What’s Wrong With Monopoly?

Monopoly – the world’s best-selling board game – sucks. I’ve said it before, but it bears saying again. I’ve never made any secret of my distaste for the game, but it’s probably worth spelling out the reasons, in case you’ve somehow missed them.

Monopoly (British Edition) in its current branding
Monopoly (British Edition) in its current branding

Broadly-speaking, there are four things wrong with Monopoly: the rules, the theme, the history, and the players.

The Rules

The following issues have plagued Monopoly for at least the last 75 years:

  • It takes a disproportionately long time to play, relative to the amount of fun it provides or skill it tests. A longer game is not intrinsically more-exciting: would a 1000-square Snakes & Ladders be ten times as good as a 100-square one? Monopoly involves a commitment of three to four hours, most of it spent watching other people take their turns.
  • It’s an elimination game: players are knocked out (made bankrupt) one at a time, until only one remains. This invariably leads to a dull time for those players first removed from the game (compounded by the game length). In real-world play, it’s usually the case that a clear winner is obvious long before the game ends, leading to a protracted, painful, and frankly dull slow death for the other players. Compare this to strategic games like Power Grid, where it can be hard to call the winner between closely matched players right up until the final turns, in which everybody has a part.
  • It depends hugely on luck, which fails to reward good strategic play. Even the implementation of those strategies which do exist remain heavily dependent on the roll of the dice. Contrast the superficially-simpler (and far faster) property game For Sale, which rewards strategic play with just a smidgen of luck.
  • It’s too quick to master: you can learn and apply the optimal strategies after only a handful of games. Coupled with the amount of luck involved, there’s little to distinguish an expert player from a casual one: only first-time players are left out. Some have argued that this makes it easier for new players to feel like part of the game, but there are other ways to achieve this, such as handicaps, or – better – variable starting conditions that make the game different each time, like Dominion.
  • There’s little opportunity for choice: most turns are simply a matter of rolling the dice, counting some spaces, and then either paying (or not paying) some rent. There’s a little more excitement earlier in the game, when properties remain unpurchased, but not much. The Speed Die add-on goes a small way to fixing this, as well as shortening the duration of the game, but doesn’t really go far enough.
  • The rules themselves are ambiguously-written. If they fail to roll doubles on their third turn in jail, the rules state, the player much pay the fine to be released. But does that mean that they must pay, then roll (as per the usual mechanic), in which case must it be next turn? Or should it be this turn, and if so, should the already-made (known, non-double) roll be used? Similarly, the rules state that the amount paid when landing on a utility is the number showing on the dice: is this to be a fresh roll, or is the last roll of the current player the correct one? There are clarifications available for those who want to look, but it’s harder than it needs to be: it’s no wonder that people seem to make it up as they go along (see “The Players”, below, for my thoughts on this).
Calvin and Hobbes demonstrate exactly what's wrong with Monopoly, by demonstrating exactly what's wrong with Monopoly players. Click for the full comic.
Calvin and Hobbes demonstrate exactly what’s wrong with Monopoly, by demonstrating exactly what’s wrong with Monopoly players. Click for the full comic.

The Theme

But that’s not what Monopoly‘s about, is it? Its purpose is to instill entrepreneurial, capitalist values, and the idea that if you work hard enough, and you’re lucky enough, that you can become rich and famous! Well, that’s certainly not its original purpose (see “The History”, below), but even if it were, Monopoly‘s theme is still pretty-much broken:

  • It presents a false financial model as if it were a reassuring truth. “The Bank can never go bankrupt,” state the rules, instructing us to keep track of our cash with a pen and paper if there isn’t enough in the box (although heaven help you if your game has gone on long enough to require this)! Maybe Parker Brothers’ could have simply given this direction to those financial institutions that collapsed during the recent banking crisis, and saved us all from a lot of bother. During a marathon four-day game at a University of Pittsburgh fraternity, Parker Brothers couriered more money to the gamers to “prop up” their struggling bank: at least we can all approve of a bailout that the taxpayer doesn’t have to fund, I suppose! Compare this to Puerto Rico, a game which also requires a little thematic suspension of disbelief, but which utilises the depletion of resources as an important game mechanic, forcing players to change strategies in order to remain profitable.
  • Curiously, this same rule does not apply to the supply of houses and hotels, which are deliberately limited: the Monopoly world is one in which money is infinite but in which bricks are not. This makes it more valuable to build houses when there are few resources (in order to deprive your opponents). In actual economies, however, the opposite is true: houses are always needed, but the resources to built them change in value as they become more or less scarce. Watch the relative perceived values of the huts available to build in Stone Age to see how a scarcity economy can really be modelled.
The more houses I build on a street, the more each one is individually worth. Wait, what?
The more houses I build on a street, the more each one is individually worth. Wait, what?
  • Also, it has a completely-backwards approach to market forces. In the real world, assuming (as Monopoly does) a free market, then it is consumer demand that makes it possible to raise capital. In the real world, the building of three more hotels on this side of the city makes it less-likely that anybody will stay at mine, but this is not represented at all. Compare to the excellent 7 Wonders, where I can devalue my neighbour-but-one’s goods supply by producing my own, of the same type.
  • It only superficially teaches that “American dream” that you can get ahead in the world with a lot of work and a little luck: this model collapses outside of frontier lands. If you want to see what the real world is like, then wait until you’ve got a winner in a game of Monopoly, and then allow everybody else to re-start the game, from the beginning. It’s almost impossible to get a foothold in a market when there’s already a monopoly in existence. This alternative way of playing might be a better model for real-world monopolies (this truth is captured by the game Anti-Monopoly in a way that’s somehow even less-fun than the original).

