2016 in Review

A lot of people are cynical about the whole ‘year in review’ thing. After all, what is a year but just another way we divide up time, like hours, minutes and months?

Of course a year is not an just arbitrary measure. A year is the time it took for our planet to orbit the sun. Just consider that for a moment. Then consider than our sun is itself orbiting a black hole at the centre of our galaxy, which is itself spinning and drifting through intergalactic space. You may think you’re going back to the ‘same place’ when you return to a familiar spot on earth, but in actual fact no person has ever returned to the exact same point in the universe more than once. Isn’t that just a mind-blowing thought?

I digress, though I think it’s important for us not to forget about our place in the universe when looking back on our past, and considering our future.
So here are a few moments of 2016 that stood out for me, looking back on some of the experiences I had last year.

NY Parade
2016 started off in an unusual manner for me. Instead of waking up feeling dazed and hungover, I woke up feeling fresh and relaxed as I headed to London to see the New Year’s Day parade. It was the first time I’d seen it, and it was a really fun experience. How heartwarming it was to see all these people, some of whom had travelled a long way from across the globe, putting on a show for London. Topped off with some nice food and the fact that it didn’t rain, it was a fantastic day out. I would highly recommend going to the parade to see in the new year, as opposed to my usual style of drinking too much cheap Champaign and not really remembering any of it.

As January progressed I returned to visit a flat I’d seen just before Christmas with the intention of making an offer. It was a good size and a good price, although it was very close to a major motorway meaning noise from traffic could have been an issue, but I’m a realistic with these things and release you can’t have it all. There was a slight problem however. With it being a flat I knew there would be service charges and ground rent. I wanted to see what these were before I made an offer, as these could be an important part of my monthly budget. The estate agent couldn’t tell me, and weeks went by without them giving me any new information. I decided to take it upon myself to go to the block, and look through the main entrance in order to see if I could make out anything on the windows or noticeboards referencing a management company. Lo and behold, there was a leaflet with a phone number pinned to a notice board. I phoned the management company to ask them what their costs were and if they could tell me anything about the ground rent. The management company seemed surprised that the flat was even up for sale, as it was apparently reserved for a ‘Help to buy’ scheme where the purchaser only buys part of the property. This wasn’t what I wanted, and the estate agent disputed this. After about three weeks later I had a voicemail from the estate agent saying they had some ‘good news’ and that I should call them back. I didn’t. Something about this property and the fact that nobody else seemed to be putting in any offers smelt fishy. I’m glad I didn’t put that offer in now, as although it would have bend a good sized apartment, the commute to work would have been pretty crazy and the noise would have been unbearable. A lucky escape!

db3As I set off on my journey to work on the morning of the 10th January, I put the radio on to hear David Bowie’s “Heroes” playing. Being a natural cynic, I thought to myself how bloody typical, he’s just released a new album and they’re playing one of his oldies. Then the song faded out and the radio DJ gave a recap of the morning’s grave news: David Bowie had died aged 69. Unlike any celebrity death before it, this really struck a chord with me. I found myself actually grieving for someone I’d never met. I think that it was partly because his music had been a big part of my life growing up, and also that I distinctly remember seeing him on the Jonathan Ross show in the early 2000s. I worked out that back then (it seems like yesterday) he was the age that my Dad is now. Those 12 or so years went by so quickly. It brought home how brief life can be, and that’s even if you’re lucky enough to make it to 68.

As March rolled around I decided to make a big change in my life and move back home. I had been renting a room since I split with my girlfriend a year earlier, and although the room was pleasant and the house was very clean and tidy with good people as housemates, I knew that by moving back home I could save shedloads on rent and top up my savings with the hope of putting down a deposit on a nicer house, or even just reducing the amount I’d need to borrow on a half-decent house. Moving home after 4 years was weird at first, but after about a week it became routine. It’s amazing how quickly you fall back into old routines. I was blessed to have family who live so close and who had room for me.

