Archive for January, 2016

The Tokyo Journal

Sunday, January 31st, 2016 | Life

tokyo-journal

When I was a child, I used to publish my own magazine. It was called The Tokyo Journal. I have no idea why. It is unrelated to another publication also named Tokyo Journal. I claim they ripped off my name, five years before I was born, but it is difficult to prove either way.

My gran was recently having a clear out and came across an envelope full of them. I have long since lost all of my copies so suspected they might be gone forever. It was quite a pleasant surprise to be reminded of my past.

A lot has changed in fifteen years. Back then I was not the flawless eloquent writer I am today. My sense of humour was less refined. A lot of the material in there makes me cringe a little today. Nevertheless though I think what this shows is that I am a younger far-less-successful version of Richard Branson. Who wouldn’t want that on their CV?

Zero to One

Saturday, January 30th, 2016 | Books

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is a book by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. In it he talks about the challenges of producing real innovation to drive a start-up business.

He emphasises doing something new. You have to get a monopoly, with a broad scope. I could start a Finnish restaurant in Leeds for example but I wouldn’t have a monopoly. I would be the only Finnish restaurant in Leeds, but I would actually be competition with all the other restaurants in Leeds nonetheless.

In comparison the biggest tech start-ups typically have achieved near monopoly. Google handles more search traffic than all other search providers put together. The key is to start with a niche market that you can dominate and grow from there. Facebook started by only accepting students from Harvard for example. University by university it opened its doors one at a time and achieved domination. Similarly eBay started with only collectables, and PayPal started by online targeting eBay power sellers.

It also needs to be a business that can stick around. How sustainable is it in the long term? Decades from now? Zynga is a good example. The games company was worth a huge amount of money thanks to the success it had with FarmVille and Zynga Poker. At its peak, its shares were worth $10 a pop. Now they’re worth only a quarter of that because continuing to predict what social games will continue to captivate the world is an unreliable business model.

Thiel argues that you should have a small a board as possible. Ideally three people; a maximum of five. Everyone at the company should be full time: no consultants, no part time workers, no remote working. A start-up is a family and people need to be together every day to bond. Founders and CEOs should pay themselves a little as possible. This sets an example to the company, but also helps keep themselves motivated.

If you are thinking about doing a tech startup, or actually starting one, this is probably a worthwhile book to read. It is not very hands-on, but contains a lot of theory that seems useful. Given it is quite short, it seems like a sensible investment.

zero-to-one

The wedding speeches

Friday, January 29th, 2016 | Public Speaking, Video

Our Leeds wedding was a fairly traditional sit-down affair, which included speeches by myself and my best man Norman. My brother-in-law Simon was good enough to capture it all on video.

I’m pretty pleased with my speech so I am now going to arrogantly offer advice to anyone who has such as speech to do. Perhaps it will even be useful for public speaking in general.

I opened with a few jokes. I think it set a good tone for the rest of the speech, which was mostly jokes. You have to go big or go home here. It’s scary yelling out “AH HA!” in front of a room of people who may or may not have seen Alan Partridge but you really have to go for it if you want the effect to work.

In terms of preparation, I started writing the speech as soon as I proposed. This gave me a year to work on it. I did not need all of that time. I wrote most of it mentally in the first few months, and metaphorically put ink to paper a few months before the big day. A month or two is ample time to write it but I recommend getting starting in advance for a number of reasons.

First, it is easier to do when you have plenty of time. Writing a speech to a deadline sucks. You are more likely to get writer’s block when you know you have to write, rather than when you can be relaxed about it. Also, doing it well in advance gives you plenty of time to go over it and nearer the day you will have other fires to fight. You can even write it, forget about it, then do a practice run a few weeks before.

In terms of practice, I didn’t do much. But then I was pretty relaxed about it (until I had to stand up and realised this was it!). Having written it mostly in my mind, I knew the lines pretty well anyway, and I did do some practice beforehand, so it wasn’t totally just freestyle.

I used notes, as you can see from the video. Always have notes to hand. They are a comfort blanket. When I am giving a competition speech, I do not have any notes. But when it is your wedding and you are already feeling the stress, the last thing you want is additional pressure. There is alcohol to factor in too. Best to have the notes there, just in case.

The Finnish bit was read word for word. I originally wrote it in English than had Elina translate it. Then I took that to my Finnish tutor and we worked on the pronunciation together. My script is actually annotated with pronunciation notes to remind myself.

Speaking of Finnish, try not to butcher the names of all your in-laws. It’s something that I, alas, was unable to achieve.

Emotion plays a key part in your delivery too. I choked up when I was telling the story about Elina’s dad. I was not expecting that. Looking back at the video it doesn’t look as bad as it felt, but it felt pretty bad. Worth factoring that in as something to be aware of.

