blarg?

Midnight Blues

After looking at my budget, looking at my options and looking at who I really wanted to give my money to, I’ve bought myself a Nokia E7.

I know.

I wanted a physical keyboard, really good bluetooth support and a phone that works with Wind Mobile; the pickings there were pretty slim, particularly if I wanted something unlocked and unbranded.

The phone pays for itself – Wind Mobile costs a third what Rogers does – and never speaking to Rogers employees again is awesome. But overall, it’s been a really ambivalent experience.

On the plus side, the hardware is pretty good. It’s classic Nokia; feels solid, maybe a bit thin on the specs, but does some unexpectedly great things – 720p HDMI out, USB in, a really good camera and a great physical keyboard layout on a better keyboard than my fat thumbs have used on any other phone.

On the downside… man. Nokia really doesn’t have their software act together. Not even in terms of stuff working right or being elegant, but in really basic, stuff-not-working-properly-at-all. The software is kind of clunky in places – email is pretty good, particularly compared to the tinkertoy iPhone client, but the less said about the web browser the better – but in terms of an integrated user experience, it’s just a disorganized mess.

I’m led to believe that it’s organized largely along the lines of Nokia’s internal organizational structure, which is both kind of sad and completely believable. I understand that place kind of a disorganized mess these days too.

Just as one example among several, there are at least four different ways of synchronizing your calendar and address book across different devices or services (Google, desktop, etc), and I say “at least” because it’s very possible I haven’t found them all yet. But there’s zero consistency between them, clarity as why you’d want one or the other and all of them just outright won’t do what they claim to for some segment of your data. Consequently you need to figure out which services you use to sync what data, entirely by trial and error.

It really reminds of solving Windows NT problems back in the bad old days – about 40% experience, 40% research and 20% voodoo. It’s not a good scene.

The thing that really hurts, of course, is the software ecosystem. The people who lament the pernicious effects of the App Store model on software sales should really take a look at what having one comprehensive place to find software has done for the portable space. There’s actually a fair bit of worthwhile software out there for Symbian, as dearly as I’d love to be able to put Maemo on this phone. It’s just about the platonic ideal software ecosystem model – paid or free options, you can install software from unapproved vendors and so forth; you have excellent freedom of choice – but the Ovi Store’s poor selection is further weighed down by a really uninspired UI and the find-it-in-the-wild alternative is snowed by the aforementioned weak-sauce browser; without the facilitating factor of a really good unified store, finding things that you want is an exercise, more than a transaction.

Skype video calls don’t work even though all the hardware’s right there; apparently it used to work, through a third party called Fring, but they’ve had some sort of falling out. This isn’t the first piece of Nokia hardware I’ve owned that failed like that, and I can’t tell you how sad it keeps making me. And desktop support for a Mac? Haha, no.

I’m fortunate, that my mobile computing needs are relatively humble; as long as I have SSH, SMS, a good email client and a plausible twitter app, that’s the basics of what I expect from a phone, and this one does all that pretty well. But I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that even if I never use another iPhone, I will need to bridge off my E7 to an iPod Touch just so that I can still see software made by people who put human users ahead of org charts of legacy compatibility. But we’ll see – this pendulum swings back and forth for me, so it’s hard to say.

There is an unresolved question at the core of adulthood that hovers unnamed in that ineffable, ethereal moment in the late cold evening that terrible ideas start looking like great ideas and also you have the internet and a credit card.

I think I should probably just go to bed.

This is how RIM talks to developers:

Dear Vendor:

We have added a new category in BlackBerry App World entitled ‘* Thank You Gift *’. This category is reserved for use by RIM only.

If you put an app in this category, whether intentionally or not, we will deny it until you revert the category back. Reapproving the app after you revert the category may take upwards of one week to complete.

Thank you,

The BlackBerry App World Team

I don’t even know what to say about this; there’s so much being done wrong here, I don’t know where to start.

This right here is a the before and after of a digital camera picture run through a deblur filter. Now, maybe that’s a best-case scenario being used for a tech demo, but (1) technology like this only gets better, never worse, and (2) even if it is, holy crap.

The obvious next steps you can infer from seeing that are that it will be possible to do it frame by frame in video soon, so you’ll be able to get a reasonably crisp video just by pointing your camera at the most important thing you can find and clicking record. So we’re not far from postprocessing being able to, if not actually “zoom in and enhance”, then stabilize and clarify even crap-phone handheld video.

But the other thing is, how many shaky-handed, not-quite-in-focus pictures have you got archived? I don’t know about you but I’ve got thousands, and in not too long I’m going to be able to point my entire photo collection at this thing and let it run for a month, just to see what comes out the other side. Odds are pretty good that there’s some gems in there that I’ll be able to recover; you could probably do this to scans of old film, too.

