After six months of blogging original (but not always new) content daily, and a month’s hiatus spent doing real life, I’m back with some different ideas about how I’m going to approach the blog in its next phase.
The biggest change: I’m going to try it without the strict post-something-anything-daily routine. Keeping to that schedule was difficult, and there were many days when I just phoned it in after work because I was tired or not in the mood. That meant settling for mediocrity.
But this daily routine was still a positive thing. It compelled me to produce things on many days when I would have otherwise only consumed things, leading to six of the most prolific months of spare-time creativity of my adult life.
So the new daily routine I’ll cultivate will be not to post something here, but instead to work on something that will end up here. I’ll post things not on a schedule, but when they’re ready to share; fewer posts that, on average, take longer to make. I’m not yet sure how often posts will appear, but seven days a week I’ll be making something; I encourage you to hold me to that and check up on me via Twitter!
So that’s Phase Two, wherein I push myself to do better. I hope the results will speak for themselves.
I’m taking a break from blogging for May. Marit’s here, and we want to spend as much time together as we can, so apart from possible sporadic entries, I’ll pick this up again in June. I’ve blogged something daily for the last six months, something I only hoped to sustain for November, so I think that’s a pretty good Phase One.
Yesterday, in ten minutes, I did something for the first time that I would have previously judged to be very difficult to accomplish in an hour: memorising the sequence of reds and blacks in a shuffled deck of playing cards and recalling them with 100% accuracy.
I was prompted to do this by an audiobook I’m reading, Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, a journalist drawn into the world of competitive memorisation while writing an article on its characters and competitions. It’s a fascinating work of narrative non-fiction, and to me it revealed the existence of a body of knowledge that I didn’t know existed, but which is 2500 years old—’the art of memory’ was the centre of a classical education in Ancient Greece or Rome.
There is, of course, a trick to the red/black thing. But competitive mnemonicists use many tricks, and claim that anyone who learns them can repeat the same feats (Foer’s experience backs this up, as he went from no prior experience to competing on a national level after about a year of practice). These champions say their memories are only average, but they’ve mastered techniques to convert meaningless data into memorable mental imagery, things we remember badly into things we remember easily. Their special skill, if anything, is not in a superhuman memory but in the ability to code meaningless data into unforgettable surrealism on the fly.
Here’s the simple system for committing card colours to memory. It relies on spatial and visual memory being much better than abstract memory, and codes every six cards to two letters of the alphabet. You then have to come up with a vivid mental image that will help you recall these two letters in this order, and visualise it in a particular place in a room you’re familiar with. This is called the method of loci, and the mental space is somewhat pompously known as a memory palace.
For example, my ‘memory palace’ was my living room, and the seventh locus was my kitchenette sink. If the corresponding cards in the deck had been: ‘red, red, black, black, red, black’, that would code to ‘Bottom, Outer’ or BO. So I could try to imagine Barack Obama sitting in my sink, water overflowing everywhere: certainly a much more easily recalled image than ‘red, red, black, black, red, black’, and one which comes to mind immediately when I mentally turn to the sink in my memory palace, but one which unpacks unambiguously to the exact sequence of six card colours.
If you do this repeatedly, in a specific, logical order around the room (e.g. clockwise) that you can easily reconstruct, you’ll have a mental image of a room full of bizarre people and objects, and if they’re vivid enough they’ll stick in your mind long enough to unpack them back to letters and then to cards.
Joshua Foer’s TED talk is a great introduction to this field, and the book is highly recommended; it’s thoroughly fascinating.
The next step for me: trying to remember suits and values!
There’s a real gem in the current Indie Royale bundle (available for another four-and-a-bit days). And it shows that the real value of these indie bundles is not always in their savings, but in their discovery.
Which would have been a shame, because it’s excellent fun, with challenging play, nice social features and a just-one-more-game feel.
You’re a guy working and sleeping on a little spaceship, making a living collecting salvage by magnetising your hull and pulling in great hulks of container that come crashing into your own. It’s 3d-looking but 2d-playing, a bit Metroidvania, but it’s kept interesting with three mechanics.
