Scrolls, Scrolls, Scrolls

So, I just finished the main quest for Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  I’m a little surprised, honestly.  Not about the ending.  There were no surprises to be had there.  In many ways the story is quite standard.  This is not a criticism, just a fact.  Anyway, what surprises me is the fact that I actually finished the game.

All told, I have logged an astonishing 93 hours on the game.  I think I spent less than 6 hours on the main quest.

I have some problems with it.  If you had asked me three weeks ago whether I was likely to finish the game it would have been an enthusiastic “yes.”  I was enjoying the hell out of the game and I was hitting it hard for hours every night.  The problem is, it soured for me somewhere around hour 50.  As stunning and well-designed as the dungeons are, they started to feel repetitive.  After a while, I even stopped looting these dungeons.  There was nothing in them that I wanted.  Nothing in there for me.  I was the uber Dovakhiin who could shout a fucking dragon into submission and destroy it with nary a thought.  When fighting a dragon is nothing more than a nuisance, there is something wrong.

Even Alduin was a trivial encounter.

Bethesda, in the months leading up release, was bragging about how the game would have so much content.  The problem with having that much content is that when a player spends that much time in a world, he begins to see its flaws. I suppose it is a monumental feat that the major flaws did not become evident until so many hours had gone by. I spent far fewer hours on, say, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and I was entertained the entire time, but it was by no means a perfect experience.

To contrast, I have spent far more hours on Minecraft. Hundreds probably. But Minecraft still hasn’t lost its allure.

My experience with Skyrim is something like my experience with Family Guy in one important respect.  It’s essentially the same exact show that it was in season one but where it was interesting and new and fresh back then, it is now stale, boring, and its structure is showing.  It can get a few more yuks by making fun of its own formula to a certain extent, but that will only take it so far.  Then again, the Simpsons has been doing that for years.

I feel the same about Skyrim.  Unlike a TV show, there isn’t really a “jump the shark” moment. Just as there wasn’t a specific one for Family Guy.  Rather, it was a gradual realization that everything is the same no matter where you are in the world or what you are doing.  The sameness is palpable, oppressive after a while.  Many of the small quests and stories are clever; don’t get me wrong.  But almost all of them have you doing the exact same thing.  Travel to a location, fight some fuckers, recover an artifact, return it for money. It doesn’t vary much.

An example of what I’m talking about is the flow of a dungeon.  Almost every dungeon that you encounter in Skryim follows a pattern.  I don’t care if its a mine, a bear cave, or a centuries old Dwemer ruin.  You kill a few mobs outside and then enter the dungeon. As you pass a certain threshold, you may or may not notice a sealed door that would take you directly to the end of the dungeon.  But it is inaccessible.  Instead, you follow a more or less linear rail to the terminus of the dungeon where you fight some sort of boss, get some sort of quest item, learn some dragon shout, and/or complete some objective.  There’s a door behind the blasphemous altar or ancient sarcophogus.  Behind that door is a chest with some really sweet loot and some shelves with potions or soul gems or alchemy reagents.

You will then find that barred door or hidden passageway that spits you out at the beginning of the cavern or poops you out at the top of a mountain that would be inaccessible from outside.  The structure is apparent.  It’s a convenience, a mercy for the gamer, not to have to slog back through a now empty and desolate cavern, but when you iterate it sixty odd times or more, the game begins to feel engineered, rather than organic.

My understanding is that Bethesda had an entire *team* of dudes just designing dungeons.

Don’t get me wrong, the game is good.  It might even be great.  And it’s beautiful.  My god, is it beautiful.  But I’ve played it.  I’ve done it before.  It was like Oblivion (without the annoying Oblivion Gates) and Morrowind before it.  But where Morrowind was unlike anything I had ever played before (think Season 1 of Family Guy), Oblivion was an iteration of Morrowind and Skyrim is an iteration of Oblivion.  There is nothing inherently new.  In fact, I might even go so far as to say that by streamlining the level-ups and the various crafting and combat systems, they actually managed to make the problems more apparent.  There isn’t a whole lot of min-maxing to be done, which takes some of the fun out of it for me.

In fact, for the first two hours of the game, I was waiting for some stat assignment or detailed character creation screen to pop up.  It never did.  Maybe I’m still waiting for it.

