Category: life

The death of (open) Instant Messaging?

Instant Message services were a Big Thing in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Everyone seemed to use them, and all the wannabe big players on the internet were offering some form of instant messaging. AOL, Yahoo, MSN, Google, you name it, everyone had a service. It was a great way to contact friends, as well as continue conversations started in real life with recent new acquaintances.

There was much competition among the providers to see who could get everyone to use their client and their protocol. Users understandably didn’t want to have to install and run a half dozen different clients to do the same exact thing with all these different services, so naturally they rebelled and gravitated toward open source clients that supported multiple protocols, perhaps not with all the bells and whistles, but well enough to conduct basic text-based instant messaging with their contacts.

Many of these were closed protocol services, meaning that they were intended to work only with a proprietary client, which (tried to) force users to connect to the service with the official client. There were numerous open protocols competing for users as well, and open source multi-protocol clients, which mainly promised a better user experience (with no advertising) and often better privacy, and other useful features such as chat logging and a plugin framework that allowed greater customization and extensibility. gAIM, initially an open source implementation of the AOL Instant Messenger, later morphed into a multi-protocol client that rebranded itself pidgin, to avoid confusion with the AOL-trademarked AIM. There were also Trillian and ICQ which offered similar open source clients with multi-protocol flexibility.

For several years the closed services fruitlessly tried to lock out these open source clients, forcing people to update frequently to keep compatible. Eventually service providers relented and gave up the arms race to lock out the open source clients, and things settled down and became peaceful for a time.

Then came Facebook. The rise to dominance in the social media sphere resulted in a decline of other messaging services. For the last however many years, I’ve mostly used Facebook messages, because that’s what everyone seems to use anymore. Social applications go where the users are, and facebook has the users. I can’t remember the last time anyone has attempted to contact me through my AIM account, and I’ve never really used YahooIM or MSN Messenger, although I technically have accounts because they came for free with a Yahoo or MSN or Hotmail account. I also use gmail chat sometimes, but also with diminishing frequency.

So, when I bought a new laptop back in March, it wasn’t a high priority to set up my pidgin accounts right away. I only got around to trying it just this last weekend. I do a lot of fb chat on a daily basis, but I just used the desktop website for that, and didn’t really notice anything missing by not logging into the other services.

All of a sudden, I can’t use most of my accounts through pidgin.

  • My AIM account has an SSL error when I try to connect through pidgin.
  • The Yahoo IM service is being shut down soon as part of Yahoo’s continued decline into irrelevance.
  • My google accounts warn me that the login is insecure, and recommends that I not allow it. I take my google account security seriously, so I heed this warning. I’m unclear if there’s a way to use pidgin to connect to gTalk securely, but I haven’t really looked into it as yet; if I need to I have the Google Hangouts app installed on my phone, and I can use the gmail web client to chat with people. It’d be nice to have everything in one place, and I’d like that place to be pidgin, but at least I can still access the service.
  • Facebook seems hellbent on closing off instant messaging services to Messenger only. I’d rather never talk to any of my friends ever again than be forced to use Facebook Messenger. The only other reliable method of messaging through Facebook remains the full desktop website; mobile crashes when I try to use it for messaging from an actual mobile device. And FB nags me to try Messenger whenever it thinks to. On my smartphone, Facebook wants me to install Facebook Messenger, which I DO NOT WANT. They started locking out mobile website users of their messaging feature, such that my browser crashes if I try to access the feature through m.facebook.com. I switched over to Trillian for Android, which worked for a few weeks, and now it too has issues. At first I noticed that I could not receive incoming messages that had hyperlinks or images. Now, I can’t even send plain text, although I can still receive it. Hopefully this is something the Trillian developers can work around, but it is looking like FB has resumed the arms race to lock out independent clients from accessing the service.
  • Livejournal has always embraced openness with its messaging, using XMPP for its protocol. So it works well with pidgin still, and out of the accounts I accessed through Pidgin it seems to be the last one standing. But it was never a popular IM option even when LJ was one of the top social media sites, and LJ has been a ghost town for years.

My assumption is that proprietary services want to force you to use the official clients so they can shove advertising down users’ throats, and so they can completely control the user’s client-side experience, including sideloading non-optional unwanted software (what we’d normally just call malware if the purveyor wasn’t a big corporation who feels entitled by EULA/TOS to do whatever they want to their users).

And so it goes with the way of all things, that they fade and die as time goes on. It’s a little bit sad to see the old mainstays fading to irrelevance. But mostly annoying that the protocols that are still going strong have been pulling away from the open clients.

The Decline and Fall of the The Walking Dead

[Editor’s note: I started writing this post shortly after the last episode of season six aired, back in April… then promptly forgot about it, until season seven started last week. In light of the outpouring of fans and critics complaining about the season’s first episode, I decided to finish up and publish.]

I’m thinking about this season’s last episode of The Walking Dead. The big season ending cliffhanger in which we’re finally introduced to Negan, and he brutally beats (likely kills) one of the central cast members, and we’re left to wonder who until next season.

My feelings on the show are pretty mixed. I definitely like TWD, overall, and moreover, I am predisposed to like it. But I increasingly find myself wondering why as the show grinds on. Mainly, I think, it comes down to the characters that I’ve grown attached to: Glenn, Daryl, Carol being my favorites. They’re played by great actors, and viewers have grown very attached to them over six seasons. But what really hooked me was the strength of the writing in the first season, and the realism of the situations that the survivors faced, and the realism of their responses to it.

