Data usage

As those who read my blog yesterday will know, I recently had the unpleasant experience of having my iPhone stolen. This was very inconvenient in a number of ways, but most relevant to this blog post is the way your usage statistics are affected when you change handset. If you pick up an iPhone, open Settings.app and then go General → Usage → Mobile Usage, you can check out your Mobile Network Data statistics (how much data you have downloaded and uploaded using your iPhone). When a new handset arrives, this is reset (as you can probably tell from the screenshot).

When I was looking to upgrade from my iPhone 3GS, O2 had discontinued unlimited data on their new contracts, and Three had introduced The One Plan, which provides All You Can Eat data. AYCE is truly unlimited, with no hidden data caps, so that sounded good for VOIP. As such, I switched: I paid £159 for my iPhone, with a contract costing £35 a month. The contract gave me 2000 minutes, 5000 minutes to other Three users, and 5000 text messages a month, as well as unlimited data and unlimited free tethering. But how much would I have paid had I gone with a different network? Let’s find out!1 (And please do bear in mind that this entry is a little tongue-in-cheek!)

From memory, in the period of time between 15th October 2011 and 15th February 2012, I downloaded around 85GB of data through my 3G connection, with around 60GB uploaded.2 It is worth noting that these numbers are not typical — I use far more than the average user, and so most people won’t need to worry about this. If you are worried about using more than a gigabyte or two of data in a month, then I recommend you get a phone with either T-Mobile or Three, for reasons I’ll outline below.

If we assume that both download and upload count against a data limit, then that’s 145GB downloaded over a four month period, which is roughly 35GB per month. What I’m going to do is see how much that would cost on each other network. I’m only looking at twenty-four month contracts (the same as mine) in which the iPhone would have had an upfront cost of around £159, since that seems like a fair comparison. I’m also going to assume that the contracts I’m looking at include tethering at no additional cost.3

O2

I’m going to start with O2, since they’re the company I was originally with. O2 offer a contract that comes with 2GB of data per month and a handset for £169, at £41/month. This means I need to work out what it would cost to add 33GB a month to the plan. As I found out, from O2 Support, 1GB of extra data is £10:

+£10.00 The Works 1GB (You can add two of these a month)

This means I’ve reached 4GB, from 2GB, so I only need to work out how to add the remaining 31GB. Any further spending will need to be paid for on a per-megabyte basis. A further perusal of O2’s website reveals the O2 Pay Monthly Tariff Terms (PDF file), which reveal:

Data usage is measured in kilobytes (KB) and charged at £3.06 per MB. 1MB = 1024
Kilobytes (KB), 1024 MB = 1 Gigabyte (GB).

So, let’s work this out. 2GB of data come with the contract, at £41 per month. To make that 4GB, you need to buy two bolt ons, which come at £20, which make that £61 per month. To get to me actual usage, I need to add 31 GB of data at £3.06 per MB. That works out as 1024 multiplied by 31 multiplied by £3.06, giving a result of £97,136.64 in addition to the £61 a month already calculated. This means £97,162.64 extra per month.

Conclusion: £388,660.56 extra over the course of four months.

Orange

Orange comes next, since they’re the next tab I have open in Chrome. Orange’s highest monthly data limit is 2GB, just like O2, but you can get that with a phone for £139.99, at £61/month. However, I couldn’t find any data pertaining to extra data on the iPhone. The Orange Mobile Internet / Data Charges page tells you to refer to the Orange price guide (PDF file) for iPhone costs, but that doesn’t appear to contain any information on how to exceed the 2GB limit, and the closest I could find was:

£3.06 per Megabyte, up to a maximum of £1.54 a day, this too is subject to a daily fair use limit of 25MB.

As far as I can see, one of two things are true: Either the fair use limit prevents the user going above an extra 25MB/day, or there is no price cap for those exceeding the fair use limit. To get a value on how much extra it would cost, we’ll assume it’s the latter.

Conclusion: £413,718.08 extra over the course of four months.

Tesco Mobile

Tesco offers the phone for £200 on a £35/month contract which yields 1GB of data. As far as I can see, there is no way to add data to this via a bundle (although the Irish Tesco Mobile website does give a way to do this, interestingly). The Tesco pay monthly tariff terms & conditions give us this information:

Once you have used all your Inclusive Credit, any data use which would previously have been included will be charged at the current rate. Click here for details.

