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What can you do with a Nokia N8?


Quite a bit, actually. TEDx Cape Town is happening tomorrow and since it was at this event that I won the Nokia N8, I thought I’ll give an overview of more than a year of owning this phone. I feel grateful to the organisers of TEDx Cape Town for the prize, but the device has received quite a bit of bad press since its release. So I’d like to highlight the three things I like most about it:


1. It has an FM transmitter

The N8 comes along on every road trip because of its built-in FM transmitter.  This means I can easily broadcast audio to my cassette-era car radio. Playing music might be the obvious choice, but listening to podcasts of This American Life and Planet Money is even better.

2. The camera is very good

Nokia made a deal with Carl Zeiss to have his high-end lenses built into the phones. The result is the best camera phone I’ve seen. That’s the second reason why the N8 comes along on all trips. I used the N8 to take the photos of Malawi and Nairobi on this blog. The resolution is huge, the image crisper and it fits in my pocket. Click on the thumbnail below for a comparison of the same view photographed with the N8, a Blackberry Bold 9780 and an iPad 2.

3. It suits outdoor exercise

The range of apps for the N8 are limited, but the ones I’ve used most are exercise apps like Endomondo and Tourality. It links easily via bluebooth to a Polar WearLink, making it possible to record your heart rate along with GPS data. The N8 transmits all the data from your run to the Endomondo website so that you can review it when you get home. Below is a graph of a run to the Waterfront I made this week.

5 life lessons we can learn from playing Diablo

Sorceress next to a bell curve

1. A limit on wealth can boost generosity

The first thing that struck me when I first played Diablo II online was the generosity. It was bizarre. Players approached me, asked whether I needed weapons, and then dropped a pile of rare katars and wrist blades. They didn’t even wait to be thanked.  Someone would give away a magical helm as if it was a burden.  And in a way, it was.

You see, in Diablo, there’s a limit to how much you can own.  There’s one backpack and one treasure chest to keep your stash, so you run out of space rather quickly. If you leave something on the ground it will disappear.

As a result, advanced players give valuable items away to free up inventory space. It’s similar to tax-deductible charity donations.  When you know that you’ll have to lose a portion of your wealth anyway, it makes sense to donate it and gain goodwill.



2. Don’t spread your skills too thinly

One of the great pleasures in Diablo is the moment you gain enough experience points to level up. You can then take a break from the action to decide how you’ll invest your skill points. But it’s not an easy decision.

Each hero class has a unique skill tree with three different branches.  A Sorceress’ skill tree is for instance divided between lightning, fire and cold spells.

There’s the temptation to try out everything on the skill platter.  After using Charged Bolt for a while, you might want to see what the Firewall spell can do.  But this type of switching between disciplines leads to an ineffectual character. A Sorceress with 4 points invested in Fireball and 5 in Lightning has a weaker attack than one who put all 9 points in Lighting alone. Because only one offensive spell can be used at a time, being moderately good in two disciplines is a waste. The real world equivalent would be to gain experience in two careers paths that are unlikely to intersect.

But as in real life, there are times when past expertise support our current skill set. For example, an ex-lawyer can use that experience to become a writer of legal thrillers, while a TV presenter with an MBChB could start an educational health show. In Diablo these are known as synergies: secondary skills that boost the effectiveness of your main skill.

Putting all your experience into one skill is never possible or advisable. You might encounter a challenge where the skill you’ve focused on is ineffective.  Spreading your skills too thinly is also unwise. The first time I reached the game’s eponymous monster it was as a Druid skilled in summoning wolves, bears, ravens and poison creepers. The big boss could wipe them all out with one Fire Nova attack, so they were useless. To defeat him, I had to concentrate on shape shifting abilities and attack him as Werewolf.

So if you created a graph with attack damage as the y axis and the number of skills as the x axis, it would probably follow a bell curve. You need a handful of synergized skills, but there’s a point where investing experience into extra skills will make you a master of none.


3. Pick a companion that compliments your weaknesses

I’m currently playing the game as a Paladin using Blessed Hammer as a primary attack. It’s a powerful spell, but annoyingly imprecise. Instead of flying directly at the target, magical hammers spin out, knocking any monster that happens to stand in its spiral trajectory.  So when there’s one vampire standing in the corner of a room, it’s near impossible to get the bugger into the hammer’s flight path.

That’s why it was fun play with an ally. A friend’s Sorceress is adapted to take out immediate threats with bolts of lightning. When we encounter a horde of monsters, I create a whirlwind of hammers while she assassinates the spell casters.

