Too good and not good enough

Screenshot anime Aho-Girl

I have written 36000 words, and have nothing to show. Story of my life.

I am talking about my NaNoWriMo writing, but it appears to me that this may have a wider application for myself and others.

I am ahead of the official schedule with my NaNovel: Currently at over 36000 words. This is pretty much as expected, I estimated about 2000 words a day on this project. I also write some other even more unofficial fiction. I have been blessed thus far to not have serious Repetitive Stress Injury to my wrist, as I often had in my early years. I even have had some repetitive typing work at my day job (this is the first November in quite a while that I am not having my vacation) and still can type mostly without pain, so that is good. But as expected in the dreaded Week 3, misgivings about the project rise up.

***

Problem number one is that the story is not very good. I just today read a thread on the NaNoWriMo Adventure forum, “Who is your favorite character” in your own story. And I realized that none of them were. The main character is certainly an unusual hero: The only known Player Character from when the the world was a game, he used to be one of the top non-Pay-to-Win players and has extensive lore and meta-knowledge of how the world works, which should make him quite powerful if he can survive the racism, fear and hatred as a scary-looking barbarian in a homogeneous society that sees itself as the only possible civilization.

But this fellow does not really have any passion. He is not looking to get back to the real world to his family. He is not trying to protect his true love or find some precious person who is lost somewhere in the wide world. Actually he rather likes this world, and his main concern is to stay alive. Which is somewhat harder in a world of warring states, roaming bandits, supernatural monsters, wandering swordsmen and superpowered monks. Still, a quietly worried Swede is not really the way to keep readers on the edge of their chair, I suspect. He may be relatable, but so is your neighbor and your Facebook friends.

***

So far, so bad. The other problem is that the book is not bad enough to throw caution to the winds and do the NaNoWriMo “quantity over quality” thing. And by that I mean throwing in pirates and ninjas in places where they don’t belong. Or the Traveling Spade of Death that goes from book to book, possessing people to murder named characters. Or Belinda the Chicken of Death. If all you want is the word count and a text that is recognizably English (or some other known language), then Not Taking Your Book Seriously is definitely the way to go. But by and large, at this stretch of my life, I don’t start that kind of book in the first place.

In a way, this is the story of my life, and probably many other lives. It is certainly unique, but not good enough to stand out in a good way, and not bad enough to throw caution to the winds and go hitchhiking in Caucasus with a backpack of chocolate-filled gold coins. And so we keep slogging through, even when we have come to 36000 out of 50 000 words and can dimly see the end in the distance, and suspect that it will be unremarkable just like the path there was unremarkable.

Age of Wushu – not for loners

Screenshot game Age of Wushu

As much as I’d like to explore in some depth a game based on the rich lore and practice of Taoism, I’m running into a couple serious problems. Not technical, but social.

I have played Age of Wushu for some days, and probably will for some more days. But I think my conclusion is pretty clear: This is not a game for me, unfortunately. The freedom and depth of this game is really amazing, but it is based entirely on cooperation with other players. Except for the tutorial, the game quickly becomes hard to play without friends.

To take the most famous example, you need to buy food from other players. The game has a hunger variable so after some days without food your health will go down the drain. But there are no shops selling food. There are shops that look like they would sell food, like a tea house or a pancake vendor. They don’t actually sell food to players. Only players sell food to players.

I worked around this by taking the Farmer and Chef life skills. You can have any and all collection skills, but only one production skill. So by choosing Chef, that character can not be a blacksmith or tailor or craftswoman or poison maker or herbalist (the latter being what I would otherwise have preferred, as the closest to alchemist which is a habitual interest for me). Well, at least I have steamed buns. Except after eating those for a couple days, I am told that my character “has no appetite for this food”. I can still eat them to keep from starving, but they will no longer take me to the higher levels of nutrition where one recovers health and strength at normal speed.

I can get round this (for now at least) by making more expensive foods, many of which also have positive side effects. However, I am told that if you send your steamed buns to another player, they will eat them with good appetite. And if they make steamed buns for you, you can also eat them. The point is, the game goes out of its way to make you depend on other players.

 

***

Speaking of non-combat skills (always one of my main interests in RPGs), these too depend on each other for all beyond the most basic products. You cannot make high-end products with only raw materials (which you can gather yourself). You also need products from other production skills, and you can only have one of these per character (and only one character per account). Some players get around this by making alts (alternate characters) on a different account and mail the goods to each other. It works, but it is kind of cumbersome. And anyway, you need other people as customers, at the very least. There isn’t really a game economy except for the players. Well, you can sell stuff but usually at a loss or at best around break-even.

***

Age of Wushu is a PvP game, Player versus Player. You can attack another player’s character at any time and fight them to the death.  It is not exclusively PvP, very few games are. You can hunt animals and fight computer-generated bandits. But you won’t get much, if any, Experience from this. Experience is the raw resource that you gradually over time turn into Cultivation points, which you can use to improve your stats and skills. Basically, your growth depends on a reasonable supply of EXP, which you can’t get on your own. As a new player, if you get into a fight with a more experienced player, you will definitely lose. You get no EXP for that, and lose some silver and take some damage to your equipment. So you can only advance fast if you have friends who stun or damage your opponents so much that you can finish him off.

