You Just Go Out the Door

I’m on the “guesser” side of the cultural divide, I hate saying “no,” and it’s really hard for me to give people difficult feedback. I think most people who know me know all that.

Here’s something I remind myself of when I’m gifted with an opportunity to see that I’m heading for that territory:

I spent two years on jump status at Ft. Bragg. I wasn’t a super active jumper. I did the ones they told me to do to stay on active jump status and I went to a few weekend “fun jumps” early on. It got harder and harder to jump the closer I got to getting out; maybe because the stories of people being crippled or killed on a jump stack up the longer you’re listening for them, maybe because thinking about going home meant I also had to think about my future a little more. Either way, whatever for, it started getting scary.

So, there was this one sergeant — one of the jump masters — who didn’t think much of me. He’d let me know about it every once in a while. One afternoon he decided to make a thing about jumping:

“You’re such a fucking pussy. I saw you on that last jump, all tight-faced and afraid. Didn’t want to jump, did you?”

“No, sergeant.”

He laughed and hooted. “Called it! Called it! He even admits it. Fuckin’ scared.”

“But I jumped, sergeant. I’m scared every time, but I always jump.”

“Yeah. I guess you do.”

Mechanical Rabbit

i.

I always liked the idea of running. One day I was in the library and saw a book called The Zen of Running, so I gave it a try.

It had some sort of woo stuff I can’t remember, and it had some advice that was just generally good (remember to breathe, unclench your hands and hold them like you’re carrying a bag of potato chips you don’t want to crush).

So I started running.

There wasn’t such a thing as Couch25K at the time, so I just aimed to go 15 minutes without stopping. That would take me to a hill on a country road behind my house that I couldn’t quite crest at the 7.5 minute mark when I started (no time, no wind). Then I was able to crest it and then I was able to keep going.

I had terrible shin splints because I didn’t know about stretching. Stretching is either implicit to Zen or unknown to it, because my library book didn’t mention it. Some mornings they were so bad that I’d get down the stairs by bracing on the wall and the hand-rail and lowering myself. They got better over time.

We moved into town, just a few blocks away from a park with a jogging trail. After a while, I got as interested in how far I was going as I was how long I was going, and I learned that I’d settled into 5K routine without aiming for 5K.

I did that for a while, almost every afternoon after work. I’d go home, put on my evening rice, change, go running, come home, eat.

A runner friend told me I’d burn out doing it that way, so I alternated running with trips to the gym with her. She taught me how to stretch.

ii.

One day, as I was finishing up the last lap of my run, I wondered to myself if I could run 10K, same as my friend. So I just kept running. It was fine. 10K felt the same as 5K.

iii.

I enlisted some time in the fall of that same year. The recruiter was sort of an asshole about my philosophy major.

“We’re gonna take you out on a run. Pushups don’t tell me how strong you are in the head!”

“Oh, I don’t know, Sergeant Ritchie. Don’t you run a lot? I’m not sure if I can keep up.”

“I’ll take it easy on you.”

So I went home and got my running clothes on and came back as he was closing the office for the day.

“How far are we going, Sergeant Ritchie?”

“You have to go two miles for the PT test, so let’s go a little past that. That o.k.?”

“I’ll try.”

It seemed to me that two miles was about a third of that 10K I’d run, so it seemed I could probably go pretty fast up front and make my point.

I made him quit about 1.5 miles in. I nodded sympathetically as he made excuses for himself, then we walked back to his office.

iv.

I was really awful at pushups and situps in basic training.

One morning the drill sergeants were making us do this thing where you have to hold the raised pushup position for a really long time, until you’re shaking and sweating. I sort of toppled over and one of the drill sergeants got down on his belly and put his face next to mine and screamed “you’re so fucking weak in the head!”

I took the advice, obliquely offered as it was.

There was a morning where I wanted to sort of topple over and I decided instead to take a quick inventory. The main thing I realized, having checked myself over inside and out, was that it was just my shoulders that were hurting. They were hurting enough to make me shake and sweat and want to quit, but everything else was pretty much “systems go!” and my shoulders, on further interrogation, allowed as how they didn’t have to quit, they just wanted to pretty badly. So I stayed up and made it to the point where enough other people had sort of toppled over that we were all allowed to quit.

v.

I got a lot better at pushups over time. Good enough that I was usually pretty close to maxing out the pushup score on my PT tests. I remained terrible at situps. When I came up for a PT test in Korea, I was so nervous about situps that I tried to work on them extra hard and ended up pulling my back.

When the PT test came, I maxed out the pushups but couldn’t make it happen on the situps. My back hurt too much, and I fell short of passing by three or four.

I was so mad at myself for failing, and so embarrassed, that when it came time for the 2-mile run, I gave it everything. I was in front of everybody else in the unit in the last 200 meters or so, and it wasn’t enough to make me feel like I’d made any sort of point, so I sprinted. I heard someone yell, “holy shit, Hall!” as I crossed the line, and then I just veered off into the grass and threw up.

You couldn’t fail any part of the PT test and pass, even if you maxed the other two parts, so I failed, heroic vomiting and all.

vi.

At Ft. Bragg, I loved the long unit runs. I especially loved the ones where we could peel off and run circles around the unit as it made its way down the street.

I loved the 4-mile run they make paratroopers do and usually finished among the first 10 in the unit.

I joined the unit 10-mile race team, but a few weeks into training for that I had a pretty bad jump and ended up on a month-long no-PT profile that lasted until a week before the annual Ft. Bragg 10-miler.

I went ahead and did a few shakedown runs and then ran the race, and that was a pretty bad idea. I felt flat for most of the back half, and it affected my running for weeks after.

vii.

If we want to sum up the army running experience, I guess it’s like this:

I tried to never stop and never slow down, and if I ever felt like I had anything left toward the end of a run, I sprinted it out.

I tried to stay pretty amiable toward the people around me, but if someone talked shit to me or gave me a hard time, I found them during a run and I’d do my best to run them down.

I’d run past them and murmur, “weak.”

If it looked like they were going to fall out, I’d stay alongside them: “Don’t be weak.”

One guy passed out with me doing that to him right after one of our unit combat lifesavers had learned how to rehydrate heat stroke victims through their rectums, so I quit doing that kind of thing.

Since all that, I’ve come and gone from riding and biking, and I’ve had a hard time getting rid of that moment in Korea where I felt like I had to run all that shame and embarrassment out. GPS and stopwatches aren’t good things for me.

viii.

When I started to work at Puppet I tried to establish a biking routine, but I wasn’t very comfortable on my bike. I realized at points that I was just trying to push too hard: Too many people on the trail around me were sort of breezing by on their road bikes while I struggled along on my clunky hybrid.

I didn’t really stop to think about what it was that was bothering me about the whole thing. Looking back, I understand that what I wanted was a quiet, easy ride into work, but I couldn’t allow myself to have it. I kept pushing to go faster and got frustrated with myself when I couldn’t.

