Why Macs aren’t for me

In one of my recent client engagements, I’m surrounded by people with Apple Macs. Everyone’s on laptops, MacBook Airs outnumbering MacBook Pros about 2:1. There’s even the odd person running Windows on a Mac—wanting the cool but yearning for the functionality.

And then there’s the odd leper like myself, running Windows on a PC laptop. (From memory, I can only think of one other PC user besides myself, someone whose laptop is the size of a small aircraft carrier.)

And here’s the rub. I know of only two Mac users who appear serene and content in their worlds. Three at a push. The rest love their shiny toys. But they struggle to use them. They certainly struggle to do so in a way that looks comfortable.

Now I admit, most are new to the technology. They’re recent converts from the comfort of Windows. But even those that have been around Macs for a while seem to struggle. They struggle to do things that were commonplace in Windows. Sometimes, they seem vaguely aware that a certain swipe combination will yield a certain result. But don’t ask them to do it, because it probably won’t work.

Now I love Macs. They are beautiful. They’re functionally rich. And when used well, they are poetic. But I doubt that I’ll ever adopt for two reasons.

First, Excel. Excel on a Mac is truly a dog’s breakfast. It sucks so much ass. It feels like going back to Excel 5.0—at its launch in 1993, the most mesmerisingly sublime piece of software you ever did experience, but not so now.

And given that I live and breathe Excel, no thank you.

And second, the learning curve. It’s way too shallow for me to make the leap. My productivity would go through the floor for weeks, and would still be suffering months, quarters later, as I grappled with gestures, and an entirely new way of interacting with the OS.

I regard myself as a relative power user of computers. If I lived in word processing and email, maybe I’d think about leaping. But alas, I don’t. And I so I won’t.

Apologies

There’s a quality that doesn’t come out in CVs that with time I find more and more essential in the workplace. That quality is the ability and willingness to admit fault and apologise.

I’m not sure whether the trait is becoming less prevalent as society changes; or whether I’m becoming more aware with time of its lacking.

Knowing when you’re wrong, acknowledging when you’re wrong. These traits are hugely important in building strong relationships with colleagues, clients and suppliers.

As for knowing when you’re wrong, I don’t think there are too many problems here. People generally know when they’re at fault. They may lie to themselves in order to create a version of reality that they can portray to the outside world. But usually, deep within, they’ll be conscious that they screwed up. No, it’s the acknowledgment of the error that is at issue.

I’ve worked with a few people in my career to date, both male and female, who are hopeless at this. Sometimes, even when the fault is clear for the world to see, the admission and the apology don’t come.

And I think there are two related issues at play: the human aspect and the career aspect.

First, the human side. People simply want to save face. Human nature is to be as good as you can be. And admitting error shows that you’ve failed somewhere. How on earth can that be good?

And second, the career aspect. Making an error might go against you in the promotion rounds. It might mean your contract isn’t extended. Or worse, if significant enough, it might mean you’re terminated. The workplace can be highly charged and competitive. And it’s often not easy to step up on this front.

But everyone makes mistakes. And once the mistake has been made, the stronger person is the one that admits to it and faces its consequences, as opposed to the one that hides behind falsehood.

Often, admission of blame sets things up for an open and honest discussion about how best to proceed. It’s amazing sometimes to see how this plays out. Try it. Before the apology, there’s an error that no one’s admitting to, which can create a highly charged, confrontational environment. Throw in the apology, and suddenly the confrontation disappears. Often, the other person is slightly thrown by the admission, and it creates a pleasing atmosphere, for both them and you. The change can be massive, and is often instant.

Failure to admit error delays the resolution of the issue at hand. It creates animosity between the parties involved. And it taints their relationship going forward—both with one another and with you.

On the odd occasion, I’ll even apologise when I’m *not* at fault. It’s generally an apology on behalf of a department or business unit. But it comes from me, and is worded in the first person. In these instances, I consider the benefit of a smoothed path outweighs the personal drawback of stepping into the frame.

So go on. Try it. As well as being the right thing to do, it can be rather therapeutic.

Boris Johnson: disbelief

I met Boris Johnson once. Indeed, I presented to him.

It was 1998, if I remember. I was in my mid-twenties. We’d undertaken a survey of the Spectator magazine’s readership base. And I had analysed the responses.

I arrived by cab with a couple of colleagues at a little terraced house north of Chancery Lane, the Spectator’s offices. And we were shuffled off into a room that might arguably be advertised as a bedroom, were the property put on the market as a family house.

We set up the projector, and various people shuffled in, columnists and the like. There were probably six or seven of the Spectator’s elite, all here to listen to what I had to say. Amongst them: Boris Johnson and Petronella Wyatt. This all before their affair hit the papers in 2004.

