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Founders at Work

Notes on a book: Founders at Work

Yesterday, I finally completed Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days.

Founders at Work

Founders at Work

The book is a collection of interviews conducted by Jessica Livingston of YCombinator with cofounders and key people of a great deal of well known (and in some cases, less well known, but notable) companies.

Because each chapter is a different interview with a different person, about a different product, company or service, it’s very easy to read small amounts at a time.

There’s quite big variety of products and services that are discussed, but the chapters I particuarly enjoyed were:

  • Max Levchin/PayPal: I hadn’t realised PayPal had originally been a PDA based crypto-system.
  • Craigslist is always somewhat fascinating, and Craig Newark as always seems like a sensible and straightforward sort of person you’d like to work with.
    • Their “softly, softly, BAN, reconcile” approach with rogue apartment real estate agents in New York seems to work well for them.
    • In the long term, I’m concerned that Ebay’s influence on them, will mean they’re unable to compete in new markets because of Gumtree.
  • Charles Geschke/Adobe – I hadn’t realised Adobe developed PostScript for Apple to solve the problem of printer/computer communication.
    • Apple’s present day support for CUPS makes more sense.
  • James Hong/HOT or NOT and Joshua Schachter/ – I found these chapters interesting as they were essentially developing “somewhat trivial” web services, that no-one would have said they would have needed.
    • HOT or NOT had the interesting ‘luck’ of being an instant, unexpected hit, with scaling problems associated with that, whilst was able to grow relatively smoothly and organically whilst its founder was still a programmer for an investment bank.
    • I found James Hong’s description of getting his uptight asian  parents to do the initial moderation for HOT or NOT (and when he decided it was time to get someone else to do it), exceptionally amusing.
  • In contrast, James Currier‘s (which I hated i 2007!) set out with a serious aim in mind (and arguably sold itself to Monster on its original ‘serious’ premise) but quickly realised it had to lighten up to make themselves appeal much more.
    • I’d say that HOT or NOT and probably had a much easier and less stressful growing experience, because they solved their growth problems and got their users first, and worried about everything else after that.
  • Most interestingly, none of them (and you can include Caterina Fake/Flickr in this), said “we going to set out to do a startup to dothis relatively trivial thing” – they all built things as a joke/side project/personal project – that only became the product of a startup, once they had lots of users.
  • Probably controversially, I didn’t actually find the Steve Wozniak/Apple Computers chapter very interesting, accessible or useful. I don’t doubt his mastery of his field (using as few chips as possible, to do as much as possible), but the detail just lost me.
  • Having said that, it was very interesting to contrast him with the Ron Gruner and what he had to say of his time at Alliant Computer Systems.
    • I think I’d definitely prefer to work with Wozniak than someone whose hiring process involves refusing to tell candidates what the process is, telling them they’re working every other Saturday and fostering what came across as an exceptionally competitive working environment (based on his background).
  • It was interesting read David Heinemeier Hansson‘s experiences at 37signals of writing the MVP of Basecamp – I’ve heard of agencies trying to build products on various occasions, but some of the reasons Basecamp succeeded.
    • (37signals already were well known, and widely looked up to by the people who [initially] were likely to find it most useful, and be most likely to consider adopting something new.)
  • In that regard, it’s somewhat similar to Joel Spolsky‘s Fog Creek Software – Joel was widely regarded via his blog, and then put out a product (FogBugz) that appealed directly to the people who were his blog’s audience.
    • On a sort of note, I’d be interested to know how much GitHub was slaughtering FogBugz’s market. I can see Fog Creek Software have git/hg products now, but when I was reading the interview – I sort of felt that the debates mentioned in the book about whether integrated wiki’s were what consumers wanted missed the point.
    • I suspect they’ll have legacy renewals, but I worry for the product’s future growth prospects – I’d suggest that perhaps that that product is now yesterday’s posterchild.
    • Today I learned he went on to create Stack Overflow… so I guess FogBugz worries may not be a personal concern so much.
  • I really liked the three interviews with Dan Bricklin/Software Arts, Michell Kapor/Lotus Development and Ray Ozzie/Iris Associates.
    • Being a child of the 00s, Lotus Notes wasn’t really a thing when I started playing with computers. I knew it existed from the Save As dialog that let you save in a format that it might accept, but I never understood anything about the background to the concept of spreadsheets (Visicalc) or the unusual development setup that Lotus Notes was produced under.
  • It’s quite hilarious to read (in 2014) about WebTV and how they managed to cause so much of a stir (to the point that Microsoft bought them) when that category of device was still (somewhat) trying to break through in 2014.
    • (Set top boxes are really the conceptual children, and whilst it’s easy to understand why Microsoft were probably being visionary in realising their significance, it’s most interesting that Microsoft didn’t succeed in the smartTV, setop box, PVR sector, even when the original XBOX was released)
  • Compared to the story of TiVo a few years later, it seems to me, that WebTV open people’s minds, but TiVO actually produced an MVP (and later real-life-actual-product) that people really wanted, once they realised it was possible - Mike Ramsay‘s description of demo’ing ‘pausing’ live TV – to people for the first time is a great example of how consumers should react when they’re presented with a feature that they didn’t know (until that moment) that they needed in their life.
  • Given the majority of people were at least somewhat technical, it was interesting to read about Lycos which was effectively founded by non-techies (the technology was sold to them by a university, and Bob Davis – previously a salesman – was positioned as CEO, which is somewhat unusual).
    • Financially, Lycos looks like a success in hindsight – it was sold to Telefonica -, but I struggle to associate it was much to sing about. I simply can’t help feeling that Telefonica was just getting a bad deal buying it (and indeed, they were!).
  • I particularly liked the chapter about ArsDigita from Philip Greenspun‘s perspective.
    • There’s a lot about how he ran ArsDigita that seemed to make sense from my point of view – for example, recruitment, working quality of life, technology stacks, small self-managed groups with responsibility for their own P/L and where everyone had some common responsibilities for key things.
    • His adventures with Venture Capital sound like a farcical nightmare, almost worthy of a sitcom. However, it does re-enforce – “if it ain’t totally broke” – don’t take someone else’s money in exchange for arguing with their people about how to do things – the distraction is never going to work out for you.
  • Firefox’s non-profit ‘intrapreneur’ development within Mozilla is quite interesting.
    • We forget the days when Firefox was the edgy browser that was up and coming, but Blake Ross did a good job in his interview of explaining how he took the Mozilla browser project as it stood, focused on things that users would want, simplified things, then managed to develop the community of raving users who (for example) took out a full page advert in the New York Times to shout about how awesome Firefox was.
  • Similarly, we forget that less than 10 years ago, Google was just a search company, and their first branch out, was Gmail.
    • Created by Paul Buchheit, at the time, Gmail radically changed the way people looked at email, and radically changed the way people looked at Google. He encountered quite a lot of organisational hurdles and technical hurdles (fun fact: an early [internal prototype] version of Gmail was stored on a single harddisk with no backups, Paul transplanted the hard disk platter into another housing and was able to recover all the data)

