Review | Rain On Your Parade

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When I saw the trailer for Rain On Your Parade, my initial reaction was “its probably like Untitled Goose Game, but with soaking items to cause chaos instead of moving items”. That statement isn’t entirely wrong, but it massively understates how charming, and characterful Rain is.

From start to finish, Rain on Your Parade is filled with creative levels covering a surprisingly wide range of styles for a concept that could so easily have been a one-note joke. Every part of the game fits together coherently, from the interactive start screen that acts as a pre-game controls tutorial, to the credits level that contains its own mini-games. It feels like a complete game rather than just a collection of levels. Even the world map contains hidden characters to talk to and secret areas to discover.

So what is in Rain’s world? As Rain is set inside a bedtime story, Cloudy’s epic quest to reach Seattle is filled with an eclectic mix of characters and locations. The locations include schools, beaches, moshpits, game development conferences, and desert canyons filled with lasers. Although Cloudy has to overcome rhyming villain Dr Dryspell, who wants to eradicate clouds so that he is never rained on again, they are helped along their way by a cast of eccentric friends. Some of these are typical adventurer’s mentors, like the wise old cloud, while others are more unusual; Froggie introduces himself by claiming to be the hero from “a famous 90’s video game”, and later recruits turret-wielding monkeys to help you on your way.

The first few levels of Rain are almost impossible to fail, as they are simply about getting used to the objectives system and how long the rain meter lasts. However, Rain quickly goes beyond its title and introduces new sources of power for Cloudy. Hovering over any bubbling liquid lets Cloudy rain down that liquid instead, whether its corrosive goo, coffee, cleaning fluids, or even petrol. Cloudy also gains new permanent abilities such as lightning strikes and snowfall, which can be combined to create even more chaos. To give just one example, snowing on people (hoomans, in this world) to turn them into a snowball can be followed with a lightning strike to propel that snowball around the level. Similarly, raining petrol in an unbroken line from a fire source lets you trail fire across the level and cause major destruction.

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Weeknote 18/04/2021

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Reading

https://www.wired.com/story/pink-princess-plantfluencers-pink-congo-scam/

I like articles like this, which open a window into a world or subculture that I never would have thought of myself – I didn’t need to know that “plantfluencers” exist, but I enjoyed the article regardless. The author explained enough horticulture terms to lead readers through the story, but kept the focus on the human quirks: the drive people have to collect seemingly anything to display social status through those collections, and how often people turn any trend into a chance to make quick money.

Reading through the article, it became clear that only people only needed a small amount of knowledge about plants to realise that the pink congo plant couldn’t be real. TL:DR: only the green parts of plant leaves contain chlorophyll, the substance that lets plants photosynthesise to feed themselves. As a result, a plant would never produce solidly-pink (or any other colour) leaves by itself, as producing leaves with no chlorophyll makes the plant risk starving. Breeding plants to have colourful leaves and still survive takes careful and long-term work by growers. So this also article shows how scams (and malicious trends) rely on people being swept up in FOMO and hype in order to succeed.

Speaking of FOMO…

https://www.theverge.com/2021/4/15/22385957/arcade-fire-45-minute-long-single-headspace-meditation-app

I‘m already sceptical about the idea of meditation apps, so I’m a little biased here, but to me this goes beyond illogical and into counter-productively stupid. I’m aiming the criticism at Headspace rather than at Arcade Fire, who I know nothing about, as Headspace are likely to be the party who had the most impact in bringing this idea to fruition.

The gamification aspects of meditation apps, such as using points, badges, or achievements to reward consistent app usage, are already a debated aspect; some people could see gamified elements as a stepping stone that helps them stick with the app until the beneficial effects of meditation become clear to them. Alternately, people can see these elements as misguided attempts to “hook” users on to the app, and encourage them to pay for extra features in the app by appealing to loyalty and to our desire to complete collections.

But adding gated “exclusive content” in this way goes beyond even the existing questionable trend of adding “influencer content” such as stories read by celebrities. I just don’t understand how any service can claim to be encouraging mindfulness and deliberation with their apps when they’re designing those apps to contain many of the worst traps of materialism and consumerism.

While I was fairly annoyed after reading the article about Headspace, this article by science communicator Sally Le Page left me bemused instead.

