Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

HomePod mini: quick first impressions.

I was a first-day adopter of the original HomePod, which was strange, because even amid a life of composing music, I'd seldom considered myself an audiophile: the seeming target consumer for this product. What mattered with music, I thought, was whether you could hear and distinguish the notes and sounds. With speech, whether you could make out the words. Inexpensive speakers and headphones were fine, and those who disagreed were like connoisseurs of wine who could be fooled by a blindfold.

Perhaps it wasn't that I deeply cared, but that I still wondered whether I'd been missing something. I had fully passed on the HomePod's spiritual progenitor, the iPod Hi-Fi, which, while I gathered wasn't popular, I had found stories of a handful who swore lasting affection for it.

Later I'd begin to appreciate finer aural distinctions with the Beats Solo Pro and the AirPods Pro. A separate topic, but what's relevant is the way both managed to render the gentle bass of soft, ambient audio in a way that wasn't clumsy or obnoxious, but faithfully gentle; rather like a blanket or an unrealistically soft mattress. However they did it, I could tell it wasn't easy.

The original HomePod managed to do that to a room. Oddly, therein lay its awkwardness for me: its bass felt unpredictable in its capability – when watching Star Trek, for example, I feared a dramatic orchestral cue or brief action sequence would overwhelm me or disturb people in adjacent rooms. This was partially because of the HomePod's way of handling voices, which – even with the Apple TV's "reduce loud sounds" option always on – seemed to quieten and restrict them to more vocal-centric frequencies, perhaps to more finely delineate that contrast between aural "elements" for which it was marketed. The inability to influence its decisions was disheartening, and I learned to treat this as the proposition: if you want to be able to adjust your audio, don't buy a HomePod. It's purpose-specific. If you buy one, it's because you want to talk to Siri and play music only from your Apple devices, Apple Music, or a handful of other Internet sources.

The HomePod mini's restrictions are identical, but after coming to fear and revere the HomePod's prowess, I found myself hoping the Mini – with its single driver and unbeliedly minuscule bearing, the only Apple product the size of an apple – would liberate me from it.

It turns out the audio is essentially the difference. I doubt I'd have noticed if I hadn't lived on a HomePod, but hearing Siri's voice from the Mini for the first time made me think "wow, that's tinny."

Again, by comparison. The "American female" voice dwells above the bass clef, but even it benefitted somehow from the original HomePod's subtle muscle.

It's clear the Mini did liberate me in the way I hoped. It can't produce the enveloping fundamental aural layer of a soft thunderstorm or a deep set of pads, but it makes the attempt, and the result of the attempt is about what I was hoping for. Instead of the unrealistically comfortable mattress, it's perhaps a premium body pillow. My non-audiophile life in no way diminished my appreciation for the expansiveness of simple stereo, and while the original HomePod felt like more than enough, I'm tempted to pair my Mini in the future.

This drives home for me that different speakers and different headphones just sound different, period. Audio engineers may wish this wasn't so, but it's a better lesson to embrace than fight.

Surprisingly, the display proved a noteworthy difference as well – more to my mind than those of most reviewers I've read from. Here's what I noticed:

Thank you, Cuthbert.

Many mammals, through their interactions with each other and with humans – their happiness, sadness, scrutiny, fear, excitement, and perhaps even humour – eventually had me guessing all mammals feel more alike inside than they might seem.

Cuthbert, sadly no longer among the animals at the Caenhill farm, might be the first who did the same for avians. Just look at him during this rush hour. Lest you think that's a one-off, Cuthbert earned his reputation as the farm's viral mascot through equally striking regular appearances, though not always wearing his heart on his wing: I recall him deferring his arrival until after the first hectic moments, affording him the chance to strut at distinguished leisure with his two flanking companions, speaking whatever he supposed he was speaking.

Cuthbert never recovered from the fight that crippled him, but at least he had plenty of company and care, and Chris' dutiful report of his death was simple and touching.

The career technologists who founded and developed the Internet, a destined farmer, and this particular, irreplaceable goose. None of those could be either other, and the insight and inspiration so widely shared could only have occurred with all three.

