10 September 2017

Distro Fever

Thingiverse has recently been beset by some "enterprising" individuals and small groups who think spamming forums at best tangentially related to what they have to offer is a legitimate form of advertising in this day and age. Thingiverse is owned by Makerbot, in turn owned by Stratasys. It acts as a file repository for digital files created by its community for purposes of 3D printing, CNC, Laser-cutting, and many other forms of computer-aided manufacturing and rapid prototyping. There is no advertising on the site. 

Without getting into a long, drawn-out retrospective of what Linux is, one of the great aspects of Linus Torvalds' original source code is that it can be customized to whatever extent computer engineering allows. As a result of this, there are hundreds, if not thousands of individual "flavors" of Linux, with Android being the most widespread. The trouble this paradigm presents, however, is one of saturation. Operating Systems are vast technical undertakings, and barring anything simpler than a graphing calculator, they're not handled by small groups on their downtime. Debian, for example, is the culmination of thousands of hobbyists working piecemeal over many decades. The point is that while everyone starts somewhere, "humble beginnings" aren't as endearing a selling point as they once were when there were maybe a dozen computer manufacturers worldwide with virtually none of them having any interest in the consumer market. 

Okay, first big red flag. Never, ever, ever trust anyone who uses "Good day" as a greeting. I know it's more of a language barrier thing than anything else, but I've seen too many e-mail and telemarketing scams that use this slightly-broken English to ignore it. As a rule, "Good day" is a parting phrase, especially if you're Willy Wonka and/or you really want to stick it to somebody. Call it a pet peeve, but couple this with the fact this exact same message was posted in at least 8 different interest groups, and matters start looking more than a little shady, and we're only at the first line. 

What follows is a standard laundry list of claims. While many well-known Linux or other cross-platform applications such as OpenSCAD, FreeCAD, Blender, and Inkscape are as free of charge as they are easily available, certain flavors of Linux like to separate themselves from the endless cacophony by offering included bundles of programs. It's more a stamp of approval than anything meant to be convenient. By having a program preinstalled, you're showing that it's passed your various benchmarks and is guaranteed to work, whereas some Linux flavors may not play nice with others for the sake of favoring a different suite of programs. Again, there's nothing wrong with that (though some argue whether or not it violates the various open source licenses some programs are made under, but those cases are few and far between) and it's honestly very convenient, no more guesswork for one's workflow. 

Then there's this part about giving out free goods and services:

Along with the "Good Day" greeting and the faux pas that is forum spam, another red flag is unqualified promises. Something I used to see on Yahoo! Answers all the time was someone asking a fairly vague question about Risc Management or Viral Marketing or whatever, all wrapped up with the promise, "Help me out and I'll give you anything you want."

Yes, yes, I know they're just a phishing operation trying to get my e-mail and can't REALLY get me anything I want, but that's precisely my point. These InventOS yahoos answering the prayers of designers and makers are making the same vague, unqualified offer that a con artist does. If your product, an operating system, is still in the alpha stage as you say, are you sure you've got the resources to back up this 
Let's start with the elephant in the room concerning the economics of this claim. Yes, everybody starts somewhere, and of course you often have to spend money in order to make money, but there's a fine line between a free sample and a free ride, to say nothing of not being able to spell freeloader without free... and load. 
While the technology behind 3D printing is nothing new, with roots going back to the early 1970s, this recent wave of "Open Source Prosumerism" that started with the original Makerbot Kickstarter campaign and the explosive popularity of the Arduino microcontroller is still fairly young. We've had a lot of promising startups rise as quickly as they fall. Many a career has been made and ruined on the power of a few calculated risks. Still, a broad range of events across the board plus a little common sense have given this particular subculture of designers/inventors/makers/artisans/what-have-you a better perspective on how to market themselves. 

Your skills have a value, even if the only cost is your time. 

Offering a service of value for free drives down that value for everyone else in that profession. It's kind of ironic that the open source nature of the software you're using to make your OS (which comes prepackaged with applications other people have made) has seemingly driven you to offer physical printing services and design consultation for free. 

As of this writing, they have no responded, and I rather doubt they will. 

Actually, they're not offering everything for free (they're just asking for volunteers to help them back up their claims). I don't personally know of any Linux distribution that makes use of Patreon, but it's not necessarily a red flag. Ubuntu has a similar business model, offering its software for free but asking fees for technical support. Google doesn't offer Android as a standalone download, instead licensing it to hardware manufacturers with part of the sales helping support further developments. So, technical support and customer service has a dollar value, but a physical print of a design someone has volunteered to me is free, so long as...? 

