On inspiration

Something I have been reflecting on a lot lately is inspiration; where it comes from, what feeds it, and how to make the most of it.

Over the years I’ve found that I go through periods where I become very intensely inspired about specific things – to the point that almost all I can think about is the project or projects that I’m working on. This can be extremely rewarding, but also incredibly frustrating, with no obvious way to manage effectively. It seemed like there was never any discernible rhyme or reason for when these times would strike or how long they would last; it could often be incredibly difficult to satisfy the creative impulses that came along, and most maddening of all – I wasn’t sure how to trigger them consciously.

In addition, it also felt like this kind of all-or-nothing drive was often easily misunderstood – including by myself – as a sort of careless impatience, or worse, an erratic string of obsessions which would fade away just as quickly as they had appeared – rather than a genuine, lasting interest. There’s nothing worse than feeling like something you have been working on intently for months and are passionate about might just be some latest flight of fancy.

Managing Inspiration

Rather than just jumping endlessly from one new thing to the next, I realised that I was actually cycling through a few of the same creative outlets – focussing solely on one to the detriment of all the others. These cycles could run from days to weeks to months to years, and I had no real way to predict when they might end.

The nature of this meant that I felt guilty about neglecting my other passions, and  inevitably made collaborative ventures especially tricky. For example, if I was currently deeply inspired about photographic expression, I found it almost impossible to garner enthusiasm for writing songs as part of a band.

The all-consuming nature of this kind of heady inspiration also means that you lose some objectivity in relation to whether what you are doing is actually any good – the constant desire to create pushing everything else aside. Even just considering this possibility was enough to drive me to despair. TL;DR I needed to find a better way to manage these driving forces.

It has only been very recently that have I begun to get something of a handle on all of this. Now, rather than simply waiting for inspiration to strike and abandoning all other projects when it does until the juice runs out, I can strike something of a balance. Here are some of my observations and tips.

1. Avoid the gaps

Rather than see multiple outlets as being in competition with one another, I’ve come to realise (with insight from wiser people than I) that they can actually support and feed each other. For me (and I think many other creatively wired folk), having lots going on at once is far more preferable to hitting a period where I’m unable to do anything. Having various different passions means that I can shift from one to another and keep up the momentum across mediums – rather than hitting a total expressive block. It is much harder to find inspiration after that than it is if you are constantly inspired in separate areas.

2. Take a break

There are piles of books out there that will tell you the key to getting things done is to commit to doing a little bit each day. This path-of-least-resistance approach can be a great tactic to help get you over any initial procrastination, and build longer term habits. If you commit to playing guitar for five minutes a day, you are bound to find yourself playing far longer. However, when it comes to expressive outlets, the danger here is that you turn something you love doing into a chore, with the idea that you must constantly be progressing at least a little for it to be worthwhile. That kind of feeling kills creativity, and sometimes in order to find inspiration you need to give yourself space to take a break from something and then come back to it – without feeling guilty. This will pay dividends.

3. Grab inspiration when it comes

Of course, sometimes inspiration gloriously swells up from nowhere, and you need to make the most of it while you can. I came across a quote the other day from Margaret Qiao (from this awesome book) which puts it better than I ever could.

When you feel inspired, or have an idea, stop whatever you are doing and follow the inspiration. It’s very difficult to rekindle the spark once it goes out and impossible to conjure up on command.

This inspired me to write this post!

4. Seek out inspiration

Sometimes, you have no choice but to work on something – whether that’s because of deadlines, personal expectations, or because you are part of a collaboration. In these times, if you find yourself completely uninspired, it can be an incredibly taxing and difficult process.

As I mentioned, I previously just rode the waves of inspiration, jostling on the creative seas with no way to control what happened. I presumed that was all just part of the tortured artist process and revelled in the misery of it. However, what I’ve come to realise is that there are actually ways to help trigger periods of inspiration – you just have to actively seek them out.

For me, this has meant that before I have to work on anything specific but don’t really feel like it, I’ll spend some time on related things that I think is really interesting. For example, actively listening to bands who have really great vocalists before I have to sit down and write lyrics; watching a Japanese TV show I like before I study some of the language; or looking through pictures from photographers I love before developing some film.

This might seem painfully obvious, but in practice it’s something that I never really bought into before as nothing ever clicked. However, that’s because most of the things other folks find inspiring or share online won’t work for you. To give another example I never used to care much for photo books, but have fairly recently discovered that having a collection of these I can browse through almost never fails to inspire me to get out and take pictures.

5. ‘Write drunk, edit sober’

It isn’t clear who actually said this originally, but it isn’t all that important. Rather than taking this literally, when you find yourself struck by an idea, squeeze as much out of that feeling as you can while it lasts – but don’t worry about finishing everything then and there. Get the bulk down on paper, canvas, on film, or on a blog while you are drunk on inspiration – and then revisit to apply the finishing touches later. The urge to publish quickly can be unbearable at times – and sometimes you should – but the important thing is to make a start will you have the drive to do so. You can always come back to it later.

Staying Productive with Things

Things Logo

More than productivity

I am a person that needs to have a bunch of different projects going on at any one time. Whether it’s making music, writing blogs, building weird keyboards, or restoring old iPods, if I don’t keep my mind busy, it quickly begins to turn in on itself. At the same time, my work involves managing a variety of disparate projects that can vary from day to day.

All of this has become increasingly difficult to keep track of over the years, and none of the various calendars, diaries or bits of software I tried really helped. However, about six months ago my colleague and friend Bryan convinced me to give an app called ‘Things’ a go, and it has pretty much transformed how I manage my time. As well as becoming far more productive, I have found that I am far less stressed out, and feel more in control. I had never appreciated just how significant the cognitive load of having to juggle so many tasks was, or how much anxiety I had internalised as a result. Now, I no longer worry about forgetting to do something, or lie awake at night unable to sleep while my brain organises the things I have to do the next day.