Perhaps the first time a goose has ever been thanked by a distant human he would never have known.

The eve of Apple’s “One More Thing” event.

We know what that means. After a long morning of exciting developments in hardware and software, Steve Jobs would mildly make as though to wrap up, before idling into: “but there is one more thing.” Not always, but sometimes he’d have saved the best announcement – the one that would resonate in the news and through the months and years – for last.

As happens, history has magnified the flavour of the memory. Having taken his place as CEO, Tim Cook daredn’t utter the phrase until the announcement of the Apple Watch, which five years hence has sold over 30 million times. The cheering audience seemed to consider it an earned usage, as with its reutterance preceding the iPhone X in the first keynote in the Steve Jobs Theatre. “We have great respect for these words, and we don’t use them lightly,” Tim said.

I’d say this evening’s usage is a pretty heavy one. And it should be.

They haven’t said it, but it’s clear this event is about the Mac. What has been said this year: Apple is ready with macOS Big Sur, dubbed version 11 after two decades of nominally incremental upgrades to version 10. It’s a largely user-facing redesign which folds in ideas from iOS and feels like it might belie thoughts about future hardware.

Secondly, the announcement it was time for a fundamental shift from imported Intel processors to Apple’s ARM-based processor designs, called “Apple Silicon,” which have sped the iPhone and iPad to impressive maturity.

I’m no low-level hardware expert, but I’m aware this sort of transition is immensely complex. A major operating system upgrade is complex enough, but in this case the whole operating system must be rewritten, or at least somehow recompiled or translated, not even to mention the countless apps available for it.

In its pattern, the transition resembles the Mac’s similar transition to Intel in 2005. A robust developer transition kit with full emulation, a line of new Intel-based devices in the works, and an operating system which had been secretly compiled in parallel from its dawn. (This is, incidentally, where the word “Mac” made its way into every product that would run it; for example, “MacBook.”)

Why were Steve’s turns of phrase, like “one more thing,” so memorable? I think Steve allowed his sense of taste, everyday humanity, and common sense to undercut the technical concerns which had guided the computer industry. Design choices flowed less from questions like “what’s the logical next step from a programmer’s perspective,” and more from questions like “what would make sense?” or “what would be great?”

That’s the trust he gained with his keynote’s audiences, and with Apple’s customers. While hardware and software evolved, the company wouldn’t be afraid to step way further back to reconsider anything or everything. When Steve explained a product, you could expect it to make sense in a way much else didn’t. Indeed, he’d occasionally invite applause after a stride with a casual “make sense?” In this way, Apple – but initially, the Mac – became the expression of a certain soul or spirit. The Mac was often the computer of artists, of creators, of Robyn and Rand Miller, of Stephen Fry and Douglas Adams. Of me in later grade school, thanks to insightful teachers.

After these announcements tomorrow, with the adoption of a look influenced both by what Apple has learned from its recent adventures and by its history, and with the freedom to part with a longtime partner and grow further into itself, I hope to feel this spirit shines brightly as ever. We’ll see.

Alex Trebek's final answer.

Alex found the way to a career he enjoyed enough to master and execute unflinchingly for 37 years.

Jeopardy! wasn't air or food or drink or health care. And even if it wasn't education, it would still have been a significant part of generations of lives in North America and beyond.

The format of the "game show" will undoubtedly resonate into the future on television and the Internet, and Trebek was one of its defining hosts. On and off the show, his plain expression and sophisticated vocalizational tone perfectly belied the wit, insight and heartfeltness found in his words.

It's strange to think something someone enjoys so selfishly can benefit so many others, and it's a thought with which I think pondering Alex's example will make me personally more comfortable.

The corrugated pipe was nice.

When the outdoor temperature is slightly cold for comfort, walks are particularly enjoyable. That seemed the top headline as I took in the neighbourhood today, and it wasn't until later I even recalled the calendar date's societal significance, less ubiquitously indicated this year. How refreshing, if only for circumstance.

It's not that I think celebration and ceremony themselves feel wrong or ominous. I support both of them. What disturbs me is something underlying them – something about the perpetuity of it, the assumption that others are automatically "in." People generally, children in particular.

