Jamie's Notes

Currently browsing the year of 2018 ⤵


I used to live in a small town where nothing was much more than an hour away on foot. If I didn’t walk, I cycled. I was in pretty good physical condition. That was until I moved to a small city, bought a motorbike and eventually a car. The car is an expensive luxury, but incredibly convenient. The downside is that it became my default way of getting around, and before long my jeans didn’t fit and climbing the stairs at work was more tiring than it should be.

Changes at work over the past couple of years have seen me driving a lot more than normal – around eighteen thousand miles a year and sometimes for four or five hours day. I basically became completely sedentary without realising. I did realise that I completely hate driving. Thankfully since the end of last year I no longer need to drive so much, so I started to think of ways that I could reduce my car usage further. I bought a folding bike, thinking that I could replace some petrol powered miles with foot powered ones. This was not entirely successful.

This week I tried to walk my commute. Google said its only two and a half miles, which seemed doable, so I marched past my car this morning and headed in the direction of town. My commute is not particularly interesting by car. It is equally uninteresting on foot. It takes me past a long row of terraced houses, a huge car park, a railway crossing, alongside the Victorian cemetery and then on to Spring Bank; a melting pot of takeaways, off-licences, newsagents and houses of multiple occupation. I discovered that there are a surprising number of drunk people around at 8am on a weekday morning. I was a bit scared that I was going to be robbed. It rained a little.

My carefully formulated plan was to walk to work and get the bus back. The singular flaw in my carefully formulated plan was leaving my debit card at home and being unable to obtain my bus fare. So I walked home too.

The journey was around forty minutes each way. It can take me longer than that driving at peak time, and I saved the money that I would have spent on fuel and parking. Theoretically, it’s a no brainer – there’s no practical reason to use the car on days where I’m working from the office. But the car still feels more convenient and it’s that psychological hump that needs beating down.

Anyway, I’m very tired and I need to iron my clothes for work tomorrow. I think I’ll go in the car. Best not overdo things.

Liars, populists & cretins

I’ve tried to avoid reading about Brexit for the past year because it’s a really good route to short-term depression.

Roughly two years have passed since the UK Government prematurely triggered Article 50. There’s been lots, and lots, and lots of talk since then, but in reality very little has happened – well, quite a lot has happened, but very little of the big stuff that needs to be done by the deadline has happened.

The EU 27 set out their position early on:

  • The UK chose to leave, so they’ll leave and lose access to the benefits of being a member.
  • The EU will manage the exit in a way to cause the least damage to the EU, and hopefully the UK (but they’re the ones that chose to leave, so…).

Seems reasonable. Brexit, as far as the EU is concerned, is a legal process and an exercise in damage limitation – not a negotiation. The UK fundamentally misunderstands this as intransigence.

The UK, under the Chequers proposals, asks for access to the single market (with the ability to strike external trade deals – though with who, nobody yet knows), along with opt-outs from freedom of movement, paying into the EU budget and being under the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

The EU have not been particularly enthusiastic about these proposals,since they undermine the core structures of the union, and the UK has been banging its head against this wall for the past six months.

Theresa May tried to use an EU summit in Salzburg to go over the head of the intractable negotiators and appeal to the generosity of the individual member states, but this failed spectacularly and without benefit of a better plan, she threw a wobbler and announced that it would be Europe’s fault if Britain crashed out without a deal, and that they need to prevent it from happening. The irony is delicious, but there we seem to have become stuck.

Theresa ‘Strong & Stable Leadership’ May is at the mercy of the cretinous elements of the Conservative Party, no one can quite understand what the Labour Party intends to do, and time is ticking.

For a very readable view of the current status of the EU talks, read Chris Grays Brexit Blog. For a giggle (or a cry), read these reports of meetings between the PM and Angela Merkel.

I wish I had the guts

From Derek Sivers, back in March this year:

You are the way you are because of what you’ve experienced.

Your country, family, town, random circumstances, and friends shaped the way you think. If you grew up on the other side of the world, you would have a different set of values and thought patterns.

But if you keep experiencing the same things, your mind keeps its same patterns. Same input, same response. Your brain, which was once curious and growing, gets fixed into deep habits. Your values and opinions harden and resist change. If you don’t flex, you lose your flexibility.

You only really learn when you’re surprised. Unless you’re surprised, everything is fitting into your existing thought patterns. So to get smarter, you need to get surprised, think in new ways, and deeply understand different perspectives.

With effort, you could do this from the comforts of home. But the most effective way to shake things up is to move across the world. Pick a place that’s most unlike what you know, and go.

I wish I had the guts.

Read the full post on Derek’s blog.

In need of adventure

Read Jane’s short account of her small camping adventure on Harlosh Island and then weep about how rubbish your week has been:

We loaded our kayaks with all we would need for the night and made the short paddle across from Harlosh to Harlosh Island where we set up camp for the night. We spent a lovely afternoon exploring the island and swimming.

