Monthnote February 2021

February is a short month, of course, but this one seems to have lasted for ages! Perhaps the impact of lockdown.

The month started with snow, and we had a good amount here in south Lincolnshire, enough for Ruth and I to make a pretty good effort at a snowman. It’s interesting, I think, that there were none of the histrionics that normally accompany heavy snowfall in this country. Most people were at home anyway, so it was fine. Turns out that’s probably what we ought to do every time there is heavy snow – just stay home and get on with things as best you can. It doesn’t last long.

The end of this lockdown appears to be approaching, but for those who are missing their social life, I Miss My Bar is a fun website, providing some ersatz pub-like atmosphere for wherever you happen to be.

I’ve had to start house hunting again – my hopes for being settled in one place for a while were dashed when my landlord put a for sale sign up outside my house! Charming. Hoping I can find somewhere where I can just be for a little while and give me a chance to save up properly for a deposit so I might buy myself a house in the future.

Work continues to be a challenge – there is almost constant change happening, and this brings with it the need for a lot of organising, adjusting, explaining and planning. It is exhausting, particularly when in the context of the pandemic. The (non-covid related) death of a member of the team this month hit many of us hard, especially those that were close to him. A reminder of the important things, and of how fragile life can be.

I’ve not blogged much this month, but have a few ideas for things to write about – and the fact that I have now finally discovered how to write posts in WordPress using the old classic editor might help me a bit! Not a fan of the block editor that has come in recently, so being able to avoid it is great for me.

I published the ‘CDO Chat’ with Kit Collingwood, which at the time of typing has over 550 views, which is amazing given its length and subject matter!

I shall have to find a willing victim for another soon!

I’ve also got my first coaching group organised, and we started things up yesterday. Technically that’s in March though so I shall say no more about it for now.

Book-wise, I thought it had been a slow month, but on checking it turns out I did ok:

  • Judgement on Deltchev, Eric Ambler – pretty good espionage thriller, set in a fictional Eastern European country after the second world war
  • The End of the Affair, Graham Greene – absolutely superb, obviously
  • A Room with a View, E. M. Forster – had a lot of fun reading this, nice to follow the Greene with something rather lighter
  • Asylum, Patrick McGrath – I love McGrath’s unreliable narrators, and this is a classic example. Fantastic writing. Rather oddly, my paperback was missing the first 13 pages of the story (!) so I had to read the start as a free sample on my Kindle!
  • The Anglo-Saxon Age, John Blair – an Oxford Very Short Introduction, a series I love. I’m a bit obsessed with Anglo-Saxons and early English history at the moment (blame lockdown!) and this provides a gloriously concise summary.

This month in movies…

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel – almost too whimsical, but some great performances amongst an amazing cast
  • Hail Caesar! – great fun
  • Inside Llewyn Davis – literally nothing happens, but it does so beautifully
  • The Lighthouse – utterly bonkers. I have no idea what happened in this film
  • The Ides of March – a slick political thriller, very engaging

I’ve also really been enjoying the US version of The Office on Netflix, and Channel 4’s Great Pottery Throwdown. Continuing my current obsession with medieval English history, I can also thoroughly recommend 1066 – A Year to Conquer England, which is entertaining and informative, even if it employs some slightly odd and distracting techniques at times.

Need volunteers for an experiment in group digital coaching!

I am looking to recruit a small group of digital doers across local gov to help me test an idea I have had – for a virtual coaching group.

What I think this looks like is maybe a group of 6 people working in local government on digital ‘stuff’ in one sense or another. I don’t think specific roles, experience or levels of seniority matter particularly – in fact a mix will probably really help the group dynamic.

Involvement will be some online conversations, sharing problems, frustrations, ideas and solutions with each other through a mix of text chat, video calls as a group and one to ones. I’ll be in there too, adding whatever experience I might have.

This really is just an idea for now, but it will be interesting to test it to see if it has benefit. If you would like to join, or know someone who might benefit, please let me know by filling in this short form.

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Interesting links – 9 Feb 2021

More nuggets spotted online, shared for your edutainment.

5 tips on running virtual events – DWP Digital

One of the biggest learning points for the events team was that you can’t take a plan for a physical event and simply run it virtually instead. It just doesn’t work. You need to create a way to engage attendees remotely, while they’re having to do most of their work through their screens, from their home. However, virtual events have a lot of opportunities for being inclusive and allowing people to join in regardless of whether they can travel to another location.

