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Phil Bordelon
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Phil's posts

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Rarely do I recommend games.  This is one of those rare times.

I enjoyed Axiom Verge so much that, after beating it at 4AM this morning, I woke up around 10AM and beat it again while friends watched on  I haven't done that with a game in... well, it's been a very, very long time.  Possibly not since high school.

A longer ramble about why it's so good may be forthcoming, but for the time being: if you have a PS4, get it.  Now.

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Finally, proof: I actually really do work for Google, and haven't just been faking it all this time.

(This is the first time that I can actually point externally to something and say, "Hey, I wrote that!")

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First gRPC, now the anagrammatic Bazel.  (And Protocol Buffers before both of those.)  I'm super-stoked that so many of the fun toys that I get to use at work are becoming available to the world at large.

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A thing that will forever delight me: the fact that it is still, to this day, basically impossible to emulate the original Pong arcade game in any reasonable way, despite the fact that my desktop can simulate a circa-2000 PlayStation 2 just fine.  That's a thirty year difference, folks.

For comparison, the legendary Cray 1 was released in 1976 (four years later) and was capable of 80MFLOPS (Million FLoating-point OPerations per Second); the main processor in my Moto X, which is several tens of thousands times smaller, is capable of something around 150MFLOPS, roughly twice as fast.

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(Mild spoilers for a bunch of old visual media follow.  Don't be scared off by the scary math words in the first paragraph either.)

I recently watched the first episode of Silicon Valley.  I found its humor mild at best, the characters uninteresting, but worst of all I found its portrayal of technology and programming utterly ridiculous.  Specifically, the idea that the main character discovered some magic new compression algorithm that's way, way better than any currently in existence is patent nonsense.  I don't want to dive into the details of entropy encoding (and if you're asking "but what about Kolmogorov complexity?" then, congratulations, you've nerd-sniped a nerd-sniper), but modern compression algorithms are really, really close to as good as we're likely to ever get, and the choice of this as the "special sauce" that the show's tale of Valley startup hijinks tells me that the writers either had no clue what they were doing or, more likely, didn't care.  They just wanted something plausible-sounding.

This brings me to a question I've found myself asking way too frequently: why is it that, thirty years later, WarGames is still the most realistic fictional depiction of hacking (in either sense of the word)?

To make my point, here is a by-no-means exhaustive list of where other famous movies about TEH MAGIK OF COMPTARS break down in my mind:

* Sneakers: The first description of the "black box" that can break all cryptography ever;
* Swordfish: Everything about the infamous "hack the system in 60 seconds scene";
* Hackers: Your choice of "Hack the Planet!", "Hack the Gibson," spray-painting a keyboard to indicate "war mode", or the opening credits;
* The Net: The moment you learned that it was a movie about hacking starring Sandra Bullock in the '90s.  (To my great pleasure, this has drastically improved in recent times; Gravity is only partly bullshit, not completely so, and Bullock does a phenomenal job as the lead.)

In fact, the most realistic portrayal of hacking in recent history comes from a source that is honestly even sillier than the ones I listed above.  It's the first twenty minutes or so of Tron: Evolution, in a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo of Cillian Murphy's corporate hacker using real-life UNIX commands to stop a ridiculous video planted by the main character from looping forever during a board meeting.  This is actually taken even further in a scene right before Flynn's son gets sucked into the neon nonsense-world of the "mainframe," where pausing the Blu-Ray will show you a delightfully plausible .bash_history for Flynn's previous incursion into the world of Tron.

The fact that I'm pointing to a movie that is literally about programs represented as human beings moving around in what amounts to a two-hour long Daft Punk music video as the most plausible hacking since WarGames should be a clear sign that something is horribly, horribly wrong.

So: what is it?

I posit this: using computers realistically is fundamentally not sexy.  Modern movies glitz it up with MovieOS-style dialogs and special effects, but in the end they are used as plot devices rather than as systems with purpose of their own.  WarGames happened to come out at a moment when showing actual, realistic computery things--a kid dialing into the school's system, gigantic floppy drives and acoustic coupler modems--was novel enough that the fiction didn't need much more.  And, yes, there's a psychotic AI in there, but WOPR/Joshua looks like a '70s mainframe, not a Terminator, and the Cold War was a very real thing, and it just all feels so much more grounded than, you know, releasing a virus to capsize a supertanker and break all the encryption in the world while uploading yourself into a virtual world and also the Greek letter pi.  Or whatever.

