Category Archives: Miscellaneous

The Rolls Royce of Shonky Metaphors

A discussion sometimes goes like this:

Well, that would be the Rolls Royce version, but it’s not clear we can afford that, so we may have to go for something more modest.

It doesn’t matter so much what the thing is. It could be a washing machine, a content management system, a bicycle, or even, for the love of Kurt, a motor car.

At the opposite end of the spectrum to the Rolls Royce version we have let’s say, the bargain basement model. Our resources are limited. If they weren’t we’d go straight to Rolls Royce.

So that’s the Rolls Royce metaphor at work. I’m here to complain about it.

I’m complaining because it turns out that I don’t want my decision making to be informed by the Rolls Royce – bargain basement spectrum. Why not? Well, mostly because I don’t want to wind up with a Rolls Royce.

The Rolls Royce will be too big. It will use too much fuel. It will maximise values that I don’t care about, such as production methods that contribute to a narrative about status and not about the things that really matter to me.

Sometimes hand crafting and hand polishing parts makes them better, makes them easier or more attractive to use. But sometimes, and this is at the heart of my doubts about the Rolls Royce metaphor, they are simply a demonstration of power. Buy this product and, like an Egyptian Pharaoh, you too can show how much labour you can bend to your will.

I’m no apologist for the bargain basement either, even though sometimes it is all that can be afforded. The bargain basement is a dark territory where, by maximising the value of minimum expense, we place in jeopardy the values of joy of use, utility, and reliability.

The scratchy biro and the commodity keyboard that comes as standard with most PCs are classic examples in the bargain basement category.

The defenders of cheap biros and commodity keyboards insist that they get the job done and that fusspots such as me have had their heads turned by mere aesthetic frills.

My response to those who think I’m a fusspot is that while they may be right over a short time frame, when you factor in repeated use of an artefact, their vision often turns out to be short sighted. Let me work through two cases.

A pen is a tool I use a lot and I don’t want to have to put up with low level and quite easily avoidable annoyance. With something you use a lot, you’re not just disappointed once, you’re disappointed again and again. It may be a small and quiet disappointment, but the effect is cumulative.

The keyboard is another tool with which I spend many hours. For typing in one sentence, the gain to be had from a more refined artefact is negligible. But if the keyboard I use is even just marginally more pleasant to use, then this small and (ideally) quiet benefit is one that will add up over time.

But for all my eschewal of the bargain basement, I still don’t want a Rolls Royce pen. That would be some truly dreadful and terribly expensive artefact, probably a fountain pen, that I’d be paranoid about losing. I certainly don’t want some shocking product like that in the mix when I’m trying to work out where I want to land on the continuum between ‘best for me if cost were not an issue’ and ‘cheapest option that could be considered to meet the need at hand’.

Most of the time using ‘Rolls Royce’ as proxy for ‘the best we can get’ is unlikely to have too toxic an effect on good decision making. But all the same, I’m having a go at seeking out the ‘VW Golf’ versions to sit opposite bargain basement on my cost-quality continuum. No doubt, the ‘VW Golf’ will also bring some unwanted baggage. But it’s more closely synonymous with the things I actually care about. Of course, if you care about different things, then you’ll care to choose a different metaphor.


It has been brought to my attention that not everyone is familiar with the term ‘shonky’. If  you’re not, then thinking shoddy and wonky, will get you close enough. I commend the term to you. Shonky is the VW Golf of wryly critical metaphors.

Free – as in mind

An outfit called MacHeist is running an interesting promotion with, as I write, just nine hours to go. The pitch is six applications for your Apple Mac, applications ‘worth’ $154, for… well, for no money at all. What they say is ‘for free’. But I don’t think that’s right.

When they’ve run this sort of thing before, there’s always been a cash price. So far I’ve never jumped in.

My best guess about my own motives used to be this: I was holding back because although the price was low, it was still not low enough, it still exceeded the value I put on owning any one of the applications in the bundle. Just to be clear, each time around there has been at least one application that I really thought I liked the look of.

Well I think my best guess about my own motives was just wrong. Because I’m still not jumping in.

So here’s what I have got out of MacHeist this time around: a clearer insight into why even free – as in no cash cost – is too high a price for me.

It’s the same when the pizza chain guy comes to the door with this no strings money off voucher scheme – and there’s “no commitment” and “if you do it even once you’ll save money”. I say no. The hidden cost is stuff in my head, clogging up my decision making processes, in a way that I just don’t want. When I’m trying to decide who to order my carry out from, I don’t want marginal cash savings to run interference with my choosing style. I don’t want, say, to be steered to pizza rather than curry just because, in a moment of weakness, I picked up some voucher.