At the end of the day, Things is just a To Do list app, but it’s an especially pleasant one to use, with a really smart workflow. Rather than wasting what Bryan would call ‘brain cycles’ worrying about er, things, you let Things take care of them. In particular, it wasn’t until I found myself increasingly filled with despair about the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic that I realised just how invaluable Things had become for keeping my mind clear. Rather than allow myself to become consumed with the developing news cycle, I instead chose to rely on Things more, and focus on what I wanted to get done in the following days. While it seems trivial, this helped tremendously. So in this blog I wanted to share a bit about how I make use of Things, and what I’ve learned.

The Basics

Things is a beautifully designed to-do list app from Cultured Code which runs on both Mac and iOS. It doesn’t run on Windows, and (annoyingly) there is no web or Android version (though see this post for my workaround). The current version at the time of writing is Things 3. It is apparently based on the ‘Getting Things Done‘ methodology.

Boiled down, Things essentially just provides a very pleasant way to quickly create and manage tasks – the beauty of it though is the myriad of different ways that you can view and organise these. At its most simple, you have an Inbox where you can dump all sorts of to do items to be organised, and then categorise them into different subject matter areas or projects.

Things Inbox

Tasks can be set to only appear on a specific ‘due date’ – presented in the ‘Today’ window. They can also be set to recur upon completion, or at set intervals.

Things Today view

For tasks that absolutely must be completed by a certain date, you can flag them up with a deadline.

Deadline - Things

Selecting an Area or Project on the left will display only the tasks that are associated with it, if you want to focus on something specifically.

Things

If you have tasks that you want to get to, but they aren’t time specific, you can throw them in the ‘Anytime’  bucket… and for ideas that you want to explore at some point, they can be filed away under ‘Someday’ for when you get time. You can also tag any task to further organise them to whatever level of detail you want.

Things Anytime

There are a bunch of other features as well which I won’t go into in any depth just now – such as the Logbook which keeps track of all of your completed tasks, the calendar integration so you see what appointments you have on any particular day, and the ‘Upcoming’ view which provides a longer term perspective of what’s on the horizon.

How I use Things: Workflow, Tips & Tricks

Everybody will use Things slightly differently, and I borrowed a lot of my approach from my sensei Bryan. However, here’s some of what I’ve found works:

Add everything – no matter how small – I literally add everything I need to remember to do as a task into Things. Whether that’s remembering to wash the dishes, or to chop carrots for dinner, I offload everything onto there so that I don’t need to think about it. At first this can seem pretty ridiculous, or like you are outsourcing your faculties to an app, but it frees up your mind to focus on other things that are more important. This also means that you have a mixture of things you enjoy as well as specific obligations – which helps to avoid dreading opening the app in the first place.

Make use of shortcuts – There are a bunch of useful shortcuts, the most important of which lets you very quickly add in To Do list items to your inbox while you are browsing the web, to be categorised later. Learn these, as the less friction you have in adding tasks or managing them, the easier and more natural it becomes – and the more you can focus on what you are doing at the time.

Only add things to your daily pile that you can actually achieve – It took me a while to realise that I would add all sorts of tasks to my daily list that I wanted to do, but which realistically I would never be able to get done. That ended up pretty demoralising, as I saw the same To Do items rolling over day after day, unchecked. Now, I only add things that I either have to get done, or which I have a reasonable shot at completing, and it has been far more effective.

Organise your tasks for the following day – Every night I look over the tasks I have for the next day, and organise them roughly by when I want to complete them, and ask myself what seems reasonable to do in one day. If it seems like there’s too much, I punt it to the following day. This ritual helps me organise my thoughts and get to sleep faster.

Set smaller goals, and be judicious with repeating tasks – It can be tempting to set a goal like ‘I will do one hour of Japanese study every day!’ and to add it in as a repeating task that appears on your list on the stroke of midnight. However, I found that this was actually counter-productive, as I began to just ignore these broad repeating tasks. Instead, I would manually set much more specific, one off tasks, like ‘Do 2 lessons on DuoLingo’ – which made them far easier to complete.

Use tags creatively – There are all sorts of cool ways you can make use of tags. For a practical example… I save lots of news articles to Pocket, but never actually get around to reading them. The same applies to YouTube videos. Now what I do is chuck them into Things, and tag them with the time they will take to complete – ’10m’ for example. Then, whenever I have a spare ten minutes and I’m not sure what to do – I can dip in and quickly find something to fill that time.

Separate out evening tasks – There’s no point having stuff you have to do after dinner wrapped up in the same list as everything else, and Things lets you specifically ring-fence tasks for the evening within a specific day. Make use of this!

Projects are useful! – I didn’t really utilise the Projects feature for ages, relying instead on individual tasks within Areas, but then I realised you could put Projects under Areas. Game changer. Now I use Projects a lot to manage groups of different tasks that add up to a larger goal, which is really useful.

Summary

…and that’s it. At first I didn’t really get what the big deal with Things was, and thought some of the practices were a bit bizarre and redundant, but I genuinely think that organising things in this way has made a huge difference to both my productivity, sense of achievement, and overall zen. It ain’t cheap, and they need to hurry up and just make an Android app already damnit, but I’m not sure what I would do without it at this point.

Things Blog

Build Log: Restoring a 3rd Gen iPod

A few years ago, I realised that I no longer had a good portable music player. Sure, there was my mobile – but I was still using an iPhone at the time, which could store about 10 songs before its pitiful internal, non-expandable memory got filled up. I longed for the golden days of iPods… back when they were cutting edge and had nice glowy buttons and scroll wheels and that nostalgic clicky sound. After a bit of Googling it seemed like it would be easy enough to pick up an old iPod and stick a new hard-drive and battery in – so that’s what I decided to do. However, things didn’t go especially smoothly. Below is my overly long account of my journey to repair the damn thing which nobody needs or wants, but since we are all currently locked inside thanks to the Coronavirus, it seems like as good a time as any.

