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4 stars
An engaging, beautiful and flawed sci-fi adventure

Daedalic Entertainment made its name with games like Anna’s Quest and the Deponia series, which are helping to keep the genre of 2D point and click adventures alive. Since then, other developers (e.g., Dontnod with the Life is Strange franchise) have shown that it is possible to translate the exploratory appeal and rich narratives of the genre into beautiful 3D worlds.

State of Mind (2018) is one of Daedalic’s entrants into the 3D adventure genre. Set in the year 2048, it’s primarily told from the perspective of two individuals—Richard Nolan and Adam Newman—who grapple with the trauma of a recent accident, and who find that their lives are deeply connected.

The story that unfolds explores transhumanist themes like strong AI and mind uploading, but it remains grounded in a narrative about Richard Nolan’s relationship with Adam, with his own family, and with a lover.

Protagonist Richard Nolan and his household robot Simon in Richard’s Berlin apartment (Credit: Daedalic Entertainment. Fair use.)

In many parts of the game, the player explores their surroundings (e.g., Richard’s and Adam’s respective futuristic apartments; the gritty Berlin neighborhood where Richard lives, etc.), with limited choices and trivial puzzles. Occasionally, the game throws in a trickier puzzle or a mini-game.

In one of those mini-games, for example, you must navigate a drone through a building’s maintenance shafts in order to listen in on a conversation that happens in another room, without being detected by other drones. If you fail, you get to retry until you succeed.

While State of Mind offers some choices in dialogs, they are fairly inconsequential until the final stage of the game. Then, the player is given a choice between different endings, but even the impact of those choices on the final scenes of the game is a bit underwhelming.

What makes the game work, in part, is that it’s gorgeous. The low poly design of the game’s characters takes some getting used to, but the world they inhabit is rich in detail and imagination.

In one memorable scene, Adam Newman meets his wife on the location of an Augmented Reality art installation, where the game lets you draw with light and sound in the world around you. This scene is just there, and it’s up to the player whether they choose to explore it for its own sake or not.

The Verdict

The story of State of Mind is engaging but derivative, and the execution quality of the game as a whole is mixed (e.g., limited choices, mini-games that can be a bit tedious). Parts of its world are a joy to explore, and the game offers about 10-20 hours worth of generally rewarding play. The native Linux version worked beautifully for me.

I appreciated the game’s willingness to tackle adult themes, the lack of moral finger-wagging, and the deep flaws of its main characters. I found the voice acting not as stellar as, say, Life is Strange, but Doug Cockle (who voices Geralt von Rivia in the Witcher games) pulls you in as Richard Nolan, even if you end up hating him.

While the game is only 2 years old, you’ll now find it on sale regularly for 5 USD or less. At that price, you won’t have any regrets about paying a visit to its morally ambiguous world and the flawed beings that inhabit it.

4 stars
Holly Gibney goes it alone, and three other stories

If It Bleeds by Stephen King advertises itself as containing “four new novellas”, but I would really characterize it as one novella supported by three stories.

The heart of the book is “If It Bleeds” itself, which stars Holly Gibney, an important character from several of King’s most recent books (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch, and The Outsider). After the events of The Outsider, Holly Gibney faces an evil force of a similar nature—but this time, she tries to go it alone. It’s an engaging tale that never overstays its welcome, but I would recommend reading The Outsider first (reviews).

The other stories in the book would make good Twilight Zone episodes. The first one, “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone”, would fit better in Jordan Peele’s reboot than in Rod Serling’s original. It’s about a boy’s friendship with a wealthy old man, a friendship that ultimately takes on a supernatural character. King uses the story to offer his own social commentary on the effects of smartphones, disguised in the words of a cynical old man. Overall I found it the weakest story in the volume.

The second story, “The Life of Chuck”, is told in three acts (ordered in reverse) and describes the impact of a seemingly ordinary man named Charles Krantz on the world around him—starting at a time when the whole world seems to be ending in a series of apocalyptic catastrophes.

The third story, “Rat”, is about a writer who has been struggling for his whole life to finish a novel. When inspiration strikes, he seeks out the isolation of a “basic no-frills cabin in the Maine woods” he inherited from his father, to focus on the novel without the distractions of family and social demands. Soon the isolation, coupled with an illness, starts to play tricks on his mind—or does it?

King’s constant readers can’t go wrong with If It Bleeds; those new to his work looking for recent horror novellas that pack a punch should consider picking up King’s Full Dark, No Stars (2010) instead.

