So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport

A few months ago I received an email from a friend covering what he’d been up to over the course of 2012, and making a few recommendations. Amongst these suggestions was the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport – a book that takes a very different stance when it comes to choosing a career path.

The basic premise is that while the advice “find your passion” is extremely prevalent, it isn’t necessarily accurate. Through various examples and interviews, Newport sets about demonstrating where “finding a passion” has caused problems for people and on occasion doomed their projects to failure. He concludes that skills are much more important, and that success is much more likely to come from building up a very specific (and possibly narrow) set of abilities rather than being passionate.

Amongst the various examples he cites are Steve Jobs and Thomas. Steve Jobs famously delivered a commencement address to Stanford University advising graduates to “do what you love”, and referring to his time at university taking classes that interested him. His interest in Buddhism was well documented, so Cal Newport’s reference to Thomas – a man who decided to follow his passion and become a monk – seems even more appropriate. Thomas discovered that following his passion wasn’t enough and became disillusioned with his plans, eventually returning to working in finance. It’s worth bearing in mind that despite Steve Jobs’s advice, he didn’t dedicate his whole life to what he was passionate about, and instead focussed on founding Apple Computers. He may well have loved his job, but running a business couldn’t have been described as his passion.

I thoroughly recommend Cal Newport’s book – it’s an incredibly interesting read even from the perspective of changing how you work, as he goes into detail about how to develop a set of skills.

XKCD: What happens when coders want to read a comic

If you keep up with XKCD (described by its creator, Randall Munroe, as “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language”), you might have seen the comic posted on Monday entitled Time. It initially showed a pair of people sitting on the beach, but half-an-hour later had changed slightly. Thirty minutes later, it had changed again, with one of the characters lying down. As the day progressed, so did the comic – by yesterday evening the characters had built a sandcastle.

At this point several (myself included) might have assumed the comic was over, but the picture then zoomed out over the next few hours to reveal a second sandcastle being built. At the time of writing this post, the comic is still changing and is on its 178th version).

Although the concept is interesting, it’s also worth keeping an eye on the way those reading XKCD have reacted to the comic. One reader developed a system for recording each change and scrolling through them, while others found methods to compile them into a single animated .gif image.

It does show that often when those with a technical ability want something done, they may well find a way to do it themselves, to the benefit of anyone else interested. Something as simple as a changing webcomic has resulted in a few different tools for viewing it in just a few days.

Recipe: Toffee Crunch Ice Cream

With the introduction of a Magimix to our kitchen, I’ve found myself doing a lot more cooking. The vast majority of recipes are courtesy of phone calls or emails home (to that endless resource of cooking advice: Mum), including the below recipe for Toffee Crunch Ice Cream. You don’t need an ice cream maker or anything, although an electric whisk helps, as does an egg separator – something I’m starting to think every kitchen should have but is surprisingly difficult to find. I started making this in January and have been asked for the recipe several times already. Since I can’t seem to find it anywhere online, I thought it might not be a bad idea to publish it here.

 

Ingredients

  • 2 eggs
  • 6 Cadbury’s Fudge Bars (or similar)
  • 4 Daim Bars (or similar)
  • 500g ready made custard
  • 50g icing sugar
  • 284ml (10fl oz) double cream

Recipe

  1. Thinly slice the fudge bars into a bowl and add 2 tablespoons of double cream. Melt slowly over simmering water. It helps to stir from time to time, as this tends to take a while! You can leave it to melt while you prepare the rest of the ingredients, but keep an eye on it.
  2. Break the Daim bars into small pieces using a sharp knife
  3. Separate the eggs, mixing the yolks and icing sugar together until they form a pale mousse
  4. Whip remaining cream and egg whites in separate bowls until they both form soft peaks.
  5. Fold together whipped cream, custard, yolk mixture, fudge bar mixture and Daim bars. Finally fold in egg whites.
  6. Pour into freezer-proof container and leave overnight. You’ll need to take it out of the freezer about 40 minutes before serving.

The FBI and Occupy: A few thoughts

I’m always slightly cautious about comment articles, particularly in newspapers. More often than not they put forward a compelling argument for a particular point of view, but frequently serve to confirm the views of the readership. There tends to be very little strict news reporting or new information in them, so I tend to try and separate my reading of the news and reading comment pieces.

So it’s always interesting when a comment article purports to reveal something new. I recently spotted on Facebook a link to a Guardian Comment Is Free article entitled “Revealed: How the FBI coordinated the crackdown on Occupy” by Naomi Wolf. The subtitle reads:

New documents prove what was once dismissed as paranoid fantasy: totally integrated corporate-state repression of dissent

As the person posting on Facebook commented: “Bloody hell”.

