Are apps making us unhealthily thin?

I’m sure it’s nothing new that advances in our abilities get the blame for all of the ills of the day.

On almost a weekly basis someone approaches me asking for advice on how to stop people talking about them on a Facebook ‘rant site’, someone else asks me how we can turn off the Twitter and another approaches me for advice on getting some compliment or other off the Internet so that they can share it with people.

They might be upset at the former two and happy at the last, but if you asked them straight out what they thought of social media then you’d almost always hear something negative. The people posting complaints on social media are usually time wasters, need something better to do or should be headed out to the shops to get a life according to the people they have criticised. Some people even think they should be banned.

Now, perhaps that’s true. Perhaps most of the complaints on the Internet are being written by people sat in the dark wearing slightly off-white y-fronts and sipping from a fresh can of diet coke, but thinking that way makes it too easy to ignore the underlying problem that no-one complains unless you’ve given them a reason.

My day job is to convince businesses and people to  calm down their gut reactions enough to ignore where the comments came from and get on with solving the problem.

So I was interested to hear a feature on Weekend Women’s Hour yesterday (what?!) while I was driving back from experiencing Bicester Village for the first time, looking at the ‘hidden dangers’ of fitness apps. It got me thinking: do apps cause problems, or do apps simply reveal them?

This is probably something we should be discussing as monitoring equipment for everything from how active we are to our blood oxygen level is increasingly being monitored and recorded by the devices around us and even more so as companies like Apple bring out devices that make recording your blood oxygen level a mainstream activity.

The argument on the programme was that fitness apps ask users to specify a current weight, a target weight and a time limit and get given a number of calories per day to aim for regardless of how healthy that weight or the journey to get there might be.

To lay the blame for these problems at the door of the app developers is disingenuous, intentionally or not.

No doubt, displaying a simple number and using maths to solve a problem is just a logical way of doing things for the programmers behind the apps, but according to those opposed it’s a logic that can make a relationship with food less emotional than it should be and, experts say, that can lead to problems and obsessions. And there’s no doubt that they’re right, but I think it’s concerning to hear apps getting the blame.

I’ve had problems with my weight before – I spent a lot of my early teenage life hoping that I could just bloody gain some – but when I’ve played around with the most popular of the apps my fascination with hitting the magic calorie number has lasted for, at most, about three days.

My experience was more that I found it laborious to enter the details of what I’d eaten and disappointing to find that even without picking up anything remotely sweet I’d exceeded my RDA of sugar. I know my friends and a couple of people I’ve lived with had a similar experience too. At best entering my life into an app had a quick-wearing shine, but it’s easy to see how for someone with a pre-existing problem that might not be the case.

I think to lay the blame for these problems at the door of the app developers is disingenuous, intentionally or not, and ultimately just distracting from the real challenge that we have to fix perceptions of body image, to fix the problems we have with food advertising and to a certain extent to fix parenting too.

Like blaming social media and people ‘who need to get a life’ for complaints about your shop being too cold on Facebook it’s easy to look at social media, or an app, or the Internet and blame it for any ill that can be found, but wouldn’t it be more productive to find out how to change the thermostat?

Cineworld, you’re doing it wrong

I went to the cinema at the weekend, partially to indulge the old lady inside me and partially because I thought it might help me stave off the isolation and loneliness of a Saturday with no plans.

Sure, I had plenty to do this weekend but most of the things on the list weren’t all that inspiring and many of them involved staying in the flat, alone, staring at a computer and because that’s what I do every day for work I thought it was probably best to make a change.

So I went and sat in a dark room and stared at a screen I wasn’t in control of instead. The film was alright – The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, since you asked – although it lacked a plot, it was nice to check in on the old gals Judi and Maggie, and once again the film managed to convince me that I really do want to visit India again.

If you saw the first Best Exotic film and enjoyed it then you should almost certainly pop by for the second instalment because, although it is disappointing, you probably won’t leave feeling disappointed. Evyln’s (Judi Dench) indecision over a new job and her potential proposal and marriage to Douglas goes to show the immaturity of even the most mature adults, while Muriel (Maggie Smith) provides the reassuring guiding advice that we’ve all come to expect (or miss) from our grandparents.

It’s all just rather lovely, and rather than Popcorn it should most definitely be served with a homemade cornflake cake and a cup of tea from a proper china cup – but it’s not. I don’t know whether you’ve been to the cinema lately, but if my experience of a few of my locals is anything to go by then if you haven’t been for a while you may be in for a surprise.

Cinemas seem to have a rather odd feeling about them; a feeling not dissimilar to how Blockbuster felt towards the end and not perhaps unlike that cafe just down the road: the carpet isn’t quite as clean as it should be and there’s signs of what used to be just left; mothballed perhaps with the intention of future use, or perhaps because it would just be too expensive to do anything else.

