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Category: Reviews Page 3 of 20

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Popnography

Dieser Eintrag ist auch auf Deutsch verfügbar.

We live in an age where being a slave to our impatience and short attention spans is almost a virtue, where watching television has made room for channel hopping, where listening to music involves skipping to choruses and jumping between tracks, where our attentions are constantly being pulled in a thousand different directions by our internetworked world.

It comes then as little surprise that one road to success is to cash in on our restlessness. Take a year’s worth of successful tunes, juice them, dissect them, distil their catchiness, then splice, blend and sew together a Frankenstein of audial goodies. That’s what you get with Daniel Kim’s Pop Danthologies: a highly concentrated concoction of successful pop anthems, a luxurious blend of first flush leaves, condensed and refined, the scion of sonic addiction grafted onto the stock of all that is pop.

This isn’t a danthology. This is hardcore popnography.

The Numerati: How they’ll get my number and yours

The NumeratiRecent springs and bounds in technology have opened the floodgates to a wealth of information that once required millions of man-hours to collect, collate, evaluate and assess, if indeed it ever happened at all. Now all of that can be handled, stored and processed by computers, constantly being fed by millions of users who are often happy to give up snippets of their information for the tiniest of benefits. But what hidden potentials lie waiting among those mountains of bits and bytes? And who are the people forging the algorithms to find those golden nuggets?

That’s what Stephen L. Baker attempts to sort out in The Numerati, a neologism he has coined for the computer scientists and mathematicians getting their hands dirty with our data. The book takes an admirably thematic approach and looks at developments across a broad spectrum of society, covering ways in which advancements have and will affect the worlds of work, commerce, politics, medicine and romance. As we increasingly rely on modern digital technology in every facet of our lives, using websites and mobile phone apps to shop, watch films, hire services, chat with friends and find romantic partners, the ways in which our data is gathered and used should become of paramount importance to us, issues which Baker repeatedly attempts to underline throughout this book.

Unfortunately there are two major problems with the way in which it is put together. The first is the nature of Baker’s writing. The journalistic style which works well for a five-page article – leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow as he explores a specific thread – soon becomes tiresome when padded out into the length of a book. Each chapter feels like a separate article treating the same subject from a different angle, covering the same issues in another light, and bound together for this collection. As a result, it feels like the author is often repeating himself, hammering on about the same points, whilst spinning out his yarn with frivolous descriptions of what colour tie his interviewee is wearing or what flavour coffee he’s sipping whilst waiting for his next meeting. There is an inordinate amount of filler here in what is only a slender volume.

Yet the far greater criticism of this book is the fact that Baker doesn’t really understand what he’s writing about. This may sound like harsh criticism, but it’s all part of the disarmingly honest style which is supposed to appeal to the casual reader. Baker is certainly up front about this, and I was in no way expecting the pages to be decorated with mathematical formulae. However, the author has a genuine admiration for the work his Numerati do that borders on an almost medieval fear: he treats them as if they were dabbling with arcane black magic that regular mortals would never be able to comprehend. The description of these wizards and their work thus comes across as being very superficial, and fails to deliver any meaningful content to readers who might be even vaguely familiar with the topic.

To give the author his due, his treatment of the subject is sober and balanced, pointing out the need for caution and vigilance when it comes to privacy issues and the anonymisation of data. At the same time, Baker points out the limitations of mathematical models, and the potential for mistakes in the statistical handling of large data sets. Yet he also emphasises the untapped benefits behind the collection of medical data, or for companies and employees alike in being able to combining the skills and traits of the workforce intelligently, and shows how each of us is willing to give up our as much of our personal information as necessary when it comes to finding romance.

Overall, Numerati is a somewhat wordy summary of the direction big data is changing the world in many areas. It touches on the hidden benefits that may be tapped in the future, as well as the dangers of indifference when it comes to issues of privacy and limitation. However, the chatty, journalistic style leaves this already slim work rather thin on the ground in terms of delivering information, and many people with a vague interest in the subject will learn nothing of novelty. Finally, the author’s reverential treatment of his genius Numerati, and perhaps ingenuine lack of understanding for what they do, leaves the book feeling like a case of the blind trying to lead the blind.