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom
3 stars
Humanism for Believers

According to the Oxford dictionary, faith is the “complete trust or confidence in someone or something” or the “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.” According to philosopher Martin Hägglund, we should all have it—but we should base it in a belief in this world, not in an afterlife.

The core argument of This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom is that eternity is overrated. In fact, Hägglund claims, the religious idea of eternal life is indistinguishable from death. It is only because our lives are finite, because we may suffer horrible losses, that we can set meaningful goals for ourselves in this life.

We are striving creatures that must maintain ourselves, and our lives are only intelligible (to pick one of Hägglund’s favorite terms) with our finitude in mind, not as a limitation, but as a fundamental condition of the things we value:

The possibility of being touched is inseparable from the perils of being wounded, and exposure to loss is part of the experience of rapture. (p. 89-90, emphasis original)

All morality, in Hägglund’s view, must be grounded in our care for one another in this life. When we seek our grounding in religious promises of salvation, we implicitly place this promise above those promises that we make to each other:

If your care for another person is based on religious faith, you will cease to care about her if you lose your religious faith and thereby reveal that you never cared about her as an end in herself. (p. 10)

Hägglund engages with the theology of Augustine of Hippo, especially to bolster the critique of “eternal life” (Augustine’s eternity does indeed sound quite a lot like oblivion). He also comments at length on the biblical Binding of Isaac, and on Søren Kierkegaard’s interpretation of that story. Where Kierkegaard sees exemplary faith, Hägglund sees the dangers of fanaticism. Buddhism is not spared—nirvana is just another word for oblivion.

In This Life, we still need faith, because we must invest ourselves in people and causes whose outcome is never certain. It is this kind of commitment without certainty that Hägglund describes as secular faith.

If we are committed to this life, Hägglund says we also must commit ourselves to increasing what he calls our spiritual freedom—essentially the time freely available for any self-expression that matters to us, through work, art, or otherwise. No such commitment is valued in a capitalist economy, which places human ingenuity in the service of profit, not in the service of shared human goals. That’s why the robots take our jobs instead of improving our lives.

In his critique of capitalism, Hägglund relies heavily on Karl Marx. While affirming democracy as an essential core of any new political order, Hägglund’s vision of democratic socialism goes well beyond redistribution of wealth—he argues for sharing in the means of production, and remaking our society to maximize our freedom.

Hägglund criticizes any view of individual freedom that treats it as if it could be separated from the society in which we live:

Freedom cannot be reduced to an individual achievement since both how much free time we have and what we are able to do with our free time depends on how we organize our society. (p. 315)

In Hägglund’s view, a true commitment to (and faith in) our life together gives a critique of religion its real potency:

If we merely criticized religious beliefs as Illusions without being committed to overcoming forms of social injustice that motivate these Illusions a critique of religion would be empty and patronizing. (p. 330)

The Verdict

Hägglund’s book left me with three frustrations:

  • While I found the argument persuasive that religious promises of eternity are indistinguishable from oblivion, I also found it repetitive and tedious. Hägglund says the same thing—that our lives can only be understood in light of their finite nature—many times over.

    The cosmos is more interesting than Hägglund gives it credit for. How does consciousness arise, and what defines a being—their consciousness or their memory? If an eternal being forgets its experience in whole or in part, is it still eternal? If we live in a multiverse with an infinite number of universes, how can we relate our successes and failures, our victories and losses, to these infinite possibilities? These are the kinds of questions This Life does not grapple with.

    As a secular humanist and atheist, I have no faith in any promises of an afterlife, and I appreciate Hägglund’s willingness to engage in a radical critique of such promises. But I also try to retain a sense of wonder about the infinite and the very, very vast. Moreover, I believe such wonder can make us more resilient when we are faced with tragic loss.

  • Hägglund’s critique of capitalism feels similarly unimaginative. He primarily re-frames Marx’s 19th century analysis in his own philosophical terms, but other than repeatedly emphasizing the importance of democracy, he does not make a cogent argument how past catastrophic failures of communism can be avoided in future.

    Hägglund lays out three principles for democratic socialism, one of which is “that the means of production are collectively owned and cannot be used for the sake of profit.” But what is required in practice to uphold such a principle? What happens to the first person in this democratic society who starts keeping the “means of production” for themselves?

    I am more persuaded by the more modern arguments in favor of transforming capitalism towards a solidarity economy, where cooperation is rewarded through structures and incentives. See, for example, the book “Humanizing the Economy”, which examines such examples—you won’t find them in Hägglund’s book.

    I agree with Hägglund that redistribution of wealth is not enough. But a democratic socialism fit for the 21st century needs to be a bit more responsive to what we’ve learned since the 19th.

