Pitch perfect

I’m extremely fortunate that I rarely have to pitch story ideas to an editor to generate work – most of what I do is offered to me to accept or decline as loyalty, interest, other commitments and my bank balance dictate – but as a general rule, on those occasions when I do, I pitch several ideas at once, and they tend to fall into four main categories.

  • Ideas that are easy money (though are still something I think they and their readers will like), usually because they require minimal research or asset-gathering
  • Ideas that will be a pain in the arse to research and write but which are interesting and which stretch me, professionally, and so are worth the arse-pain
  • Ideas that mean me getting to do or use something I’m interested in at a personal level
  • Ideas that I think are important and that have either been covered in an opaque, unsympathetic or generally unuseful format hitherto, or just plain haven’t been covered – at least in a high-profile enough place for enough people to have seen it

Congratulohno!

I found out today that a friend and his wife are pregnant. Indeed, very pregnant. I congratulated him, of course, since there’s a better than average chance that at our stage in life, this is welcome, longed-for news.

But I wanted also to commiserate. Which is hard. In part it’s hard because no soon-to-be parent wants to have any more apprehension and fear heaped on them, in part because I was totally blindsided by how hard I found the first few weeks and months, and, crucially, in part because it’s not as simple as “it’s awful” – or even “but it has its rewards”.

It’s so fucking complicated.

It used to be that when someone told me they were expecting, I would of course congratulate them, but it would mostly – and don’t worry, I hate myself for this – it would mostly be a learned reaction. I didn’t feel bad for them; I felt little for them. It was, to me, a remote and irrelevant thing.

Then, we decided to try for a child – a decision that boiled down basically to “you’re never ready” and “I’m months away from being categorised as a geriatric mother” (which happens at 35, incidentally) – and when we had trouble conceiving and started the process of exploring our options, news of a friend’s pregnancy gained another unpleasant dimension. I knew that telling my wife would knock her back, would once again start thoughts about our situation and why getting pregnant wasn’t as easy as we’d been warned in sex-ed classes.

Now, news of a friend’s pregnancy boils up a visceral knot of reactions. Delight, of course, and excitement on their behalf about the adventure they’re about to embark on, but also a gut-punch reminder of how disorientating and disenfranchising and alien the first few weeks is. Or at least, was for us.

They might be fine! They might not have our medical challenges, our neuroses, our hang-ups, our problems. They might, in short, be more natural parents than we are, and find the process at worst tiring.

Perhaps the most challenging thing about my reaction to the news, though, is that I never really know now what my reaction is going to be, because my own situation, with my soon-to-be-six-month-old daughter, is such a shifting and ill-defined one. It’s not resolved. It’s in turn magical and difficult and fun and tortuous, and I need the hindsight of 25 years to know what I think about it. And that helps nobody, now.

It gets easier

I’m writing this in part to reassure friends with babies younger than Ada (which includes BABIES AS YET UNBORN, WOOOOOOOO!) who may find or might be finding things tough going – and who might still be haunted by our ashen faces and shakily-recounted tales of bafflement and exhaustion – and in part just for the exercise of marking this time and exorcising this stuff from my brain. (I actually started writing it a month ago; it just took a while to find space and time to complete.) Here, then, is why things have gotten easier.

The first few weeks of Ada’s life were dazzlingly, bruisingly tough for lots of the usual reasons that everyone will experience – the stakes being so high – and for some more special reasons all of our own. Now, with her a little over four months old (as she was when I started writing at the start of December), we’re beginning to catch our breath. Indeed, we’re beginning to enjoy Ada – and girl, if you’re reading this is twenty years’ time on a holoscreen, please don’t read that as us resenting or disliking you hitherto. It was just vast, exhausting work, and newborns don’t give anything back. Like, they’re not required to – “they didn’t ask to be born” – but it means you’re under heavy physical and emotional stress for hours, days, weeks, and the thing that’s at the centre of the maelstrom your life has become could not give one shit. (Except, you know, in the visceral sense.) I am not saying I’m a good person for finding that challenging, but I am saying I did. Which brings me to the first reason it gets easier.

