Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Subnautica Review

Subnautica is one of the best games I've ever played. I've personally never liked the survival genre that much, having tried Minecraft way back in the day and played about ten hours of Ark: Survival Evolved. So I was really surprised when Subnautica grabbed hold of my attention and refused to let go.

You start off as a survivor of a crashed space ship, marooned on an alien planet, floating in an alien ocean with nothing more than a lifepod, a fabricator, and a first aid kit. As you gradually explore your underwater environment, you'll harvest fish for food and water, as well as minerals and plant life to make equipment. This is the main gameplay loop of Subnautica: explore, gather materials, and upgrade your tech. What makes it so satisfying is the care and realism put into the various biomes. You'll encounter gigantic floating islands covered in coral and strange creatures; you'll explore underwater caves filled with giant jellyshrooms and terrifying albino eels. You constantly have to be on the lookout for predators, because Subnautica isn't really about combat. Eventually you'll make a rifle that'll briefly stun creatures, as well as an underwater mech suit that'll protect you from most monstrosities, but you'll never be entirely safe, especially from Reaper Leviathans, gigantic predators who'll even attack your cyclops, a large undewater sub that serves as your mobile base.

Fear is a huge part of Subnautica, despite it not being a horror game. Early on, I was terrified to swim in deep water. Thalassophobia is a fear of the sea, and I think all humans probably have it to some degree, but I never thought a video game would be immersive enough to make me feel as though I'm about to be swallowed by some eldritch horror from the abyss. Once you explore the game thoroughly, you'll become familiar with what's lurking in Subnautica's waters, and your fears will dissipate, which is almost a shame.

Subnautica does actually have a plot, though I haven't quite finished it. This is another change from the survival game norm, and it gives the player a little more impetus to play rather than just base building or collecting food. This isn't fair to Ark, since it was never billed as a singleplayer game, but Ark was so damn monotonous, having no respect for your time. Who thinks it's fun to spend an hour taming a dinosaur by spamming berries into its inventory? Apparently a lot of people, since Ark sold 5.5 million copies. Subnautica is a single player game, however, so you don't have to worry about other people ruining your fun. It's well worth the 24.99 Steam's asking, though I actually got it free through Epic's new store, which was a hell of a deal. The only criticism I'd add is sometimes the crafting recipes are rather vague, so don't be afraid to use a wiki, though don't delve too far. Some things should remain a surprise, and I miss the feeling that I had before I knew that no tentacled monstrosity would rise from the deep to devour me. The mind is capable of the greatest horror, after all.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Love Song of Greta Van Fleet

The seventies, baby, were a very cool time

People had no fashion sense, but they knew how to rhyme

How do you like my shoes, babe, and my greasy long hair?

How do like my Frodo voice, and my thousand yard stare?

We're Greta Van Fleet yeah, not Greta Van Susteren

Try to rhyme another word with Greta Van Susteren

We got the moves, mama, yeah we got the golden flair

I'm wearing open-toed shoe like I don't even care

Back in the seventies, babe, there was no Youtube

If you wanted to watch music, babe, you'd see on the boob tube

Everybody smoked weed but it was somehow okay

Yet you still had to hide it if you were not straight but gay

We're Greta Van Fleet yeah, not Greta Van Susteren

Try to rhyme another word with Greta Van Susteren

We got the moves, mama, yeah we got the golden flair

I'm wearing open-toed shoe like I don't even care 

It's not derivative, babe, if you haven't heard it in years

No one plays rock 'n' roll, babe, so swallow those fears

Just put away your Iphone and listen to me screech

It's gotta be better than pop's lame-ass beats

We're Greta Van Fleet yeah, not Greta Van Susteren

Try to rhyme another word with Greta Van Susteren

We got the moves, mama, yeah we got the golden flair

I'm wearing open-toed shoe like I don't even care

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Weightlifting: 2018 Review

T'was the year of the bulk, with Mac-like results.

