Disneyworld Day 1: Magic Kingdom

  • The Magic Kingdom Park is a lot more crowded than I expected, and slightly unpleasant to get around. Perhaps this is because it was Presidents Day in Monday, but I’d hate to see how busy it gets during high season.
  • I don’t know how anyone puts up with waiting for 30+ minutes in line. We’ve used Fastpasses for everything so far and it’s still annoying to wait in line for things like Pirates of the Caribbean.
  • Speaking of which… Pirates was my least favourite ride. I get the nostalgia factor but they really need to update it: slow loading, questionable scenes, etc. Some of the animatronics are on point though.
  • Haunted Mansion was great. Really impressed with how seamless the visuals were. I was worried that the hyper-efficient train of slow cars would detract from the immersion, but surprisingly not thanks to the limited FOV, pivoting viewpoint, and good audio. The main problem was that the staff had to shout repeatedly at guests to move along, get inside, make room, etc. This is where the crowding problem really interferes with immersion.
  • The Happily Ever After fireworks and projection mapping was very impressive, both in the quality and vividness of the projection, and the sheer Disney power in mashing up all their most famous songs. Kids were losing their shit at this.
  • Jungle Cruise was our final ride. We had a great guide, people were desperately trying to join our full boat after hearing his jokes. Still, I’m not happy about the stereotypical savage Africans/ruined Buddhist temple stuff. Also needs updating, please.
  • Day 2 will be Blizzard Beach, Epcot, and Boardwalk

Hit me up with your Disneyworld recs! I’m going there – and Kennedy Space Center – in two days time…

A Mild Extravagance

I’ve swum in lakes shorter than the Parliament Hill Lido, which measures 61 metres long and 27 metres wide. The lakes are also warmer. Because the lido is unheated, and because it doesn’t contain as much thermal mass, its temperature changes more rapidly with the weather.

23C is where it tops out, which is also when the water just starts feeling warm. It can get very cold; 18C is the coldest I can stand. It‘s late September or October before it gets that low, and by then, the few swimmers remainining are all wearing wetsuits.

Today, the pool temperature is 20C. It’s also sunny with no wind, which isn’t helpful; if the water is going to be cold, I prefer the weather to be cold as well, so my body gets used to it. I pre-emptively squeeze on my goggles and drop into the water.

If you can stand the shock, it’s best to get the beginning over with quickly. I only spend a few seconds dallying before I half-launch, half-lurch into the pool, simultaneously fighting off cardiac arrest while also starting what’s typically my fastest lap by a long distance.

At 23C, I stop feeling cold after 20 metres. At 20C, it can take 250 metres. That’s just four lengths.


The pool is lined with stainless steel, the first of its kind in Britain. It’s pixellated with braille-like dots, so the ribbons of light refracted through the water seem like they’re being played out on a massive low-resolution, high contrast display.

Today, there are fewer than a dozen swimmers. The women wear low polygon swimsuits and gourard-shaded swimcaps; the men all wear the same black Speedo trunks with white piping, the ones we buy when we discover that baggy shorts look silly and cause exceptional drag.


I generate too much friction as I swim. I’ve never watched a video of myself but I know there’s too much splashing. I favour my left side too much, a product of the knotted muscles in my left shoulder, itself a legacy of leaning to my left in front of the computer for the past 14 years.

Over the years, various medical checkups have confirmed that I have unusually good lung capacity and an enlarged left ventricle, which means I can keep running and swimming for longer, even with my poor form. So today, when there are only serious swimmers in the pool, gradually overtaking me on the inside, I chop my way through the water without pause.


Too much sun, and the pool gets crowded. Too cloudy, and the sky becomes boring. The best days have a mix of wind and clouds and sun, so you can see the steel floor ripple with light and then grow dull, over and over again.


It costs £7 for a ‘day swim’ ticket. In the summer, I go several times a month — a mild extravagance since ‘evening swim’ tickets, beginning at 6:45pm, are £3 cheaper.

But the lido is just three minutes walk from the front door of our office. If I walk out at 5:40pm, I can be in the water at 5:50pm, swim 1464 metres by 6:30pm, and be home by 7:10pm.

