Tea, Earl Grey, Lukewarm

Bookmarking a link to an article in praise of Amazon’s Echo got me thinking about voice controlled computing, where it is now, where it’s going, it’s upsides and it’s flaws.

My major experience of it is with Apple’s Siri – via watch, phone, and TV. And I’ve found that I do specific tasks with Siri on each one. On the watch, I turn my lights out at night. (Yes, that much of a nerd.) On the phone, I set reminders and alarms. On the TV, I skip back 30 seconds, or sometimes a minute.

Yes, I really do just those specific things. Mostly because those are the things I’m confident with – I know they work, they do so reliably and are useful. Other things I’ve tried tend to either be hit-and-miss, or the technology just isn’t quite there yet.

Here’s an example: if I could say “Hey Siri, play Songs of Separation from the laptop via the speakers in the living room”, or “Hey Siri skip back 20 mins, then start playing last night’s audiobook on the bedroom speaker”, those I’d use a lot. They’re convenience tasks, which is what voice feels most natural for – things you want to do while also doing something else.

But those are currently too complicated for Siri – it simply doesn’t know enough (and I can’t teach it) to identify my home audio equipment, it’s not contextually aware enough, and it’s not deeply integrated with 3rd party apps (or rather, 3rd party apps aren’t deeply enough integrated with it), and it’s not good enough at parsing my specific speech – I have to speak in a way it understands, rather than it simply understanding how I speak. Even just being able to say to my phone/watch “Hey siri do X on the laptop” (eg: “open this link on the laptop for when I get home”) would be useful, but we’re still a while away from that.

So where do I see this all going?

An optimistic view: this feels very like the web felt in 1995/6. There’s definitely something here, and we’re a few years off it starting to get serious. Another few years after that, it’ll be everywhere, and ten years after that, we’ll barely remember a time when it wasn’t commonplace. My nieces are going to grow up shouting at their household appliances.

A less optimistic view: this isn’t the web. It’s not a set of interoperable standards that anyone can hook into, it’s a load of low-walled gardens. Siri works with Apple products. Cortana with Microsoft. Google have something or other, Facebook something else. They all talk to the everyday web to some extent, but for more advanced interactions, they only talk to some products provided by individually selected third parties, for commercial reasons.

The only one that makes me even a little optimistic is the Amazon one, Echo, because I can write my own back end for it – so Amazon do the speech to command translation, and fire something at my code, which does something in response. The problem is that that’s great for the web, but less useful for the home appliances.

On that front, Siri, and Apple’s homekit have a slight lead, but not much of one – it’s a closed system that requires hardware developers to work directly with Apple. We’re going to wind up with several sets of products, that don’t entirely work well together. It’s going to be the vocal equivalent of trying get a PC and Mac networked together in the early nineties, and we’re going to be stuck there for a decade and more.

An even less optimistic view: the idea that our homes are going to be full of internet-connected passive listening devices is unbelievably creepy, and a recipe for disaster – either from state surveillance or hacking (or more likely both at the same time). You could not pay me to put a Google or Facebook listener in my house – they’ll only make money off it by selling what it hears to advertisers, and I’m not up for that. I don’t like my web browsing being tracked, I am not having my casual conversation around the house being tracked.

Amazon – not sure, they’re at least a company who I pay for things, rather than a company that sell me to advertisers. Apple – most likely, they’re pretty good on privacy and encryption (assuming the US government doesn’t fuck that up for all of us), but they’re also the least interested in giving me something I can write my own commands for that exist separate to their devices. Either way: it’ll remain a problem that’s about 40% solved for ages.

I suspect we’ll get a little bit of all the above. The actual utility of voice control is only going to be better from here but it’ll remain fractured, so you’ll be forced to pick a product family to set up in your home, and when you make that choice, you’ll be able to choose between a cheap surveillance bot that sells your data, or a much more expensive suite of homeware that also come with the luxury of privacy.

