Wednesday, December 28, 2011


So. I have played Skyrim. But first, since this is my blog, there is no better place to tell my kind of ridiculous story of the past three days than here.

I was happy and not terribly surprised when I opened Skyrim Christmas morning. I soon installed it, which went smoothly enough, but wasn't planning on playing it until I got back from visiting family, or I'd be distracted. As I'm running an adware scan to make sure nothing is slowing my system from running Skyrim, I go take a shower. When I come back downstairs, my computer is off. Huh, maybe I did turn it off and forgot. I press the power button. Nothing happens. Uh-oh.

I open up the case and try messing with a few wires, but can't get anything to happen. I try my dad's power supply, which also doesn't work. The motherboard must be bad. I try my power supply in my dad's computer, which also doesn't work. The motherboard has gone bad and is destroying whatever power supplies I plug it into! I test my dad's power supply in his previously-working computer, which also fails. It's looking bad as we head out to visit family.

I try to forget about these horribly-timed computer troubles as I spend Christmas evening with my extended family. We have a great dinner and I (foolishly) play Settlers with my cousins. The next day I got to see my cousin's wife and their adorable baby daughter for the first time home from Okinawa! The baby is so cute she has a blog devoted to pictures of her, which is apparently way more popular than my blog.

Monday evening, we drive back home. I have just enough time for a Microcenter run before we see A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie. I buy two new power supplies, not having time to get a motherboard yet, and I figure I'll try these and see if they work.

I take them home and install one in my dad's computer first. It successfully boots. We go to the Guthrie. The show was pretty amazing, as I'd expected from going on backstage tours of it twice. Tons of cool stuff flying in and out, sliding/rotating Scrooge's house set, the the Ghost of Christmas Future is TERRYIFYING.

We go back home. Finally no other commitments (besides sleep) stand between me and fixing my computer. I try some stuff on my desktop, afraid to try the other new power supply for fear it will destroy another one. Eventually I try it, reasoning that if the only problem was both power supplies failing independently somehow, I'll be done and won't have to replace the motherboard.

I hook up the power supply; it doesn't start. But then I put it in my dad's computer, and it does start. My motherboard has clearly failed, but it's not corrupting power supplies. After more experimentation, I discover my old power supply is actually fine. Apparently my motherboard and my dad's power supply failed independently, which messed up my tests. (I'm not sure why testing my power supply in my dad's computer didn't work; I must have forgotten something in my hurry)

Tuesday morning I go back to Microcenter to get a new motherboard. At a friend's recommendation I look for a Gigabyte board, with USB 3.0 to make full use of the external drive Seagate gave me. I pick one out and bring it home, then spend the next few hours completely taking my computer apart and putting in the new board. When everything is connected, I hit power and--success!--it starts! And then tries to boot to Windows and unsurprisingly gets a blue screen due to the drivers being all wrong.

I discover I can only boot from my Windows CD to repair them if none of my hard drives are connected, in which case there is nothing to repair. I'm stuck by this and wait a few hours for my friend to come for an X-Men marathon my sister is having. He fixes this with some BIOS wizardry and I'm back in business. Soon I've repair and reinstalled all the necessary drivers and my computer successfully gets into Windows. Huzzah! I spend the evening watching X-Men as my computer runs the scans that were interrupted.

I hope to finish them before sleeping, but they take longer than expected. Finally, by this early afternoon, everything is ready. (I'm still encountering random, sporadic lockups, likely as a result of some driver that needs to be replaced, looking into that) And that's how I spent three days trying to play Skyrim.

But anyway, on to my first impressions of the game. After starting it up and messing with the options as usual, I start a new game. I go through the usual intro/character creation sequence, making my first character a Dunmer battlemage as usual. The story is that you start as a prisoner (as usual) whose execution is interrupted by the arrival of a dragon. No big deal. You and a guard take shelter in the nearby fort, which has tunnels (the tutorial dungeon) leading to safety, in which you get your needed weapons and armor and learn how to play. As a battlemage, I settle on a mace in one hand and a fire spell in the other, which works out pretty well for me. After this, he directs me to the nearby village of Riverwood, where I'm finally able to sell all the loot I've been struggling to carry from the dungeon.

By the way, being on Reddit has nearly ruined Skyrim for me due to all the silly memes. I refuse to do any of the things in them: I will not get a horse, I will not hire Lydia, I will not wear that ridiculous helmet, I will not become Thane of Whiterun, and if I meet the guy who took an arrow to the knee, I will kill him!

