Saturday, November 23, 2019

Review: Oculus Quest

I got an Oculus Quest because I wanted to exercise more. Really.

For those not familiar, the Oculus Quest is a second-generation virtual reality headset from Oculus (owned by Facebook). Virtual reality headsets place a monitor in front of each eye (or one monitor with each eye only viewing half of it). This gives you a true 3D image, which you can look around in by turning your head. Most headsets, including the Quest, come with hand controllers as well. These create virtual hands which follow your real hands in the environment, allowing you to grip, point, and generally manipulate your environment. They usually come with buttons and joysticks which allow you to move around in your environment and interact with it in less intuitive ways.

I also own an Oculus Rift, the first-generation headset. The main difference between the headsets is one of mobility. The Oculus Rift (and the Rift S, its successor) must be tethered to a fairly powerful computer to work through a long cable. The Quest is untethered. All its components--battery, processor, memory, as well as the screen and speakers--are in the headset. This gives you a lot of freedom. You can take the Quest anywhere--even outside, though that's not recommended, or on trips.

It does make a difference. I can find a much larger area in my backyard than I could in my office with my computer, which gives you a significant area to move around in. You also don't get tangled in the cables as you turn around in the game.

But back to the exercise: I got the Oculus Quest because I had gotten into the VR game Beat Saber. This is a simple game that is also pretty effective exercise. You are given two lightsabers, one red and one blue, and you need to slice colored metal blocks as they fly toward you with the lightsaber the same color as the block, cutting in the direction indicated by arrows on the blocks. The blocks follow the rhythm of dance songs playing in the background (the beat in beat saber). There are also occasional obstacles you have to dodge as they fly toward you. At higher difficulty settings, it can be quite intense, and easily an aerobic workout.

Beat Saber. I'm not doing great here, mainly because I'm trying to capture a picture.
Unfortunately, I can't take the computer with me when I travel, so I thought the Oculus Quest would make a useful alternative. That way I can have an (entertaining) aerobic exercise even when I'm visiting my parents.
The Oculus Quest in the compact, hard travel case I bought for it. 
So, what do I think about it, especially compared to the original? Here are my thoughts:

Advantages

  • Mobile
  • Easy to set up
  • Easier to use even when you aren't traveling--I find myself using it more than my original Rift, even though I have them both in my bedroom.
Disadvantages
  • It feels slightly more sluggish. The sabers feel like they lag behind just a little.
  • There are more glitches. The original Rift had its glitches as well, but this feels like it glitches more. This may be partly because of the games I'm playing, as most glitches seem to be more errors in the game than in the system. For example, every once in a while one of the sabers stop working, and goes spinning off into the void. At one point, for about a week, I was observing freezes and the screen going black in Beat Saber too, but that seems to have been a bug that they fixed.
  • The system isn't as powerful, and so can't handle games that need a PC behind them.
  • Since the tracking is internal, it's easier to move the controllers out of sight of the cameras built into the Rift.
So would I recommend it over the Rift S, the updated version of the original Oculus Rift? Yes, for one very important reason: Oculus is adding Link--a system that lets you use the Quest as if it were a Rift through a single USB C cable. If it works as well as promised, and you get the mobility and the power of a computer when you want it, I'm not sure what market the Rift S will fill.

Now what I'd really like to see is a wireless connection between the Quest and the computer, using WiFi. You'd think it would be possible, since the Quest does have WiFi and is battery powered. Maybe next year.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Diet and Exercise

Back in late July, my doctor informed me that my weight put me in the obese category according to BMI, and that put me at risk for diabetes and heart disease. I don't really trust BMI as a measure of health, since it doesn't take into account such obvious influences as sex or age, and height is reduced to a mere denominator (and I am unusually short). This smart BMI calculator seems more reasonable to me, though I haven't read the research behind it. But I had to admit that my weight was getting up there, and I have a history of diabetes in my family, and I really don't want to be diabetic.

The doctor gave me the option of taking drugs, or trying to lose weight. I opted for the weight loss option, since I’m stubborn that way, and I have boundless—probably misplaced—confidence in my ability to discipline myself.

I've lost twenty pounds since then. Now there's probably nothing more boring than hearing someone talk about their diet and exercise program, but this is my blog, and I wanted a centralized place to point people to when they ask (and I have been asked).

The number one decision I made when I decided to do this was that I wasn’t going to diet and exercise, I was going to change my diet and exercise. This meant that this was permanent, so I wasn’t going to lose weight and stop, I was going to keep losing weight until I stabilized at a new weight, and then, if necessary, change my lifestyle further. It also meant that I was only going to do things that I felt I could live with for the long haul. This meant slower, but hopefully more sustainable, weight loss.

But I wasn’t going from a cold start, either. So let's start with before.

Before

Kristin is a wonderful cook, and I usually eat whatever food she provides. For dinner. For lunch, I'm on my own at work. Usually, I brought a cold cut sandwich and chips, though twice a week I would get food from one of the local restaurants instead—usually a steak bowl with rice, beans, guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo, and lettuce from a local Mexican place, or a steak kebab with hummus, potatoes, and salad from a local Mediterranean place. I'd also have two, occasionally three, 12 ounce cans of Coke a day, sometimes with chips or pretzels for a snack.

For exercise, I would do one of several seven minute workouts each day, using an Android app called 7, but the app has a lot of workouts aside from the original, and often I did a light version of the exercise. I also used dumbbells, doing a weight workout three times a week in theory, in reality more usually twice a week, performing eight exercises, each with two sets of ten reps, using light/medium/heavy weights of 5/8/10 pounds. Finally, I had a treadmill desk, which I used pretty much every day, walking at a slow pace of 1.5 mph for eight hours a week (1:20 six days a week), and a fast pace of 3 mph for two hours each week (on Saturday)—for a total of 18 miles each week over 10 hours.

