Swordsman online

Sceenshot from Swordsman Online

My first and so far only character in Swordsman Online has TWINTAILS!

I rather like this game, at least so far (level 25). It is distinctly Chinese, but professionally translated into English except for the voice acting. (Of which there is plenty, but there are textboxes with English translation.) Oh, and there are also the rare loading screen with classic-looking Chinese calligraphy, but overall load screens are rare.

Swordsman is based on the Wuxia literary genre, which occupies a similar niche as sword & sorcery fantasy, but arose independently from it centuries ago, and is set in an imaginary ancient China rather than medieval Europe. There is only one race, in every sense of the word: All characters are Han Chinese. There also are no starting classes: You choose your school at level 5-10, and even the more Chi (magic) based schools have a solid foundation of weapon gymnastics.

Another rare trait is seen already in character creation: Everyone is dressed decently (and prettily) at all time, men and women both. There are no bare-chested barbarians or bikini battle-babes. Flowing robes and ornate dresses carry the day.

A probably unique feature of this game is the built-in bot. From a fairly early level on, you can set up the skills you want your character to use and the ways you want them to heal, as well as the condition to stop botting. Then you let them lose in hostile territory to harass the local banditry while you go shopping. (It will only run for a few hours a day, but still.) I haven’t found a way to pick up loot though, so no Chinese gold farming. ^_^ On the contrary, it uses food and potions for healing. This feature is entirely optional and at least in the early game the fights are pretty easy if you just follow the main story line, so there is no need to grind levels. I have just done it for fun, watching my character do heroic fighting on her own.

The game is very story-driven, with interspersed story instances and whole cutscenes where your character mostly does impressive feats defeating main adversaries. These are so few though that they don’t overall break the immersion in the game except during the very first levels which are more of a tutorial. Actually, at level 25 the game still feels a bit like a tutorial, very story-driven and with a slow introduction of new features and lore. At level 25 you can learn about companions, for instance. These fulfill a similar role as “pets” in western and Korean MMORPGs.

Another feature associated with the “story-driven” part is that you can at all times let your character go to the next quest target automatically by clicking on the name of a person or area or even a class or bandit you are sent to fight. Your character will then make his or her way to the place and engage the target appropriately: Talk to a quest person, attack a bandit, or stop to let you survey an area. This saves wrist and means your real-life cartography skill is not relevant to the game. I like this. I have seen it in other Asian games too and I like it, but you can control your character’s travel yourself if you like the immersive aspect of that.

The population seems to be low, but I do see the occasional fellow player in the newbie zones, just very few. There is steady activity in the chat channel though so the game does not feel dead. Also some player actions have effects on the game world, for instance a particular quest gives you the ability to bestow a blessing on all players in an area, with your name highlighted on top of the screen. (This is for high-level players, I assume. I have only been on the receiving side so far at least.) Every area is also dominated by a guild, although I don’t know what effects this has except for the fame. I am basically soloing this far, and I like it that way when I learn a new game.

One reason why I prefer soloing now that my classmates are grandparents is that I just play less than before, and certainly less seriously. I guess I may be starting to grow up finally, but clearly I am not quite there yet!

European Truck Simulator 2

Screenshot European Truck Simulator 2 (ETS2)

Driving toward Stavanger with a borrowed Volvo FH16 truck transporting an excavator from Malmö. Oh, and this is in the game European Truck Simulator 2. Pretty realistic. Realistically pretty.

I don’t write much about games anymore. I also don’t buy much games anymore. But I think this one is pretty good. And not just good as in well made, but that it may actually put people in a good mood and feel more positive. There are many games that are addictive through negative emotions like rivalry, combat or conquest; but this game is constructive and yet fascinating. I guess it is a bit niche, but I am certainly not the kind of guy who has used to dream about being a trucker or have memorized the names of various types of trucks. I don’t even drive a personal car for many years now. And I still enjoy European Truck Simulator 2.

I can’t remember exactly how I came across this game, just that I was amused that it even existed. But my vague curiosity turned to surprise when I checked the Steam page and saw the extremely high rating by the customers. How do you get 10/10 with 77 000 reviews? Is that even possible? When you see a book review on Amazon with a pure 5 star rating, you can pretty much assume the only people who have rated it are friends and family of the poor author. But try to get 10/10 with tens of thousands of reviews.

Well, the game is niche alright. It is, as the name implies, all about trucks in Europe. But it does what it does really well. Also, and not least, it is beautiful. The scenery, the weather, the towns, the trucks. It is just so pretty. Shiny. Kind of … pure. The pure platonic love between a man and his truck, or something? Don’t ask me what it is, but I kind of feel it. At least for the first few days. ^_^

***

As the name implies, this game is about trucks in Europe. But it actually has a pretty large scope. You start as a hired driver, later you buy your own truck and pick up cargo, and finally you can buy more trucks and hire other drivers to drive for you. So it is not just a truck simulator but more of an “everything trucks” simulator. Or as their website is fittingly named: “World of Trucks.”