It feels fresh and secret and serious and luxurious, all at once. I will never live so close to such a beautiful lido ever again in my life.


If the lido is quiet enough, I swim back and forth in the centre of the pool. The water is dark enough that I can barely see the edges to my left and right. Below, there’s steel. Above, the sky.

It’s like swimming in a spaceship. A simulation of swimming generated for homesick travellers.


And then the whistle blows at 6:30pm and I climb out and hop, skip, and jump until I can hear through my left ear again.

The regulars in the changing room started recognising me this month. “It’s nice when it’s quiet,” one said to me. The changing rooms are reality.

Mr. Corbyn, Please Stop Phone Scammers

My phone number was temporarily stolen last month. Rather than just tweet about it, I decided to write a letter to my local MP, Jeremy Corbyn, with specific suggestions on how to combat identity theft and phone scams.

Dear Mr. Corbyn,

In the last month, I have been subject to multiple identity theft attempts and fraud scams. No permanent harm was done, but it was very distressing. Moreover, it highlights major shortcomings with the government’s regulation of personal data security, particularly for mobile phone companies.

On XX December, I received a text message from Three telling me that my registered billing address had been changed, even though I had not requested this. I was in Canada on holiday and unable to contact Three until I returned on XX January.

It emerged that someone had called Three on XX December pretending to be me (they only needed my billing address and date of birth) and successfully changed my billing address to “19 Haling Park Road, South Croydon, CR2 6NJ” — presumably a forwarding address. They then requested a replacement SIM card be sent there.

The SIM card would have arrived a few days later, giving them possession of my mobile phone number. They attempted to buy £650 of goods from Boots.com on my credit card. This attempt was stopped automatically, and when the scammers called the credit card compnay, they were unable to authorise the purchase because they didn’t know my PIN.

When I returned on XX January, I visited a Three shop and was given a new SIM card. I also changed my billing address back, and XX issued me a new credit card (with new number). Everything was back to normal — although on XXJanuary I received a call from a person with an Indian accent on 0333 338 1019, telling me that they were Three customer support; this was obviously untrue, so I hung up. Continue reading “Mr. Corbyn, Please Stop Phone Scammers”

Lacking Inspiration

I’ve been struggling to get started writing a new book. I find it all to easy for my time out of work to be nibbled away, seconds and minutes and hours, by genuinely intriguing articles, blog posts, videos, comments, TV shows, work, and games. Like a lot of people, I have the urge to complete tasks and fill up progress bars, but with the internet and media, the progress bar can never be filled. And so I never end up starting that book, even though I have plenty of notes and (I think) good ideas.

But maybe that’s not the real reason. I did write a book a few years ago, after all, and I don’t recall being any less busy or distracted back then. Perhaps it’s because the media environment has become even more distracting – who knows?

Coincidentally, I heard Elizabeth Gilbert talk about this very subject on the Longform podcast. I’ll first admit that I only knew one thing about Gilbert beforehand, which is that she wrote the highly successful Eat, Pray, Love; a book that turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts, which a lot of people whose opinions I trust found very shallow. So I was skeptical when I saw the episode’s guest, but not so skeptical that I deleted the episode out of hand; the Longform people have earned that much trust from me over the years.

Here are a couple of good bits from the episode, firstly on being multitalented:

…When it comes to deciding what you’re going to be, it helps if there’s only one thing you’re good at… I know a lot of multitalented people… but I do think it’s hard to them sometimes to know where to put their energy. And it’s easier if you’re not so great at a bunch of stuff.

I confess that I think of myself as multitalented. I like to think that, given sufficient effort, I could become pretty good at making videos or games or writing or whatever. I like learning new things. And for me, that makes it hard to decide whether my next big personal project should be a game or a book or something else.

Another good bit is about inspiration, and why it’s valuable to identify the things that you really care about when it comes to taking on a big personal project:

The calculus has to be, what’s the thing that makes me want to get up in the morning, what’s the thing that I’m psyched that I get to do this…. It’s about being very awake, about being very alert. The work is clearing your life of distractions enough so you are actually capable of feeling that excitement when it arrives. That you haven’t overbooked yourself in ten different directions so that you are so exhausted that you wouldn’t know inspiration if it punched you in the face. You can’t do that to yourself. It’s about being sober. It’s about being hopeful. It’s about a certain faith, it’s a way of being, which is about being ready.

