The Killer API

I've tried a few shopping list apps for the iPhone but they never really worked for me because it's just too slow to add things. Get the phone out, unlock it, launch the app, press some plus button somewhere... And then even the act of typing is slower than jotting it down with a pen. It was never something that worked for me, personally.

But... Imagine finding out you're out of soap (for example), raising your wrist and saying "Hey, Siri. Add soap to my shopping list".

(Or, a little more clumsily, something like "Hey, Siri. Add soap to my shopping list in To Do Today".)

The Apple Watch is superb at quick interactions based on triggers from the cloud - messages, emails, reminders and such like. It also has a powerful and nearly effortless user interface in Siri which, for reasons I've yet to see an explanation for, seems to work better than on the iPhone. However, Siri is limited to Apple's own in-built services.

I'm convinced that the killer feature for the Apple Watch is the Siri API developers have no access to. 

(Yet..?)

Clockwork Skeuomorphism

It's not unusual for new technologies to drag along some of the design elements of the old - computers have keyboards just like typewriter keyboards even today - but most do so only out of habit and then abandon those elements that don't work fairly quickly. For example, television shows were originally treated basically like radio shows with video or a televised version of theatre but quickly expanded into a far more dynamic, cinematic medium.

I put the trend towards round smartwatches in this camp. The vast majority of what any computer screens display is predicated on the rectangle - lists, photos, buttons, paragraphs, characters and pixels... The entire user interface is based around them.

This, in turn, is because most of what we do also trends towards rectangles - pages, screens, boxes, keys, laptops, paper notebooks and characters of text (as empathised by any government form you may fill out).

Some user interfaces can be made circular - buttons can be round and progress bars can curl around a circular path - but it's clear that we tend towards the rectangle in how we work and how we think. Yet, we have small wrist mounted computers with round screens. It makes sense only in one context - the watch face. The clockwork sweep of the hands is a circular motion.

To be clear, I like the look of the round LG smartwatches, for example, but consider it to be a clear case of form over function. A round face is attractive but not useful. It is a wasteful affectation that benefits one facet of the watch and hobbles the rest.  

 

 

The Semantics of Piracy

An article is popping up over the web today: Is Downloading Really Stealing?

It's an interesting question which has been debated all over the web and after careful deliberation I've decided that, my God, but that's a waste of time.

There is a lot to debate about the new world of digital content, intellectual property and illegal downloads. There are genuine concerns about the rights of creators (indeed, the livelihood of creators), the availability of content, pricing, morality and legality. However, whenever those debates start to happen, say on Reddit, someone always uses the approximate shortcut of calling it "stealing" or "theft" and the debate gets dragged down into arguments over semantics.

It doesn't matter. The semantics of legal definitions are only relevant in court. If we all collectively decided tomorrow that copyright infringement wasn't theft, none of the problems with it or issues around it would be gone.

There are better things to discuss here. More productive, more interesting things than the same tired old ground on which no one is giving an inch and into which people with good points get dragged purely because a turn of phrase.

For the record: Legally, it's not theft. I looked it up. However, from a practical viewpoint, "theft" is a close approximation which gets the general idea across and is much shorter to type than "copyright infringement".

Alas, I feel I must warn against doing so.

To Do Today 1.2

The second minor revision of the first version of my iPhone to do list app is now out. I built the thing because I couldn't find any to do list app that worked how I work. I managed to cobble together a vaguely functional workflow with Wunderlist but it was never quite right.

The idea is simple: You have a master list of tasks separated into folders (of course) and you select a small number - say, two to five - to be done on a given day. It means you don't have to scroll through the daunting master list of dozens but can focus on a few and chip away at the list day to day.

There's not much in the way of reviews yet, so if you check it out I'd definitely appreciate any comments or criticism.

Next job: Apple Watch support. Of course, I need to get my Apple Watch delivered first...

Commanding an Adventuring Party

Occasionally in tabletop role-playing games, there is a logical need for there to be a commanding officer in the group. The more modern or futuristic the game gets, the more likely this is. Unfortunately, having the commanding officer an NPC means that you, the GM, are leading the players around by the nose and having a PC as the commander can lead to all sorts of problems at the table. Power, after all, corrupts, and as much as everyone likes being the heroic leader, that also means they'll be front and centre in the action, making all the decisions and leeching fun from the game for everyone else. Always remember that whatever is happening in game, you are also a bunch of friends playing a game around a table. Fun comes first.