In the end, I enjoyed my romp through Skyrim.  I will probably even play it again someday.  Perhaps even someday soon.  But I will never finish the game again.  I won’t ever be able to recapture the magic of it again.  It just isn’t in me for this one anymore.  It’s been exhausted.

Lastly, I would like to point out that Skyrim is not a sandbox game. A sandbox should have more options, more paths, a more vibrant world. Skyrim just has a lot of dungeons. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you can’t call it a sandbox. Your options are too limited. You can’t open a store. You can’t build a house. You can’t create a trade network. You can’t rule a nation. X3: Terran Conflict is a sandbox. Minecraft is a sandbox. Skyrim is not.

I sold the Elder Scroll to the librarian at the Winterhold College for 2,000 pieces of gold.  I should have haggled.

Ein Freund der Teufel ist ein Freund von mir.

How Steve Jobs Affected Me

I do not own a Macintosh. I will never own a Macintosh, iPad, or iPhone unless someone else buys it for me. I will never spend my dollars on one of Apple’s devices.

I do own a Generation 6 iPod (I think at the time it was called iPod Video because you could watch Ask a Ninja videos on it) and I use it all the time.

I find it interesting that my Facebook feed is overflowing with all sorts of sentiments concerning the death of Steve Jobs. I personally, am focusing most of my media consumption on other matters, but it’s not unreasonable that this should get a certain amount of play. Indeed, it managed to elicit a bona-fide spin from yours truly.

This was my family’s first computer. The Macintosh 128K. I believe the 128K part refers to its RAM. My current home (Windows) PC has 4 gigabytes of RAM. A little perspective. Also relevant: the Mac 128 debuted in 1985 and cost almost $2500.

By today’s standards, it was an utterly useless and overpriced machine. But it was great. I am pretty sure I am the person I am today because of that machine. What did I do with it? MS Paint, for one. Hours disappeared. But I think the lion’s share of my hours were spent playing this text-based game. Didn’t know it was a book until several years later, but it captivated my mind. I spent hours and hours and hours typing my way around the Heart of Gold. I didn’t actually beat the game until I was 25. Had to. Closure, you know.

Anyway, that machine introduced me to Douglas Adams. This is absolutely crucial as far as I’m concerned.

I will not buy an Apple product if I can help it. I think they are over-priced and under-functional. This is partly because I like to play PC games and Macs just don’t do that thing. It is also partly because I like the feel of putting together my own machine from parts I picked myself. My home PC was lovingly assembled in my home by my hands. I installed Windows 7 on it and crossed my own fingers while waiting for the BIOS to post. And then heaved a sigh of relief when it did, in fact, post on the first attempt.

I just purchased an Android Tablet. This one. My phone is a Droid X. I like its customizeability. I like that I can root it and hack it and do what I want with it. I like that they are the machines that I want them to be. Not the ones that Apple thinks I want them to be.

But, we must ask, would they exist if it weren’t for Apple? Would the tablet computer or the droid be the objects they are today without the iPhone or the iPad? I don’t think so. Apple kicked the industry into high gear with innovation on a staggering scale. They forced the industry into a whole new direction by demonstrating two things: what is possible and, more importantly, what the market will want. No, they didn’t just find out what the market wanted. They created the market’s demand for all things “i”. And it was brilliant. And it worked.

I have a lot of respect for Steve Jobs. I like what he did for and to the industry. I don’t want his product specifically because it is overpriced and cookie-cuttered. But the product I do want is available because of him.

A closing thought: I own that Gen-6 iPod and still use it because it is hands down, the single best dedicated digital music player that has ever been manufactured.

PS: I sketched the comic at the top on my Android Tablet. Fun fact!

Gute Nacht, süßer Prinz


It’s possible that you may have to click on the comic to see it in its full glory. I’m playing around with some new formats. I’m not sure how much I like the result.

That said, I want to talk about friends. I have been de-friended on Facebook twice that I am aware of. And I have de-friended one person. All three incidents are the result of political discussions.

It seems to be more and more the case that Facebook has become, not so much a way to stay in touch with old friends, but instead a place to find out just how much vitriol you can shovel into a sentence without being accused of harassment and having your account suspended.

