The Stanley Parable

My son Miguel introduced me to The Stanley Parable video game yesterday. A-ma-zing. I’ve never been into video games, probably because I’ve never had the time to play them. And my son knows this, so when he said “Mom, I want to show you a video game I think you’ll like”, my surprise and curiosity produced a “Sure!”. And he was right, I was completely blown away.

The Stanley Parable is not an action game. No guns, lasers or fast cars. It is about… mind control. Really. On a very meta-physicial, “whoa”, kind of level. It’s about… video games. What is a video game, and what should it be about? Who decides the constructs? As the narrator asks you, the protagonist, “Do you have any idea what your purpose in this place is?” And, in a way, it’s about life. “When every path you can walk has been created for you long in advance, death becomes meaningless, making life the same,” we are told, as the game scene becomes a museum of the game itself. Yes, you can walk around a Stanley Parable museum in the Stanley Parable game.

The Stanley Parable Museum

Some other very mind-bending features: First, you have a break in the fourth wall. The what? I had no idea what that meant when Miguel mentioned it, so I pressed. It turns out that some video games treat you as the main player, others as the audience. The audience is behind the “fourth wall” of the theatre (the other three being the sides and back of the stage). In Stanley, you are “inside” Stanley, you are Stanley, but at the same time you are being told what Stanley is doing in the third person.

Second, I have never come across a game that makes me laugh so hard. The absurdity and theatre of the narration are brilliant, and the snide cajoling and histrionics turn the narrator into a delightful antagonist. “Stanley obviously thinks I have nothing better to do with my time,” the narrator deadpans if you (=Stanley) take too long to respond.

Stanley in his office

Third, while many video games have stunned me with the artwork, none before have left me open-mouthed at the plot twists. In one of the endings, when you follow the narrator’s instructions, you enter a vault which reveals that all of Stanley’s colleagues, as well as himself, have been under mind control all this time. Doing what they were told to do. And then you realise that this is just what you have done. Things get interesting when you choose to not do what the narrator says. The plot gets whacky, and the narrator’s dialogue gets surreal.

Fourth, the detail is as interesting as the plot. In the meeting room which the narrator wants you to go through, there are charts on the wall that suggest things like making charts more “hip” to appeal to the teenage demographic, and then finding teenagers to put in a demographic (“big nets?” is one suggestion). There is a PowerPoint slide show in motion, with slides like “Number of slides on this slide”, and “The Boss Appreciation Minute”. Hilarious.

the meeting room

In short, a game with humour and whimsy, and a twisted sense of right, wrong and happy endings. I’m not about to become a video game player. But my appreciation of the art form has just been moved up a level.

E-books vs paper books – may they both win

Now, you’re probably starting to think about your summer holiday (if you’re not on holiday already!), and all that delicious reading you’re going to get done. So… what’s it going to be? An intimate bonding with a satisfying chunk of paper and print? Or frustrations with connectivity and battery life?

book on beach

de istockphoto.com

In cost and convenience, the e-readers win, I concede that. But is that the main consideration in so personal an activity? I don’t choose my friends for their cost or convenience. I don’t even choose my meals that way – deciding what we eat based on easiest and cheapest would deprive us of so much pleasure and would make human beings less interesting. And many die-hard e-book fans I know love to travel and explore, and, seriously, what is either cheap or convenient about that? Isn’t it cheaper and more convenient to read a magazine article and watch a video about the fantasy destination? I’m not saying that reading and travelling are the same thing (although are they that different? A different debate), I’m making the point that cost and convenience should not be the deciding factor here.

I could be accused of sticking to the comfortable, staying with paper books because it’s what I’m used to. But no, I like change, and will happily try out new technologies and embrace their conveniences. I do use e-books for work-related reading, and I love the technology, the swiping of the pages, the searchability. But for preference, and certainly for reading for pleasure, I prefer the self-contained fantasy world of paper.

