Mellow mornings

On John’s blog, for some weeks now, he’s been running a series of recommendations: Things to listen to instead of the morning radio news. This is a jolly good scheme.

I used to be a big fan of the BBC’s ‘Today’ programme, but have become ever more frustrated with the presenters, who are so much more interested in asking questions than in getting answers. Mishal Husain, in particular, seldom lets anyone finish a single sentence. And that’s even before you get to the contents of the news itself, which isn’t the most positive accompaniment to breakfast. No, if you want to read or listen to the news, do it a bit later on; don’t start or end your day with it — that’s my recommendation! The only thing worse would be starting and ending your day reading social networks.

Anyway, my variant on John’s scheme is that the most common command I used to give my Amazon Echo — “Alexa, play Radio 4” — is now increasingly replaced with “Alexa, play music by X”, where X is a classical composer. This does require you to have Spotify, Amazon Music or a similar music source linked to your Alexa account. (You’ll have quite a lot of Amazon Music available automatically if you have Amazon Prime.)

Why not try a few of the following over the next couple of weeks, to start your day on a different tempo?

  • Alexa, play music by Handel
  • Alexa, play music by Franz Liszt
  • Alexa, play music by Thomas Tallis
  • Alexa, play music by Johann Strauss Two (it seemed to prefer that to ‘the second’!)
  • Alexa, play music by Chopin

Now, this post would have more impact if I finished it here, but I think it’s worth offering a few practical tips.

  • I couldn’t get it to play a favourite of mine, Bernhard Crusell, though he’s definitely on Spotify. I’m guessing this is because Alexa needs to recognise the name before passing it to Spotify, and it had trouble with this one, helpfully offering ‘Crouseau’ or ‘Soft Cell’ as alternatives!

  • Sometimes you’ll get variations on the theme. You may get a playlist based on the composer, or music from the Johann Strauss Orchestra. But it’s likely to be in line with your mood anyway! If you think “Surely this wasn’t written by Chopin?”, then a useful query is “Alexa, what’s playing?”. And occasionally you may want “Alexa, skip!”

  • If you do have more than one source of music available, you can compare them for variety. As I type this, for example, I’m greatly enjoying the playlist I get with “Alexa, play music by Corelli from Amazon Music”. Recommended.

Finally, you will, of course, be limited by the audio capabilities of your particular Amazon device. If you have Sonos speakers or similar linked into your system, then you can use that instead. In my case there’s a big Sonos speaker hidden away on top of the fridge, and if I say “Alexa, play music by Chopin in the kitchen” to send the audio stream there, it’s a completely different experience.

And I think we can agree that Frederic deserves it.

The commercialisation of grade inflation

Google is running a particularly fatuous advertisement at the moment, clearly designed to appeal to the heart rather than the head. It appears at the start of almost every YouTube video I watch, so I see it several times per day.

“Local businesses have been there for us this year”, says the actor. “It’s time we return the love. Just leave a Google review! Because Google reviews help local businesses stay strong!”

Isn’t that nice? We may be a big cloud-based multinational but we care about the businesses on your local high street.

Now, almost everything about this is wrong. There’s the basic factual inaccuracy: local businesses often haven’t been there for us, poor things — it’s the online businesses that have kept people supplied while they’re shielding. Au contraire, we’ve often ‘been there’ for the local businesses: I’ve often been going out of my way to try and buy from local shops when it would be cheaper, easier and, of course, much safer to buy online. But that phrase is just an appeal to the emotions, so let’s not take it too literally!

No, what bugs me in the ad is the assumption, of course, that they’re good local businesses and you’re leaving them a 5-star review. Which, let’s face it, almost everybody does these days, and I’m no exception, because who wants to be the bad guy who docks them stars for what might seem like trivial complaints? And so we end up in the ridiculous situation of comparing shops, hotels, cafes etc based on whether they have a 4.6-star average or a 4.8-star one.

In a perfect world, the average business or product would have an average of three stars out of five. And we’d have a nice gaussian distribution around that: things slightly better than average would edge up towards four stars while those that were a bit unimpressive would be down in the twos. Only those that were so exceptional that they couldn’t really be improved in any way would get close to five.

It is, of course, part of life, and the same thing has always happened with A-level results, University degrees and so forth. (I have some nice stories from University colleagues about this, but they had better wait for another time.)

