Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Review: Velocity 2X (PS Vita, PS4)

I picked up Velocity 2X as part of the Playstation Plus free games package, and was surprised by how much I played it, and hence feel confident enough to write a review for it, despite it now looking rather unlikely that I will finish the game.

Velocity 2X is an unlikely combination of 2 genres: the space-based vertical-scrolling shooter, and the side-scrolling platformer. The two of them work together in interesting ways. For instance, you might start one puzzle in space ship mode, only to have to dock and go into side-scrolling mode in order to complete the puzzle.

The game does a fairly good job of bringing you up to speed with the controls: first, you start with basic shooting and teleporting, and then puzzles(gates), bombs, and then bookmarks are introduced. The bookmarks enable the developer to construct complex levels where you'll have to backtrack in order to achieve higher scores and explore the entire level. The side-scrolling mode has its own puzzles, as well as tools, so you get introduced to them as well.

The game's well done, in that the difficulty level isn't set high, and it only gets hard if you want to say, pick up every crystal, or finish the level in the fastest possible time in order to achieve a gold medal or what-not. I'm largely immune to this types of in-game lures, but if you're not, then you're probably going to replay levels over and over again in order to hit those achievements.

Where the game falls down, however, is that it level-locks later levels to a total achievement score! That effectively forces you to go and replay levels until you get enough points to let you keep going in the game. If this was a mobile game, I'd expect there to be a micro-transaction engine reminding you over and over again that you can buy your way past those artificial barriers. Unfortunately, this is a full-priced game with a retail price (on amazon for $19.99) for the PC version. (I'm sure you can find it for $5 on a steam sale) That makes me scratch my head. Why would you punish your purchasers by locking out content in order to grind the same levels over and over again if you've already got their money?!!! Clearly the game designers think that the only people who might buy such a game are those who have an infinite amount of time to replay content they've already played once.

Because of this stupid decision, I can't recommend the game at full price. If you can get it for under $5 on a steam sale it's worth a shot if you think you'll like the combination of elements, but otherwise, it's a take-it-or-leave it game. That's a pity, because without the cap, I'd probably play the game to completion. As it is, I'm stuck in one of the later levels with no desire to replay all the previous levels.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review: On the Steel Breeze

On the Steel Breeze is Alastair Reynolds' follow-up to Blue Remembered Earth. I call it a follow-up rather than a sequel, because it doesn't depend very much on reading Blue Remembered Earth, and Blue Remembered Earth's characters (with one exception) do not play much of a part in this novel.

I'm of two minds about this novel. First of all, the point-of-view character, Chiku Akinya, is a thoroughly unlikeable person. She's secretive, makes poor decisions, and trusts, no one, not even her family. She's faced with a dilemma, with knowledge that the generation ship she's on is headed to a destination already occupied by a human-created AI with no intention of letting humans settle in. Furthermore, prior automated machines and sensors sent there in advance to prepare the planet for settlement has been lying to humanity for ages. Rather than trust humanity to do something useful with that knowledge, she keeps it to herself and does her best to let no one else know about it, even though if at any point she had died, humanity would have been screwed. It's clear that Reynolds doesn't know how to build plausible characters, and this main character basically reflects the worst of science fiction's traits: the inability to fit decent characters into a plot-driven narrative.

On the other hand, the world building is great. Reynolds does a good job exploring how you could build a caravan of colony ships, complete with ecosystems and planned hibernation setups. The world of Crucible and its solar system is interesting as well, as is the state of the civilized space in the Sol system.

Unfortunately, there are plot-points one after another in the novel that just destroy the believability of the novel. For instance, we are led to believe that humanity would build a caravan of colony ships with deliberately under-supplied engines, trusting that new technologies would be invented during transit that would enable the ships to brake and orbit the target system. That sounds insane to anyone, and is unbelievable.

The net net is that On the Steel Breeze is a much poorer novel than Blue Remembered Earth, and even worse, it doesn't supply a payoff to the major mysteries introduced in the setup, expecting you to read the sequel with the novel ending on a cliff-hanger.

It pains me to say this since I'm a huge Reynolds fan: but stay away from this book at all costs unless the sequel has come out and you're prepared to spend the time reading both books at once. Not recommended.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Review: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Being Mortal is Atul Gawande's book about end-of-life care. It discusses the history of end-of-life care, and how the current nursing home environment came about, not as a natural evolution of the poor houses of the past, but as an extension of the hospital. This explains the inherent conflict between providing good care leading to happier tenants, and satisfying safety requirements and reducing risk.

What's interesting by far about the book is it's criticism of nursing home care: fundamentally, eliminating risk is anthetical to happiness in a tenant/patient. By eliminating the possibility of the patient doing what he wants when he wants to, the patient is infantilized, and ironically, the result is poorer outcomes, in addition to the reduced quality of life the regimented approach ensues.

The alternatives are considerably different: various assisted-living philosophies attempt to ensure the tenant's independence while reducing risk by ensuring staff is on hand as called upon, rather than being intrusive. The problem is that all it took was a few bad apples and regulatory apparatus will then take over and ensure that safety is the highest priority, rather than patient happiness.