Such division of labour is common among married couples. To some, it is common-sense that a wife should take care of the house and children while the husband brings home the bacon.  We obviously need to move away from this old-fashioned view because it unfairly limits the opportunities available to women. But part of the reason these gendered divisions of labour persist, as Joseph Heath points out in The Efficient Society, is that such arrangements are quite effective. Sharing duties may help couples understand each other’s problems, but specialization creates a stronger team. The key is to collectively decide on a fair division of responsibilities instead of following archaic customs.

4. People are nicer when they’re secure about their social standing

So far, no-one has called me a ‘newb’, ‘noob’ or ‘n00b’. That’s unusual in a competitive online community. In Quake or Defence of the Ancients insults like “lol stupid noob” are often thrown your way. So why haven’t I encountered this on the South African Diablo servers?

The reason, I suspect, is that the experience level of players are blatant. When you enter a game, players can immediately see that you’re a level 72 Barbarian. So there’s no reason to prove your superiority by being a douche.  I can imagine that one of the advantages of clear ranking in the military is that generals don’t have to constantly remind people of what they’ve achieved. Hierarchies can be civil. In its absence, people resort to snobbery to demonstrate their superiority.

An example that comes to mind is the local film / servicing industry. Crew member on set are unpleasant people. Their ranking changes from one shoot to the next and there’s little job security.   Because everyone’s dressed similarly and there are no desks around, impoliteness is used to establish rank. Crew members also feel the need to regularly remind others of how much experience they have. If only they could wear badges with this info on it, such unpleasantries could be avoided.

Lut Gholein Gate

5. You’ll gain no experience hanging around, admiring your possessions

There’s something immensely reassuring about playing Diablo. You know that no matter where you’re going, if you’re killing monsters, you’re on the right track. Even if you’re fighting in an area you’ve completed before, you’re comforted by the knowledge that you’re gaining experience points and making your hero stronger. It’s only when you hang around camp, which is safe from monsters, that you’re wasting time. Every small effort has worth and knowing that is a strong motivator.

So the final lesson is simple. Stop procrastinating, jump in and do it.

Turning work into leisure

Worker in field

A friend recommended This American Life to me at the start of this year and since then, I’ve been hooked. It’s a radio show that’s been going since 1995. Each week has a different theme and you can download it as podcasts. What makes it so good is that they transform topics you wouldn’t expect to be interesting into compelling stories.

It’s also changed the way I think about exercise. You see, a podcast is an odd form of entertainment. You can’t sit in the lounge and listen to it the way you’d watch TV. It also doesn’t have music’s functional uses. It’s not something you can play in the background and you can’t dance to it either. The most suitable time to listen to a podcast is when your hands and eyes are preoccupied. It suits driving, but car journeys tend to be too short to enjoy an hour-long show.

What I’ve found is that it’s a perfect accompaniment to a jog to the Green Point Park. Both take an hour to complete. So doing exercise has become the only way for me to listen to new episodes. As a result, my mind associates the two, making me more enthusiastic about the jog because of the expectation of new entertainment.

I borrowed this trick from Duke University professor Dan Ariely. In the introduction to The Upside of Irrationality he tells the story of how he was the only patient to complete a gruelling 18 months of Hepatitis C treatment. He had to inject himself with a new drug called interferon thrice a weekend. The side-effects of the drug were headaches and vomiting that lasted 16 hours, every single time. It was an awful experience, but he was determined to shake the disease:

Every injection day I deeply wanted to avoid the procedure. But I did have a trick: I love movies, so I decided to motivate myself with movies. Every injection day, I would stop at the video store and pick up a few films. Throughout the day, I would think about how much I would enjoy watching them later. Once I got home, I would give myself the injection. Then I would immediately jump into my hammock and start my mini-film fest. That way, I learned to associate the act of the injection with the rewarding movie experience.

Ariely’s story shows that it’s possible to manipulate our connotations. We can change the way we think about tasks in order to get them done and be happier.

It’s funny to think that we’ve taken many of the chores that burdened our ancestors and turned them into leisure activities. In Bobos in Paradise , David Brooks looks at America’s new educated elite, who he calls “bourgeois bohemians”, abbreviated as “bobos”. They spend their wealth on sports utility vehicles, gardening equipment, industrial strength toasters and clothing made for Mount Everest. In the 19th century, the kitchen was a reviled part of the house. It was seen as a separate space that upper class women preferred to avoid, but today’s upper class have massive kitchens that swallow up adjacent rooms. They use it to entertain guests and equip it with professional stoves that cost more than the car they drove in their 20s.

