Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

My Top 5 Books of 2022

Well, it is somehow another new year! Time just keeps on going, doesn’t it?

One of my favorite end-of-year activities is thinking back over all the books I read that year, and sharing my favorites with others. I read 32 books in 2022, which achieved my arbitrary Goodreads goal of 30 books. ( I thought I had just squeaked by with 30 books, but it turns out a couple of them had not been recorded as “Read” on goodreads!) Though to be fair, one of the “books” was actually a short story and another was a novella. They help balance out some of the super long books like Michener’s Alaska. According to my Year in Books, I read 12,531 pages. Not bad.

Overall I would say it was a pretty good year for books. I generally know my own tastes well enough that I don’t end up reading much that I would rate below 3 stars, but sometimes you get an unlucky run of so-so 3 star books in a row. I did have some 3 star books, but even those were mostly not bad. For example, I started reading pulpy sci-fi books set in the Battletech universe (originally developed for tabletop RPGs, later for the Mechwarrior video game series, which I love). They weren’t well-written books so I gave them 3 stars, but I sure had fun reading them (and in fact I just started another one the other day).

But let’s cut to the chase. Of the 30-ish books I read this year, what were the top 5? It’s always hard to choose, but here goes, in no particular order:

A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown Shy by Becky Chambers

Yeah, that’s right, I am immediately going to cheat and list two books as one. But these are parts 1 and 2 of a series, they’re not very long, and they’re both great. Also, coincidentally, they pretty much bookended my year. I read Psalm in the first couple weeks of the year, and Crown Shy in the last week of the year!

Sci-fi fans love to defend the genre by talking about how the speculative framing allows more freedom to conduct thought experiments with how things could be rather than sticking to how things actually are. The problem is, most sci-fi doesn’t do this very well. Or rather, it does this but very narrowly, often focused just on fancy new technology. So you end up with “what if [insert current political conflict/war/controversial issue] but in space?” It’s inevitable, and it’s not even necessarily a bad thing, but I am always on the lookout for authors who take it a step farther and genuinely imagine alternative ways of life.

Not just “what if we had fusion reactors” or similar, but “what if society was organized in a fundamentally different way?” Ursula K LeGuin did this all the time, and it’s why her stuff is so good (it also helps that she is just an amazing writer). Kim Stanley Robinson does this, as does Ada Palmer in her Terra Ignota series. With the Monk and Robot books, Becky Chambers is doing something similar but in a particularly interesting way.

Instead of holding a mirror up to our current state of affairs, and using sci-fi to highlight all of the terrible things by placing them in an exaggerated analog of our world, Chambers recognizes that our world is so messed up that its problems are obvious. She doesn’t need to rub our noses in them and say “Wake up sheeple, look how terrible things are!” We know, and she knows that we know. Instead, she skips that part and instead imagines a world where all of those terrible things are gone. Solved. No longer problems.

This series dares to do something that is almost unheard of and imagine an actual utopia. Not “utopia, but at what costs?!” Just… utopia. A really nice place to live. A world where everyone’s needs are met, where people live sustainably, in harmony with each other and the environment. Where exploitation, unchecked growth, discrimination, inequality, even money itself, are gone.

It is hard to express the physical and emotional relief that I feel when I read these books. They are comforting and relaxing and nice. Their depiction of a warm and positive vision of how life could be is just wonderful. They don’t get into the nitty gritty of how the utopia works, or how we get there from here. They just exist to demonstrate that it is possible to imagine such a world, and show us how nice that feels. And then they ask an interesting philosophical question: In a world where everyone’s basic needs are met, what gives us purpose? What do people “need” in the broader, more philosophical sense?

These are easy, comforting reads, but they’re not just fluff. They somehow manage to be easy and comforting while confronting real existential questions and daring to imagine a better world. They’re great science fiction, and simply by imagining something better, they are an act of resistance against the problems we currently face. As LeGuin put it:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursula K LeGuin

I’ll finish with a quote from the first book:

You keep asking why your work is not enough, and I don’t know how to answer that, because it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I try to mix up the genres that I read, but honestly I mostly read sci-fi and fantasy of one kind or another. Partly because futuristic technology and magic are cool, but also because it’s nice to have a layer of genre to act as a shield between me and the fictional stories that I read. I find more realistic stories are generally more stressful because I know that they really could happen. (Well, at least, they’re more possible than magic spells and faster than light travel…)

I may need to re-evaluate this aversion to realistic fiction, however, because when I do read it I tend to get a lot out of it. I don’t think it’s correct to say that I “enjoy” it as much as SFF, but because it is realistic it also tends to touch on real world emotions and challenges in a way that resonates.

All of which is to say, The Goldfinch is not my normal type of book, but once I finally got around to reading it, I thought it was great. Definitely made me anxious to read about the characters making increasingly terrible decisions but it did a great job of walking the line between popular page-turner and “literary” novel. It is a long, engrossing book, and somehow makes something I have little interest in (Dutch golden age art, antique furniture, criminal enterprises that steal and/or make forgeries of those things) very interesting. The writing is often wonderful too. I found myself almost highlighting a lot of passages, but most of my actual highlights are from the very end of the book, where the author really digs into the meaning of the book’s events.

I don’t hand out 5 star ratings unless I really like a book, but between the great story and the deeper meaning, The Goldfinch gets 5 stars from me.

That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Ok, back to genre. This was one where the protective layer of genre was very helpful, because even with a (fairly surreal) science fiction setting, this book was hard to read at times. How High We Go in the Dark is a series of interconnected short stories, spanning a huge range of time and space, but they are all about death. The framing event for the stories is that archaeologists digging in thawing permafrost unearth bodies from long ago that also carry a deadly virus. This virus spreads and ravages the world, and most of the stories in the book are in the aftermath of this pandemic.

One of the problems with speculative fiction is that when you try to summarize what a story is about, it can come across as silly or ridiculous, with none of the emotional weight that the story has when you read it. So with that in mind, here’s a sampling of some of the central ideas in the stories in this grim but beautiful book:

  • Hotels that have been converted into massive funeral parlors where you can rent a room to spend time with your deceased loved one while awaiting their cremation.
  • A scientist whose child has died of the plague is searching for the cure, but in the process inadvertently breeds a pig capable of speech, who he adopts as a surrogate child.
  • An employee at a euthanasia amusement park, where terminally ill children are treated to one last fun day before riding a ride that ends their lives, falls in love with one of the parents. (As a parent, this story pretty much emotionally destroyed me.)
  • An artist creates ice sculpture boats out of the remains of the dead that sail out to sea and then melt.

There are more stories but that gives you an idea. The blurbs for this book say that fans of Station Eleven and Cloud Atlas will like this, and since I loved both of those books I guess they were right. Like Cloud Atlas, the different stories are interconnected in interesting ways, and it was fun to identify these as I made my way through the book.

I think it’s a little misleading to call this a novel – it is really a story collection, and like any story collection the stories varied in how well they worked for me. But overall, I thought this book was quite good. Weird and dark and depressing, yes, but very good.

Persepolis Rising, Tiamat’s Wrath, and Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey

Yep, cheating again and grouping several books from a series. When you read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, you get used to series. Long, epic stories split up into 3 books, 5 books, 10 books, sometimes even more. In certain notorious cases, these series are never finished, or must be finished posthumously by another writer. In many other cases, the first book or two are great, but things gradually get formulaic, or bloated, or weird, or otherwise lose the magic of the initial books.

I am happy to report that The Expanse series does not suffer these fates. It is a 9 book series, and it is consistently excellent, and it is complete, and the ending was good. That is… basically unheard of.

This year I read a lot of books by Daniel Abraham (one of the two authors who write under the pen name of James S.A. Corey). I read two books in the Dagger and Coin fantasy series, and three novels and a novella in the Expanse series. Apparently I like Daniel Abraham’s writing! Thinking about it, he seems to particularly specialize in characters with personalities that can be described as different variations on “world-weary snark”.

I feel confident saying that The Expanse is one of the greatest sci-fi series ever. It is not particularly “deep” – don’t go looking for a lot of symbolism or hidden meanings – but it’s a truly great story, set it a wonderfully developed science fiction universe. I particularly appreciate how, despite having plenty of things in the series that violate the laws of physics in the interest of telling a good story, those instances of rule breaking are well thought-out and limited.

I would not call The Expanse “hard” sci-fi, but I would say that it does a great job of getting the science close enough to right when it can. And more importantly, it uses the limitations of real-world physics as a driver of the story, rather than a hindrance. Stories where anything goes are often less interesting than stories where there are some constraints, and by being realistic where possible, The Expanse ends up telling some great stories. It also makes the instances where things do not follow the laws of physics much more significant, both for the reader and the characters in the story.

As an aside: I generally don’t like the distinction between “hard” and “soft” sci-fi because in certain segments of SFF fandom, “hard” sci-fi (ostensibly, sci-fi that somewhat tries to obey the laws of physics) is seen as somehow better than “soft” sci-fi (sci-fi that is less concerned with physical sciences and more interested in social sciences, philosophy, etc.). This distinction between hard and soft sci-fi is so blurry as to be meaningless and often has sexist overtones.

