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2020 in Review

This year has been anything if not interesting. At the start, a lot of people around me seemed to answering the call for change, with numerous friends choosing to up sticks, start new careers, move houses, or meet new partners.

While little changed for me beyond shifting to working from home, one difference was saying goodbye to a forum I’d been running for nearly two decades. As no one had posted anything in nearly twelve months, and its use had been dwindling for some years already, it seemed the time had come to save some computing cycles and lay the bits to rest.

Nevertheless, one tradition I wanted to continue from its pages was an annual post taking stock of a year’s media consumption. I’ve gone through the database dump and scavenged previous summaries from 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. So for the first time in another seldom visited corner of the web, here’s looking back on 2020 in all its quarantined glory.

Summary

PC games played: numerous

Best PC games: Gunfire Reborn, Sniper Elite 4, What Remains of Edith Finch, Strange Brigade, Inside, Two Point Hospital, Catastronauts, DOOM 3: BFG Edition, Warhammer: The End Times – Vermintide, Pyre

Worst PC games: Californium, Unfortunate Spacemen, Crucible, Jet Set Radio, Killer Is Dead

Board games played: 39 (75 plays)

Best board games: Sail to India, Majesty, Short List, Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig, The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine, Piepmatz

Worst board games: Chada & Thorn, Detective Stories: “Gattardo”, 5-Minute Dungeon, DOG Royal

Films watched: 38

Best films: Paddington 2, Blade Runner 2049, Full Metal Jacket, The History Boys, I, Daniel Blake, The Princess Bride, Stand By Me

Worst films: The Detonator, Empire State, King Solomon’s Mines, Mad Max

Books read: 32

Best books: The Last Resort, The Remains of the Day, Eine Frau in Berlin, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families

Worst books: Ficciones, Lord of Light

A Year in Gaming

It’s actually been an interesting year, multiplayer gaming wise. Over last Christmas enough of my gaming group had finally had enough of the widespread cheating in Counter-Strike: Global Operations that we quit playing it altogether. The search was then on for a title to fill our weekly sessions. For a while, Valorant took the reins, though its extremely slow pace, focus on abilities, and the punishing gameplay for a team with a fairly wide range in skill levels, all meant that we soon tired of it.

In its stead, we shifted to a variety of lighter titles. Catastronauts was an entertaining take on the Overcooked genre, giving four furry astronauts plenty of headaches as they attempt to keep a ship patched and maintained in a series of confrontations in space. Playing the game over Steam’s in-built streaming service meant we could play it as a ‘couch coop’ on a couch several hundred miles long, with only occasional interruptions and lag spikes… the wonders of modern technology!

Later we switched over to the summer’s surprise smash hit Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, a digital jelly bean version of ninja warriors. Chaotic, random, frustrating and hilarious, I remain the only bean without a crown and will probably stay in that virgin state until I can take on a stage uncontested. But in the spirit of athletics, it’s the taking part that counts, and it can be just as much fun to fail your run, or spoil someone else’s!

Our latest squeeze is a rogue-lite from Hong Kong entitled Gunfire Reborn. It’s been a challenging endeavour so far, with us gradually getting stronger each week, unlocking new upgrades and weapons. Unfortunately, my current internet connection makes the game virtually unplayable, so not sure if I’ll see any real progress any time soon.

In the solo gaming department, I didn’t tackle any particularly long games. At the beginning of the lockdown, I felt like I should probably use the opportunity to try to work through some of my Steam backlog, finally playing through the DOOM 3: BFG Edition, including the original DOOM I/II. It was fun to explore those grandfathers of the genre some quarter of a century later, and amazing how the layouts of some of the levels were still so clear in my mind. While the basic shooting mechanics were child’s play with a mouse (had I really used arrow keys to turn back then?), one thing that I’d completely forgotten was just how convoluted the map design was, with scores of hidden rooms, secret buttons and special tricks. After completing the original pair, I finally succeeded in completed DOOM 3 at the third attempt, a good fifteen years after it first came out, but baulked at the idea of spending even more time playing through its expansion.

After slogging through the Martian hellholes, I only otherwise took in some shorter titles this year, not wanting to spend as much time in the office as what lockdown was already demanding. One of the titles which stuck out was What Remains of Edith Finch, a beautiful walking simulator exploring the biography of several generations of an eccentric family, with each member’s story told through its own separate vignette. It’s easy to see why the game won a BAFTA. I also ticked off the two Playdead adventures LIMBO and INSIDE, the second in particular being a delightful brain-tickler, a noire puzzle platformer lovingly rendered and brilliantly directed.

