Top 10 Albums of 2013

2013 was an amazing year for music.  I had a total of 16 albums I considered good enough to be on this list, which is 6 more than I had last year.  The albums that just missed the cut were Deafheaven’s heavy slowcore Sunbather, Sigur Rós’s Kveikur (their best album in years), Daft Punk’s hit machine Random Access Memories, Mikal Cronin’s hooky MCII, Paul McCartney’s surprisingly great new album New, and Mark Kozelek & Desertshore’s melancholy collaboration album.  And the drop off from there was not steep, with albums I really liked from Atoms For Peace, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The National, and many many more staying in regular rotation.

On the other hand, it was also a slightly disappointing year.  Three of my favorite artists, The Knife, Thom Yorke (Atoms For Peace), and The Flaming Lips all released albums that I liked and still listen to, but couldn’t quite love.   But all the new music more than made up for those slight missteps.   Four of my top 10 albums are from brand new artists, which bodes really well for the future. 

On with the list!

10. AlunaGeorge – Body Music

imageAlunaGeorge joins the growing list of female fronted UK pop acts making really interesting music (see also: Jessie Ware, Katy B, Lily Allen, Adele).  Aluna Francis and George Reid are as mismatched a pair as you are likely to see on stage together: Francis, the stylish black pop star, and Reid, the nerdy white computer geek.  But Reid’s beats and Francis’ songs combine to make a compelling and irresistibly danceable pop album on Body Music.

Best Track: Your Drums, Your Love (Spotify, YouTube)

9. Kanye West – Yeezus

imageThe sonics on Yeezus are an aggressive, clashing swirl.  The rapping is by turn challenging, crude, confrontational, offensive, and ridiculous.  There are a lot of incredible moments on this album: the awesome beats of Black Skinhead, the hypnotic screaming on I Am A God, the kick-ass bass line on New Slaves.  It’s a unique listening experience, and the creativity on display outweighs the sometimes distressing lyrics for me most of the time.

Best Track: Black Skinhead (Spotify, YouTube)

8. Janelle Monáe - The Electric Lady

imageThe Electric Lady is Janelle Monáe’s third release in her series of (very high!) concept albums about android-with-a-soul Cindi Mayweather.  Wait, what?  Yep, somehow this nerd who named her first EP after the classic 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis, is also an exciting musician dabbling in soul, funk, pop, R&B, and even classical.  She may even have a few dance moves as well.  The Electric Lady may be high concept, but Monáe never loses sight of the music.

Best Track: Q.U.E.E.N. (Spotify, YouTube)

7. Speedy Ortiz - Major Arcana

imageI am a child of the 90s.  Nevermind hit as I was entering 8th grade, and my affection for the music of the era is lasting and profound.  So here comes Speedy Ortiz, time travelers from 1993, channeling The Breeders, Nirvana, Pavement, Weezer, and more.  Guess what?  Loud-soft-loud is still a winning formula!  Major Arcana is full of great songs dressed up in fuzz and atonal guitar riffs, with fantastic digressions and frills throughout.  Sadie Dupuis is great as frontwoman, and her slightly warbly vocals match perfectly with the band’s driving guitar work.

Best Track: Tiger Tank (Spotify, YouTube)

6. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

imageArcade Fire flout their pretentiousness as a badge of honor, but don’t tell Win Butler he’s a dork.  He’s a fucking rock star!  Despite all the noise and pomp that surrounds them, Butler and wife Régine Chassagne remain indie rock’s most accomplished and creative couple.  They keep making great music, pulling in new styles, and staying fresh.  Reflektor doesn’t sound a lot like their previous work, but it maintains the same intensity and focus.  If they didn’t back up their posturing with such great music, it would be easy to dismiss them, but luckily for them (and us) they do.

Best Track: Reflektor (Spotify, YouTube)

5. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

imageVampire Weekend may be the quintessential indie pop band, but Modern Vampires of the City finally graduates them from “interesting” to “awesome” in my book.  The songs are less scattershot than their previous work, with gorgeous instrumentation and enough creativity for several albums.  Ezra Koenig’s voice is better than ever, and the band’s experiments work really really well this time around (harpsichord on Step, poetic digressions on Finger Back and Ya Hey, wild synth on Hudson).

Best Track: Step (Spotify, YouTube)

4. Arctic Monkeys - AM

imageAM is Arctic Monkey’s best album since Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, and may be their best period, depending on your preference for post-punk or danceable classic rock grooves.  Every song is just so smooth and effortless.  The beats are fantastic, the tunes are great, and Alex Turner’s suave vocals pull it all together.  This is a muscular, classic rock album with echoes of the 70s brought into the modern era.

Best Track: Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High (Spotify, YouTube)

3. CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe

imageSynth-pop is back!  Except this time it’s actually good!  And from Glasgow!  The Bones of What You Believe is a super fun album.  Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook, and Martin Doherty rock out with some awesome synth-pop soundscapes featuring distorted synths, strong beats, great melodies, and a fantastic mix of vocals from Mayberry and her bandmates.

Best Track: The Mother We Share (Spotify, YouTube)

2. Queens of the Stone Age - …Like Clockwork

imageWith …Like Clockwork, Josh Homme delivers a kinder, gentler Queens of the Stone Age.  This new QotSA is no slouch, though.  The songs are just flat out great.  The guitars rock and wail when they need to, and Homme’s vocals are as strong as ever.  The slightly slower pace really suits his style, while the ocassional bit of piano, tambourine, or guest vocal really livens up the music.  Homme’s guitar distortion effects are absolutely awesome.  He always seems to know just what flavor of guitar a song needs and delivers it with ease.

