Sunday, February 23, 2020

What I'm listening to, Winter 2020

A little of this, a little of that.

  • Coldplay, Everyday Life

    This is a lovely album, and it made me realize that I had become shamefully out of touch with Coldplay and their recent body of work, something I'll have to address. We've listened to this album a LOT since we picked it up for driving music on our Arizona vacation in January. 9/10.

  • Chet Faker, Built On Glass

    This was a holiday gift to us from Emily and Carmen, and it has quickly become my wife's favorite album of the last year. The internet calls this "electro-soul", and he definitely channels something you might have heard from Al Wilson or Barry White 50 years ago. But with the production techniques of 2020, and the eclecticism of a Down Under lad. 9/10

  • Tame Impala, The Slow Rush

    Kevin Parker, whose stage name is Tame Impala, is a one-man band, I believe. In the studio, he performs everything himself, laying down multiple overlays using modern electronic wizardry. I don't have any idea what his live performances are like, but the studio albums that he produces are fascinating. I have Innerspeaker and Lonerism, and now I have The Slow Rush, which I like better than the other two. 8/10

  • Local Natives, Hummingbird

    Although Hummingbird is the second Local Natives album, it was the fourth one I arrived at. I started with the amazing Gorilla Manor, as everyone should, but then I went on to Violet Street and Sunlit

    For whatever reason (music is personal, after all), Sunlit is actually my favorite, with Gorilla Manor a close second. I'd say I like Hummingbird slightly more than I like Violet Street.

    Annoyingly, the 2020 Local Natives tour dates completely conflict with long-scheduled travel plans, so I'm going to miss their shows again. Grrr!! 8/10.

  • Nick Murphy, Run Fast Sleep Naked

    I think that Nick Murphy has permanently dropped the "Chet Faker" stage name; at any rate, Run Fast Sleep Naked is released under his own name.

    Having completely nailed a certain persona with Built On Glass, Murphy is now trying to extend and develop other aspects of his music.

    This is going to take time, but I'll stick around for the ride, as his talent is undeniable. 8/10

  • Best Coast, Fade Away

    Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bronze record as Best Coast, and I've long wanted to explore their music. Fade Away is high energy California pop, and I really enjoy it. I'll be returning for more of Best Coast. 7/10

  • James Blake, Overgrown

    Overgrown was another gift from Emily and Carmen. It's definitely growing on me, listen after listen. Blake has released four albums, Overgrown was the second one. I'll certainly be listening to more of his work. 7/10

  • Beatles, Abbey Road Anniversary Edition

    Wow, it's been 50 years since Abbey Road came out, with its famously enigmatic cover picture of the boys striding across the Abbey Road crosswalk.

    Abbey Road was late-form Beatles, just shortly before they broke up.

    We got the 2CD re-issue, with CD1 being the studio release, while CD2 is a selection of alternate mixes, studio experiments, etc.

    It's all lovely. It's the Beatles! 10/10

  • The Grateful Dead, Ready Or Not

    The last actual album that the Grateful Dead released as a group was 1989's Built to Last. But the group continued composing, recording, and playing live music up through Garcia's death in the summer of 1995, and much of that body of music has been released over time.

    Ready or Not is an interesting concept; it is a selection of nine songs composed and performed by the Dead during the years from 1989 to 1995.

    Many of these songs surely would have been released on studio albums, if it hadn't been that they were Done Doing That.

    This is deep, mature music from the Dead, and although the production quality is challenging (these are all live recordings), it still showcases all of their greatest talents: lyrical depth, musical complexity, and the warmth and emotion which was always part of their finest moments.

    During the years since, I've heard a few of these songs performed live by Dead offshoots such as Phil Lesh and Friends or Dead & Co, but it's a true treasure to hear these old and fascinating recordings.

    It's 10/10, but really only for personal reasons. This certainly isn't an approachable album, it's for True Fans only.

    Like me.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Game Day, redux

Oh, sad, sad news about the Queen of Katwe.

