Bubbles and extrapolation

Earlier today someone tweeted the following: (I’m not linking to it, and I’m not seeking to out the person who wrote it; I just want to discuss the sentiment.)

“Is it just me or is it that people’s political opinions on NHSX have sunk the contact tracing app entirely and there’s no point doing it now? There’s no way in hell we’ll hit the density of users needed for it to work”

Compare and contrast:

Before she committed suicide, the Love Island presenter Caroline Flack expressed her anxiety that she was so well known & so instantly recognisable that she had no possible hope for a future where she wouldn’t be constantly plagued by her past.

(I am not commenting on the veracity of the claims against her, nor on their seriousness).

I was barely aware of Caroline Flack’s existence. I could have walked past her in the street and have no idea who she was. I was aware Love Island existed as a show but I couldn’t have confidently named a single person involved in it.

I’m not saying this to try to convey that as a Mature and Sophisticated Person I should be applauded on my lack on knowledge of something as low-brow as Love Island. I am simply trying to convey that she was outside my bubble.

I have the bubble of my immediate friends and family. I have the bubble of my work colleagues. I have my carefully curated social media echo chambers. I have my areas of interest, my cultural touchstones, the ‘famous’ people I look up to and the people I’ve heard of, who I hate or love-to-hate. Caroline Flack wasn’t in my bubble. I wondered, sadly, when I heard she’d expressed how her celebrity had trapped her, if she might have in fact passed entirely without notice if she’d gone to some of the places I frequent.

So, back to that tweet. This person is sowing Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt about a product intended to help make a horrible situation a bit better. However, I reckon ‘most’ people aren’t aware that NHSX exists as a specific entity, and ‘most’ people don’t have an political opinion about it.

Bottom line: over-extracting from a small data set can be deadly.

Bonus subscribers’ content:

In scrutinising my bubbles, I realise that many of my friends are white, male and very clever. In the main, I love you all. And I’m not saying that the friends I have who are not also white, male and very clever aren’t also guilty of the following on occasions. But, for the most part, it’s the white, male and very clever of you who do this. So listen up:

You are not the Messiah. You are not the only one who has spotted a possible flaw in the plan. The entire responsibility to scrutinise and hold to account does not fall solely on your shoulders. Using your platform, whatever it might be, to simply denigrate the work of others is not constructive. Sowing Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt when you know perfectly well there are other people who are better qualified than you to evaluate the risks of a particular venture is not helpful. You want to blow off some steam about how shit everything is and how the proposed solution might not work? Write a diary.

Making trifle

In the last few days before the UK went into lockdown, and the supermarket shelves emptied of toilet paper and dried pasta, incredulous reports circulated that packets of lasagne remained un-panic-bought. “Mate”, as one memetic commentary put it, “If we’re going to be stuck at home for the next few weeks, you’re going to have time to make a lasagne!”

When Shirley Conran decried that life was too short to stuff a mushroom I venture she wasn’t faced with the prospect of spending weeks, possibly months, unable to leave the house. The current predicament in which we find ourselves has changed my relationship with time, and consequently, with food. Even as someone who enjoys cooking as a leisure activity there have always been certain foodstuffs I enjoy eating, but can rarely be bothered to make. There was a prohibitively unfavourable ratio of time and effort invested to the pleasure of consumption gained. But now, when time is no longer a limiting factor, and any diversion is a sought after commodity, I found myself turning my hand to dishes I would normally only ever order in a restaurant.

Switching metaphors, I also relished the idea of completing tasks on Hard Mode. Which right now consists of two main limitations: dietary requirements and the availability of ingredients Terry has been vegetarian for as long as I have known him, but has recently developed an intolerance to lactose.

So, put all these factors together, and what do you get? Liz’s dairy free, vegetarian, lockdown trifle.

The sponge

I’m not much of baker, but I do occasionally indulge in making the odd cake. I figured a dairy free sponge should be pretty simple. Flora provide this straightforward recipe on their website. The only thing missing is self-raising flour, and that’s an easy one to fix as I have regular plain flour and baking powder in my cupboard. In fact since becoming au fait with Nigella’s tried and tested ratio I never bother buying self-raising anymore anyway.

I actually prefer sponges made with margarine rather than butter. I think it’s because I keep my butter in the fridge, never have the patience to let it get to room temperature, but invariably overshoot when I try to soften in a microwave. Whereas I can incorporate sugar into spreadable fat much more easily.

In short order we’ve made a pleasingly pale, silky looking batter. We halved the amounts which means there’s not enough to to go in one of my springform tins. So we use a solid Victoria Sandwich tin instead. Regrettably we don’t have anything to line the tin. I remember a technique from cooking show ones whereby cakes will happily pop out of tins if greased and lightly dusted with flour or cocoa powder. Unfortunately this doesn’t quite work. I don’t know if it’s because I used more of the margarine rather than butter. Is there a dairy free version of this technique available? So half our glorious sponge clings obstinately to the bottom and needs scraping off with a spoon. However since we’ll be crumbling the sponge up anyway, it doesn’t matter.

