Would Jesus save the Geth?

Warning: Mass Effect 3 Spoilers Ahead.

Well, you can’t say that the ending of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t make you think. It’s not like anyone ever agonized over the ending of Baldur’s Gate. (How did it end? I think you killed the bad guys.) I can’t remember how Fallout 3 ends, but I don’t think it was some kind of masterpiece. I suspect if someone asks me how Mass Effect ended in twenty years, I’ll still remember. On that basis alone, it should be considered a success.

Mass Effect has deservedly won praise as one of the best games ever created. It’s probably the best computer RPG ever created, even though the player’s freedom of action is extremely limited: gameplay is confined to running around locations littered with “cover” and either fighting or talking to people. Everything else is cut scenes. (In the original Mass Effect you could drive a vehicle around and shoot things, but you had to exit the vehicle to have conversations.)

Indeed, despite the narrowness of the player’s field of activity, I would hold up Mass Effect against most “tabletop” RPG experiences owing to the tightness of the writing, immersion offered by the presentation, and the knife-edge quality of the choices offered. Mass Effect repeatedly presents the player with moral quandaries and emotional immersion that equal or exceed anything I’ve ever experienced as a tabletop player or been able to evoke as a game master. (I once designed a tournament module – To Pierce the Heart of Darkness – that over the course of two typical three hour sessions was intended to create at its climax the kind of emotional bite that Mass Effect 3 manages to achieve half a dozen times.)

Mass Effect has several key advantages over tabletop games in achieving its effect. To begin with, high production value computer games are, today, incredibly immersive. Huge teams of talented artists, sound engineers, musicians, and voice actors labor to create what amounts to an interactive TV series with top notch special effects. No GM can really compete with this, and it’s telling.

Another enormously powerful device is the “multiple choice response”. The Mass Effect series essentially presents dialog/action choices in the form of a précis of your character’s reaction or intent to a situation and then, when you make your choice, presents it in detail (so that your character’s action is often as much a surprise as the outcome). One of the problems I faced in To Pierce the Heart of Darkness was to try to make the course of action the players needed to take “obvious” without explicitly laying it out for them, so that when they figured it out it would be either satisfying or tragic (based on how long they took to figure it out). Because the idiom of the current generation of Bioware games is multiple-choice, you have your options laid out for you and it doesn’t feel like you’re being guided. But of course you are. A tabletop GM not only lacks the idiom of the multiple choice response (you think you’re “free” but in fact here are four options, two of which are obviously stupid) and the team of creative people to flesh out and present the results of those choices.

In a nutshell, Mass Effect is able to employ the power of good movie-making to immerse the player and put emotional weight into choices, and then use the power of a role-playing game to have the player invest in the story and characters, and it does this in a way no other computer RPG has ever done through the sheer quality of writing, voice acting, visual presentation, and scoring.

The Great Disappointment

By now, even if you haven’t played any Mass Effect games, if you pay any attention to the world of PC/console games you know that a lot of people (who knows if it’s a majority or simply a vocal minority) are horribly disappointed by the ending of Mass Effect 3. A lot of the complaints come down to “we made all these tough choices and they seem to have had no effect on the ending”. This despite the fact that this was exactly what happened in the last two installments. Look: the story is going to be a Christmas Tree, you only get to decide on the ornaments.

Personally, I think it’s stupid and unrealistic to expect Mass Effect 3‘s ending to offer much variety given that, say, no matter how well you did in the original Mass Effect, you come back dead and with none of your original crew. And no-one is complaining about the start of Mass Effect 3 where, no matter how well you did in Mass Effect 2, you start pretty much from scratch again. So, let’s ignore that entire aspect of the Great Disappointment.

The “good parts” aren’t as good as some people think

One comment I read, which was pretty indicative of the general thrust of complaints about The Ending was that up until the last bit Mass Effect was this incredibly tight SF setting, and the “child god” crap ruined it all.

Please, don’t delude yourselves.

Here’s a simple example of just how bad the SF in Mass Effect is:

In the part where you’re trying to break into the Cerberus space station you crash into a hangar (without, as far as we can tell, causing the atmosphere in the hangar to vent, but OK force fields or something) and then shortly afterwards EDI tells you excitedly that you need to find a control panel because they’re going to vent the atmosphere from the hangar and if you can’t get to a control panel in time you’ll all die. Leaving aside the fact that you can survive thirty seconds or more in hard vacuum, and it will take a significant amount of time for the pressure to drop that far — we’re not asking for Arthur C. Clarke quality science here — You. Are. In. An. Armored. Spacesuit.

Might I further add that you constantly display a callous disregard for your need to breath. When you’re at the Mars Archive you come across a room where the Bad Guys vented the atmosphere from the library and everyone inside died. Bastards. You and your companions go in, re-establish air pressure, and then take off your helmets. What the fuck? What happens if the bad guys (a) vent the atmosphere again, or (b) one of the powerful weapons everyone is firing around with total disregard for the structural integrity of the base blows a hole in an outer wall?

And, hey, this is a very important, well-guarded, secure facility. No precautions against decompression? “In the event of sudden pressure loss, kiss your ass good-bye.” We do better than that on commercial airliners.

Endings Suck

Name a long series that has a great or even worthy ending.

The Lord of the Rings could have ended well if Tolkien or his editors had out all the crap after the victory ceremony in Gondor, except perhaps for the epilogue where Frodo and Bilbo head off to the Grey Havens. But no, we get hundreds of pages (or does it just seem that way?) of crap about the giant Aryan über-hobbits rescuing The Shire from two pathetic has-beens and then a bunch of sentimental claptrap. And sadly much of this rubbish is faithfully replicated in the movie adaptation, which glosses over or mangles a lot of good stuff to get to it. (And then there’s even more in the appendices. Everyone dies of old age? Really?)