Firstly: stuff’s destructible. You can drill through walls and make your own routes to the cargo you’re collecting, and blow stuff up. But you have to hurry—if you take too much time, it’ll all fly off into hard vacuum.
Secondly: each of these space hulks that come crashing into your ship in great pileups has independent gravity, and there’s no fixed ‘up’ to the camera: it rotates so down is always ‘down’. Some containers have malfunctioning gravity that slowly (or quickly) rolls 360 degrees, and some don’t have gravity at all. Stepping from one vessel into another can cause some disorientation, but it’s smoothly executed, and I’ve not been hung up on a wall yet, or any other implementation irritation.
Thirdly: the game is procedural, but the names of star systems are used as seeds. Therefore, one star system will provide identical waves of identical environments populated with identical enemies and salvage. Leaderboards show the top players in your friends list and in the world. This leads to excellent replay value as you seek to maximise your gains in a level guaranteed identical each time. Because there’s a time limit on each wave, you’re essentially being trained to speedrun individual levels picked from an infinite space. And because you can type in seeds, you can also share them with friends and challenge them to beat your score.
For me, Cargo Commander's already justified the price of admission for the bundle. I've played it for more hours this weekend than I care to admit. See you in Procyon and Fomalhaut, defending my high scores.
A word of caution. If a recipe calls for fresh tofu, but you don’t have any, don’t make the recipe. And if you happen to have a jar of preserved fermented tofu in the cupboard, leave it there.
Do not think you can get away with the substitution. And definitely do not ruin an expensive piece of fillet steak by rendering it almost inedible this way.
This was one of the worst things I’ve ever cooked. The overwhelming unpleasant yeastiness tasted like athletes’ foot must. I suspect the intense flavour of preserved bean curd means it is supposed to be used very sparingly. I put 200g in.
This is no reflection on the recipe at all, just on my terrible, terrible substitution. I offer the story as proof to anyone who ever compliments my cooking that I can be truly lousy at it. I have to make this properly sometime to replace the memory of it with a better one.
A few months ago I felt like I’d played out Minecraft—if you can play an infinite, actively developed game to exhaustion. This week past, I’ve probably played it more than in any other.
I’ve been figuring out (or failing to figure out) uranium, rubber, bees, backpacks, engines, quicksand, wisps, cogs, blue sparkly trees, and linking books.
I have Feed the Beast to thank for this, a Minecraft patcher/launcher that provides an easy experience for several well-curated and tested packs of mutually compatible mods.
Supply the FTB launcher with your Minecraft username and password, and for each modpack you try, it’ll download the appropriate Minecraft (different modpacks have different version requirements) and all the individual mods into a modpack-specific directory. Modpacks are auto-updated when they change, and there are server bundles for many of the packs.
I’ve been running the Ultimate FTB modpack (which incorporates and unifies 45 different mods) in singleplayer, and running a private server for FTB Lite (26 mods) to play with Marit.
It didn’t take long after firing up these modpacks for the first time to encounter unfamiliar blocks and objects. The game is turned once again into a huge arena of exploration, discovery and surprise, with continual novelties that make the game fascinating again, even if you’re highly familiar with vanilla Minecraft.
I love the multi-scale automap and radar and the ability to add named waypoints that show up in the HUD. I love the one-click sort for inventory and chests. But my favourite added feature is the inventory and crafting reference from the Not Enough Items mod, which shows, for any block or item, how to create it and all the things you can make with it. Since it supports the hundreds of new items from other installed mods, it’s an indispensable way to navigate through this mass of new content, which otherwise would be overwhelming.
FTB is a very easy way in to the world of Minecraft mods and has made the game feel new again. Just got to be careful how much free time I feed it, because it’ll devour all that and more…
It’s a gorgeous day here in Derbyshire. Spring has finally arrived, the sun is warm, and the birds on the canal are building their nests. But who has time for outdoor frivolousness when there’s a quiz to do? Priorities must prevail.
I’m going to give you a list of ten ore minerals. For each, give me the element for which they are an important ore.
Yesterday I asked, given a photo of a particular phase of the moon, how many weeks would pass before the next full moon?
