Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

The coolness of Safari 15 (and the end of the white flash).

Version 15 is a cool one for Safari users like me. I've heard ongoing opinionation from the personal tech and developer communities as it's been hurriedly refined over the summer after its striking interface changes were criticized, particularly the cramming of too many controls into a single row on the iPhone layouts. Rather than remaining heavy-handed, it looks like the Safari team rethought, refined, and turned many of the boldest changes into deactivatable options, which I think is best for everyone.

The most exciting change for me might be the most striking: the browser chrome's ability to change colour according to the site's specifications. Other browsers have made their interfaces customizable by letting the user pick a pre-designed theme, akin to snapping a decorative plastic plate over your handheld game console. But Safari's approach results in a totally different feel, and it's an interesting choice. "Striking" is right, but I had to chew on it before deciding I loved it.

Here's an example of a thrown-together web page taking advantage of this on an iPad. Rather than a dominating white or grey title bar, the page's lavender colour extends to the screen's upper edge, beneath the controls. Logically, this seems to imply that the browser's controls (including even tabs for other web sites) are "part" of this page, and I suppose that's what has kept other browser teams from implementing or thinking of it. Once I rationalized that, though, the entire web started to feel different. Web pages felt more like "an app" (which is certainly a reasonable term for many of today's web pages – apps written for browsers). If not that, at least it makes web sites feel more "privileged" about their role within the browser, as though they have temporary stewardship or custody of those controls and tabs. It's initially uncomfortable because it's a challenge to long-established convention, like a fiddler at a Victorian dinner party or something: you won't love it if you can't loosen up a little, but once you do, you might find yourself yearning for it again.

One pattern that seems almost prescribed is to colour the toolbar as one with the page's uppermost banner, creating the appearance of a tall "cap" on the entire site, like the top layer of a cake. If you're using Safari 15, you can see this on the WebKit blog – or if you're not, you can imagine what it would look like for the darkish blue to occupy that upper space. I think it's quite handsome. (It occurred to me that the line between this amalgamated banner and the proper page could be wavy, making that "cake layer" look more "iced." One idea among limitless ones, surely.)

The chrome colour must be a single solid colour, making this a deceptively simple implementation – you can't design a pattern to reside behind the browser controls – and that's actually something that makes this whole ability feel kind of fun, more like the earlier days of the web. Unlike some of today's fancier web standards, you have only to copy and paste one line of HTML to get it working. (But if you do want to get fancier, you can dynamically change this colour with JavaScript.)

One final little thing about Safari 15. I've tried loading a few web pages with different styles and colours, and I think that – at long last – the page content is not first rendered as a solid white rectangle before it loads, including on the Mac. We're well into the dark-golden era of dark mode as a standard, both on Apple platforms and the web generally, and Safari finally seems to act like it.

More on rendered humans in realistic games, and Cyan's new tech demo.

As I recently typed: in the era of choosing to create a fully-CG game instead of a fully-rendered game, such as realMyst was to Myst, the treatment of human characters may be the primary dilemma. They gain nativeness to the rendered world and the real-time benefits it brings, but lose the ineffable qualities of the human as captured on video to the mechanistic qualities of rendered figures. Even the best CG human characters of the last decade stoke that "uncanny valley" feeling; we're so used to real humans that awareness of the slightest wrongness feels conscious and continuous.

I'd never had this problem with Ocarina Of Time, even though its human characters were some of the most geometrically primitive in 3D gaming (or even in the original Legend Of Zelda, far more primitive), nor in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem for GameCube, which aimed in 2002 for "futuristic" realism, landing still far from the uncanny, because those games established their worlds' parameters at their points of creation.

Ironically, though, I think Cyan unknowingly worked itself into a corner by way of its early high achievements. Myst and Riven put players in a world that did have real people, placing the mechanistic burden on the necessarily limited video quality, not the characters themselves. That seems why the CG humans of the "modern" Myst remake paved the way for pages of thanks from fans when the restored video became an in-game option last week: those fans understood what they were missing, and were happy to get it back.