In the past, a visit to the cinema was much like a visit to your own little bit of Hollywood. Just as films are renowned  for their glamour and glitz so was the local cinema – to a fashion, anyway. Right back to the wars and beyond, there was a special attraction about the houses of escapism but it seems as though in the age of the Internet, the downloadable film and the insatiable search for a profit from the ever-tightening wallets of fewer and fewer people.


It’s tickets from the sweet counter and just one of the two ways you can get in to the cinema screens open today, I’m afraid. The carpet’s seen much, much better days and even the popcorn comes pre-made in bags now.  It’s not surprising really, since 2014 saw cinema box office sales drop by almost 3% – not much you might think, but this is an industry with high fixed costs and very low margins where a couple of percent can be the difference between an individual cinema being in the red or in the black.

So I was really shocked to see, when I booked my tickets using the Cineworld iPhone app, the rather backward experience of being charged to do all the booking myself. OK, it was only fifty pence but it worries me that the concept of charging for ‘remote booking’ is just the tip of a very big iceberg which, when you look closer, is actually quite easy to see.

A trip to the cinema is all about the experience, and it worries me that aside from the rundown buildings the closed-but-still-there ticket purchase point in the foyer and the abolition of the special card cinema tickets in favour of standard receipt roll ‘the special’ is getting lost.

There’s the charging extra for 3D films, then extra again for the glasses when you get there; the expensive food which suddenly becomes such a lot cheaper per item if you buy more of it and the extra-special seats that make up the 1st class cinema at the very back.

It seems to me that these guys are playing a short term game of profits now, but is it also a game of survival later?

Don’t talk to me about card clash

For what seems like forever now, London has been living in terror of card clash and the consequences it might bring. It’s actually only been since September, but the dreary announcements and faux-fear posters have made it seem much, much longer.

But have we been misled? It was at a ticket gate in London Waterloo’s underground station that I began to wonder whether there was something else we should all be worrying about instead.

Everyone, even people who don’t live in London, knows that in today’s real terms card clash is a very big issue and people up, and indeed down, the land live in fear of the day it strikes them or someone they love.

It’s not contagious and it almost certainly never ends in death, but the risk of accidentally paying TfL about fourteen quid for a journey that should have cost as little as two and a half is so great that many people in London, reports say up to 55%, have been forced to remove their Oyster card from their wallet this year just through fear; others have taken to walking or cycling and some have just stayed at home.

TfL’s fear campaign has been so effective that some have suggested sending the marketing executives behind it to help with the fight against Ebola – another proximity-based technology – in West Africa.

But I’m concerned that we’re missing something bigger.

The other day I almost dropped my debit card on the floor without noticing while I was using the Underground. Luckily, I didn’t drop it and I did notice but it got me thinking about what might have happened if I had’ve, and I hadn’t. It goes without saying that this would have been mildly inconvenient.

Figures I obtained because I could think of nothing better to do at the time show that, since September when contactless launched on the Underground, the number of cards found on London Underground stations has increased by an almost perceivable number. Terrifying.

Look at this:

Graph borrowed from the Mirror’s piece about my FOI

This almost imperceivable increase in the number of cards being found might just be chance, but it could also be the slippery slope: our minds distracted by the constant whinging about card clash.

Now, if I were a better blogger then I would probably be building up to some kind of big finish around about now. But I’m not.

I am a blogger who made an FOI request and then completely forgot why I was interested in the figures and relied purely on the things that came out of my fingers when I was staring at the data.

I miss writing for just someone

Writing for an audience is one of the most important things you must do to make your blog (or book, or twitter post or anything) successful, but I really do miss when readers were just a concept and not real people with real names, real faces and real criticism.

I was reading Girl Lost in the city’s post I miss writing for no one a couple of days ago, and it reminded me of just how good it was when I wrote for someone I thought just probably existed, not ‘someone’ that I know does.

Now, that’s all changed. Knowing who my readers (might be) are, I’ve become super-critical of absolutely everything I produce and a negative comment can genuinely make me consider whether or not I want to keep going.

I distinctly remember that writing for that someone was easy; in the past I could easily bang out five blogs in a single sitting and for more than eight months I managed to post something every single day. I didn’t really care if anyone was reading, although I knew that at least a few were.

Now I couldn’t possibly post every single day because one post now takes a good couple of days to incubate in my mind before there’s a good couple of hour of writing to turn it into something I don’t mind other people seeing.

My writing process now, after years of very harsh self-critique, takes inspiration from Stephen King’s drawer method: posts sit for at least a day before I re-read them to check that my argument makes sense, and that there aren’t any silly typos left.

I’d say I was a massive failure at both.  

I regularly publish posts with multiple ‘silly’ mistakes in them and my arguments regularly don’t make sense either, but it’s the former that really gets at me.

