My grandson just turned 8, and he never seems to run out of things to do or to think about. Part of this comes from his parents, both of whom know a lot of different things that they love to pass along to him. So he is already a bigger expert on all sorts of subjects than is his old grandpa. I tried to remember what I was like when I was 8, and what my parents passed along to me. And no wonder I don't know anything. We learned a love of music from our parents, and my dad introduced us to sports simply by being interested in them himself. Once in a while he'd come out on the front lawn to throw a ball around. But that's it. I mean, my mom taught us how to play the piano, but that didn't really stick. I'm not saying I had bad parents, but they were a lot different than my grandson's parents.
I was left to my own devices a lot of the time. One thing I looked forward to every year was the annual release of new rosters for the Negamco baseball game. I'm pretty sure I played this when I was 8.
Each year, you would get rosters with all of the players from the previous year, rated so they would perform in the game as they did in real life. While it seemed pretty complicated, once you got the hang of it, there was nothing to it. The box looked like this:
There were classier (i.e. more expensive) games ... among other things, they used dice to determine outcomes. Negamco used a spinner:
The box, the spinner, everything was pretty cheap, so after about a week, the spinner dial would get bent and the spinner board would get warped, so you'd get 17 all the time, which kinda destroyed the notion that you were using random variation.
It all seemed so real when I was 8. In 2020, games are a bit more complicated. That game I had, it had very few player ratings. A batter would be rated on how many hits he got, and how many of those hits were home runs. Pitchers were ranked from 1-7. No pitchers experienced fatigue, and there was nothing like lefty-righty matchups. So the results would resemble real life a little bit, but not too close, and of course that #17 would screw things up. Now, simulation games like this are computer games, with every possible detail built into the program. Negamco is a thing of the past. (A few of the better board games are still being made, although as I understand it, many of them have moved to computers.)
So, what the hell is this? Is it an episode of Black Mirror, a movie from the Black Mirror crew, or something else? It feels like a Black Mirror episode, albeit a movie-length one. But I've noticed in the couple of days since I watched it, that I refer to the experience as "playing", as in "when you're playing it, if you choose X". So maybe it's just a fancy video game. I'm at a loss for how exactly to evaluate it.
In case you've missed the hype, "Bandersnatch" is an interactive movie that works like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Every once in awhile, a choice of two items appears on the screen. For instance, at the beginning, our young hero, a games programmer, comes down to breakfast. His father asks him what he wants, Frosties or Sugar Puffs, and those words are shown at the bottom of the screen. You choose one, and the story proceeds, informed by your choice. (I took Frosties.) The choices get increasingly troubling, such as deciding which character will kill themselves by jumping off a balcony. This being Black Mirror, there are no happy endings ... although there are apparently at least five possible endings, none of them work out well for the protagonist.
You can see why this is hard to evaluate. Just on a basic level, the "Bandersnatch" I saw, which followed my choices, is different from the one you will see, or even from any subsequent viewings by myself (there are supposedly over a trillion unique permutations). There's no use judging the plot, because it's never the same from one viewing to the next.
The question thus becomes, does this stunt have value beyond the playfulness of its construction? At least in the one time I watched/played, the movie was seamless. There were never any glitches to remind me I was watching/playing a movie that was making decisions every step of the way. Because of that seamlessness, it's easy to forget the technical aspects. Honestly, though, I can't say "Bandersnatch" had much going on beyond the trickery, which isn't to say it was pointless ... it was fun, even intriguing. The best part came when the hero starts thinking he is being controlled by some force, some other people. At first, it just seems like part of his growing alienation and paranoia, but then he gets specific: I don't know why I chose Frosties over Sugar Puffs, I just did, someone controlled my decision. And the viewer realizes that we have become part of the story, for we are the ones controlling him.
It's all perfect for the kind of endless examination of minutiae that flourishes on the Internet ... within hours of its release, people were posting flowcharts of all the possible choices, and spotting the frequent Easter eggs, many of which are call backs to other Black Mirror episodes. This is not where I would suggest people start who are new to Black Mirror ... it is far from the best episode. But it is a different kind of viewing experience, worth a shot (or two, or five, or a trillion).
This will be a longer explanation for yesterday’s link.
I used to post about the game Football Manager about once a year, trying to explain what it was and why so many people obsessed over it. Usually, I’d excerpt a complicated discussion about, say, motivational theory or Karl Popper and positivism. Back in 2010, I linked to an article by Brian Phillips, “The Unreal Genius of Football Manager, Greatest Video Game Ever”. And every year, about this time, I’d post something brief to explain why I wasn’t around much because the latest annual edition of Football Manager had been released.
