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by adam mathes
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Video Game Consumption Q4 2017

I played a lot more games at the end of 2017. I even liked some of them!

Shadowhand

From the makers of Regency Solitaire, one of my favorites, I have been looking forward to this game for a while.

It did not disappoint.

I’m not sure how to explain the pure joy of an RPG-battle solitaire game set in 1800’s England.

But it’s good. It’s very good.

I love it. (It’s a little too hard by default but the developers listened and added an easier mode. I play on the hardest mode now.)

★★★★★

Valley

This game is so beautiful, and the visceral feel of motion and fun in the gameplay and level design was so satisfying and fun.

The plot and story mostly works as a way to propel things forward. I really liked this.

I love contained, complete, well crafted 5 hour games like this. I want more of that. Most games don’t need more than 5 hours to tell their story and provide a compelling and memorable time.

★★★★

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

It’s a weird world that we live in that a 2017 over-the-top FPS alt-history of Nazis winning WWII and Americans rebelling agains them in the US is unexpectedly politically poignant.

The scariest parts of the game aren’t any of the action sequences, but the quiet bits of seeing Nazis and Klu Klux Klan members in charge on alt-history streets of the US.

The New Order was amazing, and The New Colossus suffers for it by trying too hard to do different, crazier, more over the top stuff, while gameplay and level design overall doesn’t feel as solid.

Enjoyable and memorable.

★★★★

Cuphead

Cuphead looks great but is too hard. I didn’t really have fun with it. I got to the end but didn’t beat all the levels on the “hard” difficulty so don’t get to play the end boss? Lame.

It’s a throwback in a lot of ways – it felt like it was substituting difficulty as a way to lengthen an experience (an aspect of 80’s games I’m happy to leave behind.)

I’m glad Cuphead exists and is successful because I hope it encourages more games to experiment with visual styles but overall I was kind of like, meh.

★★★

A Golden Wake

I pretty much always love Wadjet Eye games, which are basically new “classic” adventure games.

Despite a really promising context (the roaring 20’s and the development of Florida!) But the art, story, and puzzles in this one just weren’t that interesting to me.

Basically, I wanted this game to be Gold Rush! but it wasn’t.

Although I’ve just now found out that the rights reverted to the original authors and Gold Rush was remade in 2014 and there’s a 2017 Gold Rush 2 so maybe if I wanted Gold Rush! I could have just played Gold Rush! (How did I miss that?)

Uh, anyway, A Golden Wake – ok-ish.

★★

Tacoma

From the creators of Gone Home, I was excited to play this.

But where Gone Home enabled storytelling through setting, and exploring items, Tacoma is a sci-fi context where in addition to exploring and looking at items, you “replay” the actions of the inhabitants of a space station via an augmented reality mechanic and read their digital screens.

This has the unfortunate effect of making it feel like you’re watching a play (with the actors portrayed as blobs) rather than being an active participant in solving anything.

Gone Home evoked a ton of emotion in me as I played it – I felt nothing as I played Tacoma, sadly.

Tacoma looks great but the writing, mechanics, and overall game just didn’t work for me.

★★

Obduction

The thing is – I don’t like Myst so I should have known this was a mistake.

But it looked so cool!

Anyway, I don’t have the patience for this. Not just the puzzles, but at one point I got annoyed and looked at a walkthrough and saw how to solve it but literally the load times and constant back and forth through “worlds” to solve the puzzle made me quit the game. (Turns out I was pretty close to the end, so just watched a video of it.)

2018

For 2018 I quit Twitter. I guess so I could focus on my craft?

Something like that. I mean, you’d understand if you were reading the mailing list.

Maybe you wouldn’t understand. I don’t even know if I understand.

Look, it’s 2018, and blogs are dead and uncool again so I’m all for them. Let’s do some links. Was that ever a thing I did? I don’t even remember. I think that was in the 90’s before I declared this a “web site” and not a “web log” but, I mean, whatever.

It’s fine.

Probably.

Let’s just throw in links from my reading list every week and see if that’s a thing. Maybe that’s a thing I do now in 2018? We’ll see.

· · ·

small scale tech manifesto

But software doesn’t belong exclusively to corporations, and the success–or at least prevalence–of the free software movement means that we have ample building blocks to use for our own ends. We aren’t starting from scratch, and we can choose to build, and use, tools that support our needs and our values.

We can’t magically will about the resources of a multi-billion dollar company, but we can make different decisions and choose different trade-offs.

· · ·

Chris Rock’s 1996 SNL monologue transcript

I was thinking about this (22 year old!) monologue recently because of how so much of it is both incredibly dated and timely simultaneously. Comedy is weird like that.

· · ·

AI-Assisted Fake Porn Is Here and We’re All Fucked

There’s a video of Gal Gadot having sex with her stepbrother on the internet. But it’s not really Gadot’s body, and it’s barely her own face. It’s an approximation, face-swapped to look like she’s performing in an existing incest-themed porn video.

The video was created with a machine learning algorithm, using easily accessible materials and open-source code that anyone with a working knowledge of deep learning algorithms could put together.

The massive semi-public databases of imagery and video of not just celebrity but normal human beings that is being created and stored now is going to be used in unanticipated ways. (How many years of publicly available photos/videos will be needed to create a believable enough 3D model that can then be manipulated programmatically in real time? Will it be ethical to create synthetic VR versions of celebrities to do as we please with? What about interacting with a programmatic version of a dead loved one?)

