General Election 2015: what I discovered from reading all of the party manifestos

This year’s general election in the UK is a crapshoot. The outdated voting system — combined with the rise of UKIP and the SNP, the curveball of the Greens, and general anger at the coalition — makes the result impossible to predict. Plenty of people call themselves undecided voters, but just as many fall back to habit, voting for parties they assume speak for them. I’d largely made up my mind how to vote, but decided to read the manifestos of all of the main parties with candidates in Great Britain (as in, England, Scotland and Wales). The results were insightful and frequently surprising.

In a general sense, I found it very clear how much of people’s perception of politics is warped by the media, but also how the actions of a small set of politicians doesn’t necessarily correlate with what a party claims to stand for. Arguments about how all parties are the same are impossible to support on actually reading their policies; while there’s no doubt the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are often seen fighting for a certain kind of middle-England voter, I wonder how much of that is down to the broken electoral system rather than what they actually believe in. Certainly, the manifestos showcase three very different parties — although not necessarily standing where you might expect.

What follows is my reaction to the manifestos for each party, in the order that I read them in.

UKIP‘s manifesto, to my surprise, wasn’t a kind of rambling embarrassment. The party wants to be seen as a properly mature political force, and the manifesto is evidence of that. My personal politics are at odds with much of what the party’s suggesting, but the document is some way from the ‘swivel-eyed loons’ label the media frequently paints the party with. That said, the party does retain some oddball thinking at times, such as banging on about British seaside holidays and funnelling money into saving such towns, and its overall stance on policy was, to my mind, coming from a fairly extreme Conservative viewpoint.

The SNP manifesto was broadly impressive, human, and positive. Whether the economic figures within are accurate, I couldn’t say, but there was a refreshing openness and humanity throughout, not least in displaying a candid position on potential post-election support. The party’s policies on the whole now appear to veer towards socialism, with a progressive bent that I’m sure plenty of people outside of Scotland would vote for. It’s easy to see why the party is on course to take a huge number of Scottish seats. Purely on the basis of the manifesto, ‘the SNP will destroy the UK’ alarmism seems misplaced. Like Plaid Cymru, the SNP’s long-standing aim is to usher in an independent country, but the manifesto goes to great lengths to say the party wants to be a positive influence on all of the UK.

The Conservative manifesto was in some ways a tougher read than the UKIP one, and it had strange ideas of its own, such as dredging up the A303 tunnel near Stonehenge as policy. It referred heavily to Labour and the mess the party left so often that it may as well have just added ‘REMEMBER: LABOUR IS EVIL’ as a footnote on every page. But I was nonetheless surprised with how caustic the manifesto was. In practically the same breath it talks about eliminating child poverty, it then says the party would lower the benefit cap by three grand. It talks about the BBC World Service being vital, yet elsewhere argues for the licence fee to be frozen. Education policy also seems positively Victorian, demanding core subjects include history or geography, but ignoring IT, creativity and social studies entirely. Elsewhere, there was a lot about rewarding people for work, but the policies on tax and benefits are more about rewarding the rich. If anything, I disliked this manifesto more than the UKIP one, and noted on Twitter that the Conservatives truly are the Selfish Bastards Party as we head into this election.

With Plaid Cymru, I was expecting the Welsh version of the SNP, but for some reason the spark just wasn’t there. I’m not sure why. Somehow, the Plaid Cymru manifesto seemed a little lacking in ambition, and it probably didn’t help later on when some of its big-hitter policies on devolution and train nationalisation are very similar to those in the Liberal Democrat and Labour manifestos. Still, the party’s broadly progressive aims were evident.

The big surprise for me was the mammoth Liberal Democrat manifesto, a 158-page document that looks like it’s been spat out from Microsoft Word. It’s a baffling read in many ways, not least because it’s for the most part really good. Policy-wise, it reads like a mix of new and old Labour, with largely socialist and well-meaning policies that I was hoping for (but often didn’t find) in Labour’s manifesto. It was the only manifesto that seemed truly savvy about the potential in digital and technology, and the UK’s role in that. However, it did also make me wonder why we don’t actually see this version of the Liberal Democrats anywhere. If the party in government was this party, it’d be polling in the 20s at least, not single figures. Maybe it is this party, but the media has hammered it; but the Liberal Democrat voting record suggests otherwise. Perhaps had we got a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, things could have been very different.

The Labour manifesto was perhaps the weirdest one. The others generally outline their policy in specific areas, but Labour’s lumps policies together under rather broader umbrellas like “Helping our families and communities to thrive” and “Providing world-class health and education services”. I imagine this was designed to make the manifesto more approachable, but it just comes across as a bit messy. And the same could be said for the policies in general. Unsurprisingly, Labour’s extremely strong on health, but it too often feels here like it’s hedging its bets — faffing about rail nationalisation, trying to convince people who might vote Conservative about Labour’s tough stance on immigration, and so on. Read the Labour and Conservative manifestos back to back and they are very clearly different beasts, but I too often felt Labour’s veered into being ‘Conservative Lite’ (while the Conservative one goes ‘Full Tory’ right from the get-go). Labour needs to be bold, whereas its manifesto practically admits it’s being unambitious. (Still, that beats caustic.)