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant had a pretty good ending, until Donaldson went and wrote another series (that effectively ruined the ending of the original). A team of writers is struggling to hack together an ending for the completely screwed up Wheel of Time. Ursula Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earth Sea is essentially one great book with increasingly lame and unnecessary sequels. I can’t remember the ending of Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle but I do remember not caring for it. Jack Vance, perhaps my favorite writer of all time, ended The Demon Princes quite well (hero gets the wrong girl and wanders off to maybe have a life), Tschai (a.k.a. “Planet of Adventure”) has a decent ending but the entire series is only as long as a typical “novel” today, the end of Lyonesse was rushed and too neat, while the Cadwal Chronicles started with what is probably Vance’s finest single book (Araminta Station) and ended with a book that might as well not have been written. Second Foundation pretty much sucked (and I have studiously ignored the later attempts to sew the Foundation universe with the robot universe, as well as the posthumous collaborations).

Peter F. Hamilton’s series end acceptably well, but then they’re kind of slap-dash all the way through. (The key is for the series not to be too good in the first place.)

Indeed, many conclusions to long series not only fail to be satisfying as endings, but fail to even match the tone and feel of the rest of the series. (At least with The Demon Princes, the last two books went together.)

People despised Return of the Jedi because of the Ewoks, and I’m sure many were at least slightly annoyed by the whole Princess Leia in bronze bikini, sex slave to a giant slug monster bit, and some of us hated that light sabers suddenly started bouncing off hand rails. but everyone pretty much gave it a free pass on the whole “and what happened to the rest of the Imperial Fleet?” thing. It’s a silly adventure story, just accept it.

The Last Crusade was pretty good, especially compared with Temple of Doom. (Let’s ignore the new one, since I can’t even remember if I managed to watch it all the way through.)

Lost was perhaps the worst popular culture flameout in recent memory. BSG was merely badly paced and a lame cop-out. Even my favorite TV show of the last twenty years, The Wire, sputtered in its final season. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed that The Killing has a good ending. Being limited to two seasons from the outset is a good start, reminiscent of Murder One, until they decided to make a second season.)

And let’s not even discuss The Matrix.

Harry Potter and Toy Story both ended very well, so perhaps they’ve raised the bar for series endings.

In this company, the Mass Effect 3 taken as a whole is pretty damn good. It matches the tone and feel of the previous installments, it’s very well paced, and it’s an emotional roller coaster with plenty of tough choices. The ending is “too neat and rushed” — which is pretty much as good as it gets. But hey, it’s better than walking home to The Shire. While a less abrupt ending might have been better still, it’s hard to imagine one because of the nature of the actual ending.

But…

You know how we’ve sent you on suicide missions before? This time we mean it.

Your final mission is to reach a “beam” which the Reapers are apparently using to suck up their victims from London to the Citadel (which they have captured and are going to use for something… probably to build new reapers). You need to get back onto the Citadel to open it back up so that the Crucible (which resembles a gigantic dildo wrapped in an even bigger dildo) can be inserted into the Citadel’s… um… flower petals (the Citadel manages to resemble both a giant dildo and a giant vagina) and thus activate something everyone assumes is some kind of weapon that will destroy the reapers.

This “plan” is what the fate of the galaxy rests on.

(Seriously, how about spending the same effort fleeing to a new Galaxy? This one sucks.)

But we just need to accept that this is a universe where the hero can restore saved games — so depending on him or her to successfully complete long odds missions is actually quite sensible. We’ll stake our entire civilization on this ridiculous throw of the dice, take it on faith that beaming up into the citadel won’t simply drop you into a giant meat grinder, and that the device will turn out to be a weapon, and that there’ll be a control panel somewhere within a reasonable distance of your arrival point that you can somehow operate.

Just accept it.

At absolute minimum there are three important things we need to do to resolve this story:

  • Why are the Reapers doing what they’re doing?
  • What is the Crucible for?
  • What the heck is the Illusive Man doing, and how can we make sense of his behavior?

To its credit, the writers clearly understand that this is the task in front of them and attempt to address it. This is more than many endings manage.

I need to build a giant abattoir. For people. Just trust me.

We can dismiss one thing straight away. Nope, the Illusive Man makes no sense. Apparently he wants to control the Reapers because, um, it will make life better somehow. Even if he has to kill everything to make them appreciate it. And he needs Shepard around because he wants Shepard to validate his decision. How can someone that stupid and unhinged have been ahead of Shepard (and everyone else) the whole time and recruited so many smart and decent people to work for him? Or maybe husks make great scientists?! Nope. Makes no sense. Oh well.

(Apparently if you’re paragon-enough, you can talk him into killing himself.)

If it were only a dream, that might be better!

It was all just a dream is widely, and I think correctly, regarded as the worst possible denouement for a story. To quote Gregory House: I choose to believe that all this… matters. (I’m quoting from memory, so I’m probably off.)

Some discussion of the ending (in particular, discussion centered along the line that the final sequence aboard the Citadel is some kind of dream, hallucination, or final psychic battle between the Reapers and Shepard) argues that another important plot point is the resolution of Shepard’s dreams of trying to find the boy (first seen in Vancouver) and being confronted with shadows of people Shepard couldn’t save. Some of these arguments are pretty compelling and suggest that the developers were at least trying to hint at this kind of thing. But these arguments are as full of holes as the ending taken at face value.

For example:

  • It must be a dream because Shepard isn’t in armor and Anderson “clearly” died running to the beam.

Well yes except by that token it seams like Shepard “clearly” died running to the beam and there’s no rule that says the beam needs to bring your armor up with you, and in any event perhaps the fundamental problem was that they couldn’t render every possible outfit possibility. Chances are, the scene where Shepard’s body in the rubble shows signs of life (in the red ending) doesn’t match the armor Shepard was actually wearing either.

  • Shepard is moving too quickly while limping. So he/she must be “floating” and thus it’s a dream.

Um, Shepard “floats” through the entire game.

  • If you look closely at “objective reality” distant shots of the crucible and the place the final talk with the Catalyst talks to then…
  • The final scene on the citadel looks kind of like the run-up to the beam. There’s even three round things where there’s the wreck of an armored vehicle with three wheels visible.

Um. We’re grasping at straws. Why should any of this matter if it’s a dream? Or not?

  • Clearly Shepard was partially indoctrinated, so this is clearly a final indoctrination.

If you say so. After all, without cosmetic surgery, Shepard has these glowing lines on his/her face that become more or less intense based on something or other, right? Except my Shepard has no visible lines and never used the surgery. The Illusive Man looked 50% husk. I think if Shepard were significantly indoctrinated there’d be more of a visual cue.