There was a serious external threat represented by the zombie outbreak and the collapse of civilization, but also internal struggles as people who probably would ordinarily never cooperate or interact with each other were thrust together by circumstances and forced to cooperate for a chance at survival. Disagreements and conflicts and strained loyalties. And the choices the characters made had real, life or death consequences. People died on the show, just about every episode, and they were often characters who you cared about.

But also, there were the pragmatic, immediate matters of survival at hand. What tactics work against zombies? What about a huge number of zombies? Forgetting about zombies, how do you do basic survival when civilization has collapsed — how do you eat? Stay warm? Take care of your health and hygeine?

As the show has worn on, though, these things that made it interesting have been replaced or receeded into irrelevance. It’s taken for granted that they know how to survive. They are shown foraging, farming, and scavenging, but we never really see them starving, or shivering, or too weak to go on. They’ve gotten competent with fighting and know anti-zombie tactics so well that zombies are no longer a threat unless the show decides to make a stealth zombie come out of nowhere for a deus ex machina kill. Death spares the central cast, making it tame and predictable.

[[PUT SOMETHING HERE ABOUT HOW THE SHOW AT ONE TIME GAVE A FALSE HOPE OF FIGURING OUT WHAT WAS CAUSING THE ZOMBIE OUTBREAK AND STOPPING IT]]

For a time, the series dangled some hope of answers and a resolution. We might find out what caused the zombie apocalypse. There might even be a way to cure it. But those hopes were blown up in a memorable episode a few years ago, and since then, apart from a false hope in the form of Eugene’s story that he needed to get to Washington, D.C., there really hasn’t been any sense of direction. The cast have not been on a quest to go anywhere or accomplish anything, it’s just been an endless sequence of running into people, running into zombies, running into people, running into zombies, and most everyone they run into ends up dying before too long, but the central cast had started to take on an aura of invincibility.

Encounters with the living follow a formula: Either the other group is brutal and threatening, cannot be trusted, ever, and must therefore be destroyed; or, the other group is soft and weak, cannot be relied on, and must be exploited until their inexplicably stable pocket of civilization is overrun by either zombies or stronger people. We pick up a few new cast members who have the potential of making it with the protagonist group, but these people are all marked for death, and the idea is that we’re supposed to start to develop feelings for them before the show rips them from us, usually in some meaningless, almost accidental incident that is there mostly for its shock or horror value, which due to the contrived and predictable nature of the setup, is always diminished and weaker than intended.

Because there’s not enough time to allow for meaningful character development at the pace the writers want the show to take, we mostly don’t get any. There’s hints of possibility that go unexplored as the main plot hurtles past at highway speed. In many ways it feels like what makes it to broadcast is the “digest version” of a larger, richer story that we’ll never get to see. I guess that’s why the book is always better than the screenplay production. Yet, it’s frustrating. And if they could simply choose to take the time, you know they could make the show 10 times better than it ends up being. Essentially every character’s arc is left unfinished, or truncated. This could be the tragedy that we crave if it’s in full development only to be cut short by an untimely, horrible death. But despite the cornucopia of death that the show loves to present to us, almost none of it seems to hit us that way — the recent death of the doctor character just as she’s starting to come into her own being one notable exception, but all the more glaring due to its singularity.

Also, the central characters are so safe that the show’s writers are forced to have them make stupid decisions for no apparent reason. Carol’s most recent apparent death wish and her decision to leave the group again, for no real good reason, being the latest example of this. But we see it again and again, and it feels like it’s only an excuse to put a central character in danger, only to have the show pull its punches and spare them from harm.

Now, with the Negan kills ????? cliffhanger, the show is promising us a bloody, brutal end to one of our favorite characters. I’ve admired The Walking Dead for its willingness to kill characters, as TV shows so seldom often do. It was far more interesting to watch TWD knowing that it would not pull punches and spare a character just because they were a fan favorite. But this cliffhanger, I think, is too much for me. It’s like the show is using the spectacle of execution as entertainment. Death on the show wasn’t for entertainment, at least not for me, it was there to illustrate that TWD was a different sort of show, where, just like in real life, death doesn’t play fair, and that made me feel like characters were really in peril whenever there was danger.

I haven’t watched the first episode of Season 7 still, and after reading a lot of people’s responses to it, I’m not sure that I want to.

I won a contest

Last month, a youtube channel I follow called The No-Swear Gamer had a contest to win a knitted Space Invaders hat made by SETXNerdery. I went over to NSG’s facebook page, entered the contest, and to my surprise, I won!

The hat arrived in my mail on Friday, and I have to say, I really like it. Even if I don’t especially like winter.

31ca2261-8dac-4a8d-8522-3416e880b3cb

The acrylic yarn is soft and the hat is warm and fits on my head pretty well. SEXTNerdery has some other hat designs that are fun if you’re a retro gamer, so give them a look.

No Swear Gamer does a nice job of reviewing classic games for the Atari and other retro consoles, and provides a lot of detailed information, including some secret information like easter eggs. He has a good knowledge of his subject and doesn’t rely on stunts or gimmicks to attract viewers (aside from the occasional hat contest) — just solid information and opinion.

Spoiler etiquette

There are two annoying things about spoilers: spoilers, and people complaining about spoilers.

