Why I Ditched the TV, and Got a Life

no-tvWhen I moved into this flat in 2011, the removal company were surprised that one particular item was missing. When they brought my belongings back from storage, I suspect they were concerned they had lost the item in transit.

“Where’s your TV?”, one of the guys asked. “I don’t own one”, I said, knowing I wouldn’t get off that easily.

“But what do you do?!”, came the follow-up. I realised they couldn’t imagine how I filled my time without a television in my life either as background entertainment or, more likely, as the sole focus of my attention each evening.

It’s not that I’m intensely anti-TV, and this isn’t somehow an evangelical blog post. Rather, it’s the longer answer I felt I couldn’t give the removal guys at the time.

Switching ON, to Switch OFF

I used to own a TV and watch it nightly. Most evenings when I came home from work, I would cook a meal and sit down in front of the TV to eat it.

The problem is, I found it hard to step away from the TV and to do anything else afterwards: The washing up, reading my mail, calling someone… in-fact, just having a life away from the TV again.

I realised that, most evenings, turning on the TV marked the end of my productivity for the day. It’s not that I happened to turn the TV on at the point I could accomplish no more. Instead, I realised the television caused the end of my productivity. It somehow truncated my day.

I found that when watching television, I put my brain into “neutral”. I offered myself up to whatever was being shown. I switched on, to switch off, if you will.

Afterwards, I found it hard to reverse that and to re-engage in other activities that have a higher barrier to entry. Television’s low effort made everything else seem too difficult, and I found myself putting it all off until tomorrow.

Lowbrow

I can’t be alone in finding the TV listings rather a joke. Just read the titles of tonight’s listings and tell me you don’t laugh, somewhat nervously too.

It’s like they took genuine entertainment, removed most of the intellectual fibre to make it easily-digestible to all, then sprinkled it with extra ingredients to make us salivate. An endless parade of shows with cliff-hanger “And the winner is…”  moments, rehydrated and mechanically-recovered “celebrity” info, and reaction rather than analysis.

Literally, the entertainment equivalent of a low nutrition TV dinner. Just like with that TV dinner, I found the more I consumed it, the unhealthier (psychologically) I became. I didn’t really want to talk to colleagues about “last night’s Big Brother”. I didn’t really want to wonder what happened next in some awful sit-com. But I found myself sucked in, to the detriment of a life of my own.

I felt that my quest for easy entertainment was starving my life of genuine meaning.

The Occasional Splurge

A small admission… I do watch TV occasionally, but not on an actual television. I watch a few things on the BBC’s iPlayer and the online services of the other channels. I also watch the odd film on DVD or an episode from a box set. I just don’t watch television as-scheduled and when it’s broadcast. It also isn’t very often.

So what’s the difference? The main difference is that I choose my own entertainment. I pick something and I watch it. And when it’s over, I go and do something else.

If you watch something pre-recorded, there’s no running into the next program, no channel hopping. There is a natural end to it,… and then you get on with your life.

What I Do Instead

In short… everything else!

It took a few weeks of no TV to learn how to simply inhabit my home in the evening. To cook a meal, eat it whilst doing something else, and then to do more of that “something else” afterwards.

I email, I call folks, I read, I relax and, if my home life isn’t enough, I go out and find something better. But what I don’t do is submit myself to a stream of mass market “entertainment” in the hope of somehow finding what I should otherwise be generating in my own life.

By switching off, I realised that if I want to be entertained, I should go and do something with friends. No television is ever going to replace that. If I want to relax, I should read a book or just (shock horror) do nothing, and learn to love that silence and the space.

These other options aren’t easy, but I find them more fulfilling. They fill me up, whereas TV seems to drain me.

In an unexpected way, by switching off, I’ve switched on  to my own spare time again. I find myself thinking of amazing things to do; things I’m sure I wouldn’t have conjured up whilst sat in-front of the television.

 

As they say, your mileage may vary. But if you ever find yourself wondering if there’s life beyond the television, give a try for a week. You never know what you might re-discover.

 

More Of The Same: The Own Goal of Online Advertising and Recommendations

cartI can’t be alone in feeling that most of the online advertising I see, and most of the “recommendations” I receive from online retailers, are just plain dumb.

Last week, I purchased hand towels for my flat. And now the retailer is showing me recommendations for hand towels. A month ago, we bought new office chairs at work. And now when I visit most news sites, I see adverts for office chairs… in-fact, the very office chairs we just bought.