[Photo by Paul Bergmeir on Unsplash]

Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz

Uncommon HobsbawmUncommon People is a collection of Eric Hobsbawm’s essays spanning the majority of his long career, from the 1950s to the mid-1990s. It brings together a wide range of topics, collected under four headings: The Radical Tradition, Country People, Contemporary History and Jazz.

Under “The Radical Tradition”, there are essays addressing Thomas Paine, the Luddites, the radicalism of shoemakers, the difference between labour traditions in France and Britain, the development of a distinctive working class culture, the skilled manual wage worker in Victorian moral frameworks, the iconography of male and female representations in labour movements, the origins and history of May Day as a working class celebration, the relationship between socialism and the avant-garde, and Labour Party stalwart Harold Laski.

“Country People” includes two longer essays, one providing a general overview of peasant politics, and a second study of land occupations, as well as an essay on the Sicilian Mafia.

The rubric “Contemporary History” features pieces Hobsbawm wrote while the embers were still hot, with pieces on Vietnam and guerilla warfare, May 1968, and sexual liberation. As a result they tend to feel dated, though as contemporary reports are still of interest for this very reason.

Finally, the “Jazz” section contains half a dozen reviews and short writings on Sidney Bechet, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, jazz in Europe, jazz after 1960, and jazz’s relationship with blues and rock. A final essay, slotted under this Jazz heading, was written on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in America, and highlights the oft forgotten benefits and advances this event brought about, from the notion of a Utopia, to the development of a theory of evolution, and the spread of staple foodstuffs like potatoes and maize.

The problem with this collection is that being of such a broad spectrum, only a handful of the essays are likely to appeal to the reader. Some of the pieces, particularly the shorter jazz reviews and essays, are written in an easy, affable manner, whilst many of the essays on peasant and working class movements are far more technical and heavily footnoted, and really require a background understanding to get anything from them. Nevertheless there are plenty of gems here: the essay on the Luddites amongst other machine-breaking groups highlights how the word inherited has little to do with the motivations of those people; his coverage of the development of a distinctive working class culture highlights the symbolism of something as mundane as the flat cap; whilst the essay on the Vietnam war and guerilla warfare has interesting implications for modern day conflicts such as in Afghanistan.

Lord of the Rings: The Dead Marshes

Dead Marshes

Dead Marshes

Continuing the Shadows of Mirkwood saga, The Dead Marshes adventure pack is the fifth in the cycle, and finds the heroes trying to corner and capture the creature Gollum in the treacherous mires, before he escapes for good. It has a difficulty rating of 5, putting it roughly in the middle of all of the scenarios thus far in the series.

For this adventure the developers have again devised a new mechanic: the escape test. At the start of the game, the Gollum card is placed in the staging area, and at various times (including the end of each round) the players are required to pass a test, similar to the standard questing: if they pass, nothing happens, should they fail, some tokens get placed on Gollum (and depending on situation, their threat level might rise). Enough tokens on Gollum, and he disappears into the deck.

Whilst this is thematically quite pleasing, the challenge being to prevent Gollum from escaping your clutches, there are enough of these tests in the game to make it fairly likely that Gollum will disappear. Which makes the rest of the game a potentially very long slog to try to find the card again, and doesn’t preclude the card appearing only to be discarded again (for example as a shadow card). In one of our games we managed to cycle through the full deck three or four times, and still didn’t get a chance to complete the mission before losing to a high threat value.

Some players consider this a thematically very fitting mechanic and far more exciting than the variations included in The Hills of Emyn Muil or even A Journey to Rhosgobel. Perhaps I’ve just been unlucky, but I found this scenario simply dull. There is only one new enemy in the set, although some of the larger ones from the core game reappear (Wilderlands encounter set), which at least give your characters something to do once you’ve lost Gollum. The expansion probably gets harder the more players are present, at least in as far as some of the Treachery cards require each player to perform an escape test, although this would also allow the deck to be cycled much quicker and might make losing Gollum less of a fiasco.

