Category Archives: review

Review: Withings Activité Pop

Yup, it’s another wearable review! But this one’s actually a good one, I promise.

After not getting on very well with shocking wristbands and posture correctors, I may have finally found something good – the Withings Activité watch.

What is it? Well, it’s basically just a normal watch.

OK THANKS FOR READING THE REVIEW EVERYONE GOODBYE

Nah, it’s a little bit more than just a watch. Not so much more that it falls into another category though. It’s not a Jawbone or Fitbit – one of those so-called ‘activity trackers’. But it’s also not so advanced that you could call it a smart watch either. It’s just an activity tracking watch, a watch that does activity tracking. And it’s this simplicity that I find really refreshing.

Years ago I had a Jawbone Up. A horrible orange thing on my wrist that I had to charge every day and ended up breaking. But the list of things it could do was endless! It could track your movements, track your sleep, track your heart rate, track your eating (if you told it), track your mood (if you told it), just track your whole goddam life. It was kind of overwhelming, and ultimately… kind of useless. Worse still, even with all that you still had to wear a watch anyway if you wanted to know the time. So yeah, it was kind of dumb.

I don’t know what kind of wizardry is going on inside the Withings Activité, but here’s what it can do:

  • Activity/step tracking (visualised on the watch as a separate dial)
  • Sleep tracking
  • ‘Silent’ alarm (it vibrates on your wrist)
  • Bluetooth syncing to an app
  • 8 months of battery life

Yes, 8 months. To me, that’s the most incredible thing ever. I’m wearing a thing on my watch that’s counting my steps all day long AND telling my phone how many I’m doing, AND it’s also monitoring my sleep AND waking me up at the right time AND YET somehow it can just tick along for months and months without giving up. How is that even possible? My phone can play like half an episode of Game of Thrones before it starts getting thirsty. So yeah, massive props to the engineers behind this device.

Oh yes, another thing to mention:

  • IT TELLS THE TIME

In other words, it functions as a watch. You know, hours and minutes and all that. It automatically resets itself in line with daylight savings or if you go abroad (so basically whatever time your phone is telling the watch it is), which is neat! You can also triple tap the watch face at any time to check when you have your alarm set for. The hands magically whirl around to that time, which is one of the coolest things to just show off to people.

It really helps that it looks like a normal watch too, unlike the Jawbone (bright orange silicone was such a poor design choice). I know activity tracker design is becoming more fashionable anyway, but it makes SO MUCH SENSE for this wrist-held activity tracker to just be a watch that I can’t imagine having it any other way.

I opted for the black ‘Activité Pop’ version of the watch. The ‘Pop’ range is just a cheaper set of price and colour options, but they don’t feel especially ‘budget’ or anything like that. Also, I think ‘Withings’ as a company either no longer exists or has been entirely consumed by Nokia, so you’ll find that as the product name in most places.

Nokia are pushing the ‘Steel’ range in place of Pop. The Steel watches are functionally the same as the Pop ones, as far as I can tell (although the Steel HR also monitors your heart rate), but are made from sturdier materials. I mean, sure go for that if you want a metal watch that looks REALLY good. But I think the plastic ones are fine.

And good news, you can still buy the old Activité Pop watches on Amazon. For just £50 too. That’s a good deal. (Don’t worry I’m not getting paid for this, and I don’t know how to set up affiliate links lol).

Downsides? Not many. Replacing the battery is a little bit fiddly and I’ve had to replace the strap, but that’s all fine. Oh, did I mention that the watch is WATERPROOF too? Lol this thing is just too perfect.

Treat yourself this Christmas. Or don’t. What do I care what you do?

Review: Lumo Lift

OH GOD NO NOT ANOTHER WEARABLE REVIEW.

Oh god yes, another wearable review. I just can’t seem to stop buying and wearing stupid things. Also, this one hasn’t had much attention in the UK and I want to boost my profile by being one of the first to write about how dumb it is lol.

So today we’re (I’m) talking about the Lumo Lift – “the world’s best selling digital posture coach.” Yes, really. This is where we’re at. This is what civilisation has come to.

lumo_lift_white_front

It’s a small little device that you wear under your clothes using a little magnetic clasp. You hold it down to activate it, then tap it a few times when you’re in a ‘good’ posture. If you move out of that posture for too long, the lumo vibrates, gently reminding you to OI STOP SLOUCHING YA FRICKIN IDIOT.