An alternate way to make progress in the game is through instances, which are replayable scenarios (somewhat like raids in western games). These also require teams. This gets you Experience and useful loot. But again, not if you’re a loner who relies only on yourself. I guess this is an example of the Oriental mindset, individualism is strongly discouraged.

The game is somewhat sparsely populated these days. Certainly not deserted, but very far from crowded. Also as a game with open PvP (you can fight anyone anywhere, pretty much) it does not necessarily attract the most friendly and helpful community. That said, I am told some guilds have a pretty strong cohesion and joining guilds looks fairly easy. But it might be a good idea to try to play this game with a few friends you already know.

Age of Wushu is a very deep game with unique and interesting game mechanics (no levels, many non-combat and support abilities, you can keep improving by expanding your skill set) but it is not a good game for people who like to play alone and at their own pace. That means people such as me.

Of course, Real Life is even more so. Without other people I would not have food here either, let alone electricity and the Internet. But generally I don’t need to approach them in person about it, which is one of the wonderful things about the current version of Real Life. Instead of asking people, you can find almost anything on the Net, including reviews of games that are past their best-before date. ^_^;

Age of Wushu, first peek

Screenshot game Age of Wushu

This game is a nice break from many recent MMORPGs in that everyone is decently (and usually prettily) dressed.

In a couple days I plan to start writing a quick novel based on an imaginary Wuxia game. (Wuxia is the Chinese martial arts heroic fantasy, a genre going back over 2000 years!) So I guess I ought to have at least a passing knowledge of the premier Wuxia game in our own world, right? I have already written about a Wuxia game called Swordsman Online, but Age of Wushu is  still the gold standard in this genre from what I hear. After watching a number of YouTube videos and installing the game myself, I can see why.

Extremely complex and detailed: I won’t ask you to watch this Wedding Guide video (about in-game weddings) unless you are already bored, or the follow-up Guide to Married Life, but they are long and elaborate for good reason. You can not only get married in-game with some degree of ceremony. No, you can choose between a wide price range of wedding rituals, each with more optional accessories than the last. Then there are various activities, more of them for the more expensive weddings, which give various gifts and blessings to the happy couple and their attending friends. Notice that if you have made enemies in the game world, they may hire a ruffian or two to vandalize your wedding banquet, so it may be smart to hire a professional guard for the occasion… Apart from the cool wedding dresses and other mementos, particularly successful weddings will bestow a new cooperative combat skill on the couple, which can be leveled up with practice and make the two of them a particularly devastating duo. ^_^

And that’s just one obscure aspect of the game. (And one I am never going to experience, not there either.) The game has no levels, and I am not sure there is any limit to the number of skills you can learn, except that you can only join 1 out of the 8 schools and legally learn their combat skills beyond the basics. You can however spy on other schools and also steal scripts, if you don’t mind the risk involved. Learning a skill is not the same as mastering it, though. You have to practice it and you have to improve the stats (physical abilities like strength or speed etc) that the skill is based on. And you have to put “cultivation points” into abilities to make them grow.  And on that note…

Strengthening body and soul: In western Sword & Sorcery fantasy, the swordsman and the sorcerer are sharply divided, often being enemies (like in Conan the Barbarian and similar works, where the magic-users are generally seen as evil and treacherous) or teamed up for a common cause (like in most modern massive online games, from EverQuest to World of Warcraft). But the Eastern ideal is a man who strives for perfection of body and soul alike. The ideal of Chinese mysticism, the Immortal, is a person (originally almost always a man) who has mastered his body and soul to such a degree that that even time can not overcome him.

In Age of Wushu, the player is constantly improving his abilities through “cultivation”. Unlike Tales of Demons and Gods, where cultivation was a separate practice undertaken while sitting down (similar to traditional meditation), in the game Age of Wushu it is something that happens continually, kind of like mindfulness I guess? You start with a fairly basic internal skill, Self Recollection, but even this increases many of your abilities day by day and increase your attack and defense. You will need to do special quests to increase the maximum level after a while, and you will later learn other internal skills that also make you stronger. Even when you are logged off, your character remains in the game, doing various useful things and improving herself, especially if you have a VIP account that is bought (indirectly) for real money. “Pay to win”, but actually it just speeds up things that would otherwise take more time. The maximum values are not moved, but they are pretty far off when you start. This game is definitely designed for the long run, although not the 10 years per character I estimated for my imaginary Wuxia game, luckily.

***

I downloaded the game from supplier, which took some hours. Unlike World of Warcraft for instance, you don’t just download a small installer which then fetches the game with the most important parts first, so you can start making your character while the download continues. That would be the sane thing to do, but no, quite the opposite. By default you download a .RAR file, a format of file compression that is mostly used in Linux and not supported by Windows without downloading a third-party archive handler like 7zip or WinRAR. The file is over 18 GB, so yeah, that took a few hours over ADSL. Even backing it up to my NAT (home server) takes hours! This file must then be unpacked to a separate folder, where you start one of the files which will then do the actual installation to yet a third place where the actual game will reside on your hard disk. So you better make sure you have plenty of disk space before you start. Oh, and you register your account at their website first, although you can log in with Google or Facebook if you want to give them that much access to your life.