The trader there gives me a quest: his golden dragon's claw trinket has been stolen, and of course I offer to get it back. After rearming I set out to the temple the bandits are hiding in one a mountain to the west. They are no match for my mace and fireballs. As I progress into the caves, spiderwebs start covering everything. Soon I find myself up against the first boss: Shelob a giant venom-spitting spider!It very nearly kills me until I get better at dodging it charges while blasting it with fire. I manage to kill it and free the man trapped in its web, who seems to have the claw. Of course, after being freed he betrays me and runs off deeper into the temple. I follow and kill him, then continue in to see what he was going to do with it.

I get into some catacombs infested with zombies draugr who attack me with cool old Nordic weapons, and one strong one who can use magic. They are no match for my growing magical powers and shiny new steel mace. I come up to a door leading into the innermost part of the temple which has a three-ringed lock. It's clearly some kind of puzzle, but I can't find any clues, so I brute-force it. (It only has 27 possible combinations...not very secure)

The innermost sanctum has a large stone alter where I learn the first word of a dragon shout--I think it went "fury" or something. As soon as I do, a coffin behind me opens and an especially nasty draugr comes out. He likes to use the banshee-like shout on me, to which I respond by running away and throwing more fireballs. Once he's dead, I escape via a secret exit (why can't I ever enter through those?) and return to Riverwood.

The shopkeeper is happy to have his gold dragon claw back, but I run him out of money selling my loot, so I head off to Whiterun, where I am right now, to finish.

So far, my overall impression of Skyrim is that it seems simplified to the point of being dumbed-down--but the stuff they took out was unimportant and even annoying. Weapons and armor no longer degrade and need repairs; smithing is instead used to craft new gear. The leveling system has been completely changed; the only attributes are now health, magicka, and stamina, and you pick one to increase with each level-up. There are no more major and minor skills; everything now counts toward your next level, eliminating the need to "fix" the leveling system with mods. You no longer need to sleep in a bad to level up. (The horror!) Rather than have armor degrade your spell efficiency, there are now magical items that provide no armor but other great incentives for mages to use them like +50% magicka regen. (Wow!) Bartering with shopkeepers is now done automatically based on your speechcraft. All the little annoyances of Morrowind and Oblivion that I'd grown so attached to are now gone, and what is left is a sleek, more polished game. It will take some getting used to, but overall I think it's better.

Much of the gameplay is the same as in previous games--Skyrim is just as open and inviting as Morrowind and Cyrodiil were--but the combat system as been further refined. Your character is now apparently ambidextrous and can carry a spell or one-handed weapon in either hand--as a battlemage I carry one of each, but I could just as easily dual-wield swords or keep fire in one hand and healing in the other. Another nice touch is that many spells are now continuous--rather than throwing fireballs, I can now shoot a continuous stream of fire at stuff.

The game manages to evoke the same kind of wow response to its graphics as Oblivion did in 2006, maybe dampened a bit by the existence of Crysis, but still gorgeous. The dungeons are much more varied in appearance and layout than in Oblivion. I'll probably have more thoughts after I've played more than a few hours, but for now it's looking pretty good.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


In the category of "fun casual games I've found recently" is a gem called Magicka. It's an isometric beatem-up game that has you slaying legions of goblins, orcs, beasts, and daemons to save the world of Midgård. The difference is that instead of using weapons, you mostly use magic. Lots and lots of magic.

Magicka's magic system is the centerpiece of the game, and it is endless barrels of fun. You have eight basic elements--water, life, shield, cold, lighting, arcane, earth, and fire--and you can combine them in nearly endless ways. There are plenty of rules to this--certain elements can't be used in conjunction with each other, and some of them can combine to produce new ones. You can also cast spells in one of four ways--in front of you, around you, on yourself, or enchanting your weapon. (You do get regular weapons, but they are much less useful than your magic...unless you get the light saber or machine gun)

The basic elements are predictable enough, but combining them is the fun of the game. Combining arcane with shield gives you mines that tick and explode, sending enemies who walk over them flying. Fire is normally a spraying attack, but combining it with arcane gives you a searing beam. Combining fire and earth gives you fireballs; combining earth and cold gives you hailstones that slow enemies. Combining water and fire gives you steam; combining this with lightning and arcane gives you a beam that soaks enemies as it electrocutes them. Ouch. And multiplying elements increases their power, making zapping enemies with deadly lightning a viable strategy. (Especially when they're wet)

Magicka lets you satisfy your deep-seated desire to zap stuff like the Emperor.

Adding to the ridiculousness is the game's simplicity; there is no mana system, so literally the only limit to your magical exploits is how quickly you can cast spells. It makes you feel almost godly, but the game has plenty of challenges to your magical prowess, not the least of which are other spellcasters. These battles are some of the toughest in the game; predicting their spells is essential as one false move can blow you up or send you flying off a cliff. The potential of magic battles to blow up in your face (literally) gets a bit ugly in one particularly frustrating series of battle, but usually it feels surprisingly balanced.