It also syncs to an app via bluetooth because everything has to sync to an app via bluetooth these days. The app is good if you like your phone telling you how much of a slouching pig you are in unkind terms.

Oh yeah, and that second bit it’s tracking there is steps. Everything has to track steps now apparently. I didn’t really use that feature so much, because my watch does that too, and my phone does that too, and also I know when I’m walking and not walking by using my brain.

I should mention that Lumo have another very similar product called Lumo Run which is basically identical except it tells you about your running instead. And maybe posture and stuff too. Who knows? I have zero interest in it.

So, how did I get on?

Well, I’ve stopped wearing it. I lasted even less time than with my Pavlok, and I encountered many of the same issues. First up, there’s the social aspect…

To put on the Lumo Lift you have to sort of hold it under your clothes and then put a little square magnet on your clothes to hold it on. All well and good if you’re wearing more than one layer, but it’s obviously super visible if you’re only wearing a top/shirt. Cue the comments from literally everyone asking ‘what is that little metal square on your chest.’

It didn’t help that I was wearing it right next to my breastbone so it looked like I had some weird metallic nipple thing going on like some killer terminator robot from the future. But it’s gonna look weird no matter what, in my opinion.

Then comes actually answering the question of what it is. Nobody can take seriously the idea of anyone ever wearing a ‘digital posture coach.’ Just imagine, someone tells you they’re wearing a device concealed under their clothes that tracks and corrects their posture all day every day. Do you think this person is some sort of future tech genius? Or do you think they’re probably a bit weird? I won’t bother going into which of those reactions I mostly got from people.

Just LOL at these ‘lifestyle’ images from the media section of their website. Mr Business Man is never ever ever gonna wear one of these to any kind of serious business meeting. And who would wear a ‘digital posture coach’ on a sexy date out? I don’t understand this marketing.

lifestyle-02lifestyle-01

Does it work? Well, yeah. But I don’t have any idea how. Something to do with accelerometers or something? I’m sure the technology is very clever, but as with the Pavlok it has its downsides.

The first is that you have to calibrate the device yourself. This means getting into what you consider to be ‘good’ posture, and then tapping the device. So the device goes off when you leave this calibrated position. But if I don’t have good posture, how am I to know what good posture is? A couple of times I stretched myself up into some impossible-to-maintain position to calibrate it, and had it going off every 2 minutes; other times I’d kind of be slouching anyway when I tapped it and it wouldn’t go off all day. I mean, yeah, I could read up on what good posture is and make sure that I’m holding a sensible position. But if I’m gonna do that I might as well just commit to have good posture anyway.

Like with the Pavlok there’s an issue with it requiring your input and willpower to solve a problem that’s primarily caused by laziness. It feels like a life hack, but it’s still requiring work on your part. So yeah, not great.

Otherwise it works just fine. The battery life in the thing is a bit short, and I had to charge it up quite often. It has a dedicated charging dock (rather than just having a USB socket or something), which means having yet another charging dock in your life to deal with. It also runs off Bluetooth, which annoys me. I deliberately have bluetooth off on my phone because battery life on modern phones is about 10 minutes. So I had to sync it to my iPod. Not sure what I’d have done if that wasn’t an option.

Anyway, to summarise…

LUMO LIFT

Pros:

  • It works well. It didn’t break or anything.
  • It’s reasonably discreet.
  • Easy to use.

Cons:

  • It didn’t improve my posture. I ended up ignoring it mostly.
  • Nobody will ever take you seriously again.
  • $80
  • You have to calibrate it yourself like some kind of caveman.

My verdict:

Probably give it a miss unless you’re desperate for a weird wearable to review like I always am.

Review: Pavlok

ALT. TITLE: The lengths I’ll go to in order to build my portfolio of tech writing pieces.

What’s that on your wrist? Is it a FitBit? Oh my god, it does WHAT?

Wearables are all the rage right now. You know, tech what you can WEAR on your bod. Years ago I jumped on the wear-wagon and got myself a Jawbone UP. It promised me the world; track your eating, your movement, your sleep! Become a new person overnight and accessorise that person with a funky neon bracelet.

