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Thursday, January 28, 2021

Review: Spider-man: Miles Morales vol 1 & 2

 I was very impressed by the story in the PS4 game Miles Morales, so when Boen asked me to read a Spider-man book to him, I checked out Spider-man Miles Morales Vol 1 and Vol 2 from the library.  It's usually a truism that the book is better, but in this case it's clear that both the movie and the video game are much better than the books, which never tells a story in 1 panel when it can stretch it out into 20 panels.

What makes things worse is that the second volume ties into a cross-over story, which means that you get no resolution as to the greater story and the story immediately pivots into a new subplot (and one not even about Morales, but about his father) without notice. There's very little action, and by the middle of the second volume, Boen had gotten bored and not asked me to keep reading it to him (something which never happened when I read the original 1963 Spider-man stories to him and his brother!)

Monday, January 25, 2021

Switching to Bar Soap

 I'd been using Nivea 3-in-1 shampoo and body wash for myself and the kids through a series of Amazon deals, but then ran out in the middle of the summer. I felt a little guilty about the amount of plastic being thrown away, and read a few articles about the much reduced carbon footprints of bar soaps and decided to try them.

Dove is the default brand at both Costco and Amazon. Each bar lasts about a week, but the book Clean noted that Dove as a PH-neutral soap did not clean as effectively as real soap! So I tried the whole foods branded 360 Soap. The kids love the smell and my wife stole a bar, but the pine tar version left a nasty black residue in the bath tub. Each bar lasts a week as well, but is an awkward shape and doesn't really fit well in the bath.

I remembered using the Grant Petersen approved Grandpa's Pine Tar soap, which is more expensive per ounce than either of the above. The kids didn't love the smell, but after a week of use (each bar lasts two and a half weeks, so you would be willing to pay twice as much per ounce for this soap compared to the whole foods or Dove soap), all eczema was gone, and any residual itchiness they complained about on a regular basis is gone as well. I guess this is the one to get.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Review: Spider-man Miles Morales (PS4 Pro)

 I wasn't going to pick up Spider-man: Miles Morales until it had dropped in price, but all the reviews mentioned that it was a short game, which meant I might actually get a chance to finish it during my winter break. My biggest complaint about most video games is how they feel like a slog, or are too hard, or take too long so I never get to the finish, and I played the original Spider-man so much that I got the platinum trophy, so I decided that I should put my money where my mouth is and play it.

From a game play point of view, the game isn't much different than the prior Peter-Parker rendition. Miles Morales has several bio-electricity powers that Peter Parker doesn't have, and as a result, the game's more willing to throw lots of densely packed enemies at you, so you get a chance to use those powers (and you get punished if you don't). In exchange, you get a lot fewer gadgets.

The story is great: it's nothing like Into the Spider-Verse, since the previous Spider-man game had already killed off Morales' father. The game introduces a new Peter Parker model that looks a lot more like Paul Holland's character in the movies. The tension, angst, and family drama are every bit as good as any of Peter Parker's stories, though there isn't any romantic interest or tension in the story. The theme is appropriate, especially for a year when Black Lives Matter has been on every person's mind for at least a few months, but in no way does it feel like a cash grab or cheap.

Reflecting on this game as well as The Last of Us Part II, I've been very impressed that all the games that I've really enjoyed have come out of one Sony Studio or another --- forget the hardware, these games really do sell the system and keep me in the Playstation ecosystem for the long haul. Well worth your time, and a great substitute until the next great Spider-man movie comes out.

Highly recommended!

Monday, January 18, 2021

Review: Canon Image Class MF644Cdw

 The wife and kids have been asking for a color printer for a while, and at the same time my ancient brother scanner started dying, able to only scan one-side of a double-sided piece of paper. Thanks to black Friday, the Canon Image Class MF644Cdw was under $300, and would replace both. I also considered the bigger counter-part, but those came in close to 60+ pounds, and our printing volume was not expected to exceed what the MF644Cdw could do. At 50 pounds the MF644Cdw was close to what I could lift by myself.