If that got you in the mood for adventure, head straight over to read Katie Tunn’s comprehensive tips for quick outdoor adventures.

It’s been a good few years now since I’ve done any wild camping. Both of these popped up in my feeds today. Someone, somewhere, is trying to tell me something..

Changes ahead

Sixteen years ago my life was profoundly changed by the arrival of a small baby. It was somewhat unexpected and I was wholly unprepared. Things were never quite the same again. It wouldn’t have worked out if they were.

Parenting is tough. I mean _really _tough. Despite there being a million and one books on the subject there’s no proven way of knowing if you are doing it right. It’s a like trying to complete a giant jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box to refer to. You desperately hope that the finished picture is something you like, and that you haven’t lost any important pieces along the way because once you’ve started it’s far too big and complicated to try again.

Sixteen years on and that hapless and noisy baby is now celebrating the end of secondary school and the beginning of a new chapter in her life – by attending ‘Prom’. Prom is officially a big deal for teenagers. Many hours have been spent choosing the right dress, shoes, make-up and hair-do. Tonight we stood dutifully with a small crowd of parents and watched as a series of limousines, sports cars and horse drawn carriages ejected their well dressed cargo. We saw a young woman instead of a child in front of us, and suddenly the enormous possibilities of the world in front of her hit us. In a few short years she’ll be off to university, and then to wherever the winds blow her.

The jigsaw pieces are all in the right place, and we do indeed like the picture. The scary bit is not knowing what comes next.

The Quiet Space

I like building websites. I wouldn’t want to do it for a living but I enjoy the challenge of taking a rough idea through to a finished project. Since I rarely get to do it for anyone other than myself I was happy to offer my services to my brother when he needed a site for his new venture.

The site runs a custom Bootstrap theme on top of a Jekyll back-end. I’m really pleased with it.

My brother is brilliant, and well qualified, so give him a shout if you are looking for a therapist in Scarborough. Tell him you liked his website!

Link: The Quiet Space

End of The Listserv

I opened my email today and found a message from The Listserve, announcing the end of the long running project.

The Listserv was an email based community with a simple premise. Each weekday a member of the community is randomly selected and asked to craft a message for distribution to all list members. This was known as ‘Winning the Lottery’ and was something that only a small proportion of members would experience. Some of the emails were sad, but an equal amount were optimistic; brimming with compassion, humour & joy. Each was a privilege to read and I will miss it.

I never did win the lottery though.

The first email is still my favourite.

A Year of Reading: 2017

I don’t know how it happened but the stats don’t lie; I read more books last year than in any year since I started counting.

Books: Audiobooks: Pages:
48 3 24174

It’s tough to choose favorites in a year full of so many good books, but here’s a couple that stood out:

Favourite Fiction Book

Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

I like churches and I like history; so a book about a man who sets about to build the worlds greatest gothic cathedral in 12th century England is right up my street.

This is a huge book of over a thousand pages. The author has done his research too. He skilfully weaves fact and fiction so tightly that it’s difficult to separate them.

I knew the village an its inhabitants so well by the time the book came to a close that I felt a brief pang of grief. A brilliant book and one I will definitely return to.

Favourite Non-Fiction Book

Getting things Done, by David Allen

There’s been so much written about this book already that nothing can be gained by saying any more.

I’ve not managed to become an effective practitioner of GTD but I’m working at it, and the results so far have shown that it’s a goal worth pursuing.

Previous Years:

Year Books Audiobooks Pages Total
2016 36 8 20584 45
2015 34 14494 34
2014 42 18537 42
2013 31 12576 31
2012 29 10974 29

In a different life

I was pondering over my career choices earlier. If I could have the use of a time machine I would use it to travel back to secondary school – and this time I would work really, really hard.

I’d focus on maths, science and biology , with the aim becoming biological engineer. I would then put all my aquired intellectual focu on the invention of a strain of grass that never grows longer than an inch. Nobody would have to cut the grass, or maintain their lawn ever again.

P.S All my grass is dead. I don’t know what to do about it.

The tools I use

One of my favourite features of Lifehacker is their ‘How I Work’ series of interviews, where they ask people to explain the tools and strategies they use to get shit done.

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the software that I use and how I use it – definitely more time than is productive, and I find it hard to settle on a system without falling into the productivity porn trap – but nevertheless I’ve managed to put together a list of the software and services that seem to stick around on my devices. All of this stuff works really well, so I’ve got no good reason to spend any more hours looking for a better text editor.

Here it is:

Hardware / OS

  • Microsoft Surface 3 / Ubuntu
  • BlackBerry KeyOne
  • iPad Mini 4

Server Stack

  • Mailcow provides the family with email, calendars, tasks and contact sync across devices. It works brilliantly.
  • Nextcloud provides secure file synchronization between devices.
  • Gogs is a self hosted GIT server, similar to Github. I use it to keep track of bits of code, and even bits of prose.
  • A Mastodon instance provides my social media fix.

All of the above are hosted on Hetzner servers and cost less than a tenner a month to run.