(As an aside, I've left the clever approach to the characters in Myst V out of this conversation, but should mention them. Their presentation combined video of actors' faces with motion-captured body performances – which I think I remember reading were done by Rand Miller; if so, further credit to him as an actor – along with cloth simulations for flowing and draping costumes, which are purely physical enough not to stoke the "uncanny" feeling, and the player's inability to move while they're speaking. My memories of Myst V's monologuing moments are fairly tranquil and content, like watching live theatre. Myst III and IV, largely out of Cyan's control, still used video nestled carefully into 360-degree environments made of other images and video, which all seemed true to Myst's heritage.)

Which brings us back to the primary problem of today. How to solve it? If not a permanent adherence to video and its own inherent restrictions, all I can think of is human characters which groundbreakingly overcome present limitations through even further sophistication.

Conveniently, Cyan just revealed they're reaching for this goal, shown yesterday in the form of a quick demonstration of human characters using an new Epic (the company) tool set.

Humans that look pretty photo-realistic are nothing new, and don't inherently overcome the uncanny valley issue. What finally will? Cyan describes:

… It’s the ability to also capture truly subtle facial expressions – the raised eyebrow, or the slight downturn of the mouth – that take a character from good to great!

"Subtlely" is a reasonable word to describe the moments of this demo that I find intriguing, due to such facial exercises. I might even describe what's conveyed as whimsy – a category of facial expressions real people make when they happen to fall between the "primary colours" of facial expressions, deliberately or just idly and unthinkingly. "Idleness" is the second word I'd associate with them.

I'm a little worried the novelty of this will prove a false promise – it's easy for anyone to fall into that trap, especially a creator invested in their own work – but it blows away my recent characterization of Cyan as a company that specializes in natural and architectural environments at the expense of specializing in human characters. This move, along with the hiring of a new character motion lead, has the potential to being them closer to a state-of-the-art level in this area, where they deserve to be.

This demo came with an update for the backers of Firmament, by the way. Apparently I didn't even back it for a dollar (probably thinking I'd buy it on release instead), because I've been missing the project updates. Here's the full article.

James Webb Telescope to launch in 100 days.

NASA plans to launch the James Webb Space Telescope into orbit Dec. 18, 2021, to serve as the premier deep space observatory for the next decade.

Webb's development cost and time was vastly underestimated, and it's finished a rigourous testing phase. (Unlike Hubble, which has remained in service longer than expected, there will be no astronaut repair missions for Webb, which will orbit the sun rather than the Earth.)

NASA JPL used to provide webcam feeds on the clean room where Webb was being constructed, and I have good memories of glancing at them, I now realize. Here's a quick video that conveys the telescope's stature and majesty.

Perseverance collects rock sample.

NASA’s Perseverance rover today completed the collection of the first sample of Martian rock, a core from Jezero Crater slightly thicker than a pencil.

The plan is for slated craft (later this decade, I believe?) to procure and return the encased sample to Earth for analysis.

Myst remake gains "classic video mode."

This is one of those little things for which my only explanation is that the creators at Cyan simply care.

The Myst remake, which also launched for desktop platforms last month, though it liberally alters the world the original Myst has asserted as "real" for over 25 years – which to me feels as close as possible to a sin when creating fiction – has felt increasingly satisfying as I've observed more gameplay while considering the words of its toiling developers. I think I'll write about that later.

However, one thing I just couldn't stomach was the fully-animated renderings of its human characters. My most charitable interpretation of their presence involved considering the painstaking work that was done on the natural and architectural environments, arguably a "mainer" character in Myst games than its characters. Cyan's specialty isn't (and perhaps can't be) fabricating illusory humans, I've been telling myself, so these fairly clunky, unreaslistic, overly-symmetrical-looking CG characters, which only loosely resemble their originating actors, are understandable. By comparison, the rendered humans in other companies' games from one or even two decades ago are more convincing, more conducive to an imagined reality.

As much as that resembles a slight to Cyan, it's actually veiled respect. I've assumed the reason Cyan has not refined and mastered rendered humans is because they've favoured live video footage, all the way through Obduction in 2016. Even the most advanced CG human of today somehow can't transmit the same quality of humanity found in the most compressed, grainiest, lowest-resolution video of an actor, and so the latter feels objectively superior. Why is that? I think the reason is entangled with the idea of any fictional proposition: if a constraint or limitation – such as video resolution – is present consistently across a fictional work's presentation, the experiencer understands off the bat where the imaginative burden of their mind begins and ends, accepts it, and proceeds. It's the same reason the original Myst felt real, with its limited colour palette and conical, alpha-blended evergreen trees.

