Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review: NXR-RH3001 Professional 30" Under Cabinet Range Hood

After our recent remodeling I now have a deathly fear of home improvement projects. Unfortunately, our microwave range hood's microwave function went dead recently, and our remodeling also left us with some ridiculously sensitive smoke detectors, so I went crazy and bought the most powerful range hood Costco has: the $500 800 cfm "Professional" model.

Being tired of remodeling, we paid someone to do the install. He had to make a couple of trips to Home Depot since the hood didn't come with all the parts, but we kept going instead of returning it because he said he had experience with the unit and thought it was an excellent choice.

The hood extends down quite a bit more than the microwave did, but that's not a bad thing: it just means that the hood is closer to the cooking pots and what not. The lights also work better since they're closer to the stove.

At full 800CFM, the thing isn't excessively loud, and was indeed the same noise level or less than the microwave hood it replaced. What's most important, however, is now when I get out the blow-torch to sear steaks, the house's smoke detectors don't go off, and you can visibly see the hood sucking up all the smoke and grease.

At lower levels (the hood has 4 different motor speeds), you can barely hear the device.

Recommended. Should have done the upgrade ages ago.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: Never Alone (PS4)

Never Alone is a puzzle-platformer whose primary purpose is to provide cultural understanding of the Inupiat Alaskan natives. The game tells a story (in the Inupiat language with subtitles provided) about a girl who sets out to free her village from an eternal blizzard. The story is well told and full of atmosphere, with cut-scenes provided through faux-historic pictograms. It's pretty, and part of the reason I kept playing even though I don't usually enjoy platformers.

The game is clearly written to be played with two players at once: if you're a solo player, you'll have to flip between the two characters (the girl and her arctic fox) in order to get through some of the puzzles. Because certain puzzles have a time limit (especially near the end of the game), this could lead you to repeat sections over and over until you get it right, which can be frustrating. Fortunately, the game's checkpointing system is fairly well thought out, and you usually will not repeat any puzzle which you can do once.

The closest comparison game I'd compare this to is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Both use a puzzle platformer to tell a story, and because the game has a goal other than to provide extended play time or to challenge the players, the puzzles are straightforward.

As a single player, however, the approach of Brothers is the considerably better one, with the controls for Never Alone never really feeling comfortable, and frequently awkward. However, what the game excels at (and this is an excellent reason to play and experience the game) is mapping the platforming adventure to the environment of the harsh arctic circle. Frequently, the most dangerous part of the game is the environment, not the polar bears or the enemies, real or mythical. Furthermore, the game ends just about when it starts to wear out its welcome (3 hours 10 minutes is the average), a rare demonstration of restraint amongst video games.

I got this as part of the Playstation Plus subscription. I can't imagine paying the full $14.99 price for this game, but considering the other PS+ games that never get played more than a couple of times, I'd say that this game is considerably more respectful of my time than other games, is beautifully rendered, and therefore worthy of your consideration if it were to be suitable discounted (it was recently on sale on steam for $6.99, and on PSN for $6.00). Considering that it includes 24 videos that essentially form an hour long documentary about the Inupiat Eskimos, that would be a very attractive price if you have an interest in the topic.

The game is available on XBox One, PS4, PC, and Macintosh.

Recommended.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Review: Joss Whedon: The Biography

I generally enjoy Joss Whedon's work. I hesitate to call myself a fan, since I don't like all of his work. For instance, I enjoyed Buffy, but I found Dollhouse too silly. I disliked the fakeness of using Mandarin in Firefly, but I enjoyed the series anyway. But I was curious enough to check out a copy of the Joss Whedon biography from the library, despite it being a major pain in the neck to read, because my library provided the ebook on hoopla, a library ebook provider that cannot seem to get session management right.

The book covers Whedon's early life right until Agents of Shield (which I still haven't gotten around to watching). The early part of the book's very well done, with interesting exposition, and a largely unvarnished picture of a bright and talented, yet unmotivated student muddling through school until he found what he loved. Then a great teacher he respects turns him around, and he embarks on the typical career path of the late 80s: moving back with his parents.

