Research reveals the dark side of wearable fitness trackers

From CNN, a report suggesting that fitness trackers are not always wonderful things. 

The only thing that surprises me about this is that the reported demotivating effects are not much stronger. I suspect this is an artefact of the way the research was conducted. For this kind of study that relies on self-reported feelings, especially where subjects are invested in wanting this to be a good thing, unwanted effects are likely to be inaccurately reported.

“When we asked the women how they felt without their Fitbit, many reported feeling “naked” (45%) and that the activities they completed were wasted (43%). Some even felt less motivated to exercise (22%).”

The fact that 43% of subjects thought activities without the aid of a Fitbit were wasted implies that the few that reported feeling less motivated were just the extremes. At least another 21% were clearly demotivated too, even by these skewed results, and I am almost certain that a deeper delve into the feelings of the remainder would have revealed far more that felt this way. It may be that they either had other forms of extrinsic motivation to compensate or that, in a small percentage of cases, their intrinsic motivation was so high that they could overcome the effects. A clearer view appears when the researchers asked about how the tool worked:

“Perhaps more alarming, many felt under pressure to reach their daily targets (79%) and that their daily routines were controlled by Fitbit (59%). Add to this that almost 30% felt that Fitbit was an enemy and made them feel guilty, and suddenly this technology doesn’t seem so perfect.”

This result is more along the lines of what most other research reveals as probable, and it strongly suggests that the demotivating effects are much stronger than those that were self-reported.  As with all extrinsic motivation, it kind-of works as long as the extrinsic motivation continues to be applied. It’s addictive. In fact, like most addictions, there are usually diminishing returns on this, so the rewards/punishments have to be increased over time for them to achieve similar effects. It would be interesting to return to these subjects at a later date to see how their feelings have changed.

I suppose that it is not too bad a thing that there are people doing more exercise than they otherwise might because a device is rewarding, punishing, and goading them to do so. However, it creates a dependency that is great for Fitbit, but bad for the soul, and bad for long-term fitness because, without these devices, people will feel even less motivated than before. Moreover, it rewards only certain kinds of exercise, mainly walking and jogging.

I have felt these effects myself, having been the recipient of a gift of a similar Polar Flow device and having worn it for over a year. It goaded me with commands to get up and jog, and set targets for me that I could not control and did not want. As a result, I found that I cycled less, sailed less, exercised less and did fewer of the things that the device did not record. Perhaps I walked a bit more (often in preference to cycling) but, overall, my fitness suffered. This happened despite knowing full well in advance what it was going to do to my motivation.  I thought I could overcome that, but it’s a powerful drug. It has taken months to recover from this. I do now wear a Pebble watch that does record similar information and that has similar blind spots, but it does not (yet) try to be proactive in goading me to walk or jog. I feel more in control of it, seeing it now as a bit of partial information rather than a dumb coach nagging me to behave as its programmers want me to behave. I choose when and whether to view the information, and I choose what actions to take on it. This reveals a general truth about technologies of this nature: they should informate, not automate.

Address of the bookmark:

Climate Change Is Making This Portable Air Conditioner a Must-Have Summer Accessory

And so the world ends. Sadly, I don’t think the title was intended ironically. zero breeze portable air conditioner

This kind of destructive local thinking creeps in all over the place. For example, Athabasca University is in financial trouble, so individual departments are being charged with reducing their own costs. Our IT Services department’s approach is to remove customizations and custom-built applications that everyone uses, buying in baseline systems to replace them, thus (in theory, not reality) eliminating a large chunk of its support burden. Unfortunately, exactly the same tasks that used to be performed by fast, reliable, error-free machines are now therefore performed by slow, unreliable, mistake-prone human beings – all of us – instead, at vastly increased cost (millions of dollars) and vastly decreased efficiency. It’s killing us, increasing workload while decreasing agency, productivity, creativity, and organizational intelligence. Though only destroying a university rather than the whole world, it’s just as dumb as building air conditioners to combat the effects of global warming.

Address of the bookmark:

True costs of information technologies

Switchboard (public domain)Microsoft unilaterally and quietly changed the spam filtering rules for Athabasca University’s O365 email system on Thursday afternoon last week. On Friday morning, among the usual 450 or so spams in my spam folder (up from around 70 per day in the old Zimbra system) were over 50 legitimate emails, including one to warn me that this was happening, claiming that our IT Services department could do nothing about it because it’s a vendor problem. Amongst junked emails were all those sent to the allstaff alias (including announcements about our new president), student work submissions, and many personal messages from students, colleagues, and research collaborators.

The misclassified emails continue to arrive, 5 days on.  I have now switched off Microsoft’s spam filter and switched to my own, and I have risked opening emails I would never normally glance at, but I have probably missed a few legitimate emails. This is perhaps the worst so far in a long line of ‘quirks’ in our new O365 system, including persistently recurring issues of messages being bounced for a large number of accounts, and it is not the first caused by filtering systems: many were affected by what seems to be a similar failure in the Clutter filter in May.

I assume that, on average, most other staff at AU have, like me, lost about half an hour per day so far to this one problem. We have around 1350 employees, so that’s around 675 hours – 130 working days – being lost every day it continues. This is not counting the inevitable security breaches, support calls, proactive attempts at problem solving, and so on, nor the time for recovery should it ever be fixed, nor the lost trust, lost motivation, the anger, the conversations about it, the people that will give up on it and redirect emails to other places (in breach of regulations and at great risk to privacy and security, but when it’s a question of being able to work vs not being able to work, no one could be blamed for that). The hours I have spent writing this might be added to that list, but this happens to relate very closely indeed to my research interests (a great case study and catalyst for refining my thoughts on this), so might be seen as a positive side-effect and, anyway, the vast majority of that time was ‘my own’: faculty very rarely work normal 7-hour days.

Every single lost minute per person every day equates to the time of around 3 FTEs when you have 1350 employees. When O365 is running normally it costs me around five extra minutes per day, when compared with its predecessor, an ancient Zimbra system.  I am a geek that has gone out of his way to eliminate many of the ill effects: others may suffer more.  It’s mostly little stuff: an extra 10-20 seconds to load the email list, an extra 2-3 seconds to send each email, a second or two longer to load them, an extra minute or two to check the unreliable and over-spammed spam folder, etc. But we do such things many times a day. That’s not including the time to recover from interruptions to our work, the time to learn to use it, the support requests, the support infrastructure, etc, etc.

To be fair, whether such time is truly ‘lost’ depends on the task. Those ‘lost’ seconds may be time to reflect or think of other things. The time is truly lost if we have to put effort into it (e.g. checking spam mail) or if it is filled with annoyance at the slow speed of the machine, but may sometimes simply be used in ways we would not otherwise use it.  I suspect that flittering attention while we wait for software to do its thing creates habits of mind that are both good and bad. We are likely more distracted, find it harder to concentrate for long periods, but we probably also develop different ways of connecting things and different ways of pacing our thinking. It certainly changes us, and more research is needed on how it affects us. Either way, time spent sorting legitimate emails from spam is, at least by most measures of productivity, truly time lost, and we have lost a lot of it.

Feeding the vampires

It goes without saying that, had we been in control of our own email system, none of this would have happened. I have repeatedly warned that putting one of the most central systems of our university into the hands of an external supplier, especially one with a decades-long history of poor software, broken or proprietary standards, weak security, inadequate privacy policies, vicious antagonism to competitors, and a predatory attitude to its users, is a really stupid idea. Microsoft’s goal is profit, not user satisfaction: sometimes the two needs coincide, often they do not. Breakages like this are just a small part of the problem. The worst effects are going to be on our capacity to innovate and adapt, though our productivity, engagement and workload will all suffer before the real systemic failures emerge.  Microsoft had to try hard to sell it to us, but does not have to try hard to keep us using it, because we are now well and truly locked in on all sides by proprietary, standards-free tools that we cannot control, cannot replace, cannot properly understand, that change under our feet without warning, that will inevitably insinuate themselves into our working lives. And it’s not just email and calendars (that can use only slightly broken standards) but completely opaque standards-free proprietary tools like OneDrive, OneNote and Yammer. Now we have lost standards-compliance and locked ourselves in, we have made it unbelievably difficult to ever change our minds, no matter how awful things get. And they will get more awful, and the costs will escalate. This makes me angry. I love my university and am furious when I see it being destroyed by avoidable idiocy.

O365 is only one system among many similar tools that have been foisted upon us in the last couple of years, most of which are even more awful, if marginally less critical to our survival. They have replaced old, well-tailored, mostly open tools that used to just work: not brilliantly, seldom prettily, but they did the job fast and efficiently so that we didn’t have to. Our new systems make us do the work for them. This is the polar opposite of why we use IT systems in the first place, and it all equates to truly lost time, lost motivation, lost creativity, lost opportunity.

From leave reporting to reclaiming expenses to handling research contracts to managing emails, let’s be very conservative indeed and say that these new baseline systems just cost us an average of an extra 30 minutes per working day per person on top of what we had before (for me, it is more like an hour, for others, more).  If the average salary of an AU employee is $70,000/year that’s $5,400,000 per year in lost productivity. It’s much worse than that, though, because the work that we are forced to do as a result is soul-destroying, prescriptive labour, fitting into a dominative system as a cog into a machine. I feel deeply demotivated by this, and that infects all the rest of my work. I sense similar growing disempowerment and frustration amongst most of my colleagues.

And it’s not just about the lost time of individuals. Almost always, other people in the system have to play a role that they did not play before (this is about management information systems, not just the digital tools), and there are often many iterations of double-checking and returned forms,  because people tend to be very poor cogs indeed.  For instance, the average time it takes for me to get recompense for expenses is now over 6 months, up from 2-4 weeks before. The time it takes to simply enter a claim alone is up from a few minutes to a few hours, often spread over months, and several other people’s time is also taken up by this process. Likewise, leave reporting is up from 2 minutes to at least 20 minutes, usually more, involving a combination of manual emails, tortuous per-hour entry, the ability to ask for and report leave on public holidays and weekends, and a host of other evils. As a supervisor, it is another world of pain: I have lost many hours to this, compounding the ‘mistakes’ of others with my own (when teaching computing, one of the things I often emphasize is that there is no such thing as user error: while they can make mistakes and do weird stuff we never envisaged, it is our failure to design things right that is the problem). This is not to mention the hours spent learning the new systems, or the effects on productivity, not just in time and motivation, but in preventing us from doing what we are supposed to do at all. I am doing less research, not just because my time is taken with soul-destroying cog-work, but because it is seldom worth the hassle of claiming, or trying to manage projects using badly designed tools that fit better – though not well – in a factory. Worse, it becomes part of the culture, infecting other processes like ethics reviews, student-tutor interactions, and research & development. In an age when most of the world has shaken off the appalling, inhuman, and empirically wrong ideas of Taylorism, we are becoming more and more Taylorist. As McLuhan said, we shape our tools and our tools shape us.