The worldbuilding in The Expanse is great. The geopolitics of a future where humans have spread throughout the solar system (and then beyond), the messy, complicated, diverse vision of the human future in space, is just excellent. The stars of the show are the “Belters”: humans who have grown up in the cities of the asteroid belt, who are extra tall and thin due to low gravity, who are more comfortable in a space suit than on the surface of a planet, who speak “Belter creole” – a mix of various languages that is just at the edge of comprehensible to the reader. But the other major factions (Earth, Mars, and in the later books, the Laconians) are all interesting and distinct and well done.

If you haven’t read The Expanse and are up for a long but consistently excellent series with a lot of space battles and solar system geopolitics, I highly recommend it. (The show is very good too, and relatively faithful to the books, though it stops at book 6.)

I think about all the things we could have done, all the miracles we could have achieved, if we were all just a little bit better than it turns out we are.

Leviathan Falls, James S.A. Corey

What a crew does with its rail-gun capacitor in the privacy of its own ship shouldn’t be anyone else’s business.

Leviathan Falls, James S.A. Corey

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is an odd one. It’s a fantasy novel about an elderly couple who set out on a quest to visit their son, but the whole country is afflicted with a “mist” that robs people of their memories. The couple aren’t entirely sure that they even had a son, or where he lives. They end up traveling with Wistan, a Saxon warrior, and Edwin a boy who has been shunned from his own town because he has been contaminated by a bite from an “ogre”. Along the way they meet up with Gawain, as in King Arthur’s nephew, who is now an old man, and Wistan and Gawain have an oddly tense relationship from the start.

The story unfolds slowly and carefully, and everything is suffused with an unnerving unreal quality because most of the characters have no reliable long term memories. Nothing is what it seems, and everything comes with layers of meaning that I am sure I only dimly perceived in most cases. Characters behave strangely, not trusting themselves or others. Half-forgotten arguments from long ago appear and fade, and everything has that tip-of-the-tongue can’t-quite-remember feeling to it. It is a real feat to write a story that continually teeters on the edge of reality like this, and the writing in this book is really lovely. Simple, but somehow also not simple at all. It is only toward the end after a long, slow buildup that things are really made clear, but the payoff is worth it. The final scene left me holding back tears as I listened to it while cooking dinner.

I can understand why a lot of readers, used to modern fantasy stories that are relatively fast-paced, plot-driven, and without a lot of layered meanings, might not like this book. Honestly, I would probably have had trouble with the slow pace if I had been reading instead of listening to the audiobook. But it has stuck with me in a way that most books don’t. It is a haunting book about whether it is better to remember or forget, and I highly recommend it if you’re in the mood for something a bit challenging.

“Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?”
“It may be for some, father, but not for us. Axl and I wish to have again the happy moments we shared together. To be robbed of them is as if a thief came in the night and took what’s most precious from us.”
“Yet the mist covers all memories, the bad as well as the good. Isn’t that so, mistress?”
“We’ll have the bad ones come back too, even if they make us weep or shake with anger. For isn’t it the life we’ve shared?”

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

Honorable Mentions

So those are some of my favorite books from this year. But just as I couldn’t resist cramming more than five into my “Top 5” list, I can’t just leave it there. Here are a few more that were not in the Top 5 but which are worth mentioning:

  • The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity – This was a frustrating book. It offers a novel take on world history, where humans are active, imaginative agents in our own fate rather than passively at the mercy of our environment. It advocates a view of prehistory that breaks free from modern preconceptions about how societies can be structured, and challenges a lot of the “conventional wisdom” about centralization of power and the shift toward what we call civilization. But it also very clearly does some cherry picking and has a strong bias in how it interprets history. Still, worth reading because it stirs the pot and challenges some fundamental ideas.
  • Exhalation by Ted Chiang – Excellent collection of sci-fi stories, often dealing with philosophical questions like free will, sentience of AI, etc. Very very good.
  • A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – Sci-fi dripping with political intrigue, set in the capital of an interstellar empire that is strongly influenced by the Aztecs. Very different and strange but in a good way.
  • Embassytown by China Mieville – Quite possibly the weirdest sci-fi story I’ve ever read. I only gave it 3 stars because it very nearly falls apart under the weight of all its weirdness, but if you want to read something really different, worth a try. It’s fundamentally a story about how the ability to say things that aren’t true – to use metaphor – underpins all of human language and thought. But it explores this by way of an alien species that speaks with two voices at once and which can’t lie or understand lies.

Ok, I’d better stop there or I’ll just write about all 32 things I read this year. Your turn: what were your favorite books of 2022? I always like adding things to my to-read list!


I remember the day we met you. We drove a couple of hours from Ithaca to a rescue in Pennsylvania because we wanted to have a good selection of puppies to choose from. You were in a large cage with your littermates, but you looked nothing like them. A black lab mix among a bunch of Australian shepherds. They told us you were born under a porch in Kentucky. I don’t know how you ended up in that shelter in Pennsylvania, but I am glad you did. They told us that you had never really been outside before. We let you out and watched you frolic around the yard on clumsy puppy legs with the bigger puppies. You had a distinctive, playful way of running, lifting both front legs straight out in front of you, a little higher than normal. The little floppy tips of your ears bounced with every step.

We brought you home and gave you a bath and settled in to becoming a family. We learned that you love to eat woodchips, and sunglasses, and remote controls. You learned to walk on a leash, starting out with a length of yarn trailing from your collar as you explored the path behind our condo for the first time. Our very own forest to explore.

Since we didn’t have a yard of our own, you got to go on walks often. You had so much energy that we would pick a 6 foot long dry reed from the marshy drainage next to the road, and use the tassel of seeds on the end of it to go “fishing” for you, luring you to leap higher and higher after it as we walked. We called you our graceful ballerino.

It became our morning routine to go to the grassy field near our condo and play fetch. The road was higher than the field, with a grassy slope that led down to the flat area, and from the top of that hill the frisbee would fly far, and you would run in a black streak down across the field to catch it, or pounce on it in a tumble of legs, and then run it back up the hill. On autumn mornings, the whole field was frosted and the morning sun glowed on the orange and yellow of the trees, and you left long tracks in the frost. You brought the frisbee back to me, soaking wet as the frost melted on your fur, clouds puffing with every panting breath. “Throw it again dad!”

One morning, you met a group of white tailed deer on our field. The two does took off into the bushes as you approached, but when you ran (ears forward, eyes bright, playful front legs forward) toward the buck, he didn’t budge. He charged briefly at you, and you got scared and ran back to me. We joked later that you told us an embellished tale of how you had had a great adventure and you confronted a scary “dragon” and “protected” me.

Another time, it was winter and people had built snowmen on the field. You didn’t notice them at first, but when I threw the frisbee down toward them you ran after it and then stopped short, caught off guard by these strange white towers that had appeared in your field. We had to walk down among them together to show you that they were safe. When the snow got deep, you loved to bound through it like a little deer, chasing snowballs and then leaping your way back to us for the next one. Exhausted but loving every minute.

Your other favorite place was the Ithaca dog park. Big grassy fields, toys, wading pools, and lots of other dogs to play with. You were young and sleek and fast, and would race around the park with other dogs. When you got hot, you would come to the wading pools and splash down into the muddy water and dig dig dig dig dig at the bottom of the pool, splattering water everywhere. The dog park became my refuge from the stresses of graduate school. It’s hard to stay stressed in the presence of so much pure joy.

We went on adventures. You came with us when we went to the Adirondacks with a group of friends, and you and I got covered in mud when we stepped into a deep puddle hidden by leaves. You ran miles ahead on the trail with our runner friend. In the evening, you snuggled up with us on the floor of the cabin.

We took you to Michigan, where you got to enjoy the freedom of the north woods. Running for miles on the trails as we drove around on golf carts and ATVs. We tried taking you out on the kayaks and canoes, but after you fell into the lake from one of the kayaks, you were always wary of water.

At home, you had your stuffed animals that you would carry around the condo and occasionally shake like a vicious hunter. You had a rope pull toy that became absolutely disgusting but you loved it. When it finally fell apart and we had to throw it away, we joked that you called it your “childhood” (since you had had it since you were a baby puppy) and kept asking us where it went. You loved to lounge on your blankets and cushions in our wide picture window and watch the forest and bark at rabbits and deer. In the summer, we would go down the gorge behind our condo to the waterfall. When Erin and I went in the water to swim, you stood on the banks, whining, worried that we were obviously in some distress if we were out in the water.

The evening that I asked Erin to marry me, I talked to you about it first. She and I had just come back from a date and I took you outside for a short walk. I talked to you in the woods as I worked up my nerve, and then we went back inside together and we started the next chapter of our life. (You were very handsome at our wedding rehearsal picnic in your white bow tie.)

