Internet Local Personal Political

Guernsey’s digital strategy update: my view

Aside: I’ve decided in future to share my thoughts on local issues primarily through my blog rather than doing media interviews, for a number of reasons. I’m better at writing than I am at speaking, and I’m not as comfortable with the reactive, off-the-cuff and time-limited style that I’m forced to adopt when doing interviews. Sharing here on my blog I get to say what I want to say, at my own speed and in the way I intended, without someone else driving the direction of the discussion or editing my responses. This is how I’m going to do things in future; it’s not because I think the media has misrepresented me (they haven’t) or that I don’t want to deal with them (I do, they’re nice people), but because I think the limitations of air time and column inches don’t suit what I want to say most of the time.

In last week’s episode…

Last week I was invited to do a radio interview on BBC Radio Guernsey to discuss my view that Guernsey is falling behind Jersey when it comes to progress on digital strategies. My points were basically these:

  1. We all appreciate the efforts of Deputy Kevin Stewart, Minister of Commerce and Employment. He genuinely seems to understand where we need to go in future and we’re glad he’s promoting that in government.
  2. Jersey have had a long road to where they are now too, and it certainly hasn’t all been plain sailing, nor is everything perfect (connection issues and disappointing upload rates being issues I hear about a lot).
  3. Having said all that, over the last year Jersey has managed to get more people connected to fibre in their homes & businesses, and has opened the Digital Jersey Hub. These represent tangible progress which although not the end point is very encouraging for our sister isle.
  4. In contrast, here in Guernsey we’re still mostly just talking strategy, and we don’t hear a lot publicly about what sort of timescales we’re expecting to get started on action. Again, I tried to make clear in the interview that I don’t want to bash people like Kevin Stewart’s efforts because I appreciate them, just that time is ticking along and we’re all eager to find out when we can expect concrete actions to start kicking in.

The twist

Now, as it turned out the day after I did that interview, Commerce & Employment released a 6-month update to the Economic Development Framework, which included the digital ‘work streams’. Had I known this was going to appear the day after I probably would have turned down the radio interview request until I’d seen it, but there we are. Kevin Stewart went on radio the day after me and said there was ‘no evidence’ that Guernsey was behind Jersey, although I would point to the above as being fairly obviously evidence. After all, which jurisdiction can I walk into a startup hub tomorrow, or get fibre to my house in at least some areas? He also said that 3 years ago an Oxford Economics report rated us either equal or slightly ahead of Jersey, but 3 years is a long time and Jersey is already started on the implementation phases in the mean time, so I think that view is outdated. Still, again I don’t want to bash Kevin here – I really do appreciate that there’s a ton of work to do and I’m glad he’s doing it – but I do think there’s a danger of trying to spin this too much such that it becomes an outright denial of reality.

So now that I’ve read the update that finally appeared on the website, what do I think?

Well, there’s clearly good news and bad news here. To avoid further accusations of negativity, let’s do the good news first.

The Good News

  1. Digital Innovation Centre. Not just a startup hub & co-working space, but a training centre. This sounds good if it’s done well – it has a 2015 target and will apparently be before the States in more detail in the next month. I look forward to seeing the details and this could be a very good thing indeed. I look forward to getting involved, perhaps as a mentor in due course.
  2. Broadband sampling. Not in this report but apparently a third party who did research for Ofcom has been surveying local broadband with a view to making recommendations. I heard later that it covers only 20 properties though, so I hope that’s enough to get a reasonable view. Broadband in Guernsey varies wildly for such a small area, from full VDSL2 if you’re lucky to be close to an MSAN (and bizarrely my friends out in St Peters seem to be the best off here), to a poor ADSL2 service if you’re not (like South St Peter Port or Cobo, the 2 places I’ve lived this year). Nevertheless, I consider it a positive that real statistical data is being collected and it’s by an independent party from the telcos.
  3. It’s honest. It doesn’t deny that in terms of the infrastructure component of the digital work streams, things are behind and almost everyone is disappointed & frustrated with that. This might sound like a bad thing – well, the situation itself is but the admission of it I take as a positive. I get concerned sometimes that at least in the public domain there’s a spin from both government and the telecom’s companies that “Everything’s fine, we’re doing great!”, and I treat that as hugely damaging. In some ways I don’t mind if we’re behind in infrastructure, so long as we admit it and therefore realise the necessity of getting our arses in gear. I hear the marketing blurb far too often from Sure et al of all the great stuff they’re doing, and yet what I actually see on the ground is a pretty terrible broadband service for 2014 in both places I’ve lived this year (both populous areas not the sticks), and when asking Sure’s planning department they tell me that no new MSANs are due for installation in either region within the next 18 months. That’s just depressing. Sorry, that became a little negative there and that’s not allowed in the Good News section. ;) What I’m saying is that admission that we need to do better on infrastructure is good news compared to the outright denial that anything’s wrong that I see far too often. So, +1 points for that even on a lagging item.

The Bad News

  1. We’re still just talking strategy. Whilst I accept this is absolutely necessary, especially since public funds will be involved, other jurisdictions are already moving, including the one only a few miles to our south east. Everyone realises that it seems, but it doesn’t change the fact that none of us will be happy until we’re actually acting & hitting some tangible milestones. What I’d like is for people not to take this comment as negativity, but of encouragement that we’re behind getting on with this thing.
  2. Infrastructure is lagging. As I think most of us already realised, CICRA hasn’t delivered on the broadband review yet and in general this work stream is lagging & frustrating most of us. As mentioned above though, at least the update admits that & knows it’s not good enough. To be where we are and not have the data we need to even form the strategy, never mind pin dates on it and get started, is not great.
  3. Some people still don’t get it. What’s arguably more worrying is some of the reaction afterwards, for example Deputy Matt Fallaize, who commented in relation to home broadband speeds in the Guernsey Press that “I would not like to spend public money so people can play games”. I’m guessing his view is that all we have to do is get good connectivity to offices and schools and that everyone at home is just wasting time on Call Of Duty and watching Netflix so that has no value to justify spending public money. In this way, he completely misses the point of a digital economy.

