[ Content | Sidebar ]

apple music

December 6th, 2016

A few months back, I decided that I should join the modern world and start using a music streaming service, instead of (largely) only listening to music from albums that I’ve bought. Not that I have anything against buying albums, and in fact, I planned to keep on buying albums (both for archival reasons and because royalty rates for streaming services are awful); but switching to a “try before you buy” approach to buying albums seemed like a good idea, I wanted a wider range of mechanisms for music discovery, and of course having trivial access to a huge catalog of music is a good thing. Also, streaming is clearly the way of the future (heck, it’s clearly the way of the present); I might as well go with it unless I can see concrete reasons not to.

Apple Music and Spotify seemed like the obvious choices; for no particularly good reason (I’m sure Spotify is an excellent service as well), I went with the former. And, so far, it’s been great! Great mostly in the ways that I expected, but there have been a few surprises.

 

The first surprise was how I had to think about the hierarchy of music in my collection. Previously, I’d had most of my music stored in my iTunes library on my computer (though there’s still a significant amount that’s on CDs that I haven’t ripped); I don’t want all of that on my phone, though, partly because it won’t actually all fit on my phone and partly because there’s a decent amount of music that I have that I want to keep a copy of but that I don’t want to come up when I hit shuffle play. So I tell iTunes to only sync checked music.

Shortly after switching to Apple Music, my phone got full (I really need a 128GB phone…), so I went to clear stuff off; I unchecked a dozen albums in iTunes, and went to sync again. The unchecked albums stayed on my phone, though: now that I’ve enabled Apple Music on my phone, it has decided that it’s capable of making decisions itself as to what is in my library.

Once I got past my surprise, I decided that that was fine, and in fact useful and necessary: the whole point of this exercise is that I want to have access to more stuff on my phone, which means that I have to be able to manage music from my phone. (I think Apple actually wants me to drive my collection from either place; I haven’t enabled Apple Music in iTunes, though, and I’ll have to think about the consequences of doing that.)

So, concretely, what this means is that I used to have “music I own” with a subset of “music that I want on my phone”. Now, though, I have a few more options: “music that I have added to my library but don’t own”, and within that there’s “music that I’ve downloaded to my phone” versus “music that is flagged as in my library but will be streamed”. (And there’s the broader category of “music that isn’t in my library but is available to listen to if I search for it”.) And it turns out that these are all very useful categories!

 

Fleshing out those categories, my music exploration workflow is now:

  1. I run across a song that I’m curious about.
  2. I add the album that that song is from to my library, telling my phone to download it. (I still like album’s, I haven’t embraced the new song-centric world.)
  3. I listen to the album a few times over the next few weeks.
  4. Depending on how that listening goes, I might decide to remove the album from my library, I might decide to leave it in there but not downloaded, or I might decide to buy it. (Or I might decide to leave it downloaded but not buy it, but so far I’ve been generally buying albums that I like.)
  5. Repeat, with other songs, or with other albums by artists that survived step 4.

This works very well: I’m buying about the same amount of music that I was buying before signing up for Apple Music, but I like the music that I’m buying significantly more.

 

So Apple Music is working well as a “try before you buy” mechanism, but that process still depends on step 1: discovering music to try. Part of the way that Apple Music has been effective is simply in making it easier for me to follow ambient music recommendations: e.g. if I see a recommendation in Twitter, I can go and add it to my library instead of either listening to it right then (which breaks my Twitter experience) or saving it in Instapaper. But Apple Music has its own discovery tools: curated playlists, Beats One (which I’d been enjoying before but am actually listening to less now), and a weekly algorithmically generated playlist of music it recommends for me.

And that algorithmic New Music Mix has been extremely useful. A lot of its recommendations are off (I should spend some time training it by flagging songs it recommends as liked/disliked), but there’s been quite a bit of music in there that I really liked, much of which I would not have discovered any other way.

At first, it was just funny to see how much K-Pop the mix recommends to me: maybe a quarter of the songs each week are K-Pop, but for whatever reason it generally puts those near or at the top of the list, so I start my weekly listening with a bunch of K-Pop. Which is totally fine! And then I saw a song by Ga-In that I wasn’t familiar with, and learned that she’d released a new album; I would have discovered that myself soon enough, but still, happy to have it pointed out to me.

But then I came across the song New York by Mamamoo. I’d never heard of the group before, but I really like that song; and, as it turns out, they are a quite solid group. (The rest of that album is admittedly not as good as that song, but the album is decent, and I rather like their earlier albums.) Or, on a non-K-Pop note, I can’t remember which Karmin song the mix pointed out to me (Dance with You, maybe?), but Leo Rising is a fine album indeed, and I have no idea how I would have discovered it otherwise.

 

Having access to a larger music library has also been helping my guitar learning. I have a set of five songs that I practice every time I play Rocksmith; at some point, I realized I could just throw them into a playlist. (And also use them as an input to my music discovery workflow; Going to Hell is a good album!)

So now, those songs are in my ears in a way that they weren’t before. Ironically, the problem with playing them in Rocksmith is that I don’t hear the guitar part so well: I know how the songs go, of course, but when it comes to the details of the guitar parts, my playing drowns out the actual playing on the record.

And that makes a big difference. The guitar parts just get stuck in my head more, of course; but I also notice details that I didn’t before, and I find a few places where my rhythm was a bit off.

More subtly, though: the songs become less mysterious. There are parts in some of these songs that I can’t play crisply on the guitar, which gives me a feeling that they’re some sort of impossible challenge. But when I hear, say, Rush playing YYZ or Chicago playing 25 or 6 to 4, I can hear the structure of the solos or fast riffs, and the way they’re played cleanly; and that cleanness, in turn, helps me internalize the idea that these pieces aren’t some huge mountaintops to scale, that the performers aren’t superhuman: I just have to get better, and I can actually visualize what it would be like to be play those songs better. And that, in turn, motivates me to practice the tricky bits more in Riff Repeater or outside of the game, and I do in fact get better. (Though, don’t get me wrong, I still can’t play 25 or 6 to 4 crisply.)

 

I said above that I’m still buying music. Part of the reason why I’m doing that is to support artists; part is so I can share music with Miranda. (It’s nice having a daughter with similar tastes in art!) But I’m ultimately also not sure how much I should trust music that’s currently available on streaming services to continue to be available on streaming services, or even to continue to be available at all.

That last bit sounds a little paranoid. But I also remember buying the first two seasons of Legend of Korra on iTunes, and then when the third season came around, not only was the third season not available on iTunes, but I couldn’t stream / re-download the first two seasons. Fortunately, Nickelodeon and Apple came to terms a few weeks later, so that situation got fixed; but there are lots of movies that aren’t available via streaming services, or that become available and then get pulled off later. And, worse, that even happens with movies on DVD: it boggles my mind that A Taxing Woman is currently out of print in the US, but it apparently is.

Music is in a (much!) better situation in that regard than movies are, but still: I’m very fond of Zhao Rongchun’s CD Master of the Erhu, and good luck finding a new copy of that. (I assume it was self-published?) Also, from an archival point of view: while I intentionally waited on signing up for Apple Music until they got their matching algorithm correct, I nonetheless see CDs that I’ve ripped and imported as a single album being matched from multiple albums. I haven’t seriously looked at how it matches classical music recordings, but I would be surprised if it got all of those right, too.

So: ultimately, I just do not trust this service as a mechanism to represent my music library in a way that matches my archival standards. Which is fine, that’s not where its strength is, but it also means that I should have a story for how I will have an archival representation that I’ll trust if Apple Music goes away five years from now. And, for now, I’m satisfying that by buying copies of music that I care about and by not turning on Apple Music on iTunes on my desktop computer.

 

Of course, I already don’t have a good archival story for my music. CDs degrade, and this isn’t an abstract consideration: I know from experience that some of my CDs no longer play. I took a stab at copying them all up a few years back, but those copies aren’t currently well-backed-up.

Storage is significantly cheaper now than when I did that experiment, though; 500-ish CDs was once a large amount of data, but these days I could just rip them all, buy a 1TB drive and plug it into my computer, and have Backblaze back them up for me. Or I could back them up to Glacier, and spend approximately 3 cents / year / CD (if I back them up losslessly, less if backed up as MP3); $15 a year seems like a price worth paying to back up my entire CD collection, or around $20 if I throw in the music that I’ve bought online?

Though, of course, I shouldn’t limit those backups to CDs: given the above discussion, backing up my DVDs is arguably a higher priority, but a single DVD is more like 20 cents / year, which is slightly less trivial. (Still probably worth starting now; and five years from now it will be back to being trivial.) And I should back up electronic copies of books (there’s a reason why I buy books through Amazon: the encryption is breakable); fortunately, that goes back to being cheap enough to pay for with pocket change.

 

Or maybe I should accept that a) possessions are transient, and b) money can solve problems, even for out-of-print items. I dunno. For now, certainly, it’s great having access to most of the music that I can think of: Apple Music has really made a difference in my life, I’m listening to more music and more new music than I had been doing for years.

refocusing my guitar learning

November 18th, 2016

The Rocksmith team recently released a (free!) update to Rocksmith 2014 that was substantial enough to deserve a new name: Rocksmith Remastered. It’s the same game, just better: they’ve looked at how people have used it over the last three years, where the rough edges are, how they could modify it to help your learning (e.g. some tweaks to make Riff Repeater mode a little more versatile), how they could modify it to keep you playing more (e.g. giving an option to fix your tuning in Nonstop Mode).

It turns out, though, the change that they made that had the most effect on me is a very simple one: the ability to put your song in lists. Before that change, I’d use the favorites as a grab-bag: songs that I liked, plus songs that I’d recently downloaded and wanted to get to know. So I’d spend most of my time there, kind of haphazardly: I’d try to dip into recent songs to decide what I felt about them, and there would usually be a few songs that I’d play in most practice sessions, and then I’d graze a bit.

So I used lists to clarify those. Now, “favorite” means “this is a song that I would be actively happily to play if it came up in a random playthrough”. I have a separate list of recently downloaded songs; a song goes off of that list if I either decide that I like it enough to make it a favorite or if I decide I’ve had enough of it. And I also decided to formalize the concept of “a few songs that I’d play in most practice sessions”: now I have a list of songs that I am actively working at getting better at, that I play through in every Rocksmith session and that I’ll frequently dip into Riff Repeater to try to polish.

 

Or, to look at it another way: I’m trying to step up my game by focusing on those songs. Which, in turn, means: how do I want to step up my game in this context, what are the specific criteria that I’ll look for to decide whether I’ve done a good enough job with a song?

In broad strokes, I’ve decided to divide up the songs I’m actively learning into two categories. The first are songs that I think that I should be able to play well: my goal here is that I want to be able to play through these songs completely in master mode, with no notes showing on the screen, and do a credible job of that. This is something that I’ve occasionally done before, but not seriously, especially given that Rocksmith 2014 (correctly!) shifted away from forcing you in to memorizing entire songs the way its predecessor did. (Fortunately, they did leave in a way to put the entire song in master mode; I hadn’t been using it much, but I’m using it now.) The songs that I’m currently working on in this category are Heaven Knows and Chelsea Dagger.

The other category of songs are ones where I don’t actually expect to be able to play the whole song well: certainly not memorize it, maybe not even get to where the game shows me all the notes in the solos. These are songs where I want to stretch myself more, or just hard songs that I like playing and am happy to take advantage of Rocksmith‘s ability to strip down the tough bits of songs. Initially, I was thinking that two songs in this category (for a total of four) would work as well, but there were actually three songs that I’d been working on somewhat that fit into this category, so I decided to throw in all three: 25 or 6 to 4, Fly by Night, and YYZ.