Last month, I bought a new bike that’s better built for commuting (drop bars, light frame) and started timing my rides. It was pretty easy to shave eight minutes off my 12-mile commute, and I found that it was also pretty easy to ride at a speed closer to the average commute pace for most of the bicyclists around me on the Springwater.

I started using Strava to record my rides because I liked the way it would break a trip down into legs and let me see how fast I was going relative to everyone else who uses Strava and travels across the same legs.

I had several weeks of continuing to not think about what it was I wanted from my ride, so I kept pushing harder and harder and experimenting with gears and all that stuff, then coming home sore and tired and not feeling super relaxed.

I don’t know what finally caused me to think it through, but I did. I couldn’t square the sweaty, panting guy rolling in at night with the guy I saw in my head when I thought about bike commuting and it finally occurred to me that maybe I could resolve that conflict.

So I just got on my bike one morning and settled it into a nice middle gear that allowed me to pedal along and easily imagine having a conversation with myself without panting. It was hard to maintain that pace. I got passed a lot. By the time I got to work, though, I felt a lot more composed.

I’ve been trying to do that ever since. My rides take six or seven minutes longer over 12 miles, but I feel much better at the end.

Better yet, I’ve been trying to get myself into decent enough shape to sustain a daily bike commute instead of just three days a week. I’d like to be comfortable doing daily commutes in time for September’s Bike Commute Challenge. Backing off the speed and effort makes that seem a lot more likely: Last week I rode in four times instead of my usual three. This week, I’ll try to bike in all five days.

I’m still recording my rides because I’m keeping track of calories and exercise, but I switched to Runkeeper Pro (which is far less social than Strava). If I were to add a speedometer to my bike now, I like to think it would be to make sure I’m going slow enough, not fast enough.

Three Activity Trackers, Quantified Self

Activity trackers really work for me, less for counting steps than all the stuff you do around them, like recording food and just generally thinking about activity levels.

Some of this will sound more complicated written out than it is in practice, but the benefits have been pretty clear because I’ve come to understand through observation and recording just how much activity, diet and sleep are key to my sense of wellbeing, how interdependent they are, and how being mindful of my general state where one or the other is concerned can help me make better decisions.

Three Pillars: Sleep, Food, Exercise

For instance, I know that I need about seven hours of sleep a night to feel well rested. Much more than that and I tend to be over-rested, and that triggers a bout of sleeplessness. So I try to keep my sleep steady: 6.5 — 7.5 hours a night is just right.

I learned how much sleep I needed by using a sleep-tracking alarm clock app that included a simple diary I could fill out at night (what did I do that day that might effect my sleep, e.g. caffeine intake, exercise, stress at work, working late, late use of computer/iPad), and in the morning (to record how rested I felt).

When I record my sleep and make it a habit to think about it, it can help me keep from making bad decisions. For instance, if I get only six hours of sleep, I can offset some of the fallout from that (feeling crabby and irritable) by getting some exercise first thing in the morning. Keeping track of sleep keeps me thinking about that dynamic, making it harder to say “oh man, I feel pretty bad … I’ll just skip the ride to work and take the Max in.”

Same thing with food: I know if I’m tired I’ll be more inclined to go after carbs and other cheap, fast energy. Thinking that through first thing in the morning really helps keep me from eating a bunch of stuff that’ll make me unhappier later in the day, when I crash from it.

That helps with mood and interpersonal stuff: Under six hours of sleep, and other people become pretty hard for me. Having that reminder that I’m probably not going to be receiving other people very well makes it easier to deal with things that might seem like provocations otherwise. And getting exercise generally lightens my mood.

In the big picture, it all comes together to help serve a longer term goal, which is losing some weight. When I’m in the habit of paying attention to all this stuff, I behave better, feel better, and I lose weight. When I stop paying attention, I behave worse, feel worse, and I gain weight.

The total amount of time I spend per day paying attention to this stuff comes out to maybe five minutes, tops: about .3 percent of my day. Seems worth it.

I’ve had three activity trackers in the past several years. Here are some notes in case you’re considering buying one for yourself.

Jawbone Up

I bought one of the earliest Jawbone Up’s a few years back. I don’t know what else was on the market at the time besides FitBit, and I think the Up was the first step tracker you could wear on your wrist (vs. clipping into a pocket) or wearing a giant, bulbous device on your arm.

Jawbone got a lot right about the Up: It looked nice, the iPhone app that came with it looked and worked really well, and the device integrated with calorie-counting services like MyFitnessPal or digital scales like the ones from Withings.

The Up could do a few things:

  • It could track steps, and if you tell it that some activity it tracked wasn’t walking but was actually something like jogging or riding a bike, it could adjust the calories it calculated you burned.
  • It could track sleep quality. Tell it you were going to sleep, and it would record periods of motion and let you know how well you were sleeping at night.
  • It could provide gradual alarms in the morning, gently vibrating you awake as you began to naturally stir at the top of your sleep cycle.

The Up was made of a textured rubber with silver highlights, and it looked pretty nice: Closer to a piece of jewelry than a step tracker. The FitBit Flex and Garmin Vivofit look pretty clunky by comparison.

The Up took input via pressing one of the ends of the wristband and it offered feedback via tiny embedded lights and vibrations.

In terms of ease of use, the first Ups were o.k. You had to snap an end off and plug it into your phone’s headphone jack to sync with the app. The caps become loose over time (especially if you’re an anxious twiddler who’s prone to fiddling with things like bracelet bits). Later models involved Bluetooth for sync but still require removal of that cap to charge the device (which lasts about 7 days on a single charge).

With all that stuff going for it, I wish I could still bear the thought of using the Up, but it has (or had, maybe it’s gotten better) one pretty big problem: It breaks a lot.

The issue appears to be endemic to the design. Unlike the Garmin Vivofit or FitBit Flex, which keep their guts in a discrete plastic lozenge with no moving parts, the Up hardware is built into the rubber bracelet. That means if you flex it too hard, you can break the innards.

“But Mike,” you’re thinking, “don’t flex it too hard!”

Sadly, since the Up is a bracelet with a pair of square ends that don’t clasp together, it’s quite easy to flex it too hard just by snagging it on something like a coat sleeve or a bag strap. I broke one tangling it up as I put on a backpack.

So, the first generation of Ups were pretty much a design catastrophe. Lots of people had problems with them breaking or just dying. Jawbone launched a trade-in program that it handled about as well as you can when everyone on the Internet is reporting that your product breaks when worn. I returned mine, got a replacement, and it broke, too. I returned the replacement and got another one, and it lasted a week before also breaking, at which point Jawbone just gave up and offered a refund to the entire world.

The first generation of Ups were so bad that Jawbone scuttled the product and went back to the drawing board, returning a while later with a new version that looked the same but promised to be more reliable. I broke two of those in the space of three weeks (I swear to god I wasn’t trying), and Jawbone — exhausted from its previous period of apologetic refunds — told me I could keep returning them during the warranty period or get nothing.

