Along for the ride

Sun shone through the shifting leaves and dappled the stony path ahead.  That same breeze pushed against us, inconstant, cooling rather than cool.  I had dressed for chillier weather than this, had already shed my undershirt back at the car, and the wind through the trees did a perfect job of keeping me balanced, neither not nor cold.

Babe was recalcitrant.  Ten feet ahead of us, she balked again, stopping in the middle of the path.  I pulled gently on the reins, said “whoa” in a low voice.  Unsure as to whether Echo responded more to the sound or the motion.  My cousin kicked once, twice, on the sides of the large brown horse, which was enough to get her moving again.  I had already lowered my hands, and after a moment Echo stepped forward, continuing our slow progress through the forest.

A thing I had noticed: Echo wasn’t fond of mud.  The lead horse–I never caught its name–tromped through the soft patches that regularly crossed the stony path with no particular regard.  Babe seemed to follow it precisely; I never quite figured out whether that was the horse’s doing or my cousin’s, although I suspect the former.  Echo, though.  Echo wasn’t fond of mud.  She nosed around, looking for a different way through the patch.  Horses don’t mince, really, but she clearly preferred ways around the muck that involved getting less dirty than her compatriots.

I approved.  I’m not big on mud either.

A thing I had noticed: Echo wanted to be in the lead.  Or, at least, ahead of Babe.  Whenever the other horse stopped in the middle of the path–which was depressingly often, usually halfway up a mild slope–I had to pull back on the reins to keep Echo from passing the large brown horse (and my cousin) up.  We had been told to keep a horse-length between us, and to stay in the same order, and I was doing my best to follow those instructions.  My ride would come to a halt after a moment, waiting patiently while my cousin kicked Babe’s sides once, twice, to get her moving again.  This happened at least ten times over the course of the ride.

A thing I had noticed: Echo never needed to be kicked.  Not once.  Whenever Babe decided to actually move along, Echo would start again as well after a moment.  After the first ten minutes or so, her desire to be in the lead had mostly quieted down, and she kept herself at a distance from my cousin’s horse without me having to guide her.  The same happened whenever we made our way across one of the several streams on the trail.  I would bring Echo to a halt, and she would wait patiently until Babe crossed, and then would make her own way across without my guidance, without me goading her to move.

A thing I had noticed: I was, in effect, completely superfluous.  The horses knew the route, knew the process, knew how to behave.  The stony sloped path would occasionally shift under their feet, but it was clear that it bothered me and my cousin way more than it troubled the horses.  This was well-trod ground for them, literally and figuratively, and I was there merely as an overweight accoutrement, tolerated by the tan mare rather more than being needed by her.  Every time I tugged her head left or right to return to the center of the path–which was not often–it was because of a low-hanging branch, or a tree on the side of the trail that I might rub up against.  None of these affected Echo, only the gangly lump sitting inexpertly on top of her.

She did want to stop and eat grass, though, and I had been explicitly told to not allow that, to pull up on the reins and keep her moving.  That happened twice in the hour-long ride.  That was the sum total of my contributions to the process: stopping a horse from feeding itself.  Twice.

We saw a fawn, nibbling on the underbrush.  It eyed us warily but did not flee.  The horses, after all, were a regular occurrence there.  This surprised my cousin.  It did not surprise me.

I could barely hear the guide when she spoke–Cara?  It was only yesterday, and already the name slips from memory–thanks to distance and my troublesome hearing.  I didn’t mind.  What could she be saying that was very important?  Well, one thing: I wasn’t letting the reins down far enough for Echo to drink easily from the water when we crossed.  I finally figured that out, leaning far down the horse’s neck as she lapped at the burbling stream.  But the ride was the sort of thing better passed in silence, in the non-silence of any living forest, birds and animals chittering in the distance, the rustle of the canopy overhead as the wind swirled around us, the steady clop-clop-clop of the horses on the stones a contrapunto to the white noise of nature.

I had never ridden a horse before.  Cara (if that was her name) complimented me on how well I did, and I silently replied: how could I not do well?  I barely did anything.  Echo knew the way.  I was just along for the ride.

Baby Bear brain

I’ve recently been working on getting one of my cousins into puzzles.

It all started back in March, when I was visiting back home.  I showed her the basics of sudoku with a kids’ book I had bought for my Mom.  (Would I put money on Mom having not touched that book since I left?  Yes.  Yes, I would.)  The ones that really grabbed her, though, were Fill-Ins; she told me later that she had bought a magazine of them and regularly worked on them in the evenings.

Cue me spending something close to $100 on various magazines and books for her, covering a wide gamut of puzzle types.  What can I say?  When someone seems to share a passion of mine, I want to make the most of it.  She’s actually coming to nearby Asheville next week on vacation, and I’ll be bringing her the second wave of puzzle books in person.