· · ·

Some excerpts from recent Alan Kay emails

It strikes me that many of the tech billionaires have already gotten their “upside” many times over from people like Engelbart and other researchers who were supported by ARPA, Parc, ONR, etc. Why would they insist on more upside, and that their money should be an “investment”? That isn’t how the great inventions and fundamental technologies were created that eventually gave rise to the wealth that they tapped into after the fact.

· · ·

Why Trump’s War on the Deep State Is Failing—So Far

This is banana-republic-type stuff. One year into Trump’s term in office, his character has not changed. The president of the United States—as John Bellinger warned as early as December 2015 and as I elaborated on in March of 2016—remains the principal threat in the world to the national security of the United States. His aspirations are as profoundly undemocratic and hostile to the institutions of democratic governance as they have ever been. He announces as much in interview after interview, in tweet after tweet. The president has not changed, and he will not change. Whether he has grown or will grow is not even an interesting question.

The interesting question, one year in, is how the apparatus of democratic government is weathering his onslaught. The answer to this question is complicated but, I think, ultimately encouraging.

Perpetual Volatility

At this point in my adulthood I should probably have an advisor who distributes my assets across a basket of currencies, short term cash equivalents, high risk equities, low risk bonds, cryptocurrency I don’t understand, global real estate trusts, pretentious art, and 1980’s X-Men comics.

I don’t.

Also I don’t know if I believe in the economy because for my adult life it has either been “one step away from massive recession and or great depression” (2002~, 2008~) or “high as a kite via crazy asset bubbles” (199x-2001,2004-2007, 2015–?) and I studied enough history to know that the boom/bust cycle was actually the norm until the great depression brought in major financial reforms, but then the US government repealed Glass-Steagall, enabling further consolidation in the financial system and setting us up for perpetual volatility.

I was thinking about this as I watched the first episodes of Stranger Things with my wife, who does not quite share my appreciation for 1980’s pop culture. (Probably because she was busy doing smarter things as a child, like reading books, while I watched Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends re-runs for the 100th time.

I didn’t really appreciate the 80’s when I was living in them, but in retrospect, they were probably the apex of post-war Pax Americana and the last decade before the exponential growth in computer technology made us all feel perpetually unready for the future now, even though I’m probably as qualified to be a cyberpunk post-apocalyptic hacker hiding in a national library as anyone.

Anyway, my wife prefers 90’s culture over 80’s, which led to me monologuing –

“The 80’s were great. All the 90’s had was the repeal of Glass–Steagall and the commercialization of the internet, both of which are directly leading to the downfall of Western civilization.”

Anyway, I think that’s a good line and I hope everyone uses it in conversations.

Crossed Animals

It’s been a tough couple of weeks. I guess it’s been a tough year.

· · ·

“Don’t try to write great stuff, just write actual stuff.”

At least that’s what I’ve been trying to tell myself, because I kept drafting and throwing out things for my mailing list and not posting anything on my site because.

Anyway, maybe some of it is salvageable.

Like that time I got upset about the new Animal Crossing.

· · ·

I tweeted about it but I delete things too quickly via software. Luckily there’s an archive.

An unorganized, text only archive, because, um, Unix philosophy? I don’t know.

$ grep -i "animal crossing" deleted_tweets.txt | less

i dream of doing my version of “the artist is present” where it’s me streaming animal crossing for 30 days non-stop

That’s not it, keep grepping.

animal crossing is esports

Hard to believe that one didn’t go viral. Also not it. Here we go –

Are we as a people spiritually ready to accept Animal Crossing for mobile into our lives?

i am watching this animal crossing pocket camp video and i’m super concerned

IN MY DAY FISHING IN ANIMAL CROSSING WAS MEDITATIVE AND WE LIKED IT

i should not care this much about animal crossing

animal crossing using real currency is some terrifying dystopian shit

couldn’t nintendo have made an animal crossing that wasn’t microtransaction addictionware

you guys think this is a joke but i’m actually pretty serious about microtransactions and real money destroying the feel of animal crossing

Many people then replied to say they know I am deadly serious about Animal Crossing.

If even Nintendo unable to stand against the forces of evil and is going to make microtransaction addictionware for smartphones is there any hope for this dimension.

Q3 2017 Video Game Consumption

There was only one game for me the last few months.

Rez Infinite

Rez Infinite on Steam

I originally played Rez on Dreamcast in college.

I bootlegged it and burned it to compact disc because it had only been released in Japan or something and I was a college student with a less strict view of intellectual property in 2001. (Also, I had faster internet 16 years ago than today.)

The bootleg version crashed when I beat the game. I never saw the ending or unlocked Beyond Mode. I played Rez enough to knew I loved it. But I didn’t really experience Rez.

· · ·

I finally bought a PS2 way late, in 2004, and bought Rez (which was hard to find in the US.)

I played it deeply since it didn’t like, crash at the end when you unlock all the new stuff.

I experienced Rez. I loved Rez.

· · ·

Rez is a rail shooter – which is a genre that barely even exists anymore. Enemies come at you, and your character moves “on rails” through a 3D environment.

But you just focus on shooting things quickly.

Rez is a rail shooter that takes place in a computer. You are a hacker trying to purge a system, but the story is, it doesn’t matter.

(It does matter, but that’s… we don’t have time for that.)

What matters is that unlike normal sound effects and music, Rez invokes a near synesthesia by tightly coupling the sound, electronic music, vibration, and gameplay.

It’s the details and the multi sensory interactivity coming together that makes it… unique.

· · ·

*Rez*HD for XBox 360 Live came out in 2008.

I experienced Rez again.

But I began to practice Rez.

I would play Direct Assault mode (which takes about an hour) every day after work for days on end.

I unlocked pretty much everything I never got to 100% on the Level 5 to get pink butterflies because I’m not insane or that good, but I did become a Morolian which is its own amazing form of a true happy ending.

