My new gaming adventure

I haven’t been much of a gamer (at least not since childhood), until I started a new, casual gaming adventure in the last week or two. It started when we bought a Nintendo Switch for home.

We opted for the Switch because it seemed to be a better choice for the whole family. I also really like the sorts of games I’ve been hearing about from Nintendo.

We started off with Legends of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Minecraft, and Fortnite (our son introduced me to this one). So far, Legends of Zelda is my favourite game on the Switch. It’s a remarkable adventure, and our son and I are constantly comparing notes about where to find gear, how to solve the next challenge, and how to stay alive in the game.

I’ve also started playing a game or two on my Android phone. I really enjoy Alto’s Adventure, in Zen mode. I like just skiing across the landscape, and getting back up each time I hit a rock, or fall down a crevice.

The imagery in Alto’s Adventure is wonderful. Even those moments after a crash have a profoundly contemplative feel to them,

My ideal would be to play Alto’s Adventure (or even the follow-up, Alto’s Odyssey – I haven’t started playing this one yet) on the Switch, but the game only seems to be available on iOS or Android.

Our next game is probably going to be Mario Kart 8. We want a game we can play together, and this one seems like a great option. I’m also looking forward to the launch of the Nintendo Switch Online service that seems like it will bring the older NES games to Switch devices as part of the subscription service.

The timing for this is great. I’m on vacation with our kids for the next two weeks, and playing games like these together are a great way to unwind between the outings we have planned.

And Google AI became self-aware on …

This video just drives home the link between personal device use, and the future awakening of our AI overlords.

This reminds me of how Google used it’s free phone information service to gather voice samples to train its voice recognition algorithms.

The main difference here is that Google wants is users to train its nascent AI in a sort of machine learning feedback loop. This should be interesting.

Love this Star Trek wallpaper for my phone

Star Trek wallpaperI decided to change my lock screen wallpaper today and went looking for a Star Trek wallpaper. I’m a bit of a fan and we’ve been watching the Star Trek Voyager series for the last couple months (we’ve already watched TNG and DS9 again).

When it comes to phone wallpapers, I prefer darker backgrounds. One reason is so my phone doesn’t become a second Sun when I am sitting in the dark with our kids, putting them to sleep. Another reason is that I want to minimise clashes with app icons and on-screen text so I can see what I’m doing.

I did a couple Google searches and came up with this great wallpaper that I love. I searched for it on my desktop and found a version on the Mobile Abyss site. It looks terrific on my phone.

Another option is this version on the same site. It has a bigger badge but a very different look. I haven’t tried it yet but it could look great on your device.

Put your phone away, #ItCanWait

Texting while walking.

#ItCanWait is probably one of the best PSA campaigns I’ve seen. The Western Cape Government has taken on the challenge of educating people about the risks of not just texting and walking, but texting and driving.

As the research points out, humans simply can’t multi-task. When we shift our attention to our phones, we take it away from what we should be doing:

The bottom line of the situation is that the concept of multi-tasking is a dangerous myth. While our brains can jump back and forth between tasks, we are simply not wired to do more than one thing at the same time. The multi-tasking myth can provide for amusing workplace badinage, but is deadly serious on the road. As the National Safety Council points out, brain activity in the areas that process moving images decreases by over 33% when we are talking on our phone. This means that we effectively become partially blind when we use our cell-phone while driving. This in turn, leads to collisions which can result in deaths and serious injuries. There is no call, and certainly no text message, so important that it is worth a human life: it can wait.

This tendency to text while doing things like walking, driving and riding bikes happens all the time in my neighbourhood. People do pretty stupid things while texting in my city:

  • riding an electric bike (without a helmet[1]);
  • riding a hoverboard[2] up a road (again, without a helmet); and, of course,
  • driving.

As it is, we spend way too much time staring at our devices. The prevalence of instant communication services reinforce this notion that each message deserves an instant response.

I’m dreading the inevitable accident when a teenager cruises into traffic mid-Snap one day. It shouldn’t happen but people can be pretty short-sighted, downright stupid even.

Image credit: Mike Wilson


  1. I’m pretty sure people don’t wear helmets because they would mess coiffed hairdos. Pretty stupid, when you think about it?  ↩
  2. As an aside, hoverboards must be one of the most idiotic inventions. They fuel the height of laziness. I see kids riding them around the city and I keep thinking, “Walking is too much for you?”.  ↩

Remove Facebook from your phone at your peril

Is the iPad Pro, the "everything" device?

