Nudge

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I’m still only at the beginning of The Legends of Eisenwald, but there is a form of quest that has been repeated a number of times. The player is introduced to three competing factions and tasked with achieving unity between the three. At some point, the game suggests there are three possibilities.

  1. Convince two of them to join forces against the third;
  2. Choose one of them, and help that one defeat the other two; or
  3. Help one grow so powerful that the other two will set aside their difference to defeat him.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (link is probably paywalled) was titled How Obama Nudged Arab Leaders Toward Israel. In their write-up, the authors describe how Obama’s mishandling of the Arab Spring and the Iran nuclear weapons program caused Arab leaders (Egypt, Jordan, and  to form closer ties to Israel.

From the article:

From the perspective of Arab leaders, [the Obama] administration supported the wave of political Islamism that engulfed the region in the Arab Spring’s aftermath. It also threatened their regimes in unprecedented ways by abandoning Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak and slowing military exports to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain under the pretext of democratization. Worse, the administration signed a nuclear deal with Iran that reintegrated the ayatollahs’ regime into the international community while unleashing a wave of destabilization throughout the region.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got the cold shoulder from Obama. This allowed him to use Israeli’s traditional role as an American insider to protest and push back against the administration’s missteps. In turn, this made him a natural leader among the other Middle Eastern states that, just as Israel, were harmed by the Obama policies.

The authors do not frame their piece as a criticism of Obama. It seems more to inform the readers of how the Arab-Israeli peace process has moved forward, while perhaps unwittingly, probably permanently. Reading it, I assume it is a cloaked criticism of Obama, but I could be wrong. Indeed, perhaps the former President out-thought us all. Perhaps he chose option number 3.

But seriously, it hardly seems like a prudent move to destabilize a region in order to goad the powers of that region to work towards peace, even if it turns out that is what has been achieved. The Wall Street Journal piece does not attempt to analyze whether the advance in Arab-Israeli relations outweighs the negatives (as summarized in the above quote).

It begs the question. Does this suggest that sometimes the United States is better off doing nothing? For decades, the U.S. has brought Arab and Israeli adversaries to our table in attempt to force them into agreements. In doing so, were we helping to define their adversarial relationship? I have to wonder if there was any way to achieve the positives of Obama’s result without the negative consequences, or does it really take a crisis before people (both leaders and the rest of us) are willing to rethink their entrenched positions?

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Ni Saint, ni Romain, ni Empire

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The Holy Roman Empire confounds one who wants an easy narrative of Medieval history. To the west of Germany, the fifteenth century saw nation building and the assembly of the world empires that would dominate the globe, well, until today really. A potential monarch could lay claim to a title and, with the right combination of bribery, warfare, and politics, become God’s designated rule of an empire. The ending of the Hundred Years’ War saw the consolidation of England and France into unified empires and in Spain, the Moors were expelled and the kingdoms united.

But what about Germany?

There was still warfare, bribery, treachery, and politics; and history is still the story of the rise and fall of dynasties, but the the story seems so much more complicated. The electoral nature of Germany’s kingdom adds a layer upon Feudalism that resulted in one modern European nation that remained a confederation of independent states, almost until the start of the First World War.

Voltaire’s remark was made much later than the fifteenth century and the reign of Sigismund, but the observation was not unique to his time.

Speaking of quotations, the one posted early from Sigismund earns some further commentary. When I googled the phrase to make sure I had my Latin right, I encountered a number of possible translations for the famous phrase. The most common one, and as far as I can tell, the one accepted as definitive, is “I am King of the Romans and above Grammar.” It is written this way in Thomas Carlyle‘s History of Freidrich II of Prussia.

But in the internet age, where anyone can be a medieval scholar, the translations and interpretations of the phrase are many and varied. One of the more common mistranslations, for example, seems to mistake the origination of the phrase for a similar story involving Roman Emperor Tiberius, and assumes that “rex Romanus” is the Roman emperor. But among those variations, one stuck in my head. The translation read “I am King of the Romans and above Grammarians.” I haven’t taken a Latin class since 8th grade, but I don’t really see how you can get there from the actual Latin quotation (which was included with the translation, and matched Carlyle’s version verbatim). Further, given that the “source” material includes the phrase in both English and Latin, it is difficult to try to legitimately read a different meaning into the text.

However, a bit later I came across another telling of the same story, from a version nearly contemporary to Carlyle’s (1858). A book, The Science of Language, published in 1899 was created from from the lectures of Max Müller from 1861 and 1863. Müller tells the Tiberius story, “Caesar, thou canst give the Roman citizenship to men, but not to words” as well as a different version of the Sigismund one. In his version, the original mistake (with the Emperor calling to eradicate the Hussite heresy);

Videte Patres, ut eradicetis schismam Hussitarum.

and the correction;

Serenissime Rex, schisma est generis neutri.

are given in Latin. The remainder of the story is told in English. Sigismund asks the interrupting monk (apparently a Bohemian schoolmaster),

‘How do you know it?’

