Saturday 23 May, 2015
#The Forest Road Reader, No 139 : Stocking Up

My chums and colleagues at Thomson Reuters had a whip round when I left, which they gave to me in the form of an Amazon voucher. Amazon sells all kinds of nonsense, but I like books so I bought books. These books.

Blimey, Point Blank is as bone-dry a crime thriller as you could wish for. [added 28th May 2015]

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Monday 04 May, 2015
#The Forest Road Reader, No 138 : Reality Distortion Field
smellygit You bought a Macbook!!!!! [added 28th Apr 2015]

Even before I decided to fire my client, I'd been thinking about broadening out a bit. There are people who do Android development. There are people who do iPhone development. There aren't, at least it seemed to me, to be many people who do both. If I skilled up on iOS, then I'd put myself in that little pool and maybe that would be a good place to be.

To write software for iPhones you need to go all in. Surprizingly, you don't necessarily need an iPhone, but you do have to splash the cash for a MacBook, because that's what you need to run the development tools. So John, back in October, I jumped.

As things have turned out, I have so far done almost exactly no iOS development. I think I've written 5 lines of Objective-C and no Swift. Still, from little acorns, or something.

When I set out on this little adventure, I took advice from my friend Phil, who is a fully-functioning iOS developer. While you could happily work away just using the simulator it was best to have an iPhone, although perhaps not for the reasons you might think. The number one reason to have an iPhone, as an iOS developer he said, is to actually be a regular, active, user of the device. You needed to use it, because you needed to know it.

From the day my iPhone arrived, I have followed that advice. And every single day it pains me, because as I have used it and come to know it, I discovered I really don't like the iPhone. I *really* don't like it.

I have an iPhone 6+ and in many ways it's a superb piece of hardware. The screen is wonderful, the battery life is good, its network connection speeds always seem respectable. But it's the only phone I've owned that feels delicate - I'm afraid that if I drop it will shatter in a million glittering shards. It manifestly isn't particularly rugged - despite that fact that it spends most of its time on my desk, is never crammed in a back pocket, slung loose in a bag, or otherwise abused, my phone has creased across the back and no longer lies flat on a table.

It's also just too large and so difficult to manage in one hand. Of course, many modern phones are large, but the awkwardness of the physical size is exacerbated by iOS putings lots of the things you want to poke at the top of the screen. On your home screen, icons arranged in left-to-right, top-to-bottom lock step. Lacking anything equivalent to Android's back button, the Done/Cancel/Back/Complete control is inevitably at the top of the screen, often in the top-left. I understand that today's young people have longer thumbs than in the past, but that still a hell of stretch.

I hate that you can't put your icons where you want them. It seems ludicrous that there are no home screen widgets, and that the notifications so rarely manage to notify you of anything. And, God, the inter-app communication is just so poor. I really don't want to say "compared to Android", but compared to my previous Android phone I find my iPhone much less useful. I'm a long-time user of Remember The Milk for my to-do list, but on the iPhone the app has less utility than on, say, my Nexus tablet because there is no widget - I can't glance and see the list, I have to tap the icon, wait for the app to load, and then check list. Similarly with my calendar - it isn't ambient, I have to actively go and look.

Some operations that feel like they should be straightforward extend out into an almost infinite series of taps. Take, as an example, saving a link in a tweet to my Pinboard account. Having clicked the link to open up the webpage, click the share icon, choose open in Safari, load the page again, click the share icon again (which looks identical to before, but now provides different options), swipe sideways a bit to find and tap the Pinboard icon to finally save it to Pinboard. To get back to my Twitter feed, I then have to double-tap the home button and swipe sideways to get find my Twitter reader, then close the webpage. The equivalent sequence on my Nexus is open the webpage, click share, choose Pinboard, tap the back button.

