How to walk a marathon

I ran the San Francisco marathon two weeks ago today. Previously (back in 2008), I ran London. San Francisco is hillier than London, and it doesn’t take much of a hill to tire you out. After getting close to the coast at 15 miles or so, I took a few walking breaks.

And, to be perfectly honest, I had a lot of company. Not even from just the full marathoners, but from the halfers too – and they’d only been at it for a couple of miles!

When you get to the top of the hills at around the 20 mile mark, you’d think it’s easy. The truth is that your legs muscles are just blown. You’ve been running for 3 or 4 hours at that point, and you can’t even walk down the hills. You just limp along with a grimace.

At 20 miles, I quit. I sat down by the side of the road. I said I’d had enough.

But then I thought, what now? I could call a taxi and get to the end, but really it’s only five miles. I could just walk the rest. so I did. And apart from some muscle pains for the rest of the day (and week), and some foot pain ever since – it was fine. I wrapped up in just under 6 hours.

If you look around online you’ll get lots of really great help on how to run a marathon. This will be from those California fitness freaks. They’ll be all eating healthy and training and yoga and sensible and stuff. But there’s not much out there for the slackers. Where is the guide for the fat, the lazy, the unwilling, or merely too busy? Here are my tips:

  • It’s a good idea to do some actual training. I can run 2 miles to the Bart station. That’s my training. Twice a week for four months. I’d call it the minimum.
  • Don’t eat before you run. You’ll get cramps. Eat after.
  • You should do one long run as practice. I did Bay to Breakers, which is an easy 7 miles. Don’t walk this one.
  • If you’re getting blisters after half an hour running, you need new shoes. That’s why you need the long training run. Get new shoes and wear them in. If you can also wear them at work, then you don’t need to carry so much on your commute.
  • If you’re tired or hurting, don’t stress – just skip a training session. You don’t need an injury. You don’t need to run until you hate it. Just enjoy it.
  • Don’t turn up early for the race. Why get tired standing around? Be there 10 minutes before your start time – no more.
  • Run light – there’ll be plenty of water stops with electrolyte. Maybe even food. Carry as little as possible.
  • Don’t go mad with the water. Don’t go mad for the gels and electrolytes. Take a little here and there. Take your favourite candy for the 18 mile mark.
  • Run with a friend who matches your pace. Seriously more fun. You can people-watch together, admire the views of SF and complain about how bad the gels taste.
  • If you don’t have a friend, get your playlist ready. Have some variety – after 3 hours you’ll be stressed out by everything and need some chill.
  • Know your route – you’ll be able to look forward to the flat bits and know where you can pee.
  • Run London if you can – there are crowds all the way. It’s flat.
  • Walk if you must, but try to avoid it. Get into a rhythm, or follow someone at your pace. There will seriously be lots of walkers. You’re not alone.
  • Wear a visor or a cap. While the pros will finish before breakfast, you’ll be out running at noon. Sunburn is a problem, and so is the sunlight.
  • Don’t try and hop up and down curbs while you run – your legs will suddenly stop working sooner than you think and you’ll fall.
  • You’ll be running for 5 or 6 hours. That’s not a marathon, that’s an ultramarathon. You’re awesome and let nobody tell you any different. All you need to do now is finish.
  • Final note: don’t die. Take a phone for emergencies.

Debt and deficit

I love the language of economics. It sounds so simple in the news reports. It’s easy to get het up about the facts and figures they present, but often – no, let’s be honest here, always they’re presented without context or definition.

Two common words of the moment are debt and deficit.

If you earn $1000 this month, but spend $1500, then your deficit is $500.
After one month, your debt will also be $500.
After two months, your debt will be $1000.
So “deficit” is how much you’re losing, while “debt” is how much you’ve lost so far.

When politicians talk about reducing the deficit, they are saying two things:
1) they spend more than they take – they are losing money
2)they want to lose less money next time.

They are not talking about paying off the debt. That would require a surplus for many many years, and is considered so far-fetched that nobody is even suggesting it.

The country has so much debt that nobody is talking about reducing it.

The USA has $16,000,000,000,000 of debt.
The UK has £1,000,000,000,000 of debt.

Now, obviously, as a top customer of the banks, we’re getting a good rate here. We’re paying just over 4% on that.

That’s $640billion and £40billion respectively. Paid out. Every year. To banks and investors.

The only reason we’re not all bankrupt is that this is considered an affordable sum. But is it? Do those numbers look reasonable to you?

Maybe they do. If so, could you lend me a billion dollars?

