Can’t take much more of this

I was in the back­seat of a car maybe a month ago when the new X‑Files (2016) came up. None of us had heard whether the series was com­ing back for a per­ma­nent run or what. Some­one looked it up on their phone and found it would only be six episodes.

Oh, thank good­ness,” I sighed.

My response baf­fled the front-seat occu­pants, one of whom asked what I had against the The X‑Files. I explained bad­ly, as I often do on the spot, how age has shown me that more isn’t always bet­ter, and my already loaded media diet means I just don’t have time or ener­gy for that much new stuff.1 Few­er episodes equals better.

A lot of times I’d rather appeal­ing stuff just not exist than have to exert the willpow­er need­ed to not to care about it. Everett today is thank­ful Sein­feld quit ear­ly. Everett today was pissed when 99% Invis­i­ble went week­ly. Everett sighed and stared out the win­dow at the news of Blade Run­ner 2. Everett is way too good at find­ing stuff he cares about, and real­ly bad at ignor­ing stuff that sounds like it might be cool.

Tom Chan­dler has this prob­lem with pod­casts. I, um, also have this prob­lem with podcasts.

(P.S. If you’re David Lynch, make all the new Twin Peaks you want. I’ll accommodate.)

  1. I want­ed to add, but did­n’t, that I always thought Milen­ni­um was bet­ter than The X‑Files, because that would just con­fuse them and might make them think I real­ly did secret­ly hate The X‑Files but would­n’t own up to it. I’m get­ting bet­ter about stay­ing focused while talk­ing, keep­ing the extra­ne­ous details I’m just dying to share to myself.

Is this going to be forever?

Let’s talk about me.

Super Smash Bros. Melee was­n’t released at a very good time for me. I was in col­lege, away from home and most of my gam­ing friends. Also, it was released for the Nin­ten­do Game­Cube, which his­to­ry has shown us was­n’t a ter­ri­bly suc­cess­ful con­sole. In fact, I don’t think any of my clos­est friends back then owned a GameCube.

But because I know peo­ple who know peo­ple, there was a hand­ful of oppor­tu­ni­ties to play Melee over the next few years.

I’d be at peo­ple’s hous­es and find mostly-young, mostly-male groups gath­ered around the TV trad­ing smash attacks between sig­na­ture Nin­ten­do char­ac­ters in the most won­der­ful­ly whim­si­cal car­toon fight­ing game imag­in­able. Mor­tal Kom­bat this is not. Up to four play­ers at a time would spend a few min­utes at a time bat­tling Links, Mar­ios, Kir­bys, Pikachus1 (and many oth­ers) in lev­els pulled from famil­iar Nin­ten­do games. They’d be talk­ing trash and throw­ing flow­ers and bombs and base­ball bats at each oth­er… much as my clos­est friends and I had spent lit­er­al­ly hun­dreds of hours doing a few years ear­li­er in the Nin­ten­do 64 Super Smash Bros., the orig­i­nal game in the series.

smash-bros-melee2001’s Melee, how­ev­er, was a very dif­fer­ent beast from ‘64,’ and is still held in high regard by many, and still a tournament-favorite — despite new install­ments of the series being released in 2008 and 2014.

Gosh, I’ve always hat­ed Melee.

Even today it’s still the fastest-paced and most bru­tal game of the series — the speed each game runs at is a design deci­sion made by the devel­op­ers — but Melee felt espe­cial­ly amped-up com­ing from the down­right glacially-paced 64, even today still the slowest-paced game in the series. That alone made it tough to get into Melee—imag­ine pick­ing up the con­troller and being mer­ci­less­ly pound­ed by up to three oth­er play­ers (who prob­a­bly play this all damn day), while you strug­gle to fig­ure out how to not acci­den­tal­ly fall off the edge of the level.

Seri­ous­ly you guys, when you’re ready to play a real game, I’ll kick your ass with Link in 64!” is a thing I prob­a­bly said every time I played Melee.