I came back from a debilitating back injury early in 2018. I didn't start squatting again until April, and it took till the end of October to reach my previous level of strength (started out front squatting 155 lbs, and ended up doing a back squat with 350 lbs for five reps months later). My training has stabilized as I've found a decent routine I've stuck with for a while (outlined here). The only PR I set all year was a 195 lbs strict press at 197 lbs; but 2018 was supposed to be the year of bodybuilding, not one rep maxes. Instead of constantly testing my max, I focused on accumulating volume and lifting in the 5 to 10 rep range. My weight increased from 196-197 to 200-202, although there was a little bit of fat gain around my waist (though not as bad as Mac up there). Good, steady training is pretty boring, it turns out. Here's what I learned in 2018 in a nice, bullet-point format.

-When injured, train around injuries until healed. While my back healed, I did single-leg dumbbell squats, leg extensions, and sissy squats. Those exercises kept some of my muscle mass, although it's taken a long time to recover my back strength. Before getting injured, I was deadlifting over 500 lbs; I recently did 375 for 5 sumo style, so I'm still getting there.

-Switching to closely related lift variations keeps training fresh and progress moving. Moving to close grip for a few training cycles seems to have got my stagnating bench press moving again, and I plan on setting a low bar squat PR in two weeks after having switched this cycle from high bar squats to low bar.

-Weight gain is good, to a point. Most people don't want to hear this, but gaining weight is hard. At 5'9, I've had a hard time getting past 200 lbs without most of the weight gain being fat. However, the couple extra pounds I've gained have helped my training. It's just about eating a lot of decent food, rather than stuffing yourself with garbage.

-Find a training schedule that's just enough volume, rather than too much or too little. I really like four day a week training. My workouts run from forty minutes to an hour. Previously, I had been training five days or more a week. I find that if I lift more than four days a week, I get burned out quickly. As long as you're progressing, you're doing alright.

And that's it. I'm going to continue my current program for the foreseeable future, and hopefully I'll have a good year with some solid PRs. Achievable goals for the year would be a 450 lbs squat, a 315 lbs bench press, and a 550 lbs deadlift. I'll throw a 200 lbs strict press in there, since that would be a minuscule 5 lbs PR, but hey, progress on the strict press is small.  

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Pointless Venture's Best Games of 2018 (Really 2017)

2018 was not a big gaming year for me, mostly because I'm a thirty-three year old family man running a small business. There were some big Triple-A releases, but I'm a PC-exclusive gamer, so I missed out on Red Dead Redemption 2 and Spider-Man. In fact, I didn't play a game in 2018 that was actually released in 2018, so the title is misleading, but this is a yearly series, and I'm not changing the title. Here's what I did play.

Best RPG: Divinity Original Sin 2

I bounced off of the first Original Sin because its size and scope were intimidating and other titles grabbed my interest. Developers Larian have made big improvements to the sequel, including voicing all NPC dialogue, and it feels like a throwback from years ago, when Fallout was a cRPG series and Bioware hadn't been gobbled up by EA. The turn-based combat is great fun; arenas quickly become wreathed in fire, smoke, and blood. The writing and quest design are interesting, and you'll find yourself doing things that you've never done in another RPG, like conversing with a haughty princess turned fireslug, or searching for a forelorn dog's lost mate (grab the Pet Pal perk so you can talk to animals). I recommend playing it on an easier difficulty to start out, however, because there are a lot of nuances to master.

Best Multiplayer Game: Quake Champions

Quake Champions is a throwback, a title that will probably only appeal to gamers who grew up playing arena shooters like Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament. The skill level required to be competitive is higher than modern shooters like Call of Duty or Battlefield; the movement mechanics alone will take you longer than you'd expect, and I still have problems strafe jumping. I put over 100 hours into Quake Champions in 2018, and they recently added Capture the Flag, although the latest update apparently broke the game. QC has been marred by a buggy nature and an impatient fanbase too ready to tear the game down. The title is still in early access, and they just eliminated the lootbox based economy, so I'd give the game a try, because it's likely to get better.

Best Expansion: Witcher 3: Heart of Stone

I grabbed Heart of Stone years ago, and somehow never played it, likely because I was suffering burnout from over one-hundred hours in the Witcher 3. It's a satisfying romp through the world of the Witcher, and though it doesn't really add any new mechanics, it features Gaunter O'Dimm, who is a much more menacing villain than anyone in the original game. There's also a memorable section where you control a possessed Geralt through a wedding, which lets our stoic monster slayer loosen up and act pleasingly out of character. Recommended to Witcher 3 fans, who probably already played it long ago.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Heart of the Thief

I haven't posted anything from The Heart of the Thief, my epic fantasy novel, in ages, so now that I'm writing the last chapter, I'd thought I'd share an excerpt. This is from the last chapter, so it's not connected to my previous posts. Since the book has gone through a major rewrite, most of those chapters have been changed anyway. Look for The Heart of the Thief next year.

