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.

A Matter Darkly

A hard limit on the mass of dark matter has been set.  So that’s cool, right?

There are a couple things that I like about this story.  First, consider that this hard limit is set at 40 giga-electron volts.  This is a unit of measurement so tasty and geeky that it makes my brain noodles just tingle with excitement.  It’s like the ultimate in nerd speak because fewer than 1% of the world’s population actually know what it means.  They are the 1%.

Next, consider the following passage:

“The observational measurements are important because they cast doubt on recent results from dark matter collaborations that have reported detecting the elusive particle in underground experiments. Those collaborations — DAMA/LIBRA, CoGeNT and CRESST — say they found dark matter with masses ranging from 7 to 12 GeV, less than the limit determined by the Brown physicists.”

There are two ways that you can read this, depending on how you define the word “underground.”  On the one hand, there is my basic assumption that we have a whole subculture of scientists who wear baggy pants and like to skateboard. Not to mention, they are making all sorts of frankly audacious claims about the mass of WIMPS.  It makes DAMA/LIBRA, CoGeNT, and CRESST sound like the names of gangs. 7-12 GeV?  Those damned kids and their crazy ideas.

Indeed, this is how I initially read the article.  And then I realized that they were probably just referring to the fact that these experiments took place underground.  As in, in a cave.  The 40 GeV result is from data collected from outerspace.  That dichotomy makes a lot more sense.  But still, it’s an important lesson about the ambiguity of language.

But perhaps the most important lesson here is in the numbers themselves.  A frequently overlooked issue surrounding Dark Matter is the actual source of its mystery.  It does not interact except with its gravity.  As we all know, gravity is by far the weakest of the forces.  Dark Matter neither reflects nor emits electromagnetic radiation of any kind.  It is only detectable by its gravitational effects.

And yet, it accounts for around 23 percent of the universe.  Ordinary matter, the stuff we deal with on a day to day basis, the stuff we have wars over and have sex with, only makes up 4%.  Dark Energy, a far more mysterious substance which is responsible for the acceleration of the universe’s expansion, accounts for the rest of the universe.  Over 70%.

So, what to make of this?  There are two ways you can look at it.  On the one hand, you can relish the mystery that the majority of the universe is made up of something completely intangible and possibly unknowable.  This is admirable.  It is the source of all sorts of sci-fi tropes and wild flights of fancy.

But two important facts needs to be taken into consideration when it comes to Dark Stuff, which accounts for some 96% of reality: they don’t do anything and they are the rule, rather than the exception.  Put another way, ordinary matter is the exception, the exciting stuff.  Dark Stuff is mundane and ordinary.

Indeed, the vast majority of the interesting things that happen in the universe happen as a result of interactions of ordinary matter.  Dark Stuff doesn’t do squat.

If I were a powerful scientist with a lot of clout, I might even be inclined re-label these things.  Dark Stuff–once it’s determined just what, exactly, it is–would be better renamed Mundane.  Ordinary matter, rather than being labeled as merely “ordinary” is actually the exciting stuff.  It might be far more appropriately termed “Bright Matter” and “Bright Energy.”  It is tiny in proportion, but it packs a hell of a kick.

I am a fan of Bright Matter.  I am made of it.  My body is star dust made flesh.

Ich bin aber Sternenstaub.

Rick Perry Points at Things

I am back from my summer hiatus. It’s funny that I always feel compelled to blog when school is in session and I have 125 students to teach.

Anyhoo. There was a debate the other night. As a linguist, I find it very entertaining to uphold the farce that these things are actually debates. To define these things as such is a curious phenomenon and makes me wonder just what we are supposed to call real debates, where two or more people give their opinions and then rebut each other point for point. Like, in real life.

To call the farce the other night a debate is, in essence, to admit that democracy has sunk so low that I scarcely think it’s possible to claw our way back up to respectability. The question of “who won” the debate is even more illuminating. The only people who seem to think that it’s possible to determine a victor in such a vapid, empty excuse for political discourse, are the media.

But the thing that amuses me the absolute most is the fact that Rick Perry is generally considered the front runner in this whole circus. Mitt Romney, of course, is his closest competitor, but Rick Perry really seems to be capturing the hearts and minds of…well…somebody. I have a very difficult time understanding the mindset that is required to like this guy.

And that’s just the thing. In what diseased political atmosphere should someone like Rick Perry be the frontrunner for President of the United States? The guy went to Texas A&M, and his college transcript is something that I would be embarrassed to show my folks. That’s not the kind of transcript that gets you a sweet job at a big corporation. Corporations have standards. The state of Texas, however, does not appear to.