Anyway, yesterday came this tweet from Hannah at Cyan (check it out for a video sample):

Okay @cyanworlds fans -- you asked, and we answered. Welcome to "Classic Video Mode" for Myst! Now available now in Patch 3 for Myst on Steam, GOG, EGS, and Oculus Rift Store. Other platforms to come soon, pending us passing cert for them. Now, I will collapse for the weekend. :)

I almost thought it was a joke, but apparently the team at Cyan – with no particular mandate but their will and, apparently, audible requests from their players – took the time and effort to create an entirely new mode that retains the live video performances found in previous versions.

By now, you know I thought they should. Today, I ask myself why I never even hoped they would. Maybe the dramatic "reboot" feeling of the remake stoked my apathy. Too often when companies "reboot" things, it turns out to mean they're embracing modern trends at the expense of the more soul-singing and sentimental aspects that initially communicated their care and earned their acclaim, resulting in a hollower product for a hollower audience, and the feeling something truly special and long-lived is finally fading and dying.

Apparently Cyan is not that kind of company. It's such an encouraging gesture, and I'm happy to see I'm not the only fan that approves. If anyone there is reading, I hope you and the team feel encouraged back. I've always noted Cyan's thorough finesse in blending video footage of actors so carefully into pre-rendered and live-rendered worlds, and your stalwartness in that – even to the point of designing the game largely around it – has felt almost sacred within a changing industry. With this extra effort on the Myst remake, I'm proud to feel it's still there.

An approved side-nod to Panic.

If any company depends on ignoring the advice "don't panic" to survive by definition, it's Panic.

Founded in Portland by Cabel Sasser and Steven Frank in 1997, they've been in the Mac software game longer than most. They're historically known for apps like Audion, Transmit, and Coda (a popular Mac web editor last decade), but I'm guessing their biggest splash into general awareness came through their game projects, particularly as the publisher of Untitled Goose Game.

The company's work is marked by certain irregular yet somehow consistent signature aesthetic preferences, which you'll start to pick up if you visit their main site. They seem to follow their fancy, create what they like, create it faithfully for Apple platforms, commit to what they decide, try to do right by their customers when they change course, and continue to survive this way. I've heard Apple was interested in acquiring them in the early 2000s, but Panic decided to retain their identity by retaining their independence.

They've just opened pre-orders for their first handheld console, which they call PlayDate, clearly a distant spiritual descendent of the Game Boy with Panic's soul injected, along with some philosophical distinctions: a "season" of games arrives over several weeks after you receive it, the physical crank is a control input used by some games, and each unit is also a developer unit, for which I believe Panic will provide both a full-fledged developer kit and a higher-level engine for non-programmers to create simple adventure games of their own.

I think I'm writing about Panic now because, while I've never found myself enticed by their aesthetic choices, I find myself inspired by their will to do what they like so relentlessly. It's larger than two people now, but it's still a small company, and independently launching a modern game console product like the PlayDate is no task for even the slightly faint of heart. They've been working on it for ages, and the current episode of their company podcast – smacking equally of their style – tells the full story over a good hour or two. I enjoyed listening to this and wanted to recommend it.

Joanna Stern follows up on Apple's "child safety" features.

Craig Federighi explains them – and the common misunderstandings – more conversationally in this interview for The Wall Street Journal.

I mentioned it feels like an Apple-style conversational explanation was missing from this announcement, so I'm glad someone facilitated a good one. (It sounds like Craig confirms and agrees with just about everything I wrote.)

Apple's "child safety" features, and the good old controversy.

"… With something this critical, the only way to lose is not to play," said Rene Ritchie at the end of a YouTube video on the topic, addressing the question of whether to comment or send feedback to Apple about their recent announcements. Rene is an independent commentator on Apple and the tech industry, and his livelihood involves attracting subscribers to pay for access to his full-length videos, but he posted this entire 45-minute rundown in the open.

