Elections Canada as a Mental Health Initiative

While discussing Electoral Reform (and a certain federal party‘s failure to do what they’d promised about it), my fellow Canadian made an interesting point. He mentioned that one knock-on benefit of the existing multi-party first-past-the-post system might be psychological.

The more I think about it, the more I think he might have a point.

One criticism of first-past-the-post is that it encourages “tactical voting” or “vote not for the party you most agree with, but with the party most likely to win that you can most tolerate.”

An example: Given three choices Orange, Red, and Blue, you agree most with Orange’s platform and disagree most with Blue’s platform. Red is fine, you guess. Unfortunately, you live in a riding where Orange has little support. So you can vote for Orange, but only knowing that you’re “wasting your vote” by casting it for a party that will likely not win. So, instead, you might vote for Red because it has the best chance of defeating Blue, whose platform you disagree with most.

My fellow Canadian’s point is that this tactical voting might have a small, secret benefit.

The idea is that, by strategically voting for Red (the party with the most tolerable platform that is most likely to win in your riding), you have pre-emptively made your peace with a more likely future and have signified your tolerance of a more likely platform. So if Red wins the seat, you have more buy-in to the result and have already developed the compromising mindset that makes you more accepting of Red’s platform. Also, it is unlikely that your minority preference for Orange would ever be successful in the system, so by forcing you to abandon it early it encourages you to prepare for the more likely outcomes earlier.

This could make a voter less upset with the result, teach them how to compromise for a greater good, feel more in control of their government, and possibly even feel more engaged with the process as a whole.

I’m not 100% behind this idea, mind you. For one, it hand-waves over the resentment you feel that your preferred party was unelectable in the system as it stands and the belief that it would be different if the system were changed. Also, I could find no study of this effect (if present) and I would assume there would be if there were evidence. There’s a lot of money and feeling invested in the current system (and the cynical among you might believe that to be a contributing reason why certain campaign promises haven’t been kept) so I’d expect research to exist and be aimed in a supportive direction if it had merit.

And even if we’re extremely generous about this effect even existing let alone being beneficial, it can’t overcome the drawbacks of FPTP which include actively excluding minorities and women from legislature.

However, it’s the system we in Canada are stuck with so I find it interesting that there could be a small benefit hidden in an electoral system other successful democracies ditched a century ago.

I still want my ranked ballot, though.

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So I’ve finished Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

I expected a game that gave Mario a gun to be less bland. XCOM: Mushroom Kingdom this isn’t. Nintendo characters, but without Nintendo-levels of polish.

All that pithily said, I still enjoyed it. Especially when I started thinking about it more like a small-screen puzzle game than a big-screen campaign.

It went on about two levels longer than it ought to have done. And I was never given an incentive to use the different characters. And I swear it ate through my Switch’s battery faster than Zelda (and Zelda had a lot more to do each frame, I would think).

But it was fun. Bouncing and drop-kicking and taking pipes really adds to a feeling of mobility. The choice to not measure movement range in path length but in radius made things much more predictable. And the puzzles (once I saw them that way) were engaging and interesting to pull apart.

I could’ve used a “whoops, wrong button” one-step undo. And I’m still not sure which of the shoulder buttons is L and which is ZL (and this game uses them more than the d-pad buttons).

But overall, not a waste of the, say, 15 hours I put into it.

TIL: Water Softeners

We wake up to hear an odd sound carried through the forced-air ducts. Furnace is loud, I think. My wife precedes me downstairs and, finding the sound louder, heads to the basement.

“Water in the basement!” comes her yell. I bound down the stairs two at a time and start shutting off water valves to stem the flow of a 3/4″ coldwater supply emptying through the water softener and onto the floor.

Water softeners are a piece of almost necessary equipment in the part of Canada where I live. Hard water is water that contains dissolved minerals (usually Calcium and Manganese) that, when present in sufficient amounts, can form “hard water scale.” This usually shows up on heating surfaces (the inside of kettles and water heaters) and on drying dishes (in the form of cloudy spots). Hard water’s not toxic or anything, but it’s a pain, and our water’s well into the category the USGS calls “very hard.” So we soften it.

Conventional water softeners work by exchanging those dissolved mineral ions (mostly Calcium around here) for salt ions (Sodium or Potassium) in tiny little resin beads kept in a column called the “resin tank” (or “mineral tank”) which you hook up to your water supply. The beads are made up of a compound to which salt binds less strongly than other ions (because it prefers ions missing two valence electrons, if you remember your High School Chemistry). Thus, when a bead with a bound salt is presented with a free-floating Calcium ion, the bead ditches the salt into the water and snatches up the Calcium.

The resulting water does not taste salty and does not meaningfully contribute to dietary salt intake, in case you were wondering.