I resent the immense difficulty I had getting the mail and calendar apps to talk to my bog standard mail and calendar servers. (The entirely unhelpful error messages and not remotely normal expectations about, for example, IMAP folders layouts struck me as deliberately obfuscatory.) The stock keyboard is pretty poor, but support for alternative keyboards is flaky - iMessage, for example, frequently fails to display a keyboard at all, requiring a force-close to recover. There's more - the unwillingness to pair over bluetooth without being prodded to do so, the fact that it's ludicrously difficult to get files off or onto the phone, that it needs a special cable all of its own but still often complains that its doesn't recognise its charger - but you get the message. Not a fan. I'm sticking with it, partly in the hope that perhaps Stockholm Syndrome will kick in, partly because I'm paying a fortune for it, but mainly because for a while it was Llamasoft's target machine of choice and so there are nine lovely games I can play on it.

In marked contract, the MacBook, a 15 inch MacBook Pro with Retina display for those keeping score, I love. Not for its software particularly, as I run the same applications on it as I do every other machine (Emacs, Firefox, Thunderbird, Intelli-J, Lego Batman 3, you know the kind of thing), but because it just is the best, most portable, laptop I've owned. It's light, feels decently rugged, has an amazing screen, and great battery life. It's almost entirely silent, it's fast (although not exceptionally so), and has the most efficient sleep mode I've yet encountered. It's certainly an expensive piece of kit, I have a similarly specified Dell laptop that cost about 500 quid less, and consequently I wouldn't recommend unless you would be taking it out and about. For me though, right now I feel I'm getting my money's worth in a way I just not with the iPhone.


» Llamasoft games for Android - five rather than nine, but lovely none the less.

» As a general rule of thumb, pretty much anything with the words "WALT SIMONSON" written on the cover is something that’s going to be worth having on your bookshelf.

» Moon Drawings : We invite you to contribute a drawing — which will be etched on a sapphire disc, sent to the Moon, and potentially traced by a robot rover into the Moon's soil.

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Monday 27 April, 2015
#The Forest Road Reader, No 137 : It Looks Better In The Pictures

Was stood up for a phone interview this afternoon. Sat, sadly, by phone for a good 45 minutes waiting for a call that never came. *sniff*

Maybe they'll phone later in the week. Maybe not. Thanks to a serendipitous email and Natalie's amazing negotiating skillz I was at work, in the shadow of the BT Tower, on the lower reaches of Birmingham's hip'n'swinging Jewelry Quarter.

Birmingham's BT Tower is, by a distance, the tallest building in the city. Well, building might be over-egging it a bit. Close up, it's less a modern monument to the information age, and more akin to one of those training towers you see behind fire stations, albeit one that might require the services of Red, Blue and Green watches.


» The EU, homeopathy and Norwegian vets : We can't find any evidence that there is such a directive. - Full Fact on the Telegraph's case there. The mere existence of Full Fact should be a source of shame to our national media organisations.

» First Look at Total War: Warhammer is Totally Warhammer : This is a good trailer. It’s a good trailer even though it doesn’t contain even a picosecond of in-game footage ... Anyway, you’ll want to watch this. - There's never been a completely successful adaptation of a Games Workshop game, and yet still we hope.


Good job I bought that MacBook. I'd have looked well out of place in that office with the Dell.

I then spoiled it by saying "I'd have looked well out of place in this office with my Dell" and mumbling something about running Linux on the desktop.

smellygit said You bought a Macbook!!!!! [added 28th Apr 2015]

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Friday 24 April, 2015
#The Forest Road Reader, No 136 : Be Here Now

My living in Birmingham was a frequent source of confusion and amusement to my London-office colleagues. Frequently, of course, people had absolutely no idea where or how far away it was. More than once people expressed incredulity that I was traveling from Birmingham to London and back the same day. If I explained that the train only took 90 minutes, and if I really got my skates on I could go door-to-door in not much more that two hours, they'd often start to look a bit uncomfortable. Hour-plus commutes are not uncommon, and many people travelled much longer than that. Truth is, I was probably had a shorter journey than many made very day, and with far fewer train cancellations.

More recently, the subject of HS2 and how much I was looking forward to it or not was a common source speculation. I simply pointed out that HS2 and its 45 minute travel time wasn't due to reach Birmingham until 2026 and leave it at that. If HS2 does ever reach Curzon Street, its 250mph trains will probably look pretty pedestrian compared to whatever the Japanese come up with to top their 374mph maglev beast of a train.