This may be just me, but when I had created my first character and started on the tutorial, the keys that should turn the character sideways did not work. I could walk forward and backward, and move sideways like a crab, but not turn. I changed to the mouse controls, but could still not turn. When I exited the game, my character disappeared forever, only the game was still reserved.

I ran a repair on the game files and tried again. I still could not turn my character in any way. Changing the keys had not worked either. In a flash of inspiration (similar to the flash of inspiration when rodents claw on the wall of their cage until they hit the latch, I guess) I opened the main (Esc) menu and chose “Select character”. At this point my character was still there, and I soon returned to the scene where I had pressed the key, but now the controls worked. The interface is still clunky (the turn-button turns you 90 degrees for instance so you may have to sidestep to get in a combat position) but at least it worked.

The tutorial seems otherwise quite forgiving, showing you some basic skills and pitting you against some bloodthirsty but very weak bandits. That’s as far as I have come with the actual game myself, but from the (many) YouTube videos it seems to be a very deep and complex game. Unfortunately long-time players complain that the game is going downhill due to excessive Play To Win features. The game is free to play but as seen in the wedding videos, the more money you spend, the more benefits you get. This upsets people who want to buy things with their free time instead. I am pretty relaxed about such things. I already exchanged free time for money at work, where I can help real people (occasionally – the competition is fierce on our team). So I don’t mind. Plus I am Norwegian, very few things from other countries are expensive by our standards, due to our high salaries and high cost of living.

Well, that is more than enough for now. Oh, one thing. “Wushu” is the fonetik spelling of Wuxia, supposedly. In my mind however, Wuxia will always rhyme with fuchsia.

(This entry is backdated because I wanted to play the game a bit to make sure I did not mislead too much. So it’s been lying as a draft for a while.)

“Someone is searching”

Screenshot anime Kamisama Kazoku

Maybe they are right there, but will you find them? What if to everyone else they look like everyone else?

I recently read that every novel can be summed up as “Someone is searching for something.”

This made me think about my current candidate for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year, as I’ve mentioned in the previous entry. The main character and viewpoint character, a teenager who used to be an old man, now trapped in a world that used to be a game, is definitely searching for something. But I don’t really see him as searching for a way back home, not after the first pages at least. After all, in his own world he was ageing and with less than perfect health, no close family or friends nearby, no job and really no accomplishments to look forward to in the rest of his life. This was the world he loved, when he was not in it.

It did not take long for me to realize what he truly is searching for. Alone in a world that used to be a game, he is surrounded by Non Player Characters – people who used to be just pixels and scripts run by a computer, but who now have real lives of sorts. But they are still Non Player Characters. They know nothing about Real Life and the world from which he came. As far as they know, their origin and purpose and the meaning of their life lies entirely within this world, and everything else would be like pure madness to them. In fact, that is exactly how they will react if he tries to broach the subject.

And yet he must do so, because he is indeed searching. Not in the long run for a way back – that will come if it comes – but for others like himself. The one thing he cannot except is that he is the only one of his kind in this world, the only one for whom this world is not the ultimate reality. And it is not for him to find someone who says “OK, I believe you” even though that is hard enough. You’ve got to have been there. To share his memories before they are lost forever.

Of course, this is just a work of fiction. But it is an interesting perspective, is it not? I wonder if I could manage to write it.

Wuxia-inspired worldbuilding

Screenshot anime A Sister is All You Need

Worldbuilding is something novelists do all the time. Taking pictures of naked friends with our smartphones “for research” is not something we actually do. Rejoice therefore!

In my previous entry, I wrote about a Chinese comic I recently came across. It gave me some ideas for a short novel draft I could write for this year’s NaNoWriMo, the (inter)National Novel Writing Month.

I am not talking about writing fan fiction here. It is true that you could probably summarize both of them in a short paragraph that was identical, if you specifically was asked to do so, but that would require cutting out some pretty central themes. You see, I take this as an opportunity to practice the two new literary interests of mine from the last couple years: Wuxia and LitRPG. And the comic has nothing to do with LitRPG, which is the genre I have read the most by far this past year.

LitRPG is basically literature set inside a role playing game, or a world following the rules of a role playing game. There are basically two branches of this, the main branch is probably the one where in the future games become so lifelike that they are experienced similar to Real Life even though they are not actually real. Another branch is where the world is assumed to be real but has the same features as a role playing game, sometimes even including a user interface where you can see your statistics! That’s going a bit far, I think.

I will go for a plot device used in a Japanese light novel series, Overlord. In it, the main character remains in the game when it shuts down, and instead of being disconnected he follows along with the game world when it disconnects from the real world into some parallel universe where the game is real and real life is not. In Overlord, the main character retains all his powers and artifacts and even the base of his guild, making him hideously overpowered. I am not going that far.

Worldbuilding 1: “Real” Life

My main character – let’s just call him Marty Stu for now – is a 68 year old retiree sometime around 2030. He has some unnamed health problems by now but is still faithfully playing his favorite MMORPG, the Wuxia-inspired Lands of Soulcraft. When the game is closed down after 12 years, he decides to stay up all night playing till the end. However, in the last seconds before the shutdown time, he becomes dizzy and loses consciousness. Some time later, he wakes up and realizes that he is somewhere in the game world, but this world is now real and he is a teenager again. Either that, or he is dreaming and can’t wake up. Or dead.