So now I have five songs that I play through every time I play the game; and, each time, I’ll spend extra time on at least one of the songs, going through tricky bits in Riff Repeater to level them up or get more reliable at them. Also, I have a playlist of those songs on my phone which I try to listen to every weekday, to get them in my ear and to help me pick up phrasing issues and the like, so I get reminded what the guitar parts on those songs sound like when played well, not just how they sound when being drowned out by my playing.

 

And it’s working! I now have played through both Heaven Knows and Chelsea Dagger with no notes showing and with no strikes: no strikes doesn’t mean that I get all the notes right, but it means that I get the vast majority of them right and that there aren’t any sections of the song that I completely screw up. I think I’m close to graduating on Heaven Knows, actually: I’m pretty solid on almost all the sections, and in the one section where I’m not reliably playing the exact right notes, it’s not that I don’t understand what’s going on or can’t play it, it’s that the guitarist is messing around with minor variations of the same melody in a few different ways, and my messing around doesn’t always map exactly to the messing around on the recording. (Or, to put it another way: what I’m doing is wrong from a “classical musician playing from a score” point of view but would be perfectly fine if I were playing the song live.) I have a little farther to go on Chelsea Dagger, but my guess is that I’ll have moved on from both songs in maybe a month or so.

The other songs have been more surprising: on all three, I’m now playing at a level where Rocksmith is willing to throw all of the notes at me, instead of simplifying some sections. Honestly, I’m not sure the game is right to do so: in particular, it feels like I’m missing a lot on the hard parts of 25 or 6 to 4. But it’s also definitely the case that playing those songs repeatedly has made a significant difference.

And that playing is also opening up lots of concrete questions. For example, in YYZ there are sections where I can barely get my fingers mostly in the right place more or less quickly enough; but the game is telling me to actually pick those passages, not use HOPOs. How much do I want to be just be happy if the game gives me a pass, how much do I want to focus on having it sound fairly clear without worrying about pick usage, how much do I want to really improve my picking technique? I don’t think I have a firm answer to any of those, and certainly I’ll give different answers to different songs at different levels of difficulty, but it’s a good question to be asking. And it’s a question that’s informed by listening to the songs over and over again: one section in YYZ where I ask this question sounds just slow enough that it feels like I should be able to master it, another one sounds fast enough that I’m less optimistic, and 25 or 6 to 4 sounds quite a bit more tractable when I listen to it than I manage when I’m playing it.

So I definitely have challenges to think about: going through sections of 25 or 6 to 4 over and over again on riff repeater, thinking about hand positioning, learning to not freak out when notes come fast and trusting my hand positioning, and relaxing my right hand and using smaller movements. (Whenever I watch videos of good guitarists play, I’m always amazed by how more economical their motions are compared to mine.) And, of course, there’s the question of when I’ll decide that I’ve hit my limit with the harder songs; I actually feel like my technique is good enough to play Fly by Night in master mode but my memorization skills might not be, whereas with YYZ that’s flipped (but the game might be generous enough to let me slide), and for 25 or 6 to 4 probably neither is?

 

Good times.

what comes next?

November 13th, 2016

When I blogged about Trump before the election, I thought he was unlikely to win, though a 1-in-6 chance still scared me. And, well, I’m scared now.

So, what new bad event has a 1-in-6 chance of happening now that we add in the fact that Trump is elected? Maybe I’ve been reading too much Sarah Kendzior, but I can’t convince myself that “the United States slides into fascism” isn’t the answer. I don’t think it’s going to happen (1/6 is less than 1/2!), and of course we don’t have any FiveThirtyEight or polling data to predict the likelihood, but if it were to happen, than the beginnings would look exactly like what we’ve seen over the last year.

Just to be clear: by “fascism” I don’t mean “policies that I disagree with”. I’m not talking about policy disagreements, even very serious ones: I’m not talking about repealing Obamacare or getting rid of Social Security or slashing taxes on the wealthy or pulling out of trade deals or melting the polar ice caps. I’m talking about replacing pluralist democracy with a nationalist one-party system built around a leadership cult, promoting violence, focusing on purity (racial purity in particular), suspending the rule of law while very much maintaining the rule of police.

The United States has significantly more practice with democracy than most countries. Our democracy was, of course, seriously flawed right from the beginning, and it’s had some pretty strong shocks over the years; the advantage that that gives us is that attacks to the system are how you develop antibodies.

 

Which, in turn, is part of what scares me so much about the present moment: so many of those antibodies are directly under attack. The Republican party has been actively painting their opponents as illegitimate ever since they impeached Clinton; for the last eight years, they’ve behaved as if compromise is impossible, treated the filibuster as a norm instead of an emergency exception, and left a seat open on the Supreme Court for most of a year instead of bringing Obama’s (centrist!) nominee to a vote. As to direct defenses of democracy, the Republican party (and their court picks) have gotten rid of a very important one of those antibodies, the Voting Rights Act. The Republican party wants one-party rule; and it claims that black votes don’t count as much as white votes.

That’s bad, but it’s still mostly carrying out those attacks within the system. Trump, however, is actively bypassing the system, including those portions of the Republican Party that get in his way. (We saw this in the Republican National Convention, which was largely populated with the dregs of the party; to their discredit, the rest of the party ultimately got in line behind Trump.) Along the way, he’s also discarding good government social norms: not releasing his taxes, repeatedly calling for his opponent to be jailed, mocking people from social groups other than white men, attacking the press corps and restricting their ability to cover him.

This hasn’t changed since the election. The press corps is still on the out and Trump is still attacking them publicly. Trump’s transition team looks even more like a personality cult, containing more Trump family members than party mainstays. As I write this, he’s just named Bannon as his Chief Strategist: the attacks on minorities and women will continue, white supremacy continues to be core to his strategy.

 

Trump can’t, of course, install fascism by fiat: there’s the legislature, the courts, the police. But none of this give me any confidence, either: the legislature is dominated by a Republican party that has already shown itself to be willing to fall in line with Trump and contemptuous of two-party democracy; the courts got rid of the Voting Rights Act and there’s another seat waiting for Trump to fill; the FBI actively attacked Clinton during the election and Bush and Obama have handed Trump a surveillance system.

I saw a tweet a couple of days with me that stuck with me: it predicted that Black Lives Matter is going to be named a terrorist organization soon. I wish I could say that I didn’t believe this, but it sounds disturbingly possible, and it points at exactly why we would expect the police to help with the descent into fascism instead of working against it. We live in a country where a cop can drive up and blow away a 12-year-old-kid, and not be in jail; we live in a country where the police have, over and over, shown that maintaining power over minorities is a priority over protecting those minorities. Sure, not all cops, in fact I’m sure a majority of cops are appalled by the police killings of black citizens; but those good cops haven’t managed to make that behavior beyond the pale, and I have no reason to believe they’ll stand up against a police state being actively pushed from the presidency. Of course, getting rid of Black Lives Matter would only be one step into fascism, there will need to be more after that if Trump wants to finish the job of installing one-party rule; but if that step succeeds, more will come.

What about the press? There are some press outlets that have done good work during the election: Farenthold’s work for the Post, in particular. But even the printed press as a whole has happy to treat Clinton’s e-mail mishandling as a more serious news story than all of Trump’s problems put together; and, as for TV, CNN has hired a former Trump staff member that has a non-disparagement agreement with Trump! And those are both old media, anyways: Facebook is chasing the holy grail of engagement, and the company seems more than happy to do that without regard for truth or support for democracy.

Then there’s the people. Clinton got more votes than Trump, and still more people didn’t vote for either of them; and I do not believe at all that most people who voted for Trump want fascism. I do believe that some do, though, and others can be convinced; if, for example, the NRA were about a principled support of blanket individual gun rights as a possible bulwark against state overreach, then they would be protesting police killings of black men/kids who are carrying (real or fake) guns, but they’ve picked the other side of that fight. So that’s a potential private armed organization in support of white supremacy; and we already have private militias on our southern border.

 

I still hope and think it likely that either Trump is less dedicated to fascism than it looks (after all, the right has been making similarly extreme claims about Obama and black helicopters!) or that one or multiple of the above groups will stop him. But it scares me a lot that none of those groups feels like a particularly solid firewall; in fact, looking at them individually, none of them looks like a firewall at all, they all seem likely to fold if attacked systematically.

Or at least none of them except for the American people: I still, ultimately, have faith in our desire for democracy. Here’s some advice from Turkey that sounds right to me; let’s follow it.

sources of energy

November 8th, 2016

I’ve started paying more attention recently to what gives me more energy: evaluating experiences, places, even objects on that criterion instead of other criteria. Not necessarily physical energy—I’m as capable of falling asleep in post-lunch meetings as ever—but mental energy, a feeling that I’m building up my reserves for thinking instead of chipping away at them.

Driving, for example, is an energy sink for me, while walking and taking public transit is an energy source. I enjoyed Agile Open California last month, but I wish I hadn’t had to spend so much time in the car getting there and back; AndXP was the next day, and I decided that I’d rather leave home early and even potentially miss the beginning of the conference in order to get there via walking / Caltrain / SFMTA instead of driving. (Totally the right choice; and, as a bonus, I didn’t even miss the start after all, the program was a little misleading as to when things really began.)

This last Thursday and Friday was an offsite at work; I was annoyed at its location requiring me to drive, but actually that part wasn’t so bad. The drive was pretty short, especially in the morning, and when I got to the hotel, I realized that it had a beautiful view: of the water, of SF and the east bay mountains in the distance, of planes descending into SFO. And the shorter time from driving meant that I had time to enjoy the view, and also to do fifteen minutes of wuji meditation. The atrium in the middle of the hotel was quite nice, too; unfortunately, the conference room where I had to spend most of my time those days was soul-sucking.

On a more regular basis: my single favorite non-family weekly ritual these days is the one morning a week when I spend 15 minutes eating breakfast at Pamplemousse. It’s a very straightforward breakfast—a third of a toasted baguette, butter, jam, and coffee—but it’s straightforward in a good way, the chairs and tables are just right to suit my mood, and that extra 15 minutes where I’m sitting, eating, and reading a book makes a difference. (The other mornings, where I get a pastry from Pamplemousse that I eat while walking, also make a difference! Just a little less of one.)

And, continuing with the food theme: more and more, I default to wanting to go out for Japanese food. Most of that is because it turns out that I like Japanese food, and that we’ve been getting some good Japanese restaurants in Mountain View over the last few years, but part of it is pleasure with the experience as a whole. The food, the presentation and details of the food, the seating, the experience: a new restaurant called Kumino opened in a strip mall near us maybe four months ago, and it’s an amazing combination of a small menu that nonetheless manages to have a wide range of options, dishes where the details of the ingredients and their arrangement are done very thoughtfully (and deliciously!), quite pleasant presentation in terms of the plates and bowls that it’s served in, a physical setting that is still within a strip mall but manages to make a quite pleasant space (in a happy, bustling way) within that context, a menu that changes with the seasons (as I discovered the last time we went there) and all of this for an entirely reasonable price. I think I’d honestly be happy going there once every couple weeks pretty much indefinitely, still feeling that I was actively recharging every time I go there.

 

From a conceptual point of view, the main thing that kicked this off was reading The Nature of Order. Though, of course, there are earlier Alexander books, The Timeless Way of Building in particular; and, now that I think about it, I’m wondering how much The Arcades Project changed my thinking; it’s probably time to reread that.

