February 11, 2014

Episode Fourteen: The Inevitable Apple TV Episode and Algorithmically Induced Sadness

1. The Inevitable Apple TV Episode

So, a couple of things that actually prompt a reckon about Apple and televisions, as opposed to the usual breathless wanking over them shipping an integrated display or whatnot. 

Item the first: a new Apple TV hardware identifier has been found in developer iOS 7 bundles[1], with a bump in major version (ie AppleTV 3,2 -> Apple TV 4,1).

Item the second: A new Beatles(?!) "channel" on Apple TV[2] has been released to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of, uh, the Beatles' debut in America.

The first thing, if true, is a pretty solid signal of some new hardware. The second one is a weak signal because Oh My God if you've got an Apple TV is that thing a fucking mess right now. Apple's list[3] of what's available on the product right now is a long scrolly scrolly thing, and the fact that the only way to get rid of stuff you don't want to watch (for example, KOR TV isn't so useful in our household because of our inability to understand Korean) is (protip) to use Parental Controls and hide certain apps/channels. And they're not really Apps. But they're kind of Channels. But not always Channels. It's confusing. Also: no kids mode! Apart from the weird Parental Controls!

It's almost as if the profusion of content that's available for the Apple TV (and it's not really a profusion, more of a gentle dripping, to be honest, and compared to competing platforms like the Roku) is going to force Apple to a) refresh the hardware so it's capable of a bit more customization (the current models ship with 8GB of flash storage, mostly for cacheing video) and b) refresh the hardware so it's capable of doing a little bit more than essentially acting as big-screen an XML frontend to network available video - Bluetooth game controller support or no, no one's going to be installing 1080p games (even if they're the now unavailable Flappy Bird) on an 8GB Apple TV. 

[1] http://www.macrumors.com/2014/02/10/apple-tv-in-ios7/
[2] http://www.macrumors.com/2014/02/10/beatles-apple-tv-channel/
[3] http://www.apple.com/appletv/whats-on/

2. The Quantified Self
Nick Felton released his newest thing, Reporter, a Quantified Self app for iOS[1]. Also, Nike released its 2013 Year In Nike Fuel visualization website[2], both of which ultimately provoke my sense of frustration at all of this Quantified Self stuff being a bit cold and inhuman, when even the moniker which the movement goes by seems to strip any emotion out of the fact that *people* are doing *stuff*.

I absolutely yearn to see some bringing to life of data around the quantified self and personal health that doesn't just reduce stuff to a bunch of numbers displayed in different colours or bar graphs. 

I have a suspicion about the gender split for, say, Nike Fuelband customers versus Fitbit/Jawbone customers, but I have to say that I don't think anyone is making any of this stuff in a friendly way that would open up the market to people other than data-driven numbers-tracking geeks. Like me.

While writing this, I received my "2013 prescription records" from Walgreens and thought it a bit weird that a pharmacy chain would be jumping on the whole Year In Review, Visualized bandwagon with my assortment of medication, but upon opening up the email it turned out to be for my tax records. America!

(Speaking of numbers, I briefly flirted with the stats tracking of unsubscribe/subscribe notifications on Tinyletter over the weekend and had to turn it off because it was like a random reinforcement shot to my sense of self-worth. It turns out that in my head, one unsubscribe needs at least twenty subscriptions to feel like things are in balance for my ego. So I turned that off, pretty sharpish.)

[1] http://www.reporter-app.com
[2] https://yearinnikefuel.com

3. Algorithmically Induced Sadness

I had my first Sad Algorithm moment, that not-quite uncanny valley of algorithmically induced emotion that happens when a notification system designed to be helpful in fact does nothing of the sort. Personally, it was more painful (perhaps because it was timely) than seeing a birthday reminder for a dead friend on Facebook or a work anniversary for a dead friend on LinkedIn.

My mother-in-law, whom I adore and have known for the last eleven years of my life, made the decision the other day that she was too ill to come out and visit for my son's first birthday. This round of chemo, unfortunately, doesn't look like it's working. As someone who grew up in another country from his grandparents, I didn't realise how important it is to me for my son to get to know, and regularly see, his own grandparents. That my wife's family are now unable to come out hit me in a way I didn't expect.

So when I got a Google Now notification that a certain SouthWest Airlines flight had been delayed, after the first split second of bemusement, I realised that I was being told about the flight they would've been on.

I don't know what the "answer" to this is. If my in-laws had told us by email, instead of via a phone call, would Google Now have been smart enough to parse out the cancellation? In a purely utilitarian calculation, I can see that Google would prefer to send notifications than not: that's where the usefulness comes in. And for Google to know that my parents had cancelled their trip - there's no UI for me to tell (at least, not that I saw) Google to not remind me. Would they need perfect information about my life, to know what to interrupt me with and what to remind me about, and what to hold back on? Should the burden have fallen on my in-laws to let Google know to not remind me?

This is probably just another prompt to watch Charlie's Brooker's excellent Black Mirror.

4. What I've actually been spending my time on 

I found it so much easier to get into Threes[1] (which I've described to friends as Drop 7 on crack) than Flappy Bird[2], if only because Flappy Bird just seemed so transparent. I see exactly what you're trying to do there, Mr. Flappy, and I refuse to participate. Whereas the simple pleasure of getting multiples of 3 to match up flicks some sort of switch in my brain that I can't get around.

Ian Bogost has written the definitive "If You Read One Thing About Flappy Bird, You Should Read This" article[3]; I think it captures perfectly what's so interesting about it and speaks to our relationship with games of that particularly singular genre. Plus it's super accessible if you know nothing about games. I hate Ian Bogost, he's so smart.

Oh, and Secret, which a) has stupidly poor web SEO (try searching for "secret iphone app"), b) stupidly poor iTunes App Store SEO (what doesn't) and c) has me engaged in some weird car crash type fascination of trying to figure which of my 30! 31! friends are on it and watching, uh, Ben Ward's party. On the one hand, it's interesting to see what my friends will say when I don't know which of them they are, on the other hand, most of the stuff I'm seeing from friends-of-friends or that has been deemed "viral" and spread is pretty shlocky hallmarky stuff or, apparently, about what seems to be the quite frankly excessive amount of oral sex young people ar having these days.

[1] https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/threes!/id779157948?mt=8
[2] No download link! Ha!
[3] http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/02/the-squalid-grace-of-flappy-bird/283526/

I thought I wouldn't have enough to talk about today. I was wrong. Thanks for reading.

Dan