The Restoration Journey

I didn’t want just any old iPod. I wanted the 3rd Generation iPod specifically. Why? Because that was arguably the best design – with a nice, smooth scrollwheel, and separate touch sensitive buttons. Looking around eBay, there were a few that were listed as ‘just needing a new hard drive’ for under twenty quid, but I decided to play it safe and get one that was fully working in the first place, to avoid other unseen problems cropping up. In the end, I went for a 20GB model for about £40 which seemed in decent enough nick. I picked up a battery with much larger capacity than the original (£9), and an 80GB hard drive (£28) – supposedly the maximum size that would work with this model. Along with the special tools to open the iPod without breaking it, the total cost so far is at: £90.

When the iPod arrived, everything worked as expected, but it was a lot more beaten up than I had expected. I always took really good care of my old one, so was a bit miffed that this one was rough. I hummed and hawwed for a while, before deciding to buy a whole new front plate, as I knew I wouldn’t be happy having upgraded all the other bits and then having a scratched up screen. I managed to track one down at a spare parts site, which cost about £20. It turned out I also needed a very particular size of Torx screw to get the logic board off and transferred over, so that brings the total cost at this point to £115. 

The front plate and screwdriver finally arrived, and I was pretty pleased. It was brand new and shiny. The battery and hard drive were a breeze to install, and things seemed to be going well… though not for long. It turns out the front plate also has a whole set of electronics attached, which did not come included. That meant I had to transfer them from the old case into the new one, and there were no instructions online for how to do this. Luckily, I managed to slowly pry them off with a spudger (what a great word) without destroying anything. I left the iPod case open, so if anything went wrong restoring things, I could easily get back into the innards.

ipod 3rd generation upgrade

The next big issue that became apparent pretty quickly was that this particular model of iPod was originally designed only to work with Macs, and so requires a FireWire connection to restore. I had vague memories of this changing with later revisions, so didn’t think much of it – and assumed there must be some workaround – but after some further research online, that turned out not to be the case. If I wanted to restore the iPod, I was going to have to get a special Y cable that had both a FireWire and USB connection. What’s more, it would apparently not even charge over USB – which meant that not only were the cables I had bought already useless, but I needed to get a hold of an old FireWire mains adaptor as well. Since they are so hard to find, I decided to pick up a couple so I had a spare for the future. Total cost so far including the cables (£21) and chargers (£18): £154.

The dual headed cable arrived, and I thought I was in the final stretch. Apparently you should be able to plug in the USB cable into the laptop on one end, and the FireWire cable into an AC adaptor on the other, and then the iPod will restore just fine. That turned out not to be the case, with iTunes point blank refusing to restore the iPod without it being connected over FireWire. Pish. I thought it must be the third party cable that I had bought, so I hunted down an official Apple cable, in the hope that it might make a difference. Total cost: £164. At this point I was getting pretty despondent about the whole thing. Why did I have to drag up this antiquated piece of junk that was crippled by ties to obsolete technology when I could have gotten an iPod classic for less money? Either way, I was determined to get the damn thing to work.

ipod firewire Y cable
Remember these?

Luckily, I realised that my Apple Cinema Display screen had a FireWire port – since Apple ditched the connection from its laptops years ago. Of course, the connection I needed was a FireWire 400 port, and this was FireWire 800. I ordered a convertor, which brings the running total spent on this miserable project to £168.

The FireWire adaptor arrived, and I was convinced that this would do the trick. Wrong. When I hooked the iPod up to the Mac with USB, the hard drive purred nicely and was recognised fine – it just wouldn’t restore. When I tried FireWire, the drive just clicked and clicked – refusing to spin up properly. I let it charge up for a bit, but no dice. I tried a different Y cable – but that didn’t work either. I tried a dedicated FireWire cable – but nope. I thought maybe it was some USB-C weirdness with my laptop, so I used my wife’s connected up to the Display Screen to see if that made a difference. After about ten minutes the hard drive seemed to mount, and it got halfway through the restore process before returning an obscure error that just said the iPod could not be restored. Great.

I spun up a Windows 7 Virtual Machine in the hopes that I might have better luck that way – but no dice. The iPod wasn’t recognised at all. I did all sorts of troubleshooting to correct the drivers, but nothing helped. Getting desperate, I spent hours researching online to see if there was some way to restore the iPod without using iTunes, but most of them involved flashing the firmware on Windows – which already wasn’t working. I was beginning to think that I might be stuck with a very expensive paper weight, since nobody was going to want to buy the damn thing when it was in bits. Why did I insist on pursuing these insane projects that cost so much money for so little reward?!

Finally, in one last hail mary, I fired up a Windows XP virtual machine – battling with the weird config to get it working. When I finally had iTunes installed, I connected the iPod up using USB only, and lo and behold – it actually restored. I let it complete the setup, switched back to OSX, and there it was in all of its vintage glory. I loaded it up with 40GB odd of music to test it out, and everything seemed to be coming up roses.

80gb ipod 3rd gen

Well, almost. I went to close up the iPod for good, and realised that it didn’t seem to want to. I compared the sizes of the hard-drives, and realised that the 80GB drive was considerably thicker than the 20GB one that I had pulled from the original one. I was sure this model should work though, and that I had confirmed it online – but after angrily Googling, I realised that the 30GB and 40GB models had a slightly thicker backplate in order to allow for the bigger sized disks, and that was the kind I should have gotten in the first place. I begrudgingly found a broken 40GB model on eBay from Sweden for £17.50, which brings us to the grand total of £185.5 – just under double what an iPod Classic 160GB is going for second hand.