There weren’t any really major stinkers this year, though a few disappointments. In the multiplayer department, we tried out Amazon’s very short-lived Crucible on its beta release. While the basic premise and mechanics were sound, we were left feeling distinctly bored by what we’d tasted, and it wasn’t a surprise when the initial closed beta stage was withdrawn. Still, it certainly was a shock to hear some months later that they’d pulled the plug entirely. I guess the competition for free-to-play titles is so great that it was deemed unworthy of further funding, despite it having been in development since 2014.

On the solo front, there were two games which fell a little flat. Californium sounded like a fascinating concept, a small adventure set in a drug-addled and Philip K. Dick inspired multi-layered universe, where the player peels back the real world. I was expecting something in the vein of A Scanner Darkly, but what I got was something more like a hidden object game. Frankly the overarching gameplay is far too simplistic, and the world-bending effect soon gets boring. The second game which didn’t live up to expectations, though through no fault of its own, was Into the Breach. The basic gameplay boils down to an agonising game of 3-piece chess, with the player in full command of the information, barring a few statistical chances. A limited number of moves, yet with tons of different combinations, different pieces, different abilities, taking moves in different orders, and even the option to restart each scenario once, make each encounter a brain-burning conundrum. What’s not to like? For me the major detraction was the fact that the developer’s previous title – FTL – was frankly even more brilliant!

A Year in Boardgaming

It was a somewhat weird year in boardgaming. Overall we didn’t play as much as normal, though we started out the year meeting up with our friends extremely frequently, had a massive hiatus in the middle during the lockdown, and again picked up the pace in the autumn, before dropping it altogether in the winter again.

In terms of new games, the biggest surprise of the year was far and away The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine. A simple trick-taking game for four players, what absolutely flabbered my gast is that no one had come up with it before. A pretty standard set of cards, some basic objectives, and a very limited ability to communicate, this game had us entertained for hours on end over a long series of evenings. While I find the Kennerspiel des Jahres category rather ill-defined, it came as no surprise to hear it had won.

On the hunt for some smaller, more family-friendly board/card games, I bought a couple which resonated well. Piepmatz is a set collecting game I picked up after a recommendation from The Spiel podcast. We’ve only ever played it four-player, and I think it’s probably a bit too random for my tastes at that number, but otherwise it’s a cute little diversion which doesn’t overstay its welcome. The other game I found second-hand was Sail to India, which packs a surprising amount of gameplay in a little box (though requires a fairly large table once all spread out).

The only notable ‘larger’ title of the year was Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig, earning a place as a very special mashup of two other games, being a semi-cooperative tile-laying game which is something of mix between Carcassonne and 7 Wonders. I’m not sure how much strategy is really involved, though there’s enough decision-making to keep you engaged, and the way that the game is played cooperatively yet competitively at the same time works well with the right group.

During the lockdowns, we didn’t get much gaming time in as we hadn’t found ourselves anything interesting for two players, and the only two games we already had around make it onto my list for worst games of the year. The first was Chada & Thorn, a small spin-off from The Legends of Andor series which Steffi had so devoured. It felt rather clunky and lifeless in comparison to its larger brother, with none of the depth of an LCG like Lord of the Rings, nor the interesting discussion a four-player game can bring.

The second flop this year was a rather odd acquisition Steffi found somewhere, actually being a demo for a series, called Detective Stories: Gattardo. We’ve played enough escape room games over the years, and this one relied more on open facts and clues rather than the gimmicks that many others use. However, we completely failed to read the signs in front of us on a number of occasions, eventually coming up with a solution to the case that was wrong in just about every single aspect… probably including even the identity of the victim! Maybe if we’d had some more sensible heads with us, the experience would’ve been less demoralising, but instead it felt like a wasted evening.

A Year in Cinema

Obviously, this year lent itself rather well to watching the box, and once lockdown started we stuck fairly religiously to our weekly film evening. Often overwhelmed with choice, Steffi tried a new tack this year, choosing to work her way through the alphabet of our backlog and what’s available to stream online, so while many of her choices were a far cry from her usual comic-centric tastes, there were as many pleasant as disappointing surprises in the mix!

Perhaps the two immediate stand-out films for me were both sequels. Paddington 2 managed the rather rare feat of actually being better than its predecessor, at least from what I can remember. Where the first was a sweet family film, the second seemed to inject even more humour, with an entertaining plot and the usual slew of jolly actors. Blade Runner 2049 meanwhile was a film I approached with some trepidation, as the original has stood the test of time well enough on its own. But the cinematography is just as delicious for this second outing, Ryan Gosling was perfectly cast as the new blade runner, and the film had a meaningful story of its own to tell, rather than just riding on the coattails of its ancestor. Guess that’s what can happen when Disney isn’t involved.