Writing by Women and POC

I’ve caught a couple of posts doing the rounds in the last month or two basically asking the question “how many books by women writers have you read?”, obviously with the aim of getting us to confront the inbuilt sexism in our cultural consumption.

I’m not going to bore you with a listing of the writing by women I own/have read. What I will say is that only around 25% of my library is by women. (Please don’t ask me about POC, that’s an even smaller number. I’m not proud of that.)

I want to make 2016 the year I start to correct this. I want to read, at minimum, one new book a month by women or POC.

Yes, that’s still pretty pitiful. The sad truth is that working from home has entirely cratered my reading habit, which used to be about 2 hours a day, while commuting, and is now about 4 hours a week in a good week. I want to set a goal I can reach and exceed, and keep going in future years, not a goal I’m going to miss by month 3, and give up on.

So, if there’s a book by women or POC that I really *must* read this year, feel free to suggest it in the comments/on Twitter.

Current “to read” pile:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • Hild, Nicola Griffith
  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Yes, that’s all women, no POC. Those 4 have the benefit of having been on my “I really must get around to this” pile for some years now. I’m hoping that by the time I’m done with them, I’ll have the benefit of some other recommendations. If not, I’m sure I can google around for them.

Also: that list is skewing a bit toward what I think of relatively heavyweight/classic. I’m as keen (if not keener, my tastes are not highbrow) to read light/pulpy/action-y stuff, so if there’s some cheery trash you think I’d enjoy, please, fling that in, although the odds I’ve already read it may be slightly better.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to use my holiday time to get some reading in.

Shaken Down

I received the following email a while back:


I am contacting you today to request that you remove our website url: [redacted] from your website:

The reason for this request is because Google recently penalized our website for unnatural links. As a precaution, we are asking certain webmasters to remove our link(s) from their website. If the above links are NOT removed we will add them to a Disavow list that suggests to Google that the offending website is an ‘untrusted’ one. So please do us both a big favor and promptly remove the links that I listed above.

I’d also appreciate you letting me know when they are removed. I will follow up with you in a few days.

Thank you for understand and your assistance in this matter.

[Name Redacted]


I ignored it, and they never followed up, but I did take a quick look in my archives. I linked to them in 2001 – a completely legit and fair link (it was really absolutely nothing exciting). Honestly, what concerns me is that apparently, Google make available tools that websites can use to threaten one another with. “Do what we say, or we’ll damage your Google ranking”. Now me, I don’t care. This is my private blog, from which I derive no income. But if I were running a money making business and I started to get letters like this, I would be seriously concerned.

Does anyone know if there’s someone I can get in touch with at Google about this? (I’m not expecting to be able to, but it’s worth asking.) Because seriously, if I were making money on this site, is there anything about this that doesn’t smell like a classic shakedown?

Writing For Focus

Having one of those evenings where I can’t seem to focus on anything – I’ve started to watch three different films, only to turn them off after ten minutes. I made myself an Old Fashioned, then decided I didn’t want that, and added lime, and decided that wasn’t right, and added ginger ale and lemon (and that’s ended up kind of OK, but mostly in a “this doesn’t really taste of anything specific, but it’s alcoholic and relatively pleasant” sort of way). Can’t figure out what I want to to be doing. So I’m just sort of typing into this box here, to give myself something to do, in the hope that my brain will settle out a bit.

Went to Borough Market this morning, for the first time in a while. Services like Pact and Farmdrop have kind of obviated my need to go there. Have the ingredients for a boeuf bourguignon in the fridge as a result, which I’ll chuck in the slow cooker on Monday afternoon, and have meals for a few days.

As I haven’t tired of telling people, I now work from home (hence the daytime cooking on Monday), which I find incredibly pleasing, although I have been out and socialising a lot, and I suspect the acid test will come when I have one of those weeks where I’ve got nothing at all going on in the evenings, and will therefore go a full seven days without human contact, and become reduced to even more of a grunting monster without human niceties. What I have been doing, that I’m relatively proud of, is getting up early doing 40 minutes on an exercise bike, showering and dressing, every day. I remain semi-human, at least.

