Insomnia 69 Gaming Festival

Last weekend, I was finally able to return to the Insomnia Gaming Festival, which I last attended in 2019. Given just how much had happened in the interim, I was curious about whether the festival would be how I remembered it, or whether it would have been forced to take a new form.

My friend Danny has also written about the weekend. We bounced a lot of ideas off each other while we were there, so in many cases we’ve come to similar conclusions, but I’d recommend reading his post as its much funnier than mine!

Friday

The first thing I noticed was about Insomnia was that the event seemed smaller this year. We arrived at the entrance hall only a few minutes before the 10:30am start time yet were still near the front of the line. Similarly, while we had previously queued in front of a large stage, this time we were presented with a corridor made of barriers and a single screen that played the same 2-minute intro video for the entire weekend. While the usual staples of playable games, tabletop games, merch stands and exhibitors were all present, there were less of them than in 2019. In fact, Friday was much quieter than I expected.

Initially, some of our group were disappointed by the smaller scale and lack of upcoming games or AAA games, given that at previous shows we had been able to play games like Marvel’s Spider-Man and The Division 2 before they were released. I wasn’t particularly annoyed, as the main reason why I go to Insomnia is to spend time with friends who I only physically see at Insomnia, but I definitely hadn’t found the festival as impressive as I had found it in 2018 or 2019. Fortunately, the Pub Quiz later provided some context that assuaged my worries and changed my view of the weekend.

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Review | Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

I can often take months (or years…) to complete game campaigns, so finishing a campaign just 10 days after a game’s launch may actually be a speed record for me!

While I have played most of the Borderlands series, I’ve never played the Assault on Dragon’s Keep DLC for Borderlands 2 that inspired Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. So I had limited knowledge of what I was in for, beyond that the usual staples of humour, loot, and eccentric randomly-generated-guns would receive a tabletop twist.

This guess was correct, but I found that Wonderlands was a larger, denser, and even funnier game than I was expecting. Unfortuately, it was also a buggier game than I was expecting. But let’s talk about what Wonderlands is aiming for first, before going into specifics.

The context of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is that people inside the Borderlands universe play a tabletop game named ‘Bunkers & Badasses’. After travellers Valentine, Frette, and the Newbie crash their spaceship into a mountain, Tina lets the stragglers rest in her house until they’re rescued… but only if they play ‘Bunkers & Badasses’ with her.

The gameplay of Wonderlands takes place inside that round of ‘Bunkers & Badasses’. You play as the Newbie, who is controlling the main character of the ‘Bunkers & Badasses’ match, while Tina is the bunker master in control of the story, and Valentine and Frette act as the Newbie’s advisors. This structure gives the game chance to experiment with the usual Borderlands style and gameplay, while also leaving lots of room for messing with the fourth wall and packing the game with an even wider range of references and shout-outs than usual. So far I’ve found side-quests that reference media as far apart as The Secret of Monkey Island, The Smurfs, and Don Quixote.

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Mini-Review Collection – ‘Wholesome’ Edition

Today I’m doing something a little bit different, and posting a group of mini-reviews rather than one more detailed review.

These games are linked by a common theme; they are all indie games with an accessible nature and a generally light-hearted and innocent tone. They are all what the internet generally calls ‘wholesome’.

So if you’re interested in skateboarding birds, fashionable dogs, or a bouncy Peggle-styled dungeon-crawler, please read on.

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Review | Call Of Duty Black Ops: Cold War (Campaign)

My first ever FPS was Call of Duty: Black Ops, and my favourite FPS is Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. So as soon as I learned that Black Ops: Cold War was a direct sequel to Black Ops that returned to the tone and focus of the start of the series, I really hoped to enjoy it. 

The majority of Cold War is business as usual for the “boots on the ground” type of COD games, and gameplay is mostly the familiar COD blend of corridor-shooter sections, setpiece spectacles, and vehicle segments. However, Cold War had more stealth elements than I remember previous games having, such as a mission where you must sneak into someone’s house to plant an item and so need to listen to the environment and family chatter to successfully avoid the target and his family. The stealth peaks with a mission that involves inflitrating KGB headquarters, which requires consistent caution – both in where you go and in how you talk to NPCs – for 90% of the mission, but then pays off with an explosive final 10%.

