Console gaming after the fact: Journey

This is just a lovely experience. A small, beautiful, near perfect game with graphics that have held up excellently over time. Are there more games like this? If not there should be. This has such a broad appeal and playability.

Journey which is an absolutely lovely game

A photo posted by Alper Cugun (@alper) on

Some of the transitions are among the most beautiful things I’ve seen in gaming. The sunset sand surf through the mountain in shimmering gold (video on YouTube) stands out but most of it is excellent.

What comes to mind with regards to aesthetics and also breaking out of the ‘gamer’ confines is this year’s hit Monument Valley but we could use a lot more.

Console gaming after the fact

I have found myself in the custody of a Playstation 3 console and have borrowed a couple dozen games to play over the holidays. This came to be after I mentioned to my local game design support group that I hadn’t played anything on a console for over ten years and that I was quite happy with that state of being. They thought that this was unacceptable.

Their reasoning was:
1. That consoles get the best games these days. (I’m not so sure about that.)
2. That I should have played some of these games to have an idea what I’m talking about or against. (Fair enough.)

Gaming rig for Christmas

A photo posted by Alper Cugun (@alper) on

The big screen is back home because we have emptied our office in Berlin and are awaiting the new one. The biggest impediment to me getting a console in fact was the fact that we didn’t have any screens at home and buying a console would mean having to get a tv/projector as well.

And Markus Kaikkonen agreed to hook me up with his old Playstation 3 since he had just gotten a PS4 and was going to play some stuff on that over the holidays anyway. Many thanks to Markus for that and I do agree that it can’t hurt to play a bunch of these games but now that I have nearly two dozen of them (thanks also Peter Bihr and Simon Cubasch) to go through it does feel a bit like work. I will post my findings here.

Somme preliminary stuff that isn’t very game specific:

Console games are a huge deal. This may seem obvious but I hadn’t fully realized it before. I think it is fair to say that most males below the age of 40 own a console, owned one or have wanted to own one in the past decade. Being a contender in the console wars and releasing AAA games have huge entry costs but they also carry with them the potential for gigantic upsides.

I had noted the fact that there weren’t any good action franchises anymore. The only stuff we get are Bond movies and a Bourne episode every five years or so. I am now wagering that most of the audience and the budgets for these things have gone into AAA shooters. A FPS game is more fun, about as poorly written and more cost effective (for the consumer) than going to the cinema for a similar ‘shoot stuff and blow stuff up’ experience. For the same price as a current AAA game you can go to the movies 3-4 times.

I am surprised at the amount of grinding in AAA games. Playing parts of a game over and over again because of poor design or balancing. Especially egregious are situations where every death means a lengthy reload and resumes you somewhere back before. Also I’m spending a lot of time in geometric first or third person games walking around looking for the clue to the next stage. They may have higher production values than mobile games but the amount of grinding seems to be about the same.

Console gaming after the fact: Killzone 2

Extremely crude but a decent shooter nonetheless. Can be a bit of a slough at times but now that I’ve played more from the genre that seems to be par for the course.

Killzone 2

A photo posted by Alper Cugun (@alper) on

The writing is so bad that you seriously wonder where they get it. The target audience for these kind of games does not seem to want much more. Thankfully the science fiction setting where you fight a pure evil removes some of the moral issues that other games in the genre carry.

Console gaming after the fact: The Last of Us

Massive spoilers for The Last of Us follow. Normally I’d encourage you to read on but with this game I recommend renting, borrowing, procuring, house-sitting, whatever is necessary to play it. I played most of the game in a single twelve hour sitting until nine in the morning. That may well be the best way to experience this: one weekend, little sleep and feverishly playing.

I was sceptical at first (I was promised that this game has the best writing that exists) but this was a singular experience despite its shortcomings. It takes a bit to get going and break out of the survival horror shooting game trope even though the beginning is executed very well. Another game where I’m not sure there is anything else to play after you’ve finished it. A sequel has been tentatively announced and there’s a DLC “Left Behind” that I can buy for €15.

The plot isn’t the best thing about the writing in this game and honestly in many examples of good writing the plot isn’t the best part. The atmospheric environments in The Last of Us have a coherence and detail that gives them much more depth than in any of the other games I’ve played since then. These provide a convincing backdrop on which Joel and Ellie play out their relationship and that is the real strength of the writing in this game. Out of a shared experience consisting of horror and idleness they forge a bond that carries over through the screen.

In broad strokes it The Last of Us is a retelling of The Road made stomachable for a mainstream audience. All the other characters are mostly forgettable and their losses however close they had gotten do not really count for much.