The player cards in this pack are similar to what we’ve come to expect from the previous ones. The hero here is Boromir for the Tactics sphere, whose dual abilities allow him to ready himself at any time for an increase in threat, as well as go down in a blaze of glory, dealing damage to all enemies engaging one player before being discarded. Definitely a worthwhile hero, with a second ability that is quite situational, but could at the same time be a life saver. Apart from that, Tactics gains another eagle ally, and their song card; the Spirit sphere gains two more Rohan related cards; Leadership features an ally with a one-off chance to negate shadow card effects, and another stat-enhancing attachment, this time giving a hero the ‘ranged’ attribute; Lore have a Silvan ally useful for questing, and a hobbit attachment, probably the weakest card in this set.

Overall, I found this to be the weakest adventure pack in the series, the solid player cards aside. Whilst I appreciate the new mechanic and enjoy the added variety, I felt that the scenario was very repetitive and potentially unbeatable should Gollum disappear, and this unduly dragging the game out to an eventual fizzle rather than an exciting climax. Of course, it may be possible to have a lucky turn of cards, but then the scenario would also likely finish in a few turns.

Lord of the Rings: The Hills of Emyn Muil

Hills of Emyn Muil

Hills of Emyn Muil

The Hills of Emyn Muil is the fourth adventure in the Shadows of Mirkwood series of adventure packs which expand The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. The story pits the heroes exploring these barren and dangerous hills, avoiding pitfalls, and continuing their quest to track down the creature Gollum.

This expansion is unique in many ways. In terms of the number of players, it is probably more difficult, the more players are present, which is something of a rarity. The quest features only one card, and this requiring only one progress token to complete, with the adventure rather based around exploring locations and collecting a certain number of victory points. It has a difficulty rating of 4, putting it on a par with “Journey Down The Anduin” from the original set, and the first expansion The Hunt for Gollum. However, if players have been playing the adventure packs in sequence, with the extra cards they should much more easily be able to tailor their hands to suit the job in hand, and as such I found this quest much easier than “Journey Down The Anduin”, for example. Nevertheless, that alone can’t be used as criticism, and indeed the lighter difficulty comes as a pleasant refrain from the challenges of the previous adventures.

Still, the most common complaint about this adventure is that it is seemingly monotone. Depending on what sort of player you are, this scenario might feel extremely barren and uninteresting, but on the other hand if you managed to read The Lord of the Rings without skipping over the endless songs and descriptions of walking through the landscape, it might be far more up your alley. Despite being location-heavy, some of the larger enemies from the core set are present, as is a new enemy whose attack strength increases according to the number of locations present, and in particular there are some extremely exasperating Treachery cards to keep you on your toes and prevent this adventure being a walkover. Yet by way of design the adventure throws its ‘big guns’ at you in the opening volley, and if you survive the first few rounds you might find yourself having an army of allies standing around with little to do by the eventual end.

One of my biggest criticisms of the adventure packs thus far has focused on the player cards, which were often released in an entirely pointless order. By this stage, however, if you’ve been buying the packs in order, most of the cards start to come into their own, and the ones in this set offer a pretty good selection, including a few which are obviously useful to this scenario. The hero in this pack is “Brand, son of Bain”, a character similar in stats to Legolas, but whose ability is very coop oriented, a nice addition for people not playing the game solo. The Tactics sphere gets another pair of eagle cards, Spirit continues in a Rohan vein and gets their song card (resource generator), Lore has an extremely powerful ally, whilst Leadership gets… well, arguably the most useless card in the game so far. By and large though, the cards make excellent additions and can prove very useful for this scenario in particular.

As one of the easier expansions, it’s somehow a shame that this adventure wasn’t earlier on the list. Whilst some might find it dull, if it doesn’t bother you that the enemies are very sparse, it offers a nice break and a bit of variety, without being a complete walk in the woods. The design is a little flawed in that it tends to start off hard and gradually get easier, and the lack of any progression in the storyline leaves exploring the locations relatively monotonous, but these factors are arguably made up for by the usefulness of the included player cards.

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