A slightly broken up sponge cake

The jelly

I converted to agar agar a while ago, and still have a pack in my cupboard which survived the recent house move. Unfortunately my very little precision scales I use for very small quantities didn’t make it (or did I give them away to someone?) So I eyeball what I reckon is about the 2.7 grams needed to go in with 300 mls of apple juice, some defrosted and squished up blackberries and a couple of spoons of sugar. Agar agar is one of those substances where the chemistry actually matters, so I really hope I have this right. We get it up to boiling point, let it cook for a few minutes, and then tip the contents of our pan into a flat pyrex dish. After 20 mins I’m satisfied it’s solidifying enough as it cools, and sure enough it’s reached the desired wobbly brick texture after 45 mins or so.

A block of red jelly

The custard

Custard is another thing I can rarely be bothered to do from scratch. The bought stuff is cheap and tastes (imho) as good as home-made, and it’s alarmingly easy to get it wrong. Since Terry cut out lactose we tried the Alpro soya custard, and can happily report it as a perfectly fine substitution. But, disaster, we used the last of it the other week. So, time to face my fears. The Dairy Alliance have this recipe, which was easy to follow, and worked a treat with the soya milk we have in the fridge. I understand from The Internet there are people who get extremely exercised about the inclusion of cornflour in custards and indeed in anything else. I have taken the decision to ignore them. My custard sits downstairs, creamy, uncurdled, and ready to assemble.

The banana

I sliced a banana up. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.

The squirty cream

Terry has been on the prowl for good dairy free alternatives to stuff for a while now, and we are grateful for the continued service of the fine folks at https://www.alternativestores.com/. We splurged on a big ol’ box of treats a couple of weeks back, getting in veggie hot dogs, lactose free cheese & onion crisps, gummy bears and a can of shaving cream style coconut based froth. Just the ticket here.

The construction

To construct, or deconstruct, that is the question. I don’t own a trifle dish and can’t imagine doing this frequently enough to merit purchasing one. While I have faith in the structural integrity of the components, there’s not much of some of them, and I think unless you’re doing a massive party trifle with each layer in volume, the layering effect gets lost. So decontructed it is. Spoonfuls of sponge go into our sundae glasses first, with a sprinkling of sherry to moisten. Then the jelly, smashed into irregular chunks. Then banana, custard & cream haphazedly tumbled on top. For the finishing touch, I have half a pack of flaked almonds and considered giving them a light toast. But on further consideration of the lurid colours of my confection I decided instead to use the teeth destroying silver balls and fully embrace the 80’s vibe.

Glass bowl of trifle
The finished product!

My Lock-Down goals

Three weeks ago (oh god was it really only three weeks ago?) I self deprecatingly posted the following on Facebook:

Things I intend to do while isolating which will almost certainly not actually happen:
Discover all 720 items in Little Alchemy 2.
Read the dead tree Ruth Rendell I won in a competition in 1998.
Learn how to do conturing make up.
Regrout the shower.
Complete a marathon on the exercise bike.

Then, on further reflection upon the enormity of what might be coming, I figured these might be good things to do. To *actually* do.

The Book

Page with author's signature
Page with prize sticker

I won this book in 1998, coming first in the Reader’s Quiz (suck it Liam Pollard!) And something, I can’t say what, drew me to the signed Ruth Rendell rather than the other prize which was book vouchers. (This also worked out well for the aforementioned Mr Pollard who was pretty chuffed he got his preferred prize of vouchers, despite coming 2nd. Yeah – 2nd! Hah!) Only the book sat on my shelf, untouched, for the next two decades. I nearly got rid of it in the last house move, but somehow didn’t. Those who know me would hopefully attest that I am, in most things, a cast-iron rationalist, not given to belief in fate, signs or otherworldly nudges. And yet, faced with an unknown number of weeks, I just, somehow, felt, that it was the right time to pick it up and read it.

The Marathon

Home gym

I’m pretty happy with my body. It’s soft and curvy and gets appropriate levels of admiration from the only person whose opinion I value in such matters. But I am currently somewhat bigger than I have been in previous years, and, generally speaking, I feel a bit happier, healthier and more confident when I’m more compact. We nearly got rid of the exercise bike in the last house move, but somehow didn’t. Which was a good call, as after the initial chaos of moving etc we set up a decent home gym, which gets regular use. A fact for which I am extremely grateful in these times. I usually do 40-45 minutes every other day (or 1 episode of Supernatural) as a mix of cardio and weights. The batteries had gone in the display yonks ago, and I was perfectly happy peddling away for an indeterminate amount of time and distance. But happening across a spare couple of triple As, I figured it would be nice to see what I was accomplishing. It takes me about 1 episode to do 13 miles so I’m working on my stamina and hope one day soon to pop on a 100 or so minute film and achieve this one.

