Amazon Driven by Data

Possibly this belongs on my datablog and I might write it up there later (or I might not).

The New York Times has published a piece on working conditions in Amazon. It does not make for comfortable reading and certainly does not paint Amazon as a company which I would want to work for. But I did want to pick up on one comment in it.

“Amazon is driven by data,” said Ms. Pearce, who now runs her own Seattle software company, which is well stocked with ex-Amazonians.

That comment about driven by data is something that worries me. Sure, data is very sexy at the moment in the tech but data in itself can be meaningless and what matters is the information you can derive from it. But the information you look for is generally skewed by humans who decide what questions they want to ask of that data. Data isn’t the answer and how it is queried is not benign or completely rationally independent.

The average tenure in Amazon, apparently, is one year. You can argue that this might be as a result of a toxic culture. You can argue that Jeff Bezos is a genius. But to my uncertain knowledge, Amazon does not turn a profit and I think, has never turned a profit. We have an ongoing assumption that this is somehow okay, that it’s a new paradigm, and times have changed. With an average tenure of a year, you have a company which cannot possibly have stability in output quality, and you have a company whose knowledge base never develops.

Amazon’s search is atrocious and its recommender system has deteriorated badly in my experience. A hypothesis for why that might be is that they appear to have rapid staff turnover and by definition, limited continuity.

Many of the datapoints in Amazon’s evaluation system appear not to be datapoints at all. They are entries in the AnyTime Feedback Tool:

Ms. Willet’s co-workers strafed her through the Anytime Feedback Tool, the widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management.

However, many workers called it a river of intrigue and scheming. They described making quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once, or to praise one another lavishly.

Anyone who implements a tool like this either a) expects it to get gamed and considers that a value or b) doesn’t expect it to get gamed in a high octane organisation is naive at best and making decisions on potentially faulty data. Either way, they are unlikely to wind up with the best staff. Such organisations, however, can only operate on the comfort blanket of never admitting this.

Amazon can call itself a data driven organisation, and if it wants to measure everything down to the nth degree, they should be bright enough to know the limitations of what they are doing. Going by the content of the NYT’s article, they probably aren’t.

Apartment sizes in Dublin

Reports in Dublin abound lately that the city council is considering reducing minimum apartment size regulations in the face of supply issues in Dublin and with a hope of getting construction companies to start building again.

I’m appalled. I’m aware that Dublin has supply issues but personally instead of letting the construction companies – who hardly covered themselves in glory much in the last 15 years – dictate or influence regulations in a bid to maximise profits, I’d be looking at who has what planning permission, how long they have it for and putting in increasing tax as time without completed building elapses. When I came to Dublin in 1999, a mortgage advisor insinuated that all the building land with planning permission in Dublin was held by just 8 companies. The price increases we were seeing then paled into nothing compared with what was to come.

I don’t know if that was then true or whether this is still the case. However, the fact remains that buildings are not like loaves of bread, out of date and disposable overnight. If we continue to build poor accommodation, and god knows most of the apartments in Dublin are unattractive to buy or live in, then we are stuck with it for years into the future. I’m not happy about this. Our regulations need to focus on the future of the city as well, and not just the desires of the builders.

Dublin is an increasingly unattractive city to live in. Maybe our city fathers need to do a brainstorming in terms of what sort of city they want. Already I’m having difficulty answering the question “why would anyone want to live in Dublin”. It’s a hard city to live in when you bear in mind the accommodation stock, the public transport system, the roads system and the ongoing feeling that you’re being hit day after day, after day, by more good reasons not to live here.


the VW T1 Campervan, bus, variations on a split screen theme

I started a painting project last week, part of a project to make me more comfortable sketching things and making it easier to paint, called, rather unofficially, the vw campervan project. I have a sketch book and most days, I set aside half an hour to do a picture of a VW Campervan. I favour the T1 for some reason.

If you asked me what my favourite car was, I probably would never have answered VW Campervan. All my driving life I have driven Fiestas, for example.

