Thursday, December 14, 2017

Yes

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

YES.

Yes, yes, yes.

And, at the very end, the very last line, most definitely: yes.

The Likeness: a very short review

The Likeness is the second in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series of mystery novels.

Although The Likeness is not quite as great as French's thoroughly superb first book, it is still quite good indeed, and I devoured it apace.

The characters are fascinating; the scenario is very intriguing; the pacing and reveal is just right.

But perhaps most importantly, French's wonderfully lyrical touch again does not fail her.

Here we are, mid-story, just as our hero is learning something new about a crucial character:

The garden dumbstruck, in the fading gold light. The birds hushed, the branches caught in midsway; the house, a great silence poised over us, listening. I had stopped breathing. Lexie blew down the grass like a silver shower of wind, she rocked in the hawthorn trees and balanced light as a leaf on the wall beside me, she slipped along my shoulder and blazed down my back like fox fire.

I love the way this passage depicts how "time stops" sometimes, when you suddenly realize something new.

I love the way this passage depicts the way that evidence can have a voice of its own, making inanimate artifacts come to life.

I love the way this passage evokes the spirit of a departed human soul, simultaneously here and not here.

And I love the beautiful way she makes us feel our own spine tingle.

There's plenty of good solid policework, of course. And plenty of action, and plenty of evidence, and plenty of mystery.

But there's a wonderful amount of this, too:

I listened to the static echoing in my ear and thought of those herds of horses you get in the vast wild spaces of America and Australia, the ones running free, fighting off bobcats or dingoes and living lean on what they find, gold and tangled in the fierce sun. My friend Alan from when I was a kid, he worked on a ranch in Wyoming one summer, on a J1 visa. He watched guys breaking those horses. He told me that every now and then there was one that couldn't be broken, one wild to the bone. Those horses fought the bridle and the fence till they were ripped up and streaming blood, till they smashed their legs or their necks to splinters, till they died of fighting to run.

Of course, she isn't really talking about horses at all.

I can't wait to read more of her books.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A winter adventure in Zion

It was time to go, so we got up and went. We packed our bags, with as much warm clothing as we could reasonably carry, flew to Las Vegas, picked up a nice new rental car (what a nice car the new Toyota Camry is!), and drove northeast on interstate 15.

About 45 minutes out of Vegas, we took a back road recommended by my wife's colleague, which took us about 15 miles off the freeway, into a Nevada State Park named Valley of Fire. After a short stop at the Visitor Center to get our bearings, we found the picnic area named Mouse's Tank, populated by the boldest little ground squirrels you could imagine, practicing their cutest poses to try to convince us to donate some of our lunch to them.

After lunch, we took a short walk to admire the Valley of Fire petroglyphs, which are nothing short of astounding.

Then we were back in the car again, and soon back on I-15, and not long after that we were through Nevada, and had sliced a corner off of Arizona, and were solidly into Utah, before we left the freeway to take Utah State Route 9 east into Zion National Park.

The days are short, this time of year, so even though we got to the park gates at about 5:45 PM, it was already pitch dark, and we crept along the park road quite slowly, peeking around every corner for deer, trying to figure out where our turn was. Zion Lodge is located most of the way up the canyon road, deep in the main canyon, enjoying a location that can stand toe-to-toe with any hotel on the planet for claim to "Most Beautiful Lodge Location".

But, as I say, it was completely dark out, and we were exhausted, so we simply checked into our room (which was wonderful: spacious and elegant), had dinner at the lodge restaurant, and collapsed into bed.

Deep in the main canyon, sunset comes early and sunrise late, particularly this time of year. But up we got, the next morning, and bravely we set out to explore Zion National Park. Lo and behold, as the sun started to crawl slowly down the western walls of the canyon toward the valley floor, we found ourselves nearly alone in a place of tremendous beauty, with nearly as many mule deer as human visitors keeping us company on our explorations.