So, is InventOS a scam? Probably not, but they sure act like it. Between the broad, sweeping claims, sketchy "marketing" efforts, too-good-to-be-true promises of free lunches, and wait-and-see attitude towards valid questions of their business model, it's certainly hard to tell their message apart from the many offers from Nigerian diplomats trapped aboard the ISS who need me to buy them 1,000 spark plugs with unsigned checks they'll mail me before getting sent off to out of state PO boxes. More likely is that they're simply inept. 

By the way, here's what their community forums look like as of today:

05 September 2017

Patent-ial Turnarounds

In August of this year, Gamevice brought suit against Nintendo for the Switch console, alleging it infringes on their patent for the Wikipad, an Android-based gaming tablet released in 2013. Although the suit was brought to light in August, it's possible Gamevice began filing suits earlier, as the Switch was released in March 2017 with marketing beginning several months before. 

Patent suits are nothing new in the tech world, certainly not in the gaming industry, and definitely not Nintendo's first rodeo on this front. What makes this suit different, or at least what seems to be getting it more attention than other suits is Gamevice's exact demands as far as restitution. Not only is the company seeking damages, but moving to have sales of the Switch halted altogether. Similar suits have led to the Classic Controller being discontinued and at least two other suits have sought to halt Wii sales in the United States. Nintendo was able to defend itself against some of these suits while settling with others. 

After customer complaints of Nintendo underselling its NES Classic mini-console, its fluctuating Amiibo line, and similar grumblings of Switch console availability, it simply seems Nintendo fans can't catch a break when it comes to putting Nintendo hardware on their shelves. Overall it seems unlikely Gamevice will get its way and have the Switch stopped dead in its tracks, that part of their case most likely being a bargaining chip of sorts, something they can give up later as a gesture of good faith towards a more reasonable settlement (a bluff). 

As of this writing, there's no real word on how much of a bluff said bluff actually is. For the sake of putting to rest any possible fears people may have of not being able to get a Switch, I'd like to offer a glimpse into a possible future, based on nothing more than informed speculation. Here's the informed part: 

Let's face some cold hard facts about the Nintendo 3DS... the 3D gimmick was awful. It's practically Virtual Boy levels of awful. I know some people never had an issue with the 3D, but I did, and I know I'm not alone. I couldn't look at that thing for more than 30 seconds before my brain desperately tried to make a break for it through my nose. Between that and my Playstation Vita, I had little to no interest in what Nintendo's clamshell had to offer (also I'm not a big fan of the clamshell design). I did eventually get a DSi XL secondhand mostly for the sake of playing a handful of games I was interested in that weren't for the 3DS. I did, however, get a 2DS for my roommate. Apart from the screen being kinda small compared to the various XL models of DSi and 3DS, it pretty much fixed every issue I had with the 3DS. I think it was a good move on Nintendo's part to offer more options to their customers. It's easy to fall into the old Sega trap of too much hardware, but on the other end of the spectrum, I think Nintendo is more often than not far too stingy with hardware. Their so-called Wii "mini" was almost an insulting joke of a console, ironically being slightly bigger on some dimensions than the Wii proper, and with overall fewer capabilities like a lack of an SD card slot (so no WiiWare or Virtual Console games). 
More recently, Nintendo has made a 2DS XL, finally giving the bigger screen the previous lacked, though going back to the clamshell design of the past. At this point, I'm okay with that. The price the 3D brought with it, along with the Amiibo feature that was equally uninteresting to me, were my biggest gripes against getting a 3DS

It turns out there's actually a reason for this new handheld's existence, and it has to do with a patent lawsuit. 

A Sony employee brought suit against Nintendo for a patent infringement involving a "glasses free" 3D effect for displays. The suit was settled out of court and while Nintendo does still produce the 3DS XL, the 2DS and new 2DS XL don't violate the original agreement. It's funny to imagine the various higher-ups at Nintendo looking over all the legal paperwork from Sony over the 3D, looking up at each other, one saying, "You know, the 3D really is kinda dumb." with another adding, "Why don't we just make a DS that doesn't do 3D?" and everyone nodding in uncontested agreement before going off to lunch. 

Now comes the speculation. I don't have a Switch, and I haven't talked to many people who do. Earlier, I honestly praised Nintendo for turning their next-gen console, their Wii-U successor, into a handheld. It's frankly genius to leave the console market behind and instead double-down on handhelds, which have always been Nintendo's more lucrative endeavors, going all the way back to the Game & Watch. If the Gamevice suit is really over the detachable controllers, would it really hurt Nintendo to just pull a 2DS move? Are any Switch owners out there playing their games and thinking, "Man, this wouldn't be worth it if I didn't have these tiny little sticks of controllers I could slide off!"? After all, if the side controllers are too small or uncomfortable, more traditional controllers can be linked to it for multiplayer. 
Imagine a Switch that keeps the dual analog sticks and buttons exactly where they are, but doesn't let you detach them. Suppose multiplayer were only minutely inconvenienced by requiring additional controllers or (in rare cases) another system to play through a link like every handheld before then can do. I mean, I'm no product designer and I certainly have no concept of what goes into developing a handheld, but how much R&D could truly go into effectively making a souped up original 2DS? One slab, buttons on the side, all framing a big, beautiful screen. It would basically be a Vita done right (and I'm saying that as someone who likes the Vita wholeheartedly). 