Needless to say, it didn’t work. I was too lazy to ever input the calories, or ever walk anywhere, and the sleep thing was more of an annoyance than anything. It also stopped working after it got wet a few times and so I just gave up on it.

But apparently I don’t learn from these mistakes and was lured into the trap of believing that my life wouldn’t be complete without the latest must-have wrist trap: a Pavlok. Pavlok describes itself as “the first device that breaks habits by deleting temptation.” If that reads like it’s some kind of brainwashing, then I’d say that’s more or less right. Working off Pavlovian conditioning (geddit? not sure what the ‘lok’ bit is though), it’s a wearable bracelet that gives you a mild electric shock when you press it. Yes, that’s really what it is. Here’s a couple of picture images:

2016-06-22 15.34.30 2016-06-22 15.35.22

As you can see, it’s actually just a battery that fits into a larger plastic sheath. Put together, the whole thing is slightly larger than a watch, which makes it pretty clunky to wear. If you wear long-sleeved shirts, then you either have to hoik your cuffs over it all the time, or permanently live with asymetrical sleeves (the horror). Compare this to the figure-hugging design of the FitBit or Jawbone UP, devices which are meant to be as much fashion accessories as a piece of tech. There’s clearly work to be done at Pavlok in the design department.

But what can they do, really? The device is basically just a battery you strap to yourself. It’s got some other stuff in there like a Bluetooth receiver, vibration capabilities, some kind of little speaker and lots of LEDs for status displays. But it is mostly a battery and as such, there is a direct relationship between its size and utility (battery life). But that’s one for the boffins to figure out. LET’S TALK ABOUT PAIN.

So this thing gives you electric shocks when you press it. The shocks are meant to be unpleasant. Otherwise, you wouldn’t feel conditioned to stop, would you? For the faint of heart, you can control the level of the zap through the mind-boggingly superfluous app, or by lightly tapping the Pavlok itself. When I started, I had it at around 25% but I soon had to increase that as I became used to the sensation. And eventually it stopped being painful at all, which I think is a problem. Just as the body learns to condition behaviour to negative stimuli, so too is it able to adapt to them.

When I was little, I tried Stop’n’Grow to prevent nail biting. It’s basically a bitter-tasting nail varnish that you use to help yourself off biting. But of course you simply get used to the taste. As I’d got the Pavlok to help myself stop biting my nails too, it was kind of ironic that I ran into this same issue. I guess my body/mind just loves biting nails so much that it’ll do anything to keep at it. You could punch me in the face really really hard every time I bit, and I’d probably still go right at ’em. In fact, that’d only make me more anxious and make me bite even more.

Because that’s the real issue, isn’t it? Habits like nail biting, hair pulling, and skin picking aren’t done so much because of the positive feelings derived from them, but as a outer manifestation of an inner unrest. Compare to smoking, for instance, in which you’re physically addicted to a substance and demanding that in and of itself. There’s no ‘rush’ from nail biting, just a relief. So you can’t treat nail biting in the same way as you’d treat smoking, or similar habits. I don’t think I’ll ever stop biting my nails until I conquer my own inner anxieties, and strapping an electric shock device to myself can’t be the right direction.

It also bears an all-too-similar appearance to ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy), in which electric shocks are administered to treat mental health problems. As history – and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – has taught us, this isn’t really the right approach.

But psychology aside, it’s worth talking about the product as a piece of technology. Functionally, it works fine. The device is responsive to the touch and mostly zaps me just as I’d expect. On the occasion that I don’t feel anything, it’s usually a result of not having the strap done up tight enough to complete the circuit, so my bad I guess.

One fundamental flaw in the idea, as many, many people I’ve talked to about it have pointed out, is that you have to self-administer the shocks. So it’s entirely on you to make sure that you’re properly treating yourself. This is a pretty big drawback, as the exercise collapses back down into a matter of willpower. If I don’t have the willpower to stop myself biting, it’s a big leap to assume I’ll have the willpower to instead give myself an electric shock every time I notice myself biting.

