blarg?

November 14, 2016

Switching Sides

Filed under: a/b,digital,documentation,interfaces,linux,mozilla,toys,work — mhoye @ 4:48 pm

Toronto Skyline

I’ve been holding off on a laptop refresh at work for a while, but it’s time. The recent Apple events have been less than compelling; I’ve been saying for a long time that Mozilla needs more people in-house living day to day on Windows machines and talk is cheaper than ever these days, so.

I’m taking notes here of my general impressions as I migrate from a Macbook Pro to a Surface Book and Windows 10.

I’ll add to them as things progress, but for now let’s get started.

  • I don’t think highly of unboxing fetishism, but it’s hard to argue against the basic idea that your very tactile first contact with a product should be a good one. The Surface Book unboxing is a bit rough, but not hugely so; there’s the rare odd mis-step like boxes that are harder than necessary to open or tape that tears the paper off the box.
  • I’ve got the Performance Base on the Surface Pro here; the very slight elevation of the keyboard makes a surprisingly  pleasant difference, and the first-run experience is pretty good too. You can tell Microsoft really, really wants you to accept the defaults, particularly around data being sent back to Microsoft, but you can reasonably navigate that to your comfort level it looks like. Hard to say, obvs.
  • I’m trying to figure out what is a fair assessment of this platform vs. what is me fighting muscle memory. Maybe there’s not a useful distinction to be made there but considering my notable idiosyncrasies I figure I should make the effort. If I’m going to pretend this is going to be useful for anyone but some alternate-universe me, I might as well. This came up in the context of multiple desktops – I use the hell out of OSX multiple desktops, and getting Windows set up to do something similar requires a bit of config twiddling and some relearning.The thing I can’t figure out here is the organizational metaphor. Apple has managed to make four-fingered swiping around multiple desktop feel like I’m pushing stuff around a physical space, but Windows feels like I’m using a set of memorized gestures to navigate a phone tree. This is a preliminary impression, but it feels like I’m going to need to just memorize this stuff.
  • In a multiple desktops setting, the taskbar will only show you the things running in your current desktop, not all of them? So crazymaking. [UPDATE: Josh Turnath in the comments turns out that you can set this right in the “multitasking” settings menu, where you can also turn off the “When I move one window, move other windows” settings which are also crazymaking. Thanks, Josh!]
  • If you’re coming off a Mac trackpad and used to tap-to-click, be sure to set the delay setting to “Short delay” or it feels weird and laggy. Long delay is tap, beat, beat, response; if you move the cursor the action vanishes. That, combined with the fact that it’s not super-great at rejecting unintentional input makes it mostly tolerable but occasionally infuriating, particularly if you’ve got significant muscle memory built up around “put cursor here then move it aside so you can see where you’re typing”, which makes it start selecting text seemingly at random. It’s way  better than any other trackpad I’ve ever used on a PC for sure, so I’ll take it, but still occasionally: aaaaaaargh. You’re probably better just turning tap-to-click off. UPDATE: I had to turn off tap to click, because omgwtf.
  • In this year of our lord two thousand and sixteen you still need to merge in quasi-magic registry keys to remap capslock . If you want mousewheel scrolling to work in the same directions as two-finger scrolling, you need to fire up RegEdit.exe and know the magic incantations. What the hell.
  • It’s surprising how seemingly shallow the Win10 redesign is. The moment you go into the “advanced options” you’re looking at the the same dialogs you’ve known and loved since WinXP. It’s weird how unfinished it feels in places. Taskbar icons fire off on a single click, but you need to flip a checkbox five layers deep in one of those antiquated menus to make desktop icons do the same.  The smorgasbords you get for right-clicking things look like a room full of mismanaged PMs screaming at each other.
  • You also have to do a bunch of antiquated checkbox clickery to install the Unix subsystem too, but complaining about a dated UI when you’re standing up an ersatz Linux box seems like the chocolate-and-peanut-butter of neckbearded hypocrisy, so let’s just agree to not go there. You can get a Linux subsystem on Windows now, which basically means you can have Linux and modern hardware with working power management and graphics drivers at the same time, which is pretty nice.
  • Pairing Apple’s multitouch trackpads with Windows only gets you one- and two-fingered gestures. C’mon. Really?
  • This is a common consensus here, after asking around a bit. Perplexity that Microsoft would put an enormous (and ultimately successful) effort into re-pinning and hardening the foundations underneath the house, recladding it and putting in an amazing kitchen, but on the 2nd floor the hinges are on the wrong side of the doors and there’s a stair missing on the way to the basement.
  • I’m not surprised the Windows Store isn’t the go-to installer mechanism yet – that’s true on Macs, too – but my goodness pickings there are pretty slim. Somehow I have to go visit all these dodgy-looking websites to get the basic-utilities stuff sorted out, and it feels like an outreach failure of some kind. This is vaguely related to my next point, that:
  • The selection of what does vs. doesn’t come preinstalled is… strange. I feel like Microsoft has space to do something really interesting here that they’re not capitalizing on for some reason. Antitrust fears? I dunno. I just feel like they could have shipped this with, say, Notepad++ and a few other common utilities preinstalled and made a lot of friends.
  • The breakaway power cables are fantastic. A power brick with fast-charge USB built in and freeing up slots on the machine proper is extremely civilized. You can be sitting with your legs crossed and have the power plugged in, which I sincerely miss being able to do with underpowered 1st-gen Macbook Air chargers back in the mists of prehistory.
  • The Surface Dock is basically perfect. Power, Ethernet, two DisplayPorts and four USB ports over that same breakaway cable is excellent. If you’ve ever used a vintage IBM Thinkpad docking station, this is something you’ve been wishing Apple would make for the better part of a decade.
  • I assumed “Skype Preview” was a preview version of Skype. I wanted (and pay for) the whole thing, so I immediately uninstalled that and installed normal Skype, which it turns out is really outdated-looking and ugly on Win10. I was bewildered about why a premiere Microsoft-owned thing like Skype would look ugly on their flagship OS, so I did some research and discovered that “Skype Preview” isn’t a preview version of Skype. It’s the prettified modern Win10 version. So I reinstalled it and uninstalled Skype. I’m sure this is somehow my fault for not understanding this but in my defense: words mean things.
  • This hardware is really nice. The hinge works great, eject to tablet is crisp and works well, reversing it to the easel setup is both surprisingly good and for-real useful.

