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Peak Ad Irritation

October 28th, 2014 · No Comments

Using Adblock on my desktop browser gives me a completely unrealistic view of the internet. Websites magically become temples to content and information; they are unsullied by commercial interests and bias; they place my interests as a reader above all else. I can’t imagine using the internet without it. I realise I’m potentially depriving sites of ad revenue (which is why I subscribe my favourites) but I confess I don’t find it hard to justify.

You can’t get an adblocker for Safari on the iPhone or iPad. For some reason this hasn’t bothered me in the past, partly because I used Instapaper and RSS readers a lot, and partly because zooming into specific columns of text meant that ads in sidebars tended to be hidden.

But no longer. Cast your eyes upon this travesty:

Captured from my iPad from the Guardian yesterday. The ad animation is artificially lengthened in this video due to the capturing process, but when I timed it separately, it lasted for 30 seconds (15 seconds, looped twice).

The bright colours combined with the motion graphics made it impossible for me to concentrate on reading the article – and because it was in-line with the text, and because the iPad shows quite a lot of text in a single screen, I couldn’t simply scroll past it quickly as I might do on a phone. My only option was to turn on Reader mode, stripping out all the noise from the page.

I dearly hope that distracting ads like this don’t become more common, as I’ll have to start using Reader mode all the time, or investigate using an alternative browser that can block ads (on Android, I believe Firefox can do this through extensions).

→ No CommentsTags: ad · newspaper

Apple Health vs. Fitbit

October 27th, 2014 · 1 Comment

A new feature of iOS 8 is Apple’s Health App. It’s a way for users to view any health data that has been collected by in-built sensors in the device itself (such as step counts from the phone’s specialised accelerometers), along with data that can been added by third party apps (such as your weight, as recorded by a set of smart scales).


The dashboard that Apple supplies is deliberately basic. Everything that can be graphed is graphed, albeit in a very stripped-down way; no scrolling, no trendlines, no regular axis labels, and so on. They’re so spartan that I’m not really sure why Apple included them at all. But the true purpose of Apple Health is not as a pretty dashboard, but rather as a way for apps to share health data with one another.

In Apple’s world, users of a running app wouldn’t have to manually enter their weight in order to calculate an accurate ‘calories burned’ figure; instead, they would authorise the running app to access their Health data so it always has the most up-to-date weight information. Likewise, the running app would synchronise its calorie burn information back to Health so that (for example) a dieting app can have a better view of calories out vs. in.

None of this happens automatically. Developers must specifically build in ‘Healthkit’ functionality, and while Apple may have hoped that everyone would eagerly jump onto their bandwagon, many of the most popular apps have been dragging their heels. The reason is that while adding Healthkit functionality isn’t particularly difficult from a technical perspective, it poses troubling business issues for some companies. Take Fitbit, for example. Why would they contribute the data their pedometer collects – step count, distance count, floors climbed, and soon, heart rate information – to Apple Health when it could result in their customers using a non-Fitbit app to view that data?

Not only do they lose control of the customer experience; not only do they lose the ability to sell their Fitbit Premium subscription; but worst of all, they become commoditised. They’re just the same as any other cheap pedometer, because as far as the customer is concerned, all they are is a bit of plastic that sends bits to a phone.

Fitbit has even more cause to worry with the iPhone 5s and iPhone 6, since both phones include specialised accelerometers that allow them to record steps with effectively zero battery consumption. Indeed, the iPhone 6 includes a barometer that allows it to record floor counts. Theoretically, this means that anyone who owns those phones has absolutely no need of any dedicated pedometer device, Fitbit or not.