When the new Ups with Bluetooth syncing came out, I ignored them because a cursory glance around the ‘net showed people were still complaining about them breaking. It probably wouldn’t have mattered: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me four more times after swearing to god you’ve figured it all out, shame on me.

Update: Just read the 1-star Amazon reviews to get an idea of how often they still seem to be failing.

Lesson: Cramming a bunch of fragile electronics into a container that’s comparable to a strip of thick garden hose in flexibility is pretty much a recipe for running an exchange program in perpetuity.

Pushback: Reviewers complain about the Up’s lack of a display or other feedback on where you’re at with your daily step goal. It didn’t really bother me. I would just do a sync at the end of the day and see where I came out.

FitBit Flex

After the Up, I got a FitBit Flex. Unlike the Up, the Flex puts all of its electronics in a non-flexible piece of plastic that slips into the pocket of a rubber wristband. It syncs via Bluetooth.

Where the aesthetics of the Up are sleek and somewhat fashionable, those of the FitBit are utilitarian and sort of dowdy. That’s the FitBit aesthetic in general, and if the life I got out of my FitBit is any indication, that’s as it should be. Sticking to a simpler design with less emphasis on making a pretty bangle means the things it would take to break a FitBit will generally involve taking it off your wrist and smashing it between large rocks or suffering an injury to your wrist that’s so severe you will not be wondering how many steps it took you to get into that situation.

Where the Up relies on button presses for input, the FitBit Flex takes taps. Sometimes that works o.k. For instance, it can tell you how far along you are to your daily step goal with a single tap, lighting up from one to five tiny LEDs. For sleep tracking, it’s not as good: You have to sort of tap-tap-tap-tap-tap the device, and it doesn’t offer the most meaningful feedback.

Since sleep and sleep tracking matter a lot to me, the FitBit fell a little short. Like the Up, you can tell it you’re going to sleep and it’ll track how well you rested. Unlike the Up, it doesn’t have a gradual wake alarm (though it can vibrate on your wrist at a set time).

Like the Up, the FitBit Flex is also a pretty good citizen of the wider fitness device/service ecosystem. It has an open API and it talks to smart scales, calorie counters and more. If you have a preferred app for tracking activities besides walking, the FitBit API can take that input and fold it into its reckoning of your daily activity.

The one complaint I have is that I managed to tear the wristband popping the little lozenge out of its pocket. That didn’t affect it too badly, but it did mean water had an easier time finding its way into that pocket. Digging a sweaty lozenge out of a rubber pouch doesn’t feel like the future at all.

Still, I had a positive enough FitBit experience that I really wanted to trade my FitBit Flex in for the next model up (the FitBit Force), which could display time. Sadly, people reported that the wrist band for the Force caused them to break out in terrible rashes. All that’s left of the Force today is artfully worded press releases that promise to get to the bottom of the matter.

One other Fitbit highlight worth noting: Lots of people I know have them compared to the other two trackers I’m covering in this entry. That makes checking leaderboards more fun.

Lesson: An open API goes a long way, even if the only thing you thought you wanted at first was a step and sleep tracker. So does a sense of reliability. I never really trusted my Up after the first two broke, and even though I loved the software and general UX, it really bothered me to think that my data would have gaps during periods where the replacement was in the mail.

Garmin Vívofit

Oh, man. The Vívofit. I’m wearing one right now and it’s a real love-hate thing.

Compared to the Up and Flex:

  • It takes a lozenge-in-a-rubber-pouch approach, like the Flex.
  • It displays the time.
  • It displays your actual steps and tells you how far you are from completing your daily goal.
  • It tracks sleep quality.
  • It uses button presses for input: Short press to switch between modes (time, date, steps, goal) and long press to activate sync or put it into sleep-tracking mode.
  • It syncs via Bluetooth or via a little dongle you plug into your computer.

One final, huge difference: It takes a standard watch battery that lasts for a year. No recharging every 5-7 days.

I really like the Vívofit as a step tracker and wrist watch. I kind of like it as a sleep tracker. Where it falls down is its API, which Garmin isn’t super interested in opening up. Garmin has partnered with MyFitnessPal, which acts as a sort of Switzerland to the many activity trackers out there by pulling in their calorie data to go with the food data you’re entering into it.

Other than that MyFitnessPal integration, the Vívofit doesn’t talk to the rest of the world much. There are services that try to sync it up with Runkeeper Pro and Strava, but they don’t work reliably. It seems to be willing to talk to my scale. In the end, if you want to get data from a bicycle ride or swim into Garmin’s Connect app, you have to enter it by hand.

The reasons for this are pretty clear: Garmin got into the activity tracker business to supplement its more lucrative GPS devices, which are under threat from GPS-enabled smartphones. Talking to a smartphone app like Runkeeper or Strava just means you aren’t going to be as interested in buying a Forerunner GPS tracker or Edge bicycle computer.

I completely get why Garmin’s got to do this, and if I were already heavily invested in their product line I’d probably be really happy with the Vívofit. As it is, I don’t need their other products, which makes their closed off Connect dashboard pretty irritating.

The things keeping me happy with the Vívofit are the watch function (I hate pulling out my phone during meetings to check the time … it feels rude) and the fact that the people sitting on either side of me at work are also using Vívofits, which means we can see each others’ step activity in our dashboards (though none of my biking activity — 75 miles a week at this point — can appear unless I key it in manually). It’s also nice to see my daily steps on the display.

Quantified Me

In the end, I pretty much live in MyFitnessPal to keep track of what my walking and biking activities mean in combination with my diet:

  • I use my Garmin for step tracking
  • I use Strava for ride tracking
  • I use a Withings scale to track my weight
  • I enter my food in MyFitnessPal’s diary

The Vívofit, Strava app and scale send data to MyFitnessPal, which reconciles their calorie information with its food journal. At the end of the day, I sync the Vívofit and close out my food diary, and MyFitnessPal tells me what my weight would be in five weeks if every day was like the one I just logged.

MyFitnessPal doesn’t care about sleep patterns, so if I want to see that data I need to use the Garmin app. Since I use a gradual wake alarm clock app (highly recommended), I can get the data from there, too.

#yesallwomen

This is a story of getting things wrong, and perhaps continuing to get things wrong, but not knowing exactly what to do besides what I’ve come up with.

prologue

When I lived in Bloomington, IN, some guy spent a week in one of the student neighborhoods attacking women. The one account I read from a victim was that he walked up to her with keys sticking out from between the fingers of his balled fist, slashed her cheek open, and said, “not so pretty now” before running off.

i.

A while back, before Ben was born, I took a few night classes. A few of us getting out of class together had to walk four or five blocks down a quiet side street to get back to a common parking area.

So, class would let out and we’d make our way down to the street. Throw in some random travel variables — like getting backpacks repacked or chatting with classmates on the way out the door or whatever — and you’d end up with four or five of us spread out over two blocks headed the same way down a side street after dark.

Most nights, there wasn’t much to think about: Out the door, down the street, into the car, home.