But please don't miss this wonderful essay by Jessica Hoffmann Davis: Unsung heroes: Reconceptualizing a video game as a work of art

Meanwhile, my son had announced to his fans that his 75 year old mother was attempting to play Red Dead Redemption 2 and they responded with wonderful comments of support. They were moved I’d taken such trouble to see what my son had done, moved that an “older” person would make the effort to experience “their art.” I was buoyed by their support; they called my efforts “wholesome.” They made me feel welcome and proud of my novice exploration of the world they knew so well. And what did others know of the magic I was discovering in an area the uninformed consider a “waste of time”?

Perusing the topics of some of the very many academic articles on the subject, I noted that while there is persistent concern for the effects of violence in games, scholars in the field recognize a variety of positive aspects. Of interest to me, they acknowledge what I felt first-hand: the experience of “presence” as in actually being there within the game as well as a sense of personal efficacy as I moved along (Vorderer, Bryant, 2006). So much to learn from historical content to usable skills such as manual dexterity, spatial awareness, and the attention to detail inherent to aesthetic education.

As I came to the end of the RDR2 story, final scenes brought me to tears. The characters found the ways they were meant to find but not always what I would have wished for them. Since my son is a veteran actor, I have seen him in many roles, but never as an animated version of himself—a version that visually walked his walk and audibly exploited the dark and playful regions of his wonderful voice. My journey had allowed this encounter with an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary role. And I had also had the extraordinary experience of playing a role; well, sharing a role with the character Roger Clark so marvelously brought to life. I became facile with a venue I had previously only seen from a distance—a grandson ignoring me, attending somehow to this mysterious arena for play. I entered that world, became absorbed, and didn’t hear when I was called for dinner.

Her son, you see, is Benjamin Byron Davis, who plays "Dutch van der Linde" in the game.

In other gaming news, I'm on the final stretches of the marvelous Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order; but more on that another day.

And I'm already dreaming of what comes next. What do you think about The Pedestrian? I think it looks perfect, but of course I haven't played it yet.

In fact, I'm spending rather too much time not playing games right now.

But when I'm not playing games, I certainly do enjoy reading about them. One of my favorite sites is Red Blob Games, which has just fabulously-beautiful articles on how video game engines actually work.

But have I raved to you about GameAIPro.com, which is generously hosting all 3 issues of the fascinating, if short-lived, Game AI Pro series of books from CRC Press.

Start reading one article at Game AI Pro, and you'll soon be reading them all.

And, to close things off, let's get back to the Great Game. May I encourage you to spend a few minutes with this beautiful video, and remember that our children are our future?

Saturday, February 15, 2020

I clearly haven't been paying very much attention ...

Who are:

  • Michael Bennet
  • Rocky de la Fuente III
  • Mark Stewart Greenstein
  • John K. Delaney
  • Mosie Boyd
  • Michael A. Ellinger
  • and Joe Sestak

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Ferry Service continues to expand

A large new terminal is being built to split the ferry system's busiest, most popular route into two separate routes: WETA To Expand Ferry Commute Service in Alameda and Oakland

The Seaplane Lagoon Ferry Terminal is currently under construction on the former Naval Air Station Alameda. It is on track to be completed in mid-2020. The WETA Board on Thursday approved an agreement with the City of Alameda to operate ferry service at the new terminal and endorsed staff’s recommendation to take this opportunity to revamp Alameda commute service for the benefit of commuters. The Alameda City Council approved the agreement at its Tuesday meeting. “Alameda ferry ridership has boomed in recent years. Reorienting our Alameda commute service to use the new Seaplane Lagoon terminal will help us meet that growing demand and improve the entire ferry experience for passengers,” said Nina Rannells, WETA’s executive director. “We’re also thrilled to expand our commute service in Oakland to help ease roadway congestion and continue to build out the Bay’s ferry system.”

The announcement is a bit confusing in its description of which routes will still visit the old terminal:

Under the plan, the existing Main Street Alameda Ferry Terminal will continue to be used for non-commute ferry service to San Francisco (including weekends and special service to Oracle Park and Chase Center) and for the South San Francisco service.

