The 7 Minute Solution

I’m intrigued by the proliferation of explicitly time-based self-care plans, like the 7 Minute Workout. They aren’t a new phenomenon – we’ve had 30 day diets and things like NaNoWriMo for decades. But it feels like the duration of these plans are getting shorter and shorter.

The Science

Part of the change is surely due to science. We know now that high-intensity interval training can produce better results in terms of fitness than longer but less intense exercise, by putting our heart and muscles under shorter, sharper periods of stress. Crucially, we know the mechanisms of why this works – it’s not just an observation, we can really see how our body’s cells and organs respond to stress.

But there are different degrees of rigour and certainty in science. A lot of the self-care plans based on psychology and neuroscience are, to my mind, based on much fuzzier research. I don’t mean to say that the researchers in question are incompetent or lying; it’s that their research is taken lightyears too far by companies marketing products.

Let’s imagine researchers conduct a study where they place university students in an MRI scanner and observe their brains while they’re listening to different sounds for ten minutes; maybe some students hear music, some hear white noise, some hear speech, and so on. They find that the students who hear the music have a different kind of brain activity in regions associated with focus or relaxation, or whatever, and the students also report that they feel more relaxed afterwards. So perhaps something is going on with the music, or that type of music, and it’s worthy of more study.

But then let’s say a company sees this research and makes an app – 10 Minute Relaxation (I’m making this up) – which plays calming music to you. They say their app is proven ‘by science’ to make you more relaxed in just ten minutes. Well, clearly not; what ‘works’ on university students sitting in an MRI may not work at all on a 50 year old sitting on a bus.

In any case, it doesn’t matter whether it works or not, it sounds good and people want a fast solution proven by science. The app makers can point at the study and the apps’ users get a nice placebo effect.

The Speed

Not along ago, the time in London was different from the time in Edinburgh. Not that it mattered – it took so long to travel between the two cities, and the journey was so unreliable, that knowing the time down to the minute would have been pointlessly expensive (clocks and watches being pretty high tech back a century or two ago).

But now we have smartphones, which means that we agree on the time down to the second, and we can know our ETA via Google Maps and Uber down to the minute. We can be more efficient – no more idly waiting for ten minutes at the coffee shop for friend, because they can let us know they’re running late; we can spend that ten minutes on something else. Maybe it’s playing a game or reading Facebook – or maybe it’s something productive, like a 10 Minute Relaxation session.

The gaps in our busy lives are shrinking, which means that self-care solutions must also shrink.

The Anxiety

Any one of us can become an exceptional artist or writer or games designer or YouTuber or actor. Any one of us can lose our jobs in an instant. Any one of us can have their entire field of work vanish in just a few years, thanks to automation and globalisation. So we are in competition with everyone else, which is a recipe for serious anxiety. It means you always need to be improving yourself; and it’s easy to see why shorter solutions can feel more manageable and rewarding than, say, the 7 Month Workout, or the 10 Year Relaxation session.

Sentience Footprint

I’m confident that in a hundred years, eating meat will be regarded in the negative way we now view racism or sexism – an ugly, demeaning, and unnecessary act. Like smoking, it will simply fall out of fashion because we’ll find better and healthier alternatives, although we’ll still occasionally eat humanely reared-and-killed animals. Note that I still eat meat even though I should know better.

The interesting thing about eating meat is that it encapsulates a multitude of sins. You might worry about its impact on your own health; or perhaps on the environment, given the amount of water and land that a cow requires and the methane greenhouse gases it produces; or of course, on the life and suffering of the animal itself.

From an environmental standpoint, we should be eating far fewer cows and far more chickens, since the latter require less energy input to grow for a given calorie, and therefore (all things being roughly equal) produce less of negative impact. Or we should forget about the chickens and eat sustainably caught-or-farmed fish, which are even more energy efficient and have the smallest carbon footprint.

But what about from a suffering standpoint? You can feed far more people with a single cow than a single chicken, so if we want to reduce the suffering of animals, maybe we should be eating cows. But are cows more sentient than chickens? I don’t know how you measure that. And maybe the environmental impact of a single cow produces more suffering on other sentients than a chicken.

I feel like I’m taking utilitarianism to a place far beyond its ability to survive. I should probably read more Peter Singer.

Brain Training Games Don't Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like I say, read the whole letter.

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

How do we make a friendly AI?

