Disneyworld Day 2: Blizzard Beach, Epcot, Boardwalk

  • The free intra-resort bus service has pretty good thus far. In some cases it’s been faster than an Uber, since the buses can usually get closer to the actual entrance of the park. But on average, I think the buses are about 10-15 min slower than Uber, which is not bad given the savings. My main wish is that more stops would have ETA boards; some places do, most don’t.
  • Blizzard Beach was a lot of fun! Sure, the competition isn’t strong, but this has to be the best watermark I’ve been to. There’s a great range of slides, everything is clean and well-signposted, and all the staff were friendly. We’d read that on park opening you should run to the tallest slide, Summit Plummet, to avoid queues, but the entire park was very quiet. The longest we waited was about 15 minutes, and most slides had barely anyone at all in front.
  • FYI, while I like near-vertical drops, Summit Plummet wasn’t worth a second ride, whereas Toboggan Racers and the Purple rides were.
  • Epcot shouldn’t work as a theme park, and yet it does. It’s educational, but not as educational as a museum. It’s fun, but not as fun as the other parks. It’s got miniature versions of other countries… and yeah, those are pretty unique. I don’t say this to knock Epcot – I’m just amazed that Disney keeps it running. I guess the scale helps soak up a lot of visitors, and a lot of the capital expenditures have already been made.

  • Had lunch at the Moroccan quick service restaurant, Tangerine Cafe; tasty and fresh.

  • Living with the Land was a bizarrely dated slow ride, combined with a bizarrely interesting look at Disney’s in-House experimental farm and hydroponics lab. I’m not clear what their level of seriousness is here, but I guess they haven’t shut it down yet…
  • Soarin’ is breathtakingly good, although I preferred the quieter California-centric show in Disneyland from a few years back to the bombastic, CGI-laden highlights of every country here in Disneyworld. It would be great if they could rotate the shows, but perhaps that’s more logistically challenging than it seems
  • We almost skipped Turtle Talk with Crush, but I’m glad we saw it because it’s an amazingly successful example of using human-driven CGI-characters to interact with a live audience. Basically, the audience can talk with Crush, and Crush can see the audience, which is a fun trick – powered by (I’m guessing) pre-rendered CG sequences that can be easily chained together, plus cameras. I wonder how many people power it behind the scenes. I imagine similar things at the upcoming Star Wars hotel.

  • Finding Nemo is not worth it.
  • Who knew that Epcot had a decent-sized aquarium? People seemed to be more interested in taking selfies with the countless divers, though.

  • Spaceship Earth was a fun slow ride about the history of communications technology. Reasonably educational, and has bonus Judi Dench narration.
  • Gran Fiesta Tour really needs to get replaced by a proper Coco ride.
  • Disney Boardwalk… eh.
  • One of the fanciest restaurants at Disneyworld is Flying Fish on the Boardwalk. Decent, with city prices to suit. You can really see the power of Disney’s economies of scale by the fact that Flying Fish doesn’t have its own toilets – rather, it shared them with the nearby bar.
  • Day 1 bonus: The Hall of Presidents has one of the nicest panoramic screens I’ve ever seen, with truly impressive animatronics. I don’t think I was imagining the uneasy silence in the room when the haggard-looking Donald Trump model started talking, though.
  • The audio mix on many slow rides is off; it’s often hard to hear environmental audio vs narration from nearby speakers. I’m not sure if there is an easy solution hear, but with more storytelling and atmosphere being reliant on complex audio, a solution is needed.

Frank Chimero on the struggle between the commons and commerce of the internet, and the spirituality of technology:

Most of our dream worlds are dystopias. One reason for this is that we feel technology is only producing commercial possibilities while neglecting or distorting the other essential parts of us. It’s not being very library-like. People have an easier time imagining how technology’s influence can go wrong. Our imaginations have a negative flair, and it’s always been this way.

I don’t quite agree with everything he says (the Center for Humane Technology’s survey methodology is worthless) but otherwise the essay is thoughtful and quietly optimistic.

The New VR Arms Race: Kids vs Parents

Kids are gonna have cybersex, and parents won’t like that

General-purpose VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are so expensive and fragile that we haven’t yet had to worry about how it’ll affect kids. VR is still like the PalmPilot PDA in 1997, an expensive curiosity for just a million enthusiasts. It has plenty of promise, but it’s not something that decent people have a productive use for.

