The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

Most games are played for fun. Some, however, are meant to be experienced.

Delivering an experience appears to be the main mode of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, an indie “walking simulator” open-world puzzle game developed by the Polish studio The Astronauts. The game begins in a dark tunnel, revealing a beautifully rendered landscape that spreads out before the player as they emerge. It is autumn, and the late afternoon sun glimmers through the rustling leaves. The soundtrack warbles a melancholy tune on flute. But as the game goes on, an atmosphere of unease, thick as molasses, descends. The world is empty and devoid of life; the player, a paranormal detective, chases after the ghosts of victims of crimes long committed. Amid the beautiful fall vistas, dark things lurk just outside the player’s experience, only hinted at by the corpses they encounter on their journey, and the main character’s dark mutterings about the evil things that lurk beyond human ken.

The game winds you up with that feeling of unease that intensifies with every piece of the puzzle in place. I must say, every time I mustered the willpower to play the game, I did so with some reluctance. Only the promise of absolution gained by the imminent unveiling of the eponymous mystery drove me on.

Make no mistake, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has strong horror elements; while there is no combat, no all-powerful predator that stalks and eviscerates, the horror is subtler, murkier, and lurks deep, not acute. It draws from respected tradition – Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, King’s The Shining, or any horror story that lurches out of the catatonia of village living. On top of that, however, the game has a surprising meta-level narrative that is tragic and melancholy, and deftly interweaves commentary on authorship and story creation: that stories thrive on conflict – on the rage, disappointment, and pain of their characters.

Technically, the game is undoubtedly beautiful. Textures are almost photorealistic, everything is nicely laid out, and the art direction culminates in the almost pitch-perfect rendition of a valley in autumn, and a mining town long abandoned. Shot through this beautiful vistas, however, is that sense of unease that produces a kind of discord with the surroundings, limiting (perhaps deliberately) the aesthetic enjoyment of the scene. It’s regrettable that it is relatively static and non-interactive.

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The game’s chief flaws lie in its gameplay and design. The game is divided into many discrete “puzzles”, each of which need to be solved as a whole – collecting clues, solving puzzles, and putting everything into its proper place to recreate the scene. Only upon completion of the entire puzzle will the game note the completion – which means you can’t leave puzzles half-solved and log off, because the puzzle will reset when you continue from where you left off. It can be quite frustrating, and takes away from the immersion somewhat.

Another thing is that the open-world design is not intuitive. The player can solve the discrete puzzles in any order, and these contribute to unveiling the narrative. However, this design renders the narrative somewhat unfocused and not very compelling, especially if the player completes puzzles out of the order suggested by the game world layout. It is easy to miss out on a puzzle, item or clue and have to backtrack to complete it, and this also takes away from the experience.

In addition, the game’s puzzle mechanics are a little hard to figure out at first. The game involves you solving puzzles by reconstructing events that lead to murders. To do this, the player must locate items germane to the case that are scattered through the area and bring them back to the crime scene in order to create a resonance by which the player character, a psychic detective, can reconstruct the events of the crime by tapping on the victim’s memories. The system is unintuitive enough that I left the first puzzle unsolved, thinking that the pieces of the puzzle would only be available later, only to forget about the puzzle and backtrack a fair distance to complete it later. Some of the puzzles also fail at internal logic. For example, one puzzle required that I find something in the dark. However, when I found it, it was not selectable – I had to figure out another part of the puzzle first to get light to shine on the object before it became selectable. Apparently, psychic detectives can’t find things in the dark.

Narratively, the game is understated and surprisingly multi-layered. However, production values on the characters and voice-acting were not up to par with the environments. The dialogue was stilted, voice-acting was largely forced and unconvincing, and NPC faces were not rendered with the same level of fidelity as the rest of the game.

Control-wise, the game is unremarkable. The player character is nothing more than a floating camera. There is no weight or heft to his actions; the player feels little sense of presence in the world. As a walking simulator that ostensibly promotes exploration, the game could have done this better. The player avatar’s default movement speed is unbearably slow without that sense of rootedness in the world, and I found myself holding down the shift key to hurry up.

