Tuesday, 20 October 2020

myGovID and Government's perception of privacy

Recently, the Australian Government has been pushing its myGovID as the way it would like us, Australians, to authenticate ourselves before the government. To use the government's own words, "myGovID is the Australian Government’s Digital Identity".

Our government's record in IT systems speaks for itself, from the good old CensusFail of 2016 through Robodebt and the more recent COVIDSafe app: general disrespect for public privacy, but worse - lack of understanding of basic security concepts that put the public safety at risk. If it's evidence that you seek to support this supposedly provocative statement of mine, just watch this video where an expert discusses how the COVIDSafe app relies on a Bluetooth vulnerability in order to function (if you can use that word, given the app's track record), thus putting Australians at risk. That's just that one example; I picked the most recent.

I was therefore rather intimidated upon discovering, the other day, that I am forced to use myGovID if I seek to potentially make a living out of my profession of choice.

The first thing I did was teach myself how myGovID is meant to work. The concept behind it is simple: one installs the myGovID app on one's smartphone. The first thing the app would ask you for is an email address and a password to associate with your account. Next thing it does is scan your identification documents (e.g., driver's licence) into the app in order for you to prove who you claim to be.

Once enough of these have been verified, you can start using myGovID for what it was meant to do: when visiting an online government service that uses myGovID for authentication (tax services, in my case), instead of the normal logging in using an email address and password that we're accustomed to, one simply provides the email address they supplied their myGovID app. A notification is immediately sent to the smartphone app, which - when called upon - provides the smartphone user with a 4 digit number. Type that number into the government website you are trying to access (on whatever device you happen to use), and you're logged in.

It's all nice on paper, but what actually happens when one installs the app on one's phone?

Well, the first thing to happen to me was a long wait. Eventually, after about 30 eternity like seconds or so of an unresponsive screen, I got the following:

I "killed" the app and went through the same motions again, only to get the exact same result. It was obvious the app was trying to do something that it was prevented from doing.

My first instinct turned out to be the correct one. My home wifi uses a Pi-hole, a little contraption whose purpose it is to block ads and trackers from ever getting through my network. Think about it as a the ad blocker you're running on the browser you're using to read this right now (and if you don't use an ad blocker, what are you waiting for?), only one that filters the entire network rather than merely a specific browser. According to my network's statistics, some 7% of traffic is thus blocked on my network, a pretty significant number given all my browsers utilise ad blockers of their own.

I checked to see what it is that the myGovID app was trying to do while the Pi-hole intervened, and found the following 2 internet connection targets:

Allow me to translate the above for you:

Basically, the first thing that the myGovID app tries to do is contact Google, and it tries to do so in a couple of ways. The app won't even start if it doesn't manage to establish such contact.

Specifically, myGovID tried to connect to Google's device provisioning, which is part of what most people know as Google Analytics. Google Analytics is probably Google's most prolific online tracking tool, used by 87% of the internet's top 100,000 websites: the website (or, in our case, app) gains all manner of analytics on how users are using the site, while - in parallel - the world's biggest advertising company, Google, gathers personal information on the people using the website (for example, the user's IP address, from which a location can be derived; and, more importantly, information that can be further tied what Google already knows about the device and/or its user). Google Analytics is, thus, a major player in Google's juggernaut operation of collecting as much data as it can about people for the purpose of targeting them with ads.

The other attempted connection made by the myGovID app was to Google's Firebase. Just like any other facility offered by Google, Firebase is a useful service, especially to app developers, who can use the platform for all manner of things ranging from user authentication to data storage. And just like any other facility offered by Google, Firebase does its thing while collecting end user information and tracking them and their devices (for the usual purpose, Google's bread and butter product of targeted ads).

Long story short, once I bypassed my own ad and tracking protector, the Pi-hole, the myGovID app started working and functioned as intended. The scanning of my ID documentation proved unreliable, and the handling of the resulting errors was less than elegant, but I got over that.

So, where am I heading with this long story?

My point is rather simple. If you were to read the myGovID privacy policy (let me help you, it's here), you will not find any mentioning of it sharing data with third parties (which is what Google is; the main two parties are you and the government). If anything, the privacy policy states that

We will not share your personal information with third parties including the document issuer, the identity exchange and the online services you attempt to access, without your consent.

Yet the myGovID app does share some data with a third party. And the app definitely does so without my consent, not even my forced consent, given data is shared with Google before anything else takes place within the app.

