Monday, 29 July 2019

Top Crab #13

Yes, I know it is rather ironic to celebrate this blog’s thirteenth birthday given that the blog has been rather abandoned lately. Frankly, it is hard for me to envision a comeback for the blog any time soon, but who know (I definitely don’t). Regardless, I think there is extra benefit to be had in looking back over the year that was and analysing what it is that happened.
So - here we go - again. For the 13th time!


Best book:
I haven’t read many non technical books this past year. Certainly not half as many as I would like to. Under the assumption of general disinterest in my technical reading, I will proceed to point at the book I’d consider the most pivotal of the few select books that I have read. (Disclaimer: at the rate I am going, next year’s selection would have to be a technical book.)
21 Lessons for the 21st Century, the [currently] latest book from Yuval Noah Harari, is my winner for the year. While it does digress on many of the points already discussed in Sapiens and Homo Deus, 21 Lessons takes us further in the applicability department to discuss the challenges that apply to humanity in the near (and not that near) future. Call it an exercise in applied philosophy, if you will; the point is that here lies a book summing up much thinking, both by Harari as well as the general scientific community, to discuss the challenges ahead of humanity and recommend some approaches to tackle them with. It’s down to earth stuff, ranging from artificial intelligence to immigration policies.
The reason why 21 Lessons won me is simple: It is rare to find such evidence based, deep thinking, approach to the core political problems facing us. If only the people actually leading our societies would have been as deep as this book; instead, we are stuck with Facebook rigged elections (and I’m pointing this particular matter out because the book discusses it in depth).


Best movie:
It is hard for me to nominate a winner for this category this year. Not because we haven’t watched much; on the contrary, we watched tons. It is because we watched so much (too much?) that I couldn’t keep up with the reviews on this blog (lame excuse, I know).
However, while I can’t complain about the quantity delivered to our TV, I can complain - and I will complain - that too much of the stuff we get to see these days feels like it’s production line made. In this mass of content, it is hard to identify the truly unique; in a world that demands you watch the latest Marvel product, it is hard to pick the diamonds in the rough (and no, I am not a fan of Disney’s latest reanimations of its animations).
The movie that probably is the winner for this year is Green Book. It won the Academy Award and stirred controversy at that, but I will simply say that I picked it for the love of Viggo Mortensen, that ever so excellent actor who delivers an astonishing performance.


Best on TV:
The situation on “TV” has been found to be similar to that in the movies side. Perhaps because nowadays, when everything we watch is streamed anyway, it’s hard to tell the difference between TV and film anymore; if anything, I’d argue these differences are more related to business models (i.e., projecting films at cinemas vs. weekly airing vs. binging). What it comes down to, really, are relatively subtle differences in episode duration, episode frequency, and anticipation. [To clarify I will add that, despite Disney’s best efforts, most films are still a single episode affair.]
With this distinction in mind, I will now pick two winners.
The first is Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War documentary. As per the usual Burns’ standard, it is a long and thorough affair. Also per his standard, it is an eye opener: I grew up on the us vs. them, good vs. bad story of a war that “our side” was being held up from winning even though it easily could; instead, watching The Vietnam War made me realise that Apocalypse Now was probably the most accurate depiction of that war up to Burns’.
The second is the much lighter The Orville, a winking yet clever tribute to the Star Trek of yore (particularly The Next Generation) in an age where it seems as if “the real Star Trek”, in the shape of Discovery, has lost its way into that great big meh of over budgeted shows.



Best podcast:
With podcasts dominating my listening time more and more (and, probably more importantly, becoming a more and more commercialised affair rather than a back operation of one or two enthusiasts), I feel like I’m swamped with quality material.
My pick for this year is not a single podcast but rather a family of podcasts. Making History was/is an Israeli podcast dealing with history and science, produced by a single enthusiastic guy, Ran Levi. With success came other podcasts, and now the Ran Levi brand includes a whole raft of podcasts, from current affairs and technology through Bible analysis (probably my favourite of the lot). Yes, most of these podcasts would be irrelevant to you if you are not a Hebrew speaker, as they speak Hebrew in general, but there are exceptions: Ran Levi’s Malicious Life podcast, presented by Ran Levi himself, is a popular English speaking podcast dealing with cybersecurity.
Perhaps the main point of this pick of the year of mine is to demonstrate that quality podcasts are there to be found in the non English speaking world. I feel this is a point worth making in a world where American “contents” tends to smear time and focus on producing “shows”, while British podcasts tend to feel more like radio programs imported to the online world. Ran Levy runs figure eights around most of those by showing the whole world where the podcast medium can take us to.