According to Apple, the main issue is protecting children. Their new features are designed to prevent the spread of what is termed "CSAM" (or "child sexual abuse material," essentially a formal euphemism for child pornography) across their services. But according to the back-and-forth I've read from individuals on the Internet since the announcement, the main issue is user privacy. The controversy is about the nature and future implications of the collision between these two concerns. This topic deserves many more 45-minute videos, but my meagre aim today is to summarize and contribute observations I haven't seen mentioned.

A few facts for context, pertaining to the United States specifically. Child pornography is illegal. If online service providers come across it, they're supposed to report it to The National Center For Missing And Exploited Children, established by congress in 1984. Other services (Facebook and Google, for examples), have followed this requirement by automatically analyzing the content of the photos users store on their servers. The number of files reported so far is measurable in millions.

The number of reports from Apple to this point, however, totals several hundred. When it comes to user data, Craig Federighi has previously said on stage: "we just don't want to know," essentially rephrasing Apple's privacy-focused principle of data minimization. Apple hasn't been able to report offending photos and videos because their own services are designed not to allow them access.

Indeed, there's no government requirement for service providers to search for offending material, and in a new interview with Apple's Privacy head Erik Neuenschwander, Matthew Panzarino asked why Apple has finally chosen to start doing so. Erik said they've been looking at it for some time – evidently they "don't want to know," but they know they don't want this category of content to exist on their servers – and this is the first time they've felt their approach can accomplish both.

In short: they've developed a hashing process which intelligently performs a one-way conversion of a photograph to a piece of otherwise meaningless data, such that similar photos – even ones which have been slightly altered – produce the same blob of meaningless data when similarly converted. The data can't tell you anything about the original photo, but two pieces of identical data imply two originals with the same content. Only the The National Center For Missing And Exploited Children is allowed to have copies of the offending photos, from which a database of hashes is generated and compared to users' photos. Further stipulations: all this comparison computation only happens on users' devices, nothing is reported to Apple unless a certain number of matches is found, a human must verify any such report before Apple takes any action, and none of this happens in the first place for users who do not use iCloud Photos. This is the approach that's generated what's being called "controversy." Whatever may be controversial about it, I think it confirms that Apple "doesn't want to know." As Erik suggests with his answer to "why now," this entire approach would have seemed unrealistically futuristic a decade ago.

This "feature" is one of three. The second is Siri's new willingness to engage with users making search queries related to explicit material involving children. (I'm not sure it's clear which queries.) From what I've seen, this feature seems to have gone practically unnoticed by the most vocal privacy advocates – oddly enough, considering Siri is predicated on learning who you are for the purposes of assisting you generally.

The third – technologically separate from the others – pertains to the iMessage service, specifically for users who are children subject to parental controls. It's the iMessage service's ability to detect incoming or outgoing sexually explicit photos using a machine learning approach. When it's on (at the choice of the parent), such incoming photos are obscured, the user is warned about the potential content, informed that explicit photos can be used to "hurt" users, and told their parents will be notified if they choose to view it.

While privacy at large is the main contention, my first inclination is to consider how children are treated in arrangments like this. In a hypothetical situation where a suspicious stranger is trying to recruit an unwitting youth, the careful wording and balance of considerations seems appropriate to me. The child's account isn't automatically locked down, Apple doesn't learn anything at all, and ultimate control over the conversation remains with them. The parents are notified if they've chosen to be, but the child is informed whether and when, and can choose to back out of the situation beforehand (this is the nature of any "parental controls"-style protection). I hope users of all ages are responsible and Internet safety-savvy enough to roll their eyes when such warnings appear, and that any parents using these controls will have talked them through with their family beforehand, but not all children benefit from such knowledge or good family relations, and this sort of net seems like it may succeed as a line of defense against trouble for some.

On the subject of privacy at large, I'm encouraged by the sheer amount of conversation, which I think indicates people are alert to the slightest potential privacy infringement – hearing crickets would be worrisome in itself. My only real gripe is the obscuring of facts and the use of ambiguition as a tactic, which I'm disappointed to have seen from some of the first sources that weighed in.