They had set sail on the Cimmeron from Valice on a sunny day with clear skies and smooth waters. Cassilda stood on the deck overlooking the prow, staring into the blue waters, watching with amusement as dolphins swam playfully ahead of their wake. It was a crime to kill a dolphin in the Gulf of Katan because of their beauty and intelligence as well as an old sailor’s superstition that characterized them as messengers of the gods of the sea. She couldn’t imagine why any one would want to kill a dolphin. Feeling the warmth of the sun and smelling the salt of the ocean’s wind, Cassilda couldn’t image why anyone would want to kill any living thing. It was good to be alive; it was wondrous, and with wonder came joy and excitement and the rush of love. She looked across the deck at a young mage with ebony skin and a handsome jawline and blushed. Ambierce was chatting with some countess or other—she wasn’t sure and that was fine—and she was left to feel young and beautiful and intoxicated with the promise of the future. What a magnificent voyage they had begun! A tour of Capetia, the pearl of the gulf! And then the sights of the wilderness, the coast of Rheineland, and finally a stop at San-Elza, where they would drink wine from Beaune and listen to the music of flamenco and watch the dancers as they danced with the sweet summer sweat beading on their noble faces. She never imagined that she’d have such a life, not when she was an urchin picking pockets in Gaul. Those years were blotted out in her memory, replaced with a blank spot waiting to be filled with the adventures of youth.

The young mage approached her and introduced himself as Jaffrey, performing an elaborate bow that she assumed was meant to charm her, though it made him look rather foolish. He asked her what she thought about the Gulf of Katan and whether she believed the warnings of the scientists of the Mitte Academy regarding the increasing industrial pollution of the North affecting the warming of the Southern Ocean. Cassilda smiled prettily at him and gave something of a non-answer; she was not particularly interested in politics or matters of a global nature. Jaffrey looked a little panicked. She wondered if he had altered his appearance, for he had more the mannerisms of a maladroit scholar than a handsome wizard. She looked out across the sea and saw something on the horizon, a menacing weather system, perhaps, or maybe just a figment of her imagination.

“Do you see something?” she asked Jaffrey, pointing at what she had noticed.

“Forgive me, lady, for I do not,” he stammered.

“I would hate for us to be caught in a squall. It would ruin the atmosphere of the voyage.”

The more she looked at the horizon the more she was certain that there was something out there. It looked as though a mass of black clouds were heading in their direction, but there was a ship beneath them, perhaps caught in the storm.

“I am going to say something to the captain,” she said. “Excuse me.”

She left Joffrey and walked across the deck. There were many wizards on board, most of them young and inexperienced, chaperoned by Ambierce, the Countess, and a Zanj mage named Omari. It was an educational expedition, intended to widen the minds and improve the social skills of the young wizards who had signed on. Cassilda had been apprehensive when Ambierce had suggested it, citing sea sickness and shyness as reasons for staying ashore, but as always, he had been right and she had enjoyed herself thus far. She knew that her apprenticeship was coming to an end, and part of her feared independence. Ambierce was trying to find her a position at court in Galvania or Valice, which was exciting, though she still had to apply for her license from the Council. I can’t live in that ruined manor with him forever she thought. Still, she would try to see him as often as possible.

“Change is good,” she said quietly to herself, stopping before the captain, who had his eyes on the horizon. He was a big man with large-knuckled hands, grizzled and stern, the spitting image of a sea captain, intimidating in a serious way, for he took himself and his profession seriously. Cassilda tried to assume the noble air of a mage, but she stammered slightly as she got the captain’s attention.

“What is it, m’lady?” he asked brusquely.

“Is that a vessel on the horizon there, caught in that squall?”

“It ain’t caught in the squall, m’lady. It’s the other way around. The ship’s steering the storm, putting it right in our direction. I’m trying to get us closer to the coast, but it’s moving faster than it should.”

“How would a storm steer a ship?” asked Cassilda.

