Telling Tall Tales on Twitter

Issue 7 of my newsletter – subscribe here

When you listen to a stand-up comedian, you probably know their stories are being exaggerated for comic effect. That’s fine! Everyone understands they aren’t watching a documentary. We don’t need a disclaimer on the front door telling us the events depicted inside are fictional, even if we might appreciate it if there’s an element of truth.

Similar unspoken conventions apply to everything from like Playboy letters, to Chicken Soup for the Soul, to pretty much everything David Sedaris writes. The older the medium, the more established the conventions. Some thought Robinson Crusoe was a true story when it was first published in 1719, but today you just need to glance at the cover of a book to know whether it’s fiction or not.

The corollary is that new media hasn’t yet developed those conventions – and the newer the media, the greater the uncertainty. Take these heartwarming tweet threads by @sixthformpoet about visiting his dad’s grave, saving up for Disneyland, and helping his neighbours. All went fearsomely viral, nearing a million likes and retweets in total, and they all have picture-perfect happy endings.

Perhaps this is a confession of just how cynical I’ve grown, but I only had to take a single look at the first tweet to sense it probably wasn’t real:

The fact it was a pre-written thread (“ONE”), a “funny story” that was clearly going to make him look good, with a happy/funny ending? For me, it was damning evidence. And if you actually read the threads, the towering pile of coincidences should make anyone think twice about its truthfulness – especially when other authors of viral tweets have subsequently fessed up.

“But does it matter if it’s true, Adrian? Why can’t we have nice things?”

To be clear: the stakes are so low on these stories that I’m hardly suiting up for war. But we all know that if the author had, at the start of the thread (not at the end!) said, “THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION”, the threads wouldn’t have been nearly as popular. You only need to glance at the replies to realise that many, if not most, readers thought these were true stories.

So why do I care? I feel there’s a deliberate attempt to exploit people’s fundamental trust towards strangers’ stories. As much as we say we don’t trust Twitter, I think the opposite is true – at least with heartwarming tales like these. Why would someone lie to us in this way? What’s the gain?

In the past, there wasn’t much gain other than getting a few free pints down at the pub. But today, popularity on social media has very real value. It’s not just social currency, it’s real currency. So to that extent, it’s unfair because it’s diverting attention from writers who aren’t exploiting readers’ trust.

Perhaps there is little harm in the end. There’s only so many times you can do this. If @sixthformpoet had written a dozen more stories with astonishing coincidences and perfect conclusions, people would rebel. And letting go of the crutch of telling “true stories” to become a writer of avowed fiction or fact requires more courage and hard work than many are willing to give.

A few make that transition. They’re able to use their gift for words and extend it into novels, or they can tell their own stories in a way that doesn’t seem too untrue. And the rest just disappear, having told a few tall tales that made some people happy.

We don’t have a convention for tall tales online. Or maybe we’re getting one. In Five Signs a Viral Story Is Fake, Madison Malone Kircher suggests some ways to spot – or to telegraph – a tall tale:

  1. The person tweeting the story is the hero.
  2. TOO! MANY! CAPITAL! LETTERS!
  3. It takes more than one tweet to tell.
  4. “Story time!”
  5. There are follow-up threads.

Each medium has its own conventions, whether that’s Creepypasta or ARGs. That doesn’t mean we need enormous disclaimers at the start of books and movies, but rather a better understanding of how to convey whether a story is broadly true or not.

As I’ve argued before about ARGs, far better to improve your craft than rely on confusion or exploitation.

Additional discussion on Metafilter…

Watching

📺 Killing Eve Season 2. Not quite as shocking as Season 1 but still refreshing.

Reading

📖 Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. As usual, Lem displays a casual, almost insouciant, familiarity with science and physics that threads through this story in way that seems almost entirely unnecessary given the plot, but lends a measure of realism that makes his wild imagination seem more believeable. It’s like you crossed Tom Clancy’s knowledge of modern weapon systems with Tom Stoppard’s understanding of the human soul.

Solaris is about nature of knowledge, of books, of schools of thought, all circling round and round something they cannot understand.

As such, the movies are almost unrecognisable. They have a similar setting and ideas but plot is completely different. I would have said that Arrival and Solaris were equally unfilmable, but time makes fools of us all.

📰 HS2 is the only option for Britain’s railways by Jon Stone (Independent). A good primer for why HS2 isn’t for rich people who want fast trains:

Speed is not the main point of the new line. The objective is capacity, and not just capacity for fast intercity services, either, but for those local regional and commuter services between small towns that have been so neglected. The complicated bit is explaining why that is.

Britain’s railways were largely built in the Victorian era, for a different kind of travel. Today, the same lines carry a mix of express intercity trains – the kind which HS2 will take – and stopping local and commuter services, the kind people use to get to work, or pop to a neighbouring town.

This mix is a very inefficient way to run a railway, for a reason that is quite obvious if you think about it: trains cannot overtake each other on the same set of tracks. They would bang into the back of one another if they tried. Not good. To get around this, local stopping trains need a large gap behind them in the timetable, so the express trains behind them do not catch up. That reduces the number of trains you can have per hour on a line, dramatically reducing its capacity for every type of service – local and express.

The engineering thinking behind HS2 is to take those express services off the older mainlines, leaving them for stopping local and commuter services. When trains are all travelling at roughly the same speed on a line, you can fit a lot more in, because the gaps needed between them are smaller.

Money Illiteracy, Apple Arcade

Issue 6 of my newsletter – subscribe here

Since buying a house a couple of years ago, I’ve noticed more and more people talking about overpaying their mortgages, and I find the whole idea mystifying.

The mechanics of mortgages were alien to me until recently, and they may well be to you as well. In the UK, most people opt for 25 year mortgages with a reasonably substantial deposit, usually around 5-10% of the value. For the first few years, the interest rate on the mortgage will be higher because your loan-to-value ratio will also be higher – that is, the amount you’ve borrowed vs. the value of your house. That means your monthly mortgage payments will also be relatively high.