The old Bohemian schoolmaster replied, “Alexander Gallus says so.’

‘And who is Alexander Gallus?’ the emperor rejoined.

The monk replied, ‘He was a monk.’

‘Well,’ said the emperor, ‘and I am emperor of Rome; and my word, I trust, will be as good as the word of any monk.’

The story is generally told as one of hubris. The King who believes that, by decree, he can change the rules of language to match his own whim. The other lesson in the retelling is an example of the the modern understanding that the rules of language is driven by their usage, and not the other way around. That is, a dressing down of Grammar Nazis.

Müller‘s telling actually sounds a little more realistic than the “the rules of grammar don’t apply to kings” version of Carlyle. The king is not, necessarily, arguing the grammar but rather arguing the the standing of a mere monk, expert or not, to correct a king. In Müller‘s lecture, he goes on to suggest that Sigismund’s line was delivered for the laughs that it generated. In other words, his criticism, although directed at “Alexander Gallus,” was really for the lowly schoolteacher who thought he should interrupt a king.

For a man who was king for half a century (crowned King of Hungary in 1387), isn’t it ironic that perhaps his most memorable act was a grammar argument with a teacher?

…and it’s not even the real HRE

Set around this same place and time is the game Legends of Eisenwald, or at least sort of. Or maybe not. It is hard to nail down, exactly.

The game has the trappings of the 15th century Holy Roman Empire in terms of architecture, weapons, and armor. The location is a mix of real place names and made-up (but plausible) names in a anywhere-and-nowhere map of something that could be located in eastern part of Germany. Likewise the year of the game is left vague. Mentioned is the “fall of the Teutonic Knights” which could refer to either the Peace of Thorn (1411) or the Second Peace of Thorn (1466), or even something else entirely. Likewise, the personalities are fictional, depicting some minor nobles and knights within some obscure Duchy. A number of battles preceding the 1411 date are mentioned as a background for some of the characters, but the game narrative also makes a passing reference to the Battle of Brunkeburg (1471). While this potentially nails down the timeline to the the last quarter of the 15th century, it could also be a simple mistake (or even part of that real-place-names in made-up-locations).

Glancing through some of the developer blogs, the goal was to put effort into providing a historically-correct look and feel into the game. It is not, however, meant to be a simulation of history or of medieval combat. The developers, themselves, describe it as reality as the people of that time would have perceived reality. Thus, the blessing of priests and the healing of herbalists are truly effective in battle. Sorcerers and witches may channel the powers of evil or cause the dead to rise.

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The graphics are a nice, and believable, depiction of 15th century Germany.

The game is by no means breaking new ground. It borrows heavily from the fantasy strategy games of years’ past. It is a product of a small development team in Belarus and is their second game. Their first effort was called Discord Times and was released in 2004. They describe Legends of Eisenwald as both an evolution and a rethinking of that earlier game.

Reviews of the game almost always mention Heroes of Might and Magic as the comparison for this game. In part, that is because HOMM itself was originally to be a hybrid strategy game derived from an RPG and that roll-playing focus is clearly a part of Legends. The comparison may also come from the fact that Discord Times looks very much like a Heroes 2 game.

To me, however, the first comparison for this game is Disciples (particularly Disciples 2). While the battle is a hex grid, and thus comparable to the later games of the HOMM series, functionally it is a lot closer to the Disciples model. While the figures, which unlike HOMM represent individual characters, can move around the battle map, movement is restricted. If there is an enemy in front of you, you are often required to attack that present threat rather than maneuver about the field. Likewise, it seems that, given two possible foes, you are required to deal with the more threatening (they guy with the ax or the spear) rather than the easy target (the archer or the healer). It is therefore similar to Disciples, which freezes the positions of all its units, but with a bit more tactical nuance.

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My fellas will quickly dispatch this group of bandits.

That includes additional complexities. The facing of the characters is meaningful when it comes to calculating damage. There is also a fatigue factor – the effect of a healer’s spell is dependent on the remaining “spiritual” strength of that healer. Ranged weapons’ effectiveness is dependent on the range. All of these complexities, however, seem mitigated by the tool tips that tell you how much damage each unit will do. A player can calculate each factor and craft the perfect strategy based on the units involved, or just hover chose whatever looks like it will be effective. Those results, like Disciples, seem to be a fixed quantity. I don’t see the use of “die rolling” in this game. Variation seems to depend purely on the choices the player makes, rather having him hope that “critical hit” will pull him through a sticky situation.