You moved with us across the country to Arizona, where we traded gorges and waterfalls for rocky ponderosa forests and sunny days. You discovered the joy of a backyard, and spent many lazy afternoons basking in the sun after playing fetch.

You joined us on adventures here too. You went with Erin to Mexico, and went camping in Utah and Sedona even though you were always a little unclear on why someone would voluntarily choose to sleep somewhere cold and uncomfortable instead of in a nice warm house. You even joined us on our memorable visit to Loy Canyon in Sedona, where you led us down a game trail and we ended up at a dead end 40 feet upslope from the real trail. You trusted us completely as we slid, scrambled, and squeezed our way down the slope and through scrub and cacti to get back on the trail. We all ended up exhausted, hot, and with more than a few cactus related injuries, but you were a trooper.

When we had to leave you at home and go to work, you cried and cried, so we finally decided to get a second pup. You helped us choose from among the puppies at the shelter, playing the best with a little fuzzy guy named Chewbacca, who we renamed Pippin when we took him home. He grew into a big floppy doofus who yanked you around on walks and shoved you aside at the door to the backyard, but you stopped crying when we left you at home because you had a friend.

All of our lives changed when Shane came home. You were a sweet big brother to Shane, greeting him for the first time with gentle sniffs and wags, and tolerating him admirably as he got bigger and more “hands on”. When we put him in a bouncer seat in the backyard while doing yard work, you would lay down next to your baby to keep him company. Then Rowan came, and you were just as sweet with him, even though you were getting older.

The last few years disappeared in a blur, and somehow gradually and then all at once you were an old dog. I wish we had played fetch a few more times before it got too hard for you to run and jump. I wish we had taken you on a few more hikes and walks before even walking became too hard.

You got sick last year and the vet expected that you had only a few months left, but you stayed with us for a whole year. I thought that extra time would help me mentally prepare to say goodbye. It didn’t. Your health finally deteriorated rapidly, and I’m sorry for the pain that you had to endure at the end. I know that it was scary and confusing for you and I hope that you were also able to take some comfort in knowing how much we loved you.

We said goodbye to you yesterday. Deciding and scheduling and then waiting for the end was one of the hardest experiences of my life. I have lost loved ones before, but every loss is a fresh grief, and I was not prepared. It is a desperate, gasping grief that comes in sudden overwhelming waves. I know it will get better with time. I know that you loved us and that we will look back fondly on all of the good memories. That doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye.

You were our first baby. You made us a family, and were our constant, trusting, loyal companion through some of the most important years of our life. I don’t think I realized how deep our bond was until it was gone.

We will always love you, our sweet Renly pie.

“Sunsets are loved because they vanish. Flowers are loved because they go. The dogs of the field and the cats of the kitchen are loved because soon they must depart. These are not the sole reasons, but at the heart of morning welcomes and afternoon laughters is the promise of farewell. In the gray muzzle of an old dog we see goodbye. In the tired face of an old friend we read long journeys beyond returns.”

Ray Bradbury

Tour of my huge Lord of the Rings-inspired 7 Days to Die base

In my review of 7 Days to Die, I showed a couple of screenshots of the absurdly huge Lord of the Rings-inspired base that I made in my latest single player game. Now I want to spend some more time showing off the base in more detail. Probably the easiest way to do that is with a video tour:

I know that personally I don’t always want to watch a video when I can read something instead, so I’ll use the rest of this post to walk through the base in writing with lots of screenshots.

This project started out as a regular play-through, with no cheats or changed settings. However, I quickly decided I wanted to build something more creative than just a place where I could survive horde nights. I’ve always loved the epic architecture of Lord of the Rings, and so I thought it would be cool to try to build a base that borrowed from some of the coolest LOTR locations. Once I got motorized vehicles, I started exploring the game world in search of a nice mountain or cliff to use as a starting point.

An early candidate location. I really prefer the forest biome’s looks, but in the end, the desert had the best cliffs.
Gyrocopter made scouting much easier. This cliff caused by the city intersecting with a mountain was decent, but still not perfect.

I was looking for a cliff in particular because I knew I wanted to create a switchback staircase like Dunharrow in LOTR:

Finally, I discovered that the way random world generation works in this game, the steepest cliffs are always in the desert biome. After some more scouting I found a great location and started building:

The earliest screenshot I have of the base location. I’ve just started placing temporary frame blocks for the staircase.
Pretty soon I had a full set of switchbacks framed out (note how the path tunnels through a protruding part of the cliff too), along with a platform at the top and stairs up to an entrance into the mountainside.

I knew that in addition to the switchback stairs, I wanted to dig into the mountainside and create my very own Mines of Moria. I started off by digging a tunnel into the mountain for a ways, with a nice arched entrance, leading to a chokepoint:

Standing at the main entrance.
Closer view of the chokepoint. The turret up above and the doorways on either side are late additions that I’ll come back to later. For those not familiar, the striped blocks are steel, the strongest blocks you can build. I don’t know why they are stripey, I wish they weren’t. But it’s useful to have a funnel location like this reinforced so that zombies don’t destroy it.

At the chokepoint itself, I set up a series of electric fences to stun zombies and dart traps in the ceiling with pressure plated beneath, so that zombies would trigger the trap while stunned and be shot from above. I also added a shotgun turret at the end of the chokepoint so that any zombie that somehow made it through the dart traps would be shot from above by the turret:

Standing on the other end of the chokepoint, looking back toward the entrance. Shotgun turret is visible at the top, and the red cubes are the downward-pointing dart traps. The wires across the hallway are the electric fences, and you can see the pressure plat tiggers on the floor.

From the chokepoint, I decided that I wanted to re-create the famous Bridge of Khazad-dûm from Lord of the Rings. If you are less geeky than me and are wondering what the heck I’m talking about, it is the place where Gandalf fights the Balrog and says “You shall not pass!”

I unfortunately didn’t take any screenshots while digging out the chamber where I built the bridge, so I can only show off the finished product. But it was as I was digging out this chamber that I decided to make this building project a bit less tedious by cranking up my block damage to 300%, meaning that I could drill through the rocks of the mountain at 3x the speed. In the end, I made myself a nice deep pit, with a narrow, arcing bridge spanning it. I couldn’t very well summon a balrog, but to get a similar firey ambiance, I put a lot of torches and burning barrels in the pit.

Side view of Khazad Dum in its nearly-finished state. I put robotic turrets on little protrusions on either side of the bridge, The red lines are their laser sights, indicating that they are active. You can also see the steel ladders I placed so that zombies that end up in the pit can climb up to the bridge (and then get shot). At the foot of the ladders are some spinning blade traps to slice and dice zombies.
Here is a “god mode” view of the pit. This mode allows you to fly and to travel through formerly solid objects. A neat thing happens when you are inside the terrain: it disappears! Basically, the terrain is only opaque when viewed from the “outside” but if you are inside it is transparent. This is super-handy for viewing complex tunnels inside a mountain! I made liberal use of god-mode in building this base.
Standing at the end of the bridge, across from the chokepoint. The steel hatch to the left of the chokepoint provides access to the generator that powers the traps.
Looking the other way.

I returned to this pit later for some finishing touches, but for now let’s continue. From the Khazad Dum room, I dug some stairs up, doubling back to end up above the room. Here is where the digging really got serious. I wanted to re-create the huge hall in Moria filled with rank upon rank of pillars stretching off into the distance.

Alan Lee concept art of Moria.

I had learned in the process of digging out the pit for the bridge of Khazad Dum that to dig out such a huge volume block by block would take forever, even with 300% block damage. So instead I got smart. I dug around the perimeter of a huge rectangle and then undermined it so that it collapsed. The way the game physics works, if you cause a collapse, most of the blocks that are no longer supported are destroyed, and a small percentage remain as rubble which is much weaker and easier to clear.

Here are some screenshots showing the stages of digging out this huge hall. It was around this stage of the project that I also started really using “god mode” much of the time.

God mode view as I dug around the perimeter of the huge rectangle that will eventually be the great hall of Moria. The tool I’m holding is my trusty auger – in this game the auger is the ultimate digging tool, rapidly breaking through solid rock (completely unlike an actual auger, as I can attest from real-world experience…).
More progress, you can see that all sides of the rectangle are dug out now. Just need to undermine the bottom to make the whole thing fall. (Also notice that you can see the Khazad Dum room below in its unfinished state.)

The full length of the rectangular hall was too much to collapse all at once, so I split it into several chunks. Here’s a little video I recorded of the last chunk collapsing. You can see how very unrealistic the collapse is, but it’s a fast way to clear out a large volume!

At 1:28, the block starts to collapse (onto me) before I expected. Luckily, collapsing blocks don’t do too much damage!

After clearing out the space of the hall, I filled it with huge pillars to mimic Moria. I’m pretty pleased with how it came out:

Climbing the stairs into the hall.
Looking down the length of the hall.

At this point, with the hall constructed, I wanted to build a functional “residential” section of the base. When I decided to build this base, I moved all of my stuff from the original base I had been using from the start of the game, but had just been keeping it stashed in crates out front. My work stations were also just sitting out front, and I wanted to get them placed in an actual “workshop” part of the base.