I recently decided to remove Facebook from my phone. I made the decision after finding myself opening the app and frequently being pretty underwhelmed by the updates Facebook insisted on notifying me about.

Although I was tempted to delete the app altogether, I decided to remove the app from my home screen instead. This means I’d need to find it in my app drawer to open it.

The immediate benefit was that I didn’t find myself opening the app because I was bored and then wondered why I bothered. The downside had been that the main utility Facebook has for me has been buried: I’ve started missing birthdays!

Yup, probably the most valuable part of Facebook to me is the birthday calendar and not checking the app obsessively means I have started missing birthdays. I can’t seem to work out how to sync birthday calendars with my phone yet (I think I know how to do it) so I’ve been reliant on the app to remind me.

Aside from that, my decision to remove Facebook from my phone has been worthwhile so far. I don’t open the app out of mindless habit. I don’t have that regret when I do and I have replaced Facebook’s spot on my home screen with Feedly instead.

Much better use of that attention-grabbing spot.

If you’ve been dissatisfied with your Facebook experience lately and you’re tempted to remove it from your mobile device, just consider the loss of the features like the birthday calendar and decide if it’s worth it.

The camera phone was invented to share a newborn baby photo in 1997

We take for granted that we can take photos with our phones and share them instantly. We don’t really think about it and that this capability is only 20 years old.

Did you know that Philippe Kahn is credited with inventing the first camera-phone and he did it to capture the birth of his daughter? Here is his story:

This is the first photo taken with Kahn’s prototype camera phone:

Philippe Kahn's first camera phone photo, taken in 1997
Philippe Kahn’s first camera phone photo, taken in 1997

As incredible as his creation was at the time, I am even more impressed with his wife. There she was, pregnant and about to give birth, and she encouraged him to build the critical connection he needed to connect his camera to his phone and laptop.

Image credit: Alice Donovan Rouse

The VR headset made our kids disappear

Kids trying on the Gear VR headset

Our son recently received a Gear VR headset as a birthday gift. He doesn’t have a phone to use with it so he borrowed his grandmother’s Samsung Galaxy S7 to try the headset out. Actually, we all tried it out and it is an amazing piece of technology.

Watching him use it bothered me, though. The technology has tremendous potential to introduce our kids to experiences of new things using portable VR technology. At the same time I think this we are going to have to moderate how often they use this technology pretty carefully. Bear with me, I’ll explain why I say that.

All that screen time already

At the moment our kids have old smartphones and an old iPad 1 they play with at home. They watch videos on YouTube (our daughter started using YouTube Kids after I “upgraded” her iPad 1 experience to an old iPhone 4s that supports it and she loves it – thankfully), play games like Clash Royale and build stuff in Minecraft.

They only use their devices on weekends and, usually, only after they have finished their homework. Even with that limitation, we have to come up with things to do with them to make sure they don’t spend their entire weekends staring at a screen. I came up with a couple rules to impose some sort of limitation on their device use that include both kids putting devices when the first device’s battery runs flat.

Still, our kids can disappear for a couple hours at a time and spend all that time staring at their devices. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because some of what they do on their devices is somewhat educational.

I’ve noticed that devices tend to make them pretty anti-social and detached from the rest of the family. Heck, that happens to us parents too so I make a conscious effort to limit my screen time when I am around my kids (and generally).

The VR headset made our kids disappear

VR headsets are only going to aggravate that tendency to detach, I think. You physically can’t see the world around you. The virtual environment can be so consuming, you can easily become oblivious to the world around you. For kids who already have a propensity to be sucked in by screens, I can already see we will need to supervise how much our kids use VR headsets very closely.

Fortunately, they don’t have a device that is compatible with the headset so they simply can’t use it unless someone with a compatible headset is around. That helps!

I’ve been thinking about the phones our kids have (or will have in the case of our daughter). At the moment, our son’s “daily driver” is a very basic Nokia feature phone that can make calls and send SMS messages. Many of his friends have smartphones but I’ve already told him he won’t receive one for a while still. You just have to look at how kids are today with smartphones to guess why (or just watch this interview with Louis CK):

By contrast there is a real world to engage with

Another gift our son received was a dense chalk egg with a plastic crocodile (I think) embedded in it. It came with two plastic tools and the idea was for him to basically chip away at the egg until he uncovered the toy inside.

Desktop archaeology

He spent the better part of the day chipping away at the egg. It looked like a lot of fun and it was the sort of thing that involved everyone, either as spectators or by helping him along.