Teaching someone how to do puzzles “from scratch” has been an interesting experience for me.  I’ve been doing them since I was a kid; I used to walk around with a big brown tote full of puzzle magazines when I was seven or eight, and am still pretty bitter that my Mom threw them away sometime in the early nineties.  I only managed to save a single magazine from that apocalypse, a Dell Crosswords Spectacular from 1991.  It happens to have one of my favorite puzzles of all time, one I transcribed over a decade ago.  Here it is.  (The rules: make a single, Nikoli-style loop in the puzzle through the centers of the squares.  The numbers represent how many boxes in that row or column are part of the loop.)

That puzzle used to be the hardest one I had ever solved, and it took me years as a kid.  I’ve done tougher since, but going back to basics–as is necessary when you’re teaching someone who hasn’t been steeped in puzzles for the vast majority of their life–has been enlightening.  I get to experience the “a-ha!” moment of understanding, internalizing the ways that a good puzzle design works through someone else’s eyes.

I’ve also come to realize that, if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t really like very hard puzzles.  This was made crystal-clear by a particular puzzle that I recently worked on from a Japanese magazine called 超難問ナンプレ&頭脳全開数理パズル, which roughly translates to “Super Difficult Sudoku & Math Puzzles.”  It’s not lying.  The magazine contains a section of Slitherlinks, my favorite puzzle type, but even though I’ve solved literally hundreds of them the ones in this magazine regularly cause me to fail miserably.  You can actually play the breaking-point puzzle here, thanks to the Javascript version of Simon Tatham’s Portable Puzzle Collection and my fastidious transcription.  I don’t recommend it, though.

Put simply, the puzzle is brutally hard, and at the end requires what amounts to “guessing wildly and see what happens.”  This sort of arbitrary “what-if?” logic sets my teeth on edge in puzzles of all types.  In fact, I personally see it as a kind of failing.  If your puzzle can’t be reasoned out from first principles, then I just don’t think it’s very good.  I did eventually solve the puzzle, with some help on a couple of deductions from an online acquaintance, but it wasn’t satisfying at all.  I didn’t get to the end with a feeling of accomplishment; I got to it with a feeling of defeat.

The problem is that a lot of very hard puzzles end up making me feel that way, whether I manage to actually solve them or not.  And so: yeah, they’re just not for me.  I can accept that, although it pains me to admit that there are entire swaths of puzzles that I’ll never like or enjoy because of simply being too hard for me to enjoy.

Puzzles that are too easy have a different sort of problem: they feel rote, mechanical, like I’m doing the pencil-and-paper equivalent of writing lines.  Which, uh, I guess is just writing lines?  I still do them on occasion–most Fill-Ins are like this for me nowadays, actually–and there is some satisfaction to be gained from the process, from taking a disorganized list of words or an empty grid and putting it all together the right way based on the rules of the puzzle; we humans crave making order out of chaos, after all.  But they’re like over-sweet candy: nice every once in a while, but not really meal material.

So, like Goldilocks, I suppose I like my puzzles neither too hard nor too easy, but just right.  Fortunately for me, the majority of Nikoli’s publications fit into that spot.  They have a couple of harder-than-average puzzle types (Heyawake being the biggest outlier), but most of their stuff is eminently doable even at the highest difficulty level.

I’ll still buy my every-other-month copy of 超難問ナンプレ&頭脳全開数理パズル, but it’ll mostly be to gawk at the ridiculous puzzles.  And then I’ll turn back to Baby Bear’s books and magazines, the ones filled with not-too-easy, not-too-hard challenges, and actually enjoy myself.

Plink-plink-plonk down the Memory Hole

A friend of mine was DJing on Twitch last night, a set mostly composed of chiptunes and music from the demoscene.  I asked if he had played satell.s3m yet, one of my favorite tracker tunes dating from when I first heard it back in the early ’90s.  (Well, actually, I asked him to play “satell.m3u”, because I got my mid-’90s formats with a ‘3’ in the middle confused.  Mea culpa.)  He had to download it–he was using someone else’s computer–but download he did, and a few tracks later: bam.

That got me to thinking of other excellent music I knew, which triggered a memory: at some point I had snarfed all of the MP3s off of some Japanese chiptune musician’s website; his specialty was taking music made for one chipset (say, the MSX) and transporting it to some other platform (say, the NES with the additional VRC6 chip).  Sometimes, like that example, that meant the new track had a bunch of additional instrumentation, but sometimes the conversions went the other way, a “demake” of sorts where a track had to be distilled to its bare essence.  Given that this was Inverse Phase DJing, he of Pretty Eight Machine Internet fame, I figured such demakes would appeal to him.

