My Pivot Away from Video Game RPGs

A few weeks ago, I started playing Mass Effect 2 and was instantly sucked into it. Well, instantly after playing the initial, 15 minute, unskippable cut scene sequence 3 or 4 times because I couldn’t get the controller working in Windows properly. Anyways, I was instantly sucked into the giant universe and cinematic feel. I knew there was an epic story ahead for me to be invested in. Within 2 weeks and maybe 4 hours of gameplay, however, I was over it.

Despite having grown up on computer role-playing games (RPGs), I have been turned off by them recently. RPGs are different from strict action or adventure games in that the player character grows stronger over the course of the game. Games typically accomplish this with either an experience or loot system. Along the way, an overarching plot and a variety of side quests fill out the game.

Recently, I have found myself wanting more out of the story and my investment into my character. Instead, I have found most games to be a grind, which I quickly become bored of. Today, consumers expect at least 30 hours of gameplay out of RPGs, and although developers do their best to vary the content, most of it ends up being somewhat similar. To contrast, a season of a TV show may not even last 20 hours, and there’s plenty of filler in that.

It’s interesting how increased player choices also seems to decrease variability in games. I have 2 examples in mind. First, many RPGs allow players to pick one of a few possible playable classes, each with different gameplay strategies, such as brawlers, snipers, magic users, etc. This choice, however, means that enemies and encounters must be designed in a way that allows different techniques for success. And the easiest way to do this is to make all enemies bland since unique challenges would be imbalanced against different classes.

The second example is the open-world RPG, where the player is allowed to roam around a big world and loosely follow their own path through the story. Although it sounds liberating, the lack of “railroading” means that game developers have to account for a lot of different cases. Again, the result typically isn’t detail into specific encounters and enemies: the content instead ends up being generic so that all paths end up roughly the same.

The last point I’ll make is that the RPG and action genres have crossed over in modern action RPGs like Diablo and first-person RPGs like Borderlands, which really mix the genres up. Again, I have found these games something of a grind because they usually based on similar, known gameplay and interfaces (FPS or clickfests) but also mix in extended game content through grinding for experience or equipment.

Of course, these are all opinions based on my changing preferences in games. I once was happy to spend night after night running the same Diablo 2 boss to hopefully get loot. Nowadays, I’m looking to get the most story per hour of gameplay and cut out the grind. Although I appreciate the cinematic feel of AAA roleplaying games, they are hard to justify the hours spent compared to, say, reading a book or watching a movie if I wanted a story.

In writing this post, I have realized I should be playing more adventure games. They’re usually tighter and closer to 10-15 hours and have some novel gameplay. And they’re made for the story instead of trying to just generate content for one to grow and grind through.

I have Alan Wake on steam: I’ll give that a shot and follow up on how that goes.

My Apple Event Reactions

The Apple event yesterday unveiled the iPhone 6, Apple Pay, and the Apple Watch, which might be the biggest Apple announcement since the iPad. This event was big for me, however, because it was the first iPhone event after getting one myself, which finally gave me the experience of, “I gotta get me one of those.”

The previous 7 iPhone announcements were less meaningful to me since I had no basis of comparison. They looked cool, but all of them were well-beyond my flip phone. Looking at the new features and specs of the iPhone 6, however, I could feel how these improvements would change my life, despite my light usage of my current phone. It’s thinner. It has better battery life. The camera is fancier and stabilized in ways I don’t understand. It uses technology to make phone calls better, apparently. What’s not to love?

This has led me to the same crisis as every other iPhone user has experienced for many years before me of how to reconcile my desire for something new and shiny with the reality of an existing contract and the fact that I still have it pretty good with a 1 year old phone. It still feels new to me.

So I turn towards sour grapes to resolve the dissonance. Well, my current phone is better anyways. The new form factor is too big. My phone is already bigger than it probably needs to be, and the bigger screen would just frustrate my pockets. And I would be so worried about breaking the new phone that I couldn’t really use it to its full capacity. Things are totally better this way.

But if the apple fairy came into my house at night and swapped my iPhone 5S for an iPhone 6, would I be okay with that? Heck yes.

The Apple Pay thing was cool, but I think the real target of the event was the Apple Watch. After having talked to various people over the past day, it seems like opinions are spread, but the median is negative. It’s too expensive. It’s probably limited by phone tethering. It looks too big. It looks too small. It’s too rectangular.