There’s many more interesting stories – the story of Hotmail, the story of all the blogging platforms – Moveable Type, Blogger, the story of WAIS, Alexa rankings, toolbars, the Internet Archive, etc but honestly, if you want to read about them, you may as well grab a copy of the book and read through them yourself.

I also feel it worth noting that there were a few moments in the book where I felt people were talking out of their arse/commenting on things they didn’t seem to know about. It’s fact of life when taking advice from anyone, and I’m happy they weren’t edited out – you need to consider things people say, and decide for yourself whether it’s actually what you should do, or whether it simply was what once worked well for the person suggesting it.

The book feels slightly dated – as a 7 year old book of startup stories is likely to feel. In 2007, the recent memories were of the dotcom crash, and the post dotcom successes – the boom in consumer social or mobile startups isn’t really addressed at all (the iPhone was barely released when the book came out).

Jessica has said that she’d like to write another volume, if/when she gets time, and I certainly think, there’s scope for it. There are many new stories from the past 7 years, and many existing stories with new chapters to be told, as well as many other stories from times gone by that deserve page space.

As a book, it comes across as well written, and is full of genuinely interesting interviews. If you’re interested in the history, or how some of these companies and startups came into existence, or you’re interested in learning what people feel they did right… and wrong, then have a read through it.


Notes on a book: Pitch Anything

I’ve recently read Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff.

Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff

Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff

It’s an interesting book, on the back someone’s written “move over Neil Strauss – Pitch Anything is the new the Game”. I think I can see why – they both inhabit an area of applied game theory or applied NLP, which when put into words, is likely to be quite polarising.

Pitch Anything explains an approach, or rather a toolbox of techniques, which one can use when trying to negotiate some kind of deal/pitch something to somebody.

A few months ago I read Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People (a very good book I need to reread and write about here) which quite early on explained the difference between co-operative and competitive negotiation strategies. Co-operative negotiators try to find out if there’s other concessions that can be made that might make a deal possible – for example in terms of a salary negotiation – the worker might explain that he’d like more money, explaining his young child needing childcare – his boss might offer instead that perhaps he could work more flexibly and together they could work out something that’d work for both parties – and the could review it in a few months time to see whether it was working. This is a classic example of where competitive bargaining techniques aren’t likely to get the best results.

A competitive bargaining situation might be where you’re buying a used car, you see the car listed for a bit more than you’ve seen other similar cars listed for, and you think it doesn’t look like it’s in such good condition as was promised. In addition, you’re unlikely to see the seller again (NB: a different approach should be taken when buying from a friend) so if you don’t competitively bargain, you won’t get the best deal. You might say you’d see similar cars listed for a lower amount, and you think it’ll need a bit of work doing, so you’re only willing to offer 70%. Then you might stick to that, and gradually move to say ~75%, but only when the seller has moved to ~80-85%.

(If this sounds scary and interesting – Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People is amazing.)

Most people have a native default to either co=operative negotiation styles, or competitive negotiation styles, which they prefer to apply to things.

The thing is, a co-operative negotiator and a co-operative negotiator will find a good result and a competitive negotiator and a competitive negotiator will find a good result (though they may not find as good a solution), but co-operative negotiator put against a competitive negotiator will lose out, big style.

Pitch Anything doesn’t cover any of this, nor does it say that in co-operative negotiating situations, you should probably avoid anything written in this book. The author’s background is investment banking, which clearly has a much more competitive atmosphere to negotiating deals.

I think this book is excellent at providing advice on how to teach yourself to approach a specific type of negotiation with a competitive mindset.

Various parts of it might seem like “being a dick” – and I think it’s worth being aware of that. Ignoring someones receptionist, and storming through a building, opening every door asking to speak the managing director *is* rude. In the context of someone who’s effectively stolen $600k your money into a ponzi scheme? Perhaps that what you need to do to show that you mean business.

In fairness, the book makes it very clear about keeping it fun, and like any tools, you can apply them to situations as you see fit.

The book is heavy on detail, and Oren is a master at starting stories and leaving you waiting for the ending (in itself a pretty fun trick), but I think it will be two or three reads through before I’m funny able to grasp his approach from start to finish.

