A highly-upvoted Hacker News comment linked to a post I wrote twelve years ago on The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer:

a book from Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age … that is powered by a computer so advanced it’s almost magical, and it teaches children everything. It does this through a fully interactive story. It teaches you how to read, how to do maths, it teaches you morals, ethics, even self-defence.

Looking back at the post, I’m shocked by just how little I remember writing it. I suppose when you’ve been blogging for almost twenty years, that’s to be expected. It’s also a reminder that while blogging is rarely as viral as Facebook and Twitter, its permanence and searchability can pay dividends over decades.

Ninja’s Fortnite tournament, a fascinating mix of streaming, participation, $75 paid entry, and prizes ($2500 if you kill him, $2500 if you win a game), reminds me of what broadcasters like the BBC were trying to do in the 2000s. Back then, the tech and logistics for ‘massive’ games was too expensive, but it’s finally here now.

Screenshot 2018-04-23 16.23.38.png

A GDPR omen in the Guardian today. While this is technically opt-in because users must affirmatively click “Continue” to receive emails, the strong resemblance to EU Cookie notices where everyone hammers “Continue” is surely deliberate.

My Problem With Reddit

I keep most of my savings in index funds, as recommended by Warren Buffet and pretty much every financial advisor in the world. Given that interest rates on savings accounts have been practically zero for the past few years, this has worked out quite well for me, and I expect that to continue. And yet I can’t help but feel uneasy that my index funds – and therefore, me – partly owns and benefits from Royal Dutch Shell, British American Tobacco, and BP.

Living in a fully globalised economy means we make these trade-offs every day. You can’t send a single tweet about working conditions in China without someone accusing you of hypocrisy for using an iPhone. Much of the criticism of Twitter happens on Twitter itself; the same goes for Facebook. Technology has burdened us with a whole new category of original sins, neatly packaged in a pocket-size form.

Reddit is one of those sins. People have been complaining about its racist and sexist and hateful communities right from the beginning, and I can’t recall a time when Reddit wasn’t embroiled in some dreadful scandal. That didn’t stop me from registering in 2011, and it hasn’t stopped me from visiting it more and more over the years. It’s just too useful.

The strength of Reddit is the same as that of every other hegemonic tech platform: it’s free (VC-funded), convenient (VC money pays for great engineers and designers), and network effects mean that it becomes more useful the more people who join. Before long, everyone is there, so why bother joining another website?

On Reddit, anyone can create a new ‘subreddit’ community that any member can discover, subscribe to, and post to, with a single click. And since every subreddit has the same features and interface, it’s much faster and easier to use and navigate than the archipelago of web forums of our past, each needing its own login, each with its own quirks.

If I want to find out what people thought of the latest episode of Atlanta, I go to /r/AtlantaTV. If I want to know why a fighter plane just flew over my house in Edinburgh, I go to /r/Edinburgh. And if I want an in-depth analysis about how the Falcon Heavy measures up to NASA’s Space Launch System, I’ll check out /r/SpaceX. I know there are other forums and and Facebook groups out there for each of those topics, but they’re less convenient to find and follow.

So what’s my problem with Reddit – other than the racist, sexist, and hateful communities, which most Redditors will dismiss as being unfortunate exceptions, that is? I have three:

No moderation by default

Many subreddits are well-moderated by dedicated volunteers. They work hard to delete duplicate posts, keep discussions on track, ban abusive posters and repeated trolls, and generally try to make the community a pleasant, entertaining, and instructive place to be.

There is no requirement to have moderation on a subreddit, however. You can start one and then effectively abandon it, such that it becomes incredibly popular and yet completely unmanaged – or more likely, it can moderated haphazardly, with no consistency and rules. Is there any harm to this, though?

Yes. Poorly moderated subreddits are like the background radiation that lingers after a disaster. They damage people and communities imperceptibly as people test and then break boundaries. A stray hateful post or comment stays up for just a little longer than it should, showing that this behaviour is acceptable. It happens more often, and people are driven off, or they stay and are changed.