I suspect the best bits are the most personal. Those are the most moving. And sometimes the most funny: the joke about my parents marrying for tax reasons got the biggest laugh of the speech.

Gestures, I still haven’t figured this one out. I need to find something else to do with my hands. However, I’m not sold on the idea of keeping them by myself the whole time. It looks and feels strange to me. This area needs more attention.

With the length, I came in at 22 minutes. This would have been too long had there been a third speech. However, given it was just myself and Norman, and we are both good speakers, I thought I could get away with it. Adding a bit of vocal variety (“20 years Leeds!”) seemed to help add some animation.

I sent my speech to Norman a week or two before the wedding. At which point he realised we were basically saying the same thing and quickly went on the re-write! He kept his notes on his phone which worked quite well. It’s small, like flashcards, so doesn’t get in the way.

Confidence is key. Norman’s strong and bold delivery sets a good base, and his appropriate timing and pauses around the jokes adds to the effect. You could take this even further: breaking out into song for the Tim Minchin lines for example. Not a tactic for the faint-hearted though!

Again, the personal stuff works the best. I loved the references to Stewart Lee, but it didn’t get the same laughs as the rest. Telling personal stories to your friends and family is being able to make an in-joke that everyone is included in.

The Everything Store

Thursday, January 28th, 2016 | Books

The Everything Store is a biography of Amazon and Jeff Bezos. It is written by Brad Stone.

It discusses Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography and it is easy to make comparisons between the two. Both seem demanding people to work out. IN fact, Bezos more so. Life at Amazon is painted as relentless. Bezos speaks out against work life balance and seems to work every employee into the ground. I think I have come away being put off by the idea of working for Amazon.

This is an interesting contrast to Netflix. They claim they don’t care how long employees are in he office for as long as they do good work. How true that is in practice I am not sure though it is true that they do not track the amount of holiday staff take (you can take as much as you want), which suggests they do have a relaxed policy. Netflix have of course been hugely successful as well.

It also makes me wonder whether you have to be a bad guy to succeed in business. Though successes such as Richard Branson would suggest there are alternatives.

Bezos is a man driven to build The Everything Store. He wants every product to be available immediately for customers. This is why Amazon sometimes drifts away from selling directly (Amazon auctions, Amazon marketplace) but often comes back to fulfilled by Amazon. They want to be able to control the whole customer experience, just like Apple.

Amazon itself appears in a mixed light. It is an innovative company. It did a great job of bringing together online retail. Look inside the book, search inside the book, super-saver delivery, prime, affiliates and recommendations were all developed or popularised by Amazon. It was the first to get e-books correct with the Kindle, and it’s purchase of Audible has helped audiobooks as well. KDP and CreateSpace allows you to publish directly onto Amazon. Not to mention Amazon Fire, Amazon Web Services (AWS), A9 and the many technology fronts Amazon has. In terms of market share, AWS is huge and probably under-appreciated on that list.

Amazon’s core retail business has always been about books. Bezos has a passion for books, which probably partly explains why they have been so successful. Compare this to music where Apple dominated. Stone correctly points out that Steve Jobs loved music, whereas Bezos had no interest in it. Even when you have a giant corporation behind you, it would seem you still need to do things with passion to succeed.

Bezos does embrace the same view as Jobs on disrupting your own company. I love the Jobs quote, if you don’t canabalise your own company, somebody else will. This is exactly what Bezos wanted with the Kindle: he told his team to destroy Amazon’s core market of paper book sales. This had worked out as one of Amazon’s biggest successes.

They are also a relentless competitor. Like Walmart they are willing to stomach major loses to drive competitors out of business. They don’t treat their suppliers well either. Something I experienced first hand when publishing the Leeds Restaurant Guide. Amazon give me only around 30% of the sales price, whereas Apple give me 70%.

Getting an insight into Amazon’s logistics was fascinating. For example, super-saver delivery. I had lazily assumed it was that they used some kind of cheaper, slower delivery. Not necessarily so. The idea behind it is that they don’t even get it out of the warehouse until they have spare capacity. You might get lucky and they will have capacity straight away. Or you might not.

There is also the complexity of delivery. How often have you bought a USB stick and it turned up in box the size of a microwave? It’s amusing for the customer (ignoring the environmental effect, which we should not). However, for the business, putting the right products into the smallest possible packaging is actually an important part of cost-saving efficiency.

In some ways, Amazon could be seen as a bit of a mess. In the conclusion, Stone talks about how Amazon often has poor communication between departments and effort is also often duplicated. However, the company uses these things to their advantage. Different projects compete with each other on their own internal market, like their search routines did, with the best one surviving. Often companies are desperate to avoid duplication, but maybe it is not always that bad.