But as time goes on and your mortgage payments add up, the amount you’ve borrowed will decrease. More importantly, the value of your house has probably gone up. In some areas, it might have gone up a lot. That means your loan-to-value ratio will be lower, so banks will trust you more and offer you a significantly lower rate of interest if you remortgage. Right now, you could get as low as 2% interest on your mortgage, vs. the 4+% at the start of your mortgage.

It doesn’t sound like a big difference, but when you’ve borrowed hundreds of thousands of pounds, it adds up to hundreds of pounds per month in increased mortgage payments. I was genuinely shocked by how much our mortgage payments decreased after just two years when we remortgaged for a lower rate, and I thought I was financially savvy.

Anyway – that’s all prologue to the fact that for many homeowners, when their mortgage payments decrease, they decide to overpay their mortgage, sometimes by a significant amount. If you overpay each month, you could clear your mortgage years earlier than its default 25 year term.

The act of overpaying a mortgage, I believe, confers such a strong feeling of security and responsibility and satisfaction that many very smart people will prioritise mortgage overpayments over every other form of investment. At least, that’s the only way I can explain such a mystifying decision.

Now, it is true that Money Saving Expert, the middle-class bible, tells you to overpay your mortgage, assuming you have no other higher-interest debts. Why? Their answer is that while the interest rate on mortgages can be very low, most savings rates are even lower. It’s possible to beat 2% on a few savings products like Cash ISAs and fixed-rate accounts where you lock your money away for a year or more, but I suspect most people are not using those.

So far, so sensible. It’s only until you get to the end of the long article that it explores alternatives to saving, like investing, with the stark warning:

But to generate the amount of investment returns equivalent to paying off your mortgage, you’d usually need relatively high-risk investments – overpaying the mortgage gives a surety of return.

This is a brilliant summation of British distrust in the stock market, and specifically index funds, which are the one of the more accessible alternatives to traditional savings and bonds. Index funds are the opposite of traditional wheeler-dealer stock traders – they’re composed of shares that mirror the biggest companies in a particular market, and those shares only get bought and sold as those companies gradually get bigger or smaller.

Still, index funds are volatile: their price can jump up and down in just a few days. In bad years, an index fund might lose as much as 40% of its value, as happened in 2008. On the face of it, it’s no surprise people distrust the stock market. And because it’s plainly risky to put your money in index funds in the short term, many people think it’s even riskier to do that for the long term.

The truth is completely different. Index funds are much less risky if you hold them for the long term. The average rate of return from the S&P 500 index (a bundle of major US companies) over last 60 years is 7%, after you’ve taken inflation into account.

In some years, the index has dropped a huge amount, but most years it’s increased. And the longer you hold an index fund for, the more those dips and spikes are evened out, such that you don’t need to worry about timing. Here’s an extreme example:

Imagine you were spectacularly unlucky and you invested in the S&P 500 on August 9th 2007, the day before it began its massive year-long crash. Two years later, you would have lost 47% of your money: a dire result. But if you held on to your money until 2017, you’d have realised a gain of 6% per year, after inflation – far higher than any interest rate you’d get from savings or bonds.

Most financial advisors agree that index funds are one of the best choices for investment, and they would undoubtedly favour them over overpaying a mortgage with a 2% interest rate. So why do people distrust them so much?

  1. Index funds don’t make investment firms a lot of money, so they prefer to advertise and promote actively-managed investment funds whose managers buy and sell shares much more faster. As famously demonstrated by a $1 million bet by Warren Buffet, these funds tend to underperform index funds over the long term, but due to survivorship bias you often just hear about the funds that succeeded rather than the ones that failed.
  2. At school, the only thing I learned about the stock market was the Great Depression. You just can’t underestimate the importance of education in all of this.
  3. Likewise, popular culture associates the stock market with risk-taking wheeler dealers. It’s basically gambling.

All of this is a great shame, because it makes people poorer. You might say, boo hoo, what a shame that people fortunate enough to own a house aren’t making more money. OK, fine, but until we get rid of capitalism, I think it’d be a good thing for more normal people to own part of large companies and benefit from their profits. Right now, those gains are disproportionately going to the wealthy.

I personally wouldn’t put all my savings into index funds due to their volatility. But while home prices aren’t as volatile, they are highly illiquid in that you can’t quickly turn a bit of your house into cash if you need it. And of course, the volatility of the stock market is lessened if you view it over the term of a 25 year mortgage.

It suits the financial industry that homeowners remain so risk-averse and financially ignorant that they harm themselves. I wish more people would consider index funds over mortgage overpayments. But it’s hard to change the stubborn British belief that housing is the best, and only, investment normal people can make.

Today, Microsoft launched the Xbox Games Pass (basically, Netflix for games) at $5/month on PCs, joining the existing console-only Games Pass for $10/month, and the “Ultimate” Games Pass that combines both and adds a few extras on top for $15/month.

This makes me think the Apple Arcade subscription price is going to be lower than most people expect. Apple has a reputation for being expensive, but their subscription products are comparable with competitors:

  • Music: Apple Music, Spotify, and Google Play Music are all $10/month
  • Storage: iCloud Drive and Google One both offer 200GB for $3/month
  • Apple News+ is the same $10/month as Texture was before Apple acquired it

Apple Arcade is interesting because it extends across iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and Macs – but it probably has fewer AAA titles and blockbuster IPs than Xbox Games Pass. So if I had to guess, I’d say it’ll land at $7/month – far less than the $15/month some commentators have floated.

Maybe an “Apple Prime” that includes games, news, music, storage, and AppleCare for $30-40/mo?

Playing

🎮 Kids on iPad. 30 minutes of weird, mesmerising, disturbing interactive animation about crowds, groupthink, and kids.

Watching

📺 When They See Us on Netflix about the Central Park Five. One of the best things I’ve seen this year; excellent acting and beautiful direction. I couldn’t get through the final episode without crying.

Reading

📖 The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. My book of the year so far; full thoughts next week.

