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Over on Google+ at 09:58 on Thursday, 28th August 2014...

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This is a great article from Daniel Cressey in Nature. I sometimes think there’s a lot of heat in the e-cigarette debate, but not a lot of light… this seems a pretty balanced look at the debate. Though it doesn’t touch much on the economic arguments for and against regulation, which is a bit of a shame.

In the haze of incomplete data, scientists are divided over the risks and benefits of electronic cigarettes.

Over on Google+ at 10:50 on Wednesday, 27th August 2014...

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I see that many people are mocking Ryanair for their 'admission' that "Premium seats will be the same standard seats". Seems a bit of a cheap shot, considering that the same is true of EasyJet, BMI, BA domestic flights, and many others besides…!

Low-cost airline Ryanair is to offer a “business class” service on all of its flights as it tries to gain a bigger share of the European corporate travel market. Branded “Business Plus”, tickets start from €69.99 and allow unlimited flight changes,

Weekend read: Death by PowerPoint



by sjhoward

This is the 2,262nd post. It was published at 12:30 on Friday, 22nd August 2014.

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The people in this stock photo, like most people in stock photos, look happy. How many times in your life have you sat through a PowerPoint presentation – particularly one on an inadequately size TV – and been that happy? Not terribly often, I suspect.

And so my recommended read for this weekend is a wonderfully sweary post on Medium, written by Robin Hardwick. It’s a guide to writing a PowerPoint presentation that won’t cause people to want to commit suicide. Here’s a sample:

I don’t need a slide that says HOUSEKEEPING to tell me that I can get up and go to the bathroom whenever I need to. It’s not like I was going to stay in my seat at all costs and soil my drawers so I won’t miss a precious moment of your Screen Beans describing what teamwork means.

Well, quite. Writing as somebody whose heart sinks when PowerPoint is fired up, I’d say that this article shouldn’t just be a recommended read, it should be compulsory for everyone who might ever have to give a presentation. It’s excellent.

Weekend read: Top products in two decades of tech reviews



by sjhoward

This is the 2,261st post. It was published at 12:30 on Friday, 15th August 2014.

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At the end of last year, Walter Mossberg retired from his technology review column in the Wall Street Journal. He closed the book on his column with this great article in which he picks the best the dozen products which he thinks changed the industry. There are, of course, hundreds of similar columns online which debate the most important products in consumer technology history, but Mossberg’s well-informed perspective is well worth considering.

I’m linking to the AllThingsD version of the article, as the WSJ’s main site requires registration.

I’ve been blogging for 11 flipping years. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.



by sjhoward

This is the 2,260th post. It was published at 10:10 on Tuesday, 12th August 2014.

A verison of this post also appears on Medium.

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A week or so ago, Jessica Hagy wrote “I’ve been blogging for 8 freaking years. Here’s what I learned as I went along.” on Medium. Jessica’s post didn’t quite match my experience, but it inspired me to put down some of my own thoughts on the same topic.

Don’t just put your stuff out there.
Whatever you write, someone will like it… but if that someone isn’t you, then what’s the point? Over the course of 11 years of blogging, there’s more that I regret writing than I regret not writing. Learn from my mistake. Take time to consider what you write. Re-read it. Let it marinate. And when it’s really ready, put it online – cognisant of the fact that it will always be there. And, yes, this is coming from the bloke who wrote a book called Instant Opinion. Sorry about that.

There are people out there who won’t GET you.
There’s a subset of the population who will instinctively dislike your writing, much as there’s a subset of the population who will instinctively dislike your face. Then there’s a bigger subset of the population who will instinctively dislike the fact that you blog. Try not to be put off – but if you can’t handle unfair and unfounded criticism, blogging isn’t going to be your game.

People won’t steal everything you do.
But they will “steal” a lot of it. C’est la vie. They can’t steal the pleasure of writing it. Blog because you enjoy writing, don’t blog to be read.

Be afraid of your own voice.
Most bloggers seem to have a voice that’s slightly snide, prone to inside jokes, and which slips into shorthand and acronyms that nobody beyond their own circle of friends will understand. When I look back at my early writing, this is what makes me cringe the most. Moderate yourself. Take time to consider how best to express your ideas in terms that can be easily understood.