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Review | Stacking

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What do you get if you mix chimney sweeps, evil industrial tycoons, PG-rated toilet humour, and matryoshka dolls?

A charming and surprisingly entertaining adventure game.

When I first saw screenshots of Stacking, I was intrigued by its art style, but I was also unsure of whether it would actually be a complete game rather than an experiment. But once I saw that it was created by Double Fine, who have a penchant for making games that are both weird and enjoyable, Stacking jumped onto my to-do list.

Stacking‘s opening scenes lay out its setting and style quickly. The world of Stacking blends the familiar tropes of Victorian England and of early silent films. Cutscenes take place in theatre sets, accompanied by dialogue cards, piano soundtracks and film projector effects. Most importantly, every character is a matryoshka doll. This isn’t just a visual style, but the foundation of Stacking’s design.

Because protagonist Charlie Blackmore is “the tiniest Russian doll in the world” getting anywhere fast relies upon taking control of a chain of dolls, each one size bigger than the next, to get to the doll you need. (This raises some questions about how their consciousness works, how their anatomy works, and the weirdness of bodysnatching without consent…). Stacking into other dolls is essential because many of them have special abilities that you’ll need to access new areas and explore each level. Taking control of a railway maintenance doll lets you use his wrench to open an alternate route into a challenge, while taking control of a bird allows you to fly into map areas that human dolls can’t access.

The vignette effects in the corner fit with the early-20th-century style well.

Rather than relying upon convoluted logic or long sequences of causes and effects, each puzzle in Stacking has up to 5 smaller solutions to discover. In the first level, these can be as simple as bringing the right doll to the right place and using their ability. Later challenges bring in a greater degree of lateral thinking, such as stacking into the largest doll you can find to use their weight to move an object around, or using one doll to lure a second doll into a new location so that you can use the second doll’s ability. The last level also introduces ability combinations. One puzzle solution required stacking into both a doll who could produce water and one who could produce a blast of cold air. After going to the correct area and using the water ability as the water doll, I then needed to quickly un-stack into the smaller doll and use the cold air ability to combine the water and cold air into ice.

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Weeknote 09/04/2021

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So I’m actually typing this up on Monday 12th – I got a bit sidetracked last week, and my plan for a Friday weeknote was the casualty.

Gaming

This week I was both happy with and disappointed with the new season of Rocket League. The new season brought in a change I really liked, and one I really didn’t.

The good change is that the Trade-Up feature, where you hand in 5 items of a particular rarity to receive one item of the next rarity, is more user-friendly and more widely-usable. Previously, the 5 items had to be from the same rarity and the same batch of released items. Now, they only have to be the same rarity. I ‘m glad about this change, because I like being able to refine my inventories in games so that they contain only the items I wanted them to have. Now, I can hand in the items that I don’t care about that were just cluttering up my inventory.

As for the bad change, I wrote a whole post about that one!

I also returned to The Gardens Between, a time-travel puzzle game with a really charming graphic style, that I first tried out a few weeks ago. While I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, I did get over half-way through the short story when I first played it, so I’d like to see how the puzzles develop during the rest of the story.

Reading

I returned to Homo Deus, and ended up writing possibly the first negative book review I’ve ever written. Normally I only write about books when I’ve enjoyed reading them and I think I can recommend them to people. But when I realised that the book relies upon misrepresenting and mischaracterising the view that its discussing, I felt like I needed to write out a review. Misinformation, especially when its deliberate, is an instant beserk button for me.

https://getpocket.com/read/3302608391

This article is a summary of a recent study that correlates the success of academic articles (measured by the number of other papers that cite them) against how much jargon is in the Abstract section of each paper. This research focused on cave science, which picks up jargon terms easily because of how many different types of scientist work together in cave research. In this study, the papers which contained more jargon terms in their abstracts were cited less often by other research; the most highly-cited papers contained 1% jargon words or fewer.

Overall this suggests that fewer people read and build upon papers that are harder to intuitively understand, which is a conclusion that makes sense logically. The interesting part however, is that academia itself works differently; similar studies have found that when researchers use more jargon in grant proposals, they tend to get more grant funding. So what is best for individual researchers and studies is the opposite of what’s best for the wider research community and for science communication.