How we do avoid creating a superhuman artificial intelligence (AI) that does not end up harming humanity? This is a question of great consequence to AI researchers and thinkers who believe that future AIs will have capabilities and will act in a way completely different and unfathomable to humans, just as our actions may seem unfathomable to apes. Such beings could pose an existential threat to humanity even if they weren’t of the ‘killer robots’ variety; instead, they may be completely indifferent to humans but may decide that it’s just more efficient or interesting to disassemble the Earth in order to create a wormhole (or whatever). It’s safe to say that this kind of indifference most certainly counts as ‘unfriendly.’

My extremely cursory reading suggests that few people have any good ideas about how to ensure that any superhuman AI will end up being friendly — that is, generate positive effects for humanity — rather than unfriendly. Part of the problem is that while we may intuitively think that we should raise them like good parents by giving them solid moral instruction, provide good examples, and so on, this assumes that any AI we create will be sufficiently like a human for that to work.

Another problem is what counts as a positive effect for humanity. Science fiction is littered with examples of naive do-gooder AIs that try to maximise some variable or another, like human lifespan or happiness or numbers, with the end result being some horrific dystopia of miserable immortals or blissed-out drug addicts. These stories, while presenting entertaining evil genies-in-a-lamp updated for modern audiences, are perhaps not giving AIs enough credit. Still, the question remains: what would be a good effect? Most people can barely agree on a political framework, let alone what constitutes the good life; and most humans don’t have the capacity for ultra long-term thinking. Maybe a utilitarian-leaning AI might decide that in the long term, it’d be worth throwing an asteroid at the Earth to kill a billion people today in order to unite the planet and improve matters a couple of centuries hence.

Now, even this kind of cold-blooded AI is preferable to our indifferent wormhole-generating one, but would we prefer a different kind of friendly AI? Amid the fervour for creating AIs as soon as possible lest we waste even a second of AI-enhanced goodness, it seems odd not to reflect on what, exactly, we want from them as individuals and as a species. Perhaps the reason why this feels like an difficult issue is because it poses uncomfortable questions — not about the future, but about how we govern ourselves today, and how we live our lives today.

Related: How to get Posthuman Friends (2062), Object 93 in A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Also related: Episode 10 of The Cultures podcast

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Last year, I listened to a programme on Radio 4 called A History of the World in 100 Objects. It took 25 hours, or 1500 minutes.

In the show, the BBC and the British Museum attempted to describe the entire span of human history through 100 objects – from a 2 million year-old Olduvai stone cutting tool, to the Rosetta Stone, to a credit card from the present day. Instead of treating history in a tired, abstract way, the format of the show encouraged real energy and specificity; along with four million other listeners, I was riveted.

After the show ended, I immediately thought, “What are the next 100 objects going to be?”

Which 100 objects would future historians in 2100 use to sum up our century? A vat-grown steak? A Chinese flag from Mars? The first driverless car? Smart drugs that change the way we think? And beyond the science and technology, how would the next century change the way in which we live and work? What will families, countries, companies, religions, and nations look like, decades from now?

I couldn’t stop thinking about it – it was the perfect mix of speculation grounded in science fact and science fiction. So I’m creating a new blog called A History of the Future in 100 Objects. I’m going to try and answer those questions through a series of 100 posts, one for each object. Along the way, I want to create a podcast and a newspaper ‘from the future’, and when I’ve finished, I’ll put it all together as a book.

Before I begin, though, I’m raising money to help pay for the podcast and printing the newspapers and books, and I need your help.

If you visit my Kickstarter page, you can pledge money towards the project in return for all sorts of goodies, including getting copies of the newspaper and books.

(Kickstarter is a very neat way of funding projects through individual pledges. A creator – like me – sets up a project and a target amount, and only if the target is reached does any money get paid. So there’s no risk – if I don’t make the target, then you won’t get charged! Plus they take payments on credit cards from around the world, which is handy and much easier than messing about with PayPal).

I’m really excited about this project – it’s going to be the first book-length piece of writing I’ll have done, and it’s going to combine a lot of my experience from writing about science and technology and thinking about the future. It also touches on a big interest of mine, which is new modes of publishing: I toyed around with pitching the idea to a publisher first, but I want to see how far I can get with the community’s help (that’s you!).

So, if you’re interested in the project, please check out the Kickstarter page and support it – even just a single dollar is really helpful! And if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the word on.

