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My Seventh Blog Post: Too Many PDAs

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This is the Seventh in my series of posts looking back on my first 10 blog posts.

This post describes a problem that’s thankfully been solved in my life:

I have 2 pocket PC’s, a Blackberry and a Tablet, all of them play music but I also have a Creative Nomad 20G.  How did I get in this mess.

Well it started with one of the original IPAQ’s which a few years ago I thought was a marvel.  I carried it everywhere and loaded it with loads of useless software and tried to squeeze a CD’s worth of music onto it.  After about 3 months I hardly ever used it because the battery life was too short and the synchronisation too much of a chore.  My 11 year old daughter has it now, and after a month of enthusiasm hardly ever uses it either.

Then I got the Nomad, I copied all my CD’s onto it and hardly made a dent in its 20GB, I converted all of the Tech-ED conference DVDs into WMA files so I could listen to them in the gym and out walking.  It got used a lot for a few months, and still gets used perhaps once or twice a week.  But if I lost it tomorrow it would not have much of an impact on my life, in fact I probably wouldn’t even notice.

Then I got my first Blackberry, a dual band mono model with integrated phone, (headset only).  I loved it, in my view almost perfect form and function for its purpose, Wireless Email and Calendar.  I never did get tasks to synchronise with Notes properly.  In fact after about a week the only time it ever went into its cradle was to charge its batteries.  I never synch it with my PC all synch was wireless.  However the gadgeteer in me wanted more so I got a colour 7210, triband model, with a bit more memory and a real phone.  It’s great, has fantastic battery life and the colour makes it look a bit livelier.  it’s true that its addictive though.  I use it every day, even though I work at home because it allows me to appear to be working when I am in a cafe or walking, or sitting on the beach.  The fact that I never need to synch it, that its always on, always up to date, incredibly slick to use means I am never without it.

But then I was given a shiny new Pocket PC, from HP.  It’s tiny, has a fab display, bluetooth, 64MB, SD and CF cards.  it syncs with my Tablet just great.  But its hasn’t got a phone,  I still have to take an action to synch it and it’s just not as slick as the Blackberry.  However I do still use it, but more as a complement to my Blackberry, one I can do without but is nice to have.

Finally I have my tablet, my only truly indispensable gadget.  Its a perfect complement to the Blackberry though neither depends on the other they both keep in synch via a corporate Notes server wirelessly.  One is there for real work, the other for instant on communication.

As I read this post I’m kind of amazed at the amount of messing around that I had to do carrying and caring for all these gadgets and don’t even get me started thinking about the cost of them all.  The PC was still king then as it is now, but two more generations of Blackberry was all it needed for me to drop the Nomad MP3 player the iPaq and the Nokia, then came the Palm Treo, then a few years later I went back to the Blackberry Bold and eventually the iPhone and iPad.  Once I had the iPad I went back to a traditional laptop rather than the compromise ridden experience of a Windows tablet.

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, just before making a move to the Beach Terrace Cafe for breakfast, I’m off to the solicitors later, which is a new experience for me, after a walk on the dunes (pictured)

My Sixth Blog Post: Visit From The Occupational Therapist

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Over the last 11 years I had quite a few helpful meetings with my occupational therapist, this post documents the first visit, when I was full of optimism:

I had my first visit from an occupational therapist today.  I have been referred to her to assess the type of work I do and how that can best be adjusted to make it easier for me to cope.  She arrived 2 hours late and stayed for 4 hours.  The visit itself tired me out but it was very useful.  She helped me to see my condition in terms of its affect on my work, and the affect my work has on the condition.  The process she went through was enlightening, and should be useful.  Not surprisingly she has not worked with anyone with AOSD before but she says that the symptoms and affect on work are similar to those that people suffering from chronic fatigue go through.

She wants me to start an 8 week controlled trial, where I will work from home on well bounded tasks and keep lots of records.  For the first 4 weeks she wants me to increase from 20 hours a week to 37.5, my normal hours in gradual steps.

All in all 4 hours well spent.

It’s noteworthy that she came to my home and that she spent 4 hours in the first consultation, an experience that’s pretty unique among the medical profession.  I’m sure that if I’d had a quarter of this time with my consultant, and if he’d taken the same holistic approach to treating me, rather than just treating my blood tests, then the last 12 years would have been a bit easier.

Unfortunately although the approach my OT described was well thought through (focus on well bounded tasks) I rarely achieved this.  It’s not in my nature to work within bounds, I see issues and opportunities and I follow where they lead and they draw me in, engage me and frustrate me.  This ‘problem’ of becoming to engaged in my work, too committed to success has been a defining characteristic of my working life.  When I was healthy enough to cope it was great, but it’s totally incompatible with chronic illness.

Back to my OT, who was employed by my extended sick pay insurance company and so she was also highly motivated to get me back to working full time but I never managed to sustain this.  Several times over the last 11 years I did manage it, but always during a pain free period.  I’d be euphonic as a result of being pain free, full of energy and optimism, I’d over-commit and start taking on more responsibility and working more hours.  Gradually though the pain and fatigue would return, I’d keep working full time though by propping myself up on meds (lots of pain killers, Red Bull, sleeping tablets…) I’d keep struggling on, performance would slide and then I’d crash with a bad flare that would take months (sometimes years) to recover from. 

