Blog

Silver Nitrate by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I recently finished Silver Nitrate, the latest novel by one of my favorite horror (or perhaps horror-adjacent) authors, Silvia Moreno-Garcia*. This one was set in the early 90s in Mexico City and involved an audio engineer getting mixed up in the occult and dark magics started by a possibly Nazi occultist film-maker a few decades back.

What I love about this author’s work is how it’s not written to exoticize Mexico for English-speaking audiences. There’s so much that this culture has in common with ours, and Moreno-Garcia doesn’t de-emphasize this. And yet, the setting is interesting and different enough that it satisfies my desire for novel experiences.

As usual, the protagonist is a prickly, awesome woman who I would enjoy having as a friend. The supernatural elements are more overt than I expected, after having read Velvet Was the Night most recently, which was more of a crime noir than anything else. That said, it was a welcome return to the subjects that first captured my attention with Signal to Noise.

If any of that sounds up your alley, I highly recommend giving this one a read. It kept my attention even in this time of atomized attention spans, which is really saying something.

*Disclaimer: I did Silvia’s website a few years back.

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Recently Read–Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari

Stolen Focus by Johann Hari cover

Funny story; at some point in the last couple of months, I put this title on hold via Libby and my public library, but during the excitement of the last month, I didn’t realize it’d arrived on my Kindle (or rather, I had added it to my Kindle and completely forgotten due to my scattered nature lately). I’ve been eager to read books about attention span since the great attention span crisis that was COVID-19 and the past three years. Me, I don’t read nearly as much in my 40s as I did as a teen or even as much as I did in my 20s, and this has bothered me for some time. I’ve noticed that I’ve trained myself so well to skim articles that I start to do it even when reading novels and nonfiction books. I also suffer from the usual problems the rest of us do — social media stealing my attention, wasting time etc. Basically, I don’t often feel like I’m in control of what my brain decides to spend time on. I want to do better in this regard.

So I dove into this book and found it really quite readable, interesting, well-argued and persuasive. The opening chapters were the strongest ones and helped lay out the case that we actually are finding our focus stolen by technology (and technology’s evil older brother, Capitalism), and some few ideas of what we can do about it. I was especially happy that Hari addressed the idea that this is simply old age catching up with us with studies that show a decline regardless of age.

Most of the book is divided into chapters looking into the various factors that Hari believes are contributing to our stolen focus. These include the regular suspects, as well as a few that are more surprising to me, like bad food and pollution, but which make sense when explained here.

Ultimately, the book concludes that we need mass collective action to really attack the core problems, but the era of Americans agreeing to change anything at that scale strikes me as over, so I was far more interested in what the book would have to offer as far as personal modifications I can make.

It’s got a few ideas (switch to a 4-day work week if you can, use limiters to block yourself from distractions like your phone or internet browsing on your computer with apps like Freedom) but mostly reading this book served to cement my interest in finding ways to recapture focus and think more clearly and deeply about things.

Thanks to this book, I’m hoping to turn 2024 into a grand experiment for me in restructuring how I interface with my work and clients and how I structure my day. I am giving serious consideration to a 4-day work week, and I want to structure my day in terms of focus blocks of extended time instead of task-switching every 15 minutes from issue to issue. To be fair, I don’t think any of my clients asked me to work in this distracted manner. It’s just kind of how my brain decided to tackle the workload. I’ll be curious to see if any of these tips help me feel an improved sense of focus and flow. I have to write up the changes and float them to my major clients– that will be the first hurdle to the experiment, but I am hopeful.

I would be remiss in not mentioning that the author of this book is apparently the subject of numerous controversies which you can read about on his Wikipedia page. At least in the case of this book, it seemed well researched and provided quite a healthy back matter of citations (not that I did more than skim them). Having heard that from Gord Sellar (who has a far more detailed writeup about this book than I do), who read the book last year, I decided to take the book with a grain of salt. Especially in later chapters where Hari decides to tackle ADHD and children’s mental development. The research in that area seemed particularly on shaky ground to me, but it’s more of a gut instinct than anything specific, so take what I say with a lump of salt as well.

Have you read this book? What did you think? What do you think about the idea that we are all having a much harder time thinking deeply these days? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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I really should be better at this

Okay, so I’ve installed the WordPress.com desktop application to see if having a dedicated icon reminds me to write to this blog more often. Who knows if it will work? Let’s solve this mystery together, gang!

One advantage of taking a long time between posts is that you have plenty to talk about. What have we missed? A lot, as it turns out.