There’s really a few basic rules that should cover it:

  1. If you care to avoid spoilers, make an effort to see the thing as soon as you possibly can.
  2. If you want to talk about the thing you saw, disclose a spoiler alert before you go into it.

Give people fair warning, and it’s their fault if they read on. And if they don’t take it on themselves to see the thing in a reasonable amount of time, that’s their problem.

There will always be people who haven’t seen the thing yet. That doesn’t mean that the world should sit silently and not talk about the thing forever. How long should people wait before talking about the thing? I think it’s fair to talk about the thing immediately. But if you want to do it without being a jerk, check to make sure the people who can hear you care about spoilers, and then give them a chance to mute before you launch into them.

There’s also people who deliberately spoil in order to be a jerk. Right, these are the ones who aren’t talking about the thing because they are excited about the thing — they’re the ones who are looking for people who haven’t seen the thing yet so they can tell them about the thing and ruin the surprise and suspense that the creator of the thing invested in the experience of the thing. These people suck and deserve a good beating. Even though spoiling is not a crime, and beating people up is. The law kindof has it backwards on this.

In summary, the arts are to be enjoyed, and a huge part of enjoying them is talking about them. People should talk about them. They should be mindful of people who haven’t yet had the experience they’re about to talk about. They shouldn’t remain silent forever, but they should give people who care to avoid spoilers fair warning and an opportunity to bow out before gushing about the thing.

Fibonacci Tartan and Kilt

Some time ago, Youtube channel Numberphile posted a video on a tartan based on the fibonacci sequence.

Inspired by this, I’ve created a fibonacci-based tartan of my own:

Fib7-7

Isn’t it beautiful?

My design is based on the first seven numbers in the Fibonacci sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13. It uses one thread of yellow, then one thread of red, two threads of dark green, three threads of navy blue, five threads of red, eight threads of dark green, and thirteen threads of navy blue. To scale up the size of the sett, I will be multiplying these numbers by seven. I call the tartan, Fibonacci-7.

I just started a crowdfunding campaign to register the tartan with the Scottish Registrar of Tartans, and have a kilt made with it. It will cost an estimated $2250 to have it produced. Once registered, the tartan will become available to textile manufacturers to produce cloth and garments in this tartan.

If you are interested in math or just love a beautiful tartan, please consider donating to the cause, and spread the word. If every visitor to this site donated just $1, we’d have funding within less than one month. So if you’re a regular reader of this site and have found my articles on GameMaker useful, please show your appreciation by donating what you can. Thank you.

Color Is Everything: a Ludum Dare 31 Post-Mortem

Originally published here.

Play Color Is Everything

Preconceived notions

Going into this weekend, I knew I wanted to make a game that would serve as a statement about the intolerable state of civil rights in the present-day United States. It seems like almost every day there’s another story about police using excessive and all too often deadly force, often unnecessarily or for very little provocation. We live today in a police state where citizens rights are routinely denied, due process and the right to a fair and speedy trial have been forgotten, and out government doesn’t merely seem unwilling or incapable of doing anything about it, it refuses to do anything about and then punishes those who speak out and demand it — as evidenced by a mockery of a Grand Jury investigation into the police shooting of an unarmed 18 year old named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last month, and a 12 year old boy in my home town of Cleveland, Ohio that happened just as the news hit that there would be no trial in the Michael Brown shooting incident. No trial, and then force used to break up peaceful demonstrations which turned them into riots.

One of the finalist themes was Color Is Everything, and I thought that would work perfectly if it was chosen, but for some reason I didn’t expect it to — I just never feel that lucky, I guess. So I looked at the other themes and considered how I might fit my protest statement into a game that satisfied the other themes, and I thought that I could use “Entire game on one screen” if it came up, but I never expected that it would. When it did, I was surprised, but happy because out of all the other themes it was the one that afforded the most freedom of game concept, so long as I could fit everything on one screen.

Design

In designing the game, I focused almost exclusively on the message that I wanted to send, and the actual game play was secondary. I wish I could have spent more time on refining the game, because as it is I don’t feel that it plays very well. But I needed to be very careful about the content of the message. I’m not sure if I got it right or not, but I tried as best I could to come up with a statement that I could put into a game that I could create in under 48 hours.

Early on I choose to sacrifice graphics, and go with a purely abstract game. I did not want to sensationalize with blood splatter, and after briefly considering creating animated anthropomorphic figures, but worried that whatever I might create in a short timeframe would be insufficient and might resemble offensive stereotypes. I decided to go fully abstract and use simple squares of symbolic, literal black and white to represent my people. While it was very easy to make, it afforded me time to consider how to put the message I wanted into the game. I wanted to drive home the point that you can’t tell whether a person is a criminal based on their appearance, that it is their actions that make a person a criminal. Although, really, crime is almost incidental to the reality I’m depicting — the game is really about a dystopian society where police who are sworn to protect and serve the public are allowed to get away with killing people because a corrupt system looks for any excuse to look the other way when they happen to be black.

I had a basic idea that you’d be a policeman, and you’d just patrol around on the screen while people stood about or walked around, and you’d have to figure out who among them is a criminal, and then try to arrest them or, if you wanted, you could shoot them. I gave the game three ending conditions: if you run out of bullets, if you are killed, or if you kill an innocent (white) person. And I implemented a scoring system which I felt reflects the real-world valuation we place on white and black citizens. Arresting or killing a black innocent has no consequences in the game. But arresting an innocent white person deducts points, while killing an innocent white person ends your career in an instant.

