Wednesday, 22 May 2013

#bloodycyclists. Unless you're in Milton Keynes.

Someone has got in a bit of trouble recently for sending a tweet about hitting a cyclist.
"Definitely knocked a cyclist off his bike earlier. I have right of way - he doesn't even pay road tax! #Bloodycyclists."
Her choice of words gives the impression that she deliberately caused the accident, which I guess is not  what actually happened, although I will concede that it does not appear that she acted with the greatest of sensibilities following the incident. I would not go as far as condoning her actions, but I think she has been the subject of excessive criticism.

The brunt of public ire should really be targeted at the cyclist. The cyclist has made a choice to participate in a leisure activity that involves balancing on a slow, unstable contraption that offers no protection to themselves or anyone else, yet actively gets in the way of much bigger, faster vehicles using the road for its intended purpose. The cyclist could hardly have done more to make his activities dangerous and antisocial. The blame here should lie squarely with the cyclist for making those choices in the first place. If anyone is going to get fired from their job for being stupid, the self-styled danger-seeking public nuisance of an amateur stuntman should really be headed for the chop.

I cannot understand why councils up and down the country are allowed to invest so much time and money in promoting cycling. They do not promote jumping off cliffs, for example, which shares some key features. Both of these activities involve emitting few CO2 emissions and both are suitable as a form of transport over short distances in niche situations. Both can be fun in their place if appropriate safety measures are taken. Both are only suitable for one person travelling alone with no luggage and no regard for arriving at their destination relaxed and well dressed without looking like an idiot. In fact the only key differences really are that cycling is worse because it gets in the way of other people more than cliffdiving does, and that cliffdivers are not generally so vitriolic about persecuting those who do not want to join them.

Cycling is incompatible with motoring.

Bicycles are just big enough to get in the way. They travel at just the speed that usually causes them to indeed get in the way. It will always be dangerous to mix the two together and the car or bus user will always be stuck behind, unable to overtake, which is antisocial and inefficient on the part of the cyclist.

No matter how much cycling is encouraged, it will never be in any way attractive for most people in most situations for most journeys. Therefore cycling cannot be a replacement for other forms of transport. If it cannot be a replacement, and is not compatible with other road users, then it is not a good idea.

The only way to make it viable would be to copy Milton Keynes - create a totally segregated cycle network that does not involve cycling on the road. The MK network is a brilliant design as it uses bridges and subways to avoid even crossing the roads at junctions. Cyclists can be happy and so can other road users. Perfect. But for other councils, are they really going to redesign the entire town or city? Are they going to practically bulldoze the whole place and rebuild? That would probably be a good idea but I can't see it happening. And if it did happen it would be unfair to spend so much money on a niche form of transport, so to make it fair you would need to build new dual carriageways and elevated monorails at the same time, further increasing the budget.

To spend money encouraging cycling on the existing roads will cause accidents. It will make the other forms of transport slower and more frustrating for everyone else. It will strain council budgets further. And occasionally, it will cost frustrated young accountants their jobs.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Tapped, most certainly, out

Last week I found The Simpsons: Tapped Out on the Android store. It's a Simpsons themed game where you build a virtual Springfield. It was free so I gave it a go.

Except it isn't really free at all. It is technically free, but I would argue that to play this game without spending insane amounts of money on in-app virtual products is so little fun that it doesn't really constitute a game at all.

Tapped Out is basically the same game that I had discovered, and abandoned, on Facebook recently: SimCity Social. I stopped playing both after a couple of days of sporadic interaction. The premise of these games is that you need to progressively build something, which is supposedly the fun bit. You can only build a few basic things at first, and then by completing tasks you are able to earn more advanced objects, thus making your city better. As you play you gain a sense of mastery and achievement, perhaps even competing with your friends, whose attempts are also visible in-game.

However, that is a premise that only the most naive player would believe. It's the sort of premise that the original SimCity was built on, and it works very well. But these latest 'freemium' games do not stick to it at all, instead taking a subtly different approach to play with the mind of the gamer.

1. There is no skill required to play the game.

The tasks that you have to complete are not based on complexity, or on balancing competing interests, or on dexterity, critical thinking, intelligence or anything else of value. They are 'click and forget'. Need to make Homer shop at the Kwik-e-Mart? Tap on Homer and select 'Shop at Kwik-e-Mart'. Hardly taxing. It even puts the tasks pertinent to your current position at the top of the list, so there isn't even any strategy required in task selection.