But on the other hand I own one biscuit box and one moneybox and several keyrings which are basically T1s and while I don’t get the whole thing with the Beetles, I have to say somewhere buried under me is a liking for the T1. I think it’s a lifestyle thing with the whole VW campervan thing – they are closely aligned with an element of the surfing lifestyle.

So anyway, I decided to have a go at a campervan, and this was the first one.

A photo posted by Me (@wnbpaints) on

This wa the first one. I have cheerfully called it Rust bucket because well, let’s face it, a rust bucket is what it is. The T1 is both easy and hard to paint at the same time. You can get a flattened impression of the camper quite easily and that V at the front along with the split screen is iconic. Most of the time though I get the impression that if I painted it as a Tube train, most people would get the impression I was painting Tube trains. The thought does occasionally occur to me. The few people who get to see these things on my Facebook, twitter or instagram feed have rather liked this one.

A photo posted by Me (@wnbpaints) on

and later on this afternoon, I will be painting it for the third time following a family request. I don’t quite know why it appealed to people so much but apparently the cyclist…don’t you know?

Anyway, I do, as it happens, have a sketching blog which I am going to do something about using more often once I figure out a low hassle way of getting decent pictures of the vans onto flickr.

The thing is, the T1 especially, and the T2 (no split screen, no V) are rounded, shapely vans. My hope is that when I get to the end of the project in about 6 months time, that the vans I draw will be significantly less boxy.

In the meantime, I’m struggling to identify iconic cars from any later than about the 1980s.

Brunch @ Brother Hubbard

My plans for today fell apart at around 3.30 this morning and in the end, I wound up in the Capel Street area having discovered that Evans Art Supplies sell Copic markers while actually spending money on other stuff. This is a good, if potentially extremely expensive discovery for the future.

Anyway, this trip took me past Brother Hubbard and having heard great things about it, I decided to see if brunch could be procured. People who are awake making decisions at 3.30 in the morning usually welcome other people doing the cooking. I am aware they are popular so I was surprised when they said yes, but in their premises next door which I think is known as Brother Hubbard’s Little Brother.

Foodwise, I wanted something more substantial than granola so I went for one of their cooked breakfasts – they have a lot of great looking options and menu wise, it’s probably the best brunch menu I have seen in Dublin – and made the choice with some difficulty. Eventually, I went for Breakfast of Champignons, I think it was called, which was basically 2 poached eggs, three large field mushrooms on sourdough bread with I think, onion marmalade. Along with that, I ordered Irish breakfast tea and some orange juice.

The orange juice was freshly squeezed (hardly surprising given the reputation of the establishment) and probably the nicest freshly squeezed orange juice I have had. I don’t know who their orange supplier is, but they chose well on the orange front. Not a hint of bitterness that ever was.

The main event, the breakfast for champions, as the waiter said he took it, was excellent. Everything was cooked to perfection – I might have given the poached eggs a moment longer but that’s the subject of the wider debate on boiled eggs – runny or hard – either way, beautiful. And the bread was gorgeous.

They provide pepper in a beautiful grinder which doesn’t look unlike a mini Turkish coffee grinder, and the salt is in flake format. I liked that, in particular the grinder.

The tea was meh. I’m not sure what tea provider they use and arguably I could have drunk it a bit sooner, but I’d argue it was one of the weaker elements of the universe. It absolutely wouldn’t put me off going there again – the food was excellent – but I wouldn’t necessarily have tea the next time. Would, perhaps, experiment with their hot chocolate.

The one thing that would put me off going back is I didn’t find the table/chair/seating arrangement very comfortable in the little Brother premises. To be blunt, it felt very squished in – I was seated beside the glass wall between the tables and falling down the chairs and this left my arm shoved into my body with nowhere to go. The tables were small and put me in mind of school desks, and if I’m honest, they were probably smaller than that again. It is not a place you would feel tempted to linger, which, I suppose makes good business sense if you’re aiming for fast food level volumes. I don’t think they are. So, if I were going back there, I would prefer to try the main premises before making a final call on it.

On the other hand, their wait staff were unfailingly polite and friendly – I somehow managed to deal with at least four of them during the course of my business there – and the service was unobtrusive and relatively quick. I bought one chocolate pastry as I was leaving just to taste as I hadn’t ordered any with my breakfast. It was gorgeous.

