Blog Archive — Page 14

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  • Cheating in the Age of Micropayments

    So, the other day I cheated at a videogame for what is probably the first time in years. Not for unfair advantage over other players, but merely because it was one of those games with no end, and before consigning it to the dustbin of history, I wanted to see what the best weapons were like.

    It was a pretty simple hack – an in-game replacement of the contents of a certain memory address, the same thing I had no shame whatsoever in applying via a Game Genie nearly two decades ago. And, just as hoped, I eked out a few more hours of fun from the game with my new-found power to lay waste to civilisation.

    The Kraken weapon

    The best weapons in this game can only be purchased with the game’s “premium” currency, which I simply awarded myself 9999 of with barely a second thought. But in this world of in-app purchases and micropayments, the company who makes the game want me to have paid for that amount of in-game cash. Out of interest, I calculated how much money I would have paid to acquire it through legitimate channels.

    £840.

    In-App Purchase Screen

    Now, although there’s no way I’ve obtained £840 worth of value from my cheating, it raises an odd ethical dilemma that’s relatively new to gaming. Have I just cheated to gain myself another couple of hours’ enjoyment? Or have I just cheated someone out of the better part of a thousand pounds?

    I’d be happy to pay a reasonable amount – £10, say – for the amount of enjoyment I’ve had from the game. But the “freemium” business model of many modern, social games makes that surprisingly difficult. Instead, I must get 99% of my fun for free, then pay extortionate amounts of real money for the last 1%. But, having cheated, I have no option at all to pay what I think is fair apart from simply buying my £10 worth of the game’s currency, even though it would barely register against the huge value I have unfairly awarded myself.

  • Whither the State Religion?

    This so-far unloved petition was shared with me on Facebook the other day, and while I can’t bring myself to sign it – I agree with most, but not the dis-establishment of the Church of England – it has got me wondering why we still have such a thing as a “state religion” in the United Kingdom.

    Like I said, I have no objection to the Church of England existing (and likewise its Scots equivalent).  I know many members, and I know it does good work.  What I can’t see the sense of, however, is declaring it our country’s religion.  It is the most popular religion amongst the people of this country, and the religion of our head of state, but nothing more.

    We do not just live in a “Church of England” country, or a Protestant one, or even a Christian one.  We live in a Christian country, and a Muslim country and a Jewish country, a Sikh and Hindu country, a Buddhist and Pagan country, an Atheist and an Agnostic country, a Pastafarian and Scientologist country (for better or worse).

    There is an English language, which there are some reasonable arguments in favour of requiring those who live here to speak.  Of course no-one in their right mind would suggest that people who live here adopt the “English religion”, so why have such a concept in the first place?  It can only serve as a small but niggling reminder to the nation’s Muslims and Sikhs that they aren’t quite as “English” as others.

    I find the number of state-funded church schools quite odd too – in my town, there are only two non-faith schools, neither of which we are in the catchment area of.  So I am paying money in the form of taxes for my son to be taught as fact something that is only an opinion, and one that I disagree with at that.

    I understand the historical reasons behind the system, why the Church of England exists and why the concept of a state religion exists.  But is it not a little out-dated now?

    I admit that this post comes across as flame-bait, but I genuinely cannot think of an advantage to having a state religion, and I honestly welcome any comments that offer a reason as to why the state religion is useful to our society.

  • London's Burning

    From John Wyndham to Alan Moore, the British have long had a morbid fascination with the downfall of society; the government as the enemy; that dark time after the “stiff upper lip” fails us. Though that upper lip remains stiff in the form of #riotcleanup and Operation Cup of Tea, tonight, London burns.

    A building in Tottenham burns

    As @RichIshi pointed out, the riots in London and other cities have polarised opinions in abrupt and sometimes unexpected ways. A perhaps surprising number of people have taken the rather right-wing “fuck the pikey scum” attitude, culminating in a poll for the Sun suggesting that 33% of readers would support the use of live ammunition against the rioters. Some others have expressed sympathy for the rioters’ cause, making the more “lefty” suggestion that the riots are the culmination of long-running social problems that need to be addressed.