I myself am more positive on it than not. With the caveat that I am incapable of dressing myself (Julie does that for me) and don’t have any sense for fashion, this watch looks like something that people would want to wear. It offers customizability in something that one presents as part of their image constantly, and I think people care about that sort of thing.

I’m also not worried about the price point: Apple is snobby, and those unwilling to pay will have to wait for the price to drop, which I believe it will. For a completely new product, however, Apple has priced it high enough to detract people from using it just to give it a hard time. Only the rich and Apple fanboys will buy it, and that will give it snob appeal and positive user reviews regardless of the true experience. Apple seems to do a good job refining products, and I think the next iteration will improve while keeping the brand intact.

Of course, I’m not planning on getting one, but I’m excited to see how it goes. Detractors mentioned how derivative this product is and how other, cheaper products provide better, targeted experiences. I have to admit that I myself was hoping for something more exotic. Maybe it could have been something implanted in one’s chest like Tony Stark’s reactor, or something similarly mind-blowing. But it’s just a watch, and I think people will be more than happy with that anyways.

A brief history of my TODO list

I’m obsessed with staying organized. I know how often I don’t commit something to memory or forget later, and I see life as a constant struggle against the chaos and idleness of disorganization. Having a system seems to be the key, and when everything can seemingly be solved with software, there’s an app for that. As such, I thought I would share a brief history into my own system.

The Folder

Until I got to college, I didn’t have a system. I think we were required to have organizers and time trackers during primary and secondary school, but I never really used any of that. In retrospect, it’s astounding how much effort teachers put into teaching us reasonable skills (like time and task management), which we completely missed because we were some combination of not busy, conscientious, or understanding enough of why we should do it.

Regardless, I went through the motions as much as required but never really used any of that. All I had was a single, usually plastic, two-pocket folder. I had to carry binders of notes, spirals, time trackers, and whatever else, but the only thing that actually mattered was in that folder. At a time where most tasks were homework, which was often a piece of paper, it was an easy way to keep track of everything. Fill the folder over the course of the day, then empty it as I completed things.

I’m not quite sure how I factored studying for tests into that system, but when calendars only had to be scheduled at most a week out, it didn’t really matter. It was a simple system, but it worked because the scope was so small. In truth, my teachers, education system, and parents really kept track of anything important. They doled out my tasks and calendar in bite-size pieces that were easily represented with a folder.

OSX Stickies

When I got to college, I started using the Stickies widget on the OSX dashboard page. Presumably, the change of context from high school to college rendered the folder ineffective. I’m guessing I developed the habit when I started putting my random addresses into Stickies and evolved random notes into a single, very long TODO sticky note. Despite being somewhat rudimentary, it was effective for planning out when I would have to study for one class or work on an assignment for another.

I was extremely reliant on it. When my motherboard died, I wasn’t worried about any documents on my computer: the most important thing was recovering my Stickies so I wouldn’t drop anything within the week. Overall, it is perhaps the closest to a true TODO list as I have ever used: it had few recurring tasks and could easily be populated and scheduled out to about a a week. During college, most of my tasks were still relatively short-term and could easily be accommodated in this system.

Evernote

Towards the end of college when I started working, I switched over to Evernote. I became an Evernote fan as a way to collect my dozens of random text documents on my computer, but it became the right TODO list tool because it was portable. When I had a work computer and a personal computer, I couldn’t sync up the Stickies widget, so I couldn’t do things or add tasks while at work.

The portability brought me over, but it was the checkboxes that kept me. As I transitioned into real life with errands and chores, I developed more recurring tasks, which I could check and un-check as necessary. This evolved into the regular TODO list, which I previously described. In brief, I divided up tasks into daily, weekly, monthly, and irregular tasks, and managed it in a single note.

Asana

My Evernote system was good and probably sustainable if I hadn’t found a better task management tool in Asana within the past few months. Evernote is more of a swiss army knife, where Asana was built specifically for task management in mind. I started using it because unlike Evernote, it works with other people. I started recording tasks around the house with Julie, but I instantly became a fan of the system. It reminded me of the issue tracking system I use at work, except it stripped away a lot of the doctrine and boilerplate to make it very simple to add, organize, and complete tasks.