The biggest issue in the game is the moral one and not so much the one in the game as it is players’ reactions to it. The game forces you to save Ellie who is going to be cut up to potentially create a cure against the plague. What scares me is the vast number of players who take issues with this choice. I shot the entire OR staff without blinking (also partially because I knew it was coming) because I don’t think there is a real moral issue here. Sacrificing a person to save humanity is unacceptable. It turns out that (too) many gamers are in favour of moral consequentialism and medical experiments on human beings.

Another shortcoming in the game for me was that you don’t play as Ellie enough. I enjoyed her physical disadvantages and her true grit when running through a snowstorm and jumping up on huge dudes to slaughter them with a switch blade.

The bit where Ellie is hunting the buck is meditative and by that time it was seven in the morning, I had been playing for ten hours and it took me a good half hour of chasing the buck through the snowfields. That was a near meditative experience and in fact those were the most enjoyable parts of the game. Not those where you are on edge because you could be attacked at any moment. The best parts of the game were those where Joel and Ellie are hiking through a forest or on an abandoned highway and shooting the shit with each other. I would have happily played a game consisting of nothing but that.

The upside down fight is amazing.

A photo posted by Alper Cugun (@alper) on

Capitalism is magical

A story I meant to write up for a while is my discovery of the German rap formation K.I.Z. (Kapitalismus ist Zauberhaft) and with that German pop culture that is actually worthwhile and fun.

I was cycling through Berlin when at a traffic light a car full of women next to me was bouncing to some heavy beats. The lyric I caught through the open window was “Sie klatschen aneinander bei der Double Penetration”. That of course piqued my interest.

The story does not end well. I overtook them at the next traffic light and I was sure that they would not appreciate my vehicular cycling. Indeed they didn’t and they honked at me when they overtook (a particularly bad habit of Berlin drivers). In the spur of the moment I shouted the F-word back at them and I didn’t expect it but that did shut them up.

After that incident I listened to a bunch of K.I.Z. and found their lyrics to be funny and smart. Their general modus operandi seems to be lots of clowning and ironizing topics by taking them to their utter extremes.

A great example of this is the song “Ich bin Adolf Hitler”. I actually had to look up whether K.I.Z. were nazis or not. Irony in Germany can be difficult to gauge. They also had a song about Jörg Haider called Straight outta Kärnten. I was on holiday in Kärnten this summer blissfully unaware of its dubious reputation.

K.I.Z. is a breath of fresh air in German popular culture. It does not take itself or anything particularly seriously and that is something Germany could use a great deal more of.

Give Da Vinci’s Demons a shot

I’m really into the series Da Vinci’s Demons right now (thanks to Kevin Slavin) which is a light hearted affair for the off season when there’s no Game of Thrones, True Detective or Sherlock.

The trailer for the first season is kinda messed up, try the one for season two otherwise.

I had been clamoring for Game of Thrones inspired historical fiction for a while now. There are lots of dark nooks of history which with a decent treatment could excite large audiences. So many topics to choose from but how about an epic series on Khublai Khan or about Charlemagne?

With Da Vinci’s Demons this is becoming reality at least for Leonardo da Vinci’s life in Florence. This Italian city and the papal intrigue of its time proves to be a great backdrop for an occult story set around this artist/engineer/inventor. The drawn overlays are a bit reminiscent of Sherlock and the premise of Da Vinci creating outrageous contraptions in no time at all is a lot like MacGyver. Its anachronistic depiction and juiciness are like Game of Thrones though people in da Vinci’s world seem even more cruel. In its depiction of a young incarnation of a well-known figure it even reminds me of Young Indiana Jones. Maybe there’s even a bit of Dan Brown in there but I wouldn’t know because I don’t touch that crap.

As a series it may be too trivial to function as a social status signifier, but even its pulpiness has found its bearings after the first couple of episodes. The initially more evil characters are rounding out nicely with depth and conflicting interests of their own.

I was happily surprised to see that it has been renewed. After eight episodes in the first season there are at least two more seasons awaiting. Just by watching it I want to read more about Leonardo Da Vinci’s life and go to Florence. History education has never been as fun and if this isn’t the education, it’s a great gateway drug.

(All art from the show’s brilliant accompanying tumblr.)

