Phone stack

Here’s an interesting idea for preventing phones from being a distracting nuisance during a meal, the phone stack:

It works like this: as you arrive, each person places their phone facedown in the center of the table. (If you’re feeling theatrical, you can go for a stack like this one, but it’s not required.) As the meal goes on, you’ll hear various texts and emails arriving… and you’ll do absolutely nothing. You’ll face temptation—maybe even a few involuntary reaches toward the middle of the table—but you’ll be bound by the single, all-important rule of the phone stack.

Whoever picks up their phone is footing the bill.

I’m really torn on the subject of using or not using a cell phone in a social setting. On the one hand I really want to agree with the sentiment of this suggestion, that either the people you are with are worth your full attention or you shouldn’t be with them. As Scott Simpson put it in his classic tweet, “My new standard of cool: when I’m hanging out with you, I never see your phone ever ever ever”. On the other hand there are things that I always want to use my phone for when I’m out, and I want to be able to do that in a way that’s not going to bother the people I’m with.

My main interest in my phone when I’m out is to check in on Foursquare wherever I go. Not supermarkets or friends’ houses, but bars, restaurants and venues. It’s the best way that I know of to keep a personal record of the things I do; it saves me from having to keep a journal, because a look at my check-in history is usually enough to jog my memory of events. Badges and points and mayorships I can take or leave; it’s that history of my travels that makes me not want to leave any place out.

Checking in on Foursquare (or Google Latitude or whatever other location service is your bag) is OK when you’re in the company of other people who are also doing it, or if you can surreptitiously check in just before you arrive when you’re still by yourself. Where it becomes quite awkward is when you’ve gone to an upmarket restaurant and you’ve already got your phone out before the waiter has had time to put the napkin on your lap (Why do they insist on doing that in some restaurants? I’s like it’s meant to imply that wealth correlates with an inability to do practical things for oneself. Oh, I see.)

I feel like there should be some sort of amnesty on phone use for the first minute or so at any location. You wouldn’t stand up and drag chairs around or faff about with your coat in the middle of a meal, but that’s totally OK when you’re just getting yourself and your table in order as you arrive. Similarly I think it should be normal to spend a minute after you sit down doing whatever it is you need to do with your phone—let other members of your group know that you’ve arrived, look up recommendations of what to eat, check in, feed your virtual sheep. Then it’s phones away for everyone and you can get on with the business of awkwardly failing to make conversation.

Something rocking in the state of Denmark

Last Christmas my brother bought me a poster-sized map of the world covered in that metallic coating they put on lottery scratch cards. The idea is that you scratch off the countries you’ve been to, which reveals a normal map—complete with rivers, mountains and major cities—underneath. It’s a fun way to visualize your travels, and it gives the countries you haven’t been to yet an extra air of mystery.

Unfortunately in my enthusiasm to scratch off all of the places I’ve been, including almost every country in western Europe, my momentum got the best of me. I had revealed about four fifths of Denmark before I realized what I was doing. I’ve never been to four fifths of Denmark. In fact I’ve never been to any amount of Denmark. I had inadvertently lied to my map. So I resolved to fix it in the only way it could be fixed.

Lego shop in Copenhagen, by Esben Jensen

On Thursday, I will be travelling to Copenhagen—or København, which I’ve been enjoying trying to pronounce correctly for the last week or so—for a long weekend. Between the jazz festival that runs until the 15th, the Lego shop (though it’s sadly smaller than the one at the Rockefeller Center in New York), and the admittedly small possibility of getting a seat at the best restaurant in the world, it promises to be fun.

View from Boland’s Mill

Bolands Mill is a place of historical significance in Ireland. By that I mean that I first heard about it in a history class in school, and I basically know nothing else about it. As I understand it, it was one of the key locations during the 1916 rising which ultimately resulted in Irish independence from the United Kingdom.

Much more significantly for me, it was the giant ugly concrete building across the road from my apartment when I lived in Dublin. It’s on the corner of Ringsend Road and Barrow Street, about a block away from Google’s Dublin office. I used to look at it during my (extremely brief) walk home from work, and I always thought it looked like an ideal model for a level in a first-person shooter. It’s full of huge ladders, narrow walkways and tiny slit windows. I can easily imagine playing Counter Strike in it.

