Why Won’t Capitalism Produce a Decent Kettle?

It was the late 1970s. As children of a mix of working and middle class, multicoloured parents at a secondary comprehensive school run by left-wing radicals in the heart of St. John’s Wood, we were the definition of melting pot. On one matter we were agreed — having a Bosch appliance in your kitchen meant you’d made it.

I persuaded my wife recently that none of our kettles had served us well enough, and that a Bosch was the answer. “Don’t look at those negative Amazon reviews, they’re from losers” I insisted.

Our journey began when our eleven year old small electric kettle finally had to be put down due to mechanical wear. It still worked, and perhaps I did feel a little like Fitzgerald in The Revenant, but I had my eyes on the prize: A kettle that could handle multiple temperatures; well that’s where it started, it always starts with good intentions before morphing without your conscious realisation into a twisty road signposted “hell”.

Amazon offered very little help. Did we really need WiFi on a kettle? Why was the user interface for temperature control on the kettles that had it so unbearably arcane? What’s the point in a kettle that forces you to resort to an instruction manual every time you use it? What about filter kettles? Well, these were all redundant for us since we got our distiller1.

In the end it was the lure of a bargain that did for me. They know how to get suckers like me — list that thing you wrote off for its totally ridiculous price at half its normal price, which still makes it bad value and see how many suckers will bite. A bit like all those games you buy when the Steam Sale is on, but never play, because if you’d really wanted to play them, you’d probably have bought them at the original price. So I hit “buy” on the Breville.

The Breville wasn’t bad. It was just a bit too “divide the family so you can target each member as an individual for maximum commercial gain” for our liking. You see, it only boiled one cup at a time. It could be a big cup, but it could only be a single cup as it only had a single spout. If you had guests over, or more than one of you wanted a brew at the same time, well, tough, you had to take it in turns. It had no temperature control and it had no other function. It just boiled one cup at a time. And that, in fact, is what makes it pretty great. By separating water storage from water heating functions, it’s efficient. Not just energy efficient, but when we temporarily replaced it with the Bosch, we had to fill up the bloody Bosch every single time we boiled the kettle

Then we decided to try a cheap alternative. Except that “cheap” now feels like cardboard. I don’t know how capitalism manages to keep prices going up and quality keep going down (wasn’t global capitalism supposed to fix this), but the Von Shef feels like it was put together with chewing gum and cardboard. And recycled paper socks.

I don’t know why they call it a Von Shef. Did they mean “Chef”? It doesn’t feel very cheffy. It doesn’t feel very Sheffield either, if by “Shef” they were somehow alluding to Sheffield steel. Von Shite might be more accurate. What’s wrong with this pretender then, given that the price wasn’t too bad at about £27 incl. delivery
– It beeps all the time. Nobody understands why, but we’re all tired of our gadgets beeping at us for no obvious reason all the time
– The temperature control is on the handle. It’s impossible to work out
– It took me three attempts to work out how to actually start boiling the kettle. You know, kettle on/off, which is kind of important, is next to impossible to figure out. WTF?
– It has weird lights that light up for no obvious reason. They look cool, but I can’t figure out how to use the kettle half the time, which is the bit I wish they’d focussed on.
– It feels cheap AF. Our last kettle was half the price of this one, and felt more solid. I feel the guilt of Fitzgerald when he realises he’s been found out. I feel the urge to run, because now there is no turning back.

But what about the Bosch before the Von Shef? What was wrong with the Bosch?
– It felt cheap and tacky. If you’re going to spend £70 on a kettle, it should feel solid. By making it plasticky and cheap looking, you, Bosch, I’m talking to you, all of you, have crushed my childhood dreams
– The fill indicator is almost impossible to read and stupidly placed
– It has temperature control, but the UI took me five botched attempts to work out. It doesn’t make sense. No matter how many times I use it, I’ll never understand it.

The Von Shef is going back, it’s too cheap, it’s UI too perplexing.

The Bosch is no longer a Bosch. At a glance, it still looks cool, but the brand has lost its soul, its heft, its appeal and turned me into a cynic about everything else I aspired to in that St. John’s Wood melting pot. Even McDonalds didn’t misplace Pret A Manger’s soul when they bought a 25% stake. McDonalds did better than you Bosch. How low have you sunk?

Our search for a kettle goes on. We had hoped that Global Capitalism would be able to deliver on this most basic appliance, but we’ve found it strangely lacking.

We want:
– Quality
– Solidity
– Temperature Control
– Energy Efficiency
– Totally transparent UI
– Decent looks

If you’ve seen something like this, let me know. Meanwhile, I’m off to burn my childhood vision boards.


  1. Also from Amazon, our distiller was the single best thing we ever did for the quality of our tea and coffee. 

Why You Should Turn Down a Great Job Offer

You’ve had an interview. You hit it off with the company. They love you and they want to make you an offer. It arrives. It’s good; really good.

Here’s why you should say “No!”