Best Track: Smooth Sailing (Spotify, YouTube)

1. Savages - Silence Yourself

imageWow, what a debut.  Seemingly birthed fully formed like Athena, Savages are a new all-female four piece that rock harder and more intensely than any other album this year.  Jehnny Beth’s vocals alternately wail and growl with supreme confidence, while Gemma Thompson’s guitar work pounds, grinds, and screeches its way through vicious riffs.  Ayse Hassan’s bass and Fay Milton’s drums are front and center, driving each track along.  I can’t wait to see what comes next from these women.  Savage’s Silence Yourself is my Album of the Year for 2013.

Best Track: Husbands (Spotify, YouTube)

Shadowrun Returns

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Shadowrun Returns is a classic example of a game for “fans of the genre”.  It doesn’t have the budget to blow you away, but its solid implementation of gameplay systems and cool setting are more than enough to make for a very enjoyable experience.  

The game’s story follows a single character, a “shadowrunner” that you create from scratch.  During character creation, you choose one of six starting archetypes: a mage, street samurai, decker (hacker), shaman, rigger (drone combat), or physical adept (magic & martial arts).  These archetypes give your character an initial boost in a certain direction, but don’t lock you out of any other path if you should change your mind afterwards.  After a certain point, it won’t make sense to be dropping points into lots of different upgrade paths anymore, but there are enough upgrades to spend some time early in the game trying out the different paths.  Once you do decide, you’ll want to stick with it since there’s no re-spec option that I saw while playing the game.

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In retrospect, this may be why the game starts out a bit too easy.  I didn’t spend much time messing around in different upgrade paths, so almost all my points were going towards Rifle and Decking competencies.  Perhaps because of this, the first half of the game wasn’t very challenging at all.  In fact, about 5 or 6 hours into the game, the initial storyline seems to come to a conclusion.  Unsure how long the game was, I was ready to be a bit disappointed.  Fortunately, this turned out to be a false ending, merely the halfway point in the game.  From there on, combat got a bit tougher and more strategic and the game wrapped up really well.

Before going into combat, you’ll have the chance to hire your team.  You have a fixed group of runners of all types to choose from, although this list grows over the course of the game.  A couple times I forgot to save money for my team, and spent all my cash on weapons and armor for myself.  I ended up taking on one optional mission totally solo, and barely escaped with my life.  

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Choosing your team is very important.  Another time I picked a team that worked really poorly together and got wiped out on one of the late-game areas.  Luckily, there is a “Rewind” feature that lets you reload your save to any previous checkpoint, even if you didn’t make a distinct save.  I chose my new team more carefully and smashed through the previously difficult mission.

Combat works similarly to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, although it’s not quite as polished as that game.  Cover doesn’t seem to have a huge impact on hit percentages in Shadowrun Returns, and some actions seem to take one more click than should be necessary.  But the variety of powers for the different types of characters is fun, and there are plenty of opportunities to play with different strategies.

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The game’s story itself is fine, but some of the characters you meet over the course of the game are even better.  Visually, the game has a very nice, clean 2D art style.  I played the game on PC, but I can imagine it probably works just as well on iPad or Android tablets, where it is also available.

By the time it was over, I quite liked Shadowrun Returns.  If you enjoy a good turn-based strategy game with a bit of map exploration, dialogue trees, and a wide variety of character progression, I can definitely recommend it.

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The Discoverers

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The Discoverers is a fantastic book, the story of those brave men and women who brought us, step by step, to our modern world.  The book is split into four sections, each fascinating in its own way: Time; The Earth and the Seas; Nature; and Society.

The first section of the book goes further back into ancient history than any other, describing the development of calendars and primitive time keeping devices in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and other cultures.  It culminates with one of the most important inventions in human history, the mechanical clock.  The origins of this invention are unfortunately lost to us.  Somewhere in Europe, sometime around the end of the 13th century, an unknown mechanical genius (probably a monk) invented the escapement, the key component of the clock.  This invention, the “mother of machines”, was humanity’s first step on the journey to the modern era.

The Discoverers’ section on time goes on to describe many other innovations and advancements in clock-making, including a very interesting story about the development of an advanced astronomical water clock in China by Su Song around 1088.  Unfortunately, instead of sparking a mechanical revolution in China, this clock remained restricted to only a few of the Emperor’s court astronomers, and was later dismantled after an invasion of the capital where it was housed.  Incomplete plans left by Su Song prevented other Chinese artisans from rebuilding the clock tower, and eventually this knowledge was lost altogether.  This story is representative of many in the book – it is only by accidents of history or culture that certain discoveries were able to occur when they did.

The Discoverers gets even better in its second section.  This part of the book describes the history of geographical discovery.  It starts with Ptolemy, whose Geography remained the premier work in the field for well over a thousand years.  Unfortunately, for much of that time it was lost to Latin Europe after the sack of Rome and fall of the Western Roman empire.  How amazing it must have been for medieval scholars receiving new texts from the East to discover that ancients who lived 1000 years or more ago had so much knowledge that had been lost!

Boorstin tells so many different interesting stories in this section.  Just a few of these: the relentless step-by-step exploration of the west African coast by Prince Henry the Navigator’s sailors; the amazing travels of the young Marco Polo; the journey of Friar William of Rubruck to the court of the Great Khan; Christopher Columbus’ mastery of the winds and his discovery of the very best possible passages west to the Bahamas and back East to Europe on his very first attempt; Magellan’s resiliency through the ridiculously complex Strait now named for him; Captain Cook’s leadership and skill in exploration.