I had also recently purchased an Oculus Quest virtual reality headset, and started using one of the high intensity games called Beat Saber as a more intense aerobic exercise.

So I wasn’t totally inactive, but there were ways to improve.

After

I had been getting pretty sick of sandwiches, so I was looking forward to changing things up. My doctor had suggested a Mediterranean diet, in particular replacing grains with legumes for carbs. This translated into a salad with meat (or as I like to think of it, steak on a bed of lettuce) and a side of beans or chickpeas. I reduced my Coke intake to one can a day, and my snack to a single serving of flavored, roasted chickpeas. For caffeine in the afternoon, I would have loose-leaf Chai tea, with milk and sugar (but not a Chai latte from Starbucks or similar, as that has as many calories as a Coke, while I'm aiming for less than half that). When I bought lunch, I would switch to the salad with meat theme for one meal a week. For dinner, Kristin moved to more legumes instead of grains and potatoes; but she didn't drop grains and potatoes, or even desserts, entirely.

For exercise, I wanted to increase the intensity while increasing the time spent exercising as little as possible. So I did a number of things. First, I changed the exercises I was doing in 7 to a custom-built aerobic exercise four times a week (easier on my knees than the default aerobic one), and a custom-built long exercise program three times a week that combines a full-body workout with the stretching that I do before weight training. For weights, the first step was to consistently use them three times a week, and also to go from 2 sets of 10 reps to 3 sets of 8 reps. This was one of the biggest time increases. Then I bought some adjustable dumbbells to which I could add weight plates as needed, and I added two new exercises for which I needed more weight: farmer carries and leg lifts. I gradually increased the amount of weight for my exercises, from 5/8/10 to 10/15/20, while going from 8 to 10 reps, over the course of three months. I’ve recently switched to circuit training, doing sets of different exercises in a row without a rest in between, and then resting before repeating.

Next I changed up how I used my treadmill. Rather than doing all the faster walking on Saturday, I started doing half an hour at 3 mph and an hour at 1.5 mph six days a week, and an hour at 2 mph on Saturday (for a total of 20 miles over 10 hours).

Finally, I made Beat Saber a constant part of my exercise, combining twenty minutes of a more intense difficulty level with my aerobic exercise. I used the heart rate monitor on my smartwatch to make sure I was in the aerobic zone as much as possible.

When I plateaued after losing ten pounds, I made several additional small changes. I dropped the legume side dish and started sticking to the meat on a bed of lettuce lunch every weekday while reducing the meat from four ounces to three ounces. I also increased the speed of my fast-paced walk to 4 mph, turning it into a light jog, using my smartwatch to maintain the aerobic heart rate zone the entire time. Finally, I kept the additional hour on Saturday but reduced it from 2 mph pace to 1.5 mph, reaching a total of 22.5 miles over 10 hours.


My office--with treadmill desk, regular desk, and exercise mat. The desk chair has been moved to make space for VR.
The other side of my office, with my weight bench.

So, in summary:

3-4 times a week
  • 7 minute aerobic exercise
  • 20 minutes of Beat Saber
  • 30 minutes jog at 4 mph
  • 1 hour walk at 1.5 mph

3 times a week
  • 30 minutes jog at 4 mph
  • 15 minutes full body workout and stretching
  • 1 hour of weight exercises
  • 1 hour walk at 1.5 mph

Since I only jog six times a week, I can drop it once a week, or even skip all the exercise one day a week if I have another commitment, but I'll try to make up any walking so that I hit the same totals of 10 hours and 22.5 miles each week.

You'll notice that this consists of 2-2.75 hours each day, which seems like a lot. How do I get anything else done? One advantage of a treadmill desk is that I'm not just walking or jogging. I can watch television shows or read my Kindle app while jogging, and at a slower walk I can work on Mysterion or even write. While doing my weight exercises or even Beat Saber, I listen to podcasts or audio books. The only time I'm not doing something else is the 7-15 minutes I'm doing a prescribed exercise, where I need to listen to instructions from my phone. The biggest challenge is finishing the more intense parts before dinner. The walk, and even weights, can come later. Fortunately, we tend to eat dinner late—never before seven, and sometimes not until nine.

So far it's worked, but the temptation to cheat just a little is a constant danger, especially now that I've made real progress.

NaNoWriMo

I don't typically do NaNoWriMo, partly because November is a difficult month for me to set aside the time for it (though my wife and I have occasionally tried JaNoWriMo (there are actually a lot of versions of this)). But I decided now was a good time to increase my writing time. I've only been getting about 2.5 hours done each week since the July reading period for Mysterion started. Now that my work there is mostly done, I've bumped my writing per week up to 5 hours for November, making it a priority to write during my walking time. I used to frequently delay writing until I was done walking, surfing the web during the walk instead, but now I try to start writing as soon as I start walking. That has led to some procrastination from starting to walk, however.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Supervisor of Accountants and the Great Gray Wolf



This story is now out at Cast of Wonders Episode 372. Sometimes the unlikeliest people are called to be heroes. But what sort of heroism can one expect of a lowly administrator?

I was asked today where I got the idea from. As I always tell people, ideas are easy, it's the execution that's hard. I keep a list of ideas to write stories from. They come from all over. When I read a story or book or see a movie or television show, and wonder, "Why didn't the characters do this instead?" (This doesn't mean I rewrite the story with that change--it means I write a story where characters face a similar problem and try my solution.) When I have a philosophical, political, or religious idea, and I think it would be interesting to explore it in a story. When there's some technology that might have interesting implications. When I see something happen in real life or hear about it on the news and think that it may have story resonance. When I dream something. Sometimes just when I come up with a really good punchline. All of these get written down to be mulled over, to build into a robust system and then broken in the story that tells how they fail.