Despite installing everything on the old hard drive fine, I then had to go through the whole process to try and get it to work again. For some reason, the process kept failing. At this stage, I gave up documenting everything that had gone wrong, and my mind has clouded over on exactly what I had to do to get it to work – probably out of some kind of self protection mechanism. However, finally… I got everything to fall into place.

Behold, my beautiful, revamped 3rd Gen iPod:

iPod 3rd Generation restore

I was so pleased with the outcome and the throwback to my youth that I bought a nice leather case, and a charging dock (unfortunately I couldn’t find a silicone green case like I had as a teenager).

ipod 3rd gen restore

However, the iPod had one last trick up its sleeve… for when I had finally gotten it all together and working successfully, I realised that the nice clean new front plate I had bought actually had a plastic screen protector sheet on the inside, which had a mark on it.

To remove this, I would have to take the whole thing apart again, which I can’t really face doing – especially since knowing me I would end up breaking the damn thing somehow. Of course, when the backlight is on you can’t really see it, but I know it’s there. Watching. Taunting me.

ipod 3rd gen restore

Maybe one day I’ll fix it.

Build Notes

  1. This ended up being a far fiddlier and more expensive project than I expected it to be initially. In hindsight, I could have saved money by not buying as many cables; buying a 40GB model in the first place; and getting a model that was more bashed up from the get-go since I ended up replacing the front plate anyway. If I had known the FireWire connection was never going to work, that would have saved me another tenner. In total, I could probably have done this for about £70 cheaper.
  2. It is ludicrous that I had to rely on Windows XP to restore an iPod. I had read that the reason these couldn’t be restored over USB on OSX was down to some architectural limitations – but if that was the case, why did it work on Windows?

Practicalities

Having owned the restored iPod for a few years now, here’s some of my thoughts and observations:

  1. I hadn’t quite appreciated just how much of a pain it would be to charge the iPod. You can’t just plug it in to a regular USB port, as it needs the dedicated Firewire charger. This means it’s not especially practical for travelling, but at some point the chargers are going to fail and become impossible to replace – which is a bit of a concern.
  2. Similarly, putting new music on to the device is a bit of a pain. For that to work (at least on the Mac), you need to use the Firewire/USB/power Y Cable plugged into both the wall outlet and the computer at once. There’s also no real guarantee that iTunes will continue to recognise the iPod, and at some point I suspect I’ll end up having to use a Virtual Machine to get software old enough to be compatible.
  3. There is no reliable way to scrobble the tunes you listen to on the iPod to Last.fm. This seems like a fairly minor and inconsequential detail, but I use Last.fm fairly religiously – and I can even track what vinyl I listen to – so it’s a bit of a bummer that the iPod support no longer functions.
ipod charger
Not the most practical of travel charging arrangements.

When all is said and done, was it worth it, and would I do it all over again?

Hell no.

I’m pleased that I managed to get the iPod up and working, and recapture a bit of my youth through nostalgia – but in practical terms it was a fairly expensive experiment, for a device that has a bunch of real impracticalities. Since restoring it, I have switched to Android, and can store as much music on my phone as I want… and I’ve finally moved into the modern world of bluetooth noise cancelling headphones – both of which means the iPod’s usefulness has ended up reduced.

It does get use though. I have the iPod loaded up with my favourite bands, and it is connected up to my hifi for whenever I just want to whack on a bunch of great music and not think much about it.

 

New Keeb – Planck Rev 6

Behold my newest keyboard, the Planck Rev 6:

Planck Rev 6

I have had this project in the works for a while now, but only just got around to finishing it when I realised that all of my other mechanical keyboards had the loud-as-hell clicky style key switches. This was always fine when I worked from home in a tiny cupboard and could disturb nobody, but lately I’ve been sharing an office with my wife who is on video calls pretty constantly, and my delightfully clickety clackety Ergodox keyboard with Cherry MX Blues suddenly weren’t as charming as they once were (Well, they were for me, but probably nobody else.

Rather than bore you with all the geeky build details, here are the salient points:

1. What are the colours all about?

I had originally wanted to do one of these cool blue to pink gradients for the keycaps… but realised that the set I ordered didn’t have enough single squares to cover the full grid required – and I didn’t fancy having to get a full new set just for a few extra keys. The other problem is that while gradients look cool, they also make it a bit of a nightmare to find specific keys that you need at a glance. In the end, I decided to go with something a bit more practical. The yellow keys are modifiers like Escape, Enter, space, etc. The pink and blue rows are the letters, and the green keys are reminders of where specific keys I need for work shortcuts are.

2. Wait, why are all the keys square?

Aesthetic, innit.

This kind of grid layout is known as an ‘ortho-linear’ keyboard. There are a bunch of reasons people like this system… with the theory being that it keeps your fingers in a more natural typing position than the standard setup. To be honest though, I just think they look cool, and wanted to try out something a bit different (though this isn’t my first grid rodeo…)

3. But there’s only four rows! How does that work?

Err, yes. There is. In the mechanical keyboard world there is often a bit of an obsession to see how many keys you can strip out and still type just as fast as you would on a full size board. The Planck is the smallest board I have tried so far, with just 48 keys in total. The sharp eyed amongst you will probably have worked out that this means there isn’t enough room for a number row… and there isn’t. So how do you get access to all those keys that are missing?

The idea is pretty straightforward: Rather than have just one ‘shift’ layer which gives you capital letters and exclamation marks and all that good stuff, you have multiple ones. The blue keys to either side of the yellow space bar(s) on the bottom row let you ‘shift’ into completely different layers which have all the other keys – which you can program however you want.