The mill has been closed for years, so there was never any chance that I’d make it inside to have a peek around. Fortunately for me, my cousin Conor Coghlan managed to (perfectly legally and legitimately, I’m sure) get a bit of a look around recently. He posted this video of the inside of the facility, and the view from the top:

Bolands Mill from Conor Coghlan on Vimeo.

Obama Claus

I love this video. Among a group of supporters vying for a slice of Barack Obama’s attention at a rally in Maryland, one man decides to tell the president, “I’m proud of you.” He says it in his first language, American sign language. Without a second thought Obama replies, “Thank you,” also in sign language.

Now I realize that Obama was saying thank you to pretty much every person he met along that line, without necessarily even hearing what anyone was saying to him. So it’s possible, maybe likely, that he didn’t understand what had been signed to him. He could have inferred from body language and context that it was something positive. I also recognize that the supporter in question, a student at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland, arrived sufficiently late that there was “such a long line and I got so worried that I wouldn’t get a good seat to be able to see my interpreter” according to his own telling of events, so the fact that he got close enough to attract the president’s attention suggests that he may well have been seated deliberately to enable this kind of interaction.

But I don’t care. Because those thoughts occurred to me after I watched the video. What I thought of while I watched it was something much less cynical, and much more valuable.

There’s a movie scene that’s been among my favourites for, wow, nearly 20 years. It’s from the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street. In it, Richard Attenborough’s Santa Claus finds himself with a deaf girl on his knee at his grotto in the mall. The girl’s mother tells him that he doesn’t have to talk to her, that “she just wanted to see you”. Of course he ignores this comment and he talks to her in sign language. To him it simply doesn’t make sense that any child should be excluded from experiencing what all the other children get to experience just because she happens to be deaf.

Despite being a fiction, this one scene is the most touching example of how making a small effort to ensure people aren’t excluded can make a big difference.

I was 11 years old when that movie came out, and I’ve seen in any number of times since. That scene still inspires me to remember the huge effect an unexpected yet simple kindness can have on a person. I imagine that’s how this Obama supporter must feel.

International dining etiquette

There’s an interesting piece on MSNBC Travel summarizing a few international rules for dining. It contains some familiar ones, like don’t eat with your left hand in India, or don’t order a cappuccino after noon in Italy. Actually that one isn’t such a problem. Italians are pretty happy to just flat out ignore you if you do ask for a cappuccino in the afternoon. It’s sometimes fun to order a decaf one, just to see how they react. And if you’re especially brave, order a tall decaf frappuccino. Just don’t blame me if you get hurt.

There are a couple of recommendations in the article that I should already know but didn’t. Apparently in Thailand the fork is used for putting food on the spoon, not for putting food in your mouth. I eat Thai food all the time and I never knew this.

There’s one tip in there that I didn’t know but which makes a lot of sense. In Georgia (I assume the country, not the state) it’s expected that you drink a glass of wine in one go instead of sipping. I think I know why this is. In my experience Georgian wine is terrible, like drinking super-sweetened garbage water, so if you ever find yourself in a position where you’re expected to drink it you really want to get it over with as quickly as possible.

The browser you love to ignore

Microsoft has a new ad campaign promoting Internet Explorer as the browser you loved to hate. It’s amusing to see them play off the fact that so many geeks have spent so much time trying to convince friends and family to move onto better browsers over the years. I was certainly among them when this blog was young.

Internet Explorer’s problem is no longer that it sucks. I’m happy to admit that it probably doesn’t anymore. Its problem now is that it requires you to be running Windows, and that’s decreasingly likely to be the case these days. It’s not IE on Windows versus Firefox on Windows anymore. Now it’s IE on Windows versus Chrome on Windows, Mac and Android versus Firefox on Windows and Mac versus Safari on Mac, iPhone and iPad.

Change of plan

Warning: This is a blog post about blogging. No-one would blame you for not being interested in this topic.

When I started my March monthly challenge to blog everyday I quickly noticed that a very easy way to cheat would be to post one or two words of commentary along with a link, video, or quote, alleviating myself of the need to put any effort into composing a post. It would be as easy as clicking a button in my browser to claim that I had achieved my aim for the day. That didn’t seem to me to be within the spirit of the enterprise.

I made a rule to try to close that loophole: I would only count posts of 300 words or more as satisfying my goal of posting every day.

