Blog Archive — Page 15

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  • The Machine Triumphant

    “FAST One, Container. Stand by for mission start.” The helmsman steps back from the controls, flicks the button on the radio once to signal acknowledgement. On the dashboard, unseen, an LCD display flicks over from “MANUAL” to “AUTONOMOUS”. Engines rev, water bubbles and begins to surge, the air fills with smoke and the smell of diesel. And away we go.

    This isn’t the first time; it’s closer to the hundredth. But it never stops feeling strange to be on a boat that has just driven off on its own, humans relegated to babysitting duty as the AI takes control. No matter how many times you’ve seen the mission on-screen, tweaked it, re-planned it; no matter how much of the software you wrote yourself and how many tests you’ve run; at that moment you are out at sea and at the mercy of the machine.

    The world’s Navies watch from afar, video feeds matching up with a little red icon moving slowly across a chart of the harbour. The AI does its thing. Transit in, turn, deploy. Fibre-optic cable spools from its rattling drum. A long wait, trawling slowly away from the harbour walls. “End of mission,” they radio in, then the cable is wound in, the boat kicks back into manual, and back home we go.

    Later, words of congratulation trickle down to the small office where we sit and code and eat biscuits between the coils of ethernet cable and the piles of heavy-weather gear. It was a world first, they say. The cutting edge of remote mine disposal is ours to wield.

    The boat is put to sleep, and we adjourn to the pub to celebrate another successful trial. No, the boat is turned off. When did I start to think of it as “sleeping”?

  • IE6, WordPress, and Dick Moves

    For years, anti-IE6 sentiment on the internet has been rising – and justly so. It’s ten years old, and cares so little for standards that web developers often have to code for it specifically. Quite reasonably, they – we – are a bit fed up with that. Successive versions of Internet Explorer have become much better at standards support, and it would be great if every IE user would just upgrade to IE9 tomorrow.

    But life isn’t like that, especially not in the world of corporate IT.

    Particularly infuriating for those with no choice over their browser are the pop-ups that tell us to “upgrade our browser for the best experience”, or worse still, landing pages that flat-out deny access to anyone not using a modern browser. The IE6 users of the world agree with you! We don’t like the browser much either. But to rub our faces in it is kind of a dick move.


    With version 3.2, WordPress is incorporating one of these “upgrade your browser” popups alongside an acknowledgement that their admin dashboard may no longer work. I’m sure the many corporate bloggers who have no choice but to use WordPress from IE6 won’t be too happy about that move, but even for the rest of us just trying to get to our site dashboard from work, it’s annoying. Much as we hate those popups, our own sites (at least, their admin areas) will now be displaying them.

    WordPress’ announcement contains a handy sample e-mail to send to your boss or sysadmin:

    Hi there. The computer I use at [where you use the computer] is equipped with an out-of-date web browser. Internet Explorer 6 was created 10 years ago, before modern web standards, and does not support modern web applications. More and more sites and applications are dropping support for IE6, including the new version of WordPress. Even Microsoft, the makers of IE6, are counting down until IE6 goes the way of the dinosaur (see for more information). Can you please install an updated version of IE or any modern browser (see for more information) on the available computers? Thank you very much.

    I get the feeling that the WordPress team haven’t spent a lot of time behind the corporate firewall.

    Luckily, my company has within the last year upgraded to IE8. But many others are not so lucky. From me a year ago, that sample e-mail would have had to look more like this:

    Hi there. The computer I use at [where you use the computer] is equipped with an out-of-date web browser. […] Could the Ministry of Defence please spend tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money checking and vetting a new browser, so that I can access a couple of web apps that are by no stretch of the imagination business-critical? Could this browser then be added to the list of those allowed on our networks? To my own company, please could you spend a similar sum of money testing this software, deploying it to our PCs, checking our corporate software for compatibility, modifying it where necessary, purchasing newer versions of our core business tools, and dealing with users’ technical support calls over the following months? I’m sure this can all be happily afforded within our bounteous overheads. Thank you very much.

    The corporate upgrade process is long and slow, and little can be done about that. We already hate IE6 – popup banners telling us that have to upgrade it to use your site don’t make us hate IE6 more, they make us hate your site more. Please, please, stop it.

  • Geo-IP Security: Option Three

    Facebook, and many other online services, have an almost-clever security measure that tries to protect users against account theft. It uses your IP address to do a “Geo-IP” lookup – that is, to figure out roughly where in the world you normally access the site from. If an access attempt happens from elsewhere, the user will have to supply extra information to log in – often an “identify this person from their tagged photos” quiz.

    Even if you pass this test of your identity, however, strange things sometimes happen – after a recent trip to France I found myself having to re-authenticate all my apps, and after a few days in Germany, my friend Pete could only restore normal service by changing his password.

    I can see how this feature could be useful for some people – perhaps even the majority – but for some it has the potential to be a major irritation. Not only is there no way to disable it in Facebook’s case, there’s also no way of venting your frustration when it goes horribly wrong.

    For this reason, I suggest that Facebook’s settings page needs the following options:


  • A Place for Google Plus?

    “Google+”, Google’s new stab at social networking, is doing the rounds of tech news sites today. So what’s it like – if you scored an invite, should you be using it, and if you haven’t yet, are you missing out?

    If you’ve used Facebook – and let’s face it, you have – Google+’s interface will be immediately intuitive. A long feed of statuses and shared links, the ability to comment, re-share and “+1” (i.e. like). It does photos and videos, integrating with Picasa. It does check-ins, integrating with Latitude. It does text and video chat, integrating with Google Talk. You’re probably not surprised by any of this.

    It’s most un-Facebook-like feature is its “Circles” – groups of people that you can share with easily. This is possible with Facebook groups, but there it’s the exception rather than the rule. Google clearly intends for your Circles to define the way you share, chat, and use Google+.

    Google+ Circles Manager

    If this is sounding a lot like Diaspora to you, well… it is. Aside from the distributed nature of Diaspora, it’s virtually identical – including the slow invite procedure that causes it to be a virtual ghost town at the moment. Only time will tell if it suffers from the same problem, the root cause of which being that it is not the world’s first social network.

    It has some great ideas, and if nobody were members of Twitter or Facebook already, it would be easy to say “yeah, this is great, let’s all use this”. But Google+ requires effort – time taken to invite friends, curate your groups, set up sharing preferences. It’s a reasonable amount of effort to invest for people that aren’t sure if their friends are going to use it too.

    But the biggest, most important issue is that it doesn’t, at present, integrate. With anything. Now it is still under heavy development; I’m sure integrating with other services will come soon. But right now, it doesn’t talk to Twitter. It doesn’t talk to Facebook. It doesn’t have a public API to talk to third-party apps. I, and many other users, are so heavily invested in Twitter and Facebook that the transition to Google+ has to be seamless – it has to work alongside the other networks, without any extra effort, otherwise it’s just not worth the bother.

    To make the point, this is how the networks and apps that I currently use interact: (yes, I was that bored)

    Graph of my interaction with Social Networks

    There’s not space on there for something that accepts status updates, unless it’s supported by SuccessWhale or TweetDeck. There’s no space for something that accepts check-ins, unless it syncs with Foursquare. No space for anything to use my pictures unless it can get them itself from Flickr. No space for another chat system unless I can use it from Pidgin or Skype.

    I don’t mean to be negative to Google+ – it’s a good service which I’m sure, given time, will become great. One day it may be the new Facebook, a social networking behemoth that all others aim for and compare themselves to. And it actually cares somewhat about privacy (for now), which would in my opinion make it a preferable king of the social networks. Its UI is great; combining Google’s characteristic minimalism with some actual great design rather than just utilitarian blocks of colour.

    Google+ for Android - Main FeedGoogle+ for Android - Friends & Circles

    But for $deity’s sake, Google, give this thing a public API. As Twitter realised five years ago, the API is as important as – if not more important than – the service itself. Let us mix it up in weird and wonderful ways with the services we’re already using, and Google+ will instantly lose most of its barrier to entry.

  • Twitter, Facebook and the Expectation of Privacy

    I’ve been asked a couple of times why it is that my status posts on Facebook are locked down, visible only to friends or sometimes friends-of-friends:

    Facebook post

    …but yet with the same button-click that I post to Facebook, I post exactly the same thing, publicly, on Twitter:

    Twitter post

    Surely that’s undoing all the good of my Facebook privacy settings?

    The reason is because I’m not doing it for reasons of my privacy – I’m doing it for yours, and what your expectations of privacy might be.

    On Twitter, a reply to me is a first-class citizen – a tweet in its own right. It has a ‘reply ID’ field to help thread conversations, and it mentions my handle using the ‘@’ convention, but otherwise it is a tweet like any other. You, the replier, have one simple privacy setting – is your account public or private? Can the world see your tweets (including that reply) or just the people you allow?

    By contrast, on Facebook, a comment is a second-class citizen – a child of the original post. Implicit in this is that it inherits the original post’s privacy settings. As the commenter, you do not have control over who sees what you write. Assuming – as most have – that the original poster has accepted the default privacy options, the commenter has only one choice: either allow their reply to be public and searchable for the entire internet, or don’t reply.

    On Facebook there’s no way I can let you set who can see your comments, so I do the best thing I can: make your comments visible only to the 300 or so people who I am reasonably sure are not evil. If you like, you can check the list and see if you object to anybody on it.

    It’s not ideal, but it’s the best I can do to respect commenters’ privacy on a service that itself respects privacy only grudgingly.

  • A Knot is Tied

    Just over seven years ago, after one potential student house deal fell through, I asked around the Games Society to see if anyone was in a similar situation. I met one girl who was strange and hyperactive and who was looking for other people to share a house with. She introduced me to a house and another potential housemate, and that housemate proceeded to introduce me to a nightclub, an entire musical genre, and another girl whom I immediately developed a crush on. Little did I know then that the house would come to define my time at university, and the people whom I turned to in desperation to find a house would become some of my best friends.

    A couple of months later, the strange hyperactive girl asked me out. I, being shy, easily breakable and largely terrified of the opposite sex, said no. Via the medium of a cryptic LiveJournal post.

    She drifted out of my life for a year and a half, moving away from my university city while I applied myself to my studies and my increasingly inappropriate crushes on other people. But then, that year and a half later, she was back in Southampton for one weekend which began with following fairy paths, continued with whisky and bitter tears, and ended up with that strange, hyperactive girl asking me out for a second time. This time, I seem to recall, I said “yes”.

    University finished for me in the summer of 2006, splitting us further apart. But in November of that year, we moved to Bournemouth together.

    In 2007, we had a child. In 2008, we bought a flat.

    Yet more years have passed. We have come a long way from being a strange, hyperactive girl and a terrified boy who refused her advances. This Friday, the tenth of June in the year 2011, in the presence of those friends from long ago and many more besides, we were married.

  • A Time to Panic

    Life passes slowly, when epic things lie ahead.

    I have two full days ahead of me as a “free” man, before I am to be married to the only woman crazy enough to have me. And, naturally, I am panicking so much that by Friday morning I expect to have exploded in a shower of caffeine and miscellaneous body parts.

    I’m sure at this point I’m supposed to be nervous about my choice of wife; that I’d picked the wrong woman and was dooming myself to a life of unhappiness. Or something. But the time for worrying about that was a very long time ago.

    Eric, Joseph and I

    No, this panic is merely a result of having to organise the biggest thing I have ever organised (by about a factor of 4, in terms of people, or a factor of 400 in terms of the precipitous fall in my bank balance). The service is organised, though we sent out 30 invites with the wrong time. The reception is organised, though if it rains we’ll be an hour early. The DJs haven’t replied since I told them “no soppy crap and no 90s boy bands”. Flowers might happen at some point, and the cake maker hasn’t been in contact for weeks.

    Facebook, Twitter, Google Talk are all abuzz with people asking questions; where they should be and when, what to buy, what to bring. The morning of the wedding is shaping up to be a bizarre and convoluted guest-shuffling exercise.

    A wedding appears to be not so much about love, as spending pots of cash on a great big party and going mad trying to make it all happen. And however it happens, in the end, we’ll love each other just as much afterwards as before.

    Eric and I

    But maybe we’ll be people again, not insanely vibrating beings hewn from raw elemental stress.

  • And So Into Summer

    Every year, when the days start to heat up, it feels like a liberation that some strange part of me worries might never come. But it’s here now, as inevitable as any season. May turns into June with barely a second thought. The wind swings around to the south, blowing hot from foreign lands. It rises, too, tickling the tops of trees but bringing no relief to those on the ground under the scorching sun.

    Field and Farmhouse

    Temperatures drift inexorably towards the thirties. The gorse flowers have faded and gone, passing their torch to the buttercups in the meadows and the cow parsley that crowds every hedgerow and riverbank.

    Winter and Spring have had their day. Now it is time for Summer; king of seasons, our season. It is time for deep blue skies and endless green fields. It is time for the smell of barbecues and the salty sea. It is time for the sound of parched heath underfoot and the calls of swallows in the cool evening air.

    House and Brick Wall

    It is time to run, and play, and swim, and laugh, and dance between the hot sand and the blazing sky.

    Summer is here.

  • A Flotsam Person

    Whilst walking the night-time streets of Guildford, Eric remarked to me that it was a place that felt permanent; a place where one could put down roots. My home, and now hers, stands in complete contrast. Bournemouth is a new town, founded two hundred years ago as a seaside resort – which it still is.

    She lectured me on the joys of her old inland town, with its stone walls and canals. I asked why one would want to put down roots, when you could have a beach instead?

    She branded me a ‘flotsam person’, and that was that.

    Things that remind me of the sea

    But I suppose I am, really. I carry things that remind me of the sea, so that I feel at home wherever I go. The feeling of being tied to a place, a town with history, isn’t for me. Like the sand that drifts forever eastwards, despite the groynes that try to stop it, I’m happy anywhere near the sea. I love the feel of transient beaches, transient lives, forever in motion. Years come and go, bringing with them the ebb and flow of people – students, summer students, tourists.

    I am a flotsam person, a driftwood person, happy wherever I can wash ashore and sit on sand as the waves lap against my feet.

  • On Game Design: Time to Quit

    Not long after my post about the game DJ Rivals, I finished the main part of the game and hit a metaphorical wall. There was no more story; I’d bought every item in the store and mastered the game’s hardest moves. The game tries to offer replay value via progressively harder missions based on those earlier in the game, and via battles against human players of comparable level. The latter offers nothing to play for apart from in-game money, which I already had in abundance, while the former offers only the elusive carrot of 100% completion, which dangled too far distant for me to want it much.

    So I stopped playing – which is probably fair enough. I’d played it, enjoyed it, finished it and stopped. But it got me thinking about the number of games I’ve played that don’t end.


    Zynga’s Farmville is perhaps the most well-known example I could give. At the beginning, the game is about designing a nice farm, planting the most efficient crops, coming back to harvest them and planting some more. This is fun. Then it’s just something you do. Then it’s annoying. Then you start contemplating spending real money on in-game items to automate the process. At this point it’s clear that planting and harvesting crops is not the game – the game is having a bigger and better farm than your friends. And the only way to achieve this, assuming you weren’t lucky enough to start first, is to be more devoted to the game or spend more real money than your friends do. (It shouldn’t surprise you that these are both things that make money for Zynga.)

    A case of escalation of commitment (or commitment bias) can kick in, whereby the player has invested enough effort in the game that even though they are no longer enjoying it, they can’t bear to quit. And this only gets worse over time, because unlike most non-social games, Farmville and its kin don’t have an ‘end’. There’s no story to finish, and because the makers of the game can easily add more, higher-level items to acquire or quests to fulfill, there is no 100% completion to aim for. You quit, or you play forever.

    I am no better than the rest as regards being sucked into these games. Tactics in Battle Stations only extend as far as clicking a button and upgrading your airship within one of a few effective builds, yet my character made it to level 85 before I quit, realising that the rate at which new shiny equipment was added to the game outstripped the rate at which I could acquire it. Starfleet Commander is a good strategy game in its own right, but after having reached the end of the tech tree, I found nothing worthwhile to aim for. The same flaw has turned me off Backyard Monsters at level 36, too.

    Backyard Monsters

    Moreover, all of these games suffer from a time delay mechanic that increasingly is enough to put me off a game (Dungeon Overlord, for example) all by itself. Now, part of the aim of all these games (from the creators’ perspective) is to get users returning regularly to play – and view ads. To achieve this, every game I have mentioned – and countless thousands of others – have in-game activities that take time of the order of hours or days. This, I think, is my main problem with them.

    In the vast majority of traditional computer and console games, there is a concept of a gaming “session”. The player sits down to play the game, plays continuously, and stops when he or she is done. But the majority of the new breed of social games aren’t like that.

    They begin with a rush of activity, much like other games. You put the first few buildings down in your base, plant the first few crops, start and finish researching technologies within a few minutes. At some point, you choose to stop. But the game hangs its carrots just out of reach. “Sure,” it says, “you can stop. But your building is only half an hour from being finished. And once it’s finished, you’ll be able to do this and this, and build this, which only takes a few hours…”

    In the early stages, it grabs you back when you might prefer not to be playing. Later on, by contrast, it switches around to perhaps the more annoying mode. More advanced things tend to take longer to build, research, grow, or whatever – possibly many days. So you’ll sit down for your gaming session, you’ll do your five minutes of formulaic clicking, harvesting your crops, planting new ones, then… then you stop. You can’t do any more; you have to wait two days before you can play again. In two days, you spend five more minutes clicking the same things, then stop again.

    Dungeon Overlord

    Once upon a time, I enjoyed these Facebook games, and I thought I still did. But yesterday, I logged in to do my five minutes of clicking, and realised all of a sudden that it was exactly the same five minutes of clicking I had done the day before and the day before that. I was grinding towards a non-existent goal, performing mindless tasks in search of a sense of completion that I knew would never come.

    I thought, “why am I doing this?”, and it dawned on me that I didn’t have an answer to that.

    I love playing games, and presumably always will. But I think I, and possibly others, need to get better at judging the enjoyability of games in this casual, social age. Certain kinds of game and certain games companies are now remarkably good at exploiting sunk cost and commitment bias, and in order to only play games that we enjoy, we should evaluate the game better, and decide earlier when it may be time to quit.