This year I also managed to plug a few of those gaps for films everyone has seen. Full Metal Jacket was a somewhat surprising war film in how seemingly aimless the script was constructed, although the first and second halves of the film stand fairly well on their own merit, the overarching message was muddy. But despite having never seen the film before, the scenes often felt familiar, having been parodied and quoted that often. The same could be said for The Princess Bride, which I felt like I’d seen vicariously often enough (was there a Simpsons parody?).

The most disappointing film of the year was probably a result of misfiring memories from childhood, but I expected Mad Max to be something more along the lines of a Kevin Costner dystopia, with less melodrama and stupidity. Probably I’m just remembering snippets from its sequels in my mind. However even this disappointment couldn’t beat the hands down the worst film of the year: King Solomon’s Mines. Honestly, how did they get Richard Chamberlain, Herbert Lom and John Rhys-Davies to star in this mess? It’s like someone had seen the success of Indiana Jones and thought: what this needs is less plot and more slapstick. It wouldn’t have been out of place in the Carry On series.

A Year in Books

I’d expected that in the year of the plague I’d have ploughed through a lot more pages than I managed of the previous 12 months, but I guess not having that daily commute cut a lot of my reading time.

Still, I managed to knock off a few of the books that have been on my wishlist for the longest. The Last Resort, for example, must’ve been on my list since about the time of its publication, being a sometime first-hand narrative about a small white homestead in Zimbabwe, and their attempts to keep going during Mugabe’s descent into populism, as the economy crashed around him and he resorted to whatever means necessary to stay in power. The crisis was broadcast often on British news, but this book brought home what it was like for people in the ground, trying to go about their lives despite the ever-present potential threat to life and limb. At times harrowing, but always a very human account.

In a similar vein I read the anonymously written Eine Frau in Berlin, the accounts of life in occupied Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when life was cheap, food scarce, and rape a daily visitation. Aside from how well written the accounts are, the memories from those two months are honest and matter-of-fact, leaving it to the reader to pass judgement. Only published after the author’s death, nearly 60 years later, the dairy makes for difficult reading, but an important one.

It seems I didn’t pick up much fiction this year, so the standalone favourite was Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Beautiful characters, beautiful prose, a subtle tale and extremely believably narrated, this is a slow-burner which is in turn amusing and poignant and arrives where you expected it to.

Two of my worst reads of the year were some which had also been in my to-read pile for the longest. I’d read about Borges somewhen and heard about these magical constructions and thought experiments all encapsulated into tiny vignettes, and figured they would be right up my street. Unfortunately I found plodding through Ficciones to be utterly mind-numbing, a style akin to reading a textbook on metaphysics, with pointless asides and deviations about nonsensical figures and oh god get to the bloody point. I see praise wash up on his shores like crates of whiskey after a propitious sinking, but mine is his style not.

The other disappointment from the to-read pile was Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, though I feel I was rather more to blame for it failing to land. The entire premise of the book was interesting enough for me to keep reading to the end, but too much of the content was lost on me for a lack of knowledge of Indian deities.

The final book which I’d have to say a really regret reading was the programming book Head First Design Patterns. The content is all solid, but the style in which it is presented just isn’t me. Instead of obtuse non-real-world examples it felt like they shoe-horned in some better non-real-world examples and then proceed to lay it on thick. So many asides and cutsey comics and conversations between non-existent people and not enough plain text. I don’t mind a few bullet point summaries and diagrams, but when that’s the main bulk of the text, it makes navigating what’s important to read only more difficult!

2019 in Review

Another year, and time again to look back over 12 months of consumed media. Following on from 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, here’s another summary of what I’ve been reading, watching and playing over the past year.

Summary

PC games played: numerous

Best PC games: Abzü, Overcooked 1/2, Risk of Rain, Firewatch, Battalion 1944, We Were Here Too, Hard West

Worst PC games: Prison Architect, Lethis – Path of Progress, Rage, A Story About My Uncle, The Last Express

Board games played: 41 (81 plays)

Best board games: Decrypto, In the Year of the Dragon, Unfinished Case of Holmes, Codenames: Duet

Worst board games: Sherlock: Whereabouts Unknown, The Mind

Films watched: 41

Best films: Her, Hunger, Senna, Doubt, Star Wars, Jurassic Park

Worst films: Suicide Squad, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Books read: 48

Best books: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion , Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, The Comedians, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, Bad Science, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Battle Cry of Freedom

Worst books: Cybercrime And The Darknet, No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine

A Year in Gaming

Another twelve months down the line, and not much has changed on the multiplayer gaming front. Counter-Strike: Global Operations remains our go-to watering hole of a Thursday, despite the incessant wave of cheating accusations that accompanies it. I still play Quake Champions occasionally, though it normally takes me a season to play all my placement matches, and so my rank is only visible for a while before it gets reset. Similarly I play the odd game of Heroes of the Storm, but haven’t done any ranked matches this year as far as I can remember.