Gradually my occupational therapist recommended reducing my hours further, and then further still and eventually I settled into my one week on, one week off, afternoons only, working pattern which I managed to sustain for several years and it worked very well.  Unfortunately while this pattern was perfect for health, it wasn’t enough hours to sustain me in my job, gradually it became too difficult to keep up to date with all the changes in my company and the changes in the industry and do some useful work as well.  So I had two choices, work more hours and let my health suffer, or go full time sick, I chose to work more hours, and suffer I did.

There’s no easy solution unfortunately, even being permanently off sick would have it’s costs and provide no guarantee of avoiding flares and so I struggle on as best I can.

I wrote this post sitting in Caffe Nero Blackpool (pictured), which is a nice change for me from Lytham or St Annes.  I’m here because I plucked up the ‘courage’ to cycle here and it was hard work against the wind, and I’m exhausted from another difficult night with my itching, burning legs.  Anyway I made it and I feel great, especially because I’m anticipating ‘flying’ home.

My Fifth Blog Post–I Have So Many Gadgets

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This is the fifth in my series of posts looking back on my first 10 blog posts.

It seems that even 11 years ago I was starting to get concerned over the number of gadgets that had gradually crept into my life, here’s the full post:

I have so many gadgets!.

I realised as I was thinking about things to blog about that I have a lot of gadgets.  Some of them are useful and some are toys.  Often I find I am wildly enthusiastic about one of them for a few weeks, telling everyone they need one too and then it sits in a corner for months without being touched.  So I thought I might help others not to make the same mistake and also pick out some real gems, for me at least.

So these are some of the Gadgets I will talk about soon:

  1. My two IPAQ Pocket PC’s
  2. My Blackberry
  3. My Tablet PC
  4. My KVM switch
  5. My Amstrad Emailer
  6. My HP OfficeJet d125i
  7. My Wireless network
  8. My Creative Nomad Jukebox
  9. My Minolta Dimage Z1 camera
  10. My Nokia 6310i phone

and just in case you think I am too rich for my own good, lots of these were provided by work, or by friendly suppliers

Taking a quick look at the list, how many of these are still a part of my life?:

  1. My two IPAQ Pocket PC’s – replaced by my iPhone
  2. My Blackberry  – replaced by my iPhone
  3. My Tablet PC – a HP TC1100, still the best tablet I’ve ever owned, replaced by my Thinkpad x230 and my iPad Mini
  4. My KVM switch – no longer needed, it’s function replaced mostly by software – Mouse Without Borders
  5. My Amstrad Emailer – replaced by a network of DECT phones
  6. My HP OfficeJet d125i – replaced by a A3 Brother 6690CW
  7. My Wireless network – still going strong
  8. My Creative Nomad Jukebox – replaced by iPhone
  9. My Minolta Dimage Z1 camera – still going strong, but mostly replaced by iPhone
  10. My Nokia 6310i phone – still going strong, used as an emergency phone and during holidays, but mostly replaced by my iPhone

It’s interesting to see that of the 10 gadgets 5 of them have been replaced by my iPhone, 3 are still being used but 2 of them only occasionally, 3 have been directly replaced and one has been replaced by software.  All of the functions they performed are still important to me.  It’s a little troubling to think about all of the money that was spent buying and replacing them though!

I’m writing this in Caffe Nero as usual, it’s been raining overnight (perfect timing) but the sun’s breaking through now and I’m sitting in the window seat watching the town come to life on a quiet Sunday morning.  My legs are still very hot, but the drive to itch/scratch them isn’t quite as overpowering, I might go for a walk on the dunes (pictured) later before pottering around the garden and reading this afternoon.

My Fourth Blog Post : The Importance Of Keeping Records

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This is the fourth in my series of posts looking back on my first 10 blog posts.

This post continues the theme of looking at Still’s disease, explaining my early insight into the importance of keeping records:

One of the things that has really helped me with AOSD s keeping my own records.  Its a very difficult thing to diagnose, so the doctors need all of the help they can get.

First lets consider the major symptoms:

  1. A rash.  Take photo’s, normally the rash doesn’t itch and its clearer after a hot bath.
  2. A spiking temperature.  Keep a log of your temperature, if you have Still’s it will alternate between well above normal and a little below, at least once a day and sometimes twice.  I found that this pattern was not too evident when I was in in hospital because they gave me aspirin all through the day which masked the effect.  In my case its only when I left hospital and stopped the aspirin that all became clear.
  3. It involves joints and muscles and it moves around.  Keep a pain chart, I had a daily chart that recorded which joints and muscles hurt and how much.  I colour coded it and produced graphs.  When my doctor looked at the pain chart and the temperature chart he said “Ah Ha AOSD”.  In my case the chart is a wild pattern, with different muscles and joints showing up in different colours most days.  However I can see that when I am getting close to a flare, its my fingers that are the early warning!
  4. It maybe induced by Stress,  Keep a stress chart,  I did this as soon as I went back to work.  When I compared the stress and pain chart they were almost the same.  When I showed it to HR at work it was much easier to have a discussion about working from home and changing the type of work I do.

