Tap, tap, tap. It looks like you’re writing a blog post…

Clippit asking if the user needs help

Clippit asking if the user needs help (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t stand technology that thinks it’s smarter than me especially when some bright spark thinks it makes my life easier. There can’t be too many fans of IVR systems where you phone up and get told to press 1 for this and 2 for that. But I prefer them to the automated systems that say something like “Tell me what you want to do today” and wait for a response. I usually reply “To speak to a human being”.

There is a lot of complexity in the modern world and it’s very difficult to cater for every kind of user. People don’t read manuals any more. In fact, many products ship with little or no documentation whatsoever. How then do they help people to climb the learning curve? The best way is to make things intuitive in the first place. In software, consistency with convention goes a long way. If that fails, there’s always the online help.

I don’t know about you, but the help is that last resort. Unless it’s really well written, the chances are that after bumbling around for a while, the answer to whatever question you have will prove elusive. The basic design of help systems hasn’t fundamentally changed over time, but one day, a company called Microsoft dared to innovate.

I was at a conference. There was a buzz in the air. Everyone could sense that some big announcement was on the way. As the speaker took the stand, a hush descended over the crowd. Without saying a word, he fired up his machine, launched a program and started typing. An animated paper clip in the corner of the screen bounced around with eyes following the cursor. After a moment or so, the animated paper clip tapped on the screen before sticking up a speech bubble “It looks like you’re typing a letter. Would you like some help?”

There was a nervous ripple of applause. The speaker announced that the paper clip’s name was Clippy, the office assistant and it represented a revolution in online help. He went on to show us the different faces that Clippy could take. Apparently, we could add Clippy to our own applications as there was a rich API. We could even create our own avatars. The man predicted that one day, all software would have a Clippy to proactively help to educate users in how to use the program.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had to check the date to see if it was April the 1st. But it obviously wasn’t a joke. You could see that they had invested a significant number of man years. The avatars were nicely drawn and animated. Proactivity takes some engineering, so someone, somewhere really believed  that this was the future.

I couldn’t see it. It was too intrusive, too twee, far too annoying. It seems the general public agreed as after universal derision, the Office Assistant was quietly dropped. It’s a shame, because there was a germ of a good idea in there somewhere.

 

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Lean on me

English: An APT at The Railway Age in Crewe. P...

English: An APT at The Railway Age in Crewe. Photo by G-Man * Oct 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As any pinball player knows, a bit of tilt can be a very good thing. Too much, and it’s game over. When it comes to Technology, getting that tilt right is even harder.

My mother suffers from terrible seasickness. When we used to get the ferry over to Ireland, she would start being sick as soon as we left the harbour wall and she wouldn’t stop again until we were firmly docked at the other end.

Sir Henry Bessemer was a man after her own heart. He recognised the problem of seasickness and tried to devise an ingenious solution. He understood that the cause of seasickness was all the rocking and rolling of the cabin. If one could eliminate that, the passengers could enjoy a smooth ride. His solution was to mount the saloon independently of the ship, the SS Bessemer, on gimbals. Whilst the ship sailed along, a man watched a spirit level and pulled a lever to keep the saloon level.

Swinging Saloon Steamer Bessemer, 1875 (1)

Swinging Saloon Steamer Bessemer, 1875 (1) (Photo credit: Marcel Douwe Dekker)

Unfortunately for Sir Henry, it’s not a great idea to have something rolling around in the middle of a ship as it makes it very unstable and difficult to steer. That’s why oil tankers have baffles to stop the oil sloshing around. The maiden voyage was a disaster. The ship crashed into Calais pier not once but twice because of the instability of the ship.

On land, at least you don’t have the vagaries sea level to worry about which ought to make tilting things easier. In the 1970s, British Rail set about devising a tilting train to increase the speed of the rail network. France and Japan had leapfrogged Britain with the TGV and the bullet train.

If the tracks were completely straight, going fast would not be a problem. Unfortunately, they have a habit of bending to avoid things like hills, lakes and the sea. As any motorcyclist knows, if you want to go round a corner fast, the best thing to do is lean over. British Rail’s answer to this was the Advanced Passenger Train (the APT).

The train Used a series of sensors to measure the telemetry of the train and a set of hydraulic rams to lean into the corner. Also debuting on the Advanced Passenger Train was an incredibly sophisticated braking system which allowed the train to brake within the existing signal network. Unfortunately, all this sophistication was the APT’s downfall. They were incredibly unreliable in service and there were complaints from some about motion sickness.

