Leaving my BlackBerry Z10 for an iPhone SE

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Black Friday 2017 was coming around and I was spending it repeating what I’d done many times over the course of the year: looking at smartphones.

My wife and I were then using BlackBerry Z10s: those venerable launch devices of the failed* mobile platform BlackBerry 10. These were holdovers from my time as an employee of Research in Motion (aka RIM) eventually renamed BlackBerry Ltd where I worked on the Browser Team from 2008 until 2015.

The Z10 was released in January 2013, which made our phones nearly five years old. This is an eternity for the rapidly-evolving handset hardware business. We were fine with our Z10s, but they were starting to age: batteries drained faster, free storage fell lower, and weird things like “turning off the Wi-Fi for no apparent reason” started happening with ever-increasing prominence, if not frequency.

We were past due for a change.

The BlackBerry Z10 is a small device (by today’s standards) so there were few acceptable choices from the current crop of phones with the correct form factor. Also at this level of concern were security, privacy, and how long it would be sent supporting software updates. The iPhone SE was recommended to me by a dev who sits next to me at my coworking space.

It seemed ideal: excellent support, world-class design, the first platform to get apps, and it kept Google’s data collection to apps instead of bleeding it through the entire phone.
So on Black Friday I bought into That Other Fruit Company at their most affordable pricepoint.

And I hated it.

First off, it had a voicemail indicator that never went away.

Secondly, the mail app showed at most six emails on one screen.

Third, I had to use separate apps to track email, calendar, BlackBerry Messenger, phone calls, SMS.

Fourth, its text-selection capabilities and fine cursor control were horrible.

Fifth, I couldn’t set a non-Safari default browser which meant I was copy-pasting URLs from emails to Firefox multiple times a day. (Something went wrong with the share framework so I couldn’t even “share” the URL to Firefox. Focus worked, though.)

Sixth, there as no way to get my messages and calendar to show on my desktop outside of GMail.

Seventh, and fatally, the WiFi would cut out whenever the screen turned off.

To be fair, the WiFi thing was a hardware fault, the voicemail thing is a problem with my carrier account that they still haven’t resolved, and I was likely going to hate it no matters what it did.

Apple was the enemy for so long I don’t think I could’ve given it a fair shake if the hardware were perfect and my carrier had spent any of its millions of dollars on improving its infrastructure so an empty voice mailbox would read as empty to new phones.

I returned the iPhones, my wife’s untouched. I had given it a week, and it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to be happy with even the smallest and most affordable iDevice.

This was unfair. The thing took amazing photos exactly when I asked it to. Its browser scrolled almost as well as the BlackBerry 10 Browser. It did what it was asked with quiet efficiency.

But it wasn’t as good as it needed to have been to overcome my apparently-still-strong anti-Apple bias. So back they went.

Luckily, there was nothing immediately forcing us to make a decision, so we could ride our Z10s into the dirt if we wanted. My wife expressed that she was going to be unhappy to switch to any new device in equal measure, so it didn’t really matter which one.

Also, she was happy to stick to her tried-and-trusted Z10. She had it configured just the way she liked it.

So that’s the story of my unsuccessful attempt to leave my BlackBerry Z10 for an iPhone SE. May it help you in your search for acceptable personal computing appliances amongst the garbage the resident duopoly have left us.

:chutten

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The Mystery of the Lloydminster McDonald’s

On our way back from a lovely family afternoon out at the local streetcar museum, we hit up a McDonald’s for a quick bit of dinner on our way home. There we found a new promotion:IMG_20171209_185212.jpg

So far so blah.

But then I looked closer:

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I’m upgrading my phone shortly, so hopefully you won’t have to suffer such poor-quality images in the future. But for now, allow me to transcribe:

“Not valid with any other offer. At participating McDonald’s restaurants in Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, Alberta, Northwest Territories and Lloydminster, SK.”