It was easy to transition everything, and it allows me to set tasks to repeat. This was particularly helpful for my regular TODO list: instead of having to reset at the end of every period, it resets on completion and files it away until that day comes up. Even better, it has the due date so I can see how many days I have skipped on a daily task (usually exercise).

I think there are a few other nice features to it that I’m not recalling at the moment, but ignoring the details, I think everyone should be using Asana. I honestly don’t get how any adult can get away without a task management system, and Asana makes it so easy for both personal and team use. With a task management system, it’s hard to guiltlessly fail to do something: there’s a task that won’t go away until it is completed.

The Future?

One of my coworkers shared Bullet Journal with me, and she was right because conceptually, I love it. I love it because it’s an organization system. Moreover, it has 2 characteristics which I feel are missing.

First, it’s analog. Despite everything about my life, I still fancy myself a luddite and pretend like things would be better without computers. There’s something still satisfying about having a system in pen and paper.

Second, it has history. This blog and my advocacy for journaling are both symptoms of my interesting in recording my life. I have at various times tried to maintain lists of books I have read, events I have gone to, movies I have watched, and music I have been into, but none of it really stuck. All of it was more work than seemed immediately worthwhile. Having that documentation built into my regular flow sounds really nice, especially if it’s private and analog.

So I’m not sure what’s next, but at the current pace, in at most 3 years, I will have a new system because it satisfies some new requirement. Looking at my history, it seems that each change came about by a larger change in my life: first college, then work, then moving out.  I’m not sure what is happening in 3 years, but I’m sure I’ll need something different.

Our Stanford Football Traditions

This past weekend, college football season returned, and as a loyal Stanford football fan, I had my season tickets to show up to our 45-0 walloping of UC Davis in sweltering heat (by our Northern California standards) with 49,000 fans in attendance. It’s exciting to be back.

Maybe it has always been like this, but it seems like college football is currently under a lot of scrutiny for policies, including NCAA abusing its privilege, unionization and pay for student-athletes, corporate interests and structure of post-season bowl/tournament play, concerns over the health of players, and more. As a guy who just wants to root for his own team, however, I scuttle past that just to enjoy the experience. When I interact with a limited number of people on a daily basis, it’s a big change to have a regular event in the fall to participate in something bigger.

Furthermore, sports breed traditions, rituals, and superstitions. From the individual to the local group to the community levels, we construct our own experiences, and I thought I would share a few from my group of game-attending friends.

Not Tailgating

Maybe this will change this season, but we don’t tailgate. As a student, I was never a member of a group that did tailgate, so that tradition never carried over for me. Seeing as it’s a great American tradition, however, I wonder whether our gameday experience would be enhanced by it.

The Michael Thomas Play of the Game

Michael Thomas is a recently-graduated Stanford alumnus who now plays as a safety (defense who stands in the back) for the Dolphins. He’s made it to play in the NFL, and he was good for us too, but what I best remember from him was his penchant for running with dead balls. In football, the defense can pick up dropped balls and run in the opposite direction to score, but only if the play isn’t already declared over. There’s a little bit of wiggle room, but Thomas had a generous interpretation and would take off with balls on obviously dead plays. It worked just often enough (see Stanford-UCLA 2010) to reinforce this belief, but it often looked ridiculous. As such, we have come to naming the “Michael Thomas Play of the Game” when a Stanford defensive player picks up and runs with an obviously dead ball.

Imitating the Quarterback Audible

When the offense sets their formation, the quarterback will often take a look at the defensive formation and may choose to change the play at that time. This is called an audible. Different quarterbacks indicate it differently, but our favorite comes from Stanford, when the quarterback yells something like, “Kill kill kill!” and does a strange sort of chicken flapping action with elbows and arms tucked in, hands pointing out from the shoulders, then poking outwards.

Tacos El G Season

I have started to refer to college football season as “Tacos El G” season since we transitioned into a post-game tradition of going to Taqueria El Grullense after games. The restaurant is a dive, but the food seems good and authentic. The wet green/red burritos are quite popular among us, and if it was a hot day, I will usually get horchata as well.