For reference, here is my top layer, and then a couple of my additional ‘shifted’ layers.

Planck Layout

Planck Layout

Planck Layout

So if I want to get to the number row, I press and hold down the blue key to the right of the space bar. Simple.

I am still figuring out what the perfect layout for me is (ignore that rogue right arrow on the top layer… I’m not sure what is going to end up in that space just yet) – but I already really like this board. It’s neat, and I have space for all of my weird custom modifier shortcut keys I have set up for work. The keys I use most are on the top layer, and anything I use less is just an extra press away. Of course it takes a bit of getting used to, but then all keyboard changes do – and I’ve adapted to the Planck far quicker than I have others in the past.

4. What kind of switches are in that bad boy?

Those would be the Outemu Sky 68g switches. They are ultra-tactile without being too loud to use around other folks.

5. What’s with this obsession with weird keyboards?

When you spend most of your life using one specific device, it’s good to explore different ways of interacting with it. Plus, the MacBook Pro keyboards are now so shockingly bad, that I will do almost anything to avoid having to use one. If you know, you know.

6. Nice USB cable.

Why thanks for asking. It’s a custom made one from CoolCable.co.uk.

 

Books 2019

One of the things I wanted to do in 2019 was to carve out time to read more books again – especially since I had a three month sabbatical over the Spring. To that end, I kept track of what I read. It’s a mishmash of music bios, fiction, and non. I’ve only included books that I actually finished, and left out anything that was purely for academic purposes.

  1. Crucial Conversations – Kerry Paterson.
  2. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying – Marie Kondo.
  3. Happyslapped by a Jellyfish: The Words of Karl Pilkington.
  4. Karl Pilkington – An Idiot Abroad.
  5. Subtle art of not giving a fuck – Mark Manson.
  6. Come as you are – Michael Azerrad – A biography of Nirvana.
  7. The Last – Hanna Jameson.
  8. Green Day – Nobody Likes You – Marc Spitz.
  9. Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet – Andrew Blum.
  10. Surprisingly Down to Earth, and Very Funny: My Autobiography – Limmy (Brian Limmond).
  11. Daft Wee Stories – Limmy.
  12. That’s your lot – Limmy.
  13. Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata.
  14. Broadcast – Liam Brown.
  15. In the miso soup – Ryu Murakami.
  16. The Passengers – John Marrs.
  17. HWFG – Chris McQueer.
  18. Lucky You – Carl Hiaasen.
  19. Hings – Chris McQueer.
  20. Stories of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang.
  21. Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet – David Kaye.
  22. The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet – Jeff Kosseff.
  23. Hatching Twitter – Nick Bilton.
  24. Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language – Gretchen McCulloch.
  25. Smashing Pumpkins – Tales of a Scorched Earth – Amy Hanson.
  26. Tokyo Vice – J. Adelstein.
  27. 10% Happier – Dan Harris.
  28. Kevin Sampson – Powder.
  29. Gotta get Theroux this – Louis Theroux.
  30. Unfollow – Megan Phelps-Roper.
  31. Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson.
  32. the Hunting Party – Lucy Foley.

Submitting to Things 3 App from Telegram with Integromat

My colleague Bryan is a productivity whizz. So much so that we often question whether he is actually human, and whether or not he would pass a Turing Test. I too am partial to finding ways to improve things that I have to do every day, and so when he gave a passionate recommendation for the To Do list app ‘Things’ from Cultured Code, I wanted to dive in headfirst, and I loved it straightaway.

No Android App

The problem with Things 3 however, is that it runs entirely within the Apple ecosystem. That means there’s no web interface, and crucially… no Android application. Having ditched the iPhone a while ago, I was left with no easy way to quickly add items to my To Do list while out and about. There is a way to send tasks via e-mail, but having to open up my mailbox, find the contact etc felt like too much friction for what should be much simpler.

Telegram and ifttt

What I do use all the time is the secure messaging app Telegram, and my dream was that I could just fire off a quick message and somehow have that shoot off an e-mail which would add the task to the Things inbox. It seemed like ifttt.com would make this simple, but it was actually much harder than expected. GMail’s ‘send’ integration no longer seems to work, and the built in ‘e-mail’ service only allows you to have one address associated with your ifttt account at any one time – restricting my workflow options as a result. This really should not be that complicated!

Integromat

I came across Integromat, which is essentially a much more powerful version of ifttt. The premise is the same though: You connect up a bunch of services, and tell them to do various tasks based on different circumstances. Unlike ifttt though, you can delve pretty deeply into the automations. It’s a bit trickier to pick up at first – especially if you aren’t familiar with programming, but gives a far greater degree of customisation.

To get my messages from Telegram into Things, I created the following ‘scenario’:

Integromat Telegram Bot ThingsThe way it works is by having a dedicated Telegram bot watch out for messages and send them via my GMail account to the special e-mail address for the Things inbox.

I decided that I might want to use this virtual helper for other things though, and didn’t want every single command I sent it to end up in Things as a To Do list item. To avoid that, I set up a filter on the scenario so that it would only send e-mails if the message began with ‘todo’ or ‘/todo’. Additionally, I used a text parser to take out those trigger words, and to add in a prefix of ‘via Telegram:’, so that when I look back on my outstanding tasks later, I have a bit of context about where they came from. In other words, if I add some bizarre things to my To Do list when intoxicated, at least I’ll know that it was down to Telegram.

For the final bit of the puzzle, I added in a step for the bot to reply when the workflow was processed successfully – including a copy of what was sent to Things:

Telegram Bot success messageIn Telegram, that looks like this:

Telegram Bot Things 3

Finally, here it is, magically appearing in my Things inbox for parsing later:

Things Inbox

p.s. You might be wondering what that reference to ‘operations’ at the end is all about. With Integromat, you get a certain number of resources allocated per month, depending on what kind of account you have. A free user gets about 1,000 operations per month, and each time I add a To Do list item, it takes up about 5 operations. With my awful maths that works out at about 200 To Do list items per month… which should be way more than I ever need, but I wanted to have some kind of visual indicator, just incase things started re-routing to a digital black hole somewhere.

