Tag Archives: reviews

What to do with a graduate degree

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been gaming.

The zombie shooter Left4Dead has recently seen the release of two fan generated campaigns Dead Before Dawn and One 4 Nine.

Dead Before Dawn takes the basic premise of the Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead where the characters work their way to Crossroads mall where they make their final stand and eventual escape (hopefully).  The campaign does a nice job of expanding upon the idea of completing tasks beyond the ‘start the generator and wait for the horde’ task that most of the Steam generated scenarios rely upon.  Granted they’re almost all essentially re-skinned versions of that task but at least there’s a bit of variety.

It also felt like there was a lot more ‘explorability’ in this campaign setting than in the original campaigns with multiple ways to get to the same end point.  The game was a little buggy (I got hung up several times and had to restart) but not outrageously so for a non-official campaign and it was a challenging play throughout.

I haven’t played One 4 Nine yet but it uses the zombie apocalypse as a function of secret government tests theme.  It’s received very high ratings and the authors continue to tweak it with the most recent update being posted on the 14th.

I also picked up the beta version of Fate of the World which advertises itself as:

…a global strategy game that puts our future in your hands. Decide how the world will respond to rising temperatures, heaving populations, dwindling resources, crumbling ecosystems and brave opportunities.

If you buy it now you get it at a discount, can play the beta version now plus some extras and so I figured I’d give it a shot for $16.

The beta version has one scenario available for play which involved dealing with the consequences of a world wide oil shortage and limiting the effects of global warming.  You play the role of the head of a global environmental organization that actually has power and resources to do things.  The world is divided into 12 regions that act as coherent political entities that you have to engage with.  They contribute to your cash flow while members of your little club but can also assert their sovereignty and kick you out if they think you’re dissing them.

The game starts in 2020 with turns covering 5 year increments and ends in 2120.  ‘Victory’ involves keeping global warming increases under 3.5 degrees, the global HDI above .5 and maintain membership in at least 5 (I think) regions.

The beta version of the game doesn’t come with rules but the basics of the system are fairly easy to figure out.  The nuances and interactions of the numerous factors and components of game play are more difficult to figure out and time will tell if that’s going to be part of the game (‘Hey!  You’ve switched the entire North American transportation industry to biofuels.   Great work on reducing emissions!  Oh, by the way, 200 million people are dying of starvation in India because nobody is growing food anymore.  Nice job.’)

I have to admit I underestimated the complexity of the game system because the user interface is so simple.  I suppose there will be critics that argue with some of the underlying science involved but it is neat  to see how interconnected environmental/developmental/economic policies and played around with various strategies like focusing only on the developed world, trying to do a bit of everything everywhere and trying to strong arm the world.  The possibilities are endless and even within those broad strategies there are so many potential alternatives you could (and I wanted to) always feel you’re so close to success with just a bit of tweaking (I haven’t made it yet).  Focus on heavy R&D, business friendly policies, heavy handed regulation, disaster mitigation or whatever your heart desires.

And don’t get the impression that this is all about tree-hugging, feel good lefty stuff.  The game designers seemed to want to give you a lot of options to accomplish your goals.  So, in one game I launched (covertly, of course) a biological plague upon India to reduce its population (using too many resources and becoming politically unstable threatening to kick me out) by 25% in five years.  In the same game I also overthrew a government or two, launched an insurgency and implemented a secret sterilization program in China’s water supply (hey, you can’t make an omlette without breaking a few eggs).  Unfortunately, my scheme was found out and I was brought to trial for crimes against humanity but what are you gonna do?  The pressure you feel as you see that temperature creep up every turn and you get the news of species going extinct, mass famines, natural disasters and wars makes you contemplate increasingly drastic measures, especially when you start to see whole portions of the world start to kick you out and you realize you’re pulling in less and less money to do things in fewer and fewer parts of the world.

There’s tons of data and metrics here so I assume you can totally geek out if you want.  GDP, employment, demographics, energy usage by sector, etc. etc. etc.  all changing as a result of your policy decisions.