Almost without exception, they want the value they think you can add to their company. They don’t actually want what makes you special and unique, the way you do things, the way you work, the boundaries you set, the tools you use; they want the results and as for the way those results are delivered? Well, you’d better fit in. They have their own culture thank you very much.

A good professional is adaptable, but this is 2018. The thing that makes you special is what you’ve practiced and how you’ve practiced. If you can’t use that, you’re no longer going to get the same results. If you’ve ever experienced this, well, now you know why.

The same is true of some relationships. Remember that term “marriage of convenience”? Same principle. Often, both parties would know what they were going to get from the other, and it wasn’t intrinsic to the other, it was almost always extrinsic — status, wealth, beauty.

If you don’t feel valued, if you don’t feel loved, say “No!”

Unless you’re broke. Then be a mercenary for a while. You’ve got to eat. Just don’t make it your life because life will pass very quickly and mercenaries don’t have a long life expectancy.

Why VR Matters

An array of hammers strike taut metal wires. A series of sounds are emitted that are unusually pleasing. The audience bursts into rapturous applause as the last of the notes decay into silence.

I’ve described, in somewhat mechanical terms the live performance of one of Chopin’s Etudes. If you’d never heard piano played before, never mind so exquisitely, no amount of words could prepare you for the artistry and emotional power conveyed by a live performance. Similarly, the biggest problem faced by VR proponents is conveying what it feels like to enjoy a finely tuned experience inside a Rift, Vive or PSVR head-mounted display. The only way for you to know what a beautiful instrument sounds like when played by a virtuoso is to experience it for yourself. The only way for you to make any judgment about VR is to put on a headset and experience something. I would hope that you would get to experience something crafted by someone who is really skilful with the medium, otherwise it’s going to be more painful than listening to a tyro bashing on a badly tuned piano while drunk.

Have you ever had a vivid dream? One that is so powerful that you can almost reach out and touch it when you wake up before its gossamer-like threads dissolve and reality barges in coldly? Or perhaps you’re one of those rare individuals who is capable of lucid dreaming? Well VR gives each and every one of those willing to don a VR headset that rare ability to lucid dream, to be in any reality we choose, and to fashion it while conscious.

For this fashioning to work, the experience will have to be “composed” if you will, by someone who understands the medium, or at the very least, respects it. It will be some considerable time before this new medium yields a language, a grammar, a set of conventions and best practices. Right know, it’s all up for grabs, it’s a precious time, pregnant with enormous potential.

The early days of a medium are often filled with naked attempts to translate old media to the new, some might call this skeuomorphism of sorts, perhaps there is a better word for it. Early TV shows were just radio shows with a camera, for example, but look at some of the best TV shows today and you’ll see just how far we’ve come.

We won’t know what VR is capable of until the old paradigms are shed and a new form, butterfly-like, totally at home in VR and importantly, impossible anywhere else emerges in all its impactful glory.

Video games have traditionally sacrificed emotional nuance for intensity. There is a danger that VR could host even greater emotional coarseness, with porn, horror and violence being given a unique and highly intimate platform in which to launch their assault on the senses of those after such extremes of experience. Without wishing to judge such content, my hope is that a new medium gives us as an industry the rare opportunity of introducing more nuance, more artistry, a more graduated emotional palette that could enrich and enlarge our lives in a way that has not been possible thus far. Novels after all, have yielded Jilly Cooper, but also Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

One of the reasons I left PlayStation was because I recognised this time as pivotal. I couldn’t stand by and not at least attempt to help shape the new medium in some way with my own limited contribution. If you knew there was going to be a total solar eclipse in your neighbourhood, a once in a lifetime opportunity, wouldn’t you at least try to take the day off work to witness it?

Chances like these just don’t come along often. There are some observers who suggest that VR could be the last medium. In its current form, that’s obviously risible, but this is just the beginning. I was there at the dawn of the video games industry in the early ’80s and yet this period feels even more exciting, even more groundbreaking and those of us lucky enough to be able to help define the early days have a huge burden of responsibility to future generations, not just of developers, but of players too. Will we choose the easy route or will we go for the harder, but ultimately more rewarding and enriching route?

MacBook Pro? No

Let me count the way my latest MacBook Pro is not suitable for professional use, but before I do that, you should know that I’ve been buying and recommending Macs since 2001. I’ve spent a fortune on them. I love them, but I only like my latest MacBook Pro (a 2016 model with the Radeon Pro 460). I write this with a heavy heart and a malfunctioning keyboard.  This is a story about unrequited hardware love.

Typing

The keyboard on my MBP has begun to fail, with the ‘b’ key sometimes giving me doubled characters and sometimes none.

The cursor keys are in that awful cluster configuration where the up and down arrow keys, the ones I use the most, have half the space they should have and consequently make it next to impossible to navigate using them. Not so much cluster as clusterfuck.

They also feel different to the other keys, less responsive, if that were possible.