To add injury to insult, these awful things actually cost money to buy and to run –  often a lot more money than they were planned to cost, making a lot less savings or even losses, even in the IT Services department where they are justified because they are supposed to be cutting costs. For instance, O365 cost nearly three times initial estimates on which decisions were based, and it appears that it has not reduced the workload for those having to support it, nor the network traffic going in and out of the university (in fact it may be much worse), all the while costing us far more per year to access than the reliable and fully-featured elderly open source product it replaced. It also breaks a lot more. It is hard to see what we have gained here, though it is easy to see many losses.

Technological debt

The one justification for this suicidal stupidity is that our technological debt – the time taken to maintain, extend, and manage old systems – is unsustainable. So, if we just buy baseline tools without customization, especially if we outsource the entire management role to someone else, we save money because we don’t have to do that any more.

This is – with more than due respect – utter bullshit.

Yes, there is a huge investment involved over years whenever we build tools to do our jobs and, yes, if we do not put enough resources into maintaining them then we will crawl to a halt because we are doing nothing but maintenance. Yes, combinatorial complexity and path dependencies mean that the maintenance burden will always continue to rise over time, at a greater-than-linear rate. The more you create, the more you have to maintain, and connections between what we create adds to the complexity. That’s the price of having tools that work. That’s how systems work. Get over it. That’s how all technology evolves, including bureaucratic systems. Increasing complexity is inevitable and relentless in all technological systems, not withstanding the occasional paradigm shift that kind-of starts the ball rolling again. Anyone that had stuck around in an organization long enough to see the long-term effects of their interventions would know this.

These new baseline systems are in no way different, save for one: rather than putting the work into making the machines work for us, we instead have to evolve, maintain and manage processes in which we do the work of machines. The complexity therefore impacts on every single human being that is having to enact the machine, not just developers. This is crazy. Exactly the same work has to be done, with exactly the same degree of precision as that of the machines (actually more, because we have to add procedures to deal with the errors that software is less likely to make). It’s just that now it is done by slow, unreliable, fallible, amotivated human beings. For creative or problem-solving work, it would be a good thing to take tasks away from machines that humans should be doing. For mechanistic, process-driven work where human error means it breaks, it is either great madness, great stupidity, or great evil. There are no other options. At a time when our very survival is under threat, I cannot adequately express my deep horror that this is happening.

I suspect that the problem is in a large part due to short-sighted local thinking, which is a commonplace failure in hierarchical systems, and that gets worse the deeper and more divisive the hierarchies go.  We only see our own problems without understanding or caring about where we sit in the broader system. Our IT directors believe that their job is to save money in ITS (the department dealing with IT), rather than to save money for the university. But, not only are they outsourcing our complex IT functions to cloud-based companies (a terrible idea for aforementioned reasons), they are outsourcing the work of information technologies to the rest of the university. The hierarchies mean a) that directors seldom get to see or hear of the trouble it causes, b) they mix mainly with others at or near their hierarchical level who do not see it either, and c) that they tend to see problems in caricature, not as detailed pictures of actual practices. As the hierarchies deepen and separate,  those within a branch communicate less with others in parallel branches or those more than a layer above or below. Messages between layers are, by design, distorted and filtered. The more layers, the greater the distortion. People take further actions based on local knowledge, and their actions affect the whole tree. Hierarchies are particularly awful when coupled with creative work of the sort we do at Athabasca or fields where change is frequent and necessary. They used to work OK for factories that did not vary their output much and where everything was measurable though, in modern factories, that is rarely true any more. For a university, especially one that is online and that thus lacks many of the short circuits found in physical institutions, deepening hierarchies are a recipe for disaster. I suppose that it goes without saying that Athabasca University has, over the past few years, seen a huge deepening in those hierarchies.

True costs

Our university is in serious financial trouble that it would not be in were it not for these systems. Even if we had kept what we had, without upgrading, we would already be many millions of dollars better off, countless thousands of hours would not have been wasted, we would be far more motivated, we would be far more creative, and we would still have some brilliant people that we have lost as a direct result of this process. All of this would be of great benefit to our students and we would be moving forwards, not backwards. We have lost vital capacity to innovate, lost vital time to care about what we are supposed to be doing rather than working out how the machine works. The concept of a university as a machine is not a great one, though there are many technological elements and processes that are needed to make it run. I prefer to think of it like an ecosystem or an organism. As an online university, our ecosystem/body is composed of people and machines (tools, processes, methods, structures, rules, etc). The machinery is just there to support and sustain the people, so they can operate as a learning community and perform their roles in educating, researching and community engagement. The more that we have to be the machines, the less efficiently the machinery will run, and the less human we can all be. It’s brutal, ugly, and self-destructive.

When will we learn that the biggest costs of IT are to its end users, not to IT Services? We customized and created the tools that we have replaced for extremely good reasons: to make our university and its systems run better, faster, more efficiently, more effectively. Our ever-growing number of new off-the-shelf and outsourced systems, that take more of our time, intellectual and emotional effort, have wasted and continue to waste countless millions of dollars, not to mention huge costs in lost motivation and ill will, not to mention in loss of creativity and caring. In the process we have lost control of our tools, lost the expertise to run them, lost the capability to innovate in the one field in which we, as an online institution, must and should have most expertise. This is killing us. Technological debt is not voided by replacing custom parts with generic pieces. It is transferred at a usurious rate of interest to those that must replace the lost functionality with human labour.

It won’t be easy to reverse this suicidal course, and I would not enjoy being the one tasked with doing so. Those who were involved in implementing these changes might find it hard to believe, because it has taken years and a great deal of pain to do so (and it is far from over yet – the madness continues), but breaking the system was hundreds of times easier than it will be to fix it. The first problem is that the proprietary junk that has been foisted upon us, especially when hosted in the cloud, is a one-way valve for our data, so it will be fiendishly hard to get it back again. Some of it will be in formats that cannot be recovered without some data loss. New ways of working that rely on new tools will have insinuated themselves, and will have to be reversed. There will be plentiful down-time, with all the associated costs. But it’s not just about data. From a systems perspective this is a Humpty Dumpty problem. When you break a complex system, from a body to an ecosystem, it is almost impossible to ever restore it to the way it was. There are countless system dependencies and path dependencies, which mean that you cannot simply start replacing pieces and assume that it will all work. The order matters. Lost knowledge cannot be regained – we will need new knowledge. If we do manage to survive this vandalism to our environment, we will have to build afresh, to create a new system, not restore the old. This is going to cost a lot. Which is, of course, exactly as Microsoft and all the other proprietary vendors of our broken tools count upon. They carefully balance the cost of leaving them against what they charge. That’s how it works. But we must break free of them because this is deeply, profoundly, and inevitably unsustainable.

‘Our Technology Is Our Ideology’: George Siemens on the Future of Digital Learning | EdSurge News

Great article reporting on George Siemens’s and Rory McGreal’s (both Athabasca University profs) take on the promise and threats of adaptive technologies, learning analytics, data-driven approaches to education, and personalization. George and Rory have quite different perspectives on these issues but both are absolutely right. George emphasizes that this is about human beings working together to learn, and that our institutional systems are often quite antagonistic to that, imposing counter-productive power relationships and focusing on task completion rather than learning.  As he puts it,

“If we do things right, we could fix many of the things that are really very wrong with the university system, in that it treats people like objects, not human beings. It pushes us through like an assembly-line model rather than encouraging us to be self-motivated, self-regulated, self-monitoring human beings.”

Absolutely. This is a battle we should have won many years ago, but still it persists.

Rory emphasizes that we have to take a whole-system view of this, rather than attempt to personalize things for the learner. As he puts it,

“This focus on the learner is a big mistake. We should look at the whole learning system and how it works—the learner, teacher, technologist, administration, community.”

I totally agree, albeit that the word ‘this’ matters here: there are many ways to focus on the learner that are an extremely good idea, though personalization is not one of them. Personal, not personalized, as Alfie Kohn puts it. I’m not certain Rory would entirely agree with that – focusing on personal needs can be expensive, and Rory normally argues that it is better to teach a lot of people sub-optimally than to help a few to learn optimally. It’s hard to disagree, but it’s a wicked and situated problem, and it depends a great deal on the kind of learning involved and the kinds of people doing it. We should at least be aiming for both: personal, and cost-effective.


Address of the bookmark:

White elephants and other e-readers

When I get new devices I tend to make notes about them: it’s part of my tinkering approach to research, a way to explore the edges of the adjacent possible. Most of the notes don’t get read by anyone else. This often seems like a bit of a waste so, having had a couple of days of vacation (and thus mostly doing the work I felt like doing rather than the work I had to do) this post is an assemblage of notes about a few of the devices I have acquired over the past year or so, at least partially to support my thinking on e-readers (though I cover more features of the devices in my notes).

I am very interested in e-reading because I do a great deal of it, and it is the primary means by which most online learners learn. There’s a fair bit of existing research into e-reading, but the vast majority of it fails to distinguish between desktop PCs, laptop PCs, dedicated e-readers, tablets and cellphones, let alone between different software tools and configurations. This is silly. It’s equivalent to generically comparing e-learning and p-learning which, as we all should now know, is a completely spurious thing to do.‘Tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. It is particularly interesting that, though there are a few variations in paper books – size, font, hard/paperback, etc – the variation is not even close to that found in e-reading hardware and software, and we have barely begun to innovate in this area yet. To do so, it is useful to understand the benefits and weaknesses of existing tools. These notes are part of that process.

The devices I will discuss here are:

  • Kindle Voyage (high-end e-reader)
  • Sony DPT-S1 (A4-size e-paper e-reader)
  • Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 (Android tablet with built-in projector)
  • Google Cardboard (generic VR viewer)
  • Pebble Time Steel (smartwatch)
  • iPad Pro and Apple Pencil (needs no introduction)

Amazon Kindle Voyage

Kindle VoyageI got this device because I wanted to know what makes something a top-of-the-line e-reader. The Kindle Voyage, though heavily criticized for its price, had (at the time I got it) pretty much swept the board in comparative reviews, coming top in almost all of them. This is therefore my reference point.