Worldbuilding 2: Lands of Soulcraft – the game

The game had a cult following, but was also infamous for design decisions that made many players either give up or ragequit.  Leveling in the game is extraordinarily slow – if you have a job and a family you can expect to spend a year gaining one Rank. There are ten of these, although only five are known in the beginning of the game. Each Rank has 5 Rungs. The Ranks are from lowest to highest: Iron – Copper – Silver – Gold – Platinum – Topaz – Emerald – Sapphire – Ruby – Diamond.

The metal Ranks exist in the Lush Lands, where the first half of the game takes place, a land where the heroes mingle with various ordinary people. To advance to the gem Ranks you must leave for the High Lands, the mysterious mountain world where immortals are said to live. Here are no farmers and only a few courageous traders in guarded camps at the bottom of the valleys. The land is populated by powerful monsters, mysterious races, and masters of swordmanship and Soulcraft (basically magic). Once you go there, your opportunities to return are severely limited, and you cannot use any powers gained there in the Lush Lands even should you be able to visit. A condition for going back is that your powers are restrained for the duration.

You gain rank by a combination of three factors: Practice, Lore and Exploration.

Practice is the simplest but the most boring. You practice with weapons and body training or meditate using various spiritual practices to improve the strength of your Soulforce. You can basically do this as a player while reading a book on the side. Obviously this get a bit different if you are trapped inside the game which has become real.

Exploration is the opposite: It is exciting but requires your full attention, and the results may vary a great deal. Quests give you rare experience that is valuable in leveling up, and you find rare weapons, armor, amulets, and ingredients for Alchemy and Inscription (enchanting).

Lore is found in the many large libraries. The game has thousands of books, hundreds of them are important for understanding the game mechanics. They are detailed, complex and interwoven so that some players claim the game actually equals university level. Understanding the game lore only superficially will hamper your progress, but once you have deeply understood, experimented with and practiced the game lore, “reincarnating” as a new character is much easier and faster than your first time. You may even catch up with and overtake your first character, because it is possible to make stupid decisions that hurt your maximum abilities forever. (Much like in Real Life.) This detail caused a great deal of ragequitting, by people who discovered after up to five years that their character was flawed beyond repair and would never become number one in this world.

To make things worse, the lore in the Lush Lands is hideously incomplete, something you will only learn in the last half of the game. Basically the greatest heroes of the Lush Lands are just milling around in ignorance, making do with what looks to them like a complete, deep and rich lore but is actually grade school compared to the deeper understanding available in the High Lands. Among the discoveries is that some characters that had seemed to be irreparably flawed were actually in a pretty good position to advance if they had continued long enough. Cue more ragequit.

The game was destroyed when it was sold to a large gaming company that made it free to play but sold Rank promotions and other goodies for real money. The High Lands were overrun by rich noobs who had the most powerful characters in the game world but no idea how to play. This caused the regular players to quit, and the noobs to quit as well, and the game closed down two years after the acquisition.

Worldbuilding 3: Lands of Soulcraft – the world

Once Marty wakes up in the game world, he notices that it seems completely real. He can not only see and hear, but also touch and smell. He gets hungry and needs to eat and drink. The people he meets seem way too intelligent and realistic to be Non Player Characters, but none of them have heard about any other world that is more real than this one. More disturbingly, nobody comes back from the dead. What has happened? Where is he?

Is he comatose in a hospital, dreaming that he is trapped inside the game? Or did the psychic energy of the many dedicated players actually create the game world in some alternate reality? Or did it already exist and the original designer of the game was some kind of psychic? Is Marty dead and some kind of deity or karma has shunted him to this world? Or is his body dead but his brain frozen down and later thawed up to be wired into a computer recreation of the game? And most importantly: Are there others from his world there? And if not, what is his relationship with the people of this mysterious world? And what is his destiny there?

Wuxia-inspired reading

Screenshot manhua Tales of Demons and gods

Definitely on the fantastical side of things, and I’m not even talking about the body and dress of their teacher, just the excessive use of colorful magic.

It is little more than a week left before NaNoWriMo, the (inter)National Novel Writing Month. I can’t remember being so meh about it, so uninterested, since I first heard of it. I am not even taking November off from work this year, as I have done for the last decade or so. Admittedly this is because of some small sense of loyalty to my job, where I am not really useful in July, so this year I took it off. Well, only people with a lot of privilege get to choose to take November off from work anyway, so that is not exactly the big deal. The big deal is that I almost forgot the whole thing, until I read the manga called Tales of demons and gods.

Tales of demons and gods is a Chinese manhua (same as Japanese manga, basically oriental comics). This story is heavily inspired by the Chinese Wuxia literature, which has been going on for some centuries but has blossomed and spread in recent years. Westerners may have seen the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but there is much more where it comes from, and some of it is more fantastical and mythical. Some has called it the Oriental version of the Sword & Sorcery fantasy genre, but it has actually been around for centuries so it is more like the other way around.

