Tiny bits, late June edition

My lower back’s been killing me since last Thursday, and I exacerbated it by sitting in front of my computer for several hours last night playing through most of the original Creeper World again.  I woke up this morning with a realization that I had better move very, very carefully today, or I will be laid up for days.

I’ve been on hold with the USPS for an hour now.  They destroyed a package sent from Germany and are supposedly sending me paperwork to file a claim for insurance… but it’s been two weeks and they haven’t yet.  Their website is horribly broken, too.  Putting in my claim number causes it to have a server error.  Confidence level of me actually getting my insurance claim: near zero.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a great book, but I can only read it a chapter or so at a time.  What was meant to read as a dark parable at the time of publication comes off much more dire in today’s political clime.  I haven’t even touched the second season of the show on Hulu, partly because I want it to finish airing, partly because I’m not sure I can handle it right now.

I’m on my second day of a fast.  I had two Atkins shakes this morning (along with a multivitamin and an Advil), and I don’t plan on having calories again until Thursday.  I’m not happy with how much my appetite has grown over the last couple of months, and fasting is the best way I know to reset that… but while it’s happening I find myself occasionally thinking longingly of the taste of paper towels.

Reading back over this, it sure seems like a big bucket of negativity, but that’s just a consequence of the moment.  A positive: I placed another order for Japanese puzzle books yesterday, and it’s coming in tomorrow, because Japan has their stuff seriously together when it comes to international shipping.  I even got a dot-to-dot magazine, because apparently those are okay for adults to do now, and I’ve always secretly loved them.  My lines aren’t very straight, but there’s something deeply satisfying about connecting things in numerical order.  A tiny ordering of the universe, a pushing back of entropy.  And you get a pretty picture as a side bonus.

Weekly status update [0019/????]

A pretty quiet week, overall.

  • Still very light on the TV (I watched maybe two episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and no puzzles at all.
  • Video games, though, I played a lot.  I spent an entire day playing Let It Die, and played a lot of it in the gaps throughout the week too.  I also made a lot of progress in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood; I’ve set aside Horizon: Zero Dawn for the moment.  I made some more progress in Shining in the Darkness as well, but didn’t play it a whole lot.
  • I also read quite a bit.  I tore through Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential for the first time; I feel that writing up an article on it is a little too much whistling past the graveyard, given his recent passing, but it’s an excellent autobiography and excoriation of the restaurant business.  I never really watched any of Bourdain’s shows, but having read the book I’m actually more interested in them now.
  • We had an extended game night Tuesday.  It gave me something of an epiphany.
  • I was more social than I usually am; along with the board games on Tuesday, I went to A Thing Saturday night, had a friend hang out most of the day Sunday, and had dinner with an old coworker just a few hours ago this Friday evening.  It was nice seeing everyone.
  • I spent a lot of time working on my music collection.  I’m still way, way behind on having it all nice and tidy, but every little bit counts.
  • Down a size on my pants: keto, woo!

Yeah; nothing terribly exciting, that’s for sure.  But I’m still very content with the slow rhythms of my retirement nineteen weeks in.  This bodes very well for the future.

Cardboard pushing down on me

Tonight was an extended game night, the first we’ve had in a while.  We played The Princes of Florence, one of my favorite games of all time.  And I was so stressed out the entire game that I’m a little surprised I didn’t have an actual panic attack.

I consider Android: Netrunner to be one of the finest game designs I’ve ever experienced.  I also just flat-out can’t play the game with any seriousness; the act of play stresses me out so much that I feel completely exhausted, wrung out, useless after even a single match with someone.  I enjoy teaching the game, but playing competitively?  I just can’t do it.

What do these two games have in common?

They’re both driven by knife’s edge decisions.  Winning or losing often hinges on bidding just once more–or not–in Princes, on making that daredevil run against an unknown server–or not–in ANR.  And they both have many of these kinds of decisions over the course of a single game.  Any one of them could secretly be the one that costs you the game, and both games make you painfully aware of this fact; it tends to be in the final accounting in Princes, but you often just flat-out lose ANR if you make the wrong choice.

