

Score: 5/5

Kate Thompson

This book is filled with the hard-won experience of writing software. I really wish I’d read it when I was starting out programming. The book was only published last year, and I started programming *mumble* decades ago, but so many of the stories have a familiarity to them of things I’ve also gone through or seen others go through.

There are stories about some things that work, as well as some things that don’t. There’s advice on what to do, as well as what not to do. Most importantly there’s advice on what to do when the advice on what to do and what not to do contradicts itself - the nature of software development these days involves dealing with these contradictions acceptably.

But overall it’s a book full of nice, familiar stories and koans that remind me of things I’ve done that I’d do better these days.

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‘Beat, Bop, Bumming About’

Score: 4/5

Jack Kerouac

I’d never read this book before. I’d heard of it, of course, but I didn’t really know anything about it. To be honest, I just thought it was a non-fiction travelogue of a journey across the U.S., not a fictionalised account of the rise of the beat generation.

It is fiction, but apparently only lightly so - Kerouac did indeed take many of the journeys outlined in the book. 

But what made the book stand out for me was the ‘texture’ of the writing. The way he described people and their actions really helped bring them alive to me. I could picture them in my mind andI heard their individual voice when they spoke.

This doesn't happen much for me.

It was fascinating to read about the U.S. in the post-WW2 era, although translating money values was tricky for me. (The dollar was worth more, but not at a fixed rate for all items - a sofa will have had a different rate of inflation since then than a gallon of petrol/gas.)

But most interesting to me was the affect music and writing had on them. The characters described in the book would go out to music clubs at night (they liked their bop!), sleep during the day, travel, and in their spare time would be writing a book. Such was the Beat Generation, apparently.

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Almost What It Says

Score: 4/5

I liked the book. It's pretty much what it says - a lot of bets that are simple to describe but which are difficult to do or have a certain element of trickery about them.

They're not all certainties though. Some of the bets I figured out without reading the rest of the text, some I'm reasonably confident I'd have figured out, and some descend to such a level of pedantry that I'd be reluctant to mention them to people.

But mostly, yeah, they're fun to read, fun to think about, and maybe fun to try out.

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