    A bus burns in Tottenham

    Perhaps the only “correct” stance to take is that of the millions of Londoners who are just hoping like hell that someone doesn’t burn down their house.

    These are my “first” riots; the first to leave a mark on my memory. I was four during the Poll Tax riots, not old enough to remember, and the Toxteth riots were another four years before I was born. I am prime rioting material: a twenty-six year old male. But if anything led me onto the streets (and thankfully, my town has been quiet) it would be to protect my home, not set fire to someone else’s and nick a few iPads.

    Why? Because I am white and middle-class.

    I have a career. I have a flat. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have enough. I live amongst people who are, mostly, homeowners. Society has given me a lot; it has given me a way of life that I would want to protect.

    But many are not so lucky. Being poor and from a deprived area; being young and having few prospects in life – that doesn’t excuse rioting, or looting, or arson, but it’s surely not hard to see why it happens. When society has given you nothing, and promises so little for the future, what choice do you have but to either sadly contemplate your lot, or reach out and take what society will not willingly give you?

    I’m not condoning the rioters – their actions, particularly burning down private homes and small businesses, are reprehensible and they should be punished for them to the fullest extent of the law. What I am saying is that if we cheer on the police putting down the “chav scum”, if we call for rubber bullets and tear gas, if we fear the hoodie and all who wear it, we are ignoring a problem that exists in our society. Instead of ignorance and fear, it is our responsibility as members of that society to show courage and pride, and in so doing, help fix the problem.

    Rioters in Tottenham on Sunday

    These people are doing stupid things, and destroying communities that they could come to love. But they are not irredeemably stupid; they are not an enemy to be crushed. Their motivations are a problem to be solved.

    Photos from The Big Picture (part of The Boston Globe). Credits: Photo 1: Lewis Whyld/PA/AP, 2: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images, 3: Lewis Whyld/PA/AP

  • Where Culture Comes to Die

    So, yesterday we had dinner at this place, which delights in the horrible name of “Georgie Porgie’s Buffet World”.

    Restaurant Exterior

    Delighting in horror does not stop at the name.  It is this place’s ethos, its mission statement.  It is an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant that knows not the boundaries of culture, of taste, of cuisine, or of web design. (WARNING: Steaming steak flashblob ahead.)

    This is its menu.  To fully experience the wonder, you are naturally expected to eat all of this, and holy shit did I try.  You get no photos, because I’m not “post-ironic” and I’m fairly sure an instagram must be something like a strip-o-gram.  But rest assured, onion rings and onion bhaji is an epic combination.  As is piri-piri chicken and spring rolls.  Also cajun chicken, crispy seaweed and mango chutney.

    What amused me most was that the diners were just as culturally diverse as the food, including many from the countries whose food was being attempted.  It just goes to show, no matter where in the world you’re from, no matter what your culture, no-one can quite match Britain’s ability to merrily take those diverse global cultures and fuck them in the eyesocket with a fork.

  • UI Through the Eyes of a Child (Part 1/n?)

    My son is at the age where every question starts with “why” and everything, no matter how obvious, is to be questioned.  I regularly get asked about various iconography and bits of user interface that seem intuitive to me, but to someone without many years of experience are clearly not.  Through his eyes, I am beginning to understand the issues faced by new users of computers, mobile phones, and so on.

    When playing with Google Maps, for example, he clicked on one of the stars I’d used to mark places we often go.  Up popped the bubble with the place’s name:

    Google Maps screenshot with location bubble

    “What’s that arrow for?”

    To me, the little right-pointing arrow on that Google Maps bubble is a clear indication of “more information is available if you click this”.  But to Joseph it clearly wasn’t – and why should it be?  Why does an arrow suggest more information?  It’s being used to point somewhere (conceptually off-screen) that you might want to go, like a signpost, but it doesn’t itself imply that you will find information that way.  And why pointing right? Because we live in a culture that writes left-to-right, and we expect things to go from more general to more specific in that direction.  Is a right-pointing arrow as intuitive to an Arabic or Chinese speaker?