You might shoot down any or all of these arguments by pointing out that “it’s just a game.” But on the other hand, we’ve already discovered that it’s not a very good game. I’m just showing how it manages to lack redeeming educational features, too. With the exception of helping children to learn to count and handle money (and even that is lost in the many computer editions and semi-computerised board game versions), there’s no academic value in Monopoly.

The electronic banking edition of Monopoly.
The electronic banking edition of Monopoly makes an already slow game even slower, unless you’re REALLY bad at arithmetic: in which case you should be playing with money so that you can learn some arithmetic!

The History

You’ve seen now why Monopoly isn’t a very good game both (a) because it’s not fun, and (b) it’s not really educational either – the two biggest reasons that anybody might want to play it. But you might also be surprised to find that its entire history is pretty unpleasant, too, full of about as much backstabbing as a typical game of Monopoly, and primarily for the same reason: profit!

You can think of a baby as a Monopoly piece, but I wouldn't recommend it.
You can think of a baby as a Monopoly piece, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Click for the full comic.

If you look inside the rulebook of almost any modern Monopoly set, or even in Maxine Brady’s well-known strategy guide, you’ll read an abbreviated version of the story of Charles Darrow, who – we’re told – invented the game and then published it through Parker Brothers. But a little detective work into the history of the game shows that in actual fact he simply made a copy of the game board shown to him by his friend Charles Todd. Todd, in turn, had played it in New Jersey, to which it had traveled from Pennsylvania, where it had originally been invented – and patented – by a woman called Elizabeth Magie.

A home-made 1920s "Landlord's Game" board.
Home-made “Landlord’s Game” boards, like this one, were popular in the early part of the 20th century.

Magie’s design differed from modern interpretations in only one major way: its educational aspect. Magie was a believer in Georgian economic philosophy, a libertarian/socialist ideology that posits that while the things we create can be owned, the land belongs equally to everybody. As a result, Georgists claim, the “ownership” of land should be taxed according to its relative worth, and that this should be the principal – or only, say purists – tax levied by a state. Magie pushed her ideas in the game, by trying to show that allowing people to own land (and then to let out the right of others to live on it) serves only to empower landlords… and disenfranchise tenants. The purpose of the game, then, was to show people the unfairness of the prevailing economic system.

Diagram from Lizzie Magie's 1904 patent application.
Lizzie Magie’s 1904 patent application shows a board with familiar features like streets for sale (which can then be rented out), stations, taxes, utilities, and the “public park” (free parking).

Magie herself approached Parker Brothers several times, but they didn’t like her game. Instead, then, she produced sets herself (and an even greater number were home-made), which proved popular – for obvious reasons, considering their philosophical viewpoints – among Georgists, Quakers, and students. She patented a revised version in 1924, which added now-familiar features like cards to mark the owned properties, as well as no-longer-used ideas that could actually go a long way to improving the game, such as a cash-in-hand “goal” for the winner, rather than an elimination rule.

An early boxed copy of Monopoly.
An early boxed copy of Parker Bros’ “Monopoly”.

Interestingly, when Parker Brothers first rejected Charles Darrow, they said that the game was “too complicated, too technical, took too long to play”: at least they and I agree on one thing, then! Regardless, once they eventually saw how popular Lizzie Magie’s version had become across Philadelphia, they changed their tune and accepted Darrow’s proposal. Then, they began the process of hoovering up as many patents as they could manage, in order to secure their very own monopoly on a game that was by that point already 30 years old.

Rich Uncle; a 1940s Parker Bros' game.
The “Rich Uncle” character, from the Parker Bros’ game of the same name, would eventually come to be the familiar mascot of Monopoly.

They weren’t entirely successful, of course, and there have been a variety of controversies around the legality and enforcability of the Monopoly trademark. Parker Brothers (and nowadays, Hasbro) have famously taken to court the makers of board games with even-remotely similar names: most-famously, the Anti-Monopoly game in the 1970s, which they alternately won, then lost, then won, then lost again on a series of appeals in the early 1980s: there’s a really enjoyable book about the topic, and about the history of Monopoly in general. It’s a minefield of court cases and counter-cases, but the short of it is that trade-marking “Monopoly” ought to be pretty-much impossible. Yet somehow, that’s what’s being done.

What’s clear, though, is that innovation on the game basically stopped once Parker’s monopoly was in place. Nowadays, Hasbro expect us to be excited when they replace the iron with a cat or bring out yet another localised edition of the board. On those rare occasions when something genuinely new has come out of the franchise – such as 1936’s underwhelming Stock Exchange expansion, it’s done nothing to correct the fundamental faults in the game and generally just makes it even longer and yet more dull than it was to begin with.