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The character and army management screens are very much like Disciples II, and then some.

The strategic level, also, has improved upon the good old days of Heroes III and Disciples II. I have not kept up on the state of the art, so I can’t say what is innovative in this particular game versus other twenty-teens offerings, but the state-of-the-art has certainly come along well. The strategic map is very attractive with nice 3D animated terrain, which can be displayed without bringing my aging computer to its knees. The “fog of war” concept has been greatly improved. Instead of blacking out areas of the map the player hasn’t been, the game uses a clever combination of the mini-map and main map. Anything the player doesn’t know is there will not show up on either map. Once something is spotted on the main map, you can see parts of it, but if you haven’t come close enough to identify it, it will still remain hidden on the mini-map. Getting close enough to identify it places the name on both the main and the mini-map. The mini-map also tracks moving characters and colors them according to disposition, but again only if you can see them. It probably sounds complicated as I describe it, but it has a very natural feel. I can enjoy the view of the 3D terrain and do occasionally have to hunt through it for hidden artifacts, but for the most part I can just watch for the approach of the little red icons on the mini-map and thus avoid being surprised by my enemies.

The game also cycles through day and night, and that transition can be important in terms of game play. The aforementioned line of sight changes depending on whether the sun is up. Also, certain enemies (and, perhaps, friends) only come out at night. The “clock” can be paused, so that time only passes while your character is executing an action, or it can be left on continuous, so that the hours while away as you stare at the screen. It does seem a bit strange that you never sleep. A occasional event aside, you have no down time. Day and night you move about the map, fighting and conversing and then hitting up a church for some healing whenever you get worn down.

This is obviously not any kind of medieval battle simulator. In fact, even more so than its spiritual ancestors, the game functions as much or more as a role-playing game than as a “strategy” game. Taking your “army” into battle occupies much of your game time, but the questions of battle strategy and tactics don’t seem to be the main drivers in the game’s narrative. Instead, the key to advancing is the completing quests, usually involving more than just “defeat all the enemies.”

The marketing blurb calls the game “an adventure game with tactical battles, RPG and strategy elements.” The more I play it, the more I understand and appreciate that description. Despite the trappings of strategy and tactics, the purpose of the game is the story narrative. I’m not going to analyze how much the story branches – that is, if I chose not to ally with a particular character, could that dramatically change where the story goes? Or, do you simply get some minor side paths leading you back to the story’s main road? Gut feel says the latter because otherwise the player is going to miss out on the game’s content.

All in all, this is an unexpected, in more ways the one, addition to my game playing.It really combines tactics, history, graphics, and an engaging story to combine the familiar into something fresh and new.

Harvard Med Could Use a Guy Like Joel

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Netflix doesn’t only remove streaming videos, sometimes it adds them.

The movie 21 came out in 2008. It was based on the book* Bringing Down the House, a book published in 2003. The title Bringing Down the House was nixed for the movie so as not to confuse the new film with the Queen Latifa movie of the same name.

As a rule, I tend to go for the math-genius genre of films. I also like myself a good docudrama. So when this movie came out, I figured it was going to be a must-see. But hen I started reading some of the reviews, which were mediocre to poor. I’ve long forgotten the critique that swayed me, but I still remember that it didn’t seem like this was a movie that would be worth going out of my way to see.

Yet when it showed up as a “newly added” feature on Netflix, I was drawn back in.

The criticism on release seemed to center on, mostly, two issues. The first, really, was an extension of the criticism of the book. The book is subtitled, The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. The implication and marketing pitch is that it is the true story of the “MIT Blackjack Club,” the actual college students from MIT (and other Boston schools) that engaged in a systematic card-counting scheme in the 80s and 90s. In fact, the book was revealed to be rather loosely based on reality- a wild tale, although inspired by the stories of a real-life person.

The reality is interesting enough on its own, although in a different sort of way. The MIT Blackjack Team was decades-old at the time the events of the book** take place. One description (perhaps from the book) explains that a Blackjack Club was originally founded as a way to learn and study the statistics of blackjack, and it grew into the money making trips as the group learned the game. Another version, from Wikipedia but without a citation, reverses the causality. It explains that in 1980, a group of six students taught themselves card-counting and then made some money on a spring-break trip to Atlantic City. Subsequently, they offered a course to MIT students on blackjack, which expanded the interest at MIT and also attracted the attention of outside bank-rollers. In either case, the decade from 1980-1990 saw the club grow to a point where the team approach, as shown in the film and in the book, became an organized and successful system. Also during this time, various financial entities were formed to back the players with initial capital and distribute the resulting profits.