Start the day with a smile

When I go to get Ada from her cot first thing in the morning, she looks at me, a moment passes and then her face splits into the biggest, cheekiest grin I’ve ever seen, she kicks her legs, she stuffs her fist in her mouth in her transports of delight. “Oh my god, this guy‽” she says, correctly identifying an opportunity to use an interrobang even in body language because she is my daughter; “I bloody love this guy!” And thus, whatever challenges and arguments and perplexities had figured so oppressively in the day before dissolve away in a heartbeat, and we begin afresh. But it took many weeks to get to this stage.

Practice makes piss-easy

The first time you sterilise anything, the first time you put on a nappy, the first time you run a bath, hell, the first time you pick up your baby, you won’t really know what you’re doing and so you’ll spend hours, cumulatively, reading manuals and guides, fussing with holds and fits, and ultimately not believing for a second you have done it right at the end of the process. Give it a couple of months, though, and you’ll do this kind of dull logistical stuff without a second thought, and that not only means you’re spending less time on them but you’re also not filling up your mind with fretting about what are ultimately quite minor things. Don’t get me wrong: we still worry about plenty of shit now, but through the mundane act of doing some things many dozens of time we don’t also worry about them at a bald mechanical level.

Tool up

We read books, we stocked up, we thought we were well-equipped. And we were, but only, it turned out, for a small set of scenarios. For example, because reasons, we decided at about week three to feed Ada expressed milk topped up with formula, which meant bottles. Because this wasn’t really a scenario we’d envisioned (because of the conspiracy of fucking silence about how difficult breastfeeding is, for one thing), we had a bit of a mish-mash of bottles we’d just kinda accreted. Once we actually bought good bottles that Ada liked and figured out the correct flow of teats, and then once we’d actually bought enough of them so that we could have the next full day’s worth sterilised and ready before I went to bed rather than frantically washing and sterilising two or three in a rolling dance of clusterfuck, we were golden.

Other stuff that has helped immensely (most of which were discovered as a result of Jenny’s research):

  • Nuk dispensers for formula. Measure the correct number of scoops into these at the end of every day, then the next day when things can be frantic just dump straight into the bottle. (Also, if using powdered formula, buy a Perfect Prep machine or similar. Just do. Ain’t no parent got the brainspace to be boiling kettles half an hour before feeds are required.)
  • Also, Nuk bottle cleanser. ‘Light’, not as foamy as usual washing-up liquid, and has an enzyme that specifically targets and breaks down milk. You can see it happen. Great stuff.
  • Look, I’m going to tell you we bought one of these baby chairs and I’m going to feel the need to justify the price, but we just love it. It’s somewhere to put Ada down while we’re doing other things (which might be simply ’massaging one’s sacrum while staring into the middle distance’), and she loves it too. It will last her for years, and the only bad thing is that it’s a pain to move around. Oh, and the crippling working class guilt about the price.
  • When you buy a sleeping bag or a babygro or whatever, buy the next size up as well at the same time; you’ll need it more quickly than you expect, and having it right there on the day when suddenly nothing fits is a magical gift from past-you.

Anyway, the point is: I suspect nobody has the stuff they need before a baby is born, so don’t even really try. Get the basics (books will tell you what these are) and then just be prepared to make many spur-of-the-moment trips to Boots, and late-night Amazon orders.

We are learning how to parent; Ada is learning how to baby

Newborns are like nothing you’ve ever encountered before, or more precisely caring for one is like nothing you’ve ever encountered before. You’ve literally spent a lifetime learning how to interact with people, and you’ll likely even – as a girlfriend, as a co-worker, as someone with an elderly parent – have spent some time caring for people at some level. Newborns aren’t people. I mean, obviously, they are, but they do not operate like people. This isn’t about babies not being able to articulate “Ah, father; I think the purple dungarees today – I’m feeling vivacious!” or “No, mother, don’t you remember? I took a dislike to Baby Snuggle Book last Wednesday and I simply cannot countenance the woolly sheep today”. No; we know ahead of time that babies can’t talk and that we will have to interpret their needs in other ways. But what actually happens is that they don’t even have the same basic concepts of needs or responses or drivers that adults, children, even toddlers have, and so it’s not even like you can work out what the different cues are and deal with them.