That’s the other problem, I have to notice it. Habits like nail biting are mostly unconscious. A lot of the time I don’t even notice my hand at my mouth, it just pops up there of its own accord. So I’ve had to rely on other people to remind me that I’m biting and then shock myself. In a few cases, people have taken this to mean literally grabbing my wrist and shocking me, which isn’t much fun. And if people are going to remind me to shock myself, maybe they could just tell me to biting in the first place? Noticing a pattern yet? Basically, the Pavlok seems to do a lot of work to make itself redundant.

I should add that there is a function in the Pavlok app (which works over Bluetooth, available on iOS/Android) that automatically zaps when you put your hand to your face. I guess the device has an inbuilt accelerometer. This sounds like the perfect solution, but I never once got it to work. Also, most people have TWO WRISTS so it’s literally a half measure. Nice try, though!

The app also doesn’t do anything else like tracking your movement or anything. So if you want to do that, I guess you’ll need to buy ANOTHER wristband? Depends how much you value your wrist real estate I guess. The app does have a Headspace-style mindfulness course that guides you through your first days with the device, but it wasn’t anything special.

Anyway, I want to wrap this up with a very sarcastic conclusion. I’m of the opinion that the Pavlok device is a fine implementation of a dubious idea. Not only that, but that everything it does can be just as well done by a humble elastic band. So let’s compare.

PAVLOK

Pros:

  • Works most of the time
  • Could help improve your habits (there is some science supporting it, and I did see some improvements in my nails in the few months I wore it)
  • Could trick your gullible friends into thinking you have a cooler device like a FitBit
  • Getting people to put the device on and using the app to remotely shock them over and over again is great fun.
  • Decent battery life

Cons:

  • Will probably kill you if you have a heart condition
  • $179
  • Painful at the highest settings, ineffective at lower ones
  • Needing to rely on other people for it to really do anything
  • Having to put up with people asking you if it’s a FitBit all the time
  • Having to explain what the device is, and why anyone would ever willingly want to shock themselves (“No, it’s not a masochistic thing”)
  • Running the gauntlet of getting it through airport security (I never took it away with me, but imagine having to explain “Oh this, it’s just my device that gives people electric shocks…”).
  • Bigger than Godzilla.

PINGING YOURSELF WITH AN ELASTIC BAND

Pros:

  • Works all of the time
  • Literally the same psychological benefits as Pavlok
  • Comes in lots of different shapes, sizes, and colours
  • You can buy like 100 for £1
  • Infinite battery life

Cons:

  • Breaks easily (but very replaceable).
  • Doesn’t give you anything interesting to write a tech blog about
  • er… that might be it?

So, my verdict?

elastic-band

Go elastic.

Review: Headspace

Mindfulness is all the rage right now. Well, I suppose ‘rage’ isn’t the right word. Mindfulness is all the calm right now. (Eugh, I’d delete that sentence if it wasn’t the best opening I could come up with).

From colouring books to origami, it seems like everybody wants in on it.

And I’m a pretty big advocate myself. I first heard about it in a counselling session for anxiety/depression, where I was told it’s being increasingly prescribed as a treatment option by the NHS. At first I was sceptical. If all my years of philosophy had taught me anything, it was that you can’t think your way out of problems. But I gave it a go, and it worked. But how?

There’s a great section in Infinite Jest where one of the characters is going through Alcoholics Anonymous, and reflecting on the mantras they use to help people through recovery. Chief of these is the simple refrain: “keep coming back.” Even if it doesn’t seem to be working, the very act of returning again and again seems to have some therapeutic value. And so it seems to be with mindfulness. It’s a bit like a magic trick. I’m not sure how it works, I’m just sure it does work. But you have to stick it out.

But what is mindfulness, anyway? The best definition I can jumble together is that it’s the practice of having a ‘conscious experience’ of your life. Like imagine you’re sitting on a bus or something. Maybe you’re thinking about where you’re going, who you’re seeing. Boom, that’s an open door for anxiety (are the people on the bus looking at me? / am i going to be late? / what if the bus breaks down? / what if i miss my stop?). Imagine instead that you simply do a mental inventory of what you’re actually experiencing: I’m sitting on a bus, this seat is uncomfortable, that man over there smells bad, there’s a nice view out the window.

