Friday, January 11, 2013

Latest MyFord Touch Stupidity

For no reason other than it felt like being a dick, the MyFord Touch system decided it really liked the number 76, so reprogrammed the radio while also (as usual) refusing to connect the phone.

IMG 1443

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Jeff Minter's Despair

I was very sad to read the following Tweet from a childhood hero this morning…

Jeff Minter was one of the first people that really exposed me to the magic of game development. As a fan since I was 10 or 11 years old, it wasn't until I met him at a computer show in London (I don't remember which, the big one in the mid-80s) and subscribed to his newsletter that I realized just how much heart and soul went into creating games. Jeff used to periodically send out his newsletter to fans, and each edition illustrated the roller coaster of emotions behind each creative process. Each issue was beautifully (for the time) printed on an Apple laser printer, and produced using very, very early desktop publishing software. Minter was on the cutting edge with all of his technological tastes, and he juxtaposed this with his love of Pink Floyd, animals, and wit. He was an auteur, and whether you bought into his vision or not, a visionary.

To see him so dejected at this point is sad to see. His creations are an acquired taste to be sure, but its unfortunate that his insistence on remaining so fiercely independent, despite dalliances with VM Labs, Atari, and Microsoft over the years, have ultimately distanced him from a potential audience. There are many of us older gamers that remember his old work fondly, and some of his recent creations have been genuinely interesting, but it seems his particular brand of psychedelic retro craziness is not as fashionable as other flavors of "classic" style game on new mobile platforms.

For what it's worth, I hope the Yak gets his mojo back. In the meantime, check out this look at his more recent work from my brother over at Games are Evil.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

MyFord Touch Woes

A couple of years ago, we decided to scale back a bit on what we were spending money on. We wanted to save up to get some work done on the house, so looked at all the areas where we were spending perhaps a little more money than we needed to on regular expenses. Something we quickly came to the conclusion of was that our monthly car payments and associated costs were more than they needed to be. At the time we were enjoying an Audi and a Mercedes (posh, huh?) which were both pretty expensive rides, and not exactly frugal at the pump. The decision? We'd be idealistic and whimsical and buy domestic. We'd support the shitty economy, and save ourselves some cash along the way.

After some shopping around we decided that we quite liked what Ford had to offer, and traded the A4 and the CLK for a new Focus and an Edge CUV. The former for my commute, the latter for all the kid/dog-related shenanigans that necessitate a far larger car than you ever anticipate. Both came pretty fully loaded, and both boasted Ford's new Microsoft-powered Sync MyFord Touch system for audio, navigation, HVAC and pretty much everything else. The system also has the voice recognition system that Ford decided to ram down our throats through product placement in episodes of Fringe last year, too.

After two years with the cars, my feelings are quite mixed. The cars themselves have been superb. Reliable, solid, comfortable, they perform well enough, and they're much more economical than our previous cars. Mechanically, we have no complaints whatsoever. Electronically, however, they leave one hell of a lot to be desired.

OK, so we're veering way, way, way into "first world problems" territory here, so remember that my complaints about the MyFord Touch nonsense are predominantly recreational. The bottom line though, is that it's deeply, deeply flawed. At least the systems in our two cars are. Perhaps we're particularly unlucky, and have experienced unusual problems? I don't know - but here's a quick list of things that happen regularly.

The voice recognition system is laughable. Ignoring the fact that it periodically decides that it doesn't understand my beautifully enunciated English accent, more frequently it just refuses to work at all. I hit the button, it makes it's little double-bonging noise and then… nothing. It just hangs the system for anything between two and 10 minutes while something happens in the background. At other times it stops understanding things in the middle of an important function. It'll acknowledge that I want to make a phone call, but won't find the entry in the address book. Or it'll stop understanding an address halfway through being told. After about three months I just stopped using the functionality all together because it hardly ever did what I expected it to.

The navigation system very often refuses to function, too. When it's being playful, it'll just fail to get a GPS lock and put the car in weird locations on the map. When it's being obstinate it'll block any attempt to us it, period. Sometimes it will lock out the upper right hand quadrant of the touchscreen that accesses the navigation functions, and just stop doing anything. Often it does things that are just irritating. Most frequently it will claim there isn't a maps SD card inserted when there actually is. Frequently it will forget that it sets the car's clock with GPS and just arbitrarily set it to Eastern Standard Time.

The audio system is wildly hit and miss. When you start the car, it will often select a pre-programmed radio station at random. When you plug an iPhone in to play audio with a cable it usually takes 8 minutes (I timed it) to recognize that something is plugged into the USB port. Often it will ignore what the phone is telling it and force the system back to the first audio file on the phone, ignoring playlists or albums completely and just grabbing whatever is alphabetically first. This is particularly annoying when listening to audiobooks podcasts, because it will lose your place in the book or the show. The key is make a note of the chapter and timestamp before you plug in every time. The problem isn't isolated to my iPhone, either. It had the exact same problem with three different Android devices. It also struggles with Bluetooth - both in terms of establishing a connection at all, and then controlling the device on the rare occasions that it does actually connect. There's no system browse or file selection…you have to do everything on the phone, and just hit play on the car's screen. Nine times out of 10 this doesn't actually achieve anything.

Because the Focus has a keyless system, forcing the car to "reset" when it gets really bent out of shape is quite comical. To do a soft reboot of the system, you have to create the equivalent state of "removing the key" in a standard ignition car. The only way I've managed to do this is to put the car in Park, press "Stop" and then open the frickin' door to force the electronics to shut down. This doesn't always work, because sometimes the system is so snarled up that it will just freeze out on the main system UI and lock up completely. There have been times where I've switched off the car, walked away and locked it, only to come back 10 minutes later and the Touch system is still apparently "on" and the screen active.