So I set about exploring the labyrinthine corners of my hard drive via find, at the same time trying to poke around on the ‘net to find this musician’s website.  I had success with the former well before the latter.

In fact, said website doesn’t exist at all any more.

This made me pretty despondent.  I immediately set about uploading the MP3s to Google Drive to give to Brendan, at the same time poking around furiously online in an attempt to find just where the hell these tracks had disappeared to.  I mean, there were literally hundreds of them; surely they hadn’t just evaporated into the ether?  (Spoiler: yes, and no.)

My late night searches proved fruitless, but at least my local copies finished uploading, and so I shared the link with Inverse Phase and a few friends on IRC, saying that I wanted the files spread around to keep them from falling into the Memory Hole.

A relevant digression: I used to have an account on the premier private music tracker on the Internet.  It was encyclopedic, overwhelming, enthralling; rumor had it that all the big-name electronic musicians had accounts on the site, scouring it for rarities.  Some artists uploaded their own music there to beat the promo-copy rippers to the punch.  And it had a wealth of rare CDs, up to and including albums that had never been officially released, uploaded by friends or family or the artist, just to help them get out there.  The site is no more, data trashed before the French authorities could get hold of the servers.

This isn’t a story about piracy, although I freely admit that said site definitely facilitated that.  It’s about the persistence of memory.  We will never know the contents of the Library of Alexandria.  We have lost forever untold masterpieces, art and music and writing, because they perished in flame or flood or mold in the back corner of a forgotten closet.

And yet, if we are not careful, in this age where we have enough storage to hold it all, we will still lose things due to a lack of diligence, or a company’s overzealous reach, or simply because no one knew there was something that needed saving.  Some day I’ll write about what we’ve already lost in terms of online-only games, but that’s another article.  But: we have already lost so much.  So much.

I woke up before 6am this morning due to a frankly hilarious dream–I won’t bore you with the details, because the details of other people’s dreams are the worst, except to say that apparently my subconscious knows the vocal harmony bits of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash even though I had to spend a half-hour searching frantically for the song, finally humming the “doot doo doo doo doo” bit into Midomi and having it actually succeed, my prior hard drive search an utter failure because for some reason I was convinced the dream-song was by Simon and Garfunkel–to find that a friend had downloaded the tracks from the Drive folder… but there were problems with several of them.  I looked, and sure enough: what were supposed to be MP3s were actually HTML files telling me that, sorry, that file wasn’t found.

Augh.  I hadn’t even rescued this from the Memory Hole.

So I set out with a bit more ferocity than the night before to track these down.  I realized that what looked like garbage in the ID3 tags in my terminal was probably Shift JIS encoded, and sure enough, that got me to an artist: 白亜R.  Oh ho!  Some Googling found me the old URL for the website, which no longer existed, but isn’t that what the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is for?

And, lo and behold, not only did I find the site in the Machine, but if I clicked the links for the missing files, the real MP3s played!  Turns out they had been crawled and stored in 2005 or thereabouts, before I managed to save the files myself.  Extracting them from the Wayback Machine required some mild shenanigans, but they were shenanigans I pulled off with ease.  I informed my friends that, hey, I had found the missing tracks to go along with the rest, and that they should download those too.

And so, even if just for a few people, I managed to keep at least one more thing from slipping down into the Memory Hole forever.

Speaking of which: here you go.  Enjoy–they really are excellent tunes–and share them around.  It’s just a tiny bit of media rescued from oblivion, but sometimes that’s all we can hope for.

The warm equations

[Warning: This entry is darker than my usual fare.  It also makes heavier use of expletives.]

I fucking hate hurricanes.

That seems like a pointlessly true statement: who, exactly, likes them?  Jim Cantore, maybe (but probably not).  It keeps part of the NOAA in business.  Sociopath televangelists who “believe” that hurricanes are messages from God to repent our sins… much like the message that insists you call the 1-800 number emblazoned at the bottom of the screen to help fund their war against gays and the IRS.

It’s all well and good to wish (or pray, if that’s your thing) that a hurricane not make landfall at all, that it spin out over the ocean and mostly wish ill on pods of whales, but the moment they near the shore and start their unwieldy, unpredictable devestation, everyone’s plea becames: not me.

There’s the rub, though: isn’t everyone making that plea?  Everyone except Jim Cantore, of course, who has to go drive out into the middle of the damn thing, who is probably just going let’s get this over with so I can get dry for a goddamn change.

Hurricane Florence came aground this weekend; I spent a large portion of last week doing preparatory work for the event.  The fridge was filled, the shelf overflowed with Essential Hurricane Snax™, the spare bathtub used for the first time in several years in case I needed to bail water into the toilets so I could flush like a normal human being.  Stacks of books teetered on my couch, my Kindle Paperwhite charged back to full, crappy knockoff Yankee Candles squatted on the vanity in case the power went out and I had to take a leak in the middle of the night.