The DIY Project

Shower cubicle with dirty grouting

There’s a certain type of disgust reserved for Other People’s Filth. Particularly Other People’s Bathroom Filth. You know what I’m talking about. When we moved to our new digs we scrubbed and scoured our way to tolerable cleanliness. And then allowed a nice, comforting layer of our Own Filth to build up. As time, money and effort allows we have started to tick off some of the home improvement tasks we said we’d do when we moved in. So we got as far as installing a proper extractor fan. But steamy showers gonna steam, and we have a bit of black mould situation developing. So, what better opportunity to get stuck into some DIY than a lockdown?

The Look

Make up products

I’m pretty happy with my face. It’s soft and curvy and gets appropriate levels of admiration from the only person whose opinion I value in such matters. Occasionally I put on a bit of slap for fun, or to cover the odd blemish on important occasions. Underneath this professional exterior lies a frustrated teeny-goth who sometimes likes to come out and play panda-eyes. But beyond all that, I never really understood the whole cosmetics thing. I’m aware there’s a whole world of aesthetic embellishment out there, which never really seemed that relevant to me, but what else is a lock-down good for but learning new skills? So: contouring. I have no illusions that this will be a flattering look on me. I suspect my oft-commented rosy cheeks will rather undermine the sexy-austere effect intended. But as past-times go, it’s pretty harmless.

The Game

Screenshot showing progress through Alchemy 2

Regular readers will know I am an Avid Gamer and all about the long haul. I like narrative, complex character development, choices with consequences, and evidence some budget got thrown into script, voice & visuals. Back when I had a commute (remember those?) I’d dip in and out of more casual fare. I was maybe 10% of the way through Little Alchemy 2 when this all kicked off. Actually completing a mobile game, where it’s a simple calculation of X/720 items discovered as to whether you finish, would be new territory for me.

The Stretch-Goal (subscriber’s only content – not available on Facebook)

Image of The Expanse on Amazon Prime

I *really* don’t need to watch any more telly than I do already, but there’s a handful of shows hanging over my head which I know are brilliant, but I never made time for:

Space Above & Beyond – a recommendation from Terry which we got two episodes through before I lost interest.

The Expanse – Sci Fi shows get cancelled these days like they are going out of fashion, so I try not to get too attached until I know it has legs. Don’t want another Firefly yanking at my heart strings! #toosoon

The Wire – because it was supposedly the best thing on telly since ever, and yet it just didn’t happen for me.

Grey’s Anatomy – much like Supernatural this goes on for a crazy-long time, and it has Sandra Oh who I very much enjoyed in Sideways & adored in Killing Eve. Seems like a sound investment.

The Prediction

I am pretty confident I’ll do the book, the bike & the make-up. Also I’ll probably do the shower because after another couple of weeks it will gross me out if I don’t. If I keep chipping away at Alchemy I might get up to the high 500’s and then I’ll have an existential crisis as to whether I should carry on properly, cheat for the sake of being able to post a pic online of 720/720 discovered, or just give up because literally no-one is policing this. I reckon I’ll give Space Above & Beyond another shot, if for no other reason than I do tend to commandeer the screen and it seems reasonable to occasionally share with Terry. The Expanse looks pretty damn good, so I reckon we’ll both enjoy that. Terry hates blood’n’guts on screen, but I might sneak a gander at the odd Grey’s Anatomy ep now and then to see if it’s my kinda thing. As for The Wire – well, the Ruth Rendell waited over 20 years. So probably best not to hold your breath.

Alan Wake

Next up, 2010 title Alan Wake. This one was a recommendation from a friend at BarCamp 2012, at a session all about cool video games people had been playing recently (which is great idea for an unconference session and a great way to get suggestions).

We promptly acquired a copy which Terry sat down to play. But he didn’t get very far in before establishing that being recreationally terrified is really not his thing. It’s been sitting on our shelf waiting for me to try it out ever since, so I’m finally giving it a go.

After the dismal script of the previous game, I was looking forward to something a bit more literary. Opening with a Stephen King quote is a strong move and one that very much sets the scene for what’s to come. Alan Wake describes itself as a psychological horror, which is pretty much bang on the money for what you get.