I hesitate to say this is a ‘fun’ game in the same way L4D or even another strategy game like the Total War series but I suspect that’s because there’s less opportunity for periodic payoffs.  Things are grim and probably going to get grimmer and the best you can hope for is a pathetic crawl across the finish line by the skin of your teeth. But I was hooked for gobs of time on it over the weekend and have a half a dozen strategies peculating in my mind that I’d like to try.

The game has definite teaching potential and I’d like to see a co-operative version (with players either playing as the heads of regions that can cooperate or not as they see fit or on some executive council where negotiations could add a whole additional level of complexity and realism to the game).



Halloween wrap up

Another Halloween season is down and I tried to delve into the season with mixed results.  Here are my findings.

Trick or treating was rather tepid.  We had some kids come by but nothing spectacular.  I can’t blame them however.  The community set Trick or Treating hours from 1-4pm on the 30th!  It’s like they sat down to try to figure out how to suck all the fun out of the day.

We started our way through the Twilight Zone catalog.  I thought I’d seen all of them but apparently not.  What a brilliant show.  Rod Serling was a particularly interesting guy and I highly recommend you check out this interview (parts 2 and 3 are on YouTube as well) with him circa 1959.  You could see the struggles between ‘selling out’ and commercial success being fought out even in TV’s early days.  I found his bluntness surprising and inviting.  Could you imagine a producer today alienating so many potential demographics on the eve of launching a new show?

We watched a couple of movies.  The first was titled Moon and the second was a Spanish movie called Timecrimes.   Both movies had promise and weren’t bad but I think both suffered from spending too much time with their central idea.  Both would have been much better had they been shorter (45 minutes or so…definitely less than an hour).  It’s kind of a shame there isn’t much of a market for shorter films like there is for short stories or novellas.  I’m not sure I could recommend these films but I wouldn’t actively dissuade someone from seeing them either.  If you find yourself on a barren asteroid with lots of free time on your hands, go check them out.

But, something I most definitely can recommend is The Passage by Justin Cronin.  The book has a number of similarities to Stephen King’s The Stand but without some of it’s flaws (primary among them the fact that Stephen King was the author).  At 845 pages it’s just about a massive as the King book (and since it’s only the first of a proposed trilogy the final project will dwarf The Stand) but without the long descriptions King is famous for that convince you the guy is getting paid by the word.  It also avoids the incredibly lame ending of the Stand (although to be fair, since this is only the first installment of the series comparing the end of the first book to the end of King’s entire project may not be appropriate).  It’s got something for everyone:  out of control military test projects, vampires, the apocalypse and cross country travel.  What more could you want?  There are some nice twists to the story, namely the way Cronin plays with the vampire mythology and adapts it to his universe.  There was some interesting imagery used in the story and it might deserve a second read to see if there’s more than just a entertaining post apocalyptic yarn in there.

Mrs. TwShiloh and myself got to catch up on the new season of Dexter and we continue to be flummoxed at how this show manages to avoid jumping the shark.  Every time we’re convinced the writers are going to have to go for the easy and predictable contrivances, they surprise us yet again.

And finally, I saw the pilot episode of The Walking Dead on AMC.  As much as I enjoy the comic I have to admit I envy those who haven’t read it since the whole storyline will come as a surprise.  Still, the series has a great deal of promise.  The actors they’ve shown so far are quite good as are the effects and if they can keep the quality up this promises to be a great, plot heavy series.

October fright fest

I’m finally able to catch up on some movies that have been in my queue for awhile…

The first was the Spanish movie [Rec] which was quite enjoyable.  Think Alien except instead of occurring in space it takes place in a Barcelona apartment building.  And instead of an Alien, it’s zombies (kinda sorta).   There’s not much in the way of character development but you don’t really need that for this kind of movie which is really more about conveying a sense of dread and claustrophobia.  There isn’t an excessive amount of gore, relying instead on good old fashioned suspense to deliver thrills and I found the subtitles to actually enhance the atmosphere of the film by adding an extra layer of anxiety.  Not only do you not understand what’s going on within the plot of the movie but you don’t understand what people are saying either.  I don’t think it’ll make ‘classic’ status but it’s a nice, solid movie that’s worth your time.

