Apple Reminders on iOS 13, iPadOS 13 and macOS Catalina — much improved

Apple's Reminders app is much improved under macOS Catalina, iPadOS 13 and iOS 13. It’s now a ‘proper’ GTD app with much added functionality as compared to previous versions. It’s still not perfect, though.

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Laundry nonsense

My laundry hardware is conspiring against me. A couple of weeks ago I moaned about my washing machine’s inability to count and today my condensing drier ate one of my fleeces. It chewed up the main zip and one of the pocket zips, thus ruining it. It simply detached these zips and spat them out. This is despite already having received a verbal warning for turning every last one of my t-shirts inside out every time I use it. There will be repercussions. I will at the very least throw my toys out of the pram.

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In The Tall Grass (2019) movie review — it fails to deliver

I watched In The Tall Grass on the weekend and this is my review of that film. I thought I’d better write one quickly because it’s the sort of movie I could easily forget, and therein lies a big clue about what I thought of the film.

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US whistle-blower gets an A for English

The US whistle-blower who’s currently exposing some of Donald Trump’s alleged shenanigans also scores well with his writing.

A writing instructor has an article in The New York Times that praises the whistle-blower’s use of directness, headings, topic sentences and active verbs.

I can’t tell you what’s going to happen to his blockbuster complaint about the president’s behavior, but I can tell you that the whistle-blower’s college writing instructor would be very proud of him.

Hopefully that’ll be a consolation to him if Trump manages to carry out his Twitter threats and prosecute him for treason.

Still, good lessons for us all there, particularly me. My blogs are often passive rambles that veer off on inexplicable tangents.

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Google proves quantum supremacy — world still safe

Lock all your doors. If a Skynet T-800 turns up and says “Come with me if you want a sieve”, don’t believe him, he has no genuine interest in cooking utensils and is simply using that to lure you 1000 years into the future where, I believe, the Brexit debate is still ongoing.

Quantum supremacy sounds very grand and Terminatoresque but it just means a quantum computer has done something a non-quantum computer couldn’t do in any reasonable time.

In Google’s case, they ran a bunch of computer instructions on a quantum computer and then analysed the result. Then they tried to do the same thing on a (non-quantum) supercomputer. It took the quantum computer 3 minutes and 20 seconds to carry out its task and, if they lived long enough to wait for the result, it would have taken the supercomputer 10,000 years.

The news leaked out via a paper published on NASA’s website but Google hasn’t announced anything itself yet. Google has a policy of not commenting on things that take 3 minutes and 20 seconds.

Quantum supremacy is merely a milestone and a proof of concept rather than some sort of grandiose ‘supremacy’, but it’s nevertheless an important achievement for computer scientists.

With all this progress in the field of computing, how is it my robot vacuum cleaner spends most of its time stuck in a corner, repeatedly bashing against a wall?

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The Thomas Cook Affair

The bit I’m trying to understand about Thomas Cook’s collapse is why it costs me £100m to repatriate the people stranded by Thomas Cook. And when I say me I mean the taxpayer — I don’t have £100m personally.

I can understand why the government would repatriate stranded Brits but surely this would all be covered by some sort of insurance, wouldn’t it? If not, then the rules need to be changed to ensure travel companies purchase insurance that covers this sort of thing in future.

I think the government was right not to step in. Yes, a lot of jobs are at stake and a lot of customers are in the mire but it seems as if Thomas Cook were on an unstoppable downward tumble. If the government stepped in it would only be delaying the inevitable, which would have cost more and yet resulted in the same job losses and stranded customers in the long run.

Thomas Cook blamed many things but the upshot is they didn’t adapt to the way people book holidays these days. They didn’t embrace the whole online thing. They’re not the first company to make that mistake.

Of course Monarch went tits-up a while back too. In their case it was less about not adapting to the interweb and more about simply being shit. I flew with them once and had to sit in a broken seat with a lump of metal digging into my spine. I wrote a letter to them about it afterwards but in their reply they simply told me their CEO always flies cattle-class with a lump of metal digging into his spine and never complains. Yeah, right. With that sort of customer service it was inevitable they would eventually run into problems. Poor customer service can prevail for a surprising length of time — particularly where large, market-dominant companies are concerned — but karma catches up with such companies in the end.

I feel sorry for the stranded passengers and the redundant employees who suffer as a result of a company’s incompetence, but sometimes companies just get what they deserve. It’s sad, though, that in almost all cases of a large company collapse, those who engineered the problem will walk away with millions in their bank account.

Either way, a private company’s collapse shouldn’t cost me anything.

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Washing machine timers

Why does my washing machine insist on winding me up? It says there’s 3 minutes left so I think I may as well potter about the kitchen and wait. I watch it go 3, 2 and 1 and then it goes back up to 4. Yes, 4.

Does it exist in some bizarre space-time continuum? Is my washing machine simply too stupid to count? Or is it just (as I suspect) taking the pee?

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Donkey Kong court case

Who would have thought somebody would go to court over Donkey Kong?

It is however true. A video gamer called Billy Mitchell is taking Guinness World Records and something called the Twin Galaxies Scoreboard to court on the basis of defamation after they removed his top score from the records.

The dispute is about whether he used an “unmodified original DK arcade PCB as per the competitive rules”. Guinness and Twin Galaxies appear to have some doubts.