Keeping score

I struggled quite a bit with figuring out how to value the arrest and kill scores for black and white criminals. In the end, I took a base value of 100 points, because it’s a nice, round number, and then I adjusted it to reflect the bias in the legal system. I don’t know how well I did, there, but here’s how I came up with the point values: Using wikipedia, I found an article dealing with race and crime in the united states. In it, I found that the data presented in the article was fairly messy, taking numbers from different years, etc. but it said that the incarceration rate for black males is 4749 per 100,000 — about 4.8% of all black men in this country are in prison — while the incarceration rate for white males is only 487 per 100,000, or about 0.5%. I also needed to adjust for the proportion of the population that these groups represent. According to the 2010 US Census, the population classified as white represents about 63% of the total population, while blacks represent about 12%. Multiplying these percentages together, I got 0.63*0.05 = 0.00315, and 0.12*0.048 = 0.00576. Dividing these two numbers into each other, I got 0.00315/0.00576 = 0.546875, and 0.00576/0.00315 = 1.828571428571429, which I rounded to 0.5 and 1.8, respectively. I took those numbers and multiplied them by the base point value of 100, to make a black arrest worth 180 points, and a white arrest to be worth 50 points. Coming up with these numbers gave me a sick feeling.

Killing a person scores much 100x as much points as arresting them, to reflect that ending a person’s life is a higher stakes proposition than simply arresting them. Perversely, this creates incentive to shoot people, if you’re going for a high score, and for the highest score, to preferentially seek out black targets.

I never tell the player that they ought to try for a high score, but I allow the structure of the game to suggest to the player that this is what they ought to do. I expect that most people will try to play this way at first, and perhaps if they think about what the game is telling them, they might try not to shoot as much. It’s possible to play with a strategy of only arresting people, although you will score much slower, you can play longer as long as you manage to avoid being shot yourself by criminals. If you don’t care about arresting the wrong people, you can probably survive indefinitely, and in the long run the extra points you get for arresting black criminals will outweigh the penalty incurred for arresting innocent white people. In thinking about this more, it makes me question why I gave the population equal proportions of black and white people, and criminals and innocents. It might have been a more accurate simulation to give these populations the same proportions as the census and crime statistics show. But while the census figures are less likely to contain institutional bias, the crime numbers really only track incarceration, not criminality, and I don’t know where to find numbers that would reliably measure the proportion of a population that are criminals, broken down by race. So, it’s a limitation of the design, I suppose, but I’m not sure how to do better there. If I had done this, though, it would have pushed the bias toward targeting blacks much higher, because white criminals would be very rare, white innocents would be very common, and blacks would be the only safe targets for arrest and/or extra-judicial killing. This might need to go into the post-compo update, if I continue developing the game.

To provide the player with a bit of incentive to use their gun, I gave the criminals guns as well, with which they can commit murder, and some of them will try to shoot you, so there is some of the self-defense and defending the lives of others in the game, just as it is talked about in the real world whenever one of these shootings takes place. If I had to do it over again, I’d probably use the crime statistics tracked in the game to penalize your score, so that you would have a bit more direct reason to try to identify and stop the criminals. This will probably be addressed in a post-compo version as well.

The Play Experience

My process in coming up with this design was slow and meditative, so I probably spent more time thinking about the design, what it implied in terms of the message it would send, and then carefully creating a design that imparted the right message. Comparatively speaking, I spent very little time actually playing the game, and I think that shows in the play experience. I’m not really satisfied with how the game plays. The AI is extremely rudimentary, and if you allow the game to continue spawning people and don’t wipe them all up by constantly arresting or killing them, very quickly it gets to the point where there’s too much happening on the screen, and you can’t take it all in, which makes your decisions and actions less meaningful. As well, when the screen fills up, very quickly you end up accidentally colliding with people who are walking around oblivious to you, and obviously that removes the aspect of intentionality from the act of arresting them, detracting from the game’s message.

I think, if I did the design over again, I’d try to make the game slower, so that the player would be able to think about their actions and decide to do them, rather than react in a twitchy manner. Perhaps I’d reduce the number of people that can be on screen at one time (there’s currently no limit, which is bad), and I might also slow down the action so that only a smaller number of people are actively doing anything — I considered making the AI’s move in a turn-based fashion, so you could have time to monitor each individuals actions and try to figure out if they’re a criminal or not, which would give the game more of a detective-y feel to it. I’d definitely like to improve the AI a bit more so that it would make the game less random.

Overall, I’m not all that satisfied with the game as a play experience, I think it could be much better — but working on the project allowed me to work through my feelings on the current events. And, working through those thoughts was a more necessary thing for me this weekend. There’s a lot that is wrong with our country right now, especially in government and law enforcement. Reform is badly needed, and seems like a remote possibility at best. It seems like the system of checks and balances, and the rights that we are all guaranteed exist only on paper right now.

I got 99 technical problems

I have an aging Samsung Galaxy SII that I bought a couple years ago. Physically it’s still in good condition, but for the past several months its performance has been terrible. I don’t want to drop $500-700 on a new phone right now, so I’ve been trying to figure out whether the performance problems have a solution. This has been an epic time sink, probably costing me the $500-700 in time that I didn’t want to spend in cash, easily.