📖 Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. Entertaining epic sci-fi/fantasy comic. Didn’t quite live up to the “better than Star Wars” hype, but hey, it was on Libby from my library so why not? ¯_(ツ)_/¯

📖 9 Lessons in Brexit by Ivan Rogers, the former UK ambassador to the EU. A very short book, more like an extended essay really, about misconceptions the British have about the EU and Brexit process. A tad overwritten, but that’s civil servants for you.

My main takeaway is that the government’s prioritisation of immigration and goods trade over services (which are worth far more to the UK economy) is going to majorly bite us on the arse.

📰 The Wild West Meets the Southern Border by Valeria Luiselli in the New Yorker, about the parallels between Wild West re-enactors in Tombstone and US attitudes towards the border with Mexico. Very enjoyable and insightful. Here’s a bit that, perhaps deliberately, reminded me of the modern Westworld:

The town, it seemed, existed not only in a loop of embodied repetitions of odd historical moments but also in a kind of cut-and-paste of the same people. It is entirely possible that, at any given moment in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp is having a beer with Wyatt Earp.

and on re-enactors’ fetish for details over the big picture:

An interesting paradox of the reënactment scene’s obsession with authenticity and historical accuracy, this “getting it right,” is that accuracy is measured in terms of the minute details of a particular event, which does not necessarily amount to historical accuracy in the broader sense. Old West history buffs may endlessly dispute whether Wyatt Earp was wearing a specific kind of bow tie during the O.K. Corral shoot-out in 1881, but may be oblivious of much of what was happening in the region during those years.

Visiting

🎤 Cymera, “Scotland’s Festival of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Writing”.

Some choice (paraphrased) quotes from Ken MacLeod:

“Hard science fiction” is anything you can honestly sell with a spaceship on the cover. “Space opera” is anything you can honestly sell with an exploding spaceship on the cover.

… Space opera is justified because it’s the most optimistic form of science fiction. It shows we still have a future. And it gives us a vast arena for recreating mythological adventures.

Charlie Stross:

“Horror” is about loss of control. About the loss of bodily autonomy.

🏛️ I saw the Edinburgh (University) College of Art graduate show and the Edinburgh College HND show yesterday.

Lots of interesting art but my eyes were left bleeding from the blizzard of spelling mistakes and typos. Spelling errors in titles. Flagrant abuse of apostrophes. Grammatical errors every page. Barely any project was immune. It was painful to read.

I understand students might think they’re here to be artists, not writers – but unless you’re the best of the best, it’s really important to have a rounded set of skills.

British Servility, Gamification of Jobs Inside the API

Issue 5 of my newsletter – subscribe here

The rise of Conservative MP Rory Stewart has sparked an intense frustration in me. Many people who would never vote for a right-wing party have confessed liking this “British eccentric with preternatural intelligence“, as Hadley Freeman from the Guardian described him.

What is it, precisely, that Freeman admires – other than the headline fact that Stewart opposes a no-deal Brexit (but, of course, still wants Brexit and doesn’t want a second referendum)? He quotes Latin; as a child, he named his toy horse Bucephalus “for the horse that Alexander the Great tamed as a youth”; still as a child, he had a fondness for reciting Hamlet; he gives impassioned speeches in the house about hedgehogs. That sort of thing. Never mind the fact that he voted against measures to prevent climate change; against regulation for fracking; for welfare benefits cuts; against laws to promote equality and human rights.

To be fair, Freeman confesses the British attraction towards eccentrics is what’s led to the rise of Boris Johnson and all the ills that accompany him. But let’s not mince words. I think there’s still a pathetic servility towards the upper-class – eccentric or not – in this country.

Rory Stewart’s accomplishments and political positions are ‘better’ than many other Tory leadership candidates, but that doesn’t make him a good leader – especially since his accomplishments are wildly overstated; rather than governing an Iraqi province, he was deputy to a US “governate coordinator” of an Iraqi region. Yes, he spent a month on a walking holiday in Afghanistan, and he was briefly tutor to Prince William and Harry, but how much of that is down to the fact that he had opportunities that most people could barely ever dream of?

As for principle, I will never forget his inventing the statistic that 80% of the British public supported Theresa May’s Brexit deal. When pressed by the interviewer as to where he had got the information, he said, “I’m producing a number to try to illustrate what I believe,” confirming that he was not simply ignorant, but rather, a liar.

I honestly just don’t understand how otherwise smart left-wingers are taken in by this. Someone who quotes Latin isn’t worthy of any extra consideration above someone who knows engineering or medicine or fashion, but it seems some people cannot break their fascination with activities associated with the upper class.

It’s not entirely class-based, to be fair. Around the world, people have fallen hard for public intellectuals who claim to know everything about everything, whether that’s Yuval Noah-Hariri, Jordan Peterson, Jill Abramson, or Naomi Wolf. In one way, Stewart is merely a British, upper-class version.

If I had to be generous, I think the idea is that because Stewart has had all these interesting experiences rather than working in a normal job doing normal things like earning a wage, that means he is not only uniquely placed to lead the country, but he is also more principled than most. That may end up being true – we can’t know yet – but what is true is that barely a fraction of a percent of the British population were born into the wealth and privilege that Stewart was, and thus afford to have all his experiences. He may well have done better than others brought up in the same conditions, but I can promise you there are plenty more people who didn’t go to Eton but have made a better go at it.

That the class system still exists in Britain is no surprise. But the thoughtless admiration bestowed on Stewart shows this country still has masters – and servants.

Another week, another set of creepy headlines about gamification. The Washington Post reports how Amazon turned the tedium of warehouse work into a game with a series of games that sound like they were rejects from first-year game jams.

This isn’t a new development – Amazon has had a team working on these games for years, and the gamification takes many forms. In December, Bloomberg wrote about Amazon’s “Power Hours” for warehouse workers:

in which employees are pressured to move extra fast in hopes of winning raffle tickets.

“Every day they’re changing the goal — the finish line is changed every day,” Bleach said.

Amazon said incentives offered by the company “are part of our company culture, and we want to make sure Peak is a fun time of year for associates who are working hard to fulfill customer orders.”

Uh huh.