Apart from the usual suspect, we played a few weeks of Paladins in recent months, which was a nice distraction and fairly enjoyable. It reminded me a blend of Team Fortress 2 with some extra layers of complexity a là Overwatch, but without the same level of seriousness. Certainly there seemed to be lots of players of dubious skill level on there, so maybe once we reach a ranked level, the matches might be more regularly challenging, rather than alternating between walkovers and walkunders. That is if we ever go back to it!

In the background we’ve been playing some Civ VI in the new PBEM variety, two games in parallel thanks to Benno quitting the first one before it had been set up! With Tesh’s rash exit from the second game, both were soon down to three players, so we’ve been progressing fairly fast, and the new cloud save system is a vast improvement on sending save files around. I have to say, I’m not particularly enjoying the game though, and it reminds me of how things went in our old games of Civ III; an interesting start until you realise what vital resource you’re lacking, a moment of dispair when you realise all the iron is in your neighbour’s back yard, then someone quits and we start again. I’m pretty much just clicking through my turns waiting for the games to end, though it could still take some time. But I’ll probably write something about that separately.

For solo gaming, I did squeeze in a few interesting titles this year. Abzü and Firewarch stand out for being somewhat less ordinary, I suppose basically both of them pure exploratory adventure games, the latter even carrying the moniker of a ’walking simulator’. Relaxing, intriguing, beautiful to behold, both offer a short diversion of a few hours that doesn’t overstay its welcome and definitely places a different slant on what you expect of a computer game. Another game of a similar ilk I tried was A Story About My Uncle, which was however more of a freaky platformer and fell rather flat with me.

A few more worthwhile mentions for the year: Hard West is an XCOM-style tactical shooter set in the American west, with several short campaigns which are interesting enough in their own right, and only consist of a few short missions. An enjoyable game, even if I didn’t get particularly far in it. Risk of Rain was a fun multiplayer roguelike platformer, which had us struggling to beat it the few evenings it appeared on the menu. Quick to pick up and play, with that ’oh just one more try!’ that comes with failure in roguelikes. Battalion 1944 scratches the itch that Day of Defeat left, and is actually a pretty competent shooter in its own right, though it has some very annoying movement mechanics that slightly detract from my enjoyment. We Were Here Too, the sequel to a puzzle game I think I reviewed here some years back, was a pretty straightforward but nevertheless enjoyable escape room relying on asymmetric knowledge, where communication is the key, as well as a bit of lateral thinking. And finally I can’t leave 2019 without mentioning the Overcooked games, which Ric introduced me to in spring, and which Steffi became addicted to and had us spending many an evening finely honing our tactics to unlock an elusive fourth star. It was actually quite impressive how we would barely scrape enough points to clear the three-star requirement, and yet we’d practice and practice until we could jump the four-star hurdle which was twice as high. Certainly helped being able to stream this to the TV in the lounge and play it on a controller.

Didn’t play any particularly terrible games this year, but one vague disappointment was trying to play through The Last Express. It’s one of those overlooked gems from the mid/late 90s, with a unique art style and ambitious gameplay, an adventure with real-time elements and multiple different endings. I imagine if I’d played it at the time, I’d have had the patience (and the boredom!) to explore every nook and cranny, trying to get through every ending, and never give up, but today I’m just too impatient and we couldn’t get into it at all.

A Year in Boardgaming

It hasn’t been a particularly great year for us in boardgaming with only 81 plays, certainly on the lower end for us, and there hasn’t really been very much new in all that. The Exit Games series remains one of Steffi’s favourites, though I have to say I’ve played enough now that I’m not really excited by the prospect of any more. We’ve also played a fair number of other games of a similar ilk, and whilst some of them at least offer slightly different challenges, with many using an app so you have to enter the answers in a more detailed way than you can get with a three-digit code, there are still only so many ways you can hide a solution in a box of bits.

Still, we did see a few new games to the table this year. We had a lot of fun with two party-esque games in Codenames: Duet and Decrypto. The former is just a slight tweak on the earlier version, but I think makes the game more enjoyable overall; instead of playing in two teams against one another, you play in two teams cooperatively, with everyone being responsible for both making and guessing clues. Certainly worked for us. Decrypto on the other hand relies on teams of players communicating codes to one another using a common ’codebook’. But the other team always gets to hear the code too, and must try to intercept the message, so players not only have to come up with ever new clues for their partners, but also work out what the cryptic clues their opponents are giving could mean. It’s fairly easy to put together your own version to try out too!

