Category Archives: Uncategorized

Academia: School simulator

August 31, 2017 | Filed under: Uncategorized

Squeaky wheel, the guys who made Political Animals (which I published) have a new game coming to steam early access in a few days. here is the trailer:

And here is the store link.

http://store.steampowered.com/app/672630/Academia__School_Simulator/

Hope you like it :D. I think it will do very well indeed… if you think ‘oh itts that same style for art everyone is cloning’ then…well yeah, that’s ryan’s art. he did the artwork for Prison Architect which started all this, so he gets a free pass :D

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Inefficiency really annoys me. I see inefficiency almost everywhere I look. I guess as a coder, I am on the lookout for it, as it makes the product I sell worse, but that has hugely spilled over into my observations of life in general. It seems that inefficiency is accepted, tolerated, in some cases even encouraged by almost everybody around me.

In the UK, members of the house of parliament can only vote if they are inside the walls of the palace of Westminster. To do so, they have to all walk out of a special room, then walk back into it through one of two doors, while people in stockings and buckled shoes count them. I am not kidding. Its 2017 and we are talking about sending people to Mars and strong AI, but our country is run by people who think walking through a door in a queue is the best way to record decisions. We defend this gross inefficiency as ‘tradition’.

If I want to send a payment to another country in another currency, my bank either wants a phone call, a fax, or a physical letter. Why does the fax machine even exist? Its like amazon sending you your orders by canal barge. Its 2017. Lets kill the fax machine stone dead. it should not exist, in any form, under any circumstances.

To charge my car at a non-tesla point I have to use the QR code reader on my phone, enter the last 3 digits of my credit card number, please 3 or 4 confirm buttons, and THEN plug my car in. Did I mention its 2017?

I am not a superhero with fast reactions (although to be fair I did once beat a ‘professional cowboy’ in a speed-draw gunfight) yet I can open a new browser tab to googles homepage and start typing my query before that tab is rendered and the search box has focus. How is this possible? My Blu-ray player takes actual seconds to power-on to the state where it can eject a disk. Actual seconds.

The vast majority of traffic lights in the UK and dumb systems that are not traffic aware, and not able to adjust to changes in traffic flow. Right now tens of thousands of citizens are sat at a traffic light that is red for NO reason. The same inefficiency is pervasive throughout all common goods and utilities. We have ‘peak’ times on trains and buses and roads because we all decide to work at the same time, and everyone drives to work with 3 empty seats in their car, and nothing in the luggage compartment.

Every time an empty van drives anywhere, its an inefficiency. Any time someone waits in a queue, its an inefficiency. Every time you pick up the phone and it has a queue, rather than a ringback system, its an inefficiency.

I reckon on average, a UK citizen is ‘efficient’ in what they are trying to accomplish whilst awake maybe 20% of the time. 80% of our time is literally wasted, thrown away. We queue to buy food, we queue to speak to the bank, we receive telephone calls and post instead of email. We sit in traffic. Even people sat at a desk all day theoretically doing productive work are incredibly inefficient. How many people know to use CTRL+C, CTRL+V, WIN+F, CTRL+HOME, ALT+TAB and the thousands of other productivity tips? How many people who need multiple monitors don’t have them? or don’t know how to use WIN+UP/DOWN/LEFT/RIGHT to organize their work?

How efficient are you?

 

And expand this out to the whole world. How much time is wasted with millions of people fetching fresh water by hand because we haven’t installed piped water to their homes? How much time is wasted because people have not got the education to grow their crops efficiently, to do their work efficiently? How many people are still using 1970s technology in their day-to-day lives. Imagine a world where we all operated with efficiency all the time. No wonder the vulcans beat us to lightspeed.

 

 

Two views of the near future

March 25, 2017 | Filed under: Uncategorized

Depending on my mood, and alcohol intake, I find that I flop between vastly varying views of what our future may look like. The pessimistic, dark one comes easily to me, but sometimes the positive one breaks through. I suspect we face a future of extremes and may end up in either, or both depending where you live, and what you earn. Here are my upbeat and downbeat views.