One – I think the one that first brought this whole issue to my attention – was Edward Snowden, whose personal sacrifice and service in favour of public awareness of government and corporate spying I deeply respect. However, his initial tweet claims of the iCloud Photos hashing approach: "if it finds a hit, they call the cops." Reporting users possessing known child pornography for prosecution is an action Apple states their intent to take, but as mentioned earlier, it requires much more than the system "finding a hit." He also says "iOS will also tell your parents if you view a nude in iMessage." Again, that presumes a list of things he didn't mention. A few days later, he continues to tweet with the hashtag "#spyPhone", saying that if we "don't shut up," "we can win this." (Where's his campaign about "winning" against Facebook over the past ten years? I may well have missed that one, but I haven't noticed any sense of relative perspective to this issue since he raised it.)

India McKinney and Erica Pornoyaugust from the Electronic Frontier Foundation also share their opinion. I became aware of the EFF last winter, when their column on Facebook's campaign against Apple seemed in service of privacy and clarity. This article, contrastingly, places the claim right in the opening paragraph that "Apple is planning to build a backdoor" into its systems. The second paragraph seems, almost tellingly, to defend the use of the term: "even a thoroughly documented, carefully thought-out, and narrowly-scoped backdoor is still a backdoor." (On top of the unwarranted lack of a space in "back door," I'd love to read the authors' breakdown on how they decide whether to use a hyphen. At least it wasn't "back-door.")

So, what is a "back door" in this sense? From Oxford: "a feature or defect of a computer system that allows surreptitious unauthorized access to data."

Is this a feature? That's what Apple calls it. Is it part of a computer system? Yes. Is the access surreptitious? No, they're announcing it now, well in advance. Unauthorized? It's possible they won't add it to the terms of service, but I'd be staggered if they didn't. So, no, this isn't a back door. (You can find alternative definitions – some people prefer Wikipedia, which includes "typically covert," but any definition leaves you feeling like the EFF article's authors' lede is at least an exaggeration, this time undermining their credibility as people writing in the service of clarity.) Their final section about iMessage defends a similarly blurred-edged use of the term "end-to-end encryption," which – if you've actually read this far – I'll leave you to evaluate.

The EFF authors' conclusion is summarized in their final paragraph: "people have the right to communicate privately without backdoors or censorship, including when those people are minors. Apple should make the right decision: keep these backdoors off of users’ devices." I tend to agree with the point about the rights of minors, but again, minors' ability to use their devices freely is more directly affected by parental controls than Apple's features. If the EFF is going to take that strong a stance on those grounds, don't they have to take a much stronger stance on the wide array of parental controls which have been available on iOS (and other systems) for years, limiting children's ability to view media or use apps and the Internet at parents' discretion? In any case, it seems these authors' idea of an acceptable balance between safety and privacy is that even a mechanism which reveals absolutely nothing to Apple in the absence of predetermined amounts of illegal content, on services users can freely stop using, does not sufficiently favour privacy.

Finally, an Apple internal memo obtained by 9to5Mac included a note from the National Center For Missing And Exploited Children's executive director of strategic partnerships, Marita Rodriguez. Among her congratulations to Apple employees on their work on these features was this remark: "we know that the days to come will be filled with the screeching voices of the minority. Our voices will be louder."

To be charitable, I'd say that's bizarre. To be more speculative, it's the kind of thing I'd expect from a jaded, battle-weary or insecure mind which – even Apple's staff is all but invited to speculate, as this remark came with no further clarification about who this minority might be – is primed to classify any form of concern as dismissible rather than reasonable. I think even "bizarre" is unseemly for a director of this equation's specially privileged and entrusted organization.

All three of these examples of writing (Snowden's, the EFF authors', and Marita Rodriguez's), discourage me, especially because I believe they're all well-intentioned. Fuzzing the facts helps nobody, least of all the fuzzers. I expect that from dimmer minds, not brighter ones.

Fortunately, there are another three sources who seem to insist on clearing up misunderstandings rather than promoting them. The first is Rene Ritchie, who I opened with, and who addresses a whole branch of other reasonable, related questions I won't here.

