Rearrange Us: Finding What I Lost With Apple Music

One of the ways that I like to remind myself that I'm living in the future is to think about what technology lets me do today that would have completely blown my mind in high school or college. I've always been really into discovering music, and when I was on a high school budget, this basically meant listening to the weird indie rock radio station that played Counting Crows six months before anyone else, instead of listening to the same 20 songs over and over again on Z100. The idea of being able to just decide that I want to listen to a particular album, especially if I didn't already own it, would have been mind blowing to me at the time. As it was, there was a local record store chain called Compact Disc World that would let you both listen to any CD they had in stock before you bought it, and return it if you didn't like it, which was unheard of in the late 90s. I ended up buying a lot of albums from them with my supermarket cashier income, and I only returned one or two over the years they existed, for fear that they would put me on a list if I were to try to take advantage of their way too generous return policy. (There were stories, you see.)

So it's no exaggeration when I say that, when I got my first iPod in 2005, it was like the skies opened and the sun started shining down. All of a sudden I had access to all of these albums I'd collected in one place. What's more, I had more than a few albums that I had bought for That One Song, and now I could listen to that song without having to find the CD and seek to that track. Why, I might never have to listen to the radio again! iTunes in particular appealed to the cross-section of my tendencies as a music nerd and a data person. What I realized, after poking around with Smart Playlists for a couple of days, was that iTunes was basically just a database that held my music, and I could query it to tune it exactly the way that I wanted. This ended up being one of my first "big data" projects; the 15,000 tracks I ultimately had in my library might not be big data in the truest sense, the data was big to me, especially at the time.

It took me several iterations, but eventually I ended up with an extremely elaborate system of smart playlists that worked off of metadata like last played date, date added, genre, and even hand keyed tags that I entered into the comments field of the tracks. I underwent a several month project where I rated every single song in my library on a five star scale to facilitate those smart playlists. (There was one dark day where I started researching hacks to enable half star ratings, but cooler heads ultimately prevailed.) I had all of my and my wife's music in the same library, but we never had to listen to each other's music if we didn't want to. I even had a smart playlist to let me re-rank anything that I hadn't listened to in a while, to make sure that I still liked them as much as I had originally. (If this sounds borderline obsessive, by the way, you're not wrong; this is both the positive and the negative of hyperfocus.)

 Ah, memories.

Ah, memories.

The only problem I eventually ran into with this system was storage space on my devices, especially once it stopped being reasonable to carry an iPod alongside my phone. My music library, even if I just limited to the smart playlist that had only the cream of the crop, was just too big to fit on an iPhone. Eventually, I caved: I signed up for iTunes Match to alleviate the problem by streaming most of my music instead of storing it locally. That resolved the issue with storage space, but it ultimately created other problems with my system, because iTunes Match was generally unreliable at updating metadata like last played date. For most people, this would be a minor inconvenience at most, but for me, this ended up making my smart playlists less consistent, which, in turn, made them less useful. The smart playlists still worked, but ultimately I ended up using them less and less as time went on.

All this background is to say that I care about my music library. A lot. So it was kind of a big deal that, when Apple Music first came out, I decided that I would stop worrying and learn to love the algorithm. What I'd hoped was that Apple was going to use all of the listening data that they had been collecting from me for nearly a decade (between Genius and iTunes Match) and be able to both surface music that I would want to listen to from my library, as well as find me new artists I might not have found otherwise. That didn't happen. Apple Music asked me if I like to listen to a bunch of artists that I probably have never listened to intentionally in my life, and then I was on my own, and the recommendations were generally irrelevant to me. For You improved somewhat with iOS 10, but though the first few days seemed like an improvement, it eventually began to cycle through the same set of album recommendations, no matter how much I tried to use the love and dislike buttons to correct it. Though their playlists are generally well curated, I found that there were only a handful that ever really appealed to me, and they didn't seem to get updated over time. Even the nature of the recommendations could seem suspect at times; while I'm sure Chance the Rapper is a wonderful artist, it doesn't make sense to me why I would want to listen to him since I'd been listening to The Shins.