At the very end of the canyon road, one of the most famous trails is the Riverside Walk, which leads into the section of the Virgin River canyon known as The Narrows, launching spot for those interested in the sport of Canyoneering. We could barely imagine this, for at the time we walked the trail the temperature was 34 degrees, and a steady breeze was blowing, so we were fully encased in every shred of clothing we could layer upon ourselves, but at the trail's end there were nearly a dozen people, of all ages, clad in little more than long-sleeved swimsuits, waterproof hiking boots, and gaiters, setting off confidently into the rapidly-flowing, near-freezing waters of the Virgin River, headed upstream for adventure.

We had decided to work our way, slowly, back down the main canyon, and so we did, stopping to hike the Weeping Rock trail, the Emerald Pools trail, and the Watchman trail, among others, as well as stopping along the road for half an hour or so to watch people hiking up Walter's Wiggles (as well as rock climbing the cliff face below the Angels Landing trail).

No, we didn't do the Angels Landing trail. Yes, it's true: I ruled it out from the start. Uh, here's the reason why.

By the end of our first day, we were well and thoroughly exhausted, but also extremely pleased with the day.

There's just nothing like the experience of spending an entire day in a National Park: waking up in the park, spending all day in and around the park, and then remaining in the park when all the daily visitors go home, and it's just you lucky few. And the mule deer.

Once again we woke up the next morning in complete darkness, and made our way over to the lodge for breakfast, with aching muscles yet still aching for more.

Zion National Park is fairly large, even though compared to some national parks it's not gigantic, and I was hungry to see as much of the park as I could.

So we popped into the car and drove up Kolob Terrace Road, which in barely a dozen miles took us up from the 3,500 foot river elevation to the 7,000 foot elevation of Upper Kolob Terrace.

We were well-prepared: we had brought our lunch, and, as it turns out, we had brought the right clothing, for by the time we reached the Northgate Peaks trail it was already in the low 50's, and by the time we reached trail's end it was in the low 60's. Sunny skies, perfect temperatures, no bugs, and a nearly-level 2 mile hike to an amazing canyon viewpoint: is there any better way to spend a day in the mountains?

On our way back down, we stopped at Hoodoo City and tried to follow the trail over to see the peculiar rock formations, but it was slow, sandy going, and the closer we got to the rocks, the more they seemed to fade into the distance. Our decision was made for us when we met a couple returning from the trail who told us they were pretty sure they'd heard a mountain lion growling just a few dozen yards from the trail.

So back down the hill we went, and decided to settle for a yummy dinner at the local brewpub.

All good things must come to an end, and it was time to return to civilization, so we got a good early start on our final day in the mountains and made a short stop at the third part of Zion National Park which is easily accessible: Kolob Canyons. Happily, we had just enough time to drive up to the end of the road to take in the truly remarkable views. The views from the roadside parking lot are superb; the views from the end of the Timber Creek Overlook trail are even better.

Back down I-15 to Las Vegas we went. My mother, who knows a lot about this part of the world, swears that U.S. 395 along the Eastern Sierra is the most beautiful road in the 48 states, and she's got a fine case, but I think that the stretch of I-15 from Las Vegas, Nevada to Cedar City, Utah is a serious contender, particularly on a clear winter's day when the view goes on forever (well, at least 50 miles).

It was as nice a way as one could ask to end as nice a weekend as one could hope for.

If you ever get a chance to visit Zion National Park in winter, take it.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

In the Valley of Gods

Oh boy!

Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy!!!

Campo Santo return!

Campo Santo, makers of the astonishingly great Firewatch (you know, the game with that ending), have started to reveal some of the information about their next game: In the Valley of Gods.

In the Valley of Gods is a single-player first person video game set in Egypt in the 1920s. You play as an explorer and filmmaker who, along with your old partner, has traveled to the middle of the desert in the hopes of making a seemingly-impossible discovery and an incredible film.

Here's the In the Valley of Gods "reveal trailer".

Looking forward to 2019 already!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Another milestone in computer chess

This just in from the Deep Mind team: Mastering Chess and Shogi by Self-Play with a General Reinforcement Learning Algorithm

The AlphaZero algorithm is a more generic version of the AlphaGo Zero algorithm that was first introduced in the context of Go (29). It replaces the handcrafted knowledge and domain-specific augmentations used in traditional game-playing programs with deep neural networks and a tabula rasa reinforcement learning algorithm.