What’s the big deal about infrastructure?

I still hear from some people that investing in domestic internet infrastructure is a waste of time & money, and that all we have to do is connect the main businesses, tech hubs and the schools, and people’s homes should be an afterthought.

But here’s the thing. If you’re investing in digital, the assumption is that you want to promote its use for the good of the economy. That means a number of things:

  1. Existing businesses should be able to utilise good connectivity to keep up with the evolving business landscape, which is to say increasing reliance and exploitation of technology. Not to do this is to be left behind regardless of what industry you’re in.
  2. Schools should be able to consume and publish information quickly and efficiently in order to keep up with 21st-century demands.
  3. New startup businesses should be encouraged, and a lot of those will either be in the digital sphere or rely heavily on it to disrupt less agile incumbents. Digital allows a far easier route to exporting than before where geographical constraints on a small jurisdiction put it at a disadvantage.
  4. Flexible working practices enabled by technology should allow the workforce in general to be more efficient, to work across borders, but also allow people previously excluded from being economically active due to things like care of children/family, disability etc to fit work around their lives.

The idea that only business hubs and schools need good connections only deals with half the points on this list. Startups don’t usually start in big glass office buildings, and very few of them get their beginnings even in a startup hub (although that can help them scale). The majority of startups begin in home offices, or a few people over coffee playing with some ideas and they collaborating from various locations including their homes. Apple started in a garage. Facebook started in a dorm room. My entire startup journey began at a desk in my house; I ran it from there when I had 10 users, and I still run it from there now I have hundreds of thousands. And this is how new things happen in the 21st century folks; not in board rooms or cubicle farms, but in your house.

EDIT: Diversification is often talked about. That will come about one of two ways; from existing local people switching to new industries, perhaps starting as freelancers (as I did in the 3D industry) and growing organically, or from larger external investments where people come in from outside to jump-start something. The former generally starts at home just like startups, and may even continue from there indefinitely. Projects in the digital economy increasingly collect together people from wherever they are in the world and build a functioning team from that; my own team is spread across Guernsey, San Francisco, Sydney and Portland. This is not unusual today, and we rely on our home connections to work. As for diversifying through external investment, do you really think people in digital businesses will want to come & work in Guernsey if they know their home connection is going to suck? When they can look at other jurisdictions where fibre is almost universal?

And what about kids? Sure they learn a lot at school and they need good connectivity there, but where are the hobbies and passions that end up becoming their vocation later cultivated? Partly at school, but equally if not more so at home. Kids teaching themselves programming, 3D modelling, digital art or music sequencing – they’ll be doing most of that from home. They’ll want to watch videos, experiment, collaborate with others, and develop their skills from home. These are the future geniuses that industries are built on, and you’re telling me they don’t need good internet connectivity in their house to do that? Rubbish.

The fact is neither you nor I know where the next innovations will come from. It could be from that house across the street, or it could be from your kids bedroom upstairs. You don’t know, and neither does the government. What I do know is that by not providing good connectivity to everyone, you’re lessening the chance that something like that will crop up, or you’ll at least slow it down. This is why I make such a big deal about universal access to good broadband in Guernsey; because I want anyone out there to be able to succeed, and poor broadband holds people back.

Sure, I want good broadband too, so there’s some self-interest here, but arguably I’ve already made it. I’m middle-aged, I’ve already made a bit of a name on the Internet, have had enough success to live okay, and have done it through a time where the range of poor to good broadband was more of an irritation than anything. But things are accelerating, expectations are rising and to be left behind in the next 20 years as the world economy becomes increasingly virtual will be a lot more serious than it was in the last 20. We have to keep up.

The Mindset

Complacency is a terrible thing. Guernsey has had it pretty easy over the last 30 years and people could be forgiven for thinking that things will just sort themselves out in time, and maybe for patting themselves on the back for a job well done in the past. But that’s not going to help at all in the future; the moment you think you’re ahead and you can relax is the time you get lazy & get beaned by the guy racing up from the rear. Now for whatever reason I’m the kind of guy who is never satisfied – with myself, with my work or anything else. I’m always hyper-aware that there are a ton of things I could be doing better, and I’m always trying to improve. I’m not really put off by failure, because I consider it an inevitable stepping stone to figuring out what works; I’m also not put off by criticism, because that’s information you can use to improve (even if it’s to learn which opinions to ignore ;)).

For a long time I assumed that everyone thought like this, but recently I’ve realised that this is a specific mindset, some people refer to it as a ‘growth mindset’. I beat myself up a lot about stuff that could be better, and I’m equally critical about other things I think could be better. That sometimes rubs people up the wrong way, and I realise now that it’s because not everyone is happy with that mindset, that they’d rather be talking about past successes and enjoying that positivity, rather than being pushed forward and getting down to the brass tacks of being honest about what sucks and what we do about it. I try to be a little more tactful these days, but under the hood I’m still that crotchety bastard who just wants everything to be better. It’s for the best of reasons, honest, even if I piss you off. ;)


So, I’m going to keep talking about this until it’s sorted. I know I’ll probably annoy well-intentioned people in government who are trying their best to progress things but are meeting resistance – whether from telcos, penny-pichers with no vision and from procedural requirements in general – and I’m genuinely sorry if that’s the case, but it won’t stop me talking about it, because it’s important. My hope is that my commentary on this can be taken as strong support for those pushing through these barriers, and not accepting excuses.