Speed was one prob­lem for me in Melee, but my oth­er one was the Game­Cube con­troller. Yeah, I know: the design is still held up as one of the best con­trollers ever, believed by many to rep­re­sent Nin­ten­do at their peak, right before their Wii-era fol­ly of appeal­ing to the dread­ed “casu­al” mar­ket with the waggle-motion-centric Wiimote. The clas­sic Game­Cube con­troller is still sup­port­ed in new­er Smash titles, and is still the choice among the hard­core Smash crowd… despite the half-dozen oth­er con­troller options that are also sup­port­ed at this point. How could I pos­si­bly not see what an amaz­ing gift Nin­ten­do had bestowed upon us with the Game­Cube controller?

gamecube-controller-smash-brosYeah, so I nev­er real­ly “got” the Game­Cube con­troller. I nev­er learned how to effec­tive­ly use the soft ana­log ‘shoul­der’ but­tons, nev­er became com­fy with the lay­out of the right-side ‘fire’ but­tons (X, Y, A, B) — the real meat of any con­troller. Com­ing from 64, I knew what the C‑stick was for, but it just was­n’t the same as the four yel­low but­tons of old. And I’m sor­ry, but the Z but­ton is just wrong—it goes on the bot­tom, you jerks.

With a decade-plus of hind­sight, it’s clear now that my prob­lems with Super Smash Bros. Melee, and with the Game­Cube con­troller in gen­er­al, were most­ly due to a lack of famil­iar­i­ty. I did­n’t have the chance to spend time alone learn­ing Melee at my own pace… or bar­ring that, hav­ing hours upon hours to spend com­pet­ing with close friends to sharp­en my skills, like I did in high school. And I’ve always felt a lit­tle hand­i­capped when it comes to pick­ing up steam at new games that favor play­ers with, you know, reflex­es. I did­n’t real­ly grow up with games at home when I was young — I def­i­nite­ly missed a lot of the for­ma­tive stuff that oth­er 1980s babies grew up on.

Any­way, although I essen­tial­ly sat out the entire Game­Cube era, busy with col­lege and oth­er life stuff, my inter­est in gam­ing was rein­vig­o­rat­ed with the release of the Nin­ten­do DS and lat­er the Wii. (Yes seri­ous­ly, the Wii.2) When the Wii-era Smash game, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, came out a cou­ple of years lat­er, there was no stop­ping me from pick­ing it up.

I enjoyed Brawl and played a lot of it. Hav­ing my own copy at home put me in a good posi­tion to get fair­ly good at it. It was very dif­fer­ent from 64—way more char­ac­ters and way more every­thing — and as a lot of the hard­core com­plain, way, way dif­fer­ent than Melee. “It’s so slow!” “It’s for noobs!” What­ev­er; the slow­er pace and the not-GameCube con­trols are prob­a­bly what I liked most about Brawl. Thank good­ness they cor­rect­ed their Melee mis­step, I thought.

My new­found enthu­si­asm for con­sole gam­ing died down a few years lat­er. I haven’t real­ly been keep­ing up with the new Nin­ten­do Wii U or 3DS stuff at all. But my orig­i­nal Wii remains below the TV, and I turn it on every cou­ple of months, usu­al­ly to play an old-timey 8- or 16-bit clas­sic.3

Some­thing hap­pened last week. An Ars Tech­ni­ca arti­cle about com­pet­i­tive Smash, and the endur­ing tour­na­ment lega­cy of Melee, showed up in my RSS. Before I had even fin­ished the arti­cle, I’d already been to Ama­zon and ‘Prime’d myself a Game­Cube con­troller and mem­o­ry card… and an over­priced used copy of Super Smash Bros. Melee.

My girl­friend was going to be out of town for the rest of the week. The time was right to dive in headfirst.

What hap­pened to me?

Look, I devel­oped this atti­tude as I grew clos­er to 30 a few years back. It goes a lit­tle like this:

So… is that it? Is this real­ly how it’s gonna be for the rest of your life?

As I read the Ars arti­cle through these attitude-tinted lens­es, I decid­ed that my hat­ing Melee was based on shaky rea­son­ing at best. The way I felt about it after my few tries may have been a gen­uine and rea­son­able reac­tion to get­ting pum­meled while flail­ing use­less­ly with this weird-ass con­troller, but let’s be hon­est: I nev­er gave the game a fair shot.

