Posts in: Journal

While I’m happy with iCloud Email, its spam detection is more hit-and-miss compared to Fastmail, and there’s no way to easily correct false positives so they don’t reoccur.

I’m saving some money by switching over my personal domains, but I’m wondering if it would be easier in the long-run to stick with Fastmail and find savings elsewhere — email is definitely not something to scrimp on!


Queen & Country

Today is officially a public holiday in the UK, as it’s the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, the 70th anniversary of her coronation.

For weeks, if not month, there have been regular reminders of this in the media. Along with advertisements from firms wanting to sell you food and other stuff to celebrate. There are various street parties being organised today and through the weekend, as well as official events to mark the occasion.

My feelings about this are mixed. In many ways I feel sorry for the Queen and other members of the Royal Family1, who would probably dearly love to have their own lives and not be figureheads. But the institution that they embody is from an age that very much belongs in the history books, and its continued presence (and influence) rankles with me.

I’m very much in favour of having an elected, non-political head of state. Realistically, though, that’s not going to happen any time soon. So we’re left with the question of what will happen when Elizabeth II is no longer with us, or decides she’s had enough. (I wouldn’t blame her for wanting to retire as her mother did.)

Charles is next in line for the throne, but I suspect he’ll be a stop-gap as he’s getting on in years. William is probably the one who could (and should) clean up the Royal Family. Whether he’d be allowed to is another matter. The UK press in particular won’t like it, and there is mutual distrust already2. And the Church of England probably frets over this too.

Above all, the winding-down of the monarchy will threaten all the other institutions that rely on it for their power (and occasional abuses thereof). Parliament would need to be completely overhauled, for starters, and brought into the 21st century and out of (in some cases3) the 11th century. So too would the remaining Crown Dependencies and other remnants of Empire, which would in turn mean a lot of tax havens losing their statuses.

So yeah, not going to hold my breath on that.


  1. That pity doesn’t extend to Prince Andrew, for obvious reasons. ↩︎

  2. If not outright hatred, thanks in part to their treatment of his mother Diana. ↩︎

  3. The fact that Norman French is still in use when Bills receive Royal Assent in the House of Lords and become Law should be an embarrassment. ↩︎


The GTD Racket

This New Yorker piece by Cal Newport is an examination of GTD through its origins in the work of Peter Drucker, David Allen, and in particular Merlin Mann.

In the early two-thousands, Merlin Mann, a Web designer and avowed Macintosh enthusiast, was working as a freelance project manager for software companies. He had held similar roles for years, so he knew the ins and outs of the job; he was surprised, therefore, to find that he was overwhelmed—not by the intellectual aspects of his work but by the many small administrative tasks, such as scheduling conference calls, that bubbled up from a turbulent stream of e-mail messages. “I was in this batting cage, deluged with information,” he told me recently. “I went to college. I was smart. Why was I having such a hard time?”

Mann wasn’t alone in his frustration. In the nineteen-nineties, the spread of e-mail had transformed knowledge work. With nearly all friction removed from professional communication, anyone could bother anyone else at any time. Many e-mails brought obligations: to answer a question, look into a lead, arrange a meeting, or provide feedback. Work lives that had once been sequential—two or three blocks of work, broken up by meetings and phone calls—became frantic, improvisational, and impossibly overloaded. “E-mail is a ball of uncertainty that represents anxiety,” Mann said, reflecting on this period.

In 2003, he came across a book that seemed to address his frustrations. It was titled “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” and, for Mann, it changed everything. The time-management system it described, called G.T.D., had been developed by David Allen, a consultant turned entrepreneur who lived in the crunchy mountain town of Ojai, California. Allen combined ideas from Zen Buddhism with the strict organizational techniques he’d honed while advising corporate clients. He proposed a theory about how our minds work: when we try to keep track of obligations in our heads, we create “open loops” that make us anxious. That anxiety, in turn, reduces our ability to think effectively. If we could avoid worrying about what we were supposed to be doing, we could focus more fully on what we were actually doing, achieving what Allen called a “mind like water.”

I remember hearing about GTD first through interviews and podcast with Merlin Mann in the mid and late 2000s, although I didn’t get around to doing anything with it until the mid-2010s.

In hindsight, I’m glad that I didn’t get sucked in earlier, and that I didn’t get overly invested in the first few solutions I tried. As the article above notes, there’s no shortage of options for organising your life, but as Merlin Mann noted in his final blog post in 2011, ‘cranking’ is the problem not the solution. We’re putting the onus on individuals to fix issues that lie with organisation and society as a whole.


The Mindfulness Racket

Evgeny Morozov wrote an interesting piece at The New Republic that reminded me of something that bugged me about Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism — quite a few of the solutions he put forward were great for those with lots of time and money, not so much for those with neither. But at least Cal Newport was suggesting breaking the addiction cycle.