The game has three somewhat distinct phases if you want to play it to the fullest. In the first phase, you start up in a European city of your choice (actually the base game is mostly set in Germany and neighboring cities, but there are expansions and mods) and here you jump into a loaded truck and drive it to a neighboring town. All expenses are paid by the employer, you just drive and try to not damage the equipment too much. If successful, you are rewarded with (in-game) money and experience points. These points are used to level up. This gives you access to steadily longer trips and more types of cargo. As you level up, you also get points you can invest in specializing, such as in longer trips and rare cargo types, which give you better pay and more experience points.

In the second phase, you buy your own truck. I recommend waiting a bit, because at low levels many of the trucks are not unlocked yet, and the ones that are may not be the strongest of the lot. Plus you’ll go into quite a bit of debt. But once you are your own boss, the pay per kilometer goes up quite a bit. Of course now you need to pay fuel and repairs yourself. On the bright side you can go on “road trips” with your truck, picking up new cargo in the town where you delivered your previous load, and continue in the direction you want to go, earning money along the way as you explore Europe.

In the third phase, you buy garages and trucks and manage your own freight company. You can still drive your own truck, but you now need to keep an eye on your trucks and drivers as well. (I haven’t actually tried this part, and I am not sure everyone wants to.)

***

The first hours or days are likely to be spent learning to drive again. First, there is the matter of controls. You can control the truck using the WASD keys or the arrow keys or a combination of these. You can also use the mouse or a game controller. I use a cheap Thrustmaster joystick, but there actually exist USB steering wheels with pedals and shift sticks! They are rather expensive though, and I am not quite that far gone. Your finances may vary, as may your enthusiasm.

But even if you have a steering wheel and pedals, you have a learning curve ahead unless you are a trucker in Real Life. Trucks don’t handle like smaller cars, and not even all trucks handle the same way. Obviously getting through gates or around sharp bends is a whole new challenge, but an 18 ton truck also has a whole other inertia than a Morris Mini or even a SUV. For good measure, gravity also wants a word with your truck, if you are going even moderately uphill or downhill. So expect your first hours or days in the game to be a learning experience, and a pretty strongly focused one at first.

Luckily science assures us that the most effective way to learn is outside our comfort zone but not quite into our panic zone, and getting immediate feedback on our performance. Staying in the right zone is largely a matter of using the pedals (or the corresponding keys) wisely, and you don’t get much more immediate feedback than the sound of a traffic sign scraping along the side of a shiny new truck.

I started crawling along at tractor speed (I grew up on a farm after all) and it was almost 5 hours before I had my first encounter with the speed limit. After about 10 hours, I can occasionally take my eyes off the rapid back and forth between the dashboard and the road ahead of me, just for a few seconds. And that’s where the game really begins to shine.

***

For a niche game, there are quite a bit of YouTube videos dedicated to European Truck Simulator 2 (ETS2 for short). If you watch some of them, you are likely to notice phrases like “This is so pretty!” “Would you look at this!” “I have to take a picture of this!” “I hope we get some rain.” Because the landscape, the lighting and the weather effects are quite pretty and lifelike. And even though the distances in the game are compressed so you can drive an hour’s distance in five minutes, they try to put in all the landmarks and the best roadside scenery. It is quite lifelike too, I recently drove an imaginary truck from Kristiansand (where I am employed in Real Life) and westward (where I live in Real Life) and it was very recognizable, but of course I well was past home in 5 minutes.

And of course the cars are also rendered in exquisite detail. Not just your own, but also those of the brave souls who share the road with you.

Beauty is not that easy to convey in words, so I recommend you watch some of the high-resolution YouTube videos. I recommend Keralis and Squirrel, both of whom have multiple videos and both of whom are professional YouTube gamers with pleasant voices and decent one-sided communication skills. Also, the videos are high quality so you can ogle the landscape from the safety of your home cinema or home office or whatever you use. (Probably not a good idea to watch in your cubicle at work though.)

***

It is strange to consider that for kids playing this game today, this particular career will probably be gone when they are old enough to work there. Self-driving cars are coming, and few places will they make themselves valuable as fast as in truck driving. Trucks are expensive, and humans need breaks to eat and sleep, during which time the hardware just stands around rusting and accumulating interest on its loans. So wherever and whenever it is possible for the trucks to drive themselves, they are likely to do so. That said, it will probably take some time still for machines to be able to drive at the same speed as a human trucker and handle all the challenges on the road.

Truckers may be a varied crew, in some places more than others, but they are also an essential part of the world we live in today. If you look around you, probably you will find that most of the man-made objects you see have been brought to you by a truck. Trucks not only bring the food on our table but the table as well. We have much to be thankful for, and I am pleased that modern technology allowed us to get a glimpse into their world before the last sunset on the road.

Devotion to the Christmas Star?

Picture “borrowed” from another Christmas song on YouTube.

I don’t think I wrote about this last time I listened to it. After all, this song is in Norwegian, and I am not sure I have any Norwegian readers these days.

Sonjas sang til julestjernen (YouTube)

The song is taken from an older version of the screenplay Journey to the Christmas Star which you can find elsewhere. The song seems to have been replaced in modern versions, perhaps because it was deemed crypto-Christian. That said, in the Norwegian text (where Christmas is still called by its pagan name yule, or “jul” in Norwegian) there is no religious reference at all. You’ve got to have been there: Unless you have personal experience of religious devotion, you will likely not see anything religious about it at all. I cannot translate it into English poetry, alas, but I can translate it into English, so you can see for yourself.