Link

Retail, rent and things that don’t scale — Benedict Evans

Part of the promise of the internet is that you can take things that only worked in big cities and scale them everywhere. In the off-line world, you could never take that unique store in London or Milan and scale it nationally or globally – you couldn’t get the staff, and there wasn’t the density of the right kind of customer (and that’s setting aside the problem that scaling it might make people less interested anyway). But as the saying goes, ‘the internet is the densest city on earth’, so theoretically, any kind of ‘unscalable’ market should be able to find a place on the internet. Everyone can find their tribe.

Link

Being Human – Catherine Howe

Bureaucracies are designed to protect themselves from harm – they have formal complaint routes and escalations and a hierarchy that is there to maintain the status quo. And when you look at a wider context you can see some of the drivers for this – the more we see a world based on risk and blame the harder it is for us to be human and authentic in our interactions.The first time fix of customer services is allowed for simple questions – to go there with more complex stuff brings levels of risks that most bureacracies are not comfortable with as it takes you to the place of difficult choices and trade off – the messiness of complexity.

Link

The Real Novelty of the ARPANET – Two Bit History

Today, the internet is a lifeline that keeps us tethered to each other even as an airborne virus has us all locked up indoors. So it’s easy to imagine that, if the ARPANET was the first draft of the internet, then surely the world that existed before it was entirely disconnected, since that’s where we’d be without the internet today, right? The ARPANET must have been a big deal because it connected people via computers when that hadn’t before been possible.

That view doesn’t get the history quite right. It also undersells what made the ARPANET such a breakthrough.

Link

Interesting links – 4 Feb 2021

Some bits and pieces I have been reading lately.

The relentless Jeff Bezos – Stratechery

What is clear, though, is that any attempt to understand the relentlessness of the company redirects to their founder, Jeff Bezos, who announced plans to step down as CEO after leading the company for twenty-seven years. He is arguably the greatest CEO in tech history, in large part because he created three massive businesses, all of which generate enormous consumer surplus and enjoy impregnable moats: Amazon.com, AWS, and the Amazon platform (this is a grab-all term for the Amazon Marketplace and Fulfillment offerings).

Link

To build or to buy – that’s the technology question – GDS Technology blog

Regardless of the route you choose, you cannot outsource risk. It’s important to make sure you have the resources, insight and knowledge to manage and oversee your products in the long-term – whether you build, buy or both.

Link

Users or people? – dxw

As Russell Davies said in his blog post, Consumers, users, people, mammals: “If you need reminding that your customers/consumers/users are people you have bigger problems. Changing what you write on your briefs/stories isn’t going to help.”

Link

Setting up my new Mac

So, I got an unexpected refund from the Student Loan Company (bonus!) recently and spent it on one of the new MacBook Airs. It’s a beautiful machine. Apple seem to have fixed the keyboard issues they were having a little while ago, it’s lightning quick, and the screen is gorgeous.

I’ve not had a Mac for a few years now, relying on my work-supplied Windows laptop, and a Chromebook for other personal bits and pieces. I must admit, I didn’t think I had missed it much – but I’ve found myself realising that, actually, I had just learned to put up with a load of frustrations!

So what software did I put on this thing?

Browsers – it comes with Safari as default, but I added Chrome and Edge. I’m logged into Safari with my personal Gmail account and use that for day to day browsing. Chrome I use with a G-Suite account, to keep that tidy and in one place, and Edge I use for an Office 365 account for the school I help govern. I know there are many ways to create standalone apps from websites, which is an alternative way to keep all these account separate, but I’m happy with this solution.

From the Mac App store I installed some stuff I bought years ago, but are still perfectly good for my needs:

  • BBEdit – I use the free version of this veteran Mac app as a simple text editor
  • Pixelmator Classic – good enough for the image editing I do, although there is a new, Pro, version out
  • Evernote – still the best way to capture notes of all kinds, I’ve tried others, like OneNote, Bear and Notion but keep coming back to this.
  • Omnioutliner – not something I use a lot, but sometimes using an outliner to plan thoughts is a really helpful method, and I’ve not come across a better tool that Omnioutliner.

Stuff I installed from the web:

  • Transmit – a great, easy to use FTP client. Mostly used to help managed websites
  • Zoom – well, duh
  • Microsoft Office – I don’t actually use it that much these days – Google Docs does the business most of the time, but occasionally the MS suite cannot be avoided so it helps having it on here. Also it comes with Teams, so…
  • NetNewsWire – previously, I used Reeder for my RSS aggregation (yes! I still do that!) but on this Mac I went ‘back’ to NNW. I put ‘back’ in quotes because it’s an entirely new, open source application these days. It works great.

