Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Monday, 10 August 2020

No Escape From Reality ? HAH !

It arrived !


It took months and months, but I've wanted one for years, so in the end I guess the wait wasn't so bad. Here are my initial impressions after being plugged into the thing for about a month. Well, not literally, but certainly enough to give a decent overview.

Short answer : I'm hugely impressed. It blows my obscure MagicSee thing out of the water. It's not quite a holodeck, but honestly it comes closer to the holodeck experience than I thought I was ever likely to get. To cut to the chase, ten out of ten from me. But, I don't believe even ten out of ten should mean Platonic levels of perfection, so let's break that down a bit.


Setting up

Very straightforward. The only oddity here is that you need a phone to do this initially, for reasons that elude me. You use it to pair the headset to the phone (and presumably the controllers) and set the WiFi password. I've no idea why you can't just do this on the headset itself, but it's not any kind of difficulty, just odd. Then you plug it in and charge, which takes about 2 hours from zero (obviously less if the unit is already partially charged). You generally get about a 1:1 ratio of charge to usage time. There are a few other occasions when you need a phone, but after initial setup it's very rare.

The box contains the headset, two hand controllers with AA batteries included, a charging cable (USB C on both ends, with a mains adaptor but no USB A adaptor), and a separator to make it easier to wear for people with glasses. I've only just started using that - being shortsighted I can easily wear it without glasses, though after a while I feel my eyes start to go funny. The supplied picture-only instructions on how to fit the lens separator don't make a lot of sense, but it's actually very easy and it does improve things wearing glasses.

Initially I made a bigger deal out of putting the headset on than I needed to, because it has a cleverer design than I thought. The straps are attached to the unit by two rotatable side-tubes, and you can pull back on the strap to increase the distance like pulling on elastic. Then you can adjust the straps by pulling on the velcro and pulling through. Very easy, very effective. I would recommend a tight fit though, otherwise the image will bounce around and that's not a lot of fun.

The first thing you see is the "passthrough", the greyscale camera view the Quest uses for tracking. This is itself quite a strange experience to see the world in 3D grainy greyscale - the perceived depth doesn't quite match up to reality, though it's close enough to walk around comfortably. Despite the manual's warnings, I'd have no problems with tackling a flight of stairs. And while it's a grainy image, I could still read the time on my watch with it. I don't know if there are any current possibilities to use the camera feed for augmented reality*, but this seems at the very least like a possibility for the future. It would seem a logical option for further iterations to use hi-res colour cameras as a way of doing AR while ensuring a clear display.

* My guess is no, at least not officially. Oculus have adopted the "high quality or nothing" approach, and the camera quality is not high.

Then you set up the Guardian system that prevents you bumping into walls. You do this very easily by clicking and dragging to define an area with a controller, like spray painting a hologram. The Quest itself determined the floor level perfectly with no input from me - it's only now that I stop to think about it that I realise just how impressive this is.

And that's pretty much it. In five minutes or less you're ready to go. Though, I did initially find that there is one other essential step - I was finding it difficult for it to maintain a direct WiFi connection. This was causing annoying issues when trying to access the Store and, in particular, the setting for the virtual home environment (the former mostly worked, the latter never did, and kept insisting the WiFi wasn't working even when it was connected). My workaround for this was to use my phone to create a WiFi bridge (a trick I've found necessary in some hotels where the WiFi takes you to a landing page, which my laptop sometimes doesn't like). From thereon, I've had no further WiFi issues. Later, for other reasons, we changed router and then I was able to connect directly without any problems.


User interface

Like most things about the Oculus, this just works. It's super-sensible and intuitive and doesn't really need any explanation. The controllers are rendered as virtual objects which respond perfectly - absolutely perfectly - to how you orient them, projecting a beam showing you what you're pointing at. Then you click, or click+drag to scroll (or hold down the twiddly thumb stick thingies).

A very nice "experimental" feature (you have to enable it from the Settings menu) that works perfectly well is to double-tap the side of the headset to show the passthrough at any time. This is extremely helpful in finding somewhere to put the controllers so you can take the headset off. You can of course just venture outside the Guardian zone, but the switch to the passthrough can be a bit slow if you do it that way (and you might bump into something on the way). Occasionally the Guardian grid gets stuck on permanent display, but this can be fixed by changing from roomscale to standing and back again, though this hasn't happened at all since a recent update.

The only thing that does get somewhat irritating is nothing much to do with Oculus but certain apps, in particular Vader Immortal. Normally tapping the Oculus button brings you straight to the menu, but sometimes it just doesn't. Nothing happens, and you're stood there clicking a button over and over again pondering how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. It's a minor annoyance, but one I wish developers would pay a bit more attention to. Eventually it works, and this too has at least improved with a recent update.

None of these cause any real problems. Compared to the cheap Chinese knock-off that was my first headset, the ability to use apps that work reliably is a huge bonus.


Comfort

Excellent. I've heard that some people don't enjoy wearing it for long periods since it has a tight fit and is, they say, quite heavy, but for me I could wear it quite happily for at least an hour if not more - the only reason I tend to stop is because my feet need a break ! Watching full documentaries on the Quest is a genuinely immersive and engaging experience, though this needs a looser fit otherwise things do tend to become distracting. In a game, I barely notice that I'm wearing a headset at all - in a passive documentary, it's much more apparent. I also tend to end up with a bright red band across my forehead that fades after a few minutes, but I can't imagine this really bothering anyone.

I've heard that the battery pack accessory not only makes it last much longer but also much more comfortable for those who do notice the giant goggles strapped to their face. I haven't tried this, but maybe in the future I will.


Content

A headset is only as good as what it has to show. I've been using this pretty extensively and intensively, so I'll give a brief summary of my favourites so far below. There are two kinds of VR experiences : 3DOF (degrees of freedom), which means you can only rotate your view, and 6DOF, which means you can move anywhere inside a scene.

3DOF is really only necessary for pre-rendered content, i.e. videos. It's also used on older systems like the Oculus Go and Google Cardboard, but there's really no excuse for any interactive app to still be using this. Not that there isn't some great 3DOF content - especially videos ! - but 6DOF is incomparably better. The difference is a bit like being in a planetarium compared to actually flying a spaceship. In 6DOF scenes you can typically pick up objects, bring them close to you for inspection, and then chuck 'em away. You can crouch down to look underneath tables and peer over the edges of walls, or worriedly back off from dangerously high ledges. In 3DOF you can look in any direction from a strictly fixed viewpoint, so move up and down and the scene doesn't change. This is a bit weird and might be one reason for motion sickness (more later); with 6DOF that sensation is completely absent. It really is like teleporting to a new world. As the tagline to Pratchett & Baxter's The Long Earth puts it :
There are worlds waiting. All it takes is one small step.
It must be said, though, that unless you're willing to fork out some serious cash, it can seem at first glance that there's not that much 6DOF content natively available for the Quest at the moment. This is not really true, for several reasons. There are in fact five or six different ways to access content.

1) From the Quest Store
While there are a few totally free or very low cost apps, it's worth being aware that the official refund policy is pretty sensible. Personally I'd rather have an ask-permission system rather than ask-forgiveness model, i.e. if there isn't a free demo available, then a very short free trial period (say, 15 minutes) would be nice. The Store does feature some rather good "Daily" deals though, typically meaning a healthy 25-50% off. Such deals don't actually happen every single day, but most of them - and when there isn't a daily deal, there's usually something else that's very similar.

My biggest gripe is that many of the experiences available - and some of them do deserve to be called experiences rather than games - are awfully short for the price. If I'm going to fork out $30, I'll want to be sure it has replayability, which many apparently don't. For $5-$10, sure, I'll do an occasional impulse buy, but $30 ? That's the level where I start wanting either substantial content length (10-20 hours plus) or high replay value. And there's not too much of this available from the official sources as yet, though it is growing.

2) From the Oculus Go
There's a fair bit more content available for the older Oculus Go. Fortunately, some - not enough, but some - has been made Quest-compatible, and you can run these (official full list here) on your Quest no trouble. Oddly, you have to install these using your phone, as the Oculus Go library isn't available from the Quest. Why they couldn't just make the supported apps (unsupported apps will not work !) available directly in the Quest I don't know, but the procedure is very simple and miles better than letting them all go to waste. Once installed, you can then select them in the Quest like so. Most, but not all, have 6DOF support. I hope they'll add more in time, because some of these are really very good. Many of these are free or low cost. I don't know if it's the developers or Oculus who make whatever modifications are needed, but it'd be nice to see more regular updates on this.

