Onward to 2022

Welcome to 2022. Remember last year, in 2019, when you were making big plans to do amazing things when the new decade came around? Well, it’s better late than never so time to get started on that to-do list that’s lying around somewhere.

One of the things on my list is to find time, energy and inspiration to write more, here. I think it’s a good way to help me process my thoughts (also affectionately known as “the swirl”) and to help me articulate them in a coherent, understandable way.

So buckle up because the year is only getting started. This pandemic is far from over, so let’s all try to make the most of what we have to live through.


Switching Back

I switched from an iPhone to a Pixel about 3 years ago. I did it partly because of work requirements, but also because I wanted to experience what life is like outside of Apple’s App Store/iCloud ecosystem. I was perfectly cognisant of how it was all designed to be very sticky for the user, making it hard to leave or live without, for as long as you’re using the hardware.

Just last week, for reasons I won’t get into, I was mildly frustrated with the Android experience, while coincidentally, Apple made the keynote announcements with the new iPhone 13.

I must say, I was very very tempted to switch back, with full knowledge of what I would be getting myself into. Instead, I found my old iPhone X, dusted it off, booted it up and updated the OS and all the apps.

I missed the level of polish seen in the native iOS apps, as well as the third party apps which I used to love. I scrolled through the old iMessages and photos and it felt like getting reacquainted with an old friend. I mean, this piece of hardware is almost 5 years old but it’s still working very well.

But after a few days, I powered down the iPhone and went back to my Pixel 5. It was fun for a couple of days, like a summer fling with an ex-lover but I’m not ready to commit yet. For me, the equation is simple – for as long as I don’t have to pay for my own phone, I will not spend a cent on a mobile device until I have to. I’m lucky to be given the latest devices for work, so I should just count my blessings – a dollar unspent is a dollar saved. The day will come when I will have to buy my own phone and the decision then will be easier to make.


Taking a break

If you’re a DM reading this, I’m writing to give you permission to take a break if you feel like you need it right now.

It gets tough sometimes, I know. You’re spending hours preparing for the game and running it. You’re burdened with dealing all the people issues, and some of you are even expected to schedule the game week after week.

Be kind to yourself. Take a break to recharge. You’re a player too so it’s paramount that you are having fun and not burning out. Go read a book, play a video game, turn off your group’s chat for a week. Let them miss you for a few days.

Take care out there. We’re in this for the long run so please, prioritise yourself first.


72 Microseasons

The Japanese subdivided the calendar into 72 parts, each describing a specific, fleeting seasonal moment. I love how poetically specific and transient each of these divisions are:

March 16 to 20: 菜虫化蝶 Namushi chō to naru; Caterpillars become butterflies.

July 17 to 22: 鷹乃学習 Taka sunawachi waza o narau; Hawks learn to fly.

and my favorite:

November 27 to December 1: 朔風払葉 Kitakaze konoha o harau; North wind blows the leaves from the trees

I miss Japan so much and I can’t wait to return again. Read more about Japan’s 72 microseasons here.


Coalition for App Fairness

Epic games, Spotify, Basecamp, Match Group, Deezer, Tile, Blix and others have formed a Coalition for App Fairness with a goal to “create a level playing field for app businesses and give people freedom of choice on their devices.”

According to them, Apple makes $15,000,000,000+ in revenue annually from the ‘App Store tax’ (source: CNBC).

These complaints aren’t new though. And honestly, I can’t imagine Apple giving much of a shit about this; a small fine out of that annual revenue is merely a drop in the ocean.


Creating Hero Moments

I played with a Dungeon Master (DM) who imposed a “critical failure” whenever anyone rolled a one on any d20 rolls. Some of these fails would be harmful to another player (“you slip on the grass and stab your friend next to you.”) or plain dumb (“you swing so hard, you tear the seams of your pants and your ass is exposed”). He would often be the only one laughing at the table, at the expense of his players’ frustrations.

I hated that game because it not only took away player agency, it made the players’ heroic characters look pretty stupid and incompetent.

While the idea of fun might vary at every table, and would even differ with individual players at the same table, I think one universal strategy for DMs to consider for their table is to make your heroes feel like heroes. Here are a three tips I use at my table:

Maintain player agency. Players should feel like whatever happens to their characters is a direct result of their actions and decisions. As DM, you set the scene and adjudicate any choices that makes sense to you. However, be careful of letting the dice impose undue punishment especially since rolling a one on a d20 could happen with 5% of the time.

At my table, any 1’s rolled in combat automatically misses with no additional penalties. This is not only in the official rules, but missing an attack is enough of a bummer already – they don’t need any extra suck on top of that.

Attack strengths, not weaknesses. Many DMs think that creating a challenge for the player means exploiting a characters’ weaknesses. It’s easy to fall into the trap of designing encounters that a player could only solve with something they don’t have. Wizard with low constitution? Here, have a bandit party that targets the mage. Barbarian with low charisma? Here, have a town guard captain who wants to negotiate a favor. These encounters work, but most of the time, they’re overcome by sheer luck or shared party success – no one feels like a hero.