Christmas star, may I have you?
Once a little girl was asking.
Would give a kingdom
To know you.

Christmas star, begone!
said a bitter king later.
Dark you turned, and dark the times
-must you hide yourself?

Christmas star, come to me!
You have caused us grief and pain;
Look, I give you now my heart,
let me kindle you.

Christmas star, stay with me!
It is good to see you shine.
You must never again disappear,
never forget me.

(The story of the screenplay tells about a small princess who goes out in the forest to find the Christmas star, and disappears. The queen dies from heartbreak and the king curses the Christmas star, an actual bright star in the sky. It disappears, and the kingdom is cast into darkness and despair. Years later, the girl who was actually caught by robbers, manages to get away and ends up in the castle. But she has forgotten that she used to be a princess, and nobody recognizes her except an old dog. When she learns of the plight to the kingdom, she decides to go search for the Christmas star. She overcomes great adversity by receiving help due to her kindness and her selfless quest. Eventually the Christmas star is returned to the sky, in the process acknowledging the princess, who in the meantime had been replaced by an impostor. There is absolutely zero reference to the Biblical “Christmas star” that supposedly guided some astrologers, magi or “wise men” to come worship the infant Christ. Norway is a thoroughly post-Christian country and religious propaganda in public is frowned upon, especially toward children.)

The song stays entirely within the narrative of the screenplay, and most people hearing it would probably never notice the crypto-religious undercurrent. Yet when I came across this song some months ago, I was moved to tears, because this is, very briefly, the archetypal story of innocent devotion, loss, repentance and return, mature devotion. Many Christians will be familiar with this (I less so, personally, since I was not raised as a Christian exactly). And for that matter probably also devotees of Krishna, Rama, or even Lakshmi; but I don’t think they were ever associated with the Christmas Star. And that’s just fine with me.

Not-City-of-Heroes Fanfic writing

Screenshot from City of Heroes character generator

This picture may be created by the City of Heroes character generator, but the heroine Nordic Spring is from the totally imaginary MMORPG Paragons which never existed in our world, only in the world of the novel I am currently writing (my second NaNoWriMo novel this year, after I won the 50 000 words challenge with my first story, Artworld.) In contrast to Artworld, I am having a blast writing Paragons of Virtue, where Virtue refers to “Virtue City”, the city formally known as “Virtual City” before it became real, and totally not the Virtue server in City of Heroes, which is an intellectual property held by NCSoft Inc, whose lawyers are probably on the Internet like most people these days.

Nordic Spring is one of the characters in my story set in the defunct MMORPG Paragons that has mysteriously become real. She is a Nature / Ice Guardian, which is totally not a Nature Affinity / Ice Blast Defender from City of Heroes, seeing how CoH doesn’t exist and never has in that world. Before coming to the alternate reality of Virtue City, she was a slightly physically challenged, long-haired woman named Tove something or other, which is totally not a poorly disguised rewrite of Tuva, not that it matters since they are both imaginary and all.

The main main character of the story is Lightwielder Trainee, a Light/Light tank. The tank class is a mainstay of MMORPGs since long before CoH was made, and it is not spelled “tanker” like the corresponding archetype in CoH. Also, CoH doesn’t have Light powersets, although it has Darkness powersets, which work differently. (The MMORPG Champions does have a Light powerset, but it works slightly differently from in my imaginary world, beyond the obvious implications of the name.) Before coming to Virtue City, Lightwielder Trainee was an underpaid office worker named Markus. In the story he is mostly referred to as Markus when doing internal monologue or talking with friends, and Lightwielder Trainee when doing heroic things or being mentioned by others. Only Tove knows his former identity, and the other way around, as they used to team up together almost every day for several years, to the point where people thought they were a couple.

Of course, now that they are physically in the game world, who knows what will happen. But I am pretty sure it will be rated T for Teens, like the game itself. Or “Young Adult” as they say about books.

***

I am having a blast writing this story, it is one that practically writes itself. Which is great because I get to read a new chapter or two each day. The downside with stories that write themselves is that I have less control over them than if I crafted them from scratch. For instance, I had planned to introduce Tove early in the book and use her as an alternate viewpoint character to avoid this becoming just a translation from 1st person perspective.

One thing that bothered me about Artworld was that the heroine got way too little exposure and development because the MMC (male main character) was the narrator. An interesting character was largely kept unexplored and the romance was badly understated because the MMC did not really understand her emotions. (What guy can understand a woman’s emotions anyway?) So I decided that my next book would be 1) not a romance, although there might be pairings and triangles in it, and 2) not a first person perspective. In practice, however, I am now on the 6th chapter of what I call “translated first person”, by which I mean it reads as if it was written in first person narrative and then someone went through the text and replaced all instances of “I” with “he” (or occasionally the name), “me” with “him”, “our” with “their” and so on. Only one person has internal monologue, only one person’s feelings are clear to the reader, and the reader does not know things the main character doesn’t know.

Translated first-person perspective is very common in LitRPG novels, even in good ones like Aleron Kong’s Chaos Seed. But having recently rewatched parts of the anime Log Horizon, based on the LitRPG books by the same name, I see how useful it can be to expand the scope a bit, even if you maintain a main character. If you compare Log Horizon to Sword Art Online, another popular Japanese LitRPG which was made into an anime, you will notice that the main character of SAO has a pretty strong Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) flavor. In other words, he is too perfect and overpowered.