First: What is Atlantic Canada? I know it’s a colloquial designation for the four Eastern provinces (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador), but I didn’t expect to see it referenced in legalese at the bottom of promotional copy. Apparently the term is semi-legitimate, as there is an official arm of the federal government called the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency/Agence de promotion économique du Canada atlantique. Neat.

Second: Oh good, Quebec gets the promotion, too. Quebec gets left out of many things advertised to the whole of Canada because of stricter laws governing gambling (including sweepstakes. Tim Hortons has to bend over backwards to make Roll Up the Rim To Win work there) and advertising (especially to children).

Third: What did Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and the other two territories (Yukon and Nunavut) do to be left out? Nunavut seems obvious: there are no McDonald’s restaurants there. But there’s at least two golden arches in Whitehorse, and scads in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and BC. Must be some sort of legal something.

And that brings us to the titular mystery: Why, of all of Saskatchewan, is Lloydminster spared? Is it the one city where there’s competition? Is it to do with that urban legend about an older burger restaurant in Western Canada someplace that was called McDonald’s first? Is it because it’s licensed under a special food services employer contract that….

No.

It’s because Lloydminster Saskatchewan is here:

lloydminster

It straddles the border between the provinces Alberta and Saskatchewan. Alberta has the McDonald’s promotion. Saskatachewan doesn’t. Lloydminster, AB has two McDonald’s restaurants. Lloydminster, SK has one. It would be unfair to deny the Albertan restaurants the promotion, and unfair to exclude the Saskatechewanian restaurant. So what is McDonald’s to do?

They have to add a rider on their promotion to all corners of the Great White North that proclaims that there is one city (barely) in Saskatchewan in which you can partake of a five dollar meal deal.

Yeesh.

Another Stay of Execution for Firefox Users on Windows XP

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Firefox users who are on Windows XP now have until August 28, 2018 to upgrade their machines. In the grand Internet tradition I will explore this by pretending someone is asking me questions.

Why?

The last Firefox release supporting Windows XP is Firefox ESR 52. Previously Firefox ESR 52 was set to end-of-life on or around May of 2018 after the next ESR, Firefox ESR 59, had been released and stabilized. Now, with an email to the Enterprise, Dev Platform, Firefox Dev, and Mobile Firefox Dev mailing lists, :Sylvestre has announced that the next ESR will be Firefox ESR 60, which extends the Firefox ESR 52 end-of-life to August 28, 2018.

No, not “Why did it change,” Why should anyone still care about Windows XP? Hasn’t it been out-of-service for a decade or something?

Not quite a decade, but the last release of Windows XP was over nine years ago, and even Microsoft’s extended support tapped out nearly four years ago.

But as to why we should care… well, Windows XP is still a large-ish portion of the Firefox user base. I don’t have public numbers in front of me, but you can see the effect the Windows XP Firefox population numbers had on the Firefox Hardware Report when we diverted them to ESR this past March. At that time they were nearly 8.5% of all Firefox users. That was more than all versions of Mac Firefox users.

Also, it’s possible that these users may be some of the most vulnerable of the Internet’s users. They deserve our thought.

Oh, okay, fine. If they matter so much, why aren’t we supporting them forever?

As you can see from the same Firefox Hardware Report, the number of Windows XP Firefox users was in steady decline. At some point our desire and capability to support this population of users can no longer match up with our desire to ship the best experience to the most users.

Given the slope of the decline in the weeks leading up to when we migrated Windows XP Firefox users to Firefox ESR, we ought to be getting pretty close to zero. We hate to remove support from any users, but there was a real cost to supporting Windows XP.

For instance, the time between the ESR branch being cut and the first Windows XP-breaking change was a mere six days. And it wasn’t on purpose, we were just fixing something somewhere in Gecko in a way that Windows XP didn’t like.

So who are we going to drop support for next?

I don’t know of any plans to drop support for any Operating Systems in the near future. I expect we’ll drop support for older compilers in our usual manner, but not OSs.

That pretty much sums it up.

If you have any questions about Firefox ESR 60, please check out the Firefox ESR FAQ.

:chutten

Data Science is Hard: What’s in a Dashboard

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The data is fake, don’t get excited.