To recap:

A few months ago, the phone started getting really slow and laggy, and would lock up and need a hard reboot or would sometimes reboot itself spontaneously. This came on gradually, and got worse over time. It was particularly aggravating when attempting to use the phone as a GPS.

Then, one day the phone started pulling down updates for various apps, and informed me that there was no room on the internal SD memory, so no more updates could be installed. I have a 32 GB external SD which is where most of my downloaded apps reside, so it was baffling to me why my internal memory would be full, so I investigated.

Somehow or other, I discovered an app called Clean Master, which found a ton of junk on my phone and cleared it out. Mostly this was cache files, some outdated .apk’s, etc. After running Clean Master I freed up something like 1.3 GB of data from the 2GB internal SD, and the phone not only could take updates again, it became fast and responsive again, and stable, and felt like a new phone.

Unfortunately this lasted only a couple of days, and then went back to being slow and laggy again. Not as bad as before I ran Clean Master the first time, but still quite bad. I’d just run Clean Master again, and it would seem to help, although it didn’t seem to make as dramatic a difference on subsequent runnings, and needed to be run several times a day, every time the phone got slow. So it didn’t seem to cure the problem, although it was capable of treating the symptoms and allow me to manage the problem.

Then one day I got a notification from the Lookout Security app that came bundled with my phone, warning me that there was an unpatched vulnerability in the default browser on my phone, and to uprgrade the browser I would need to be running Android 4.2 or later. T-Mobile has never released a newer firmware update than 4.0 for the Galaxy S2, so I had no official support options.

I could have switched from the default browser app to Chrome or Firefox, but I preferred the default app because of its font sizing and zoom made it easiest to read web pages with. But given all the problems I was having with the phone, and that my phone is already rooted, I decided to try out an unofficial firmware for the first time.

Not knowing much about this, I did a little googling and stumbled my way through the process. It wasn’t too bad, although I did end up getting stuck in a reboot loop which took a couple hours of troubleshooting to overcome.

Next, I had problems logging into my google account on the phone, so I couldn’t access My Apps and get them installed for a bit. I eventually figured out what was causing that problem and fixed it, and was able to start downloading all the apps that I’d installed under the previous firmware.

Most of those apps came down, but there were a couple that were missing, two of which were apps that I use the most: Simple.Facebook and the default browser. I figured the default browser might not be available on the new firmware, since it was a baked-in app on the stock firmware. I can’t find Simple.Facebook in the Play store, so I guess it must have been discontinued. I replaced it with a similar app, Tinfoil for Facebook, which seems to be an acceptable alternative and works maybe even a bit better than Simple.Facebook did. And the alarm clock app that I’d been using on the old firmware also is nowhere to be found in My Apps. I gather that when an app is pulled from the Play store, it just disappears from My Apps, although remains installed on the device. LiquidSmooth has its own alarm clock app, which has equivalent functions, so it’s not as big of a deal.

Overall I liked the new firmware, it seems to run fine on my phone and is nice and fast, and the LiquidSmooth people did a good job creating it. But I still have a few problems, some of them quite major.

  1. ACR Call Recorder doesn’t seem to work now, leaving me without a call recorder. Call recording is an extremely useful feature to have when dealing with companies who are not always competent or honest, or someone who is harassing or threatening you.
  2. Launcher shortcuts disappear from home screen after a reboot. At first when I started researching I thought this was a problem with the Google Now Launcher, but it seems to be a problem with any launcher I’ve tried so far. This is a major annoyance.
  3. Battery life has been horrible. I’m starting to dive deep into this because I didn’t know that much about it. I’ve always felt like the S2 drains battery at far too fast a rate, but since the switching to LiquidSmooth it’s been unbelievably bad. If I’m actually using the phone, it seems to drain about 25-35%/hr. Even just a few minutes of use will drain 10% in almost no time at all. Idling off battery it’s like 10%/hr. I am chained to power outlets. I disable everything I can when I don’t need it, and it doesn’t help. I run apps that supposedly help you save battery, and it doesn’t help. A friend of mine who is working on a book on this subject sent me some information, so maybe I’ll figure a few things out.

Today’s homily

I’m at the Ohio Game Developers Expo in Columbus, Ohio this weekend.

After Scott Foe’s talk on “Big Problems” I really had to pee. I could have talked to him after I left the auditorium, but I REALLY had to pee.

So did a lot of people. There was a line of people waiting to pee. While standing there, I noticed a ladybug on the sink countertop, on it’s back in the middle of a droplet of water, kicking like mad to right itself, but unable to because the water’s surface tension was gluing it to the countertop.

Ladybugs fall into the classification of “non-gross insects” so, without hesitation, I helped it get on it’s feet by lightly brushing it with my finger until it flipped over. It began walking around on the countertop, too heavy with water to fly.

A few seconds later, a urinal freed up and it was my turn to pee. So I stepped up and took care of what I was there to do.

When I went back to the sink to wash my hands, the ladybug was gone. I don’t know if it hid somewhere, not that there was a lot of places for it to go, or if someone did something to the ladybug.