I also took out a subscription to SetApp, which gives access to a whole host of useful Mac apps for a tenner a month:

  • Bartender – helps keep my menu bar tidy. Inessential but nice.
  • Capto – a fairly easy to use screen recording app. Screenflow used to be my default choice in this space on the Mac, but as this was included in SetApp’s bundle it saved me money to use this
  • CleanMyMac X – tidies up the crud that builds up on any computer over time
  • Cleanshot X – an improvement on the default screen grabbing tool
  • Gifox – makes simple animated GIFs
  • Marked – takes documents written in Markdown and exports them to various formats. Useful when it is needed, which isn’t all that often
  • MarsEdit – the grandaddy of desktop blog editing apps, every post I write starts off here
  • MindNode – mindmapping tool that’s a joy to use
  • Paste – a clipboard manager. If you’ve never used one before, you don’t know what you are missing. Keeps a record of everything you copy, so you can paste it at any time in the future
  • PDFpen – for wrangling with PDFs
  • Prizmo – turns scanned documents into editable text (OCR type stuff)
  • Rocket Typist – like Paste, a tool you don’t know you need until you try it, then you can’t live without it. This allows you to set system wide shortcuts that automatically expand short snippets of text into longer ones. My personal favourite app in this space is TextExpander, but this works well and doesn’t cost me any more money.
  • Ulysses – an app for composing longer form writing projects. It uses markdown and presents a pretty minimalist writing experience. This is an app I felt I ought to download but haven’t actually used for anything yet.

I also invested in an Anker USB hub thing, to make up for the lack of ports on the laptop. It’s an elegant design and seems to work very well.

Photo by Thom on Unsplash

Monthnote January 2021

A new year, a new attempt to return to semi-regular blogging. I’m trying to post little things often, rather than getting trapped into writing long posts that never get finished or published. You may have noticed I posted a video from Janet Hughes and a note on using CloudReady to bring an old laptop back to life.

The photo adorning this post was taken on my phone on the fens near The Wash at Gedney Drove End, near the RAF bombing practice site. Yep, it’s as bleak as it sounds. Beautiful in its way though.

The start to this year has been interesting, continuing the carnage from 2020. Having been in a ‘tier 4’ location before the festive break, the new lockdown barely affected me. I’m pretty used now to the limited world I inhabit.

Work has been challenging and the issues at Croydon are fairly well documented. Even people not existing in the bubble of local government are aware of it, so it must be bad. However, we keep on keeping on, making things a little bit better everyday whilst dealing with some of the more unpleasant cost-cutting measures that are being introduced.

One of the good things about lockdown is the sheer amount of cultural stuff I’ve been consuming. 2020 was a bit of a record in terms of book reading for me, 58 books read in total. In January 2021 I got through five, which is a good start:

  • Our Game, John Le Carré – classic Le Carré: middle aged bloke reads things and thinks. Gripping but I have no idea how he makes it so
  • An Introduction to English Poetry, James Fenton – a wonderful introduction to reading poetry, makes it all seem so simple
  • A Very British Coup, Chris Mullin – fast paced thriller, no Proust by any stretch but it rattles along
  • The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, Georges Simenon – another brilliant Maigret (last year I started reading them in order – this is number 10 of 70 odd)
  • The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner – interesting book length essay, the main thrust of which is that poems always fail because they aim so high

At least three of those are very short, you may notice, which certainly helps with the numbers. But it also helps with the flow – too many long reads one after the other does affect one’s motivation to read, I find. Also a weird mixture of thrillers and literary criticism. Hey ho!

Music-wise I have been utterly obsessed lately with Taylor Swift’s two albums from 2020, Folklore and Evermore. Have had them on almost permanent repeat for the last few months. Special mentions though to the re-release of the KLF’s better known tracks, and Four Tet’s Parallel.

Lockdown is also great for watching films. This month I saw some really good ones, most for the first time:

  • Synedoche, New York – absolutely baffling, I have watched so many YouTube videos explaining what this is all about, but I still am not really sure!
  • Frances Ha – nice, short, heartwarming and quirky
  • The Royal Tenembaums – I’ve never watched this all the way through before and I am pleased I put the time into doing so. Lots of whimsy but the time passed by very quickly and there were a fair few laugh out loud moments
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Overall I really liked it, had the feeling of everybody knowing what they were doing. I found the Damascene conversion of one character a little hard to take though.
  • Away We Go – slightly smug, somewhat whimsical, but fun overall
  • Burn Before Reading – a brilliant way to absolutely waste an hour and a half. A tale of idiocy in which nobody learns anything.