Here's how the car was behaving on my commute to work this morning…

Image 1 8 13 at 12 55 PM

A rare occurrence where there's an error in every quadrant of the UI, including the HVAC piece in the bottom right. To get it to sort itself out (somewhat, but not completely,) I had to pull over and do the open door trick. It then took its usual 8 minutes to connect my iPhone, and spent the entire ride from San Rafael to Mountain View still convinced I was on Greenfield Ave and heading North.

I can live with all this, because it doesn't happen all the time, but honestly it's really pretty ridiculous for a modern 21st century computer system to be this busted. Especially one that runs all the systems in something where safety and reliability is essential. 

Electronic features designed to make things "safer" are actually much more distracting when they don't work.

What's more ridiculous is the denial and lack of any kind of technical knowledge seen from Ford's service department. They'll claim there aren't problems when there clearly are, and they'll claim that different models require different versions of the system software because "only that car was experiencing problems." We've seen the exact same computer issues in both the Edge and the Focus, yet according to Ford only the Edge required the update because there are "no known issues with the Focus." Surely, if there's a software update available, it should be installed? It's easy to do…Ford acknowledged that the situation a year ago was so bad that they sent a USB key to every Sync-touting Ford owner in the country. Updating the system was as simple as putting the key in the USB port and pressing a button. Ironically that update process was probably exhibited the most reliable behavior I've ever seen from the thing!

The Sync and MyFord Touch system is the foundation on which Ford eventually wants to build its autonomous car system. I think they have one or two bugs to sort out before that's practical.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! To the handful of you that check in on this blog from time to time, thank you for your patience and tolerance. I'm going to try and update it a lot more in 2013. I say that now with all the usual beginning-of-the-year idealism that I try to maintain for at least the duration of January. Given that my work life has changed so much in the past three months, I think it might actually be a realistic notion. I still love to write, and given that I'm only writing one thing a week "professionally" now (I still have a column for GameSpot, which will be evolving from the previous week-in-review format to something a bit more opinionated) I need somewhere to flex that particular muscle.

So, writing here is a goal for the year. I'm loathe to declare "resolutions" because they're such bullshit, and I rarely stick to them. Now that I'm older and more self-aware than I was in my 30s, I'm under no delusions that my willpower is mostly shit, I'm impatient, and am easily distracted. That said, there are some things I want to make sure I don't fuck up.

For starters: keep the damn weight off. I've spent so much of the past few years bitching and complaining about my weight issues that it must have bored you all to tears. I finally seem to have got the situation mostly under control, so I'm not going to mess it up now. Lots of exercise, healthy eating, and enjoyment of the associated health benefits is the order of the day. Right now I'm 190lbs, and I don't intend to let it get any higher beyond the usual day-to-day fluctuations. [Related to this, a few of you have asked what I did to drop the 30lbs…I'll post something with more detail separately.]

Keep going to the gym: I've been going for 12 weeks straight, and don't want to let up. I'm going to be adjusting my work schedule this year so that I'm only commuting 4 days out of 5 - so I have no excuse not to go Saturday, Sunday plus at least  one work day. Preferably more.

Along with this; keep up the cycling. It's a lot easier now that I'm less of a fat ass - so I need to take advantage of that. I can ride up hills without puffing and wheezing like an asthmatic donkey now, so that's good.

Work/life balance has adjusted dramatically for the better since I left GameSpot, despite the occasionally heinous commute times, but it's something I want to really keep an eye on. Making sure I spend time with friends and family is something I really want to get right. I feel like I've missed out on a lot over the past few years, and I'm sure it's affected my general sense of happiness along the way. Getting friends together for occasional dinner parties or whatever needs to be something I'm actively seeking out more, rather than just blobbing out. As I'm getting older, I'm acutely aware of the importance of staying connected to people outside of work. For too long, I've spent my life getting up, getting in car and driving to work, spending 8-12 hours with coworkers, then getting in a car to go home, spending an hour or two doing essentially nothing, and then going to sleep. Repeat x5 and then feel like crap at weekends. No more!

As my boys are getting older, I want to make sure that my time with them is something they'll always cherish and enjoy. My oldest is going to be 10 this year, and my youngest will be eight. My relationship with them is the most important thing in the world to me, and I don't want to waste a moment.

Get back into some kind of podcasting groove again. I've been talking to Ben Howard, who took over from me as VP of programming at GameSpot in September, and kicking around some ideas with him. Back in the UK he had a podcast called Mondo Movie, which had absolutely nothing to do with his day to day gig. While that was all movie-related, I'm keen to start something that tackles games, pop culture, and whatever else springs to mind. It's a bit nebulous right now, but I want to get back in the saddle again, and he and I have a good rapport that I think (hope!) will come off pretty well in some kind of show. I dunno…we'll see, but it's something I want to do.

Similarly, I want to try and do something either audio or video related for the new work project. That'll probably come later in the year, honestly.

Playing the guitar with others on New Year's Eve reminded me how much I enjoy playing, and how it was such a big part of my life 15-20 years ago. It's something I need to find the time to do a lot more. When I was 20, it was such a big part of my dreams for the future, and I really let it slide. Fortunately I can still remember what my fingers are supposed to do when they touch the frets, so I want to hone that skill again.