One night, I ended up falling in behind a woman from my class. She was about half a block ahead. I don’t think she noticed me at first, but I stepped onto a loose metal plate and it made a big noise. She glanced over her shoulder and appeared to notice me for the first time, and I think the next several blocks were very frightening for her.

Within a block, everybody else had headed down another street. It was just the two of us. She kept glancing over her shoulder, and I could tell I was making her anxious. There was no way it made any sense to pick up the pace to just get past her — I was engaged enough to realize that — but there was a smaller, stupider part of me that was pretty fixated on just getting to my car and going home. That part wasn’t doing much problem-solving that didn’t involve getting to go the direction I wanted to go as quickly as possible.

Well, let’s not dissociate.

I wasn’t doing much problem-solving that didn’t involve getting to go the direction I wanted to go as quickly as possible.

In the end, she ended up picking up the pace, she got to her car a block ahead of me, and it finally occurred to me that if I slowed down just a bit she’d be able to get into her car without feeling quite so much like she was racing me to get something between us but distance on a dark sidewalk.

So I slowed down and she got into her car and she drove away and I quietly congratulated myself for the five percent of our separate but shared walks where I had really thought about her and what she might be going through.

ii.

The next week, class let out and I went out the door with another woman in the class who’d been in my workshop group. We’d enjoyed each others’ work and we were talking about it. We walked out onto the sidewalk and I noticed we were headed the same direction. I didn’t want the conversation to end quite yet, so I pointed the way she seemed to be headed and said to her, “are you headed this way, too? I’ll walk with you.”

Her face tightened for a moment, but then she agreed. We walked a few blocks, she got to her car before I got to mine, and I had yet another belated realization that she’d been nervous the whole time. She couldn’t say goodbye fast enough.

iii.

So, when class let out on the third week it was back down onto the sidewalk and assorted variables came together to put me about half a block behind the classmate I’d walked with the week prior, just the two of us on the quiet and dark sidewalk. And — just like two weeks prior — she didn’t notice me until I made a sound. Then we spent a block with her looking over her shoulder at me, noticeably picking up the pace.

So I stopped and put my backpack down on the sidewalk to get my keys out of it, which helped her put a block between us. Then I crossed the street so I’d be on the opposite side from her, and slowed way down until she made it to her car.

iv.

I’ve done pretty much the same in similar situations ever since: If I end up behind a woman on a quiet sidewalk, I just go across the street. If I see that she’s noticed me behind her before I can do that and seems to be watching me, I’ll backtrack to the last intersection to do so.

It’s the smallest, saddest thing.

#YesAllWomen

9, 23, 25, 26, 29, 33, 35, 39 & 46

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
— Psalm 90:10

There is no safety in the threefold world; it is like a burning house, replete with a multitude of sufferings, truly to be feared, constantly beset with the griefs and pains of birth, old age, sickness and death, which are like fires raging fiercely and without cease.
— The Lotus Sutra

9

When I was nine years old, I borrowed a collection of Star Trek stories from my dad. It included this one, wherein William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly all end up in the 23rd century owing to some sort of freak transporter accident.

That was a pretty exciting premise to me. Since I knew that I was living in the 20th century and that Star Trek was happening in the 23rd century, I could do the math to figure out how long I had to wait to see it all for myself.

23rd century – 20th century = 3 centuries, pretty much.

So if it was 1977, then I was looking at having to wait around until 2277. I grabbed dad’s Commodore calculator (it looked like this) to help with the next part:

2277 – 1968 = 309 years.

So, dad being in seminary at the time and our family being church-going anyhow, I had some idea that some people lasted a pretty long time. Methuselah had a pretty good run. Hadn’t Noah made it to 900? Needed to check with mom, though.

Yes, she explained, people in the Bible lived a long time, “but we get threescore and ten years now.”

I knew how much a score was because Abraham Lincoln was my hero.

So …

1968 + (20 * 3) + 10 = 2038

and 2277 – 2038 = not even close, really.

Further away from now than last year’s bicentennial had been from the first Independence Day.

I just wasn’t going to make it.

21

My favorite grandfather is dying of a brain tumor. Mom goes down to Texas, hoping to make things right, but all she does is get in the way of the t.v.

23

I don’t think what I experienced was a “death trip,” exactly. I just remember that things got pretty morbid some time around dawn. I was in the tv room at the house in Indianapolis, looking out at the parking lot behind the back yard. Cody and Kevin and Bill were riding bikes in the morning fog, gliding in and out of view.

24

Hudson was so stupid and inept. They made him my buddy and told me if he didn’t make it out of basic, it’d be my fault.

The last week, we were out in the field under a tree. It was raining and Hudson had fucked something up and all he could do was cry. All I could do was put my arm around him and tell him it’d be fine.

25

Jump school seemed like a good idea. It never really occurred to me to feel frightened during the day, but every night I dreamed of falling and falling with no parachute. My subconscious mixed it up by letting me ride a mattress into the dirt one night.

26

The team’s up on the Richmond site outside of Taejon. It’s an old building behind a gate. We’ve put up the mast and we’re on the network. The team chief asks us what we’d do if the balloon went up. Oh … I know this one:

“We take our defensive positions and the one on radio watch burns the SOI and takes an axe to the COMSEC gear, then we all defend the site.”

The team chief says, “you do that. I’m gonna run my ass down the hill before it gets shot off. They won’t bother with soldiers anyhow. They’ll just dial us in and light us up.”

and

I arrive at Ft. Bragg the week a major in my brigade had a bad landing, broke his leg and the bone severed an artery. He bled out on the drop zone before anyone could find him and help him. I don’t know if he knew what was happening.

29

That last nine months I was on jump status, I was pretty sure each jump was going to kill me. If you could be on jump status, though, you were supposed to be on jump status. That’s how it was. The sergeant major would cut your wings off your chest in front of everybody otherwise.

33

They aspirated a lump in my throat on a Wednesday, the doctor fucked off on vacation before the labs came back on Thursday, and nobody would tell me anything until the next Tuesday.

It was fine.

35

Ben. He stirs some things up.

39

“I mean,” says my friend, “FORTY. Aren’t you freaking out?”

“I just don’t, I guess.”

It wasn’t a question for me though, was it? In retrospect, I regret the answer.

46

Here we are.

I still don’t.

Some days, I feel naive or clueless and I think to myself that I might be wrong, and that I might be giving the wrong answer on a cosmic test.

Some days I think, “you’ve taken advantage of a number of opportunities to consider it.”

Mostly I think we’re born in a house that’s on fire, and there’ll be a moment between flame and ash.

We’ll need to have been kind.

My Totalitarian Impulse

Carsten Dominik from 2008:

What people miss when they are new to Org-mode is this:

Don’t try to set up the “final” task managing system from the start. Because you have no idea yet what your system should look like. Don’t set up many TODO states and logging initially, before you actually have a feeling for what you working flow is. Don’t define a context tag “@computer” just because David Allen has one, even though you are sitting at a computer all the time anyway! Start by creating and managing a small TODO list and then develop your own system as the needs arises. I wrote Org-mode to enable this development process.