In sum, however, while I’ve listed many criticisms, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is still a great indie gem that accomplishes its goal admirably – to construct an experience through atmosphere and narrative. A nice thing about it is that its meanings and themes continue to unpack even as you exit the game, numb and questioning, after watching that final, ambiguous scene.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 burnt-down houses

+ Beautiful world
+ Surprisingly multi-layered narrative
+ Some well-constructed puzzles

– Other puzzles not so well-made
– Voice acting and characters could use some improvements
– Not intuitive in terms of design

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The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons why I Run Long Distances

I’ve always thought The Oatmeal to be a reasonably entertaining, if somewhat self-righteous, internet diversion. Despite his predilection to use the Oatmeal as a soapbox to pontificate at times, and his tendency to overuse bodily emissions as a source of humor, Inman’s best comics are entertaining and informative, driven by whatever animal or tech obsession he’s nursing at the time of writing – his posts about his Tesla S and the mantis shrimp, for example, are some of his best.

His series on running long distances is a rather great one, and, following in a tradition established in previous publications, he’s released a book that’s all about distance running. It’s one of those comics in which he puts himself in an uncharacteristically vulnerable spot, describing running as a means of escape from the strictures and responsibilities of daily life, to seek a meditative void. Running, he says, subsumes the question of why under the singular focus of the moment, of the endorphin-fueled euphoria and clarity that running brings, and of the moments of exhaustion-powered transcendence that it can usher in.

As someone who naturally deplores running, but who has been trying to make an effort to be more active, I can relate, somewhat, to Inman’s message. Running is not the end, but a means to one – an activity that is deliberately agonizing for the sake of elevating one to a state in which agony becomes something you can vanquish and control. It’s an expression of self-discipline and self-control, but also an outlet to justify excess in other areas, and more importantly, it is a statement of horror against the prospect of becoming decrepit before one’s time amid all the temptations and sloth that accompany modern living.

In terms of inherent value, most of the comics in the book are available for free online. There’s one bonus comic, a guide of tricks on how to start running and keeping at it, which is classic Oatmeal in its blend of informativeness, gross-out humor, and a pinch of self-righteousness. I bought the book in solidarity with the message, and to support the comic, but others’ mileage may vary on whether it’s worth shelling out the cash to purchase a book that can mostly be found on his website.

Oh, and the Blerch is real.

I give this comic: 3.5 out of 5 Blerches

+ Oatmeal at top form
+ Self-help value

– Not much original content
– Self-righteous tone may be off-putting to some

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2)

Glad to say that Rowling has once again hit it out of the park.

The Silkworm is the second in the burgeoning Cormoran Strike novels, and Rowling seems to have found surer footing in terms of the pacing and tone of the series. Where the first novel abounded (to excess at times) with cynical expostulations about the emptiness and grubbing despair that lurks behind the gilt faces of the wealthy and the famous, the second finds Strike in a somewhat better place. His detective business, buoyed by his initial success, is booming, time and distance has salved the trauma of his tumultuous breakup with his fiancee, and he’s grown to depend more and more on Robin, his competent, eager assistant. There’s definitely an undertone of arch humor and wry cynicism about the raw ugliness of human relationships that runs through the book, as it did in Cuckoo’s Calling, except it is here less depressing and more…accepting, as it were. The tone of the series evolves along with the circumstances of our protagonists, giving one hope that the series will pack some longevity going onward into the future.

Much as the first novel excoriated the lives of the rich, famous and unhappy, The Silkworm has as its underlying conceit a novel written by the murder victim, a two-bit author named Owen Quine. The meta-fictional narrative of the novel reflects the events in the primary narrative; Quine’s murder, for example, is meticulously patterned to resemble a murder in the book, and his friends and family all feature as parodied characters within its pages. It’s certainly an interesting device, if not all that original, but it provides Rowling with the ability to play around with the tropes of the novel in a way that lends them to the conventions of the detective thriller. The novel is a clue, red herring, and key to the puzzle – and the reader follows Strike and Robin as they puzzle over what all the allusions in the novel mean to the case, and whether the novel itself is meant to help or hinder the investigation.

