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.

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.)

Frithjof Schuon: “The Fullness of God”

The Realm of Light. Anime

Somehow, this part of the movie “The Laws of Eternity” reminds me of Schuon, and the other way around. I believe the Japanese illustrator tries to show the various luminous souls being connected by beams of Heavenly Light. Somehow the light of Frithjof Schuon has come much closer to me this year.

Something unexpected happened this year: I became able to understand Schuon. I have mentioned before, how I perceived him as being “high above me”, like one of those luminous lights in the sky, metaphorically speaking. When I tried to read his books, I felt like I was facing sheer cliffs or at least rocky outcroppings of precious stone, like diamond or sapphire: Immensely valuable, but unassailable and impossible to take with me. But if I could understand a sentence or two here and there, I was happy: Even a pebble is a good catch in the land of jewels.

By the time I started reading this particular book, early this year, the books were still largely unassailable. I have read two of them off and on through the year. By the time I approached the end of the other book, I began to understand. I am not sure how or why, but now it is rather normal reading. I do not necessarily agree with everything, but that is to be expected. Few people have agreed with Frithjof Schuon, but many more have been inspired.

I have no doubt as to Schuon’s sincerity and personal piety; it is attested by those who knew him during his lifetime, and also shines through in his writing. But his theology is … not for everyone, certainly, and maybe not even for me in part. For instance his Mariology, that is to say, the teaching of the Blessed Virgin Mary as an avatara of the Divine Feminine. I am led to believe that this is pretty close to the mainstream view in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, as they both honor her with the name Mother of God and attribute to her various attributes above and beyond those of other saints. I don’t say that this is wrong, but nothing of the kind has been revealed to me or validated to me.

Certainly the Holy Virgin is the archetype of the Church, as the growth of the Christ-life in us (if it ever happens) depends on the same properties, spiritually speaking. (We are not speaking about the physical virginity here, as this is merely the outward sign of the inward purity of her heart which is the actual condition, surely. We are not going to give birth to the new life physically, after all.) But beyond that I don’t understand the big deal, personally. I’d rather not multiply the number of saviors beyond necessity.

As for Schuon’s teachings about the Trinity and specifically the Holy Spirit, I dare not repeat these, hardly even to myself. That is not to say that they are wrong, but I have an understandable phobia when it comes to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, in whichever form. Better for a man such as I to say nothing, since I have not been authorized to speak on this matter. To speak even a truth without understanding it is highly dangerous. We were not born (hatched?) as parrots, so should not live as such.

Things being this way, I hesitate to recommend this book to the ordinary Christian. And this is a book about Christianity specifically. Even then, it contains numerous references to other great religions, particularly Islam but also the Vedanta branch of Hinduism.

I have a feeling that I have written this before, but it could just be from the large number of failed attempts to write a review of this book. I should just read it again from the start, I guess. Perhaps I will be able to savor the parts I understood (and there’s some really good stuff in there) the next time. I certainly don’t regret buying it or reading it. I just can’t think of anyone I would dare recommend it to. They probably exist, I just can’t think of any.

That was pretty tame, but I have deleted more about this book than I have written about most others. There has to be an end to that.

Galaxy Note 10.1, 2014 edition: First impressions

Galaxy note 10.1, 2014 edition

My black Note 10.1 2014, showing multi-window abilities. In the background there is a full-screen S Note page where I have handwritten something. In the foreground are three smaller windows: YouTube to the left, above it and nearer the top Google Hangouts, and in the foreground to the right an Internet window. Thanks to the sharp screen and the pen, you can actually use those small windows, but you will probably need to keep the tablet a bit closer than what is natural.

***

Like the Galaxy Note 3, with which it has a lot in common, the Note 10.1 of this year is an evolution rather than a revolution. It is similar to last year’s version, but with better specifications in most ways. And much like its smaller but powerful sibling, the sum of improvements add up to a very impressive total. This time Samsung means business.

This impression is not least because Samsung has improved the Note series where it is most visible: The screen itself, which now sports a resolution of 2560×1600 display on the 10.1. As a result, there is no longer any “pixellation” at any natural viewing distance – we have reached a stage where the human eye can no longer notice that the screen consists of pixels rather than continuous lines drawn on glossy paper. In fact, even uncomfortably close the letters and images are clean and crisp. Samsung has clearly gone for the kill here, if not overkill: It is hard to imagine anyone improving on this screen, as there is little or nothing to win. As usual from Samsung, the screen is also luminous and with strong colors. (A number of different color settings can be chosen in the settings menu for those who find the default too intense.)