The Players

The fourth thing that I hate about Monopoly is the people who play Monopoly. With apologies for those of you I’m about to offend, but here’s why:

Firstly, they don’t play it like they mean it. Maybe it’s because they’ve come to the conclusion that the only value in the game is to waste time for as long as possible (and let’s face it, that’s a reasonable thing to conclude if you’ve ever played the game), but a significant number of players will deliberately make the game last longer than it needs to. I remember a game once, as a child, when my remaining opponent – given the opportunity to bankrupt me and thus win the game – instead offered me a deal whereby I would give him some of my few remaining properties in exchange for my continued survival. Why would I take that deal? The odds of my making a comeback with a total of six houses on the board and £200 in my pocket (against his monopoly of virtually all the other properties) are virtually nil, so he wasn’t doing me any favours by offering me the chance to prolong my suffering. Yet I’ve also seen players accept deals like like, masochistically making their dull pick-up-and-roll experience last even longer than it absolutely must.

Burning money on a Monopoly board.
Kill it. Kill it with fire. Image courtesy Daniela Hartmann.

Or maybe it’s just that Monopoly brings out the cruel side of people: it makes them enjoy sitting on their huge piles of money, while the other players grovel around them. If they put the other players out of their misery, it would end their fun. If so, perhaps Lizzie Magie’s dream lives on, and Monopoly really does teach us about the evils of capitalism: that the richest are willing to do anything to trample down the poorest and keep them poor, so that the divide is kept as wide as possible? Maybe Monopoly’s a smarter game than I think: though just because it makes a clever point doesn’t necessarily make a board game enjoyable.

It’s not that I’m against losing. Losing a game like Pandemic is endless fun because you feel like you have a chance, right until the end, and the mechanics of games like Tigris & Euphrates mean that you can never be certain that you’re winning, so you have to keep pushing all the way through: both are great games. No: I just object to games in which winning and losing are fundamentally attached to a requirement to grind another person down, slowly, until you’re both sick and tired of the whole thing.

Monopoly for the Sega Master System.
Nowadays, with computerised Monopoly games, you don’t even have to have friends to play. Which is great, because if you’re suggesting a game of Monopoly, you don’t deserve any.

The second thing that people do, that really gets on my nerves, is make up the damn rules as they go along. I know that I spent a while further up this page complaining that Monopoly’s rules are pretty awful, but I can still have a rant about the fact that nobody seems to play by them anyway. This is a problem, because it means that if you ever play Monopoly with someone for the first time, you just know that you’re setting yourself up for an argument when it turns out that their crazy house rules and your crazy house rules aren’t compatible.

House rules for board games are fine, but make them clear. Before you start the game, say, “So, here’s the crazy rule we play by.” That’s fine. But there’s something about Monopoly players that seems to make them think that they don’t need to. Maybe they assume that everybody plays by the same house rules, or maybe they don’t even realise that they’re not playing by the “real” rules, but it seems to me that about 90% of the games of Monopoly I’ve been witness to have been punctuated at some point by somebody saying “wait, is that allowed?”

Free Parking
The “Free Parking Jackpot” is probably the worst house rule for Monopoly that’s ever been invented. But it’s incredibly popular.

Because I’m a bit of a rules lawyer, I pay attention to house rules. Free Parking Jackpot, in which a starting pile of money – plus everybody’s taxes – go in to the centre of the board and are claimed by anybody who lands on Free Parking, is probably the moth loathsome house rule. Why do people feel the need to take a game that’s already burdened with too much luck and add more luck to it. My family used to play with the less-painful but still silly house rule that landing exactly on “Go!” netted you a double-paycheque, which makes about as much sense, and it wasn’t until I took the time to read the rulebook for myself (in an attempt, perhaps, to work out where the fun was supposed to be stored) that I realised that this wasn’t standard practice.

Toothpaste For Dinner comic: World's Worst Boardgame.
Toothpaste For Dinner has the right idea. Click through to the original comic.

Playing without auctions is another common house rule, which dramatically decreases the opportunity for skillful players to bluff, and generally lengthens the game (interestingly, it was a house rule favoured by the early Quaker players of the game). Allowing the trading of “immunity” is another house rule than lengthens the game. Requiring that players travel around the board once before they’re allowed to buy any properties is yet another house rule that adds a dependence on luck and – yet again – lengthens the game. Disallowing trading until all the properties are owned dramatically lengthens the game, and for no benefit (why not just shuffle the property deck and deal it out to everybody to begin with: it’s faster and achieves almost the same thing?).

I once met a family who didn’t play with the rule that you have to spend 10% extra to un-mortgage a property, allowing them to mortgage and un-mortgage with impunity (apparently, they found the arithmetic too hard)! And don’t get me started on players who permit “cheating” (so long as you don’t get caught) as a house rule…

Spot something in common with these house rules? Most of them serve to make a game that’s already too long into something even longer. Players who implement these kinds of house rules are working to make Monopoly – an already really bad game – into something truly abysmal. I tell myself, optimistically, that they probably just don’t know better, and point them in the direction of Ticket to Ride, The Settlers of Catan, or Factory Manager.

But inside, I know that there must be people out there who genuinely enjoy playing Monopoly: people who finish a game and say “fancy another?”, rather than the more-rational activity of, say, the clawing out of their own eyes. And those people scare me.

Further Reading

If you liked this, you might also be interested in:

Worst Weekend Of Cinema – Part 1

This weekend was the worst net weekend of cinemagoing experiences that I’ve ever had. I went to the cinema twice, and both times I left dissatisfied. This blog post is about the second of the two trips.

Avengers Assemble.
Man, this movie looks good. Wish I was watching it and not, say, a black screen.

