The first thing I remember writing, aged about 4, was a heavily illustrated story called The Crash about two cars that crashed into each other with a big explosion. It was published on the fridge door, and at the time the critical consensus was "lovely, perhaps try to stay within the lines more when colouring".
These days most of my work can be found on Medium. I write regular articles for OneZero and Debugger, and have had articles published in Human Parts, Curious, The Startup, Better Programming, Noteworthy, Prototypr, UX Collective, Blank Page and The Ascent. My work has been featured on the Medium homepage, the front page of Hacker News, and I'm listed as a top writer in the categories of Technology and Leadership. Inexplicably, not a featured writer on the subject of crashes or explosions, though.
If you're in to that sort of thing, I write an occasional newsletter called Edge Cases that you can read online or have sent to your inbox every sometimes.
At one point I ask Siri to phone Rob and it starts phoning Bob, an ex-colleague I haven’t spoken to for years (and don’t really get on with). At other times, Siri completely misunderstands what I’ve said and I have to start again. Bring out the world’s tiniest violins for this first-world problem, but man it’s annoying when you have to repeat the command from the start. Disproportionately annoying. I find myself thinking, “Oh fine I won’t have the heating on then,” rather than repeat myself..
It’s a truth acknowledged only in coding circles that most coding is banging your head against a wall, googling errors, looking at Stack Overflow, trying different things until you find the one that works. This is how the modern world was built. Bugs are situations that didn’t come up in testing.
You can’t put the Genie back in the bottle, the toothpaste back into the tube, the coronavirus back into the bat. The ship has sailed, the die is cast, the bridges are burned, the bird has flown. The cat only gets out of the bag. Pandora’s Box opens but doesn’t close. The beans get spilled. Eve can’t un-eat the apple. It’s remarkable how many different myths and metaphors pick at this idea. We’ve been trying to undo things since stories began.
How strange that prose words, once written, are darlings we weep over as we delete, but code words are goblins that leave us smiling as we backspace them into oblivion. “The best code is no code at all,” Jeff Atwood says. “Code is our enemy,” Rich Skrenta writes. Perhaps these are code versions of William Strunk’s famous advice: “omit needless words”.
More often than not, BitBot made money, rendering him (and, indirectly, me) a digital Warren Buffett. BitBuffet. Unconsciously, I started to invent a little personality for BitBot. I imagined him coming home after a hard day of digital trading, his arms piled high with coins and pieces of treasure. I know this isn’t how the economy works.
Then we have words with dozens of meanings. We can set down the plates as we set the table on a film set, set back from the road. We can set a prisoner free. Set changes in motion. Set high standards. Set a new high score. Set an alarm to set the video player to record a film set in New York. The sun can set, a scene can be set, or the world can be set on fire.
I fell out of love with New Year’s resolutions after primary school. Not that I’d ever been in love with them to start with. In January, without a teacher telling me to write down my New Year’s resolution, I didn’t come up with one. Certainly, they had no place in my cynical teenage years. They were self-helpy and new-agey, at once pathetic and pompous. A marketing gimmick. An attempt to sell gym memberships and Bran Flakes. A product of a culture obsessed with self-improvement. They were a parody of other resolutions. The UN has the Security Council Resolution on the situation in the Middle East. I have the resolution to eat more leafy greens. They were so unabashedly wholesome and self-improving. Like doing yoga and handing in your homework before the day it’s due. You know what my New Year’s Resolution is this year? I’d say. Full HD 1080p.
The interpretations are so specific, halfway between a horoscope and a tarot reading. They suggest a spurious universality of thought as if dreams are messages from beyond rather than the working of my mind. It would be nice to think that dreams have a definite, universal meaning that can be decoded to discover something. A puzzle with a definite answer waiting to be found. Like a crossword. I can see why, with the weird complexity of the 21st century, people are turning back to horoscopes and dream interpretation. We welcome the suggestion that there is a knowable answer.
By uploading my photos, I replace an alert that my phone is full with an alert that my iCloud storage is full. It’s a “choose your adventure” of nag screens. Other recommendations aren’t time-savers at all. “Review large attachments” one suggests, “review personal videos.” My phone has found some more work for me to do. It all has a Marie Kondo air to it: Does this large attachment spark joy? Should I thank this PDF for its service and then delete it?
When I get into a car, the first thing I check for is a USB port. Cars are essentially big smartphone chargers, more like an iPhone accessory than a device in their own right.