Anyway, this is where I am so far. More notes as I think of them.

Update:

  • Definitely turn off the two-finger-tap-to-right-click option – if you don’t and you’ve got fat hands like mine, sometimes it will get into a state where everything is a right-click, which is inexplicable and upsetting.
  • I saw my first tripped-over USB-C cable send a Macbook crashing to the floor today. I suspect it will not be the last.

Further updates:

  • It turns out there’s a (baffling!) option to turn a click on the lower right corner of the trackpad into a right-click, which is just super-weird and infuriating if you don’t know it’s there and (apparently?) turned on by default.
  • The trick to reversing mousewheel scrolling only is here, and involves RegEdit, finding all the instances of FlipFlopWheel in the registry under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Enum\HID\ and changing them from 0 to 1. Very user friendly.
  • A lot of network-related stuff in the Unix subsystem doesn’t work right or at all yet, but my understanding is that this is fixed in the Insider builds.
  • A nice as having the Unix subsystem is, the terminal thing you use to get to it is infuriating retro-bizarro DOS-window garbage.  [UPDATE: bwinton has introduced me to Cmder, a console emulator for Windows that is vastly better than the Ubuntu default in every observable respect. Use that instead.]
  • Unexpected but pleasant: CPU in the lid instead of the base means your lap doesn’t overheat.

Further-er updates:

  • A nice touch: searching for common OSX utility names with the taskbar brings you directly to their Windows counterparts, like “grab” brings you to the snippets tool.
  • It’s surprising how often the “how do I do [something]?” links in the Settings dialog box take you to the same undifferentiated and completely un-navigable Windows 10 support page. Really rookie stuff, like they fired the intern responsible three weeks into their placement and just forgot about it.
  • It’s really frustrating how both of those experiences coexist basically everywhere in this OS. Nice, elegantly-deployed and useful touches in some places, arbitrarily broken or ill-considered jank in others.

Further Updates 4: The Furthening;

  • There’s now a Surface Book User Guide, and it’s got some good information in it. For example, fn-del and fn-backspace adjust screen brightness, something I’ve missed from my Macbook. Also, fn-space for screenshots is nice enough, though the provided snipping tool is better (better than OSX Grab, too.)
  • You can use AutoHotKey scripts to remap what pen-clicking does, turning it into a passable presenter’s tool. Which is kind of neat.