This means that the remaining data will be charged (according to the link above) at 60p/MB. This works out to be 1024 multiplied by 34GB multiplied by £0.60.

Conclusion: £83,558.40 extra over the course of four months.

Vodafone

Vodafone charges £139 for a handset with 1GB/month at £41/month, which is in the same area as the previous two companies. The Vodafone Pay Monthly data costs have this to say about the Premium Pack, which costs £15:

While our Premium Pack gives you a whopping 2GB extra each month – great news if you regularly watch YouTube videos or have apps that access the internet frequently.

The page doesn’t stipulate that you can buy multiples, and it might be wise to assume you can only buy one such pack. This means we have 32GB of data to find from somewhere. The same page has this to say:

If you choose not to buy a Standard or Premium Pack, we’ll automatically charge you £5 for 250MB of UK web access as soon as you go over the data allowance already included in your price plan.

This would mean that the extra data would cost £20 per gigabyte used, bumping the extra cost up to £2,644 extra over a four month period. However, to be kind to Vodafone, we’ll assume that we can just buy the extra in Premium Packs, since the page doesn’t tells us otherwise.

Conclusion: £1,044 extra over the course of four months.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile breaks the mould because they started offering unlimited data in January of this year, and their plan also comes with unlimited calls and text messages. An iPhone comparable to mine, at £139 for the handset, is £41/month. I’m rather surprised by this because T-Mobile and Orange are actually now both owned and operated by Everything Everywhere, and the difference between the two companies in this instance is absolutely staggering.

Conclusion: £24 extra over the course of four months.

The conclusions

When I started writing this blog entry, I had no idea quite how much money I’d be talking about. If you’re a heavy data user, like me, it will cost you insane amounts of money to be with O2, Orange or Tesco Mobile, and a mildly mental amount to be with Vodafone. And all the above assumes that the companies in question would put up with the amounts of data involved instead of simply cutting you off for breach of contract (an assumption which, it must be said, is probably a bad one!).

Both Three and T-Mobile offer good tariffs with reasonable upfront costs. I have recently used mobiles on both networks4 and both have good signal, in my experience (your mileage may vary). So, if you’re looking for a new phone and you need data, you need look no further than these two companies.


  1. Since I tend not to use many minutes or text messages on my iPhone, I’m not going to spend much time considering the fact that both are limited on The One Plan. If you are someone who uses more than 2000 minutes/5000 texts in a month, then feel free to disagree with my assessment of which mobile provider is best! 
  2. A combination of VOIP with video every night plus using The One Plan’s free tethering really made those numbers rocket. 
  3. This is true of O2, who allow customers to tether for free and take the data used out of the monthly data allowance. 
  4. My iPhone, which is with Three, and my Nokia 3510i, which had an Orange SIM card (T-Mobile customers and Orange customers share cell towers, since the two companies are now under the same parent company). 

Stolen iPhone

If you follow me on Twitter, or we’re friends on Facebook, then you may well be aware that my iPhone 4S got stolen on the evening of 10th April. I was with my girlfriend at a bus stop, and someone grabbed it from my hands and sprinted away. It was a surprisingly harrowing experience — given that no physical damage was done to either of us — and not one I want to repeat in the near future. I’m bringing it up here to address some of the concerns I stumbled across between it being stolen and restoring from a backup.

Dealing with the theft

A screenshot of the list of devices I can find on Apple's iCloud.
Find My iPhone

I have heard so many stories about people finding their phone’s thief via Apple’s Find my iPhone service (available as an iOS app or from the iCloud website). After calling the police, I immediately logged into the service, but my iPhone was reported as being offline. You can send a message to your handset even if it isn’t showing up, and you can ask it to send you an email next time the iPhone’s location is found. I ticked the relevant boxes and decided to hope an email came through. When the police arrived they took my Apple ID (email and password) to try and use the same service.1

As well as taking my Apple ID details, the police wrote down my statement, and also walked me through processes like cancelling the SIM card. They have a list of phone numbers for all the major British mobile networks, and so I was able to phone my provider, Three. They were able to cancel the SIM that had been in my phone, and a new one was put into the mail for me. The next step was to lodge an insurance claim, which I did the next morning. After I’d sorted all the annoying parts out (talking to the police, the phone company and the insurance company), I started to delve into the tech aspects of what I could do.