I created a hallway and staircase off the end of the Moria hall, leading up to a large living space that emerges from the cliff face above the main entrance.

God-mode view of the Moria hall, Khazad Dum pit, and the beginnings of the living area.

Where the living area emerged from the cliff, I built a huge concrete “prow” sticking out in a way that was sort of reminiscent of the way the Citadel of Gondor sticks out over the walled city of Minas Tirith in LOTR:

An overhead view of the Citadel of Gondor, from Return of the King.
Note the spotlights lighting up the “prow” at night!
This is the classy living-quarters part of the base, so why not make a pretty garden and stained glass window?
View inside the stained glass area, standing by the “kitchen” area.
Here is the finished “workshop” area. Storage crates on the left. Cement mixers in the corner, workbench centered on the back wall, forges in the other back corner, and chemistry station on the right. Garage door in case I want to close off the workshop, electric light overhead, and bulletproof glass window through the natural rock wall.
“Kitchen” area, complete with mini-fridge. (I think it’s kind of hilarious that you can craft a gyrocopter and automated turrets in this game, but all cooking is done on a campfire.)

Along with the workshop and kitchen, I also made a living area. Not inspired by LOTR (though it might be fun to try a “hobbit hole” sometime), just a nice place to live, complete with bed, couch by the fire, and reading nook.

Couch and fireplace on the left, reading nook on the right.
View of the bed from the reading nook. (Stupidly, you still have to have a sleeping bag as your respawn point if you die, even if you have crafted a big bed. So you can see my bedroll by the wall.)
From the living quarters, I have a door leading to a scenic catwalk.
I put a little garden with a tree at the end of the catwalk.

I also added a spiral staircase from the residential area to the top of the mesa, where I placed a generator and solar panels. I also built a landing pad for my gyrocopter and wired it up with lights to turn on at night.

God-mode view of the residential part of the base from inside the mountain (this was before I added the tree at the end of the catwalk.
Landing pad and generator building on top of the mesa.

Once I had the residential area finished, I went back outside. I decided that I wanted to build a tower at the top of the switchback stairs that was (a) reminiscent of Orthanc, Saruman’s tower at Isengard in LOTR, and (b) also an effective horde base. As a reminder, here is what Orthanc looks like:

And here’s what I came up with. A little stubbier than Orthanc, but it gets the right “feel”:

The base of the tower is fortified to steel, and has electric fences across the 4 entrances.
I put a bunch of burning barrels at the top along with the Orthanc-like spires to make it look cool.
Looking down the ladder inside the tower. You can see the blade trap that is centered on the tower, and one of the several turrets aimed at the ladder. They do a good job of taking care of most zombies before they reach the top.
Better view of the turrets.
The tower connects to the entrance of the underground base via drawbridge, so if you are in trouble (or getting bored) during horde night, you can ditch the tower and run to the Khazad Dum room.

At this point, the base had all of the LOTR “landmarks” I wanted. I had originally thought about doing a Helm’s deep fortress, but ended up not trying to do that too. This was large enough! So my work on the base shifted to trying to improve it on horde nights. I found that the tower worked quite well, but if I camped out in the Khazad Dum room, the zombies didn’t follow the existing paths and instead tunneled through the rock to try to get to me. Their favorite paths were to tunnel just above the main entrance tunnel for some reason, or to try to break into the Moria hall. I also had screamer zombies (zombies that appear when you have been doing too much stuff in an area, such as crafting or digging, and which summon mini-hordes of other zombies) spawning around my workshop or finding their ways in to the Moria hall. So I started trying to work with the zombies, digging formalized tunnels where they had been trying to get in and feeding them toward turrets, or toward the chokepoint.

I made entrances like this at either end of the big Moria hall. Three tunnels converge in an “entryway” to the hall, with a turret looking down from above.
To handle the zombies that insisted on digging a tunnel just above my main entrance tunnel, I built a little balcony to catch them as the came down the face of the cliff. This funnels them down one of three hallways, which ended in stairs that lead to the chokepoint (both spiral stairs and stairs that converge in the middle). The two side hallways also connect to the Moria hall, so that zombies that find themselves in the Moria hall can find their way down to the chokepoint. At the bottom of the two staircases to the Moria hall, I have dart traps connected to motion sensors, so any zombie coming down the hall gets shot with darts. I also noticed that some zombies tended to just mill around the main entrance and attack the walls, so I added a machine gun turret above the chokepoint to shoot any loitering zombies and make them come in.

I found that one downside of the many entrances to the base was that if I was sitting on the bridge of Khazad Dum, a lot of the zombies got killed by the turrets at the different entrances before they could reach me. So, to at least get some idea of what was going on, I rigged motion sensors at each entrance to a set of lights in the Khazad Dum room, so that the lights would tell me where the zombies were coming in. Turns out a lot of the zombies were trying to enter through the south end of the Moria hall, and through the tunnels over the main entrance.

Finally, for no good reason other than that in LOTR the big hall with pillars is supposed to be part of a road, i.e. it is supposed to actually lead somewhere, I extended the tunnel off one end of the big Moria hall so that it came out the distant side of the mesa, and built a big arched bridge spanning the canyon there.

So there you have it! A super-detailed walkthrough of this super-huge base that I built. I’ll finish with a few parting shots showing all the crazy tunnels involved in the base, and then a video I recorded during a horde night so you can see the base in action.

Here’s what horde night looks like, starting in the tower and ending in the underground base. As a bonus, you get to see what happens when I accidentally leave the chokepoint traps active and try to run through them. Ouch…

Update: I have managed to export the base as a “prefab” that can be loaded into other people’s games so that it appears in randomly generated worlds. It doesn’t work perfectly – wiring doesn’t transfer, and I had to chop off the mesa unnaturally – but the main parts of the base are there. Check it out: https://www.nexusmods.com/7daystodie/mods/2306

Game review: 7 Days to Die

If you were to sit down and precision engineer a video game to be hopelessly addictive to me, you would probably end up with something like 7 Days to Die. It’s a strange mash-up of several different game genres – shooter, RPG, survival/crafting, tower defense, voxel-based, sandbox/open world – but somehow it not only works, it is incredibly compelling and has basically hijacked my brain for a significant chunk of the past year. Now, I’m susceptible to becoming addicted to almost any new game, but as you’ll see, this game hits a magic combination for me that takes it above and beyond.

The premise of the game is that it’s the zombie apocalypse and you wake up naked in the wilderness and have to find a way to survive. You gather resources and loot the remnants of civilization to craft clothing, weapons, and eventually build yourself a base where you can live safely and eventually thrive. You have to find food and water and clothing appropriate to the weather. And importantly you have to do all of this while not being eaten by zombies. But the core mechanic of the game is that every 7 days, there is a “blood moon” where the zombies go berserk, can find you no matter where you are hiding, and attack you in increasingly difficult waves. This weekly “horde night” gives the rest of the game an urgency: you need to repair, fortify, and improve your base in time for the next horde, because the hordes keep getting more and more powerful.

What’s really impressive is how irresistible I find the game despite the fact that it has no story whatsoever, and that it is not even a finished game – it is still technically in alpha, meaning it is actively being developed and is prone to bugs, lacking polish, and is generally rough around the edges. It was released in 2013 and is currently on its 21st alpha version, with no final release date in sight. I was hesitant to try a game that was still in alpha at first, and there have been some annoying bugs to deal with, but the benefit is that the game is constantly being improved, and that every year or so a major update is released, essentially providing a “new” game. I started playing last year on alpha 19 and enjoyed it very much (except for when a bug caused my vehicle and all of my possessions to mysteriously disappear…). Then when alpha 20 came out around Christmas time, I started a fresh game and have been thoroughly enjoying it again, appreciating all the various changes. The constant tweaking annoys some players but to me it’s kind of fascinating to watch. I am much more invested in the game because I can see it growing and changing.

It may seem weird for me to get sucked into an open world style game when in the past I have talked so much about how I like games with stories. I do think video games are a powerful medium for telling stories that only very rarely use their storytelling potential to its fullest. But a couple years ago I started to rethink that position when I got hooked on Fallout 4, and actually had a better time when I replayed it and mostly ignored the story and embraced the open world experience, the gameplay itself, and the little stories that naturally arise as you set your own goals and try to achieve them. 7 Days to Die picks up the evolution of my thoughts about games where I left off in Fallout 4, and has officially convinced me that my tastes in games are not actually what I thought, and that I’m perfectly happy without any story at all, in some cases. 

Story is one way that games can be great, and I still wish more games would invest more in good writing and storytelling, but it is not the only way. Games can also be great through compelling gameplay that puts you into a “flow” state where all other thoughts fall away and you know what to do, how to do it, and are enjoying the process of doing it (a combination that can be sorely lacking in real life…). 7 Days to Die definitely achieves this. It has that “let me just do this one more thing” feel to it that characterizes the most addictive games.

