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Jul 12 / Great Apes

What I Learned In My Week Without Twitter

Some people take Twitter breaks because they feel like some element of the service is toxic for them.  That’s not the case for me.  I like Twitter a lot (as you can probably tell if you look at how many tweets I’ve made).  I’ve met cool people through Twitter (like, real life meeting, not “we exchanged a few tweets where we bonded over agreeing how awful the Mars Volta are”), I’ve learned a lot from people on Twitter, I’ve laughed a lot, I’ve found tons of cool things to read or listen to or play, and so forth.

Nevertheless, I decided to take a week away from Twitter.  Why?  Because – to put it as melodramatically as possible – I was starting to wonder how Twitter was affecting my mind.  We are all deeply affected by our environment, and the technology we use is a part of that.

People often object to the idea that we’re shaped by our environment by arguing that people are rational and know what they’re doing.  For example, when the issue of whether people are influenced by video games comes up, people will argue that only an idiot doesn’t know fantasy from reality, and so of course video games don’t influence people.  And in the big picture – the “does playing Grand Theft Auto turn players into violent sociopaths?” picture – I agree, people aren’t influenced by video games.  But that’s a very narrow idea about what “influence” means.  [As an aside: No one ever seems to question studies showing that video games can positively influence players.  Funny, that.]

Let me give you a simple example using a different technology: e-books.  I do most of my fiction reading on a tablet these days.  One of the cool features of e-readers is that if you select a word in the text, a dictionary will pop-up with that word’s definition displayed.  Cool!  But something weird has happened as I’ve spent more time reading on my tablet.  Sometimes when I’m reading a paper book and come across a word I don’t recognise, my brain will briefly be struck with the idea that I should press my finger to the page to find out what the word means.  Now, I’ve never actually pressed on a paper page and been surprised that a dictionary didn’t come up, but the seed of the thought is there.  Reading on an e-reader has affected how my brain works; it has influenced me. read more…

Apr 30 / Great Apes

Outrage, Kindness, and the Benefit of the Doubt

On Twitter we are often misunderstood to be an extreme stereotype of whatever view we’re expressing.  A person who says Corsi is one useful way to evaluate hockey players gets painted as someone who views Corsi as the only useful way to evaluate hockey players.  A person who wants to cut funding for one particular government program that they think is wasteful gets painted as someone who wants to replace the government with corporations.  A person who thinks a particular police officer should be held accountable for killing an unarmed, fleeing suspect gets painted as someone who thinks all police officers are bad people.  And on it goes.

I say “on Twitter” but I suppose I really mean “on the Internet.”  I don’t know why this is.  I can’t remember any instance of this kind of thing happening to me in an offline conversation, but for whatever reason it seems to be a common behaviour in any kind of online community – if someone says something you don’t agree with, they become a representative of the most extreme version of whatever argument they’re making.

This makes it easy to ignore and/or attack the person you disagree with.  “What an idiot who holds these extreme and sinisterly-motivated views that I, the rational person, must tear down!”  The problem with that attitude is that you’re very rarely criticising something the other person actually believes. read more…

Feb 18 / Great Apes

Fixing People

In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande tells the story of Bill Thomas, a doctor in a nursing home who comes up with an unusual idea to improve the lifeless atmosphere in the building.  He convinces the nursing home’s director and state authorities to purchase two dogs, four cats, and a hundred birds to keep the residents company.  The animals are at the centre of his plan to help the residents feel more lively and involved in their own lives.  He makes some other changes to the nursing home as well, such as replacing a big lawn on the premises with a vegetable garden that the residents can tend to.  Two years later, these were the results:

[Researchers compared] a variety of measure’s for Chase’s residents with those of residents at another nursing home nearby.  Their study found that the number of prescriptions required per resident fell to half that of the control nursing home.  Psychotropic drugs for agitation, like Haldol, decreased in particular.  The total drug costs fell to just 38 percent of the comparison facility.  Deaths fell 15 percent.