In practice, Fitbit is still doing fine. People still buy their devices, and I still use my own Fitbit. Firstly, the data appears to be more accurate:


All the screenshots in this post were taken at the same time; you can see that on Saturday 25th October, I walked a lot of steps and climbed a lot of flight-equivalents

Now, while most health professionals will tell you that consistency is more important than precision when it comes to step counts (i.e. it’s more important to know that you’re doing 20% more steps than yesterday, rather than knowing you did precisely 1000 more steps), it’s still nice to see your steps tick up reliably. As for floor climbing, Apple’s sensors woefully underestimate the true count, which is disappointing. But two things are even more important than precision.

One: The Fitbit is almost always with me, clipped to my belt, while (amazingly) I don’t always carry my phone with me; hence more complete records.

Two: Viewing my step count on my Fitbit takes about three seconds. On Apple Health, it takes more like ten seconds (although I could probably get an app that might accelerate that). So I look at my Fitbit more frequently.

Having said all of that, the Apple Watch will eliminate all of Fitbit’s advantages in terms of accuracy and accessibility (due to its fixed position on my wrist) and I suspect that will be the end of my Fitbit-using days.

→ 1 CommentTags: apple

Powerpoints, Bullet Points, and Conferences

October 26th, 2014 · No Comments

A couple of days ago, I sat next to a student on the train creating a Powerpoint presentation. She had started on a slide titled, “Germany’s Policy of Fulfillment” and was pulling out bullet points from a text book. Ten words per bullet, four bullets per slide, lots of slides, each on a small question. I’m not sure whether it was for homework or for a presentation.

In any case, the Powerpoint format doesn’t strike me as a very good way of thinking about the causes of World War Two. The low information density on each slide, as compared to an A4 page, and the inevitably simple structure of bullet points, makes it difficult to express complex or subtle arguments; instead, it encourages a kind of Buzzfeed-ish, “5 top reasons for WW2″ listicle.

That said, I still end up writing bullet points in my conference talks about games, partly because it’s expected and partly because it’s easy. So I can’t criticise this student too much.

Part of me wants to do the cooler style of presentation, mostly skillfully performed by Lawrence Lessig, with slides composed of full-screen photos and single words or sentences. This requires much more preparation as you can’t simply read the bullet points from your slide (the worst kind of presentation); although I often worry that the images, usually pulled from Flickr or Google Image Search, are just a way to get cheap laughs (e.g. ironic photos, pictures of cats, memes, etc.)

On occasion I’ll do presentations without any slides at all, and just memorise my talk. Despite the fact that this takes just as much preparation as anything else, I get the feeling that my audience ends up dissatisfied, as if I’m not delivering value for money (or time), or making them work harder by having them just listen to me.

Ultimately, I think conference presentations are a pretty terrible form of imparting knowledge. It’s telling that we decry in-person lectures as being one of the very worst forms of education at schools and universities – non-interactive, non-personalised, and a pointless exercise in assembling 300 students into a single room – and yet we’re perfectly fine with doing the same at tech or games conferences. Is it because the presentations at tech conferences are so much better? I think not. Some are terrible; and some university lectures are wonderful.

Some information and stories are well-told as lectures; some as videos; some as podcasts; some as books; and some in other ways. My feeling is that good conferences are interesting and enjoyable not so much because of good presentations (because if I’m interested in the topic, it’s rare I learn anything genuinely new) but because of the special atmosphere generated by live experiences shared among hundreds of people in the same space, and the conversations that follow.

→ No CommentsTags: conference

Journeys, Not Badges

October 25th, 2014 · No Comments

From Girl Scouts Debate Their Place in a Changing World (NYT):

A 2011 overhaul of girl scouting programs abandoned the old badge system and adopted a set of three “Journeys.” It also aligned badges and leadership opportunities with 21st-century ideas revolving around social issues, professional opportunities for women, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM curriculum.

Wikipedia adds:

In 2011, there were three Journeys, with books and awards for each level: “It’s Your World—Change It!”, “It’s Your Planet—Love It!”, and “It’s Your Story—Tell It!”.

And from the Girl Scouts themselves:

A girl Discovers her special skills and talents, finds the confidence to set challenging goals for herself and strives to live by her values. This includes being proud of where she came from as well as where she’s going.

