There's a culture that has developed on the web. Like any large group of people thrown together in loose association, societal norms have sprung up that dictate what's considered acceptable behaviour. Over the last few years, April Fool's Day has evolved into a collective excuse to let our hair down and do something a little silly for a few hours. It's a pleasant tradition that I get a chuckle out of each year, and I'm sure many of you reading this feel the same way.
This year though, things seem a little different. There's a cynical attitude being circulated around that April Fool's is unprofessional or childish or somehow beneath us all.
In my opinion, that way of thinking is a little sad. We shouldn't allow ourselves to be sucked in by cynicism. We need these cultural touchstones. Depending on where you live in the world Christmas, Hanukkah, or Easter might be a part of your community's cultural makeup. These events become landmarks in our personal histories that bind us to the people around us and become a part of our identities.
On the web there's very little that binds us as a community, but April Fool's Day has become a mostly harmless part of our way of life that we all get to be a part of, and I think that's a good thing.
Alright, now with that out of the way, go laugh at Google Nose.
I've decided to make this an annual tradition around here. Remember folks - this rampant speculation about the upcoming year is for entertainment only. I have no inside knowledge. Thankfully.
But first, a retrospective on last year's predictions. In short, I didn't do all that well. I'd never get a job reading tarot cards. RIM is still in business, but it's hard to say for how long. WebOS didn't really go anywhere significant. Windows 8 had an OK-but-not-great launch. We didn't see a 15" MacBook Air (though the new Retina MacBook Pro fills the slot where I expected a 15" Air to land). I was more or less right about Android on tablets and smartphones though (I even got the Jelly Bean code name right), so that's something.
So what happens next year?
Tesla starts shipping the Model S, and everyone wants one. Their biggest problem will be that they can't make them fast enough. The only people unhappy about the success of Tesla are oil companies. This doesn't bother anyone.
Under the leadership of Marissa Meyer, Yahoo finally gets it together. The long-floundering tech company stops trying to be all things to all people, and focusses its time and energy on a few key products where it actually stands a chance of winning. Yahoo Answers focusses on becoming a decent source of real-time information. Flickr becomes cool again as the joy gets sucked out of Instagram.
Microsoft has its worst year ever. Surface tablets wont sell. Touch screen laptops are derided as a joke (seriously, the whole device wobbles every time you touch the display). Office becomes increasingly irrelevant to small businesses and to consumers. The Enterprise Services division is as important as ever though, and that props up the company. It might be fun to hate on Microsoft (I'm certainly enjoying it), but it's important to remember that this is a company with a truckload of money. They can afford to run at a loss for quite some time. While their immediate future looks rough, the company isn't going anywhere.
Google (and in particular Android) has a great year. I have no idea what the next version of Android will be code named (Klondike bar? Krispy Kreme?), but it'll have a user interface that's coherent and consistent in a way that no other version of Android has ever been. Google will stop scratching the surface of what's possible, stop playing catch-up with Apple, and show us a genuine vision for the future of mobile devices. App developers start embracing the platform in a way that was previously reserved for iOS. Android apps start showing up on Beautiful Pixels in significant numbers.
Apple plods along making money hand over fist, but we don't see an Apple branded television set, wrist watch, pocket knife, or scuba diving kit. They stick to what they know, making better versions of last year's stuff, and making their customers pretty happy. The Mac Pro gets a major overhaul, making Marco Arment happy. It comes with a Retina Thunderbolt display, which reviewers run out of hyperbole to describe. After 2012's unremarkable iOS 6, I don't really have high hopes for the immediate future of the iPhone, though I'm sure it'll involve fewer bits of torn paper in the calendar app now that Jony Ive is calling the shots.
Last year I ended with a prediction (more of a prayer really) that Half Life 3 gets released. With the news that Valve is working on a new game engine I'll make the same gamble again this year, and I sincerely hope that this time I'm proven right.
The self-help genre tends to be pretty hopeless. You never see authors promoting their self-help books with follow up studies or anything that looks like evidence. Instead you see anecdotes dressed up as science, dubious before-and-after shots, and the kind of hand wavy nonsense that gives marketers in general a bad name. Despite having a few family members that are into it, and despite drinking that particular flavour of Kool-Aid myself as a teenager, these days I do everything I can to avoid self-help.