I haven’t really done anything productive with my spare time in a while – no writing, no coding-for-fun. Haven’t been able to summon up the focus and/or enthusiasm. I should do something about that.

Relatively excited for the Bake Off to return next week. I sort of intend this to be the season I actually manage to watch from start to finish, rather than remembering it’s on some time in the last few weeks, and seeing the final few episodes. I might even try and blog about it, just to give me something to write about. I was about to say that I might even try and bake along (or at least, do one of the cakes the weekend after and write about that), but then I remembered that all the numbers long since wore off my oven dial, and consequently, my choices are “low”, “medium” “roughly 180” “roughly 200” and “very hot”, and the timer is knackered, and is at best an approximation to within a ten minute window. Baking at precision times and temperatures is contra-indicated.

OK, I’ve replaced the abortive Old-Fashioned-with-stuff with a rye with ginger and lemon, and that’s much more acceptable.

In related-to-nothing news: it’s not likely that many of you missed the news that Andrew won an Eisner (yes, I know, the publication he is EiC of and that has many contributors won it, not him alone, but like I care) and announced his forthcoming comics series Another Castle, all in the space of one weekend, but I don’t care. Basically, this is all brilliant news and I wanted to write it down here, so that when I come to re-read this a few years from now (and if you think I don’t read this blog back periodically, you’re mad – it’s the closest thing I have to a diary), I remember and smile. I will also note that in conversation with a mutual friend and his daughter last night, Another Castle came up, and the daughter looked very excited. And I’m buying a copy for my niece, when she’s old enough.

OK, I’ve wittered on for long enough now that I feel like I’m focusing on things again, and I’m going to go do something constructive. Like maybe write, or code. Or bake.

Pterry’s passing

In common with many of my friends, and I imagine, many people reading this, I spent a chunk of this afternoon, sitting at my desk, trying not to cry, before retreating to the toilets for a quiet moment or two.

Sir Terry Pratchett has died.

I vividly recall the first Terry Pratchett book I read, Wyrd Sisters. I was 13. Dad had tried to get me to read Pratchett, starting with the Colour of Magic, a year or so previously, and it hadn’t worked. I was a bit too young, and honestly, I didn’t get the jokes in large sections of that book, because I hadn’t read most of the material he was parodying.

But then, one night, on a whim, I picked up Wyrd Sisters. We’d done MacBeth in school a couple of months before. This made sense. (And, let’s be honest, it was a better book.) And from “Well, I can do next Tuesday” I was laughing out loud and totally hooked. It was the first proper book for grown ups that I recall having that “literally can’t put it down” experience with. I started reading it about 8:30-ish on Friday night, and I remember pinning a note on my bedroom door for Mum and Dad saying something like “I stayed up reading until 3am, sorry, please don’t wake me in the morning.” I read it all in one sitting, and then, when I woke up the next morning, I started it again. Because it was so good – better than anything else I can recall having read before it.

I read all the others in the house in the fortnight. And one or two of them were better.

The first one I remember being released after this binge was Small Gods. Dad brought it on a family camping holiday to France – the new Pratchett book. I’m not sure he got to read it that holiday. I certainly read it three or four times.

I remember standing a long queue (with my Dad) to get Lords and Ladies signed. The first time I ever met an author.

When we got the internet in, the first usenet group I ever read, ever posted to, was alt.fan.pratchett. Once, he even replied to a post I’d made. (I forget what the post was. I remember the feeling of “Terry Pratchett replied to me! In tones that suggested he didn’t think I was a total idiot!”.)

I very literally grew up reading Terry Pratchett. Reading, and re-reading and re-reading. Of all the authors I read in my teens, he’s probably the only one who commands the same level of esteem from me now that he did then, and well, much more. I’ve come to understand the depth of warmth and insight and yes, just a bit of anger, that is in his work more and more as time has passed and I’ve grown up.