And it was all rather surreal. I wasn’t fazed in the slightest. I simply reported on what their readers had told us they liked, disliked, read, didn’t read in their beloved magazine. And as I remember, the response rate was phenomenal, such was the loyalty and commitment of its readership.

And no one believed a word I had to say. They all knew better about what the readers liked than the data suggested. I particularly remember Boris huffing and puffing over readers’ alleged favourite columns. And then it was over. Boris left early, either to attend another appointment or in utter disgust at what I had to say. The former, I hope.

Watching him on TV this evening, his manner hasn’t changed a jot.

Child benefit: not a right

Today, Angela Epstein has been advertising her handsome household income and complaining about a change in tax law that takes effect on Monday.

Currently, the eldest child triggers a single child benefit payment for all parents of £20.30 per week, each subsequent child attracting £13.40 per week. So a one-child family will take home £1,055.60 per annum, going up to £1,752.40 for two kids.

As of Monday, households with children in which at least one guardian earns a gross income in excess of £50,000 will have their child benefit reduced linearly, until that income hits £60,000 at which point the payment will fall to zero.

There are countless discussions and tirades about whether the mechanism for the cap is right. For example, an equal-earning couple with a gross income of £98,000 would keep their entire benefit, while a family with a lone working parent earning £60,000 will lose it all. But that doesn’t seem to be Angela’s primary argument for her perceived entitlement to receive child benefit.

Angela’s primary argument seems to be this: Why should kids be discriminated against because their parents earn handsomely? She likens it to schooling and health services.

But here’s the fundamental issue with her argument. Child benefit is a benefit paid to the parent for having a child. It is not a direct benefit to the child. Indeed when enrolling for ours in 2007, I was told that I couldn’t have the money paid into my daughter’s account directly because it was not in the recipient’s name. So instead I set up an awkward direct debit to hive the equivalent amount of money off into her account.

Health services, schooling and the like are benefits—albeit non-financial—for the children themselves.

In principle, I have no issues with the new legislation. It is in essence a tax against high earners. But actually, it brings those that are parents back in line with childless high earners.

As an aside, why HMRC/DWP cannot tie their tax records together and automatically stop the payments for any couples affected by the legislation I have no idea. (That’s not true. I have all too good an idea. It’s all about CID and CIS. But that’s not important right now.) Instead, HMRC will continue to pay the benefit to parents who don’t actively opt out, and then claim it back under the self assessment. Luckily, this particular benefit is administered by HMRC, not DWP. Otherwise, all hell would break loose.

Grammatical standards in ebooks

I am a big fan of my Kindle. I’ve read countless ebooks over the last two years since buying it. Not literally – I guess I could count them. I just choose not to. (This despite writing a rather damning post upon their introduction back in 2007.)

But I’ve noticed that in publishing ebooks, authors seem to be bypassing an important step that was rarely bypassed in the production of the printed book: proofreading.

I’ve read quite a few works of fiction over the last few months. And every single one falls short of the mark. There are words in the wrong order, words that are missing completely, hyphens in place of en dashes, British spellings creeping into an otherwise American style guide, and countless (more literally) other niggling gripes. Sometimes I’ve seen three or four errors on a single page, which given that Kindle pages are less text-heavy than standard book pages, is rather unsettling.

(For the grammar stalwarts among you, a recent book I read started all parenthetical clauses with an en dash but finished them with a hyphen – frustrating in the extreme.)

As well as making publishing more accessible to the masses, the Kindle has lowered the standards needed for a work to be published. And future generations will note the sudden drop in standards that electronic book publishing brought about.

A crying shame. But a trend that will continue, I fear.

Morgan Freeman is alive and well. And other such hocum

The other week, someone (on Facebook I think it was) “Liked” a picture of a dog in trouble. The dog was seemingly being rescued from freezing-cold waters by people holding out a ladder, trying to drag it back to safety.

The caption on the photo read as follows:

Like this photo if you would rescue this dog. Ignore it if you don’t care.

I ignored it. And it has troubled me ever since.*

Occasionally, I’ll receive an all-too-long email, usually from someone dear to me, asking me to forward it to a specified number of friends to bring good luck to both them and me, and quite likely the person who sent it to me. (Wow, this month has five Mondays, five Tuesdays and five Wednesdays. The first time since the Gregorian calendar was introduced.**)

I always ignore them.

And all too frequently, a post will appear on Facebook with the words “R.I.P Morgan Freeman” (it’s always Morgan Freeman, and there’s never a full stop after the P). The latest one has been Liked 1,438,643 times, has 378,778 comments and has been shared a staggering 61,344 times.

I’ve ignored it. It’s not because I don’t like the man. I genuinely rate him as an actor. It’s because I’m quite certain he’s not dead. So suggesting that he rests in peace, at this stage in his life, would literally be a death wish.