Strike remains a rounded and interesting character, especially given that he’s found his footing and is more free to pursue his life outside detection. Some of the domestic scenes, in which he, grizzled sleuth, must figure out what to get his nephews for Christmas (he gets them toys that are suited to provide maximum aggravation to their prudish and unimaginative parents – like drum sets and toy guns), are the most unabashedly entertaining parts of the book. And I’m always tickled by how lovingly Rowling describes the voluminous amounts of food that Strike eats on the job – as treating potential witnesses to lunch is one of his main weapons to getting them to talk. Robin is also revealing a surprising amount of hidden quirks – and her history, not quite as developed as Strike’s, is slowly developing and will no doubt feature more heavily in subsequent books.

The murder mystery in this one is also delightfully macabre – testament to Rowling’s versatility as a writer. I would not have believed that the writer of Harry Potter could think up of such depravity as Rowling has in crafting her puzzle box of a case in this book. In particular, the murder victim Quine and his shenanigans – his predilection to being tied up, and his Gothic, pornographic writing style, for example – are constant sources of mordant humor.

If I had to highlight some negative aspects of the series thus far, though, Rowling has a tendency to rely on stereotypes to give color to her secondary characters. Many of them are one-note caricatures of what you would imagine them to be given their public personae, and Strike perhaps too easily seizes upon their social status to pass judgment on them in a way that is played a little too straight. Robin is a character that has been criticized by some; while she is competent, smart and resourceful, she’s also a bit overemotional and almost childish in her desire for Strike’s regard, which some critics take to be an undesirable stereotype in the series’ ostensible leading lady. It is true that Rowling perhaps places a little but too much emphasis on class and gender stereotypes in providing us with initial character impressions, but this second novel, I think, is better than the first in this respect.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Stanley knives

+ Strike and Robin continue to be a great pair
+ Mordant humor is more prominent – people are still assholes by and large, but they’re funny assholes
+ Rowling’s reined in her slightly flowery prose style

– Slight over-reliance on use of class and gender stereotypes
– Some secondary characters could use a bit more fleshing-out

The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike #1)

I’ll admit – I would not have read this book if it were not for the fact that it had been written by J.K. Rowling (under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith). I don’t customarily peruse detective fiction, either; I am somewhat unfamiliar with its tropes and intertextual nuances. Nevertheless, I found The Cuckoo’s Calling to be a very enjoyable read; not so much because of its deftly constructed murder mystery, but more because Rowling – Galbraith – has in this book introduced a most compelling lead in the character of Cormoran Strike.

Strike strikes one at first as coming out of the hard-bitten noir trope of the lonesome, cynical detective, but he is far more fleshed out as a character than one might expect. Writers of hard-boiled protagonists, in my limited experience, tend to enshroud their characters in an air of obdurate inscrutability – with the tiniest chinks in their armor only occasionally doled out as rewards to the reader for sticking with the plot so far. Strike, on the other hand, tries to present that impression to the world as part of his professional facade, but the reader gets a much closer more naturalistic, and more sustained glimpse into his psyche, motivations and history. His cynicism has a convincing provenance – borne out of his painstakingly constructed past. He is no dark, brooding loner gripped in existential angst, but a very sympathetic and in some sense openly vulnerable character, but is nevertheless possessed of that kind of fierce, inquisitive competence that is the fire and spice of the mystery novel.

It’s entertaining watching the interplay between the two leads – Strike and his temp, Robin, newly arrived in London and enamored of the mystique of detective work but instinctively mistrustful of Strike at first. Seeing that relationship develop is a joy, especially since Rowling deliberately addresses and rejects the possibility of that relationship being anything but a platonic, hero-sidekick-esque one.

One thing about this work that compares favorably to that of the Harry Potter books is the writing. Rowling has a very distinctive prose style: one that is urbane and worldly-wise, but nevertheless compulsively readable and even quite beautiful in places. The narrative tone is one that is somewhat satirical, somewhat distantly cynical, especially towards its secondary characters – the socialites, bankers, lawyers and fashion designers that are associated with the case: the murder of a famous model, defenestrated from the balcony of her home. The novel is a very transparent commentary on wealth and celebrity and the invidious effects that it has on people, both as bearers and observers of money and fame. Through Strike’s eyes, we apprehend the emptiness of the moneyed lifestyle and the sheer unhappiness its pursuers (both successful and not) tend to get themselves into. It’s not a particularly novel premise, of course, but it gets a pleasing and salutary treatment in the book, and is not at all a disagreeable meta-theme upon which to hang the trappings of a murder mystery. Such novels, after all, derive their premise from the darker aspects of human nature.