Securing the phone

The first thing I did was limit the access the phone had to various web services that I use. I started with Gmail, since it literally contains every email I’ve received over the last eight years and there’s potentially a goldmine of personal information to be found there. Fortunately, I use something called two factor authentication on my account2. This means you need a code and the password in order to access my account. This makes me a lot safer from people trying to access it online. It also means that any apps that can’t use this system (for example, the iPhone’s Mail client) have to use a specially generated password to access my account, which I was able to revoke, thus cutting off the thief’s potential access (I also cut him off from my YouTube account, which was possibly less urgent).

Another step I took with Gmail was to close any open sessions that I have, and force every computer other than my laptop to ask for my password and authentication code next time I tried to use it. This was a bit of a pain, but it meant the thief would not be able to access my email at all on my phone. I did the same with my Facebook account, and I changed the password on my work email address so that it would be inaccessible.

Losing my data

When I returned home, I looked at iPhoto and iTunes, because I wanted to see what the backup status of the phone was. I checked Photo Stream, which showed that the photographs I had taken the previous day had uploaded to iCloud, but the photographs I had taken on the day the phone was stolen had been lost. Since I uploaded a few to Instagram on my travels, they’re not totally gone, but it’s still a little irritating. I also checked the iPhone’s profile in iTunes to see when the last iCloud backup had been. It told me 4th April, about a week prior to the theft; it was roughly coincident with the last time I’d plugged my phone into my Mac to charge. That was more annoying, since a week is a lot of lost data!

A train operated by CrossCountry Trains speeding through a station.
CrossCountry Trains

The most annoying thing to lose was the Train Tickets app by CrossCountry Trains. They’ve just started charging £1 to get tickets from self-service machines in train stations, and the only free delivery option is now something called an m-ticket. This sends a barcode (which is your ticket) to the app, and you show it on the train when asked for your ticket. This is all very well, but if your phone has been stolen, it presents obvious issues. I rang CrossCountry and selected the appropriate options to talk about an existing reservation, and was put through to an overseas call centre.

I explained my situation, said I was willing to pay a surcharge for one of the non-free delivery methods, and asked whether my ticket could be resent to me. I was told no. Asking to speak to a supervisor got me nowhere, and eventually the sales rep gave me the complaints centre phone number (she couldn’t transfer me because it’s a UK-based call centre) and I hung up. Upon ringing them, I was told that there was indeed something they could do: just install the app on another device. Ring the complaints centre, and give them the new app’s Download ID, and they can transfer the ticket. If you’re ever in this situation, bear that in mind!3

Replacing the phone

A photograph of a Nokia 3510i on a desk.
Nokia 3510i.

Fast forward to today, and, after using a Nokia 3510i4 for the better part of a week, I had the conversation with my insurance company that enabled me to go and buy my replacement iPhone 4S. I plugged my new SIM card in as soon as I got home, went through the setup, and input my Apple ID details expecting to see the backup from two weeks ago show up. Instead, it reported that there were no backups.

Instantly, an icy sensation ran through me. What do you mean by no backups?

I checked iTunes to see whether there were any backups on my Mac, as opposed to on iCloud — no such luck. I then checked the iCloud panel in System Preferences, and it told me I had 1GB of space used for a backup made on 11th April, the day my phone was stolen5. Somewhat reassured that the issue should at least be a solvable one, I Googled, and found a very enlightening Apple Discussions thread. Imagine you have an iPhone running a new version of iOS, and you make a backup. If you then try to restore that backup to an iPhone running an older version, it turns out that iCloud will report you have no backups, with no further error nor explanation. This is a total travesty of user experience, and something that Apple badly need to work on.6

My iPhone 4S, before it was stolen, was running iOS 5.1, the latest version. The replacement I was given was running an older version. I selected ‘Set the iPhone up as a new phone’, selected to skip inputting my iCloud details and skipped as many steps as possible until iTunes showed the iPhone and I was able to register the handset and update the software to iOS 5.1. I then restored the iPhone to its factory settings through iTunes, followed the same steps and my iCloud backup showed up as clear as day.

Now that I’ve restored from that backup, I’ve logged into Find my iPhone and asked it to remotely wipe my iPhone next time it comes online. I also want to try to give Apple its serial number and IMEI number, in case anyone ever takes it to the Genius Bar to get it repaired.