This £2800 laptop has a distinctly unprofessional keyboard. It’s not a whole lot better than the membrane keyboard on the first computer I owned, the Atari 400 back in 1982. I wouldn’t be surprised if the travel was shorter than that on the rubber keyboard of the ZX Spectrum. I don’t mind the feel, but that’s not good enough for a £2800 laptop. I should adore the keyboard. It doesn’t need much more travel, but it does need it. I don’t expect a Matias Tactile Pro, but I could do with a Magic Keyboard and I’ll take the extra thickness in return for a usable primary input method.

Finally, where’s my damned Esc key? I go for that so often, and miss. Putting it on the Touch Bar was a stupid idea.

Touch Bar

Why? The only thing of any use is the TouchID sensor, but you don’t need a whole keyboard-level touch screen for that!

For a touch typist, if you’re going to have a touchable surface, it might as well be the screen. I don’t want to look at the keyboard, ever; I want to look at the screen. Looking down at that pointless strip that offers me no feedback when I interact with it and which has no delineated edges is an extra cognitive burden that I just don’t need and therefore, as a professional, never use, unless I’m forced to. You know that a design has failed when you’re forced into using it. The Touch Bar is Apple’s Clippy. An embarrassment.

Track Pad

It’s too big. I never use all of that space, and I keep accidentally triggering it with my wrists when I don’t want to. Why not give the keyboard some extra height so I can have some proper cursor keys and while you’re at it, make those keys tactile and replaceable? It’s not a Wacom for crying out loud.

Ports

I like USB Type C, I really do, but like many people with a MacBook Pro, I have a camera and like most decent cameras, it has an SD card slot, except that Apple saw fit to remove this slot. Professional photographers have used the MacBook Pro for as long as they’ve been made. Only now, they need an accursed dongle.

I’d understand and forgive this on a lesser machine, like one without the “Pro” moniker, but not having an SD card on this £2800 machine strikes me as totally stupid. Rather than use another expensive adapter, I just use the iMac, which makes that the professional machine, and this one just a designer’s wet dream.

Power supply

I have a professional laptop, but I can’t tell it’s charging unless I open the lid, gain entry and look at the tiny power indicator in the menu bar. Which genius thought this would be a Pro touch? I know it makes a sound when you plug it in; fine, genius, but what if I didn’t hear the sound? How do I tell when it’s fully charged? You took off the MagSafe, which was a genuinely useful innovation and gave us USB C charging — fine, but add a little adapter that has a charge indicator, and yes, if you must, charge for it, though you really shouldn’t if you want to call this a “Pro”.

While we’re on the subject of lights, I miss the glowing Apple logo at the back of the machine. Bring that back please. Why are you cutting costs on a £2800 machine?

Also, why don’t we get a power extension cable like we used to? Don’t know about you, but I find it hard to find power sockets near me all the time and this is just another tight move.

Battery Life

You claim five hours. I can offer you some more realistic benchmarks. Not five. Sometimes not four. It’s a Pro machine, right? Don’t go backwards then. Give me 8 hours or give me death.

Conclusion

If Apple wants to make a MacBook Pro, they should quit with the design fundamentalism on a machine costing £2800 (£2800 is a ton of money for an ordinary laptop, which apart from the display, this is) and quit with what seem like cost-cutting measures in the name of power efficiency. This machine is no doubt powerful. It never struggles with software, everything runs at a decent clip (when the power is plugged in) and it’s stable, but it’s not a Pro machine — just about any decent PC laptop at not much more than half the price of my MacBook Pro will give me “Pro” functionality.

I say make it faster, make the battery bigger, make the laptop slightly thicker, make the keyboard decent (heck just make it like the Magic Keyboard), get rid of the Touch Bar, make the display a 16” 4K HDR OLED, bring back some kind of MagSafe, bring the lit Apple logo back, bring back the SD card slot, add three USB 3 slots, make the trackpad smaller, beef up the GPU so that it can handle VR and games, and make it £4000. I’ll buy it. In the meantime, drop the price on this experiment and stop calling it a Pro. It doesn’t feel any more Pro than the standard MacBook.

Why I’m Happy I’m a Type 1 Diabetic

I take many insulin injections a day. I monitor my blood sugar with an obsessiveness that would alarm even that most quantified of selves, Tim Ferriss. I’ve suffered transient ischemic attacks; a sub-arachnoid brain haemorrhage; profliferative retinopathy requiring industrial scale laser destruction of my peripheral retinal field, not to mention a vitrectomy; kidney disease1; neuropathy so bad that I’d wake at night screaming and kick my metal bed frame to dull the pain; multiple hospital admissions for ketoacidosis (that thing that regularly kills diabetics) and a whole lot more you thankfully won’t have to google.

So why on earth am I grateful for this most pernicious disease? Well, it might just have saved my life.

In my family tree, you can find just about every killer disease and it laid many low before their time, including my father. Increasingly, we are finding that sugar is the culprit. The reason why sugar is so terrible is the subject of my next article, but a few years back, I was so sick and tired of my diabetes that I thought it about time I learned something about it, and so I came across Dr. Bernstein. His argument is profoundly simple and brutally effective and I’m going to paraphrase it somewhat crudely.

