Feb 10

Browser Ballot

Browser ballot. Ballot?

What, like an election? You mean, it’s more than a mere choice, it’s a personal statement of belief, a vote?

It appears that way. Each browser has its manifesto. A page held on a politically neutral website that outlines what the browser stands for.

What the hell?

Today I was doing some Windows updates on a client’s computer, and after I rebooted I saw something that led me to believe their machine had a trojan or spyware. For there was no branding, no explanation, just a box that popped up in an unfamiliar window saying that I had an important choice to make.

This has to be dodgy, right? A virus. Someone trying to steal my data.

The only important choice I have to make right now is what to have for dinner.

No, it’s the European Union ruling against Microsoft, telling them that they have to provide users with a choice of browser. A browser ballot. Yay! I get to vote!

It’s like returning home after your cleaner has been only to find someone took your wooden floor away, and left you a note saying you have an important choice to make. You need to choose what type of floor you would like to use from now on. Wait, you surely bought that floor along with the rest of the house? Like five years ago!

NO! Because a floor is distinctly different to a house. Lots of different people make floors! You should be given a choice! Otherwise it’s unfair on everyone who makes floors!

What the hell? Where is my floor? It’s my house, get out!

This only applies to Microsoft, mind. Your floor would only be temporarily removed if you bought a Microsoft house as your home, not an Apple one, or a Ubuntu one. Oh, and it only applies to Microsoft Homes purchased in the last 10 years. Oh, and it doesn’t apply to Microsoft Mansions (i.e. servers) or mobile homes of any sort (iPod, Windows Mobile). Only middle class homes. It’s because Microsoft are the Barratt Homes of computers. Their bigness makes them inherently bad.

Ok so the difficulty with this metaphor is that everyone in the world knows the difference between a floor and a house, but not everyone in the world knows the difference between a browser and an operating system. You, dear reader, are excused if you do not know the difference, deep down. It’s okay. You are quite normal.

Wait. Even worse to think. More people will vote in this arbitrary browser ballot in the UK than will vote in the general election. Many, many more people. That is so wrong it hurts.

Back on topic, let’s get this straight.

Anyone who actually knows what a browser is has already made their choice.

The remainder (75% of actual people – that is – living human beings with souls who just want to go on the internet without any hassles) do not care.

They will have a decision process forced upon them, be told the decision is important, (what, like abortion? Like looking for a new job?) and then be confounded with a load of options they don’t understand. If they click the window away, it will install a shortcut to the desktop, and come up again on next reboot.

I work in the field of IT Consultancy, and I can testify that to the majority of users, this decision is not as important as who to vote for on X Factor.

The consequence: IT Support will be picking up the pieces, after the sorry mess caused by a load of unsuspecting users who accidentally installed the wrong browser because they had no idea where to click, thus losing all of their settings, saved passwords, and not to mention being bloody confounded because the browser they chose didn’t have the latest version of Adobe Flash, etc.

Make it go away.

My mother doesn’t even know the difference between the address bar and a mouse. Give her a change of browser and she will have to go to night classes again just to learn how to do a Google search. Seriously.

Hell, even the BBC, in tech articles, regularly get operating system and browser confused. That’s how tech savvy we are: rightly or wrongly, our own media can’t even get it right. (Cringe.)

In the name of liberation, choice, freedom? It smacks of jealousy, of fanatical technocracy. It’s almost a religious war. Sure as anything isn’t politics. Or regulation for that matter.

The global tech industry requires solid, effective, and rational sector regulation. The EU has proven its worthlessness once again by entirely missing the point and unleashing its mindless red tape on an easy target. Path of least resistance. What a weak bunch.

It’s micro legislation, and it undermines the fact that the industry is suffering a dearth of real regulation, such as in cyber security, or in the environmental challenges.

Nit-picking at the big guy on a tiny point of interest does nobody any favours.

It’s straight bananas, except far worse.