At any rate, rereading The Nature of Order a year or two back had a big impact on me; and then I read Marie Kondo not too long after that. Those both ask questions that, to me, do a good job of bypassing my intellect and getting at something more fundamental: does this have life, does this bring joy? The Essence of Shinto reinforced and gave another lens on the question of what it means for a space to be alive: what spaces are sacred, are inhabited by the divine?

And I suspect that it’s not a coincidence that I’ve talked about Japanese matters twice here so far. (Or, for that matter, that our favorite discovery when we went to Paris over the summer was a Japanese patisserie! Though Paris itself is full of sources of energy for me; c.f. my Pamplemousse discussion above.) We went to Japan for the first time a few years back, and it seems to be the case that my brain had decided that we should go back there on our next overseas vacation. And, I think, next time I’ll want to spend rather less time in large cities than I normally do; though, actually, we did seem some rather nice shrines in Tokyo itself, and, in the right context, lively bustling can work even for me. We’ll see; with Miranda heading off to college soon, we won’t do any foreign trip next year, and Liesl may want to go somewhere else on our next trip.

 

That’s last paragraph is all hypothetical, though: for now, it’s my day-by-day life that matters. In particular, I spend a lot of time at work; what would I find energizing there? My best guess at an answer is focusing on the minutiae of code: I feel like I have a lot to learn there, and that, if I were to really commit to that, it would turn into a more meditative experience, and one that would give me a path towards grappling with the questions that Alexander and Kondo raise. I’m not sure that much of that is in my near-term future, though: I’m currently being useful in different ways at work, and that has its own benefits. (And deep debugging/analysis sessions are their own form of meditation.)

And, at some point, I’m going to change jobs; what should I look for then? An important question when the time comes, but it’s a question that can wait.

star realms

October 30th, 2016

Star Realms is an awful lot like Ascension. It includes the mechanic of multiple cards in the same faction reinforcing each other that Ascension didn’t add until a later expansion, some cards let you trash them for a benefit, its equivalent of constructs can be attacked, and of course many of the card effects are different, but still: you really don’t have to squint very hard at all for the two games to look the same.

So I was pretty surprised that, even though I’m good at Ascension, I was bad at Star Realms. It took me a while to come to terms with that, but: the numbers on the cards are different enough that cards that are a solid card in Ascension (e.g. 1 money + draw a card) aren’t nearly as good in Star Realms. Which was pleasant to realize, good that I can’t just coast.

And, even after realizing that, I wasn’t actually doing well: I was still losing more than half the time on medium difficulty. It took me a while to figure out the next thing I was doing wrong, because the interface didn’t make it as easy as I would have liked to watch my opponent’s play and figure out when they were making different choices than I would have. Eventually, though, I realized that they were trashing cards a lot more often than I was (not trashing bad cards through a different card’s effect, but trashing decent cards through that own card’s effect); and I realized that, in particular, trashing for money is an important accelerant early in the game.

I actually never got really good at the game: I couldn’t win reliably against the hard AI, and some of the story mode scenarios took a lot of tries. Based on those story mode scenarios, I suspect that there’s still more that I could do to accelerate my play?

Interesting experience, at any rate. I won’t say that I enjoy it more than a random Ascension expansion, and in fact I’ve been a little tired of the last few of those as well, but it’s always nice to have another set of cards to think about.

after the election

October 25th, 2016

As of two weeks before election day, it is looking like we won’t have a fascist as our next president. It’s less of a sure thing than I would like—if you trust FiveThirtyEight’s model, then the odds of a Trump presidency are about the same as the odds of rolling a 6 on a die, which scares me a lot—but Clinton’s lead at least seems quite a bit larger than it was before the first debate.

But, even if the polls turn out to be accurate and Clinton wins, we’ll still be in a country where around two-fifths of the voters think that the better candidate is the one who is male supremacist, white supremacist, Christian supremacist, hostile to democracy, and hostile to the concept of truth. And that’s not a great situation to be in.

So a big part of me is scared of what comes next, now that the lid has come off. But the flip side is that none of this is new to Trump. Congress and state legislatures are full of men, with many of them passing anti-abortion legislation that becomes more and more transparently about punishing and dominating women every year. Congress and state legislatures are full of white people, with a decent number of people in the country in such disbelief that Obama got elected that they hallucinate ideas about him not being born in the country, and with extra-judicial assassinations of black people by cops being commonplace and actively defended by many. Congress and state legislatures are full of Christians, and our nation’s response to 9/11 wasn’t “religious extremism is horrible”, it was “religious extremism is great, you just have to believe in the one true religion”. State governments are gerrymandering everywhere and passing restrictions explicitly designed to make it harder for black people to vote, and the filibuster has become normal. And people and organizations are happy to construct a web of “logic” around whatever position feels right for them; if we lose our coastal cities because of that, so be it. Other people are more informed than I am, but it feels to me like, even since the first Clinton presidency, the Republican party has been going on a path that leads straight to Trump.

 

I guess I’m glad that it’s so out in the open right now? Because I can imagine a more competent, more polished version of Trump that wouldn’t have self-destructed in the same way; that scares me a lot more, and maybe seeing Trump will start inoculating our political culture against that? But even that happy path can get very ugly as the hatred and fascism that Trump has pulled together feels like it can show itself; and there may well be smarter, more polished people who are reaching for the same goals as Trump while learning from his (many!) presentational/tactical mistakes.

And then there’s the question of what will happen to the Republican Party: it’ll be very hard for it to present itself now as a party of good government, of sober morality, of fiscal and legal conservatism. I’m not a Christian, but I suspect that it will even get harder and harder for the Republican Party to present themselves as driven by Christian morality (as opposed to Christian group dominance): Trump certainly doesn’t feel to me like anything that I remember as a positive model from the New Testament.

Parties last a long time, but not forever; it can’t feel good right now to be a good government, fiscally conservative, sober Republican and to be confronted with the number of voters in your party who are happy to burn the party down if their brand of authoritarian dominance doesn’t have complete control. (Though, of course, this isn’t new with Trump, as the House leadership struggles this decade have shown.) So the happy case from my point of view would be for the fascist segment of the Republican party to stay uncompromising but too small to win at a national level, and to dwindle in importance as the rest of the Republicans get more and more disgusted with them; and eventually the Republicans that actually believe in democracy will make peace with a subset of the Democrats, and we’ll be back to having two political parties that believe in majority rule and good government. It won’t be pleasant getting there; but the politics of the last two decades have been horrible in many ways already.

Or maybe the Republican party will pull back from the brink but stay on their current path. I have no idea what comes next in that scenario: if Trump can’t blow up the party, what can?

And, of course, if Trump inspires more a more polished Trump to follow him, then wow.

responsibly testing in production

October 17th, 2016

(This post was informed by a session at Agile Open California; many thanks to Llewellyn Falco and Matthew Carlson for their discussion and suggestions. But if there’s something in here that sounds wrong to you, blame me, not them!)

 

Agile software development has always had a strong focus on your software being correct. At the code level, Test-Driven Development requires you to provide a backstop that says that your code does what the programmer intends it to do; at the level of user interaction, the Customer has the end-user expertise to say how the software should behave, and they collaborate with programmers to develop acceptance tests to ensure that the software does in fact behave that way. These techniques are incredibly powerful by themselves, and even more powerful when combined with other Extreme Programming techniques; they provide a very solid defense against large classes of bugs.

In fact, there are a lot of bugs where I will say that, if you’ve written that bug, then you’re doing XP wrong: TDD plus pair programming plus simple design should have stopped you. But, over the course of the 2000’s, faith in the ability of the Customer lessened significantly: A/B tests, in particular, became a standard part of the design toolkit, accepting that we won’t always be able to predict in advance what sort of behavior will best meet our needs.

Of course, XP (and other agile methodologies) has many practices that work actively work to support A/B testing and related discovery mechanisms. Agile methodologies explicitly don’t say that they can predict the future indefinitely: instead, they tell you to work incrementally, in as small slices as possible, and one of the reasons for that is to give you as many situations as possible where you can try out working software in order to figure out what to do next. (That’s the whole “Responding to change over following a plan” part of the manifesto, coupled with “Working software over comprehensive documentation”.) So A/B tests slotted naturally into agile shops; I maintain, nonetheless, that A/B testing embraces uncertainty about what it means for behavior to be correct in a way that TDD does not.

Uncertainty about how humans will react to design is one thing, though; uncertainty about correctness about how computers will react to code is another thing. And I certainly would not in general recommend throwing some code out there, and running an A/B test to see if that code works! Having said, that, TDD is better at functional requirements than at non-functional requirements; you can bridge some of that gap with forms of testing other than unit testing (e.g. performance tests, though those in turn can be in conflict with short continuous integration cycle times), but over the last few years, I’ve run into some situations where even that starts to break down.

 

For example, late last year I was working on some code to partition an incoming workload across servers. We wanted to do this in a way that, as much as possible, colocated workload coming from a given customer onto as few servers as possible, while avoiding overloading individual servers so we can keep up with the incoming data stream in real time, and doing so in a way that supported autoscaling our servers up and down. I can come up with an algorithm for doing this that makes sense to me, and I can implement that algorithm in a TDD fashion; I’m a little embarrassed to say that I wrote a couple of bugs that slipped through to integration testing, but that’s not a problem with TDD, those bugs were directly attributable to my not paying enough attention to the warnings that the code was giving me that I wasn’t following simple design.

But the bigger question is whether that algorithm would actually lead to the desired system behavior: will servers handle the partitioned workload acceptably in practice, and, if they do, what are the best choices for the tuning parameters that the algorithm depends on? Will we keep up with incoming data load under normal situations, what will happen if a trial customer decides to load test us by suddenly switching from sending us data at a 15 GB/day rate to sending us data at a 5 TB/day rate (and, incidentally, the desired behavior there isn’t completely clear: in some situations customers want us to absorb all the data, while in other situations, customers want us to throttle the data so they don’t get overage charges), what will happen if some of the servers doing this processing go down, if there are network problems? And you have to consider efficiency in all of these calculations: we expect to have to overprovision somewhat in order to provide enough of a buffer to handle load spikes, but underused servers cost money.

You can, of course, simulate these scenarios. You can try simulating by sending inputs just to the partitioner component; if you do that, though, you have to somehow model how changes in the partitioner outputs will feed back into the partitioner’s input (in particular, CPU usage), and that modeling might be inaccurate. So you may instead decide to launch the entire system, with a simulated workload; that still requires you to model the variations in the customer’s data load, though, and that model in turn might be inaccurate. And there’s still the question of servers, networks, etc. going down; Chaos Monkey techniques are a good answer there, but, again, how much confidence do you have that the Chaos Monkey is going to hit all of your corner cases?

Ultimately: these are good testing techniques, but they take time, they take money, and they depend on models of non-local behavior in a way that means that they don’t provide the same level of reliability in their results that TDD provides for the local behavior of code. When we were uncertain in how real humans would react to the visual/interactive design, one answer was to test it against real humans, potentially in production; when is it responsible to test lower-level aspects of your code on production, doing so in a way that is consistent with agile (though potentially looking more like modern agile than XP); conversely, when does testing in production descend into cowboy coding?

