Thursday, 22 June 2017

Vote Facebook

As a long term advocate for online privacy who openly calls on people to avoid/ban the likes of Google and Facebook, I get told many things. A lot of them involve tinfoil, but the majority are replies along the lines of “you know what, I don’t really care” or “I’m just an ordinary person, what good is my data to them”. Which, of course, are answers brimming with ignorance.
Let’s take the stated goal of all the tracking done on our internet habits. Someone put it rather eloquently: the purpose of all the advertising related online tracking is to ensure that, as a whole, we spend 0.3% more of our money on shoes.
All is fair in love and war and internet advertising. We do know that, in order to get us to spend 0.3% on shoes, Facebook will use our weaknesses against us (and boast about it in front of its would be customers, which are not you & I; it’s the advertisers). And believe it or not, even the ordinary person who claims to have nothing special about them has psychological buttons that can be pressed. For a company like Facebook, with access to the personal data of a billion and a half people, including information such as how long they look at different parts of the screen and what they started typing but then regretted, the ability to identify these buttons is undeniably there. All they have to do, really, is to use their AI engines to find correlations between people using that huge pool of data at their disposal.
If you are happy to have a company like Facebook press your psychological buttons in order to make you spend money on things you don’t want or need, then, by all means, do continue using Facebook. While at it, do press on using Google, Gmail and Android phones. They are good for you.

What would you say if it turns out there is more to the cost of using Facebook and Google than the cost of 0.3% more shoes you don't need? How would you react if it turns out the likes of Facebook are responsible for the very shape of our world today, the world we live in, and not in a positive way?
According to a speculation I bumped at in The Guardian, it looks likely the Trump crew utilised advanced Facebook profiling to win the state of Pennsylvania. Their alleged approach was pure genius: they did not try to turn Democrats into Republicans; all they tried to do was ensure enough black voters, who traditionally vote for the Democrats, did not show up to vote in the first place. We do not know how much of this was actually put into use, but we do know that victory in Pennsylvania by an incredibly small margin was key to Trump’s victory despite him receiving much fewer overall votes than Clinton.
Think about it for a moment. Even if Facebook was not used by Trump to win Pennsylvania, the very fact Facebook’s facilities - the same ones that are regularly used to make you buy 0.3% more shoes - could be used to change the votes by 0.3% just as well is undeniable. Even if Facebook did not actually do it, you have to admit that Facebook has the ability to do it.
So let me ask you this, as you continue using Facebook to share cat photos: Do you really think Facebook is the right authority to have the power to determine the shape of the society we live in?

Friday, 5 May 2017

Spare a thought for second grade citizens

I apologise for being late to the party (my excuse: having no spare time), but I do want to raise an issue concerning Australia's recently announced tightening of work and residency visas. And that issue is: what are all the people who have used Australia's now old visa policies to get into the country and become Australian citizens meant to think when the new people wishing to take advantage of the exact same thing are now branded unwanted at best and properly harmful otherwise?
It's not like I intend to take the arguments raised by Peter Dutton seriously; the guy has gone on record long enough for all of us to know he's a bigot. Alas, the guy is also odds on favourite to become a future Australia Prime Minister. So, when he says that migrants need to take active part in the school community (I don't), their footy club (I don't; I also don't like footy) and their place of worship (I'm an atheist), what are the implications on those of us that are here and do not all or any of the above?
For that matter, what does this imply on pure white Anglo Australians that don't do the above? I'm sure that in a country of more than 20 million there will be quite a lot of those around. Are they safe because Dutton approves of their external looks and their Aussie accent, or is it off to the concentration camp just the same?
Call me a bloody foreigner, but it is clear Dutton's version of what passes for "Aussie values" is his and no one else's. The fact Turnbull plays this game with him is outright scary.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Digitally Downloaded

Digitally Downloaded has published my first writing contribution the other day. You can find “my” news item here; another review will be coming up shortly (I will link to it here eventually), and - goddess willing - more will follow.
I won’t deny it, it is nice and flattering to have someone else post my stuff. It is even nicer to have someone else edit the stuff I write, because I find it is the editing that actually steals more of my time than the writing itself. But, to clarify, this isn’t a post on the greatness of yours truly who got someone to publish his stuff; I have been publishing here for more than a decade and I am perfectly fine with that. I also don’t know how long Digitally Downloaded would want to keep me, given they have professional writers writing for them as well as people who seem to actually have time to do so. But as long as they want me and as long as I’m enjoying it, I will continue.
What I did want to discuss in this post is the question of why Digitally Downloaded in the first place. I find the answer to this question interesting because it is all to do with growing up and maturity.