In the end, it was a non-event here in Lenoir.  Lots of wind–at times it felt like my house was about to take flight, a puddle-jumper take on The Wizard of Oz–and sporadic bursts of fine-drop rain that ended as abruptly as they started.  It’s easy to feel happy, even weirdly put-out: I did all that work for this?  Summer afternoon cloudbursts have been scarier than this shit.

But: New Bern.  A mother and child dead in Wilmington because of a tree that crushed their house.  In many places, the rivers continue to rise.  The flooding’s not over yet.

Not me, them.

Let’s pretend for a moment that I’m actually a competent human being, that I was actually as well-prepared for the situation as I could be.  I mean, it’s not that far-fetched; I’m from Louisiana.  I have memories of sitting wrapped up in a blanket on the covered porch of the house where I grew up, wet and getting wetter by the moment, while Hurricane Andrew dumped its trillions of gallons of water over southern Louisiana after it had decided that destroying most of south Florida was just not quite enough death and destruction.  This wasn’t my first major storm.

What if I could have, somehow, made the storm come this way?

What about everyone else in the area?  The people who weren’t as well-prepared, due to lack of diligence, lack of knowledge, lack of money?  How is that fair to them, just because I can handle it?

So: not me.  Let it be someone else, let the next town over have the long thin scar of the tornado, let the catastrophe be cozily distant, abstract and on the other side of an OLED display.  There is no such thing as a fair share of misery, so let mine be smaller, let my wishes be granted more often than those of the people sixty miles down the road, wishing just as fervently.  The equation is there; lives will be lost, homes destroyed, families shattered.  Just: not me.

I fucking hate hurricanes.

Biblio tech

I’ve been spending most of my time this past week reading; I tore through an entire book yesterday, stopping only to go to Fercott and play games for an hour and a half (Lamb by Christopher Moore, which was very good), and this weekend I read both collected volumes of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 800+ pages of manga that completely entranced me the whole way through.  I currently have a pair of teetering stacks on my sofa, waiting to be read.

And they’re all from the library.

I think that, at least here in the US, there is a common… not disrespect, necessarily, but intentional devaluing of the services that libraries provide, particularly among those that consider themselves “middle class.”  Even I have gone in and out of heavy usage periods with local libraries, and the general not-really-logic over the years has often been something like:

  • I have a job that makes pretty decent money.
  • Books are really nice objects.
  • I know the library has most of the books I want, but not all of them…
  • …and I can afford to buy books.
  • And then they’re mine.  Mine!  For all eternity.
  • So I should buy my books.

Up until that last point, there’s really nothing particularly flawed with that reasoning.  But that last step is not all that far removed from the old “then a miracle occurs” comic strip.  While it’s absolutely true that any reasonable rate of book collection is unlikely to bankrupt someone of even modest means, it’s also almost always unnecessary.

The big reason is utility: if you buy a book, read it once, then put it on a shelf, what exactly is that book doing for you the other 99.995% of its lifetime?  Nothing, really.  And don’t get me wrong, a lot of the books on the shelves of a modern library don’t get checked out very often… but that’s still a lot more utility than the ones sitting dusty in the far corner of your bedroom.

There are others, too; inter-library loan, or things like the Cardinal system here in North Carolina, can get you the books that your local library doesn’t have.  And libraries have a ton of other things besides, DVDs and CDs and paintings and public computers and sometimes even board games and video games.  But I think that libraries also often have a whiff of the desperate, the needy, the plebeian, that a certain middle class mentality frowns upon.  “That’s nice,” it proposes, “but not for me.  It’s for other, less well-to-do people, and students.”

Well… no.  You pay for your local library with taxes.  You should use the hell out of your local library.

I’ve made it an intentional habit that, whenever I put a book on hold (which is often) and go into the library to pick it up, I also browse the New Book shelf and the science fiction section.  Librarians will almost always have some books on those little display rack things, and I end up picking up one or two or five of those because they look interesting; the last time I went to the library I picked up my one on-hold book and nine others I had never even heard of.  And you know what?  Some of my best recent reads came from that sort of random browsing.  I just finished a book called The Comedown that was a solid bit of modern literary fiction… and a book I would have never read “on my own,” because it’s in a genre I pay basically no attention to.  But it was on the New Book rack, I took a chance on it, and that chance paid off.