3) Web-based VR content
This is harder to find and generally a lot more experimental - some of it simply doesn't work at all*, for reasons unknown. This is especially odd since it's supposed to be cross-platform by definition. A few things work in the Oculus native browser but not in Firefox's VR browser and vice-versa, so it's a bit strange. And some of it does work but just barely, like Sketchfab (which is a great shame given how many models there are, hopefully there'll be a dedicated Quest app in the future**) while some is just not very good. One that I do really like is Access Mars, which lets you walk around the Martian surface using real data from Curiosity, as well as examine the rover itself.

* Typically you press the headset button and it either doesn't do anything or gives you a hugely distorted display. I've yet to find a case where playing with the VR settings makes any difference - it either works straight away or not at all.
** It works but a at a distractingly low frame rate for all but the simplest of models.When it does work, it's great - I was able to walk around one of my own data sets as though an HI cloud were right in front of me. You can even scale things up interactively... but it's damned hard to scale them back down again. And it's just not well-optimised, so even simple models display at worse resolution/speed than they really should.

My impression is that WebVR has a bright future ahead of it, but it still needs a lot of work. It's difficult to find proper 6DOF content; often experiences labelled as "VR" are really just 360 degree images that aren't even stereo. Matterport is particularly disappointing as they have tonnes of 3D models but only let you explore the 360 images, and there are plenty of other cases where the models are ready to go but the VR setup just hasn't been done.

4) Quill Theatre
It's all too easy to overlook this. I assumed this was just some kind of built-in video player until I decided to check it - just in case - a few days ago. How wrong I was ! This is a whole library of creations from the Quill animation app. It's all 6DOF but not interactive, so this is the place to go if you just want something cool to look at. Some pieces are static models, others are full-on short story animations. Although it's all very cartoony, there's some really good stuff here and it's well worth checking out. Sadly, it isn't possible to create your own Quill content on the Quest, at least not yet.

5) SideQuest
This PC program is an absolute essential. It allows you to load content not officially supported by Oculus, which is a lot more extensive than the standard Quest library, especially free stuff (educational apps developed by amateur enthusiasts, but also demos and pre-releases for commercial games and the like). New content is added daily. It's super easy to use. You install it on PC, connect your Quest with a USB cable (which probably means finding an USB C-A cable or adaptor unless your PC has a USB C port*), then you browse the app to find stuff and install it directly onto the Quest. You can also use it to wirelessly stream content from your headset to your PC (not the other way around) so that everyone can see why you're flailing wildly around the living room... a feature which works far more easily than the Quest's native Casting facility, which I've never been able to get working at all. Oh, and many of these games are in active development, so if you post a review, you often get a quick response from the developers, something I really appreciate. I think I've had a response from every single review I've posted.

* Not to be confused with USB 3.0. USB C has a different physical connection.

6) Oculus Link
Finally, as Shakespeare said : "Oh God, I could be bounded by a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space... if I could only get this bloody Oculus Link to work". The Link system allows you to use your Quest as a display for content being rendered by your more powerful PC, a la the earlier Oculus Rift. The advantage, of course, is that this gives you access to graphically demanding programs, and good graphics are the heart and soul of immersive VR. I opted for the Quest over the cheaper Rift only because my laptop is apparently not powerful enough, though I was still hoping I might be able to get a few basic things to run on it. 

This is my biggest but only disappointment. Despite prolonged effort, I've been unable to get the Link to work at all - I just a momentary black screen which returns me to the main menu. I'm not sure if my cable is just incompatible (it's USB 2.0, not 3.0) or if there's some more technical reason my hardware doesn't support it (e.g. the USB port not going to the GPU ?). I haven't given up quite yet, but numerous experiments with free wireless streaming apps haven't accomplished anything except bugger my microphone setup for some reason. This is extremely frustrating : I can run Skyrim and Rome 2 Total War on maximum - actually more than maximum - at perfectly good frame rates, which are far more graphically demanding than anything on the Quest. Logically I ought to be able to do at least something with the Link system. But I shall leave that for another time. My next big investment may or may not be a high-end gaming PC to get this to work... we'll see.


Right, that's the various sources covered. What about the actual content itself ? Since the most graphically heavy stuff is out, I really only have access to stuff that runs directly on the Quest. This is basically hi-end smartphone quality but in VR. And, my goodness me, that makes the world of difference ! It's very dangerous to judge the content of an app by the screenshot - things that look naff in a 2D view actually look more than decent in 3D. Would better graphics help ? Sure, but there's plenty of fun to be had even running things directly on the Quest. For a good game, you're looking at World of Warcraft-level graphics only a bit more realistic (though a few games have managed to go a cut above that by various means).

But, don't forget the sound ! Surprisingly, the sound delivered by the Quest without headphones is excellent - so much so that I rarely bother using headphones except when there's too much exterior noise. Good sound in VR is even more important than in regular games, since it gives essential clues to what's going on in other directions, and it adds a lot to the sense of "being there". That you can just put on the Quest and not have to worry about messing around with headphones - since built-in speakers in mobile devices are usually utter crap - is a real plus.

Without further ado, here are apps and games I've tried so far.


Tutorials : First Steps, First Contact, Bogo (free, native Quest)
First Steps and First Contact are both Oculus tutorials on how to navigate in 3D VR and use the controllers. They're both excellent. You get to interact with a Short Circuit-style robot, launch model rockets, fly a model airship, dance with a creepy alien, shoot guns, all in a well-rendered environment. Essential for beginners. Bogo is not technically a tutorial but a virtual pet game, but it's so short I count it more of a tutorial than anything else. You get to take care of a strange-looking lizard thing with a fetish for belly rubs, but it's pretty nice for what it is.


Vader Immortal Episodes I & II ($9.99 each, native Quest)
Come for the story, stay for the dojo. From the minute you step on board a ship that's about to make the  jump to hyperspace, you really feel like you're inside the Star Wars universe. The story is short (about 2 hours apiece, I guestimate) but is superbly well-done and absolutely feels like genuine Star Wars canon, but the training dojo is where it really shines. The thing is that hitting things with a lightsabre is innately fun and never gets old. I play every day and I've just reached the final level (40) on the first dojo, and it's good exercise too* : duck and dodge the myriad of droid-based opponents, listen to hear the direction of the next attack, deflect blaster shots with your upgradable lightsabre... if you don't enjoy this, I don't think we can be friends. Worth every penny, and I'll be buying episode 3 as soon as I finish the second dojo or it's on sale. 10/10, easily.

* At least if you're bad at it, like I am. I rely on ducking quite a lot, and after about 30 minutes I'm sweating profusely and often too tired to play for much longer.


Bow Master & Arrows (free, SideQuest)
I've just bought  Elven Assassin, but I first tried these two free archery games. Both are well worth a go, but both have different strengths and weakness. Both follow the same format of defending a village from attacking hordes : you yourself are not in danger, instead you have to shoot the baddies before they enter the village. Both are very cartoonish in style.

Bow Master has a single nice-looking environment and features endless waves of a very wide variety of enemies which have different abilities. You can shoot ordinary arrows, flaming arrows, and even hurl a small number of bombs at your opponents or ignite well-placed explosive barrels. It has three difficulty settings and in most ways it's very well-done, but it has one serious flaw and one fatal. The serious one is that you have to continuously hold the grip button to avoid dropping your bow, which gets uncomfortable rather quickly - the natural inclination is to grip very tightly, which probably isn't good for the controller button. Worse, it doesn't appear to be possible to lose... once the orcs reach the main hall, it never gets destroyed. I stood around for a good ten minutes but nothing happened. It does, however, have a nice feature of displaying your current score and accuracy level very unobtrusively on a panel low down on the surrounding wall.

Arrows has three levels which you can unlock in different lighting levels at different difficulties. The environment isn't as nice as Bow Master, but you can teleport yourself to different vantage points, including one with a cannon. The variety of enemies isn't quite as great as Bow Master, but it doesn't have as many serious flaws. The collision detection could be better though, as many people have noticed that direct hits don't always do anything. The arrows are also slightly more difficult to load and fire than in Bow Master. But the enemy vikings have collision between each other, which slows them down, and shooting higher-level enemies also causes them to slow down (rather than speed up as in Bow Master).

Both of these games are tremendous fun but have various annoyances. 7/10 from me.