One of the most appealing aspects of LitRPG is that the characters are constrained by the game mechanics. You have to do your grinding and your artifact quests in order to become powerful, you cannot muddle through until toward the end of the book, when everything comes to a climax, the main character suddenly has godlike powers because of his heroism or his love or his heritage or an ancient prophecy or because Mystra said so. That is one of my major turn-offs about conventional fantasies, and conversely one of the things I love about LitRPG is that the character has to do the grinding to power up, use his creativity to find the best strategies and tactics based on understanding the rules, and gain the cooperation of other heroes or even villains to help save the day.

So what I wanted to write was a kind of “Log Horizon meets City of Heroes” (except not really). But the writing style, as much as I love writing and reading it myself, may get in the way of making this what I wanted.

Of course, it is still early. I mean, as of Chapter 6 (16000 words) we are still in the character’s first day in Virtue City, and he is still level 4. The tentative female main character has just arrived and is level 2, having done only a street quest so far. (Notice that the quests are usually called quests or quest missions, never just “missions” because this is totally not City of Heroes. I am sure not even lawyers could misunderstand that.)

But now it is time to get back to City Park, which is totally not Atlas Park, the starting zone in City of Heroes. Just like Factory Row is not Kings Row, Steel Towers is not Steel Canyon, and so on.

I can’t write Log Horizon

Screenshot Log Horizon

A minor character – in more than one sense of the word – from Log Horizon. Even these are surprisingly well developed (in this case only in one sense of the word, thankfully).

I have belatedly finished watching the second season of the anime Log Horizon. (Legally, in this case on Crunchyroll which is a site that lets you stream anime and read manga for a quite reasonable fee, and in some cases for free but with a time delay. They don’t have light novels yet, though, as far as I can see, but recently they have a lot more manga. I watched the anime, but it is based on light novels that I have not yet read.)

The novels fall squarely in the LitRPG category, which I have mentioned before. This genre is stories that take place inside roleplaying games, or worlds nearly indistinguishable from roleplaying games. In all cases I know of, this refers to MMORPGs, massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. While I am sure there is a lot of fanfiction on the Internet based on existing games, the games in the LitRPG books are original creations which may be more or less vaguely similar to existing games, but generally more advanced. As such the stories are usually set in the future, where games have become even more immersive. And then, in several of these stories, the characters find themselves literally transported into the game world, a parallel world that is now their new reality.

This is also the premise for Log Horizon. One day after a new expansion to a popular game has been rolled out, suddenly the players find themselves trapped in the game, their in-game avatars now their bodies, and the game world fully real to all senses. This causes various problems at first, for instance at first you cannot make food without the in-game cooking skill even if you know how to do so in real life. Some of the strongest guilds try to become rulers of the cities and enslave others. The tentative main character of the story is Shiroe, a young man who plays a fairly pure support class (Enchanter-Scribe) but is fiercely independent and introverted by nature. He is valued for his obsessive knowledge of the game and as a master strategist, and manages to organize a “round table” of different types of guilds to serve as a loose kind of government, preventing the player-killer guilds from taking over the capital city. (Players that are “killed” in the game revive at the cathedral, but it is said that each death causes you to lose some of your memories from Real Life. As such, most players avoid it as much as possible, but some seek it out.)

While Shiroe is an interesting personality, the story really shines because of its many supporting characters, which are given a great deal of personality each, and interact in sometimes dramatic and sometimes comical ways. In this regard, Log Horizon differs from many LitRPG stories, including some that have been made into anime. In a way, it could be said that these are really single-player experiences. The most extreme example I can think of is Overlord, in which only one player is transported into the alternate world, as far as we know, although certain events imply that one or more others may also be there. The rest of the cast in Overlord have personalities, but are clearly marked as non-player characters and therefore inherently less real. The perhaps most famous LitRPG anime is Sword Art Online, in which there are thousands of players, but the main character Kirito is written as superior both in skill and personality, causing the other players to seem largely irrelevant except for his love interests.

A concept often used about amateur writers (and especially prevalent in Fanfiction) is “Mary Sue”, often called “Marty Stue” for male characters. A Mary Sue is a character that is supposed to be relatively ordinary, but is written as superior in every way, unbeatable and ridiculously overpowered in every way that counts. The Mary Sue is often given character flaws that are not flaws, often an excessive humility that serves only to highlight their superiority. The story treats the Mary Sue differently from everyone else.

In Log Horizon, Shiroe is possibly the smartest person in the game, but he is limited by his supporting class character. He only shines when he can make others shine. You will not see Shiroe stand up alone against an army of enemies and defeat them singlehandedly. But because of his reliable support, he is loved by his friends and they go out of their way to help him even if they don’t always understand his plan. Several of the other characters are given opportunities to shine in their own right, including a large story arc featuring some of the underage players going on a quest.

Log Horizon is not the only LitRPG anime with multiple well-developed personalities. There is also Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, which I actually encountered as a novel before I saw the anime. The main characters are few but well developed, including one who dies partway through the story. This story differs from most in that although the world is similar to a game world, the characters do not arrive there by playing a game.