Tales of demons and gods  is on the more fantastical end of the spectrum, with more magic-like effects and less focus on weapon use, although this happens too. The main character is ridiculously overpowered, but there is a reason for this, and it is not the usual “child of prophecy” or “unknown heir to the throne” or anything like that. Rather, the main character Nie Li was actually killed at the height of a long and distinguished career as a hero and adventurer, traveling the entire continent, learning everything he could and honing his skill. Even this was not enough against the overwhelming odds he met on his last day. But rather than moving on, his spirit went back in time to when he was 13 years old, taking with it all his knowledge from his long life.

This is not an entirely unique plot device, but it is pretty rare. When I came up with it for the first time, I was unaware that anyone else had thought of it. I have actually written a lot of stories based on this concept, but none of them were usable. It is still a very interesting notion, but one that invites to wish fulfillment fantasies. That also kind of happens here, but the creativity of the author (whose name is usually translated as Mad Snail) helps carry the story despite the extreme advantages given to the main character.

It helps that Nie Li has a pretty poor starting point: His soul strength is very low, barely noticeable: 5 points when the lowest rank starts at 100. However, because of his knowledge from a long life, he know how to train to expand this and become the strongest hero. He quickly picks a fight with one of the three ruling families of the city and continues dissing and humiliating their members, causing more and more severe reactions until they actively try to get him killed. So that keeps the reader on his toes. There is also a love triangle, with tendencies toward love pyramid as the story progresses.

Well, I don’t really imagine this will interest any of my readers directly. But since it is likely to have a noticeable influence on my NaNoWriMo project this year, I thought I would give credit.

Adventures in Windows ReadyBoost

Performance Monitor, exhibit 2

Using two 32GB USB sticks. Light blue = disk read, purple = skipped. SKIP THOSE READS BABY!

Let us talk about the Windows ReadyBoost, why don’t we.

It is a little known (?) part of Microsoft Windows which uses flash memory (such as an USB memory stick, or a SD card) as an intermediate storage between the hard disk and the random-access memory. It was introduced with the ill-fated Windows Vista, which needed more internal memory than was common on new computers at that time. Unfortunately, ReadyBoost was a bit of a quick fix (not to say “kludge” or “desperate attempt”) and not as effective as it could have been. Not being very good at the one thing it was meant for, it pretty much faded ignobly into obscurity. However, the friendly folks at Microsoft kept tinkering with it, and the version that was released with Windows 7 was actually greatly improved. Not that many people bothered to try it. In the meantime, it had become customary to sell computers with much more RAM, both because of lower prices and because it was obvious that Windows Vista need a lot more memory than XP had done. Windows 7, on the other hand, was better than its predecessor at using the computer’s resources.

***

At my home office, I have an office computer and a gaming computer. The office computer is a laptop from 2012. It was a beast of its time, with 6 GB of RAM and a core i7 processor. However, it was also the last computer I bought with a 5400 rpm hard disk and no SSD. (The gaming computer has an SSD and no internal hard disk.) The laptop also came with support for USB 3.0, a technology whose time has now come, but was still fairly rare and expensive back then.

So yesterday I saw a 32 GB USB 3 flash stick at an affordable price in the local hardware store. When I plugged it into my USB 3 hub, the laptop helpfully asked if I would use it for ReadyBoost. However, it could only use 4 GB. It turns out that the stick was formatted with FAT32 rather than NTFS. So I went ahead and reformatted it, then used the whole stick for ReadyBoost.

***

Despite the vague name, ReadyBoost actually does only a few specific things. It does not boost processor speed, despite its name: If anything, it uses the processor a bit more since it needs to perform various calculations and also move data around from here to there to elsewhere. What it does is:
1) When I save data to disk, it first saves them to the USB stick, which is faster. Later it saves a copy of those data from the stick to the hard disk when it has nothing better to do.
2) When I load data from disk, it loads them from the USB stick instead, if they are there. They could be there because I had already saved them there, as above. But they could also be there because Windows has creepily watched what I do and made guesses as to what I am going to do next, and quietly copied just that stuff onto the stick while it was bored waiting for me to press the next key.

So the ideal computer for ReadyBoost has:
-Not much RAM (so you need to swap data in and out of it frequently.)
-A slow hard disk. (Laptops typically had slower disks, before SSD.)
-A fast processor (to move all those data twice as often, and to stalk the user and guess what he or she will do next.)

Now, I have a decent amount of RAM for a five year old machine, but the two other criteria fit pretty well. Given that online articles vary from dismissing ReadyBoost completely to praising it as almost like adding more RAM, I was curious. What would happen?

***

The first thing I noticed was that the small light on my USB stick started blinking eagerly. Watching on the Computer Management app (specifically Monitoring Tools – Performance Monitor), I could see the cache filling up rapidly. Clearly the computer already had opinions on what I would need!

However, as I did various everyday things on my computer, I could not notice much if any speed improvement. Performance Monitor pretty much verified this: Skipped reads stayed stubbornly low compared to total reads, like 2-5%. Not much to write home about. Of course, this was the first hour or two, so if Windows had not expected me to use ReadyBoost, it might not really know what to prepare for. I should give it more time.