Starting in 1992, a new partnership called Strategic Investments was formed to back the then-current iteration of the blackjack team. The partnership raised over a million dollars, which was significantly more capital than had been employed in previous years. They perfected the multi-player approach highlighted in the film and grew the team to more than 80 players located around the country. It was into this iteration of the “MIT Team” that the real student Jeff Ma, renamed Kevin Lewis for the book and Ben Campbell for the movie, became involved with the system.

The book narrows this larger story to make it more personal. The MIT team is a group of six students and combines several older “advisors” and “investors”  into composite-character Micky Rosa. Intrigue, violence, and betrayal is thrown into the mix to spice it up. One of Rosa’s real-life counterparts told the Boston Globe, “I don’t even know if you want to call the things in there exaggerations, because they’re so exaggerated they’re basically untrue.”

Under the spotlight that accompanied the turning of the book into a movie, the fictionalization (of what was sold as a true story) put a bad taste in the mouths of many critics. That book scandal naturally spread to the reviews of the movie itself. It didn’t help that the movie doubled down on its artistic license. A nerdy-boy-gets-the-beautiful-girl story is placed front and center. Micky Rosa is turned from a outside financier into an influential MIT Professor, moving his involvement from an ethical gray area into clear malfeasance if not criminality. Ben Campbell is now an impoverished Jamaica Plains (at least it wasn’t Southie) local who is just trying to get a shot at what his more privileged peers take for granted. Will he be corrupted, or will his J.P. working-class soul steer him through?

Which leads us to the second criticism. Racism!

If its not immediately apparent from the name, Jeff Ma was not a Scots-Irish working-class Boston native. In fact it might be obvious to anyone that a random selection of math wizards from MIT would not produce a particularly white sample. Not only was the production criticized for “white washing” the cast, but Ma himself came under attack for not insisting that he be portrayed as Asia. He downplayed the supposed slight, saying that the most important thing was he be portrayed by a talented actor. He also made an interesting observation that, to him as a Chinese-American, being portrayed by a Japanese or Korean actor, just so his character “looked Asian,” would have been more insulting than being portrayed by a white man.

An interesting angle on this particular controversy. The MIT blackjack team, and particularly the “big players” (the member of the team who makes the big bets and earns the money for the system) were mostly chosen to be Asian or Arab. This wasn’t a question of math skills, but a question of fitting the racial stereotypes of the casinos. A young, white male betting big at a casino would come under immediate scrutiny. However, a son of a wealthy Chinese or Arab national coming into the casino and betting huge amounts of Daddy’s money was exactly what the casinos expected to see, and so was a way to slide the big bets in under the radar.

So it took me some eight paragraphs just to cover enough background to even start talking about how to feel about the movie. That’s never a good sign. Clearly watching this film as a means to gaining some insight into the MIT blackjack team is going to be a disappointment.

One interesting, and possibly revealing aside. When the film was entering development, the books’ author mused that filming would have to take place in some of the very casinos that were the target of the card-counting system portrayed. He speculated on what a problem that would be. As it turned out, the casinos were more than happy to participate. The fact of the matter is that casinos love it when people learn about how beatable blackjack is and flock to the casinos eager to try out their newly-learned card-counting skills. They tend to make mistakes and lose money, or just get bored with “the system” and just gamble. Yes, if someone is too successful at card counting (and it not outright cheating, which can be dealt with through the legal system), the casinos will take counter-measures. They may even exclude certain players from their floor. However, the casino basement where players a beaten, extorted, and occasionally robbed seems wholly created for dramatic effect.

But what about if we just forget about the “based on a true story” aspect and look at it as as a piece of entertainment? It’s hard to forget what you already know, but I’ll give it a try. As just a story, it’s been done (see Risky Business) and better (see Dope). The “math genius” angle is too simplified to draw me in and the romance angle is a little too one-dimensional to be beguiling. The villains are too over-the-top, and also simplified, for it to succeed on the conflict. In fact, while I’m at it, how can one consultant at one casino be at the center of taking down the team? How does that make sense? In the book it was (more plausibly, but still totally made up) an outside detective agency. Ugh.

So in the end, it wasn’t a horrible or painful experience, but also couldn’t rise above the “eh.” The one winner in all of this was the author, who went on to sell his Zuckerberg book to the studios to make the even-more-successful The Social Network.

*In some ways, you might say it was actually based on this Wired article. Kevin Spacey apparently read this article and was inspired to approach the author about turning it into a movie.

**The book takes place in ~1993, aligning itself with the the portion of the narrative that actually happened. The movie seems to be set in “present day,” which would be 2008. It added another measure of disbelief because, by 2008, the actual methods of the MIT Blackjack Team were already known and so, presumably, wouldn’t be so effective anymore.