But just as the PalmPilot evolved into the iPhone and Android and inhabited billions of pockets around the world, so will bulky, pricy VR headsets inevitably evolve into lightweight and cheap glasses or goggles owned by more or less everyone — including kids.

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I had a Handspring Visor at school. Contrary to my expectations, it did not make me cool.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how parents will supervise their children and teenagers in VR. Much depends on how the VR ecosystem pans out: will it become a walled garden like the iTunes App Store, with porn and hate apps completely banned, or will most headsets run a more open operating system where you can install any app you like?

Either way, we’re likely to see new kinds of surveillance tools that allow parents to monitor and manage the VR apps their children use. These tools may also be able to see which kinds of environments they traverse and even identify the types of behaviour they engage in. After all, you don’t need to use a porn app to have cybersex, you can do it pretty much anywhere you like. I expect kids will have AI chaperones to make sure they don’t get up to any funny business in supposedly safe areas.

This will be predictably infuriating for kids, who will easily discover all sorts of workarounds given their unlimited time and infinite desires. They’ll probably set up multiple VR accounts, or use their own AIs to pretend to be them, or jailbreak their VR hardware so they can run ‘unapproved’ software.

I find all of this fascinating. It’s hard enough for parents to know what their kids are doing on their smartphones and tablets as it is, and while many parents claim to look at their kids text messages and apps, and know their email and social media passwords, I wonder quite how well that works when it’s easy for kids to multiple phones and email accounts. Even Disney’s Circle monitor is powerless in the face of cellular data access [Update: apparently they can control cellular data, see comments]

But with VR, you can’t just peer over your kids’ shoulder; it’s completely closed off. Yes, there will be easy ways to view your kid’s point of view in VR (which is disturbing in itself), but you can’t do that all the time; and believe me, your kid will be in VR all the time. So I really do think that parents will be relying on AI agents to monitor their children and notify them when something unusual is happening.

Thankfully for parents, we have a few years until VR gets cheap and good enough to become truly widespread. Maybe even five years. And then all bets are off.

Through an iPhone, Squinting

If you want a vision of the future, imagine your arm holding up your iPhone — forever

It has been truly delightful to see all the imaginative augmented reality prototypes made by developers playing around with Apple’s new ARKit framework. It’s only been available for a couple of months, but developers have already gone to town with all sorts of fun ideas:

Amid the excitement, it’s easy to forget that we’ve been here before, many, many times. Back in 2015, Apple acquired Metaio, a German company that provided an SDK (software development kit) that allowed other developers to easily make augmented reality experiences. Two years on, ARKit is no doubt far more powerful and far easier to use than Metaio’s SDK, but the principle is the same.

And so are many of the applications. We’ve seen 3D objects superimposed on the real world on iOS device before, powered by Metaio:

And we’ve seen people plopping down inexpensive furniture into their homes before:

I don’t mean to rain on ARKit’s parade. The ease of use, lack of licensing fees, and sheer power means that we’ll be seeing a greater variety of ideas than we ever did in Metaio’s time, and so it’s entirely possible that someone will figure out an idea that makes phone-based augmented reality really take off. This ARKit-powered measuring tape prototype is actually very neat and useful:

But I don’t think this time is different.

All of these videos you see are incredibly misleading — not because they’re faked (they aren’t), but because they make it seem as if your field of view will be filled with the digital reality.

We usually don’t have to worry about this for videos taken by smartphones because in those cases, it’s actually true: when you watch a video on Snapchat or Instagram, you’re seeing what you’d really see if you were there. But when you watch an augmented reality video, you’re definitely not: instead, you have to imagine you’re holding up a phone at arm’s length, and seeing the video on that phone.

Looking at the world through a 5″ window is never going to be comfortable for longer than a minute. I’m sure there will be specific, short experiences like the measuring tape app that do well, along with some tourism and instructional apps, but I very much doubt we’ll see experiences even as long as 5 minutes, let alone 15 minutes.

As for games, so many of the prototypes are basically placing 3D objects on top of real world 2D planes, like your coffee table:

Forget about accessibility or comfort. I fail to see how this is more fun than a non-AR game that isn’t tied to a flat plane. It would be more innovative for AR games to involve manipulating of objects in the real world to influence the digital world, but that’s decidedly tricky when you’re holding up a phone or tablet.