After I stopped actively using the computer, something happened. From time to time, there was a small blink in the laptop’s harddisk light, as there usually is when it is left to itself. I still had the Performance Monitor running, and it showed that an increasing number of the disk reads were now skipped. After a few minutes, the hard disk light was on almost constantly, and the monitor showed frenetic activity. Again, this is normal. By now, skipped reads (due to cache) were fairly close to total reads, although not quite identical. But we’re talking about 95% or so for the most part, the reverse of what I saw when I was using the machine actively. This went on and on. I don’t know what Windows does when it has the machine to itself, probably some kind of maintenance, checking and optimizing. I am sure it is some good purpose, at least as seen by Windows. And it sure knows how to use ReadyBoost.

So… first impression: Windows has no idea what I am doing, but it sure knows what Windows is doing. Everybody who already guessed this wins a big fat no-prize.

***

 

Reading up more on the topic, I found that ReadyBoost can use up to 8 flash devices of up to 32 GB each. Some say it can even read and write to multiple drives simultaneously, distributing the load across the various flash drives. If so, the limit would be the speed of the USB 3.0 controller, which should be able to handle around 6-7 drives working at full speed.

I am not quite that adventurous, at least not right away, but the next day I bought an extra USB 3 hub and a second USB 3.0 memory stick, formatted it like the first and plugged it in.

***

The graphics above show Windows having a little time to itself on the second day, after it had gotten used to having two thumb drives to play around with. It seems there is a pretty good match between disk reads and skipped reads most of the time. Which I am sure is a good thing. It is also a lot more than yesterday.

But this is Windows doing Windows things. When it comes to my actual use of the computer, there was still no noticeable difference. But this, I realized, was because the system was already fast. The Asus N56V was, as I said, a beast of a laptop when it came out 5 years ago. Total overkill. Even today, it is more than fast enough to read, write, dictate, play music or video, while sharing the latest Ubuntu Linux torrents in the background. Would I even be able to detect an improvement from 2 seconds to 1.5 seconds when opening a complex document? I needed to challenge the machine, push it closer to its limits. Luckily I knew how to do that.

Mostly out of curiosity I had installed Civilization 6 on my external hard drive. The game from October 2016 is in my Steam library, and was originally installed on the gaming machine, but after a while that machine could not longer play it. I then tried running it on the laptop, which is older and weaker, but the game hadn’t been playable there, as expected. Well, now it was. The graphics were grainy but the game started and ran just fine even with a mid-sized world. HUGE SUCCESS! It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction… ^_^

Basically what I have done is add an extra layer of slow memory / fast disk between the existing internal memory and hard disk. Adding more thumb drives not only increases the size of this layer, but also makes it faster, supposedly.

Is it useful? Not really for small everyday tasks. But it allows new things that were not practical on laptops before, like large sprawling games (Sims 3 anyone?), huge spreadsheets and databases, video recording and editing.

The width of time

Screenshot anime Futakoi

If time were to restart, where would it take us? Life is not only short, it is also very narrow: You can only walk one single path, and it is hard to see far from it.

Today I will continue on the topic from my previous post about imaginary time travel of the mind. The main character leaves the present (which is fairly late in his life) and travels back to various points in the past, eventually to his teenage years, living through life again. Even before any other psychic powers manifest, the second iteration of life starts to diverge a great deal from the first. This is to be expected when you have decades of memories from the future. But the truth is that even with a much smaller and more vague core of memories, life would still have begun to take a different path. (I wrote “different past” here accidentally, but that’s not too far off either.)

Famously, biologist Stephen Jay Gould (of “punctuated equlibrium” fame) said that if we could rewind time to when life began, the lifeforms that would result would be completely different today. Meaning that there was so much randomness in the process that even if the circumstances were exactly the same, the outcome would still be different. There is some philosophical debate about whether the material universe really is non-deterministic, but what is clear is that it would take extremely little to change history if you intervened early enough.

In a similar way, if you could travel back in time to your childhood, it would take very little to change your fate, perhaps in a major way. A few words, perhaps even a smile or a frown, could have set you down a different path. Certainly some things are pretty much set in stone: Your height, your basic intelligence, your skin and hair color, and at least part of your sexuality. But many other things could end up very different. Your education, your job, the place you live, your spouse or lack thereof, even your weight.

So what I am saying is that even with the same body, we could each have lived a thousand different lives if we got to start over. All it would take to change our path would be the song of a little bird … or a vague sense of deja-vu.

***

But if we really do live our lives many times, we do not remember them. Scientists tell us that even deja-vu is not a paranormal thing, but a misfiring of the brain. I wonder about that: When the brain has an ability that is found in most people, it does not seem unlikely that it has some purpose. Whether you believe in creation or evolution or some combination of them, it seems suspicious that something as elaborate and expensive as the human brain should come with functions that have only negative value. (Remember, the brain uses about 20% of the body’s energy at rest … it is an obvious place to cut down if you don’t have unlimited calories, which only part of the world has even today, let alone in the past.)

Be that as it may, for us who don’t have the power of remembering multiple versions of our lives like fictional characters, I guess the closest we come is to get to know other people. They may not be us, exactly, but they tend to have a least some things in common with us, while other things are different. Well, if you want to try, there’s my archives from the years when I wrote a long entry every day. That should certainly be enough to get to know me better than eveb my own brothers do. Whether it is worth the time, though, I am not so sure. We are all different, but some are more different than others.