If that’s not an object lesson on the value of keeping 100% of your data, I don’t know what is. Never delete anything, you never know what wonders the future will have for you.

“By the way, I told the internets we were having another kid.”

“Which internets?”

“…”

“Which internets?”

“Just the small one.”

Ah, yes. The hitting again.

I don’t think I’m actually done this, so just pretend it’s a late draft. I might try to tighten it up later, but here you go; I hope you’re interested. Yeah, this is still about Portal 2, so bear with me. It’s not like Gears Of War deserves to be dissected like this, you know?

I’ve been spending some time chasing this idea around in the bowels of the Aperture Science facility, taking copious notes as I wander through the middle bits of Portal 2 again. There’s some important context here that it may help to be familiar with, but just playing through Portal 1 and 2 should be plenty.

It’s probably because I’m sentimental, but to my mind an important thing about Quest- or FPS-RPGs that doesn’t get much attention, at least as far as video games is concerned, is that you actually are playing a role. Video games differ fundamentally from most narratives (and are closer to real life, in this sense) in that you are being allowed to shape a story and participate in a universe that you don’t fully own, and can’t fully command; the character whose role you play predates your presences in that space, and has a story that is in some sense theirs, reaching forward and back beyond your brief manipulation of their limbs and choices. Sometimes you need to take the time, wherever your character finds themselves – a dungeon, a running firefight, a ruined building or an open field – to do something that’s not relevant to your goals, or even to you personally, just to do some justice to the character you’re playing.

I found a lot of the “Rat Man’s Dens” on my first playthrough, being the sort of person who looks for the seams. Specifically, I found that corner of the facility where one of the radios, rather than playing the tinny Aperture-marimba, is playing The National’s “Exile Vilify”.

Did you find it? What did you do, then? It occurred to me as I sat there that this is the first piece of music we’ve really heard, in-game. But maybe, and maybe worse, there’s a decent chance that this slow lament about the burdens of alienation might actually be the only song Chell has ever heard.

I wondered what that might do to a person, how suspicious they’d be to have found that thing in that place, and how they’d react. Is it even possible to guess how somebody might feel in that situation? I crouched down to stare at the radio, listening to it all the way through before going back to finish that test. It seemed appropriate. I doubt it had any effect on the game at all (but who can know, with Valve?) but I have a sense that my participation in the game was improved somehow by it, and it’s hard to argue with that metric.

Anyway, let’s get back on track here.

So apropos of nothing, or at least it was at the time, a few months ago I wrote about the implications of the cave in Plato’s well-known metaphor having its own agency. It’s odd that the idea would find some traction in a discussion about the plot of a video game but, I guess, where else?

The idea of immortality which appears in syncretistic religions of antiquity was introduced in late antiquity. The mysteries represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by the king of the underworld Hades, in a cycle with three phases, the “descent” (loss), the “search” and the “ascent”, with main theme the “ascent” of Persephone and the reunion with her mother.

– Wikipedia on the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Here’s a question for you: how many protagonists are there in Portal 2? Chell, GlaDOS and Wheatley… three, right? And you’re resurrected in the midst of Aperture Science’s protracted decay, to be dropped into this forgotten, sealed off subterranean wing of Aperture after a GlaDOS and Wheatley’s first confrontation, to struggle back up the mine shaft and restore the status quo ante.

That’s the game, to a certain superficial approximation. And all of that has to be wrong; there are hundreds of little details in-game that put the lie to it. Portal 2 isn’t a simple or superficial game, not at all.

Though Demeter is often described simply as the goddess of the harvest, she presided also over the sanctity of marriage, the sacred law, and the cycle of life and death. She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries that predated the Olympian pantheon.

– Wikipedia on Demeter

The first problem is, as I mentioned earlier, is all these little things that are where they really shouldn’t be. At the very bottom of Test Shaft 09, as you’ve passed Abandonment Seal Zulu Bunsen and entered Aperture’s antechambers, you start to see the signs that these sealed off and abandoned facilities aren’t nearly as sealed off or abandoned as you think. All the lights are still on, doors are still powered and they’re still controlled by devices with clean, white lines and modern-era lens-blade Aperture logos on the side. Likewise the hazmat warning labels on the pipes and vats as you ascend from the depths; with modern warnings and modern logos, this isn’t the long-abandoned a facility it seems to be at first glance.

There are other problems, like: in the last room before you ascend back through the containment door to modern Aperture, what activates that lift? You don’t. There’s no switches, no panels; the door just closes and up you go. The same thing happens in the moments before you meet Wheatley again; there’s stairs everywhere else but here, for no architectural reason, a lift you don’t actuate yourself hoists you up to the entrance to the next chamber.

