Mech Tech

Due in no small part to a subreddit I stumbled upon last month, I have found this month's obsession: mechanical keyboards. 

A mechanical keyboard is one which uses old-fashioned metal switches and properly sprung keys with removable caps, rather than the rubber membranes used on the MacBook and other Apple keyboards. The switches themselves (the German Cherry MX being the brand of ubiquity) are available in a range of flavours, offering different sounds, resistance to pressure and tactile feedback.

They're revered in equal measure by PC gamers—on account of their more consistent and reliable operation—and writers who consider them the best tool for their craft. And they can be beautiful:

Being the sort of person who recognises that having the best tools will instantly transform one in a master of their craft, after some extensive research I placed my order—the Ducky One, 108 key, ISO layout and Cherry MX Brown switches:

I've been tapping away on it for a couple of weeks now. During this time my typing speed has dropped from 65 to 50 words per minute, I've started annoying those in neighbouring rooms with my incessant click-clacking and developed a deep ache in my forearms from angling my wrists up while reaching for its considerably more pronounced keys.

But I fully intend to persevere, not because I feel like an idiot for spending money on something which makes a job harder, but because I know it will help me become a better person. Like a high-performance car which demands more thought and discipline from its operator, but rewards with an infinitely greater driving experience. Or a wood-burning stove which, with all the stacking, chopping and carrying, is considerably more work than flicking on the central heating but delivers a warmth for which there is no scientific measure.


I've long had myself down as an introvert who got on in life by learning to switch on the extroversion when required; I even wrote about this recently for Creative Edinburgh. But this week I discovered the term 'ambiversion' and realised I've been wrong all along.

An ambivert is someone who sits somewhere between the two extremes of introversion and extroversion. They enjoy working or socialising with groups of people and will tolerate being the centre of attention, yet still relish time in their own company doing their own thing. They look forward to a weekend full of social events as much as one with no plan at all. They'll talk at length about something they're interested in but are just as happy to shut up and listen quietly to others.

To a tee, this is me. In fact, I seem to have unwittingly engineered precisely this balance in my working life—I give myself lots of opportunities to work and hang out with other people, but also have my own private space to retreat to, to think, create and just be. I value both equally.

It's always good to realise your place in life.

HMS Brexit

I represented Creative Edinburgh at an event this week, about protecting Scotland's cultural, creative and tourism industries as the UK begins the process of leaving the European Union.

Fiona Hyslop and Michael Russell spoke very candidly and took questions on the Scottish Government's approach to brexit, after which the 150 or so attendees spent an hour discussing our fears and hopes, and the areas we wanted Holyrood to prioritise.

It hadn't occurred to me before then how fundamental the freedom of movement questions is, and how it alone explains the way different parts of the UK swung in the vote. In Scotland, the freedom for others to come here unhindered and for us to roam mainland Europe is seen, in the main, as a hugely positive thing full of hope and opportunity; in many parts of England quite the opposite is true, where fears of foreigners taking jobs and diluted cultural identity abound.

The economic aspects, and the pros and cons of Free Market vs global trading are, I think, secondary to the point of insignificance. The desire or a mandate for a referendum certainly wouldn't have grown around that issue in the way it has around some of the horrific and skewed fears being imagined and peddled by the far right in the South.

What really frightens me—and most of those at my table on Wednesday—is the very real prospect that those who have come from other parts of the world and made Scotland their home will at best begin to feel unwelcome, at worst be made to leave. That the influx of fresh ideas, energy and culture will be stemmed. I know we will be so much poorer in every sense as a result.

Of course the counter argument is that nobody wants to stop immigration, we're simply taking back control of our borders so we can choose who to let in and for what reason.

But the wonderful thing about open borders is that people don't have to prove themselves or arrive for a specific reason or job. Neither society nor industry are that predictable and many of the best things happen unexpectedly when you throw a bunch of random people together. Working in Codebase and on projects like CivTech, I see that stuff happening every day—it's real.

Of the many EU nationals I've been lucky enough to work with since our borders were opened, I can't think of one who came here because of a specific job. They arrived for education, love, or as a tourist. They decided they liked the place (who wouldn't), started laying down roots, getting jobs, starting families, building companies and adding real value to our society and economy.

Any barriers we put up, no matter how small, will stop this wonderfully organic process.

It was encouraging that so many people had made the time to come along and contribute enthusiastically, but perhaps equally despondent that it in spite of any optimism, energy or ideas in that room—or indeed throughout Scotland—it may all be futile. Scotland is but a small vessel, tied helplessly to the back of an unstoppable cargo ship being steered into a storm by grinning maniacs we didn't vote for.