When I say “Samsung means business”, there is a double meaning. Not only have they gotten serious about making the best tablet on the market today, but it is clearly a device you are expected to bring to the office. The new Note 10.1 comes preloaded with business-oriented news widgets along with the usual entertainment, and the stylus is as useful for quick notes as it is for artwork. Those who have the 4G version can make calls directly from handwritten numbers, whereas helpful software will fix your handmade charts to make them look fit for presentation. In portrait mode, the size and aspect ratio is similar to a sheet of paper, giving instant familiarity. The white version of the tablet will easily blend with a stack of papers, whether it is displaying a document or lying upside down. The faux leather backside gives a good grip and the black version looks rather natural and more exclusive than it is. (It is still a type of plastic, actually.)

The Note 10.1 has basically the same software as the Note 3, and the stylus is even more useful with the wide open space of the bigger device. The new ability to draw multiple boxes on the screen and use them to run apps was more like a proof of concept on the Note 3 – despite being very large for a smartphone, it simply does not have the screen estate for running multiple tasks on-screen. The full-sized tablet, on the other hand, lends itself quite well to this. There is room for four of these windows at the minimum size, although they can be resized upward, and you can also tile them if you want even more.

It is unfortunate that only half a dozen applications can be run in this windowed mode, and even worse, you cannot have multiple instances of the same application this way. This is just insane: Having multiple browser windows or chat windows open simultaneously is the first thing that comes to mind when seeing this gimmick. Alas, it is little more than a gimmick as long as this limitation prevails. You still have the split-screen functionality from last year, and this has been extended to more programs. So at least you can have two browser windows open side by side, but I was disappointed to see that you cannot add a third (and fourth, and fifth…) with the Pen Window function. Not sure whether I would ever use that, to be honest, but it would sure impress people. Take “note”, Samsung!

The new S-pen is more comfortable and even more precise than the old model, although it is still too small for a grown man, and the function key on the stylus is a little hard to find until you get used to it. Handwriting recognition is excellent, I would say the Note reads my handwriting better than my coworkers do. With a larger surface than the Note 3, the 10.1 invites to handwriting as you can write long flowing strings of words much the same way you would on a sheet of paper. The tablet even ignores your palm if you rest it on the glass surface while writing, something I tend to do.

One thing it does not ignore, alas, is inadvertent touches of the Menu and Back keys when in portrait mode. The keys, on either side of the physical home/wakeup key, are hardwired and stay in the same place even when you turn the device and the picture changes automatically. I find myself reaching for the back key at the bottom of the device in portrait mode, which is what I am used to from the Note 3, but it is not there. Conversely, if I hold the tablet in portrait mode, it is all too easy to hit these keys with my fingers when I simply want to hold the tablet with both hands. Despite being a marvel of lightweight engineering, you don’t really want to hold something this big by just one hand in the long run. And the keys are treacherously close to where one would naturally hold. I am sure this becomes second nature pretty quickly, and I suppose it is the price for having a physical home/wake key, but perhaps some smart engineer comes up with a better solution before the next turning of the wheel.

Battery time is impressive for a device as thin and light as this. Strangely, the device recharges via the usual micro USB rather than an extended USB 3 port as the Note 3 had. I don’t really miss the USB 3 myself, although it supposedly gives higher speed on transfers against a PC or other USB devices. The micro USB is industry standard now and I am OK with that. It also means I can mix and match chargers without having to bring extra cables. Some earlier Samsung tablets used a wider separate charger port, eerily similar to what Apple used. I am not sorry to see that go. The default charger comes with an output of 5.3 volt, 2.0 ampere. In contrast, most PC USB ports deliver 0.5 ampere, which will not go far toward charging any of the Samsung tablets, I’m afraid.

The new Galaxy Note 10.1 is the best a man can get (at least until the 12.2 comes next spring) and it is priced accordingly. Samsung has never really been into the whole “pricing aggressively to get market share”. They seem to do well enough, but I can’t help wondering how the world would have looked today if Samsung had priced their initial Galaxy Tab lower than the first iPad, which came out the same year. (Samsung actually was available first in several countries, including my native Norway.) But with the current generation of tablets, I find myself wondering instead how much more the Note 10.1 would have cost if it came with an Apple logo.

Even so, the 2014 edition of Galaxy Note 10.1 is a pricey beast. If you don’t have an office job or don’t particularly miss handwriting, drawing or multi-window multitasking, or compatibility with the Galaxy Gear “smartwatch”, there is money to save in opting for something cheaper. But if you love living in the future and want to enter your next meeting with a lightweight tablet more powerful than a fairly new PC, the new Note 10.1 is there for you.

“Prayer fashions man”, a review

Screenshot anime Denpa Onna

“When I think about it, I always wonder how much I really understand.”  In this age of social media, when we can surround ourselves with idiots at the touch of a button, it is good to read something that makes me wonder if I’ve really understood anything the way it should be understood.

After months, I finished reading this book, Prayer fashions man, by Frithjof Schuon. As I wrote in my Goodread review: “This book is awesome; don’t read it!”

