The pros and cons of screens in bed

It occurs to me that I don't really organise my day. Instead one or two particular circumstances give it a shape, and that may or may not help me to achieve goals for a given 24 hour period.

During my recent five week stay in Tokyo, my bed was a thin foam mattress on the floor. It was comfortable for sleep, but not to sit up and look at the screens of my tablet and phone.

So when I climbed into bed, I fell asleep almost immediately. When I woke up, I got up and went for a healthy eight kilometre power walk around the lake. I avoided the discomfort of being before a screen and so did not read and write in bed.

That was good, especially if there's truth in what they say about looking at screens in bed being detrimental to our general health and wellbeing.

sleep weekly overview pre-Tokyo

The sleep data in my Fitbit app showed that I was getting up to an hour's more sleep than when I'd been in my screen friendly bed at home. Comparing the 'before' and 'after' graphs (above and below) shows that staying away from screens in bed puts me on the cusp of being in the blue 'recommended' zone for my age group.

But it was not entirely good. What I'd done previously when I woke up was to research and write my blog. Doing the blog was no longer a natural wake up activity and instead became something of a chore. I'd have to choose to write later in the day and it would compete with other enjoyable activities such as sightseeing.

sleep weekly overview post-Tokyo

Nevertheless when I returned home to Sydney, I made a new rule for myself. No screens in bed. As a result, I've maintained my improved sleep patterns. Instead of walking around the lake in the morning, I've been exercising at the gym, something that had fallen away in the winter months before I went to Tokyo.

The blog writing is having to compete with other activities during the day proper. But I take the view that it is something I need to nurture like a plant that has been moved from one part of the garden to another.

But whatever happens, it will then be shaken up once more, when I transplant my life to another city for two months from early October.

Digital disruption fails to diminish Camino pilgrimage

This morning I read two articles. One was about the prospect that software and artificial intelligence will disrupt most traditional industries and professions within the next few years. The other was about the eighty fold increase over the past three decades in the number of pilgrims travelling the various routes of the Camino to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Camino article from La Croix

The first is one of those presentations on disruption that itself sets out to disrupt the way people feel, think and act, and relate to each other. It has a deliberately scary title: 'Must read article on how our lives will change dramatically in 20 years'. It suggests that some people will have their way of life destroyed while others will benefit from access to new opportunities to improve their lives, especially in health and education.

What uber and airbnb have done to the taxi and hotel industries is just the beginning. Many lawyers and health professionals will lose their jobs as tools such as the IBM Watson natural language question answering computer system take told.

Must Read article on digital disruption

We'll have legal advice 'within seconds, with 90% accuracy compared with 70% accuracy when done by humans'. Meanwhile solar power will give us cheap electricity, and that will give us abundant water with desalination. Everybody on the planet will eventually have as much clean water as they want for nearly no cost.

The shift to reliance on software and artificial intelligence is largely a transition from the analogue to the digital world, probably the most dramatic change in the history of human civilisation.

But we're faced with a condundrum. Our problems are solved in a flash but our lives have become less satisfying because we are less tactile and grounded in the way we live.

Perhaps this has something to do with the statistic about the eighty fold increase in the number of Camino pilgrims. that I read in the article in La Croix International. In the digital age, spiritual quest and our continuing need to put 'boots on the ground' are still important for most people.

Camino pilgrims graph

What is most interesting to me is that only a third of the Camino pilgrims are doing it 'strictly for religious reasons'. That refers to observance of the Catholic rituals associated with the Way of St James that dates back to the Middle Ages.

I infer from this statistic that the two thirds majority have either a non-sectarian spiritual purpose, or they're using it as a digital detox, literally putting their boots on the ground.

This month the French and Spanish bishops issued a pastoral letter that expressed both their alarm at the Camino statistics' evidence pointing to dechristianisation, and excitement at the opportunity this represents to evangelise the non-believing pilgrims.

They want to 're-spiritualise' the journey by promoting a 'Christian' hospitality that is distinct from ordinary non-sectarian hospitality. I hope it leads to much conversation between believers and non-believers. Also market research on the part of the bishops, as they seek to find out why the Camino is relevant to the majority of the pilgrims but the Church is not.

Links: Camino disruption Wikipedia

My new best friend

For years I've had patchy wifi internet coverage in my long narrow inner city terrace house.

The connection with the Optus cable is at the front. It is very fast, usually between 60 and 100 mbps. That's faster than I'll get when the NBN arrives. I consider myself very lucky.