The End?

So there you have it: How I got around the problem of adding tasks to my Things 3 To Do list when I’m not near my computer. Integromat looks very cool, and I’m going to have to think up some other commands for my bot to respond to… but really, this would be much simpler if Cultured Code would release an Android app.

Book Recommendation – “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet”

The latest book I have to recommend comes from law professor Jeff Kosseff, in which he examines one of the laws that have been most crucial to the development of the Internet: s.230 of the Communications Decency Act. For those not familiar with the CDA, it is a piece of American jurisprudence that has essentially enabled businesses such as Twitter and YouTube to develop platforms built on user generated content, without themselves becoming liable for everything that those users may say or do.
Jeff Kosseff - Twenty Six Words That Created the Internet - Book Cover

Understanding the CDA is increasingly important – not just for lawyers or academics focussed on intermediary liability – but for anybody with an interest in the future of the Internet. This book provides a comprehensive explanation of the law’s history and original aims, as well as its development through case law. Whilst it isn’t necessarily an ‘easy’ read due to the subject matter, Kosseff’s narrative style means that it remains engaging throughout, never letting things run dry, or too theoretically abstract.

The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet‘ was published in April of 2019. Given the impact of the CDA, it is almost hard to believe that such a complete study hasn’t come around before now. Either way, if you want to learn (a lot) about one of the most important laws underpinning the Internet as we know it, read this.

Disclaimer: I am not being paid to review or recommend this book, but if you click on the Amazon links above and buy a copy, Jeff Bezos might send me a few pennies to say thanks. 

Book Recommendation – “Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet”

‘Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet’ is the latest publication from speechpoliceUN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye. Following on from his 2018 report on content regulation, this book looks at the issue of who decides what kind of speech is acceptable online, and the potential implications of the increasing expectations placed on platforms to regulate certain kinds of content.

Kaye’s narrative style is both thoughtful and engaging, covering difficult concepts in a clear and concise fashion, but also exploring aspects of the debate that are often overlooked. Coupled with a relatively low page count, this means that Speech Police is not only a valuable read for those already familiar with the questions around content moderation and freedom of expression, but is also extremely accessible for those new to the topic. As a result, this book is a must read for anybody currently studying or working in tech policy, or those who are simply concerned about the future of the Internet.

You can get a copy of Speech Police from Amazon here.

Disclaimer: I am not being paid to review or recommend this book, but if you click on the Amazon link above and buy a copy, Jeff Bezos might send me a few pennies to say thanks. 

Sabbatical Aims

Every five years, Automattic employees can take a three month sabbatical from work to get away from the computer and recharge. The idea is that it helps highlight areas where you as an individual have unwittingly become solely responsible for particular tasks, and allows you to come back with a refreshed perspective and enthusiasm. That’s my take on things anyway.

I have been employed by Automattic for well over five years at this point, and I sign off at the start of next week – having pushed the date back a bit to make sure the weather was a bit nicer (!).

Three months is a fair amount of time to fill, but it can easily end up being filled with nothing in particular if you don’t take the time to plan out what you want to do. For that reason, I’m posting this up with my aims for the next few months, so I can look back on it at the end of June and see whether I actually did any of the things I said I would.

So here it is. Over the sabbatical I want to:

  1. Travel. I have a number of trips booked – from spending some time in Japan, to visiting my parents in Canada.
  2. See more of Scotland. I have been all over Scotland, but there are still plenty of areas that I haven’t been. I don’t have any concrete plans yet, but I want to get to at least one or two different places – preferably further north than Inverness.
  3. Make time for old friends. I have too many people that I haven’t seen in ages, and I want to change that. I’ve booked a long weekend to visit some folks down south in May to start with.
  4. Get better at guitar. Despite having played guitar for about 18 years, I am nowhere near as proficient as I should be. Rather than learn other people’s songs, I always just wrote my own, and my skills have suffered a bit as a result. I’ve bought some official tab books from bands I like, and want to use them to get much more proficient. The way I will test whether I’ve done this will be whether or not I can confidently play a significant number of songs from those books that I couldn’t play before.
  5. Write and record music. I have a few musical projects on the go at the moment, and not enough time to really sit down to write and record. I want to make use of the time I have, and release at least one album by the end of June.
  6. Finish and submit another journal article. I have been working on a second journal article for a while, but not found the time to finish it. I want to do so, and submit it for publication.
  7. Read more. Specifically, I want to take the time to finish and enjoy a pile of books that have been building up. I’m keeping a list of them all to see how many I get through.
  8. Go to the gym regularly. I already go to the gym at least once a week, but it’s too easy to find excuses when you are busy working. I want that to change.
  9. Take more photos. I haven’t been taking many pictures over the past few months, and I want to get back into the habit. Specifically, shooting and developing a bunch of film.
  10. Tidy up. This is a boring one, but I want to get some things in order. Marie Kondo style.

so that’s it: my ten aims, out there for posterity if not accountability. Looking over it now, it’s probably too much to pack in to what I am sure will be a few months that fly by – but it’s good to aim high. I’ll report back once the sabbatical is over and see how I got on.

UK Immigration Problems: RBS Bank Statements

Regular readers will be aware that my wife and I are currently going through the long process for her to gain British citizenship, after moving here from the United States. Contrary to popular belief, marriage doesn’t mean that you automatically have a right to stay in the UK.