Celebration and ceremony are enjoyable because people choose them. First, it occurs to you that thing x would be great, and then you decide to do thing x. If that little sequence has occurred in everyone celebrating something, then it should be enjoyed by all. If it's occurred in half, the individual verdicts are less certain. If it's occurred in all but one? If they're alone in nothing else, they're alone in that.

The more delightful encounter, however, occurred outside the local fire department building. It's a small, smart duplex with good upkeep, and I've sometimes passed to the same vehicles being treated and maintained which have occasionally zipped past on their way to bring quick aid to someone, to my comfort.

Today, there was a contrastingly shoddy sign on a wood board standing on the small lawn. Written on it, something like "ring bell – trick or treat." And a large, corrugated plastic tube running from the upper floor down to the lawn beside the sign.

The perpetuated celebration with its joys and sadnesses are one thing, but the clever if elementary mechanic of that setup seemed a separate matter.

James Randi, a father of skepticism.

The opening section of that obituary by Paul Valentine in The Washington Post emphasizes his influence well, and the rest is a more chronological biography. Randi was born in the area where I was born, but over halfway backwards through time from my birthdate to the dawn of recorded audio, well into the grey depths of what I've always considered history.

Still, most of my childhood elapsed before the advent of the Internet, before you could call remote information to a nearby screen within seconds of the moment you thought to.

I remember seeing my first couple of magic tricks; simple things like sleight of hand, or even "got your nose." (I think the latter was performed by a cousin with an obvious thumbnail, thus I failed to understand not only why she thought she'd fool me, but why she thought I'd even realize I was supposed to be seeing my own detached nose.)

But the French Drop (the act of secretly dropping an object while pretending to grab it, priming your grabbing hand to be revealed as "magically" empty) can be surprisingly convincing for something so simple.

And so I realized: critically more important than seeing magic tricks was learning them. If seeing a trick provided one unit of delighted bewilderment, learning a magic trick provided much more than one unit of anything, for it's one example of an entirely different lesson: even when something seems truly magical, there are reasonable explanations you haven't thought of. Put another way, not being able to think of a reasonable explanation is no proof of real magic.

Adults, it turns out, can achieve parenthood and profession without having learned this skepticism. Uri Geller based his entire career on appealing to adults so amazed by his "psychic" spoon-bending ability that they didn't think to ask how he did it. Think of it: people's acceptance of his claim to psychic power was so established in their minds, they didn't even have the thought to wonder whether psychic power was only one of multiple explanations. What would we think of an adult who never wondered whether a street taco vendor isn't using a cooking spell fired from his fingertips, or a traffic light isn't operated by Sleeping Beauty-esque fairies with colour-changing wands? Those seem indicators of fairly pressing mental health concerns, yet it's the same category and magnitude of error found in every single audience member that never thought to ask the reasonable question about Geller, or any other claimant of supernatural power.

However, such errors, while striking, aren't mental health deficiencies. If they were, it would have taken more than Randi's demonstrated replication of Uri Geller's feats through trickery to flip on light bulbs in their mind – and back to the subject of light bulbs, it wouldn't take more than a short lecture from an electrician for the traffic light fairy-ist to consider an alternate explanation for those patterns of illumination. James Randi understood the difference between gullibility and credulity was not a matter of intelligence, but education (suggested by the title of the donor-catalyzed "James Randi Educational Foundation"). I don't consider myself clever for having learned my lesson early; rather, I consider myself fortunate to have learned a couple of magic tricks. Randi took that kind of fortunateness like a handful of pennies and flung it far. He took it further than that, though.

Logically, the presence of a reasonable explanation for a phenomenon, such as the skilled swapping-in of a previously-broken spoon, doesn't prove the reasonable explanation is the correct one. (Occam's Razor is a good rule of thumb but not a trump card.) Neither does it prove every claimant of special powers is a charlatan, nor that there is no such thing as supernatural powers. Uri Geller, if he was a fraud, could be one fraud amid a thousand genuine articles.

