Category Archives: Reviews

ready player one

Book Review: Ready Player One

I was pretty skeptical about this book.

I saw the trailer for the big blockbuster that’s coming out, and it sounded like it was trying too hard. It’s sci-fi, but it’s also 80s retro? Do we really need more 80s nostalgia? Shouldn’t we celebrate more originality? I think it also didn’t help that many people were very excited about it being turned into a movie, and evangelical fans informing you that they are sure you’ll love the book just makes it that much harder for you to judge the story honestly.

Nonetheless, I ended up really enjoying Ready Player One. I realize that it may have just played very well to my ingroup; the “culture” of the novel went beyond just 80s nostalgia, but into early computer programming, videogames, and geek culture.  For that reason, I’m unsure if I would automatically recommend Ernest Cline’s book to everyone. I’m going to go over some of the weaknesses of the book, and if you think you could overlook them to enjoy a fairly creative and fun sci-fi adventure story, I think it’s worth a read.

In the first couple of chapters, I was a bit disappointed. I realized this was a dystopian near future young adult novel, and that’s a fairly common trope. The world has fallen on some hard economic times, and many people have turned to a globe-spanning shared virtual reality called the OASIS.

The “bad guys” are also incredibly simple. The villain doesn’t have an interesting alternative viewpoint or reason why he feels compelled to be bad. In fact, the obsession with the scavenger hunt just seems uncharacteristic of a large corporation. The evil companies that the story is trying to evoke, ISPs like Comcast or data hoarders like maybe an evil (eviler?) version of Facebook, they are concerning and worrisome precisely because they are large organizations without discrete goals. They optimize for profit, but not in humane or useful ways. Comcast is evil because they will promise to send out a tech to fix your internet who never shows up, day after day, and there’s no one else you can turn to. The evil corporation in the novel, IOI, is evil because it wants to take over the world by winning a contest and getting money. Comcast is evil because it’s already taken over the world, yet it’s so disorganized that its apathetic to how it’s ruining your life. Beating IOI is straightforward, but difficult; you need to win the scavenger hunt before they do. Beating Comcast is both deceptively simple, but yet so complex as to be impossible; you can’t just pass a law saying Comcast has to be less lazy, you have to actually introduce additional competition to cable providers everywhere that Comcast exists. Yet competition can’t just be introduced, barriers to entry, both legal and economic make that difficult. Removing legal barriers requires legislative will and legal knowledge which is sparse and distributed…etc.

The one area where the bad guys actually seemed pretty sinister was during a sequence detailing how IOI presses debters into indentured servitude to pay off their debts. The servitude never pays much, and everyone is forced to buy things in a “company store” type model which means they are essentially stuck in corporate slavery forever. That seemed way more bureaucratically terrifying along the lines of how I’d imagine a giant megacorporation grinding people’s souls for money. So points to that plot device at least.

The general outline of the plot itself also wasn’t too unexpected for a young adult dystopian novel. The creator of the OASIS passed away and has left his fortune to whomever can solve a very difficult puzzle/scavenger hunt which is inside the virtual world.  The protagonist, teenager Wade Watts, goes on an a classic adventure, re-imagined into the 80s nostalgia of the OASIS contest. He meets various friends who sometimes help him out, he gets occasional help from a couple older, wise characters, and he fights an army of bad guys.

But despite all these negatives, I actually ended up really enjoying this book. The general plot may have been fairly expected, but the specifics of the plot, including the challenges of the contest, and the intricacies of the world, both physical and digital, are quite creative and original. The rest of review is going to go into more plot details, so if you’d rather avoid that, you’ve been warned.

The world of the OASIS is an absolutely fascinating exploration of what the internet and virtual reality could be used for. The giant public school planet was a nice extension of what online learning classes could be. If you take Bryan Caplan-esque critiques of education as signaling seriously and then set aside the signaling aspect of education, there is little that couldn’t be taught on the internet almost as well as in a classroom.