The third section of The Discoverers charts the discovery of Nature.  Here the book moves to the more personal stories of individual discoverers.  Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Linnaeus, and Darwin are just a few of most recognizable personalities we see in this section.  But many important discoveries were made by those whose names are no longer common knowledge, and the book goes into wonderful detail on many of these: Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, Hooke’s microscopic illustrations, Vesalius’ systematic analysis of human anatomy, Harvey’s theory of blood circulation, Malpighi’s discovery of the capillaries, Comte de Buffon’s conjectures on the age of the earth, Tyson’s dissections, and many more.  Boorstin tells these stories with great detail and humor, describing the discoverers’ lives, backgrounds, and motivations.

The book’s final section covers the development of writing, the book, the printing press, and libraries.  As usual, Boorstin shows he knows how to tell a story.  There are a few great what-ifs here.  How different would the world be if the Asian languages had been more suited to movable type?  What if William Caxton hadn’t introduced the printing press into England using the regional dialect of English in the works he printed?  England might have spoken some version of French!  What if Muslims hadn’t refused on religious grounds to use the printing press?

This section also describes the discovery of history and the past.  At many times in many cultures, there was no concept of history as “events that actually happened”.  For much of Europe’s Middle Ages, Christian doctrine ruled over actual history.  Much of what had been known was lost.  Then at the opening of the Renaissance the slow rediscovery began, with major contributions going forward from Petrarch, Valla, Biondo, Schliemann, and others.

The book ends with stories of discovery in some of the more modern sciences: economics, statistics, and physics.  Adam Smith, Keynes, Quetelet, Dalton, Faraday, Maxwell, and Einstein all make appearances here.

Throughout the book, Boorstin consistently delivers information with a fantastic style and a sly sense of humor.  He will occasionally dish out funny but devastating critiques of certain works.  Such a work may be “of doubtful originality, little merit, and great popularity”.  He is also incredibly thorough and wide reaching in his content.  The one criticism I have with the book is its focus on Western discovery.  While there are several sections dedicated to developments in China and the Islamic world, I would have liked to have heard more about Indian mathematicians, medieval Islamic astronomy, the discoveries of Mayan and Aztec cultures, and so on.  But even with its Western focus, The Discoverers is still a fascinating and, I would say, essential book.  I wish every high-schooler would read this book.  As Einstein said, “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”  This book shines a great light on how that comprehensibility came to be.

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The Swapper

The Swapper is a PC indie game in which you play a nameless astronaut exploring a derelict space station in 2D.  As more and more of the station is uncovered, the mystery of who you are and how you came to be on the station is slowly revealed.  Early on, the astronaut receives a device known as “the swapper”.  Progression through the game involves a series of brain-teasing puzzles in which you must create duplicate copies of yourself, swap your consciousness into those copies, and then eventually leave them to die as you progress.  These puzzles are extremely fun to play with and decipher, and this metaphysical mechanic ends up having definite repercussions in the story.

But the first thing you’ll notice about The Swapper are the incredible visuals.  The striking aesthetic permeates the entire game, and greatly enhances everything else.  It’s somewhat reminiscent of Moon, the excellent sci-fi movie, and the various environments on the station provide several variations on the central visual theme.

The Swapper is the first game from Facepalm Games, based in Helsinki, Finland.  This is an amazing fact, considering how well everything comes together.  The game has the self-assurance of a much more mature studio.  It produces a feeling of isolation and mystery without descending into the creepiness of a horror game, something I greatly enjoy.  The puzzles ramp up in difficulty appropriately as you move through the space station, and the end of the game offers an intriguing resolution.  The only sections that are somewhat less successful are a couple of short zero-g transition areas where the controls are less intuitive than the rest of the game.  These are easily forgotten, however, as you continue on to new sections of the space station. 

I highly recommend The Swapper.  It is amazingly high quality experience from a new studio to watch out for.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

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Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is a ridiculous name for a ridiculous game.  It’s also quite a bit of fun.  Unlike previous Metal Gear games, Revengeance is not a stealth game, nor a shooter.  Instead, it’s a “stylish action game” in the vein of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta.  Revengeance has an interesting history, as it was originally in development at Kojima Productions.  Eventually Platinum Games took over, and their influence is obvious.  Platinum’s previous work includes Bayonetta, and the company founders worked on the Devil May Cry series at Captcom.  Revengeance has the same high level of polish and playability as those games.

I am a Metal Gear fan.  I enjoyed all of the Metal Gear Solid games, and I am fond of the crazy and convoluted mythology that the series has built up.  Although Revengeance stars Raiden instead of Solid Snake, Platinum does a marvelous job of capturing the feel of the Metal Gear series, even without any of the same gameplay.  While the story is inessential from a canon point of view, it is well told and suitably ridiculous.  The final boss is interesting (more crazy than evil), and all of the classic Metal Gear touches are present: codec conversations, Gears, cyborg ninjas, the “!”, the final panicked yell from a teammate after you die (“Raiiiiideeeeeennnnnnn!”).

Raiden’s primary weapon is a high-tech sword that allows him to slice and dice the various cyborgs, robots, and Metal Gears he comes across.  Standard attacks are impressively varied, with responsive controls and great combos.  The combat is just plain fun.  You can attack with both Raiden’s sword and whichever sub-weapon you have equipped.  The first sub-weapon you find is an extremely useful long staff that allows you to do wide sweeping AOE attacks.  It’s so effective, I used it almost exclusively even after finding other sub-weapons (which are only occasionally useful).