Now that I enumerate a few of them, perhaps there aren’t as many as I thought there were. Perhaps I’ll count season tickets as a tradition in their own right. What really seems to matter here is the regularity and the comfort and cohesiveness that the activity brings. Maybe football (and sports as a whole) are ridiculous, but at least I’m participating in something bigger.

Old Friends, New Ways to Connect

Sometime relatively recently, Facebook added videos to the newsfeed, and it taps into the worst part of me. I don’t want to get sucked into the newest viral video, but it just starts playing when it scrolls into view, and I have to stop to see what happens. My better side wants to look away, but I can’t.

Like everyone, I have toyed with the idea of tossing my Facebook account. My uses for it are few. One, it brings traffic to my blog since it’s difficult to find otherwise. Two, it offers up addictive content that I would rather let the masses of reddit than my few friends pick for me. Three, it tells me when people get married or move somewhere, which is momentarily interesting but only relevant in conversation when I am told in person and awkwardly reply, “Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook.”

Four, and most importantly, it is the best way for people to find me and for me to find them. Most people have phone numbers and emails, but those change and are hard to find, whereas most everyone I know has Facebook. It’s a great way to keep in touch, especially on birthdays as I noted in my last post.

Since then, I have been getting back in touch with high school friends I haven’t talked to or seen in many years. Last night, my high school friend David came over to meet up with several other high school transplants. Even though he had been in the area for awhile, we missed each other and hadn’t We talked about old times, like the competitions we battled in, the teachers we had, and the prison-like experience of school*. We all had a great time, but I don’t see how it could have happened 20 years ago.

Earlier this week, I played the new Dungeons & Dragons with 5 of my friends from high school, living across 3 time zones in 4 different cities, over roll20 using Google Hangouts. We had the inevitable technological difficulties getting setup, but within a half hour, we were laughing over the “tabletop” experience shared between all of us.

I also play StarCraft weekly with friends again spread across the United States. We have kept it going for over a year now, and as much as I like StarCraft, I appreciate it more for the people. Two of my college roommates join regularly and have gotten to know some of my high school friends decently well talking about Game of Thrones, motorcycles, and never fighting alone.

And perhaps the most regular contact I have is a Google Hangout persistent group chat I have with my draw group from college. I started it as a way to just share fun links without having to start new email chains, but it erupted into very lengthy conversations about work, high culture, low culture, inside jokes, current events, and everything in-between. I liken it to having everyone sitting in a room together except where everyone can talk at the same time. It’s hilarious and keeps us each engaged exactly as much as we want to be.

When I think at a high level about all of these things, the immediate wonder is how people kept in touch without the internet. My blog should be evidence in my own belief about the value of long form communication, but even then, I see letters as time-consuming and limited. I guess I could call, but there is some amount of anxiety about interrupting other people. As such, I find that tech as a medium has 2 advantages.

One, it can put us into the same space so I know I’m not bothering anyone. I myself am fairly available, and being present online in persistent spaces like a group chat can indicate that.

Two, it can arrange for shared experiences and events, such as the games mentioned above. Like exercise, staying in touch with friends works best when organized around a schedule. Despite the importance of people, we typically organize our lives around what we do, not who we do it with. Thanks to video chat and associated services, I can play tabletop games and hold book club meetings with geographically divided people.

All things, however, come with an opportunity cost, and I can think of two general issues. First, it’s possible that this sort of connection with distant friends reduces the likelihood of and displaces in-person interactions. Since we can stay in touch this way, I may feel less of a need to see them in-person. I see this as less of an issue because travel is generally an issue, and the opportunity to engage with them at all has kept them closer.

Second, it displaces more local, community-based interactions. Because i can play D&D online with my friends, I don’t go to my local game shop to play. More generally, I don’t have a tremendous drive to go out and meet new people because I have other ways to connect. Most people I know have difficulty keeping up with old friends, but it’s not that big of a deal because we just make new friends.

It’s a tradeoff, but technology has offered us new ways to maintain contact with people geographically divided. I think it’s a personal decision as to whether that is better or worse than connecting locally, but having the option is awfully nice. The technology has improved beyond what I feel are more shallow forms of communication and hopefully will continue to progress in this manner.

* no windows, no leaving campus, confiscation of all cell phones, no facial hair, random drug testing, and pat-downs at graduation. Did I miss anything?

