Filed under Opinion

Favorite Games of 2016

It was actually rather fun putting together a list of favorite games last year, so here we go again for 2016.

Just like last year, this isn’t necessarily a “Best Of” list. Some weren’t even released in 2016. They’re just the games that I enjoyed playing this year and can recommend without reservation. Further down I list some honorable mentions — still great games, but not quite good enough to include on the main list.

Enjoy, and thanks for reading!

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Favorite Games of 2015

The year is drawing to a close, and that usually means lots of year-end “Best Of” lists. I tend not to read these articles, let alone write them; but, I’m making somewhat of an exception this year due to how many noteworthy games were released.

I hesitate to call this “Best Of”, as there is no ranking or rating to the games I’m going to talk about. A few also weren’t actually released in 2015, so to claim a “best of 2015” list would be incorrect. Instead, these are simply games that I played this year, enjoyed thoroughly, and highly recommend.

One other note: these aren’t typical games. In fact, several of them seem to abandon traditional gameplay in favor of story or character development. If that’s not the type of game you enjoy, this list may disappoint.

Okay! Less talk more game!

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Solving Dinner with Blue Apron

It was really difficult to come up with a title to this post that wasn’t like one of those “We tried Blue Apron, here’s what happened” ads.

I had seen those ads scattered around the web, but never clicked on one. Soon after, I started to hear their ads on Star Talk Live, which at least make me curious — mostly because they explained the service better than clickbait. Finally, it was this The Verge article that made me seriously consider subscribing for the first time.

Blue Apron seems to market themselves towards inexperienced cooks, or those who are too busy to shop for groceries on a regular basis. I don’t really fall into either of those groups — while there are many times that I wish I had planned my meals in advance, I quite enjoy grocery shopping.

The wine pairings were enough of a nudge (along with the pre-planned meals) to finally give the service a go. Here are my thoughts.

The Service

For those who aren’t familiar with Blue Apron, it’s a fairly simple proposition: each week you are sent the ingredients for three recipes, with each recipe serving two people (there is also a family plan). You can customize which day of the week you want the delivery, and you can tailor the recipes based on your dietary preferences — for example, vegetarian or no seafood. If you don’t want a delivery for a particular week, you can cancel it a minimum of six days in advance. I worry that this long lead time might become an issue down the road, but so far it hasn’t been a problem.

Other than that, Blue Apron doesn’t require any additional input. You can just let it go, and each week you will get three recipes and the ingredients to make them. If you’re a control freak (like me), you can log in to the website and preview upcoming recipes and make slight tweaks to what you want to receive.

I say “slight tweaks”, because even though you are given the option of six recipes, there are only certain combinations you are allowed to do. My theory is that this is to keep things simple for those packing the weekly boxes (i.e., your selections have to fall into one of the pre-defined “dietary preference plans” they offer). There’s also the tendency for recipes to change slightly — for example, the Oktoberfest Pork Chops we got last week were originally supposed to be Schnitzel Pork Chops. Blue Apron says that this happens because they want to use the freshest ingredients possible; but, whatever the case, it can be disappointing.

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The ingredients come in a surprisingly compact box; but, it’s a rather heavy box due to two large ice packs — any meat or seafood in your shipment is sandwiched between them, with everything else piled on top. It can be a little overwhelming to unload, as nothing is sorted except for little bags of “miscellaneous” ingredients for each recipe. It’s as if you went on an exuberant trip to the grocery store and didn’t remember what you got. Luckily, everything starts to make sense once you start cooking the recipes, and realize which ingredients go with which recipes.

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The wine is a separate service, and you have even less control over it. If you sign up for it, you choose whether you want to receive reds, whites or a mix, and what address you want to receive them. (Since an adult has to sign for the wine shipment, they recommend providing a separate business address for the wine deliveries.) At the start of each month, for an extra $65, you receive six 500mL bottles of wine (slightly less than a 750mL bottle you would find in the supermarket). You don’t have any control over the varieties, but you receive a detailed information card about each wine, explaining where the grapes were grown, who produced the wine, what flavors you can expect, and what recipes in upcoming Blue Apron shipments pair well with it. All in all, it’s a great way to expand your horizons if you’re overwhelmed by or new to wine.