All in all, a decent start to the year on various fronts.

Bringing a knackered laptop back to life with CloudReady

As part of the fun and games that is homeschooling, my daughter started off begging and borrowing computer time from me and her mum. It wasn’t ideal so I casted around for a better solution, so she could have her own bit of kit.

I had a fairly ancient, tiny Windows 10 laptop – the sort of thing that might have been called a netbook 10 years ago – which I hadn’t used in ages because it needed to install an update to the operating system. I couldn’t perform the upgrade though because there wasn’t the space to download it on the tiny amount of storage on the laptop! I tried fiddling with SD cards and things, but no joy.

But I came across a thing called CloudReady, which is a product of a company called Neverware. Put simply, it turns pretty much any laptop into a Chromebook – a very simple computer than runs a web browser, and pretty much nothing else.

Getting it set up involved downloading an installer and putting it on a blank USB memory stick, which slightly – but only slightly – fiddly. Installing it on the laptop went like a dream, took about 20 minutes max and there weren’t any problems.

The end result isn’t exactly the same as an official Chromebook, but it’s pretty close. It runs the open source project Chromium rather than ‘Google Chrome’ – but that doesn’t seem to matter too much. She has been able to do the usual things to personalise it, with her own choice of desktop wallpaper and so on, and loves always having a machine available for her work, that belongs to her.

So, if you’re struggling with old tech at home, and if everything you need is accessible on the web, then take a look at CloudReady. Likewise, if you are organising the reuse of old laptops for people that really need them, then CloudReady provides a great, free way, to turn them into usable, easy to maintain computers.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Digital dreaming in a virtual yurt

Last Wednesday, my chum Nick Hill and I ran a rather silly virtual event – the ‘digital dream yurt’. It’s an informal get together where people involve in digital and change in public service can get together on a Zoom call and share ideas and experiences around a particular topic with the inside of a yurt as their virtual background.

Annie Heath shared this screenshot of the yurt on Twitter

It’s a mixture of silliness as well as useful content, and the irreverence adds something I think that is often missing from more – dare I say it? – professionally run webinars. In a way, it harks back to the early days of govcamps and unconferences – random people getting together to find common ground, and to provide fresh perspectives, and to disappear down the occasional rabbit hole.

On this one, we focused on managing the often large portfolios of work that digital teams have on their plates. Richard Clarke, from my team in Croydon, was on the call and produced this amazing sketch of the discussions.

The wonderful sketchnote produced by the lovely Rich Clarke

We are doing it again on Wednesday 4th November, and you can find out more about that and sign up here. Over 40 people already have, so word is spreading.

Links of note 27/1/20

I find this stuff, so you don’t have to etc etc

Keep, Fix, Enhance, Swap, Replace: Five options for public service reform – Eddie Copeland

Of course, everyone knows that in the real world, options are limited by time, money and statutory responsibilities. Less obviously, the solutions we choose to implement may be constrained by our perception of what level of change is, in principle, possible.

What does good product governance look like? – Kylie Havelock

As a product community we share many of the same stakeholders and user groups, at both a national and local level. This means that teams often fall under multiple governance mechanisms, presenting new risks; the inefficiencies linked to double or triple reporting, and the risk that different boards disagree on each other’s decisions.

Our (dxw’s) guides on delivery – Richard Norris

It’s the role of our delivery leads to help the team find the right working pattern for the project. To balance the need for flexibility against the need for consistency, we’ve crafted a handful of guides to use for the various meetings (or ‘ceremonies’) and updates that we use on a project.

Why mission patch stickers matter (and how to get a Croydon Digital one!) – Annie Heath

A tribute to the humble laptop sticker, used by CDS and digital teams everywhere to celebrate good work and communicate values.

Delivering digital service: this much I have learned – Matt Edgar

…over the years our industry has got much, much better at delivering digital services. I’ve been privileged to work with high-performing teams that have both the trust and the tooling to do their best work…Sadly the good practice isn’t evenly distributed, and I sometimes find myself feeling the same frustration rising as it did that day almost 20 years ago…In this post, I’m trying to draw together the threads of good practice as I see them.


You can find everything I have ever bookmarked ever on Pinboard. I also tweet out these bookmarks as I create them.