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Rocket League Season 3- Are Psyonix creating unfairness by avoiding randomness?

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The 3rd season of Rocket League began this week, and it came with one change that I really liked, plus another change that was unexpected and arguably deleterious despite its good aims.

The negative change affects the Premium Rocket Pass, the aspect that people spend real money or in-game credits to access. Previously, after reaching level 70 in the Premium Rocket Pass, players would receive a random item from the new series every time they levelled up. This item would be Painted (essentially a palette swap to one of 13 different colours), and it wouldn’t be a duplicate of any versions of that item already received from the pass.

This random item system was well-liked, especially by people who spend lots of time trading items on secondary marketplaces. I often collaborated with one of my friends – we would pool all of the colours we had of a specific item, so that he could sell its full set of colours to people who like collecting sets of items.

However, for season 3, the Pass system has changed. Now, every player receives the exact same items after level 70, and they can always see the next 30 levels upfront. Also, not all combinations of item and Painted colour are available, while Certified items (items which have an title, such as Scorer or Striker, that levels up to a better title as you score goals/save goals etc) are no longer included within the Rocket Pass.

The patch notes describe this change as “part of our commitment to removing uncertainty from in-game purchases”, which is interesting for me to think about. I usually think that initiatives that make in-game purchases fairer and more predictable are great. For example, showing the potential rarities of items inside a loot box, and providing % probability of getting items of specific rarities from a loot box, are both good ideas that should help people to stay aware of what they’re buying.

I think the idea of having upcoming items be visible is pretty great too. The static item list, however, doesn’t feel helpful or useful. For me its easier to see the downsides of where this might not work than any potential benefits.

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Review | Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus front cover
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I restarted Homo Deus this week, as I had previously been put off by the reviews which claimed it was far less impressive than Sapiens (which I had enjoyed). But the more I read Homo Deus, the more ambivalent I became about whether or not to continue reading. I felt like Harari’s style could work when applied to topics that I’m already interested in such as AI and big data. Yet, Homo Deus quickly fell from being interesting to infuriating, as I learned just how badly it misrepresented one of its main subjects. (See the The Turning Point section below for details).

The Starting Point

The first few pages impressed me, as Harari painted a memorable picture of an improving world. Within the prologue there are some fascinating ideas and questions that are worth thinking about. Pages 71-74 go in to the history of garden lawns; this narrative shows how ideas about what an object means travel across countries and over time, and how those ideas become unquestioned assumptions baked into our societies and world-views.

Homo Deus also keeps the same casual and accessible writing style as Sapiens. Harari’s explanations contain bursts of flair, like rhetorical devices, assonance, and pop-cultural references, that make the text engaging and occasionally humorous. It almost reads like fiction, and sometimes that’s a downside; its smooth nature meant I found myself sliding from one chapter to another and then suddenly realising that I hadn’t questioned whether the segues and connections Harari made were logical as a result.

As I kept reading, my opinion of the book kept changing even within pages. There are paragraphs which contain thought-provoking questions, and which make predictions that have to some extent been shown to be correct. For example, Homo Deus contains this description of how targeted algorithms might affect voting:

“in future US presidential elections, Facebook could know not only the political opinions of tens of millions of Americans, but also who among them are the critical swing voters, and how those voters might be swung. Facebook could tell that in Oklahoma the race between Republicans and Democrats is particularly close, identify the 32,417 voters who still haven;t made up their minds, and determine what each candidate needs to say in order to tip the balance. How could Facebook access this priceless political data? We provide it for free.”

This was written in 2015, before the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal was widely publicised, but its certainly close to what happened. At the same time, Harari makes other predictions that have already been proven false. Talking about Microsoft’s Cortana, first developed just a year before Homo Deus was written, Harari envisions that;

“Next thing I know, a potential employer will tell me not to bother sending a CV, but simply allow his Cortana to grill my Cortana….As Cortanas gain authority, they may begin manipulating each other to further the interests of their masters…”

That’s already wrong, because Cortana is being switched off from most of its planned customer-focused purposes, even on Microsoft’s own devices. Harari’s rush to ascribe world-changing powers to the 12-month-old Cortana is a red flag that should make readers question how many of his other predictions could be similarly over-hyped.