Best music:
I loved me many new albums this year, particularly from the realms of alternative music and jazz and even mixes of alternative and jazz. If I have to pick one particular album of those, it would be Karen O’s (of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame) Lux Prima.
However, my main musical event of the year has been Midnight Oil’s new live album, Armistice Day. It comes down to this excellent band, one of my top favourite bands, coming back to perform its decades old material but this time as mature, wise old men. And that wisdom shines through the performances, making the songs ever so relevant.


Best video game:
Trend wise, this year has been dominated by the Nintendo Switch. The PS4 has been mostly relegated to dust gathering and monthly downloads of the lastest PS+ offerings. My iPad, probably my favourite gaming platform by virtue of being there and being strong and capable, was relegated due to the death of the App Store through the cataclysm officially known as freemium games.
The Switch was a contrast to those two. While I still suffered from chronic leisure time shortages, this lowly console (and lowly it is, at least in my opinion) came up with a secret weapon: genuinely good games!
Who could have imagined that.
Of those, there was one game that absolutely dominated my video gaming world for months, pretty much from the time I got it till the time I finished it. I know I’m severely late to the show, but that game was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Why is this game so good? It’s not like we didn’t have good Zelda games before BotW, so what’s the big deal? I’ll tell you what the big deal is: the ability to save the game wherever you are. Doesn’t sound like much, but for this time deprived person it meant I could pick the game up whenever I had a few minutes here and there and put it down whenever freedom ended. Contrast that with levels that required some two hours or so between challenges to save on previous Zelda games - who’s got two straight spare hours these days? What person knows they’re going to have two free hours in advance? Certainly not me.
Of course, being able to save the game would have meant nothing if the game wasn’t good. Luckily, it is, and even better - it offers a huge realm to explore, all filled with nice puzzles. So much so the nightly Zelda show, featuring yours truly in the role of Link, became the nightly family gathering place. Few games manage to attract such demanding crowds.
There were things I didn’t like - for example, I think the game would have been way better if violence was removed (maybe leave the comical aspects?). I also think the game severely lacks in the story department, especially given its length.
Talking length, according to the Switch I had spent almost 200 hours playing BotW. It’s pretty much guaranteed this is the most time I had ever spend on a game in modern times (which exclude Atari 2600 like periods where I only had one game to play and what now feels like all the time in the world to play it).
Recently, Nintendo announced a new Zelda game that looks a lot like a sequel. As much as I liked BotW, I do not consider that to be good news. BotW was a very good game, yes, but it is time to move forward rather than delve on past success. Yet, as Midnight Oil put it, who can stand in the way when there’s a dollar to be made…


See you next year, if not earlier.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Top Crab #12

It’s this blog’s 12th birthday, which means it is time for me to point a finger at the things I loved the most this past year. It is also time to analyse the trends of the last year, which I will do below.
Before diving into details, I will add the core difference in my life this past year has been having even less spare time to enjoy what the world has to offer than earlier years. And I suspect things will only grow worse until some inevitable implosion.
But enough complaining. Let’s review what happened this past year.

Best movie:
There were several movies that reached inside and pressed an inner button this year, but my winner is Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri. There are several reasons for that, which I don’t see the need to repeat here; but the key allegory around the soul of USA society (and by extension, that of most of the Western world, to one extent or another) coupled with the optimistic way in which the movie ends despite the traumas at its core worked their magic on me. That, and the fact here was a movie with multiple round characters, each portrayed so well. A worthy winner!