“There’s an aeromancer on board, no doubt. In the old days, many of them worked on ships summoning good winds. Now, with more steamships in the water and mages becoming rarer, you don’t see them as much. I don’t want to meet this one. That’s an evil-looking cloud lingering over yonder, and he may be working with pirates or Barbarosie raiders. I don’t doubt that the mages on board could handle themselves, but it’d be best to avoid conflict. Why don’t you go tell your master what’s going on.”

She almost replied that Ambierce was not her master but instead hurried away, an ill-feeling coming over her like a cold chill. She found him below deck in his quarters, sea-sick, a sour expression on his visage.

“You are not well?” she asked.

“I had to beg leave of the Countess. My stomach is not doing well with this rollicking.”

“But it is so much better than it was earlier,” said Cassilda.

“Indeed it is, but my stomach does not know better. What’s the matter?” he asked, reading her eyes.

She told him about the approaching ship and the captain’s concerns.

“I’ll come on deck in a minute. You and I need to have a discussion beforehand. I saw you making eyes at that young man. Did you speak to him? Good. You are coming out of your shell. Soon you will be lording over us all. As soon as we have received your license, I think you should take a position I have secured for you in Valice in Albert Bourdain’s household. He’s a knight in good-standing with the Occupational government, an old friend from the war, a raconteur, and a bit of a charmer, though he knows enough to keep his hands to himself. The old families of Valice like to have a wizard on call for various traditional tasks, but Bourdain needs magical help in his capacity as a lieutenant of the Reconstruction. They have the Calamity to deal with, and it’s a task that my generation has left as a burden for the next. The decline of wizards is due to that catastrophe. It is my wish that you will begin your career as part of the solution. We can do great things, Cassilda. It would be a shame for the world to leave the old ways behind while chasing so-called progress. All the technological innovations of Laurasia will not change the nature of man. I see hope in the youth. There are no wars brewing to mar your friendships, and the old guard is as weak as ever. The Council of Mages will lose its influence to you and your peers, my dear. Mark my words: the mages on this boat will do more to better the world than all of the Council together.”

He embraced her then, the old fool, with tears in his eyes. Cassilda did not know why he was becoming so emotional. She knew he loved her as a daughter, but he was losing an apprentice and gaining a peer, as she saw it. Vague proclamations made her uneasy, and she didn’t wish to live with prophesies thrust upon her. Kissing his forehead, she went up to the deck.

She noticed their faces first. Separated by only a few yards of ocean, a black ship rocked in synchronicity with the Cimmeron, its prow jutting forth like a skewering spike. They stood in black robes with the faces of animals; she saw a vulture beak, a wolf snout, and the bared teeth of a horse. Something that looked like a cross between a bear and a human snarled and raised a clawed hand. A plank fell, making contact with the Cimmeron’s deck. The young mages scattered, for they knew that these were not raiders armed with swords and clubs. The reek of black magic hung from the frames of the interlopers like the stench of a rotting corpse. Part of Cassilda wanted to vanish below deck, but a horrible fascination with what she was witnessing made her walk out amongst the dark magicians. They marched on board and congregated on the bow while the youth fled to the stern, with Cassilda standing in the middle like a bridge between two countries. One of the dark magicians approached her; he did not remove his hood, but she felt a familiar sickness boiling in her stomach as he passed her by without a glance. He raised his hands to the air and the darkened sky turned blood red. Beckoning to the youth, he began to speak.

“Innocents abroad! What a time we live in! Babes cross the Sea of Katan on a great pleasure cruise, touring the ancient lands of the South! You do know, children, that what you call the South is only a small portion of the Maat, and that the Maat itself is only a tiny spec in the chaotic ocean of the Isfet. Order, truth, harmony—these are the concepts of the human universe and the legacy of the dead God. Man creates order, does he not? Man gives names to things and categorizes flora and fauna and the heavenly bodies. In a sense, man creates the universe that he perceives. Without his perception, man would be like any other thing—dumb, deaf, and prey to uncontrollable impulses. Which is not to say that man is any better than any other animal.”

He walked past Cassilda, pausing to place a hand on her cheek. She knocked it away, shuddering at its touch, and the dark void within the hood laughed.

