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Monday, December 06, 2021

Review: Cyberpunk 2077 (PS5)

 I actually pre-ordered Cyberpunk 2077, but the reviews ahead of the actual release were so bad that I cancelled my preorder and elected to wait, hoping that by the time I got around to it the experience wouldn't be the disaster many web-sites had claimed it was.

First, I managed to get my hands on the PS5. Then, Best Buy had a sale on it for $10. At that price, I bit and started playing it, keeping it mostly on my PS5 the entire time.

The most important part of The Witcher 3 was how good the characters were. As I played Cyberpunk 2077, I discovered that the characters were nowhere as well realized. A lot of it was that the Witcher came with baggage --- lots of books, and two previous games, and I had read enough of the books that I had a good understanding of the characters even prior to the game, and had predilections about which way Geralt would decide, but Cyberpunk had no such priors and I don't remember any novels from the setting, even though I actually might have read the RPG manuals ages ago.

The story is actually reasonable, once you take all that into account. You're playing a mercenary in Night City, and in a heist gone wrong end up with cyberware taking over your mind. From there events play out and you have a choice of how to deal with the main story, side jobs, and other ancillaries, with consequences playing out in the story.

The game play is easy: I went for a gun toting reflex driven combat-oriented build, and just chose to go in guns blazing all the time eschewing stealth. It worked for most of the game, though a few (optional) side quests would be locked out because I didn't have tech levels set high enough. The game actually has surprisingly little combat, and what there is wasn't painful as long as you levelled up enough on side jobs.

The game crashed about 5-6 times during my playthrough. Annoying, but with sufficient checkpoints that I never lost a lot of progress. Load times were long, but not as annoying as in The Witcher 3 where you'd pause for minutes when you died.

The graphics were decent. Definitely on par with any PS4 games, but didn't feel good after masterpieces like The Last of Us 2.

All in all, I thought the game was reasonably good (there aren't that many games I play till the end), so I enjoyed it. I thought Ghost of Tsushima or Miles Morales were better games, but neither of those games are RPGs, and this was the first RPG I liked enough to finish since The Witcher 3, so I'll still label it recommended.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

Review: Hello World - Being Human in the Age of Algorithms

 Hello World is Hannah Fry's book about algorithms for a lay audience. I expected to breeze through it since I already knew most of it, but what I loved was her explanation, including why every programming tutorial starts with Hello World, which I stole for an explanation to Bowen.

I enjoyed how she described both machine-learning applications and regular programs as algorithms, and walked through the implementations and implications of both for a lay audience. She does a great job explaining that the non-computerized implementations of algorithms have problems as well, in terms of noise.

our reluctance to question the power of an algorithm has opened the door to people who wish to exploit us. Despite the weight of scientific evidence to the contrary, there are people selling algorithms to police forces and governments that claim to ‘predict’ whether someone is a terrorist or a paedophile based on the characteristics of their face alone. Others insist their algorithm can suggest changes to a single line in a screenplay that will make a movie more profitable at the box office. Others boldly state – without even a hint of sarcasm – that their algorithm is capable of finding your one true love.* (Kindle loc 2952)

She points out that all algorithms  have issues:

 I’ve thought long and hard and I’ve struggled to find a single example of a perfectly fair algorithm. Even the ones that look good on the surface – like autopilot in planes or neural networks that diagnose cancer – have problems deep down. As you’ll have read in the ‘Cars’ chapter, autopilot can put those who trained under automation at a serious disadvantage behind the wheel or the joystick. There are even concerns that the apparently miraculous tumour-finding algorithms we looked at in the ‘Medicine’ chapter don’t work as well on all ethnic groups. (Kindle loc 2963)

 I definitely enjoyed the book, even though I'd encountered all the ideas in the book previously.  Recommended.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

2022 Book Reviews



Monday, November 29, 2021

Review: Renegades of the Empire

 Scott Macdonald told me that his group at Microsoft (DirectX) was so famous that a journalist wrote about it. The book was called Renegades of the Empire, and not only was it not available at any of the libraries near me, but there was also no kindle version. Which meant I had to buy a used copy from Amazon and read it on paper with a booklight and everything.

The book describes Alex St. John, Eric Engstrom, and Craig Eisler's careers at Microsoft, how they started the DirectX effort, shoe-horned it into Microsoft (killing off WinG in the mean time), and then proceeded to try to create a web-browser (named oddly enough Chrome before being called Chromeeffects) which would fail.

The trio's antics are famous and very politically incorrect. The kind of statements regularly made by Alex St. John, not to mention the antics (hiring contractors using the marketing budget), deliberately dissing their own company at product rollouts, would undoubtedly get someone fired today. There's even a story of a food-fight in one of Microsoft's meeting rooms, with the clean up bill sent to then Microsoft VP Brad Silverberg, who wrote an e-mail saying, "I hope you enjoyed yourself."