I was rear-ended by a semi while trying to take a friend to the airport way back in… May, I think? It was my fault, and nobody and nothing was injured except for my nearly perfect driving record and my sense of superiority as a driver. The car was eventually totaled out by insurance, so we bought a 2018 Suburu Outback. Back when we lived in Colorado, I used to long for a Suburu, which I often say is the official state car of Colorado (as well as apparently being the preferred car of lesbians everywhere). We’ve taken to calling it White Lightning. It’s certainly the nicest car we’ve ever owned. It has lane assist and adaptive cruise control, more radar technology than you can imagine. On the highway, it basically drives itself, speeding up and slowing down to go with the flow and staying in lane. I keep the lane assist off most of the time because it creeps me out when the car steers itself. I am definitely entering the old-man-shakes-fist-at-clouds stage of my relationship with car technology. For the most part, we love it.

I went to GenCon 2023, and Sarah came with me. You can read all about Monte Cook Games at GenCon over on the company blog, and even see pictures of Sarah and the cool costumes she helped us design. If you squint, you might see me in one of the photos. This year, I ran four games of Stealing Stories for the Devil and three games of Old Gods of Appalachia, including 4 outside-the-con games. My 7th game of Old Gods was at table 7, which felt proper. 28-ish hours of GMing left me exhausted, but happy.

A week after GenCon, a lightning strike fried my modem, router, and the main computer I use for work. $4000 dollars later, I am the owner of a brand new workstation. Beside the finacial expense, which is thankfully tax deductable, it also cost me two days of work last week around the clock to get everything restored. The biggest change on my outside-of-work life is that I now have a 4K monitor that can do HDR. If you haven’t seen Baldur’s Gate 3 in 4K and HDR, you are missing out. And that game doesn’t even have top-of-the-line graphics! I am looking forward to seeing how Starfield looks on it. Not that I have much time for either.

My personal time is mostly going to RPGs lately. I’m still running a D&D game on alternating Thursdays, our Blades in the Dark campaign on alternating Fridays, and of recent, a Brindlewood Bay game on Saturdays. We’ve only played Brindlewood Bay twice so far, but we’ve really enjoyed it. I hope to do a blog post with greater detail about how I’ve been using some AI tools to create assets for myself to use in my Brindlewood games. There are longer posts to be written about ethical use of AI generation for RPG campaigns, and maybe I’ll get a chance to write my view.

Speaking of Brindlewood, my good friend Gord Sellar has published his Carved from Brindlewood game, Something Tookish. A group of us got to playtest this a couple of months ago. I played a North Country halfling farmer with a dog as tall as he was. It was a real hoot, involving a mystery of who was stealing vegetables from a garden, and why. I absolutely love the Brindlewood system for mysteries, which makes them far more fun to game-master than a traditional mystery where you as the GM know the solution to the puzzle and have to somehow guide the players to it. If cozy halfling mysteries sounds like it would be up your alley, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Gord’s creation.

Finally, when there’s any time left, I’ve been working on creating my own Forged in the Dark RPG, yet another attempt to somehow create the Conspiracy Game, something only friends from 25 years ago will know of. Basically, my goal is to create an RPG that is a cross between the X-Files and X-Com. I’ve been reading every Forged in the Dark game I can find to study up, as well as slowly working through the early seasons of the X-Files on Amazon Prime. The HD versions are a delight to watch. Bless those 90s shows that filmed in 35mm instead of video! At the rate I’m going, I will probably finish the game by 2030, if I am lucky. But the main reason I am making it is not to have a career; I just want to make something my friends and I can play. And with those low stakes, I will get there.

That about sums up my summer, besides the fact that my eight year old turned into a nine year old. He spent his summer learning Unreal Engine and Blender to do animation and video game stuff. I envy that kid.

Anyway, I hope your summer has been full of delights. Let’s try not to go so long between talks, okay? Good. Together, we have forged a pact in the eyes of the Internet Gods, one that cannot be broken without suffering terrible misfortunes!

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A Week Off Means Existential Crisis

I’m at the start of a week off from client projects work, due to it being the fifth week in a month, so I am of course teetering on the brink of a depressive episode and feeling aimless and introspective.

I wonder how common it is for men my age to realize that their work life has mostly subsumed their sense of self. I don’t even work as many hours as a typical salaried type, but even I feel at times that the totality of me that is valuable to society is the me that fixes computers and websites for a living, and everything else is chaff.

On a private Discord I run, one thing we’ve spent a decent amount of time talking about is how insidious the capitalist notion is that we are only the value of our work, and that we should all be allowed to feel worthless from time to time. I really struggle with doing that. Almost all time exists in a potential state of what I can accomplish with it. Even if that thing is “play a video game” I am very task-oriented in every aspect of my life. Simply existing isn’t satisfactory to me. It feels vaguely troubling, in fact. Like I’m wasting something precious.

I don’t know how much I want to change that. I want my time on this Earth to feel like I added value–well, there I go again, parroting capitalism. I want to… improve? things, make them a little better than they were when I found them? Even that feels like far too big of an ask in this era of decline and imminent eco-collapse. I guess at the end of the day, I can’t relax unless I feel like I’ve been productive with my time. My standards for being productive aren’t that high, though. Maybe just an hour or two a day even on weeks off will be enough to stave off the existential jeebies. We’ll put that to test this week.