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Weeknote 26/03/2021

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Reading

https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/8/22319173/openai-machine-vision-adversarial-typographic-attacka-clip-multimodal-neuron

Why does it seem like the smarter something is, the more easily it can be taken down by unexpected stupidity? In this case, machine learning models that are smart enough to “read” handwritten words and recognise them as references to an object mistakenly assume that the word is the object. The end result? Sticking a handwritten label on any image scanned by this system will cause it to report that its “seeing” whatever is written on the label instead.

From technical stupidity to natural eccentricity: these sea slugs can decapitate themselves and then regrow their entire body including all of their internal organs. One reason why might be medical; the researchers guess that the sea slugs might use this feature to ditch their old body if it gets infected by parasites, so that they can grow a healthy one back. But how do they survive without any internal organs? By borrowing the chloroplast cells that control photosynthesis inside their favourite food, algae, and powering themselves with the sugars produced when the chloroplasts photosynthesise.

Now, heading back to technical errors… https://getpocket.com/read/3284812993

This is a good lesson about how the bad software design, and more importantly the bad user interface design, that forces people to regularly rely on clunky workarounds is a recipe for problems. It always amazes me when I hear about large-scale errors that ultimately happen because the software required to do the job was incorrect, unintuitive, or poorly-designed. That’s especially true for institutions as large and as impactful as banks, where any error could result in millions of pounds being lost or mislaid – surely they can afford to spend money making the software that earns their wealth as usable and efficient for the employees using it as possible?

I also finished reading Toksvig’s Almanac, and posted a review.

On more book-themed news, I was introduced to Standard Ebooks.This is a volunteer-run project that takes existing public-domain ebooks from places like Project Gutenberg and gives them a makeover; from typesetting and formatting, to finding high-quality public domain artwork, to coding the books in an open-source format with version control to make them reliable and standardised. Its a really cool example of using technology to safeguard and support literature, rather than to lock it down.

Gaming

This week, I started replaying the campaign of Grand Theft Auto V. While I did play through the campaign on Xbox 360 shortly after its release in 2013, I played through it in a very fragmented way that means I missed a lot of the side-quests and story details. As a result, I’ve often wanted to return to it and play the story “properly”, and see more of the details and events in the sprawling world of Los Santos.

I also revisited the online aspect, which I haven’t touched for years. As many missions can’t be played solo, I’ve barely played any of the “storyline” of the online aspect. I spent time yesterday doing smaller side-events that can be done solo, which was surprisingly enjoyable… well, until I made an enemy of two other players who then kept repeatedly killing me every time I respawned, which meant that I didn’t have enough time to go into the pause menu and choose any options that could have removed me from the situation. As a result, the only thing I could do to get away from this was to leave the game, which was annoying.

Aside from that, I’ve also returned to Two Point Hospital and started a new save file to try and relearn the strategies to take on the harder levels.

Miscellaneous

A few days ago I bought my (virtual) ticket for this years OER conference. The only time I’ve actually been is 2017, when I presented my MSc research, but the effect that 2020 had on education and educational technology, as well as things like ebooksos, have brought my attention back to the tireless work of the open community. Like last time, I’m sure that I’ll finish listening to the talks and realise that everything I know is a tiny drop in the education ocean!

Review | Toksvig’s Almanac – Sandi Toksvig

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I received a small pile of books for my birthday last month, and Toksvig’s Almanac was the one I wanted to get stuck in to first. As I only knew of the almanac genre as being something from the 1700s/1800s, I sort of assumed they had been rendered obsolete by the internet, so first I went to a dictionary to check that I knew what an almanac actually was.

Here’s the history lesson for anyone who wants it: an almanac is a usually-yearly publication that holds information about multiple subjects at once. Ancient almanacs contained information about all sorts of topics that farmers, sailors, and astronomers would need. They were like a focused encyclopedia that covered what those readers would need to know in the year ahead. This included planting dates for crops; dates for natural events like eclipses and cultural events like holidays; plus celestial information like when stars and constellations could be seen. Modern almanacs still exist, though they expand the concept beyond farming and calendars into statistics, history, and collections of facts.