As the weeks ticked by, however, we would more and more often comment “Aw, she’s starting to be a proper little person”, and it was only later I realised that a side-effect of this is that she started being easier to interpret, simply because we’ve had a lifetime of interpreting people. And still this isn’t about knowing specifically what Ada wants; she’s too young, clearly, to form words, and we haven’t properly started with signing. It’s about me doing something funny and her chuckling; it’s about Jenny cuddling her after we’ve given her saline drops to help clear her nose when she had a cold and Ada understanding that a cuddle is comforting; it’s about – oh my days is it – Ada understanding what sleep is.

At the same time as Ada is learning how to be a baby, we’re learning how to be parents. In part we’re just better at mechanics of it, but we’re also just better at knowing how to support each other, how to structure days, how to adapt to the ever-changing process of parenting. We fuck up often, in big and little ways, and there hasn’t been a week where either I or Jenny or both haven’t cried, but we’re now able to at least identify those areas where we need to research more or just sack up more for, rather than just finding literally every aspect of the situation intimidatingly alien.

We are, too, now, the world’s foremost authorities on Ada Margaret Gray Phin. Nobody knows her better than we do, so when well-intentioned advice is offered, we feel confident in listening politely and then quietly, privately ascribing it little relevance to Ada if we believe it’s not applicable. Clearly, we’re not going to dismiss it out of hand, and this doesn’t apply to medical advice or advice from professionals, but equally we’re now experienced enough to know that no, she’s not windy just now; no, that thing she does when feeding doesn’t mean she isn’t hungry; no, there’s no point in trying to get her back to sleep after only a half-hour nap; half-hour naps are what she takes.

What’s more, while in the first two, three, four months we’d live pretty much half-hour to half-hour not knowing what was coming next, she’s settling into routines now, we’re learning her cries (and she’s learning to make different sounds for different things), and we’re using an app to track feeds, sleeps, medication and more so that we can start to see patterns and work out whether behaviours are out of the ordinary.

So: it gets easier. Not easy – presumably never easy – but easier. Everyone told us it would in the first few weeks and months, but we had to live through it to believe it. We have. It does.

Ada sitting up

Yo’ Watch’s so slow it thinks it’s last Thursday

Using apps on the Apple Watch, even with native watchOS 2 apps, is so slow that I have time to launch an app on the Watch, grow bored waiting for it to show the information I want, pull my iPhone out of my pocket, launch the same app, get the info, tap around a bit for more info, get distracted by the telly, put phone down, glance at Watch to see the time, and have to quit out of the still mutely spinning app I launched in the first place.

And yet I still love it – because for me at least it’s not about ‘launching apps and doing things with them’ like on the iPhone, but about glancing at the time and other useful snippets of information, rich and timely notifications, and short, Siri-issued commands. Sure, I’d like it to be faster for apps, but the fact that it’s not doesn’t make it a bad product – for me.

Stuff I didn’t know about babies before I owned one (or: The Handy-Dandy Guide for Existing Parents to Feeling Superior to the Phins)

Parents love to give advice to other parents, despite the fact that since all babies are different most advice will be utterly worthless. I didn’t set out to write advice here as such – rather just to note down the stuff that surprised me about parenthood – but it has rather come out that way. If it helps, imagine that the ‘you’ I’m addressing here is me, a few months ago.

This list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive, because babies are. Or something.