When the media talk about “getting a grip” on the deficit, and having “control” of the economy, they are just looking at the detail. Cut the deficit by even 50% in ten years, and you’ve still just got more debt.

What you want to do is cut the deficit by more than 100%, so you’re taking more than you’re spending, and you can stop paying some of that huge interest bill.

Being wrong

Back in 1999, I spoke to a friend of a friend about their website. “It’s no good,” I said, “all the search engines are established. Yahoo, Altavista, Lycos. There will be no new ones.”

Google started the same year.

Back in 2004, I spoke to a client. “It’s no good,” I said, “people won’t give you their information for free any more. You have to offer them something in return.”

Facebook started the same year.

Back in 2000, I spoke to a colleague. “It’s no good,” I said, “you have to be compatible with PCs. Apple are a dead company.”

Apple are now the biggest company in the world.

Back in 2009, I spoke to a friend. “It’s no good,” I said, “this is just like Facebook. What’s the point?”

I now work at Twitter. And it’s still nothing like Facebook.

Contact me now at if you’d like me to consult for your startup.

How to present something really boring and get away with it

Some wise person once taught me the correct way to present. You must structure your talk, and follow these three simple rules:
– say what you’re going to say
– say it
– say what you’ve said.

Now I’m not an expert in giving talks. No.

However, over the years I’ve built up a lot of experience at listening to mind-numbingly dull talks, whether lectures at university, technical demonstrations at the office, or the worst ever, wedding speeches.

The rules given above are an excellent way to give a REALLY BORING talk.
Please, do not follow them.

An awful talk usually goes like this:
– a pointless introduction “my talk today is about bananas”
– slide of contents. You read out all the items, often explaining the obvious. For example, “first I’m going to talk about peeling, which is the process of peeling a banana.”
– many slides follow, usually full of too many words and uninteresting facts
– finish up with a reiteration of the contents.

As an audience member, I would like to request that you stop. Just stop.
Here are three rules for a FUN structured talk:
– tell me why I should listen
– tell me a story
– give me something to think about.

This is actually a bit harder to put together, because you’ve got to start thinking. Why SHOULD the audience listen? What should they get out of it?

If you cannot answer this, do not give the talk.

But let’s say you’ve been told to give a boring talk. Hmm, lets pick something really dull for an example: your team has saved 10% bandwidth in the reverse proxy cluster.

Why should I listen? Well, maybe bandwidth is a real constraint. Maybe bandwidth is holding up feature launches. Maybe it costs money? There must be a simple layman’s explanation. If not, maybe you shouldn’t have done it!

So we’re saving money. Ok. And we’re the team lead. We have experience. This is getting better. Start there.

I like to start with some intrigue. “I’m Ralph, I’m the head of proxy reversals, and I’m going to tell you how we saved a baby giraffe.”

Now tell us a story. Add some jokes. Our story is that we’ve been trying to fix this for ages, but we were looking at the flange panel, when really the flux lever was jammed. Oh, how we laughed! Take us with you. Don’t rush.

Use one or two big numbers, if the numbers are impressive. Our reverse proxy cluster is the size of six elephants. We’ve saved bandwidth equivalent to downloading six thousand copies of Bohemian Rhapsody.

Now we just need to finish strong. A final slide, a final sentence. What was the lesson? Be rigorous, get it right? Ten percent savings means ten percent more bacon? If you can, revisit the intrigue from your opening. How did you save the giraffe? Give us a statement, say thank you, and never ever trail off with “and so that’s about it…”

Finally, practice your talk. Even if you’re alone, in a cupboard. It will help you pace yourself, to practice the timing of your jokes.

The greatest feeling ever is the stretch between setup line and punch line. The longer you leave it, the better the result. Trust me.

Next time you give a talk, look out at the audience. If they’re all checking tweets on their iPhones, you’ve failed. If they’re all hanging on to hear more, you’ve won.

And winning is everything.

Mark, Steve and Bill

I finally got to watching The Social Network. It’s fun, though I think it focuses too much on the precious “idea”. The film itself even notes that Facebook-alikes existed at the time: myspace, friendster et al. The idea was far from unique.

What I’ve always respected from Facebook is that they went against the grain of thinking at the time. We’d tell clients that their users would never give up their personal details without the promise of something in return. Facebook proved us wrong – people would (and still do) happily surrender every tiny detail of their life into a website, for no good reason.

Ok, so the film focussed on the legal issues (though didn’t even touch on the privacy issues), and apparently a “legal thriller” is a legitimate film genre. The film ends just as Facebook is taking off.

Facebook’s river of success has many tributaries. The film shows how single-minded and hard working you have to be to run this sort of site – that’s important. Despite the programmer’s bravado, “I built this in a week”, we lie – successful websites require an inordinate amount of everyday work and attention to detail.