That was where the "Million Dollar Challenge" came in; one of the staples of the JREF. Claimants of supernatural abilities, if they wished, could apply to establish mutually agreed-upon test conditions designed to allow them to demostrate those abilities, controlling for any alternate explanations conceivable to either the foundation or the claimant.

There are plenty of stories and video about the tests, the conditions, and the claimants, and it's a wonderful thing to dive deeper into, so I won't here. In brief, the challenge had over a thousand applicants over five decades – psychics, dowsers, remote seers, mediums, and so on – and none walked away with the money. You can't prove there's no gold in China, but James Randi spent his life and resources digging up as much non-gold as possible and shared the records. If you've learned the first thousand claimants lack their claimed abilities, what would you consider a reasonable disposition when meeting the one-thousand-first? You retain the full capacity to be impressed at the technique, but your internal reaction to the special claim would feel less like the gasping delight of Uri Geller's unquestioning audience, and more like James Randi's famously arched eyebrow.

The encompassing word is one I mentioned earlier: "skepticism." The Oxford definition is beautifully clear: "not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations." Not unconvincable – that would mean closed-minded. And while proper skeptics classically shoudler accusations of closed-mindedness, the opposite is true: instant believers in Uri Geller's psychic powers, for example, are closed-minded, because they're the ones failing to consider all possibilities. A skeptical person is open to any explanation, as well as the possibility other explanations may remain, and requires supporting evidence and the elimination of those alternatives before becoming convinced. Otherwise, they remain unsure. Anyone who would describe that as anything but stark open-mindedness is incorrect.

Happily, this term "skepticism" was in the air through my childhood and early adulthood — further fortune. Being a "skeptic" was not only called for in a world with plenty of misinformation and credulity, but was cool. I deduce Randi, born in my area, might have been indirectly responsible for much of that influence on the cultural climate into which I would grow up. Reading the words of acquaintances and larger online figures today, I suspect I've had more for which to thank him than I'm aware.

Seth Andrews, whose atheistic podcast is popular for its positivity and empathy among those applying skepticism to their religious upbringings, said "he leaves a legend".

Bill Nye, whose original show I drank up during grade school (not even to mention the weddedness of skeptical inquiry to the scientific method), tweeted "Randi was an amazing man, a wonderful magician, and a thoughtful intellectual who brought the joy of scientific inquiry to millions. He left the world better than he found it."

Richard Dawkins, one of the only science writers whose novels I don't just read, but reread, said "mourn James Randi, world class magician, good-humoured nemesis of spoonbenders, spiritualists & other charlatans…".

Penn Jillette, whose insistence on honesty with his audiences about the nature of his and Teller's conjurational deceptions stems unmistakably from Randi's, called him "our inspiration, mentor and dear friend."

James Randi, as I've heard he requested be said of him after he died, conveniently, is dead now. Seven decades into his nine-plus-decade life, the Internet's arrival was planted like a seed, and today I find myself in a culture where it feels a little less like people have seriously concluded gods exist, purport astrology is a working mechanism, spend their savings on mind-readers or faith healers, or advocate government funds redirected toward self-appointed clairvoyants to track criminals or provide overseas intelligence. Like anything gradual, it was hard to notice.

The Internet is no inherent block against misinformation, and skepticism at the level of the individual is no less crucial when using it. But thanks to it, many more students will discover the secrets to magic tricks, the current evidence for astrology and gods, and so on. Humanity's work in elevating and preserving the value of skeptical inquiry among itself will continue as long as humans are born, but the elfin James Randi was a giant in the portion he accomplished. Perhaps the greatest aspect of his example was the delight he took in that vigilance. Asking reasonable questions – even, or perhaps especially when they're out of fashion – is a true source of happiness, both superficial and deep.

A close pass of Venus.

A quick space exploration update: a probe has just returned a short film of Venus from a gravity-availing pass en route to Mercury.

ESA's "BepiColombo" probe was named for a mathematician who tackled the problem of injecting an object into a small planet's orbit while hurtling toward the sun – a much trickier task than doing the same with further planets, it turns out. But that's for another time.

A year of rings.

Not trees.