 

Stepping back a bit, why do we test? Starting again with a TDD lens: TDD starts by forcing you to construct a precise hypothesis for what the desired behavior will be, and those precise hypotheses in turn support further experiments (refactoring, adding new functionality) that you hope won’t invalidate that behavior. But TDD also supports more imprecise feedback: for example, design feedback about how it feels to use your interfaces in practice. Also, precise questioning can be useful in situations outside of testing: in particular, numerically monitoring the state of your system (response times, queue sizes, etc.) can be crucial for understanding the behavior of running systems, as can health checks that fire off when numbers go outside of the desired range.

TDD also teaches you to work in tiny increments: this helps you quickly detect when you’ve made a bad change (instead of having to wait for days or weeks), it helps you figure out quickly exactly where the bad change was (because only one thing changed, instead of lumping together dozens or hundreds of changes at once), it makes the rollback process easy (because you only have a little bit of code to revert), and there aren’t broader consequences (because you fix the failing test before you push your code). Also, stepping back a level, it teaches you to embrace the red: a failing test isn’t a catastrophe, and, in fact, it’s a sign that you have effective monitoring in place, that your safeguards are working as expected. (At least hopefully it is: it’s good to make sure that the test went red for the expected reason!)

 

Given the above, what would responsibly testing code in production look like? You should be able to quickly detect when you’ve made a bad change: so create some precise signals to monitor, and add alarms to let you know if you’ve gone outside of the desired parameters. If there is a problem, you should be able to figure out what code caused the problem: so continuously deploy your code, with each new push only introducing a minimal amount of change. And, if there is a problem, you want rollback to be easy, so design your deploy system with that in mind. (For example, one strategy is to deploy new code to new servers while leaving the old servers running, and monitor whether the new servers are behaving as well as the old servers; if not, redirect traffic back to the old servers.)

That isn’t enough, though: it’s great to be able to detect problems quickly and roll back, but, if users are affected by the problems, that’s not enough. So you always need to keep this in mind while writing code: what are the consequences of a change in code going wrong? UI-only changes aren’t so bad: if the worst consequence of a change is that a flow of operations is a little more annoying to your users, then the downsides are temporary and recoverable, while the upside in terms of learning could be permanent. Similarly, having operations be a little bit slower is manageable as well: if you’re not sure how efficient an algorithm will be in real-world inputs, then it might well be beneficial to monitor it in production, being ready to flip the switch back if the slowdown exists and is noticeable. And slowdown that isn’t user-visible at all is even better: if you can get useful information from an experiment where the only potential downside is having to temporarily spend more on hardware resources, then go for it!

Data loss, however, is a completely different story. If code touches data, think about what extra testing you’ll need to do to get confidence before it runs on production, and think about your rollback steps: while discovering a data loss problem quickly and turning it off before it does any further harm is better than discovering it slowly, that’s cold comfort to people whose data was lost during the period while your code is in production. So think about worst-case scenarios: can an early stage in your pipeline store data someplace safe for disaster recovery purposes? Can you guarantee that data is stored redundantly by a downstream process before throwing away an upstream copy of the data? If you have to do data migrations, can you do double writes and double reads with consistency checks, enabling you to seamlessly switch back to the old store if you detect problems?

And, of course, there are intermediate scenarios: while I said that latency might be acceptable, there’s a big difference between having an operation go from one second to five seconds versus having an operation go from one second to one hour. Also, keep in mind that not all problems are caused by code pushes: machines go bad, networks go down; even worse, machines can stay up while their disks stop working well, or networks can get partitioned.

 

Done right, though, testing in production can be actively beneficial. Returning to the manifesto, we prefer working software, we prefer responding to change: so embrace incremental development, and ask yourself: if you’re uncertain about the effect of a change, is production the best place to test that? Most of the time, the answer will be no, but sometimes the answer will be yes. So, if testing in production will responsibly and quickly give you feedback about a change, then go for it.

More subtly, though: testing in production helps you build antifragile systems. If your strategy is to always get things right, then you may be able to go a long way with that strategy, but if you fail, consequences can be catastrophic, because you won’t have practice dealing with problems. In contrast, if you build a system with production monitoring and testing in the forefront, then you’ll be able to quickly detect when things have gone wrong and you’ll have practice with remediation steps. (And, again, some causes of failure aren’t under your control at all, e.g. machines going bad, customer load spikes, malicious attacks on the system: practice those as well by artificially inducing those problems!)

When talking about this in my Agile Open California session, I led off with the question “how often should your pager go off on a well-functioning agile team?” One answer is “never”, and I’m pretty sympathetic to that answer, but I prefer a different one: your goal should be that your pager never goes off in response to circumstances that the customer notices, but that your pager should occasionally go off in response to quality degradation that the customer doesn’t notice. If you do that, you’ll have monitoring and alerting that notifies you of the problem, you’ll develop monitoring and logging to help you pinpoint the cause and procedures to get you back to a good state quickly, and you’ll learn what problems are frequent enough to deserve automated remediation.

And my belief is that, done correctly, a system that has gone through that will grow stronger through antifragility: you’ll be able able to release software more quickly, you’ll be able to run experiments in the location that maximizes learning, and you’ll be able to do all of that while having your system become more and more robust over time.

fire emblem awakening

October 6th, 2016

I’d played one of the earlier Fire Emblem games, but only one. There are ways in which I like the gameplay, but I didn’t like the permadeath, the later levels got long, and the story didn’t grab me. Ultimately, I was more of a fan of Intelligent Systems’ Advance Wars games instead: I liked the levels as puzzles more than as a start of something bigger.

But Fire Emblem Awakening seemed to be trying something different compared to earlier games in the series, and people I follow on Twitter liked it; so, when Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE caught my attention, I figured I’d give Fire Emblem Awakening a spin first to have a bit more context for the Fire Emblem aspects of Tokyo Mirage Sessions.

And it turns out: still not the series for me. Permadeath is optional, and they’ve added in friendship / romance options between characters, which could be fun. Which, initially, it was; but it ended up as yet another thing to balance. I don’t just have to solve the puzzle of each level (and the levels are still a bit long): I have to figure out which characters to use (and which characters to avoid leveling up entirely, or alternatively do extra grinding), I have to deal with expendable weapons, I have to figure out which levels work better with expendable rare weapons, I have to figure out when to level up a character’s new weapon types when they gain extra abilities at level ten, and now I have to do all of this while acting as matchmaker.

Contrast with Persona 4: in that game, there’s a much smaller cast, the social links are separated from the combat. And, of course, the plot is a zillion times better.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Fire Emblem Awakening is a bad game: if that sort of balancing act is something you enjoy, then great. And, in fact I basically enjoyed the game for the first several missions. But, eventually, the missions got a bit much; I stopped soon after the finishing the first plot arc.

rise of the tomb raider

October 3rd, 2016

I liked the first Lara Croft Bow Warrior quite a bit: very legible action platforming, a surprisingly decent story about coming into your powers, tons of collection that managed to stay on the entertaining side instead of the annoying side. Rivers of blood and not enough tombs—it’s a AAA video game—and there were too many creepy impalements, but it was a game that I was happy to have played.

But, apparently, there was something about the first game that bothered the game’s designers: they’d put in an animal killing mechanic, they forced you to do it once early on in the game, but I guess I’m not the only person who didn’t kill any animals after that first one. So the designers made sure that, in the second Lara Croft Bow Warrior, you didn’t limit your slaughter to people who were shooting at you: you have to leave a trail of furry creatures spread across the snow in your wake, you have to chase down deer and wolves that are limping away after being shot, whimpering but still trying to escape.

castro 2

September 28th, 2016

Castro has been my favorite podcast app for years. Podcast apps generally have the same basic functionality, and Castro didn’t do anything particularly special in that regard; instead, it presented an environment where I wanted to spend time. When I’m using the podcast app, I am, of course, spending most of my time listening to podcasts; and Castro’s screen while playing the podcast puts the podcast episode front and center, coloring the screen based on the podcast art, with the episode notes taking most of the space, and with the chrome arranged around the edges in minimal but functional ways.

It’s not perfect: there’s no share sheet for the liner notes, the scrubber took me a little while to figure out how to use, I couldn’t reliably predict which episodes it would clear out when I needed space, it deletes episodes when you unsubscribe from a podcast, and the badge they added for supporters felt really out-of-place with the visual design of the rest of the app. But I was happy with it for years; I tried out Overcast when it showed up and made a bit of a splash, but ultimately I just preferred spending time in Castro.

So I was glad to see that Supertop brought out a second version of Castro: I like giving money to people who make well-crafted apps (especially an app that I’ve probably spent around a thousand hours with), and I figured they’d probably smoothed out some of the issues that occasionally grated on me. Who knows, maybe they even had something big enough that it needed to be saved for a new version.

 

And, it turns out, Castro 2 really is focused on something that was missing from the first version, and that I didn’t know how much I liked until I started using it: queue management. Sometimes I’m almost caught up with my podcast backlog, at which point queue management doesn’t matter, but right now that is definitely not the case, and I can use some help reminding me of older episodes that I still actively want to listen to. Also, the original Castro sorts episodes by publication date, which means that, if I follow a link to an old episode of a podcast, then it disappears from sight as soon as I’ve downloaded it.

I’d seen a podcast app before that focused on queue ordering, namely Overcast; but, at least when Overcast launched—I have no idea what it’s like now—Overcast tried be smart about queue management instead of just asking you what you wanted, and it did a bad job of handling a situation when you started playing an episode that wasn’t at the top of the queue. Castro 2 has none of those problems: it lets me fiddle with the queue when I’m in the mood to do so, and when I’m not in the mood to fiddle with the queue, the next episode that I’ll want to play is always going to be in the top screen of the queue, usually right on top. So it really does solve a problem that I didn’t realize I had: I don’t want backlog management to be a nagging issue, I either want to be actively thinking about backlog management or not thinking about it at all. (And it also solves a problem I did know that I had, because it caches the podcasts starting at the top of the queue, going down until it hits the cache size limit, instead of caching an opaque subset of episodes.)

 

There’s a problem though, and in retrospect that supporters badge was a warning sign: when I’m actually listening to an episode, Castro 2 isn’t a particularly nice place to spend time, and it minimizes the focus on the episode. Here’s what you see when you’re playing an episode in the original Castro:

castro-episode-screen

And here’s what you see when you’re playing an episode in Castro 2:

castro-2-controls-screen

Basically, Castro 2 blows up the bottom quarter-inch of the original screen into an entire screen of its own: instead of minimal chrome, it’s all chrome. It’s a little more functional—in the original, it’s hard to discover how to change speeds, the scrubber is a little hard to use, and I have no idea if the original even has a sleep timer—but none of those differences matter to me. It mostly looks pleasant enough, except for the fake sound representation over the scrubber. (Which gets actively distracting when you skip forwards/backwards, because the sound representation jumps a lot while the scrubber barely moves.) But almost everything about the episode that you’re listening to is missing: no colors, no show notes.

 

Or at least that’s the “now playing” screen that I first noticed, which you get if you tap on the lower left. If you tap on the lower right instead, you get this:

castro-2-epsisode-notes-playing-screen

This is a lot closer to the original version: the chrome at the bottom is only a little over three times as large as in the original (or really more like two times, given the Delete / Mark Listened buttons in the original). Compared to the original, there are a few extra buttons (partly because they’re no longer depending on navigation via sliding), and a few buttons missing; but it’s similar, and of course the show notes are there.

But it’s also a screen that looks like a completely standard podcast episode screen. It’s tastefully designed, but the character is gone.