Finally, one of the most upsetting things about Windows 10 is how power management just doesn’t reliably work at all. There’s no safe-sleep; running out of battery means state loss, potentially data loss, and a cold reboot. I’ve had to set it to hibernate on a lid closed because sometimes suspend just… doesn’t. Before I did that, I’d put it into my bag with the lid closed and it would mysteriously wake in my backpack, once hot enough that it was uncomfortable to touch. Despite the fact that my unmodified default settings say “critical power level is 6% and the action to take here is hibernate”, I routinely see 4%-power-remaining warnings and then hard shutdowns, and if I’m not careful hard reboots afterwards. Honestly, what the hell.

Last update: Well, this is unfortunate:

IMG_20170207_172319

Postmortem: Still like Windows 10, but after putting up with that screen yellowing and an increasing number of baffling hangs (and the discovery that the backup software had been silently failing for weeks), this machine got RMA’ed. I’ll have another one soon; hopefully it was an isolated hardware problem, but I guess we’ll see.

July 10, 2016

Witness Me

Filed under: arcade,beauty,digital,documentation,interfaces,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 9:21 pm

Seaside

Having recently forced myself to play through the ending-plus-the-real-ending of The Witness, I’m finding myself wondering if it was worth playing. I’m surprised to find myself thinking that it wasn’t.

As far as you can “spoil” something without a meaningful narrative (which is itself a spoiler, I suppose) then there are spoilers ahead, so make a decision here. I won’t be solving any of the puzzles for you, but that’s largely because at some point I lost interest in grinding them out myself.

Just to get this out of the way, The Witness is beautiful. It is very nice to look at.

Sadly, that’s almost all it is.

The creeping sense that you might be gazing into a beautiful, elaborate navel sets in early, and the thin edge of that wedge is the scattered voice-recorders. It doesn’t take long to notice their placement is very deliberate, and it’s not to tell you anything about this abandoned island, its strange statues and presumably-absent residents. Instead, their role is to constantly remind you that you have to look everywhere. At everything, from every angle, all the time, for reasons that never materialize.

Jonathan Blow – creator of The Witness – has said that he wants to make games for “people who read Gravity’s Rainbow“, and I think he’s succeeded at that provided we’re talking about people who read it, cranked out a disinterested B- essay for the compulsory 1st-year humanities credit that assigned it, and never looked back.

The other thing it doesn’t take long to notice is that the reveal of the central conceit and pivotal epiphany of The Witness is also the precise moment the joy of playing the game starts wobbling on the rails. First of all, however you come to that revelation – that the world is itself full of these circle-and-line puzzles – you have almost no say in the fact of coming to it; I hope you had that magic moment before you’d made it to the top of the mountain, because that’s where you get clubbed over the head with it. And second, that’s also the moment the game stops being an exploration and starts being a grind.

You’re not farming gold or breaking jars here, and that’s not nothing, but after you’ve seen a few of those world-puzzles every archway or semicircle you wander past or glance by the edge of the screen stops looking like a beautiful detail in a beautiful world and starts looking like a job.

And they are, of course, everywhere. The dirt path that ends in a curve, the cloud with the semicircular edge, the half-submerged pipe and its reflection, the whole island turns into one long brightly-colored to-do list. Climb something else to look at it or wander around it until the circle shows up, activate or trace whatever it is, and then… move on to the next one, because there’s definitely a next one. But there’s no story to advance, nothing gained beyond the sense that you’ve been spoon-fed a sense of cleverness. The minor epiphanies that pleasantly surprise you at the beginning of the game are silently haunting every twisted set of branches or curving shadow now, waiting for you to wander around this Ouija board of a world and invoke them for no particular reason.

The boss battles of this perspective-grinding exercise are sometimes clever, always pretty and invariably hollow. The perfect narrative void of this game screams at you in those moments; you’re standing where you can see the reflected fish or the harpy’s flowing hair or the two statues linking hands. “This moment would tell you so much”, the void says, “if there was anything to tell you at all. Go find more puzzles.”

Res ipsa loquitor, sed per se” is a line that came to mind, here – the thing speaks for itself, but only about itself. It’s a game that wants you to really understand the vital importance of paying careful attention to detail and perspective, and sets out to do that by giving you hundreds of nearly-identical problems and devoutly refusing to give you a reason to solve any of them.

It’s really hard to care how many levels a joke works on when you’re hearing it for the two hundredth time.