Business Personal

I believe in the cumulative power of small steps

I’m now sometimes referred to as an ‘entrepreneur’, and occasionally I spend a little of my time trying to figure out what that actually means. I realise that a lot of the time, how other people perceive it is quite different to how I see myself. Much of the talk around entrepreneurship is about blue-sky thinking, of aiming for the moon shot, of being the big-talking guy who is always selling his next grand vision of the future. I have opinions, sure, and I don’t mind sharing them and sometimes they get me into trouble. But that big talker with grand visions is not me.

I’m like a snowball, or a stalagtite. I’m like that underground stream that’s been carved out slowly out of sight underground. Little by little, without anyone really noticing for a long time, I’ve built things in small steps, one after the other. One day that suddenly got noticed by a few more people than I was used to. I owe everything I have now to a series of tiny steps over the last 20 plus years, just by deciding to keep walking the path. The thing is, you don’t even have to know exactly where you’re going, just so long as you keep walking. A wise man once said: “There’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path”, and he knew what he was talking about ;). Tiny steps are inherently powerful once accumulated.

This concept permeates everything that I do. I build software, and that’s naturally built up patiently in small incremental steps. When I build stuff I do it not by imagining a grand sprawling vision that will dwarf all others; I start with a small, manageable picture in my head of something that solves a genuine problem – usually one that’s annoying me – and  I put one block on top of another until I have something that I like the look of.  Then I show other people, take bits off, put them back, add new bits where they make sense. And I keep doing this, over and over and over until what I end up with is something far bigger than I originally envisaged, but which was shaped by my evolving understanding of the problem, and the feedback from people who encountered it. And sometimes, just sometimes, it becomes a big deal during that process – but if it doesn’t, you keep walking the path anyway to the next way station.

A lot of people don’t see how this can work. We’re sometimes sold on an impression that to be an entrepreneur or to evoke change in any way at all you need to have a grand vision & strategy, usually with large amounts of money sloshing around to fund it. But being big and beholden to people who’ve funded you comes with a whole host of its own problems, and there’s a lot to be said for being a scrappy, hungry startup with little money, just finding a way through via inventive thinking and experimentation. Worse is when I see people look at small incremental actions and think “that’s not making a difference”, “that’s not good enough, only the big steps make a dent”, as if giant leaps from A to B are all that’s worthy of spending time on. Sometimes this leads to people seeking money from others to accelerate things when that’s really just going to make them miserable. In reality the vast majority of things that are perceived as giant leaps were actually a very long sequence of small hops; that’s just skimmed over in the marketing brochure.

My message is this: value the small steps, embrace the journey. If progress looks small by day, trust me that when you zoom out you’ll be surprised at how far you came – but that only works if you keep on walking. Don’t devalue apparently mundane, everyday progress because that’s what giant leaps are actually made of, if you look a little closer. You don’t need a special rocket ship, all you need is the passion and determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other and to keep your wits about you. It might sound too simple to be true, but it works for a surprising number of people.

There was a great quote I saw on Twitter recently:

It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop.


Imagination is an asset

Remember when you were a kid and pretty much everything was a spaceship? A cardboard box, an egg carton, a bottle of washing up liquid. There were spaceships everywhere in those days, you couldn’t go from the kitchen to your bedroom without tripping over three of the blighters. And to think NASA were paying top dollar for theirs, when the damn things were just lying around.

Then you grew up and the skill of being able to turn anything into a spaceship with a single thought suddenly lost a great deal of its currency as a marketable skill. In its place, perceived value was shifted to the skills of holding down a job you don’t like, saying ‘yes’ to idiot managers, and being able to borrow eye-watering amounts of money without having a nervous breakdown and running naked through the street with nothing but a Post-It to cover your modesty. But  you know what? That spaceship-making skill was always better.

Really, we should be proud of and fully indulge the human ability to make crazy sh*t up all the time, because we’re naturally great at it. Let’s be honest, all those traditional middle-class jobs where you sit pushing paper around in formulaic ways all day are going the way of the Dodo, replaced by machines who frankly are much more suited to that job than you ever were anyway. You’re inconsistent, have fleshy needs like eating and going to the bathroom, and despite years of training in the corporate machine you will still accidentally daydream about spaceships when you’re supposed to be doing something else instead. No, instead the future of the middle class is creativity – dreaming things up out of nowhere, making them happen, improvising – all those things that machines are terrible at. This is your trump card, people – creativity is the one thing that ‘they’ are unlikely to be able to source from a battery farm or make armies of electronic slaves do in the foreseeable future. Why wouldn’t you want to get in on that? Believe me, letting your imagination muscle atrophy because your parents told you you should get a safe white-collar job will turn out to be a false economy, and you’ll wish you’d spent more time playing video games and fantasising about whizzing around other planets in a badass jetpack.

Personally I read, play video games, enjoy movies, but one of the most important exercises for my imagination muscle is pen & paper roleplaying – this is where you get together with friends around a dining room table and basically make sh*t up as a group for a few hours. My friends and I are over 40 now, and we’ve been doing this for 25 years, yet it remains a uniquely amazing thing – somehow a bunch of people come together with nothing more than ideas, some dice and pencils, and using that create a rich world which only ever exists in their collective heads, and turn it into a kind of virtual epic serial. Right now, I’m running a campaign set in the modern day where my friends play members of a secret organisation which investigates ‘unusual’ events, kind of like the X-Files or Fringe. They’re currently in an undersea station trying to figure out why the inhabitants disappeared. I pulled the idea for this scenario out of my head one weekend and they’re enjoying figuring it out in our weekly play sessions, experiencing the story structure I created via characters pulled from their own imagination, from washed-up actors to on-the-run translators. Each week we effectively advance the story together – I know the environment and story constructs, but it can all change based on what the others decide to do – we’re all making it up on the fly.

