Updated: Oct 10, 2021

If a gentleman makes his own luck, then I’m no gentleman. Just a month ago, I draw Germany in a World Cup sweepstake only to cheer on a team that would rather roll over to South Korea than give me the satisfaction of winning £70.

It’s only money though, eh? And as anyone bored enough to read pages of tedious privacy policies will know, every one of us is sitting on a goldmine. As the old adage goes: ‘if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.’

Making that point all the more obvious is the Black Box Bellagio: an art installation/casino where data is the currency, and your chances of winning big are improved through transparency. In between talks at this year’s FutureFest, I hit the tables to find out if Lady Luck was smiling upon me… or at least curious enough about my private information to flash a grin. “Do you have Facebook connected to your smartphone?” the greeter asks. “Yes,” I reply. “Are you willing to show me?” Similar questions follow, with proof required that I have at least three privacy-sucking apps and have a university degree, before the questions get more personal. “Is anyone here on birth control, and willing to prove it?” Perhaps pessimistically – although, for all other purposes, realistically – I didn’t figure I’d need condoms at a technology festival, so I shake my head.

“At FutureFest we were very surprised to see how far people would go to prove to total strangers that they were on birth control/contraceptives,” the project’s co-creator Roos Groothuizen tells me later. “ There was one instance where a lady showed her upper arm and started wiggling her implant around with her fingers.”

I lose points for going freelance, confirming my mother’s worst fears about my future, and I’m not getting any luck elsewhere. I can’t prove I’m married, because I’m not; over the age of 36, because I’m not; or have over £22,000 because, thanks to the aforementioned career vortex, I definitely do not. So these are the chips I’m given. My personal worth coming to 1,700 of a possible 2,700. It’s now up to me to make the most of them – and to do so quickly, because I’m due at another talk. What’s the best way to burn money?

Not BlackJack, it turns out. Not because I can count cards – at least not in anything but the most literal, useless sense – but because this version of BlackJack doesn’t use chips. Instead, it’s me against the dealer, but rather than gaining currency, the winner gets to sabotage the loser’s Facebook profile by liking a page chosen by a spinner wheel. On my first go, I overplay my hand and go bust. I spin the wheel and become a fan of… Eddie Stobart. Well, that could have been worse.

We go again, and this time I hit a solid 18 before sticking. The dealer hits 17, and now it’s my turn to sabotage her profile: which is duly done for an additional like on ‘Meat is Murder’. It turns out that this profile doesn’t belong to the dealer herself, but to Groothuizen, whose Facebook account is well and truly vandalised with controversial interests. “In the beginning I got a few digital ‘eyebrow raises’ from friends after I liked the highly controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders,” she explains. “Now, they know what’s up when I suddenly like 50 pages in one day, but it’s scary to see how seriously friends and other people can take your digital persona.”

She actually enjoys this, pointing out that if you like enough random things, you essentially become invisible to an algorithm unsure of how to cope. She’s been showered with ads for groups like ‘Not ashamed of Jesus Christ’ and the fanpages of both Alex Jones and Stephen Colbert. “It's liberating. It's better than deactivating it, trashing it."

So far I’ve gained a hitherto unknown fandom of Eddie Stobart and boosted the vegetarian cause, but I’ve not lost any chips, so I rush to the roulette table: a place when a fool and his money are traditionally easily parted.

As you can see from the picture, certain squares are blocked out, and can only be bet on by certain people. I have to get rid of my chips quickly, so it’s all about the numbered squares. It takes me three turns. I’m very good at this

The poker table, Groothuizen tells me, is where privacy is really lost though. It works like a regular poker game, except players can get new cards or view other peoples’ hands if they’re prepared to reveal private information from their phones. Would you show your last Uber trip, your last Amazon order or your bank balance to a table of complete strangers?

Not understanding poker, for me, the question doesn’t arise, but others aren’t so lucky. “Someone had saved a porn video on their phone with sounds and everything, and they had to show everyone,” says Groothuizen. And he still didn’t win: “It cost him a lot,” recalls the project’s other creator, Ymer Marinus, who took the chips that day. Even for those that do win, Marinus reckons the dopamine rush of triumph is only temporary. “You can come in and experience it as a game thing, and you win chips and then you go home and feel good,” he says. “but you will feel uneasy after a few days.”

Groothuizen agrees: “I think in the rush of the game you completely forget what you're doing, and then once it's finished you think 'wait a second, I just shared all my personal informations with complete strangers.’”

“Which happens all the time online,” Marinus chips in.

Pockets empty, on my way out of the casino, I spot a fruit machine that doesn’t need coins: instead it takes a photo. In a perfect allegory for our general use of the internet, I don’t bother to read the smallprint on this gift horse and let it take my picture. This, it turns out, could have been a massive mistake:

My face used for catfishing. Or a face that looks a bit like me, only with less hair than I remember. I’m later told by Groothuizen that this doesn’t really happen, but it’s a moot point: for today I am lucky after all.