Meanwhile, much sooner, the newest ferry dock at the Ferry Building is opening over President's Day Weekend: Ferry Gate and Queue Changes in Downtown S.F. Coming Tuesday, Feb. 18

Beginning on Tuesday, February 18, Richmond ferry arrivals and departures will be reassigned to Gate E at the Downtown San Francisco Ferry Terminal. Also, there will be access and queuing changes for Alameda/Oakland and Harbor Bay passengers in Downtown San Francisco.

During the afternoon commute runs, it's quite chaotic in this area of the waterfront. There are thousands of people out and about on the street who aren't even taking the ferries, just enjoying the beautiful waterfront access. Then, when you combine that with another thousand or so busy commuters who are Just Trying To Get Home, it can be a bit of a kerfluffle.

But it all seems to work out in the end.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: a very short review

For a long time, I've been thinking about reading some of David Foster Wallace's work. Wallace is frequently cited in the same paragraph as writers such as Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce, William S. Burroughs, etc.: "important" authors whom you "ought" to read.

But Infinite Jest just seems infinitely intimidating; each time I get near it I feel exhausted and have to go read something else.

For 6 months at least.

So I thought: maybe I can approach Wallace in easy steps, and picked up A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

It's definitely much more approachable, but I'm not sure it's much of a stepping stone.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is a collection of seven essays that Wallace wrote fairly early in his career, around the time that he was teaching at Illinois State and working on Infinite Jest.

The seven essays are all non-fiction, though, and are sort of all over the place.

There are two essays on Tennis. Wallace relates that he was an avid tennis player as a youth and played seriously and competitively for most of his life. They're fairly interesting, although personally I'm not really all that interested in tennis.

There are two essays on post-modernism: one is an investigation of the literary aspects of television, the other is about H. L. Hix's Morte d'Author: An Autopsy. These are simply dreadful essays. They are dense, arcane, opaque, but most of all they are dull, dull, dull.

There is an essay about David Lynch and the making of Lost Highway. Ugh. Perhaps if Wallace had chosen an appealing director and an appealing movie? But then, that wouldn't be Wallace, I guess.

The high spot of the book, for me, were the other two essays.

Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All is an essay about attending the 1993 Illinois State Fair. Somehow, this essay manages to be crude, raunchy, smug, elitist, laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, and kind, all at once.

Sometimes even in the same paragraph!

The horses are in their own individual stalls, with half-height doors and owners and grooms on stools by the doors, a lot of them dozing. The horses stand in hay. Billy Ray Cyrus plays loudly on some stableboy's boom box. The horses have tight hides and apple-sized eyes that are set on the sides of their heads, like fish. I've rarely been this close to fine livestock. The horses' faces are long and somehow suggestive of coffins. The racers are lanky, velvet over bone. The draft and show horses are mammoth and spotlessly groomed and more or less odorless -- the acrid smell in here is just the horses' pee. All their muscles are beautiful; the hides enhance them. Their tails whip around in sophisticated double-jointed ways, keeping the flies from mounting any kind of coordinated attack. (There really is such a thing as a horsefly.) The horses all make farty noises when they sigh, heads hanging over the short doors. They're not for petting, though. When you come close they flatten their ears and show big teeth. The grooms laugh to themselves as we jump back. These are special competitive horses, intricately bred, w/ high-strung artistic temperaments. I wish I'd brought carrots: animals can be bought, emotionally. Stall after stall of horses. Standard horse-type colors. They eat the same hay they stand in. Occasional feedbags look like gas masks. A sudden clattering spray-sound like somebody hosing down siding turns out to be a glossy chocolate stallion, peeing. He's at the back of his stall getting combed, and the door's wide open, and we watch him pee. The stream's an inch in diameter and throws up dust and hay and little chips of wood from the floor. We hunker down and have a look upward, and I suddenly for the first time understand a certain expression describing certain males, an expression I'd heard but never truly understood till just now, prone and gazing upward in some blend of horror and awe.