The point is, myGovID's violates its own privacy policy. And in doing so, our government is effectively saying that not only doesn't it care about our privacy, it doesn't even recognise Google for what it is: an advertising company that makes its fortune by, as is the case here, abusing the personal information of people who were coerced into using an online tool.

Australians should know where their government stands when it comes to their wellbeing. And as is the case here, Australians should be aware that their government does not care much for their privacy, to the point of not caring when it comes to violating its own policies.

One last thing: I'd like to finish things off with an anecdote.

You might remember that the Australian Government was criticised for using an American company (namely, Amazon AWS) for storing the contact data of COVIDSafe app users, thus potentially allowing foreign access to the detailed movements of Australian citizens. The government came back with several excuses to explain why it did what it did; you can read them for yourself (here) and decide whether it did the right thing.

I will simply point at the following:

  1. No such discourse ever took place with regards to myGovID. The public never got an opportunity to ask whether allowing Google into our digital identity (which is a big thing, actually) is the right thing to do.
  2. In my opinion, the arguments raised by the government to explain why AWS was a good fit for COVIDSafe do not apply to myGovID. There are plenty of good companies out there that offer similar facilities to Google's, for a start; and in the case of myGovID, the speed of deployment was not a factor.
All of which is pointing at our government being rather lazy when it comes to picking IT solutions. Australians will continue to pay the price for this mediocrity.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

BBC Crowd Science: Third Time Lucky

The BBC Crowd Science podcast featured me for the third time in an episode of theirs!
You can check the previous two episodes, which asked what household dust is made of, here. This time around, my question was how many of the atoms I am made of were once part of a fellow human's body. The answers the BBC came up with are interesting both scientifically as well as, how shall I put it, philosophically.
I would like to use this opportunity to thank the episode's producer, Caroline Steel, who laboured a lot to provide me with the answer. I would also like to thank presenter Marnie Chesterton, who is just as fun and smart to talk to as one can imagine after listening to her Crowd Science episodes.

Check the podcast episode on Apple Podcast here, or click here to go the episode's BBC page.

Friday, 24 April 2020

Ask Stacktrace

This week's episode of the Stacktrace podcast ("life and technology from two developers' perspective") had the cohosts, Gui Rambo and John Sundell, featured yours truly - to one extent or another.
As part of the regular Ask Stacktrace part of the podcast, they answered a question I sent them. The question was about converting to become a Swift developer given an old style development background in C and assembly.
The answer - which is excellent, in my opinion, and definitely reflects my own personal experience - can be heard at the last 5 minutes or so of the podcast. You can listen to the entire episode, the question, and the answer here.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

The Case Against the iPad Pro

This April celebrates 10 years to the release of the original iPad (it was announced in January, but made available to buy on April). Late 2015 saw what was probably the biggest step in the iPad’s evolution thus far: the release of the iPad Pro.

I love my iPad Pro. In the years I owned one it has served me loyally and well. In will therefore start this post, where I am about to point a finger at the biggest issues I have with the concept that is the iPad Pro, by pointing out its biggest advantages.

Why an iPad Pro?
  • 13” (almost) screen: That screen size is very useful, assuming you don’t mind the extra bulk. Some games are made extra amazing, but more importantly reading material that was originally produced for A4 paper (like most PDFs do, not to mention magazines) is a pleasure. It comes down to [occasionally] being able to do a lot of things on this single screen, apps and operating system permitting.
  • Mobility: With a cellular enabled iPad Pro, you have a very portable but also a very powerful computing unit on you.
  • Pro apps serving pro use cases: Numerous apps out there give the iPad Pro an extra edge when it comes to productivity. Take lectures (or meeting) notes as an example: tools such as Nebo let you take handwritten notes that later get converted into digital text you can utilise whichever way you see fit; Noted lets you record the lecture/meeting while keeping your text notes associated with specific points in time of said lecture/meeting; and OneNote or Notability let you take notes, drawings, hand written scribbles, and audio recordings and mix them together. I will put it this way: I expect my university experience would have been completely revolutionised had I had an iPad Pro at the time.

