A notch above a monkey

2017 review

I finally have an accurate answer, shorter than two paragraphs, for those who actually want to know how I am. It is: “My wife had an absolutely awful year so mine wasn’t good either.” It turned out that my last year’s gloomy prediction was still optimistic. 2017 was full of accidents, family tragedy, acts and behaviour that could really nurture one’s misanthropy.

I tried to keep such tendencies in check with an exception reserved for the most dysfunctional organisation I know of. Their every medical report was full of lies and when I think of them I only feel loathing.

2018 has inherited everything needed to be another bad year and my only real goal for this year is to try to make it passable. Take care of loved ones. Everything else will be delegated to modest hopes and ambitions without firm commitment.

Bigger ambitions in 2017 were sunk in a stream of events that taught me at the very least that there are different kinds of lost years. I wouldn’t change anything if I had to relive this one so at least regrets were not compounded. Well, almost. Profound sadness from the start of 2017 developed into anger that certainly exhibited itself in my crankiness. For this I am very sorry. Otherwise I am fine.

2017 really proved how important it is to take care of your health and I did it with mixed results. On one hand I continued to meditate and averaged almost 50 minutes of recreation per day. I also got noticeably overweight and certainly not from a well balanced diet. I do not feel too bad about this, considering the year, as I am prone to comfort eating, but I would prefer a year with only half as much exercise if I also fixed my weight and diet. Also, long term stress will kill you.

Last year I haven’t done any homeconfs, nor did I build anything new nor find a new hobby. I was too preoccupied with problems at home to indulge in a quest for bigger problems to solve. My Spanish definitely stagnated which is something I definitely want to change this year. I would love to scrape together enough time for at least some of the listed wishes.

If this year eases on character-building experiences, then I’d like to give my learning more direction and depth. Spend less time on things that become quickly obsolete if they are not necessary.

I published here rarely because I wrote rarely. What I did write reads clunky and awkward and more practice is sorely needed. It would be almost impossible to publish less than I did last year, but another such year might help if it unshackles me from a self-imposed expectation of finishing the things I started. Curious to see how this turns out.

When thinking of it, 2018 looks like a maintenance year. By which I don’t mean to forsake anything new, but my focus will definitely be on solving existing issues instead of creating new ones. Let’s see how it goes.

Books I read in 2017

Cannot say much good about 2017, but at least I read a bunch of books. More even than I hoped and fewer than I would if I hadn’t slacked off at the end of last year. Not a bad selection either with no duds, but maybe too many work oriented choices and overall intellectually somewhat shallow.

As every year unaffiliated links point to Amazon. They represent mild endorsement and I would also include the two unlinked ones if I could find a place where you can get them online. Book titles are in the languages in which I read them and translations or originals may be worse or better.

Bold, as always, is reserved for those I would recommend: Austerlitz, Stories of Your Life And Others, a sequel The Arab of the Future 2, Fever Dream and a non-fiction book The Mom Test. Of these I would recommend Austerlitz the most even though I am certain it will not be to everyone’s liking. The second book worthy of a special mention is The Mom Test which I believe is the first exception to my unstated policy (until now) of recommending only fiction and general interest non-fiction books. Even if you are not trying to start a business it is still useful to learn how to get useful information and feedback from people without resorting to manipulation.

On to the list:

  • Judje na Slovenskem (Jews in Slovenian ethnic territory) by Klemen Jelinčič Boeta. A very short, at time enumerative but always informative history of Jews in Slovenian territories. I became nauseous when reading about 19th and most of 20th century, but would recommend it even more for it.
  • How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately by Boris Shekhtman. A very to the point book on techniques you can use to improve how you learn (any) new language. Too early to tell how well they work, but they and exercises look promising and useful also for improving communication in native language.
  • Microinteractions: Designing with Details by Dan Saffer. Detailed examination of microinteractions, what makes them work and how to use them to build experiences that are pleasant and memorable. Recommended reading for UX designers.
  • Austerlitz by W.G.Sebald. I am struggling to describe this very fine book without saying too much while saying too little. Almost dreamlike, impressionistic meditation where a lot transpires without much happening. Very recommended and worth persisting even if it does not grab you immediately.
  • Mobile App Development with Ionic 2 by Chris Griffith. A good introduction to Ionic2 for those new to it. I would like it more if it was more focused (comments related to Ionic 1 are not really useful to anyone) and if testing apps received more space.
  • A Burglar's Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh. A book most easily enjoyed if approached as light entertainment. Starting from an intriguing premise, full of interesting anecdotes and some interesting information, it still felt too long with too little to say. Do not expect a guide!
  • Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang. I feel I should have liked it more than I did. Every story is original and thought provoking, most of them well written and none badly. Cannot think of a reason why I would not recommend it.
  • The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo by Brendan Simms. Title really sums it up and I can recommend it to anyone remotely interested in the battle of Waterloo. Gripping read that takes no longer than your average movie.
  • The Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985 by Riad Sattouf. Next instalment in trilogy and as good as the first one. Highly recommended.
  • Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. A difficult book to discuss without saying too much, but it is one of the most gripping books I remember reading. Probably unfilmable, but stories don't come much better than this.
  • Nemška loterija (German Lottery) by Miha Mazzini. I enjoyed reading this book more than his recent columns (rants). While twist itself will not surprise you, it is well written with some ideas that may elevate it above most summer reading.
  • Angular 2 Cookbook by Matt Frisbie. An excellent combination of tips and introduction to Angular 2+ that I would recommend to anyone wanting to learn this framework. It has few minor errors, but none (yet) that would really matter.
  • CSS Secrets: Better Solutions to Everyday Problems by Lea Verou. Fantastic book for practically every web frontend developer. At its most superficial it is a well organised cookbook of mostly excellent solutions to commonly found problems. However its real value lies in author's explanations which can teach almost everyone something on how to go about solving CSS challenges.
  • Practical SVG by Chris Coyier. A fine introduction to using SVG effectively. If like me you want information about SVG internals, then this is probably not the book you want. Nevertheless it already has proved useful to me.
  • Badass: Making Users Awesome by Kathy Sierra. I am a big fan of Kathy, but am a bit perplexed by this book. It's central thesis is interesting: building loyalty by focusing on user's development, but I am not sure how widely can this be used and some research it relies on is questionable. Still, if nothing else it gives you good advice on how to effectively improve your own skills.
  • Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives) by Erich Kästner. I read this book first when I was about Emil Tischbein's age and this fun story aged surprisingly well with its humanistic core as relevant now as it was when it was written. Still, best suited for children and those looking for an easy way in to polishing their German.
  • Designing Interface Animation: Meaningful Motion for User Experience by Val Head. A good primer on why and how to use animation effectively in interface design. It is at its weakest, as this type of books generally are, when discussing how to incorporate it in work processes, but all of it is worth reading and I would especially recommend reading e-book version as it makes it easier to use included links to video demos.
  • The Family Trade by Charles Stross. A book I probably read at a wrong time. A well written engaging story with mostly compelling characters that sometimes exhibit implausible adaptability to circumstances. An abrupt end on account of book's publishing history did not bother me as much as I expected. Stross is clearly a talented storyteller and I suspect I would like this book more if I read it a couple of years ago.
  • The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. Possibly the best business book I've ever read. Excellent advice on practically every aspect of customer discovery without any fluff.
  • Učna ura ustvarjalnega pisanja (Lessons or creative writing) by Michal Viewegh. A decent entertainment for a short afternoon with some good lines and with an opinion on good literature that I don't subscribe to.

This year my plan is again to read about 15 books with work related kind being in clear minority, but numbers are not everything and I would be happy even with only 10 mind-stretching ones. I am looking for Dictionary of the Khazars (Hazarski rečnik) in Serbian so any tip would be appreciated. Another challenge to myself is to read at least a book in every language I know well enough. I suspect this is ambitious enough for this year.

Related articles

Google Maps

I was recently reading an otherwise decent article on mobile design when I got triggered by its admiration of Google Maps interface. As it happens we recently came back from our trip to Sicily where Google Maps was for the first time our primary navigation tool. Results were mixed, but all in all it is a remarkably mediocre product for something that was launched more than a decade ago and its interface contributed a lot to overall impression.