The insidious nature of these games is that it allows managers to really believe they’re making their employees’ work more enjoyable and productive while also saving money. Why? Because they’re games! Never mind the fact that the employees have no choice in whether they play or not, which makes a mockery of the entire principle of games. Would those same managers appreciate their work being gamified? I think not.

Which brings me to an interesting lens on how to think about modern employment: whether a job is “inside the API” or not. As Jakob Falkovich puts it:

Algorithms are replacing middle management, and if you don’t have a job telling computers what to do, sooner or later your job will consist of doing what computers tell you.

(An API is an Application Programming Interface – a clearly-defined way for applications to talk to each other and request things. These days, an API might allow you to request an Uber to deliver a burger to a specific location)

To focus that lens even further, if your job is inside the API, prepare for it to be gamified.

Watching

🎞 Always Be My Maybe, a decent Netflix romcom elevated by its Asian-American leads. Also, I must possess Daniel Dae Kim’s Adidas:

Incidentally, Netflix prevents you from taking screenshots of their content on computers and apps, which is absurd and unnecessary. I ended up torrenting a copy of The Wandering Earth simply to grab parts of the end credit sequences.

🎞 A Knight’s Tale (rewatch). How on Earth did they spend $65 million making this movie? What a classic.

Reading

📖 Against Empathy by Paul Bloom, a lazily-written but fairly readable argument that empathy (defined narrowly as “I feel your pain”) gets in the way of ‘better’ and more rational decision-making. It’s not a good sign when the author flat out tells you in the introduction you can stop after the first chapter.

Listening

🎧 The Automat on 99% Invisible. Even if you know about the general concept of Automas restaurants, this is a lovely description of why they were so special – because they were a great leveller, like Ikea, and allowed people to eat and drink at their own pace, as fast or as slow as they liked. People of all classes went there. Perhaps one day they will return.

Visiting

Edinburgh has a lot of galleries, considering it’s a city of only half a million:

🏛 Collective, a contemporary art gallery newly-relocated to Calton Hill, with an interesting exhibition, Enigma Bodytech, about “the interconnection between energy, technology and the body” by Kimberley O’Neill.

🏛 The Fruitmarket Gallery‘s Design Market. Interesting to see the explosion of work that uses laser cutters and 3D printers.

🏛 Edinburgh Printmakers, newly-relocated to Fountainbridge.

90s Hagiography and Half Marathons

Issue 4 of my newsletter – subscribe here

Now that millennials are ageing into their status as Prime Consumers of culture, it’s no surprise that our childhood era of the 90s is being mined for nostalgia. Not all of this is cynical – I’m as charmed by games like Hypnospace Outlaw that harken back to the early days of the web and Geocities as anyone else.

But there’s a point where nostalgia tips over into hagiography. Lately, I’ve seen people pine for those days where we weren’t always being distracted by our smartphones, where we would all be present and engaged in discussions at all times. Or how programming was much more fun in C and Assembly, whereas nowadays everyone’s forced to use Javascript and Unity. Or how society was much more united in the TV we watched and the newspapers we read.

This is, as the kids would say, ahistorical: lacking in historical perspective or context. You’re kidding yourself if you think people didn’t daydream or zone out during conversations in the 90s – you don’t need a phone to be distracted. TV in the 2010s is unimaginably better and more diverse than in the 90s. So are games and books and music. And while society might seem less united today, perhaps that’s simply because we’re only now casting a light on differences that have always existed. It’s those differences that lead us to our own places to talk to one another, and yes, to find likeminded people to reminisce over the 90s with.

There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, and some things really were better in the past. But always thinking the past was better than the present is a profoundly depressing thought that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Not that I want to claim we have achieved utopia in 2019; far from it. There is so much we need to improve in the world. But the way to do that is not to slip back into the 90s.

Last Sunday, I got up at 6:50am to run in the Edinburgh Half Marathon. This was my first in three years, a fairly long gap that’s been otherwise filled with near-daily 7km runs around Holyrood Park. 7km isn’t an especially long distance for a regular runner, but when it includes 118m of elevation gain (or 30 storeys), it’s a proper workout that’s helped build my stamina.

That said, I hadn’t done any actual training for the half marathon. Most training plans have a ~16km run in the fortnight leading up to the race; not quite the 21.1km of the half marathon itself, but close enough to get you used to the distance, and not so long that it unduly tires you out. But the longest run I’d done in the past year was 12km running 700m laps around a cruise ship in the Caribbean. What I needed was to craft the perfect playlist to fill 1 hour and 45 minutes – 25 songs of exceeding energy.

I’ve written elsewhere about what makes for my perfect running playlist, and I stuck to the same formula this time – fun, poppy songs mixed with epic movie soundtracks. It was all loaded up and ready to stream from my iPhone to my Airpods when I realised, 30 seconds after dropping off my bag at the race start, that’d I’d left my phone in the bag.

As soon as I realised, I turned back to the bag drop, which was actually a bunch of people on a lorry who were right at that moment strapping down tarps and shouting at late arrivals to put their bags somewhere else.

“Fucking lol,” I thought. Yes, I still had my Apple Watch, but literally the previous evening I had deleted all the music from it to make space for a watchOS update (because Apple’s storage management is utter shit and either wants to store 7GB of music or none at all – and nothing in between).

But wait! Even though I couldn’t physically reach my phone for the couple of hours, it was still well within Bluetooth range of my Watch. Maybe, just maybe, I could use stream music from my phone to my Watch, which I hoped might cache it for the duration of the race. I sidled over to the lorry, jabbing at my wrist to fast-forward through as many songs as I could, under the dubious gaze of the race workers.

With only a few minutes to go, I spotted a friend in my timing zone at the race start. “I’m just hoping I don’t end up listening to the same song 25 times,” I said. And then we were off, and it turned out I had a good dozen songs on my Watch, enough so that I only heard them twice.

A lot of designers seem to think that runners are best motivated by competition. That’s why leaderboards have featured so prominently in running apps. I don’t doubt that some runners find a lot of pleasure in crushing others, but the truth is that most runners are only competing against themselves during races – if that. Runners will talk about hitting a Personal Best rather than coming in the top 10% of the field; or they might recognise their speed is slowing and simply have a target time they want to hit. They certainly aren’t motivated by beating random strangers among the 11,000 half marathon runners, most of whom will be much faster or slower than them.