As nice and helpful as the iPad Pro is, it has its disadvantages. Two of them have been there right from the start, and despite the best of Apple’s attempts are still very much there:
  • It might be called “Pro”, but it’s not pro enough:
    An iPad Pro may serve certain use cases very well, but it fails in others. Sometimes utterly so.
    The most notable case is Xcode, Apple’s own development tool (you have to use it for iPad app development): that will only run on Macs, and that’s despite of the fact today's iPad Pro can run circles around certain Mac models, performance wise. Other examples abound, including Photoshop - a tool many rely on as their primary tool of trade: yes, you can now get it on the iPad, but no, it is nowhere near “real computer” equivalent.
    Perhaps the most crippling factor in the Pro department is the iPad’s web browser. Safari was greatly improved on iPadOS 13, allowing for activities such as running Netflix through the browser rather than using Netflix' own invasive app. However, especially if one likes to open numerous tabs at the same time, one will suffer.
    This list can continue on and on, by the way. On my part, I can name the lack of a desktop grade TOR browser, the absence of firewall facilities, or various issues (and bugs) with the handling of VPNs as examples for issues on the networking side of things. Common to all these particular issues is the fact they directly stem from the way iPadOS works.
  • Multifocal activities:
    Any activity on the iPad that requires its user to perform actions outside the one main app will take longer, usually much longer, than the same activity would take on a “real computer”. Yes, these days you can take a file from one app and give it to another, but it’s so cumbersome and inefficient that - at least for me - the option of postponing the task till I can get it done on a “real computer” in 2 seconds is the preferred course of action.

There is, however, a third disadvantage hampering the iPad Pro. What’s interesting about this problem is that, rather than improving over time, it is getting worse and worse. And that problem is: subscriptions. Specifically, infrequently used apps which rely on the subscription business model.
Over the last couple of years, more or less, we have seen the bulk of the pro apps for the iPad move from a premium model (pay once to unlock the app) to a subscription model (pay on a regular basis, as long as you want to continue using the app). Apple has been a great pusher of this policy, for the obvious reason that it has been generating Apple a lot of money.
I will therefore state I do not object to the subscription model, at least not on principle. I subscribe to numerous apps that I use regularly, even to the point of dependency (e.g., my password manager of choice, 1Password). I realise app developers need regular income to sustain themselves and continue development on their apps; I also realise that many apps have running costs (e.g., weather apps need to pay for the raw weather data, podcast apps need to pay for servers, etc).
However, by now a lot of apps - too many apps - that I use regularly yet quite infrequently are asking me for a subscription fee. Does it make sense for me to pay an annual fee for an app I only use perhaps 5 times a year? Should I be paying the monthly subscription rate for such an app, effectively making the monthly fee a single use’s admission price? As nice as these apps are, and as useful as they are for that particular niche of functionality they serve, I am not that rich to be able to afford such a luxury.
As a result of this transition to the subscription model, I find more and more functionality that I used to be able to perform on my iPad Pro when needed - functionality that I almost always paid for to begin with - now gets taken away from me. For example, drawing something easily and quickly on Linea Sketch, or coming up with a simple (yet cool) design using Assembly, or taking hand written notes using the aforementioned Nebo, all now come with what is - for me, at least - a pay per use fee. The result is simple: I don’t use them anymore.
I find my usage regressing more and more towards that primitive way of doing things we were all used to before the emergence of the iPad and the App Store: “find a way to do it on Word, Excel or on a browser.” The problem is, of course, that this way is always more awkward, far less innovative, and way less productive than using the pro apps.

That is to say, what may have once been Pro is no longer the case. And, at least for now, these old style ways of getting things done are achieved way better on a “real computer”.

All of which leave the Pro out of the iPad equation, and leave the iPad Pro as - yet again - a great tool in crying need of useful use cases it could support. Till then, it's not much more than a fancy yet ordinary iPad: a cool, incredibly effective, consumption device. And not much more.

iPad Pro image by Apple, used under the assumption of fair use

Monday, 23 December 2019

The Games of My Decade

The story of the games that made my decade is a story of coming of age, yet again, in yet another period of life. The games that consumed me express a lot about the person that I was during this decade, the things that occupied my mind, the issues I had to grapple with in my daily life, and my constant search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless world.
My ongoing attempts to be a good parent are reflected in the seeking of gaming experiences that can satisfy despite short exposures, leading me more and more away from the TV or the PC and towards the mobile. I went through ups and downs, falling for the games that were meticulously engineered to milk me for all that I am worth, but I also learnt to tell the better from the worse as the joyride went on.
Some games went much further than simply inducing me with reflections. Some games nudged, pushed, even kicked me and my life into new directions. Ultimately, these are the games I love the most. These are the games that are worth the most.