Before you say “Pokémon Go”, let’s be clear — literally the first thing any decent player does in that game is turn off the augmented reality layer (where the monsters are superimposed on top of the real world camera view) because it eats up your battery and makes the game harder to play.

I don’t buy it. And I don’t think Apple does, either. Unlike Google’s shameful boosting of the dreadful Google Glass, Apple has thus far been comparatively quiet about ARKit. I’m sure they realise that most people don’t want to develop their shoulder muscles by using AR all the time.

No, this is all preparation for their future heads-up display — one that really will fill up your field of vision, be perfectly comfortable to use, utterly desirable, and only barely affordable.

Disney’s Giant Leap Forward

When Disney surveyed the public about a hypothetical immersive Star Wars hotel early this year, it felt like an idea from the future, not an actual commitment. Surely they’d wait until after the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge — already a highly ambitious and risky new park area — before starting work on a whole new hotel?

But at this year’s D23 convention in July, Disney confirmed not only that the hotel was real; not only that it’d be fully immersive; but that it’s a pilot for an entire ‘Disney 360 vacation concept’:

According to Bob [Chapek, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts], this revolutionary new vacation experience will be a living adventure that allows guests [i.e. paying visitors] to immerse themselves in an entirely new form of Disney storytelling.

“It’s unlike anything that exists today.” Bob said. “From the second you arrive, you will become a part of a Star Wars story! You’ll immediately become a citizen of the galaxy and experience all that entails, including dressing up in the proper attire. Once you leave Earth, you will discover a starship alive with characters, stories, and adventures that unfold all around you. It is 100% immersive, and the story will touch every single minute of your day, and it will culminate in a unique journey for every person who visits.”

…which is about when every Star Wars fan on the planet posted shut_up_and_take_my_money.gif

There are two extraordinary things about this announcement.

One: Disney has chosen one of its most valuable crown jewel IPs for what anyone should realise is a highly risky venture. Star Wars may be the best possible fit for an immersive hotel (more on that later) but that only raises the stakes if the tech doesn’t work or the story or acting is bad.

Two: The immersive storytelling experience at the hotel is what guests will be paying for. It’s not an alternate reality game promoting a TV show. It’s not a free smartphone-powered Phineas and Ferb adventure at Epcot, or a $50 interactive Harry Potter magic wand at Universal Studios, both of which you might only expect to deliver a couple of hours of fun and would forgive for having a few technical hiccups, because you’re really at the theme park for the rides, not the games.

No: Disney’s Star Wars hotel may well cost thousands of dollars for a family, and the entire point of going is the immersive storytelling experience. It’s what they’re paying for, so it has to be sensational.

I’ve spent the past 13 years designing alternate reality games with emails and websites and actors and black helicopters, and smartphone games that make exercising more fun in the real world. I can guarantee that the Star Wars hotel team will be rightly terrified at the scope of what they’re building, and thrilled that they get to be the first people in the world to do it.

But what’s driving Disney to build this ‘360 vacation experience’? Why was it so hard in the past, and (just about) feasible now? What kind of technology might it employ? And most importantly, what will the experience be like?

Disclaimer: My company, Six to Start, has consulted for Disney Imagineering on theme park stuff in the past. It had nothing to do with Star Wars and I have no inside knowledge on what they’re up to.

Why ‘Living Adventures’? And why now?

Disney has a poor track record with immersive storytelling experiences, providing that you look only at its most popular incarnation: videogames.

Over the decades, they’ve tried again and again to develop videogames in-house, with little lasting success. With the shuttering of Lucasarts, Disney Interactive, and the $100 million ‘toys-to-life’ Disney Infinity in recent years, and Star Wars games now farmed out to Electronic Arts (who promptly delivered a game with precisely zero story), it certainly seems as if Disney’s thrown in the towel.

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Not quite

Their heart was never really in it. Disney had to pursue videogames because too much money was at stake, but their most talented storytellers and artists and designers never truly wanted to work on games; movies were where true artistic glory lay. Along with the theme parks, they were the font of all new and refreshed IP, from Toy Story to Frozen to Moana.

More prosaically, I think Disney see themselves as narrative storytellers, and they’ve never figured out how to tell the stories they want to tell in a wholly digital and interactive format while still making bucketloads of money.