This requires some explanation, for those who don’t know about Frithjof Schuon. He was a fairly prolific author in religion and metaphysics, following a tradition that is known as Sophia Perennis, the perennial wisdom. It is fairly well described in Wikipedia, and I quote (partly to circumvent future edits there):

“Perennialism is a perspective within the philosophy of religion which views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, universal truth on which foundation all religious knowledge and doctrine has grown. According to this view, each world religion, including but not limited to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Sikhism, and Buddhism, is an interpretation of this universal truth adapted to cater for the psychological, intellectual, and social needs of a given culture of a given period of history. The universal truth which lies at heart of each religion has been rediscovered in each epoch by saints, sages, prophets, and philosophers. These include not only the ‘founders’ of the world’s great religions but also gifted and inspired mystics, theologians, and preachers who have revived already existing religions when they had fallen into empty platitudes and hollow ceremonialism.” 

Yes, this view of religion’s history is strikingly similar to that of the Japanese religion Happy Science, with the notable exception that Schuon and friends didn’t claim to be God or Buddha, and tended to live an austere and secluded lifestyle. I personally find it easier to accept religious teaching from ascetic and taciturn people who receive little of no financial gain or fawning adoration for their efforts.

Be that as it may, Schuon is always a hard read. His words are like crystals, beautiful and precise but hard. Even now, being more familiar with Schuon, I cannot really read his books like textbooks. Rather, I have to read them slowly and wait for bits and pieces of  them to cause a sort of “vertical recall”, similar to a memory but of something I have never learned before. It is this “timeless memory” which remains, often as not, and it may not be directly spelled out in the text.

One may wonder whether he is making his text hard to read on purpose, so as to keep away the casual reader. If so, that is probably a good thing, for when you begin to understand what he writes, it is natural to become deeply disturbed. I don’t really recommend his books for those who are doing well in their religion, for it will almost certainly cause them to either reject their simple faith or the book, possibly both. I also don’t recommend it for the atheist who does well without religion, for he will find it foolish and will also find that Schuon regards him as more foolish than a beast.

I would recommend this book to the rare breed of spiritual offroad adventurer, who finds light in many faiths, but also shadows there, and who is bothered by the superficial nature of modern religion and modern life as a whole. (To Schuon, “modernity” is almost a curse word.) And I would recommend it to those who once were believers, but who grew up and their religion did not grow up with them, those who now feels that there was some goodness in their faith, but it was ultimately just a bunch of humans trying to do something that was far beyond them. For them, it may be useful to look behind the stage, perhaps. If so, I would recommend they start with the last chapter, and read only that for a while. It is the most “humane”, the easiest to read and the most practical part of the books, I think.  I am certainly glad I read it. I hope to live long enough to read it again once it has had time to either change me or be forgotten. But I doubt it can be forgotten.

Madness is not the only danger in books. There is also the danger that something may be seen that cannot be unseen. Whether I walk in this new light or not, I may be judged by it. As I said, this is not a book to take lightly, and I cannot recommend it to just anyone.

Sims 3 Supernatural

Screenshot Sims 3 Supernatural (witch on broom)

Young witch Harriet Porter knows how to fly a broomstick! 

Supernatural was the other expansion pack for The Sims 3 that I bought on the big sale in March, but did not install until September. There was a reason for that, of course. In this case, the reason was the zombie apocalypse. From the early days of the expansion, there were numerous horror stories about the game devolving into a desperate struggle for survival as endless waves of zombies rose from the ground all day, all week, turning all the nonplayer characters in the game into zombies as well.

This turned out to be a bug caused by saving and exiting the game during full moon. (It is a game feature that zombies appear during full moon, although they are supposed to revert the next morning, and certainly not spawn continually until you move your family to a new town.) Evidently none of the beta testers had tried this… Anyway, EA later patched the game, but my skepticism remained. Besides, I had plenty to do in the game as it was, and I am not as much of a gamer as I used to be, I guess. (Well, if you don’t count the 2-3 hours a day I traipse around outdoors playing Ingress. But I count that as exercise, sounds more virtuous than gaming.)

Eventually, I decided to give Supernatural a chance, since the game was ruined anyway by Seasons. (This was before I turned off rain and thus the frequent thunderstorms which made it risky for my sims to go outdoors.)

Supernatural was a pleasant surprise! It actually makes the game easier, if you have a supernatural character in the household, but not so easy as to be an “instant win button”. Each of the supernatural races has its own benefits, and there is a new alchemy craft that is very powerful but challenging at higher levels. You can now also create three of the earlier supernatural types, which in the past had to join the family during gameplay: Ghosts, genies and vampires. Vampires are slightly improved from the Late Night expansion. New types are werewolves, witches and fairies. Alchemy is available for all sims, even the plain human type.

EA has done a good job of making alchemy different from the two previous liquid amplifiers, mixology (drink mixing) from Late Night and chemistry from Generations. Alchemy is generally the most powerful and varied, but requires special ingredients instead of just time and skill. Of course, if you have maxed all three skills, you are well into superhero territory. Actually since the drinks, concoctions and elixirs are sharable, you could have three members of the household work toward one skill each and all could enjoy the results. Even with these boosts, however, your sim is still vulnerable to lightning strikes and the occasional meteorite.