Imagine that you are a car. As you navigate your terrain, so long as it’s smooth, your suspension and shock absorbers don’t really come into play. Once you hit some bumps, the shock absorbers will activate when the suspension is close to bottoming out.

Imagine that the shock absorbers and suspension are your pancreas and that the bumps are carbohydrate and in some cases, protein. The purer the sugar, the harsher the bump. Well, I’m a car without shock absorbers or suspension. What I’ve got is a manual car levelling system that can never quite match the ferocity of the steepest bumps, nor can it level the car as smoothly as your suspension system will. My system is insulin injections. Coarse, but they save my life. Your system is the working pancreas. Well tuned, but if you abuse it for too long, well, let’s just say Alzheimer’s, cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cerebrovasvular disease and all their buddies are a lot more likely. Cancer’s primary food is glucose in the blood stream and there is now good evidence that while the body can thrive in a ketotic state, cancers do not.2

You see, if I had not decided to treat my diabetes, I would probably not be enjoying the good health and energy levels I have done for the last few years and hope to for the foreseeable future.

So, I’m grateful I’m a Type 1 Diabetic. I’m grateful for this pernicious disease. It forced me to act and what I’ve done has probably saved my life many times over.


  1. Miraculously reversed, that’s another story too! 
  2. I’ll cover ketones, ketosis, ketoacidosis and the evils of sugar in future articles. 

I Die, You Die

Let’s get the obvious out of the way, 2016 is just a number, an arbitrary one. We aren’t even certain that it measures the duration it’s supposed to. Laps around the sun are also an arbitrary time unit. That said, most of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, and it seems like an extraordinary number of stars have passed away this year. It’s not just how many stars we’ve lost, but the quality of them.

This post is about two things. First, I’m going to go through a partial list of stars who have died this year, and it’s important to stress, sadly, thus far who have affected my life in some way, and in doing so, I’m going to write a little bit about how they affected my life in a personal way. I’m going to finish by writing about what if anything, so much death means and whether it’s worth making any kind of judgment about the year.

I’m going to go in chronological order, except for Bowie, who I’ll save for the end.

Alan Rickman

Alan Rickman was a Brit playing a European bad guy in Die Hard. I was not a Bruce Willis fan, but you’re supposed to side with the hero, and I just couldn’t because of Rickman’s brilliant performance.

Glenn Frey

My career at PlayStation was a game of two halves. The first half was misery, the second a jubilant comeback that I keep comparing to Liverpool’s win in the 2005 European Cup Final, the year I joined. During the dark years, when I wanted to leave, but couldn’t, because I wasn’t good enough to do anything else and I wasn’t bad enough to be fired, I played Hotel California a lot.

During the glory years, I played the song often out of whimsy, because I became so invested in the company I worked at.

After I left, I realised that part of me would always be PlayStation and so I still play Hotel California, but the song has changed with me. It contains the most musical call and response guitar solo ever recorded and I doubt it will ever be bettered.

Terry Wogan

I watched Terry Wogan because there was nothing else to watch on British TV in the evenings during my teenage years. What struck me about Wogan is how witty he managed to be without ever being salacious. When I felt rebellious, I thought him too clean, but most of the time, I appreciated his class in not being influenced by any salaciousness in his guests. I learned a lot about character from Wogan and I miss his dulcet tones.

Maurice White

September has been a favourite since it came out. Earth Wind and Fire were the epitome of joy, so when I deliberately transformed from loser to winner in 2011, I used every technique in the book. One of those techniques was a morning soundtrack of joy and positivity. September was part of that short soundtrack and it still takes me back to the occasional moment in my childhood when I’d forget just how shit my life was and be lost in unbridled joy.

George Martin

I knew The Beatles more by their solo efforts after their split, but as I grew up and started listening to the influencers of my generation’s stars, I appreciated that the magic of this band was given its sheen and presence by a master Producer. He took the best band in the history of pop music and made them much better. The Beatles had a sound. George Martin was as much part of the sound as any member of the band. I listened to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band yesterday. It is probably the greatest album ever made and the sound still stands up today as profoundly, shockingly innovative.

Sylvia Anderson

I grew up watching Thunderbirds, but it was cool to watch Space 1999. The first series was the best. As half of the production company that created these and many other shows, her work is deeply interwoven into my childhood. I look at all the modern science fiction influenced by Space 1999, including the brilliant Moon by Duncan Jones and I feel that part of my childhood lives on.

Ronny Corbett

I loved Corbett and Barker, the Two Ronnies, and for many of us who grew up with three channels of television, it was hard not to. They were by far the funniest people on TV and were responsible for lifting the mood of the nation at a time when it was still possible for comedy to be part of a country’s circadian rhythm. Corbett was cheeky, kind and witty.

Victoria Wood

What I loved about Wood was that she was primarily strong and compassionate at a time when it was difficult for women to succeed in show business with those qualities. She was a real woman, the type of women we knew, but rarely saw on our TV sets. When she took to the airwaves, it genuinely felt like she was one of ours.