It seemed a humble post on which I stumbled a few years ago. The man felt it wasn’t much, but wanted to share he’d “filled his rings” every day for a year. Though even Apple seems to have rethought the Apple Watch’s “reason for being” over its five years on users’ wrists, its interface for measuring activity has remained a fixture: one ring for standing up, one ring for calories. One ring for exercise, and in the darkness finish this sentence.

It might have been the humility that inspired me. Anyone who walks for pleasure each day would fill their rings regularly without trying. I had never been that, and as a person whose creative adventures (and such social ones as writing this) stem from stationariness, I’d even considered prolonged residency something of a virtue. I’d also seldom worn a watch, and though that habit was forever changed the first day I could get an Apple Watch on my own wrist, my own rings – when their minuscule arcs glowed with colour – looked more like sparse crystals in a cave from Month View.

This week I realized with surprise that it was past midnight. I’d lost track of time, and hadn’t noted my rings before they’d reset. They were full, except the green ring: 28 out of 30 minutes. The first time in over a year I hadn’t filled them myself.

People can change their own thinking, and part of that change is made by thinking. That’s something I discovered a long time ago, and I was fortunate to get the abstract lesson so early. Thinking underpins doing, and since reading that humble post, it’s come to feel wrong not to enjoy a walk or jog almost every day. I was about to say I was now qualified to write my own humble post, but then realized.

Sir Patrick Stewart finishes reading Shakespeare's sonnets on Twitter.

Filed under "how it feels like the Internet should be" goes Sir Patrick Stewart's – now complete – reading of Shakespeare's entire collection of sonnets. (That's approximately true, as he occasionally skipped poems he "didn't like," or were "too hard," which I guessed meant too difficult to interpret.)

Sir Patrick originally broadcast a casual reading of a single sonnet online to ease the sting of quarantine for the more social, and it was so well-appreciated that he returned to read from sonnet one forward. This sequence of monosonnetary clips – "produced" by his wife from spring through early autumn – saw him working, travelling to film, taking a break to write his biography, adopting a rescue dog, and occasionally welcoming guest readers including Jonathan Frakes and Ian McKellen.

To me, this surpassed a temporary balm or an exciting nod from a celebrity whose work in Star Trek: TNG I've long respected alongside millions.

For one, it demonstrated Stewart's personality and passion in a way his acting couldn't have. It seems probable his background in Shakesperian theatre influenced Picard's own literacy, giving the series' soul an enriching connection to the version of Earth's history known to its viewers. But even actors of Stewart's class can reveal themselves as purely occupational, leaving their work – and their enthusiasm for it – at the set's door.

Stewart revealed instead that he's an actor through and through, which I think basically means he sincerely enjoys it, dwells on it. His interpretations of Shakespeare in particular (an author I've seldom found accessible, and often boring) evince his idea of his task as reader: like an inspired teacher or translator, to deliver every word heavy in his voice and face, with an emotional weight that guides even newcomers from cluelessness to, if not the fully demystified meaning, a reasonable guess.

Secondly, back to "how it feels like the Internet should be." I really should think of a better word for this special and rare quality so much commoner toward the Internet's infantile stage, as it's important to recognize in today's metropolis-packed online universe. When the Internet is simply used to bridge imaginations – to let distant minds connect as though by holodeck or a transporter; for example, to visit a hospitable Patrick Stewart to listen to poetry for a few of minutes each day – lives have been slightly better lived.

Patrick Stewart will admit he predates the Internet, yet has surpassed most of the public in using it well by this simple gesture. Even more unlikely, he accomplished all this on Twitter, known to pass between its users at least as much junk as value.

I should only hope to use a future technology in such a meaningful way to its users' generations. More primarily, though, I hope that spirit reclaims its role as the foundation that inspires technology.

Super Mario 64 in 3D All-Stars: quick first impressions.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars was delivered this afternoon, and I removed the game card for Breath Of The Wild from my Switch for the first time since I started playing over eighteen months ago. (Another story, of course.)

Nearing the release of Super Mario 64 in 1996, I had printouts of development screenshots on my bedroom wall, and spent long periods waiting for short clips – seconds of silent gameplay crushed to near-indiscernibility by video compression – to download through our family's first dial-up modem.