Since he's a 3rd generation TV writer, he did get a leg up on everyone else, but he also got screwed, just like many other talented folks. The story of how he rewrote almost every line on Speed but then was dropped from the credits page is poignant and reflective of how the rules can screw you if you don't know them. The detailed story behind his work on the first Toy Story movie was also fascinating, and I enjoyed the account from both sides (with Whedon the script-writer envious of the animators, while the animators were in turn in awe of his ability to tighten up dialog).

From then on, the book, however, stops being interesting, mostly because almost everything is fairly well known (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Dollhouse, Serenity, The Avengers aren't exactly stories you would have missed unless you were living under a rock somewhere). The opportunities for Pascale to shed light on the issues Whedon might have had with Gellar are completely dropped, for instance. (It's quite clear that Gellar isn't in Whedon's inner circle, which considering how often he enjoys using the same staff in different productions means there's something there that's not reported)

The tone of the book also shifts clearly into fan-mode at this point. I fully expected there to be a chapter on how Whedon walks on water in the later portions of the book.

Whedon's in his 50s now, and I'm wondering if it's still too early to pass judgement on his work. In any case, however, this book is not the source to go to for that. It's clearly written too much from a fan's point of view, and has too many holes in it. In any case, Whedon's clearly successful, and well worth following in the future.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Review: The Last of Us - Left Behind DLC (PS4)

I normally don't buy DLC content. Invariably they're either set too difficult (typically only hard-core fans buy DLC, and they want a challenge), or don't add much to the story or single player experience. But my recent play-through of Max Payne 3 made me long for more Naughty Dog content, and that in combination with a recent sale that allowed you to buy Left Behind as a standalone game on the PS4 game at $5 allowed me the indulgence of the DLC.

My previous year's review of The Last of Us was ambivalent at best. But some of the most scintillating moments of the game was when I was playing as Ellie, the character Joel was tasked with protecting. (At the end of The Last of Us, we finally realize that rather than Joel saving Ellie, the game was about Ellie saving Joel) In the entirety of Left Behind, you get to play as Ellie. The story composed of two separate sections, each alternating with the other. In the opening sequence, you open with Ellie desperately trying to find supplies while Joel is incapacitated (this isn't much of a spoiler). In the flashback, you play Ellie before she meets Joel about the events that lead up to her ultimate need to be transported.

The two stories intertwine and alternate, and reinforce each other. More than anything else, what Left Behind oozes is self-confidence. What other game would provide a good half hour of "game play" where you're two kids fooling around in a deserted post-apocalyptic mall where there's no way to fail, but isn't a tutorial? This is video-game storytelling at its finest, with you building and discerning the relationship between characters directly through interaction. The game isn't heavy-handed, and the lack of consequence of failure actually frees the player to enjoy the contrast with the main storyline's seriousness.

The serious game play is well done, and arguably much better than in the main version of The Last of Us. Ellie gets to play the zombies and clickers against the party that's hunting for her, and intelligent play can be used to great effect. I still died a couple of times, but unlike in the original game, I never felt it was unfair or I was misled. The amount of stuff I could scavenge still felt parsimonious (despite playing the game set on easy), and I still felt like I was being forced to atone for being a rat-bastard DM, but twice I managed to get the Zombies to prey on the Bad Guys was far more satisfying than the grinding I had to do in the original game.

The other interesting to note is that I played the original game on the PS3, but Left Behind on the PS4. (There's no save game state that carries over between the two, so it's OK to play that way) The PS4 version of the game is significantly faster to load and start, and also has better models, but not so much so that I'd forgo the game on the PS3. In fact, I'd say that by far the most important feature of the game is instant resume, which I love given that I often get interrupted and have to turn off the PS4 to do something else before coming back a day or so later. (I also have the PS4 hooked up to a 5.1 surround sound system rather than merely stereo, and that also makes it impressive, but the PS3 would also happily hook up to a 5.1 surround system as well)

It's unfortunate that the full emotional impact of the DLC can really be felt after you've played The Last of Us (though I'd say that the promotional material overstates the spoilers in Left Behind: you can safely play it the minute you get Ellie as a playable character in The Last of Us, and in fact, it's probably best played that way), but if you've already played The Last of Us, Left Behind will leave you feeling even more impressed than at the end of the original game. Highly recommended.

