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.

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.