Yeah. That’s a tough impulse to battle.

I’ve been working on an “o.k. to take a small sliver of my 40 hours a week, best worked on over the weekend” analytics project, so I’ve been doing all the coding for that in Textmate. I don’t have the time to get Emacs into shape as my development environment.

I also made one of my personal goals for the quarter to pick something from among OmniFocus, Things, TaskPaper, Evernote, note pads, notebooks etc. to manage todos, and then stick to it no matter how much something about it irked me, and no matter what cool automation thing for something I didn’t happen to be using turned up on Pinboard or Twitter.

So I stripped my .emacs.d down to the point that it’s pretty much just an org-mode delivery mechanism, and fiddled around just enough to get mobile org working. (Yes, that.) There’s just no time to worry about picking the One True Tool for all tasks. Consequently, Emacs for me is pretty much the world’s most overpowered todo list manager. That’s cool!

I’m still using Evernote for most capture and as a ‘net inbox, but I just can’t make its reminders/todo system work for me for checklists, and about two days ago it hardlocked on my iPad and hasn’t really recovered despite numerous force-quits and a complete iPad restart. I should just delete it from the iPad, but I’m feeling stubborn: I want it to work through whatever has it in a funk or, having failed to do so, signal to me that I really don’t want to put as much weight on it as I have.

Meanwhile, my org files live in Dropbox and I’ve been enjoying using it again, and slowly layering on the capabilities, just as that quote from Carsten Dominik suggests. This morning on my commute in it was nice to realize I hadn’t done a mobile org sync but was still be able to open my org files in the Dropbox app and read them (because they’re always human-readable plain text, even if Emacs makes the plain text behave magically.)

Send the Current iTunes Net Radio Track to Evernote

I like to listen to ‘net radio stations like SomaFM and KCRW’s Eclectic 24. Sometimes I hear new stuff and don’t want to take the time to make a note of it. This little script captures current ‘net radio track info from iTunes and sticks it in an Evernote note with an embedded source URL of the current stream:

I used to have an rb-appscript that did this with Things. Here’s that in case you feel like fiddling with stuff living on borrowed time:

As with just about every little one-off script I write, I use FastScripts to hook it up to a keyboard shortcut. Pretty sure there are better (free) ways, but I’ve had a FastScripts license for years. I think you can get the same effect creating an inputless service with Automator that just runs the Applescript, then assigning a keyboard shortcut to it.

Making Evernote My Single Source of Truth

Restless today, but with no will to work on anything long, and with an abiding sense of frustration about all my little inboxes.

Spending some time observing how I do things when I’m not thinking about them much taught me that I go to Evernote pretty quickly for just about everything. It fills the space VoodooPad used to, before the iPhone came along and made “must do mobile” so much more important to me.

For instance, Evernote is where:

  • every expense receipt
  • every whiteboard session
  • every quick, ad-hoc note-taking session in front of a computer
  • every web receipt

goes.

Once something is in there, it’s searchable (including handwritten stuff). And like the old Emacs Remembrance Agent, it’s continually updating a list of notes related to what I’m looking at or writing in it.

Evernote has been getting smarter and smarter over time, too. Some time in the past several months I snapped a picture of a whiteboard during a meeting and noticed that Evernote had named the note for the title of the meeting I was in from my calendar.

It’s also got free clients for iOS, Mac and Windows (and the web interface doesn’t appear to be terrible, but I’ve never forced myself to use it for long).

It always feels a little risky trusting a company with something this important, but I kind of do. Evernote has definitely had a few screwups here and there, but the application itself continues to improve. It doesn’t feel like any worse a bet to me than many other applications, and it feels considerably more substantial to me than a lot of other cloud offerings. It’s also possible to get all the data kept in it back out should it ever prove to be headed in the wrong direction.

So I’m going to experiment with making it my single source of truth for a while, just to see how it goes.

Making It a Place for Actions

I’ve tried making general todos fit into Evernote, and it has a reasonable facility for making that work:

If you use cmd-shift-t in the text of a note, you get a checkbox. Then if you search Evernote for todo:true, you get a list of notes with unticked todo boxes. You can drag that search into the shortcuts in your sidebar, and you’ve suddenly got all your todo lists in one place.

That’s pretty good for when you’re sitting in front of Evernote specifically and you’re making a list. The thing it doesn’t really do for you is to turn things from the outside (e.g. bookmarks, email messages) into actions. You can sort of hack that in by editing a note created from an outside source and adding a single checkbox to it.

But that hasn’t really satisfied, and I was trying to use Evernote as a system of notes within folders, and that didn’t feel quite right. So I’ve been hobbling along with either Things or OS X Reminders or legal pads. As much as I’m not a super big fan of GTD as a religious movement, though, I completely get the value of a single source of truth. Because I put so much stuff in Evernote already, I’d like it to be where things can not only become records — things I want to get at and read later —but also actions.

What’s keeping me from that? Not much. Evernote’s a pretty decent inbox. It just needs a few things to make it better, it comes with an awesome AppleScript dictionary, and it has decent integration with ifttt.

So here are some ways to mix all that up and make Evernote a fairly complete inbox/action list.

Working With Paper

I like working on paper, but I don’t like living in paper. I hoped for the longest time that I’d be able to use my iPad as a notebook, but until something better than “draw words with your finger” or “use a stylus the size of an end of a hotdog” comes along, it won’t feel quite right.

I also don’t like dragging my laptop all over the office for meetings where I can get by looking things up on the iPad or jotting notes on a legal pad. Evernote’s all about that: I just snap pictures of my notes in its special document mode and it captures them fine (and even labels them with the name of the meeting I’m in from my calendar).

Working From the Desktop

From the desktop, the Evernote Clipper provides a decent tool for getting things into Evernote.

The clipper can be invoked with ctrl-cmd-n for typing in a quick note. Much like Notational Velocity, the first line becomes the title of the new note. The clipper can also be used to capture files ( cmd-c to copy the file, ctrl-cmd-n to invoke the clipper, cmd-v to paste the file into the clipper).

So that’s as good a way as anything to capture todos and things you want to act on when you’re right in front of the computer.

Working With Email

Lots of actions start life as emails, so I’m always curious about the ways a new tool can capture email in a way that helps me keep the information, but also get back to the original message (for followups).

There are a few ways to deal with email and Evernote:

  • Set up an email address with Evernote to which you can send/forward email messages to turn them into notes. I don’t like the way the resulting notes look (they’re forwarded, so they’re a little harder to parse). That’s still an option if you’re mobile and want to make sure you’ve captured the message.
  • Set up a ifttt recipe that turns any starred email into a note. The formatting isn’t great (linebreaks are removed) and there’s no link back to the mail. Not recommended.
  • Select all the text in the message, copy it, then use the Evernote clipper. This is pretty good, and if you’re using Apple Mail you usually get a link back to the message in the Evernote URL field (making it possible to recall the original message within Mail.app). The one downside to this is that it takes a few keystrokes.
  • Recommended: Select the message itself from the message list, copy it with cmd-c, then paste it with the clipper (ctrl-cmd-v). This copies the message text into the note, nicely formatted, and you get a link back to the message in Mail.app.