  • Finally, I see very little reason for reframing secular humanism in terms of “secular faith” or living a “spiritual life”. These terms may appeal to a certain audience, but for those who have explicitly rejected faith, they hold little value.

    When Hägglund talks about “keeping faith” with our commitments (a marriage, a friendship, a purpose), he is using religious language where non-religious language will do just fine. It is true that we face uncertainty in all our life commitments. It is also true that we continuously re-examine those life commitments based on our lived experience.

    We abandon projects that are failing. We end marriages that don’t work. We lose friendships because our lives drift apart. When a commitment doesn’t make sense anymore, we should end it—and that kind of responsiveness to evidence is the opposite of faith.

This Life may help broaden the appeal of secular humanism, but it diminishes it by re-framing it in religious terms. It offers a useful critique of capitalism, but it fails to advance the discussion of how to replace it. It is not afraid to challenge ideas of holy oblivion, but it does not recognize the hope and inspiration we can take from the cosmos we find ourselves in.

The journey This Life takes the reader on is an important one. I’m just not sold on the destination.

4 stars
Kleine, aber feine anarchistische Bibliothek  de

Die Gustav-Landauer-Bibliothek Witten (GLBW) ist eine kleine, aber feine anarchistische Bibliothek im soziokulturellen Zentrum Trotz Allem in Witten. Viele aktuelle anarchistische Literatur ist vorhanden, auch vieles älteres und einiges englischsprachiges, vieles zu den Schwerpunkten Anarchismus und Philosophie – speziell auch zum Postanarchismus – und Anarchismus und Religion. Ein weiterer Schwerpunkt ist die Gustav-Landauer-Sammlung, die Werke von und über den deutschsprachigen anarchistischen Theoretiker und Aktiven der Münchner Räterepublik Gustav Landauer enthält.

Manchmal ist sie etwas chaotisch, aber es gibt eine kompetente und liebevolle Beratung, nach der man unbedingt fragen sollte. Preislich ist die GLBW dank der kostenlosen Ausleihe (keine Mitgliedsgebühren!) unschlagbar.

Aufgrund der aktuellen (2020) COVID-19-Pandemie ist die GLBW leider geschlossen, aber die Aktiven sind bemüht, zumindest einen kleinen Teil der Schriften auch online im Internet Archive/in der Open Library zur Verfügung zu stellen. Im Internet Archive liegen auch einige Aufzeichnungen von Vorträgen.

Achtung: Diese Rezension könnte Anteile von Parteilichkeit enthalten. 😉️

5 stars
A FOSS, european, decentralised video platform

Peertube is basically a libre response to Google’s Youtube. It has no ads (apart from possible in-video sponsors), has no central server and this leads to a better possible content moderation. The content moderation is based on the server that you signed up to chooses to ‘federate’ with and manually black-lists ect… This of course means that NSFW (eg. porn) can be found on Peertube yet might no be available from your viewing experience as that is based on the instance/server that you are viewing the federated network from.
It’s a work in progress and this review is so basic it’s basically just to give a few words and 5 stars for a FLOSS project that incredibly didn’t seem to have any reviews yet.
(I’ll come back to update and improve this review in the future.)

4 stars
Too bloated, a real shame

I have used Matrix for some time now and yet the only reason is that I find it the least bad open-source messaging app.
Today, in a world of so many different protocals for IM, both proprietary and FOSS, I trully believe in Matrix’s vision of a federated multi-support IM service. The compatibility with IRC has made it a truly recommendable program for most things and has allowed to completely uninstall my horrible IRC app. The possibility of the federation although problematic for complete privacy is a very good tool for the sustainability of the project, indeed it does not need for the official to pool in great amounts of revenue to keep the servers afloat or have the it die when the lead devs aren’t as interested by it anymore or don’t have the ressources/time to keep it sailing smoothly.
However, Matrix fails spectacularly at what actually matters for greater adoption: a clean, lightweight interface (web)app. I shall first start by thanking the devs that have created third party clients for Matrix because I just do not like the webapp. It’s honnestly fine. The desktop version however is just horrible for not-so-powerful computers (I would recommend nheko-reborn as cross-platform). The android app however, I must admit is much nicer, however it is a bit more than I need so I use the ‘minivector’ fork (available via f-droid).
To add to the dissapointing, yet encouraging, applications are the features. There is no doubt that to compete with a propritary application is quite challenging for any FLOSS project and yet the most basic features that make discord (or slack) great to use is not implemented (and does not seem to be in the roadmap?) in Matrix: rooms! I swear I think the mere creations of different rooms would make Matrix so much better. The audio/video is really, I think, secondary to the implementations of the most basic and advanced texting features. These have been for some time, I believe, become expected by most people/users.
And yet, despite these critiques, I shall keep using Matrix and look forward to it’s future because I dare express my optimism for it’s future sucess.