A short mention to The Quacks of Quedlinburg which won the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2018. While a fun little push-your-luck game, I’m hard pressed to understand how it was the Kennerspiel, nor really how it won at all. We played it with 4 players and it felt like it wasn’t really designed well for that number, with the starting two players able to capitalise on the cheaper chits and the other players then locked out of certain tactics. Otherwise the game was basically like an elaborate game of Pontoon, each player holding a bag and deciding whether to keep drawing or hold their current scores – twist or stick?!

There wasn’t really anything that I didn’t enjoy playing this year. We had a few lacklustre escape room games, both from Exit games series and others, but they’re generally one-off games which still have some entertainment value and don’t overlast their welcome. One game we’ve started playing as a filler is The Mind, which I really can’t rate and always feel is a bit of a waste of time. Basically 100 cards in total, starting off with each player getting one, then without communicating they have to play them in ascending order; then the round repeats, each player getting two cards etc. There are a few rules with lives and special abilities, but this is a game you could easily play with a pack of regular playing games and is basically a game of "can you all count together in your heads at the same speed?" Yawn.

Another game I have to mention and I’m dead on the fence about is Detective. It’s pushing a bit really to describe it as a game: essentially the players take on the role of detectives and have to solve five cases. Each case has a stack of cards which the team can explore, plus there’s a detailed app database containing extra info on lots of characters and events in the game, and some puzzles even require a bit of Googling to find the answer. You then decide when you think you’ve got enough info to solve the case, and the app takes you through a few questions and tells you your score. Each case is unique, but they are all somehow interconnected, with the same characters and locations reappearing. What’s not to like? Well, for one thing the game comes with a board, different characters, some silly tokens and really a whole load of guff which is just absolutely unnecessary. There’s a board just for the sake of having a board which is supposed to indicate where the investigation team currently is, and moving around costs time, but quite frankly that makes no sense. Sure, it’s important to keep track of time, and I can see that there has to be a ’currency’ of sorts to force players to make decisions about how much to research or what leads to follow, but then each investigator has a certain number of ’special ability’ chips which only they can use at a certain time. But why? It just adds pointless cruft to the game, where all the fun comes from theorising, putting the pieces of the puzzle together, working out the who, what, where and why. Where’s the fun in not being able to read the back of a card because computer specialist John already looked at the back of a different card? The other major criticism is the way the time pressure in the game works: it’s fairly straightforward in principle, you have for example three days to solve the case, each day has 8 hours, and each lead you follow will cost a certain amount of time. But you don’t know how much time, and often the ’story’ has stupid things like traffic jams costing you extra hours all because… reasons! We’ve done three of the cases so far, and while the first felt too easy (maybe a nice introduction?) we completely failed the second two. I hope we return to it, because the actual story is very interesting and feels well constructed, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wholeheartedly recommend it.

A Year in Cinema

Although we haven’t kept it up quite as religiously, Tuesday evening remains film night and we watched about 40 this year. A few films I hadn’t seen before stuck out, as well as a few rewatches.

Her with Joaquin Phoenix was fantastic, and I found it really interesting how the perception of talking to an intelligent AI massively reminded me of the uncorporeal minds of the early internet, back when cyberspace really felt like something distinct and separate from the real world, where other people were faceless intelligences in the void. The main character’s connection to his AI reminded me of some of my early experiences with people on the fledgling internet, people I would never see, never meet, and could only engage with through words.

On a less upbeat note, we watched Hunger about Bobby Sands and the Maze hunger strikes. It’s not a film I’d particularly recommend, decent acting and cinematography notwithstanding, as there isn’t really much substance to it that you don’t already know (if you know about the events). Nevertheless I found it particularly interesting to see how allergically Steffi reacted to the inmates’ decisions, a very visceral inability to see things from their perspective.

One film I enjoyed while Steffi was away one evening was the documentary of Senna. The first thing I ever heard about Senna was probably when he died, and remember the funeral in Brazil being broadcast on TV, probably on news reports, though at that stage I hadn’t really watched any F1 races and had only otherwise heard of Mansell. The film was an interesting look at his life, the controversies, the rivalries and the sport of F1 in general in the late 80s/early 90s.

Another dramatic outing which had some extremely good acting was Doubt, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. There isn’t really very much in the way of ’action’, being based on a play, but it is not a surprise that all four main actors were nominated for an Oscar.