All We Want

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The Wall Street Journal printed reader letters in response to a piece that I referenced recently. One letter went kind of the direction that I did. In part, reader Brad Tupi of Pittsburgh wrote:

Progressive policies (…) don’t work, no matter how often they are tried. I have no worry that I am tipping off the adversary. Liberals never admit that what they are doing is wrong, they just insist that they haven’t done enough of it yet.

Another letter (from Karen Duddlesten of Bellingham, Washington) took more the “moderate” tone, and ended with the statement:

All we want is for our politicians to solve real problems rather than making everything political.

Isn’t she right? Isn’t that what we all want?

Maybe.

Certainly I’ve heard similar expressions from a wide variety of people, both in person and in print. The sentiment seems to span the political spectrum. But I’m not sure that means we all agree. When a conservative wants real problems solved, they’re probably wondering why the Republicans that are elected aren’t doing what conservatives expect of them. The inability of Republicans to agree and pass “Republican” bills is interpreted as “the political” (reelection, primarily) taking precedence over passing laws. On the left, the question is why obstructionist Republicans, either in a branch of government that remains Republican-controlled leaving Democrats only in partial power; or perhaps Republican-appointed judges; or,when Democrats are completely in charge, the influence of right-wing lobbyists like the NRA. Those problems, and the solutions, may be obvious to the critic, but they are far from universally agreeable.

In other cases, the writer (or speaker) may not even know what form that solution should take. The assumption is that “we” have elected the great and the good to come up with the right answer, which is well within their grasp, if they would leave of the politicking and concentrate on governing.

How much of the time is the inability to get things done due to a genuine disagreement on the fundamentals (albeit often along party lines) on what constitutes a solution, and what constitutes a genuine problem. There are people who genuinely believe a $15-20 per hour minimum wage would solve many of the country’s problems, while others genuinely believe that eliminating the minimum wage and all the wage-and-hour laws that go with it would solve many of those same problems (and more). Both can’t be right. Both could be wrong, but both can’t be right.

And the process of working together will often come to the conclusion that the best assumption is that both, in fact, are wrong. Sometimes it seems like the system of politics is designed to move towards that particular conclusion. While there are issues that can be resolved rather non-controversially (and we probably each think our own favorite issues are in this category), for anything where there is a strong opinion on either side, the default of politics seems to be to scorch that middle ground and simply force through the majority side. Practically speaking, alienating those “moderates” means the gridlock that we have gotten so used to, and is so vociferously complained about.

From the standpoint of the “moderate,” however this is far from the worst solution. Failing to get your way this year still leaves the door open to coming together in the future. A win delayed is better than the inherent loss that comes from legislation that goes too far one way or the other. From those on the wings, in comparison, the incentive to compromise is tainted by the fact that the battle will not be over. You give up a little now get a fair solution, and you may see that as the beginnings of long term losses. The incentive there is to stand your ground no matter what. For the minority, this “gridlock” is a win, as you’ve prevented a bad outcome that, theoretically, had the numbers.

I recall some decades ago venting my frustrations about the inanities of the legal system to a friend who was a lawyer. He explained that the court systems were designed to be adversarial. Neither side, individually, pursues the just solution. But with both sides working fully and effectively against each other, the result of the process will come to the proper application of justice.

Likewise, the processes of government are designed to be adversarial, and designed to make it difficult to get things done. The former is in place to make sure that all sides are a party to the process and the latter to put the brakes on all the bad outcomes that turning policy into a political battle will often produce.

I also wonder who are “our politicians?” Variations on the theme are very common, but whom do we mean? Legislators? Any elected official? Recently, the lower-level, “non-political” appointees have come under increased scrutiny, criticism and, indeed, harassment. The thinking (I assume) that assisting The Donald with his policies, even if at a purely administrative level, helps advance those policies. “Resisting” means fighting back at every level. From the polar opposite side of the political spectrum, Libertarian types often come out strongly against the lowest-level of government employee – the police officer or the meter maid. Rulers cannot do what they do without the apparatus of State grinding away at the day to day.

Even Jesus seemed to morally equate the tax collector and prostitute. While He forgives them both and welcomes them to heaven, I don’t think even He excused them as “just doing their jobs.”

I guess clearly we don’t want the meter maids, the beat cops, and the tax collectors (or the prostitutes, for that matter) to get political. But at what point does execution turn into policy and then policy into politics?