Desktop archaeology

By the time he finished it in the evening, he had a pile of dust and this little toy. He also really enjoyed doing it and was talking about getting another one. What struck me about this toy/project is that it is a stark contrast to a VR headset. Chipping away at that egg, he was firmly rooted in the moment in our physical space and interacted with whoever was there with him. With a VR headset, he is sequestered from his physical space and from everyone sharing that space with him.

I don’t think that he would be content only doing this sort of thing and I wouldn’t want to prevent him from using devices for play too. I just found the contrasts between the two activities to be pretty indicative of the challenges of VR headsets, especially when it comes to kids.

When it comes to new technologies, I much prefer augmented reality over virtual reality. At least AR takes its cues from the space we occupy and augments it with additional digital and information overlays. I think AR would probably be more beneficial for our kids than VR and I really like the possibilities presented by Corning’s “A Day Made of Glass 2: Same Day. Expanded Corning Vision”:

Just looking at how kids are with smartphones, I am more than a little worried about what we will see if/when there is a VR headset in every kid’s room. For one thing, our kids will stop interacting with each other (at least, relative to the varying degrees of interaction they manage today). They won’t learn to recognise those very human and physical cues we rely on for so much sub-vocal communication as a species.

Go outside and play (and channelling our parents)

Like any generation, I think this comes down to figuring out the balance of the potential of the technology with the harm it could do to our children socially. I am also acutely aware that I probably read like our parents did when we started using gaming consoles back in the day. I’m pretty sure they also lamented that we’d never go outside and play.

To a degree they may have overstated the harm of us playing video games and watching TV. I don’t think the answer is forcing our kids outside and forbidding them modern technology.

On the other hand, I think that the rapid change we witness from year to year makes our jobs as parents that much harder. We have to keep up with the changes, anticipate the risks and try and manage them as best we can.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I think the VR headset is terrific technology and it offers our kids opportunities they didn’t have before. It also has a troubling flip-side and that requires us to keep a foot in both worlds if we have any hope of raising the kinds of humans who won’t be among the first to go when some wild beast attacks because they never learned basic human survival and communication skills.

Unpacking MTN’s misleading “uncapped” data bundle

I just came across a bizarre story on EWN, “The terms of MTN’s uncapped data explained”, in which MTN’s Chief Customer Experience Officer, Eddie Moyce, explains MTN’s activation requirement for its time-based and misleading “uncapped” data bundle. Granted, I am not really familiar with MTN’s data bundles anymore but this sounds like a consumer trap. Here is the radio segment:

Basically, even though you have paid for the bundle, you still need to activate it by dialling a short-code which you receive by a SMS. If you don’t activate the bundle, you will use data at normal data rates and could wind up with a larger bill than you expected.

Two aspects of this story puzzle me:

1. Why offer this sort of “uncapped” bundle that the customer still needs to activate in order to use it, even after paying for it?

This is really misleading where most data bundles activate automatically when you have paid for them and the changes propagate across the network, don’t they?

It seems to me that MTN intentionally created this activation mechanism knowing that many customers won’t actually realise they need to do it and will wind up paying far more. I checked the terms and conditions that apply to this package (I think – the MTN site is not exactly designed to find information easily) and it says the following:

  1. Activation of the MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundles

5.1 Customers may purchase an MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundle by dialing 1412#.

5.2 Customers must activate the MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundle after purchase, by dialing 1415#. The MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundle does not automatically activate .

5.3 Customers may only activate the MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundle if they have sufficient airtime in their airtime account or using their usage limit (for My MTNChoice customers). This excludes MTN Loyalty 1–4–1 Loyalty Points and any promotional airtime.

Cruising_or_speeding__Get_a_data_bundle_that_fits_your_lifestyle___Word_on_the_street

Bear in mind that this seems to be a data bundle that is “valid for a period of 24 (twenty four) hours”, although only “after it is activated”. I also wonder how many people are aware of when the data bundle kicks in? How many people assume (and reasonably so) that the package kicks in automatically and they start using the data right away?

As far as the seemingly reasonable SMS from MTN with activation instructions goes, my experience handling mobile services complaints tells me that many people ignore SMS messages they receive for various reasons and may not notice the significance of an activation message until long after their bill has hit triple digits.