In addition to his standard attacks, Raiden can do a “ninja run” that stylishly blocks incoming bullets with automatic swipes of his sword, and enter “blade mode”, which slows down time and allows you to control the direction of your swipes via the right analog stick.  Blade mode becomes very important in combination with a mechanic that allows you to hit a certain small target on a weakened enemy to do an execution attack and regain your health.  Parrying is also essential in Metal Gear Rising.  The enemy will flash yellow before a parry-able attack and red before an unblockable attack.  Performing a parry at just the right moment will result in a counter attack.  Parrying and blade mode do a great job of varying up the action so that it’s not all just button mashing.

The one annoying combat mechanic is that enemies will often stun Raiden with heavy or special attacks.  The only way to get out of this stun quickly is to shake the left stick, one of my least favorite control motions in video games.

The cutscenes in Revengeance are especially gorgeous.  In game graphics are also fantastic, with impressive animation and anti-aliasing, and a great framerate.  The soundtrack is full of over the top Japanese rock music.  It fits the tone of the game well.  The cutscenes and in-game action take some cues from anime, especially in (controllable) action sequences where Raiden runs down the side of a building or leaps from rocket to rocket shot out from a helicopter to reach it and slice it down.

The game also has a couple of areas that start out as stealth sequences, but I found it difficult to maintain stealth for long.  Raiden does have a sneak attack, but his character is built for action, something the developers cleverly acknowledge in one codec sequence where Raiden ironically retorts “Stealth’s my specialty!”

Speaking of the codec, the required codec conversations have none of the interminable length of some of the mainline Metal Gear games.  Don’t worry, though, they’re still there, accessible in the menu!  At any time, you can enter the menu to initiate conversations with Raiden’s team back at base that go on for a very…. looooooong…… tiiiiiiiiiime.

All in all, I had a great time with Metal Gear Rising.  The great combat and ridiculous setup make for a fun experience all around.  The game is only about 6 – 8 hours long, so it’s a nice quick play, and never overstays its welcome.

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Early Hitchcock Film Roundup

Over the past year or two, I’ve been catching up on a little bit of film history. I started out watching a bunch of film noir, and then moved on to early Hitchcock. I still haven’t gotten around to watching the entire list of film noir films I want to see, but I have now seen all of the pre-1950 Hitchcock films that looked good. So of course, I made a list! The movies that aren’t on my list I didn’t watch because they reviewed poorly on various other rankings of Hitchcock movies. This list is in reverse order of how much I enjoyed the movies (worst to best). One of these days, I’ll get around to writing up the later Hitchcock movies and film noir as well. Enjoy!

Saboteur (1942)

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This wartime film about an aircraft factory worker falsely accused of sabotage felt a little phoned in to me. Hitchcock copies several themes from his previous work, and the result is an uninteresting main character in a somewhat boring war propaganda movie.  

Spellbound (1945)

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I liked parts of this movie, including the female lead, a psychiatrist, played by Ingrid Bergman. It starts out pretty well, a mystery in a mental asylum. But it eventually devolves into pretty silly dream analysis. It is ultimately somewhat redeemed by a pretty good ending, though. Spellbound is also notable for the uncomfortably intense sexual harassment that Bergman’s character is subjected to by the male shrinks in the asylum. I’m not sure if Hitchcock intended these scenes to feel uncomfortable, or if they are just a product of the times. Either way, they are disconcerting.  

The 39 Steps (1935)

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Another movie about a man falsely accused, this time it’s a Londoner, Richard Hannay, who accidentally gets involved in an international spy plot. The movie has an interesting setup, and a nice payoff at the end, but the real draw here is the beautiful landscape cinematography as Hannay travels through the countryside on the run.   

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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Shadow of a Doubt is very well regarded, but I felt it was slightly overrated. It’s not bad, a psychological thriller about a young woman and her suspicions about her “uncle Charlie”. There are certainly some tense scenes. But ultimately it didn’t really stay with me.   

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

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Another spy thriller, Foreign Correspondent is a good old-fashioned adventure film. I thought the characters were great, and the story of an American reporter in Europe just before World War II is well done. Hitchcock does indulge a little bit in the tired early cinema trope of the lead man and woman falling in love in a day, but the movie is still fun.   

Notorious (1946)

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Notorious has a great female lead (Ingrid Bergman, again), is quite suspenseful, and has a well-wrapped up resolution. Bergman plays the daughter of a Nazi spy who works with a government agent (Cary Grant) to spy on former Nazis in Brazil. Although the love story is not entirely convincing (as usual for the period), some of the scenes are quite memorable (the wine cellar in particular).   

Rebecca (1940)

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This one is very memorable. Rebecca is the story of a young woman who marries a man whose wife died not long before under mysterious circumstances. The movie is creepy and intense. The titular Rebecca is not the young woman in question (whose name is never given), but the dead wife, whose suffocating presence permeates the household and influences everyone involved. This is an unsettling movie.   

Lifeboat (1944)

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Lifeboat is another war propaganda movie, but this one is handled much better than Saboteur. It’s a great concept, first of all. A ragtag group of survivors end up in a lifeboat after a German U-boat destroys their ship while crossing the Atlantic. Although it doesn’t have Hitchcock’s trademark suspense, the psychological drama the crew goes through while attempting to find their way to Bermuda is very entertaining.   

Rope (1948)

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Rope is the first Hitchcock film in color, and it’s a good one. It’s short and sweet, a creepy tale kind of like a good Edgar Allen Poe short story. It starts with a murder in an upscale apartment, and the entire movie takes place at a dinner party immediately thereafter in the same location. There’s a bit much moralizing at the end, but the sinister tone of the movie is great fun.   