The Kindle Voyage is very small: the (6 inch) page is smaller than the average paperback book, especially the slightly larger formats used mainly for academic books.  Whether this is a good or bad thing depends a lot on the book. For text, I find that is good enough but, for diagrams, tables and images, it can be too small.

The monochrome e-ink screen is bright and very clear, with better resolution than many laser printers. It has a non-reflective etching that I have tried in bright sunlight and found to be extremely easy on the eye, with virtually no reflections unless you deliberately angle it at the sun. It is not quite paper, but extremely close to it and, in many ways, is superior to read from: flatness and consistency are mostly a positive thing, albeit that the curve of a paper page provides cues about location in a book and helps one to remember a page’s unique shape. It has very even backlighting that gently glows, and dims according to the level of background lighting – this is great, though I’d like it more if it had the option to tint it with red light – the blue-ish glow is not great last thing at night, when I tend to read the most. Battery life, even when backlit, is very good: the claimed 6 weeks of life assumes only half an hour of reading a day, which is way less than I’d normally do, but that still equates to a good 20 hours between charges in real life which, for something so tiny, is good. It appears to take a couple of hours to fully charge on a typical USB connection.

The device is very thin and very light – it feels much lighter than the average smartphone and far lighter than a small paperback – with a nice rubbery grippable back, and intelligently positioned ‘buttons’ on both sides of the screen, so it works well in either hand. The ‘buttons’ are actually pressure sensitive areas: pressing them gives a reassuring and very gentle haptic buzz when they are squeezed. After only 10-15 minutes of pressing them this can lead to finger cramp, however, so it is good that it is also possible to swipe across or up and down a page, in a manner that is quite familiar to phone and tablet users. There are two smaller back ‘buttons’ above the main page flippers, that are quite hard to reach with one hand. There’s an on/off button on the rear of the device, just out of reach of even my long-ish fingers. This is good – it is hard to turn it off accidentally. The bevel is not huge, but is about the right size to make it easy to hold without touching the screen, about the size of a normal book margin.

Performance is notably better than that of any other e-ink devices I have used, with screen refreshing that is fast and that seldom, and barely perceptibly, flashes (a generic issue with e-ink, that starts to burn in if not zapped occasionally with a reverse image). For reading, I find page turns fast enough not to interrupt my flow of reading at all. Much faster than flipping pages in a p-book although, as my weak eyes mean that I like to have a larger font, I tend to do this more often.

It has a web browser, but it’s awful. Soft buttons for the keyboard and tools are often quite unresponsive. Especially annoying is the lag and difficulty finding the right place to press for punctuation such as the @ symbol and period. Once you move on to pages that need scrolling it is very jerky, with multiple refreshes, and extremely slow responses to things like pinching to zoom, which is distracting to the point of making it virtually unusable for many pages: few are optimized for e-readers. Lack of colour also becomes a serious issue on such pages. That is also a noticeable problem when scrolling through my catalogue of books or the Kindle store (also available directly from the device), because many book covers blur into a grey mass: this is a surprising failure on the part of Amazon who, you might think, ought to be doing its best to sell books to you. If you cannot differentiate between them or even see their titles, there is not a lot of point. I still mostly need to get my books via a tablet, phone or PC. It is at least nice to be able to browse books on and download them (in the correct format) to the device.

On the subject of the book catalogue, the interface to it is tedious. I have hundreds of books that I like to browse, not simply search for, and it can take several minutes to scroll painstakingly through them. There are options for tagging and cataloguing books but, with a large existing catalogue, this is not a simple option. This is many times worse than even a disorganized pile of books, let alone proper bookshelves. The fact that you can search (and search for text within books) is a notable benefit, but the loss of random browsing is a serious disadvantage.

Whispersync works very well: it’s very easy to pick up on one device what was left off on another. I very much like the ‘free’ 3G connection that works in most countries and that allows books to be downloaded (and purchased) from almost anywhere in the world, without the need for wifi, but I deeply hate the fact that a fair number of my books are limited by DRM to a few devices. As a researcher into such technologies, I have a great many versions of the Kindle app on many devices, so I often hit these limits, then have to work out on which machines to disable reading (is it mac 1, or mac 4 that I am actually using? Very hard to tell).  In fact, I deeply hate DRM, period. It is not fiendishly hard to convert and transfer non-DRM’d books from other devices but I find the fact that Amazon insist all should be in its proprietary format or PDF (not a good thing on a 6” screen) to be intensely annoying. Given that DRM is perfectly possible in the otherwise ubiquitous epub format, this is an annoying constraint.

I was encouraged after getting this device to try a subscription to Kindle Unlimited, which gives (as the name implies) Netflix-like access to over a million titles – an all-you-can-eat rental smorgasbord covering a vast array of subjects and genres, all for $10/month, with up to 10 books at any one time. This has been a disappointing investment so far. The overwhelming majority of the books are those that no one in their right mind would bother paying the typical asking price of between 2 and 6 dollars and would certainly not bother borrowing from a library. The majority are self-published, and some are scams that are not even meant to be read – they are just a means to leech a bit of money from Amazon, filled with nonsense. Within the area of science I found a great many books that are anything but scientific, with a preponderance of rubbish folk psychology, ’10 things’ books, and right-of-Hitler religious nutcases trying to disprove evolution and climate change. In fiction, there’s a lot of genre novellas and novels of the fan-fiction variety, most of which seem to be of extremely low quality and imagination. Very disappointing, though I have found a copious catalogue of Kurt Vonnegut books, many of which I have not read, so am happy enough for now. There are certainly some gems to be found but the effort of doing so is great, and none of those that I actually sought out have been there so far. The device does allow you to set up a library account to borrow books from your local library. I have not tried this yet, but find the idea appealing. You can, of course, do this on any device, but the convenience is worth having, especially given the complete lack of network charges.

Is it worth the money? I’d say not. Amazon’s own much cheaper alternative, with a very similar screen, the Paperwhite, is a little thicker, lacks the buzzing buttons and adaptive backlight, and is slightly slower, but these are not big enough differences to be worth $100. My only other notable e-ink device till this point was a tiny and now slightly elderly Kobo with a 4” screen. Apart from size and backlight, there is not too much to choose between them.  Yes, the Voyage has a notably better screen, but not so much that it is worth nearly $200 more (the Kobo cost me less than $40) and bigger is certainly better, but not $200 better. The software on the Kobo is, I would say, mostly a bit nicer, but essentially extremely similar. Its native epub format is way friendlier, with far more books available without the need for conversion, albeit with less wonderful sync between devices. The main differentiator is the book stores behind them – Amazon’s catalogue is vastly much bigger and better. Vastly much. Though both can be used with books from elsewhere, as both are tightly integrated with their respective bookstores, this matters.

For all its weaknesses, the Voyage is a device that I have found myself using for at least an hour every day. It’s a great way to read books, especially fiction. It very rarely needs charging, sits unobtrusively by my bed, and just works. The interface virtually disappears, and there are no interruptions to your reading from a dumb device that thinks it needs a place in every part of your life. It is so light that you barely notice it in your hand – so much easier than a paper book. And I love the adaptive backlighting. Though it would be easy to dim and brighten the screen manually (as in the Paperwhite), the unobtrusive automatic dimming is surprisingly pleasant.

Amazon now has an even higher end device, the Oasis, that is a little lighter, has an extra boost for the battery in the cover, an ergonomic grip, and more LEDs for even more even backlight. Apart from that, it is hard to see why it would be worth getting: everything else is much the same. The Voyage is already too expensive, especially given how much Amazon will leech from you after purchase, so I cannot imagine why one would spend another $100 for a leather cover with a battery in it.

Sony DPT-S1 e-reader

SOny DPT-S1The DPT-S1 is an e-paper device that does pretty much only one thing – it lets you read and annotate PDF documents. True, it does have a note taking app that is quite serviceable and a web browser that is not at all serviceable but, basically, this is a very expensive one-trick pony that cannot even read standard ebook formats. How expensive? Over $1000 expensive. You could get a good iPad Pro for that money, or 4 or 5 Kindles. Or a pretty good PC laptop or tablet, or even a top of the line Chromebook. Or a nice bicycle. All in all, this is one incredibly expensive device that does very little.

So why did I want one? Well, obviously enough, it’s for that one thing. I get to read a great many documents, many of which are already in PDF format and most of which can easily be made so. The reading area of the DPT-S1 is effectively the same as a standard sheet of office paper and, in theory at least, provides a very similar experience, with similar resolution and contrast to a slightly greyish printed sheet, and similar ability to mark up the text. As far as I know, this is the only commercially available e-paper device with a screen this size.

One of the notable ways that p-reading is normally better than e-reading is that it provides a consistent, fixed visual layout. It is better because the shape of text on a page is important in helping us to remember where we read it and in what context, and human typesetters generally pay closer attention than machines to making pages readable and appealing. Most e-book formats re-flow the text according to device, font, etc, so there are few cues of this nature. It is true that, especially  when making text larger for those with aged eyes, this is an advantage in many ways, but the loss of visual memory of the shape of the page is a cognitive trade off.  PDFs are much more like print in this regard as the format is fixed, albeit that it remains difficult to get a sense of the context of the page in the broader text. On a small device, though, PDFs are usually unreadable, or require absurd amounts of scrolling, so a device that lets you see the whole page at its native size is a very interesting idea. Could this be a step towards what we need to replace paper for reading? Well…

The size of the DPT-S1 is great. The contrast is not quite as good as black ink on a white sheet of paper: blacks are not very black, and ‘whites’ are definitely grey. It’s not even close to the Kindle Voyage, but letters appear quite sharp and clear, and A4/Letter sized documents are very easy to read. Without the glow of most modern screens, it is relatively restful on the eyes. It is extremely light: it feels like a thick sheet of cardboard in the hand, lighter than even 20-30 pages of good printed paper, let alone the thousands of books it can carry. It is really easy to hold in one hand for prolonged periods. The screen is very readable in bright sunlight, and it is acceptable in a reasonably well-lit room. It has no backlight, though, so it is not much use in darker rooms. The battery life is fine – around 15 to 20 hours. You can certainly use it for a whole day without the need to recharge it. Recharging, through a standard micro USB plug, takes a while but you can use it at the same time or recharge it overnight.  So far, so good. After that, though, it goes rapidly downhill.