Second is John Gruber, whose original column was one of the earliest on the issue, and remains one of the clearest. One guess of Gruber's is that this move is in fact a step toward full end-to-end encryption of everything in iCloud, ultimately the opposite of a privacy-compromising net shift.

Third is Apple themselves, who – to their credit, I believe – have only provided more detail as the days have passed, having recognized and responded to perceived concerns. The original announcement included a short stack of white papers on the technology itself, and more recently, they've released an FAQ document addressing what I think are the commonest questions and points of misunderstanding.

I said I'd aim to conclude with observations I hadn't seen mentioned, specifically about the future, as some critics are worried more about the implications than the announcement itself. ("If it's sexually explicit material involving children today, why shouldn't it be thought crime tomorrow?", and so on.) I agree it's a question. But the question that matters isn't what Apple could hypothetically do in the minds of the saddest and wisest (or otherwise), but what they will do. So, what indications do we have about what Apple will do?

It's been almost a decade since Steve Jobs died, and his contemporaries know his stance on privacy was a stark and simple one. I don't have the direct quote, but – more by coincidence, not even on the subject of child safety – I remember him also saying on stage with Walt Mossberg, something like, "we worry about this stuff. We worry that a 14-year-old somewhere is going to get in trouble because of our phone."

Would Steve have approved of this announcement, or something like it? I think so. One of Steve's trademark introductions to a feature was to highlight the traditional belief that two conflicting issues could never be reconciled, only to reveal they finally thought they'd figured out how they could be. And when "Apple" had made a decision based on Steve's personal conviction about what was right, you could see it on his face.

I miss the older Apple keynotes – not just the pre-pandemic live broadcasts from the stage, but the more casual and off-the-cuff presentations afforded by the available time to announce fewer things. They allowed people like Steve to explain their thinking first and their resulting project second, conveying the humanity behind the intentions and defusing suspicions about hidden motives. It feels like one of those monologues is what's missing this time.

I was encouraged, as I mentioned, that people seem alert even to the slightest potential privacy infringement. I'm not sure the most sensitive, ironically, have considered that this public sensibility was cultivated largely by Apple. It doesn't seem a stretch to imagine that without Apple's contribution to this particular zeitgeist, we might today live in a world where we expect every company whose software we use to possess a full profile of our personal information, to quietly exchange aggregate data about our communications, movements and interests – in which we shrug with learned apathy when asked whether that state of affairs bothers or disturbs us. Feature by feature, it feels like Apple has succeeded repeatedly in jostling other companies from a stupor, as they eventually follow suit, or at least feel pressured to take the infantile step of pretending they similarly care. With full encryption in Messages and FaceTime, differential privacy, Intelligent Tracking Protection in Safari, the upcoming Mail Privacy Protection and the upcoming iCloud Private Relay – not even to mention their firm near-absolutist stance against adding an actual back door when pressured by the FBI – the list goes too far on to begin to illustrate the vehemency through which they've shown they believe responsibility comes alongside their power.

How easily could a company with this record slide down the slippery slope some so reflexively imagine? If Steve Jobs' spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple, as Tim Cook has occasionally said, then we needn't worry about the future. But as Jobs also said on that particular stage, "the future is long," and any organization's course is in the hands of its current stewards. Your own mind, meanwhile, is stewarded by you.

Ni No Kuni: a modern classic RPG.

I've claimed to love classic RPGs since playing Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, but admittedly haven't played many since then. The later works of Square Enix made them seem like they were destined (or doomed?) to evolve into some mish-mash of genres and periods, overcomplicating the original recipe for greatness. They were simple in their execution and gameplay, like a time-spanning song or dish.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch has some of that – in particular, you can move freely around a battlefield to your advantage or detriment – but that's about as daring as LEVEL-5 got. (In some ways, it's even simpler: you control only one character at a time in battle while the others fight or defend at will.)

I didn't play this one either. Instead, Twitch enabled me to watch Lexie play it, and it was as good to watch someone play their first RPG as to watch any friend play through large stretches of any game again. It had been a while.

