1. Just Watch

    At the risk of sounding cliché, Apple has spent the last decade and-a-half (more, really) preparing for the release of a product like the Apple Watch.

    In 1998, Steve Jobs and Jony Ive introduced their first full-fledged collaboration with the introduction of the iMac. The Bondi Blue bubble of CRT glass and molded plastic became the symbol for “Think Different” in practice rather than simple philosophy. As a computer, it made great strides in simplicity, promotion of the USB standard, and in proving that not all the magic had gone from Apple. But more than that—or any other trait it might be known for—the iMac was a style device.

    For years, PC companies tried and failed to replicate the iMac’s style with slapdash plastic inserts in fuchsia and teal and other fantastically 90’s colors. They checked the “flashy colors” box, and then stared stupidly as Apple became the company of trendy design while they sold millions of personality-free commodity boxes in plastic plate mail to businesses around the world. The whole process informed those who paid attention that Apple, the new Apple at the time, understood style in a way that other tech companies just plain did not.

    They rode that wave through the gorgeous but flawed Titanium PowerBook and G4 Cube, had a bit of mainstream success with the white iBook, and leveraged it like crazy on a new (for Apple, that is) device category called the iPod. But they didn’t stop there. The iPod took another step that further helped to shape the company: miniaturization.

    At the time, Apple was not the company making the parts that filled the little silver and white brick that could hold your entire music collection. But they learned from those who did provide the parts by designing the interiors, going on to press that brick thinner and thinner until now even the two year old iPod Touch seems almost impossibly thin.

    With the iPod, Apple became a household name in a way it simply hadn’t been before. Suddenly, it was “cool” to buy and use something from Apple. And not in the way the the geeks (or some of us, anyway) had always thought Apple stuff was cool (remember the Newton?) but in the way that ordinary people think of cool. Apple products became a style symbol for everyone when they had only before been a design symbol for those who cared to look.

    You know where this is going.

    Then the iPhone dropped, and Apple clarified what the company could be even further. It was a facet they had shown in fits and starts through their history, but never in quite the same quantity and quality as with the first iPhone. And that facet was technology. Not just speed-bumped, this is our latest and greatest but it’ll be laughably outdated in three months, technology. The iPhone brought real, holy crap, I didn’t even know that was possible, tech. The kind that we’ve all gotten used to by know, as Apple fills phone after phone with high quality cameras, touch sensitive glass, fingerprint scanners, and systems on a chip.

    So think about that for a moment and allow me the indulgence of this next paragraph.

    Three things. Style, miniaturization, and technology. Each of these at a level that the competition shamelessly strives toward but rarely achieves. Style. Miniaturization. And technology.

    Fill in the blank. I know you can.

    Apple is uniquely prepared for wearables. And I’ve seen articles that decree it is their style that makes it possible, that no tech company gets style in a way that could translate over into fashion. No company except Apple. I’ve listened to podcasts that suggest it’s Apple ability to shrink things down (into a whole computer on a chip! Whatever that means) that makes them especially equipped for breaking open the wearable market in a way that transcends gadget geeks (of which I am unabashedly one). And some say that it’s their tenacious pursuit (and achievements) of technology that will propel them into a category that many think is unnecessary.

    On top of all that, Apple has spent at least since the introduction of the iPad working with leather and other materials in their cases, making mistakes, learning and growing. They’ve introduced an OS so simple to use that the market demanded more functionality not because the system didn’t accomplish the task but because users desperately wanted to use it for more and more of their daily computing needs.

    What few commentators seem to be saying is that sometimes two plus two can equal five; that the sum of the parts is lesser than the value of the whole; that despite checking every conceivable box on every conceivable multi-column spreadsheet on every imaginable tech website, the competition will likely come up confused, defensive, and above all irate when the Apple Watch creates a category that they think they already started.

    Just watch.

     


  2. #GamerGate - A Metaphor, Allegory, and Fable

    A radiant sun burned to embers in the west, the last light of a long day. Beneath its broken beams lay a forest of brilliant green that rolled into hills and valleys as far as one might might care to look until the trees exhausted themselves against the wall of a snowcapped mountain. Amid the prickly firs, a wide glade spread its welcoming arms. At its center an ancient cedar rustled, a timeless spire in the forest fortress.

    The cedar’s roots dug deeply, past the loam and down to bedrock where they sipped cool clean water untouched and unseen on the surface for many years. Beneath the highest and largest of these roots, a mole made her home. She worried the tunnels and tended the young, burrowing further and further by the day. After the father had gone, her maze grew complex, intricate, and careworn with comings and goings—as the lairs of such moles often do in stories like these.

    Outside, thistles rustled in response to the old cedar. They were softer still, though their barbs were sharp. Here, a doe and her fawn grazed warily. Were a twig to snap, her head would rise, alert, and stone still.

    Above them all, in the cedar’s highest boughs, perched an owl, out a bit early and all the more observant. He rotated his head, sentry and assassin in one, wise as any of the creatures below—and as the stories go, wisest of them all.