Best book:
In the 11 years I have been awarding books on this blog before, only twice did a work of fiction win the award. This year things are different, and we will get to the why further down the queue.
For now, let’s enjoy the book that did it to me this year, The Gulf by Anna Spargo-Ryan. On one hand it is hard to see why this rather tragic story had so much appeal to this generally non fiction oriented person and, if anything else, a science fiction oriented geek. But on the other lies a very well written story, written by an author who is practically a neighbour and with whom I have the occasional online chat. Ignoring for a minute that annoying inclination that probably too many of Spargo-Ryan’s narratives are autobiographical, I think she has a way of cutting through the facades of Australian living. It has been pointed out to me that too many of Australia’s best writers are producing rather depressing pieces, but I choose to look on the bright side: The Gulf is high quality throughout.

Best music:
Perhaps it’s a sign of ageing, but if there is a trend I could pick up on with my music listening this year then it is to do with changes to my musical tastes. Having come from rock, and over the years migrated into what is normally referred to as “alternative” (I generally think that what used to be called rock is now called alternative so as to leave room for the fodder that passes as pop music nowadays), my listening is dominated by the jazz and the classical. One good reason for this has to do with the bulk of my listening taking place while I do other things (e.g., read, work), and it just happens that these genres do a better job in the background.
Another change comes in the way I identify new music to listen to. I think Apple Music is doing a pretty good job pinning the essence of my musical tastes and offering me suitable music (with the caveat of non existent recommendations in the field of classical music). The surprise source for quality music, however, happens to come from an audiophile magazine I used to devour back in the nineties, Sterophile. I no longer make significant attempts in the field of audiophilia (there’s not much point to it, given music is relegated to background duties), but I will acknowledge Stereophile’s music reviews have a knack at exposing me to new worlds that also happen to be well recorded (always a bonus). Definitely worth the single digit dollar price of a yearly subscription.
All that long introduction was to explain why pianist Vikingur Olafsson’s Philip Glass: Piano Works was my favourite album this past year. To put it simply, it has the ability to take me on a rollercoaster of emotions. Given how often Philip Glass is interpreted these days, it also shows the importance of interpretation. Regardless, I would like to point out Olafsson’s music proved an excellent background While I was reading The Gulf.

A lot more has happened for me in music this year, though.
Yes, my taste in music has changed, but no, not all of it is different. The music I always loved the best, the Led Zeppelin and the Pink Floyd, are still very much there. And while neither of these two produce new music anymore, there are still worthy artists who know their craft our there and produce the good stuff.
My pick for this year comes from an Israeli artist who sings in Hebrew and is thus doomed for relative anonymity. That doesn’t matter to me; I like her riffs and the drone like manner with which she protests against the superficiality of modern living in an aptly named album, Advert Music.
The artist is Hila Ruach, and over the years I grew to love everything she has been producing. The title song of her album, (guess what, it’s called Advert Music) represents, to my ears, her peak thus far:


Best podcast:
I thought of adding a “best podcast” category to last year’s Top Crab awards but eventually decided to wait another year. As it turns out, it didn’t matter - this year’s winner was my candidate last year, too. That, however, misses the point: and the point is that podcasts have revolutionised my life since they entered my scene in force more than 2 years ago.
For a start, podcasts have killed my non fiction reading. Why bother spending two digit hours on a book discussing one idea when I could spend the same amount of time listening to a double digit amount of ideas receiving ample dissection? To put it mildly, I have learnt a lot from podcasts this past year, much more than I could have done from reading alone.
Yes, I have some entertaining podcasts that I listen to (The Guardian’s football podcast did a good job on me during the World Cup), but my main agenda with podcast is learning and opening my eyes (ears? mind?) to new stuff.
With that in mind, the best mind opener around, by far, has been Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast. Sam and I go a long way, back from our mutual adventures in atheism, but that’s not the point; the point is that he brings worthy, smart, people to his podcast every week and discusses their core ideas in depth and at length with them. One can agree or disagree (and I often disagree; Harris, in particular, belongs to the American left side of politics, the part that the rest of the world regards as centre at best). Yet disagreement is fine; I don’t want to listen to a people telling me what I already know and agree with, I need to be challenged. And Sam Harris does the challenging by raising well established arguments as opposed to, say, shooting the messenger. The result? A weekly dose of high quality education.