“Oh, not another gadget,” my dad would say on Christmas morning, unwrapping a gift from a distant relative to find a twisted piece of metal that could supposedly separate egg yolks from whites. I never thought of these as gadgets though. James Bond wouldn’t have one of those hidden in the lining of his jacket.
As much as taxes get a bad rap, they are good for consumers. They fund public services. It says something about the way modern companies approach their corporate finances that labeling something as a tax is tantamount to saying they shouldn’t have to pay it. Tax avoidance is in their DNA.
These words keep cropping up: Your privacy is important to us. Your information. Your choice. You’re in charge. It all sounds good, but there’s a hollowness to the legally prescribed wording. These are messages designed to be dismissed.
Historians debate whether people really did dance to their deaths. The truth is more likely (more boringly) that accounts were exaggerated and misremembered due to poor written-records. I wonder if future historians will look back on the current time with the same misconceptions: “During the Baby Yoda plague of 2019, people would retweet memes until they passed out from exhaustion, their fingers worn to the bone from liking and swiping.”
In the past few weeks, Canon’s online service lost users’ photos and videos, and Adobe accidentally permanently deleted users’ photos and presets. “We sincerely apologize,” Adobe said. Canon offered its “deepest apologies.” That’s like guests leaving a funeral and shaking hands with the bereaved with Cheeto-covered fingers from the complimentary snacks we paid for. “Sorry for your loss. We’ll be taking $4.99 next month for online storage costs.”
There’s something Kafkaesque about this. The sublime comes crashingly into contact with the banal: Important scientific work, meet Excel formatting. It’s strange to see our individual experiences mirrored on a global scale. You wouldn’t think genetics, as an industry, would have the same problems that I have, as an individual.
On Amazon, prices are random, an ever-changing number like the up and down of the stock market. You need an army of statisticians to make sure you get a good deal on Amazon. It’s like haggling in the fourth dimension.
Non fiction Why We Think Our Phones Are Secretly Listening to Us - OneZero
"Twice now I’ve found myself doing little tests. “Man, I’d sure love a holiday in the Bahamas,” I say out loud to no one, my phone resting on the side with the Facebook app open. “Gosh, my car insurance is expensive. Would be real great if someone could find a cheaper quote.” Nothing. I feel silly. But still, the next day, I look at each ad with renewed suspicion."
"We can only work out what the A.I. is doing by looking at the output, in the same way we only know what humans are thinking by watching what they do and say. In that sense, neural networks are uncannily humanlike. They are like us while being nothing at all like us. We’ll never find out why a quoit is three bonks."
"Hackers are more stage magicians than wizards, their methods a series of mirrors and magnets. It is almost disappointing to find out how they are done. Wizard of Oz-like, behind the curtain there isn’t any fancy magic. I am often left with a feeling of: “Huh, I could have done that.” Of course, that’s the case with many good ideas. The hard bit is not execution, it’s coming up with the idea in the first place. "
"Reporting a tweet feels a bit like asking to speak to the manager to complain about the rowdy kids. On some platforms we invite people to our house, and can ask them to leave; on others it’s more like staying in a hotel, and we have to rely on the staff to step in."
"There is misinformation and then there is disinformation. Misinformation is incorrect ideas that are shared in good faith, or, at least (as with me sharing the monkey brain game video) in neutral faith, to harmlessly entertain. Disinformation is intentionally incorrect information spread to deceive. Even the word’s origins are disinformed. In the book Disinformation, author Ion Mihai Pacepa explains that the word comes from the Russian, dezinformatsiya, a term invented by Stalin, who chose a French-sounding word to make it seem like the idea of intentionally lying came from the West. Disinformation is self-referential, almost onomatopoeia. It is a word leaking its history."
"Back in March when I first started spending my days on video calls, I used my laptop camera as it came: angled back, unflatteringly aimed up my face, and into my nostrils. Behind me, light from a window blew out the image, rendering me the sort of anonymous silhouette that might have kidnapped your family. A good 60% of the shot was my ceiling. I was a digital “Kilroy was here,” my face and nose poking out from the bottom of the screen."
"You can tell a lot about a company from its release notes. There are the companies that detail every change, no matter how minor, and there are those that phone it in: “Bug fixes and performance improvements” every time. There are comedic notes: “All bugs that were fixed in this release were too small for the eye to see or too fiddly for human words to describe.” And there are the weird ones. Dwarf Fortress, I’m looking at you: “Stopped elves from being pleased with unethical trades,” “Made all undead respectful of one another,” “Cleaned up the bear situation.”"