This sort of super-tight decision-making process does not go well with my demeanor.  Anyone who has played more than a couple of board games with me learns two things pretty quickly:

  • I’m delighted to teach you a game and help you in your first couple of plays, and
  • I am really, really competitive once you know how to play.

I manage to hide a third thing most of the time in my adulthood, but sometimes it becomes obvious too:

  • I’m a sore loser.

This is a holdover from a childhood spent for the most part as the only kid in the family, a childhood where people made the crucial mistake of letting me win games that I shouldn’t have won just to keep me happy.  I have worked hard over the years to get over this particular problem, and I’d say I’m about 60% there at best.

It doesn’t help the situation that I’m pretty damn good at most board games, even when I’ve never played them before, and so have a high winning percentage; that just makes the voice in the back of my mind think that I deserve to win more, and makes it petulant when I don’t.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if part of why I love teaching games so much is that it is an inherently imbalanced situation: I’m more familiar with the game than the people I’m teaching, by definition, and so am all the more likely to win.  Ugh.  (Fortunately, I also enjoy teaching other things that aren’t about winning or losing, and love learning from people who know more than me, so I think I’m only somewhat horrible here, not completely so.  Still: ugh.)

So: tonight’s game of The Princes of Florence was with four other players.  Two were new to the game and two had played before.  One of the returning players got into a very good position by the second turn (of seven) in the game, and I didn’t like how the future looked from that point on until the absolute last moment of the game.  I was actually rocking on the bench where I sat the entire, a giant ball of stress-wires firing constantly in my head.  Said returning player commented that he had never seen me so freaked out at a game.  (It’s true; he and I never played competitive Android: Netrunner, or he would have seen it before.)

I ended up winning by a small handful of points, so the little voice in the back of my head says, hey, all that stress was worth it.  You won, right?  But that’s definitely wrong.  Like I told another of the players–one of the two who had never seen the game before, but who came in a strong third–I probably play at somewhere around 90% of my hypothetical “peak skill level” when I’m not stressed out and hyper-focused on the game, rather than the 99-100% when I am.   But the experience is at least ten times more enjoyable for me when I’m not buzzing in semi-terror at every move of the game.  Is performing 10% better at the cost of feeling like I need to take a two-hour cold shower afterwards worth it?  If lives were on the line, perhaps.  For an evening out with friends?  Absolutely not.

A game I love and play a lot is Dominion.  It has a large strategic depth as well, but also a lot of randomness, brought on by the shuffle of the cards.  I stopped playing Dominion at that 99% level ages ago, because the luck of the draw had a much larger effect on my wins and losses than that 10% improvement.  And because of that I can play Dominion back to back for hours, winning and losing and having a great time the whole way through.

I need to be able to play like that with every game.  And maybe, hopefully, spelling it out like this will help; the first step is admitting you have a problem, after all.

As it is, if I don’t play Princes again for another six months or so, I’m fine.  I’ve had enough of its knife’s edge for now… at least until I figure out how to blunt that blade.

Weekly status update [0018/????]

Oh, hey, I’m actually writing this on Friday for a bit of a change.

  • I’ve moved on from reading Stephen King’s crime trilogy to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.  I’m about halfway through.  It’s excellent and dark as hell.
  • I actually beat Phantasy Star this weekend.  The game got very repetitive near the end, with mostly the same enemies in the last four or five dungeons.  I stopped mapping the game myself and switched to using online maps in my frustration, tearing through the endgame as quickly as possible.  The mid-game was a solid RPG, and the game was technically amazing; it honestly looked better than many SNES RPGs.  But was it fun all the way through?  Definitely not.
  • I’m now playing Shining in the Darkness.  It’s another “map it out on a piece of graph paper” game, but I’m enjoying it quite a bit more, at least for the time being.  The levels are huge, 30×30 each; fortunately the graph paper I bought has a smaller-scale grid on the back of each sheet, so it’s not a problem to map.
  • I finished the PS4 remaster of Assassin’s Creed II and started both AC: Brotherhood and Horizon: Zero Dawn.  They’re good games both, if a little too similar to each other.  I should pick just one to stick with for the moment.
  • While I was dealing with Linux being idiotic yesterday, I was also having to fight with the USPS.  They destroyed a package of board games from amazon.de, and apparently I’m going to have to fill out a bunch of forms to claim the insurance on the package, never mind the fact that they have a case file with a bunch of evidence that it is, indeed, destroyed.  Sigh.
  • Not a lot of TV.  I watch an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine every couple of days, but that’s it.  Same with puzzles; I don’t think I’ve solved a single one in the last week.  I have been continuing my watching of Landail play games on Twitch, although at the moment it’s mostly hate-watching due to the game he’s playing.
  • Keto continues apace.