For me games exist on a continuum. There are the plot-lite smash or shooters at one end where the purpose of the game is to enjoy the mechanics of exploring and surviving your environment and entangling with enemies. Then at the other end there are games where the narrative takes centre stage and the primary purpose is to engage interactively with the story as it unfolds. At this far end of the spectrum I would volunteer something like 2013 title Gone Home. Wikepedia informs me that the term ‘walking simulator’ was coined as a derogatory term by those who queried if it was even a game. I prefer the term discoverable fiction, as the point is to gradually build up a complete novella, but in a non-linear fashion.

Alan Wake makes heavy use of this discoverable fiction mechanic, in a very literal way, as our titular protagonist picks up pages of a manuscript to try to piece together what events have befallen him. Further story elements (not exactly backstory like in Bioshock 2, but an enrichment to the environs) are available through radios and TVs should you care to switch them on. Or you can choose to ignore them if, for example, you’re on a 2nd playthrough and don’t need a repeat off all the context.

But I made a decision early on that this would be a one-time only thing; I have a big pile of games to get through this summer. In addition to the manuscript pages (of which I reckon I got about 2/3rds) there is a further collectable mini-game of retrieving the 100 coffee thermoses scattered around. I stumbled across one right at the start where the dreaded message 1/100 popped up. Oh hell no! The prospect of ending the game with fewer than 100 collected, but not wanting to spend the time on a completionist replay fills my brain with icky feelings. Fortunately I died soon after and was therefore able to redo that sequence and ignore the thermos.

Checkpoints come frequently so the frustration born of repeated death is kept to a minimum. There were only a handful of occasions where I came close to rage quitting, compared to the dozens I experienced in my previous game. The combat mechanic of using light as a weapon works very well both in terms of fighting technique and in a more metaphorical sense.

This game really does throw all the horror tropes it can at the player. Stephen King looms large from that opening quote right the way through the game. The Shining and Misery are the two most obvious inspirations, with a heavy dose of The Birds and Twin Peaks in there as well. Duel gets a look too in with some heavy agricultural machinery imbued with murderous intentions. A hard-drinking FBI agent (Agent Nightingale – which just made me laugh as I imagined Dragon Age’s Leliana roaming around Bright Falls) who obviously makes time for reading keeps harassing our protagonist with a constant stream of (white, male) authors names. Although honestly if you’re an unstable writer I’m not sure being called Ernest Hemingway or Brett Easton Ellis is that much of an insult.

It all gets a bit heavy handed, but doesn’t detract from the sense of dread engendered by the game. It’s like when you watch a really well crafted horror movie, the fact that you know how your emotions are being manipulated doesn’t stop it from being effective. But I was pretty happy once I finally got to the end. Apologies now due to Terry for silently judging him for giving up on this one.

Far Cry Instincts Predator

Far Cry Instincts Predator dates back to 2006, and boy does it show! According to the sticker on the box the CEX asking price was £4.99 when I picked this one up a couple of years ago, but I think it was also the cheapest of a 3 for 2 offer. So when something is basically free, I’m not going to whine too hard about it.

It’s actually kind of relaxing in its simplicity, making it a nice little palette cleanser to some of the more involved games I’ve played this year (I mean I adore Dragon Age: Inquisition, but even I know sometimes it’s healthy to do something else than embark on a third consecutive play-through in order to romance a different character). I actually got a little nostalgic for the days of Doom, claiming ammo refills by simply walking over vertical standing weaponry.

I really enjoyed playing FarCry 3 &4 (Primal, less so, and #5 got such a lukewarm reception that I don’t fancy spending more than a tenner on it.) It’s kind of fun to see the genesis of those games here. Ok, so the graphics suck, and in the Instincts game your basically stuck in corridor mode right the way through. But you can just about get a sense of what the FarCry universe would become with sweeping island vistas, lush vegetation and gritty merc camps. They’re just a bit … basic for now.

All told, I spent a tense couple of weeks getting through the Instincts game, and kept getting stuck in death loops. I haven’t wanted to rage quit a game so hard since the first time I played Ocarina of Time. So it was actually pretty satisfying to finally complete the game.

Incidentally the Instincts Predator title reflects that this was a remastered version of the original PC game released for the 360, and included the sequel story Evolution (though I am still unclear where Predator comes with and reckon it was simply a marketing attempt at making the title sound 57% more masculine). I decided to jump straight into the Coda on completion of main story, partly so I could then dump the whole disk into my ‘done’ pile. But also because I have a realistic notion that having got used to the polygontastic graphics, it would really grate playing a later game and then going back to Evolution. Turns out Evolution is much shorter, taking a svelte 10-11 hours to get through. The story is as much a pile of bobbins as the previous one, but there a few nice little tweaks which further tease what FC will become in later games. There are a few multiple-objective arenas which mitigates the corridor feel of the first game. And our intrepid protagonist Carver has developed some botanical leanings and now gets his adrenaline kick from flowers rather than what looked like sacks of meal replacement.