Anyway: the exact moment I tuned all the way out was partway down the inside of the mountain, when the Aperture Science aesthetic kicks in and of the randomly scattered recordings – hidden wherever they are without any reason or pattern beyond being hidden, obvs – plays you a long B.F. Skinner quote that cut more than a little too close to the bone. At that point I’d had just about enough of this B- essay that I could make a pretty good guess how it would end and didn’t care much if I was right or wrong. I pushed on, but the eye-rolling Witness-To-The-Hotel-California sequence didn’t change my opinion for the better.

I really wanted to love this game. I can kind of see the rough outlines of a lot of other games I’ve loved in it, but I suppose I never figured out where to stand to make it work.

December 5, 2015

Barbiephonic (redux)

Filed under: awesome,digital,doom,interfaces,lunacy,parenting,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 9:51 pm

Structure

I have a funny story about the recent Hello Barbie networked-device security failure. This is doubly a repost – it started its current incarnation as a twitter rant, and longtime readers may remember it from the dim recesses of history, but the time has come for me to tell it again.

Back in 2007 Mattel had a site where they’d charge parents two bucks to have one of Mattel’s franchise characters give their child a real phone call, because people still did that in 2007. They’d let you hear the call before paying, which I suppose was good of them, but I poked around a bit and pretty quickly discovered that whatever company Mattel had hired for this was not so good with the infosec.

The subject of the calls – Dora would say it’s important to learn to read or help around the house, Barbie would tell you to work hard in school, that sort of thing – was pretty pedestrian, harmless despite the weirdly Reagan-era-esque Kid-Celebrities-Help-You-Just-Say-No-To-Drugs vibe. But the indexes on the folders storing all those component sound files they’d assemble into your custom call were wide open.

And the other thing lying around on those open shares were recordings of names. To reach a wide audience they’d recorded some unstoppably perky young woman reciting kids’ first names, Aaron, Abbot, Abby, Abigail, Adana, Adena, in an upbeat barbie-girl voice, every single one. And there I was with a pile of free disk space, university bandwidth, wget and why not.

There were seventeen thousand of them.

After a bit of experimentation, I figured out how to stitch them all together with .4 seconds of silence between each. The resulting audio file was almost five hours long; four hours and forty five minutes of relentless Barbiedoll voice reciting seventeen thousand first names in alphabetical order.

To my knowledge, nobody has ever listened to the whole thing.

Of the six attempts I’m aware of, four were called off when the death threats started, one due to the near-breakup of the couple making the attempt, and one person drinking themselves to unconsciousness at about the 90 minute mark. I’m not saying that to make a joke. I’m telling you because this is real and it’s an SCP-grade psychic biohazard. No highly esteemed deed was committed here; this is not a place of honour.

So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

For your listening pleasure: here it is.

Have a good weekend, Internet.

UPDATE: Somebody made a Youtube video.

September 11, 2015

Straps

Filed under: analog,documentation,interfaces,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 10:23 pm

I was complaining on Twitter that almost everyone who makes shoulder bags makes terrible straps to go with them and that it’s the most important thing to get right and nobody does and everything is terrible. You know, as one does. And I mentioned modifying my bags to make the straps work right, and people seemed interested in what I did, so off we go.

Here’s a decent enough shot of what I’ve done to the bag I bought a while ago. Briefly:

P9110849

  • That entire buckle and d-ring assembly in the upper left does one job: it moves the place you cinch down the strap from the middle of my chest, where it used to live, to the bottom of the bag. This means that lifting the bag up and cinching it snug is a single motion in one direction, instead of trying to hoist the bag upwards with one hand to get some slack while pulling down with the other to tighten it down; it makes a big difference if you’re carrying a load.
  • The metal wire you see looped through the chest buckle is insurance; might be unnecessary, but I don’t quite trust that part of this exercise to stay put on its own.
  • The small strap you see hanging off the d-ring at about 11:00 is a quick-release; set up like this it stays nice and snug until I give little tug on that and it all comes slack. You can sort of see how that works here:

P9110857

  • You can’t clip your keys easily to this strap as shipped, which really sucks. The extra d-ring in that second picture is for that.
  • The bit with the two aluminum rings there is a replaced support strap, that works the same way; I can cinch it down easily once it’s on, one loop keeps the strap from dangling everywhere and putting a thumb through the lets me pop it off easily. There’s a cheap plastic caribiner hanging off the end of the bag that I can clip those to if I’m not using them, so they stay out of the way.
  • Finally, down in the bottom right, I’ve added some extra slotted-loop rings to the ends of the straps that hold the bag closed, so that they don’t flap around everywhere either.