The way our brains are wired makes self-editing really tough, but I do have to wonder why I’ve not managed to improve over the years and why I still manage to type completely different words to what I think I’ve typed, and fail to notice that I’ve said the same thing in two different ways in two adjacent paragraphs. I just do, and it’s really frustrating.

In his book On Writing, King describes the methods by which he creates fiction novels.  A manuscript should take a season to write, he says. Then he will put a physical copy of it in a drawer and forget about it for at least six weeks. Stacey Roberts

I’d say that ‘silly’ mistakes are the worst kind you can make and that’s not just because they’re the ones I can hear my mother shouting at me for making.

Think about it: what do you think when you spot someone has typed ‘their’ instead of ‘they’re’, or when you read something with an ‘an’ where there should be an ‘and’?  Well, you probably think the person is one of two things: stupid, or slapdash.

A silly mistake is the easiest kind to make, the hardest to spot when you’re self-editing and yet universally they’re the most damaging. That’s why I find it tough knowing that I’m writing for someone, not ‘someone’.

Then again, according to some people typos and mistakes are just part of what makes a blog a blog. It’s a tough one.

What do you think? Tweet me: @picnarkes.

Grants or loans? That’s not the problem.

I’m late to this one, but I’ve just read the Telegraph’s article on the NUS survey that found more than half of students thought the maintenance grant was absolutely essential for them to be able to go to University.

Well, newsflash: it isn’t – and here’s why: surveys are really good at giving opinions, and opinions are really really easy to get wrong.

Think Jeremy Clarkson, Katie Hopkins or anyone else who you’ve disagreed with lately or who popular opinion (read: what the media people think will sell papers/subscriptions/get clicks) dictates is currently not someone we should like.

Every single student who is currently at university has, if they’re in the right income bracket for one, got a maintenance grant and, if they want one, a maintenance loan and tuition fee loan too.

So, it’s not really all that surprising that when asked “Do you agree with us taking away this free thing you get?” gets a no. In fact, it’s surpassing that just 35% of the tiny sample said it’d make a difference to them.

To me, the maintenance grant cut isn’t really a cut but more a cost-saving change. First-time students will still be able to get their hands on the same amount of money for maintenance, it’s just that they’ might have to pay it back eventually.

That’s not great- because we’d all rather have free stuff than stuff that costs – but it’s also not terrible. It won’t physically stop poorer families from sending their kids to better themselves at Uni, and my guess is that in reality it won’t affect the numbers of applications UCAS sees either.

All despite the massive glut of unemployed graduates that we’ve got – and perhaps that’s the problem.

We really like to discuss and deride the growing cost of heading to university, quoting figures most 18-year-olds can’t even comprehend, but at some point should the conversation not switch round to whether University is worth it?

We need to remember the point of educating people

The reason we like to send people to have some more education is two-fold. Firstly, having a better-educated population is good for us because it means that people contribute to society and advance our technology and achievements. Secondly, higher education allows graduates to do jobs that earn them more money and that, in turn, helps get families up the ladder too.

That two groups benefit means that logically there’s two people picking up the tab: society as a whole, paying for the contribution graduates will make when they’re done, and the individual, making an investment so that they see greater returns later in life.

So it doesn’t matter whether graduates end up with £3,000 debt or £50,000 as long as the consequential earnings are enough to pay down that investment and still earn ‘more than you would’ve’ – right?

The headlines of £50,000 of debt (which sounds a lot, I admit) and surveys like this one from the NUS that support them, are just unhelpful distractions from what we must admit: we don’t need everyone who currently goes to Uni to go and study what they are studying. And it’s nothing to do with whether they’re poor or not.

We have quite a few unemployed graduates just hanging around, or doing menial jobs, to support the case that we should probably be a bit more discriminatory in our universal offer of University.

Not, as you might assume, by locking poor people out of university but instead by subject. By making our investment, as well as each person who choses to take up higher education’s investment, count a little bit more we could easily cut the number of unemployed graduates.

As the NUS survey shows, people like free stuff over not-free stuff and in these ‘times of austerity’ we must pick what we can and cannot fund, so would we not be better targeting our resources where we really need them?

If you want to complete a degree in a subject we don’t ‘need’ you to study then you’re welcome to do just that, but you’re going to have to take the risk that you’ll never pay off the £50,000 debt you’ll end up with.

On the other hand, if you fancy completing a degree as a scientist, or a doctor or something else that we desperately need then we might just see it that you come out with half that left to pay off yourself.

And, of course, there’s no need for any of this money to change hands until you’re earning. No poor people locked out of higher education but a substantial return on the millions we’re investing each year both financially and as society.

Given how the fee system is set up, it’d be ludicrous not to make our investments work a bit better for us wouldn’t it?

Photo by John Keane