That, paired with the fact that Melee’s still so wide­ly held in such high regard almost 14 years lat­er — it’s def­i­nite­ly not just mind­less fan­boys trum­pet­ing the new hot thing — made me think hey-why-not? I essen­tial­ly have a Game­Cube just sit­ting there — it’s actu­al­ly built into the hard­ware of the orig­i­nal Wii.

A cou­ple of days lat­er, my lit­tle care pack­age from the past arrived. Pre­dictably, I still fuck­ing suck.

But I think it’s going to be fun this time.

  1. By the way — just sayin’ — f Pikachu.
  2. The con­sole was cheap enough, the motion con­trols seemed inter­est­ing enough, and the poten­tial for amaz­ing first-party Nin­ten­do games (Mario, Zel­da, etc.) made me take the plunge. I camped out on release night in 2006. Also, I had a job, some mon­ey, etc. And despite the tons of shov­el­ware, there were more than enough good Wii games.
  3. There’s a good chance it’s Dusty Dia­mond’s All-Star Soft­ball. Got­ta stay sharp.

Compromise and Nexus 5: a review

I know a thing or two about com­pro­mise — I bought a Nexus 5 a few months ago. It’s not the phone I want, but it’ll do. For now.

It’s been years since I bought some­thing that was­n’t the lat­est and great­est Nexus mod­el, but this time I think it was the right call. Like oth­er Android fans, I await­ed the announce­ment of the Nexus 6 with every bit as much excite­ment as the entire world does when it’s new-iPhone-time. (Yes, this is a thing peo­ple actu­al­ly do for Nexus devices.)

I found myself utter­ly under­whelmed by Nexus 6. Price, size, bor­ing, etc. But I knew I need­ed a new phone, so I imme­di­ate­ly ordered the fan-favorite Nexus 5.

It’s fast. My Galaxy Nexus — a phone from 2011 — did­n’t seem that slow, even towards the end, but I’m blown away at how flu­id­ly this thing runs just about every­thing. (That’s prob­a­bly the extra RAM talk­ing.) Anoth­er RAM-based plus is that it’s awe­some to switch between apps — and even brows­er tabs — with­out my see­ing per­sis­tent back­ground process­es dying and restart­ing. I could have avoid­ed this frus­tra­tion by sim­ply doing less with my device, but why would I?

Hav­ing 32 GB of stor­age should­n’t be such a big deal in 2015, but after deal­ing with two phones that maxed out at 16-ridiculous-gigabytes, it feels amaz­ing to not have to think about space, at least for now. Of course it’s still only 32 GB, so I’m not sig­nif­i­cant­ly chang­ing the way I use the device to make use of the extra space.

Ick: I find it a lit­tle hard to believe that I own a phone with a not-user-swappable bat­tery.1 After all, I thought that I object to these on prin­ci­ple. In the end, sigh, the Nexus plus­es won out over the oth­er devices I con­sid­ered. But I feel as if the device comes with a built-in expi­ra­tion date.

Speak­ing of pow­er, I did­n’t expect to pick up a wire­less Qi charg­er for this phone, but I did. (Um, two, actu­al­ly — cheap ones.) I love it. Wire­less charg­ing is not only the future of mobile devices, but for those on the Android side of the prover­bial aisle, it’s the present.

Well, no shit there’s no phys­i­cal key­board. I imme­di­ate­ly missed hav­ing one when I got my first candybar-style device in 2010. You’re get­ting on well with tap­ping, swip­ing, voice, auto­cor­rect, what­ev­er? That’s won­der­ful and I’m so hap­py for you. I miss hav­ing a real key­board no less today than I did four years ago.

Months after its gen­er­al avail­abil­i­ty, I’m still con­tin­u­ing to hold off on apply­ing the Nexus 5 Lol­lipop upgrade. The same UI flash that got Apple-enamored design blog­gers sali­vat­ing actu­al­ly sad­dens me. Exact­ly why is prob­a­bly worth a ded­i­cat­ed post, but after months of using Lol­lipop on sec­ondary devices, I still can’t see myself putting it on my pri­ma­ry phone (read: the only device that mat­ters to me).

Nexus 5 feels like more of a stop­gap than any­thing else… at least it was pret­ty inex­pen­sive. It’s clear that the world isn’t turn­ing back to the good stuff from the past (top want: badass Sidekick-style slid­er) but there is hope for the future — Nexus 5 just needs to last me until Project Ara is a thing I can actu­al­ly use.