Werewolves are the least super, and most natural, of the new sim types (or “life states” as the game calls them). In fact, if you turn off the lunar cycle (which you can do in the settings panel) your werewolf could go through life thinking themselves a normal sim, just blessed with a hidden talent for athletics and a longer than average natural lifespan. (Much like my own family, now that I think about it…) But come the full moon, the truth can no longer be hidden: Your sim transforms into a shaggier version with an uglier face and bigger teeth, and starts loping around on all fours. You can also trigger this transformation at will once your were-sim is at least a teen, but you cannot transform back during full moon.

Werewolves tend to transform if angry and win fistfights reliably. They also have a bizarre “hunting” skill that is actually collecting. They can “hunt” for insects, gems and seeds on a particular lot. The outcome is somewhat random, but increases with their skill. They level up through transforming, hunting and howling at the moon. They can hunt in packs, but this is a lot of stress to organize unless you have a werewolf household. (Which you could get through normal breeding – the trait is inheritable – or biting your roommates to turn them into werewolves.)

There are few downsides to being a werewolf. Left to themselves they will occasionally rummage through the garbage bin, scratch the furniture and sniff other sims inappropriately, but it is a small price to pay for living 50% longer and dragging home many of the ingredients needed for alchemy.

Whereas anyone can brew elixirs, only witches can cast most spells. Your sim can be born a witch, or gain the ability through an elixir. They will learn new spells automatically as their power increases, which it will by casting spells or playing with magic, basically making small visual effects with their wands. Yes, witches need wands, and the quality of the wand influences their chance of success. So does having a familiar (cat or smaller animal) around.

The witches have a magic (mana) meter, much like mages in sword and sorcery games. The higher the reserve, the better their chance of success at difficult spells. If a spell fails, the result could be a fizzle or the opposite of the intended effect. For instance, the most basic spell is conjuring an apple, but a failure could cause a poisonous apple to appear. Luckily you can see the difference at a glance. And since your witches soon learn to transform any small object into another (random) object, the poison apples could end up becoming a gem, a seed, or even a fish in a bowl!

At the highest level, a witch can raise the dead as zombies. This sounds like a dubious activity, but luckily there is also a powerful healing spell that can heal zombie-ness. So with two successful spells, the witch can bring your dead sim back among the living. Of course, should the spells fail, the cost might be dire for the witch…

Zombies may not be fast runners, and not the brightest candle on the menorah, but it may not be a fate worse than death either. Apart from shuffling around trying to bite their fellow sims, they seem to more or less go about their lives, just more slowly. They don’t exactly kill their victims either, but there is a definite risk of becoming a zombie if you have one gnaw on you. Zombies can not be created in the Create-a-Sim, but can be created by elixir or spawned at full moon.

In contrast, vampires seem to enjoy their undeath a great deal more. They have all their superpowers from the Late Night expansion and more interactions, and you can now make sunscreen for them with alchemy. (If you don’t have Late Night, no worry, you can still have vampires with Supernatural.) There is even a lifetime happiness reward that make them immune to sunlight and stops their aging completely (they already age very slowly). This reward makes them glitter conspicuously, though…

The final new sim type is fairies, which has the five times longer adult lifespan of the vampire, none of their aversion to daylight, some spellcasting powers and the ability to run auras that benefit themselves and those around them. They also come with Green Thumb as a free bonus trait. Oh, and they can repair things without the handiness skill. Also, they can fly. All in all a pretty good package, offset by a tendency to play pranks on everyone unless you keep a close eye on them.

If you get the impression that fairies seem ridiculously overpowered, that is not far from what I try to say. The epic lifespan alone is a force to be reckoned with: Plop down a family-oriented fairy couple on a lot and go play another family, and after a few generations there are wings everywhere. Fairy children grow up as fast as other kids, but their adult lifespan lasts for generations. (So do the vampires, to be honest, and they also tend to take over town. But they have some pretty harsh drawbacks, while fairies have a great time and only irritate those around them.)

All in all, Supernatural adds a great deal of variation to the game, makes it somewhat easier if you “milk” the new features (and if you have patched it to avoid zombie apocalypse), and is as close as we come to a “superhero” expansion pack for those who develop their characters to the utmost. Surprisingly this expansion shoots up to one of my all-time favorites. Recommended!

Sims 3 Seasons

Screenshot Sims 3 Seasons (winter)

My self-sim built an alien snowman and a snow hut for it, but the aliens did not take the hint.

For a review, this is far too late. Even I bought the Seasons expansion pack months ago, but hesitated to install it. This was not a bad decision, as it turns out. Luckily I got it on sale, and after I have installed it and played with it a few days, I still would not recommend buying it at full price. Actually I am not sure I would recommend buying it at all, but if you get it as a gift and have a machine that runs The Sims 3 fast without hiccups, it does add some variation and realism to the game. Unfortunately for the new player, this realism mostly makes the game harder, not easier.