So in summary I have no magic cure for AOSD, but if you want a better deal from your doctors and from your employer, I think it pays to keep your own records!

This really was an important insight, I carried on keeping records for the next 11 years and I still do.  I’ve modified the tools that I use to make the process more efficient, but the basic principle still applies.  It’s especially important with a chronic condition like Still’s where you have good days and bad days and your blood tests don’t always show a correlation with symptoms.  There are two downsides to keeping records though, every day it means my focus is drawn to my symptoms and often medical practitioners frown at record keeping because reviewing the records and trying to distil their meaning takes longer than a quick response to “how are you?”.

These are the tools that I use now:

  1. Each week I take a copy of my time sheet, which shows how many hours I’ve worked each day, paste it into Evernote and write a short paragraph summarising how my health has been that week, the challenges I’ve faced, whether I’ve had to compromise my health for work etc.  This weekly record has been more powerful than all the other records that I’ve kept, it’s free form nature has been particularly important.  I’ve often read through these weekly summaries from previous years to compare the-and-now and it’s very good for that.
  2. Every morning I log my symptoms in the iPad Pain Tracker app.  This app is very comprehensive, tracking pain locations and severity, sleep, stress, brain fog, fatigue, overall pain intensity and much much more if you’re so inclined.  It’s very quick and easy and has excellent reporting including correlation analysis (which has never been useful for me)
  3. Coach.Me which I use every day to create really simple trends for three binary metrics, whether or not I’ve had no-pain, low-pain or high-pain that day.
  4. I still take photos of the rash as it’s a very concrete form of evidence
  5. Every month I get a comprehensive suite of blood tests and log the results in a spread sheet, that automatically marks results in red if they are outside of the normal range.  This is way better than the log-book that the hospital provides
  6. Every 6 months I update a report that I give to my specialist

In summary I still highly recommend keeping records, if you personally want to challenge your condition and work on living the best life you can despite it,  if you want a more results oriented relationship with your doctors and if you need to provide evidence to your employer, insurance or benefits provider.  All of these reasons have applied to me and the results definitely justify the 5 minutes a day it takes.

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, I’m still plagued by the itchy rash but I’m trying to stay positive.  It’s cold and cloudy outside but I’m dreaming of better weather in Filey (pictured) in a weeks time, although unfortunately I’m not expecting to see another seal pup like this one in October.

My Third Blog Post: Me and AOSD

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This is the third in my series of posts looking back on my first 10 blog posts.

This post is actually quite fascinating (to me) as it describes how my relationship with Still’s started through the earliest flares, I’d forgotten some of the details.  It describes the defining moment in my life when I decided that I couldn’t continue to do the job that I loved and had to step down and do something different.  Here goes:

Approximately 4 years ago I was working in London, and had a sore throat and was noticing some annoying muscle stiffness and pain, I boarded the train to return to Preston and on arrival found I could no longer stand. By the next morning I was unable to get out of bed due to extreme muscle and joint pain. The condition was not diagnosed at this time and no treatments were effective, although home care was possible. After about 6 weeks I was able to return to work. Very minor reoccurrence of symptoms were noticed occasionally, but they had no affect on my lifecycle or ability to work.

After about 18 months I had another flare-up, resulting in approximately 4 weeks off work, again with home care being given.  I returned to work however this time I did notice some muscle pain every week or so, however this was never correlated with stress or workload, and had no affect on my lifestyle or ability to work.

Last year I had a major flare-up, causing almost complete disability, i.e. unable to move unaided, feed myself etc.  I was admitted to hospital for care and whilst there had extensive tests for 2 weeks, no diagnosis was made but my condition stabilised sufficiently to allow me to return home. Within days the condition flared again and I was re-admitted to hospital for further care. During this period as a result of records I had kept of the pattern of pain and temperature the diagnosis of Still’s was made with confidence.

A treatment plan was created and within a week I was able to leave hospital and 4 weeks later was able to return to work.

Following my return to work around April last year I have never been free of pain.  I kept daily records of pain and stress levels. Even whilst continuing to take regular Steroids to suppress the symptoms I had one flare, and since coming off steroids two flares, the last one in January requiring re-establishment of the treatment and two weeks off work.

I approached my company about changing to a less stressful job and working from home, they have agreed in principle, so I am at home right now and decided to start this log.

This blog post arose directly as a result of this decision, the blog was originally called ‘Adventures In Home Working’.  While the changes that I made, working from home, not managing people, not leading projects, definitely eased my stress levels and reduced the impact of my unpredictability on my employer, they also made it more difficult for me personally.  Working from home I was more isolated and had less support from my peers, not managing people meant I didn’t have enough time or resources to implement many of my ideas and not leading projects reduced the impact I was able to make and hence reduced the thrill that comes from making progress. 

I often wonder whether I would have been happier at work if I’d been able to keep managing a team, but I don’t regret the change as working from home definitely improved my family life and made it easier to focus on my long term health.