So if I am going to install a new application on my computer then, again, I want the right values to inform that decision making. Is the application going to make my time at the screen better or worse, more elegant or more like using a scratchy biro? And, in any case, do I want to be making decisions about that right now, on the seller’s schedule and not mine.

Well, I could just sign up, get the goods and then, at a time of my choosing, evaluate the new applications along with other potential candidates. Couldn’t I? I could just take the pizza voucher and only spring it after I had decided that, tonight, yes, I do want pizza. Couldn’t I? Well, maybe you could. I know what I’m like when I let this kind of stuff get in my head. If I’ve invested a bit, I feel some sort of obtuse obligation to follow through. And then I’ve given away a bit of my mind to pizza guy, sold a bit of my soul to software seller.

These sales folk are smart and creative. For some people they are offering a great deal. But I’m not biting. Not at zero cash cost and, hey, not even if you paid me.

Micro Men – stirring memories…

I’ve just finished watching the BBC drama ‘Micro Men’ on BBC Four. It’s a strange thing to see a drama in which many of the events and characters are familiar on a personal level. I worked for both Clive Sinclair and Hermann Hauser in the late 80s and early 90s, two of the most prominent characters portrayed in the show. I knew of, but did not know personally, the third key character, Chris Curry.

My contact with Clive was limited, though I used to see him about the office when I worked on the Z88 project . His right hand technical man, Jim Westwood, was someone I had daily contact with for several months. For the purposes of drama, he was portrayed as shy and retiring. He was, in some ways, a gentle man. But the drama completely failed to capture his powerful personality which included occasional moments of fierce anger. As in the show, there was a lot of swearing, but it was by no means limited only to Clive. It was the first time in my life that I’d witnessed grown ups really swear. It was exciting, as well as a little scary.

Sadly, the show missed the depth with which engineering ran right through Jim’s very being. I remember a particular occasion where I had some very elaborate theories as to why my prototype Z88 model might be misbehaving. Jim, always methodical, thought first about power. He had me investigate the batteries by rubbing their ends gently on some clean white paper, revealing tell tale black marks. Jim’s hardware was fine. Slightly greasy batteries were the source of intermittent power. For me, it was an early real world example of how experience can trump quick thinking. I’m not sure I wholly absorbed the lesson at the time, but the memory stays with me.

At one point in the show Hermann says ‘I’ll make the tea’. In the early days of the Active Book Company, based then in the Market Square in Cambridge, I remember a particularly hot day. Hermann bought the whole team cornettos. In one way, we knew it was a calculated gesture, an act carefully designed to raise morale. But in another way, it was quite genuine. He was happy to do this small thing for us, knowing that he couldn’t, at that point in time, do anything more to move the project forward in a technical way. And, given who we were and what we were doing, we rather respected the calculated gesture. It was like a well thought out program, designed to achieve a specific effect. It worked.

Hermann made you believe in the project and he oozed a sense of vision. He didn’t always say much, but I always had a sense of him thinking big, thinking beyond the details. He was confident in himself, to be sure. But my experience was that he made me and all my colleagues feel confident, he helped us believe that we were really good and could could achieve the goal. In the case of the Active Book, it was too much. We were trying to make Objective Oriented Programming (then we used Smalltalk), now common place, work on hardware that just didn’t have the grunt. A short lived skunk project to rewrite all the software in C never quite came off. But the vision was always fantastic. It was a privilege and a delight to work on the Active Book project. Or it was, until the directors decide to sell up and move on. With the advent of the iPhone, the hardware has caught up with the vision. That was the kind of product we were shooting for.

The BBC film mixed drama with historical footage including stills of computer magazines that I remember buying at WH Smiths and poring over for hours. The pub in which the characters met, the Baron of Beef, was once run by the father of a school friend. I went to parties there as small child and, later, as a teenager, drank the occasional pint.

Watching the film, I grew nostalgic for the friends and colleagues that were not portrayed. Paul Bond, the big brain behind the Z88 and the Active Book, was a mentor and a role model for the late teenage me. He once took me flying in his Cessna. As exciting as that was, and it was exciting, the battle to break his software and to persuade him to accept some of my user interface ideas, was even more exhilarating. With a bigger canvas, Paul would have been at the edge of this drama. As would, I suspect, Eric the wireman, who shocked me with his homophobia at an age where I lacked the confidence to protest and, indeed, in an age where such protest was much more of a challenge. Perhaps further out of this drama’s brief, not least because further forward in time, I thought of other good friends, such as Jamie, whose Scottishness seemed so exotic to me then, and Martin, with whom I shared Thatcher’s passing – a delight for me and a disappointment for him. Most of all, the show made me remember how exciting it was to be making new things. And, of course, it still is.