Apparently, Mitchell also has a ‘perfect’ Pac-Man score:

To achieve the game's maximum score of 3,333,360 points, Mitchell navigated 256 boards (or screens), eating every single dot, blinking energizer blob, flashing blue ghost, and point-loaded fruit, without losing a single life.

I remember Pac-Man well. One of the first pubs I visited at the tender age of 16 18 had a Pac-Man machine, back in the days when you’d get a pint, a chip butty and a number of goes on the Pac-Man for a couple of quid. I played the game regularly and, whilst I can’t remember what the scores were, I can’t recall ever going beyond 20 screens or so, if that. The 256 Mitchell negotiated is quite remarkable.

I played Donkey Kong too, although I have fewer memories about that.

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Proton size measured with a better ruler

In atoms, electrons normally orbit the nucleus of an atom. The nucleus can contain a mixture of protons and neutrons in most atoms although hydrogen just has a single proton, which makes it the simplest atom to study: there’s just one electron orbiting one proton.

One day a bunch of scientists wondered what would happen if they evicted the electron from a hydrogen atom and instead replaced it with a muon. A muon is part of the same family of particles as the electron — a family collectively called leptons — and it has the same charge and spin, but it’s 207 times heavier and doesn't exist for very long.

What they noticed was that, against all known physics, the proton seemed to shrink by 4% in the presence of the muon. This elicited much scratching of heads and considerable stroking of beards. In fact, hundreds of papers were written about it suggesting the new laws of physics that might have been discovered.

Alas, it all came down to a faulty ruler.

They thought the standard proton (with an electron orbiting it) was 0.876 femtometers and measured the muonic proton to be 0.84 femtometers.

But some clever-dick has come along and measured the standard proton with a better ruler and pegs it at 0.833 femtometers +/- 0.01, which removes the discrepancy found with the muonic proton.

I feel sorry for all those scientists who expended much brain-power coming up with new theories, although I did giggle a bit.

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The longer we stay awake, the more we need to sleep, scientists say

The titular statement is hardly groundbreaking. If that’s all there was to it, I’d have discovered it myself and I’d have a Nobel Prize on the mantlepiece (rhetorically, that is, because I don’t actually have a mantlepiece).

Two years ago, scientists in Japan reported the discovery of a mouse that just could not stay awake. This creature, which had a mutation in a gene called Sik3, slept upwards of 30 percent more than usual: Although it awoke apparently refreshed, it would need to snooze again long before its normal lab mates’ bedtime. It was as if the mouse had a greater need for sleep.

I know how the mouse feels.

Scientists are doing more than stating the obvious of course: they’re looking at why we need sleep at all.

One theory is that while we’re awake we form strong synaptic connections in the brain, which make memories, and during sleep we ‘file’ these memories. We weaken the synaptic connections related to unimportant memories and strengthen those related to important memories.

But what’s going on at the cellular level?

It’s all to do with proteins and a process called phosphorylation, which is the binding of phosphor and oxygen to organic molecules.

I think my own brain is faulty in this respect, or at least it can’t distinguish important memories from unimportant ones. I'm likely to forget something important, like maybe a hospital appointment, yet remember useless details about an obscure, late 70s punk band.

I have to use an extensive system of electronic reminders to remember anything these days. I find placing a single reminder is insufficient and I have to add an additional reminder reminding me I’ve got a reminder to attend to.

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Avengers: Endgame review — a bit disappointing

By and large, I've enjoyed the Avengers and most of Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Endgame left me a little disappointed. I'll tell you why in this review, in which I've largely avoided any spoilers.

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HS2 and government projects in general

Has there ever been a major government project that was overestimated in terms of time and budget? If there has, I can’t remember it. It seems to me government projects are always underestimated and I note the HS2 project is now suffering the same fate.

They have fallen for the planning fallacy yet again.

Back in my project management days I used to add anything from a third to a half onto time and budget estimates as a matter of course. It’s hard to justify that sort of thing with your bosses when you can only says it’s for the unexpected, but if there’s ever anything you should expect on a project it’s the unexpected.

Most of my projects were IT projects and you could justify some of the additional time and budget on integration. If you’ve got four people working on separate components of a large lump of software, you can guarantee it’ll take a lot longer than you think to get those components talking to one another. And that’s despite the fact that they’re all allegedly observing the same communications protocols.

I think this is a specific example of a more general phenomenon. It is wise to break a project down as much as possible in order to estimate the resources needed but it always takes longer than you think to join the dots at the end.

I guess governments have other pressures on their estimates too. Politics is going to encourage them to underestimate because they want to be seen to be using as little of taxpayers’ money as possible. But I’d argue they’d be better off estimating accurately in the first place — or even overestimating — because they’d get more political mileage by coming in either on or under budget at the end.

What I don’t understand is why the government never learns. I’ve never managed anything anywhere near the scale and complexity of HS2 but, just looking at the way previous government projects have gone, they must surely have known of their propensity to underestimate. If I’d asked the various section leaders for estimates and it totalled up to £56 billion and 15 years, I’d be working on a real estimate of £100 billion and 25 years.

If a complete numpty like me can see HS2 was always going to be underestimated, why can’t the government?

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Google's private web proposals

Google is proposing a way to build a more private web which suggests a reclassification of cookies amongst other things. From a user's perspective I think Google are coming at this from the wrong angle.

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