Then, my family moved from my lifelong rural home to a new town in a new country, days before the start of my high school years. That clean chasm separating geographic and academic phases of my childhood aligned precisely with the transition from Nintendo's two-dimensional achievements to its outset into the three-dimensional worlds of the Nintendo 64. No e-mail for a while hence, and phone calls back to friends were permitted but costly. And so, in a bare townhouse apartment with my family, I would come home from school, complete homework, and return to Super Mario 64.

I had exhausted its star supply in a few weeks, but I would continue to play for months, largely to revisit and relax in my favourite locations. I appeared as a runner-up in a Nintendo Power contest for imagining a futuristic game system – a headset that would use lasers to infer the shape of your surroundings to superimpose graphics on them, now termed augmented reality – but was also listed that month for a competitive time on The Princess's Secret Slide.

Today, I fetched the first few stars in this new version of Super Mario 64. By now I had accepted there was no secret remake of Super Mario 64 in the wings, but even during that short session, I found it a fundamentally different experience in several ways.

Foremost, graphically. High definition, as a standard, was revelatory for film and games. The main hurdle for games to render in high definition is processing power, and here Nintendo famously remained conservative in the face of its competition. (Years later, as Kaz Hirai announced the graphically-charged PlayStation 3 would sell for "599 US dollars," Miyamoto and Iwata seemed to feel the Wii's 480p resolution was acceptable if the soul and spirit of "fun for everyone" remained intact. The Wii was priced at 250 USD, and a story broke later that Miyamoto had wanted it to cost a mere hundred.)

Super Mario 64's high-definition status today is debatable: for technical reasons, its aspect ratio remains short of 16:9, and its height doesn't extend to the display's vertical extremes either. But to compare with prior versions? The Wii's Virtual Console provided the game in the aforementioned standard definition, which was an upgrade from the original's now-almost-unthinkable 240p.

Even so, that original resolution was significant to me. This constraint affected the entire system, and thus, the game's entire universe, like a law of physics. The primary font for dialogue, which was upgraded for the new version by hand, was originally a bitmap font in the true sense: the style of the text's curves and endpoints was an artistic negotiation between the lightheartedness of the designer and the rigidness of pixellation, and the result was achieved by harmonizing the two. It was the same balancing force that gave pixel art its charm, here as though exerting a final breath of influence before disappearing into the much less pixellated future.

HD, on the other hand, allows for detail. It gives you what magnifying glasses or binoculars give you in real life: the ability to shift your focus from the action's intended subject to the crow hopping across the far street; a sense of autonomy within a prescribed vista. Where Mario had once shrunk into the distance to the height of a few pixels, he now shrinks to still an appreciable rendering of himself, and the wide area around him remains equally explorable by the eye.

That shrinking into the distance is afforded by a feature seldom seen in games since Super Mario 64: the ability to configure the "R" button to hold the camera in place rather than following Mario around. The alternative was to use "R" to follow Mario closely, almost over his shoulder, but I almost never touched that. On the contrary, I loved this camera-holding option and used it frequently. In a word used more commonly, it was cinematic, appealing to the part of me that might imagine flying vehicles zooming through a backyard ditch as though it were a massive trench, the lightness in the stomach conjured by an impossibly smooth ride down a zip line, or a meadow as seen from a tall building. You could lock the camera before dropping from a high platform to ground level, setting up a vast overview of the full terrain, then release it, allowing the camera to swoop all the way back in. As an option, it seemed deserved. After all, Super Mario 64's areas were areas, each to be regarded, soaked in, and appreciated for its area-ness.

Also to that end, and worth more than a passing mention: Super Mario 64 was one of his only adventures to that point without a time limit enforcing pace or expediency. Not only could you stop and smell the proverbial roses, but you could allow Mario the time to stretch, yawn, and make himself cozy on the floor to nap.