Big Ben

Big Ben (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes when you are making advances in rail technology, the last thing you want is any tilting. When engineers undertook the Jubilee line extension in 1994, they were painfully aware of some of the challenges that faced them.

One of their biggest headaches was the station opposite Big Ben. Everyone knew that Big Ben had been built on perilously shallow foundations. Indeed, on its completion, it started to lean to the North. If the Jubilee Line engineers came along digging a big hole next door, there was every chance the tower could topple into the Thames, which would not make great PR for the project.

In order to prevent any further tilting, they injected tubes of concrete in a star shape around the base of the tower. They injected concrete through holes in these tubes to stabilise the soft earth. During the project, they measured the exact angle of Big Ben regularly and if there was the slightest hint of a tilt, they injected more concrete. The Jubilee Line extension had its problems during construction, but a leaning Big Ben was not one of them.

Kiosks – haven’t they got them just right?

barcode

barcode (Photo credit: Status Frustration)

I’m in a bit of a hurry. I only have a few items to buy, but when I round the corner, my heart sinks. There’s a big queue for the only cashier in the shop. I look over in the corner at the dreaded self-service machines. They all stand empty and there’s a member of staff standing near them. Oh no! She’s seen me. She’s going to come over and ask me to use the kiosks. I can’t refuse. I don’t want to look cowardly in front of this shop full of complete strangers. I grudgingly follow her over to the kiosk. A big green button flashes in front of me. Press here to start. I take a deep breath and hit it.

It takes a while to find the first barcode, during which time, the machine insists on blaring out to tell me to scan the barcode, so people start looking over. Eventually I find it and to my amazement, it scans first time. “Place the item in the bagging area“. I press the button to indicate that I don’t want to bag the item. “Place the item in the bagging area.” I hit it again, and once again, the voice repeats the instruction. With a sigh, I give up and reluctantly place the item in the bagging area. Thank God, the machine shuts up.

I scan the next item. It goes through first time and I place the item in the bagging area. Fantastic – I’m getting the hang of this now. I scan the third item. It won’t scan. I try again. Nothing. Third time lucky… no. The machine advises me to seek assistance. I look around for the lady who’s supposed to be supervising these damned kiosks – she’s not there! So I stand there, helpless, like a lemon waiting for her to return. I look forlornly at the checkout queue. I work out that I probably would have been served by now if I’d stuck to my guns and remained in the queue.

What is the point of a technical advance if it doesn’t make people’s lives better? This device makes the whole shopping experience worse, not better. But there again, I suppose that’s not the point. It’s there so that the miserly shop can get rid of some staff and save some money. But it deprives me of swift and courteous service. No smile or greeting. The efficiency of my entire shopping experience goes up in smoke, all to do someone out of a job.

If you’re going to put in kiosks, they should give you a better customer experience. ATM machines are not perfect, but they mean that I don’t have to queue up in a bank and I can get my money when the bank is closed. Check-in kiosks at the airport mean that I don’t have to queue up to get my boarding pass. Self service checkout kiosks just make me mad.

Being left in the dark

Swiss A330-200 HB-IQH in Geneva International ...

Swiss A330-200 HB-IQH in Geneva International Airport. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No-one likes being left in the dark, particularly when they’re travelling. I’ve been there and it was no fun. I was due to fly out of Geneva airport on the 9:15 Swiss Air flight to London Heathrow. When I arrived at the airport, the information board had an entry against my flight saying “More information 9PM”. Plainly, my flight was delayed, because at 9PM, I would have expected to be on the aircraft rather than waiting for information. There was a large booth in Geneva airport proudly displaying a sign saying “Information”, so I thought I would ask about my flight. The polite lady behind the desk could not give me any information, but she gave me a drinks voucher and said that an announcement would be made at 9PM.

At the designated hour, an announcement duly came telling us that the aeroplane that we were going to fly with had developed a fuel leak. Another aircraft was flying in to take us to London Heathrow and our new flight time was 11:05PM. At almost exactly the same time, every bar, restaurant, café, shop, kiosk in Geneva airport closed for the night, their work seemingly done. I sat down and started reading my book. There is a certain irony in reading “Around the World in 80 days” whilst stuck in Geneva airport.

