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.

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.

So I’ve Finished The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

Yes, it’s ten years old. Honestly, though, you can play just about any Zelda game between Ocarina of Time and Skyward Sword in any order and not tell the difference, given the stagnation in Zelda game design during that period.

(Yeah, it’s not gonna be a happy review)

Phantom Hourglass is a Nintendo DS release and, as such, felt it needed to use every terrible gimmick the Nintendo DS had rather than provide interesting gameplay.

From controlling everything with the woefully inaccurate and cumbersome stylus to yelling, blowing, or snapping my fingers into the microphone… a lot of this game was a tech demo for the hardware first, and a satisfying experience second.

I cannot believe that they managed to get this control scheme past an ergonomics review. My hand hurt from balancing the entire device in one hand while the other was clenched around the minuscule stylus. Smaller (younger) hands might have helped with the stylus, but then the weight would’ve been felt worse.

I felt no surprise that they ditched stylus controls after only two DS Zelda games.

On the plus side, there was some cleverness on display. One design element that stood out as being fun was having to stamp an upside-down map displayed on the top screen onto its right-side-up counterpart on the bottom screen. To do this you had to close and reopen the DS, which I thought was a cute bit of 4th-wall breaking.

Another smart mechanic was the use of the stylus to annotate maps with puzzle solution, trap locations, and other stuff. There were only a few different types of information the game tried to convey (order, shape, counts, and intersecting lines), but the freedom afforded by the mechanic was lovely, and something everyone should steal (like the “dream sequence as a music video” bit from FFXV).

So many open world games with so many maps and no way to scribble “Here be dragons”? What rot.

Zelda combat has never been particularly innovative or fun, but with gesture recognition needed before Link would swing his sword it felt worse than usual. It was clumsy, awkward, and not something I felt I could count on.

There was a fairy avatar to tell the player what the ever-silent protagonist was thinking (rather defeating the purpose), and to irritate you with constant interruption. All the criticisms of Navi still apply.

The dungeons were straightforward, concerned more with having me go through the motions than presenting me with meaningful choices, challenges, or character/story moments. I’ll refer you to Mark Brown if you’d like a more analytical deep dive on the subject.

Exploration was rarely rewarded with anything of value. (You got 100 rupees! I’ll add them to the 800 others I can’t find anything to spend on).

At least the director of the cut scenes understood how to have fun. Playing with the characters, having fun with visual jokes in the background, subverting Zelda tropes by cutting short or modulating the “I’ve found a thing!” music… possibly the best aspect of this game, purely from whimsy.

And that’s really as far as I feel I need to write into this game. I could go on for ages about how awful the controls were every time they were used in variation. I could complain that time limits didn’t tonally fit the world or dungeon and seem like cheap tension. I could whine about how long everything by ship took, and how fiddly the salvage controls were.

But, honestly, I’ve given this game more words than it probably deserves. It’s a post-Link to the Past pre-Breath of the Wild Zelda game. I probably could’ve just stopped there.

:/

 

So I’ve Finished Final Fantasy XV

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(Spoilers may lie within for a game that’s a year old.)

For a game that obviously had a lot of time (10 years!), effort, and money dumped into it… it feels unfortunately uneven.

The story, though standard Final Fantasy fare, is told poorly enough that characters react emotionally to situations that haven’t been earned, the player is forced to have her character make decisions without knowledge that her character has, and injects a person from the tie-in movie in a prominent part of the endgame without having ever, in the plot or the story, meeting the player character.

I like a good mystery. I like plots that surface only about a tenth of a world’s lore. I’m happy to think about questions posed by the narrative, and intrigued by the choices made by writers and directors about what pieces to include and which to omit.

This isn’t that. I mean it is, in places. I don’t need and didn’t receive a cutscene and backing barks about how Ifrit was the one who wrought the Starscourge. That’s a fine piece of information to put in an in-game codex or tie-in novel or whatever.