There are similar variants. “Press L to see what happens next” is a common one. (L, coincidentally, is the Facebook shortcut for liking a post, btw. If you press L, nothing appears to happen, and you soon move on to look at some pictures of cute cats. (Cue lolz.) Meanwhile, the Like count has just incremented by one.)

I’m not sure whether their purpose is in aid of vanity by those that post them, or advertising revenue to the same. Either way, they highlight the gullibility of those who use the internet, and the power of heartstrings among the very same.

So if I ignore your email, don’t be offended. Good luck will either come to you or not, and my obeying the instructions in the email will have not a jot of impact to your life, nor indeed mine. But I urge you to take the same lack of action, for my sake as well as yours.

As an aside, when Morgan Freeman does die, it is expected that it will take three full months for anyone to acknowledge the fact, owing to the cynicism with which such “news” will be greeted by that point in time.

* I’ve since given it not a moment’s thought.

** 2007

The proofreader’s paradox

As a proofreader, I have an irrational fear that haunts me regularly. Here it is.

On page four of a literary work is a reference to something that appears on “page five”. But the thing being referenced appears at the very top of page six. So I change the reference from “page five” to “page six”. All is good.

But in so doing, because the word “six” is shorter than “five”, and word and line breaks being what they are, everything thereafter shunts up a little, and the thing that previously appeared at the top of page six now appears at the bottom of page five.

Without changing other aspects of the document, I am unable to correctly reference the thing being referenced.

I shut my laptop, find a seat on the floor in the corner of the room, focus on an indistinct point on the opposite wall while hugging my legs, and rock backwards and forwards as tears stream down my face.

Thus far in my career, the above scenario has never happened. But I imagine it’s only a matter of time.

Cycling accident, Clapham Common (10 October 2012)

Last Wednesday, 10 October 2012, my morning started pretty much as any other morning. The ablutions and dressing were not particularly worthy of note, save my decision to change my blue socks so that their trim (invisible to the observer once shod) matched the new purple shirt that I had chosen to wear that day. I sometimes do such things to bring about good luck.

My daughter and I left the house, put our respective bags into the boot of the car, put on our respective seat belts, and set off for school, as we do every morning.

At 0807, we stopped at the lights on Cedars Road, waiting to turn right onto Clapham Common North Side. Unusually, we were the only vehicle at the lights. More often than not, there are enough vehicles to make getting through the lights in a single sequence far from a formality.

While waiting for green, an articulated foreshortened oil tanker pulled out wide before turning left into Cedars Road. A cyclist was on his inside, marginally ahead of the lorry. I’m unsure whether she was intending to continue west down Clapham Common North Side or turn left into Cedars Road. Either way, the tanker driver didn’t see her, and hit her with the nearside corner of his cab.

At that point I saw her face in panic. My screaming “no” had no impact, my windows being wound all the way up. I genuinely thought that at that stage of the accident, the lorry driver had clocked the situation. If I remember, his speed slowed, but I now think this was because of his changing up a gear. He continued into Cedars Road, oblivious of the unfolding situation.

The cyclist screamed repeatedly for the tanker to stop. But he didn’t hear. She slipped from her bike, and eventually fell to the ground. I think I remember her face change from a fighting to a resigned frame. But maybe this memory has been embellished subconsciously.

At this point, the accident progressed out of my eye line, as the tanker moved to block my line of sight. I was thankful for this, as I was almost certain that the worst possible outcome would result.

Eventually, about 12–15 metres further down Cedars Road, the tanker came to a halt, presumably prompted by the sense of something hindering his progress. I opened my car door and ran across to the other carriageway, expecting to find a body crushed by the two front sets of the tanker cab’s nearside wheels. The tanker driver followed me round the front of his vehicle.

The woman was indeed trapped, but miraculously (to me), she was still in front of all of the tanker’s wheels. Where her bike was, I have no idea. But her body was trapped underneath the tanker cab. She lay still and silent. The tanker driver was utterly shocked. He ran back to his cab, either to turn off his engine or to reverse – I think it was the former, but I couldn’t be sure.

I ran back to call the emergency services from the phone that was in my car. I feel ashamed at this action. Maybe I should have tried to establish her state of health. I tried to explain to the emergency services operator that we were on the junction of Queenstown Road and Clapham Common North Side, which she clearly struggled with. (Queenstown Road turns into Cedars Road way before it hits the Common.) My panicked state couldn’t fathom the reason for her confusion. I berated myself later for my error.

Once we’d sorted the location, I reeled off the services that we’d need. Ambulance, naturally. Police, because this was an RTC. And fire, because there was likely a need to lift an oil tanker off a person. The whole suite.

