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The Space

December 9th, 2014 · No Comments

There’s an article by Maggie Brown today suggesting the Arts Council/BBC-backed ‘online gallery’ The Space is, effectively, a waste of £16 million of public money. Here’s what The Space does:

The Space is an online gallery where visitors can explore exciting new digital art, made by the most talented contemporary artists, shared around the world. We commission new talent and established artists from all art forms, as well as across the creative industries, and technical and digital worlds, through open calls and partnerships.

I have been frustrated by The Space for some time. I am all for the public funding of art, and in particular, digital art, and £16 million can go a long way. But right from the start, there were warning signs. For example, the first round of project proposals had to adhere to strict data formats; if you had video, it had to be in a particular format so it could be imported to their online portal, which would be viewable on phones, tablets, computers, TVs, etc.

Sounds sensible, right? Doesn’t it make sense to have a single website for 51 projects instead of 51 websites all being made separately (and expensively)? The answer is, hell no:

a) If you’re going to fund exciting new digital art, one might expect it to come in many different forms; forms that are going to be difficult to fit into even the most flexible template. So why force them?

b) Even if everything was video, why not just put it all on YouTube? It’s free, it works, it’s better for discovery, and it helps build your social media following.

Now, to be fair, many of the projects weren’t merely video or audio-based. One of the most popular projects was the radio broadcaster John Peel’s Record Archive. It’s an interesting website which does what it says on the tin; put pictures of his archive online. I don’t quite see how it qualifies as ‘digital art’ though, and it has dreadful navigation and accessibility issues (the note cards for each record do not appear to have any readable or alt text, for example).

Another project was Will Self’s ‘digital essay’, Kafka’s Wound, published by the London Review of Books. It is an excellent piece of writing. The digital part, however, is laughably bad. The first thing you see on the website is ‘visual index’, a network of circular pictures that link to bits of video, audio, and additional material embedded within the essay. What is it for? Are people meant to use it before the read the essay, without any context? Or should they use it afterwards, even though it has no labels and after the reader has presumably already read the material they were interested in, along the way?

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The embedded media is a mixed bag. Some of it is very relevant, other bits (particularly the music) appear to there simply to make up the numbers. Worse, the embedded media is hidden behind cryptically-labelled buttons to the right of the essay. You have no idea what you’re going to get. It’s very disruptive to the process of, you know, reading.

I don’t mean to pick on the essay – like I said, it’s very good. But it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, ‘digital art’. And this is one of the better projects The Space has funded.

Now, you can expect missteps in the first year of a new organisation like The Space. In fact, you might even welcome them — but only if it looks like the organisation is learning. Sadly, an independent report by MTM, commissioned by the Arts Council and the BBC to evaluate The Space, pulled all the punches it could.

One major problem with the report lies in the people they approached to evaluate the projects. Said one arts organisation of the Will Self essay:

A completely different approach to how you experience an essay – you can interact with it and create your own navigation.

No. No. No. A thousand times, no. Anyone who genuinely believes this has no place in evaluating any kind of digital art. Another person said:

It’s such an interesting approach – it feels really new and inventive.

Really? Had this person never seen an essay online with embedded video and audio?

Or, on John Peel’s Record Collection:

It’s a wonderful archive, and it’s interactive – audiences can play and explore.

It’s a sad, sad day when ‘clicking through an archive’ equals interactive. If that’s the bar we’re setting, I despair. Once again, it’s not that I think the archive is bad – it’s that I think it’s not technically or artistically innovative, and so it’s not deserving of being funded by a body specifically created to fund ‘exciting new digital art’.

The audience figures were also, in my view, disappointing. Between May and October 2012, The Space attracted a million visits from 630,000 unique users. Now, a million sounds like a lot. But is it, really? Consider that £3.5 million was invested in 51 commissions. That means they’re paying £5.56 for each user; and who knows what the average visit time on each website was.

When you look at the audience breakdown, it becomes clear that only six of the 51 commissions attracted more than 10,000 unique users. My blog gets 3000 unique users per month. In other words, it’s very likely that my blog outperformed over 80% of all commissions by The Space in terms of audience numbers. That is awful. It’s not even a very good blog.