It’s tempting to draw comparisons between the Star Wars hotel and videogames. They both involve people interacting with computer systems with the aim of progressing in an immersive, digitally-mediated environment where multiple outcomes are possible, some of which are more desirable than others. You might then conclude that the Star Wars hotel will fail in just the same way as before, with Disney not quite making their stories mesh with a deeply interactive experience. Continue reading “Disney’s Giant Leap Forward”

When Surveillance Goes Private: A 2027 Retrospective

I’d like to begin with a story.

I was born in the UK — in Birmingham — although obviously I don’t have the accent! My parents came from Hong Kong, but we didn’t visit it until I was a few years old, since it’s quite the trip for any family.

The approach to the old Hong Kong airport in Kowloon Bay is hair-raising. You descend between skyscrapers, so close that you can practically see inside their windows. We were staying with relatives near the airport, which was fun, if noisy.

Me and my brother did the rounds of our aunts and uncles and grandparents, but eventually it was time for my parents to see their own friends. We were left with our cousins and the world’s greatest collection of pirated Famicom and Sega Megadrive videogames.

Now, these cousins. Their great aunt Agatha lived with them. As I was told it, she’d travelled the world, sailed the seas, fallen in love with all sorts of people, and made her fortune. Now in her eighties, she was still as sharp as a tack, with photographic memory and a wickedly funny tongue.

Agatha couldn’t easily walk any more, so more often than not, she’d sit in her armchair in the corner, situated just so she could see the whole living room and kitchen and hallway, and watch everyone coming and going. She wanted to know what was going on in the home, but more importantly, she wanted to be useful — and she was.

If you were on your way out but you’d forgotten to get pick up your keys, auntie Agatha would remind you (very loudly). If you were looking around for a letter or book you’d misplaced, she’d know precisely where you’d left it. She’d even watch you while you were doing your chores and tell you just which spots you’d forgotten to dust. Her job, as she saw it, was to help the household flourish, and keep them safe.

I’m sure some of you have figured out where I’m going with this. Almost forty years later, we all have auntie Agathas, watching over us in every room of our homes.

Today, in 2027

8 out of 10 households in the UK and US now have multiple home cameras. It’s one of the most astonishing success stories in the history of technology, with an adoption curve almost as impressive as smartphones in the previous decade. But unlike smartphones, we’ve bought many more than one per person.

Worldwide figures

What fuelled the rise of home cameras? Let’s start with the devices themselves.

Technology

Why did the home camera revolution only begin in 2018 and not earlier? Fast and cheap internet was an essential condition, allowing owners to monitor their homes on the move and abroad. Another boost came from the ‘smartphone dividend’, which reduced the price of camera components.

But beyond 2018, two technological revolutions fuelled the rise of home cameras: charging and sensors.

Early Home Cameras

Nowadays, it’s hard to believe that almost all home cameras in the mid-teens were wired. These cameras had no batteries and had to be tethered to a power outlet at all times, constraining their placement within homes and generally causing an unsightly mess.

From 2018 to 2023, home cameras adopted batteries lasting one week to one month — a massive improvement over tethering, as they could be mounted anywhere, including outdoors and in bathrooms — but arguably more irritating than wires, as their “low-power” chirping became a frequent sound in many homes.

It wasn’t until the full rollout of resonance charging, or more broadly speaking, ‘charging at a distance’, that cameras truly permeated every room and corner of our homes. Freed from the need to be wired or retrieved every month, and completely weatherproofed, they were stuck in the corners of ceilings, thrown onto roofs, hung on walls, mounted on gates, and balanced precariously on shelves. Providing they remained within range of a resonance station, they could be placed and forgotten for years.

The improvement in the sensor capabilities of home cameras has been even more extraordinary. In 2018, most cameras had a laughably-named ‘high-definition’ resolution of 1920 x 1080 — barely enough to distinguish small objects across a room. Matters were soon improved with the introduction of ‘High Speed 4K’ sensors that could examine minute changes in skin bloodflow to monitor people’s heartrate and emotional state. Soon after, cameras reached beyond the visible spectrum to infrared and ultraviolet, essential for home security and health applications.