Games also can be great by just providing a rich secondary world for you to have interesting experiences in. That’s what I most enjoyed in Fallout 4, and the even greater freedom in 7 Days has been a blast. 

7 Days to Die is a voxel-based game, meaning that the whole game world is based on discrete blocks that you can destroy or build upon however you want. Minecraft is the most well-known voxel game, and makes very little attempt at looking pretty. 7 Days to Die actually manages to look good much of the time, in comparison. The game world is based on 1 meter blocks, but it does a lot of clever things to make this less glaringly obvious. The a20 update significantly improved the random world generation. While it’s still not without bugs (notably, water in the game is a mess, and you can end up with roads cutting across lakes making it look like Moses has been through recently), it generates some pretty believable terrain and cities, which with vegetation, weather, and lighting effects, can be downright scenic. Most importantly, it generates worlds that seem to cry out to be explored. That distant mountain? Not only can you go climb it, you can dig a tunnel right through it, or build a castle on top of it, or carve your initials into it. That distant city? Full of zombies but also potential resources to salvage.

My first glimpse of the new and improved cities in Alpha 20.
Not bad looking considering you can modify everything you see.

7 Days to Die actually has a lot in common with Fallout 4. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world where you have to loot ruins to find weapons and supplies. You level up as you play and gain more skills so you can become more powerful and craft better gear. On the hardest difficulty in Fallout 4 you have to find food and water and avoid disease, all of which are a core part of 7 Days to Die. Fallout 4 is definitely a far more “polished” game, with a great user interface, tons of actual quests with actual storylines and non-player characters. It’s also much prettier because it is not voxel-based. And in both games you can build a base. I enjoyed this in Fallout 4, but it didn’t really serve a very vital purpose, it was more just a cool thing you could do if you wanted. In 7 Days to Die, building yourself the ultimate base (in a game world that is completely modifiable by you – or destructible by the zombies trying to get to you…) is an absolute blast.

When I was a kid, I built a lot of forts. Snowy outside? Build a snow fort. Rainy day? Build a pillow fort. Got some legos? Build a fort. My dad built me a wooden fort in the basement. In high school, when left unsupervised in the north woods of Michigan, a friend and I scavenged materials from an abandoned hunting shack and built a fort. We cut (most of) our timber by hand using a dull hatchet, and even attempted a makeshift forge using a cinder block as furnace and anvil (turns out that, when heated, aluminum curtain rods just flake and crumble and cannot, in fact, be hammered into swords). We made an arsenal of wooden swords, staves, and bows instead. It was never quite clear who we were defending against, but there’s something about building a safe place for yourself and your friends that I apparently find really fun.

Yes, that’s correct, one of my fondest memories from my teens involves harvesting resources, looting ruined buildings for supplies, crafting weapons, and building a fort in the wilderness. I told you, 7 Days to Die is practically laser-targeted to make my brain happy.

In my latest playthrough, after surviving for a while as usual, I decided to get creative. I scouted around until I found the perfect location for an enormous Lord of the Rings-inspired base carved into the mountainside. To avoid disrupting this post with dozens of screenshots I’ll make a separate post to show it off, but here’s a taste.

Sunset over my epic base, complete with Orthanc-like tower.
My own personal, hand-crafted Mines of Moria. Now there’s an eye-opener and no mistake.

Another reason this game was particularly ideal for me is that I love the post-apocalyptic genre. I don’t know what this says about me, that I enjoy thinking about scenarios where the world falls into ruin and almost everyone dies and I need to repurpose the tools in the hardware store into weapons, but the genre’s popularity suggests that I’m not alone. If I had to guess, I would say it’s probably a symptom of the overwhelming complexity of the modern world. I think many of us sometimes wish we could strip that all away, and imagine what it would take to survive. 

We fundamentally have the same brains that our ancestors had 40,000 years ago, and those brains evolved to help us survive in a hostile world, creating tools from the materials we can find around us to provide shelter, food, and defense for ourselves and a small group of kin. It’s not surprising that a genre that considers a return to that sort of life might be appealing.

As an aside, one thing I dislike about the post-apocalyptic genre is the assumption that with the collapse of civilization, people will degenerate into roving bands of maniacs. Actual evidence from disasters shows that the much more likely outcome is that the apocalypse would shatter social and class barriers and that, at least at first, people would work together to help each other survive. (Check out A Paradise Built in Hell for more on this.) I’d love to see more in the genre that explores that perspective, rather than the common assumption that we’re all a bunch of murderers and rapists under a thin veneer of civilization.

The nice thing about a zombie apocalypse is that it gives you a convenient “other” to defend against, while sidestepping some of the interesting but messy questions that can be explored in the genre. Zombies = bad. No negotiating, no moral grey areas. Those are good for thoughtful stories, but if you are more concerned with gameplay, defending against mindless zombies makes for a very fun game. If the last few years have taught me anything, it is that sometimes you just need dumb fun.

The final thing I’ll mention about the game is that it can be played as a cooperative multiplayer game. It’s actually how I first came across it. I have a weekly video game night with my brother and friend from high school (the same friend I built that fort in the woods with) and we came across it while looking for a new game to play together. It’s a fun single player game, but building and surviving with friends makes it even better.

Looking down at the entrance to our cooperative game base. On horde night zombies follow the easiest path to you, but they are dumb so they don’t avoid things like giant spinning blades…

7 Days to Die is by no means a perfect game. It’s still in development, it has a mediocre user interface, occasional bugs, and if you’re used to cutting edge graphics it’s voxel nature will leave you disappointed. It can have the feel of a game designed by and for adolescent boys, with its “busty nurse” shopkeeper and often crude humor. It completely lacks anything like a story.

But it is incredibly fun. It combines what works from multiple game genres into a seriously addictive, creative, and amazingly flexible gaming experience. And it has cooperative multiplayer so you can do it all with friends. I have found myself pouring hour after hour into it and thinking about it nearly constantly. I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas for how to improve my base, either practically or aesthetically. I am finally reaching the point where I feel “done” with my single player game, but I’m still having a blast in multiplayer, and am still eagerly watching the development notes for the next version. I have no doubt that when alpha 21 is released, I’ll be sucked right back in.

Talking to Myself About Writing

Me: “It sure has been a long time since you wrote anything. What happened?”

Also me: “Well, you know. It’s hard to find time.”

“Oh really? Seems like you’ve found a lot of time to play video games in the last… What has it been, 9 months since your last blog post? And another 4 before that?”

“You know it’s different with writing. You need a decent block of time to really get into it.”

“Yeah, I seem to recall saying that before about gaming too though. You claim to want to be a writer but when push comes to shove, you make time for video games but not something that is supposedly very important to you. What gives?

“Well, video games are easier right? You play a video game to mentally relax. And they’re all about guaranteed competence. You know that if you keep playing, you’ll get better and more powerful and eventually you’ll win.”

“You do realize that if you wrote regularly you’d get better at that also, right?”

“Yes, but it’s hard.”

“What’s hard about it? Just put the words on the page.”

“It’s easy to put words on the page, but it’s hard to do it well.”

“Who cares if you do it well?”

“I do. I have these ideas in my head, and when they’re there they seem so great, but the moment I try to put them on the page, I realize that they’re not as good as they seemed.”

“But once they’re one the page, then you can make them better. If they’re just rattling around in your head you can’t see where they need to be improved.”

“Yeah, I know, but it’s also scary.”

“What is scary about writing? It’s not like someone is making you do it and they’re going to punish you if you don’t do it well. You’re not being graded. You don’t even have to show it to anyone until you’re ready. Or at all! You can write stuff down and not show it to anyone!”

“I know. But I build these ideas up in my head so much that it’s hard to finally see their flaws when I write them down. One of the main reasons I want to write is to get some part of myself out of my head and into the world. So when I build these ideas up in my head, they get tangled up in my sense of self and self-worth. It’s a lot more pressure when the words that I’m dumping on the page are in some way a part of me.”

“So you’re scared to work on writing that you find important or meaningful, because if it ends up not as good as you hoped, then in some way, you’ve immortalized that you yourself are not as good as you hoped.”

“Yeah. That’s why for a long time I was just doing blog posts here. Blog posts are lower-stress. I especially liked writing reviews of things because I could just jot down my opinions and move on. Not a lot of self-worth caught up in my opinion of the latest video game or TV show or whatever.”

“But you basically stopped writing here on the blog too…”

“Well, toward the end of 2020 I started writing a follow-up to my previous two very personal and philosophical “Finding Balance” posts, trying to figure out the extent to which I actually believe in all the nice things in those posts, and how much of it was trying to justify not working as hard. But that grew into a whole series of posts trying to pin down my own personal understanding of the meaning of life, and whether I am living the values that I claim to believe in. And it got to the point where working on those posts would often ruin my mood and send me into an existential crisis.”

“Sounds like they stopped being low-stakes blog posts and became something very personal, and therefore scary to work on.”

“Yeah. I still want to finish them, but it’s daunting. And it’s not like I have new insights. People are probably better off just reading Sartre.”