“Man likes to pretend that he adheres to god-given principles. Man likes to believe that he has a moral character that shows true in most situations. Man composed the Theory of Evolution and then discredited it, because how could a godly being share a common ancestor with apes? Apes lack moral fiber, let me tell you. I once witnessed a chimpanzee in the Dzanga-Sangha beat another to death for no less of a violation than the theft of a pomegranate. I felt that all the sins of the human race were mirrored in that act. That realization, of course, led me to comprehend that there was no such thing as sin. Have your handlers taught you that, youth of the future? I doubt it. They have probably fed you some nonsense about responsibility and how important it is to be an ethical professional. You must think of others during your long, illustrious careers. They will say nothing of the intoxicant power, nor mention anything about lust. They will tell you to set aside such trivial desires and work for the betterment of mankind. They will feed you the lies that they were fed, hoping in their heart of hearts that you continue to chew your cud. Do you think that they have had their sins laid out for all to examine? If they are going to insist on morality, then should they not be judged by their own standards? Where is the war criminal Ambierce Serpico?”

He emerged from below deck and stood warily with clenched fists, teeth gritted together like he was suffering from lockjaw. His hands opened in a flash, and the wind roared, and lightning thundered in the sky, but then there was nothing but silence, and the waters of the sea seemed to cease churning. Suddenly Ambierce was on his knees, head bowed, hands bound before him by an invisible rope. Cassilda’s stomach lurched—she knew that something terrible was happening—and fear rose up in her throat at the sight of a powerful mage like Ambierce diminished instantly.

“Should we give him a trial?” asked the leader of the dark magicians.

No one spoke in answer. The Countess and Omari had appeared, but they said and did nothing. The expression on their faces told Cassilda that they were not fighters, and she hated them abruptly for their helplessness.

“Not one of you thinks this man deserves a trial? What a condemnation! Even Capetia grants the guilty a trial! Galvania punishes children for their parents’ crimes, yet they still muster up the judge, lawyers, and jury! And you children do not even know of his crimes! Has he been that bad of a teacher? Do you love him not at all?”

“They are scared of you and your brutes,” said Cassilda. “You animal men who have appeared out of nothingness. What grants you the right to accuse him in such a manner? Are you a pirate with a flair for grandiose statements? Or are you simply a degenerate who thinks himself to be intelligent when he is really boorish, stupid, and ugly?”

She felt him staring at her, felt the fear he was trying to put inside her like a poison. Her heart beat quickly with adrenaline, and her hands trembled slightly, but Cassilda fought to kept herself under control and retained her dignity.

“They should be scared,” he said loudly. “Fear is an appropriate response in my presence. I never get tired of feeling like a predator on the prowl. Fear is a base emotion, the most primitive one, the natural chemical response to a world fraught with peril. I myself have been paralyzed by it many a time, though it has been several hundred years. You know how I conquered fear, pretty girl? I mastered death. I consumed a piece of God. When you eat of your maker, my child, you gain forbidden knowledge. You realize that death is weakness born out of a desire to kill thyself. It is very hard, however, to kill life. Oh, an individual falls easily, but what about a town or a city? What about a species? What about every named and unnamed creature of the Maat? You see, even God knew that He was a helpless power doomed to eternal life, and so he knew that his suicide was futile because his children would grow from his corpse. The weakness of God is present in all of us, and I have successfully destroyed my drive toward death. Unlike Ambierce here, I will survive until the last bit of the Maat has become swallowed by the Isfet. Do you understand my role, girl? God abdicated His throne, so somebody has to rule. Being God means you have to play the Demon as well, does it not? Look at the sky; see that it is red, burdened with the color of blood. I am in my demonic aspect. Scream if you must when I pull back my cowl, for you will view the face of evil eternal. It is old, wrinkled, and liver-spotted. It is jealous of youth and judgmental of the young. It harbors grudges real and imagined. It judges your master weak because he wanted to acted but could not. And so he will be castrated and thrown to the sea, and if the waters do not take him, the beasts of the sea will rend his flesh and gnaw his bones, and what curses he speaks will fall on deaf ears. Such is the judgment of Pliny the Black.”