However by the time the wifi signal gets to my living room at the back, my connection has been very weak, often as low as 2 mbps and therefore practically unusable. I've tried various gadgets to try to strengthen the signal but none of them has worked. Until now.

Google Wifi

Last week I read about Google Wifi, a small round white box which was being released in Australia on Thursday. At first I was skeptical and did not pay much attention. But I was passing by Officeworks and thought that I would take it home to see if it worked.

It turned out that it was as easy to set up as they said in the advertising and it worked spectacularly. I now have between 60 and 100 mbps in every part of my house. I was so impressed that I went out and bought the other Google product that was released on Thursday, the Google Home speaker.

That is Google's equivalent to Apple's Siri personal assistant, in the form of a neat cylindrical box. She doesn't have a name but I suspect she's even better at her job. She has an Australian accent and can readily understand mine.

She's there on the shelf beside my bed, to answer questions and to play music and other content from the radio and from streaming services such as Spotify. If I ask her, she'll even turn on my wifi enabled Philips Hue lights.

Google Home

Hey Google! What's the average temperature in Tokyo in August? Do I need a visa to enter Japan? How do I get from Narita airport to the city? What's the population of Tokyo? How bad is Tokyo's air pollution?

Just as Google's wifi signal makes it into every crevice of my oddly proportioned house, it seems its helpful assistant gets into every corner of my life. She's there, paying attention to my every sound and utterance, in order to help me live my life.

But I'm not the only one she's helping. If I open the Google Home app on my phone, I can see a transcript of everything I've said to her. That's a reminder of what she knows about me. Moreover what she knows, so do her real human colleagues at Google and whoever they choose to pass my details on to.

So Google heaven is not necessarily the heaven where I'd like to be. My privacy is up for grabs, and so is my independence and natural human resourcefulness.

But Google's goodies are part of the convenience of modern life. Few people will say no to things that appear to make their life easier. Including me.

I won't be breaking up with the Google assistant anytime soon. But I have discovered a command that can deliver a surprisingly pleasing result: 'Hey Google! Can you give me silence'.

TV may be shallow but it keeps us together

My favourite technology writer is Farhood Manjoo, who has written the State of the Art column for the New York Times for the past three years.

In the confusing and always changing world of emerging technology, he has the ability to see and articulate what is really happening. His predecessor David Pogue wrote about how the latest gadgets make our lives easier. But Farhood Manjoo is interested in their impact on people and society.

On Air Sign

Earlier this year he wrote about the death of broadcast TV and the rise of Netflix. 'There was a lot to criticise about broadcast TV, but it brought the nation together. Streaming services are doing the opposite'.

He talks about the 'polarisation of culture' and the creation of 'echo chambers' which isolate us from our fellow citizens. 'We're splitting into our own self-constructed bubbles of reality'.

It's true. We all have digital content menus that are unique to us. They might be Netflix playlists or whatever we follow in Facebook or Twitter. They reflect of our own interests and personalities.

That might sound like a positive development. We're no longer media zombies. We're self-actualising, to use a jargon term. But, as a result, mass media is finished and it's not at all good for our society.

Reality programming and certain sporting events represent the last gasp of television and media as a glue that holds society together. Like the Melbourne Cup, they have us all acting in unison. As long as My Kitchen Rules and similar mass interest events manage to survive, there will be something to talk about at the water cooler.

But the network bosses are struggling to keep their audiences, and also the rights to the big sporting events, with telcos such as Optus starting to outbid them. With justification, they are going to Canberra to lobby the Communications Minister to cut or eliminate the licence fees they must pay to use the public airwaves.

freeview channels

It's easy to see society fundamentally divided in the results of last year's elections in both Australia and the US. In neither country was the system able to produce a leader who could act on behalf of the nation. That's because there was no longer a nation, at least not in the sense that we had come to know it.

History will look at the 60 years from the middle of the 20th century as the high water mark of social cohesion in the US, and also Australia. It was also the period in which the institution of broadcast television rose and fell.

'We're back to normal, in a way, because before there was broadcasting, there wasn't much of a shared culture,' says Lance Strate, a professor of communication at Fordham University. 'For most of the history of civilisation, there was nothing like TV. It was a really odd moment in history to have so many people watching the same thing at the same time.'

Free music data is killing the free internet

If I’m out and about, I sometimes listen to music through a streaming service. The data it uses is free. It does does not eat into my monthly quota. That’s because my mobile phone service provider Optus gives free data to many of its customers using Spotify or certain other music streamers it has commercial deals with.