This is where I'd have an image of some hastily-rendered mockup made in TinkerCAD or SketchUp or Blender or something, but as I said, I'm not a product designer, and I'd rather open it up to see what others might come up with given these criteria. Remember, Gamevice's beef isn't with having buttons on the side of a screen; Nintendo's Game & Watch beat their Wikipad to that decades ago. All we need is a system with all the Switch's insides, but with an interface that doesn't have detachable controllers. 

Before writing this, I'd tossed around the idea of Nintendo making an entirely new console, but making it backwards compatible with Switch games. The more I thought about it, the less likely Nintendo would go that route. I simply hope they don't outright abandon the Switch the way they abandoned the Wii-U so hastily. 

Of course, my ideal Nintendo would be one that foregoes hardware in favor of simply working with the platforms that are available. Hardware is ultimately a failure mechanism for games, as Moore's Law puts developers and publishers in a position of making the most of what's available to them while preparing for the future. As much as I don't like the idea of endless ports, re-releases, and remakes overshadowing new and original IPs, I absolutely hate the idea of a game being bound to hardware that's likely going to fall apart with time regardless of how meticulously I maintain it. I do not care how I get my games anymore. As long as developers are getting paid for their work and are able to carry on making more games, I do not care about the means of conveyance for their properties. 

Goodnight, and game on. 

03 September 2017

The Last Guardians of the Orville's Trek

Douglas Adams spent virtually his whole life trying to push science fiction comedy into the mainstream. Drawing primarily on the absurdist works of Kurt Vonnegut and Stanislaw Lem, Adams took the edge off such hard satire and social commentary for something seemingly more light-hearted and overall softer in tone. That's not to say he was unsophisticated or less compelling or somehow tarnished those who pointed out the shortcomings of the human condition within the scope of speculative fiction. He still had the same borderline misanthropic, cynical DNA of Pirx the Pilot or Player Piano, but added a distinctly English flavor of self-deprecation one might call Happy-Go-Lucky or even Quixotic. 

When he worked on Doctor Who, future writer Steven Moffat said of his tenure that his contributions were worthless, that his humor and comic sensibility were of such esoteric genius replicating it would be impossible. 

Sadly, I don't think he's wrong. Science fiction and comedy is a delicate balance that you're either going to get very right or very wrong, and what few times you get it right are usually going to get a tad samey after some time. It's the very definition of niche, with the appeal leaning rather heavily on novelty and rarity. Historically, the most successful examples of Sci-Fi-Com apart from Adams' own Hitchhiker series have been Men in Black and Red Dwarf. In fact, MIB is partially responsible for kickstarting many more lucrative talks about getting Hitchhiker made into a feature film. Previous attempts were frequently stalled at the pitch level with many a stuffy executive insisting that science fiction and comedy didn't mix, that if they did someone would have succeeded at it by then. Along comes MIB, and suddenly sci-fi can be funny after all, laughing all the way to the bank. 

As a die-hard Hitchhiker fan, hardcore Smeghead, longtime Whovian, and whatever MIB fans are called, as well as a fan of Stansilaw Lem (haven't gotten to Vonnegut yet), you'd think I'd be really cool with the success of light-hearted humorous sci-fi options like Guardians of the Galaxy. However, as much as I like Guardians, certainly Guardians 2, I think I may well have reached my point of saturation. Even while watching Volume 2, I began letting out audible groans at the many recurring instances of what, if I had to coin a term, I'd call Deflated Melodrama. It starts with someone saying a line that's very melodramatic, almost Shakespearean, and the next line is a shrugging dismissal. In The Long Dark Tea Time of The Soul, quite possibly my favorite Adams book, certainly that's not part of the Hitchhiker cycle, the God of Thunder Thor himself declares in a loud booming voice that he shall meet his father Odin in the Halls of Valhalla, to which a minor character asks, "Again?" Put simply, this is the dead horse that Guardians 2 kicks into the ground for two hours. It was funny the first time because it came out of nowhere and was repeated maybe only one other time in the remainder of the book. I stopped counting how many times Marvel's manic merry misfits made their mark on this martyred muse of a mare. 