Barcelona
What’s the first thing I did having moved back home, with a lot more disposable income burning a hole in my pocket? Book a holiday of course! I was originally intending to do a bit of solo-traveling, but when I told a friend I mine that I was thinking of going to Barcelona, he said he’d come too. It was my first visit to Spain, and based on my experience of Barcelona I think it’s a beautiful country. So much culture and great architecture in such a short square mileage. I’d definitely like to go back again sometime soon. Highlights include exploring the seafront, the art galleries and touring the Nou Camp.

Manic Street Preachers in Swansea
As May drew to a close and the beginnings of summer could be smelt around the corner, I took a trip to Swansea to see the Manic Street Preachers at the Liberty Stadium. The Manics are my favourite band, and this was like a mini-festival exclusively for die-hard fans of the band. It was here that I got into Public Service Broadcasting who were the first support act. I’d seen them back in 2013 also supporting the Manics, but it wasn’t until this gig that I fully appreciated their music. The next support act were the Super Furry Animals, who to be honest I don’t care much for, but they’re a decent enough warmup act. Finally the Manics came on and played their colossal 1996 album “Everything Must Go” – it’s crazy to think that it’s 20 years old now. It was here that my brother asked me to be his best man for his wedding next year. A great night, with a festival like atmosphere, despite the rain.

Connected Podcast Meetup in London
At the beginning of June I went to a Podcast meet up in London. It was great to meet Federico Viticci from the Connected podcast, as well as chat to other listeners of the show. Not many of my friends share my interest in technology so it was good to be able to fully geek out while enjoying a few beers and some food.

10kThe summer was pretty quiet for me. Still focusing on my saving and having already been away to Spain back in the spring, I wasn’t planning on going on holiday again. I did get convinced into running a 10K run at work, however. I’m really glad I did as it was a lot of fun and has definitely whet my appetite for taking part future events. Until then I’d been focused on running as a solo activity. Even now I enjoy the ‘me time’ that I get with running, but running with other people and with people cheering me on from the sidelines was a cool experience and one I’ll hope to repeat. Who knows, maybe a half marathon could be on the cards in 2017?

In the last week of August I put an offer in on a flat I’d seen and to my amazement it was accepted. This one felt right in a way that the first one didn’t. It was in a semi-rural location (By that I mean quiet, surrounded by lots of trees and single-track country roads, but it’s half a mile from a train station and it still has fibre broadband.) and has a garden and a garage. The commute was going to be an extra fifteen minutes into work, but that’s a small price for living in a good location (When your neighbour’s car looks like it might have cost half the value of your house, you know it’s a pretty decent area!). Unfortunately being a leasehold the mortgage agreement took absolutely ages to go through. I waited with baited breath.

santa-cruz
While taking a week off on the Isle of Wight (My parents have a place there so it’s a pretty cheap week away.) I received a text message from my boss asking if I’d be free to go to Santa Cruz for a few days in a in two weeks time in order to take meetings with clients. Obviously I didn’t have to think much about the answer to that one. I was lucky enough to be able to tack on a few days holiday before the business meetings, and stayed up in San Francisco for four days. I really love the States, especially California so I was not going to let any chance to visit again go by. The meetings were a success and Santa Cruz was a beautiful as everyone had told me it was. It felt more like California I know from Beach Boys songs than San Francisco or Los Angeles, with the prominent surfing culture and the frequent smell of weed! San Francisco was equally as exciting, such a great vibe down on the bay-front. Although it’s full of English people. I sat down at a bar in a diner and to my left was a bloke from the same town as me int the UK (he’d even done the same 10K I’d done a few weeks earlier), and to his left (but not with him) was a British girl who lived about 60 miles north of where I live. What a crazy small world it is.
Apple Watch Series 2
As October began I’d still not made any progress with the mortgage offer – it seems mortgage companies are in a unique position of power. There’s not a lot of market forces driving them to offer a good service, as people are just going to go with the best rate. Not having bought any new technology this year so far, I splashed out on a new Apple Watch Series 2. Better to make the most of not having a mortgage while I can, I told myself. The original version had become my favourite gadget. I find the idea of a smart watch so much more compelling than a phone. A computer that’s always on, and always on me. The new model was properly waterproof and can measure swims, it also has a markedly better battery life. I went for the stainless steal model this time, as I think it looks classier, i was wiling to pay the extra this time as I now know that it’s money well spent. When I bought the original model last year I wasn’t sure if it would be that useful so I just went for the cheapest version. It should last me at least 2 or 3 years if I look after it. Unless Apple release one that has cellular connectivity, I really can’t see a reason to upgrade again any time soon. Overall I’m super impressed, I just wish it could work without a phone so I could have my watch on me at all times for communication needs, and just use an iPad when I need to do something more complex.