If you’re a Mailplane user, by the way, you can also use its Evernote integration to capture messages. It provides a link back to the webpage version of the Gmail message (not, sadly, the Mailplane version).

Working With Bookmarks and RSS (especially when mobile)

So, a few years ago I wrote this thing called panopticon. It was meant to help tackle the problem of turning everything I liked, starred, flagged or saved into an actionable todo item for later review. It knew about:

  • flagged email messages
  • new Evernote notes
  • new delicious bookmarks
  • flagged NetNewsWire items

I’d run it at the end of each day, it’d turn all the stuff into Things todos (with a panopticon tag for easy review), and I’d get a handy tickler list full of stuff I’d seen or had been interested in that I could then either turn into a proper action (or get back to at a later time).

I wrote it in rb-appscript, which was a fine decision at the time: I could automate the interrogation of desktop apps for whatever I was interested in without having to write AppleScript. Apple has since deprecated the APIs rb-appscript depends on, so there’s no point in going back to it for anything I expect to be using in another three years.

However, Evernote has an API and it talks to ifttt just fine. ifttt is purpose-built for this sort of automation. So I don’t really need Panopticon anymore. I just need to use services supported by ifttt, and that’s not a problem at all: I moved to pinboard a while back, and I do my RSS reading with tools that use Feedly as the backend. So I can make ifttt recipes that turn pinboard bookmarks and favorited Feedly items into Evernote notes and dump them into a folder of their own for easy review.

A Mobile Digression

That probably seems a little roundabout, and it is. But it helps with the mobile use case: Moving content around in iOS still completely blows. The built-in share tools involve email or social media, and you have to context switch for everything else. With pinboard and Feedly, however, bookmarks and starred items are usually just a tap away from Mobile Safari, Mr. Reader or Reeder, so ifttt makes it a breeze to capture things from those apps into Evernote on a mobile device.

Probably the real answer here is to start using Android devices. I read the ridiculous workarounds Apple enthusiasts come up with to make it easier to share/act on content in iOS using apps like Drafts, then I think about how unique and completely awesome OS X’s services API is, and I feel very sad. Android completely kills iOS in this area.

Special URL schemes aren’t really an answer here, either. Apps should be able to register as receivers with a global service broker, then be available to every other app that can share the kind of data they’re set up to process. The current system of “hope that the developer of app A agrees that app B is pretty cool and deserves a space on the share menu, or else that they provide a way to peck in a special URL scheme in their configuration tool” is stupid and broken.

Anyhow, ifttt makes it pretty painless to work around all that: Just set up a recipe and accept that the results won’t be instantaneous, but that if you star something on the train, it’ll be in Evernote by the time you finish the walk from Union Station to the office.

And From the Command Line

I recently found Geeknote, which provides a command line interface to Evernote. You can designate the editor you prefer to use (e.g. vim or Emacs) and create notes from the shell. Alternately, you can pipe output into Geeknote and turn it into Evernote notes.

My current use case is weekly analytics reporting: I built an analytics framework in Padrino that I currently use most via the command line and Ruby scripts. It’s dead simple to do this when I need to generate a new report:

ruby recent_posts.rb|geeknote --title 'Recent Posts - 2013-10-12'

and get a new Evernote note with the last 30 days worth of stats.

But What About the Action-ness of This Stuff?

So, that’s all toward getting things into Evernote in a readable format for later review. And I briefly noted that there are ways to make todo lists in Evernote. That doesn’t quite get us to the actionability of these things.

Earlier this year, Evernote introduced reminders. With reminders, you can take a note, append a reminder to it, and optionally assign a due date to it. At that point, it becomes sort of special: It appears in the reminders list for a given notebook where it can be marked as completed. If it gets a due date, you can get alerts via Evernote itself or email.

The UX on this isn’t really ideal yet. Evernote hasn’t yet wired up a keyboard shortcut to turn a note into a reminder, so you have to manually click a link in the UI, then click another link to add a date. It’s a little better in the mobile app, where you can bring up a dedicated reminder view and then create new reminders from there.

Still, you can do some good things with reminders. For instance, if you select more than one reminder in the special list Evernote provides at the top of each notebook, Evernote presents an option to “Create a Table of Contents Note.” Click that, and the resulting list of reminders appear in a new note with links to each reminder. Change the title of the note to something like “Todo:” then press cmd-shift-d to auto-insert the date into the title, and you’ve got an action list for the day.

It would be nice, though, to be able to make notes into reminders without having to reach for the mouse, or do several clicks, so I wrote a quick AppleScript to help with that:

I bound the script to a keyboard shortcut in FastScripts, and now it’s possible to select a batch of notes, press ctrl-cmd-r, and turn them all into reminders with a due date of one day from now.

Systemitzing

So, all that goes toward getting things into the inbox. There are a few ways to think about organizing it all beyond that.

I’m leaning toward tagging items with project names, then dragging project tags in and out of the shortcut bar as I work on them/complete them.

The reminder list at the top of any list of notes always reflects the organization of the main note list, whether it’s based on a tag, a folder or search results. So putting the “freelancers” tag in the shortcut bar means that when I click on that link, I’ll get a list of every actionable note tagged that way at the top of the window, then all the not-necessarily-actionable notes (research material, for instance) also tagged that way at the bottom.

Elephant Graveyard

Here are some things I’ve thought about and/or tried and/or even used for a while, and why I don’t care to use them:

  • OmniFocus: Way too heavy, and its sense of “notes” is too bolted on for my tastes. There are ways to improve the way action item notes present, but I prefer Evernote’s rich text editor. Also, Omni Group is going to be holding its hand out for OmniFocus 2 and OmniFocus 2 for iPad shortly.
  • Things: Slow development (goes toward not really trusting the developers), and it has been crashy recently.
  • TaskPaper: Too simple, and a little crabby when it comes to tabs/whitespace. Also not great for capture of anything more than simple text. I’m also not fond of the author’s meandering development pace.
  • Notational Velocity (or whatever that Markdown-centric fork is): Seems fine, but I don’t get the impression you can leave it open on one machine then open it on another without risking some confusion or corruption. Don’t think it’s good for much more than simple text, doubt it’s good for capture.
  • org mode: I think I’ve been clear on this.
  • VoodooPad: Capture isn’t quite right on the desktop, and it doesn’t have a super useful mobile app.

Wishlist

Which isn’t to say Evernote is perfect. Here are some things I wish it could do:

  • Use Markdown for notes or …
  • at least use styles on top of structured text. I’d like to be able to designate a level 2 heading or a level 3 heading instead of fiddling with physical styles
  • Provide an outline mode inside notes. It doesn’t have to be much, but being able to collapse or expose lines in an outliner would be pretty handy
  • Provide wiki-style linking (you can link to notes now, but it’s a drag and drop operation)

More XCOM Notes (or: $20 should buy you a less bumpy ride)

Xcom 600

So, previously.