Internet & Communication Tools

  • Browser: Firefox
  • Instant Messenger: Matrix
  • Email: Evolution (desktop) / Mail (iOS)
  • IRC: Hexchat
  • Text Editor: Sublime Text

Applications of Note

  • I use YNAB to manage my daily finances. Four years of use has transformed my understanding of my spending habits, even though I haven’t fully bought in to all of the principles.
  • NewsBlur helps me to keep up to date with the latest posts from sites that I’m interested in. RSS is most definitely, and defiantly, NOT dead.
  • I manage all of my passwords with Bitwarden.
  • Audible and Pocket Casts make my commutes tolerable.
  • Calibre makes managing my ebook collection a breeze.

That’s my list. What’s yours?

Our tiny houses

Our homes have, on average, just 94m2 of floor space. Prospective buyers of a new build property today will be offered an average of 76m2 (about one and a half double decker buses), making them officially the smallest in Europe. This is unlikely to be a surprise to those living in one because they are probably having to sit on each others knees to watch the telly right now. And not only are the houses small, they look like a botched builds from The Sims.

Over thirty percent of UK housing stock is terraced housing. We built tons of it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to attract migrant workers to industrial towns and cities. Despite many attempts to rid us of them, most vigorously between 1950 and 1970, they remain popular. They’re solidly built, lend themselves to conversion, and have proven to be a fairly solid financial investment for buyers. With decent maintenance there is no reason to think that they won’t be around in another hundred years (you can’t say that for today’s new builds) but they’re small and densely packed together because it was cheaper to build them that way.

I’ve heard it said that it’s not size that matters, it’s how you use it. Buyers now want ensuite bathrooms, studies, pantries and other modern luxuries in their homes but instead of building bigger houses to accommodate these new demands, house builders are reducing the size of the other rooms instead. Our living rooms are now nearly a third smaller than those built in the 1970s.

So why don’t we build bigger houses? The way that we sell houses in the UK is one factor. I’d bet that most people don’t know how much floorspace their property contains. It’s rarely mentioned in the marketing materials; we use the number of bedrooms as a size metric instead even though that bares very little relation to the size of the property. Land is insanely expensive in the UK so it makes sense for house-builders to cram as many houses on to a plot as possible and up until recently there was no guidance from the government on how big a home should be. That changed in 2015 but it’s down to local authorities to ensure that developers implement the new size guidance in their schemes. We also have one of the most restrictive planning systems in the world, making it extremely difficult get permission to build on greenbelt or unused agricultural land.

Very few people in the UK build their own homes, choosing instead to purchase from huge companies who build thousands of houses of a similar specification. This is why the majority of UK housing looks very similar. So why don’t we build our own homes to our own specification? The perceived difficulty is probably the biggest consideration, and to some extent that’s true; getting planning permission might be difficult, and you’ll need to deal with land purchase and finding a mortgage. But it’s not impossible and considerable savings can be made. HMRC even allows self-builders to reclaim VAT on building materials.

Are British houses small relative to other countries? Compared to the rest of Europe, not really. The average size across the EU 28 is 96m2, but that figure includes some big outliers at either extremity: Cyprus at 141m2 and Romania at just 45m2. For a laugh we could head out of Europe and over to North America where things are much different. The average Canadian home is 180m2. In America it’s 245m2, they have more floor space per person than we have in total.

The only thing we can do, as consumers, is demand bigger homes from developers. Pay attention to how much space you are getting for your money. Petition your MPs to vote for legislation to loosen planning restrictions and increase minimum sizes. Or throw caution to the wind and build the house of your dreams.

Delete Facebook

Facebook is a monster of our own creation. We carried on feeding it our deepest secrets until it became one of the most powerful and valuable companies in the world, headed by a guy that once called his users ‘dumb fucks’.

The latest revelations are shocking, but I doubt they will cause it any long term damage, people have short memories, most people just don’t care, and no one will leave until all the other people they know do too. Still, this is the first time that I can recall people seriously talking about the end of Facebook. Some have asked what should replace Facebook if it does fall, as if fleeing the platform would leave some gaping hole in our lives that must be filled or that a new platform would solve the problems of the old. The truth is that there is no hole, because Facebook solves a problem that doesn’t exist. The Internet worked just fine before it arrived, and it will work just fine when it dies.

If you really must have a platform, choose one that’s federated. Federated networks use open protocols to communicate with distributed nodes. Admittedly this sounds ridiculously complicated (and that’s also a barrier to adaption), but this network structure means that no single entity has control of all the data. Projects like Mastodon are doing great work in getting federated social networks to a state ready for wider use.

Facebook has promised that it will safeguard the information that it holds and that nothing like this will ever happen again, but none of their lip flapping solves the basic problem: their sole purpose is to maximise the profit that they can make from the information that we give it. The only way to fix Facebook is to tell them to do one. Start working on a blog. Dust off your email. Call a friend or send them a text. The world without Facebook really isn’t that bad.