Great Things About My Birthday

Thanks to everyone for the birthday wishes. As it is, I think Julie gets more excited about my birthday than I do, but it’s still really nice to be treated specially once a year for pretty arbitrary reason. Here are a few of the nice things about it, some of which may resonate more with you than others.

Good Food

Julie and I went to Queen House, my favorite Chinese place in downtown Mountain View. We went there last year for my birthday, so I guess it’s becoming something of a tradition. They have really good beef noodle soup and a 3 dishes for $25 (plus rice or scallion pancakes) menu that has good options. I think I have figured out  a lot of Chinese restaurant dishes, but they still manage to make theirs taste extra good.

Afterwards, we went to Sno-Zen for shaved ice. My uncle and cousin introduced me to it down in LA, and I have been craving a second shot at it. It’s light and fluffy unlike snow cones (which are just icy), and it’s like ice cream without the heaviness. The owner was friendly and helpful above typical courteous service. I can appreciate that and would absolutely recommend it to a friend.

Baseball Trade Deadline

The MLB trade deadline happens to be July 31st, so I have baseball rumors and news going on through the mid-afternoon. In a sport spanning 162 games and more than half of the year, there are few times with a spurt of action, and this happens to be one of them.

Facebook

Facebook has spawned what I’m sure is the relatively new phenomena of having endless email or push notifications as people wish you a happy birthday all day. For me, it tends to be a lot of high school friends who I haven’t talked to forever, and though it’s somewhat superficial, I’m glad for the brief moment of connection that may bring back past relationships. I try to send back thanks to everyone in a few sittings over the course of the day with some other appreciative note or response.

Harry Potter and Shared Birthdays

Harry Potter’s birthday was also July 31st. Maybe I’m biased by the similarity, but I can’t think of another fictional characters’ birthday who is more recognized. That’s cool. I would also like to give a shoutout to my friends Andy, Michael, Sam, and the couple others who I very painfully have to say I have forgotten who also share my birthday.

Target

After getting shaved ice, Julie and I went to Target to buy somewhat mundane things like socks and contact solution. Everyone who I told this to when asked about birthday plans laughed, though Julie called me out for doing this deliberately for the laugh. I honestly really like Target: I’m not much for the detail and effort of buying clothes or other apparel, but I do like looking at a lot of knickknacks and other items, and Target is kind of the king of stuff that is totally accessible but not junk. The main goal was to buy new flip-flops, though the only pair that looked serviceable was unfortunately not purchased when Julie pointed out that the style was intended for females.

Gifts… from myself

Most transitions from childhood to adulthood are overstated, but a nontrivial one for me was the ability to get things for myself. I realized when I started working that unlike when I was a child, I can get the things I want on my own. I don’t have to wait for a birthday or christmas for a gift. This greatly affected the way I perceived the ownership of things. Fortunately, it hasn’t led to a spree of consumerism, though it has left me in an unusual spot for gifts. I think I previously blogged about trying to give gifts that one would not bother for on their own.

In my case, item number one was a new wallet. Do I really need a new wallet? Not really. My current wallet hasn’t completely fallen apart, and until I literally had money spilling out of my pockets, I probably wouldn’t do anything about it. On the other hand, the buckle is almost detached, a few sheets have come out, and it’s generally in poor condition. As such, thanks Julie for the new wallet on its way.

The flip side of that is that I usually have the will not to instantly buy the things I want and try to be realistic about how much I will use things. As such, it can be tricky to find the motivation to get things otherwise. Once a year, though, I have my birthday. Last year, it was a car. This year, it will be a set of pizza making supplies I have wanted for awhile: a baking steel, a pizza peel, and Jim Lahey’s book. If you haven’t tried his no-knead pizza dough recipe, you must. It’s very easy and absolutely delicious.

Cheaper Rental Cars

Unless I’m running for president, I believe 25 is the last important birthday as I don’t get charged extra for rental cars. Also, my coworker told me that I apparently don’t have to get insurance on rental cars. What a racket.

Why Professional Athletes Deserve Their Pay (and other don’t)

I think professional athletes get a bad rap for what they’re paid. People complain how LeBron James  is paid $6 a second on or off the court just to play a game. Certainly numbers like that put in perspective how much more millions is than what most of us make, but I don’t think the magnitude should shock us away from it. There are many people out there who, in my opinion, probably deserve their fortunes much less than professional athletes do. I wouldn’t necessarily say they deserve our scorn, but maybe it can help us understand how to best allocate our resources.