Some­one will make an Ara key­board mod­ule. I can feel it in my hands now.

  1. I know. There are dis­as­sem­bly guides that show you how to crack open the phone and replace the bat­tery. But that is not the same as hav­ing a tru­ly remov­able bat­tery. For one thing, I can’t just casu­al­ly car­ry a sec­ond bat­tery to pop in for an instant top-up. And also, I imag­ine this com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor lim­its the mar­ket demand for replace­ment bat­ter­ies, which I fear will lim­it the bat­tery sup­ply when, down the road, the day comes that I final­ly need a replace­ment. Sealed phones are a shit­ty, dis­re­spect­ful design deci­sion by which this dude can­not abide.

Slick, sleek & slimy

I have fond mem­o­ries, though my cho­les­terol lev­el does not, of eat­ing at D’Best Sand­wich Shop in Boca Raton. It’s been a few years, but as I  recent­ly munched on a Mia­mi Cuban-style cheeses­teak1 my mind start­ed wan­der­ing and I got to won­der­ing if D’Best still exist­ed. As I went look­ing for their web­site, I recalled a few of their region­al twists on the cheeses­teak, like the New York style, a New Jer­sey style… not to men­tion their incred­i­ble non-steak explo­sion of an entire Thanks­giv­ing meal direct­ly onto a bun (D’Pil­grim).

D’Best still exists, alright… but I was tru­ly unpre­pared for what I found.

You see, back when I’d vis­it, D’Best-the-subshop was a place you’d leave coat­ed with a thin lay­er of grill grease. Had to wait in line? You’re wash­ing your hair tonight. The place was by no means messy, but it had a cer­tain unfin­ished qual­i­ty to it… def­i­nite­ly the kind of place where the food mat­ters more than the brand­ing. I’d describe it as feel­ing some­how hon­est… com­plete­ly lack­ing in pre­tense. Kind of blue col­lar? Yeah, I guess.

You can prob­a­bly tell why I was expect­ing the web­site to be endear­ing­ly ter­ri­ble. I was ready for a lit­tle Com­ic Sans, an “under con­struc­tion” GIF, and a scanned paper menu — as a multi-megabyte bitmap, of course. That would seem nor­mal. Kind of quaint.

D’Best-the-website, how­ev­er, looks very pro­fes­sion­al. It’s fast, designed to mod­ern stan­dards, has eye-pleasing amounts of white­space — oh, for fuck­’s sake, it’s respon­sive — and is even served over HTTPS. Oh, and did I men­tion that it’s com­plete­ly lack­ing in char­ac­ter? It feels like it should belong to… I don’t know, L’Best Artisi­nal Pani­ni Bistro.2

And it very well could.

But what real­ly raised an eye­brow was this line:

We have an unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to fla­vor. Con­nect with us and let us know how we are doing.

And also, this one:

We nev­er stop short of a culi­nary expe­ri­ence you’re sure to enjoy.

D’Best’s fla­vor may not waver, but you’d nev­er hear that out of their mouths. Their sand­wich­es may be deli­cious, but a “culi­nary expe­ri­ence” they are not. This is a place where the meat gets grilled by guys in foot­ball jer­seys, back­wards base­ball caps and maybe a tat­too or two.

Some­thing was rot­ten in the state of Boca, so I plugged the above phras­es into a search engine. And then I did one of these. It turns out there are at least 80,000 restau­rants whose web­sites promise the same “unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to fla­vor,” and look more-or-less exact­ly the same as D’Best’s.

All of these, includ­ing D’Best and Hick­o­ry Hut St. Paul, say the’re “Pow­ered by Eat­Street,” a website-in-a-box ser­vice for restau­rants. Eat­Street seems to host these sites, and pro­vides them with a gener­ic design tem­plate as well. All of these dif­fer­ent restau­rants, from all over the coun­try, basi­cal­ly end up with the exact same web­site, with the exact same mes­sag­ing, except for a few small tweaks.

This feels a lit­tle slimy on the sur­face, but is there any­thing wrong with it? After all, restau­rants’ web­sites are of tru­ly hyper­local inter­est. I mean, nobody in DeKalb, Illi­nois is look­ing for D’Best. They’re more inter­est­ed in The Hud­dle Amer­i­can Food… which has the exact same web­site as D’Best. Sigh.