It’s a fun book, and if you’re generally quite a co-operative negotiator, then I recommend it – it’ll improve your confidence in those slightly more competitive situations, (which you don’t like, because you feel people walk all over you).

I’d probably recommend reading the negotiation strategy book mentioned above, first, but feel free to just dive in.

If you’re a traditional sales person, you too, might find it interesting. Basically it’ll throw out everything you’ve ever learnt. It’s polarising, and I suspect many traditional sales people won’t like, specifically because it walks all over them.

Anyway, that was fun. I’ve various other books on the go, and hopefully I’ll write them up when I get to the end of the next one.

Eas Mor, Glen Brittle

Destination: The Black Cuillins of Skye

The Black Cuillins are probably the longest sustained alpine-style ridge in the UK, found in Skye, Scotland, they’re very spiky and dramatic.

In 2012, in March, our trip to Skye was beautifully sunny and hot. So much so that we went swimming in the rivers and sea.

Last time round, I still thought of myself as very unfit, and inexperienced. I’d only say my confidence has increased since then, but I’ve also demonstrated my fitness to myself and grown my confidence in travelling over exposed ground. Last time, the only Munro I summitted was Sgurr a’Mhadaidh via An Dorus – and I distinctly remember being on the top of this narrow ridge of rock, looking down at everything else. I remember looking around and noticing there was a lot of empty space between us and anything else.

Path to An Dorus - the scree slope

Path to An Dorus – the scree slope

This time, we’re going to stay in Glen Britle for 6 days, and the weather conditions are unlikely to be anything as like last time. MWIS doesn’t cover the Cuillins in a great deal of granularity, but I’m looking and hoping for reports of relatively little wind and precipitation. I’m also looking for a greater than 50-60% chance of cloud free summits – the Cuillins are one of those places where visual navigation is really the only way of doing things safely, and everything else are just aids for if/when you get stuck in cloud and need to return. The local regional medium term weather forcast looks damp, but ok.

SAIS doesn’t have an outpost in Skye either, but the latest Torridonian reports are positive, and the reports for the rest of Scotland also show a low risk. Obviously, conditions change, and we’re probably best placed to observe them. Significant new snow, or significant rises in temperature at altitude, are probably the biggest obvious atmospheric things we can be aware of that could cause problems. When it comes to actual avalanche avoidance, there’s a lot one can do on a snow slope to predict whether an avalanche is likely. From the SAIS observations in Glencoe and Lochbar, I think the conditions are likely to be snowy at altitude – mainly icey wet snow that has refrozen. Somewhat slippy to walk on, but ideal for crampons and not prone to movement.

If only the snow would freeze all the scree slopes solid please, and not exist anywhere else – that’d be lovely. ;)

Obviously all excursions and outings are weather dependent, and I’m travelling very well prepared for the conditions I’m expecting – Scarpa Manta B2s & G2 crampons, Ice Axe, down jacket, are packed.

I’m hoping the weather allows us to get up Sgurr Dearg/In Pin, Sgurr Alisdair, Sgurr Nan Eag, Sgurr a’Mhadaidh, Sgurr Banachdich seems straight forward, but the standard route looks boring, so it might be an option for the first hike.

I think my climbing buddy would like to have a look Am Basteir’s tooth so we’ll take a look at that and maybe Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh too.

I might see (conditions permitting) if I can do a camping excursion from Glen Brittle up to one of the high corries… Probably one of the 3 closest ones. *shrug*

The Black Cuillins of Skye

The Black Cuillins of Skye

The Cuillin range is particularly interesting, as it one of the places in the UK where the 1:25,000 Ordance Survey maps just aren’t adequate. The 1:12500 Harvey’s map enlargements of the ridge, are considerably better, but no use alone. I’ll also be taking the excellent SMC Cuillins guidebook and the Skye Cicerone guide.

I’ll be taking a Garmin GPS with me – not for navigating (we want to be navigating visually), but for returning in poor visibility and avoiding navigation errors. The narrowness of the cuillins, and the slightly magnetic Gabbro they’re made of, means that compass bearing can’t ever be fully trusted, and so the GPS will give a lot of confidence.

However a GPS device can only tell you where you are in terms of a long/lat reference – if you don’t have a map for it to overlay that position on, then it’s useless.

Thus, over the past few months, I’ve been working to improve the OpenStreetMap coverage of the Cuillins – from the various data sources available – 6 inch maps from the 1800s, Ordanance Survey open data releases, and Bing aerial photography, and thanks to the kindness of some guy in Germany, this data is now available for your Garmin GPS (and is loaded on mine!).

Scree Slopes of Coire Lagan, below the cliffs of Sgurr Sgumain

Scree Slopes of Coire Lagan, below the cliffs of Sgurr Sgumain

Like when I went to Kyrgyzstan, I’ll be taking my Spot satellite pager device and will periodically fire off A-OK’s which will go out via Facebook and twitter. It’s not the same level of remoteness though, and though there will be mobile signal on the top of the mountains, we will also be carrying walkie talkie’s.

Spot will tell you my GPS position at the time I fired off the A-OK and I’ll mark the exciting and tricky bits of scrambles, and summits with custom alerts, saying they’re exciting.

I figure you might like to see where I am, but SPOT uses Google maps which are a bit rubbish in that area, so you’ll have to find a way to use the SPOT co-ordinates with this rendering of OSM: perhaps you can hack the URL?

For next time I go away, I want to use the Spot API (go look – you may be able to hack something? *shrug* that pokes the co-ordinates auto-magically into the umap-osm thing – or at least, provides neat links to show where I am on a better map.