But sometimes I look over that list, and find that I'm just not ready to write any of those stories. It's too ambitious, or the idea's not fully formed, or maybe it wasn't such a great idea anyway. In that case, I start brainstorming. This is when worlds I've created and novels I've written but never published come in. I start thinking about other stories I can tell in those worlds, bits of backstory I can fill in for those characters, sequels and prequels to unpublished, sometimes even unwritten, stories.

And when that doesn't work, I try something crazy. In this case, I decided to come up with a wildly original title, and after that, the story would practically write itself. But it turns out that wildly original titles are hard to write too. I realized my best bet was to avoid cliché or common words, so I went to dictionary.com, and started working my way backwards through its words of the day, trying to figure out if any of the words, or better yet, combination of words, sparked something. I discarded puissant (actually sort of cliché in fantasy), selenotropism, metanoia, and complaisant. But two words stuck out at me, especially when I put them together: "doughty" and "panjandrum". And thus "The Doughty Panjandrum" became the working title of my story, and figuring out what such a person would be like gave me the story's voice.

So it turns out looking up random uncommon words and combining them into a title does work as a method to come up with a great story idea. Who knew?

Friday, August 16, 2019

More upcoming stories

So no sooner had ink dried (digital pixels set?) on the last contract than I had two more stories come through. One I sold two years ago, and one I sold last year. Neither of which have come out yet, but I'm bumping both stories to "probably coming soon."

The Lightning Generator

Back in 2017, I signed the contract to publish "The Lightning Generator" with a certain magazine. And then the fiction editor left and the magazine went on hiatus for a couple of years, and I pretty much assumed that the story would never see the light of day. The contract had a 3 year reversion of rights clause, though--that's the part of the contract that says if they haven't published it in that time, you're free to do what you want with the story--so I couldn't send the story anywhere else until that ended. Now the magazine's a print magazine, and a fairly long reversion of rights clause is standard for those. It takes a long time to go from story acquisition to print. But, man, when you're almost sure the magazine is dead, that's a long time for a story to languish. For the record, Mysterion's reversion of rights clause is 1 year, but we're a online magazine, so things move quicker in that world.

Anyway, I finally heard from the magazine this past week, and it turns out that not only are they not dead, they're publishing again, and they're definitely planning to publish my story. Not in the next issue, but in the issue after that. And as they haven't announced the story yet, I still won't name the magazine. Which may be for the best, considering what I said above. . .

But as to the story itself, here's my description:

When Professor Garson invents a device that can generate lightning and power a city, Morgan Dunworth's job security as an aether engineer looks a lot less certain. And when someone kills the professor for his invention, Morgan is unfortunately the primary suspect.

The Chamber of Winds

I first submitted this story to another magazine I'm not naming back in February of 2018. This is one of the few stories I submitted on invitation (more of a general invitation to people who'd gone to a specific writing workshop, not someone looking for a story just from me). In October, the editor said that they would publish the story. And finally, this week, I received the contract. I'll still hold off on announcing the magazine until it's made public, but here's a little about the story:
Raxtus makes a good living smuggling goods through the Hub, where his Domini masters have portals to all over the world. But it looks like he and his fellow workers will soon be replaced by automatons, and he needs to make sure he's settled all his debts before he's out on the streets.


So that's two stories about people concerned about losing their jobs due to a paradigm shift in technology. Hmm. Maybe that says something about my own fears, or maybe it's just coincidence that these two stories (which are connected, though I'll stay silent on how) happen to be reaching publication at around the same time. That's not all I write about, honest!

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Upcoming story: "The Supervisor of Accountants and the Great Gray Wolf" at Cast of Wonders

Now that the contract's signed, I can announce that I have a story coming out in Cast of Wonders, the Escape Artists podcast of young adult speculative fiction. The story is called "The Supervisor of Accounts and the Great Gray Wolf."

When the king tells the Supervisor of Accounts to the Second Under-Treasurer to jump, he jumps. And when the king tells said supervisor to hunt the Great Gray Wolf that all the knights and huntsmen seem to be avoiding, then he polishes his brass buttons, brushes off his good hat, and blackens his  outdoor boots, all before setting out into the Old Wood.

I'm not sure which episode the story will appear in, but I'm looking forward to seeing it soon.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Mysterion's July submission period is coming to a close

If you've been following Mysterion at all, then you know that we're in our July submission period. Well, or submission period is coming to an end tomorrow, when the month of July ends (Boston time). We're paying 8 cents per word for science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories up to 9,000 words long that engage with Christianity. If you have a story you'd like to submit, the submission guidelines are here.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Domus Lemurum

My story, "Domus Lemurum"--Latin for House of Lemures, is now out in Intergalactic Medicine Show. It's a ghost story set in ancient Rome. Roman patrician Septimus runs a profitable business buying haunted houses at bargain prices, and re-selling them once the troublesome spirits have been banished. But some evil runs too deep to be cast out so easily...

The story's behind a paywall, so only those with a subscription to Intergalactic Medicine Show can read the whole thing, but it will be out from behind it later this year. You can also read the story behind the story, wherein I wrestle with accurately portraying rather dismaying Roman attitudes, but that does contain spoilers for the story.

If you want to read more fiction by me, you can visit my writings page. If you want to read fiction that Kristin and I publish, visit the Mysterion website, and definitely visit our Patreon, where you can support our endeavors. We're desperately trying to reach $200/month, which will allow us to keep up with SFWA's increased pay rate.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Mysterion opens for submissions in a week

Well, 2018 is almost over, and it's on to 2019. And with the new year comes Mysterion's first 2019 submission period. If you have any stories you want to submit, now's the time to get them ready. We look forward to reading them starting in January.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Marriage Advice: Finances

I'm probably not the best person to give marriage advice. I'm not a psychologist or marriage counselor, and I've only been married for seven years and we don't have kids. This article got me thinking about marriage, though,and in particular what advice the church can give about marriage. I think that a sermon series on marriage and relationships could be very useful, but in my experience, churches are terrible at giving practical advice. They tend to over-spiritualize every question, falling into deep theological wells about complementarism and egalitarianism rather than giving practical advice. So here I thought I'd give practical advice on a frequent source of conflict in marriage: finances. And to that end, I'll tell you what works for me and my wife.