Where Cold War tries something new is in its campaign, which steps away from the linear A>B path of most COD games. The first and final missions are locked in place, but the rest can be done in any order, and can be replayed to complete side objectives that unlock once you’ve collected and decrypted evidence from other missions. (You can attempt the side missions without collecting enough evidence, or without solving the decryption puzzles, but this is very unlikely to succeed). Cold War is structured around using an evidence board to decide your team’s next moves and identify where the villain, near-mythical Soviet spy Perseus, is, and I found that this approach worked surprisingly well. 

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Review | Rainbow Six Extraction

Much to my surprise, Rainbow Six Extraction has been my most-played game this week. Given my woeful track record with games that require stealth, including Rainbow Six: Siege, I wasn’t expecting to play Extraction far beyond an initial curiosity-check. However, after a rough first few attempts, I learned more about how to approach Extraction and then began to really enjoy it.

Although Extraction was released in January 2022, it actually started life in 2018, as a limited-time event inside Rainbow Six: Siege. “Operation Chimera”, as the event was known, replaced Siege‘s usual realism with a mysterious alien invasion; this experiment recieved enough positive attention that Ubisoft developed it into a standalone game. As a full game, Extraction is a co-op PvE experience that applies the methodical and tactical nature of the Rainbow Six series to a horde mode similar to Back 4 Blood or the Zombies modes in Call Of Duty games.

Because Extraction is a spin-off from Siege, most of its components are familiar. Its graphical style and quality, its movement and feel, and its operators (characters) and weapons, are all from its parent game. Its missions are where its differences become clear.

One obvious change is that the contents of each mission (incursion, in Rainbow-Six-speak) are semi-randomised. While the map layout is constant, everything else is variable; from the type and location of objectives, to the squad’s starting point, to the mutations that add new risks or hazards. (I think its semi-randomised rather than fully procedurally-generated, because the enemy and objective placements have never felt illogical or broken.)

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Review | Maneater

It’s a Ubisoft style open-world icon-hunting game, but you’re an armoured mega-shark with lightning teeth. Maneater certainly has an appealing premise, but does it have the substance to match? In my opinion, yes – once you put a couple of hours into levelling up and letting the weirder and more comedic sides of the game come out.

The core of Maneater‘s story is its framing device, which presents everything you see as the contents of a reality show called Maneater. (If you’ve ever seen a “dangerous jobs” show, you know what to expect here). The game’s story takes place over an eight-episode season of the show, which follows shark hunters in Port Clovis, a city containing everything from resorts to bayous to sunken nuclear power stations. Cajun shark hunter “Scaly Pete”, who is searching for a shark that belonged to his father, becomes the central character of the show during the first episode when he attacks a pregnant shark and loses his hand in return. While the show Maneater focuses on Pete’s quest for revenge against the shark, the game Maneater focuses on your revenge against Pete.

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Impressions | Call Of Duty: Vanguard (Open Beta)

I don’t normally review betas of game, which is mostly because during the last couple of years betas have moved to being pre-order bonuses rather than actual open beta tests. However, the Call of Duty: Vanguard Open Beta surprised me, and not in a good way.

Firstly, I’ll give credit where its due. Vanguard does actually innovate beyond the typical COD gameplay thanks to its adjustable lobby size system (known as “Combat Pacing”). Instead of having specific small maps (or cut-down versions of maps) for 6v6 gameplay and large maps for big-team gameplay, each of the main maps can be played at different lobby sizes. Choosing the “Tactical” pacing creates a familiar 12-player (6v6) match, and the “Assault” pacing creates a 20-28 player match, while the “Blitz” pacing creates a match of between 28-48 players depending on the map. Players can choose to search just by mode, just by pace, or by mode and pace combined.

I think this idea is clever: firstly, it allows players to control how intense an experience they want in each individual gameplay session without fundamentally overhauling the entire game’s style and pace. Secondly, most COD games contain specific maps that are overplayed due to their chaotic and often-mindless nature (such as Shipment or any version of Nuketown) and other maps that are ignored or rejected by the playerbase due to being more open or only supporting slower-paced modes. In theory, allowing these larger maps to exist in a busier form, and these smaller maps to exist in a slower form, could be a great solution to this issue.