Even though I knew that For You wasn't doing a great job, it worked well enough that I'd learned to live with it. It wasn't until MacStories wrote a review of a new app called Picky, an alternative Apple Music browser, that I'd started thinking about this again. What Picky does is very simple: It provides you all of your albums, artists, songs, etc. in a long scrolling list; what makes it different is that you can filter that list by how many songs are in each list item. I'd basically given up on using Apple Music's browse function to find something to listen to, since, unlike my smart playlists, it had every artist who appeared in my library even once, regardless of whether they were one of my all time faves or happened to be the last song on a random sampler CD I'd gotten years ago. Using Picky, on the other hand, immediately led me to find Mates of State again; Rearrange Us is one of my favorite albums, and I realized that I hadn't listened to it in at least a year, simply because I just couldn't find it in my Apple Music library by browsing, and For You's algorithm never surfaced it to recommend it. This led to a negative feedback loop; since I hadn't listened to Mates of State, Apple Music didn't know that I wanted to listen to them, so it didn't suggest them, so I didn't listen to them. All of a sudden, Mates of State was gone from my listening rotation. Presumably, had Apple Music pulled in my listening history from before the service launched, this might not have happened, though without knowing how the algorithm finds its suggestions, this could have happened anyway, or with a different artist.

Screenshot 2017-02-19 19.37.38.jpeg

That's ultimately what ended up concerning me after I had this realization. This isn't going to make me switch to Spotify or cancel my Apple Music subscription, to be clear. There are reasons beyond just music discovery that keep me with Apple Music as my primary streaming service; the convenience of being able to use the built-in music player outweighs whatever bad music discovery bugs there are, and I'd much rather pay a flat monthly fee than go back to agonizing over every album I might want to add to my library. What this does, however, is underscore how careful we need to be about letting AI into every aspect of our day to day lives. This is a case where I knew that the For You algorithm wasn't great, I trusted it anyway, and I ended up completely forgetting about an artist who I really enjoy listening to, simply because it wasn't offered to me. This episode isn't affecting my life materially, but it's very easy to look at recommendations in all sorts of areas of our lives (news, perhaps?) and wonder what we should be seeing that's not being presented. This isn't even to suggest that there's an ulterior motive here. I'm pretty sure Tim Cook isn't trying to keep me from listening to Mates of State, but it's just easy to lose track of things if we're relying on smart assistants and algorithms to offer them to us.

There's a happy ending to this story, though. I haven't listened to Mates of State in so long that they released a new album that I've never gotten to listen to, so it's new to me. Maybe if I binge listen to their back catalog enough, Apple Music will get the hint. Here's hoping.

Adventures in Flatland: PSVR and Me

It feels like the last three months or so has been nothing but news about virtual reality finally becoming actual reality. First the Oculus Rift finally shipped (if you launch a piece of hardware but don't actually fulfill any orders, does it make a sound?), then the HTC Vive released, followed by Sony's E3 keynote which made it clear they're all in on VR as well. I've been admittedly down on VR for a long time, personally. Part of it is limited experience - I tried an Oculus dev kit at Boston FIG back in September, but it didn't really do anything for me. In fairness, the software I was trying wasn't particularly exciting, and the headset kept nudging my glasses enough to break the immersion. Even beyond that, though, it feels like VR is a promise that's been made for as long as I've been aware of technology.

I remember first looking at colleges in Boston in the mid-90s and coming across an internet cafe called CyberSmith that had Dactyl Nightmare set up in the foyer. I didn't try it then, but I desperately wanted to. Obviously, that wasn't to the level of what we have today, but it's been two decades since I was first confronted with the possibility of strapping goggles onto my face and entering another world, and the closest that I've gotten until now is the 3DS.

 This was cutting edge VR technology in 1995.

This was cutting edge VR technology in 1995.

So after hearing all the hype and the stories of wonder and magic, it was announced that Sony would be conducting demos of Playstation VR at Best Buy and Gamestop following E3. I decided it was time to give VR a fair test on hardware that was intended to be released to the public. So I got in the car and drove to a Best Buy(!) in Worcester(!!) to finally experience the future for myself.

I'll say, in terms of product demonstrations conducted at Best Buy, this was one of the better ones I've experienced. I've been to Nintendo's collaborations with Best Buy to demo Super Smash Bros and Super Mario Maker, and those ranged from slow to utter fiasco, with long lines snaking around the store, a single hardware station that needed to be rebooted, and longer than necessary demo periods. This demo had a reasonable line that moved fairly consistently, with a Sony employee who knew the technology well, the demos were ready to go ahead of the start time, and he made sure to wipe down all the equipment in between each demonstration.