Yours truly did not conceal his love to ABC’s Good Game TV show. Over the years, that program’s weekly hour (once you add the adult Good Game to the child friendly Spawn Point) have solidified the role of gaming in this family. Spawn Point has also been a program in whose background my son grew up since he was a baby. However, over the years I got more and more exposed to games; we all did, mostly through the fact we all now carry a gaming console in our back pocket. As I got more exposed to games, I begun questioning Good Game more and more, till finally I started feeling that while the program is interesting and all, I often significantly disagree with the reviewers. I felt Good Game tends to be too shallow for yours truly. And I definitely grew tired of their affection to repeated sequels such as Uncharted 4.
I needed more, and with the help of Twitter I seem to have found it in Digitally Downloaded. A website dedicated to serious analysis and breakdown of games is right up my street, given my own love of the exact same in everything and my strong opinionated nature. Digitally Downloaded does not shy from stating unorthodox opinions, opinions which I often disagree with. Yet, contrary to contemporary habits, it goes to great lengths to explain where it is coming from. Which, in my opinion, is all that matters; I can then decide if I agree or not and why, and this process enables me to figure out if I would like a game or not much more than the average YouTube grade argument of “guys, this is cool, you’ll like it #conformism”. In an age where we are drowned by shallowness, Digitally Downloaded provides much needed depth.
The timing of my encounter with Digitally Downloaded also worked with my falling in love. The unashamedly Japanese focused Digitally Downloaded happened to bump into me just as I was realising it the Nintendo side of things has been providing for the bulk of my gaming needs lately while, in parallel, I grew more and more dismayed with the proliferation of sequels shot at us from the Western side of gaming (a matter I have already discussed here). Couple this with the common language this eccentric bloody foreigner has found with members of Digitally Downloaded through Twitter, and you can see personal attachment form.
Digitally Downloaded goes further by examining games at the philosophical level. Which, I believe, is exactly the way games should be examined. Because, when one comes to think about it, games are first and foremost a method for us to practice reality. When we are children, games are probably the safest and most effective way for us to practice getting to know the world. Educators will tell you that the better schools teach their children through play. Now being the mature person in the room, I may not need to practice life through gaming anymore (at least not until I need to learn how to walk with a stick), but rather allocate gaming the role of examining alternative realities, views and experiences. The most basic example of what I am talking about here is the fact that in my favourite games, Mass Effect and Fire Emblem, I like to play female characters; because games provide me with the best, albeit extremely basic, way of seeing what the world is like through female eyes. I can go further here, though: Fire Emblem Fates Conquest, the game that’s sucking my time the most at the moment, revolves around questions of how much bad we should do in order to do good. These ethical questions are the stuff Socrates was referring to when he allegedly said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Socrates, I will remind you, did not enjoy the privilege of being able to engage in the examination of life through video games. However, I do. And so do you.
The majority of us still think of gaming, and particularly video gaming, as a form of escapism. Yes, a lot of it is; probably the majority of it is. However, this will not be the first time ever I disagree with the majority while accusing it of intellectual laziness. In the mean time, I do warmly recommend you pay attention to Digitally Downloaded. Whether they publish what I write or not is completely irrelevant; as long as they continue to approach games the way they do, they will offer a fascinating window at so much more than gaming itself. With gaming being humanity’s cutting edge form of art, Digitally Downloaded is offering a cutting edge examination of life.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

War on Labour


Making the news lately is our beloved government's latest case of taking care of its people, the removal of penalty rates. That is, business owners in retail and coffee shops all over Australia will no longer have to pay an extra to the employees that do their bidding during the weekend.
In case you are wondering what the sense of cancelling penalty rates is, the answer is obvious: our government is truly caring for its people. The only problem is, “its people” are the people with the money, not the people doing the labour; our government could not care less about the latter. They, the people with the money, stand at no risk of ever having to work a weekend their entire lives. Why should they care about those lowly pests that have to run around them and satisfy their consumption needs for the sake of being able to bring food to their table?