Seth MacFarlane's new show The Orville is coming to FOX, an absurdist parody of Star Trek that looks and feels to be one part Red Dwarf and one part Galaxy Quest. For the record, I liked Galaxy Quest. It came out in 1999, a full year after Star Trek: Insurrection made it pretty clear that First Contact was bottled lightning and the Star Trek franchise as a whole was beginning to fade from favor with even its most ardent fans. It essentially said what we were all thinking at the time. I bring it up because I can't help but feel like the same thing is happening with The Orville

Although the J. J. Abrams/Bad Robot reboot of Star Trek has been successful, it hasn't been successful enough for Paramount to reinstate it as the company's crown jewel. For my viewing pleasure, I think the series is just fine, each film getting incrementally better than the last, especially with Beyond. Hell, I wish Beyond had been the first, instead of faffing about establishing the canon with Number One (pun intended) and giving fans a pandering tribute they never asked for with Into Darkness. As such, there's considerable debate as to whether or not there will be a fourth film, whether or not that will be the final chapter in the Abrams timeline, and if the cast wants to commit to that many future installments. 

Then there's the TV show... the one that's been cancelled now. I've never seen a grander, hotter mess than this spectacle of entertainment-by-committee versus social media outrage culture. A wise man once described the Falklands War as two bald men fighting over a comb, and I don't feel like that's too far off from what's happened now. No one wanted the show that Paramount wanted to sell, but no one necessarily agreed with the Social Justice Warrior outcries. Sure, setting the series in line with the original (Enterprise, Classic, Next Generation, DS9, Voyager....) would have been as welcomed as a female, non-white captain (staying faithful to Gene Roddenberry's super-centrist, egalitarian ideologues), but not only was the proprietary streaming service eye-rolling, the last-minute ground-up overhaul of everything from the setting to the ship and alien designs to the cast being more, er, "washed out" reeked of the studio playing it safe in the laziest possible manner known to them, which ironically is what causes franchises like this to stifle in the first place and lose footing to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Social media mobs may have had good points about racism and sexism dominating mainstream entertainment, if only passive-aggressively, but I don't share their basis for that point of view. That is, I didn't care what race or gender the captain and crew were, I cared about having something different that still paid tribute to the original. A safe bet to Paramount, systemic racism to others, and lazy repetition to me. Yeah, Picard is probably my favorite captain out of Archer, Kirk, Sisko, and Janeway, but I don't want him to be the gold standard against which all other candidates are judged. It's like all the actors who have played the Doctor; I like Tom Baker, but I like the others as well and all for different reasons (even Matt Smith and Colin Baker). The last thing I ever want to say about a Doctor is how much like (insert any other Doctor here) they are. It's the same for Star Trek. I want different starship captains to captain their ships among the stars differently. Challenge my expectations, for pity's sake (feel free to make your own joke about spaceships and the word "Challenge" if you want some sort of parallelism like the sentence about captains... I don't feel like pushing that boundary just yet). Maybe I won't like the new direction, but I don't want someone else missing out on what they make like for the sake of my placation. 

YouTuber Armoured Skeptic can explain all of what happened with Star Trek Discovery better than I can:

So, here we are. A Star Trek series has been cancelled, but a Galaxy Quest-like parody is getting the greenlight. Will I watch it? I don't know, probably not. It looks well-made and I don't doubt it will be funny, but barring any exceeding of expectations within the first few episodes, I don't see myself staying invested. Even then, nothing really makes me want to check it out in the first place. It's offering to scratch an itch I don't have. Instead, I think maybe I'll fill up my Kindle with some Vonnegut, and finish Pirx the Pilot. I also realize I've never actually read the first Dirk Gently book, and I'm rather mad at myself for that. 
You know that guy who really likes (insert band from 1960-1985 here) and says all current music is bullcrap? If I end up becoming as much for science fiction comedy, swearing that it all never got much better than Red Dwarf before returning to my reading of The Cyberiad... I'm completely and totally okay with that. 

23 August 2017

Cheaper Tablet Than H420

Huion, a company known for making cheap graphics tablets, including some full-fledged pen displays meant to compete with the Wacom Cintiqs. To put the caliber of materials we're looking at in perspective, Scott Adams has used a Cintiq UX21 since around 2004 to draw Dilbert. It's equivalent today would be the 22HD, starting at around 2,000USD. Most of my artist friends use a Wacom Intuos of some variety, which go for between 200-300USD. I have an ISKN Slate, which has a roughly 8x5" drawing area and costs around 180USD. There's also iPads, which are becoming increasingly popular, but the software selection is still limited and doesn't give you the full range of tools a desktop solution would. 