Towards the end of the month I went to see the Duke Spirit in London, another of my favourite bands. Being a London based ‘art rock’ band the crowd were quite a bit different to what I’ve come to expect at Manics gigs – not much in the way of a mosh pit, but still great music and some good support acts too.

robot_aiNovember was also pretty quiet for me. Apart from regular calls to nag my mortgage broker of course.  I found my work getting more interesting. Working with the latest craze in tech, ‘Artificial Intelligence’, otherwise known as Machine Learning: The ability to use clever probability mathematics to make computers do human-like things such as image recognition and language translation. Some say it’s nothing more than brute force statistics, no different to a weather forecast. Others think it really is the key to inventing machine intelligence. Whatever you call it, I think it’s reached a point where the Internet was in 1998. Nearly every startup for the next 15 years will be taking an idea and applying machine learning to it, just as they have done with the Internet during the past 15 years. It’s super cool, but also a but scary. Bus drivers, airline pilots, lorry drivers (to name a few) will likely loose their jobs to machine learning algorithms during the next 15 – 20 years, if the technology continues to progress at the rate it is now. Does this pose an existential question to our consumer-based society? With fewer jobs, how does anyone earn any money to pay for those automatised taxis? Or will the AI revolution, like the industrial revolution before it, create a multitude of new jobs we can’t even begin to imagine today? I’ve no idea, but I do know it’s an exciting time to be working in the tech industry.

As the year drew to a close, I finally completed on my flat purchase. I’m still using an upside down cardboard box as my coffee table, but I have all the basics: A fridge, a cooker and Internet access. I’ve never lived alone before but I’m actually quite enjoying it.

Overall I feel that 2016 was a transition year for me personally. I moved on from some old friendships, formed new ones, and moved into a new home. I feel I’ve gown as a person more than any other year. I realise I’ve been incredibly lucky to have visited some cool places and purchased my own flat. That said, I’m a strong believer that what you own, or the destinations you’ve visited is not a measure of success or happiness. Having good friends and family coupled with good health are all that really matters, the rest is just a nice bonus. A technique I’m going to try for next year is to write an idealised version of 2017’s review before 2017 starts, and then try and make all the things I want to do actually happen.

Congratulations on making it to the end of this article, wishing you Happy New Year!

Improving digital media rights

In an age when streaming services are all the rage –Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify et al, I still feel as though there are certain works of art that I want to own and not just rent. With music, this is a pain free process as most digital music is available to purchase is free of DRM (Digital Rights Management). DRM stops digital files being copied, with an aim to stop piracy. In reality though, if you look hard enough (you don’t have to look that hard) you can still find most popular digital media available for free on pirate sites. DRM doesn’t work. Thankfully the music industry saw the light and you can now buy DRM-free music from iTunes, Amazon and many other providers. The film, TV and book industry haven’t been so forward thinking however. There are no services that let you purchase a film legitimately without DRM. Why is this a bad thing? DRM stops unauthorised copying, which is fine by me because I don’t want to make any unauthorised copies. The problem is, DRM also promotes vendor lock-in. This means if I buy a TV show from my iPad, and then years later decide to switch to Android, those videos are stuck within the Apple ecosystem. If I buy a book on Kindle, but decide I would rather use some other make of e-reader, I’m not able to take my Kindle collection with me.  
Some services like Amazon Music and Google Play do offer cross-platform apps, so if I bought a TV series on an Android phone, I could watch it on an iPhone – but only using the Google app. If one day Google decides to stop supporting iPhone, I’m out of luck.