The less-awful of the two trips happened on Saturday. Ruth, JTA and I turned up for the 20:10 showing of Avengers Assemble at Oxford Vue. We were quite surprised, entering the cinema right on time, to find that they weren’t already showing adverts and trailers – the screen was completely dark – but we found our way to our seats and sat down anyway.

A little over 20 minutes later, nothing had happened, so I went out to where the ticket collectors were doing their thing, down the corridor, and asked if they were planning on showing a film in screen six at some point this evening. “There’s a technical problem with the projector,” I was informed, “We’re trying to fix it now.”

“When were you planning on telling the audience who are all just sat there in the dark?” I asked. There were mumbles of concern, but they were half-hearted: these people were paid primarily to tear tickets, not to deal with irate customers. The stub collector apologised, and I returned to the cinema to feed back to the others. Sensing the dissatisfaction of the other audience members, I briefly considered making an announcement to them all: “Ladies and gentlemen: I regret to inform you that Vue Cinemas doesn’t care about you enough as human beings to tell you themselves, but there’s a technical fault and they’re working on repairing it.” Instead, I grumbled to myself in a British fashion and took my seat.

“I could have downloaded a pirated copy by now,” I joked, “But then I wouldn’t be getting the real cinema experience.”

“For example, it’d start when you pressed the play button,” replied JTA.

(for those of you who know the story of his employment there, you might be unsurprised to hear that this was the very Vue cinema at which Paul worked, very briefly)

An audience falling asleep.
"Is the film on yet?" / "Nope; still just a black screen."

A little while later – still with no announcement from staff, we got sick of the whole thing and went and demanded a refund. The manager – when we finally got to see him (apparently he’s also the guy who was fixing the projector: I guess the cinema must be run on a skeleton staff) – was suitably apologetic, offering us free passes for our next visit as well as giving us a full refund. Another staff member apologised for the delay in sorting out the refund, explaining that “it always gets busy, especially on Orange Wednesdays.” I’m not sure why he told us this, given that it was now Saturday. Perhaps there were still patrons from the previous Wednesday, also still waiting to see their film, too.

As we explained to the manager, it wasn’t the wait that bothered us so much as the lack of information about the reason (or an estimate of the duration) of the delay. All it would have taken would have been a staff member to turn up at five or ten minutes, apologise, and explain, and we’d have understood: things break sometimes. All we wanted was a little respect.

Hello, Facebook; Goodbye, Facebook

Well, that was a farce.

tl;dr: [skip to the end] I’m closing my Facebook account. I’ve got some suggestions at the bottom of this post about how you might like to keep in touch with me in future, if you previously liked to do so via Facebook.

The Backstory

A little over three weeks ago, I was banned from Facebook for having a fake name. This surprised me, because I was using my real name – it’s an unusual name, but it’s mine. I was interested to discover that Claire, who shares my name, hadn’t been similarly banned, so it seems that this wasn’t part of some “sweep” for people with one-letter names, but instead was probably the result of somebody (some stranger, I’d like to hope) clicking the “Report this as a fake name” link on my profile.

Perhaps somebody clicked their way through to this page, and claimed that I was not a "real person".

There are many, many things about this that are alarming, but the biggest is the “block first; ask questions later” attitude. I wasn’t once emailed to warn me that I would be banned. Hell: I wasn’t even emailed to tell me that I had been banned. It took until I tried to log in before I found out at all.

The Problem

I don’t make much use of Facebook, really. I cross-post my blog posts there, and I keep Pidgin signed in to Facebook Chat in case anybody’s looking for me. Oh, and I stalk people from my past, but that’s just about the only thing I do on it that everybody does on it. I don’t really wallpost, I avoid internal messages (replying to them, where possible, by email), and I certainly don’t play fucking FarmVille.

Once, one of my Facebook friends invited me to FarmVille. They're not my Facebook friend any more.

So what’s the problem? It’s not like I’d be missing anything if I barely use it anyway? The problem is that my account was still there, it’s just that I didn’t have access to it.

That meant that people still invited me to things and sent me messages. My friends are smart enough to know that I won’t see anything they write on their wall, but they assume that if they update the information of a party they’ve Facebook-invited me to that I’ll get it. For example, I was recently at a fabulous party at Gareth and Penny‘s which they organised mostly via Facebook. They’d be forgiven for assuming that when they sent a message to “the guests” – a list that included me – that I would get that message: but no – it fell silently away into Facebook’s black hole.

The Farce(book?)

Following this discovery, here’s how I spent the next three weeks:

  1. Facebook gave me a form to fill in when I tried to log in, explaining their “Real Names” policy and asking me to fill in my real name and explain “what I use Facebook for” (“Ignoring friends and stalking exes, same as everybody else,” I explained, “Why; what do YOU use Facebook for?”).
  2. It then asked me to scan and upload some government-issued photographic ID, which I did. It still wouldn’t let me log in, but it promised that somebody would look at my ID soon (and then destroy their copy) and re-enable my account.
  3. I periodically tried to log in over the next few days, without success: I was to wait, I was told.
  4. After about a week, I received an email from “Rachel” at Facebook, who explained the “Real Names” policy and asked me to provide my REAL name, and a scan of some photographic ID. I replied to explain that I’d already done this once, but complied with her request anyway.
  5. Another few days passed, and I still hadn’t heard anything, so I filled in the Contact Forms in the Help section of Facebook, asking to have my request processed by an actual human being. I provided by ID yet again.
  6. Another few days later, I received an email from “Aoife” at Facebook. It was pretty-much exactly the same as the earlier email from Rachel. I replied to explain that we’d been through this already. I supplied another pile of photo ID, and a few sarcastic comments.
A real person, with a real name, holding two examples of his real government-issued photographic ID. I wonder how long it would take a smart person to look at a scan of that ID and say, "Yeah, this person's real enough to be allowed to post pictures of cats on his wall, again."
  1. Another couple of days passed, so I dug up the postal addresses of Facebook’s HQ, and Mark Zuckerberg‘s new Palo Alto house (he’s tried to keep it secret, but the Internet is pretty good at this kind of detective work), and sent each of them a letter explaining my predicament.
  2. Yet more days passed, and we reached the third week of my ban. I replied to Rachel and Aoife, asking how long this was likely to take.
  3. Finally, a little over three weeks after the ban was first put in place, it was lifted. I received an email from Aoife:

Hi Dan,

Thanks for verifying your identity. Note that we permanently deleted your attached ID from our servers.

After investigating this further, it looks like we suspended your account by mistake. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience. You should now be able to log in. If you have any issues getting back into your account, please let me know.

Thanks,

Aoife
User Operations
Facebook

The Resolution

So now, I’m back on Facebook, and I’ve learned something: having a Facebook account that you can’t log in to is worse than not having a Facebook account at all. If I didn’t have one at all, at least people would know that they couldn’t contact me that way. In my situation, Facebook were effectively lying to my friends: telling them “Yeah, sure: we’ll pass on your message to Dan!” and then not doing so. It’s a little bit like digital identity theft, and it’s at least a little alarming.

I’ve learned something else, too: Facebook can’t be trusted to handle this kind of situation properly. Anybody could end up in my situation. Those of you with unusual (real) names, or unusual-looking pseudonyms, or who use fake names on Facebook (and I know that there are at least a dozen of you on my friends list)… or just those of you whose name looks a little bit off to a Facebook employee… you’re all at risk of this kind of lockout.

Me? I was a little pissed off, but it wasn’t the end of the world. But I know people who use Facebook’s “single sign-on” authentication systems to log in to other services. I know people who do some or all of their business through Facebook. Increasingly, I’ve seen people store their telephone or email address books primarily on Facebook. What do you do when you lose access to this and can’t get it back? When there’s nowhere to appeal?

And that’s how I came to my third lesson: I can’t rely on Facebook not to make this kind of fuck-up again. No explanation was given as to how their “mistake” was made, so I can’t trust that whatever human or automated system was at fault won’t just do the same damn dumb thing tomorrow to me or to somebody I know. And personally, I don’t like Facebook to seize control of my account and to pretend to be me. I come full circle to my first realisation – that it would be better not to have a Facebook account at all than to have one that I can’t access – and realise that because that’s liable to happen again at any time, that I shouldn’t have a Facebook account.

The Conclusion

So, I’m ditching Facebook.

Goodbye, Facebook.

None of this pansy “deactivation” shit, either – do you know what that actually does, by the way? It just hides your wall and stops new people from friending you: it still keeps all of your information, because it’s basically a scam to try to keep your data while making you think you’ve left. No, I’m talking about the real “permanent deletion” deal.

I’m going to hang around for a few days to make sure I’ve harvested everybody’s email addresses and pushing this post to my wall and whatnot, and then I’m gone.

If you’re among those folks who aren’t sure how to function outside of Facebook, but still want to keep in touch with me, here’s what you need to know:

  • I like email! Remember email? I’ve always preferred it to Facebook messages anyway – that’s why I always reply to you by email, where possible. My email address is pretty obvious – it’s my first name @ this domain name – but if that’s too hard for you, just fill in this form to get in touch with me. If you’re up for some security while you’re at it, why not encrypt your email to me.
  • I like instant messaging! I may not be on Facebook Messenger any more, but we can still chat! The best way to get me is on Google Talk, but there are plenty of other options too. Here’s how you do it. Or if you’re really lazy, just check at the top of my blog for the little green light and click “Chat to Dan”.
  • I like blogging! Want to know what’s going on in my life? I never updated my “wall” anyway except to link to blog posts – you might as well just come look at my blog! Too much like work? Follow my RSS feed and get updated when I post to my blog, or keep an eye on my Twitter, which usually gets links to my new blog posts almost as soon as they go up.
  • I like sharing! I’m not on Google Reader any more, but when I find fun things on the Internet that I enjoyed reading, I put them in this RSS feed. Subscribe and see what I’ve been looking at online, or just look at “Dan is Reading…” in the right-hand column of my blog.
  • And I’m not opposed to social networking! I’ve just reached the end of my patience with Facebook, that’s all. Look me up on Google+ and I’ll see you over there (They also have a “Real Names” policy, which is still a bit of a problem, but I’m sending them a pre-emptive “Don’t ban me, bro!” email now)!

Ironically, the only Facebook accounts I’ll have now are the once which do have fake names. Funny how they’re the ones that never seem to get banned.

Facebook Annoyance Of The Day

(rambling, ranty; I saw something on Facebook that pissed me off, and ended up ranting about the whole social media scene – no offence meant, and I’ve deliberately picked no examples from anybody I know or care about)

It’s not as bad as setting up a Facebook group to recover your friends’ mobile numbers after losing your phone, which I’ve complained about previously, but there’s a particular bit of behaviour that I’ve seen a few times on Facebook that really pisses me off.