Eventually these beads become full of these mineral ions. To return them to previous performance levels, they are soaked and flushed with a salt brine. Due to the brine’s high concentration of salt ions, the hardness ions leave the resins to form an equilibrium between the beads and the brine. Then the waste brine (now full of hardness ions as well as quite a lot of the salt) is sent down the drain.

To generate the brine, water is pumped into a salt storage tank (or “brine tank”) and then is left to dissolve salt. This salt is the only consumed quantity in this process, and must be regularly topped up (usually by purchasing 24kg bags of softener salt pellets at local grocery stores for under $6 a bag).

The whole recharge process takes about two hours.

Water softeners have an operating lifetime similar to that of the plumbing fittings you need to install it: ten to fifteen years.

Near as I can figure it, the water softener that decided to flood my basement was 14 years old when its resin tank decided to rupture catastrophically during a 2am recharge cycle. Two hours later, recharge cycle complete, it flipped the valve back to supply the house with soft water and then supplied itself with all of the house’s water.

Luckily my floor drain was nearby and could handle the water flow, so the only “damage” was a little splashed carpet in the next room and some garbage I’d been meaning to throw out. I’m not looking forward to the water bill next month, but I’m happy my furnace is installed on feet for just this sort of occasion.

I did get a nice close-up view of those tiny ion-exchange resin beads, though, as they had been spread all over the basement floor. They look like transparent cornmeal. When wet they kinda have the consistency of mashed potatoes.

One on-sale water softener from Canadian Tire and one plumber’s visit later, I’m once again living in the land of soft water. For the next ten to fifteen years.

So now I know rather more than I previously did about water softening. And so do you.

 

So I’ve Finished The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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Wow, what a game. It’s a game that had me talking with friends about video games again. You know, in that cagey way where you hint at something you aren’t sure they’ve seen yet until they nod and then you head into spoiler territory?

It’s a game that gives you every tool you need in the tutorial. Swords, shields, bows, bombs… and then you’re off. It doesn’t care what you do from then on, or how you do it. You simply go.

It’s a game that decides to not measure progress. Sure, it’ll count shrines and things… but it doesn’t care. Nothing changes, nothing matters except defeating Ganon. And yet, it is happy to let you take the long way around to get there, both in mechanics and in story. Who needs experience points, or levels, or priority missions, anyway?

It’s not perfect. The framerate drops in the Great Hyrule Forest. It leans a little hard on motion controls that ask you to point with the bottom of the controller instead of the point. Inside the Divine Beasts voices lead you around by the nose as though they didn’t get the “trust the player” memo the rest of the game hinges upon.

And the entire Gerudo segment comes across as tone deaf. Treating an ancient culture’s mores as a puzzle to “solve” because you know “better” is a little colonial for the 21st Century.

But then you hold these stumbles up to moments like when the Deku tree says “Next time I’ll let you kill yourself on that sword” and you believe it. The game has been honest with you so far, trusting you and being trusted almost to a fault. I believed that tree about that sword.

Speaking of that sword, pulling it was billed as a test of strength. “Strength?” There are no character sheets in Breath of the Wild, what is strength? Strength is the number of hearts you have. You are stronger when you have more heart. WHAT.

I’m especially pleased with this game coming straight off of Mass Effect: Andromeda. The cartoon characters you meet in Hyrule are different and recognizably so from their design. Even the hapless travellers you rescue time and time again are expressive in text and in facial expression.

ME:A also never wanted to let the player fail. Zelda is only too happy to have you fail. Too close to your own bomb when it goes off? Congratulations, you ragdolled down a cliff and into the river. Find a guardian? They’ll roflstomp you for hours. And you keep running across them! Even the main quest has you tromping up a hill in Zora’s Domain and finding something you cannot win against. Not because the game has decided it, but because you’re just not ready. And you can brickwall against it, like I did. Maybe if you jump over here, maybe if you use lightning arrows… Nope. You aren’t supposed to win this fight. You are the mouse, not the lion (or in this case, the Lynel). Scurry, little mouse, and try not to be seen.

Oh. No. You’ve been seen. Better run, little mouse. Run!

I’m sure there’s a wave of people who’ve seen this first in games like Dark Souls, but for me Zelda: Breath of the Wild was the first game in recent memory that made me afraid.

And how I love it for doing so.

Attacking Hyrule Castle, pushing deeper within. Everything the world taught you being put to the test, but upside down. On the overworld height helps you find your way, lets you see danger coming. In the Castle, height will get you killed. Better run, little mouse.

Wait. No. You’re not a mouse any more. You’ve fought, you’ve learned, you’ve grown.

But… you still remember being a mouse. So the tension ratchets up more than it ought to, creatures down the hall loom a little larger than they actually are, and victory… oh, victory tastes so much sweeter when you remember how impossible it used to be.

