Picnics at work

I’ve had to deal with a number of these types of problems. Calling them picnics does make them a little less infuriating.

PICNIC
1. (humorous) Acronym of problem in chair, not in computer; states that the problem was not in the computer but was instead caused by the user operating it.

Heavy questions for a Monday morning

I’ve just got round to reading this weekend’s Art & Letters Daily newsletter. More coffee is required before I properly engage with these questions, I think — the first, about the value of the arts; the second, the value of higher education.

What’s the point?
These feel like such dire times, times of violence and dislocation, schism, paranoia, and the earth-scorching politics of fear. Babies have iPads, the ice caps are melting, and your smart refrigerator is eavesdropping on your lovemaking (and, frankly, it’s not impressed).

Fascists, bigots, and guys who plan to name their sons Adolf wake up every day with a hateful leer on their faces and the Horst Wessel Song in their hearts—if you’re an ignorant, misogynist, xenophobic, racist against science, I guess times have never felt better. But for the vast rest of us—and please know, please believe, you and I greatly outnumber them—for the rest of us, things can seem so much worse than they did back in 2010, when a decent, thoughtful, level-headed, rational, and humane black man was living in the White House.

It has all seemed to fall apart so quickly. Looking around, it’s hard not to wonder who or what is to blame. I think it might be me. No, hear me out.

(This quote from George Bernard Shaw might help here.)

Does meritocracy stall social mobility, entrench an undeserving elite, and undermine trust in higher education?
An attack on meritocracy is invariably an attack on higher education, where meritocrats get sorted and credentialed. So the turn against meritocracy prompts big questions. Has meritocracy in fact failed? Is it time for universities to rethink the definition of merit, and, more broadly, higher education’s role in American life? Are meritocracy’s critics too sweeping in their indictment? Is it still — flaws and all — the fairest way to organize society? If we do away with it, what comes next?

We put these questions to 10 scholars and administrators from across the academy. Here are their responses.

More accidental typography

Some years ago I came across a photographer who had discovered an alphabet written in the skies over her head. Here are a few more examples of letter-forms in unusual places.

Put words into action with ‘Gerry’, a new font created from the silhouettes of gerrymandered electoral districts
The font, created by Ben Doessel and James Lee, is composed of 26 districts whose absurd boundaries resemble alphabet letters much more than they resemble logical, cohesive population groupings. Alabama’s pronged 1st District bears a striking resemblance to the letter K, while New York’s 8th District looks like an M with its tall legs connected by a curved middle.

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And here’s another example.

Stone alphabets
[A]ssembled by Belgian type designer Clotilde Olyff from stones collected at the beach.

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So, farewell then, CEEFAX

Teletext was slow but it paved the way for the super-fast world of the internet
The BBC has announced that 2020 will mark the end of the Red Button text service – the final incarnation of what was originally known as CEEFAX and Oracle. Those old text-based TV services would seem ridiculously clunky and old-fashioned to an internet generation used to instant streaming and apps for everything. But – as slow and frustrating as that old text system was – it paved the way for the World Wide Web and helped prepare us for the world of social media.

A kind of internet but without social media — what could be better? It wasn’t quick though, was it?

When you fetch a web page, your browser sends a request to the server and the server sends the requested data back to you. CEEFAX, on the other hand, sent each page in turn, on a sort of endless loop. So you would put in the page number you wanted to see using your remote control, but it could take some time before that page came around again. It was a bit like waiting for your favourite sushi dish at one of those Japanese restaurants which use a conveyor belt to deliver the food, or your suitcase at an airport baggage claim.

Those were the days.

Poor performance

For such a small number, a school’s Progress 8 score can be quite a big deal. So the last thing we need is an exam board messing up the performance tables process by not sending complete data to the DfE.

Progress 8 error in performance table checking after BTEC gaffe
Peter Atherton, data manager at a school in Wakefield, told Schools Week some schools had received a “nasty surprise” when they went to check the website.

“It could be the case that, if all of these qualifications were missing for your school, that could affect your progress 8 score by quite a lot. Some schools are saying they’re -0.20 below what they were expecting.”

Gaffe is such an odd word, if you think about it. French, I guess. Would that make Pearson a gaffeur?