And I’m not alone. E-books are still a significant minority of books sold and read. Yes, the percentage is increasing rapidly (from 17% to 28% of the American population over the past three years, according to Pew Research – in Spain, where I live, approximately 12% of the population e-reads). But will e-books replace print? I doubt it. 87% of e-book readers also read books on paper. And here’s why: it’s psychologically much more satisfying.

kindle reading

by James Tarbotton for unsplash.com

A paper book has heft, bulk, it has dimensions. That makes the relationship more tangible, and more intimate. If the book I’m reading has boundaries, the relationship is more intense. And let’s not even get into the sensation of holding something substantial in your hands, of riffling the pages, of the texture of the paper and the smell of the print…

Ok, all of that is pretty obvious. But let me go on. The privacy of connecting with something that has no connectivity. The thrill of the immediacy of opening the book and diving in, no waiting for start-up and library search. Paper books allow us a more personal reading style. I turn down corners if I can’t find my bookmark or if I want to remember a specific page. Sometimes I’ll mark a margin, yes, with pen. A paper book will never suddenly not be there anymore because of a malfunction, a weak battery, a software incompatibility. And I love being able to see what other people are reading at the airport or on the metro. I once even made a friend on an airplane that way – I had just bought the book that he was reading, so of course I asked him what he thought about it. E-reading, while not unifying our tastes, homogenizes our style, and removes the public statement that our reading choices make about us. And the intimacy of lending books… “Here, you have to read this,” my friend Elizabeth said to me the other day, as she put in my hands a book I would never have thought of picking up. And best of all: we didn’t have to worry about copyright issues.

However, let me confess a contradiction: I do believe that e-reading is much better for what the psychologists would call “active learning”. You can search, highlight, annotate, bookmark (depending on your e-reader, obviously). I don’t want my research books to be a self-contained universe. I want them to lead me to other destinations, to cross-reference, to correlate. In some cases you have hyperlinks in the footnotes, really convenient. You can read a review of a book and in seconds have the book downloaded, ready to go. You can change the size of the font, useful for tired eyes. Even the menacing progress bar at the bottom of the screen is less bothersome if I’m not engrossed in a fictional world. And travelling with an e-reader is so much lighter than a rucksack full of textbooks or similar.

I’m aware that there might be a generational issue here. The Pew Research Survey I mentioned earlier shows that 37% of under-30s read books on screens. So I decided to ask an expert. My 11-year-old daughter goes through at least a book a week, and it was getting logistically impossible to keep up with a fresh supply, not to mention the fact that the physical space the books take up was beginning to be a problem. So we bought her a Kindle for her last birthday.

I asked her which she preferred, reading on the Kindle or reading on paper, and her answer was interesting: “Well, the Kindle is definitely more practical,” she said, in her most practical voice. “But… I find I can imagine the book better if I’m reading on paper.” Her friend Charlotte agrees, and adds: “I get so much more distracted with e-books. I love flipping the pages back and forth!”

So, who wins: e-book readers or paper book readers? The answer is we all do. True, paper books may become more scarce and costly over the next generation. True, e-readers will become ever-more technologically amazing. But they have ahead of them a long and happy co-existence, and new business models and publishing formats will draw in new readers, new contributors, and will make reading an ever richer experience.

— x —

If you want to see even more articles about the Future of Books, take a look at my Flipboard magazine “Books and Reading:

Books and Reading on Flipboard

The business model of MOOCs revisited…

A few weeks ago I wrote about how MOOCs could become profitable while at the same time being free for everyone.  Time for a follow-up, now that we are beginning to see just how much revenue these courses can generate…

moocs update

image from Death to Stock

Beginning in 2013, Coursera started offering a Signature Track option, in which the student earns a Verified Certificate upon successful course completion. Through photo-identification and your individual typing style (yes, really!), Coursera can verify that it is you doing the work. Assuming that you complete all the assignments to a reasonable standard, at the end of the sessions you get a certificate proclaiming that the verified you successfully completed the course.

In September, Coursera announced that they had already received 25,000 Signature Track requests, and earned over $1,000,000 in revenue from this initiative alone, just from the first nine months. Another nine months later, I imagine that the figures are well more than double that. The cost of the certificate varies according to the course, but at an average price of $45, it still seems like a good deal, given the quality of the material, especially if it helps you to change jobs or get a promotion or decorate your study wall. They do offer financial aid to those who cannot pay the fee – according to their blog, about 10% of the applicants requested and were granted free Signature Track status.