Anyway… Time for me to get packing! I’m excited! I hope to return with stories, and photos! :)

The bridge in Glen Brittle, with Sgurr Alisdair in the background

The bridge in Glen Brittle, with Sgurr Alisdair in the background

Happy smiley face

The problem with April Fools day…

The problem with April Fools day is a problem also associated with Christmas, and other days.

I love a good joke, but lots of corporate April fools jokes miss the point.

In the same way that Christmas shouldn’t be the only time you’re generous to your family, April 1st shouldn’t be the only day of the year companies should have fun with their communications.

I mean, a funny joke-prank is just as good a bit of content to share with the public on April Fools day, as almost any other day of the year.

And the advantage, from a marketing perspective: you have much less media competition, and people won’t be expecting it – so they’ll probably find a well executed idea, a lot funnier.

So tomorrow, when the April Fools day jokes have worn old – why not think about how you can help your potential customers have a bit of a giggle, and introduce them to you…

House of Commons

How to discuss concerns with your MP

Avid followers of my blog, will know that I’ve written to my MP a number of times in recent months.

This isn’t because I love writing letters, but because I feel this probably is the most effective way of making a direct difference to policy makers.

Watch this – it’s very short and to the point:

Omar Ahmad: Political change with pen and paper

Political change with pen and paper

Now, I don’t agree with every single point of this video – I can’t handwrite for to save my life and clearly legibility is a facilitates smooth communication, so all my letters are typed.

In fact, I hate paper, printers, envelopes, stamps, postboxes and all that time-wasting prehistoric infrastructure… but it has a use… and this is it.

E-mails are ephemeral, letters are not, I always try to send letters.

Your MP, at the House of Commons

Your MP, at the House of Commons

Being massively lazy however, I found a service called pc2paper which lets me send letters for a low cost from the web – so I don’t have to interact with printers, envelopes, stamps, postboxes etc.

There are different ways of phrasing letters, there are different amounts of proof reading you can do, you probably have a specific idea of the right amount. Personally, I almost always prefer writing in an informal tone, and try to get to the point as quickly as possible.

However, I also try and be personable. It’s not about removing all elements of humanity. I’m always polite, non-confrontational, and reread it afterwards just to check it doesn’t come off as passive aggressive. Changing people’s points of view, and channeling someone else to see things you see as important, as equally important, is very challenging – and anything you can do to distinguish yourself from masses in a positive and uplifting way, will win your perspectives extra consideration.

Take it easy, have some fun…and get writing!

(You may also be interested in this post: When they’re wrong, how can you change someone’s point of view? )

Me.. aged 11

I grew up in the 90s and 00s without a TV: instead I built stuff

Throughout my childhood, my family never had a TV.

From the day I was born, until I moved out when I was 19, I had relatively little exposure to TVs or their content.

At primary school, all my classmates talked about Cartoon Network and ‘play-stations’ and I had no idea what it was all about. At the time, I had some kind of Fisher Price play-kitchen so I assumed these “play-stations” they talked of were Fisher Price stations that they all had!

When I was at school, Red Nose Day and Children In Need were these strange events that never really made sense, and my classmates at school couldn’t understand how I didn’t know these popular TV shows were.

Sticking out at school was really rubbish, but at home I was doing other things…

I don’t really understand my parents. I mean, I guess, either they were hoping I’d accidentally die early on in life, or they had taken the somewhat famous Smallows and Amazon’s telegram to heart:


I’m going to assume the latter, but you never could tell, because the things I spent my ‘early childhood’ doing can certainly leave grown people shaky at the knees, even if it did all start very innocuously.

When I was in reception class – just 4 or 5 year old – I took great interest in my dad nailing and cutting bits of wood. At Christmas, I decided wanted to give my favourite teaching assistant a [small] wooden stool to sit on. With a bit of help sawing the offcuts to the right lenth, I nailed it together and gave it her. Apparently she was very touched. That year, one of my Christmas presents was my own, real life, working tool kit (complete with hammer, saw, spirit level, tape measure, etc).

About a year later, I remember playing with hot wax (how to make candles), fountain pens, ink. As I got older, I only got more adventurous and more ambitious, it just went downhill from there.

One of our neighbours was a handyman and woodworker, and would give us his offcuts to burn and so when I was around 8 or 9, I decided I wanted to make a raft – because, heck, rafts are cool.

The problem is that you can easily nail together a platform of wood which floats on the surface of the water, but it doesn’t have enough buoyancy to support anything on it (me!). I didn’t have any oil-drum-like barrels to hand, but I had heard something about 1 litre of water weighing about 1 kilo – and somehow extrapolated that a 1 litre bottle of air would more or less support a 1 kilo weight. By scaling this calculation, you can work out how many 3 litre squash bottles you need to tie to the bottom of this wooden platform, to support a small boy (who’s weighed himself on some bathroom scales).

The wood platform was nailed together from offcuts, with empty squash bottles tied to the underside. Pretty, it was not. It wasn’t even a regular shape. But it’s not like I cared! I had a raft!

Eventually, my parents let me launch it somewhere, and with the help of the son of a family friend (who was a good deal older than me), we found that it floated (great!) and it could support me(bonus!). There were several outings with it, but it’s ultimate downfall was that, due to there being lots of unsealed wood, it gained quite a lot of weight after being in the water for some time, making it heavy to carry back…

Around that time, I decided watercraft weren’t enough, and so in the back garden, I built a treehouse. Not on my own, for sure – I think my dad wanted to make sure it was somewhat safe, and so lent some basic help to make sure there was a stable, sturdy, well supported platform in place around the rather flimsy tree in our back garden that was previously known as “the climbing tree”. After a while, I got bored of the platform on its own, and decided it need a roof, so I with some more offcuts, I constructed walls and a the roof which was covered with some spare tar paper.