Prince

Me and Cos would often do all-nighters at BITS, a development studio in North London where we were two of its leading lights. We had our own teams and were in different rooms, but sometimes we’d take a break and he’d blast Prince non-stop. We’d kick a football down the corridors and sometimes we’d smash empty boxes in a frenzy of laughter, aping our martial arts heroes splendidly. Prince was the soundtrack of our all-nighters.

Guy Hamilton

What boy born in the 1960s doesn’t love James Bond? And how many of them can argue that Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever aren’t the perfect bookends to Sean Connery’s outing as our favourite secret agent?

These films had a shape, a structure and a presence that together made them majestic archetypes.

My brother would play Diamonds Are Forever constantly on our family’s VHS player, so I can’t think of this, or the other Bond films he played constantly, but particularly the ones directed by Hamilton without thinking about him.

Bert Kwouk

My siblings and I would role play The Return of the Pink Panther because that was a film we must have watched over a hundred times. And the line we still repeat is Clouseau’s “Cato? Cato!” as Kwouk’s character hid in order to test his employer’s reflexes.

Muhammad Ali

I watched Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman against all the odds, live on a black and white telly in a family friend’s house in Wimbledon. The talk for weeks was about the sensational knock out dealt to a man most thought could not be stopped. I remember him being called “The Greatest” without a trace of irony. I remember the tears welling up as I watched his former sparring partner ease off on him as Ali’s career and body faded before our eyes. I remember the pride me and my peers felt that Ali was black and Muslim and yet had utterly transcended that in the conscience of billions, and the example he set by putting all worldly gains aside for his principles, an example whose quality seems to have been forgotten. His kind will never be seen again.

Henry McCullough

I loved Wings and I loved Live and Let Die. Although the orchestra is what most people remember from one of my favourite Bond themes, the song was driven by McCullough’s guitar. It’s not the best Bond theme, but it’s the one I’ve listened to the most often. My brother is part of the reason, but the enduring nature of the harmonic intricacy is another.

Caroline Aherne

Who from my generation can ever forget how Mrs. Merton, Caroline Aherne’s spectacularly successful character, put the mighty Chris Eubank to the sword in the most daring way imaginable. I think the nation drew its breath, because the studio audience certainly did. It was when I first learned that a character can get away with things that the person behind the character simply can’t. Any modern celebrity has since learned this technique. Katy Hopkins, detestable though she comes across, might have been the most successful at reducing the apparent distance between the mask and the person behind it.

Kenny Baker

What I remember most vividly about seeing Star Wars in the cinema when it came out was that this was the first time I saw that a robot could be cute and full of character despite not uttering a single recognisable word.

Gene Wilder

I watched Blazing Saddles with my friend on video soon after it came out. As teenagers, we loved the shock factor. Like The Blues Brothers, knowing this film was part of our teenage lives. We were divided into two camps. Those who’d seen Blazing Saddles and those who had not. My brother still calls me up and cites lines from this film. It took real risks and was shockingly funny despite them. Mel Brooks genius is apparent in this and many other films, but Gene Wilder was magnificent. What my non-white friends and I loved about this film was that it took the Western movie stereotype and revealed the shocking racism that was so conveniently whitewashed. The comedy format is what allowed Brooks, Wilder and the other stars to pull this off without it turning into a political football. It probably couldn’t come out today.

Robert Vaughn

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was everyman’s spy show from America. We didn’t have much to watch, because three channels, so we mopped up pretty much anything that was vaguely cool. Robert Vaughn was definitely very cool. And he didn’t have the second ‘a’ in his surname, which gave him an edge, but let’s face it, Napoleon Solo was probably the coolest character name of any spy show ever.

John Glenn

The moon landing of 1969 was probably the most hopeful moment in the history of humanity. I loved the American space programme so much because it represented all that was positive about humanity to me as a child. Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth.

As a ten-year-old, I embroidered a space themed patch and had my mum machine it onto my jacket. So when Elon Musk started talking about a mission to Mars with humans, the ten-year-old in me woke up and remembered the beacon raised so high above our skies by the likes of Gagarin, Armstrong, Aldrin and John Glenn.

AA Gill

I rarely smoke these days, maybe once a month on my travels. I have the odd cigar or pipe too. Ex-smokers can be a bit much and I always said I’d never be one of those, and my favourite smoking quote is from AA Gill, one of the finest journalists that Britain has ever had.

WHEN ON occasion I’m asked by groups of aspiring writers what they should do to get on, my advice is always, emphatically, smoke. Smoke often and smoke with gusto. It’s a little known, indeed little researched, fact of literature and journalism that no non smoker is worth reading. And writers who give up become crashing bores.”

He was as brilliant on Brexit.

We all know what ‘getting our country back’ means. It’s snorting a line of the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia. The warm, crumbly, honey-coloured, collective “yesterday” with its fond belief that everything was better back then, that Britain (England, really) is a worse place now than it was at some foggy point in the past where we achieved peak Blighty.
Britain has lost a peerless voice. The nation, and the language are poorer without him.

