Saturday, 23 December 2017

Civilization 6 for the iPad: Personal Recommendation

Yesterday I woke up to the news Civilization 6, the 2016 game that is one of the best strategy video games ever, has been released to iOS. It’s a full port, you get exactly what PC gamers got on Steam (minus the expansion packs and the mods, the former are said to arrive eventually and the latter incompatible with the Apple way). Personally, I was ecstatic with the news; games like Civ 6 are the epitome of tablet playing. It is as if the gods intended for such games to be played on a tablet.
This could have been the one game to rule them all, at least as far as I was concerned. My appreciation for games I can play any time I feel like when I have a minute here and a minute there is immense, given the fact I hardly get a minute there or a minute here; plus the fact my iPad & I are rarely far apart. Most console or full on PC games port poorly to mobile, because they were never designed to be played in short bouts; Civ games are the exception because of their turn based nature. That is, as long as the game always lets you save. And as long as you can get over the need to have just one more round…
Skepticism crept in once I realised Civilisation 6 is a free game with in app purchases. That is almost always the universal sign for trouble. Turns out my skepticism was well founded!
Allow me to therefore explain why I, or for that matter, you, should not buy Civilization 6 on the iPad even though it could well and justly claim to be the best game on the platform. Because, at least for now:
  1. It is quite buggy. I hope and assume they will fix it, but be prepared for some frustration.
  2. I don’t know what the game’s rendering story is, exactly, but on my 12.9” iPad the game does not play at the screen’s native resolution. It is still a fine looking game, but text does look a little on the blurry side and there is definitely eye fatigue as a direct result. [You can even witness the effect yourself if you magnify the attached screen shot.]
  3. I have a problem with the history of Civilization’s particular publisher on iOS. Their games are abandoned shortly after release, and fail to get the updates necessary for the game to continue running under new versions of iOS. As examples, I will cite Side Meier’s Pirates (buggy for a couple of years before it was pulled off the AppStore entirely), Civilization Revolution 2 (Civilization’s former mobile port wasn’t as good as the real thing but it was fun; alas, it was never updated to 64 bits, as Apple required for iOS 11), Sid Meier's Ace Patrol (formerly available under separate premium and freemium versions, neither got an iOS 11 update), and the original XCOM (probably the contender for best iOS game upon its release, XCOM was never updated for iOS 11 either).
  4. Which brings me to the elephant in the room. Cost: after 60 rounds of free play, Civilization 6 asks for $47 to completely unlock the game. That’s more than any other game I know of is asking on iOS, and by a very wide margin. What’s worse, that’s actually a 50% discount price that’s supposed to go up to its full $94 glory as of 4 January 2018.
  5. Given the way in app purchases work on iOS, this unblocking fee is not family shareable. In my case, it means that each family member that wants to play Civ 6 would have to pay separately.
  6. Lest we forget, Civilization 6 is a two year old game by now. No one is expected to pay full price for it anymore on any other platform.
So there you have it. I argue that I, and so should you, need not bother paying $47 or even $94 for the privilege of playing Civilization 6 on an iPad no matter how glorious the experience is. A financially successful release here would spell a dangerous precedent.
Note I am not arguing against fully priced games; I think the devs need to earn their money. However, Civilization 6 on the iPad does not deserve to be a fully priced game: it is not a new game anymore, it is technically flawed, and it comes from a publisher who has a record of contempt towards iOS users.
Recommendation: Avoid Civilization 6 and wait till the publisher regains their sanity.

23/12/2017 update:
I caught some flak, some justified and some less so, on my arguments above. So I will correct and/or clarify myself:
First, I was informed that Civilization Revolution 2 for iOS has been updated to support iOS 11. According to the AppStore, that update has been made 3 weeks ago (whereas iOS 11 has been out since September). Pickings aside, I think it's a great mobile game, have reinstalled it, and see myself playing it a lot until Civilization 6 is adequately priced. And probably even afterwards, because Civ Rev, while clearly an inferior game, is a more mobile friendly game.
Second, it was pointed out to me the publisher of Civilization 6 for the iPad is not the same publisher as the abandonware games I have cited. That is true: the publisher specified on the AppStore for Civ 6 is the same publisher behind the wonderful port for Knights of the Old Republic (if you don't have it, drop everything and get it now!) as well as Jade Empire (which appears to be well done as well, but I haven't played it much - yet).
However, 2K Games appear in the credits of Civilization 6 for iPad, and they are definitely to blame for abandonware. More importantly, with the exception of XCOM, all the games I have cited as abandonware are Sid Meier games. Civilization 6 also happens to be a Sid Meier game.
I will therefore argue that if the producers of Civ 6 want me to pay full premium console price for their game, breaking all AppStore traditions, the least they could do is let us know how long they are planning to support the game for. As it is, the record stands firmly against them.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Simon Joslin interview