I’ve clicked through the links and read the FBI documents, which were released as part of a Freedom of Information request by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. I’m a little confused by the interpretation of it.

Maybe I need a second read-through, but every reference I found to a meeting with a bank (or more often, a security firm employed by the bank) was regarding a protest which might affect the bank, or was with reference to information the bank passed to law enforcement officials. In one instance (p62), there was concern that someone intended to take advantage of a bank being shut down to commit fraud.

A fraud alert was revealed by Hancock Bank Security [REDACTED] regarding an “occupy Wall Street” type protest to lock down banks.

I also cannot find any reference to the banks “coordinating” with the FBI in any other capacity other than passing on information, and am unable to find evidence that it was a coordinated “crackdown” rather than monitoring.

There are two references (p61, identified in the Guardian comment piece, and also p69) to planned sniper attacks against Occupy leaders.

[REDACTED] planned to gather intelligence against the leaders of the protest groups and obtain photographs, then formulate a plan to kill the leadership via suppressed sniper rifles.

Naomi Wolf’s article comments on this:

threats of the assassination of OWS leaders by sniper fire – by whom? Where? – now remain redacted and undisclosed to those American citizens in danger, contrary to standard FBI practice to inform the person concerned when there is a threat against a political leader

I assume Ms Wolf has spoken with the otherwise unidentified Occupy leaders, as I have no way of confirming whether or not they were spoken to by the FBI. I am curious as to why she asks “by whom? Where?” as I would expect this sort of information to remain publicly redacted until any sort of criminal trial is underway, but she may be privy to more information than me on this particular matter.

I was hoping someone in the comments might be able to enlighten me a little here. The banks targeted by Occupy were national and international banks, and Occupy became a global movement. Although protests were largely peaceful, law enforcement organisations are often involved, particularly when there are concerns over the protests being hijacked by other groups. When the bank as an organisation (or for that matter the physical building of a bank) is targeted or has relevant information, it is bound to pass on that information to law enforcement organisations. Law enforcement officials are bound to keep in touch with the bank, in the same way that if a minor celebrity was to be subject to some protest, they would be likely to be contacted by or in touch with the police. So my questions are as follows:

  1. Should we be surprised or outraged that the FBI was involved given law enforcement was an issue at a federal level?
  2. Should we be surprised or outraged that the banks had meetings with the FBI given they were the target of the protests?

Reporting the Vote on Women Bishops in the Church of England

A very brief note on the reporting of the recent vote on whether women should be allowed to become bishops in the Church of England.

Understandably, there has been a considerable amount of angst about the vote’s failure to pass. However, I was slightly surprised by the reporting of the issue, which has focused almost exclusively on the supporters of the motion rather than those opposed. The BBC headlines have described how Archbishop Sentamu believes there will be “women bishops in my lifetime”, how the new Archbishop of Canterbury regards it as a “grim day”, and the “tears and anger” provoked by the vote.

The result is of course controversial, and to be frank, is not one I’m personally very happy about. The vote may well have been stopped by a minority of votes*, but I’m still keen to hear more from the other side.

* For the motion to have passed, two thirds needed to vote in favour. I realise I am simplifying a bit here.

Update 22/11/12: See Thomas’s comment for a more informed view of things!

On Demand: The Need for Immediacy and the Digital Media Market

The band AC/DC have finally released their recordings on iTunes. They initially argued that their albums should not be available as individual songs, but should be listened to as complete pieces of work.

This is a view I can sympathise with – I was never particularly fussed by the Beatles until my Dad played the entirety of Abbey Road, when it suddenly all made sense. There certainly seems to be a subtle art to the ordering of tracks – had What’s the Story? (Morning Glory) opened with Don’t Look Back in Anger and followed it with Champagne Supernova, I suspect neither song would have been quite as popular.

But AC/DC’s change of heart is almost certainly due to commercial pressures. Despite all suggestions to the contrary, the now-DRM-free music of iTunes and Amazon is making huge amounts of money. Manufacturing costs are almost eliminated by the process, and the downloads are both immediate and cheap. The industry initially insisted on DRM (Digital Rights Management) software to ensure only certain devices were capable of playing a song – an effort to prevent piracy that, like many things in technology, was ultimately doomed by how often users were able to work around the restrictions imposed on them.

Head of Valve Software Gabe Newell once commented that piracy isn’t a price issue – it’s a service issue. He theorised that if the service was made as simple as possible with as little restriction as possible, customers were more than happy to pay for content. Whether or not it was free was not nearly as significant as how constrained the user might be, or whether the product was immediately available.