The software is truly awful. My most important intended use for the device was to make marking of student work and reviewing of papers and books, etc, easier. Alas, it does not. The first big problem is actually getting documents onto it. The built-in (and atrociously unusable) web browser does not recognize PDFs from Moodle or Office 365 email as known file types. It does support WebDAV, but it only allows a single webDAV server to be configured. The wifi is as primitive as it gets, and far from reliable. Worse, the device unaccountably wipes out any files you have saved should you choose to go through the incredibly slow and tortuous process of changing the WebDAV server, using the highly unresponsive and annoying keyboard (there are always characters that are at least 3 keyboards away from the default) but I have found that so unreliable and slow (often it fails to connect because it takes so long to set up a simple, single, wifi connection, and it is very fussy about which webDAV variants it will support) that there is very little point, even for a single WebDAV server. I have found that it can use CloudApp via the web browser, which is fine for the odd one-off file, albeit that it can easily take 5 minutes to enter the URL and get the file. I could set up my PC as a WebDAV server but part of the point of this is to untether me from it and, if I’m going to be around it anyway, I might as well plug it in. The only sensible way to add files is thus to download the work onto my PC and transfer it from there via a USB cable. This is extremely clunky: it can easily take 5 minutes simply to get a file, once you factor in saving from wherever it is in the first place (e.g. Moodle, email, review sites). Though it does have a micro-SD card, the hassle of unmounting then remounting it is not worth the bother, especially as it demands removal of a small back-panel to get at the thing. Without even a means to upload files via the web browser, it is even worse trying to get it back again afer annotation: USB or SD card are the only plausible ways, notwithstanding the awful WebDAV implementation. This is far too clunky: the whole point is to streamline the process, not to make it more difficult. I can see that it might be OK if I had bulk documents to download and upload but that’s not how I normally work, nor how I wish to work.

The next problem is that navigation through texts is tortuous. I thought it would be great for reading and annotating a book that I am reviewing, but that turns out not to be the case. Unlike most e-readers, you cannot simply jump to references and back again. In fact, even skipping to the back of the book to look them up is incredibly tedious. As far as I can tell, you cannot even flip to the index, or the back, or the front. Switching to thumbnail view sounds promising, but actually means you lose your place as the current page is somewhere in the middle and not highlighted. Compared with the Kindle’s quite neat x-ray and other browsing tools, this feels like something from the Middle Ages. Even reading is less than perfect: it blanks the screen way too often (reversing black and white to clear the memory effect of e-paper screens) and takes too long to return. Book-length texts take an age to load.

After some time using it, a few other issues have arisen that make it even less useful. I had been using it as a simple way to record notes such as my daily to-do list. However, every now and then – like every couple of days or so – it needs a reboot, as it loses track of what’s in any file. All appear as blank. Sony are showing no signs of wanting to maintain this buggy firmware, and (though some have found complex ways to replace the customized Android operating system with their own) it is well locked down to prevent customization. Not that there is much to customize: it lacks even sound input or output, so cannot even do text-to-speech, let alone anything more useful. In fact, even some PDFs get mangled by it.

It feels very cheaply made: the buttons (3 standard Android buttons) are clicky, imprecise and toy-like. The body is made of flimsy plastic that bends a bit. Nothing quite fits. Its lightness means that it slips easily – indeed, it slid off my desk, making a soft landing on the floor about a metre below. Not a great thing to do, for sure, but, given that it is such a light device made of resilient plastic, I would not have expected much damage. However, the ugly fabric pen holder snapped off – apparently it is only lightly glued in place. This is shoddy. The screen itself gets messy very quickly which, given that the point is to write on it, seems a design flaw. It also picks up scratches easily. It comes with a cheap and ugly cover, but that virtually doubles the apparent weight and makes it far less comfortable to use. The dedicated cheap plastic pen is easy to lose, and there is a very small but perceptible lag between writing and the appearance of your writing on the screen. It doesn’t feel quite like using a pen – the screen is too slippery and, oddly, also scratchy at the same time. I like the instant erase button on the pen, but it is too easy to press it by mistake. The fine plastic point looks flimsy: I doubt it will last long. Replacements designed for graphics tablets should work, but it doesn’t inspire confidence.

Overall, this should be a very promising device, but it fails to even do the one thing it is supposed to do at all well. I would love a better thought-through device with this screen format, or the same thing at a tenth of the price but, right now, this is one to avoid like the plague.

Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 Pro 10

Yoga Tab 3 The Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 Pro 10 is mostly a fairly conventional 10″ Android tablet with one significant twist: it has an integrated pico projector. It’s remarkably hard to find the specs for the projector, but I would guess it must be about 50 lumens and perhaps 800 x 600 resolution, or maybe a little higher.

The device runs Android 5.1 with only a few slightly annoying differences from the stock version. I fail to understandand why almost all manufacturers insist on doing this: while the projector does mean it needs a few small tweaks, there’s no good reason to mess with the rest.  It has the usual range of sensors, expandable memory (by microSD card), and a stonkingly big 10,200 mAh fast charging battery from which it is claimed one can get 18 hours of use. I think that’s an exaggeration: you’d need some gentle apps, low screen brightness, and no wifi to get anything like that but, in normal use, with web browsing, email, Kindle, a bit of streaming video and light use of the projector, I have easily got well over 12 hours, which is not bad at all. Unfortunately, being Android, it keeps eating power when you are doing nothing with it so, unlike an iPad (that could be left for weeks and still have power) it will die when left alone for a few days, unless you turn it off completely (in which case it will last well over a month). That being said, you could certainly watch three or four movies before needing to recharge. The price paid for this is, unsurprisingly, in extra weight and bulk, but that is mostly taken up by a side handle that is fairly comfortable to hold and that also contains the projector, speakers, rear camera and a really well designed built-in prop that also doubles as a means to hang it on a hook on the wall. All in all, though you are aware of the weight, it is well balanced and sits comfortably in the hand. It feels solid and well engineered. The other stand-out features are a full Quad HD screen that is at least as nice as that on the iPad Pro (though much smaller), and Dolby sound from four JBL speakers that are remarkably good at spatial stereo – it seems that the sound spreads from a far wider area than the device itself. It would be better with 3G/4G, but wifi is available most places so I can live without that, though I do miss fingerprint authentication: passcodes and gestures are not at all as convenient. One quite nice feature is that you can use anything conductive as a stylus, including a steel pen or even a pencil. Also unusual in a tablet is the inclusion of a buzzer. It is also splashproof to IP21 (ie. it can cope with condensation and light showers) which brings it a little closer to a p-book in resilience.

Unfortunately, even more than most Android devices, it is flaky. Apps crash very regularly, have more bugs than their iOS counterparts, pause for no obvious reason, and the whole thing feels very unresponsive most of the time. Given a quad core Atom CPU running at 1.4GHz and 2GB of RAM, this is quite surprising. It is partly a generic Android thing, but I think Lenovo have made it worse: I get nothing like these problems on other Android devices, even on those with lower specs. I have tried very hard to love Android over many years, because I approve of its (general) relative openness and its flexibility, but I always feel a sense of profound relief coming back to my far better and smoother iOS devices. It’s the same trade-off as that between Windows or Linux and Macs: you can pick flexibility but sub-optimal flakiness, or something that works really well but that limits your choices. Even ignoring Apple’s superior hardware and operating system, such inequality is inevitable: developers can test on pretty much all Apple devices, but even the biggest developers cannot hope to do so on the tens of thousands of Android machines. iOS simply works better, but good luck to anyone wanting a built-in projector or waterproofing on their iPad (though it can be done).

One of the main reasons I got this was to try e-reading at gigantic size. Using a projector is an interesting alternative to book-like e-readers that has not been researched much, if at all. It does work for this, up to a point. With normal room lighting the projected image is pretty bright up to about 30 inches, but decays rapidly after that. In darkness, I reckon it is pretty good at 90 inches or more. Colours are clear, the image is sharp. It does a very good job of showing anything on the screen, has intuitive controls, and is pretty smart at automatically adjusting the keystone and focus as you move the device around. The focal length is not as wide/adjustable as I’d like – you have to be some way from the wall or ceiling to get a decent picture, far further than for my dedicated pico projector, but I guess that is so that you can sit on a sofa in a normal sized room to control it. Unfortunately the focus is not wonderfully even, so the corners and edges are a bit blurred. However, with a reasonably large font, it is perfectly possible to read it. I have yet to figure out whether it is possible to display it vertically, though, for easier page reading: it seems no one in the design team considered the possibility that someone might want to do that, and it does not flip like the standard screen: pages are therefore always horizontal, whatever their original orientation. The dimness and relatively poor resolution mean that it is not great for looking at details, which is one thing I hoped might be a strength, especially for books with pictures and diagrams. If the projector had the same resolution as the screen itself, you could easily display multiple pages and read them, but that’s not going to happen. Another thing that I had not really thought too deeply about until I tried is is that many of the same problems with reading on a laptop or desktop machine remain: the fixed distance between reader and book is really bad for reading, and not at all comfortable after a little while, though I have enjoyed lying in bed reading a book from the ceiling (albeit that the ceiling texture can make a bit difference to legibility). However, another thing that should have been obvious to me is that, to control it, you need to be holding the device. This means two very bad things happen. First, and most annoyingly, it wobbles. This is incredibly bad for reading. Secondly, it divorces the page turning and highlighting action from the reading surface. It’s actually surprisingly difficult to coordinate hand movements on a tablet when you are not getting direct visual feedback, far worse than, say, using a graphics tablet on a conventional PC. So, though it is kind of nice to be able to read a book with a partner in bed (not something you’d want to do all the time), the projector is by no means a great e-reading device. The standard 10″ screen itself is perfectly usable for reading, if a bit too shiny, and it has the widescreen aspect ratio favoured by most Android tablets, which is good for movies but not so much for reading books. The resolution of the built in screen is very good indeed, but that is not unusual nowadays.