Elven Assassin ($14.99, native Quest)
Having so much fun with the free archery games, I was very curious about this graphically superior paid version. I got this on sale for $10 and it's definitely worth that. The graphics are indeed far better than either of the free archery games - being thumped by a giant orc or flamed by an enormous dragon is a fantastic experience. Contrary to this earlier review, by Quest standards the graphics are competent, though slightly higher resolution textures would be nice. And you get to be outside (in three different environments), which is quite unusual since large-scale environments are challenging to render.

For gameplay this one generally has the best of both worlds of the free games : the collision detection works, you get to teleport to different locations (cleverly designed so that no location is perfect), and you don't have to hold the damn button down to hold the bow. The feedback from the controllers is perfect : Bow Master doesn't have any, Arrows has simple vibration, but Elven Assassin cleverly varies the feedback so it feels like the bow is sticking slightly as you draw it back. It's really quite viscerally satisfying. The variety of enemies is good, though not as creative as Bow Master, while the different spells offer a nice way to keep things fresh. And you do need to use these to progress to the higher levels. It also has multiplayer, which I've only tried the once but found very enjoyable. In co-op you get to be part of a team defending the town, which is a lot more believable than being one lone dude taking out the oncoming hordes.

It's not without weaknesses however. You can upgrade your equipment but it's purely for show (a shame - the different helmets could at least affect visibility). The enemies can attack you (they can only attack the village in the other games), which gives extra tension, but the red-out effect is too strong : I want to get a good look at that giant dragon, dammit ! The main problem is the sound. It's... good enough, mostly, but only just. Somehow the directionality doesn't feel very 3D or immersive, and the music is neither loud nor epic enough. When the orcs reach the gates, some dude with an annoying voice keeps shouting, "they're breaking in !" with no variation at all. And when you lose, the game just ends. There's no sorrowful horn or music, you just get the "game over" screen. There's a token bit of dust and a crashing sound from the village, but it's nowhere near enough.

All in all, hugely addictive, and I'd pay for extra levels. Somewhere more atmospheric, preferably with a thunderstorm, would be well worth it. I'll give this one 8/10, pushing 9.


Matter VR (free, SideQuest)
This astronomy god game probably wins the "most potential" award. You create planets and stars of different masses by holding down a button, then you can launch them on different trajectories. It appears to be a true n-body simulator, so you can end up with some bewildering orbits. Planets can collide and explode, stars eventually supernova and leave behind a remnant (including black holes for the most massive), and sometimes collisions produce rings. The challenge is to create the most complex system possible. Like lightsabres and archery, the developers have here found that crucial aspect of something that's innately fun and doesn't get old. All it needs to bring this one to its full flowering is a more structured approach and some guidance on where to aim. 8/10 from me, looking forward to updates.


Masterworks Journey Through History (free, Oculus Go converted to full 6DOF on the Quest)
This is the right way to do a history app. Photogrammetry gives much more realistic results than modelling. Even if the textures could be a little sharper (especially the background images), and some more background audio noise would be welcome, you still get a very good sense of "being there". You get four different sites to explore, all of which are well-prepared. As well as the 3D models, there's also a selection of nicely done 360 3D photographs to show the sites from other perspectives. And there's plenty of narration, so it takes quite a bit of time to go through the whole thing. It would be nice, though, if the narrators were a bit more enthusiastic and talked more about history than the site-specific details - considering how impressive it is to feel like you're standing in these ancient monuments, the narration is a bit dry. Still, 9/10 from me - there desperately needs to be more stuff like this !


Omnigallery (free, SideQuest)
Another really good "history" app though this one is art-focused. The idea of an art gallery in VR sounds a bit daft at first, but it really isn't. Slipping on a headset is way more convenient than actually going to a gallery (especially since it's free), and you get to examine paintings - and more importantly sculptures - at their actual size. The scan resolution of both paintings and sculptures is really impressive. What this particular app does really well is provide narration about many of the exhibits, and this alone makes it better than most physical galleries, which in my experience tell you sod all. Actually being told something about the painting, its subject, and why it's important makes high art so much more friggin' accessible. Even though I'd like more narration and history, I'm giving this one 10/10 just for that.


Anne Frank's house (free, native Quest)
Another history exhibit, this time using conventional 3D modelling. You get a narrated or free-form interactive tour, which is excellently done. You can view this in a web browser here, but needless to say, being able to walk around it is far better. I can't really fault this, so 10/10.


Apollo 11 ($9.99, native Quest)
I bought this on sale for $5 for the Moon landing anniversary. It's nice, but $10 is really a bit much. Considerable effort has gone into accurately modelling the interior of the spacecraft, and it's fun to sit alongside the astronauts as venture into space. There's a couple of interactive sections where you get to dock the modules and land the ship, but I couldn't help feeling that these could have been a lot more interesting with only a little extra work. Most of the experience is passive. The graphics are generally good, especially the space scenes, though the astronauts facial expressions are frankly hilariously bad. A life-size vibrating astronaut sat next to you with his mouth half-open and his eyes half-closed ? It's a bit disconcerting to say the least ! Overall it's worth $5, so I give it 7/10. If they added, say, a chance to driver the lunar rover and more interactive functions through the journey it would easily be worth $10.


Mission ISS (free, native Quest)
A much more complete space experience, albeit one that feels more like a demo than a full product. You get to explore a very nice model of the ISS, including a really excellent mock-up of the cupola where I felt this would be genuinely useful in astronaut training. In fact manipulating the robot arm felt so difficult as to be too realistic, and I gave up in frustration. It's a bit of a shame - the environment is so good, the attention to detail is clear (with plenty of video clips to explain each section), but in other ways it falls flat. The narrator keeps telling me I'm going the wrong way even though I'm not, the robot arm needs either much better instructions or be made simpler to operate, and moving around is unnecessarily difficult and can induce strong motion sickness. A teleport option and/or greater air resistance to slow you down would be a huge improvement, even if it's not realistic. I had the most fun when somehow, due to a glitch, I found myself freely floating outside the station, calmly and serenely exploring the place without the bloody narrator getting on my nerves. 6/10 from me, but could so easily be bumped up to 10.


Multiverse (free, native Quest)
An odd but nice attempt to make an astronomy museum a place for socialising. Features a gigantic museum full of different rooms exploring the Solar System and space technology. The models are decent but a bit low resolution. Very informative, and it's always fun to hurl stuff at planets. There's even a history section with a model of Stonehenge you can wander around in. The man downside is that it's too reliant on the traditional gallery format and doesn't use models anywhere near as effectively as it could. Yes, you do need some big old-fashioned wall-panel displays, but VR can do so much more than that. Let me sit inside a Mercury capsule, or play golf on the lunar surface ! Don't tell me about Titan, show me the surface from the Huygens probe ! And why there's a social aspect to this I'm not really sure... a museum is hardly the most natural place to meet people. Still, a worthy effort - 7/10.


Notes On Blindness (free, native Quest)
You'd think that an experience of being blind would be easy enough on the Quest - just turn everything off except the audio. But this narrated, slightly interactive experience is so very much better than that. The narration, taken from diaries, describes how nothing exists except when heard. Simple but compelling graphics show us a variety of places as revealed through sound. The narration is top notch and the visuals are beautiful (the sound of course is perfect). It was so interesting an experience that I'd certainly do it again. 10/10.


The Key (free, native Quest)
Another slightly interactive emotion-driven experience. A more conventionally abstract (stylistic) approach than Notes on Blindness, it's a well-told and engaging tale. There's a photogrammetric environment at the end which further illustrates how this needs to be more widely-utilised : it lets the Quest leapfrog its limited rendering power into highly realistic settings. This experience is good, but at bit too stylised for me, and one of the main interactive features just didn't work. 8/10.


Puzzling Places (free, SideQuest)
More photogrammetry, but this time for a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Simple concept, perfectly executed, with nice little audio emanating from certain regions. Moving pieces around and dropping them in 3D space feels quite futuristic. Only one puzzle so far but it's rightly getting rave reviews - an almost therapeutic experience. 10/10.


Project Terminus (free, SideQuest)
Free prototype/demo of a Half-Life style FPS. Absolutely terrifying and I've yet to complete it. Realistic and highly immersive environments, with some impressive outdoor scenes at the start. This is what I'm longing for VR to do more of - really make me feel like I'm in a whole other place to explore, even if that exploration is limited to a tiny region. 