It’s been something of an exhausting week, mainly due to the stress of dealing with USPS and my computer.  I’m actually glad that it’s the weekend now, which is honestly a bit of a strange thing to say nowadays, but there you have it.

It will never be that year

I just spent over two hours fighting to be able to use my Linux desktop again.  The graphical environment, Xorg, crashed upon starting every time.  I went down a long “it’s the drivers” path, got sidetracked with “it’s the new kernel” path, and finally it turned out to be a nasty interaction between the latest version of Xorg-server and the desktop environment I use, XFCE.

While I love Linux most of the time, it’s things like this that make me realize that it will not be something that Person Average can use on their own any time soon.  Chromebooks are as close as most people will get, and the fact that they run Linux is pretty hidden to the standard user.  I’ve been running Linux as my primary OS for over sixteen years now, and it still trips me up several times a year.  And I used to do this for a living!

Here’s a book thing: The Bill Hodges trilogy by Stephen King

As mentioned in my first Stephen King review, it became clear to me while reading The Outsider that one of the characters was from a previous work.  That work turned out to be an entire trilogy of gritty crime novels.  I snagged them from the library last week, and have spent much of the intervening time reading them.

Conclusion: they’re good.  Also, large print books are awesome for my aging, failing eyes, and I’ll be on the lookout for large print editions when possible in the future.

The first two novels in the series, Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, are straight-up mystery/crime books with no supernatural elements.  Mr. Mercedes is the better book, I think, but that’s at least partly because Finders Keepers involves a J.D. Salinger-type writer and I am really tired of Stephen King having stories revolve around writers.  You’re a writer, bub.  I get it.  We all get it.  We got it in The Dark Half, and Bag of Bones, and Duma Key, and… yeah.  We get it.  I actually stopped reading King for a while because he seemed to be in a rut where every main character was a middle-aged writer.  I mean, sure, write what you know, but… c’mon.

Fortunately, the writer is offed in the opening.  This is a crime novel, after all.

By the end of the second book, there are a whole lot of pointers to the fact that the third one (End of Watch) is going to be more supernatural in nature, even if you weren’t already aware of that due to mentions in The Outsider.  And that turns out to, indeed, be the case; what was impressive was that the book still managed to be a solid mystery/crime novel despite the supernatural elements.

That said, I feel that the series had a pretty linear decline in quality.  They were all good, but Mr. Mercedes was the best, with the most captivating villain and the best “oh, if only!” moments.  That’s actually kinda nice, to be honest; if you only have time for one of them, you can read the first and be pretty content.

Are they better than The Outsider, you ask?  I think I enjoyed that book more, because the back half of it was a more traditional King novel, with the dreamlike logic those books contain.  But that book is also a very, well, King-ian work, with weird horrible magical things happening and massive confusion reigning.  I like that sort of thing, but totally understand why some people don’t.

On the other hand, Mr. Mercedes presents a perfectly human villain that does things almost as awful.  Isn’t that worse, really?

Weekly status update [0017/????]

I had a couple of conversations yesterday evening about my blog; I was at a social going-away party thing that had a lot of people I hadn’t really talked to since before I retired.  And it made me realize that in some ways, yeah, this blog is exactly the sort of obligation I’m trying not to have this year.  I’m not gonna lie.  Sometimes it’s hard to come up with something even semi-interesting to write about, and I feel that as a sort of weight around my shoulders.  But I also realized that a little obligation, a little “hey, you need to do this at least a couple of times a week” is actually a good thing.  Never mind the practical, useful side of it, the fact that writing here is good de-rusting for whatever future tippy-tappy endeavors I embark on.  A tiny bit of discomfort that results in something that others seem to enjoy?  That’s the best kind of obligation.