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I finally finished… Forza Horizon 2

I bought Forza Horizon 2 sometime in 2018, when its upcoming delisting from the MS store was announced. However, it then fell deep into the backlog. After playing Forza Horizon 4 and finding that I preferred the original Forza Horizon‘s smaller scope and slightly more grounded nature, I returned to FH2 in the hope that it would be closer to its predecessor than its sequels.

Where it counts – the driving and racing experience – FH2 makes an excellent first impression. Its six locations across the France/Italy border allow for more environmental variety than the original game’s Colorado-inspired setting, and the dynamic weather system that brings in night races and rainstorms further enhances the game’s visual appeal. FH2 also improves offroading, giving players more freedom to tear across the map, although its delineation between driveable and non-driveable offroad areas is inconsistent – the same type of tree can be breakable in one area but an impassable, skill-chain-destroying barrier in another area.

The blur here comes from the in-game photo mode, and is nowhere near this strong in regular gameplay.

FH2 contains the same varied event types and map extras as FH1, including drift zones, speed cameras, showcase events and smashable signs. In many ways it’s a great sequel – it iterates upon the successful mechanics of the original and also expands the vision of what the Horizon Festival concept could provide.

However, while I completed every single event of the orginal Forza Horizon, I was effectively done with FH2 by the time I reached 30% game completion. I appreciated Playground Games’ attempt to create a game that reached a defined conclusion fairly quickly for casual players yet also contained plenty of challenges, events, and collectibles for dedicated open-world completionists. Normally, that’s an approach I celebrate. But it just didn’t work too well for me in this case, mainly because of the clumsy way that Playground Games handled the story elements.

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Review | Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory

Before I discuss Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, I should make clear that I am not its intended audience. I’ve never played a Kingdom Hearts game, I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game, and I’ve had the minimum exposure to Disney that someone born in the 90s can possibly have. As such, I can only play and review MoM as a rhythm game, not as a Kingdom Hearts game. (I will mention the story later, however, because long-term KH fans will need to pay attention to this game’s ending).

MoM can be summarised as a controller-based rhythm game that takes players through songs from previous KH games in chronological order, including other spin-off games. The World Tour campaign features 140 songs across around 100 stages, and each stage is based on a location from a KH game. (Barely any Final Fantasy characters appear in MoM; its focus is on the Disney and Kingdom Hearts characters).

One of the most intriguing parts of MoM is how it approaches the core rhythm game task of hitting notes. The game’s layout during the tutorial and the early Field Battle stages suggests that its controls will be simple. Notes travel down the screen in three lanes, while three buttons can carry out regular attacks, so at first it feels like one button per lane is the way to go: LB for the left lane, A for the middle, and RB for the right lane. This works… for early songs on Beginner difficulty. After that point, the other mechanics kick in and make MoM about more than just memorisation.

As this level is based on Mulan’s world, it features Mulan as a guest party member.

The middle lane isn’t just for hitting notes, but also for jumping (the B button), aerial hits (B then any attack), special attacks (Y) and gliding along aerial strings of notes (holding B while steering with the left stick). Almost every button on a controller has a role in MoM, so remembering which button you need to press in any moment can be the most difficult aspect of the game to get used to.

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Review | Rain On Your Parade

When I saw the trailer for Rain On Your Parade, my initial reaction was “its probably like Untitled Goose Game, but with soaking items to cause chaos instead of moving items”. That statement isn’t entirely wrong, but it massively understates the game’s charm and character.

From start to finish, Rain on Your Parade is filled with creative levels covering a surprisingly wide range of styles for a concept that could so easily have been a one-note joke. Every part of the game fits together coherently, from the interactive start screen that acts as a pre-game controls tutorial, to the credits level that contains its own mini-games. It feels like a complete game rather than just a collection of levels. Even the world map contains hidden characters to talk to and secret areas to discover.

So what is in Rain’s world? As Rain is set inside a bedtime story, Cloudy’s epic quest to reach Seattle is filled with an eclectic mix of characters and locations. The locations include schools, beaches, moshpits, game development conferences, and desert canyons filled with lasers. Although Cloudy has to overcome rhyming villain Dr Dryspell, who wants to eradicate clouds so that he is never rained on again, they are helped along their way by a cast of eccentric friends. Some of these are typical adventurer’s mentors, like the wise old cloud, while others are more unusual; Froggie introduces himself by claiming to be the hero from “a famous 90’s video game”, and later recruits turret-wielding monkeys to help you on your way.