Make no mistake, there were times when things went wrong but bruised thumbs and hammered fingers only served as better motivation to avoid hitting them again in future.

Due to the design, the roof even had a “loft” – a bit of space to put things – and it wasn’t long until I put several large 6V batteries up there (in series), hooked up with speaker wire to some low voltage light bulbs I’d rigged up. I even dropped a watertank made from an ice cream tub, up there, with a tube and a tap on the end, which allowed for siphon-powered “running” water.

It was not perfect by any means; for example, due to my expert wood working, there were sort of the ends of nails sticking through the roof which your head might come in contact with if you weren’t careful, but it was a still a great hideout.

Over time it evolved,  and the final iteration had a panel that slid aside to display a window (using some cool tongue-and-groove planks I’d been given) and a similar sliding bolt for the front door so I could ‘lock’ it.

Bows and arrows came next – as my siblings are a good deal older – there weren’t really issues with me trying to unleash any aggressive tendencies at them with a bow. I never really produced anything particularly accurate, but firing a bow and seeing how far you can send your homemade arrow flying is a quite a lot of fun in itself.. There’s an added bonus if you can reliably get it to stick properly into the ground when it lands, but I don’t think I ever truly perfected that. The most developed I ever got was that I figured that paper flights really did make a difference, and that by splitting the narrow end of the arrow, sliding a flight in, and then superglueing it shut, you could get an arrow which tended to fly much better than one with out.

I quite liked cap guns too. I mean, what’s not to like about them? They go bang. That’s pretty awesome. I learnt all about the different sorts of toy cap guns (ringed caps for revolver-style capguns are clearly the best and most reliable, but paper-based caps are still fun). My mum vividly remembers me finding a big bunch of mixed up coils of paper caps. These are kind of coils of 100 or so small charges that go off when they’re hit. I suggested to my mum that it might be fun (with this big mess of caps), that rather than untangle them, to take this big tangle out onto the back step and hit it with a big hammer. My mum agreed, and came to watch. Lo and behold, there was a spectacular bang, (amplified by the very closed environment with two stone walls, which went up to the back garden), and our ears were ringing for some time. Hmmm. Yes. We both learned a lesson there! ;)

My parents weren’t luddites by any means and obviously we had central heating, but we also had an open fire and I’d take a lot of interest in it, which ultimately resulted in building campfires in the back garden. I remember learning about starting fires and playing with matches when I was definitely only around 7 or so. Getting the kindling right, and then piling on offcuts of wood is something of a skill. Occasionally I had friends round who were (somehow) allowed by their parents to join in the fun. I never could understand why people just wanted to hold the end of a burning stick and wave it around when there were so many more exciting things one could do with a fire…

…. like….

Cook things! Baked potatoes… in fact, baked anything worked pretty well. Sure, marshmallows work, but that’s more of a faff, and and isn’t half as fun.

As a I grew older, fires pointed the way from cooking to much more interested activities. Why bother cooking when you can melt metal? And what can you do with molten metal? You can try to mould it into shapes! And so for a time, I turned part blacksmith, searching for old bits of lead piping in skips, and melting them down in a steel [not-at-all-tin] can. Why lead? Lead melts at a relatively low temperature that’s easy to achieve. Copper piping was also fun, because if you got it red hot, it bent much easier, and so armed with a hammer, you could bash it into fun shapes (the best I ever managed to make was a hook!). Making moulds for molten lead was a bit of a faff – although sand moulds are a thing, sandpit sand isn’t the sand they’re talking about, and so the most interesting thing I ever managed was pouring molten lead into sea shells – which produced nice shell-shaped nuggets of lead. (In general, lead is only poisonous when you eat it. Lead was used for water pipes until not long ago, and is used in shotgun shot. Basically, if you eat molten lead you’re doing something wrong. )

Of course, with a keen interest in building projectile-throwing devices, and with a copy of Bevis in hand, it was only a next step to see whether I could build a gun. It seemed like a fun challenge. I took some hints from muzzle-loading flint-lock style things, and it actually sort of worked. I stopped up the end of a thick copper pipe with molten lead, hacksawed a hole near the blocked end, and then slid an illicit france-bought ‘banger’ down the tube, poked the fuse out of the hole (actually very fiddly!), pointed it in the direction I wanted and lit the fuse.

Without a proper butt, it never looked like more than old copper pipe, and the charges in the bangers were never strong enough to do more than toss a small stone across the garden (10 yards), but it still felt like a great success.

There were also experiements with electronics – taking stuff apart; failing to put stuff back together; a learning experience that involved mains electricity; soldering irons; learning to remove capacitors with a soldering iron; learning that soldering irons are, indeed, hot; and other stories… but none of them really produced any results, other than being able to explain how this old tape deck had previously worked, and how fitting it back together didn’t seem to be working out for me.

But if it sounds like I spent the whole of my childhood blowing shit up, I’d be doing myself a disservice. From the age of 7 or 8, I really started reading, and remember, no TV means no distractions. I used to spend hours lying on the floor, on a beanbag, reading books, cover-to-cover. It was at this point that I developed my interesting style of reading: I have a tendency to skim read, to miss paragraphs or sentences if I think that part is uninteresting or dull, whilst still picking up the main gist. It’s almost like my brain was pre-empting the web. I read a lot – I read twenty of the twenty-one Famous Five books, as many Biggles books, the Dr Doolittle series, James Herriott’s autobiographies, Gerald Durrell and a significant number of others. When the first “long” Harry Potter book came out (The Goblet of Fire), I went through it in a matter of days, leaving me to try to comprehend why my peers were still carrying it around weeks or months later.
Around the time I started secondary school, we got our first computer, and suddenly, I was less interested in building things in real life, and more in figuring out how to do things on the computer – I mean, it could even play DVDs! In addition, exceptionally dull homework started to take its toll, so the amount I read, and the amount I did things with my hands decreased.