· · ·

Almost a decade later, in June of 2017 I decided I needed to play Rez again. I began with a Dreamcast emulator on my PC because I had no way to easily play XBLA games - and it’s funny because 16 years later a bootlegged copy running in a virtual Dreamcast doesn’t crash when I beat it, so I could continue on to Beyond mode.

Life is very strange sometimes.

Some people meditate when they want to find inner truth and peace in times of need but for me I reached for a game that was designed as a synesthesia art project and eventually shipped a vibrator accessory.

But, earnestly, because it was my practice.

And I beat it again, many times, because I needed to.

· · ·

Then, out of nowhere, Rez Infinite (which was a PS4 exclusive, thus inaccessible to me) was announced and immediately released for PC, with VR support.

There are so few genuine surprises in life anymore, and even fewer that fill me with pure joy.

This was one of them.

· · ·

Rez Infinite enables Rez to be played at higher resolutions and on PC, but most importantly, it enables VR support on HTC Vive (which I own.)

I’ve written a little about VR but, in some ways, all my experiences with VR weren’t important before **RezInfinite.

In VR, Rez isn’t a practice or a thing to even know or love.

Rez Infinite is Rez. But I’m in it.

It’s everywhere. All around me.

I am Rez.

You are Rez, when you’re there.

We are a way for Rez to know itself.

· · ·

The mechanics within VR made Rez– which at times had been a frustratingly difficult experience that I memorized and wrote into my brain and damaged my thumbs and made my eyes water – easier. Natural. At times almost trivial.

By fully immersing myself – by becoming one with Rez – I could do almost anything in the game.

(I saw the butterfly ending on my first playthrough.)

And it was even more satisfying and amazing than the first time I played the bootleg 16 years ago.

My heart swells every time I hear Fear in Level 5.

Fear is the mind killer.

· · ·

Rez was a masterpiece.

Rez Infinite is a master work, fully realized, that somehow presaged a new medium and makes better use of it than most works birthed in the VR era.

I needed it to exist, and I’m grateful that it does.

People debate video games as art, but it’s hard to explain that Rez Infinite as art is almost missing the point. It’s just beyond our normal understanding of experiences.

★★★★★

Lost Time On Titlebars

Let’s pretend during a weekend of record heat I decided the best use of my time is to create a MacOS desktop of terminals and editors with less chrome and a more consistent color scheme.

Well, we don’t have to pretend.

Window Management

Amethyst is a tiling window manager. It’s great.

Alternatives –

  • kwm and its successor chunkwm but I’ve always found the setup and usage too complicated
  • use XQuartz and i3 or dwm or something, but I want to be able to use MacOS apps, not just X stuff

Minimal System Chrome

Hide the menu and dock by default.

System Preferences > Dock > Automatically hide and show the Dock

System Preferences > General > Automatically hide and show the menu bar

It’s pretty hard to get rid of MacOS system adornments like title bars, or change to square windows.

So I just changed the background to a solid image color to fake it.

Editor

I rely on Aquamacs as my primary editor. I love it.

To import and set the theme via .emacs –

; tomorrow night theme
(load "~/emacs/color-theme-tomorrow.el")
(color-theme-tomorrow-night-blue)

Natural Title Bars

I adapted the “natural title bars” from these patches –

Natural-Title-Bars

title-bar-patch

– into my fork of the Aquamacs source tree.

I didn’t integrate it into Aquamacs UI, because, uhh, I don’t know how to do that.

So instead, we drop to a terminal for –

defaults write org.gnu.Aquamacs TransparentTitleBar DARK

Great! Now we have an Emacs for MacOS that has a transparent title bar, and all we had to do was create a 200mb binary from source code and set NSUserDefaults from the command line.

Colored Tab Bar

But the tab bar doesn’t match the title bar and it’s like, why even bother if we’re not going to finish this.

Luckily it’s customizable, because everything in emacs is.

Added to .emacs to change the colors of the tabs to match my theme –

(require 'tabbar)
;; Tabbar settings
(set-face-attribute
 'tabbar-default nil
 :background "#002451"
 :foreground "#ffffff"
 :box '(:line-width 1 :color "#002451" :style nil))
(set-face-attribute
 'tabbar-unselected nil
 :background "#002451"
 :foreground "#ffffff"
 :box '(:line-width 5 :color "#002451" :style nil))
(set-face-attribute
 'tabbar-selected nil
 :background "#003f8e"
 :foreground "#ffffff"
 :box '(:line-width 5 :color "#002451" :style nil))
(set-face-attribute
 'tabbar-highlight nil
 :background "#002451"
 :foreground "#ffffff"
 :underline nil
 :box '(:line-width 5 :color "#002451" :style nil))
(set-face-attribute
 'tabbar-button nil
 :box '(:line-width 1 :color "#002451" :style nil))
(set-face-attribute
 'tabbar-separator nil
 :background "#ff9da4"
 :height 0.6)
(tabbar-mode 1)

A Brief Diversion into iTerm2

I normally use the stock Terminal.app but you can change color of iTerm2 title bars with proprietary escape codes!

Like this –

#!/bin/sh

echo -e "\033]6;1;bg;red;brightness;0\a"
echo -e "\033]6;1;bg;green;brightness;36\a"
echo -e "\033]6;1;bg;blue;brightness;81\a"
clear

The problem is iTerm2 is slow.

Turns out iTerm2 feels significantly laggier than good old Terminal.app.

This is actually not my imagination, you can benchmark it.