My second use case was to explore its potential as a more social device than most personal machines. Tablets tend to be more social objects than cellphones or PCs anyway – it’s one of the key things that makes them a different product category. Tablets are things that get passed around, peered over together, talked about and used in a (physical) social context. People do use phones that way but only because of the convenience and availability of the devices: they are too small and too personal (texts etc keep popping up) to be really useful in that context. A device with a projector ought to be more interesting. While the projector’s limitations mean that it can’t be used outside or in a brightly lit room, and it’s not much use unless you can find a blank bit of wall to display onto (surprisingly absent in most public social venues like pubs and cafes), in the right physical context it becomes a shared object, a catalyst for conversation and conviviality, and a means to engage with one another. It seems especially useful for things like short YouTube videos, photos, and so on. Having the device on the table when there is a gathering of friends and family means that when (as someone usually does) people refer to something they have seen online, everyone can share the experience as a group, not as separate individuals one or two at a time. This changes the meaning of the activity quite considerably. It notably blurs the online/physical space. For a full TV show or movie, I would almost always prefer to make an event of it and gather round a TV or proper projector than use this inevitably makeshift device. However, it has already proved useful, even in that context. We had a family movie night the other day, with large projector screen, and the PC driving it dropped its Netflix connection, refusing to return. As we only had a few minutes left of the movie, it took all of 2 minutes to switch on the device, aim it at the screen, and pick up where we left off. Another thing that is very appealing about it is that it needs no wires at all – just set it down and play. I’ve not yet had a chance to use it in another similar setting, with two or more collocated groups working at a distance. I suspect that it might be quite effective when using webmeeting or Skype-like software, though the inability to pan the selfie camera might negate the benefits.

Overall, I am quite pleased with this: if it were my only tablet, it would do most, if not all, of what I need a tablet for, and it is not bad for the price, even without the projector, closely comparable to a similar iPad.  If the software and hardware combination were more reliable, more consistent and responsive in performance, and less rough at the edges, it might be a very good competitor to my iPad Air 2, but it just isn’t. They are mostly small irritations but there are many of them, from buttons that take a second to respond to random crashes to simple flakiness and inconsistency in software design. Taken together, they make the whole experience profoundly unsatisfying. The device does not disappear as it should. I like the prop, I like the battery life, I like the projector, even though its e-reading uses are limited. It strikes me that there’s room in the market for an iPad accessory that includes integrated projector, battery, maybe speakers and prop.  It would be easy enough to implement and much handier to add it when needed than to have such things all the time when, mostly, they are not needed.

Google Cardboard

VR headsetThe Google Cardboard viewer I purchased is one of the hundreds of cheap generic plastic VR headsets into which one slots a smartphone. It comes with a small, generic, bluetooth controller that is supposed to allow you to control the phone, that works very poorly and intermittently on an Android device, and is virtually useless for an iPhone, though technically supported.

It is quite scary, at first, to place one’s big, expensive phone into this flimsy plastic container and dangle it a few feet above the ground. However, the phone is gripped well and seems in no danger of falling. The device is not very comfortable to wear, especially over a prolonged period, especially if you have a prominent nose. I find the rubbery eye mask to be hot and awkward after a little while, and the elasticated bands begins to be noticeable after a short time. With a big phone, it pulls forwards on your face. Virtual reality is still an uncomfortable place. You look really stupid wearing it.

The software needs a lot of work. The best I have managed so far with it is to look around in a few virtual worlds. With its dreadful controller, it is really hard to even click a hovering button, and the disconnect between the heads-up display and the crappy controls is huge. It might be fun to try this with a circa 1992 data glove, or the super-smart HTC Vive controllers, but that would rather negate the point of a wire-free VR device. This is no Vive or Oculus – not by a long chalk. It’s about the same kind of experience as early 2000s VR, without the wires. The field of view is quite small, the resolution is not great, the movement is jerky and obvious, even on a fast iPhone. It was not notably worse on an old Nexus 4, and Moto G, so I think this is more down to software than hardware.

Once you have exhausted the possibilities of the demo apps that Google provides, it is actually quite tricky to find decent apps for it. It’s not that no apps are available. They are just not very good. It is hard to set them up, many just don’t do anything, and virtually none are properly supported by the bluetooth controller. I would have expected the potential for augmented reality to be a selling point, as the camera is deliberately uncovered. Not so much. Most apps don’t use it at all.

As an e-reader, it is hopeless. Though an Phone 6+ has plenty of definition and is about as big as what the case will hold, all of that is lost when viewed through cheap plastic lenses, and the slight differences in viewing angle from each eye make it quite dizzying to read even large text (without the stereo). Oculus or HTC Vive does this sort of thing quite well, but at such a high price (in every way) it is an absurd idea to even try it. For all such things, the fact that you have to exclude the entire outside world in order to use them makes these deeply anti-social devices. Perhaps the Magic Leap will provide a better answer, as it has both high resolution and integration with the real world. It would be cool to mimic a bookshelf in AR, and would not be a terrible way to read text. Some of the videos – – are amazing. However, it appears not to be too portable. Something that gave both the portability of the Google Cardboard box and the power of a Magic Leap might be well worth having. There are plenty of suitable desktop variants for such devices.

Overall, this particular device is a badly conceived toy: it is difficult to use, limited, uncomfortable and flaky. Fun to play with for a few minutes, but not good for anything.

Pebble Time Steel

Pebble Time SteelMost mainstream smart watches (the Apples and Androids) have glowing screens with battery lives of a day or two at best, and almost all the rest seem to be focused on golf players, runners, or people that want really basic email and phone alerts. The Pebble, however, hits a sweet spot: a claimed battery life of a week or more, a big app ecosystem, an always-on e-paper (not e-ink) LCD screen, and a few sensors to make it useful. I started with an original monochrome Pebble (a fabulous bargain at $79 – less than many fitness trackers alone, and a really good watch) but, after a couple of weeks, passed it on, after realizing that I am too rough on my watches for a plastic screen. So now I have what was, at the time of purchase, the top-of-the-line, colour, voice-recognizing, Gorilla-Glassed Pebble Time Steel ($200). This is on the verge of being superseded by the Pebble Time 2, with a larger viewing screen, keeping the same size for the watch, which is a good thing: the usable screen (it has a big bevel) is too small. I can at least read the time without glasses, though some of the apps use text and images that are too small to read unassisted. I have never come close to the claimed battery life of 10 days: mostly I manage 6-7 days, though I have not run it into the ground so may be misjudging its staying power. However, that’s fine: I just have to take it off for a couple of hours once a week to charge it with its magnetic charger. It does warn you about a day ahead of when it is going to die, so there’s usually time to charge it before it goes completely.

Instead of a touch screen favoured by most smartwatches, the Pebble has just four buttons, that you can use to control almost anything. They are hopeless for data entry (the calculator apps are all but useless) but they are fine and intuitive for getting around the various menus. The Time Steel has voice recognition, that is used in a few apps, but I don’t find it at all accurate and it is weird to talk to a watch, repeating things that it fails to understand over and over. I’m guessing it uses a cloud service to perform the translation itself: a bit bothersome for privacy. I really don’t get the Star Trek notion of talking to your computer. Sure, it’s fine for quick look-ups but I don’t think the evangelists for such things ever looked at how real people actually behave. It’s bad enough having to add things to my shopping list in a supermarket, make appointments on a bus, or take notes in a cafe. Can you imagine dictating a report or a paper in a crowded office or Starbucks? Especially when more than a few people are doing it? Even in the family home it is plain weird to hear someone talking into their computer in the next room and, for many things, confidentiality and privacy are serious issues. So, for a vast number of use cases, the only way to use voice recognition is in a soundproof room. Surprisingly, perhaps, computers that you talk to are considerably more anti-social than those that you write to.

Like most such devices, the Pebble relies on a smartphone for much of its functionality, pulling apps and data (such as GPS coordinates, weather, news, etc) from the phone as needed, keeping only the more recently used ones in its cache. Some apps require separate companion apps on the phone (as opposed to just the Pebble app itself) but, as most eat more battery, I have tried to avoid those where I can. I started by installing a lot of apps but soon realized that most were entirely pointless. On the whole, it is easier to reach into your pocket and use the phone app than to navigate through menus on the watch to find the reduced-functionality one that you need. There are a few that I use all the time: the watch itself, notifications, weather, a shopping list, the alarms, a sailing tracker.

I installed O365 and Evernote note reading apps, but never used them after testing that they worked: it’s basically a terrible way to read notes.  I quite liked being able to control presentations from my watch until, the first time I tried to use it for a keynote and despite having tested fine beforehand, it didn’t work at all. A high stress public talk is a bad place to find that out.

As an e-reader, not unexpectedly, the Pebble leaves a lot to be desired. There are various apps that will read text, RSS feeds, etc, by scrolling at a fixed rate, as well as those that let you painfully scroll through text files but one in particular intrigued me: AFR (a faster reader). This displays words one at a time at a configurable speed, laid out in a way that keeps your focus on a central coloured letter (an implementation of RSVP). It’s a strange and disconcerting experience. A standard e-book is bad enough for reducing the contextual information needed to remember what you have read, but AFR decontextualizes every single word, flowing like a video through the text, one word at a time. It cannot read PDFs or DRM’d books (though you can copy your iPhone’s clipboard into it) – and it can be a bit complicated to get text into it, despite useful sharing options in iOS. It also requires a companion app in iOS. It chokes on even mildly complex formatting, and the backlight turns off as usual while it is running so, unless you are in brightly lit conditions, it is not easy to read. There is no control over the text size which, on my watch, is difficult to read even with normal reading glasses. It is also pretty buggy, prone to freezing, and, worst of all, the speed of text on the Pebble does not match that on the iPhone (in fact, it often reads as nonsense, skipping words rather than just slowing down, and showing them at a rate of about one per second, which is hopeless). However, as a concept, I think it is quite neat and well worth exploring further.

As a watch, the Pebble Time Steel is great. I love the backlight. I love that it is waterproof. I can live with charging it once a week. I love the alarms. However, like all computers, it crashes occasionally. Not every week, but maybe every month. Relying on the alarm can, therefore, be a bit risky if it really matters. I’ve experienced one major crash in the past 3 months, which required a device reset. This was annoying, not just for the hassle of having to figure out the weird button combinations needed for the reset, but also because it lost all my settings (including the alarms, that I only realized quite late the next morning). It is also annoying that the app has to be running in the background on the iPhone, and the iPhone doesn’t let you force an app to remain running. The first couple of times it stopped were quite confusing, because the watch told me it couldn’t communicate with the phone, even though I could see it was connected via bluetooth. I just needed to start the app again. I suspect the Android app might be better in that regard though, unfortunately, you cannot pair the watch with more than one device at a time so I’ve not tried that. Though it uses a very lightweight bluetooth connection for most of its activities, it does eat more of my phone battery than I’d like: perhaps 10-20% of its capacity per day. This is a nuisance, but my phone still lasts more than a day on the whole (well, at least it did before Pokémon GO) so it is not too bad.

