About me

Get new posts by email.

About me

Electric screwdriver

I’ve owned an electric screwdriver for years. It’s a green monstrosity, shaped like a drill. I rarely use it: grabbing an ordinary screwdriver has always seemed more straightforward.

Yet, in August, I noticed that The Verge recommended a cheap electric screwdriver from Hoto. I ordered one from Amazon for £28.50 on a whim.

The Hoto screwdriver has caused a minor revolution in our household. Whenever I need to turn a screw, I automatically reach for the Hoto in the same way that I used to go for a manual screwdriver. There’s something ineffably convenient about it.

The different heads are stored in the screwdriver’s case, which is much more accessible than the way the heads are stored in the handle of my manual screwdriver. The longitudinal design makes it much easier to control than my old drill-like electric screwdriver. The three speeds mean that I don’t feel like I’m blasting every screw, yet I still have the power to drive self-tapping screws when required. It charges via USB-C, meaning a charger is always handy. And, of course, it requires less effort to screw with an electric model than a manual model.

This experience has reminded me that a good bit of design makes all the difference. Functionally, the Hoto screwdriver does nothing more than any other screwdriver I own, yet its good design means it’s always the first one to hand.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , .

The death of smaller phones

There’s been a lot written about the death of the small smartphone, including two Verge articles that resonated with me: this from Allison Johnson back in April and this from Sean Hollister yesterday.

A lot of the coverage of small phones is imbued with an underlying assumption that it is people with small hands or pockets that particularly lament them: it’s often presented as an example of how the views of women are under-considered in the tech world.

I’m neither a woman nor a person with especially small hands1 or pockets, but I am the owner of an iPhone 12 Mini. I mourn the passing of the iPhone Mini series. If there were an iPhone 14 or 15 Mini, there’s a good chance that I’d have bought one. Instead, all I’ve done is replaced the 12 Mini’s battery: far better for the environment, but less positive for Apple’s profits.

I prefer a phone with a smaller screen because it feels ‘handier’ than a larger phone and because it feels less immersive. It feels like using a tool, not like being sucked into a portal to a world of internet nonsense.

  1. While writing this, I realise that I’ve finally forgotten my glove size. In surgery, sterile gloves are sized by number, much like shoes, and knowing which size gloves to pull off the shelf was an everyday essential. I reckon it’s fifteen years since I was last in an operating theatre, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I can remember that detail any more.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , , .

Searching for cash

For the relatively short time between it coming available in the UK and, erm, closing down, I was a subscriber to Neeva, a paid-for search engine. I paid for it mostly because I liked its philosophy. Neeva was unconflicted in giving users the best possible search results, without considerations such as advertising getting in the way.

In terms of user experience, I found it only marginally better than the competition, but for a tool as commonly used as a search engine, marginally better is worth it.

The ever-excellent David Pierce had a great piece profiling the downfall of Neeva in The Verge recently, which is well-worth reading.

One thing Pierce neglects to mention is Kagi, a search engine with a similar philosophy, which I’ve been using after Neeva closed. Kagi is not marginally better than the competition: it’s miles better. It has lots of thoughtful customisation options, like allowing users to “pin” results from given sites to the top of their results, or to exclude domains entirely, or to generate a fast AI “quick answer” with references. But that’s not the main thing.

Do you remember the feeling when you first tried Google instead of Alta Vista, Excite, or Yahoo? The pages were clean, clear, and amazingly fast to load. The results were uncannily accurate. It was just obviously better, by leaps and bounds. The alternatives felt like they belonged to a different era.

That’s the feeling I get with Kagi.

It might not last. Feature bloat and the perverse incentives to act in interests other than those of the users might win out. And Kagi isn’t for everyone: ad-funded search has its place, like ad-funded newspapers, radio stations, television programmes, email servers, and so on. But right now, Kagi is perfect for me.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , , , .

Rabid Barbie discourse

In the final paragraph of an article about the recently released Barbie film that I happened across on The Verge, Charles Pulliam-Moore referred to “the rabid Barbie discourse”.

In my sheltered world, there has been very little “Barbie discourse” at all. The venerable New York Times published an opinion piece by Andi Zeisler:

For the past 64 years, Barbie has been at the center of countless debates about who women are, who they should be, how they look and what they want.

I mean, really? Has it?

I’m sure we’ve all seen occasional articles about Barbie’s freakish body proportions. There have been many articles over many years promotion the brand’s diversification of the doll line with new models representing different professions, skin tones, disabilities, and so forth. And humorous cultural references to the Barbie line are quite pervasive: see Malibu Stacy in The Simpsons. Even I indulged on this blog, albeit 17 years ago.

In the 1990s, the London Review of Books published an article on Barbie by Lorna Scott Fox, with possibly the most quintessentially LRB opening I’ve ever I’ve read:

‘Barbie can be anything you want her (yourself) to be!’ Thus the sales pitch for a plastic toy that in most people’s minds simply represents the essence of bimbo-ness. But what if the big hair and tacky costumes were actually vehicles of patriarchal and racial hegemony, while also enabling a potentially subversive network of reappropriative authorial narratives?

