Conference season

Beck at Yahoo! Hack Day

Beck at Yahoo! Hack Day (Photo credit: Scott Beale)

Sometimes, it feels like I spend my life at conferences, either as an attendee, a speaker or maybe even just for some meetings with people who happen to be there. By and large, they are very well organised and it’s rare that I feel that the time I spend there has been wasted.

A few weeks ago, I had a free pass to a two-day conference down in London. The venue was local, the subject matter should have been of interest; cloud, SOA, mobile and REST and the price was certainly agreeable, so why did I only attend day 1?

Firstly, the venue itself didn’t endear itself to me. Although South Kensington is technically in London, it is hardly well-connected. Secondly, the conference took place in Imperial College London which is a sprawling university campus. Not only that, but the signage telling you where you needed to go was pretty poor. Even then, assuming you actually found the right room, there was a really good chance that the agenda had been changed without notice and you were in the wrong place.

Even if you found the right room, the breakout sessions were only about 45 minutes, so the speaker had just enough time to introduce himself and the subject before wrapping up. The sessions were either too superficial for the familiar or over the head of the novice.

All was not lost though. Over lunch, myself and a colleague bumped into Richard Johnson, the American founder of, in a local pub. His presence was completely coincidental and had nothing to do with the conference. He told us the story of how he remortgaged his house, his business, his dog and his wife to come up with the princely sum of $4m which he blew on a 30 second advert during the Super Bowl.

His was the first dot-com to do so and Yahoo! acquired the company shortly afterwards. Eventually, Yahoo disposed of the operation and it formed the foundation for which is one of the biggest internet recruitment companies around.

So although the conference itself had lost its sheen, the trip was not totally wasted. I probably learned more during the half hour chat with Richard (who was a total gent) than I was ever going to learn in the odd 45 minute breakout session.

So in a roundabout way – that conference was worthwhile (even though it wasn’t).


The games people play


Game designer and author Jane McGonigal at Mee...

Game designer and author Jane McGonigal at Meet the Media Guru in Milan, Italy, May 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Picture the scene. You see 3 children sat on a sofa. Each of them is playing on some sort of electronic device. What thoughts come into your head? The chances are that the words “waste of time” are uppermost in your mind. Up until 24 hours ago, I would have agreed with you, but I was lucky enough to see Jane McGonigal’s presentation at IBM Impact in Las Vegas.

Jane is a self professed future forecaster and author of Reality is Broken. She has a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. An enthralling speaker, she rattles off facts and figures about gaming and the effect on society in convincing fashion. According to her figures, there are a billion gamers in the world today. Angry Birds alone is played for a total of 300 million minutes a day by the human race.

Wikipedia has become an exhaustive knowledge source for just about everything. At the time of writing, the site consists of approximately 4 million articles. Encyclopaedia Britannica contains about 85,000. If all the gamers playing Angry Birds stopped, and turned their attention to recreating Wikipedia (assuming they had the knowledge), it would take them just three weeks.

Interesting – but why does that make gaming anything more than a frivolous waste of time? Apparently, gamers regularly experience 10 distinct positive emotions ranging from curiosity to joy. They are more innovative. More creative. They are more resilient (chiefly because they spend 80% of the time during games failing). Gamers are also more likely to help other people.

There are medical benefits too. According to a Nature Reviews study, gamers with ADHD find that their symptoms are massively diminished or even disappear whilst playing games. Gamers with autism show increased social intelligence. In clinical trials, games give more positive results than pharmaceuticals in patients with depression.

She gave the example of a game called Remission. The hero in the game fights against the agents that cause cancer. Patients suffering from the disease who play the game have better outcomes than patients who just watch the game being played. Observation or brain activity whilst playing the game shows increased activity in the Thalamus (responsible for not giving up) and the Hippocampus (responsible for long term memory and habits). If you play the game, you are less likely to give up  and much more likely to continue treatment.

During her presentation, she told us that we were going to play Massively Multiplayer thumb wrestling. As I was surrounded by 9,000 other people, I decided in an instant that I was far too British to take part in any such nonsense. When the time came, I became wrapped up in the moment and I was thumb wrestling with the best of them and I won with one thumb, which apparently makes me a grand champion of thumb wrestling! Jane asserted that we would all feel a number of positive emotions afterwards, and I did, once I had composed myself and straightened my tie.

I can’t wait to read the book.