In fact, pretty much all of the “cool” terminals like Hyper.sh are insanely slow. I don’t know how any of you guys use Hyper. Or any of these weird electron/javascript/frankenstein native/web apps, really.

Back to Emacs

Anyway those results made me think I should try to embrace eshell in my emacs of choice.

Eshell

Emacs (and thus Aquamacs) offers a number of terminal and terminal-alikes. Including but probably not limited to shell, eshell, term, and ansi-term.

shell is the minimal one for little mini-buffers and things, you probably don’t want that.

term and ansi-term function as terminals, but seem just different enough to not work the way you want the minute you like ssh somewhere.

eshell is the weirdest and most interesting and I’ve been trying to grok it. Everyone knows that your shell and editor are separate, but what eshell pre-supposes is, maybe they aren’t?

Like everything in emacs, I will never truly embrace and understand it because of my distaste for Lisp.

So I spent like an hour figuring out how to customize the prompt and other bits to something saner –

;; eshell
(setq eshell-prompt-function
      (lambda nil
        (concat
         (eshell/whoami)
         "@"
         car (split-string (system-name) "\\.")
         ":"
         (abbreviate-file-name (eshell/pwd))
         "$ ")))
(setq eshell-prompt-regexp ".*$ ")
(setq eshell-highlight-prompt nil)

(defun m-eshell-mode-hook ()
  (setenv "TERM" "xterm-color")
  (setenv "PAGER" "cat")
  )

(add-hook 'eshell-mode-hook 'm-eshell-mode-hook)

term feels slowish, especially over ssh, which got me to finally figure out how to use tramp mode for remote editing. Which is nice.

eshell does feel responsive, mostly, except when you output a ton of text. Being able to edit commands, pipe to buffers, there’s something interesting to it, but it’s… weird.

Getting used to using Aquamacs frames/windows instead of Terminal.app windows is also kind of icky.

Who knows if I’ll stick with it – when it’s 105° out you make questionable decisions.

Conclusion

But it looks cool?

OpenBSD – As Little Unix As Possible

Operating systems, like religion or politics, is a subject best not discussed in polite society.

But why let that stop me. Anyway, sorry in advance.

· · ·

After a few months of tinkering I finally switched the server that powers this web site and my various remaining projects from Ubuntu to OpenBSD and it’s great. I love it.

Really, it’s great.

I’d like to claim this was a serious decision and not merely bike shedding. (Which is a popular geek term to refer to Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, which was popularized by the more popular than OpenBSD FreeBSD community.)

I’d also like to claim everything on my server is still working and not going to break.

Those claims are not verifiable.

Anyway.

Linux used to feel like the contrarian alternative OS for discerning computer enthusiasts but now that Linux powers the Android phones that half the world keeps in their pocket it feels less like an act of rebellion to use it and more the OS of choice for corporate super states. So probably this like 80% fashion and 5% post-facto rationalization and 15% completely legitimate rationales.

· · ·

Everything about modern operating systems is basically impossible and incomprehensible, as a general rule.

That’s what makes OpenBSD so great. It really breaks that rule.

The Incoherence of Modern Linux

I run my own Unix server and web sites and programs and experiments for fun.

Fun for me is taking things from idea to software, learning how stuff works, making computers do interesting things, and creating and sharing stuff.

Depending on what I’m doing I want to get into the “guts” of things and be close to the machine.

I’ve been using Linux in various ways on desktops and servers for 20 years. (I first used Red Hat linux the summer of 1997 during high school, after spending a weird summer getting a taste of overpriced Sun Workstations.)

But the last few years of using Ubuntu on this server have felt off.

Maybe it was the second time Ubuntu changed init systems and I had to learn yet another one. Or maybe when I looked at top and didn’t recognize a bunch of stuff. (Mostly systemd’s processes and dependencies and god knows what else Ubuntu has on by default.)

Linux has always sort of seemed like a beautiful mess – and never particularly coherent, but it never bothered me that much, until recently.

Recently, I’ve just been kind of annoyed with it. It feels – nonsensical.

Minimal Viable Unix

OpenBSD takes a different approach.

It’s quiet. Things are off by default. You have to figure out how to turn them on, and in the process learn enough about them to run them responsibly.

The initial set of “base” software is spartan by modern standards, but more than enough to do what I need. Installing software from ports and packages is straightforward.

When I look at the process list, there are no surprises.

It’s just enough operating system.

Coherence

Things don’t happen unexpectedly.

The system follows the principle of least astonishment. Things are predictable, in a good way.

The filesystem hierarchy makes sense.

The installer is text based and runs in a few minutes.

Releases happen regularly, every six months.

It all comes together and feels solid and coherent, rather than just disparate unrelated pieces.

Reading through Absolute OpenBSD: UNIX for the Practical Paranoid, I felt like I grokked what was going on..

Sane Documentation

People mention the quality of OpenBSD documentation, but it was hard to realize how bad things were in Linux or MacOS or other places until I started to use a system with really good, well written, comprehensive man pages.

Rather than futzing around on the web with varying sources of questionable quality, or reading manual pages that that too often are inconsistent with the actual working version of the software, OpenBSD man pages just work and are great.

It’s the first system where reading the manual seems to not just be reasonable advice to start, but most of the advice you’d need to solve the bulk of problems.

Continuity

In an alternate reality I became a weird grizzled systems administrator, but in this world I’m a product manager who tinkers with this stuff on the side.

I’m tired of the operating system I use feeling like shifting sand – arbitrarily changing things and breaking and being inconsistent.

I don’t need my Unix server to break backwards compatibility every few years in random, unpredictable ways, I want it to have some stability and continuity over the years in how it works and how I maintain it.

