Thursday, December 07, 2017

Review: Uncharted - The Lost Legacy

The Uncharted series of video games are pretty much movies with a choose-your-own-action-sequence game mechanic. Uncharted: The Last Legacy doesn't deviate from the series' charter, and was originally conceived as downloadable content for Uncharted 4, but turned into a game.

As with Uncharted 4, the graphics and art direction is gorgeous. The run time is about 10 hours, but features perfect pacing, switching from traversal to exploration to the usual gun fights, feels like  a much shorter game, which is a very good sign. You're never tired from overuse of any of the game mechanics, and no, Nathan Drake never shows up as part of the game.

The story is basically that of a buddy movie, with female protagonists instead of male ones. Yes, the game passes the Bechdel test. The plot is rather thin, with a MacGuffin, the usual action set pieces (which are fun to watch and play), and a large open-world-style exploration area. The puzzles are usually no challenge, but even if they were, the game detects your level of frustration and lets you skip those.

Lots of game critics complain about game length being short. I don't. A short game length means that I'll actually get to play the game to the end. That's a feature, not a bug. As such, this game comes highly recommended as one of the few games I actually finished this year.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Review: Sky Force Anniversary (PS3,PS4,PS Vita)

We got Sky Force Anniversary as part of the PS Plus subscription. It ticked all the nostalgia boxes that I had growing up playing vertical shoot them ups. You have an upgradeable ship with parts you can buy, and lots of things to shoot at.

The repeated play model requires that you replay levels to earn medals and make progress, and by the time I was done I was pretty sick of the game, but the game itself was well done, and I was surprised to learn that it started as a  smartphone game as there was no onerous in-app purchasing, loot  boxes, etc.

The game has cross-save, meaning you can pick it up on the PS4, PS Vita, or PS3, and save games automatically carry over from system to system, which is a great feature and was ultimately what made it possible for us to finish the game on long plane flights, etc. It also has couch co-op, which makes many levels that are too hard for a single player a lot easier. Too few games have all these features.

Recommended.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

First Impressions: EOS M5 and EF 50mm/1.8 STM

I wasn't actively looking to replace our EOS M3. But Canon was blowing out refurbished EOS M5s that included an adapter and several accessories (including a body jacket and several straps) for just over $600, as well as a 50mm/1.8 STM for $85, so I picked up the camera as a birthday gift for my wife, selling the old EOS M3 and my old 50mm/1.8 II on eBay for about $350 or so after fees, making it a relatively cheap upgrade. Since the battery is compatible with the older M3,

The big draw is the electronic viewfinder, which is a great tool for when it's too bright to use the LCD screen. The latency is high enough that it's noticeably not as good as an optical viewfinder in DSLRs, but hey, that's why this thing is tiny and the DSLRs are huge.

The autofocus is significantly quicker than the M3, though not so good that there aren't missed shots, and the occasional hunting in low light conditions. Together with the 50mm/1.8 STM, however, this thing takes amazing portraits very beautiful background blurring:
In fact, my wife likes it so much that most of the time she shoots with just the 50mm/1.8 STM, ignoring the 22mm/2 and the 11-22mm zoom. In practice, we'll probably travel with just the 22mm/2 and the 50mm/1.8 and only bring the zooms when we're not constrained by weight.
For landscapes, the camera's not too shabby either, and works well even when backlit. My only wish is for Canon to integrate GPS in the camera (today that has to be done using a smartphone app and the camera's bluetooth connection, but I can't remember to do that).

I wouldn't pay the near $1000 retail price asked by Canon, but for the price we paid (especially since we had all the existing Canon kit, and the upgrade was painless by selling on eBay), it was a good deal. Recommended.

Monday, December 04, 2017

2017 Puerto Vallarta

We visited Puerto Vallarta over thanksgiving break.