Yet another fundamental difference revealed by this version's detail: Mario's model, when sufficiently far from the camera, is swapped for a considerably less detailed secondary model: the shape of his head is more primitive, and his moustache and eyes are somewhat more tucked together – until he stops walking, at which point he's replaced by his familiar model for the animation of his idle state. I had read this swapping-out of models was a clever accommodation provided by the Nintendo 64 to safeguard performance, and I had seen it games like Pilotwings 64, where a faraway building might snap from a simple to a more complex shape when approached by plane. While I had known the polygonally-rich Mario benefitted from this trick, the low resolution of the original obscured it well, and I never noticed it. In the new version, it's plain as day. I suppose this could be seen as illusion-breaking, but to me it feels like another clearer window into the nature of the game's universe.

Finally, the new version includes rumble support, originally absent until the arrival of the "Rumble Pak" with Star Fox 64; an accessory that plugged into the controller, significantly weighing it down. The Joy-Con's ability to vibrate was deemed "HD rumble," describing smaller motors with nimbler attacks and releases, producing sensations I would describe as "finer" than the bulkier originals. Apparently rumble support was added to the original game in what's known as the "Shindou" version, which brought tweaks to Mario's voice samples and curbed the ability to chain backwards long jumps used to dexterously bypass the endless staircase.

What delighted me, though, was the experience of picking up a Bob-omb. Naturally I expected it to remain intact for a few seconds before detonating. What I didn't expect was to feel it ticking. It was a dimension of the experience I'd never known: an insistent, fairly rapid tapping against both palms at once.

Again, I'm only a few stars in. I thought this might have turned out more of a rare posterity purchase, but all that from one short session? Two decades since that first journey, I may be called to reclaim every star. And that's without even touching Super Mario Sunshine – one of the few Mario games whose completionist badge I never neared – and Super Mario Galaxy, which to my mind remains the clearest expression of Mario's soul. I expect more surprises.

A modern make of Myst, and the modern awkwardness of Oculus.

The element of revelation was apparently so important that the product’s title wasn’t allowed in the trailer’s title.

I was stirred the moment I heard Atrus’ voice speaking words I didn’t recognize, and shivered as they carried directly into the most familiar words in the series.

This wouldn’t be the new version released in 2000 with a higher resolution and built-in hints. Not the following new version with fully-explorable 3-D graphics replacing the pre-rendered, HyperCard-style frames, nor the new version from 2014 which remastered all of that. Not the iOS or iPad versions, nor any of the versions released for everything from Nintendo DS to a recent fan remake for the Apple II.

My similarly historied love of Myst, the willingness of my imagination to accept its premise, have always filled the gap between the technology’s capability and an apparent reality. For it to feel real, I never required a version that looked real. Resultingly, I felt somewhat numb floating with the trailer’s camera toward the island rendered as though by a Hollywood graphics veteran.

The trailer’s accompanying description acknowledged, if not emphasized, the recent secrecy around this project. (“We’ve been keeping this one close to the chest for some time…”.) But I was pretty sure I’d seen renders last year on a Cyan employee’s personal page or something – I think on a page of visual wizard Eric Anderson, amid clear disclaimers this wasn’t a game in development. I accepted that warning even while hearing myself think “right.” Such secrecy. Resultingly, what might have been a total surprise here was more a confused confirmation. “Oh, it’s this after all?”

I suppose you could say that threw me off. Even if so, the trailer’s primary success in throwing me off took a different form entirely. That critically withheld title’s presentation didn’t read simply “MYST,” which would have been quite sufficient to satisfy deeply. Instead, it read “MYST,” followed shortly by “coming soon to Oculus Quest.”

Oculus was a shining beacon of the last decade. Kickstarted in 2012, the Oculus Rift was presented as the first truly immersive virtual reality headset for video games, and actually lived up to that. The perceptible excitement rivalled that reserved for technological nostalgia. The company’s leaders spoke of “presence,” a threshold beyond which the virtual experience would “click” in the viewer’s mind, exceeding the sum of its technical parts. Enthusiasts scrambled for dev kits for most of a thousand dollars even if they weren’t devs, making the included proof-of-concept demos (like “Tuscany”) famous on YouTube. Even I, who prefers imaginary to physical travel, found and visited a nearby tech shop friendly enough to let people try their Rift DK2. It was true, I learned first-hand. Sitting in a virtual space, with subtle visual differences, felt like sitting in a real space. Someday I would explore at my leisure as though to a park or a vacation spot, just to absorb, breathe, sit and think. Someday, anyone could.

