In a different life

I was pondering over my career choices earlier. If I could have the use of a time machine I would use it to travel back to secondary school – and this time I would work really, really hard.

I’d focus on maths, science and biology and eventually become a highly respected biological engineer. I would then put all my intellectual focus on the invention of a strain of grass that never grows longer than an inch. Nobody would have to cut the grass ever again, and I’d be a millionaire.

If there are flaws to this plan, I can’t see ‘em.

The Tools I Use

One of my favourite features of Lifehacker is their ‘How I Work’ series of interviews, where they ask people to explain the tools and strategies they use to get shit done.

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the software that I use and how I use it – definitely more time than is productive, and I find it hard to settle on a system without falling into the productivity porn trap – but nevertheless I’ve managed to put together a list of the software and services that seem to stick around on my devices. All of this stuff works really well, so I’ve got no good reason to spend any more hours looking for a better text editor.

Here it is:

Hardware / OS

  • Microsoft Surface 3 / Ubuntu
  • BlackBerry KeyOne
  • iPad Mini 4

Server Stack

  • Mailcow provides the family with email, calendars, tasks and contact sync across devices. It works brilliantly.
  • Nextcloud provides secure file synchronization between devices.
  • Gogs is a self hosted GIT server, similar to Github. I use it to keep track of bits of code, and even bits of prose.
  • A Mastodon instance provides my social media fix.

All of the above are hosted on Hetzner servers and cost less than a tenner a month to run.

Internet & Communication Tools

  • Browser: Firefox
  • Instant Messenger: Matrix
  • Email: Evolution (desktop) / Mail (iOS)
  • IRC: Hexchat
  • Text Editor: Sublime Text

Applications of Note

  • I use YNAB to manage my daily finances. Four years of use has transformed my understanding of my spending habits, even though I haven’t fully bought in to all of the principles.
  • NewsBlur helps me to keep up to date with the latest posts from sites that I’m interested in. RSS is most definitely, and defiantly, NOT dead.
  • I manage all of my passwords with Bitwarden.
  • Audible and Pocket Casts make my commutes tolerable.
  • Calibre makes managing my ebook collection a breeze.

That’s my list. What’s yours?

Our tiny houses

What people think British homes look like:

What a British home actually looks like:

Our homes have, on average, just 94m2 of floor space. Prospective buyers of a new build property today will be offered an average of 76m2 (about one and a half double decker buses), making them officially the smallest in Europe. This is unlikely to be a surprise to those living in one because they are probably having to sit on each others knees to watch the telly right now. And not only are the houses small, they look like a botched builds from The Sims.

Over thirty percent of UK housing stock is terraced housing. We built tons of it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to attract migrant workers to industrial towns and cities. Despite many attempts to rid us of them, most vigorously between 1950 and 1970, they remain popular. They’re solidly built, lend themselves to conversion, and have proven to be a fairly solid financial investment for buyers. With decent maintenance there is no reason to think that they won’t be around in another hundred years (you can’t say that for today’s new builds) but they’re small and densely packed together because it was cheaper to build them that way.

I’ve heard it said that it’s not size that matters, it’s how you use it. Buyers now want ensuite bathrooms, studies, pantries and other modern luxuries in their homes but instead of building bigger houses to accommodate these new demands, house builders are reducing the size of the other rooms instead. Our living rooms are now nearly a third smaller than those built in the 1970s.

So why don’t we build bigger houses? The way that we sell houses in the UK is one factor. I’d bet that most people don’t know how much floorspace their property contains. It’s rarely mentioned in the marketing materials; we use the number of bedrooms as a size metric instead even though that bares very little relation to the size of the property. Land is insanely expensive in the UK so it makes sense for housebuilders to cram as many houses on to a plot as possible and up until recently there was no guidance from the government on how big a home should be. That changed in 2015 but it’s down to local authorities to ensure that developers implement the new size guidance in their schemes. We also have one of the most restrictive planning systems in the world, making it extremely difficult get permission to build on greenbelt or unused agricultural land.

Very few people in the UK build their own homes, choosing instead to purchase from huge companies who build thousands of houses of a similar specification. This is why the majority of UK housing looks very similar. So why don’t we build our own homes to our own specification? The perceived difficulty is probably the biggest consideration, and to some extent that’s true; getting planning permission might be difficult, and you’ll need to deal with land purchase and finding a mortgage. But it’s not impossible and considerable savings can be made. HMRC even allows self-builders to reclaim VAT on building materials.

Are British houses small relative to other countries? Compared to the rest of Europe, not really. The average size across the EU 28 is 96m2, but that figure includes some big outliers at either extremity: Cyprus at 141m2 and Romania at just 45m2. For a laugh we could head out of Europe and over to North America where things are much different. The average Canadian home is 180m2. In America it’s 245m2 – they have more floor space per person than we have in total.

The only thing we can do, as consumers, is demand bigger homes from developers. Pay attention to how much space you are getting for your money. Petition your MPs to vote for legislation to loosen planning restrictions and increase minimum sizes. Or throw caution to the wind and build the house of your dreams.

Delete facebook

Facebook is a monster of our own creation. We carried on feeding it our deepest secrets until it became one of the most powerful and valuable companies in the world – headed by a guy that once called his users ‘dumb fucks’.

The latest revelations are shocking, but I doubt they will cause it any long term damage – people have short memories, most people just don’t care, and no one will leave until all the other people they know do too. Still, this is the first time that I can recall people seriously talking about the end of Facebook. Some have asked what should replace Facebook if it does fall, as if fleeing the platform would leave some gaping hole in our lives that must be filled or that a new platform would solve the problems of the old. The truth is that there is no hole, because Facebook solves a problem that doesn’t exist. The Internet worked just fine before it arrived, and it will work just fine when it dies.

If you really must have a platform, choose one that’s federated. Federated networks use open protocols to communicate with distributed nodes. Admittedly this sounds ridiculously complicated (and that’s also a barrier to adaption), but this network structure means that no single entity has control of all the data. Projects like Mastodon are doing great work in getting federated social networks to a state ready for wider use.

Facebook has promised that it will safeguard the information that it holds and that nothing like this will ever happen again – but none of their lip flapping solves the basic problem: their sole purpose is to maximise the profit that they can make from the information that we give it. The only way to fix Facebook is to tell them to do one. Start working on a blog. Dust off your email. Call a friend or send them a text. The world without Facebook really isn’t that bad.

Things I have enjoyed this week

Here’s some things that I enjoyed this week.

Television:

The Detectorists (BBC4): This comedy is about two friends who share a passion for metal detecting, but it’s also about so much more. Lighthearted, funny, touching and very watchable.

Stranger Things (Netflix): Everyone in our house loved the first series. The sequel has so far met our rather heightened expectations.

Articles / Essays:

Orbiting Jupiter: my week with Emmanual Macron (The Guardian)

Addicted to Distraction (New York Times)

Paper Based Markup Systems (The Cramped)

Books:

Losing my Virginity by Richard Branson: I really enjoyed this. It covers the first forty years or so of Mr Branson’s life, including the founding of Virgin, the sale of Virgin Music to EMI and his famous record breaking adventures. The audiobook is narrated by the author.