So I’d like to see Google run a new set of ads after this one. “Weed out dodgy businesses by leaving a low Google review! Because low reviews help customers like you stay safe.”

Somehow, I can’t see that happening.

There is another way to make reviews actually useful again, of course: Google, Amazon etc could simply revalue the currency: modify all the reviews so that the mean value was three and the standard deviation was appropriate to have a sensible number of twos and fours. You’d need to do it in a fairly sophisticated way, but it’s not rocket science. And you’d need to make sure everybody knew you were doing it, so that there was no misunderstanding.

I suggest a big advertising campaign: “Google Reviews: now the most useful on the planet!” They could put it at the beginning of all the YouTube videos. And it would get five stars from me.

Untested?

I’m somewhat confused by one of our recent purchases, which proudly proclaims on its packaging that it hasn’t been tested on animals.

Jolly good, I thought. Always keen to do the right thing if I can.

There’s just one problem.

It’s dog food!

What’s more, it’s made of chicken! So it’s made of animals, and fed to animals… but at least you can rest assured that it’s not tested on them. What sort of a daft marketing department…?

Ah well, never mind.

Well, Arden Grange, I can report that Tilly, on being given it, wagged her tail enthusiastically and wanted more. So that’s good news for your marketing.

But I’m afraid this means that it has now been tested on animals, so you’ll need to remove the label.

Getting Things Done Together

Like many people of approximately my generation, I have long been an advocate of David Allen’s famous ‘Getting Things Done‘ methodology. In case you’ve been living in a cave for a couple of decades and haven’t come across ‘GTD’, it was an appealing and genuinely useful system for handling, originally, the ever-growing flood of paperwork that people were experiencing towards the end of the last millennium. Allen was fortunate (or canny) in that most of his book, originally published in 2001, translated very nicely into the emerging predominantly-digital world. He did for filing cabinets and in-trays what Marie Kondo now does for wardrobes and sock drawers.

Over the following couple of decades, many software products sprang up to help you adapt the GTD task-management techniques to your new digital world; the most complete and sophisticated probably being OmniFocus. If you juggle lots of big and complex projects and are really into this stuff, OmniFocus is immensely capable, and I started using it as soon as it was first available as a beta release about 13 years ago. I typically have two or three part-time jobs at any one time, and many projects within each one, and something like OmniFocus can definitely help keep your world manageable especially if, like me, your brain is not one that is naturally drawn to rigorous and careful planning and organisation! In recent months, though, I’ve switched to the rather wonderful ‘Things‘, which is for me the perfect half-way point between a simple to-do list and the all-encompassing and baroque structures I had previously created within OmniFocus.

Anyway, all of this meant that I was very interested when John linked to this New Yorker piece by Cal Newport, talking about the history of GTD and some of its limitations in the current climate. It’s a good read; here are a couple of short extracts:

In this context, the shortcomings of personal-productivity systems like G.T.D. become clear. They don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects. A highly optimized implementation of G.T.D. might have helped Mann organize the hundreds of tasks that arrived haphazardly in his in-box daily, but it could do nothing to reduce the quantity of these requests.

It seems likely that any successful effort to reform professional life must start by making it easier to figure out who is working on what, and how it’s going. Because so much of our effort in the office now unfolds in rapid exchanges of digital messages, it’s convenient to allow our in-boxes to become an informal repository for everything we need to get done. This strategy, however, obscures many of the worst aspects of overload culture. When I don’t know how much is currently on your plate, it’s easy for me to add one more thing. When I cannot see what my team is up to, I can allow accidental inequities to arise, in which the willing end up overloaded and the unwilling remain happily unbothered.

In a distributed working-from-home world, he argues, techniques like Kanban boards — or the electronic versions encapsulated in products like Trello — can be more appropriate ways to manage tasks when your workforce is distributed. You need to make your to-do list more public, so others in your organisation, and particularly those responsible for managing you, can see what you’re working on and whether you have too much (or too little) on your plate. Software developers have been doing this for years, of course, but it’s interesting to think about how many other kinds of work might benefit from some of our techniques in the Covid age.

My favourite example of a public to-do list, though, probably just predated the publication of GTD, and was not digital, even though I was working in a cutting-edge high-technology lab at the time.