A couple of films I rewatched this year, just because they happened to be on telly, but which reminded me of how good they are, were the original Star Wars and Jurassic Park. Yes, Star Wars is relatively cheesy, yes it has some god-awful dialogue and dated cinematics, but the overarching storyline is simply good. The few plot holes can easily be put down to dramatic licence, almost everything in it makes sense within the universe Lucas created, and the result is a solid and enjoyable opener to the saga which stands alone in its own right and remains entirely watchable today. I already ranted about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in another thread, but even trying to judge the films in their own right, which is obviously impossible, I’m not sure A New Hope comes off any worse for its age. I don’t think you could say the same about the moneymaker.

Jurassic Park is a similarly well constructed story. Watching it with a particular eye to the scriptwriting, it’s amazing how effortlessly the characters are introduced. The first few scenes lay the groundwork about who everyone is without any exposition, any uncharacteristic or irrational moments, and sow the seeds which will be harvested by the end of the film. Simplicity like that takes a lot of work, even if you only went to watch the film for the dinosaurs. The special effects are also still decent, I think the film was made just early enough to avoid the early wave of terrible CGI, but late enough that it stands up cinematographically.

In terms of stinkers, we sadly watched quite a few this year. Two comic book films stood out as being particularly awful, with Suicide Squad quite possibly winning my award for most pointless comic book film I’m seen to date. No drama, no character development, too many minor characters who had no purpose, exposition slapped on like it was directed at retards, there was nothing to like about this film beyond Harley Quinn (who was admittedly excellent). Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn’t quite as awful, but had absolutely none of the drama of Nolan’s Batman films, none of the positivity of Reeve’s Superman, and Batman beat Superman (FFS!)

A Year in Books

I managed to smash previous records with more than 15,000 pages read this year and nearly a book a week. Maybe I should actually make that a target for 2020?

Among the hits for this year was an interesting work on psychology and morality entitled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Not sure where I got the recommendation, but it’s a really fascinating look at how we consider questions of morality, how certain aspects can be measured on different axes, and where for example people on the right and left of the political spectrum differ is generally in how these axes are weighted and/or how they are interpreted, but a lot more binds the two together than separates them. Indeed, two things become clear from his thesis: that most decisions we make of a moral nature are first made, then justified (i.e. we feel something is wrong, and only later when asked to justify it do we come up with reasons, which generally don’t make any sense – cup of Brexit anyone?), and that today’s politically divided societies have more to do with people not talking to one another, than with actual radical differencies, i.e. things feel more polarised today because of social media echo chambers, rather than our views becoming radically different.

On a more upbeat and positivistic note, I finally got around to reading Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, a look at how computer games successfully manage to do what we in society really need to learn from. Some of what the book covers is a bit wayward and comes from her research work, but a lot of the core message is sound and has very interesting implications for everyday life. Nothing much of it is new, but the book summarises it fairly succinctly: gaming succeeds because it rewards achievement, binds people together, creates a sense of accomplishment, teaches new skills, etc. A bit dated now, but worth a perusal (or reading a summary) nevertheless.

On the history front, I continued my Roman history trip with SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. I understand she’s something of a TV personality as well? The book is a brief overview of Roman society, rather than a blow-by-blow look at events, and I found it to be very balanced, despite many decrying too much conjecture.

Another history gap I tried to fill this year was in reading two books I’ve had on my list probably since Dublin – i.e. for more than a decade! – those being Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Battle Cry of Freedom. The first is an amazingly sad history of what can only really be called the genocide of the native American tribes, showing how different tribes reacted in different ways, and the result in each and every instance was expropriation, exploitation, maltreatment and/or eradication. A very depressing chapter of history, from which no lessons have really been learned as far as I can see. The second is a detailed account of the American Civil War, which I knew pretty much nothing about beyond a few western films. Aside from the course of the war itself, it’s fascinating to look at how the issue of slavery was at once the cause of the war, and its ultimate end, without ever actually being the casus belli. Similarly mindblowing how the Democratic Party remained officially opposed to the 13th Amendment even after the war as "unwise, impolitic, cruel and unworthy of the support of civilized people". Such an enlightened heritage!

A couple of books with a slightly sciency/political bent tickled me this year. This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor is more amusing than enlightening, but it certainly had some eye-opening passages about how health care is actually delivered in the UK, as opposed to how it is perceived. At once hilarious and terrifying. Bad Science on the other hand is a more engaging and sober look mostly at how science is portrayed in the media, and the concomitant problems that brings. Ben Goldacre wrote (writes?) a column for the Guardian and a blog of the same name, usually highlighting badly reported findings and the like, and this book is just a more in-depth exposition of a few of those topics. Pretty much nothing unexpected in there, but it’s still maddening when you see the kinds of rigorous argument that can be arrayed against the most insidious of lies, and yet still fail to land in the minds of the converted. It reminded me of both The Righteous Mind (above) and Thinking Fast and Slow (also highly recommended) which I read some years back. Goldacre’s ultimate message seemt all the more realistic/pessimistic for it.