Yes, in a world of geeks complaining about Facebook, I’m the geek who complains about Facebook users.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Let’s have a look what’s happened here. Person 1 wants Person 2 to do them a favour: a little household chore: putting something in the post for them. So they went to Facebook, logged in, went to Person 2’s wall, and wrote about it there. What?

I’ve put together a quick list of other possible ways that Person 1 could have passed on this message:

  1. Facebook Message – If you really were logged in to Facebook already, and even you were already on the page of the person you wanted to send a message to, it would only have been one more click to send a Facebook Message. This would have given you more options, in case you needed them, and would have meant that you didn’t have to tell every single one of Person 2’s friends about the mindless dull minutiae of an event that matters to (at most) only two people.
  2. E-mail – Remember that? It’s fast, it’s simple, and it doesn’t involve filling your friend’s friends’ news feed with crap that has no relevance to them (or, in fact, to anybody).
  3. Text message – There’s almost nobody left without a mobile phone, and I’d hope that you had your (presumably) housemate’s number: why not drop them a text. It’s typically even faster than the previous two suggestions, and you don’t even have to open a web browser. Hell; if you’re going to go that far, why not make a phone call (we can still do that, you know, even on modern mobiles).

I suppose that this mini-rant is actually a roundabout way of answering a question I get asked from time to time: Why can’t I post to your Facebook wall? I get asked this question about once every three or for months, and the answer is related to my complaints about the poster, above. Not being able to write on my wall isn’t part of the half-dozen or so layers of privilege I group my Facebook contacts into: writing on my “wall” is deliberately something that only I can do, no matter who you are.

And that’s because I don’t see the point. Why do I want a medium to which my friends can post messages specifically to me in full view of the rest of the world? I can fully understand why you’d want to write on your own wall – hey, it’s not that dissimilar to blogging – but what possible motive can you have to want to say something to me “in front of everyone”, except if perhaps it’s more important to you to be seen to be saying something than it is for me to hear your message?

If you have something to tell me, then tell me: call me, text me, instant message me (I’m on basically all of the networks), e-mail me (encrypted, if you prefer), or even fill in the form on my web site: I’m a really easy to get in contact with. If you have something to tell the world, or all of your friends, then put it on a blog, Tweet it, put it on your Facebook wall, or something. I can’t see any legitimate use case that I care about where you’d want to leave a message specifically for all of my friends.

I suppose while I’m full of rantyness I ought to explain my stance on Twitter, too. I had a Twitter account, once. I get it; I see the point. Microblogging; yeah, that’s a clever idea: sharing clever snippets of information, URLs, and whatnot without the hassle of having to type in your blog address and put it there. It’s not much hassle, but you sometimes feel a little like a cheater when you write a blog post of only a couple of sentences (but that hasn’t stopped me doing it from time to time). So I signed up for Twitter, found my friends and followed them, and gave it a go.

I read what my friends wrote, and I wrote about what was of interest to me.

Maybe it’s just my friends, or maybe it’s just that blogging works because it takes effort, but most of the tweets I would see fell into only a couple of categories. The first category are those tweets which are actually interesting, and are incredibly rare. The next category is those tweets which are half of a conversation about which I don’t care – a friend of mine talking to somebody I don’t know about something that doesn’t matter to me: you know, the thing I really hate about the way that people use their friends’ Facebook walls. The third category, and the most numerous for some of the people I followed, is tweets that surely have no value or interest to anybody at all. I don’t care that your bus is running late or that your boss has a new haircut. Why are you telling me this!

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair. Some of my friends produce consistently clever and interesting stuff on their Twitter feeds. Although these also tend to be the same people who write interesting things on their blogs, or who talk to me regularly, or who share fun stuff with me on Google Reader, and who generally otherwise keep me posted with what’s cool and interesting in their lives.

I’ve heard people say to me that my complaints about Twitter are invalid because I use Facebook (thereby carrying the implication that it’s just as bad). And it is just as bad – about 50% of the folks I know on Facebook type such drivel into their “walls” that I just don’t read them. But the difference is that I don’t have to. I can still use the useful Facebook features (contact details sharing, photo sharing, stalking) without having to get into the shitty “what my cat ate for dinner” stuff that seems to be the entirety of what the Twitter experience is about.

Me; I like blogs. A well-written blog post (with a sensible title: I’m looking at you, LiveJournalers) is something that I can read now, or later, or skip. Skipping tweets isn’t the same experience at all, because you’ll soon find yourself at “Oh no! That made the cat throw up!” and wonder what you missed (hint: fuck all). So I think I’ll stick to reading folks’ blog posts, logging into Facebook every couple of weeks, and checking a handful of my friends’ Twitter feeds once in a blue moon. Is that how it’s supposed to be done? I’m not sure, but it’s the only way that I’ve found that works for me.

Or perhaps I’m missing something.

My New Pet Hate

I have a new pet hate.

A personal pet hate of mine for a long while has been that often, when I ask somebody for a screenshot to show me what’s going wrong with some software they’re using, they’ll take a screenshot or two, then paste them into a Microsoft Word document, and then e-mail me the Word document.