The-Everything-Store

Oven-roasted turbot

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016 | Food

turbot

This is based on a recipe from The River Cottage Fish Book.

Flat fish are fairly easy to clean. They have all their guts in a little pocket at the front below the face. This is the only preparation I did for the flat fish. It was roasted hole with the skin on.

I replaced half of the original cherry tomatoes with sweet potato. Elina is not a tomato fan, but loves sweet potato. I cut it into chunks and boiled it for 15 minutes before adding it to the tray with the tomatoes. This produced a slightly mushy result, but with a firmed-up skin. I also rubbed olive oil and stashed a bit of butter around the fish.

Finally it all went into the oven for 15 minutes before being served on the tray.

The Brilliant Batsby: A Murder Mystery Dinner Party

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 | Distractions

nye-2015-web

For New Year’s Eve we threw a murder mystery dinner party. I’ve previously written about the event and the food I served. Today, I want to talk about the murder mystery, and make it available for anyone who is interested.

The script was based around The Brilliant Batsby, a parody on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby. Set in the Roaring Twenties, the plot involves a dozen characters at one of Batsby’s famous parties. A time traveller, Baron von Brown, turns up with proof that Batbsy will be murdered in the future. But which of the guests did it?

Ready for commercial sale it certainly is not. A good boxed murder mystery allows you to work with any number of characters (or without any) and have a different murderer every time. In my script most of the characters are required and the murder is predetermined. All of this is in the dialogue and difficult to change.

Indeed this almost caused me to come unstuck. Originally The Baron was going to turn up with a motion picture device showing a video of Batsby’s murder. However, my original Batsby was ill and so I had to switch the characters around and switch the video to a letter. This resulted in some clumsy dialogue that doesn’t make a lot of sense. However, it is a parody, so best just to go with it.

The characters are:

  • The Brilliant Batsby, party host
  • Bellina Morgan, wealthy heiress and noted beauty
  • Inspector Watt, a police detective
  • Baron von Brown, a time traveller from the future
  • Mona Moonshine, infamous bootlegger
  • Murderous Joe, a convicted criminal
  • Chef Gusteau, a chef hired to cater the party
  • Professor Laura Craft, archeologist and raider of tombs
  • Timothy Timson, Professor Craft’s assistant
  • Dr Victor Zoidberg, an Austrian psychologist
  • Any number of additional characters

There are a series of 11 dialogues. Each one can be read between courses. However, if by some chance you do not have 11 courses, you could batch them. This makes sense as they are not very long, and sometimes left a conversation gap after they had finished.

If you are interested in having a look, I’ve shared the files: download them here.

River Cottage: Gone Fishing

Monday, January 25th, 2016 | Distractions

river-cottage-gone-fishing

River Cottage: Gone Fishing is a series of three 45-minute long episodes of Hugh sailing round trying to eat unusual fish. It follows the usual River Cottage format. There is some footage of Hugh doing something, and then cooking the bi-product of whatever he has been doing. There are no formal recipes as such, it is just him and his friends catching and cooking various fish.

In episode one they tour the Channel Islands on a boat, spending some time on Guernsey. In episode two he visits the Scottish Highlands to see some of the remote islands and fish farms in the Hebrides. Finally, in episode three, he visits local fishing around Devon and Dorset.

I am not really sure if I learnt anything. That is pretty useful with River Cottage: you come alway having been entertained and maybe an action point to see what your local fishmonger has. However, you don’t come away with “I’m going to buy a garfish and make a special kind of soup” because where would you buy a garfish? As a piece of entertainment though, it does its job well.

Multi-course meals

Sunday, January 24th, 2016 | Food, Thoughts

dinner-party

For our New Year’s Eve murder mystery dinner party I planned a multi-course meal. To be exact I planned 11 courses. However, everyone was so full after the ninth course that we never made it to the final two.

Here is the menu I served up.

MENU

Wood-smoked salmon pâté
Served on baguette

Goat’s cheese tart
Served with Asian-inspired coleslaw

Mexican tomato and bean soup
Served with maneesh and bloomer

Breaded fish
Served with tomato chutney and lettuce

Yorkshire pudding
Served in a Thai red curry sauce on a steak

Meatballs
Served with slow-cooked ratatouille

Carrot, orange and chervil salad

Fruit pie
Served with honeycomb ice cream

Caramel chocolate shortbread

Cheese board
With crackers and grapes

Tea & coffee
Served with chocolate biscuits

Usually I would go for a big bang approach with dinner parties. There may or may not be a starter. Most of the food would arrive with the main course, which might consist of multiple potential centerpiece dishes and many different sides.

This was very difficult to do well. The myriad dishes all had to come out hot at the same time. There was competition for attention in those final minutes and a constant strain on hob and oven space. Then you had to fit everything on the table at the same time, as well as people’s plates, and provide implements for serving everything.