I finished XCOM for iOS last night and have a few more things to round out my notes. First, a brief thought on expectations for mobile games.

I used to have a Nintendo DS and I played it a lot. I kept it at my desk during work and used it to take mini breaks. Economically, it felt like a pretty good deal: I waited to buy most titles until they moved to the value tier of $14-$20, and I bought games that offered a lot of replay value. I stuck with the DS until I got my first iPhone and it stopped making sense to keep two gadgets around for casual gaming.

My favorite games on the iPhone were a lot simpler than my favorite ones on the DS. Tiny Wings is a good example, as are Wurdle, Canabalt, Flight Control, and Strategery The games I was buying were priced to match their complexity—usually $1 or $2—and they were easy to pick up and put down.

When the iPad came out, I started buying games that matched the most involved ones I had for my Nintendo DS in complexity. These games tended to come in at $5 to $7. One thing I noticed, though, was that games started having more issues. The iPad offered nice graphics hardware and a display big enough to support a lot more information, but memory management became an obvious problem: I’d end up having to reboot before playing some of the more ambitious iPad games, and a number of them would crash while trying to load a cut scene or change screens.

Being a relatively price-sensitive buyer, I wasn’t too bothered by this: I was getting better graphics and more complexity than I usually got on Nintendo DS titles that cost four or five times as much, and the occasional crash was tolerable. It also seemed that game developers were using early buyers as a massively distributed beta program. Relatively expensive games with issues would get fixes fairly quickly and things would seem to smooth out.

XCOM is the first premium priced game for iOS that I’ve ever bought: $19.99, which just looks incredibly extravagant as I type the numbers, even though it’s a faithful reproduction of a game that retailed for over twice as much on desktop. Consequently, my expectations are a little higher in terms of game play and stability.

Game play isn’t disappointing at all: I found it engrossing and a lot of fun, and I got a lot of hours of play out of the most basic level and easiest settings. I wanted to start all over again the second I was done because there was so much I could do better. However …

… it’s terrible in terms of stability.

After almost two weeks of play on my iPad mini, I would say that it’s not only a good idea to reboot before playing, it’s practically mandatory. Crashes occur frequently otherwise, usually as the game transitions between cut scenes or screens, but sometimes right in the middle of battle. The game has a lengthy (close to 90-second-long) intro you can’t skip until close to the end. It’s supposed to keep you occupied during a long load, and the soonest you can stop it is at around 1:15.

So crashing means a lot of sitting and rewatching that intro, plus redoing any steps you took in the minute or so before the crash. The game does save your progress automatically, and usually restores you to the last screen you were on before the one that crashed on you, or pretty close to the last turn you took before it crashed in a combat sequence.

Rebooting isn’t a guarantee things will be awesome, either: On the flight home from vacation, it crashed within five minutes of starting on a rebooted iPad.

That’s pretty awful for a game that’s running close to three times the price of most premium games on the platform. And it’s laden with long cut scenes and indulgent transition effects. If you’re the type to pick up your iPhone or iPad for a quick game break, XCOM is not very accommodating.

Yeah, But What About the Game?

So, when you get to play it, what do you get?

Some pretty neat stuff I didn’t touch on previously.

I liked the character class system. Each soldier specializes after their first mission:

  • Heavy: Able to use rocket launchers and heavy weapons. Additional skills include the use of suppressing fire, extra damage against mechanized targets and more.
  • Support: Able to use medical packs for healing more often, able to revive critically wounded soldiers (instead of merely stabilizing them).
  • Sniper: Able to use long-range weapons, gain attack bonuses for getting elevation advantages over enemies, and able to use a special weapon-disabling shot (which is great when you’ve accidentally stranded a soldier out in the open and need to buy them a round to seek cover).
  • Assault: Able to use turns more efficiently, get automatic reaction fire if an enemy unit moves too close, and gain damage bonuses for close-in combat.

There are lots of ways to experiment with the mix of each 4-6 solider team on a mission. I tended to prefer going heavy on assault-class soldiers as the game progressed, because their weapons become more and more lethal and their movement abilities make it easier to move in close and guarantee a kill if they work in pairs.

The tech tree is a lot of fun and adds quite a bit to the game. Weapons and armor progress as you learn from alien technology. There’s a pretty nice jump suit you can build relatively late in the game that makes snipers a lot more formidable, since they can create their own elevation advantage and negate enemy cover. There’s also a stealth suit that’s perfect for assault teams running point.

It’s also possible to create automated weapons platforms (“Shivs”) that work really well for running point in the narrow confines of a downed enemy ship. As human characters move up through the ranks, you want to do more to protect them since their advancement allows you to build bigger teams and gain other advantages (such as bonuses that help wounded soldiers survive hits that would otherwise be lethal). Sending a Shiv in ahead of the team helps flush and soften up hiding opponents before risking the humans. You can also develop hover-Shivs that can go in a little ahead, then float above the action providing reaction fire to anything that comes out of cover.

Finally, very late in the game, soldiers can be tested for psionic abilities. If they test positive, they get a psionic skill tree that allows them to use telekinetic attacks and even take control of organic alien units for several rounds.

The game also mixes things up a little by providing several different mission types throughout the game:

  • Alien abductions: usually staged in urban settings, this is the most basic tactical encounter. Lots of buildings and vehicles for cover, and when high explosive or energy weapons come in contact with things like gas pumps or cars, the resulting explosions injure anything in the area.
  • UFO crashes/landings: usually staged in wilderness areas, with lots of varied terrain and cover from rocks or trees, then close-in fighting within the downed craft.
  • Escort missions: usually in either cities or building complexes, with a player-controllable civilian character who can’t do anything besides run or duck
  • Terror missions: usually in cities or around complex buildings with a lot of civilians who have to be rescued from an alien contingent. Sometimes downed civilians return as shambling alien zombies, so there’s extra pressure to rescue them quickly before they can be turned and make saving the rest even harder.

There’s just a ton of meat to the game. By the time all the possible soldier skills, tech enhancements, psionic abilities and mission types are thrown into the mix, there’s a lot of room for variation and experimentation on team composition and tactics.

So where does that leave the game overall?

I enjoyed playing it when it ran properly, and I’d love to start over again on a tougher level and see what I can do to improve my playing, but there’s no way I’m going to start it up again before I see an update come out. If you’re at all considering buying it, just wait until there’s a new release, then wait for another week or two to see if the most recent reviews for the new release are any happier about stability.

Reviewing XCOM for iOS

Courtesy Retrogamer.net

I bought a first-gen PlayStation a while after the platform had been out. The first while I owned it, I ran through the sorts of games that showed off what the hardware was good for: lots of eye candy, plenty of cut scenes, good use of the 3D hardware. About a year after I’d bought the machine, I walked into a mall toy store and found XCOM: UFO Defense — a port of the Microprose PC game — in the bargain bin for $9.99.