I recently interviewed Simon Joslin for Digitally Downloaded. You can read the interview here.
Simon is the main guy behind the Train Conductor series of games, games that left me with some dear personal memories (of the family type). I met with Simon at last year's PAX and we had a long chat; he definitely is a nice guy. As you can read in the interview, he's been doing interesting things and has plenty of interesting insight to share.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Standing Out

We were talking at work about how hard it is to engage someone you don’t know into a meaningful conversation that would, eventually, lead to work getting done. It’s not only that it’s hard to “crack open” (in a very positive way) someone you don’t know; it is just as hard to find the inner resources required to open yourself up first.
For one reason or another, this discussion made me ponder a phenomenon I encounter infrequently on public transport.

As a non Anglo Saxon living in Australia, I generally stand out from the crowds. People notice me more.
The manifestation of this, when it comes to public transport, is that usually the seat next to me on the train is the last to be taken in the carriage. People are afraid of the unfamiliar, and to the majority I look unfamiliar: even fellow minority members prefer to seat next to members of the majority before they’d risk sitting by me. Sure, it is sad, but at least I can understand where they’re coming from.
Things are even worse with women. As much as it is rare for a man to end up sitting next to me on public transport, having a woman sit next to me is the equivalent of winning the lottery, odds wise. I can understand the reasons for that way better than I understand the general case, given everything women have to go through in this world; let’s face it, Weinstein and Trump are far from being the only predators around.
What happens next is the infrequent phenomenon that triggered this post. I had found, on several occasions, that once a woman sat next to me, she will not hesitate to sit next to me again the next time we bump into one another. Even if the seat next to me is not the last remaining seat.
I find this interesting, because of the things it indicates at. Firstly, it makes it evident I definitely stand out from the crowd; they remember me. And secondly, it shows that once it becomes clear I am a rather benign person whose public transport escapades are usually consumed reading, I no longer inspire fear among my fellow public transporters.
Quite interesting, this inherent fear of the unknown.

Monday, 23 October 2017


It appears we have reached the end of the season for the Strange Man in a Strange Land podcast, and to end things on a high Ike has decided to go with a short episode dealing with one of Australia's finer contributions to common sense: it's handling of tipping.
You can listen to the podcast here, on iTunes here, or simply with this player right over here:

Monday, 16 October 2017

Aussie Sports

This week's episode of Strange Man in a Strange Land is about Australia's fetish with sports. Ike glosses over some of the popular sports here, and speculates on why it is that sports are so important to Aussies.
Have a listen here, over on iTunes, or using the big player below:

Monday, 9 October 2017

Australia's Education System

This week's episode of the Strange Man in a Strange Land podcast offers a review of Australia's education system, from childcare through university.
Have a listen here, on iTunes, or simply through the player below:

Monday, 2 October 2017


Of the things my friend Ike has problems with when it comes to Australia, alcohol is right up there as the cause as well as the effect of some of the worst. So it's only natural he dedicated an episode of his podcast to this subject:

You can also listen to the episode here and even on iTunes here.

Ike also asked to remind you to rate the podcast wherever it is you're listening to it. Also, do send him any questions you might have for an upcoming Ask Me Anything (AMA) special he's planning.

Monday, 25 September 2017


In this week's episode of the Strange Man in a Strange Land podcast, Ike discusses what he considers to be the hardest thing to leave behind when migrating to a new country: friends.
You can listen to the podcast at its home here, on iTunes over here, or at this very page using the player below:

Please rate the podcast at your platform of choice. Especially if you like it!