I’m pretty confident that this background helped a great deal – once I applied it to computers a “just do it approach”, actually got me work.

A while back, I read on Twitter.

If you don’t have enough time, stop watching TV. #quoteoftheday

and I think I’d agree.

I could talk about what it was like to miss out on lots of TV, but honestly, I never missed it because it never was there. I was too busy building tree houses in my back garden, lighting fires, melting metal on the fires, making bows and arrows, building muzzle loading projectile throwers…

But here’s the thing: only recently did I understand who Jools Holland was, and why he held cultural significance. But when I think back, and remember that when I once asked for a Playstation for my birthday and got a dog instead, I don’t care.

Because now I know that I had an awesome childhood, and I can still watch TV when I want to.

Thanks to Jonathan and Kim for proofreading.

A thinkpad x60s

Think: blinklight

Sometimes it’s hard not be impressed by small hacks that seem so obvious, yet you’d have never thought of til you saw it.

Lenovo/IBM’s line of Thinkpad laptops have traditionally have a “ThinkLight”, an LED, located on the top edge of the display, illuminating the keyboard to allow typing in poor lighting conditions.

I blissfully used the feature, without thinking of the possibilities, until I found a package in the Debian repositories called:


When you install pidgin-blinklight:

sudo aptitude install pidgin-blinklight

you will find that there’s a new one to enable and configure in your pidgin plugins list.

Once you enable it, you’ll find that, no matter when your sound is muted (eg you’re on a train), when you receive a new instant message, your ThinkLight will blink on and off – alert you that you’ve just received a message. I find it very useful, because I often have my laptop speakers muted, and sometimes don’t notice the flashing little icon in the corner for some time. The simple flash of the light is very noticeable, yet not distracting or annoying to people around me.

I liked it so much, and emailed the maintainer of the Debian package to thank him for his work – he responded:


Am Dienstag, den 31.12.2013, 12:27 +0000 schrieb Tim Dobson:

I just wanted to say thanks for pidgin-blinklight. I've just
discovered it and, as simple as it is, it's made me very happy. I just
wanted to say thanks - I really appreciate it!

glad to hear that!

Unfortunately, I cannot use it myself these days, as the Thinklight in
the T430 series is not software-controllable any more


So the author of this super-cool hack, maintains the piece of code, even though he can’t use it any more? What a guy!

When you think that a simple light, to provide light for your keyboard, can be gently hacked in a super-useful way, and not lose any existing functionality, you start to wonder: what else could be tweaked to make your life easier?

twitter's #music

Why Twitter’s #Music spinoff project should die

Twitter has a music service. I do remember hearing it being announced some time ago, but I had completely forgotten about it.

I decided to check it out.

Twitter's #music service

Twitter’s #music service

It’s interesting. The premise of the service is that the top 5 tracks for popular artists will be displayed, and you can listen to them.

Technically, that means it basically, just pulls the top 5 songs, band art, similar artists from (for instance) the API, and then links them to the Artist’s twitter account.

atie Perry's page on #music

Katie Perry’s page on #music

It encourages a certain type of listening, good for gaining followers, but not listening in a way most fans will listen…

The problem is, often fans won’t want to *just* listen to the top 5 songs of an artist (judged by algorithm, not fan-perspective), so the platform offers no value to them at all.

In fact, it’s rather like someone is trying to package top40 radio back into an online streaming format… and I just don’t think it fits.The decisions users have to make don’t make sense.

Actually, the decisions users have to make don’t exist, because I’m pretty certain any self respecting music fan, would take a look at this, and sniff “NOPE” and head back to Spotify, Grooveshark, iTunes, Tomahawk, The HypeMachine or any number of other places.

For artists, I could see if possibly, of being one place they could gain followers quickly from. If you’re flicking through music, you might come across an artist, and decide to click “follow” – however, the “quick” aspect, implies that people have to be using the service like that, and I don’t think many people use it at all.

To me, it feels like a polished, somewhat licenced hackday or internal mashup project. There’s combination of two things, yet very little added value from the combination to intended users.

It’s clever but not compelling.

In my mind: since it’s clearly not winning, twitter should bin it, and stick to providing meta-chatrooms.

EDIT (27/03/14): Heh. They may have heard me speak. They’ve announced #music’s impending death!

Landscape Tiles © Gravitystorm / map data OpenStreetMap

Things you shouldn’t repeat for fun: When I nearly got hypothermia

I recently read about a group from MMU hiking club having to call out Mountain Rescue, (disclosure: I’ve hiked with MMU Hiking club once in the past), and I don’t want to dwell on what happened to them, but rather what’s important – they’re all alive, well, uninjured (perhaps except in pride!) and will live to climb another mountain.

Sharing stories of when things didn’t all go to plan is very useful, if you’re like me, you learn best by making your own mistakes but hearing someone explaining how they fucked up is also extremely useful.

I’ve been in numerous situations that I’d prefer to look back at and agree not to repeat, but there’s relatively few of those that I’ve written about in detail… until now.

This is the first of several blog posts to tell stories of when things didn’t quite, go to plan.

The background

It was the start of May 2013 and some friends and I had been planning to go camping in Glen Coe for part of a week, as the departure date approached, the weather forecast looked pretty poor, and they decided not to go.

Branding them “wimps”, I decided I wasn’t going to stopped by a bit of weather. As Pete Goss once said “it’s only wind and water”.