There are many, deep flaws and contradictions with the law and the Home Office’s application of it. I’ve written about some of this before, but there is plenty I haven’t covered, which is partly out of a very real fear that any concerns I raise publicly could prejudice the outcome of the process itself… which is in of itself a huge problem that we need to face up to. However, I want to do my bit to highlight a few of the more specific problems I have come across, with my conjoined perspective as a lawyer, and the spouse of a non-EU citizen.

In this entry I am going to detail a practical procedural issue that has cropped up multiple times throughout our visa ‘journey’. Theoretically, it should be one of the most straightforward portions of the whole process, but in reality it has turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. That is: getting copies of bank statements that satisfy the Home Office Requirements.

Fair warning: This is fairly long, and probably not much interest to those of you just looking for a casual read – but I think it’s important to be comprehensive, and I know that these posts are picked up by others looking for help on Google – so it is what it is.

Home Office Requirements

In order to qualify for a spousal visa, or visa renewal (called ‘Further Leave to Remain’, or ‘FLR(M)’ in this case), you need to prove that you and your partner have financial means of support. You can do this in various ways, but the most realistic for ‘regular’ couples is through income from employment. In other words, demonstrating that you have a job where you earn at least £18,600 per annum (this figure goes up if you have children).

In order to prove your income, you need to submit payslips covering a 6 month period, with corresponding bank statements. If you’ve changed jobs, this becomes 12 months. In of itself, this seems straightforward enough. However, there are some complications:

  • You cannot apply for a visa renewal/extension more than 28 days before your current visa expires. (well, technically you can, but this will cause problems further down the line).
  • Any evidence you provide has to be from less than 28 days prior to the date of your application.
  • Once your evidence is submitted, you still need to either send off all of the documentation, or attend an appointment in person. There is no guarantee that you will get an appointment at short notice, or in the location you want. In the past, people have frequently had to travel across the UK to find any available open spot. In our case, we had to go down to Liverpool from Glasgow.

When it comes to the bank statements themselves, things are complicated further.

  • Electronic print outs of bank statements are not accepted, unless accompanied by an official letter from the branch stating their authenticity or stamped on each page to the same effect.
  • Bank staff rarely understand the specific requirements of the Home Office, and are often unwilling to provide stamped statements/a letter in the first instance – leaving you to ‘order’ paper copies instead.
  • Ordering statements can take time, and are subject to delays.

It isn’t unusual for banks to say that ordering copies of statements could take up to two weeks, which leaves a pretty short window of time for the evidence to arrive, be submitted, and then to get an appropriate appointment. All the while, the anxiety over the rapidly impending deadline is growing.

Royal Bank of Scotland and Copies of Statements

I am an RBS customer who gets digital statements. I used to get paper statements sent in the post, but they had such a problem getting my flat address correct (unbelievably, they couldn’t understand the slash or dash system), that it made things even harder. So, now I don’t. That means that I need to order copies of my statements every time we come for another round of visa extensions.

The online RBS Support Centre states that ‘you should receive your paper statement within 5-6 days of ordering it.’ That isn’t ideal, but it’s also not awful. So long as they stick to that timeframe, you should be able to pull together everything you need.

RBS Statements Website

To THL, or not to THL?

I logged onto digital banking as outlined above, and chatted with one of the advisors. Here we ran into the first problem. I was told that they could order me a ‘transaction history list’ (THL) instead of a statement. When I queried what the difference was between the two, they said ‘there’s no big difference’. Well, that isn’t really good enough. What might be a minor difference to customer support at RBS could well be enough to have the FLR(M) rejected. No thanks. After a while of trying to figure that out, I decided to just go into the branch.

The branch staff were helpful, but nobody in there seemed to be able to tell me what the difference was between a THL and a statement either. We went through a checklist on the bank’s system to determine what I needed, and it came out saying THL – but again, no explanation of why there were two different sets of documentation, and what was what. To be safe, we ordered a ‘copy statement’ – despite all of the efforts of the bank’s systems to direct us down the THL route. I asked how long the statements would take to arrive, and the teller dropped the bombshell that it could be up to 2 weeks (10 working days). Reassured by his insistence that they usually come through much faster than that, I went home. In any event, he said he would check in on the status of the request in a couple of days and let me know if there had been no update.

One week in. No Statements.

After five days, I hadn’t received any statements, and I was beginning to get antsy. At this point I knew I wouldn’t be getting anything in the post over the weekend, and the clock was ticking. I went into the branch to get some kind of confirmation that the statements were on their way. However, after being told (again) that I could ‘just print them off from digital banking’, it turned out that they don’t have any visibility on the status of statement orders, as they are fulfilled from some central place. Great. I was again reassured that the statements would arrive within ten business days, and that there was ‘nothing’ they could do in the meantime. Gritting my teeth, I left, and tried to tell myself that it would be fine.

Bad Memories

At this point I was getting extremely stressed out with the seemingly blasé attitude of the bank, and for good reason. When we were first applying for a fiancée visa so that my partner could come to live in the UK, I had a huge bust up with the Royal Bank of Scotland’s main branch on Gordon Street, in Glasgow.

As mentioned previously, the address on my paper statements had been messed up for months, and not fixed despite my repeated attempts. As a result, they were useless for evidentiary purposes. I went into the bank to get copies of the statements printed off and stamped, naively thinking that this would be a simple request. Oh no. I was flatly told that my request was ‘against RBS policy’. I didn’t really believe this at first, and thought that common sense would prevail after I explained the situation, and how the only reason I didn’t have paper statements in the first place was as a result of the bank’s failure to grasp Glasgow flat addresses properly. Unfortunately, it did not.

Despite me stressing that my immigration lawyer had stated that I needed a specific format of statement to comply with the Home Office regulations, the staff told me that the bank manager had denied my request because ‘You know what lawyers are like. They say lots of things’ and ‘we see people all the time applying for student visas and the print outs from digital banking are fine’.