Besides the basic elemental spells, there are special spells ("magicks") that can be cast by queuing up elements in a certain order. These let you do special actions like making it rain, calling down lightning, (best if enemies are wet from said rain) messing with time, and teleporting. The element system is compelling and practically begs you to experiment with it to see what fun combinations you can come up with. The possibilities let you try many different fighting styles, like running away from enemies and luring them onto mines, gathering them around you and casting area-of-effect spells, or just lasering everything.

Spell-slinging galore!
Besides its fantastic magic system, Magicka also benefits from some truly fantastic writing. If you enjoy less-than-serious medieval adventure games like Kingdom of Loathing or Munchkin, or if you enjoy the humor of games like Banjo-Kazooie, Magicka is worth checking out for its humor alone. The characters constantly spew cultural references, break the fourth wall, and in general constantly find new ways of making you laugh. So far the best I've seen is a boss fight that has James Bond, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings references, all within a few minutes.

One example of the game's countless references.

Your narrator and giver of advice is a fellow named Vlad who is most definitely not a vampire. You also get a fairy companion who is an obvious parody of Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and frequently gives you gems like "Maybe you can cast spells on enemies?" and "If you die, I will hate you!". Even the game mechanics have references; when casting beam spells, don't cross the streams! My only complaint of the humor is that it seems a little too reliant on pop-culture references, as opposed to original silliness. But it's great fun all the same.

Your fairy companion is an endless source of obvious advice. And yes, you are carrying a Master Sword.
If you got Magicka during the 75% off sale like I did, congratulations. Otherwise, it's certainly still worth the $10 purchase. The adventure is 10-15 hours long, but the fun combat, humor, and endlessly deep magic system encourage heavy replaying, and there is are many DLC expansions to be had. If you can convince your friends to buy it as well, it also has online co-op and PvP!


I've enjoyed getting into the Christmas spirit this December and have gotten presents for my friends and family. It's really fun to think of gifts people will enjoy (mostly books), and then get them for them. Creative wrapping jobs are also fun. (At a "manly" wedding shower I was at I saw a gift card given in a box that I think had previously held a cabinet) The joy of Christmas as you grow up is that instead of eagerly waiting for Santa Claus to give you stuff, you get to be Santa Claus. (Sort of)

I've noticed that a common reaction in my friends upon me giving them the present is to apologize for not planning to get me anything, and resolving to do so. While I appreciate the sentiment, this seems like missing the point. The whole point of a gift is it's a one-way transaction, not an exchange. I am giving you this gift because I appreciate you and want to, not because I secretly want you to get me something to "pay me back".

Greedily is one way not to accept gifts, but beware also of unconsciously turning gifting into bartering. What is it in human nature that makes it so hard for us to just accept grace?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Stop Online Piracy Act

Yeah, I'm sure you've heard plenty of outraged responses and scary proclamations about the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) currently before the House Judicial Committee. So I'm not even going to editorialize about it at all; just providing a link to the bill itself is enough. Specifically, read this except of the summary:
Authorizes the Attorney General (AG) to seek a court order against a U.S.-directed foreign Internet site committing or facilitating online piracy to require the owner, operator, or domain name registrant, or the site or domain name itself if such persons are unable to be found, to cease and desist further activities constituting specified intellectual property offenses under the federal criminal code including criminal copyright infringement, unauthorized fixation and trafficking of sound recordings or videos of live musical performances, the recording of exhibited motion pictures, or trafficking in counterfeit labels, goods, or services. Sets forth an additional two-step process that allows an intellectual property right holder harmed by a U.S.-directed site dedicated to infringement, or a site promoted or used for infringement under certain circumstances, to first provide a written notification identifying the site to related payment network providers and Internet advertising services requiring such entities to forward the notification and suspend their services to such an identified site unless the site's owner, operator, or domain name registrant, upon receiving the forwarded notification, provides a counter notification explaining that it is not dedicated to engaging in specified violations. Authorizes the right holder to then commence an action for limited injunctive relief against the owner, operator, or domain name registrant, or against the site or domain name itself if such persons are unable to be found, if: (1) such a counter notification is provided (and, if it is a foreign site, includes consent to U.S. jurisdiction to adjudicate whether the site is dedicated to such violations), or (2) a payment network provider or Internet advertising service fails to suspend its services in the absence of such a counter notification.
I have serious doubts that this bill will pass, contrary to what many commentators would have you believe, as information about the effect it would have in the Internet is being widely circulated. But if it does, mark my words: I will boycott the internet until it is repealed. Yep. Unplug my desktop's connection and switch off my laptop's wireless adapter. A free internet or none.