Huion's H420... is 30 bucks. It has a drawing area of 2x3". It's basically one step below those screens you sign at the grocery store when you use your credit card. However, someone at Huion decided to market the thing as a full-fledged graphics tablet on par with Wacom's budget-conscious Bamboo series (which go for around 100USD), and some artists took on the challenge. Ultimately, it's not the tools, it's the talent, but along with bragging rights and impressing clients, the advantage of something like a Cintiq or an Intuos is that you've got more room to work with for precise movements (the drawing area essentially mirrors you screen, so think about that trackpad on your laptop for an idea of the interface) and you spend far less time fighting the technical challenges than you normally would, letting you focus on the creative challenges. 

I'll be using DeviantArtMuro, their browser-based drawing and paint program and post the result. Muro is free, widely-available, and has a playback function for showing a timelapse of the process. 

19 August 2017

Blame My Paranoia

I hope I live long enough to see 3D printers this big.
My formal introduction to the work of Tsutomu Nihei follows a rather common pattern. I saw Knights of Sidonia on Netflix, and from there I found the rest of his bibliography, though I've yet to dive into any of it. I found out about Blame! through Classic Game Room, along with Biomega. Comixology filled me in on the rest. 

I'm currently waiting on the arrival of a somewhat obscure DVD as part of a not-quite review that discusses some oddities in the dynamic of digital versus physical media, a kind of meditation on the unadvertised mission statement of my weblog, discussing examples of media that don't fit broadly established genres or categories and subsequently fall through the cracks. 

I watched Blame! knowing very little about the story of the original manga. I'd read some snippets here and there, either descriptions or reviews, but beyond Kiri (Killy?), his weapon, and the Terminator-like setting of humans against machines, I had no real clue what to expect. This led to a bout of what could best be described as cognitive dissonance. My mind had expectations for the storyline that went in the polar opposite direction, though hardly to my dismay. It simply makes me wonder if anyone else may have the same quasi-existential experience. 

In the distant future, humanity has effectively cracked the post-scarcity economy, allowing us to build and create without any real restrictions. The megastructure that results from all this is maintained entirely by machines under the guidance of a supercomputer called the Authority. Under the Authority, robots called Builders continue to expand the structure while Safeguards enforce security. At some point, thanks to a contagion, humans lose the ability to interface with the netsphere (the internet), leaving the Authority to make like the brooms from Fantasia and carry on as it always has with only the vaguest of direction. Builders now build without rhyme or reason, a la the Winchester Mansion but on a larger scale, and Safeguards kill humans on sight, classifying them as interlopers. Many millennia pass, but small pockets of humanity manage to eke out a living despite the constant threat of extermination. 
Our story starts with a group of upstarts from a village of human survivors scavenging for food against the better judgment of their elders. A veritable Mickey Mouse operation from the start, the plan goes horrifically awry and about half the party is butchered by killer department store mannequins. The remaining few are about to meet the same fate when they bump into a stoic man in black who wipes out the Safeguards with one shot of an otherwise unassuming firearm. He asks if anyone possesses something called a Net Terminal Gene. The kids have no clue what he's talking about, but insist he come with them to meet the other villagers on the off-chance someone can help. 
The old man of the tribe, known only as Pops, explains that Kiri is a traveler, known through oral traditions, like most of their knowledge. Sadly, what they know as far as what Kiri is looking for is extremely limited, almost superstitious. One story stands out, though, that of a ghost that lives below the village in a place called the Rotting Shrine. 
To the surprise of likely no sci-fi fan worth his salt, said ghost isn't a ghost at all, but a holographic projection. It appears to be of a woman, but the message has become distorted and corrupted beyond coherency. Walking right past where the humans fear to tread, Kiri unearths the head and spine of an android and employs what people in the tech industry know as Emergency Repair Procedure Number 1: hit it. 

This is the part where the ignorance of the humans in the story and my own ignorance of the original source material collide and merge into a twisted ladder of not quite dramatic irony and an assumed idiot plot. The android introduces herself as Cibo (pronounced "Shee-Boh" for some reason) and starts telling the story of how she came to be as she is... without really explaining what she is. She says she's a scientist who tried to restore order to the megastructure. The whole time this is going on, all I can think is, "So, she's a human consciousness transferred into a robot? But, if that's the case, how can Kiri perform a retinal scan? Why would that work?" Furthermore, I thought, "Given one of the villagers previously established that there are Safeguards which can take on human forms, do we have any reason to believe what Cibo is saying?" Then there's the villagers, who don't seem to question any of this whatsoever, though to be fair only believe about half of what they're being told. That's when Cibo drops a line I'm going to paraphrase for emphasis: 

"Take me to the automated factory and I'll make anything you want. Even food." 

I dunno. I can imagine quite a lot.