“But really,” I thought, “it’s just a toy. Surely, this can’t really spill over into ‘rabid Barbie discourse?’”

I underestimated, as a quick web search for ‘rabid Barbie discourse’ revealed. The top result—from the website of a newspaper that has been publishing for more than two centuries—was a news article using words like ‘enraged’, ‘insane’, ‘woke’, ‘wild’, ‘bonanza’, ‘heaven’, ‘banned’, ‘feminist’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘mean-spirited’ and ‘cynical’ in discussion of a promotional popcorn container. The container was pictured no less than fifteen times in the article.

And honestly: that’s where I realised that this ‘rabid discourse’ was—like anything rabid—best avoided.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , , , , , .

On colourblindness

When I was 12 years old, my geography teacher sprang a test on us. Part of the test was to draw various Ordnance Survey map symbols.

I am red-green colourblind. I had learned that a youth hostel was represented by a pink triangle, but I couldn’t identify the pink colouring pencil. I tried my best, and wrote alongside something to the effect of ‘I am colourblind—this symbol is supposed to be pink, but I’m not sure whether I’ve chosen the right pencil.’

The teacher marked my answer as incorrect, noting that she ‘had’ to mark what I had drawn, and what I had drawn was a green triangle. I was annoyed. My mum’s brilliant solution, which saved any future embarrassment, was to use stickers to write the name of the colour on each pencil.

I gave up studying geography less than a year later, though I can hardly claim that colouring-pencil based trauma was the reason for that.

This article by Andy Baio on The Verge made me think about this. He talks about the colourblindness and accessibility in everyday life.

This crops up from time to time in my work, too, though less so these days than it used to. I used to struggle with spreadsheets where people RAG rated things by shading cells. These days, at least in my line of work, people are generally too indecisive to rate things as ‘red,’ ‘amber’ or ‘green.’ Things are generally classified as ‘amber/red’ or ‘green/amber’ or ‘red/amber.’ This replaces a simple three-point rating scale with an absurdly complex seven-point scale, totally negating its effectiveness in a way which would usually irritate me… except for the fact that it means the ratings appear in text, not as shading.1

But it still happens: guidance has ‘red’ and ‘green’ pathways; our clinical record system has red and green dots to indicate especially high or low consequence diseases; our professional appraisal system colour codes my appraisal form sections as green for ’complete’ and red for ‘incomplete’; people produce wholly inaccessible charts and maps; people like to add comments to text in red and green.

I recently expressed disappointment at Caroline Creado-Perez’s Invisible Women for asserting ‘that if women are the majority practitioners of an activity, then barriers to that activity are automatically a gendered issue.’ Given that about 10% of men are colourblind and only about 0.5% of women, it occurs to me that this is a great reverse example. By Creado-Perez’s yardstick, I should criticise my (female-majority) employer for gender-based discrimination when they produce documents which don’t account for the needs of colourblind people. But that doesn’t seem like it would be a helpful approach to life.

Most of the time, I don’t really think about it, though I’m not shy about pointing out the issue when it arises (and the examples in Baio’s article feel very familiar). Wendy occasionally feels mildly sad at the thought that I’ve ‘never seen the true beauty of a rainbow,’ and is occasionally surprised at my fashion choices, but otherwise… it’s all good.

The Ishihara image at the top looks to me like it has a hazy, slightly wobbly ‘21’ in it. It probably looks like a ‘74’ to you.

  1. Some morons even extend the schema by adding a ‘black’ category, to add an additional three points to the scale (‘black,’ ‘black/red,’ ‘red/black’). This is unforgivable.

This post was filed under: Health, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

Five links worth clicking

The first in an occasional series of posts listing things I’ve enjoyed on the web recently.

The UK faces an energy crisis. Could nuclear play a vital role?

In this article for the FT Weekend, Jonathan Ford provides some great analysis and colour around the decommissioning of end-of-life nuclear power plants and the function of the Sellafield site in dealing with nuclear waste.

Everyone knows that midday desert sun can be harmful if one lies in it without protection. And everyone knows that moonlight is essentially harmless. Yet, moonlight and sunshine are made up of the same photons. The former is simply harmless because it is 400,000 times less bright than sunshine. Nuclear radiation can be like sunlight, and it can be like moonlight.

When I think of decommissioning a nuclear power plant, I think of dealing with prodigious quantities of radiation. I’ve never thought about the compounding effect of radiation on the other hazardous materials on site, such as asbestos: and, of course, the vintage of the estate being decommissioned means there’s plenty of that around.

Last year, I read Lorna Arnold’s investigation into the Windscale fire of 1957 which the Ford mentions at the start of this article. If you like Ford’s article, you might also like Arnold’s book.

And if you wonder what’s driving up energy prices, James Meek’s recent article in the LRB is revealing.

File not found

This fascinating article for The Verge by Monica Chin discusses the fact that younger people are unfamiliar with both the concept of directory filing in computing and the underlying metaphors the system represents. This is presenting particular problems for students studying STEM subjects where they need to use command-line interfaces, which are reliant on exact descriptions of file locations.