So there you have it. About ten bucks worth of extra bits and a bit of extra thought has moved this bag from “very good” to “close to perfect”, quickly adjustable and a little more pleasant to interact with when you’ve got a lot to carry.

This is was I was going on about on Twitter, if anyone’s still reading at this point. It doesn’t take much; a bit of consideration, getting the parts, making the change. Repairability, as always, matters way more than it seems at first. Don’t buy a work bag if you can’t replace the straps with something worthwhile; I bet eventually you’ll want to. And when the part of a thing you interact with the most somehow gets the least attention, just that little bit of giving a damn can go a very long way.

December 13, 2014

Candy For Children

Filed under: a/b,digital,documentation,doom,future,interfaces,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 9:44 pm

My impressions of Android 5 are excitingly career-limiting, as you might have guessed from the title, but what the hell. A few weeks of using it has not substantially dulled my initial impressions, so I might as well share them with you. Would you believe there are positive bits here? You’ll have work for them, obviously, panning for compliments in the effluent stream of my usual opinions of technology, but they’re in there. Here’s a gimme: it’s not ugly! So there’s that? On the other hand I haven’t been able to watch an entire video on their new “material design” approach without laughing out loud. So there is also definitely that.

It’s not so much that their designers all seem to speak with the same stunted cadence that ancient-aliens history channel guy has, though that’s part of it. The big reason is the realization – which is almost certainly not true, but they sure give you the impression it could be – that they edited out every fourth sentence, because it ended with “… and we were so high that day”.

Pre-4.4 Android was… bad. Some time ago I referred to KitKat as “technical debt that’s figured out how to call 911”, but despite my own first-impressions debacle I thought that 4.4 was moving in the right direction. Android was still visually a relic, though, and Conway’s Law was in full effect:

“[…] organizations which design systems […] are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations” – M. Conway

In Google’s case this seems to mean that people can work on what they want to work on and nobody’s really in charge of making sure the entire package works right; it showed then and it still shows. For a long time it’s seemed like Android’s primary design constraints were “what can I convince disinterested engineers with self-diagnosed Aspergers’ and terrible taste to ship”, so it’s one-pixel borders and dark gray backgrounds and I’m busy buddy these barges full of RFID chips and QR/AR bridging aren’t going to talk to Glass^2 by themselves.

In that context even the slightest suggestions that a human might occasionally want to see colours now and then or maybe – and I know how crazy this sounds, but stay with me here – “experience joy” are more than welcome. So despite the delivery, Material Design looked like a pleasant if not revolutionary step forward.

And in a few important ways – I told you we’d get here! – it is. Application switching is smoother and prettier, the launcher is somewhat easier to get around and the reworked notification system is quite pleasant, despite Hangouts’ best efforts. It’s nice to see the rotation-lock toggle and tethering buttons right up front rather than buried four menus down in the settings where they used to be. There’s even a flashlight button in there with them, a nice built-in now rather than the third-party permission-creeper that spied on everything you touched that it used to be, so we’ve got that going for us dot gif.

App switching has improved as well, moving from the postage-stamp screenshots to a much more pleasantly scroll-y interface. Recency ordering there is nice, and makes much more sense in this cards-type display; infinite scroll there would be a welcome addition, but given the antecedent I’ll take it.

Most of Google’s apps, though, haven’t been substantively changed. Gmail, sure – and, um, wow – but most of the rest seem to have been recompiled with the new widget set without really putting a ton of thought into how they work or what they do. A lot of odd animations happen for no obvious reason, and places where an attempt to act like a “material” betrays itself in some oddly irritating way. Moving the lock screen on one axis now disallows you moving it on the other axis; touching some (but not all?) list items makes this odd radial “splash” thing happen, which looks like a printf they forgot to ifdef out before shipping.

There’s a lot of stuff like that, not often at the edges – Maps’ mad dash towards incomprehensibility seems to be picking up speed – and in that sense it’s business as usual. There isn’t really a coherent narrative or model or anything underpinning Material Design, just a bunch of random, disconnected stuff you’ve got to relearn by discovery and practice by rote. It’s novel and more colourful – which is nice, for real! – but so much of it doesn’t make intuitive sense that it’s hard to stay excited about Android’s prospects. Pulling down on this widget causes that other widget to move sideways, or some other circle to appear and then spin. Some icons just hover there disconnected from anything, perplexing iconography near-invisible against the wrong background. Scroll far enough and ominous shadows appear and seem to follow you briefly around, a subtle visual cue that you’re at the end of the list and Oh by the way death awaits us all. In fact, modulo some tentacles and chanting I have the nagging sense I’m looking at a Lovecraftian pop-up book, aiming for colourful intuitive fun, running aground on the black shoals of the arbitrary and incomprehensible.