The sysadmins — about four of them, I think — all worked in a shared office, and people like me would wander in and ask them to do things which, of course, always needed to be done immediately if they possibly could. So at one point, they adopted a brilliant scheme.

On the wall outside their office, they put up a big board showing the queue of things that people had asked them to do. If you came in with a request, they’d say ‘Sure! We can do that!’, and hand you a little card. You’d write your name and your request on the card and go and pin it on the board at the bottom of the queue. When one of them finished dealing with the current issue, they’d go and take the next card off the board. If you felt that your card was more important than some of the other ones there, you could try to make the case that the queue should be re-ordered. But if the queue was really long, you sometimes discovered that actually you didn’t need this as much as you thought you did, or perhaps you could sort it out yourself.

It was, of course, just a ticketing system, but run very much on a first-come, first-served basis and, since the tickets were all public, it was one which gave everybody, not just management, a very clear idea of what was going on. I’ve always thought it was brilliant, and something which should be replicated more often in the digital world.

No, sorry, you can’t Zoom in that far

Having been a big fan of Zoom and extolled its virtues in the past, I thought it only fair to share a current criticism. (I’m talking about the videoconferencing app, of course. I’m an even bigger fan of the other Zoom and have relied on their products for years… definitely recommended!)

Anyway, back to video calls. I was playing recently with virtual cameras in OBS so I could do fun things like adding lower-thirds titles to my video stream…

or blending multiple video streams into one….

and my friend Nicholas commented that it was very clever, but any text was not actually that readable. At which point we delved into the Preferences > Statistics menu on the Zoom app and discovered that the video resolution was only 640×360; definitely lower than it used to be.

Now, this is perfectly fine for having a conversation with somebody, so for the vast majority of Zoom use, it’s not an issue. And if you turn on screen-sharing, your screen image is sent at a much higher resolution, so that’s fine too.

But it is an issue for some of my colleagues who like using pointing cameras at whiteboards or documents while giving remote lectures, or even if you’re just trying to hold something up to your camera for the person at the other end to read.

If you search online, you can find various references to ‘Enabling HD’, or to different resolutions being possible for Business or Education accounts, but as far as I can gather, these are all currently disabled or have no effect. I think Zoom may be restricting things to manage the load on their servers, which makes me wonder how much actually goes through their servers? At least for a 2-person call, like the one Nicholas and I were in, it really ought to be peer-to-peer. (Like Skype used to be in the early days before Microsoft bought and ruined it.) Still, to be fair, even the otherwise-abominable Teams does do a much better job at the moment when it comes to resolution.

Well, this may resolve itself in Zoom, but bizarrely, in the meantime, if you care about resolution of your camera more than you care about framerate or latency, the solution is probably to show it on your local display in high resolution, and then share your screen.

Coasting

Hebridean Seagull

Taken near Achiltibuie, just after Christmas last year

No, wait, I have a cunning plan…

I’ve always been an advocate of getting rid of the ridiculous Daylight Savings Time. If some people prefer more light in the morning instead of the evening, or vice versa, why don’t they just change their personal habits and get up at a different time?

If the majority of people in a company, or school, or even a whole town, felt the same way, they could simply have different winter opening hours, instead of imposing on the entire country a periodic change in how we actually calculate something as fundamental as the time! Anyone who has tried writing calendar software will know what I mean.

This has always seemed so obvious to me that I assume whoever would actually be responsible for implementing a return to normal timekeeping has had it on their to-do list for years, but it’s never quite been as important as the 15 things above it, so it just hasn’t happened. Sigh.

However, having enjoyed a marginally more relaxed Sunday morning this weekend, I have a cunning plan, of the “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” variety. I admit that it, too, has some minor inconveniences when it comes to time management, but, unlike the current system, it is brilliantly simple, predictable, and offers inestimable rewards. Are you ready?…

Let’s put the clocks back every single night! Then we could have a lie-in every single morning!

Pondering the length of the Tube

I do enjoy YouTube. I’m conscious that more and more of my time is spent consuming content from there, and creating content which is uploaded there.

Some of the material I’ve created appears on my channel, for general consumption, and those videos are usually linked from here, but quite a lot of it is not publicly listed, and is family, university, business stuff you can only find if you have the right links. At the time of writing, I have about 160 videos uploaded. Some have had just a couple of views. Some have had a couple of hundred thousand.