The excitement to try the unit was palpable from the few people in line ahead of me. The two people immediately in front of me had driven from Albany to Worcester just to try PSVR, and filmed each other on their phones as they played. From chatting with them in line, I learned that they had apparently made similar treks for Oculus and Vive demos. I was honestly starting to believe the longer I waited in line, watching the 2D representation of what the demo participants were playing on the TV in front of them.

There were a handful of game demos on hand, including Battlezone (a tank sim), SuperHyperCube (a puzzle game), and soccer and ocean diving simulations, but the only game anyone chose to play (myself included) was Eve: Valkyrie, which is a space combat game in the vein of the classic X-Wing games. As I waited in line, I saw the cadence of the demo repeatedly: The headset was put on and calibrated, the participant looked around the cockpit, then launched into space and chased enemy starships for about three minutes until the glass of the cockpit cracked and the screen faded to black, indicating that the demo period had ended. Everyone who tried it seemed to be impressed afterward; my new two friends in line in particular were especially blown away. Finally, it was my turn. I put on the headset, had it adjusted for blurriness, and, well...

I wasn't really impressed.

The game did everything as advertised. It definitely presented me the world that I was seeing on the television in front of me, and I was able to look around at any angle freely, and there was depth there. The problem was, I couldn't get past the fact that I could still see the pixels. Like, really see the pixels. Some of the text on the HUD was hard to read at times. And I couldn't really shake the feeling that what I was seeing wasn't as much real as it was projected on a dome in front of me. As the game ramped up in intensity, I started to feel my stomach lurching a bit. It wasn't bad enough that I wanted out; it wasn't even really as bad as a tame rollercoaster like Big Thunder Mountain Railroadat Disney World. The feeling was noticeable and uncomfortable, though, and it was one more thing to take me out of the suspension of disbelief.

 Not quite my reaction.

Not quite my reaction.

Really, what struck me when the demo ended was that it felt like that five minutes was enough for me; I didn't want to go back for more. It felt, at least to me, like PSVR wasn't quite there yet to create that illusion of reality that's enough to get you to suspend disbelief and immerse yourself in another world. It's entirely possible this has something to do with me and my ability to perceive VR, though; my experience didn't seem to be the norm (unless the people in front of me were being exceptionally polite) and I've heard from others since that they were really impressed by the technology. In fact, my experience seems so out of line with what others have reported that I've even questioned if I did the demo "the right way". I can only trust my own experience, though, and based on that, I'll probably be saving my $400 come October.

I think what it comes down to is that VR ultimately asks a lot more than any other gaming technology (or technology in general) of the people investing in it. It asks a considerable amount of money, sure; you're looking at minimum $400 for the headset plus whatever PC or PS4 hardware and peripherals that you may not already own just to be able to power it up. More than that, though, it asks you to cut yourself off from the outside world to experience it. You can't share these experiences with other people in the room in real time, nor can you experience VR passively or while multitasking; it demands your full attention to the exclusion of literally everything and everyone else, and that can be difficult to find time to provide. Putting that headset on effectively says to everyone else in the household, "I'm cutting myself off from everything else in the world, you included." I'm already well aware of how much we do that with screens that we hold in our hands that I'm not sure if I'm ready to take that to the level of introducing a sensory deprivation helmet into the family, especially when cost and technical limitations limit one to a single headset.

The biggest thing VR asks for, though is a considerable amount of faith that the content is going to continue to come. I still remember both the Wii and Kinect launches and how blown away we all were by the games that were available at launch and the different experiences they enabled; I also remember how quickly those streams of content dried up in the year or two following those launches. Assuming VR catches on like the common wisdom says it will, investing in VR as a whole may not be a gamble, but investing in any individual VR rig could very well be. The current landscape looks like VHS/Betamax or Blu-Ray/HD-DVD all over again, only with three major players instead of two, and that's an incredibly costly investment in a platform that could very well lose out in the marketplace as technology converges.

So ultimately I'm not ready to make that leap yet. Based on my experience with PSVR, I'm not convinced that virtual reality is at the point where I'm ready to jump in head first. Maybe trying the Vive will convince me. Maybe the technology just needs to come down in price some more. Maybe my eyes or my brain just don't work the way they need to for VR to ever work for me, and I'm just going to be stuck playing flat games for the rest of my life. It's hard to say right now. All I know is that I've seen what Hearthstone looks like in VR, and I'm OK with playing it on a flat screen for a while longer if that's what's meant to be.