  • I don’t think I even cracked a puzzle book once this week.  That might be a first since retirement.
  • It’s because almost all of my time has been spent reading.  After finishing off King’s The Outsider, I immediately put his “crime trilogy” on hold at the local library.  It was a long weekend, so I couldn’t get them until Tuesday, but snag them I did.  I’ve already finished the first two and plan on spending the rest of today reading the third.
  • I got them in large print, too.  It’s nice.  I had already jacked the font size way up on my Kindle back when I read the first Wheel of Time book, and having something much like that in a physical volume is handy.  Unfortunately not a lot of my favorite genre (science fiction) gets large-print editions, so I’ll have to enjoy this luxury while I can.
  • I didn’t really watch TV either.  I did play some video games, but it’s mostly the usual free-to-play suspects.
  • Keto’s going well.  I still haven’t weighed myself, but I had the most important signifier Friday morning: the shorts I had been wearing off and on the last few weeks were loose enough I had to hitch them up repeatedly at Walmart.  Woo!
  • I saw Deadpool 2 with some good friends from work last Saturday.  It was… exactly what I wanted out of Deadpool 2.  If you saw the first, and thought of it as “a comic book movie cranked to 11,” then Deadpool 2 was the same thing cranked to 13 or 14.
  • No further movement on the “getting rid of boardgames” front to report.
  • Dove deep into reading about modern abstract boardgames again, which happens every six months or so.  The result this time was some code changes to Giles to make one particular game more flexible.  The desire to implement a whole new game or two has mostly passed, unfortunately, but even this little bit of programming felt good.
  • Still no actual prose on a page, although stuff is aggressively percolating.  Soon.  Soon.

Soon.  (Man.  That doesn’t even look like a word to me now.)

Letting loose the cardboard dogs

I’m currently in conversations with a large Internet board game resale site about giving up the vast majority of my board game collection.

Those of you who know me know that I have an enormous set of games.  Somewhere north of 2000, if my logging on BoardGameGeek is to be believed.  And while there are games in there that I would be loath to give up–my copy of Princes of Florence has genuine sentimental value, for instance–they are few and far between.

I’ve gone back and forth on this a lot over the last year or two, but the facts are:

  • my house overfloweth,
  • my time at the table has dropped dramatically since retiring, and never really supported the meatier games in my collection, and
  • moving this collection to wherever I end up going after North Carolina would be… tricky doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The idea of paring that enormous collection down to less than a hundred or so “essentials” really appeals to me.  I love my board game collection, don’t get me wrong, but in the end it’s just stuff, and worse, stuff that isn’t getting used.

I have no idea if this particular stab at reducing my collection will succeed; it requires driving halfway across the country with a truck filled with board games, not to mention getting a good enough price for said games to make the trip worthwhile.  There’s an eBay consignment shop in town that I need to talk to as well, but anywhere like that is likely to have a problem with the volume… not to mention the fact that some of the games just wouldn’t sell.  If I’m shedding my collection, I want to shed it pretty much stem to stern.

Fortunately, I’m not in a rush.  I can look at different options and see what will work out best.  And, hey: if everything else fails, there’s always bonfires.

Here’s a book thing: “The Outsider” by Stephen King

[Extremely minimal spoilers ahead.  Basically, if you’ve ever read… well, anything by Stephen King, it’s spoiler-free.]

I wended my way through Stephen King’s latest novel last night, finishing it up around one in the morning.  Now, I wake up to an alarm at 0500 every Monday morning for stupid reasons involving a video game, so I should have been in bed around 9pm or so… but I just couldn’t pull myself away from the book.

It’s good.  Real good.