The morals:

  1. Take care of what you need to do.
  2. The cost of doing what you need to do in the immediate term can be great in the long term.
  3. If you see someone struggling, stop and help them, even if they seem insignificant. The cost of solving problems that are truly insignificant to you is often negligible.
  4. You can’t do everything for them, but do what you can.
  5. You can’t control what happens to them or what other people will do, but try to help them anyway.

txt spk is teh new cursive

Every so often it comes up in the news on a slow day that concerned parents are all butthurt due to schools stopping teaching cursive penmanship. Usually this is accompanied by concerned parents who are all butthurt that kids these days are texting fiends who use no grammar or spelling or punctuation or capitalization.

So it occurred today as I was writing out a check that cursive writing is just fast printing. Once you get the hang of making legible block letters one at a time, you get tired of the tedium of making them, so you start to hurry. So the first thing that happens is the letters get sloppy. You don’t always lift the pen off the paper cleanly when you finish each character, resulting in lines joining the letters, and loops where you finish one stroke and begin the next, and so on. When you do this quickly, and have an experienced hand at it, it even looks graceful, although often it’s harder to read than block print. By the time we get to writing our signature for the zillionth time, we may well have consolidated all the letters into a vague squiggle with a large first letter, and you can tell what the words are supposed to be more by their general shape than by positively identifying each letter one at a time.

This hurried script for expediency’s sake is *backwardly* taught to 3rd graders as “penmanship”. They slowly learn how to draw perfect cursive letters one at a time, then join them together to make words, and they do it all very carefully and it looks awful until they stop thinking about each stroke, and make music out of it, the way a neophyte musician learning an instrument can’t play a tune decently until they forget about the micro muscle movements that make up technique, and just play.

If kids were just taught block printing and given a writing workload heavy enough to necessitate haste, they’d discover cursive naturally, without undue pain and struggle. People these days don’t have good handwriting any more only if they don’t need to, because they hardly ever exercise the skill.

So what is txt spk? It’s a hurried way of typing, usually on a constrained input device like a 12-key pad. It’s so laborious to enter text into such an input device, that instinctively you start taking shortcuts, abbreviating words, often in creative ways, creating acronyms and so forth to save you a keystroke or five. It gets the point across effectively and efficiently in a medium where each keystroke is a pain, and sentences themselves are constrained to the length of an SMS message.

So, concerned guardians of culture who bemoan the loss of cursive and the rise of txt spk are blindly fearful of the new generation taking the same approach to communicating faster and applying it to a different medium.

That’s all it is.

I find this silly, since I’m getting close 40, and completely fluent in txt spk as well as l337, since I’ve embraced technology and use them frequently, just as I am fluent in standard English. It’s not a generational thing. It’s a matter of what medium you use, and needing to get things done quickly.

U ppl r dum.

kthxbai.

What I learned while on Facebook vacation

Hi. My name is Chris, and I’m addicted to Facebook.

Kinda not seriously, I really am. I use it all the time. I have it on my phone, it’s with me everywhere. I can see what’s gong on with my friends, what’s going on in the world, in various communities that I have interest in, many of them related to my game development career. It’s really great for that.

Last Friday, I decided to act on what I’d recognized for a while to be a problem with the amount of time I spend using Facebook. On a whim, I decided to stop using Facebook, entirely, for two weeks. I didn’t want to disable my account, or delete it, but I wanted to see if I could build a space ship or cure cancer in two weeks if I just quit squeezing Facebooking into every spare moment of the day, and fb-multitasking even in many of the non-spare moments.

Since I didn’t disable my account, I can still receive messages from people. I can still post to FB via Twitter and when I update here the automated promotional post goes out there as well. So even though I’m taking a “Facebook vacation” I’m still not completely out of touch. It’s like “FB Lite” if there is such a thing.

The Experiment

I posted a see-you-later announcement, and removed the app from my phone. Well, I didn’t uninstall it, but I removed it from the quicklaunch screen, to make it harder to access, and made an agreement with myself that I would not launch it unless there was a legitimate need during an emergency to do so.

My see-you-later post announcing my Facebook vacation

Preliminary findings

So I’ve only been on “vacation” since Friday, and today’s Monday. Yet, I’ve already learned a lot. Hence, this post.

Sunday, I cleaned the house. I cleaned all the living spaces. Not the basement, or garage, or the spare bedrooms, but the living room, dining room, kitchen, front porch, bathroom, and main bedroom. All in one day. My place hasn’t been this tidy in probably over a year. I did it by waking up at 9:30, and cleaning all day, until around 5pm, mostly at a relaxed pace, not trying to rush through it, but just not stopping to get distracted by anything going with Facebook. Go me.

OK, so I haven’t read a book yet, but that’s still pretty awesome, isn’t it? I could have guests over. REAL SOCIAL! Without embarrassment!

Everything’s a tradeoff

Like any good addict, I couldn’t actually stay completely away from Facebook. I found that there really are times when I’m not doing anything with my time, and it doesn’t hurt to catch up with what’s happening. If I’m waiting in line, at the car wash, in the bathroom, or similarly tied up but idle, fb is pretty harmless.

The problem is if I get sucked in to fb-land and can’t stop checking my notifications. There’s always one more notification. Responding to notifications generates notifications, and if the person on the receiving end of your notifications responds, you get into a volley, which ends up turning into a [negative] feedback loop.

It’s particularly bad when you’re arguing some important issue with your friends and have to be right. Projecting your opinion feels like a form of power. Like, maybe by winning the thread you can persuade others and change the world a little bit, bringing about the utopia you always knew you could build if only you had godlike control over the universe and its inhabitants. Not necessarily. Maybe you are influencing people, but can you measure it? Is it perceptible?