I’m not one hundred percent sure I know how to cope with a world where there’s only one more Terry Pratchett novel left to read for the first time.

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” – Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad.

There are a lot of people that were (and will be) shaped by his stories. Into, I suspect, better people.

I can only hope that the outpouring of tributes is a comfort to his family.

Absolutely Not Weeknotes

For a start, they’re so very 2013. For another thing, the last time I did them, I kept them up for about a fortnight. But in keep with my general resolution to document what I’ve been up to a bit better, just for the sake of remembering it all in years to come, a brief round of boring you all with What I Done Did This Week:

  • Went to see a weird theatre piece in the Waterloo tunnels, about the old Necropolis railway, and about our modern relationship with death. Combination of a guided walk and a theatre bit, it was hard to tell what was actual history, and what was made up because it made for good theatre. Annoyingly the bit I found most interesting/amusing – the source of a pub name – is one of things I haven’t been able to substantiate.
  • The Six Nations has started back up, and I had folk round to watch Saturday’s matches. Teenage me is spinning in his grave – I had fun watching sport. A few rounds of board games thereafter, including a few hands of my newly-purchased Skulls and Roses, which I am filing along with Perudo as a good game for a whisky and cigars type evening.
  • Went to Dishoom for the first time, for Stu and Andrea’s birthday meal. Really lovely night out, both for the company and the food. Had never thought to associate curry with being comfort food before, but the general tenor of several of the dishes is absolutely the sort of thing I would want a big bowl of when I’m unwell.

The week ahead holds fun with TfL APIs at work, which I’m quite looking forward to, a couple of lots of gaming, and I want to start some more “serious” research for a pseudo-historical game I want to start later in the year, sent in the wake of the Albigensian Crusades.

2015: Station Identification


My name is Alasdair Watson. I live in London, where I work down the Internet Mines, and play story-games of various types. Sometimes I write. I also take photos, and occasionally cook. I am a nerd-of-all-trades.

This blog is largely a collection of stuff I want to remember, relating to technology, programming, and stuff that might be reference material for some kind of terrible fiction. Sometimes, I use it to have opinions in public.

I don’t imagine any of that will come as a terrible shock to any of you who are reading this, but I thought this was a good time of year to remind myself what it’s for, and post a photo.

Not Saying Anything About Gamergate

If you have no idea what Gamergate it, then skip this, and move on. You’ll be happier.

I’ve not been saying anything about Gamergate, in large part because I can’t imagine anyone actually gives a toss what I think about it, and because I would imagine anyone who knows me, or who has been reading along for even a short length of time, can probably guess what I think of those malign little bags of rancid fuck.

But then I read Felicia Day’s post the other day, and I thought, well, perhaps on some level, it’s important that I say at least something. If not to anyone else, than at least to me. Gamergate is such a stupid thing to feel the need to make sure I’ve stood up and been counted as against – because it’s so evidently disgusting that I feel everyone should be against it, in the same way I feel that everyone should, y’know, breathe – but in the light of posts like Ms. Day’s, I sort of feel like it might be useful (in whatever trivial sense) for people to stand up and say “Fuck them”. To maybe redress the balance just slightly. Not in a “not all gamers” way – just in a way that says that their attempts to create a climate of fear will not work.

Of course I have very little to fear. I’m a straight white male. But I sort of feel like I should try and do something, however small, to ensure that gaming does not become the kind of place that these vile shitweasels want it to be.

Gaming has brought me so much joy. I’ve made friends with so many people and even fallen in love with (a smaller number of) people I’ve met through gaming. All these folks are wonderful, wonderful people, and the thought that running into another gamer and thinking “are they one of the dangerous ones?” is now good sense and caution, well, it’s just incredibly saddening.