I’d strongly recommend the place for the food. As somewhere to relax, where I ate today really isn’t an option.


Ireland is a country of assumptions and judgements, sometimes it seems, and one of the most irritating assumptions I know is the assumption that everyone drinks.

It’s not that I don’t drink alcohol, it’s that I so rarely drink it that the unit count is rarely more than 2 units a year. But it seems that the only reason people in this country would not drink is because they are compelled not to. So I get a metric tonne of sympathy for not drinking because I’m driving.

Questions I don’t like: “Would you not just have the one?” It hasn’t gone away. Or looks of disappointment on my behalf from waitresses because I’m driving. In truth, I’m driving, but I’m also lying. I don’t need that sympathy. I wouldn’t be drinking anyway.

Most people, when you say “well I’m driving” assume that if you had a choice, you wouldn’t be driving, and then you’d have a drink. I’d love to get a taxi some evening and not drink and say “I’m not drinking”. I’ve tried that before and the answer is generally “But sure you’re not driving”.

The assumption seems to always been that people would want to be drinking and it’s only the demon car keeps them from having that 10 euro cocktail, pint or whatever. It’s rarely accepted straight off that someone might not want to drink alcohol.

People choose not to drink for various reasons. It would be nice if no one made any comments about it and just accepted other people’s choices. I just don’t want a drink shouldn’t be a defensive response.

But in Ireland, the assumption, the default position is that sure everyone wants a drink.

Looking for….Finnish media stuff


I’m back learning Finnish (again) and this time I’m making more headway. The tools available now are much better than they were last time out.

I’ve got a bunch of online resources here, but I’m looking for the following items:

  1. interesting podcasts
  2. interesting twitter feeds
  3. interesting FaceBook feeds.
  4. Finnish media in general.

I have some of the obvious stuff like YLE, the news in Easy Finnish from YLE, Helsingin Sanomat and a few things like that. I don’t mind that it will be way over my head for the time being – I want to look and get a feel for what I’m learning. I know from past experience that being able to see things I know in the context of stuff I don’t know helps a lot in learning. I’ve had some breakthroughs with YLE’s easy Finnish stuff since I went on a vocabulary bender. (seriously, if you see me with my face stuck in my phone, I’ll be drilling Finnish vocab rather than playing Candy Crush). But drilling the vocab in isolation isn’t going to help unless I am also seeing it in context.

I like the morning news program on Puhu Radio YLE or whatever it’s actual name is, but because Finland is 2 hours ahead of Ireland, I actually get that at 6am. I need some pleasant bus listening. I have to get the radio stuff.

Comments can be left here or on the Facebook page that you may have gotten to this. I’d really appreciate some recommendations.

Thanks a lot in advance.

Boxed Lives

I have an ongoing struggle to organise stuff in my life. I own a lot of stuff. I own a lot of CDs, a lot of notebooks, a lot of books. And I’m limited in how I can organise things to keep them under control. In my wardrobe, there’s a box of yarn, and a box of tapestries. Yesterday, I emptied some boxes of stuff.

Over breakfast, I was thinking about this. All this stuff I have, arguably, some of it isn’t necessary. But some of it, I don’t quite want to let go and, if I am honest, deep down, I don’t like having it in boxes. For example, I have 10 years worth of personal journals. Now people have different views of diaries/journals/whatever term you’d like to apply. In past lives – of which I’ve had a few at this stage of my existence – they weren’t kept in boxes. They were kept on shelves. They were a living testament to me, the things I did, the things that made me happy; the things that made me sad. This is not a eulogy of my life, more a feeling that when I box up my memories, I box up me.

One of the dangers with putting things in boxes is that they slowly become irrelevant to your day to day living. One of the boxes I emptied yesterday was a box of tins.

Pretty tins. Some of them came with tea inside, some of them were picked up on travels. Two of them I know I bought in Belgium which means I definitely had them at least 16 years, and possibly closer to 18. I won’t say I wasn’t slightly sentimentally attached to them. But…they had been in a box for at least a year; I have no where to store them and, more importantly, I wasn’t using them. I had two boxes of tins. I now have less than one box of tins. I won’t be adding to the collection beyond the tins which are in circulation in my kitchen until I can actually use the tins.