The title essay, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is similar in many ways; it is an essay about taking a seven day luxury cruise through the Caribbean. It's mellower, quieter, more reflective, almost melancholy, and all of these things lessen the overall result. Wallace is either having fun, or he's not, and the result certainly comes through in his writing. But this essay, though perhaps less hilarious (and certainly less raunchy) is also more insightful, and more kind; perhaps it is just a result of him getting older? (Though: the two essays were written only 3 years apart, the first when he was 31 years old, and the second when he was 34, so I don't think age had much to do with it.)

I'll still don't know if I'll ever try Infinite Jest, or The Pale King, or The Broom of the System. Maybe someday.

But at least I feel like I understand David Foster Wallace a bit better.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Conversations with Friends: a very short review

Sally Rooney's Normal People is on everybody's Top Books list nowadays, but before getting to that I decided to start with her first book, Conversations with Friends

I loved this odd little book!

I'm definitely not the target audience for Conversations with Friends; it's absolutely a Millenial's book, and that generation gap hit me like a hammer. Plus my gender is wrong, I'm on the wrong continent, the main characters of the book are wholly unlike me, etc.

Still, it's fresh, exciting, immediate, and thoroughly a joy to read.

I liked it so much that I was willing to overlook lots of Rooney's quirks, such as doing away with quotation marks for dialog, or telling significant parts of the story via text message, or having a character whose emails are sent in all lower case.

The harder quirk to overlook, in my reading at least, was the super-naturally self-aware nature of our narrator, Frances. I know I'm not the most introspective person, but there's just no way that a 21-year-old character could be so vividly in control of her own consciousness like this:

When we rang the bell, Melissa answered the door with her camera slung over her shoulder. She thanked us for coming. She had an expressive, conspiratorial smile, which I though she probably gave to all her subjects, as if to say: you're no ordinary subject to me, you're a special favorite. I knew I would enviously practice this smile later in a mirror.

Or

Although I couldn't specify why exactly, I felt certain that Melissa was less interested in our writing process now that she knew I wrote the material alone. I knew the subtlety of this change would be enough for Bobbi to deny it later, which irritated me as if it had already happened. I was starting to feel adrift from the whole setup, like the dynamic that had eventually revealed itself didn't interest me, or even involve me. I could have tried harder to engage myself, but I probably resented having to make an effort to be noticed."

Rooney uses this technique throughout, to tell what is really an inter-mingled story of four very vivid but separate characters from one character's sole narration, allowing our heroine Frances to divine what is in every one else's mind and reveal it to us in passages such as these.

Do people really have such preternaturally accurate reading of each other, especially when they are barely 21?

I guess so; after all, Rooney herself was barely older when she wrote Conversations with Friends, and she clearly has tremendous insight into what makes people tick.

Anyway, why quibble!

Conversation with Friends is wonderful, Rooney is wonderful, that's all I have to say about that!

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Game Day

Yes, there's a game today.

But lately, I've been thinking about other games; I barely watched any professional sports in 2019 (though: go Leicester! go Jamie Vardy!)

Meanwhile, perhaps because GDC is just around the corner, a round-up of other types of gaming:

  • The Digital Antiquarian: Master of Orion
    So, Civilization is the more idealistic, more educational, perhaps even the nobler of the two games. And yet it often plays a little awkwardly — which awkwardness we forgive because of its aspirational qualities. Master of Orion‘s fictional context is a much thinner veneer to stretch over its mechanics, while words like “idealistic” simply don’t exist in its vocabulary. And yet, being without any high-flown themes to fall back on, it makes sure that its mechanics are absolutely tight. These dichotomies can create a dilemma for a critic like yours truly. If you asked me which game presents a better argument for gaming writ large as a potentially uplifting, ennobling pursuit, I know which of the two I’d have to point to. But then, when I’m just looking for a fun, challenging, intriguing game to play… well, let’s just say that I’ve played a lot more Master of Orion than Civilization over the last quarter-century. Indeed, Master of Orion can easily be read as the work of a designer who looked at Civilization and was unimpressed with its touchy-feely side, then set out to make a game that fixed all the other failings which that side obscured.
  • How Tabletop RPGs Are Being Reclaimed From Bigots and Jerks
    “Sometimes a game will touch on something that may affect your players, because it (or something like it) happened to your players IRL [in real life],” she said. “Rape is probably the most obvious example of this, but gaslighting, torture, and animal death are others. And playing with those can be hard!”