Sounds lame, right? But it’s actually a very grounding experience. Extended further, you can start looking even further inward to catalogue your own thoughts. There’s a worry, there’s some anxiety, there’s a pain in my foot. It’s not really about judging these thoughts, or trying to overcome them. It’s just observing. And somehow (it’s really a mystery, to me) they start melting away.

But you do need to practice. And that’s where apps come in.

Yes, mindfulness has apps. Lots of them. Chief among them: Headspace.

20150713-Headspace-logo

What does the app do? Well, it gives you little mindfulness sessions. These consist of your mindfulness guide (a chap called Andy, who we’ll get to in a bit) taking you on a little tour of your body and mind. These all follow more or less the same structure:

  • Sitting down comfortably
  • Focussing on your breathing
  • Closing your eyes
  • ‘Scanning’ up and down your body, focussing on the sensations
  • Counting your breaths
  • Allowing yourself to get distracted, but turning your attention back to the breathing
  • A few moments of nothingness (no thoughts, no counting)
  • Then all of the above in reverse again

Yes, it’s that simple. At first glance it feels pretty light on content – and that’s sort of right.

The app begins with a 10-session intro that you can try for free. I’d actually highly recommend it if you’re at all interested. At least try the one session if you’re curious, or even sceptical. Beyond that, the app offers you a couple of different courses. These include a focus on your health – for example – or relationships. Then there’s some other simple add-ons like one-off emergency sessions, sessions for walking, and so on.

I tried the health course and picked some things that claimed to be specifically geared towards anxiety. I found that beyond a few different bits of narration in the sessions, they weren’t drastically different to what was in the initial course of ten. They were, however, a bit longer, creeping towards 20 minutes. Now, of course, we can all surely spare 20 minutes out of our days – probably a good idea to re-evaluate your life in general if you can’t. But man, that 20 minutes can drag.

So many times I wanted to do something really badly, like playing that video game or something. And I’ll admit that a few times I cracked and just put the app on in the background while I did other stuff. It’s just kinda boring. But I did stick with it.

At least until I figured out that I had more or less memorised the entire sequence of meditation. The student had become the master, and I no longer needed the app. Also, each session is downloaded onto your phone (rather than streamed for some reason) and each has to be manually deleted – so it ended up consuming loads of space.

Would I recommend it? Well, maybe. The app itself is quite lovely and well-designed. But you can get the same features pretty much with any other mindfulness app. I mean, all you really need is someone to say “think about this… ok now think about this” and once you get the hang of it you don’t even need that. Sure, you don’t get Andy’s lovely soothing voice (think Iwan Rheon), but that’s by-the-by. I use another app at the moment called Calm which is pretty sweet. And it doesn’t cost you £4.99 a month.

Which brings me to my last point. The thing feels a bit like a cash-in.

I mean, it’s pretty expensive. For a fiver a month, I can almost get all the films and TV I want on Netflix. I know it’s comparing apples and oranges, but paying a fiver a month (or £249.85 for ‘forever’ access) feels steep. Especially since it’s meant to be a resource to help people with their mental health. It’s this weird mix of lovely helpful wonderful natural therapy and hardline business. And don’t think it’s not about business.

o-ANDY-PUDDICOMBE-facebook

This is Andy, chief Headspace person. Here’s what the website says about him:

In his early twenties, midway through a university degree in Sports Science, Andy made the unexpected decision to travel to the Himalayas to study meditation instead. It was the beginning of a ten year journey which took him around the world, culminating with ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Northern India.

After said monking about, he ended up founding Headspace. He then became a millionaire. Ah yes, the classic monk-to-riches success story. Doesn’t quite sit right, does it?

I’m not saying the brand should be a charity, of course. Capitalism is the force that drives innovation, etc. etc. And they do run a ‘get some / give some‘ program that gives out Headspace subscriptions to those in need… leveraged on the number they sell to paying subscribers. But.. just.. hmm…

I’ll leave it up to you to decide how you feel about the ethical standing of all this.

In short:

  • Mindfulness is good and seems to work.
  • Headspace have a very attractive package for the first-time mindfull-er.
  • You can get what you need from it just out of the free offering.
  • There’s equally solid offerings out there, without the fancy branding.