So what's to stop you just doing all the tasks and progressing very quickly in the game? That brings me on to the next point:

2. The game makes you stop playing and come back some time later.

The most surprising thing I found about these games is that you can't actually play them when you want to.  Every task takes a certain amount of time - real, human, time to complete. So building a house might take four hours. Asking Apu to do an 8-hour shift will take 8 hours of real time to complete. I can go away, come back again in 8 hours and it will be done. It's not just that I can go away and come back: I am forced in to doing so. In Tapped Out, there are only a finite number of characters that you have available to dictate tasks to. Once you've given them all tasks, you have to wait for them to finish before you can do much else.

The limiting factor on what you can build is what is unlocked; the limiting factor on what is unlocked is what level of the game you are at; the limiting factor on what level you are at is the XP (experience) gained; the limiting factor for this is the number of tasks you have completed; the limiting factor on how many tasks you have completed is the time since installing the game and the time you have spent interacting with it. Note that the missing driver for the lowest controlling factor is 'skill'. Time playing the game is the sole dictator of progress.

SimCity Social is more explicit. It has the concept of 'energy'. You use up energy every time you enact a basic task. Once you've used up your mouse clicks, you have to wait for your energy to be replenished, which happens automatically every three minutes up to the maximum energy level after an hour or so. So going away and returning soon becomes necessary to do anything.

For me, games are an occasional escape from reality. I like playing driving games because I can drive as fast as I like in crazy scenarios without bearing the prison sentence and physical injury that would result if I did that in real life. I like playing simulation games because I can get more money and achievement in two hours of playing than I can get in two decades of my actual life. An unquestionable fundamental tenet of playing a game is that I can choose when I start and stop playing. If something important happens in real life then I can turn it off and tend to my worldly existence. Likewise, gaps in the seriousness of this world can be whimsically filled with time spent a virtual one. Tapped Out and SimCity social do not allow me to do this.

Why would anyone design a game that forces you to stop playing? Surely that's counter-productive? Well, actually it can be very productive indeed for the developer:

3. The point of the game is to get the player addicted.

The game forces you to stop playing at the height of your interest in it. Whenever you stop playing, you have the feeling 'Oh, I want to build a such-and-such, but I can't.'. When you return a couple of hours later, you will have that thing that you wanted earlier but couldn't have. You will most likely have a few things ready to click on and thus a feeling of immediate abundance at the instant of return. Then you will be able to play for a small while before frustration returns at the need to wait before making more progress.

This introduces a pattern of behaviour where the player (or, perhaps, victim) keeps returning to the game several times a day, at times dictated by the game rather than the real life pressures of the victim. They are unable to play the game when they actually want to. They have to play when the game wants them to. They become trapped in a cycle of repeated highs and lows - not a million miles from the effect of heroin, I believe. This means that the game becomes part of the normal life of the victim. It is less of an escape from reality - more a part of reality itself, part of the daily routine of life.

This effect is exacerbated by the intrusive notifications sent by the game, which are automatic and cannot be disabled. When I played SimCity Social, I actually got emails from an in-game character offering me in-game deals and updates. Actual emails. Mixed in with my business correspondence, bank statement notifications and so on. When I had Tapped Out installed, Homer Simpson would periodically shout "Don't forget about me" from my phone, with a notification in my real notifications area appearing equally to my emails and texts. This kind of 'intrusive reality' added to the effect that the game was trying to integrate itself into my life to a ridiculous extent.

Unlike most games, where you can mess everything up and start again, these games are not designed like that. You make an investment in the game which stays there forever. The more you put into the game, the more you will build up and the more you will lose if you stop playing. So the decision to stop playing gets more and more difficult to enact. Another way that they use psychological techniques that encourage addiction.

So what is the point of all this effort to integrate a computer program so tightly into my life, and to keep it there?

4. £ There is only one short cut

Clearly the victim of this type of game is going to have emotional low points several times a day where progress is stunted. The games conveniently provide a way round this: diamonds in the case of SimCity Social and donuts in Tapped Out. Donuts and diamonds allow you to do anything in the game. You can unlock buildings, you can buy premium objects that are denominated only in the magical currency, you can speed up any real-time task to have it finish immediately. There is nothing you couldn't do if you had an infinite supply of donuts and diamonds. 

