Thursday, 8 December 2016

Diet, Rinse, Repeat

Veteran readers of this blog would know that 2015 has been the year unintentional weight loss for yours truly. Since then, my diet life is going through a more or less regular routine: a structured and generally healthy diet during the school terms, followed by rupture and chaos as school holidays befall upon us. Planning falls out the window when we venture places where controlling what food is available and when becomes harder.
The catch, then, is when I get used to the school holidays’ uncontrolled binge eating habits but seek to go back to the more health friendly (and weight friendly structure). You would think that would be hard; I’m here to tell you it is, but it’s not.
The pattern repeats itself. A couple of weeks into the new school term I decide that enough is enough and I cannot allow myself to continue gaining weight. The problem that requires solving is that I get used to the school holidays' binge eating habits pretty quickly; going back to healthy eating habits requires breaking the newly acquired bad habits.
Again and again I have found that all it takes to regain control and rehabitualise myself is one day where I plan exactly what I will eat and when. I go through a day where all I can think of is the pantry; maybe a second day of such thoughts, maybe not; and that is it. Within two days max I am all of a sudden perfectly happy with eating less as long as that also means eating well.
The catch is with “eating well”. The benefit of this well planned diet day is that, at the end of the day, the world feels such a better place to live in. It’s not only that I am no longer bothered by the contents of the pantry I missed out on; it’s the fact that eating well just feels good. I’m sharper, mentally, and every cue my body sends my brain is informing me that things are going great, thank you very much. Eating healthy, especially cutting the sugar, feels good.
Up until the next school holidays, when the deck is reshuffled.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Ride of the Podcast

Quick heads up: this post is another one in that series of posts on how technological breakthroughs that affect our lives break the ground for further technological breakthroughs that further change our lives.

I have previously expressed much rejoicing at the discovery of noise cancelling headphones. The kick comes from the fact they allow me to listen to stuff on the train, on a plane and on the street without having to pump up the volume to ear bleeding levels. It is almost as if I’m home, lounging about.
This breakthrough made me try formats that I haven’t really attempted before. Up till now, I used my daily commutes to listen to music, for the sole reason that music still works as a background activity when swamped by noise, while the likes of audiobooks are an utter failure when every second or third word are incomprehensible.
I still have a problem with audiobooks, though. I still think that in order to properly give a book the attention it deserves, I need to do nothing else but read the book. Podcasts, however, are more casual, so I gave them a go. Yet it proved a pain to keep tabs on the latest podcasts I should be listening to.
Enter Castro, a $6 iPhone app with a simple trick up its sleeve that all the rest of the podcast apps fail at (to the best of my knowledge): it groups all your favourite podcasts in a single chronological queue, allowing you to pick the episodes you actually want to listen without having to check each subscription separately. That is to say: Castro ushers in podcast nirvana. More importantly, Castro has revolutionised my daily commutes.
But why stop with podcasts? I am also a magazine reader. Why can’t I read my magazines while commuting? Or, better yet, why can’t I have my magazines read to me while I commute? Enter the Voice Dream Reader app, an app that will happily read you PDF files or other non DRM type text files in a manner that is significantly better than your average automated voice. Voice Dream is on the expensive side of apps, though, and I will also warn you its default Aussie voice is rather crappy; pick the American male voice for the single voice you get for free when purchasing the app (to get additional voices on top of that one free one you will need to make the dreaded in app purchase).
I can’t say the Voice Dream experience is as good as having a human read to you. Far from it. Aside of the automated voice’s inherently dumb nature, it will also read page numbers and such. But still, it makes for better use of one’s commute time while allowing me to significantly increase my "reading" capacity.
And yes, I still listen to music.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Recruiting for Development

A long time ago in what seems like a galaxy far, far away, I used to climb up the food chain at work. That is to say, my career was taking off and rapidly so. And the fastest way to make that possible was to get another job offering a higher up position, which is what I did several times in the course of a few years.
But yeah, that was at another time and another place. Things are different nowadays. For each advertised tech position there are hundreds of applicants, many of which armed with multiple diplomas and bucketloads of experience; the job market is very competitive. There are also fewer opportunities, but that is mostly the result of this former Israeli still eyeing the Australian technology market using old Israeli eyes; Australia has but a fraction of the high tech market Israel can boast. And me, I have changed, too; I am older than I used to be, no longer the type that would accept regular 11 hour working days and blindly do my employer’s bidding.
That is exactly why, in today’s job market, one can only get a new job for something one has already done before. From the employers’ point of view, why should they take a risk on some unknown guy developing and growing into a job? They want the tried and tested.
To which I will say: wrong way, go back!
My argument is simple. Can anyone honestly suggest that a worker can truly flourish, prosper and grow by doing the exact same thing they had already done before?  I would argue this is a recipe for grey, stale, organisations; not for organisations that seek to thrive in today’s ever changing scene. Especially not in the technology market.
By then way, a side effect of this  recruitment policy is that one can only climb up the career food chain internally, as opposed to by finding a new job. Which makes the whole thing slower. And, going back to the theme of being older, makes life much harder for older job applicants because these are seen as too experienced to take on the junior positions but, on the other hand, unsuitable for higher order jobs if they haven’t performed them already.

