Category Archives: Technology

How to save a week in a day

ClockAt a conservative estimate, I’ve saved around 4 hours today. Yesterday, it was more like 7. The day before, I saved more than a week in a day – possibly the closest thing to time travel I’ll ever get.

My time-saving frame of reference is my usual followthehumming period of 28 years. Back then, according to my diary, I was developing photos through a complex process based on visits to a high street chemist. Then I was taking my printed photos and sending them to friends and family in small physical packages transported by a network of government-owned couriers.

When I wasn’t doing this, I was waiting around for friends with no notion of where they were, how long it would be before they arrived, or even whether I was in the right place.

Then of course there were the times I was trying to find my way somewhere, having forgotten to bring along my unfeasibly large and unfoldable map.

Given that we now do all this and more with a quick finger swipe, we’re surely saving oodles of time as a species…so the question is, what are we doing with it all?

Fortunately we do have one place that might just give us an idea. Google’s annual list of most popular searches is a decent place to get a sense of what the collective consciousness is thinking about when it isn’t watching cute cat videos on YouTube.

Here in the UK last year, we were most concerned with how to draw, kiss, crotchet, meditate, knit, twerk, squat, shuffle, revise and wallpaper – in that order. Our favourite cake recipe was chocolate and our preferred holiday destination was Paris. We were curious in particular about Banksy, Frenchy and Dappy, and what Ebola, ALS, fracking and love were.

Globally, we searched more for the departed Robin Williams than anyone else, and also wondered mightily about flappy bird, the ice bucket challenge, and Eurovision’s Conchita Wurst. And the world’s most searched YouTube video wasn’t actually a cat, but a slightly disturbing mutant giant spider dog.

So it turns out that we’re actually using any time we may have saved to do more of what we’ve always done – gossip, communicate, have fun, discover the world, work, get stuff done, learn new things, and find out what the hell is going on around here anyway.

It’s a case of more (and more) of the same.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. These fundamental interests and activities – and in particular the opportunity to gossip – are exactly what Yuval Noah Harari describes in his excellent history of humankind, as the winning cards in homo sapiens’ powerful evolutionary hand. 

Hacking around

MovieParties headerWhen I’m not following the humming, one of my other lives is as the Producer at MovieParties, where I sell movie scripts for kids’ parties. A few weeks back, a message from my ISP told me that the MovieParties website had been hacked and that they’d taken it offline as a precaution. They invited me to restore a clean backup and reinstall the latest versions of all the required plugins.

Yeah, right.

Many late nights and a complete rebuild from scratch later, the site was back up, leaving me with a sore neck and an impotent sense of rage against the machine.

While I was working to recover my hard-won Google ranking, my brief flirtation with hacking was still raw; but a friend reminded me that hacking has its roots in something altogether more constructive and altruistic. After all, if the bright young things at MIT in the 60’s hadn’t played around with code with a similar level of obsession, the free and open source software movements – and probably the Internet itself – may well have taken a lot longer to evolve. Sometime in the early 80’s – probably around the time of my followthehumming diaries – hacking in popular culture started to mean bad stuff, rather than the good stuff from which it had evolved.

If I look back my usual followthehumming timespan of 28 years to 1987, we were hacking around on machines like the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, BBC Micro and later the Amstrad CPC. We spent hours copying out BASIC programs from computer magazines and de-bugging them when they gave us the inevitable RUNTIME ERROR. We were close enough to the guts of these machines to gain a sense of how they worked and to understand the way the software that ran them interfaced with the hardware they sat on.

With the laudable exception of the Raspberry Pi, there’s little around on a decent scale that does a similar job today. Everything is BIG. Big machines, big networks, big data. The fact that you can alter something somewhere on the other side of the planet is cool, but this same distance can also breed indifference if it’s not part of something constructive – and I don’t just mean Minecraft. Without the intimacy of hardware and software barely big enough to handle one another, the consequences of hacking round for any reason at all are harder to see, let alone feel.