But in a race as long as 26.1km, after overtaking and being overtaken for an hour, you’ll eventually find yourself amongst a cohort of people who are running at almost exactly the same speed as you. These are your people, at your level of fitness. And what surprises and delights me every time I’m in a half marathon is just how different everyone looks. Some look like they were ripped from a stock photo of runners, but most are thicker or thinner or younger or older than you would have guess. Some seem to glide through the air, others are fighting with every step. And many don’t at all look like ‘runners’.

Towards the end of the race, I was beginning to slow down when a woman in a light blue top appeared by my elbow. I vaguely remembered overtaking her several kilometers backs, but here she was again, fresher and faster than my cohort: an excellent pacemaker, providing I could keep up. And that’s what I managed for a good three kilometers as we mowed through the field, until I just couldn’t.

Still, I hit a personal best of 1:42:07 placed 1357th out of 11,000, and I gave her a solid high-five at the finish line.

Playing

📱 Alt-Frequencies, an intriguing but poorly-written audio-driven game from the creators of A Normal Lost Phone.

🎮 God of War, this generation’s high water mark for visually stunning action adventure – and the tiresome Sad Dad game genre.

Watching

📺 Gentleman Jack, featuring the most charismatic, competent, and sexually manipulative protagonist since Don Draper.

Reading

📖 Phantom Architecture by Philip Wilkinson, a lavishly illustrated collection of sixty fantastical structures by Buckminster Fuller, Gaudi, Le Corbusier, Hadid, and Etienne-Louis Boullée’s enormous spherical monument to Isaac Newton.

Unfortunately the book is littered with typos and I spotted at least one glaring factual error (Blade Runner was released in 1982, not 1992, come on!) which casts a shadow of doubt over the rest…

How to Read The New Yorker, my new TV, and the Playdate

Issue 3 of my newsletter – subscribe here

The New Yorker is the most consistently well-written longform magazine I’ve read, and it’s been the source of so many of my ideas over the years. It’s also the one of the most unread magazines out there, gracing coffee tables across the world in artistic tsundokus.

For the first few years I was a subscriber, I read it from cover to cover (OK, not the NY city-specific bits, come on!) – even the bits I initially found confusing. Since I decided to spend more time reading books recently, I needed to be more judicious about my New Yorker reading habits lest I stop reading it completely. So here’s my tips on how to read The New Yorker!

  1. Start with the longform articles in the middle of the magazine – just the ones you’re interested in. Don’t try to slog through something you’re not into. If you read two or three of these articles, pat yourself on the back because you have conquered this issue!
  2. Next, tackle the arts and culture reviews at the back. Feel free to skip the ones entirely out of your wheelhouse, but it can be rewarding to broaden your horizons. Also, don’t read the movie reviews for anything you plan to see: Anthony Lane doesn’t understand the meaning of “spoiler”.
  3. Scan through The Talk of the Town at the front. The first article is usually political and ages poorly, and the rest are exceedingly twee and frequently parochial. My patience has grown thin for this section, lately.
  4. Don’t read Shouts and Murmurs, it’s dumb.
  5. Do you like short stories? Then read the short story. If not, continue with your life.

Lots of writers will introduce ideas in New Yorker articles which they later unnecessarily pad out into books (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Gladwell). Reading the longform articles are great way to get the core of the idea earlier, for extra dinner party conversation points. Some good articles from the most recent issues include The Art of Building Artificial Glaciers by Elizabeth Kolbert:

and If God Is Dead, Your Time Is Everything by James Wood, on Martin Hägglund’s new book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom:

The great merit of Hägglund’s book is that he releases atheism from its ancient curse: its sticky intimacy with theism. Hägglund has no need for a parasitical relationship to the host (which, for instance, contaminates the so-called New Atheism), because he’s not interested in disproving the host’s existence. So, instead of being forced into, say, rationalist triumphalism (there is no God, and science is His prophet), he can expand the definition of the secular life so that it incorporates many of the elements traditionally thought of as religious. Hägglund’s argument here is aided by Hegel’s thinking about religion. For Hegel, as Hägglund reads him, a religious institution is really just a community that has come together to ennoble “a governing set of norms—a shared understanding of what counts as good and just.” The object of devotion is thus really the community itself. “God” is just the name we give “the self-legislated communal norms (the principles to which the congregation holds itself),” and “Christ” the name we give the beloved agent who animates these norms.

Last week, I got a new LG C8 55″ 4K OLED TV*. It has more glorious deep blacks than I could have possibly imagined and its WebOS interface is surprisingly fast and well-designed, especially coupled with its Nintendo Wii-like motion controller. My old Sony TV was powered by Android and its so-called apps were abysmally slow, so I hadn’t realised things could be better. The LG is so fast, in fact, that I’ve stopped using my Apple TV for anything but iTunes, Airplay, and the new Steam Link app.

Steam Link was also released just last week and it allows you to stream a game from your PC or Mac to your TV. It previously required the Steam Link box that would plug into your TV, which I bought and immediately regretted since it was barely beta-quality, but now the same functionality is available as an Android or iOS/Apple TV app. And you know what? It works pretty well – once you figure out the workarounds. When I first used it, it didn’t work with my equally-terrible Steam Controller, so I ended up pairing a spare PS4 controller with my Mac; it turns out the Bluetooth connection is strong enough to reach across the entire house.

The next problem was that a mouse cursor stubbornly remained in the centre of the TV, no matter what game I played. Even moving the mouse on my Mac didn’t budge it. Eventually I discovered I could manually move it with the PS4 controller while the Steam overlay was active. This required a tedious process of experimentation and I was on the brink of giving up several times, but the prospect of playing Steam games on the sofa gave me strength through those dark hours minutes.

Sure enough, playing Kentucky Route Zero on an OLED TV is a delight and worth all the nonsense. I’m looking forward to working my way through a fraction of the 1000 games in my library, collected largely thanks to being on the BAFTA games jury for several years.