And it’s about trusting your own curiosity enough to follow it, even if it doesn’t make sense. Even if the inspiration that you had doesn’t align with anything you’ve done before, even if it doesn’t seem like it would be marketable, even if it’s something that you can’t even believe you’re interested in, but you sort of have to have full faith that if you’re curious about something, it’s for a reason, that it’s a clue on the great scavenger hunt, and that you follow that clue and then the next and then next.

The tricky bit is that you have to start from a place of ‘this is what I’m most excited about, this is what I’m most curious about’, and then you have to recognise and know what will happen, which is that six months into it, it’s going to feel very boring and tedious because making things is often boring and tedious.

Another idea is going to come along very seductively, and do the dance of the seven veils in the corner of your studio, and say, I’m a much more interesting, much more exciting idea, why don’t you abandon this project that you’ve been working on for six months and come and run away with me to paradise. And you have to be smart enough to know not to do that, because six months from now that project will also be dull and boring and another idea will come and seduce you have to be able to stay through it thorugh the boring part to get to the end, so when those other seductive new ideas come along, you have to tell them to take a number, that we’re doing this now. And until this thing is finished, I’m not going to run away with you.

First it’s the excitement, then it’s the discipline… I have this theory that everything that’s interesting is mostly boring. So, life is filled with all these really interesting things and we chase the high and the buzz of the excitement of that thing, but 90% of that thing is boring.

None of this is new to me. In fact I’ve given similar advice to other people. But sometimes you need to someone else to tell you what you already know, and Gilbert did that pretty damn well in this podcast.

30 Kickstarters in 30 Days

On Ep 226 of the Core Intuition podcast, Manton Reece discussed his 30 Coffee Shops in 30 Days challenge, which he promptly followed up with a 30 Libraries in 30 Days challenge. They also jokingly talked about a ’30 Kickstarters in 30 Days’ challenge, which immediately made me wonder, as a Kickstarter veteran and aficionado, whether it could be done well.

Of course it could be done, given low enough pledge goals. But I wonder what the bounds of this idea are. Could one person really launch 30 satisfying projects in 30 days, and deliver them in a reasonable amount of time – say, two years? Would you need more than one person to do this? What counts as ‘satisfying’? If it was, say, writing 30 100-word stories or drawing 30 single-frame cartoons, that seems a little too easy. But 30 completely unique projects is probably too much to expect.

And how could you promote this? Practically speaking, most Kickstarters are powered by friends and family, and even then it’s hard enough to get them to back you a single time, let alone 30 times. Sure, you can make the standard pledge level $1 for each project, but they’d still need to remember to visit Kickstarter once a day.

Realistically, working in a team would make this much easier – it’d give you access to a much broader pool of backers. Or if you insisted on doing it as an individual, you’d need Batman-levels of preparation.

I quite like these kinds of creative constraints (see Perplex City, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, etc.) but perhaps this is a bridge too far.

Ingrateful Expectations

This week, I bought a new iPad Pro 9.7″ to replace my iPad Mini 2. I use my iPad at home for at least two hours every day, mostly for web browsing and reading magazines, so it didn’t feel like a stretch to spend the not-inconsiderable £619 to get an upgrade. I was particularly interested in the iPad Pro’s new screen (40% lower reflectance than the Air 2, maybe 70+% over the Mini 2; laminated display; etc.), the Apple Pencil support, and most importantly, a 3x speed increase compared to what I have now.

Has my Mini 2 gotten slower since I bought it two and a half years ago? It feels like it, but according to benchmarks, iOS 9 actually increased the speed of the Mini 2 for my most common activity, web browsing. Perhaps the benchmarks are wrong, but it’s also likely that I just expect much more from my devices every year – not just because web pages and apps are becoming more complex, but due to the ratcheting-up of performance on my other devices. When I first got my iPad Mini 2, I’m sure it made my iPhone 5 feel slow in comparison, but my iPhone 6 now makes the Mini 2 feel slow.