This was Bowen's first chance to try his new Snorkel Mask and adjustable fins in open water. We got him a snorkel mask because he'd forgotten how to use a regular snorkel, and had bitten off the bite valve on the snorkel he had anyway, which meant that I'd have to buy a new device anyway. Snorkel masks are useless for diving since you can't equalize (can't pinch the nose through that hard plastic), but realistically, he wasn't going to dive deep enough to do that anyway. Unfortunately, the snorkeling wasn't actually all that great: compared to the Carribean, the water is murky, though there's plenty of wildlife, the cold water meant that Bowen got cold in about 15 minutes, and so missed the sightings of the giant manta rays that I got while diving.
We tried ziplining at the Los Veranos Zipline tour. Bowen liked it so much that we did it twice, once on Xiaoqin's birthday.

There were beautiful sunsets and lots of great food, but Boen got an unwanted souvenir: while sliding down the waterslide at a hotel he cut his chin on a decorative fake rock, so he ended up getting 2 stitches on his chin. But he's still able to eat ice cream and doesn't seem too distressed.
We spent lots of time in the swimming pool, and there, Bowen finally learned to duck dive in a swim suit! All in all, nice but not better than a sailing trip in the Carribean or cycling tour anywhere, but you knew I'd say that. I probably wouldn't repeat.

Friday, December 01, 2017

2018 Book Reviews

Non-fiction

Review: A Mind at Play - How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

A Mind at Play is a biography of Claude Shannon. When I was an intern at Bellcore, his name was often spoken of in reverence, as the person who invented and developed information theory, which the book does a good job of explaining as well as it does the life of Claude Shannon.

The thesis of the book, which is that Shannon uniquely approached the development and engineering of technology as "fun" rather than work, however, doesn't seem to hold. What I got out of the book was that Shannon was cultivated and mentored by various established scientists (including Vannevar Bush), who appreciated his talent. The "fun" part was that Shannon pursued various other hobbies (including juggling and uni-cycling) rather than just the work he was famous for.

It is true that Shannon has long been neglected compared to other luminaries of his age. This book goes a long way towards correcting that. As such it is recommended reading.

Friday, November 17, 2017

2017 Books of the Year

I read 55 books this year, and then on top of that piled on 20 audio books and 9 comic books, which makes this a bumper year for books read. As usual, non-fiction takes the lead in terms of books worth your time.

My book of the year is How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Whether or not you agree with the premise of the book, it's a different approach to understanding emotions and debunking prior models of emotional intelligence and thinking. It's very much well worth your time to read, and will make you a better person. Other books of note include: Hillbilly Elegy, The Undoing Project, and Einstein.

On the fiction side, I really enjoyed My Sister Rosa.It's an outstanding novel about family dynamics as well as an excellent coming-of-age story. It doesn't have the usual happy ending, but in exchange, it grants you unusual insight into what a high functioning sociopath is (and there are many in society), and how to recognize one. It's well worth a read, and even beats out excellent rereads that I did this year like Stories of Your Life.

For Audio Books, I really enjoyed the Medical School for Everyone series. In particular, Pediatrics Grand Rounds would have saved me a lot of angst when my children were smaller, and I encourage every parent to audit it. The other books in the series: Emergency Medicine and Grand Rounds Cases are by the same lecturer and have no overlap, so if you enjoyed that one, you can pick up the others in the series and not fear any repetition.

Alas, I didn't read any comic books this year really worth recommending.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: Batman - The Long Halloween

The Long Halloween is a story from the early days of Batman. As Batman stories go, it's pretty good. Early Batman means there aren't that many silly things, like sidekicks, Batgirl, and the rest of the Bat  family. It's also an interesting take on Harvey Dent (aka TwoFace), in fact, easily the best Harvey Dent as portrayed in the comics.

The mystery revolves around the Holiday killer, and who it is. The authors kinda cheated in an improbable fashion (I won't spoil it for you, but I think if you read it you'll not be wondering why I consider the solution to the mystery unsatisfying), but it's one-third fair. (To say more would be to give away the mystery)

The rest of it is a bit cookie cutter. Mildly recommended.