It sure as anything wasn’t for anti-monopoly reasons because for one, browsers are not a major source of income for anyone (except those who only make browsers… cough cough) and secondly because this will do nothing to put a leash onto the fact Microsoft have cornered the corporate IT market – where the money is.

This is the techno-democracy-brigade equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theatre.

I’m starting to feel sorry for large conglomerates (for the random outburst of legislation that clearly applies to nobody else) and feeling anger towards libertarian organisations who supposedly want the world to be a better place.

I’m starting to mutter under my breath words like political correctness gone MAD, and I sound like one of those awful Daily Mail readers.

What’s going on with the world?

Feb 10

All because of coffee

Today I realised I may have a problem.

I was more than just a little frustrated. I feared the bad coffee served to me in the Beaconsfield branch of Costa Coffee (franchise name: Coffee Snobs) would actually ruin my day. Bad coffee and its effects have ruined my day before. I couldn’t let it do so again.

I am spending a whole day with a client. The work I do for them is important to me. I don’t stop for food or coffee during the day. This flat white has to last me until 4.30pm. It’s 9.30 now. That’s an abnormal amount of time without espresso.

You see, I have become so dependent on making myself a beautiful espresso or flat white that I expect the same when I buy one. And if I don’t get it, I become vile.

Here’s my home routine. 1-4 times daily. I pre-heat the espresso machine one hour before first coffee. I clean and test the group head each time I pull a double. I leave two espresso cups in a bowl of hot water for 3 minutes. I tear-off 4 sheets of kitchen roll and put them aside to dry the cups which are removed from the hot water at the very last second. I grind the beans within 15 seconds of the extraction process. During this 15 seconds I use digital measuring scales to dose 18.5 grams of ground beans into a double filter basket. I tamp with a force of 30 lbs, which I also measure. I throw away approximately 3 cups of espresso for every successful one I make on the basis that the coffee wasn’t the correct temperature, the extraction was 5 seconds too short (weak! eugh!), the fragrance wasn’t right. I always re-steam the milk if I discover that the bubbles in my microfoam are too large.

So why the hell should I pay for coffee that tastes like burnt milk?

This morning I had an ‘episode’ at Beaconsfield Costa Coffee.

More often than not, this place lives up to my expectation for a chain café. This expectation is admittedly low when it comes to quality and high when it comes to high-street availability, but my goodness it is better than the consistently awful burnt weak crap they serve you at Starbucks.

(Note to any Americans reading this: I believe it is a uniquely British phenomenon whereby the coffee sold in Starbucks is consistently offensive. My experience in USA branches of Starbucks is far more positive. The coffee in your Starbucks stores is certainly less than drinkable, but not offensive per se. I think this is something to do with the superimposition of Starbucks corporate values onto the lame work ethic of the British workforce. It results in failure.)

I digress; I have become that belligerent git who makes a scene in restaurants and cafés. I have become that man I always disliked. I am not even 30 yet.

Back in Beaconsfield Costa Coffee. The place is where I go to pick up a satisfactory coffee. Seriously, they get it right a lot of the time. On the most part, very pleasant staff, and talented ones too. It’s the only place I’ll go to out of London to drink half decent coffee.

Sadly this morning they gave me a barista whose incompetence matched only the curtness with which she dealt with me. Don’t get me wrong, I would far rather have a rude foreign barista who made a wicked coffee than a smiling friendly one who made a mediocre one. Fact is, I’ve noticed that friendly professionalism and competence go hand-in-hand. And the flip side is that grumpy baristas usually make a terrible coffee, too.

This particular barista has burnt my milk before. And before, I have politely asked for a replacement coffee without burnt milk. And before, I have felt like an inconvenience for drawing attention to this. Not this time.

I need good coffee. I’m not in central London at Monmouth. I’m not at Sacred Coffee. I’m not at Nude Espresso. This is the only place I can get it right now.

