This weekend, I'm doing something foolish. I'm taking part in the Hell and Back. It's a 10k race up and down the Little Sugarloaf, with a few obstacles thrown in for good measure. There's a lot to be scared of. Never mind the cold, I've also got to haul my fat ass over a 7 foot wall, and deliberately subject myself to an electric shock. And then there's the very real possibility that I will injure myself, badly.
But the thing that's really got me scared -- the thing that's actually keeping me up at night -- is the fear of failure. Of not finishing the course at all. Or worse, coming dead last. This is scaring me more than serious bodily harm. I can handle physical pain. Anyone who knows me knows I can't handle emotional pain.
Ze Frank has some comforting things to say about this. Especially this line:
Let me think about the people who I care about the most, and how when they fail or disappoint me… I still love them, I still give them chances, and I still see the best in them. Let me extend that generosity to myself.
If my wife did anything like this, if she even signed up for something like this, I would be so proud of her. If she came dead last -- if it took her eight hours to finish the course and everyone else had gone home -- I'd still be at the finish line, cheering for her like she'd just out-run Usain Bolt. Can I do the same for myself?
On second thought, maybe I should be watching clips from Rocky instead. Much less likely to make me cry.
And don't give me any bollocks about objective vs subjective, or "yeah, well, y'know that's just, like, your opinion, man." It's true. More than any other entertainment industry, videogame writing is dominated by churnalism -- press releases repackaged as news or editorial. Most videogame writers could be replaced by a Markov Engine and I doubt many people would notice the difference.
Remember what I was saying about digital entropy? I didn't want that to happen to this writing. It's too precious to allow it to crumble away to nothing.
So I made a book of it.
I took all Rab's original Lost Humanity articles -- screenshots and all -- and some of the post-kerfuffle articles that were written on other sites and dumped them into LaTeX using Zed Shaw's learn-x-the-hard-way as a basic template. I added an index. I wrote a little introduction (I don't know why). From all this, I generated a PDF, which I sent across to lulu.com. And for less than the price of a decent cocktail, I had a hard-copy of some of my favourite game writing.
I'm really happy with the way this turned out and it's something I can see myself doing a lot in the future. Or at least, I could see myself doing it a lot in the future if I can sort out my LaTeX workflow. I haven't found a decent/reliable tool for dumping HTML/XML to LaTeX, so it takes a good bit of manual futzing to get it to a print-ready state. There's also Blackstrap, which will generate a book of your Instapaper/Pocket queue, which seems like it's scratching a similar itch.
Reading (or is it re-reading? I can't even remember if I ever finished it) Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and, being someone who works with computers for a living, I keep catching myself using it as an analogy for how I respond to computers and computer maintenance. It's like I'm doing a mental search-and-replace as I read the book -- 's/motorcycle/computer/g'.
This piece, in particular, grabbed me
A friend who owns a cycle of the same make, model and even same year brought it over for repair, and when I test rode it afterward it was hard to believe it had come from the same factory years ago. You could see that long ago it had settled into its own kind of feel and ride and sound, completely different from mine. No worse, but different.
Macs aren't renowned for their customizability. In fact, it's part of what I love about them. With a Linux/Unix machine, it's possible to spend your entire time tweaking your system and not actually get any work done. Macs are limited in this regard, each one is pretty much alike, so the operating system effectively disappears and there's almost no friction between you and your work.
All the same, I have still managed to modify my MacBook (through a combination of Moom, Alfred and Keyboard Maestro) to the point where someone using my computer will eventually go "whoa" and back away from the keyboard. But it makes total sense to me. It's the way I work. The same as yours, but different.
When the Dublin Port Tunnel opened, they inaugurated it with a 10k fun-run. 5k up one tunnel, 5k back the other one. I did this for a laugh. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go for a run somewhere that was built to be un-runnable. And I wasn't in awful shape when I did it. I could comfortably run about four or five kilometers without taking a break. You know, not bad for an enormous fatass.
When you come out of the tunnel, you're just in the middle of nowhere1 on the M1. There's nothing to see. But when I came out, there were people on the bridge above the motorway. People just came out on a cold, bleary day to cheer a bunch of people they didn't know. They even hung a banner - "YOU CAN DO IT".