As a reference book, Toksvig’s Almanac isn’t really meant to be read from beginning to end (although it can be). It also isn’t meant to be a exhaustive dive into any of the individual people featured, which Toksvig makes clear in her introduction. Toksvig’s Almanac is a collection of jumping-off-points, a signpost pointing readers to the existence of hundreds of names, stories and events so that they can learn more about the ones that interest them. Its main focus is a chronological tour through the year, which highlights a different woman on each day. (To do this, it also has a good introductory explanation of the Gregorian and Julian calendars, and of why September-December seem to be in the wrong place in our calendar – short version, blame Augustus Caesar!).

The entries for each date are supplemented by quotes, poems, information about worldwide holidays and festivals, and longer entries about stories that connect multiple historical figures. The entry about how suffragists began to use cookbooks to spread political education and information about the suffrage movement to women was the most novel of these for me, as its a connection that I would never have thought to look into without being informed about it from outside.

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Weeknote – 19/03/2021

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Reading:

A modder known online as T0st published details of how they found and fixed an issue in Grand Theft Auto V. Their solution reduces the loading times of GTAVs online mode by 70%. As a result, Rockstar Games (the GTA developers) rewarded T0st with $10,000 and incorporated parts of his solution into an official update.

https://www.pcgamer.com/rockstar-thanks-gta-online-player-who-fixed-poor-load-times-official-update-coming/

This chain of events has received mixed responses. On one hand, its great that Rockstar listened to T0st’s solution and used it to improve the game. The financial reward was also something they didn’t have to do – Rockstar’s bug bounty program rewards people who find and report crucial security or privacy flaws, and they chose to make an exception for T0st and award it to them as well. Given the size of the online GTA playerbase, a 70% reduction in loading times translates into thousands of human-hours saved in future too.

The criticisms of Rockstar are also merited, however. GTAV has been out for 7 years, been released across 3 console generations, and has also been referred to as the single most profitable piece of digital entertainment in history.Yet Rockstar didn’t do anything to implement what was apparently a simple fix until someone unrelated did the work in their spare time. A lot of people are cynical about whether their response was solely about avoiding bad PR, and I understand where that view comes from.

Adobe, on the other hand, are definitely being criticised due to this illogical action:

https://torrentfreak.com/adobe-goes-after-27-year-old-pirated-copy-of-acrobat-reader-1-0-for-ms-dos-210315/

Really, Adobe? I know that copyright is complex, and that brands have to actively protect their copyrights or their legal right to them can be made null. But applying a DMCA takedown here seems excessive, especially as the tweet was only a link to another website rather than the direct source of the software. Also, Acrobat Reader 1.0 is 5 years older than the DMCA legislation itself, which makes this feel even more unnecessary.

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Review | Coffee Talk

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Three things that always catch my interest are reading, gaming, and coffee. So when I saw that Games with Gold was featuring a visual novel game centred on brewing coffee, I instantly downloaded Coffee Talk.

Coffee Talk was released in January 2020 and set in the near future of … September 2020. This version of Seattle is home to elves, werewolves, succubi, nekomimi, and many other species, but thankfully not to COVID-19.

As the friendly yet mysterious owner of a coffee shop that only opens at night, you attract all sorts of customers in a variety of circumstances. Over the course of two weeks in the world of Coffee Talk, you eavesdrop on, and help along, the lives of six characters. How do you do this? By listening, talking, and of course by brewing them the perfect drink they need for the situation they’re facing.

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Weeknote – 12/03/2021

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Quite a lot of the people I pay attention to online – often, the Open Education / tech ethics crowd – use Weeknotes to keep track of their many projects, links and creations. I find the weeknote structure appealing, so I’m going to test it out as a way to a) keep a better track of the (many) things I start and don’t finish, b) talk about some of the interesting articles I read or games I play that wouldn’t ever make it into a full blog post or review. (I won’t be doing predominantly work-focused weeknotes – they’ll mostly be a reading list/link roundup – but I’ll mention work if there’s something interesting to include.)