New year obituary: The death of appointment television

TV boxesI spent an idle half hour on 30th December 1986 looking through the TV schedules in the New Year issue of the Radio Times – a simple matter back then with only 4 channels to worry about – circling with a red biro all the stuff I thought I might like to watch. If only I hadn’t then had to remind myself to sit down and watch them when they were actually being broadcast, I might even have been able to enjoy some of them.

It wasn’t long till we had a better solution of course. Videoing stuff on rather large VHS video tapes meant you needed a new box under your TV, but finally let you record something to watch it later, as long as you got all the programme’s timings and other details right, and assuming it was broadcast as planned and didn’t overrun. The effort involved meant that you really had to want to watch something, so those bulky tapes became prized items, named and stored.

Programming your video became slightly easier with the adoption of VideoPlus+ codes – tortuous number sequences allocated to each and every programme, which when entered into your video recorder magically came up with the right date and time for the broadcast you wanted to record. After a brief foray into laser disks, next came DVDs with their size advantage and superior quality. They were clearly a winner, but the fact it took ages before you could record onto them made sure the VHS format stuck around for years – with the dual format VHS/DVD player still persisting in many houses even today.

DVD player

And then our patience was rewarded, and we got what we thought we’d needed all along: the world turned digital, hard disks got big enough to hold lots of programmes, TVs somehow started recording stuff inside themselves, iPlayer and its equivalents meant you could start to catch up on things online, Sky launched their Sky+ box and Virgin did the same with TiVo. Now, there’s no red-circling needed. Instead, I flick through the listings for my favourite channels either on the web or on the TV, press a single button to record anything that even remotely takes my fancy – either a one-off or an entire series – and create a cache of good telly for any time I feel like watching it (mostly when I’m ironing: it’s not all glamour in the 21st century).

All these changes mean old-style appointment viewing is now limited to special occasions, flagship series or live broadcasts – and as a consequence, the number of times the family congregates in the living room to watch something we all have a shared interest in has dropped dramatically. With the possible exception of Christmas, we no longer ask if there’s anything interesting on TV tonight. Instead, we contemplate the mysterious cache of TV that we’ve already recorded and wonder whether we’ll ever make any inroads into it.

Even when we are watching, we’re often multi-screening – busying ourselves on tablets, laptops or phones – with the TV playing a bit-part in the background. The minimal effort now required to actually record something means that our commitment to viewing it is equally low. We treat electronic storage as a near-infinite commodity, and as a result we value what it contains substantially less.

Perhaps that’s why many of us still have a box somewhere full of precious and often grainy TV programmes, trapped magically inside 240 cubic centimetres of black VHS plastic.

Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow

gone girlMy diary entry for 29th November 1986 is a miserable one. I’m lamenting the fact that – as a notoriously slow reader on a university course involving a fair amount of french and scandinavian literature – I’m doomed only to read only books that I’m told to for the next three years. Turns out I was right, too. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy Candide and Barnens ö, just that I couldn’t spare the time to read anything else, even as a bit of light relief.

At one point I started looking for ways to get through my books a bit faster. Claims have long been made for the benefits of speed reading if you’re prepared to put in a bit of effort – mostly by cutting down on subvocalisation (essentially, mentally muttering the words you’re reading). Popular approaches include consciously skimming, meta-guiding (keeping focused with various types of pointing) and Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP), in which the reader is presented with single words at high speed one after the other. However, the general consensus seems to be that you probably shouldn’t speed read anything you genuinely need to comprehend. And as this piece of research from Reading university says, it’s not actually about speed anyway – it’s about the task you’re trying to complete.

Woody Allen quote

Perhaps a more pertinent question these days is to consider the differences between reading on paper and reading on screen. Many of us spend hours at work reading on screens, yet will tell you that certain documents – dependent on length, content or other factors – demand to be printed out and read on paper. The practical and physical differences between the two activities are discussed in detail in this excellent Scientific American article: The Reading Brain: The Science of Paper versus Screens.

The fact that we’re constantly trying to make screen reading as rich an experience as paper reading shows there’s still something lacking in even the most advanced of e-ink interfaces; not that we’re not having a go:

But why stop at such a one-dimensional way of consuming text? Enter Amazon Whispersync for Voice. Despite its slightly unwieldy name, this is one of those obvious-when-you-think-about-it uses of technology that feels a bit like magic the first time you use it.