4 stars
A good idea that can be built on

The purposes of the Libre Game Night are threefold;

  • one, to have a enjoyable place to hang out and play with others,

  • two, to play FOSS games, including a very enjoyable 24/7 minetest server,

  • three, to promote FOSS games.

In all honnesty, I think it does accomplish all three but great improvement could be made. The use of IRC and Mumble are not necessarily the best choices to wider the community, and I think this is shown through the small number of regular players, whereas the use of different software might help (there was a talk of a discord bridge, rightly rejected, but still, perhaps the existence of a non-bridge server could be beneficial). However, a better organisation would be greatly appreciated: the voting system (as perhaps a rotating system to know wich game to play, or a second day in the week having that system ?), not to mention the website and wiki seem a decade old (just like the use of IRC in a way, except that IRC has got some benefits). I also am lead to believe that a system to RSVP when one would be connected might tend to bring about a greater number of persons, as would having another night or not at least 4 different timezones. The timezones can of course be a good thing with a very large and arround the globe community, yet I do not have the sense that this needed.

On a temporary note, during the global COVID-19 lock down every night is libre game night!

5 stars
A timeless masterpiece about power and belief

Dune. Arrakis. Desert planet. Long before I read Frank Herbert’s 1965 classic, it exerted its pull on me. As a kid, I spent dozens of hours playing Dune II (1992), which kickstarted the real-time strategy genre in gaming, with a thin plot loosely based on Herbert’s novel. I enjoyed Star Wars, which owes many of its ideas and settings to Dune. And I ran away (as you should) from the botched 1984 movie adaptation.

In 2020, how does the novel hold up?

Dune tells the story of a conflict in the far future, with cataclysmic consequences for a humanity that has become an interplanetary civilization. The conflict centers on the planet Arrakis, the only source of “spice”, a mind-enhancing drug needed for space navigation.

Young Paul Atreides, member of one of several powerful Houses that rule the galaxy, joins his father, Duke Leto, on a journey to take charge of Arrakis on behalf of the Emperor, displacing House Harkonnen. The Harkonnens have other plans—and so, it turns out, does the Emperor. Will the inhabitants of the desert planet, the native Fremen, take a side in the conflict? And what is the meaning of Paul’s visions of the future?

Frank Herbert is an incredibly imaginative author, and he manages to pack so many complex ideas into just a few paragraphs that it can make your head spin. The future of Dune is one where humanity has not only invented AI, it has decided to do away with it, in a jihad against technology. Instead of AI, a select few serve as mental computers—mentats—on behalf of the ruling class.

Religion, too, plays a powerful role. A religious order known as the Bene Gesserit has fused faith, eugenics, and mental discipline to pursue a long term agenda alongside secular rulers. Through its Missionaria Protectiva, it has seeded superstitious beliefs in human settlements throughout the galaxy, so it can exploit those beliefs later.

All this world-building is at times dizzying, especially when Herbert uses invented words and concepts without much introduction, leaving the reader to figure out what they mean (or inviting her to read the book’s glossary). But this is not a book without payoff—the characters and the world come alive as the story unfolds.

Herbert wrote five more novels that continued the story, and his son Brian Herbert has co-authored many additional books set in the same universe. While this sheer volume may seem daunting, the story told in Dune stands on its own, with or without sequels or prequels.

The Verdict

Dune is a masterpiece, at times challenging, but highly rewarding. By focusing on timeless themes of power and belief (instead of obsessing about the future of technology), Herbert managed to write a story that is just as much at home in the 21st century as it was in the 20th.

In some ways, it feels more relevant than ever. Part of the book is a plea for ecological literacy (it even features an appendix on the ecology of Arrakis), for understanding the interdependence of life and life-giving resources. And as we grapple with AI not just as a concept but as a reality, Dune depicts a fascinating future where the human intellect is augmented, not replaced.

I’ll withhold judgment on the arc of Herbert’s books until I’ve read more of them—but I can wholeheartedly recommend the first book in the series. A new movie adaptation is in the works, but with a world-wide pandemic, who knows when we’ll actually see it. In the meantime, you can’t go wrong reading the book that started it all.