Regardless of any teething problems I may have had, I was just happy to get my phone back up and running. Being without an iPhone was not a great experience for a host of reasons, and having a replacement lets me put this entire sorry mess behind me (as well as allowing me peace of mind regarding the train ticket situation). It could have been a lot worse, and I’m extremely grateful that it wasn’t.


  1. It almost surprised me that the police don’t have a more sophisticated method of tracking phones — something that doesn’t require the victim’s Apple ID password to work. It strikes me that anything like that would cause a huge outpouring of anti-surveillance sentiment. I think it’s good that the police cannot track random people just using their email address, but it does make me wonder whether the system could be improved to allow the police to track phones that have been stolen with the consent of a victim. Maybe that’s just the stuff of pipes. 
  2. There is also a YouTube video that explains two-factor authentication, available from Google Support. The code can be sent via telephone call, text message or smartphone app, so I recommend setting it up if you’re concerned about security. 
  3. Or restore the phone from a backup, and the app will be just as you left it — train tickets and all. 
  4. One review says “The 3510i is not highly recommended, due to software reliability problems and the fact that it’s an old phone with a limited specification: try the newer Nokia 3100 instead.” I thought this was fair enough, but then I noticed that the review was dated 2003. This phone was considered out-of-date nine years ago
  5. The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that System Preferences and iTunes gave me dates for the last backup that were a week apart. It’s my theory (and I’d be glad to hear from anyone who could confirm or debunk this) that the “last backed up to iCloud” statistic in iTunes is simply the last backup before the most recent iTunes sync. This is obviously not a useful or reliable indicator of backup status. 
  6. Perhaps the app should show all iOS device backups, greyed out, with a message saying ‘your phone may require an update before being restored from a backup’. Or perhaps iCloud could look at the type of phone, look at backups made by the same type of phone, and then say, “this backup is from a more recent version of iOS, would you like to update this iPhone and then restore from this backup?”. This problem is totally not without obvious solutions, and the fact that it exists at all is not at all like Apple. 

Bay Area Museums

Bay Area Museums (January 2012)
Published in Science Fiction/San Francisco #125 (ed. Jean Martin, España Sheriff and Tom Becker)

I recently came to the Bay Area and was given a tour of some fascinating places by España, the editor of this fine fanzine. As a result I was asked whether I would write an article on the museums and other centres of culture that I visited. I jumped at the chance to inflict more of my writing on you, and so this article was born. My trip to San Francisco included my introduction to the California Academy of Sciences, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, an art gallery called Varnish and the Computer History Museum – I am going to tackle them in chronological order, and so this article begins with España and I heading to Golden Gate Park.

Our jaunt to the California Academy of Sciences took place on a Thursday evening, because Thursdays are when NightLife happens, and NightLife is amazing. Imagine the brilliance and fascination contained within the only building in the world to house an aquarium, a planetarium and a rainforest; then imagine that with music, alcohol and a strict 21+ policy and you have the idea perfectly. Each night has a theme around which the events revolve; the night we went it was ‘SF Streets’ and there were exhibitions of street art and a DJ playing some funky mashups (which was a good foreshadowing to my visit to the DNA Lounge later in the week; but that lies rather beyond the purview of this piece).

A photograph of the entrance to the California Academy of Sciences
Entrance to the Academy

One thing I must say before I go any further is that the free iPhone app (which, regrettably, is not yet available for Android or WP7 users) offered by the museum is amazing. It does everything I wanted it to do. It lets you check into different areas of the museum (which, handily, also tells you what there is to see) and also offers more information about stuff that might pique your interest. If you’re going, I really do advise you download and use the app as you go around; it certainly added to my experience! Another thing that added to the experience was the array of cocktail bars – each bar had a unique (and not badly priced) cocktail as well as a range of spirits and mixers. If you’re a completist, like me (or an alcoholic, like España) you can complete the set of the specials!

The entire museum is open, with a couple of caveats; the number of planetarium shows is limited (and there is often more than one show during the night) so if you want to go, make getting a ticket a priority and do it before you do anything else. You’ll be able to specify what time you want to see the relevant show, and that lets you plan the rest of your evening around that point. Alongside the planetarium shows is a timetable of other things going on throughout the night (talks and suchlike) – it might be handy to glance at this before tying yourself down to a specific showtime. It’s also worth noting that the rainforest closes down at 8pm, so bear that in mind if that looks like something you want to do.