At the very least you must give the player time with secondary characters before fridging them if you want an emotional response. I didn’t know who Jared was before you killed him. The only reason I knew he was important was because the main characters became mopey-faced when they heard of his off-screen demise. And for the relationship in the game’s own logo I only have the characters’ words to go by to determine how much Noctis and Luna loved each other despite never being in the same place for ten years. But boy howdy was her death rendered beautifully and with excellent scoring.

If it were just the story that was uneven, I’d still be upset. But this unevenness extends throughout the title.

Barks during the fishing minigame are timed to the wrong events; only half of the casual conversations have lip-syncing; you can only have one “Kill <some monster(s)> and get <some reward(s)>” quest active at once; the control schemes for Chocobo riding, car driving, and walking all have different buttons for jump; the map doesn’t zoom in far enough to discriminate icons in town; the fog of war on dungeon maps only shows on the full map not the minimap…

I work in software. I know how bugs creep into release. But the only reason I can think of to explain three different jump buttons and unmarkable maps with different sort orders on quest lists is that Squenix ignores their interaction designers.

Story and mechanics aren’t the whole of it either: Final Fantasy XV’s representation of healthy male relationships is above anything I can remember from any Final Fantasy title. They even cry together, our roadtrip boys… if you wait midway through the credits for it. Yet relationships with women are tropish, boring, and underwritten. Despite the backlash Square Enix received after Episode Duscae (the first of the playable demos) they declined to design Cindy some mechanics coveralls or exclude superfluous car washing scenes. Iris is a schoolgirl stereotype the game cannot decide whether I’m attracted to, embarrassed by, or protective of. Luna is a damsel no matter how much we’re told her actions drive the plot. Aranea is a spinny death machine that battles in heels and bared midriff (though she almost has a character arc)…

You might think in reading this that I didn’t have fun playing FFXV and didn’t enjoy the game. I did, really… It’s beautiful, the four main characters have acceptable chemistry, story actions have story consequences, the battle system is fast and reasonably fun, the minigames are diverting, they finally learned how to communicate enemy scale, and did I mention it’s beautiful?

But when Dragon Age: Inquisition can, two years and one console generation earlier, “Open World” better that a mainline Final Fantasy… I just wonder what went wrong.

Data Science is Hard: Units

I like units. Units are fun. When playing with Firefox Telemetry you can get easy units like “number of bookmarks per user” and long units like “main and content but not content-shutdown crashes per thousand usage hours“.

Some units are just transformations of other units. For instance, if you invert the crash rate units (crashes per usage hours) you get something like Mean Time To Failure where you can see how many usage hours there are between crashes. In the real world of Canada I find myself making distance transformations between miles and kilometres and temperature transformations between Fahrenheit and Celsius.

My younger brother is a medical resident in Canada and is slowly working his way through the details of what it would mean to practice medicine in Canada or the US. One thing that came up in conversation was the unit differences.

I thought he meant things like millilitres being replaced with fluid ounces or some other vaguely insensible nonsense (I am in favour of the metric system, generally). But no. It’s much worse.

It turns out that various lab results have to be communicated in terms of proportion. How much cholesterol per unit of blood? How much calcium? How much sugar, insulin, salt?

I was surprised when my brother told me that in the United States this is communicated in grams. If you took all of the {cholesterol, calcium, sugar, insulin, salt} out of the blood and weighed it on a (metric!) scale, how much is there?

In Canada, this is communicated in moles. Not the furry animal, but the actual count of molecules. If you took all of the substance out of the blood and counted the molecules, how many are there?

So when you are trained in one system to recognize “good” (typical) values and “bad” (atypical) values, when you shift to the other system you need to learn new values.

No problem, right? Like how you need to multiply by 1.6 to get kilometres out of miles?

No. Since grams vs moles is a difference between “much” and “many” you need to apply a different conversion depending on the molecular weight of the substance you are measuring.

So, yes, there is a multiple you can use for cholesterol. And another for calcium. And another for sugar, yet another for insulin, and still another for salt. It isn’t just one conversion, it’s one conversion per substance.

Suddenly “crashes per thousand usage hours” seems reasonable and sane.

:chutten