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Verdict: If your schedule is consistent enough to support a delivery once a week, Blue Apron is reliable and easy. But, skipping and customizing meals requires advanced notice.

The Recipes

IMG_2218Packaged along with your shipment of raw ingredients are several large, glossy, full-page cards: one highlights some of the ingredients in that week’s box; the rest detail each recipe, how long it takes to make, and roughly how many calories it is per serving. The steps to make it have clear instructions and pictures — they even bold the ingredients used in that step, so you’re prepared.

Overall, the recipes are varied enough to keep things interesting, but follow a familiar theme so it’s not too jarring to move from one recipe to another. For example, in the first week, there was a salmon with a farro salad, chicken with a jasmine rice, and lamb sausage with French lentils. Each one had a protein on a bed of some sort of starch, and vegetables mixed in. Very different flavor profiles, but similar components.

IMG_2236It’s good that Blue Apron has this overlap so that new cooks can get confident with certain skills. But if their goal is to target new cooks, they need to bolster their library of tutorial videos. Instructions like “core and chop the head of cabbage” may be self-explanatory to some folks, but if you haven’t done a lot of cooking in the past, it may be rather mysterious. As of writing this, there is no video for how to core and chop a cabbage, so you’re on your own if you need an explanation. It’s also worth noting that the estimated prep and cook times are going to vary wildly if you’re not an expert in the kitchen.

That said, if you don’t mind investing some effort in learning to cook (or expanding your horizons in what you cook), then Blue Apron has a lot to offer. Each recipe highlights the elements of a successful meal — in particular, I’m impressed with how they balance sweet, salty and acidic. Most of the recipes I’ve tried so far have vinegar or lemon juice, which really help bring a recipe’s flavors to life.

While I haven’t encountered any new cooking techniques for myself, it has been nice to have (balanced, tasty) meals planned out.

Verdict: Blue Apron requires an investment in cooking; so, if you don’t already cook, or have no interest in improving your skills in the kitchen, then you should look elsewhere. But, if you’re willing to take the plunge, you will be rewarded.

The Ingredients

Blue Apron touts their ingredients as being fresher than the supermarket. So far, I’d say that’s only partially true.

On the one hand, Blue Apron works with several small farms and food producers, which allows them to get exactly the product they’re looking for.

On the other hand, Blue Apron is based in New York, which means most of the suppliers it sources from seem to be around the northeast. But I live in Texas. So how fresh are the ingredients by the time they get down to me?

Most of what arrives on my doorstep is at least similar to what I could get at the supermarket — the meats are high quality, the pantry items are fresh, and the hardy produce is in good shape. But more fragile produce — like fine herbs, or sensitive leafy vegetables — are often half-wilted or on the verge of reaching the Green Slime stage. I feel that Blue Apron could work harder at sourcing ingredients closer to their distribution centers — or, at the least, package their sensitive produce so it can better withstand the journey.

On a more positive note, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to use ingredients that I haven’t cooked with before. Farro, dried hops and beets are just a few of the things that I either haven’t cooked with before, or haven’t cooked in a long time. This gets to the heart of why I wanted to try Blue Apron in the first place — an opportunity to get new recipe ideas, and work with ingredients I don’t normally consider.

I do wish that Blue Apron included more spices in their shipments. If a recipe’s core flavor profile comes from spices, then it’ll be included — for example, a curry is going to include the unique spices that form that dish. But if it’s just a protein seared in a pan, then the only instruction is to use salt and pepper. I’ve taken liberties with a couple recipes to season the protein with some additional spices that I have on hand, but a new cook might miss out on this important method of layering flavors.

Verdict: Ingredients are varied, unique, and usually fresh. Some produce items arrive on the brink of going bad, but so far that hasn’t prevented me from actually making the recipe. An improvement in sourcing ingredients would be a welcome change.