» Sneak Peek: INJ Culbard’s adaptation of “The King in Yellow”, out next month - INJ Culbard has never made a bad comic. Looking forward to this.

» Great city walks: Birmingham - Cannon Hill to Highbury. Talk about a soft option.

» From the For-Fuck's-Sake newswire - EU orders Britain's organic farmers to treat sick animals with homeopathy. This stupid piece of rules-making is news enough by itself, and there's really no need for the Telegraph to over-egg the EU vs Britain angle. This applies EU wide and, as the story admits, it even emerged that the British government had voted in favour of the new rules. Jesus.

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Monday 20 April, 2015
#The Forest Road Reader, No 135 : Not a proper job

In this modern age, we all take it for granted that "jobs for life" don't exist in the way we fondly imagine they once existed for our parents and grandparents. We do, though, still have a notion of what a "proper job" is. We might struggle to precisely define quite what it is but, like pornography, we know it when we see it. Mainly, anyway. As a freelance software developer - a contractor - I'm not sure if I do have a proper job. Even as contracting goes, I don't do that properly. The standard model is to find work through agencies, and work on site using equipment provided by the client. For nearly all of the past 15 years, I've worked primarily in my attic, and I haven't used an agent for at least a decade. I've been very lucky to do that, and I've been lucky with the clients I've had and the work they've given me. I've had the chance to work with on some really interesting problems, with some good people and, largely, been able to try and do the best work I could.

Last Christmas Eve, at about half past six in the evening, I realised that the best work I could do wasn't actually that good any more, and I needed to get a new job. In truth, while it was a moment of clarity (and who hasn't had a moment of clarity while sitting on the loo), it had been coming for a while.

If we spin back a few years the company I worked for, Practical Law, was, as a software development organisation, in a bit of sticky place. We'd spent a year moving from an in-house content management system to one we'd bought in. I, and many others, thought we'd been sold a duff bill of goods, but we were where we were and we got on and, through heroic effort, made it work. We finished the work on pretty much on time, without too many horrible bugs, and I don't think we lost any clients either, but we weren't in a happy place. Developing new features was difficult, our test coverage was pretty thin, getting a build done was stressful, and deployments doubly so.

Spin forward a bit and things were very different. Builds were a snap, our test coverage wasn't bad, and deployments, while still taking a bit of time, were reliable. We'd worked hard to improve, and were reaping the benefits.

Then came the corporate seimic shift - Practical Law was sold to Thomson Reuters and became part of Thomson Reuters Legal Services. There was a great deal of uncertainty, but the mood, for a variety of reasons, was generally positive. Not only would we be fine, we'd bring our new colleagues with us.

Come forward a couple more years to December last year and, mid-Boxing Day constitutional, I realise that not only are we no longer improving, I'm not even sure we're staying still. We weren't fine. We didn't win. We didn't carry anyone with us. Instead, the sheer weight of corporate status quo-ism slowed and flattened and muffled and dampened and stifled. As I sat, I knew I'd had enough.

It took another three months for me to finish up and finally get my release into production. I was sorry to leave, and I've feel like I've let people down, and I'm sad that I won't get to do some of things I was working on. But now I'm out, and searching the job ads, ringing agents, and, after all these years, acting like those all those other contractors. Still not sure it's a proper job, though.


Hello there. I had a bit of a tickle in my throat, coughed, and that just splurged out. Breathing a bit easier for it, though. Better out than in, and all that.

How are you? Keeping well? Have an owl.

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Monday 23 March, 2015
#First ice cream van of the year ...

... was plinky-plonking away when I got out of the car on Sunday afternoon, that's the 22nd of March, at 14:16. My Solihull and Olton correspondent writes that he heard one out and about on the 31st of January, but if I don't hear it, it doesn't count.

Previous years:

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Sunday 17 August, 2014
#The Forest Road Reader, No 134 : A Small Story From The Internet

Once, yes once in the far distant past my office up at the top of the house was as tidy and as organised an office at the top of the house as one could wish for. Those days have gone, but in an effort to regain something of my past tidy office glory I had a bit of tidy up. In the middle of a pile of bits of paper I found this

In August 1991 I did not know a Jessica or Sam Colman, and in any case was newly arrived in Northampton, living in digs. Faced with such a mystery naturally my first thought was to tweet about it. Others could perhaps smile at our own past childish enthusiams, and then it would be forgotten and we'd all go back to whatever it was we were doing.