Finally, the Green Party manifesto is a weighty tome in terms of word-count, and by far the most radical. The Greens aren’t so much ‘merely’ progressive as demanding an ambitious overhaul of society, from top to bottom. There are things within I took issue with (not least the party’s energy policy), but the majority of the ideas the party has are interesting and the arguments are mostly sound — and a long way from the ‘mad vegan’ label they get. Much like UKIP, the Greens have been branded as a kind of dangerous and extremist party; with UKIP, I just see the establishment in a different hue, but with the Greens, I see a threat to establishment thinking and dominance, which is presumably why newspapers and rival parties alike argue they are to be crushed.


Update. Here are the links to the manifestos: Conservative; Green Party; Labour; Liberal Democrat; Plaid Cymru; SNP; UKIP.

May 5, 2015. Read more in: Politics

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Warning: iOS 8.3 blocks sideloading of app and game save data

I wish I’d heard about this a lot earlier, but it turns out Apple’s essentially blocked access to app folders in iOS 8.3. This means that unless a developer has specifically enabled file sharing, utilities such as iExplorer, iMazing and Phone View can no longer access the Documents and Library folders of any app you’ve installed on your device. And that means no saving game data and/or sideloading it across devices.

Right now, the only advice is to stick with (or downgrade back to) iOS 8.2, use a jailbroken device, or cross your fingers and hope one of the devs manages to work around this issue. Oh, and if you’re a game dev, now would be a really good time to consider iCloud game saves and/or allowing file sharing access to game-save data.

April 21, 2015. Read more in: Apple

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Apple and balance/motion accessibility — yelling into the wind

As a writer, even in an age of social media, it’s hard to tell whether anything you pen affects people in any serious way. In truth, much of what I write is opinion-based: thought pieces and reviews that might briefly help and/or entertain a certain section of a site’s or magazine’s readership, but that relationship between words and results is typically fleeting.

One major exception in my writing career centres around accessibility. When Apple’s iOS 7 for iPad and iPhone arrived, it made a lot of people sick. Aggressive animations became motion-sickness triggers for a surprisingly large range of people. I was fortunate enough to write about the subject for Stuff and twice for The Guardian. Apple rumbled into gear. Changes were eventually to iOS made via the introduction of Reduce Motion, which switched slides and zooms for cross-fades. I have it on good authority that what I and others wrote did have an impact on Apple’s decision-making.

Although motion/balance accessibility remains poorly understood, and third-party developers remain largely ignorant of these issues, merrily peppering apps with animated interface components, I and others are now broadly safe when using iOS. The same is not true for OS X. It’s been three years since I first wrote about the subject on this blog, and I’ve penned articles elsewhere, including for major tech publications. It’s hard to believe that Apple’s listening. The company, despite making great strides in vision/hearing/motor accessibility, appears either ignorant of or uncaring about motion/balance problems.

That might seem like an extreme statement, but I think it’s entirely fair. Major triggers, such as full-screen slides/morphing transitions, and also slide transitions within Preview and Safari, arrived in OS X Lion, and we’ve since seen three major updates to OS X without a single setting for overriding these animations. There’s no Reduce Motion in OS X, despite Mac screens being larger than iOS ones, which means the transitions displayed are more — not less — likely to cause problems.

Today, I fired up the new OS X Photos app. Within five minutes, I felt ill. I shouldn’t have been surprised that a motion/balance trigger is built right into the interface, with the main pane zooming while it crossfades. Presumably, someone at Apple thought this looked pretty. There’s no way to turn it off. For anyone who finds this animation problematic, their choices are to avoid Photos entirely or remember to close their eyes every single time they click a tab.

This is just not good enough. Apple is a company that prides itself on making its technology accessible. Given that a somewhat throwaway setting in a third-party utility can override or entirely disable the majority of full-screen animations, it’s hard to believe Apple couldn’t fit a Reduce Motion system into OS X if it wanted to. If developers could hook into that, most motion/balance issues would disappear in an instant, without affecting the majority of users, who could happily continue watching interface components zoom about before their eyes.

As I wrote today in an email to accessibility@apple.com, I’m sick of the current situation, figuratively and — in a fortunately fairly mild way — literally. Highly animated interfaces may be the ‘in thing’ right now, and sometimes have potential benefits in providing a sense of place; but that doesn’t mean Apple should overlook people for which these often aesthetic additions cause major usability, accessibility and health problems. I’ve no confidence anything will change. Every email sent feels like yelling into the wind, but I’ll be delighted to see and experience a change in direction should that happen in OS X Yosemite’s successor.

April 9, 2015. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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On Atari vs. Jeff Minter

As reported by Eurogamer, Ars Technica, Rob Fearon and others, what currently passes for Atari (essentially a rotting corpse worn by Infogrames) has decided to throw lawyers at game developer Jeff Minter, in an attempt to get rid of the award-winning TxK, which is a bit too Tempesty for Atari’s liking. It’s been interesting to see the reaction online, which seems broadly split between staunch defence of Minter (who’s been making arcade-inspired games since the early 1980s, but not outright clones) and alignment with the idea Atari somehow has to defend its IP.