Monday, December 5, 2011


What gets you up in the morning? What do you boast about, if only to yourself? What, if you fail at it, leaves you completely devastated? What to you look to in order to justify your existence? We all have something, if it's just one thing. One of my smarter friends put it this way: "Most people desperately strive to avoid feeling small." Small, I think, as in meaningless or inconsequential. We all need to feel significance. One of the key points of any religion you can think of is it provides some way to attain this significance, whether by obeying a moral code, finding nirvana, or ascending in a golden spaceship to a higher plane of existence. There can't just be everyday life in all its fleeting joys and defeats, there has to be something deeper than that that really, really means something to us in the grand scheme of things. When existentialist philosophers lacked a higher power from which to derive any significance, they asserted than man is responsible for providing his life with that meaning himself.

This feeling of significance, Tim Keller says in a talk by him I just heard, is what is meant by the term "justification". In the Christian worldview, justification is like getting a high five--a standing ovation, even--from God. It is not just finding meaning, it is being counted worthy and accepted by the Source of all meaning. I think it is the most fundamental need of every human being.

And how do we get this fundamental affirmation, this justification? Many people (Christians included) think it's by  our moral performance; our ability to conform to a list of do's or don'ts. This could be from the Bible, from some other author, or from osmosis of the culture around us. Those who don't look there often look for approval from friends, significant others, or family. Or having a lot of money. Or being an ambidextrous piano virtuoso. But if you are conscious of your need for justification, and how the things you look for it in inevitably fail, then the gospel is the best news in the world. Justification is free! Completely free! There is nothing you can do to deserve it, or not deserve it! Paul writes in Romans 3:21-24:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
("Righteousness" here has a similar meaning to "justification") I'm finally starting to really "get" this definition of justification and it's amazing. I still have a lot of processing to do in answering those first four questions. Even though these other sources of meaning we hold onto will inevitably leave us hanging, it's so hard to let go of them. Many of them are genuinely good things, like family or a pleasant personality. Of course you shouldn't walk out on your family or become a jerk if you put too much importance in these things; even as we keep them in our lives, we're challenged not to make them the one thing that we need.

One other cool thing Tim Keller mentioned was the difference between justification and forgiveness. Christians believe that we deserve death and eternal separation from God for betraying Him and sinning, but in Jesus we can be forgiven and get a clean slate--it's part of the package along with justification. That's great, but they aren't the same thing. Keller drew up the analogy of a prisoner pardoned and released from jail, but who is now homeless, jobless, responsible for making his way in the world and proving himself. This is what forgiveness alone would be like: sure, we're free now, but we're on our own and we'll just fail again. Whereas justification is like getting the Congressional Medal of Honor and everything else they can give you (only better); it's receiving all this honor and affirmation from outside ourselves and knowing that yes, we really are worth something.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

OWS: An Addendum

I have two more things to add on developments in the OWS movement, one positive and one negative.

  • I've been horrified by the stories, pictures, and videos of unparalleled police brutality on protesters in the last few weeks. The willingness of law enforcement to use such extreme measures with so little provocation on peaceful protesters is frightening and, I assert, unjust. That the officers committing these acts are virtually immune to legal accountability is even more shocking. The OWS protesters are almost making more of a point by the reactions against them than by their own words and actions, and their courage is admirable.
  • Meanwhile, the self-righteousness displayed by some identifying with the more extreme side of the movement is not. Specifically, I groan when I see comparisons drawn between bank executives and criminals, or even vigilante efforts to punish them as such. It turns out there is no law against tanking the economy. Talking as if they were criminals replaces the law with your own conviction of right and wrong, which varies widely from person to person. Acting on these convictions, apart from the law, opens the door to anarchy. Imagine if everyone tried to take their own vision of right into their own hands. If they actually have broken real, established laws, find them and point them out rather than arguing from passion and frustration. Even if new regulations are enacted to make the practices that led to the crash illegal, they can't be applied retroactively. And condemning people for acting in their own self-interest within the established law is condemning everyone--this is exactly what policymakers should assume from people and corporations.

Seeds and Shells

The kingdom of heaven is like a seed. (Matthew 13:31) Planted and properly cultivated, this seed will grow into a magnificent tree, for birds to nest in and people to rest under. But some, seeing or hearing of the majestic trees of others, decide to shortcut the process and put fake, hollow trees up over their growing seeds. They ornament these "trees" with finely crafted leaves and blossoms that look convincing unless you get right up close. Whole forests of these hollow trees pop up and people give them names and pay them great respect. But they are nothing but shells. Meanwhile the real seeds are stuck inside the shells. Without sunlight and fresh air, they can't grow and just stagnate or even wither.

Other people without seeds also desire the grandeur of the fully-grown trees. No problem! They get the synthetic trees all the same and put them up over nothing. No one can tell the difference. Almost no one, anyway. Still others don't see the point of the trees in the first place and go without, or prefer nice bushes or ivy.

How do you tell shells from real trees? How can you tell if a shell has a seed inside it? What is your shell made of?