Best TV:
I assume that by now we all know there are tons of good quality TV stuff around. Point being, it’s getting hard to pick a winner, but picking I will.
My winner for this year is the latest season of Black Mirror. Perhaps it’s the Netflix funding that did it, but the later seasons seem to have sharpened their focus on depicting the dystopias we are all at the brink of (if we fail to pay attention). I guess that takes a particular brand of genius to achieve.

Best video game:
To clarify, there is no room in my life for long games these days. Games that need more 20 hours of my time can pretty much disappear off the face of the earth and I wouldn’t care less.
With that disclaimer disclaimed, let’s have a look at what this year had to offer in the various relevant platforms.
On the Nintendo 3DS, I thoroughly enjoyed playing Pokemon Ultra Moon. I know, you don’t have to tell me, this is a game that sucks time from its player. However, it is also a game that one can play any time one feels like and for as long as one feels like, while offering an incredibly relaxing experience with some tactics not short on depth. While discussing the 3DS, I will add that I also fell in love with Detective Pikachu, which isn’t your classic Pokemon game but rather a game that takes place in the Pokemon world and, for the first time as far as I can tell, given fans of the Pokemon series a personal feel for what that world feels like on the inside.
On the Nintendo Switch I thoroughly enjoyed Super Mario Odyssey. On paper, such games (can I call it a platformer?) are not my cup of coffee, definitely when considering they do not offer any agendas beyond pure entertainment. However, even I could not avoid observing just how well designed this game is; the result is the best pure entertainment I had enjoyed this past year.
My winner for the year, however, comes from left field and is played on mobile. In fact, I took my time with it and I finished it all in less than 45 minutes, which I am sure will bring the wrath of all the gamerz annoyed at the poor value per hour ratio this game has to offer. I couldn’t care less about that; I applaud the Melbourne based folk who made the effort to deliver me with a game that even I, with what little spare time I have these days, can thoroughly enjoy from start to finish.
This game, my game, is called Florence and I urge you to give it a try, for Florence is further proof on how storytelling can go much further then we've grown used to through the use of modern technology.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Oh...Sir! The Insult Simulator

Review published over at Digitally Downloaded.
Personally, I'd recommend getting the iOS version (as opposed to the Nintendo Switch version I reviewed this on), unless party play is a factor.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Attentat 1942

My review was published at Digitally Downloaded here.
I will note that, as usual, my original text went through much editing. However, this time around the text was toned up rather than toned down. Usually, I have to tame myself so as to write as per gentle Australian etiquette rather than brutal Israelism.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Ogre

My review was published in Digitally Downloaded here.
I'm quite proud of this review and of having the opportunity to write it in the first place. As far as the review is concerned, I suspect I will be the only person to review this video game in the world to still own the original board game (and yes, the photos of that original board game you will see in the review are the photos I took of my own set).
The better part were the memories. It reminded me of how my uncle, doing his best to support my learning and development, ordered the board game for me from the USA. It wasn't a trivial affair; there were no credit cards, back then. He had to buy American cash, then post it by snail mail to some catalog company. We played Ogre, and then he bought me a book on Ogre tactics to boot.
I had a great time playing board games with my uncle. For this, and for so much more, I owe him a lot.

Monday, 9 October 2017

FIFA 18

My 4000+ words thesis on FIFA 18 was published at Digitally Downloaded here.
There are several reasons for the review's length "problem". Firstly, unlike most FIFA reviews, this was not an incremental one (of the "what has changed since last year" type). Secondly, there are so many modes and options in this game that a review ignoring some or most would potentially do the game injustice or at least leave its reviewer open to flank attacks along the lines of the "how can you criticise the game when you haven't tried X?"
Thirdly, and most importantly for me, is the fact I have a long history with FIFA. FIFA, my closest friends and I went a long way together, and no matter what I will always hold this video game series in high regard.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth

The review was published at Digitally Downloaded here.
I will add a personal note noting the published version misses on a couple of paragraphs I had originally submitted. I think the result is a dryer, too laconic, review that lacks some necessary air.
Which goes to show there are sacrifices to be made when submitting oneself to the mercies of an editor. I am surprised how annoying I'm finding it, but I'm sure I'll get over it just the same.