I think that pixel peeping screen caps for clues that there’s some incredible subtlety to the ending of Mass Effect 3 is a waste of time. It is what it clearly is. Mass Effect has many virtues, but subtlety isn’t one of them. I’m happy to concede that the fact that the Catalyst appears as a boy ties into the dreams but… so what? We know Shepard is “fated” — he/she gets messages direct from the Protheans.

I hereby dub this giant device that we don’t know what it does, the ASS Deus Ex Machina

The names of the final plot devices aren’t subtle either. There’s a crucible inside of which there’s a catalyst. The implication appears to be clear — tough situation, transformation, the catalyst will help the transformation happen, but be unaffected by it. Right? The cycle will continue. Shepard — on behalf of Galactic Civilization — has fought for and won the right to choose how this cycle ends.

But that’s not true. What happens in the crucible is nothing like as nasty as what’s happened and presumably continues to happen outside it. If anything, the “crucible” is the calm in the eye of the storm. The Catalyst and the Mass Transit system explode. So the Catalyst isn’t really a catalyst but more like a bomb. Oh well, so much for the significance of words.

The fact that the crucible isn’t much of a crucible and the catalyst isn’t any kind of a catalyst makes me wonder if some more elaborate ending was abandoned for time or budget constraints.

Inside the crucible you have to listen to the Illusive Man monologue, watch your oldest friend — real or imagined — die, and then pick one of three outcomes, which are all pretty similar. By the standards of the rest of the story, more like a vacation than a crucible. Pick red, and you live (at the cost of the Geth and any other “synthetic” civilizations around that you don’t know about). Pick blue and you die, but the Geth live. Pick green and no-one dies but everyone gets monkeyed with. Apparently there are other differences at the margins (e.g. how much damage Earth takes from the explosion).

Shepard’s Choices

The three choices are color-coded blue, red, and green. The actual places you go to act on the first two choices are actually not-so-subtly lit with blue and red light. Throughout the series, blue is the “paragon” color (which many conflate with “good”, but which is more like “polite”) and red is the “renegade” option. Many fans have opined that the “red” option is the “correct”, “perfect”, or “winning” option because Shepard appears to survive (versus becoming some kind of husk and then being vaporized). As I picked my choice, I was well aware of the color-coding, but I had deliberately ignored the whole paragon/renegade system — if anything leaning towards renegade — throughout Mass Effect 3, taking what I thought were the pragmatic choices from my ruthless but fundamentally fair-minded Shepard’s point of view.

And picking the choice where you don’t die is how you resolve “the crucible”? Really? That tough a choice?

I may have missed something, but I wasn’t offered the third “green” ending in my play-through of Mass Effect 3. I wonder if this option requires that you somehow make peace between the Geth and the Quarians. (Presumably if you got both of their fleets your strength would be greater. I don’t know how you broker a peace — perhaps you need to deny the Geth access to the Reaper upgrades, in which case you may not end up being stronger anyway.  (According to this guide it simply comes down to your effective military strength, and without boosting readiness via multiplayer, etc., it’s very hard to get high enough.)

In any event, if you grade the desireability of endings by the difficulty in obtaining them, the “green” ending appears to be the best and the “red” ending the worst. Had I been offered the green ending, I think I would have been tempted, but I would have still picked blue. Both green and blue do not involve willful genocide, red does. On the other hand, green presupposes a lack of faith in the ability of synthetics and organics to coexist peacefully. I find the whole species-based-determinism assumption to be repugnant and stupid, and in any event monkeying with everyone’s biology without asking them seems morally equivalent to genocide, and on a bigger scale.

Should Jesus have taken out the Romans with his biotic powers?

The differences between the outcomes are minor. Shepard’s survival isn’t a big deal — he/she doesn’t have a life outside of his/her mission. I don’t picture Shepard getting old. And who would want to live with those memories? All your friends and lovers dead, so many horrors witnessed, so many deaths on your conscience. So it’s a choice between throwing the Geth to the Reapers so that Shepard can toast dead comrades in a bar in Rio (if it’s still there, which seems unlikely) or dying so that the Geth (et al) can “live”.

If you subscribe to the basic premise that underlies the entire presentation of this “quandary” as a choice — that there’s a hard line between “synthetic” and organic life, then it’s almost no choice at all, “does Shepard live”? If you do not subscribe to it (and I see no reason to) then it’s a clear choice — Shepard must die — and then it comes down to whether you think monkeying with everyone will make a difference (and if you don’t subscribe to the basic premise that organics and synthetics can’t coexist peacefully then why try to fix it? You disbelieve the premise enough to die for it!)

Oh, and if, as it turns out, you only get the third option by negotiating peace between the Quarians and the Geth then surely this gives you even less reason to believe the premise.

Like most mass-market SF from the US (BSG is a notable example, Lost also) there’s plenty of religious — no let’s call it what it is, Christian — undercurrent in Mass Effect. Shepard’s name and resurrection are both heavy-handed Christian references just for starters. And then there’s the crucifixion pose of the human Reaper in Mass Effect 2 and of course the Shaft of Light at the end of Mass Effect 3. (Imagine how different a Buddhist-inspired Mass Effect would be! Indeed, imagine if there were even a hint of non-Christian world-view in the game.) It seems a bit bizarre given this background that the option where Shepard survives would be interpreted by anyone as the “correct” choice. (It reminds me of Frasier Crane reading Dickens to the bar flies in Cheers: “As Sidney Carlton climbed into the Apache helicopter, he said “’tis a far better thing I do, than I have ever done before. ’tis a far better [momentary hesitation] butt-kicking I give, than I have ever given before.”) The “red” choice explicitly benefits the “organics” by kicking the “synthetics” under the bus, and this is also explicitly the choice that doesn’t require Shepard to die. Why should the fact that Shepard doesn’t in fact die vindicate it? If anything it argues that the Catalyst was telling Shepard the truth and the red choice is simply selfish and xenophobic.

Haven’t we seen this somewhere before?

