A Bold New Frontier of Stupidity

As a professional idiot, I am often asked “Alasdair, has your brain stood on end and shat itself? Again?”

And I am forced to admit that yes, yes it has.

You see, I’ve just bought a month’s supply of this stuff.

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It’s Huel. A UK equivalent of that Soylent stuff that all the weird Bay Area people who are too intellectual for food have decided is the future and we’re all to learn to enjoy out delicious beige slurry now, because it’ll be mandatory later.

So why the hell have I bought it? I mean, I like food. I really like food. I like everything about it. And I’m about to spend most of a month living on vanilla flavoured sludge, and pretending that it’s somehow a replacement for a thing that didn’t need replacing. I am not excited about this concept. What the hell am I doing?

Well, obviously, I’m curious to see what happens, that’s why I’m doing it. I want to know what’ll happen if I spend a month eating an actually properly balanced diet for the first time in my adult life. I’m not doing it for weight loss (although I suspect I’ll lose some) I’m doing it to see what it feel like to eat properly healthily, to give my body all the nutrition if actually needs, as opposed to just shoving some variant on red meat in it more times a week than is recommended by anyone with an ounce of sense.

What’re the rules here, then? I’m not doing this to self-flagellate, and I’m not going to pretend this is the future and a good thing. I am aware this is a mad thing to be doing. So I don’t feel the need to be ultra strict about how I approach this.

With that in mind, over the next week or so, I’m going to build up to living on a 2000-calorie a day Huel diet. (Doing it all at once would by my personally preferred approach, but I understand that can cause the toxic shits, so I’m going to ease in with one Huel meal a day for the first 2-3 days, then another few days of 2 meals a day, before I get to the all-Huel stage.) Once I am on that diet, I intend to operate under the following loose rules.

1) I am allowed to eat other meals, if I am in company (assuming I skip the equivalent quantity of Huel, obviously). Ideally not more than once a week. If I go an entire week without eating in company, and I find myself craving real food, I may allow myself an actual meal.
2) If I am at the pub to be social, I am allowed up to 2 pints of beer, or equivalent, if I really want it. I am allowed as much lime and soda as I’d like.
3) I am allowed as much fruit juice and coffee/tea as I’d like.

I’m obviously going to track my weight and a few other metrics as I go. I might post a vague summary of them at the end of this. Otherwise, well, yes, I am going to keep a diary of this, so you can all point and laugh at the idiot as I go. I imagine you’ll get the first installment tomorrow, after I’ve had breakfast.

My Life As A Science Fiction Plumber

None of this is any thrilling insight, or anything that’s not been said before by smarter folk than I, it’s just something that amused me this morning.

A significant part of my job is providing estimates. I break down what the client is asking for, suck air in through my teeth, and mutter “well, we can do that, but it’ll cost…”.

Complicating matters is that fact that with a coding-type job of any complexity/size, 90% of the time, I’m being asked “this thing you haven’t ever done before, how long will it take to do?”. Because if I’d done it before, the code would be around to re-use and the cost would low.

What constantly amuses (or frustrates) me, though, is non-technical people’s expectations of these costs. 90% of the time, I provide a quote and the response is “but it’s just doing X”. The idea that if something is simple to say, it must be simple to do is almost never true. But about 10% of the time (and it’s this 10% that makes my job worth it), someone comes to me and says “look, I know this is probably really expensive, but could we do X?” and I get to say “mate, I can do that for you in ten minutes, let me just sort that out for you now”.

It amuses me that the expectations gap cuts both ways.

This occurred to me this morning in a science fiction context, as my Apple TV screensaver kicked in, and I saw a beautiful ariel shot of dawn over New York, and I thought of a line in Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, wherein he imagines a technology he called a “Wander Window”. Essentially, an apartment window that instead of showing the world immediately outside, showed beautiful views from around the world. In the fiction, a delivery man sees it, adn remarks on it as a highly expensive luxury item, saying something like “It’d creep me out, living somewhere this rich.”

My TV is now my wander window, and today, some version of this is a pretty trivial technology that’s baked into TV products pretty much as standard. My parents have it. When building these things, it’s the ten-minute job, rather than the “ooh, it’ll cost you…” job. And what’s interesting to me is that there was never really a time when putting a screensaver in a TV was an expensive job. As soon as it became possible to do it, it was (relatively) easy.