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Creative habits can be unhealthy.
An excess of boundless creativity can turn a respectable blog into an incoherent mess, probably with flashing GIFs and clashing fonts. Channel your creativity. And, most of all, don’t let your creative voice out-shout your critical faculties. Critical thinking that brings new ideas and perspectives is the lifeblood of a good blog.

It matters if you know that nobody reads it.
The best blogs are exercises in writing, not exercises in being read. It’s easy in the early days to get hung up on hit counts and comments. Resist. Try turning comments off for a while and not checking the stats. Don’t end every post with a question in the hope someone will answer. Don’t over-analyse what you’re doing and try to generate more hits. Write because you have something to say.

The tools change, and so do the actions.
There are people who try to use the same style and content on every platform. How many RTs and @replies have you seen on Facebook from people who try to cross-post? How many “1/6″ on the end of Tweets from people who can’t keep within the character limit? Don’t be that guy. Get to know whatever tool you’re using, and tune your use of it. To play the best music, a musician must master their instrument. Fail to master the instrument, and even the best music will sound bad.

You don’t have time to make things.
Nobody has time to do anything except what they already do. If you want to start doing something new, you need to find time for it. It’s no good doing some mental calculation and thinking “I have time”. You have to make time, and that will mean making sacrifices along the way.

The vast majority of people don’t make content, they just pass on a tiny amount of what’s already out there.
By any reasonable measure, there’s already enough stuff on the internet. Your addition is infinitesimally small, and, no matter how much effort you put in, the fraction of the internet that’s yours will continue to tend to zero throughout your blogging life. Blog because you enjoy writing. Blog because you want to organise your thoughts. Don’t blog because you think your opinion is important, don’t blog because someone told you too, and – most of all – don’t blog because you want to be read.

Most people are idiots.
The internet is less than 0.0005% perverts and haters. But a substantial proportion of the other 99.9995% are people who don’t engage with debate, who don’t read past the first paragraph, and who would rather gawp at a series of photos of celebrities than read your passionate argument about something that’s important to you. Don’t blog because you want to be read.

A tiny bit of success can be the most frustrating thing of all.
By far the most popular thing I ever posted on my blog was a video I made of Gordon Brown picking his nose in the House of Commons. It even made it on to Newsnight. It was silly, not representative of me or what I do, and it took about five minutes to put together.

When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
I think blogging is great fun – but it’s fun because I enjoy writing. Before the internet came along, I used to write ‘newsletters’ on a manual typewriter that no-one would ever read. If no-one ever reads my blog, I haven’t lost anything. So, if there’s a post or two that I’m not completely happy to share, I don’t. Some of them I abandon altogether. Others I tinker with. I’ve one post that I’ve been tinkering with on an almost monthly basis for more than four years. Although, since every word has probably changed multiple times, perhaps a philosopher might say it’s not the same post at all. If I’d published it all that time ago, I’d have missed out on hours of enjoyable tinkering. Take time to consider what you write. Don’t blog to be read.

Weekend read: The five best punctuation marks in literature



by sjhoward

This is the 2,259th post. It was published at 12:30 on Friday, 8th August 2014. audible.co.uk
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Kathryn Schultz has put together a wonderfully absurd listicle for Vulture in which she argues with passion for the five best punctuation marks in literature. This is a great article in itself, but is made all the better for being one of the few punctuation-related articles on the internet that doesn’t tediously rehearse the merits of either the semicolon or the interrobang.

Weekend read: Goodbye Ctrl-S



by sjhoward

This is the 2,258th post. It was published at 12:30 on Friday, 1st August 2014.

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Back in May, Jeff Jarvis wrote a brilliant reflective piece for Medium about the changing journalism workflows associated with changing technology. His compulsion to Ctrl-S is something that I share, and that I still do even though it is not longer necessary now that I use a Chromebook as my main machine.

Interestingly, one of the biggest changes that Chromebooks have had on my personal working patterns has come from the inclusion of a “search” button in place of the Caps Lock key. I cannot count the number of times I’ve hit Caps Lock on a work PC and typed search terms directly into whatever document I’m working on instead of finding the answers I’m seeking!