BSG didn’t seem — to me at least — to be about there being a fundamental cycle of life where people become technologically advanced, create robots, and the robots kill them, until they pulled this out of their ass at the end and decided it was some kind of Grand Unifying Theme. If anything, it seems to me that the logical conclusion would be for the sane people to form a hybrid Culture-like civilization while the die-hard “give me carbon/silicon or give me death” types could go fuck themselves.

Why should recycling this fundamentally stupid idea be OK for Mass Effect? Again, the Reapers didn’t seem to me to be fundamentally “synthetic”. If anything, they seemed more like some kind of demonic undead monster akin to the plague that overwhelms humanity in Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn series. (One of the cool things about that series was the reaction of more advanced alien civilizations to humanity’s plight — eh, that’s something everyone goes through and you either deal with it or not.) Even foreshadowing the whole conflict with the war between the Geth and their Quarian creators didn’t help. It’s very easy to see the Quarians not taking the path they took (indeed, it’s made explicitly clear that a substantial number of Quarians opposed the genocidal impulses of those in power). And the foreshadowing involves taking a step back from the idea that the Geth were fully alive in the first place. (There’s literally a bit of dialog where you talk to Legion and say something like “but hey, I thought you said you guys were alive” and he replies something like “mostly but this way we’ll really be alive”. They appear to be self aware; they appear to have free will. What are we arguing about? Blood? Poop? Sexual lust? Sense of humor?)

So, in the end, the problem with the “resolution” of Mass Effect 3 isn’t that it doesn’t reflect all the player’s choices up to that point — how could it? Or that it gives you three different, but fundamentally similar endings. One good ending would have been fine. The problem is that the writers chose to force a final decision point when they didn’t need to, and make it about something the story never seemed to be about in the first place — some kind of fundamental synthetic vs. organic divide. After all, surely the lesson of the Rachni / Krogan / Salarian / Turian arc — which is both more prominent and more consistent in the series than the Quarian / Geth arc — is that (a) organics will do horrible things to one another with no synthetics involved, and (b) individuals can transcend “species determinism” (a series of Salarian scientists sacrifice their lives to help the Krogans). Heck, even Tali ends up trusting Legion.

This is lazy bullshit. You can’t resolve a story by deciding it was “about” something it was never about. No-one — not even the Quarians — seems to have a problem with synthetics that aren’t trying to annihilate them for no apparent reason. And for their part, there’s no evidence that the Geth ever did anything to anyone except try to survive. If this whole saga really was “about” the synthetic/organic divide then where’s the evidence? (At least BSG actually was about a synthetic/organic divide, and its non-resolution resolution along those lines still sucked ass.)

Oh well, so the actual ending is, upon inspection, total crap.

All this has happened before, and will happen again.

The Simplest Fix

One suggestion that several people (contributors?) made in a GameSpot video of various people (mostly) complaining about Mass Effect 3‘s ending was that they just roll the credits after Andersen dies. While this appeals to me — it’s similar to how I thought Bladerunner should end (when the elevator doors close — which turns out to be how Ridley Scott wanted it to end) — I think this would actually piss off more people. Talk about not providing “closure”. (I think “closure” is a myth, but whatever closure is, that wouldn’t be it.)

My Ending

It seems to me that everything that takes place once you hit the beam is a dead loss and should be scrapped.

Shepard seems to get hit by the Reaper and reach the beam at the same moment. White flash. Distant sounds of radio chatter… “Did anyone make it?”

In the dream world, Shepard is holding the child in his/her arms, and they are both on fire. But their flesh doesn’t burn, and the flame flickers and fades. The shadows resolve into the forms of those who sacrificed their lives. Shepard stands and tries to reach some but they all dissolve into mist. He/she looks down to the child but the child is gone.

A ghostly Prothean stands nearby. And a multitude of other, previously unseen, aliens behind it. Their voices — sometimes singly, sometimes in chorus — tell you “we each struggled to defeat the reapers; we tried to pass on what we had learned to help those who would follow; we hoped someone would somehow manage to build on our legacy and… survive…”

Fade to black.

The camera pulls back to reveal a ragged field hospital, overwhelmed by wounded, more limping or being carried in (is one of them Garrus carrying Shepard? We can’t tell), wrecked tanks and dead soldiers and civilians from the final battle, destroyed reapers, the devastation of London, then — whoosh around the world and back to the silent ruins of Vancouver, and the forgotten wreckage of the shuttle which the boy was flying on, revealing his charred remains, an N7 shuttle toy still clutched in his fingers.

Roll credits, interspersed with cut scenes of outcomes based on your decisions. E.g. if you helped the Geth and they wiped out the Quarians, maybe it shows you visiting a memorial to the Creators and Legion. We can even show Joker and EDI landing on a new world, ready to populate it with hybrids.

Personally, I’d like to see to end with a little vignette of Aria D’Loak making her way in the aftermath. Everything she did to help the war effort was predicated on narrow self-interest (or perhaps that was merely how she rationalized it to herself and the mercenaries). Perhaps she is disappointed in how things turned out, or perhaps she is doing something so heroic it surprises even her. (There’s no particular reason why the population of the Citadel needs to all be dead in this ending, but maybe it is but she made it out, filling her private ship with desperate refugees.)

And then, if you must, have the final scene with the stargazer and the boy, except this time the stargazer is a Geth. Or one of the jellyfish who seem to have disappeared from Mass Effect 3.

Kindle Fire

Kindle Fire Out of Box
Oh Amazon, maybe if your carousel interface worked it wouldn't need an explanation.

My Kindle Fire, ordered the day it was announced, arrived this afternoon. The out of box experience is excellent (it comes with your account info already set up and a charged battery; when you turn it on i updates itself and you’re good to go in five minutes.

After reading a couple of early reviews (in Wired and the NY Times), I thought I’d be sending it back for a refund, but I really like it so far. It’s not as fast as an iPad 2, or even an iPad, but it’s fast enough for reading and watching videos (although the one app I’ve purchased, Sketchbook Mobile, ran pretty choppily). The display is just fine, very sharp for reading, and while it feels quite heavy for its size, I think it’s light enough for extended reading in bed. I have a wonderful book on animation (Drawn to Life) that displays very nicely (which it clearly doesn’t on the e-ink kindles).