  • Humans need to be taught to go to sleep. For the first few days, our daughter would eat, stare at us blankly for a few minutes and then drop off to sleep again, to be repeated a couple of hours or so later. Then one day, or so it seemed, she basically stopped falling asleep on her own, with the result that we would get to the early evening and she would scream bloody murder. Turns out, you have to firmly if politely make your baby nap during the day in order to avoid over-tiredness and the attendant yelling and tears – from everyone. This has been The Biggest Thing. We are idiots, but we simply didn’t realise that when babies get tired, they don’t just go to sleep, as we do.
  • You are not prepared. You will have a vague idea about ‘sleepless nights’ and ‘piss everywhere’ but while these are to a greater or lesser extent true, the things you think will be hard won’t be as bad as you imagined, and the things that are the hardest to deal with you hadn’t even thought to anticipate. Also, every vanishingly minor thing that irritates you about your partner, love them dearly as you do, is made, conservatively, a billion times worse when the stakes are so high as in the first few weeks of your baby’s life. Basically: accept all this for what it is. You can’t – I couldn’t – prepare properly. Embrace the chaos.
  • Before your baby is born, midwives and other medical and support professionals will only tell you The Right Way to do things. ON DAY ONE of your child’s life, it becomes apparent that no fucker ever does things that way because they are often wildly impractical. Best of all, for fretting and anxious parents, it’s the midwives who are the ones to say “Well, yes, ideally, but I never did that with my ten kids, and…” (I don’t exaggerate. One terrific maternity care assistant had ten kids and she looked irritatingly unravaged.) Would you like an example?
  • Wipes. Fucking wipes. You are strongly advised to clean your baby at nappy changes using cotton wool dipped in a bowl of warm water, and then dry her with more cotton wool. You mustn’t use baby wipes – despite their tricksy, misleading name – because your baby will get nappy rash and their bum will fall off. We dutifully did this in hospital and for the first few days despite the particular challenge of the first few dirty nappies – Google ‘meconium’ if you don’t know what I mean and my apologies for what you’ll find, and if you do, my apologies for reminding you – but quickly decided that was so much of a faff that we would risk a bum-less daughter. We bought newborn-safe wipes, NAIVELY AND IRRESPONSIBLY swallowing the MARKETING BULLSHIT on the packet that said they’d been shown to be “as safe and gentle as water in one of the largest ever clinical trials”. So much easier to use (we bought a wipe-warmer too mostly so the cold wipes didn’t jar her awake in the middle of the night) and, since we still carefully dry with cotton wool, she has resolutely failed to get nappy rash and is in full possession of her bum. I buy 36 packets at a time from Amazon; £24, delivered free. Sold.
  • Apparently, because hormones, newborn baby girls can have a period. This was mentioned casually at a birth class. CAN YOU IMAGINE not knowing this, taking off a nappy, and finding your days-old daughter BLEEDING FROM THE VAGINA.
  • Your diet will change. Your diet will have to change. Before our daughter was born, we smugly filled the freezer with home-cooked meals – ragù, chili con carne, chicken casserole and so on – which would simply need to be defrosted and paired with some quick-to-whip-up carb such as rice or pasta. Ahahahaha. Simply carving out 15 minutes to prepare one of these meals is hard enough to begin with, and then there’s plating up, eating – often one-handed, or cold – and clearing up. For basically two months, we lived off ready meals and take-away, sometimes literally cutting it up and feeding it to each other. (We had also wildly underestimated the length of time it would take us to get back on our feet, so our freezer supplies in any case were woefully inadequate.) The kind of food you need is food that ⓐ can be easily eaten one-handed and which ⓑ doesn’t have a precise ‘ready’ time; it needs to be able to sit in an oven or on a hob keeping warm. Additionally, in the first few days in particular, both of us lost a decent chunk of weight, simply through there not being set mealtimes where we could be sure we were eating enough, and through running around more than usual. In these times, ‘just any calories’ is fine; when we arrived home with Ada, we sat and ate half a chocolate cake each. And finally, you might need to adjust the nature of your meals completely: we found that, having normally eaten our evening meal around seven, baby bedtime pushed this back to nine or ten, and trying to convince a baby to sleep, after a day of convincing a baby to sleep, when you also have low blood sugar is fun for nobody; we started having bigger lunches to carry us through, and peppering the flat liberally with vaguely healthy snack points.
  • People will stop you in the street and talk to you about your baby, and you won’t know what to say.
  • Nine months is a long time and thus you will basically forget that a baby will arrive at the end of it. Let me explain, since that will be greeted with much “I bet Jenny didn’t forget!!!” roffling. We knew early on that Jenny was pregnant, so we were aware of the full nine – actually, ten – months of pregnancy. For one thing, there is no bump for much longer than I expected. And then a weird thing happened. I realised, after we went into hospital late on in the pregnancy for some monitoring after the baby was a bit too quiet for a bit too long, that the medical context had finally prompted me to realise and remember that she was imminent. Now clearly, I hadn’t forgotten, but ten months is a long time, and at some level ‘Jenny being pregnant’ had just become the new normal. That was how our life had been for so long towards the end of the pregnancy that a part of my brain had just started thinking that’s how it would continue to be.
  • There is an ingeniously simple system – which I won’t detail for fear of compromising it – for letting expectant mothers secretly alert the authorities to domestic violence. That’s a chilling thing.
  • Every little thing – every little logistical thing, like brushing your teeth or taking the recycling out – becomes much, much harder, even to contemplate.
  • Holy fucking shit, they develop so fast. I swear that I could feel Ada being heavier in the evening one day when I picked her up compared to first thing that morning, so quickly was she growing and putting on weight. And also, after a few weeks of not much apparently changing mentally, when she hit around two months everything started kicking off, and every single day, she’d do something new and astonishing – vocalise, know how to activate the music on her baby gym, grab a finger, grab a finger more gently and deliberately, and so on.
  • The sheer relentlessness of the first few weeks is the killer. Usually, after a major event – your baby’s birth, in this case, but I’m thinking exams at school, an operation, a big launch or something – you get a chance to rest, recuperate and reflect, but here, it’s just the start, and exhaustion and frustration and worry and the grind of keeping the household running just builds and builds and builds. It’s hard.
  • You will find it impossible to explain what it’s like, and why it’s so hard.
  • It’s also, of course, all worth it, but that was one I knew before.