You can see where I’m going with this by now. There aren’t three protagonists here; there are four. Portal 2 doesn’t make sense unless you consider the Aperture Science facility itself as an agent in its own right.

And it gets weirder, because it seems likely that the Aperture facility is the manifestation of its creator, Cave Johnson.

When Wheatley slams you down the shaft that drops you into the bowels of Aperture, it’s worth asking: why is that shaft even there? There’s no structural reason for it, and when you get to the bottom of it, there’s nothing else down there with you. It has to be something else. Another question worth taking a good hard look at is, what are you actually doing while you’re down there?

In Greek mythology, Tartarus is both a deity and a place in the underworld. In ancient Orphic sources and in the mystery schools, Tartarus is also the unbounded first-existing entity from which the Light and the cosmos are born.

Wikipedia, “Tartarus”

It’s pretty well-established that GlaDOS is the electronic (and likely the very much unwilling) reincarnation of Caroline, Cave Johnson’s personal assistant. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Chell is in all likelihood Caroline’s daughter, and that likely by Cave. Indeed, partway through your ascent, you get a disturbing glimpse of Chell’s backstory when you come across a slew of science fair projects: the one with the hugely overgrown potato (whose shape bears a more-than-passing resemblance to that of GlaDOS, with its roots threading up into the ceiling) has two noteworthy details, one being the line that it involved a “special ingredient from daddy’s work”, and the other being that it’s signed “Chell”.

“For the record you are adopted and that’s terrible. Just work with me.”

– GlaDOS to Chell, Portal 2.

The chronology here is ambiguous, but Chell would have to have been between about six and ten years old to have made the potato battery project. Cave Johnson’s last recorded message in the Aperture Test Spheres said unambiguously that “If I die before you people can pour me into a computer, I want Caroline to run this place. Now she’ll argue, she’ll say she can’t – she’s modest like that. But you make her! Hell, put her in my computer, I don’t care.” If Bring Your Daughter To Work Day was when everything went wrong it’s likely that Caroline, forcibly decanted into GLaDOS, has already been a victim of that process. GLaDOS stands for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System; it’s not clear what being forced to be that genetic component entails, but the fact GLaDOS physically resembles a bound, blindfolded and gagged woman is I think telling, and an important part of the story.

“Sorry boys, she’s married – to science!”

– Cave Johnson, introducing Caroline in his first recorded message.

The timing seems wrong – Chell is clearly a lot older than 10, likely in her mid to late 20s in-game and it’s not clear when Cave Johnson died of the moon rock poisoning he suffered. “Daddy’s work” seems to imply that Chell’s father was still alive at the time, but it’s possible it means “from the place my Dad worked” or “created”. Either way, it’s pretty clear given the chronology that Chell really was adopted, but not by any other parents; she was adopted by Aperture. And Aperture is in a very real sense, with its vast, relentless complexity, advanced technology including “brain mapping” and its mad genius CEO, both a deity and a place.

One day they woke me up
So I could live forever
It’s such a shame the same will never happen to you.
You’ve got your short sad life left,
(That’s what I’m counting on.)
I used to want you dead but now I only want you gone.

– lyrics from Want You Gone, Portal 2’s concluding song, sung by Jonathan Coulton

What you’re really doing as you ascend through the history of Aperture from the bottom of Test Shaft 09 is resurrecting Aperture itself; resurrecting Cave, and reconnecting him to Caroline again, forever. And even though Cave ordered Caroline forcibly decanted into GLaDOS, he may not have wanted the same for his daughter, and now that the reawakened Caroline knows who she really is and who you are, she may not actually want that either.

And that’s why you’re ultimately sent away, and why Portal 2 is a weirder, creepier game than it first appears; while you’ve been solving all of these puzzle-tests, you’ve also been resurrecting your doomed parents to their respective (terrible, captive) immortalities, in the end being sent away so that “the same will never happen to you”. You made the last ascension serenaded by the facility itself; they’re left alone together as you emerge from the facility to a blue sky and a field full of tall wheat. It’s sometime in early autumn – harvest season – and you’re off to see the world, with your scorched old Companion Cube as a last going away present from your parents.

Flight Of The Navigator

Busy times, busy times. Sorry I’ve neglected you so, internets. But: did I mention that we’re having another one of these kid things? Sometime in late March, from what I understand. I’m not really in charge of the process.

Exciting! Though to be honest, somewhat less terrifying this time around. It turns out that kids don’t actually explode if they’re lightly mishandled.

UPDATE: Thanks, everyone!