The barista makes my flat white but shoves the lid on before I even get to see the creation. I am in a rush, I grab the coffee and run back to my double-parked car.

I throw my coffee into the coffee holder. Coffee flies all over the car, and over myself. I am running a few minutes late for my client. I don’t like to be late.

Why did the coffee fly everywhere? I always do this with a flat white. The foam on the top sits between the coffee and the lid, it never spills. I open the lid to inspect. It’s like water. Where is the foam? Where is the creamy sweet microfoam? Where is the attempt at latte art? All I see is grey murky liquid, no foam.

I’m in two minds. I’m late, but very angry with the coffee all over me and my car (did I think to bring a tissue – no). Really? Is this sloppy crap going to be my only espresso until 4.30 or 5? Please no.

I run back into Costa and explain that this is not a flat white. This is a latte, with no foam. The curt barista explains it is a flat white.

Please don’t argue. The difference between a good barista and a bad one: a good one would be horrified at the thought their creation was not up to scratch.

I say politely “I’m sorry, the flat white has a microfoam on top with a very smooth but dense texture that prevents me from throwing coffee all over my car. This is not a flat white.”

I lose my cool, and simply place the coffee in front of the barista and say nothing, waiting for a response. (It’s very unlike me to behave in this way.)

To her credit, the barista says “I will try to make you another sir”. Curt but solution-focussed. The short girl who took the order, standing next to her, looks like I just insulted her family and called her mother a whore. Oh really? You are giving me the death stare because your colleague served me bad coffee? I just threw coffee down me and you are giving me evils? Really?

I wouldn’t even dare to serve this to my own house guests let alone serve it for money.

At this point I should explain that I don’t believe my intolerance to be borne out of a sense of innate privilege, nor do I believe myself to be spoilt, nor someone who takes things for granted in life.

It’s more that I have grown used to my own exacting standards for pulling an espresso, foaming milk (this is an art if done well), and more and more frequently I find myself expecting these standards to be exceeded when I drink out.

I take the new coffee and run. I get back to the car, remove the lid to inspect. The microfoam is at least there. There are large bubbles in the microfoam. The milk from my replacement coffee burns my tongue. I am angry. But I am late.

See – this is how I start my day. Angry, late, disappointed, and with a burnt tongue.

All because of coffee.

Feb 10

How to get things done

The whole concept of consolidating one’s thoughts into a list is something that fascinates me.

Why? Because I’m not a listy kind of person. I’m very much an improviser in life, I don’t like to be tied-down to systems or structures, I love to see how things go before I commit – but I still find myself having to write lists.

Herein lies a paradox, and here is the crux of this paradox: because I don’t naturally tend towards structure, and because my brain is so disorderly, and because I am not a natural multitasker, and because I think too much all of the time, (and because the number of clauses in this sentence reflects how my brain works), the only way of getting through my day is to write a list.

It’s a battleplan for actually getting things done.

Otherwise, I am easily overcome with the small things clouding the bigger picture.

This is something I realised a while ago, and so I started to read about the formalised concepts of GTD (getting things done) proposed by David Allen, became a friend of the 43 folders concept, and investigated list-making websites and programs.

Like any true list junkie, I had to feed my habit. This started, aged 18 (that’s 11 years ago), with an unhealthy dependency on using Microsoft Outlook tasks, and since then I have been a slave to the Palm Pilot (2 different models), early days of Nokia mobile phone tasks, the smartphone in 4 different flavours (Windows Mobile introduced synchronisation of my lists from Outlook to a mobile device – wow!), cloud-based services like Gmail’s task lists, synchonisation of lists across a number of different pieces of technology, not to mention the shunning of all the above and the purchase of the entire range of Moleskine notepads (I was feeling renaissance).

Now I come to think of it, I once spent three weeks trying to find the perfect digital audio dictation device that was waterproof so that I could pin-down the ridiculous number of thoughts and bright ideas that my brain has when I am in the shower, as well as driving in my car. No kidding. What a geek.