I could go on, but the whole enterprise just depresses me. I was recently interviewed about the possibility of the public funding of ‘art games’ (my words, not theirs) in the UK. Such a thing would be tricky, but also extremely exciting. I conjured up visions of the bounty we could expect for a mere £100,000 or £200,000 — and just imagine how many projects and how many artists could be funded with a massive £1 million! Think of the amazing Twine games, the hard-hitting Papers Pleases, the touching That Dragon, Cancers that could realised — with popular projects easily able to command hundreds of thousands of visitors each, if not millions.

And then to discover that £3.5 million was spent on these commissions, and another £16 million recently. It is a disgrace that we are spending so much money and getting so little, when we are missing the incredible opportunities that genuine digital art — not just games, but at least including games — offers.

Why have so few people spoken out about The Space? Because it’s funded by the Arts Council and the BBC. Here’s a quote from Maggie Brown’s article:

…I consulted a digital arts expert, who would speak only off the record. “It’s strange,” he said. “All that money thrown at it, and it’s bloody awful, very undercooked.”

He’d only speak off the record. We’re not talking about the CIA here, for fuck’s sake – but I don’t blame him for being worried about his career. If you’re an artist, who wants to make an enemy of the BBC or the Arts Council?

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Boy With Apple

December 1st, 2014 · No Comments

I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel again tonight and was reminded of the story behind the film’s McGuffin, a fictional priceless Renaissance painting named Boy With Apple.

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As you’d expect from a Wes Anderson movie, the painting was not made by a merely talented set painter, but by an acclaimed English painter, Michael Taylor. I love it when creators imbue their works with such meticulous attention to detail — it makes it worthwhile imagining what other things lie within their universes — and I love it just as much when audiences and critics go along with the game.

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‘71, Big Hero 6

November 26th, 2014 · No Comments

Saw two very good movies recently:

‘71 is a fantastically tense and beautifully shot thriller about a British soldier stuck behind ‘enemy lines’ during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I was particularly impressed by the economy of the script; the writer clearly – and correctly – trusts the audience to figure out who the characters are and what it is they want.

Big Hero 6 was a lot better than its initial kid-tastic trailers let on. Sure, it was obvious that the San Fransokyo was going to be amazing, but thankfully my fears about stupid fart jokes were, for the most part, allayed. Instead, I got a tremendously exciting and often quite emotional movie where a bunch of grad students save the day by doing scientific research. Sequels please, Disney!

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Too Much Information

November 23rd, 2014 · 4 Comments

Eight years ago, I lamented to a friend that I was spending too much time keeping up with my RSS feeds. RSS feeds are generated by websites and they tell you when they’ve published new content; the feeds, and feed-readers like NetNewsWire and FeedDemon, and eventually Google Reader, became popular partly as a way to follow the posts from the then-nascent world of blogs. So, a little like a proto-Twitter, except with no limit on the amount of characters a post might contain.

I had subscribed to around 150 websites. This was not a large number by the standards of the time; many bloggers followed hundreds of feeds. But I wanted to read every posts from every website I subscribed to, which was the equivalent of half a book every day. Like a lot of people, I have a compulsive desire to ‘finish’ things and get numbers down to zero (emails, to-do lists, washing up, etc.), even if it’s not really that useful or interesting.

My friend told me that he followed precisely zero RSS feeds and what’s more, didn’t read the news that much either. “Most of it isn’t important,” he said, invoking his decades-longer experience of the internet. Inspired, I cut out two thirds of my feeds and got on with my life. RSS feeds no longer ruled my reading.

But now I have a different problem. Today, it’s easier than ever to find and read (for free) world-class long-form articles about all sorts of interesting subjects, and if you’re willing to pay a small amount for magazines like The New Yorker, you’ll have more piling up in your inbox every week. I love reading these long-form articles; they’re much easier to get through than books, and so you can learn about a much wider variety of topics in a more timely manner. Indeed, many long-form articles are better than the books that they occasional beget due to lean, unpadded nature (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Gladwell).