...

AlphaZero convincingly defeated all opponents, losing zero games to Stockfish and eight games to Elmo (see Supplementary Material for several example games), as well as defeating the previous version of AlphaGo Zero.

...

we analysed the chess knowledge discovered by AlphaZero. Table 2 analyses the most common human openings (those played more than 100,000 times in an online database of human chess games (1)). Each of these openings is independently discovered and played frequently by AlphaZero during self-play training. When starting from each human opening, AlphaZero convincingly defeated Stockfish, suggesting that it has indeed mastered a wide spectrum of chess play.

As for myself, I seem to hang pieces more frequently than I did a decade ago.

But I still love chess.

And, in that part of the world not (yet) inhabited solely by deep neural networks, That Norwegian Genius is going to play again, in London, next November: London Will Host FIDE World Chess Championship Match 2018.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Fallout 4: a very short review

Fallout 4 is pretty much centered in the sweet spot of Computer Games For Bryan:

  • It's a single-player, open-world RPG
  • With an absolutely enormous world to explore
  • Hundreds of different locations
  • Dozens of quests
  • Hundreds of NPC characters with stories and interaction
  • In a fascinating, kinda-sorta-but-not-really believable post-apocalyptic universe (Boston after the nuclear war)

So it's no surprise that it's consumed most of my game-playing time over the last six months, closing in on 75 hours of game play (I don't get all that much time to play computer games, nowadays).

It's pretty much unavoidable, for me at least, to compare Fallout 4 against The Witcher 3, and unfortunately Fallout 4 doesn't fare so well:

  • The Witcher 3 was nearly flawless, nearly bug-free, while Fallout 4 is, frankly, riddled with bugs, even if most of them are trivial and just annoying (graphic glitches, crafting disasters, audio fails, quests that get "stuck", etc.)
  • Fallout 4 is beautiful, in its stylized way, but The Witcher 3 is STUNNING.
  • The quests in Fallout 4 are fun, and the characters have interesting stories, and it's enjoyable to chase through them and find out where they go (I'm talking about you, Nick Valentine), but the quests in The Witcher 3 are heart-breaking and captivating, so much so that making the wrong choice in The Witcher 3 is something you'll think about for years afterwards

So why do I keep coming back to Fallout 4? Why haven't I moved on?

Well, I think this fun article on the Comicsverse site goes a long way to explaining what it is about Fallout 4 that gives it true staying power: 10 Ways FALLOUT 4 Will Make You Question Your Existence

Two years, and it’s still one of the most played games out there. That’s simply because FALLOUT 4 has so much to offer, way more than you’d expect from a video game. I firmly believe that this game can make people question themselves. I say this because two years later I still think about the impact it’s had on me.

Countless parts of FALLOUT 4 stand out and make it one of the greatest games released in the past few years. Several parts of this game have made me think differently about what it means to be alive. Here are ten ways FALLOUT 4 will make you question your existence

The Stockholm Octavo: a very short review

Karen Engelmann's The Stockholm Octavo is a curious nugget.

  • Is it historical fiction?
  • Is it a fantasy?
  • Is it a mystery?
  • Is it a novel of political intrigue?
  • Is it a rags-to-riches novel?
  • Is it a feminist novel? An anti-feminist novel?

Well, yes, yes, yes to all of the above. It's rather a little bit of everything.

But, somewhat like going to the casino buffet and wishing they'd spent a little bit more time making the chicken good instead of providing chicken, beef, lamb, pork, and turkey, The Stockholm Octavo tries to accomplish a lot, perhaps rather more than one ought to attempt in a single book.

Still, it's extremely enjoyable, and you certainly will never have thought so much about the role of ladies's fans in elegant society as you will when reading it.

You might consider pairing it with A Place of Greater Safety for your what-was-the-experience-like-for-people-in-Europe-during-the-French-Revolution double-header.

If you do happen to read The Stockholm Octavo, drop me a line; tell me what you think!