That broke me. I started welling up and completely lost my stride. And that's because I am a complete sucker for this kind of thing. I think it taps into something deep inside my lizard-brain. Some really basic emotions. These people could have stayed at home in their nice, comfy houses, with their feet up. But instead, they came out in the cold to cheer a load of out-of-shape people they didn't know, just to tell them they could do it. That was strangely powerful.
Whoever is doing the copywriting for Nike is doing a great job of tapping into that same feeling. I'm struggling to get into shape (or rather, a shape that isn't 'round') and I'm watching this ad almost daily. It's cynical emotional manipulation by a heartless corporation, to be sure, but that doesn't mean it can't be a little bit beautiful too.
And then there's this. Who wrote this? Most companies would be happy to leave it to the app's programmer to write something insipid and bland like "You beat your previous record". Because let's face it, running 7.19km isn't really an achievement for most people. It doesn't need any extra effort or thought. But for me (and people like me), it was huge. It was epic. And I just love the fact that they use epic language to describe it.
Thanks, anonymous Nike copywriter.
Technically, you're between Santry and Coolock. Which is a synonym for "the middle of nowhere".
FTL is a deceptively simple game. You make your way across the galaxy, dealing with emergencies that come up. But it's less frantic than it sounds. The game is rarely frantic. Any time you lose, it's not because you weren't fast enough to click on something, it's because you made a bad strategic decision ten or twenty turns back. The best Star Trek game never made.
Just in terms of world-building, this game deserves some serious credit. The story was pretty disposable -- a dystopian world, there's a rebellion, you're its last hope, nothing you haven't seen before -- but the depth of the world was incredible. Each character had a fleshed-out back-story, whether you interacted with them or not. And the game does nothing to force this on you. A lesser game would say WE PAID WRITERS A FORTUNE FOR THIS SHIT, SO WE'RE GOING TO MAKE SURE EVERYONE HEARS IT. Not Dishonored. Bless them.
Remember when I said that I'm not particularly good at games, but muddle my way through anyway? Super Hexagon is the perfect example of this. I've sunk a worrying amount of time into it and still haven't beaten it on its third difficulty level (of six). But that's okay, because I can feel myself getting better at the game, even if it's only in millisecond increments. It's the only game on the front screen on my iPhone. That says something, right?
Journey gave me a completely unique experience. As you make your way through the game's dreamlike environment, your game may or may not intersect with the games of other people. You can't touch these people or interfere with them. The only thing you can do is to 'chirrup' at them -- a little sound, with a symbol appearing over your head. Each player's symbol is unique, like a fingerprint. You don't know who these people are and the only way to identify them is with this symbol. You could play through the game and intersect with lots of other players dropping in and out of your game. Or you could play through the game with one other person.
That's what I did. I played through the entire game with one other person. Completely organically, we developed a way to communicate with each other through these chirrups. We'd fly around the levels and make different noises to say different things, like "over here!" or "where are you?". We'd show each other cool things we found in the level. It was lovely. The last level is a cold, snowy mountain. As we made our way towards the peak, the cold started to affect our characters. We couldn't chirrup as loudly any more. It was harder to stay together, with the wind blowing us around. We had to huddle together to keep our energy from completely disappearing. And even though we couldn't communicate with chirrups any more, we didn't need to. What we had to do was obvious. We had to stay together. That was all. Right at the end, you have to make it across a narrow ledge with the wind trying to blow you off. At the very last moments, before the turn into 'safety', I made it. I turned around, but my friend hadn't. He'd been blown off.
I couldn't believe it. I was distraught. I put the controller down, not knowing what to do. I waited there for fifteen minutes and he never came back. He was gone. That last part of the journey was the saddest thing I've ever experienced in a game. During the game's credits, you are shown the symbols of each of the players you encountered and their PlayStation username. I messaged that guy straight away. I can't imagine another game invoking a real, human-level connection with another person quite as well.