Having said that, despite the quick playtime I found some bits of Evolution even more frustrating than Instincts. Specifically the stupid bloody jumping puzzles where you’re meant to leap into special climbable walls. When the graphics are so bad they actually hinder the gameplay things are not good. Compare and contrast with the rebooted Tomb Raider, and the way Lara’s body reacts to her environment so you can tell if you are meant to be climbing up, down, sideways, or jumping elsewhere.

So yeah, this one has serious dated, from the problematic character tropes, dumb dialogue, and poor graphics. But a bit of mindless violence does the soul good now and again. Onto the next!

Bioshock 2

First up in my ‘let’s play all the old 360 titles sitting on my shelf, and then finally trade the whole lot in for cash’ project is Bioshock 2.

I remember learning of the existence of the Bioshock Infinite thanks to an episode of the podcast Coverville which featured the oldey-timey version of Everybody Wants to Rule the Word. I played that back in 2014 (actually buying it new on Amazon) and enjoyed it greatly. So I figured I’d give the previous game a shot when I saw it going cheap at CEX.

Bioshock is all about the aesthetic: art deco gone to hell. It fits with the overarching narrative of the Bioshock universe perfectly; a constructed idyll of 1950’s society, corrupted by human weakness and descended into dystopia. Playing it a decade after its 2009 release on a slightly crumbling system, it still looks gorgeous. The underwater sequences provide an ethereal loveliness in contrast to the blood splattered grime of the main levels. The creepy little girl trope is working overtime here, as you employ clone orphans to suck out genetically modified upgrade goo from the many corpses dotted around. The moral angle is played fairly heavily, with specific ethical decisions making a substantive difference to the conclusion of the game.

One aspect I really enjoyed was collecting the audio ‘diaries’ left by the main characters, and other denizens of Rapture. These can be easily ignored if you like your violence un-contextualised (and no judgement here if that’s your bag) but it ticks a box for players like me who are here for the interactive storytelling. Crucially I really enjoyed how once you collect a diary you can set it to play, and it will do so whilst you carry on playing, meaning you don’t have to choose between getting your fill of backstory and maintaining a seamless integration into your environment. A shout out here as well for the voice-acting, in particular Fenella Woolgar who is truly menacing as Sophia Lamb.

Bioshock 2 took me a leisurely couple of weeks to play through over evenings and weekends. I didn’t get the addictive sense of being unable to put down my controller (probably a good thing) but it was an enjoyable enough yarn. Having played it through the once, however, I am more than happy to put it on my pile of completed games, although I might check out the other two endings on YouTube (I decided to play white hat and consequently got the most positive of all available conclusions).

On to the next!

Tidying up my games

I love buying up games 2nd hand. First, they are so frickin’ cheap! I picked up the Game of the Year edition of Skyrim for about £7, and must have got at least 100 hours of entertainment out of it. As value for money goes, that’s pretty damn good. Second, by the time the good titles have made their way onto the pre-owened shelves, the various software updates have usually patched up all the game-breaking bugs. Sure, you have to resign yourself to 5-20 minutes of software downloading before you can get started, but once that’s done, the gaming experience is, hopefully, going to go fairly smoothly. And third, there will be a veritable feast of walkthroughs and guides available should you get stuck. Yes, I sometime use walkthroughs. As Dara O’Brien once said, gaming is one of the few media which will deny you content you have already paid for, if you do not prove yourself worthy. And whether I’ve paid £2.99 or £45, I don’t want to get so frustrated that I rage-quit because I haven’t spotted the one tiny detail that will allow me to proceed.

About 4 years or so ago I found myself slightly depressed in London, and like a shining waypoint in the distance I saw a CEX. £20 later I had a bag stuffed full of noughties XBox 360 games to while away the weekends. But, as is sometimes the way, many of those games languished on the shelf, gathering dust.

Cut to the present day, and Terry and I have been watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Now, I’m not entirely sure what category games fits into, in the KonMarie method. However I am choosing to categorise them as books. Because I game like other people read. At its heart, I think of games as interactive fiction, and my favourite style are the huge, immersive worlds in which choices are made and have consequences. I like cultivating relationships with NPCs, facing ethical dilemmas, and imagining I’m facing down a dragon/reaper with a battleaxe/assault rifle. And between these massive experiences, I have a range of shorter games which act as palate cleanser between heavy courses.

I have to admit the Xbox 360 is getting a bit long in the tooth. But before it goes to the great Gamestation in the sky, I really want to get through all those old titles. So over the next few months, I’m planning to play each one, and see how they’ve stood the test of time. And because I’m also trying to get back in the habit of writing more, I will, as time and energy allows, blog about each one.