The pessimistic view:

Lots of forces are conspiring to change your world in a bad way. Nuclear proliferation has not gone away, nor has terrorism. The chances are, at some point, some terrorist will successfully use a nuclear weapon, even if its something as relatively trivial as a ‘dirty bomb‘. The impact of a dirty bomb isn’t measurable by deaths,m but by economic damage. Set it off in central park, or Time square, or outside the houses of parliament. The economic damage and panic would be off the scale. Even fukushima was hugely mitigated by being in a *relatively* low population area. Worse still, our abilities to spot such things are not good.  Even if you think that society *can* prevent all terrorism, do you want to live in the ‘total surveillance’ state that it would require? Its highly possible that the last twenty years may become remembered in history books as an anomaly of privacy at the start of the digital age.  We are one major terrorist strike away from compulsory ID cards, total internet monitoring and a ban on personal use of encryption.

When privacy goes, business will step in. I recommend you read super-crunchers if you think corporate collection of data is harmless. For all our lives we have assumed that we have nothing to hide, and no useful data to collect, because who cares so much about our buying habits. that’s before big data and smart AI makes it possible to adjust cliffs health insurance costs based on what he orders from Starbucks for lunch. We are hurtling at high speed towards a future where big business knows way, way more about you than you do, than your family does, than even your therapist does. Advertising will get smarter, more targeted, more manipulative. The idea of dumb ‘banner’ ads may disappear in a future where every word of text, every font choice, every image choice in every ad you see has been curated in real time to appeal to you, at this time of day, on this date. Multiply the creepy feeling of seeing ads ‘follow’ you around the web by a thousandfold.

Not that you will be able to buy anything anyway…because robots just took your job, and if you think you are smart, you better be ultra-smart because AI just took the other jobs too. Of course, you *might* have a job cleaning the expensive sports cars of the super-rich by hand (purely for show of course, even that will be done better by a real car cleaning robot), or be able to compete for one of the rapidly decreasing jobs that robots cannot yet do (or we prefer them not to).

If you do manage to get a job, its likely to be not for ‘the company‘, as thankfully there will still be more than one company on earth, but its likely to be one of a very small number. Remember those glory days when entrepreneurs could start a small company? thats kinda quaint in a future increasingly dominated by massive companies, like Amazon and Alphabet with a market cap larger than many small (and even medium sized) countries. The wealth will continue to concentrate, and the chances are it wont be in your hands.

Name Market cap
Alphabet $563bn
Sweden $517bn
Microsoft $500bn
Amazon $403bn
United Arab Emirates $375bn
Greece $195bn

Not that any of that matters because we are still doing nothing about climate change. It wont kill you directly, but it will make your life hell. Climate shifts will mean devastation to harvests pushing up food prices beyond breaking point for many societies, leading to increased war, massive migration to ‘the west’, and a huge squeeze on the cost of living (compounded by the robots taking your job anyway). Globalisation will not stop, so you will be competing for the last few human-viable jobs with desperate refugees all over the world.  A combination of climate instability, resource wars and food shortages will provide a fertile breeding ground for yet more terrorism, and lead to more extremist politics around the globe. By the way antibiotic resistance could fail soon due to over-prescription and help wipe us out, if a bird flu pandemic or something similar doesn’t get there first. And don’t even get me started on topsoil erosion.

We are fucked.

The optimistic view:

In 1900 a car cost a fortune, went at a pitiful speed, was unsafe, noisy, polluting, unreliable and a pain-in-the-ass to drive. In 2016 a car can be scarily fast, trivial to drive (or even self-drive at times), as comfortable as a sofa, eerily quiet, safer than ever before (by a vast margin), and emit zero pollution. A lot of that has changed in the last 10 years, and the rate of change is accelerating.