For every project I’ve ever worked on, I can look back at the core concept, the basic code at the heart of the system, and yes, that probably took a solid week of coding. It’s just the finishing touches that took the other 18 months.

Facebook’s story is also one of constant reinvention. We had the exclusive-members-club mentioned in the film, before becoming the stalker’s handbook, and then an email replacement. When they launched Apps, the world woke up. There were pirates, pokes, vampires, and all sorts. Google felt the need to launch OpenSocial to compete. Little widget apps were the future. Until Facebook decided the idea was tired, and they killed it. Suddenly the apps were hidden out of reach. Boom. And now, the timeline, the canvas, the ticker. Facebook is all about reinvention.

Speaking of which, I’ve also recently finished Steve Jobs’s official biography. For anyone who hasn’t done that yet, it turns out Jobs was an absolute arse. A complete tit. Such a pitiful waste of human life that just treated friends, family and everyone else like shit.

Until he returned to Apple, Jobs didn’t even make good business decisions. However, when he did come back, he started a massive overhaul of the company. Any every aspect of that revolution made perfect business sense.

He slimmed the range of products to something humans could comprehend. He recognised the importance of the tiny disc drive that would power the iPod, then bet the company on it. He bought a touchscreen company, then didn’t release a shitty tablet. He made the iPhone. He made products both cheap and profitable. He trusted Tim Cook. He trusted Jony Ive.

He built Pixar.

What the book doesn’t properly explain is how such a pathetic excuse for a human being could have been such a business genius, when business is often about relationships. I suspect the book is about as accurate as the Facebook film.

One person who comes across well in the book is Bill Gates. He comes across smarter, more friendly. He understands that clients wanted compatibility, and built a computer industry out of it. His only vice seems to be saying yes too often, and that’s why Windows and Office became overly complex bloatware, that have struggled to keep up with the rapid pace of online development.

Gates actually has a cameo in the Facebook film, failing to inspire a young Zuck.

Zuckerberg, Gates and Jobs. All young billionaires. but none of them lottery winners. Their core stories involve a solid education, a massive dedication to hard work (usually at the expense of personal relationships), and constant reinvention.

Now Facebook has IPO’ed, I look forward to seeing if Zuckerberg will stagnate like Gates, or simply push harder, like Jobs. And if he did push on, what would he do next?


The Kindle is an interesting device.

I’ve had mine for a couple of years now, and I’m still happy with it. It’s everything I expected. What surprised me though, was the way it changed how I read books.

I’m not a great browser, I’ll be honest. For the nerds out there, I’d say I was the IE6 of book browsing. I tend to stick with authors I know. In a bookshop, I’ll check for the location of the Pratchetts and Palahniuks, knowing full well that I already own them all. And then I’ll cast my eye disparagingly at all the other books, and walk out.

On the Kindle it’s actually even harder. The books store simply says: Fiction (100000). Great. Thanks.

So you look up the authors you know. Maybe something, maybe nothing. Ok. What now? I look around the bus. Obviously I’m on a bus on the way to work, that’s the only chance I get to read. Unlike before, I have no idea what all the Kindle and iPad owners are reading. Bugger.

Amazon have created a chart, so I can see what the nation as a whole is reading, but I can’t get a feel for the vibe on the bus. Remember that year when everyone was reading Da Vinci code? I want that.

Maybe there could be a little screen on the back with the book title. Or maybe they should have Bluetooth, and let you sample nearby readers’ libraries.

So I found myself just flicking through the charts and I found … Asimov. I have never read Asimov. Science fiction as a whole puts me off, simply by the thickness of the volumes involved. But on a Kindle, that’s not so scary. I don’t have a heavy book, and I don’t feel like I’m embarking on another Lord of the Rings.

Before I realise it, I’m almost done with Asimov. What should I read next? War and Peace? Shakespeare’s complete works? Harry Potter?

The size doesn’t bother me. The covers aren’t off-putting, and I can even read the Pornographer’s Diaries (Danny King is a favourite author) without embarrassment. The world is my oyster.


In my mind of minds, I’m trying to talk myself into buying a Windows Phone. I know that sounds odd, but sometimes I like to get something a little different. After all, I bought the Nokia 7380, a phone with no keyboard of any kind, and in bright sunshine, no screen either.

So I’m tempted. It looks really slick.

There’s just a few things bothering me. Please bear in mind that I have done no active research. I go by twitter chit chat, billboards and window displays. I don’t watch cable tv or look at banner ads.

