Media techie, developer, product manager, software person and web-stuff doer. Head of Corporate Digital at BBC, but views my own. More at pittster.co.uk

Express Yourself

Redundant letters and inconsistent spelling. How does anyone get anything done with this?

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Sometimes, I have this wild idea about updating English — taking it apart, tidying it up, and making it all a bit more consistent. Do we, for example, really need C, K, and Q? Three variants of the same sound, like remnants from an earlier draft that should be edited out. “Tick” and “duck” contain C and K, as if we had to invite both in case one felt left out.

Languages emerge organically as ideas from other cultures are grafted onto existing structures. We owe much of our alphabet to the Romans who took it from the Etruscans in the seventh century, combining it with that of the Western Greeks. Over the years, while Alexander the Great was weeping about the lack of other worlds to conquer, the Romans were looking for new letters to pronounce the foreign words that kept entering their language from all that conquering. Exhibit A: The letters Y and Z were taken from Eastern Greek and dumped at the end of the alphabet. …


They’re self-helpy and new-agey, simultaneously pompous and pathetic. But now I do them every year.

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January is the month of new starts. New year, new you, new beginning. Fresh leaves all over the place to turn over.

It’s all nonsense. Yet when the big number changes, it feels momentous. We particularly like multiples of 10 and 100. The 100th episode of TV shows, our 40th birthday, our 10th wedding anniversary; seemingly significant arbitrary numbers. “I will not celebrate meaningless milestones,” Bart writes on the chalkboard during the 100th episode of The Simpsons. Perhaps we are just looking for excuses to throw a good party. The more digits that change, the more momentous: 2019 to 2020 was a bigger change than 2020 to 2021. 2999 to 3000 will be an even greater change. …


Dreams, the wonder of libraries, and childhood memories

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I have a recurring dream. I borrow a pile of books from the library and spread them around my house: bedroom, living room, kitchen. Suddenly, I discover they were due back a week ago. I try to gather them up, but I can’t find them all and the 20p fines are amassing. I will go bankrupt. Why on earth did I ever scatter these books so far and wide?

A friend of mine is ecstatic about this dream. It is an anxiety dream, she tells me, with altogether a little too much glee. During our waking hours, she is more anxious than me, and so it is a relief for her to discover that underneath I am a bundle of nerves and neuroses like everyone else. …


And other lessons about how technology sometimes makes our lives harder

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Sometimes, I wonder who is in charge: me or the gadgets? “You’re running low on storage,” my devices tell me, “An update is required. Your battery is low. Review your security settings. This version is no longer supported. Secure your account with two-factor authentication. Backup your recovery codes.” On my desktop, there’s an image of an overflowing bin that needs emptying. It would be quaint were it not such an on-the-nose metaphor for the list of computer chores I need to do. I spend a lot of time being nagged by tech.

I’m pretty diligent when it comes to looking after gadgets. I keep my software up to date, clean my screens, remove dust from the fan vents, and clean my keyboard (pro tip: don’t do this on a full stomach.) These physical tasks are something we have to accept about possessions: The richer we are, the more things we have to dust. As Caity Weaver says in the New York Times about a ridiculously overpriced T-shirt: “The thing about a $590 T-shirt is that, upon acquiring one, you immediately become the human assistant to a $590 T-shirt.” The same is true of my devices. I have a growing list of errands to run for my digital pseudo-employers. These tasks aren’t big or taxing, but they keep coming and my devices chase me until I do them. …


Cars are just giant smartphone chargers

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None of my friends have cars. In fact, many of them can’t even drive. This wasn’t surprising when I was a child, but now that I’m in my thirties and have friends who are managers and lawyers and have other adult jobs, you’d think more of them would have a car parked outside.