One bonus from this experimentation is that I realised I could take a Bluetooth mouse downstairs so I could wake up my Mac when I wanted to stream from Plex simply by moving it around (“Wake on LAN” basically doesn’t work on Macs), thus saving me from having to walk upstairs. Small pleasures.

*I was considering waiting for this year’s LG C9 OLED model, which includes Airplay and full support for HDMI 2.1 features like variable refresh rate (VRR). But VRR isn’t going to be supported on anything until the next Xbox and PS5, and even then I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. There’s always going to be something better (and much more expensive) around the corner, and the upgrade from my old 1080p Sony TV was big enough.

Panic, makers of fine Mac apps and publisher of Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game, announced their adorable new Playdate handheld console yesterday.

It costs $149, which many Professional Internet Commenters have declared is a “ripoff” when you can buy a Nintendo 2DS for much less, or indeed, just use the smartphone you already possess. Which is both true and also completely missing the point.

The Playdate is a fun toy. It is clearly not meant to compete with anything on price or raw specs, whether that’s Nintendo or Sony or Apple or Samsung. It’s not intended to sell millions of units, any more than a £400 Lego Death Star set is intended to sell millions. It’s meant to appeal to some people, but it turns out a lot of people have a problem distinguishing these two beliefs:

  1. This product is overpriced and few will buy it
  2. This product costs more than I am willing to pay

This conversation reminds me of people’s criticisms of Zombies, Run!’s price, which is now $35/year. Not a day goes by without me seeing some complaint about how subscriptions are terrible and it would be better if people could just buy our game outright.

But this is bogus. If Zombies, Run! cost $1/year, no-one would be complaining. The problem is not the subscription: it’s the price. And that’s OK! There are some things I would like to buy but cost more than I’m willing to spend. That doesn’t make their creators greedy or foolish, it just means it’s not for me – but it might be for people who want it more, or have more money to spend.

Speaking of Zombies, Run!, here’s an interview I did with Caroline Crampton on Hotpod, the podcast industry’s newsletter of note. I have wanted to get onto Hotpod for years and I’m very pleased with the result!

The Mapping Problem

Issue 2 of my newsletter – subscribe here

There’s the book I’d like to write. And there’s the book I ought to write.

Last year, someone from Samsung’s strategy team asked to talk to me about whether “gamification” could be a possible use (if not a killer app) for a hypothetical augmented reality heads-up display.

I admitted, yes, Zombies, Run! was an example of gamification in action, although I quickly explained that I detested the term. Gamification “experts” will tell you that merely applying a coating of points, achievements, levels, and progress bars to otherwise-boring activities is not the way to turn it into a fun or engaging game – but promptly ignore their own advice when designing games for big companies that want to improve productivity, games that invariably are only about points andz achievements and leaderboards. So no, I didn’t think that gamification – as commonly understood and practiced – was a killer app for anything.

“But isn’t Zombies, Run! popular? Couldn’t you do that for other things?”

I sighed inwardly, wondering if I would save all the time I spent talking about why gamification sucked by writing an article or book instead. I wasn’t that simple, I explained, because of the Mapping Problem.

The Mapping Problem came to me at a games conference when I was asked if I could make mopping the floor more fun. Now, I don’t mind doing chores, but mopping is hard. It makes a mess, it requires more effort than vacuuming, and you don’t have the satisfaction of seeing bits of dirt disappear. It’s also something you know you ought to do more often, so it’s really a very good candidate for gamification because you’re intrinsically motivated to get it done.

The standard playbook of gamifying mopping would be an app that gave you points for each time you mopped the floor, and to give extra points and badges if you mopped regularly. Maybe you’d even give more points for mopping different parts of the house!

But this is a shit game design. Getting points and badges after your first session of mopping might make you feel slightly better, but after the third or fourth or eighth or ninth time you tap the “I’ve mopped, yo!” button, you realise that it’s meaningless. You’re just doing this for points. Meaningless points. The app doesn’t really care whether whether you did a good job; for all it knows, you’re just jabbing the button without doing any mopping at all.

So here’s what I would do. I would try to make the act of mopping more fun. I don’t want to reward you after you’ve finished mopping, I want you to be excited while you’re mopping. Ideally, I want you to be excited to start mopping because you know it’s going to be fun. This cannot be achieved through points and badges alone. It requires real-time motivation, either through gameplay or storytelling, or both.

I’m not sure storytelling quite fits mopping, so I’ll go with gameplay. And what I’m looking for is a kind of gameplay that maps onto mopping in a natural way, in a way that will help you achieve your ultimate goal: a thoroughly-cleaned floor. This will require the game to ‘know’ the cleanliness of the floor, which is probably most easily done with computer vision. Likewise, we need a feedback mechanism so the game can respond to what you’re doing, ideally using some flavour of augmented reality, as you are manipulating the real world. And this is the point where we get into the limitations and opportunities of technology, in the sense that this game isn’t possible unless a large number of potential players have either:

a) Multiple static home cameras that can see a majority of your floor

b) Body or head-mounted cameras

c) Periodically waving your phone’s camera at the floor No! This is a terrible idea.

Basically we need to wait for an affordable augmented reality heads-up display, which is a few years out. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to make an effective mopping game without this technology, any more than it’d be possible to make Zombies, Run! without GPS-enabled smartphones. Without it, the game has no idea whether you have mopped a particular part of the floor. Maybe you can use accelerometers to sense a back-and-forth motion (yes, haha) but that doesn’t tell you about the position of the mop. So cameras it must be.

It’s unusual for technology to so overtly be the limiting factor in game design. Most designers sensibly, and unconsciously, filter out game designs that are plainly not possible with current technology. Sure, you might have games that push graphical or processing boundaries, but few games push beyond existing interface technologies. Whenever they do – like Nintendo Labo or Guitar Hero or Pokémon Go or Beat Saber – we all get tremendously excited.