When I tried to write this blog entry on it WordPress complained that I was using an out-of-date version of Safari. When I tried to press on, I found the going impossible. Oh well — strike one against the Fire. And no, there’s no WordPress app for it yet. (I’m writing this on my iPad 2.)

This was, in fact, my first real negative impression of the Kindle Fire. I will say that almost all of the bad things with the Kindle Fire involve its browser, with the exception of one touch purchasing… Not only can you accidentally buy stuff with a touch, as far as I can tell there is no option anywhere to lock it down.

The Good

  • Good performance when used as book reader or movie viewer
  • Best Kindle reader experience I’ve had (better than dabbling with e-Ink readers, nice display of color illustrations)
  • Good display quality
  • Adequate performance when using more general apps (I’ve only tried one thus far)
  • Great size and weight for extended reading or video viewing in bed
  • Best Android UI I’ve used (but my Android experience has been pretty superficial)
  • Excellent “cloud” integration
  • Flash works (although performance with larger or more complex elements is terrible)

The Bad

  • Much too easy for anyone using your device to buy stuff on your account — deliberately or accidentally (definitely not something I can let my children use unsupervised)
  • Power switch is stupidly positioned on bottom edge allowing it to be accidentally pressed
  • System detects all-numeric keypard, but numeric keypad is poorly laid out and you need to press “Done”
  • Web browser is not up-t0-date relative to other webkit browsers
  • Web browser double-tap to zoom is poorly implemented (animation is slow, stutters; worse, it often zooms to wrong position)
  • HTML5 media UI is pretty piss poor (worse even than Chrome)

Of the bad features, most can (and I hope will) be fixed quickly via software patches. The ease with which you can deliberately or accidentally buy stuff is a show-stopper — it means I can’t let my kids use it, and I actually feel paranoid when browsing the built-in store. It’s so bad I think it’s class action lawsuit material. The power switch positioning is unfortunate; it would be less unfortunate if the login screen weren’t always aligned so that the power switch is on the bottom edge.

Further Observations

So far, the more I use the Fire the more annoying surprises I find.

Lots of dialogs are poorly laid out. Some very prominent dialogs (e.g. the username / password dialog box for websites) have the buttons in unexpected places (the Fire puts the “action” button at the bottom-left; Apple puts them at the bottom-right, Microsoft puts them somewhere on the right, but Amazon knows better). In some cases the system will generate a full screen dialog with a huge blank space and buttons on the bottom. I’m guessing this is some kind of auto-layout.

Text selection is pretty borked. To begin with, there are two text selection UIs (that I’ve found so far) one for most apps and another for the Kindle. Getting either to work is iffy at best, and once you’ve made a selection there’s little you can do with it.

The way the web browser handles PDF downloads is bizarre. If you touch a PDF link it will (maybe, eventually) try to download it, you’ll get a message saying that it’s downloading, and then eventually a notification that it has downloaded. You can now view the PDF by touching it in the notification, but once you’ve looked at a PDF once, I have no idea how to get it back again — it’s storing it somewhere, I think, but I can’t find it under books or docs.

PDF viewing is pretty poor. The same double-tap-to-zoom issues that plague the web browser are worse here, and PDFs designed for standard page sizes are unreadable (and not well-rendered). There’s no way to set up a default crop and you really miss Apple’s subtle scroll-locking (how when you scroll some views more-or-less vertically iOS figures out what you want to do and locks it to vertical scrolling).

The global interface that the Fire wraps around apps is somewhat broken. Because there are no hard buttons (except the poorly positioned power switch) the Kindle always reserves a small band at the bottom of the screen for a global widget that discloses the standard navigation pane when touched. It would be really nice if this band included a go back button so that you don’t constantly have to disclose the pane to get at go back (which is very annoying in apps). It also seems to preclude true full-screen apps.

I tried Angry Birds (the free ad-supported edition — damned if I’ll pay a second time for it) and my first reaction was “how does anyone put up with the ads”? The way ads are implemented in Angry Birds is both intrusive and incompetent (e.g. the first ad I saw was displayed in the wrong orientation). Performance (for Angry Birds) was certainly adequate. I didn’t see any hardcore 3d apps to try out in the Amazon App store (but I didn’t look very hard).

Amazon gives you a free copy of the New American Oxford Dictionary with the Kindle (and even the Kindle app on iOS… or so I thought, but I can’t find it right now) but as far as I can tell, there’s no way to simply look up words in it. (You can search for a word, but the search in no way favors the canonical entry for the word over occurrences in the text body.) You can look up words in other books by selecting them (if you can get the selection system to work) but that’s it. (And it’s not integrated into the rest of the operating system, so you can’t look up words on websites etc. the way you can on an iPad.)

One thing that continues to boggle my mind w.r.t. e-readers (and this applies to the Kindle and iBooks) is their inability to display cover art nicely. Typically, they’ll display a shitty low-resolution image of the cover as a rectangle on the title page. They’ve obviously got the cover art lying around because they render the books nicely as icons on bookshelves — why isn’t the first thing you see when you load a book a nice full-screen image of the cover?

Bottom Line

As I was heading out the door for a late lunch today with my backpack, I thought “OK, which tablet will I take?” I thought it would be cool to take the Kindle Fire with me as “my only tablet” for the day to see how it would stand up, but on quick reflection, I grabbed my iPad 2. The fact is, the Kindle Fire is a nice book reader and possibly a nice video player, but in its current form that’s basically it.

On the other hand I think it’s probably the cheapest Android device that comes without some kind of “plan” and doesn’t suck, and since I need an Android device for testing… (Hmm do I need to jailbreak it or something?)

Other Opinions

Walt Mossberg’s review of the Kindle Fire is pretty accurate and balanced. He complains about battery life (I haven’t run out yet, but I’ll take his word for it) and the bookshelf UI (which is pretty but borked) — pretty damning given that it’s front-and-center. I actually like the hardware design just fine (aside from the poorly located power button): it’s a black slab with a touchscreen. Why is this bad? It doesn’t have gratuitous curves, unsightly bulges, a useless hardware keyboard, or razor-sharp edges. It’s thicker and heavier than I’d like but not much thicker and not much heavier. He also points out the lack of cameras and GPS (iPad 2 doesn’t have GPS). $300 will buy you a camera with GPS built in — get over it.

