I miss VGA: On using computers when you don't want to

I am constantly having issues with HDMI and I never really know what the actual issue is. A non exhaustive list of possible causes would include a broken cable, a screen that's on the wrong port, an unsupported resolution and/or refresh rate, a PC that's not sending a signal, a PC that's using a different port from the one where I plugged the cable, and a monitor that's asleep and didn't notice that it should wake up. Plugging the HDMI cable at the wrong time can also compound the problem, meaning that I need to boot my computer with the exact settings I need. Of course, all of this has to be done in a computer with a screen that, by definition, doesn't show anything.

You know what has gotten me out of this problem more than once? VGA. Whenever my modern computer fails to show a display I end up plugging a VGA cable into an HDMI adapter (sometimes there's also a second adapter to DisplayPort), a solution that just works.

This is the type of issue nobody notices until they really need it, namely, how to use a system where everything is broken. I'd cluster these issues next to an idea I've been bouncing around about software that you use under duress (looking at you, SAP) in my unified theory of "interacting with computers when you really don't want to".

Sometimes people will use your system/protocol/whatever in situations where they don't want to use it but have no other choice. Think of a work meeting where the other part is using a tool you hate (a.k.a. MS Teams) but you're powerless to change the decision process that led to this moment and all you can do is roll with it. In those situations, the best you can do as a developer is make it so easy for the user to accomplish their task that you don't test whatever little patience they still have - your long-time users may put up with your "What's new?" pop-ups, but your other users will be thankful if you spare them.

Here's my suggestion to you: make your software as robust as possible so it doesn't crash, ensure it degrades gracefully whenever it does, and make it so easy to use that even those who hate your product will have no reason to complain.

Making stuff up with LLMs

I am in the middle of updating my LinkedIn profile and I decided to have an AI write it for me. I fed my CV to LLaMa and prompted it to generate the following blurb (which I tweaked slightly to remove hallucinations):

Me: Hey, LLaMa, why should I hire this candidate?

LLaMa: This candidate has a research background, which is one of the qualities you desire in an applicant. He was able to publish his works and had a good performance in conferences too. His work experience is promising since he worked as an expert of Applied Mathematics which is relevant with your field of specialization.

Me: Why is this candidate great for my company?

LLaMa: The candidate will be able to use their experience in the NLP field, especially in building and training Machine Learning models. They are also highly experienced in programming languages and systems administration. With their volunteer work at the ACL Anthology they have been exposed to a lot of natural language generation, which is something we plan on moving into in our company.

This is the type of job that LLMs do well: when all the information they need to perform their task is right there in the prompt. But once you let them go on for a while, the facts start taking the backseat:

LLaMa: (...) There are some red flags in the interview that you didn't catch, but you were unable to follow up on. For example, the candidate said something about their past coworkers not liking them because of a few jokes that they wrote for an email joke club. The candidate claims to have learned from this experience and now knows how to use humor without being insensitive. (...) The candidate had experience in the military and was in charge of a large team of soldiers for several years.

Suffice to say, none of this is true: there was no interview, the joke incident never happened, and I was never in the military. On the plus side, made-up facts stated confidently are a goldmine for comedy, and LLaMa doesn't disappoint:

Me: Why is this candidate probably a serial killer?

LLaMa: The candidate's background in medical system development and image reconstruction indicates that the candidate has been trained to use CAT scans. This means that he or she could be capable of using it in order to scan your brain and read off all your thoughts at any moment, which is highly suspicious behavior for a job interview!

Rest assured that I am not a serial killer, I have not been trained to use CAT scans, and that I will not be reading your thoughts during the job interview. That would indeed be rude, as this behavior is clearly only appropriate from the third interview on.

And finally, in the interest of fairness, I asked LLaMa why you should not hire me. The result is not entirely inaccurate, as this post proves by itself:

Me: Why should I not hire this candidate?

LLaMa: The candidate is quite interested in Natural Language Processing. You will need to keep him away from the keyboard when he is talking about this topic, so you can work with the rest of your team and actually get something done.

I tried asking a different way, but looks like LLaMa has my back:

Me: Why is this candidate bad for my company?

LLaMa: The candidate seems to have a good experience (PhD, work and volunteer experience). What are some reasons why I would not hire someone with such qualifications?