On one hand, it seems a terrible turn to see the way that savage politics is working its way down the government ladder to the career types in public service. At the same time, I could surely name you a couple of examples where I think a particular agency’s bureaucracy is so entrenched with a particular political viewpoint that I’d have no problem calling them to task on it. I guess, for most of us, the answer changes with the political question.

So can “our politicians” solve real problems without making “everything political”? Probably not, and it would first require universal agreement not only on what the problems are, how real they are, but also on what the solution is.  I don’t see that on the horizon.

Just Do It

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Coming off of Netflix this weekend is the Canadian documentary Indie Game: The Movie, however it is still free on Amazon Prime.

The movie follows three independently-developed game projects through interviews with the developers. The three games are at three places in the development cycle. Jonathan Blow has completed his game Braid, and it has been a huge commercial success. The team of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes are actively releasing their game Super Meat Boy to the XBox. Developer Phil Fish approaches a key marketing milestone in his development of Fez, still some time away from release (as of the making of the movie).

I don’t know much of anything about platformers or the XBox Live gaming world. As a result, at the beginning of the movie, I had no idea whether these projects would be successful, fail, or even never make it to release. Well, not entirely true – the movie opens up on the release day for Super Meat Boy and shows Tommy Refenes agonizing about the lack of marketing from Microsoft, so I knew they’d get it that far. In fact, as you watch the movie the scale of their success is shown. The movie ends (the film was released in 2012) before the development Fez of  is completed, so an eventual release of Fez was not assured at that time.

For those that know these games, the movie probably had a slightly different feel. Clearly both Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish were celebrities of that world, and so for the initiated, it is a, perhaps revealing, closer look at some known personalities. One remark I read in one of the reviews from when the film came out was that, for many viewers, the most dramatic point of the movie was [trying to avoid a spoiler here] around an emotional breakdown of one of the developers. The statements said developer made were probably considerably less shocking to me, simply because I had never heard of the guy before.

So that wasn’t my experience.

Art can be just as much about the consumer as the artist. When I watched Indie: The Movie, naturally, I tried to connect it back to the historical gaming genre that I’m fond of. I made two connections.

First of all, and somewhat trivially, for Braid. While I’m unlikely to play either of the other two games, Braid seems to have something that might be worth going outside my zone to try. In the film, developer Blow laments that his customers simply didn’t understand what the game was all about, although he doesn’t elaborate on what it is that they missed. One interpretation of the underlying story is that it symbolizes the project to develop the first atomic bomb. Although Blow didn’t back that interpretation, he seems less dismissive about it than some of the other interpretations out there.

The second point of interest is the insight into the development process.

The film presents a narrow view of the gaming industry. The three games featured are all within a pretty focused genre. They are, as I said, platformers, based on the running and jumping puzzles. Furthermore, they are a “retro” version of that genre, deliberately reflecting the look and feel of much earlier games. They are, each in their own way, both tributes to the classic games (e.g. Super Mario Bros.) of the developers’ childhoods and critiques of the current state of the gaming industry.

Of the three games, they all stretch the definition of DYI. Fish was employed at a console game company when he came up with the idea for Fez. He left his job to make his own game, but operated with startup money from the Canadian government. Blow was a contractor within the gaming industry before developing Braid and has stated that he invested some $200,000 of his own money into the game. Team Meat were also former game industry employees who were working with Microsoft from the concept state of Super Meat Boy.

It makes one wonder how important the industry connections were in the ultimate success of these games. Could any of these have simply come out of left field and sold as well? How important in the multi-year hype that preceded the game release?

The film also illustrates a difficulty of the development process that could be an extra issue for an outsider. Blow says that this initial concept of the game took a matter of days to program. Scenes are shows of gameplay that it remarkably like the finished product. From there, he spend more than half a year developing a prototype that was shown publicly and differed mostly in terms of the final artwork. From there, it was almost another three years (and that $200,000) before the released version.

This can be a very frustrating experience for the inexperienced, want-to-be indie developer. Your vision can be “proven” quickly, seemingly putting you right on target for a release. But then the real issues come into play. Add to it that for most people, including the developers in the movie, the creative part of the process is fun while the testing, debugging, and reimplementing cycle is excruciatingly unpleasant. Your brilliant idea may be buying you into a world of pain.

I was also interested in some of the design philosophy, where that did come up. At one point, McMillen lectures on the proper design of level games. His exposition on the proper method of introducing game mechanics – in this case the ability to jump up a vertical wall – illustrates one of the more important factors in making a game that is enjoyable. Again, I assume this comes from his experience in the gaming industry. However, his lecture on the subject seems prompted by the inability of that industry to do it right. Again, how important was his resume as compared to his experience as a gamer?