The title translates to "Other World" (or literally, "World Of Two"), and – especially considering this was apparently anticipated as the "Studio Ghibli game" despite no direct involvement from Miyazaki himself – I'm glad the title went untranslated. An earlier version was released for Nintendo DS, which was expanded for modern consoles years later. The familiar trope of a fantasy world explored within the mind of a child facing life's hardships is handled with care, and while I'd probably leave the voices set to Japanese, I'm glad I didn't miss the voice behind the unabashedly Scottish and inimitable Drippy, a yellow, somewhat gasoline-container-shaped fairy lord with a lantern dangling from his nose, who is irreplaceable. (Honourable mention to the purple Shonky-Honker, a duck-like species with an orchestral brass horn for a beak, who you typically fight in the wild, but can also recruit as a companion. In terms of lovability, they surpass moogles and even rival Yoshis. I mean, come on.)

Also present: a full book. Books can be awkward and tedious in games, but I love their function as unmistakeably serious invitations to temporarily believe the world is real, and this one is availed with dozens of pages of text and illustrations worthy of print. Far exceeding a typical instruction manual, its collectible sections serve as a valuable reference for the game's creatures, treasures and lore. Its style is distinct and literary, you'll end up achieving more in-game the more you study it, and it even includes an entirely fictional script and cipher, for those willing to learn and translate. Truly impressive.

I won't elaborate further, except to reaffirm that I took this game as a sign that classic RPGs' elements are still recognized and embraced, to players' benefit. A sincere story as the vehicle for simple gameplay that amounts to an adventure.

The open Gates.

I'm thoroughly enjoying Gates McFadden's recent podcast. She leverages her classic Star Trek friends as guests, which is common and appeals to fans who wish they could have peeked behind the production curtains.

But Gates aims deeper, striving for personal exchanges suitable for proper friendships, and I've enjoyed harvesting insight about what brought her guests to hold the bite-sized opinions which are typically the full entrée. Reviews say Gates is a good "interviewer," but I'd call her a good conversationalist – you can tell she wants to share as much as she asks her guests to.

I always guessed McFadden had more to say than made it to the conventions and special features, and goodness, does she.

Horace And Pete: the feeling of theatre on film.

I heard about this series a while ago and shrugged it off. Louis CK not playing himself? That seemed odd.

But the 68-minute first episode was free on his site (which I love: it's simple, and though oriented to his professional life, the tone is personal and all media and payment stuff is contained neatly within it), so I decided to watch it late last night.

I had decided earlier in the day, actually, once I'd seen the first minute. A static shot of a dark pub, chairs tilted inward toward the tables to leave the floor accessible for sweeping, still and quiet after the music has faded. A guy (Louis CK not playing himself) stumbles down the stairs, looks around, adjusts his clothing awkwardly, and decides to start righting the chairs, very much at his under-excited leisure. There was something about it which I shortly put my finger on: it was a film, but it didn't feel like a film. It felt like a play, where – especially in those opening moments – exposition is established by the stage directions, which reach the audience almost entirely by way of the actor's pace, body and face, rather than the engagements of music, lighting or cameras. Films, especially today, rely so heavily on the latter group, but this production seemed content to leave those habits for others to play with (save the bookending theme song by Paul Simon).

No undermining of the laid expectations were forthcoming. It was about as much a play as a film could be. It's possible there were genuine cuts between adjacent shots, but for all I could tell, each scene was genuinely rehearsed and performed straight through by the small cast, shot with no masks or frills of any kind. One actor even stumbled over one line at one point (just once), and that apparently made it in. No big deal, just as it wouldn't have been if a real person had done it. There was even a labelled intermission in the middle of the hour – something I haven't seen in films that weren't decades old.

The themes seemed to include family, tradition and politics. Humour peppered the scenes, of course, but I'd say this opening episode made the series out to be more of a semi-mature, lugubrious, apathetic drama than a comedy. I'm sincerely tempted to carry on: it seems like proper art, and an example of art which fully sloughs popular convention just because it's popular. It feels unconcerned and unhurried, which is something I keep noticing recent TV and movies just can't seem to bear.

(Oh, and after watching, Louis CK probably is just playing himself. I suppose.)

Beats Flex is superior to AirPods Pro.