I’m not averse to learning new things and adopting new technologies, but I want it to be for valid reasons, not just a random walk wherever the whims of some random corporate benefactor lead.

I want /etc/motd work as expectednot be a descent into madness.

Security

Systemd may possibly be an NSA Plot.

I mean, probably not? But if the software you rely on is so confusing people think that may be a reasonable explanation for its complexity, that seems worrisome. (Remember when I said operating systems were like religion or politics and apologized in advance? Now it makes sense, right?)

The biggest security flaw in any system I’m using is generally me and the software I write, not low level operating system exploits, so security is not really my focus.

I appreciate OpenBSD’s focus on security, mostly because it leads to making the system easier, more coherent, and better. A focus on minimizing risk, attack surface, and making coherent, understandable, robust systems seems to have led the project to a good place.

Why Not

Hardware compatibility – some hardware appears to be harder to get working (or, purposefully doesn’t work as a result of not taking close source binary blobs to get some things working). This doesn’t matter to me on servers, but does matter to me on a desktop (I’ve in too deep with MacOS, Thunderbolt 3, and this stupid 5k monitor I bought.

Performance – me and my personal projects are extremely unpopular so this is not really an issue for me. If you are working on something where scale and performance at the OS level actually matter, you probably have strong feelings about which Linux kernel you’re using and low level optimizations and file systems and things I don’t worry about. OpenBSD performance is fine for me.

Virtualization – support for OpenBSD in modern VPS hosts is a bit rarer. Vultr is probably the easiest to get it working. I managed to get it to work on Linode but that is probably more trouble than its worth.

Updates – things can be slightly more complicated than apt-get upgrade, though you can get pretty close if you try.

Support – OpenBSD doesn’t seem intended to solve everyone’s problems, or be the most accessible or easy to start or use software, and the community is a lot less interested than (for example) the 90’s linux community about convincing anyone to use their software. (IE, people are smart and helpful but you probably can’t expect the same support from the software or small community compared to some of the alternatives.) Which is fine, for me, but if you’re just trying to figure out how to use Unix for the first time, maybe just stick with Ubuntu.

Or go with OpenBSD because it’ll be cooler and more interesting and make more sense and everyone will be like “wtf” when you tell them that’s what you use.

Further Reading

Canonical Books For Product Managers

This is a first attempt at creating a canon of books for product managers in technology companies.

This is not a value judgment that these are necessarily the “best” books or a comprehensive list – but a clear declaration that these are influential enough that being familiar with the ideas, concepts, and vocabulary represented is relevant to effective product management.

It is a value judgment in the sense that I have read and recommend them.

The Design of Everyday Things

Pioneered or popularized concepts like “affordances” along with a highly useful framework for thinking about usability, design, and the evaluation of products. This is the one book above all others I recommend for those looking to understand and develop product, design, and usability insight.

The Mythical Man-Month

Why is software development hard? Why is nothing ever on time? Why doesn’t adding more engineers to a stalled project accelerate it? Will we ever get better at any of it? These essays by Brooks exploring these issues have turned out to be both prescient, timeless, and a fascinating time capsule as decades have gone by. Software is still fundamentally about conceptual integrity, managing complexity, and the nonlinear increase in communication that comes with large scale software.

High Output Management

Something of a cult classic in Silicon Valley now, this is a surprisingly practical guide to management. How should someone who has an infinitely large possible space of work prioritize? (Answer: understand what high leverage activities are, and do those.) There’s something oddly satisfying in the simplicity and clear guidance – I’ve found it tremendously useful as I take on more direct people management roles in my career.

The C Programming Language

If you want to understand the technological underpinnings of pretty much our entire modern computing infrastructure, you should understand UNIX and C. I firmly believe there is no better book about any programming language than K&R. The book in many ways mirrors the language it documents – simple but powerful, straightforward but opinionated, and concise.

The Innovator’s Dilemma

You’ve probably heard something called “disruptive” a billion times by now. A few of them actually reflect the distinction between sustaining and disruptive innovations as defined here, but after reading this, you’ll know the difference.

Backed by extensive case studies and quantitative research, The Innovator’s Dilemma posits that the reasons great companies soar, plateau, and then decline is rarely due to bad management or incompetence. Instead, it is because highly qualified managers apply decision making criteria and processes that all but guarantee the next innovation will be more likely to thrive outside the current successful business.

In many ways the follow-up “The Innovator’s Solution” encompasses the first book but has more practical advice on how to positively effect organizations to compensate for these issues.

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses

Vanity metrics, learning milestones, pivots, growth engines – The Lean Startup began by applying the Toyota Way (lean manufacturing) concepts to technology products and software, but goes on to define and document a very coherent approach to rapid product and business model ideation, iteration, measurement, and growth. This is another one where you should probably read the source material since you’ve likely heard these things misapplied a dozen times in bad blog posts and offhand.

Video Game Consumption Q2 2017

I abandoned a lot more games and returned them these past few months than previously because apparently I hate video games right now, mostly.

Thimbleweed Park

Ron Gilbert set out to make a game that felt like a “lost” Lucasarts adventure and succeeded at that and beyond. It’s a great game. It may spend a bit too much time in self-aware nostalgia for some players, but the writing, puzzles, wit, and charm more than make up for it.

And also you can turn the in-jokes off with a menu option, along with changing toilet paper orientation and fonts.

Kickstarter nostalgia-fueled adventure game revivals tend to just be heartbreaking disappointments, this is the exception.

★★★★

Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

The Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney sequel nobody asked for but turns out we all needed, and they had to brand as Phoenix Wright this time.