Monday, December 17, 2018

New Old Music: Teenage Idol

Probably one of the best songs I've ever written. An ode to thoughtless ambition and the past. I don't believe this is the original version, but this recording dates back to 2010.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

A Review of Seveneves

Neal Stephenson's Seveneves is a vastly entertaining novel. It also has a few problems that almost made me stop reading right from the start. The premise is that a mysterious agent blows up the moon into seven pieces. Neal Degrasse Tyson stand-in Doc Dubois, an astronomer, figures out that the moon's pieces are going to smash together and create bolides, which will bombard the surface of the earth en mass in two years, destroying all life. Other world governments reach the same conclusion, and all of earth unites to build the Cloud Ark, a transformation of the International Space Station into a habitat capable of sustaining the remnants of the human race for thousands of years. The Casting of the Lots takes place, where only a handful of viable young people are chosen from every country on earth to be sent up to join the working crew of Izzy (the space station; Stephenson loves nicknames) and aid the Cloud Ark project. Humanity takes the news of their imminent destruction rather well; people start coming together to launch vital supplies into space and perform research. Stephenson published this novel in 2015, but I think the idea that world governments would come together in the event of a world-ending catastrophe to be just as improbable then as it is today (can you really see Trump or Putin endorsing the Cloud Ark?). The Cloud Ark project, after all, is a pretty stupid idea--the characters of the novel even believe it to be a PR stunt designed to prevent mass rioting--namely, because humanity wouldn't have much of a chance in space. The novel, of course, explores the difficulties of survival to a degree--characters die of radiation poisoning and bolide strikes--but it never tells the reader how they create a sustainable food system, which would be the number one issue. It seems incredibly unrealistic that one of the big space capable states like the US or China wouldn't proceed unilaterally with a plan to at least attempt to save the planet. The population of earth would demand such an action, and there's no way people would be satisfied with the half-assed Cloud Ark project surviving them. They have two years so why not try to redirect some of those moon pieces? Hell, launch the entire nuclear arsenal of earth up there and try to vaporize the moon before the bolides form. That's probably a dumb idea, but I guarantee some state would try it. Also, it makes more sense to try to burrow underground and wait out the Hard Rain (what the novel calls the thousand-year bombardment) than to launch up into space. This actually happens in the novel, but the Diggers as they're called act independent of any government, and they're a surprise to the survivors of the Hard Rain.

Eventually, due to a rebellion called the Swarm as well as bolide strikes, the population of the human race is reduced to eight females, seven of whom are fertile, the titular seven eves. One of the survivors is the geneticist Moria (perhaps a nod to Moria Mactaggert, who was a geneticist in the X-Men Universe) who agrees to use her skills to create seven distinct human races, each of which will be specialized in some manner to aid human survival. Tekla, the athletic, stoic Russian, creates a race of soldiers; Camila, who disdains violence, makes her descendants passive. Let me add that until this point, Seveneves presents itself as hard science fiction. I wouldn't object to this genetic nonsense in an episode of Star Trek, but Seveneves made me read through pages and pages discussing orbital mechanics, and the back cover categorizes the novel as hard sci-fi. Moria somehow synthesizes a y chromosome, which is pretty crazy, but the real kicker is that she has identified which genes pass on specific traits like "discipline" and "heroism." Apparently this is complete nonsense, since even something like height is hard to pin down to just genes. This also seems like a dumb strategy in general, because why would you want the survivors of the human race to be at odds with each other? Aida, one of the eves, specifically engineers her descendants to counter the others. Why did Moria go along with this? Earlier in the novel, Aida and her gang tried to take over the space station, killing many people. They also resorted to cannibalism when their food supplies dwindled. Why did she get any say in how her descendants turned out? The novel also kind of skips over how Moria would ensure genetic variation with just eight survivors.

The final part of the novel skips ahead five thousand years, during which the seven distinct human races have constructed a habitat ring around earth and engaged in a project called TeraReform to make earth habitable again. This part of the book was pretty standard sci-fi, and too speculative to called hard science fiction, which was fine. I actually enjoyed the latter part at least as much as the earlier chapters, even if it seemed like it was from another novel.

Despite my nick-picking, I really enjoyed Seveneves. If you ignore the incredulity of the initial premise as well as the hard sci-fi designation, then it's a true page-turner. This is the third Stephenson book I've read, and these problems crop up in his other work, so a fan might not even notice.