How and why I use the text expander system built into iOS and OS X

Built into OS X and iOS for a while now has been the ability to define text expander shortcuts, so that if you type ‘omw’, for example, the system will replace it with ‘On my way’. It’s handy, and what’s more so long as you’re signed in with iCloud, all the shortcuts you define will be available on all your Mac and iOS devices. I use it a lot, often as a way of easily typing emoji and Unicode; yes, you can use the character palette in OS X and the emoji keyboard in iOS for this, but they are slow compared to just bashing in a short string of characters, and with the latter you don’t get access to Unicode characters at all. Here are some of the shortcuts I have set up:

Text expander shortcuts

One thing you’ll notice is that all the ones on this screen start with two slashes. That’s to make the string unique to this task, so that if I just type ‘no’ for example, I won’t find it’s been autocorrected to №. Of course, I could instead have chosen a different string to trigger the replacement, one which I wouldn’t ordinarily type such as ‘nosymbol’, say, but I want always to keep the trigger string short and easy to remember, otherwise what’s the point?

The choice of a double slash is deliberate. I got the idea originally from Craig Grannell, but if I remember correctly he leads with ‘[[’, and while that’s fine, the bracket symbol is two levels down in the iOS keyboard, and since I want to use these shortcuts everywhere – and since this is all about saving time – I’ve found this to be a more useful solution.

I don’t just use these shortcuts for typing symbols, though. As you can see, I use them as a quick way of typing out my email address or phone number – useful in forms if AutoFill is playing up – and there are some phrases I use often which have shortcuts that are hidden off the bottom of the list; because for these I can easily use trigger strings that aren’t real words, they don’t have to have the leading double slash.

You could go even further. If, for example, you do a tech support job, rather than typing hurried and terse emails to users, then, because of course we all know that most problems are solved with a handful of solutions, you could set up ‘tioaoa’ to expand to “In many cases, problems like this can be solved simply by restarting the computer; try choosing Restart from the Apple menu at the top left and see if that fixes it. Of course, if it doesn’t, please do let me know”. You could construct complete template emails or Slack messages this way, or just create a few jigsaw piece-like phrases that you can stitch together to save yourself tens of thousands of keystrokes.

So that these phrases do autocomplete in OS X, make sure in Edit ▸ Substitutions ▸ Text Replacement is checked in whatever app you’re using to enter text. Oh, and I’ve just added ‘//submenu’ to my list so that I can easily type ‘▸’; this is an always-evolving process!

Comparing the iPhone 6 and 6s as cameras

Macworld asked me to write about how the iPhone 6s compares to the iPhone 6 considered solely as cameras. In other words, how much better is the 6s’s camera than the 6’s?

It was a hugely fun thing to write. Well, it was logistically a complete pain in the arse as it had to be turned around quickly, and on a weekend when I thought I’d be able to give my wife a break from wrangling our sometimes fractious baby daughter I was instead haring all over town taking photos then locking myself away for snatches of time in my office to try to analyse the shots and marshal my thoughts into a coherent narrative.

But when I eventually turned in at 2am early on Sunday morning, having completed a first draft, I was buzzing. It’s a really simple thing, but it was so lovely to have the opportunity – thanks, Susie! – to set out with an open mind, take a bunch of carefully-planned sample shots and footage, and then sit down, sort through it all dispassionately, and have the rewarding experience of seeing original conclusions and judgements emerge which I’m confident in and which I think are genuinely useful.