I’ve no doubt some people think this is a weird thing for grownups to be doing in their spare time. And yet most people wouldn’t think twice about going to the cinema to watch the latest Hobbit or superhero movie, or to devour a box set of Fringe or Game of Thrones. There’s been a resurgence of interest in science fiction and fantasy in recent years, which can only be a good thing IMO. Pen & paper roleplaying can be considered much like a weekly TV series, if you imagine that one person is the writer, and the others play characters in the show – except there are no fixed scripts, just a concept, environment and story framework that the writer sets up, and which evolves dynamically based on the actions of everyone in the room. Sometimes, as the ‘writer’, it goes in a completely different direction to what you expected, and you have to pull things out of your ass which both deal with the unpredictable actions of the other players, and that somehow remains consistent with the overall story arc. Challenging though that is, that’s often when it’s most awesome. I strongly believe that this has taught me to improvise, think on my feet and generally be far more imaginative than I would otherwise have been, and I also believe those are very valuable skills today.

In a world that is moving towards automating mundane work, IMO your imagination is a more powerful asset than ever, so you should exercise and indulge it. Screw being a sensible adult, bring on the spaceships and dragons.

Personal Productivity

That’s me in the corner

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight  ~ [Losing My Religion, R.E.M.]

I’m a classic introvert. I’m not shy, because introversion has nothing to do with shyness. It also doesn’t mean I have no social skills, no friends or that I can’t deal with personal contact – I’m quite happy getting up on a stage and speaking and have done so at several international conferences (and a local one last week), and I think most people will tell you I’m not afraid to express my opinion at such events. I’ve worked in and run teams with people from all over the world, and I enjoy many regular group activities. But even while I might enjoy group activities, while I’m doing so I’m burning through emotional energy, and eventually I just want to go somewhere quieter, either alone or with one or two people I know well enough that I can sit, think, read and say mostly nothing and it won’t be weird. That’s where I recharge and do the kind of deep thinking and independent creativity that I crave intensely. Some people like the ‘buzz’ of being around others all the time, but I don’t; extended periods of quiet solitude are absolutely essential to me, even if you can’t tell when I’ve got my ‘social hat’ on. When I go to these events I do so because I like occasional social contact, influencing and being influenced by other people, but it doesn’t mean I want to do it all the time. Don’t take it personally, but I need my space.

There are plenty of people who just don’t understand this, and even people who might relate to it but who have been convinced that it’s somehow an “incorrect” preference that they must learn to get over. Sometimes it seems like the modern world is all about 24/7 collaborative working, teams ‘working and playing hard’ together , open plan offices, and that social must be woven into every facet of your day, otherwise it’s somehow a lesser experience. It’s actually nonsense to think that this is a universal truth, and I’m glad that people like Susan Caine have written books and spoken so eloquently to large audiences on why some people are different, but still, it remains much more fashionable to be an extrovert. It certainly doesn’t help that the people who think extroversion is the norm tend to also be the loudest and most attention seeking people in the room, skewing the perception of the average towards that end of the scale.

So I’m very flattered when I get invited to events, programmes and group activities, and I’ll accept some of them. But if you’re expecting a fully engaged community person eager to fill his calendar with group activities, unfortunately you’ve got the wrong guy. Mentally I’d be a dried out husk in short order if I did that, and there’d be nothing left to do what I enjoy most – I’m an independent maker of things at heart, and while I love to meet and converse with people, receive feedback and debate, this isn’t how I actually work. For me it’s the occasional stuff between the ‘real work’; still important to do because it influences and informs the work, but it’s not the core of it like it is for some people.

That’s the best way I can explain how I like to work. I’m fortunate that I’m now in a position to choose to work how I want to, and I’m old enough that I don’t want to burn time working someone else’s way. Beyond that I’m also informed by a decade I spent over-working which caused me health problems and which I never intend to repeat. I sometimes get concerned that it may offend nice people when I stay somewhat at arms length from organised groups when they kindly invite me to take a more active role. Please know that it’s not you, it’s simply my preference and energy conservation system to be merely peripherally associated, but I hope we’ll continue to intersect occasionally & swap notes. :)

Business Games Personal

Free to play will neither destroy nor save the world

Money for nothingSo there’s been a ton of talk lately about the state of the mobile games industry, and specifically the place we’ve reached now in the race to the bottom on pricing,  which has meant people concluding that if you make a mobile game today, it has to be Free To Play to be successful, and that this fact is either ridiculously awesome because it’s leading to vast riches from new audiences, or that it’s an insidious evil which is destroying the game industry forever.

I’ll nail my colours to the mast right now and say that I don’t like free to play games. I think there’s only a very small segment of F2P that doesn’t fundamentally break game design by  relying on behaviour that is anti-enjoyment (such as the horrid timers and difficulty spikes we see so often), and that segment is occupied by a very small number of games, those where you only pay for cosmetic customisation, and those where you pay only once or twice for large chunks of content which are balanced just like a non-F2P game would be. Not many people manage to make this model work, because it’s harder and most studios are too busy chasing the juicier whale-driven bucks. Which is why I don’t even bother with F2P games anymore unless I know for sure they’re in this small segment, because I know they’re just going to be wasting my time. I just want to have an honest transaction with the developer, money for good content, period. If your game is constantly putting the begging bowl in front of me or engineering a kink in the difficulty curve just so I’ll spend money on finite consumable power ups (and for goodness sakes, even the formerly respectable PopCap now commits this crime), I want no part of it. My iOS purchases are limited to rare excellent pay-for titles like The Room and its sequel from Fireproof Studios.