I’m 47. As a kid we knew that phonecalls (even local ones) were expensive. nobody could afford to phone another country, unless it was an emergency. These days, phonecalls are effectively free, and communication by high def image, video, voice or even virtual-prescence in a  game is virtually free. Access to vast amounts of human knowledge is virtually free online. the world has never been more connected. Global violence has never been lower. Poverty has never been lower.  Diseases that were commonplace are now virtually eradicated. the human genome is sequenced. Some people in the UK are getting ‘bionic eyes’ on the NHS.

Futurists who talk about the ‘singularity’ are excited at the idea that as tech advances, the rate of tech advancement also accelerates, as the output of that new tech leads to more educated and technologically literate people able to achieve more and more. Kids born today will take to computers and virtual reality in the same way someone my age took to television and books.

People worry about automation causing job losses, but this will just lead to an explosion of leisure. The huge extra wealth generated by an automated workforce that requires no pay, no healthcare, no pension, no breaks, so sleep, will allow society to capture the surplus as tax to pay for either a universal basic income, or for the state to pay for vast social enterprises that create employment. The arts budget could be multiplied by ten, or even a hundred, as the profits from robot-crammed factories pay for a life of creativity and leisure. the forty hour week will give way to a twenty hour week, maybe even a ten hour week.  Democracies will ensure that wealth cannot be forever hoarded by the few, and a need for people to actually afford to buy their products will persuade the super-rich than even the 10-hour weekers will ned to earn a decent wag for society to operate.

Automation and AI will lead to such an economic surplus that once unsolvable problems (climate change, global poverty, unaffordable housing, homelessness) become affordable, maybe even trivial to fix.  Advances in renewable energy point to a future where energy is effectively free, and where almost everything is done by robots and almost all they need is energy, we effectively live a life of pure exploration, enjoyment and leisure.

It sounds unlikely, but we already live relatively blissful lives thanks to the advance of robots. A robot washes my dishes, another washes my clothes. We already have robots that clean cars, that mow the lawn and that vacuum your house. Is it so hard to imagine a special purpose robot that takes out your trash, that irons your clothes, that drives you to and from work (or to the pub!), leaving you to do the ten or less hours a week of creative thinking that you already do, but without the tedious pen pushing or lifting/carrying nonsense that makes up the majority of so many jobs? We no more WANT to keep so many of us stacking shelves in shops than we WANT to go back to hand-washing of cars, or even hand-scything of crops. Technological advance has always given us greater wealth, greater comfort and more leisure and it always will.

We are so lucky.

A short rant about UK tax

January 24, 2017 | Filed under: Uncategorized

…not about it being too high. I think its probably ‘about right’ myself, and there are arguments in both directions, and I don’t want to get into that. My complaint is not that we are taxed too much, bu that we are taxed really badly. Theoretically our income tax system is simple enough:

Basic rate band:  £0-32,000 charged at 20%

Higher rate band: £32k- £150k charged at 40%

Additional rate band: £150k+ charged at 45%

All well and good. A few needless cliff-edges there, having a band between 32 and 150k wouldn’t exactly over-stress modern computers methinks. If life for a UK tax payer was this simple, it would be great. the thing is, we have a load of other bullshit:

  • ‘Tax credits’ are a thing that are basically benefits, but the government didn’t want to call them benefits so they get called tax credits instead, and are not credits against tax.
  • If you earn over £100k, the government starts taking away your ‘personal allowance’ of tax-free income at a marginal rate of 50%. This was a kludge to fix a bodged budget one year that nobody has the balls to fix.
  • As well as income tax, there is capital gains tax, which is totally different rates, at different bands, on money from different sources.
  • ‘National Insurance’ is a tax on employment paid by employers AND employees, again at totally different rates and rules. Its essentially just more tax, and makes no sense whatsoever to be separated from income tax.
  • TV License, is a tax you have to pay to use a TV, or a computer capable of receiving a TV signal. Theoretically you don’t HAVE to have one, but in practice everyone does, and a totally separate regime of costs, enforcement and collection takes place. FFS roll this into income tax.
  • Car Tax. This is a tax (technically a duty) for owning a car, even if you never drive it once. This is again, set, enforced and collected in an entirely different way to…
  • Fuel tax. A tax for using a car, assuming that its a petrol/diesel car.
  • VAT. A sales tax, whose rules are complex enough to be laughable. Some biscuits have VAT on them. other biscuits do not, depending how they are made. I wish I was kidding. I’m not.
  • Stamp Duty. This is a tax on buying a house, or buying *some* shares on the stock market. Apparently it seems to be designed to reduce market liquidity and reduce labour force mobility. No other explanation makes sense.