Blue Skylanders Are a Missed Opportunity To Gain Understanding of Autism

When Activision announced their color-swapped toys for Autism Awareness Month, they got a lot of instant praise. Over at Pixelkin, I had a slightly different reaction from my vantage point as a parent of autistic kids.

But there’s also a risk that treating autism in this way is similar to how every consumer product gets a pink version for breast cancer awareness month. It could send the message that autistic people are sick or disabled. And that awareness will somehow lead to a cure.

If you're interested on hearing more on this topic, we also discussed it at some length on Isometric #97.

Teaching Math With Hearthstone

Hearthstone's become a family activity in my house over the last couple of months. I wrote for Pixelkin about the benefits of justifying my addiction, er, sharing my hobby with my daughter.

My oldest daughter is in third grade, and she does Kumon worksheets for math enrichment every day. It’s clearly helping, because she’s doing two- and three-digit multiplication, but it can be a battle at times. We try to explain how important math will be to her, but the age-old challenge is showing how a list of equations will translate into a useful life skill. We tried a number of edutainment games, but nothing seemed to stick, until one day the answer came from an unlikely source: Hearthstone.

Free to Play: Transitioning From Hearthstone Player to Competitor

A couple of months ago, before The Grand Tournament (TGT) expansion was released, I wrote about how much more difficult (or not) the expansion was about to make Hearthstone for me as a strictly free-to-play player. At the time, I presumed I'd wait for the metagame to shake out by playing primarily Arena, and then figure out which cards and decks were good and go from there. That turned out to be true, but only partially.

What really ended up happening between when I wrote that post and when the expansion came out is that my wife, Maureen, picked up the game as well. What that meant is that Arena became something that we did together. I would only start an Arena run if she was around to help me draft a deck and vice versa. This made Arena a lot more fun; not only did we get to spend time together doing something we both enjoy, but the decks I drafted with Maureen were almost always better than the ones I drafted on my own, because evaluating cards for Arena turned out to be something she's really good at. The side effect of this is that I haven't been playing Arena as much as I thought I would; two weeks after the expansion released I still had 1500 gold in my account that I'd earmarked for Arena keys, because it's not always a good time for both of us to start an Arena run. Arena runs also became more involved affairs; as I got better at Arena I found it was something I wanted to spend an evening giving my full attention to, in order to maximize my rewards at the end.

As a result, I spent a lot of that time I thought I was going to be playing Arena playing Ranked instead, with my pre-TGT Face Hunter deck. A funny thing happened: As the meta was still shaking out, a lot of players at my rank started playing experimental decks, while I'd been playing the same tried and true deck for weeks. So while they were still tweaking their decks, I knew my Face Hunter in and out, and I capitalized on that. I ended up climbing up the ranks quickly, much higher than I thought was possible as a free to play player. Before August, rank 16 was the highest I'd been able to reach. In August, I reached rank 12. I was overjoyed; being in the top 10% of Ranked players for August was way beyond where I thought my limits were.

That achievement came with something of a price, though. Before August, I was invested in Hearthstone but I still played it casually; I'd try out random decks in Ranked, and if I lost, I lost. Once I knew I was capable of being objectively good at Hearthstone, I started to approach it more seriously, and that ended up becoming a significant source of frustration when the meta finally shifted in early September and my win rate with the Face Hunter dropped precipitously. I kept losing no matter what I tried, so I started trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.

 Milestones like this are easy to forget in the middle of a losing streak.

Milestones like this are easy to forget in the middle of a losing streak.

One thing that happens when you're building decks as a free to play player, especially if you're looking at posted deck lists on the Internet (called "netdecking" in Hearthstone parlance), is that often you need to improvise. Even the "budget" decks that some pros post can often have a handful of rare, epic and legendary cards that you just won't have access to, so the next best thing is to build the deck as best you can and then substitute for those cards. It's easy to focus on what's missing, though; in the middle of a losing streak it's easy to say "if only I had Armorsmiths I could have won that match". I had a growing list of decks I either couldn't build at all or that I couldn't build effectively because I was missing one rare or one epic card.