Articles

A few days ago, I read this article about how smartphones are helping illiterate women in India by giving them a way to socialise with people outside of their household, run businesses, take part in activism and report information to journalists, all through voice commands and sharing images. This really made me think, because I’m someone who needs to write things down to make sense of them, and who learns everything by reading it, so I cannot comprehend what not having that option must feel like. The article describes how one of the women, Mallika, can now use WhatsApp to talk to a friend – before smartphones and data plans, she had to climb a mountain to communicate with them.

Now, on to ice cream trucks. I found this article interesting, because its a really good example of how one person being in the right place at the right time (and knowing the right person) can change an entire industry or movement. Finding out that the company which makes the music boxes inside 97% of all ice-cream trucks consists of just 2 people really reminded me that so many of the things we’re familiar with are the results of decisions made by a handful of people.

Video

Clutching at Random Straws — This is a talk given by stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, to a school in England. It’s a great discussion, with practical and funny demonstrations, of how easily we can be misled when it comes to data. For example, Parker shows the students how collecting large amounts of data can fool us into finding “impossible” co-incidences easily, and how we can easily be influenced into hearing patterns such as messages in music played backwards. All of this is done in a way that doesn’t require high-level maths knowledge, and its a really clear introduction to some of the ways that we can be misled by data.

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Review | Tetris Effect Connected

Screenshot of the cooperative mechanic, which combines each player's field into one large field.
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Somehow I’ve never owned a Tetris game before, so when I discovered Tetris Effect Connected on Xbox Game Pass soon after it was released, I decided to try out this version. The graphic style showcased in the screenshots and trailers seemed impressive, and the idea of head-to-head online matches appealed to me much more than experiments such as Tetris 99.

My first impression of Tetris Effect Connected was a little negative, purely because it seemed oddly pretentious. This was mostly due to its language and exposition; the campaign is called a “Journey mode” and is described as “a voyage of emotion and discovery”, while you are referred to as a “Guardian” whose job is to help save the galaxy from a negative void that’s going to erase existence. Leaving that to one side and jumping into the gameplay, however, quickly appeased my scepticism.

Its clear from the first information screen that Tetris Effect Connected aims to be an immersive, sensory-blending experience; its encouragement to equip surround sound or wear headphones “for maximum enjoyment” is presented with the same prominence as its photosensitivity warning.

This aim is reinforced by how the Journey mode is built to be near-seamless. After completing each stage, you automatically transition into the next one, while failing a stage resets you to the start of the previous stage rather than returning you to the stage selection screen. This approach feels like its designed to absorb players into a flow state, especially as the power-up mechanic is called “the Zone”. Once you’ve filled the Zone meter by scoring points, you can activate it to slow down time and hold tetrominoes at the top of the screen until you’re ready to release them. While activated, lines that you clear won’t vanish as they normally do, but will instead stack underneath the existing game board. When the Zone activation ends, all of those lines are cleared at once, allowing for not just the titular high-scoring Tetris (4 lines cleared at once), but an Octoris (8 lines), a Decahexatris (16 lines), and even clearing more lines than the game board contains at once (an aptly-named Impossibilitris).

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Review | The Touryst

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Today I’m looking at indie game, and former Switch exclusive, The Touryst. One of my friends recommended it to me, as he found its free exploration and relatively short length relaxing.

Initially, I didn’t find it quite as peaceful, because the first thing I did was jump out of the arrival boat on the wrong side to see if I could swim in the surrounding ocean … I could, until I was eaten by a shark.

Once I respawned which let me quickly discover that there is no life counter and no major consequence for death, I began exploring the islands. The Touryst takes place across a cluster of small islands, which you travel between by boat. The boat being at the end of a boardwalk and accompanied by an ever-present Captain reminded me strongly of the balloonist in Spyro the Dragon, which added to the game’s nostalgic vibes. Some of the islands are inspired by real-life locations like Santoryn (Santorini) and Fyjy (Fiji); all of them are compact, colourful, and studded with secrets, mini-games and tasks.

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I Finally Finished … Saints Row: Gat Out Of Hell

An image of combat in Saint's Row: Gat Out of Hell
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According to TrueAchievements, I first played Saint’s Row: Gat Out Of Hell in July 2015. While I’ve dipped in for a couple of co-op sessions since, it’s been on my “I’ll finish this eventually” pile for years. My plan was to spend 1-2 hours finishing any remaining campaign missions on and fulfilling any close achievements, and then to retire the game completely.