Obviously there are large numbers of people out there that are totally happy with the F2P value exchange, willing to put up with timer gates and even willing to spend vast amounts of money on a ‘free’ game to get an easy ride. I can’t possibly understand it, but then I don’t understand why people watch soap operas either. Vive la différence and all that.

So why all the hand-wringing on this subject? Is the mobile game industry, or the game industry as a whole, doomed to fall into a rut of constant nickel-and-diming and gameplay compromised to fit the needs of a new business model? There seem to be a lot of people panicking about this, and it’s even infected the management at traditional AAA console studios, as the horrible debacle of the Forza 5 launch proves. Basically, some people even in the more traditional game industry have seen the millions that King are making every month and are being driven by the Fear Of Missing Out to shoehorn these models into their own games, even though the idea that  you should hold back launch content from a game you’re asking $60 for should feel absolutely abhorrent to anyone who really loves games. Clearly the tail (business) is wagging the dog (gaming) and it seems surprised when it backfires.

Personally I think it will all blow over. The trouble is that the traditional game industry always experiences instances of plateauing growth, which when coupled with ever-increasing budgets has a chilling effect on those holding the purse strings. We’ve had a couple of cases where a new audience has suddenly entered the fray, boosting the revenue of those that discovered it, and making all the suits in the other companies panic and rush to jump on the bandwagon. It happened with the Wii, after which suddenly every company needed to have a division targeting the ‘casual audience’, and suddenly everyone is building hardware and software which lets you interact with your games using waves and pelvic thrusts, even if you didn’t feel you needed that.

The mobile gaming industry has also discovered a whole new audience, or at least a whole new revenue stream which doesn’t overlap with the traditional PC and console gaming that much, such that it has delivered real growth again, so everyone feels they need to get a piece of it, and so tries to take what’s working in this new segment for others and crowbar it into their own games, even if it makes no sense whatsoever.

Growth is attractive, particularly to the kind of management bean-counters who have zero emotional commitment to the medium and might as well be organising shipments of corned beef as games. A gold rush always leads to a bulge of bad decision making which eventually corrects itself. People who prefer pay-for games have not gone away in this gold rush, they’re still there – they’re just not a double-digit growth target so they’re suddenly less interesting to these kinds of people who make reactive business decisions. Meanwhile, this segment is still being happily served by many developers, in the console and PC space, and they’re still an incredibly diverse bunch.

And really, it’s the diversity of the game industry that will make this whole F2P flap blow over eventually. Once the F2P profits stabilise in exactly the same way as every new market eventually does, it’ll just be another relatively stable market segment running in parallel with all the others in gaming. It’ll still be extremely good money, and when compared with previous decades it will no doubt have grown the overall revenue in games by capturing different demographic, but it won’t be growing exponentially any more. That doesn’t make it bad, in the same way that right now the other segments aren’t bad either – you can still make a good living today making paid-for political simulators, craft-em ups and luchador-themed platformer/fighter hybrids. When F2P eventually discovers its own inevitable plateau, perhaps some other growth segment will pop up and people will start saying that that is the only way to make profitable games now, and that it will now destroy the rest of the industry. Perhaps at that time you will roll your eyes in the same way I’m doing it now.

Because growth segments don’t destroy existing ones that aren’t directly comparable. You don’t have to make free to play games if you don’t want to, because the game playing public is far more diverse than that. Forget how much money King is making, it really doesn’t matter – OK if you’re fixated on being just a part of the mobile games industry you might find it harder (still not impossible, see Fireproof, Vlambeer and Simogo), but that’s your own choice if you decide to pen yourself in. I still buy the same types of games I did before F2P blew up, and so do millions of others, and there are a ton of indie developers out there making a decent living by ignoring F2P. Just because someone struck a brand new gold seam doesn’t mean all the other seams are now worthless.

So in short, yeah F2P is huge money. But we don’t all have to enjoy playing them, and nor do any of us have to feel forced to make them. There’s plenty of room out there for a vast range of content with paying customers waiting for it to be made, just the way they want. Get over yourself, F2P.

Cocoa Development OS X

Auto Layout and tab ordering

Because SourceTree has continued to support versions of Mac OS X back to 10.6 (Snow Leopard), we’ve still been using the ‘springs and struts’ approach to user interface layout up to now; we couldn’t adopt the newer Auto Layout without restricting support to 10.7+. So I’ve only just started experimenting with Auto Layout recently, and I ended up getting stuck for a while on something that seemed like it should be really simple, and yet I couldn’t find any hard information about it on Stack Overflow or via Google: how to specify tab ordering.

Usually, you don’t have to manually specify tab ordering – when you create a window layout in Interface Builder and drag controls on to it, tabbing between controls is just magically organised for you. The problem arises when you either:

  1. Need to customise that tab ordering, or
  2. Need to dynamically switch subviews in code, after which the ‘magical’ tab ordering fails to work any more

Without Auto Layout enabled, this is easily resolved – you just Ctrl-dragged from one control to the other, starting with the parent view if you’re talking about a custom view you’re switching out, and assigned the ‘nextKeyView’ outlet to the next control which should receive the focus on tabbing:


When using this with custom NSViews which I dynamically switched, when I embedded the new subview I’d use a simple line of code to automatically give the first control keyboard focus:

[viewContainer addSubview:newView];
[[self window] selectKeyViewFollowingView:newView];

That worked in countless interfaces I’d created in the past. But what I found when enabling Auto Layout is that you can’t Ctrl-drag to assign the nextKeyView outlet any more, because Auto Layout completely takes over the Ctrl-drag behaviour between controls to assign constraints:


Where did the outlets go? Why did Apple just completely remove them – these outlets are still useful even if you’re using Auto Layout. How in hell do I set them up now outside of doing it all manually in code?