Other people have waxed lyrical about the unboxing experience of an Apple product (I myself have never been impressed) but the Canon MF644Cdw's unboxing is an experience to behold! Basically, you unfold the flaps and pull on them and the entire box comes off. The engineers who did this have definitely achieved something.

As expected, the 50 pound weight is a pain, and once you're done you have to peel off various seals and stickers that exist to keep the device's various accouterments from flipping open while you lift and shift the thing. Once plugged in, you use the device's touch screen to connect it to WiFi, and then you have to login using a web browser to configure it to accept scans via SAMBA (which I sent to a OneDrive sync'd folder, so that any scans would automatically get shared and uploaded to the cloud), as well as manage defaults. You can also arrange for scans to be sent via e-mail,  but thanks to improved security, I couldn't set it up or get it to work with the TLS enabled gmail SMTP server. The web menu is unintuitive and painful to use, but it's a one-time setup, and once all the defaults are setup correctly you won't ever have to do it again.

Apple devices automatically recognize the printer over the wire via airplay, while Windows devices can get a dedicated driver installed via USB or CD-drive. As usual, the windows devices are more finicky to setup, but in exchange you get toner status data and other such features.

Scanning is fast and easy, as is copying and printing. About the most annoying feature of the printing is the noise --- the fan spins up, there's a whining sound, then it prints, and after that the fans and whining continue for quite some time after the print job is finished. It's not really noticeable during a zoom call (I sit right next to the printer), but I could imagine that if print jobs were frequent I'd be looking for a closet so I didn't have to hear it.

The paper tray is small, so definitely go for the next size up if your print loads are heavy. But as an all in one device it works and works well, very much like a full-size office device. Recommended.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Review: D&D Adventure Begins Cooperative Board Game

 So much of what I could do with Bowen was because he was a precocious reader, never being intimidated by board games that required reading or even RPGs that required multi-hundred page books to play. Boen is a different story, but so when the D&D Adventure Begins Board Game went on sale, I bought it hoping that it would work for Boen.

You have to set expectations for this correctly. First of all, it comes with no character creation rules, but several decks of cards. Not surprisingly, the decks of cards are basically flavor text, all with the same game mechanics. And then there are various bosses, also with mostly flavor text, and then the adventure deck, which actually are quite different from boss to boss, which gives each adventure scenario a different flavor.

The character levels only go up to level 2, which is just fine for a short board game. DM control passes from player to player, but requires that the DM be able to read, so when playing with Boen, Bowen and I traded DM roles. The combat encounters are fun, and death is at most temporary, with no one permanently kicked out of the game unless a TPK happens, which would require a lot of bad luck in combination with poor strategy. This is a far easier game than any of the adult D&D board games. 

By far the best thing about this board game are the role playing encounters. Some of them are really whimsical and fun and in keeping with a 5-year old's spirit. One of them asked all the players to do a silly dance and have the DM judge which one is silliest. Boen really got a kick out of this one!

We sat down to play one boss and after defeating it, the kids immediately asked to play another one. And would have proceeded to playing all 4 scenarios if I hadn't gotten bored. This one's a keeper. Recommended.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Review: Clean

 Clean was on the Smithsonian 20 best science books of the year, and it was written by a doctor who's a staff writer at The Atlantic, so I checked it out of the library. The book begins strongly, with the doctor proclaiming that he hadn't showered for years. Then he gets into the reason behind it, including a fun reading history of soap, as well as the sad lack of regulation behind personal care products:

European Union and Canada have been reviewing ingredients in personal care products for decades. More than 1,500 chemicals are banned or restricted from these products in the European Union, and some 800 are banned or restricted in Canada. California state lawmakers proposed a bill in 2019 that would ban the inclusion of lead, formaldehyde, mercury, asbestos, and many other potentially harmful compounds from personal care products, which, if enacted, would be the first legislation of its kind in the United States. As of this writing, the effort has not yet been successful. (kindle loc 1505)

But the detail isn't there. There's no discussion as to whether not showering or bathing will solve eczema, a common childhood ailment. No studies (double-blinded or not), just loads and loads of anecdotal evidence. We get lots of copy text about how little regulation there is for makeup and other health supplements (which you would know about if you'd even read one other non-fiction book about the topic), but the scientific evidence is sadly lacking. There is a note that Dove is a particularly ineffective soap, which is why it gets to be marketed as mild!