Annndddd, breathe.

Review: Faulty Towers – The Dining Experience

You might have read in the news recently that John Cleese is considering suing a theatrical dining experience based around his classic sitcom, Fawlty Towers. This of course meant I had to go and check it out for myself.

Well, to be honest, I’d booked the tickets long ago. A birthday treat for OJ, it seemed like a fun evening out, and an easy way to get a show and a meal in the same place. Anyway, long story short, I went there last night.

Currently based in the Charring Cross Amba Hotel, the Faulty Towers Dining Experience is basically everything you remember from the BBC sitcom condensed into a two-hour sit down meal, with little-or-not effort made to make it at all different from the real thing.

Last October I went to a Twin Peaks-based dining experience for my birthday. For that, they at least made an effort to be somewhat original, changing the characters names and such. They even renamed the town of “Twin Peaks” to “Double Pineview” (geddit?). Faulty Towers however, literally just changed the ‘w’ in Fawlty to a ‘u’, not only failing to be distinguishable to any reasonable person, but also losing the clever wordplay of the original in the first place. And apparently that’s all you need to do in order to get away with not paying the original creator any monies?

LEGAL NOTICE: I am not a lawyer and have no understanding of how copyright stuff works. My opinions are just my opinions.

All the characters are called the same too. There’s three of them, Basil, Manuel, and Mrs Faulty (I guess Polly didn’t make the cut), and they are just carbon copies of the originals.

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Well, close enough anyway. All credit to the actors, they do a fine job of channeling the performances of Cleese, Sachs, and Scales. But it’s all just too familiar.

Expect to see beat-for-beat recreations of all the ‘best bits’ of Fawlty Towers. Basil trying to get Manuel to place a bet on a horse, a floundering attempt at doing a fire drill, and – yes – the inevitable build-up to that German scene.

It’s interesting that photos are encouraged, but taking video isn’t. We were even politely reminded halfway through our meal of this fact. I guess that the fact that lawsuits are hanging in the air means that the cast don’t want any footage circulating of just how similar the show is to the original. A picture can’t show what lines are being repeated verbatim, after all. So I can really only offer my anecdotal opinion, and say that I think John Cleese has a fair point and there’s a good case that he’s being ripped off.

What about the food itself? Well, it’s a mere prop to the show really. Stale bread rolls are thrown across the room with reckless abandon. Soup arrives late and of inconsistent volume. The main is an uninspired chicken supreme that is anything but. Not even a Waldorf Salad in sight.

Compare to the Twin Peaks dining experience I went to, where the food was original and memorable. A mushroom soup served in a coffee cup, and so on. And considering the price of Faulty Towers (£60 a pop), I kind of expected better. The whole thing being a deliberate shambles is one thing, but it doesn’t really excuse low quality.

And overall the Twin Peaks thing was a more immersive experience. You were given a character, and you got involved. With Faulty Towers, you’re more of a passive observer of the evening. Aside from being called a pervert by Basil, and Manuel saying I looked like a rat, there wasn’t much for me to do.

On the plus side, the physical comedy and make-believe violence breaks up the evening and is pretty convincing.

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Maybe the evening just wasn’t for me though. The main demographic of the audience was couples in their 50s. An aging, white audience who are more than happy to laugh along with tired stereotypes and thinly-veiled xenophobia. Basil mocking any audience members for being even a little foreign is particularly problematic as you know he’s ad-libbing. I mean, he’s making up racist comments to say on the spot. That just doesn’t sit right with me.

And even the rest of the material can’t help but feel a little dated. A lot of the jokes, especially early on, follow the same format.

BASIL: Manuel! Please do [x]
MANUEL: X? Ok, I do [x]!
MANUEL PROCEEDS TO DO THE LITERAL INTERPRETATION OF X THAT IS CLEARLY NOT WHAT BASIL INTENDED
BASIL: What on EARTH are you doing?!
MANUEL: You said to do [x]!
BASIL: Not [X], you idiot! [X] like this….

Where [X] is something like ‘collect everyone’s glasses’ or ‘rolls on the plates.’