Still better than it was, though, seriously. It’s a big improvement.

October 29, 2014

Go Home Yosemite You Are Drunk

Filed under: fail,hate,interfaces,lunacy,toys,work — mhoye @ 1:28 pm

anglachel:proj mhoye$ svn --version
svn, version 1.7.17 (r1591372)
compiled Aug 7 2014, 17:03:25

anglachel:proj mhoye$ which svn
/opt/local/bin/svn

anglachel:proj mhoye$ /opt/local/bin/svn --version
svn, version 1.8.10 (r1615264)
compiled Oct 29 2014, 14:11:15 on x86_64-apple-darwin14.0.0

anglachel:proj mhoye$ which -a svn
/opt/local/bin/svn
/usr/bin/svn

anglachel:proj mhoye$ /usr/bin/svn --version
svn, version 1.7.17 (r1591372)
compiled Aug 7 2014, 17:03:25

anglachel:proj mhoye$

How are you silently disrespecting path ordering, what is this even.

October 3, 2014

Rogue Cryptocurrency Bootstrapping Robots

Cuban Shoreline

I tried to explain to my daughter why I’d had a strange day.

“Why was it strange?”

“Well… There’s a thing called a cryptocurrency. ‘Currency’ is another word for money; a cryptocurrency is a special kind of money that’s made out of math instead of paper or metal.”

That got me a look. Money that’s made out of made out of math, right.

“… and one of the things we found today was somebody trying to make a new cryptocurrency. Now, do you know why money is worth anything? It’s a coin or a paper with some ink on it – what makes it ‘money’?”

“… I don’t know.”

“The only answer we have is that it’s money if enough people think it is. If enough people think it’s real, it becomes real. But making people believe in a new kind of money isn’t easy, so what this guy did was kind of clever. He decided to give people little pieces of his cryptocurrency for making contributions to different software projects. So if you added a patch to one of the projects he follows, he’d give you a few of these math coins he’d made up.”

“Um.”

“Right. Kind of weird. And then whoever he is, he wrote a program to do that automatically. It’s like a little robot – every time you change one of these programs, you get a couple of math coins. But the problem is that we update a lot of those programs with our robots, too. Our scripts run, our robots, and then his robots try to give our robots some of his pretend money.”

“…”

“So that’s why my day was weird. Because we found somebody else’s programs trying to give our programs made-up money, in the hope that this made-up money would someday become real.”

“Oh.”

“What did you to today?”

“I painted different animals and gave them names.”

“What kind of names?”

“French names like zaval.”

“Cheval. Was it a good day?”

“Yeah, I like painting.”

“Good, good.”

(Charlie Stross warned us about this. It’s William Gibson’s future, but we still need to clean up after it.)

September 2, 2014

Architecture For Loners

Filed under: arcade,beauty,doom,future,interfaces,life,lunacy,toys — mhoye @ 9:36 am

This has been sitting around in the drafts folder for a while. I’m not sure why I wanted to finish it off tonight, but I want to get all these half-finished posts done. This seemed like a good way to knock off some of the rust.

Rust Never Sleeps

Occasionally when I’m in one of my darker moods I’ll fire up a game that’s meant to be multiplayer and walk through it alone, crawling around the fringes and corners to see how the game reacts to unexpected stimuli, looking for soft spots and exposed nerves.

I’ve always been a lurker in open worlds games, real life being no exception; I don’t remember when I started looking for the seams, the little gaps where the walls don’t quite line up or the high ledge that offers a long view, but it’s not a thing I can turn off. And when I’m in that sullen loner’s mood, sitting in the dark soloing multiplayer spaces is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two on just that sort of wallhack tourism.

Halo’s Spartan Ops, is kind of fun though not particularly replayable distraction. It’s a neat idea, and I sort of wish they’d done more with the idea of serving up Halo in smaller episodic doses. The environments, though… if you have the right eyes you can’t help but notice that built-for-a-shooter feeling that pervades the designed landscapes of that franchise.