I thought I’d done this forever, but I don’t think I’ve gotten around to it in recent years. I mean posting ... I still crank up the game (for instance, I played last year’s model, FM 2016, for 924 hours, which wasn’t even my record ... that was FM 2014, with 1236 hours played). FM 2017 beta came out yesterday, and I’ve already managed 11 hours. The game’s depth is endlessly complex, and I’ve been at it since the late-90s.
Each year adds new wrinkles to the game, and often, we’ll get preview videos that show some of the changes, like this year’s, dramatically titled “The Big Reveal”:
But there was a surprise for us when the beta was released yesterday. Miles Jacobson, the director of the series, wrote earlier this year, explaining FM to non-players:
We’ve been releasing games for 24 years, starting off as two brothers based in their bedroom in Shropshire through to where we are now, a 110 strong team based in the Old Street area of London. We make niche games, although the niche is pretty popular – we sell just shy of 2m games a year and were independent until roughly 10 years ago when we became part of SEGA. 30 of the 35 people who were with the studio when the takeover happened are still here now. We also have circa 100 contractors at any one time, some in the UK, and some in other parts of the world.
Jacobson joined the team early on, after brothers Paul and Oliver Collyer created the game. For their efforts, the Collyers were named Members of the Order of the British Empire ... later Jacobson became an officer of the order (or something like that ... I admit I don’t quite understand these things). Suffice to say that the Football Manager series has made a lot of money for those three, and a lot of money for England, and a lot of joy to the players. It’s “just a game”, but it regularly refutes that cliché ... take the title of a documentary from 2010, Football Manager: More Than Just a Game. Or Iain Macintosh’s 2012 book, Football Manager Stole My Life: 20 Years of Beautiful Obsession. Or look at the real teams that use the vast FM database for scouting purposes.
Well, the above quote from Jacobson was a prelude to a long piece about how Brexit might affect Football Manager. He wrote primarily about how it could change the way Sports Interactive ("SI", the company that produces the game) works, detailing some real-world possibilities.
Of course, Brexit passed ... and of course, it will take time for it to take effect, if it ever does. Meanwhile, FM 2017 is here, and we’re all busy trying out the new edition.
Except ... there was a little addition that didn’t make “The Big Reveal”. SI must have a pretty strong non-disclosure agreement for its testers, because this little addition was a complete surprise.
Brexit has been built into the latest version of Football Manager.
A brief explanation. Football Manager is a “management simulation”. Unlike video games you might be familiar with, like FIFA, in FM, you do not control the players during a game. You are the manager of a club. You sign new players, choose staff, run training, create tactics, manage games, try to win championships. And after one season, if you are lucky and don’t get fired, you get to do it for another season. And another, and another, etc. So the game starts in Fall 2016, but if you stay with the same game without starting a new one, it will eventually be 2020, or 2025, or 2030, or whatever.
Which is where Brexit will enter the gameplay. As one headline read, “Football Manager 2017 to simulate Brexit - fans of the game go crazy on Twitter”. Among the tweets quoted in the article: “Football Manager 2017 has put more research into the implications of Brexit on the UK in the game than the actual government have irl”, and “Brexit means harder FM. Wish I known that before voting.”
There you have it: the creators of a management simulation have built a Brexit simulator into the game. As Jacobson said, “As far as I know this is the first time a computer game has tried to predict the future of a country.”
Sometime after two years have passed in the game, the player will be informed about the implementation of Brexit in the FM world. (There are random factors involved, so each game will have its own implementation.) There are three scenarios:
Soft Brexit - free movement of workers remains.
Footballers are granted the same special exemptions that are currently given to ‘entertainers’. This means it is easier for them to obtain work permits than other people, and it will not have a huge impact on player movement from the EU.
Hard Brexit: similar rules to those which currently apply to non-EU players are adopted for all non-UK players.
Also, Scotland might decide to stay with the EU.
I suspect most of us just want to manage our favorite team to a championship. The idea of the real world interfering with that is startling. But Sports Interactive have been successful precisely because of how accurately their game reflects the real world of football. Ultimately, I don’t think they could have left Brexit out.
And it was fun to have an actual surprise in this day and age.
“Music Friday” is a misnomer here. Jeff Pike’s new book, Index: Essays, Fragments, and Liberal Arts Homework covers a lot more ground than just music. I didn’t do a statistical analysis, but I think music might have only been the third-most common topic, after movies and books. But it’s Friday, so I’m writing about it here.
I’ve been a longtime reader of Jeff’s blog, which can be addictive even when it riles me up (today he wrote about Dancer in the Dark, a movie I hate to be reminded of). The breadth of things he writes about is impressive ... the book’s subtitle is quite accurate (well, “liberal arts” is on target ... it never feels like homework). I thought the book would largely be an anthology of his blog posts, and there is some of that. But, to give one example, arguably my favorite piece in the entire book pre-dates the blog, so there is a lot of fresh-to-me material.