Weekend read: The post-hope politics of House of Cards



by sjhoward

This is the 2,257th post. It was published at 12:30 on Friday, 25th July 2014.

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I have enjoyed both series of Netflix‘s remake of House of Cards. I’d argue that the second series was better than the first, but both are better than almost anything else I’ve seen on TV in recent years.

If you, too, enjoyed the series, you’ll likely also enjoy Adam Sternbergh’s discussion of the show, its philosophy, and how it came to be. It was published in the New York Times Magazine. And if you are not already a fan, I’d probably advise watching the first series before reading, as it’s laden with spoilers.

Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro



by sjhoward

This is the 2,256th post. It was published at 12:30 on Wednesday, 23rd July 2014.

With a little help from my friends, this post will also appear on Medium, Goodreads, Amazon and some other places too, shortly after publication here. Recycling is good for the environment, right?

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You may know that The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro won the Booker Prize in 1989. You may know that it remains one of the 20th century's most critically acclaimed novels. You may know that it was adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, nominated for 8 Academy Awards in 1994.

Somehow, all of this passed me by. Indeed, when I downloaded it onto my Kindle, I thought it was a new release. Despite having read several of Ishiguro's novels in the past, my addled brain had (very) wrongly confused him with Haruki Murakami.

Yet even with my warped preconceptions, The Remains of the Day blew me away.

It is absorbing, beautifully composed, moving, and deep. The way this novel subtly drew me in and toyed with my emotions put me in mind of a Shostakovich piano concerto: the music does the work of capturing attention and emotion, and before you know it, without any particular effort or concentration, you are drawn into and beguiled by a whole new world.

The novel is narrated by an elderly butler on a road trip in the 1950s. He reflects on his life, and his strive for professionalism and 'dignity'. The characterisation is so complete that when I think of the narrator, Stevens, I think of a person rather than a character. The Remains of the Day is a novel about the nature of relationships: professional, personal, and, almost existentially, with oneself. It has glittering moments of humour which made me laugh out loud. And it has moments of remarkable tenderness – which are almost painful to read – and moments of morality and politics which provide genuine food for thought.

The composition is wonderful. The narrator is not entirely reliable, and infuses much of his commentary with predictable (possibly professional?) bias, but he also accurately reports speech in a way which allows the reader to fill in the gaps. This is hardly an original device, but it is rarely used to such profoundly devastating effect as in this work.

It is a matter of some fascination to me that so many other readers and reviewers describe this novel as 'sad'. Certainly, it reflects on a life which some might consider unfulfilled, and certainly, the tale of the narrator is heart-breaking. Yet I found the novel itself rather life-affirming. The Remains of the Day caused me to reflect on my own life – as all the best novels do – and to reflect with some satisfaction.

If I were to summarise this book in a single word, it would be: beguiling. I mean that in the more traditional sense of the word, both enchanting and mildly deceptive. Ishiguro does all the heavy-lifting in this book, guiding the reader through Stevens's world and gently signposting his flaws. Each word is chosen so carefully as to turn the prose into poetry. This is a challenging book, but by no means a challenging read.

I cannot recommend The Remains of the Day highly enough.

Remains of the Day is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

Weekend read: Keep your shirt on Zac – we’d all be better for it



by sjhoward

This is the 2,255th post. It was published at 12:30 on Friday, 18th July 2014.

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I recommend an article I've read and enjoyed every Friday afternoon. You can browse all previous selections here.

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Howard Jacobson’s wonderful Independent article uses a powerful mix of haughtiness, humour and persuasion to react to April’s news that Zac Efron had his shirt ripped off at the MTV Movie Awards.

I think the passage of time has somehow made this article even better – perhaps it is because summer’s approach makes its message more timely. I can’t help but think that the missing comma in the headline is intentional, as a lovely punctuation pun.

Oh, and I should apologise to anyone who was in the same Starbucks as me as I searched the stock photo archive for something to top this post… frankly, I’m surprised Starbucks wifi didn’t block some of those results!

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