Reddit does have rules, even if they’re barely enforced. Not many, though: racism is permitted.

You’re subsidising hate

Reddit is an advertising-funded website, and by visiting the nice, well-moderated subreddits, you are helping fund their operations. It’s safe to say that hateful subreddits are not generally popular with online advertising, whereas the well-heeled visitors to /r/teslamotors and /r/apple are more in demand. In other words, even if you avoid visiting bad subreddits, in a small way, you’re still funding their continued existence.

Like my tobacco and oil-owning index funds, this might just be the cost of doing business on the internet today. But at the very least, you should be aware that there is a real cost.

You don’t own anything

It’s easy to set up a subreddit, and it’s just as easy for Reddit to take it away from you. You haven’t paid Reddit anything to host your community, and if they change their minds, it’s entirely within their rights to replace you as a moderator, or delete the subreddit entirely, or more likely, to make it really annoying to access the archives and contact the subscribers. Sure, people will protest, but there’s nothing you can do about it.

This is the deal you make with all platforms: faster growth in return for giving up control. Again, it might be a deal you’re willing to make, but you should understand the terms before you go in. Nothing lasts forever.

That’s why, as much as I use Reddit every day, I can’t celebrate its popularity and I can’t wait until we have something different.


We will also require people who manage large pages to be verified as well. This will make it much harder for people to run pages using fake accounts, or to grow virally and spread misinformation or divisive content that way.

In Ep 242 of The Cultures, we talked about how the “MMR vaccine causes autism” lie was spread not just by tabloids, but also by influential bloggers, YouTubers, and others with large social media followings. I doubt Facebook’s new policies would change much – after all, plenty of those spreading the lie were happy to use their real names – but I wonder whether they plan even more regulation.

The FCC’s crest is metal! Check out the eagle harnessing the vast power of the wires and the waves. I like to think the white dots and stars are LEO and GEO comms sats.

Dǎoháng, or how to navigate in China

When you request an Uber in Shanghai, chances are they’ll call or text to find out where you’d like to be picked up. This poses a problem for people who can’t speak Mandarin, like myself. What to do? Reply with a single word: Dǎoháng.

Supposedly, this means “just go where your mobile phone map tells you to“, which sounds like a lot to fit into a couple of syllables, but it worked for me.

There was a brief decade or so, beginning when I was around eight, when I was truly excited by international travel. I’d devise meticulous lists of what I should pack: socks, notebooks, goggles, multiple copies of hotel reservations, digital camera batteries, special ‘pop up maps’ that I could fit in a pocket. I’d count down the days and nights and hours and minutes until I left for the airport.

Today, a combination of work and familiarity has robbed me of the anticipation of travel. At the same time, the contents of my ‘pack list.txt’ file has inexorably shrunk to a scant few lines: a country-specific power charger and whatever clothes I feel like taking. That’s because wherever I travel, I feel confident that I can get by with my iPhone. As long as I have data and power, I stride the world as a god, summoning taxis and divining the whereabouts of moderately good restaurants by communing silently with my black slab. It matters not whether I can speak a single word of the language — with my phone, I can figure it out, one way or another.

This is not the most responsible or respectful way to travel, but neither is it the least responsible way to travel. And I find it refreshing to just hurl myself into a new land and have to figure it out on the fly. It’s like a game.

Until I visited Shanghai.

The whole trip was unusual. Earlier in 2016, I was invited to the opening of The Shanghai Project that September, a new arts festival that would be hosting an exhibition based on my book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects. Then the exhibition was pushed back to ‘Phase 2’ in April 2017, so I was dis-invited to the opening. And then I was re-invited in order to speak at a roundtable, with barely a couple of weeks’ notice. But hey, I won’t turn down a free trip to Shanghai!