Its not just the trademark gun-litter; whether it’s a forcefield deployed pointlessly in a cave, an otherwise-empty room with one door and twenty or so alien warriors milling around inside waiting to no discernable purpose or an massive structure of dubious architectural merit built by an advanced alien species whose accomplishments include intergalactic teleporters but not doors, you never have a moment to shake off the sense that the world is built entirely around sight lines.

Specifically, as they emerge from you.

This is a pretty niche failure mode, I’ll admit. It’s possible I’m the only person who will ever notice or care about it. But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a space designed for a shooter that didn’t undercut any grandeur and greater aspirations the game might have. It maybe unavoidable; as lush as some of these environments seem at first, how do you evoke that sense of being part of something much bigger than yourself when everything is designed around you?

So much video game architecture fails that test of basic significance, worlds of outsized and beautiful physics-defying structures that don’t speak to any motive beyond themselves. Halo 4 is hardly the worst example, but the scale it aspires to makes this kind of anarrative laziness hard to overlook. This incredibly ambitious backstory, these huge structures and it’s all facade; there’s no “why”, because you’re there with the controller in your lap and you’re the “why” and there is no larger story than that.

“This place once belonged to an ancient and noble civilization, whose might and wisdom spanned the galaxy”, these structures say, “and as a monument to our glories we have built this: a monochromatic rhombus.”

Also I’m not sure how that Spartan Miller guy got his job, but he’s kind of excitable for an ostensibly hardened space marine.

But if you’re the sort of person who appreciates a jetpack – and if you’re not I don’t really see how we can keep being friends – then a lot of these arbitrary obstructions and forced perspectives are suddenly, inexplicably tractable. That extra degree of freedom is enough; in some places – Science Mountain is a good choice here – suddenly you can fly over a gate you were meant to fight past. And the game, of course, doesn’t appreciate being spoken to like that: Halo is on rails, and always will be thus! And you’re frightening the AI and this is just the way things are and I don’t care for your tone, young man. You can’t just leave the rails, that’s why it’s called “going off the rails”, and… hey, get back here!

And in this transgression, of course, Halo reveals itself for what it is.

You clear that gate, mop up a few stragglers and hop back to flip the switch to proceed. Enemies appear, less and listless. Defeat them, and now you’re alone. The next part of the sequence simply doesn’t happen. No-one else appears, no more doors open. Your team never contacts you and you, stoic and silent, never reach out to them.

There’s no meaning, there’s no more, there’s no distraction; there’s just reflection and just you, silently exploring a small corner of a deserted island intended only for you, forever. And there’s nothing to do but look for another seam, another glitch, to allow you maybe possibly move on.

It’s a weird, lonely feeling; kind of what you’d expect from soloing a multiplayer game alone in the dark.

June 23, 2014

Vocoder Duet

Filed under: a/b,arcade,digital,doom,toys — mhoye @ 1:01 pm

You can think of them as the Fry and Laurie of malevolent synthetic intelligences that are going to murder you.

In a fortuitous coincidence, this video – a collection of communications from SHODAN, antagonist of the classic System Shock 2,

and this video, of GlaDOS‘ spoken dialogue from the first Portal,

… are both about 14 and a half minutes long.

You should listen to them both at the same time.

May 26, 2014

This Is My Bag

Filed under: awesome,documentation,interfaces,toys,want — mhoye @ 11:18 am

I bought a new bag.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t buy anything in the wintertime; I spend too much time indoors and it’s bad for my head. After a while I start believing that I should start having things that are nice, and maybe even – dare I say it – fancy, and when you’re a guy in the throes of middle-age that can end poorly.

As a side anecdote: my personal canonical example (is “headcanonical” a word?) comes from late winter about two years ago, when I mentioned to an old friend that I’d been (at 37, with two kids; painfully trite, I know) casually window-shopping for motorcycles. She’s known me forever, and her reply slid in flat between the ribs that special way only an old friend’s can.

“So did your dad ever hug you when you were a kid, or are you going to get one of the really loud ones?”

Painful wince, scene.

Gentlemen, having women in your life who will call you on your bullshit is invaluable. I’m not getting a motorbike.

Which, in fact, is great – all that cabin-fever stir-craziness ends in the spring, because what I really want, every year, isn’t fancy shoes or a motorcycle, it’s to get back on my bike. A few weeks of summer commutes has cemented it, too; I fly past a lot of expensive European metal on my ride in and your Porsche or Ducati doesn’t matter much if everyone in front of you is parked. But on a bike I can blow through traffic like the wind, and in rush hour traffic – and that’s most of the time, downtown – I’m far and away faster than anything else on the road.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand: after a fair bit of screwing around trying to turn my venerable old laptop bag into the messenger bag I actually wanted, I’d decided I needed to solve the problem once and for all.