Mark of the Ninja
This was the most perfectly-judged game I played this year. The stealth mechanic was spot-on and actually meant that there was a sense of being a "ninja" (as opposed to most other games, where "ninja" means "guy with a sharp sword and throwing-stars"). I finished this game over the course of two sessions and immediately started a new game, on the newly-unlocked difficulty level, where your character has his field-of-vision limited to what's in front of him. Oh wait, did I say "perfectly-judged"? Fuck those dogs.
In the fiction of the Halo universe, Master Chief is a supreme badass. Look at him in that trailer there, taking on twenty-foot tall space monsters like he hasn't got a care in the world. Look at the way he moves, stringing together action after action after action. It's balletic. Brutal, but graceful.
When I play the game, Master Chief is a braindead meatbag who is more likely to die in the first five minutes by throwing a grenade at his own feet because the person controlling him is trying to figure out what each button does. The kind of idiot who jumps into a firefight with one bullet in the clip, so he spends the next 10 seconds getting riddled with bullets as he stands there, reloading. He's a moron whose neck muscles are made of jelly, so he spends almost the entire game looking either straight up or straight down.
I've accepted that I'm not great at certain games. Most games, to be honest. I'm okay with this. I muddle through. I'll die a lot and eventually limp across the finish line. My death-count in VVVVVV stands in the couple-hundreds, but this is fine, because I'm getting through the game at my own pace. This is how I get my money's worth.
Except with Halo, this approach seems wrong, like it's missing the point. The main character, Master Chief, is not supposed to be the kind of person who just "muddles through". I realise how stupid and overwrought this sounds, but I don't feel like I'm doing justice to the character. The Halo story I'm playing out is wrong: my Master Chief doesn't deserve any awe or respect.
And this is why it takes me months to finish an 8-hour game of Halo.
I have no battlefield tactics and poor muscle co-ordination and I get twitchy when I'm nervous, so I tend to accidentally hit R3 a lot (binocular view) and will suddenly find myself zoomed into the nose of the enemy standing not two feet from me. It then takes me five seconds to remember what button I'm supposed to hit to get me out of binocular view, by which time I'm probably dead.
Are you fucking kidding me? I spent my entire life avoiding this film, thinking it would be a big, bloated mess, only good for background noise during your post-Christmas dinner nap. I couldn't have been more wrong. I was mesmerized by this film.
If you'd have told me that David O. Russell would give us us one of sweetest, most tender depictions of depression and mental illness I can remember seeing, I would have called you a fucking jackass. But that's exactly what he did.
Balls to the haters, this was fun. When I went to see it, I was one of only three men in a crowded screening. That was one of the most hilarious cinema experiences I've ever had and I thank Magic Mike for giving me that.
This is my blog and I'll lump these two in together if I want to. They had similar setups, but as action films go, they both did great jobs of scratching totally different itches. And they were the two best action movies I saw all year.
A lot of documentaries this year didn't seem to have anything to say and were content to just be a collection of unconnected vignettes (Queen of Versailles, for example, has no through-line, the makers just happened to be in the right place at the right time). Indie Game: The Movie did a great job of shining a light on the vast wealth of human emotions that go into something as apparently frivolous as an independent video game.
I picked up a Nike+ FuelBand in San Francisco a couple of months ago. It's a nice piece of kit. On the wrist, it's comfortable and, more importantly, unobtrusive. In black at least, it looks just like a charity wristband, so hardly anyone even notices it. The tiny little light-up display is both adorable and looks futuristic as fuck.
But I have a couple of minor problems with it.
What the fuck is Nike+ Fuel? I've set a daily goal of 2,0001, but what does that actually mean? Is 2,000 a little or a lot? If I'm using this as a way to track my activity or to lose weight, I'd love to know exactly what this is supposed to represent2.
This isn't FuelBand-specific, and is more a problem with all phone peripherals, such as the Jawbone Up: If your peripheral has shitty battery life (the FuelBand gets less than a week per charge), can you not figure out some way to charge the peripheral off my phone? I've already have three things charging beside my bed each night, so if it's between your stupid peripheral and my Kindle or my phone, you're not going to win. Even some sort of pass-through between the phone charger and the phone that would siphon off enough to charge the peripheral would work for me.
Overall, it's not bad. It would never replace my Nike+ app on my phone (I've logged 1,493kms run - I am locked in), but it's a great supplement to it.
