Thursday, 29 December 2016

Good Games

What makes a good game good?
That’s a loaded question, but I will focus it further in order to be able to hold a discussion. I am talking about video games, mostly, given that this is the area where we see can visibly see most gaming innovation. Further, given that this year saw little originality in the big name blockbuster video game releases, I will focus on mobile video games - an area where, in my humble opinion, we have seen much innovation.
If we look at the top iOS games from the past two years, Reigns, Mini Metro, Lara Croft Go and Severed, I think the answer to the above question is glaringly obvious. They are all simple games, really, that are based around a simple core idea - a quality referred to in the industry as “game mechanic”. In Reigns you make yes/no decisions in order to optimally balance four contradicting factors; in Mini Metro you are constantly solving a more and more complex transport optimisation problem; in Lara Croft you play the classic game of Go with a twist, just as in Really Bad Chess (another great game) you play the classic game of chess with a twist. And in Severed you play “just another” RPG but with original graphic presentation and combat mechanics that work really well on a touchscreen.
My answer to the above question, what makes a good game good, is therefore: it implements a good idea well. And that is it, really; everything else is extra padding on top.

Which takes me back to the game that I probably liked the most this year, the aforementioned Human Resources Machine. I liked it because its well implemented idea was the gamification of machine code programming, which, in turn, brought back memories of the days when I used to do that very thing.
I like to think that the really great games earn their greatness through being more than good games; they are also good pieces of art. And it is that element of Human Resources Machine that captured me by making me think thoughts. It made me think “why not”; as in, I have done this [machine code programming] before, why can’t I do it again?
And it occurred to me that, while I have been away from the coding world for a long time, I can still do it. Languages might be different, environments might be different, but the concepts are still the same; technically speaking, I am able to produce a Reigns like game by myself with relatively little upskilling effort. The actual work would consume a lot of my time and require significant funding to achieve without my family starving as a result, though.
I even have some nice ideas to play with, too. I don’t think they’re Mini Metro good, no, but they sure pack enough heat for me to truly enjoy myself while at it.
And why not, really?

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Products of Our Time

My son has been asking me questions lately. He wonders how come people migrating to Australia massacred the indigineous population. He wonders why people have driven animals such as the dodo into extinction. I try to be a good father and relieve him from the burden of worrying about historical events, and I explain that the people who did those atrocities acted as per the values and culture of the time. I tell him that back then, dark skinned people were not considered people; non Christians were not considered people; animals were considered soul less beings; etc. But I add that today we are different because we know better.
That is what I tell him. Me, I like to think that I would have been above standard. I’d like to think that if I were a German, I would save Jews. If I was a white plantation owner, I would set my black slaves free. Because I’m that kind of a guy, you know. I’m a good guy. I like to be able to look myself in the mirror.
Clearly, I’m deluding myself.
Fast forward the tape a century or two forward, and consider what future generations will think of ours. Forget about global warming; they would file us in the same folder we file the executors of human genocide for a crime that takes place everywhere, all the time, without much of a whisper from any but a select few. I am talking about our handling of domesticated animals.
Consider what we are doing to them. We constrict them in tight ghettos, make them live their entire lives with hardly an option to move, force them to live in their faeces, separate mother from child, and then kill them in well engineered mass production facilities so that we can enjoy their meat. Every year, billions of animals are butchered this way after living short and incredibly miserable lives so that we can have a good meal. What is this if not genocide?
I am a product of my time. Try as I may to reduce my consumption of meat, milk and eggs, I find it all but impossible not to be seduced by the aroma of bacon or the lure of cheesy pizza.
So tell me again, in what way am I better than those slave owners of yonder?

Thursday, 15 December 2016

True Blue

What is patriotism? That is, if I am allowed to sharpen the question, who is the real patriot? Is it the person who stands to their nation’s call at every opportunity?
Looking at Australia’s own history, acting this way is clearly a fool’s errand. We celebrate the heroism of Australia’s soldiers at Gallipoli, but at the same time we acknowledge the foolish nature of the escapades there - as big a hero as the Aussie digger was at Gallipoli, that guy should not have been there in the first place. The same applies for Vietnam, and if we fast forward Iraq, too. Even key Republican figures, including president elect Trump, admit the war in Iraq has been a mistake; by proxy, the same applies to Australia’s involvement there, too.
So who is it, exactly, who is the true patriot? Is it the guy who answered the call and went to fight that foolhardy war because that’s what his country said, or is it the person who protested against the war in the street and got arrested for it?
I’m firmly on person B’s side of the equation, given that I am a member of that minority that considers nationalism to be one of humanity’s greatest illnesses. But even if you disagree with me on nationalism, as you probably are, you’d have to concede that true blue patriotism can come in many shades.
Which is why I truly do not get the fuss Americans are making over Colin Kaepernick and his refusal to stand up to the national anthem. Seriously, if this is the one problem in this world of ours that troubles you, you’re in an awkwardly privileged position. A national anthem is just a collection of musical notes, the same way a flag is just dyed fabric; any meaning it holds is meaning given to it by us, and if Kaepernick refuses to give it the same meaning as the majority of other Americans then good on him. Last I’ve heard, we take pride in being able to make autonomous decisions.
But it gets worse. I was under the impression the whole Kaepernick affair is old news, forgotten by now through the mighty eclipse called Trump. Turned out I was wrong: the Pentagon and non other tweeted the other day against him. They then deleted their tweet, probably upon realising they broke the law by getting themselves involved in purely civic affairs, but the point has been made. The strongest army in the world, by far, and one in control of a nuclear arsenal that can wipe our planet clean, considers true patriotism the act of doing what one is told without daring to ask any questions.
America is so fucked up and, by proxy, so is the rest of this world.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

My friend published a song on Spotify

And you should listen to it because it's really good:

Between the touching lyrics, the voice miking and the minimalist (sort of) presentation, the song really reminds me of PJ Harvey's Rid of Me.
My only concern with the song is figuring out the circumstances that made her write such a song.

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.