As a game, this plays well, with the minor difficulty that using your phone is a bit awkward at first. Lighting effects are excellent, sound is great, and did I mention it was terrifying ? It is. I also got a bit motion sick the first time I tried it - I've yet to get used to smooth scrolling. The second time I reduced the speed and this helped enormously, but a teleport option would be nice*. I'm leaving this one unrated because I couldn't complete it, but a must-try for horror fans.  

* Someone should develop a specialist get-over-motion-sickness app, where you could move around increasingly complex environments in increasingly nauseating ways. By all accounts overcoming motion sickness is entirely possible, but it takes effort.


High Seas (free, SideQuest)
From the makers of Project Terminus, experience life on a tiny boat stuck in the Arctic ocean. Navigate icebergs and fix problems. Great environments, but the gameplay is too limited - not bad, just limited. Each time you collide with an iceberg your boat develops a problem and you have to go and fix it (including the extremely strange approach of hitting a fire with a fire extinguisher, which is... worrying). If at least the iceberg density were to be lower, you'd have navigation as part of the gameplay, but it's so dense that collisions are rapidly inevitable, making trying to avoid them an exercise in futility. Good concept with brilliantly tense sound, but needs a lot more fleshing out (and removal of the CGI arms, which just look bizarre and get distracting). 6/10 from me - good so far, but needs development.


Operation Serpens (free, SideQuest)
Like shooters but hate motion sickness ? This is the game for you ! You play a member of a generic, very polite army unit (your commander greets with with a friendly "hello !") charged with taking out assorted generic terrorists. You're in a fixed location, e.g. firing from a building into a street, or behind a door into a room, so you can move around if you want but you don't need to move much at all - no need for scrolling, and indeed that feature is not enabled. You get a variety of guns and accessories, including a bulletproof shield. Decent graphics (cartoony but not overly-so in style), good sound, lots of fun. Potentially quite addictive, though holding my arms straight out for long periods gets very tiring. Challenging but not absurdly so. I'm giving this 8/10.


Dino Encounters (free, SideQuest)
This one definitely falls in the category "better than it should be". The concept is solid : in each environment, you walk (and/or teleport) through a short narrated tour to reach a dinosaur doing its thing. The environment is huge, the narration is quite good (apart from the same annoying welcome message each and every time), and the atmosphere looks nice. A big positive is the background sound, which I found very immersive. The downsides are that it's overly-ambitious. The graphics are crude (not awful, but crude), the dinosaur animations simplistic. If they'd made smaller, more detailed environments with just one or two dinosaurs, rather than whole packs of them roaming across silly-looking prehistoric landscapes, the experience would have been much better. On the other hand, you get to hand-feed life-size dinosaurs, and that counts for a lot in my book. 6/10.


Wonders of the World (free, Oculus Go converted to full 6DOF on the Quest)
In contrast, this one is very much worse than it should be. It's a history app about various notable historical sites, but the execution is poor. Even in the menu section the background image is far too low resolution. Throughout, the graphics are not merely cartoony - which would be understandable - but also highly stylistic, which utterly ruins the immersion (as does the poor, mostly very American narration). Like this dinosaur app, this one is also overly-ambitious. Instead of just letting you explore the sites, you play the role of some totally unknown character with terrible voice acting. Look, I'm here to visit the Colossus of Rhodes, why in the world would I care about some unknown girl's dead father ? I couldn't even see the Colossus from the front ! Bloody daft if you ask me. 2/10


Sports Scramble (free demo, native Quest)
At $30 the full version is way too expensive, but the free demo (bowling, tennis, and baseball) is fun. Happy little cartoon characters with a zany twist on each sport : for example, the baseball bat can turn into a fish, which I found hilarious. It's a really stupid game, too difficult, but quite enjoyable. If it was $5 I'd consider buying it, but $30 is hell no I'm not an idiot5/10, mainly because they've got the price catastrophically wrong.


Black Holes Light and Matter (free, SideQuest)
Fun, very small educational proof-of-concept app exploring how black holes affect light and matter. You get to examine lensing or orbits. With lensing you see a black hole in front of you that distorts the background image. With orbits you get to see how the black hole affects the trajectories of orbiting material. In each case you can set the size of the black hole and a few other parameters. It's nicely done, but it would a lot better if you could set parameters using the controllers, e.g. grabbing the black hole to scale it, launching particles with the controller. I'll leave this unrated since it's proof-of-concept.


Elixir (free, native Quest)
Proof-of-concept spellcasting thingy. Annoying narration, quite nice cartoony graphics, worth a go but nothing special. Needs a more fully-formed environment and stuff to do to be engaging. 6/10.


Epic Roller Coaster (free demo, native Quest)
If you want to experience extreme vertigo, then this is the game for you. You ride around on a bunch of ENORMOUS roller coasters, optionally trying to shoot targets as you go. The sensation of motion and height is, well, epic, and I'd recommend sitting down for this one in case you fall over. Surprisingly, I didn't get any feeling of nausea from this one, just an unprecedented feeling of ohholycrapImgonnacrashImgonnacrash ! Powerful, pointless stuff. It would be nice if I could see how much the paid coasters actually cost before having to sign up though. 7/10.

Dead Body FallsAngest (free, Oculus Go converted to full 6DOF on Quest)
Two similar-in-style-and-format games from the same developers. Both are extremely well-made with engaging storytelling and immersive environments, good sound, and a pleasing graphical style. Dead Body Falls feels like a murder mystery in an old hotel whereas Angest is about a cosmonaut on a deep space mission. Both are surrealist, especially Dead Body Falls, and it's here where both come unstuck. I still have no idea what's even supposed to have happened inside the DBF hotel (literally I haven't got a soddin' clue), much less whodunnit. It's got some good scares along the way, but from start to finish it doesn't make a lick of sense. Angest is a bit better, but both would benefit enormously from exposition. I do plan to replay both though, so maybe it'll be second time lucky. I'll give both 7/10.


Videos
A few pre-rendered 360 VR videos worth mentioning. The Jurassic World video is totally amazeballs - if you want to know what it would feel like to have a T-Rex roar in your face, try this without delay. The Felix & Paul Studios app has a selection of videos of which I've only tried the one where Barack and Michelle Obama give a tour of the White House , which I enjoyed. Dear Angelica is a nicely made but overly-schmultzy short story about death (but with interesting animations); Henry is a silly story about a hedgehog narrated by Frodo Baggins; Tested has Mythbuster's Adam Savage explaining some really quite dull stuff about his workshop, and Ecosphere has some good uplifting things about humans interacting with nature. There are tonnes and tonnes more, but the Jurassic World one is my clear favourite.


Conclusion : yes, we're living in the future

We may not have actual sci-fi holograms free-floating in space, but we do have virtual holograms. VR is now firmly in the realm of being accessible and usable by the masses. Is it useful ?

In my opinion no, not yet - at least not for everyday office work. I tried a few "productivity" apps which are supposed to allow you to use your PC in VR in some more productive way, but I couldn't see the point of any of them. Compared to a big hi-res monitor with a keyboard and mouse, the effort of using VR controllers on the comparatively low-resolution headset display is not even remotely worth it. For that we'll need a substantial leap forward in resolution and true AR, not VR, because the plain fact is you need to be able to see your keyboard clearly. This is certainly possible, but we're not there yet.

But is VR fun ? Hell yes, with bells on. Is it just going to be a flash in the pan like 3D TV ? Oh gods, I hope not... the experience is too awesome for it to fade away. It's truly an introvert's dream : hide away in a virtual environment where you can do as you please, see things you couldn't otherwise see... why would anyone in their right mind not want this ?

Not only gaming : it makes exercising about two hundred billion times more fun. Lift weights ? Hell no, fight robots with lasers for eyes instead ! And the potential for education is huge. Imagine teaching history by showing kids what the world looked like in different eras, or how physics works on scales untestable in a classroom, or explore non-Euclidean geometry, or teaching painting with a whole new array of brushes impossible in the real world, or anatomy, or seeing the world with the eyes and perspective of an animal... the technology for all of this already exists, only the price remains a barrier. But the potential is there, no doubt about it.

It should be said that there differing opinions some of which are truly strange. Some describe Vader Immortal, for instance, as meaning that an "experience" is just a euphemism for "underdeveloped game". Others describe things like Anne Frank's House as "not suitable for VR" or, even weirder, complain about the small number of objects you can interact with. Because being able to mess up Anne Frank's house would make the experience... better... how ? I guess some people just don't get it. I'm biased in the other direction, mind you, but there is currently a lack of truly "you can't do this except in VR" apps (as opposed to, "this is better because it's in VR" apps, of which there are legion) and the price is a barrier.