All of a to-do

A brief moment of calm this week has afforded the opportunity to catch up with a long list of hitherto neglected tasks. This got me thinking about the bizarre mishmash of tools and apps I've put in place around me as I've tried to maintain order in my work (and mind). Here's a quick rundown of my current organisational insanity:

1. Things

Things is a task manager for iOS and macOS, and the tool I most consistently use. If there's something I absolutely have to do—big or small—it's probably on Things. If I feel a sudden panic while cooking dinner because I remember I need to do something, I'll whip out my phone, add it to Things and let my inner peace return.

It lets you do all manner of advanced stuff like define projects and set tasks within each, tag stuff, add deadlines, sort tasks to be done 'today', 'next', and 'sometime'. All manner of advanced things I seem unable to make sensible use of—everything I have to do is simply listed in 'today' and ordered (approximately) by order of importance.

If I'm under pressure to get stuff done I'll usually add an empty task as a dividing line and drop anything I don't have to think about today below that. (Of course Things provides a way to focus only on the immediate stuff, but I find if I move anything to the 'next' section I tend to forget to go back and find it later.)

2. Trello

I'm a sporadic but keen user of Trello, the web app based around the kanban / agile approach to getting shit done. You set up a board for a project which has columns containing cards. Each card represents something to be done, and you nudge them along left to right as you do them (next > doing > testing > done, for example). It's also good at collecting small assets related to those tasks—text, links, pictures, comments, etc.

I tend to use Trello enthusiastically when I'm working on a bigger project with lots of moving parts spread over several weeks or months. It's a good way to make something huge more manageable and prioritise things when resources are limited. And because Trello boards are collaborative, they're particularly useful when several people are working on the same thing.

3. Apple notes

My rational brain doesn't see any reason to use Apple notes. Nonetheless, it's found its place as a more casual or urgent repository: things to remember to take with me tomorrow morning, stuff to pick up at the supermarket, items to pack for a trip, books people have recommended (which I know I'll never read) or ideas for blog posts (which I'll probably never write—this one wasn't there).

The fact it syncs between phone and MacBook is probably key, as is the absence of any need to think about structuring what I add.

4. Calendar

If I want to get something done on or before a particular date, I'll block out a chunk of time in my calendar. I might not end up doing what I want to do precisely when I book it in (more on that below) but if it's there I'm much less likely to let it slip.

5. Email

Whether I like it or not, my inbox may be the biggest driver of what I do hour by hour. I tend to triage every message as soon it arrives. If it's very important or connected to my current task it gets dealt with straight away, if not it gets marked as unread and goes into the backlog, and receipts for thing I've purchased get flagged for later logging in FreeAgent. So effectively here's another to-do list, separate from Things. (Why would I waste time adding "reply to Bob's email" to Things? Replying to Bob is probably quicker.)

In conclusion

Either Things or Trello could cull this list to a single, central solution but, much as I've tried to make that happen, I don't think it ever will. I think it's because us creative types constantly play this silly game with ourselves to make sure we get things done but don't get bogged down and held back by tool many ordered, practical tasks.

I hate being told what, when or how to do anything, even if it's me doing the telling; I like to keep my spirit free to float and tend to rebel against my own to-do lists. My yesterday self wanted me to do that thing today, but my today self wants to focus on something completely different. Today self knows tomorrow self might well do the same thing, so picks the best weapon from the list above to minimise the chance he will.

(Yes, I know—I have issues.)

Demo Day

The end of the first CivTech® accelerator was celebrated this week, with a jam-packed day of pitches, speeches and chats.

Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy delivers his closing remarks

I first met the Head of CivTech, Alexander Holt, eight short months ago, when he described his brilliantly absurd scheme to get the public sector and tech startups working with each other. It's kind of blindingly obvious—particularly in these times of austerity—how much government agencies could benefit from the ambitious, growth-hacky, minimum-viable-producty, get-stuff-done approach now common to tech-startups; it's equally obvious the boost to a young company of having an NHS trust, police force or environmental agency as an early customer.

The problem has always been the barrier sitting between the two: public sector procurement. Governments have a tendency to over-specify solutions to problems they perhaps don't fully understand; tech startups can ill afford the time and resources needed to navigate the procurement process. So the pubic sector misses out on some of the most forward-thinking minds and we all miss the economic development opportunities of nurturing massively scalable companies at their inception.

Alexander thought he had a way to bridge this gap, and I thought he had the mettle to make it happen. So when the opportunity arose to get involved as Head of Product I jumped at it.

There was a heady mix of anticipation and nervousness when we opened the doors in late September. Nobody quite knew what to expect.

But three and a bit months of incredibly hard work later, here we are with nine companies—five of which formed solely because of CivTech—each with the bones of a product which could dramatically change for the better the way the pubic sector spends our money and serves society. Nine companies with the potential to build huge businesses operating way beyond Scotland.

Playing a small part in the process has been brilliant and very rewarding on a personal level. Although this week has marked the end of the programme, I'm sure it's also the start of something much, much bigger.