Finally, I started doing something about it. I became convinced that if only I had Mad Scientists in my Face Hunter deck that would get me over the hump. I'd been playing without them, and every Hunter deck list I found included them, so I'd decided they were critical. The problem with Mad Scientists, though, is that you can't just get them randomly in a pack or craft them from dust that you get from disenchanting duplicate cards; you can only get them from playing the fourth wing of the Curse of Naxxramus single player adventure. I had, at that point, only completed the first two wings of Naxxramus. Subsequent wings cost 700 gold apiece (daily quests earn on average 50 gold apiece, so one wing represented roughly two weeks' worth of daily quests), and have to be completed in order. So I spent 1400 gold (almost all of what I'd stockpiled ahead of the TGT release, with just enough left over for a couple of Arena runs), got my Mad Scientists, and slotted them into my Face Hunter deck immediately.

You can probably guess what happened next.

The new cards, the ones I was sure would fix the deck and get me out of my slump, made no difference at all. If anything, I started getting more upset that I was losing despite the Mad Scientists being in the deck, and that caused me to play worse. I fell to rank 20 (the lowest the game will let you fall to by losing matches) and stayed there for another week or so. I decided, correctly, that maybe Face Hunter just wasn't viable in the current environment, so I tried to make a couple of other decks work. I went back to my Ramp Druid deck that had been occasionally successful, but that didn't do any better. I tried to build a Mech Mage deck that the metagame reports said was effective at the time, but success with that was just as short lived.

I realized my relationship with Hearthstone was at a crossroads. I could decide to continue to play without spending any money, which would leave me perennially a couple of steps behind people who have either been playing since the beginning or have sunk significant money into the game to catch up. Alternatively, I could sink, say, $60 into packs (the cost of a AAA game, so not an unreasonable amount of money given how much play time I've gotten out of Hearthstone) and try to get my collection to the point where I could start being legitimately competitive.

 My white whale.

My white whale.

This is probably the point of the story where you expect me to say that I broke down and dumped a bunch of money into the game, but that's actually not what happened. I did get frustrated and just outright bought a few Goblins Vs Gnomes packs on the off chance I would open a Dr. Boom card. Dr. Boom is a Legendary card, and one of the five best in the game right now; nearly every deck that's not super aggressive includes a copy in its deck list. I generally got nothing useful from those packs, though; at best, I got a bunch of duplicate commons I could trade for dust and maybe a rare I wasn't likely to use. I'd felt like I'd flushed the gold down the toilet; I could have used that for Arena runs, and maybe I'd have gotten the same cards, but I'd have had the opportunity to earn more rewards on top of it.

This exercise was as instructive as it was frustrating, though. I realized that just sinking money into packs wasn't going to fix my problems; if I'd spent $50 on packs and not gotten the cards I wanted, I'd feel even more down than when I started, and I'd be no better off, ultimately. Even if I did get the cards I needed, they would come with an additional cost: Expectation. You see, I know I'm better than average at Hearthstone, and that's not bragging; my Ranked finishes have put me within the top 15% of players the last several months. But I don't know where my limits are, and I can still give myself the room to improve at a slower pace by attaching the phrase "and that's without spending any money on the game" to whatever achievements I earn. Dumping a bunch of money into cards would put pressure on myself to justify a return on that investment in terms of what rank I would earn at the end of any given season, and knowing myself, that would either end up with me taking it far too seriously or rage quitting the game.

So I decided I'd just go back to the way I was doing things. I concentrated on Arena, and dusted enough golden, epic, and legendary cards that I knew I wasn't likely to use soon, and I crafted Dr. Boom. I got a couple of cards in those Arena packs to get me close enough to a Warlock Zoo deck that I wanted to build to be able to craft what I was missing, and so I did that; that deck has gotten me as high as Rank 8 (top 5% of players) this season, and I've had a good win rate at ranks 9 and 10 with it. (Disclaimer: I did spend money on the League of Explorers expansion when it came out, but that was a small investment for a guaranteed set of cards, and the single player experience was worth the cost even if all the cards were bad.) Most of all, though, I'm really happy with that performance. Would I like to get to Legend one day? Sure. Will I be happy playing this way even if I never get there? I think so.

 I may have done a little dance when this happened. 

I may have done a little dance when this happened. 

Before The Grand Tournament, I was convinced that success in Ranked wasn't really possible without putting at least some money into cards. At a low rank, knowing the game overcomes the power differential that a big collection gives you, but at a higher rank, the skill is so much more even that the small edge rarer cards give you makes that much of a difference. I still believe that, but I'm more convinced now that it's possible to focus your skill and collection based on your resources and still have success with the game. It's a more frustrating road, to be sure, but every win I get against someone with a Legend card back is that much sweeter knowing that I got there the hard way. That's a feeling no amount of money can buy.