A 3DS-digital-download only in the US until Capcom decides to sell this on iOS for a fraction of the price, this is probably the most difficult of the legally available in the US Ace Attorney games to play (you’ll need a 3DS, but really, if you never got a 3DS go now and get a New 2DS XL, you deserve it.)

Anyway, as always, Ace Attorney games are the best things in the world and and I’m glad we exist in a piece of the multiverse with them.

★★★★★

Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth

Previously, I meant “Phoenix Wright” games are the best. “Ace Attorney” games featuring Miles Edgeworth are actually just pretty good, not the best in the world.

It’s clear they were hampered by trying to distinguish from the “main” entrants in the series, and so tried to add in some third-person adventure-game style gameplay in addition to the dialog but that doesn’t work that well.

The “combining logic” and clues in Edgeworth’s head is a neat idea, but is somewhat convoluted in practice.

But it’s still Ace Attorney – writing, wit, characters, and weirdness is all there.

★★★★

Star Trek: Bridge Crew

It’s Star Trek VR! Finally. We as a people have accomplished that.

It’s easy to get very in-character playing, as you’re talking to the crew in multiplayer. And to get loud and animated.

Star Trek Bridge Crew actually has voice recognition even in single player so you can give verbal orders to the crew! Not just multiplayer.

I mean, I wasn’t actually using that or playing multiplayer when my wife asked me what was going on with all the noise, but I could have been.

Like all of our current “first gen” VR experience we will laugh at how awkward and ludicrous they are when the technology gets better, and this is as awkward as they come. You can forgive it because it’s star trek but it is sort of objectively meh to and use a simulated touchscreen in VR with HTC Vive controls, and it’s JJ Abtrams Trek, not real Next Gen or DS-trek.

★★★

Prey

This is the spiritual successor to System Shock 2 that I thought I always wanted but the amount of jump scares from furniture and cups and inanimate objects turning into terrifying aliens in the first 2 hours made it impossible for me to continue.

At some point I think I’ll figure out a way to play this – it seems like it would be good?

?

Cave Story

Seems weird that I never completed Cave Story (I remember getting annoyed with some part of many years ago and losing interest.)

Anyway, despite buying and trying to play Cave Story+ it turns out playing the original pixelated version at 16x9 using nxengine-evo was much more pleasing.

I get that it’s pretty good, and the art, sound, and design are great – it has character, but I don’t quite see why it has achieved such a cult following.

★★★

The Case for Freeing MacOS

Professionals and power users have been upset with Apple’s high end computers for some time, but the last six months it’s come to a boiling point.

I don’t think much in the last round of updates will change that.

I’ve worked enough in big companies to understand the external perception and internal reality diverges a lot more than people know, so it’s hard to know how this happened.

I’m not particularly interested in the explanations – for me the interesting point is one of strategic misalignment and the opportunity for Apple to do something really bold to address it.

Why Pros Are Angry

Basically, if you want the absolute fastest processing and graphical power, you are hampered if you want high power, high thermal, desktop computing. Apple isn’t just losing on a price/performance perspective – in some cases it’s not even competing anymore. The 2013 Mac Pro essentially being not updated for years is the most grievous offense, but the more recent MacBook Pro without decent GPUs or keyboards and instead idiotic touch UIs is just offensive to those of us who actually work on computers for a living.

Exhibit 1 – The 2016 MacBook Pro

Exhibit 2 – The 2013 Mac Pro is ancient

Exhibit 3 – The 201x Mac Pro Announcement “coming next year-ish maybe!”

Exhibit 4 – The Hackintosh

Basically, people are unhappy, and often the best option is to make an illegal hacked up machine from parts that has better performance. Or just use a Windows/Linux PC with better components.

What Is The Point Of The Mac

Today Apple is, from a business perspective, an iPhone company.

The iPhone is the most successful consumer product in the history of consumer products in just about any objective measure. It is unclear if or when we will ever see another consumer product as successful in my lifetime.

Given what I understand of Apple’s functional internal structure (rather than business units) – one would expect all the other product lines to suffer as Apple puts more and more of their efforts into the business that makes all their other businesses seem small.

Interesting is that in my experience this is true even if benevolant management recognizes this as a problem and tries to adjust staffing / compensation / priorities to invest in other things. Because the potential rewards and recognition from working on “winning” supported projects end up influencing individual’s project decisions, this can be challenging. The rich get richer in that successful projects attract better talent. See also: The Innovator’s Dilemma

People like me look at the Mac as a general purpose computer with which to do interesting things (write, program, create art, type in terminal windows for a few decades). Historically the Mac has been Apple’s primary product that is created and sold at high margins.

The problem is that isn’t the Mac’s purpose anymore from a macro business perspective – it’s to support the iPhone.

The purpose of the Mac is to enable the creation of software and content experiences that make iPhones better.

And since the current market scale between laptops, smartphones, and new devices and experiences is unlikely to change, this is likely the reality for the next decade. There will be more smartphone users than computer users, and they will have a faster upgrade cycle. It’s a market that makes others seem tiny.

So it may be time to embrace that reality.

(Note that this equation changes if iPhones/iPads become platforms to create iOS software, but there’s been little to indicate that is planned in the near term.)

Apple Trucks

When computer products are compared to automobiles, the trite analogy now is that desktop and laptop computers like the Mac are trucks, while smartphones and tablets are cars.

Most people just need a car. Sometimes you might need a truck for specific purposes. Businesses need trucks.

The analogous problem here is that Apple’s car business is so large it seems almost irrational to care about the trucks.

But you need the trucks to make cars – they haul in the parts and people needed.

The problem is trucks have stagnated to the point where the truck drivers who bring the parts to assemble their cars are miserable and looking to buy something else.