Recensie Desert Golfing in de nrc.next

screen520x924

In de nrc.next van vandaag staat de eerste helft van mijn recensie van de iOS sensatie Desert Golfing. Hier is de rest:

Desert Golfing is een game over golfen in de woestijn. In een twee-dimensionaal pastelkleurig woestijnlandschap moet je een bal de hole in schieten. Je vinger bepaalt de kracht en de hoek van je slag en als je loslaat vliegt de bal weg. Hoe ver je bal komt, hoe vaak hij stuitert en hoe lang hij doorrolt voelen perfect, eigenlijk precies alsof je echt golf speelt in een woestijn. Alleen ben je hier na 18 holes niet klaar. De maker laat niet veel los maar spelers hebben ontdekt dat er duizenden willekeurig gegenereerde woestijnlandschappen—de een moeilijker dan de andere—wachten om gespeeld te worden. Of er een einde aan komt weten we niet. De combinatie van eenvoud en oneindigheid maken dat je Desert Golfing lang kunt blijven spelen. Het is een fijn tussendoortje voor onderweg en tegelijkertijd een meditatie op hoeveel er met heel weinig mogelijk is.

Acemoglu’s Critique on Piketty

I read this paper by Acemoglu and Robinson right after I read the book by Piketty thinking that there would be some interesting economic debate. Unfortunately I was proved wrong and this seems to be exemplary for the stagnation of the economic field.

It’s extremely selective nitpicking, some qualms with definitions and arguing about semantics. In those places where Piketty actually writes the same thing as them, they don’t mention it in their paper. This means that they have either not read the book or that they are being disingenuous.

Their paper was also written so poorly that reading it felt like more of a slog than 600 pages by Piketty.

I found a confirmation for my point (and another one) of view and it looks like it’s the old: ‘I need to publish something quickly to take advantage of somebody else’s freshly minted superstardom.’.

Thomas Piketty Debunks Conventional Economics

I read “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” on assignment and I am glad I did because it is a well written, easy to read and profoundly insightful book. It illuminates what capital is and what effects it has in the world to an extent that hasn’t been done before. The book contains lots of insights and it takes down many financial myths that are imposed on us every day.

Even though I read this book on an Austrian mountain I was still witness to the age old workings of capital. The cabin next door belonged to a person who also owned a large chunk of the mountain. On this plot he kept a couple of dozen cows who grazed and calved there by themselves. This herd and therefore this farmer’s capital would thereby multiply every year yielding double digit returns (I estimate anything from 20-80% on the animals).

I’ll treat each of the myths in this post from the copious notes I took while reading the book.

Myth 1: Capital concentration is not a problem

This is the central tenet of the book. The idea that capital is not an issue and will never be again in our societies is disproved. The core equation of r > g states that most of the time the yield on investments is higher than economic growth and even a small difference will have fairly large consequences in the long run.

Those that don’t have any capital (over 50% of society) have no idea what kind of concentrations of capital are available to others nor which mechanisms enable them to create and maintain these quantities of wealth. A lack of widespread knowledge both of the details of capital as of the financial strategies available to elites is a democratic deficit.

“Those who have a lot of it [money] never fail to defend their interests.”

Myth 2: Merit determines what people get

“Modern meritocratic society, especially in the United States, is much harder on the losers, because it seeks to justify domination on the grounds of justice, virtue, and merit, to say nothing of the insufficient productivity of those at the bottom.”

This point is being argued increasingly by for example Alain de Botton on ‘the evils of meritocracy’. It turns out that this argument frames everybody who isn’t rich (usually because of hereditary misfortune) into a loser who who isn’t trying hard enough or is lazy.

This is an absurd piece of reasoning that has been surprisingly predominant in the past decades.

Myth 3: We need 5-10% annual growth

The current consensus seems to be that a growth rate below 2-3% is bad news. Piketty argues that even a growth of 1% year over year will compound to create large amounts of change. This rate of increase is actually exponential growth (for a fairly low exponent) even though Piketty does not call it so.

According to Piketty high growth usually takes place during phases of catch up. Once a country is caught up growth will come down to normal rates. Other countries can and will experience these high growth periods as threatening.

Myth 4: Macro-economists are doing the best job they can

The biggest value of Piketty’s book is that it demonstrates that a realist approach to economy is possible. Many of the insights in the book are not illuminating because of their politics but because this kind of data has never been collected and analysed in this way before. He calls his deductions accounting identities and as such their content isn’t subject to debate as much as their consequences are.

In the book he questions regularly what economists have been doing for the past centuries. Piketty at one point says that Marx could have done a better job if he’d consulted the data that was available to him at the time. I would say that rather than building a realistic and empirical basis for their positions they have undertaken pissing contests between this school and that.