My argument is that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to this attack on labour. It was a decade or so ago that our government stopped differentiating between part time work and full time work when it comes to official unemployment statistics. The latest episode in penalty rates is just one of numerous steps taken by the ruling class to subdue the lower classes through the casualisation of work.
Penalty rates are just a little part of the greater war on the working class. The  biggest part is actually the disappearance of permanent positions and the change towards short term contracts, where the employer can get rid of employees whenever it feels like. At first it was presented as an advantage to the employee: the pay was higher, the flexibility was an attraction. Nowadays, however, when the bulk of employees are short term contractors, that is no longer the case. The pay advantage is long gone, but the benefits we used to take for granted - annual leave, sick leave - are gone.
Those of us lucky enough to stumble upon a permanent position stand to find that what used to be regarded as a position of a certain grade is now recruited as a position of lower grade. Why? Because they can. Because when each advertised vacancy attracts hundreds of eager (desperate?) applicants, the employer can dictate the terms. You might be able to land a permanent position, but it won’t land you as much money as it used to.

What we are seeing here, overall, is a pivotal transition in the economy. Whereas we used to live in an economy where labour was the primary source of wealth, that role is now leaning more and more towards capital.
Think about it: the people our society looks up to, the folks we consider to have “sorted” themselves out, are not people that work for a living. Instead, they are the people that managed to wiggle themselves out of working so that they have some arrangement or another that generates money for them "automatically".
Think of the Apple app economy, only in people: Apple has established the App Store, but Apple does not write the apps. People labour to write the apps and sell them, which is when Apple comes in to reap its 30% surcharge. Now, cut and paste Apple with your average investment property owner, and you get the point.

The real question is where are we heading for from here. And I think the answer is, sadly, blood, sweat and many tears.
Automation will mean that many if not most of us will lose their job within a decade or two. The income from labour pool will vastly diminish while the number of people seeking to make an income from labour will rise. [By the way, if you look at the Philippines, you will see what happens when this scenario takes place a the country level; however, what I am talking about here is a global level.] Eventually, the kettle will pop and the pressure will be released through a wave of violence that will eventuate in a solution along the lines of a universal pay allowance. As in, everybody will get paid regardless of whether they have a job or not.
There really is no reason for us not to be there already. We are more affluent than humans ever were, yet we choose to spend our lives locked inside an office and wasting the best time of our lives doing the whim of the ruling class. Until, that is, that ruling class no longer needs us.
In the mean time, the same ruling class is gearing up for the struggle to come, for those waves of blood, sweat and tears. Have a look at the Land of the Free™ and check out its police forces: these have been militarised from head to toe, using the War on Terror™ as an excuse. Yet, it has also been made very clear that this new military force is there mostly to enforce the class divide on the lower classes (e.g., Black Lives Matter).
The same army will “defend you” the day you decide that push came to shove. The day you realise you can no longer supply your basic needs through work. Maybe, on that day, you will lament the slow erosion of worker rights we all did little to stop.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Reasons For Not Jumping On Board The Mass Effect Andromeda Wagon

There's more than a few:
  • What are its chances of coming close to Mass Effect 3 (and 2, for that matter)? Why ruin the pleasant flavour left by the old trilogy?
  • It’s been 5 years since Mass Effect 3. I have changed a lot since. Arcady action of the reflexive type and shooting stuff up are no longer my thing.
  • Andromeda was developed by the Montreal branch of BioWare. The same branch that developed a rather meh Omega DLC for Mass Effect 3.
  • The writers that created all the depth in the previous Mass Effect trilogy (e.g., Patrick Weekes) were not part of the Andromeda effort.
  • Who’s got the time for a 40 odd hours game anymore?
  • Who’s got time to sit in front of one’s TV anymore?
  • Dragon Age Inquisition was such a disappointment. It was a good game, but things took so long to happen and with all due apologies, life’s too short.
  • Fire Emblem Heroes
  • Fire Emblem Fates Conquest is already doing an excellent job at providing me with a deep playing experience coupled with a good story and well developed characters.
Will the above be enough to keep me away? Probably not for long, if at all.
Is there a good chance for me to be disappointed of Mass Effect Andromeda? Yes, there is.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Of Nintendo and Privacy

Let me tell you a personal story about me and my adventures with Nintendo’s Fire Emblem Heroes game.

