Summer Vacation

Back from a couple weeks away, mostly spent at the cottage. It’s usually the time where I take to reflect on the prior year, and then start thinking about the next one. In between pints of course.

Work

I started a new role this year, leading a group that was pulled together during the pandemic. A ragtag group of bright folks, doing their best given the circumstances. It’s best framed as ”success begets success” and they reached a point where the larger group needed to mature or just burn out. The transition from ad-hoc to systematic is not an easy one, where you will lose flexibility in exchange for sanity. The first few months were rocky, and not everyone was on-board with having an actual plan that we would commit. A year out, some folk have moved to greener pastures and those that remain know what’s coming in the next few months, can manage to work on more files, require less hours, and have developed a network of contacts that will serve them for their entire careers. It’s hard to see the while the chaos of change is underway, but I am extremely happy with the results.

The next year will be about shoring up some resource challenges, and taking on yet another project that is rather wild in scope. Oh, and the unknown territory of a return to office, where the only value add is the social element (which has value). I’ve spent the last 10 years of my career showing that people are more productive when they don’t spend 2 hours a day commuting, and the pandemic proved it at a very large scale. I am not interested in regression… and given the extremely low unemployment rates, it is not a hiring incentive to give someone a desk.

Personal

Kids are a year older and 2 years wiser. School has suffered a lot (only hospitals fared worse) in that teachers and students were not able to fully adapt to a remote workspace. Teachers due to tools, and students due to engagement & environment. My eldest coped well enough, but my youngest took a big hit. We’re in catchup mode now, and that’s going exceedingly well.

Wife and I had a really good year. The pandemic allowed us to spend more time together, which was a positive compared to some of our friends. She gained a tremendous amount of confidence at work too, which resulted in some great mood improvements.

I coached and played hockey, first time in 2 years. Tremendous benefit to the social anxiety of a pandemic. One team had a full run through of COVID during the holidays, which was a kind reminder of the severity of it all. My physical health was running great until about March, time to get back on that.

Gaming

Not a terribly good year for gaming, which makes sense given the production timelines during a pandemic. FF14 launched an amazing expansion. I’ve come to terms with Blizzard simply being a skin worn by ActiVision. Lost Ark launched, and while it looks and plays like Diablo 4, the monetization and ilvl quit-wall had me move on. Elden Ring is a standout I suppose.

I actually ended up playing mostly older games throughout the year, or reminded why those were better. Metroid Dread is a great example. Both Blasphemous and Hollow Knight are simply better. I guess this makes sense, as it allowed me to clear out my Steam backlog and more or less zone-out.

I still don’t have a reason to get a PS5. Perhaps once God of War comes out I’d get it, and Horizon & Returnal. I’d honestly expect Sony to announce a way to get them on PC though.

Not a whole lot to look forward to coming down the pipe, which I guess means I’m not the target audience.

Upcoming

The next few weeks should be relatively quiet, allowing for some more mental respite in preparation for the typical September insanity. Let’s see how much R&R I can fit in during that time.

Umbrella Academy – Season 3

Stranger Things, The Boys, and Umbrella Academy… all launched within a couple weeks. They may not have identical markets, but there’s a pile of overlap. Seems a really weird decision… unless this is the point of the year that people unsubscribe? May be too cynical.

Anyhoot, I’ve watched the Umbrella Academy with an odd curiosity. The premise is somewhat simple, what if there was a dysfunctional superhero family? This is different from The Boys, where the supes are simply evil, here they are simply flawed. But flawed in a way that if they overreact, really bad things happen for other people. Maybe the premise is “what if immature kids had super powers”?

Season 1 was about dealing with their horrible father and their destiny of causing the end of the world. Season 2 had them time travel backwards and go through similar steps (though with a significant amount of cultural context). In both, there was a continual antagonist force of The Commission, a group that controlled the timeline.

Season 3 sees them pull a Back to the Future 2, back to the present but with changes. Their actions in the past (with their father) meant he didn’t adopt them, but others instead (Sparrows). And a similar set of actions has created a paradox that threatens to destroy the universe (though in this context, it’s still just Earth). The Commission is gone, and the antagonists are the Sparrows and themselves.