The expansion is centered on seasons (each with a holiday), weather and aliens. No, I have no idea either, except I think perhaps they could not fit aliens into any of the other expansions. Or perhaps they were worried people would not buy a mostly cosmetic expansion. Aliens came with the base game in The Sims 2, so there has probably been some demand for this. The expansion also adds some food recipes with a seasonal theme, like pumpkin for the fall. The recipes are available all year though. (As are the aliens.)

Now for the bad news:

If your computer was already working up a heat running the game, this expansion pack may be hard on it. Rain, snow, hail, fog, moving branches and falling leaves all put some strain on the video card. I am not sure how much of a problem this is, since any computer with enough memory to run the game without long pauses will probably also have a video card able to pull off the new graphics. But for the borderline cases where the computer is already struggling, this is not a recommended purchase. It adds more new graphics load than any of the others, since there is now much more movement on the screen.

If your sims are rural, back to nature types, you should be aware that gardening is now possible only approximately half the year, fishing a bit longer. (You can however change the seasons in the settings panel if this bothers you.) For outdoorsy types in general, there is now a risk of freezing to death in winter and catching fire in summer, so you should perhaps not leave them unattended as much as you could before. This makes the game more challenging, especially if you already have a lot of things going on and are taken by surprise. Save your game regularly.

Lightning is a risk in rainy weather regardless of season. Sims wearing an umbrella are more likely to get struck. Thunder and lightning are quite common on rainy days, so save your game regularly if you value your sims.

Alien abductions can now happen even if you don’t have a telescope. The deciding factor seems to be space rocks. If your sim has recently collected a number of these, they may be abducted in the middle of their daily (or rather nightly) activities. So if you don’t want your male sims to get pregnant, you should probably be careful about collecting rocks. I am still not sure why aliens have a place in an expansion focused on realism; I hear the game is made in California, though, so that might explain it. Anyway, avoid picking up meteorites if your idea of realism does not include male pregnancy and green babies.

New features:

The four seasons are each 1 week long unless you change the length in the game settings panel. As mentioned, you may want a longer summer if gardening is important to your sims, because both spring and fall include cold snaps of random length when your plants go into hibernation. It takes a bit more to freeze the ponds and sea, but winter will do it.

Near the end of each season, there is a season-themed festival. The sims will have the day off from school and work, and one of the public lots in town will become a festival lot for the duration of the day, where your sims can have fun and get some special stuff. You can also arrange parties with a seasonal theme on this day. There is also a small positive moodlet all day regarding of whether you engage in the festivities.

Summer is the first season when you start a new game. Many of the summer days are quite hot. You can have your sims change into bathing suits to avoid overheating, but sometimes this may not be enough. A parasol helps, and swimming and eating ice should also cool them down, although I have not needed these so far. Staying indoors should keep them cool as well. Summer is the only seasons safe from cold snaps, so get your garden going.

Autumn is visually appealing, with red leaves slowly falling. Unfortunately your garden may go dormant even early in the season if the weather is clear, bringing frost at night. If it rains, expect thunder. A Halloween-like celebration occurs near the end, complete with trick or treat and costume parties. Sims can woohoo in leaf if you rake it together.

Winter is the greatest difference. Snow falls frequently and covers the ground most of the season, radically altering the neighborhood view. Your sims can have fun building snowmen (different types can be discovered depending on their personalities) and snow huts that can be slept in. Sims can woohoo in snow huts. Flu is almost certain if you don’t get vaccinated, but there is also a super immunity trait that can be bought for lifetime happiness point. Finally, you can also freeze to death.

Spring doesn’t look all that different from summer, once the garden thaws out at least. But there are now wildflowers, a new type of collectible. I am not sure if they can be used for anything except selling. Probably. I doubt sims can woohoo in them though, there are just scattered individual flowers. Allergies are almost certain if you don’t get vaccinated or have bought the super immunity trait. The thunder is back. Save early, save often. Preferably get Awesomemod, since it has an autosave-feature with adjustable interval. I use half an hour.

The aliens have been strangely quiet in my game: I have played for about 3 generations and had only one abduction (a young teenager, no pregnancy) and one friendly visit (the game crashed while talking to the alien). I’ve heaped up space rocks, which is now supposed to be what attracts them, but they remain shy. So not much to tell about them. They supposedly have superior brain powers, so I wouldn’t mind try playing one.

Are the new features worth the hassle? For me as a highly skilled player with a fast computer, yes, but just barely. For a new player, the game can be hard enough without being harassed by lightning, spontaneous combustion, freezing to death or getting pregnant by alien abduction.