The first few levels of Rain are almost impossible to fail, as they are simply about getting used to the objectives system and how long the rain meter lasts. However, Rain quickly goes beyond its title and introduces new sources of power for Cloudy. Hovering over any bubbling liquid lets Cloudy rain down that liquid instead, whether its corrosive goo, coffee, cleaning fluids, or even petrol. Cloudy also gains new permanent abilities such as lightning strikes and snowfall, which can be combined to create even more chaos. To give just one example, snowing on people (hoomans, in this world) to turn them into a snowball can be followed with a lightning strike to propel that snowball around the level. Similarly, raining petrol in an unbroken line from a fire source lets you trail fire across the level and cause major destruction.

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Weeknote 18/04/2021

Reading

https://www.wired.com/story/pink-princess-plantfluencers-pink-congo-scam/

I like articles like this, which open a window into a world or subculture that I never would have thought of myself – I didn’t need to know that “plantfluencers” exist, but I enjoyed the article regardless. The author explained enough horticulture terms to lead readers through the story, but kept the focus on the human quirks: the drive people have to collect seemingly anything to display social status through those collections, and how often people turn any trend into a chance to make quick money.

Reading through the article, it became clear that people only needed a small amount of knowledge about plants to realise that the pink congo plant couldn’t be real. TL:DR: only the green parts of plant leaves contain chlorophyll, the substance that lets plants photosynthesise to feed themselves. As a result, a plant would never produce solidly-pink (or any other colour) leaves by itself, as producing leaves with no chlorophyll makes the plant risk starving. Breeding plants to have colourful leaves and still survive takes careful and long-term work by growers. So this also article shows how scams (and malicious trends) rely on people being swept up in FOMO and hype in order to succeed.

Speaking of FOMO…

https://www.theverge.com/2021/4/15/22385957/arcade-fire-45-minute-long-single-headspace-meditation-app

I‘m already sceptical about the idea of meditation apps, so I’m a little biased here, but to me this goes beyond illogical and into counter-productively stupid. I’m aiming the criticism at Headspace rather than at Arcade Fire, who I know nothing about, as Headspace are likely to be the party who had the most impact in bringing this idea to fruition.

The gamification aspects of meditation apps, such as using points, badges, or achievements to reward consistent app usage, are already a debated aspect; some people could see gamified elements as a stepping stone that helps them stick with the app until the beneficial effects of meditation become clear to them. Alternately, people can see these elements as misguided attempts to “hook” users on to the app, and encourage them to pay for extra features in the app by appealing to loyalty and to our desire to complete collections.

But adding gated “exclusive content” in this way goes beyond even the existing questionable trend of adding “influencer content” such as stories read by celebrities. I just don’t understand how any service can claim to be encouraging mindfulness and deliberation with their apps when they’re designing those apps to contain many of the worst traps of materialism and consumerism.

While I was fairly annoyed after reading the article about Headspace, this article by science communicator Sally Le Page left me bemused instead.

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Review | Stacking

What do you get if you mix chimney sweeps, evil industrial tycoons, PG-rated toilet humour, and matryoshka dolls?

A charming and surprisingly entertaining adventure game.

When I first saw screenshots of Stacking, I was intrigued by its art style, but I was also unsure of whether it would actually be a complete game rather than an experiment. But once I saw that it was created by Double Fine, who have a penchant for making games that are both weird and enjoyable, Stacking jumped onto my to-do list.

Stacking‘s opening scenes lay out its setting and style quickly. The world of Stacking blends the familiar tropes of Victorian England and of early silent films. Cutscenes take place in theatre sets, accompanied by dialogue cards, piano soundtracks and film projector effects. Most importantly, every character is a matryoshka doll. This isn’t just a visual style, but the foundation of Stacking’s design.