It is the second gaffe relating to BTECs to hit the exam board this year.

In August, Pearson was forced to apologise after it hiked grade boundaries for its BTEC Tech Awards just days before pupils were due to collect their results, meaning youngsters were handed lower grades than they were expecting.

Requires improvement, I’d say.

Sneaky sources

For all you lazy students out there, here’s a way you can present any Wikipedia article as a real academic source.

M-Journal subverts academia by morphing Wikipedia into a reliable source
Caveat lector, let the buyer beware. These are the words at the end of the Wikipedia page that informs users that attempting to use Wikipedia as a reliable source of cited material comes with a continuous and present risk. Across academia it is a known operating fact that Wikipedia is not an accepted source for research papers and the lot. That hasn’t stopped students from using it and thanks to M-Journal, disguising it.

As the article goes on to say, it’s “ingenious as much as it is ridiculously dubious.”

Website M-Journal will turn Wikipedia articles into “real” academic papers
One of the funnier parts of the M-Journal is that if your teacher does ask for a link to the academic paper, the site will generate a fairly convincing-looking link. But it has a fake paywall, so you can’t see the whole thing.

And we all know that no one ever goes past the paywalls on academic journals.

(Not that the ‘real’ ones are necessarily any better, of course.)

This whole scheme will only work if academics are kept in the dark, otherwise the game is up. Let’s hope the word is getting out — I think the sector has enough fakery problems without this adding to the mix.

What a mess

No, I’m not talking about Westminster this time.

Lisa Li: Angry landlord exposes online star’s ‘double life’
A social media influencer in China has been exposed for living a “double life”, after her landlord revealed her filthy living conditions, which contrasted with the glamorous image she presented online. Footage went viral showing the apartment of Lisa Li – a blogger with 1.1 million followers – littered with rubbish, mouldy food, and dog excrement.

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She went on to apologise to her landlord and clean the mess up. I don’t imagine anyone thought of preserving it for posterity. That does happen though…

Francis Bacon’s preserved art studio
After his death, the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, Ireland, was able to obtain the entire contents of his artists’ studio at 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington, London, in 1998. The entire space was broken down into its parts. Over 7,000 articles were collected and cataloged, including everything from paintbrushes to art supplies, and even the dust! The ceiling, the walls, and the narrow staircase that led up to the studio were even taken. The massive collection was then reassembled in great detail and precision using architectural maps and photographs.

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History of studio relocation
The Francis Bacon Studio Database is the first computerised archive of the entire contents of a world ranking artist’s studio. Every item in the studio has a database entry. Each entry consists of an image and a factual account of an object. The database has entries on approximately 570 books and catalogues, 1,500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases, 1,300 leaves torn from books, 2,000 artist’s materials and 70 drawings. Other categories include the artist’s correspondence, magazines, newspapers and vinyl records.

Enigmatic Estonia

It might have a picturesque mix of medieval architecture and stomach-churning TV towers, but Estonia isn’t your average ex-Soviet country.

Concerned about Brexit? Why not become an e-resident of Estonia
And that’s the opportunity, because Estonia is working on linking its tax office with its counterparts in other regions of the world. The Estonians want to offer the option for, say, UK citizens to run their UK companies through the Estonian system, which would in turn, in the background, with no extra work for the user, make sure that the UK tax office receives all the money it is legally due. A UK-based entrepreneur, they hope, will decide to open her business in Estonia, use an Estonian bank and pay for some Estonian services, even if the company was only going to be trading in the UK, because she would find Estonia’s national infrastructure far easier to deal with than the UK’s. In other words, a nation is now competing with its neighbours on the basis of the quality of its user interface. Just as you might switch your bank to one with a better mobile app, the Estonians hope you’ll switch your business to a country with an infrastructure that is easier to use.

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Innovative in other areas, too.

Estonia to become the world’s first free public transport nation
Who is profiting the most from free buses, trams and trains in Tallinn?
“A good thing is, of course, that it mostly appeals to people with lower to medium incomes. But free public transport also stimulates the mobility of higher-income groups. They are simply going out more often for entertainment, to restaurants, bars and cinemas. Therefore they consume local goods and services and are likely to spend more money, more often. In the end this makes local businesses thrive. It breathes new life into the city.”