You may be tempted to think that the key takeaways here are the decrease in deaths and the incredible cost savings.  But I think there’s another very important story here.

read more…

Jan 10 / Great Apes

Games of 2014

Last year I gave every game a rating on a 10 point scale, similarly to how many gaming sites do.  But I tried an experiment: while most sites refuse to give games a rating lower than 7, resulting in most games bunching up between 7.0 and 8.5, I took 5/10 as the rating for an average game and meted out higher scores sparingly.  Here’s a more detailed description:

I’ve started by treating an average game – that is, one that I enjoyed but didn’t stand out in any way – as a 5 out of 10.  Good games would be 6s.  Very good would be 7s.  9s would be rare and 10s would be reserved for only the greatest of experiences.  Conversely, 4s would be games that were OK, 3s would be games I disliked, 2s would have major flaws, and 1s or zeroes would be virtually unplayable.  Using this system, I came up with 6 games that seemed to fit in a list of “best of the year”, and I describe those games below.  After discussing those 6 games I’ll post a list of all of the games I played in 2013 and how I would rate them.  Assuming that I’ve been honest, the average should come out pretty close to 5 (possibly a bit higher since I tend to play games I know I’m more likely to enjoy).

The resulting average was 5.25, pretty close to my goal.  I’ve rated all the games I played this year on a similar scale, though I’ve come out with a slightly higher 5.8 average.  There were actually fewer good games this year, but I did a better job of steering clear of games I really disliked.  This year there’s only one game below 5; last year I gave out two 1s.

Last year I wrote more detailed reviews for every game I gave a 7 or higher.  This year that’s only four games, so I’m expanding my criteria a bit this year and giving brief reviews to everything that got a 6 or higher.  In general it was kind of a disappointing year for games, with nothing beyond the top two or three really standing out.  But first, I’m going to start with a brief talk about a game that missed the cut.

read more…

Dec 30 / Great Apes

Music of 2014

I usually write quite a few words in my end-of-year recaps, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that most music criticism is essentially meaningless.  I have things that I want to say about these albums, but they would mostly be about my relationship with the music, not the music itself, and we both know that you’re probably either here because:

  • you want to see if any of your favourite albums are on my list; or
  • you want to find new music to listen to

So I’m not going to do write-ups for these records.  Instead I’ll just link a song that I think you should check out (or a music video if one exists).

read more…

Dec 15 / Great Apes

Books Of 2014

Inspired by my pal Michael I’ve decided to do a brief review of every book I read this year.  Hopefully you’ll find it interesting, maybe discover a couple of new books.  If nothing else, it’ll be interesting for me to organise a year’s worth of reading habits in one place.

A few observations first:

This year was the first time in a while that I’ve read a significant volume of fiction.  This list includes 14 fiction and 7 non-fiction titles, which is more of the former than I would have guessed, but much less of the latter.

Another major shift for me has been the move to e-books.  I read only one paper/printed book this year, and it was given to me as a gift.  My own book purchasing habits have moved almost entirely to e-books.

And of course, this year my own debut novel The Disillusioners was published, which I read multiple times throughout the editing process.

read more…

Nov 11 / Great Apes

Gavril Ivolgin

This is one of my favourite passages in any novel.  It comes from the beginning of Part IV in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  I have long felt a kindred of Gavril Ivolgin (called by the nickname “Gania” in this passage).

read more…

Nov 2 / Great Apes

Why Civilization IV Is One Of The Best Games Ever

A little over a week ago, Beyond Earth, the latest instalment in the Civilization series of video games, was released.  It’s built on the engine of Civ V, and I’ve seen many people complain that it doesn’t stand up to the excellence of Civ V.  I always find these kinds of comments interesting because, while Civ V is a good enough game, for me it pales in comparison to its predeccesor, Civ IV, which I consider to be among the top few games ever released.

Why is Civ IV a better game?  Because it offers more strategic complexity.  Sid Meier, the creator of the original Civilization game, is known for saying that a game is “a series of interesting decisions.”  Civilization IV is constantly providing the player with interesting decisions, while Civ V  isn’t.  [Note that this post probably won’t make much sense unless you’ve played at least one of these games, and ideally both of them.  Additional note: I’m going to be comparing the original Civilization IV (prior to any of its expansions) and Civ V after both of its expansions, which most players agree improves the experience.]

read more…

Oct 16 / Great Apes

A Quick Thought On Growing Up With The Internet

This post is about the ridiculous furore about the gaming press lately, but only tangentially, so stick with me if you’re not really interested in gaming.