P.S. Ike asks that, if you have any questions for an upcoming AMA (Ask Me Anything) episode, you forward him your questions. His contacts are in the podcast.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Get Yourself a Job

The latest episode of Strange Man in a Strange Land discusses the joys of finding a job in Australia. It's not going to be easy, whether you've newly arrived or whether you've been around, but there are some additional hurdles in the way of the foreigner.
You can listen to the podcast at its home at this link, on iTunes over at this link, or at this very page using the player below:

Again, we ask if you could rate the podcast at your platform of choice (and then do it on iTunes, too). Especially if you like it!

Monday, 11 September 2017

Australia's Health System

A new episode of the Strange Man in a Strange Land podcast is up, discussing Australia's health system.
So if you want to hear someone analyse Australia's health system's pros and cons, have a listen. Especially if you seek to understand the intricacies of Australia's private health system.
I will note Ike has asked me to ask that, if you like the podcast, you rate it or review it at wherever it is you listen to podcasts (and then go to iTunes and do the same).
For now, you can listen to the episode on iTunes, at this link, or - thanks to the magic of the internet - here:

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Pigs Can Fly

I will start from the end: this post is here to tell you I have decided to stop eating pig / pork.
The rest of this post is about how I got there.

Obviously, the big elephant in the room needs to be cleared first: this is not due to religious reasons. If anything, it's the opposite.
Yes, I know Judaism calls for the banning of pigs, and one could easily think that since I am the product of Jewish heritage then this means I have become a true believer all of a sudden. But no, that is not the case.
To prove by example, another big ticket Kosher food item is to do with the mixing of milk and meat, something I never had a problem with. That is, other than my relatively new aspiration to cut my meat consumption out of concern for animal welfare.
Which is exactly the reason why I've decided to cut the pig. Pork. Whatever.
All the animals we breed for meat consumption suffer, one way or another. Amongst the biggest offended are chickens, cows and pigs, all of which live a life of utter misery as they make their way to our dining plates.
The reason why I have decided to pick on pigs, in particular, is to do with their intelligence. Having read about the topic, it has become clear to me that pigs are quite smart as well as quite emotional. That is to say, the impact of the horrible way in which us humans treat them is much more severe on a pig than it is on, say, a chicken. Not that I'm implying in any way that we should continue treating chicken the way we do; it's just that I am saying I intend to start making this world a better place with the bigger casualty.

So, what does this personal ban on pork mean for me?
It means I am making a notable personal sacrifice given my well documented affection to bacon, especially of the crispy type. Clearly, this is nothing in comparison to the personal sacrifice made by the pig supplying the bacon.
More to the point, it means I will simply avoid consciously buying pork products or ordering meals containing pork products. I used the term "consciously" because this is not always a clear cut affair; I already found myself consuming pork products since going on my personal pork ban simply by virtue of the fact restaurants don't always disclose the fact a meal contains pork. I also noticed some restaurants don't leave their guests with much of a choice, with everything pretty much containing pork.
So I'm not going to be religious about it. My intention is simply to make a personal donation towards the suffering of pigs. I hope others follow suit, to help in the impact department, but frankly I cannot see this taking off. Sadly.
On my part, I hope that this is just the start of my personal quest at reducing animal suffering. My main problem is not the misery about to inflict my tastebuds, because there are lots of fine alternatives to meat out there (hummus, anyone?).
The problem is our bodies need meat consumption in order to remain healthy, and I am not satisfied the vegetarian alternatives are good enough there. The world I am therefore striving for, at least at this stage, is not a world where humans stop consuming animals; rather, it is a world where humans treat their fellow animals humanely.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Finding a place to call home in Australia

This week's episode of Ike Aramba's Strange Man in a Strange Land is a particularly long one, and that's because it deals with a very dear subject: finding a place to call home in Australia.
Have a listen as Ike describes the woes of renting and buying a home in Australia (also: the boredom of hearing others talk about their investment properties).