Starting with athletes, they deserve their pay because they offer a valued service. A perhaps unfortunate truth is that things in society are valued not necessarily on the effort or innovation behind them but simply on what they offer to society. Brilliant mathematicians, biologists, and other academics can spend many years developing a new theory that maybe doesn’t have immediate impact on society, and they are forgotten. On the other end, there are “cloning” businesses that just copy a product or service from someone else and rake in the dough. Similarly, many people (including myself) enjoy watching professional sports and will pay money for tickets and merchandise for it. Athletes are the basis for those sports, and they receive much of the profit. The total salary can be quite large, but that’s simply because of the scale of their impact. Most jobs yield results that are limited in effect, but athletes can affect billions of people by their performance

Another point is that these athletes are not directly replaceable. There is only one best, active basketball player in the world, and he is LeBron James.  We pay to see the best, and he is it. We aren’t satisfied (at least in this context) by an inferior team. Moreover, sports as a whole is well-developed to ensure that (with very high probability) the best athletes do make it to top billing. I’m comfortable saying LeBron is the best because of his raw performance and stats. There are many analysts and scouts both in the media and in sports organizations who work exhaustively to find the best talent, and from elementary school onward, we have development programs for the athletically gifted. I can’t be entirely certain abroad, but I’m pretty confident that those who excel in sports can find the right venues to feature their skills and move forward if they are truly the best. Professional sports is one of the true meritocracies in the world: performance is the most important metric for advancement.

Compare to the world of business, at least as much as I have seen. In business, a large part of success is who you know. People, whether fresh out of school for an entry job or an industry veteran looking at a leadership position, are often hired by reference or something along those lines, and it’s fair that many of them probably are qualified for the job. That many of these jobs are filled this way, however, indicates that there is a much larger population out there who weren’t as seriously considered for the role, some of whom could have been more qualified for the position. Recruiting and job hunting is still a major obstacle in today’s business world because many businesses neither have the reach nor the ability to effectively screen all potential candidates for a job. Perhaps the inefficiency is intrinsic: having that personal connection is valuable, and it’s hard to know from an interview how good someone actually will be. Even so, it’s hard to call something like that a meritocracy.

I think that luck also happens to play a much larger role in business. Granted, there’s a lot of luck play-to-play in sports, but even great players on bad teams can usually manage to earn a good salary or be traded to a team that will pay.  Barring bad luck in injury, there are usually enough opportunities to demonstrate one’s ability. In business, however, so much of what happen is out of our control. Great businesses were crushed in the economic recession. Some websites or apps go viral because it got picked for one news story or picked up in one area while many other comparable products are left in the dust. A major contract is signed or falls through for things as little as someone being caught in traffic.

The difference in my mind between business and sports with regard to luck is that sports happen in a regular, well-defined, often replicated environment where one’s ability can be demonstrated with high certainty. Business (I’m thinking startups and entrepreneurship specifically), on the other hand, is a much looser world where no one really knows what’s going to happen. Success (and pay) can come out of nowhere, or disappear just as quickly. This is going to be extremely cynical, but I think even the biggest successes in business often provide stories that are illusory and understate the importance of variables outside of their control. They probably did a lot of things right and managed a lot of risk, but they also weren’t sunk by something out of nowhere.

Even if we get past execution, it’s hard to say that people in business get what they deserver when there are differences in opportunity from birth. Anyone born in the United States (or equivalently developed country) also has a huge leg up. Being born into a middle or upper class family helps even more. Most people who graduate from college worked hard to get it, but it turns out that family income is pretty good predictor of making that happen. I can’t concretely point out that sports are different, but I think stories like The Blind Side and the demeaning stereotype of dumb jocks indicate that we believe that athletes often don’t come from the best backgrounds.

So everything I have put out there so far has been really strongly-worded and definitely polemical (note I also have tried to avoid specifics to avoid demonizing anyone), but I really do want to offer a positive spin on this. First, lay off the hate: I don’t think it’s productive for us to be annoyed at how much professional athletes make. They deserve it.