The first rule of advice is that works for one couple may not work for others. Talk things over with your spouse and decide how you want to do things. Make sure you agree.

I'm not giving advice about how to balance your budget or pay your bills. If you can do that when you're single, you can do it once you're married. I'm focusing on a much more contentious question: how do you share?

Many couples share everything: what's yours is mine and what's mine is yours.  Every penny we make goes into a joint account, and every penny we spend comes out of it. Which is great, as long as you agree on every single expense. Often you will not. Sometimes my wife wants a fancy dinner, and I want an Xbox--and they cost the same amount. To me that sounds like an extravagant waste, while my wife thinks something similar about the Xbox. She'd never use it, and how often would I really use it after the first month? What often happens is that each person feels the other is being wasteful with their money. It's not uncommon for one partner, usually the one who makes the most money, to start putting restrictions on the other. No, you can't buy that, we can't afford it when we need groceries.

Another option is to keep separate accounts. My paycheck goes into my account, your paycheck goes into yours. Everyone has their own stuff: their own car, their own Xbox, their own meals. Joint costs are split, more or less evenly. That can also work, but what happens when one of you makes a lot more than the other? What if she can't afford to pay half the rent on the nice place close to his job, and starts to resent that he's driving a Mercedes while her clunker is giving its death rattle. What if he loses that job and his savings start to run low because he spent it all on the fancy car? Sure, she'll cover him for a few months, but how long until she starts to resent that he's living off her money.

Now it's not impossible to make either of those work, given common levels of frugality or income, but I'd like to propose another way, and it's the one my wife and I use.  All income goes into into a joint account, from which all household expenses are paid, plus each of you get a personal account. Each person gets a certain amount in their personal account each month, and can spend it however they want. The amount can be fixed, or a percentage of each paycheck.  My wife and I tend to each get 5-10%, depending on what we feel we can afford at the time.

It's important that each person gets the same amount, no matter who's making more money. This helps to avoid feeling that that it's my income or your income. It's our income, and our money, we simply designate a certain amount for each individual's personal use.

Joint expenses are just that, joint. You have to agree on joint expenses. Most are easy: rent or mortgage, bills, groceries, kids.  But if it's ambivalent, or it's expensive (we set a threshold of $200) and not something you've already agreed to, such as groceries or the mortgage, then you have to decide on it together. If you agree, great. But if not, that's not a no. It simply means you have to save up before you can pay for it from your personal account.

Modern finances being what they are, you'll also need a joint credit card and personal credit cards. Personal credit cards are paid off from the personal account, and the joint card is paid off from the joint account.

We've found this arrangement to work very well. The lion's share of our income goes to the joint account, and we spend it on necessities, or things we both enjoy, and save when we can. But we each have a fund we can draw on for things we want, without the need to worry about what the other person would think. It's also the fund we use for date nights and gifts for each other--it's more meaningful when it's our own money.

Speaking of date night, at this point of our relationship we switch off, alternating who pays for the date out of their personal account. That person also gets to plan the date. That way they get to decide how expensive it is, as long as they're willing to pay for it, and they can also pick the activity. Often it's not something the other person would have picked on their own. We typically don't drag each other to activities we know the other person will hate, but we also try to be a good sport about trying things.

So that's what works for us. It won't necessarily work for everyone. And when money's tight, what is and isn't charged to the joint account may be a point of contention, and you may need to budget even the stuff you agree on carefully. For example, is there a limit to how much you can spend on groceries from the joint account? How about clothes or toys for the kids?

But even then, it's nice to have a little money you can spend for yourself.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Not-a-Review of Mythic Orbits 2

As a general rule, I don't review anthologies and magazines that I'm in. Kristin and I both have short stories in Mythic Orbits 2, the second volume of Bear Publication's collection of speculative fiction stories by Christian authors.

My story, "Her Majesty's Guardian," was a very short piece originally published by Daily Science Fiction. It asked the question of how a magic society would deal with a royal family with a genetic predisposition toward madness and a ridiculous amount of power.

Kristin's story, "The Workshop at the End of the World," is a more whimsical tale involving elves, and to say any more about the premise would be to spoil it. It was also published in Daily Science Fiction.

We're very proud of both these stories, of course, but like I said, I don't review books that I'm in, and I especially don't review my own stories, or Kristin's. But I would like to talk about some of the other stories in Mythic Orbits, and mention a few that really worked for me.

My favorite was "Mark the Days" by Kat Heckenbach. Denver begins to live his days by the order that he marks them off in his calendar. He takes advantage of this, skipping over days and coming back to them later, when he can take advantage of knowing what the following days bring. But slowly he comes to realize that there is something terrible waiting for him on the one day he skipped at the beginning, and eventually he won't be able to avoid it any longer. I felt that this story was successful in creating a rising sense of tension, and showing how someone might deal with knowing the future, while fearing to know the past.

Another story I really enjoyed was "They Stood Still," by William Bontrager. Anyone who uses a computer knows the frustration that happens when the computer freezes, and you're afraid to do anything, in case that makes you lose all your unsaved work. This story imagines what would happen if the whole world stopped. Samuel, who lost his legs in Iraq, suddenly has to deal with a Las Vegas empty of all motion except himself. I thought this story really dealt with his dawning horror, and the fear that he would never interact with anyone or anything ever again. I didn't feel like the story quite stuck the landing, however. I would have preferred a deeper meaning to this event than what we received.