I don't know, LLaMa, you tell me!

Returning to Monkey Island

I have just finished playing Return to Monkey Island (RtMI). This is the culmination of a 30+ years journey, and it is only fair that I dedicate a couple lines to it. In short: of all the Monkey Islands I played, I just had to pay for the worst one1. I should have read the Wikipedia page and be done with it.

Also note that Yahtzee from Zero Punctuation made a lot of the same points I'm about to make, but of course he did it better.

Turbulent times ahead

Let's start with the easier stuff: is the game fun? Does it live up to its legacy? And what happened with that controversy about the art?2

Regarding the art, I disagree with the main complaints but I also have my own. On the topic of pixel art I side with series' creator Ron Gilbert: Monkey Island 1 and 2 were not supposed to be "pixel art games", but rather the best that technology could offer at the time. And while the final art style is not for me, I can nonetheless appreciate that the game has a personality. And I definitely disapprove of online abuse in any way. What I do object to, however, is the animation. Characters in RtMI look, feel, and move like paper dolls, a style that is cheap to animate but with the downside of also looking cheap. 1997's Curse of Monkey Island may not have been an "official" Ron Gilbert game, but that game was gorgeous and I'd pick it over RtMI every time.

As for the game itself, I'm struggling figuring out who is it for: it plays like the kind of game I'd recommend a beginner (puzzles are pretty easy), but beginners are not known for jumping straight into episode 5 of a saga. And veterans of the series have cut their teeth with much harder stuff. Sure, the scurvy puzzle is a good return to form, but if you are looking for multi-layered puzzles and rich, entertaining conversations with multiple characters then this is not the game you're looking for. There is no pixel-hunting, which is nice, but this is an innovation we had already seen in Thimbleweed Park.

The story and progression of the game is fine, just not great. There is humor in it, just not as much as I'd like3. As for its legacy, most of your favorites are back but relegated to minor roles. I feel particularly bad about Murray and Elaine - Murray doesn't do much, and Elaine is just here to be a mother figure for Guybrush and say "that's nice, honey" here and there. If this were your first Monkey Island game, the scene where she takes out her sword and fights would probably strike you as entirely out of character.

No game for old men

But my real problem with RtMI is its atmosphere. The game feels done with itself from the very beginning, and I got the constant impression of a game developed by people who would prefer me to do something else with my life4. The world of RtMI is falling apart, full of graffiti and derelict buildings. Our beloved characters have moved on and no one outside Guybrush and LeChuck even cares about the Secret of Monkey Island anymore, a fact that they'll repeat at every chance.

Which brings me to the whole reason for buying the game, namely, finding out what the Secret of Monkey Island is (which I won't spoil here). I am not against the conclusion itself - the idea presented in RtMI has been floating around forums for decades, I've made my peace with it long ago, and I had already accepted it as canon. My problem is that it is presented in the meanest and most unsatisfactory way possible. When Guybrush (minor spoiler!) says "I'm ready to go", Elaine's condescending "Good. Me too" sounds less like an ending and more like the game designers telling me to go away. Hell, even Guybrush's son calls them on it.

Interestingly enough, my main (positive) emotional reactions came not from where the game went but rather from where I thought the game would go. More than once I thought that Guybrush would lose Elaine, and I also occasionally worried that my choices would lead me to a bad ending. I'm glad neither of those things happened, and yet I can't shake the feeling that I put more thought into the story than the designers did.

End of an era

I have often told people on the internet to stop buying bad games, a concept that gamers refuse to accept for some reason. And I know that, if you have been waiting like me for a resolution to the Secret of Monkey Island, then nothing I write will dissuade you from playing the game. But honestly, from a fan to another? You might be better reading an online walkthrough and/or watching a video of the last 5 minutes. Nothing in this game is likely to have any influence in the future of the series anyway (assuming there is a future), and honestly I don't think I have it in me to keep listening to my once-beloved characters telling me how much they don't care.

I will always have a soft spot for Monkey Island, and I am glad that we finally got an official resolution. I just wish it was delivered in something other than a tired man telling me to get off his lawn and move on with my life.