The net result is a significant amount of character bloat and the feeling of “the same” from prior seasons. The scenery is smaller (mostly within a hotel) and the episodes are shorter. It’s a weird mix, honestly, where there’s very little story progress at all, but tons of character development. The end of the season is the “cleanest” of all the endings so far, but still leaves room for more.

Some notes:

  • The Elliot Page transition is handled in character, and handled in a way I’d hope most humans would
  • Luther’s character arc here is a long time coming, and finally acts like the audience surrogate he was supposed to be.
  • Victor’s arc remains extremely painful to go through. It’s finally called out with a statement like “you know what they call a superhero that doesn’t listen to anyone else? A villain”. Where all the siblings are childish (well not Five), Victor’s power levels are such that their outbursts are catastrophic.
  • Diego’s arc is really quite solid. The relationship with Lila (strong chemistry) makes it a fascinating growth.
  • Five is interesting, and still the strongest character in the series. A leader who wants to just enjoy life, but keeps getting pulled back in to clear up the mess. Aidan Gallagher does a fantastic job.
  • Klaus finally comes into his own, which is both cool to see and frustrating that it took this long. While his character himself finally finds himself, his role in the larger context is pure deus ex machina. Still steals every scene he’s in.
  • Allison… I am not a fan of the arc here. I won’t spoil it, but there’s a particular scene with her and Luther that is beyond the pale compared to the other insanity in the series. Allison has always been a selfish character, using her powers for her self-gratification. That continues here, but to another level. Given this purposeful usage of power, I consider her to be the true villain.
  • Reginald Hargreeves has a weird arc here, where the first few episodes have him positioned as bumbling idiot who’s forced to pop pills. When the pills are removed, then he turns back into a puppet master. I dunno, it’s 2 different characters and feels like it comes out of left field.
  • Sparrows – Ben is interesting, in that he’s no longer a selfless character but one continuously looking for external approval. It fits well with the rest of the siblings. The remainder of the Sparrows are window dressing with horrible character traits (what if superheroes have no villains to fight?).
  • The music choices remain a strong highlight, in particular the Footloose battle in episode 1. The quirkiness of the series is the true highlight, and music choice is the best part.

Season 2 remains the standout in the larger context, and Season 3 loses a lot due to the lack of crazy and clear villain. I would be surprised if there was a Season 4 given the challenges present in this season and Netflix’s penchant to cancel as much as possible. It would be unfortunate, as the ideas here are quite solid. We can use more quirky bits, the world is serious enough.

Stranger Things 4 – Eps 5 -7

Episode 4 remains the season (if not series) highlight, with very strong visuals on mental health and PTSD.

Episode 5 continues that message with Hopper’s monologue on the karmic effects of his time in the military, and Eleven’s literal exposure to her memories in order to access her powers again. There are comedic bits with the kids tracking down Suzie, and Joyce/Murray with the Yuri airplane bit. I am not a fan of the editing in this episode because the themes swing so heavily from one end of the spectrum to the other, which reduces each other’s impact. Oh, an Vecna takes another victim.

Episode 6 feels like the other half of episode 5 if the editing was tighter. They are running 5 main story arcs at once, and that’s a herculean feat. There’s a reason this is avoided. It works here simply because Stranger Things released all these episodes in a batch. Weekly serials would not work. The episode feels like pure stalling to put the characters in the proper place for the next episode. This is the first episode where Vecna doesn’t attack someone.

Episode 7 is the payoff for the setup. Hopper and Joyce/Murray meet up. Eleven learns the truth about Vecna, which is both interesting to see but also mind bogglingly stupid when you think about the chain of events leading up to it. Stranger Things has always had a mystery box portion where you simply need to suspend logic and go along for the ride… *hand waving*… when they get to explaining some logical bits, it rarely works out (see Season 2, Ep 7 – The Lost Sister). Aside from Dark, I can’t really think of a recent mystery box that had a satisfying reveal. A season highlight for me is Eddie (Joseph Quinn), who is a surrogate for the audience geek. He has a completely rational view of all the crazy stuff going on, which is an offset to Robin’s let’s-see-how-far-this-goes approach. Eddie’s chat with Steve in this episode is solid.