Mass Effect 3 (2012) on the PS3
If I had to pick just one game for this decade, ME3 would be it. I am a sucker for good science fiction presented soap opera style (think: Star Trek), and ME3 offered plenty of that sweet and delicious mana from heaven (in the shape of a Reaper attack). Between all the chores and missions one needs to fill as one goes about saving one’s galaxy through combat missions made of a team of three (hey, it made sense at the time), I got to develop romantic relationships with exceptionally well rounded characters in a setting full of grey areas.
Some serious questions were raised: who is the bad guy of the galaxy, really? Who is the destroyer of life? How should humans deal with artificial intelligence? And, when fighting the ultimate enemy, is it a case of anything goes, or do we still play by the values we always said we stand for?
Mass Effect 3 also offered me the first online co-op multiplayer I ever had a go at. Up to that point in time, online multiplayer meant being splattered within 5 seconds by a 5 year old; ME3 changed the scene by allowing me to join sides with them and forcing them to accept a noob by their side.
Other things ME3 is notable for are its world first mainstream packaging of loot boxes and - how could anyone forget - a very controversial ending. Frankly, I didn’t care much about either: I simply ignored the loot boxes, failing to realise their historical importance, and I chose to focus on the 40 or so hours that preceded that ending. That said, I agree the ending was rather underwhelming for a game that was all about the importance of personal choices. Or was it the game’s way to tell us that none of this really matters?
...And then came the gamers’ outcry and a failed attempt to “correct” the ending.

Fire Emblem Fates - Conquest (2016) on the 3DS
Whenever we hear of a conflict or a war in the news, we tend - very naturally - to pick a side. If we do not have any personal affiliations with the conflict at hand, we will usually go for the underdog.
One can dismiss Fire Emblem Fates for being “just another Fire Emblem”. One can even complain that “it’s not like the Fire Emblems I grew up on; those had greener greens”. I would beg to differ.
I think that of the three games that made up the Fates trilogy (?), Conquest is the pudding that is the proof. Here is a game where you are playing the aggressor, the baddie side if you will, yet - as the game progresses - you learn that the baddies are not that bad, that there is good in what you’d normally consider to be bad, and that there is bad in what you thought was good. You learn the world is a complicated place, too complicated to make binary choices of the Axis of Evil type (here’s looking at you, Dubya).
And you also play a hell of a tactical RPG game in the process.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) on the Switch
I was actually a latecomer to BotW: I only got it in late 2018, and I only started playing it in anger in early 2019. I had my reasons to doubt it, being the open world skeptic that I am. Up to that point on the Zelda timeline, my favourite Zelda was a 2D one I played more than a decade before on the DS. Most of all, I was skeptic because of the problem that plagued all the other Zelda games of yonder: through having to play fairly long stretches in between saving points, time deprived me found it impossible to get any meaningful progress in a Zelda game.
With one single fix, Nintendo sorted all my Zelda universe problems: BotW allowed me to save the game anywhere I wanted. And with that, I was free!
Turned out, Nintendo not only fixed my technical problem, it totally bewitched me. Once I did start the journey, I simply couldn’t stop. I had to climb every mountain and search high and low; explore the high places and the pillars, look up the high hills and under every green tree.
For someone short on time, a so called gamer that wouldn’t allocate more than 3 hours to a game because life happens, I am happy to report my Switch claims I had spent around 220 hours on this one single game. I have no idea where those hours came from, and can therefore only conclude Nintendo had invented a time machine.

Mass Effect 2 (2010) on the PS3
I discussed my Mass Effect fetish enough already, but one does feel the need to point out how great Mass Effect 2 was in its own rights. Looking back, it was perhaps the lack of a need to provide an ending that made this space opera stand out. For me, at the time, ME2 stood out as the perfect team building story of a game ever, accompanied as it was by a very enjoyable third person shooter mechanic. I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s all about the writing, and ME2’s was superb!

Mario Kart 8 (2014) on the Wii U
There is something to be said in favour of unassuming entertainment, the type of entertainment that seeks to make its subjects enjoy themselves but which does not pretend to expand their horizons or, heavens forbid, burden their neurones with extra thoughts. Of all publishers, Nintendo seems the master of this particular domain, and Mario Kart 8 is the pinnacle of its creation - the best of the best. No wonder it is still a top seller, years later and on another console altogether.
As testimony for Nintendo’s achievement in the field of excellence, this household evening routine has included an all family Mario Kart grand prix (or two) per evening for several years in a row. Mario Kart is one of those games one can never tire of.