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero St Annes as usual, I’m still suffering badly from the burning, itchy rash that covers most of my legs, I’ve only had a couple of hours sleep. Still, I’m hopeful it will clear within a week so that I can enjoy a weeks break in Filey (pictured) with Debbie. 

My Second Blog Post – So what is Adult Onset Stills Disease?

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This is the second in my series of posts looking back on my first 10 blog posts.

My second post was also incredibly short, quoting the Adult Onset Still’s Disease website’s description of Still’s disease:

AOSD is an inflammatory condition that attacks internal organs, joints and other parts of the body. It can appear and disappear suddenly. In very severe cases, AOSD becomes chronic and extremely debilitating, causing terrible pain and stiffness. After many years, the disease cripples vital organs such as the heart and lungs.

This description no longer exists and the link to the original web page no longer works, but hunting around on the web site I found the updated description:

Patients with Still’s disease usually present with systemic (body wide) symptoms. Extreme fatigue can accompany waves of high fevers that rise to 104 degrees F (41 degrees C) or even higher and rapidly return to normal levels or below. A faint salmon-colored skin rash characteristically comes and goes and usually does not itch (picture of the Still’s rash). There is commonly swelling of the lymph glands, enlargement of the spleen and liver, and sore throat. Some patients develop inflammation of the lungs (pleuritis) or around the heart (pericarditis) with occasional fluid accumulation around the lungs (pleural effusion) or heart (pericardial effusion). Although the arthritis may initially be overlooked because of the impressive nature of the systemic symptoms, everyone with Still’s disease eventually develops joint pain and swelling. This usually involves many joints (polyarticular arthritis). Any joint can be affected, although there are preferential patterns of joint involvement in Still’s disease.

Neither description is very helpful for long term sufferers though because they place the emphasis on the acute symptoms and not the chronic symptoms that many people develop. 

This 11 year old post is interesting though because it provides an example of how fragile links on the web are and how significantly the content has changed in such a short time.  For example the earlier quote “After many years, the disease cripples vital organs such as the heart and lungs” is hardly ever mentioned now as an issue.

This post is also significant because it’s one of the most commented on, which reflects the fact that back in 2004 there was almost no information about AOSD on the web and so people searching for it often found me.

Lets finish this off with my personal definition of Still’s disease:

Still’s disease is a very rare form of arthritis that initially presents with high cyclic fevers, extreme fatigue, brain fog, sore throat, non-itchy rash and widespread, muscle, joint and tendon pain.  These acute symptoms respond well to steroids but over time the condition evolves into a chronic phase which still involves these acute flares every few months but is dominated by frequent, highly variable, fatigue, with more localised pain and brain fog.  It’s the unpredictability, never knowing how I will be from one day to the next, that is the most difficult aspect of the disease to cope with.

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero as usual, I’ve already been out for a long walk along the beach and the dunes (pictured) to try and get some relief from the rash on my legs which is now very warm to the touch. There was quite a chill in the air today, but my legs kept me warm..

My First Blog Post

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Back in February 2004 I wrote my first blog post, probably my shortest ever, here it is quoted in full:

I started this weblog, because I have Adult Onset Still’s Disease.  Most people won’t know what it is because less than 1 in 100,000 people have it.  But its important because its this disease that’s resulted in me working from home, using a Tablet PC and changing my life in many ways.  So I thought I would write about the experience, for other people who like me may be going through a life change, or suffering, working from home, or in fact using a Tablet.  Finally as I am involved quite heavily in the IT industry I might have the odd useful observation about that as well.

Surprisingly my blog, originally titled ‘Adventures In Home Working’ has stayed pretty close to this original purpose, although I’ve tried to focus more on the positive elements of my approach to life than the disease, Still’s has definitely had a big impact on the last 11 years.  Despite being a big fan of tablet pcs back then, since moving on from the TC1100 tablet, I’ve never found one that worked as well for me and right now I’m back using a trusty work horse tablet.

I’ve decided that it might be quite good fun, over the next 10 days, to take a look at these first 10 posts and see how well they’ve stood the test of time.

I’m tapping away at this post in Caffe Nero Lytham, I’m pain free but my legs are bright red with an incredibly itchy rash, one more little trial that’s been added to the long list of problems associated with Still’s disease that have come to light over the last decade.  Not to worry though I love my early mornings at Caffe Nero and I’m going for a walk to Fairhaven Lake (pictured) and brunch with Paul later, so itching or no, it’s going to be a good day!

Stuffocation

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Stuffocation: Living More With Less, is the ‘catchy’ title of  a new book by James Wallman that explores the simple living movement.  Unlike most of the books I’ve read on simple living though the emphasis is on ‘explores’, this is not a passionate call to arms, rather it’s a fairly thorough exploration of the various trends at play and how they might realistically morph into a more general movement that affects society as a whole, from the blurb on Amazon:

Stuffocation is one of the most pressing problems of the twenty-first century. We have more stuff than we could ever need, and it isn’t making us happier. It’s bad for the planet. It’s cluttering up our homes. It’s making us stressed—and it might even be killing us.