Because protagonist Charlie Blackmore is “the tiniest Russian doll in the world” getting anywhere fast relies upon taking control of a chain of dolls, each one size bigger than the next, to get to the doll you need. (This raises some questions about how their consciousness works, how their anatomy works, and the weirdness of bodysnatching without consent…). Stacking into other dolls is essential because many of them have special abilities that you’ll need to access new areas and explore each level. Taking control of a railway maintenance doll lets you use his wrench to open an alternate route into a challenge, while taking control of a bird allows you to fly into map areas that human dolls can’t access.

The vignette effects in the corner fit with the early-20th-century style well.

Rather than relying upon convoluted logic or long sequences of causes and effects, each puzzle in Stacking has up to 5 smaller solutions to discover. In the first level, these can be as simple as bringing the right doll to the right place and using their ability. Later challenges bring in a greater degree of lateral thinking, such as stacking into the largest doll you can find to use their weight to move an object around, or using one doll to lure a second doll into a new location so that you can use the second doll’s ability. The last level also introduces ability combinations. One puzzle solution required stacking into both a doll who could produce water and one who could produce a blast of cold air. After going to the correct area and using the water ability as the water doll, I then needed to quickly un-stack into the smaller doll and use the cold air ability to combine the water and cold air into ice.

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Weeknote 09/04/2021

So I’m actually typing this up on Monday 12th – I got a bit sidetracked last week, and my plan for a Friday weeknote was the casualty.

Gaming

This week I was both happy with and disappointed with the new season of Rocket League. The new season brought in a change I really liked, and one I really didn’t.

The good change is that the Trade-Up feature, where you hand in 5 items of a particular rarity to receive one item of the next rarity, is more user-friendly and more widely-usable. Previously, the 5 items had to be from the same rarity and the same batch of released items. Now, they only have to be the same rarity. I ‘m glad about this change, because I like being able to refine my inventories in games so that they contain only the items I wanted them to have. Now, I can hand in the items that I don’t care about that were just cluttering up my inventory.

As for the bad change, I wrote a whole post about that one!

I also returned to The Gardens Between, a time-travel puzzle game with a really charming graphic style, that I first tried out a few weeks ago. While I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, I did get over half-way through the short story when I first played it, so I’d like to see how the puzzles develop during the rest of the story.

Reading

I returned to Homo Deus, and ended up writing possibly the first negative book review I’ve ever written. Normally I only write about books when I’ve enjoyed reading them and I think I can recommend them to people. But when I realised that the book relies upon misrepresenting and mischaracterising the view that its discussing, I felt like I needed to write out a review. Misinformation, especially when its deliberate, is an instant beserk button for me.

https://getpocket.com/read/3302608391

This article is a summary of a recent study that correlates the success of academic articles (measured by the number of other papers that cite them) against how much jargon is in the Abstract section of each paper. This research focused on cave science, which picks up jargon terms easily because of how many different types of scientist work together in cave research. In this study, the papers which contained more jargon terms in their abstracts were cited less often by other research; the most highly-cited papers contained 1% jargon words or fewer.

Overall this suggests that fewer people read and build upon papers that are harder to intuitively understand, which is a conclusion that makes sense logically. The interesting part however, is that academia itself works differently; similar studies have found that when researchers use more jargon in grant proposals, they tend to get more grant funding. So what is best for individual researchers and studies is the opposite of what’s best for the wider research community and for science communication.

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Rocket League Season 3- Are Psyonix creating unfairness by avoiding randomness?

The 3rd season of Rocket League began this week, and it came with one change that I really liked, plus another change that was unexpected and arguably deleterious despite its good aims.

The negative change affects the Premium Rocket Pass, the aspect that people spend real money or in-game credits to access. Previously, after reaching level 70 in the Premium Rocket Pass, players would receive a random item from the new series every time they levelled up. This item would be Painted (essentially a palette swap to one of 13 different colours), and it wouldn’t be a duplicate of any versions of that item already received from the pass.

This random item system was well-liked, especially by people who spend lots of time trading items on secondary marketplaces. I often collaborated with one of my friends – we would pool all of the colours we had of a specific item, so that he could sell its full set of colours to people who like collecting sets of items.

However, for season 3, the Pass system has changed. Now, every player receives the exact same items after level 70, and they can always see the next 30 levels upfront. Also, not all combinations of item and Painted colour are available, while Certified items (items which have an title, such as Scorer or Striker, that levels up to a better title as you score goals/save goals etc) are no longer included within the Rocket Pass.