Overall, I like the Pebble Time Steel. It’s not going to be my e-reader of choice, but it’s a darn good watch. It’s neither ugly nor attractive – the strap is actually very tasteful – it’s comfortable, it tells the time, it withstands bangs and dunkings, it wakes me up, it provides useful information, it doesn’t get in the way, it doesn’t need constant care, it’s always there. But I doubt that I will keep it for very long. In the past, watches used to last for 10 years or more (my Swiss watch is about 20 years old) but I would be quite surprised if this lasts me even a couple of years. Maybe less – its reliance on a proprietary app and phone is quite worrisome and could fail at any time. Such is the way of modern tech. We do not own the things we buy any more.

iPad Pro

iPad Pro At first sight the iPad Pro seems like an odd idea. It’s too uncomfortable to hold in one hand, too big to fit in an iPad pocket,  it needs a (non-included) pen to operate its smartest features, and it is really expensive, even compared with a quite high-spec laptop. But the ‘Pro’ nomenclature reveals some of what Apple is aiming for: this is not meant as a device for the masses but is instead for those seeking serious productivity from their device, a different way of engaging with a tablet, beyond media consumption, game playing and simple interaction. Indeed, Apple has gone so far as to claim it can be a laptop replacement, if you add a keyboard.

The device feels huge at first, albeit that it is slim and beautiful to hold. After a few hours, though, using a standard iPad feels cramped and small, and the Pro feels quite normal. You’d not want to hold this in one hand for any length of time, of course. It doesn’t actually weigh noticeably more than the first generation iPad, but the force it exerts on your hand can be considerably greater, unless you get the balance exactly right. That’s actually not too hard, though it does call for a change in approach. I tend to use the device on my lap, or propped up in bed, or in its keyboard case resting on a chair or table. I can walk around with it when I need to, and that’s a world away from walking around with a laptop, and it is vastly much easier to share with other people around you.  I have found that its extraordinarily good video display makes it a far more interesting social device than smaller tablets when sitting around with other people. I am very used to passing a tablet around for my wife, family and friends to look at but, with the iPad Pro, we can all look at the same thing together, sitting on a sofa or at a table. It’s surprisingly superior to the same experience using a laptop too. Perhaps it is the lack of other intrusions, or the cleanness of just a screen and nothing else to interfere with the experience. The iPad largely disappears, leaving only the content it displays. Those that hold it tend to be reluctant to let go again. The battery life is good: 9 or 10 hours seems about normal.

The Pro is great for reading of news sites, letting you see large amounts of individual articles and links to other articles on a page. Much more convenient than a newspaper, but with a similar capability to show not just what you are reading but other stories around it. Oddly, though, it is not as satisfying as I had thought it might be for normal e-books.  In some ways is exacerbates the problem of there being a lot of undifferentiated, non-typeset text, emphasizing the fact that there has been no human involvement in laying it out on screen. However, for books with many diagrams and images, it is a lot better than smaller devices and, for those with particularly bad eyesight, it might be wonderful. For simply reading a long-form linear text, however, the Kindle Voyage wins hands down.

One big hope that I had for this was, like the DPT-S1, to be able to comfortably read – and annotate – PDF files originally designed for print. This has actually worked out pretty well – far, far better than the rotten DPT-S1. Reading is easy on the eye, immune to most light levels apart from really bright sun or spotlights, and the experience is mostly smooth and slick. The size of the screen means that there is even enough space for apps like Goodreader to show previews of surrounding pages, which helps a lot in getting a sense of where you are in a text (a perennial problem with most existing e-readers), and largely eliminates one of the major cognitive hurdles in reading e-texts, that there is no consistent visual pattern to help you remember what you have read. When I have a lot of work to mark, this is great. It is much lighter and easier to carry than (say) a paper thesis or dissertation, and almost as easy to mark up, though nothing like as light as the DPT-S1. One notable difference between paper and all the software I have used, however, is that it is much harder to flick between multiple pages, to hold two or three open at once from different parts of the manuscript to compare and connect them: it would be so useful to find a good way to replicate this, especially for writing my own books and papers. Though bookmarks help, it is nothing like as fluid or easy as holding a manuscript with fingers on each passage that interests me. I suspect that a desk-sized tablet, with the same retina resolution and an Apple Pencil, might solve this problem, with the right software. Though quite a few  ‘tablets’ with such dimensions do exist, all of those I have seen cannot come close to this resolution, including the ludicrously priced Microsoft Surface Hub. We might have a generation or two to go before that becomes a reality and, by then, heads-up displays will offer a much more cost-effective and flexible alternative. I think perhaps that the main problem is the metaphor of a screen as being a window into virtual space. Windows frame things that should not be framed.

There are numerous annotation-friendly apps for PDFs available, with different strengths and weaknesses. It bugs me, though, that every app maintains its own storage so you cannot seamlessly flit between different apps to take advantage of their different features. This is one of the things that makes iOS secure, but it makes it very annoying to manage documents, even though cloud storage services can reduce that pain a little. Essentially, though, you have to copy documents between one app and the next, rather than simply working on them with whatever you want to use. There is no sense of connection and continuity.  I guess, if I were wise, I would simply use a single moderately good app like Goodreader, with its own storage and copious links to cloud storage for shifting documents around, and leave it at that, but that’s not the kind of guy I am, and it doesn’t handle all document workflows well, especially with regard to conversion between formats. I want to keep chasing the adjacent possible.

I am far from being a visual artist, but there are many occasions that it would be useful to draw things, create diagrams, design 3D objects for printing or VR, sketch ideas, mockup interfaces, sketch over images, and so on. In dedicated apps, with the Apple Pencil, the iPad mostly feels much like working on paper, with all the additional tools, views, perspectives, layers and wonderful extras that the computer-based environment provides. Very different too from working with a graphics tablet that, because it is separate from the created object, has always felt alienating and awkward to me.  There are also plenty of tools that let you annotate PDFs and images. But I would like to be able to do this kind of thing and seamlessly incorporate it into anything that I am doing – to sketch in a slideshow, or word processor, a book, a paper, or whatever, wherever I am. The notion that documents are of a particular type – not just text, image, diagram, etc but specific formats of such things (Word, Kindle, PNG, etc) – is deep in the genes of even the smartest tablets. We seem trapped in a 1980s timewarp on this. It is even true of formats that ought to support such flexibility like word processors, perhaps because of Microsoft’s stranglehold on word processing paradigms that has kept us in a typewriter mindset for decades. Even Apple’s own otherwise great Pages is victim to this. At best, you can embed an image or use a separate app within the main application.

After Apple’s hype, I wondered whether it might also work as a laptop replacement, and so I got a backlit Logitech keyboard to test this theory out. I have tried this experiment with various different tablets (Apple, Android, and Windows) over the past 6 years or so, but all my efforts so far had been less than wonderful. Fine for a day or two on the road, but not at all close to the laptop experience. The iPad Pro is better, but still not ideal. I’m typing this on the Logitech keyboard and finding it to be at least as comfortable as typing on my MacBook Pro. The screen is incredibly bright and clear.  WIth the enormous Logitech case, though, it is very heavy indeed, perhaps heavier than my MacBook Pro and far less well balanced. The case has only one position – comfortable-ish, but not great. It has a nice set of iPad optimized function keys, though, and works with most Mac keyboard shortcuts, e.g. app switching. I also like that it just works, sipping power from the iPad itself. It is a vast improvement on smaller machines – especially with the dual-window view – and might be OK for a few days at a pinch if I were not doing anything apart from using the Internet, doing a bit of writing, and maybe a bit of presenting. There probably are some people that could use it as a laptop all the time but, as a technologist and computing professional, it is nothing like close enough: the software is simply not sufficiently capable. It’s OK at a pinch for remote-controlling the Macbook Pro, but not a lot of fun. I’m enjoying the new iOS Scrivener app, which is very close to the desktop version in power and usability, but it lacks the tight integration with reference libraries of the desktop version, and I use such things a great deal.

The retina resolution makes a really great second screen that I can use while travelling or on my boat, using the terrific Duet app for a virtually lagless and seamless experience. I have done this with the smaller iPad Air 2 for some time, but it has always been just a little bit of extra real estate, not a seriously useful extra monitor: helpful for, say, viewing incoming email or writing brief notes, but not in the same league as a real second monitor. The iPad Pro can be used for real work – programming, marking, research, etc are a breeze with a big screen attached. Not quite as amazing as my 29” Apple monitor, but good enough for real gains in productivity. Though it has to be tethered to the MacBook Pro for this, it allows you to read papers etc from the much more flexible computer with at least some of the benefits of a tablet.

Another good surprise is the onscreen keyboard, that is not far off complete, with a row of numbers and a good range of punctuation available at all times, and a size that fits my hands well. This only applies to apps that have been optimized for the iPad Pro – there are still quite a few that make use of the more basic and less functional keyboard of the older iPad. In fact, there are even a few iPhone apps that do run on the Pro, albeit not completely full-screen (even with double scaling) which looks entirely weird, like clunky toys. But, when you get the full iPad experience, typing on the screen is far easier and friendlier than in previous models.

One irritation is that quite a few websites decide that I am using an iPad and therefore give me a mobile-optimized – ie. less functional – view. With all that screen real estate it is silly to have a set of buttons etc that are made to work on a cellphone.  Conversely, sites that are designed for desktop use can be fiddly, especially when they disable pinch-to-zoom. Google Books (which could be amazingly useful in this format) is a real pain – its tiny zoom buttons are hard to press and it overrides all the usual controls – especially zoom – that one would normally use to deal with that.

Using it in the sunshine is fine, from a screen perspective, but risky: it gets very very hot very very quickly. The first time I realized it was happening I had to rush inside and train a fan on it because the battery was notably in peril. A case is essential for outdoor summer use. It is not great in the rain either.