By this stage, there were sufficient people around the woman to aid her until the emergency services arrived. I now had my daughter in my arms, and was eagerly looking up and down Clapham Common North Side to guide the emergency services to the accident. They were quick to arrive.

The fire engine secured itself to the back of the tanker, to save the possibility of it rolling forward I guess. I gave my name and mobile number to the police officer, which he rather quaintly wrote down in his A7 (yes, A7) notebook. (I was reminded of Heartbeat.) And I was on my way, assured that the police would be in contact. I’m quite confident in that I was the only third party witness to the accident.

The police have not been in touch. I called them a couple of days later, but was told that if they needed to speak to me, they would call.

Here is the only news article I can find about the collision. The 28-year-old cyclist has allegedly suffered life-changing injuries. I wish her as full a recovery as possible.

I don’t know who, if anyone, was to blame for the accident; nor will I speculate. But I will beg my cycling friends to please take extra care around large vehicles, particularly those that might be turning left. Your life can be transformed in an instant, as happened that morning for the woman.

RIP Directgov

Just under nine years ago, I started work on a project that to this day stands out from the crowd. That project was the delivery of Directgov.

Previously, we had completed the arduous task of building a new website delivery system for government, from soup to nuts. Both the front-end and the back-end were highly bespoke, the vision being a single content repository and delivery mechanism for all UK government content. Its name was DotP.

Traction was slow. Without a mandate, we relied on selling the concept to other government departments, and had some success. First, ukonline.gov.uk was ported from its unwieldy and expensive HTML platform provided by BT Syntegra. I then project managed the migration of dh.gov.uk to the new platform. (More specifically, it involved the replacement of doh.gov.uk with dh.gov.uk, a stroke of genius that made the migration that bit simpler and the branding that bit clearer. But that’s another story.)

A couple of other small websites came to join the party before the concept of Directgov was introduced.

As I remember, the project kicked off in November 2003. We enlisted offshore support to allow us to hit some very aggressive content entry deadlines. We implemented a radical (and in my opinion confusing) information architecture at the behest of the business. And we went live in January 2004. As project manager, I gave a written status update on 25 December 2003, and a verbal one to Andrew Pinder, the e-Envoy, on Boxing Day. Yet again, we delivered on time.

The hard launch followed in May 2004, and on 9 July I left the Cabinet Office to venture to New York for new experiences. I looked back on the project very fondly. I even cried during my leaving speech, such was the importance of the project, and more importantly the team, to me personally. (It was probably also influenced by me being a rather emotional person. But that aside…)

In mid-2006, we headed back to London to start our next chapter. While I remembered Directgov, it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind – until we hit London. It was on the back of buses, on billboards, and even had a TV campaign. Its URL and its distinctive orange branding adorned every government website, and it was a big deal. A very big deal. It had much, much greater prominence than its UK online predecessor had enjoyed.

The DotP platform was retired 40 days shy of its fourth birthday, on 14 March 2007, upon DH’s migration to Stellent. (Directgov moved off the platform two months prior to this.) Directgov the website will be retired tonight, making way for www.gov.uk, the new government offering.

I wish its successor well. A good number of my good friends are involved in the project, and I wish it every success: for them, for its audience (of 15 million visitors per month), and as the next instalment in the story of the single point of entry for government. Directgov has had a very good life, and I am proud to this day to have played a key role in its inception.

The ten-minute takeover

This evening, as I almost always do, I texted Greg James a few moments after 6pm.

You see, after Newsbeat, Greg “opens up the airwaves” to his listeners with the “ten-minute takeover”. Three random songs requested by listeners by text are played, on the proviso that (a) they’re in the database, (b) they’ve not been played on the show earlier, and (c) they don’t contain any naughty words.

Each evening, I text my request. It used to be Bucks Fizz’s Land Of Make Believe. (Part joking; part because it’s an underrated track.) After 54 such requests over a 108-day elapsed period, I switched my choice, fearing that it may not qualify under rule (a), or that maybe rule (c) might be invoked as a result of Greg’s reaction. And so last Monday, I switched to Lady Gaga’s Poker Face.

Tonight, at 1801, Greg announced that the first song to be played in tonight’s ten-minute takeover was to be Lady Gaga’s Poker Face. When the song finished, Greg announced to his 5.8 million listeners that this was the choice of Dan from London. (That’s me.) I heard this in my car at volume 22, which is bloody loud. I sang along, again loudly.

I was giddy. Indeed I still am. It’s true: I could have selected it on my phone, plugged it into my Aux In socket, cranked up the volume and bellowed along with Gaga.

But for 5.8 million people to experience the same song, at exactly the same time, because of a text sent by me, well that’s something else.

Hope you all enjoyed it. Now, what to choose for tomorrow?

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