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Strange Survey

For this week's episode of his podcast Strange Man in a Strange Land, Ike Aramba chose to deviate from his original plan and devote some words to the subject of marriage. It's the right thing to do, given the postal survey on the matter of gay marriage Australia will be going through shortly.
Ike is essentially drawing on his experience with religion running the marriage show in Israel in order to wonder aloud whether Australia is heading in the right way (spoiler alert: Australia is going the wrong way).
You can listen to the episode on iTunes, over here if you're not an Apple person, or just through this player here:

Friday, 25 August 2017

Peter Curry Interview

I recently got to interview Peter Curry, one of the makers of Mini Metro, for Digitally Downloaded. You can read the interview here.
I would like to use this opportunity to mention I consider Mini Metro one of the more brilliant game designs ever (and also one of my favourite game ever, but that is not the point). True, it is an exercise in minimalism; but there is more to it. I used to program simulations for complicated computer networks and factory floors myself; however, the thought of turning those into a game never occurred to me. I guess that is the difference between genius and average.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Announcing a Strange Podcast

You may recall I mentioned here a long time ago how a friend of mine is looking into publishing a podcast. Well, finally that podcast is up!

It's called Strange Man in a Strange Land, and it features my friend looking at Australia through the eyes of an Israeli immigrant. It acts as a guide to would be Australians, people who consider moving here and need to know what they are facing. More importantly, it examines Australian culture through foreign eyes; eyes that have seen how things get done elsewhere before they got to learn how they are done over here.
The new podcast is now on iTunes. You can also find its feed here.
Hope you like it!

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Celebrating 11 years of reviewing

My yearly summary of reviews, where I name (and not shame) my favorite film / book / music / TV and video games is now up over at my reviews blog. Have a look at it here!
I did wonder whether I should also nominate my favourite podcast of the year, but eventually decided not to do so. I find that podcasts' viable lifetimes tends to be far too short for a yearly nomination. That is to say, it is hard to maintain brilliance over a long period of time; not everyone is like me, capable of achieving it for 11 years of reviews and still keep it going :-)

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Spy Who Came Back with the Dirt

Pretty much all the news places I visit were reporting this past week how the company that makes the Roomba vacuum cleaning robot is planning to embark on a new mapping adventure (see here for one example). The plan is to have its robot armada, that has already invaded our houses, send the internal map of their owners residences back "home". As in, its makers "home", where they will be selling the internal map of your house away.
[Adequate disclosure: yours truly has had a Roomba getting entangled with cables for several years now; however, mine is a dumb model. All it does is clean, generate noise, and get stuck.]
The question is, should I, should you, should we, allow this private information - the internal layout of our residences - to be given away? Bear in mind, once it's gone, it's gone; you will no longer have control over it.
If you've been reading this blog you would pretty much know by now that I am on the very conservative side of things here. I would not want my private information taken out of control, period. But am I being exceptionally stupid in this particular case, even by my own rigid standards?
Let's examine the arguments.

Favouring the side of letting the data go is the undeniable assumption that we are not exactly talking Top Secret material here. I'm pretty sure my home's building plans are on the public record somewhere, and even if they aren't then they will be once the house is put on sale and the real estate agency publishes the floor plan for the world to see. Because that's how you buy and sell real estate in this world.
The key factor here appears to be not the floor plan itself but rather the way the resident has chosen to personally furnish the place. The Roomba would be able to tell where you put your sofa, how big your sofa is, where you put your TV, where you put your speakers, etc. Picking that information apart may offer some potentially life enhancing use cases: you could be offered acoustics advice on how to improve the sound quality of your stereo, to pick on one example. To be honest, I don't really know what could be done with this data to enhance our lives with, but I will admit there may well be positive outcomes. It's just that I don't know; we don't know, and I doubt Roomba's makers know. All they know is that they can make a buck.
Then there is the negative. As Bruce Schneier alerts us, there could be implications to this data given away when something goes wrong. Say, if you want to make an insurance claim and the info your innocent Roomba had collected is, all of a sudden, used against you. Again, we simply don't know what this data will end up being used for, but we do know that once you give it away you cannot claim it back.
I will therefore go one paranoid step further and issue a generic privacy advice on allowing one's personal data to be given away. It is simply this: we already know that companies such as Google and Facebook collect all the data they can about you. Similarly, we know that third party trackers, companies such as Acxiom, do so "covertly" behind the scenes, and they are perfectly willing to sell your data to the highest bidder; that's how they make their money. With this data fed to big data processing algorithms, who knows whether tomorrow morning they will find a correlation between someone placing their TV at the corner of the room and that someone willing to spend $10 above average on shoes, hence the "need" for companies such as Amazon to charge them extra on shoes?
Make no mistake about it. It might not be willingness to pay extra for shoes, but with all that data, these companies will find something on you that could be exploited. That is the reason they exist in the first place, and they seem to be making a decent living! Last I heard, Google and Facebook are earning more money than I do.

