Time to Turn Off Video to Avoid Online Meeting Fatigue?

Researchers at Stanford have identified four causes of what they call “Zoom fatigue”. They all resonate with me as someone who has a lot of online meetings,. (Though I’m not keen on the attempt to turn “Zoom” into a generic noun!)

I recommend reading the article in full, but the four causes boil down to excessive eye contact, always seeing yourself, reduced mobility, and higher cognitive load due to the fact it’s difficult to interpret body language. The solutions offered range from suggestions on how conference software could be adapted to taking regular “audio only” breaks.

Seeing people is great, and a necessary part of working together, but once the the initial greetings are done, it adds little value most of time, in my experience at least. Thankfully Microsoft Teams lets you hide other people’s video as well as your own. Back when I used to work in the office, I would often pace up and down while on calls with clients, and studies have shown we are more intelligent and creative when we’re moving. Now though, as the Stanford team point out, we are all sat in chairs, staring at each other directly in the eyes all day.

There is no doubt that video is useful when you’re meeting people for the first time and trying to form a connection with them, or for calls where you really want to gauge the other person’s true feelings about something. But for meetings that require excessive brainpower or creativity, it’s probably worth switching off video and going for a walk.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio.

Moving Away From LastPass Premium

LastPass made headlines recently because it’s stripping back its free offering and asking users to pay for features that were once bundled for free.

I’ve been a paid LastPass subscriber for over 5 years, and over that time it has become a critical part of both my professional and home workflows. The problem is the issues it had 5 years ago are still problems now. The product seemingly hasn’t moved forward much at all. LastPass has a fundamental misunderstanding of basic User Interface design principals. It looks awful and is difficult to use. Each app behaves differently on different platforms, and features are shoehorned in with little regard to the expected user workflow. How many times have I searched for a site, copied the username, only to have to search for the site again in order to copy the password. Errors are frequent, when generating a new password I always end up pasting it into a text editor temporarily in case LastPass fails to save it. It’s also incredibly slow, even on 2020 Intel i5 processor.

I mention this because I recently helped a friend migrate from LastPass’s free offering to Apple’s iCloud Keychain. Compared so LastPass, iCloud is so much nicer to user. I understand LastPass are at a disadvantage in trying to make their product fit into the ecosystems of Apple and Google, but it made me think about switching. Now Apple have made an official way to access iCloud passwords on Windows, I’m seriously thinking about switching. To their credit LastPass do make it easy to get a CSV export of all your data.

What’s your experience with iCloud Keychain? Is it worth switching to from LastPass Premium?

Chrome Uses More RAM by Design

Great video by Matt that shows that Chrome isn’t always that different to Safari in its memory consumption as others have found. Most of my daily collaboration is done using Microsoft Teams, which is an Electron app – which is to say a web application bundled in its own Chromium wrapper so it can run like a desktop application. I’ve often noticed Microsoft Teams takes up huge amounts of RAM, especially considering it’s not really doing anything that complicated most of the time. A while back I researched phenomena and found this article about how Chromium manages memory on Microsoft’s site:

Chromium detects how much system memory is available and utilizes enough of that memory to optimize the rendering experience. When other apps or services require system memory, Chromium gives up memory to those processes. Chromium tunes Teams memory usage on an ongoing basis in order to optimize Teams performance without impacting anything else currently running.

When computers have more memory, Teams will use that memory. In systems where memory is scarce, Teams will use less.

Put simply, Chrome is taking the idea that ’empty RAM is wasted RAM’, and running with it. The article goes on to link to the specific documentation from the Chromium project.

This reminds me of when Windows Vista came out, complete with a sidebar full of widgets. One of the default widgets showed CPU and RAM usage. At the time I was working in my local computer retailer, and remember customers being shocked that even with no applications running, Windows Vista was often using 40% of the available RAM, even on higher spec’d machines. Of course Windows was doing a smart thing by pre-loading applications likely to be used into memory so they could be launched faster, and so it was nothing to worry about.