    The content warnings aren’t there to stop people from playing tabletop games that touch on those themes, they’re meant to give people a framework for including them responsibly. The process is similar to how a well-run BDSM community treats consent. There’s lots of communication and before, after, and during sessions and checklists that help players and partners find create a list of their dos, don’ts, and maybes. A BDSM scenster’s checklist helps consenting adults understand limits before they start fucking. An RPG players checklist does much the same.

    According to Evil Hat, setting boundaries early leads to better games. “There’s no way to know every player’s past and there’s no reason anyone should be obligated to disclose their entire personal history before a game gets underway," the company told me. "So instead, a content warning and the use of Safety Tools (like the X card, Script Change, or Lines & Veils) creates an atmosphere of trust and respect. You’re setting the boundaries: ‘Hey, we’re all here to have fun—but if the game suddenly crosses a line and stops being fun, let’s pause or redirect that so we can get back on track and make sure it’s enjoyable for the whole table.’”

  • Kentucky Route Zero on the Switch is a beautiful, sometimes infuriating dream
    For seven long years now, players living in the more text- and PC-focused rays of the gaming sphere have been periodically receiving strange, often-bewildering transmissions, occasional invitations to walk along America’s rough and mysterious subconscious roads. Released in fits and drips for the better part of a decade, Cardboard Computer’s magical realism road trip odyssey Kentucky Route Zero has been “coming out” since its first act dropped in 2013, beguiling players with its sleepy, quasi-somnambulistic approach to topics ranging from the obsessions of mid-century American playwrights, to the intricacies of computer game design, to the mounting and soul-eroding effects of looming medical debt. And now, amazingly, that process is over: Kentucky Route Zero is now out, fully and finally, and with a home console version containing all five of its acts (and various ancillary materials to boot).
  • Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order beat EA expectations by selling 8m copies
    "Respawn delivered an expertly crafted high-quality experience with outstanding gameplay that thrilled players, made many of the game of the year lists and sold beyond our projections for the quarter," EA exec Andrew Wilson added.
  • Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Ninth Sister fight - tips on how to beat this dangerous boss
    The Ninth Sister is one of the key antagonists in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and after an unfortunate encounter in the first mission, we all know that we’re going to have to come up against her later on in the campaign. This boss fight is trickier than any you’ll have come across so far, and requires careful footwork and a good understanding of this powerful foe.
  • The Pedestrian Is A Good Platformer, But Great Puzzle Game
    there are key setpieces throughout The Pedestrian where you’re asked not to run blissfully across a single sign, but to stop and arrange a while bunch 0f them together in a particular order so you can then run through them unimpeded. This involves a lot of drawing in the air with your finger, hard thinking then some trial and error, before finally completing a puzzle, running free like the wind for a few seconds then running headfirst into the next puzzle.

    This gets a little frustrating, because the world behind The Pedestrian is a lovely one! It’s downright whimsical, with backgrounds bustling with life and cheery music that whisks you through each environment like a feelgood 90s sitcom. The game spends so long torturing you in the foreground that I wish we could have spent some more time with the background instead.

    But I get it, the signs are the game here, and the puzzles that drive them are fantastic. Things get hard surprisingly early on, but they never feel impossible because everything you need to do is clearly labelled and designed, to the point where even at my darkest most frustrating points I still felt like I was at least on the right track, and just hadn’t fully explored all my options yet.

  • 'A Plague Tale' Audio Design: Not Only Squeaks
    Creating an impactful soundscape for a game is a real challenge. How about an Audio that will not only serve the story but bring it up to the next level. With all the constraints linked to a small development team with a small budget taken into account, A Plague Tale: Innocence's Audio Director discusses his approach to Sound Design in order to offer a memorable and immersive experience.

    How to strengthen a scene? How to support gameplay? How to help a player to focus or to understand a level? Overall, how to give a game that thing that makes it special?