It is starting to look like Coursera might justify the $85 million financing from VC firms. While $1 million every nine months would not give a happy return on the investors’ money, there is every reason to believe that this is just the start of a very steep and convex revenue graph. For the first few months, Signature Track was not heavily promoted. I am currently taking two Coursera courses, and I can assure you, they are now actively pushing Signature Track status (effectively so, I am actually thinking of signing up). As if that weren’t enough, some Coursera courses have been approved for “credit equivalency”, which means that they can, if passed with a Verified Certificate (for which the students pay, obviously), count as college credit.

Coursera also now offers “Specialization”, like a mini-degree, in which if you complete a series of courses arranged around a core theme, and you participate in a project in which you show what you’ve learnt, you get a Specialization Certificate, all for between $200 and $500, depending on the length of the program. Not an inconsiderable amount, but it is a mini-degree, from a good institution, and just your improved job prospects make it an interesting investment. And they offer financial aid if you need it. And something that you don’t get when you’re actually at a university: unlimited re-tries for free.

edX has implemented a similar model. I’ve just signed up for Harvard’s Computer Science 50 course (loving it!), and while just auditing the course is free, if I want certification, that will cost $90. That’s actually really cheap for the quality of the course.  And get this: I can even take the course for official Harvard credit, as in, it could count towards my degree. That costs more, $2500 to be exact. Again, cheap when you take into account the cost of an actual Harvard education.

cs50 from edX

screenshot from the CS50 class on edX

I think this is a brilliant idea. $45 or even $90 is quite a lot of money for some, but if we need official certification, perhaps for our jobs or to impress future employers, it’s really not expensive. If all we want is the learning, we don’t have to pay anything. While I’m sure that most of us taking MOOCs will choose the free option, the potential income is still staggering. Even if only 1% of the 7.5 million students enrolled in Coursera courses opt for the certificate option in at least one of their courses, Coursera could generate over $3 million in income. According to the Wall Street Journal, an analysis by Deloitte predicts that by 2020, Coursera will have 10% of the $1.5 trillion post-secondary education market. $150 billion is a lot of revenue.  And I’m sure that will make Coursera’s investors, who have collectively put in $85 million, very happy.

At the same time, Coursera has launched the Global Translator Community, a volunteer initiative, asking for (unpaid) help in translating the courses. Yup, a for-profit organization, with a healthy profit outlook, asking for volunteers. While I’m all for helping out, and while I’m in awe of the motivation and power behind crowdsourcing, and while I’m a huge fan of Coursera, I prefer to donate my time to not-for-profit initiatives.

edX’s philosophy is more refreshing. As a non-profit, it is not too concerned with, well, profit, but it does need to cover its (considerable) costs and allow its participating universities to do the same. Its CEO Anant Argawal said recently: “I can see a path to modest revenue — $50 to 60 million in revenue would be perfectly OK,” Argawal said. “I cannot see a path to revenue in the billions without doing things to upset our partners or selling user data.”

Speaking of user data, edX announced at the end of last year a partnership with Google to develop mooc.org, an open-source platform to which any instructor, university or business not affiliated with one of the existing platforms can upload courses. The platform will make it easier for instructors to create online courses and to reach a broader audience, and for universities and eventually schools to incorporate the mooc technology into their course management. For Google, this is an extension of their open source Course Builder project, which helps with online course creation. For edX, it’s an extension of their mission to develop open-source online learning platforms (they have been rolling out their own, but Google’s help obviously adds a new dimension to the technology). It opens up online education to any supplier, without diluting edX’s brand. And it might slow down Coursera’s growth.

Apart from the income generated from certificates and bundling, both edX and Coursera will also earn income on licensing its technology, to universities, organizations (such as the International Monetary Fund, the Smithsonian Institution, the Linux Foundation, and the World Economic Forum for which edX administers courses for a fee) or even countries. EdX has reached a deal with the governments of France, China, Rwanda to help them adapt edX’s system to create MOOC platforms in their country. EdX gives away the program, but charges for training and maintenance. Coursera licences its technology to the government of Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey’s main mobile telecommunications provider,

That the universities can earn some revenue on their courses is a relief (they get about 15% of the income), as each costs approximately $50,000 to produce. While profit is not the main reason for doing them (brand reinforcement, educational philanthropy), I do feel better knowing that they should at least be able to recover costs, so that they can keep doing more.