Having worked with a few ex-Microsoft employees, I now understand much of their behavior. For instance, there are several instances in the book where a manager going on vacation would come back to discover that his team had been taken away from him. That explains why many former Microsoft employees would never take vacation. (To be honest, I think that attitude permeates much of tech companies today --- even at Google one of my friends once reported that taking vacation was given as a reason to deny someone a promotion, so I won't pretend that things are any better today)

Anyway, the book is eye opening, hilarious in parts, and well worth reading for the insight into the way various people you might encounter at work behave. Recommended.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Review: The Messy Middle

 The Messy Middle is a book about entrepreneurship. Rather than being one about raising money, etc., it's almost entirely about the development of a startup past the initial stages but before being fully successful as an independent entity or being sold. The author started Behance, which was bought by Adobe, and sprinkles his narrative with anecdotes and stories from both his time managing Behance and as a transformative middle manager at Adobe.

The book covers many topics, but the management sections are interesting. In one particular case, he compares a well functioning team to that of a human body system, and describes a well-jelled team as having a healthy immune system, which would wholesale reject any transplant of a foreign entity (such as an new leader being injected into the mix). He describes the manager's role there as helping to suppress the immune system so that the new transplant can contribute. I will note that like many managers, at no point does he consider promoting someone from inside. (And in this particular case, he had been long time friends with the new manager and had faith that it would work out without tearing the team apart)

I switched from the audio book to kindle format in the middle of this book, but there were many anecdotes in this book that were geared entirely towards the product manager, rather than the engineering leader. One thing that particularly stands out is the fact that he considers the most important piece to be self-motivation, mentioning that startups are usually so hard that if you can't motivate yourself you absolutely will not finish.

There are huge sections about motivating yourself, optimizing processes, and right at the end a few notes about getting advice from third parties before any kind of sale happens. It's definitely good stuff and worth your time to read. There's the usual amount of self-aggrandization from any successful entrepreneur, but also enough useful stuff that I wouldn't consider it a problem.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Review: Batman Zero Year

 DC periodically reboots its universe for no reason other than to reimagine/retell all the origin stories from their classic pantheon of superheroes. Batman: Zero Year is of course its most recent retelling of Batman Year One, and in contrast to the grim and gritty Frank Miller approach, goes for the modern, post-apocalyptic viewpoint. 

The art style is modern and clean and a joy to view. The writing and main villain (The Riddler), not so much. Bruce Wayne, for instance, takes a long time to figure out that Wayne enterprises would be key to providing him with resources for his battle. Similarly, there are key scenes that make no sense, such as Lucius Fox injecting Wayne with a vaccine without telling him. The Riddler taking over Gotham City is a nice excuse for providing apocalyptic images, but ultimately shows how much supervillain victories look like the dog catching the school bus. He does nothing with that victory and never seems to be a serious threat.

The denouement, when it comes feels more than a little cliche, with Batman working away from a love interest that was barely introduced and one never cares about. I don't now why anyone would consider this even comparable to Miller's work.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Books of the Year 2021

 I read 69 books this year, including a couple of re-reads. It was heavily tilted towards non-fiction, which makes the non-fiction selection challenging.

By far the most useful book I read this year has to be Noise. A book about how to make decisions and remove jitter from your decisions has to qualify very highly in terms of usefulness. The problem is that the book is on the dry side. I would say that on the political side, the best book I read this year was The Price of Peace, the biography of John Maynard Keynes. It describes the long march and battle of ideas, and really shows how bankrupt the modern economic theories of Milton Friedman et al, are compared to Keynes' vision. It ties right in with Democracy in Chains giving you a complete understanding of the political economy. My favorite topic is still science, unfashionable as it is in this day of vaccine denial. I thought Exercised was a solid debunking of paleo exercise  and diet myths, and explains why we hate exercise so much despite also needing it. I also cannot help having a soft spot for Justice and The Wisdom of No Escape, both of which are exemplars of clear writing and thinking. By far the best business book I read this  year was Working Backwards. It's a clear explanation of how Amazon won so many battles against competitors with much higher margins and frequently better engineers. It's definitely well worth your time.

I guess having said all that, I will go for The Price of Peace as the book of the year.

The best fiction of the year was an easy choice: Project Hail Mary, easily the best novel I'd read in years. If you enjoyed the Martian, don't waste your time dithering. Just get the book and read it already.

I read a ton more comic books than usual, but none of them really stood out. I guess March would take the price, if I had to choose. As you can see, I found a bunch of really good books this year. I hope you try some of them!