George Michael

Tim Ferriss as you know is a hero of mine. I love Ferriss because despite his critics, he’s unashamedly fallible, self-deprecating and very human. He studies successful people and shares their methods and mindsets on his podcast and has collated the best of his life success nuggets in his latest tome, Tools of Titans. One technique that many creatives employ is the use of a repeated song, movie or film on in the background, almost like a mantra. You hear it so much that the surprise in the content disappears and you’re left with focus. I’ve practiced this for decades thinking it insignificant, or even lazy.

I remember vividly listening to George Michael’s Faith on auto repeat while I finished Pandora, the last full, original game I developed back in the late 1980s. Creative projects often have hidden soundtracks and Pandora’s was Faith. This was when George Michael threw off the shackles of the boy band image and became a risqué pop star worthy of wide respect, though his talent was never in any doubt.

Carrie Fisher

Leia was strong, bold, confident and gutsy, but not more so than Fisher herself, whose public discussion of her flaws served as a template for the modern era, where pretty much every star does exactly the same.

David Bowie

There is a distinction between an artist and a performer. Performance is a skill. It can be learned. Art is produced when a person becomes a medium for feeling that originates in subconsciousness. The genius of artists comes from their choice of filter and their mode of expression.

I was always deeply affected by music. In secondary school, my knowledge and taste in contemporary music was acute. I say this not to boast, it was my only superpower. At home I was a bullied and deeply damaged bed wetting type 1 diabetic, constantly in and out of hospital. Death toyed with me like a cat with a captured mouse. At school, when I wasn’t racially bullied, I knew music like nobody else. I listened to John Peel on my cheap transistor radio, from Monday to Thursday night, without fail, from 10pm to midnight. It helped that Peel was a Liverpool fan and this was when Liverpool were the greatest club side in the world.

The first time I appreciated the difference between performance and art was when I watched the 1980 Kenny Everett Video Show New Year’s Eve special, which featured, if I recall correctly, Gary Numan singing the song that gives this piece its title, and David Bowie with his stark, acoustic rendition of Space Oddity.

I was a huge Gary Numan fan. I’d bought everything Numan did until Strange Charm, though he’d lost his mojo by Berserker. I’d been listening to Numan and Bowie for years, but Bowie seemed like a hero from the past, who was clearly influencing stars of my generation, like Numan. Except that when Bowie performed Space Oddity, there was something ethereal, haunted, mesmerising about him. He wasn’t performing Space Oddity; he was channeling it.

Three years earlier, David Bowie was my companion as I walked back ten miles back from my dad’s place after we had a major falling out, pushing the bike he’d bought me all the way because I still hadn’t learned how to ride it properly. The previous December he’d bought me a Walkman copy that was now playing Bowies greatest hits on cassette, endlessly. At 12, nobody else in my short life had developed the canon of music that Bowie had and that had also meant so much to me. As I walked home confused, crying, defiant, anxious, Bowie, who I was still too young to understand fully seemed to know exactly how I was feeling, because his music, his voice, was how I was feeling.

What does this mean?

So much has been written on this year’s unholy count of death that I feel that what each of these human beings represents beyond the grief publicly expressed at their passing has been somewhat glossed over.

We all die. That’s the tragedy and beauty of life. We want to experience so much, but are filled with the dread of knowing that we will barely scratch the surface of all that life has to offer. Even the greats feel this.

The passing of so many people who were woven so indissolubly into the fabric of my life in a single year means that what I feel is a kind of spiritual amputation. A large part of what it means to be me died this year. It’s not just a reminder that life is short, it’s the partial death of my identity, and I suspect that given the incompleteness of my list, this year of dying amounts to the same for many of you.

To Do What You Love, Love What You Do

For as long as I can remember, gurus the world over have been offering this advice:

“Do what you love!”
“Find your passion!”
“Quit your boring job and find something you totally love!”

This is insane advice. For most of us, not only are we unlikely to find what we love “out there”, but because our biology is in charge, if we do find something we “love”, it’s more likely to be lust or infatuation that we’re actually feeling. When reality kicks in and the realisation dawns that we don’t have the chops to cope, it will be too late for us to realise that we’re not going to make a living from the thing we thought we were in love with.

Having to find what you love implies that you shouldn’t or can’t be satisfied with what you have. Rejecting satisfaction as somehow unsatisfactory is as absurd as it sounds.

“How are you?”
“Fine”
Just fine?”
“Yes”

In a world where large was not large enough and we needed extra large and then big gulp large, “fine” is supposedly not going to cut it.

Look at the French. They are not generally fat, particularly Parisians. They control their portion sizes. So you know, “fine” is just fine and “great” is exceptional, but the word “exceptional” implies that it’s not the norm and should not be the norm, because what then is exceptional other than a Big Gulp and then we’re back to where we started at the base of Mount Elbow in the Range of Obesity.

The success stories are illustrative only in that they exhibit survivor bias. Dave Gilmour slept rough and Freddie Mercury stayed at his friend’s place until they both broke through to become two of the most successful artists in rock and pop music history. The implied lesson in these examples is “if you don’t want it badly enough, you’ll never make it”

Let me tell you all the ways this stinks.