“Well, but the point is to get your personal take on these big philosophical questions. But if it’s hard to make progress on this project, take a break and write something else. You have other ideas.”

“Yeah, there’s a novel idea and a nonfiction book idea that have been rattling around in my head for years, but working on a “real” book project seems even more daunting than the philosophical blog posts. It’s much longer, much more work and then when all the work is done I know that I might face rejection trying to get it published anywhere. I have made small starts on both ideas, but never got very far. The self-doubt just kills all motivation.”

“Yeah, I get that. But let’s look at this rationally. What is the worst case scenario if you write?”

“I guess the worst case would be I spend a bunch of time on something that turns out not to be any good, and it doesn’t get published. It’ll feel like I wasted my time and I’ll be embarrassed by how it turned out.”

“And what’s the worst case scenario if you don’t write?”

“I’ll be disappointed in myself for not achieving one of my life goals. I’ll never know if I could’ve gotten something published. My thoughts and ideas will be stuck in my head.”

“The con for writing is interesting: You’ll feel like you wasted your time if what you write isn’t any good, but you’ll at least have something to show for it. Which is more of a waste of time, writing something that ends up not getting published or is not as good as you hoped, or spending that time passively consuming media with no end result to show for it?”

“I mean obviously writing is better. But it doesn’t change that it’s hard and scary and hard to get started and stick with it.”

“So how do we get over it and write anyway?”

“Momentum helps. I should try to write as often as I can. And probably need to get away from the idea that writing can only be done in big chunks. Little bits here and there can add up.”

“And lower the stakes. Everything you write doesn’t have to be the last or most important thing that you write. Especially on a first draft, you know it’s more about getting the words written so that you have something to edit. Writing the first draft is creating the lump of clay, not the finished statue. Nobody just sits down and writes a finished novel in one go.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“And the best way to do good creative work is to do a lot of it. Instead of agonizing over one thing, write ten things instead. Maybe nine are crap but one might be great, and you can’t really know until you do it.”

“Yeah, I recall a quote along those lines. Something about how it’s not the writer’s job to judge what they write, it is their job to write it. But I can’t find it.”

“Oh well. There’s always this one. Seems like a good place to end this post. Let’s write.”

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Ira Glass

AGU 2021: Initial Major Element Quantification Using SuperCam Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy

The virtual poster interface for the AGU fall meeting leaves something to be desired, so I thought it might be worth posting the contents of my poster here, where it is easy to access and share.

Audio recording walking through the poster.
Figure 1: Distribution of compositions in the laboratory spectral library. Orange bars represent the Training set, Green bars represent the test set.
Figure 2: (Left) All library points (grey dots) projected onto the first two PCs with selected sample types denoted by a range of colors and symbols (see legend). The dashed line represents the convex hull of all the library points. (Right) Same data without the SCCTs highlighted. Approximate groupings of samples are shown by shaded regions.
Figure 3: Test set predictions for the selected multivariate models. Perfect results would fall on the line.
ElementRMSEP wt.%Model
SiO26.1Average (GBR, PLS)
CaO1.3Blend RF+PLS
Na2O0.5Blend GBR+LASSO
Summary of 3 m test set RMSEPs and selected models.
Figure 4: Histograms of Mars predictions through Sol 239 for each major element.
Figure 5: PCA plot of Mars spectra with convex hull of laboratory data superimposed (dashed line). Most Mars data plot within the space spanned by the lab data. Points that plot outside are indicated in red.
Figure 6: Local RMSEP indicates how accuracy is estimated to vary with predicted composition. Black points are the unsmoothed values calculated using the nearest 60 test set predictions. Blue curves show the result of smoothing and extrapolating.

The Most Important Thing in the Universe

One of the side effects of studying science is an appreciation for how insignificant humans are in the scheme of things. It is pounded into your head at every opportunity. We are microscopic compared to the Earth, and Earth is not the center of the solar system. Our solar system is one of billions in our galaxy. Our galaxy is to the universe as grains of sand are to the beach. The universe is unfathomably old, and the Earth has been around for a good chunk of that time but humanity is brand new. In Sagan’s famous cosmic calendar analogy, in which the age of the universe is compressed down to a single year, humans don’t appear until minutes before midnight on December 31. On the scale of the universe in both space and time, humans might as well not exist. 

Apart from a thin film of life at the very surface of the Earth, an occasional intrepid spacecraft, and some radio static, our impact on the Universe is nil. It knows nothing of us.

Carl Sagan

This is all true, and it’s important to teach people, especially people who plan to make it their business to study the universe. You need to face reality even when it makes you uncomfortable.

However, it’s a little alarming how gleefully some people like to drive this point home. There’s a sense of smug superiority, a feeling of being somehow above the petty things that concern “ordinary” people. I find this is especially true of certain fields (you get this much more from the physical sciences than biological and social sciences) and certain types of people (especially those who think they have something to prove). 

As I have gotten older, I’ve started to realize that despite good intentions, this “minimize humanity” mindset leads to its own flavor of wrong-headed thinking. People begin to mistake feeling smart for being wise. 

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is one of those cases that Fitzgerald is talking about. Humans are indeed insignificant in both space and time when compared to the universe. But at the same time, we are far more important to each other than the distant reaches of space and time. Both of these things can be true. “Meaning” or “significance” are not laws of physics, they are human constructs. We as humans get to decide what is significant, and the scale of the universe is not the appropriate comparison. Our lives occur on the time scale of decades, and on the spatial scale of a tiny fraction of the surface of the Earth. So what if that’s small compared to the universe? It’s big for us.

Minimizing humanity might help avoid mistakes like saying that the sun goes around the Earth, or that we are at the center of the universe since most galaxies are flying away from ours. But it can also lead to dangerous reasoning like: If humans are insignificant, then how can we be responsible for climate change? Even if you accept that there are enough of us that collectively our actions are significant enough to mess up the planet, it can lead to a nihilistic view that it doesn’t matter. After all, we’re just a flash in the pan. Earth will survive whatever we do. Some species might go extinct with us, but others will adapt and flourish. So who cares? The sun will eventually become a red giant and consume the Earth, and the universe will eventually succumb to entropy. On the scale of the universe nothing matters, everything is insignificant and transient. So if nothing matters why should I care about anyone other than myself and my immediate gratification? A brief bit of hedonism before I return to the nothingness from whence I came. 

Of course, that’s a cop out. An avoidance of the uncomfortable responsibility of deciding for ourselves what is meaningful. It’s easier to throw our hands up and say “well, nothing matters.”

LIfe has no meaning a priori. Before you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing else but the meaning you give.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

Jean-Paul Sartre

This minimization of Earth and of humanity also can trick otherwise smart people into fixating on the wonders of the universe and neglecting the wonders around them. I have been somewhat guilty of this. I was fascinated by science from an early age, and started studying space right when I got to college. I thought I had a pretty good understanding and appreciation for “mundane” stuff and was more interested in the exciting weirdness of the rest of the universe. But of course, I knew almost nothing about life, and now as I get older and have more life experience, I have come full circle: I feel less drawn than I used to be to the mysteries of space which have no bearing on human life, and am more interested in the richness of regular everyday life.

My point is not that we should not marvel at the universe, my point is that, in looking up at the stars we must try not to devalue the wonders that are right in front of us.  The things that matter and can bring us real happiness are right here on Earth. 

Think of your own life. All the memories and experiences that are stored in your brain. All the relationships, all the places you’ve been, all the things you’ve done. Think of your proudest moments, your greatest disappointments, your loves and your losses. Think of the things you have created, the mark you have made on the world, whatever forms that takes. Just take a moment to recognize the richness of your life and everything you know and have done. These things don’t lose their significance because the universe is vast and ancient. The universe doesn’t get to decide what is significant to you. You do. 

Now consider: there are 7.9 billion other people on this planet. If you looked at one face every second it would take 250 years to look at everyone (and in that time, billions more would be born). Every two years, humanity’s collective experience spans more time than the age of the universe. That’s a lot of people. And what really boggles the mind is that every single one of them has just as rich and vivid and intricate a life as yours. Every one of them has their own favorite places and favorite foods, their own family, their own memories. Every person has things they have created, songs they have sung, dreams they have pursued. Every person has their own story. 

Every place and every thing in the world plays a role in countless people’s stories, and has a story of its own. That big tree in the park is just a tree to you, but to someone it’s where they shared a sunny afternoon with their first love. To someone else it is where they were sitting when the doctor called with bad news. To someone else, it’s where they take their family photo every year.

I think about this a lot when traveling or looking at a map: every place that you see is someone’s home. Every house, apartment, street or park, is at the center of someone’s whole life. When you really think about this and stop relegating these things to mere scenery, the world feels anything but small. 

It feels even larger when you fold in time as well. Consider not just the significance to people alive today, but the countless lives going back tens of thousands of years. We hear so much about how all of human history is the blink of an eye in geologic or cosmic time, but at the human scale, our history is almost unimaginably deep. We’ve been here long enough for every single patch of the earth’s surface to be rich with human history. Most of it forgotten, but all of it real. 