 

Because Castro 2’s focus isn’t about bringing the character out of individual episodes: it’s on setting up the stream of episodes. Those two screens aren’t the important one: the important screen is this one:

castro-2-queue-screen

It doesn’t just show you what’s playing and what’s coming up, it makes it as easy as possible to rearrange those episodes. It doesn’t even show you any of the episode notes: that could be useful in evaluating which episode you want to play next, but it would also means that only five episodes fit on screen instead of three, which makes queue management harder. (In the Inbox screen, they do show you the first few lines of the notes, because there are different tradeoffs in that context.) There’s a drag target on the right side of each row, but that’s just there as a visual suggestion that you might want to rearrange the items in the queue: you can, in fact, hold anywhere on the row to drag.

And this queue management really does matter: until using Castro 2, I didn’t realize how much time I spent wondering what to play next, or how frequently I would ignore an episode because it was older, not realizing that it was actually what I was in the mood to listen to next, or at least to listen to once I’d finished the latest episodes of my favorite two or three podcasts. Also, Castro 2 is a lot better at Castro at helping you dig into older episodes of podcasts that you run across, whether individual episodes or podcasts that you’ve decided that you want to go back to the beginning and listen to all of.

 

So the big difference between the two is that Castro 2 is actively better at queue management, and actively less welcoming when listening to individual episodes. Though, of course, there are other little things that grate at me (just as there were in the original). The biggest is the lack of persistent per-podcast playing speeds: I find it surprisingly annoying to have to change the speed most of the time when a new episode comes up, and this need to fiddle seems to actively work against Castro 2’s presentation of a seamless queue of music for you. I also don’t like it that it takes two taps to go to the show nodes for an episodes other than the topmost episode, and while I do appreciate having a button for the iOS share sheet, I don’t appreciate the fact that those buttons go to links on Castro’s web site instead of the podcast’s web site.

But, ultimately, what frustrates me most is this: I want to interact with things that bring me joy. And a big part of the reason why I’m still a little obsessed with iOS is that iOS app designers have managed to produce apps that bring me joy, that present spaces that I want to inhabit. Tweetie did that, Reeder did that, and Castro did that.

Castro 2 doesn’t do that: the queue management is great, but most of the time, I’m focused on the episode that I’m listening to. And not only does Castro 2 not have the character in that screen as Castro does, it doesn’t even show the same focus on the current piece as Apple Music does.

 

I’ve gone back to the original Castro. But now it doesn’t bring me as much joy as it did: the queue management in Castro 2 is pointing out something important in myself, too. What I really want is Castro 2 with Castro’s episode screen, and with the small issues above fixed; but I don’t think that’s too likely.

It’s probably time for me to survey other podcast clients again—maybe I’d like Overcast more now, maybe something else good has shown up? Probably not, though, I’ll probably end up back with Castro, just a little less happy with it than I was a month ago…

rocksmith as virtual reality

September 19th, 2016

In the September VGHVI Symposium, we talked about virtual reality, using the phrase “metaphoric presence” to describe it; we contrasted VR to immersion, which we defined as identification with a ruleset. Basically, with our definitions (or rather Roger’s definitions, though I support them) virtual reality gives the impression that you’re there, while, if you’re immersed, the “there” matters less, you’re touching the underlying systems more directly.

Current virtual reality doesn’t try to be a complete simulation of presence: it tries to simulate visuals and sound, but not the other senses. Which got me thinking: I have another game which tries to simulate two senses, namely Rocksmith. It simulates the sound of playing guitar with a band, and playing the game feels like playing a guitar because you are, in fact, playing a guitar.

So, a thought experiment: contrast a VR experience simulating being in the audience of a concert with a VR experience that simulates standing on stage at a concert with Rocksmith with Rock Band. How do these four examples stack up along the metaphoric presence dimension?

 

This is just a thought experiment for me: I have experience with the latter two examples but not with the former two. Having said that, my guess is that the former two really would feel more like being present than the latter two, but that that depends on what aspect of presence you’re trying to target. If you’re trying to target being at a concert, then they do better. If you’re trying to target performing at a concert, then of course the audience VR example doesn’t work, but the stage VR experience raises the question of what exactly you’re doing on stage. It would give you insight into being on the receiving end of audience attention, but without them reacting to you, something would be missing even for that interaction, and of course the experience of making music would be completely missing. (Though you could always sing along!)

Rocksmith doesn’t have the crowd react to you; this is the right choice from a pedagogical point of view, but it does mean that the concert feedback loop has a break in it. Rock Band, in contrast, has always focused on that aspect of the experience. And actually, in this example, Rock Band with a VR headset (and with more computational power backing up the crowd animation) feels to me like one possible sweet spot: it gives you enough to do to make you feel like your actions matter, and I suspect the feel of the controls is just real enough that they would help trick your brain in interesting ways compared to using a traditional controller or air guitar gestures detected with a camera.

Of course, you can also imagine Rocksmith with a VR headset, too, and with reactive crowd mechanics. (Or even reactive musicians, which are already present in the game’s Session Mode.) Which, in turn, raises the question: does the fidelity of the controls help or hurt a feeling of presence?

My first reaction to that latter question was that, actually, faithful controls might hurt a feeling of presence: unless you’re particularly good at playing guitar, there would be a disconnect between the bad notes coming out of your guitar and the crowd’s enthusiastic response. (Alternatively, the crowd could respond unenthusiastically, but that also has its down sides.) Whereas if you add a Rock Band guitar style level of indirection, then it divides the problem into two parts: having you faithfully perform the simplified actions that the game wants you to do, and having the game translate those simplified actions into something that sounds good and that the crowd reacts well to. Thinking about it more, though, Rocksmith has its own level of indirection, with the way it asks you to play a subset of the notes; Rocksmith plays the original track along with your notes, but having the crowd react to how well you play the requested notes could probably work.

But, in general, a lack of fidelity is going to be key in VR games: a game that realistically simulated fighting with guns or athletic competitions is just not going to work very well for the vast majority of us. Easing off on the negative consequences of failure in physical simulations is crucial (i.e. you don’t want players to actually get shot!); you probably also want to ease off on the physical strains (traversing difficult terrain, carrying body armor, etc.), and for players at non-expert skill levels, you probably want a level of translation from simplified actions to complex results, similarly to Rock Band. (Laser tag is another comparison point here, too.)

 

I also wonder whether visuals are crucial for a real sense of metaphoric presence; if so, that’s an argument against the possibility of considering Rocksmith as a form of VR. My initial reaction was “probably”, but now I don’t think so: in particular, I suspect that there are a lot of people who would prefer an audio plus tactile experience for pornographic use over an audio plus visual experience.

So maybe the way in which the Rocksmith example doesn’t seem quite like presence is the limited nature of the tactile experience: having a guitar react to your touch is important, but it’s not the same as having a simulated person react to your touch, or even having the feel of traversing a broader environment. It’s unfair to instruments, but I think your brain treats playing an instrument as almost entirely an outgrowth of your action, whereas a feeling of presence would more of a feel of you reacting to the environment.

 

I dunno; I still think there’s something there in the idea of Rocksmith as VR. Also, current VR is so different from a Star Trek holosuite example that I suspect that, fifty years from now, current VR will seem more like current non-VR experiences than it will look seem that future’s best simulations. And I think this question of how much fidelity in responsiveness we want is an important one, too: do we want an experience that accurately represents what the outcomes of our actions would be, or one that translates our actions into a desired experience, turning us into a more badass version of ourselves?

removing the earphone jack

September 12th, 2016

At the iPhone 7 launch event, Apple confirmed that they were removing the earphone, and justified it in the name of “courage”. Which was, of course, a ridiculous, tone-deaf thing to say; watching the blowback, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that they were at least correct in that making that choice did require courage. I’m seeing people blast Apple for the removal (not just for their choice of words) all over the place, and it’s quite possibly the single biggest story coming out of the iPhone 7 launch event; getting that amount of negative press and the corresponding potential impact on sales of their single largest-revenue item does in fact require courage. That doesn’t mean that it was a good choice, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they should have used courage as a justification or talked about it at all, but courage was in fact required to make that decision.

In particular, I was surprised just how many times the following tweets got retweeted into my Twitter feed:

When you say “the real reason”, or describe actions as “sinister and accurate as fuck”, you are engaging in conspiracy theorizing. Which doesn’t mean that you’re incorrect: there are plenty of conspiracies out there in the world! But, if you’re going to do that, at least take alternate possible explanations seriously; maybe the people I follow who quoted those tweets were doing so, but when I do, I don’t end up at the same conclusion at all.

 

Apple has shown over and over again over the years that:

1) They like making devices thinner and thinner.
2) They like putting new sensors into their devices.
3) They care a lot about battery life.
4) They don’t like wires.

If you put the first three together: they want to remove as much from the interior of their devices as possible, so that they can either use the space savings for thinness, for sensors, or for batteries. This is particularly true with objects that are tall (I doubt they would have removed the ethernet port when they did if it weren’t so tall), but it’s a big part of why optical drives disappeared from their laptops, why the ethernet port disappeared, why spinning hard drives disappeared, why they’re putting less travel in their most recent keyboards, why they replaced the 30-pin connector with the Lightning connector, why they moved to USB-C in their most recently designed laptop. There are other reasons for all of those choices, but they all paint a picture of Apple wanting to shrink or remove ports from their devices, in the name of either thinness or more battery.

And they don’t like wires: you can see this in Apple’s early embrace of wifi, in their eventual removal of the ethernet port, in their switch to bluetooth mice and keyboards, in the removal of a dedicated charging port in their latest laptop. I don’t know how much of this is a feeling that wires pollute the beauty of their design and how much is a feeling that wires get tangled and otherwise restrict movement and device usage, but either way I’m confident that Apple’s design team prefers to do without wires whenever possible.

So, if you put those together: we have a single-use port that takes up space inside the device (not a lot, but not nothing, either), where there’s a wireless technology that is growing in popularity. Apparently about a sixth of US headphones sold are Bluetooth; I was surprised that the percentage was that high, but if it is, maybe it really is the case that we’re about to reach a tipping point and that wired headphones are going to go the way of the floppy disk over the next few years.

To repeat, none of this means that Apple’s decision was a good one: I actually personally still don’t think that it was, though I don’t have a feel for the details of the pros and cons. (Buzzfeed had a good interview on the subject; note that the iPhone 7’s battery is 14% bigger than in its predecessors.) It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about the problems of closed systems. But calling a desire to lock things down “the real reason” (and then saying that the iPhone is “completely closed”, ignoring standards such as Bluetooth and WiFi), or saying this is “sinister and accurate as fuck” seems to me to be going out of your way to jump to the least charitable interpretation possible.

 

I’m not even sure exactly what the case is that removing the jack increases closedness in a problematic way. The headphone jack was in Apple’s control before, because it was inside a device they made; now it’s an inch outside the device, connected via an adapter they control. Is there any evidence that it behaves differently in the new location, or that they’re more able to exert control in the new location than in the old location? (The Square card reader still works.)

Also, is the complaint that Apple will prevent hardware manufacturers from using the Lightning port in some ways, or is it that they’ll charge licensing fees? Given how Apple treats the App Store, the former seems like a reasonable fear, admittedly, though I can’t quite envision what sort of uses they’d want to prevent; for the latter, I prefer open connector standards, but it’s business, and a $4 fee doesn’t seem like a reason for me personally to care: I don’t buy a lot of Lightning accessories, so those fees cost me less than $10 per phone.

Or is the complaint a cultural preservation one, that it makes it harder to make copies of audio coming out of the phone? If that’s the issue, then: 1) The Lightning port gives you higher-quality audio; 2) The headphone adapter is still there; 3) There’s never been a similar builtin capability for video, and I’m not sure why audio is more important than video; 4) Even in a dystopian world of locked-down audio output, the speaker is still there.