Unlike my blog RSS feeds, it’s not as easy to cull my long-form article sources. After all, surely as a responsible citizen, I’m practically obliged to read a 9,000 word article about drone warfare, or a 5,000 word article investigating how a future King Charles III might reign, or another 9,000 word article on the tests one must pass to become London cab driver — along with the threats from Uber? It takes up almost all of my reading time.

And when I’m not reading, I’m listening to 17 podcasts. I was actually shocked by the number when I just counted them now – 17! To keep the ‘unlistened’ count to zero, I find myself listening on my walk to work, while I’m running, on the tube, doing cleaning, any spare moment. At first I saw this as a wonderfully productive use of empty time, but I’ve belatedly realised that some amount of empty time is valuable in and of itself.

Articles, blogs, podcasts – these things are a great source for ideas and inspiration, and for learning about the world. Yet there’s such a thing as too much inspiration and too much knowledge if you don’t have enough time to process them. Cutting out some publications and podcasts will help, but as with my RSS feeds before, it’s not a long-term solution.

A while back, I became interested in the idea of a ’secular sabbath’ where you unplug from the internet for a day a week. I don’t know if that model is perfect because, ideally, it relies on you having lots of friends who live nearby to talk to, whereas a lot of my friends are now scattered around the world, but there’s something to imposing a structure on your time in a way that quietens the world’s ceaseless demands for your attention. A very interesting problem to explore.

→ 4 CommentsTags: adrian · tech

The Driving Penalty Points Problem

November 20th, 2014 · No Comments

It’s safe to assume that in the next 10-20 years, a decent percentage of people – maybe 5-10% – will wear cameras that constantly record their surroundings. Such cameras already exist, of course, but they’re clunky and low-resolution; the ones we’ll see in the future will have a much better resolution and field of view, and be indistinguishable from normal glasses.

These cameras are going to wreak havoc on drivers.

I estimate I see around 2-4 endorsement code incidents every day on my walk to work. It’s usually a mix of TS10s ‘Failing to comply with traffic light signals’ (i.e. running a red light) and CD10s ‘Driving without due care and attention’. Sometimes there are more exciting/dangerous incidents, like cars driving the wrong way down a one-way street, or stopping in the middle of a zebra crossing, or a truck doing a three-point turn in the middle of a busy B road.

I’d be astonished if even 1% of these incidents resulted in points being added to a driver’s licence; it’s not like we have authorities scrutinising traffic cameras all day. As a result, even poor drivers don’t have to worry too much about racking up the 12 points that will disqualify them from driving (the incidents above are worth around 3 points each).

But if, thanks to wearable cameras, the reporting rate of incidents is double or tripled or more, then presumably we’ll see a huge increase in disqualified drivers; even more than the simple arithmetic would suggest, since most points stay on your record for four years. I can imagine a few scenarios:

  1. Under pressure from drivers groups, authorities refuse to examine videos submitted by the public (doubtful; we already use this as evidence in courts)
  2. Drivers can rack up more than 12 points – say, 24 or 36 (totally unfair and a tacit admission that there are a lot of unsafe drivers out there)
  3. Massive numbers of drivers are disqualified, leading to increased uptake of alternatives such as cycling, public transport, taxis, and driverless cars

It’s going to be a fascinating few decades for moral luck. And I wonder what other laws and codes of conduct will shatter under the force of intensified reporting. What other stuff is out there that is technically against the law, but most people get away with because no-one’s looking?

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200 Years of Change

November 16th, 2014 · 1 Comment

A game I like to play at history museums is imagining the present-day equivalents of past behaviour and objects. So at The Geffrye Museum of the Home in Hoxton, London, it’s fun to look at their Period Rooms and link up past and present behaviours.

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Take the 1935 Living Room; the armchairs are pointed at the fireplace (which obviously would be a TV today), and there’s a record player and radio in the corner (also TV/hifi). Or the 1695 Parlour, in which the woman of the house would spend her day noting down the household receipts on the writing cabinet (i.e. iMac) before joining her husband for dinner and listening to him read out the day’s newspaper (watching Netflix).