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It had its own tiny, imaginary kingdom for a while, due to an unseen clerical error.

Kingdom of Torgu, Laadla, Estonia
500-odd people who lived in the area were surprised by this negligence, but soon decided to take advantage of the mistake. They came up with the idea of starting their own country, and calling it a kingdom. The throne was offered to a journalist and political activist named Kirill Teiter, who accepted it and became the first (and only) monarch to reign over the newly formed Kingdom of Torgu. The kingdom has its own flag, a coat of arms with a “snail-dragon” as the emblematic animal, and its own currency in coins, the “kirill,” with the worth of 1 kirill fixed to the price of a half-liter of local vodka.

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But what really caught my eye was this article on its language (the summary is from The Browser).

“Did you eat the whole cake?” On learning Estonian
Estonian is popularly known as a difficult language to learn. Much of its vocabulary is unfamiliar, as the only other national languages it’s related to are Finnish and, more distantly, Hungarian. It’s even been described as the most difficult Latin-alphabet language for a native English speaker, and some of its features have assumed an almost mythical status.

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I loved the exasperation in The Browser‘s summary of that last article.

How to learn Estonian. You have to grow up in Estonia, pretty much. The complexities of the language have an “almost mythical status” among scholars. Estonian nouns decline through fourteen or more cases, each with a singular and a plural. The essential cases — nominative, genitive, partitive — are also the most irregular, often involving changes in the stem of the noun. Verbs come in 149 varieties, each with five moods. But there are only two basic tenses, past and present. The future has rules of its own.

Goodness me. And I thought learning French at school was hard.

A brief moment of clarity

In all the muddle and obfuscation swirling around the Brexit miasma, the judgment of the supreme court on the legality of Boris Johnson’s prorogation provided welcome evidence of intelligence and crystal-clear language.

From the full judgment:

JUDGMENT R (on the application of Miller) (Appellant) v The Prime Minister  Respondent) Cherry and others (Respondents) v Advocate General for Scotland (Appellant) (Scotland)
55. Let us remind ourselves of the foundations of our constitution. We live in a representative democracy. The House of Commons exists because the people have elected its members. The Government is not directly elected by the people (unlike the position in some other democracies). The Government exists because it has the confidence of the House of Commons. It has no democratic legitimacy other than that. This means that it is accountable to the House of Commons – and indeed to the House of Lords – for its actions, remembering always that the actual task of governing is for the executive and not for Parliament or the courts. The first question, therefore, is whether the Prime Minister’s action had the effect of frustrating or preventing the constitutional role of Parliament in holding the Government to account.

56. The answer is that of course it did.

Loving that ‘of course’.

61. It is impossible for us to conclude, on the evidence which has been put before us, that there was any reason – let alone a good reason – to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, from 9th or 12th September until 14th October. We cannot speculate, in the absence of further evidence, upon what such reasons might have been. It follows that the decision was unlawful.

And from the summary:

R (on the application of Miller) (Appellant) v The Prime Minister (Respondent) Cherry and others (Respondents) v Advocate General for Scotland (Appellant) (Scotland)
This Court has already concluded that the Prime Minister’s advice to Her Majesty was unlawful, void and of no effect. … The prorogation was also void and of no effect. Parliament has not been prorogued. This is the unanimous judgment of all 11 Justices.

Put your mouth where your money is

Not to be outdone by Japan’s offering, or those green tea ones, KitKat is at it again.

Luxury ‘bespoke’ KitKat candy bar to be sold in the UK
The range, which will be sold at the “KitKat Chocolatory,” includes several special edition flavors, including gin and tonic, cherry bakewell and earl grey, which will cost £7.50 each.

Customers will also be able to create their own bespoke candy bars for as much as £14, with almost 1,500 flavor combinations on offer. Custom-made “Create Your Break” KitKats will be eight-finger bars, which will offer a choice of milk, white, dark or ruby chocolate and three ingredients, such as salted caramel chunks and rose petals.

Automated yet playful

Two recent interviews with contemporary generative artists.

The generative portraiture of Espen Kluge
I love Kluge’s description of his organic coding process for creating art. It flies in the face of the popular misconception that programming art is somehow a linear process, when in actuality, it is almost always circuitous.