To this still theoretical risk I will add a much more down to earth, clear and present danger type of a practical risk. By letting the Roomba in your house connect to the Internet, you may be exposing yourself to a major security risk. How? Think of all the vulnerabilities out there with Windows (WannaCry?) and other operating systems that are always on the run to patch up the latest problem. Do you think your Roomba is immune to those problems? And when was the last time you've patched your Roomba up?
Again, this is no theoretical threat. This month alone we have learnt that the Android system as well as Apple's iOS (10.3.3) have been patched up in order to fix a Broadcom wifi chip vulnerability that allowed your phone to be pwned by merely having wifi switched on! [Also bear in mind only a tiny minority of Android users actually have access to this patch. This is one of the core reasons I am firmly on the iOS side of the smartphone equation.]
My point here is not whether you want to let Roomba's maker have access to your floor plan, but whether you want to let your Roomba have access to the internet in the first place. I argue you shouldn't; nor, for that matter, should you let your run of the mill "smart TV" connect to the internet, because these are clearly a weak security link. If you do want to enjoy smart TV features, do so through well supported and patched up devices such as an Apple TV or a PlayStation 4.

Bottom line is, letting Roomba file a report on your floor plan is but one of many tiny steps each of us is taking, knowingly or unknowingly, towards the loss of control over our privacy. I am suggesting here that before we lose such control we need to make proper cost/benefit analysis. At this stage, at least, the benefits for us are theoretical at best while the risks, some lesser and some worse, are very much there.
I therefore recommend a conservative approach to one's privacy.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Drive Me to the Moon

I will start this post by asking you to spend an hour of your time watching this video featuring a guy you probably never heard of as he explains why the self driving electric car is just around the corner. And that all other forms of cars are d-o-o-m-e-d.
Thank me later!
[I will, however, credit @decryption for pointing me at this video through The Sizzle: a daily email of Australian flavoured tech news that I highly recommend.]

Welcome back!
I agree, I think the guy's a way bit too optimistic (?) in his appraisal of the situation. If only because of the way he uses the case of Australian solar panels to drive his point, in contrast to my personal familiarity with the energy market in Australia. Or the fact that Germany has learnt alternative energy sources still offer no good options when it comes to heating.
No doubt your brain is now busy digesting the potential implications of these self driving electric cars the guy was talking about. These are vast: it's not just that there is no point in owning a car anymore when one can call up one at a moment's whim. Nor is it just the fact that the absence of ape driven cars (a term I first heard from Sam Harris) will see hundreds of thousands of us humans staying alive each year instead of die or find ourselves maimed through traffic accidents.
There are implications on work, for a start. Some 20%-25% of us work in driving or other vehicle/transport related jobs that would become moot once the self driving electric car prevails. From car mechanics whose skills will no longer be required to motels that will no longer find clientele once truck drivers get the chop, society will be hit by one big hammer during the next decade.
Potential social collapses aside, I found myself fantasising about another aspect. I was thinking where I would like to find myself in this near future transport fantasy, and it occurred to me what I would like the most is a self driving electric caravan.
Think about it. You climb up to your caravan as it picks you up from work on a Friday arvo in Melbourne and order it to take you to Sydney. You spend your night in the caravan, playing video games and such, stopping for dinner somewhere along the way. Then you go to bed. In your own bed.
You wake up to a nice Sydney morning, parked right next to a top cafe, but you find yourself craving warmer weather still. No fuss; the caravan will gladly take you all the way up to Byron Bay while you do not need to care less about all the traffic going in and out of Sydney.
And so on and so on. Seriously, the only caveat I see in this dream of mine is to do with the fact that modern day caravans still haven't sorted out the toilets problem: you still need to connect to external water in order to have a proper shower, and worse, you still need to manually empty your toilet if you use the one built in to your caravan (gross!). It sounds silly, I know, but it appears humanity shall have self driving electric caravans long before this plumbing problem is solved.
Allow me to therefore ignore toilet issues and point out that, under the assumption no [other] significant unforeseen hurdle lies in this dream of mine, the invention of the self driving electric car could have significant implications on the entire housing market and our very basic understanding of this thing we commonly refer to as "home".

