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The Tour De France Comes To Yorkshire

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I’ve watched the Tour de France on TV for probably 20 years and have driven up and down the insane mountain climbs they go up and power down, always marvelling at what I believe to be the toughest endurance sport on Earth. While Lance Armstrong may now be a disgraced rider that doesn’t detract from how much I’ve loved and love the sport (and even knowing the performance enhancing drugs he took I still loved watching him power up climbs and take the races by the scruff of the neck back in the day – great entertainment). So to hear it was coming to Yorkshire and pretty much past my house I couldn’t wait to see it!

That day came yesterday and the first stage passed Addingham (a couple of miles away and so a short walk) and the second through Silsden, the village in which I live. To say it was an amazing experience would be to massively understate things. Watching it on Eurosport as I’ve done over the years but see all the places I’ve spent the past 15 years of my life was awesome, and to see these guys shooting past at incredible speed in the flesh was a dream come true for me. Even better was seeing just how many people had turned out to watch – people were EVERYWHERE! The people and countryside of Yorkshire did us proud.

I took a few photos, but you really needed to be there to feel the atmosphere and appreciate just what amazing athletes these guys are!

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A Few Days Snowboarding In Borovets, Bulgaria

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Myself and a couple of friends spent 5 days in Borovets, Bulgaria to do some low cost, high fun skiing and snowboarding and were, to say the least, very lucky with the weather (in that following a season with very little snow, it snowed just before we arrived and through most of our time there). Perhaps unsurprisingly we took one or two photos which you can find below.

If you’re on a budget and are only going for a few days I’d highly recommend Borovets. If you’re going for a week or more you might get bored as the resort isn’t anywhere near as large as a place like Morzine, for example. But it was just right for us!

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How To Show The xkcd “Now” Live World Clock On Your Desktop

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If you haven’t come across it before, xkcd is, to quote the site itself “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language” and it’s highly entertaining (my personal favourite is this one about security). Anyway, a recent comic, titled “Now” shows what is effectively a world clock that live-updates so you can see, anywhere in the world, if it’s a good time to phone a friend or colleague. At the time of writing it looks like this:

xkcd-now-23h30m

Now what if you wanted that clock on your desktop, live updating so that all you need to do is look at your desktop and know if phoning your friend in Bora Bora will wake them up from their peaceful slumber? If you’re a Windows user then it’s easy with the use of my beloved John’s Background Switcher, and it’s simple to set up.

Just head over to the download page and install it. Then when the settings dialog comes up just choose “Add” then “RSS photo feed” (stick with me, it’ll make sense). Then copy and paste the following URL:

http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/now.png#1

Do the same again, but this time copy the following URL instead (note the 2 instead of 1):

http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/now.png#2

If you have more than 1 monitor, add some more feeds, just change the number at the end of the URL accordingly. In case you’re wondering why, it’s that JBS doesn’t want to show you the same picture twice in a row, but this tricks it into treating them differently each time. Note to self: fix that in a future version.

Next set up JBS so that it centres the picture and switches every 15 minutes like so:

jbs-for-xkcd

If you’re already a JBS user, go to “More” then “Picture Sources” and make sure you uncheck “Save all full-sized downloaded pictures” (so that it won’t cache the pictures). JBS will automatically pick a complementary background colour (usually white here) but if you want to hard-wire it to a particular colour go to the “Picture Handling” section and choose “Use a custom colour for picture borders” then pick white.

Since you patiently looked at the screenshot above you’ve already set JBS to change every 15 minutes and centre the picture, so that’s it, the world clock will always be up to date! How cool is that?!

Thanks to JBS user Mårten for suggesting the idea in the first place!

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How I Learned To Ship Software (And Leave My Ego At The Door)

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I’ve been writing software professionally since 1996, although I started writing code many years earlier for fun. I’ve never been interested in getting professional qualifications or certifications in software development, I’ve always figured the best way to reach your potential is to work with people better than yourself (so you can learn how they work) and actually build and ship software to real people, then deal with the fallout that brings (the try, fail, improve, learn cycle I’ll get to later). A piece of paper is no substitute for experience.