When I asked Kluge if he is still surprised by the outputs he is getting, he replied:

Oh, yeah, I wouldn’t have the motivation to do this at all if I wasn’t surprised every time. It’s a pleasure every time I get close to something I like. I don’t have a good drawing hand. This is something I use to be my drawing hand. Sometimes the lines and shapes can be really beautiful, and I don’t think I could calculate that. It’s impossible for me to have these things in my head before I start. I would like to think this is true for all generative artists. It is a very playful process.

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LIA, software art pioneer and the fluidity of code
Austrian artist LIA is considered one of the pioneers of digital art and has been producing works since 1995. She is one of the very few women pioneers in software and net art. Her practice spans across video, performance, software, installation, sculpture, projections, and digital applications …

Your work using creative code becomes a generative work in real time, introducing the concept of “fluid” as opposed to the formality of the written code that requires engineered precision? Can you give some examples of this?

I started as an autodidact, so at the beginning, I had no idea about how to write “clean” code. This led to a variety of interesting results that I had not planned upfront. After more than two decades of programming, now I know how to write code properly, but I still like to keep the process of programming open to all sorts of possible errors, being able to go into different directions from any point onwards. That means I am not planning every step ahead, but rather “going with the flow”. The artworks themselves are constantly changing, either because they are of generative nature or because someone might be interacting with them. There is no start and no end, they just evolve over time over and over again.

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Silver ratio
In her practice, LIA translates concepts into formally written structures that, in turn, generate an output through a ‘machine’. The artistic experience contrasts with the formality of the written code. LIA’s work takes up traditions of drawing and painting and connects these with the aesthetics of digital image worlds and the language of algorithms.

See more of LIA’s work on Sedition.

Sleepy Victorians

Another Monday morning has rolled around. Still feeling a little sleepy? Nothing new there.

Stress caused sleeplessness for the Victorians too – but they thought it only afflicted ‘brain-workers’
The Victorian era experienced not only the extraordinary upheavals of the industrial revolution, but also the arrival of gas and then electric lighting, turning night into day. The creation of an international telegraph network similarly revolutionised systems of communication, establishing global connectivity and, for groups such as businessmen, financiers and politicians, a flow of telegrams at all hours.

Such shifts brought new patterns and expectations of work. By the 1860s the twin diseases of modernity – overwork and sleeplessness – became the focus of cultural anxieties. Victorian medical men warned against the dangers of sleeplessness. Drawing on this research, an 1866 article in the Spectator argued that sleeplessness was one of the “most annoying concomitants of civilised life”, but also one of the greatest threats to health:

Any system which really increased the average capacity for sleep would benefit nervous diseases, increase the habitableness of great cities, and probably diminish perceptibly the average of lunacy.

Music at war

I’m familiar with the role drums have played during times of war, but not pianos.

When the pianos went to war
During the war, the U.S. government essentially shut down the production of musical instruments in order to divert vital resources such as iron, copper, brass, and other materials to the war effort. Yet the government also determined that the war effort ought to include entertainment that could lift soldiers’ spirits. But just any old piano wouldn’t do. They needed ones hearty enough to withstand the trying conditions out in the field—including being packed into a crate and dropped out of a plane.

From literal war, to a more symbolic musical clash.

The ‘implicit danger’ of a violin concerto
The concerto is the ultimate display of musical virtuosity – pitching a soloist against the orchestra as they alternate, compete and combine in a constantly changing dialogue. Those dynamics are crystallised in the word concerto itself, which has two, apparently contradictory, meanings: Competition and agreement.

And far from clashing and jarring, here are two genres working so well together you wonder why combining metal and jazz hasn’t been done before.

A funky mashup of Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’, Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ and Herb Alpert’s ‘Rise’
Video editor Bill McClintock has created a really funky mashup of “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, “Master of Puppets” by Metallica and Herb Alpert‘s iconic instrumental “Rise”. It all sounds really good together, however what stands out, is Abraham Laboriel‘s phenomenal bassline punching through.

Mashup – War Puppets Rise to Heaven

There are plenty more where that came from.

The sea, the sea

UK’s best sea view photography competition 2019
National maritime charity, the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, has revealed the eagerly awaited results of its seventh annual photography competition, showcasing images relating to all aspects of the UK’s historic relationship with the sea.