I think I’d have preferred it if it had been a more intimate experience, with a fresh script. I know everyone there just wants to see their favourite scenes, but it doesn’t do the show any favours. Several classic lines are built up far too much and receive a round of applause afterwards everytime – which just feels so cynical to me.

How about a dining experience with the same characters, but Basil’s had to sell the hotel and is now running a B&B in Dover, or something? Bring it up to date a bit. Manuel’s got a son now, and Polly has a screaming baby. You can keep all the dynamics and stupid jokes that people love, without having to recreate things exactly or cross the line on copyright.

So, go and see the show if you’re after an interesting night out with someone who’s an UBER Fawlty Towers fan. They’ll probably love it. And despite what I’ve said, I did have a good time. I just found it problematic in places and a bit of a let down in others.

Oh, and bring cash. You have to pay for all your drinks 🙁

I hate Game of War

There’s a really fun mobile game I’ve been playing recently: AdVenture Capitalist.

A shameless Cookie Clicker ripoff (sorry in advance if that’s the first time you’ve seen that – there goes all your free time), the premise is simple: buy things that make you money so you can buy more things. It’s good fun, and it runs even when you’re not playing, so you can dip into it whenever.

The really clever bit is that you can do certain things in-game to accelerate your profits. There’s the obligatory in-app purchases of course. But you can also choose to speed things up by watching an ad in the app. This is the first example I’d seen of this, though it’s becoming more commonplace. It’s advertising, but it’s non-intrusive and totally opt-in. So it’s ok.

The ads themselves are mostly for other mobile apps you might be interested in; Candy Crush Saga and that kind of thing. And of course there’s the omnipresent Game of War.

gow_title_2

Yes, it’s kind of a mashup of lots of things you’ve probably heard of:

  • Game of Thrones
  • Total War
  • Dragon Age
  • Fire Emblem

It feels like every element of the name itself is meant to trigger some glimmer of recognition in a gamer’s mind. It’s not something you’ve seen before, but it sounds like things you like – and so you’re intrigued.

What a shame then, that the game is utterly terrible and awful.

Check out this ad for it:

Yes, that is Kate Upton for some reason. Anyway, it looks like a load of fun right? Action! Adventure! Dragons! Game of Thrones-style gratuitous body shots!

This is what it actually looks like in-game:

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Wow, it’s a horrible mess! What happened to the great CGI and action? Is that meant to be Kate Upton in the top left? Why am I suddenly playing a bog standard isometric city builder?

Now don’t get me wrong. I love isometric city builders. I have put countless hours into Zeus: Master of Olympus (what a game!). And it’s my love for them that drives me to hate Game of War so.

I mean, the very idea of shoving a city builder into a mobile device is pretty horrible. As with all city builders, Game of War has lots of things you can tinker around with. Managing resources, assigning workers, forging alliances – all those lovely things. They’re just not meant for a mobile screen.

In the above screenshot for instance you’ve got about 20 things to press. It’s just horribly claustrophobic. And far too much screen real estate is taken up by something called GOLD. What could that be?

Of course, it’s the horrible in-game currency isn’t it? I mean, Kate Upton doesn’t just appear in mobile gaming ads for the fun of it. It’s a free game, but you’ve gotta pay up somehow.

Again, I’ve got nothing against in-game payments per se. There’s a great game out right now called Alphabear – a cutsie word game with bears – that features HONEY as the in-game currency. Playing puzzles costs honey, and as a free user you only get a certain amount of honey at once. But, for a one-off fee you can purchase INFINITE HONEY and play as much as you like. That’s cool, I like it. The game is great fun, and I’m more than happy to pay the £2.50 or whatever just to support the developers. Would I have paid the £2.50 up-front without trying the game out first? Probably not. There you go then, the model works and can be used for good.

But Game of War isn’t good.

Game of War is a competitive game. It features MMO-type gameplay elements, most notably the fact that you’re playing alongside other players. And, as the name suggests, you’re free to ally with them – or start a war. Now here’s the rub: in a game where you can pay money for more resources, and wars are fought with resources, guess what the end result is.

The worst three words in gaming: Pay to win.

As the recent Payday 2 controversy demonstrated: gamers hate Pay to win. Either your game is Free To Play (Team Fortress 2), or Pay to Play from the outset (Battlefront, Call of Duty). Pay to win is neither of these, and creates two tiers of players: the free players, and the paid players. And if you’re not paying, you’re at a disadvantage.