Again, knowing nothing about the source material, tell me that line is anything but a massive red flag billowing in the wind. I mean, there's "Too Good To Be True" and there's frigging magic beans, Hansel and Gretel, Gingerbread Man riding a fox that say ring-a-ding-ding-ding.... The point is, for the next 10-15 minutes, I was almost yelling at my screen, "Tonto! Don't go to town! They're gonna beat y'up again!" I was ready to write off the villagers as cannon fodder and the story as an idiot plot. An idiot plot is a plot wherein the only reason anything transpires the way it does is that the protagonists are total morons with no common sense and even fewer survival skills. Think about it: here's a group of people who hide from robots that want to kill them, and now here's the skeletal head & shoulders of a robot promising them anything they want if they take her to a factory... that's automated... as in, run by robots.  
Where the Hell is Admiral Ackbar when you need him!? Do these villagers really have no concept of what a human being is supposed to look and act like, especially a dead one? Did they see the first Hellboy movie too many times? To be fair, the team that decides to go along with Kiri to this factory have their fair share of doubts. The fact is, given their circumstances, they have no reason not to go. I was expecting a bleak story, but this was starting to get ridiculous, drawing out what seemed like an obvious betrayal in the making. While things do go horribly wrong, Cibo's actually on the level. That's not a spoiler; that's saving you from the embarrassment of energy wasted in anticipation of something that never happens. 

It turns out Cibo is the M to Kiri's James Bond. The story of the manga has very few recurring characters and generally flimsy alliances. Cibo, however, is as much the face of Blame! as Kiri, to the point she takes the trope of Main Character Immunity to almost comical proportions, even in the short span of the film's run time. 

There's a real Ship of Theseus theme to Cibo that I rather dig; that she was a normal human being, then gradually augmented herself, eventually reducing her very "self" to a stream of data, transplanting herself into a completely synthetic body, and even transferring/copying herself from one form to another as needed. We typically apply it to inanimate objects like ships and tools as a meditation on sentiment, but applied to an existential context it becomes infinitely fascinating and equally terrifying. At the end of the day, all "we are", all that "I am" is a string of memories, shaped by experiences, and stored imperfectly in a fundamentally frail physical form. 

Speaking of physical forms, I'd said before I was waiting for a DVD to arrive, which was true when I started writing this a few days earlier. That situation has changed:  
Thanks RightStuf
Things are going to get complicated.

15 August 2017

PC Master Race... Leans Left?

This is a partial paraphrasing/rewrite/expansion of an article I wrote on LinkedIn about something I meant to talk about on DeviantART (and may still since I want this to focus on gaming and not art) but that's about as complicated as this story gets... maybe. 

A lot of artists I know use graphics tablets, with many of them calling their mice bars of soap and about half as useful for drawing digitally. It surprised me, then, to learn from Ash Vickers of Megacynics that vector art is primarily done with a mouse. It made sense the more I thought about it, especially as I started experimenting with vector graphics. I also started doing CAD for work, which also uses a mouse (Solidsmack has a wonderful article about using a stylus for CAD, by the way). Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me. This made what happened next a little more scary than it normally would have been. 

I'm right-handed (that's not the scary part) and one morning, I found that I slept wrong somehow and my right arm was extremely sore. It more than likely would have gone away on its own (and it did), but given that I had a full day of design work ahead of me using that very arm, I would be playing a dangerous game of either keeping my arm in pain or making it worse. This made me really anxious, if rather pitifully so. I sat down at my desk, looked at the arrangement of peripherals on my desk, and took a calculated risk. The keyboard got shifted to the right, and the mouse hopped over it and landed on the left. My left hand was going to have to learn CAD and vector work the same way sadists and deadbeats teach nervous kids to swim, chucking them straight into the deep end. 

There wasn't even five seconds of adjustment. 

Seriously, I didn't even need to switch the left and right buttons in the control panel. Using my middle finger for left click and my index finger for right click felt every bit as normal as the opposite arrangement on my right hand. Okay, there was a little bit of a learning curve in the precision and accuracy department when it came to clicking and dragging, so let's bring that five seconds up to about five minutes. This was all about a year ago, and I have no intention of going back. In fact, I'd like to invite all of you to give it a try. You can switch the left and right mouse buttons if you want to, but you may be surprised how intuitive the setup truly is. If you're skeptical, and you're at your desk while reading this, I want you to look down at your current arrangement of mouse and keyboard. Unless you're using a small laptop or you specifically asked for a narrow keyboard, yours likely has a number pad, with a little cross of arrow keys separating it from the nation of QWERTY. Those arrows are going to become important later. This added real estate, which is wider than your hand when it's in a relaxed position, creates a rather onerous compromise when it comes to productivity. 