World of Tanks (2010) on PC and World of Tanks Blitz (2013) on iOS
On paper, me diving deeply into a world of tanks seems a rather odd choice. Yes, my father had a history with a real tank, and yes, World of Tanks does a lot to remove the graphic violence out of the experience, but at the end of the day it is still war gaming that we are talking about.
I therefore pinpoint World of Tanks’ attraction to that inherent drive we all have for optimisation, the need to make things better. You start with a basic tank (or what the game poses as one) and you want to make it better; then you want the slightly better tank, that faster one; then the one with more fire power; and so on and so on. The ability to switch into different flavours of armoured warfare, such as tank destroyers or even artillery, adds further complication to an already hard to solve equation. And it all has to work in the context of team battles!
All I will say is that I have let down my teams so often my father would be ashamed of what I had become. I did enjoy it, though…

Human Resources Machine (2015) on iOS
Back in the early eighties, when personal computers first started to invade households en force, most of us [now old timers] used them to play games that we bought (or pirated). If we wanted to write our own game, which wasn’t as inconceivable as it sounds today, we usually had to write them using the single language our computer came equipped with (at the time, BASIC was the lay of the land). However, because performance was lacking, the way to get your games to shine was to write them in machine language: that is, write your code at a level that the CPU itself would understand, thus getting rid of the inefficient BASIC middleman. To get there, you had to learn how your CPU works; you had to understand what inputs it would take, what outputs it could provide, and how to manage those. It was fun, but it wasn’t a trivial pursuit.
As it happens, Human Resources Machine is an otherwise unassuming game that simulates exactly how machine language programming works at the CPU level without ever telling you that what you are doing is machine language programming. You’re simply a new employee in a big corporation’s Human Resources department, and it is your job to do the mundane [nasty] stuff that human resources departments do, such as sorting employees by their performance and such. It’s just that the tasks you’re doing, and the way you will be doing these tasks, happen to be an exact match of the way a CPU runs computer programs. In other words, if you wanted to teach your kid the very basics of computer programming concepts, let them play Human Resources Machine.
For me, playing had reignited the passion to write code, a passion this kid once had before it was exhumed by life’s circumstances. It even made me have a serious go at it again. Thus far, all my efforts in this direction have failed, but there’s only that far that a video game can take you.

Mini Metro (2014) on iOS
Fully accepting the self contradiction, I would like to point out that this world is often not as complicated as it seems. Take video games as an example: not all of them need to be made of gigantic open worlds served at 120 frames per second in 8K resolution. Sometimes, all one needs is a line connecting pretend symbolic customers with where they want to get to in a made up, minimalist, world of finite resources.
Mini Metro is thus the best example I can cite for a universe from nothing. It is also the Christmas gift I have been giving the most. It being the creation of a small team of lovely people from Wellington, whom I had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions, is the cherry on top of a perfect cake.

Fire Emblem Heroes (2017) on iOS
Sometimes you have to learn things the hard way. For me, the lessons I needed to take regarding concepts such as loot boxes and in-app purchases were all learnt, the hard way, through Fire Emblem Heroes. And I enjoyed every minute of it (discounting the times I did not manage to score my hero of choice through the luck of the loot draw).
Fire Emblem Heroes had such an effect on me because it captured the very essence of the Fire Emblem battle formula to a T, offering quick rounds of battles that helped me level up the team of warriors I was so personally connected with. It lured me even further by offering me the chance of having even more of these favourite heroes.
For almost a year, I mind numbingly played an hour or so a day. Until, that is, I finally grew a spine of my own and decided that enough is enough - this isn’t taking me anywhere. I deleted the game, making sure I have no backups.
These days, I’m singing songs of praise for Apple Arcade.

Florence (2018) on iOS
As a game (a visual novel?), Florence took me less than 45 minutes to finish. Yet it is not an absurd for me to list it as one of the games that made my decade, because Florence stands for much more than the time it takes to play it through.
Florence is a game that tells an elaborate (yet, admittedly, far from extraordinary) story in ways that have been impossible to portray were it not a video game. Florence also achieves that in an efficient, bang for the minute, way that most if not all works of art preceding it can only be jealous of.
It might have not knocked your graphics card’s teeth out. It might have not forced you to come back and play for yet another hour in order to unlock this really cool fluff. It might not be a treasure trove of contents. But Florence is a breakthrough in story telling using the very latest media available to earthbound humans. And it is a game that totally respected me not having much in the way of spare time.

Also published at Digitally Downloaded.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

PAX 2019 Impressions

As an attendee to all PAX AUS events to ever take place, it has been my habit to post post PAX impressions. I will do so again, albeit with too much of a delay (it's been more than a week since PAX).