Our flight was called and we boarded. The Captain came over the tannoy and assured us that all was well and we were just waiting for the last of our paperwork and we would be on our way. Time ticked by and more time ticked by. I was in danger of finishing my book. The Captain came back on to the tannoy and told us that there was a problem with the door and an engineer was on the way. Alas, the engineer tried, and failed to fix the broken door. The captain addressed us again, only this time he had come out of the cabin to do so in person – never a good sign.

Geneva

Geneva (Photo credit: Alan M Hughes)

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a very strange announcement to make, and a very strange request. The strange announcement is that there is still a problem with this aircraft door and it must be considered out of service. We have consulted the legal articles and we are still allowed to fly, but with a reduced number of passengers. Therefore, could I have 47 volunteers to disembark the aircraft and spend the night in Geneva so that the remaining 90 people can fly to London Heathrow this evening.”

The effect of this announcement was a stunned silence while the message sank in, and then a crowd of people surged up to the front all with questions for the captain.

Would we get a hotel room? Would we get a flight tomorrow? Would we get any compensation? How long did we have to get 47 people off the aircraft? All fairly obvious questions that could have easily been anticipated and answered up front, had anyone thought about it. The chaos continued with some people getting off, some people standing up to stretch their legs, some standing up to complain, some standing up to move their hand luggage to somewhere more convenient. The stewardesses were in among the throng trying to count and recount the passengers to see whether enough have disembarked. Meanwhile you could hear people in the hold crashing around trying to find bags that had to be unloaded.

Eventually, the Captain came back on to say that the airport was shutting and our flight was now cancelled. Amidst a lot of moaning and groaning, everyone got their bags and filed off the plane.

There was no-one to direct us or tell us where to go, so where do you go? There was a big queue of people at the gate where we boarded, so I headed for there, assuming that was where I needed to go. It became clear after a while that the big queue of people was queuing up to be told that we were in the wrong place and we should go to the information desk in the main terminal. They had a tannoy at the gate, why didn’t someone at the gate have the presence of mind to use it and tell everyone at once where to go?

When we got to the information desk, it was another queue. When you got to the front of this queue, you were given a voucher for a hotel room. Everyone had the same questions; How do I get to the hotel? How do I get back again, Which flight will I get in the morning? Is there any food anywhere? Everyone queued up to ask these questions. Why didn’t someone have the gumption to announce to the crowd what was going to happen? The queue would have been more orderly, would have moved quicker and everyone would have got to bed a little earlier.

The thread that runs through this story is a lack of information. If you look at what people do when they need information but are not getting it – they panic, they get upset, confused, rumours start. In the absence of anything concrete, rumours get believed and twisted and built upon. Kill off the panic and rumourmongering. Tell people what they need to know.

The numbers don’t lie

English: Captain Smith of the Titanic. This ph...

English: Captain Smith of the Titanic. This photo appeard in the New York Times some days after his death in the sinking of the Titanic. Français : La capitaine Edward John Smith, mort à bord du Titanic. La photo a été publiée dans le New York Times peu après le naufrage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Commander Edward John Smith had a reputation as a safe pair of hands. He had been a sailor for over 30 years and had been a captain for nearly a quarter of a century. He was decorated and saw service briefly in the Boer War. Whenever his company had a new high-profile assignment, he was the natural choice. He ran his vessels like clockwork. Every man was left in no doubt as to where he should be and what he should be doing. He established a routine, such that anything out of the ordinary would stick out like a sore thumb.

The chief stoker below decks carefully monitored the instruments showing the head of steam and made sure that the stokers shoveled just the right amount of coal into the fireboxes. The men on the bridge knew how many knots the ship should be making and which heading they should be on. They were trained to tap their instruments occasionally to make sure that the sensitive needles, being mechanical in nature, did not get stuck in any one position.

All this so that Commander Edward John Smith could spend time with his passengers, making sure that their voyage was the best it could be. One particularly cold and foggy night, a night that has become an immutable historic event, Commander Edward John Smith’s vessel struck an iceberg and sank. Right up until the moment of collision, the readings on all the instruments were perfectly OK.

English: Space Shuttle Columbia memorial in Ar...