That’s not to say that I never buy books any more.  There are a couple of authors (Scalzi, Stross) whose books I still preorder as sort of a vestigial “I really like them and want to support them” thing.  And sometimes someone recommends a book to me, I poke around on Cardinal and see no live copies, and so I pick up one used on Amazon for $5.  But I try to keep that all to a minimum; my house is already way too cluttered with board games to make a whole bunch of room for more books, and the vast majority of what I want can be found at the library anyhow.  I was the first person to get Stephen King’s most recent book (The Outsider, which was quite a delightful read) at the local library, and I got it maybe a week after it came out.  Not exactly long-delayed gratification.

Now, I know I’m a partisan.  I was on the Board for the local library until politics drove me off, after all!  But even if you’re not as passionate about libraries as I am, the next time you think about placing an order on Amazon for a book you’re likely to only read once, think: couldn’t I just pick this up from the library?

And maybe you’ll find some other life-changing book waiting for you on one of those little racks when you do.

Twenty-six weeks and what do you get?

…half a year older, for sure; thankfully not deeper in debt.

(A quick note: I added a widget to the side that lets you subscribe to the blog via eMail; put in your address and you’ll get a message whenever I write a new article.  Several people have asked how to follow along a bit easier.  Hopefully that helps.)

My last day of work was February 2nd, 2018.  This past Friday marks twenty-six weeks since then, fully half a year of retirement.  It’s kind of crazy to think about; I remember when I was in my late twenties and thinking, “huh, maybe I can pull this off sometime in my mid-forties if I work really hard at it.”  Working in tech let me pull that off seven or eight years before my original plans, and for that I will always be grateful.

It doesn’t feel like it’s been six months, but it doesn’t feel like it’s only been a couple of weeks either.  If I had to put a number on how long it feels, I’d say something like three months… but I’m not sure that that perception of time is really any different from when I was working.  I was at my last job for just a bit over five years but it felt like three at most.

Let’s answer the most obvious question first, because it’s also the easiest: No, I don’t regret retiring.  Do I have any concrete regrets at all?  Sure.  I miss the social aspects of my workplace, playing board games at lunch and chatting with people in the halls.  I miss the food team and the delicious free food (although my waistline is rather happier now).  But I honestly hadn’t been all that happy with my day-to-day job for a couple of years when I left, and there’s no question that I enjoy what I’m doing now–even if, to the outside world, it might look like a fat lot of nothing–quite a bit more.

The money situation requires a Magic 8-Ball response: Ask again later.  The market volatility this year has completely swamped any attempt I could make at understanding whether my rate of spending is sustainable or not in the long term.  That rate of spending has actually been surprisingly constant over the year, which I discovered almost by accident last week when messing around with graphs in Gnucash; it’s quite a bit higher than I would like–looks like it’s likely to be somewhere around $36,000 for the year, when I’m aiming for something more like $30,000–but there is still a ton of superfluous spending in there, if it turns out I have to buckle down and Get Serious about my money habits.  And assuming my spending increases at the same rate as the value of my investments (a pretty ridiculous assumption, seeing as the trend is downwards, not upwards) I still have somewhere around twenty years before I have to touch the first penny of my retirement, at which point I’ll be in my late fifties.  Yeah.  It’ll almost certainly be fine, but still: ask again later.

As for longer-term plans, well, I said I’d give myself a year before I started worrying about that sort of thing, so get back to me in six months.

From one perspective, these twenty-six weeks have been profoundly unproductive.  Other than this blog, I haven’t written anything of note; other than a few tiny patches and tinkerings, I haven’t written any code either.  But that’s at least partly by design; I don’t want to force myself into those things if I’m not really feeling it, and in both cases I can feel the desire to “do something” percolating more and more inside me.  I suspect it won’t be more than a couple of weeks before I sit down and write something, be it code or prose.  I’m going to let it happen naturally.

From another perspective, though, it’s actually been quite productive.  Changing the way that I type–something I do a lot of, even if it’s not writing prose–has been a huge undertaking; I remember that first weekend, typing at 5wpm and thinking it was the worst idea I had ever had in my life.  But now I’m back to something like 75% of my old typing speed, which puts me in the top 1% or so of typists in the world, and that is Plenty Sufficient for my needs.  It’s also way less strain on my hands, something I need to be careful with if I want to be able to do this for the next thirty-plus years.  It’s the sort of “short term pain, long term gain” thing that I couldn’t really justify back when my livelihood at least partly depended on how fast I could bang on the keyboard, and my life will be better now indefinitely into the future for it.

There’s the other stuff too.  I’ve read a bunch of books I hadn’t gotten around to, played a bunch of games I never finished, completed a couple of puzzle books that have been lingering near my chair for years… basically doing things I always pushed off because I didn’t have the time.  My backlog of media is effectively infinite, so it’s hard to say that I made progress on those fronts, and it still grows at a rate greater than my ability to consume it, but there’s no question that I did something there.  And that’s satisfying.