The patch notes describe this change as “part of our commitment to removing uncertainty from in-game purchases”, which is interesting for me to think about. I usually think that initiatives that make in-game purchases fairer and more predictable are great. For example, showing the potential rarities of items inside a loot box, and providing % probability of getting items of specific rarities from a loot box, are both good ideas that should help people to stay aware of what they’re buying.

I think the idea of having upcoming items be visible is pretty great too. The static item list, however, doesn’t feel helpful or useful. For me its easier to see the downsides of where this might not work than any potential benefits.

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Review | Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari

I restarted Homo Deus this week, as I had previously been put off by the reviews which claimed it was far less impressive than Sapiens (which I had enjoyed). But the more I read Homo Deus, the more ambivalent I became about whether or not to continue reading. I felt like Harari’s style could work when applied to topics that I’m already interested in such as AI and big data. Yet, Homo Deus quickly fell from being interesting to infuriating, as I learned just how badly it misrepresented one of its main subjects. (See the The Turning Point section below for details).

The Starting Point

The first few pages impressed me, as Harari painted a memorable picture of an improving world. Within the prologue there are some fascinating ideas and questions that are worth thinking about. Pages 71-74 go in to the history of garden lawns; this narrative shows how ideas about what an object means travel across countries and over time, and how those ideas become unquestioned assumptions baked into our societies and world-views.

Homo Deus also keeps the same casual and accessible writing style as Sapiens. Harari’s explanations contain bursts of flair, like rhetorical devices, assonance, and pop-cultural references, that make the text engaging and occasionally humorous. It almost reads like fiction, and sometimes that’s a downside; its smooth nature meant I found myself sliding from one chapter to another and then suddenly realising that I hadn’t questioned whether the segues and connections Harari made were logical as a result.

As I kept reading, my opinion of the book kept changing even within pages. There are paragraphs which contain thought-provoking questions, and which make predictions that have to some extent been shown to be correct. For example, Homo Deus contains this description of how targeted algorithms might affect voting:

“in future US presidential elections, Facebook could know not only the political opinions of tens of millions of Americans, but also who among them are the critical swing voters, and how those voters might be swung. Facebook could tell that in Oklahoma the race between Republicans and Democrats is particularly close, identify the 32,417 voters who still haven’t made up their minds, and determine what each candidate needs to say in order to tip the balance. How could Facebook access this priceless political data? We provide it for free.”

This was written in 2015, before the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal was widely publicised, but its certainly close to what happened. At the same time, Harari makes other predictions that have already been proven false. Talking about Microsoft’s Cortana, first developed just a year before Homo Deus was written, Harari envisions that;

“Next thing I know, a potential employer will tell me not to bother sending a CV, but simply allow his Cortana to grill my Cortana….As Cortanas gain authority, they may begin manipulating each other to further the interests of their masters…”

That’s already wrong, because Cortana is being switched off from most of its planned customer-focused purposes, even on Microsoft’s own devices. Harari’s rush to ascribe world-changing powers to the 12-month-old Cortana is a red flag that should make readers question how many of his other predictions could be similarly over-hyped.

Continue reading “Review | Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari”

Weeknote 26/03/2021

Reading

https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/8/22319173/openai-machine-vision-adversarial-typographic-attacka-clip-multimodal-neuron

Why does it seem like the smarter something is, the more easily it can be taken down by unexpected stupidity? In this case, machine learning models that are smart enough to “read” handwritten words and recognise them as references to an object mistakenly assume that the word is the object. The end result? Sticking a handwritten label on any image scanned by this system will cause it to report that its “seeing” whatever is written on the label instead.

From technical stupidity to natural eccentricity: these sea slugs can decapitate themselves and then regrow their entire body including all of their internal organs. One reason why might be medical; the researchers guess that the sea slugs might use this feature to ditch their old body if it gets infected by parasites, so that they can grow a healthy one back. But how do they survive without any internal organs? By borrowing the chloroplast cells that control photosynthesis inside their favourite food, algae, and powering themselves with the sugars produced when the chloroplasts photosynthesise.