In the inter­est of being hon­est with myself, I tried to explore just which part of me was so offend­ed by this. Was I offend­ed as a food per­son? As a past D’Best devo­tee? Or as a copy­writer who can’t help but see this as a busi­ness get­ting by with­out need­ing the ser­vices of myself or some­one like me?

To reach the answer, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the own­er of D’Best, and I real­ized that, you know, it must have been a whole lot nicer to run not just restau­rants, but most kinds of local busi­ness­es before the Inter­net. Some per­son who real­ly needs to be wor­ry­ing about keep­ing rats out of the kitchen does­n’t want to think about about build­ing and secur­ing a web­site, plus deal­ing with all the Inter­net necessary-evils (Yelp, Google, Face­book, OpenTable, Square, Foursquare, etc.) that sup­pos­ed­ly exist to bring them cus­tomers, but instead use their stature to inter­me­di­ate the cus­tomer rela­tion­ship, and extract a recur­ring fee for doing so for the rest of for­ev­er. (Actu­al­ly, a few of those com­pa­nies would love it if D’Best decid­ed to give up on run­ning a stand­alone website.)

If Eat­Street can keep a sim­ple site up and run­ning smooth­ly, plus keep it more secure than the prover­bial site-by-nephew, is that real­ly such a bad thing? After all, a few decades in, the Inter­net is still not made for nor­mal peo­ple; there’s just too much that can go wrong if one does­n’t have the spe­cial­ized knowl­edge to do tech­ni­cal stuff prop­er­ly. There’s def­i­nite­ly val­ue in sim­pli­fy­ing things for a nor­mal per­son who just want to run their damn busi­ness­es. So even if Eat­Street is yet anoth­er friend­ly inter­me­di­ary, thanks to them one can order a D’Best Philly style online — con­sid­er my mind blown. Could that func­tion­al­i­ty exist with­out some cen­tral­ized ser­vice keep­ing the Inter­net gears run­ning smooth­ly in the back­ground, han­dling the cred­it cards and tak­ing a cut?

For all the upside they deliv­er in func­tion­al­i­ty and secu­ri­ty, how­ev­er, Eat­Sreet sure has their ten­drils into D’Best in an inadvisably-deep man­ner — a quick whois check shows that Eat­Street actu­al­ly owns D’Best’s domain name. Or should I say their new domain name. I found this oth­er domain that still con­tains an old­er D’Best web­site. While this site is still slick­er than it should be — remem­ber, my cheeses­teak place’s site should look a lit­tle like their paper menus, minus the grease stains — this site’s a lot clos­er to what I would expect. There are some typos. It’s got a page where you can meet the team. It has a freakin’ FAQ page where they tell you how to reheat a cheeses­teak (which, by the way, they say you should­n’t do).

This Inter­net archae­o­log­i­cal find is a sign that some­one once cared about and hand-crafted D’Best’s web pres­ence… but at some point said “fuck it, this Eat­Street thing does­n’t make me think.” Thanks to their scale, Eat­Street can cen­tral­ize best prac­tices for all of their cus­tomers, but they can’t cen­tral­ize the déclassé char­ac­ter, the local fla­vor, the unique greasy fin­ger­prints that inevitably end up on the web­site when it’s made by the own­er’s prover­bial teenage nephew.3

While those at the helm of D’Best can do what they think works for them, it just sucks to see a place with so much fla­vor take the path lack­ing in taste. But they have cheeses­teaks to make, and as long as peo­ple keep com­ing through the door to order these greasy won­ders on bread, they don’t have any­thing to wor­ry about.

Ulti­mate­ly, I guess I’m just writ­ing about myself and my pref­er­ences. While you could­n’t stop me from grab­bing a cheeses­teak if I hap­pened to be in the neigh­bor­hood, from where I’m stand­ing I can’t help but see big, lazy cen­tral­iza­tion as the sworn ene­my of good­ness. May I nev­er get too big to have taste.