Every graph in the book points to a data series on an accompanying website where you can download an archive with Stata files, Excel files and all of the graphs in the book. Though a somewhat primitive approach, for the field of economy this looks like a revolutionary innovation. This may be a bit of ‘digital social sciences’ happening finally.

The sheer amount of data lends this book a sheen of objectivity. That may explain why so many people who had not read this book totally lost their shit over it. I believe this is a case where the extra credibility lent to something based on data is mostly justified.

At the end of the book Piketty welcomes the empirical research being popularised within economy as part of ‘behavioural economics’:

“Economists today are full of enthusiasm for empirical methods based on controlled experiments. When used with moderation, these methods can be useful, and they deserve credit for turning some economists toward concrete questions and firsthand knowledge of the terrain (a long overdue development).”

Myth 5: Immigration is a bad thing

“In a quasi-stagnant society, wealth accumulated in the past will inevitably acquire disproportionate importance.”

The consensus in Europe is that immigration is a bad thing. Piketty argues that population growth is a factor on top of economic growth (or instead of) to increase a nation’s income.

Myth 6: Debts are neutral

Piketty explains that debts are a transfer from the poor to the rich. Bond holders are almost exclusively rich people either directly or through portfolios who are paid interest by nations as a whole. As such everybody including poor people pay while the only people who benefit are the rich.

This is highly relevant when considering the levels of national debts within Europe and the fact that nation states are being held hostage by lenders whose identities we don’t even know.

Myth 7: Taxation is just about creating revenue

“It is important to understand that a tax is always more than just a tax: it is also a way of defining norms and categories and imposing a legal framework on economic activity.”

Piketty says that even a tax that is too small to make a fiscal difference would be useful because taxation necessitates transparency and mapping. Just as the taxation of land requires a legible cadastral system to know who had what piece of land, creating a fractional tax on capital would shine some light in a dark place.

Myth 8: Inflation is bad

“How can a public debt as large as today’s European debt be significantly reduced? There are three main methods, which can be combined in various proportions: taxes on capital, inflation, and austerity. An exceptional tax on private capital is the most just and efficient solution. Failing that, inflation can play a useful role: historically, that is how most large public debts have been dealt with. The worst solution in terms of both justice and efficiency is a prolonged dose of austerity—yet that is the course Europe is currently following.”

It turns out that inflation is not as bad a thing as it is made out to be. Many European nations have used inflation in the 20th century to greatly reduce their debts. Piketty says above that austerity is the worst thing that you can do in the face of large national debts.

Inflation is however not an uniformly good strategy to get rid of debts because it will disproportionately affect those without real assets (poor people and the lower middle class) i.e. people with a small nest egg in the bank.

In fact later in the book Piketty mentions that Germany has benefited most from inflation during the 20th century but now refuses to let others benefit similarly.

Germany is often exemplarized as an economic example within Europe but this is patently false. Germany is in fact a deeply unfair and hyper-capitalist society which has more similarities with the USA than with any other continental European nation. There is no minimum wage in Germany. Parents can give their children €800’000 taxfree every ten years. The list goes on.

After using inflation to reduce their debts, Germany has in the 90s reformed its social security and labour market to a fairly extreme level. With such a liberal job market it is also economically expedient for them to be an immigration nation pulling in the qualified labour pools of other countries.

Now being the dominant economic power in Europe Germany is using every means at its disposal to stay that way even if it means choking off other European nations. Comparisons of Merkel with Hitler may be absurd, a comparison with Putin seems justified. Just like Putin, Merkel is allowed to stay in power as long as the economy is growing and things are stable.

Myth 9: Supermanagers deserve to make absurd amounts of money

There has been a lot of debate about this already and it is pertinent to Piketty because the people at the top of the income distribution today are people that have both historically accumulated wealth and are in positions where they make a lot of money from their work.

Piketty argues what has been argued in other places as well: there is no proof for increased productivity of supermanagers or for anything else that would merit such disproportionately high pay. A better explanation for it is that there are old boys who determine each others’ renumeration and have no incentive to hold back.

Myth 10: Education should be expensive

Piketty argues that even though education may not be a cure for inequality that open access to higher education for anybody who is able to go is very important for a society.

Unfortunately in the Netherlands higher education is being instrumentalized and financialized. It is becoming unattractive to learn things that do not have a direct market payoff because of the debt you incur while studying. It is fairly obvious that this system disproportionately benefits those with money who are less affected by opportunity cost.