I found the book very refreshing in it’s approach and while I didn’t learn much, I did get a more balanced view from it than in other books that I’ve read.  Books that promoted the idea of living out of a suitcase, or in a tiny house not much bigger than a horse box, or being able to count your possessions and still have ‘change’ from a 100.  None of these extreme interpretations of simple living appeal to me, I like my luxuries, my books, my tools and having enough clothes to suit all weather conditions…. 

Jame’s also considers the current trendy idea of substituting experiences for stuff.  In fact his conclusion is that ever richer experiences are the ultimate conclusion of this simplicity trend, for example instead of going to the cinema we will attend a live theatre like experience that immerses us, as full participants, in scenes from the movie.  Other examples of ‘rich experiences’ might be helicopters rides long the Grand Canyon, visiting all of the modern wonders of the world or diving with sharks.  Keeping up with the Jones switches from a greener lawn, a bigger pool, or fancier car to ‘bagging’ ever richer experiences, more from the blurb:

Experientialism does not mean giving up all of our possessions. It is a solution that is less extreme but equally fundamental. It’s about transforming what we value. Stuffocation is a paradigm-shifting look at our habits and an inspiring call for living more with less. It’s the one important book you won’t be able to live without.

Personally these over-the-top experiences don’t appeal to me much, they seem to lead to just the same kind of excesses that too much stuff manifests.  Instead of too much stuff, we just substitute too much experience.  People would end up seeking freedom from the pressure to accumulating ever more overly luxurious experiences, in the same way that a few of us are seeking out freedom from too much stuff today. 

I’m already past that point though, personally my simple living quest is as much about finding satisfaction in simple experiences as it is in rationalising my wardrobe.  It’s also about simplifying my life as a whole, not just my possessions.  For me simple living means means:

  • having high quality, reliable, predictable possessions, in a warm, dry, safe house
  • well designed, effective, dependable, public services
  • a health care system that put’s the emphasis on proactive care, gets to the root causes of problems with staff who have time to get to treat the whole person
  • plenty of well maintained, clean and safe public spaces
  • a population that’s caring, friendly, helpful, generous with it’s time and that takes responsibility for confronting and fixing problems. 

These are the kind of experiences that I want my day to be filled with, friendly, efficient, clean, safe, reliable, predictable.  They will likely be more labour intensive than the experiences that I ‘enjoy’ today, but I’d rather spend my money on these than on more stuff.

Once the basics are taken care of I want to spend my time experiencing nature, cycling, hiking, chilling with friends and family, creating, painting, gardening, immersed in a good book, watching a TV show with the family, going on picnics, playing ball games or watching the sun set.

When it comes to work, I’d be looking for simplicity here too, well scoped projects, with sufficient time and funding to do a good job, a well motivated team to work with, the right tools and less of the back-stabbing and politics. 

Right now the world is obsessed with growth and profit, at every level.  Individuals strive for bigger houses, better cars, more gadgets, more jewellery, shoes, clothes and travel.  Employers focus on profit and growth at the expense of loyal, engaged, motivated, employees and long term satisfied customers.  Governments focus on GDP rather than fairness, sustainability and happiness. 

Everyone is obsessed with accumulating and experiencing more, when we should be focused on living well with what we have.  Mindfulness is the start point in my simple living quest, but it doesn’t get a mention in Stuffocation. Nor does the fact that many experiences that have previously cost thousands, or maybe money can’t even buy today are about to become as cheap as a movie or game download.  Virtual reality is about to sweep over the world, making flying down the Grand Canyon like a bird, just a few clicks away.  Similarly ‘every’ song, book, TV show and movie will be available for a subscription cost, not much much more than a few coffees a week at your favourite cafe. 

We are not going to lack for the availability of experiences.  The challenge is going to be that virtual reality, virtual meetings, online media (books, TV, music …) and online shopping are going to be so easy, so compelling, so cheap, so addictive that the real world might well suffer badly as a result.  When the real world fades away in importance, so does the safety, cleanliness and beauty of the real world.  Why pay for the parks to be maintained, for the Lakeland paths to be resurfaced, for the potholes in the roads to be fixed, for the town centre shops, for the streets to be safe … when people don’t value these things anymore, their home is their castle.

I don’t think the challenge the world faces is stuffocation, I don’t think the solution is ever richer experiences, I think the risk is everyone being sucked into the seductive virtual world.  Gamer’s already know this, some so in the thrall of games that they go days without eating.  What happens when virtual life, a few clicks away for everyone, becomes as seductive as gaming is today for the few.  We won’t be promoting ‘more [virtual] experience’ then, but I will might well still be happy with my definition of simple living.

I wrote this post sitting in Caffe Nero Lytham, I’m going for a walk to Fairhaven Lake later with a friend of mine.  Starting the day here is an important part of my morning routine, a very valuable part of my morning experience.  I normally go to my local cafe in St Annes though after which I enjoy a walk along the prom and beach, the photo that decorates this post is of a small part of that walk, taken from the Grand Hotel, where the golf course meets the Dunes, just next to the Beach Terrace Cafe (just out of shot on the left).

Has Technology Improved Our Lives?

