Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books, movies, music, and maybe even games.

The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll

On the final evening of the 2014 Out of Excuses Workshop and Retreat, Mary Robinette Kowal and I sat with students and talk about historical stuff, and Mary brought up some fun 18th- and 19th- century spy techniques.

I realized that the 1980’s are far enough back that the spy tech from that era seems weird and outdated. And that reminded me of a book I skimmed while working at Novell in the ’90s. I spouted a quick synopsis at the students, and realized that it might be fun for me to re-read.

TheCuckoo'sEggSo I bought a copy online and re-read it on my iPad, and as I did so I realized that the reason I was able to do this is because guys like Clifford Stoll took it upon themselves to build “trustworthiness” into the digital and social structures of the Internet 25 years ago.

The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Cliff Stoll, is a non-fiction account of the author’s discovery of a far-reaching, insidious hack, uncovered because of what looked like an accounting error. The technology he describes is antiquated, but the logic behind the hacker’s exploits remains valid today, and Stoll’s attempts to rally the authorities demonstrate how very unprepared we were back in 1987 for the big disruptions of next 20 years.

It’s dry in spots, and didactic in others, but I plowed through it voraciously. Stoll’s descriptions of the Internet of 1987 seem kind of quaint, but they’re also spot-on for his time.  His political views were very refreshing–he writes as a self-proclaimed liberal hippie, and yet he had to work with the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the Army, and the Air Force for an entire year. This was pretty conflicting for him, and for his friends, and was every bit as interesting to me as the computer stuff.

I met Cliff Stoll in 2006 at an Apache conference where he and I were keynote speakers. It was kind of cool to realize that he was one of the giants upon whose shoulders my entire business model was standing, and yet we had lots of common ground. In re-reading The Cuckoo’s Egg I found a chapter in which young Clifford Stohl sat down and talked to a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, asking for advice, and yes, there seemed to be some symmetry there for me.

[EDIT: As was pointed out by a reader, Cliff Stoll can be found making 3D immersions of Klein bottles with his family in Oakland, California. Looking for something awesome for that person who already seems to have everything? Look no further.]



Breaking the Borderlands

“Honey, I have a shotgun for you.”

I sent this message, and then I dropped the shotgun in question on the floor of the cave and awaited a reaction.

My 19-year-old daughter and I were wandering through the Zaford’s stash cave during the Clan War mission of Borderlands 2, so it’s totally okay for me to be giving my teenager a shotgun by throwing it on the floor of a cave. Video game shotguns can take a lot of abuse.

The color-code on this shotgun was orange, which meant it was from among the very rarest and most powerful class of items. When you see an orange item, you jump on it, so of course Kiki snatched it up, pulled up her inventory screen, and then messaged me back.

“Oh, Daddy. I love it.”

KikiGotAShotgun“Kiki” is my daughter’s online nickname, and by happy coincidence this particular weapon had flavor text associated with it : “Kiki got a shotgun.” When the player reloads the weapon, she will throw it, but instead of tumbling away and exploding like some other magical Borderlands video-game guns, this one will point itself at the nearest enemy and fly towards it, firing as it goes. The flavor text encourages you to imagine what it would look like if a witch on a broom had a shotgun. Oh, and when it flies away a new copy of the gun materializes in your hands, beamed there from your storage deck because video game science fiction is a lot like magic.

But that’s not really the salient point.

See, ultra-rare items show up in chests or loot drops with such tiny frequency that the average player might not see one at all during 20 hours of play. Most players spend dozens of hours grinding their characters up to high levels, and then gang-raiding boss monsters over and over in hopes of an orange drop. And even then, unless they’re doing this during the level-capped “Ultimate Vault Hunter” playthrough, the item is going to be several levels lower than they are. A low-level rare item doesn’t do much good against high-level enemies.

It is unusual, then, for someone to hand another player an ultra-rare item that is leveled perfectly for their character.

I’ve done it dozens of times, because I’m a filthy cheater.

See, from one perspective, the Borderlands games are all about finding new weapons, shields, grenades, and artifacts so your character can face higher-level enemies as you move through the game. Play runs like this: navigate through the level until there’s a fight, have the fight, then stop for five minutes and compare the loot drops to the things already in your inventory. In single player mode this is kind of fun for a while, but in multiplayer mode it quickly gets boring.

From my perspective, the Borderlands games are about teaming up with my kids to kill things in an imaginary world of endless violence, experimenting with play styles and team strategies while laughing at the things our characters say as they interact. Stopping every five minutes for loot comparison crimps the mirth. So I got my hands on an editing tool for our save files, and solved the problem.