***

I wish I could write stories like that, with multiple believable characters. But that is still beyond me. I am now past 40 000 words on my designated NaNoWriMo novel of the year, but it is a rough patch. I had hoped that the colorful personalities in the Royal Art Academy of Greater Akikei would interact with each other and the narrator character to fill this part of the story, but so far they have remained flat and hiding in the shadows. One of them is actually kind of active, but she is too much of a cardboard caricature, not a believable person like the two main characters. She certainly does not add much in the way of romantic tension, although I will give her a few points for trying. The rest are little more than nicknames and I find myself unable to wake them up.

Oh well, it is good that I am not a professional writer after all. I guess I shall continue in my office job until I die or am disabled.

NaNoWriMo again!

Screenshot anime Magic-Kyun Renaissance, featuring Monet

Return of the colors, from episode 6 of Magic-Kyun Renaissance. Tsukushi is known as the “Monochrome Prince” but upon getting to know this one special girl, he starts to see the world in colors again.

I have been taking part in the National Novel Writing Month pretty much ever since it became international approximately ten years ago. For most of that time I have taken November off as my paid vacation for the year. (Norway has 5 weeks of mandatory vacation. I like my job, but my boss could get in trouble if I don’t take my 5 weeks every single year. So may as well have something else constructive to do.)

To be honest, I feel that my writing has gone downhill lately, and it was never more than around the level of the $0.99 and $1.99 books in the Kindle Store. But at least I could write some pretty funny dialog.

That said, the craft is still in my fingers, it seems. This year, I did not pick a topic or even a genre until around an hour before midnight on the last of October.  At that point, I randomly decided I wanted to set a story in  a world somewhat similar to the anime Magic-Kyun Renaissance, which I had just watched some episodes of. (Legally, on Crunchyroll. Try it for free.) It is actually an anime for girls, based on a genre of games called “dating sims” (not related to The Sims from Maxis/EA). Most of these sims are for boys roleplaying a male character befriending and dating girls, but the reverse can also happen, and these games seem to be increasingly popular, and along with them anime of the same type. They tend to be more romantic and less erotic, which I don’t mind, and it is always interesting to see things from the female point of view (which is sorely lacking in my writing, seeing how I have never been female.)

***

Now, my NaNovel is not about a girl with a harem of boys adoring her. The viewpoint character and narrator is a young man, but arguably the girl is as much a main character as he is, at least at the outset she is the most active, the most competent, the one that moves the story forward. The male narrator is mostly preoccupied with himself (and his impending death, seeing how he has cancer and the hospital has given up on him). But in the corner of his eye there is always this girl, coming and going, doing what needs to be done, moving things forward, until the point (at the start of chapter 4, as of the draft) where it becomes obvious at least to the reader that she is the real hero of the story so far.

The part that is inspired by the anime, and then only partially, is the magic of the world, which is based on art. In the anime, exceptional performers in different arts have the ability to cause “sparkles”, patterns of light that flow from their art and awe the audience. That’s it, they are basically idols. Otherwise the world is as we know it. I wanted to go further. The Light of Arte, changed simply to Artlight in my novel, is more of a metaphysical or perhaps even divine element that is able to perform miracles or at least magic.

But only the most extreme combination of Talent and effort give rise to spectacular, obvious magic. Most works of art and craft simply has what the book calls Quality (a feature I also used in my failed and mostly boring attempt at a NaNoWriMo novel some years ago, called The Eternal Road or words to that effect. No wonder it was boring.) A work of high Quality does what you would expect it to do, but better than should be possible. If you sleep in a bed of high Quality, you sleep better than you would in a normal bed. But if a bed is made by a Master, it may be able to cure illnesses of body and mind simply by sleeping in it regularly. Only the Great Artists themselves can see the Artlight, and once they have done so, they lose interest in most things of the world.

The simple premise of the novel is that there exists a world parallel to ours, with the same flora and fauna and races of human (almost, at least) but where a single rule is different. In our world it is called Clarke’s Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But in Artworld (not actually called that by its natives of course) it is “Any sufficiently advanced art or craft is indistinguishable from magic.” As a result, our near-magic technology based on electricity doesn’t work there; crude steam engines is as far as you get. But instead they have art that can, in extreme cases, heal cancer, or open a portal to another world.

The narrator is 21 years old when he comes home from college to spend his last months with his parents. Then the girl next door shows up, revealing that her grandmother came from a parallel world and their family still has a way to access it. However, anyone who would have died in one of the worlds can never return there even if he or she survives in the other. Even if he can be cured – which is far from certain – he will never be able to return. He will have to spend his life in a world where modern technology is only a rumor and where democracy is not only a crime but a heresy. So that should certainly spice things up a little. ^_^

I don’t think there will be any cease and desist from the lawyers of Sunrise, Pony Canyon, or Broccoli. (I apologize for the Japanese company names, they are actually real.) As usual with my derivative works, I have condensed the original down to a very short paragraph before expanding it again into its own story. You would probably not recognize the original if I had not told you. Well, that could be because you don’t watch anime. Or if you do, you don’t read my half-baked novels. I can’t exactly blame you, but I try to write the kind of book I would like to read myself. It’s not like many other people do that.