So what to do? Our governments seem keen to pass laws which promote and support DRM – I can understand this. An economy where goods are easy to steal and stealing is virtually undetectable – an economy based on good will if you like, is probably not an experiment they want to attempt. But what if they also passed laws that promoted consumer rights; rights not to be locked into a single platform? In this world, any digital goods purchased from one platform would be available to download again from rival platforms at no cost. If the other platform is somehow better (e.g. higher definition) then of course users would be expected to pay for the upgrade (though, I would expect the original version to still be available), but if it’s like for like, then consumers would have the right to transfer their purchases to as many platforms as they wish. This could be backed up by a common verified email address or block-chain style database, with safeguards in place to prevent abuse. It could be done, and it would make digital media much more competitive, improving the experience and price for consumers overall.  

Will it happen? Let’s say I’m not optimistic.

On the plus side

Over the past year or so you may like me, have found that it has been easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we’re all doomed. For me in particular; on the eve of becoming 30, I went from being someone who was in a steady relationship with aspirations to buy a house and have children, to being single and living in a rented room. This, coupled with constant negativity in the media can wound up making me feel at times a bit down and hopeless. Climate change, terrorist attacks, rising rents, rising house prices, the increasing disparity between rich and poor – it can all get a bit too much. Especially when all of your friends seem to be buying houses, getting married and making babies, while at the same time you just seem to be getting older.

Take a step back however, and you may realise that this doom and gloom is often nothing more than a distortion of reality. The human brain is hardwired to focus on what it hasn’t got and to always want more. It’s why the human race migrated and populated each and all of the continents on earth and eventually landed on the moon. To be dissatisfied with what you have and to strive for better a is natural behaviour. That doesn’t mean it’s always a useful behaviour. Just as aggression can be put to use in driving someone to do well at sport , it can also be incredibly destructive.

One-hundred years ago, my great-grandparents were born at a time when the average life expectancy in the UK was around 55 (This figure is sadly skewed because so many unfortunate children died young of diseases which have now thankfully been eradicated.) In just four generations the quality and length of life somebody can expect to live in the UK has increased dramatically. This really is a good time to be alive. Being born in the UK, one of the most prosperous countries on the planet is incredibly lucky. Most of us have the opportunity to visit many wonderful places – if I were to put my home ownership ambitions on hold for a bit, I could probably afford to visit many more far-flung parts of the world.  Low cost travel is something we now take for granted, but it’s something our ancestors could only dream of. You only have to go back a few more generations to find a time when visiting the next town was a special event. 1

So why am I writing this? Because frankly, over the past year I found that I became obsessed with what I thought was missing in my life, and forgot to be grateful  for what I actually have. If you have good friends, good health and a good job, then count yourself lucky too.

Show 1 footnote

  1. While saying that, I do think it’s important not to define oneself based on where you’ve been. The ‘where’ is meaningless. If you visited Mexico and spent the entire time in a 5 start hotel complex, then did you really visit Mexico? You might have a good tan, and if you enjoyed yourself, then that’s all that really matters – this underlines why listing places you’ve been in an effort to define yourself is a futile exercise.

The moment I realised I’m not a geek

I was attending a local meet-up of technology enthusiasts, and one of the people presenting was an experienced game developer. He had worked for a big games company in the US for years, and was now starting his own business as an independent developer. He preceded to talk about how games are made from first principles and about his experience as a games developer.

What was the first question from the audience? ‘What source control system do you use?’. The conversation then turned to favourite text editors. Really?? That’s when I felt out of place. I wanted to know how he would go about trying to integrate Unity with a native iOS UIKit Interface, what platform constraints the Xbox One has, the differences between developing for PS4 and Xbox One, but everyone seemed to want to ask trivial questions about infrastructure.