So I was even less prepared than usual, and because I’d be in China for under 72 hours, I hadn’t bothered figuring out what I’d do for mobile data.

When I landed, nothing worked on my phone. I couldn’t connect to the airport wifi because it wouldn’t send me an SMS code. No Google, no Dropbox, no Slack, no Foursquare. I was Samson, shorn of my locks.

I’m being melodramatic. I got picked up from the airport by an intern, who kindly let me connect to her phone’s hotspot. And the hotel had free wifi that resided behind the Great Firewall, so I could get to my beloved Google and Slack. But I didn’t want to spend all my time cooped up in the hotel and I didn’t much like the idea of exploring without any mobile data (because, yes, I’m a child).

And then a staffer at the festival helped me get a prepaid China Mobile SIM. She actually persuaded the the China Mobile store to stay open later, just for me. I felt bad, especially since I can’t speak Mandarin and they had the usual baffled look of people who see someone who looks Chinese but inexplicably cannot speak Chinese.

I inserted the SIM card. The eclipse ended; the rays of the sun reached my body; my superpowers returned. I wandered the city, a god once again, in need of nothing and of no-one.

Note: I drafted this in 2016 and for some reason I forgot to post it, so here you go. I believe that Uber doesn’t exist in China any more…

My Tech Stack, 2018 Edition

I always find it interesting to learn about the tools people use in their work and play – often there are a few things that I haven’t heard of that I end up using – so I’m doing the same in case it’s useful to you.


My main work computer is a 2017 5K iMac. This is overkill for the kind of work that I do today but I wanted a large high-res monitor for designing mobile mockups in Sketch and enough power to support my HTC Vive VR headset. It has a 3.8ghz i5 processor with 24GB RAM, 512GB SSD, and a maxed-out Radeon Pro 580; I plan to keep it for some time.

When I’m on the move, I work from a 2017 MacBook. It’s incredibly light and thin, and with 16GB RAM it can keep up with almost anything I throw at it, work-wise. By being judicious with the stuff I keep on it, a 256GB SSD has been fine. It would be nice to have more than one USB-C port but it hasn’t been a big problem.

I usually don’t upgrade my iPhone every year, but it was genuinely unavoidable last year since I really needed to see what our apps looked like with the new notch. I did get the ‘cheaper’ iPhone X 64GB though, and it turns out that 64GB is totally fine for my purposes. I wear an Apple Watch Series 2, which has about two days of battery life and yet still isn’t powerful enough to run third party apps smoothly; and I adore my AirPods, which may be Apple’s best product of the last few years.

I use a Moto G5 for testing our apps on Android – I deliberately chose a cheap, but not dated, device.

At home, I do most of my web browsing on a 2016 iPad Pro 9.7″. I’m not using it quite as much as I imagined I would because the iPhone X is so fast, and I’ve moved over to reading books on my Kindle Paperwhite.

We have three Sonos: Play 1s for music in the kitchen and living room. They sound good but I detest the Sonos app and can’t wait until Airplay 2 rolls out. Depending on how Sonos deals with integration, I may have to buy a Sonos One to make them all work properly; or I might add to the single HomePod I have upstairs, which sounds fantastic but is really quite expensive.

Our Nest Thermostat has genuinely saved us a lot of money already, and the various Homekit-compatable Philips Hue lightbulbs are… fine. It is kind of ridiculous that my lightbulbs occasionally need their firmware updating, but it’s also very cool that I can hook them up to a motion sensor so that I get free nightlights when I go downstairs. Of course, you can remote control the Nest and the Hue lights.

We have a 43″ 1080p Sony TV, powered by Android – it’s fine. There’s a Nintendo Switch connected to it, mostly used for Splatoon 2; a PS4; and an Apple TV, mostly used for Netflix, BBC iPlayer, and Plex (more on that later).