Students have had these computers in my lab; they’ll have a thousand files on their desktop completely unorganised. I’m kind of an obsessive organizer … but they have no problem having 1,000 files in the same directory. And I think that is fundamentally because of a shift in how we access files.

This rings true in my life, too. I’m the youngest of four consultants in our team at work, and the only one who doesn’t have folders in which to file emails. I rely entirely on search to find things, having made the shift after reading evidence that this method was far more efficient. Though I’ll confess that I recently moved from storing everything in Outlook’s ‘Deleted Items’ to storing everything in a gigantic ‘Archive’ folder out of fear that some system administrator might commit the heinous crime of deleting my ‘Deleted Items’.

However, perhaps indicative of my ‘in-between’ age, I still use structured directories for files, mostly because the search functions in the file storage systems I use are pretty poor. On Apple systems, I do use tags to cross-cut my directory structure (with, for example, a tag called ‘Work – needs updating’ and another called ‘Work – quick reference’) but I’m mostly a file-structure kind of person.

I wonder if this is something me and my colleagues need to rethink. We have an intricately structured shared drive at work, and yet I note that many of my (mostly younger) colleagues have desktops resembling that described by Peter Plavchan in the above quotation. Maybe we need a collective system that’s more searchable and less navigable. Though, of course, the latter is the problem: a ‘big bucket’ approach to file management isn’t great for discovery, or for going back years later to locate something vaguely recollected which was created by someone who has since left the organisation.

I’m very forgetful. I can lead big projects and, within a year, forget that I’ve done them. If I regularly had to encounter an email directory structure that referenced the project, maybe I’d retain the knowledge for longer. Perhaps a search-based approach is poorer for mental retention.

Beauty and decay: inside America’s derelict movie theatres

This Wallpaper article by Harriet Lloyd-Smith may essentially be advertorial for a recently published photo book, but oh my it features some beautiful photographs of dilapidated cinemas by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

There’s beauty in the flaking paint, opulence in the rows of tattered crushed-velvet seats, stories retained in the defunct equipment and abandoned concession stands. Laughs, tears, screams and gasps live on in the crumbling cornices.

I’ve long been a bit of a sucker for this kind of photography. There’s something about the way it reminds me that “this too shall pass” that I find oddly comforting. Nothing lasts forever.

A piano down a mine

This Van piece by Hugh Morris is an entertaining discussion of comedy based on classical music: the sort of stuff Tim Minchin and Bill Bailey get up to.

The idea of good humor punching up is key. But mocking the conventions of a musical culture which is fundamentally a bit silly—people dress up in old-fashioned outfits to play music from ages ago for a group of people sitting in complete silence—comes with a warning. While it’s easy to mock classical music’s foibles, those gags can easily be perceived as jibes or slights, which can then underpin whole ecosystems’ oddly negative behaviors.

This is one to click on when you’ve time to click through and watch the various cited routines, rather than just as something to read. Some of them were new to me, and others I was amused by revisiting. It also brought this delightfully silly story about an error in the Welsh Government’s coronavirus guidance to my attention for the first time.

For my money, the article could have been rounded out with at least a passing mention of Mozart in the Jungle as a recent(ish) TV dramedy in this arena which I very much enjoyed. What other series would invite Lang Lang for a cameo and overdub him with Daft Punk—to brilliant effect?

Bo Burnham: Inside

This Netflix lockdown special by musical comedian Bo Burnham is excellent. It was written, directed and filmed solely by Burnham in a room of his house, which seems an extraordinary achievement.

But still more interesting is how Burnham brings his occasionally dark sense of humour to the experience of lockdown life, and openly and frankly discusses the mental health aspects (including his own pre-lockdown mental health problems). This turns his comedy special into something quite moving, and surprising insightful, as well as very funny.

I know Bo Burnham isn’t for everyone, and indeed he’s never really made much impact on this side of the Atlantic, but I think this comedy special is well worth watching.

This post was filed under: Five links worth clicking, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Weekend read: The tyranny of aircraft boarding

I seem to have featured a disproportionately high number of articles about air travel in this series of weekend reads, and I’m adding to that collection today. Chris Ziegler has written an entertaining and informative post for The Verge, in which he casts aircraft boarding as a microcosm of a broken industry. I suspect he realises that the problem is greater than efficiency alone, but his exclusion of all other aspects of the boarding process does make for an interesting read, and leaves the reader to ponder why the system is as it currently is. Some of the comments are quite entertaining, too!

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , .

The content of this site is copyright protected by a Creative Commons License, with some rights reserved. All trademarks, images and logos remain the property of their respective owners. The accuracy of information on this site is in no way guaranteed. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author. No responsibility can be accepted for any loss or damage caused by reliance on the information provided by this site. Information about cookies and the handling of emails submitted for the 'new posts by email' service can be found in the privacy policy. This site uses affiliate links: if you buy something via a link on this site, I might get a small percentage in commission. Here's hoping.