Overall

I’ll be sticking with Blue Apron for now, just because it makes planning meals during the week so much easier. And at $60/week for the two-person plan, it’s about what I would spend at the supermarket anyway. The only thing that might make me reconsider in future is if the long advanced notice for skipping a week or changing meal options becomes a hassle.

As for the wine, that’s even more of an unknown. It’s fairly expensive at an additional $60/month; while I do feel you get your money’s worth (six 500mL bottles), it’s a monthly expense that may not make sense if the quality doesn’t remain consistent.

I think the best endorsement I can give is that I’m genuinely looking forward to some of the upcoming meals; ultimately, that will be what keeps me hooked on Blue Apron.

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Intelligence and the Search for Meaning: Thoughts on The Talos Principle

SPOILERS! This post is full of them. Please don’t read this post if you have any interest in playing The Talos Principle. Should you have any interest? If you liked the puzzles in Portal, and wish there were more: yes. If you want your concept of humanity and perhaps even reality to be challenged: most definitely yes. SPOILERS!

The Talos Principle

What is artificial intelligence?

The simple answer to that question can be found from the likes of Google and Apple. Saying ‘Ok, Google’ or ‘Hey Siri’ into your smartphone will allow you to ask targeted questions; and, within moments, it will be understood, processed, and acted upon.

The problem is that these services are designed around very specific use cases — getting directions to a location, figuring out whether it will rain, and so on. Any variation from this built-in expectation will result in a confused or inaccurate response.

So what do we really mean when we speak of artificial intelligence? Mostly we’re looking for something that behaves like us, like a human. And because we often build artificial things in an attempt to improve efficiency, we believe it should actually rise above some qualities of human intelligence, such as processing speed or the ability to see connections in vast amounts of data.

And that’s where The Talos Principle steps in. You find yourself in a beautiful world full of ancient ruins and complex puzzles — but not as a human. It becomes clear early in the game that you are a machine. There is no trace of a biological body in yourself or in anything else you encounter.

So what are you?

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Apple Watch First Impressions: Beyond the Obvious

Apple Watch
Much has been said about the Apple Watch already. Much of it has been obvious, especially if you’ve been following along with the technology media’s obsession with the device. In light of this, I wanted to write up a quick blog post detailing my experience with the Watch over the past week, while trying to avoid some of the common threads that you’ve likely already read.

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Gin Tasting

It occurred to me and @FlatFootFox the other day that we’ve accumulated several brands of gin. It started with a local variety for Gin and Tonics, then slowly expanded as we stumbled upon rare bottles, or received the occasional generous gift.

When different gins are mixed into cocktails, it’s possible to find subtle variations in flavor; but, it can be difficult to isolate which differences are from the gin, and which are due to the other mixers and their ratios. While they all have the unmistakable foundation of juniper, they don’t contain it in equal measure — and each has a different take on what the supporting aromatics should be. How do these variations affect the straight, raw flavors in the final product?

Here are some tasting notes after trying about half an ounce of each gin, served neat. I’m not an expert taster, so I apologize if these descriptions are tragically basic. What I do hope to convey, though, is just how much variation there is when it comes to a supposedly-simple bottle of gin.

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Slim-Fast was Destroying My Health (and Other Lessons Learned from My Own Weight Loss Challenge)

It’s very easy to become complacent, to deceive yourself into thinking that you’re doing everything correctly, when in reality you’re not.

For me, this reality hit home after a blood test. Borderline high cholesterol, triglycerides and glucose. But why? I knew I was overweight at 200 pounds, but I had been trying to improve my diet: oatmeal for breakfast, a Slim-Fast shake for lunch, a snack in the afternoon, and then a normal dinner. But obviously something was wrong if I wasn’t losing weight, and my blood test had room for improvement.

So I did what I always do: I researched, analyzed, and researched some more. What was I doing wrong? What did I need to do to improve? And, most importantly, what could I do that was sustainable, so I didn’t end up back at square one in a year?

I can’t claim that I’m doing everything perfectly, but I’ve lost almost 20 pounds, and my weight is much more stable now — so I must be doing something right. This is what I’ve learned.