After a lot of searching and failing to find anything, thinking that maybe I’m the only person to ever have this problem, I eventually discovered this option instead – you can still set the nextKeyView outlets up, but you have to do it backwards, from the next tab receiver to the previous one. And you can’t start it from the Interface Builder canvas. Instead, you do this:

  1. Select the target of the nextKeyView in IB
  2. Switch to the connections inspector (6th tab on the right hand side)
  3. Drag the circle on the ‘New Referencing Outlet’ entry to the previous control (which might be the containing view if this is the first control on the view)
  4. Select nextKeyView, like so:


Using that approach, you can still rig your tab order the way you want in IB with Auto Layout enabled, and make sure that switching subviews dynamically in code doesn’t suddenly break tabbing through your dialogs. Maybe I’m the only person to need this, or maybe there’s a more elegant way to do this that I don’t know about, in which case please tell me in the comments. Otherwise, I hope this saves someone else a bit of time.

Business Personal Productivity Random


20131202-165521.jpgI don’t know about you, but I’m a swinger. Not in the dodgy suburban wife-swapping sense, but in the sense that many aspects of my personality – creativity, gregariousness, concentration for detail tasks etc – seem to be in regular flux, swinging back and forth like a pendulum – the frequency (or period, physics pendants) is different for each but there’s definitely a cycle there.

I used to think this was odd, maybe even a sign of a very mild bipolar or something, because no-one in my professional circles really talked about it much. The working environment (at least the ones I’ve experienced) often tends to imply that everyone is expected to maintain a fairly consistent level of all the major personality traits all the time, what you might call your ‘baseline awesome’, otherwise how would you ever plan anything? Over 20-odd years I learned that peaks and troughs of personality traits like productivity and creativity are actually really, really common – maybe even universal – and the best thing you can do is roll with them as they happen. But I’ve also found that usually, the pendulums swing between 2 opposing but equally useful traits, both of which can be useful to indulge as they enter their dominant periods, if you allow it. The typical rigid post-industrial model of employment doesn’t always allow for this kind of flexibility of course, but bear with me.

Having slight or moderate swings in your affinity with certain aspects of work doesn’t mean you have periods of just being useless, at least if you don’t just try to force things (which can lead to disillusionment, apathy, conflict and other negative outcomes). It often means that to be most effective, it helps to be able to adjust your workload to better fit your current state. For example, I find that one of my ‘pendulums’ has exploration and creativity at one end, and nose-to-the-grindstone detail execution at the other. If you’re feeling capricious and explorative it’s great to use that to try new things, whereas other times you might just feel like cranking out implementations of existing ideas or really deep-diving into that gnarly problem you’ve been wanting to tackle for ages. Conversely if you’re trying to focus on detail work but you just keep getting distracted by other things, it can be more effective just to take a break and indulge those rather than force it – get the creative stuff out of your head and onto paper or something, and you’ll probably find yourself much more productive at the other task later.

Another pendulum for me is how social I’m feeling – sometimes I’m feeling gregarious and doing some workshop collaboration and customer support totally pushes my buttons, other times I just want to lock myself away and work on the really hard stuff without being disturbed. If you are a programmer, or live or work with a programmer, you’ll know ‘that look’ which just means ‘my head is full of complex state right now, keep walking’. At other times that person will be super-happy to shoot the breeze with you and knock out some brain storming sessions, it just depends on the day.

None of these states are absolute, nor are they immutable. You can drag your pendulum from one side to the other despite the inertia, it’s just that you put a lot of effort into doing so and will almost certainly not get an optimal outcome (and with a risk of the aforementioned negative outcomes). Sometimes you do have to do this, but whenever you can, indulge those pendulums in your head, work with your current vibe, and don’t feel like that’s a weird thing or somehow incompatible with being a valuable worker. In fact it’s the opposite in my experience – some of the best people I’ve worked with are inconstant, producing their best work when allowed to follow their gut. It’s the people whose pendulums have stopped, stuck right there in the middle at a predictable mediocre that I worry more about. ;)

Business Personal

Startup adventure: excitement and loot, forests and monsters

dragonslairI’m passionate about the fact that there’s never been a better time for people with talent and passion to get out there and start their own businesses. The Internet has flattened the playing field considerably, and globalisation and the recession has led to a lot of people to realise that employment isn’t the safe harbour they might have previously thought it was. The opportunities for making an impact from a small starting point are more numerous than ever, and people are increasingly aware of their options in a way that was unthinkable 10-15 years ago. I enjoy encouraging and advising people who are thinking of taking that first startup journey, because I discovered it mostly by accident after a long time of adhering to ‘the norm’ and have seen first hand how it can improve your life.

However, I’ve found lately that I also have to be careful with my enthusiasm and really make sure that the person I’m talking to is aware of and ready for the challenges and sacrifices that such a path entails, as well as encouraging them. The downside of all the attention the startup route is getting is that sometimes it can be mistakenly perceived as a kind of ‘Rock Star’ lifestyle, when in fact really, while it’s quite likely to be the best thing you ever do whether you succeed or fail, when you get down to it it’s a lot of hard work, long hours, and often stress. Not so much if you’re just doing a hobby business on the side for example, but if you plan to replace your day job, even if you build it up part-time first, it’s important not to underestimate the commitment required. There’s adventure, excitement, thrills, danger, loot, fame and reward, but you have to be ready to tramp through seemingly endless murky forests and swamps, fighting monsters both mental and physical, to get to where you’re going.