I friend everybody. But that’s because I’m compulsive that way. Anyone who wants to be my friend, can be. If I have even the slightest inkling that I might know them, or if they have the right mutual friends, I will accept just about any friend request. That said, I will start by explaining myself. The first and only person that I have personally de-friended was this dude that responded to a simple status update wherein I called out the GOP for their flagrant attempts to tap dance all over women’s rights. This guy started tossing around some very frustratingly bad rhetoric about Planned Parenthood. He basically parroted every stupid, senseless lie that the GOP has been spreading about the PP these last few months. I argued with him for about 16 hours or so (which, in Facebook time, is really only like fifteen minutes). And then I realized that, despite the fact that we have mutual friends, I actually had no fucking clue who this guy was. So I de-friended him. Maybe someday in the future we can hammer out our differences in person. Until then, however, I just don’t think we can be friends.

Both of the times that I have been de-friended were as a result of status updates that expressed disgust with the drug war and support for legalization of…various medicinal herbs for…recreational use. One of these two was a guy I went to high school with. The other one was my first cousin. As in, my mother’s sister’s son. We probably share a few alleles.

And so I was wondering about the nature of friendship. Facebook aside, I would guess that there are around two dozen people that I would consider friends. Only about six of those are what I would call inner-circle friends; that is, people that I will go out of my way to see when I go home for the weekend (I teach at a community college about five hours from my hometown).

I have 308 Facebook friends. I do not actually know who all of them are. I do not know if I could pick them all out of a lineup. If I saw them in person, I would not know their names. But they are there. And they all have relatively unrestricted access to my political views and pictures of the food that I cook.

It occurs to me that the word “friend” means something very different on Facebook than it does “in real life.” It also occurs to me that it is possible that I might find myself to be much happier if I bring both definitions into closer alignment. Then again, where is the fun in that?

Sie haben einen Freund in mir.

Why “Terminator Vision” is Inaccurate Terminology


This is one of the possible results of congress enacting the Terminators as Secret Service Agents Act. The world could use fewer jerks.

I found this article on BBC today. Augmented Reality (AR) is a pretty sweet concept. The technology looks very cool, totally validating years of cyberpunk fiction. But there’s a problem with the article as written. And the problem stems not from any direct fault of the journalist, but from a dramatic misunderstanding of the nature of computers and robots.

The article mentions “Terminator Vision” and it is this very concept that is suspect here. By way of explaining, let’s build a mental concept of the flow of information inside of a Terminator’s computer-mind.

In the films (and indeed, in many robot films) when we, the viewers, see from the Terminator’s perspective, it’s a sort of infrared image with a text-based overlay. A Heads Up Display (HUD). I always passed it off as an abstraction, so we could relate, in some way, to how a Terminator relates to the world. However, it never occurred to me that someone would take that as literal. Why, exactly, would a Terminator need to generate this needless text in its image field? It doesn’t need to read it. It creates an unnecessary step in its data processing.

Here’s the algorithm that would be going through the CPU’s image analysis circuit:

  1. Input image from eye-cameras
  2. Analyze image thusly: separate out faces, identify them, identify weapons, identify surrounding structures and other objects
  3. Evaluate possible threat sources
  4. Evaluate possible actions based on threats, possibility for combat, and meaningful interactions with human companions (See Terminator 2: Judgment Day)
  5. Generate text cues
  6. Output: Overlay text cues on HUD for Terminator Higher Brain to then READ and presumably respond.

Why would the Terminator ever need to read this text in order to make an informed decision? The beauty of being a walking computer is the ability to evaluate raw data and process it without forming it into words. It’s faster and far more efficient. I can make allowances for, say, Robocop, who is actually a man with human eyes who might actually need a HUD in order to evaluate incoming data. In fact, any scenario involving a human inside a machine is going to necessitate some sort of AR technology. A cyborg’s lower and higher brain functions occur in the same place (unlike in humans). A cyborg doesn’t need the raw data to be filtered through a process, evaluated, and then passed back through the eyes. It’s ludicrous. Thus, the entire concept of “Terminator Vision” as a euphemism for AR is formed out of ignorance of computer technology. QED.