It’s quite long – and boy, do I fret about writing flabby prose; I hope my editor friends won’t be secretly thinking I could easily have cut it in half – but there’s a tl;dr version at the end if you want to skip straight to that. Set aside 10–20 minutes and have a read; I’m proud of this one.

Another reason to buy Apple’s ‘s’-generation iPhones

I am sometimes quite dim, and so it took me a while to realise that Apple’s focus on the strength of the “7000 Series aluminium” used in the iPhone 6s was probably tacitly – not explicitly; never explicitly – addressing ‘bendgate’. This, the discovery shortly after launch that the iPhone 6 could deform with enough pressure applied along its length, was mostly a PR problem for Apple rather than an actual problem for its customers, but that’s why using PR to counter it this time round makes sense.

This, though, prompted another thought, building on what John Gruber recently wrote about how the every-two-years ‘s’-generation iPhones are the ones to buy, and it’s this: s-gen buyers effectively have had their phone’s design beta tested by millions of users, over trillions of hours of use, generating tens of thousands of data points in Apple’s support infrastructure, and this means that Apple has the opportunity to correct flaws in the original, non-s variant of that design.

You could argue that there shouldn’t be flaws in the first place, and you can be damned sure Apple tests thoroughly, exhaustively, both in the real world and with mechanisms designed to mimic extended periods of use, but I suspect there’s just no substitute for millions of users actually, really, properly using a product when it comes to revealing areas of weakness.

Here’s another example: some iPhone 6 users have been affected by the front-facing camera gradually moving – or presumably more accurately, being knocked and nudged – off centre, revealing a (harmless) crescent moon shape off to the side. That’s exactly the sort of thing that I can imagine easily fails to surface during internal, prerelease testing, but now Apple has enough reports of it, it can in theory use that information to correct it with the iPhone 6s.

This whole theory is bunk, mind you, if the lead times for design and manufacture are so short as to make it impossible to incorporate changes within the annual cycle Apple releases phones on. I just don’t know; it seems really short to me, but, from a position of ignorance, it strikes me as not out of the question, if a revealed flaw is sufficiently severe.

Hyper-personal watchOS 2 apps

Imagine you were immensely rich, and you lived a hundred years ago. Imagine you wanted to be able to know, at a glance, at any time, how immensely rich you were – your net worth. I could be wrong, but I think it probably couldn’t be done; merely gathering never mind collating the data would take, what, hours? Days? Imagine you wanted to have that data available on your wristwatch. Imagine the infrastructure that would have to be developed, never mind the mechanical machinations involved in displaying it. Your immense wealth literally – probably – couldn’t buy you what you wanted.

If today you are immensely rich and want to know, at a glance, at any time, how immensely rich you are, you could have a developer create a bespoke Apple Watch app just for you that gathers information in real time, collates it, and presents it as a complication.

And the thing is that you don’t even have to be immensely rich. If you have a strong and unique enough need for a small snippet of information to be always updated and always available, it’s not ridiculous to commission a dev to create a Watch app for you that does so. What a hundred years ago no amount of money could buy, today a small amount of money can easily buy.

A Watch is a less weird thing to strap to your body than a watch

Watching – lol – a TV programme last night, I clocked – lol – that the presenter was wearing a regular watch. And in the way of things, like when you say a word over and over and it starts to sound utterly alien, my mind started thinking how odd it was that we spent hundreds of years with the time – and only the time – strapped to our bodies. Yes, it was and is useful, and I know the story of train travel forcing standardisation of time and so on, but it’s one of those ‘if an alien came to Earth’ things; why is knowing the exact time – for a given value of ‘exact’ – so important to you Earthlings that you strap it to your body so it’s with you at all, as it were, times?

Contrast this with the Apple Watch, which, yes, tells you the time. But also tells you if it’s going to rain, when to take your pizza out of the oven, what your friend thinks of your new haircut, where your nearest hairdresser is, when your next haircut is, and so on. It’s so much less weird of a thing to have strapped to your body, so much less weird of a thing to glance at, simply because it’s so much more capable and flexible.

(Now the phrase ‘strapped to your body’ is now starting to sound weird.)