VR deserves to go at least as fully mainstream as gaming consoles or even PCs. It should be normal to say, "I'll enjoy that more in VR" or "that'll make more sense in VR", just as people opt for blu-rays over regular DVDs. For that to happen will probably take one more iteration of the technology (e.g. combined VR/AR, substantially lower price, lighter equipment, greater compatibility with existing hardware) and/or a suite of "only fundamentally possible in VR" apps. If and when that happens, it's hard to see what would stop it from taking the world by storm. Should you buy one already ? Yes, if your main purpose is gaming, but no not quite yet if you want other experiences. Of course, it's easy to what what should happen, but much harder to predict what market forces will actually do...

Thus ends my gushing review. I'm itching to learn how to convert various Blender projects into VR (including my Arecibo model, which thanks to lockdown is ready to go), it's just a matter of tearing myself away from the existing stuff long enough to sit down and get on with it. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some orcs to kill.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Thing What I Was Wrong About

Any blogger with any sense will tell you that there's a risk of saying stuff that's later found to be utter crap. It may seem perfectly sensible to go on a good angry rant about how Jar Jar Binks was the worst character ever, but then you learn that the actor was traumatised for life by the deluge of hate mail and suddenly things don't seem quite so much fun any more.


And yet in science we're supposed to delight in proving ourselves wrong. Indeed, everyone wants to overturn Einstein, or discover a new and unpredicted particle. No-one wants the stinky old Standard Model to be entirely right, although pretty much everyone wants their own special patch to be basically correct.

This peculiarity is so at odds with everyday life that it may explain a lot about the mess the world is in. Science progresses by making mistakes, whereas in politics an open admission of a mistake is tantamount to publically slitting one's wrists while falling into a tank of flaming piranhas who are all infected with COVID-19. Figuring out the general conditions as to when it's fun to be wrong (and when it isn't), and how we can apply these lessons in the wider world, will be the subject of a future post.

As a sort-of prelude to that, what about lil' old me ? A few years ago I chronicled how some of my major beliefs have shifted. But blogging makes it possible to track one's mistakes as never before ! So instead of evaluating past mistakes, this post will be an active attempt to see if any of my current beliefs are wrong. What, then, have I prophesied that turned out to be correct, and what utter garbage still haunts forgotten corners of the web ? You might have seen me rant a little on Decoherency that I think such an exercise is badly needed for popular political commentators, so this post is my effort to put my money where my mouth is. Or the ultimate in humblebragging, I guess.


Methodology

Much of Decoherency is the salvaged ruins of my posts on the fallen Google Plus, and while assembling those posts into blog form, I labelled cases containing predictions for the future. I've also included a few other examples from memory and from trawling the blogs the old-fashioned way. I divided these into two topics : science and technology, and politics. One is considerably more objective than the other, so these should provide a complementary approach.

Right then, let's begin.



1) Science and technology

Planet 9




Prediction

Let's start with something completely unambiguous.  On April 8th 2016, not recorded on Decoherency but preserved publically elsewhere in my records, I wrote :
I'm just going to go on the record and state that I think planet "9" is a silly thing, and a year or two from now no-one will care about it any more.
Which if any further clarity is needed, means that I thought the idea of Planet 9 was flawed and that there's nothing out there to find. By sometime in 2018, roughly, sufficient searches should have been performed that the object should either have been found or its existence ruled out.


Reasons

There were two things that bothered me, one scientific and one psychological. The scientific was the poor statistics given to prove the existence object. I think it's a major red flag to say that you can say a tiny sample size (six orbits !) is so completely inconsistent with random chance - it doesn't ring true. What does statistical significance really mean when you've got just one system under consideration anyway ? Not much, I think - we just don't know enough about how planetary systems form anyway.

As pointed out in a comment here, there were other lines of evidence, but as far as I'm aware, these were prompted by the six orbits. If you go looking for consistencies you're likely to find them, so this smacks of bias. To be fair, I mainly read the press releases rather than the papers (and I should know better than to do that...) but there didn't seem to be any alternative possibilities discussed by the claimants at all. "This is consistent with a planet", they said. Sure, but what else is it consistent with ? Did they deliberately try and come up with a strong alternative, or did they just jump straight on the one they liked best ?

The second reason is the show-offy overconfidence on display. Recall Rhys's Law Of Press Releases :
The value of a press release and the probability that the reported discovery is correct is anti-correlated with the grandiosity of the claims.
Why opt for a ninth planet ? "Glory" is the cynical answer, though that doesn't mean there isn't a planet to find. But to make such a claim with such extreme conviction from such a tiny sample size... nope, that's not credible. It's much more likely they wanted to do a press release* for publicity, not because their results deserved publicity. I even witnessed some degree of fanboyism over this, with a few people rather rudely defending their favourite experts against my own skepticism. And that's just silly. Where the hell are my groupies, dammit ?

*There's a lot of caveats to RLOPR. Obviously a reputable scientist with a proven track record is more reliable than Twitter user sheepfondler69**, but let's not go there today.
** Not a real example, hopefully.


Verdict

Total vindication, I think. There's been bugger all the press about this for the last two years, so my timetable was roughly correct. The problem is we still can't definitively rule it out, and it's very hard indeed to prove a negative : according to some estimates, it might be 10-15 years before we can say for sure, though others seem more optimistic. So yeah, I could still be wrong, but I haven't changed my opinion on this one. If I am wrong, well, having another planet in the Solar System would be pretty cool. I propose we call it Pluto.



The EM drive




Prediction 

Another totally unambiguous example, this time from 22nd November 2016 :
I'm just going publically on the record to state that the EM drive does not work and it will go the way of cold fusion and all the other pseudoscientific claims before it. That is all. Have a nice day.
And in a comment from the same thread :
It's claiming to violate a result so well-established it would be basically magic. Of course they can and should test it, just in case, but my prediction is that it's absolute bupkis. Best case : it's some super-weird quantum effect that can't be scaled up. Infinitely more likely : it's a measurement error.
I don't think I can state things any clearer than that.


Reasons

I know even less about the EM drive than I do about planetary orbital dynamics, but the whole idea contradicts physical findings that have been established for several centuries. Given all the past attempts to build perpetual motion machines and the like, history shows that such cases are almost invariably mistaken.

While claims of a ninth planet are at least entirely scientifically reputable, the EM drive is not - but my objections are similar (and the sensationalism is equally dangerous). They claim a truly extraordinary result based on observations of low significance at the very margins of observational limits, just like goodness-knows how many people before them. But scientific consensus is established precisely by this sort of testing and examination. If a test were to disprove it, the consensus would shift (not immediately, but it would). So by its very definition, the consensus view is hard to disprove, and the more tests it survives, the less likely any marginal result is to overturn it and the more probable such results are due to errors.


Verdict

Total vindication again. Here I'm at a serious risk of committing a kind of straw man fallacy - if I were to continuously go around saying, "the world won't turn into a sponge in the next five minutes", pretty quickly I'd objectively be a supremely accurate prophet. Likewise if one goes around only saying that low S/N claims about ways to violate feckin' basic physics will eventually be disproved, one could be unjustly hailed as a genius.

Oddly, a handful of normally intelligent, skeptical people did find the EM drive plausible. I've no idea why, they witnessed all the other hoo-hah about FTL neutrinos and BICEP2 and so forth, so you think they'd be more suspicious. Anyway, there doesn't seem any need to dwell on it. It was worth testing, because I think even really silly ideas should be tested as much as resources permit - just in case - but ultimately there's nothing to learn here.

Of course, there's a risk of circular reasoning : the consensus is more likely to be correct so anything that goes against it is not likely to be true. But the use of "likely" is critical. This is not at all the same as saying, "the consensus is a fact so anything contrary is wrong". So here's a bunch of examples form history of how the consensus shifted - generally, it shifts pretty rapidly when sufficient evidence is provided. Is it perfect ? No, but it works.


The Hyperloop




Prediction

As I wrote back in July 2017 :
I doubt very much this will ever become a thing, but you never know.
Somewhat expanded a year later :
I remain skeptical that this can be constructed on a large scale in the real world in an economically sensible way.
Basically I don't deny that the hyperloop may be technologically feasible, but I do deny that it will become a practical reality. More likely it will prove too expensive to construct - substantially more expensive than its advocates claim.