I wrote an enthusiastic blog post: I was going and try and do the Mammores & Grey Corries… and well, I’d make it up as I went along – I’d figured a good plan for the first day would be to do Mullach nan Coirean and Stob Ban, and then camp in a sheltered area on the ridge, near Lochan Coire nam Miseach.

I packed my bag with my standard fare of gear:

Overnight kit:

  • Tent: Vango Force 10 Helium 200
  • Mat: Thermorest NeoAir
  • Sleeping bag: Mountain Equipment Xero 550
  • Silk sleeping bag liner
Sron Dearg from Sron Riabhach

Sron Dearg from Sron Riabhach

Primary walking clothes:

  • Waterproof Paramo jacket
  • Helly Hansen semi-waterproof microfibre lined jacket
  • longsleeve light berghaus top (artificial fibre)
  • light t-shirt/vest (artificial fibre)
  • Berghaus Deluge waterproof trousers
  • cheap but warm Adidas tracksuit bottoms (quickdrying & double-lined)
  • Sensibly thick socks
  • Old Hi-tech boots
  • Ski-gloves

Nav kit

  • BMC/Harveys map
  • Ordance survey 2.5 inch map
  • Compass
  • Whistle
  • Petzl headtorch
  • Mobile phone + external battery
  • Hiking poles,
  • Cold food stuffs & no stove (due to hike light and stay light ideas)

The start

So on Saturday night, I got the coach up to Glasgow overnight, catching a whopping 2 hours sleep, then at 6am jumped on the bus from Glasgow to Fort William. From Fort William, I hitchhiked up Glen Nevis to the start of the walk, all in time and reasonably clear weather to make a start up the hill around 11am.

Achriabhach in Glen Nevis, I headed up through the forestry commission to Sron Riabhach. Upon reaching Sron Riabhach, it started raining. No problem! I popped my Paramo Jacket and Berghaus trousers on and headed on up to the first Munro: Mullach nan Coirean.

As got to the first Munro summit, the visibility dropped and the wind and rain increased.

Somewhere between Mullach nan Coirean and  Stob Ban.

Somewhere between Mullach nan Coirean and Stob Ban. Not pictured: strong winds.

As I soldiered on, rain started to find its way into everything, the gloves were the first to show signs of weakness and what were two warm, cosy linings, soon became a chilly, sopping fridges, whose only redeeming feature was that they blocked out the wind.

The Rain Continues

It was heavy going. The poor visibility made it hard to keep track of progress, and I kept estimating myself to be further towards my destination than I actually was. The rucksack wasn’t as light as it could have been and I had to rest periodically

And the rain continued to work its way in… creeping up from my ankles, attaching itself to my face and then running down inside my jacket, finding its way through zipped and snapped up ventilation zips and eventually, somehow getting in between in jacket and over-trousers. Before long, I was utterly soaked.

By this point, I could tell it was not a good situation to be in. My waterproofs were now mainly only for wind-blocking purposes, and my body temperature was not very warm.

When I was younger, I liked sailing and spent days sitting stationary in boats, whilst cold lake water was thrown over me… at least until it was blown off by the wind. I think it was from those years, that I developed the ability to be able to drop my surface body temperature and maintain my core body temperature.

And that’s what I was doing by this point. It wasn’t ideal – yes, my feet were cold, yes, my fingers were cold – any piece of skin you touched would have been wet and cold, but I was still functioning, and not super-uncomfortable.

I knew that at this point, the most important thing was to keep moving and move as fast as possible. The sooner I was in a place I could put my tent up, the better.

The Descent

Eventually I reached the top of Stob Ban, and after checking the map and taking a quick compass bearing, headed off down the only obvious path down the opposite side of the summit.

As I descended the scree path, I started to see the outlines of people that I hoped were walking up the hill through the gloomy mist towards me, only to feel deprived when every person turned out to be yet another cluster of boulders.

Stopping to check the map, I concluded it couldn’t be much farther anyway, and continued stopping down the hill with increased fervour.

I considered whether this was the time to call out Mountain Rescue, but figured if I could still walk, and could still get myself to my campsite, then wasting time and effort in such an exposed position, only to have to wait the amount of time it’d have taken me to keep walking, was a poor decision. The most important thing was to keep going – I could already tell that the wind was dropping, and with every step down the hill, I’d be a little more sheltered.

Eventually, I stopped and had another look at the map – the path really wasn’t very clear, and I felt I should have been seeing signs I was arriving at the col, with its sheltered tarn and good campsite prospects…

The Realisation

I took a compass bearing. The compass said that downhill, was south west… “That’s strange – it should have said I was going easterly?”

The compass doesn’t lie, clearly I wasn’t where I thought I was. I looked carefully at the map to see where I might actually be.

I guessed I was somewhere around Coire na Sleubhaich, and I walked easterly slightly, and quickly saw a big scar-like cliff emerge from the gloom which somewhat confirmed it.

My initial thought was that I was going to have to walk back up to Stob Ban – unappealing at the best of times, but given how wet I was, very unappealing.

However, then a second though came to mind – the descent so far hadn’t been that bad – if I wanted to descend all the way to the valley below, I probably could do it. However, if I kept walking in the exact direction I was walking right now, I’d walk over a cliff.

I took a West-South-West compass bearing and headed at a stronger angle into the corrie, eventually coming to the remains of a fence and following it, and the sound and outline of an angry brook further down the hill.

Landscape Tiles © Gravitystorm / map data OpenStreetMap

Landscape Tiles © Gravitystorm / map data OpenStreetMap

See full screen

The Discovery

Eventually, as it started to level out, I found some bumps and humps which created some boggy areas flat enough to pitch a tent.