***

Edit to add: In the end, I was on the verge of uninstalling the expansion, but decided to actually open the game settings panel (F5 in-game) and look at the Weather and Environment tab. It allows some fine-tuning, but in the end I just turned off rain altogether. It is not realistic, but far more realistic than having to stay indoors a quarter of the time due to lightning. Well, I suppose the realism depends on where in the world you live. But here in southern Norway I estimate rain to take up perhaps 15% of the time and lightning 3% or so. My best guess for the game was around 30% and 25% respectively. At least that is what it felt like, and in a game that is all that counts.

 

The Many Faces of Go

Screenshot Many Faces of Go, newbie mode

“Play the obvious local response to last move” – which of these three will it be?

As recently mentioned, I imagined an alternative timeline starting around the end of October 2009, in which I devoted substantially more time and attention to mastering Go (igo / baduk / weiqi), the classical Asian board game. One important factor was the computer program “The Many Faces of Go”, a Windows program created by David Fotland at www.smart-games.com. The program doubles as either a tutor or an opponent, depending on your needs.

Daydreaming with dice is serious business, so naturally I have gone and bought the program so that I could verify for myself whether it would have the necessary impact on my alternate timeline. (That, and mostly I was curious, having read good things about it, except the price.) My estimate is that yes, it is a good alternative for people who don’t have access to a Go club or other human players. It set me back $90, which is insignificant here in Norway but may be a problem in less developed countries.

You can download the game for free, but in that case it simply plays as an opponent with strength of 18 kyu. If you shell out the $90, you get a bunch of other features, and variable opponent strength from newbie up to early dan levels.

In addition to being one of the strongest artificial intelligence Go players, the game is a versatile tutor. If you know nothing about Go, it will even teach you the basic rules. (But if you know nothing about Go, I am not sure if I would recommend you pay $90 up front…)

The program has a database of thousands of commented games, both by professionals and amateurs, so there is a good chance that you will find something interesting there. You can step through these and read the comments. However, the Internet is overflowing with such commented games which you can read with a free kifu reader (kifu = game record in Go). In fact, many amateur games in this database is from the Go Teaching Ladder, which I am pretty sure I have praised before. It is nice that this is included in The Many Faces of Go, but this is not where the program justifies its price.

There are also databases of fuseki (opening patterns) and joseki (corner patterns), which more advanced Go players may want to study. These are also things that you can scrounge together for free with a little work, but integrated into the same package.

Where The Many Faces of Go really shines, in my opinion, is as an interactive tutor. You estimate your strength (starting at 30 kyu for a brand newbie) and the game gives you the suitable number of handicap stones and adjusts its playing strength. Then, as you play against the program, you can ask it to explain its moves, why it does what it does. You can either ask about individual moves, or turn on the function so that it explains each move as the program makes it. The explanations are very general, but give a good idea of things to think of. If you keep this commentary running, you just might get into the habit of thinking that way yourself. It also marks other spots of interest on the board that it considered but did not play, so you can learn from that as well, although it does not explain why it did not pick any of them.

Perhaps even better, you can at any time ask MFoG to give you a hint. It will then list three alternative moves in order, with the reasons for making each of them. It is then up to you to choose which of them to play, or perhaps none of them. Again, it marks other spots of interest on the board as well, if you want to branch out further.

Of course, if all you do is ask for the next move and click there, you are not quite playing Go. It may not be a bad idea for a beginner, though! In the anime Hikaru no Go, which is written in close collaboration with an expert, the main character learns Go by being the hands of an expert player. (In the anime the expert player happens to be a ghost, so having someone place the stones for him is pretty important, and Hikaru is the only person who can see him.) Sai, the 1000 year old Go player, reads out the coordinates of each stone Hikaru should place on the board, but he also adds a word that describes the type of move it is. Japanese have many such words that describe the function of a move. It is not quite as detailed as the explanations in MFoG, but it teaches the young boy some aspects of the game. In one memorable scene, Sai tells him: “Don’t just place the stones, try to feel the flow of them.” This is good advice for anyone using Many Faces of Go as well.

In the anime, Hikaru became so good that he eventually did not need the ghost anymore. Hopefully the same will happen with the “ghost in the machine” here. But with someone as anti-talented at Go as me, that could easily take many years. I am not sure I will spend years of my real life (such as it is) playing Go. But for those who have that intention, this might be a good way to get started.

Neverwinter MMORPG

Screenshot Neverwinter MMORPG - Protectors Enclave

I think this is the prettiest part of the game I have seen so far. Not much to write home about, but reasonably well rendered … just kind of gritty.

The new massive multiplayer online role playing game Neverwinter will be available to the “freeloaders” (free to download, free to play) on April 30, but I am already in. The reason is that I bought a second-tier “founder’s pack”.

In a perfect world, games would be free, and this is as close as you are likely to get. What I mean by that cryptic statement is that you can play the whole game, including endgame content, without paying a dime (if you have a computer and internet access, at least). But obviously someone is paying. In this case, I am one of them. Paying customers get some goodies in the game which makes it a little easier and more colorful. And some of us paid in advance, helping to foot the bill of getting the game to the market. As a thank-you, we got in on the game a little earlier.