A girl Connects with others, which means she learns how to team up, solve conflicts, and have healthy relationships. These skills help her in school right now and prepare her for any career she chooses in the future.

A girl Takes Action and makes the world a better place, learning a lot about her community and the world along the way.

Reverse gamification! Less emphasis on a series of unconnected badges, and more on a (hopefully) coherent and meaningful journey. Although at first glance, I wonder if journeys might end up being too broad? It’s hard to strike a balance.

→ No CommentsTags: games


October 24th, 2014 · 3 Comments

When are you allowed to pirate something?

These days, I rarely pirate anything at all. I subscribe to Spotify and Amazon Prime, and I pay the BBC TV Licence Fee. I buy all my books, apps, and games from Apple and Amazon; these are all unimaginably affordable compared to just a couple of decades ago, when a Nintendo 64 game easily cost £80/$130 in today’s money.

I usually see movies at the cinema but will occasionally buy blurays if it’s something special (plus I get screeners from BAFTA); and because I don’t watch much TV any more, I can get by with intermittent subscriptions to Netflix for the purposes of binge-watching Parks and Rec or similar.

That leaves one major exception: US TV shows that aren’t on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video. I believe the only way of legally watching shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, The Flash, True Detective, etc., in a timely fashion in the UK is by subscribing to Sky, who have bought up the rights to the most popular US shows. Sky is not cheap, especially if you’re only using it to watch literally one or two series a week.

In the absence of any way to buy the episodes outright via Apple or Amazon, I download a couple of shows a week. To assuage my guilt, I try to buy the shows when they finally go on sale in the UK. I suppose I could be more patient and just wait, but we live in a global village these days and I like to understand what my friends in the US are talking about when it comes to popular culture.

Things were different when I was a teenager and at university. There was no Spotify or Netflix, no Amazon Prime or iTunes TV Store. I also didn’t have much money. Accordingly, I pirated pretty much everything other than apps and games, which were a hassle to deal with.

Most of the stuff was poor quality such I’ve since deleted the files or obtained legal copies; but that doesn’t fix everything. I don’t regard piracy as a particularly bad sin – digital content is non-rivalrous and so the concept of ‘theft’ doesn’t apply – but I do think it shows wilful ignorance at best, and contempt at worst, towards artists.

In the olden days (90s and 2000s), you could attempt to justify piracy by claiming – somewhat truthfully – that only a tiny percentage of the sale price actually made it back to the artist. Putting aside the way this devalues the contribution of all the non-artists involved and the fact that even a tiny percentage is better than zero, the fact is that marketplaces like Steam, iTunes, and Amazon provide many artists with substantially higher cuts, from 35% to 70% and beyond. It’s much less palatable to advocate piracy when there’s no question you’re harming the artist financially.

The other argument was that a lot of desirable content was DRMed or not available in certain regions or on certain platforms. That is still the case for a few things including my beloved TV shows, but it’s much less common. As for DRM, it’s effectively vanished from purchased music, and the rise of tightly-integrated digital ecosystems owned by Apple, Amazon, and Google has taken the sting out of DRMed apps and video, for better or worse. I don’t like books being DRMed, but that’s not a good enough excuse for me to not buy them. Having said that, I feel absolutely no guilt in downloading un-DRMed versions of content I’ve already bought – not for sending to friends, but for consuming on incompatible ecosystems.

Today, I atone for the piratical sins of my youth by supporting new artists on Kickstarter. Every single penny counts when you’re starting out, so I like to pay things forward.

Update: @simonth reminds me that Agents of SHIELD is on Channel 4, albeit a few episodes behind.

→ 3 CommentsTags: adrian · tech · tv

Brain Training Games Don’t Work

October 24th, 2014 · 1 Comment

A few days ago, 73 scientists signed a letter asserting that brain training games – which typically feature puzzle games and mental exercises on smartphones, tablets, PCs, or handheld devices – do not successfully increase general measures of intelligence or memory.