Consider this trend in the face of other, even deeper social trends: people having longer careers through the fact we now live longer and there is not enough money in pension funds to cover us all. Or the generic speed in which life around us has been changing, mostly through technological breakthroughs. Anyway you look at it, the implications are sad.
It is already the case where one can no longer rely on the same profession throughout their working career. People my age can grapple with this matter in one way or another; for people of our children’s age this is a matter to be taken for granted.
However, knowing that career transitioning has to take place and enabling such transitions are totally different matters. As we’ve already seen, employers do not allow for easy transitions, not even in the same line of work. Therefore, transitioning to another profession means stepping back in income and status, a very hard thing to do for someone who already been there and done that (and by now probably cares for a family and a mortgage). I guess I am not the only one facing this problem; that expert steam engine mechanic had to deal with this matter back when the four stroke engine made headway. But surely our society should have developed since the age of steam to take care of its citizens as they go through that mandatory change?
Consider the future of humanity under this specific prism. Imagine what things would be like when technology allows humans to live for 150 years. If we already had such people among us, how would our society deal with people who grew up to operate steam engines or horses and carriages?
Now consider that the world we live in is going to move into driverless cars within the manner of a couple of decades. In our world, driving is the most common job people do for a living. How, exactly, are we going to find jobs for the masses of unemployed people our latest technological breakthrough will forge? Or for the masses that take care of them through diners and motels? Is there enough demand for unskilled work to fill the gap left in this world? It doesn't look like it.
The only solution I see for this problem is breaking the equation we have been living under since the agricultural revolution. I argue that, in this day and age of affluence, perhaps we should disconnect between having a job with living entitlements.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

State of the Play

A couple of trends have been combining together to deeply affect my [video] gaming experience. I have been talking about it here a lot, but always as a side show; I thought I'd dedicate a post to the matter instead.
The trends I have been talking about are:
  1. I have no time for anything anymore, playing included.
  2. I have been growing sick and tired of the mainstream video game releases.
I will elaborate a bit.
Having no time to play does not really mean having no time to play. What it really means is having higher priority things to do ahead of playing games. At the same time, I fully acknowledge the importance of playing: humans need playtime, especially younger humans; and while I no longer qualify as young, I do think that keeping a young mind is something I can still aspire to. I also fully recognise that I would not be the person that I am without gaming.
The effect of having to squeeze gaming in between tasks of higher priority (many of which suck, BTW, but as an adult I can no longer avoid them) is that my gaming activities now need to fit in between these so called higher duties. This means I cannot afford to hold hour[s] long gaming sessions; at best I get 15 minutes here and 15 minutes there. If I do get an hour long session, and I did get one this weekend (accidents happen, I guess), then that session is unexpected and I am not actually aware of the fact I have an hour to play till after the fact.
This, in turn, impacts the games I am playing. Deeply so. Things like turning the TV and and waiting for the PS4 to boot are luxuries I cannot afford. Things like levels that take more than ten minutes to complete between saves mean that I am forever stuck in tutorial levels. By far the most crucial ingredient of a good video game for me nowadays is: instant action.
If you pause to think for a moment what this means, you would see the answer I have found to my problems: the iPad. It's always nearby. There are no boot times to talk about with the iPad, and with its solid state memory not much in the way of waiting times (at least not by PC standards). Throw in games designed for the mobile environment and you get at the exact place I am at now in my gaming life.

