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Jan 2 / Great Apes

Books of 2016

I’ve already posted lists for my favourite games and albums released in 2016.  I don’t keep up with new book releases well enough to do a list of my favourite books released in the past year, but I do read about as many books as games I play or albums I listen to each year, so I like to do a year end round-up of what I’ve been reading around the same time I do my game and record lists.

For the previous couple of years I’ve done mini-reviews of every book I read, but it feels kind of tedious to write a few dozen reviews, and anyway I doubt more than a few people bother to read them all anyway.  So this year I’ve decided just to list the 10 most compelling things I read in 2016, with no distinction between fiction and non-fiction.  I hope you can find something you’ll enjoy.  (The list is arranged alphabetically.)

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Dec 27 / Great Apes

Music of 2016

I gave up a while ago on trying to explain what it is that I like about the music that I like.  I can tell you what lyrics I enjoy, or where to find a great guitar riff, but I don’t know how to describe music except to say that it’s good.  I’m reminded of something Ursula LeGuin wrote:

“The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.”

These 15 albums say a lot of things with music that can not be said with words.  I’ve embedded one song worth checking out from each album, though the ones on Bandcamp can be listened to in their entirety if you click through.  Hope you enjoy some of them.
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Dec 26 / Great Apes

Games of 2016

2016 was one of the best years for gaming that I can remember.  There were surprising indie success stories and big budget sequels that really delivered.  There were great strategy and sports games, fantastic RPGs, and, uh, whatever Stardew Valley is.

I’ve listed the 10 best games that I played this year, but there are a bunch I haven’t even gotten to that look or sound like they’re probably a lot of fun; Final Fantasy 15 is downloading on my Playstation 4 as I type this all up.

The one exception to this list is that I haven’t included any sports games because I find it hard to figure out how to rank an annual iteration of an essentially completed game.  Is this year’s version of NHL or Madden a “new” game if most of the code is recycled from previous editions?  If I did include sports games, FIFA 17 would definitely be on this list.  It’s probably the game I sunk the most hours into this year, and I’ve had a lot of fun with the standard career mode, as well as the really well-executed story mode called The Journey.

Anyway, here are some cool games.
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Aug 23 / Great Apes

The Joy of Discovery

I’m part of the first generation that really grew up with video games, I think.  I got an NES for Christmas when I was five years old, not too long after I first played Super Mario Bros. at a friend’s birthday party, so video games have been part of my life nearly as far back as my memories go.  I’ve owned something like a dozen consoles and handhelds over the past few decades, not to mention hundreds of games, so it’s easy to say that games have played a fairly central role in my life.

Among the hundreds of games that I’ve played, there are a handful – maybe 10, maybe 15 – that stand out in my mind because of a particular kind of impact they had on me.  These aren’t necessarily my favourite games.  What they are is games that provided me with an experience that felt really new and unique and powerful.  They’re games that have stuck with me primarily because there was an incredible feeling of discovery that went along with playing them, especially the very first time I picked up a controller and spent some time with them.
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Mar 21 / Great Apes

Reflections On Mythbusters

Mythbusters aired its final episode recently.  That seems to mark a good time to talk about why it was such a great show.

As I was watching the final episode of Mythbusters, I noticed that it hit me kind of hard.  That seemed weird to me.  Other shows I’ve really enjoyed have aired their final episodes in recent years (30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, for example), but I haven’t had much of an emotional reaction to their finales.  I think the main reason my reaction was different this time is that Mythbusters starred real people.  When a sitcom goes off the air, you’re not saying goodbye to Tina Fey or Amy Poehler, you’re saying goodbye to some fictional character who doesn’t exist outside the space of that show.  Those characters were always gone, in a sense, every time the show ended.

But the Mythbusters were real people, and because the show was on air for so long (13 years), viewers got to watch them age in something approaching real time.  Now that the show’s gone, we’re not saying goodbye to characters so much as we’ve witnessed the ending of a long chapter in the lives of real people.  Obviously I don’t actually know any of them on any meaningful level, but for some reason it still feels like leaving friends behind when you changed jobs or move to a new city or anything like that.  And because the people are real, the time they’ve given feels more real too.  They’re all 13 years older now than when the show debuted.  So am I.  And 13 years is a lot of your life to say goodbye to.

What made Mythbusters so good?  Part of the appeal was that it was a show about nerds; and I mean that it was really about them.  The Big Bang Theory gets talked about as a sign of the mainstreaming of nerd-dom, but it’s not really a show about nerds at all.  What it is is a show about laughing at stereotypes about nerds.  Mythbusters, on the other hand, wasn’t using the nerdiness of its hosts as a set-up to laugh at them, but as a cool thing to aspire to.  The Mythbusters were weird and quirky and smart and awesome.