Myth 11: Globalization is bad

Piketty argues that globalisation is good and that countries that close themselves off rarely benefit from it. He uses this as an argument for more taxes: “Absence of progressive taxation may undermine support for a globalised economy.”

Myth 12: The United States have always been a nation of low taxation

“Furthermore, the Great Depression of the 1930s struck the United States with extreme force, and many people blamed the economic and financial elites for having enriched themselves while leading the country to ruin.”

“Josiah Wedgwood, in the preface to a new edition of his classic 1929 book on inheritance, agreed with his compatriot Bertrand Russell that the “plutodemocracies” and their hereditary elites had failed to stem the rise of fascism. He was convinced that “political democracies that do not democratize their economic systems are inherently unstable.”

I was amazed that the United States (and England) for a period of time had incredibly high (confiscatory) taxes on income, capital and estates because: ‘all excessively high incomes were suspect.’ The accumulation of capital was seen as something unhealthy and also as something profoundly illiberal.

Myth 13: Financial transparency is undesirable

“It is particularly striking to discover that the countries that are most dependent on substantial tax revenues to pay for their social programs, namely the European countries, are also the ones that have accomplished the least, even though the technical challenges are quite simple.”

One of the most important solutions and necessities Piketty suggests is to increase the transparency of capital stocks and flows around the world. There are initiatives underway to do this but they will take a long time to implement and will probably be watered down when they get there. Doxing off-shore banks may be the only remedy available to us in the meantime.

Financial transparency for everybody and especially the ultra-rich should be something for which there is a clear majority. The question then remains why it is so hard to push through. Maybe having a president of the European Commission who used to work for the Luxembourg cottage financial industries is not making this any easier?

Knowing whose money is where and where it is going is also necessary during financial crises to be able to take the right action. It would seem obvious but it turns out that during the recent financial crises our governments had to resort to the equivalent of randomly throwing money into black holes.

The initiative Open Spending focuses on making government finances transparent. A similar initiative should push for doing the same with the financial data of public and private companies.

Myth 14: Public wealth will follow after economic growth

Economic growth in an area does not benefit everybody and definitely not equally. Berlin for instance has recently seen a gigantic influx of capital and private wealth. The city finally has budgets in the black again but still has no money to speak of. More correctly: there isn’t any money for better public transportation or to clean school buildings; there is money for large scale construction projects and Olympic bids.

Myth 15: Investors are as useless as a gorilla

“The higher we go in the endowment hierarchy, the more often we find alternative investment strategies,” that is, very high yield investments such as shares in private equity funds and unlisted foreign stocks (which require great expertise), hedge funds, derivatives, real estate, and raw materials, including energy, natural resources, and related products (these, too, require specialized expertise and offer very high potential yields).”

Piketty demonstrates this popular notion to be patently false. It turns out that given enough money you can get both access to more interesting investment opportunities and hire advisors that can get you high yields on those opportunities. He takes the endowment of for instance Harvard as an example where they by investing a small part of their huge capital (of some $30B) they manage to get returns on the order of 10% a year.

The measly one or two percent you and I can get at the bank pales in comparison and does not even keep up with inflation. You could save yourself some trouble and just throw your money into a fireplace.

Holiday Reading: The Information by James Gleick

“The new technology was both the virus and the vector of transmission.” — Walter J. Ong

Shannonmouse

This was one of the three books I read during my holiday in a cabin on the Austrian Alps. To hedge against a lack of sun hours to charge my reading device with I brought some physical books that had been lingering on my moribund to-read pile.

I wasn’t sure if ‘The Information’ would be worth reading as a graduate in computer science but it turns out that it is as fantastic a book as everybody said it was.

Shortly summarised ‘The Information’ is a summary of a large part of my studies: the formal logic and computability parts, the signal processing and information theory parts and a bunch more. As such it functions as an easier to digest mashup of ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach’ and ‘The Baroque Cycle’ if I may call it that.

The book treats many of the same topics as those books and paints a stunning picture of the history of science. It shows you in the writings of those scientists how our understanding of information evolved with time and how that evolution informs our current perspective.

The book focuses on Shannon, where GEB for instance is more about Kurt Gödel and Cryptonomicon (the prelude to the Baroque Cycle) is more about Alan Turing. What is interesting to note is how Shannon’s work contributed an informational turn to the social sciences.

Information historical accounts are super interesting—also something that I enjoyed immensely during the Latour MOOC—but a weakness of the book is that the insights offered therein break down the closer we get to the present day. Current events move too quickly to be framed with the same flourishes as the writings of Charles Babbage and Ada Byron Lovelace.