In conclusion: go watch WarGames again.  It's super-good, Ally Sheedy and Matthew Broderick are tooth-achingly adorable, and hopefully it'll help you forget that I even mentioned The Net, a movie I think we all wish we'd permanently forgotten.

(N.B. I have a deep and unironic love of the original Tron, but that was a movie that didn't even pretend to be realistic.  I consider it a fantasy much like Wreck-It Ralph, a movie I recently saw and quite enjoyed despite how nonsensical it was.)

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I played my 500th game of Hanabi today.  (Well, technically, I played it yesterday, since it's past midnight.)  And I think that I have another 500 in me, if not more.

I think that's an extraordinary achievement for any game, much less a $10 card game with a custom deck.  The only other games that I've played anywhere near as much--and I have to say games, plural, because it's a family rather than a single title--are trick-taking card games, mainly Bourre thanks to being from south Louisiana, but also plenty of Contract Bridge and Spades as well.

I have a lot to say about Hanabi, but I don't want this post to be overlong, so I'm going to hit a couple of points that I believe make it such a compelling experience.  (For those of you unfamiliar with the game, a quick description: two to five people cooperate to play five suits in order from 1 to 5, much like solitaire; the main gimmick is that you cannot see your own cards, only everyone else's, and the ways you can tell people about their cards are tightly constrained.)

Point the first: Randomness is longevity's friend.  Every time I think I've seen basically every iteration of strategies in Hanabi, we get some quirky deal that forces me to think of new ways to finesse cards out of my friends' hands.  The fact that I'm still having to think of new strategies five hundred games in honestly delights me; I remember thinking, somewhere around my tenth game, that we would almost certainly burn out on the game somewhere around our fiftieth play, having exhausted every possible outcome.  How very, very wrong I was.  The cardboard can come up with many, many new ways to challenge, or ruin, you.

Point the second: True cooperation is fun.  I know several people who will disagree with this point vehemently (+Aaron Joyner comes to mind), but everyone in Hanabi wins or loses together, so it becomes more about being angry at the cardboard than at the other players (or yourself) for the situation that the game puts you in.  I said true cooperation up there because, unlike many cooperative games like Pandemic or Samurai Spirit, Hanabi has no real way for one player to "alpha" the game and force everyone to do their bidding.  Due to the information disparity--you know everyone's cards but your own--everyone is making decisions from a different viewpoint, and the game constrains your ability to force plays, which means you have to genuinely cooperate with others.  And this is good, because...

Point the third: Smart people are awesome.  The idea of playing Hanabi with random people gives me hives.  As simple as the game is, playing well requires both a high level of strategic nuance and a willingness to trust that the other people around the table know what they're doing.  I'm fortunate in having a solid core of players-slash-friends (+Daniel Newell, +Jeff Conway, +Joel Ebel, and +Enoch Moeller the most prominent, in rough order from "most games played together" to least) that are all really, really smart, which means I can skip the worrying about what the hell they're going to do on their turn and spend my time thinking about how best to make use of everyone's collective intelligence.  Jeff's in danger of throwing away a key card, but we can both see that Daniel has an obvious play, so of course I can just trust Jeff to do the right thing and tell Enoch something instead.

These last two tie directly into point the fourth, and final: Winning is euphoric and addictive.  When you manage a perfect game, it feels fantastic; you and your friends melded minds, played cards, and beat the cardboard in a way that is fundamentally much more satisfying than "my strategy beat your strategy because [it was marginally more efficient|the dice loved me more|you're new to the game and I've been playing games like this since I was eight]".  There's something almost... spiritual about a well-played game of Hanabi, watching the cards hit the table one after the other, watching a pair of finesses pull just the right plays at just the right times, seeing the grin on someone's face as their complex plan pays off.

I have what probably strikes some people as a strange habit whenever we win a game of Hanabi, particularly a hard-fought one: I shake the hands of the other players.  I do this because I honestly believe that each game is something of an adventure, or a trip, that we all went on together; at the end, we've learned about each other, about the world, and about the fundamental processes of communication and logic, and come away better for it.  I think that deserves acknowledgement.

And probably a rematch.

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I'm pretty stoked that we just open-sourced gRPC.  Not least because if it starts getting people off of their terrible, terrible JSON habit, it'll do the Web a world of good.  (Seriously, folks: thinly-veiled Python data structures as text is seriously the worst.)
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