In theory, you could probably earn enough donuts and diamonds in the game for free. To do this, you would have to view the game as a career choice more than a leisure activity. Every level-up comes with one or two free donuts. A decent premium item costs D100 to purchase. Some are a lot more. There are loads of premium items. You could easily spend thousands of them in an hour of gameplay. There is no way you are going to spend weeks, maybe months of your life earning them in miserable dribs and drabs. Based on the short time I spent playing, you would have to play the game for a month to save up for one half-decent item.

So you have to buy them. With real money. Now if I had never played such a game, I would be thinking that the virtual exchange rate should be along the lines of £1/D1000+. After all, the game developers need to earn money somehow. I understand that there has to be some real life exchange of money here. But I would expect that for around the £30 mark I would get infinite donuts: I could play the game without further restriction. And that's being generous for a phone-based game which is ultimately very basic.

But no. The maximum number of donuts you can buy in one go is 2400. And that will set you back an utterly incomprehensible $99.99. Bear in mind that you could easily get through that in an hour. In order to play this game sensibly you would have to be willing to spend in the region of £65 per hour of play.
My quick estimations are that playing the game works out at about ten times the hourly price of going to the cinema, six times the hourly cost of an average night out clubbing, and probably more than your average person would spend in a visit to the casino. Even if the game had the same hourly price as the above alternative entertainments, it would still be really bad value. The prices for the above alternatives account for necessary variable costs incurred by the suppliers, and further take into account the infrequency and sense of occasion that most people will ascribe to them. A casual game, out of which many more hours of entertainment should be had, should not cost anything like that amount.

More serious than the high cost is the incredibly manipulative way that the game hides this cost from you until it has had a chance to psychologically manipulate you into becoming addicted to it. The games are advertised as 'free'. In Tapped Out you don't even realise that the 2400 donuts cost real money until you are on the payment page, and you are offered the chance to make the purchase on account with your phone provider - basically getting in to debt to cover the cost. You won't even realise that the game is all a ruse until you have played it for a while.

I think I am lucky that I had the presence of mind to realise the intentions behind these non-games and to stop playing them pretty quickly. I'd only played Tapped Out for one weekend and I already felt a small sense of relief to have it out of my life. What about people who do not realise this? What about children? I do not believe that games that have been designed to be addictive and infinitely expensive should be legal. And personally I don't think they will be for very long.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

That's the spirit

Congratulations and thanks to the residents of Greasbro Road in Tinsley, who are pleased that the route for HS2 will involve obliterating their street. They have exactly the sort of progressive attitude that more people should be taking: Embrace demolition, take the compensation and move on.  It is probably easier for these people to adopt such a mindset as Greasbro Road doesn't sound particularly Utopian to start off with, but still, I was impressed.

Full story at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-21251417.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Ultra Speed 1

I support High Speed 2. Britain badly needs the infrastructure. Those who are campaigning against it on the grounds of their fields being dug up come across as rather selfish. They should be arguing for fair compensation rather than being obstinate and holding up progress. I accept in principle arguments to mitigate the environmental impact, but not arguments that are against the idea completely. So what if a farm gets moved a few hundred metres? As long as the farmer gets paid for their troubles and provided with replacement land then there is nothing to worry about. Sometimes disruption is unavoidable, and this is one of those situations. How else is the government supposed to provide infrastructure? The objectors should think themselves lucky that the government are more accommodating than their Chinese counterparts.

I do, however, have one major criticism of HS2. The speed. It's not really fast at all. Not by the standards of 2020 or whenever it will be completed. Trains are old, Victorian inventions, and although they have come on a lot in the past hundred years, they are not state of the art any more. The futuristic approach is Maglev. Maglev trains can go faster than normal trains because they do not have the friction of wheels on the rails - they levitate slightly above the track instead. Clearly this is the more desirable solution for a transport infrastructure that will have to last many decades. A serious proposal has been developed by UK Ultraspeed  at http://www.500kmh.com/.

The government have agreed to consider tenders by Maglev operators to build  HS2. However, it is very disappointing that the government are proceeding with planning the route based on old train technology. The optimal route would quite possibly be different for a Maglev track because the design constraints are different. Maglev looks generally more flexible, and it has even been suggested that Maglev tracks could be elevated over motorways. Moving forward with Maglev would clearly affect the whole route planning process, and if anything it would be less objectionable to those living along the route.