Firefox Quantum is here! Please do give it a go. We have been working really hard on it for quite some time, now. We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved.

To show Mozillians how the release is progressing, and show off a little about what cool things we can learn from the data Telemetry collects, we’ve built a few internal dashboards. The Data Team dashboard shows new user count, uptake, usage, install success, pages visited, and session hours (as seen above, with faked data). If you visit one of our Mozilla Offices, you may see it on the big monitors in the common areas.

The dashboard doesn’t look like much: six plots and a little writing. What’s the big deal?

Well, doing things right involved quite a lot more than just one person whipping something together overnight:

1. Meetings for this dashboard started on Hallowe’en, two weeks before launch. Each meeting had between eight and fourteen attendees and ran for its full half-hour allotment each time.

2. In addition there were several one-off meetings: with Comms (internal and external) to make sure we weren’t putting our foot in our mouth, with Data ops to make sure we weren’t depending on datasets that would go down at the wrong moment, with other teams with other dashboards to make sure we weren’t stealing anyone’s thunder, and with SVPs and C-levels to make sure we had a final sign-off.

3. Outside of meetings we spent hours and hours on dashboard design and development, query construction and review, discussion after discussion after discussion…

4. To say nothing of all the bikeshedding.

It’s hard to do things right. It’s hard to do even the simplest things, sometimes. But that’s the job. And Mozilla seems to be pretty good at it.

One last plug: if you want to nudge these graphs a little higher, download and install and use and enjoy the new Firefox Quantum. And maybe encourage others to do the same?

:chutten

So I’ve Finished I Am Setsuna

Well, my wife did. As such I can’t comment to much on how the game feels with controller in-hand. But I do feel I can comment just fine on its systems and story, setting and sound.

First, is it just me that finds it distracting how close the title is to “I am a satsuma“? Just me? Okay.

I Am Setsuna is a New JRPG in the Old Style released in February of 2016 (which is positively recent compared to the rest of the games I usually play). Being “in the Old Style” means no voiced dialog, a fixed overhead camera, lots of numbers that max out at 99 or 255, and a certain aesthetic. The specific target of this love letter is Chrono Trigger from which I Am Setsuna borrows:

  • A silent protagonist
  • No random encounters on a small overworld
  • Monsters roam on the same screen you fight them on
  • Magic elements
  • Some spell and technique names
  • Some musical riffs
  • Some place and character names

Some of these decisions are homage, some pastiche, and some are mistakes.

The silent protagonist was a mistake. I am used to silent protagonists being used to increase immersion by reducing the number of ways the character might react in a way that disagrees with the role the player thought they were playing (the ‘RP’ in JRPG). However, no matter how silent Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman is, he still has to shoot aliens and rescue civillians and whack headcrabs as the story and mechanics require. Through narrative and mechanics the player can still feel a disconnect from their character.

Gordon Freeman gets around it by doing only what the player would do in his place. I, too, would crack headcrabs with a crowbar if they jumped at me. Chrono from Chrono Trigger gets around it the same way. I, too, would save the world and its timelines from an extraterrestrial and existential threat.

I Am Setsuna cold opens (this is funny because the game is set in a worldwide, never-ending Winter) on your character being exposited at during a tutorial objective where you are paid, handsomely. Then a mysterious man (named “Mysterious Man”) asks you to take a morally-reprehensible job: kill an 18-year-old woman named Setsuna.

Not only do you have no means of refusing the task (even to be immediately overruled in a false choice), due to the protagonist being silent you have no idea if you care.

Role-playing is a two-way street. There’s agency where the player imposes their will on the character, and there’s acting where the character shapes the role the player plays.

In Dragon Age: Origins I can chose to kill or spare a chief antagonist. I have agency to chose. However, when provided the choice I need to consider what actions my character has taken (a feedback loop of my past agency) to ensure I play a consistent role. I act accordingly.