Chrome’s philosophy has long been that it is an operating system for the web – it even has its own task manager. So it makes sense from that perspective to grab as much memory as possible, and use it to speed things up for users. For users who spend most of their day inside Chrome, it’s probably doing them a favour. The problem is that these days we often end up running multiple instances of Chrome or Chromium derived apps like Slack or Teams competing alongside each other for system resources.

As Matt shows, the difference between Safari isn’t always that much, but the important thing to remember is that Chrome’s memory usage will depend on how much overall memory your system has available.

‘M1 Mac Users Report Excessive SSD Usage’

From 9to5 Mac:

Some advanced users have been reporting an overuse of the SSD for writing and reading data on the newly-released Macs with M1, Apple’s first computer chip based on ARM architecture. The issue could eventually affect the lifespan of the internal SSD used in M1 Macs — not to mention the machine itself.

My betting is on this being a bug in the software being used to measure SSD usage (a utility called smartmontools that can be installed via Homebrew). SSD usage seems like something that should be pretty easy to automate testing for, and so for this to be a bug would be a major omission from Apple’s test suite. Not impossible of course.

Botched Cosmetic Surgery

Riccardo Mori has written a thoroughly enjoyable critique of the the latest macOS user interface design. This passage in particular made me laugh:

The Mac’s user interface is undergoing plastic surgery by the hand of surgeons who have studied on iOS books. The result is pretty much the same as when you see a favourite celebrity after a procedure. They look ‘younger’ but there’s also something weird about their appearance. Their traits have changed a bit. In certain cases you almost fail to recognise the person at first glance.

I’ve not upgraded my aging 2013 MacBook Air just yet, but I’ve experienced Big Sur when briefly using my girlfriend’s laptop. I agree there is something that feels slightly ‘off’ about the new design. Even small details, like the fact that the new control centre glyph looks like a set of miniature switches – which are a UI components themselves. Whether the new UI will grown on me as iOS 7’s did (I was an iOS 6 holdout for many months) will depend on how much Apple refine the new look over the coming months a years, as they did with iOS. Perhaps my theory will one day hold true, that Big Sur’s big surprise is that it will support touch screens after all.

My fondest memories of Mac OS X was probably Puma. This was a free updated related after 10.0’s abysmal stability and performance problems. I remember picking it up for free from John Lewis. (In lieu of an Apple Store – there were none in the UK at the time – they were the one of the few places to get such things.) Back then Mac OS X seemed like a new frontier in user interface design. Here is what 16 year old me’s desktop looked like in 2002:

Squashing Services Into Apps

The Fitness app in 2016 vs 2021

Lee asks Are Apple ruining user experience to promote their own services? – While using the Fitness app earlier today it occurred to me that the answer is most definitely yes! The current incarnation of the Fitness app (formally known as Activity) now squashes in Activity History, current day, workout lists, awards, and the recently added trends functionality into a single tab. Only Sharing and their brand new premium service, Fitness+ get their own tab, and the cynic in me thinks even Sharing is only there because it helps sell Apple Watches to friends and family.

Really, Fitness+ should be its own app, but that would make it easy to delete and forget about. Instead, Apple who were once leaders in user interface design (so much that they call it human interface), are using an entire tab (one whole third of the total tabs) to show a service many people (I’d wager most) won’t use. The original app was a joy to use, but the latest one just feels crowded. I hope Apple can find a way to promote services without lowering their famous user experience standards.

Moderating Directories, Not Podcasts

Great article over on The Verge, but I have one small issue with it:

Asking it [Apple] to remove a show from its directory is like asking it to make a specific webpage inaccessible in Safari — is that something people want? Podcasting has, so far, avoided crowning one platform as king, meaning anyone, both on the creator and business side, can enter the space and possibly find success in it. That’s what makes podcasting great, even if it requires unclear answers on moderation.