However some of the most useful lessons I’ve learned have not been doing the work I’ve been paid to do, they’ve been learned working on software I give away for free.

John's Background Switcher (3.5)I’ve been very fortunate that my freeware software John’s Background Switcher has been dramatically more popular than I could have imagined back in 2004 when I first created it – I stopped counting at the point when hundreds of thousands of people were using it. Fortunate not for the reasons you might think – it’s definitely not a case of “whoa! look how many users I have! I’m awesome!”. It’s been great because I’ve learned more about software development, shipping software and above all humility working on JBS than I ever have professionally.

Prior to JBS it was easy for me to forget that real people actually used the software I wrote. I would focus on writing the code for a feature, being as clever as I could be to impress my developer peers, completing it, then moving onto the next thing. I would pretend all that mattered was the thing I was currently working on – “leave me alone, I’m in the zone!”. I thought that users didn’t have a clue what they were talking about and if they complained then it was them who were in the wrong, it was “user error”. WHY DON’T THEY UNDERSTAND?!

The Techie User Phase

JBS was originally written for exactly one user – John Conners. I wanted a simple tool to periodically change my desktop wallpaper (and recover from my friend Ben setting my wallpaper to that of a monkey whenever I left my desk) – I was scratching my own itch. Then I released it for the world and… nobody cared at all. Later I added Flickr functionality and suddenly I had a bunch of people I’d never met, mostly techies like myself, using JBS.

They had suggestions of how to make JBS better. Since JBS didn’t do a great deal it was easy for these technically savvy people to pick up how it worked and the more ideas and suggestions they came up with, the more I added. Sometimes I’d break things, the users would tell me and I would fix them. It was great to be able to just do what I wanted without having layers of managers to persuade feature X should be in the next version. It was freedom!

Soon JBS supported several different picture sources, had lots of options to do things like exclude certain pictures, view the originals, change the way pictures were selected and so on. Things were great! Until it got popular and my ego took a battering.

New Users Aged 8 to 88

Thanks to word of mouth and some write ups on big technical sites, more and more people started trying out JBS. While early users were technically minded like myself, a lot of people with comparatively little computing ability were starting to try it out. And they were getting horribly confused.

In my haste to add functionality I’d stopped trying to keep JBS simple to use so when you first started it up it was by no means clear what JBS did, how to configure it or just what the hell was going on. So people would often email me with one line sentences complaining. I’d then have to reply and find out what the problem was and to me it would be incredibly obvious what they needed to do, but to them it may have well as been written in Klingon. However that was only scratching the surface. A great deal more people installed it, tried it, uninstalled it and I never knew anything about it.

I’m John Conners, What The Hell Do I Know?

Deny it all you like, but developers have egos. I’m no exception. You think you’re smart, you create things with your mind and hands and when you hit “Build” people should kneel before you in awe. But the reality is people just want to do their job, whatever that may be, and they don’t want things, like your software, getting in their way. If they want something that changes their desktop wallpaper, they just want it to do it and work the way they want without them having to think about it. End of story. The best software is the software you don’t even know you’re using – because the software itself isn’t the objective, it’s the task someone wants to accomplish (like writing a blog post like this) that matters. It took me a long time to realise this fact, but let’s rewind a bit.

I decided to add a feature so that if you uninstalled JBS it would show a web page that asked you if you’d like to tell me why you’re removing it. It was both a great idea and a tough pill to swallow. Because what happened is people actually told me why they were uninstalling JBS. And it turned out it was all my fault.

By this stage if JBS crashed it would send back a crash log to my FogBugz instance so I could figure out any bugs in JBS or any of the components it depends on and fix them. This taught me to write the simplest code possible. There’s a tendency for developers to try to show how clever they are by writing needlessly complex code and I was no exception. But overly complex code is likely more prone to bugs and when you come back and look at that code to figure out what went wrong the fact that you wrote it is no help, you look at it and think “why the hell did I write it like this and what is it doing?”. Lesson learned – write the simplest code possible so that when you later come back to fix it (everybody creates bugs) it would be easy to figure out what it was doing.