Two weeks later I’m convinced that that rule was a mistake. Most good posts don’t come from thinking about a subject and deciding that it would make a good topic for a blog post. Good posts come from a desire to make a quick post about an interesting subject. It’s only while writing that you can discover that a post would benefit from expansion into something lengthier. It’s much more difficult to decide up front, without writing anything, that a particular topic is worth 50 words, or 300, or 1000, than it is to discover that fact during the process of writing about it.

So a little over half way through the month, rather than continuing ever less successfully with the flawed original plan, I’ve decided to change the rules. From now on I’m removing the requirement that only 300+ word posts count towards my goal of blogging every day. Instead I’m replacing it with a more flexible rule: I will blog every day, regardless of how much I think I can get out of each topic. I will post more than once if I happen upon multiple topics that interest me in a day. If I see something worth sharing, I’ll write 50 words about it with a link. My hope is that some of those posts will spur me to add a few more words, and inevitably some will come out at the length that I originally hoped for all of my posts.

By the end of the month I’ll see if I got more out of this new approach of writing about what catches my immediate interest, or if the original “hold out until you find the one best topic of the day” strategy won out. My bet is on the former.

As Jeff Atwood pointed out on Coding Horror a few years ago, quantity always trumps quality. I’ll produce more good work by writing badly often than I will by writing well occasionally.

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig

Today is Paddy’s Day (not “Patty’s Day”, which is some kind of weird American barbarism). And this is the first time it’s fallen on a weekend since 2007.

Back then I had been finished university and unemployed for about six months—it was just a couple of weeks before I started working at Google—so I wasn’t in a position to properly celebrate. I hadn’t even moved out of home yet. So instead of being in Dublin I would have been celebrating in my home town of Greystones, which has the distinction of having the lowest pub to person ratio of any town in Ireland.

Fast forward a few years and I’m living in London. London has the downside that when Paddy’s Day isn’t on a weekend it pretty much doesn’t happen. For some reason it’s not a public holiday here. What gives? But there’s a corresponding upside that when it does fall on a weekend there are a heck of a lot more nightlife spots in London than in Greystones. You don’t decide which one to go to by tossing a single coin.

Strangely, London has decided that Paddy’s Day celebrations will actually happen tomorrow, on the 18th. Maybe they figured observing what is effectively a giant piss-up, where for many people national pride is directly proporional to alcohol consumption (and my people are very, very proud), on a Saturday might lead to a bit of a mess. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the threat of having to work with a patriotic hangover has any effect on the celebrations.

The parade tomorrow starts at Green Park at noon, and ends at Trafalgar square.

I imagine the rules for participants in London’s parade don’t have quite the same form as those for people marching in New York’s parade, which features this fantastic item:

4. The only banners allowed are ones identifying the unit or “England Get Out of Ireland”. Only one banner for each unit. NO EXCEPTIONS!!

Cabin in the Woods

For the last couple of years Eileen and I have been slowly working our way through the complete series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. It had been several years since I watched both shows during their original airing, and Eileen had only seen a few episodes. Now we’re coming toward the end, having finished Buffy and being some way into the last season of Angel (which carried on for another year on its own, after Buffy and co ran out of monsters to fight in Sunnydale). We’ll soon reach the end, and that means we’ll no doubt be feeling feel a certain withdrawal from Joss Whedon’s strange genius.

So it’s a good time for Whedon to be releasing a very cool looking new movie.

No, I’m not talking about The Avengers, although that does appear to hold a certain amount of catsuited charm. I’m talking about Cabin in the Woods, created by Whedon and former Buffy / Angel writer Drew Goddard.

If you watch the trailer you’ll see it initially looks like a fairly standard, cliché young-people-in-the-woods horror movie. When I first watched it I thought I was seeing a preview of an Evil Dead remake. But it never takes long for Whedon to throw convention on its head. By the end of the trailer it starts to look more like a twisted hybrid of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Truman Show.

Which would also like to see.

Cabin in the Woods premiered at South by Southwest at the weekend, and appears to have been received pretty favourably. Meredith Woerner from io9 calls it, “a shining beacon of promise for people that don’t need shaky cam to get their fear fetish rocks off. It’s the thinking geek’s horror film.”

I think it promises to be the best thing to happen to horror movies since Scream.