    Before the light faded into blackness and glittering stars, the mole nudged her way to the surface, tasting the air with a quivering nose and tiny dim eyes. The doe saw her there, saw the snout in the air, saw the whiskers twitching. The fawn did not, but he knew the value of a child seen and not heard. His mother did not agree with the old adage as a way of life, but she tried to instill its better applications where she could.

    Slowly, the doe approached the mole, afraid that she might scare one so used to the darkness and damp. “Excuse me?” she asked, in her calmest voice. “Why do you not step into the sunlight more often? The wind moves the grass, and flowers perfume the air. Up here, I can hear birdsong and running water and the pounding of my hooves in the soft soil.”

    More than a bit startled, the mole retreated a step, then inched forward. “I might ask the same of you,” she admonished, though not too strongly. “Down here, I am safe and warm. I know the many twisting ways that I have built. I know them better than my own heart.” She sniffed. “And besides. You also hear the howling wolves and sometimes distant gunfire up there with the chirping birds. I hear them too, but they are muffled and far away. I—we—are safe down here.”

    The doe nodded and looked nervously at her fawn. She understood what it meant to protect those who need protecting. “That is true,” she said. “I will never know your secret ways. Nor would I fit in your tunnel,” she added with a laugh, “but I do enjoy the open air.”

    They agreed to disagree.

    Above them, the owl looked down, a gruff condescension ruffling somewhere between his glorious plumage and the withered skin beneath. Were those feathers stripped away, he might look a frightening picture, a winged skeleton wrapped in shriveled skin. But such owls never know this about themselves in stories, and so he looked down on them literally as well as figuratively.

    “Had I the chance to help those poor creatures,” he thought to himself, “I would inform them of the secrets the wind whispers in the trees at night. I would educate them concerning the rush of air through one’s feathers and of the world rolling by swiftly, a hundred feet below. Surely they don’t know about it, considering they live on and below the ground respectively.”

    He went on—to himself—for a while. These owls can be painfully verbose when the mood strikes them. And after it all, he simply chuckled at the silly debate between the doe and the mole, knowing right down to his growling belly that he was right, of course.

    But, after a long winded explanation and a great deal of frustration from the two who would never have asked his opinion in the first place, he would’ve done the polite thing and agreed to disagree.

    Before he took flight, he swiveled his head, his beak notched squarely between the angle of his impassively folded wingspan, and he remembered the thin film of glass behind him. It was always there, though he never crashed into it, because more or less he would only catch a glimpse of its shimmer and glare on the rarest of occasions. As he always did, he turned away from the glimmering wall and spread his wings. The wind took them, and he was off. The night’s feast awaited.

    On the other side of the glass sat a man and a woman. Her hands clutched a small dark object, upon which her thumbs wagged and tapped, like deer hooves in the soft soil. She tilted her head at the glowing screen and set the controller on the table.

    “What was that all about?!” she wondered.

    The man shifted against the couch, angling for an itch he had been unable to scratch. He shook his head.

    “I was just going to ask you the same thing.”

     


  3. I’d write about the Markdown situation from earlier this week (in Markdown, of course) but sometimes an excellent link says it all. On this topic, I defer to Sid O’Neill and Crate of Penguins.

    Read to the end. It’s worth it, and a lot more fun than the outraged blatherers and standards wonks you’ll find elsewhere.

     


  4. PS4 or “Oh, Sony”

    Recently I decided that a games and technology writer could forestall a next (current) generation console purchase for only so long. When the PS4 and Xbox One were announced, there were very few good reasons to buy one other than being an early adopter. Usually that would have been enough, but in this case I had other things to spend the money on. Short version: I waited. My theory was that I’d buy the system I felt best suited my needs when there was a game that I wanted to play on that system and only that system. So for nearly a year, I played PC exclusives and ports or various iOS games. I oscillated between tossing my rule away for the sake of relative console simplicity and swearing off consoles in general. Then the Destiny beta hit.

    Suddenly I had the game I’d been waiting for. Now, I wasn’t able to play the beta, but through my various channels, I had the information I needed to know that this was the game that would sell me a PS4. I have no intention of explaining my choice of system any more than I simply felt that it was the better choice for a machine whose primary purpose would be to play games. I have an Apple TV which I prefer for Netflix and the like, and though the PS4 will see a great deal of use as a Blu-Ray player, the PS3 I had for years (before it died) served this purpose quite well. Better, in fact, than the dedicated Blu-Ray player we used in the PS3’s absence.

    With that out of the way, I’d like to give some impressions of this step into the new console generation.

    Hardware

    The unit itself is attractive, if a little angular, but still has the shiny Sony-black plastic that will scratch easily. I tried a microfiber cloth to clear away dust, and sure enough, there are hairline scratches on the shiny portions.

    The power and eject buttons made for an amusing story. When I plugged in the system, I was unable to find them. Not just for a moment, but unable at all. I had already put the box away (Seriously, who needs a manual?) and finally had to retrieve it in order to find the buttons. Now don’t go judging my eyesight, as mine is quite clear. The labels are just too small and the buttons themselves too much an invisible part of the design. But, once you’ve found them, it’s not like you’ll forget where they are. I just felt like an old man, hunting for the power button (or switch) and literally being left with no other option than to give up and look in the manual.