Gawande ties it all together with his own experience as a practitioner: he describes several patients, and touchingly, his own father's death (not even neglecting the detail of acquiring the Giardia parasite while scattering his father's ashes on the Ganges) By doing so, he reveals something important: it's critical to have the important conversations up front: how heroic do you want the interventions to be, and what's acceptable as an outcome (and by corollary, what's not!). For instance, there's an example of a patient whose father said, "As long as I can watch football on TV, I'm good." which surprised the heck out of his daughter.

The book is sadly lacking in statistics, as well as detailed cost analysis. It does, however, mention several important details: hospice care, for instance, is intended to optimize the day to day life, rather than potential recovery as opposed to the standard heroic life-extension attempts today. However, it turns out that hospice care usually also leads to as long or longer lifespan as a result: it turns out that if your day to day life isn't hell, you actually live longer even if heroic medical interventions aren't exerted:

The result: those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives— and they lived 25 percent longer. In other words, our decision making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality. If end-of-life discussions were an experimental drug, the FDA would approve it.(Kindle Loc. 2504-7)
By far the biggest problem, it appears, is that medical professionals have to be able, trained, and willing to have these difficult discussions with patients. In one example, Gawande observes a physician saying, "Well, a good outcome for this patient as a result of this procedure would be an additional year or two." At the same, time, the patient was thinking in terms of getting an additional decade or two of life for the same procedure. Without a thorough and honest exploration of what each option means, it is no wonder that so many patients get railroaded into heroic interventions at the expense of quality of life and time spent with their loved ones:

People die only once. They have no experience to draw on. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come—and escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.(Kindle Loc. 2655-57)
  In any case, despite my mild criticism of the book above, this has so far been the best book I've read all year. If you have aging parents or are yourself aging, this book is a must-read. Highly Recommended.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: Anova Precision Immersion Circulator

When Amazon offered the older version of the Anova Immersion Circulator for $100, I jumped on it. The latest version (which is not the one I'm reviewing) cost $180, and has bluetooth and app integration. As someone who's been doing sous vide for a while, I consider those apps superfluous and was happy to save the money.

The first thing I noticed was how huge the circulator was. You definitely need a fairly tall pot (at least 6" deep, and probably not much more than 12" deep), and it's substantial in weight, though obviously takes up much less room than my Sous Vide Supreme Demi.

Using it is fairly easy: you fill a pot with water (keeping it between the min and max line), clip in the clamp, touch the screen to turn on (not at all obvious at first), set the temperature, push the start button, and go! It's noisy enough if you've got nothing else in the kitchen turned on, but if you're doing even a little stir fry or the dish washer is on, you're not going to hear it. That said, it is quite a bit noiser than the Sous Vide Supreme Demi.

It heats up very quickly (much faster than the Demi, not surprising given the 1000W spec), but is also much less power efficient: there's a motor turned on all the time circulating the water, and because no pot you have is going to have a lid that's compatible with the immersion circulator, heat escapes from the top (as well as the sides, since most pots are conductive), and so the machine has to work quite a bit harder than the Demi.

That last bit is important, because it also means that it's not quite unattended operation the way the Demi is. Because water will evaporate from the pot, you have to drop by every so often to top off the water if you have a long running recipe (e.g, 72 hour short ribs, or 24 hour duck confit).  And because there's a motor running, if you stick creme brulee in bowls and dump it into the pot, the bowls will move around and clink clink all the time, which is actually quite noisy.

Because we live in a hard water area, I find myself being obsessive about scaling on the device. Since there's a motor in the device, you don't want scaling to get so bad that it impacts the performance of the motor. I do my darnedest to wipe off all the water before putting it away, and never let it air dry.

The advantages are: it scales much better than the Demi (you can always buy a bigger pot, or a huge laboratory tank if you're going to make food for 20-30 people), and it's significantly more portable, even in its factory packaging with foam and everything. Furthermore, the temperature is significantly better than the Demi's since the circulator maintains a nice even temperature while the Demi depends on convection. In practice, however, you're unlikely to notice the difference in food produced by either!

Regardless, I found it great having 2 sous vide devices available in the kitchen: you can now prep Duck Confit one day and have steak for dinner still, or prepare both chicken and steak for one meal. I'm also much more likely to bring the device along on trips (though unfortunately it's only rated for US voltages!).

If price is a non-issue, and you can only have one device, I'd still recommend the Sous Vide Supreme Demi as the one to get. But given the price difference between the two, I'd recommend the Anova Circulator (at almost 50% the price even at full Amazon pricing) unless you have a severe objection to noise in the kitchen for long recipes. And compared to the DIY devices I've tried, it's no contest: the time savings are well worth the price, especially if you're able to (as I did) find it at a discount to the retail price.

 Please see my Modernist Cuisine post for recommendations for other essential tools to accompany the immersion circulator.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Review: Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo was just announced for general availability today, so it's appropriate for me to write a review for our device, which we tested for 2 weeks before somewhat reluctantly packing it up to return to Amazon.