There are 2 episodes left, coming out in a few days. I don’t see how these will be episodes as much as a single film split into 2 parts. And at an average of 1:15 per episode, this is a very long season. With one of them being called Papa, I’m hopeful they can finally close the Brenner mystery box. After 3 episodes of flashbacks, I’ve had enough.

Overall I’m surprised at what this season has delivered so far. It’s tonally much different than the 3 prior, with a significant focus on mental health and a monster than feeds off it. I’m not convinced the story understands why this is actually important, as compared to the 80s horror tropes it is emulating, but it’s still there. 2 more to go.

Stranger Things – Episode 4

I thought I would bundle these more, but this particular episode merits it’s own post. Spoilers, obviously

Every so often, you find a particular episode that perfectly encapsulates a series. There’s a little piece of magic found, where the individual pieces fit just right and you get some magic. It requires impeccable timing, amazing acting, a tight story, and an appropriate score. Episode 4 somehow manages to do this, and more miraculously, does so after the doldrums of the first 3 episodes.

The long setup of the first few episodes comes to light here, on all the arcs. Jonathan finally stops being a stoner long enough to actually do something of merit. Will and Mike finally have a conversation that’s more than reacting to El’s behaviour. El is heading back to regain her powers. There’s a big action scene where the military comes to take the kids that pays off with some nice comedic bits from Argyle. A payoff for the stoner comedy is more than welcome.

Hopper escapes, right in line with most action films. Joyce and Murray meet Yuri and are double crossed, while Hopper gets sent to a worse prison. There’s something about a defeated hero that works here.

Robin and Nancy go full undercover to get into see Victor Creel, a source of the suspected murders. Again, Maya Hawke beats the tar out of the script focusing on how women are not even given a chance in a male dominated society. It’s a monologue that is so far ahead of anything else this series has produced, I was just stunned in the delivery. It also comes with a “poltergeist” subview of the start of the curse, which is framed in the typical just enough but not all context of most horror reveals.

The final thread deals with Max, and her acceptance of her inevitable death due to the continual trauma from her brother’s death. She experiences more trauma the episode, and tries to make some sort of amends through letters to those she cares about. She eventually does get captured by Vecna, set up for the kill, and then with the help of Kate Bush, visualizes all the positive memories and people she cares about, enough to escape and “run up that hill” (which is not what the song is about, but it fits). It’s an absolutely fascinating take on mental health, from depression and isolation, through acceptance, and recovery. One that Netflix sorely has lacked. It’s astonishing that a series based on an 80s homage is able to take any topic seriously enough to pump this quality out.

Plus, as always, Steve is the man. He continues to be a better parent than every other adult in the entire series. Which is a topic for a future post.

If Season 4 was a 15 minute summary of the first 3 episodes and then ended here, I would consider it a win. There’s zero filler, and plenty of spotlight for the actresses to shine. No wonder Kate Bush is all over the place right now… for sure this is sticking in people’s skulls.

Stranger Things Season 4 – Ep 1 to 3

There are 9 episodes this season, with the last 2 coming in July. The first three are very similar, figured I’d bunch them.

The biggest change this season is time. Everyone is noticeably older, the kids are in their early 20s now. It’s not exactly jarring, I mean we’ve all seen 20 year olds playing teenagers, but the sense of mystery and “newness” doesn’t come off like it once did.

Which I suppose reflects the change of tone in the season. There’s very little comedy left, it’s mostly drama. The sci-fi portion has been replaced by horror. Even the villain is fully revealed in the first episode, with a death in the first 2 episodes meant to set a foreboding tone. This isn’t Barb’s pool attack here… it’s all on screen. I guess one way to look at this is that we’ve moved away from The Goonies and into Nightmare on Elm Street.