Friday, 30 June 2017

Jennifer Scheurle Interview

I recently got to interview Jennifer Scheurle for Digitally Downloaded. You can read the interview here.
Jennifer is a video game designer and educator. Originally from Germany, now living and working in Melbourne, she is very active on Twitter as @Gaohmee. I met her and chatted with her at PAX, and when Digitally Downloaded asked for developer interviews, she was my first choice.
To give credit where credit is due, the interview questions were written by Matt Sainsbury (Digitally Downloaded’s editor); I was merely the messenger boy. That said, most of the credit should to Jennifer for her wonderful answers.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Vote Facebook

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

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

26/06/2017: I think it is important to add that part of what makes Facebook & Co's contributions to the field of advertising so combustible is the lack of publicity around it. We just don't know what it is, exactly, that Facebook is doing, and therefore we cannot confidentially say just how far it had affected the USA elections. That is entirely because the likes of Facebook and Google keep their secrets, probably because they realised years ago that if the world knew how far they go then that shroud of ignorance protecting them would disappear. Everyone, not just yours truly, would call for action to be taken against them.

02/08/2017: The Guardian published an article talking about researchers finding that Facebook's "dark ads" (the term for ads that pass under the radar and which utilise Facebook's profiling of its users) can swing political opinions.

07/09/2017: Today we received confirmation that Facebook did sell elections related ads to dodgy Russians. Thus this post, which was written as a sort of a hypothetical warning, has been elevated to the level of a working theory: the threat of obscure, big data driven, psychological games playing upon our society at large, but out of our scrutiny at the same time, has been confirmed.

12/09/2017: Today we've learned that these dodgy Facebook ads had a reach of up to 70 million Americans (read here). As a direct result, we are getting calls for Mark Zuckerberg to officially testify about this, citing that "In the past, advertising was all public."

13/09/2017: We're not done yet. Now we learn that not only did Russia use Facebook to influence American voters, they actually got these same American voters to take part in protests that it (Russia) has organised using Facebook. One wonders what those Americans that took part in these protests would think upon discovering they were used as a tool by Russia?

26/09/2017: Washington Post published on new evidence, from Facebook itself, on how Russians were buying Facebook ads (for $100,000) in order to exploit divisions in American society for the elections. For example, convince black voters not to turn up to the vote.
I think I can safely say this post has been proven right by now. I will therefore stop updating it.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Spare a thought for second grade citizens

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

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Digitally Downloaded

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

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

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

War on Labour

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Reasons For Not Jumping On Board The Mass Effect Andromeda Wagon

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

Friday, 3 March 2017

Of Nintendo and Privacy

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Change of Direction

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

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Fire Emblem Heroes

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

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

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

Fire Emblem Heroes image used under fair use.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Back to Stupidity

The final death throes of my Pebble watch proved too much, even for me. I'm back to my good old Casio for now.
The real question is, where to from here, smartwatch wise?

And the answer to that question is a truly sad one. There is no answer.
On one hand, one can choose between the Apple Watch and Android watches. Me, I won't touch an Android watch due to my views on Google's snooping; regardless, all members of both Apple and Google camps are compromised. They are, generally speaking, vastly expensive for what they offer, while their functionality is rather limited when compared to their cost. Yes, I know I'm saying the same thing twice, but it's important to recognise both deficiencies. And, very importantly, both require one to carry a power station along for the ride because they need charging at least once a day.
On the other hand we have the activity trackers (read: smartwatches of inferior operating systems). You know, your Fitbits, the gadgets that track people activities and enable their makers to sell their customers most private data to third parties. Well, as long as those customers actually use the gadget, because the average Joe gets the point and dumps the Fitbit after a month or so.
Yeah, nah.