I used to be an enormous Stephen King fan.  My mom let me join the Stephen King Book Club when I was eleven or so; the first book I got was Needful Things, which had just come out.  (To those of you concerned about a kid reading Stephen King, let’s just say that I could handle it, and my mother was well aware of that.)  It was painfully clear to me that there was a lot more to this Castle Rock business, even before I could look up the details easily on Wikipedia, and over the next few years more and more of his earlier books would trickle into my possession from the Book Club.  I can’t remember exactly when we stopped the subscription; I think it was sometime after Dolores Claiborne and before Insomnia, but I’m not entirely sure.

Anyhow, while I was a huge King fan for years, his grasp on my imagination slackened considerably once he entered that period where it felt like every book he wrote involved a New England author having a mid-life crisis, oh and also some spooky stuff happened or whatever.  I felt like he was treading the same water over and over.  His ending to the Dark Tower series also left… a lot to be desired.  I figured I’d still read him every now and then, but my days of following every new Stephen King novel were over.

This proved to be true; I picked up the interquel Dark Tower book and Duma Key from the library at different times over the last few years, and they were pretty much precisely what I expected: a disappointment and a book about an author having a mid-life crisis, oh and also some spooky stuff happened, in that order.

I read a snippet of a review of the brand-new King novel, The Outsider, and it mentioned that the book was a “return to form.”  I figured, what the hell? and put it on hold at the local library.  Apparently I was one of the very first to do that, because I got it in my hot little hands immediately after it entered circulation.

Conclusion: It’s good.  Real good.  It is, indeed, something of a return to form.  The novel starts off like a police procedural, but things get weirder and weirder as it goes, and by the end it is definitely a Stephen King novel.  As someone who is strongly spoiler-averse I won’t go further than to say that I felt it fit together better than a lot of his later work.

A note that I would have appreciated before reading it: one of the main characters of the novel is apparently from King’s earlier crime trilogy that starts with Mr. Mercedes, a fact I didn’t know but started to suspect as I read.  The Outsider spoils the events of those novels pretty heavily, so be forewarned that if you don’t want those spoilers, you should read those books first.

That said, the book stands alone just fine.  Duma Key was something of a mediocre read, and the less said about The Wind in the Keyhole the better, but if this is how he writes nowadays, I’m ready to become a fan again.

Weekly status update [0016/????]

An even quieter week than usual, which is saying something.

  • My wrists are behaving better than they have in months.  I got new braces to wear overnight, as the old ones were literally falling apart, and I haven’t been wearing them during the day at all for the last several days.  So far so good.
  • Jessica Jones‘ second season has so far failed to grab me the way the first did, which is disappointing.  I’m still going to finish it up, but after the amazing Kilgrave arc, this is something of a letdown.  Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Last Man on Earth continue to be excellent viewing material, thankfully.
  • I got to play Transatlantic at an extended game night this past Tuesday.  It was a very solid game, if not quite up to Concordia‘s level of brilliance, and I found myself thinking about it again repeatedly over the last several days.  I want to write a post about Mac Gerdts’ designs and why I find them so compelling, but I haven’t been able to arrange my thoughts in a way that I like enough to post.
  • I still haven’t started on Rewind rewrites, but I got some excellent feedback on the zeroth draft from a friend that pushed me ever closer to getting started on them.  It’s going to take a lot of work; the story needs to be roughly twice as long, at a minimum, and there’s a lot of guff that needs to be removed and plot threads that need to be woven more tightly.  I will probably have to break down and actually do some outlining to make sure it all fits together the way I want, something I’ve avoided… well, forever, actually.  Sigh.  But it’s for the good of the story, I know.
  • I finished reading Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds, which was fine, if slight.  Mostly it made me wish I was rereading his Pretties series, or Leviathan (which, no joke, I got through two of the three books to finally realize that I had already read the damn series… but I was too into it to put it aside, and finished out the re-read.)  I managed to be the first person in line at the local library for the new Stephen King novel, so I look forward to reading that next; my understanding is that it’s something of a return to form for him.  I’ll report back.

The new CHVRCHES album came out today; I’ve already spun it a few times and quite enjoyed it.  Don’t be surprised if you see a review of… well, probably not it, but perhaps one or both of their earlier albums soon.

Anyhow: quiet.  Not boring, of course–you know that by now!–but not busy.  And that’s fine.