Category Archives: Reviews

overwatch-ed

Overwatch

If you’ve been wondering where all my political blogging that I did last year has gone, I’ve transferred it over to a new blog to better separate personal stuff from political things.  I’m not linking it as to make it slightly harder for random prospective employers from the far future to find it. If you don’t know what my new blog is, just tweet at me or message me privately.

I enjoy videogames, but I often don’t have enough time to really indulge in them. I’ve had great experiences with past Blizzard games, and so when Overwatch came out in May, I decided to get it.

Not only do I not usually play video games, but I also don’t tend to play games when they first come out. I also like to stick to single-player, story-driven games (Portal, Arkham Asylum, Skyrim) and sometimes strategy games (Total War series, Civ V) or both (XCOM). And, of course, I tend to play these on a long delay, waiting for Steam sales to reduce the financial burden of my infrequent hobby. But in this case I decided to go for a multi-player game soon after it had come out.  Many have rightly stated that Overwatch is a Team Fortress 2 rip-off. Of course, I think people are far too protective of intellectual property anyway, and good rip-offs can be even better than the originals. Blizzard took the excellent gameplay ideas in Team Fortress 2, inserted their art and character backgrounds from their failed MMO Titan, and then created an amazingly fun and deep multi-player shooter.

Competitive role-based multi-player gaming is pretty fun. Trying to beat puzzles crafted by game designers is great too, but there’s something you can’t reproduce without battling against other people and their strategies. I always enjoyed player-vs-player parts of WoW, but part of it always came down to players who sank more time into the game got better weapons. This isn’t the case in Overwatch. Of course, this isn’t a new game genre either, but the creativity of what you can do and the absolute chaos you can fall into so easily is incredible. It’s just pure fun.

Blizzard also just did an incredible job with all the details apart from gameplay: the world is engaging and beautifully detailed, the game isn’t buggy at all, the point system is well crafted, the matching algorithms work quickly and efficiently, and the community dialogue has been amazingly transparent.  I don’t know what the game is like as a power player who wants to play competitively for dozens of hours a week, but I know for what I want as a casual gamer who will only sink a few hours into it a week, this game is essentially perfect. It’s also very easy to get into, and Blizzard has already started releasing additional content with no extra cost. If you haven’t played this game and were thinking about it, I can fully recommend it.

But this video game has also coincided with a renewal of board game popularity, not just in my life but in the entire market. This is somewhat surprising given the already mature market for games on computers, consoles, and mobile devices. Nonetheless here we are in the midst of a board game revolution. Somehow in the past year I’ve found myself playing Catan, Codenames, Escape: The Curse of the Temple, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Avalon, and more. I’ve undoubtedly played more board games this year than any other year I’ve been alive. And I even dabbled in Go a bit this year as AlphaGo made headlines. I suspect this renewed interest in applied game theory in a fun setting contributed to me buying Overwatch.

Unlike other multi-player video games which might rely on grinding to give players an edge, these board games rely exclusively on luck and skill; time devoted doesn’t factor in besides how long it takes you to learn. To me it makes these games a fundamentally higher brain exercise than something like WoW or Skyrim could ever be.  For me personally, this is a pretty exciting way to see gaming go mainstream (In a related vein, I’ve really enjoyed Crash Course’s new Games series with Andre Meadows).

When you put games on this axis of simple tactics to complex strategies, it also becomes clear why so many people want to watch games like Counterstrike, League of Legends, Rocket League, or Overwatch rather than games like WoW, Minecraft, or Grand Theft Auto; games that require more learned skill, innate talent, and strategy are far more interesting to watch that games that rely on grinding. And if you move further along the axis towards complexity and strategy, you’ll start to run into competitive physical sports like basketball and soccer. Obviously strategy and complexity aren’t sufficient make games universally popular (cricket is fairly complex but isn’t very popular in America, american football has similar popularity issues in the rest of the world), but they are necessary. EconTalk had a great discussion this week regarding the development of sports into entertainment; 50 years ago the major sports of today were nothing like we know them. They have developed into much improved products, and it wasn’t just TV exposure; the sports are measurably better in every way. Rules, nutrition, training, professionalism, advertising, etc have all improved drastically. There’s no reason to think games beyond the physical won’t see similar growth over the next 50 years.

It’s also worth pressing that this gaming revolution is a sign that Things Are Pretty Much Ok (TM). Despite what you may be hearing, violence and terrorism is trending downwards, fewer people are living below $1 a day than ever before, and apparently despite the ongoing technological isolation of our society, social board games where people play face-to-face are doing better than they’ve ever done. Seriously, if we agree that developed countries have mostly solved lifting everyone above subsistence existence, we get to philosophical questions of human existence beyond survival. What should people be doing, what activities should they engage in? Enjoying social gatherings with strategic brain games, seems like a wonderful way to spend that time, and I think could provide a proxy for a type of win condition for economic policy.  The future of games isn’t just fun, it should be a major part of our culture for many years to come.