Neverwinter is a medieval-style sword and sorcery game, unlike the two other games I have played from Cryptic Studios, the superhero games Champions Online and my favorite MMO ever, City of Heroes. Like other medieval games, Neverwinter tends to have the players all look pretty much alike at the start, except for variations from race, sex and class. I haven’t seen the high-level areas, but so far it looks like people continue to look pretty much the same, the weapons and armor found by questing aren’t all that different looking. The style is on the gritty side, and people are not particularly good-looking. The women all have well developed breasts though, although the armor can reduce the visual impact in some cases, thankfully. I suppose prioritizing breasts over beauty is a hint as to who they expect to be their typical customers.

Despite this initial impression, I have to say the game is surprisingly good. The game mechanics and lore are based on the original Dungeons & Dragons role-playing system, the first in the world of its kind, and a mainstay of paper, pencil and dice role playing for many years. I actually had some source books and stuff for this myself, many years ago, shortly before the Internet came to Norway. It is still viable.

The saving throw, to keep to the terminology, is the wide range of lore accumulated over the pen and paper years. There are innumerable books set in the same game world and at time in the same city, and the copyright holders are actively consulted in making the game. This makes for an immersive, integrated world where all the threads come together. And then there is my excuse for supporting the game in the first place: The Foundry.

The Foundry is a set of developer tools given to users to make their own quests. These quests are then made available in much the same way as the quests created by the developers themselves. Users vote for the quests, and can also flag them for inspection if they contain illegal or indecent content. A similar system existed in City of Heroes, but it is actually even better integrated in this game. You can play only Foundry missions for as long as you like, and get the same kind of half-randomized encounters and loot that you will get in the native quests. In theory you should be able to play all the way to level 60 this way, and some people will probably do.

Unfortunately for their hope of trapping me in their game, the interface is very mouse-heavy. The two main attacks for every class are bound to the left and right mouse button, and you also use to mouse to choose the direction you look and move. As a result, I can only play a fairly short time before my right arm starts hurting again. It has never completely recovered from the repetitive stress injury some years ago, and probably never will, barring divine intervention or nanotechnology.

But on the other hand, as it were, there is crafting and leadership. These skills can be performed through a web interface, including on my smartphone. You can also use the web portal to check your inventory or access the auction house, and guild members can also use it for guild activities, whatever those may bet. This can be done in a rather low-stress manner, including tapping on my smartphone screen, which avoids the cramping from constantly having to hold on to the mouse.

The leadership skill is lumped together with crafting. You assemble a virtual team of mercenaries which you assign to various tasks, like guarding a caravan or exploring the terrain. Each task has a set duration and gives a certain outcome: Leadership XP, pretty much always. Sometimes also character XP, and/or coins, astral diamonds, maps or chests of random goodies. The goodie chests, coins and diamonds go into your inventory. You can actually level up by using XP from your little mercenary team, but if you have the opportunity, you can level up much faster by praying as well.

Oh yes. There are various small gods in the game, and Invocation (available at level 11) let you get various goodies from them once an hour. There is no set praying hour, the 1 hour limit is just a minimum. You need to find an altar or campfire, but these are pretty common (and there are portable altars to be found as well). Sometimes you get just a combat buff (which expires after you’ve been online a certain amount of time), other times special coins, astral diamonds (used for various special shopping) and even a decent amount of XP. So in theory again, you could level up and become rich simply by praying. I am sure some Americans find this appealing. I find it amusing.

So basically there are numerous ways to level up your character and get stuff without playing through the main quests at all. You can pray, you can craft or send your imaginary mercenaries around, or if you deign to fight, you can do so using player-made content only (including your own).

On the off chance that you go fighting, you will have a pet to assist you from the start if you are a Founder like me. Otherwise you gain a companion at level 16, which can be of any class of your choosing. Again, you may have your companion do most of the fighting, but in that case they will level up and you not so much. (You still get the XP for finishing the quest, at least.)

I could see myself spending months trying these fringe activities, just because I can. But preferably those that don’t require frantic mousing. No matter how powerful I become in a 2-dimensional world, it is not worth destroying my body in the 3-dimensional world. And my soul probably won’t thrive on enormous amounts of this, either. It’s not really something I think I will miss having dedicated my life to, when that life is over. Your life may vary.

But a quite well-crafted game it is, so if you’re planning to play a lot of MMORPG, this is well worth a try for free.

Sims 3 university, 4: Juice, bonfires, comics & sexting

Screenshot Sims 3 University Life

“Vo gerbits!” The school cheer has returned!

Much like in the supposedly real world (if such a concept is even applicable to university life) the academic progress is not the only thing on most students’ minds. This is good, since if you take a light course load, you have all evening to explore the campus and surrounding area, meet interesting people and send them text messages of varying content.