Essentially the UK tax system is one nobody in their right mind would design. We have several taxes (Car Tax, National Insurance, TV licenses) that could happily be abolished and rolled into a rise in income tax, but nobody has the balls to confront this and actually do it. The insane complexity of the system gives profitable work to an army of accountants who do their best to prevent the government collecting tax from the wealthy, whilst confusing the crap out of everybody else. The partisan state of British politics means that cross-party co-operation on issues such as tax-simplification is much needed yet impossible to achieve.

Eventually such system will collapse under their own stupidity. Countries like Italy and Greece show what happens when the majority of people start avoiding tax, you get more and more taxes to compensate for the evasion, leading to greater and greater evasion…

If I were Prime Minister, one of my first steps would be to abolish car tax and stick the revenue lost as an increase in fuel tax. I’d scrap stamp duty. I’d scrap the License fee and roll them both into income tax, and do the same with national insurance./

Accountants would hate me, but c’est la vie!

I am one of the MANY MANY games programmers who have somehow ended up driving a Tesla model S. I have had it just over a year and feel strangely motivated to talk honestly about my experience owning it and using it. Here is my exciting take on ‘owning an electric car for a year’. Grab some popcorn.

Beforehand:

Some background: This is the second ‘from new’ car I have ever bought. The previous one was a lexus hybrid. I had long lusted after a prius, until I sat in one, then drove one, and thought ‘yuck’, and ended up with the lexus instead. As a hybrid owner, I got used to the fact that there was an ‘on’ button rather than a key you turn, and that the car was an automatic (technically a continuously variable transmission), so no gear changes or gear stick. I loved my hybrid car.

When I had enough money saved up, I took the plunge and had a test drive in a Tesla model S, and pretty much ordered one the next day. Mine is an 85D with air-suspension and autopilot. In practice that means its just fucking fast, rather than *insanely* fast, and it does some self-driving tricks, and its comfortable.

How I got it:

I had to wait about 6 months for my car, because this is Tesla-mania time,. and there was a waiting list, plus I needed to get a home charger installed. this cost a pittance, and there was a small subsidy available anyway, I ended up paying about £100 I think. The charger is basically a box on the side of the house near where I park, with a black cable that I often (not every day) leave connected to the car. It takes most of a night to charge from empty, but as its often plugged in, its only ’empty’ if I’ve driven to London and back (about 180 miles). I tend to only plug mine in when its half empty or less.

How I use it:

I work from home (programmer, self-employed), so I don’t commute, so the car is for shopping trips, the odd pub lunch and so on. I have family in London (hence long trips), and I live in rural England, so we have to drive almost everywhere. The local area is narrow roads, people on horses, hardly any traffic, the odd dead badger. mobile phone signal sucks, road markings are rare. More on this later… So far I haven’t left the country in my Model S but may well do this year. Its almost always charged from home, with an occasional stop at a Tesla supercharger. Charging from these is free for me, so I tend to only use them. I have ‘cards’ for using some other charging networks but very rarely use them. I also have an exemption (£10/year to register) for the London congestion charge. This is nice, but hardly a dealbreaker for me, as I use it maybe 3 times a year.