And then you reach Ganon. They really didn’t mind being a little disgusting with the creature design of the calamity bosses, and Ganon got a double dose. I feel a little cheap not having learned the perfect parry before fighting him, having to rely on my powers to defeat him… but that’s fitting. It works with the story. The champions were there for the assist.

Or so I tell myself.

The ending… was fine. The writing was a little weak, but everything else was lovely. I’m a little disappointed I don’t get to play in the world my adventure helped create, instead being dumped outside the castle gates, moments before the final confrontation, but it was an end.

And so I decided to put Zelda: Breath of the Wild down. I feel I could spend a lot more time in there. I feel I may have played it “wrong” by rushing too much to expand the map without exploring it enough (and my final map percentage of 40.03% certainly seems to reflect that). I can think of, right now, another couple of corners of the map I maybe should’ve gotten to.

But some things should end. Some things should leave you with that bittersweet hangover of a world your mind isn’t finished living within.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that from a video game. I missed it.

Software Ideas People Should Steal, Edition One

Here are five little ideas that I think every relevant software project should implement immediately.

1) WordPress has an excellent feature for linkifying text where pasting links over selected text will linkify the selected text to point to the link. All rich-text editing software needs to implement this on the double: if the clipboard you’re overpasting with starts with ‘http’, then linkify the text, don’t replace it.

2) My new Samsung Galaxy A5 has a little touch where it checks the ambient light level before turning on the screen. If it is dim where the user is, it gradually increases the brightness as you turn on the screen instead of immediately jumping to the current, adaptive screen brightness level. This saves my eyeballs from wincing. All phone manufacturers need to implement this.

3) Speaking of phones, when you’re about to go to sleep at night, you need to tell your phone to be quiet (except for the alarm, which should be loud). On BlackBerry 10 you could do this from the lock screen by drawing a shade down over the phone, putting it into Bedside Mode. Nearest I can figure, no other device allows you to do this without unlocking the phone. Lock screen Bedside Mode should’ve been copied by the other phone OSes years ago.

4) Speaking of BlackBerry 10, it still has the best text selection I’ve encountered in a phone. You want to select a paragraph of text. On Android or iPhone you press-hold until it selects a word, then you grab handles and labouriously drag them to where you want. On BB10 you press-hold until it selects a word, and then you keep holding. It selects a sentence. Keep holding. It selects a paragraph. Keep holding. It will visually start selecting further down the page until you finally release. “Expandable Text Selection” is discoverable, delightful, and useful. Phone OS developers, please implement this yesterday.

5) May as well round this off with yet another BlackBerry idea. This time, the BB10 Keyboard. You start typing a message but then realize halfway through that your wording reads as insensitive. The first half’s fine, but your phrasing went downhill six words ago. In the BB10 keyboard just swipe to the left (or right in RTL) six times. Each swipe deletes a word. Then you can start typing again. Near as I can figure, every other keyboard relies on mobile OS text selection to quickly replace more than a few letters at a time. Take this idea, keyboard developers. It’s wonderful.

That’s all for now, folks. If anyone’s surprised at how many of these are ideas from BlackBerry 10, I’d introduce you to the list I’m not writing about all of the ideas that current smartphones _already_ copied from that now-failed platform. It’s much longer.

:chutten

Leaving my BlackBerry Z10 for a Samsung Galaxy A5… Successfully¬†

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An iPhone SE wouldn’t do. There were no DTEK50s left in Canada. And it was January, 2018.

Our Z10s were five years old. Happy Birthday.

I was frustrated. I had been researching how to solve the Phone Problem for about nine months. Over the past month and a half of concerted effort I had twice tried to buy new phones and get them to work. And I had twice failed.

Defeated, I gave up trying to game the system and reluctantly worked within it. I signed up for a two-year plan. I ordered a “0$” phone. I ordered us Samsung Galaxy A5s.

Not sure you’ve heard of those? Me neither. The trademark soup of Android phone names hasn’t improved in the decade since its release.

In this particular case you might not have heard of it because it wasn’t originally supposed to show up in North America. It was going to target EMEA and LatAm only… but then some Canadian carriers made it worth Samsung’s while to bring it to the Great White North.

So how is it. It is a tidy little phone with just enough nods to the now-past (SD Card slot, headphone jack), and just enough gee whiz features (fingerprint sensor for unlock, Always On OLED screen, USB Type-C connector) to bridge our way out of BlackBerry Land.

BBM Groups works, but notification settings are a joke. The Hub is here, but it is a pale shadow of its always-available BB10 edition.

I’ve managed to find a way to install the Android edition of the BlackBerry keyboard. It is familiar enough that I’ve composed all three of these voluminous posts about phones on it. It is strange enough in the details that I still can’t get capitalization correct all of the time.

