1. Real-life Mario Kart on the streets of Tokyo sounds really annoying

    Posted December 14, 2017 in comment, Uncategorized  |  No Comments so far

    I’m a huge fan of Mario Kart and have been since its first incarnation on the SNES back in 1992. In fact it’s fair to say that Mario Kart was a major obsession throughout much of the 1990s.

    I wasn’t ready to move on to the N64’s expanded vision of the Mario Kart universe — to me, it was like trying to breathe life into the game of chess by introducing an array of gimmicky new pieces or growing the board to a 12×12 square — but by the time Mario Kart DS came out I was back on board.

    Despite being such a big Mario Kart fan, though, I found myself cringing when I learnt that foreign tourists cruise the streets of Tokyo attempting to have a “real life Mario Kart” experience:


    It’s one of Japan’s hottest attractions amid a tourism boom—to the frustration of some locals… Indeed, it’s all fun and games until a tourist drives her go-kart onto the sidewalk and crashes into a police station. Or until another one manages to hit a parked car. The Times reported in May that in the span of two months, Tokyo police have recorded a dozen such incidents, 10 of which involved foreign tourists and none of which involved any fatalities.

    I can only imagine how annoying it must be to be trying to get around Tokyo and then come across a mob of tourists bumbling and bumping along the road in bootleg “MariCart” go-karts, dressed as Nintendo characters. Probably even more annoying than the shrieking pedal buses that crawl around here in London sometimes: at least there’s only one pedal bus to deal with instead of ten of them veering all over the place, and I’ve yet to see anybody on one of those things throwing banana skins on to the road.

    And besides, I can’t help thinking that these tourists, as well as being annoying, are missing the point of Mario Kart altogether. If you believe that trundling along in a glorified golf buggy is in any way a replication of the Mario Kart experience, then I’m sorry to say that you don’t understand Mario Kart, and don’t know what it feels like to play it properly. Sorry if that sounds harsh but there you go.

    Thankfully, Nintendo has sued MariCart for copyright infringement and is in the process of building its own real-life Mario Kart experience in its forthcoming Super Nintendo World theme park. That’s something I wouldn’t mind having a go on.

  2. Phone Numbers versus Email Addresses

    Posted March 27, 2015 in comment  |  No Comments so far

    Stowe Boyd has written a piece about email and how it needs to die.

    I broadly agree with the argument. The physical constraints of transport and logistics meant that postal or snail mail was never going to fundamentally progress beyond its initial model of a bunch of people relaying an object from one place to the other over a couple of days. But there’s no equivalent constraint that forces us to accept email as an unchanging model for digital communication. It is old-fashioned and has flaws so why not do better? Other tools exist that work better for specific use cases so why not use them? Let’s move past email when it doesn’t meet our needs, let’s forget about its anachronistic metaphors of inboxes and folders and carbon copies.

    There was, however, one assertion in Boyd’s piece that made me raise an eyebrow:

    In a mobile world, I expect the phone number will replace the email address.

    I really hope that doesn’t happen as it would feel like a huge backward step. You have to pay for a phone number. A phone number is assigned to a specific country. Phone numbers can only be provided by government-licenced telcos, an industry that’s so consolidated that consumers have little real choice. Phone numbers in and of themselves contain no information (apart from nationality, as mentioned above). You can’t choose your phone number.

    I could go on but I think those reasons alone should be convincing enough. Whatever the post-email form of unique digital identification is, let’s not allow it to be phone numbers!

  3. Some Light Cyber-Dystopian Reading Recommendations

    Posted January 6, 2015 in comment  |  No Comments so far

    It might be lunchtime or nearly lunchtime where you live. If so, you’ll probably want some lighthearted cyber-dystopian reading material to peruse at your desk while you eat your Pret sandwich. Well here you go.

    Ai Weiwei Is Living In Our Future by Hans de Zwart on Medium: a famous artist’s experience of live under permanent, overt surveillance, a life we may all be experiencing in the not too distant future. But it’s not all about the state eavesdropping on us, because guess what? We’re doing it too:

    Put a collar with a GPS chip around your dog’s neck and from that moment onwards you will be able to follow your dog on an online map and get a notification on your phone whenever your dog is outside a certain area. You want to take good care of your dog, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the collar also functions as a fitness tracker. Now you can set your dog goals and check out graphs with trend lines. It is as Bruce Sterling says: “You are Fluffy’s Zuckerberg”.

    On Nerd Entitlement by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman: triggered by, among other things, a discussion thread on Scott Aaronson’s blog, this piece looks critically at the sense of persecution often experienced by male geeks. It’s not unsympathetic but rightly points out that teenage trauma, although authentic, doesn’t negate the privilege that male geeks enjoy later in life. Now, you might say this isn’t really cyber-dystopian, but I’d say it is. As technology exerts a greater influence of our lives, the great risk is that it will be used to enforce and amplify the social advantages enjoyed by those who control it: and, for the time being, that tends to be white male nerds (like me). Addressed the issues raised in this article would go a long way to making a technology-driven future far more inclusive and a little less dystopian.

    Finally, in Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty, Eric Meyer talks about the emotional effect of Facebook’s “Year In Review” app appearing uninvited on his timeline. The app chose, as its main image, a photo of Eric’s six-year-old daughter, who had tragically died that year. As you can imagine, it was a deeply upsetting experience. Yes, it’s an example of the insensitivity of computer algorithms, but it’s also an example of the failure of design (not for the first time at Facebook) for reasons similar to the ones mentioned above. Eric Meyer has since posted a follow-up where he states, rightly, that this isn’t a Facebook problem but one common to design teams everywhere — worst-case scenarios or even slightly unusual ones are often labelled “edge cases” and then dismissed. Either way, this is a horrible example of how technology can still cause harm without anyone intending to be harmful.

  4. Battling the weaponised drones of popular opinion

    Posted November 3, 2014 in comment, politics, twitter  |  No Comments so far

    Kevin at Strange Attractor on what the tactics of Gamergaters tell us about the future of online political discourse.

    When you look at the techniques being used by some of these groups, you quickly get a sense of how the next partisan political scorched earth campaign will be fought. Sockpuppets will become the weaponised drones of popular opinion, amplifying marginal views so that they swamp mainstream opinion.

    The article’s broadly pessimistic tone resonates with me, but I feel more positive when thinking about the countermeasures that could protect against these tactics. The Eliza chatbot set up to engage these sock puppets is just one example, acting more as chaff—attracting attackers and wasting their resources—than as an offensive weapon.

    If ideas like that proliferate and evolve we might just escape a future where we have to abandon the web to swarms of hate-spewing bots.

  5. The modern lunchbreak: it may be pitiful, but it’s all we’ve got

    Posted August 26, 2013 in comment, office  |  No Comments so far

    Picture the scene. You’re at work, at ten to nine in the morning, staring at your overflowing to-do list in silent panic, just as a rabbit might stare at the headlights of an approaching juggernaut. How will you ever get all this stuff done?

    You switch to your calendar, hoping to find a soothing expanse of empty, productive time in which to cut that to-do list down to size. But what you actually see in Outlook resembles what might appear if you tried playing Tetris while suffering from a deep migraine.

    (This looks quite sane compared to my real calendar)

    (This looks quite sane compared to my real calendar)

    Multiple meetings, scheduled simultaneously, are squashed into thin slivers, with scant space left to show what they’re actually about. Some are short: the “scrum calls”, the “stand-ups”, the “check-ins”. Others are of epic duration, spanning many hours, giving attendees time to ponder the world’s most profound and enduring mysteries at length—and quite possibly resolve them too. What they have in common is that they will all prevent you from completing any of your tasks.

    You can’t attend them all but it’s fair to say that you won’t be seeing the outside of the meeting room before sunset. And as the fun is due to begin in ten minutes, you have just enough time to bump all those to-do list tasks from today to tomorrow.

    Just as you start doing that, a new email arrives. Actually, it’s not an email at all – it’s a meeting request! For today! As if. With a rueful shake of the head, you click “decline” and – consummate professional that you are – type out a reason for your refusal to attend, suggesting they look at your calendar before inviting you to future meetings.

    Before hitting send, however, you notice with horror that, in fact, they did look at your calendar. This you know because they chose the only half-hour section of the day not already jam-packed with meetings: they scheduled it in your lunch break.



    If things like this happen to you regularly you’ll probably agree with me that our lunchtime is under threat and that we must take steps to save it.

    I should admit that I’ve not always been the staunchest defender of the lunch break. Like many others, I was complacent during earlier assaults on this age-old workplace institution. As desk-based lunches became the norm, my increasingly rare trips beyond the nearest grim sandwich emporium started to feel cheekily transgressive, like white-collar truant.

    While I didn’t mind that, I always assumed there would be respect for what remained: that half-hour break spent furtively eating a sandwich, indulging in recreational reading while fresh crumbs speckled the keyboard. I thought this vestige of personal time in the middle of the working day would be preserved, as biologists might protect a fragile microhabitat in a mountaintop rock pool. I thought we were safe: but now we have the lunchtime meeting requests.

    This is our last stand. If we give in to this, and start accepting – or, heavens forbid, scheduling – lunchtime meetings, then our lunch breaks really will be a thing of the past. But how can we fight back? Declining a meeting invitation is a sensitive event in the world of office politics, and open arguments with meeting organisers about whether your lunch break takes priority over their scrum call or stand-up or check-in should be avoided at all costs.

    Instead, the best bet is to fight fire with fire and transform your calendar from your zone of vulnerability into your key weapon of defence by inviting yourself to 1-hour meetings in the middle of the day. This means that, when they look at your calendar, meeting organisers see a 9-hour monolith of uninterrupted appointments and decide that their stand-up or check-in just might be able to wait for another day. Even if you end up using that time to sit at your desk and clear your to-do list while eating a sandwich, you’ll be much better off for it.

  6. The criminality conundrum, or why you can’t love spying but hate Snowden

    Posted August 8, 2013 in comment  |  No Comments so far

    When people read about the ambitious NSA and GCHQ surveillance activities as disclosed by Edward Snowden they tend to react in one of two ways. Here they are, in grossly simplified form.

    The first is that the surveillance is a bad thing that Snowden was right to leak and the whole thing should now be stopped.

    The second is that the surveillance is a good thing which Snowden should not have revealed but it will never harm normal people so should continue.

    I don’t want to write a detailed post about why I fall into the first of those two camps. I’ll instead refer you to this interview with the philosopher Quentin Skinner, to whose comments I can only add: “what he said”.

    No, this post is about a paradox that seems to undermine the logic of the second, supportive response. To get to this paradox we have to start with some basic assumptions I’m making.

    Someone who supports ubiquitous surveillance is accepting that certain people – in this case NSA staff and contractors, who I’ll call “the spies” – have near-total access to their information about them. They’re OK with this because they believe “the spies” will use this power with the utmost integrity, that they’ll only ever use it for good. Whether because “the spies” are regulated or simply because their ethics are aligned with our own, it doesn’t matter: the simple fact is that they can be trusted.

    The second assumption I make about supporters of the surveillance programs is that they consider Edward Snowden a criminal who the Orlando criminal defense lawyer shouldn’t be helping, maybe even a traitor, but certainly someone who has acted immorally and who has betrayed the trust given to him. Snowden, in short, is a bad guy and is not trustworthy.

    This leads us to the paradox: Snowden himself was up until very recently one of “the spies”, so if you think Snowden is a bad guy you have to accept that not all spies are decent and trustworthy. And if you can’t trust the spies, you can’t condone the spying. More bluntly: you can’t support these surveillance activities if you also view Edward Snowden as a bad guy.

    Because what about the other bad guys, the ones who are still there now, undisclosed and undetected? What schemes and plans are they concocting? Maybe some of them are planning more anti-American leaks to the media. Maybe they’re passing information on to foreign powers, embattled totalitarian regimes or terrorist groups. Maybe they’re using your personal data for nothing other than good old-fashioned identity theft. Snowden’s very existence proves that people of moral disrepute have access to this information, this power. The only unknowns are: how many more of them are there; and what are they up to? These should cause anyone for whom Snowden is a bad guy to be clamouring for the immediate shutdown of these spying schemes. But they’re not.

    Of course, not everyone who supports ubiquitous surveillance is trapped by this paradox. There are presumably some who feel that Snowden was right to disclose what he did, but that the scale and nature of this surveillance is basically acceptable. Maybe there are others who are OK with being spied upon even if they know some of those spies have criminal or even treacherous goals.

    To be honest, though, I can’t help feeling that these must be fringe views. Those who support the spying seem to be the same ones clamouring for Snowden to be brought to justice. So how can they accept being spied upon, if they also know that criminals and traitors lurk among the ranks of the spies?

    Maybe I’m missing something here. If you think I am, let me know in the comments.

  7. Are you the millionth best at something? These days that might not be as bad as it sounds

    Posted August 18, 2011 in comment  |  2 Comments so far

    If you’re a Simpsons fan you’ll probably recognise this pearl of fatherly wisdom that Homer once shared with Bart:

    “No matter how good you are at something, there’s always about a million people better than you.”

    Like lots of good lines in the Simpsons, it’s funny cos it’s true comically demoralising. If all you can hope for is to be the millionth-best person at something, why bother? But maybe the gag isn’t as depressing as it used to be. Maybe being the millionth-best at something these days is something to be proud of.

    The episode in question (Homer At The Bat, fact fans) aired in February 1992, before the internet really got going. If you were an aspiring yo-yo artist in 1992, coping with the realisation that a million other yo-yoers had you beat, you could try to live your life in blissful ignorance of them. And if you lived in a remote enough area, that just might work.

    If you were a young yo-yoer today, on the other hand, these million people would be an achingly visible blight on your career. You’d go to a party, start talking about yo-yos, and before you got a chance to show off your new trick, everyone would be gathered round a laptop watching videos of amateurs far more practised than yourself. Those million people? They’re just a click away now, and you’re going to be compared to them, even if you’ll never meet any of them in real life.

    It used to take lots of effort to jump from personal to local to global context. Now we just get swept out there as soon as we start doing anything

    The amount of effort you need to make to enter the global arena, in most walks of life anyway, is far lower than it used to be. Musicians used to have to record demo tapes, haggle with labels and play thankless gigs in sullen backwaters just to get some sort of exposure. Now you just need to get on Bandcamp and all of a sudden you’re playing with the big dogs.

    The first people to really feel this effect, I would say, were computer gamers in the late 1990s, when online gaming started to kick off. In the pre-internet era, a teenager into computer games would only ever see their immediate friends and schoolmates play these games. So when you watched the school’s best Buggy Boy player doing their thing, you might as well have been watching the world champion.

    Buggy Boy on the C64

    Buggy Boy: global fame is but one lap away

    Then the internet came along and put us all in our places. Gamers were suddenly thrust into this grand global arena, a colosseum where wins and losses were mercilessly quantified over the years and the leaderboards were calculated. Before long the true champions emerged. You became able to say “I’m in the top 20,000 players of X Wing Versus TIE Fighter” and you wouldn’t be lying. Yes, it was kind of demoralising, but gamers had to adjust – this was how things were going to be from now on. Everyone knew precisely where they stood in relation to everyone else, ambitions were recalibrated, you had lots of people to learn from – and, most importantly, gaming was still fun. Same goes with technology, many gamers produce their own reviews of products and so naturally the best gaming monitor ratings mimic the game ratings.

    Over the last decade this phenomenon has extended beyond gaming and other nerdy pastimes. Internet video and the consolidation of once-fragmented online communities on to a small number of social networks means that the competent amateurs, struggling beginners, and reigning champions are out there and equally easy to find.

    Yo-yoers, violinists, singers, underwater jugglers – in all of these fields, an aspiring newcomer will be able to go online and find those million people that are better than them. But they shouldn’t let this put them off. In a world of nearly 7 billion people, more of whom are coming online every day, being the millionth-best maybe isn’t too shabby after all.

  8. A hedge fund based on Twitter may not be as stupid as it sounds

    Posted May 24, 2011 in comment  |  No Comments so far

    Using online analytics and social media trends to predict real-world events is nothing new. Twitter’s been used to predict box-office sales (story link, detailed paper) and Google search data has been telling us about future flu epidemics for a while now.

    Even I got in the act, demonstrating back in 2009 that Google Insights could anticipate changes in UK unemployment figures.

    Financial difficulties searches versus unemployment, until April 2009

    UK unemployment rate charted against search volumes for 24 related keywords, from January 2004 to April 2009 Sources: Office for National Statistics, Google Insights

    Maybe I should have followed through with that idea, because there’s now a hedge fund that bases its investment decisions on data from Twitter. It’s called Derwent Capital Markets, it opened for business last week, and if its managers end up making a mint there might well be a new bandwagon in town.

    So how do you run a hedge fund based on tweets? From what I understand of Derwent’s methodology, their algorithms measure the “calmness” of the Twittersphere – presumably based on sentiment analysis, which I’m a bit skeptical about. This is used to estimate the volatility of the Dow Jones Industrial Average index, with a three-day time lag.

    This leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Does a non-calm day of Twitter conversations always correspond to a drop in the DJIA, or just volatility? Are they trying to predict metrics like trade volume and so on as well as broader day-to-day movements in the overall index? And are they ranking Twitter users based on credibility, or are spam bots equal to financial journalists, economists, and prominent investors?

    Obviously algorithmic hedge funds aren’t about to disclose their inner workings so questions like this will have to remain unanswered for now. But what of the other, larger, question – isn’t the whole idea just, well, a bit… silly?

    I can see why people might react in this way, and even I feel a bit skeptical about something describing itself as a “social media-based hedge fund” and that apparently pulls data only from Twitter, when there are lots of other sources that could be tapped. But it would be wrong to dismiss the basic concept.

    Our everyday activities – web searches, page views, purchases, things we say on open social networks – leave a trail of data behind, which we tend to see as ephemeral or throwaway. We severely underestimate the value of this data but Google doesn’t, Facebook doesn’t, and we shouldn’t either. This data becomes even more valuable when aggregated across entire countries, continents, or the planet as a whole. In fact, it could be argued that the predictive potential of aggregated global real-time data has yet to be fully imagined, let alone realised.

    The biggest problem with this resource is that we don’t really know how to exploit it yet. Things like Google Flu Trends or this Twitter-based hedge fund may be crude and experimental, and will definitely look even more so in five years time. Along the way there will be hype, bandwagonism, maybe even a stock market bubble, resulting from the application of real-time data to real-world problems.

    But we need to make a start somewhere, and as silly as a Twitter-based hedge fund might sound, it’s as good a place to begin as any.

  9. How recruiters are posing a threat to LinkedIn even though they don’t mean to

    Posted May 17, 2011 in comment, social media  |  4 Comments so far

    One of LinkedIn’s strengths is its “how you’re connected” feature, which shows how you’re linked to second degree contacts. Seeing who you have in common with someone helps you understand who they are, what they’re like, and whether it’s worth getting to know them. It’s often more informative than the blurbs people write about themselves.

    LinkedIn's "how you're connected" feature

    “Any friend of Joe’s is a friend of mine”

    But this LinkedIn feature is becoming less useful due to an insidious form of network pollution. Like coastal erosion, this network pollution is a slow process that’s barely noticeable from one day to the next, but could be hugely damaging in the longer term. And I think I know who’s responsible for this network pollution – recruiters.

    Before I continue, I should say that this isn’t an anti-recruiter rant. Recruiters may be responsible for this network pollution, but the blame lies with LinkedIn, and I’ll talk more about this later. Building a big contact list is essential to a recruiter’s job and they can’t be expected not to do this. But this is what’s weakening the value of LinkedIn’s “how you’re connected” feature, and quite possibly its network as a whole.

    If you’re a LinkedIn user, you’re not just a person – you’re a “node”, which is a fancy way of saying that you can connect people to one another. If one of your contacts finds another one of your contacts on LinkedIn, you will be the node that connects them. And as a connecting node, your usefulness comes from the quality of your relationships with those two individuals. If the person searching knows that you’re picky about who you connect with (which you clearly are, only highly discerning people read this blog after all), your connection to that person is itself a notable endorsement.

    Network diagram based on The Wire

    If you were Marlo, you’d probably be more interested in people you knew through Prop Joe than through McNulty

    Not every “node” on LinkedIn is as discerning and useful as you are, though. Some nodes are far more promiscuous, connecting to lots of people they’ve never met, let alone worked with, and the more promiscuous someone is the less useful they become as a LinkedIn node. This is where recruiters come in. They hoover up connections, which means that you often find your second degree contacts are connected to you through recruiters. But as connecting nodes, the recruiters aren’t all that useful because they’re not very choosy about who they connect with.

    Bubbles causes network pollution

    Bubbles pollutes Marlo’s network because he knows so many people. Now everyone’s a second degree contact

    OK, maybe I’m stretching the analogy by comparing Bubbles to a recruiter, so I’ll drop it now. The general principle is that, if you’re connected to more than a couple of recruiters, searching LinkedIn will turn up more and more people who are second degree contacts, but that you only know through recruiters. The value of someone being a second degree contact slowly declines, because when a recruiter is the common contact you learn nothing more meaningful than that you both once looked for a job, or once tried to hire people.

    It’s like sharing a mild dislike of rain – common ground, yes, but not very meaningful. This is what I mean by “network pollution”. The value or interestingness of the network is dropping because of recruiters and other “super-nodes” who are turning nearly everybody into your second degree contacts.

    LinkedIn isn’t the only service susceptible to this kind of network pollution. Twitter will sometimes recommend another user to you because you have a “follow” in common. And if that “follow” is, say, your best friend, that’s good grounds for a recommendation. But if the common follow is Stephen Fry, Barack Obama, or any other celebrity account with millions of followers, that’s pretty useless. If Last.fm recommended someone to you because you both listened to the Beatles, that would be pretty useless too (which is why music recommendation algorithms are hard to get right). All social networks have to deal with problems like this where “super-nodes” undermine the value of recommendations based on shared connections.

    So as I said earlier, this is a LinkedIn issue and not the fault of recruiters who are simply trying to do their jobs. Recruiters will continue to add connections, other people will continue to accept them, and the usefulness of “how you’re connected” will continue to drop. It’s not a very serious problem right now, but LinkedIn needs to think of how it can design for this aspect of its social graph, which is something it seems to take pretty seriously – and rightly so

    And for now the best kind of advise from me: start reading more tips from professionals on problem you are trying to solve.

  10. Either Dreamhost is spamming Twitter, or lots of young girls are surprisingly excited about hosting

    Posted March 24, 2011 in comment  |  No Comments so far

    I use Dreamhost to host this site. They’re pretty good but occasionally things go wrong, so I’ve got a saved Twitter search for “dreamhost” that lets me know when they’re having problems. Earlier today the saved search started turning up lots of identical tweets about Dreamhost from a load of young female users:

    "Online buzz" for Dreamhost

    Maybe I’m a cynic but I wonder if all these young girls really posted exactly the same tweet at the same time about dedicated hosting. I mean, it’s an exciting topic and everything, but it still seems a bit fishy to me.

    So what’s going on? Is Dreamhost using bot accounts to spam Twitter?