The first 3 episode act as a sort of call back to season 1. There are bullies, there are scientists, there’s the lab, and a big scary bad thing hunting people. It acts as a prologue of sorts, and given that this is season 4, it seems very out of place compared to all the craziness that came before. To make a gaming analogy, like how when you beat God of War 1 and then start God of War 2 and lose all your powers and have to walk in the mud again. The good news here is that all the episodes launched at once, so you can binge through it. Had this been a weekly launch of episodes, it would be infuriating. You can skip the first 2 episodes completely and not lose a beat.

The really great news is that episode 4 is a true highlight.

Side notes:

  • I can always use more Kate Bush
  • Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) still manage to steal every scene
  • It was always odd that no one batted an eye on monsters in a city. Mental health seems to be the core theme this season.
  • There are too many characters in the main cast with no purpose other than to be present. Will is even more useless. Mike makes faces and is powerless. Lucas is there to show how bad the local teens are, does nothing else. Dustin is the comedic element.
  • I miss Bob. Eddie is a close surrogate.

Gaming Whales

For those not familiar with the concept, a gaming “whale” is someone who spends an inordinate amount of money as compared to the average. These people are what drive the free-to-play gaming model, where cash stops exist. If you have 1000 players, you may have 5 whales who account for 90% of the income. It seems strange to most, but it’s quite common for people to spend $1000 or $10,000 on a game in a short period.

Whales exist for 2 main reasons. First, because the game itself is a slot machine and they are addicted to the mechanics. It’s an addiction and certainly predatory in that the design is focused on that aspect. No different than the rules that exist around a casino.

Second, and not necessarily separate, is the artificial social value. A virtual popularity contest if you will. The kicker here is that these contests only exist if there are both competitors and spectators. In the same vein as being a SuperBowl champion is absolutely meaningless without the context of opponents and spectators. Think about it… those champions don’t help the economy, science, society, or any other portion. It’s a lottery for the players, and a money-making machine for the owners. Whales are similar in this concept, in that they have the ability to buy their way to the “top”, but need there to be folks to defeat and then the accolades from folks recognizing that achievement.

There are a few variables here… in older games, players often recognized the amount of effort required to achieve a given goal (which is more in line with athletes of prior generations). WoW raiders used to just stand around with their gear, as it was quite difficult to acquire. Larger and less educated player bases may not recognize the effort and simply enjoy the results (akin to 2nd generation athletes, who’s success is “bought” through the 1st generation wealth/contacts).

Whales aren’t necessarily the issue. If a cash stop sold a hat for $500, then that’s what a whale will pay to be above the rest. Lockboxes are the issue as they focus on the first type of whale, where the money spent is done so through predatory methods, in line with a casino and the addict issue it presents. Keep the lockboxes, treat them as the gambling mechanics.

Birth Rate Decline

World Population as compared to Birth Rate
World life expectancy

The graphs generally align to start/end dates, hence their use. Many other ways to look at the data.

They say the only sure thing in life is death and taxes. Everyone will pass eventually, so that the global population, on a very long scale, is based on birth rate. For population to be “stable” it needs to be about 2.1 children, in order to account for early deaths (i.e. low life expectancy). For a multitude of reasons, the birth rate was such that the overall population growth tended to be around the 0.5% rate per year. Things grow at any rate over 0%, though slowly. The baby boomers are super evident, but also some absolutely massive advances in health care/education that increased life expectancy. People may be anti-vaccine, but the numbers don’t lie – the eradication of polio and wide use of anti-biotics added 20 years to the average life expectancy.

This is an important fact, as when the industrial revolution started the average life span was only 35 globally – 45 in the Americas. Unions and pensions came about just after the baby boom, where life expectancy was closer to 55/65. If you retired at 60, you took a 5 year pension. Geriatric care didn’t really exist as we know it today… there weren’t enough people for it. When the baby boomers “came into power” in the mid-80s there was approximately half the amount of people on the planet, and nearly everyone was their age or younger. This pragmatic statement… non-productive members of society are by definition a drain on society. I am not debating that elders should be rewarded for their years of productivity. It’s a math thing though… you can’t withdraw more than you put in. The “you” in this case is generalized to society.

