4 stars
A short but unforgettable walk in the forest

Can a game be a place?

As the player of Firewatch, you are a man named Henry who starts a job as a lookout in Shoshone National Forest, in Wyoming. In the preamble, we learn that this is an escape from dealing with your wife’s early-onset dementia.

Your only regular human contact is by radio, with a woman named Delilah who works in another lookout tower. Delilah is your boss, and she soon gives you your first assignment: to investigate some illegal fireworks near a lake.

Your relationship with Delilah is influenced by the dialogue choices you make. Mostly, the game keeps you on rails to uncover a larger mystery. This involves a lot of walking around through beautiful landscapes, using your map and compass to find your way.

This is an exploration game—or, as some would say, a walking simulator. The biggest challenges for the player tend to be of the “how do I get from A to B” variety. Nonetheless, Firewatch manages to be immersive and at times even menacing. The game targets an adult audience—as the developers put it, it is a “video game about adults having adult conversations about adult things.”



Firewatch offers many scenic views of its version of Shoshone National Forest. (Credit: Firewatch by Campo Santo. Fair use.)

After you finish the story, you can still continue to explore Shoshone National Forest at your leisure (and collect the game’s soundtrack in a mini-game). The landscapes really are beautiful, whether you’re walking through Thunder Canyon towards the lake, admiring a sunset, or exploring the forest at night with your flashlight on.

It is a very short game, and like life itself, its story is ultimately a bit untidy. You’re unlikely to get more than 4-6 hours of play time out of it. But it is a game that is also a place, and years after playing it, you may be tempted to visit it again.

The current regular sales price for Firewatch is $20. It has repeatedly been on sale for $5, so I recommend wishlisting it and buying it at a lower price.


The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
5 stars
A history of the seemingly ineffable

James Gleick is widely regarded as a masterful science writer, and for good reason. Through the 526 pages of The Information (2011), Gleick spins an accessible tale about Charles Babbages’s difference engine, about Turing machines and Maxwell’s demon, about Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and Shannon-Fano coding and Boolean algebra, all in service of illuminating a concept that may seem ineffable: information itself.

Gleick shows how complex computation and signal processing problems led to the development of information theory, which gave us ways to quantify information and to speak about the entropy of a body of text. This in turn touched countless other disciplines, and made the networked world we find ourselves in today possible. Towards the end of the book, Gleick explores the wonders of this world, including Wikipedia.

The book was written before recent debates about fake news, Twitter bot armies, and similar disinformation campaigns, but Gleick anticipated that the burdens of selecting true from false, and forgetting that which should be forgotten, would only increase.

This is a book that aims for breadth (from talking drums to telegrams, from analog computers to digital ones), not depth. If you’re looking for an introduction to information theory, look elsewhere. As a history of ideas, The Information succeeds brilliantly. Page after page, the book places a question in the reader’s mind, then addresses it; it weaves together anecdotes and facts, never overloading the reader with jargon, but not shying away from complexity.

As Gleick points out, without selecting that which matters, we end up with a Library of Babel, conceived by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges as a library that contains all possible books of a certain length. In the libraries of the real world, this book has earned its place to give us a shared history and vocabulary for the conversations to come.


4 stars
An important puzzle piece in the history of American empire

In How to Hide an Empire, historian Daniel Immerwahr argues that we know far too little about the history of United States beyond the contiguous states that make up the “logo map”:

As in the example above, representations of the United States often exclude Hawai’i and Alaska, to say nothing of “territories” like Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, or the Northern Marianas. But the stories of the millions of people who live there deserve to be heard, and Immerwahr does his best to tell them.

To set the stage, Immerwahr describes the expansion of the United States from coast to coast, and the broken promises and systematic removal of native tribes that came with it. Whether tribes sought to assimilate or to fight, their land was taken; projects like the creation of the State of Sequoyah failed. Instead, US states borrowed the names of native tribes whose land was stolen to create them.

The story continues with America’s quest for bird poop—the annexation of island territory to harvest accumulated guano—and culminates in a America’s colonialism binge at the dawn of the 20th century. In the Spanish-American War, America notably “acquired” the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The Philippine-American War that followed—a war in which Filipinos fought for liberation from American colonial rule—caused a civilian death toll in the hundreds of thousands.

The Cancer Man

But the Philippines are not the only country that resisted American colonialism. From the beginning, many Puerto Ricans have favored independence, especially in light of the overt racism they encountered in contact with visitors from the US mainland.

Immerwahr tells the story of Cornelius Rhoads, a US mainland pathologist who visited Puerto Rico as part of an international health effort. Rhoads not only harbored deep racial hatred for the Puerto Ricans, he bragged about murdering them:

They are even lower than Italians. What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. It might then be livable. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8 and transplanting cancer into several more.

No evidence of these crimes was ever found (which does not mean that they did not take place), and Rhoads called the letter a joke. He faced no significant consequences for it, and became a celebrated cancer researcher (and an expert in chemical and biological weapons, charged with approving tests on human subjects during the war).


Time Magazine cover featuring Cornelius Rhoads, June 27, 1949. (Credit: Time Magazine. Fair use.)

The Rhoads letter was a major scandal in Puerto Rico that drove many to join its burgeoning independence movement. One of them was Oscar Collazo, who joined with another Puerto Rican nationalist in an attempt to assassinate US President Harry Truman in 1950.

Due to the historical amnesia that characterizes America’s relationship with its “territories”, it was only in 2002 that Rhoads’ name was removed from a prestigious award due to the letter in which he bragged about murdering Puerto Ricans. “And that’s how you hide an empire”, Immerwahr observes.

The Empire of Points

The later part of the book mainly deals with the question why America did not become an empire in the British mold after World War II. Instead, the US relinquished control over one colony (the Philippines, through the Treaty of Manila) and sought to establish no new colonies elsewhere. Military bases around the world—a “pointillist empire”—replaced the conventional model of control over vast swaths of territory.

Immerwahr sees multiple reasons for this change, most notably:

  • the growing rise of independence movements around the world, which made colonies an increasingly costly proposition;

  • America’s leadership in synthetics, logistics, and standardization—achieved in significant part through wartime efforts—which enabled it to project military and economic power throughout the world, without being dependent on territorial control;

  • wartime weariness of US troops, who wanted to go home, not occupy a country like the Philippines they had fought side-by-side with the Filipinos to defend.

Immerwahr concludes by examining the political and cultural impact of US military bases, and the connection between this new form of imperial power and the threat of terrorism organized from many small, well-hidden locations.

The Verdict

Immerwahr is a very talented writer, and How to Hide an Empire is full of facts about the “Greater United States” most readers are unlikely to be familiar with. While this isn’t a funny book, Immerwahr isn’t shy to use humor and the first person intermittently throughout the book, without it seeming out of place.

All of this is a potent combination, and I found the book to be a real page-turner. My only criticism is that the author, in emphasizing the role of territory (from colonies to military bases), ends up spending very little time discussing the many other ways the US has projected imperial power, from overthrowing governments to meddling in elections.

While I don’t believe for a moment that this was the author’s intent, readers unfamiliar with this larger history might come away with the impression that the territorial story is the whole story. A larger analytical frame would have served the book well, but as it is, it remains a very readable and insightful analysis of America’s relations with the people who live in the United States beyond the logo map.

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