random thoughts to oil the mind

Month: December 2016

2016 in Review

Twelve months down the line, I thought I’d post another year in review. Again, this post won’t be of any interest to anyone, but here’s a summary of some of the media I’ve consumed over the past year.

Summary

Words translated: 479,763 (plus 70,563 proofread)

PC games played: lots

Best PC games: Broforce, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Door Kickers, SpeedRunners, Broken Sword 5

Worst PC games: Lovely Planet, Evolve Stage 2

Board games played: 98 plays (45 games)

Best board games: Splendor, One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Worst board games: Nightfall, Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King

Films watched: 44

Best films: Calvary, Chef, The Artist, The Wrestler, Doom

Worst films: RockNRolla, Iron Sky, Catch .44

Books read: 34

Best books: The Blind Watchmaker, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Regeneration, Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, The Martian, Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience: The Life and Work of Joseph Rotblat

Worst books: Er ist wieder da, The Spire, Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren

Countries visited: Austria, UK

Photos taken: 1373

A Year in Gaming

Another fairly docile year, at least as far as single-player gaming was concerned. I managed to play through Shadow of Mordor in spring, which had a really nice storyline and decent mechanics, even if I got a bit bored of running around towards the end. We also played through Broken Sword 5 which was a great return to form for the series, excellent story and interesting puzzles, without any pointless 3D models and awkward handling. More recently I’ve been running through Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime with Steffi, a cute little couch coop which has you piloting a ship through colourful space/underwater scenes to rescue bunnies… it’s a weird old setting alright, but it reminds me a teensie bit of FTL, just with two players. Hotseat the shields, engines and weapons to make it through safely!

Apart from that, most of my gaming action this year was reserved for our Thursday night sessions. Pretty amazing that we’ve kept it up for more than a year now, and I look forward to it every week just as ever. I’m also happy we’ve managed to try a nice range of titles. I think Broforce was probably the surprise highlight for me, suitably madcap, all the while challenging but without ever really being impossibly so.

Worst games of the year then? As ever I picked up plenty of cheapos or got free copies of titles for various things. I sometimes try them out at the weekends and screen them for ones which might be a laugh on Thursdays. Occasionally you find something cute, like that SpeedRunners game. Other times I find single-player titles which you can while away an afternoon on, such as Door Kickers, a cute tactical point-and-click which reminded me of Frozen Synapse without being anywhere near as serious in the planning aspect. But one truly painful half hour I put myself through was for Lovely Planet. I’m not even sure you can really call it a game! More like someone’s end-of-year project in a CS class, put together over a weekend fuelled by caffeine and bad cartoons.

Perhaps unfair, but I think the worst game we tried on a Thursday was still Evolve Stage 2. As much as you want to love the concept of that title, the game is fundamentally flawed because of the very nature of a game revolving around hide-and-seek with Godzilla. I’m sure it would be a bit more fun if you knew the person you were trying to hunt down, but essentially most of your time is spent trying to avoid combat, which makes for a rather dull game. I know they based the game off the way people enjoyed the interaction between the Tank and the survivors in L4D, but they needed to keep the story-driven elements or the environment interaction of that game to give the players something to do.

A Year in Boardgaming

So how about gaming of the analogue variety? Managed to play 45 different titles this year across nearly a hundred plays. I think that says it all for how much time you spend playing any one particular game. Remember when we were kids and you’d spend all your time playing Monopoly any chance you got, because it was one of only three games anyone ever had? Now we’re completely spoilt for choice and barely end up giving any of them any table time. Bit of a shame really, since that means there’s no opportunity to really get to learn them and understand strategies with any depth. On the other hand, maybe that helps to hide some of the fundamental flaws I’m sure many of them feature.

Anyway, we didn’t really try out any new heavy titles this year, rather sticking to lightweights. One great starter game we discovered was Splendor. Explained in 2 minutes, it’s nevertheless one which requires a fair amount of planning and watching what your opponents are doing if you want to do well. Certainly a nice opener for an evening. One in a similar vein which I found somewhat disappointing was Isle of Skye, winner of the Kennerspiel des Jahres. It’s a bit of a mongrel game, with Carcassonne-style tile-laying, auctions and modular scoring, but I didn’t really like the overall package. You can spend a lot of time trying to work out your strategy, but ultimately if your opponents want to drag you through the mud, there’s nothing you can do about it, and the four-player game to me seems rather broken. Maybe it works with 2 players, I can’t say.