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Then there’s the 1790 Parlour, with a set of playing cards laid out on the table. Just imagine what present day families might do when entertaining friends – why, they’d… play cards! Or maybe boardgames. Yes, it turns out that we still all want reasons to talk and gossip in an formalised way, and the things we did back 200 years ago are still pretty much exactly the same now.

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The Period Rooms go all the way up to 1998.

As you might expect from me, another fun thought experiment is imagining what the Period Room and gallery notes for 2014 would be; probably a room dominated by a big Samsung TV with a Playstation, some bluetooth speakers, Ikea bookshelves, a corner sofa, surround sound speakers, and a coffee table. “Here, the co-habiting couple would gather in the evening to watch ‘television serials’ and ‘YouTube cat videos’, while perusing social media on Twitter and Facebook on their tablet computers.”

The Period Room for 2034, of course, would just be an empty room with a near-invisible projector, an easy chair, and a virtual reality headset.

→ 1 CommentTags: future · history · museum

Eternal Fundraising, Luxuries as Resiliency, Isometric Buildings

November 12th, 2014 · No Comments

Mr. Miller Doesn’t Go to Washington, a bracingly honest story about running for Congress. It just astonishes me quite how much time candidates – and elected politicians – have to spend on fundraising. Hours. A. Day.

I had written before about how crazy it is that we expect politicians to spend four hours a day (or more) on the money chase. But nothing prepares you for what it’s like to be in the candidate’s chair.

First order of business is introducing you to the bizarre rites and rituals associated with reaching out to the 1/20th of 1 percent of Americans who fund campaigns, and I soon learned consultants have studied dialing for dollars with anthropological precision. One consultant’s motto is, “Shorter calls means more calls!”—i.e., more money. So stop all the chitchat. When you make the “ask,” another told me—and that’s typically for the max of $2,600 per person, $5,200 per couple—just say the number and pause: Don’t keep talking. And above all, don’t leave L.A. for an out-of-town fundraiser unless you’re guaranteed to rake in at least $50,000, and preferably 100 large. Anything less and it’s not worth the hassle.

Blessed are the wastrels, for their surplus could save the Earth, a fascinating argument that luxury industries represent a massive pool of ‘unplanned’ resiliency in the face of disasters (as opposed to planned resiliency, which can easily be defunded):

Organic farms are an example [of a less excessive 'luxury']: they use their inputs (land, grain, animals) to produce food at higher cost and lower quantity than conventional farming. The advantages of organic food appeal to richer, western consumers. But if the situation were desperate, organic farms could be retooled for mass production of lower-quality but still edible foods. The same goes for factories making super-plasma, hyper-surround cinema-experience televisions (or similar toys for the wealthy). This rich demand maintains a manufacturing base for extreme luxury products, but one that could be repurposed for mass production of less extravagant but more useful products if needed.

Concrete Jungle – Building the Buildings: I had always assumed that the lovely 2D isometric buildings you see in games like SimCity must be the product of superbly trained artist. While I don’t doubt the skill involved, this step-by-step guide on drawing pixel perfect isometric buildings (using 3D intermediates) is fascinating:

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Once everything is arranged pleasingly, it’s time to render. I’m using Blender to generate my renders- it’s completely free and it’s rendering engine is delicious. The scene I’m using has the render camera set up to render isometrically (is that a word?) What’s outputted is something that looks like this but bigger:

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Serving Sizes

November 10th, 2014 · No Comments

Serving sizes are a joke. Behold this bag of popcorn:

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“106 calories per serving,” it proudly proclaims. You quickly do the mental calculation – that’s a mere 5% of your recommended daily allowance! Even better, it’s “wholegrain” and “high in fibre.” You munch on what you consider to be a serving of popcorn, safe in the knowledge that you are surely one of the healthiest and most responsible humans alive.

Some time later, you wonder: exactly how big is a serving? It says it right there on the front, in tiny writing: 20g. But how much is 20g? Is that a lot? It’s a sixth of the bag, which strikes you as being pretty small since you normally have at least a third of a bag at a time. So you weigh it out:

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In case it isn’t obvious, 20g of popcorn is not a lot of popcorn. You’d be embarrassed to give that out to kids at Halloween. It is in no way what a normal human would consider to be serving. Of course, neither are most servings.