Uninstall feedback was a revelation. All of a sudden I was getting into the mind of the people who’d tried JBS, been confused by it, not been able to get it to do things it actually could do, then uninstalled in frustration. Some of the feedback would be, shall we say, tetchy. I quickly stopped taking it personally as when software doesn’t do what you want and gets in the way, it can be frustrating.

I actually changed the feedback page to say “Remember, I’m a real person called John and not some faceless corporation so be nice!” which snapped people out of being particularly mean and the feedback became a lot more useful. To those who say you should make software impersonal, you’re talking nonsense!

It didn’t take long before I could see patterns. What I thought was intuitive was clearly not. I could explain to those who left their email addresses how to do what they wanted (since JBS was loaded with features by now) and that helped them out individually. But the real problem was people running it for the first time and getting lost. I needed to rethink how I did things.

Try, Fail, Improve, Learn, Repeat

So I had a reasonably successful software product. I had tens of thousands of users. I had a large number of feature requests. And I had a lot of feedback telling me I needed to make it simpler for new users to use, but I didn’t want to sacrifice functionality. I decided to take a step back and do some planning. So I contacted a bunch of the most passionate JBS users (i.e. the ones who complained the most) to run some ideas past them in a bid to get into their heads, understand what they were expecting and see where that led me.

One of the main problems was that JBS had a whole bunch of different photo sources and it treated each one completely differently. It was not obvious for a new user what to do and even if they added some picture sets (some folders, Flickr sets, etc.) it still wasn’t clear what was actually happening. I’d originally built JBS to use local photos, then added Flickr, then a bunch more sources and had just bolted them on one after the other. People just wanted to choose some photos and get on with it, and no messing around!

So I started by doing the exact opposite of what I was used to. I started removing features.

I knew this would inevitably annoy some JBS users, they’d complain and might stop using it. But I suspected that if I did my job right it would alienate a few users but help a great many more. I had to go with the majority because much though I enjoyed answering emails and helping people out, it would be easier for all concerned if JBS was so easy to use that it required no help from me.

By now whenever someone emailed me I would ignore anything positive they’d say and focus on anything negative, always assuming that their problems were my fault – if you can’t use it it’s because I didn’t make it easy enough to use. This approach has the useful effect of disarming people because many would start by saying “I must be stupid because…” so me telling them they weren’t took that frustration away. I was now learning how to be a support person.

So I completely redesigned the user interface of JBS in consultation with the people who actually used it. I opened up early beta testing for anyone who was interested and would let them try it as I developed it, putting up builds every couple of days, seeing how my changes came across and letting them guide me how to go from there. I was quite happy to work on a feature for days only for it to fall on its face and end up deleting it completely – I took my ego out of the picture. I would try something, see how it worked and either remove it, change it or keep it depending on how it worked for real people. I would start from the position that I didn’t know best, I would let the JBS users tell me what they wanted and try to do it to provide the most benefit to the most people without compromising the simplicity I wanted it to have.

I also learned to start saying “no”. An idea can be a great idea, but if it made the software more difficult to use for 99% of users just to help 1% then I wouldn’t implement it. But rather than throw it away I’d see if there was another way to achieve what the person suggesting was after. Quite often there would be since as any sales person knows, people may know what they want, but might not know what they actually need, you just have to make them realise it and provide it. So I wouldn’t say “no”, I’d say “how about if I did this instead?”.

The Proof Of The Pudding

So after a hell of a lot of late nights and long weekends I released JBS 4.0 and an interesting thing happened. The feedback was initially very quiet. Which to me was perfect. As I had come to realise, good software doesn’t jump out and shout at you and make itself noticed. Good software should be practically invisible, quietly doing its thing and letting you get on with your primary tasks (which I assume is posting on Facebook, which JBS supports of course!). I took it as a great compliment that while user numbers kept increasing, the number of uninstalls and uninstall feedback dramatically reduced.