But no ...

By this time, I'd remembered that the people who lived here before we did were called Colman. That solved part of the mystery, although it still doesn't explain how the note ended up in a pile in my office. I clicked through @Jesscolman, who turns out to be the producer of Coast, and then ...

Well, blimey!

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Wednesday 13 August, 2014
#The Forest Road Reader, No 133 : The Manila Cocktail Lounge

The Manila Cocktail Lounge is a deliberately dingy cocktail bar. The drinks menu focusses primarily on gin martinis and vodka gimlets. Unless requested otherwise all martinis are dirty without ice, gimlets are mixed using the recipe given by Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye. Other spirits may be available on a limited and occasional basis.

Salted pretzels are available at the bar. A small selection of sandwiches are available for you to enjoy. No crisps or other fripparies are sold. No coffee, no tea.

Music is provided by resident trio who play Warren Zevon songs Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, Tom Waits songs Wednesdays and Fridays, with a two hour Nick Cave swing party on Sundays.

Closed Mondays.

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Monday 11 August, 2014
#The Forest Road Reader, No 132 : A Bit Shit

Logistically poor holiday planning meant this year we spent a weekend in Edinburgh and Glasgow at the Commonwealth Games before returning to Birmingham and almost immediately leaving for Pembrokeshire. Holiday was great. In a development I had never expected I spent an hour waxing my surfboard.

Usain was right about the Commonwealth Games. Compared to the Olympics they weren't as good. That's not a reflection on the quality of the sport, which was great fun and which I enjoyed thoroughly, or of the atmosphere in any of the stadiums, which was warm and appreciative even during Scotland vs England in the Rugby 7s, or on the logistics of getting in and out, which were efficient and friendly. It simply wasn't as good because everything was spread about the place. I realise this is how it has to be, but the fact that the bulk of the Olympics took place in one big park added hugely to fun and the feel.

Take our Sunday trip - netball at the SECC in the morning, Rugby 7s at Ibrox in the evening. We took the train from Edinburgh in Glasgow Queen Street then walked to the SECC. It's a couple of miles. The route is relatively straightforward, but it wasn't well signposted. At the start you got pointed off in the general direction of the SECC, and then once you got closer there signs but the bit in the middle was vague. It's further hampered by the fact you have to cross over an urban motorway. The route we chose took us over a footbridge so long and so steep it's like some kind of public health intervention. For later onward walk to Ibrox, another mile and half, we navigated by walking against the flow of the crowd coming out. Ibrox itself is fair stadium, but it sits in the middle of bit of Glasgow you probably wouldn't include on your sight seeing itinerary. Again, the sport was great and we had a really good time, but the bits in between venues? Bit of slog.

» Bicycle, a 90 minute document about, well, bicycles is showing for two nights in September at the MAC. While I've not yet seen the film, it's had good notices and these showing include a Q+A with the director and producer. The production team are based down in Digbeth and in one of those horrible our kids went to the same school chains of acquaintence we ended up in it - the kids and I fleetingly, Natalie a bit less fleetingly. Being filmed was good fun actually - Pip even shouted ACTION! To head off any Frozen Planet style scandal, I want to be clear that what we did was slightly staged but reflects the truth, and I should stress that we were filmed in our natural habitat and released back into the wild afterwards.

» File under "approach with caution" - A Lisp implementation in sed.

» From the "why the hell not" desk - Hullcoin: The World's First Local Government Cryptocurrency. I'm not convinced by the logic, but why not, eh?

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Tuesday 01 July, 2014
#The Forest Road Reader, No 131 : Bicycle

Bicycle, The Film Official Trailer

Hey look! That's my bike! And that's my wife riding it!

Bicycle has its VIP premiere this evening up in Bradford. We were invited but had to turn it down. Work, you know, and school and stuff. I'm in London today, so even further from Bradford that I ordinarily am. As the film opens, I'll probably be putting in a few laps of Regents Park on my folder before catching the train. Chapeau!

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