 

— x —

For more on online education, check out my Flipboard “Internet and Education”:

flipboard education

Handing victory to the competition

On Wednesday morning I had arranged to meet a friend for coffee. I was looking forward to seeing her and didn’t want to arrive late, so I decided to take a taxi – quick, and not very expensive for short routes, at least in Madrid. I should have walked. Forty minutes later it dawned on me that there were no taxis, not even full ones. I went to the three hotels near me, no taxis. Then it started to rain. So I sent a damp and apologetic text and slunk home. Should I have known that there was a taxi strike? Yes, obviously. Should they have gone on strike? No, doing so did them so much more damage than good.

empty taxi stands

image via El País

The taxi strike was Europe-wide, and its main objective was to “protect the consumer against unlicensed taxi rides”. Yes, I’m sure that our welfare is of significant concern, but not even the strikers themselves bother to deny that the strike is to protest the encroachment of Uber on their livelihood.

Now, it’s worth noting that Uber is not even in Madrid yet. It does operate a limited service, in Barcelona, which interestingly enough did not have a city-wide taxi strike. So most of our fair city had never heard of Uber. Now they have, and a large percentage of them are liking what they hear. Uber’s downloads have grown by over 800% this week compared to last. UberMadrid’s Twitter page already has 164 followers at time of writing, without ever having issued a single tweet.

UberMadrid Twitter

a snapshot of UberMadrid’s Twitter page on the 15th of June

It is also worth noting that I have nothing but good things to say about the taxi service in Madrid (in spite of being seriously pissed at them on Wednesday). It’s relatively inexpensive compared to other European cities, they all have GPS so not knowing where they’re going is not the problem it once was (I once took a taxi to the airport and had to tell the driver how to get there), they’re no longer allowed to smoke in the vehicle (definitely an improvement) and they have pretty much all of them been pleasant.

I do understand their position. After putting up huge licence fees (between 80.000€ and 200.000€) and struggling through reams of administrative hassle and enduring a significant crisis-induced slump in business, along come the under-cutting Uber drivers with much fewer requirements and restrictions. It does not seem fair.

But rather than “How can we stop the competition from coming?”, why are they not asking “How did we get in this position in the first place?”. Why do the taxi drivers have to pay such high licence fees? The reason given is that they are a government-approved monopoly, a public service with a more-or-less “guaranteed” income. But, if they are a public service, why are they allowed to strike without at least guaranteeing a minimum service and being held to standards of good behaviour (no destruction of property, no violence), a “privilege” not granted to other public services?

A sector-wide strike against fair and inevitable competition is futile and self-defeating. Even Neelie Kroes, the Vice President of the European Commission, stated publicly in a fascinating post that the strike is pointless: “We cannot address these challenges by ignoring them, by going on strike, or by trying to ban these innovations out of existence.”Imagine the hotel sector going on strike to protest against Airbnb. The only ones that were negatively affected were the taxi drivers, through a day of lost income, and their clients, through a day of transport hassle. The yet-to-arrive competition is happy with the major and free publicity.

Rather than taking clients away from the traditional taxis (although that obviously will happen), Uber and its peers see their service broadening the market. More cost-efficient taxi rides, less will-I-find-a-cab uncertainty, and the social aspect do make finding a ride through Uber more appealing than standing on a street corner with your arm raised, especially among the younger users.

Taxi drivers are going to have to accept that change is inevitable. Whatever laws the respective European governments implement to protect an antiquated monopoly, their market will be eroded, and they would be better off lobbying for lower licensing fees and more entrepreneurial freedom (= fewer restrictions) than giving huge free publicity to the enemy they fear. As Marc Vidal says in his excellent post “Taxi drivers use Uber”, “To continue regarding a taxi license as an investment is a mistake that many are beginning to realize”. He also says that he knows taxi drivers who are signing up with Uber, taxi drivers who realize that adapting and innovating goes beyond having magazines and wifi connection in the back seat.