Less grim was "Unerella" by Keturah Lamb. This tells the story of the other young woman at Prince Charming's ball, who has to figure out her own way when Cinderella steals his heart. There's nothing really twisty about this story, once you figure out that it's not from Cinderella's point of view, but I enjoyed the determination of a young woman who had to learn to dream something new.

"The Other Edge" by C.W. Briar was a particularly memorable dark science fiction tale. Astronaut Varik Babel leads his crew to make first contact with a ship from another world. What he finds is not what he's looking for. I did find the ending somewhat implausible, given what I know of the technologies involved, but it was horrifying even so.

"Dragon Moon" by Linda Burklin was a bittersweet story about Darla, a young woman who slowly covers herself in tattooed scales to entertain and distract her younger brother, who's dying of cancer. While I can't imagine someone doing that--I kept thinking that she must be crazy to do so--it brought out the depth of her love for her brother. The fantastical ending to this story was dramatic and appropriate, but I felt that the denouement too easily canceled the price that Darla had paid.

These were the stories that really drew me in and which I found myself thinking about days after reading. But our experience of stories is subjective, and I suspect other readers might find themselves reliving some of the other stories in this anthology, such as that of the mother bear searching for her lost cubs, or a curator explaining Earth culture to his alien overlords, or a failed Mars colony recalled to Earth, or robots replaying forgotten memories. I think most people will find something to enjoy in this anthology. Perhaps even a story about a queen's guardian, or a workshop at the end of the world.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Review of Bard's Tale IV

I recently finished Bard's Tale IV, the thirty-years-late sequel to the Bard's Tale Trilogy. I first played these games back in the mid-80s, on a monitor with CGA 4-color 320x200 graphics. Considering those limitations, they seemed like surprisingly good graphics at the time (see the original in emulation here).  I've since upgraded to an nVidia GTX 1080 Ti with 16.7 million colors at 1920x1080.

Fortunately, Bard's Tale IV upped it's graphics game as well, as you can see below.

Skara Brae Below. Honestly, this is probably the best looking part. 
The graphics are overall pretty good, but this is a Kickstarter supported game built by a small studio, so it's not exactly the realism that you'd expect from an AAA game from a major developer.  In particular, the character art is a little cartoonish, and the dungeons--and of course there are dungeons, the original Bard's Tale bragged about its 16 levels of dungeons right there on the box--do take on a certain amount of sameness after a while. There's just not a lot of variety in stone walls.

Character models can be cartoonish.
But for all that, there are some standout visuals. The dungeons of Mangar's Tower and Kylearan's Tower early on (both reprises of dungeons I explored in the original Bard's Tale), and the few Dwarven dungeons, can be quite spectacular in places. But the best looking areas are in the wilderness. For all that Bard's Tale IV is a dungeon crawler, there's a lot of wilderness exploration--which to be honest, are merely another type of dungeon, with impassable underbrush substituting for stone walls.
Some of the best visuals are in the outdoor areas.
Much more entrancing than the visuals was the music. As you might expect for a game like Bard's Tale, there's a lot of it. NPCs are constantly singing--performing, or in groups, or just singing to themselves. Most of the music in Bard's Tale IV are traditional Scottish songs, and I occasionally stopped what I was doing just to listen to someone singing. There's a songbook with translations of some of the songs, but I wouldn't recommend it. The songs aren't always a great fit for the setting. There are four songs in English, one about each of the games, including this one, which contain important clues about certain related dungeons.

I don't judge games purely on their music, or their graphics, or their technical excellence. I judge games primarily by how obsessed I am with them. For all Mass Effect Andromeda's faults, that was a game I played straight through from beginning to end with barely a break. And while Divinity: Original Sin and Original Sin 2 are great games, I find myself drifting away from them for months at a time.

Bard's Tale IV was a game I obsessed over. I played it from beginning to end, almost every night, except for a week when I decided I had to take a break. I even got involved in developer's inXile's forums. (Granted, part of the reason for this is that the game was ridiculously buggy when it was released, and I wanted to report the bugs and maybe hunt for clues for some puzzles where I wasn't sure whether I was just stumped or if I was running into a bug. But also I just wanted to talk about the game.)

So what got me so into the game? Part of it was the lore. Many people complain that it doesn't contain really great storytelling--which I won't argue against. But it did have better storytelling than the original Bard's Tale games (basic plot: an evil wizard has shown up and is causing trouble, go kill him), and more to the point, it gave those stories context and made them part of a bigger world, explaining why Skara Brae was so often the target of evil wizards. The other part was the puzzles. The original Bard's Tale games had a lot of puzzles in how their dungeons were designed, with spinning tiles, teleporters, riddles, and all sorts of things that only really work when the graphics are simple and the perspective is fixed. Bard's Tale IV has a whole new bag of tricks when it comes to puzzles. It does have some of the "find the right item to gain access to an area" puzzles typical of RPGs, but there are also codes you have to figure out, blocks you have to slide into position, fairies you have to guide, and Dwarven gear mechanism puzzles. And each type of puzzle builds to more complex variations as the game progresses. Even combat is its own form of puzzle.
Combat on an 4x4 grid.
Combat takes place on an 4x4 grid, with the heroes on one side and the enemy on the other. Different abilities affect different squares in front of the character who's acting, so moving characters into the correct position, and forcing the enemy to move, is an important part of combat. Spells and attacks always hit and do a fixed amount of damage, depending on the ability and the character stats, so there's not really a lot of randomness to combat, except for crits and certain riders which do depend on probability.

