'71, Big Hero 6

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!

Too Much Information

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.

The Driving Penalty Points Problem

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?

200 Years of Change

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.


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).


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.


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.

Eternal Fundraising, Luxuries as Resiliency, Isometric Buildings

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:


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:


Serving Sizes

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


“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:


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.

Serial, Podcasts, and the end of BBC Radio

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.

26 Interview

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.

Kickstarter Report: November 2014

Here are the eight most recent projects I’ve backed on Kickstarter:


Radiotopia: A Storytelling Revolution

Radiotopia is a podcast network by Roman Mars, the guy responsible for one of my favorite shows, 99% Invisible. I’ve met him in person and he is a lovely, generous guy who has made it his life’s work to support new podcasters and new ideas, undoubtedly at the cost of his own time and financial success.


The Flame in the Flood

Looks and sounds like Beasts of the Southern Wild: The Game, which is right my up alley.


The Black Glove

Like The Flame in the Flood, these developers were also on the team that made Bioshock Infinite. The Black Glove pinpoints my desire to explore weird worlds with a minimum of shooting things.


Karen – an app that psychologically profiles you as you play

From Blast Theory, the makers of real-world/digital experiences. I’ve always liked to think about what self-help guides will become in the future, and this is an interesting exploration.


Ice-Bound: A Novel of Reconfiguration

Book/game/app/interactive fiction crossover, therefore automatically of interest. I’m not hot on the augmented reality stuff but I guess we’ll see how this unfolds.


Elegy for a Dead World: A Game About Writing Fiction

Pretty weird and I’m not convinced that people are keen on writing fiction, or indeed writing much at all, in a game. However, the prompting mechanism is neat and I look forward to trying it out.


Daughters of Mercury

The artist, Janet Bruesselbach, painted a portrait of me via Skype. It took over two hours and was a fascinating experience. I was happy to support her next project (this one).


Extrasolar: Season 2

It’s difficult for any ARG to attract decent levels of funding, and unfortunately Extrasolar S2 was not successful on Kickstarter. However, Extrasolar was and still is a tremendously clever game and I expect it’s really just a question of figuring out the right business model before it sees greater success.

Pride and High-Definition Prejudice

Here’s the sort of TV I watched in 1995: Red Dwarf, Star Trek: DS9, Star Trek: Voyager, Babylon 5, The X-Files – and Pride and Prejudice. I can’t recall how I was convinced to watch a costume drama based on a book genre that I had never previously shown an iota of interest in, but I’m pretty sure my mum had something to do with it. I was also prevailed upon to make a special batch of popcorn for the occasion using a US-imported popcorn maker I received as a birthday/Christmas present (one which I recently discovered is no longer available for sale on account of it potentially burning down houses due to the predictably unpleasant combination of hot metal, oil, and plastic).

Of course, I was enthralled – how couldn’t you be, with that plot, that cast, that writing? Sadly, the other boys at my all-male school were not into the Austen and so I kept my mouth shut about it for, oh, nine years, when I discovered the BBC series on Amazon Prime Video. Even better, it was in high-definition!

According to Wikipedia:

A high-definition transfer was produced from the original negatives and released as a Blu-ray in October 2008. The HD version has not been broadcast on television, the BBC refuses to broadcast anything shot in 16mm in HD. The same restored version was released on DVD in March 2009. The Blu-ray was released on April 14, 2009.

There is no citation for the claim that “the BBC refuses to broadcast anything shot in 16mm in HD,” but I’m not surprised by the decision; while many outdoor and well-lit shots in the series look perfectly lovely in HD, the noticeable grain and poor colour balance in most indoor shots is quite distracting. What’s more, the series obviously wasn’t produced with HD in mind, resulting in the actors’ make-up often looking a bit off.

Still, it’s well worth a watch if you enjoyed the original back in 1995, or indeed, have never seen it. You may want to wait another year though, as I’d be astonished if the BBC didn’t try to properly remaster the series for its twentieth anniversary in 2015.