I have long had my doubts about the efficacy of games like Brain Age in improving general intelligence. Doing simple arithmetic exercises, in my mind, only improves your ability to… do simple arithmetic. Supposedly there are some mental exercises you can do to improve working memory, such as the n-back task, but these are really quite difficult and not fun to do. Still, I have not been a practising neuroscientist or experimental psychologist for several years, so I didn’t feel qualified to comment.

I suggest you read the whole letter in full, or failing that, the Guardian’s summary (which also handily includes responses from game developers) but there are some important excerpts that are worth considering:

It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products. In the brain-game market, advertisements also reassure consumers that claims and promises are based on solid scientific evidence, as the games are “designed by neuroscientists” at top universities and research centers. Some companies present lists of credentialed scientific consultants and keep registries of scientific studies pertinent to cognitive training. Often, however, the cited research is only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell.

Too many times have I seen apps and games that use the badge of being ‘designed by neuroscientists’ as a mark of efficacy and quality. It makes me sick. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their intentions, but they are being misleading. Just as often, I see game designers trot out a long list of papers of varying quality that are barely relevant to the actual experience being offered. This also makes me sick.

…we also need to keep in mind opportunity costs. Time spent playing the games is time not spent reading, socializing, gardening, exercising, or engaging in many other activities that may benefit cognitive and physical health of older adults. Given that the effects of playing the games tend to be task-specific, it may be advisable to train an activity that by itself comes with benefits for everyday life.

Another drawback of publicizing computer games as a fix to deteriorating cognitive performance is that it diverts attention and resources from prevention efforts. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the message that cognitive vigor in old age, to the extent that it can be influenced by the lives we live, reflects the long-term effects of a healthy and active lifestyle.

People shouldn’t play sudoku or solve crosswords or go to the bingo in the belief that they make you smarter. They should do them because they’re fun. If you want to improve your cognitive health, do a range of mental tasks and be physically active – there is lots of good research demonstrating this works. Unfortunately, this is more time consuming and tiring than sitting at home playing on a smartphone, and thus is a harder sell.

Do not expect that cognitively challenging activities will work like one-shot treatments or vaccines; there is little evidence that you can do something once (or even for a concentrated period) and be inoculated against the effects of aging in an enduring way. In all likelihood, gains won’t last long after you stop the challenge.

Like I say, read the whole letter.

On a related note, another thing that makes me sick are the pseudoscience apps I regularly see in the Top Health and Fitness category these days, including “Hypnotic Gastric Band” and the endless apps that promise to reduce your stress and anxiety. In some ways, these are no worse than self-help books that have been with us forever; but I think the veneer of science and professionalism delivered by the App Store and by the whole ‘quantified self’ industry is encouraging people to believe in effects that are not proven to exist. More on this another time.

→ 1 CommentTags: edu · games · neuro · psych · science

2001 and Master and Commander

October 22nd, 2014 · No Comments

Next month, the BFI is releasing a new digital transfer of 2001. I will be there.

Quite apart from the fact that even a big TV can’t replicate the ultra-widescreen experience required to properly appreciate 2001, I think that most normal people – myself included – are incapable of paying sufficient attention to the movie unless forced to do so in a dark cinema. It’s not just that I’d want to check my phone during some of the slower bits (which, to be fair, is most of the movie); it’s that it’d be near-impossible to avoid interruptions like noise from outside, or phones ringing, or people coming and going, and so on. So, see it at the cinema. Also, live in the UK, because if you don’t, you’re out of luck.

2001 is one of the two movies that I rewatch every year or two. Specifically, the flight to the space-station, and then to the Moon:

(didn’t I tell you not to watch this at home?)