It’s a brave new world out there – let’s see what’s going to happen…

Total Fail at the Kinect Galleries

Update 3rd Sept: Shortly after I made this post, I got a nice email from someone running the Kinect Galleries campaign telling me they took the problems very seriously and were working to make sure they didn’t happen again – from the comments on this post, it sounds like that’s happened! I also went to the galleries again, this time with an appointment, and found the staff to be much more helpful.

As for the Kinect itself, it’s certainly fun – just like an arcade game or the old PS2 Eyetoy games – but I experienced some worrying problems with navigating menus and the response time in games. At £130, I am not convinced that it’s great value for money given that you can buy a Wii bundle for the same price; time will tell though.


Yesterday, I went down to Covent Garden to check out the new Apple Store there (the largest in the world). About 300 people were queuing to pick up the iPhone 4, which is pretty astonishing given that it’s been out for a month now, but non-iPhone buyers could bypass the queue and go straight inside.

As we walked in to cheers and high-fives from a receiving line of Apple employees (who were mostly there to keep up the spirits of the iPhone queuers), we saw three floors of Apple products, all displayed with exceeding taste and set out in perfect proportion. MacBooks and iPads were set up just so, and if the crowds weren’t there, I think it’d be a very nice environment to test and buy Apple stuff. If you weren’t sure what you wanted, scores of staff were circulating in distinctive bright blue shirts were there to help.

The Covent Garden Apple Store, then, isn’t really much different from any other Apple Store in the rest of the world – it’s just bigger, and will print a proportionately bigger pile of cash.

Microsoft (Kinect)

On the way to Bloomsbury Square Garden, we passed by a nondescript building on Russell Street bearing some ‘KINECT GALLERIES’ banners. They didn’t look particularly Xbox 360-like, so I wasn’t sure if they had anything to do with the Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect addon, but a nice man at the door asked if we wanted to have a go on the new Kinect experience, so that confirmed things (for anyone walking right by him, at least).

Inside, we were drawn into a pretty large gallery space, all white bare walls with the occasional big screen TV and poster declaring how we do so much stuff with our bodies (e.g. our big toe holds half of our weight when walking, apparently). I didn’t immediately see any tell-tale signs of Kinect consoles around, so we walked down a long, long, long corridor to emerge into a strange basement divided up into three fake living rooms.


In each living room was a genuine Xbox Kinect setup – finally, what we were looking for! A couple of the rooms had one or two people having a go on various Kinect demos, like dancing or Kinect Sports, with various friends/parents/partners observing at a distance. We hung around a couple of the setups for five minutes, trying to catch the eye of the Kinect staffers, but they were busy chatting amongst themselves and surfing Wikipedia, and were definitely ignoring us (as seen below).


Eventually one of the demo rooms became free and I spent 30 seconds trying to navigate the menus of a dance game. A young staffer rapidly zoomed over and asked me if I’d made a booking; since this was the first time anyone had ever mentioned bookings, I said no. She told me that unfortunately people could only play if they had booked, and while they obviously had a no-show on this demo room, the next people might turn up soon, so I couldn’t play. Not even for a minute. But if I went upstairs reception, maybe I could make a booking there?

So we went all the way back along the long corridor, went upstairs, went to the reception that we’d walked past on the way in (not that there was anything or anyone telling us to stop by it) and unsuccessfully waited a couple of minutes for someone to become free to talk to us. In any case, I saw that the entire day was booked up, so the whole visit was pointless.

When we left, feeling pretty annoyed about Kinect and everything to do with it, we politely told the door guy about our troubles. He suggested that we try a go on the public demo unit in the main gallery; we told him that it didn’t look very public to us, and in any case it was very occupied by a couple of families. Oh well.

There are so many things wrong with the ‘KINECT GALLERIES’ experience that it’s pointless to mention them all. Microsoft clearly has no idea how to run a good show, they clearly have no-one who particularly cares (since it’d be easy to send in a mystery shopper or just spring a surprise visit) and god knows that the Kinect needs a good show.

The fact is, our experience was just fucking awful. I don’t swear on this blog a lot, but there you go – it was that bad. Sure, I’ve seen worse campaigns, but probably not ones that cost this much or are so important. You wonder if they even realised they’d opened up almost at the same time as the multimillion pound Apple Store right around the corner; an unfair comparison, I know, but an inevitable one.