 

We want to live long…

Screenshot anime Erased

Screenshot from the anime “Erased”, in which the main character’s mind travels back to his childhood to change the past. Well, that’s one way of living long without growing old: Living the same time over and over… Of course, I thought of that years before the anime.

Thanks to the current ongoing Shellfish Festival here in Mandal, I get some free live music whether I want to or not. Today I caught a very catchy tune that has been around for a while here in Norway, “Vi vil level lenge” by Halvdan Sivertsen. There’s a YouTube clip for those who may want to listen to it, but it is in Norwegian. It is actually a song mocking cosmetic surgery mostly, but the recurring lyrics are some I can certainly identify with: We want to live long, but we never want to grow old.

Curiously this is the theme of my current main dicewriting project. Not the cosmetic surgery, but living long without growing old. It is a story about psychic time travel, in which the mind rather than the body travels back in time. You may remember one extreme instance of this as the movie Groundhog Day. I thought also reviewed the book The first fifteen lives of Harry August  by Claire North, but it seems this is one of the innumerable entries I have written and not uploaded? There are a number of related stories that largely fall in between these, featuring people whose minds are sent back in time (usually without their control) giving them the chance to “do over” some part of their life. It is something that I am sure a lot of us have thought about. It is a natural human trait to do this in our minds, although for me as a hyperlexic it is difficult to do so without something to write on.

So anyway in my Imaginary Random Psychic  series, the main character has the ability to travel at will into the past (although not before puberty) and stay there until he decides to leave, or until he catches up with the time he left. At that point, he returns to Real Time. The catch is, the timeline he was in disappear shortly after, like a dream. Even though it feels completely real while he is there, nothing of it remains when he returns. Nobody else remembers anything of it, and even his own memories soon become vague and dreamlike. Skills he has cultivated in the other timeline are reset, as is his health. Only a vague narrative remains. He is able to maintain a connection to a timeline for a couple minutes, allowing him to write brief diary entries during long stays in the past, but if he stays longer the timeline is lost in the swirl of All-Possibility.

The “imaginary psychic” part refers to a secondary effect of traveling through the fourth dimension of time: Gradually he starts to drift sideways in the fifth dimension and vertically in the sixth dimension, gaining supernatural powers. The powers of the fifth dimension augment his natural abilities, making him stronger, faster, more intelligent, resistant to damage and to ageing. The powers of the sixth dimension are indistinguishable from magic: Telepathy, telekinesis, healing, various forms of energy manipulation. But these abilities increase very slowly, rarely noticeable from year to year and hardly from decade to decade. It is only over centuries of living his life over and over that he gradually becomes aware of his supernatural powers and gets used to them. And like everything else, these abilities too fade when the returns to Real Time.

It seems like a slow and steady wish fulfillment fantasy, and I intend it as such too, but there is a subtle undercurrent that undermines that aspect of it: No matter what he achieves, it is un-achieved by time. If he finds love and a family, he is sure to lose them. If he makes friends, they are sure to forget him. Even when he gains some power to change the world for the better, the world forgets him and reverts to what it was. Even inside the story, all his triumphs are hollow from the start.

Of course, the same could be said for real life. “Futility! Futility! says the Preacher. Utter futility! All is in vain. What does a person gain from his labor that he strives with under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1, the Bible.) Or, to translate the Buddha’s partings words: “All things that have form are subject to decay.” We who have meditated for a while may actually have caught some glimpses of the fifth or sixth dimensions, but the truth is that even eternal time is not enough. Anything that can be accomplished within time is trapped within time. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, as the Americans say. Only the spirit can transcend the six dimensions of space and time.

We want to live long, but even then we will just as much be forgotten. Transhumanists want to reverse ageing or upload the mind to computer networks that can last for millions of years. Certainly that would be great, but even the stars fade and galaxies shatter. There is no escape hatch that can be opened from the inside of creation.

Grandmothers speak, autism not so much

Screenshot anime Amanchu, ep.1

Even when autism speaks, people don’t understand it… 

There is reason to think that the human race did not really come into its own until the evolution of the grandmother. I do not know which came first, speech or grandparents, but the two go particularly well together, and the combination made our ancestors superior to every other creature under the sky, including other human races.

But before we travel into the deep past where fossils lie, let me take a quick stop by my old grandmother. She once told me that she believed her son, my uncle, was brain damaged due to the long and hard birth. He was not her firstborn, in fact there were two girls before  him and two after him. But unlike them, he never learned to talk, and whenever I saw him he was simply sitting there rocking back and forth. I grew up thinking he was an idiot. Much later I realized he was almost certainly autistic. And even much later I realized that most likely so was I. A surprising trait often seen in autistic children is that their brain grows faster during their first three years, and in some cases this starts before birth. That would explain the hard birth of my uncle. There is no significant difference is adult brain size though. This implies that if autistic people were a separate race, they would mature faster than mainstream humans, at least in some aspects. But what if autistic people once was a separate race? A race of humans without grandmothers? Let me tell you why that makes sense.

