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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. I think it was around the two-hour mark where I lost the will to live. I’d set out to find out how people are selling smartphones on shopping channels in an era where internet shopping is everywhere, and what had started as a fun idea turned into something more than a mere chore. I’m pretty sure I became the first person in the history of the world to series-link an Ideal World special.

“When I saw the deal I thought ‘wow, that's a fantastic deal… what kind of phone are we getting?’” asks Ideal World Shopping Channel host Peter Vollebregt. I can regrettably answer that question from memory, having made the unfortunate life choice of watching over three hours of him trying to hawk it. It’s the STK Life 7. No, I’d never heard of it either – and I’ve been reviewing phones for the past four years.

Fortunately a promotional video regularly breaks up the presenter banter, smoothing over my ignorance. STK aims to “redefine luxury by combining functional design, innovation and attention to detail,” the promo oozes. A quick check of the dictionary tells me that this £79.99 smartphone hasn’t quite managed to get that new definition to stick, but at least it’s trying.

And that shouldn’t surprise you. “With one prevalent dream, to go where there is no path and leave a trail, STK are the darers and doers of the tech world,” the voice continues. “STK are people that take responsibility to create an honest legacy that will take the next generation to a level we can only imagine.”

Gosh. How do they do that? Novelty camera overlays seems to be the main innovation, as far as I can tell.

No wonder the presenters seem keen. “I couldn’t believe it - the amount of tech you’re getting for that price,” says Vollebregt. “There’s more technology in this phone than put a man on the moon - when I say more, I mean not thousands of times. Millions.”

That’s right: you too could plan your very own Apollo mission with four simple payments of £20. You shouldn’t expect to lift off too quickly, though – just look how long it takes to open the TripAdvisor app:

“Everything is going to flow quite smoothly on this phone,” says Vollebregt, cheerfully ignoring the evidence from his own hand.

The full specifications aren’t ever fully disclosed, and the STK site is equally vague. An (unspecified) quad-core processor, 1GB RAM, and a 2,000mAh battery. It runs “one of the latest operating systems,” the presenters keep saying, which turned out to be Android N. Technically that is “one of the latest operating systems” but only in the same way that Temple of Doom is “one of the latest Indiana Jones movies”.

Actually, to be fair, it might run “Andriod 7.0”, which I’m less familiar with.

It’s supposed to sell for £119.99, but this is a Presenter Takeover special which means low, low prices for a limited time. In this case it’s £79.99 with a free power bank (“I like to call it electricity on the go” – thanks Peter) or a £10 O2 SIM card. That appears to be a great deal – “Have a look at some of the places we found it,” the presenters urge showing prices ranging between £89.99 and £119.99.

They can’t have looked too hard. A quick internet search reveals the handset on sale for £59.99 at retailers they’ve mysteriously missed, but given the presenters’ collective astonishment at five-year-old Android functions, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and suggest they’re not familiar with Google.com. Or even Bing.

It’s apparently selling like hotcakes. There are “only around ten left” of the O2 deal, and you “desperately, desperately need to check out,” urges co-presenter Hayley Green towards the end of the second hour. As someone who mentally checked out about half an hour earlier, I completely sympathise.

“I’ll be absolutely honest,” she adds, calling into question how honest she was for the preceding 120 minutes, “I’m really worried about the stock. It’s meant to last until 9pm tonight, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t.” I share this worry, given I’ve recorded two more hours for this feature. What am I going to write about if the last 120 minutes become a eulogy to a brilliant offer gone before its time?

I needn’t have worried. Hour three begins with Green missing – probably just as well given the stress the lack of stock seemed to be causing. In her place is Paul Becque, a cheerful cockney presenter, who launches things with a strong sales pitch. “Now I’m confident if I said I could get you a SatNav, a photo camera, a video camera and many many more items for under £100… c’mon, a SatNav for under 100 quid? You’re interested right?” Becque knows three people with £1,000 handsets. Those suckers.

His cheery style certainly adds a little levity to proceedings. He’s in awe of the breadth of the Google Play store’s content. There’s something for you whether you’re a fan of gardening or racing pigeons. “Yes, even racing pigeons,” he emphasises to a presumably disbelieving audience. A quick fact check shows that, yes, there are multiple pigeon racing apps on the Google Play Store.

But he’s not always an asset. “It’s a dog! I thought it was a mouse in that little picture,” he exclaims, somewhat undermining Vollebregt as he’s mid-way through effusively praising the quality of snaps he’s managed with the 8-megapixel camera. The fourth and final hour is a real treat, and not just because there’s still stock – despite Green’s warnings eight hours earlier. Not just because a loud buzzer sounds every ten minutes to warn the deal is nearly over. No, the real treat is an ostentatious countdown clock that sits in the right-hand corner of the screen, telling me exactly how much more of this I’m going to have to endure before I can go outside again. Actually by this point, I’ve seen the patter so much I think I could be drafted in to make the sales pitch. I’ve seen Peter in the fake French coffee shop three times. I’ve seen Peter in the car banging on about Sat Nav three times. I worry that I’ll dream about Peter showing off some fairly ropey camera overlays for the rest of my life. “How amazing is that?” he lilts when I close my eyes, even now. But there’s one part that remains truly spellbinding even on its third appearance. INT. A hotel bedroom - Day. Peter Vollebregt enters carrying an enormous luggage in one hand, and a STK Life 7 smartphone in the other. From the suitcase, one by one, he removes all the items his smartphone has replaced from what he describes as holiday essentials. One by one, a calculator, a calendar, a SatNav, a book, newspapers, magazines, a video camera, DVDs, CDs, a phrase book, a clock, a torch, a camera, a microphone, a radio, a chess set and a laptop are magically produced and tossed onto the bed. “Tell me, do you carry around a TV?” he asks at the climax of this five-minute tour de force, picking up what seems to be a 20-inch television. “Well I do… not this one, because that would be ridiculous. No, no: this one right here,” he continues, grabbing the STK Life 7 again. “Isn’t that incredible?” Like watching multiple performances of Hamlet, this magnificent performance is subtly different each time, meaning some poor sucker has been setting up the vignette repeatedly. It’s amazing that some disgruntled runner didn’t put in some dummy items for him to explain away, really, but sadly no sombreros or comically large marrows were smuggled in for either the matinee or evening performances of this engrossing piece of avant-garde performance art. So what have I learned after spending 0.045% of 2018 watching three people trying to schill a budget smartphone to a largely disinterested audience? Chiefly that you’re not supposed to watch four hours of it. It’s designed for channel hoppers dropping by and repetition is rife. Other life lessons along the way: you shouldn’t buy a smartphone from a shopping channel. Almost every decent STK feature comes from free Google apps and salespeople are prone to somewhat exaggerate the truth. Who knew? But the most odd thing about the whole experience is that even the hosts don’t seem to know who’s watching anymore. Is the audience aware smartphones exist or not? It’s not clear. Vollebregt claims Ideal World shifts around 50,000 STK phones per year, so somebody’s buying them. How many end up being returned with that no-quibble guarantee is left to our imaginations.


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.

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):