Invariably, however, after my foray into this new-fangled paper and pen thing, I came back to technology to help me get productive. How old-fashioned. And of late I have downloaded (and spent too much money on) a few good GTD applications for the iPhone.

I have pondered how much money I’ve invested over the years on systems to help me get things done (Things, TapForms, DropBox, Evernote, Done, Outlook, Pocket Informant, and more), and whether or not this investment has matched the gain in productivity I have encountered. Of course, it hasn’t.

But it has made me feel better. I therefore conclude that everyone needs a hobby, and because I don’t fly kites or own a cat, mine is “finding the perfect way to organise my thoughts”.

Like a junkie, I get excited when I sign-up for a new productivity enhancing website. I get excited when I find out the website will sync with my iPhone so that I can always never forget to not forget to Remember the Milk at all times, always, wherever I am.

Then I’m left high-and-dry 6 months later because I discover one TINY piece of functionality that another application has invented which my favourite To-Do list system doesn’t have.

Such is the curse of perfectionism. No, scrap that. Such is the curse of consumerism.

At this point in my life, I have identified the problem. The problem is me.

I am a fickle consumer of things that could potentially make my life more efficient and better.

Is it really me? Or has the perfect system – at least perfect in my mind – just not been invented yet?

You see, in my head there is a specification for what makes the ultimate list application. (This is like the ‘ultimate hit’ for junkies.)

  • Quick to enter thoughts. I mean, from the moment you have a thought, there should be zero delay in recording it. This also covers the requirement to enter lots of thoughts in succession.
  • Clear delineation of functionality from other apps. A good GTD app should not be my calendar, but because I am task-oriented and not time-oriented, I require some kind of time-based aspect. For example, I want to remember to do something in the future but not to have it cloud my list for the current day.
  • Needs to have multiple lists or contexts. (One for work, one for admin, one for home, etc.)
  • Needs to have multiple views and list types that transcend these contexts. (Things for ‘today’, things for ‘someday’, things for a project, things for a meeting, etc.)
  • Needs to act as a record or log for old thoughts / to-do items. I want to track what I was doing this time a year ago. This time 4 years ago. Therefore it must have an export function, to export to a common format, if and when I move on to another system.
  • Coupled with the above point, it needs to export items so as to be platform-independent. I love my iPhone, and will probably settle on it for at least a few years. And I currently use a PC. But what about in 20 years, when we are commanding computers built-in to coffee tables and the like? Tech has changed so much in the last 10 years, and this will only accelerate in the next 10.
  • Back to the now: needs to sync between different devices, and the cloud. My laptop and desktop PC are used when I need to expand thoughts, and my iPhone is my all-in-one that gets taken everywhere. Ideally, this sync should be done via the ‘cloud’, so everything is backed-up, and so I’ve access even when I lose or forget my laptop or phone. I use the Google cloud, because it’s free, and highly available, and resilient. This allows me to store and sync files, email, you name it. Too many of the best apps are written for Mac and iPhone only. No good for me right now.
  • Needs to be pretty. And ingenious. I can’t handle an ugly bit of software.

It turns out there are a tonne of apps out there that do most of the above, but not all. Perhaps that’s why I keep changing apps, not because I’m a junkie.

The best ones seem to be apps that are not quite as platform independent. Things for iPhone, OmniFocus for iPhone – great apps, but if you want to sync with PC or the cloud, they are limited. And they aren’t that ingenious in terms of their user interface.

Remember the Milk for iPhone, great, but you need to sign up for a subscription to their package.

My latest download is an application for iPhone called Today To-Do by Spielhaus.

The fact it’s my latest indicates it’s my favourite in the evolution of GTD on the iPhone so far (that small sentence betrays a lot of enthusiasm for the application right now), but it doesn’t quite fulfill the whole of the above hit-list… at least not yet.

The first application that does so gets a full, detailed review!