NOTE: if you have a PS4 and haven't played The Last of Us, Amazon sells it in digital release for $14.45. The full game includes this DLC, which is a bargain if you have never played it before.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: Mindhunter

I have finally succumbed to the failure of the avid book reader's memory. When I saw that the kindle edition of Mindhunter was at $1.99, I tried the sample and read it, and enjoyed it and bought it. Two chapters later, I realized I'd read it before: somewhere in 1993, before I had a blog (well before blogs existed), which is why a search for my own review of Mindhunter never surfaced it.

Nevertheless, I didn't mind too much, as the book was a great read and I ploughed on through the book reading each chapter breathlessly.

Ultimately, this is a non-fiction account of a detective's cool magical trick: that of being able to profile the criminal through thorough examination of a crime scene. When you read newspaper reports about how the police have determined that the killer was a "white male, age 30-35, drives a volkswagen, has a high school education, and probably smokes and drinks and has a beard", and then wonder "how the heck did they do that?", this is the book for you.

John Douglas was one of the pioneers in the FBI Investigative Support Unit, and did the early research and studies on what makes serial killers tick. As a result, we get first hand accounts of how he profiled and helped to capture (and in some cases failed to capture) the serial killers that he was brought in to investigate.

A lot of the profiling comes from an understanding of the background of the killer: the kind of person who could commit most of these crimes is pretty dysfunctional, and hence can only fit into certain backgrounds. There's also some interesting statistical analysis, for instance, killings rarely cross racial boundaries. Furthermore, what's interesting is how the killer often tries to inject himself into the police investigation, leading to some proactive methods by which he can be caught. And of course, it's almost always a male serial killer. Though there are a couple of chilling examples of women killers in the book, they almost always target their immediate family rather than strangers. (There's one example in the book of a woman hiring a hit-man to take out her FBI agent husband to get the insurance money)

The book does have a hidden agenda: Douglas is very much pro-death penalty, and after reading the book, you can see why. There's no way you could handle the thousands of horrifying cases he has without coming to the conclusion that certain criminal types just cannot be turned around: by the time the killer has committed multiple murders, there's nothing that can be salvaged from his psyche. Furthermore, because such personalities are very focused on returning to prior behavior, they're capable of fooling psychologists, social workers, and others into thinking that they've been rehabilitated. When such people are let out on parole, they inevitably kill again. Reading this book makes you think that maybe the Batman comic books aren't so silly after all, where the super-criminals inevitably get let out of prison to repeat their crimes.

Douglas is also unsympathetic to the insanity plea. He notes that none of the "criminally insane" ever feel so compelled to act that they commit their crimes in front of a uniformed police officer. In several cases, he notes that the serial killers would visit a location with the intent of committing their crime, discover that conditions weren't favorable, and back out. This meant that when they committed their crime, they were in full control of whether or not to go through with it, and that they knew that it was wrong, but committed the act anyway.

In any case, the book is compelling reading, and well worth the time and $1.99. Pick it up!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Review: Max Payne 3 (PC)

I will admit that I'm one of those people who always power down his desktop whenever he's not using it. The reason is that my desktop is power hungry (idles around 150W). But with Google Photos recently providing unlimited storage, I decided to just keep the desktop on and upload all 66,000 photos (including many in RAW format) into the cloud. Since the PC was already on all the time (the process is taking weeks!), this reduced the mental barrier against playing games on the PC, and hence I ended up playing PC games that I never got around to doing so. This is an entirely irrational decision, because the difference between running the 7870 GPU idle and loaded is more than the cost of powering up and running the PS4 (which has essentially the same GPU!).

I'd picked up the Max Payne 3 and GTA IV package for $3 a year or so back. GTA IV was completely unplayable, especially after the delectable Sleeping Dogs: the characters were detestable, the controls were sloppy, and the driving unbearable. Max Payne 3, however, is essentially a cover shooter (or at least, on Easy you can play it like a cover shooter), which is one of my favorite genres, so I played it through to see what the incredibly high reviews were about.