Hovering in the back of my mind, though, is the long-term danger of being so dependent on a platform I don’t control. I’m not too worried that YouTube will go away any time soon, though Google do have a tendency to cancel products on a pretty regular basis. This blog used to contain quite a few links to content on Google Video, for example. Remember that?

No, YouTube is too big just to vanish now. But it’s very possible that, at some point, there will be a significant change in the way it works: in the licensing, the amount of advertising, or, more worryingly, in how long they are willing to keep archiving material. We’ve seen other sites, like Flickr, decide that they can’t keep holding on to all your stuff forever. Or they may decide to start charging, and perhaps charging too much, to hang on to it for you.

So I have to assume that, at some point, everything I’ve done on YouTube will need to be shifted somewhere else. I used to ensure that anything I uploaded there was also on Vimeo, but I haven’t been quite that diligent recently. Nor could I easily lay my hands on the original masters of all the videos I’ve created.

No, a big item for my to-do list – perhaps a New Year’s resolution for 2021 – is to catalog all my videos and make sure that, for every YouTube video ID, I can create a URL to an equivalent hosted somewhere else. (Remember the golden ‘3-2-1’ rule of backups: You should have at least 3 copies of everything, using at least 2 different methods, and at least 1 should be off-site. Off-site may mean “off somebody else’s site” if they have the primary copy!)

Anyway, I don’t think this will happen soon, but I’m pretty sure it will happen eventually. What will you do with YourTube then?

Sledging through the 5th

This is, I think, wonderful.

When I first saw it, someone had appended a Spanish title, so I presumed that it was created by an artist with whom I didn’t share a language. No textual language, anyway, because this is a testament to how art can capture emotions that we all share!

It was created by Doodle Chaos.

Connecting external microphones to your Mac

If you have a USB microphone, it’s easy to plug it into your computer. But if you have an analog one, intended to be used with anything other than a computer — say, a camera, sound system or voice recorder — the chances are that it may not work, unless your computer has a dedicated microphone socket.

My Macs have a headset socket, into which you can plug combined earbud/microphone combinations such as you might get with your phone. But it tends to think that anything else you plug in there is just a pair of headphones, and that you probably want to keep using the built-in mic on the machine.

I did some experiments to work out how to persuade it to use an external microphone. It’s not one of my slickest videos, but it should serve its purpose!

Update, a few days later:

Even though the above solution works, it’s almost certainly easier, if you don’t have a microphone socket on your computer, to use a USB audio adapter, like this one.

I was hesitant about this, because I wasn’t sure of the likely quality of the analog-to-digital converters in a cheap USB peripheral, but it turns out to work very well for normal use. That would be my recommendation now, if you have a spare USB socket!

Academia ain’t what it used to be

Malcolm Gaskill has a poignant, observant and very nicely-written piece in the London Review of Books, entitled “On Leaving Academia”.

In​ May, I gave up my academic career after 27 years. A voluntary severance scheme had been announced in December, and I dithered about it until the pandemic enforced focus on a fuzzy dilemma. Already far from the sunlit uplands, universities would now, it seemed, descend into a dark tunnel. I swallowed hard, expressed an interest, hesitated, and then declared my intention to leave…

There are many parts of this that resonate with my experience, though my involvement with academia in recent years has been much shallower than his. I am also intrigued about the ways in which Covid is suddenly shaking up the methods of teaching that have been the norm for decades, if not centuries. Some good things will come out of this, I’m sure. But I also share much of his yearning for the past.

Three responses went through my brain in quick succession:

The first was that the ongoing success of universities now will depend chiefly on hiring lots of young, eager academics, primarily because they don’t know how good things used to be.

The second was that the bureaucrats who oversee universities should note one important thing here: this is not the dusty nostalgia of an old gent in his seventies coming to the end of his career. Gaskill is 53.

But my final thought was of a little phrase in a book of poetry and trivia from my childhood. It simply had the title “The Good Old Days”:

These ARE the Good Old Days. Just wait and see.

Thanks to John for the link.

Grant me the wisdom

I like this tweet from Elizabeth Ayer this morning. Definitely a good recipe for preserving your sanity in the modern world.

God give me the strength to ignore the news that won’t change anyone’s mind, the energy to engage with the news that might, and the wisdom to know the difference.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser