Leaving Things Undone

The Sunset Blog

“Besides the noble art of getting things done,

there is the noble art of leaving things undone.

The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”

~ Lin Yutang,

The Importance Of Living

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All In The Game

Enthusiastic man and woman.Once upon a time, when there was no internet, no X Factor or Eastenders, not even Chris Moyles on the wireless people had to make their own entertainment and for the well off gentlemen this often meant heading out to their club and indulging in a few little wagers between glasses of port and talk of business.  One such involved which of two raindrops would reach the bottom of the window first, the sum wagered?  About the value of a country estate, small change really.

Today the bets are perhaps a little smaller, people still bet on games of cards, dice and even hangman, bookies take bets on the names of royal babies and such like, but it seems that “gamification” is everywhere.  On the one hand there’s the opening up of online gambling whose TV adverts showing well-dressed men playing poker and roulette surrounded by glamorous women promise riches and an opulent lifestyle rather than the truth that you’re playing a virtual wheel on a four-inch screen in front of your telly in your shorts.  On the other there’s the social game.  Just about anything you do that could be compared to someone else and logged by some kind of technology will be posted on Facebook or Twitter in a game of one-upmanship that goes beyond keeping up with the Joneses.

It’s not just Candy Crush Saga though – Fitness trackers, Twitter followers, even your performance in bed, or when you’ve practiced safe sex, can be rated and listed in league tables like a monstrous arcade machine.  Admittedly if it gets people exercising then fine but what happens when someone does too much and keels over and dies, will people just shrug and say “it’s the nature of the game.”

Even mundane activities are becoming games as though we need some kind of encouragement to do something simple like typing in a captcha code to continue on a website – as though people won’t set up an account because they have to type in a handful of random words and instead need something shiny and fun to hold their attention like hyperactive toddlers, are we really that bad?

I’m all for having fun but there’s a time and place for it.  Even the NSA got in on the act, turning part of their systems into a kind of game for analysts with successful users accruing “skilz” points for particularly good, er, analyzing.  There are even To-Do List apps that are also games (or virtual pets) just to encourage you to get off your… sofa, and do something, if not for yourself, for your digital kitten trapped in your iPhone.

If people need to be constantly stimulated to carry out mundane activities how long will it be before we’re encouraged to not lane-hog on the motorway by Mario Kart style reward markers superimposed on our heads-up displays or shopping for food becomes more like Supermarket Sweep?

Lifelogging

The rear LCD display on a Flip Video camrea

The rear LCD display on a Flip Video camera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Often today people worry about surveillance by the government with CCTV everywhere and intelligence agencies able to view what we do online (hi, Mr/Mrs NSA/GCHQ person) but there’s another side to the technology which is becoming ever more popular.

Many of us carry some form of video camera, I have a smartphone and a good compact camera that can record HD video, in fact I used this the other day to record a worker at our factory who was adamant he could cut a worktop with a saw that everyone else said was clearly blunt.  The resulting video is a possible candidate for YouTube, complete with Top Gear style “four hours later…” captions, as I joked at the time.

We now have the ability to record everything we experience in some way or another and people feel the need, or the desire, to do exactly that and share it with the world, even in their most intimate moments, as if to prove that they did it, or how good at it they were, so to speak.  It’s a standing joke that Instagram and Facebook are a repository of photos of people’s dinner but in some ways it’s true.  In any pub you go in there are groups of drinkers gurning at smartphone cameras, never again will you be able to get utterly pished without it being recorded.  I once had my glasses “borrowed” by a woman whose friend took a photo of her, wearing my glasses, with me kissing her cheek.  Months later a woman stood by me at a bar turned and said “I’ve got a photo of you on my Facebook.”  Same woman, same glasses.  Technology has made it simpler, quicker and cheaper to create a digital photo album or slide show that, without needing shelf-space or the setting up of a projector, can be virtually infinite in size, accessible anywhere, searchable and sorted by date.

The next stage is again in the area of wearable technology.  Google’s Glass project, along with other similar techie-eyewear, promise the ability to instantly record anything you can see, which has worried many privacy campaigners despite the devices clearly having a red, Borg-like, light on the side when they’re recording.

The other type of device is specially designed for recording just about everything you experience – the Lifelogger.  Two devices have appeared so far, Autographer and Narrative, which are intended to document your life while you’re wearing it of course.  While you’re not you can imagine it sitting there wondering where you’d gone.   The two have different approaches, Autographer uses five sensors to detect location and changes in light and motion to take a photo when you change location of when it thinks you’re doing something interesting like running after someone.  Narrative takes a picture twice a minute.  When downloaded you can then look through what they’ve logged and perhaps see things you’d missed or remember something you’d forgotten – which might be both a blessing and a curse depending on the event.

One day we could all be carrying a multi-sensored device that, in the event of an emergency, could log what’s happened to you and call for help – a kind of personal Black Box Recorder.  This is happening in cars already, as the Russian meteorite impact last year showed – the event captured by an unprecedented number of witnesses thanks to dashcams and smartphones.  In-car video is also useful for insurance companies, TV clip shows and YouTube, recent personal experience of idiot drivers makes me want one more than ever.

Whether the current Lifelogging technology has a use is down to whether it’ll record anything useful or interesting but the idea has been picked up by emergency services who have considered something like Glass to both record an incident and how it’s dealt with (possibly for legal, in case of being sued, reasons, inevitably these days) while also providing vital information to the medic or police officer in real-time.  Already trials have shown that police wearing body cams are seeing positive results in terms of arrested criminals accepting their guilt.

So we hurtle onwards into the recorded future, the problem could be having time to sort the wheat from the chaff of all these Lifelogged images and indeed where to store them all.

Looks like we’ll need a bigger server.

Bills and Shopping: The Rise of the Machines

Point Four Touch Point of Sale Till

Point Four Touch Point of Sale Till (Photo credit: Cyberslayer)

It’s not that I don’t like banks, or that I’m in some way un-British and avoid queuing it’s just that I don’t like being required to go out on some cold, damp Saturday morning when I’d rather be sat by the heater reading.  This is why most of my bills are sorted out by Direct Debit, even my credit card which is paid automatically every month – as it’s exclusively for online use rather than credit as such.

However there is one, variable bill which I don’t do this way – the electricity bill, because I don’t want them taking the money if they’ve over-estimated it.  So once a quarter I trudge to the bank.  The last couple of times I’ve been intercepted in the queue and guided to the paying-in ATM which can, I am assured, be used to pay bills and sure enough it did, it scanned the bill, took the details from my card and printed me a receipt.  It lacked the friendly hellos and brief chatter of talking to a teller but it did its stuff efficiently without having to wait with the other customers and their queries that computers can’t resolve (yet).  It’s amazing what technology can do isn’t it.

When it works.

This time I queued for the ATM, a member of staff asked if I was OK with doing it myself, “yes,” I replied, proudly, stopping short of continuing with “fear not, I have done this before”.  The woman ahead of me was though clearly having trouble paying a cheque in and was becoming increasingly frustrated by the machine.  Some people would have been mortified at causing a delay for others.  When she went in search of a real person I approached the anonymous grey box, inserted my card and then my payment slip which it chewed a little, thought about and then spat back out at me.

The member of staff who had by now redirected the cheque woman to a teller dashed over, I tried again but still it said it was having trouble reading the slip.  “Oh,” said the smart-suited bank woman “I think it has trouble with the new smaller payment slips.”  Right, so it’s the electricity company’s fault.  I was redirected to the queue for the tellers too, while reflecting that it’s lucky there were still real people present to do the job. The banks say this is to do with improving customers’ experiences, to reduce waiting times and so on.  A while later a man ahead of me was plucked from the queue and escorted to the same ATM, poor unsuspecting soul, like something out of Nineteen-Eighty-Four he walked by, towards the room 101 of automated banking technology, “good luck” I silently whispered.

It’s becoming ever more common though, in the supermarket there have been self-service checkouts for a while, and now the incredible sounding Hybrid Checkouts – you get your own conveyor belt to play with, like your own Generation Game.  A tin of beans.  A lettuce.  A cuddly toy…

I like checkouts with people on them, you can say hello, chat a little, they do all the scanning stuff.  I know someone who can scan goods quickly, accurately and have a riveting conversation with you at the same time, all you get from a Hybrid Checkout is the infamous “unknown item in the bagging area” message.  Which is a further complication – having to precisely place your items in your bag instead of lobbing them in haphazardly.

They say it’s quicker, denying the accusations that it’s to do with saving on the costs of staff, as do the banks.  They encourage you to use them, “it’s for your own good” they virtually scream as they drag you by the basket towards the robot cashiers while you whimper “but I want to talk to the nice lady on till nine.”  I have been known to linger at the end of an aisle, apparently choosing coffee until I see a gap on a conveyor then dump my groceries onto it before they can have my basket away from me.  True story.

I’ve seen people using the Hybrids, repeatedly scanning a loaf of bread while looking around for help.  My friend on the till would have scanned it first time.  If you’ve got alcohol or something else that needs authorisation then you’re left waiting until an assistant can come and release you back into the community from whence you wandered, happy and smiling, ten minutes earlier.  Just nipping in for a bottle of wine and a curry you said.  Now you need something more substantial.  “What kept you?” your partner says as you get into the car.  You mumble something about bloody technology and drive home, which is something that, for now, you can still enjoy doing yourself.

Just In Time

Old 3-Paned Window

Old 3-Paned Window (Photo credit: Big Grey Mare)

If you were about to drive to the other end of the country but needed to get a new tyre for your car first you wouldn’t get up that very morning, take the wheel off (assuming you had no spare) and then try to drive to the tyre shop.  I know I wouldn’t.  Some would, I’m sure.

I say this because something similar happens with disturbing regularity – people ring up wanting some glass that either takes three days to arrive or is out of stock and they immediately panic “but the door/cupboard/etc is going out tomorrow” or even more preposterous “I’ve already taken the old glass out.”

There are two rules in work like this – “measure twice, cut once” and “don’t remove something until you’re sure you can put it, or something, back.”  I can’t at the moment think of a more succinct way to phrase the latter one to make it more snappy – as things have to be these days, inevitably.

Again it’s another example of the expectation, instilled into us now, that we should not expect to wait for anything, which as I’ve said before can snowball as one person promises something to be ready tomorrow and expects everyone else to fall in line.  And in that lies a third lesson “don’t assume anything” especially regarding delivery times.

When Is Bigger Better?

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (Photo credit: Janitors)

Chocolate bars?  Sorry.  I’m referring to phones at the moment.  Anyone who answered anatomically – no comment, but you know who you are.

In the last few years smartphone makers have been simultaneously racing to make the thinnest phone whilst also ensuring their screens are bigger than everyone elses – bigger numbers sell it seems.  For years Apple played no part in this, with Steve Jobs apparently saying that bigger screens were impractical, until they then made a bigger screened phone and suddenly it was an obvious thing to do because it is the perfect fit for your thumb’s range of movement.  Right.  What they haven’t done (yet) is make a 6″ screen phone, what many tech bloggers mockingly referred to (when Samsung unveiled the Note) as a Phablet.

How they laughed.  Until millions of people went out and bought them.  25.2 million shipped in the Asia-Pacific region during the second quarter of the year, according to IDC.  Samsung still has around 50% of the market tied up in Notes.  The larger screen smartphone trend was really started by the Dell Streak but the Galaxy Note really made the form popular, especially with its s-Pen stylus which gave back touchscreen devices truly precise pen-like use even though, again according to Steve Jobs they were an outdated way to control a device.  People like to doodle and make handwritten notes though and this is easier with a pen, as it properly drawing something, annotating a plan etc…

One reason that larger phones are catching on is that they’re not really that big, the screen size has increased but the surrounding bezel has reduced almost to the point of non-existence so, combined with thinner chassis the phone doesn’t feel too bulky – though despite the idea that we’ll evolve different shaped thumbs due to texting is a massive misunderstanding of evolution our trousers may evolve bigger pockets.  Or sales of jackets and cloaks with poachers’ pockets may increase.  A particular user group for big-screen phones is apparently people with impaired eyesight as the larger on-screen keys are easier to read and type on.  Lastly the availability of high-speed mobile internet and the fact that smartphones can connect to wi-fi internet whenever possible makes them popular for watching films and tv or gaming on the move, though personally I wouldn’t want to watch a film on anything less than my 7″ tablet.

Some have aired concern that as manufacturers battle to have the biggest screen size consumers will be forced to accept bigger phones in order to get higher specs elsewhere in the device and this could be a problem, as this Gizmodo UK article points out they should also release smaller versions too and it seems that this is happening with smaller but not spec-crippled phones beginning to trickle out from companies like HTC and Sony.

One considerable downside is the size of the phone when you actually make a phone call, I know, it’s crazy but some people still do that.  I’ve not tried it but I’ve read that after so many years of phones becoming so tiny and inconspicuous that you’d sometimes appear to be talking to yourself it feels odd to have something the general size and shape of a thin paperback novel stuck against your head whilst talking to it.  This is the difference between today’s big phones and the eighties bricks – back then you wanted people to see your expensive mobile and didn’t care how big it was.  To this end phone makers have come full-circle and are developing tiny satellite handsets which look eerily like late-nineties GSM phones, with buttons and everything, connected via bluetooth for the purposes of making voice calls via the smartphone lurking in your pocket or bag.  It’s only a matter of time before we get these add-on handsets made to look like classic Nokias or Motorolas, I suppose, with the current retro obsession in other areas of technology.

Taking all this to its (il)logical conclusion in the future perhaps the smartphone will become a hub, connected to your smartwatch for notifications, your Google Glass style eyepiece for even speedier updates and navigation, and your peripheral handset for talking.  At which point we’ve gone from carrying many devices doing various jobs to many devices doing various jobs but connected together.