I was given a postcard inviting me to ‘Come and play or book a place online’ for the KINECT GALLERIES on the way out, but I feel sufficiently pissed off at the whole experience that I’m not sure whether I want to go. Good one, Microsoft – and I say this as someone who likes the 360.

(Actually, I just checked out the Facebook page for booking a place online, and it is equally awful since it requires you to have or sign up for a Windows/Xbox Live ID before you get to do or see anything useful.)

Educational games from 3500 years ago

Freeborn children [of Greece] should learn as much of these things as the vast throngs of young in Egypt do with their alphabet. First as regards arithmetic, lessons have been devised there for absolute beginners based on enjoyment and games, distributing apples and garlands so that the same numbers are divided among larger and smaller groups.

…The teachers, by applying the rules and practices of arithmetic to play, prepare their pupils for the tasks of marshalling and leading armies and organizing military expeditions, managing a household too, and altogether form them into persons more useful to themselves and to others, and a great deal wider awake.”

This is Plato, writing around 360BC, about how Egyptian children learned about maths through ‘enjoyment and games’ [Laws 7,819].

I heard this during the A History of the World in 100 Objects podcast about the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus from 1550BC, which “contains 84 different calculations to help with various aspects of Egyptian life, from pyramid building to working out how much grain it takes to fatten a goose.”

Reading on the iPad is fantastic

Reading on the iPad is fantastic. I don’t care what other people have said, I just know that after using it for a fortnight, I can tell that it’s changed the way I’ll read forever.

I used to spend several hours a day in front of my iMac at home, using a combination of Google Reader and tabs to systematically plough through dozens of newspaper articles, magazine articles, and blog posts. It worked well enough, although it was rather antisocial and tiring, plus I often got distracted by the various widgets and chat windows on my monitors, not to mention regularly checking Google Reader and Gmail for new content. Still, it certainly didn’t seem to me that this was a bad setup, since I could get an awful lot done.

With the iPad, at least half – maybe two thirds – of my reading now takes place on my iPad. Since most of my reading was online (with the exception of the New Yorker and The Atlantic), this means that I spend a hell of a lot of time reading on my iPad.

My ‘readflow’ is very simple – I use my iMac to go through my various feeds, saving everything longer than 300 words or so to Instapaper, a free online service that saves webpages for reading later. When I open the Instapaper app on my iPad, it automatically synchronises those pages, stripping everything from them except for the article text and any images they contain. Since you can customise Instapaper’s layout and font, the reading experience is often very comfortable.

By presenting webpages as just text and images, an article from the New Yorker looks exactly the same as one from the New Republic or BBC News; they have the same font, the same leading, and the same layout. Since you lose all the traditional cues that mark out one magazine or website from another, like the colours and feel of the paper, the only cue you have left is the writing style. I’m not sure whether I like this, since I appreciate good design and layout in a website or magazine, but then I also appreciate not having ads and other webpage cruft crowding my eyes when I’m trying to concentrate.

On a similar note, I find the iPad’s lack of email and chat notifications to be refreshingly helpful in keeping me focused on what I’m reading. Like the iPhone, the iPad doesn’t have ‘windows’ – it has apps that fill the screen, so reading – whether in Instapaper or apps like iBooks or the FT or New York Times – is a much more intimate and less distracting experience than on a computer; the text fills the screen without any wasted space or other windows competing for your attention. Even the ads look better.

What’s more, the iPad’s size means that it can be carried around for reading in various odd environments, like while cooking or walking between rooms. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s surprising how that portability makes you more inclined to read at any given moment.

All of this adds up the sensation that when you’re using the iPad, you’re not using a computer, you’re using a magical book. It’s hardly surprising, because the iPad shares so little with traditional computers – it doesn’t have a keyboard or a mouse, you don’t need to consciously close or open apps or root around for hidden windows – you just touch it, and things happen. As someone who’s grown up with computers, I find this very intriguing, since the iPad is basically a computer that doesn’t feel like a computer. I wonder where else Apple is going with this.


A few people have complained about the weight of the iPad – namely, that you can’t hold it comfortably in the air with one hand. They’re correct, but then I have more than a few books that the same could be said of, including almost every hardback I own (Neal Stephenson’s Anathem actually weighs more than the iPad); so unless you exist on a diet of light paperbacks, I consider talk of the iPad’s weight to be mere quibbling.