The Economist’s review of the Kindle Fire is, in my opinion, spot on. The UI is a bit flaky, the power button is stupidly placed, and it’s no iPad-killer, but it’s cheap and it works.

Marco Arment seems to pretty much hate it. He’s had his a day longer than I and used it a good deal more (I haven’t had time to read three books in the last two days!). I disagree with some of his points, e.g.

  • “The backlight leaks significantly around the top edge (when held in portrait).” Not for me, so maybe it’s poor quality control. (Note that when you drag a scrolling view past its furthest extent the visual effect looks like bleeding backlight, which is both aesthetically ugly and stupidly alarming. I’d make a screenshot but, of course, I can’t.)
  • “The asymmetric bezel’s “chin” is distracting in landscape orientation.” Really? OK I guess I’m not that easily distracted.
  • “The page-turn animation, a simple full-screen slide, is distracting, too long, and jerky.” It’s not great but it’s not as bad as e-Ink page turns for example. (It is, occasionally, so jerky you don’t realize you’ve turned a page, so yeah I do get his frustration. Maybe I should replace “as bad as” with “any worse than”.)
  • “Magazines are a special beast on the Fire.” I don’t disagree but the situation’s no better on the iPad. The way to do magazines on tablets is called having a good website. I prefer reading newyorker.com (despite its annoying full page ads) to either the magazine itself or the tablet app, and it pisses me off mightily that I can’t simply log in to newyorker.com and read all the content on demand. Fuck magazine apps.
  • “And finally, I don’t like the “carousel” flip-card-style home screen interface… It’s a poor, unusable interface metaphor that our industry should retire.” Eh. It’s a browsing interface not an “I want THAT” interface. The problem isn’t that the Fire uses a carousel, it’s that the carousel is badly implemented (it often interprets taps on an item as scrolling, and you can only tap the front-most item, and only with care) and that the “I want THAT” interface is buried (if you want to get from the “Books” view to the “Apps” view you need to go via home, which sucks).

He does make several good points I missed:

  • “All text is justified, and there’s no automatic hyphenation.” Indeed. Why no ragged right option? (Why can’t I pick fonts in the iPad Kindle app? Oh and why can’t I reduce margin sizes as far on the iPad? Maybe it’s not Kindle that sucks so much as Amazon as a software company.)
  • “It really needs hardware volume-control buttons.” He’s not the first to bring this up. I don’t really mind the way the global prefs menu works though (I do mind the lack of settings, though.)
  • “The free Prime video selection is very poor compared to Netflix’s streaming library.” True, but you get Netflix as well so what’s the problem? Oh wait…
  • “The Netflix app is terrible.” I haven’t tried it so I can’t comment. I assume he’s right since, as far as I know, the best way to watch Netflix, bar none, is on an AppleTV v2. (I have tried it now and it’s not as bad as a Roku.)
  • “The bottom-left corner of the Fire, when held in portrait, gets noticeably warm during use.” That’s just sad. (I guess we know where the video decoding chip is. The Fire has never gotten warm for me though, even watching video.)
  • “MP3 playback isn’t gapless.” I don’t need Kindle Fire to be a great MP3 player but it’s nice to know that it’s piss poor at it.
  • “Headphones sometimes “pop” loudly in your ears when you insert them in the jack”. The latter is true for pretty much everything, but the former is sad.
  • “The built-in Email app is pretty poor” (see my comments below — pretty poor is an understatement) and “I was unable to find good apps for many common roles in the Amazon Appstore”. File under “this is not an iPad-killer”.

As a blow-by-blow critique it is, as Gruber puts it, scathing.

Marco’s conclusion: “The Fire is an Android version, sort of, of the iPod Touch. It’s the first device available that’s inexpensive and offers Android in a somewhat reasonable package without a cellular contract.” Exactly. It’s cheap, requires no contract, and it doesn’t suck. (It doesn’t “not suck” the way BBEdit “doesn’t suck”; it doesn’t suck the way most Android crap sucks. OK maybe doesn’t suck the way something that has sharp blades that spring out and injure your hands sucks.)

More Observations

B-Team Kindle App

This morning, as I was reading Iain M. Banks’s latest on my Kindle Fire (Surface Detail, seems to be better than his last couple thus far — certainly a more interesting central idea), I rubbed the screen on my shirt to clean it and found that it had randomly popped me back a whole bunch of pages. No problem, I thought, I’ll sync it the furthest point reached. It scrolled me forward a few pages, well short of my furthest progress. Exactly how do you fuck up something that simple in book-reading software? It didn’t even scroll me as far as my furthest note.

Screen Shots

I saw some tweets yesterday concerning a supposed 22 step process for taking a screenshot on the Kindle Fire. (Hint: it involves installing the Android SDK, tethering the device, installing some kind of remote debugger stub, and pulling the screenshot from the command-line.) The fact is, taking screenshots isn’t a feature of the Kindle Fire so it’s not really a criticism per se, just a missing feature. It’s not like Jeff Bezos personally approved of having a screenshot feature on the Kindle that was this ridiculously hard to do, it’s that taking screenshots didn’t make it into the Fire’s feature-set and this is a cute hack to get around it.

So, the short version is that you can’t take screenshots on a Kindle Fire.

Email

I have two gmail accounts — my personal account (which uses dual authentication) and my work account (which doesn’t). I cannot access either account using the Kindle Fire’s email client (despite it having an explicit Gmail option). The defaults don’t work and no amount of fiddling has helped.

Orientation Bug + Stupid Power Switch = Sad Panda

I think I alluded to this problem in my earlier post, but it’s getting on my nerves. In order to avoid accidentally hitting the power button constantly when reading, I use the device “upside-down” and have the screen orientation locked that way. But, the login screen ignores the orientation, so I have to log in and then flip the device upside-down every time. Have I mentioned that I despise the login screen?

 Battery

I’ve run the Kindle Fire out of juice a few times now, but I don’t have a big issue with battery life. Part of it is that it’s just not a pleasant device to use for anything much except reading books and briefly visiting a website. (I should note that the double-tap to zoom functionality seems to have improved slightly since I first started using it, and I wonder if Amazon has done something server-side to improve it.)

