Voice recognition is good, but it’s what Siri does with it that counts

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Photo by Tincho Franco on Unsplash

Last year, back when we were allowed to do this, I went to a restaurant with a group of friends. I forget where. There were burgers on the table. Maybe served on a piece of wood or in a paper bag. They weren’t on plates anyway. It all feels like another world now. During the meal, as words and opinions and pieces of burger flew through the air, someone said something like “seriously” or “series” or maybe even Simon. There was a muffled ping from a wrist or pocket. “I’m sorry,” Siri said, “I didn’t quite catch that.”

“I have…


The compulsive life of software developers

A coder working through the night.
A coder working through the night.
Photo by Max Duzij on Unsplash

I have spent the week coding. Madly, constantly, obsessively. Glancing at the clock, I see that not only have I coded through breakfast but through lunch as well. When I next look at the clock it’s dark outside.

Sometimes I think coding is, by necessity, obsessive. You have to hold so many details in your head that I’m not sure it’s possible to code without obsession. “Programming,” Clive Thompson writes in Smarter Than You Think, “requires an attention to detail and an ability to think about everything as a series of processes.” But it doesn’t just require some attention to…


And why getting rid of things is much harder than creating them

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Photo by Paweł Czerwiński

Sometimes, I feel like I’ve spent my whole career deleting things. I decommission old systems, remove redundant code, and turn off unsupported servers. Anyone who has worked in IT will know that making a new system is hard, but decommissioning the old one is even harder. Getting rid of old things is often called the most difficult challenge in software development.

The problem is that everything is connected. You never simply identify an old system and turn it off. You discover that new, critical systems depend on old, redundant ones. The strategic application you just rolled out will be making…


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Photo by J. Kelly Brito on Unsplash

Every day, for hours at a time, I sit at my computer and tapdance my fingers across the keyboard. Sometimes I type words for emails or articles. Sometimes I type a weird pseudo-language full of brackets and dots and semi-colons, telling the computer what to do.

When we write prose, there is plenty of whimsical advice. Think about your ideal reader, they say. Imagine them reading your words and write to them directly. Don’t use (pointless) adjectives. Passives should be avoided. Never use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent one will do. But whatever we write, some people will enjoy…


Three years of trading with a scrappy bitcoin bot

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Photo: Icons8 Team/Unsplash

A few years ago I wrote a computer program to buy and sell bitcoin. I called it BitBot.

Pretty soon, I began to refer to it as “him.” Naming him turned him into a little person. “BitBot made £500 today,” I’d say, or “BitBot had a bad day; he lost £900.”

Cost per bitcoin: $2,000

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…


Express Yourself

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

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Photo: Nastco/Getty Images

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…


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

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Courtesy of author

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…


Dreams, the wonder of libraries, and childhood memories

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Susan Yin/Unsplash

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…


And other lessons about how technology sometimes makes our lives harder

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Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

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…


Cars are just giant smartphone chargers

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Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

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…

Simon Pitt

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

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