And of course this isn’t really about the fallibility of science fiction predictions (I mean, Warren was actually bang on with his tech prediction there), or the difficulties of estimating.

I find myself wondering what other science fiction technologies, when they get here, will be the ten minute job. What is there that, by the time we can do it, is going to be much easier to do than we think? Are we going to find that by the time we can send someone to Mars, that terraforming it will be trivial? What challenges are easier than we expect?

Tea, Earl Grey, Lukewarm

Bookmarking a link to an article in praise of Amazon’s Echo got me thinking about voice controlled computing, where it is now, where it’s going, it’s upsides and it’s flaws.

My major experience of it is with Apple’s Siri – via watch, phone, and TV. And I’ve found that I do specific tasks with Siri on each one. On the watch, I turn my lights out at night. (Yes, that much of a nerd.) On the phone, I set reminders and alarms. On the TV, I skip back 30 seconds, or sometimes a minute.

Yes, I really do just those specific things. Mostly because those are the things I’m confident with – I know they work, they do so reliably and are useful. Other things I’ve tried tend to either be hit-and-miss, or the technology just isn’t quite there yet.

Here’s an example: if I could say “Hey Siri, play Songs of Separation from the laptop via the speakers in the living room”, or “Hey Siri skip back 20 mins, then start playing last night’s audiobook on the bedroom speaker”, those I’d use a lot. They’re convenience tasks, which is what voice feels most natural for – things you want to do while also doing something else.

But those are currently too complicated for Siri – it simply doesn’t know enough (and I can’t teach it) to identify my home audio equipment, it’s not contextually aware enough, and it’s not deeply integrated with 3rd party apps (or rather, 3rd party apps aren’t deeply enough integrated with it), and it’s not good enough at parsing my specific speech – I have to speak in a way it understands, rather than it simply understanding how I speak. Even just being able to say to my phone/watch “Hey siri do X on the laptop” (eg: “open this link on the laptop for when I get home”) would be useful, but we’re still a while away from that.

So where do I see this all going?

An optimistic view: this feels very like the web felt in 1995/6. There’s definitely something here, and we’re a few years off it starting to get serious. Another few years after that, it’ll be everywhere, and ten years after that, we’ll barely remember a time when it wasn’t commonplace. My nieces are going to grow up shouting at their household appliances.

A less optimistic view: this isn’t the web. It’s not a set of interoperable standards that anyone can hook into, it’s a load of low-walled gardens. Siri works with Apple products. Cortana with Microsoft. Google have something or other, Facebook something else. They all talk to the everyday web to some extent, but for more advanced interactions, they only talk to some products provided by individually selected third parties, for commercial reasons.

The only one that makes me even a little optimistic is the Amazon one, Echo, because I can write my own back end for it – so Amazon do the speech to command translation, and fire something at my code, which does something in response. The problem is that that’s great for the web, but less useful for the home appliances.

On that front, Siri, and Apple’s homekit have a slight lead, but not much of one – it’s a closed system that requires hardware developers to work directly with Apple. We’re going to wind up with several sets of products, that don’t entirely work well together. It’s going to be the vocal equivalent of trying get a PC and Mac networked together in the early nineties, and we’re going to be stuck there for a decade and more.

An even less optimistic view: the idea that our homes are going to be full of internet-connected passive listening devices is unbelievably creepy, and a recipe for disaster – either from state surveillance or hacking (or more likely both at the same time). You could not pay me to put a Google or Facebook listener in my house – they’ll only make money off it by selling what it hears to advertisers, and I’m not up for that. I don’t like my web browsing being tracked, I am not having my casual conversation around the house being tracked.

Amazon – not sure, they’re at least a company who I pay for things, rather than a company that sell me to advertisers. Apple – most likely, they’re pretty good on privacy and encryption (assuming the US government doesn’t fuck that up for all of us), but they’re also the least interested in giving me something I can write my own commands for that exist separate to their devices. Either way: it’ll remain a problem that’s about 40% solved for ages.