The next movie was Sunshine which had some interesting ideas but ended up being a mess.  It really does look like they had two movies and just mashed them up which resulted in having two incomplete (and unsatisfactory movies).  Even though the movie had some nice visuals I just can’t recommend it as the plot completely fell apart and made no sense.

Finally, Monsters is about an invasion of Northern Mexico by giant cephalopod sort of creatures.  Yeah, I know that sounds lame but it was actually pretty good.  The filmmakers appear to have had a rather limited budget so that had to go for a story rather than an effects driven film but that actually forced them to have a plot, which was a nice change of pace.  Almost all of the ‘action’ is in the first five minutes (but it is a pretty cool way to open up the movie) and the rest focuses on two people trying to get back to the U.S.  In that regard, it’s probably better to think of this as a relationship movie with a sci-fi backdrop.  It won’t keep you up at night but if you enjoyed the near future realism look of District 9, the visuals should appeal to you.

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage playtest

I got and finally had some time to play Hannibal – Rome and Carthage, the game I’ve written about a couple of time before.  Now, I’m ready to pass judgement.

While I really enjoyed it, I think the true pleasure of this game comes from having a familiarity with the subject matter.  Without it, it might be a casual wargame of some limited potential but it really comes alive (and is worth your time) if you’re familiar with the course of the Second Punic War.

And if you are familiar with that war, boy are you in for a treat.  I was blown away at how the designer could use such an apparently simple set of game mechanics to realistically capture the flow and feel of that war.

The game graphics are beautiful if decidedly low tech.  Everything about the game is designed to replicate the feel of the time, from the parchment notes to the sound of stones sliding against each other while you’re moving tiles that represent your armies.

It finds a nice balance between strategy and fate with both random events (Yeah, that huge fleet you’ve been building up?  Storms can be a bitch in the 2nd century BC.) and through event cards that you can use for varying effect (encourage a revolt at Syracuse to get them to switch to your side; play up the unpredictability of the Guals by making half of them get drunk right before a crucial battle, let Hannibal slip through the Roman fingers by escaping by sea, etc.).

The game flows back and forth with mind spinning speed and, just like the real war, you can be convinced all you’ve got left to do is mop up some rag tag Romans one moment and the next turn you’re scrambling to regroup before you’re the one that’s crushed.  But how you can develop your long term strategy will determine how well you can withstand cruel twists of fate.

The AI is very robust and I was quite happy playing at the introductory level for quite a while.  The ‘normal’ level gives me a good run for my money and I’ve yet to beat expert.  What I particularly like about the AI is that it just doesn’t increase the size of the Roman armies or make harder to damage.  The Romans actually strategize better.

And the real gem is that at the ‘advanced’ level of play, you not only have to deal with Roman armies, but you also have to contend with the Carthagenian senate.  At all levels of play the Senate decides what the main theater of the war will be and that’s the ONLY theater that you can move reinforcements in to.  Things looking ripe for a raid into Sardina?  Too bad. The Senate thinks you should be paying attention to Spain so quit screwing around.  This isn’t Rome after all. We’ve got civilian control of the military.  Now do what you’re told or you’ll find yourself cruicified.

At the introductory and normal level of play the Senate will do whatever Hannibal wants.  It still means you can only move forces to one theater at a time so you still have to plan several moves in advance while trying to hold off Roman advances if you want to make your plans comes together.  At the advanced level, however, the Senate feels free to do what it wants and Hannibal can only offer advice.  There are ways to exert more influence on the Senate (through event cards) but that usually comes at the price of giving up additional army units.  So you have to decide how important it is to try to get the Senate to go your way and how much you can try to ignore them and just get the job done in spite of them.

The game turns each represent one year and if neither Rome or Carthage hasn’t been captured (or Hannibal killed) the game ends at the end of the 20th turn and some system determines how you fared (it explains the system in the rules, I just haven’t read it since I generally don’t like to look too closely under the hood while I’m first playing a game).