There were tons of police all across the floors at PAX on the Friday this year. I never saw them before, and (to my relief) I never saw them again after the Friday. Thank the goddess.
Police may be a necessity at most public event, but at PAX? The closest thing to a crime I could ever detect at PAX was the impossibility of having so many people being so nice to one another and the overabundance of smiles on display. No, we cannot possibly have that.
I suspect police was there on that particular day because of the climate protests. But what’s the worse thing the protestors could do to PAX? Assuming power boards are actually secure, what would they do? Tie themselves to a panel on Zelda game music to the tune of sympathetic cheers?

Pins everywhere
The old habit of selling people on game related “collectable” pins continued in force at this PAX. The main difference was the asking price: last year they started at $15, this year they started at $20.

As has been the trend, PAX’ panels seem to be more and more oriented towards the YouTuber generation. How shall I put it? I find them OK entertainment if I need a rest from the hustle & bustle of the show floor, but otherwise I’d call them disappointing.
Pay attention, though, the occasional exception is there to be found, even if none is as serious or as professional as I would like them to be.

Since we’ve talked pins, I will continue with the theme:
I cannot say I was too impressed with Nintendo’s pin quests. I.e., take photos and post them on social media to get a Link’s Awakening pin etc. First, there was lack of clarity on what's actually required to get a pin: we actually did play the required Pokemon demo, but were unaware of having to show this particular website on my phone in order to earn a pin; not to mention the error on Nintendo's landing page that was required for yet another pin. Second,  I’m not the kind of person who posts pictures of themselves online nor will the promise of a badge make me change old habits. And third, with kids at a certain age it might even be illegal to do so.
Let’s just say I did not bother with Nintendo’s pins.
On the more important side, I did try a few of their other games and hardware:
  • Pokemon Sword and Shield: I cannot say I was impressed with the demo. The new Pokemon “models" failed to attract me, and the gaming itself seemed to be trying too hard to differentiate itself from previous generations of Pokemon games. The Let’s Go games, the first Pokemon games on the Switch, tried to do it by using the Pokemon Go capture mechanics; Sword and Shield don’t even have that.
    I think I’ll pass on this one. I still think the best Pokemon experience to be had is on the DS.
  • Link’s Awakening: What a cute, charming game! Which is perhaps why I bought it the day after PAX.
  • Switch Lite: I know it sounds stupid, but - playing with the Switch Lite felt so natural and so nice. Way better than playing the “normal” Switch handheld. I’m seriously considering getting one, although I’d feel very stupid paying Nintendo’s current asking price.
Overall, Nintendo seems to be doing very well in the games department. It is no coincidence I bought 3 Switch games this past month alone, and that’s despite being flooded with quality games through Apple Arcade (which is to say, if you didn’t get Untitled Goose Game yet, drop everything and get it).

How disappointing can Sony be? Very and utterly is the answer.
The short statement here is that there is absolutely nothing on the PlayStation’s horizon that seems even slightly interesting; it’s all more of the same sh*t, literally, in the form of more A title “contents”, usually in the form of sequels, with little to no originality and spark to it.
The contrast with Untitled Goose Game could not be any larger.
It therefore looks like my PlayStation career will elapse with the upcoming death of my PlayStation Plus subscription. There will be no PlayStation 5 for me; what’s the point? Instead, I will focus on where the good games are.

When I say social, I am not referring to the detestable “get this discount through the app” or “look us up in the app” or “find us on Facebook” (what’s wrong with having your own website?), all of which require one to sell one’s soul to a myriad of detestable companies trading in one’s private info.
This PAX was unique, for me, in that I did not bump or socialise with any friend or colleague.
That, however, does not mean I did not have any social interactions. It’s just that most of my social interacting took place with game developers who know me through this and that (and through previous PAXes).
I will note down, in particular, the lovely people from Dinosaur Polo Club, makers of Mini Metro and the new Mini Motorways (that other game of the year winner, as far as I am concerned, along with the Goose). They actually remembered the whole family, and entertained us with discussions about Wellington and life in general. It really does seem like being great people is a mandatory ingredient to being able to produce truly great games.
I will be amiss not to mention Robot Circus, makers of Ticket to Earth, as well as the UK crew of Massive Monster (whom we got to know, originally, through the game Adventure Pals).