Over time though I’ve received a flood of correspondence that makes all those countless hours of work for no financial gain more than worthwhile. People telling me how they hate their job but when they’re down they look at their desktop to see a montage of photos of holidays with their family, they smile and get on with their day. People who’ve installed JBS on their parents PCs pointed at their Flickr feed so they can keep up to date with what their grandchildren are doing. Even people who’ve lost a loved one but remember happy memories when they pop up on their screen. Touching people’s lives in a profound and positive way is rewarding in a way money can’t buy and thanks to all the lessons I learned above, I was able to make it happen.

A Summary In Neat Bullet Points?

Normally I’d write a bullet point list summarising the lessons I’ve learned from JBS so that anybody could use them but it doesn’t work that way. Remember how I said I never bothered with certifications and such like? It’s because there really is no substitute for experience. There’s no substitute for learning by screwing things up, figuring out where you went wrong and ensuring you try to do better next time. No substitute for seeing how much pain and frustration decisions you’ve made have caused normal people (and lots of them), then figuring out how to win them back, turn it around and make the software better. No flowchart you can build that determines when you implement a feature, or build something else that indirectly but more usefully solves a problem, or even when to remove a feature entirely because it’s the “right” thing to do, or when to completely change direction and try something completely different.

You have to learn by doing, and the best lessons are those born from failing, trying again and ultimately succeeding. Leave your ego at the door and learn lessons from everything you get wrong (pobody’s nerfect).

From doing this again and again and again I’m now much better at making judgment calls. Knowing what questions to ask to find out if a software release is going to be late before it actually is and what to do about it. Knowing when to push a release vs drop features. Recognising that instead of trawling through a bug / feature list and implementing them one at a time, when to take a step back and see if there’s something completely different you can do that renders chunks of those issues obsolete. When to look at the big picture and when to focus on the tiny details. I don’t always get it right, and frankly if I ever thought I did then I’d know I was deluding myself.

And if you write software for a living and work in the 99% of companies that are stuck in the dark ages of software development, just do what I did. Find something interesting and build it on your own time, even if it’s as trivial as a desktop wallpaper switcher. It taught me an incredible amount, and the funny thing is when you build something you’re passionate about, you magically seem to find extra time and energy to work on it.

Finally, the one piece of advice I would give is to use a tool like FogBugz – the best defect tracking / project management / source control / customer support system I’ve used. Without FogBugz I’d have been completely lost at sea both working on JBS and professionally. It’s the perfect example of what I aspire to build – software that is so good you don’t even think about using it – it just works.

And to think, JBS was all kicked off by my friend putting monkey pictures on my desktop when I left my machine unattended. Thanks Ben!

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The Apollo Moon Missions and Me

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I grew up in an era full of hope for space exploration. I was born in 1974 – 5 years after the first moon landing and 2 years after the last. My earliest TV memories are of a couple of astronauts bouncing around the lunar surface in a vast, grey desolate landscape on a buggy made of gold. I watched shuttle launches with a sense of awe at what these lucky people were doing, wonder at the footage they sent back of the Earth from space and sadness at the lives lost in the two shuttle disasters. But that never lessened my desire to see humans (like me) explore the stars and in that time it seemed inevitable.

My good friend John Topley recommended I read a book called “Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey” by Michael Collins. Since John’s been right about everything in the past I added it to my wishlist and as soon as I had some time I bought the book and read it from cover to cover. He was indeed correct, it’s a tremendous read and it scratched an itch I realised I’d had all my life.

While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were swanning around the surface of the moon Mike was floating in space orbiting in the Command Module, waiting for their return. He then piloted them back to earth. The book was written in 1974 and charts his early career as a military pilot, test pilot and then eventually as an astronaut preparing to – with a bit of luck – fly to the moon and back. It makes for a fascinating read on many levels.

I was and still am absolutely fascinated not just by the vastness of space, but the little blue marble we live on. Even to this day when I see footage of Earth from space or stare at the following classic “earthrise” NASA photo I feel shivers down my spine. It’s just such an amazing sight.

Earthrise

But reading about what actually went into the moon landings has given me a new respect for the people involved. Striving to put a man on the moon may have been politically motivated, but whatever the motivation, its legacy has reached far beyond the moon itself. But more about that later.

Being given a project to put a man on the moon must have been terrifying from an engineering point of view. Where do you begin? How do you develop and test the technology? How do you maximise your chance of success?