What’s the other movie? Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Here’s the opening sequence:

It’s beautiful, and slow. The movie features few battles other than those against the weather. Like 2001, there is much “competence porn” wherein smart and experienced people concoct clever plans. Like 2001, it is a journey into the unknown, on board a state-of-the-art vessel with serious technical problems.

They’re both – mostly – contemplative movies punctuated by moments of sheer terror, providing an enjoyable mix of ASMR-like relaxation with adrenaline that keeps me awake. And once I’ve finished, I feel like I’ve grappled with weighty questions that concern the future of humanity. What more could you want?

→ No CommentsTags: adrian · film · sf

Why We Go to Starbucks

October 21st, 2014 · 1 Comment

At Wordstock, where I was improbably on the same (short) bill as Alex Garland and Andy Serkis, I had an interesting conversation about Starbucks.

Why do we go to Starbucks? To get coffee, of course – and maybe to get something and sit down. That’s not an interesting question. What’s interesting is why people who are explicitly unhappy or at least ambivalent about Starbucks continue to go there. There are any number of reasons to dislike Starbucks, from (perhaps) their tax avoidance policies to their mediocre coffee and their cookie-cutter similarity. And yet millions of people still go.

So, why? There’s convenience; if it’s the closest cafe to where you are, that’s a strong incentive. There’s security; if you don’t know the area, you could either go to a non-chain cafe and risk a bad experience, or go to a known quantity. Relatedly, there’s consistency; you know what you get at Starbucks. Their marketing and decor reinforces those latter two qualities; you’re meant to feel at home.

All of these reasons added together seemingly outweigh any misgivings we might have about contributing towards unethical corporate behaviour or the increasing soullessness of our high streets. If we left it there, this would be a rather depressing statement of our values, but I don’t think that’s true. There’s really nothing wrong with people wanting convenience and security and consistency. And if Starbucks provided better service or quality or costs compared to their competition, it’s not at all surprising they succeeded. Yes, we all know their tactics in flooding towns and cities with chains to extinguish the competition and then pulling out; but even today, with the rapid growth over, I still seem to gravitate to chain cafes despite the existence of alternatives.

There’s an independent cafe near where I live called Bread and Bean. It makes very good coffee and it’s in a reasonably decent location. The atmosphere is not amazing and the decor a little spartan, but it’s a pleasant enough place to read a book. I used to go to it fairly frequently until I starting shopping in another nearby area which had at least three chain cafes: Costa Coffee, Starbucks, and Harris and Hoole. I ended up going to the latter, which is, if anything, an uber-Starbucks: even more comfortable and secure.

Harris and Hoole, of course, is 49% owned by Tesco. Most people don’t know this and assume, like I did, that it’s just a really nice independent cafe. It gets the best of both worlds – it’s not Starbucks, yet it exudes the comfort and security that we all apparently want.

In the face of these well-funded chain cafes, it may be wise to simply throw up your hands and declare defeat. I mean, it’s just coffee, after all – who really cares that much about a few million in tax? But it’s not just that. These places are the new public square. It would be better if our squares weren’t all owned by massive corporations, just as it would be better if Twitter and Facebook and Google didn’t control so much of online communication.

I wonder if the recent backlash against Twitter and Facebook in the form of more ad-hoc spaces such as and private Discourse forums point the way forward. These spaces are no less secure and consistent than Twitter thanks to the diligent efforts of their founders; they are immune against private ownership since they are open source and capable of being spun up and run on any $10/month server; and they are certainly more comfortable, not because they have fancy features, but because they lack scale and so are more able to adapt to their patrons. Every branch of Starbucks must have the same coffee and decor – that’s a strength, but it’s also a weakness.

What we need is an open source cafe blueprint; something that amateurs and semi-pros can get up and running without a massive effort, yet still provides good service and good coffee. This may, in fact, be completely impossible due to the significant differences between running a website and running a physical cafe – but of course, “software is eating the world”. Maybe we can semi-automate all the legal and financial shenanigans involved in getting a space and running a cafe; maybe we can create a framework to source all the equipment and consumables required.