Now, heading back to technical errors… https://getpocket.com/read/3284812993

This is a good lesson about how the bad software design, and more importantly the bad user interface design, that forces people to regularly rely on clunky workarounds is a recipe for problems. It always amazes me when I hear about large-scale errors that ultimately happen because the software required to do the job was incorrect, unintuitive, or poorly-designed. That’s especially true for institutions as large and as impactful as banks, where any error could result in millions of pounds being lost or mislaid – surely they can afford to spend money making the software that earns their wealth as usable and efficient for the employees using it as possible?

I also finished reading Toksvig’s Almanac, and posted a review.

On more book-themed news, I was introduced to Standard Ebooks.This is a volunteer-run project that takes existing public-domain ebooks from places like Project Gutenberg and gives them a makeover; from typesetting and formatting, to finding high-quality public domain artwork, to coding the books in an open-source format with version control to make them reliable and standardised. Its a really cool example of using technology to safeguard and support literature, rather than to lock it down.

Gaming

This week, I started replaying the campaign of Grand Theft Auto V. While I did play through the campaign on Xbox 360 shortly after its release in 2013, I played through it in a very fragmented way that means I missed a lot of the side-quests and story details. As a result, I’ve often wanted to return to it and play the story “properly”, and see more of the details and events in the sprawling world of Los Santos.

I also revisited the online aspect, which I haven’t touched for years. As many missions can’t be played solo, I’ve barely played any of the “storyline” of the online aspect. I spent time yesterday doing smaller side-events that can be done solo, which was surprisingly enjoyable… well, until I made an enemy of two other players who then kept repeatedly killing me every time I respawned, which meant that I didn’t have enough time to go into the pause menu and choose any options that could have removed me from the situation. As a result, the only thing I could do to get away from this was to leave the game, which was annoying.

Aside from that, I’ve also returned to Two Point Hospital and started a new save file to try and relearn the strategies to take on the harder levels.

Miscellaneous

A few days ago I bought my (virtual) ticket for this years OER conference. The only time I’ve actually been is 2017, when I presented my MSc research, but the effect that 2020 had on education and educational technology, as well as things like ebooksos, have brought my attention back to the tireless work of the open community. Like last time, I’m sure that I’ll finish listening to the talks and realise that everything I know is a tiny drop in the education ocean!

Review | Toksvig’s Almanac – Sandi Toksvig

I received a small pile of books for my birthday last month, and Toksvig’s Almanac was the one I wanted to get stuck in to first. As I only knew of the almanac genre as being something from the 1700s/1800s, I sort of assumed they had been rendered obsolete by the internet, so first I went to a dictionary to check that I knew what an almanac actually was.

Here’s the history lesson for anyone who wants it: an almanac is a usually-yearly publication that holds information about multiple subjects at once. Ancient almanacs contained information about all sorts of topics that farmers, sailors, and astronomers would need. They were like a focused encyclopedia that covered what those readers would need to know in the year ahead. This included planting dates for crops; dates for natural events like eclipses and cultural events like holidays; plus celestial information like when stars and constellations could be seen. Modern almanacs still exist, though they expand the concept beyond farming and calendars into statistics, history, and collections of facts.

As a reference book, Toksvig’s Almanac isn’t really meant to be read from beginning to end (although it can be). It also isn’t meant to be a exhaustive dive into any of the individual people featured, which Toksvig makes clear in her introduction. Toksvig’s Almanac is a collection of jumping-off-points, a signpost pointing readers to the existence of hundreds of names, stories and events so that they can learn more about the ones that interest them. Its main focus is a chronological tour through the year, which highlights a different woman on each day. (To do this, it also has a good introductory explanation of the Gregorian and Julian calendars, and of why September-December seem to be in the wrong place in our calendar – short version, blame Augustus Caesar!).

The entries for each date are supplemented by quotes, poems, information about worldwide holidays and festivals, and longer entries about stories that connect multiple historical figures. The entry about how suffragists began to use cookbooks to spread political education and information about the suffrage movement to women was the most novel of these for me, as its a connection that I would never have thought to look into without being informed about it from outside.