Second, I wonder whether we can use sports as a model for improving our education in general. Despite the integrity of some of his work, Jonah Lehrer wrote an interesting piece awhile ago about athletic geniuses. I think our sports development program today is amazing: we identify talent at a very young age and have extensive support for it all the way through to adulthood. These programs are generally accessible  and really foster the best athletes possible. I wonder how well we can do in trying to bridge inequities in general education as well.

Furthermore, how can we come up with better, more efficient ways to allocate talent? The world is inherently messy and irregular, so maybe we can’t quite get the regularized conditions of sports, but anyone involved in either hiring or looking for a job can speak to the huge difficulty there. The scope is much greater than what sports organizations deal with using their scouts, but I think this can continue to improve here.

Speaking of the World Cup

I am shamelessly a World Cup-only fan. Despite the tremendous amount of soccer played throughout the world during the other 200-ish weeks between World Cups, I can’t be pulled away from NFL American football, NBA basketball, MLB baseball, and just a tad of NHL hockey, to pay attention to the leagues that the rest of the world care about. Over these 5 weeks, however, I quickly developed strong opinions about the ability of different teams, criticized FIFA for their policies, and expressed outrage about poor strategy and execution in game.

But that’s not really what I have been talking about these past few weeks. Instead, I would much rather talk about

and just about every topic that doesn’t actually involve the soccer itself but is somewhat related. Given the media coverage of these things, I think that i’m probably quite normal in this respect. During the World Cup, I feel obligated to stay informed and active in this event that citizens of almost every other country regard as being tremendously important. Even so, I can’t engage with it directly, so I stick to the odd news around it. It turns out that it’s a lot more fun to talk about the random stuff rather than analyze the intricacies of a game that I don’t actually understand.

And now that the World Cup is over, I return to my normal sports life, filled largely with my objectively irrational love of baseball, the least action-packed and most idiosyncratic popular sport I know. It’s only another 2 years until I again feign knowledge and interest in athletic competitions taking place in Brazil, only because the peer pressure that everyone else is faking enthusiasm for as well. But it’s a self-fulfilling and sustaining enthusiasm that I think we all enjoy quite a bit.

So good on you, Germany, for taking this one. Having watched a few of your games, I whole-heartedly believe that your team really deserved this victory, even though your strategy was quite conservative and boring in the final game.

But importantly, Scolari is out for having embarrassed Brazil. What do you think of that?

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Review

Coming in at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, I was excited to see X-Men: Days of Future Past. Although it’s not part of the Marvel Studios-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I have become obsessed with through Marvel’s Agents of Shield, this storyline is particularly famous in comic book lore, where Kitty Pryde sends herself back in time from a dystopian future to prevent that future from ever happening.

As featured prominently in the marketing campaign, the movie features both generations of X-Men: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen play the older Professor X and Magneto, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender the younger, and both have X-Men around them to form a large ensemble cast. The movie mixes time travel into the superhero formula to create the ultimate, contemporary sci-fi action movie. The movie is anchored by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who interacts with both timelines by being sent back from the future to the early 1970s to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering the man behind the Sentinels, robots that destroy mutants in the future.

The movie works largely within existing plot elements and tropes, such as Wolverine’s amusement at life in the 70s and a “student becomes the master” relationship between Wolverine and a young Professor X. The animosity between a young Professor X and Magneto brings a nice human element to a genre often maligned for its lack of depth in hiding behind special effects.

The special effects were, of course, quite impressive. The future shows off a mix of new and familiar mutants to the movies, including Bishop, who can absorb kinetic energy and fire it out of his gun, and Blink, who can create portals for impressive combat tricks. A highlight in the movie is an appearance by the speedy Peter Maximoff, who we first meet when playing ping pong against himself.

Despite involving the large, ensemble cast, the movie is mostly set in the past, and it feels as though a major opportunity to feature Stewart and McKellen is missed. Rather than risk the confusion of time travel communication and heavier interplay between past and future selves, the future is basically a framing device for the story in the past. The script dodges an opportunity to explore the question, “If you could go back in time 50 years, what would you tell yourself?”