I’d almost forgotten the light of that beacon. The announcement Facebook had bought the company two years later came as not just a surprise to many, but a sobering blow. That perceptible excitement seemed to choke and dull in a morning. I didn’t share the pessimism I was reading, but in short, I came to empathize, and now I’m impressed at the keener senses of those who feared a company with questionable values would taint that seemingly untaintably bright future. (Who ever thought “Rift” was destined for such a double meaning?)

What’s bittersweet, then, is to think how perfect this announcement – “MYST: coming soon to Oculus” – would have seemed then.

Most of a decade later, virtual reality is coming along. It’s still exciting to watch and learn about the technology, to hear John Carmack and Michael Abrash carry on about the immense challenges involved in bringing it about. Oculus just announced the Quest 2, a standalone headset (no need for a high-powered desktop tethered to your headset like a spinal cord) which has supposedly surpassed the original Rift in every appreciable way while becoming affordable as a modern game console. That’s truly incredible, and this would probably have been where I really dove in. Instead, I replied to Cyan on Twitter:

Now that was a trailer. Wow.

Myst should always have been VR’s killer app.

No intention to dabble with Oculus since Facebook acquired it, as much as I love the technology. If it’s elsewhere someday, I know I’ll regard playing as a life event.

Cyan’s staff are nice folks – they don’t have to interact on Twitter, but they were keen to resolve ambiguity surrounding the trailer for me and others: they chose to time this announcement to the announcement of the Oculus Quest 2, but intend to release the modern remake of Myst on other platforms too. No surprise considering the aforementioned history, but it was nice to discover they’re “wish-listable” in a few other places already. By the end of the day, it looked as though I wasn't the only one thrown off. (Since typing this, Cyan has uploaded a second version of the trailer for "PC and VR" – without the Oculus boilerplate – and updated the videos' titles to distinguish them.)

But the comment about VR’s killer app was sincere. Exciting as these eight years have been to follow, virtual reality has not reached everyday household prevalence like video game consoles or personal devices. I doubt the NES (and game consoles generally) would have reached that prevalence without Super Mario Bros. or The Legend Of Zelda, either.

Myst bore the soul and spirit of virtual reality two decades before the Rift was announced, with the capacity to impart the value of an experience transmitted between imaginations. It deserves to be the title that shows the world the value and potential of virtual reality, even if Facebook doesn’t deserve it back.

Peaceful raccoons?

It’s unusual I startle during a night walk. This time, there was something I’d never seen before, let alone a yard or two from me: a raccoon standing on its hind legs, with one paw against the thick trunk of a decades-old tree, peering like a stray tourist in need of help but hesitant to attempt the language. (Was it on its hind legs? These moments are notoriously misrememberable.)

I don’t suppose it actually needed help of any kind, or it wouldn’t have been confident enough to appear there. I’d seen raccoons on this campus before, usually raising my wariness when recalling their reputation for mischief or aggression.

Would that be unwarranted stereotyping of an entire species? Buzzing mosquitos reliably make attempts at your blood, and crocodiles appear on shores once they’ve decided to spring and chomp – perhaps it’s reasonable to assume raccoons interested only in scrounging and fleeing. But past encounters hadn’t borne that out. This one was part of a family, I thought, who frequent the area and were familiar with the human presence.

Some time ago, I approached a parent raccoon with at least two youths on a narrow path. Well prepared to back away, I was astonished when they climbed procedurally to one side, perching and watching from bordering foliage until I’d passed. Most recently, I passed a pair on a small lawn with one tree, scampering around together, taking no real notice of me. If judging only by their behaviour, I might have guessed they were a pair of pet dogs.

I’m no David Attenborough with his thorough experiential knowledge of the natural world, but I share his inclination to view animals not as “animals.” Or rather, to view humans as much as “animals” as any other species. We’re all stereotypable by the behaviour our instincts and needs draw out, but even that is a commonality between humans and non-humans. And it suggests there are others.