A tribute to Adam Banks

I heard last night that my friend and sometimes colleague Adam Banks had passed away. Maybe a week ago, I swapped some silly tweets with him about PETSCII art. (He and I were both C64 kids.) I last talked with him… I don’t know, but it was too long ago. Time is weird: you seem to have so much of it, and then you have none at all.

But time was something that Adam in his working life could bend like a sorcerer, given how much he could get done on any given day. During his second stint on MacUser, he was a combination of editor and designer that made the magazine truly his; us contributors clung on for the ride, like grinning passengers on an F1 car majestically zigzagging through the grid. The finished article was always brilliant and beautiful — a unique mix of words and visuals that felt like nothing else out there. I was gutted when it closed. I can only imagine how Adam felt.

After that point, Adam and I never regularly worked together again, but we’d communicate often, snarking about tech and chatting about random design and gaming things. I’d frequently dip into his Twitter feed, always full of sagely advice and wise thinking. I keep hoping this has all been a mistake and his Twitter feed will update. It never will.

Adam was a great person and my favourite editor, and I wish it hadn’t been so long since we’d last spoken. The world is a poorer place without him in it. Wherever you are, Adam, I hope you are at peace. Sleep well, my friend.


More tributes from Ian Betteridge, Chris Brennan, Mike Hirschkorn and Carrie Marshall. And here’s the PPA obituary, by Ian Betteridge and Steve Caplin.

November 27, 2020. Read more in: News

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The day I got temp-banned from Twitter for offering somebody support by using British slang

I guess it had to happen eventually: my Twitter account has been temporarily blocked. But it’s why it’s been blocked that’s interesting.

Earlier today, this tweet from freelance musician Zephy found its way into my feed. It’s a bunch of screen grabs detailing a conversation he had with someone asking him to work for nothing, and being rude, annoying and aggressive when Zephy politely refused.

I replied as follows: “All I take from this is that guy is a massive wazzock and your rates are too low. He should have bitten your arm off for what you were offering.”

Immediately, my account was locked because: “You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. This includes wishing or hoping that someone experiences physical harm”.

There are multiple problems here. There was no targeted harassment. This was a direct response to someone, not the person he spoke with. There was no wishing someone harm. At first, I assumed my account was locked for use of wazzock, a British slang word for fool or annoying person.

Except. I now note that I suggested to Zephy that the wazzock in question “should have bitten your arm off for what you were offering”. To bite someone’s arm off is also British slang, and it means to get really excited about something, not to mean them harm. Clearly, Twitter’s algorithm does not understand this and locked my account. So I appealed.

Twitter just responded: “Our support team has determined that a violation did take place, and therefore we will not overturn our decision.”

I’ll leave you to decide which word should best describe the people who made that decision — if indeed any people made it at all.

I have asked Twitter’s press team for comment and will update this article should they reply.

October 28, 2020. Read more in: Technology

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The iPad Air further cements the need for iPads to fully support external displays

Now the iPad Air has USB-C out, Apple’s seeming reluctance regarding full external display support for iPad is increasingly baffling. Surely the ideal should be to position the iPad as a fully modular device that promotes strong ergonomics? Most apps are designed to be responsive anyway, and so would automatically scale/resize for an external display.

The Magic Keyboard is superb in many ways. That you can detach the iPad in under a second beats every other iPad keyboard I’ve used, most of which force you to shove the iPad itself into a case. But. It still only turns your iPad into a ‘laptop’, not a desktop.

Laptop form-factors are ergonomic disasters—as I outlined in Working from home? Then set things up properly before you knacker your back and hands. They are like not-great office chairs: fine for short-form work, but terrible if you use them all day, every day. If Apple really does see iPad as the future, that future should enable you to fully use that device with an external display.

Right now, you can of course connect your iPad to big screens, and use external keyboards, trackpads and mice. But the iPad’s aspect ratio remains. So you end up with massive black borders left and right of the app you’re using. It seems such an obvious thing to fix—but when will it be fixed?

September 16, 2020. Read more in: Apple, Opinions

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Working from home? Then set things up properly before you knacker your back and hands

Comics letterer Jim Campbell recently posted a cautionary tale to Twitter. In short, years spent in terrible office chairs has left him with major back problems that now require a posture-correcting harness and a daily session on an inversion table that involves “5–10 minutes hanging upside down by my ankles trying to straighten out my spine”.

That might sound extreme and horrifying, but I get the impression the shift to work-from-home is going to cause many people similar issues. One friend remarked his back was knackered after only a week of working from home, and then it turned out he’d been working at his dining room table. Dining chairs aren’t really designed for long sessions, to say the least.

I’ve been WFH since the very early 2000s, and have also suffered since the late 1990s with some form of RSI that forced me long ago to reassess my use of pointing devices. Over the years, I’ve talked to a bunch of experts in workplace design and ergonomics and compiled useful rules for an ergonomic set-up.