I am very much baffled by the lack of a company out there that will deliver me with a smartwatch that does one thing, pretty much, but does it well: alert me of incoming notifications on my smartphone. Sure, if that smartwatch can also last a week or so on a single charge, and if that smartwatch is waterproof as well, that would be great.
All I'm asking for is a company that gives me a Pebble.

Added on 06/02/2017:
Another vector of privacy loss involving smartwatches is wifi tracking. To sum the problem up quickly, every time your wifi enabled gadget gets in touch with any wifi network, it tells that network about all the other wifi networks it knows. Thus, you walking around a shopping mall with wifi enabled on your phone allows the shopping mall to know where you live and work as it tracks your movements around the mall (and I'm invoking the shopping mall example because in Australia this is exactly what they do).
Apple showed some weak signs of dealing with this vulnerability since iOS 8. However, it does not seem to have said a word about using similar strategies on its Apple Watch (where, it has to be said, one cannot simply switch wifi off and keep the phone "alive" through Bluetooth; it's both or nothing). I asked that very question at an Apple shop, but even after several escalations they were unable to provide me with an answer.
So there you go.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Immigrant Song

There is something to people’s personal immigration stories I find myself easily able to identify with. Not that this should surprise anyone, being I am an immigrant myself. Nevertheless, the feeling that one belongs neither where one came from nor where one currently is is not a comfortable feeling to live with. Hence reading the personal story of a woman who migrated from China to the UK and went through a lot of the experiences I did while feeling a lot of the things I had felt certainly brings such recollections back to one’s consciousness.
Xiaolu Guo is not alone in feeling the need to tell of her experience. My close friend Ike Aramba has been toying with the idea of trying out podcasting with his insights on the Australian migration story. Apparently, he is seeking to use podcasting as a promotion tool for his business, and wonders aloud whether a hobby/fun first go at it would be a good way to test the water with.
I don’t know how serious Ike is with this initiative of his. It sounds to me as if podcasting can be quite an effort to produce properly, and I know Ike well enough to appreciate how little spare time he has. He can be big on ambitious plans but small on actual execution. But I also know I would like to hear his tale and, almost certainly, identify with it too.

P.S. This blogger always seeks out opportunities to plug a Led Zeppelin song.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Looking Back

Looking back at the history of humanity since the invention of agriculture, we tend to feel sorry for the suffering of all those peasants and vassals that laboured day and night just so they could bring food to the table (if they had any) or have something they can put on to protect them from the elements. Yet this was the way of life for the bulk of humans during the past 10,000 years.
We look back a century or two ago, at the days of the industrial revolution, and wonder how people managed to work under horrid conditions at those steam powered factories. With little in the way of rights or breaks, they suffered through coal and smog to make a living.

In a century or two, the people of the future will look back at us and wonder how - during such an era of affluence as ours - we all agreed to waste the better parts of our lives at our 9 to 5 (and then overtime) work. All this meaningless suffering.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017


It is school holidays in Australia. This kid can remember school holidays when he was a kid, too. For this post, I shall reminisce on one particular childhood summer holiday.
During that year, the hottest rock band in Israel was Tislam. Vinyl was at its peak popularity, but for me the only affordable way of listening to what used to be my favourite band was to listen to the Israeli army radio. There, in his weekday program airing between 11:00 and 13:00, an anchor guy called Eli Israeli* would almost always play a Tislam song.
On the days he did it felt like winning the lottery. On days he didn’t it felt like I’ve just wasted two hours of my life. Two hours of precious, distilled, school holidays life. But that was my best bet at a slice of Tislam.

As I am typing this, I am listening to Tislam on my headphones, streaming through Spotify. Some of their songs still stand the test of time, others have aged very poorly, and with others I am made well aware of the fact I would have never paid them the slightest attention if it wasn’t for the nostalgia factor.
I will say this, though. All of those people that complain about online streaming while longing for their precious vinyl can go and stuff themselves up their you-know-what. You can keep your needles and scratches, if that’s what makes you feel good. Me, I am ecstatic about the fact that all the music I could ever want to listen to is but a simple search away.

* To Mr Israeli's credit I will add that, several years later, he acquainted me with a band called Guns N' Roses