The last thing I want to do is discourage people here, and I can regale you with all sorts of reasons why starting your own business is totally awesome, and how all those people trying to put you off are usually overstating the risks. I love the journey I’ve taken in the last few years, but I realise I have to be really careful not to sugar-coat it. Assuming you’re looking to build a business that can eventually be a full-time gig for you, you have 2 basic choices of route:

  1. Give up your day job and focus 100% on the new business.
    Pro: You’re totally focussed and can give all your time to this baby
    Pro: Freed up from distractions, you’re likely to perform better, and others will take you seriously seeing your commitment
    Con: Risk. You probably have no income for a while. Unless you’re rich you’ll be anxious.
    Con: You’ll work long hours to get it to work because you’re all-in. You may become a scraggly, wide-eyed hermit.
  2. Grow the business part-time alongside your day job, in evenings, weekends and holidays.
    Pro: You keep the security of your day job so are less anxious
    Pro: You have more time to experiment & fail by retaining a primary income
    Con: Forget free time. And sleep. Even if you start slow, if you start succeeding this will eat all the time you have, and then more.
    Con: You will be tired, cranky and your wife and children might resent having to make appointments 2 weeks in advance to talk to you.
    Con: You might even get health issues because of the hours spent hunched like a troglodyte over your computer.

For the record, I’ve taken both of these routes before, so the pros/cons are from direct experience. Both routes are hard - but I have absolutely no regrets at having pursued them and would recommend them to anyone, enthusiastically and wholeheartedly; provided you’re really willing to take it on and don’t try to convince yourself that the cons won’t apply to you.

Because I’ve noticed that some people are in danger of kidding themselves that starting a business can be done without having much impact on the rest of their life. They might be fired up about the startup stories, and they have the ideas and the enthusiasm, and that’s good – I want to encourage and help these people. But what happens sometimes is that they start throwing in too many conditions:  they can’t take a risk so have to keep their day job, which is fine, that’s option 2,  but then they also say they have to keep social or family time sacred so can’t work many evenings & weekends either. Surely they can just optimise their life a bit and grab an hour or two extra a week and still do it? Or, maybe they want to do it full time but they also want to keep their existing lifestyle – so maybe they can just get an investor to pay their current corporate salary for a couple of years so they can do that? That happens in Silicon Valley right? It’s clear they really want me to tell them there’s a path around the forest and monsters, a way that is neither risky for them nor is going to require lifestyle sacrifices. At this point I have to be the Bad Guy – I don’t like it, because I want to encourage people, but if I told you what you wanted to hear, I’d be doing you a disservice and setting you up for a nasty shock later on.

All ‘serious’ businesses – not ‘serious’ as in suits, ties and business cards, but ‘serious’ as in trying to succeed well enough that you can eventually do it for a living, at whatever scale you like – consume large amounts of time. My own benchmark, which is based on software products, is that it takes between 3,000 and 5,000 hours to get a product from inception to profitability – and if you do it part time, you’re likely to slide towards the high end if anything because the longer incubation period usually means more changes. All ventures are different, but I think that’s probably a reasonable ballpark.

A part-time venture which always cedes time to your other commitments is really called a hobby. Hobbies are good, you can make a bit of spending money that way too, and I know first hand that hobbies can turn into ‘serious’ businesses organically, but it takes a significant upscale in effort to do that, taking it way beyond the comfortable ‘do it when you like and fit it around your current social life’ kind of time commitment. If you love what you’re doing you won’t mind that, it’ll hardly seem like work at all, but you won’t avoid having to deal with the effect on your social and family life, and potentially your health (direct experience here) and that’s what some people can be in denial about. The other idea, that someone else will invest in your idea and pay your salary for a while – well, getting investment is hard, if you have no track record you’ll only get it once you have something to show first anyway, unless perhaps you have wealthy and indulgent parents. Plus, investors won’t want you blowing it all on a comfy corporate-level salary for yourself anyhow, it will be for growth; if you don’t believe in your project enough to take a personal risk on it, why would they?

Now, maybe you’ll counter my argument here with what Tim Ferris says about being able to run serious businesses on 4 hours of effort a week. I’ve read some of his books, and do find some of his ideas useful to throw in the mix, but I’ve never seen anyone actually achieve that 4-hour goal for a business that they can live on. Not even close – at best, they’ve kept to a 40-hour week despite being in a startup (taking the riskier option 1 of course), and that’s an achievement in itself. But, if you can make it work, awesome – ignore everything I’ve said. To me it’s beyond a long shot, but maybe that’s because I gravitate to businesses that I’m directly involved in rather than just being at the centre of a web of delegation. YMMV.

So, in summary, and in the interests of reinforcing the positive notes too: the adventure of building and growing a business can be highly enjoyable, rewarding, and life changing experience. I absolutely want regular people like me to feel empowered to explore this territory, and not to be put off by people who say it’s only for the kind of mega-startups that get reported on TechCrunch etc. Starting a business is something anyone with the right attitude can do now. Just please don’t ask me to tell you that you won’t have to make sacrifices (particularly in time) or take risks along the road.

What I can say: in my opinion, they’re totally worth it.

Music Personal Tech

Creating drum sheet music with Lilypond

Tick Tick BoomI’ve been trying to find a good tool to create drum-specific sheet music on my Mac, and have largely been frustrated. Expensive tools that do it all like Finale and Sibelius are just too heavyweight, both require lots of of tweaks to work well for drums, and felt a bit clumsy to me just because of their level of complexity. MuseScore looked great but the editing workflow just frustrated me, trying to get multiple voices in one stave (required when you have to chart up to 4 notes at a time in one place, because drummers have 4 limbs ;)) was far too fiddly and resulted in many annoying round-trips. Finale Notepad was almost the tool I needed, except that it refuses to properly annotate open/closed hi hats which makes it completely useless in practice (in the full Finale you can customise the notation to do it, but why do you have to?).