Other parts of the world of the OASIS were excellent because they were tailored to exactly what a hacker/geek ingroup paradise would be. The idea of the Tyrell Corporation Pyramid being a default structure that anyone could place on an OASIS planet tickled my heart.  Built-in crypto was also pretty cool, and it even reflected correct cryptographic practices. Everyone’s actual information was encrypted at rest and not readable by the company’s own employees. While this might be tough to implement perfectly, it was nice that a fantasy book of a geek virtual reality world would correctly implement cryptographic privacy. (Of course, it turns out Og had a built-in backdoor to private chatrooms, which kind of breaks the whole “correctly implemented crypto”…) Additionally, there’s a sequence where Wade votes for Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton which was pretty funny.

Anonymity and privacy is actually vital to several plot points. First is the general idea that IOI can’t track where Wade is logging into the OASIS from since user data is well encrypted and he’s not using them as an ISP. But Wade is also able to generate an income from his avatar’s fame as a successful “gunter” in the contest. The concept of being able to anonymously generate an income where he can be paid without anyone knowing his real name was probably just a useful plot device, but would be a massive revolution for individual freedom in the real world. They didn’t really mention how taxes work, so this probably wasn’t entirely thought out, but the implications for such technology would be just fascinating. In a world largely ruled by VR, it wouldn’t be surprising if lots of work was done in VR instead of the real world. A world where the default interaction is encrypted and anonymous means that payment would default to being anonymous as well. Wade makes money by endorsing products with his online (and famous) avatar, but also by selling advertising on his personal vidfeed, which actually is pretty close to what Twitch actually ended up being in the real world.

A quick aside: Wade programs his vidfeed to show old 80s TV shows, movies, and music videos. He also spends a fair amount of time watching old shows that he thinks may prove useful in the hunt. There’s no mention of copyright enforcement or difficulty in obtaining access to these things. I guess it’s just one of those things that’s assumed away for the story, but having free and open access to these old shows is vital to the knowledge building of the “gunters”. I think the book could have taken a more explicit anti-copyright stance to match the hacker-culture of the gunters.

Back to the commentary on individualism: in a virtual world, there’s the almost obvious point that space itself can be easily privatized. Wade purchases a private asteroid and builds his own extensive base inside it. He can grant access to only people he wants to let in, and he can create whatever he wants in it. Property rights are pretty useful for creating a flourishing market, and so super property rights and the ability to manipulate reality itself (in a virtual world) puts that ability-to-create on steroids. Even Aech’s private chatroom is a pretty cool hangout, but it’s more than that; it’s the absolute privacy of an encrypted document, made “physical” via the virtual world of the OASIS. Maybe an evil dictator would just block access to the OASIS, but otherwise, people could literally meet in private chatrooms and share their ideas and frustrations with an oppressive regime face-to-face, without fear of actually meeting face-to-face. This is a pretty cool idea.

Finally, I want to note that the hacker-culture of the book and the gunters was very personally appealing. I’m sure everyone likes the idea of a community of righteous freedom fighters gathering together to fight the bad guys, but there was something that specifically invoked big MMORPG gatherings when Cline describes the gunter clans banding together to fight the Sixers. Even silly things like Wade’s ship being Serenity from Firefly was just really fun for me to imagine. I don’t know exactly how much of this would transfer over to someone who is less familiar with the references in the book. Then again, I only knew some of the references, and I was totally clueless to the 70s anime shows.

Ready Player One ended up being really enjoyable and did a great job exploring the implications of a worldwide shared virtual reality. Even if the adventure genre made some of the plot predictable and the bad guys cartoonish, there is so much cool world building that I found it easy to overlook any flaws. The sci-fi aspects of the book were excellent, the hacker culture backdrop was a lot of fun, and the plot did still have some impressive twists that I wasn’t expecting. I’m sure the upcoming film will be fine, but I doubt it will be able to capture all the small morsels of this really exciting world. I would definitely recommend this book if you have any science fiction interest, but remember it’s more like WarGames made into a hacker-culture tribute VR science fiction novel, not Foundation.

blade runner 2049

Blader Runner 2049

I’ve enjoyed seeing plenty of movies this year, but none have really exceeded expectations or left me in amazement like Blade Runner 2049 did. Not everyone will love this film, as demonstrated by the man sitting next to me who heavily sighed every few minutes. It was quite long and not nearly as action heavy as the trailer make it out to be. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t regard these as flaws of the movie, and indeed I have very little to criticize.