What actually happened was that I spent around 5 hours that evening finishing every activity New Hades had to offer, and unlocked the 100% activity ending. After my second evening of exploring, I had beaten up Satan, and collected every orb, book, and piece of audio commentary. Then I saved my progress and realised I was at 98% game completion…

So the day after that, I went for full 100% completion. It’s safe to say that Gat Out Of Hell caught my attention, and my time, much more this time around.

Saint’s Row: Gat Out Of Hell is a standalone expansion pack that follows on from Saint’s Row IV. It features the same open-world gameplay and upgradeable superpowers found in IV, but moves the actions to a new location – Hell itself. As Johnny Gat and Kinzie Kensington, you must prevent Satan from marrying his daughter Jezebel off to Johnny. You do this by getting supernatural assistance from a cast that includes previous Saint’s Row characters as well as famous additions like Blackbeard and William Shakespeare.

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Game Review Tier List and Review Collection

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Given that game reviews have accidentally become my most common posts on this site, I wanted to make sure I was doing them as fairly and as well as I possibly could. One part of this, for me, is figuring out how I compare games to each other. While I don’t want to get as granular as using a number or percentage system, as I think that I would then focus too hard on those numbers at the expense of looking at the individual games, I did want to add some kind of structure.

A more general tier or category list, that covers the most likely possible options without forcing reviews into a rigid scale, seemed like the best approach. While this will change in future if I need it to, the table below contains the rough framework that I’ll use for comparing games.

I’ll also keep a running list of games I’ve reviewed in each tier below – consider this post the meta-post for my game reviews!

TierDescriptionDefining Game
AmazingA game that is the best of its genre; it is so strong in design, gameplay and enjoyment that it offers an excellent experience to many different audiences.Grand Theft Auto V
BrilliantA game that is enjoyable beyond the “cool” tier; it offers a consistently good experience and does everything that you would expect from its genre and setting to a high standard.Spyro Reignited Trilogy
CoolA game that is competent and fun, but not extra-special. It might be technically good but formulaic, or its ideas might have been already done better in previous games.Team Sonic Racing
DisappointingA game that executed its concept poorly, or was marred by technical or design issues that made it difficult to enjoy.Onrush
ExperimentalA game that is so novel, or so reliant on deconstruction or meta-narrative, that it is polarising. Generally, people who like weird experimental games will enjoy it, while people who don’t like them won’t.Beyond Eyes
FailureA game that does not deliver what it promised and offers little or no fun.?
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Tech Support Adventures | iMovie Compressor kit error

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While I’m often the person my friends and family call upon for technical support for Windows, Android, or things on the internet, I have little experience with the Apple ecosystem. But when my friend Josh told me about his sudden and confusing issue with Final Cut Pro X, I was so intrigued that I had to investigate. We eventually figured it out, and I got a crash-course in OSX as well.

The issue:

Final Cut Pro X (10.2) would crash and display a “Final Cut Pro quit unexpectedly” error message whenever an export option was selected.

Further details:

  • OS – El Capitan
  • FCPX – Version 10.2, without Compressor or Motion.
  • iMovie – 10.1.6

No new applications had been installed recently, and FCPX had been working correctly after the last OSX upgrade.

We couldn’t try restoring from a backup as there weren’t any viable backups, but all of the following troubleshooting steps had already been tried without success:

  • restarting the MacBook
  • clearing FCPX preferences
  • making a new FCPX library
  • deleting generated render files
  • making a new user account
  • booting in safe mode
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Why UWE shouldn’t close their Philosophy department

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Yesterday, I found out that UWE Bristol were announcing the potential shutdown of their Philosophy department to new students after this year.

I found this out from a tweet, which shared a petition launched by a just-graduated student yesterday. While I’m not sure how effective the petition might be, it has recieved 2700 signatures in a day. I encourage you to sign and share this petition, in the hope that it persuades whoever made this decision to change their mind. The decision to close the UWE philosophy course is counterproductive and destructive, for reasons I’ll detail below. More importantly, this decision was made abruptly, with little consultation or communication.