Smart privilege

Screenshot anime

“When I grow up, I’m going to be an art club.” Not every aspiration is realistic. (From the anime fittingly named “This Art Club Has a Problem”.)

“Everything has its limit — iron ore cannot be educated into gold” said Mark Twain. Salman Khan seems to disagree: Anyone can become anything, it just takes longer time. Or that is one of the two main points of this TED talk: TED Talk – November 2015.

His first point should be uncontroversial: You don’t start building the first floor until the foundation is finished. If you have teams building at different speed, it makes no sense to tell them to move on to the next phase after the average amount of time has passed. Those who work fast would hang around with nothing to do, and those who work slowly would make a house that would likely fall down before it was even completed. So why are we doing this in school? It is a very good point indeed, and one that Khan himself has struggled to solve by giving students more tools to improve their skills, particularly in math and related disciplines, in a systematic and slightly game-like way. Khan Academy.

Now if people fail algebra because they did not understand basic arithmetic well enough, or fail calculus because they did understand algebra, it makes sense to conclude that there is nothing within the human realm that you cannot master if you just master all the steps leading up to this. Khan makes a comparison between literacy in the time before public school, and imagines asking the literate people of that age how much of the populace could learn to read given the opportunity. He assumes that the answer would be less than twice as many as those who could already read. (I am not sure this would actually happen, but I agree that most likely the answer would fall well short of 100%.) Now if you ask people today how many could become a cancer researcher, the answer will also be fairly modest. So Mr Khan leaps to the conclusion that, in a hypothetical future where robots do most other things, anyone could actually become a cancer researcher if that was what we needed.

This is what I call “smart privilege”. You know, like “white privilege”, “male privilege”, “straight privilege” etc. By all means feed the phrases into Google or one of its inferior competitors if they are unfamiliar to you. It can be quite eye-opening. But the same part of the political spectrum which most fervently embraces knowledge of all these privileges, is generally allergic to the notion of smart privilege.

***

Smart privilege: I have it. I was born with it, although it did not unfold during my childhood, except for my hyperlexia, basically the opposite of dyslexia. But otherwise my brain actually grew up more slowly than other kids my age, just like the rest of my body. As such I had plenty of years in which I was mostly mediocre, unlike my genius brothers. It was a learning experience of sorts, although I was too foolish to learn from it until later. At the time I stuck to my conviction that my early reading skill was a sign of being inherently superior. It is not quite like that, but luckily for me my brain (and the rest of my body) continued to mature for a couple years after my classmates had stopped. And so  from high school onward, I could reliably get top or near top grades simply by listening in class and doing mandatory written homework. I did not need to read, and when I had to read, I could grasp all I needed from a book by reading it straight through once.

Now there are others who are closer to average. They may need to read a book several times, underline, write in the margin, take notes, make mindmaps, reflect on what they read, repeat it later and ask others to explain parts of it. But if they do this, they will understand it just as well as I do, and perhaps it will stick better because of the effort they put into and the time they spent on it. For these, Khan’s statement is perfectly valid, and a good point.

But just like there are some of us who are outliers in one direction, there are others who are just as far on the other side. They can still learn, but it takes much longer time. They may need to work not five but ten times as long with the matter before they “get it”. Sure, in the end they get there. But here’s the thing: Until we discover a way to extend the human lifespan greatly, there just isn’t enough time for these people to come far.

***

Back when my friend “SuperWoman” studied medicine in Germany, there was one guy who just wouldn’t give up. He had no chance of getting into the medicine study in Norway, where the entry requirements are super high. (At the time you need pretty much perfect grades.) In Germany you could start with less, but he had still needed to retake many classes to qualify even for starting, so he was noticeably older than his classmates. Then he failed in university too, so he had to retake each year at least once. But he would not give up. He was firmly decided to become a doctor, whatever the cost.

This is an attitude that we generally praise in our society, and Hollywood assures us that people like this will eventually reach their goal. But was his goal a good one? As “SuperWoman” asked: What about the patients? Even if he eventually got his degree, this was actually only the beginning. The degree would not magically confer upon him the same cognitive capacity as his peers. He would still fail half the time, only now his failures would cost human lives and human suffering. You cannot retake those. You don’t always get second chances.

This guy was not stupid. He was just an ordinary man with an extraordinary aspiration. But there are others who are still less gifted. This does not make them bad people, but it makes them a bad fit for work that requires lots of learning and lots of thinking and the ability to quickly grasp the essence of new situations and solve new problems. There are limits to how much of our life we can dedicate to learning something. The most obvious is lifespan itself, but in practice unless we are born into riches, we will also have to reap the financial rewards of our education at some point. If you go to school for 40 years, there will not be a lot of time left for your career.

For those who are just a bit less privileged with regard to cognitive capacity, there are things we and they can do. Education can be improved. (The science of learning has improved by leaps and bounds in my lifetime, I have written about some of this over the years.) Free time can be spent catching up. We can and should encourage these to stretch that little inch further to reach their goal. But there are others who simply cannot reach their goals by stretching or jumping or climbing. Perhaps some day we will find other ways for them to catch up. Perhaps there will be safe drugs that improve the brain function, or other technologies. (Brainwave entrainment seems to work but only to a modest degree and not equally for all.) But for the time being, telling ordinary people they can be whatever they want to be is SMART PRIVILEGE. It is blaming the victim of circumstance.