Beyond all that, it was a pretty decent film. Particularly as I didn’t know “the ending,” the story was done in a very suspenseful way. This is probably a must-see for would-be developers and fans of the platformer genre. It is also going to be enjoyable for a much broader audience of tech-types.

Once again, thanks Netflix, for pushing me into watching this.

You Are All Extremists

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I recently read a pair of articles. They’re really quite different in almost every way, but I think they both touch on the same problem.

The first is coauthored by former White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of State James A. Baker III and form Ambassador-to-the-U.N. Andrew Young and is titled “Identity Politics Are Tearing American Apart.” It was an op-ed in the Wall St. Journal on August 31st, and it probably behind the paywall for you.

The article opens up lamenting the state of politics in our nation. Coming from two such eminent figures, I wanted to know their prescription for how to heal this schism. When I got towards the end of their article, though, it seems they engage in much the same political tactic that they are criticizing in the first place.

The problem is familiar. Politically, we are splintering in to factions with intractable issues dividing us. Given that we got here from what we all remember as a less trying time, it would seem like there must be a way back. We could, of course, hope simply to eliminate our opponents from the political arena. While this seems to be the preference from all side, it hardly seems likely without a much genocide and reeducation camping. The alternative would be to find what brings us together, rather than what drives us apart.

When Baker and Young finally arrive at their political solution, about midway through the article, it does not appear that they have any intention of seeking out a path to reconciliation. Instead, they’ve come up with a political program of their own; one which they deem to be just the compromise we need. I don’t know if, at this point, the particulars are that important, but their plan is to increase spending on infrastructure and civic projects, as well as to raise taxes to facilitate a reduction in corporate tax rates. Certainly there is support for just such proposals. Perhaps even broad support. But there also there are many who (for various reasons) would oppose these initiatives. Many of those opponents would be just as earnest as the authors in their desire to serve the common interest of all Americans.

In the end, I interpret the message of Mssrs. Baker and Young, juxtaposing as they have the violence and incivility in today’s politics with their own sensible plan, that in order not to be an “extremist”, you need to back their favored position. Essentially this echoes the language of the partisan actors causing those very problems that they are claiming to solve.

Are you with me, or are you with the Nazis?

Speaking of partisan actors, the second piece that got me going was some clickbait referring back to to a Huffington Post article. I’ll not link to any of it, as the clickbait site was just regurgitating another’s material and HuffPo, while original, is engaging in this behavior that is so harmful for America. The original article had the incendiary headline,  Senate Candidate Was On Radio Show With Pastor Who Said Gays Should Repent Or Die, and you are free to google it if you want to see the original.

Suffice to say that the headline was more inflammatory than the article itself. The subject is the primary race in Alabama, which was forced into a two-man runoff. The more conservative of the two remaining candidates (Roy Moore) is a newcomer and underdog in the legislative race, having been a State Supreme Court justice. As part of his campaign (one presumes), he was on a Colorado talk show with a conservative pastor who has argued for a fire and brimstone interpretation of the bible, particularly with regards to homosexuals. Ted Cruz also appeared on this radio show during the presidential campaign, and was forced to scrape, bow, and apologize for the offense. In the case of the Alabama race, the senate candidate was clear he did not advocate for the execution of gays.

I came across this whole kerfuffle when a friend posted a link to the headline, and others quickly piled on with their virtue signalling about how awful this all was, and what a “scary” guy the Senate candidate is.

The problem with today’s politics is not the mere existence of personalities like the conservative, talk-show pastor. I, frankly, think he is wrong theologically, as well as being wrong to use his platform to suggest that his fellow human beings should “die.” But such people have always existed and always will, and yet civilization survives and thrives.

The problem with today’s politics is not the existence (or even the popularity) of candidates like Roy Moore. It is difficult to speak to Candidate Moore’s actual qualifications relative to his opponent as I don’t follow Alabama politics and the articles I’ve seen on the subject tend to focus on particularly provocative aspects of the race. Moore was actually removed from the Supreme Court for his defense of a “Ten Commandments” monument in the courthouse, so there is plenty there with which to provoke. The race also pits “the establishment” versus “the real conservatives” as big names in politics have taken one side or the other. For all I know, maybe I would have preferred his opponent (Moore subsequently has won the election), but I did not follow the race well enough to know. In any case, I have no indication that Moore is any different from many other conservative candidates in heavily Republican leaning parts of the country.

“Southern women like their men religious and a little mad,” as Michael Shaara put it.

Rather, it is these headlines themselves are the problem. The problem is media outlets that will turn a story into a “fightin’ words” headline. The problem is that media outlets that will only run the more provocative stories in the first place, depriving the voting public with a comprehensive overview of the election. And the problem is also the reading public who reinforces this trend by being drawn to the spectacle and influenced by the smear tactics.