But there is the rub, too. Read that last sentence again to see where I am heading at: "games designed for the mobile environment".
By far the biggest name games on my iPad are ports of games designed for other environments. Take Rome Total War as an example, simply because it is my most recent iPad game purchase (for the record, this has been the third time I have bought this game). It's a great game, don't get me wrong; it's also nice to select your troops and order them with your fingers, basketball coach style. But is it the ideal game for mobile? Clearly not. Rome Total War still suffers from being a game of a scale that is too big for mobile (as its 4GB size indicates). It is also not the ideal game to play, say, during a train/tram ride.
There really aren't that many games that do their mobile platform the justice it deserves. Banner Saga 1 & 2 work seamlessly on mobile but are too big in scope. Grand Theft Auto has mobile incarnations but, as great as these games are on console, they're just not there (starting with the touchscreen pretend controllers). And let us not ignore the huge mammoth in the room, the fact the vast majority of mobile games designed for mobiles have been built around the dreaded in app purchase mechanism, where you either have to fork out an unforeseen amount to get anywhere or you have to really enjoy the grind.
Frankly, looking at my own iPad, there are but a few games properly designed for mobile: Mini Metro, Severed and Lara Croft Go offer fine examples of the breed. Sure, there are many more, but not as many as one would think when judging the size of the AppStore.

Could salvation be found elsewhere, though?
Eventually, yes. But for now, I do urge you to review the following list of the current blockbusters out there (which I am copying from Target's "Amazing 4 Day Gaming Event (25 November till 28 November while stocks last"). See if you can detect a pattern:
  • FIFA 17
  • Titanfall 2
  • Battlefield 1
  • Dishonored 2
  • Watch Dogs 2
  • Destiny (The Collection)
  • Call of Duty Infinite Warfare
  • Elder Scrolls V Skyrim
  • No Man's Sky
  • Deus Ex Mankind Divided
  • Uncharted 4
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
In case you failed (seriously?), I will point out that out of the above, only one single game - No Man's Sky - is an original release. All the rest are sequels of sequels, or even worse - remakes of old sequels. To quote the Bible, not my most favourite book ever (the ending sucks and the sequel is just boring), there is nothing new under the sun.
To say that the world of gaming is fucked up would be an understatement, especially when one considers how harshly No Man's Sky was received. True, Sony had a lot to do with that through the way it teased us with this game, but still - what would you have preferred? Yet another linear open world adventure story with a white male protagonist in his thirties?
I know the gaming market speaks, and very clearly so, against me on this. Which is exactly why I choose to close myself from the world as I strategise my approach to the design of a new London Underground in Mini Metro.

True, the gaming world is not as bleak as I portray it to be. There is a lot of original stuff out there, like the Hacknet I recently mentioned or 80 Days or Lumino City. And have you tried board games on the iPad? It is as if the device was created for that specific purpose.
Yet the overall direction is clearly wrong. I am sure I am not the only one out there whose gaming needs are totally ignored by the market; pretty much everyone my age would be. So come on, get off your sequels train, and deliver something good for a change!

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Confirmed: a vote for Trump/Brexit is a vote for racism

Being the opinionated person that I am often lands me in trouble. Like when trying to apply for a job while constantly fearing people would Google my name and then immediately put my application on their Over My Dead Body pile.
One such provocative argument of mine was/is to do with Brexit. Specifically, I have argued that a pro Brexit vote is a racist vote. I do so for two reasons:
  1. Whoever voted for Brexit puts themselves in a camp full of racists, the camp all the racists called home. That, on its own, does not make one a racist, but it should trigger an alarm call with every decent person.
  2. Clearly, the main reason argument for Brexit is xenophobic / fear of the immigrant. Forget about the whole "more money for the NHS" bullshit, no one bought it for even a second; people are not that stupid. That was just the fig leaf for the real reason.
The above two arguments did not, however, prevent me from being told to shut up whenever I thus accused otherwise fine and distinguished folks of racism. How can they be racists when they are, for all other intents and purposes, fine and distinguished folks?
Coming to my rescue is my colleague* John Scalzi. Through one of his many lovely analogies, Scalzi explains exactly why a vote for Trump (and by proxy, Brexit) is a vote for racism. Whatever else the Trump voter might argue in defence of their lack of racism, the fact they have voted for a clearly racist candidate indicates that as much as they hate racism, they hate it much less than they like the other things this blatantly racist candidate stands for.
Which is my way of saying: stop reading this and do rush to read Scalzi's arguments, ASAP.


*Not really. We met in person, but there is no reason in the world for him to remember me.

Friday, 11 November 2016

PAX Picks

Having dedicated a post to the atmosphere of PAX, I would like to dedicate another to my favourites of PAX. Which, for me, narrows down to board games and video games, both of which I hardly get to play because I do not have time for anything in my life anymore; let us refer to yours truly as a collector of games rather than a gamer per se.