Some of this is location. If you live in a big city, like London or New York or Chicago, owning a car is less privilege and more liability. There is the cost of parking and the risk of car crime and when you do drive, there is the traffic. In cities, cars are inconveniences. When you move, you are limited to flats that have parking. Last year, a colleague gave me a lift home from work, and there went my evening. It wouldn’t just have been faster to take the tube, it would have been faster to walk. …


Inspector Gadget and the Swiss Army knife paved the way for the iPhone

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When I was eight, I got a Swiss Army Knife for Christmas. At that age, this was the most exciting thing to ever happen to me. It had scissors, tweezers, a toothpick, a tin opener, a knife. Everything. The fact the scissors were essentially unusable, I had never picked my teeth, and wasn’t allowed to open tins because of the sharp edges, was neither here nor there. It had capabilities and was packaged into a nifty device. It was a gadget, and pretty much the best gadget you could own.

I was fascinated by gadgets. Especially small or secret ones. Compact things that folded out with multiple functions were very much my bag — and in my bag. I had a tiny key ring camera (which I never used because I couldn’t find film small enough), a tiny compass (even though knowing north was of no use or interest to me), and magic secret ink (which again remained unused — saved for an emergency which predictably never arose). …


The App Store has its problems, but it’s still all we’ve got

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On Wednesdays, I gather together a ragtag band of thirtysomethings who work in corporate IT, and together we parachute onto a virtual island and proceed to have rings run around us by seven-year-olds who shoot us in the head and do funny dances as we crawl around helplessly. It is simultaneously entertaining and humbling. With Fortnite launching a new season in partnership with Marvel, the seven-year-olds have new ways of killing us: Iron Man’s repulsor, Thor’s Hammer, and Wolverine’s claws, among others. It says something about the modern world, I realize while running around as Thor, that I can’t work out whether Marvel paid Epic to insert product placement into Fortnite, or Epic paid Marvel to license its IP. There’s some sort of deal there, but it’s not obvious which way the money flows. …


Protecting our personal info is a lifestyle choice many of us aren’t making

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“I am currently reading an article titled ‘10 Ways to Keep Sweaty Hands From Holding You Back,’” a man shouts from a toilet cubicle in Apple’s latest iPhone video. The ad is about a new feature in iOS 14 that blocks tracking cookies: bits of code that follow you across the internet so you can be targeted by ads. In the video, people shout aloud private information to highlight what tracking cookies are doing behind the scenes and how ridiculous it is that we accept them.


How history will remember the Baby Yoda plague of 2019

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There was a time when I didn’t know what a Baby Yoda was. Then there was a time I couldn’t go online without reading about Baby Yoda. And now, Baby Yoda is a distant, shrugging memory. Soon there will be a generation of people who missed the whole thing and for whom Baby Yoda is as meaningless as it was for me a year ago.

A few weeks ago every tweet was about cakes that didn’t look like cakes. In 2015, there was that dress that no one knew the color of. Before that, people ate spoonfuls of cinnamon or poured buckets of ice over their heads. At one point everyone was talking about a sort of mini-webpage the New York Times made about an avalanche. There was the bitcoin spike of 2017. The Pokémon Go craze of 2016. Even the iPod obsession of the early 2000s. Remember those days? When everyone had a pair of wired white headphones and every second we weren’t forcing MP3s into our ears was a waste of our limited time on this mortal coil. Or when the Kindle was first released more than 10 years ago, and rows of commuters all seemed to be peering at an e-ink screen? These phases pass. Last time I went on the Tube (back when commuting every day was a thing we all did) there were no Kindles. There were no iPods. Just a smartphone in every hand in or in every pocket. Fingers flicking through Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. …


Like all things that are good for you, backing up stinks

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Every few years I have a panic about losing everything, and in a flurry of activity, I buy hard drives, blank DVDs, and subscriptions to cloud storage services. Then, because I am a geek, I concoct incomprehensible command-line scripts to perform backups. I write commands in a jumble of slashes, colons, and letters:

robocopy "D:\" "H:\D" /MIR /FFT /R:3 /W:10 /Z /NP /NDL

Even as I’m writing these, I’m aware that I will have no idea what they do in a day’s time, let alone when I next come to look at them, years later, in a backup-induced panic. And yet, every time, I fall into the trap of thinking that the more complex and impenetrable the backup, the better the backup. This is flagrantly false and doesn’t stand up to the tiniest bit of scrutiny, but still, I feel satisfied with a good day’s backing up, even if I haven’t backed up any actual, you know, data. …

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