There are a couple of clever innovations which really make combat interesting. The first is opportunity points. Almost every action requires opportunity points, but this pool is shared. If your fighter is best positioned to do damage, then he can use all the opportunity points to dish out damage. Similarly the rogue can use the opportunity points when the fighter's abilities are on cooldown or not really useful for the situation. The second innovation is how spell points are implemented. Spell points are generated starting when combat begins. Depending on how you build your character, they may gain spell points every round, or meditate or drink potions for extra spell points, or use a stance that increases spell point generation. Bards are the exception to this. While they can gain spell points through potions, they mainly gain spell points through drinking. A bard can drink alcohol to gain spell points and stacks of the drunk condition. More stacks of the drunk condition can cause bard songs (their versions of spells) to have extra effects, but drink too much (more than the bard's intelligence), and they pass out for a round.  Bard songs tend to focus on buffs and debuffs (including generating spell points) rather than direct damage. Practioners (the generic name for magic users) can buff, force enemies to move, summon, and do direct damage. Spells and bard songs don't require opportunity points to use, so they form a separate pool of actions bards and practitioners can perform, but many of the ways they gain spell points require opportunity points. It gives the combat an interesting mechanic, where practitioners and bards need several rounds to build up to their most powerful abilities, while the fighter and rogue (and bard, who can drink and fight at the same time) hold the line.

Another, not entirely novel, piece of the combat puzzle are damage types. There are three types of damage: normal, mental, and true. Normal damage can be blocked by armor, so if you're using normal damage you either need to do a lot of it to overcome the armor, or you need to first remove the armor, which you can do with certain abilities and items. Mental damage can bypass armor, and it also attacks focus. Enemies, and you, need to focus to perform certain actions, which require you to wait until your next turn to complete them. Meanwhile, you have a focus bar, which has a number of points depending on your intelligence. Mental damage affects the focus bar first, and if the enemy destroys all your focus, the action is canceled, so focus limits certain powerful abilities, and attacks that do mental damage allow you to interrupt your enemy's attempt to use those abilities. Finally, there's true damage. True damage bypasses both armor and focus.

There are four basic classes in the game. Bards have bard songs, but also a lot of combat capabilities (many of the same ones the fighter has). Rogues tend to be straight damage dealers with a lot of tricks. They're the only ones who get extra damage from critical hits (other classes recharge abilities or gain spell points). Fighters also deal decent damage, but also have abilities that draw enemy fire and protect their allies. They have the best defense in the game, and can use the best armor. Practitioners can have a lot of variety, with lots of different types of spells, and specializations--and you can specialize in all the specializations. You need to specialize in at least three of them to become an archmage, which gives you a large collection of powerful spells.

Every level, a character gains a skill point, and can use that to buy one skill in a skill tree. Every class has at least four categories of skills, most of which contain several skill trees. Everything in the game requires buying skills. Skills let you wear better armor, give you powerful combat abilities, let you craft potions and brew drinks, teach you new spells and bard songs, and provide straightforward stat bumps. As you move up a skill tree, you sometimes close off other paths, but you gain more powerful skills, including a capstone that can give your party more opportunity points, or start everyone off with an extra spell point, or mark enemies you hit with spells with an explosive mark that damages it and nearby enemies the next time someone hits them, or allow you to absorb your allies' damage, or start everyone off concealed.

And here is where, in the late game, combat tends to break down, as these powerful capstones combine to become too powerful. If you start out concealed, then you can take a round or two to build up your spell points, and then, before your enemy attacks, you can hit them with your most powerful spells. In the late game, you can end most combat encounters before the enemy gets a chance to act. It's fun, at least for a little while, to completely dominate your enemy, but eventually it starts to wear thin. I suspect that the developers will nerf this particular ability in future updates.

When your entire party starts out concealed, you can buff and charge up spell points for a combat-ending surprise attack.
Speaking of updates, the game was very buggy when it came out. Things like the rogue's critical hits doing less damage rather than more, occasionally not getting experience for battles, the inability to click on necessary items in the game world, or becoming stuck in the landscape. The bugs have certainly been reduced since the game was released (reduced damage on a critical has since been fixed, for example), but there are still quite a few.

Despite these issues, I very much enjoyed the game. It's been my favorite since Mass Effect Andromeda, and I'm hoping for more like it.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Mythic Orbits

Blog tour banner

This is a guest post, posted as part of the Mythic Orbits blog tour. Kristin and I are both in Volume 2 of Mythic Orbits.

About Mythic Orbits

You might be wondering what in the world “Mythic Orbits ” refers to. I’m not sure if it will help reassure you to tell you the name Mythic Orbits was simply intended to suggest both science fiction and fantasy and to identify these books in a distinctive way, along with any that follow after in the series.

Just as these anthologies represent a wide variety of genres, there is no common theme to these tales, though the subject of empathy or lack thereof does come up in them repeatedly. This is most definitely not an anthology about orbits which are somehow mystical.
These anthologies are a showcase for the best stories submitted in the general field of speculative fiction by Christian authors. They represent a wide variety of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and paranormal.

The main goal of these anthologies was to demonstrate that Christian authors can write speculative fiction well. Stories with a wide range of appeal are included here, mostly serious, some with humor, some with “happy endings” and others clearly not so happy. All of them worth reading.

Some of these stories feature Christian characters in speculative fiction worlds, some make use of Christian themes either subtly or overtly, while some have no discernible connection to Christianity at all. Christian authors are featured in this collection rather than specifically Christian-themed stories.

Mythic Orbits

So, is it widely-known all over the world that Christians write speculative fiction?

Well, clearly Christians who themselves are speculative fiction writers know what they write. But does everybody else?

Especially when we're talking about theologically conservative Christians, Evangelicals of some sort, professed Bible-believing Christians, do people know about their works? Is it legitimate for people to wonder if writers with personal convictions along these lines produce speculative fiction, that is, science fiction and fantasy and related genres like LitRPG, paranormal, and horror?

These books provide an answer: Not only do Christian writers produce speculative fiction stories, they write some great ones.

Enjoy these examples!

Travis Perry (Editor and Publisher)

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Mythic Orbits 2016

MO 2016 cover

Fourteen of the best speculative fiction stories by Christian authors, spinning science fiction, fantasy, horror, and paranormal genres into worlds of intrigue and delight.