Reading and buying books

One real problem with the iPad is the absurd price of books in the iBooks Store. As the Bookseller has pointed out, the vast majority of books available can found for significantly less on Amazon UK, or on the Kindle Store, or in Waterstones. I certainly don’t value the convenience and speed of iBooks more than owning a physical copy, so I hope it doesn’t take too long for publishers to come to their senses (as they inevitably will, either through competition or piracy) and lower prices by, say, 50%. You need only look at the iBooks Store charts to see that people are extremely price sensitive – right now, none of the top 10 books are above £9, and the top two are £2 and £4 respectively.

Frustrated by the iBooks Store, I turned to the public domain and used Feedbooks to download Peter Watts’ Blindsight, a hard SF novel I’d been meaning to read for some time. Unlike the agony of adding books to my Sony Reader (admittedly, this was three years ago), it was pretty easy to add the Blindsight ePub file to iTunes and then sync my iPad*. I then spent a few hours reading the book, and you know what? It felt just like reading a normal book. I didn’t become blinded by the supposed harsh brightness of the screen, I didn’t go cross-eyed from the pixels, I just read it and enjoyed it. However else other people feel about reading on the iPad, I know that it works fine for me.

After years of being told that computers and the internet are rewiring our brains so we only read superficially, there’s finally a device that can change the tide and help us focus. It works for me – maybe it’ll work for you.

*Of course, it should be as easy as just clicking on a link to an ePub file in Safari on the iPad…

Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 2

Read Part 1 here…

Day 3: Valletta (Malta)

Malta isn’t a place that I would go out of my way to visit. Its capital, Valletta, has plenty of charm and interesting architecture – a legacy from the incessant invasions and occupations by Greeks, Romans, Sicilians, French, British, and a bunch of other people you haven’t heard of before – but when you’re on a cruise that’s also going to Carthage, Naples, Rome, and to the Cinqueterre, you can’t help but think Malta is a bit of a filler.

Malta cruise terminal

A slightly odd thing about the otherwise lovely cruise terminal in Valletta is that it has two original buildings joined by a new facade, designed to blend in. Behind the facade is a car park – you can see it through the doors and windows. Maybe they ran out of money.

After walking around the alleyways, gardens, and cathedral, and having our first gelato of the trip, we headed back. On our way, we passed by a small park containing lots of lazy, contented cats enjoying the sun; their presence was explained by ‘Cat Cafe’ that gives away food and drink. Very nice.

Tonight, we were in Animator’s Palate for dinner. This is an interesting and gimmicky restaurant whose conceit is that, as the evening goes on, the white walls and empty painting frames gradually become filled with colour and pictures and videos. It sounds neat, and it probably was, about fifteen years ago, but today it comes across as rather low-tech for something that supposedly cost millions to build; it didn’t help that the video screen next to us wasn’t working. Of course, Disney’s new ship, the Dream, has an upgraded version with all sorts of new screens and display technologies that will look equally old in, oh, five years time.

The Animator’s Palate is unique on the Magic for another reason – it’s not trying to look like something else. Practically every restaurant and bar on the ship is modelled on some popular ideal; Parrot Cay is a fun Caribbean restaurant, Rockin’ Bar D’s (yes, that’s its real name) is a bar/club kitted out with retro yet cool posters and props, Cove is basically Starbucks but nicer.

You wonder what the point of this is, since in most cities, you’d be able to find places with more genuine atmosphere and history and quality than any of these ersatz venues; you could go to a great Caribbean restaurant, followed up by a bar with real character, and then (if you’re not in the UK), a good independent cafe. The two things you’d be missing are:

a) The fact that on the Magic, these venues are all a maximum of 5 minutes apart and completely safe
b) While they may lack genuine character, they are probably closer to the Platonic ideal of such venues held in the average American’s mind

Take Palo, for example. Palo appears to have been drawn directly out of the minds of millions of North Americans, just like Dumbledore using his wand to draw memories out of people in Harry Potter (I couldn’t think of a suitable Disney analogy). A silver-tongued maitre’d guides you inside with humorous tales of his travels, past all sorts of expensive looking wines and knick-knacks in cabinets, past an open kitchen (so you can see that you aren’t sharing the same food as everyone else on the cruise), to a table served by incredibly attentive waiters with perfect knowledge of the menu, always giving you appetisers and jokes, etc, etc. Continue reading “Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 2”