Lately I’ve gotten much more interested in history, especially ancient history and prehistory for this reason. Just as it is eye opening to think of all the places you visit on vacation as someone’s home, it fires my imagination to consider people as real and complex as you and me living thousands or tens of thousands of years ago. Real people peering out over the wilderness of an uninhabited continent, or cautiously trading with tribes of Neanderthals, or waging a forgotten war on the ground we walk every day, or struggling with the timeless day to day tasks of raising a family. I feel the depth of history stretching out into the past, at once unreachable but intimate in our shared humanity. 

I came across this on my social media feeds after I had written this blog post.

Yes, we humans are insignificant on a cosmic scale, but so what? We don’t live on that scale, we live on a human scale. Nihilism is a cop-out. We are responsible for deciding what is significant and meaningful, and as anyone who has held a newborn can tell you, it has nothing to do with size or age. You can hold the most important thing in the universe in your arms.

For small creatures such as we, the vastness is only bearable through love.

Carl Sagan

Poem: Hourglass Planet

I’m trying to get back into writing somewhat regularly, and I noticed some friends on Twitter posting using the hashtag #NaPoWriMo – National Poem Writing Month. Apparently it is the poetry equivalent of NaNoWriMo (Nationak Novel Writing Month), and you’re supposed to write one poem per day for the month of April. I’m not going to be able to keep up that pace, but I thought I might try my hand at some poetry. Poems are usually pretty bite-sized, and you’re actually supposed to agonize over every single word so my over-editing habits that slow me down for longer writing may actually be a good thing!

This first poem is inspired by this audio recording returned to Earth by Perseverance. Turn up the volume and listen to the sound of wind on Mars.

Hearing that recording got me thinking about how quiet Mars is. On the whole planet, the only things making any appreciable noise are Curiosity and Perseverance. Everywhere else it’s just the wind occasionally moving sand or dislodging a pebble or rock.

So without further ado, here’s the poem:

Hourglass Planet
Soft wind traces the faces of the rocks
And the world sounds like a held breath.

In that patient silence could you listen?

Sigh of wind 
hiss of sand
a pebble falls.


Or would you need to make noise?

Election Eve Thoughts

It has been a hell of a year. It is not the end of the calendar year, but tonight is the night before Election Day and it feels like the nation is balanced on the edge of a precipice. It feels like all the horrors of the last four years, and particularly of this last year, have been building to this point and now we are collectively holding our breaths. There are another couple of months in the year, but this feels like the right point to pause and reflect. It feels important to capture how I’m feeling right now, as we sit here at the brink and wonder what happens next.

I have been very quiet here on the blog. My last post was a video game review in July, and before that a post in April about the pandemic and how it hadn’t been too bad so far for me and my family. Since then, a lot has happened, and I’ve had a lot of thoughts about it that I would normally share here, but at a certain point it got to be too much. What could I say in the face of all that was happening? What good would it do to add my voice to the noise? I would just be echoing what everyone in my carefully curated social media bubble was also feeling and saying. How could I find the words to do justice to the pain and suffering that others are feeling, from which I am sheltered by layer upon layer of privilege?

I still have all of those doubts, but as I sit here freaking out about the election, I need to do something. Writing helps me process, so I’m going to write. I am going to resist the urge to rehash everything terrible that has happened in the last 6 months, or for that matter the last 4 years. You have all lived through it. You know.

I’m just so tired. The constant anxiety and outrage and despair and depression as I watch my country and the world succumb to the worst that humanity has to offer has culminated in sheer exhaustion. That is the other reason that I have not written much here, or anywhere else, this year. I’m just emotionally and mentally exhausted, so by the end of the day when I have time to write, I don’t have the energy to do it.

I’ve been trying to be kinder to myself about that. In this of all years, I have been trying to stop the negative self-talk that says I must spend every moment being productive. The last few years, and especially 2020, have taught me the value of “mindless” entertainment. It is ok that I just want to curl up and eat comfort food and play video games or watch dumb shows. Seeking out comforting non-productive activities is fine. There is nobody but myself who sets the expectation that after working all day and parenting into the evening, I should then do something “productive” instead of something fun and relaxing. Maybe someday I will have the energy for that, but right now I don’t and that’s ok.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Odds are that Biden will win and Trump will lose, but the odds favored Clinton in 2016 too. That collective trauma, and the subsequent damage that Trump has done to to country and to each of us over the last 4 years, will be with us for a long time. I deeply hope that tomorrow is an absolute incontrovertible Biden blowout. Even if that happens, I worry about the violence that Trump’s cult will inflict, and the damage a lame-duck Trump and Republican senate will do. If the election is close, it’s going to be a huge mess. Trump has already said he will declare victory prematurely and fight against counting all of the votes cast, turning to the Republican-stuffed courts to overrule the will of the voters. If Trump wins, I don’t know what I will do. It will affirm the lesson that we all learned in 2016, that a huge portion of this country is so much more selfish and hateful than we want to believe. I don’t know how I can live in a country that looks at what Republicans have done in the last 4 years and says “yes, more of that please.” But I also don’t know how I could leave.

Another thing that this year in particular has taught me is the value of focusing only on those things I can control. There’s a reason the famous “serenity prayer” is so famous. Along the same lines, in Buddhism they talk about how much of the suffering we experience comes from “clinging” to the way we want things to be, rather than facing the way things are. It is a lot easier said than done, but there have been moments this year when things got to be too much that I have taken some solace in narrowing my focus on what I can control.

I cannot control what happens tomorrow. I have done what I could by donating, writing letters, and phone banking (though I am disappointed in myself that I didn’t do more calls), but in the end the results of the election are out of my hands.

I think what makes this so hard is that with the memory of 2016 fresh in my mind, and the events of this year so relentlessly bad, I’m afraid to hope. But, in the end I do hope. I hope that the country steps back from the brink, that new leadership finally gets the pandemic under control and stops the needless loss of life, that this election is remembered as the point where the country had a stark choice and chose wisely, and began the long work of fixing what is broken. I hope that soon we can all rest a little easier, and turn our efforts toward that work with a little more optimism. I hope.

Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2 somehow manages to be one of the most amazing video games I have ever played while also being one of the most frustrating. It is the victim of its own success: it does so much so well that its flaws are all the more noticeable.

[Note: spoilers abound in this post, so if you don’t want the game spoiled, go play it and read this later!]

But first let’s start with the positives. RDR2 is the biggest, most beautiful game I have ever played. The world is huge and intricately detailed, and no matter where you are, no matter what time of day it is, or what the weather is, it looks gorgeous. I recall reading something a few years back about video games and how graphics are good enough that the aim is no longer to exactly mimic reality, but instead to look better than reality, and RDR2 certainly does this. Like its predecessor, the ambiance of the game is one of its main strengths, and there were times when I would just pause to take in the sights. I mean, just look at some of these screenshots I found with a quick search:

The world of RDR2 is a stylized version of the United States, and although the game is nominally a “western,” the map includes the desert southwest, the rockies, the Midwest, the deep South, and Appalachia. These regions blend seamlessly with each other and each has its own unique “feel” thanks to the changing geography, flora, fauna, and cities. If you’ve traveled the US at all, you can always recognize the real-world analog of where you are in the game. Through the course of the game, I talked to a guy panning for gold near Grand Teton, hunted a legendary wolf near Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone, picked wild orchids in the Louisiana bayou, found a mysterious skeleton in a snowy pass through the Rocky Mountains, and watched the sun rise over Sedona. And none of that was part of the main story of the game.

It’s not just the scenery that is amazing either. The game looks like a movie, with nearly every bit of dialogue well acted, and well “filmed” for lack of a better term. No artificial talking heads here, these are real scenes with genuine cinematography. The motion capture for the characters is excellent, and the characters themselves look great. The camera can get right in for a closeup and you rarely lose immersion due to graphics the way you might in games from just a few years ago.

Arthur Morgan, the main character.
Arthur Morgan and Sadie Adler.

Not only do the characters look good, they’re also actual characters with personalities and backstories and well-written, well-acted dialogue to rival any western movie. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the characters and story in RDR2 are better than those in many western movies and novels I’ve seen/read. (This is not to say the story is flawless: more on that later.)

The story follows Arthur Morgan, second in command of a gang of outlaws led by the charismatic, loud-mouthed Dutch van der Linde. It begins with the gang on the run through the snowy mountains after a botched job in the town of Blackwater. They find a new place to set up camp and start trying to earn money through various legal and non-legal means.

Some members of the gang. From right to left: Dutch van der Linde, Hosea Matthews, Bill Williamson, Arthur Morgan, John Marston, Charles Smith

But tensions start to rise as the sleazy and reckless newcomer Micah Bell gains influence over Dutch, leading to a series of failed jobs and increasingly hare-brained schemes. Dutch loses his grip on sanity as the failures wear on him and Arthur begins questioning him after decades of loyalty.