 

For that last one, what people should really be lobbying for is a way to have virtual audio devices at an OS level. That’s something that really does limit the capabilities of the phone: if you want to write a podcast mixing app, and you want to let it use Skype recordings as an input source, then you’re at Microsoft’s mercy, and Microsoft won’t let you; Apple could bypass that.

Or push on Apple to aggressively open up Siri’s capabilities, or to let you specify different default mail programs or web browsers. Or push on the big one, content limits in the App Store: I can see a justification for the existence of the App Store from a security point of view, but restrictions on the topics that art works in the store are allowed to cover?

Or just complain because you’ve got earphones you like and you think the adapter is ungainly. But really: taking the fact that Apple moved the earphone jack from inside the device to on an adapter an inch outside of the device, and seeing it as primarily motivated by an attack on openness? I do not get that one.

pokemon go

September 6th, 2016

The special thing about Pokemon Go: so many people are playing it. Parks are full of people playing it, my coworkers are talking about it, when I’m on a train I see gyms at stations change ownership before the train has even stopped. My favorite experience with the game was when Miranda asked me to meet her at the park behind the library one Friday after work; I spent an hour or two hanging out with her and some of her friends, catching Pokemon and refilling at Pokestops, and then Liesl and Widget came to meet us so we could all four walk home together.

The less special thing about Pokemon Go: the core gameplay consists of waiting for random number generators to give you the creatures you want, so you can fill in Pokedex entries. That is not a recipe for a rewarding life. Of course, I could take similarly cynical approaches towards a lot of things in life; there’s some truth to those cynical approaches, but they’re missing something important as well.

 

It certainly is true that, when first playing Pokemon Go, a big part of the fun (the joy, even) is that you’re frequently catching new Pokemon. Stepping back, though: you first have to figure out what’s involved in catching them in the first place. The game gives you remarkably little introduction, so just figuring out the flicking takes a bit of experimentation; and then there’s the list of nearby Pokemon (which turns out to be mostly useless for now, but you don’t know that), and these icons that you see on your map, Pokestops and even gyms. I couldn’t interact with the gyms yet (I can’t remember if you’re allowed to look at the Pokemon inside them or not?); Pokestops set up the tension of whether or not I’d be able to keep up enough of a supply of Pokeballs to be able to keep catching Pokemon. If I were in a more rural area, that could potentially actually be difficult; as-is, it added to the texture of my trip to work, because downtown Redwood City wasn’t just the place where Pamplemousse was, it was the place on my trip where I walked past the most Pokestops. (And, in particular, past more than enough to keep my supplied with balls.)

This got me varying my route, which I see as an unambiguously good thing: if I have a bit more time before my train, why not go down a different street instead of waiting longer at the station? Also good are the way that Pokestops make you a bit more aware of landmarks in the environment (or landmarks that have since disappeared!), and the AR camera is a fun toy.

While I was doing this, I also started to figure out the parameters of the Pokemon distribution as well. So many Pidgeys and Rattatas; starter Pokemon are surprisingly rare, though. Pikachus are in the middle, but harder to catch. Eevees and Growlithes seem more promising: they were maybe a little rarer than Pikachus but they seem to have a higher CP number than other Pokemon you see? Every once in a while I’d see an evolved form of a Pokemon, though I wasn’t always able to catch it. Also, I’d have these eggs which held out some sort of unclear possibility of access to rare Pokemon, while encouraging you to always keep the game open.

 

Once I hit level five, gyms started to tantalize. I’d see Pokemon that were a lot stronger than anything I had, but that were also evolutions of Pokemon I’d seen; clearly gathering Eevees and Growlithes seemed like a good idea. In the short term, though, I’d have to make do with much weaker Pokemon; but there were these options to level up and evolve Pokemon, so I started exploring a bit with that. And that actually allowed me to temporarily capture a few gyms: if a gym only had a couple of Pokemon in it, then my six weaklings might have a chance at beating it.

During this phase, I’d do things like keep the app open on my phone while on the train, trying to access Pokestops while pulling out of stations, fighting gym battles in stations, and occasionally capturing Pokemon there as well. I’d level up somewhat regularly; I’d find stronger Pokemon as a result. Miranda was a little bit ahead of me, so I’d hear about the joys of parks with multiple lured Pokestops right next to each other. She’d even be happy to spend time in such parks with me, if timing worked out.

One of my coworkers also pointed out to me that I shouldn’t look down on Pidgeys so much: they’re common and cheap to evolve, which makes them the most efficient way to gain experience. I didn’t want to do anything about that just yet, though: I didn’t have enough Pidgeys to match my candy supply, and I wanted to combine lots of evolving with lucky eggs. Also, during this period my Pokedex gradually increased, as I would occasionally catch rare Pokemon or hatch them from eggs. I started to hear about nests, too, and to suspect that there’s a Nidoran nest behind the library.

 

Eventually, I had a bunch of Pidgeys and a bit of free time on a weekend, so I fired off a lucky egg and went on an evolving spree. The first time I did that, I didn’t actually evolve very many Pidgeys: I had a lot of Pokemon types that I had enough candy to evolve one of, so I spent most of my time evolving different Pokemon for the first time. The next weekend, though, I had more time to evolve Pidgeys, and had evolved all the different types of Pokemon in my inventory that I was able to.

This brought me up to level 20, and set up the possibility of trying to make a go at gyms. Doing some reading, though, it seemed like the sort of thing that would require some effort to do seriously: I’d see pages about IV and IV calculators, and about the best moves that your Arcanine could have. So, if I really wanted to be the best at gym battles, it wouldn’t be enough to, say, evolve a Growlithe and feed it some candy: I’d have to go through my Growlithes, figure out which among the high CP ones had the best IV stats, evolve it, and hope that it acquired a good move. That seemed like a fair amount of work for a quite uncertain payoff; and gyms don’t seem to really be designed to let you hold them reliably no matter what you do.

So, while I dabbled in gyms a bit, I ultimately decided that the gym scene wasn’t for me. And, at this point, the game started being less rewarding: I felt like I’d seen most of the game’s systems, and I’d filled up my Pokedex as well as seemed plausible without going on trips to try to get access to more types that aren’t common locally.

And there are downsides to playing the game, even though I was mostly only playing it during my commutes. Having the game open meant that I couldn’t use my phone for vocabulary practice while walking; also, having it open on train rides, even if I only looked at it near stations, turned out to be a surprisingly large distraction from reading books on the train. Juggling the phone while walking Widget is occasionally less than graceful, too.

 

So I stopped playing the game regularly. I didn’t stop entirely: when I went to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago to meet with Roger, it was fun seeing the local Pokefauna, and also in San Francisco the advanced tracker is available, which is much much more useful. And just this afternoon Miranda and I were picking up new library books, heard some kids talking about an Onix nearby, and we pulled out our phones and caught the Onix ourselves. Also, a combination of changes over the last couple of months have gotten me taking walks over lunch instead of playing Netrunner; having Pokemon Go available while doing that (and while near water, changing the set of creatures) is a pleasant diversion.

I don’t plan to dive back into the game wholeheartedly, but I’m still pretty impressed by it. And I imagine I’ll continue to occasionally dip into it over the weeks and even months to come.

summer 2016 status

August 29th, 2016

Or: nagging annoyances from the start of the summer that I hadn’t gotten around to blogging about. Probably everything here deserves its own post, but I’ll just get this summary out now to unblock myself.

Because I would like to get writing again a little more regularly. And part of the reason why I hadn’t been doing that a few months back is that I wasn’t at an energy level where I felt drawn to writing (or doing anything that takes much thought) in the evenings. Not that things were awful, just that there was enough dragging me down that, at the end of the day, I didn’t feel like doing much.

The first problem was a recurrence of my ongoing back pain. (Well, leg pain caused by my back.) It started up again in late spring, I think? Not nearly as bad as when it first occurred, but enough to show that the epidural didn’t fix things, it just temporarily improved the situation, and that Tai Chi wasn’t helping and might be hurting. I started doing a few more exercises, which may or may not have helped, and one of them (I’m not sure which, there are two candidates) seemed to have stressed a muscle somewhere in my upper back. Which wasn’t awful, but it did mean that, in our trip to Paris this summer, I wasn’t up for spending full days out. That actually was basically fine: I wasn’t planning to spend all day in museums, I’d been thinking that I’d spend more time in cafes or parks than normal this trip, so switching that to spending half of the afternoons in our hotel just meant that it was a trip with a bit more of a staycation aspect than normal. But we still had enough tourist time for me to be happy, and it didn’t interfere with dinners at all.

The actual good thing about having a problem on the trip was that I realized I needed to deal with the pain and, of course, that reminded me that my doctor had told me to take (lots of) ibuprofen when the pain first appeared, so I got back in the habit of doing that again. In retrospect, I should have started a couple of months earlier, I’ll definitely be more sensitive to that next time. After the trip I’ve also tried heating pads (helped, I think), standing meditation (probably didn’t help), doing the Gokhale lying down stretch when I came home (I think helped?), and taking the Gokhale course (pretty sure it’s helping, and it’s taught me one thing in particular about my posture that I would have had a harder time figuring out about the course). I should probably write about that once I’ve got a better feel for the course’s effects.

 

The other thing that was sapping energy was being tired because of allergies. I got annoyed at the PAMF allergist that I saw, so I went to see a separate specialist; and, before doing that, I went off of allergy drugs for a week so the drugs wouldn’t interfere with the skin test.

Which was super interesting, because I felt more awake after going off of drugs. This is actually something that my GP had hypothesized: the drugs themselves can make you tired! So, for now, no Claritin for me, though I am trying another drug. The scratch test results themselves were pretty strange: they showed pretty clearly that I have a dust allergy, they didn’t show environmental allergies, but also I didn’t react to the positive calibration sample as strongly as normal. The allergist wasn’t sure what to make of that, and I’m not sure—maybe somehow the Claritin was still in my system?

I’m experimenting with different allergy drugs now, with no clear results, but at any rate I don’t feel worse than before, and actually I feel a little better. I should probably tackle household dust a little more seriously: I made a few changes, but not a lot. Also my allergist agreed hat another of my GP’s hypotheses is worth considering, namely that it’s possible there’s some sleep apnea thing going on; I haven’t explored that yet.

 

And then there’s work. I’m more or less a free agent there, which sometimes is great and sometimes means that I don’t really know where I fit in; this summer was, unfortunately, mostly more of the latter. Which, combined with the fact that the company as a whole had a few more issues than normal in the winter/spring made me wonder what I should do; not that the issues were anything particularly unusual for startup growing pains, but it does raise the question of what my exit criteria are.

Recently, though, both of those have been getting better: the last quarter’s company results made me optimistic in a couple of different ways, and there are some signs that I’m finding a place again in the company that will let me be both interested and useful. Which is good, because I’m not looking to leave: I usually enjoy my work there, and I’m not going to have too many chances in my life to see this much of the journey of a single startup. So hopefully I’ll manage to settle back into happy productivity; and of course resolving the back issues will help with that, too.

 

In sum: not the best summer, but things could be a lot worse, and the trend lines are good. Also, I should write more.

deus ex go

August 28th, 2016

I basically enjoyed Deus Ex Go in the same way that I enjoyed Lara Croft Go: well-done puzzles, putting together a few elements in ways that are straightforwardly entertaining at the start but surprisingly difficult at the end, even though the levels are deterministic and only have a few dozen spaces. This game is a little shorter and doesn’t get quite as hard as its predecessor in its story mode, and it got rid of the “spot an item” collection mechanic, but it has regular downloadable puzzles that are, at times, hard enough that I haven’t managed to solve them.

