Celebrating 20 years of writing for money—and imposter syndrome

You can blame Stuart Dredge. We’d been in frequent contact for months, with me working for a marketing department and feeding him pithy comments for Cre@te Online, a Future Publishing magazine aimed at web designers. Then the dot-com crash happened and I abruptly found myself out of a job.

I told Stuart, asking him to in future contact me on a different email address. He immediately responded to the news by asking if I’d like to pen the back page of the magazine’s next issue—a ‘Sacred Cow’ column on Flash. I jumped at the chance.

Stuart must have been happy with what I wrote, because my details were quickly passed on to other editors at Future. I started writing software reviews and took over Internet Advisor’s nascent Makeover column, where a reader would write in and I’d overhaul their website, like a cross between Gordon Ramsay and Bill Gates—only with significantly less riches than either of them.

About six months later, I plucked up the courage at an Apple Event to pitch to then-MacUser deputy editor Ian Betteridge (who I recall was happy to briefly escape several hours of dealing with reader tech support issues). I was new and had to write under a pen name. That didn’t last long.

Things continued to snowball. I started writing books on iMovie and web design. (I don’t even recall how that came about.) The number of publications I wrote for grew. Many are now gone… Computer Arts; Practical Web Design; .net. Others from those early days—most notably MacFormat and Retro Gamer—are still kicking.

That first column for Cre@te Online was 20 years ago this week. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: my brain helpfully still thinks I’m winging it. Any day now, it suggests, I’ll be ‘found out’. 20 years of experience, writing for the biggest tech publications and companies around and I have imposter syndrome. I doubt that will ever go away.

Why it’s there, I’m not sure. Prior to that first paid gig, I’d written for years—just not for money. But I suspect my lack of formal training in writing/journalism makes me think I don’t have the ’right’ to be here, doing what I do. This is logically ridiculous when I’ve been smashing words into shape for two decades and am fortunate enough to have a solid number of editors keen to call on me for more work.

Whether I’ll be lucky enough to still be doing this 20 years from now is hard to say. Since I started regularly writing for magazines, the industry has changed beyond all recognition. I half imagine by 2041 (or, more than likely, a lot sooner) an AI will be able to do what I do at the press of a button (pressed by an AI robot editor, natch). Until then, I’ll continue writing and I hope you’ll continue reading—be they my words or those of others, not least any long-time writers who also regularly mull over how lucky they are to be doing what they do.

June 7, 2021. Read more in: Opinions, Stuff by me, Writing

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For Apple and others, flexibility is the vital component to the future happiness of workers

A tale in three parts:

  • Apple states as of September that employees will be back to the office at least three days per week, and will get the option of two additional remote-work weeks per year (The Verge)
  • Apple employees respond, asking Apple to be more flexible and account for individuals who might want to work from home on a permanent basis (The Verge)
  • Daring Fireball writes a surprisingly callous response, slamming the Apple employee letter and inferring those people “aren’t a good fit for Apple”

I’ve primarily worked for home for 20 years now. It has pros and cons. I’ve been fortunate to be there for most of the big moments in my child’s life, not least her first steps. If I’d been on a 9–5, I’d have missed those—and so much more. But I also recognise that for some people, being around others in an office environment is how they thrive. Also, some jobs can only be done in that way.

However, many jobs can be performed well in a distributed team environment. Apple itself has shown that, in all the many things it’s achieved during a pandemic. At this point, my take—as someone who is very aware of being in a fairly privileged position—is that flexibility is the way forward.

The Daring Fireball take is, for me, colossally bad. From a pure commentary standpoint, it’s distasteful for an individual working however they like to hand-wave away requests for flexibility from people who have discovered how they can do revolutionary work and not miss out on things like family moments (while avoiding soul-sapping commutes).

But the same is true in reverse. Some people thrive on in-person interaction. So denying that (as some other companies are looking to do) is equally problematic. Companies will have to figure out new ways of working that are flexible and smart enough to cater for alternate ways of thinking.

For Apple specifically, the company used to say ‘think different’. It could leverage that approach and lead a new way of how major corporations work rather than being so prescriptive. And while Apple shifting to three days in/two days out is a big cultural shift, it has an opportunity to do more. If your company has been by every measure a massive success during the pandemic, then it has space to be more radical, not less, regarding workers.

June 5, 2021. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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Changing my mind on Apple Arcade’s range of games

I’ve broadly been a fan of Apple Arcade since the start. Some gamers got sniffy about it, arguing it didn’t include ‘proper’ games or a pile of AAA hits. That missed the point: Apple Arcade was meant to be something different, not another me-too service. Thing is, I missed the point myself a bit as well.

My Stuff article on the best Apple Arcade games lists titles that personally clicked with me, but in introducing Apple Arcade to my daughter, the manner in which I’m approaching and thinking about the service has shifted.

My daughter has used mobile Apple devices since before she could talk. She could navigate an iPod touch at 18 months. Safe to say, she’s familiar with this stuff. These days, she has her own iPad, which she uses almost daily—for a limited amount of time. It’s stuffed full of games and educational apps. She loves it.

One thing, though, is she’s never been keen on games with risk. There are exceptions: she’ll happily play two-player retro games with me. Broadly, though, she dislikes arcade fare on the iPad (with the notable exception of Super Phantom Cat 2, for reasons I’ve never quite been able to figure out).

She likes comfort and repetition when playing games (and also watching TV) and so stuck with a lot of kiddie games she’s now outgrown. Yet she blazed through Hidden Folks (intentionally deleting her progress several times to start again) and happily plays Dissembler and Threes! So I got thinking… what about Apple Arcade?

I dumped a ton of games on to her iPad and kind of left her to it. She’s working her way through Monument Valley. She’s got quite far in What The Golf? Mini Metro has had a few launches. Farm It! has gone down well. I’m glad I figured out that this service could provide new gaming opportunities for her—new things to try; new challenges to solve. It also opened my eyes to a certain diversity of approach within Apple Arcade that I’d not fully considered before.

A lot of gamers—myself included—were (and, indeed, are) quite sniffy about certain choices Apple made. I still think some Apple Arcade games are objectively poor. But it’s interesting to see a few cute ‘grind’ games in the mix, since those tend to align with exploitative freemium loot boxes and related horrors.

Ultimately, these games sort of are freemium games without the hideous business model. But you know what? My kid is really enjoying Farm It! She’s having fun. BUT. There are no ads. There’s no IAP. It’s safe from the crap we so often see elsewhere. And it showcases that Apple Arcade is a service intentionally designed to be for everyone. Even today, that seems quite rare in gaming and can only be a good thing. I wish I’d figured that out sooner.

May 21, 2021. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, Opinions

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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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