Goodness, did I love my original AirPods – enough to wear out the (admittedly meagre) batteries over hundreds of hours of outdoor walking in under two years. I was ready to upgrade at the moment of the long-awaited announcement of something new, and the AirPods Pro seemed like the next serious step, boosting the quality and adding active noise cancellation, which then – before the industry at large attempted it – seemed like a serious accomplishment for something so portable.

I loved them too, at first. I even put aside my standing dislike – which has faded – of devices you insert into your ear canal.

Months later, the active noise cancelling began worsening in one ear. Not fade, but I could tell it was trying and failing to measure surrounding sound and compensate accurately. When I'd shake my head or take a step while jogging, I'd get noise instead of anti-noise: subtle sympathetic swooshes or squeaks.

Happily, the warranty plus patience took care of that. Unhappily, the same thing hinted at beginning with the other ear several months later, and this time my warranty had just expired. Not the best situation: I was left with a slightly defective, premium-priced product after just a year.

Happily, Apple instated a special replacement program for AirPods Pro exhibiting just this behaviour. Unhappily, some miscommunication led the staff to believe this second replacement occurred both outside the program and out of warranty, leading me to have to make multiple calls to Apple over two months, keeping my own records and advocating for a refund of not just one, but two replacement charges made – the second one seemingly an unrelated error. I know from experience that Apple generally has their customer relations together, but if I'd been a new customer, that bungle may have been my cue to exit.

On top of that, I reflected on my time with the Pros. It's impressive to have two isolated, high-quality earpieces keeping in perfect sync – but when they occasionally lapsed, they really lapsed. Now and then, for example, when only the right or left bud would respond, I'd spend half a walk trying to disconnect and reconnect them in every way I could think of – a predic which wouldn't have been possible with single-piece headphones. As it happened, all of this was at least enough for me to exit my use of the AirPods. I cleaned them carefully, and eBay it was.

The Beats Flex had been released, and that's where my sights had landed. Costing a fifth as much as the AirPods Pro, I might have thought they were "not as good," period. But the W1 chip connected them automatically to all your Apple devices like the AirPods Pro did – no compromise there. They were single-piece: the connecting wire sat gently on your neck, and you wouldn't lose or damage them if they fell out – they even click together magnetically, forming a sort of necklace (which also sends a pause message, while the Pros sensed they'd left your ears). They fit identically in the ear canal and feel fine. They're black. (At least, mine are.) They have a volume control. The don't have their own charging case, because the battery lasts many times longer – I've charged mine a handful of times over months of use. So far, no issues, no subtle defects predestined by lofty aspirations, no hassles with customer service. I found them on sale for $35. This has been way better, and I'm way happier. I enjoyed riding the hype for a little while, but I'd have missed this stroke of logic if I'd been any more fixated or less disillusioned.

So, what are the disadvantages to the Beats Flex? Beats doesn't try to cancel noise actively, but presence in the ear canal does plenty on its own. I can hear the overall difference in sound quality: the Bluetooth-like fidelity is audible, and the sound signature feels like it folds in a little more Beats-esque dolling-up of the spectrum to make it sound a little brighter and bassier than what it receives (though tastefully less than Beats was famous for doing in a previous decade). The AirPods Pro provided that luxurious, pillowy smoothness for gentle bass which the Beats Flex only imitates, but I'm out walking or jogging, for goodness' sake – not sinking into a velour-padded recliner for a vision quest.

Since this whole transition, Apple has ramped up "spatial audio," involving the gyroscope and other input to compensate for your head movements, dealing out the illusion of unmoving speakers around you. I tried watching Star Trek: TNG this way with the AirPods Pro before selling them – it was cool, but not amazing. Recently, I hear Eddy Cue thinks this is the next big thing for music, and the feature will arrive at the system level this year, while Apple Music tracks and tvOS add their own support for it.

If Apple thinks spatial audio is that big, then they're going to be bringing it to more people and more types of headphones in the future. I get the impression they've quietly recognized and addressed the aformentioned issues with the AirPods Pro as well. That's good, and maybe I'll give the headphone-scape another look when I have less doubt the reliability will be solid. For now, the Beats Flex – these humble, inexpensive things – are the ones that have proved themselves, and will remain my companion.