I defy you to play this game and not have at least one or two moments where you go ‘Ah…now I get why the Romans did this or Hannibal didn’t do that.’

Being human

The TwShiloh household recently began watching the BBC series Being Human and it’s pretty good stuff.  The plot revolves around three people sharing a house and the twist is that they are a vampire, werewolf and a ghost.

The show follows their attempts to blend in and join humanity while struggling with their various trials and tribulations.  One doesn’t need to have an overly analytical mind to realize that these three paranormal states are, in fact, metaphors for much more mundane (and common) plot lines that fill TV dramas.  The vampire is an addictive personality (blood, cigarettes, bad girlfriends) and plays the role subtlety and well.  Lycanthropy raises all sorts of issues of self loathing and struggling for hiding one’s identity and is clearly supposed to represent repressed homosexuality.  Even though the character is hetero, he is just shy of Nathan Lane’s flamboyant Albert from the Birdcage with a lot of hysterics and startled exclamations.  The ghost is a young woman who’s struggling to find (and establish) her own identity.  In life she defined herself only through others and so had little independent existence.

Without the paranormal angle this could just be a bad soap opera.  With it, however, the writers are able to do some interesting things with the characters without getting too heavy handed as well as introducing a bit of fun.

And it is fun.  The series is styled as a comedy-drama and there are equal bits of both.  The plot lines are fresh, with a nice amount of unexpected twists and some interesting ideas about the horror archetypes thrown in.

Two seasons have been broadcast thus far and a third is on the way.  If things go as they have in the past, my positive review will be followed shortly by the BBC announcing that they’re canceling the show immediately.

The only thing I can really ding the series on thus far is that there’s far too much snarling going on.  When the vampires are mad they bare their teeth and hiss (like we’ve all seen oh so many times before).  But really, is that what they’d really do?  How often have you seen a person hiss?  Or make some incredibly contrived affectation?  And for the few times you’ve seen someone try it, how often has it worked?  Still, that’s a minor point….Check it out and enjoy.

Here’s the trailer:

The review edition

It seems about time to discuss a variety of gadgets and doo-dads I’ve acquired over the past few months and give them the official TwShiloh stamp of (dis)approval:

The nook: I’ve had my nook for a little while now and have read about three books in it so it’s a fair time to evaluate it.  Bottom line:  I really enjoy it for several reasons:

  1. super convenient – it’s small enough to carry virtually everywhere and can hold enough books to let me avoid the quandary I occasionally have of having to rush out the door and knowing I’ll only be able to carry one book with me where ever I’m going.
  2. new reading material – the process of buying books through Barnes and Noble is really easy and with their inclusion of google books in their search means there are a huge number of free books that I’d probably never otherwise read.  So, in addition to books I was hoping to get around to and decided to add to the nook (the works of Saki, Oscar Wilde and others) I also picked up great sounding books like The History of the Zulu War or A House Boat on the Styx.  And if you read a bit and don’t like it?  No problem.  It’s free so just delete it and search for something else.
  3. the reading experience – I just got a cover for the nook and it’s amazing how much just adding and accessory like that can make reading an eReader simulate reading a proper book (of course, it also helped that I just found out that I can ‘turn pages’ by just swiping my finger over the touch pad rather than clicking the page forward/back buttons).  It does take about a second for pages to turn but I don’t find it distracting at all (and I’m generally a very fast reader).

But it’s not all peaches and cream.  The highlight function works but it’s nowhere near as easy as using an actual highlighter.  And it’s a hit on my conversion software (calibre) rather than the nook but conversions from .pdf to ePUB isn’t totally refined yet.  I’ve head some work perfectly and others with some annoying formatting issues.

Vibram five fingers:  I’ve been running with these for almost a year now and got a new pair this year so that I wouldn’t have to be seen in that horrid bright blue of my original pair.  I’ve never had physical problems from running so I can’t speak to how these are better for your feet or knees than regular shoes but I will say I enjoy running much more than I did when I used traditional running shoes.  while running shoes may not weigh much in the grand scheme of things, compared to the Vibrams, it feels like you’re running with cinderblocks on your feet.