Nikon 1

Nikon has released a very controversial new camera series, rather annoyingly named “1”, comprising two cameras (the V1 with an electronic viewfinder, and the J1 without), and three lenses. As usual, Thom Hogan pretty much nails it (I’ll link it when it drops off his front page — Thom is very bad about providing stable links to his pieces). There’s a lot of bad and some very, very good things about the new system. The bad stuff is sad because it’s so obvious and fixable. The good stuff is pretty freaking awesome.

100% crop of an ISO 3200 sample image from dpreview

The worst things are the initial selection of lenses and the pricing. At $650 for the most basic option (J1 bundled with 10-30mm lens, or 27-81mm equivalent) it’s a little too pricey for an impulse purchase. If they’d come in at $100-150 less then I would buy one out of curiosity. As it is, I’ll wait for the rapid and inevitable price drop. The price gets really bad when you look at the other lenses: $249 for the 10mm f2.8 prime just sucks (it’s another wide angle pancake, but f2.8 isn’t very fast), and $749 for the 10-100mm VR is ridiculous. That’s actually more expensive than Nikon’s DX equivalent 18-200mm VR! The whole point of smaller sensor cameras is to allow smaller, lighter, cheaper lenses. And again, the initial lenses aren’t particularly small, which makes the initial offer look superficially a lot worse than, say, getting an Olympus “pen” camera with a bigger sensor (with more pixels), similar size, and for less money.

For comparison, ISO 3200 shot I took in my bathroom using a D7000

Notes on low light performance: based on very little information (i.e. dpreview has posted exactly one high ISO sample — at least with the ISO stated) the low light performance of the new sensor looks pretty credible. We’re comparing the best APS-C DSLR sensor from last year (in terms of low light performance) with a sensor about one fourth its size with over half as many pixels. Note the pretty decent rendition of fine detail in the J1 sample image (the D7000 was shooting a 1/30 without VR and this was my sharpest shot, there’s no retouching at all — clearly the lighting in the J1 street scene was even more challenging than my bathroom’s lighting). Also note that they appear to be shooting JPEG, so the complete smearing of detail in the shadow areas may be a JPEG issue and not a sensor issue.

Obviously these two problems are easily fixed. Nikon can easily produce new lenses (and plans to) but how soon? And Nikon can obviously reduce prices (maybe these initial prices are just intended to gouge early adopters) but, again, when?

Aside from that it’s all good news, although perhaps not from a marketing point of view. At first glance Nikon has brought a 10MP camera with a sensor half the size of a Micro 4/3 sensor, and around a quarter the size of an APS-C sensor to a fight where Sony has a tiny-bodied large sensor camera with ridiculous numbers of pixels. And its prices are high.

But behind that there’s some very good and interesting stuff.

As Thom Hogan points out, the 1-series cameras are pushing a lot of pixels around very fast compared to anything else out there. This is impressive in itself and bodes well for future DSLRs. Next, we have a sensor with sufficient pixel density to put 24MP in an APS-C sensor and phase detect autofocus on the sensor. This means Nikon could make a shutterless, mirrorless DSLR with better autofocus and IQ than Sony’s Pellicle faux DSLRs (like the A77), or simply allow its next generation DSLRs to use phase detect AF in live view. What it probably can’t do is compete with the Nex-series cameras because well, that would be stupid (it would then have two competing mirrorless body systems).

So what we have in the 1-series is:

  • Very interesting bodies with what look like the right feature set and ergonomics, but of course none of us have played with them yet.
  • An attempt to rethink still image shooting (not just high-speed continuous shooting, but some attempt to manage it)
  • Thoughtful new video features (e.g. motion stills)
  • Gimmicky features that its rivals have come up with (e.g. 480fps and 1200fps video)
  • Very boring but adequate lenses which do not appear to fulfill the promise of the sensor and mount sizes chosen by Nikon (i.e. no tiny folding zoom lenses, no superfast primes).
  • New technologies (notably phase detect AF on the main sensor) which bode very well for the future (EVF-style DSLRs with no pellicle mirror rubbish OR phase detect AF in live view on DSLRs for example).
  • And a demonstration that Nikon can easily put 24MP sensors into its DX cameras.

I look forward to playing with these cameras and reading some in-depth reviews. Speaking as someone who currently carries a D5000 with an 18-200mm lens around as my “point and shoot” I’m really hoping that this system turns out to be better than it looks at first glance.

Post Script

Ken Rockwell (who is much better at providing stable links) posts his “review” which right now is just initial reactions. I have to say that his initial reactions mirror mine, but I warmed up a bit and now agree with Thom Hogan. The whole “CX is the new APS which was the new 110” argument is actually pretty compelling, as is the “a small sensor interchangeable lens camera is just an S100 with dirt”. (Of course my version goes one step further — “an S100 is just like a second iPhone4 with a zoom lens that doesn’t run apps, make phone calls, allow me to browse the web, and which I forget to charge and don’t carry with me”.)

This is why I think (and probably Thom Hogan thinks) the price is $150 too high.  At $500 it would look very nice compared to a $400 S100 — but then the S100’s MSRP is $500 or so, so perhaps real world prices will settle down to say $550 for the J1 vs $375 for the S100, and that’s actually pretty compelling. Consider the J1 at $550 with a $150 gizmo to allow you to use your DX/FX lenses:

J1 vs. S100 size — S100 wins.

J1 vs. S100 features — J1 wins big except the S100 goes wider (!) and faster (!).

Now imagine if the J1 had a decent prime wide angle zoom (say 6-12mm equivalent to match the DX 10-24mm) and a fast prime pancake (20mm f1.4). As Thom Hogan points out, the DX 40mm macro works as a fast 105mm macro on the J1. And the 35mm f1.8 is a 95mm f1.8 portrait lens. And the 18-200mm is a 50-540mm zoom. Now we’re cooking with gas. Of course, we’re not the target audience.

What to do?