A while back Jeff Atwood wrote a post about a self-help book that I'll talk about here, and he had some positive things to say. Jeff's a pretty bright guy, so this surprised me and made me think I should perhaps reconsider my position. I've been shifting gears in the last couple of months, thinking about what it is that I really want for my life, and so, looking for guidance, I let down my guard and read a few well recommended books in the self-help genre. I'm going to talk about three of them here, in order from worst to best.
Riding on the coat tails of his widely watched and fairly entertaining TED talk, Ken Robinson's book The Element aims to flesh out the argument he made at TED more fully, and, I don't know, make some money? I honestly have no idea what the purpose of this book is.
It starts strong, with convincing arguments about how the school system fails our children, how we keep kids drugged up to the eyeballs, and parades a seemingly endless cast of characters before us to demonstrate that traditional methods of teaching aren't working for everyone. Robinson succeeded in convincing me that in order to live self-actualised lives we have to find our passions and discover the place where we are in our element.
Then the book ends.
Seriously, that's it. No how-to guide. No directions on how we might get from where we are to where we want to be. That's it. You're on your own now. Good luck.
It felt like the book was half finished, with considerable discussion of the problem, and very little attention to the solution. I felt like I'd been had.
I could rant about this for a while, and in an early draft of this post I did exactly that, but it's pointless to drag this out. Suffice it to say, I was pretty upset.
The post Jeff Atwood wrote that started this whole thing off, was about 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman. It's a remarkable and unique book that takes the evidence collected by psychology researchers, strips it from the dry academic tomes where it's being held hostage, and presents it to us mere mortals in a readable and accessible way.
There's a lot of great stuff to learn about in psychology that'll change the way you perceive the world and perceive other people. What makes it interesting is that it's so counterintuitive. Psychology has a habit of pointing out the bugs in our mental software that most of us go though life completely oblivious to, and through having these problems pointed out to us we can learn to work around them.
For example: Does talking about traumatic events from your past helps you recover from them? The evidence suggests it doesn't (writing about them is more effective, supposedly because it forces your brain to form a coherent narrative). Yet for many victims of trauma, talk therapy is sometimes the first thing they seek out.
59 Seconds is also surprising, in that it offers up evidence that many self-help books are full of crap.
Does spending some time visualising having already achieved your goals make it more likely that you'll follow through? Nope. Sorry. Apologies to all the "law of attraction" fans out there, but there's no evidence of that. In fact there's some evidence that it might reduce your motivation to get whatever it is you're aiming for.
The last book I want to talk about is Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. This book deals specifically with change, which is what self improvement is really all about. Switch takes a broader focus, teaching us how to create change not just in ourselves but in groups and organisations that we lead.
The book revolves around a central analogy of an elephant being guided down a path by a rider. The elephant in this analogy is our subconscious. Big, powerful, irrational, and kind of reckless. The elephant has enormous power over the direction it travels in, but it can't make plans or deliberately make sacrifices for the greater good. The rider in this analogy represents our conscious mind. The rider can think long-term, make plans and goals, and exerts some influence over the elephant, but is comparatively weak. Finally we've got the path, representing our environment and the people and conditions that we work with.
Now the rider can (for a while at least) wrestle the elephant, and force it to go where it doesn't want to. We call that self discipline. But how long does that last? Eventually the rider gets tired, wears out, and the elephant gets its way.
The point the authors are trying to make here is that when we try and fail to change something with willpower alone, it's often not a symptom of laziness, it's exhaustion. Reading that point was revelatory for me.
Switch is broken into sections on how to direct the rider, guide the elephant, and shape the path. In doing so, the authors argue that we'll increase our chances of success by creating an environment where following through on the goals we set is more natural than ignoring them or putting them off for another day. I know achievement without willpower sounds like something that's too good to be true, but Switch is a compelling and convincing book that is grounded in reality.
I'll wind up this very disjointed post by saying that while I probably won't be signing up for the next feel-good positive-self-talk seminar that comes to town, my opinion on self-help has softened a little from reading these three books (well, the last two anyway). There is some honest to goodness value here if you're prepared to spend your time on writers who focus on stuff that actually works.
Apple will sell a lot of these. Any criticism that you hear today will be shut down with the counter-argument that Apple is going to sell millions of iPhone 5s and we all know it.
While the (reversible!) lightning connector is a good idea, the name is a bad choice. I can see people getting "lightning" and "thunderbolt" mixed up.