I Am Setsuna just ignores it. It turns out, hours and hours later, that this inciting incident isn’t as central as you originally thought it was… but it seems really important at the beginning. They smash-cut from your assassination order straight to a FFVI mode-7-inspired opening sequence over which the credits roll.

There are plenty of things to like in I Am Setsuna. The Momentum battle system where you get power-ups the longer you stand still and let enemies wail on you is a nice risk/reward balance. The solitary piano music is a setting- and thematically-appropriate sparse and cold choice. The characters are fleshed out and have decent relationships. The areas are remarkably varied for all being snow-bound. The subplots along the way do an excellent job of illustrating the central themes of death, sacrifice, and what is evil.

However none of these come without caveats. The risk/reward Momentum system has an inconsistent and fuzzy timing trigger. The piano background fails to sound bombastic and epic when it shouldn’t have even tried. The characters rely heavily on type and cliche. The areas are populated by varieties of just a handful of monster species. The subplots are often just retreads of more interesting stories told more engagingly by others.

It is a pretty, wonderful, flawed game. I look forward to seeing whether they can tighten things up a bit more with their next effort early next year.

The Past is a Foreign Country: The Andromeda Strain

I love the phrase from the opening line of L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between”: “The past is a foreign country”

For the author it was a hook for readers, but for me it is an axiom that only becomes more apt the longer I look at it. The past is strange. The people who inhabit it do not have the same culture we do. They don’t speak the same language. They don’t watch the same TV. The care about different things and have different priorities.

And sometimes it takes effort to visit.

I haven’t read “The Go-Between” but something I have recently read that struck me with how foreign it felt was Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel “The Andromeda Strain.”

The setting is the United States in the late 60s or early 70s. As such I was expecting a recognizable landscape. This led to several surprises.

First was how plausible American Exceptionalism seemed. The US was the leader of scientific thought in the late 60s. They had just reached the moon. They were outspending other nations in defense, but also at the same time scientific research and thoughtful contingency planning. It was plausible for Crichton to write that the US would invest $22M ($136M today) on a project with no direct applications to existing endeavours, but whose returns they expected to see in other related fields of inquiry and enterprise. That level of largesse coupled with the inevitability of knock-on benefits even if the program failed could only exist in a country that believed in its own ingenuity. It was stunning.

Second was how a portion of the scientific community planned for crisis. They sent a letter to the President with both allusions to the Einstein letter and containing highly technical terminology, expecting both of those things to be understood by the recipient. Two out of the past three administrations wouldn’t understand the letter. The other wouldn’t have reacted with haste, or with such extravagant funding, or at all, to the threat as described. Underlining the strangeness was how the fictional scientists were satisfied with government response to a theorized crisis. I can no longer imagine a US government response that the scientific community would applaud as satisfactory.

Third was the overt sexism. There were no women in the novel. Sure, they had a “girl” operating the switchboard and another “girl” running lab results and still others sprinkled about… but no women. Only two were permitted names, and one of those was a recording.

Fourth was the unfiltered promotion in the cover. The cover blazed that the book was able to rivet you to your seat to equal or greater measure than the televised walk on the moon. Given how exalted that moment has now become, given how small and commonplace scientific discoveries are now treated… it is both astonishing in the temerity of the copywriter’s claim, and in the fact that a comparison to a scientific achievement is being used in advertising at all.

There were dozens of smaller hitches: anything to do with computers or automation was a little too “gee whiz” and now seems quaint, the excessive page area devoted to ASCII art, the cover design… But I’ve read early Michael Crichton before, so these things I expected to a certain degree. Even the books in the back listed for mail order at prices between 95c and $1.25 (plus 10c postage) only stuck in my mind long enough to pull up an inflation calculator and realize that, actually, those are sensible book prices (though postage costs quite a bit more now).

All of these together (placed into an engaging, if flawed, narrative) emphasize the importance of experiencing old media. By seeing the differences and imagining and inferring how they made sense at the time we can broaden our own understanding of our own time and how naive, quaint, biased, or flawed we might appear in the future

With or without a metaphor, travel to a foreign country is illuminating. I recommend it to all who have the time and capability.