Ethics and self driving cars

Courtesy of the British Computer Society, I attended a free lecture by Ethical Roboticist Professor Alan Winfield earlier this week. Here a few thoughts I jotted down during his excellent talk.

Winfield started out discussing a couple of recent cases where the beta-testing of driverless cars has ended in tragedy. In the first case, a Tesla customer was using their new driverless car. He was supposed to be alert and aware, ready to take over from the AI that was controlling the vehicle at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately he wasn’t paying attention, and when for some reason the AI failed to ‘see’ a lorry trailer blocking the way ahead, the AI drove the car straight into it, killing him. The other case involved the death of a member of the public who was walking a bike across an intersection, and killed when, again, the AI controlling an Uber vehicle failed to recognise that she was there.

There is an interesting ethical conundrum to unpick here thrown up by the requirement that a human ‘back up driver’ maintains the necessary level of attention so as to be able to take over from the AI if needed. In both these cases, there is evidence to suggest that the human drivers were definitely not paying sufficient attention. But even if they had been correctly seated behind the wheel and not distracted by anything, it is very difficult to maintain the required level of concentration and alertness if you are doing nothing, as Winfield discussed.

Kant asserted the maxim that ‘ought implies can’. It’s not coherent to impose a moral requirement for a person to do something she is not capable of doing. Now I’m not saying it’s impossible to maintain concentration in these conditions, but it is quite difficult. I think this is something that needs careful consideration in terms of the technology, usability, and the moral expectation placed on the user, given the limitation of our fallible human brains.

Which leads onto the next problem; what if the human back-up driver doesn’t take over control of the vehicle, not because they aren’t paying attention, but because they have chosen to trust the AI. Part of the appeal of driverless cars is harnessing AI technology which, under certain circumstances, can reliably outperform the average human. If, for the majority of the time, the car is a better driver than a human, why would a human choose to second-guess it? The car is supposed to be able to process information and react faster to events than a person with a meat computer in their heads. Furthermore, it may not be obvious to the human that the AI is malfunctioning. The two cases described above are fairly clear cut; you wouldn’t notice that your vehicle was about to plough into a pedestrian or a lorry trailer and think, “well, I won’t intervene because the car knows what its doing and I don’t want to interfere”. But as the technology gets more sophisticated and the obvious problems get ironed out, we’ll be left with the more complex and subtle edge-cases. Might future vehicular manslaughter cases hang on whether it has been determined if there was a reasonable expectation that the human back up driver should have intervened?

As is so often the case, it seems our legal and moral frameworks have not yet caught up with technological developments. Winfield described himself as the start of his talk as a Professional Worrier. Ethicists lay the groundwork for the standards and regulations which enable public trust. This isn’t about Luddite-esque hand-wringing. But it is critical that these issues are discussed in a structured way to keep people safe, and minimise harm.

Private jokes in a public forum

I went to Open Data Camp at the weekend. Like all good modern events in the techy/data space, it had a code of conduct. In the introductory session this was mentioned explicitly, but briefly. Be nice to each other. Try to be aware of how much you are talking, and help enable others to speak. If anyone says or does anything which makes you feel uncomfortable, find an organiser. So far, so simple.

The thing about a code of conduct, is no-one really wants to dwell on the reasons they are necessary. These are supposed to be fun, interesting events where everyone has a good time. You don’t want to kill the mood at the very start by going into a lot of details about all the ways it could end up being a crap experience for someone. Sometimes, light touch is the best way to go. Mention the CofC, say something like“you all know what it means to be a decent person” and then let everyone get on with it and hope for the best.

The subject matter, Open Data, is one of those areas where people can get really passionate, and rightly so. Out in the real world, it can be isolating to feel that you’re the only one banging the drum in your department/business/organisation. One of the functions of these kinds of events is to facilitate a coming together; to spend the weekend hanging out with like-minded people who also ‘get it’. Through these kinds of events, and the continuing social media contact between, the community gets very tight-knit.

The thing about being friends with someone is that can take an intellectually contrary position from them, and you can have a laugh with them. In the context of friendship, neither of these is intrinsically problematic. But, if you are in a public space, discussing issues at an event with a CofC, and you disagree with a point being made, it’s a good idea to not respond in the way you would if it was just two of you together. It’s one thing to jokingly call your mate a wanker because you think they’re being daft in private. It’s quite another to do it publicly in the middle of a session where the group comprises not just you and your mate, but a bunch of other people as well. People who don’t know who you are, and who aren’t privy to the dynamics of your relationship. Because I neither know nor care that you’re mates. All I saw was someone being (in this instance very mildly) verbally abusive to someone else in the room. Not two hours previously we’d been reminded of the CofC, it was hoped we all knew how to treat each other with respect, and here was someone flagrantly disregarding this instruction. But they didn’t think this infraction ‘counted’ because it was aimed at someone they knew. It was a private joke, between friends, and they thought that was a reasonable basis on which to disregard the ‘be nice to each other’ directive.