Here’s how it works:

1. Start reading on your Kindle using your eyes. Read as much as you want. No bandwidth limits and no buffering!

2. Fancy a rest? Plug in your earphones, press play, and listen to the audio version of the book instead – it picks up right where you left off reading. Now do the ironing while you listen. Or maybe sunbathe. Up to you.

3. Prefer reading at bedtime rather than listening? Bring up the book on your Kindle and the last word you’ve heard spoken is highlighted for you in a spooky ‘we know what you’re doing’ kind of a way.

It may not turn you into a speedier reader, but it certainly gets you through more books.

If only I’d had it back when I really needed it!

Dear friend, here’s yesterday’s news…

Letter and penI spent a good deal of August and September 1986 writing letters and postcards to family and friends as I Inter-Railed my way around Europe. Number one in my address book was my then girlfriend, and my diary catalogues almost every letter to her – when I started and finished it, and when I posted it. I then exercise myself estimating when she’s likely to have received it, read it, and sent a reply.

In practical terms, I reckon the optimal pan-European turnaround time back then was about a week – plenty of time for a letter to have been overtaken by events on the ground. Communicating with that kind of built-in delay meant we were always dealing with yesterday’s news rather than what was going on right now.

28 years later, penning a carefully handwritten letter that takes a decent while to plan and write – then waiting a week or more for a reply – is a rarity. Instead, we’re sharing multimedia travellers’ tales interactively and in real-time.

For a quick, private and often ongoing exchange, text messages, email or Apple’s iMessage do the job. For everyday pictures and videos, there’s also Snapchat, the messaging app that allows you to send captioned media that can be seen once for just a few seconds. For day-to-day stuff and a form of public online diary, Twitter is frequently first choice. More arty photos get posted to Instagram, with a quick plug via Twitter if they’re really good. And of course for the genuinely committed, an ongoing blog sets your inner writer free.

Finally – for general updates and photos aimed at friends – there’s early social media leader Facebook, ironically becoming rather passé with many of the younger crowd these days.

Whatever the chosen medium, all this communication is bite-sized and instant – long gone are the days of reading last week’s news.

The success of a message is quickly evaluated by the nature and quantity of the reaction to it – replies, Retweets, Favourites, Likes, +1’s, and so on. Much of this messaging is public, so the pressure on your communication to perform is significant. A supposedly witty post or funny photo that bombs is an embarrassment, while one that gets shared by others to their own followers generates kudos.

Mercifully – at least as far as I know – all the letters that my diary mentions have been rightfully consigned to the dustbin of history. Just what will happen to the uncounted billions of messages, photos and videos that the world now constantly shares, only time will tell.

Say hello to Life in the Future

Life in the Future - Delphic Study

I’d like to introduce you to Life in the Future, one of my all-time favourite books, which got a passing mention in my diary on 26th July 1986, 28 years ago today. It was published in 1976 and still graces my bookshelf.

My favourite bit of the book has always been the double-page spread above, illustrating a Delphic Study from the mid-60s in which a host of experts were asked when they thought specific technologies might become available. Their answers were collated and plotted on a timeline (starting in the 1970s and finishing with ‘Never’), with markers to show when 50% and 90% of them agreed a particular technology would be in use.

Life in the FutureThe predicted dates were only part of the fun for me. What really interested me was which technologies had been chosen. My favourites – truly children of their time – were:

  • Two-way communication with extra-terrestrials (50% of the experts were expecting this by about 2025, while the rest pessimistically chose ‘Never.’)
  • Automated language translators (should have been done and dusted by the early 70s if you believe the study)
  • Effective, simple and inexpensive fertility control (predicted to be available by 1985)
  • Economic regional weather control (1990-ish)
  • The widely accepted use of non-narcotic drugs for changing personality characteristics (somewhere between the 80s and 90s)

Re-read rather ironically from my vantage point here in the far future – some way past the previously mythical 2000 AD – the book as a whole provides a fascinating insight into 70s thinking.  The influence of the  preceding few years is obvious: the new liberalism and free thinking of the 60s, the 70s energy crisis and the expansion of nuclear power (the accident at Three-Mile Island was just a few years away), the rise of the environmental movement, significant improvements in medical technology  (the first heart transplant was already old news by this point), the development and early use of packet switching telecommunications networks, and so on.