As for the recent American behavior at town hall meetings: grow up America. Read your history and study other countries. This country is far more likely to turn into Nazi Germany than Maoist China if continue to allow ourselves to be controlled by corporate interests. Don’t people understand that the government is a non-profit organization (or negative-profit, as the case may be)?

I don’t understand how people can allow themselves to be so closed minded about this issue. There is a certain income discrimination going on in health care in this country, and so many people are totally willing to let it continue. I mean, we all know that poor people don’t actually deserve health care, right? Right?

Anyway, one other thing:

Presumably, they would stay in Canada. Where they belong.


Why Apple Computer is not what people think it is.


The biggest problem with Mac’s “I’m a Mac” ad campagin with Justin Long and John Hodgman is that John Hodgman is so much more charismatic. I mean, is there anyone out there that likes Justin Long? Anyone that doesn’t think he’s a totally obnoxious ass?

They make a lot of claims in these ads about Mac’s superior security, stability, and performance. I’m sure there has been endless debate on all three counts, with PC users vehemently defending their machines, cobbled together from parts made by twenty or more different companies–reminiscent of the Road Warrior, the electronic version of a rat bike–while Mac users sit back with their user-friendly, cute-as-a-button, yuppie machines. The fact remains that a computer is only as useful as a user is able to make it.

There are a few things that I’d like to say that might level the playing field as far as Macs are concerned and the first involves a story about a virus. One of the Macintosh’s selling points is the fact that they never get viruses. The reason for this, of course, is not because they are more secure. It’s because they have a far smaller market share than Windows. About 90% to 10%. The danger is that as Apple’s market share grows (and it is currently doing just this) it will attract many more hackers.

Imagine you’re a hacker and you want to write a virus. Your primary goal is, of course, to infect as many computers as possible. The best way to do this, would be to write a virus for the most ubiquitous platform: Windows. That’s why PC-users get more viruses and why Mac-users suffering from malware are few and far between.

I suppose it’s interesting that this new Mac virus was found primarily to be haunting popular porn sites. Presumably the people suffering from attacks from this virus are Mac-users who happen to have a penchant for the naughty. And perhaps even more interesting is the fact that, Mac-users, inexperienced at dealing with viruses and with fewer bits of free software to rid themselves of these viruses, are having a much harder time cleaning their systems.

I really feel for them. It’s like forcing a five-year-old to oversee the merger of two large corporations. They are simply ill-equipped to deal with this.

I wonder if you are familiar with one Alan Turing. He was a cryptographer during World War II and his story is fascinating. Most importantly, he is considered by many to be the father of modern computing. His “Turing Machine” was a thought experiment that is the basis for modern file systems and, while modern computers aren’t directly based on it, the “Random Access Stored Program” machines that today’s computers evolved from Turing’s original ideas.

And this brings me to a point that has always struck me as bizarre about Apple Inc’s logo. You see, Alan Turing was a homosexual. This was illegal in England at the time and this was eventually discovered by the powers that be. He was stripped of his security clearance and convicted of the very same crime that Oscar Wilde was. He avoided jail time by submitting to chemical castration. A horrifying atrocity.

I’m not sure if this lead directly to his death or not, but the fact remains, he was found dead with a half-eaten apple next to him. The autopsy revealed that he died of cyanide poisoning and it was ruled a suicide. That’s right. The official theory is that he killed himself with a poisoned apple.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to draw a connection between Alan Turing’s death and the Apple logo, but that doesn’t make it any less odd, especially considering that the Apple logo has a single bite missing, implying that the apple is only partly eaten, just like the one that killed Alan Turing.

Is this deliberate? Apple Inc’s Wikipedia page says that the logo was inspired by Isaac Newton and the apple that inspired the theory of gravity, but that seems like a ludicrous idea with only a very tangential connection to a modern home computer, whereas the apple that killed the father of modern computing seems far closer.

It just strikes me as odd, that’s all.

Anyway, while the Macintosh is in many ways a superior machine to most PCs, it is definitely not what the ads sometimes make it out to be. They are just as prone to glitches (I’ve operated some seriously glitchy Macintoshes) and, as we shall see, just as prone to viral infection as their more versatile counterparts.