  1. You might for some reason want to marry Her Majesty The Queen. That’s never going to happen, no matter how deep your commitment. Apart from the rather obvious fact that she’s already happily married, well, just forget it, OK?
  2. The success stories appeal to us because of the overwhelming odds against success being bucked by the relentless drive of starving artists. Here’s the problem with this: You don’t hear about the artists who had the same relentless drive, but didn’t become stars!. The counter-argument is that they didn’t try hard enough. I have some snake oil to sell you if you buy that untestable hypothesis.
  3. You might get tricked out of doing something that you’re very good at, that offers up some important service, in pursuit of some crazy scheme. The movies will cue powerfully resonant music at such inflexion points, but the movies don’t show you the far longer list of people who had exactly the same hallelujah moment and who ruined their lives. You could have carried on doing what you were doing, become extraordinarily good at it and loved it just as much, if not more. You might not realise just how much satisfaction there is in service, duty and integrity. Nothing feels as good as giving. Nothing eats away at your soul like selfishness.
  4. Maybe the thing that you are passionate about is exactly what you’re doing right now, only you dare not admit it to yourself or your current crowd, because it’s considered uncool? Maybe you just needed to look a little closer and everything your heart desired was already there?

I’m not for a moment arguing against pursuing your passion. I’m just saying that if you choose to pursue love instead, you will find that you can love where you are and become incredibly good at that too. That’s what I did at PlayStation, but that’s another story.

How to Wake Up Early

Would you like to rise early? Have you been a late riser for as long as you can remember? Have you missed appointments, been late to work, or felt like you’re always trying to play catch-up with the day and want to change that? I might be able to help. Read on!

I’ve been waking up at 5am for a few years. This is a big surprise to me, as I spent most of my life experimenting with how late I could wake up and still get away with it.

I’ve often been asked how I managed to change my behaviour. The long answer is something I’ll cover in future posts, or if there’s interest, an ebook. You probably want a short overview, so that’s what you’ll get here.

  1. Make sure you get enough sleep! If you’re used to sleeping late and rising late, this is something you are going to have to take some time to adjust successfully. If you want to rise consistently early and not fall back into your old patterns, then there’s no shortcuts to this, you have to gradually adjust your body clock to ensure you get enough sleep. Or you could do what I did and just start getting up early and gradually finding myself so tired that falling asleep early became automatic.
  2. Learn about sleep hygiene. Ensure your bedroom is dark and as quiet as you can get it and also well ventilated. If in doubt, err on the cool side. Most of us are too warm at night time. Don’t take stimulants or other sleep-affecting substances late. Don’t use your devices in the bedroom, leave them downstairs, it’s OK, you won’t die. If you must use devices late, use your device’s ability to adjust the colours so that blue light emission is reduced. Wear loose, comfortable night time clothing, the less, the better. Ensure your bedding is clean and that your mattress is regularly vacuum cleaned.
  3. Use multiple alarm clocks, scattered around your bedroom or if you have an en-suite bathroom, in there too. Set all the clocks slightly differently so that they don’t all kick off at exactly the same time. You don’t have to vary the time every day, just set them all a couple of minutes apart and make sure there are at least three. (I won’t go into why three works for me, but two didn’t cut it)
  4. Visualise yourself swinging your legs out of bed the moment the first alarm goes off. Do this last thing at night. Practice this while you’re awake. If you let your monkey mind take over first thing, it will offer a dozen reasons why you deserve more sleep. You must get your body to start acting before your mind wakes up.
  5. Never, ever hit the snooze button. If you do, you will go into another sleep cycle and it’s game over. You’re likely to be hitting the snooze button repeatedly and you will feel worse when you do eventually rise.
  6. Take a 30 second cold shower the moment you wake up. I’ve been taking cold showers for years now too. It’s shocking the first few times, but you do get used to it. You don’t need to start off with maximum cold on your first day. Start by turning the temperature down a tad and reduce the amount every day. Before long you will be able to take a cold shower without even gasping. Tell yourself as soon as you feel the cold that “this feels great!”. There are multiple physiological benefits to taking cold showers, including the well documented mood enhancing effect. If you’re really brave, also take a 30 second cold shower before getting into bed.
  7. Plan your next day’s major tasks the night before. Let your subconscious work on your day’s tasks while you sleep.
  8. Give yourself a reason, or reasons to wake up early. Having time to yourself to get ahead of the day is my favourite reason. I know that if I wake up late, I will always be playing catch up and accomplish less. I’ll feel like the day is running me instead of me running the day. Your reason might be to get some exercise, to meditate, to read, to study, to work on your goals, whatever it is, if you want to get it done, the morning is likely to be a great, undisturbed period of time in which to accomplish what you want. Bonus: By the time the world is awake, you’ll already have taken care of the things that are most important to you.
  9. Get some exercise. For a year, I just forced myself to do 5 minutes on the stationary bicycle. Get your blood pumping, that’s all you need to do.
  10. Drink coffee. Good coffee is good for you, so long as you don’t go nuts.