At the same time, Arthur’s life of bad choices catches up with him. Early in the game he is collecting debts and beats a farmer who, it is revealed later, dies of tuberculosis shortly thereafter. Arthur learns that he caught the disease, and faces his own mortality in a way that is unexpected to someone who expected to someday die in a shootout. He has time to reckon with the good and bad that he has done in his life and the opportunities that he has sacrificed and friends he has lost because of his loyalty to Dutch.

Needless to say, video game plots have come a long way since the days of Bad Dudes on NES:

Red Dead Redemption is so excellent in so many ways that it ends up in a sort of uncanny valley between video game and movie, where it doesn’t fully succeed at being either one. Although the plot is excellent for a video game, and I would gladly read a novel or watch a movie with the same plot, it suffers because it has to serve double duty as a video game. I found it really jarring to go from beautiful, well-acted, cinematic cut-scenes, to the inevitable massive shootout against dozens of disposable henchmen. The actual shootout sequences end up seeming borderline slapstick compared to the real drama of the cut-scenes.

Similarly, the plot gets repetitive because it needs to find more and more excuses to have big video-game shootouts. So the gang tries repeatedly to do elaborate jobs and repeatedly fails and repeatedly has to go on the run again, and it quickly gets to the point where you wonder why in the world all these people are following Dutch when Arthur is clearly the more sensible one. And of course, that realization is what ends up being the culmination of the story, but it takes a long time and a lot of repetition to get there. This is because a video game the size of RDR2 needs dozens of hours of content in the main story, not the few hours of a good movie, so there’s a lot of padding and extraneous asides. In particular, the part of the story line involving Arthur trying to help a Native American tribe and Dutch trying to lead them into conflict with the Army as some sort of elaborate distraction made very little sense and was pretty clearly there to have more, and more varied, shootouts. Similarly, the unexpected detour involving a shipwreck in the Caribbean and a fight to help freed slaves against the brutal plantation owner/dictator there was a lot of filler (though it provided a beautiful change of scenery).

(I have conflicting feelings about how the game handles race in general and Native Americans in particular. I don’t feel qualified to speak much about it but I’ll say that I think the game’s heart is in the right place even as it uses some uncomfortable tropes and outright stereotypes.)

The flip side of the story suffering because it has to accommodate the video game aspects of RDR2 is that the game suffers too, to the extent that I actually think it is more successful as a “movie” than as a game. The game aspects suffer from several major flaws: bad controls and menus, lack of consequences, and lack of a compelling open world gameplay and progression.

First, the controls and menus: They’re really surprisingly bad. Because it tries to be a full-blown realistic wild-west simulator, there are a zillion things that you can do, and just as many controls to learn. Even after playing for 6 months, I still regularly struggle to remember what button does what in some circumstances. A lot of this is because new controls are inevitably introduced while there is some other action happening on the screen and are only shown on screen briefly before disappearing forever. Also, the same button sometimes does very different things in different contexts. For example, the button to look at something is the same button to shoot, which can lead to… bad outcomes.

If the controls are bad, the menus are terrible. They require you to hold down one button, then point in a radial direction with one of the control sticks, then potentially tap another button to choose among similar items, and then release the first button. It’s incredibly awkward. Meanwhile the game isn’t fully paused, just slowed way down. I think the idea was to keep it quick to avoid people getting buried in menus and thereby break the immersion of the game, but it’s much more distracting to use a poorly designed menu than it is to just pause, choose the item you want using simple, clear controls, and then get back to business. The inventory is clunky too, to the point that I essentially ignored it other than to occasionally check my Legendary Animals map.

I hate this radial menu.

And that gets at the second major issue: lack of consequences. There are so many things that can just be ignored. You are warned early in the game that you need to eat often enough to stay healthy but not so much that you get fat. You are supposed to brush and feed your horse or it will suffer a loss of stamina. You can learn to cook a variety of fancy meals by combining meat from animals you hunt with various medicinal herbs you can gather. There are different special types of ammo you can learn to craft. You need to clean your guns to keep them in tip top shape. You’re supposed to donate money to the gang to pay for upkeep and provisions. You can craft all sorts of outrageous-looking outfits if you hunt the right animals. The list goes on and on and on, and basically none of it matters.

You don’t suffer any real penalty from eating too much or too little. The penalty to your horse for not keeping it clean is insignificant. There’s no reason to cook anything because even the most basic “stick meat over fire and then eat it” recipe refills all of your stats easily. The ammo crafting is a waste of time: sure I can make explosive bullets, but if I have to make them one at a time, and my sniper rifle can kill even the strongest legendary animals in a few shots, I don’t really need the explosive bullets, do I? Yeah, dirty guns don’t do as much damage, but it’s not that much of a penalty. The gang is perfectly fine if you donate precisely nothing to them. Those outfits you can craft look cool and/or silly but don’t change a thing.

Some of the “interesting” outfits you can make.

It seems like the game designers wanted the best of both worlds: they wanted the immersion of having to keep track of all these little things, but also didn’t want the player to get bogged down in all of them. I would much rather they had picked a few of these details and made them actually matter and ditched the rest.

This lack of consequences carries over into the game’s difficulty, or lack thereof. This is an incredibly easy game. It aims for you, you can enter slow-mo “dead-eye” mode and take out a half-dozen guys who already have you in their sights, and if your dead-eye meter or health runs low you’re basically guaranteed to be carrying enough miracle elixirs and snake oil to refill them indefinitely (another thing you theoretically need to care about but in practice doesn’t matter). Just about the only times I died in the game were when I (a) did something really stupid and deserved it, or (b) got confused about the controls. Confusing controls should not be the leading cause of death in a video game. I’m no elite gamer and I don’t mind a game being on the easy side, but a game should have a bit of a challenge and some stakes if you die and too often this one just… didn’t. Worst case, you lose a few bucks and respawn nearby.

And finally, the lack of a compelling open world gameplay or character progression. In this case, by character progression I don’t mean in terms of the story, but in terms of your abilities in the game. Other than getting a bit more stamina, health, and “dead-eye” time, you don’t really gain more abilities after the initial (lengthy) tutorial period where new controls and things are gradually doled out. The closest thing to new abilities that you get are new guns, but really a lot of these are window decoration. There are technically a whole bunch of guns in the game but in practice there are 5: pistol, repeater, shotgun, rifle, sniper rifle. The different types within each class don’t really matter much.

One of my greatest disappointments about RDR2 is that despite having such an amazing and beautiful open world, once you finish the main story there’s not that much to do in it. Or rather, there is a lot to do but it all feels like filler. Hunting is pretty fun for a while, and I liked the Legendary Animals, but I ended the game wishing I could spend more time in the game world, but unable to justify doing so because there was nothing meaningful to do.

Watching the sun set from your ranch, Beecher’s Hope, in the Epilogue.

I’ve complained here a fair deal about one of the best-reviewed video games ever made (and I freely admit that it’s one of the best I’ve ever played despite my complaints). So what would I do differently to fix this? Aside from basics like “better controls and menus”, a lot of my complaints could be fixed by rearranging the plot.

One of the most compelling sequences in the plot is actually the epilogue, where you’re playing as John Marston and trying to set up a ranch and get away from the outlaw life to convince your wife and son to come back to you. It plays to the ambiance of the game and by cutting down on the outlandish firefights in favor of more character development, it’s stronger than much of the main story line.

In my fantasy version of the game, this sequence is moved to the early part of the game. You would begin the game as a teenage kid with no skills whatsoever, orphaned and heading west to build a life. You find work, develop skills, and eventually start a family and ranch of your own. But paying the bills gets harder and harder and as you discover that you’re good in a fight you start making money by collecting bounties. At this point, you meet up with Dutch and join his gang, trying to live a double life as a family man and as a gang member. You build loyalty to Dutch as the gang protects your family from some other outlaws, but eventually the dual life collapses and your family leaves (or is killed?), so you end up in Dutch’s gang and fiercely loyal. From here, the main plot of the game can proceed. There’s more justification for the long time it takes to realize the loyalty to Dutch is misplaced.

The epilogue with John Marston can still work: he inherits Arthur’s ranch, run-down after years of neglect. After the credits roll, the ranch provides the reason to keep playing. You can build new upgrades and customize it to your heart’s content if you earn money by continuing to play (in this scenario you would not end up with vast sums of money after the end game). I’m picturing full-out customization, similar to the base-building in Fallout 4. (Likewise, in general I’d love to see the introduction of more unique weapons and clothing that actually have impacts on the gameplay, again similar to Fallout 4.)

Anyway, those are my (waaay too long) thoughts on Red Dead Redemption 2. It was excellent in a lot of ways but that just made its shortcomings all the more frustrating. It’s been a couple of weeks since I stopped playing and I still have that sad feeling you get when you finish a really immersive novel. I sincerely wish I had more of a reason to keep playing around in the gorgeous world of the game. In any case, despite my complaints, the success of RDR2 makes me optimistic about the future of story-heavy gaming. If RDR2 is a sign of things to come, I’m looking forward to what the future of gaming holds.

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