The past is set just around the end of the Vietnam War, and the ensuing events are large, political issues. Since the first X-Men movie, there has been a “humans versus mutants” theme, and set in a different and more fatigued world, the writers had an opportunity to not only situate the story in major world events but also to draw greater, more poignant lessons. If there were in there, however, I think I must have missed them. Let me know if you catch any of them.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, though the 91% rating overhyped it for me. Although it stays close to well-established movie tropes, it is executed well and should keep you engaged to the end.

And beyond, since there is an after-credits scene to wait.

Memories of my Po-Po

About two weeks ago, my po-po (maternal grandmother) passed away. At the funeral, several members of my family patched together a more complete look at her life than I had ever heard. I knew that she had come to Canada under her sister’s name, but when that happened and how she met my gong-gong (maternal grandfather) never came up. My uncles talked about her as a mother and what they learned from her. They mentioned her liveliness, her quiet leadership, her self-sufficiency, her dedication to family. Many stories from my sisters and cousins revolve around food, which is much of what I remember as well.

Since she passed, I have tried several times to write about her and failed, so I’m taking the easy way out and being self-aware. My blog posts tends to be formulaic: I start with a story about a recent event, then meander through my thoughts and extrapolate wildly. Somewhere along the way, I hit the hopefully profound moment of insight, share it, then wrap it back around to the original story as the close. For my po-po, it took one draft to get the lesson I wanted, but I couldn’t bridge the gap between a central story to that lesson.

I will again cop-out of real structure and say that it wasn’t a failing of writing to come up with the story: the problem is that the influence of my po-po is greater than can be expressed so concisely in a blog post. Instead, she has weaved herself through my life so deeply that I can only recognize the bits of it, which follow in a scattered manner.

Physically, there are the plates and bowls passed through my family.  These bowls have held countless bowls of cereal and held beaten eggs for many baked goods. These aren’t family heirlooms, though: they’re the dishes from airplane meals that you get your bread roll in.

Although I probably wouldn’t take a tray myself, I do remember the jars of smarties and 2-cracker packages of saltines, probably carried off from Chinese buffets in a napkin. And I remember waking up one morning to see my po-po carefully transferring individually wrapped pats of butter into a butter tray. I got through college by snagging cereal and milk from dinner the night before or stashing an apple or orange for breakfast.

Once a year, a clan of old Chinese people would caravan between Toronto cemeteries to visit the graves of their ancestors. There were lots of seemingly creepy people, and it was mostly riding in the car, but what 5-year old Kevin did know was that every attendee received a bag with a styrofoam box of Chinese food and a can of Sprite. A can of Sprite worth a day in my life.

So I happily sat in the middle, fold down front seat of the Cadillac between my grandparents. I couldn’t have sat in the backseat had I wanted to because it would be filled with luggage and supplies for every contingency. My po-po had extensive pillows for the marathon drives they would take to drive to Florida or Palm Springs, or later on, Houston when my family moved. My legs dangled, which was also okay, because there were glass jars of candies, sweet and salty dried orange peels, dried prunes that could either be delicious or disgusting based on the color of the writing (which I never did figure out), and other assorted snacks. And there would always be the huge thermos filled with tea.

I don’t remember really having too many in-depth conversations with my po-po. Her English was fine, though maybe it would have helped if I had known more Toisan. I do remember a lot of commands and laughs, though.

I once got a yellow “old-timers baseball” t-shirt from her that even today would be way too big. She gave it to me one day while at the cottage out of my grandpa’s collection, and I can’t possibly fathom the reason for it beyond my interest in baseball. Despite that, I ended up wearing it from several years.

Her Christmas gifts typically came in cardboard boxes wrapped in newspaper. Inside, I could expect half-rolls of girl scout cookies and other assorted goodies. I haven’t confronted my mom about it, but my mom’s last Christmas present was a cardboard box filled with assorted cooking equipment, and also a half-package of soap.

The simplest way to put what I learned from my po-po is that I learned how to be cheap, but I think the trivializes all of the intentions behind it. What’s so ironic is that because of her and my parents and grandparents, I have never been in a situation where frugality was necessary. Her dedication to family enabled the wonderful life I have, where saving is just norm. She taught me that what really matters is providing for and being there for the people you care about, and it’s worth enduring discomfort to have saved a bit of cash or driven across the country to make that happen. Stretch a little here and there to be able to spend time, the most limited resource, to truly have a fulfilling life.