X-mini:  The speakers on my laptop suffer from major suckage.  That’s unfortunate since I use my laptop for listening to music and watching movies.  The X-mini is a great speaker with amazing sound and a long battery life.  I’ve used it to fill up a good sized room with clear, full sound.

Zune:  I’ve had my Zune for 2 years and I’ve always been a big fan (especially since I hate itunes) and it’s been a great device for music, podcasts, audiobooks and videos.  Unfortunately, I’m starting to have some problems with the display.  I know we live in an era of designed obsolescence but portable media devices should last longer than 2 years.

To-Go Ware:  I used to use plastic utensils for my lunch but it never worked out well.  The fork would break in my salad, I’d run out of spoons when I need one and I’d always end up with a drawer full of plastic knives that I’d have no use for.  So, as a kind of an impulse item I picked up a set of these bamboo utensils (including chopsticks).  The holder is made of recycled PET plastic.  Look, I know this doesn’t mean a hill of beans in the whole ‘save the world’ thing and the knife won’t cut jack but other than that it works better than plastic ware and, hey, every little bit helps, right?

So, there you go kids, spend your money wisely…

Kvick Tänkare

So Clay Shirky wrote a very interesting post about how complex systems (specifically the media) are unable to simplify when faced with structural competition (like user generated content) and have no other choice but to fail.  Felix Salmon riffs off that to argue that our banking system is too complex (and thereby a candidate for collapse).

My question is that if you buy those assumptions, how could our society remain recognizable if such major components as information transmission and the financial system collapse? Stock up on ammo and Ramen noodles kids!

I just finished reading The Somme by Martin Gilbert.  Eh…just so-so.  I really liked his book about the First World War but this book couldn’t seem to decide what it wanted to be.  Not enough detail to be a comprehensive description of the  battle (you barely know that Germans and French were involved), not enough compelling narrative to personalize the experience of battle.  Just a bit of a jumble.

I’m all caught up to the podcast ‘We’ve Alive‘.  Whoa…amazingly good.  Even if you’re not a zombie fan it’s worth giving it a listen.

Maybe the EU isn’t so unwieldy that all military operations run by it are doomed to fail.  Maybe they can get by through allowing individual initiative.

I’m having a hard time figuring out how much of the ‘Mexico is turning into a narco-state’ narrative is true and how much is a product of serious criminality and a media that likes to talk about the sky falling.  Still, this doesn’t sound good.

PBS has a documentary on Buddha tonight….looks pretty good.

Lunghu is predicting a significant earthquake in the San Francisco area “during the last week in April (around the 28th) and the middle of May (around the 13th)”.  He won’t discuss his methodology but if he’s right I think this will be definitive proof he’s cut a deal with the mole men and is planning on selling us surface dwellers out.

The Soviets in Afghanistan

I just finished listening to the audio version of Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble which covers the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.  It’s not in the pantheon of great books but it’s still pretty good and the dearth of material on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan makes this a solid contribution.

The book tries to cover the whole canvas of the conflict from the activities within the Politburo to individual soldiers and so the book does suffer from a general lack of focus.  Feifer’s writing is so good though, and the subject matter so interesting that rather than wanting to edit this down to a slim volume I’d prefer if he bulked it up so he could discuss the activities at these various levels in more depth.

I suspect the publishers, in an effort to make this work more ‘sellable’ to the public, tried to make the case that learning about the Soviet experience could provide America with lessons for our own war there.  I (and the NY Times) don’t think he pulls it off, but, in his defense, he doesn’t really even seem to try expect for the epilogue.  Of more importance is the fact that the book doesn’t need it and so doesn’t suffer for the lack of explicit ‘lessons learned’ for America.

I thought I heard a couple of minor errors in the audio version that I’m not sure are in the printed version (I thought they said Kabul was west of Herat, for example) but it only caused a moment of mental dissonance.