So, in so far as I have any sort of statement to make about Gamergate it’s this: I will continue to run games that strive to be open, inclusive and safe spaces, and if I falter in this from time to time, I will continue to seek correction, and strive to do better. Outside of things I have direct involvement with, I will continue to support progressive gaming projects in whatever way I can. And the very second I find out that someone I know thinks that Gamergate is in any sense in the right, they will no longer be welcome at any game I’m running, or in my house.


Just marking the date and time, really.

I always used to say I couldn’t write a novel. That I couldn’t do long-form prose. I might write comics scripts, and role playing games, and all sorts of drivel, but not a novel.

Guess what I just finished writing?

Let’s be clear: it’s a first draft, at best.

I’ve already got loads and loads of notes for things I need to re-write. And even once I’ve done that, I’d be amazed if it were publishable. For right now, it’s going in a box until christmas, in any case. I’ll come back to it in a few months, and see what, if anything, I want to do with it.

I’m aware that “have written an unpublishable novel” is hardly one of the world’s great achievements, and that there are plenty folks I know who’ve enjoyed some modest success by taking the obvious next step.

But honestly, I never thought I’d get to this one.

Next step: start writing second novel. Make it better than this one.

Although possibly not tonight.

Comixology, Amazon and Apple

Twitter is a pain in the arse, isn’t it? Someone says something you want to engage with, but you can’t really express a nuanced difference of opinion in 140 characters or less. So a lot of the “debate” I’ve seen on Twitter about Comixology’s changes has basically been people some people saying “Amazon are bad!” and others saying “No, Apple are bad, and it’s reasonable for Amazon to want to get away from them!”

(I should perhaps say that if you really don’t give two shits about how digital comics are bought and sold, you should look away now. I am obviously pretty exercised about this, and likely to go on at length, because this touches on both my profession and one of my nerdy interests.)

If you’re still here, and don’t know what I’m talking about, popular (indeed, pretty much monopolistic in real terms) digital comic merchant Comixology were purchased by Amazon a few weeks ago.

And then a couple of days ago, they announced that they were updating their applications, to change the purchase mechanism. For Android users, this just meant having to re-enter their credit card details, then business as usual. For iOs users, this meant they they could no longer make in-app purchases, and the purchasing experience has been degraded the same nigh-unusable state that Kindle purchases are on iOS – you are required to quit the reading app, use a web browser to navigate on on-line store, make your purchases, log in on the website (requiring a switch to a password manager and back again) and then make your purchases before returning to the comics app to read them. From being a one-click process, it has become a multi-stage process requiring 5 switches between 3 different apps, if you’re on iOS, while Android users still get the same simple experience.

Amazon’s reason for the change is, of course, purely commercial. They’re gambling that the sales they lose through this awful, awful user experience will be less that 30% of their iOS revenue, thereby making them a net gain, because they no longer have to pay Apple 30% of their in-app sales.

I am really, really hoping they’re wrong, and that they’ll have to re-instate the thing in a couple of months, because I think I need to stop buying comics on a point of professional principle.

On a professional level, I believe that offering one group of your users a much worse user experience than another, simply because of the device they use, is indefensible. An aside: I would be interested to see if this was challengeable under disability rights legislation. Probably not, but my objection is basically the same principle – if you are operating an on-line service, I believe you have a duty to your customers to treat them all as equally as it is possible to do. The only possible defence to this in my view is that a given user is on a device that is not capable of providing the service. This is not the case here. Amazon/Comixology are simply making it clear that they’re willing to force bad UX on some customers, simply because they don’t like the platform as much.

So what’s the other side of the argument, then? Who am I disagreeing with?

Those people who are welcoming the move are arguing that Apple are censorious, and they their 30% cut of app store revenue is inherently unreasonable, that Apple’s fixation on forcing things to be purchased through their app store is a blow against net neutrality, and in a few of the more deranged cases, arguing that anyone who says otherwise is basically a Cupertino-worshiping sheep, who has been scammed into believing that Apple should be allowed to take a 30% cut of the proceeds.

These points aren’t without merit.