Reasons

I set these down in August 2017 :
Even if the cost per mile could be made cheaper than railways (and I don't see how it can), the infrastructure costs will still be enormous. If they weren't, HS2 wouldn't be costing us >£50 billion. I suppose it may work in a few cases where's there's nothing but flat, hard wasteland between widely separated cities, but everywhere else ? Nah.
Although there are some excellent comments made on that thread, I generally stand by this (conceding that there are indeed large areas flat hard wasteland in some parts of the world). Developing a mass transit system is going to be hugely expensive. How could a giant cross-continental vacuum tube shoot people around at substantially lower prices than railways, given that rail is an incredibly established technology and the infrastructure requirements are similar ? I don't see it. To clarify my prediction though, I say there won't be more than a handful of major hyperloop routes operating commercially within the next decade, and possibly none at all. I do not mean to say it's utterly impossible, just difficult.

With hindsight I may also have been utilising an airship/fusion bias. Fusion has been twenty years away for much longer than twenty years; airships are definitely coming back this year for reals according to innumerable popular science outlets. Big, grandiose projects fail more often than not, so betting that any new project will fail is the safer bet. Especially if the press go into orgasms about it.


Verdict

So far so good, but it's too early to tell for sure. Reviewing the Wikipedia entry, it looks as though lots of people are still interested and working on this, but there seems to have been precious little hardware testing in recent years. No-one's got a test track going at anywhere near the claimed full speeds, and the economic prospects are at best divided. Although there are some excellent comments preserved in this thread, I stand by my original objections.


SpinLaunch




Prediction

Lordy. Apparently some weird startup company is trying to launch things into space by means of a giant sling. The title of the original post says it all : "space catapults are not a thing and never will be". I was of half a mind that the company might be an outright scam.


Reasons

Again a bias against the success of grand revolutionary projects played its part. Is this fair or is it a sort of techno-racism ? I don't know. And there was an additional "that's just silly" factor, because spinning things round so fast they shoot off into space is, well, a bit daft. Using a CGI image of the factory doesn't help either.

More rational objections : its claimed speed is nowhere near enough to reach orbit, spinning in a vacuum to reduce friction will cause the released projectile to slam hard into the atmosphere when it exits the acceleration chamber, and you have to design a rocket (and satellite payloads) capable of functioning under extreme accelerations (based on a Wired illustration, this would be a bone-pulping three thousand g !). Maybe you could use it to launch bulk materials, but surely not any kind of delicate equipment - and since it seems geared towards small satellites, you're gonna have to have delicate equipment on board.


Verdict

Two years later they're still bringing in punters, raising tens of millions of dollars in funding. They were supposed to have tried a flight test last year, but didn't (though every space development company misses deadlines). It's too early to tell, but nothing has happened that's changed my mind in any way. I think it's stupid.


Honourable mention : VIRGOHI21




Prediction

I never really made any prediction here, which is why this is only an honourable mention. I cannot find my exact words, but I was skeptical of the most popular method used to explain the weird object VIRGOHI21 (the nearest thing I can find to the full description I wrote is here). In brief, I thought that two galaxies experiencing a close, fast interaction would not be able to produce an object like the one claimed.


Reasons

Unlike the other cases, this one is well within my field of expertise. It seemed to me that the earlier model had been very carefully tweaked to produce the best possible outcome but still wasn't convincing. Their main galaxy was too low in mass but too rich in gas, with the gas extended too far, the gas physics too simple. Their final result didn't reproduce the most intriguing and important feature of the system and I thought the scaling on their figure was misleading.


Verdict

After trying this for myself with simulations that corrected the apparent deficiencies, but also used many more galaxies, I have to admit that the central claim is likely correct. That is, an object such as VIRGOHI21 can indeed be produced by tidal encounters between galaxies. I still dispute whether this explanation is the correct one, however, as consistency isn't evidence : other explanations could be equally consistent and have not been tested. I think my doubts were reasonable and warranted, and the simulations worth running, but the main conclusion - the important bit - from the earlier paper is correct. So everyone's a winner here, but I was wrong in my central doubt.


Conclusions to part one

It seems apparent that 1) I'm wary of sensationalism; 2) I don't trust revolutionary claims; and 3) I've chosen easy pickings. If I really want to question my scientific world view, in future I should make predictions for more difficult cases that require greater understanding. Otherwise there's not much to learn here - I don't have an ideological stake in a big spinning vacuum tube or a missing planet. If I'm wrong about them, I can all too easily attribute this to a poor knowledge of business or orbital dynamics, which don't come with any moral or political elements attached. There's not much "belief" at work here, just knowledge with gaps. Filling in those gaps would make me less ignorant without having to rebuild any supporting structures. In no way is my identity attached to any of these ideas.

Or to put it another way, I don't wake up every morning and loudly proclaim,  "ahhahah, I bet the Planet 9 people feel really stupid today !". Until I started writing this post, I'd basically forgotten about it. Casual criticism on the internet shouldn't be taken for an obsessive vendetta. I never reached the stage of caring very much about any of these examples - sure, VIRGOHI21 is damned interesting, but that's not the same as being personal. Criticism of findings is, sometimes, genuinely directed only towards the findings and not the scientists who made them. I'm sure the planet 9 bunch are lovely people, though I'm less sure about the EM drive gang or the Spin Launch crew. They might well be idiots. albeit obnoxiously rich idiots in the case of Spin Launch.

Still, surely I shouldn't criticise fields outside my area of expertise ? In general yes, but some fields are cross-discipline. If I saw a study claiming that lawnmowers are the sole drivers of global warming based on dodgy statistics, I'd absolutely be entitled to debunk that. And criticism is not all the same as censorship : if I say, "I'm not an expert in this but I don't believe it, here's why", I'm emphatically not automatically calling for that research to be ended (I even said as much in the EM drive case). Ideologically, if not practically, I'd prefer to test everything, especially the things I disagree with because those are the most interesting. If I ever do call for research to be ended, I'd like to think I'd have some very good reason for that.

In short, when I say, "this is stupid", what I really mean isn't, "stop giving these people money", it's, "everybody PLEASE shut up about this and talk about something better now". Super-saturation with the latest improbable finding is the nerd equivalent of magazines full of discussions about vegan yogurt smoothies and celebrity hairstyles.

More interestingly, there's a conflict here as to whether I want this technological claims to be correct or not. I'll cheerfully admit to wanting to be able to say, "I told you so !", but at the same time, it would be genuinely cool to have a reactionless drive or a giant space catapult. Even without joining any fan clubs, the effect of bias isn't simple.

Let's move on to the more complicated cases where I do have a more emotive stake in the outcome.



2) Politics

Theresa May's fate



Prediction

As Stephen Pinker helpfully reminds us, "things that can't go on forever can go on for much longer than you think". Boy oh boy was this true of the sad tale that is Theresa May's government. Back in April 2017 I wrote :
For Theresa May it's do-or-die at this point : either secure a "mandate" from the populace or accept defeat and a potential change of course.
And in June 2017 I wrote :
She'll try to form a minority government with the DUP, and it will work for a little while but not for long...  Sooner or later - probably sooner - she'll break.
And then in October, when rumours were flying of a no confidence vote :
I suspect May will limp on for a little while, but this is probably the beginning of the end.
Then in July 2018, after a series of high-profile cabinet resignations :
I don't see even May managing to survive this one. She can't even look her colleagues in the eye. 
 But by December, just before a confidence vote finally happened :
I bet she wins.

Verdict

Wow, did I get things wrong. For more than a year I was predicting May's imminent downfall, but she didn't actually break until July 2019 -  two years after my initial prediction, whereas I was typically thinking she'd be gone within maybe six months. Only by the time the confidence vote happened did I realise that her track record indicated a pug-like ignorance of reality. May did eventually resign and her government did eventually break, but the point of the prediction was that it would happen soon - which it obviously didn't. As for the "accept defeat or change course", well, that one's somewhat a grey area : she won a majority, but substantially smaller than previously, and utterly refused to change course.


Reasons

I completely misjudged her character. I genuinely believed it when I said :
May does not do well under pressure; she called the election out of a peculiar sort of desperate opportunism, and we've seen her increasingly degenerate into robotic performances that make little or no sense.
Thing is, she doesn't do well under pressure. She doesn't do well anyway. But either she was totally unaware of how bad the situation was or just didn't care (or, perhaps, was genuinely trying to mend fences with unpleasant colleagues but going about it very very badly). I thought her robotic TV persona was just a way of masking her feelings and avoid having to deal with anything unpleasant, but, in fact, she might actually just be like that.