Today, the birth rate is declining. There are many reasons, most of them tied to the level of education of the population, which is itself tied to infant mortality rates. As people become more educated, they have access to better health care, and have less children. That is a massive simplification.

So we now have a declining birth rate, meaning less people being born and an increasing life expectancy, meaning more non-productive members of society. This will last until the “baby boomer bubble” exceed the life expectancy. In North America, with an expectancy of ~80yrs, that means this will last until 2026-2044. Back to the comment about not withdrawing more than you put in… if baby boomers retiring now think that they are going to get the same “benefits” as their parents, someone is in for a bad time.

The overall global population itself won’t decline as long as there are more people being born than those leaving. Perhaps there’s an interesting bit here where life expectancy in some areas (particularly the US) is actually in decline.

And of course, all of this ignores the upcoming global famine caused 1) supply chain issues (ideally resolved in the next 12 months), 2) the war in Ukraine (people don’t fully realize how BIG a supplier they are) and 3) global warming (this one will kill us because of inaction). But that cheery topic is for another time.

Diablo Immortal

Which is borderline click bait I suppose.

This is an interesting one to me, where Wyatt Chang’s infamous “do you guys not have phones?!” in that the game is exactly what was expected.

It is a well-polished action rpg, built specifically for smartphones with an underlying gatcha mechanic. There are hundreds of these games available, have been for years. I’ve played a fair chunk and always uninstalled when I hit the pay wall. And further, as with the genre, it’s primarily a reskin of an existing game and re-use of assets from the Diablo franchise. There is nothing special about this game, if you look at it from the context of mobile games in the genre before it.

Where people seem to be taking issue is that this is against everything that the Diablo franchise stood for, as a shining pinnacle of the genre with a 1 time purchase and hundreds of hours of content. Agreed, but that was in 2013. The last Starcraft 2 DLC was 2015. Everything launched since has been either with lootboxes or a monthly fee or game-store supported. Blizzard barely held the line with some level of integrity while Morhaime and Metzen were around and it all died when Kaplan left. In that regard, Diablo Immortal is again, exactly what Blizzard was going to launch and certainly makes you question their next Warcraft mobile game model.

Blizzard is a company being still being sued for harassments, with some insane allegations. They banned someone for supporting Hong Kong and fired everyone involved. They hired a woman to co-lead only to pay her less than her equal partner, in part leading her to quit in 3 months. They pulled every union-busting trick in the book against Raven. Hell, we’re not even at the 1 year mark of J Allen Brack quitting because of the non-stop rollercoaster.

I am not quite sure what people were expecting here. Diablo Immortal is exactly what I thought it was going to be. What did others?

Psychopathy Rewards

Psychopathy is a neuropsychiatric disorder marked by deficient emotional responses, lack of empathy, and poor behavioral controls, commonly resulting in persistent antisocial deviance and criminal behavior.  ref.

There was a time where we didn’t like psychopaths. The neurological disorder was tightly bound to serial killers and the outer edges of society. And then we reached the 80s, where “Greed is good” and we actively started rewarding people with this trait. When the almighty dollar is king, then that’s what people cherish. The CEOs that most people know have these traits, and the most egregious of them all get rewarded handsomely for it. These people are generally quite intelligent and leverage this lack of empathy towards “success”.

I won’t hard on it for long, but Trump is clearly a psychopath. Boris Johnson. They’re not alone, there are a slew of elected officials who require this trait in order to twist the truth to meet their agenda. The gap between the neurological state and learned behaviors is an interesting one, which is why we have the adage the power tends to corrupt, and absolutely power corrupts absolutely. In 2022, this often manifests in a cult-like worship (think about how far that spans for a minute…)

Elon Musk offered to but out Twitter, and staked a $1b minimum transaction on the deal. Elon Musk doesn’t actually have a salary or income, he has Tesla shares. Shares he needs to sell/leverage to have money. He has so many shares, he needs to declare he will sell them to the SEC so that he doesn’t “tank” their value. If he wanted to see in a month, he says so now, then in a month it goes through. He only gets value based on the stock in a month, so it’s in his best interests to make that number go up.