Longer-term hopes featured in the study included the feasibility of education by direct information-recording on the brain, the breeding of intelligent animals as a low-grade labour force, the control of gravity by modifying gravitational fields and economic ocean farming to produce at least 20% of the world’s food. Wonderful stuff.

Despite the boundless technological optimism on show, the experts had to draw the line somewhere. They baulked both at the use of telepathy and ESP in communications, and at the idea of induced long-term comas used as a form of time travel.

Before long, I’ll be reading Life in the Future on a date beyond the end point of the study, which was around 2020. Compiling a list of likely technological change over the next 60 years would be just as difficult today as it was back in the 60s – but it might be fun to try (suggestions below please!).

Finally, it’s worth noting that while the study was busying itself with telepathy, controlling gravity and alien contact, it missed a few rather important developments that we take for granted today:

  • Instant access to a worldwide network of connected computers – from a device you hold in your hand
  • A system allowing you to search all the world’s knowledge – anytime you want, and from pretty much anywhere
  • In-vehicle video and audio navigation systems controlled by a global satellite network

…to name but three!

If you were taking part in a similar study in 2014, I’d love to know what key technology breakthroughs you’d expect between now and 2080. Who knows, if we compile a big enough list, the Internet could help us run a Delphic study of our own!Futuristic capes

*Life in the Future was written by Michael Ross-Macdonald, Michael Hassell and Stuart McNeill. I can’t remember how I came by it (I wasn’t keeping a diary back then!), but it’s essentially a broad and very readable look at predicting the future and how people affect it by the way they organise themselves and live their lives. I realised as I got older that  it was written with a clear environmental slant which was very new at the time. I owe it a lot.

Atomkraft? Nein danke!

Smiling sun: Atomkraft? Nein danke.Diary date: 18th May, 1986

My diary for this period 28 years ago makes a series of slightly concerned references to an ‘apparently quite serious’ nuclear accident in ‘a place called Chernobyl‘ – a previously unheralded town in the then Soviet republic of Ukraine.*  With typical reluctance, the Soviet authorities only agreed that an accident had taken place after the radiation alarms went off at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden – over 1,000 kilometres away.

‘Apparently quite serious’ turned out to be a significant understatement. Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear power plant accident in history (in terms of cost and lives lost) and is one of only two to reach the maximum classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale – along with the Fukushima Daiichi tsunami-related meltdown in 2011. Its effects continue to be felt to this day.

A decade earlier, the accident at Three Mile Island had thrown doubt on the future of nuclear power, but Chernobyl cast an even longer shadow. It quickly became impossible to imagine a completely ‘safe’ nuclear plant, many countries began scaling back their nuclear ambitions, and 70’s-style ‘Nuclear power? No thanks!‘ (or more frequently, ‘Atomkraft? Nein danke!’) stickers began to proliferate once again.

Yet despite all this, the industry survived and eventually began to thrive. In many ways, the longer-term impact of Chernobyl was to promote the international nuclear cooperation which has resulted in today’s more robust global safety regime.

Nuclear remains controversial for obvious reasons, but with the end of fossil fuel supplies in sight and global warming an increasing threat, many countries – the UK included – are returning to it as the possible answer both to longer-term energy independence and challenging climate change targets. Even some of the early environmentalists who were instinctively anti-nuclear – such as Whole Earth Catalogue author Stewart Brand – have begun suggesting we should revise our thinking. Brand now sees nuclear as the cleanest current form of reliable, grid-scale energy generation, and believes there are practical ways of dealing with related issues such as reprocessing, waste storage and weaponisation.

Remembering how I felt watching events in Russia unfold, it’s hard to believe that the push for ‘green’ energy is yet to yield a resounding winner. And if the post-Chernobyl nuclear makeover continues, it may be some time yet before the incentives to develop clean renewables are quite as strong again.

*These sorts of national boundary changes are nothing new to followthehumming – and current events in Ukraine suggest more may be on the way before too long.