XCOM was the opposite of just about every other game I owned. It was turn-based, so there was no need for great reflexes. The graphics weren’t awful, but they looked a lot more like the bitmaps that had been brought over from a DOS game that they were. The sound effects were a little chintzy and repetitive. The game overcame all of that to create a really wonderful play experience.

XCOM is set in the near future, with Earth under attack by flying saucers. Game play is split into several discrete elements:

  • Planetary defense: maintaining a network of bases and interceptors that can bring down UFOs as they appear in the sky
  • Tactical combat: dispatching troops to downed UFOs and urban alien terror sites to battle the aliens using turn-based play
  • R&D: Taking the weapons and technology recovered during battle to develop increasingly sophisticated weapons, armor and tech to battle the progressively tougher aliens

As a young gamer, I came up on tactical board games: Steve Jackson’s Ogre, Battlesuit and Car Wars were all pretty big favorites. I found Ogre in particular endlessly fascinating, because it was so simple — you could learn the rules by heart in a couple of 30-minute playthroughs — yet so suspenseful. There’s a giant, cybernetic tank bearing down on your command post and you’ve only got so many troops and machines to throw at it. Battlesuit was an infantry-only sequel to Ogre that focused on individual troops, and it introduced the idea of panic to game play: Units could be taken from your control as they responded to battlefield stress.

XCOM recreated the pace of old-school tabletop war games. You had as much time as you needed to make a move and planning was important. Since it was played with a computer, it was able to manage things like fog of war much better than a tabletop game. Successful play depended not only on tactical success, but progression on the tech tree.

Despite its deliberate nature, the game was incredibly suspenseful. Each soldier in the tactical sequences had only so many movement or action points, so careful and thoughtful play was rewarded. With a little planning, you could hope to recover from a misstep, but sometimes you’d send a troop around a blind corner only to have them gunned down; then you’d sit and watch the fog of war settle back over that part of the map, wondering what had just got your guy. Sometimes units would come under fire and spook, running around out of your control and shooting at their comrades in a blind panic. It was possible to not pack along enough ammo, leaving soldiers without enough bullets to fight or progressively working their way down to sidearms and hand grenades in desperation as engagements went too long. Thanks to decent atmospheric sound effects, there was a sense of dread, suspense and tension.

I think the game struck me a little harder at the time, too, because I was stationed at Ft. Bragg. The game rewarded things I’d learned in training, like disciplined fire control and measured tactical movement. I was my unit’s training and operations NCO, so I liked the logistical parts, too. I sort of identified with the little soldiers I was sending into battle.

XCOM was pretty good on the PlayStation, but as a port of a PC game it had a few interface issues a mouse would have handled with no problem. The PC version was easier to play. Both were a little clunky when it came to outfitting troops with the equipment they’d need with each engagement, right down to packing along enough ammo.

Despite its simple looks, deliberate pace and interface issues, XCOM remains one of my favorite games. Sadly, its DOS heritage made it harder and harder to play over the years, unless you were willing to fiddle with the setup a lot. It eventually went on the short list of games I stopped being able to play well before I was tired of them. I can’t think of many others, and having managed to get emulators working for games I thought I would love once again I’ve learned that nostalgia is a hell of a drug.

The Return of XCOM

New xcom

So, after a few lackluster sequels then years of practical unplayability on modern machines, XCOM returned to PCs in 2012 and Macs earlier this year. The new version uses 3d graphics for more visual polish, but the underlying gameplay is pretty faithful to the original: Intercept UFOs to keep member nations of the XCOM initiative happy enough to keep funding your work, battle aliens in turn-based combat at crash sites and in cities, research alien tech to build more capable weapons and armor.

Some things are simplified. Soldiers are easier to outfit and you don’t have to manage ammo. Without the logistical burden, there’s no more “forgot to pack along enough ammo” frustration. Soldiers also specialize and gain abilities over time to make them more useful. Some become more proficient at combat medical stuff, some become better at close-in combat, some gain the ability to lay down suppressing fire with heavy weapons, some develop proficiency as snipers. As soldiers move up the ranks, the size of squads you can send into combat grows, too.

I imagine there are some who have been nursing along an original version of XCOM all these years, and I suspect some of those folks will not like this version for any number of differences I will have missed having not played the game for years. In some ways, I think the new XCOM was designed for people like me, who might remember the game with a lot of fondness but don’t remember a ton of low-level details: It feels streamlined and pared down. Some might read that as dumbed down, but I think the tradeoffs are acceptable. Yeah, it’s not as “realistic” to have troops with bottomless clips, but the gameplay moves along a little better.

Still, as happy as I was to have a playable version of XCOM again, I was a little disappointed just because I really don’t like playing games on desktop machines. It involves blocking out big chunks of time alone in my office, and since I’ve been working away from home again I don’t like being closed off from the family like that.

So last week, when the iOS version of XCOM came out, I ignored the relatively high $20 price tag and bought it on the spot: I might not have a lot of play time at home, but I’ve got an hour a day on the Max.

XCOM iOS

In terms of basic gameplay, the iOS port of XCOM is pretty much the exact same game as the desktop version, and it works very well as a mobile game. The turn-based play makes it easier to briefly set the game aside, and the move to touch-based interaction is pretty clean. In some ways, the iOS version has better controls than the desktop version. You can pretty much read my notes on old-school XCOM and desktop XCOM and apply them to the iOS version, which works on both the iPad and iPhone (though the iPhone controls feel a bit fussier because they’re very small and sometimes hard to hit with a fingertip).

There are some things I would definitely change about the mobile version, though.

First, there are a few lengthy cut scenes you just have to sit through. They’re designed to provide context and background to the game, but they’re really, really frustrating when you’re just trying to squeeze in ten or fifteen minutes of play, especially if you have to leave the game and come back, only to have the cut scene restart. There’s no way to tap through them, either. So if you’re the sort of player who runs through a game on progressively harder levels of difficulty, or if you like to restart now and then to apply what you’ve learned from games that don’t end so well, you have to sit through them each and every time.

There’s also some really, truly gratuitous interface clutter in the form of swooping, panning 3D effects when you’re trying to conduct research or other management tasks at the home base. You can’t just pick an area to work on (e.g. setting up research), you have to swoop around from room to room with sometimes painfully slow transitions. Rather than being allowed to “just play,” you have to endure eye candy that doesn’t really contribute to the experience. It feels inconsiderate. Some of this may be to mask load times as you move from area to area, but I think I’d be happier with a simple spinner and a little latency. The spinner says “getting there as fast as we can,” the transition effects say “getting there, but first sit through our designer being a little indulgent.”

Despite those issues, I’ve been playing the hell out of the game. It feels exactly like what I’ve been pining for since I stopped being able to easily run the original. I think it’s my favorite iOS game since the lovely Waking Mars. Super recommended for anyone who likes tactical gaming.

© Michael Hall, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.