"In literary theory, there is the concept of “performative utterances”: phrases whose meaning is enacted by saying them. “I name this ship,” “I declare you married,” “You are under arrest,” (somewhat topically), and so on. When a priest says “I declare you married,” those two people are then married. Saying it made it so. Sometimes, as I scroll past Twitter messages repeatedly saying the same things expressed slightly differently, I think I’m looking for a quasi-performative utterance — a tweet that is so pithy, so beautifully expressed that the very reading of it will trigger the enactment of change. That is a lot to ask from 280 characters."
"But it’s harder to be so sure about the internet, as it’s not always clear what it even is. It is a big road, a book, a “series of tubes,” a cloud, a railroad, a tidal wave of information, a shopping mall, a village square, a new frontier, maybe a sort of digital spider “web” into which bits of data can get stuck like flies. You “navigate” it, “refresh,” “surf,” or “explore” like you are on “safari.” You “visit” sites like a tourist, read “pages” like they are books, and “browse” sites like a shop. And when you’re done, you go “home.” It’s not a series of tubes. It’s a series of metaphors."
"“Oh god, I have such a backlog,” he says. And indeed, it’s like returning to work after a holiday and facing the unread emails. Fortnite generates tasks like a relentless scrum manager."
"I see this future as a thousand tiny frustrations: A new version of iOS that breaks the coffee maker, an air conditioner app that doesn’t work properly on Android 7, the user who has forgotten their password and so can’t get the lights on, the one person who insists on using Ubuntu Touch will be unable to use the new touchless door access control system and will now be trapped outside."
Non fiction Zen and the Art of Searching for Lost Computer Files - OneZero
"On computers, much of the way we find things is by searching. Also, much of the way we don’t find things is by searching. It isn’t by chance that Windows quietly renamed Find to Search. Our expectations have been adjusted."
"Justifying one issue, Zoom’s chief security officer said, “it was [at] the request of some of our customers.” Zoom’s customers wanted features that were impossible to implement without hacks. And to land the contracts, Zoom hacked."
"Take one recent question: “Do you feel generally optimistic or pessimistic about the influence the internet is having on society?” The options are “Very optimistic,” “Somewhat optimistic,” “Neither optimistic nor pessimistic,” “Somewhat pessimistic,” “Very pessimistic,” and “Don’t know.” The question seems to demand an essay response, not a simple checkbox of mutually exclusive answers. "
"At the product meeting, someone says, “Right, so what are we going to put into the next version?” Rather than suggestions for enhancements, there’s a pause and someone says, “Um.” That um is a problem. That um signifies you have reached the good-enough plateau."
"So here’s a thing that I don’t usually say in public: I love cables. To be more specific, I love the connectors. The actual wire I can take or leave, really, but the metal end that fits into the port is where the power is."
"Santa delivers billions of presents, on a scale that dwarfs Amazon, with a database of users that exceeds Facebook and he does so without any scandals. How does he do it?"
"It is a peculiar ailment of the modern world to know that something is happening, but to not know what. I often find myself on Twitter seeing outrage but not knowing what I should be outraged at."
Non fiction This Holiday Season, I’m Grateful for My Television - OneZero
"Last weekend, I bought a new TV. A massive, room-dominating, relationship-damaging TV. It sits in the corner, like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey turned to landscape mode, with me as one of the chimps, braying at it and chucking the remote into the air."
"Compared to an app, a standard webpage is largely unstructured. When you scroll through a TableView in an app you know what to expect (more TableView cells), but when you scroll through a webpage, even on mobile, you have no idea what will be next."
"Missing numbers aren’t mistakes. It’s not as if, in the panic to ship the software, the PHP team forgot about the existence of the number six and were then kicking themselves afterward."
"This is what coding is: You type some special words into a text editor. It probably has a black background. Some of those words turn different colors as you type them. Once you’ve typed all the special words, you save, or save and build, or press compile. And then you look at the output. If it doesn’t look right, you go to a white and orange website and hunt around until you find someone who has done more or less what you want to do and you copy and paste that."
"Years ago websites were made of files; now they are made of dependencies."
Fiction When Lunch Becomes Dinner - Mays 15