Board gaming
One of the highlights of all PAXes, for me, has been the ability to try and play board games (by which I am referring to pretty much any game that’s not a video game).
This year we tried PAX' Dungeons & Dragons for Beginners sessions twice. For the record, I’m no D&D beginner, but I haven’t played for a while (“while” being a relative term) and I definitely lack experience with the current incarnation of the rules. Trying the same starter adventure twice, under two DMs, was certainly an appetising affair: each DM brought distinct flavours and approaches, reminding me just how far D&D can go. Especially when you have a group of interested friends that can adjust to one another. Which is what I don’t have and why it’s been a while since this rogue last poked an arm into someone else’s treasure chest.
The area where one can playtest board games under the guidance of some instructor or sales person of sorts was way too crowded (did anyone mention PAX needing more space?). We did, however, manage to land ourselves a table with a game designer trying out her new board game, and the result was - undoubtedly - the highlight of my PAX. Not only was her game great to play (made greater through being different to the type of games we usually play), the interactive nature of the session and the notes she took from us about her game’s design turned us into game designers in our own rights. We ended up exchanging emails after PAX, and I can say that I met a wonderful person and learned a lot from it.

To sum up...
One more year till next PAX! I hope they schedule them back to the early November slot we were used to; I definitely did not appreciate the traffic chaos caused by running PAX on the same weekend as the Melbourne Marathon.
For now, I left PAX 2019 with a vision about the future to come. A vision in which my gaming is completely dominated by the Nintendo Switch and Apple Arcade.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

The BBC & I on Dust

BBC Crowd Science is one of my favourite podcasts. Essentially, it's a podcast where people from all over the world send them questions on matters of science, and they answer them.

Back at the end of 2017, Crowd Science has featured an episode based on a question from yours truly. I asked them to tell me about the dust in my home and whether I should worry about it (or even clean it). To help them answer my questions, I had posted them dust samples from various sources in my home. Luckily, there is no supply shortage there.
You can read and listen to this episode here.

This week, Crowd Science followed up on my question with yet another episode that goes even deeper into the matter and looks at whether household microbes help or harm us.
You can listen to this newer episode (and to yours truly, again), here.

While at it, do consider subscribing to BBC Crowd Science on whatever platform it is that you're listening to podcasts through. It's a great podcast even on episodes that do not feature me.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Thoughts on the up and coming Apple Arcade

The App Store is dead.
No, hear me out. I know it’s been making more money than ever, but the financial figures only tell part of the story. Money may be up, probably due to subscriptions, but downloads are down. That is probably because, these days, what used to be the open range safari of an App Store is mostly catered for by a very few companies delivering the big apps that almost everybody uses (thing Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Google Maps) and a tiny bit of a few other things on the side that are probably struggling to survive (think Evernote).
That old concept that said all one needs in order to make a killer app and retire a millionaire hasn’t been cutting the threshold of reality since around 2014. Exceptions exist, true, but so do lottery winners, and none of us take lottery winning for granted; we’re smart enough to know the odds mean it’ll never happen to us.
Looking at games, specifically, the App Store is even more than dead. It’s a dead zombie walking. Have a look at all the charts and you will have a hard time finding a premium game; everything is freemium, and - by definition - a freemium game cannot be a good game.  A good game is a game that’s focused on being a good game, usually by delivering a good narrative; a freemium game is a game that’s focused on drawing money out of the coffers of its players.
If Apple was truly caring for us, its users, it would offer search options where games are ranked in depending order of cost. Better yet, it would allow the option of ignoring freemium apps in the search.

If the iOS App Store is dying, then the tvOS App Store can never be said to have been alive in the first place. Sure, when the fourth generation Apple TV came out there was this promise that it would turn our living room into a gaming arena, but that was hampered by two factors:
First, those of us who wanted a gaming arena around their TV already had much superior options to do so with. Think PlayStation.
Second, anyone who tried the Siri remote that comes with the Apple TV will know it’s a pain to use when all one seeks to do is watch something on Netflix; for gaming purposes, it’s a total nightmare. Proper console like controllers can be purchased, yes, but they’re expensive and they are trapped in that chicken-and-egg conundrum of having the games first before bothering to buy a controller.

Into this scene Apple is now proposing to bring the Apple Arcade. For a fee rumoured to be $10 (USD) a month, users would be able to play some 100 games Apple had paid hundreds of millions ($500M, according to this report) for external game developers to create. Assuming the catalog will only grow in size over time, expect the Apple Arcade to open around September 2019 with the release of iOS 13.
Further, those Apple Arcade games would be playable on iOS (that’s iPhone and iPad for you), tvOS (Apple TV), and macOS. In effect, through iCloud sync, that would create an environment not unlike the Nintendo Switch’s: you could play at home on your big TV with a controller, then take the game with you to play when you’re out and about. Or even at work, but don’t tell anyone. The technical capabilities of these devices is certainly not far off the Switch’s, if not better in certain aspects.
The question is, what would Apple Arcade achieve? Would we be better off for its existence, or would it create a worse world as far as good games are concerned?