The embrace of the mindfulness agenda by the technology crowd is especially peculiar. Consider (Arianna) Huffington, whose eponymous publication has even launched a stress-tracking app with the poetic name of “GPS for the Soul”—a new app to fight the distraction caused by the old apps—and turned the business of mindfulness into a dedicated beat. Or take Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, who has warned that we need to define times when we are “on” and “off” and announced his commitment to make his meals gadget-free. There are also apps and firms that, at a fee, will help you enforce your own “digital sabbath,” undertake a “digital detox,” or join like-minded refuseniks in a dedicated camp that bars all devices. Never before has connectivity offered us so many ways to disconnect.

In essence, we are being urged to unplug—for an hour, a day, a week—so that we can resume our usual activities with even more vigor upon returning to the land of distraction. Here the quest for mindfulness plays the same role as Buddhism. In our maddeningly complex world, where everything is in flux and defies comprehension, the only reasonable attitude is to renounce any efforts at control and adopt a Zen-like attitude of non-domination. Accept the world as it is—and simply try to find a few moments of peace in it. The reactionary tendency of such an outlook is easy to grasp. As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek once quipped, “If Max Weber were alive today, he would definitely write a second, supplementary, volume to his Protestant Ethic, entitled The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.” And what a wonderful Kindle Single that would make!

CEOs embrace mindfulness for the same reason that they embrace all the other forms of the “new spirit of capitalism,” be it yoga in the workplace or flip-flops in the boardroom: Down with alienation, long live transgression and emancipation! No wonder Huffington hopes that the pursuit of mindfulness can finally reconcile spirituality and capitalism. “There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that these two worlds are, in fact, very much aligned—or at least that they can, and should, be,” she wrote in a recent column. “So yes, I do want to talk about maximizing profits and beating expectations—by emphasizing the notion that what’s good for us as individuals is also good for corporate America’s bottom line.”

There’s a dark irony to the way in which Amazon, for instance, would suggest I purchase more books along the lines of Digital Minimalism. The same goes for other tools of mindfulness — apps, courses, video. We’re being nudges to consume our way to a supposedly better life.

In cutting my ties with social media, and stepping off the technology upgrade treadmill, I feel I’ve already done myself a lot of good both mentally and physically. Yes, it may seem radical in this age, but is it? Does it just look that way because we’ve been nudged into seeing connectedness and new gadgets as progress in and of themselves?

As Morozov notes in his piece, critics of the ‘disconnectionists’ point to the presumption that it’s for the individual to change how they use technology. But at the same time, those same critics, in attacking the messengers and their message while offering no real alternative other than a hand-waving “something must be done about Big Technology”, aren’t exactly helping, and could be accused of cashing in just as much as those they’re criticising. There’s money in those newspaper columns, book deals and TED Talks, after all.

In other words, why we disconnect matters: We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity, or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley. The former approach is reactionary but the latter can lead to emancipation, especially if such acts of refusal give rise to genuine social movements that will make problems of time and attention part of their political agendas—and not just the subject of hand-wringing by the Davos-based spirituality brigades. Hopefully, these movements will then articulate alternative practices, institutions, and designs. If it takes an act of unplugging to figure out how to do it, let’s disconnect indeed. But let us not do it for the sake of reconnecting on the very same terms as before. We must be mindful of all this mindfulness.

I’m still making changes and course corrections years after starting my ‘digital detox’. There is no quick fix, and what worked for me may not work for others with different needs and duties. Part of becoming mindful is knowing when to stop reaching for another book, app or course, and start forming your own strategy.


Person-Centric Technology

It occurred to me the other day that the term ‘personal technology’ no longer means what we originally thought it meant. We might possess it, but in many ways we no longer own it, or have much control over it. And it’s increasingly obvious that it’s designed to serve its makers first, and us a distant second.

Where affordances are made to allow us to configure our technology to fit us better, under the banner of accessibility, they are welcome, but alas they are not adopted by all applications, if they are adopted at all. When the maker of the operating system or device fails to even offer these affordances in their own apps, you know where their priorities lie.

But the indifference to the person using the device goes even deeper. The makers consider their creation to be at a point of ‘user-friendliness’ where no effort is required to help a person ‘use’ their device. Any paper guide is perfunctory at best, and the ‘setup’ these days consists of getting the person’s details first, then having them click through an ‘agreement’ that absolves the maker of any responsibility for any defects in their creation or any damage caused by it.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Imagine if a computer, phone, tablet or other device started up for the first time and took the time to ask you how it could best serve you.

Imagine if the first question was not ‘what is your name?’, but ‘do you need any help using this device?’

Yes, telling it what language you speak is a start, but I’m talking about accessibility in all senses. Do you need the text larger? More contrast? Less motion? Spoken accompaniment? Other controls to use the device?

The device (and its makers) should consider the expertise of the person. Have they used this device, or type of device, before? If not, then the operating system should adjust accordingly. Make assistance available at any time, and if necessary make the user interface clearer and less cluttered while the person gets to grips with the basics.