Thanks to the unfortunate but scripted death of our NPC commanding officer in a Mechwarrior game, I became the leader of the unit and, over my tenure, I made myself some rules that would allow everyone else to retain as much creativity, freedom and enjoyment in the game as possible.

  1. Explain to the players out of character that although you outrank them in game and will be playing that role, you don't want to impinge on their creativity and freedom. Make it clear that they can do things their own way and, indeed, can do their own thing (within reason).
  2. Leave the players as much latitude as you can. If you give them an order, leave it to them to execute it. So, say "secure the room" instead of "Frank, guard that door. Sue, guard that door" and so on. Act as though you trust each and every player to know how to do their job (even if they don't...)
  3. Be fair. Use each PC for the job for which they are trained, including yourself. The party will quickly pick up that you use the correct tool for the job without fear or favour. In that respect, you, as captain, are treating everyone equally, including yourself.
  4. Stand by your sergeant (at least in public). Give the second in command autonomy to give orders as well. Override only if absolutely necessary.
  5. If the players do something which is outside the parameters of the mission and could get them into trouble if you, as captain, found out, then don't look too hard. Again, within reason.
  6. If you have to dress someone down in character for exercising their creativity and freedom because the consequences were just a little hard to ignore, start by saying something like "Out of character, I don't mean this. That was awesome. In character... WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?..."
  7. Don't be a glory hound but do take risks as appropriate. Show the group you're willing to risk your life for them or for the mission.
  8. Unless there is a good reason why someone else would be more appropriate, be the last to leave in dangerous situations. Cover the team as they get to safety - then join them.
  9. Reward the players in game for doing their jobs well. Promotions, medals, whatever.
  10. Check in with the players occasionally to make sure you're not stifling them too much.

The short version is that the leader of the party should be a sort of a half-GM. Someone who will put the enjoyment of others and the proper functioning of the game first. If you are a GM planning a military adventure, then I recommend choosing an ex-GM for the leadership role.

Naming Superman

In the original 1978 Superman movie, Lois Lane names Superman after he has flown away from his interview with her using the following line of dialogue...

What a super man. Hm. 'Superman!'

2013's Man of Steel has Lois name Superman a little better. On paper, the dialogue is still pretty unsubtle and ham-handed but the line is lifted by Amy Adams' delivery. She says the line with a hesitancy and a little smile which shows that Lois knows this is kind of silly.

How about... Sup-

(At this point, she is interrupted.)

In "Superman: The Animated Series", the cartoon Lois Lane also names Superman, except in this case it is in a meeting with her editor after Superman's first public appearance.

He's strong. He flies. He the Nietzschean fantasy ideal all wrapped up in a red cape. The superman.

Delivery of the lines aside, how is it that a cartoon manages to produce a more intelligent, less forced, better written, more believable and far superior origin for Superman's name than either of two Hollywood blockbusters?

"What a super man," indeed!

 

The War of Pockets and Wrists

Among the doubters of the nascent but, I think, promising smartwatch market, I often hear something along these lines...

Why would I want a smartwatch? My smartphone does all the same things and it only takes a second to get it from my pocket.

My usual reply to such people is that the war between a device in your pocket and a device on your wrist has been waged before - and the pocket watch lost. 

While that argument is true, it's a little simplified because the pocket watch and wristwatch were both single-function devices and that single function worked perfectly well when shrunk down to a size that fitted on your wrist. However, the smartphone has a large screen which is used to its fullest. With a smaller, more limited display, a smartwatch will not be able to do nearly as much. So, unlike my analogy of the war of the watches, the smartwatch is inherently crippled compared to a smartphone. 

The basic point, however, is still a good one and is borne out by a thousand other inventions like the TV remote, garage remote, smart homes, microwaves, keyless entry, voice control on your phone, NFC payments, and even things like SSDs and the relentless march of faster, more powerful computer processors.

You should never, ever underestimate an invention that saves time, even if the time it saves if less than a second.

Where'd it all go?

I have moved my website to Squarespace - just because I don't particularly want to micromanage HTML and CSS any more - and this has two important effects.

  1. Whoa. Everything looks different.
  2. Wait. Where is everything?

Well, as to the first, I will be fiddling around with this template to create something more me but this will be a gradual process and the current look is nice enough, if a little stark.

And as for the second, I will be moving everything across over time, possibly doing a little editing as I go. This will include my old webcomic tutorials that I wrote under the nom de clef Joel Fagin.

In the meantime, the old site can still be found here.