    To be honest, I was a little disappointed in the audibility of the PS4’s cooling system, even when the device is in a low usage state. Standby mode is silent, but the system is essentially asleep and only able to do low-level tasks. There is no operational state that has the fans at zero. However, the sound that you can hear, whether it’s at low fan RPM or high, is as pleasant as any cooling system I’ve heard on a console or Mac. I’m sure there’s some incredibly expensive or technical PC upgrade that could eliminate more sound, but that is beyond my scope. The best fans I’ve heard in a device like this are Apple’s, which use variable blade angles to achieve a more uniform if not outright quieter sound. The PS4 is somewhere in the ballpark, and far more tolerable than its predecessor or the unacceptable levels of the Xbox 360.

    Controller

    I’ll make this section simple. The PS4 controller is better in every conceivable measure than the PS3 controller except battery life (and that’s only in comparison to the SIXAXIS that I had on PS3 which had no rumble feature). The analog sticks have better range of motion (though they stubbornly retain the mildly uncomfortable legacy position below the buttons and d-pad) and a better designed surface texture. The trackpad is an odd choice, though it serves a purpose and works great as a catch-all button that is so comically large that you’ll never miss it. The triggers are worlds better than on PS3, and the “horns” curve in a more natural way.

    The Xbox 360 controller is still superior in my experience, but not by much.

    UI

    Oh good grief. If you’re a Mac or iOS (or even stock Android or Windows Phone) user, the UI could very well give you fits. It seems as if Sony wanted to stick with the XMB system from PS3 but also knew that said system was kind of a mess. Unfortunately, they took that system and made it even more complex, with multiple bars, each with their own lists, and fullscreen sliding panels that take the user layers deep into the system with no obvious way to back out other than going one level at a time.

    The store, which should be simple and clear, is anything but. I had to search through several layers of store (all of which claimed to be a top level layer) in order to find a complete list of games offered that I could sort in the expected ways (price, release date, etc.). I can only assume Sony had done this in order to make the store look more “full” than it actually is.

    On top of that, when activating a game’s section of the UI, there are multiple options within the game. Say for instance, that I have The Last of Us: Remastered in the drive. The disc appears in what I think of as the Content media bar. If I choose the game, I can start it right from the bar or go into the game’s Page. There, I can see options for extra content, news stories, trophies, and so on. You know what I can also see? That I am able to buy the game for $49.99. And the game is already in the drive! Why would this still show? Even if I was, let’s say, borrowing or renting the game. I wouldn’t want the option to buy to be displayed while the game was in the machine, I’d want to see that option when I didn’t have the disc anymore. It’s small details like this that make the overall UI seem ill-considered and unfinished.

    There are two universally great improvements in the system software (well, both of them require the new hardware, but whatever). First is the Options button on the controller. No matter where you are in the UI, this button does what it says on the tin. It opens options for the game. Though Start was almost always the indicator for this function in the past, the system UI often had the triangle button covering a similar area. Now, Options gets you options. It seems straightforward and obvious, which is why it is a great change.

    The second unquestionable improvement is Standby mode updates. With the number of Playstation and PSN updates that I used to see on PS3, the purpose of a console (sit down, turn it on, play a game) was nearly ruined. With PS4, that problem is almost entirely gone. Now, if I want to play a game on my gaming system (go figure) I just sit down, put in the disc (if I even need to do that), and play. Just as it should be.

    Conclusions

    It would be easy to look at this review and see it as an attack on the PS4 console gaming experience. If you’re reading it that way, take this into account: I have pretty high technology standards. And even with those standards, I think the PS4 is the best all-around modern gaming experience. Of all the possibilities, the PS4 is the device that seems most attuned to “I’d like to sit on the couch and play a game.” Yes, I could get better graphics performance (and infinitely more configuration headaches) from a custom PC. And yes, I could get a more immediate “I want to play, and now I’m playing,” experience from a tablet or smartphone (though the GPU’s and general scope of games tend to be much smaller there, and the prevalence of free-to-play makes most games a crapshoot). Overall, the PS4 offers more of what I want, despite its sometimes bizarre UI.

     


  5. Guesting on TBR Podcast

    This week, I was lucky enough to be a guest on The Brooks Review podcast. Ben’s a great host, and I was delighted to be on the show. We talked mostly about the self-publishing process, some of its chief difficulties, and tips for writing framed around my background in secondary education. If you haven’t listened to the show before, it has a lot going for it. I recommend the pilot episode, in which Ben describes the direction and philosophy behind it all.

    Of course, I’d love it even more if you listened to my episode, but that’s just me. And to no one’s surprise, Alora’s Tear gets a mention or two throughout.

    Check it out. And remember that with podcasts (as with apps and books) reviews help a great deal. If you like it—and say so in a review—you’d be doing a bigger favor than you might think.