So one of the primary complaints about “ethics” in games journalism that I see is that sites aren’t responding to things they disagree with.  One of the most frequent complaints I hear about Anita Sarkeesian in particular is that she refuses to respond to particular criticisms that some people have of her work.  There seems to be this real feeling among some of her critics – and critics of the gaming press more widely – that any concern that is voiced requires a response.  That anyone who raises any issue is entitled to have that issue replied to directly by whoever they are complaining about (whether it’s Anita, or the editorial staff of a gaming web site, or whatever).

I suspect it goes without saying that I think that attitude is nonsense.  But what I’m wondering is whether it’s an attitude primarily held by people who have grown up with the Internet.  The people who are most angrily strident about these issues certainly do seem to be young people.

These are people who have, for most of their lives, felt connected to their sources of information in a way that older generations didn’t.  If you grew up in the 1980s, for example, there was no real way to connect to TV personalities.  Newspapers and magazines accepted letters to the editor, but only a few of them were printed and virtually none were ever responded to directly.

But for people who are in their late teens or early 20s now, there’s a sense of connectedness with public figures.  If you post on Twitter, there’s no real distinguishing characteristic between regular users and public figures, aside perhaps from the Verified checkmark.  Everyone’s mentions go into the same column, everyone’s tweets appear side-by-side in the timeline.  Many writers for large newspapers or magazines even respond directly to questions, comments, or discussions.  I’ve personally exchanged tweets with major media figures from a number of outlets in both Canada and the U.S., which would have been unthinkable when I was in high school or university.  The gap between “readers” and “writers” has collapsed to a large degree.  You can extend this out to comment sections too.

Basically, many people who’ve grown up with the Internet have frequently been told that their voices are important, and content distribution networks are now often designed with this idea in mind.  So what I’m wondering is whether this feeling of immediacy, of being connected to public figures and having forums to contribute (in)directly to media, has lead a lot of young people to believe that not only is it their right to be heard, but to be responded to.  Is part of the attitude toward Anita, and Gamasutra, and so forth, a result of the ways that young people have learned to connect through media?

I don’t have a real answer to that, or any major conclusions to draw, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.  And this obviously wasn’t all going to fit in a tweet, one that could fit in on your Twitter feed right beside the latest story from the NY Times.

Jun 29 / Great Apes

Quick Thought On Reimer

The deadline for NHL teams to tender qualifying offers to their restricted free agents is 5 pm tomorrow.  One of the Leafs’ RFAs is James Reimer.  I think there is a real possibility that the Leafs will not tender a QO to James Reimer.  I’m not saying that they definitely won’t, only that it’s something they may be considering.  Here’s why:

As per section 10.2 (ii) (C) of the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (PDF):

if the Player’s prior year’s Paragraph 1 NHL Salary is equal to or greater than $1,000,000 for that League year, 100% of the prior year’s Paragraph 1 NHL Salary.

For Reimer, that means his qualifying offer will be for $1.6 million.  The team could try to talk him down from that number after tendering the QO, but he has arbitration rights, which I would have to imagine he is very likely to use.  The one reason he might not file for arbitration is that it would prevent the Leafs from trading him until such time as he signed a contract or arbitration was concluded, but I think given his relationship with the team and his complete lack of leverage otherwise, he’ll probably file for arbitration.  I believe an arbitrator would award Reimer more than $1.6M, but it’s unclear exactly how much.

It’s also worth noting that Brendan Shanahan has said that the team has reached out to Martin Brodeur about signing with the Leafs.  So it’s clear that the Leafs are actively trying to recruit a backup goalie for Jonathan Bernier.  Are they willing to put themselves in a situation where James Reimer could either accept their QO outright or force salary arbitration while they try to recruit Martin Brodeur, effectively either blocking their ability to sign someone like Brodeur or forcing them to play Reimer in the minors and have part of his cap hit on the books anyway?  That’s probably not the situation they want.

One other detail here that’s relevant is that James Reimer will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.  If the Leafs don’t intend to play him this year (because they sign Brodeur, for example), they will not have the opportunity to trade him next year.  If he’s not tradeable now (or in the middle of the season), then the team will be losing him for nothing next summer anyway.  So the incentive to keep him around if you already have a plan to replace him is low.

None of this is to say that the Leafs definitely will not give Reimer a qualifying offer.  But if they’re intent on moving on (and they seem to be, if they’re trying to recruit Brodeur), then I think it’s plausible that they’ll relinquish their RFA rights to sign James Reimer and let him become a UFA instead.