It looks like the government have already decided to go down the route of an outdated railway system without giving anything like a fair consideration to a much better option. £30,000,000,000 badly spent in my view.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Eden

I read this article just now. The University of Birmingham want to knock down a campus tower block and build a slightly bigger one in its place. Some local residents are against it.

I think it's a brilliant idea. It's exactly the sort of development ethos that should be proliferated more widely - knock down an existing building and build a bigger and better one in its place. Tower blocks are the most sensible type of building for crowded cities and also the most aspirational, not to mention the most functional and efficient. A tower block like this will most likely provide a much higher standard of living than most of the student accommodation I have encountered.

I am at a loss to explain the attitude of the disenchanted residents. I don't see the logic behind living in a city and then complaining when someone wants to build a tall building. The benefits of living in a city only exist because a higher density of people co-existing in the same place give rise to the economies of scale that make those benefits viable. That density can only be established with tall buildings. In fact by making the buildings taller, more space can be freed up for trees and parks, thus improving the view that the residents in the above article are pre-emptively mourning. My attitude is brusque: if it is a priority for you to wake up to an uninterrupted vista of quaint little buildings potted in a forest of greenery, then the middle of Birmingham really isn't the best place for you to be waking up in the first place.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Just Move Out

I saw this article today. Apparently the planning permission for Birmingham City Centre's big TV screen ran out last month. The sensible thing would of course be to renew the planning permission. However, some obtrusive, backwards thinking types have campaigned to get rid of it, and demanded it be removed immediately. Technically they are correct in that the council should adhere to its own planning permission judgements, but the wider issue is why the council have not granted planning permission for it to stay. The council own it and from the article it looks more expensive to get rid of it than to keep it. A more forward thinking approach might be to run adverts in the middle of the news bulletins and cultural programming and actually generate revenue for the nearly-bankrupt council. I just don't understand why anyone would campaign to remove such a modern symbol of civic advancement and magnet for cultural gatherings. I can't think people are going to be quite as interested in crowding around Victoria Square to watch the fountain and the statue.

I commented on the article. I'm actually contemplating writing to Mr Lister of the civic society to point out my disbelief at his ruinous attitude towards the city I live in. My comments are below.
I respectfully recommend that Mr Lister moves out of Birmingham and finds somewhere else to live that is more suitable for him. England is full of quint little towns and villages that are full of exactly the type of outdated old buildings that he seems to adore. Birmingham is one of the few centres of modernity where thankfully a lot of the old rubbish was demolished in the 1960's; a bustling city where we can enjoy skyscrapers, neon lights and a big TV in the city centre. I find his determination to move Birmingham backwards rather worrying. Yes, the TV does dominate Victoria Square. That is a good thing. It projects a sense of technology, modernity and innovation upon all who walk past it. It's one of the things that gave me a good first impression of the city when I visited for the first time. Now, if its removal is indicative of the general attitude towards architecture and design in the city, I will be putting it on my list of reasons to leave.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Something I agree with

I woke up this morning to the breakfast news, on which it was announced that today's ECHR judgement on religion in the workplace was imminent. I decided that the correct decision would be to allow people to wear Christian crosses at work but not to allow discrimination against gay people.

If wearing a cross does not affect your job, there is no reason to disallow it. That seemed simple to me.

I briefly pondered whether it was acceptable for a particular employee to discriminate against other people if doing their job in that case conflicted with their religious beliefs. If the company was large enough that a sufficient number of other employees had the opposite religious belief, then would it be possible to avoid situations where a customer is discriminated against by sharing out the work carefully between those different groups of employees? I only briefly considered this, since I quickly realised that in practice it just wouldn't work. In theory it might, but in real life there would be too much complexity in distributing the work, such that the service offered to the potentially discriminated person would be different to that provided to everyone else, which would be wrong.

Given that I very soon came to the conclusion that such an arrangement would be impossible, I began to find it very arrogant of the two anti-gay people to refuse to do their job in crack-pot circumstances yet still hold on to the expectation that they should be able to keep the said job. If people have antisocial religious beliefs then they need to take responsibility for those beliefs and accept that they may need to find a different job. They should surely be more grateful that they live in a society where they are free to hold indefensible personal opinions in the first place.

I was relieved to hear later in the morning that the court made the same decision that I would have done. Yay!