A photograph of me and España outside the rainforest
Rainforest at the Academy

The rainforest is spectacular, although some of the butterflies came a little closer to us than I would necessarily have liked (the big ones are a lot less cute than the little ones!). The birds flying around, the fish and lizards dotted in enclosures throughout, and the water life swimming in the faux river below you are all sights to behold and the juxtaposition of the three really helps lend the animals you see a context that you often don’t quite get at zoos, aquariums or aviaries. This is reinforced by the way in which you progress through the rainforest – you start at the bottom and climb up three levels, with different animals on each according to how high you are. The butterflies go from being things fluttering in the distance above you to being things that are nearly landing on you as they swoop past, and the water creatures go from right there to beautiful swimming shapes seen from above.

A photograph of a turtle swimming in the aquarium
Aquarium at the Academy

Of course, when you reach the top of the rainforest, you have to come back down, but this is handled for you in the form of a lift that takes you from the top reaches of the dome you’ve walked through and takes you down into the aquarium, filled with water and wonder. Some of the creatures down there are amazing – the jellyfish are just one example of that, illuminated in an array of different and bright colours. The aforementioned river is visible from the bottom, when you’re on the lower level, via a transparent tunnel and various amazing viewing stations; our favourite animal in there was the turtle and it was amazing to see it swim by, right next to the glass.

A photograph of jellyfish, lit up by green light
Jellyfish at the Academy

There’s a huge variety of stuff to see in the aquarium and it took us until our planetarium show to wander around to our hearts’ content. However, we didn’t want to miss the planetarium so we went to see it. It was an interesting show, that combined the science of how cells are structured with information on the structure of the universe itself: from the very small to the very large. The academy very clearly puts a lot of pride into its productions and they were very well made indeed.

At the mid-point of the show, the hostess took the microphone and talked a little about recent science in the areas being discussed. This was incredibly impressive since she talked about exoplanets and the 700th confirmed discovery of an exoplanet, which had occurred only weeks before the talk – clearly the information in the shows is kept very recent! I’ve never been in a planetarium show that had a segment for more recent science in that way, and I thought it worked very well indeed – I shall have to tell a friend who works at the UK’s National Space Centre, clearly.

For the denouement of the evening, we decided to quickly catch some things we hadn’t yet seen in the time we had before the museum closed. This involved getting another cocktail (naturally) and then climbing the stairs up to the museum’s living roof, which is totally interesting in its own right. However, drinking cocktails in the cool night air with the stars all around was incredibly romantic, and for this reason I highly, highly recommend NightLife if you’re looking for a slightly quirky and unconventional location for a date. There was a telescope pointed at Jupiter through which the planet and all four Galilean moons were visible, and España and I were thrilled to be able to see them. All in all, it was a completely magical night.

The California Academy of Sciences is open 9:30am – 5pm (11am – 5pm on Sundays) and opens again for NightLife between 6pm and 10pm on Thursdays. Their iOS apps are available through their website at www.calacademy.org and the Pocket Penguins app is also offered on Android. Entry is $29.95 for adults and subject to a $5 charge if you go at a peak period (although tickets purchased online are not subject to that charge and can be used at any time). Tickets to NightLife are $12, which is significantly cheaper, doesn’t require taking the day off work, and means you can buy alcohol (no guesses as to which I think is the better deal). You will need ID to prove you are over 21, naturally. The theme for February 2nd is ‘Bourbon & Bull’, whereas February 9th sees ‘Animal Attraction’ – see their website for more details.

Now we move onto the Contemporary Jewish Museum and their exhibition on Ehrich Weiss. Weiss is better known to millions of people as Harry Houdini, and the collection was entitled Houdini: Art and Magic. The pieces on display describe the magic he performed and his life through a number of artefacts from his life. There were several such things, including props he used and diaries he kept, but the twist of the exhibition was the other pieces being displayed; namely, a series of pieces of artwork inspired by the man. This lent the exhibition a real sense of context (and almost interactivity) which really served to illustrate the impact he had – not only on his fellow magicians, but on the rest of the world.

I find magic fascinating as a form of entertainment. I loved the Magic Castle in Los Angeles and have flirted with performing magic myself, on occasion (not always entirely successfully!). As a result, I found the exhibition an illuminating look at a man who basically set the stage for many of the contemporary magicians working today. The sense of context was reinforced by a series of videos around the installation – there were clips from films based on Houdini’s life playing on a large screen, and then later in the exhibition another screen showing interviews with and tricks by magicians inspired by Houdini (amongst which were David Blaine and Penn and Teller, both of whom have been heavily affected by the man).