It is interesting that no protest has been made against the Spanish government’s decision to allow testing of driverless cars on city streets and highways. Now there’s a coming disruption for you.

 

 

Edible technology

No, it doesn’t taste very good. I’m not going to talk today about the technology of what we eat. I do want to show you a couple of examples of technology that we ingest, swallow, carry around inside us for a while… Ready?

Something that has been already around for a few years, and was initially used in space travel: The CorTempTM pill. This tiny swallowable device with its built-in microbattery sends your internal body temperature to a portable device. Picture the safety implications: athletes, firefighters, soldiers ingest these so that they can be pulled out if their temperature gets dangerously high. Lives are saved.

internal temperature control

image from HQ Inc

But, as with all micro-gadgets, the power source is the problem. This pill is powered by a tiny silver oxide battery, which isn’t cheap. I so hope nobody tries to recycle theirs…

On to a more, um, “ecological” power source: you.

One of the big problems doctors face is monitoring medicine consumption. Is the medicine not working, or is the patient not taking it correctly? That uncertainty ends up being expensive, both for the healthcare industry and for the patient. Proteus Digital Health has developed miniscule sensors made of non-toxic and inexpensive silicon, copper and magnesium that react with your stomach acids to become a tiny battery. These sensors can be implanted into pills, which when activated, transmit the exact time of ingestion to a patch you’re wearing on your arm, say. That information, along with biometric data such as heartbeat, temperature, sleep patterns and activity level gets sent to your phone and also directly to your doctor, with your permission, of course. That way he or she can monitor exactly when you take your medicine, and how you’re doing. Doesn’t that sound more convenient than countless trips to the doctor’s office? These sensors have been FDA approved and supposedly will be available this year or next.

vitamin authentication

image via The Verge

The same technology can be used for password authentication. Yes, you swallow a pill that makes your whole body an authenticator. The pill is activated on contact with your stomach acids, and transmits an 18-bit ECG-like signal which will unlock your phone, your computer, your car, even your front door. This pill already has FDA approval, and apparently you can safely take 30 of these pills a day. I have not been able to find out how long the signal lasts once activated. I would imagine that, with no activating gastric juices, it loses its signal after, um, elimination.

I’m sure that we all agree that passwords are a complete hassle and not very secure (I mean, no way you use the same password for more than one site, right?), and ingestible passwords would eliminate the need to remember sequences… But, you would still have to remember to take the pill. And, how do you keep your pills safe? Lock and key, sure, but wouldn’t the safest way be a password-activated safe? Personally, I prefer to wait until fingerprint recognition or eye-scanning becomes the norm. That I’m looking forward to.

Love these scrolling effects

I don’t usually talk about web design here, ‘cos it’s not my thing, but this is one of the coolest examples of scrolling I’ve seen:

amazing example of scrolling

Beer Camp 2011

I have absolutely no idea how it’s done. It could be parallax scrolling but it looks very different. I will investigate…

Another truly amazing example of scrolling:

Life of Pi

Pi’s epic journey

This is parallax, but I’ve never seen it so multi-layered and complex before.

Do you know of any other great examples?

 

You are now a news editor

Much has been written about the impact of Internet on news journalism (for a good list of sources see here and here), but one aspect that I find completely mind-boggling, and this has nothing to do with how the news is reported… is news curation.

By news curation I mean that we can now create our own news sites, for our own consumption or for sharing with our friends and/or the public. You choose what you want to save and share, and in what format. You become, effectively, a news editor.

news editors

(not sure what Cary Grant has to do with news editors, other than he looks the part…)

Back in the pre-digital day, we were generally faithful to one or two print newspapers. Mine was the New York Times when I was living in the US, The Independent when I was living in the UK, and my beloved Financial Times then and still. But now, with only 55% of the US population getting their news from print sources (and I imagine the percentage is similar in the UK), fidelity is not much of an issue. Sure, you can read your favourite newspaper online, but more and more of us choose news aggregation sites such as feedly or digg. News aggregation sites, as you probably know, present you with articles and news items according to topics that you have selected. You can even usually choose the feeds from which the articles are chosen.