My biggest problem with Google Maps is that you can get stuck in an endless loop if you are in an unknown environment. I don't actually know how navigation apps calculate routes, but from my observations and being aware of shortest path problem it looks like full optimisation is done only for "nearby" destinations and around edges of routes to more distant ones. If your destination is far enough then it will fall-back to using main roads for most of your journey and god help you if one of them has a recently closed section.

When we were leaving Agrigento late in the evening we kept being rerouted to the same stretch of closed road. We finally "saved" ourselves by selecting an intermediate destination that formed large enough triangle with our final destination that once reached it was unlikely we would be driven back to by then very familiar blockade.

Now, Google obviously can't learn in advance for all roads when they will be closed. But for a company that prides itself on its machine learning/AI chops it could well notice when all these phones it is tracking stop going through some major route. Especially if they fail to take it after they are repeatedly guided through it.

Years ago I bought what was then practically the cheapest Garmin and one of its features I liked a lot was that it showed how fast I was driving and what the current speed limit was. It wasn't perfect as limits change more often than maps and I can understand why a company like Google prefers not to show that, but I still found current velocity useful as it was far more reliable than car's speedometer. In EU indicated speed must be between 100-110% of real one plus an allowance of additional 4km/h at specified test speeds which means you might be going only 80km/h when gauge is telling you 92km/h. Velocity calculated from averaged GPS positions is simply more reliable.

I am not a fast driver and I would not care much about this indicator if I could rely more on arrival time estimates. I clearly am not the kind of driver Google expects. This is most obvious on highways where I would need to drive close to speed limit to meet them and I can't because there is no reliable way to know how fast we are going. On most of our trips there simply are not enough mountain ascents to compensate for those "lost" minutes.

Generally Google Maps assumes options would only unduly burden our feeble minds so it either hides or completely removes them. There are often no alternatives to routes and certainly not once one is selected. The only possible reason to use navigation, it seems, is to get to your destination as quickly as possible and prepare to suffer trying to persuade the app to take a less direct scenic road. When you get to your destination, it will consider its job done and without confirmation stop navigating even if you haven't actually spotted it yet or will need to park somewhere else.

Its limited flexibility and customisability can be infuriating. You don't like the voice used in navigation? Change system wide language settings. Is it too chatty? Turn off or put up. Would you like to go to a previously entered destination? Can't do if you don't also store this information on Google's servers.

When Google Maps was launched, it had a very vivid palette which was later watered down to more pleasingly looking pastels that are also harder to discern, especially in non-ideal conditions such as on a phone in a car on a very sunny day. Most of the time it is fine, but night colours are just obtuse. Who thought that grey, blue and black form a high enough contrast in context where I can reasonably afford only glances at a relatively small screen?

And speaking of night-time colour palette. Why does it switch on immediately after sunset? My phone is more than happy to adjust screen brightness based on brightness of its surrounding, so why does it not use that same sensor to decide when it is actually dark enough to switch colours? Of course you can't change colours either.

In a way it feels petty to spend so many words complaining about something which in its essence I still find remarkable. The fact that you can navigate your way around this planet using a small, relatively affordable gadget with often current traffic updates is astonishing.

But it is not singular and has not been even before Google Maps was launched. While it is adding new things it is failing many common, if not basic, requirements that were implemented by its less moneyed competitors years ago. Many of these limitations are clearly self-serving. For example there really is no good technical reason for not storing locally previously visited locations. Its offline mode is also limited both in maximum covered area size and (complete?) lack of navigation features. Feasibility of both has, again, been amply demonstrated years ago by others on much more constrained devices.

Constraints are also not financial as implementing and supporting these features on a couple of platforms pales in comparison with resources needed to continuously map and photograph this planet. They are not there because they would be expensive. They are missing because what Google wants is a paternalistic relationship where you regularly feed the beast with new data. And you do that by being tethered to their servers, storing on them even information that doesn't need to be there and responding positively to almost constant nagging to provide pictures of your current location.

Few products achieve perfection. Most have to settle on a compromise between what is currently feasible, desired by users and required by company. Judging them by some unattainable ideal would be absurd, but Google Maps, while doubtlessly useful, still comes up short.