Making Space to Do Nothing

Jeff Perry, explaining why he’s shutting down his Tablet Habit newsletters:

This time off has also made me realize that I need to make space in my life to just do nothing. Instead of making a new project part of my identity or turn something I love into a job, I choose to just hang out, play Pokemon, improve my home, and/or watch trash TV. Having that time for nothing has allowed me to actually relax. I thought I was relaxing before, but when I literally have no other obligations on my days off I am able to let the weight glide off my shoulders with ease.

It turns out, not using my weekends and nights to write a newsletter allows me to take the time I need in my life to relax and forget about the world a little, and I like it.

One of the best decisions I took this year was to stop beating myself up over not filling every waking hour with some ‘constructive’ activity. Some days I have lots of things to do anyway, other days I’ll get housekeeping stuff done, and then there are days when my body tells me to take a break, and now I listen and do that. Listening to music, reading a book, playing games on the iPad, and having an early night are perfectly valid and constructive activities, because they’re helping my mind rest and repair itself.

Actively Excluded

They’re not “male dominated” industries, they’re “industries from which women and non-binary people are actively excluded.”

“Dominated” implies there was, at some point, a fair competition.

Jelena Woehr

A lot of folks justify male-dominated industries by saying bullshit like “women just aren’t as interested in STEM” or “men are just better at coding.” It allows very smart idiots to justify sexism and racism with “science.”

I’ve started using “actively excluded groups” or “people who have been traditionally excluded” instead of phrases of like “marginalized” and “under-represented.”

The first two phrases call the situation what it is. The second two sugarcoat it.

Chris Ferdinandi

It’s Plausible Deniability All The Way Down

Undisclosed private companies analysing facial data from NHS app

Undisclosed companies are analysing facial data collected by the NHS app, which is used by more than 16 million English citizens, prompting fresh concern about the role of outsourcing to private businesses in the service.

Data security experts have previously criticised the lack of transparency around a contract with the NHS held by iProov, whose facial verification software is used to perform automated ID checks on people signing up for the NHS app.

The Guardian now understands that French company Teleperformance, which has attracted criticism in the UK over working conditions, uses an opaque chain of subcontractors to perform similar work under two contracts worth £35m.

The NHS app, which is separate from the Covid-19 app, can be used for anything from booking GP appointments to ordering repeat prescriptions. But one feature has driven rapid take up since travel restrictions were lifted in May: the app is the easiest means of accessing the NHS certificate proving an individual’s Covid-19 vaccination status.

The app requires users to go through an ID verification process to access these services, with some people directed to an automated process powered by iProov’s software.

When that process fails or is unavailable, the NHS app falls back on manual checks, in which users record a short video of themselves reading out a set of four numbers, as well as uploading an ID document.

The video is then sent to a team of identity checkers, who compare the ID photo with the user’s face in the video.

A spokesperson for the NHS said these staff were trained by the Home Office and were all based in England. Some work for NHS Digital directly.

But the NHS later admitted that Teleperformance, which performs much of the work, is permitted to subcontract the ID process to other companies.

It said these companies are subjected to “stringent” checks and that identity checkers must complete specialist training, pass quality assurance, audit and supervisory checks, all managed by NHS Digital.

Both NHS Digital and Teleperformance declined to provide a list naming the subcontractors.

Because of course they can.

Needless to say, I had to jump through several of the above hoops when I registered on the NHS app, so my data will be among the troves outsourced to who-knows-where, and I suspect then funnelled back in the UK to build better databases for surveillance and monitoring. All while proclaiming that “we take privacy very seriously” and “stringent checks are made”.

The sad fact, it seems to me, is that governments won’t crack down on data laundering like this because it gives them an easy way to route around the promises they made to their electorate about privacy.

Women’s Body Parts Named After Men Who ‘Discovered’ Them

Even the G-Spot is Named for a Man

“Pudendum” isn’t the only questionable term slinking around in the female pelvis. Pull out a map to this region and you face an array of unfamiliar landmarks: Alcock’s canal, the pouch of Douglas, Bartholin’s glands, the fallopian tubes. These are all body parts named in honor of the people thought to have “discovered” them. They are relics from a time when the female body was considered terra incognita for great minds of medicine to explore, stake out and claim.