Well, in what must surely be the most impressive engineering exercise of all time, they broke the whole project down into a series of small deliverables, each building on the lessons learned from the previous one. This began with Project Mercury whose ultimate goal was to put a man in low earth orbit and push the envelope in each mission.

Next up was Project Gemini which focussed on extra vehicular activity (space walks), rendezvous procedures (undocking and docking two orbiting crafts), navigation systems (there was no GPS back then and if you wanted to fly to the moon and back you really needed to be able to know exactly where you were and what direction you were pointing), space suits and a host of other technologies that would be needed for the moon trips. This was where Michael Collins came into the picture and when I realised just how unbelievably hard being an astronaut was. You needed balls of steel, ace piloting skills, be super-cool under pressure and be a maths genius. Frequently all at the same time.

Take Gemini 10, the mission Michael Collins was on. It was a 3 day orbital mission containing:

  • 2 rendezvous procedures (docking and undocking with two other craft in orbit). If you’re orbiting the earth and want to catch up to another craft that’s away in the distance you’d expect to just fire the rockets to speed up, catch up to the craft, slow down, dock, job done. Except in orbit that doesn’t work. Speeding up puts you into a higher orbit so you actually get further away from the craft so you have to slow down, drop into a lower, faster orbit, then speed up to catch up. Except the calculations to do it are mind boggling. And there were no MacBook Airs in the 60s, so this all had to be worked out while flying the cramped ship by hand.
  • 2 EVAs. There had only been 3 space walks ever attempted and they had all turned out to be nightmarishly hard work. Manoeuvring in zero gravity is an exercise in Newtons third law of motion (even the tiniest pressure exerted in one direction would result in an equal and opposite counter-reaction – making even holding onto the edge of a space craft very tough) and in pressurised suits, completely exhausting.
  • 15 separate scientific experiments including testing various navigation computers and techniques requiring detailed manual, mind-sapping calculations.

Oh yes, and there was also the small matter of eating, sleeping, dealing with all the unexpected situations that would occur (every mission was a journey into the unknown) and of course punching through the atmosphere and getting back to earth. And that was just a 3 day mission!

Next up came the Project Apollo and the ultimate goal was of course to land men on the moon and return in one piece. It didn’t start well as the crew of Apollo 1 were killed on the launch pad when their oxygen filled craft caught fire. With the loss of several astronauts to various plane crashes, this highlighted just how dangerous space exploration was and is. They eventually carried on having worked out what caused the fire and how best to deal with it and the Apollo missions laid the path to the moon.

The astronauts never really knew who was going to get the shot at landing on the moon and of course while Michael Collins was in the command module orbiting while Aldrin and Armstrong went to the surface, that was as close as he was ever going to get.

The Orbital Command Module

The command module that was home for Michael Collins on Apollo 11

The work that it took to get to the moon was staggering and the qualities required to be an astronaut really were incredible. While I always looked at them as supermen before, I hold them in even higher regard now. But for me the legacy of Apollo is not about the moon, it’s about the earth.

The focus for the whole program was beating the Russians to the moon, but as soon as the astronauts beamed back footage of an ever shrinking blue marble while they sped to the moon, the world was forever changed. Only 24 humans that have ever lived have gazed upon the whole planet and I can only imagine what that must feel like, but for me at least seeing the pictures and film of the earth just make me see how fragile and beautiful it is. It’s no coincidence that the green movement took off around the same time.

While it’s undoubtably a great shame that space exploration has gone backwards since the 1970s, we owe a great deal of our modern technology to the work NASA did in making it happen. You can see an exhaustive list here. Had we carried on who knows what we’d have created to cope with trips to Mars – energy production, propulsion and so on. Ah well, maybe next century!

My favourite quote was from man-of-few-words Neil Armstrong. He said of his time on the moon: “it suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth”. When asked if it made him feel like a giant he pondered for a while before replying “no, it made me feel very very small”.

When I look up at the moon in the night sky and see a black shadow across it I now see it in my mind from the point of view of space. The sun on one side, the earth in the middle casting a shadow on the moon on the other. That black shadow is us. And it makes me feel very very small too.