What sort of GPA do I think the President of the United States should have? Oh, I don’t know, maybe a fucking 4.0? I didn’t get straight As, to be sure, but I wasn’t too far off by the end. Also, the only college degree that this guy has is a BS in, get this, Animal Science. What the fuck is that even? How does that qualify him to hold the highest elected office in the nation? I want my presidents to have doctorates, I’m afraid.

Does that make me an elitist? Perhaps. But shouldn’t the president be elite? Why would I want a shlub like myself running the goddamned country? I want a genius running the country, not a country bumpkin like Rick Fucking Perry.

When I was looking for pictures of Rick on the internet, I did notice that he does a lot of pointing. My wife pointed out that it’s not pointing so much as it’s power wagging. A fair point. But I didn’t know how to make that any funnier than Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin already have. So I figured pointing a few fingers would be plenty fun. Not to put too fine a point on it.

Perhaps it’s not so much that he points, like he’s really getting to the bottom of society’s problems. It seems just as possible that it is, in fact, a threat. Isn’t it possible that with all of his money, he might have had his pointer fingers replaced with death rays? Whenever he points, he is daring us to step out of line, declare ourselves socialists, homosexuals, scientists, liberals, intellectuals, or thinking human beings. And if we do, don’t think for one second that he won’t project a stream of microwaves directly through your head, causing it to pop like an overripe cantaloupe. That’s what we can look forward to with a Rick Perry presidency.

Punkt für Punkt

Self-Publishing. Really just for fun?

This is sort of my little nod to xkcd. It is by far my favorite webcomic. Possibly the best of all possible webcomics.

I’m being a little hard on self-publishing and these days, it is largely undeserved, however, I think the point remains valid, at least for the foreseeable future. Self-publishing is clearly the wave of the future. Many people are doing it and some are making money at it. Blogging is an obvious example of self-publishing that has the ability to create a revenue stream for an independent blogger. For instance, I have made all of five dollars in the last couple years of writing this blog. This represents an actual monetary loss, of course, since I am loaded with hubris up to my eyeballs. No blogger or wordpress domains for me. No, I had to go out and buy a domain and host the bastard myself. I host through inmotionhosting and while I could not be happier with their product, I do take a yearly nontrivial pocketbook hit.

But it’s different when it comes to self-publishing that story that you sat down to write. There is a stigma to it. It’s like, “Why did you self-publish? You couldn’t get it published anywhere else?” This is a perfectly valid criticism, because often it is true. There are few people out there who opted to self-publish for idealistic reasons without ever sending it off to a publisher (though they do exist).

If you are published by a big publishing house, then you have instantly gained a certain amount of credibility. Of course, publishing houses are notorious for publishing terrible books. But that’s just it, isn’t it? For every hack musician that makes it big, there are a hundred exceedingly talented garage bands that never get noticed and only have their little groupies in their hometowns. There’s something personal about that, but you can’t make a living off it.

Self-published authors are the garage bands of the literary world and there is a certain sort of ronin samurai honor in that. They are not beholden to a daimyo. They have no feudal lord. They are independent, rogue artists, who are the future of the art. They are legion and it is from them that the greatest artists emerge.

It is technically the Kindle which makes it all possible, of course (and the B&N variant, the Nook). There are on-demand self-publishing print services like CreateSpace, but, by and large, self-publishing became a thing of the past after the printing-press became corporate. I mean, Ben Franklin self-published (he ran a print shop). But Amazon is sort of bringing back the heady, whimsy-filled days of self-publishing. When anything was possible. Anything. I suppose you could look at it as though Amazon is their daimyo, but it is like this big, indiscriminate daimyo that doesn’t care if it has a bunch of totally weak samurai running around, but I’m inclined to think that, since most of it happens on the writer’s terms, it’s not so bad. So they sell that novella for $.99, and they only get to keep $.35 per copy sold. The customer isn’t out anything if the work is bad. They can always pick up something else. And that is the key to selling a $.99 novella. Indeed, the very format of the novella is likely to make a resurgence as a result of the self-publishing wave.

Anyway, all of this is bringing me to an important announcement. I have self-published a novella. It is called The Harbormaster. It is a martian novella. It is on sale now in e-book edition at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You literally can’t go wrong picking it up. It’s very fun.

Oh, and if you don’t have e-reader, smartphone, or tablet, there are PC and Mac apps for both Kindle and Nook editions. If you don’t have a PC or Mac, then you couldn’t possibly be reading this unless you’re some sort of technomancer wizard and probably don’t need a kindle or nook in the first place.

Technically, I get more money if you buy it from B&N, but I think if you click on this handy Amazon Affiliate link, I might actually make up the difference:

And here’s the link to the B&N page in case you have a Nook (or just like B&N).