Boxes are handy for storage. We go to IKEA, we buy boxes and temporarily put stuff away. Sometimes, temporarily…becomes long…

I want to limit the existence of boxes in my life. I don’t know how to fix it all immediately, but I’m not really in a hurry to box up all my books and CDs, my bottles of ink for some indiscriminate time in the future when it will all be grand. The things we keep in boxes slowly migrate from our lives and when that happens, we’ve already lost them.

Gorges du Verdon

Someone posted a link to my FaceBook newsfeed today of an Irish Times amateur travel writing competition. I didn’t read the instructions too carefully, but figured “I can do that”, and went off and wrote a six hundred word piece – this is not a lot of space by the way – about a trip which I felt was likely to be appropriate to enter, and then I read the conditions in more detail. There was a fairly significant rights grab and while I might consider it if I won, I felt it was unfair to take ownership of all entries, even those which the Irish Times might not see fit to publish. The only problem is I’d already written the piece and while I thought about entering it, you know for the power and the glory, there were some comments about any photographs submitted as well. This didn’t really make me very happy. I mean, technically speaking, the text around the rights meant that even if I didn’t win, I couldn’t actually publish the piece anywhere else myself.

So I decided not to enter, bearing in mind I have several blogs of which this handy one is not listed by Google, or wasn’t the last time I checked. Plus, I did actually have some photographs which I had scanned some years ago as they were shot on film. Here then is a 600 word piece about travelling in Provence, written for the Irish Times, but not submitted but since the 600 word limit no longer applies I’m also editing it a bit.

Driving the Gorges du Verdon in France


Pont de l’Artuby

The girl at the car hire place at Nice Airport was a bit lost when I said I didn’t want the upgrade. She wasn’t used to this. Usually people were dying for the free upgrade, for the getting something for nothing lark. She categorically could not give me a small little Peugeot and now I found myself with an allegedly small Mercedes, on a hill, attempting hill start number four, because the wretched thing had cut out on me in a rather inopportune place. Several times.

The road ahead was at least a 45 degree angle and climbing, the road behind me disappeared downwards around a corner in a usefully invisible manner, and I, I now knew what a cold sweat really felt like. Behind me, only trees sloping a long way down. The car had already made several attempts to roll backwards in that direction too. I was a less than relaxed little camper. The hill start in my driving test was nothing like so stressful on a slip road outside Mallow. I had visions of winding up in the wreckage of a silver Mercedes A-Class tumbling down the side of a friendly Alp. As a way to go, it wasn’t what I would have wanted, per se.

Angles is a tiny village in the south of France. It very much is a handy place to base yourself if you want to visit the Gorges du Verdon, a site which is very often described as Europe’s Grand Canyon, somewhat unfairly I feel. They may both be fairly noticeable gashes in the rock we live on, but they are truly different from one another in terms of colour and feeling.

One of the things which has haunted me for years is the glittering turquoise water of the lakes in the region. I saw a picture once as a child and it took me fifteen years to find out that it was the Lac de Sainte Croix, easily accessible by car from Nice Airport.

For all that ease of accessibility, Angles, however, is truly isolated. I imagine it would be a hard place to live in the winter sometimes.

I am staying with very nice people who loan me a map and show me the small, narrow roads with the spectacular views to drive around the Gorges du Verdon. The small, narrow roads, incidentally, which are not on the map of the south of France which I may have bought in a leading Irish bookseller in the days before Google Maps and Garmins gave us directions.

The roads around the gorges themselves can be challenging and damaged but the department of Alpes de Haute Provence has provided viewing platforms all over the place. Stopping to look is never anything other than awe-inspiring, even if the roads to get to them can be a bit terror-inspiring.

On the day I drove them, some brave and foolhardy soul took a Ferrari up there. And people climb up the cliffs, casting occasional looks over their shoulders to the view. I would love to be the kind of person who could do it, but deep down, I know I might never have the nerve.