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John’s Background Switcher Adds Dropbox Support, A New Photo Collage Option and More Languages

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I know I know. I keep saying I’m stopping work on John’s Background Switcher and building a Mac version, but like the addict that I am I keep crawling back. So without further ado, please welcome John’s Background Switcher 4.8 to the world!

Dropbox Rocks

Following on from adding 500px, Last.fm, Pixabay and Tumblr integration back in May, one much requested service a lot of people (myself included) use, Dropbox is now a supported photo source for JBS. I’m an Android user so every photo I take on my phone is automatically uploaded to Dropbox. What could be cooler than a lottery win? Eh, I mean what could be cooler than being able to see those photos scattered over your desktop? Well now you can:

The past few months of my life!

The past few months of my life! Yes, quite a few of the dog…

All you need to do is authorise JBS to view your images on Dropbox, you pick a folder or folders to choose from and leave JBS to it!

Collages Are Cool

Speaking of photo montages, I thought it was about time I added a new option to the mix. So I came up with a photo collage and, since I have no imagination with names (example: John’s Background Switcher) I called it a “photo collage”. It means you can create awesome desktop backgrounds like this:

A Pixabay Photo Collage

And if cute dogs are more your thing:

A Lhasa Apso Montage

Yes I know, Lhasa Apsos are very cute dogs – that’s why I’m so obsessed with mine! More of a kitten guy or girl? We’ve got you covered!

A Kitten Photo Collage

English Is Not The Only Language

Ok, back to John’s Background Switcher. Next up, since JBS is used all over the world by a lot of people whose native language is not English. Some of those people are particularly awesome and have offered to translate JBS into their language. So in addition to being available in English (duh), French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Japanese, I’m delighted that as of version 4.8, JBS also supports Russian, Finnish, Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. Yay!

Other Shiny Goodness

Another oft requested feature is to support webcams for desktop backgrounds. Now you can simply use the direct URL to a webcam (so long as it returns an image) in the ‘RSS Feeds’ dialog and get your wish!

There are a bunch of bug fixes including getting SmugMug working again (JBS was using an old version of their API that was deprecated when they made an awesome update to their site) and Pixabay (my bad!) along with performance improvements to Flickr integration (it’ll be a lot less heavy on the number of calls it makes to the Flickr API which should speed things up somewhat). And while we’re talking about Flickr, you can now authenticate JBS to Flickr via a Facebook or Google login. Oh yes.

Message Ends

Right, enough talk! Go to the download page and get yourself upgraded, peruse the full release notes and enjoy! :)

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A Week In Cornwall In November

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Cornwall seems to be turning into my second home as I was only there back in July. However I had some time to take off and figured we’d head back down to Watergate Bay to see what it’s like off-season (summary, the restaurant are shut on week evenings and there are less people, but it’s still great). Also, the dog loves running on the beach and the prospect of there being even less people was most appealing! So without further ado, here are a few photos that summarise the trip!

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My Birthday Baking Photo Casebook

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Today is my birthday – happy birthday to me! As has become tradition I’ve put together a photo casebook to announce the availability of baked goods to my lucky colleagues and this year was able to combine my three main passions:

  1. My dog Billy.
  2. My love of baking.
  3. My fondness for making myself look like even more of an idiot than I already am.

My Birthday Cakes Photo Casebook

Don’t worry, no Lhasa Apsos were harmed in the making of this photo casebook. And before you ask, it was icing sugar, definitely not cocaine!

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Cornwall July 2013

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In what seems to be turning into an annual tradition we took the dog to Watergate Bay in Cornwall for a week of beach running, eating and lazing around. Warning – there are a lot of photos of my dog that follow!

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John’s Luggage Advice For Non-Flying Business Trips To London (And Other Cities)

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Long time readers will know I’m obsessed with luggage. Whenever I see a shop that sells luggage I stand and look at it, imagining it being grabbed by its owner at baggage reclaim in some far-flung part of the world. Oh the adventures it would have being thrown into a taxi and driven to a secluded getaway in a tropical paradise, a beautiful city, a historic town, student accommodation in a new place. If only someone would buy it from this shop and give it the life it deserves… But I digress.