Here they are in handy cut-out-and-keep form:

  • Carve out a set space you can work from, which can be set up to your specific needs
  • Invest in a really good chair, or demand your company does—you will be sitting in the thing for hours every single day
  • Your eyeline should meet the top third of your computer’s display, so raise it accordingly
  • Do not use laptop stands that claim to do the above by angling the keyboard. They never raise the screen enough, and they leave they keyboard in a very unergonomic position
  • Also avoid laptop form-factors for long-term use—if you don’t have a desktop, connect your laptop to an external display set at the correct height, an external keyboard, and an external mouse/trackpad
  • ^ See also: iPads
  • When seated, sit with your back straight and feet mostly flat on the floor
  • Forearms should effectively be parallel with the tabletop, and your elbows roughly at 90 degrees, ideally lightly resting on chair arms
  • Your keyboard’s position is important. Have the Space bar directly in front of you
  • If you use an extended keyboard, do not have its entire footprint central before you—it should be offset, so that the Space bar is directly in front of you. This might require you move your pointing device to your left hand to avoid over-stretching
  • Using a laptop with a built-in number pad that shifts the entire keyboard to the left, making you twist to type? Hurl it into the sea (or use an external keyboard for all but the shortest sessions)
  • Avoid gripping a mouse for lengthy periods. Where possible, switch to a trackpad or alternate pointing device that causes less strain on your arm
  • Fidget regularly—roll your shoulders/stretch your neck and arms/move your ankles
  • Use a timer system to enforce short breaks. If you wear an Apple Watch, pay attention to and submit to stand nags. Bear Focus Timer is a good option too (and offers iPhone/Android support)
  • Carve out time for physical exercise, be that yoga, an outdoors walk, or using exercise machines
  • Standing desks can be good, but come with their own set of problems. Do not overdo it, and ensure that if you use one you have appropriate footwear, or your feet will be at risk. (I overindulged when I got mine, leading to temporary heel/tendon problems.)

One final tip: listen to your body. If your arm or back becomes stiff, stop working and reassess your workplace. It might just be you’re working too long. Or perhaps you’ve picked up a bad habit. My worst is holding a Wacom stylus while I type, which results in my right forearm/fingers becoming stiff. I recently bought a pen holder, which has helped through giving me a visual reminder about the stylus’s location. When things get very bad, the Wacom is temporarily removed entirely, until my arm improves.

But poor habits can arrive from anywhere. You can buy an expensive Aeron chair but set it up badly (if a supplier offers to set a chair up for you, let them), or sit on one with your legs crossed beneath you. Or you can end up lying on the sofa, typing away on a laptop, “just for a while” until you realise you’ve been doing that for days. Or you can have a reasonable daytime set-up but knacker your arms by phone overuse in the evenings.

The key with ergonomics and better WFH set-ups is to recognise that problems exist and remain vigilant about them cropping up over time. By dealing with problems early, you’ll lower the risk to your own physical wellbeing. If you’re young, you might hand-wave this away; and if you’re older and have been fortunate, you might similarly think such issues can’t or won’t ever happen to you. But it really can only take a few weeks of genuinely awful workplace set-up to have a knock-on effect that can last for years. So do the best you can to stop that happening to you; and if your company just sent you home with a laptop for six months, demand they do better to protect your health.

August 27, 2020. Read more in: Opinions, Technology

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On Spotify, artist payments, and supporting the music you love so that it survives

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has opined about today’s music industry. It’s an interesting read. In short, he more or less says artists must adapt or die. There are some choice quotes, such as:

[O]bviously, some artists that used to do well in the past may not do well in this future landscape, where you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough

And:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single artist saying ‘I’m happy with all the money I’m getting from streaming

Ek is right in that we are living in a different era, but his words also feel tone deaf when you bear in mind how little streaming services pay artists. However, some in the media are seemingly behind Ek’s words—at least to some degree. I saw one magazine editor state he’s now writing several stories before breakfast when he used to be part of a team working on just a few stories per week.

In journalism, the newer model (more; faster) can work. But music as rapid churn seems unlikely to. Even the best bands/artists aren’t going to be releasing multiple albums per year (and even if they did there’s no guarantee that’d make a great deal of difference in terms of streaming income). It’d be noise as noise. But mostly, there’s a time consideration—music is extremely time-intensive. I can often write a typical magazine feature in a day, if I already have the research done; if not, a couple of days might be enough. It’s unlikely I could write, record, mix and master even one three-minute song in a day. And even if I could, I’d need to be pretty famous already for that to be commercially viable.

It should therefore come as no surprise many musicians are responding to Ek by saying release frequency has slowed primarily because money pressures result in music becoming more a hobby than a career. And although of course no-one is owed anything from anyone—people cannot take it for granted that they should earn a living of any kind with what they do—I find it sad we are rapidly heading back in time to an age where creativity is being squeezed from education through to adulthood.

If you’re already really famous, none of this will matter too much. If you’ve legacy fame—one of those bands endlessly touring a greatest hits package—you probably have a decent shot again once COVID’s under control and you can do gigs. Beyond that, Ek appears to be saying “it’s your fault you’re not doing well” when streaming payments are bloody awful. But also, it’s hard to know what the solution is, if anything. We’ve trained an entire generation to think creative output is without worth—or at most should be all-you-can-eat for a pittance. “I do my bit because I have a Spotify sub” isn’t a great help to most artists.

As ever, this all comes down to the same thing: support what you love and you’re more likely to get more of it. Don’t support what you love and it might disappear. With music, that means directly supporting artists, beyond your 10 bucks a month to a streaming service. So if you really like an artist, buy their album direct. You might be one of a dwindling number doing so, but it all counts.

August 3, 2020. Read more in: Music, Opinions, Technology

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