Suspicion (1941)

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My favorite suspense film of Hitchcock’s early work, Suspicion is another intense movie. Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine play a married couple with great chemistry. Gradually Fontaine’s character comes to suspect that her husband is plotting to kill her for the life insurance payout to settle his gambling debts. The movie is suspenseful throughout, and it’s not clear until the very end whether Fontaine’s suspicions are founded or not.   

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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The Lady Vanishes is not really suspenseful. At times, it doesn’t even feel like a Hitchcock film. But it has great humor, great characters, and a fun mystery. It’s just a good movie. The plot involves a young woman who meets an older woman at the beginning of a train trip from a secluded vacation spot back to England. The older lady goes missing, and stranger still, all of the other passengers claim to have never seen her at all. The leads, played by Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, have great chemistry, and the mystery wraps up really well. This movie is a great example of Hitchcock’s range, even if he didn’t always need to use it.   

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

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The history of how atomic weapons were first created is an incredible story of human achievement.  That such an achievement was for such terrible purposes makes it no less amazing.  The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes, is an absolutely enthralling book. 

The excellence of the book is not at first evident.  The first chapters of the book bounce around a lot, lacking a coherent thread.  Rhodes spends a fair amount of time attempting to get inside the heads of certain scientists, leading to a couple of rather lengthy digressions into philosophy and armchair psychology.  It turns out the smartest people in the world tend to have some kind of debilitating mental disorder or emotional problem.  Shocker!  But this context does eventually make sense.  Those scientists who are able to conquer their internal issues are the ones who come to greatness.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb covers three main eras of history: worldwide atomic science up to the discovery of nuclear fission; fission research and the eventual creation of the Manhattan Project; and Los Alamos.  Each of these eras is entirely fascinating in its own unique way.

The first era starts with the discovery of the electron in 1897 by J. J. Thomson in England.  Rhodes describes in detail all of the essential science leading up to the discovery of fission.  I especially appreciated the insights into each individual scientist’s history and how he or she came to make his or her discoveries.  Rhodes’ scientific explanations are clear and well explained, and he has a clear love for the people involved.  His text reveals their backgrounds, their motivations, their successes, their failures.

This early history is dominated by Ernest Rutherford, the great experimenter and discoverer of the nucleus and proton, and Niels Bohr, father of quantum mechanics and essential theorist.  The descriptions of Rutherford’s ingenious contraptions and setups for his experiments, and his ability to read the data and postulate logical explanations for what had happened are especially compelling.  The discovery of the neutron in 1932 by James Chadwick in England is another great story, as is the invention of the cyclotron, an efficient and ingenious particle accelerator, by Ernest Lawrence at Berkeley.

By 1933, Hitler was rising, and Rhodes describes in detail the tense escapes from Nazi Germany by various important scientists of Jewish ancestory, by any means possible.  One of these was Lise Meitner, who escaped to Stockholm along with her nephew Otto Frisch, also an accomplished physicist.  Her story is especially gripping.  Meitner escaped just as she had been working with the renowned chemist Otto Hahn on neutron bombardment of uranium.  This had been done before, and it was known that new elements were thrown off by the collisions.  At the time, these elements were considered to be “transuranic”, heavier than uranium.  But Hahn definitely proved that one of the elements thrown off was chemically identical to barium, much lighter than uranium by about half.  He wrote to Meitner with the results, knowing that this must mean that the uranium atoms were being split, but not having any theoretical basis to believe this was possible. 

Rhodes describes the amazing process of discovery as letters went back and forth between Stockholm and Germany between Hahn and Meitner.  This thrilling section tells how Meitner, with Frisch, came up with the explanation on the eve of World War II at the end of 1938.  Like a water drop, the heavy uranium atom was stretched in the middle by neutron bombardment until each end of the drop contained more cohesion to its end than to the other end.  So the uranium atom split, becoming two new lighter atoms, giving off energy in the process.  Nuclear fission had been discovered.

The discovery of nuclear fission launched a thousand experiments across the world.  One of the major players at this time was Leó Szilárd, who had already come up with the concept of a nuclear chain reaction in 1933, but lacked any initiator for the process.  Now he and others realized that it was just possible that nuclear fission might be the source of a chain reaction that could release incredible amounts of energy.

Again, The Making of the Atomic Bomb describes in detail the science and history of how it became known that slow neutron bombardment of uranium-235 will result in fission and a possible chain reaction.  At the same time, the book describes the efforts by various scientists, including Szilárd, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner, to alert the United States government to the possibility of the bomb.  These three met with Albert Einstein, who signed the letter that was eventually delivered to FDR.

One of the most interesting themes of this section of the book is the clear transference to the USA of the momentum for the atomic bomb.  Prior to the war, most of the best physicists had been in Europe.  But many of these immigrated to the US around the start of World War II.  These foreign-born scientists were absolutely essential to the creation and completion of the Manhattan Project.

One of the most important of these scientific immigrants was Enrico Fermi.  Rhodes describes in detail his experiments into nuclear fission, culminating in the incredible description of the first sustained nuclear chain reaction in Chicago Pile-1.  The scene as the scientists involved watched the first nuclear reactor actually work for the first time is absolutely amazing.