Another thing that retirement has made easier is taking control of my weight.  There’s no question that I’m addicted to food, and being alone at my house allows me to highly regulate the food I come in contact with; the ever-present snacks at my old work place were a serious impediment to my diet, and although I overcame that for a while it is always easier to just eat all the things.  I still have quite a way to go, but the combination of calorie restriction and keto is doing its job.  (It’s also making me pretty grumpy some days, but you can’t have it all, at least if you want to drop a bunch of pounds in time for the holidays.)

In some ways this was always something of an experiment.  You can plan and plan, hypothesize that “it’s going to work out,” but until you actually do the thing it’s almost impossible to know whether or not such a long-term life shift is actually going to work out.  And it’s still very much early days yet; I won’t presume to know that my first six months are indicative of the next six, much less the (hopefully) long life ahead of me.  But: so far, so good.  So very, very good.

Thanks for coming along on this ride with me.  If you have any questions or topics you’d like me to address, whether briefly in replies or via longer-form posts, just let me know.  Thankfully I get enough comments to know I’m not just screaming into the void, but I’m happy to hear feedback of all types.

See you here again in six months!  (Also on Friday or Saturday, for the weekly rundown.  But also in six months.)

The devil in the dull

After seven years of it hanging over my head, I just “platted” Final Fantasy XIII for the PS3, and I’m here to tell you: trophies (or achievements, or whatever your favorite system calls them) are the absolute worst.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the idea, a brief explanation.  Achievements (or trophies; I will use the terms interchangeably from here on out) are a way of tracking and rewarding a player’s actions in the vast majority of modern games.  It all started with the Xbox 360; the PlayStation 3 followed suit a couple of years late, and both Sony and Microsoft’s modern systems continue the trend.  Steam, the juggernaut of gaming on modern PCs, also tracks achievements, and people have even reverse-engineered them into games of yore.  They act as a “scoring system” for all of their platforms; for example, as of this moment I’m Level 20 on my PlayStation Network account, with 32 platinum trophies–essentially but not precisely “games I got every achievement in”–and another 3300 or so other trophies of less valuable metals indicating progress in hundreds of games.

There are fundamentally three types of achievements:

  • Some you get for passing certain points in the game; these tend to be unmissable, assuming you play through the whole thing.
  • Others you get for doing certain challenge-y things within a given game, such as beating it on a particular difficulty level or using a weak weapon, or simply pulling off something clever or challenging that isn’t required to beat the game itself.
  • Lastly are achievements that pretend to be the second kind, above, but are secretly actually “play the game until you hate it with every fiber of your being because this stupid achievement is making you do something tedious and awful.”

Now, perhaps you can put your sleuthing hat on and figure out which of the above I abhor.  (I’m actually not a big fan of the first type of achievement, either; they feel like participation stickers.  But at least they tend to be inoffensive.)  Sometimes the second type can even shade into the third, if the challenging thing you’re asking a player to do ends up being too challenging; game designers tend to be a little too close to their games, and often don’t realize that what is easy for them and their testers can be downright devilish for players out in the real world.

The problem is that almost every game with achievements has at least one of that last type, even games I’ve otherwise really enjoyed.  For example, Axiom Verge–one of my favorite games of all time–has an achievement that requires you to “glitch” at least one of every enemy in the game.  This is quite tedious and frustrating, as some enemies only show up in one or two rooms in the game, and missing one means scouring the map for That One Thing You Didn’t Do.  Now, I happen to have collected all of the achievements in Axiom Verge on three different occasions (two different PSN accounts, plus on Steam), but I still hate that particular achievement with a passion.

I recently “platted” (short for “platinummed”, a delightful verbing of the act of getting the last trophy/achievement on a PlayStation game, which nets you a special platinum trophy on top of the copper, silver, or gold one that whatever the actual thing you did provides) Diablo III.  That game also had a couple of awful trophies; one required you to essentially beat the game with six different characters, which is a lot of one game for most people, but that wasn’t the big offender.  No.  The awful one was the “complete 500 bounties” trophy.

Bounties in Diablo III are semi-random tasks the game assigns you, five at a time.  The thing is: after you’ve done twenty bounties or so, you’ve basically seen everything that the bounty system can offer.  And yet you have to grind out another 480 of them.  480!  Even a fast bounty takes a couple of minutes to complete.  It took me hours of completing bounties while doing other things (mostly watching Twitch) to complete that trophy, none of it fun.

So, back to Final Fantasy XIII.  It, too, has a couple of awful achievements, but one of them takes the grand prize in the Garbage Design Sweepstakes.  You have to “hold” (i.e. have in your inventory) every single weapon and accessory in the game.  Many of these you can’t actually find in the game; instead, you have to upgrade other, weaker items into the missing ones.  The details of the system aren’t important.  What’s important is that getting this one trophy easily adds another ten or so hours onto the game, minimum… all of which consists of repetitive tasks where you kill enemies over and over and over and over and over to get items to sell (or use) to feed the upgrade engine.  It is awful, unfun, and you are basically forced into using a guide off the Internet to make sure you don’t miss any of the upgrade paths.