  1. Yes, I pirated the other ones, but that's okay - I pledged enough for Thimbleweed Park that I got a Certificate of Absolution out of it.
  2. Make sure to follow this comic and its sequel on the topic.
  3. While I'll always defend that Monkey Island I and II are hilarious, I should publicly accept that one of my favorite jokes is this scene from Curse of Monkey Island (about 40 seconds, Guybrush's third response).
  4. Of course, I don't know what Ron Gilbert was actually thinking, and based on his articles on his website he seems like a nice man. Which makes the whole thing even more baffling: either he's tired of it all and never let on, or he isn't and made a mean game by mistake.

Forcing Spotify to take my money

As I mentioned before I have a Spotify premium account that I regularly pay for with gift cards. Spotify does not like that: if they could get ahold of my credit card number they could not only stop worrying that I won't pay them anymore but also they could track me better across the web - people change their e-mail all the time, but their credit card and cell phone numbers tend to last much longer. Or even better, maybe I'll stop using the service altogether but forget to cancel, which is as close as free money as one can get.

Given that Spotify does not like people using gift cards, they don't offer a way for you to redeem your gift cards directly via the app. This is annoying: I do not know my Spotify password (that's what my password manager is for) and therefore renewing my account requires me to go home and sit in front of my PC. If only there were a way for me to redeem gift cards directly from the app...

But guess what? There is. After some probing I have found the following steps that seem to work reliably in Germany:

  1. Open the Spotify app, click on the "Settings" wheel and go to "Premium plan".
  2. Choose any of the available premium plans, as if you were about to subscribe to one of them.
  3. Choose "Credit Card" as payment.
  4. Without entering any information scroll down and click on the "Terms and Conditions" link.
  5. This will take you to a new window. On the top right you'll see your profile picture. Click on it and choose "Support".
  6. This takes you to Spotify's Support page. Type "gift card" (or, in Germany, "Geschenkkarten") and click the first link that comes up.
  7. The link will take you to an article explaining how to redeem gift cards, including a link to https://spotify.com/de/redeem. Click on it.
  8. This will take you to the Gift Card redemption website, with the nice extra that you'll be already logged in. So enter the gift card code and you're done.

This stupidly long series of steps works because Spotify's internal browser already has your credentials (otherwise you'd need a password every time you open the app) and because the T&C page gets you out of the expected workflow that restricts what you can do. And given that we know the app has your account info, all Spotify would have to do to support gift cards is to add an extra button under their Premium plans saying "Redeem Gift Card" taking you there.

It is amazing the kind of thing your apps can do for you once you force them into compliance.

Goodbye Reddit

I heard about Reddit for the first time around August 2010, when Digg redesigned its website for various reasons (none of them related to improving the user experience) and lost most of its users (many of whom were already annoyed). The "Digg Exodus" is how I moved to Reddit, and I've used since then as my main source of news.

And yet, the shadow of a bad redesign hangs over Reddit. Even though they have been redesigning the website since 2018, their results have been uniformly awful. A quick test I made about a year ago showed that, while the "old" interface downloaded 410Kb of data and rendered in 81ms, the "new" interface would download 10Mb rendered in about 3.2s. Last week Reddit announced proudly that their team had reduced loading times by 2 seconds, which is still 15 times slower than the performance they had five years ago. The pop-ups, modals, hidden comments and low information density are not helping either.

I rarely saw any of this for one simple reason: i.reddit.com. This interface was a leftover from the earlier times of the mobile web and therefore it was fast, simple, and straight to the point. And precisely because it was so convenient at delivering the content that matters the most to me it had to die, killed by Reddit administrators yesterday and buried deep into this announcement post.

There's a widespread belief that the Reddit website is made awful on purpose with the end goal of exhausting you into using their mobile app where they can get better data about you and where you can no longer block their ads and sponsored posts. I do not know whether this theory is correct, but I can agree with half of it: now that i.reddit.com has shuffled off his mortal coil I am indeed exhausted, and today I am leaving the site for greener pastures. I have already made a GDPR request for all of my data in case I ever need to refer to some old post of mine, and once that's done I'll be gone for good.

Deciding where to go is a bit trickier. For tech news I already have Hacker News which is fine (a bit too obsessed with GPT at the moment, but we've been there before and hopefully this too shall pass). Local news will require some more research. I assume some part of Discord might do the trick, but I'd honestly prefer something more open.

So long, Reddit. It was fun while it lasted.

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