I needed no second invitation. Down went the rucksack, up went the tent, up went the thermorest. Woo. Now I could sit down on a insulated, rain-free piece of ground and consider my next problem.

For some reason, I’d not wrapped my down sleeping bag in a binbag/plastic bag, and as a result, it was about 50% wet.

If it being wet isn’t bad enough, down sleeping bags in particular are things you don’t want to get wet – the feathers that work so well when dry stick together when wet and provide minimal warmth (unlike conventional-foam-padding sleeping bags that are largely equally effective wet as dry).

There was something else to consider: conventional wisdom says to change into dry clothes at this point, however, I’d seriously skimped on spare clothes and, apart from some spare underwear, socks and a pair of thigh length shorts, I didn’t have very much to change into anyway.

In the end, I took my waterproofs and sopping wet socks off, took out my [dry] silk sleeping bag liner, and piled into the damp sleeping bag. The only thing that was likely to dry any of these things out was my own body heat, and so I might as well start as soon as possible.

As I lay down, the exhaustion hit me, and I managed to warm up to a much more enjoyable temperature… and quickly fell very deeply asleep.

The next morning: after the mist lifted.

The next morning: after the mist lifted.

I spent most of the next day lying in my sleeping bag continuing to rest eating some of the food I’d brought and reading a book I’d brought.

The day after was sunny, and I packed up, walked down to the West Highland Way – busy with foreign Tourists only 100m below … and well, that’s another story for another blog post.

The things to think about:

The navigation error:

The most obvious mistake is the navigation error that took me off a side of a very spiky mountain, which compounded with other issues. I could blame the environment – from aerial photos, it appears that the path is not as well defined as the route I took, which looks like a path at the top, even though it’s not.

Ideally, I’d have had a map with higher resolution, taken more compass bearings, or had a GPS.

I’ve gone down the route of doing all three – I now have a Garmin eTrex 30 GPS with inbuilt compass, am actively editing OpenStreetMap so I have a good idea of my location in relation to my surroudings, when I put the data onto my GPS.

GPS’s aren’t flawless, and if I was travelling in unmapped terrain, or hand completely exhausted the battery, then it is important I could micronavigate in mist off the map with a compass.

The Packing Error

Arguably, you might say that down sleeping bags aren’t appropriate for above 0C temperatures where there is a potential for moisture.

I think that might be a little over-cautious, but not putting your sleeping bag in a big bag, or preferably, a heavy duty rubble bag, is a newbie mistake, and I am idiot for not doing it. I ‘always’ put my sleeping bag and dry stuff in rubble bags and I’m not sure why I didn’t that time. Clearly, that’s not going to happen again.

The Clothing errors?

My preferred setup with gloves at the time was to wear fingerless cycling gloves, with ocean-going sailing gloves on top of them. This means that you have a degree of hand protection (not much, but some) if you need use your fingers, but all the layers of gloves should provide warmth, even when wet. For some reason, I couldn’t find my sailing gloves before I left, and so I took some ski-ing gloves. (These days, I prefer a three layers of gloves approach in the worst conditions).

I’m somewhat unconvinced that different clothing would have significantly slowed the approach of the water. I am disappointed with the performance of my Paramo jacket and I now have a yet-to-be-seriously-tested Mountain Equipment Gore-Tex jacket.

Ultimately, in sustained rain and wind like that, waterproofs are only going to delay the inevitable.

It could be argued, that I should have been carrying more than a very minimum of spare dry clothing. If that’s argued on the basis that I smell, I’d happily agree and cast the argument aside. If argued on the basis that I needed something to change into, I think I’d be unable to agree that’s a very worthwhile approach. If you have wet clothes, and you’re on a wet mountain with no way to dry them off your body, risking getting a second pair of clothes wet is not very wise. In my opinion, the lesson here, if there is one, is on the importance of quick drying clothes. Had I been wearing cotton, things would have certainly been different.

The Conditions Misjudgment?

Based on the conditions, I think maybe I should have re-assessed the situation on the top of the first Munro. I’m not certain, in that situation, I’d have done anything different to what I actually did, but I think I should have noted that it was borderline.

I know my limits, physically, psychologically and with that in mind, I’m very happy I was alone and wasn’t in a position to put other people at risk. If I’d been walking with someone less experienced, I’d hope we might not have soldiered on after the first summit, but if we had, I would have been very nervous. It’s one thing to have to push yourself through uncomfortable situations, it’s another thing to push yourself and someone else. If I’d been walking with someone more experienced, I’m worried that communication problems might have caused people to push themselves or each other too hard.
Many people prefer walking in groups – and it can be fun, but for incident, I’m glad that I made the mistake on my own.

On the plus side, I have now a much greater awareness of what wet and windy situations are like in exposed places. I don’t seek to replicate the experience for fun anytime soon!


It’d be stupid to leave out the observation that I’d only had ~2 hours poor sleep on a coach the night before. It’s hard to pin down exactly how that might have affected my decision making processes and physical and psychological state. All I’ll say is that it probably wasn’t ideal given the circumstances.

The Final Word

In the world of technology where I’m from, it’s relatively common for people to publish detailed postmortems of things that went wrong (especially if it affected any other people). These are often well worth a read (even if you’re not a customer), and also give a good indication that the provider is happy to be open and honest about their weaknesses and has learned from it. Not everything is realistically preventable, and the people who say so are the people you should trust the most – at least they’re honest and know what calculated risks they’re taking and why.

It’s somewhat rare to post detailed postmortems of trips, (probably for fear weekend-keyboard-warriors will descend on the comments section to give them perfect 20/20 hindsight), but this way, everyone can learn from the experience, rather than just me.

To be continued.