The game is long, but a lot of it is because of incredibly long cut scenes. From reading the forums online, apparently these cut scenes were a result of the previous generation consoles taking so long to load assets from disk that they had to put in movies so you weren't staring at a loading screen for a long time.

The shooting part of the game is just fine. Apparently though I was playing it wrong: you're supposed to treat it like a running shooter rather than a cover shooter, but whatever. The flaws in the game, however, turn it into a frequently frustrating experience. Unlike Uncharted 2, the game wrests control from the player all the time, leaving one with a feeling of a complete lack of agency. This is compounded by the game's collectible system: frequently, what you're supposed to do after a fight is to run around the room picking up ammo and collectibles. But if you were to stumble into an exit zone (which aren't clearly marked), then suddenly the game takes over and you're driven into a cut scene where you're not allowed to retreat and explore. This is annoying as heck if you ran down your ammo shooting the previous room and then are moving into the next room with a huge disadvantage. Even worse, it means you're pretty much guaranteed to miss clues that advance the story.

Fortunately, on easy mode, if you die enough times, the game gives you more and more health packs and ammo until you can finish the scene.

The story has excellent production values, with excellent voice acting, but the plot is ridiculously predictable. You could tell who the bad guy is within the first hour, and everything else is just an excuse to gun down lots of other people. There are no puzzles, and the pacing is extremely uneven, with some shooting scenes ending and transitioning almost immediately into another shooting scene, while you sometimes go through long cut scenes only to endure a pointless wandering around before stumbling onto another fire fight.

The game's technical implementation is nice: you can play either with a controller or with keyboard and mouse, with the mouse giving you far more control and faster action at the expense of it being in a pain to enter bullet time. But you don't have to choose your control scheme: you can switch between one or the other at will, and the game picks it up and moves pretty nicely despite all that. I ran Max Payne 3 at my monitor's native resolution of 2560x1440, and the GPU wasn't maxed out the entire time, though (as expected from an extra 200W of power draw) the room did get warm.

What's interesting is how little the CPU of my 6 year old Core i7 920 was taxed: despite the uploading to Google Photos in the background, I never noticed any jitter and slow down due to the number of background processes running (including the web-browser). In daily use, I notice the web browser slowing down as I can frequently out-type the blogger text-edit field! Clearly the web-browser guys can learn a lot from the video game guys about interactive application performance and latency.

Of course, for $3, I got my money's worth, but I can see now why the Uncharted series is so revered: even Rockstar games with (essentially) an unlimited budget cannot hold a candle to what Naughty Dog did on a relatively tiny budget. Though I guess if you're a PC-exclusive gamer without access to a PS3 or PS4, this is as good as it gets.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review: The Annihliation Score

The Annihliation Score is Charlie Stross' latest laundry novel. I gave up on the Laundry series after The Apocalypse Codex, but the kindle sample for this latest installment was intriguing, and filled with enough changes that I bought it and read it.

The first change is that Bob Howard is no longer the protagonist/narrator. Instead, we get his wife, who's a much different character. The opening is entertaining, but unfortunately after a while Mo whines just a bit too much for me to enjoy the narrative. She's self-centered, unappreciative of her husband, and obviously headed towards a nervous breakdown as she becomes increasingly neurotic.

The series pivots towards superheroes as the latest manifestation of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the rise of the old ones. A series of super-crimes results in the authorization of a government-mandated super hero team to fight crime. This could be fun and funny, but instead Stross chooses to emphasize the bureaucracy and cross-functional coordination mess (with Mo as the director) rather than the fun. And then he ends the novel with a reveal that actually undermines the entire premise, tying it off back to the laundry.

I bought the book hoping that it'd be a good change from the series so far, but it seemed to be a sideways shift, rather than a quantum leap in quality or even a major change in setting. As an airplane novel it's serviceable and probably much better than the usual dreck. Compared to the early laundry novels, it's disappointing.