I didn’t seem to read too much fiction this year, at least not much I could unreservedly recommend. The longest book of the year was the nearly 1000-page Der Schwarm by Franz Schätzing, which while certainly interesting, read too much like a silly Roland Emmerich film and overstayed its welcome a bit. The best on my list was probably The Comedians, just another classic from probably my favourite author. So much depth in so little material, truly refined, his books are only short but pack so much of the human experience into so far words. I also read his England Made Me this year, and it goes to show how much he developed as an author over the years. The lack of plot in the latter book was no different to the former, but the characters were soulless in comparison.

Two books get my stinker of the year award. The first is No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine by Steve Jones, who normally writes pretty interesting popular science books. But I couldn’t really see any purpose to this book, it’s just a collection of small vignettes which may or may not have some relation to the French revolution, but generally didn’t. Jones isn’t a historian and it clearly isn’t his suit.

But hands down the worst book of the year goes to Cybercrime and the Darknet. One of those books my dad picked up on the cheap somewhere, he read it first, probably learned a few things, and sent it to me thinking I’d be interested. And oh my god, what a badly hashed together mess! I don’t wanna go hating on the author, she generally writes books for kids which I’m sure are perfectly fit to purpose, and maybe if you know absolutely nothing about the internet, then you could learn a few things from this book. But otherwise, everything about it was pathetic, and worse. It was like an undergraduate essay, written with an eye on the word count, trying to squeeze in footnotes which aren’t required (and missing ones which are absolutely vital). It was journalistic to the point of maddening, always looking at individual instances and extrapolating to general rules, with whole chapters dedicated to theorising about things that may/may not have happened and showing how that is the way of the internet… unless it isn’t. She peppers the text with statistics that bear only a passing relation to the subject matter at hand, no explanation, no interrogation, they’re just left hanging in the air as if self-evidently supporting her thesis (Goldacre would’ve torn her a new one). I don’t think I’ve ever facepalmed so many times in 150 pages. If she’d been an undergrad, I’d have given it back and had her re-write it. But she already has a degree – from Cambridge no less! – and works at a fucking university. I’ll retire to Bedlam.

Cybercrime and the DarkNet

Cybercrime and the Dark Net by Cath Senker

As society tries to catch up with the overwhelming advancements in technology of the past few decades, it is unsurprising that governments and legislators find themselves plugging the gaps where criminality can flourish. Developments in encryption, obfuscation, distribution and anonymisation give criminals and privacy activists alike a broad toolkit for conducting their activities away from prying eyes. In Cybercrime and the Dark Net, Cath Senker offers a brief and easily digested overview of this bewildering digital landscape. The book is essentially a collection of short vignettes covering a wide variety of different forms of cybercrime, with an essentially separate second section surveying the dark net.

This is a successfully written book, but unfortunately hardly a well-written one. There is nothing wrong with the craft, nothing wrong with the content per se, but it reads very much like an undergraduate essay written with an eye to meeting a word count, rather than sculpting a theory or trying to convey specific information. I would call the style journalistic, in the sense that there is a tendency to focus on individual instances, leading to sweeping generalisations without any valid attempt at contextualisation. We’re treated to two pages detailing an instance of a young American woman whose social security number had been stolen and used to file false tax returns. Senker makes some unfounded statements about what the thieves could have done with the information, and offers the rather dubious claim that people are now filing their tax returns earlier for fears someone else will file them first, before then revealing that the IRS responded to the woman in question saying that the issue had been settled. The victim never discovered how the security breach had happened, ergo this needn’t even have been a cybercriminal offence and has little relevance for the subject matter.

Senker has clearly done a decent amount of research into this subject. Give that this is designed to be a popular introductory book on the subject, a few small mistakes in the technical nuances are relatively moot, and can certainly be forgiven given that the author isn’t an expert in the field. Subjects are well introduced and explained, while plenty of footnotes are provided for those interested in following a matter of particular interest. But again, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a university essay, the text is peppered with quotes and statistics which only ostensibly support the text and in fact rather serve to bring up more questions. In a section on online grooming, we’re told that technology facilitates the contact between paedophiles and children. A fair claim, but to bolster this argument, the next sentence tells us that Childline reported a 50% annual increase in online grooming cases in December 2015. That’s it; the line is left without further comment. But how does this bombshell fact actually support her argument? Did technology change so significantly in 2015 to lead to such an explosion in online grooming? Is this part of a general year-on-year trend or a statistical outlier? Maybe this is evidence that support services are using more successful tactics to reach those in need and should actually be interpreted as a positive indicator? Or is this evidence of groomers changing their tactics? Since the site reveals that the sample size is only in the hundreds, it would seem rather sensationalist to see any significance in the figure, and its uncommented conclusion here seems not only unnecessary, but extremely misleading.