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Buying a Vote

This past Wednesday, @FlatFootFox and I went to see Alton Brown at one of his Edible Inevitable shows, and I can say without a doubt that it was amazing. It was like a real-time mash up of Good Eats, Iron Chef: America and just a dash of Cutthroat Kitchen attitude. There was science, music and food all wrapped up in an experience that I won’t soon forget. I’m hoping that in the next few days I can write up a more detailed blog post about the whole show.

But there was one small piece that I didn’t completely agree with.

Mr. Brown was running through a list of things that he was “pretty sure” he knew about food. One of those items essentially boiled down to “vote on food policy with your money”. There are a lot of options at the supermarket, each with varying degrees of controversy behind them — organics, GMOs, buying local, etc.

The government, he declared, is the wrong method for figuring out the policy surrounding these issues. And to a degree, I would agree with that. No one would argue that the government is a model for efficiency. Nor would anyone argue that the government generates concise, straightforward rules. In fact, as someone who struggled through the process of becoming an American citizen, I can speak to the convoluted process that had been put into place — a process that was frequently a black box, with no real indication of how far along I was in the process or when the next steps would occur.

As an alternative, Mr. Brown suggested voting with your money. For one supermarket trip, watch as your groceries cross over the scanner, counting out your cash for each item. Pretend that each dollar is a vote. Because companies listen to money, and decisions will be made on these hot-button food policies based on how well they do in the consumer market.

Again, it was an argument that I don’t completely disagree with. But there are two issues with this line of thinking that are difficult to ignore:

1. Everyone is guaranteed a vote, but no one is guaranteed a dollar. The promise of democratic government is that it gives us all a voice. Even if we have nothing else, we can help build our society in positive ways. Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that we live in a capitalist economy, and money does have a certain amount of influence. The things that we buy support the companies and services behind them. Unfortunately for a lot of these food policies, though, they aren’t cheap. Organic, hormone-free, local foods are often significantly more expensive than conventional food of the same type. If you’re already limited in resources, paying extra to support better quality food just isn’t an option.

2. It’s difficult to vote when you don’t know how your vote is being cast. It’s easy to say “if you don’t want GMOs in your food, then don’t buy food with GMOs”, but it’s difficult to actually do that if you don’t know what food has GMO ingredients. Attempts to try and get labeling in place have been an uphill battle. So even if you have the means to support certain foods, it may still be difficult or impossible to actually find the products you want to support.

I’m not saying that government regulation is the complete answer. In fact, government regulation is partly to blame for the overabundance of corn syrup and highly processed food that litter supermarket shelves these days. But left to their own devices, companies are going to gravitate toward cheap solutions in order to maximize profits — solutions that may not have their customers’ best interests at heart.

If the government was able to level the playing field — allow more Americans to buy the food they actually want rather than make do with subsidized, highly-processed garbage — then that might be the best compromise. But I don’t see a way for pure consumer spending — or pure government oversight — to successfully bring better food to everyone.

The Next Generation

With Microsoft unveiling the Xbox One yesterday, the next generation of game consoles has officially arrived. Now that we have entries on both sides, I thought I’d give some first impressions.

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Get a Job!

It took me about three or four years to get the job I’m in now. Part of that was during the recession, which forced me to sit back and wait for the market to improve. But even then, I kept browsing job listings to see what opportunities were available.

It’s not fun. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who thinks it is. Now, don’t get me wrong: sometimes a job posting will come along that gets you excited. It’s exactly what you’re looking for! It sounds like a unique opportunity! Or the company is solving a fun, interesting problem! But then reality sets in. How do you apply? How do you get noticed? You look at your dry resume and generic cover letter and, for a moment, you wish that you could pick up the phone and talk directly to the recruiter. Instead of getting lost in a pile of paper (virtual or otherwise), you yearn to speak to an actual human about why the job makes you excited.

When I decided to truly get serious about my job hunt, I knew I needed a different strategy. So I did some research. Ultimately, the answer I found was something I should have known all along.

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