Dragon Professional Individual 15

Dragon from video game Skyrim

No need to shout, the Dragon understands my Nordic dialect right away!

Over the years, I have made a habit of reviewing the various versions of Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Lately, Nuance has stopped using the phrase NaturallySpeaking in most contexts, but it is still the same product, and it is now up to version 15.

As the software has become more expensive again, and as it is already good enough for my limited use, I have started skipping some versions. Dragon version 13 was already good enough that I did not really expect it to get any better. Impressively, Dragon version 15 is actually noticeably better right out of the box.

Dragon version 15 uses a new “deep learning” technology similar to what is used in the most successful artificial intelligence projects. Dragon has always (or at least for as long as I have used it) had the ability to improve based on feedback from the user, as well as adapt its vocabulary and writing style by reading through documents. While these options still exist, there is less focus on them now as Dragon quietly adjusts in the background during everyday use.

Dragon has also clearly had some opportunity to acquaint itself with human speech in general before shipping to the customer: The product is amazingly accurate right out of the box. Longtime readers (if any) may remember that I compared some of the early versions to homesick exchange students from other continents. That time is long gone. Dragon version 15 understands even my “Skyrim” pronunciation of English (I grew up in Norway in the 1960s, where even the English teachers has rarely if ever been to England, let alone America or Australia.)

There is one problem that has dogged this software from the start, and it still remains, even if just barely. When we speak, we don’t actually pronounce periods at the end of the sentence; rather, we slightly change the tone of our pronunciation toward the end, typically speaking less forcefully. Conversely, we don’t actually pronounce a capital character at the beginning of a sentence; instead, we pronounce the first sound slightly differently from the rest. Ideally, speech recognition software might be able to use this to take dictation without requiring us to specify punctuation. Dragon NaturallySpeaking used to have this functionality, but I gave up on it pretty quickly. What actually happens is that even when I dictate punctuation, there is a slight increase in mistakes at the very beginning and end of the sentences. This is especially true if I don’t pronounce some form of punctuation at the end of my string of words, for instance because I run out of breath during a long sentence. I have to say, however, that this problem has been almost eradicated in the latest version of Dragon.

To me, recognition accuracy is by far the most important part of any speech recognition engine. But Dragon 15 has also some other features in addition to the improved accuracy. It has better support for various modern software, and it allows voice activated macros. (I believe this feature was also in version 13, but I did not use it then and I don’t use it now. In any case, functions like “insert signature” should be part of your email software, rather than your speech recognition software.) Also, the big unnecessarily helpful sidebar with examples no longer starts up by default. It used to do, and is also used to permanently displace any windows that happened to be in its way.

As usual, I am including a paragraph where I don’t in any way correct this transcription. This is that paragraph. (It may not be obvious to the reader, but that should be “the transcription” in the first line above.) Dragon used to be available in a few languages besides English; I am pretty sure I saw touch at some point, and Japanese? I can’t find any trace of that now, but I will admit that I have not looked very carefully.

Not too bad, huh? That should of course not be “touch” in the previous paragraph, but rather Dutch, the language in the Netherlands. (It actually got it right this time without correction. Go figure.)

Norway and food

This frozen pizza is ready to do battle against my digestive tract. I am going to fry it twice over in the microwave, but will it be enough? 

I love being a Norwegian in Norway in the early 21st century! It is like winning the powerball lottery of birth in time and space. It is like a reverse Book of Job … You may have heard that in the biblical Book of Job, God and Satan basically bet on how much suffering a righteous man could go through before he cursed God. But now it is like the two of them have a bet on how much good fortune they can put a sinner through before he praises God. Anyway, yes we love this country! But there is this one thing… There is always this one thing, is there not?

Food. To understand, let us jump back in time to my early childhood, in the 1950es and 1960es, and the time before oil was found in the North Sea. Norway was already an OK place, but it was very obviously poorer than neighboring Sweden and Denmark, although not as poor as Portugal and Greece. Although even this was probably mostly due to Protestant work ethic and saving money where they could. Norway was a decidedly Lutheran country at the time, although that was about to change. But mot the attitudes, as it turns out. Back then, because there was not a lot of money sloshing around, food made up a sizable part of the household budget, or at least of the part they could do anything about. So cheap food was the Norwegian way.

Fast forward two generations, and Norwegians are wallowing in money, driving Tesla and going on vacation to Bali. But they still buy cheap food. Except it is not actually cheap anymore: It looks cheap, it tastes cheap, and there are big posters saying “CHEAP!” but actually it is some of the most expensive food in the world. Almost all supermarkets and grocery shops are owned by three large chains; two of these are run by some of the closest Norway has to super-rich capitalists. The third is the COOP chain (as in co-operative) which is owned by the customers, such as me, and otherwise more or less by itself. Unsurprisingly they are steadily taking over more of the market. Anyway, despite the high prices, Norwegians remained obsessed with tricking themselves into thinking that they are buying cheap food.

And this, gentle reader, is probably why I go the supermarkets and almost without exception find that their fridges are about as cold as my kitchen is in winter, at best. The freezers are indeed below freezing, but nothing like the -18 degrees Celsius that is assumed on the “best before” date.