I’m worried about essential apps. Will gmail work? I’m not switching to hotmail. How about twitter, facebook, über, zipcar, sonos? I don’t hear people raving about windows phone clients.

I mean, I don’t need everything. Just those essentials..

Contract. The phone is cheaper, granted, but I think they’re still pushing me into a contract. But what if it’s a turkey? I don’t want to be stuck with the same turkey for two Christmases.

You know how cool it is to watch movies on your four inch phone? Honestly? It’s rubbish. Rubbish. So how about you throw me a smaller, sexier phone that fits in my pocket? Get freaky on me. I think your styles can handle it. I won’t watch more than YouTube videos of cats anyway.

Finally, my android phone. Everything about it is annoying me now. I’ve got a Nexus One, and I’m so over it. Every time I dock it, I curse the stupid delay, the lack of notifiers on the screensaver, the fact that I can’t differentiate ringtones between my wife’s urgent call and the bastard automated calls. That damnable lock screen. I hate this phone.

Ok, this is irrational, because the phone is fine, and I’m just tired of the quirks. Understood.

But to every one of those points, I look to the iPhone and sigh. How much better will life be when I have an iPhone? Maybe I just can’t possibly bear to buy anything else.

So to Microsoft/Nokia I say: reassure me. Give me billboards, give me window displays. I’m ready to take the jump.

Promise me it’ll be ok.

Making friends and influencing people

My last post caused a bit of a stir. I was kindof annoyed after hopping around the internet looking for the best workaround for a particularly niggly (and obscure) browser bug, and so popped onto the old blog for a bit of a rant.

That’s not unusual. My ranting blog category is essentially my life’s work. No matter how the article starts, I get to the end thinking, yep, that’s a rant alright. Continue reading

Lost – cutting a long story short

Ok, so to sum up.

There is an island.

This certainly contains spoilers. If you haven’t done the Lost thang, you probably should, because they’re really good, so stop reading this and head off to Amazon. Otherwise, if you’ve seen it all, and read all about it on E!, and seen the deleted scenes on DVD and so on, then you are truly qualified. Do read on.
Continue reading

aitch-tee-tee-pee colon slash slash

It’s lovely to see someone stand up and take the blame for a mistake they’ve made. I’m not talking about the Government (obviously), I’m talking Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World-Wide Web. He’s come out and apologised for the redundant slashes that appear in every web address (url).

Good man. But what of the rest? The “www.” that was so unpronounceable is already obsolete, and personally I think twitter can take credit for popularising the contemporary non-dubbed url form. Boffins in lab coats has worked tirelessly to make memory ubiquitous and cheap, but we’ve just stuck some character limits in there to be fashionable or something. Hey ho. But the “www” is gone.

Can anyone tell me why there’s a huhtetep, “http:”, still shown in my address bar? What’s it for? What does it tell me? I don’t actually have to type it in these days, but it appears there anyway. Why?

Is it to show that I’m looking at a document provided by HyperText Transfer Protocol? I don’t care about that!

Is it to show that I *could* be looking at an FTP site, using the same browser? Ok, fair call, but that’s so rare to do so, that you could default to not showing “http:”, and then only show “ftp:” when FTP sites are used. It’s not like every browser has a built-in FTP client anyway. Same goes for local files.

Is it to show the “s” when I look at an “https” page, meaning that the connection between my browser and the website is encrypted? Well, ok, but what was wrong with the padlock? Why is there such a strong connection between certificates and https anyway? They mean completely different things. I don’t need a certificate to know is Google. Equally, a certificate costs about 20 bucks and has so few checks that I’m hardly reassured when dealing with a new site by the presence of the certificate. What I want to see is a padlock. Drop the “https” and show me a padlock.

Is it for future extensibility, to enable a future Internet to use new and unusual protocols? Like “about:”? Again, it would be simple enough to recognise a default of http. If you go to about:config, then display the protocol. Why is this hard? If a new protocol came along to overtake http, then I think a bigger browser update would be needed anyway.

I think browser manufacturers should take treat it like the port. Every web page is served by a port, and for most of the web, that’s port 80. You could look at this website by typing But mostly, the 80 is assumed. You only ever type in a port if you’re not using port 80, such as for local development. If you type “:80” into a web browser like Chrome, it disappears. Let’s do that for “http://” as well. if you’re thinking there might be confusion between ports and protocols, you’re wrong. Protocols are letters-only, Internet domains need at least one dot, and ports are only numeric.

I’m using Chrome version 5, the latest in a long history of browsers. Surely it’s long past time to kill off the http://. And if you look closely, you’ll see the iPhone already has.