The Apple Pencil is a real surprise. I was in two minds whether to get it at all. Seriously, $115 for a pencil that doesn’t even write, and that only works with one device (now two)? I could get two cheap tablets for the price of this thin white stick. To make things worse, though it is quite pretty in its simplicity, this is not a well designed tool. The magnetic lid for the lightning connector is guaranteed to be lost, as is the connector that allows it to be charged using a standard lightning cable. I have no idea where I put the spare rubber tip for when the current one wears down. Apple used to be better than this – I am quite sure Steve Jobs would not have allowed this one out of the door. There’s no way to keep it with your iPad, unless you want to 3D print something to hold it or use sticky tape, and neither the Apple nor the Logitech keyboard cases have any means to attach it, which seems bizarre. It is incredibly easy to lose. When just putting it down, the fact that it is magnetic means it will stick to the side of the iPad, but not strongly enough to hold on when it is tilted. It’s not terrible on a flat surface because it is counterweighted a little so that it doesn’t roll too much – a nice design touch. On a white tablecloth, though, it is easily missed. It is just difficult enough to find that it becomes an active decision to use it. It would certainly cure the problems of, say, non-zooming screens in web browsers but, unless it is directly to hand, it is too much hassle to go find it when such needs occur. The fast charge option, though, which gives about 30 minutes use on a 15 second charge, is quite smart, and I love the way it disables the touch sensitive screen when it gets close to it, so you can very comfortably rest your hand and trust that you will not suddenly start drawing with knuckles or other parts of your anatomy.

In most apps (not all), lines appear instantly, with no perceptible lag, a great deal of accuracy (Apple make the point that the level of control is tens of times more accurate than even the best passive pens) and a reassuring amount of tactile feedback. I have used other styluses that are best of breed – Pencil (the non-Apple one), for instance – but they don’t come close enough to replicating the experience of drawing on paper. The Apple Pencil does. Drawing with hard rubber on glass is certainly not at all the same thing as writing on paper with pen, pencil, charcoal or brush, but it’s a lot better than a hard-tipped or blobby rubber-tipped stylus, and it is easy to get used to it, especially thanks to the near-instant feedback. I can create extremely small details, with a similar amount of precision as I would get with a ballpoint ben, though maybe a little less than with a proper drawing pen like a Rapidograph or even a fine rollerball. However, that tends to be no big problem because, in most apps, you can zoom in to any level of detail you like. I was quite surprised to find it really easy and natural to, for instance, draw lines using a real ruler, which (on older tablets) is possible but totally weird, and prone to accidental artefacts. You can even trace or draw around things, which is neat for 3D design, especially. There is, though, still a very slight perceptible distance between the drawing surface and the stylus. The glass is extremely thin indeed – a hair’s breadth – but it is still there, and it separates you from the page. It’s like the difference between playing a guitar and playing a piano: the feedback is between hand and brain rather than hand and medium. It’s not quite direct.

I am enjoying the Apple Pencil more and more. Its precision turns out to be extremely useful at times, allowing manipulations and selection of small objects with ease, and I enjoy writing and sketching with it. It just disappears (sadly, literally sometimes) and it changes the nature of the interaction with the tablet in some very good ways.

Overall, I was not expecting wonders from the iPad Pro – at least compared with the Air 2 – and was totally in sympathy with Steve Jobs’s edict to avoid styluses on such things, but I have been very pleasantly surprised. The size of the iPad Pro makes a huge difference for reading (though seldom of e-books) and working in general, the Pencil is really effective for all its design flaws, and this, after my Macbook Pro and iPhone, is one of my favourite and most-used devices.

Curiosity Is Not Intrinsically Good

Interesting reflections in Scientific American on morbid curiosity – that we are driven by our curiosity, sometimes even when we actually know that there is a strong likelihood it will hurt us. In the article, as the title implies, this is portrayed as a bad thing. I disagree.

“The drive to discover is deeply ingrained in humans, on par with the basic drives for food or sex, says Christopher Hsee of the University of Chicago, a co-author of the paper. Curiosity is often considered a good instinct—it can lead to new scientific advances, for instance—but sometimes such inquiry can backfire. “The insight that curiosity can drive you to do self-destructive things is a profound one,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has pioneered the scientific study of curiosity.”

Bub in a boxThis is not exactly a novel, nor a profound insight: we even have a popular proverb for it that I mention to my cats on an almost daily basis. They don’t listen. 

There is a strong relationship between curiosity and the desire for competence: a need to know how things work, how to do something we cannot yet do, why things are the way they are, where our limits lie, how to become more capable of acting in the world. From an evolutionary perspective we are curious with a purpose. It allows us to make effective use of our environment, to become competent within it. This is really good for survival so, of course, it is selected for. That it sometimes drives us to do things that harm us is actually a very positive feature, as long as it is balanced with a sufficient level of caution and the harm it causes is not too great. It helps us to know what to avoid, as well as what is useful to us. It also helps us to be more adaptable to bad things that we cannot avoid. It makes us more flexible, and lets us both know and extend our limits.

The first experiment described here involved people playing with pens even knowing that some were novelty items that would give them an electric shock. I’m not sure why the researchers mixed in some harmless pens in this because, even when pain is an absolute certainty, curiosity can drive us to experience it. I have long used electrostatic zappers that are designed to alleviate the itch in mosquito bites by administering a sharp and slightly painful shock to the skin. I have yet to meet a single child and have met very few adults that did not want to try it out on their own skin, regardless of whether they had any bites, in the full and certain knowledge that it would hurt. This is described in the article as self-destructive curiosity but I don’t think that’s right at all. If subjects had been convincingly warned that some pens would kill or maim them, then I am quite certain that very few would have played with them (some might, of course – evolution thrives on variation and, in some environments, high-risk strategies might pay off). But being curious about what kind of pain it might cause is really just a way of discovering or achieving competence, of discovering how we cope with this kind of shock, of testing hypotheses about ourselves and the environment, as well as finding out whether such joke pens actually work as advertised. This is potentially useful information: it will make you less likely to be a victim of a practical joke, or perhaps inspire you to perform one more effectively. Either way, it’s probably not a big thing in the grand scheme of things but, then again, very few learning experiences are. The value is more about how we integrate and connect such experiences.

The article describes another experiment in which participants were encouraged to predict their feelings after being shown an unpleasant image. Those so primed were less likely to choose to see it. Again, this makes sense in the light of what we already know. We are curious with a purpose – to learn – so, if we reflect a bit on what we have already learned, then it might dull our curiosity to experience something bad again. That’s potentially useful. I’m not sure that it is always a good thing, though. I happen to like, say, some horror movies that disgust me, or comedies that rely on discomfort for their humour. In fact, the anticipation of fear or disgust is often one of the main things that drives their plots and keeps my eyes glued to them. If the zombie apocalypse comes, I will be totally prepared. It also prepares me better for things that are going to really upset me. Likewise for funfair rides, sailing on a breezy day, exercising until it hurts, eating hot chili, or struggling with difficult deadlines.

So while, yes, we absolutely should learn from experience, we also need to remember that it can lead us into fixed ways of thinking that can, when conditions change, be less adaptable and adaptive. There is an ever-shifting balance between fear and curiosity that we need to embrace, perhaps especially when curiosity leads to the likelihood of something unpleasant (though not too unpleasant) happening. And, even when the danger is great, there are also risks that are sometimes worth taking. ‘What if..?’ is one of the most powerful phrases in any language.

Address of the bookmark:

Cocktails and educational research

A lot of progress has been made in medicine in recent years through the application of cocktails of drugs. Those used to combat AIDS are perhaps the most well-known, but there are many other applications of the technique to everything from lung cancer to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The logic is simple. Different drugs attack different vulnerabilities in the pathogens etc they seek to kill. Though evolution means that some bacteria, viruses or cancers are likely to be adapted to escape one attack, the more different attacks you make, the less likely it will be that any will survive.

Simulated learningUnfortunately, combinatorial complexity means this is not a simply a question of throwing a bunch of the best drugs of each type together and gaining their benefits additively. I have recently been reading John H. Miller’s ‘A crude look at the whole: the science of complex systems in business, life and society‘ which is, so far, excellent, and that addresses this and many other problems in complexity science. Miller uses the nice analogy of fashion to help explain the problem: if you simply choose the most fashionable belt, the trendiest shoes, the latest greatest shirt, the snappiest hat, etc, the chances of walking out with the most fashionable outfit by combining them together are virtually zero. In fact, there’s a very strong chance that you will wind up looking pretty awful. It is not easily susceptible to reductive science because the variables all affect one another deeply. If your shirt doesn’t go with your shoes, it doesn’t matter how good either are separately. The same is true of drugs. You can’t simply pick those that are best on their own without understanding how they all work together. Not only may they not additively combine, they may often have highly negative effects, or may prevent one another being effective, or may behave differently in a different sequence, or in different relative concentrations. To make matters worse, side effects multiply as well as therapeutic benefits so, at the very least, you want to aim for the smallest number of compounds in the cocktail that you can get away with. Even were the effects of combining drugs positive, it would be premature to believe that it is the best possible solution unless you have actually tried them all. And therein lies the rub, because there are really a great many ways to combine them.

Miller and colleagues have been using the ideas behind simulated annealing to create faster, better ways to discover working cocktails of drugs. They started with 19 drugs which, a small bit of math shows, could be combined in 2 to the power of 19 different ways – about half a million possible combinations (not counting sequencing or relative strength issues). As only 20 such combinations could be tested each week, the chances of finding an effective, let alone the best combination, were slim within any reasonable timeframe. Simplifying a bit, rather than attempting to cover the entire range of possibilities, their approach finds a local optimum within one locale by picking a point and iterating variations from there until the best combination is found for that patch of the fitness landscape. It then checks another locale and repeats the process, and iterates until they have covered a large enough portion of the fitness landscape to be confident of having found at least a good solution: they have at least several peaks to compare. This also lets them follow up on hunches and to use educated guesses to speed up the search. It seems pretty effective, at least when compared with alternatives that attempt a theory-driven intentional design (too many non-independent variables), and is certainly vastly superior to methodically trying every alternative, inasmuch as it is actually possible to do this within acceptable timescales.

The central trick is to deliberately go downhill on the fitness landscape, rather than following an uphill route of continuous improvement all the time, which may simply get you to the top of an anthill rather than the peak of Everest in the fitness landscape. Miller very effectively shows that this is the fundamental error committed by followers of the Six-Sigma approach to management, an iterative method of process improvement originally invented to reduce errors in the manufacturing process: it may work well in a manufacturing context with a small number of variables to play with in a fixed and well-known landscape, but it is much worse than useless when applied in a creative industry like, say, education, because the chances that we are climbing a mountain and not an anthill are slim to negligible. In fact, the same is true even in manufacturing: if you are just making something inherently weak as good as it can be, it is still weak. There are lessons here for those that work hard to make our educational systems work better. For instance, attempts to make examination processes more reliable are doomed to fail because it’s exams that are the problem, not the processes used to run them. As I finish this while listening to a talk on learning analytics, I see dozens of such examples: most of the analytics tools described are designed to make the various parts of the educational machine work ‘ better’, ie. (for the most part) to help ensure that students’ behaviour complies with teachers’ intent. Of course, the only reason such compliance was ever needed was for efficient use of teaching resources, not because it is good for learning. Anthills.