So: I beat the game back in 2011, looked at what I had to do for the last trophies–there are some other really stupid ones in the game that I won’t get into–and went “nope.”  But it’s been nagging me in the back of my head ever since then.  I platted both of FFXIII‘s sequels, and FFXV as well (for those of you wondering “why not FFXIV?”: it’s an massively multiplayer online game, and I’m not allowed to play those for a whole bunch of reasons having to do with my well-being), and still FFXIII sat there, trophy list 60% complete, mocking me.

And so this past week I decided I’d finish it off.  And finish it I did.  A tiny bit of that was fun; a couple of the bits in the game that I hadn’t done were interesting and challengin.  But mostly it was miserable and boring and tedious.

But.  By merely existing, achievements are a gamification of the act of playing games.  And a lot of people–myself included–are easily susceptible to that sort of thing.  I look at a game where I have 70% of the trophies and go: I should get the rest.  Then I have a shiny platinum!  Then people will know I beat the game.   And so I found myself listening to The Dollop for two hours tonight while tediously playing the same battle over and over and over to get enough in-game money to just be done with this.  This is not good game design.  It’s captive, sure, but it’s unhealthy.  And I don’t like it at all.  But I can’t help myself, either.

At least I can blame Bill Gates.

Leader of the plaque

(Don’t blame me, blame Little Shop of Horrors.  Also, if you have a visceral hatred of talking about dentistry, feel free to skip this one.  I don’t blame you one bit.)

My dentist appointment went fine, other than costing rather more than I would have liked.  In fact, for the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t told that I needed to floss more.  This has been a goal of mine for at least the last decade, and while I’ve been flossing regularly for years, apparently the combination of keto and overall reduced consumption was finally enough to pass muster with the dental hygienist.  Success!

Also, still no cavities, for 37ish years and counting.  (I’m not sure when my first baby tooth came in.)

Like many people, I don’t like going to the dentist at all.  Perhaps unlike most people, my problem is 100% focused on a single thing: the water-pick device that modern hygienists use for scaling the plaque off of your teeth much more efficiently than the hooked picks (although they still use those as well).  Something about the frequency the water-pick runs at makes my entire head ache with the sound when it’s in my mouth, and on top of that it inevitably zings some of the nerves in my gums as they knock off the build-up, which makes me jump… and so I spend the entire time in a state of nervous shaky tension waiting for those zings, making the whole experience indescribably worse.  It’s basically a solid fifteen to twenty minutes of my body in complete and total fight-or-flight quivering-in-my-boots fear, except that I can neither fight nor fly.  I feel deeply drained after every visit.

Imagine how bad it’d be if I had cavities and they had to break out a drill.  Uggggggggggggggh.

Anyhow, that particular obligation has been done and dusted for the next six months.  As a first semi-major “health” thing since I’ve retired, it could hardly have gone better, so for that at least I’m quite pleased.  I’m also very, very pleased that I shouldn’t have to go back for quite a while.  That water-pick.  That water-pick.

Absence of thought

I realized that it’s Wednesday and I haven’t yet done my now-pretty-regular “post that isn’t a weekly update” this week.  The thing is: I don’t have anything particularly exciting to write about, at least not that fits the loose format that I’ve established here.  No one wants to read me rail about the current political situation here in the US; there are much more cogent thinkers out there who are doing that work better than I ever will, and “screaming into the void” has never been my favorite pastime.  (I will, however, leave this here.)

So instead you get a meta-post about the act of writing these things in the first place.  Exciting!

I have to admit that sometimes (often, really) I just don’t have it in me to post something.  I think it’d be easier if I were more willing to dash off thoughts, Twitter-style, on the regular, but I feel that the blog format almost always warrants something of more substance.  And I don’t always have that substance to give.  I mean, yes, I could start going through my book and video game collection, writing reviews for everything I’ve finished, but that’s not the core concept of this blog–at least, not in my mind–and that also sounds a lot like work.

I suspect that a lot of people would have no sympathy for that argument.  I’m retired, after all; what else do I have but time?  As much as I have, though, that time is still fundamentally limited, at least until the techno-Rapture that will make us immortal.  (Immortal slaves to the machines, mind you, but immortal nevertheless.)  And as vapid as it may seem, most of the time I’d rather just play more Diablo III or watch some more Twitch than come up with a slightly-cheeky take on something that happened in my life (spoiler: nothing really happens in my life) or banging out a review of a vaguely food-related product.  Each day is still a day closer to the end, and I want to spend them doing things I genuinely enjoy.