Some stunning photographs here, but I wonder if in the future, given what we were discussing yesterday, we might see fewer images like this…

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… and more like these:

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Almost a Great Wave, that last one.

Global protests for a global crisis

Lots of attention, rightly, on the school climate strikes today.

Greta Thunberg is leading kids and adults from 150 countries in a massive Friday climate strike
It’s a big moment for Thunberg and the legions of youth and adult activists and leaders she’s inspired since August 2018, when she began skipping school on Fridays to protest outside the Swedish Parliament. Thousands of young people in the movement, called Fridays for Future, now strike every Friday to demand more aggressive action from their governments and the international community. The last large-scale coordinated climate strike on May 24 drew participants from 130 countries.

The huge youth climate strike is about courage, not hope
As children and young people in more than 150 countries skip school, university, or work, to strike against climate inaction, they aren’t just creating a new form of activism. They are also creating a platform that presents a united front to a multi-pronged global problem.

It’s not just for teenagers this time.

Global climate strike: how you can get involved
The global climate strike kicks off on Friday and will ripple across the world in more than 4,000 locations, the start of a weeklong movement to train international attention on the climate emergency. It’s the latest of a succession of strikes on Fridays led by schoolchildren – but this time adults are invited to join in.

The scale of the problem can feel a little overwhelming, but here’s a possible way forward.

Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot make short film on the climate crisis
Environmental activists Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot have helped produce a short film highlighting the need to protect, restore and use nature to tackle the climate crisis. Living ecosystems like forests, mangroves, swamps and seabeds can pull enormous quantities of carbon from the air and store them safely, but natural climate solutions currently receive only 2% of the funding spent on cutting emissions. The film’s director, Tom Mustill of Gripping Films, said: ‘We tried to make the film have the tiniest environmental impact possible. We took trains to Sweden to interview Greta, charged our hybrid car at George’s house, used green energy to power the edit and recycled archive footage rather than shooting new.’

(Speaking of videos that are trying to change hearts and minds, have you seen the absolutely heart-wrenching film from Sandy Hook Promise, Back-To-School Essentials?)

The most interesting links of the day, I think, are all these from The Conversation, bringing together climate science with economics, culture and the media.

Five things every government needs to do right now to tackle the climate emergency
I would never argue against setting climate targets. They are necessary – but far from sufficient. We must guard against politicians hiding behind distant and possibly empty promises, and demand climate policy that impacts the carbon ledger here and now.

I stand with the climate striking students – it’s time to create a new economy
My research area remains marginal, and its results neglected, because to accept it would require a fundamental transformation of the prevailing economic philosophy. We would need to pay less attention to growth and profit as the measures of prosperity, and replace them with sufficiency and equity – a fair division of resources to provide what is sufficient for well-being and not more. After centuries of entrenchment, that’s no easy feat.

How getting rid of ‘shit jobs’ and the metric of productivity can combat climate change
But suppose we stopped chasing productivity growth. What might happen? It would make it easier to decarbonise. We’d no longer be stuck on the production-consumption treadmill. It would mean less stuff too. But do we need all the crap we have?

Humanity and nature are not separate – we must see them as one to fix the climate crisis
Scholars such as Timothy Morton and Bruno Latour remind us that viewing the natural world as separated from humans is not only ethically problematic but empirically false. Microorganisms in our gut aid digestion, while others compose part of our skin. Pollinators such as bees and wasps help produce the food we eat, while photosynthetic organisms such as trees and phytoplankton provide the oxygen that we need in order to live, in turn taking up the carbon dioxide we expel.

Climate change: children are carving out a place in politics – now adults must listen and act
It’s not enough to put children on the covers of newspapers and call them “heroes”. It’s not even enough to listen to the concerns they’re raising through the global strikes for climate action. Adults in positions of authority need to give young people the means to change the world and create their own visions for the future.

Why is climate change still not top of the news agenda?
Journalists with a better grasp of the science (and indeed social science) of climate change would be less reliant on press releases, reducing the impact of corporate lobbyists and the need to include their public relations activity as part of the news. However, these suggestions are optimistic considering the wider power structures that constrain how journalists operate.