You probably know that a lunar month is about 28 days, or four weeks. And perhaps you know that the lunar terminator (the line separating the light and dark halves of the moon) sweeps from right to left in the Northern Hemisphere. And so when we see a right hand half moon, it is waxing, and will be full in a week.
But you also needed to recognise (from lunar features, or just clicking through to Flickr) that the photo in the post was taken in the Southern Hemisphere, which means that from the Northern Hemisphere perspective most of us have, everything is upside down: the terminator sweeps from left to right, so this moon is waning; in one week it will be a new moon, and in another two it will be full.
The worst reaction you can have to an artwork is not to hate it, to consider it a complete waste of time, to wish it had never been created. Nor is the worst reaction you can have to an artwork to love it unconditionally, even… blind to its flaws, adoring it without subtlety of opinion or judgment.
No, the most dreaded reaction you can have to an artwork is to fail to understand it; to know there’s something there, but not be able to see that which it seems everyone else can. To be shut out of the club.
My first playthrough of Thirty Flights of Loving felt this way. By the end of its scarcely quarter-hour of running time, I had no idea what I’d just witnessed, and wondered if the game’s critical adoration was a joke I wasn’t in on. The story was impenetrable, the Quake 2-era graphics a barrier to comprehension, the post-credits coda disconnected and extraneous.
But I read about it some more, and tried a second time, slower and more observantly, and played through the creator commentary mode, and by then the mindset was right. I started to realise how well executed it was, how perfectly suited the music is, what a brilliant device the smash cuts are, and the economy with which it told story and conjured mood.
I’m still not clear on the story’s chronology, and the relation of the Bernoulli principle section to the rest of the game is still unknown to me. But I eventually appreciated this short little game/movie, though it took a big mindset adjustment, and some effort, to get there. It’s not that I was denied entrance to the club; the door just took some finding.
There’s something inspirational about people who undertake projects to work through a defined list of something. I think I find them compelling because projects like these are often a little bit arbitrary and crazy, but the endpoint is well-defined. When a project’s goal is to complete everything on the list, there’s no ambiguity about finishing. It appeals to both my senses of logic and whimsy.
At work, our three-man IT department is facing our toughest challenge to date: finding a replacement for one of us who is leaving.
We’re looking to find a replacement quickly, so the departer can help train the newcomer; if that doesn’t happen, the resultant disruption will certainly lead to a postponement of meaningful work.
There are a number of points against us:
We’re searching on short notice in April and the annual university output doesn’t appear on the job market until about July.
The language we want experience in, Perl, is neither a fashionable language nor a common teaching language, so there isn’t a great surplus of people who are good at it.
We’re in the East Midlands, which is a little bit of a developer vacuum (although it’s evidently improving).
We’re not a software company, and the decision-makers have little appreciation of the true market value of programmers, so we’re hoping for experienced programmers but offering something more like a graduate starting salary.
But we’ve managed to line up a couple of candidates for interview, and may have more applications on the way.
It’s possible that we might find the right person, and that they might not be insulted by the pay. But I’m not too optimistic. Having said that, we’ve been extremely fortunate to have assembled a small team of smart, talented people without much commercial experience, who have learned by doing, and between us we do more, and faster, than most teams twice our size. Maybe we’ll be able to continue that trend.
We’re doing the first interviews tomorrow. I’m going to try to be less nervous than the candidates.
What can I write about a game that we shouldn’t spoil each other on after I’ve completed it? Bearing in mind that half the stuff widely circulated in previews were things I’d consider spoily. This is going to be tricky.
See, the game’s still new, so I don’t want to talk about the ending or how it made me feel. I won’t talk about the plot either in details or generalities. I think spoiler-aversion contributed in large part to the slack-jawed wonder I experienced in the opening hours of this game, and it’s a crime to defile that experience for anyone. So I’ll just hit some random spoiler-free bullet points.
I played on Easy. Do not believe the misinformation that you should play this game on Hard. The most remarkable and interesting aspects of this game are not in the killing of foes. Ben Kuchera has the right of it.
The initial visual reveal of Columbia is surely the most breathtaking moment of glory in all of gaming to date.