3,000 coins is not what I’m looking for when already running late for a talk, but there is a side effect to winning, I discover later: “You were the one who won the jackpot?” asks Groothuizen, surprised. “You erased all the pictures! We were saving every user's picture and publishing it to the website. You deleted the whole database – a hero amongst men,” she laughs.

All in a day’s work, I guess. What were the odds of that happening off the back of two spins? “Super small,” apparently – this happened twice over the weekend from over 400 spins. “You were very, very lucky,” Marinus says. I am, apparently, a rabbit’s foot for privacy advocates.

Not everyone walks away feeling happy with the exhibit though. “The most remarkable thing is that people actually feel violated, and they have a lot of questions,” says Marinus. Some are physically angry and upset, he says, while others just refuse to play at all. But that’s not an option on social media: something the pair of them acknowledge. “The not participating option seems a bit extreme and you're a social hostage,” says Marinus. “If you don't have it, you can't participate in society.”

“It's also strange to make the end user responsible,” adds Groothuizen. “Shouldn't the company be responsible for ethical use? Why should I be the person to deactivate my account?”

She shouldn’t, of course, but then real life isn’t like the Black Box Bellagio. The house always wins, one way or another.

This piece was originally written for me for publication on Gizmodo UK - a site that no longer exists. As such, with the site wiped from the internet, I assume there's no harm in republishing, but if any rights holders disagree, then please do get in touch.

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

Although this piece is now eight years old, it felt as useful today as when I wrote it. So I've pinned it for any aspiring writers out there...

Like every writer under the sun (and a whole load more who remain pale-skinned and stored away from direct sunlight… like myself in fact), I am well aware that I have a predisposition towards procrastination. Brought up in a era where the internet was maturing, distractions are just too easy, and a quick bit of research into ‘what year was that handset made?’ can lead me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole of distractions. Just writing that sentence has made me want to look up rabbits on Wikipedia, but I shall stay focused because that’s what this blog post is all about.

This is how I start every Freelance Friday. Only I don’t colour in the hearts.

With that opening paragraph, you may think I’m the worst person in the world to be writing on that topic. Well tough, you’re reading this now, and presumably you didn’t get distracted by the link to rabbits on Wikipedia, so you passed the first test.

Anyway, I’ve taken a small step towards becoming my own boss. Every Friday, I don’t make the short walk to Tooting Rail Station, and instead spend the day writing. So I’ve had to become a bit more disciplined a lot more quickly. So these tips are to remind myself, as much as anything. Here’s Alan’s Guide to Beating Writer’s Block Into a Bloody Pulp That Can Only Be Recognised With Reference to Dental Records:

1) Just Get It Down

You’ve got a wordcount of 1,500 words to fill. That’s easy, a tiny amount once you get started, but getting started is the hardest bit. The longer you stay staring at that blank page, the harder it becomes so just dig in with any words that come to mind. If you take this approach, your basic structure will be in place, and then you can go back and make it read well later.

You’re not sending it as it is: only you see this draft, full of typos, repeated words and vagueness, so don’t be so bloody precious about it. Suddenly your wordcount is half full and you can go back, fact-check and make it presentable, and nobody need ever be any the wiser about the mess it was before.

2) Plan it Out

This may sound like it directly contradicts the first point, and it might do, or it might not. If you know you have certain points you have to cover in your 1,500 words, then put a heading for each area you have to cover in the order you think would flow most naturally. Then you can combine this point with the first and rattle your way through the entire article in no time, leaving you plenty of room to tidy things up. This is no doubt partly psychological: it means that blank page is no longer blank.

3) Kill All Distractions

If this isn’t working, it’s time to get serious. Remove any background music with lyrics (I find Unwed Sailor is great to work to, because it’s just indie instrumentals that won’t distract with words and meanings), and block internet sites you don’t need. This may be as simple as full-screening your writing program, or you may decide to take more drastic steps.

The trouble with this, of course, is that you may need the internet for legitimate research. If you have a laptop and a PC, you can make one your writing point and the other your research station. Sounds silly, but this differentiation can really help you out and keep you focussed.

My favourite tip in this situation is to use my iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard with the iA Writer app, which is the most barebones writing tool around: it’s literally just you and the text you write. No distractions, just a wall of text and a wordcounter. Perfect for getting the basics down for more refined editing later (and the editing, though tedious, is a lot easier.)

4) Don’t Stop Reading

Around £13 in spend, and one very confused newsagent. but hopefully loads of ideas…

But let’s say you don’t have a specific brief of what to write about and you’re looking for inspiration. The best thing is to read all around the area that you want to write about from as many different sources as possible. I will quite often read opinion pieces from The Guardian and The Telegraph, and this keeps my synapses firing on topics I didn’t think it was possible to have an original thought on. Don’t just stop at the articles and opinion pieces: read the comments too. Yes, they’ll make you angry and despair for humanity, but often a single sentence thrown off by a commenter will unlock a whole new chain of ideas in your head and you’re pitching away like a man possessed. This is how my first New Statesman piece came into existence.