There are no good excuses why these can’t be done. The technological constraints that may have prevented their implementation in the past are gone. The only justification that I can think of is that doing this extra work isn’t ‘sexy’ and would mean making marginally less profit in the short-term.

We need to start thinking past the short-term. The brutal fact is that we are all getting older, and our mental and physical capabilities can and will change, sometimes without warning. And selling us more devices when the ones we own now are working fine is insanity, even before all the environmental impacts are considered. Devices don’t need to be ‘sexy’, they need to be useful for as long as possible.

Those who work to make products accessible to all should be feted and honoured, not left in the shadows.

And people should not be treated solely as consumers, or subjects whose every activity should be tracked and monetised. When technology helps people to live better lives and achieve more, the benefits are felt by everyone and can last a lifetime.


Local Elections & The Current UK Political Mess

Local elections will take place here on May 5th, and I’m not sure which way I’ll vote this time.

The town council is controlled by the Liberal Democrats, with Labour the main challenge. The majority of canvassing we’ve received has been from those two parties, mainly taken up with why the other is a terrible choice.

It’s infuriating because the real enemy is the Conservatives, who control the county council and the UK government and effectively dictate a lot of decisions — usually around what services to reduce or cut — through control of the purse strings.

In an ideal world, both Labour and the Lib Dems would find common cause and focus their firepower on the Tories. As it is, though, it’s more a case of who can look like they’re doing a good job while actually doing the Tories' work for them (and getting the flak from local constituents.)

I will still turn out and vote on Thursday. Apathy is what the Tories rely on most.


Eating Each Other's Lunch

I was amused by this story in The Register about Google now having a ‘Switch To Android’ app in the iOS App Store, several years after Apple’s ‘Switch To iOS’ app entered the Google Play Store.

As the article notes, encouraging people to switch platforms is now more of a necessity, both due to market saturation and regulatory scrutiny.

Will these apps actually help either Google or Apple? In the short run, maybe, though not by much. Longer-term, there are clouds looming on the horizon. People are keeping their devices for longer, and may not have the money for a flagship model. Plus, I have a feeling it’s going to get harder to source the raw material needed for new devices, which may mean a radical re-think of how they’re manufactured. Perhaps that’ll be what ultimately disrupts both Google’s and Apple’s domination of the smartphone market…


My GTD Setup, April 2022

I’ve been rethinking how I organise my life of the last few months. While I’m a lot better at it than I used to be, I still have periods where stuff gets backlogged for one reason or another, or I forget something.


One major change has been to move my calendars from Fastmail to iCloud. While Apple’s Calendar and Reminders apps work fine with Fastmail, there are some features that are only available when you’re connected to iCloud.

The other major change has been to use DEVONthink where it’s most useful — automatically filing and converting things for me — and stop using it solely as another place to dump stuff.


I have MailMate set up on the Mac to send things like receipts and invoices directly to DEVONthink, as well as anything that I send to the Archive folder. Those emails are then deleted, as I only need the archived copy.

I don’t send emails to any other app, instead I will manually create either a calendar event or a reminder for whatever needs to be done.

(I’ve also started to use iCloud Mail again, and thus far I’ve not had any problems with it other than the hiccups I documented previously around setting up iCloud+ custom email domains.)


I’ve now added the Notes app back into my GTD mix. In the past I’ve avoided it, partly because I was using other apps and partly because it seemed rather limited. But now that it has matured, I’m willing to give it another look. For now it’s restricted to collecting links to stuff I want to refer back to, and we’ll see how things develop from there.


So my GTD setup now looks like this:

iPhone

  • Mail
  • Calendar
  • Reminders
  • Notes

Mac

  • MailMate
  • Calendar
  • Reminders
  • Notes
  • DEVONthink
  • Hazel (for routing files into DEVONthink as and when required)

I’m pretty certain that I’m probably missing a few tricks with regard to Apple’s stock apps, so some reading of the relevant Take Control books will be required.


Email Setup Done Right

Follow-up to my post yesterday regarding Apple’s iCloud Email Custom Domain feature.

I logged into Fastmail and went through the setup to add the domain I’d been testing with. Process took minutes, and most of those were copy-pasting the info for the DNS records to add/change at Cloudflare. Did a DNS check, and got the green light.

Test email goes through without issue.

I would say “must try harder, Apple” but I honestly don’t think they’re that bothered these days. :(


iCloud+ Custom Email Domain - close, but not quite...

So far I’m singularly unimpressed by iCloud+ Custom Email Domains. Some 48 hours after I initiated the transfer, the domain still isn’t set up properly. Turns out not all the DNS records were set.

Thankfully this was with a domain I don’t use much. I’d be fuming if this happened with either of my primary domains!

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Apple are trying to be helpful and automate as much of this as possible. Frankly, I would have preferred to just tick a box saying “I can handle this myself” and enter the new DNS records myself.

I don’t think I’ll be giving up or downgrading my current Fastmail service anytime soon — it may cost more, but the service and support match the price pretty well in my experience.