What’s so dumb about this? I am being shown the very last thing I’m going to be interested in buying right now. When I  just purchased X, I am highly unlikely to want to purchase X again any time soon. In-fact, I will probably buy anything but X.

What would be cleverer? What goes with X? What compliments it, or what did other people like me who bought X go on to buy subsequently?

I bought hand towels, so how about showing me bath towels, face flannels and other bathroom items? We bought office chairs, so how about showing us office desks, printers or stationery items? Things that surely have a higher conversion rate and that we might actually be interesting in buying now.

The problem is that it’s harder for retailers and advertisers to make those leaps and to write performant engines to do that. It depends upon meaning and context, rather than a quick match. It relies upon having a great deal of anonymous data about each purchaser, each viewer of adverts,… and people similar to them.

I worked for two years in online advertising, on the advert selection engine used by a particular platform, and I know how hard it is to even begin to raise the bar and make better decisions about what to show, even with adequate data and clever modelling. It is far easier to go with targeting broad demographics, or repeating specific past purchases.

People are also understandably reticent about data being gathered about them, even anonymously. And yet, without that anonymous data, recommendations and adverts will always be somewhat dumb.

What might the reality be? A person buying office chairs may buy them because they are setting up a new office (like us), or because their already-over-equipped office is expanding and they just need 20 more, in which case they may indeed purchase more of the same again soon. A person buying towels may be setting up home for the first time, or they may just be replacing worn out towels in an already over-stuffed flat (like mine).

Understandably, recommendation and advertising engines go for the easy win and the ultimate own goal: More of the same. Rather than engaging us, they come across as unintelligent and reductive. The easy win for them, is an annoyance for most consumers.

I guess they fear that when data is sparse, clever recommendations may be way off the mark. I am always amused to recall the Amazon recommendation (“People buying this item also bought…”) after I purchased a battery charger: Most of the recommendations were for packs of rechargeable batteries (pretty good). But the bumper box of condoms — perhaps a subsequent purchase by a very small sample… maybe a sample of one! — was amusing, but not particularly useful, and probably an embarrassment to Amazon.

I believe we, as software engineers and data scientists, can and should do better. Any advertising or recommendations platform solving this problem, or even improving it slightly, will have a real edge over the others out there.

Meaningful, compelling advertising and useful recommendations. Anyone up for that challenge?! 🙂

The Mythical “Later” of Software Development

“We’ll add caching later”

“Let’s make it handle other data formats later”

“We don’t need to worry about that until later”

Let’s be honest… There is no “later” in software development.

In my 20 years coding professionally, I’ve never got to a point where I thought “Let’s go back now and do all of those things we said we’d do ‘later'”. That point in time never arrives, particularly on projects with deadlines, customers or real world objectives.

“Later” seems to be a story we tell ourselves time and time again when we’re busy coding, and we buy it every time.

But isn’t “later” just agile? – On agile projects and in lean startups, surely we aim to build only the absolute necessities right now, and everything else is “later”? Absolutely, yes! But I think we use “later” as a catch-all, a bucket, and a way of foreclosing on the need to (albeit briefly) decide whether we really mean something else.

Prioritise, backlog or possibly never – Whenever we say something will come “later”, we should try to be a little more specific. We usually mean one of the following:

  • Priority or Deadline – If “later” needs to happen by a certain release, deadline or just to be scheduled with a certain priority, then whatever we’re promising “later” should go into our planning system (JIRA, Asana, whatever we’re using). Let’s scribble it on a post-it so we can remain focussed whilst coding, then capture it immediately afterwards with a priority so it will come back to us automatically. There is no reliable prioritisation (or even tracking) system within our brain. So without capturing the task somehow, it will probably be forgotten and the deadline will pass, unless we add it to our…
  • Backlog – If there is no deadline for “later”, but it simply mustn’t be forgotten or needs more thought to decide if it’s even necessary, it should go into our backlog to be reviewed and prioritised another time. This is the list of items we must think about in our regular planning and prioritisation. Even if we eventually delete it from that backlog at some point, not adding it to the backlog now means it’s going to happen…
  • Possibly Never – The reality of most things we’ll do “later” is that they never happen. We never return to them or we rediscover them when it’s already too late. To be honest, this is ok for a great many of our “later” tasks. But perhaps we should just be honest about it. Sometimes, “later” is “possibly never”.

So I’m trying not to kid myself any longer with “later”, when I’m developing. It’s usually one of the above three instead, and it takes 2 seconds to figure out which.

And if I really mean “possibly never”, there’s a certain freedom in admitting that!