But such terms may be on their way out of medicine. Scientifically, anatomists frown on naming parts after people for several reasons. These terms are useless, offering little information about what any given body part actually does. They’re confusing: Surnames sometimes vie for the same part (for example, the bodies of Arantius are also known as the nodules of Morgagni), and some surnames adorn multiple parts (Gabriele Falloppio lays claim to a tube, a canal, a muscle and a valve, not to mention a flowering buckwheat plant). Finally, they give the unfortunate, off-putting impression that medicine (and the female pelvis) is still an old boys’ club.

Such terms were officially banned from medicine in 1895. Unofficially, they are everywhere. A recent count found at least 700 in the human body, most of which take their names from men. (One of the few women on the body’s map is Raissa Nitabuch, a 19th-century Russian pathologist whose name is attached to a layer of the maturing placenta called the Nitabuch membrane.) They persist because they are memorable, recognizable and — for clinicians, at least — familiar.

I was initially surprised, as I’d always assumed that ‘g-spot’ and ‘fallopian tube’ were the scientific terms. But it makes sense, as the autoimmune condition I was diagnosed with in 2008 was originally called Wegener’s Syndrome, after the German who first documented it. These days it is referred to by its medical term, Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis, but of course the charity here in the UK that works to improve diagnosis and treatment is named after Wegener.

Going Analogue

Two of the four plain A5 spiral-bound notebooks that arrived from Amazon yesterday.

I’ve finally done it. This time I didn’t procrastinate over the decision, I opted to go with something simple, so I now have four A5 spiral-bound notebooks in my possession and have started using the first of them for daily note-keeping.

It will be a bit of a culture shift from doing digital journalling, but the plus side is that it’s always within reach and ready to use. The downside? Well, my handwriting isn’t great, but I’m hoping that daily practice will make it at least consistent, for better or worse.

Hooked on To-Do Lists

Hundreds of Ways to Get S#!+ Done—and We Still Don’t

As someone who has tried quite a few apps over the year to try and organise myself better, and is currently getting by with just Reminders and Calendar, this article from Wired goes into the psychology behind these apps and why people have so much trouble with them.

Back in 2010, Walter Chen and Rodrigo Guzman had a weird idea: a website where you write down the stuff you accomplished that day, and which then emails you a summary. It would be a productivity tool that worked by a neat psychological hack, impressing yourself with your daily wins. “Often you discover that you’ve done more than you gave yourself credit for,” Chen says. “And this kind of motivates you—inspires you!”

Chen was a disenchanted lawyer; Guzman, a witty and talkative hacker. They built the tool in less than a week and launched it as IDoneThis. Soon they built an app by the same name and acquired 6,000 users. Within half a year, IDoneThis was the two creators’ full-time job.

But then those users started clamoring for more. People didn’t want merely to track the stuff they’d already done. They wanted to help plan for what they were going to do—from projects at work to the blizzard of tasks in their personal lives. Guzman and Chen updated IDoneThis with a new feature: to-do lists.

Which is when things went a little off the rails.

The results of their analysis of what their app’s users were doing sounds an awful lot like my experience with Wunderlist and OmniFocus, and to a lesser degree with Todoist.

Most common office tasks have well-settled software “solutions.” If I asked you to write a document, you’d probably use Word or Google Docs. To make a presentation, you’d pull up PowerPoint or Keynote or Google Slides.

Not so for to-dos. There is no Way That Everyone Does It. It’s a crazy Pokémon deck of options: Trello, Todoist, Gmail’s tasks, Microsoft To Do, Remember the Milk, Things, OmniFocus, Any.do,
Evernote’s Tasks, and Clear, to name just a few. And that doesn’t even count the whackload of us using one big ol’ Notepad file on our computers, or even plain old paper.

Unfortunately, as the article uncovers, these apps mainly help you see and organise your tasks — they don’t help you decide what tasks to put in there and why they need to be done.

Part of the reason why I ended up solely using Reminders and Calendar was that I’d realised I was spending a lot of time fretting over my to-do lists instead of actually doing stuff. So now I have a few recurring daily habit tasks, subscription renewal / expiry dates, and various ad-hoc reminders for things I need to do today or in the next few days. Meanwhile, my Calendar has subscriptions to various organisational schedules for reference, plus any appointments that I need to keep.