English: Space Shuttle Columbia memorial in Arlington National Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NASA is an incredible organization, started over 50 years ago by the US Government in order to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research. In that time they have spent nearly a trillion dollars in today’s money exploring the near and far reaches of outer space. Space exploration is a risky business, so they have had their fair share of mishaps and in this kind of endeavour, they are usually fatal. One such accident was the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, in which a number of astronauts lost their life when their craft exploded and broke up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA knew that the space shuttle was not perfect. They knew that the heat-resistant tiles had a habit of falling off under the stress of the mission and they had a system in place to deal with it. When the space shuttle reached its destination (usually the International Space Station), the number, position and types of tile that had come off were recorded in a spreadsheet and a model used to decide whether the damage was severe enough that it needed repairs or whether the mission could carry on regardless. On the mission in question, the missing tiles were recorded, the numbers crunched in Excel, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. There was no need to undertake expensive and time-consuming repairs, the shuttle was safe to continue. Unfortunately, as we all know, it wasn’t.

There are many well documented cases where spreadsheet mistakes have had catastrophic results (http://www.eusprig.org/horror-stories.htm) and indeed, there are several scholarly articles which give sage advice about the risk of relying on spreadsheets and yet they are almost universally relied upon. They have a habit of multiplying because people take copies of spreadsheets and make their own changes to do their own analysis. They have a habit of networking with other spreadsheets and then feeding into spreadsheets into still more spreadsheets.

All of this means that a single mistake in a spreadsheet can have a wide-ranging effect. And because spreadsheets tend to be appended to, the effect of such a mistake can multiply over time. Given the potential for error – why do we do it ?

There is no arguing that a spreadsheet is a powerful tool, and it’s precisely that power that is so enticing. It draws us in with its ease of use. The way that seas of figures can be magically crunched in the blink of an eye means that they are tremendous labour-saving devices. Beautiful three-dimensional graphics turn the boring figures into extremely persuasive visual metaphors for the point that we are trying to argue. But you must always be on your guard, for they are constantly trying to lure you over to the dark side….

They want you to take their figures at face value. They want you to trust them. Once it is in a spreadsheet – then surely it must be the truth, and it is. The spreadsheet contains the exact results of all the numbers in the spreadsheet after the formulae have been applied (assuming your hardware is all in order http://www.willamette.edu/~mjaneba/pentprob.html). It only takes one number or one formula to be wrong and your numbers cease to be reliable.

Just remember, when all your numbers look OK – look up now and then to make sure you’re not heading for an iceberg…

New and improved!

One of the 1st washing machines of Constructa

One of the 1st washing machines of Constructa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever you go on a package holiday, there is always the meeting with the holiday rep’ to look forward to. Although it’s wrapped up as an informative session to tell you everything you need to know about your destination, once you peel off the paper-thin disguise, it’s a sales pitch. The rep’ will be looking to supplement their meagre income by selling excursions. They will usually cost far too much and will involve being herded around like cattle from one uninteresting place to the next. Some are better than others, but there are always one or two that seem to be scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Once, when we went to Malta, they took us to a traditional village in the back of beyond. They showed us an old house. After a short delay, an old lady came waddling out of the house carrying a basket of washing. She walked down to the river where she started to use two big stones to wash her clothes. It wasn’t very convincing. The rest of the coach party lapped it up, giving the old lady tips in appreciation for the show. She made a tidy packet, and I just knew that secreted away inside her humble abode was a state of the art washer stood next door to a tumble dryer.

There seems to be no end of labour saving devices for the kitchen. In order to carve your Sunday roast, you can use a mechanised carving knife. Don’t give yourself arm ache trying to stir a cake mixture, just throw it into the mixing machine. Do you want some bread? There’s a machine for that. When it comes to making coffee, the sheer range of devices on offer is giddying.

But when it comes to washing, we don’t seem to have advanced much further than the rocks in the river. Yes, we now have washing machines, but you still have to sort through your clothes to make sure your favourite red and white top doesn’t come out pink. We have tumble dryers, but you still have to scoop everything out of the washing machine and load it. If you get it wrong, you end up with a jumper that fits action man. We even have new, improved washing powder that still doesn’t manage to get everything clean.

White goods manufacturers haven’t advanced much since the old twin tub. To give them a helping hand, I’m going to invent the ultimate washing machine. I’m picturing a hopper at the top into which you place all your dirty clothing. Inside, there will be a sorting module which will work out what goes with what. Then there will be the washing machine itself. After the washing machine, there will be a scanner to find any clothing that needs another cycle. Anything that makes it through, will be dried, pressed and folded ready for collection at the bottom.

The little old lady in Malta would be proud.