If the book has any one flaw, however, it is that it sometimes does over-analyse its characters. Rowling has a tendency to attribute every gesture, every nuance of every character with a subtext that speaks to their baser natures. Everyone in the novel has their fears, insecurities and shame laid out before Strike’s interrogative eye. This fetishization of nuance, as it were, is so pervasive that it sometimes goes overboard. Seeing, through Strike’s eyes, as it were, every secondary character twitched like marionettes by the puppet strings of their baser natures can get somewhat one-note and tiring sometimes.

This book was good enough, however, that I went out and bought The Silkworm, the second book in what Rowling plans to be an indefinitely extended series about Cormoran Strike, on Amazon. Whatever its minor shortcomings, The Cuckoo’s Calling is testament to Rowling’s versatility as a writer and of her ability to replicate her literary success outside of children’s fiction.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 blue letters

+ Great main characters
+ Great writing
+ Arresting commentary on celebrity and wealth

– Nobody other than Strike and Robin are nice people
– Strike’s ability to characterize a person through the tiniest gesture approaches Sherlock-levels of ludicrousness sometimes

Divinity: Original Sin

This Kickstarter-funded game, a top-down RPG in the tradition of Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate, has been praised to the skies.

In the most fundamental of senses, this is a great game. It would have to be, or Steam wouldn’t claim that I’ve spent an embarrassing 93 hours on it. It is a great game because it is fun to play, because it is compelling enough mechanistically to be able to induce a flow-state in the player. The combat is varied and usually just the right amount of challenging, though the game’s AI gets a little wonky at times. The art is gorgeous, vibrant and colorful. The quests are inventive and varied.

Those who praise it, however, cut it an undue amount of slack in proclaiming it the best game of 2014. Divinity: Original Sin is not without its…sins.

First of all, it lacks polish in many of its game systems. Crafting, in particular, suffers from terrible UI; the drag-and-drop method of combining items to craft gets exponentially more annoying the more items you have in your inventory. The loot system is unbalanced – the end game sees you earning so much money through hawking loot that there is literally no value to be had training your Bartering skill. Some game mechanics, like slipping on ice, and the RPS persuasion-game, are hair-tearingly annoying.

The game’s story starts off promisingly but soon dives into mediocrity. The writing and dialogue sound like they were stolen from a Renaissance Faire. NPCs keep shouting the same lines over and over. The game world feels floaty and unsupported by deep lore. You never feel like you are in the game, only playing it – the abstraction between reality and fiction is always brightly apparent.

Ultimately, though, Divinity: Original Sin is an important game. It is a vital step in the right direction amidst a gaming landscape littered with derivative wrecks. It is, in its own way, quirkily flawed, and these flaws speak of a more innocent age of gaming where developers were not as afraid to take design risks in the pursuit of great games. That sounds like nostalgia, and it definitely is. I would venture to say, however, that it is not too far off the mark. The developers are also constantly pushing patches to tweak, improve and balance the game, which means it will be a superior product in the future.

And I did play it for almost a hundred hours. No other medium offers such a good entertainment-to-dollar ratio.

I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 Godboxes

+ Good varied combat
+ Beautiful art direction
+ Varied and interesting quest, doesn’t hold your hand

– Mediocre plot
– Some game systems badly designed
– The occasional odd bug

Yellow Blue Tibia

This is a peculiar book, and one that is difficult to size up. Like a many-faceted jewel it presents many faces to the reader, each of which sparkle and scintillate beautifully, but the object itself, considered in its entirety, sits somewhat awkwardly on the palm of your hand. In other words, it is a brilliant, but flawed, book. That, in a nutshell, is what I feel about Yellow Blue Tibia.