My reaction to this is, as one might expect from a sane person: “What the actual hell with fire and dead sinners? Are they trying to kill off their own customers?”

Norwegians, on the other hand, probably think something like this: “Oooh, they are saving money! This place must have cheap food, when they don’t even waste money on keeping it cold!” so they shop there.

Unsurprisingly to me, Norway has the highest sick leave in Northern Europe, if not the world. My conservative friends credit the generous pay during sick leave. Me, I suspect explosive diarrhea and general mayhem of the gastrointestinal tract. But I may be wrong. Perhaps paleontologists are right that humans actually evolved as scavengers first, competing with vultures rather than lions for their food, and that the human digestion evolved accordingly. If not, then I feel assured that over time the Norwegian digestion will evolve like that, because of the evolutionary pressure. You may not actually die of the food here, but it must be hard to reproduce while your bowels try to escape in all directions. Not that I have tried or anything.

(Update: In the end, I could only eat half of the pizza before the burning pain in my mouth made me rush for some yogurt instead. Not because of the heat, because of the spices. Evidently the medieval practice of camouflaging the taste of rotting food with spices is alive and well in Norway. Either that or terrorists are secretly poisoning our food supply.)

A final farewell

The farm where I was born and grew up. (Open picture in new tab for large photo.) The picture I am talking about toward the end is similar to this but much older and taken from a higher vantage point.

Hopefully this is not a final farewell to my last remaining reader, although that is out of my hands. Rather, it was a final farewell to my last remaining parent in this life. And possibly, although I hope not, to the farm where I was born and grew up, and the people who live there and in the village in general.

My trip to the west coast of Norway went well enough. Travel from here to there is surprisingly difficult, because of the wild nature in Norway that tourists love to see. I took train to the east country, to the town of Drammen, then another train northwest to Bergen, then katamaran (a fast ship with two keels) to Askvoll. I arrived around 11 on Monday, and my youngest older brother came to pick me up. He is a farmer, so he is his own boss (although his wife claims to be his boss too, and the animals could probably have some claim there as well, at least when it comes to working hours.) This brother lives on the farm where I grew up, and where my parents lived from just after they married, many decades ago. All three of his awesome kids live there too, at least for the summer.

The burial went without any great scenes, but the coffin must have been made of really thick oak or worse, because it was disturbingly heavy. I don’t remember my mother, grandmother or grandfather being nearly that heavy to carry (physically speaking), and he was not a huge man even before his leg was amputated. I wonder if it is possible to request in advance that my coffin be made of balsa wood?

As a child, I knew this man as my father, but as I waited in the church for the rituals to begin, I felt very strongly that he was now my brother. As Jesus said: “You shall not call anyone on earth ‘Father’, for you have one Father, who is in Heaven.” My earthly father was baptized at the age of 76, declaring his allegiance in that respect. Of course, spiritually speaking, we all have our spirit from the Father of Lights, who is the origin of all that is called family in Heaven and on Earth, as the Christian Bible explains. The spirit of man is a lamp of the Lord. Well, all of this should be familiar, and I am not a teacher or preacher anyway, lest the dim be leading the blind.

Most of those who had found the way to the church also followed to the gathering afterwards in a nearby locale. Such memorial gatherings are common here in Norway, rather than the “wake” that is found in some allied cultures. There is a humorous belief that some people show up at these gatherings to get free food, and if so they were in luck, for the food was simple but excellent. A few friends and relatives (and mostly combinations thereof) spoke briefly about the good qualities of the deceased and their good memories. The most moving of them were however written by his then 15 year old granddaughter and read by her mother. At some point I realized that most likely, I was the one present who knew him the least. Because as I can attest, people continue to grow (well, at least in my family we do) well into old age, all the way until the brain gives out or death shuts us down. The old man they had known was a better, wiser and greater man than the one I grew up with, and that says something.

Although the occasion was far from auspicious in itself, I am glad I got to meet again many of my relatives. I know for many people, family reunions are purgatory if not hell on earth. But to me, it is closer to paradise. There certainly are some fringe cases further out in the branches of the family tree, but the close family and their descendants that I met are amazing in so many ways. But then, they “stand on the shoulders of giants”. I hope to stay in touch with at least some of them, to some degree. I know this will be a challenge, because this so-called real world is to me so much like a fog, and the people in it like shadows. But then again, under the eyes of eternity, so am I.

***

This being the last of our parents, we four brothers decided to share between us whatever earthly goods were left behind, and pay the bills. As fate had gone to great lengths to show me the week before, I am not really in a position where I should accumulate more earthly goods, quite the opposite, so I asked only for a few good winter socks that would otherwise have been thrown away, and an old photography of our farm that used to hang in the living room during my childhood but which he had brought with him to the assisted living home. I had hoped for this picture to be copied so we all could have one, assuming that it was even more meaningful to my brothers, but evidently they think I should have it, even though I have done nothing to deserve it except continuing to breathe. I let the picture stay there until we meet again, so they can still reconsider if they want to.

So, now I have winter socks to warm my feet. And memories to warm my heart. As my brother quoted from an old Norwegian song: “It is a great heritage for man to be born of good people.” And the more so, I would say, to be raised by them.