The web browser analogy is close – podcasts are just audio files uploaded to web servers – but there’s a key difference. Apple (or any company) deciding to not include a podcast in its directory is not the same as blocking its URL outright. It is more akin to Google not showing certain web pages in its search results (which it does all the time, especially in the EU). This is very different to your browser refusing to load a particular web address because the browser maker has decided it doesn’t think you should see the content.

Likewise, in the Apple’s Podcasts app, you can either search a directory to find a show, or enter its feed URL manually. (Any app that doesn’t support adding feeds manually is arguably not a podcast app – I’m looking at you Spotify.) Adding a podcast by URL is how most paid podcasts work, and is the podcast equivalent of typing https://nodejs.org instead of Googling NodeJS.

For better or worse I can see Apple expanding its moderation role for its podcast directory, but just as with the web, eager listeners will always be able to find shows from some other source and enter the URL manually. This is an inherent strength of podcasting, which unlike Twitter and YouTube, is not subject to the same algorithmic recommendation spirals.

The BBC Is Using It’s Own ‘Dot BBC’ Domain

The BBC has started using its own custom Top Level Domain (TLD). The entire BBC Online offering is available at https://the.bbc. Many large corporations such as Apple and T.K. Maxx own their own TLD, which were rumoured to cost around $185,000.

Currently the site doesn’t seem to have officially switched as some components such as video and sign-in appear to be broken, and the site’s canonical URL is still set to use the old domain. However the fact that someone has configured the new one along with its own TLS certificate might be a sign that the Beeb is thinking of switching from their iconic bbc.co.uk address.

I suspect for many Internet users of a certain age, the web address http://www.bbc.co.uk was one of the very first they diligently typed into their computer back in the late nineties. The BBC’s use of .co.uk paved the way for this TLD to become the de facto for UK-based companies. To switch now may well commence the beginning of the end for .co.uk being the standard for companies in the UK. While not every company can afford the fee for their own TLD, there are now many others, from .mortgage to .furniture to choose from. The problem is few well-known brands actually use them. Perhaps this might change soon.

For me there is something about newer TLDs that make them less likely to stand out as web site addresses. If I saw weather.bbc or visit.london written somewhere, I wouldn’t necessarily think to visit them in a web browser, whereas anything ending in .com or .co.uk etc. is obviously a web address.

Working From Home in a Small Apartment

You don’t need to spend lots to be productive.

My girlfriend and I are currently trying to move to a bigger house, but with a global pandemic it has been a slow process. Hence we are currently both working from our 1 bedroom flat and are likely to continue this way for the next few months. Both our jobs involve lots of online calls, and so after a many weeks sitting uncomfortably at opposite ends of the dining room table I decided there must be a better way. For 5′ 11″ me the table was uncomfortable, even if my shorter girlfriend felt it was fine for her. Really though, being within earshot each other all day was starting to grate on us both. With her piano taking up a sizeable chunk of our living room, there was no space for a desk anywhere else.

So over the past few weeks I set about making the working day more productive and ergonomic. Astonishingly, for about £70 I was able to get a foldable desk and laptop stand from Amazon.

While there are lots of foldable desks available online, many of them are either too wide or didn’t have the depth required for comfortable typing. Eventually I found one that has enough space for the laptop stand, keyboard and all-important wrist rest. These, along with my company issued Dell XPS 9500 and existing Apple Magic Keyboard, Microsoft ergonomic mouse and basic office chair have helped increase my productivity and comfort no end. (I recommended the programme Magic Utilities for getting Apple’s Magic Keyboard to work with Windows.) I set the desk up in the corridor, and at the end of the day, I simply fold away the desk and the space is regained.

Hopefully once we’ve moved I will be able to have a nicer desk and multiple monitor setup, but for now this inexpensive solution that cost a little over £70 (and would work with a cheap £10 keyboard and mouse if you don’t already have them) has been a valuable pandemic investment. Contrast this with the narrative from some tech podcasters and bloggers who would have you think that you need to spend lots of money to be productive. You really don’t.