Another string to Houdini’s bow, alongside his magic and public performances, was his scepticism. He loved to debunk supernaturalism and spiritualism (another area in which Penn and Teller have clearly followed his lead, with programmes such as Bullshit!). One very interesting anecdote told of his clashes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife, who attempted to hold a séance for him.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum is open 11am – 5pm, except for Thursdays, on which it opens 1pm – 8pm. It is closed on Wednesdays, however, and can also shut depending on Jewish holidays. Admission is $12 (free on the first Tuesday of each month) and the website is www.thecjm.org if you want to find out more. Houdini: Art & Magic ran until January 16th, 2012; if you want to see it you can head to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (in Wisconsin) between February 11th and May 13th. Alternatively, if that’s a bit too far away for your tastes, you could visit www.thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/houdini and follow the link to download the iOS app for $0.99 (no Android/WP7 app at the time of writing).

A photograph of España looking at a cat's head on a wall
España at Varnish

Varnish is an art gallery in San Francisco that we visited on the same day. España mentioned that our visit occurred in conjunction with the Houdini exhibition in SF/SF #124, and there’s not much to add that she didn’t say much better than I could. Check her article out!

Last, but certainly not least, is the Computer History Museum. This is a museum that charts developments in computing from the very earliest computers (including a working Difference Engine) right through to the Internet age. It’s a fascinating place, full of history and shiny gadgets, but the real fannish link is the curator who was at the centre of our trip – the one and only Christopher J. Garcia!

We arrived at the Caltrain station and caught the bus from there to the museum, taking us along roads winding between Google buildings until we reached our stop. We jumped off the bus and I started to ask where the museum was when I saw it, right next to where we had gotten off. It’s an impressive building from the outside and the walk to the entrance is similarly striking, culminating in entry to a rather grand entrance hall (with a bar, which is the best way to enhance any such space). The first thing one sees is the ticket desk; the second, Christopher J. Garcia sitting cross legged behind the ticket desk typing quickly on his MacBook.

We exclaimed as we saw him, and he exclaimed in return, jumping up and getting us complimentary entry, which was really lovely. The first challenge was putting on my little metal entrance badge – it was one of those with a tag that wraps around a draw string or the hem of a shirt, and I’d never seen one before. With that challenge surmounted, we entered the main exhibition, which is entitled Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing.

One of the things I like about this main exhibition is the narrative it presents of the evolution of computing, presented chronologically. As a result, it starts from the very first computers, also known as abaci. I had never actually used an abacus before being shown how to by Chris; they are very elegant, and I can see how they could have been used to achieve great things. Eventually, the exhibition moves beyond the abacus and to machines that required slightly more complexity to create. One example of early machines is IBM’s entry into computing with the tabulating machines it sold prior to World War 2, eventually leading (through things such as missile guidance systems and an Enigma machine) to the 1950s.

The computers of the 50s are interesting because they look like things right out of science fiction – indeed, España was incited to squee over the Univac, a computer made in 1951 which was, for a time, a name synonymous with computer. As one reaches the 1960s, the IBM System/360 is a beautiful powder blue creation, and looks just like the computers from Thunderbirds (which makes sense given they were first introduced a mere year apart). The 1970s bring the Cray supercomputer, which still looks futuristic and evokes SF imagery over thirty years later.

A photograph of me standing in front of the Cray supercomputer
Me in front of the Cray Supercomputer

As the exhibition leaves the 1970s behind, the narrative becomes a little less chronological and starts to expand into different technologies grouped together. So, from a strict progression of time to collections dedicated to such things as the minicomputer (or, as we call it today, ‘the computer’). This area of the museum featured what must be a contender for ‘most misogynistic computer ever designed’ – the Honeywell Kitchen Computer, advertised with the tagline “if she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute”. This was followed by robots, which were amazing, and the AARON Paint System, a computer that produces artwork designed by Harold Cohen. The issue of whether the artist is the machine or the designer of the machine is an interesting one, and is explored in a video playing nearby.