It wasn’t until the introduction of multipath LIDAR in 2024 that the supremacy of cameras in our hearts and homes was assured. Various primitive forms of LIDAR had been present in earlier cameras, as an aid to home VR and augmented reality through precision depth mapping and 3D positioning. Multipath LIDAR, however, multiplied the reach of our cameras by using reflections to see around corners into other rooms; to interpolate new camera angles; and to even see inside objects. It finally provided total awareness of all objects within a home, without the need for excessive numbers of cameras.

In fact, the most advanced multipath systems now pose a threat to the business model of the camera manufacturers who’ve emphasised quantity over quality. Now that a single camera can take the place of many, it’s likely that overall camera shipments could begin falling.

Enough about technology — why did people invite cameras into their homes, and what did they use them for? I’ve identified five broad applications, in rough chronological order: Continue reading “When Surveillance Goes Private: A 2027 Retrospective”

Read ebooks? Fuck you! (says the book industry)

It is 100% impossible for humanity to invent a technology superior to printed books. Who doesn’t love the feel of the printed page, suffused with organic volatiles that emit its distinctive scent, bound into a form so perfect that it’s hard to believe humans invented it, that –

Me. I don’t love printed books.

Now, I own hundreds of printed books. Some of my best friends are printed books. And yet I prefer to read books on my phone and tablet. Call me old fashioned, but you just can’t beat a good backlit screen that you can read in the dark.

I’m not here to convert you, though. I just want the book industry to stop hating me. Continue reading “Read ebooks? Fuck you! (says the book industry)”

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”

The 19th Century Fibit

After admiring the cutting-edge central heating, bathroom, and electrical wiring at Lauriston Castle in Edinburgh, our tour guide pointed out another neat gadget in Mrs. Reid’s bedroom: jockey scales.

Dating back to the late 19th century, these scales were designed to weigh jockeys before horse races, but Mrs. Reid’s scales were used to weigh visitors to the castle. They’d be weighed twice, in fact: firstly on arrival, and then on departure. Ideally, the visitor would have gained weight, demonstrating a healthy and nutritious stay.

Attitudes towards health and fitness were, of course, very different a century ago. While they were concerned about weight, this little ritual shows they were worried more about being underweight than overweight.

Of course, there is at least 25% chance this story is utter bullshit — it wouldn’t be the first time a tour guide told a tall tale. But what a cautionary tale it is!

Fitness trackers are the jockey scales of our time, a fashionable gadget that demonstrates your personal commitment to healthy living. And just like gaining weight, there is little evidence that using a Fitbit will actually make you healthier.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-10/tl-tld100316.php
https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-10/tl-tld100316.php
https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-10/tl-tld100316.php

Now, it is true that you can be unhealthily thin, in which case it may be helpful to put on weight while you stay at your friend’s house (or castle). Likewise, you can be too sedentary, and so it may be helpful to wear a fitness tracker, assuming you actually use it properly, which most people don’t.

The point is not that I think fitness trackers are trash or that no-one should use them; rather, we should be aware that they represent a particular wave of fashion, one that is likely to dissipate in a few years in favour of an even more high-tech fad.

By all means, use a Fitbit if it works for you — but there are more important things you can do, like eating a little more vegetables and a little less meat, and doing more vigorous exercise that you find fun.

As for myself, I‘ve worn three step counters over the years. The first was a very uncool pedometer I wore for a few weeks to school in the 90s, and I don’t think it helped me at all.

The second was an early-model Fitbit, which I kept clipped to my belt. I was addicted to checking it throughout the day, and it did occasionally encourage me to walk a few hundred or thousand more steps. Whether that had any lasting impact on my health, I don’t know.

Today, I wear an Apple Watch. It is also addictive to see my ‘activity rings’ fill up during the day, and I find its use of calories to be marginally more scientific (as opposed to steps). Again, I don’t pretend that it is really doing anything to my health. I still walk exactly the same route to work, and I do the same 3–5 runs per week.

It does look cool, though, and isn’t that what really matters?

Violin Hero: The Game

Is there any instrument that sounds more unpleasant in the hands of a beginner than the violin? Consider the piano. No matter where you hit the keys, you‘re guaranteed to be in tune, whereas if you’re off by just a millimetre on the violin, everyone will know. The guitar has frets that help delineate finger positions, while violins have nothing but a long, terrifying, featureless expanse. The cello? The strings are longer and the pitch is lower, so you have more room for error.