This has the added bonus of making you read other established writers, to see how they craft their articles and views into a coherent argument. I like to think I’m pretty good at this after many years of writing professionally but if you’re new to writing it’s invaluable, and you can always learn more.

5) Talk it Through With Somebody Else

Sometimes it can be really helpful to find someone you haven’t bored to tears with such requests before just to bounce ideas off. They don’t need to know the subject area - in fact, it’s often better that they don’t as it can make you question whether you should be a bit clearer in defining terms.

But what often happens is the person will interrupt and ask questions that you hadn’t even considered, and make your brain fire off in a whole new direction. Bam, suddenly your challenge is not reaching the wordcount, but trying to make sure you don’t smash through it.

6) Clear Your Head

The idea a year ago that I would, without irony, instruct other people to go for a run would be laughable, but as someone who now does so himself every other day, I can really see its benefits. There are plenty of ways of taking a break from writing, but ideally you want something to allow your brain to just percolate on ideas without cramming new stuff in, so watching TV, reading a book or playing a game is out. Running is perfect, because it’s so mind-numbingly dull that you can’t help but let your mind wander. Meditation might also be good, and I used to get a similar effect from walking places, so these will probably work if you can’t stomach the idea of being one of those smug runners (I know: I dislike myself immensely for becoming one of those people too).

I use Endomondo to track my runs. This lets others send messages while you’re out running, as my brother demonstrates with this wonderful peptalk.

7) Read it over

If you’ve said everything you wanted to say, and you’re still short on words, then go back and tidy up what you’ve already done. I tend to proofread my work at least two or three times before signing off on it, and I’m constantly tinkering with my word choice. But if you do this before hitting the word count, it’ll allow you to spot bits you haven’t covered and expand on them.

And hopefully you’re done! Feel free to reward yourself with this short Blackadder clip below (I might genuinely start playing this every time I send in an invoice from hereon in):

Boris Johnson - a politician I have precisely no time for at all, but a lot of people seem to like because he was quite funny on that TV panel quiz show - is having a bit of a rare experience for him at the moment. He’s getting some bad press.

He made some comments associating success with IQ. This is pretty laughable, considering how dubious the IQ test is, let alone trying to tie it up with life chances. But it’s the kind of thing the Tory Right like with their philosophy: that hard work and industry can - to use Johnson’s ‘charming’ parlance - ensure the clever cornflakes rise to the top of the pack.

It’s far from the most offensive thing he’s ever said, and I won’t waste time by digging out his back catalogue of instances where the mask of bumbling charmer has slipped, because they’re easy enough to find. These instances are quite jarring with his main persona and the image the media has assisted in creating for him. I don’t even think this latest IQ snafu is that bad, considering his form, but I welcome the extra scrutiny he’s so rarely subjected to. But my problem is this: it won’t stick at all. Loads of media commenters are stating this is a PR disaster and the end of his leadership chances. I highly doubt it.

The reason why? Everyone - even card carrying pinko liberals like myself - has spent a good proportion of their life 'silently bemoaning half-wits in our heads’. And while I’d never be so crude as to take a guess at someone’s IQ, the truth is that people will hear this and think 'ah yes, those idiots’, even when they’re actually a little too dim to figure out that criticism was being leveled directly at them.

That’s the trouble with this kind of vague catch-all insult - its so directionless that anyone can nod and think the target is someone else. Everybody believes they’re above average, which is both mathematically and philosophically impossible. Everyone thinks they’re above average intelligence (yep), everyone thinks they’re an above average driver (I don’t, but then multiple failed tests are hard to argue with), and everyone thinks they’re above average in bed (I am an excellent sleeper). So nobody will think that Johnson is referring to them when they talk about the 16% of below average intelligence.

So in short, he’s not writing off 47% of the electorate like Romney did, nor is he insulting the voters he intends to woo. Even if he is, they don’t think he’s referring to them. He’s only offending the kind of liberals and lefties who have been infuriated by him for years. No change there. And in any case they’re offended on others’ behalf, because as humans they also believe they’re above average.

So in other words, despite everyone calling it a gaffe, it’s not at all. He’s ingratiating himself to the Tory right, not affecting floating voters at all and keeping the status quo with the minority of folks who dislike him intensely. Classic Boris.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, last time I took an IQ test about 8 years ago I scored 103. Not in the 2% Boris Johnson wants to celebrate the greed of then, which explains why I’m writing this from a bed with a cat walking across my face rather than a luxury yacht with an ocelot perched majestically next to me… I may have confused ideas about what being rich involves.