Tangent – When Musk announced a return to work for 40hrs/week for salaried employees, it was clear he needed to cut operational costs, which he announced the next day. When you force a change like this, a company loses the “top quality” talent, as they generally have a better ability to find somewhere else to work and the flexibility to afford time without pay. It’s a fascinatingly bad management decision.

Unfortunately for almost everyone involved, Mush has poor behavioral controls and has managed to cut the value of Tesla by nearly 50% (aware that stocks in general have taken a beating, but that’s closer to 20%). His ability to buy Twitter is based on the value of Tesla stocks, which are now worth half of what it was before. And now he wants to back out of the Twitter deal. Which is simply fascinating to watch, just like a slow motion car crash.

The general idea is that Musk over-extended the offer, on an artificial value of his own stock boosted by his love for Twitter. The deal made very little sense to start. Since that time, Musk has continued to stay in the spotlight, relishing the ability to share his thoughts with the public. The more he did, the more time was allowed for the market to correct itself. He was overpaying then, and even more so now, with half the funds available to pay it. He’s going to do everything in his power to back out of the deal.

Is this enough for society to get a wake up call that the people we reward are the ones with the least useful traits for our survival? Quite unlikely. We’ll go for the person who takes advantage of people who are not us. There’s a term for that…

Love, Death & Robots – Season 3

Not quite sure if spoilers apply to this or not, but hey, it’s back. It’s as short as Season 2, but the stories themselves are much more focused. I do get that Season 1 was pretty much Heavy Metal in visual form, but this particular season has much less fantasy and more sci-fi, which I consider an improvement. I think the season overall is the best of the bunch, and that more than a few episodes really make you question the ending/moral. That’s the beauty of sci-fi shorts after all.

On a per episode aspect:

Three Robots: Exist Strategy

This was the original short in season 1 and the robots are back with pretty much the same format as before. Slightly different take on what society is doing with regards to the climate crisis and how “castes” of society are trying to address it. I found it the weakest of the bunch.

Bad Travelling

This is pretty much a horror story set on a ship on the high seas. It’s more or less a continual set of bad events that people simply try to survive through, somewhat similar to the zombie/pirate story in Watchmen. The claustrophobia of a single ship really helps sell the horror aspect. There’s no sci-fi here, but the short is still quite good.

The Very Pulse of the Machine

This is pure sci-fi and could only work in this medium. Without spoiling much, the gradual decline (is it?) of the protagonist mental space makes you question if what you’re seeing is real or not. This one is a true highlight of the season.

Night of the Mini Dead

Zombie apocalypse filmed so that it looks like miniatures. The only point that seemed to matter to me what that this was but a speck of dust in the galactic scale. It looks cool mind you.

Kill Team Kill

This is a very violent take on a CIA robotics program gone rogue. I immediately shouted “that’s Shardik!” but sadly it wasn’t. Every season seems to have some set of soldiers fighting impossible odds, and then a horrible twist at the end. This is that episode.

Swarm

This one turned out way better than I expected. I find that the best sci-fi are the ones that make you question the context and imagine the world-building around the story. This is like a kid with their toes in the surf of an infinite ocean. I’d rank this higher if there wasn’t an absolutely useless sex scene.

Mason’s Rats

A comic short and a military organization of rats and a farmer’s attempts to get rid of them. This is a weak story overall because the ending isn’t earned. Looks cool and talks about the excess of AI robots, but it could have used another 5 minutes.

In Vaulted Halls Entombed

This is a weird one since it’s quite similar to Kill Team Kill… a solider squad it tasked with finding a thing, and that thing is killing them. The big bad here is an eldritch horror, and the ending is unnecessarily ambiguous. Cabin in the Woods did this story line better.

Jibaro

This is a stunning take on infatuation and obsession which lead to horrible loss. The main character is deaf, which means that the sounds shut off completely when he’s the focus, making for a really amazing sensory experience. This one is a real highlight of the season, and plays out like a fable of old.