If it’s not your finger positioning, then it’s your bowing. And if it’s not your bowing, it’s too much — or too little — rosin. And so on.

Unless you’re unfortunate enough to have a child learning it, it‘s rare indeed to encounter the torturous sounds of a poorly-played violin. It’s for that reason alone, I think, that parents encourage their children to take up lessons. If they knew they‘d be exposed to hundreds of hours of frustrated, repetitive scratchings before hearing a hint of the heavenly tones that they hear on the radio or Spotify, they’d have bought a piano or guitar instead.

Yes, I learned the violin. How could you tell?


I do my best work when I solve my own problems. When I was at school, I spent a year in a ‘Young Enterprise’ scheme creating CD-ROM textbooks for biology, chemistry and physics exams because I found revising unbelievably boring (the company, of which I was Managing Director, instantly began in-fighting the moment a software publisher offered to buy the CDs).

More recently, Zombies, Run! — a fitness game for smartphones that makes running fun — was partly borne out of the months of pain and tedium that accompanied my learning how to run at university.

Learning the violin? That’s a special kind of pain, and it requires a special kind of solution. But it’d be worth it, because if you can make it through hundreds and thousands of hours of hard graft, you just might have a few moments of pure grace.

As with a lot of funny-but-mildly-offensive memes, High Expectations Asian Father has a kernel of truth to it. I saw a variation: “You can learn whatever musical instrument you want: Violin or Piano.”

I learned both.

I don’t know where these stereotypes come from, but the best origin story I’ve heard says that immigrants have always suffered from prejudice, and the Asian response was to pursue professions in which advancement depended purely on objective criteria. Becoming a journalist or an artist requires connections and is subject to people’s opinions, whereas becoming a doctor can be accomplished through aceing exams, whose results no-one can dispute.

The violin and piano, of course, both require a high degree of technical mastery, and they both are dominated by classical music — that is, music one can objectively decide whether it’s being played ‘properly’ or not, as opposed to all this modern pop or rap music, which changes so quickly it’s hard to trust your own opinions.

I was never a good violinist. After more than eight years of practice, I attained Grade 8 more out of sheer grit rather than natural aptitude; I may have produced a tolerable sound, but never one that was good.

Except for when I was playing in an orchestra. You might think that the only thing worse than hearing a beginner violinist is hearing twenty beginners play, but in truth, differences in pitch (“intonation,” my teacher would cry, “intonation!”) are evened out the more players you have. The tempo would still be all over the place, but even amateur orchestras could sound mostly OK with a bit of practice.

It was also much more fun to play in an orchestra. Unlike the terrifying, solitary experience of playing alone, you could lean on your desk-mate and the people in front of you (and, as a last resort, look at the conductor) to know when you were supposed to ‘come in’ after several bars of silence. It was really quite exciting, when you weren’t bored from repeating the same section a dozen times.

At most school and youth orchestras, you begin at the bottom of the second violins, then gradually advance up to the first desk position, and then graduate into the first violins; the second violins get all the dull harmonies that don’t sound like anything at all, whereas the first violins get the heroic melodies.

In my orchestra, no matter how terrible they sounded, violinists were typically promoted into the first violins in their last year, as a reward for their long service. As it happened, I was born early in the school year, meaning the conductors didn’t realise I was in my last year until too late, so I never played in the first violins. Instead, I spent a whole year as the leader of the second violins.

I don’t know that anyone enjoys being leader of the second violins, especially in a youth orchestra. You get the occasional heroic solo, but for the most part you’re looking after your younger charges — making sure they have their music ready, showing them when we’re supposed to come in with our harmony by exaggeratedly lifting your violin a couple of bars early, that sort of thing. It’s a responsibility without much reward, but someone’s got to do it, otherwise the orchestra stops working. For me, it was an instructive experience.


I also learned the piano for several years, but that was much more fun.


Perhaps learning the violin is not meant to be fun. Lots of things in life are not fun, but they are character building.

But this is absurd! It’s possible to take a skill that require thousands of hours of practice to fully master, and make it fun. It might take a lot of effort and time and entire new fields of technology like chess computers or virtual reality, but it is possible.

And I think it’s now possible for learning the violin. Continue reading “Violin Hero: The Game”