What’s not to like about that?

At home, Optus includes a FetchTV set top box and 35 pay channels with my broadband internet access at effectively no cost to me.

What’s wrong with that?

These apparent acts of corporate generosity are back door means of getting around the net neutrality rules. Free data for Optus' Spotify users is killing the 'free internet'.

Most users are not bothered enough to get their head around ‘net neutrality’. But it’s important, because it underlies the principle of the ‘open internet’. It guarantees consumers access to the content they want, not the content that big business wants them to access.

Without net neutrality, corporations would be free to throttle or perhaps block sites they did not want us to visit. We’d have effective access only to content that suits our provider’s commercial or ideological interest.

My FetchTV box gives me a handful of news channels. One of them is ChannelNewsAsia, the mouthpiece of the Singapore Government. The Singapore Government is the majority owner of Optus’ parent company Singtel. When I had FetchTV with my previous provider iinet, I had Chinese and Indian news channels. The Singapore Government wants us to see the world through its eyes, so it removes the Chinese and Indian channels from its particular offering of FetchTV.

Optus can do that because Fetch is just a box attached to my TV. Strictly speaking, it’s not a violation of the net neutrality rules. But they couldn’t block or throttle my access to Chinese or Indian news sites that I access through the world wide web on my computer. Not yet, anyway.

Net neutrality - i.e. the ‘open internet’ - has always been cherished as a basic consumer right. It was vigorously upheld by the Obama administration. Much of corporate America wished this was not so. But now their prayers have been answered with President Trump pick of an enemy of net neutrality - Ajit Pai - to lead the Federal Communications Commission regulating body.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that Pai has already ‘aggressively moved to roll back consumer protection regulations created during the Obama presidency’, taking a ‘first swipe at net neutrality rules designed to ensure equal access to content on the internet’.

Meanwhile Europe’s telecommunications regulator strengthened net neutrality rules last year by closing a few loopholes that allowed service providers to create ‘fast lanes’ for ‘specialised services’.

Will we follow Europe or the US? As yet, it’s unclear. What is clear is that we should expect more tricks from internet service providers keen to exploit loopholes. After floating the idea in 2015, Optus would still like to charge Netflix a fee to offer consumers ‘the best customer experience’ of Netflix. We can presume this means the worst customer experience of what other content providers have to offer.


Why dumb phones are better than smart phones

When my cousin was showing me around Wellington last week, I noticed that his phone was a vintage Nokia, just like the one I was using in 1999.

He's not the type who tries to set retro fashion trends. He just prefers a dumb phone to a smart phone. He says he uses it to make phone calls, and that is all he needs it for.

He does not pretend smart phones cannot be useful. He has reluctantly agreed to buy one for his daughter. But he does not like to see people's lives controlled by their smart phones.

A few days ago I was using my smart phone to listen to a podcast that explained how smart phone app developers can be as unscrupulous and unethical as cigarette companies in exploiting their customers.

Former Google app developer Tristan Harris has founded an organisation called Time Well Spent. He talked about the 'persuasive technology design' class at Stanford that taught app developers how to monopolise the time of smart phone users.

'It's not about giving you freedom, it's about sucking you in to take your time'.

An app will 'notify' you when you have a new email or when a news story breaks. In other words, it will interrupt your conversation or stop you from attending to something in your life other than your smart phone.

How often do we physically bump into smart phone users in the street because they are not looking where they're going? Or perhaps we are the ones glued to our smart phones.

I walk long distances for exercise and always listen to podcasts so that I can stay in touch with what's going on in the world. In fact I miss a lot of what is going on in the world close to me because I am listening to podcasts. My eyes are metaphorically closed to what is around me.

Harris says the key question is how smart phone usage makes us feel on the inside. The average person checks their phone 150 times a day because they feel anxious about what they're missing out on if they don't keep checking it.

I've become aware of this, and I've taken to deliberately missing episodes of my favourite podcasts to ensure that they don't control me. I would listen to 'The Monocle Daily' every weekday, and feel anxious when I didn't. Now I listen to it three or four times a week, and feel better for it.

I do not want to give it up altogether because I enjoy it. It informs me and it raises my spirit, with the humour and intelligence of its presenters. I just want to own my time and my life, and I can do that with measured use of my smart phone.

That was my message to my cousin as I gave him the bad news that he would soon need to swap his dumb phone for a smart phone because the telcos are turning off the old 2G phone towers that have serviced dumb phones for 20 years.