Fire Emblem Heroes is an online only game. That is, it has to be played with your iOS (and, I assume, Android) device connected to the internet. To its credit, Nintendo is not shy of admitting in its iOS app description that it does sell user data it collects [through that always online connection] to third parties. Fact of the matter is, almost all apps and web pages do this; one of the internet’s core problems is this being done behind the scenes without the person whose information is being traded’s awareness and without them having the slightest idea what is then done with this data.
Still, even a corporation such as Nintendo is bound by law. In this particular case, USA law, which demands in one way or another that no details shall be collected from people younger than 13 years. Thus, when I first started Fire Emblem Heroes on my iPad for the first time and the app interrogated me for my personal details, I declared myself a 4 year old. That should give me 8 years plus of unencumbered Fire Emblem heroism…
Problem is, I’ve grown attached to my Fire Emblem Heroes. Having spent much time on the game, I’d hate to lose the heroes I cultivated with time and effort. The solution provided by the game in order to enable the Cloud to store my game progress is to link my Nintendo ID to the game, and thus allow Nintendo to store my game progress against my Nintendo account.
Note the crafty little trick Nintendo is pulling here. Being able to link between one’s [Nintendo] games consoles and one’s mobile devices, be it phone or tablet, raises my value significantly before third party advertisers. It's for what should be obvious reasons, to do with them being able to link several sources of information about me together and acquire a much more accurate as well as detailed image of me. This is exactly why Nintendo offers the path of linking to its account rather than doing what most other iOS apps do, which is to store the app data on Apple’s own iCloud; there is no revenue for Nintendo in using iCloud.

Our story continues.
In order to solve this problem of being able to save my progress online without giving away too much private information to Nintendo, I decided to create a new Nintendo account and state there that I am a 4 year old; then I will link that account to my Fire Emblem Heroes, save my progress, but continue to enjoy the legal privacy protections offered to American children.
So I created such an account. Or rather, tried to; Nintendo would not let me finish the account’s creation without linking it to another account, an adult’s account.
So I went with the flow and created another account, this time an adult account, and then tried to link that account with the child account.
Wait! Said Nintendo. In order to prove you really are an adult and not a child in disguise, I need your credit card details, so I can charge it and therefore confirm you are truly an adult. Given the entire purpose of my personal adventure was the avoidance of providing the too personal and identifiable to Nintendo, I did not give them my credit card info.
I tried another trick instead: I went to the existing Nintendo account we have for our existing Nintendo Wii U console and tried to change the birthday on that account so as to make it a child’s account.
No, said Nintendo yet again: we will not allow you to change the birthday date on an existing account!

Thus ends my story. As in, I do not have the ability to save my Fire Emblem Heroes’ progress online. What I do have, however, is insight on just how far Nintendo is willing to go when it comes to milking its customers for personal data it can then resell.
Think about it:
  1. There is no way for a child to get hold of a Nintendo account without at least one member of the family providing positive ID for online data trackers to use and resell.
  2. There is absolutely nothing to prevent a child from creating a adult’s account and linking it to their game. Yes, it would be illegal for Nintendo to track that user, but its armies of lawyers would be perfectly capable of washing the company’s hands off that.
My experience has made it very clear on which side of the ethical debate at hand Nintendo stands. When it comes to our privacy, companies do not come greedier than Nintendo.