Featuring Graxin by Kerry Nietz, author of Amish Vampires in Space and A Star Curiously Singing, Mythic Orbits 2016 has something for every speculative fiction fan.

Mythic Orbits Vol. 2


In a series praised by both Tosca Lee, Kathy Tyers, and Kerry Nietz, this anthology of eleven speculative fiction stories by Christian authors shines in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and LitRPG genres. Featuring Kat Heckenbach’s “Mark the Days,” this collection has something for every speculative fiction fan.

Featured Authors:


Friday, April 06, 2018

Mysterion

It's been a while since I've posted here. The good news is that I haven't completely dropped off the map. I've just been focusing nearly exclusively on Mysterion.

The better news is that our hard work on Mysterion is about to bear fruit. Our first story goes up this month--in fact, Patreon supporters can read it now. I'm delighted that we'll be publishing "We Have Discerned a Potential Deal" by J.P. Sullivan. Aliens want to buy the Vatican, but what's really impressive is what they're offering in payment.

In the meantime, we've been publishing nonfiction on the site regularly. Since January, we've been publishing reviews and interviews.

In January, Kristin reviewed Jerome Stueart's The Angels of Our Better Beasts, followed by an interview with Jerome himself.

In February, Donald reviewed Andrew Klavan's The Great Good Thing, and followed that up with an interview.

And in March, Stephen Case reviewed Centipede Press's latest collection of R. A. Lafferty stories, The Man with the Speckled Eyes. Unfortunately, since R. A. Lafferty is dead, we can't interview him; March's interview was with author Maurice Broaddus, who also co-edited two of the anthologies that inspired Mysterion, Dark Faith and Dark Faith: Invocations.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

New Mysterion website

When our Kickstarter didn't fund, we mentioned that we had a plan B. Well, have a look at the new Mysterion webzine:


Yes, Mysterion has gone online. We'll be publishing reviews, interviews, and columns, starting in January, which is also when we'll open to fiction submissions to start publishing later in 2018.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Kickstarter Ends

Our Kickstarter has reached its end. While we reached $4183 in funding, that was short of our $5000 goal, which means that we don't get any funding, and Mysterion 2 won't be happening any time soon.

Don't worry, though. We do have a plan B.

We also have some lessons learned, which we talk about here.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Kickstarter nearing its end

Our Mysterion 2 Kickstarter is in its last hours, with 57 left. As we're only 56% funded it looks like we're not going to make it. There's still time to contribute at www.mysterion2kickstarter.com.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Mysterion 2 Kickstarter Launched

Kristin and I are proud to announce that the Kickstarter for the second volume of Mysterion has launched. You can watch the video below to see us awkwardly reciting our lines. Or you can just follow the link.



Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Gotham

So I've been watching Gotham for the past three years. It can be a fun show, a cross between a police procedural and a comic book show. Early seasons leaned more to police procedural, with the crimes being more gangster related, than the superscience and mystical villainy of the Batman comics. It slowly moved toward more aggressive comic book characters, and we've now seen such iconic characters as the Riddler, Mr. Freeze, Penguin, Firefly, and the Joker.

But there have been times when I think it's been too slow. Because let's be honest, the reason we watch Gotham is because we want to see Batman. Bruce Wayne has been in the show since the beginning--the series began with the murder of his parents. But since he was only eleven or twelve when it happened, he wasn't exactly going to be Batman right away.  In most portrayals, we start with Bruce's parents' murder, and then skip ahead a decade or so, to after Bruce has traveled the world, training with world-class experts to become the best at absolutely everything: martial arts, investigation, driving, inventing, even developing esoteric skills such as meditation.

But in Gotham, we watch him grow up. Rather than being trained by experts around the world, his principal teacher is Alfred--though admittedly, this version of Alfred is former SAS (British special forces), so he's taught Bruce how to fight. Bruce has also been hanging out with the young thief Selina Kyle, the future catwoman, and even stayed with her for a while so he could learn about thieving. Exactly how long is never stated--it was several episodes, which could have been anywhere from a few days to a few months. It was at least long enough to learn to pick locks, which he seems to be fairly proficient at these days. Finally, one of Ra's al Ghul's lieutenants, the Sensei (who's actually al Ghul's father in the comics, though that's never stated here) briefly kidnapped Bruce, primarily to brainwash him, though there was also some martial arts training involved.

Anyway, Gotham's always been interesting, but the end of Season 3 threw away the slow part. A lot happened, with Jim Gordon, Selina Kyle, Ra's al Ghul, but the most important development was with Bruce Wayne.



Bruce has finally decided to become Batman. Well, not Batman specifically, but a vigilante, fighting criminals. On the one hand, this seems like it's too soon for Bruce to become Batman. On the other hand, we've been waiting three years for this to happen, so lots of people (like, the whole Internet) is excited to see this.

The rumor is that the showrunners didn't think that Gotham would be renewed, and wanted to end the show with everyone moving in the right direction for their ultimate destinies. It looks like they did too good of a job, and everything's now moving way more quickly than before. It will be interesting to see if they can keep up the momentum.

That doesn't change the fact that Bruce is not ready yet. He knows how to fight, obviously, and he's learned some of the sneaking and thieving skills he needs, but he's clearly not the polymath that Batman is, so it'll be interesting to see how things develop.

To some degree, I expect the next season to have a Batman Begins or Batman Year One vibe, as he slowly develops the arsenal of gadgets and techniques that Batman uses. But in both those stories, Bruce Wayne already had the skills. He just needed to work out the method to use. Here, I think Bruce also needs to learn what he needs to learn. This will happen as he runs into challenges in his vigilantism he can't overcome with his current skillset. When he does run into those, he needs to figure out how to get the skills he needs.

There are several ways to go about this.

Obviously, Alfred will continue to teach him how to fight. He also may teach him more Batman skills, such as fancy driving, throwing weapons, rock/building climbing, etc.