Broken, battered and bruised

Automobile crossing rope bridge

Automobile crossing rope bridge (Photo credit: The Field Museum Library)

Buying your first car is a rite of passage so it seemed fitting that Dad came with me to help me make a sensible choice. I don’t know why this made so much sense at the time because all of Dad’s cars came from that twilight zone between bangerdom and the crusher. Every crap car from British Leyland and Ford had broken down with us in it, usually during the journey to or from our holiday destination. Nevertheless, armed with a thousand of my own hard borrowed pounds, we made the pilgrimage round the classifieds in search of the perfect vehicle.

Car after car didn’t make the grade as Dad carefully looked over them. A superb looking Mini Clubman with sporty spotlights was dismissed as too sporty. Another car went because there was more rust than car. Some cars were too big. None were too small. At the end of our trail, we found the Goldilocks car, a white Renault 5. It was the rock bottom, bargain basement, base model. It didn’t even have the most essential item of equipment in it, a stereo. It had an 850cc engine which had just about enough power to make the thing move and it cornered on its wing mirrors (or it would if it had any wing mirrors).

An awful lot happened in that car. A few weeks after I bought it, I drove along a residential street. I wasn’t going very fast because the Renault didn’t do fast. From in between two parked cars out came a football bouncing into the road. In the time it took my brain to make the connection that it might be followed by a child, a terrified boy appeared spread-eagled on my bonnet before he bounced off. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever hurt anyone. After the police disappeared and the boy went off in an ambulance, I got back in my car, shaking like a leaf. Before I drove off, I noted with sadness that the child’s mates were still playing football in the road despite the earlier accident and the fact that a football field lay on the other side of the road.

Various bits fell off the car and just about everything failed. The brakes failed when I came down Midland Hill once. The car in front of me braked and came to a stop, indicating to turn off. I braked and my car didn’t stop at all. In the end, I had to drive up the bank at the side of the road. The clutch failed when I went to college. I dropped it over at the clutch garage one September morning and made my way to college. That was the day that the hurricane hit the UK. Late afternoon, I gave them a call to see if it would be ready to take me home.

“Errr… we’ve been having a few problems today mate. Was it the Renault?”

His use of the past tense alarmed me.

“You see, the roof’s fallen on it and we’re still digging it out.”

I really appreciated all the time my Dad took to help me choose the right car, but when I bought my second car, I went alone.

Tastes like chicken

As a child, I wasn’t very keen on eating meat. It was nothing spiritual, I just didn’t like the taste or the texture. I quickly worked out that our family dog had no such qualms. I used to slip my chunks of meat to him through the crack between the table and the wall. It made for a happy partnership. He got to eat something better than dog food and I managed to clear my plate, thus not incurring the displeasure of my mother.

Public domain photograph of various meats. (Be...

Public domain photograph of various meats. (Beef, pork, chicken.) Source: http://visualsonline.cancer.gov/details.cfm?imageid=2402 (via http://geekphilosopher.com/bkg/foodMeat.htm) Public domain declaration: http://visualsonline.cancer.gov/about.cfm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was only when I joined BP, where the staff restaurant served up 3 course gourmet lunches for the princely sum of 5p, that I started to experiment. As I could pick and choose what I wanted and no-one cared if I left it because I didn’t like it. I found that I enjoyed eating some meat, providing it’s thinly cut and not too fatty. I like meat to have the right form factor. I get very suspicious when the meat chunks are perfect polyhedrons or the edges are perfectly rounded like the chicken you sometimes get in a Chinese take away.

Anyone following the news in the UK will have seen the unfolding scandal of irregular discoveries in the testing of meat and meat based products. Supplier and retailer alike have fallen foul of the DNA tests carried out by food inspectors. Time and again, where one would expect to find beef, the inspectors have found horse. In one particular case, they found pork in supposedly halal meat supplied to a prison. The problem seems to have stretched throughout the supply chain and has probably been going on for some time.

All this makes my toes curl. It’s not so much about eating horse. What else have they been putting into these products? It’s bad enough that sometimes I start looking around for a hungry dog when I think about eating meat. I sincerely hope that the perpetrators are found and harshly punished. Misrepresenting foodstuffs is a low act. If I had my way, they would be sent to prison where they would be fed on a diet of mystery pies filled with all manner of dead flesh. Each day, they would be told they were eating beef.