And now the iPad Pro makes my iPhone 6 feel slow(ish). That’s to be expected, but more surprisingly, in my tests it loads webpages just as fast as my 27″ iMac from late 2012, which has 24GB of RAM; the iPad Pro has ‘only’ 2GB. Last night I used FaceTime while browsing the web and scrolling in Twitter, and there was nary a hiccup. I’m sure I could make it slow down with, say, a dozen Safari tabs and Grand Theft Auto, but that’s not a common use-case for me.

The display is just as good. Yes, it has lower reflectance, which makes for a more pleasant reading experience (no getting distracted by subtle reflections in front of the text); yes, it can go brighter. But the real MVP is the True Tone feature, which basically white-balances the display by sensing the colour temperature of your surroundings. It’s not headline-grabbing but as soon as you turn it off, you realise just how blue the display would be without it. The ultimate effect is less eye strain because it makes the iPad feel more like a piece of paper rather than some artificial glowing rectangle. I wouldn’t be surprised if True Tone was introduced to all new Apple displays in the next couple of years.

Naturally, the world wouldn’t complete without Apple fanatics who are deeply, personally offended by the iPad Pro not having, say, USB 3 support or 4GB of RAM or a faster Touch ID sensor. Without them, it’s apparently not a sufficiently impressive upgrade over the iPad Air 2 from 18 months ago. I think that’s arguable, but what’s more interesting to me is that there are people who really want to upgrade a 1.5 year old tablet.

Now, we all know people who upgrade their phones every year, and while I don’t care enough to do that, I can understand the impulse because it still feels like there’s a rapid pace of improvements in smartphones. But I don’t know anyone who upgrades their computer every year. In fact, it wouldn’t even be possible to do such a thing on many Macs, because they don’t get updated that often – and in any case, the upgrades would get you a scant 10-20% speed increase.

Tablets occupy a middle ground. Since they share the same core processors as phones, they share the tremendous speed improvements. But their other features are changing less rapidly; people just don’t care as much about the camera or touch sensor on tablets as they do on their phones, because they use their tablets less frequently and for a narrower range of tasks. So I find it baffling that anyone would even want to upgrade their iPad every release.

I suppose people are upset because it’s called the iPad Pro and that Apple are marketing it as a replacement for your computer. If so, that’s unfortunate. ‘Pro’ is a marketing term; the iPad Pro is no more meant for ‘professionals’ than the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro laptop is meant for professionals. The iPad will never be a true replacement for a traditional computer until it’s much more flexible and runs a windowed operating system… but… who cares? Many people don’t need a traditional computer any more, and most people are using traditional computers far less – I know I am. For the rest of the time, I’m happy using my tablet.

Understanding Pain

Two weeks ago, I was at the Six to Start offices discussing the cost of shipping packages internationally for our next Virtual Race. I bent over to pick up something on the floor and felt an intense stabbing pain in my lower right back. I attempted to straighten up, but it hurt to much that I dropped to my knees and, on the advice of Matt, lay down on the floor for a few minutes.

This alleviated the pain somewhat, but I was still barely able to walk. Even sitting down didn’t help. That morning, I’d packed my running gear to use on the way back, but it was obvious nothing of the sort was on the cards. Still, I was determined to hobble back home that night, which I successfully did.

Things hadn’t improved the next day, or the day after that. I’d evidently strained or pulled a muscle in my back, and it wasn’t going to clear up quickly.

What struck me in those days was how difficult it was to do anything. Getting up from a sofa or from bed, putting on trousers, tying shoelaces, even brushing my teeth – all these activities caused pain, to the extent that something which would normally take 10 seconds and no thought at all instead could take a few minutes each. Everyone was very helpful during this time, particularly my girlfriend, but my back pain still caused real problems. I worried about how long it would last for – would I need to figure out some new way of exercising other than running? How might this affect my work? If it lasted much longer, it would certainly have worsened my health in other ways.

Thankfully, after a week, I was back to 90% and able to start running again, and now I’m pretty much at 100%. Part of the reason for the quick recovery, I think, is because I was already very healthy and had a habit of walking a lot; I’m told that back pain is worsened by not moving, and in my experience, that’s definitely the case.