I love the vivid, sun-blasted, utopian colour palette of Columbia. Never has there been a more potent rebuttal to the stereotypical FPS visual of browns and greys.
Of course, there’s already a backlash against the game. Some complain that the shooting bits aren’t that good—as if this game were in any way oriented around the shooting bits. And others have criticised the game’s strong violence, though Rab Florence argues that gratuitously violent is precisely the thing that Infinite is not, but that most of its genre relatives are.
Again, it would be spoily to say anything else about it, but what use of music throughout—both the score and the diegetic music.
There’s so much to analyse in this game; it’s a genuinely thoughtful creation. I need to play it at least one more time to absorb it. I don’t know if by that point I’ll have anything to say about it that hasn’t already been said better, but reading the discussions around this game, it’s clear that there are very many angles on it, some of which I don’t yet understand. I think people will be talking about this for a long time, and I have a hunch that it’s a high point in big-budget, narratively complex games which will not be surpassed for a decade or more.
It even has its own chiptune soundtrack and, unusually, it’s both genuinely appropriate in style and written with the technical restrictions of music on old games systems. (Like many pastiches of retro pixel art that ignore things like a restricted palette or matching the sizes of pixels—I’m looking at you, april fool’s video for 8-bit Deus Ex: Human Defiance—some chiptunes just use the era as inspiration, rather than adopting its constraints.)
Just check out some of the pieces on ArenaNet’s Soundcloud page—River Rapids Preview, Dark Woods 2, and King Toad Boss are all great examples—to hear how much they nailed the simple, catchy style. There are only a couple of riffs on their existing soundtrack in there; most of it’s original.
Their blog post goes into some interesting process detail; it’s there where they mention FamiTracker, a piece of software for producing NES music. It’s free and, though I have next to no experience, I spent the morning fiddling around with it; it’s pretty straightforward when you get used to it.
My exercise: try to make a chiptune version of this, the instrumental version of the Mirror’s Edge theme. After about three hours, I had one unpolished minute of music (obviously, I stopped when it was about to get a lot harder, but I’m not done with this): MP3
It’s surprising how quickly you can begin making chiptunes from a standing start, and FamiTracker is a great way in. Clearly it’s still very time-consuming and difficult to make something really good, but for those of us who just enjoy dabbling with stuff, it has a really low barrier.
Thursday Themed Thrivia: Where They Have Gone Before
Thursday already, huh? Though we just shifted to British Summer Time, so according to my lagging brain it’s currently… slightly later on Thursday.
Here’s a geeky one for you. Each of these famous people all made a guest appearance in a Star Trek TV series (forget the movies). Just figure out which series each one appeared in: the original series (TOS), The Next Generation (TNG), Deep Space Nine (DS9), Voyager (VOY) or Enterprise (ENT).
On Saturday I caught the train up to Matlock to go for a walk. I haven’t walked seriously since Marit’s last visit in September, so I was clamouring to get out of the house. It’s spring now, and the forecast was for sun, so I expected a day which, though not warm, would be pleasant.
What I neglected to think about was the huge amount of snow which had fallen in the Peak District a few days prior, and how slowly several feet of snow would thaw. A pleasant spring walk became a trek through deep snowdrifts up to three feet deep. I grew up and live in the lowlands of the Erewash and Trent valleys, so I’ve simply never experienced snow this deep; it’s a different phenomenon altogether, and surprisingly localised, with a very visible change over only a couple of miles, and about 500ft of altitude. It was a new experience to cross a drystone wall by gingerly walking up the snowbank on one side of it and stepping over the exposed couple of inches at the top.
The weather on the day was pleasant though, with the occasional light, fluffy snowfall of no great quantity, and plenty of sunshine.
I set out with no particular course in mind, following the map wherever seemed interesting, and ended up walking about 21km through wood, farm and moorland. From the town centre I headed northwest along the Derwent Valley Heritage Way to Darley Bridge, northeast to Two Dales crossing the A6, then north up Hall Dale, ascending through some very bare and wintry woodland. I walked along snow-ploughed minor roads to a junction near a quarry, where I sat on a rock and enjoyed the view south while I ate lunch.