One final note: I would have loved, and I repeat - loved, to give Nintendo some and even many of my hard earned Shekels in return for a private Fire Emblem experience. Evidence indicates I have already done so several times on the 3DS incarnations.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Change of Direction

One question that begs the mind of a blogger who has been blogging for as long as I have is the classic “where to from here”.
Once upon a time, when this blog started, it took the form of an open diary. Me telling the world all sorts of things about myself that I had on my mind.
Times change, though, and now - and for all sorts of different reasons - I am much more reserved when it comes to openly sharing my life with the world. In this world of trolls, Gamergate and Trumps it does not take much effort to see where things can go wrong with such an approach.
Fact of the matter is, this blog has never been about money making or fame seeking. I did it to satisfy my own needs, period. And now my needs are different.
Which brings me to state a few things about the future of this blog that should have already been quite obvious. I foresee two things happening here: Firstly, the frequency of posting - which has severely deteriorated over the last couple of years - will continue to do so. The itch that I need scratching through a quick post is served much faster through Twitter, for a start.
Secondly, the trend away from the personal to the more technical will continue. This blog has always been about serving my personal needs, and right now my personal needs involve experimenting with stuff that could serve my professional aspirations.
C’est la vie.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Fire Emblem Heroes

Have you ever tried a Fire Emblem video game?
I will admit general ignorance when it comes to games coming from Japan. However, I did brush myself against Fire Emblem a couple of times, falling in love with its character driven tactical, D&D like, battles.
The story is linear; you flow through it, basically narrowing down your role into pure battle management. The battles, too, seem simple: you can only move your character on the square grid and choose your attacks. The battle system is a simple RGB coded affair: red beats green, green beats blue, and blue beats red.
But that is not the point; the point is the attachment you have to your characters, who are full of character, as you develop them through battle. The point is to care for them in battle, because most Fire Emblem games pivot around a permanent death system; do wrong and that character you nourished since it was a baby is gone for good.
On the Nintendo 3DS, battles range across large scrolling maps and numerous characters on both sides. Often a good fight lasts close to an hour, especially if permanent death is a threat. Which, as usual, means that I simply do not have time for Fire Emblem no matter how much I like the game.


That has changed since this past weekend, when Nintendo released Fire Emblem Heroes on mobile (both iOS and Android).
Things are much simpler now: the maps are much smaller, battles are limited with up to four characters per side. Both of which mean that I can pick my iPad up in the five minutes I get in between breathes and pick up a good fight.
Alas, Fire Emblem Heores suffers from that bane of mobile gaming: it’s a freemium game. Yes, you can play for free, but if you really want to go places [fast], you will need to open your wallet. In Heores’ particular case, you can spend money to get the more exotic/powerful heroes so that they can fight on your side.
Thus far into the game I see no reason to deviate from my policy of no in app purchases, period. Heroes does let you win game currency through battle, for a start; on the other hand, I did reach a wall where I can no longer win such currency without a lot of grind. Thing is, I don’t mind the grind at all; if anything, it gives me an opportunity to practice my lesser heroes and see if the tactician that is yours truly can manage to beat superior odds with two hands behind my back. As far as I am concerned, this is where the bulk of the fun is to be had.
That's probably because one cannot attach much to the characters, the Heroes. The characters the core story revolves around are those you start the game with, which - due to battle inferiority - will not be the heroes you will fight with. And, unlike the console default, there is no permanent death in Heroes. I guess even Nintendo will only go that far under the dreaded in app purchase regime…
You will also be unable to go to far with this game because, like most other Nintendo mobile games (Super Mario Run and various Pokemon stuff), Heroes requires permanent internet connection. Nintendo has all sorts of excuses to justify this; I suspect it has more to do with Nintendo seeking to make money on the side through user tracking (to its credit, the iOS app description openly says so - unlike the bulk of other apps, that do so behind the scenes). Still, fact is I cannot play Fire Emblem Heroes on the train. Also, proceedings are slower than they could be. Boo!
Technical complaints aside (no matter how important they are; your mileage will vary), Fire Emblem Heroes is one of the better mobile games I got to know. A serious and deep game that manages to transition into the mobile platform without losing character almost perfectly. But yeah, if only Nintendo could stop being Nintendo and do things properly! I would have loved to open my wallet once and get to play a proper game of Fire Emblem on my iPad.

You may have noticed I did not post this under my reviews blog. There is a reason for that, and that reason is I cannot offer a qualified review for a product that Nintendo is clearly able to steer this way and that on a whim. Through simple changes in game currency pricing and heroes availability, the game can quickly vary from quick and easy fun to a frustrating money grub affair.
Currently, things are good. But who knows when and if Nintendo will pull a Trump on us?


Fire Emblem Heroes image used under fair use.