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Serial, Podcasts, and the end of BBC Radio

November 9th, 2014 · No Comments

The new hotness in the podcasting world is Serial, made by the people behind This American Life. After only a few weeks, it’s already attracting 850,000 downloads per episode. It’s a fantastic show, perfectly suited to a format that allows people to follow along week-by-week but listen at a time of their own choosing.

The US is very good at making and exporting popular podcasts; Serial is #1 in iTunes UK rankings. While the BBC is no slouch, its podcasts are almost entirely shows already broadcast on the radio (usually Radio 4). I listen to many myself, like In Our Time and Thinking Allowed, both shows that demonstrate a deep level of planning and research.

Still, the fact that the BBC’s audio content is primarily made for the radio means that it necessarily needs to appeal to a much wider audience in order to justify its existence. 850,000 downloads for Serial might seem impressive to us, but your average factual or news show on Radio 4 will easily blow past a million listeners, and that’s just in the UK. So topics for radio have to be broader and of course, to some extent aimed at the existing radio audience, lest they revolt and write letters to The Times.

I’m never going to find specialised science fiction shows on Radio 4 that broadcast every single week like The Incomparable or The X-Files Files; I’m never going to get technology shows like Accidental Tech Podcast and Core Intuition that focus on the minutiae of Mac development; and there are so many others for Liverpool FC supporters and Minecraft players and Dan Harmon fans and even Serial listeners (yes, Slate actually has a podcast purely about Serial). You might well say that’s perfectly fine – the BBC shouldn’t even attempt to make such specialised and targeted shows.

And you might say that BBC Radio has been with us for almost a century, and it would be foolish to bet against them. I’d agree with that. BBC Radio will have a long half-life; but it will not last forever. Smartphones, ubiquitous mobile data, and a limitless supply of podcasters willing to work for free make it practically inevitable that the BBC’s audience be whittled away one listener at a time, as they discover the one perfect podcast that speaks precisely to their interests – a podcast that the BBC could never justify producing – and then they discover another. And another. And another.

Incidentally, if you’re listening to Serial, you must listen to this parody.

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26 Interview

November 8th, 2014 · No Comments

Questions and answers for 26, an organisation for writers:

What is your day job?

I’m CEO and co-founder of Six to Start. We make story-like games and game-like stories, and our most popular game is Zombies, Run!, a running game and audio adventure with over one million sales, co-created with novelist Naomi Alderman.

What are you working on now?

We’re making Season 4 of Zombies, Run! – due to launch in Spring 2015 – and we have four new games and apps coming out in the next two months.

What are your private passions? Is Mars still up there?

It’s a mixed bag. I do a lot of running, walking, and reading. The internet has changed my reading habits; sites like Metafilter and The Browser and 3QuarksDaily feed a never-ending stream of interesting articles to my iPad, which is great, apart from the fact that I don’t read as many books as I’d like. I’m also learning programming, but it’s slow going as I haven’t yet thought of a project that motivates me enough.

Mars, and space exploration in general, is still an interest of mine, but it’s not something I spend much time or money on any more.

What would be the title of your your next Ted Talk be?

“Why don’t we plan for the future any more?”

What do people get wrong about you?

They assume I only know about science, technology, and games.

What does the future life of a writer look like?

Pretty much the same as it does now; staring at a blank screen waiting for the inspiration and words to flow. You’ll earn much less money, but hopefully we’ll have a guaranteed basic income by then.

Which future objects do you think will most interest writers? The Reading Rooms, the Conversation Brokers, Smart Drugs, another helpful tool covered in your book or something so futuristic it’s not even in print yet? All of the above?

A society with a guaranteed basic income will be of great interest, since it would give everyone more time to write – not that that’ll do anything for finding an audience or inspiration!

What advice would you offer new authors on finding the best angle for your book?

I don’t know if I’m qualified to do that, given I’ve only written one book! I’m just glad I picked a subject that I found sufficiently interesting to keep me going through two years of evenings and weekends.

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