In the card game department, which I consider an offshoot of board games, we stocked up on the latest Magic the Gathering has to offer. I have a problem with Magic, being an elaborate mechanism to suck my money on a yearly basis that it is, but I will grant it much fun and an incredible balance. Virtually every game my son & I play comes down to the wire, and by now we have played with numerous decks (I did mention yearly purchases, didn't I?).
The side effect of those yearly updates, variety and balanced play is that we never seem to seek out to play Magic, but whenever son & Co do play we greatly enjoy it. Those "ooh, how do we interpret the rules now?" moments we used to stumble at are now gone, with Magic offering us quick but meaningful fun.

Moving to proper board games, what games did this collector of board games find attractive? Narrowing down to games that would work well with the family (thus taking adult only contenders such as T.I.M.E. Stories out of the equation), there were three games I came out spending my money on:
  • Islebound, for what seems to me like great art in a joyful game.
  • Mission Red Planet, for generating the impression of being a light version of Alien Frontiers.
  • Star Trek Panic, for taking the simple mechanics of the Castle Panic game and fitting them well into the Star Trek universe (specifically, the Captain Kirk incarnation), red shirts et al.
We also spent a long while observing PAX' X Wing tournament action, being that we play this game ourselves. It was an education to see others practice the art; most competitors came equipped with a Bunnings toolbox containing their favourite vehicle (all but one went with Darth Vader's Tie Fighter), looking very professional like and making me wonder what else they packed in that toolbox of theirs. Sandwiches, perhaps? [I'm sorry, but you have to be an Israeli to get this joke.]
While X Wing matches started and finished all around us, the one match that we randomly picked to observe in close quarters had us witnessing two players trying very hard to outflank one another but failing to even fire a shot once during the half hour we stood watching before deciding to try our luck elsewhere.
It was quite an educational experience; X Wing can be dead simple, if one likes it to be that way, but clearly heavy just the same.

The biggest ticket items of PAX are meant to be video games, but I will disappoint you and state I did not care for the biggest ticket items. Nor for VR, for that matter; I can see how VR adds a new dimension, but what I couldn't see are games that made me go "wow, I need that".
If I were to ignore Mini Metro, a game I already knew about and cannot stop recommending, I will point at two locally made games that my son, my friend and yours truly all took note of separately. Which says something.
  • Defect is a PC/Mac/Linux game that has the player building a spaceship (not too unlike FTL) and then taking it for a fight. The catch is that, eventually, the ship gets taken away from you and you need to design a brand new ship with which - wait for it - you will be fighting your previous ship. So you better do better the next time around!
    The dev stood there next to his display, selling Steam codes of his game for $10. I bought one for myself, thank you very much, but I am still bashing my head against the wall for failing to figure out what a great gift this game could have made if I was to buy five or ten more such codes for my friends. Once again I am being made aware of just how much of an idiot I am.
  • The other game I noted (and then bought) is Hacknet, another PC/Mac/Linux affair. The great thing about this game is its basic idea:
    You know hacking? It's generally immoral and also illegal. But, if you're into computers and such, and especially if computer security is something you deal with (yours truly raises a hand), the begging question is how can one practice this dark art without harming a soul and without risking a thing in this world?
    The answer is, of course, through video gaming. How come I didn't think of that myself? I'm such an idiot.
    Moving on while trying to stick to the constructive side, Hacknet is a game that simulates real life computers, code and all, and challenges you, Player 1, to go ahead an hack.
    Delightful.


Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Modern Age Gifting

I have noted before how consumerism has turned material gifts into a completely wasteful affair whereby someone spends their hard earned money on buying me a gift whose manufacturing depleted precious earthly resources, involved several species going extinct, and forced human slaves to work under unearthly conditions. Only for me to go "WTF" and immediately pass the gift to the nearest [charity] bin.
Most other humans seem far more delighted than I am with the act of receiving material gifts, which does cause me to ponder where it is, exactly, that I stand from the crowd on this one. My latest gift seems to have provided some insight: Expertise is a key factor.

Allow me to explain with a short example. As people go, I am an expert in gadgets. I know my smartphones, to point at one specific niche in the galaxy of gadgets, and I have a firm opinion on each and every common model out there (to the point you can tell what phones I do not have an opinion on are worth). Now, for argument's sake, let us say you're terribly generous and decide to get me the smartphone many claim to be the best out there at the moment - it certainly won accolades for having the best camera for a smartphone: the Google Pixel.
If you gave me one of those, thinking you're oh so generous and expecting me to be eternally thankful, you would probably be totally surprised to find me annoyed/angry at this gift. And not because I think you shouldn't spend so much money on a gift (which I do, but that's not the point); instead, it's rather because I'm holding views that the bulk of society considers eccentric and most cannot even imagine concerning privacy. As far as these peculiar views concerned, I would not touch a Google device (or a Google service, for that matter) with a stick. Not even a very long stick.
In other words, I would never - ever - even consider using that precious gift of yours. And it is all down to the facts I know my gadgets and I know how and what Google does with information it collects from Android users.
To make a long story short: Buying me a smartphone is a dangerous idea because I am an expert in this area.