Eventually the Manhattan Project was officially created, and the Los Alamos site was constructed as the primary project location.  As the project shifted into full gear, the book’s focus narrows to the scientists directly involved, mostly at that single location.  But at the same time, Rhodes also checks in periodically with efforts outside the United States to create an atomic bomb.  The Japanese program never really got off the ground.  But the German program had some potential, under Werner Heisenberg.  The Allied scientists were especially worried about this possibility.  But the German atomic program was dealt a heavy blow by one the most amazing sabotage missions attempted during the war.  A Norwegian chemical plant produced and stored most of the “heavy water” available to the Germans, a necessary component of their designs for a bomb (although Fermi in the US was using graphite instead, the Germans were not aware at this time that this was possible).  The chemical plant was sabotaged multiple times, and knocked out of commission.  The remaining heavy water was then scheduled to be shipped to Germany.  Norwegian resistance fighters successfully blew up the ferry it was travelling on, the SF Hydro, effectively ending the German’s capability for obtaining an atomic bomb during World War II.  Rhodes tells these stories extremely well, with a great deal of intensity and suspense.

The Manhattan Project was extremely well-run.  How a project of its size and scope could be so successful is a tribute to human organization.  The project came under the control of General Leslie Groves.  This was a fortuitous decision.  Groves had an incredible eye for talent, and he chose Robert Oppenheimer to lead the project at Los Alamos.  This was not an obvious decision.  Oppenheimer had been tangentially involved with left wing groups earlier in his life, and had some security clearance issues.  He had no Nobel prize, and was not yet well known for his leadership qualities.  But he grew into an incredible leader of men.  This quote from Edward Teller is especially revealing:

Throughout the war years, Oppie knew in detail what was going on in every part of the Laboratory. He was incredibly quick and perceptive in analyzing human as well as technical problems. Of the more than ten thousand people who eventually came to work at Los Alamos, Oppie knew several hundred intimately, by which I mean that he knew what their relationships with one another were and what made them tick. He knew how to organize, cajole, humor, soothe feelings-how to lead powerfully without seeming to do so. He was an exemplar of dedication, a hero who never lost his humanness. Disappointing him somehow carried with it a sense of wrongdoing. Los Alamos’ amazing success grew out of the brilliance, enthusiasm and charisma with which Oppenheimer led it.

The Manhattan Project was two simultaneous efforts: the work to develop the mechanism by which a nuclear explosion could happen at Los Alamos; and the work to develop the factories responsible for creating the necessary materials.  Uranium-235 and plutonium, a new element that could be created in a nuclear reactor, were the possible fissionable materials usable for a bomb.  Initially it was not known which material would be best, or which method of extracting U-235 from regular uranium would work best.  So the project followed an “all of the above” strategy where every possibility was followed.  This resulted in several major factories across the United States being created for the extremely complex processes necessary to generate these elements.  These factories were huge and complicated, and their successful completion is one of the great lesser known stories of the Manhattan Project.  Niels Bohr had been initially skeptical that the materials for a bomb could be obtained in time to make a difference in the war.  When he later went to Los Alamos, he told Edward Teller, “You see, I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole country into a factory.  You have done just that.”

The “all of the above” strategy resulted in two bombs being created: Little Boy, a U-235 “gun-type” bomb; and Fat Man, an “implosion-type” plutonium bomb.  Enough was known about Little Boy and its simpler mechanism that it was not considered necessary to test its design before use.  But the implosion design was still unproven, so it had to be tested: the Trinity test.

Just before the Trinity test, President Roosevelt died.  Oppenheimer’s speech after his death was especially poignant, and I think indicative of the feelings of the scientists on the project at the time:

We have been living through years of great evil, and of great terror. Roosevelt has been our President, our Commander-in-Chief and, in an old and unperverted sense, our leader. All over the world men have looked to him for guidance, and have seen symbolized in him their hope that the evils of this time would not be repeated; that the terrible sacrifices which have been made, and those that are still to be made, would lead to a world more fit for human habitation…. In the Hindu scripture, in the Bhagavad-Gita, it says, “Man is a creature whose substance is faith. What his faith is, he is.” The faith of Roosevelt is one that is shared by millions of men and women in every country of the world. For this reason it is possible to maintain the hope, for this reason it is right that we should dedicate ourselves to the hope, that his good works will not have ended with his death.

Rhodes’ description of the Trinity test is reliably fascinating.  After the successful test, the scientists involved felt mostly relief and trepidation.  They knew what they had done.  Oppenheimer famously quoted the Bhagavad-Gita again: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

With the science complete, Rhodes uses the remainder of the book to describe the politics of its use.  It’s likely that Truman’s decision to drop the bomb on Japan was a fait accompli.  2 billion dollars had been spent to create it.  It seemed likely that a bloody and terrible invasion of the home islands would be necessary otherwise.  Rhodes describes in detail the flight of the Enola Gay on that fateful day.  Most of the crew did not know until they took off what they were delivering.

Rhodes does not shy away from describing the aftermath of the atomic bomb.  He uses a full chapter to describe the horrific effects on Hiroshima.  The awfulness is tough to listen to, but necessary.  The subsequent bombing of Nagasaki is similarly distressing.

The Epilogue to the book focuses on the dispersion of the Los Alamos scientists, the creation of the thermonuclear “Super” bomb, and the political effect that the existence of nuclear weapons entails.  The Making of the Atomic Bomb was written in 1986, with the Cold War still in full effect.  This fact colors some of the author’s commentary at times.  But throughout the book, a good case is made (Niels Bohr’s case, originally) that the existence of the bomb prevented World War III between the US and Soviet Union, and continues to prevent war and lead to a more open world.  Rhodes states:

The bomb that science found hidden in the world and made manifest would destroy the nation-state paradoxically by rendering it defenseless. Against such small and cheap and holocaustal weapons no defense could ever be certain. The thickest shields, from fighter aircraft to Star Wars, could be penetrated merely by multiplying weapons, decoys and delivery systems. The only security from the bomb would be political: negotiation toward an open world, which would increase security by decreasing national sovereignty and damping out the violence that attended it.