I’m partial to messenger bags as because of the kind of riding I tend towards is the “playing-in-traffic” kind, and for that you need any weight you’re carrying to sit as high on your back as possible. It’s hard to cinch the load on a backpack up over you, and the lateral stability on them is usually iffy. They’re just not meant for this kind of work. I love the look of Saddleback Leather’s bags – so beautiful, so utterly impractical – but when spring rolled around I had to own up to the fact that they’re not right thing. I’m the semi-mythical Scofflaw Cyclist that comes up whenever people talk about traffic, and I needed something for the aggro bike commuting I do every single day. So I laid out my criteria and broadened my search.

My needs turned out to be pretty straightfoward:

  • Waterproof for real. Not “resistant”; clean-it-with-a-hose waterproof.
  • Holds a 15″ laptop plus the usual nerd fixins’ plus two days’ clothing.
  • Replaceable straps – that is, the straps can’t be sewn in to the bag.
  • Quick-adjust straps. Gotta be able to cinch it down and step out of it easily.
  • Second support strap, ideally also quick-adjust.
  • Side pockets I can reach without opening the whole bag.
  • Little or no velcro, just because it annoys me.
  • Being able to clip stuff to the sides is a plus, and Molle webbing is nice and everything but
  • if the word “tactical” appears anywhere in the product’s page, close the tab. “Tactical” has become shorthand for “substandard gear aimed at the macho bullshit market”, so when you’re in the market for sturdy, dependable gear this is a huge timesaver. Remember: amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics.

The replaceable straps part is really important. They’re generally the least-thought-out part of the bag, despite being the most important. Being able to either get them just right or replace them is a deal-breaker.

As beautiful as they are, the Saddleback bags – any leather bags – were disqualified early on, and the strap criteria ruled out all of Crumpler’s products. Maxpedition bags are solid, but they suffer from that mall-commando velcro-and-tiny-pockets-everywhere aesthetic that makes you look like a deflated Rob Leifield character, so that’s that. They’re like some of the better Targus bags, in that sense; all the ingredients of a great product are there, you can see them, but nobody with any taste cared enough about how they worked or fit together.

I had a couple of strong choices, though. The last candidates to get cut were:

  • The Tom Bihn Ego/Superego, cut for the straps. It’s a nice bag and Tom Bihn sees a lot of love around the office, but bags that hang low off clips generally seem to be designed for casual cyclists and pedestrians.
  • I spent a very long time looking at Acronym’s Third Arm products – this one is just so close to perfect – but $1100 for a messenger bag is utterly indefensible lollerskates.
  • The MEC Velocio, a very strong contender particularly for the price, maxes out at a 13″ laptop and was cut for size & strap reasons.
  • Chrome’s Buran looks great and is well-reviewed, and the seatbelt-buckle strap is compelling. but falls down on the side pockets and removable strap questions. Chrome makes great bags in general, and the Buran was the last cut. [UPDATE: This was an error – the Buran has removable/adjustable straps that are equivalent to those on the Timbuk2 Especial, and if I were doing this again it would be a tossup; the Buran also meets my requirements.]

The winning candidate was the Timbuk2 Especial Cycling Messenger Bag, which is as close to perfect as I’ve seen. Sits high on the back. waterproof, the strap is great and the magnetic-clip latches are good enough that I find going back to the old kind pointlessly cumbersome now. Fits a lot if it has to, cinches down if it doesn’t, comfortable and lifts off the back a little bit to air out which is quite nice. This plus their extra 3Way phone case for the strap has been making me very happy for about a month now.

There are a few caveats::

  • I generally dislike velcro, but Timbuk2’s “silencer” straps aren’t worth it. A yard of velcro does the job for a fraction the price. If those straps had incorporated some extra molle-style gear loops I’d have jumped at them – some extra clip-in points under the flap would be welcome – but you’d need two sets to quiet this bag, so I wouldn’t bother.
  • I’ve replaced the stock support strap with $5 worth of straps and buckles from MEC so that I can loosen it up or cinch it down as easily as the main strap. This isn’t a big deal until you’ve got to wear a jacket, but it was worth it. Likewise I’ve added a small strap to the main buckle so that it’s easier to unlatch with gloves.

… but that’s not much, and the result is exactly what I wanted.

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