Maybe it’s no coincidence that the word “hamburgers” is an anagram of Shergar bum or “dodgy beef” is an anagram of “feed by dog”

 

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Reality check

Holodeck

Holodeck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d like to meet the creative team who placed a holodeck on the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I can understand why they did it. If you are a writer, it’s an infinite source of Deus ex Machina. It doesn’t matter what kind of wacky plot you come up with, you have a room where the cast can experience absolutely anything.

I could forgive them if they came up with brilliant story lines set in and around the holodeck, but unfortunately it became an outlet for transporting the cast to other milieu. Don’t get me wrong, I like Star Trek and I like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes but that doesn’t mean I’m happy to see Lieutenant Commander Data in a deerstalker.

Assuming I commanded the Enterprise instead of Jean-Luc Picard, the first thing I’d do is order a full security audit of the holodeck software. All too often, the safety protocols get overridden or the cast get locked in because someone they’ve conjured up is a bit too clever for their own good. If such a thing existed, there would be other problems too. I’m sure some people would become addicted to holodeck use and many would use it for lascivious purposes. I’m sure there are many romantics on board who miss the sound of a babbling brook but I bet there are many more aching to act out their favourite sexual fantasy. Regularly.

When you look at the virtual reality technology available today, all this seems a very long way off. For the visuals, you invariably have to wear a cumbersome headset. In most of these headsets, you can turn your head far faster before the computer can render what you should see in front of you. There’s not much latency on the holodeck. Sound is much easier to get right, but if you want full body sensations, the state of the art is disappointing to say the least. The limit of our technology seems to be flight suits filled with minute pneumatic pressure pads which fill up to give the sensation of feeling.

To my knowledge, nobody has successfully produced a virtual reality rig that convincingly provides for all five senses. I don’t think we will ever get there with purely physical devices. I imagine the VR rig of the future will stimulate the brain in some way to fool it into actually living the experience in question. When they get it right, there will be a huge commercial market (and not just in the porn industry). Can you think of a better way to train people? Or a better way to perform a life saving operation on someone inaccessible. The military will love it, they get to play Ender’s Game.

If you want me, I’ll be on the holodeck, listening to the sound of a babbling brook.

It’s not a draw! You all lose.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 44th week, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wargames is one of my favourite films. It came in an era when every teenager who was lucky enough to own a home computer spent their spare time plugging away at their keyboards. I wrote loads of games on my trusty Spectrum, so a film about a teenager skilled in the art of hacking just hit the spot.

I would like to think that nearly causing world war 3 by hacking into the NORAD computer is a bit more difficult than suggested by the film, but I found the story entertaining all the same. Our hacking protagonist starts off challenging the computer on the other end of the phone line to Tic-Tac-Toe and ends up playing a game of global thermonuclear war.

In the film of course, everything works out OK because our hero, Matthew Broderick, proves to the machine that it is not possible to win the game. The computer goes through every strategy it can think of and the end result is the same, the world is left a smoking ruin with no victor to share the spoils.

I love playing games. When a friend of mine suggested that we play a game called Supremacy, I asked him what the game was about. It’s about global conflict and there are nukes. We gathered some friends and cracked open the box. The gate-fold map depicted a stylised map of the world, not dissimilar to the schematic shown in the huge command centre from the film. We started setting up the board. Everyone had tokens to indicate their armed forces and there were cute little plastic mushroom clouds to show which bits of the world that were too hot for comfort.

My friend explained the rules, which were fairly standard board game fodder. You could make money by playing the commodity markets. With the money, you could buy conventional forces, nukes or defence satellites (which shoot down nukes). It all made sense until he read out the final rule; “…and if 12 territories end up with a mushroom cloud, every player loses.”

We all looked up. “You mean it’s a draw?”

The player reading the rules insisted “No. It’s a game about trying to achieve global supremacy without leaving the world a smoking ruin.”

“But that’s the definition of a draw isn’t it? Everyone getting the same result.”

My friend was resolute. If the world ended up a radioactive dead zone, we forfeited the game.

Turn 1, the first player crashed the commodity markets. Turn 2, everyone bought nukes. At the start of turn 3, someone landed an army in South America, which resulted in the South American player launching a nuke. Then came the retaliatory strike during which, one nuke went astray bringing someone else into the fray. In the end, we ran out of plastic mushroom clouds and the man who owned the game stormed out with the huff.

We should definitely get rid of all nuclear weapons, especially if the people in charge are anything like us.