Rarely is gaming cut and dried. There’s precedent for companies suing others over a game’s mechanics, even if such lawsuits are invariably more often about a big company kicking the shit out of a smaller one with lawyers. But this particular incident is even messier, because TxK borrows from Minter’s own fantastic Tempest 2000, which he developed for Atari.

On balance, though, the side I’m taking on this scrap isn’t really for Minter nor for Atari, but for games. Much like in any other medium, individual titles do not exist in a vacuum — they are often influenced by what went before. Many titles are evolved forms of their predecessors. It’s how people learn. It’s how we get amazing mash-ups like Forget-Me-Not, or modern takes on old classics, like Pac-Man: Championship Edition.

This cannot happen when corporations fling lawyers at games in part based on older ones without good reason. And while it’s arguable Atari has some points in its letter to Minter regarding the similarities between TxK and the games that inspired it, the lawyers wilfully obfuscate and confuse, and in some cases offer outright fabrication. This includes the argument TxK includes an “electronic music sound track and sound effects which are indistinguishable from those used in TEMPEST 2000”, despite TxK having an original score. (I ‘look forward’ to Atari now suing every game that uses electronic music, just because.)

Then you delve further. Minter notes he once spoke to the Tempest X developer, who revealed it was changed just enough to enable Atari to not pay Minter any royalties. The game nonetheless remained closer to Tempest 2000 than TxK, showcasing the hypocritical nature of Atari when it comes to this series and business in general. But worse, Minter adds that he made it very clear he’d have been willing to negotiate some sort of licensing agreement. Atari, naturally, wasn’t interested. This is something I’ve heard is always the case with Atari, which is bizarre. Presumably, it’s satisfied with its terrible iOS Tempest, dumbed-down Caterpillar remakes, and using its IP as skins for gambling and casino games.

Of course, Atari’s been here before many times. It’s regularly rampaged about like a spoilt child, demolishing anything vaguely resembling Asteroids or Pong. And when Peter Hirschberg crafted Vector Tanks and the superb Vector Tanks Extreme!, Atari had them removed from the iOS App Store for resembling Battlezone, despite the latter no more being a copy of Battlezone than Space Invaders Infinity Gene is a copy of the original Space Invaders.

The smart move would be for Atari to make these games official. TxK and Vector Tanks Extreme! are both significantly better modern takes on Atari IP than anything the company has managed itself. Instead, the organisation revels in destroying games, angering people who love classic arcade fare, further ruining whatever remains of its tattered reputation; it prefers to bully developers rather than work with them, hiding behind lawyers and bending the truth.

I’ve no time for this, so fuck Atari. Hmm. It appears I did take a side after all.

March 19, 2015. Read more in: Gaming, Opinions

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Apple Watch is the worst thing ever, and here’s why

Yeah, sorry about that link-bait title, but I figured I’d best get in on the current wave of tech stupid before my tech journo credentials are snatched away from me. Mind you, perhaps escaping would be a smart move while the majority of the industry loses its collective mind.

I mentioned tech writers tending towards bile last week, but the latest stick to smack Apple with appears to be the accusation that the company has lost focus and no longer understands the value of simplicity.

Jason Hiner’s piece for ZDNet is fairly typical of this latest raft of Apple Watch moanery, calling it “too ambitious” and “a bit of a mess”. He argues:

the fact that Apple released the product in its current form says something. In fact, it says a lot about Apple under the new leadership regime because it’s the first new product category of the Cook-Ive era. And as far as innovation and discipline goes, this is a wobbly start.

His core complaint seemingly revolves around a belief that all Apple products start out simple and then layer greater functionality as they evolve. He’s right that Apple builds on products (notably software, adding richer features) over time, but what is simple?

For Apple Watch, Hiner complains that the device tries to do too much and that there are a load of new functions for a user to figure out, which are

unlike any other Apple or tech product so they aren’t naturally intuitive.

But what is intuitive? What is fully natural? My dad recently admitted to me he’d never used copy and paste, and he’s been using Macs for well over a decade. He’d just been dragging selections around, muddling through. With Watch, you imagine quite a few people will do something similar, perhaps chancing across functionality. Others will dig deeper. But the point is that many pieces of functionality that tech pundits consider simple and natural are only so to them because they use these things every day.

Consider the mouse and the original Mac. Back then, the windows/icons/mouse/pointer interface wasn’t unique, but it certainly wasn’t commonplace. Then there’s the iPhone, with its gestural interface that had a fair number of elements that felt natural, but also elements users had to learn, in order to access all of the device’s functionality.

Of course, people slammed those things too, saying they’d fail, because that’s what you do with Apple. And perhaps Apple Watch will be a faceplant, but I think the tech industry would be a better place if writers actually started to spend a bit of time with kit before deciding that it was a waste of time, a mess, or too ambitious. (And you can bet that had Apple released a much more locked-down Watch, with a razor-sharp focus and far fewer functions, ZDNet would have been whining about Apple’s closed nature, and how the device was a rip-off for the few things it enabled you to do.)

March 16, 2015. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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