The segment featuring the Apple I (signed by Steve ‘Woz’ Wozniak) came after that. This was a fascinating look at the rise of the home computer, and was positioned close to the exhibits on computer games and videogames – the Macintosh was released the year before the Nintendo Entertainment System – and so I fawned over the ancient Apple products before playing Chris at a videogame (he thrashed me soundly and completely). I was also happy that there was a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on display with original packaging (of course, if you just want to play it, you can do so on the BBC website).

Chris had to leave at that point so he rushed us through to the Difference Engine, which is presented separately from other exhibits (for obvious reasons). It is very shiny and exactly what I expected; you really do feel that you’re in the presence of something special. It’s next to a separate exhibition about computing in chess, which was similarly very interesting. We rounded out our trip by sneaking back into Revolution and looking at the last parts, focusing on networking and the Internet: the Monopoly board with websites instead of streets (the .com Edition, as the Internet handily informs me) was particularly hilarious. Google didn’t get a mention, with Yahoo! getting the honour of Mayfair – oh, how times change!

There was only one more thing to do after we had seen everything we wanted to see – go to the gift shop. It was a rather good gift shop, but I deliberately restrained myself to only buying a postcard. Well, okay, a postcard and a tin of Super Mario Bros. plasters. The Computer History Museum opens from 10am to 5pm and is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays; entry is $15. They also have the best website of any museum in the world (if you disagree, feel free to write a letter of comment), with lots of information and also many fascinating online exhibits, at www.computerhistory.org – I highly recommend a visit.

Olympus 2012 schedule

So, as some of the people reading this will probably already know, Eastercon is the British National Science Fiction Convention and is held over the Easter bank holiday weekend every year. This year, it will be called Olympus 2012, and be held at Heathrow, near London.1 I have been attending Eastercon since Contemplation was held in Chester in 2007, and I am particularly looking forward to this one. I’ve also been on the programme at every Eastercon I’ve attended, and this year is no different, so I figured I’d post what I’m going to be appearing on up here so you could all check it out!

Friday (6th April)

8pm — The SF video game canon
What are the essential science-fiction video games? What stands up to modern-day scrutiny? What was influential on later generations of games and gamers, and what are the hidden classics we should rediscover?

11pm — Late Night Horror: Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (18)
This film was made in 2001 and discovered by myself and a group of other physics undergraduates about eight years later. It’s a brilliant film for all the right (and many of the wrong) reasons! I was asked to introduce this film and also lead a discussion afterwards, and I’m excited to be doing so.

Saturday (7th April)

1pm — Superheroes in the movies
Do comic superheroes make good films? How could they be improved?

2pm — Who likes reboots?
A panel on reboots, looking at whether the upcoming Spider-Man reboot makes any sense whatsoever, amongst other things.

4pm — Why fan funds?
Olympus will be one of those rare British conventions where we have a North American and Australasian fan fund representatives visiting this shore. Come along and meet them, find out what Fan Funds are about and how you too could run for one.

6pm — Online fandom (saving fandom or killing it?)
E-zines are largely a pull not push medium, based round fast production and few review columns, leading to a proliferation of fanzines which don’t necessarily talk to each other, or make up a coherent community. E-lists allow fans to talk to each other, but also to create their own circles which don’t necessarily interact with the rest of fandom. Could technological change be leading to a narrowing of UK fanzine fannish circle?

Sunday (8th April)

9pm — Fan fund auction
The fan fund auction is an Eastercon tradition (as well as a tradition of many other conventions around the world). This year will be no different, other than for the presence of two fan fund delegates, so please do come and buy something strange and awesome!

Monday (9th April)

Noon — At what audience is modern SF TV aimed?
Too much UK material (terrestrial & satellite) seems aimed at primarily YA/teen (young adult) demographic whereas US content has a more adult feel (e.g. Battlestar Galactica). However, programmes such as Misfits, Attack the Block and The Fades seem aimed at the E4/BBC 3 audience. Some shows (particularly Misfits) seemed to transcend that, whereas something like SGU (which was targeted at young males) didn’t.

2pm — TAFF talk
John Coxon talks about his experiences as TAFF delegate.

3pm — Virtual convention
What is it like to attend a convention from your own living room? How easy is it to interact with fans over the internet? Is it more fun to attend panels online than in person? Panellists offer views from in and outside “the box”. Come along and tweet the experience (or stay in your room and follow it on #melonfarmer).