Bringing your private jokes into a public forum is risky. If you want newcomers to feel welcomed and included, don’t continually make references to things that no-one outside your original founding group is going to get. Part of a good CofC is that everyone should bear responsibility for exemplifying good behaviour.

I mulled over this throughout day one, and discussed it with Terry the following morning. He recounted a similar experience at an event some years previously. An individual rose to his feet to speak, and the hall suddenly filled with booing and hissing. Terry was flabbergasted, and horrified. What on earth was going on? Would the same thing happen to him if he wanted to contribute? Is this really how dissent manifests in this community? He asked someone, and was cheerfully informed that this was an in-joke dating back to some humorous occasion some years previously. Apparently no-one thought it would appear in any way unwelcoming to new members if they suddenly witnessed a room full of naked hostility for no discernible reason.

Stephen Fry caught the sharp end of this in 2016. He made what was ostensibly a rude and contemptuous remark during the Baftas about the appearance of Jenny Beavan, the lauded costume designer who had just won an award for her work. When this garnered criticism, Fry decried the “sanctimonious fuckers” complaining about his outburst, and promptly took himself off Twitter. Perhaps this was a case of over-reactions all round. But his initial defence was that she was an old and dear friend, and that this was a private joke. Which is fine, except that it is not reasonable to get upset if someone who isn’t in on the joke doesn’t get the joke.

I think Rebo puts it best in the Babylon 5 episode Day of the Dead, when he characterises human forms of humour as being “based on physical danger, embarrassment or rejection…” unlike the Minbari. Humour can be way to differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Say something shocking or unpleasant, and then have a good old laugh at the poor fools who aren’t part of the inner sanctum and don’t realise it’s a joke.

On day two of the event I had the opportunity to participate in a session about improving diversity and inclusivity. So I shared these reflections and suggested that some of the aspects of their tight-knit community, the in-jokes and shared traditions, can come across as a bit alienating if you’re new. Perhaps a good Code of Conduct should speak more explicitly to this issue. And share the traditions and jokes up front with newcomers to your group, rather than letting them become a shibboleth.

#emfcamp – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I have just got back from a very cool weekend in Herefordshire, at #emfcamp. For posterity, here are a few thoughts:

The Good

For those unfamiliar, Electromagnetic Field Camp is basically Glasto for nerds. Like-minded people hang out in tents and caravans for a long weekend in a field. There are stages where scheduled talks take place, workshops, and a whole bunch of other ad-hoc activities going on. Also, like Glasto, tickets sell out insanely quickly. However one sure-fire way to be able to attend is to have a talk accepted to the line-up. Speakers are then entitled to purchase tickets, which is how Terry and I ended up going along.

Terry delivered a version of his “The (Connected) House of Horrors” talk. A packed tent listened to him wax lyrical on the security perils of all things IoT. Obviously I’m biased, but I do love listening to him give presentations like this. Funny, irreverent, and thought provoking, I think he really encapsulates the vibe (no pun intended) that EMF strives to achieve.

But enough fan-girling my spouse. There were loads of brilliant talks. Particular favourites of mine included how the internet has changed emergency responses, the potential safety concerns with AI, robot care into older age, and how to avoid and address burnout.

In addition to the pre-scheduled main talks, there were three sessions of ‘lightening talks’. These are much shorter (5-10 minute) slots to allow a wider selection of attendees to go and present on something that interests them, although you still had to submit a pitch in advance. So I screwed my courage to the sticking place, and asked for a 5 minute slot to talk about OpenBenches.org. I was nervously excited when I was accepted, and put together a slide deck and some notes to share this passion project with whoever showed up. Unsurprisingly, the space wasn’t exactly packed at 10.00 on a Sunday morning, but I spoke to a good couple of dozen people about why we had started this and how to get involved. As a sidebar, doing lightening talks is a great way to build up confidence and experience with public speaking.

Last but not least, I also got to hang out with some of the greatest minds working in technology, security, government, engineering and design. I am privileged and humbled to call these people friends, and I always come back from these kind of events feeling a shade more optimistic about the future.

The Bad

As part of the Opening Ceremony, one of the organisers talked about some of the serious logistical challenges they faced this year, with suppliers letting them down at the last minute and so on. So I really don’t want to be overly critical about what was ultimately a very enjoyable weekend. However, as was discussed at one particular presentation, it’s important to learn how to talk openly and constructively about failure.