The most difficult part of the walk then commenced as I cut east across moorland, following a couple of sets of footprints through snow 1-2 feet deep. Stepping out of deep pits with every pace is quickly quite tiring! Crossing Flash Lane I had to walk up the hugest snowdrift to pass over an almost-buried wall; I was glad I didn’t weigh more, because though I managed to stay on the surface, it felt like it was close to collapsing under my weight. Trying hard to walk like Legolas was the order of the day.
Continuing east, and with the deepest section mercifully behind, another stretch of country road then footpaths took me past the beautiful Shooters Lea Farm. Further tentative and erratic explorations along the estimated sites of buried footpaths drew me southward, ending up on a lane overlooking the broad and shallow Cuckoostone Dale and joining the main road north of Matlock for a steep descent back into the town. Total time about five and a half hours.
Last week I’ve spent most of my time playing Bioshock Infinite (what else?). But before that came out I put a few hours into Interplay’s state of the art dungeon crawler of 1995, Stonekeep.
A game with a notoriously turbulent production cycle, Stonekeep mutated from a nine-month, $50,000 project into a five year project with a budget one hundred times higher. Here’s a fascinating interview with designer Peter Oliphant where he talks openly about the whole sorry saga.
Stonekeep was one of the last grid-movement dungeon crawlers before the genre fell into obscurity (a collapse I’d guess happened at least partially because of it), and certainly the highest budgeted one that I know of, so, short of Legend of Grimrock and other recent reincarnations, it’s one of the most modern examples of its type. It has a (terrible) live-action intro cinematic, (awful) creatures captured from bluescreen footage of live actors, and (dire) voiceovers.
First impressions were that, despite its superficial issues and rather apparent datedness, it plays pretty well. I’ve always been a fan of this genre—something about filling in every corner of a 2d map is immensely satisfying—and I found myself drawn into it, dispatching weird creatures and hunting for hidden buttons. Inventory is peculiar, as management is largely nonexistent—there’s no limit on capacity, meaning you can and will pick up dozens of identical rubbish swords, for instance—but it’s preferable to constantly juggling stuff.
My problems started on level two. I was going through healing items too fast, and I had no other means to heal—there’s no rest function and I haven’t found any renewable means of replenishing health. Enemy encounters got tricky, then really tricky, then almost impossible. I had to save before every encounter, try to glitch my way through it by landing enough hits on the run and avoiding being hit, then save again. Mostly I died.
I don’t know what cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs players were on in 1995 that they were able to play this game. Level two—level two!—was unconquerably punishing. I don’t remember games being this sadistic in the nineties, but this is a game that hates you. I’m just glad nobody was crazy enough to give its producer, Brian Fargo, the chance tomake further gamesafter this.
I had to throw in the towel. Obviously there was a right and a wrong way to play this game, and from the very start I should have been far more cautious, conserving healing items, avoiding as much damage as possible, and being exhaustive in the hunt for secrets.
The weird thing is that, though I’d abandon most games at this point, I’m genuinely tempted to start again and do this. Stonekeep is a big old mess of a game, but somewhere in its sprawling combination of cliché, bad acting, sadistic challenge and nostalgia is a secret ingredient that renders it more compelling than the sum of its parts.
In response to recent conversations about the worth of the comments on PC gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun, I threw together a quick user script to hide the comments section, comment counts and the sidebar of recently posted comments.
It’s hosted on userscripts.org. It works in Firefox with the Greasemonkey extension. In Chrome it’s a little different, since that browser won’t by default install a user script from anywhere but Google, but saving the .user.js file locally, opening the Extensions list in a tab, and then dragging the file onto the tab will install the script. Other .user.js supporting options may be available for other browsers.
I’m sure most people will prefer to continue to see the comments on RPS, but I wanted the option to hide them from sight. In my opinion, their site’s growth has outpaced the writers’ ability to moderate the comments effectively, and the signal to noise ratio is now too low to read. Though there are still excellent comments being posted—perhaps as many as there have ever been—finding them necessitates skimming through pages of noise. I hope that John, Jim et al. can someday hire a full time comment moderator or find some other solution that will render this user script obsolete, but for now, please make use of it if you wish to.