7pm — Fan fund quiz
To round out an excellent weekend of fan fundraising and related shenanigans, the fan fund administrators and delegates invite you to an evening of answering questions with your friends. Entry costs a £1 donation to the fan funds per person and prizes will be available for the best and worst teams!


  1. Of course, if you aren’t aware of this, it’s too late for you: Memberships have reached the maximum allowed by health and safety restrictions at the hotel, and so it’s too late to join up. 

Location location location

This evening, I went out for a meal and then some drinks with a variety of friends. Four different people have birthdays at this time of the month, and we were celebrating that. As part of this experience, we went to a restaurant and then two different bars — those bars were Hakamou and Pirates Bar Leicester1. I came away from the evening with some thoughts about the bars and wanted to write them up somewhere.

Hannah and I at Hakamou.
Hannah and I at Hakamou.

My first thought was Yelp, a website that allows people to rate and review places to eat and drink. I used Yelp to help inform my dining choices whilst holidaying on the west coast of the USA with my parents. What makes it so useful is the ease by which you can search for a certain type of restaurant and then see which of the restaurants available has the best ratings (as decided by the Yelp community). However, Yelp hasn’t really taken off in Britain properly — of the nine British venues I’ve reviewed, only one has attracted reviews from anyone else (two others, more than a year apart).2 I wrote a review for Hakamou anyway, but I have no idea whether anyone will find it useful, or whether they’ll even read it!

Where does this leave me? Well, I’ve also put the same review on Google.3 This is because the owners at Hakamou had taken the (very sensible) step of creating a verified listing for the business. Not only that, but Google was able to use my location preferences to work out I wanted to know about their Leicester branch, and not the bar in Northampton. On top of all that, Google realises that people may want to write a review for your venue, and provides a handy ‘write a review’ link under the search result. If there are already reviews for the venue available, it’ll provide a link to those, too, and you can go and peruse them at your leisure.

Hakamou's search result on Google.
Hakamou's search result on Google.

Google’s solution has one advantage over Yelp: its simplicity. Yelp requires you to answer a series of questions, on things like whether there’s a beer garden, what alcohol is available and whether children are welcome, whereas Google just wants a rating (1-5 stars) and a short review. It even removes paragraphs for you. Of course, this advantageous and concise approach to the problem is also Google’s disadvantage, since Yelp gives the user much more detail about the venue in question and also provides a higher level of analysis.

There is, of course, a third option that may not be as obvious: Foursquare. I use Foursquare a lot when I’m abroad or on holiday, since it helps remind me where I was and when. Given how terrible my memory is, that’s a significant feature to be able to offer! Foursquare isn’t really optimised for reviewing or in-depth analysis in the same way as Yelp is, but for short tips and one-line recommendations, it’s a very powerful tool. When using the service in far-away lands, the recommendations it gives can be incredible and really turn your evening around.

The company is clearly beginning to realise that it is this that is the real killer application for the network — the gamification aspect to the service is much less useful, if still a pretty fun way to operate a loyalty scheme. This is backed up by a couple of recent developments: Firstly, the radar feature in the new Foursquare apps on mobile devices. I personally don’t fancy having my GPS on permanently in order to take advantage of this, but it looks like a very good idea that would help you explore a city very efficiently. In fact, TechCrunch published an article not so long ago in which the company talks about helping people to discover and explore new things in such a way.

Location-based services, whether they’re based around networking or just providing information, are something incredibly useful. Unfortunately, in the United Kingdom they currently seem to be very much in their infancy, which is a huge shame. Screw flying cars — the thing that excites me most about the future is restaurant recommendations!4


  1. It’s a pirate-themed bar in Leicester. The name they’ve selected for the bar is not only completely unimaginative but also missing an apostrophe, which is almost as many criticisms as there are words in the name. Also, you’ll note that the link goes to Facebook, rather than a proper website; this is because they don’t have one. It’s 2012. Websites are easy. Keep up, please, people! 
  2. Chimichanga, in Peterborough, if you’re curious! 
  3. I’m still not sure what this feature is actually called. On my iPhone, when I search on Google for something, it seems to be called Google Places. However, the URL is maps.google.co.uk, which would seem to suggest it’s a feature within Google Maps — but saying I wrote a review on Google Maps would sound strange. Anyone? 
  4. Actually, that honour goes to FaceTime/iMessage, but restaurant recommendations are still fairly excellent.