(On a related note, I recommend buying a better bed as soon as you can afford to, since sleeping better means more waking time to have fun. The “meditative trance sleep” lifetime happiness reward also helps with this, but you may not have the life experience for that as a young adult. A sleep elixir from the chemistry set (Generations expansion) can cut down your sleep to a couple hours, whereas the Energy Drink from Mixology (Late Night expansion) can keep you running for much longer while tired.)

The students tend to at first fall into three distinct categories: Nerds, jocks and rebels. As a rule of thumb, the nerds tend to study science, the jocks sports, and the rebels art. But this is not absolute, and certainly not a requirement for your sims. Your status with each group depends partly on befriending and spending time with its members, but there are also activities that can gain status in each group. For instance, I discovered by accident that reading comics will give you crazy high status with the nerds. The first half a dozen comics I read gained me a reputation level each. I am not sure what the corresponding actions are for the other groups.

The jocks in particular are generous in inviting people to their bonfire parties, so this is a good chance to spend time with them. There is usually a keg of “juice” present, and getting “juiced” at the party will give you bonus rep with the jocks. Kissing, making out and having woohoo (sim sex) during the parties also appear as opportunities to gain reputation with them. Stereotypes? What stereotypes?

The rebels live on the edge of the law or just outside. Tagging walls, painting streets, inciting protests and selling exam cheats all bring the acclaim of the rebels. A less dangerous (but nauseating) opportunity is to root through dumpsters. This will occasionally appear as an opportunity, so wait until then. You must know some rebels first, but they are not hard to spot. (For one thing, the caste of a sim appears if you hold your mouse pointer over them…)

Over time some non-player characters gain levels in two of the social groups (or “castes”), while over the course of a generation there appears more and more locals who don’t belong to any group at all. I am not sure if the castes die out eventually when the playable sims ignore them, but there seems to be a marked reduction. Then again this could be a side effect of the StoryProgression mod that I use, which causes students to have more normal family lives, falling in love and marrying and having children. You’d think their children would pick up the social group of their parents, but it does not seem like it.

Gaining lots of influence in a group can give you new opportunities, in extreme cases unlock a new career. A high reputation can also give you an added personality trait. Unfortunately you cannot pick this – it is either the group trait or a random trait. (In contrast to the extra trait you get from completing your first major, you can choose that freely.)

Intertwined with this social life is another form of social life: Social Networking over the smartphone. Your trusty old cell phone has been upgraded to a smartphone, and there are a number of new options. At first these are pretty limited, but after surfing the Net for a while you unlock the first level of the Social Networking skill. There are also books to buy (or borrow at the library) which let you improve fairly rapidly in the skill. I find it ironic that these are physical books. On the bright side, if you (the player) have shelled out the 500 sim points for a MultiTab tablet, you can read e-books on it. And of course you can improve the skill by use.

From the start you can surf the net, text people you know and stream video. Soon blogging becomes available, and once you get blog followers you can beg them for help financially or academically. Followers are easily lost again, though. Later on there are more features, like the SimFinder app that lets you find a potential friend or date based on their personality trait, gender and age. Unfortunately, it seems this feature is local, so while on campus you won’t find people in your hometown or the other way around, much less the three foreign countries. I guess technology dictates this limit. You cannot even send text messages to your friends back home, although strangely you can still call them.

Most of the new Social Networking skills seem to be added for realism and have relatively little influence on your life, although the SimFinder is really handy if you are looking for that Special Someone with a particular personality. Of course, the ideal person may not exist, but you should come a lot closer than trial and error. And there is a mysterious power for the accomplished Networkers, to alter the relationship between other sims.

While social networking is not particularly tied to campus, college sports are performed in the sports hall and out of sight. These are very exhausting, so I recommend going there fully rested if you want to get home without falling asleep. On the bright side, they give you rapid advancement in the jock group, as can be expected. For a more controllable (and visual) sport, try the flying disc (basically a Frisbee). It can be started and stopped at any time, and while it is exhausting and makes you sweaty, it is also more fun to watch than the outside of a sports hall. And you can break it off at any time and get a shower before you collapse in bed. Not least, you can take it with you home from Uni and play with family and friends.

The kicky bag / hockey sack from The Sims 2 makes its return, more colorful than ever and just as fun. Sporty sims are likely to play with it on their own. Like the discs, you can snag a couple of them for free at orientation to bring home to your family after each semester.

Things to bring with you to college:
-A deathflower, if someone in your family can grow them. The grills and bonfires can easily get out of control, and it may take a while for the firesim to get there.
-A week’s supply of Sleep Elixir from the chemistry set (Generations expansion) if someone in your family has the skill to make them.
-Relevant skill books your family may possess. It seems like learning skills is faster in University generally, and skills related to your major is the most powerful form of studying.

Have a nice trip, and don’t stay up too late the night before finals!