The editor has a button that will bring all the items in my inventory up to my level, which means the super-cool stuff I found back during my level 10 slog is still super-cool when I’m level 35. It will let me duplicate items (I did not give Kiki my only copy of that shotgun), and I can even create items in my inventory—items that would exist legally in the game, but which I’ve not yet come across.

Better still, the editor will let me clone elements from one character’s save file and build a brand new character at whatever level or game stage I want, so that I can, for instance, jump online with my daughter and join her level 25 quest without grinding for eight hours to create a level 25 character first.

The Borderlands games do not have a difficulty setting. If they’re too difficult, you are expected to practice more, or grind for hours in order to find more effective weapons, and usually the player must do both. There are hard-core players who have done exactly this, and who have hundreds of hours of hard-fought game play invested in a single character who has lots of cool tools.

And I expect that some of those players resent the fact that people like me exist. I have a dozen different characters, and they ALL have cool tools, and while I also have over a hundred hours logged in the game, I certainly haven’t “earned” the collection of rare and ultra-rare items these characters field.

So what? When my daughter said “oh Daddy. I love this!” I felt like I had TOTALLY earned that moment. I also earned the four hours she and I and my youngest son got to spend together one Saturday, engaged in a quest that would have been eight levels too high for her, except I leveled a copy of her character and inventory from 25 to 32.

Kiki is coming home from school in a couple of weeks, and I suspect there will be lots of Borderlands mayhem spread across the screens in my house. There will be laughing and shrieking and cheering, and maybe we’ll pause for some loot comparison when something cool drops out of a boss piñata,  but whatever happens I’m looking forward to it, and I’ll have the editing tool handy in order to make sure that we all get to play the game we love.

(Dear “Rick’s Games Stuff”: thank you for creating Gibbed’s Borderlands 2 Save Editor, because family time beats the loot-laden snot out of frustration.)


The Boxtrolls

BoxtrollsThe Boxtrolls is quirky, funny, dark, and a little disturbing in all of my favorite ways. I enjoyed it, but I can see lots of places where folks might not think it’s their thing. Then again, there are probably other folks who will love it a lot more than I did. It comes in just a hair below my Threshold of Awesome.

It’s dark for a kids’ movie, but it’s definitely a kids’ movie. You can tell because all the adults are either evil, disinterested, or too stupid to help, leaving our young heroes in charge of fixing things themselves. A trope, yes, but handled in ways that I found very satisfying.

Did I mention that this film is beautiful? Oh, my. I don’t even know where to start. Even the ugly bits were beautiful. This is one that I may want to own on Blu-Ray just so I can freeze scenes and stare deeply into the designs. On that note, though, the poster above does it a great disservice. It hints at some of the energy of the film, but fails completely to catch the spirit or the beauty of it.

Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock In, by John Scalzi breaks a couple of big rules, but gets away with it quite handily.

It’s near-future science fiction in which a plague has created a whole new class of people whose minds are in fine shape, but who have no ability to move their bodies. They’re “locked in,” and as the prologue (okay, THREE rules) tells us, the fact that some very high-profile people get locked in results in hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency research, several breakthroughs, and a cool system whereby these folks can function like normal people — they teleoperate robot chassis, and yes, this causes some societal upheaval.

But that’s the prologue, and I’ve left lots of stuff out. The story itself is part mystery, part sci-fi police procedural, and part technothriller, and covers a lot of ground in some very efficient words. It’s fast-paced, and I found it really engaging from the beginning all the way to the end.

The book felt kind of thin on descriptions. It’s not quite white-room, but it depends heavily on the fact that the readers can be depended upon to fill in a lot of blanks with their own experiences — something readers are going to do anyway, really. It’s near-future SF, so it’s not much of a problem, and Scalzi gets away with this on the strength of the book’s pacing. Rich descriptions would have broken the pace, and besides, he describes the important stuff.

The big issue for me was that the main character did not have a compelling arc beyond getting the mystery solved and keeping his new job. I gave this a pass for a couple of reasons: first, the story is more of an Idea and Event story than a Character story. Second, the main character is a Lock In, and the fairly shallow character arc makes him seem normal compared to the people around him. Sure, he wants the same sorts of things that you and I want, but he’s not a cop on the edge, or a rookie with a dark secret, or any of the other plot-shortcut tropes.

So I guess it’s not a big issue. It only came up when I got to the end and realized that although the end was satisfying, the main character’s journey wasn’t really about him at all.

The book has already been picked up for a TV series, and I think that it’s kind of perfect for that. There are plenty more stories to be told in the Lock In universe, and they’re good, thoughtful stories that a competent screenwriter can wrap up in 43 minutes, or can wrap a season of 43-minute episodes around.