Not that I’ve tried super hard: I spent a pleasant couple of hours going through the main game, then tried a few of the extra puzzles, then put it down. Happy to have played the game, but I kind of doubt I’ll play future games that they put out.

imbroglio

August 23rd, 2016

My first impression of Imbroglio: lovely symmetry, with a fondness for twos and fours. The playing field is a four by four square, with monsters coming out of the four corners. You fight monsters with the weapons on the playing field; those weapons come in two colors, red and blue, doing one point of damage in its color. Each of the four corners has its own type of monster; two of the monster types are easier to defeat with red weapons, one having one red / four blue hit points and one having two red / three blue, while two are easier to defeat with blue weapons, with one blue / four red and one two blue / three red. (Whereas you have four red and four blue hit points, so you can deal with either color of monster.)

Of course, at some point games need to break symmetry. And, in fact, the monsters aren’t symmetric: three of the monsters do red damage, while only one (the two blue / three red one) does blue damage. And there are so many weapons that symmetry isn’t really an issue when talking about weapons: the weapons are instead more like a series of variations. (Sixteen weapons of each color, unsurprisingly.) The weapons all gain power by defeating enemies: each time a weapon defeats four enemies, it levels up (which it does a maximum of four times); on some of those level increases, weapons do more damage and/or gain extra powers.

There are broad groupings of weapons, however. The red weapons are a little more straightforward: they almost all do extra damage at some point in the level up sequence. In contrast, most of the blue weapons never do more than one damage: they’re instead themed with more magical effects. There’s also a “curse” mechanic that several of the blue weapons interact with: a few of them give curses to monsters, and several of them have random effects against cursed monsters (e.g. blocking a percentage of hits, with the percentage increasing as the weapon levels up).

So a big part of the game is deciding what weapons you’re going to put on the board at the start of the game. If you’re in a cursey mood, then you need both curse sources and weapons that take advantage of curses. But if you’re in a mood to just bludgeon stuff to death, then a lot of red might make more sense. And, as you get more experienced with the game, you’ll play around with not just the weapon mix but the weapon placement: how you lay out red weapons versus blue weapons, how the corner with a blue monster affects things, where to put the ranged weapons (if you’re using any), etc.

 

There’s another factor that plays into the game, though: you have a choice of characters. (Initially, if I’m remembering correctly, three? Or four, probably given the game’s fondness for powers of two. At any rate, you unlock more characters as the game progresses.) Each character has a weakness (e.g. no ranged weapons, or only red weapons), along with a special power. Those special powers are activated by runes: you get one rune each time you level up a weapon (i.e. every four enemies the weapon defeats, stopping after four levels), and each characters has an ability that they can pay for via runes (e.g. heal yourself, or curse an enemy).

So the choice of character gives you an active encouragement (both because of their weakness and their strength) to explore a particular part of the weapon design space. Also, on a subtler note, the characters’ special powers are the only way to spend a turn without either moving or attacking, which affects the parity of the game state, switching from “this enemy will attack me before I attack them” to the other way around.

And the runes play into the rhythm of the game. There is an actual goal of the game: there’s a star on the level, and when you collect that star, you heal one red and one blue, the walls in the level change, and you get a point. When I started, I honestly didn’t worry about the points that much: I was focused on leveling up weapons, including killing enemies with weapons that I particularly wanted to level up next, and stars were a vehicle to stay alive, something to be actively pursued to maintain a health buffer but otherwise a bit more of a secondary goal.

It turns out, though: while I certainly support playing games in a way that ignores the game’s scoring system, going for stars really does make the game richer. It gives you a tradeoff that wouldn’t otherwise be there, and it makes you aware of how far you can go without focusing directly on leveling up. (And, as you take turns, the monsters come more frequently, and there are even a few new monsters that appear; so taking your time really does have a long-term cost.) The game progresses nicely from an early game where you can do almost anything you want, to a middle game where you really want to have made progress on leveling key weapons, to an end game where monsters are probably coming at you too fast for you to be able to handle but, if you’ve maxed out enough levels on the board, are thinking hard enough about the exact actions the monsters will take, and are lucky, then you’ll be able to make it through waves. (I think the monsters come in waves? I haven’t actually counted the monster spacing, though.) And runes play into this: you won’t use any runes in the early game, and only a few in the middle game, so you should have quite a lot going into the end game, until either you don’t or having them isn’t enough.

 

Quite a game, I’m very glad to have spent time with it, time exploring its various options and getting to know the contours of its symmetries and symmetry breaking.

love live

August 3rd, 2016

I am pretty confused as to what I think about Love Live! School Idol Festival: there are three fairly distinct aspects to the game, I’m not sure what I think about those aspects individually, and the three of them pull me in different directions. It kept me playing for quite a while, and I did enjoy my time with the game; but I thought I was done with it a week and a half ago, and then a couple of days later I picked it up again (no harm in getting login bonuses), and, well, I’m chipping away at the current event and counting my Love Gems again, wondering if I’ll stick with it to get another 50 to scout more rare members.

The reason why I thought that I would enjoy the game (other than the fact that some friends of mine had been playing it for quite a while) is that it’s a rhythm game, I like rhythm games, and (though I don’t have much experience listening to it) I like J-pop as well. I wasn’t entirely impressed with the rhythm mechanic when I first started playing the game, though. My main comparison is the Rock Band series, and tapping at the screen felt a little less interesting than pressing buttons on plastic guitars. After playing more, though, I’m not nearly as sure of that evaluation: it took me a little while to learn how to visually parse the songs on hard (and I still don’t regularly get full combos on hard), it took me longer than that to be able to play songs on expert at all, and, while the location of where you’re tapping is fairly arbitrary, the choice of timing and the patterns aren’t. So there’s definitely something there as a rhythm game; I won’t say I like it more than Rock Band, and it’s certainly less interesting than the pro modes in Rock Band 3, but it’s also not a coincidence that I’ve only picked up Rock Band 4 maybe five times since buying it while I’ve played Love Live regularly over the last few months: it’s nice being able to pick up my iPad, play for a few minutes, and then move on to something else.

The flip side of that is that you have to move on to something else after a few minutes: unless you level up, you’ll run out of energy after three songs. You can pay money to keep on playing, of course, but the cost is pretty high; if you want to keep on playing continually, it’ll cost between $5/hour and $10/hour, probably closer to the lower end than the higher end? (Or even less than that, I guess, if you never use the Love Gems you earn in game to buy rare members.) Now that I type that out, I’m not actually sure $5/hour is unreasonable: I’ll happily spend $10 on a two-hour movie, or $50 on a solid 10-hour narrative game. Still, it’s expensive for an ongoing video game.

At any rate, the energy mechanic felt odd when I started playing it. But, once I’d been playing for a while, I didn’t mind, because the truth is that I usually didn’t want to play for more than a few songs at a time. Maybe that’s me adapting to the constraints of the game and accepting it for what it is; I’m really not sure. But it’s nice to have games available with different rhythms of play, to suit my time / mood / energy level. Love Live fits into briefer slots of my life than Rock Band does, and that’s totally fine.

I do wonder, though, what the pros and cons of allowing more rhythm gameplay would be both from a gameplay point of view and a business point of view. It’s certainly pretty weird that there’s an option called “Practice” that doesn’t actually let you practice the songs, it’s instead a way to make numbers go up that are unrelated to the rhythm gameplay. My tentative feeling is that they should give you a practice mode, either free or payable with the game’s soft currency, that would give you access to the rhythm gameplay but wouldn’t give you the in-game rewards that you get from the regular song sessions. That might lead to burning out of the game quickly, though, and people do seem to be able to manage to get full combos on difficult songs even with the current setup, so the current structure is clearly workable even for rhythm game fans. But it does seem like the game mostly designed to encourage you to return it multiple times a day, keeping it always in your mind, rather than as a way to lock in rhythm game fans.

 

The other odd aspect of the game compared to other rhythm games that I’m used to is the number of songs: it felt like, for a while, I only had the same five or so songs available to me. I generally liked the songs, but I didn’t like them that much. The funny thing, though, is that, as the game has continued, my feelings have flipped: I have a lot of songs available for me, I get a new one every two levels, and now it feels like I barely have time to get to know songs!

There are a few things going on there. One is that they tuned the leveling parameters a month or two into my playing the game, to let you level up faster; that not only means that I really do get new songs more frequently now but that I also got five or so dumped on me at once as the game force-leveled me up. A second is that I’ve started playing songs more often on Expert instead of Hard (partly because it gives you more experience and partly because sometimes I want more challenge); but the regular songs aren’t available on Expert, you have to play temporary “B-side” songs, with the result that I spend much less time on the regular songs. And the third factor is that, much of the time (half the time, maybe even two-thirds of the time?) there’s an event going on, and if you’re spending your energy on playing that, then you can’t spend your energy on playing regular songs. (There was an event going on when I started playing, but I was completely unaware of that fact until the event ended.)

The flip side of the events, though, is that it’s fun to have random songs thrown at you, and events are a way for songs to become familiar to you that you’ll later unlock through regular progression. So I’m glad a random mechanism like that is there; it’s maybe a bit of a shame that it’s only available through events, though. And I like having Expert songs available for a limited time as B-sides: that gives you a defined window in which you can try to focus on those songs and get better. But I don’t see any reason to not have Expert tiers in the regular songs: why push people away from the regular songs like that? (Especially since it’s not just a gameplay effect, Expert songs really does let you level up more efficiently, since they give you more experience for a given energy expenditure.) Of course, the game isn’t forcing me to do any of this: if I don’t really care about leveling up quickly or getting the event rewards, then I can and should spend more time playing songs that I want to play, instead of what the game is nudging me to play.

 

I guess there’s another way in which the game is different from most rhythm games that I’ve played (Elite Beat Agents being the only other example that comes to mind): the songs are written for this game (or at any rate for this transmedia property), so I’d never heard any of them before and won’t hear them in any other context. And it’s the same singers, though there’s a pretty broad range of musical styles.

Fortunately, in general, I enjoy listening to them. (And they let me practice my Japanese!) I am dubious about the singers, though: there’s one whose voice I quite like, a couple others whose voices are fine, and six or so whose voices range from meh to actively annoying. I realize that the singers are supposed to represent high school students, but even so I’m not convinced; I suspect that there are cultural conventions going on here that I’m not used to. (I heard some of the same vocal patterns when I ran into Stereo Japan on Ototoy.)

 

There’s also a narrative in the game, which I was looking forward to: I like manga and anime, and I figured it would give me a chance to practice my Japanese. And, indeed, it did give me a chance to practice my Japanese: most of the narrative bits are voiced. But wow, the story here is bad bad bad. You’re following a group of nine idols; most of them are completely forgettable, and the one who has the strongest personality is most distinctive because of her remarkable narcissism. There’s not even any serious conflict, or struggles to overcome: it’s just a group of students who exist only to act as idols.

There are also students whom you encounter outside of the core nine. Some of them show potential flashes of personality, and while it’s only in a one-dimensional way (this girl likes to swim! Just so you don’t miss that, we’ll name her Iruka, which translates as “dolphin”!), that one dimension is one more dimension than most of the main characters. But those side characters never show up in the main story, they don’t interact with each other either (other than the sisters Haruka and Kanata, another naming “joke”, with “haruka kanata” meaning “far off in the distance”, though if I’m remembering correctly, that meaning doesn’t have anything to do with the sisters’ behavior?), and the game doesn’t even let you follow individual side characters, because it throws together all the different side characters’ side stories into a single unordered list instead of letting you see multiple stories for one character in a row.