The book then branches out into various other aspects of the hygiene hypothesis and the rise of allergy and asthma:

 In wealthy countries around the world, people now spend more than 90 percent of their lives indoors. Friends and family are not allowed to touch babies unless their hands have been scrubbed or coated in antibacterial gels. The indoor air is lacking in the wealth of bacterial particles that used to temper our immune systems. Our diet is hyperprocessed and cleaned and low in fresh fruits and vegetables—which are naturally loaded with bacteria. An average apple contains 100 million microbes. (kindle loc 1765)

But there's no real detail behind it. There's nothing about whether eating apple skin is good for you, no studies, and definitely no clinical recommendations. The entire book goes on like this, with forays into green space exposure and outdoor exercise vs indoor exercise: 

A number of studies have reported associations between green-space exposure and self-reported health, birth outcomes, and reduced morbidity. A 2018 meta-analysis found statistically significant associations between exposure to green spaces and reduced blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol levels, incidence of type 2 diabetes, and death from cardiovascular disease. Exercising outdoors may also have health benefits you don’t get at the gym. Much work has been done in this area by Diana Bowler and colleagues in the UK, who compared the effects of exercise in “natural” and “synthetic” environments and found that a walk or run outside “may convey greater health benefits than the same activity in a synthetic environment.” (kindle loc 2004)

At least this particular instance had great relevance to me and some literature citations, but the author provides no quantification of the results, and clearly the science here is difficult to do (how do you do a double-blind study of a topic like this one?). I came away with the book vaguely dissatisfied. I cannot sincerely recommend this book.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Review: The Last of Us Part 2

 Several years ago, I reviewed The Last of Us and compared it with eating your vegetables. Not having very much experience with video games, I didn't realize that the game was basically a 3D combat game, where each level could not be traversed without killing everything in it. Yet the story was haunting, as was the music, and of course the art direction and graphics made your jaw drop.

I'm a cheap skate, so I didn't buy The Last of Us Part 2 at launch, but rather, waited until it had dropped in price to $30, and then put in a Best Buy coupon to bring it down further.  I'd played all the PS3 and PS4 naughty dog games, so I thought I knew what to expect, and I really enjoyed the sensibility that Naughty Dog brought --- the games were more like movies than they were simple shooters, alternating between walking simulators, and the art direction and cinematography were second to none.

The opening of the game made my jaw drop once again. I'd played Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy, but The Last of Us Part II made me forget that I was playing a video game and not watching a live action movie more than one. While Xiaoqin had occasionally commented that some of the previous games I'd played looked like movies, none of them (not even Red Dead Redemption 2) came close when I was holding the controller. The game play is quite similar to the first game, but with my expectations set correctly by the first game, I no longer tried to get through levels without killing everything --- I knew now that you had to kill everything to get through, and that the game would actually do a reasonable job of replenishing your supplies, but if you stealth-killed a few enemies early on you had less pressure for the rest of each level.

The levels were huge. I was very pleasantly surprised towards the end that one of the levels was so large that I could go back to a previously cleared section to run away and pick up supplies to continue fighting and eventually cleared the level. That running away is an option was a good thing --- I'm not so good at video games that I can just play through them, and continually dying was not fun and broke the cinematic experience. I mostly played the game on normal, but had 2 encounters where I dropped the difficulty level to easy because the game was so atmospheric that playing in the dark hours of the morning I got more than a little bit spooked.

The scenery is good, but there's nothing as spectacular as what I saw in Uncharted 4 or even in the original Last of Us. Seattle, for instance, was frequently overcast, and I never got high enough to get a grand view, though certain sunsets were pretty.

Which leaves the pacing and story. Here be spoilers. So read no further if you wish to be surprised during the game.

Friday, January 01, 2021

2021 Book Reviews

Books of the year for 2021 have been selected.



Audio Books