I suspect we’ll get a little bit of all the above. The actual utility of voice control is only going to be better from here but it’ll remain fractured, so you’ll be forced to pick a product family to set up in your home, and when you make that choice, you’ll be able to choose between a cheap surveillance bot that sells your data, or a much more expensive suite of homeware that also come with the luxury of privacy.

Writing by Women and POC

I’ve caught a couple of posts doing the rounds in the last month or two basically asking the question “how many books by women writers have you read?”, obviously with the aim of getting us to confront the inbuilt sexism in our cultural consumption.

I’m not going to bore you with a listing of the writing by women I own/have read. What I will say is that only around 25% of my library is by women. (Please don’t ask me about POC, that’s an even smaller number. I’m not proud of that.)

I want to make 2016 the year I start to correct this. I want to read, at minimum, one new book a month by women or POC.

Yes, that’s still pretty pitiful. The sad truth is that working from home has entirely cratered my reading habit, which used to be about 2 hours a day, while commuting, and is now about 4 hours a week in a good week. I want to set a goal I can reach and exceed, and keep going in future years, not a goal I’m going to miss by month 3, and give up on.

So, if there’s a book by women or POC that I really *must* read this year, feel free to suggest it in the comments/on Twitter.

Current “to read” pile:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • Hild, Nicola Griffith
  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Yes, that’s all women, no POC. Those 4 have the benefit of having been on my “I really must get around to this” pile for some years now. I’m hoping that by the time I’m done with them, I’ll have the benefit of some other recommendations. If not, I’m sure I can google around for them.

Also: that list is skewing a bit toward what I think of relatively heavyweight/classic. I’m as keen (if not keener, my tastes are not highbrow) to read light/pulpy/action-y stuff, so if there’s some cheery trash you think I’d enjoy, please, fling that in, although the odds I’ve already read it may be slightly better.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to use my holiday time to get some reading in.

Shaken Down

I received the following email a while back:

Hello,

I am contacting you today to request that you remove our website url: [redacted] from your website:

The reason for this request is because Google recently penalized our website for unnatural links. As a precaution, we are asking certain webmasters to remove our link(s) from their website. If the above links are NOT removed we will add them to a Disavow list that suggests to Google that the offending website is an ‘untrusted’ one. So please do us both a big favor and promptly remove the links that I listed above.

I’d also appreciate you letting me know when they are removed. I will follow up with you in a few days.

Thank you for understand and your assistance in this matter.

[Name Redacted]

Webmaster

I ignored it, and they never followed up, but I did take a quick look in my archives. I linked to them in 2001 – a completely legit and fair link (it was really absolutely nothing exciting). Honestly, what concerns me is that apparently, Google make available tools that websites can use to threaten one another with. “Do what we say, or we’ll damage your Google ranking”. Now me, I don’t care. This is my private blog, from which I derive no income. But if I were running a money making business and I started to get letters like this, I would be seriously concerned.

Does anyone know if there’s someone I can get in touch with at Google about this? (I’m not expecting to be able to, but it’s worth asking.) Because seriously, if I were making money on this site, is there anything about this that doesn’t smell like a classic shakedown?

Writing For Focus

Having one of those evenings where I can’t seem to focus on anything – I’ve started to watch three different films, only to turn them off after ten minutes. I made myself an Old Fashioned, then decided I didn’t want that, and added lime, and decided that wasn’t right, and added ginger ale and lemon (and that’s ended up kind of OK, but mostly in a “this doesn’t really taste of anything specific, but it’s alcoholic and relatively pleasant” sort of way). Can’t figure out what I want to to be doing. So I’m just sort of typing into this box here, to give myself something to do, in the hope that my brain will settle out a bit.

Went to Borough Market this morning, for the first time in a while. Services like Pact and Farmdrop have kind of obviated my need to go there. Have the ingredients for a boeuf bourguignon in the fridge as a result, which I’ll chuck in the slow cooker on Monday afternoon, and have meals for a few days.

As I haven’t tired of telling people, I now work from home (hence the daytime cooking on Monday), which I find incredibly pleasing, although I have been out and socialising a lot, and I suspect the acid test will come when I have one of those weeks where I’ve got nothing at all going on in the evenings, and will therefore go a full seven days without human contact, and become reduced to even more of a grunting monster without human niceties. What I have been doing, that I’m relatively proud of, is getting up early doing 40 minutes on an exercise bike, showering and dressing, every day. I remain semi-human, at least.