But even the news aggregation sites can get overwhelming. I barely have time to skim mine (and I mean seriously skim) every morning. So, what do I do with the articles I actually want to save and read?

I used to upload them to Evernote, which is fine and convenient, especially from the iPad. But in terms of formatting, it lacks… well, style.

Noelle Acheson's Scoop.it boards

A screen shot from my Scoop.it boards

Enter two of my now favourite article-saving sites: Flipboard and Scoop.it. They are both news aggregation services in that they present you with a selection of articles on topics that you have selected. But, and here’s an important difference, they are also news curation sites that let you create your own magazine, or board, or whatever you want to call it. I like calling it a magazine, although I don’t have a lot of control over the format. However, in both cases the format is attractive, especially with Flipboard (I love the page flipping effects).

A brief description of both: Flipboard is a news aggregator with cool page turning effects (you swipe, or scroll down if you’re on the desktop). It is also a virtual magazine that you create. You fill it with news items and articles that you find relevant, either directly from other Flipboard magazines, curated by other people, or via a little browser extension that you click when you’re on the page you want to save. For now it’s a free service, and you can create as many magazines as you wish, on whatever topic you find interesting. My Flipboard magazines revolve around technology themes that I want to know more about: Internet of Things, 3d printing, Internet and Education, Big Data, Internet and New Business, etc. The magazines have an attractive design, which you can play with by moving articles around, choosing a cover photo, etc. And it’s very media-rich, your magazine can include not only articles from just about anywhere, but also videos, photos, even music. I love the idea of a magazine having a soundtrack! Flipboard has more than 100 million users, more than 7 million magazines created over the past year, and at the last round of funding (which brought its total up to $160 million), it was valued at $800 million.

Noelle Acheson's Flipboard magazine Internet and New Business

One of my Flipboard magazine covers

Scoop.it also lets you curate articles that interest you, displaying them on thematic boards that you set up. It is not a free service (well, you can have two free boards, with I think 5 uploads daily, but that’s not really useful), at time of writing it costs approximately $12 a month for the “basic” service which allows you five boards and unlimited uploads. It’s really convenient, easy to curate, and has good social media functions in that it allows you to share (LinkedIn, Twitter, your blog, whatever…) at the same time as you upload, quite convenient. Any time you open one of your boards, Scoop.it publishes on the right-hand side of the page a list of articles you might be interested in adding – it even includes tweets. It also makes it very easy (although a little bit slow on my computer) to “scoop” articles from your other news aggregators via a pin on your bookmark bar. You can get Google Analytics for your Scoop.it pages, and you can (I haven’t tried this, but it sounds impressive if news curation for clients is your thing) export part of your board in newsletter format, even integrating it with Mailchimp if you wish. If you pay for the expensive business version ($80 a month), you can custom design your magazines, playing with formats and headers, and you have more branding opportunities, with links back to your website, lead generation forms, etc. I find Scoop.it much easier to use than Flipboard, although its design is nowhere near as “slick”. It achieved over 1 million users on financing of only $2.6 million.

Internet of Things, on Scoop.it

My Scoop.it Interent of Things board

The two things I most like about these news curation sites: 1) I can easily access articles I’ve saved, and 2) I can browse other peoples’ boards or magazines. For research purposes, this is invaluable, so much more useful than Google searches, because the boards/magazines have been curated by people who share my interest. And, while I have not had time yet to fully explore the social functions, realizing that you share interests with others is a lot of fun, and can be very productive.

There are other news curation platforms that many people swear by: Twitter and Pinterest come to mind. But I don’t use them much for that, the format is nowhere near as easy to browse and there is just so much to sift through. Pinterest comes close, but I consider it more an idea aggregator.

Internet of Things, on Flipboard

My Flipboard Internet of Things magazine

News aggregators are useful, I’d go so far as to say essential for news junkies like me. But creating your own news feed… Now that’s satisfying! If you’re into technology and its impact on how we live and work, and if you, too, use either Flipboard or Scoop.it, let me know! See you there!

(If you’re interested, you can see my Scoop.it boards here, and my Flipboard magazines here. Let’s share some information!)