Don’t Get Things Done

Back in 2011, I started using David Allen's Getting Things Done system, having read his seminal book. His system1 transformed my effectiveness, but it took me a while before I began to understand its true impact.

The key idea behind GTD is to have a trusted system into which you capture anything that has your attention, which you then filter, and organise for later action and review.

Once the system is working for you2, any time you see something you feel you might need to take action on, or delegate to someone, or even a full-blown project, you capture it into your in-tray or digital system (or both). I use OmniFocus, but you can use any digital system or indeed, if you're that way inclined, a traditional paper-based system.

What have I learned in the last few years about GTD?

You're not supposed to do everything on your list

What?!? Heresy! Aren't you supposed to become a productivity machine, demolishing all tasks foolish enough to stand in your way until you stand at the crest of the Hill of Empty Inboxes?

It's OK to capture everything that you think you might want to do, whether it's trying a new cheese, making a call to that friend you haven't spoken to in five years, playing The Last Guardian or climbing Everest, but you don't have to do everything on your list. You're not supposed to! When you capture something, you're ignoring how it fits into your life.

That thing that you captured simply had your attention for a while. Just as your email inbox is a way for other people to organise your priorities, your GTD inbox is just a stream of what captured your attention. You're in control of what you do, and ideally this is in line with your short, medium and long term life goals and values. You're free to discard these things and in fact, you should discard many of them. Think of it as panning for gold, because all that glitters is certainly not gold and your life is too precious to waste on fool's gold.

I find that a regular review of my Inbox and moving most items to the "Someday" section is a good way of dealing with tasks that might have excited you when you captured them, but are not relevant to your life's priorities. This is especially true of purchases, though I must confess to much failure in that regard. If you're brave, you will simply delete these things. The reason I tend not to delete everything is because some things just come back, and I want to know what I've deliberately discarded so that I'm not wasting time.

Capturing everything stills the monkey mind

It's great to get things done, so long as those things are worth doing. What you choose to prioritise is beyond the scope and wit of this article, only you can answer that, but the reason you capture everything is so that your mind becomes clear to think instead of remember.

You're just trying to get the task or project or thought out of your head and into your system, so that your head is free to think, which it's great at instead of remember, which it's not so great at.

This is why doing your lists last thing at night or first thing in the morning is so effective. Before your day begins, your subconscious has already spent all night working on ideas to move you forward in your key tasks and if you do the list at the beginning of the day, then you are driving your day, instead of events in the day driving you. Your mind won't be chattering away with "but you forgot this" and "you must remember that" and even if it does, you can capture it immediately to your trusted system and your monkey mind has been silenced. You are free again.

  1. Commonly abbreviated to just "GTD"
  2. Allen does suggest taking a couple of days to process every piece of paperwork in your life. If you want to apply this to your digital life too, this process could take considerably longer. I started by getting my physical paper life into order and this took me three days. It's worth it. Once you have a trusted system in place that you can live with, your life becomes much more manageable.

Getting Real Work Done on an iPad Pro

shahidkamal.com didn't get off to a great start. I broke all the rules, like not launching on a Friday night, but worse, the permalink to my first prompt was broken and two people had already mentioned it to me on Twitter, even though I had very quickly removed my announcement tweet. Damn. Now at this point, I'd reflexively turn to a Mac and go into full troubleshooter mode, but I decided to stick with the iPad Pro and fight off the urge to to what I know.

I opened up a Prompt session to my server with a StackOverflow page in Safari open on the right hand side. I managed to fix my server configuration quickly enough, allowing the rewriting of permalinks so that my individual posts would no longer give a 404 error. Yes, I'm old school and I like to use a shell and SSH. Prompt 2 on the iPad Pro actually seems a lot better than the standard Terminal app on the Mac.

In the Safari window, I had my WordPress settings open for my blog and was able to change the permalink settings without any issues, it was nice just to have everything I needed neatly lined up without having a ton of other stuff to distract me.

I wrote my post in Ulysses, which for some reason feels nicest to use on iPad Pro. I prefer it to Ulysses on my Mac, which surprises me. In fact, the writing experience on an iPad Pro just feels more robust in general. I can't explain it, but perhaps it's the feeling that there is no SSD to write to, that there is nothing making any noise, that no fan will ever kick in, that nothing else is in the way; who knows, it just feels nicer to write English text on an iPad Pro than it does the Mac.

I'm typing on an Apple Magic Keyboard1 with the iPad Pro propped up on a Canopy stand, by Studio Neat, you know, the folks who make other amazingly useful stuff like the Glif.

How far I can push the iPad Pro remains to be seen, I certainly don't see myself coding on it, but who knows? Since reading Federico's widely shared piece, I've been emboldened to make the iPad Pro my go to device and let's face it, I probably wouldn't have started my new blog without it.

  1. Why is it "magic", Apple? If you're going to use metaphors, then just about every keyboard I use is more magical than this one. It's a good keyboard, certainly better than the iPad Smart Keyboard, but it's certainly not magic.