You apparently exist in the in-game world; but that’s even creepier, because you never show up in the main story, while, unpredictably, in the side stories, even side stories for the main characters, you’ll see them simpering over you for no reason whatsoever. I mean, I suppose it’s consistent for characters with no personality to apparently be in love with a character with no presence, but still: not what I look for in a narrative.

 

This dreadful narrative does feed into a collection mechanic, though; and, as unimpressed as I was with the narrative, I’m a dutiful enough game player to take part in that mechanic. It’s pretty weird too, though: through playing the rhythm game, you unlock cards for characters, and then you can use those cards as fodder for a “practice” mechanic that makes other cards levels go up. (Which, doesn’t actually have any significant effect on the game play, viewed purely as a rhythm game; but hey, numbers going up is good.)

The other thing those cards do is feed into an idolization mechanic: if you have two of the same card, then you can get an idolized version of that card, and then if you use the idolized version of the card enough while playing, you can unlock a portion of the side story associated to the character on the card. But it’s creepier than that: the idolized versions of characters are basically always more homogenized than the non-idolized versions of characters, so in particular the one dimension of personality that the side characters have gets squashed by idolization. And the idolized uniforms are generally more sexualized; and either the characters really really like blush or many of them are embarrassed by that.

That is, admittedly, a somewhat negative spin: a positive spin is that clubs have uniforms and theatrical clubs have show-specific costumes, so of course, as people dive into clubs, they’re not going to be wearing clothes that reflect their outside interests. And it probably really is supposed to be blush rather than embarrassment. But for me personally, it was pretty odd playing a game where one of the mechanics that I’m encouraged to follow (that I have to follow to get the narrative, such as it is) makes me feel like I’m squashing people in the name of conformity every time I engage in it.

 

These cards come in different levels: Normal, Rare, Super-Rare, Ultra-Rare. Through normal gameplay, you almost always only get Normal cards (Rare ones show up, but only something like 1% of the time). The Normal cards are all the side characters; the core 9 characters instead show up in the three Rare grades. The main way to collect the Rare cards is by using “Love Gems”, which are the game’s hard currency (there’s also a soft currency called coins, and I cannot think of another game where the soft currency is as irrelevant is the coins are in this game); if you collect 50 Love Gems, then you’ll be able to buy 10 Rare cards plus 1 Super-Rare, with a slight chance (around 10%) of getting an Ultra-Rare card instead and/or multiple Super-Rares. There are a couple other ways of getting Super-Rare cards: things called scouting tickets can get you them, and there are special events that have specific SR cards as prizes; I don’t believe there’s any reliable way to get UR cards. And, of course, all of these cards can be idolized as well (which is how you unlock the side stories for the main characters): if you play long enough, idolizing the Rare cards happens pretty often, but idolizing SR cards is quite unlikely and I’ve only ever acquired one UR card.

(And, in a bit of irony, that one UR card is Nico; for reasons related to the game’s friend mechanic, that means that I see her all the time on the screens of the game, and hear her egotistical catch-phrases over and over and over again. Sigh. I would probably pay money to get a non-Nico UR card if that were possible and affordable, but doing so is neither.)

The game is actually quite generous with those Love Gems; I haven’t spent any money on the game, but I’ve probably done the “buy special cards” mechanic maybe 10 times so far? I’m curious what motivates people to spend money in the game: the obvious target would be acquiring UR versions of your favorite idol, but you’d have to spend hundreds of dollars to have a decent chance at a UR, with no guarantee that it will be for the idol you want (the best you can do there is narrow it down to one in three), which seems excessive? I can imagine spending money to refill your energy during events, so you can get the SRs there, but love gems are plentiful enough that you probably wouldn’t even have to do that.

 

Strange game. I like it as a rhythm game; and I do feel the tug of the collecting aspect. But I just do not get the appeal of the characters at all…

ipad game roundup

July 17th, 2016

Some iPad games I played on vacation:

The Room 3

The latest game in a well-done series: the puzzles are challenging without having me quite getting stuck on them, and the game is committed to those puzzles. (My favorite way that plays out: they barely pretend you you have a body, if you’re moving to something that happens to be located on the other side of a table, they’ll just move you right over that table instead of having you go around.) There is a plot, it makes no sense, and I’m not convinced the alternate plat endings are a great idea. At any rate, I definitely enjoyed playing it, and I’ll be happy to keep going with the series if they continue it.

Crypt of the NecroDancer

A roguelike with a beat: you have to make your moves in time with the music, which means that you have to think and react on your feet. Which is an interesting idea; I’m not a roguelike aficionado, and in general I like they way they let you think about how to react to situations, but having to think on a cadence is an interesting variant. And there is one character you can choose that doesn’t require you to follow the beat, so you can play that way if you prefer or just to get used to the enemies and plot patterns to use against them.

I might return to this one.

1979 Revolution

Seems like a potentially important step towards figuring out how to use game mechanics to provide a richer lens on history. Though I can’t say I have a great feel for the Iranian Revolution after playing this game, so who knows.

signing up for pokemon go

July 14th, 2016

A day or two after Pokémon Go came out, I decided to give it a try, so I downloaded and launched the game. (The iPhone version of the game, to be specific.) And, after being asked to enter my birthdate, I was given a choice of registering with a Google account or a Club Pokemon account. I didn’t think about it too hard, I simply clicked on the latter.

This put me at a screen with username/password fields and with buttons below to log in or to register a new account. So I went over to 1Password, and created a random password. Then I switched back to the app, typed in a username that I hoped wasn’t taken, and went to paste in my password.

Unfortunately, the password dialogue didn’t support paste! That was pretty annoying, but I was sitting at my computer, so I opened up 1Password on there, told it to display the password in large type, and went to type it in. At which point I discovered that the app displayed the characters that you typed as stars immediately, instead of showing you the last character that you typed; which meant that, unless I paid very close attention to the keyboard, I wasn’t very likely to accurately type in a random 30-character password. I tried to be careful; who knows if I succeeded, because when I finished and hit the “register” button, I was presented with an error screen on Club Pokemon.

Setting that error screen aside, my reaction here was: they went to the extra effort of implementing a custom control instead of using a standard password entry control, and came up with a control that was significantly worse than the standard one in two separate ways! That did not impress me too much. Thinking about it a bit more, I think that analysis is a bit off: it’s a cross-platform game, which means that the UI is probably implemented in a way that uses relatively few platform-native elements. So I’m not so convinced any more that the choice they made was more effort than using the standard iOS password box would have been, but the outcome was certainly worse.

 

After that failure, I still wanted to play, so I logged in with a Google account. I was a little surprised that I didn’t see a screen listing what permissions I was granting to the app; as events of the subsequent days showed, I was right to raise my eyebrows at that one. (If only I’d written this blog post on Sunday instead of tonight I would have had a Hot Take, or even a Hot Scoop! Ah well.) That worked fine, so I went out and, after a bit of effort (the game is not much for tutorials!) caught my first Pokemon.

But the next time I launched the app, I was told to log in again. This raised two problems / questions:

1) I just wanted to play a game, I didn’t want to switch over to 1Password, type in a long passphrase (and then type it in a second time when I made a typo), copy a password, switch back to the game, paste it in, then switch over to the two-factor authentication app, remember the number shown there, switch back to the game a second time, and type it in. Doing that once a month might be okay, but doing that on a regular basis is absolutely not okay.

2) Why on earth was the game asking me to re-log-in again, anyways? What happened that it lost my credentials from the first time I logged in?

I still don’t have a good hypothesis for that second issue. It did raise the question of where the credentials from the first time I logged in are stored, though: are they on the device or are they on Niantic’s servers? I would normally assume the former, but if it’s the former, I don’t see why they would go missing (though I certainly would never want to underestimate the possibility of bugs); so I guess I think it’s more likely that they’re stored on the server, and that their protocol doesn’t distinguish between “generic server connection / overload error” versus “response from the server saying that it got the request and is accurately responding that it doesn’t have the login credentials”? Who knows, though.

 

That latter possibility combined with the lack of specificity into what permissions I’d granted the app were pretty disturbing. And, of course, like I said above, constantly re-entering my Google creds was a pain on a purely practical level.

And, while thinking about this more, I started to wonder: the game is getting mapping data from Google, it has my Google creds, and it’s doing pretty weird stuff. What are the chances that it’s using my creds when talking to Google for mapping info, giving Google location information about me? Honestly, the answer is probably that the chances are pretty low, given that the Club Pokemon account code path can’t do that. But by this point I don’t have much faith that Niantic is doing anything correctly—I’m pretty sympathetic to them for having server problems arising from the game being the biggest smash hit I’ve seen in ages, but I’m also seeing enough signs of strangeness that I don’t feel like I can accurately predict what they’ll do. In particular, given the game’s Google / Ingress roots, there presumably was once code in there that always could assume you had a Google account, so it wouldn’t shock me if vestiges of that remained in the map communication. Not that I’m 100% against Google having location information about me, but all things being equal, I’d prefer for that not to be the case.

 

With all of this weirdness and with a bit more time to think about it, I decided that I didn’t want to use my Google account after all; yes, it meant that I couldn’t jump on the bandwagon immediately, I’d have to wait until I won the “am I allowed to create a Club Pokemon account” lottery, but that’s a pretty small price to pay. So I deleted and re-installed the app, revoked the app’s creds from my Google account, came up with a short password to use that I wasn’t using on any other account, and tried every few hours to register until I was allowed to. (Which took about a day and a half.)

At which point I learned something else unfortunate about that Club Pokemon login/registration screen: the values that you enter there are ignored in the registration path! Oy. (So: maybe I could have gotten away with a 30-character random password after all.) At least the Club Pokemon website is, well, a website, so it has standard UI elements; the only problem there is that they didn’t mark the various fields with the magic “don’t autocapitalize / autocorrect” attributes, which was a bit annoying: my e-mail address does not in fact start with a capital letter.

After that, though, it’s been smooth sailing: the game and its servers have issues, but it does at least reliably remember who I am.

human resource machine

June 24th, 2016

Robot Odyssey was one of my favorite games growing up, so I do have a soft spot for programming-based games; so I decided to give Human Resource Machine a try.

Unfortunately, Human Resource Machine is no Robot Odyssey. The adventure game aspects are missing: no world to explore (or even to view, really: the give you cut scenes but they add nothing to the game), and the programs that you’re supposed to write feel like they could be taken straight out of assembly code tutorials. Except it’s even worse than that, because the language is crippled both in terms of primitives and in terms of a complete lack of modularity: writing divide / remainder code via repeated subtraction is interesting enough to do once, but when they give you puzzles that build on that, it would be really nice to either have that as a primitive operation or to be able to paste in chunks of code that you’ve already gotten. Also, the challenges in terms of fewest lines of code written are fun (but usually easy, it was almost always the case that my initial answer met that challenge), but the challenges to accomplish something in the fewest instructions executed frequently devolved to loop unrolling, which gets boring quickly, especially without an ability to copy and paste sections of code.

Having said that: the presentation was charming, the interface was good other than the issues above, and it was pleasantly short. So I enjoyed spending three or so hours with it, going through all the puzzles except for the last optional challenge puzzle. But it wasn’t what I had hoped for.