In this vein, a whole bench of task-management philosophers believe that the best interface isn’t digital at all—it’s paper.

Paper forces you to repetitively rewrite tasks, as when, say, you transfer all last week’s undone to-dos to this week’s list, or when you erase and rewrite calendar events. That’s what I do when the productivity software I wrote for myself fails me. “Making that choice over and over again,” Carroll tells me, “is the first opportunity where you’re like, ‘Why am I doing this?’” The inconvenience can be clarifying. Making a list on a sheet of paper is an unusually rich metaphor for life: It takes effort, and the space fills up more quickly than you expect.

The usefulness of paper here cuts to the real heart of what makes to-do management such a grim problem. Apps, lists, and calendars can help us put our priorities in order, sure. But only we can figure out what those goals are. And setting limits on what we hope to do is philosophically painful. Every to-do list is a midlife crisis of unfulfilled promise. Winnowing away things you’ll never do in a weekly review is crucial, yet we dread it for what it says about the boundaries of existence. Our fragile psyches find it easier to build up a list of shame, freak out, and flee.

This is what makes to-do software unique. The majority of tools we use in our jobs are about communicating with someone else. All that messaging, all those Google docs, all that email—it’s about talking to other people, documenting things for them, trying to persuade them. But a to-do list is, ultimately, nothing more or less than an attempt to persuade yourself.

I’ve not yet been tempted to go down the paper route, but I suspect that doing so would probably be good for me in the long run, since a lot of the reminders I put in linking to online sources are at best putting off things I could probably get done there and then, or at least put them on a wish-list if they’re potential purchases.

Want to save the Earth? Then don’t buy that shiny new iPhone

Want to save the Earth? Then don’t buy that shiny new iPhone

John Naughton, writing in the Guardian:

After all, two years ago I got an iPhone 11, which has been more than adequate for my purposes. That replaced the iPhone 6 I bought in 2014 and that replaced the iPhone 4 I got in 2010. And all of those phones are still working fine. The oldest one serves as a family backup in case someone loses or breaks a phone, the iPhone 6 has become a hardworking video camera and my present phone may well see me out.

That’s three phones in 11.5 years, so my “upgrade cycle” is roughly one iPhone every four years. From the viewpoint of the smartphone industry, which until now has worked on a cycle of two-yearly upgrades, I’m a dead loss. Which is strange, given that these phones don’t wear out, a fact that may be getting through to users. At any rate, they seem to be holding on to their phones for longer. And yet the manufacturers are still, like Apple, annually releasing new models that are generally just an incremental improvement on what went before rather than a great leap forward. Why?

I’ve only ever bought one phone on a contract over the last 20 years, and switched to a SIM-only plan as soon as that expired. Mobile networks are just as keen to get you to upgrade as the phone makers, as it keeps you tied to their network and paying the price they set.

Planned obsolescence may be good for phone companies but it’s bad for users’ wallets and even worse for the planet, because it encourages people to treat their phones as disposable. No one really knows how much e-waste (electronic refuse) is generated every year, but one recent estimate put it at 53.6m metric tonnes in 2019. And as far as CO2 emissions are concerned, a 2018 Canadian university study estimated that building a new smartphone – and specifically, mining the rare materials inside them – accounts for 85% to 95% of the device’s total CO2 emissions for two years. That means, said one report, that “buying one new phone takes as much energy as recharging and operating a smartphone for an entire decade”.

I have to wonder now if all the devices I sold off for recycling are part of those statistics. It’s not as if Apple, Google, Samsung and others lack the financial power to at least ensure that as much as possible is recycled from used devices.

As I write, I have a Fairphone 3+ on the desk beside me. It’s a very capable, nicely designed, dual-sim Android phone. In just seconds, I snap off the back of the case with a fingernail and remove the battery. Other modules of the phone, including the camera, can be removed and replaced without elaborate tools or expertise. And once it’s done you snap the case shut and press the power button. And you can buy it online for £399.

I would definitely consider a Fairphone when it comes time to replace my iPhone SE. (As that is sealed, the most likely cause for its demise will be the internal battery eventually losing its ability to keep charge for a full day.) All the phones I owned prior to the iPhone 4S let me swap out the battery if needed, and I don’t recall them requiring as much protection.