***

We do not know how long humans have been talking. Some think it was related to the sudden spread of humankind all over the world, and the appearance of advanced weapons and art. In old books this is often described as happening as late as 40 000 years ago. This date has been pushed backward with ever new discoveries, which imply that African humans were universally making elaborate weapons and tools at least 65 000 years ago, and there are signs of elaborate tools in some places much earlier. In other places in Africa there are signs of trade (tools made from stone that only exists far away) and symbolic art. Then again, it seems that Neanderthals also had simple art, cared for sick family members, and even sometimes buried them with flowers. This implies symbolic thinking, which is usually associated with speech.

Recent reconstructions of Neanderthal throat and head show that they were physically capable of speech, although not with the same sounds that we use, and they would sound strange to us. The common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans lived half a million years ago, probably a couple hundred thousand years longer than that again. This is attested not only by the fossil record but also the genome, which has been sequenced. If the common ancestor of Neanderthals and African humans was capable of some degree of speech, maybe that was not the magic ingredient after all. Perhaps our ancestors knew how to speak, but only spoke about boring things for hundreds of thousands of years. “Groo kill deer.” “Groo eat now.” “Groo want mate.” Half a million years of Facebook posts, until Heaven had mercy and let creativity descend on humankind.

Be that as it may, advanced speech made grandparents very valuable. Even when you were too brittle to hunt down animals, you still knew where they lived and what they did, because you had decades of hunting experience. You could tell the grandkids all about it so the first time they set out to hunt, they knew exactly what to expect. You could also tell them where to find edible plants, and not least how to avoid the poisonous ones. Suddenly a long childhood wasn’t such a terrible waste of time, because the elders of the tribe basically functioned as a school and a library, teaching you everything you needed to know and a lot you didn’t.

Humans are not entirely unique in having grandparents live to an old age, but it is pretty rare. Elephants have them too, but they tend to stay strong and healthy longer and lead the family. (Elephant blood was recently found to contain some kind of chemical that can overcome infections that antibiotics can’t. Hopefully we will find out what it is before the last of them is killed by poachers.) But the rule of thumb is that parents die pretty soon after they are no longer needed for their own children. Fish and squids basically give up on life once their eggs are hatched, if not before. Mammals need to be around a while to provide milk and protect their young, but that’s it: Menopause is quickly followed by death. Humans, on the other side, live a lot longer, often enough to see their grandchildren grow up unless some unfortunate event occurs. This makes perfect sense given their role as teachers. Only when dementia sets in do they wander off in the night and die in the snow or get lost in the jungle.

***

I don’t know the family structure of Neanderthals, but recent research does not really support the theory that autism comes from Neanderthal genes. It is a bit early to say, but autism seems to be common enough among African-Americans. Admittedly slave owners tended to take sexual liberties with their women slaves, so Neanderthal genes could have come in that way, but there should still be noticeably less of them. It is hard to say how common autism is in African countries, because very few black African countries have enough health care resources to deal with more than the most acute threats to life and limb. This is improving rapidly in the most peaceful countries, though, so we might soon find out how the status is with autism in Africa.

But a more likely hypothesis is that autism has been with us much longer, and may have been inherited from the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals, Homo Heidelbergensis. While the early Heidelberger man had smaller brains than most of us today, a later variant of the species was visibly larger than modern man both in body and brain. We don’t know the timing of the life cycle of this race, but it seems that Neanderthal children had an early growth spurt which implies that they matured faster than their African cousins. Sounds familiar? It should.

In a world where speech was less important, if it existed at all, you needed to grow your brain quickly, you needed to observe details so you could do the same things you saw your parents do, without them explaining it to you. Being autistic would not be a big deal in that kind of human life. It might even be the default. And with your large brain came acute senses: Being able to hear sounds that modern humans don’t notice, register small changes in the light or details in touch or taste. All of them abilities that are common on the autism spectrum.

But at this point we are well within the realm of speculation. There is no proof or even widespread belief that autism is something we have carried with us from interbreeding with an older race of humans. The common view, I think, is that it appeared as some kind of mutation very long ago. Whatever the case, autism has been preserved in the human race for tens of thousands of years at the very least, since it is found across the world. The reason why it was preserved is surely that it has some positive survival value. Probably not in high dose, as in my low-functioning autistic uncle. I doubt he would have lived long on his own. But take a small dash of autism mixed with the normal non-autistic human, and you get someone with unusual abilities. Perhaps unusual disabilities too, so we don’t usually qualify as supermen. But having that one person who notices an unusual sound before the rest of the tribe? That can be a big help that one time when there is an attack by an enemy tribe or a dangerous beast. And the high-functioning autistic tend to have higher intelligence than the average, possibly because of combining two slightly different sets of brain genes.

Eurasian people do after all still carry around about 2% Neanderthal genes, not a lot but still noticeable. These genes do cause some trouble (like autoimmune diseases) but also add a larger arsenal to our immune system to face new pathogens. It is not unthinkable that we may carry genes from even further back, genes that are not present in everyone but that are needed for humanity as a whole to function at its best. It would be a shame if organizations like “Autiism Speaks” (surely that must be meant ironically) succeed in eliminating autism completely from the world. Because that would not just make people like my uncle disappear, but also my grandmother and me.