This is, in part, the cause behind Apple’s success with iTunes. Not only have they put a music store on every computer, but also on every iPad, iPhone and iPod. You can be sat on a train and decide to listen to that song you still have “on the brain”, and download it immediately.

And now, you can even download Back in Black.

The same has not yet been true of the film industry. Interestingly, the birth of digital music downloads coincided with the peak of physical formats. At 700Mb each, a CD can easily contain the information needed for an album at a reasonable quality, and double albums are rare enough that there was never a need to produce a new format.

The movie industry does not appear to have quite reached the same limit. Manufacturers constantly strive to improve the image quality, with both HD and BluRay being embraced by filmmakers. Further experiments such as 3D are ongoing, as the industry explores the question of “what’s next?” and how to best tackle piracy. We may not see any significant shift until the industry feels it is running out of options.

I’m intrigued by Mark Kermode’s suggestion that films should simply be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, and in a downloadable format. This again leans towards resolving ease-of-use for the customer. Given how well this has worked out for the music industry, I can’t help but wonder if this might be the solution.

Edit-in-Place with jQuery

I’ve just released a very simple JavaScript file via GitHub which provides the basis of a Flickr-style “edit-in-place” (i.e. you hover over the item, it turns yellow, you click and it is replaced with a form without you leaving the page). The file relies on jQuery to work its magic.

You can find the repository here: https://github.com/BobLoco/Edit-in-Place-jQuery

It’s not exactly a complex script and probably needs some tidying, but I hope it’s of some use. Full credit should go to Drew McLellan at 24 Ways, who provided the original example in Prototype.js

PMQs

On Wednesday, I completed something of a political anorak’s pilgrimage, namely going to see Prime Minister’s Questions. The opportunity to see the Commons (and by extension, our political system) in action tends to have a certain draw, particularly when it involves the most successful politicians debate.

There are only two points to make in this post: firstly, to say how incredibly helpful everyone is there. Secondly, it’s quite odd to see how open our system is. Although there is an inevitable heavy police presence, after one airport-style security check (albeit faster and friendlier) you can wander through to the Central Lobby and, in theory, lobby your MP to vote a particular way should they walk past.

The sheer openness of Parliament is both surprising and very reassuring. While it’s quite easy to get worked up about how politics works and its tendency towards partisanship (something I’ve often done myself), Parliament is a reminder that our democracy is very much alive and well.

iPad Mini Predictions

Today’s the day for Apple’s October press event. The received wisdom is that the major announcement will be an iPad mini to compete with Amazon’s Kindle.

I actually really want this to be false. As useful as it would be for Apple, my own “please release this”-request would have to be an Apple television. This is only partly because I want to see what other industries Apple can change. It’s also because I want to see a genuine surprise announcement. Far too many of Apple’s recent announcements have been ruined by leaks, such as the new iPad and the iPhone 5. It would be good to see some of the famous Apple secrecy pay off again.

Twitter Rumours: It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Anyone visiting the Daily Mail website this morning will have been greeted by a headline similar to that of their printed edition:

Daily Mail headline: Newsnight boss quits

Unfortunately, last night the Newsnight Twitter feed begged to differ:

This is becoming something of a problem for news organisations. Twitter seems to have a head-start on every story, so it’s natural for journalists to try and pick-up leads from it. Twitter is also a good source for a vast number of false stories, rumours, gossip, and general mischief.

I have no doubt that separating fact and fiction on Twitter is incredibly difficult, but the error is likely to create new problems. Assuming the official Newsnight tweet is correct, the Mail will almost certainly have to publish a correction – quite possibly a small paragraph at the bottom of a page. Undoing the damage caused by an incorrect headline is considerably more difficult than determining the veracity of a tweet, as many people will assume the statement is true without looking at detailed corrections the following day.

All this assumes that the Newsnight tweet is indeed accurate, but it is worth noting that there is no mention of Peter Rippon’s resignation on the BBC News site, despite their extensive coverage of the Saville complaints. The contradiction suggests that somebody somewhere will have to correct themselves, but it is unclear how they will do so or how clearly the statement could be retracted.

UPDATE: And sure enough, Peter Rippon has now stepped aside, proving the Mail correct. I’ll leave the above intact anyway – I should have given much more credit to the Mail for sourcing things properly. Apologies.

The more general point about Twitter still stands: it is very easy for a story to spin completely out of control. If anything, Newsnight’s own tweet denying the story is evidence of this, as I’m not the only one who presumed the Newsnight denial was the correct version of events.