2 stars
Un no buen libro sobre el lenguaje e Internet  es

Para quienes desconocen las particularidades de Internet puede resultar algo (no demasiado) esclarecedor.

Un acierto del autor ha sido sin duda dedicar capítulos separados a las diferentes situaciones que se presentan en Internet:

  • La red informática mundial (o World Wide Web)
  • El correo electrónico
  • Grupos de charla (síncronos, como IRC; asíncronos, como las listas de correo)
  • Mundos virtuales

La descripción que hace del lenguaje de Internet es bastante precisa a grandes rasgos. Sin embargo, es incapaz de proporcionar una visión lo suficientemente detallada con tan pocos datos: usa unos pocos correos de que dispone para describir el correo electrónico y otras pocas conversaciones para los grupos de charla. Para la red informática mundial se apoya principalemente en guías de estilo y en otros estudios sobre el lenguaje de Internet.

No ha estudiado profundamente el uso de otros idiomas aparte del inglés en Internet, cómo se relacionan comunidades angloparlantes con las no angloparlantes ni qué papel juegan factores como el ancho de banda. Se ve claramente que el autor no tiene ni la más remota idea de cómo funciona Internet a nivel técnico. Con esa limitación solo puede hacer apreciaciones superficiales.

No aporta nada nuevo, no resulta interesante la lectura y deja demasiadas cuestiones sin resolver. Tampoco se aventura a pronosticar mucho sobre el futuro de Internet y sus efectos. En el prólogo dice que el libro lo ha escrito básicamente para formar su opinión y esclarecer sus ideas acerca del lenguaje de Internet y sus consecuencias, poco más. A mí prácticamente no me ha aportado nada, quizás porque entiendo como funciona técnicamente Internet y ya había observado y participado en gran medida en las diferentes situaciones comunicativas de Internet usando diferentes idiomas.

A día de hoy, dadas las novedades que ha habido en Internet desde su publicación en 2001, el libro no resulta muy útil. No he leído la segunda edición (publicada en 2006) en la que se incluye un capítulo sobre los blogs y la mensajería instantánea ni creo que la lea nunca.

4 stars
A solo sojourn in a space station full of 3D memories

As my reviews of Gone Home and Firewatch make clear, I am favorably disposed towards exploration games (sometimes described as “walking simulators) where the player explores a story-rich world with relatively few action or puzzle elements.

Tacoma is the second game by the makers of Gone Home, Fullbright Games from Portland, Oregon. In Gone Home, the main character (a woman named Katie) returned to an empty home and tried to find out why her family wan’t there to meet her. In Tacoma, the main character (a woman named Amy) visits an empty space station and tries to find out what happened to its crew.

But where the world of Gone Home was littered with notes and other papers for the player to sort through, Tacoma tells its story through the experiences of the crew, which Amy can review through recovered Augmented Reality recordings. The ghostly figures of the crew can be observed in conversation, taking a smoke break, or playing AR games.

In the lounge of the space station, watching an AR recording of the station’s medical officer talking to its AI. (Credit: Fullbright Games. Fair use.)

Ostensibly, Amy’s job is to recover the valuable “wetware” that powers the ship’s Artificial Intelligence, but in the process, we are learning more and more about the events that caused Tacoma to drift through space without its crew. It quickly becomes clear that an accident happened on Tacoma, but we still don’t know the fate of the crew, and whether there is a deeper mystery to uncover.

In addition to AR recordings, Amy can access some of the crew members’ most intimate personal files—calls and instant messages, emails, private notes. Much of this does not add to the main story, but paints a more complete picture of each crew member’s motivations and emotional connections.

There are no real puzzles, but there are countless objects you can interact with, from books you can pick up to a zero-g basketball game you can play. These details serve no purpose other than to create a richer world for the player to explore.

There’s also a fair bit of world-building to center the story of Tacoma in a future where humans and AI must learn to co-exist, and a small number of corporations is fighting for control of people’s lives. This world is intelligently constructed, and whether or not you find it plausible, it’s internally consistent.

In spite of all this, you’ll likely finish the game in 2-3 hours—double that if you add another playthrough for more exploration or to access the commentary track.

In short, Tacoma is an atmospheric game that lets you feel like you’re on a space station, without having to deal with demons or aliens. As a story, I found it less compelling than Gone Home, in spite of the clever storytelling mechanics. It’s hard to become invested in any of the characters, and the clues we get about their backstories provide very little narrative payoff.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the time I spent on Tacoma. I wouldn’t recommend paying full price for it, but it regularly drops to $5-$7.50, at which it offers good value.

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