More charitably to May, I'd also misread the wider political context. For all her inefficacy, May was right about one thing : the facts. She had them on her side a lot longer than her detractors gave her credit for. Oh, she misused them with consummate skill, but it was really true that her stepping down earlier wouldn't have changed anything for the Tories and might well have left them with someone worse. I think I do have to accept a strong ideological preference on my part - a desperate hope that she'd leave and somehow things would get better.

Overall, 1 out of 4 (ignoring the ambiguous one about a change of course) is dismal. My assessment of the situation was biased and wrong.


Labour's leadership crisis



Prediction

Back in October 2016, Labour prepared to choose between incumbent Jeremy Corbyn and challenger Owen Smith. I wrote :
This is quite likely to result in the next major crisis in British politics. Oh, yippee.
I didn't really elaborate , but what I vaguely recall thinking was that either way we'd get factionalism that would split the party. Corbynites loved Corbyn and hated everyone else in the party, and vice-versa. A recipe for disaster for sure ! I predicted a Labour party split at least as early as 2017, in the event that Corbyn continued to be Corbyn :
Best case long term realistic solution ? Labour have to split.
Once they realise that and find that they're sliding back into the doldrums, all the old animosities will re-surface and they'll split.
But I'm pretty sure I thought that was a distinct possibility quite a lot earlier, though I can't find a record to back that up. Anyway, I thought that there was a very real possibility the Labour party would have been in such dire straights as to have or be contemplating a split by about now.


Verdict

Obviously, that hasn't happened, so again I was totally wrong. After leading Labour to disaster, Corbyn finally quit - thus rendering a split pointless. All the more so as - for now - the Corbynite movement is pacified with a leader acceptable to all divisions of the party.


Reasons

Corbyn seemed to have even more resilience to the facts than May. 90% of your own MPs want you gone and you think you can just carry on ? Foolish beyond belief. But I was mistaken about Corbyn's lust for power, which was not quite as bad as I feared *. I was also wrong in suspecting that the Labour party would refuse to grin and bear it after Smith's leadership bid failed (though if recent reports are correct, they tried a much stealthier tactic than I would have guessed, meaning I was still wrong but in a different way). Electoral disaster did happen under Corbyn, as I thought it would, but I failed to see that the party would then finally see sense and decide by some considerable margin to distance itself from the hard left.

*But only by a little, since the guy hung around for bloody ages after losing the 2019 election so badly.

So here I misjudged both the individual character of Corbyn and the group behaviour of the Labour party (the latter twice, for their response to each election). This is pretty bad, but not quite as bad as it appears. Corbyn was just a bit less of a shit than I thought, whereas the Labour party were either more sneaky and/or less principled, or possibly more weary, than I supposed. I think these mistakes arose from relatively minor misjudgements that had big consequences.


The Liberal Democrat resurgence(s)



Prediction

An interesting mix here. In April 2017 I was hopeful and maybe even expectant of a significant Lib Dem breakthrough :
The Lib Dems recently won some spectacular victories in by-elections... Anecdotally, I know too many once-devoted Labour supporters (both young and old) who are literally disgusted with Corbyn to take any claims of a shock Labour win seriously.
.... the "safe seats" idea appears to be passing, given both the previous general election and recent by-election results. Cardiff voted for Remain, which makes a Lib Dem surge here not so implausible.
Of course I didn't expect them to win or even come close :
I accept that we won't get a shock Labour or Lib Dem win, but would a Tory loss be so unexpected ?...  I do think there's a chance of an upset. 
And while we're here, as to the Tories :
The Tory minority is tiny. It's far less implausible to suggest that it might be reduced to nothing and the government replaced with a coalition of the left.
Whereas in November 2019, despite the Lib Dems having secured more seats via defections and performed extremely well in European elections :
I'd rather have the Lib Dems over Labour, but in Cardiff North that doesn't look like a realistic choice.
And I finally decided to vote Labour, despite despising Corbyn, on the grounds of tactical voting (which I also disapprove of). Oh how principled I am !


Verdict

There was no Lib Dem resurgence in 2017, so I was wrong there. The Tories did, however, reduce their majority substantially, though not completely, so I give myself partial credit on that score (and Labour lost, so I was right about that too). In fact the government even fell to an impotent minority, but only after months of by-elections and defections rather than due to the election itself. And I was right - having learned from bitter experience - that a Lib Dem choice just isn't realistic in Cardiff North, so choosing Labour was at least better than throwing my vote away to the Lib Dems. So full spectrum here : totally wrong about the Lid Dem resurgence, partially right about the Tory losses, right about Labour not winning, and right about the local Lib Dem failures.


Reasons

With hindsight, I cannot honestly tell you if I was merely hopeful or truly expectant that the Lib Dems would perform much better in 2017. I think I may not have even known myself. On the other hand, I was quite worried by voting Labour in 2019, thinking that I might be betting on the wrong horse - but a doubt in the back of the mind is not the same as an actual vote cast. I largely went with gut instinct in 2019 rather than any careful thinking.

Why wasn't there a big Lib Dem resurgence in 2017 ? I don't know. In 2019, overall I didn't believe they had much of a chance, having failed to convince me of their credibility and Labour - just barely - having done enough to satisfy me regarding the main issue of the day. But I have no idea how typical this way of thinking was. The first-past-the-post system (more on that below) means we should be extremely cautious about analysing overall results, so this remains confusing.



The 2019 election




Prediction

Here I have to say that I was outright silly, and fell into all the same traps as all the popular left-wing commentators. In a deliberately rhetorical piece in September 2019 I wrote about Boris Johnson :
Expelling MPs en masse is unlikely to be something the Tory party machinery is going to reward come campaigning season.
He can't even keep his family loyal... His singular approach of bully and bluster is fine for preaching for the choir - that's why he won the PM election with the Tory faithful - but useless for winning hearts and minds, which is vital for winning back Tory control of the House.
 Though I did temper this with :
While things don't look good for Boris come election time, we should remember that he's largely untested in such a campaign - even fools have a few strengths. Given the first past the post electoral system, it is still credible that, if the pro-Remain parties don't tread carefully, we could end up with a Tory majority. 
I was quite pleased with the rhetoric in that post, but that does make it harder to get at what I really meant. I was, I think, genuinely quite confident that Boris Johnson could lose the election. I added in a note of caution only to say that we shouldn't take anything as a foregone conclusion, but this doesn't negate my totally mistaken prediction.

In another deliberately rhetorical post a few days later I concluded somewhat more successfully :
It is possible, however unlikely, that an election could result in No Deal or further prevarication. But it is also possible, and considerably more probable, that it could end the whole sorry affair.

Verdict

Even with my caveats about success not being certain, it's pretty clear that I actually thought Boris could very well lose. He didn't. But there is an important factor to remember here, one which, ironically, I've been at pains to examine before : the first past the post system. I mentioned this in the predictive posts, but badly failed to understand how it could play out. As far back as May 2015 I noted that :
The SNP's sweeping victory disproves any idea that a different system is necessary for the success of smaller parties.
Though that's a bit out of context as the original post was fairly nuanced. But the point is that the Tories did not win the popular vote; in fact, 52% of the vote went to pro-Remain parties. So even though I certainly underestimated Tory popularity, I also had a valid point. I was however utterly wrong in thinking that the Tory party might not support its own leader. This isn't quite as stupid a suggestion as it might sound, given recent reports that the Labour party may have tried exactly this during the 2017 election.


Reasons

The FPTP system makes the thing very difficult to analyse without doing detailed breakdowns on the numbers, which I'm not prepared to do here for the sake of a single paragraph. One thing I can state with confidence is that I overestimated Jeremy Corbyn's campaign ability, which this time wasn't as successful at clawing Labour back from abysmal polling figures as it had been in 2017 - the public, I think, were just fed up with him. Conversely, I probably underestimated Boris Johnson's popularity too, as well as misjudging the abilities of each party to work with the FPTP system (this, though, has led to a substantial shift in my opinions on proportional representation, discussed here).

I also think I may have simply been too close to this. With a vested personal interest, it's easy to get caught up in the daily sensationalism whereby every minor error of a politician is depicted as grounds to break their legs and throw them to the wolves - particularly if you happen to have a really profound dislike for them. And more cynically, it's arguable that the public just aren't interested in this stuff. Whereas an enthusiast of political theory will see Boris Johnson hiding in a meat locker (or the now-President of the Ukraine saying nothing much at all throughout his whole campaign) as a profoundly undemocratic act of avoiding scrutiny, the general public just don't care.