My friend Steve Grimm raved about how it was the closest thing to a Star Trek computer experience that he'd ever had, and to some extent I agree. For me, queries like "What's today's weather" worked perfectly, as did, "Play some music", "Turn it up", "Turn it down", etc. It works way better than Google's voice query (yes, those 7 microphones actually make a huge difference). However, voice recognition didn't work so great for my wife (thick Chinese accent), and surprisingly, it didn't work for Bowen either, who enunciates correctly. This might or might not be a feature, as I can imagine you might not want your child controlling the music. But of course, if it had worked, it would have been huge, since I could off-load all the annoying toddler questions like "Why is the sky blue" to Echo.  (And yes, I tried it and Echo does have a scientifically correct and credible answer)

 I'm well aware that there's a training app you can store, but the payoff wasn't enough for my wife to even bother, and of course, a training app for a 3-year old is worthless.

In any case, other than the occasional query, it mostly got used as a music device. Amazon Prime music is rather comprehensive, but of course, it wasn't complete. You can upload 200 songs up to it, but of course, that's not nearly enough. I wasn't going to pay for online storage of music when my file server is more than adequate, as is Google music.

Ultimately, if music storage was unlimited (e.g., via integration with Google Music), or if it did a better job of voice recognition sans training, I might have kept the device, especially since we paid $99 for it due to being Prime pre-order customers. For a full $180, I'd want it to do quite a bit more.

Nevertheless, if you're not opposed to paying for music storage, or if the device works for your entire household, then it's a very nice speaker system, and decent value for money. It might take Amazon a couple of generations, but I suspect that a device like this will eventually find its way into our home.

And of course, if it takes off, both Google and Apple will have similar devices out. Which I hope it does. I do look forward to the day when interacting via mouse and keyboard would be considered "quaint."

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: Blue Remembered Earth

After the lackluster Terminal World and Slow Bullets, I picked up Blue Remembered Earth with trepidation. Fortunately, this novel is miles better than either of his previous works, and leads me to believe that I will continue to enjoy (and seek out) more Alastair Reynolds books in the future.

Blue Remembered Earth is set in a near future. Nantechnology is common, as are space elevator trips, a moon base, and asteroid mining. The novel depicts Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya, two scions of an African matriarch (Eunice) who single-handedly built a lucrative empire based on space-exploration and exploitation. When the aforementioned matriarch dies, Geoffrey is called on by the other members of the family to investigate a safe-deposit box left on the moon by Eunice.

One thing leads to another, and Geoffrey and Sunday end up in the deep oceans (dealing with the United Aquatic Nations), on Phobos and Mars, as well as a climatic visit to the Kuiper belt. As far as a wild romp through the solar system it's a lot of fun, but the plot device is thin, and extremely tenuous. The world building is entertaining, but not vivid, and of course, Reynolds has no plausible explanation as to why the African continent rose to be an economic super-power other than "I thought it was their turn."

The science is mostly impeccable, and I enjoyed the depiction of man's near future self-created utopia. Lesser writers would have made it something to rebel against, but Reynolds goes out of his way to actually show how it eliminates many of the problems that plague humanity today.

Now, it's not up to par to his previous work such as Revelation Space or House of Suns, but it's still a boldly optimistic view of humanity's near future, something that's rare these days. Recommended.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Review: Slow Bullets

In recent years, there's been a proliferation of small press imprints. What these small press imprints try to do is to take short stories or novellas, and use giant fonts, and then publish them as books. This doesn't do very much harm, except tht they usually try to charge full price for such books. This boutique approach seems to work only for genre fiction, where the fan base for an author such as Alastair Reynolds is such that they might be persuaded to pay full price for relatively little value.

Slow Bullets unfortunately comes from just such an imprint. It's clearly experimental fiction: Reynolds strays far afield from the hard science fiction that he's well known for, and sets up the story with a few small premises: a ship has performed a jump that took it into a far future where human civilization is threatened. The ship's computer systems are malfunctioning, and the only way to salvage the situation is to copy data off the systems.

Unfortunately, if you're at all conversant with even the technology of today, you'll know that the premise is ridiculous. Even piss poor smart phones today have 4GB of storage, which is enough to store thousands of books. Sure you can't preserve videos or pictures or even live recordings of music with that little space, but in a crisis situation, you're going to be only concerned with words. As a result the story's technical premise is a shambles and pitiful.

The only redeeming feature of the story is that Reynolds is clearly experimenting with fiction, and the character study of the narrator/protagonist is somewhat interesting, and where the story goes with its (very) lame premise is reflective of his attempt to write a character-based story instead of his usual hard-science approach. Nevertheless, Reynolds isn't great at character development, and in the short space of a novella doesn't really get a chance to do a decent job.

Not recommended, not even for fans of Reynolds. In fact, fans of Reynolds perhaps should especially stay away, as it might diminish your opinion of him after reading.