Wörter wie Honig.

Bill Nye is Awesome.

It brings joy to my heart whenever people really go out of their way to stick up for what they really believe in. Especially when the target of their ire is someone so decadent and depraved and downright evil as Bill Nye the Science Guy. Too much?

I grew up watching Bill Nye. He may actually be responsible, in large part, for my interest in science. Here’s the thing: Bill Nye is not flashy. He is not conceited. He is not pretentious. His show was entertaining, to be sure, but that’s because he is very good at presenting the material in a way that kids can relate to, it’s also because science is really, really cool stuff. He never, ever talks down to his audience. I recently watched one of the new science shows for kids and, while I can’t remember what it is called, I found it very appalling because it was full of jump cuts, an idiotic host, and lots and lots of flash. They were doctoring up science to make it entertaining without realizing that science is interesting in and of itself, but above all, they seemed to be assuming that children are idiots, which is a huge mistake. And this is why Bill Nye is so awesome.

So what is Bill Nye up to these days? Still being awesome, I should think. But specifically, in case you didn’t click through to the aforelinked material, he is getting booed by the people of Waco, TX. That’s right: Bill Nye was booed. Not Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, or Scott Walker. Bill Nye. The Science Guy.

Was he booed because he said that global warming is a real issue that must be addressed? No. Was he booed for saying that evolution is the crux of all of modern biology? Nope. What was he booed for, then? He was booed for saying that the moon reflects light from the sun.

Let’s do that again, because I don’t think even I got it. He was booed for saying that the moon is not a source of light, but rather reflects light from the sun.

This is something that anyone with half an elementary school education knows for fact. Shocked? Confounded? Confused? You’re not alone. So let’s take this thing apart and examine it from all angles because there might be something we’re missing. It is important to note that the source article from the Waco Tribune (I’m having a hard time not typing “wacko,” so just so you know, every time I type “Waco,” that’s what I’m thinking), has been taken down. You can still access it in their archives, but it requires a subscription. Whatever.

Also, we should be aware that he also gave lectures concerning global warming, Mars exploration, and energy consumption. Yeah, I know, what a liberal, right? But for whatever reason, the audience was more annoyed when he spoke on the topic of the moon. Yeah, that moon. The one that rolls around in Earth’s gravity well like an overexcited chihuahua.

What’s the problem? The article at thinkatheist.com seems to imply that he mentioned a bible verse. Specifically, Genesis 1:16, which reads: “God made two great lights — the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.” And then he went on to say that the biblical account is not entirely forthcoming, mentioning that the moon is not actually a light, but instead a giant reflector. This was not received well. So I wonder, what was the source of all the anger toward this particular aspect of his lecture.

As a brief aside, I would like to dissect the verse in question myself a little. In light of modern astronomy and astrophysics, I think it’s interesting to note how the verse downplays the creation of the stars. This is perfectly understandable given the source material and when it was written. In fact, the entire verse is totally forgivable as a myth. The sun is the greatest light in the sky because it’s the brightest. The moon comes in second and all of the tiny stars are generally inconsequential little twinkles sparkling away on the celestial sphere. We know now that the stars are all basically like our sun and some are far more enormous and they are scattered across distances so vast that the human mind cannot fathom them. And so, in a way, the creation of all the stars is the more impressive feat, but this does not matter because to the writers of genesis (or the speakers of the original oral tradition) were not aware of the true nature of the stars.

What becomes problematic is people in the 21st century objecting to someone pointing out that the bible verse cannot be taken literally. It is not disproven, necessarily, by the science, but it’s certainly clarified by the science.

It is entirely possible that Bill Nye was a dick about it, but I find this hard to believe based upon all of this evidence. It is also possible that this was near the end of his lecture after numerous mentions of other bible verses that are inaccurate. What I mean is, this particular instance may have been the last straw for the people of Waco, TX. There is no transcript of the lecture, so we cannot be sure.

Here is what I hypothesize: The people of Waco, TX are, by and large, conservative, creationist, and underinformed about science and the sorts of things that it does. They did not actually listen to the words that Bill Nye was saying, hearing instead, “Here’s a bible verse that is wrong, and here’s why it’s wrong and why anyone who believes in the bible is an idiot.” It doesn’t matter if that’s what he said. It is my suspicion that this is how they heard it. I know this because I used to be a Christian (OH!! Feels so good to get that off my chest!). Whenever a hard-lined, conservative Christian hears even a tiny bit of criticism of the bible, they almost always take it as a personal attack. And so they boo.

It is my sincere hope that Mr. Nye will not judge the people of Waco, TX too harshly. Forgive them, for they know not why they boo.

Sie haben Sterne in deinen Augen