This activation mechanism looks a lot like the dodgy tactics mobile content providers used to use before they were banned: automatically subscribing consumers to expensive content (think R5 or R7 per day until cancelled) subscription services without clear double opt-in mechanisms and pricing information. Just because this is a major mobile network, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to use these deceptive tactics.

2. If the bundle is uncapped, why impose a “fair use value” cap of 150MB? That is tiny.

Then, to add to this, the notion that a bundle with a “fair use value” cap of 150MB is somehow an “uncapped” data bundle is ridiculous. That is a tiny amount of data when you consider that, as Eddie Moyce put it, people tend to buy these packages for specific reasons. One of those reasons would be that the customer needs to use a lot more data than his or her usual bundle allows (at least, cost effectively) in a short time period.

Here is an extract from the terms and conditions dealing with the “Fair Use Policy”:

9.1.4 Customers with an active MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundle shall be able to generate uncapped data usage, however, a fair use value/threshold as detailed in the table in clause 4 above will apply for the duration of the Validity Period.

9.1.5 Should the Customer exhaust the fair use value, as detailed in the table in clause 4 above, before the end of the Validity Period, the Customer’s data speeds will be reduced to 128kbps for the remainder of the Validity Period and the Fair Use Policy shall detailed in this clause 9 shall apply.

9.1.6 MTN further reserves the right to implement other measures and controls to ensure that the integrity of its systems is maintained, including but not limited to measures such as DPI (Deep Packet Inspection). DPI:

9.1.6.1 allows MTN to monitor aspects including, but not limited to, non-compliance with its Fair Use Policy and restricted protocols, prevent attacks from computer viruses/worms and identify SPAM. Such usage may be blocked or re-routed;

9.1.6.2 also allows MTN to throttle certain usage, such as peer to peer traffic;

9.1.6.3 shall also allow MTN to prioritize/filter certain activities, such as VoIP traffic, over other activities which are burdensome on the MTN network (such as video streaming);

9.1.6.4 in essence, this allows MTN to alleviate network congestion and improve service to all MTN customers.

9.1.7 This Fair Use Policy may be amended by MTN, whether by clarifying, modifying, adding to or deleting certain terms and conditions. This is subject to the Modification of Terms and Conditions, including notice being provided to you, as detailed in clause 16 below.

Not only does the available data speed slow to 128kbps when you hit that measly 150MB but MTN also imposes a series of restrictions on how you can use the data and when. The end result is that your “uncapped” data bundle is more like a “you can’t do much with this ISDN-like connection but thanks for paying anyway” bundle.

Oh, and the fact that MTN hides all these restrictions and qualifications in terms and conditions which few consumers will ever read, are couched in fairly dense language and presented in pale text on a white background that no-one over 45 can read without squinting says a lot too.

Website_legal

One more thing

Oh, by the way, this package isn’t available for “commercial use” so don’t think you are allowed to use this package to give your small business a little boost either:

9.2 The MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundles are intended for consumer use only. This means that the MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundles may not be used for commercial use (which includes, but is not limited to the intention of promoting, enabling, subscribing to, selling (directly or indirectly) the goods, services or image of any person pursuing a commercial, industrial, craft, religious, charitable or political activity or exercising a regulated profession).

9.3 The MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundles exclude use of the following services:

9.3.1 Least Call Routing (LCR);

9.3.2 Routing devices; and/or

9.3.3 Commercial use.

9.4 Use of the above services shall be deemed abuse and/or fraudulent use of the MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundles and shall entitle MTN to immediately suspend and/or deactivate the Customer’s access to the MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundles.

So if you are a small business owner and you happened to buy this bundle and use it as part of your business (you could have sent a data message to a client telling them about your services, for example), you would be committing a fraud in addition to breaching the terms and conditions of the bundle. Talk about hostile to small business!

Just more frustration

This was meant to be a quick post but the more I read the angrier I became. I’ve clearly been out of the country for too long and far too accustomed to my current mobile service which includes 5 000 minutes of calls, 5 000 SMS messages, 10GB of data a month and 500 minutes of calls to my family in SA (landlines in SA) for the equivalent of about R200 per month.

I’m sure the economics in SA are different to here in Israel but why couldn’t MTN offer a simpler option that just let’s people pay their R40 for either a fixed amount of data or a realistic “fair use value” cap? Drop this silly activation mechanism and the ridiculous fine print. In other words, give people what they think they are getting or, if that is more than you want to offer, offer them something you are comfortable with and that makes sense to consumers.

Featured image credit: Pixabay, released under a CC0 Dedication