While many of the footnotes feel like cosmetic extras, there are also occasions in the text where it is anything but clear what the author actually wants to say. In the section covering the darknet and methods of encrypting emails, we’re told that Irish-Islandic privacy activist Smári McCarthy encourages people to use encryption to increase the costs of government surveillance. This is followed by the statement: ‘if they did the cost would rise from 13 US cents a day (9p) to US $10,000 (more than 7,000 GBP).’ The cost of what, government surveillance? Measured in what? Obviously this statement can’t be taken at face value, but I’m stumped as to what these numbers are supposed to refer to. She concludes this short section by stating that this might lead governments to place only suspicious persons under surveillance, or alternatively for governments to spend more resources on surveillance, driving ever more people to communicate via the darknet. While I don’t expect the author to have access to a crystal ball, the entire section is muddled and lacks clarity.

Frustrations like this sadly abound in this lightweight volume. Somewhere under the editor’s chisel there may be a fairly decent introductory book. As it stands, I found the numerous non sequiturs, sensationalist statistics, minor inconsistencies and incongruities to make this a dissatisfying reading experience. The book lacks a certain clarity of purpose and instead attempts to cover and tie together too many bases in barely 150 pages.

[Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash]

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Maths is a powerful tool, but in the wrong hands it can be pointless at best, dangerous at worst. Unfortunately, most human beings are a wrong pair of hands. We weren’t designed for handling numbers of any complexity, and tend to be out of our depths once they go beyond single digits. But a basic knowledge of numbers makes us overconfident and keen to interpret figures and statistics we don’t really understand as if they were cold hard facts. You only need to watch someone trying to work out which packet of washing powder presents the better deal when the supermarkets add a few percentages to the labels, or our reactions to opinion polls or the latest cancer-scare headlines.

Which makes books like this important, at least superficially. Ellenberg covers a lot of ground, explaining various ideas and highlighting common fallacies and paradoxes caused by our general weak understanding of basic statistics. He uses some excellent real-life examples to highlight what the numbers can teach us, but also what they can hide. Like how someone tasked with studying how to improve aircraft survivability in the Second World War realised that they were only analysing the bullet holes on the planes which made it back; the answer to this survivability bias was to increase armour to the places the raw data wasn’t showing them.

Another case in point is the classic disease afflicting the scientific community, that focus on statistical significance (and the Whorfian perversion of calling it significance at all). Papers tend to be published when they prove a point; negative science, for all its benefit, doesn’t enjoy the same kudos. Which fact alone means that many statistical outliers get published where the overwhelming unpublishable results tend to indicate the opposite. And that’s before taking into account how the researchers massage their results to hit the threshold of significance. After all, a few small tweaks here and fortuitous rounding decisions there can make all the difference for publication.

Aside from headline-grabbing scientific papers, Ellenberg uses other real-world examples to highlight his points. A large amount of space is taken up with the risks of playing state lotteries or the pitfalls of various electoral systems. Yet despite numerous practical applications, it remains a difficult book to recommend. For all its interesting asides, the title is just too schizophrenic to ever come to any real conclusions. Often it’s as if the author got carried away guiding the reader into some favoured corner of the mathematical jungle, only to forget why he ever led us there in the first place. Certain ideas are explained in fairly pedantic fashion, taking it a few steps further than even this particular pleb needed to grasp the concept. Other times it’s as if the target group has switched and the details become more turgid and difficult to follow.

[Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash]

Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl

Doubtless recommended to me because I enjoyed Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal, this story was at first somewhat disappointing in the sense that it is to a greater extent a personal memoir rather than an investigation of animal intelligence. I had been expecting a heavier, more science-laden account of their relationship, but once I’d adjusted to the style and tone of the book, I found plenty here to enjoy.

In the mid-80s, Stacey O’Brien took it upon herself to adopt a young barn owl and started what became a relationship lasting nearly two decades. She packs a lot in this short and compact volume about their life together, which is filled with anecdotes and fascinating titbits, as well as a fair few fundamentals of owl biology and psychology. Stacey progresses from surrogate mother to partner for life and mass mouse murderer for good measure. While not offering the scientific rigour of a book like de Waal’s, there is still plenty of observational evidence. Aside from which it’s a touching story, with a predictable end, but one which offers a fascinating insight into the nature of owls and the intelligence and individuality of animals.

[Photo by Doug Swinson on Unsplash]

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