However briefly, I gained a new understanding of what it means to have back pain. More broadly, I realised the kind of difficulties people have when it’s just hard or tiring or painful to move in general. It’s not news to me that many, many people have these problems, and I never doubted that walking or stretching or so on was genuinely difficult – but it’s one thing to believe it, and another thing to experience it. It’s actually astonishing to me how hard it was to do everyday tasks.

I don’t have any bright ideas about how to treat or combat back pain; I’m not about to suggest that an app* would solve it, or that we should all get exoskeletons (although that would be pretty cool). It’s just clear to me that it’s a problem that, while seemingly invisible, is bound to seriously reduce a person’s quality of life and exacerbate or create new ailments.

*If you could measure posture in real time using wearable devices, you could create an app or chatbot or game that might gently encourage people to move and stretch in a sensible way. But that’s a) obvious and, more importantly, b) rather far off given the NHS’ (in)ability to deploy that kind of technology to patients.

A History of the Future, Now Free

Two years ago, A History of the Future in 100 Objects was published. The book describes a hundred slices of the future of everything, spanning politics, technology, art, religion, and entertainment. Some of the objects are described by future historians; others through found materials, short stories, or dialogues.

Today, I’m making all 100 chapters available online, for free.

The book has sold a few thousand copies – reasonably well for a first author. More importantly, it was received well by the people whose opinions I value; I was invited to speak at the Long Now Foundation last summer by Stewart Brand, and it was praised by the BBC’s Stephanie Flanders and by Grantland’s Kevin Nguyen, who called it one of the ‘overlooked books of 2013‘. Next month, I’ll be speaking about the same ideas at the Serpentine Gallery’s Transformation Marathon.

So, at this point I’m much more interested in spreading the ideas far and wide. Of course, you can still buy the book via Amazon or directly from me (it’s very nicely formatted), but I’m just as happy if you read it on the web.

I wrote A History of the Future in 100 Objects because I’ve always been deeply fascinated by what’s coming next. I’m a neuroscientist and experimental psychologist by training, and a games designer and CEO by trade. It’s my job to think up new ideas and ways to improve people’s lives, and perhaps because of that, I’m optimistic – cautiously, skeptically optimistic – about the future.

The future that I want to realise is the hard-fought utopia of Kim Stanley Robinson and Iain Banks and Vernor Vinge, not the dystopia that dominates fiction nowadays. But I’m not naive, and technoutopianism brings me out in hives, so don’t expect me to tell you that technology will make everything better.

This book is my small contribution to the exploration of the future. It turns out that writing a hundred short stories was far, far more difficult than I had ever imagined, and in truth only some of the chapters hit the mark perfectly. But even so, I think there are plenty of fun ideas there.

Ridiculous Movie Ideas #1 and #2

1)

Meet Maddie, and her very own invisible guardian elf, Gerry, one of Lapland’s finest. But when Lapland’s new CEO buys a new robot named SAFETY (Substitute Autonomous Friendly Elf TechnologY) to reduce staffing costs, Gerry’s decides to defeat the robot in a head-to-head trial, no matter what. Disaster ensues, and Gerry, Maddie, and the robot are stranded in a remote island in Finland. Only by working together can they return home in time. Fasten your seatbelts, because Elf ‘n’ SAFETY are coming!

2)

We pan down past a blue sky, past the dreaming spires, to a beautiful, peaceful river. Willows droop lazily over their reflections, and blue-shirted boater-hat wearing students guide their punts downstream.

Brr–br-br-br-boom! Dubstep. A fleet of jacked-up punts with LED lights, spoilers, massive motorised punt poles, etc, slide into view, complete with gyrating dancers in skimpy outfits. One deep-black punt is the centre of attention; it’s Dominic Thatcher, with a first-class degree in engineering. And here’s the young turk, Brian Connor-Smythe, a fresher studying fluid dynamics. They draw up beside each other.

“I live my life a quarter mile at a time. Nothing else matters: not the college, not the department, not my lab and all their bullshit. For those one hundred and twenty seconds or less, I’m free.”

Who can make it to Iffley Lock in time? Will Brian discover the secret of Dominic’s illegal success in research? You’ll only find out, in The Fast and the Furious: Oxford Drift.