Eventually, the pendulum will swing back, but not without more effort to dislodge it from where it’s currently wedged.

We are serving the wrong masters

This 2018 essay by Don Norman, writing at Fast Company, strikes a chord with me:

We have unwittingly accepted the paradigm that technology comes first, with people relegated to doing the actions that the machines cannot do. This requires people to act like machines, ever ready to take over when things go wrong.

As a result, we require people to do tedious, repetitive tasks, to be alert for long periods, ready to respond at a moment’s notice: all things people are bad at doing. When the inevitable errors and accidents occur, people are blamed for “human error.” The view is so prevalent that many times the people involved blame themselves, saying things like “I knew better” or “I should have paid more attention,” not recognizing that the demands of the technology made these errors inevitable.

Over 90% of industrial and automobile accidents are blamed on human error with distraction listed as a major cause. Can this be true? Look, if 5% of accidents were caused by human error, I would believe it. But when it is 90%, there must be some other reason, namely, that people are asked to do tasks that people should not be doing. Tasks that violate fundamental human abilities.

Consider the words we use to describe the result: human error, distraction, lack of attention, sloppiness–all negative terms, all implying the inferiority of people. Distraction, in particular, is the byword of the day–responsible for everything from poor interpersonal relationships to car accidents. But what does the term really mean?

It’s not just fatalities that result from this over-complexity and lack of consideration for users in design. I’d argue that a lot of fraud and theft is facilitated by this same over-complexity, and the ‘solution’ invariably is to add more complexity and make users jump through extra hoops. Disturbingly, a common factor regardless of the situation is that the developers / manufacturers / business owners put the onus on the user to do better next time, rather than fix the design, whether it’s aircraft makers, financial institutions or social networks.

Just think about your life today, obeying the dictates of technology–waking up to alarm clocks (even if disguised as music or news); spending hours every day fixing, patching, rebooting, inventing work-arounds; answering the constant barrage of emails, tweets, text messages, and instant this and that; being fearful of falling for some new scam or phishing attack; constantly upgrading everything; and having to remember an unwieldy number of passwords and personal inane questions for security, such as the name of your least-liked friend in fourth grade. We are serving the wrong masters.

We need to switch from a technology-centric view of the world to a people-centric one. We should start with people’s abilities and create technology that enhances people’s capabilities: Why are we doing it backwards?

Unfortunately, as long as ‘solving’ this complexity is seen as an opportunity to get people to buy and use more stuff in hopes of making their life easier, change is going to be slow. (That’s not a knock against the makers of password managers and GTD apps, to name two examples, but they’re about solving problems that stem from bad design decisions of others.)

A Food Critic Reviews the Swedish Chef’s New Restaurant

From the New Yorker, June 2021:

When I heard that the Swedish Chef from “The Muppet Show” was opening a Chelsea location of his celebrated bistro, Dorg Schnorfblorp Horganblorps, I was skeptical. I’m always hesitant to believe the hype surrounding celebrity chefs, especially when they’re made of felt. While the city was abuzz, calling Mr. Muppet the new Jean-Georges Vongerichten, I was certain that this newcomer was nothing more than a passing fad, a Swedish Salt Bae. But, after such a tough year for restaurants, I was curious about how this mustachioed madman’s gimmick had sustained its popularity. Eventually, I decided that I had to go see for myself—could the Swedish Chef’s bites ever live up to his bark, or bork?

If you’ve never watched The Muppets, in any of their incarnations, this won’t make any sense at all. But it shows that even the printed word is enough to bring them to life in your head. 🙂 A great read.

Post-Apple-Music

As an addendum to my previous post about cleaning up my music library, I completed that mammoth task and cut the cord on Wednesday last week. Or rather, I had to cut several cords, since of course this is Apple so I had to disable both iCloud Music Library and Apple Music / iTunes Store in Preferences.

The good news is that the Music app now starts up a heck of a lot faster! The not-so-good news is that there’s no built-in mechanism for finding duplicated tracks, so I’ll need to turn to third-party tools for that. Quite why Apple decided that this function wasn’t needed any more is a mystery.

But the real kicker is that I’ve subsequently found 23GB of Apple Music tracks still on my Mac, despite having told the app to remove all those downloads. I can only presume that the app misplaced them due to its temperamental nature when it comes to downloading and synching stuff.