As one Forbes writer put it, “Game of War is the most over-the-top cash grab I’ve ever seen.

So it’s not fun. I can’t even imagine it’s fun for the folks who are paying. What are they getting out of it? The thrill of ruining some poor sap’s fun? There’s no real appeal to getting involved whatsoever. So don’t even start.

So to recap:

  • Terrible game design and gameplay (I uninstalled after about 5 minutes of trying to figure out the mind-boggling user interface).
  • Trite, sexist advertising.
  • The least original name for anything ever.
  • Cynical, greed-fuelled pay to win mechanics that suck any joy out of anything whatsoever.

This all leads me to my conclusion that Game of War is the worst game on the app store. Which is weird, as it has four stars currently on Google Play. I don’t know why. I think this review (from the dead Irish novelist James Joyce???) puts it perfectly:

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I’m sure there’s worse games out there. But I’m going for an attention-grabbing headline obviously.

Further reading:

Bloomberg’s wonderfully written and formatted piece

cookywook reviews: Joylent

So yeah, I’ll just get right to it.

For the past six months or so, I’ve been receiving a substance shipped to me from Holland. No, it’s not illegal drugs! But it is a bunch of weird chemicals made by folks I’m pretty sure ain’t scientists.

Joylent is the EU version of the US product Soylent. Both companies are aiming to revolutionise the very concept of mealtime itself by reducing everything you need to eat down to simple meal replacement beverages.

The concept itself isn’t really so crazy. Food is just chemicals. We know how many chemicals the body needs to do its thang. So why not just go straight for the chemicals in the first place?

I guess what puts people off is that the end result is something that looks like this:

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Also, @Soylent, change your name guys. Nobody wants to consume something named after a film in which people ate a futuristic product made out of ACTUAL PEOPLE.

Anyway, Joylent do something Soylent don’t, which is to offer an array of fun flavours. There’s banana, chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla. They’re all pretty nice, with the banana in particular reminding me of old-school Nesquik and things like that.

And I guess that the first question most people would have would be is it actually drinkable? And it absolutely is. The problem is that you’re in charge of making it yourself. You’re shipped powder – and a big cup – and basically left to your own devices. It’s not quite clear how much you’re supposed to use at a time, other than some vague suggestion to make three up a day. Add too much powder and it gets a bit lumpy, not enough and it’s really watered down.

But I got the hang of it eventually. I put it all in a big tupperware container, and divided the powder into three ‘portions’ with a spoon – as equal as I could get them. And that worked out just fine. I would prepare the ‘meals’ in advance, and leave them in the fridge until I wanted them.

I found them pretty satisfying, I didn’t get any of the hunger pangs that I expected to or anything. That said, I didn’t 100% commit to the Joylent program. If there was a tasty place to go for brunch, or free lunch at work, I’d obviously opt for that instead. The fact that Joylent is so cheap [15 meals for 30 works out at €2 per meal] means you can spend a little more out of your food budget when you actually do wanna go fancy. And for your everyday meals you’re just saving money.

The one side effect I did notice was EXCESS WIND. Like lots. Like LOADS. But apparently that’s just your body freaking out from a huge intake of fibre when you ate nothing but sweets and biscuits before. So it’s actually a good sign I suppose.

But don’t you miss eating real food?

Like if I wanna eat something properly, I’ll eat something properly. But for the most part, I don’t care. Cooking is a faff. Washing up is a pain in the arse. Getting a balanced meal down ya is downright impossible. I’m all for the single easy prescribed meal approach. So this suits me just fine.

But it can’t be the same as real food! You must be missing something important.

As far as I’m concerned, Joylent is better for me than real food. Here’s the nutritional info for one bag:

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So yeah it’s like 100% of everything you need, unless you think you really need lots of sulphur in your diet for some reason. If I wasn’t drinking Joylent, I’d be eating a lot less healthily – probably excess salt/sugar and not enough of the good stuff. It’s like a perfect ready meal.

And I guess that’s it really. All that’s left is to give it the official cookywook rating:

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It’s a YES from me.