Firstly, the cinematography is unbelievable. I saw this movie in IMAX, and the stunning frames were just breathtaking. I liked the aura created by the world of the original Blade Runner, but the visuals of the sequel make it feel almost cheap. The expansion of scenery outside of the rainy, dirty Los Angeles from the first movie is welcome. And yet the production design keeps that constant feeling of darkness and dilapidation omnipresent.  The visual effects were also pretty incredible. Without going into spoilers, there’s a scene where two different actors’ faces are digitally layered on top of each other, and I could not believe how well the effect worked.

The sound. Wow. I had Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack on repeat for a week after watching 2049. I assume a loud and bold musical score is either expensive or difficult, because more mediocre movies seem content with letting the the music stay in the background. When you really notice how incredible a movie score is, that appears to be a symptom of an excellent musical effort. This one was jarring, suspenseful, and made every scene in the film seem huge.

The acting, the direction, the production of this film is pretty much spot on. Denis Villeneuve has done an incredible technical job (again). His skill set clearly adopts well to telling these beautiful, yet off-putting dives into humanity, and I’m excited to see his future work. I also want to talk about the characters and story, although I don’t want to get into spoilers yet. The original Blade Runner was a story about what it means to be human. 2005’s I, Robot had a similar theme although it was a tad bit more in-your-face about it. Blade Runner was more subtle, and when you watch it, it was striking how cruel some of the humans were, while how caring/affectionate/alive the replicants were. 2049 continues to delve into this question, and I think does an even better job than the first movie. If you like Sci-Fi that asks questions about humanity, this film is a must-see.

From here on I will be going into plot points that were not revealed in the trailers, so if you haven’t seen this movie, I would highly recommend it: A+, 5/5, etc. You should watch it. If you have already seen it…

K, the protagonist and blade runner (played by Ryan Gosling), as noted in the very beginning of the film, is a replicant. Much of the story revolves around who he is and to what extent he is human. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch. There seem to be few physical characteristics that distinguish replicants from humans. K, as one of the newer replicants made by the Wallace Corporation, was constructed specifically to avoid having the obedience problems of the old Nexus models. Yet, of course, his decisions are the fundamental decisions of the film. Certainly he appears to be stronger than regular humans, but otherwise, he has emotions, he has desires, he is even given implanted memories just like the replicants of the original movie.

K is forced to do some pretty terrible things by his human superiors, and most humans he encounters in the film are pretty unexcited to see any replicants. Yet K himself seems to express desires to be human.  He has a holographic AI girlfriend at home. At one point he embraces the fairly human “chosen one” trope, and it affects him so much he is essentially branded a criminal.

The relationship with Joi, his holographic AI, is interesting. K’s feelings for her are real, and it seems that we have to trust that her emotions are real as well. Yet, it’s also clear that many of Joi’s actions were programmed (her calling him “Joe” specifically is also done by an advertisement). Does this make her less real? Humans, after all, have biological programming in DNA. As Joi points out, using 0s and 1s instead of nucleobases doesn’t seem like it should de-legitimatize life. And, of course, if AI counts as “real” life, then what meaningful moral distinctions can be made between replicants and humans, who have even fewer differences?

Accepting replicants as people deserving of moral rights (a perspective which both Blade Runner films push the audience towards) also puts many character actions into question. K’s police superior orders him to kill a child to prevent a war. While her character protects K despite him being a replicant, the morality of her orders have to be questioned. She fears that if this child is found out, there will be a war between humans and replicants, a fear that is apparently well founded given the group K finds later in the film. Yet, there seem to be so few differences between replicants and humans, especially given the revelation of Rachael’s death early in the movie. Thus, the idea of a war or conflict between these two groups seems absurd, at least morally. Of course, if I’m sitting here wondering how humans and replicants could justify a conflict when they are so alike, then what does that say about conflict in our world?

I’m really excited when I get to see movies like this, which bring up interesting questions of humanity and society. Not every movie has to ask those questions of course, but when a movie wants to reach for those deep ideas, and then delivers with impressive technical film-making on top of that, it is a rare treat.

 

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.