Why would you do such a thing? You’ve got Paint: paste it into Paint and save it, and you’ll get:

  • A faster result. Paint loads a lot faster than Word.
  • A smaller file. Even a Bitmap saved in Paint (the default) will usually be smaller than a Word document. A JPEG or a PNG will be even smaller still, which means it’s more suitable for e-mail and be faster still.
  • A more-compatible result. Just about anybody can open whatever you produce with Paint, without requiring a word-processor that’s compatible with the version of Word you’re using).

And that’s without even looking at the benefit directly to me: that I don’t need to re-extract your pictures so that I can upload actual pictures, not a document, to our bug tracking system, or the benefit that I can view thumbnails of your screenshots to sort and manage them easily.

But no; I have a new pet hate:

It’s when somebody who’s using Microsoft Outlook sends me a HTML e-mail with several screenshots… each one of them inside a separate Word document attached to the message. WTF?

  1. You could just have pasted the image straight into Outlook. Less work for you, easier for me, faster for everybody. It’s just like pasting it into Word, except you don’t have to open Word (or create a new document), and the images end up stored more-like actual images attached to an e-mail.
  2. One Word document per screenshot? Why? Do you just enjoy thinking about the fact that I’ll now have to open 15 – yes, 15! – different Word documents just to extract the screenshot from each and save it as an image file like you should have in the first place!

Sorry; it’s probably just me who gets bugged quite so much by this.

Update, 15th June 2011: almost two years later, I’ve revisited this topic having found something even more annoying than using Word documents as a medium for screenshots…

What Not To Do When You Lose Your Mobile

Maybe this is just a pet hate that is exclusively mine, but there’s something that really gets on my nerves and it’s happened under one of the two scenarios below at least three times within the last month. It’s as if the very second you let people loose on social-networking site Facebook they immediately lose all common sense.

Here’s the scenario: you lose or break your mobile phone – I’m sure it’s happened to us all at some point or another – and as if that wasn’t bad enough, you’re stupid enough to not keep a backup of your contacts (virtually every phone can do this now, so there’s no excuse for the vast majority of people). Well, fair enough: like I said, this could happen to anybody, although you’re already due a talking-to by me about keeping your information backed up, and if it’s been stolen I’d quite like to know what information you had about me on there at the time. But in the most part you have my sympathy… so far.

How’re you going to get all those carefully-collected numbers back in your phone? Well, here are two wrong ways to do it. I’ll explain why later:

  1. Send a bulk Facebook message out to everybody you know.
  2. Create a Facebook group.

So why are they wrong?

Bulk Facebook Messages

The first and biggest reason that either of these methods are wrong is pretty fundamental, though: you’ve lost my mobile number, that’s your problem, so why don’t you make some of the effort to fix it. My mobile number is on my Facebook profile. I put it there so that you wouldn’t ever have to e-mail me if you wanted it. It’s there because improving connectivity between and sharing personal information with friends is entirely what Facebook is for. So next time you misplace your address book – which you failed to back up – why don’t you do some of the leg work and actually go to my profile and look it up for yourself.

If you can’t see it on my profile, it’s invariably because I’ve used Facebook’s (now-quite complex and powerfu) privacy tools to hide it from you because I don’t want you to have my mobile number. So there you are. If you’re on my Facebook friends list you should never, ever need to send me a Facebook message to get my mobile number.

Secondly, sending a bulk-Facebook message is wrong because it almost always leads to retards “following suit” like this:

I don’t mind getting James’ new mobile number over a Facebook message. That’s fine. I shan’t be responding, because he ought to be bright enough to get my mobile number for himself, considering it’s only one-click away. But by bulk-sending it to everybody he knows, he’s underestimated the stupidity of his other friends. About 50% of the people he sent it to sent their mobile numbers back to the list by using “Reply All.”

Reply All is the only option available, and so a new Facebook user could conceivably make this mistake. But then a handful of James’ other friends make the same mistake, having seen one of them do it already. Wait, did I miss something? Are these people all patients at some mental hospital that James used to volunteer at, or something?

I don’t know who any of these people are, aside from the fact that they’re James’ other friends. I’m only permitted to read the profile of one of them, and he isn’t sharing his mobile number with me there, so I can only assume that they don’t want me to have their number. But then they’ve just turned around on that idea and given it to me. What?

I’m half-tempted to set up a handful of fake Facebook accounts just so that I can send a message back to each of the idiots like this:

I Need All Your Mobile Numbers

Between You, An Identity Thief, A Stalker, Somebody You’ve Never Met, Their Ex-, Every Man, and His Dog.

I’ve lost my mobile (again!) and can’t be bothered to look up your numbers on your profiles or contact you individually. Please use the “Reply All” form below and tell me and all the other people in the list above exactly how to contact you and harass you whenever we get bored.

Facebook Groups

The other, even more irritating way that people handle this self-inflicted (let’s face it, paper and pen is a backup if there’s no other way) tragedy is by creating a Facebook group exclusively for the purpose of re-harvesting their friend’s numbers. I’m sure you’ve all seen this happen at least once.

And it happens a lot: log in to Facebook and search for “lost mobile” in the Groups list. You won’t ever find out how many idiots do this, because Facebook only lists the first few hundred results. But there are lots. Lots and lots.

The first thing that’s wrong with this approach is an issue which I’m sure I’ll be one of very few people to care about, but it’s not the biggest problem: Facebook “Groups” are, by definition, according to Facebook’s own documentation, collections of “people with similar interests” and “places for discussion.”