Sure, you can still give me a smartphone and win my eternal love if you happen to buy me the smartphone I actually want. But what are the chances of you actually hitting that G spot by accident? And what are your chances of doing that before I actually do so myself?
The sentence "don't even think about it" seems to have been contrived for this purpose.

When all is said and done, the above does not mean you can never buy me a present I like. It just means that you shouldn't buy me a present belonging to my area of expertise.
So no, don't buy me a smartphone. But you can certainly find tons of video games lurking at the fringes of my areas of interest; to name but one recent example, it is only through a friend noting how great the PC game Mini Metro is that I grew to anticipate its iOS arrival (and what a great iOS game it is!). Similarly, there are entire galaxies of excellent books out there I'd love to read if I only knew of their existence (but please, don't get me ebooks with DRM).
To conclude, in this age of relative affluence gifts are no longer measured by their monetary value. Your Google Pixel might cost a grand but, through sheer anger, holds negative value for me. The true gift, I therefore argue, is not in the fact that someone spent tons of money to get me something. Rather it is in the fact that someone opened my eyes to a corner of the universe I was entirely oblivious to up to that point.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Notes from PAX the Fourth

Melbourne fourth PAX event is still ongoing, but I thought I'd drop my 2c about the thing that is clearly the best of everything to do with PAX Australia: How nice everyone at PAX is.
It is quite amazing, actually. The place is crowded but you never hear shouts or notice anyone trying to bypass a queue in some creative way. Everyone is busy but you can still catch a presenter for a detailed chat about this question you just have to ask (I'm speaking from experience here). And with my son, it is probably the first and only place in the world where everyone - everyone - treats him like an equal as opposed to "a little boy".
I love it.

Yesterday I attended a panel discussing violence at video games. The six panelists were all proper authorities, researchers and professionals (three of them were professors).
While discussing the channeling of aggression, one of the professors noted that the crowd of video gamers present is probably on the least aggressive side of the aggression spectrum, suggesting that - in the case of a conflict - absolutely no one is going to be punched here. The worst thing that could happen to anyone at PAX is getting hacked.
Further on the same theme, another presenter was an AFL psychologist who described her job as channeling players' inherent aggression towards the right channels (I assume this means the rival team). She admitted her ignorance in the gaming arena she was present at, so in order to see how much she has in common with us PAX lot she asked for a show of hands of anyone playing Aussie Rules.
In a crowd of several hundreds (I estimate circa 300), 3 people raised their hands. That's 1%. In Melbourne, the capital of AFL. That is, literally, unheard of.
The PAX crowd is, indeed, unique.

I feel I have matured through my four years at PAX, too. Nowhere is this clearer than my video game preferences.
I seriously fail to see the attraction in the fifth sequel of game franchise X, the second sequel of game franchise Y, or the remake of the not so old Skyrim for that matter. I watched the presentation of the new 4K PlayStation and I was amazed by the quality of the picture; but the two games they've demoed? They're nothing we haven't seen before. Who gives a shit if I could see the intricate details of the heroine's hair flying in the wind?
Screw the blockbusters with the tens of millions in marketing budget and the armoured personnel carrier parked outside for promotion. You suck. To say I will take Mini Metro over all of you combined would be the understatement of the year.

And since I have just invoked the name of a favourite indie title, this old and wise in the ways of the IT industry person is now going to give a personal tip to the indie development industry.
Attending several panels dealing with indie development and talking to indie developers in person, I could not avoid noting just how amateurish their professional practices seem to be. Ask any IT person about their project management practices and they will always complain on just how things never seem to be done right. Well, compared to us corporate folk, used as we are to working in a disciplined corporate environment where project plans and estimates are mandatory before anyone dares opening the wallet, these indie developers seem totally reckless.
Sure, it is this recklessness that gives their products that spark that corporations can rarely achieve. But if they seek to survive to make their next fancy project, they could and they should learn a lesson from those who have been there longer.
And yes, if you read this and you want to borrow on this old person's experience, I'm here to help!