Seriously, why does this look weird?
Think about it, in order to center the home row of your keyboard under your screen, you have to put your right arm at almost a 45 degree angle away from your body to operate your mouse. This is a little less drastic if you have a trackball, but let's save that discussion for when we talk about Centipede and Missile Command. (let's just say if you're not tossing the keyboard aside and putting that beautiful billiard ball front and center, you're doing it wrong!). If your job involves more typing than clicking, you may be okay with this and it's entirely possible it will never pose any problems for you. Likewise, if you need your mouse more than your keyboard, then having home row off-center can be equally tolerable. In either case, though, you're missing a trick, quite possibly the ultimate office life hack.

If your HR department has invested any time and effort into discussing office ergonomics with you, it may be familiar to hear something along the lines of keeping your arms as straight as possible. This is spot-on. Arguably, your muscles can get used to being at odd angles, but 1) you shouldn't have to, and 2) your muscular system is fundamentally give-and-take. If muscle group A has to work a little harder, muscle group B doesn't. Simple isometric exercises and stretches can help with these, but like we said in point 1, you shouldn't have to. 

Here's where this gets interesting: gamers already get the most out of this clumsy arrangement, but only because of a compromise. The typical keyboard-and-mouse arrangement for something like a first-person shooter or a few other genres that involve navigating a three-dimensional space works out like this: the mouse controls the camera or where your character looks, while the W, A, S, and D keys move your character forward, left, back, and right (respectively). In this setup, the far left side of the keyboard and the rightmost reach of the mouse allow your arms to rest straight in front of you. 

You've nailed it... or have you? 

In my CAD work, I don't use my keyboard that often, not compared to the number pad. It's used about as equally as the mouse. Having my mouse on the left lets me center the home row of my keyboard, which puts my arms straight ahead, with the left resting on the mouse, and the right resting on the number pad, with those arrow keys almost equally accessible. I've even got the arrow keys on the number pad thanks to the Num Lock key if needed. 

Having my mouse on the left lets me use the arrow keys for what they arrow keys are made for. 

Yes, that sounds obvious, but if that's obvious, why is the WASD arrangement somehow "the norm"? What do you typically use the left analog stick on a game controller for? The camera, with the right analog stick controlling your movements. Funnily enough, this arrangement for dual analog controllers as pioneered in Alien Resurrection for the Sony Playstation was heavily criticized at the time before quickly becoming the norm. Now consider that in old-school gaming, especially in the arcade, movement controls are on the left. Meanwhile, left-handed arcade sticks put movement controls on the right, where right-handed console gamers operate movement controls anyway. 

Gamers are already fundamentally ambidextrous and we don't even realize it. 

It's only appropriate, then, that Razer (By Gamers, For Gamers) would be pretty much lead the charge in producing left-handed ergonomic gaming mice. There are others, but they're playing catch-up on the whole, with many content with catering to office environments where fewer buttons are required. 

Ironically, despite what I said earlier about not needing to reverse the mouse buttons in the control panel, the default layout of the left-handed Naga mouse reverses the clicks. Luckily, Synapse (the application Razer offers to customize their mouse buttons) makes the switch easy. Unfortunately, because it's an application, it's not there right away when I boot up, and there's a few minutes every morning when I have to mentally swap sides until everything gets up and running. For the sake of convenience and not dealing with adding more programs to startup, I swapped the clicks in the Control Panel. So, the left-handed mouse is actually less intuitive to my left hand than an ambidextrous one without modification. Razer, if you're reading this, worry not, for I forgive you ;) ... but if you really want to make it up to me, maybe you can put that MOBA-friendly Naga Hex mouse on fast-track to getting a left-handed version? This 12-button keypad is kinda tedious ;P 

30 July 2017

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (First Impressions)

As a rule, I've more or less forbidden games on my phones and even my iPad. It's not that I don't think the platform is a viable competitor to the likes of the DS or Vita (In fact, earlier today before editing this, I just beat Daxter on my first generation PSP I still play reguarly). The problem is I have something of an addictive personality, especially when it comes to puzzle games. Growing up on Tetris, Dr. Mario, and Bust-A-Move has engrained the genre in me as a kind of comfort food for the middle ground between my left and right brain. 
As a compromise, I limit one game per device, a maximum of one microtransaction if the game is free-to-play, and with very strict rules on genre, namely no puzzle games like Bejeweled (I still haven't forgiven my Dad for getting me hooked on it) or endless runners like Jetpack Joyride (my Dad still hasn't forgiven me for getting him hooked on it). Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective from Capcom, which at first I thought was a spin-off title in the Phoenix Wright series*, is almost a puzzle game. It's a point-and-click (tap-and-hold?) adventure game with logic and time-based puzzles. 