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At first sight this seems like a strange question to ask, I only need to look around me and I see all the evidence that’s need to answer with a resounding “yes” — the amazing iPhone clipped to my belt, the super efficient boiler that’s at heart of my home, the high tech car on the drive. But then if I dig deeper into the question I start to doubt myself, if I look at the way we adopt technology, it looks more like an addict heedlessly buying more and more, without questioning the seductive marketing and the pressure to conform, assuming that more is always better, never satisfied.  Our approach to technology is brought into sharp contrast when it’s compared to the Amish:

The difference between Amish people and most other Americans is the deliberation that takes place before deciding whether to embrace a new technology. Many Americans assume newer technology is always better, and perhaps even inherently good.

"The Amish don’t buy that," says Donald Kraybill, professor at Elizabethtown College and co-author of The Amish. "They’re more cautious — more suspicious — wondering is this going to be helpful or is it going to be detrimental? Is it going to bolster our life together, as a community, or is it going to somehow tear it down?"

I like the word “deliberation” in the Amish approach to emphasise just how little thought really goes into our rush to adopt technology.

Taking a look at a few examples, starting with my personal perception of how technology has changed knowledge work over the last ten years.  I’m going to deal mostly in generalities (I know the dangers), accepting that some exceptional people have iron discipline.  Using the benchmark of ‘improving our lives” what has technology done for us:

  1. By some metrics it’s made us more productive, but not all of us, because many of us have been made redundant as a result.  One might say it’s made the ‘busy, busier’ and with that increased busyness has come longer working hours and more responsibility, and as a result higher rates of burnout and stress
  2. It’s made us more available, lengthening working hours, intruding into family time, reducing our opportunities to detach and relax
  3. It’s increased the flexibility and utilisation of individuals in general and those with scarce skills in particular, enabled virtual teams and thus broken up the co-located teams most of us prefer, replacing fluid collaboration with endless emails, conference calls and web-conferences.  It seems to me that resource utilisation has become the new metric by which we judge productivity, rather than team effectiveness and real business outputs.
  4. Conference calls have made it easier to fragment accountability and responsibility, allowing many ‘stakeholders’ to dabble with a project they don’t really understand and to dramatically increase the number of ‘status calls’.
  5. Conference calls and web conferences have shifted the focus towards real-time collaboration, instead of quickly scanning meeting minutes and highlight reports when it suits them, stakeholders now all sit at the end of the phone, paying limited attention while they try (and fail) to also pay attention to the torrent of email and instant messages that distract them every minute of the day
  6. The rush to adopt heavily marketed but immature virtual team working environments has fragmented knowledge across many disparate systems, often orphaning that knowledge as one system replaces another in the quest for something that works better than the file system that it tries to replace.  It’s ironic to see that all the ‘new things’ in collaboration are just a direct evolution of the file-system, box, dropbox, onedrive etc.
  7. Virtual team working also allows busy people to be assigned to multiple projects (better utilisation) but these people quickly become distracted, over-worked bottlenecks, reducing the throughput of the project as a whole
  8. It’s provided the ‘lucky’ busy people with more money, but less time and less energy.  As a result it’s easier for us to watch TV and shop for stuff than it is to live a meaningful life, rich with experiences and relationships
  9. In making us all flexible, it’s reduced the value we place on specialists and hence our ability to develop real mastery
  10. Finally it’s allowed companies to tap into a global resource pool at will and to easily on-source or outsource activities to third parties, reducing or perhaps eliminating altogether the feeling of protection that employees used to enjoy when jobs were for ‘for life’

When you look at this list it looks almost as if technology has been used to mount a sustained attack on every one of the foundation elements of motivation, by reducing Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose, Relatedness, Sustainable challenge, Protection the result is reduced engagement, happiness and ultimately I think business has suffered.

Next I will look at the impact of technology on my family life and the direct experiences of friends unfortunately it’s not a particularly pretty picture:

  1. The family has definitely fragmented, instead of coming together to chat, eat, or watch movies and TV shows at night, everyone sit’s alone in their rooms.  I’ve fought to keep us together as much as possible with some success, but the immediate seductiveness of individual freedom too often win’s out over the longer term benefits of connectedness and shared experience
  2. We are all much more distracted, it’s rare that we focus on just one thing anymore.  I walk while listening to books and podcasts, Debbie plays Drop 7 while watching TV, the kids chat with friends while doing their homework.  There’s no space in our lives for fully engaging in the moment, to be mindful, as a result too much in life gets categorised as ‘boring’
  3. We all spend much too long sitting, the need to engage with a screen has tied us to a seat or a bed, with many negative health implications
  4. Most web pages have been carefully designed to deliver information in single screen chunks, our reward systems have been designed to crave the thrill of exploring, click, click click around aimlessly looking for something new and exciting.  As a result time is frittered away and kids and adults alike can no longer concentrate for long enough to read long article, let alone a book
  5. Everyone is addicted to searching for and buying ever more stuff, browsing around the web for bargains, and one click ordering and free delivery has become so addictive that most kids now have jobs just to fund the accumulation of stuff, and almost all adults are working much longer than is required to be warm, dry, well fed and happy.