There’s obviously a difference between the motivations behind these two examples. Ariely made an unpleasant experience bearable by associating it with leisure. The bobos turn work that they could easily pay someone else to do, into a lifestyle.  You could see it as diligent or extravagant, but it’s no better than angling fish.

It makes me wonder, what chores of today will future generations do for fun?

Treasure hunting and Tourality

Around the age of seven I began creating treasure hunts for siblings and friends. I was inspired by the Indiana Jones movies and the Usborne series of puzzle books. I created a series of clues and puzzles that would ultimately lead them to an item hidden somewhere in the neighbourhood or backyard.

But there were problems.

One Saturday morning I created a hunt for my sister while she was at choir practice. Once she arrived home I gave her the first clue and set her on her way. It didn’t last long. She came back saying that she couldn’t find the next clue. It had either been moved or the instructions were too vague. This was a common complaint and also the reason why most of my challenges were never completed.

As I got older I realized that verbal clues are tricky because they rely on interpretation. If the creator and player do not share the same frame of reference it can get rather frustrating. The other problem is that the player will inevitably ask advice but doing so will ruin their sense of independence. So I realized back then that the ideal would be to monitor the player’s progress and offer advice without having to follow them around.

Fast forward to 2011 and there’s a range of location based games available on mobile phones. I decided to try out Tourality because it was the only IMGA Best Real World Game nominee available for Nokia / Blackberry.

Tamboerskloof Tourality game set

Tourality allows you to turn your neighborhood into a playground. To create a game you choose locations in your area that players have to reach. You then set the type of challenge RACE, TRAIL, CHASE, RUSH or ACT and you’re ready to go. I created a game in Tamboerskloof by selecting 7 targets and set out one morning before work to try it out. Here’s how it went:

  • I step out on the street and press start. The aim is to reach all seven spots in the fastest time.
  • I’d thought about the best route, leaving the furthest one on top of the hill till last.
  • I run to the Primary School first and then realize that I should have made it my starting position to save 2 minutes on the clock.
  • I run down to The Power & The Glory corner and then to Park road to get to the dead end.
  • At this point I realize that it’s slightly annoying that I have to take the phone out to check whether the program knows that I reached the target.
  • The phone does vibrate and make a beep sound when you reach the right location but both of these are hard to notice when you’re running. I think the designers can solve this problem by changing the beep to something longer and louder.
  • I make my way to the entrance of the police stables. I’m quite exhausted and opt to walk the steep bits and run the rest.
  • By the time I’ve reached 6 targets I notice a treasure chest appear at the end of another cul-de-sac. This is interesting because I hadn’t chosen the target. The program recognized it as a position sufficiently out of my way to serve as a challenge with a surprise reward.
  • I decide to ignore the treasure and continue with my planned route. (The second time I played a treasure chest appeared outside Arnold’s on Kloof Street)
  • Getting to the last target is the most exciting because I have never been there before.
  • I reach the first bend of Leeukloof Dr and get an idea. Could I skip the loop bend by cutting up through the bushes?
  • I go for it but unfortunately (although fortunate at the time) the program is tricked into thinking that I’ve already reached the dead end even though there’s still a huge house in my way.

A shortcut?

I had completed the game set in 23:09 min. I could also view the distance traveled, average speed and altitude. Walking back home I thought about what I enjoyed most and what else we could do with location based games.

The most exciting element was doing a speed challenge in an unfamiliar road. I’d played a single player game but I imagine Tourality is at its best played with friends and neighbours. If playing in unfamiliar territory lends a sense of adventure then the ideal is that friends set up challenges for one another instead of playing their own maps.

To be more than a running exercise it needs have an element of strategy. If success is determined solely by fitness then the game is merely a race.

That’s why a capture the flag game mode would be excellent. Two teams compete for control of targets in their neighbourhood. The amount of targets should be greater than the number of players to deter camping. Players can monitor the movement of all the other players on their mobile screen and adapt their strategy accordingly.

To play such a game without the use of mobile technology would be difficult. Administrating the game would be too complex. The lack of a central communication system would also mean that players wouldn’t know who’s winning or whether the game is still on.

Mobile technology gives us a system to administrate such outdoor challenges and lets us invent new ways of interacting with our environment.