Is Creative Culture Stagnating?

Spoiler warning for the new Star Wars movie.

I’ve read a few interesting pieces critical of The Force Awakens: Peter Suderman at Vox says TFA is a prime example of Hollywood’s nostalgia problem, there’s also a “nostalgia debate” around TFA at The Atlantic, and Ross Douthat at the NYT says TFA is a symptom of the decadence and cultural stagnation of our society.

I wondered if these people were having a romantic view of the past; has Hollywood just now started doing more sequels or have they always done so? I decided to take a look at the highest grossing movies from 1975-85 (when the original Star Wars trilogy came out) and compare it to the last 5 years. But it quickly became more complicated than I thought it would be; are sequels better or worse than remakes? Are movies based on books bad? Are movies based on comic book characters worse than movies based on books?  What about sequels of remakes of movies based on comic book characters?!  That sounds like the worst category, but it would include The Dark Knight, one of the best action blockbusters of the lack decade. Continue reading

Movies! Summer 2015

This is a break from the more issue-focused last couple of posts to talk about one of the more fun things I was able to get done this summer, see some great movies!

In total I was able to see 7 movies during the summer movie season: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, Tomorrowland, Jurassic World, Inside Out, Ant-Man, and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.  It’s also worth noting that I tend to look at movies as a science fiction fan, and last year’s best summer sci-fi movie was far and away Edge of Tomorrow. How do this summer’s movies compare? Continue reading

Updated Links

I’ve updated the links to add a new section for reference websites that aren’t updated in the same way blogs are.  All of the new sites listed under “Reference” I would highly recommend, but for different reasons.

Basketball-reference.com is the best way to get basketball stats hands-down. If you are at all into sports data, this site has data on games, teams, players, and coaches for college and professional levels going back decades. It even has more advanced stats, pace-adjusted, whatever you could want for free.

Learn Liberty, Libertarianism.org, and the Library of Economics and Liberty are awesome libertarian/economic websites. Libertarianism.org (run by the Cato Institute) is the best site for introductory essays discussing libertarianism and classical liberalism, and Learn Liberty (run by IHS) is similar but with an emphasis on videos.  The Library of Economics and Liberty has tons of publications from classical liberal thinkers going back centuries.

Steve Gibson’s Sci-Fi Book Guide is a list of science fiction novels compiled by computer security expert Steve Gibson (whose Podcast is in my blog list).  It’s different from your normal sci-fi book list and I’ve enjoyed his recommendations so far. I plan on having a more in depth blog on sci-fi novels soon.

Things Every CS Major Should Know is a way too long of a list of things that I don’t know, but an excellent guide for self education for anyone interested in computers and coding.  Professor Might’s blog is awesome but is often more technical than I need, so I don’t have it in my blog list.

I’d also like to highlight one relatively new addition to my blog links: Slate Star Codex. Scott Alexander, the author of this blog, is the most impressive writer I’ve seen in a blogger.  He writes volumes, and has an emphasis on rationality and rhetoric.  He’s also libertarian leaning, but I would describe his position as rational, libertarian-leaning political skeptic. I would highly recommend his blog.

The Diamond Age

Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel The Diamond Age is a fascinating story which provides a lot of relevant discussion about the conflicts between east-Asian and western values, especially in education and social issues.  Additionally vital to book is the advanced technological setting, a future of eartch future revolutionized by nanotechnology.  In fact, for much of the book, the exploration of this nanotechnological future was at least as interesting as the plot.

Use of this book for discussion purposes qualifies as Fair Use. Click for link.

Continue reading

A Song of Ice and Fire: Books 1 and 2

I started A Song of Ice and Fire series this year, since the Game of Thrones TV series has reached fever pitch among my neighbors and friends.  For those who do not know, A Song of Ice and Fire is the original name of the series of novels by George R. R. Martin (what is it with fantasy authors and two Rs as their Middle names?).  For my overall one sentence review, I would say these books are excellent, highly complex, dark, realistic, and unique in their take on the fantasy genre.

Source: Wikipedia, click for link. Cover art by Stephen Youll. Use of this book cover for purposes of discussion qualifies as fair use.

Continue reading

Stranger in a Strange Land

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the most famous American novels written in the 20th century.  When I started to read it, I had no idea what to expect.  I guessed that Stranger would be about space exploration and other worlds, in the vein of Star Wars, Firefly, or even the Enderverse.  What I found instead was something completely different.

Stranger is indeed science fiction, and does concern extraterrestrial concepts vital to the plot, but it is far more introspective to the human race than anything I was prepared for. It concerns Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars and brought to Earth, and his struggle to understand the foreign species around him.