The book is nominally science fiction. It is told from the perspective of its narrator and protagonist, an erstwhile science-fiction Russian writer named Konstantin Skvorecky. During the height of the Great Patriotic War, Skvorecky and a gaggle of other SF writers are bundled in a train and brought to a dacha on Stalin’s orders to fabricate an alien invasion story, to be used to unify the Soviet peoples as one socialist monolith against the next great enemy: radiation aliens from outer space. The writers take to this task with some aplomb, plotting out an elaborate chronology of the alien attack, but as abruptly as the project started, it is wound up, with instructions from Stalin never to breathe a word of what they have done, upon pain of death. Except, sixty years later, the events in that narrative start coming true, one after another. Skvorecky, as one of the few people privy to the narrative, is caught up in events – and is shepherded into a leading role in them, although the significance of his involvement only becomes clear in the penultimate sections of the book.

That in itself is an interesting premise – and it forms the core of the narrative that leads our tottering protagonist Skvorecky on a madcap journey across the Soviet Union – an endeavor he undertakes only with great reluctance but a suspicious degree of aplomb. But, for all its novelty, it is not the best part of the book. The best part, as the idiom goes, is in the journey, not the destination. The narrative is merely stage dressing from which hang the book’s greatest virtues – the many brilliant and cutting vignettes, most uproariously comic, that intersperse the main narrative, providing a wildly entertaining and satirical deconstruction of the absurdities of late-era Soviet life.

Skvorecky, in his somewhat bildungsroman-esque caper through the heart of Mother Russia, is a wonderful, dry-humored and ever-ironic cynic, a brilliantly-imagined foil to the Strangelove-esque caricatures that he meets. His somewhat dignified authorial voice shines through in his stately Old-World prose, which he uses with great effect to romance a loquacious but grossly corpulent blonde American Scientologist in what must simultaneously be the most absurd-yet-affecting love stories I’ve encountered in recent times. In contrast to this are the many characters that Skvorecky meets in his journey, who each symbolize a different aspect of the collective neuroses of the New Soviet Man. His sidekick and driver, the former nuclear physicist Saltykov, is an obsessive-compulsive, hyper-rational stickler for following rules to their absurd, OCD extreme, who nevertheless regresses into a gibbering, infantile wreck when brought into physical contact with other men (he never specifies if he has a similar aversion to the fairer sex). Then there is the KGB agent Frenkel, who, true to his profession, has an annoying habit of speaking in cryptic riddles until he falls off a building and lands on his head, after which he becomes a wheelchair-bound Tourette’s sufferer who cannot stop impulsively spilling state secrets. There are the regulars at the chess club, who are so inured to Soviet-style bureaucratic doublespeak that they take everything Skvorecky tries to tell them as obfuscatory statements that mean the precise opposite. Then, of course, there are the dull-as-doorknob police officers and assassins, like Frenkel’s henchman Leo Trofim, who, in his Boxer-like devotion to the state, is a regular Stakhanovite, too dim to be manipulated by Skvorecky’s attempts to get him to stop blowing himself (and millions of innocents) up just because a superior told him that it was for the greater good of Mother Russia.

These are great characters, great comic vignettes and great diversions from the primary narrative, and are the book’s greatest joys. The author, Adam Roberts, wrote a great many parodies that you may be familiar with – as A.R.R.R. Roberts, he wrote such gems as The Soddit and The Dragon with the Girl Tattoo. He’s got the comic chops. As a PhD in Classics, he also has an unusual pedigree for a science fiction author, and he does lend a literary touch to this apparent work of SF, through the use of unreliable narration, metaphor, allusion, satire and fluid, vivid prose to the nth degree. And the book’s name! Inscrutable as it may be, the passage in which the reason for the book’s title, Yellow Blue Tibia, is revealed, literally made me exclaim aloud in a crowded train.

It is therefore a bit of a shame that the whole of Yellow Blue Tibia is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, as one review put it. The SF premise is surely the book’s weakest link; stage dressing that takes too long to unfold and ends unsatisfactorily, with plot threads unresolved or only barely touched upon. As with much of SF, the entire book itself derives from a novel, speculative premise or idea – what if UFO sightings were actual, material reality and not merely mass psychosis? How can this square with the lack of physical evidence? – but this idea is not really brought to its full potential, and the explanation, the revelation of the great Mystery – is shoehorned into the last few pages and never has a chance to take off. The reader is left wondering – what, in truth, was the payoff of this nevertheless diverting and arresting journey?