The weird thing is Apple only allows Apple-trucks to bring them parts for Apple-cars, so when they stop buying Apple trucks, Apple cars suffer.

Commodify Your Complement

Many of the big successes in the tech business world have come from a strategy of commodifying your complement. The classic example was Microsoft creating a standard operating system that worked on a plethora of commodity computer hardware. Anybody could assemble PC’s, so fierce competition followed, which made PC’s cheaper and more prevalent.

Which was great for Microsoft, because every PC sold meant another Windows license.

Windows was the product, PC’s the complement that became further commodified – you could buy any IBM PC compatible system and run Windows and do what you needed.

Pundits suggested Apple follow this same course (and they briefly did in the 90’s with clone manufacturers before Steve Jobs returned) but it never really made sense because Apple computers weren’t about commodity hardware and solving all problems – they were about charging a premium for an integrated experience that worked (this was much harder in the 90’s, Windows “worked” on all kinds of hardware, but poorly.)

So it’s 2017 and I’m making the totally discredited suggestion Apple sell its OS and let hardware manufacturers compete in hardware?

Sort of.

Understand Your Complement

My hypothesis is that Apple needs as many developers using their software as possible to maintain dominance in smartphones and the next generation of hardware (AR, VR, whatever).

Their current high margin computers is making this somewhere between hard (programmers) and impossible (virtual reality developers, though the most recent WWDC keynote and external GPU enclosure is suggesting they are trying to take this from impossible down to hard.)

Let’s take things to one extreme for the sake of argument.

Free MacOS

MacOS is already “free” – Apple has stopped charging for upgrades. The cost of MacOS is just hidden in the cost of buying a Mac, and Apple wants everyone to have the latest version for ease of maintenance and market size for developers.

But what if MacOS was free and ran on commodity hardware (which it basically does, already, if you bend the law and make a Hackintosh.)

A few interesting things happen here.

The first is less direct Mac profits – via cannibalization of the existing Mac product lines.

But there’s some potentially offsetting gains that are better in the long run –

  1. More MacOS users – via decreased cost of hardware, increased hardware support
  2. Increased innovation on the platform – via (1) and more students, starving garage developers, hobbyists choosing MacOS
  3. Better, stickier app ecosystem on iOS and new Apple hardware – via happier, larger pool of developers
  4. Support for virtual reality, augmented reality, and other hardware-dependent hacking becomes easier
  5. The demand for Apple services (iCloud, Music, etc) goes up significantly, especially for current iPhone users who also adopt MacOS powered desktop/laptops

There’s less extreme iterations on this –

  • MacOS supports more hardware but licenses are only available with an iOS device purchase
  • MacOS licenses are sold to support some homebrew hardware but with limited/no customer support

Why Not

Crappy, ugly, commodity hardware is fundamentally “off-brand” for Apple, and the nature of enabling MacOS to work across more hardware fundamentally leads to experiences that are sub-optimal compared to the fully integrated Mac hardware/software stack today.

There’s also a serious strategic discussion of whether the potential gains offset the revenue declines and other issues.

It’s easy to pontificate on these things externally, it’s a lot harder to make these decisions when you have hard numbers in front of you and shareholders to be accountable to.

And it’s hard to cannibalize existing business lines as an executive, people generally fight tooth and nail for short term gains over long term strategy that has risks.

Why Yes

Apple is a beloved company that is having trouble coming up with its next hit.

Hits take time and Apple has a cash hoard that can buy time, acquisitions, or a few small countries, any of which might help them at this point.

Getting developers on their side – getting a small army of Apple lovers tinkering to make the best tricked out, hot-rodding Macs instead of Windows and Linux boxes – may be one of the things that has immeasurable “brand lift” (imagine the ads linking Apple II homebrew computer club users and today’s garage hackers doing AR on weird looking Mac hardware) and helps cultivate a new generation of developers.

And there’s something fundamentally “Apple” about making desktop computers simple, easy, and affordable. That’s what the Apple computer was, deep down, and everything good (Apple II, Mac, iPhone) that followed.

It may be that by giving more software away, Apple will make their software and services available to more people, make them happier, and improve long term businesses.

Or it may just lose them a lot of money – if it was an obvious win, they’d probably already be doing it.

Either way, I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro with abysmal keyboard and Touchbar and it’s insane to me that this is the best they can do.

If they don’t start shipping better hardware or freeing their OS, Apple will lose key influencers.

Serious Changes

Today I thought about how I wanted to change some things.

Then I opened .emacs

;; cursor
(setq blink-cursor-mode 0)
(setq default-cursor-type 'box)

Cursors should not blink. Cursors should be boxes, not lines.

Small victories, tiny bits of autonomy.

Ace

I love this art from the 15-year anniversary of the Ace Attorney franchise by Takuro Fuse.

There’s something beautiful in this image split between Phoenix, starting alone with his mentor, next to himself years later as the mentor, surrounded by the people he’s bonded with.

· · ·

I finished Spirit of Justice yesterday.

Ace Attorney games are a precious thing in this modern world. I hope there’s another 15 years ahead.

37

Birthday coffee for a birthday vacation.

Video Game Consumption: Q1 2017

I played surprisingly few games the last couple months.

Glittermitten Grove

Beneath the surface, it’s a masterpiece.

(Trust me – I’m in it.)

★★★★★

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

The original Deus Ex came out in 2000, and is now a cult classic. It was ambitious and brilliant and weird and also a bit of a mess because it tried to do so much.