#ShowYourStripes: how climate data became a cultural icon
Helping science to make this leap from the lab to social media is crucial to changing mindsets. My research has often focused on communicating the impacts of climate change to new audiences. The more people that see and understand this huge problem, the better chance we have of solving it.

Imagining both utopian and dystopian climate futures is crucial – which is why cli-fi is so important
When now is the time that we need to act, the rarer utopian form of cli-fi is perhaps more useful. These works imagine future worlds where humanity has responded to climate change in a more timely and resourceful manner. They conjure up futures where human and non-human lives have been adapted, where ways of living have been reimagined in the face of environmental disaster. Scientists, and policy makers – and indeed the public – can look to these works as a source of hope and inspiration.

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Excel errors are everywhere

I know that Excel is only trying to be helpful when it ‘corrects’ what it sees as formatting errors, but it really needs to pack it in.

An alarming number of scientific papers contain Excel errors
A team of Australian researchers analyzed nearly 3,600 genetics papers published in a number of leading scientific journals [and] found that roughly 1 in 5 of these papers included errors in their gene lists that were due to Excel automatically converting gene names to things like calendar dates or random numbers.

You see, genes are often referred to in scientific literature by symbols — essentially shortened versions of full gene names. The gene “Septin 2” is typically shortened as SEPT2. “Membrane-Associated Ring Finger (C3HC4) 1, E3 Ubiquitin Protein Ligase” gets mercifully shortened to MARCH1.

But when you type these shortened gene names into Excel, the program automatically assumes they refer to dates — Sept. 2 and March 1, respectively. If you type SEPT2 into a default Excel cell, it magically becomes “2-Sep.” It’s stored by the program as the date 9/2/2016.

Televising the climate crisis

Those articles earlier in the week about climate science misconceptions were published by The Conversation as part of the Covering Climate Now initiative.

A new commitment to covering the climate story
Co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review, in partnership with The Guardian, Covering Climate Now aims to convene and inform a conversation among journalists about how all news outlets—big and small, digital and print, TV and radio, US-based and abroad—can do justice to the defining story of our time.

This issue is not going to go away, however intangible it may still feel.

Nature documentaries need to get real about climate change
Climate change is often visualised in the same way, says Thomas-Walters, with the image of a polar bear on melting ice being a classic example. “Having things which show the impact on humans tend to be more effective.” This could include the depiction of severe weather events such as hurricanes and floods as they affect both humans and wildlife.

And now the weather.

How TV weathercasters became the unsung heroes of the climate crisis
Local TV weather forecasters have become foot soldiers in the war against climate misinformation. Over the past decade, a growing number of meteorologists and weathercasters have begun addressing the climate crisis either as part of their weather forecasts, or in separate, independent news reports to help their viewers understand what is happening and why it is important.

And the reports are having an impact.

Elisa Raffa: ‘I love learning about how weather and climate impact everything we do’

Playing hardball

An interesting discussion with movie prop designers that just had to include this iconic figure.

The hardest props I ever made
It was very strange because I approached representatives of the company [Wilson Sporting Goods], and they were not interested at all. It just didn’t matter to them. I told them, “You know, we have Tom Hanks here. We have Robert Zemeckis, who did Back to the Future. We have this venue for this ball of yours that is incredible. And it’s named Wilson.” They were very polite, but not interested. I told them, “We’re depicting your product. It’s a wonderful character in this movie, and it saves this man’s life.”

At some point, I called back and got some kind of great sales rep. And she got it. She understood exactly what this was. She said, “Let me see what I can do.”

And the rest is history. So much so, that you can now buy your very own Wilson, as well as a variety of other movie-themed balls Tom Hanks might recognise.

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Feeling drained?

Battery icons shape perceptions of time and space and define user identities
“People no longer think about their destination being 10 km away or 10 stops on the tube. They think about it being 50 per cent of their battery away,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Thomas Robinson …

One of the study’s respondents described the experience of watching their battery icon throughout the day: “Full would be ‘Yeah, ok great’, good to go for the day’; 50 per cent I’d be a bit ‘Oh God, I had better stop it from updating itself all the time in the background’ … then it would be at 30 per cent and I would be like: ‘Now I’m not having fun anymore’,” the respondent said.