I’d argue that any gamification that extends to the physical world (as opposed to entirely digital activities like, say, gamifying online language learning) falls into this category where practically every solution requires some kind of custom interface technology. That’s just one of the reasons why gamification is hard. If you’re creating the next Fortnite or Mario or Grand Theft Auto, you don’t need to invent or harness an entirely new interface; but if you want to make the best game to teach you the violin, you have some very basic interface questions to answer.

(Incidentally, this is why touchscreens are so central to the success of smartphones: the technology is so versatile, it can solve entire swathes of interface problems. The same screen used for a first-person shooter like Fortnite can also be used for a match-three puzzler like Candy Crush. And that’s why effective AR heads-up displays have the potential to solve an order of magnitude more interface problems: you can use the technology for helping people to mop, or translating street signs, or making learning the violin more fun. So the Samsung guy wasn’t wrong, per se.)

OK, enough about technology. What’s the gameplay for our mopping game? Take your pick! Maybe it’s wiping away bugs crawling around the floor; or it’s a colouring game; or a game of Snake; or you’re sculpting a 3D landscape. There are lots of possibilities, the important thing is for the game to organically encourage you to cover the entire floor in a way that isn’t too rote or tiring. The point is, the game doesn’t just reward you for having mopped, rather, the act of mopping is the game.

But here’s the sting in the tail: the Mapping Problem means that even if we’ve solved the Mopping Problem, we haven’t solved the Violin Problem, or the Ironing Problem, or the Bin-Emptying Problem. These are all completely different kinds of activities that need to be made entertaining in different ways. So my objection to “gamification” is not that I hate the idea of making ironing more fun. I would love for such a game to exist. It’s that the term has come to mean the application not merely of a standard process, but a standard set of game mechanics, to wildly different problems – and any so-called “gamification expert” who claims otherwise is being wilfully blind to the reality of the shitty industry they have helped build.

Unsurprisingly, I have a whole lot more to say about gamification. An entire book outline and proposal, in fact. It’s a book I’m uniquely qualified to write, with a background in experimental psychology and neuroscience, plus the badge of creating one of the most successful examples of gamification ever. I even know it would sell decently well, since gamification never seems to die (“What is dead…” indeed).

It’s just… I want to write a novel! Or a short story collection. Something beautiful and creative. But my book outline is for something completely different.

I ought to write about gamification. And yet.

Wandering Through Designed Storytelling Environments (aka Exhibitions)

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I have friends who can’t imagine a worse punishment than visiting Disneyworld or sailing on a cruise. These lifeless environments are smeared with the fingerprints of designers desperate to part you with your money, whereas – I imagine them saying – nature demands no payment.

And I get that. It can be suffocating to be in a place where everything is trying to manipulate you against your will, like most malls, or, well, the internet. Exploring nature is a refreshing change; there’s no comparison between Yosemite, or the mountains of Kamikochi in Japan, and the Westfield Stratford mall.

But there’s something gloriously human about massive “immersive” environments that are designed, however imperfectly, around a story. If you’re going to sneer at Disneyworld, you might as well condemn readers for wasting their time in books, which are just as blemished with commercial and populist motives. Not that I hold up Disneyworld as the pinnacle of human creativity, but its delicate balance between imagination and profit and scale is, honestly, completely unique in human history.

I’m just as taken by immersive environments whose purpose is to inform and educate, like exhibitions in museums and galleries. Their curators have a very different balance to make – more constrained on budget, but less pressure to turn ever-increasing profits; less need to entertain, but more pressure to be accurate and truthful. Often, the end result is a monotone promenade through glass boxes, but lately museums like the V&A have mounted lavishly decorated and aching stylish exhibitions that are as atmospheric as any escape room or Punchdrunk show.

When I lived in London, my favourite thing to do on a slow weekend was to catch the latest exhibitions and galleries. I moved to Edinburgh a couple of years ago, and while it has its own fine museums, it can’t rival London’s blockbuster shows – I’m not sure that any other city in the world can, including New York. So I try to make the most of any extended stays in London, including the trip I made a couple of weeks ago, during which I mounted a multi-day cultural blitz across the city, armed with various memberships that allowed me easy access. And here’s a not-so-brief rundown of what I saw:

OK, this ended up being way, way longer than I expected, and I’ll try to keep things a bit less sprawling in future otherwise there’s no way I’m going to write something every week.

Only Human: Martin Parr at the National Gallery was a fun, kitschy celebration of Martin Parr’s portraits. Halfway through the exhibition, you encounter a fully-functioning cafe, complete with old CRT TVs, formica tables, teacakes, and exhibition-branded beer. Such experiential! So immersion.

The Wellcome Collection, near Euston and King’s Cross, is baffling place. As popular and as trendy as it is, I can’t help but be frustrated it isn’t better given that it has seemingly infinite funding from the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research charity with £26 billion of assets. See, the Wellcome Collection isn’t satisfied with just being a museum about health and medicine.

No, they want to be about the art of health and medicine. Which is fine as far as it goes, except I just don’t think there’s enough world-class art that qualifies, meaning their exhibitions invariably get filled with a bunch of mediocre art, or the exhibitions start testing the boundaries of what constitutes health and medicine – like the one I went to last week, Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic.

It was pretty good! Lots of neat old magic props accompanied by videos from psychologists explaining how misdirection and suggestion works. Some good staging. Actual live magicians giving performances. Not a lot of art, I guess, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The first highlight of the blitz was Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition at the Design Museum. The Design Museum recently moved to a new location in Kensington and its building is the physical manifestation of its funding from private donors who want a space to have cool parties and don’t especially care about fripperies like well-designed permanent galleries. Those problems aside, the Kubrick exhibition was excellent, mostly because Kubrick’s work is excellent; if you’re at all interested in his movies, I encourage you to book tickets as soon as you can since tickets are selling out rapidly.

I especially liked a quote from Kubrick that went:

I really was in love with movies… I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t know anything about movies, but I’d seen so many movies that were bad, I thought, “Even though I don’t know anything, I can’t believe I can’t make a movie at least as good as this.” And that’s why I started, why I tried.

I wonder how many other artists feel the same – I know I do. Every time I get frustrated at the quality of my writing, I console myself with the fact that there are far worse published authors out there.