It makes a difference to me that Samsung is trying to compete with Google in enough ways that many things don’t have to default to data collection. We’re still deep in the belly of the beast, but there are holes that I can see sunlight through so long as I can find the right settings to turn off.

It has enough nice touches that make me think that maybe the Samsung devs care about their phones as much as I care about the ones which bear my code. Like how, when it’s dark, the screen fades into brightness slower than when it’s light out. There’s also all these little false-starts on the phone as well that suggests investment in the R part of R&D, like swiping the phone with the edge of your hand to screenshot. I’d never do that, and have turned it off, but you have to try things to find things that work.

Also, I’ve found a replacement for BlackBerry Blend. It has its quirks, but so did Blend, and I’m looking forward to bending it to my will.

In short, it’s a mixed bag of features poured into a big slab of glass. It’ll do. Since it has to.

So that’s that. We have now left the land of Products of Five Years Past. It is a strange world, but it’s one with Firefox in it, so it can’t be all bad, right?

I hope you’ve found these rambling diatribes of Old Man Yelling at Phone to be entertaining, educating, or at least diverting.

Here’s to having to not have to do this for another five years! (he says, ignoring a creeping sense of dread)

Leaving my BlackBerry Z10 for a BlackBerry DTEK50

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Previously in my attempts to upgrade my and my wife’s nearly five-year-old smartphones, I tried the iPhone SE. It didn’t go well. But at least there was no hurry to move off of our venerable Z10s.

And then the December update of BBM landed.

The consumer portions of BlackBerry Messenger for Android and iPhone were licensed by BlackBerry Ltd to the Indonesian communications technology company Emtek in 2017. Indonesia has a huge BBM userbase, and a huge Android userbase, so this made a lot of sense for both companies.

This left the company-formerly-known-as-Research-in-Motion with BBM Enterprise and keeping the lights on for the consumer BBM infrastructure supporting BBOS and BB10.

What this means is fragmentation. In much the same way that languages will evolve dialects when isolated, so too will previously-compatible software become incompatible.

In this particular case, the December Android and iOS BBM updated so that pictures added to BBM Groups were no longer compatible with the BB10 version of the app. This shows as a “Feature not supported” message and a link to a page that says “Upgrade to the latest BBM” if you are on Android or iOS… and “Upgrade your phone to an Android or iOS device” if you are on BB10.

I found this out when one of my friends updated his phone to a BlackBerry KeyONE and could no longer send pictures of how tall his son had gotten. (6’5″ last I heard).

That’s right. A BlackBerry couldn’t communicate with another BlackBerry. With BBM.

The irony.

This was especially painful to us as we used BBM groups as a private, self-expiring social network. At this it was quite good: we could share photos and text with small groups made up of only those who might care, and the content would scroll off the top and eventually disappear without intervention. High signal, low noise.

Our friends stopped upgrading once they heard of our troubles, but things weren’t going to get any better if we waited. So on Boxing Day I ordered two BlackBerry DTEK50s from Amazon.

BlackBerry had stopped selling these in Canada, having licensed the device hardware business to Chinese manufacturer TCL under the name BlackBerry Mobile who is interested in selling BlackBerry KeyONE handsets and preorders for the BlackBerry Motion. As such, the only DTEK50s I could find were the EMEA editions, but they supported 2600MHz LTE on Band 4, which the towers throughout the province supported quite well.

I opened the phone and plopped in a SIM and suddenly realized just how BlackBerry an Android phone could feel. I don’t think I properly accounted for how much I would miss the BlackBerry keyboard, the blinking LED for notifications… and the Hub. Having all of my messages and stuff show in a single place really is the way I’ve become used to handling the volume of emails I receive.control

(( Of course this is anathema to the app model. Heaven forfend I control messages and data from aught but the app that owns the data. APIs, what’re those? ))

So I was mostly a happy camper. The notification settings weren’t as precise as BB10’s, I could tell within a day that I was going to miss Blend, and I had almost but not quite finished mourning the loss of “headers only” email download…

But there was a problem. The phone wouldn’t connect at anything higher than HSPA+. No LTE. Weird. I checked this before I bought it. Band 4 overlaps. Right?

After spending hours holding for carrier support and hours scouring the wide Web for help, I discovered no solution. There was nothing I could try. There were no leads to run down. The phone just stubbornly refused to connect to LTE, and likely never would.

This was a deal breaker. I wasn’t going to spend hundreds of dollars on phones that didn’t work, no matter how much I pretended that I wouldn’t mind since I’m on WiFi most of the time anyway.

So back they went to Amazon.

And back I went to a BBM that wouldn’t receive group pictures from a steadily increasing number of friends and family.

Something had to be done. And soon.

:chutten