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Weeknote – 19/03/2021

Reading:

A modder known online as T0st published details of how they found and fixed an issue in Grand Theft Auto V. Their solution reduces the loading times of GTAVs online mode by 70%. As a result, Rockstar Games (the GTA developers) rewarded T0st with $10,000 and incorporated parts of his solution into an official update.

https://www.pcgamer.com/rockstar-thanks-gta-online-player-who-fixed-poor-load-times-official-update-coming/

This chain of events has received mixed responses. On one hand, its great that Rockstar listened to T0st’s solution and used it to improve the game. The financial reward was also something they didn’t have to do – Rockstar’s bug bounty program rewards people who find and report crucial security or privacy flaws, and they chose to make an exception for T0st and award it to them as well. Given the size of the online GTA playerbase, a 70% reduction in loading times translates into thousands of human-hours saved in future too.

The criticisms of Rockstar are also merited, however. GTAV has been out for 7 years, been released across 3 console generations, and has also been referred to as the single most profitable piece of digital entertainment in history.Yet Rockstar didn’t do anything to implement what was apparently a simple fix until someone unrelated did the work in their spare time. A lot of people are cynical about whether their response was solely about avoiding bad PR, and I understand where that view comes from.

Adobe, on the other hand, are definitely being criticised due to this illogical action:

https://torrentfreak.com/adobe-goes-after-27-year-old-pirated-copy-of-acrobat-reader-1-0-for-ms-dos-210315/

Really, Adobe? I know that copyright is complex, and that brands have to actively protect their copyrights or their legal right to them can be made null. But applying a DMCA takedown here seems excessive, especially as the tweet was only a link to another website rather than the direct source of the software. Also, Acrobat Reader 1.0 is 5 years older than the DMCA legislation itself, which makes this feel even more unnecessary.

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Review | Coffee Talk

Three things that always catch my interest are reading, gaming, and coffee. So when I saw that Games with Gold was featuring a visual novel game centred on brewing coffee, I instantly downloaded Coffee Talk.

Coffee Talk was released in January 2020 and set in the near future of … September 2020. This version of Seattle is home to elves, werewolves, succubi, nekomimi, and many other species, but thankfully not to COVID-19.

As the friendly yet mysterious owner of a coffee shop that only opens at night, you attract all sorts of customers in a variety of circumstances. Over the course of two weeks in the world of Coffee Talk, you eavesdrop on, and help along, the lives of six characters. How do you do this? By listening, talking, and of course by brewing them the perfect drink they need for the situation they’re facing.

Vegan vampires rub shoulders with shapeshifters and werewolves in Coffee Talk.
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Weeknote – 12/03/2021

Quite a lot of the people I pay attention to online – often, the Open Education / tech ethics crowd – use Weeknotes to keep track of their many projects, links and creations. I find the weeknote structure appealing, so I’m going to test it out as a way to a) keep a better track of the (many) things I start and don’t finish, b) talk about some of the interesting articles I read or games I play that wouldn’t ever make it into a full blog post or review. (I won’t be doing predominantly work-focused weeknotes – they’ll mostly be a reading list/link roundup – but I’ll mention work if there’s something interesting to include.)

Articles

A few days ago, I read this article about how smartphones are helping illiterate women in India by giving them a way to socialise with people outside of their household, run businesses, take part in activism and report information to journalists, all through voice commands and sharing images. This really made me think, because I’m someone who needs to write things down to make sense of them, and who learns everything by reading it, so I cannot comprehend what not having that option must feel like. The article describes how one of the women, Mallika, can now use WhatsApp to talk to a friend – before smartphones and data plans, she had to climb a mountain to communicate with them.

Now, on to ice cream trucks. I found this article interesting, because its a really good example of how one person being in the right place at the right time (and knowing the right person) can change an entire industry or movement. Finding out that the company which makes the music boxes inside 97% of all ice-cream trucks consists of just 2 people really reminded me that so many of the things we’re familiar with are the results of decisions made by a handful of people.

Video

Clutching at Random Straws — This is a talk given by stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, to a school in England. It’s a great discussion, with practical and funny demonstrations, of how easily we can be misled when it comes to data. For example, Parker shows the students how collecting large amounts of data can fool us into finding “impossible” co-incidences easily, and how we can easily be influenced into hearing patterns such as messages in music played backwards. All of this is done in a way that doesn’t require high-level maths knowledge, and its a really clear introduction to some of the ways that we can be misled by data.

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