If the bomb seems brutal and scientists criminal for assisting at its birth, consider: would anything less absolute have convinced institutions capable of perpetrating the First and Second World Wars, of destroying with hardware and callous privation 100 million human beings, to cease and desist?

The Making of the Atomic Bomb is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever read.  I cannot recommend it enough.

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BioShock Infinite

The original BioShock is the only game I have ever finished and then immediately played again, entirely start to finish.  The sense of loneliness, wonder, and discovery that I had while playing BioShock has rarely been matched.  BioShock Infinite is a spectacular game in many ways, but for me it does not quite reach the heights that the first game did.

Initial impressions of Infinite are impressive.  The world is beautiful and interesting.  The art direction is incredible, and the visuals are amazing.  Exploring Columbia, a floating city in 1912, is a singular experience.  But as the game goes on, the setting loses a bit of its luster due to the fact that it’s not always obvious that you are in the sky.  Any time you go indoors or are surrounded by buildings, Columbia’s uniqueness is somewhat lost.  BioShock’s sense of wonder came in part from exploring a city under the ocean.  Seeing water and sea creatures outside a window is ultimately much more memorable than seeing blue sky and clouds.

Like BioShock, Infinite is a first person shooter.  Some critics have questioned whether a shooter was the best choice of genre for this world and story, but I had no problem with the mechanics of the gameplay.  The game is fun to play, the vigors (magic powers) are fun to use, and the weapons have suitable variety.  Combat can be especially fun in areas with a lot of skyrails, which allow the player to zip from area to area as if on a rollercoaster.

By design, BioShock Infinite does not have the sense of loneliness that the original game had.  For most of the game, the player character (Booker) is accompanied by Elizabeth, a young woman he has been tasked to retrieve (“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt”).  A lot of work obviously went into the design of the Elizabeth character, her personality, and her actions throughout the game.  It all works at first, but I felt like some of the changes in her character over the course of the game were a little forced.  She is at first squeamish towards violence, but soon stops mentioning it and drops the topic altogether.  She is at once both too naïve and too knowledgeable about certain things.  And her feelings towards the Vox Populi (a resistance group) are a little too fluid.

This fluidity is also found in the game itself.  Class warfare and revolution are found throughout the game, but Irrational’s moral equivalence between the oppressors and the revolutionaries didn’t sit quite right with me.  Racism is also a theme in the game, but Irrational doesn’t seem to really have anything to say about it other than the fact that there used to be a lot more racism in the world.

My primary design complaint with BioShock Infinite is its linearity.  This is nowhere more evident than in the replacement of a level map for an arrow on the ground.  At any time, you can press up on the d-pad to have an arrow drawn on the ground that will lead you to your next objective.  Besides being totally immersion breaking, the arrow reveals the game’s lack of choice.  This is further hammered home the three or so times that the game gives you an optional small area to explore with Elizabeth’s very heavy handed dialogue: “We could go [to our next objective], OR we could explore [this little side area].”

Another design issue I have with the game is its case of collection-itis.  There are some hidden areas in the game where you can find power-ups and money, and voxaphone voice logs can be found throughout the game.  These things are all great fun to discover.  The problems come with everything else.  Virtually every room in the game has a multitude of drawers, trash cans, and shelves that can be searched for money, food, and ammo.  Ridiculousness aside (who puts ammo in a trash can?), searching the environment for all of these items gets annoying pretty quickly.  But money is in such short supply in the rest of the game, I found it necessary to continue searching anyway.  I feel like all of these extra searchables could have been removed entirely in favor of more drops from enemies or more hidden areas.

BioShock Infinite’s story is one of its primary draws.  It is fascinating and has already invoked a small industry of discussion regarding its workings and meanings.  The story mostly works on a technical level, but I felt like it did not always work on a motivational level.  Certain characters’ motivations for their actions seem arbitrary or are explained away by sleight-of-hand.  This is especially the case for the motivations of your enemies in the game.  Why exactly do all of these people want to kill you?  On the other hand, there are a lot of great moments and characters in the game.  The woman and man that you meet at the beginning of the game are particularly great, providing both mystery and comic relief.  The Songbird is a great creation as well, although I wish its story had been fleshed out further.

There are some great moments at the end of the game.  The final battle is suitably challenging and rewarding when you finish it.  Afterwards, the story revelations start coming fast and furious.  The wrap-up makes sense at first blush, but there is also a final scene that you will only see if you do not skip the credits.  This scene adds some further ambiguity to the ending where I initially thought there was none.

BioShock Infinite has provoked a lot of critical commentary already, which I think shows how starved we are for games that invite a critical response.  For those who have finished the game, there’s a good commentary roundup here, and an in-depth discussion of the story mechanics hereOne of the best critical pieces I’ve read is from Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander.  For me, BioShock: Infinite was an extremely engaging experience.  Its limited faults are only more recognizable because of its obvious ambition.

Tomb Raider

I never played the early Tomb Raider games, but I quite enjoyed Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider: Legend (2006) and Tomb Raider: Anniversary (2007).  The environment puzzles were really well designed, the climbing was fluid, and Lara’s acrobatic moveset was great fun to control.  But by the time of 2008’s Tomb Raider: Underworld, the formula was wearing a little thin.  The puzzles were more convoluted, the environments less fun to explore, and the game was much more frustrating than the prior entries.  I quit playing a couple of hours in.  The Tomb Raider franchise was due for a reboot.  So I’m happy to say that the new Tomb Raider game is a success.