This way of thinking seems to me to have potentially interesting applications in educational research. We who work in the area are faced with an irreducibly large number of recombinable and mutually affective variables that make any ethical attempt to do experimental research on effectiveness (however we choose to measure that – so many anthills here) impossible. It doesn’t stop a lot of people doing it, and telling us about p-values that prove their point in more or less scupulous studies, but they are – not to put too fine a point on it – almost always completely pointless.  At best, they might be telling us something useful about a single, non-replicable anthill, from which we might draw a lesson or two for our own context. But even a single omitted word in a lecture, a small change in inflection, let alone an impossibly vast range of design, contextual, historical and human factors, can have a substantial effect on learning outcomes and effectiveness for any given individual at any given time. We are always dealing with a lot more than 2 to the power of 19 possible mutually interacting combinations in real educational contexts. For even the simplest of research designs in a realistic educational context, the number of possible combinations of relevant variables is more likely closer to 2 to the power of 100 (in base 10 that’s  1,267,650,600,228,229,401,496,703,205,376). To make matters worse, the effects we are looking for may sometimes not be apparent for decades (having recombined and interacted with countless others along the way) and, for anything beyond trivial reductive experiments that would tell us nothing really useful, could seldom be done at a rate of more than a handful per semester, let alone 20 per week. This is a very good reason to do a lot more qualitative research, seeking meanings, connections, values and stories rather than trying to prove our approaches using experimental results. Education is more comparable to psychology than medicine and suffers the same central problem, that the general does not transfer to the specific, as well as a whole bunch of related problems that Smedslund recently coherently summarized. The article is paywalled, but Smedlund’s abstract states his main points succinctly:

“The current empirical paradigm for psychological research is criticized because it ignores the irreversibility of psychological processes, the infinite number of influential factors, the pseudo-empirical nature of many hypotheses, and the methodological implications of social interactivity. An additional point is that the differences and correlations usually found are much too small to be useful in psychological practice and in daily life. Together, these criticisms imply that an objective, accumulative, empirical and theoretical science of psychology is an impossible project.”

You could simply substitute ‘education’ for ‘psychology’ in this, and it would read the same. But it gets worse, because education is as much about technology and design as it is about states of mind and behaviour, so it is orders of magnitude more complex than psychology. The potential for invention of new ways of teaching and new states of learning is essentially infinite. Reductive science thus has a very limited role in educational research, at least as it has hitherto been done.

But what if we took the lessons of simulated annealing to heart? I recently bookmarked an approach to more reliable research suggested by the Christensen Institute that might provide a relevant methodology. The idea behind this is (again, simplifying a bit) to do the experimental stuff, then to sweep the normal results to one side and concentrate on the outliers, performing iterations of conjectures and experiments on an ever more diverse and precise range of samples until a richer, fuller picture results. Although it would be painstaking and longwinded, it is a good idea. But one cycle of this is a bit like a single iteration of Miller’s simulated annealing approach, a means to reach the top of one peak in the fitness landscape, that may still be a low-lying peak. However if, having done that, we jumbled up the variables again and repeated it starting in a different place, we might stand a chance of climbing some higher anthills and, perhaps, over time we might even hit a mountain and begin to have something that looks like a true science of education, in which we might make some reasonable predictions that do not rely on vague generalizations. It would either take a terribly long time (which itself might preclude it because, by the time we had finished researching, the discipline will have moved somewhere else) or would hit some notable ethical boundaries (you can’t deliberately mis-teach someone), but it seems more plausible than most existing techniques, if a reductive science of education is what we seek.

To be frank, I am not convinced it is worth the trouble. It seems to me that education is far closer as a discipline to art and design than it is to psychology, let alone to physics. Sure, there is a lot of important and useful stuff to be learned about how we learn: no doubt about that at all, and a simulated annealing approach might speed up that kind of research. Painters need to know what paints do too. But from there to prescribing how we should therefore teach spans a big chasm that reductive science cannot, in principle or practice, cross. This doesn’t mean that we cannot know anything: it just means it’s a different kind of knowledge than reductive science can provide. We are dealing with emergent phenomena in complex systems that are ontologically and epistemologically different from the parts of which they consist. So, yes, knowledge of the parts is valuable, but we can no more predict how best to teach or learn from those parts than we can predict the shape and function of the heart from knowledge of cellular organelles in its constituent cells. But knowledge of the cocktails that result – that might be useful.



Oh yes, that's why I left

St George Cross (Wikipedia)England is a weird, sad, angry little country, where there is now unequivocal evidence that over half the population – mainly the older ones – believe that experts know nothing, and that foreigners (as well as milllions of people born there with darker than average skins) are evil. England is a place filled with drunkenness and random violence, where it’s not safe to pass a crowd of teenagers – let alone a crowd of football supporters – on a street corner, where you cannot hang Xmas decorations outside for fear of losing them, where your class still defines you forever, where whinging is a way of life, where kindness is viewed with suspicion, where barbed wire fences protect schools from outsiders (or vice versa – hard to fathom), where fuckin‘ is a punctuation mark to underline what follows, not an independent word. It’s a nation filled with fierce and inhospitable people, as Horace once said, and it always has been. For all the people and places that I love and miss there, for all its very many good people and slowly vanishing places that are not at all like that, for all its dark and delicious humour, its eccentricity, its diversity, its cheeky irreverance, its feistiness, its relentless creativity, its excellent beer, its pork pies and its pickled onions, all of which I miss, that’s why I was glad to leave it.

It saddens and maddens me to see the country of my birth killing or, at least, seriously maiming itself in such a spectacularly and wilfully ignorant way, taking the United Kingdom, and possibly even the EU itself with it, as well as causing injury to much of the world, including Canada. England is a country-sized suicide bomber. Hopefully this mob insanity will eventually be a catalyst for positive change, if not in England or Wales then at least elsewhere. Until today I opposed Scottish independence, because nationalism is almost uniformly awful and the last thing we need in the world is more separatism, but it is far better to be part of something big and expansive like the EU than an unwilling partner in something small in soul and mind like the UK. Maybe Ireland will unify and come together in Europe. Perhaps Gibraltar too. Maybe Europe, largely freed of the burden of supporting and catering for the small-minded needs of my cantankerous homeland, will rise to new heights. I hope so, but it’s a crying shame that England won’t be a part of that. 

I am proud, though, of my home city, Brighton, the place where English people who don’t want to live in England live. About 70% of Brightonians voted to stay in the EU. Today I am proudly Brightonian, proudly European, but ashamed to be English. 



Can The Sims Show Us That We’re Inherently Good or Evil?

As it turns out, yes. temptations to be unkind

The good news is that we are intuitively altruistic. This doesn’t necessarily mean we are born that way. This is probably learned behaviour that co-evolves with that of those around us. The hypothesis on which this research is based (with good grounding) is that we learn through repeated interactions to behave kindly to others. At least, by far the majority of us. A few jerks (as the researchers discovered) are not intuitively generous and everyone behaves selfishly or unkindly sometimes. This is mainly because there are such jerks around, though sometimes because the perceived rewards for being a jerk might outweigh the benefits. Indeed, in almost all moral decisions, we tend to weigh benefits against harm, and it is virtually impossible to do anything at all without at least some harm being caused in some way, so the nicest of us are jerks to at least some people. It might upset the person who gave you a beautiful scarf that you wrecked it while saving a drowning child, for instance. Donating to a charity might reduce the motivation of governments to intervene in humaniarian crises. Letting a car in front of you to change lanes in front of you slows everyone in the queue behind you. Very many acts of kindness have costs to others. But, on the whole, we tend towards kindness, if only as an attitude. There is plentiful empirical evidence that this is true, some of which is referred to in the article. The researchers sought an explanation at a systemic, evolutionary level.

The researchers developed a simulation of a Prisoners’ Dilemma scenario. Traditional variants on the game make use of rational agents that weigh up defection and cooperation over time in deciding whether or not to defect, using a variety of different rules (the most effective of which is usually the simplest ‘tit-for-tat’). Their twist was to allow agents to behave ‘intuitively’ under some circumstances. Some agents were intuitively selfish, some not. In predominantly multiple round games,  “the winning agents defaulted to cooperating but deliberated if the price was right and switched to betrayal if they found they were in a one-shot game.” In predominantly one-shot games – not the norm in human societies – the always-cooperative agents died out completely. Selfish agents that deliberated did not do well in any scenario. As ever, ubiquitous selfish behaviour in a many-round game means that everyone loses, especially the selfish players.  So, wary cooperation is a winning strategy when most other people are kind, and it benefits everyone so it is a winning strategy for societies and favoured by evolution. The explanation, they suggest is that:

when your default is to betray, the benefits of deliberating—seeing a chance to cooperate—are uncertain, depending on what your partner does. With each partner questioning the other, and each partner factoring in the partner’s questioning of oneself, the suspicion compounds until there’s zero perceived benefit to deliberating. If your default is to cooperate, however, the benefits of deliberating—occasionally acting selfishly—accrue no matter what your partner does, and therefore deliberation makes more sense.

This accords with our natural inclinations. As Rand, one of the researchers, puts it:  “It feels good to be nice—unless the other person is a jerk. And then it feels good to be mean.” If there are no rewards for being a jerk under any circumstances, or the rewards for being kind are greater, then perhaps we can all learn to be a bit nicer.

The really good news is that, because such behaviour is learned, selfish behaviour can be modified and intuitive responses can change. In experiments, the researchers have demonstrated that this can occur within less than half an hour, albeit in a very limited and artificial single context. The researchers suggest that, in situations that reward back-stabbing and ladder-climbing (the norm in corporate culture), all it should take is a little top-down intervention such as bonuses and recognition for helpful behaviour in order to set a cultural change in motion that will ultimately become self-sustaining. I’m not totally convinced by that – extrinsic reward does not make lessons stick and the learning is lost the moment the reward is taken away. However, because cooperation is inherently better for everyone than selfishness, perhaps those that are driven by such things might realize that those extrinsic rewards they crave are far better achieved through altruism than through selfishness as long as most people are acting that way most of the time, and this might be a way to help create such a culture.  Getting rid of divisive and counter-productive extrinsic motivation, such as performance-related pay, might be a better (or at least complementary) long-term approach.

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