    An offline example came a few hours later at my parents’ house.  They have a new oven, which like most others has a “mode” dial and a “temperature” dial.  Both had icons above them.  The temperature dial had a thermometer, which was immediately intuitive to Joseph – presumably through previously having seen pictures of thermometers, as in this day and age the temperature is measured by apps and websites, not a thermometer.

    But the icon for the mode dial (which I’m afraid I didn’t photograph) looked a bit like a square around everyone’s favourite “loading” animated GIF:

    Oven Mode Symbol

    “What does that mean?” Joseph asked.

    I couldn’t give an answer to that.  It was there because the other dial had an icon, and aesthetically they had to put something on this one.  But it didn’t imply “mode” – the other symbols around the dial did that.  ”This one’s a light, this one looks a bit like grill flames, this one’s got a fan; okay, that sets the mode.”

    This is another thing I’ve seen in many user interfaces – and probably a few of my own. To the designers it might have looked pretty; a focus group might have sat around and said “okay, I guess we can see how that means mode”.  But it’s basically clutter – a UI element that means nothing and does nothing.

    In conclusion, when trying to design a truly intuitive interface, ensure that it is tested by people who aren’t experienced at using similar products.  Ideally, it would appear, give it to a three-year-old and see what questions they ask.

  • Not Exactly Canon

    Joseph: “What’s if I was a real superhero?”

    Ian: “Then you’d be out fighting crime, not sitting in your pyjamas playing videogames. Sitting in your pyjamas playing videogames is what students do.”

    Joseph: “It’s what Batman does!”

  • Could I Live Without...?

    A couple of months ago, I was particularly scathing about the crop of Facebook games that I was playing, particularly ones that had no end. The result? I no longer play any games on Facebook whatsoever. As I bemoaned at length, not one of them was adding to my life in any appreciable way.

    I wonder if it is now a good time to apply the same logic to various online services – to be extremely critical of them, to discover whether or not they actually add any value to my life. In short, could I live without…

    1. A Google Account

    As a search engine, Google is almost essential to life on the internet today.  Like a lot of you, I have signed up to many Google services over the years, each one simply on the merit that it was better than the competition (if there even was competition).  I go through phases of being alarmed at the amount of data Google collates about us all – their “do no evil” policy is wearing thin in the eyes of their customers.  But could I manage without mail, calendars and contacts synchronised between my phone and the web?  Without the near-endless entertainment of Google Reader?  Without the Android Market?

    Although I resent Google’s dominion over my online existence, its offerings are just better than others’.  And having an Android phone seals the deal.

    Verdict: No.

    2. GMail

    If I can’t live without a Google account, maybe I should just dump the GMail part of it?  I’ve actually done this once before; moved my e-mail wholesale to my own server.  But I went back – it’s a nice feeling to be in charge, to have your own mail server, but everything was so much harder.  ”Archiving” and “tagging” become a multi-click ‘move’ operation, IMAP has a host of strange issues, and no webmail client is a patch on Google’s.

    Ditching GMail appeals, but two months down the line I’d probably spend another evening moving everything back again.

    Verdict: Probably not.

    3. Twitter

    I suspect I’m in the minority, in that I follow no celebrities and don’t use Twitter for anything to do with “brand awareness” or “customer interaction”.  I use it for talking to my friends.  There are simply too many of us, online too irregularly, to use instant messaging – or god forbid, phone calls – any more.  (Whether that says something about the quality of our interaction, I’m not sure.)  But without Twitter I’d be largely unaware of what’s going on in the lives of the dozen or so people I care about the most.  Though my posts may be trivial and of interest to few, losing Twitter would be close to losing friends.

    Verdict: No.

    4. Facebook

    The social network we love to hate, there are a whole host of reasons people would want to quit – disregard for privacy, endless Farmville spam, lack of transparency / import & export functions – but yet, so few do.  I don’t play games on Facebook, I rarely post photos, I don’t “like” pages or take quizzes.  I have around 300 “friends”, many of whom I haven’t seen since school and wouldn’t recognise in the street.

    But there’s a few close friends and family that don’t use Twitter, and closing my Facebook account would mean cutting them off.  And besides, there’s always that nagging thought: “you’re 26 years old, every 26-year-old is on Facebook!”

    Verdict: It’s tempting to try.

    5. Google+

    Like many geeks, I am an “early adopter” of Google+, a social network that’s still in beta.  Now and again I load the page or run the mobile app, to see what people have posted – and they’ve posted exactly the same as they posted on Twitter.  Plus, without an API, I never bother to manually copy my own Twitter and Facebook posts to G+ too.

    It’s nice to be in there in case it picks up and becomes the next Social Network to Rule them All.  But right now, it’s taking up brain power and space on my bookmarks toolbar, and I’m gaining nothing from it.

    Verdict: Yes.

    6. LiveJournal

    All my LiveJournal posts are already syndicated from my blog, and I go through phases of disabling comments on my LiveJournal posts to drag people to comment on the blog itself.  It rarely works, but I have so little interaction with people through LiveJournal these days that it barely matters.  LiveJournal is dying, at least from my perspective, and I have already declared it time to quit.  Perhaps now is the time.

    Verdict: Yes.

    7. DeviantArt

    Once upon a time, I posted stories here with regularity.  Now, it’s a place I visit daily on the off-chance that one of the couple of artists whose pictures I enjoy has posted something.  Usually, they havent.  This is what RSS was made for.

    Verdict: Yes.

    8. Flickr

    Though firmly an amateur, I’m proud of my photos and Flickr is where I choose to show them off.  It’s also where family members abroad go to see what we’re up to, and it’s my insurance against a hard disk crash erasing the bits and bytes of our memories.  Just as with GMail, there’s a strong temptation to move my pictures to my own server, and run my own image gallery – but Flickr just does it better.

    Verdict: No.

    9. Last.fm

    I’ve been a keen scrobbler since the days when people knew what “scrobble” meant, and it’s so easy to set up that I’ve always set it up on any new computer, operating system or media player.  But why?  I know what my taste in music is, and I have little interest in my own listening history.  My friends surely have even less.  The only reason I can see for continuing is that I’m proud of the amount of data I’ve generated already – and that’s no reason at all for carrying on.

    Verdict: Yes.

    10. Foursquare

    In using Foursquare, I may be just as much a victim of the sunk cost fallacy as I was in all those Facebook games.  I’ve now been “playing” for so long that I’ve stopped caring about beating my friends; stopped caring how far away the next wall-chart sticker might be.  Checking in is just something I do when I arrive at a place.  I’m now essentially getting nothing out of Foursquare, even though I’m still reliably giving the company and its affiliates a complete history of where I go and where I shop.

    Verdict: Hell yes, ditch this yesterday.

    What are your thoughts on my reasoning?  Which services are you tied to, and which are you considering leaving for good?  I’d be interested to know.

  • Previewing Android's New Market

    Google has a new version of the Android Market app on the way, and just like every other tech blog in the world, here’s a preview.

    Android Market - Home Android Market - Games

    The home page has taken inspiration from Windows Phone 7’s tile interface, making the browsing experience visually richer and much more interesting to flick through. Each app category has its own home-screen in this style, like the Games one shown above-right. While they’re an improvement terms of aesthetics, I’m not convinced it’s an improvement in usability. There’s less visual separation between tiles than on Windows Phone, meaning that large flashy app logos tend to drown out the more useful category buttons. It’s a little confusing, too, that “Staff Picks” and “Editor’s Picks” receive home-screen buttons, while other lists must be swiped between.

    The available lists have, handily, been expanded. As well as the two mentioned above, the existing “Top Paid” and “Top Free” lists are joined by “Top Grossing”, “Top New Paid”, “Top New Free” and “Trending”. It’s not immediately apparent what the criteria are for each, but it at least allows more options for app discovery.

    Android Market - "Top Free" List Android Market - App Page

    The apps within each list and category are arranged more mundanely than the home screens, in several columns depending on the screen orientation. You get to see more apps at once than before, at the expense of being able to see their full names. Incidentally, the localisation could use some work - I infer from the contents that tab at the top of the above-left image says “Principales novedades gratuitas”, but the tabs don’t get larger for languages that aren’t quite as succinct as English.

    Above-right, the individual app pages now prioritise large screenshots and offer built-in sharing options, but otherwise offer the same features as before.

    Android Market - My Apps

    Less welcome is that the “My Apps” page – which must be visited to perform upgrades – is now hidden behind a menu option. That said, it’s visually improved, and when updating multiple apps at once it now performs the downloads and installs one at a time, hopefully preventing a number of installation failures that used to result when two or more apps hit the “install” phase simultaneously.

    The Google Mobile blog promises movies and books integrated with the Market for US customers, which may explain why I didn’t see these options on my UK phone. There is also a rumour that rooted devices will be unable to play movies from Google’s service due to licencing restrictions.

    Oh, and the best thing about the new Market version? You don’t have to wait for it to be rolled out to your phone in a few weeks’ time. Provided you have non-Market application installs supported, you can download the APK right here.

  • Levelling Up the Steam Rally

    Yesterday Joseph, my parents and I headed to “Steamed Up”, a steam rally out near Cole Hill in Dorset. Joseph was pretty keen on the bouncy castle and the tractors, while my mum was predictably getting into teaching Joseph how steam engines work. Me, I was mostly in it for the pub lunch. But still.

    When it comes to engines, I abide by a simple formula: power / weight = fun. Not to disparage the efforts of the men and women that restore and run these things, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re lacking a little on the ‘fun’. And also the ‘ludicrous danger’.

    Steamrollers and Steam Tractors at 'Steamed Up'

    On the basis that these rallies seem to be engine-type specific: steam rallies for steam-powered vehicles, and there are no shortage of car and bike rallies for petrol- and diesel- engined vehicles, the natural next step would seem to be this:

    The UK’s first Jet Rally.

    Not convinced? Watch this:

    And this:

    Oh yes, also this:

    Now do you see why, at all costs, we must make this happen?

  • Farewell, Atlantis

    After thirty years and a hundred and thirty-five missions for NASA’s space shuttle fleet, the final launch comes and goes remarkably quickly. The event itself snuck up on me; courtesy of Twitter I had fifteen minutes’ warning to find the live stream, set my laptop down on the table, and stare with fascination. It was the first shuttle launch I’ve watched live – and, of course, it will also be the last.

    Space Shuttle Mission STS-135 Launch

    The live stream’s announcer calls out speeds and altitudes every few seconds; they almost jar with the video that seems to show a peaceful drift into orbit. Ten thousand miles per hour, twelve, fifteen. Thirty miles up. Fifty. Eighty. The shuttle rotates gracefully above the Earth like an astronaut in zero-G, but the announcer reminds listeners that it’s still pulling three Gs.

    And five minutes later, they’re in orbit, the world’s last space shuttle launch behind them, hands shaking in mission control. Twelve days later they’ll be back on the ground, and the end of an era will have come.

    Mission Control

    But though the iconic space shuttles are now museum pieces, the future is bright for our world’s first space-faring species. Though the American government is choosing to take a back seat in manned space missions, Russian craft are still plying the skies and China can’t be far behind. And then there are the private ventures – we stand at the dawn of the era of space tourism, a time when the pressures of finance and commerce could catapult our technology level skyward.

    Here’s hoping that the end of one era is also the beginning of the next.

    SpaceShipTwo

    Photo credits: NASA / NASA / Virgin Galactic