The theme of Tomb Raider is survival.  The story is a complete reimagining and has no ties to the previous games.  In this game, Lara is a young archeologist, daughter of a famous (deceased) archeologist father.  She’s not the leader of the team, but she does have a fair amount of influence within the group.  She convinces the rest of the team to take their ship into dangerous waters in search of the lost island of Yamatai.  The ship is wrecked in a freak storm off the coast of the island, and the survivors are stranded.  They discover that a bizarre cult of other former shipwreck victims has taken hold there, and some members of the archeology group are taken captive.

Over the course of the game, Lara’s journey takes her from a scared and inexperienced castaway to a skillful and brutal survivalist.  The narrative and gameplay by which this transformation occurs aren’t perfect, but they work well enough that it never feels totally unearned.

The game starts out strong, with the opening levels focusing on stealth as Lara gets her footing on the island.  The game’s bow and arrow work extremely well, but I did find that enemies would discover me fairly frequently, and I would have to scrap the stealth approach for some period of time.  Even so, the environments are fun and there are never too many cultists in these sections.  The game has a really interesting “soft cover” mechanic.  There is no “snap to cover” button.  Instead, Lara will automatically duck down when you are somewhat close to a wall or piece of cover in a combat scenario.  Aiming and shooting from this position handles extremely naturally, and must have taken a ton of tuning to get working so fluidly.  It’s very impressive, and I haven’t seen it in a game before.

One noticeable absence from the opening of the game is the lack of a survival mechanic.  You can hunt animals for “salvage”, which is the currency used to upgrade your gear.  But there’s no hunger mechanic or need to hunt at all, really.  You get plenty of salvage from the cultists.  The reasons for the lack of this mechanic become obvious further into the game as Lara moves away from forested environments completely, but at first it seems like a missed opportunity.  It’s not clear at the start, but even though the story and cutscenes of Tomb Raider drive home the theme of survival quite often, the game is much more of a linear action game than a survival game.

Tomb Raider’s climbing engine is top notch.  It’s actually somewhat stripped down from Crystal Dynamics’ previous games, but this works well for the more realistic environment of Tomb Raider.  Lara uses a pick-axe sort of climbing tool, which results in climbing that feels less fluid, but more realistic than in some other games.  Lara’s animations and reactions while on a cliff wall are fantastic, and the controls feel great.  The one thing I missed was a little more swing when jumping to and from poles.  The acrobatic flips from previous games wouldn’t have fit, but a little more swing might have felt better without compromising realism.

The first section of the game culminates with a really cool climb up a radio tower.  At this point, the game takes a turn for the worse.  Combat becomes much more frequent, and stealth often isn’t an option.  The game throws in a few too many “run through the environment while everything explodes around you” sections, and the visuals are less interesting.  I’ve had it with shantytowns!  Please, no more dull brown drab buildings.

Fortunately, the last third of the game is significantly better than the middle third.  Stealth makes a return, and with the upgraded skill and gear you’ve collected by this point in the game, it’s much easier to take out bunches of enemies with stealth before you’re discovered.

The final level is excellent, with some solid climbing sections, appropriately challenging combat, great set pieces, and a really good puzzle room near the end.  The story gets a bit cheesy, but wraps up well enough.

Crystal Dynamics has built a nice foundation with Tomb Raider.  I do wish the game had a bit more non-linearity, and I did miss the environment puzzles from prior games.  The game does have several really small tombs to discover.  Each usually has one simple puzzle inside, but I would have liked to have seen a couple of the more elaborate environment set piece puzzles from the previous games.  Those additions seem like obvious improvements for a sequel, and I hope the team gets to make one.  It’s nice to see a game with a strong female lead, and a second game built on this framework could be really awesome.

The Room

The Room is one of the best games I’ve played on an iPad.  It’s a game that was obviously built for a tablet.  Spread to zoom out, swipe to pan, double-tap to zoom in: everything works as you would expect of a well-designed tablet app.  The object of the game is to solve a series of environmental puzzles.  It’s not unlike a classic point and click adventure game like Myst, without the adventure. 

There is a box.  You need to open the box.  The box is an intricately designed, extremely clever series of puzzles.  You can orbit the camera around the box on all sides as you try to figure out how to proceed.  The best thing about this setup is that, unlike a traditional point and click puzzle game, there’s no downtime waiting for a character to walk from one side of the screen to the other.  There is nothing but solving the next puzzle.

If you get stuck, there is a terrific built-in hint system.  Hints unlock on a time schedule.  If you’ve been stuck for a minute or two, the first hint becomes available.  The first hint is very vague, just good enough to get you looking in the right direction.  The second and third hints unlock after a bit more time and are progressively more helpful.  The final hint is usually good enough to get you unstuck.

The gameplay is mixed up a bit by the inclusion of a special monocle that allows you to see secret writing inside certain compartments or sections of the box.  These puzzles are pretty cool and can involve some interesting perspective shifting.

The game has a basic story, and you find clues and documents left by the maker of the box as you progress.  The atmosphere is great, and appropriately eerie, with great visuals and sound throughout.

My seven year old also enjoyed the game quite a bit.  He did need help fairly frequently, mostly due to not knowing some of the words in the hints (“paraffin”, “cog”), but he was able to have a lot of fun with it anyway.  He played it after I had already beaten it, so I was able to help him out pretty easily to get him unstuck.

At just a couple hours and couple dollars, The Room is more than worth your time and money.  I’m looking forward to the sequel coming out later this year.