Honourable mention : Jeremy Corbyn

Not really a prediction but a simple case of changing my mind. Since this is described at length here, I'll just summarise. Initially I thought Jeremy Corbyn was a hugely underrated, charismatic, game-changing individual who was treated incredibly badly by the popular press. Now I believe he's a feckless, smug, patronising, authoritarian.... well, basically a horrible little man who I wish would just sod off. However, I did follow my own advice, which was to give him a year and see how he got on. The answer was, "terribly", and so although my initial assessment was way, way off, at least I changed my mind about him much sooner than most of the left-wing tabloids. Even now, almost unbelievably, there are still commentators who think he should have magically won and the Labour party should stand by him for some strange reason. It's pretty clear that my political prediction skills are frankly shite, but hey, at least I'm not that bad.


Conclusions to part two

I am way less good at remaining objective in the face of ideological preferences that I would have expected. I'm not wrong about everything, but I'm wrong a lot. Granted, if you go back and look at some of the cited posts in their entirety, you'll find that there are caveats - I don't often pronounce things as definitive either way. But the fact is that even when I'm only confident enough to make a "most likely" prediction, more often than not, I'm still wrong.

By my count, politically I'm wrong about twice as often as I am right. And what's worse, my correct predictions were all really easy ones. I can even add a few more failures from memory : at one point I was quite convinced a second referendum was inevitable, and I thought Corbyn's decision to admit he wasn't going to campaign in such a referendum would be something that would appeal to voters by virtue of its honesty; I also though there was a real possibility of Donald Trump starting another war; I didn't think Boris Johnson had any chance of getting a Brexit deal. So yeah, I'm bad at this.

Ideology has certainly played its part in blinding me to the obvious here. Even though my own moral viewpoints were not directly at stake (for example. that the Tories were re-elected doesn't vindicate austerity, nor does thinking Jeremy Corbyn is a total arse-monkey make me question renationalisation) my mere preference was enough to cloud my judgement. I didn't pin my reputation or identity on any of these predictions, but I still got them wrong.

There's also an interesting but complicated contrast here with the technology predictions. For those, I predicted failures but would have preferred it if they'd succeeded, whereas for politics I predicted failures and wanted failures. If preferences do influence beliefs and predictions, clearly this isn't as clear-cut as I first thought. The desire to be right for one's own sake (to blow a raspberry at people and say, "I told you so !") is not the same as the actual outcome wanted. Perhaps that's a factor I should consider more carefully in future predictions.

In fairness, sometimes I've been nearly right, but small errors can lead to big consequences. And some suggestions which may seem obviously wrong are not as daft as they may first appear. Still, undeniably some things I've said have been totally stupid. On the other hand, try and find me someone from the Independent or the Guardian (never mind the Mail) doing a similar exercise. Go on, I'll wait.



Summary


Ahh, the thankless life of the internet commentator.
I decided the easiest way to summarise all this and record things in the future was by means of a spreadsheet. I'll update this with future predictions too.

It's pretty safe to say I do better at science and technology predictions than I do at politics. Maybe I didn't put much basic ideology on stake in the political examples here, but I definitely wanted certain things to happen and certain people to be right or wrong. In contrast, in some ways I don't give a monkey's whether a whirly space vacuum tube thingy works or not. I mean, besides saying, "wow, that's cool", what's in it for me ? Nothing*. And we can easily and objectively test whether the whirly space thingy works or not, whereas judging someone's underlying motivation is always going to be at least a little bit subjective.

* Besides a massive nerd boner. That is, until space travel becomes so cheap as I can afford it myself, I don't have much of a personal stake in it.

If nothing else, I've discovered that it's damn hard to say what my real preferences are : I always want my prediction to be right for its own sake, but that doesn't mean I always want that outcome to actually occur. That'd be like yelling, "I told you so !" as the Titanic hits the iceberg. Maybe in the future I should more explicitly state what it is I'd prefer to happen. While praise and shame are reputed to be major drivers of belief, this exercise has made me wonder just how true that is - and reminded me that bias can act in different ways all at once.


A much simpler factor is that politics is just a lot more complicated : there are many more variables and assumptions I'm not always aware of; things I take for granted or never take the trouble to properly scrutinise. I'm never going to say, "Theresa May will continue to be unpopular, unless she manages to fight off a bear on the steps of Downing Street". Politics is a lot more provisional than technology - it has a lot more unknown unknowns. I have to assume Theresa May won't be attacked by a bear, otherwise I also have to consider the possibility of her being eaten by a lion or falling deeply in love with an inflatable sheep, or tripping and breaking her ankle in a field of wheat. Or something.

One thing that prompted this post (aside from the oodles of spare time) was the observation that professional political commentators seem to be truly adept at tribalistic bullshitting. I even made this lovely little chart, which I can simplify here :

How to very cleverly justify something really stupid. If I were to plot my predictions here, I suspect there'd be some in every quadrant.
Professional commentary on all sides seems to gravitate strongly towards that upper-left quadrant. They're darn good at persuading you of anything they like, but they don't often stop to acknowledge if they were wrong in the past. They're concerned far more with who than what - if someone they dislikes says something they approve of, it's invariably due to an ulterior motive or still inadequate in some way. Hence you get bollocks like holding different people to truly ludicrous double standards and absolutely no inkling of whether an author is truly being fair on just going on an angry rant. And what's particularly horrible, particularly insidious about the whole thing, is that even being aware of this doesn't automatically make you more skeptical or less vulnerable to letting confirmation bias get the better of you. I still head towards opinion piece headlines I approve of.

Recently I tried out a quite nice tool from Clearer Thinking, which is supposed to help you challenge your own beliefs. You give it a statement and then it guides you through the process of critiquing it. At the end, all I found was that my new, revised statement had just been made a little more watertight, proofing it against unforeseen circumstances (and/or enraged bears) but not changing the substance of it one bit. Bullshitting, it's worth acknowledging, is a perilously easy trap to fall into.

Knowing how wrong I've been, should I now re-evaluate my beliefs ? Well, clearly I'm not a great judge of character, so at the very least I should be more cautious in giving the latest political leader my support or disapproval. On the other hand, I will stand up and say I'm ready to change my mind about them in according to the evidence - at least, at lot more so than the gutter press. And while I'm actively annoyed by science and technology sensationalism, I'm much more vulnerable to the political kind, so I should try harder to keep it at arm's length. Hopefully being able to look back on my own record here will help remind me of that. Also, I've overestimated my ability to judge the opinion of the public and political parties; I've made several predictions when I had no access to the necessary inside information.

Finally, I haven't really made any predictions that directly flow from my deeper ideological beliefs, e.g. whether higher taxes would be a good thing or not, whether we should relax austerity or not - I've been concerned too much with individuals and day-to-day details. This means I've kept those beliefs shielded. I think they're backed up by existing evidence, but if I really understand them properly, I ought to be able to predict their effects in the future too.


One last point is that even an opinion formed in the upper right panel of the chart is not necessarily right or wrong, and likewise for the others too. Sheer luck, caused by all those nasty complications that is the mess known as "real life", means that even the stupidest person can sometimes outfox the cleverest. But generally, surely it's better to be rational than wholly irrational. So if we did get some analysis of how often the major pundits get things right or wrong, it might indeed be a good guide as to who's worth listening to and who's just blowing their own trumpet. Perhaps we could make an app to make this easier, or even teach it in schools so people will grow up without being afraid of being wrong. On the other hand it might just encourage even more bullshitting by making them too afraid to say anything of real substance at all, leading to garbage language that's utterly incomprehensible. That's not a prediction I'm willing to make.

Even with all this uncertainty, I'm willing to offer some take-home points :
  • Bias is complicated. We can simultaneously desire to be right and wrong, so how this influences a prediction isn't always straightforward.
  • We can be wrong due to simple ignorance, implicit assumptions, or fundamental mistakes. Not every wrong result means we should change our whole world view.
  • We can get things right for the same reason : essentially, sheer luck.
  • If we want to use predictions to test our ideologies, we have to expose those ideologies to direct testing rather than just testing individual characters and day-to-day occurrences. We need to specify clearly and ahead of time what we think will happen and why, and how different situations and conditions might play out. Otherwise we have no standards against which to judge ourselves, allowing us to get away with anything.
  • Being wrong isn't always fun, but it's usually a learning experience.