Another game I wasn’t overly enamoured with, though I can see why it’s popular, is 7 Wonders. For me it offers strategy with a nice ramping effect, all wrapped in a quick quality package… and that’s exactly why I dislike it! We own one called Glory to Rome which to me is very similar, but actually genuinely allows you to plan ahead, rather than dangling on the end of an unknown hand of cards. 7 Wonders pretends to offer a lot in a quick burst, but it’s superficial in my eyes, and I’d rather have a serious game to ponder over, or a quick and quirky fun game rather than a mishmash of the two.

The last game I’ll mention is one I bought a number of years ago but which we only just got around to trying called Nightfall. It was sold to me as a kind of interactive Dominion with vampires and werewolves, but I found it to be dreadful, even worse than Dominion! The rules were fairly complex, although the gameplay was straightforward; there was potential for them to really use the theme, but it was entirely wasted and you ended up completely ignoring what was on the cards and just looking at the numbers; finally the sheer variety of cards meant we didn’t really have a clue what was going on half the time and just bought and played any old random thing. We gave it two strikes and I was frankly happy when it was back in the box!

A Year in Cinema

Didn’t get to the cinema much this year, only a few outdoor excursions and the company’s annual Christmas treat (for Rogue One). But we currently have a Netflix account we’ve watched a few things over, and there are plenty of DVDs still waiting to be watched. Following on from last year’s The Guard, which I watched last year, Calvary was high up on the list of top films. Far grittier, meatier, and with some more surprising roles for certain actors, it was an oh-so-very Irish film, but highly recommendable.

Another great drama I can heartily recommend is The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke. There’s not much of a plot per se, just the story of an entertainer at the end of his career, but a really poignant tale extremely well told. It’s documentary style, without going as far as to be annoying, and well worth a watch. In a similar vein I thought Chef with/by/from Jon Favreau was really good, if slightly more pointless than The Wrestler.

In terms of more action-filled movies, I didn’t see much I would recommend. In fact I saw some real stinkers and most of the rest disappointed me in one way or another. Since Steffi’d never seen any Guy Ritchie, we tried out RockNRolla and were frankly bored to tears by the end of it. It just doesn’t hold a candle to Lock Stock and Snatch. I also got a chance to watch Iron Sky and was honestly underwhelmed by the film. The idea in and of itself wasn’t bad, but it ended up falling flat even as a farce in my eyes, with very few laughs to be had. But taking the biscuit for worst film was far and away Catch .44. I’m still at a loss to explain how Forest Whittaker would take up a role for that script – although he gave a very good performance having said that! But otherwise the film had absolutely no redeeming features. It was like someone watched an early Tarrantino and thought it would be easy to copy. Inane storyline, terrible dialogue, pointless characters; it mostly came down to a bunch of criminals pointing guns at one another and using the eff word repeatedly. Yay.

As said, I managed to hit the cinema for the latest Star Wars instalment, and the Star Trek before that. Star Trek was a reasonable popcorn flick, but I was really disappointed with the story. It felt like the entire film was just an excuse to string together a few action sequences. Major kudos to Karl Urban though, his McCoy is almost as good as the real thing. Rogue One wasn’t quite as bad, probably better than Episode VII (which I watched again beforehand and thought even less about the second time round). There were a few decisions I felt were pretty stupid in terms of the overarching story, a fair number of cheesy crowdpleasers for the fans, but otherwise it was alright. Might write a post on that later if I can be bothered.

My surprise ‘hit’ of the year (despite it being a decade old) was probably Doom. I spotted it on Netflix and since I couldn’t find anything better, thought what the hell. I can honestly say I had zero expectations for this film, and it fulfilled all of them! The first hour or so they make up some fairly standard storyline about genetic manipulation, ancient alien civilisations and zombies. Then they just give up and admit they were only having a laugh, converting the film into a first-person shooter for the last quarter of an hour. Brilliant!

A Year in Books

I managed to trump this year’s target with over 11,000 pages read. A few highlights include: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, a classic exposition of evolution theory; The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle, a novel about domestic violence; Regeneration by Pat Barker, a brilliant story about the Great War poets, particularly Siegfried Sassoon; and The Martian, the self-published novel by Andy Weir that got turned into a Hollywood film. The story might be mundane, like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but it’s definitely worth the read just for the amount of loving detail that went into writing it.

On the German side, I read through Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, which quite frankly deserves way more attention than it gets. An epic tale of roughly historical events during the Armenian genocide, it was banned shortly after publication (by everyone’s favourite bogeymen) and is probably too long to enjoy widespread appeal, but in my eyes it deserves a place up there as one of the greatest novels in the German language.

Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren gets a thumbs down from me, even if I found the concept itself pretty interesting. The whole book is written in the style of a journalistic interview with the author, just questions and answers as to the story’s motivations, developments and meanings over pages and pages. The amazing thing is that he still manages to make it a page-turner, despite there not actually being a novel to go with the interview! Nevertheless I find that kind of interview tedious and annoying to read at the best of times, so it was something of a chore to read through 200 odd pages of one. Far worse was Er is wieder da, a story about Hitler waking up alive and kicking in the present day and becoming a media celebrity. Apart from a few pages where we read Hitler’s views of the politicians who followed him, the satire in this book is mostly cheap, often tasteless, and quite frankly boring. German humour at its finest, sadly. Nevertheless it sold in droves and got turned into a film.

Finally, one book I almost ended up abandoning despite being so short was William Golding’s The Spire. I remember someone having to study that for A-level and complaining how dull it was, but based on the other stuff I’ve read by him, I figured it couldn’t be all that bad, surely! No, it really is like pouring sticky treacle in your ear. Maybe I’m just too thick to understand it, but it really didn’t grab me at all.

The Blind Watchmaker

Blind WatchmakerWhat is it about the theory of evolution which makes it so difficult to comprehend? Why does it require a leap of faith for many people to understand? And why do they feel they need to believe in evolution in a way they never would with, say, gravity?

Having finally got around to reading The Blind Watchmaker this year, one remark really stuck in my mind, when Dawkins turned to describing the human experience in terms of units. The way we perceive the world around us is intrinsically bound to the way we encounter it. We consider time, for instance, within a fairly specific range. Once we go beyond that range, our natural, indeed evolutionary faculties are incapable of perceiving the world outside those bounds with any degree of accuracy. That’s not to say we hit a brick wall when we step beyond that range. We’re still perfectly capable of contemplating the meaning of extremely long or short timescales, for example. We can measure them, compare them, calculate them; we can analogise and use metaphors. But we are far from being able to really grok what they mean.

Take things on the shorter end of the scale. Seconds are easily counted. We’re capable of working out how long a particular journey will take us, able to estimate how much faster it will be if we’re travelling by bicycle or car. But break the second down and it soon stretches into the theoretical. The speeding bullet or the flash of lightning travel far faster than our perception allows. Sometimes we can physically sense the difference, such as when a crack of lightning reaches our eyes before our ears, but beyond that, these events exist beyond our realm of experience.

At the other end of the spectrum, most of us find it difficult to measure things even in years. When did we move house? Was it three years ago, or four? When was that holiday to Cyprus? Five years ago? Six? We usually find little memory tricks to work out the answer, supporting our assumptions with unrelated facts (‘it was the year Jane started going to school… the Olympics were on in Beijing…’) Or we end up relying on physical evidence to corroborate the facts.

Where Dawkins really hits the nail is in how we view chance. With average lifespans under 100 years, we think relatively little of crossing roads, driving cars, climbing ladders or changing light bulbs. Accidents happen, people injure themselves and even lose their lives doing such mundane activities every day. But that only ever happens to other people. The risks are small; so small that we’re willing to take them on a daily basis. Experience teaches us the difference between perceptible and theoretical risk, the difference between the overt perils of grabbing a hot pan without oven gloves and the insidious hazards of an unhealthy diet.

Yet what would happen if we were to have natural lifespans in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of years? Those relatively slim chances of being fatally injured while crossing the road would suddenly have an entirely different dimension, given the number of times you do this in a lifetime. All of those otherwise hidden dangers, the risks we acknowledge without really understanding them, would become as clear to us as those overt dangers, since most people would come a cropper before reaching the natural limits of their lifespans.

The point is that our ability to contemplate unlikely events soon passes from the sensible to senseless. We grasp the chances of tossing heads, the likelihood of a rainy day in July. But beyond a certain limit, even the little sliver of rational thought in our minds gives way to thoughtless instinct. That one in a million chance becomes indistinguishable from impossible. A typical argument used against the theory of evolution runs along the lines that scientists have been trying to recreate the origins of life in the laboratory for decades. All their best efforts have been for nought, ergo that theory cannot possibly be true. Dozens of scientists in dozens of laboratories having been trying for dozens of years to reproduce an event that happened (at least) once across billions of planets in billions of solar systems over billions of years.

The numbers are staggeringly large, making them indistinguishable from impossible. And if not downright impossible, at least so perishingly unlikely that only with blind faith could you believe it to be true?

[Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash]

High Velocity Aerial Filming

Some pretty impressive stabilised photography at 300 knots.

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