  1. For the curi­ous: a sin­gle slab of steak topped with swiss cheese, mayo and pota­to sticks — a rather unhealthy twist on the ubiq­ui­tous pan con bis­tec, and also not a cheeses­teak.
  2. A hypo­thet­i­cal restau­rant I’d also total­ly eat at, by the way.
  3. Just kid­ding! Kids these days don’t actu­al­ly know how to use com­put­ers. They’d just set up a Face­book page.

Observing Design Observer’s design

Oh, good­ness. I start­ed writ­ing this post in Jan­u­ary, and have had it basi­cal­ly fin­ished for weeks now. I’ve been putting off actu­al­ly post­ing it for some time, think­ing it needs more work. But now — in fact, just three hours ago — Design Observ­er unveiled a redesign and made me look like some kind of jerk. Now, if that isn’t an object les­son in ship­ping

Design Observ­er looks dated.

The Past

DO’s head­er boasts proud­ly that it’design-observer-2s been oper­at­ing since 2003, and you can tell. Look at it with 2014 eyes and you’ll observe a non-responsive fixed-width lay­out with tiny text. Is that real­ly a blogroll? Where are the ubiq­ui­tous social shar­ing buttons?

It’s like a time cap­sule of early-2000s blog design.

And that’s why it’s so great.

Design Observ­er reminds me of a lot of web­sites from the ’00s, some of the first blog-ish things I ever read. (Like Pix­el­sur­geon! Or Design is Kinky! Or Pix­el­sur­geon!) Maybe I owe the fond­ness to my youth, and its design lim­i­ta­tions to the bad old days of prim­i­tive web browsers. Or maybe it was just Web‑1.9(beta) style. To my eyes, though, the look holds up well.

The Present

The infor­ma­tion den­si­ty on Design Observ­er is amaz­ing and that prob­a­bly has a lot to do with the type­face, which is tiny by today’s stan­dards. I peeked into the HTML because I knew the type­face appealed to me, but I could­n’t quite put my fin­ger on why. IT’S 8 POINT VERDANA, you guys!1 It’s so tiny, yet so crisp and read­able. (Com­pare that to Ari­al, or its bla­tant rip-off Hel­veti­ca.2)

The site was def­i­nite­ly not designed with the cur­rent tablet craze in mind, and as a tablet own­er who does­n’t love tablets, I like that. That said, I shud­der to think of what Design Observ­er must look like at unscaled ‘reti­na’ resolutions.

The Future

Speak­ing of the future, I fear the day I’m going to vis­it Design Observ­er and find a Medi­u­mi­fi­ca­tion has hap­pened — this has to be on their roadmap. It does seems a lit­tle strange for a design site like DO not to be fol­low­ing what are, for bet­ter or worse (Here’s my bal­lot! I vote ‘worse’!) mod­ern design con­ven­tions, which favor clum­sy UI for smudgy fin­gers over — you know — the stuff that helps peo­ple do stuff.3

And once it’s gone, it’s gone. Sad­ly, Design Observer’s robots.txt file tells most search engine crawlers to sim­ply go away. DO specif­i­cal­ly includ­ed a rule ban­ning the Inter­net Archive, which means the page has nev­er been cap­tured by the Way­back Machine, the Inter­net’s somewhat-official time cap­sule… and nev­er will. This makes it tough, if not impos­si­ble, to see what Design Observ­er looked like ten years ago, two years ago and even last week, to see how it changed with the times — or did­n’t — to become what it is today.

And when this frankly won­der­ful design is replaced by some­thing “bet­ter” and “mod­ern,” it will also dis­ap­pear for­ev­er. Hope this helps.

  1. In col­lege, I prob­a­bly spent more time choos­ing a font for AOL Instant Mes­sen­ger than I did study­ing for some class­es, and this size Ver­dana was what I’d always come back to.
  2. I kid… I own the DVD, hon­est! Now please put down those taste­ful Dieter-Rams-designed pitch­forks.
  3. I’m not against design­ing while keep­ing mobile devices in mind, but these designs almost always come with design­ers choos­ing to reduce func­tion­al­i­ty across all devices in the name of con­sis­ten­cy. Hey world, news flash — you can do respon­sive design in a way that does­n’t do away with side­bars, page chrome and just gen­er­al func­tion­al­i­ty until web­sites look like Write­Room. Just make it degrade nice­ly.