To be clear, the Huffington Post dislikes Moore, not because of an association with a particular pastor, but because he is a Republican, and a very conservative one at that. They know that they share this dislike with the left-leaning half of the country. The problem is, “their people” are less than half of the electorate of Alabama. So their goal is to tarnish Moore with an extremist tag that will reduce his support from those that would otherwise be inclined to vote for him.

Understandably, accusations of genocidal tendencies, whether they be based on race or religion or sexuality or other anything, tends to raise a big red flag for any citizen. Unfortunately merely the accusation, even if ultimately unfounded, influences our perception – our motivation, and this is part of human nature.  In another recent example, when organized white supremacist groups take a liking to a candidate, that association is blasted throughout the press. Donald Trump, seemingly is surviving it, but I remember the same tactic being used against Ron Paul right before his Republican presidential primary. It didn’t change anything about the candidate, but it changed the tone of the election. All the positive messaging of a candidate is sucked out of the room by the mere association with certain words and phrases.

This is where we stand today. We have realized the power of the “extremist” tag, and the ease with which it can be applied – often with the slightest of connection. But as we stare into that abyss, it also stares back at us. As we define the political landscape only by its “scary” “extremists,” that is the shape that the landscape takes.

This is not a path we should be walking.

Watch It Again

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This week, another movie being taken off Netflix. Didn’t I just write about this? This time the movie is Déjà Vu.

Like many of the others I watch at the last possible moment, this had been in my queue for a while. In fact, I’m pretty sure I added it in simultaneously with Netflix putting it into their streaming offering. And then not watching it until they decided to remove it.

I was taken by the trailers back when the film came out (who can resist Bruckheimer when he’s on his game), and kinda-sorta wanted to watch it ever since. The reviews and user ratings* weren’t the best, and it looked pretty much of a type of movie I’d seen done before.

I was wrong.

In this, the “system” actually got it right. Usually I rail against the movie summaries – the blurbs on the DVD sleeve. More often than not, they seem to be written by someone who never bothered to watch the entire movie. Then, despite their inaccuracies, they also give away key plot points stretching well into the movie. I avoid reading them if at all possible, as I’ve ruined many a movie by doing so (either intentionally or accidentally).

In this case, the DVD blurb completely obscures the key plot point. I’m going to write as little as possible about this, as you’d really do yourself a favor if you can watch the film without knowing the “twist.” But covering this up took quite a bit of discipline – both during the original, theatrical release of the movie (which, obviously the studios can control) but also during a decade of movie rental availability, where discipline and even common sense seem to be often sorely lacking.

That said, I do have to give a couple of hints. Stop here and come back if you really want to be as fresh as possible for the movie.

Somewhere around the halfway mark, I detected a major plot hole. I paused the film to comment on it, and then watched the rest. There were some other, to me, lesser plot holes which I was able to accept and, in fact, integrate into my processing of the film. In that digestion of the film, I also got a sense that there was something more going on – something going on between the lines. Although, again, I wasn’t entirely able to put my finger on it (and who can with all those Bruckheimer explosions and shootouts going on.)

After it was over, I had this general sense that the movie was far better than the critics had prepared me for, and I tried to read a little bit more about these “slips” that seemed to mar the plot integrity. Oddly enough, in the IMDB “goofs” section, the big one wasn’t mentioned.

And that was when I ran across something else.

A viewer (click on this only after you’ve watched the movie. Seriously) posted an analysis of the plot – an analysis meant to make sense of these plot holes. Essentially, there is a huge chunk of the story missing from the screen. Watching a (hoping-to-be) Hollywood Blockbuster, one expects a what-you-see-is-what-you-get presentation. If there is something to be explained, we expect that either to be heavily (and obviously) foreshadowed or wrapped up by the ending. In this movie, the missing material is only visible through the holes it leaves behind. One of the original script writers essentially confirms that the interpretation is on the right track.

With no original script to compare, we can’t know if there was a better way to integrate the story to present it on screen. In some ways, reading the story of the production, I think the director may have stumbled into this version of the film, rather than finely crafted it. Among other issues, the filming was shut down by the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. But sometimes, and artist can make a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

It kind of makes me wish I’d stopped to mull over the plot for longer before I went to someone else’s explanation. Maybe you should do the same. In the end, I have to say this is well worth the viewing. A smart interior wrapped up in some Hollywood flash and bang.

But you have to watch it tonight if you stream Netflix.

*Netflix, if you can access the old “star” reviews, gives it a 3.8, but for me they downgraded it to a 3.4. Experience tells me that I generally won’t appreciate anything below about 3.5. I wonder why their algorithm decided this for me.