There are also other experts in Gotham who could help train Bruce. The first time his vigilantism requires Bruce to solve a crime, not just interrupt one, he could turn to his friends in the GCPD, especially Lucius Fox, to help him not only solve the crime, but to learn how crimes are solved. In the movies, Lucius is also portrayed as the source of Batman's gadgets (more so in Batman Begins than the comics, where most of Batman's gadgets are invented by Bruce himself). Here I expect him to not only provide gadgets, but to teach Bruce about science and inventing. Jim Gordon may also help in developing some of the investigation skills, though unlike Lucius, in most continuities he doesn't know Batman's identity.

Selina Kyle is still around, though her current relationship with Bruce is frosty. Still, when it comes to sneaking and breaking into places, there may be more teaching that she can provide.

Then there's Ra's al Ghul, who showed up in the season finale as the true force behind the Court of Owls. Ra's wants to make Bruce Wayne into his heir to lead the League of Assassins, and the fact that Bruce was able to overcome the League's brainwashing just makes Ra's more intrigued. Bruce doesn't want to be al Ghul's heir, of course, but that doesn't change the fact that Ra's is willing and eager to teach Bruce all sorts of the ninja-like skills Batman needs--from sneaking around, to impossible feats of agility, to martial arts mastery, mystical mumbo-jumbo meditation, and throwing stars (aka proto-Batarangs). This was the path that Batman Begins took to show how Batman got his skills, so closely does al Ghul's teachings match what Batman needs to know. I fully expect Bruce to undergo some significant training at Ra's's hands, either willingly (perhaps in an attempt to infiltrate his organization, perhaps because he realizes he can't do this without it) or unwillingly.

Finally, it's not unusual for Bruce and Alfred to leave Gotham for months at a time for vacations. It wouldn't be out of line for such vacations to become cover for some intensive training of one type or another with an expert that Bruce learns about, or Alfred knows through his contacts. It's possible that some of those trips already involved more than visiting a ski lodge.

I'm not expecting a full-fledged Batman next season. Maybe if they think the show's going to be canceled again, they'll give it to us in the series/season finale. Otherwise, what I expect to see is Bruce slowly learning what he needs to know to be Batman, developing the tools and techniques and skills he needs, and possibly learning that he needs something more. Not just more training, but an identity, an icon, to make him something more than a viglante: a symbol.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Untranslatable Words

John Hawthorne had noticed this post of mine, where I link to an article on twenty untranslatable words in other languages.

He pointed me to an article he worked with his colleague Adrian to write, with 35 other foreign words. As the article states:
Have you ever found yourself struggling to find the perfect word? You have an experience that feels so…so…but no words exist. You want to insult someone but can’t find a word vicious enough. You want to speak words of tender affection to your partner but no such words exist in the English language. 
Thankfully, there are other languages we can turn to in our time of need. Here are 25 [actually 35] amazing foreign words that don’t exist in English. Use these words when English fails you.
Thanks, John.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Iron Fist Business Class

I mentioned in my previous post that the biggest issue I had with Iron Fist wasn't the fight scenes or the slow pacing, but the business decisions. I think this showed ignorance more on the part of the writers than the characters, so I feel that these questionable decisions are worth discussing.

The first one is that Rand Corp has developed a drug that is a cure for a deadly disease. It works wonders, and due to manufacturing efficiencies, they can produce the drug at $5 a dose. Ward Meachum wants to charge $50 a dose. Danny protests that if this drug saves lives, they should sell it at cost. He doesn't seem to realize that doing so doesn't mean they'll break even. It means they'll lose hundreds of millions of dollars. The cost of drugs isn't in the manufacturing. It's in the years of research and development and FDA trials and failed drugs that never made it to market because they didn't make it all the way through the process. That's hundreds of millions of dollars that Rand Corp spent to develop this drug that they won't make back. Money that they won't have to spend on R&D, which the show specifically mentions is something they want to do with the profit, so there won't be any cure for the next epidemic. And yes, maybe at the margins there would have been people who couldn't afford the drug at $50 a dose, but the show even says that the World Health Organization would have subsidized purchase of the drug in poorer regions. And it's not unheard of for drug companies to sell drugs for lower prices in poorer regions in the world, while still making a higher profit in the rest of the world.

In another case, some cancer victims are suing Rand Corp because they believe that the company's chemical plant on Staten Island gave them cancer. The problem is they don't have any evidence. The plant's emissions are all within government limits, and the plant has passed every inspection. As far as anybody can tell, Rand Corp is doing everything it can to run a safe plant. The plaintiffs' only evidence is that 15 people living within a one mile radius of the plant have gotten cancer. Only, wait, how many people live within a mile of the plant? Is 15 cases of cancer a lot for that many? Well, we don't know exactly where on Staten Island the plant is, but according to Wikipedia, Staten Island has a population of 474,588, and a population density of 8,112 people per square mile. So within a one mile radius of the plant, there'd be about 25,000 people. According to this website on cancer statistics, over 450 out of every 100,000 people will be diagnosed with cancer each year. So out of any population of 25,000 people, you'd expect 115 cancer diagnoses. Unless all those people have a specific, rare type of cancer that can be traced to something the Rand plant produces--none of which is even suggested--then if those are the only people with cancer, something in that area has caused an 87% decrease in the rate of cancer. Rand Corp has cured cancer!

I don't blame Danny for not getting this. He spent the last fifteen years in a monastery, and that sort of communal lifestyle typically doesn't operate on capitalist principles or teach basic statistics. But what bugged me is that no one could explain to Danny the simple math of these situations, instead telling him that his ideas were bad business or that they weren't how business worked. Yes, this is true, but he needed to understand why they were bad business, and no one could be bothered to do that--or possibly, none of the writers of the show understood economics any better than Danny did.