The four inch display is very nice to look at, but stretching the device vertically to accommodate it does make the iPhone look a little odd. Maybe it's just one of those things that will take me some time to get used to.
iOS 6 is lovely. I'm particularly looking forward to the new Do Not Disturb setting that silences alerts while you sleep. I'm concerned about the shift away from Google Maps, but with a company that needs to be in control of everything like Apple does, it was inevitable that this would happen eventually. It's possible that Google will introduce their own mapping app for the iPhone in similar fashion to this week's new YouTube app.
Much of the criticism I'm reading on the Reddit keynote reaction thread and its equivalent on Hacker News seems to boil down to people being upset about a lack of genuine innovation. Many of us were hoping Apple would knock our socks off with something so absurdly impressive that we would all feel the way we did when the first iPhone was announced. Unfortunately I don't think we'll ever feel that way again, about any product, from any company.
For the past month I've been trekking around Southeast Asia. There's a million blog posts out there by a million authors talking about their experiences travelling through the region, and I don't think there's much to add to that discussion. So instead, here's a list of stuff I learnt while on the road.
Plan your stay around local transport. If you're going to Bangkok, find a hotel near the sky train. Your other options for transport are pretty miserable. Tuk-tuk drivers want to take you to their cousin's store where you'll be pressured into buying crap so that the driver can make a commission, and taxi drivers never want to use the meter (in Thailand the government regulates meter prices for taxis so drivers would rather haggle you into an inflated price). Take the sky train whenever possible and you'll avoid all this crap. I know that out of the way budget hotel has rates that are hard to ignore, but every dollar you save on the room you'll end up spending on transport.
The iPad has become the world's default computing device. In my completely anecdotal experience, iPads outnumber laptops by around three to one. On my flight between Sydney and Bangkok every single row in economy class had at least one person using one. Both travellers and locals seem pretty enamoured with them.
Cambodians don't use their own currency. Well, not much anyway. The Cambodian Rial has seen such dramatic inflation over the years that it's now practically worthless. American Dollars are used everywhere for pretty much everything. When you get off the plane in Phnom Penh, you'll be directed to a counter to apply for your entry visa. This costs 20 US Dollars. You can not pay in Rial. Hold this idea in your head for a second: the Cambodian government, in its official capacity as the authorising agent of Cambodian visas, does not accept its own currency.
I didn't really understand why until I'd spent a few days in Cambodia. When you make a purchase, any change you receive that's less than one US Dollar is paid out in Rial. This means that you're not carrying a bunch of coins, which I was grateful for, but it also means that after a few days your wallet will start to resemble a drug dealer's. My bifold was so thick with notes that I couldn't fold it in half. As I went to leave Cambodia, I changed out my two inch stack of Rials and walked away with six bucks.
Smaller cities are a great place to chill out. I loved Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, and Siem Reap in the north of Cambodia. Both of them easily beat out their respective capital cities on a bunch of metrics. Hotels are cheaper, people selling things are less pushy, drivers are less reckless, tourist attractions are less crowded, people seem happier. The lower population density makes for a calmer environment, and being further north drops the temperature a few degrees.
Local food can be surprisingly difficult to find, especially around hotels. Italian food seems to have become the world's de facto comfort food. Pizza, ice cream, pasta, burritos, french fries, and burgers are all incredibly easy to find. I can appreciate that in a restaurant that mainly caters to tourists you'd have some western offerings, but I didn't expect I'd have to wade through six pages of fast food to find Pad Thai hidden begrudgingly at the back of the menu.
Free wifi is abundant, though sometimes slow. If life were like this back home I'd be a happy man. I sincerely hope that the days of hotels in the developed world charging $30 a night for wifi are coming to an end. I paid less than that for my entire room in most places, and wifi was always included free. The same goes for cafes and restaurants - it's an expectation that they'll have internet access.
You can still buy a .mac subscription in Bangkok (though why you'd want to is beyond me).
The smartphone is the greatest invention for travellers since Lonely Planet guidebooks. You should absolutely bring yours with you. I knew I'd find myself using the camera and currency converter often, but I've also been surprised by how much easier it is to read a paper map while using your phone's built in compass, and Google Maps with GPS (which is pretty easy to access with the aforementioned wifi) saved me from being seriously lost on more than one occasion.
Do not get sunburnt. It hurts like a hell, and kills the fun for the time that you spend healing. While we're on the subject, do not get malaria. I don't have first hand experience with this particular joy of travel, but the doctor back home made it sound unpleasant enough.