I’ve never joined one of these “I’ve lost my mobile!” groups, because:

  • I’ve never lost my mobile.
  • Even if I had, I wouldn’t realy say I have an interest in lost mobiles. I have no intention to discuss what having lost a mobile is like, or even what my friend having lost their mobile is like. And I’m pretty sure that isn’t what they want, either.

Not only is creating a Facebook group a mis-use of the service – this isn’t what groups are for! – but they suffer from all the same problems as Facebook bulk-mailing all your friends (i.e. if they reply, they all see each others’ numbers) but even worse. Most people create these groups but don’t make them “secret,” so anybody can join. Want a few hundred numbers to sell to an SMS-spammer? Just browse Facebook for awhile. Worse still, these groups don’t disappear until (after) every single member has left. So your phone number, which you stupidly put in the group description (if you’re the idiot who lost your phone) or on the wall of the group (if you’re one of their even-bigger-idiot friends), will be visible to pretty much any Facebook user, indefinately. Give yourself a pat on the back. I suggest using an ice pick.

What Little Timmy Should Have Done

Never let it be said that I’m overly negative when I criticise morons. I’m more than happy to educate them and I won’t even demand the right to use a heavy, blunt object to help the knowledge sink in.

Here’s what you should be doing in order to show off your uncommon sense. You can start today!

Back Up Your Mobile Phone

Just stop and think for a moment what your mobile phone is worth. I don’t mean the cost the insurance company will pay when you drop it in a pint of cider a week on Friday, I mean the value of the data inside it. How long would it take you to put all those numbers back in? If you’re a heavier user of the geekier features of modern phones: what about all the photos, e-mails, text messages, music, and the carefully-tweaked settings that make the icons have a purple background and that Crazy Frog video ringtone?

  • Most modern mobiles can be connected to a PC by a cable (which sometimes comes free with the phone) or by Bluetooth, and free software (often from the phone manufacturer’s website) will let you make a backup copy of everything on your device. It’ll take seconds, and doing it as infrequently as four or five times a year will save you a universe of hassle. Just look for a feature that will enable you to read all the data from the screen of your PC if you need to – for example, if your replacement phone isn’t compatible with the data from your broken old handset.
  • Pretty much every mid- or high- end Nokia, Motorola, and Sony Ericsson handset and some LG and Siemens handsets support a technology called SyncML (there are links to lists of compatible phones at the bottom of that page). Using this technology and a free on-line provider like many of these ones, you can back up your entire address book to a safe online repository over the Internet. Sure, if you’re on Pay-As-You-Go you’ll pay a few pence to do an Internet upload, but isn’t it worth it even if you just consider that the price of insuring your data?
  • Even if you’re using an ancient handset, consider keeping a paper backup (little black books are very affordable) or a typed-up list in a spreadsheet (Google Docs provides a free online spreadsheet). Or, if virtually all of your friends are on Facebook or another social networking site that allows the exchange of contact details, encourage them to keep their mobile numbers on their profile; suitably locked down to “friends only” (or even just to specific friends), of course.

What To Do When It All Goes Wrong

Everything goes tits-up from time to time. Suppose you lost your phone in a house fire that destroyed the PC the backups were on, too. Or maybe your phone got stolen and the new “owner” was so malicious he used your SyncML connection (if you’d saved your password on the phone) to overwrite all of your online backups with pictures of Lolcats. Or perhaps you didn’t keep backups at all (so long as you promise to keep backups next time, it’s not so bad – we all have to learn the hard way once, I’m sure, how important backups are). What should you do?

First: take responsibility. There is always something you could have done to keep a better backup. Therefore, it’s your job to do as much of the legwork of getting your numbers back as you can. Don’t make it your friends’ problem. Go through your friends’ Facebook profiles and retreieve as many phone numbers as you can before you start bothering them.

Second: get numbers in a sensible way. If you have a few close circles of friends, it’s pretty trivial nowadays to Bluetooth/MMS/Infared hundreds of contacts from phone-to-phone, and this can be a great way to get yourself re-connected. Call up Barney, and say “Hey, Barney; let me buy you a pint tonight and take a copy of everybody in your address book – I’ve been an idiot and I didn’t keep a backup before I lost my phone the other week.” Barney’ll drink his pint and press some buttons on his phone while saying things like, “Do you know Robin? Marshall? Lily? Have you met Ted?” and these people will magically appear in your address book.

There’s almost certainly be people you can’t re-get the numbers for in this way, but you can still be sensible about it. Send messages individually to those few people and ask for their numbers, but not before double-checking that you actually need them. If you can’t think of a reason you’ll ever call them within the next year, why are you carrying around their number anyway? Unless they’re somebody you’d call “in an emergency” you can always look them up when you need them. That way, you won’t spend you entire time with a number in your phone that could go out of date (people change numbers all the time) and you’d never know until you came to phone them, six years down the line, and you’d have to look them up anyway. Save yourself (and them) the bother and keep them out of your book. It’s a liberating experience to tidy up your contacts list.

And finally: if you get a new mobile number with your new phone, drop a text message to everybody who might want to know it, but make sure you say who you are because you won’t be in their address book with your new number, yet. The number of text messages I’ve got in my life from a number unknown to me that read “Hey there! This is my new number! Bye!” is staggering.

Some people are just too stupid to be allowed mobile phones.