Initial Impressions:

My initial impressions were ‘holy fuck this thing is fast’ and ‘oh my god it drives itself’ combined with ‘jesus this thing is wide’ and also ‘i cant believe i can drive this speed, this far, in an electric car’. I was also amazed at how much luggage space there is. We once had 4 of us go away for a week with a ridiculous amount of luggage, food and other nonsense (suitcases, a drone in a box, multiple hampers of food etc), and we still had spare room. its nuts. Obviously over time, you calm down and just get used to it. I haven’t opened the ‘frunk’ for months, and then, only to show someone whats in there (nothing).

Long Term:

I’ve done about 10,000 miles in mine, with an average watt-hour per mile of 353wh/m. That means, with domestic electricity at 12p/unit I pay roughly £0.04 per mile in fuel. Car insurance is also surprisingly low, it was lower than my lexus (which cost half as much) I suspect the insane survivability of crashes in the Tesla accounts for that. This all sounds like economic paradise (plus servicing is far less complex and urgent) until you factor in the one big problem with the Tesla model S.

its fucking wide.

I hate wide cars, because I suck at parking, and driving in general. I now have big annoying obvious scratches on both sides, and the bill for fixing them is likely £2k+. In other words, over a year I’ve probably spent £426 on ‘fuel’ about £350 on insurance, and about £2k on getting dents fixed. Bah. Basically the Tesla is as wide as a land rover, so if you are used to big cars, its not a big deal, but if you prefer small cars like me…it *is* a factor. Its actually the *only* real negative I have about the car. Basically when I go to a multi-storey car park, it feels like this:

Other Minor negatives:

Teslas service is…’not bad’. by any normal cars standards its good, but by lexus standards, its pretty poor. You have to compare apples with apples, and the model S is not a cheap car, so you expect a certain level of awesomeness on the service side. They don’t have that yet. My car has gone to a service center twice, once for a charging port door issue (they replaced the whole thing and its been fine ever since), and once to get a fix for a car handle motor failure. (The handle stopped sliding back in once the car was moving). I get the impression their service is improving, and early issues were basically due to being a bit swamped by rapid expansion. The only other issue is that some of the cool tech stuff requires a mobile signal, and I live somewhere with an awful mobile coverage, meaning occasionally a podcast cuts out, or voice recognition fails.

Other positives:

Not purely an electric car thing, but having a mobile app that a)locates your car in a car park and b)lets you pre-heat/chill the car is just SO awesome. Having a car with its own free spotify account with voice recognition is hilariously cool. Having a car that can drive itself on motorways is both weird, terrifying AND cool. Being able to ‘summon’ the car out of a tight space is cool…but pointless. Controlling everything from a touchscreen is weird at first, but very cool once you get used to it.

The *BIG* issues.

Range anxiety is not a thing. Not with a Tesla.  it just isn’t a thing. Superchargers are not everywhere, but they don’t have to be, I can drive to London and back without re-fuelling. I now actually feel sorry for non-electric drivers with all this bullshit of having to stop and ‘fill-up’ on their voyage at a petrol station. My house is my petrol station, its always open, and I don’t have to fumble around with wallets and pin numbers. If I lived in a flat, or a terraced house with no driveway, charging would be a major issue, but luckily I’m not in that position. Charging an electric car is trivial for anyone who has off-road parking. Don’t give the charging or the range a second thought if you buy an electric car, its a total non-issue.

The Tesla model S is catastrophically expensive to buy. Its not the solution for everyone. The Model 3 is going to be about £35k, so a LOT cheaper, yet still pricey. I strongly suspect that the 3 will effectively be a very slightly hobbled ‘S’. In other words…if you can wait, and don’t have to have a model S…then its probably worth waiting for a 3. I think the model 3 is going to be revolutionary, not in tech, but in terms of acceptance. Right now the only people buying long range electric cars are those who would otherwise buy an Aston Martin or a Jaguar. The minute it becomes an option for the BMW crowd you are going to see a lot of people picking them up.

TL:DR: Electric cars are fucking amazing. Mine is too wide.