It made me think: There's a difference between someone who is interested in technology for the sake of technology, and this is why we see 15 year old games being ported to JavaScript, and someone like me who is fascinated by what technology can do that’s new. How it’s done interests me of course, but that’s not what matters. The world undoubtedly needs both types of people, but it did make me think: I’m not a geek.

 

iPhone OS 3

While self confessed geeks and technology enthusiasts like myself may get 2 or 3 years out of a device (if that, I know many people who switch phone multiple times a year), normal people expect to get a bit more out of these expensive gadgets. I found a first gen iPod Touch in my dad’s glove box today and thought I’d reminisce about how much iOS (then called iPhone OS) had changed, yet in some ways hasn’t much at all.

Home screen

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This was how it looked from iPhone OS 1 through to 3 – the metallic dock. The iPod Touch always had separate ‘Music’ and ‘Video’ apps, whereas iPhones has a single app called  ‘iPod’. No wallpaper, but apart from that it stayed pretty much the same until iOS 7 moved Spotlight search to the top instead of being on the left.

Lock Screen

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The lock screen stayed exactly the same until iOS 7 – the only minor change was the additional of a camera button in iOS 5.1.

Home button

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The days before ‘multitasking’ (aka recent task switching) meant the home button ‘double tap’ action could be customised. I always remember having it be set to launch the music player. If you had ‘Show iPod Controls’ selected then you would get an alert box with music controls, no matter which app you were in. Multitasking.

iTunes Store

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The iTunes Store was a major selling point of the iPod Touch. Being able to wirelessly buy and play an album within minutes was pretty darn mind blowing at the time.

Wallpaper

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The bundled lock screen images seem very ‘of their time’ – silhouettes with white ear buds.  

No Speaker

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This setting is a carry over from the classic iPod. The original iPod Touch had no loudspeaker. The noises it could make were on par with a Casio watch.

About

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Released in 2007, the iPod Touch got its last software update on February 2nd 2010.

Peter V Brett Book Signing

 

I have never been to a book signing before, so I didn’t know what exactly to expect from last Tuesday’s event in London. It was so great to meet your favourite author (Peter V Brett is tied with Stephen King as far as my favourite authors go) – of course it was brief, there were many people with books waiting to be signed – but it was great to have even just a brief chat – kind of amazing to think to yourself – “You know that awesome fantasy world that you’ve spent who knows how many hours of your life reading about, pondering, imagining, and discussing – well this is the guy who penned it all, right here!” – part of me wanted to jump up and down with excitement like a lunatic, the other part of me (the part that thankfully, usually wins these internal mind-battles) thought I should just act polite and ask a few questions about the books.

So well worth it, if you ever get the chance to meet your favourite author (even just for a couple of minutes) DO IT!

 

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Queue, the Stephen King section (AKA horror section, where they put King’s non horror books too)

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More queuing, lots of people talking about the books

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The books

Happy Anniversary

It turns out that this domain imarc.co.uk was 10 years old in April this year. How time flies!

 

Back in 2002 the web was such a different place to what it is today. The first dotcom bubble had just burst and there was still a lot more amateur content online. It was quite common back then to still find personal home pages with photos of the family and kids, or maybe someone's site dedicated to their favourite band. These days the web is much more corporate, and everything we share is through sites like Facebook or Twitter.

 

Why is this? Has web design become an elitist art form? Yes textured backgrounds and blinking text might have looked horrible, but back then it was all about the love of the content subject, looks very much came second. No ones doubts that modern web design techniques have improved the look and accessibility of the web, but has it scared off the average Joe with a copy of FrontPage?

 

Maybe the world has just “moved on” as our favourite Gunslinger once said. People have better things to be doing than maintaining their own site. Blogging platforms like WordPress and Blogger have the advantages of Facebook with ease of use, but allow a greater degree of personalisation and independence. Perhaps these folks are writing apps instead?

 

Or maybe I'm just getting old. Who knows, I'm just rambling.

 

Happy Anniversary.