I’ve personally worked very hard to address all of the above in my own family, but the underlying forces are driving us all in this direction and most families don’t have the discipline to resist – a few, like mine, succeed in some areas, maybe resisting for a year, or in one particular area. But without a culture to protect us (like the Amish) technology adoption seems irresistible, and it’s not all good.

When it comes to my personal adoption of technology, I’ve already taken a look at the IT technologies that had really made a breakthrough improvement in my life and I concluded:

That’s about it, a stunning condemnation of IT’s ability to deliver personal productivity improvements in recent years.  Most of the peak experiences having been delivered 10 or more years ago, most of the benefits since then having been delivered by Moore’s law. Many of the ‘improvements’ recently have just danced around the edges of innovations made many years ago, providing eye candy, distraction or all too often degradation.  Maybe I just have selective memory, or am feeling particularly nostalgic today, it would be interesting to see how others remember the same period!

Of course there are many ways in which technology has enhanced my life, at least at first glance, but many of these improvements have their downsides too:

  1. We got a new, very efficient, combi boiler – and as a result everyone used more hot water, so our bill increased
  2. We heavily insulated our home – but everyone got used to being warm all of the time, so we increased the time we had the central heating on
  3. Technology invaded the car, making driving more engaging and entertaining – but that increased the rate of obsolescence, making me lust after a new car with Bluetooth stereo, which I eventually bought
  4. We craved and eventually got high speed internet — but the only new thing that really gave us was the ability for the girls to all watch Netflix in their own rooms concurrently, further fragmenting the family
  5. I have an app on my phone from my energy provider – but now I have to contort myself every month to get into the under-stairs cupboard to take my own energy readings
  6. Everyone in the house now has iPhones – but as a result we are all more distracted, and less connected in as many negative ways as we are more positively connected through social media

In the world in general we can see amazing benefits from technology, but in many ways these advances are supporting the need of corporations, not the lives of individuals:

  1. The developed world is living beyond it’s means, with most growth fuelled by debt
  2. GDP is still the primary driver for policy, often at the expense of improving our lives
  3. As individuals we are constantly seduced into living beyond our means too, interest free credit, buy now pay later, re-mortgage, ever bigger mortgages, growth at the expense of savings
  4. Freedom, leaving the world better than we found it and meaningful experiences are being eroded as values and replaced by accumulated stuff as the evidence of a life well lived
  5. We are living well beyond the natural carrying capacity of the planet – technology has enabled advances like intensive farming, GM crops, hydroponics, deep water extraction, desalination, coal and fracking which have allowed us to keep just ahead of population growth – but as a result we are quickly running out of fresh water, topsoil, phosphorous, potassium and many other resources upon which life depends
  6. Our throw-away, technology infused, energy intensive lives and our obsession with GDP growth are forcing us to use gas, oil and coal with abandon, using ever more sophisticated technologies for extraction, but putting the environment and many natural eco-systems risk

Well, that was a depressing blog post to write, but what was the point?  I think it comes down to us desperately needing a culture that’s more critical of technology, that doesn’t just accept that it can be used for “good or bad” but actively uses research, marketing, education, regulation and incentives to encourage technology adoption in a way that leads to a ‘sustainable good life’ for all, that protects us from ourselves, that nudges us to make the right decisions, whilst still allowing us the freedom to make our own choices and learn from our own mistakes.

This post was inspired by a mini-debate on twitter yesterday, between a passionate advocate for technology and a couple of cynics (me included).  I wrote the post sitting in Caffe Nero using my ageing laptop (that I’m totally satisfied with) enjoying the full Caffe Nero experience and looking forward to a walk in the sun later. But that walk will be accompanied by podcasts, even though deep down I know that if I put in the effort walking mindfully I would benefit from a richer experience — podcasts provide the instant gratification and let me get more work done. 

The photo is of the beach huts I will walk by today, people who buy them are either switched on to the value of experiences, or have more money than they know what to do with, I hope it’s the former!

The Joy Of Anti-fragility

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My family and I suffer from several health conditions, which means that I have to live with a lot of unpredictability in my personal life, so wherever I have control I strive for predictability, or anti-fragility.  I like to sail through life without a care in the world and I’m prepared to invest and to constrain myself to achieve it.

I’ve been consciously reducing the fragility in my life for at least a decade, chipping away at all those little worries and annoyances, balancing investing to reduce my fragility today with saving to reduce it tomorrow.  It’s a strategy that’s worked out very well so far, here’s a short introduction to a few of the steps I’ve taken:

  1. For many years I’ve minimised my spend on insurance policies, often not taking them out at all or taking out moderate cost policies rather than gold plated ones.  I’ve consistently put all the savings I’ve made into an ‘insurance account’ that’s now well stocked!  Whenever something goes wrong that money can fix I don’t think twice about solving it from those savings, which I don’t consider using for any other purpose.
  2. In conflict to the strategy above though I do have home emergency cover because I like the assurance that I can ring a single number and the insurance company will find and marshal all the trades necessary to resolve the emergency.  In an emergency the last thing I want is more responsibility on my shoulders.
  3. I have two laptops that are essentially identical, they have the same applications and data, the same hard disk etc.  If one fails I can pick up the other, or swap the hard drive over and be up and running again.  Each acts as a backup to the other, one I carry with me, the other drives the big media-centre screen on my desk.  One runs Windows 10, the other Windows 8 (just in case Windows 10 breaks).  Of course all the devices in the house are backed up to the ‘house server’ and the cloud and the house server also has an off-site backup.
  4. I have an iPhone and an iPad mini and an emergency phone.  The emergency phone is a Nokia 6310i with ‘all week’ battery life that I take on holiday, bike rides and hikes.  The iPhone and iPad have mostly the same apps and act as backups to each other.  I have an upstairs and a downstairs Kindle!
  5. I have a large garage that’s split into two, the front is a store room and it’s well stocked with all the consumables that we buy in bulk, can’t buy locally, or that we use daily/weekly.  I don’t like to run out of things, nor do I like to shop. 
  6. The back garage is a workshop, full of three generations of tools and LOTS of bits and pieces, accumulated from a lifetime of disassembled furniture and other recycled household ‘rubbish’.  When things break or problems can be resolved by ‘making’ then I almost always have the combination of wood, brackets, screws, bolts, fasteners, wires, junction boxes, glue, sealant … that’s needed.  I love the feeling of confidence in my ability to fix and the glow that comes from recycling.
  7. Everyone in the family has iPhones and we have older spare iPhones, if they break we just fall back to older versions until we get them fixed using the insurance fund, most of us also have ThinkPad Laptops which are also easy to swap and fix.  For swapping iPhones about we also depend heavily on the fact that we all use GiffGaff which provides a fantastic online experience for ordering new SIMs in any size and activating them on our many accounts, automatically and instantly moving phone numbers without losing credit.
  8. Debbie and I have a nice balance of safety-net final-salary pension schemes that kick in at 60 and 65 and money purchase pension schemes that provide near infinite flexibility from 55.
  9. We have an emergency fund and a slush fund, which allows us to take advantage of bargains, or buy in bulk etc.  This saves money when used with restraint, I almost never buy anything that I know for sure I won’t consume within a few months.
  10. I carry my Brompton and my emergency bag (food, clothes, toilet paper, first aid kit, plastic bags …) in the boot of the car.  I’ve used both many times in the last year,  the emergency bag is particularly useful for unplanned trips to the hospital that turn into over-night stays and for unplanned ‘events’ on holiday or day hikes.  Knowing that the bag and bike are in the boot I just relax and sink that bit more into the seat as I drive. 
  11. In my daily use rucksack I carry two small see-though plastic pencil cases, one with a full range of medications (various pain killers, steroids, anti-spasm meds … and spare reading glasses) the other with all those ‘useful things’ (cables, pens, blister plasters, sun screen, chargers ..).  I’m becoming forgetful so the spare glasses get used way too often.  I have a holiday rucksack and a bum bag that are equally stocked, so whichever bag I grab I’m ‘safe’.
  12. When I find something that I really like and use heavily I will often setup a recurring search for it on eBay or Amazon and then buy when on sale.  For example last winter I bought 3 pairs of my favourite summer walking shoes and 4 pairs of summer hiking trousers, both for 1/3 of their normal price and I bought a 12 pack of my aftershave cream at 1/2 price, 4 packs of razor blades at 1/3 price and two boxes of protein bars for 1/2 price.  I spend less than 5 minutes a day shopping, but I make it count.
  13. Finally I have a redundancy of interests to suit my varying health.  I love to exercise outdoors, but when I can’t I have my stationary bike at home.  I love to read, but when I can’t concentrate I have a huge collection of audio books.  I like to create stuff, but when I can’t I can curl up on the sofa and immerse myself in some of the superb long running TV shows.  I like to achieve something each day at work but when I can’t I clean house or tidy the garden.

This is just a small fraction of the redundancies that I’ve built into my life.  As a lover of simplicity though every redundancy has to earn it’s place.  I’m not a hoarder, everything has a purpose, a place to be stored, is used regularly or can be kept without spoiling.  I don’t want redundancies to become a burden, when they are designed to provide ease:

  1. For example keeping two laptops is essentially effortless now because each has a separate purpose and synchronising data is so seamless and installing and updating apps mostly automated, if it ever became a chore I wouldn’t do it. 
  2. I keep a holiday rucksack pre-packed with everything I need for a 4 day break.  On the last day of the break I wash all my clothes and restock it with consumables, so that it’s ready for the next break, effortless!

I like living this way, sailing through life, ready for the unexpected wave or gust of wind, wearing a life jacket just in case, but enjoying the wind in my face and the freedom.

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, it’s a miserable rainy morning but it’s going to brighten up later.  By the time I get home after a decent walk my conservatory office will have warmed up nicely from the sun (but I have an electric radiator just n case).  The photo today is of the ‘shell’ on Cleveleys beach which unfortunately wasn’t quite ‘anti-fragile’ enough for the heavy pounding of the winter waves, it’s gradually breaking up, but it’s lovely while it lasts!