In any case, though, I recommend this book, and Adam Roberts, unreservedly. As a unified work of art it may be found somewhat wanting, but I can appreciate the greatness that glimmers beneath its unpolished exterior. Roberts has definitely merited a place in my must-read authors list, in any case.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Reality-Radiating-UFOs

+ Great characters
+ Great comedy
+ Great satire

– Central plot underdeveloped
– Characters are too purposefully cryptic in a transparent attempt to hold off the revelation of the True Nature of Things until the last moment
– Comedy can get in the way of the dramatic, at times

Salt Sugar Fat

It isn’t too difficult to politicize the obesity crisis. The problem of obesity has been crafted into two opposed narratives, from the left and right. From a conservative standpoint, the narrative is that people are obese because they, in a sense, chose to be, because they eat too much and exercise too little. The implication is that the food giants should not be held to account for the choices of their customers; instead, they fulfill a crucial function in the food supply chain by making it convenient for people to consume necessary calories.

From a more progressive perspective, food companies are viewed as complicit enablers in the obesity crisis. Prodded by Wall Street magnates into ever more frenzied competition with their business adversaries, these companies constantly pump out and market ever-more-tempting products that are carefully engineered to light up the pleasure centers in the brain, hooking customers on their product. “You can never stop at one” becomes a euphemism for what is really a dopamine-fueled addiction.

This latter narrative, in a nutshell, is the entire premise of Salt, Sugar Fat by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss: an exposé of the practices of the food industry and their role in increasing obesity rates all over the world. Moss’s Pulitzer stemmed from his investigation into the hygiene practices of the meat-processing industry (spoiler: they’re poor), and he returns to what is essentially his native area of interest.

I don’t think Moss’s book breaks that much new ground here – it’s generally quite well-known that processed food isn’t exactly the healthiest thing ever. However, what is most interesting about the book is the insider look into the processed food industry, pieced together with lucidly-recounted talks Moss had with a very large number of former and current employees of the various food giants, most of which left the food industry after being disillusioned with the industry’s inability to curtail their ever-increasing use of salt, sugar and fat to entice and entrap consumers into their food-matrix. Moss makes a great deal about how many of these former executives of food giants like Coke, Kraft, and Nestle make it a point to not eat their companies’ products. Parallels to Gus Fring are apparent – the best dealers never partake of their own product, because they know precisely how bad it is.

Moss also takes an interesting segue into the world of food packaging and marketing. When your products are equally adept as your competitors’ at lighting up the pleasure centers of your customers, the best way to make sure you stay ahead of the pack is by creative marketing, which encompasses packaging, presentation and advertising. Moss’ accounts of the Coke-Pepsi marketing wars, or of the evolution of Lunchables into a blockbuster brand for Kraft, are some of the most entertaining parts of the book.

When all is said and done, Moss’s prescription – and perhaps the raison d’etre of the book – is for the reader to bear in mind that the food giants are employing all these tactics to try to hook you on their product. The next time you go grocery shopping – don’t fall for the tricks! Stay clean! Go cold turkey! The theme of metabolic determinism is clear that the whole adage of “eating in moderation” is fiendishly difficult to maintain, because even “eating in moderation” sustains the dependency on processed foods. Better to cut out these foods entirely if you can help it, Moss implicitly suggests.

I’m not 100% convinced that that’s really a viable strategy for everyone, but it’s certainly a good one for those who have the socioeconomic clout to eat healthily. Like Fast Food Nation before it, what the book says is perhaps less important than what it ultimately instills – the instinctive mistrust of processed food in the reader.

As an unrelated aside – the UK edition has a review from the Daily Mail – “The sinister reason you can never resist a crisp”. I find it amusing how it simultaneously sensationalizes and trivializes the book – in the way only the Daily Mail can. I’m not sure it necessarily instills much confidence into the prospective reader, though…

I give this book 3.5 out of 5 Lunchables

+ Parsimonious premise, good empirics and source material
+ Some great insider insights, especially on marketing practices
+ Could help instill mistrust of processed food in the reader

– The “Salt” section is noticeably weaker than the other two
– Not enough discussion on whether FDA recommended daily intake guidelines should be taken as gospel the way they are in the book