Hmm, that "D" looks familiar....
You play a disembodied spirit recently separated from his mortal coil by way of a convoluted murder conspiracy involving a group of blue men (No, not those guys). Unfortunately for you, not only did your red-suited carcass end up in a very undignified position, and not only have you completely lost your memory, but someone else in the same junkyard as you is about to be sworn in as a new denizen among the dearly departed by way of a golden shotgun. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however, as another spirit in the form of a desk lamp named Ray (yes, as in "ray of light" tunnels notwithstanding) is quick to take you by the phantom limb and teach you to use your newfound powers of the dead. 

Like that there parrot that done ceased to be...
The gameplay reminds me mostly of Firefly's Diary (htoL#NiQ) on Vita, particularly with the Ghost mechanic. When in "Ghost" mode, you're able to possess various inanimate objects. The catch is that you've got a limited range, which can sometimes be hard to judge. Often you'll have to "join the dots" and move from point to point. Sometimes an object must be manipulated not only to solve the puzzle, but also to get you to another and more vital object. Think Final Destination with good intentions or Ghost if it was directed by Miyazaki. 

Manipulating possessed objects forms another third of your suite of phantom powers, called "Trick" mode for the sake of a title drop. Although the backgrounds have the same degree of awkward clutter as a hidden object game, the number and type of objects you can inhabit is limited, complete with a few red herrings thrown in. If Ghost mode reminded me of Firefly's Diary, this part of the game reminds me of Haunting with Polterguy on the Genesis. In that game, your goal was to scare away the inhabitants of a house. Your tricks here are a little more versatile and subtle, though getting attention via diversion and distraction is a core part of the gameplay. This part can become the most frustrating as many of the tricks you have to pull off rely on characters standing in specific spots, looking a certain direction, or performing some subtle action you're likely to miss more often than not. It always strikes me as a cheap tactic to reduce strategizing and problem solving to a time trial in order to make something more challenging. 

A Dead Dog, a Distressed Damsel, and a Dastardly... Dog-killer? Yeah, let's go with that.
Speaking of timing and trials, the last power of the dead at your disposal is a time manipulation mechanic. In addition to connecting with inanimate object, you can also contact the spirits of the recently deceased and rewind their last four minutes of life. Not only can you see their final moments play out from a limited third person perspective, but you can actually save them from dying with your dual-wielding of possession and manipulation. This redeems the "situational" aspect of the game, albeit it replaces quick reflexes with trial and error. Still, I'd rather have my Rube Goldberg machination not work because I missed a step or misjudged a character as opposed to not being able to swipe or tap or drag fast enough at the right time. 

The way the big guy slaps that command console always kills me.
I played the game on an iPhone 5c, and though it ran well enough for those first two chapters, I'd argue that an iPad is the best way to go. This is a beautiful game, especially the character designs. They're 2D sprites, but they're based on expertly-crafted 3D models that are either meticulously animated or diligently motion-captured. It may have made for a very slick and cool-looking platformer in the Prince of Persia vein. 

As of the time of this writing, Ghost Trick is available in its entirety for 10USD, and I can't decide if that's too much for a mobile game. I honestly don't know how much I've ever spent on a phone game, maybe 6 or 7 way back in the day for the Wolfenstein RPG, and frankly that may have been too much. Then again, I've easily spent over 40USD on all the various drawing programs across all my mobile devices. Of course, there's simply no comparing the value of a productivity app to that of a game, however addicting and fun said game may be. 

Does this count as interest?
One last note about the price: As I said, the game is available for 10USD. While that's a steal compared to the full price of its original release on Nintendo DS, in what I can only guess was a foreshadowing of Capcom's more dubious business practices, you can buy chapters in small "packs" for 5USD each. Obviously, the bundle is the better deal given the game is at least 15 chapters on top of the first two freebies. Still, I don't get this piecemeal/episodic setup because the game was ported all at once from DS to iOS. With most episodic games (especially those from TellTale), they're released several months (even years) apart at a premium, then bundled together at a discount for those who waited. It's a trade-off akin to waiting for a movie to be available for streaming rather than seeing it in theaters. For Ghost Trick, though, there was no waiting. It all simply makes me wonder how often someone paid for the chapter packs rather than going whole hog for the complete package at once. 

Suspect pricing structure aside, I enjoyed the first two chapters of Ghost Trick, and while I ultimately intend to unlock the full game, it's an odd duck even in the mobile games market and I don't recommend diving in without testing the waters first. Fans of "match three" puzzles and manic tapping may be turned away by the pacing, while fans of deeper experiences like "escape the room" or remastered ports of older games may find the total package somewhat shallow. The last comparison I would make is to Jordan Mechner's The Last Express. It's a technically ambitious work of art whose only real fault is simply not having more of itself to offer. That can leave a lot of gamers grumbling, but I'm of the mindset that if a game ends too soon, it was probably just long enough. 

*Ghost Trick was produced by the creator of Phoenix Wright, and once speculated on a crossover game, but the title sadly remains a one-off.