I haven’t really done anything productive with my spare time in a while – no writing, no coding-for-fun. Haven’t been able to summon up the focus and/or enthusiasm. I should do something about that.

Relatively excited for the Bake Off to return next week. I sort of intend this to be the season I actually manage to watch from start to finish, rather than remembering it’s on some time in the last few weeks, and seeing the final few episodes. I might even try and blog about it, just to give me something to write about. I was about to say that I might even try and bake along (or at least, do one of the cakes the weekend after and write about that), but then I remembered that all the numbers long since wore off my oven dial, and consequently, my choices are “low”, “medium” “roughly 180” “roughly 200” and “very hot”, and the timer is knackered, and is at best an approximation to within a ten minute window. Baking at precision times and temperatures is contra-indicated.

OK, I’ve replaced the abortive Old-Fashioned-with-stuff with a rye with ginger and lemon, and that’s much more acceptable.

In related-to-nothing news: it’s not likely that many of you missed the news that Andrew won an Eisner (yes, I know, the publication he is EiC of and that has many contributors won it, not him alone, but like I care) and announced his forthcoming comics series Another Castle, all in the space of one weekend, but I don’t care. Basically, this is all brilliant news and I wanted to write it down here, so that when I come to re-read this a few years from now (and if you think I don’t read this blog back periodically, you’re mad – it’s the closest thing I have to a diary), I remember and smile. I will also note that in conversation with a mutual friend and his daughter last night, Another Castle came up, and the daughter looked very excited. And I’m buying a copy for my niece, when she’s old enough.

OK, I’ve wittered on for long enough now that I feel like I’m focusing on things again, and I’m going to go do something constructive. Like maybe write, or code. Or bake.

Pterry’s passing

In common with many of my friends, and I imagine, many people reading this, I spent a chunk of this afternoon, sitting at my desk, trying not to cry, before retreating to the toilets for a quiet moment or two.

Sir Terry Pratchett has died.

I vividly recall the first Terry Pratchett book I read, Wyrd Sisters. I was 13. Dad had tried to get me to read Pratchett, starting with the Colour of Magic, a year or so previously, and it hadn’t worked. I was a bit too young, and honestly, I didn’t get the jokes in large sections of that book, because I hadn’t read most of the material he was parodying.

But then, one night, on a whim, I picked up Wyrd Sisters. We’d done MacBeth in school a couple of months before. This made sense. (And, let’s be honest, it was a better book.) And from “Well, I can do next Tuesday” I was laughing out loud and totally hooked. It was the first proper book for grown ups that I recall having that “literally can’t put it down” experience with. I started reading it about 8:30-ish on Friday night, and I remember pinning a note on my bedroom door for Mum and Dad saying something like “I stayed up reading until 3am, sorry, please don’t wake me in the morning.” I read it all in one sitting, and then, when I woke up the next morning, I started it again. Because it was so good – better than anything else I can recall having read before it.

I read all the others in the house in the fortnight. And one or two of them were better.

The first one I remember being released after this binge was Small Gods. Dad brought it on a family camping holiday to France – the new Pratchett book. I’m not sure he got to read it that holiday. I certainly read it three or four times.

I remember standing a long queue (with my Dad) to get Lords and Ladies signed. The first time I ever met an author.

When we got the internet in, the first usenet group I ever read, ever posted to, was alt.fan.pratchett. Once, he even replied to a post I’d made. (I forget what the post was. I remember the feeling of “Terry Pratchett replied to me! In tones that suggested he didn’t think I was a total idiot!”.)

I very literally grew up reading Terry Pratchett. Reading, and re-reading and re-reading. Of all the authors I read in my teens, he’s probably the only one who commands the same level of esteem from me now that he did then, and well, much more. I’ve come to understand the depth of warmth and insight and yes, just a bit of anger, that is in his work more and more as time has passed and I’ve grown up.

I’m not one hundred percent sure I know how to cope with a world where there’s only one more Terry Pratchett novel left to read for the first time.

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” – Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad.

There are a lot of people that were (and will be) shaped by his stories. Into, I suspect, better people.

I can only hope that the outpouring of tributes is a comfort to his family.