Filofax, Things, The Hit List

Back when Things was in beta I was a pretty avid user, but (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere) when its price ($50) was announced I baulked, and never ended up getting a license. This was a shame because it’s a fine product, but — I think — too expensive.

Now (as others have pointed out) a product is either worth its price (to you) or not. If not, don’t buy it. Fair enough. I didn’t buy Things. Things has done quite well, thanks very much, without my help. They seem to have a staff of nine people (and they still can’t do syncing between two Macs). Build a better to-do-list manager and, apparently, the world will beat a path to your door.

It’s still cheaper than dead trees…

By way of comparison, Filofax (don’t you hate companies that require you to divert to a country-specific site from their .com address? If you’re going to do that, figure it out from my IP you morons) continues to sell their diaries for north of $100 (personal size refills for the “daily week on two pages” diaries — which ruled my life in earlier times — sell for $10.50). And it’s not like Dayrunner is significantly cheaper (in Australia and the UK, “filofax” is a household word, like aspirin, but not so much in the US, at least not on the west coast).

Remember The Milk

For a while, I used Remember The Milk, which has the huge advantage of being web-based and — if you want — free. (Sadly, it seems to offer no compelling reasons to upgrade to the paid-for version.) Unfortunately, RememberTheMilk’s UI just isn’t very good. In fact, it sucks. The way it handles selecting tasks and doing stuff to them (the single central user interaction) is abominable. I’ve been using it for weeks and it still annoys me every time. (It’s free — go try it and see for yourself.)

If I were the developer of RTM, I’d focus on fixing the core UI. The feature set is pretty much fine, but it’s a royal pain to simply mark items complete (the “checkbox” selects the item, you need to hit a button to mark it complete).

Every so often I would check back on Things to see if (a) its price had gone down, (b) it had been upgraded in functionality to a point where its price was justified (e.g. syncing multiple Macs), or (c) there were discount coupons compelling enough for me to take a leap of faith that (b) would happen before they charged me — let me guess — $25 for an upgrade. After a while, I started seeing a lot of comparisons between Things and The Hit List.

There’s no question that The Hit List owes a lot to Things. The developer of The Hit List quite openly admires Things (and even seems to agree on pricing, cough). Once I realised that The Hit List would, if anything, be more expensive than Things I decided to write my own to-do-list manager (or, rather, build one into my “does everything I need, and nothing I don’t utility gizmo” that I’ve been thinking about but never getting around to write for years). Then I realised I already owned a license thanks to Macheist 3.

The Hit List vs. Things

My take on The Hit List vs. Things is that it steals the best features of Things, including the global “hit this key to send a task to your inbox” while adding super keyboard control (it’s a nice feature, but I hardly ever use it). You can basically build and modify your to-do-list without touching the mouse.

I’m no “my hands must never leave the keyboard” (i.e. emacs) fanatic, but it’s really handy to be able to move to-do items around using TAB and WASD, or to add tags by simply typing “/<tag name>” while entering a task description, or to move due dates using [ and ]. It’s not just that it has shortcuts for almost everything, but it builds on shortcuts (like WASD) you probably already know and it also displays common shortcuts at the bottom of the main display (until you learn them and turn this off). Very, very slick.

It even has a timer function built in so you can time a task for billing.

I only really have minor complaints. My biggest annoyance is that you can’t operate in the “today” view as you can in any other view (because if you add a task in “today” then, by default, it’s not “today” which… it’s nasty…). What I’d like is for you to be thrown into the project tab of the item you’re editing as soon as you start adding stuff to it. Or something. The interaction of tag/project hierarchy and dates presents a bit of a conundrum.

For a product that isn’t even 1.0, it’s really very nice. But I wouldn’t pay $50 for it.

Selling The Future

Trees? Where we're going we don't need trees.

Dear J.J. Abrams,

The fundamental problem for Environmentalists is envisioning the future. Selling it, if you will.

The people who are best at selling the future are the creators of Science Fiction. William Gibson typed Neuromancer on a manual typewriter — creating a technological dystopia — and inspired generations of computer scientists to make the stuff he described come true. Star Trek showed people using “tricorders” and many companies, Apple included, squandered billions trying to make one.

One of the big problems for the Environmental Movement right now is that the people who are selling us the future — notably you and James Cameron — are assuming that we’ll just go on burning high octane gas and — in Cameron’s case — destroy the world or — in yours — somehow everything will be OK. Indeed, James Cameron started out at the tail-end of Mutually Assured Destruction assuming we’d blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons, and then switched to assuming we’d live in an unending corporate dictatorship — presumably that’s what we have to look forward to if Sarah and John Connor ever actually manage to win. Star Trek has us burning prodigious quantities of gas for in our spare time, and antimatter in our day jobs. Awesome.

It’s fairly certain that — assuming some kind of sanity prevails — life in The Future will — for the lucky — just get better and better. But portraying a future in which everyone is continuing to waste natural resources and destroy the environment isn’t going to sell today’s people on trying not to. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were implied in Stargate Universe, for example, that The Ancients were really power efficient instead of good at pulling the guts out of stars to power their insanely (and pointlessly) huge spaceships? “Hey look, the Ancients have a gadget for recharging our stupidly inefficient flashlights” could be replaced with “Hey look, the Ancients have incredibly efficient flashlights”.

There’s no particular reason why we can’t have fantastic future lives and still live within an energy budget. Unfortunately, the only time Science Fiction portrays an efficient future it’s an unpleasant joke — think of Korben Dallas’s apartment in The Fifth Element, or poor people dying of asphyxiation after failing to put coins in their oxygen meters in Judge Dredd. I’m pretty sure that medieval people didn’t think the world would be so much better if they could just burn stupendous quantities of fossilized wood. Apocalyptic visions have their place — but if we’re going to be starry-eyed optimists (e.g. Trekkies) why not try to portray a future that makes sense?

Gene Roddenberry envisioned a future Earth without racism, sexism (until the network shut that idea down), or money. Instead of merely updating a 60s vision of the future (where problems from the 60s have been solved) with better special effects, why not refresh the franchise conceptually as well, and envision solutions to other problems we’ve discovered since?

Oh, and while your Star Trek remake was very well put together, could the plot of the next one make a little more sense please?

Cheers,

Tonio