Instead, consider designing encounters that bring each character’s strength to the foreground. How about an encounter in a lair with an endless flow of baddies, and the only way out is a door with a lock that only the rogue can successfully pick while the party defends him? How about a trapped room that could only be stopped by a wizard interpreting arcane sigils engraved on the walls? When these encounters succeed, the player feels like a hero because their character’s skills and strengths were pivotal to the success.

Reward (potential) heroic moments. Every once in a while, a player might get a crazy idea in the middle of combat – “Is there a chandelier I can grab onto, and swing across the room towards the baddie and kick his face?” It’s quite acceptable for a DM to ask for a dexterity check to grab and hold onto the chandelier, a strength check to gather enough momentum to swing across the room and then, roll for an attack. There are many potential points of failure with these checks, and any of them would ruin what could potentially be a heroic moment for a character.

Instead, consider awarding advantage on the attack roll and skip the two prior skill checks altogether. “Fueled by a rush of adrenaline, you jump towards the chandelier and grab it with both hands. Your momentum swings you right across the room so fast the baddie didn’t see you coming. Roll for attack with advantage!” I do this at my table a lot because I like to keep the flow going in combat, and it really encourages the players to think creatively in every encounter.

The next time you run your game, think about how you want your player to feel. It’s important to remember that at the end of the day, everyone at the table wants to have fun and there’s no better way to do that than creating a hero moment for each of your characters.


“Regulating Technology”

This is another great essay by Benedict Evans on what most people (lawmakers included) don’t think about when they talk about regulating tech. It’s an insightful piece coming from a true expert in this space.

That’s a lot of the appeal of a phrase like ‘break them up!’ – it has a comforting simplicity, but doesn’t really give us a route to solutions. Indeed, ‘break them up’ reminds me a lot of ‘Brexit’ – it sounds simple until you ask questions. Break them up into what, and what problems would that solve? The idea that you can solve the social issues connected to the internet with anti-trust intervention is rather like thinking that you can solve the social issues that come from cars by breaking up GM and Ford.

I just can’t agree more.

Read the essay, then read it again, then thank Benedict for enlightening us.


Dark Patterns

I discovered Dark Patterns only today. It shines a light on tricks used by websites and apps to make you do things you didn’t mean to, like buying stuff or uploading your address book so they can market to your contacts.

There’s even a fantastic reading list if you want to delve deeper, and there’s a lot of design and UX implications to this.

Kudos to Alexander Darlington for this excellent work.


“Only Apple could do that”

I read this post when it was published last week. In usual Daring Fireball style, there were some rather subjective statements like this one:

Google makes a lot of software with terrible user experiences for users who have poor taste.

And this one:

An iPad email app that doesn’t support split-screen multitasking for five years is, by definition, not a good app.

That didn’t bother me too much, I mean, we’re all entitled to our opinions, no matter how biased they might be. Then I read this statement which got me thinking:

Apple undeniably wields great power from the fact that the App Store is the exclusive source for all consumer software for the iPhone and iPad. Why not use that power in the name of user experience? Imagine a world where the biggest fear developers had when submitting an app review wasn’t whether they were offering Apple a sufficient cut of their revenue, but whether they were offering users a good enough native-to-the-platform experience. Video app that doesn’t support picture-in-picture? You’re out of the store. App doesn’t support dynamic type size but clearly should? You’re out. Poor accessibility support? Out. Popular email client that doesn’t support split screen? Out.

Apple could get developers to implement features for security and privacy, and to block any app if they don’t comply to these widely-agreed safety standards and features. But I think it’ll be a stretch to categorically include nice-to-have features like split screen and picture-in-picture, because blocking a developer for these features could be misconstrued as monopolistic behavior. I think that’s something they’d rather avoid being added on top of their ongoing antitrust investigations.

It’s also rather naive to think that Apple didn’t already consider this. They probably did, and product counsel most likely didn’t want to take the unnecessary risk. I don’t think Apple would take business risks like these.

Rather than watch Apple face antitrust regulators in the U.S. and Europe with a sense of dread, I’d watch with a sense of glee. “This company is abusing its market dominance to take an unfair share of our money” is an age-old complaint to government regulators. “This company is abusing its market dominance to force us to make our apps better for users” would be delightful new territory. Only Apple could do that.

I’m quite sure this “delightful new territory” is not something Apple wants to be number 1 in. In this context, “only Apple could do that” might not be the badge of honor John gleefully thinks it is.


It’s okay.

Some days are not so good, then some others are just bad. It’s okay to feel that way; these are unprecedented times we’re going through together.

And it’s okay to slow down during this time and not expect our lives to be as “productive” as it was before the pandemic. And it’s okay that things will never return to “normal” after this because hoping that life miraculously reverts to how it was in 2019 is an impossible dream.

It’s also okay to feel like there’s catching up to do once this is truly over. Yes, I think there will be a lot of life to catch up on and it’ll be a good chance to think of what is truly important in our lives. It’s okay to reprioritize different things and different people.

So it’s okay to just sit back and do whatever it takes for this to pass. Minutes will turn to hours and hours to days and days to weeks, and we will eventually cross the finish line. Then it’s okay to reflect back on these times and be glad that we were okay while we going through it.