Naturally, the knee jerk reaction is to welcome any initiative where games receive proper funding and where games are being properly paid for. At first glance, Apple Arcade could be a life saver.
Nothing, however, is simple as it may seem. There is a lot to question with regards to Apple’s approach with Apple Arcade.
Consider the developers it had engaged. The likes of Will Wright of Sim City and The Sims fame; or Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy. Are these the sort of people that need Apple’s cash to create a good game in the first place?
Take a look at the companies Apple has been engaging with. Are Lego and Sega, to pick a couple, the sort of companies that have any problems releasing video games on their own?
Sure, there is nothing wrong with us having more games from these makers. Spare a thought, though, for the small indie developer out there, armed with fantastic ideas and no funding: what hope lies in their future when all the money goes towards the already rich and famous? Worse, who in their sound mind would pay to buy their games when they’re already paying $10 a month to Apple Arcade?
Apple Arcade could be a boon for all those involved, but it could be a disaster for all those left out. And those left behind are the majority of developers out there, the ones that - once upon a time - helped Apple make the App Store the giant it is.
Me, I’d rather see Apple spend its money on smaller developers. Or initiate some sort of a program that would allow them to come up with something, rather than invest in the already tried and tested that we are generally saturated with already.

Then there is the discussion on whether $10 a month would work. Most of us are already spending considerable sums a month on various entertainment subscriptions, be they cable or Netflix for video or Spotify and Apple Music for music. Gamers are already paying for the likes of PlayStation Plus or Nintendo’s generally struggling online service. Do we care to add the considerable sum of $10 a month on top? $120 a year?
I expect many, if not most, to be pushed back by this price. Personally, I’d love to pay for games but I hardly get the time to play them; spending $10 a month when I can only play 1-2 hours a week seems highly irrational to me, no matter the good thoughts that paying for good games bring.
I would have preferred some sort of a tiered payment structure that could ease the pain.

Last, but not least (at least for yours truly), is the matter of privacy.
Ads, tracking, and data harvesting are the hidden bane of modern gaming. Most people are unaware or turn a blind eye, but there are hardly any games or games platforms out there that don’t watch you as you’re playing and go home to talk about it to anyone willing to pay. Most game publishers consider the money they earn through these avenues another legitimate revenue streams, but in effect they are selling our data - who we are - to the highest bidder (and to the lowest as well).
Do you really want anyone out there to know what you’re playing, when you’re playing, and where you’re playing? Maybe you’d consider that data harmless; but it is not so harmless when it is added to data collected about you elsewhere, which allows companies like Facebook to categorise who you are to an extremely fine degree so that the likes of Brexit and Donald Trump can then be sold on to you.
Call me old fashioned, but when I read a book I like to do so by myself. And when I play a game, I also like to do so by myself. Therefore, when Apple announced its Apple Arcade games would come with no in app purchases, no ads, and no tracking, that was - by far - the thing that attracted me most to this service. No longer will I have to switch my phone offline in order to be able to privately play a game without some nasty company like Facebook peering over my shoulder!
The questions I had (and still have) is, how private is private? I have seen (and reported) cases where a company states one thing with regards to privacy but does another thing altogether. Where will Apple lie on this spectrum?
We still don’t know, because Apple Arcade isn’t out yet. And we would have to constantly check in order to be sure over time. However, we got a bit of a promising glimpse into the future when Apple released its own game, for the first time in goddess knows when, to the App Store. This free game is called ‎Warren Buffett's Paper Wizard.
Granted, it’s not much of a game; the back story suggests it’s more of a joke. Regardless, last time I checked yours truly was holding the #8 high score in the world. Not bad for a n00b.
More importantly, yours truly checked Paper Wizard to see if Apple is true to its word when it comes to privacy and tracking. The image below shows all the internet connections made by my iPad while playing the game:

Let me translate it to you: other than normal iOS communications that the device does anyway, and other than saving my position to iCloud, no external ad agency, data harvester, or external analytics service was deployed. Assuming one trusts Apple (and one has to when buying an iPhone), things could not be better on the privacy front.

In conclusion, let me ask again: would Apple Arcade improve the world of gaming or hamper it?
We don’t know yet. Personally, I hope it would; it could be the last time a company with coffers as big as Apple’s decides to invest in gaming.  But I suspect some sort of a mixed bag that easily could, if Apple doesn’t pay enough attention, actually reinforce the current status quo. Do we want to continue living in a world where only big companies can release games, and therefore those games they do release tend  to come off the uninspiring pre-established moulds?