As we heard repeatedly throughout the weekend, the event is non-profit and run by volunteers. This is laudable, and it was clear that there is a huge amount of goodwill and enthusiasm within the tech community to make a contribution. But, as is so often the case with volunteering, this can quickly descend into chaos if it’s not carefully managed. Volunteering works best when there is someone taking an administrative lead, who knows about the available resources, and can deploy them quickly and efficiently. My own experience of doing a three-hour catering shift involved a handful of professional staff who were too busy and frazzled to give proper instructions. There is a time and a place for a relaxed, devolved structure where people are encouraged to use their initiative, find something to do, and figure out a way to do it. That time and place is not in a kitchen where food needs to be prepared for hundreds of people, ideally in an environment which minimises the risk of mass food-poisoning. Volunteers who are not being properly managed will do things like putting fresh cut potatoes into a huge cooking pot because it seems like a suitable container. They don’t realise that pot is about to be used in 20 minutes time, because no-one told them. (Not me, this was before my shift). So most of my time was taken up solving a problem that would not have arisen if the volunteers had received proper task instruction and parameters. Funnily enough, this is actually a pretty good analogy for some of the AI dangers discussed at one of the talks.

Another similarly frustrating experience involved the programme of workshops which ran throughout the weekend. In advance of our arrival, the team released a schedule which allowed attendees to favourite events and then to download an iCal so you could easily keep track of what you wanted to do. Very nifty! But this didn’t translate to registering for any workshops, which often had a cap on numbers. Some workshop leaders tried to plough on with numbers far exceeding what they were set up to accommodate, and others simply turned people away. Neither solution leads to a satisfactory experience for the attendees.

The Ugly

If you are reading this, there’s a good chance you saw one of either my or Terry’s social media posts about our rented campervan.

We didn’t own a tent, and neither of us really had the inclination to figure out how to put one up. Since we would need to hire a car to get to the event anyway (our electric car wouldn’t quite stretch to the 150 mile round trip) we figured the simplest option was to hire a campervan. From the website it was clear their vans were, shall we say, exuberantly decorated. Unfortunately, when Terry went to pick it up on the Thursday, there was only one vehicle left to fulfil our order. Which is how we came to be parked in the middle of a field in Ledbury, in a van with the words “ANYTHING IS A DILDO IF YOU’RE BRAVE ENOUGH” scrawled across the back.

Here’s the thing: EMF is a family event. So there were a lot of kids running around. I was terrified that an indignant parent would make a formal complaint and we’d be thrown out for violating the Code of Conduct. We kept an anxious eye on the Twitter feed to see if anyone was making snarky comments about how inappropriate this was.

One of the things I noticed at EMF was that there were a lot of people presenting as gender-fluid and non-binary. The aforementioned Code of Conduct made it clear that bigotry in any form would not be tolerated. I wouldn’t want to speak for them but my impression was that the LGBT+ community there were treated with respect. I hope that was the case. I have always championed the idea that diversity and inclusivity makes for a stronger, richer community. I take seriously the need to avoid thoughtless stereotyping, micro-aggressions and ‘humour’ at the expense of any particular characteristic. I thought about the cases of blokes in the STEM sector wearing inappropriate t-shirts in a professional context, and the message that might send to women wanting to progress in the industry. And here we were in a van which was at best a bit tasteless, and at worst could be perceived as making light of sexual assault.

As it was, lots of people found it really funny, and we saw lots of attendees taking photos. By the time Terry gave his talk on the Sunday afternoon, it had become a bit of running joke. He even added in a line that his presentation contained references to teledildonics (real word); “Tele, for the Greek word for distance, and Dildonics for the word for unfortunate van decor” which got a proper laugh.

But I have no idea if anyone was genuinely offended, or if it was triggering for anyone, or if it made anyone feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or unwelcome. I specifically have no idea what happened with the parents of the small child who happened to walk past and asked “Mummy, what’s a dildo?”

In our case we felt we didn’t have much of a choice. We could have refused to accept the van, which would have left us without transportation or somewhere to sleep. If someone had raised a serious concern I suppose we could have camped out in the car park away from the main site. We were certainly prepared to explain the situation if anyone challenged us, and we did end up making quite a lot of pre-emptive apologies. In the end, it seems like it didn’t cause too much of a problem, but it was an uncomfortable experience.

So, to summarise my main lessons from this weekend:
* The jury is still out as to whether robots are going to bring about the end of the world.
* If you have something you want to share, put yourself up for a short talk at a conference or meetup to get feedback on your project and build confidence speaking about it.
* Good organisation is invaluable to making the most of the resources available, particularly in the context of volunteering.
* Try to be aware of the messages you send with clothing, behaviour, or decorative vehicles. You might think it’s hilarious and anyone who complains is a buttoned-up kill-joy. Someone with a different set of privileges and experiences to you might feel threatened, belittled, or excluded.

Many thanks to the whole EMF crew for a great weekend!