Also in the living room is an Electric Objects EO2 digital painting frame, a lovely present from my brother. It is honestly very cool and it cycles through various classical artworks, internet gifs, and random modern art. Many people don’t realise it’s a monitor. Electric Objects is no more, so you’d have to check out Meural or Depict if you’re curious.

I record The Cultures podcast on a Blue Yeti microphone and pop guard. Rounding out my stuff is a ScanSnap S1300 which I got after a particularly stressful Christmas a few years ago when I didn’t have access to all my paperwork for tax filing. Since then, I’ve scanned practically every bit of paper I own. It took a while, but I appreciate the sense of security you get when your paperwork is immune to your house burning down.

Mac Apps

I use Safari on my desktop and laptop. It isn’t as integrated with Google as Chrome is, but it’s faster and significantly more power-efficient on the MacBook (to the extend of getting another 1-2 hours of battery life). Plus if you use Safari across everything, it helps you sync up bookmarks, history, and other stuff. I use 1Blocker for blocking ads.

Sketch is my design tool of choice, along with Pixelmator for any photo manipulation. Dropbox is invaluable for sharing and backup, and I use 1Password religiously as a password manager (it has apps on every platform). It takes a while to get all your stuff in there, but once you’ve done it, you’re pretty safe. Other work apps include the usual Microsoft Office (better than you think, these days), Slack for chat, and the Google Suite.

I can’t stand Final Draft for script reading and writing, so I use Highland instead. It is very pleasant, and much cheaper.

Reeder for my RSS feeds; Tweetbot for Twitter (more powerful than Twitterific); IINA for videos (more native than VLC); Audio Hijack and Skype for podcasting (and for my sins); Transmission for torrents; and Plex for streaming those torrents to my Apple TV (or any other device you can think of). Because I am simultaneously a terrible and good person, I bought a lifetime membership to Plex.

After using practically every note-taking app in existence, I’ve gone back to Apple’s bog-standard Notes app. It syncs excellently across all my devices, which is what I care most about.

Fastmail for my non-Gmail backup; WordPress.com for blogging; Micro.blog for a potential Twitter replacement, and Rocket for inserting emojis into everything. Apple Music, because all my stuff is from Apple.

iPhone Apps

I won’t bother listing the obvious ones here, but here’s a few notable ones:

  • Letterboxd for keeping track of movies I’ve watch
  • Goodreads for books
  • Google Photos, just as a way to back everything up
  • Amaroq for Mastodon (another potential Twitter replacement)
  • WeatherPro has very good forecasts and a lot of data
  • Dark Sky is surprisingly good at predicting rainfall in the next few hours
  • Train Times is still the best dedicated app for seeing how late you’re going to be
  • Instapaper for all my long-form internet reading
  • Reeder for RSS feeds
  • Apollo for Reddit
  • Overcast for podcasts (“Smart Speed has saved you an extra 181 hours…”
  • Unobstruct for cruft from websites


I’ve turned on two-factor authentication on every service I use, and I’d encourage you to do the same. It would be very damaging and stressful if someone got access to my stuff online, and two-factor auth is the best way to protect yourself. Use Google Authenticator if you want to be ultra-secure, or Authy if you want to be slightly less secure but have an easier life.

Things I’m anticipating

The next smart home addition will be a Homekit-compatiable keypad door lock. Haters be damned, this is the 21st century and I don’t want to carry around bits of metal to gain entry to my house. I think this is the year they’ll get sufficiently affordable and secure.

As mentioned, I’d like to make all my speakers Airplay 2 compatible, so that’ll mean getting a Sonos One or another HomePod. I’ve been doing more reading, so I’m curious whether there’ll be significant improvements to the Kindle this year.

I’m not desperate to get a new Apple Watch or iPad – we’ll see what the improvements are. Finally, I’m waiting for a 4K OLED Dolby Vision-compatible (the ‘best’ HDR format) TV to get sufficiently cheap.

Do I need all this stuff?

No! But this is both my work and my hobby. Also, I don’t own a car and I don’t have kids so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