But the essence of Deus Ex was that it used a first-person-shooter engine to create a first-person action adventure that wasn’t just about shooting things. Violence and shooting is one tool to solve problems, but by itself would almost never work. Stealth, exploration, and outwitting your opponents through clever use of skills and the environment was key. (That and the conspiracy theory / illumnati are real stuff.)

Despite the most recent entry Deus Ex: Human Revolution being a masterwork in the action RPG genre and revitalizing it, this time it feels like the series has run out of steam and ideas. The gameplay and mechanisms feel repetitive and dated rather than fresh after 5 years. The storyline is both incomprehensible (even for Deus Ex) and seems completely unfinished and unsatisfying. It feels plodding and boring. Rather than leave me wanting the next chapter, I felt bored.

Huge disappointment.

★★

Dishonored 2

Where Mankind Divided fails, Dishonored 2 succeeds. As an action-stealth-play-as-you-want RPG, it enables all sorts of different, varied play styles. Lethal or non-lethal, loud or stealthy, indirect or head-on, and all manners in between.

The characters, voice acting, plot and more seem improved.

Dishonored made Dunwall feel real and interesting. The most remarkable thing is how vibrant and larger and varied yet cohesive the larger Empire of the Isles becomes in this sequel, and how exciting it is each time we see more of it. The level design and setting combines with the mechanics and story to create something spectacular.

The choices and how you play again feel like they have weight and impact the world. Choosing to sow chaos has repercussions. Seeing how Emily and Corvo have changed over the years was actually interesting. Very much enjoyed this one.

★★★★

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies

Despite more or less buying a 3DS to play this game, I never actually completed it. (I got through the first case and stopped.) Part of it was playing on a 3DS annoyed me.

I then bought it for iOS when it came out and played through the second case and stopped. I got bored.

This time, though, for whatever reason, the love of Phoenix Wright games overtook me again as I completed the other three cases.

If you have never played Ace Attorney, the iOS re-releases are the easiest way to experience them, despite the flaws in the ports it’s a lot easier than tracking down Nintendo GBA imports or DS versions now.

Anyway, I love these games so much, and I hope they keep making them forever.

★★★★★

How to build a tolerable gaming PC

The nice thing about building your own PC is you get exactly the parts you want.

The bad thing about building your own PC is it’s hard to know exactly what you want.

The last time I built a computer (about 2.5 years ago) was my first time building one completely from scratch in the modern era. (I’d cobbled together some tiny linux boxes from barebones PC’s, but hadn’t done the whole thing, and not for gaming.)

This is something I probably should be leaving to professionals. But I wanted the satisfaction of doing it myself.

I ended up with something that worked and ran modern games effectively on a weird 34” ultrawide monitor but it looked sort of absurd and I’m pretty sure I never got the thermal situation right – fans were loud and always running and it seemed to generated what I thought was an inordinate amount of heat.

This is also the bad thing about building your own computer – how do you even know you did it right?

It’s complicated.

Anyway, I learned a lot –

  • many cases are embarrassingly ugly
  • many parts wants to generate obnoxious lights
  • if you’re not careful you will end up with a weird looking monstrosity that has branded lighted logos flashing everywhere

Clearly I did not learn “just let the pros do it next time” because I’m stubborn.

So spurred on by my need for Thunderbolt 3 support discussed yesterday, I embarked on a new PC building mission.

Part Picking

Fractal Design Define R5

A beautiful but functional monolith, without obnoxious branding, windows, or colors.

Focuses on quiet computing so includes sound dampening and quiet fans.

I bought the “blackout edition” which makes even the internals and fans and everything black. It’s nice.

Intel Core i5-7500 3.4GHz Quad-Core Processor // BX80677I57500

Chose the i5 since it seems like overkill for gaming already and wanted less power/heat than dealing with the i7.

Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO 82.9 CFM Sleeve Bearing CPU Cooler

This is a super popular cooling solution that was recommended to me.

Seems OK. It was kind of a pain to install but seems far quiet and more effective than using the stock cpu fan like I did last time. If I do another build I might try something different / quieter / more expensive.

Asus PRIME Z270-A ATX LGA1151 Motherboard

Decision was driven by the need to support Thunderbolt 3 and the latest generation of Intel chips. ASUS hardware and software and BIOS etc. seems relatively inoffensive and functional.

Went with the “stock” Z270 board – seemed unclear what value most of the higher end motherboards with various add-ons actually did.

Asus ThunderboltEX 3

The add-on card needed to drive my LG UltraFine 5K display via a PC over Thunderbolt.

Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR4-3200 Memory

Damn RAM is fast now. Very fast.

Samsung 960 Evo 500GB M.2-2280 Solid State Drive

These tiny little M2 drives are mind-boggling. Progress in size/speed/cost even over the past 2 years is significant. Definitely splurged on this because I was sick of worrying about disk space.

EVGA SuperNOVA GS 550W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular ATX Power Supply

Has been super quiet and efficient.

Video Card

I transplanted my old EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti into this one as it doesn’t seem quite worth it to upgrade yet. If I was buying something I think I’d go with the EVGA GeForce GTX 1070 or 1080.

See also: the PCPartPicker list for this build.

Gotchas

Everything actually went really smoothly this time other than I was somewhat confused on how to properly set up the CPU cooler. I think it went ok, but I did spend like an hour watching YouTube videos of people doing it first.

Also I plugged in the ATX power but forgot the separate CPU power and spent 30 minutes checking everything but that – rookie mistake, but, whatever. Helps to build character? It makes the end product feel like more of a triumph, maybe.

Conclusion

I have a system that is quiet, sleek, and just has a single white LED on top to indicate power and no other annoyances that is not embarrassingly loud or flashing ugly lights under my desk.

· · ·

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