Faced with the prospect of my entire life plans falling apart as the result of a decision made by a condescending bank manager who wouldn’t even come and speak to me directly, I blew a gasket, and caused such a scene that I was taken into a side room where the manager made me show him where in the Home Office regulations it said that this is what I needed (yes, really).

Endless RBS Contradictions

As you can imagine, I was a bit concerned (!) that if the statements I had ordered didn’t arrive in time, that my only option would be to go into the branch and get them printed/stamped/authenticated – and that I would have to carry out some kind of demonstration in order to do so. I had a full speech and strategy prepared, which included sitting down on the floor of the bank until they provided me with the proper documentation. That might sound extreme and ridiculous, but remember that getting these paper statements is necessary to make sure that my wife is not deported from our home in Glasgow, and our whole lives turned on their heads. With that in mind, it suddenly doesn’t seem all that unreasonable.

Anyway, unsatisfied with the answer I’d received from the bank, I then attempted to call the branch directly and speak with a manger to get some kind of reassurance that if worst came to the worst, they would be able to help me. However, I was routed to a digital banking call centre in Liverpool (the cruel irony). At first, they seemed to understand my question, which was a relief – but then they came back to say I should just print off the PDF statements from my online account. After yet more explanations, they then told me that definitively speaking, branches were not allowed to print off, stamp, and authenticate statements like I had asked.

At the same time as this though, I had tweeted the bank’s social media team at @RBS_HELP to pose the same question. They had a different answer – equally as definitive:

RBS Bank Statements FLR(M)

To throw more mud in the water, I also read about someone else in Scotland who was fighting a similar battle, and who had been told after a whole load of mucking about that it was down to the bank’s discretion.

So… what one is it? Why was this so difficult? Is getting a copy of paper statements not simply a basic function of a bank? Why did we spend Billions of taxpayers’ money to bail out banks if they can’t even provide such a base line of service? Why is this process being made so much harder needlessly by an institution that is supposed to be making efforts to recover public trust?

How many days again?

By this point, my stress levels were through the roof. I can usually handle pressure well, but when you are trapped in a situation that you have no control over, and have to rely on other people who have no personal investment, it’s much harder – especially given the high stakes.

I had talked myself off the ledge with the reasoning that I had only been charged for the ‘historic bank statements’ on Friday the 1st of March. Despite that being 5 working days after I ordered them in the first place, I thought they would surely turn up by Tuesday. Either way, if they weren’t here by the Friday I would go into the branch, armed with the rationale that they had failed to deliver on the 10 business days statement.

Come Wednesday though, there was still no sign of the statements, and I was losing patience. I checked over the bank’s support documentation again, to see whether I had missed anything – but nope, it clearly said that statement copies would only take 5-6 days. At this point, we were at 8-10. I decided to ask the digital banking advisors for some reassurance, but that only served to frustrate me further, as they insisted that the statements would take 10 working days to arrive, irrespective of what their own site said:

RBS Statements

I asked RBS on Twitter what the deal was, and after telling me AGAIN to just download and print PDF statements, they said that the ‘timescales would depend on the type of statement’ – with zero recognition that their documentation says nothing about this.

RBS StatementsRBS don't listen

Not helpful.

The crescendo

In the end, I decided that waiting a few more days wasn’t worth the damage to my blood pressure, and I went into the bank determined to get the statements that day. As it turned out, the manager had been contacted by the Twitter team, and was prepared to help out. He was incredibly apologetic, and took the time to make sure that I got the statements and the accompanying letter in a format that would meet the Home Office requirements.

The Lessons

There’s a few things that can be taken from this experience:

  • The Home Office regulations are deliberately and unnecessarily restrictive on both the format of the statements, as well as the timescales involved – which makes it extremely difficult for applicants and institutions to reasonably comply.
  • Despite this, the Royal Bank of Scotland is failing its customers on a number of counts. Specifically by the inaccurate information on their website; the inconsistency and lack of clarity on process between different departments/members of staff; as well as the unreasonably long time to process basic requests.
  • Despite eventually providing the requested information, people should not have to rely on kicking up a fuss online.
  • RBS need to stop telling people to download PDF statements from online banking as the default response to any kind of statement query. It is misleading, shows a lack of interest or basic understanding, and will trip up people who are not as familiar with the specifics of the Home Office requirements as I am.

This is just one example out of many of the procedural problems inherent in the UK’s immigration law. Having a broken system which places pressure on applicants purely as a kind of punitive stress test is not beneficial for anybody – irrespective of what your views on immigration might be.

Further update

After I posted the above, I contacted the office of the Chief Executive, Ross McDonald to complain about the lack of clarity in the process, and their lack of understanding. After a couple of back and forths, they said:

All our staff have access to an online business support manual which clearly explains the process and timeframe for ordering and providing copy/historic statements. Five to six days is regularly achieved, but I am aware of instances where the process has taken longer and a project team is reviewing the process to establish what is going wrong.

In terms of providing statements quickly, we provide up to seven years statements via Online Banking and these can be printed and are suitable for almost all purposes. You can get an up to date statement covering the last few months transactions at any of our branches and again these should be suitable for most purposes. It is our policy to no longer authenticate documents such as statements and passport documentation via the application of a stamp and signature.

So basically:

  • Statements are (usually) provided within 5-6 days of ordering them – but there are problems with that.
  • No recognition of the disparity between the website information and the information provided by staff online and in branch.
  • A statement (again) that online banking statements are ‘suitable for most purposes’ – completely ignoring everything I’ve repeatedly said about the Home Office requirements.
  • A definitive statement that RBS will not authenticate statements via a stamp – contrary to what their online helpdesk and branch staff said.

What a joke.