I’m a sarcastic smart-ass, so I like to chime in with a funny comment on just about anything and everything, often at the risk of coming off like an asshole, even if there’s no real point to it other than to be witty. I’m not really an asshole, but I play one in real life. All the time. I’m hilarious, so I’m told, but I don’t know that it’s worth trading being funny on Facebook for whatever else I could have been doing with the time. Now, unless someone’s paying me to write jokes, I think there’s probably better things I could be doing with the time. Joking around and laughing with friends and being the quick witted guy everyone likes feels good and boosts your ego. But it’s a cheap form of validation. Nothing like a real accomplishment, like summiting Everest, or helping another person who needs it, or building something cool. As a proxy for achievement, it’s a false nutrition.

“Outrage porn”, inspirational memes, the politics of self-righteousness

A substantial proportion of content on my fb wall feed is not directly generated by my Friends, but is Shared content. A lot of it is interesting, some of it is even useful. I’m not sure how much of it is valuable. A lot of it is political stuff in a negative vein: Look how bad $other_party is. Look how bad $not_us is. $Bad_news is fucking up the world.

Politics isn’t unimportant, so political stuff has its place in the discourse of the business we conduct with each other on FB, but I think we’re getting the how wrong. Speech is a weak form of action. It’s powerful only if it inspires strong action: changing your behavior. Information is valuable, but its value remains only potential if you do not act on it. There’s a great deal of information which we can act on only in an abstract manner. I can’t do anything about Fukushima, or Deepwater Horizon, unless I want to completely disrupt my life and physically go there and volunteer to participate in the cleanup. I suppose perhaps that there are some number of people who read the news and then walk away from their status quo life and dedicate the remaining part of it to acting in response to that news story. But such people must be vanishingly rare. I mean, I might be able to write to my government and advise them to be careful with nuclear energy, or maybe suggest that they help Japan in some way. Maybe I’ll think twice about eating seafood. Beyond that, apart from any “human interest” satisfaction I might get from feeling informed about the world I live in, what value does it have? I just end up feeling despair, helplessness, bitterness, cynical, outraged. And I feel like this is how I should feel, as an informed person in a world going to hell at a seemingly exponentially increasing rate. But still — does feeling this way do anything to slow down the hell-goto rate? Does it make me a better person in anything but an abstract manner? At most I think I can say that it changes my spending patterns — slightly. I wish that I could say more than that. Well maybe not even. I wish that I wish that I could say that. But really, changing how I live my life too far out of the comfort zone that the culture I live in has prescribed for me isn’t really happening. I’ll wait like all the others for the crisis to reach the point of no return, and then and only then will we do things — but not because we were inspired by something we read on Facebook — it will be forced out of necessity.

The biggest problem with “outrage porn” is that all of it seems very important, and knowing about it makes you feel very informed. And it is, and you are, but you’re still not actually empowered to do things. Unless you’re the rare type of person who is out there already doing things. But the inertia of the vast majority of us who are living status quo lives will dampen the force you can exert on the world, to almost nothing — at least until most of us die off due to whatever the calamity is that we’re reading about this week. But almost nothing is still something. So, world-changers: as the anchorman said to the weatherman, “keep fucking that chicken.”

Facebook does provide value; whether it’s a net gain depends on you

Facebook does a [pretty*] great job of putting me in touch with people who I met casually one time and turning them into recurring bit players, and sometimes even friends, in my life. It helps me to not feel isolated in my interests, in my values. It helps me stay abreast of the news of the day, at least insofar as it is filtered by the echo chamber of the like-minded people I’ve Friended. It does a pretty good job of giving me a calendar with reminders for my social events.

*I say “pretty great” job because I don’t like the way that Facebook seems to meddle with who’s posts I actually get to see. I have something over 300+ friends, and yet it’s the same 20-ish individuals who I see posts from, or interact with. And for some strange reason they’re not all the people who I considered my closest friends. Over time, they’ve come to know me, and me, them, moreso than a lot of people who I considered my close friends. It makes me feel like this was less a matter that we had any choice in, and more what Facebook picked for me. Which is pretty disturbing, to say the least. Still, in spite of all that, it still provides what feels like a vibrant medium for social interaction with people I’ve chosen to interact with. But why this subset and not another clique of equally worthy and desirable friends? I have no idea.

More than anything, though, Facebook gives me an inflated sense of mattering. Every like, share, and comment is a tiny validation, and I crave that more than almost anything. That’s why I’ve been posting to Facebook since 2008 like they were paying me a dollar per word.

What do you look at? Who do you interact with? What do you share? What do you say? Most importantly, what do you do?

How to maximize your FB-value while minimizing time consumption

It’s Facebook nature to reward the trivial, and to trivialize the important. And it’s our job to go against that grain. Probably the worst thing about FB taking up every waking instant that I wasn’t actively engaged with something else was that it eliminated quiet time. The times when I used to think my deep thoughts, now were almost completely taken up by FB interactions, checking to see what someone commented to, seeing what the new notifications were. So many of the notifications are of things that I don’t care about, or updates to a thread that I read and participated in once and am now done with. But they keep sucking me back in. That red 1 just demands my attention, whether it’s something important and cool or something unimportant. Somehow, they just don’t get the filtering for that feature right.