In the end I found Lilypond, and it’s wonderful. Not only does it support the full set of drum notation, it’s also based on text markup, making it a lot like LaTeX, which as a programmer is just perfect. Everything can be expressed as a nested syntax, copy & pasted easily, wrapped in repeats and context-specific tweaks when you need them, and I can version the whole thing in a git repository when I refine my tracks. Superb.

However, I did find that the default notation that Lilypond uses for drums was different to what I was used to. There’s no one standard notation, but the one I always use (and encounter most in places like Online Drummer and Rhythm magazine) is as denoted here. Conversely Lilypond seems to default to what Wikipedia says, which is just a weird version (to me). So the first thing I did was customise that – luckily being programmer-friendly Lilypond lets you alter most things using include files, which I used to shift the notation the way I wanted. Here’s my current standard include file, which in addition to making the notation ‘standard’ as per my experience, but also defines a useful macro ‘\flam’ which lets you create flams really quickly.

Did I say this tool was awesome? :)

I could talk about all the cool things it supports really easily, like repeat segments with alternate endings, vocal part overlays, smart auto-layout and more. But instead, I thought I’d just share what I created today in just a few hours despite only finding Lilypond yesterday. I’ve created a public git repository with my first attempt at a full song score (pull requests welcome if you think you can improve it :)), which is Tick Tick Boom by The Hives. I want to play this but I couldn’t find a proper score for it, and I like to read a score when I’m practicing. So now I have one. :) I charted all this myself so I’ve tried to get it as accurate as possible, but as I say if you see any mistakes please feel free to fork my git repo and submit a pull request.

Here’s the video:

And here’s the PDF version produced when you run my .ly file in the git repository above through Lilypond:

Tick Tick Boom

I predict I’ll be using Lilypond quite a lot in future!

PS: One problem I did have yesterday on OS X Mavericks with the standard Lilypond build is that it hung when I just saved the test file and tried to run it. I’m not sure why, because after saving a different file and loading it at startup Lilypond hasn’t hung since. So don’t be put off if the test file hangs the first time you run the program.

PS2: seems to be having some problems with their web site right now, I can’t reach it right now. Hopefully they’ll be fixing this soon!

Business Local

Yes, I’ll “Buy Local” – IF the product is good

buylocalThere’s a campaign that’s been running here for a while called ‘Buy Local’ which encourages people to buy things from their local shops rather than ordering online, thus putting money back into the local economy. In general, this is a sensible message that I can support. But the more I think about it, the more I think it may be missing the point.

I think what needs to be said is that the fact that you’re local isn’t justification for customers to prefer you over another supplier if your product or service are sub-par. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great local shops and suppliers who provide excellent products and services. But we also have some who, let’s just say, “phone it in” – you probably all know a few examples.

In the past, before the Internet, these businesses could get away with providing average service, slow delivery, awkward ordering processes, and sub-par products because people didn’t have any other convenient alternatives. Sure, those of us who read specialty magazines would find ads for companies we could order from over the phone to avoid the teeth-sucking of local vendors when we asked for unusual products, but it was low-volume. All of a sudden the Internet made sure that local vendors have to compete on a far more level playing field with, potentially, the world.

A lot of the argument tends to revolve around price, but to be honest it’s really not about price (for me). Low-value, commodity, non-perishable goods are always going to be very hard to compete on and you should probably get out of those businesses these days if you’re a small supplier (wherever you are). But I will pay a percentage over the odds for good face-to-face service, convenience, and on items whose quality I care about – especially higher value items, or perishable ones. I don’t mind if you’re a little bit dearer locally if the service is good, the product is good, and especially if you have it in stock already. What I will not accept is a poor customer experience or an inferior product, both of which I have experienced on occasion when trying to ‘buy local’ over the alternatives. As I said, this is not universal, and there are good local suppliers, but there are quite a few who are still living in the past, those salad days of little effective competition, and are not putting enough effort in to cope with the new norm. Sometimes I feel that the ‘Buy Local’ message can be used as a diversion – “Shame on you for not supporting local businesses!” – instead of accepting that people are going elsewhere mostly because you’re not offering what people want. The market speaks – some local vendors need to realise that while locality is a selling point, your core product / service quality has to already be competitive for it to matter.

I think we can get complacent in the western world, and especially in comfortable, previously isolated places like Guernsey. Guernsey leans heavily on its ‘special’ legal / tax status as a lever in the financial services sector, which I think might engender an attitude in some that ‘being different’ excuses not being competitive on a level playing fields in other sectors.  My experience is quite different; I’ve been selling software products & services to a global audience for years, and I gain no advantage in that market from the nuances of my location, so I’ve had to compete on the same terms as everyone else, no excuses. Again it’s not all about price – programmers in developing countries are much cheaper than I am – but get the product and service right, and customers will come. Excuses related to the oddness of my location are irrelevant, because the customer simply doesn’t care, the product must speak for itself.

I think the Internet has brought that hard reality to the local retail sector too, and it’s a shock to some. The proper response is retail stepping up its game to meet that new reality, rather than leaning on ancillary arguments for why a customer should choose to buy local. If the product and service is good, and you get the message out, they’ll choose to do it anyway. So if they’re not, IMHO you need to question the real underlying reasons for that and address them, rather than expecting a PR campaign to solve it.

All things being equal, buying local is good – just don’t use that as a crutch.