The brutality of the Soviets to their own troops remains shocking to read even though it’s been public knowledge for quite some time.  The practice of dedovshchina is completely foreign to me both as a soldier and a leader.  In what world would someone think that’s good for unit cohesion?  But, that wasn’t the extent of the problem.  A broken logistical system (even if it wasn’t riddled with corruption) meant that soldiers could not consistently count on being supplied the food, equipment or weapons that they were needed.  Discipline, training and standards were lax among many units forcing command to continually put the few good units in heavy rotation for combat missions.

One of the striking parts of the book was the recounting of the battle of hill 3234 which sounds like it deserves a book length treatment in its own right, in which a company of the 345th Independent Guards Airborne Regiment (about 40 men) fought off an attack by a force 5-10 times larger.  The mujaheddin made 12 assaults upon the Soviet position before eventually retiring.  The Soviets were almost out of ammunition and 34 of their 39 men were either wounded or dead.

In 2005, the Russians made a movie loosely based upon the battle called the 9th Company which I also just finished watching.  It’s not a great war film, but it’s not bad either and given the paucity of films about war in Afghanistan (yet again, Iraq gets all the attention) it’s worth watching.

I’m not sure if it’s the movie or a cultural thing but it’s interesting to compare this with American war films and the differences are striking.  Even in conflicts where we haven’t done well there’s an obligatory ‘hooah’ scene (usually with a hard rock track) and the movie end with a ‘we’ll never be defeated’ message.  Not here.  The music is orchestral soundtrack and disturbingly dirge like.  There’s not a lot of redemption or hope at the end (although there seems to be an attempt to do so that might resonate more with a Russian audience).

My new book

I read a lot of reports, assessments, etc in .pdf format and like many people hate reading lengthy documents on the computer.  Of course printing them out isn’t particularly practical and is incredibly wasteful.  So, I decided to take the plunge and splurge in one of those fancy eBook readers.  It may not have been the wisest decision to make since these readers are a still new technology and standards are still being fought over (and the price may drop significantly in the next year) but I figured I’d be one of the ‘early adopters’ or ‘early majority‘.

So, I picked up a nook from Barnes and Nobel and have been playing around with it for a couple of weeks now.

It’s got a pretty easy set up.  Out of the box, plug it in and turn it on and you’re pretty much ready to go.  You can add and delete files from the nook by dragging and dropping via explorer but you really need an ebook management software program fairly soon.  Nook seems to recommend Adobe Digital Editions but don’t waste your time.

At some point you’re probably going to want to convert documents from one format to epub or something similar so that you can use all the functions of the nook (notes and highlighting for me).  I found a freeware program called Calibre which is quite good at both management and conversion, although it won’t synch notes/bookmarks and such between the nook and the reader on my PC.

The nook is small and lightweight (it fits within my jacket pocket), making carrying it around easy and much more convenient than lugging that 200 page pdf I’d normally have and it’s memory capacity (2GB internal, upgradable by another 16GB) means that I will not have a problem in terms of space for documents and books.

It plays mp3 files if you wanted to add music or set it up for audio books but I’m not sure how much use I’ll get out of that feature since I already have an mp3 player for those and it’s small enough carry along with the nook, if needed (one more item and you’ll need a utility belteds.).

Barnes and Nobel seems to be doing it’s best to support the nook through a bit of free daily content (one humorous article and one on general literature) and regular updates on free content or special deals.

You’ve got enough flexibility in terms of font and size to satisfy just about everyone and reportedly holds a charge for up to 10 days.  Up to this point I’ve gone three days with it either in ‘sleep’ or active mode without a charge and it kept well over three-quarters of it’s charge.

There are tons of free ebooks out there (project Gutenburg has got more stuff then I’ll ever be able to get to) so even if you never buy an electronic book you’ll be more than busy trying to get to all those classics you’ve always meant to read but never got around to.

So, if you’re interested in an eBook reader, the nook (so far) seems to be a quite good choice.

More from Mike

Mike Bennett has another podcast up, this one a collection of his poetry.  As usual, it’s absolutely brilliant.  I just listened to ‘Seeking the Unwanted’ and had to get this recommendation out.