My plan on New Year was to avoid all of this. By breaking everything down into small courses I would eliminate many of these problems. There was be less competition for hob and oven space as every course was spaced half an hour apart and prepared one by one. Dishes were then plated up in the kitchen and bought to the table.

Some of the effort was also wiped our by cheating, or arguably careful planning. Many of the dishes were simply cold for example. There were only four hot dishes: the soup, the fish and the two meat courses. The rest were served at room temperature, or chilled (some in my second fridge: the balcony!). I also pressed my slow cooker into use to make the ratatouille. I was able to prepare this hours in advance, slow cook it and have it sat there ready.

The advantages were clear. Each dish got more attention. Everything could be nicely presented. There was no fighting for oven space. Taking the plates to the table meant that were was plenty of space for people’s drinks, bottles of wine and even an array of candles. Many small courses also allows for more variety in the meal.

The disadvantages were reasonably few. It could be that I spent more time at the kitchen rather than at the table, but it did not feel that way. The biggest problem was plates. You need a lot of them. You either need a lot of them, or the ability to wash and dry them quickly. In the end we used a combination of both.

We bought some high quality disposable plates. They were made of plastic but easily stood being washed up and re-used. Being plastic I could not warm them however. We also had to re-use cutlery.

Overall, I think I am a convert to the multi-course meal. The biggest advantage being it takes the pressure off the one big delivery. It also allows you to spend more time crafting small and varied dishes. I suspect 11 is probably a little over the top though…

Piano: six months on

Saturday, January 23rd, 2016 | Music, Thoughts

piano

Six months ago I bought myself a piano and began taking lessons. It was hard to fit in: I had to give up my guitar lessons and when my singing teacher left I did not pursue another. I am not moaning like some rick stuck-up kid, but it was a good reminder for me that you can only do so much and need to allocate your time accordingly.

Now that I have spent six months with it, it seems like a good time to reflect on my progress so far.

I am still practising every day. You have to, if you want to achieve mastery (or even basic competency) of an instrument. I am finding it about as difficult to motive myself as I did with guitar. It’s a struggle to sit down ever day, but I do get it done.

I am finding it easier than guitar. With guitar, I literally could not play anything for the first six months. After that, I finally got one basic song down. Getting the muscle memory to make those chord shapes takes ages. With piano, I was playing a song in my first lesson. It was very simple song, but I was playing it. I can also see myself making progress, whereas often with guitar it feels like I am not getting any better. This has all be done with around twenty minutes practice a day. With guitar, I was usually doing an hour.

I can’t read music yet. I know how to, but in the heat of the moment I am lost. I have to start counting up the bars using FACE or ACEG. Interesting though, I need the music in front of me, and to keep my eyes on it, to be able to play the music.

I feel like I am building muscle memory, rather than learning. I can nail a piece, but as soon as I make a mistake or lose my place, it takes my ages to find it again. I am hoping this will disappear over time. As the songs her more challenging, it should push me to sight read more and more.

Always break it down. If you are struggling, break it down into a small section. Once you have this down, build it back up again. Slowly. Use the metronome to help yourself keep the beat. It is annoying, but useful.

Having a teacher is really valuable. Not only do they instruct and help you correct your mistakes, but they also reinforce the stuff you already know. I know I should break it down and use the metronome, but often I do not because I don’t like doing it. Having these concepts constantly reinforced is useful on its own.

Syndicating your blog to Facebook

Friday, January 22nd, 2016 | Tech

Back in the day, Facebook supported RSS feeds. You could put your RSS feed into the site and it could automatically crawl it and post your new blog posts into the Notes app. Facebook later discontinued this as they wanted people to post in content rather than use Notes. RSS Graffiti arrived in it’s place, automatically posting blog posts onto your Newsfeed. This perished too as it was unable to make any money.

Here are some alternatives.

IFTTT

IFTTT has been around for a while and I have been using it since RSS Graffiti disappeared. It is free but has some limitations. For example, you seem to have to include a title, so I have the title in the link and a comment above it saying the same thing. Also, there is no description.

IFTTT

HootSuite

HootSuite is a social media manager that also supports RSS feeds. It does not check as often as IFTTT does, but it can be set down to once per hour. This is fine for a personal blog. You have no control over how the RSS post is displayed, though it does a pretty good job by default.

hootsuite

Zapier

Zapier is a recipe site, like IFTTT. They have a free tier that gives you a few recipes. This is enough for my personal blog, though you might need a paid tier if you were running a lot of social media. Like IFTTT it checks every 15 minutes and gives you control over how the post appears.

zapier

Conclusion

I have settled on using Zapier for now. It is free and allows me to customise how the posts will display. However, any of the solutions gets the job done.