I am honestly not sure that a 30% cut of in app purchases in entirely merited. I think a 30% of the actual app sales is OK, I’m less sure about in-app purchases.

But taking a second to look at the numbers, one gets a different story. The best set I could find are about a year old, but I don’t think much has happened to massively disrupt the picture they paint, which is that excluding their own apps (which are both extremely popular, and relatively expensive, and skew the numbers quite significantly), Apple make about 1-2% profit margin on the App Store and iTunes.

So they take a 30% revenue cut, but most of that is eaten by operating costs, because it’s not cheap to run a system that complex. And as it turns out the actual margins they make are pretty small. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem unreasonable greedy to me.

Those figures don’t break in-app purchases out as separate figures, but I imagine they’re the same – I don’t imagine the hosting costs for Apple to mechanically enable in-app purchases are any different from those of apps. So the margins will presumably be similar.

I do not believe the app store is a blow against net neutrality, and anyone arguing that it is is fundamentally misunderstanding and misrepresenting net neutrality in a harmful way and ought to stop. Net Neutrality is about technical-level bandwidth and traffic routing, and if you want a term to suggest that you consider walled gardens to be harmful (a position I agree with) please find another one.

I don’t think Apple have built a walled garden in iOS, and the way I think we can tell they haven’t is because Amazon can do this with Comixology. They haven’t prevented anyone from re-implementing purchasing on iOS, all they’ve said is that if you want to do it in a user-friendly way, using the technology that they’ve built, consuming computing resources that they supply, you have to cut them in, to the tune that enables them to make a 1-2% profit.

Yes, you could argue that Apple have implemented their platform in a way that makes it hard to re-implement purchasing, but I honestly believe (based on conversations with serious iOS developers) that this is largely done in the name of user security. As in, the complexity is a feature of design decisions based on building a more secure, stable and responsive platform, not a deliberate decision to make things harder for other people. I won’t deny it’s to Apple’s benefit, but I think that’s a happy (from Apple’s point of view) side-effect of their real focus.

Last one, then: Apple are censorious.

True. Simply flat out true. Apple have made some determinations about what they’re willing to sell through their stores, and they won’t sell material they believe is in contravention of that. And some good works have fallen foul of it, particularly via Comixology, funnily enough. They’re not truly censorious, in that they don’t stop anything being produced or distributed, they just won’t take any part in the distribution of anything they don’t like, and what they don’t like is a pretty wide definition of “porn”.

I can’t say Apple don’t have the right to do that, but it irks me that they use it. It would, perhaps, irk me less if they were consistent, but Apple’s content reviewers are notoriously fickle and inconsistent. Personally, I’d like to see an 18+ option added to their stores, but I do understand why that might not be high on the priority list. (Largely: it would almost certainly massively spike traffic/server loads as people started selling porn via iTunes *and* would come with a lot of “protect the kids” hassles. Basically: internet porn is, ironically, almost all downside for anyone whose core internet business isn’t porn.)

But yes, Apple have opted to be censorious in what they accept into their stores. It is annoying, if understandable, and I wish very much they did it better.

About all I can say is that, to their credit Comixology are not attempting to paint this as an attempt to get round the evil censors. Because it isn’t that, but I can understand why people might be relieved that getting round them is a pleasing side effect.

There is a last argument being advanced, that not having to pay Apple will get the creators a larger cut of the monies, and that’s good. I wouldn’t presume to argue with the idea that paying creators more is good, but Amazon are notoriously bad, over the long term, for publishers and creators, because they employ utterly shitty tactics to drive prices down. I am not convinced that a win for creators today is a net long-term gain.

I just don’t think it’s worth treating one section of your user base worse than another. It offends my professional instincts. And my personal ones, come to that. It is expressly saying “our users are nothing more than profit centres that are to be milked as hard as possible, and who will jump through as many hoops as we demand of them”. It is contemptuous.

And I’m probably not buying comics again in the near future.