And if you can do that, you can probably adapt it (with great effort) for restaurants and shops and whatever. It would be a massive effort requiring close co-operation with national and local governments and banks; probably on the scale of writing something like Unix, really.

Update: Via his related blog post, John Willshire tells me that 95% of all cafes in Australia are independently owned using some of the tactics mentioned above. Turns out we don’t need to write Unix again – hurray!

→ 1 CommentTags: food


September 13th, 2014 · No Comments

We open on two college students driving through the woods at night. One is peering at the bright screen of their phone, giving directions.

“Can’t this piece of junk go any faster?”

“If you want to get out and push, you’re welcome.”

“I heard that if you get to the party before anyone else, you get, like, a lifetime supply of everything.”

“Yeah, well, I haven’t seen any other cars for the last twenty -”

The phone starts beeping.

“Holy shit, it’s here!”

The car screeches down a narrow track. They arrive at a clearing where a very expensive, very high-tech tent has been set up.

“Looks like we’re the first!”

They high-five, and sidle in.

“Hey, we’re here for the app, is there -”

Screams begin.

Smash cut to -


We pull out from these words projected onto a massive screen. It actually says “Clear’s next Killer App” where Clear is a logo for an internet company. The screams turn into rapturous applause. We’re at a press conference, a cross between an Apple keynote and an interview.

A young Cillian Murphy is on the stage.


“Now, did I hear you say two *billion* users?” asks the interviewer?

“Two point *one* billion users,” corrects Murphy, with a twinkle in his eye. Everyone chuckles.

“What’s the secret of your success?”

“It’s simple. We created an app that helps people help each other. These are hard times, and I believe that we should always be there for our friends and family, whether that’s doing work for each other or just throwing a party together.”

“But it doesn’t hurt that you take a cut of every transaction made on the app, does it?”

“Not much,” he admits, twinkling again. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We’re providing a valuable service and the revenues let us improve the product and reach more and more people.”

“Earlier this year, you acquired Twitter. Everyone wants to know, who’s next? Microsoft? Facebook? Apple?”

He looks thoughtful. “How can I put this? We’re a forward-thinking company. They aren’t. I don’t want to be dragged down with dead weight.” Keep reading →

→ No CommentsTags: film · silly · tech

Worrying and Thinking

September 7th, 2014 · 2 Comments

Over the past few years, I’ve been worrying over a knot of problems that seem to defy any straightforward answers, including:

  • How can we use Google, Facebook, and Amazon’s services when we know they’re putting people out of work, centralising information, and often acting against our interest?
  • There are no more jobs for life, so why aren’t we fighting harder for improved social security?
  • How can we avoid being made miserable or broke by advertising?
  • What happens if we don’t have the time to properly think about what the good life consists of – or we don’t have the means to enact it?
  • Is it possible to resist, or even question, the total political dominance of capitalism and free market economics?
  • How can we possibly criticise massive corporations when we, as consumers and workers, feel complicit in their existence and operation?
  • What can any individual do to change any of this, when meaningful solidarity appears to have totally evaporated within many rich countries?

These are not the only problems in the world; they’re not even among top ten problems humanity faces. Nevertheless, I consider them to be serious problems and given that some people are better placed to address some problems than others, it’s worth thinking about them.

Neither are they wholly new problems. We’ve lived – unhappily – with overpowered corporations, fractured communities, and inadequate social security for decades and centuries. Yet they are affected by technology and culture, and so these problems require new kinds of solutions every generation.

I intend to spend the next few months writing about this, in a ‘thinking-out-loud’ kind of way. Many chapters of A History of the Future were about these problems. Spoiler: I don’t have any quick or easy solutions, but I do think that these worries are shared by many others who would dearly like to do something about them.

→ 2 CommentsTags: adrian · politics · tech