Whoever made this decision has acted rashly and callously, leaving a cohort of foundation year students (and their programme leaders) unsure of whether the course they are preparing for will even exist after their preparation year. No student or staff member deserves to be placed in this position.

The petition is here: https://www.change.org/p/marc-griffiths-uwe-pro-vice-chancellor-and-executive-dean-of-health-and-applied-sciences-save-uwe-s-philosophy-programme

So, why is this decision misguided? Below the cut are three major reasons:

  1. Philosophy is one of UWEs most successful and highest-rated courses.
  2. UWEs philosophy course offers a unique module other philosophy courses cannot match.
  3. Philosophy is one of the most important subjects a university can offer, and philosophy graduates have essential skills and knowledge for today’s society.

Note: I’m not currently affiliated with UWE, aside from being an alumnus. I studied both of my degrees at UWE, and published my MSc research with supervision from UWE staff. I’m also not a philosophy student or graduate; my view of the value of philosophy comes from personal study and from how philosophy links to my degree subjects of psychology and science communication.

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I Finally Finished … skate.

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Sometimes I first play a game years, or even decades, after its release. Other times I get partway through a game, get distracted, and then revisit it years later. Calling any discussion of a long-lived or dormant game either a “review” or an “impression” feels incorrect, so the more literal title wins out. (However, I’m going to use “finished” to mean “finished by my own standards”, rather than 100% completed). 

Going from my first recorded achievement date in 2014, to completing the career mode yesterday, I took 6 years and 1 month to complete skate … somehow I doubt this is the worst offender on my backlog!

So how well did skate hold up? Was it still enjoyable in 2020?

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Technological Overthinking #2 | Sony Walkman Album Art

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One recurrent technological question I have is why my MP3 players never display album artwork consistently. The issue often seems random; when I get some albums working, others are blank in their place. So I wanted to figure out what the problem was and write solutions down for future reference.

As I’ve used Sony Walkman MP3 players since about 2008, I initially checked posts and articles about Sony players. However, this problem applies to multiple brands of MP3 players and to other devices like digital photo frames.

Many people with Sony Walkman players have posted about cover art issues on Sony’s support website. But the official replies just tell people to transfer songs using Sony’s Content Transfer software, without explaining why the issue exists. I wanted to fix the issue within the music programs I already use (MediaMonkey and Mp3tag) instead of adding another program into the mix.

After looking on multiple sites, subreddits and software forums, I found three essential criteria for making album art and other tags show up properly on Sony MP3 players. (These criteria may apply to other MP3 players as as well, and the “baseline” JPG criteria may resolve issues with car infotainment systems and digital photo frames).

1) Every song must be tagged using ID3 tag version 2.3.
2) Every song’s artwork must be embedded into its ID3 tag.
3) Every artwork image must be a JPG. More specifically, it must be a “baseline” JPG rather than a “progressive” JPG.

Now I’ll explain what all of those words mean, and the steps that I followed to make my song files and cover artworks fit these criteria. It’s important for me to clarify that each individual criteria was figured out by someone else; I’m just putting them together so that I can show the steps in one place.

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Technological Overthinking #1 | Music Library

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I can understand why streaming services have become so popular: being able to access a large library of familiar and new music that can’t be erased by a faulty hard drive or a wrong button-press is appealing. But, like most techies, I lean towards the “control” side of the convenience-control spectrum in many situations.

For music specifically, I prefer ownership over streaming. I like being able to buy albums from multiple places, store them and back them up wherever I wish, and play them on software I already use, rather than being restricted to specific marketplaces or software clients. (I would also rather rely on my storage and backups than on the unbelievably complex licensing arrangements between streaming services and publishers). For me, staying on team “offline library” was the obvious choice.

Investigating an issue with my MP3 player last year led me to an interesting program called Bliss, which I’ll give its own post in future. In short, Bliss manages your music library based on rules that you define. You set rules about how you want files to be labelled, named, and organised, and Bliss either highlights files which don’t fit the rules so that you can edit them, or adjusts them to meet the rules automatically.

Although Bliss is overkill for my relatively small and wholly-offline library, I really liked its rule-based approach. So I’ve taken the rules I decided on within Bliss and recreated them inside my desktop software of choice, MediaMonkey.

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