Index is also an accurate title, for the book is structured in A-to-Z fashion, from A.I. Artificial Intelligence to Neil Young’s Weld. I’m fudging things a bit here, because the truth is, the book literally goes from A to Z ... each letter gets its own short essay to introduce the “chapters”. Jeff had been writing these “letter” posts on his blog for awhile now, and I admit I was puzzled by them. But they make sense here, and in fact he does some of his best writing when digging deep into this or that letter.
As a longtime blogger myself, I couldn’t help comparing this book to something I might put together. What I noticed was how good the longer form pieces are (I tend to write long form only when it’s to be published elsewhere).
And I don’t know why I didn’t think of this in advance, but Index is an ideal bathroom book. The structure invites you to jump around, and the length of the essays are just about right for that environment. So Jeff, you’ll be glad to know you’re in there with Kael and Christgau and Marcus and David Thomson and, yes, Dellio.
Of course, I wanted to read about my favorite topics first. He is quite fair with Bruce Springsteen, writing about “Independence Day” and “Downbound Train”. I liked reading about The Replacements/Hüsker Dü from somewhere who was there (meaning Minneapolis ... I was “there” for Hüsker Dü in that I loved them and saw them several times in concert, but Jeff was “there-there”.) But perhaps my favorite essay had nothing to do with music, movies, books, television, or any other thing that might be called “liberal arts homework”. I’m referring to the long piece, “Strat-O-Matic Baseball, 1985-1993”, which as I noted above pre-dates the blog (although a related post, about the great Robert Coover novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., includes a brief mention of Strat). He captures perfectly the feel of being obsessed with that game ... rather, those kind of games ... I have played many over the years, going back to 1961, but I only had a short affair with Strat-O-Matic. I love reading about this ... for a long time, I found my attraction to the games something I should approach in a clandestine fashion, a feeling that was multiplied after reading Coover’s novel, which is frightening in its psychological accuracy. In the 1980s, the world discovered “fantasy” sports, and nowadays it is not unusual to participate in such games. (I played “rotisserie” baseball from 1987 until the present day, although it looks like 2016 will be the first year I don’t have any teams in almost 30 years.)
It’s easy for me to recommend Jeff’s blog. But I can now recommend Index with equal fervor.
Once, many years ago, when my sister and I were sitting at an Oakland A’s game (a doubleheader, as I recall), we decided to choose All-Star teams. The idea was that we would wait five years, and then see who picked the best players.
Five years later, we looked, and saw that Chris had won. So we did it again, for another five years, picking a new set of All-Stars. And five years later, we looked, and saw that Chris had won again. So we went for a third try, for another five years, picking a new set of All-Stars. And five years later, we looked, and saw that Chris was now 3-for-3.
This evening we picked our fourth set of “Five Year All-Stars”. I’m going to win this time, I promise! The rules are simple: fill out a roster (we decided the positions the first time around), and see which of us does a better job of predicting how players will perform over the next five years. (Spoiler alert: it’s Chris.)
Here are the 2014-2018 All-Stars.
Chris (three-time defending champion):
C: Buster Posey 1B: Miguel Cabrera 2B: Dustin Pedroia 3B: Adrian Beltre SS: Hanley Ramirez OF: Mike Trout (as champion, she got first pick), Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gonzalez SP: Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez RP: Craig Kimbrel
C: Wilson Ramos 1B: Joey Votto 2B: Robinson Cano 3B: Evan Longoria SS: Troy Tulowitzki OF: Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper, Ryan Braun SP: Jose Fernandez, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner RP: Aroldis Chapman
Nothing is more boring than someone talking about their fantasy team, so I’ll make this brief.
I snuck by last year’s champs by the proverbial skin of my teeth (he’s hard to beat … he’s also my cousin). At the All-Star break I was in fourth place, 25 points out of first. Two of my players, including team star Ryan Braun, would be suspended for the season a few days later. I traded a closer for a starting pitcher, began using a streaming strategy for my SP (if that means nothing to you, no problem), and two months later, I took over first place to stay.
My best player was Mike Trout, who I froze after picking him up last season. My best pitcher was probably another of my freezes, Kris Medlen. It says something about the level of play by the Giants this season that I only had three SF players the entire year. One, Yusmeiro Petit, made two starts for me at the end of the season (see “streaming”, above), and another, Brandon Belt, only had 25 AB for me (and only got 3 hits). I actually drafted the third Giant, Angel Pagan, and he played 43 games for me before getting injured.
If I had to submit a freeze list right now, I’d probably go with Trout and two pitchers, José Fernández and Hisashi Iwakuma. But I’ve got six months to worry about that. In the meantime, I’m the champ.