Following a period of a lot of flying I wrote John’s Guide To Travelling With Hand Luggage Only and at the time was a big fan of those cases that have wheels for wheeling around an airport. Large enough to fit a few days clothes and yet small enough to stow safely in the overhead compartment of a plane. I recently spent a few months working several days a week in London and initially used my favourite piece of hand luggage for the job. But soon I realised that while it was great when flying to New York, it wasn’t so good in the following scenario:

  • Travelling 3 hours on a train in the morning and fitting neatly in the overhead compartment, some of which are smaller than others.
  • Jumping on the London underground, fighting through busy crowds on the way to various offices without getting caught in people’s feet and not being awkward when carried up and down stairs.
  • Going back to the hotel via the London underground (see above).
  • After unpacking at the hotel acting as a day bag for the rest of the week in an office – so not being as large and unwieldy when fighting through those crowds (see above).
  • Looking cool, hip and not too business-like (London is full of annoyingly good-looking youngsters).
  • Travelling home for 3 hours on a train (see above).

My hand luggage bag was too rigid to be carried on the shoulder over distance (the best way to battle through crowds) and didn’t compress when I took all the clothes out of it – so continuing to be no fun to carry on the shoulder. I began to do some research and after a while came across a type of bag known as an “overnight bag”. Such bags are soft, worn over the shoulder, can be stuffed full of assorted paraphernalia, come in a variety of rather cool designs (and some uncool ones) and it seemed like the perfect bag design for my travel needs. They’re basically large messenger bags and lots of hipsters wear those – what’s not to like?

In the end I settled on the Weird Fish Hopton Overnight Bag. It looks something like this (pictured here with a regulation Lhasa Apso for size comparison):

My Hopton Overnight Bag And Billy

Let me first note that I paid for the bag myself so I speak only as a happy customer. Also note that any free luggage will be gratefully received (did I mention I’m obsessed with luggage?). I looked at and tried other bags but in the end the combination of the following features put this bag over the finish line:

  • You can stuff loads of things in it and it swallows them easily. Put a couple of things in and it seems like a much smaller bag, taking up no space at all. Ideal for travelling or use as a day bag – it’s like a shape shifter.
  • Nice thick, adjustable strap and nice, thick shoulder pad. Too many of these bags have thin, poorly designed straps that aren’t much use when it’s stuffed full of laptops, clothes and washing kit. They’re often too long and when you want to shorten it the shoulder pad doesn’t actually fit over your shoulder. A heavy bag hanging down your knees is a bitch to carry – that’s not a problem here.
  • It’s flexible. Rigid bags that hold their shape mean no matter how empty or full it is, it’ll always sit in a fixed position on you when it’s on your shoulder. This isn’t great when it’s only got a laptop in it – it’ll be too bulky and you’ll knock into people on the tube and spend all the time being apologised to (even though it’s you who owe them an apology). A flexible bag shapes around your body no matter how full it is – you can pick through crowds like a ninja!
  • A couple of external pockets that actually close for easy-to-reach storage. Pockets are great, there’s no sense having to fish around inside the main bag when you have pockets. Some bags, though, have magnetic clips to hold the pockets closed – except they never stay closed. Proper push studs or straps are a must (this bag has the former).
  • It’s brown. I don’t know if you’re aware of this but all cool luggage has to be brown. Black is for “suits”, brown for everyone else. Just like shoes.

You can see a series of photos below explaining the various design features that make it a winner for a multi-day business trip to London:

If you’re thinking of taking a business trip to London – heck even a non-work weekend trip to London – then you owe it to yourself to invest in the proper luggage. I don’t want to see a photo of an overnight bag on a website, in a shop or a magazine. I want to see it slung over your shoulder while you attend a board meeting, sip cocktails in a posh bar, check into your 5 star hotel (the usual Presidential Suite), sit in a sushi restaurant munching on raw tuna, get thrown out of a strip club and run away from the paparazzi into the night. Because that’s what quality luggage is for!