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Mar 11 / Great Apes

The Social Cost Of Getting An Education

When I was growing up, the importance of getting a university education was strongly impressed upon me.  This wasn’t a family thing – I was, as far as I know, the first person in my family on either my mother or father’s side to get a degree.  But I was told, by family, educators, and the media that if I wanted to get a good job when I grew up, I should go to university.  At any rate, I finished high school with no real desire to do the kind of work that was available to me, so off to university I went.

It wound up being simpler and less expensive to move to the city I was attending school in rather than commuting, so that’s what I did.  After I finished my undergraduate degree, I decided I wanted to go to grad school, so I moved again.  After I finished my MA, my girlfriend at the time (who I’m still with) was about to start her PhD in another city, so I moved there with her.  I wasn’t getting very good work opportunities there, so I moved once more, to Ottawa, where I still reside a few years later.

While I got one more degree than many people do, I suspect my story sounds somewhat familiar to most people who have gone to university, and especially to anyone who has done graduate work.  You move around, get settled, then move around some more.  Hopefully at some point you find a place you can actually stay, or you just get tired of packing your stuff up and decide you’re sticking around whether the city is working or not.  Not only is this story pretty common, it’s what you’re told to expect.  If you can’t find work in one place, you’re supposed to go find work somewhere else.

People often talk about the career sacrifices they make for family; how they got offered a great job somewhere other than where they currently were, and how they held back their career because it didn’t work for the other member(s) of their family.  But we don’t really talk about a much more common trade-off, which is that we sacrifice our friendships and our social networks to advance our careers. read more…

Dec 27 / Great Apes

Games of 2015

This is my 3rd (and final) look back on media I enjoyed this year, after music and books.  There are probably games released in 2015 that you liked that I didn’t include in my list.  Here’s the reason:

1. The game is Undertale – I haven’t played it yet.

2. The game is not Undertale – I played it and it was terrible. Or I didn’t know it existed. Or I’m waiting for it to go on sale. Or you just made the name of a game up to test my hipster cred and now you look mighty foolish, don’t you?

Last year there were 7 games that I liked best.  Coincidentally, there are 7 this year too.  Or maybe it’s not a coincidence and this is some Book of Revelations thing. At least we’ve got a rapture to look forward to.

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Dec 21 / Great Apes

Books of 2015

Below you’ll find brief reviews of every book that I read in 2015.  I included anything that I read at least half of, so a number of things that I picked up and quickly decided not to read are not included on this list.

Like last year, I’m dividing the list into separate categories for fiction and non-fiction.  I’ve also added a new division where each category is separated out into sub-lists of books I enjoyed vs those I didn’t.

And now . . . books!

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Dec 14 / Great Apes

Music of 2015

I used to do write-ups about my favourite records from each year, but I’ve become convinced that trying to capture the joy of a song with words borders on impossible.  I, at the very least, am not good at it.  And at any rate, I suspect most people don’t really care about my personal connection to a song or an artist or whatever, so I’ve just cut that out entirely.  Instead, I’ve compiled a list of the 16 best records I heard that were released in 2015, and I’ve included a song that you should check out if you’re not familiar with the album in question.

I was originally going to list a top 15, but there were 16 albums I wanted to include, so here they are.

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Nov 16 / Great Apes

What Does Defeating ISIS Actually Mean?

In the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris this weekend, there has been a renewal of calls to defeat ISIS.  Take, for example, this New York Times op-ed:

The only adequate measure, after the killing of at least 129 people in Paris, is military, and the only objective commensurate with the ongoing threat is the crushing of ISIS and the elimination of its stronghold in Syria and Iraq.

One big problem with these kinds of calls to action is that it’s never entirely clear what it would mean to “defeat” ISIS.  This is not a trivial question.

Most peoples’ ideas of war are based on historical conflicts like World War 2.  It’s relatively clear how you win a conflict like that: you roll back the Nazi front and force Germany to surrender.  For inter-state conflicts resulting in one state invading the territory of another, this is a good and workable model.

The problem is that it’s not a model that can be applied to a conflict with non-state groups.  ISIS isn’t the government of a state, it’s not really an army, and it can’t surrender (even if leadership surrendered, it’s doubtful that all of their followers would concede with them).  So the inter-state model of conflict resolution doesn’t hold.

So if ISIS can’t be defeated in the way a nation-state could be, that leads to the question of what, exactly defeating them would mean.  Let’s look at a few possibilities.

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