Sub-problem: how am I supposed to refer to these units? "Nike+ Fuel Units"? That's a bit of a mouthful, no?
2: This is like the problem when buying things off Xbox Live - the currency is "Xbox Points", which doesn't translate easily to euros, dollars or pounds. They're obfuscating how much you're spending. Why would Nike obfuscate the amount of exercise you're doing?
An interesting side effect, which I hadn’t anticipated, was that I developed a blind trust in the things I used. I trusted my lamp to be bright enough to light up the wheel well of a truck when its tire went flat, and it was. I trusted my wallet to hold cash, boarding passes, and IDs without deforming or falling apart, and it did. I trusted that my towel would dry quickly, because it was designed for travel, and it did. I trusted the zippers on my backpack to stay closed as I hiked through the night, and they did. These might seem like stupid things to worry about, but when you have trust in everything you own, you don’t have to worry about anything. It’s liberating and an amazing feeling. My life was markedly better because of it.
I've got a bit of a bag problem. By this, I mean that I seem to accumulate bags, because I have this wild, irrational fear of not having the correct bag for any given situation.
(Look, I already acknowledged it was wild and irrational. Shut up.)
For Christmas last year, my wife got me a GoRuck GR1. It is, hands down, the best bag I've ever owned. It's the perfect size for a weekend away. It's the perfect size for carry-on luggage on an airplane. I've used it in the worst weather Ireland can throw at it and it's never once leaked or even gotten soggy. When I had my bike accident, the bag completely protected my MacBook Pro. Again, the best bag I've ever owned.
And I haven't bought another bag since I got it because I haven't needed another bag.
So I totally understand what Dustin Curtis is saying. It's always worth doing your research and spending a little extra money, if necessary, to make sure you get the best.
Elisabeth Rosenthal has a piece in the New York Times Sunday Review about whether helmets should be worn when cycling. Her argument is that, yes, helmets probably save lives1 but making them mandatory actually discourages people from cycling.
Recent experience suggests that if a city wants bike-sharing to really take off, it may have to allow and accept helmet-free riding. A two-year-old bike-sharing program in Melbourne, Australia — where helmet use in mandatory — has only about 150 rides a day, despite the fact that Melbourne is flat, with broad roads and a temperate climate. On the other hand, helmet-lax Dublin — cold, cobbled and hilly — has more than 5,000 daily rides in its young bike-sharing scheme. Mexico City recently repealed a mandatory helmet law to get a bike-sharing scheme off the ground. But here in the United States, the politics are tricky.
Last year, I had the worst bike accident of my life. I was coming from the north side of the city. As I came around the corner of the Matt Talbot bridge - at a point where two cycle lanes cross over each other in the middle of a pedestrian crossing - when another cyclist on a Dublin Bike was coming the other way. We both saw each other too late and we both swerved in the same direction.
I landed on my head, lost consciousness for a few minutes and was taken to hospital in an ambulance.
There were two things I realised. First is that I don't think cycling helmets should be mandatory, but for my style of cycling, which I would call 'assertive' rather than 'aggressive', I probably should wear one. The other thing I realised is that people on Dublin Bikes are, generally, awful and dangerous cyclists. They have no idea of the rules of the road. No concept of spacial awareness. They're oblivious to other road-users (and especially, other cyclists). What I have observed myself is that their first use of a Dublin Bike is usually the first time they've been on a bike in a few years, so they're a bit wobbly and nervous. And then, after about fifteen minutes, they remember how much fun cycling is and they start cycling like lunatics. And that's when you have to watch out for them. Because they are the heaviest bikes on the road and an accident with them will fuck you up.
Believe me. They will fuck you up.
So, speaking as a cyclist, I guess my point is that I think bicycle helmets shouldn't be mandatory. Regardless of what I just said about the majority of Dublin Bike users, I think the Dublin Bike scheme is a terrific asset to the city and I also believe that it would get no use if people were forced to buy and use a helmet before using one of the bikes. I think that the decision should be left to the individual cyclist, that people should wear a helmet if they feel like they need it.
Although she seems to suggest the life-saving benefits of helmets are largely apocryphal