And yet.  I think I’ve gotten a lot out of writing these blog entries, even though I’m writing for an ever-shrinking audience.  That last part doesn’t surprise me, as the number of people likely to read this was at its largest the moment I retired and will only fall off as people figure out “huh, not much going on with that Phil guy’s life, is there?” and phase out their readership.  And that’s fine; while ostensibly this exists as a way for people to keep up with what I’m doing now, it’s just as much a way for me to exercise my writing muscles on a regular basis, something I’ve always meant to do and never actually got around to in my prior life.  Well, I finally got around to it, and got around to fixing my typing with Colemak, and got around to playing at least a few games and reading a few books that have been hanging shamefully over my head for years, so this retirement thing seems to be helping me make at least some headway on years of inaction.

And, hey, look, by rambling on about my lack of material to ramble on about, I’ve managed to gin up an entire blog post worth of content!  Thanks, meta-writing!

It’s something I can’t do too often, though, or it’ll get just as tired as anything.  And while I often find it hard to find something to write about–and often don’t want to write at all–I do think that it’s the right thing to do, at least now.  I think I will appreciate being able to look back at these posts in the months and years to come and see what I was thinking about, how I felt, how early retirement was going.  So: I’m gonna keep on keeping on.  But this week you’ll have to put up with this very meta post as your additional content.

Sorry.

The reality of irreality

I recently finished reading a very good book, The Moon and the Other.  This isn’t a review; instead, I wanted to point out something it did that I found both interesting and actually a little distracting due to its rarity in science fiction.  Fair warning: very, very mild spoilers ahead.

One of the main viewpoint characters in the novel is a man who was banished from the “Society of Cousins,” a matriarchal society that made me think (at first) that the book was going to be some sort of weird inverse of The Handmaid’s Tale.  The person–another man–who convinced him to do the deed that got them both banished?  He goes by the pseudonym “Tyler Durden.”  (For those of you that don’t immediately recognize that name, it’s a character from Fight Club, played memorably in the movie by Brad Pitt.)

Later, there’s a very minor plot involving a theoretical virus that would have done damage to that self-same society, proposed by Mr. Durden.  The name of the virus?  GROSS.  (If you don’t recognize that, get yourself to a copy of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, stat.)

Both of these references startled me when I came across them.  That’s because, for most science fiction, the authors work pretty hard at pretending that culture past, say, Mozart or Bach doesn’t really exist.  It’s very rare to see modern things referenced directly in a work.  Obviously I’m excluding borderline-fanfic stuff like Ernest Cline’s novels, which exist as an explicit love letter to ’80s pop culture; I’m talking about otherwise “normal” science fiction.  At most, they’ll occasionally do one of those sets-of-threes things where the first reference is classical, the second modern, and the third fictional, something like:

Genndy sat down at the ancient piano and plinked a few tentative notes, then launched into a whirlwind tour of the canon: Mozart, Joel, Oda-Wheeler.

That’s a made-up example, but you see such things littered across much of science fiction.  Usually the references end there, though.

When a work refers to a real-life thing, it’s often changed in some way; I’m currently in the middle of reading The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., where it’s not the Pentagon but the Trapezoid.  Sometimes that sort of thing works, but given the fact that D.O.D.O. is all about history–and a couple of sentences later it specifically refers to George Washington–this sort of off-brand filtering can be, in its own way, even more distracting than just using the real name.  (On the other hand, given the core conceit of the novel, it’s possible that the building is the Trapezoid for Reasons.  It’s a Neal Stephenson novel, so I might not find that out for another six thousand pages or so.)

Going back to The Moon and the Other, I can kind of get why this sort of thing is rare.  For one, you risk dating the novel; references to Lorena Bobbitt (as a random example I’d never actually use in a story) already risk falling off the comprehensibility cliff, so if you don’t pick your target well you risk making it completely opaque to the reader.  And given my reaction to seeing contemporary references in a modern novel, the smart money may be keeping it all the way back to Mozart.  But I actually think that “Tyler Durden” is the sort of reference that will stay relevant for a surprisingly long time, and while I sadly suspect “GROSS” will age poorly, as kids don’t grow up reading Calvin and Hobbes, it also wasn’t crucial to the plot.

Still, it makes me think how such things apply to my own writing.  In Rewind I explicitly explore a couple of close-to-our-own realities that turn out slightly different, so these types references are actually fairly important to the story, but I also carefully never placed the novel in a specific city or precise time to avoid some of those selfsame issues.  Having read The Moon and the Other, I’m going to be giving even more serious consideration to the real-world references in my own works.  A mild shock is good; pulling a reader out of the fictional world is not.