The River Verdon is a long way down, a mere flicker of turquoise in the distance.

The high point – in more ways than one – of the trip is the Pointe Sublime, a stunning area where the cliffs on either side of the river seem to reach across and try to kiss. It is an extraordinary view, and the rocks are an unusual creamy colour for a tourist from Ireland where the mountains are generally grey, regardless of the rain or not.

To come home I have to navigate the narrow road back in Angles. It never occurs to me that a car can cut out so often, especially when you absolutely, totally and utterly need it not to cut out but reader, I made it on attempt number 5.

Rainy Saturday

It’s been raining.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. My garden, such as it is, could do with it.


And I have been painting. Some lucky family members are going to get postcards in the future – dependent on when I have stamps sorted out.

Way back in the early days of my search for suitable paper, I picked up a set of watercolour postcards. I’ve played and failed with them over time. I wasn’t very good at painting, by which I mean, noticeably worse than I am now. But there were half a dozen postcards left and the only thing anyone gets in the post lately seems to be bills. Postcards were once a thing. Now it’s email and pinterest pins, and FaceBook posts.

What you see above is pretty much my painting painting kit (I have pencils as well, let’s not go there). The paintbox on the left, my mother bought for me. The one on the right I bought yesterday as a spill over. It came with 12 half pans of colour to, out of which I took 7 which I don’t use much, put in five commonly used colours as spares, and added a couple of new colours which I didn’t have a lot of success in mixing. The half pans are a mix of Cotman student half pans and two or three Winsor & Newton Artist Grade colour. I can’t get the Cotman half pans loose in Dublin (so far) and while I’m well aware that the W&N are technically “better”, I really can’t send too much money in their direction right now. But the blank spaces are for other colours I may feel the need to get in the future.

I like the little boxes because they are small and tidy – compared to my camera equipment, for example. I have looked at some of the enamel (otherwise known as “expensive” boxes) and while I strongly believe in getting the best tools you can go for, the truth is, I got into this whole thing not because I had visions of producing great art, but because the urban sketching movement appealed to me, the whole idea, I suppose not so much of location painting, because sometimes I just don’t have time and there’s a camera on my phone which I use to take snaps of things I may want to revisit with a sketchbook later, but recording the environment around me because it changes. Dublin has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Not doing the paintings on location, however, means that to some extent, a lot of my stuff can’t go on the urban sketcher feeds yet. However, for those days when I do hunker down and do some painting on location anywhere, I don’t want to be schlepping a whole art studio around. All that gear, excluding paper, fits into a pencil case.


The pictures aside, this is basically my art journal kit minus the paper. Two small paintboxes, a pencil, a fineliner, an eraser and a waterbrush. I have a set of actual brushes too, but one of the things that is handy about the waterbrush is that if I keep it filled, one thing I don’t need is a bottle of water. I had a vision of this all fitting into my handbag, which it did until I added the second paintbox (it doesn’t really matter that it doesn’t now because what also didn’t really fit was any thing like paper). I use Caran d’Ache water brushes, or that size in particular, because I like using them, they seem to survive longer than my Derwent ones and they behave better as well. I have one Pentel one as well. Like a lot of things in Ireland, the supply of some art materials can be difficult and the easiest water brushes to get now are Derwent ones; Easons had some yesterday and the Art and Hobby stores stock them as well. It was in an AnH store I got the Pentel one; it’s the only one I’ve ever seen here and therefore I’m somewhat sparing in my use of it. Kennedys have recently started stocking the Caran d’Ache ones so if you are in Dublin at least, that’s an option.

One of the things I have blogged about in some detail is the regrets I have about not keeping a travel art journal when I was travelling over the last 20 years. So when I sat down this evening, to the sound track of a fog horn (seriously), I sat down to paint places I have been. I’ve been to all three locations above. Two lighthouses, one in Ireland, and one in almost a direct line due south, in Spain. For people who know me, the lighthouses are probably not surprising. The other one is Sydney Opera House, and that’s round 4 of its sails in my life. They are getting better all the time. I do have the journal set aside to start revisiting places I have been and now I am starting to draw these places.

waves and numbers and stuff