One of the reasons I was first interested in this book was because it won  a Prometheus Award, given out by the Libertarian Futurist Society. Their website, while not containing impressive HTML nonetheless holds a great deal of recognition for libertarian literature. Part of Stranger is indeed about how easily an individual can be crushed by either government, religion, or simply society generally.  Indeed, several of the novels protagonists are as ruggedly individualistic as any human could be, and almost all of the enemies in the book arise from when collective action overtakes individual freedom, whether that collectivism stems from the terrestrial state, the extraterrestrial Martians, or the blind servants of the supernatural.

However, the book certainly has its flaws.  While political events and societal observations are masterfully crafted, they are interspersed with jarringly 1950s gender roles that immediately break the illusion of a futuristic society.  That’s not to say the book or Heinlein are anti-feminist; women certainly can hold power in the novel, but it is clearly restricted to a mid-century mindset, something I cannot fault Heinlein for, as he did not pick the age in which he lived.

Overall though, the book is an excellent adventure, entertaining and thought provoking.  I would certainly recommend reading it, but it is not someone first approaching the science fiction genre.  Something like Ender’s Game definitely comes first when starting to explore sci-fi, and after that I’d recommend Dune.  Then perhaps take a dive into the more intense science fiction of Stranger.

Zodiac

Zodiac, the crime-thriller from 2007 starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club), was not something I remember putting on my to-watch movie list so I honestly can’t say how I heard about it, but the film surprisingly impressed me. According to wikipedia, it tanked at the box office, which is too bad, because Zodiac was masterfully done.

Fair Use

Theatrical Poster. Can or could be obtained from IMP Awards. http://www.impawards.com/2007/zodiac.html

I’m not usually one to enjoy films with serial killers as the subject matter, but Zodiac focused more on the detective work and the mystery, while adding the suspense of one of San Francisco’s most notorious unsolved crimes.  This realism mixed elements of a documentary with the suspense of a crime thriller and made for a compelling storyline.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo were excellent and  I would definitely recommend watching it. However, since it follows the book of the same name pretty closely, and relies so much on the realism, it’s not really an eye-opening film, just a really entertaining one. Still, check it out if you have a chance.

Overall: 4/5. Definitely would watch again.

Homeland

This week I finished reading Homeland by Cory Doctorowauthor and co-editor of Boing Boing.  My immediate reason for reading it was an assignment from my CS seminar class about the internet and technology in society, but I had been meaning to read Little Brother for some time.  Homeland is the sequel to Little Brother, and while I was not familiar with the storyline, the book is a pretty easy read so I jumped right in. Doctorow wrote both Little Brother and Homeland for young adults to be both accessible and educational about technology and civil liberties.  Doctorow is somewhat of an anti-copyright activist and thus the books, like all of his work can be obtained for free from his website, but if you enjoy them, I urge you to buy them as well and support his work.

Homeland undertakes a great deal in a small space and is fairly successful.  Doctorow pursues various themes in his book, while seeking to explain a complex and technical world to an unfamiliar audience, all of which occurs only for the backdrop of a riveting storyline that must keep the reader’s attention.  Having not read the previous story of which Homeland is a sequel to, many of the events and background was not familiar to me, yet it was consistently well-explained. Furthermore, the intense technical nature of many of the plot devices were adequately covered so that the audience not only knew what was occurring, but inevitably learned a great deal about privacy, cryptography, and information security in the process. This  translated into pushing many of the themes of the book, notably that technology can be a force for both good and evil, and if prying eyes want to know what you’re doing, you can’t always stop them.  But Homeland also gives some insight into the hacker culture and catalogs many of the tools that government dissidents can use to hide their activities like secure linux distros, Tor, and VPNs.  And it does all this while maintaining a fascinating plot and interesting characters.

However, it is isn’t perfect. Doctorow’s politics are not particularly subtle, and with the exception of a few anonymous hackers, the vast majority of the characters are pretty starkly divided into “good guy hacktivists” and “bad guy enforcers”.  In some sense, this is due to the limitations of the genre with Homeland aimed at the young adult audience where the appeal of the fighting-the-man scenarios is an excellent plot device.  But it also detracts from the overall message;Homeland paints an incredible story of why civil liberties must be so carefully guarded and how destructive life can become when they are gone–but the story itself might feel too forced to fit that message.

Of course, I would emphasize that while some of the technology itself might not be realistic (although in a couple years that won’t be true anymore), almost every important point in the book has already happened. With the passage of the 2012 NDAAauthorizing the president to detain indefinitely any US citizen suspected of being involved in terrorist activities, the use of water boarding by the US government, and the well-documented use of defense contractors, much of the more unbelievable actions the government took in Homeland have already occurred in real life. Thus, Doctorow’s book offers a sobering outlook on the technologically advanced world we live in, and a powerful message about where the abuses of unbridled authority can lead.  I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in cyber security, technology and politics, or anyone who simply wants to know more about the dark world of hackers, crypto, and anonymity.