None of the exhibitions I’ve mentioned so far were particularly immersive – but Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams at the V&A Museum certainly was. The V&A narrowly beats The British Museum as my favourite museum in London, mostly because its exhibitions are the very best I’ve seen in the world, their atmosphere and attention to detail rivalling Punchdrunk. The Dior exhibition, remarkably, is already fully sold out for the remainder of its run to September, but V&A members can stroll in without regard for time.

Assorted thoughts:

  • At least 95% of the audience was women. Fellas, you’re missing out on a great exhibition!
  • This exhibition is in the V&A’s new underground space, which is effectively an enormous warehouse without pillars or walls. This makes it exceptionally versatile, but unless the exhibitions are very carefully designed – which to date they have not been – you feel like you’re walking through… a warehouse. The designers handily avoided this by putting in ceilings, many of which were covered in mirrors, creating a fantastic sense of boundless space.
  • The problem with exhibitions about living people and extant companies (like Dior) is that you invariably have to avoid upsetting them in order to secure important object loans. Hence the increasingly absurd hagiography of the company’s later work, culminating in the embarrassing omission of just why former Head Designer John Galliano, noted anti-semite, left Dior.
  • The final ballroom space had a very fine example of projection mapping that was, astonishingly, not completely over the top. The entire room’s lighting and projected ‘windows’ and ‘ceiling rose’ cycled through the day and night, which allowed you to see all the dresses in different conditions.

Since I was already there, I whipped around the Mary Quant exhibition, which was decent enough. A number of the dresses were crowdsourced from the public, complete with short stories about how the donors bought and wore them. I had to laugh when the exhibition ended with Mary Quant abruptly moving to Japan for reasons left unstated.

On the opposite side of London is the London Mithraeum, a small museum-like space dedicated to the Roman Temple of Mithras. It’s located on the new Bloomberg campus, and it is appropriately modern and shiny and designed by people who don’t quite understand how museums are meant to work. Who needs labels when you can get your visitors to hold unwieldy tablets? Why use words printed on a display when you can use a big touchscreen that only two people can read at a time?

The Mithraeum itself is impressive, and the Disney-style show that introduces it even moreso, complete with smoke and music and dialogue and curtains of light and pillars of darkness. It’s free to visit, and while booking online is essential, it’s not that busy any more.

Next, Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion and diane arbus: in the beginning at the Hayward Gallery in the Southbank Centre. I’m entirely unqualified to say whether a contemporary artist like Kader Attia is ‘good’ or not, but for my part I felt the exhibition was simultaneously too literal or too abstract in that the artist (or curator’s) explanation of the ‘point’ of a particular artwork made me think either, “Well yeah, obviously” or “OK, I get your point, but this artwork has nothing to do with that.” Whereas the display of Diane Arbus’ early photography was straightforwardly enchanting.

Imagine mounting an exhibition called “Movies” that attempts to capture everything about movies. Sounds a little… ambitious, right? The sort of thing that inevitably ends up as a superficial treatment of an enormous subject?

The curators at the British Library laugh at your doubts. Movies? How about all of writing? Hence Writing: Making Your Mark. It is as you would think – an interesting collection of ancient and old and modern objects and books that illustrate different bits and pieces of, uh, writing.

Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments – assuming you don’t die of frustration standing in the line snaking around the completely linear exhibition, formed of extremely polite, exceedingly dutiful, and very slow visitors. I call it the “museum train” and it haunts my nightmares.

The exhibition’s marketing promises that “…Finally, [you’ll] reflect on writing’s future and the role you’ll play in an increasingly digital world.” I don’t expect the British Library to get this right any more than I expect Facebook to understand how to conserve ancient books, but I did expect more than a video interview with random people opining about how it’ll be terrible when future generations can’t read any more(?!) or something something emojis.

Also at the British Library was a small free exhibition, Imaginary Cities. Here is the label from one of the artworks:

I found myself mentally composing a parody label:

This artwork’s physical ‘canvas’ is constructed from paper and cardboard encased in custom silver-gilded frames made by a woman in Guildford using hammer. A man using a Blackwing pencil and a Moleskine notebook composed the scene from a book containing an entire year (2018) of photographs that was printed by the publisher’s high volume printing press.

Look, I thought it was a bunch of bullshit dressed up in completely superfluous technical terms. Fight me.

OK, I’m almost as exhausted as you feel now. Three final stops at The British Museum:

Firstly, Edvard Munch: love and angst. It was pretty good! I’m not a Munch fan but this was well-designed, and I found myself lingering longer than I expected at the videos that tried to convey the atmosphere of pre-war Oslo, Berlin, and Paris. These weren’t the usual matter-of-fact unspooling of histories joined by Ken Burns effects and expert talking heads, but rather period photos of the cities combined with an actor reading from Munch’s diaries.

Second, Playing with Money: currency and games in the small Room 69a attached to the slowly-disintegrating Roman galleries. A charming little exhibition of money in board games and card games over history; of course, it has The Landlord’s Game, the progenitor of Monopoly.

Finally, not an exhibition but the new Islamic Gallery, an overwhelming space overflowing with objects and text – in a bad way. I mean, sure, it’s hard to encapsulate an entire religion and swathe of world culture in two (admittedly big) rooms, but I’m not convinced this was the way to do it.

Finally finally, I noticed this on The British Museum’s website:

Uh, WTF? If The British Museum can’t afford to put its collection online for visitors without the help of Google, who else will? This is a perfect example of where cultural institutions around the world need to work together to create a true non-profit set of online tools that can sit outside of Google’s orbit.

Thanks for reading – next week’s newsletter won’t have anything about museums, I promise!

Adrian

The Cultures Ep 294: Airpods, Apologies, Ending Stories, Teaching Programming

Listen to episode 294 of my weekly podcast with Andrea Phillips and Naomi Alderman:

OK, so it’s just Adrian this episode – due to life happenings, it’s been difficult for us to all get together these past few weeks and so rather than leave you hanging, we thought we should post at least something to tide you over. He’s not used to recording on his own, so please forgive any awkwardness!