When I first started using FB in 2008, wall posts had a maximum length. It was something larger than Twitter, but in order to exceed that length you had to use an FB-app called Notes, which allowed longer content. Almost no one used Notes, or saw them, and eventually FB did away with the length restriction and merged notes and wall into a unified stream. But brevity was the order of the day. It’s how the new social media would defeat the old standbys of MySpace and Livejournal. And by tying your recognizable, public, real life identity to your account, FB ensured that the content we shared would be filtered to be “appropriate” for all our real-world friends, acquaintances, stalkers, and future employers, or that there’d be consequences. You don’t get deep or overly personal on Facebook, the way you once felt safe enough to on MySpace or LJ. But because it’s easier to find people, and the interface for sharing stuff (whether yours or just stuff you found on the web) is way better, FB won.

Since everyone’s there now, and FB has gravity enough to keep them there, at least for now, here are a few things I’ve observed that can help reclaim the time taken up by unrestricted facebooking:

  1. Don’t comment unless it really needs to be said. Refraining from commenting saves almost as much time as not reading at all. If you’re a fast reader, you can read quickly and not waste a whole lot of time as long as you don’t get bogged down in composing and posting responses. This is the secret value of the Like button; it’s a one-click response. It’s terribly shallow, and often it’s not contextually appropriate to “Like” things that aren’t good news, but are well-written or express something you agree with. But unless you have something truly great to say in response to something, maybe it’s the most economical response.
  2. Don’t click links. Not clicking every link that looked interesting or curious also saves me a lot of time. A lot of what people share is what we have come to call “link bait”. It’s like spam, only it’s stuff you might reasonably be curious or interested in and think is cool or important, because some friend of yours thought it was. Don’t bite. Clicking only on things that have a direct, immediate relevance to me helps. It’s very easy to get sucked into every little thing that flows down your Wall, but only if you let it. If you want to make clicking links a choice rather than a habit, it takes discipline, but doing so is necessary in order to reclaim your time.
  3. Use the “stop notifications” feature. If you do want to just comment once and move on with your life, use “stop notifications”. You won’t get the validation and satisfaction that comes from knowing that 6 people liked your quip, and you won’t get to sink hours into lengthy exchanges with Friends who have some minor semantic disagreement of fundamental importance with the way you said that thing you said. But generally, it’s worth it.
  4. Don’t refresh for the sake of refreshing. This is a sure sign of addictive behavior. If you scroll down to the last thing that you remembered seeing, don’t scroll back to the top and start again. If your wall is particularly active, it’s virtually guaranteed that by the time you catch up with your reading, there’s bound to be a new post at the top of your wall, or a new notification of someone liking or commenting on something. You don’t have to be on top of that at all times. In fact, unless you’re being paid to be, probably it’s not worth it. The Wall feed scrolls like a treadmill, and you need to be the one to decide when to get off. Do it, and get away and do something. Special challenge: Don’t come back until you’ve accomplished something worthy of actually posting about on your own wall. Not a photo of what you had for breakfast, but a true milestone in some project you’re working on.
  5. Skip all videos. You can’t skim a video. They take time. You can’t keep scrolling and read other stuff until they’re done. You said you gave up watching TV because you had better things to do with your time; this is probably even less well produced. Is it really worth your time?
  6. Don’t share it. Was it cute? Was it hilarious? Can’t resist posting it because it’s just too good? Don’t do it. You can use facebook without even being on facebook.com. The Share button is uniquitous. You can share just about anything you find. Think twice before doing so. Ask yourself: If someone else posted this on their wall, and I saw it, would it be a waste of my time? If answering that question takes too much time/thought to answer, then make a rule to only share one thing a day, and ask yourself “If I could only share one thing today, would this be it?” If it’s not, then pass it by and move on with your life. (If you hit 11:59 pm and still haven’t found something better to share, don’t go back and “rescue” your one share for the day.)
  7. Facebook needs a “digest mode”. I’d be very happy with FB if I could read a digest of the stuff my friends are up to in about 5-10 minutes of skimming, once a day, and then go on with my life, choosing to engage more deeply only where it really matters, whether by commenting or clicking a link to read more. I’d almost pay for that feature alone.
  8. Almost nothing is a complete waste of time. Don’t think about it in terms of wasted time. If you enjoy what you’re doing, can it be said to be a total waste of time? Rather, ask yourself, what would I most enjoy? Something other than using Facebook is almost always the answer. And, likely as often, doing something else while also facebooking from your smartphone is less than focusing your presence on the experience you’re having immediately. Checking facebook in the midst of the experience is like channel surfing to see if something better is on. Even if there is something better going on elsewhere, you’re right here, right now, so unless teleportation is possible, or Lassie is private messaging you a warning about Timmie being stuck in a well, and you have to go rescue him right now, you might as well be focused on the immediate experience you are having, and make the most of that. And don’t spend so much time updating your Wall with what’s happening right now. Experience it first, document it after. Unless you’re trying to be a reporter, live-microblogging everything you do, preserving the stream of your consciousness for posterity is mainly an exercise in narcissism. Even if you truly are leading a remarkable life, you’re just slowing down or missing things if you’re trying to capture it all and send it through your social media filters.

Perhaps I’ll learn even more over the next two weeks, and update this post. But more likely, I’ll have built that spaceship and cured cancer. I have my time back, and can expect to spend a lot more of that time living.