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Personal Life

A Brief Review of Star Wars: Shatterpoint

This is cross-posted from a post I made over on reddit/r/shatterpoint. I was lucky enough to get early access to this board game, and wanted to share my thoughts with others.

First my history with miniatures games – I got seriously into 3D printing for tabletop games 8 years ago, which led me from my core hobby of RPGs into war gaming. I’ve since played many games of everything rom Warhammer to Warcry to Frostgrave and Stargrave and many other games in-between including Malifaux. And of course, I’m a life-long Star Wars fan. I’ve played large amounts of X-Wing and Assault, but never did get into Legion. I’ve played a couple of games of Marvel Crisis Protocol, but not enough to be an expert and make strong comparisons. I’m also not a huge Marvel fan, so I didn’t like it as much as I like this.

My FLGS owner asked me to assemble and paint their core box, and starting last Tuesday, I put all my spare time into putting it together. Assembly was very easy (especially compared to some of the smaller Malifaux models) except for the very finicky Battle Droids. Painting, however, was easy all around. I mostly use speed and contrast paints and aim for table ready at best. I wanted to get these all painted on the table as quickly as I could for demo games.

I finished painting up Thursday and sat down for my first few games that night. I have played twice using the standard compliment of Separatists/Dark Side and once as the Galactic Republic/Light Side folks. I’ve lost two games, and won one (as the good guys). Since my games, others have used our store demo copy to play, and we’re currently sitting at about 50/50 wins from the two core box teams. I don’t think we’ve tried squad building at all yet, but there are a lot of plans for such when the official release arrives.

Our first game took about 3 hours, with a lot of paging back and forth in the rules. We definitely got a few things wrong. If I have a single major criticism of the game, it is that the rule book doesn’t seem to have a good organizational structure for reference while learning/playing those first games. There are a lot of tiny little edge case rules (some that you find in Asoka speech bubbles) that are easily missable. After our first couple of games, some of us spent more time at home reading the rules and identifying what we did wrong. The next batch of games went more smoothly. Our biggest mistake was allowing double-attacks or double-moves. It made things like focus and hunker actions less used, but later games actually implementing the action economy made much more use of these actions. Not the game’s fault, but ours. Even playing it wrong, we had an absolute blast.

I’ll start with my praise; I’ve read that the designers were aiming for a Saturday morning cartoon vibe with this, and I would say that they have hit it out of the park there. The struggle tracker results in this great “back and forth” feeling and movement and number of figures vs active objectives makes it feel like there’s always something that you can do to turn the tide, even if it might be a bit of a gamble.

Thanks to the combat trees on the stance cards, the ability to put characters in reserve when drawing from your deck, and more, everything in this game seems to be about giving you a rich variety of tactical choices in the moment (also reinforced by the design of the one mission in the core box). Does it make more sense here to lay on thick damage and try to wound your opponent vying for that objective marker, or should you load them up on statuses and shove them around? Does it make sense to use these force points and abilities now, or will you need them later? I feel like in some games, I make choices, but there are fewer meaningful ones.

I loved my choices I got to make here. The decision space is rich, and I can only imagine that will improve with yet more figures and missions being released in the future.

In our games, which settled into about an hour and a half to two hours after the first one, we only ever had one character (Bo Katan) removed from the table entirely. I very much like this, actually, as it kept the tactical environment complex and it always feels kind of crappy to lose figures in a squad game like this. I imagine if it ever made sense to focus on eliminating a figure, we would have, and wounding them certainly is a good tactic due to the momentum tokens you earn, we didn’t find a strong incentive to drive characters off the board over capturing points (at least so far). This also lends to that “cartoon” vibe.

The other thing I absolutely love about this game is the way the struggle tracker works. Earning momentum when you wound opponents makes combat feel consequential and important. And the catch up mechanic of earning momentum on your side if you fail to bring the transparent cube back to your side after scoring makes it feel like there’s always a chance things might swing back in your favor. This feels, for lack of a better term, very “Star Wars.”

I’m fairly critical of games I play, and I do have some minor complaints about the game, but not as many as I would have expected. Like I mentioned before, I think the rule book does a poor job of condensing things for easy reference during play. This will be solved and has been already on the Facebook group with some cheat sheets that make it easier to reference token and symbol definitions all in one place. I have some quibbles with icon design – I find it easy to confuse the shove and the dash icon with my aging eyes so I have to double-check myself for those.

But really, not much else at this point. I cannot wait to get more characters on the table. I can’t wait to see what squad building brings to the game, and I look forward to exploring all the cool new decisions the game gives me in the future. The designers of this seem to really get Star Wars in a way I agree with. Character mechanics design felt very thematic, from Rex’s hunker powers and Ashoka’s fighting styles, to how Lord Maul seems built to destroy people and die quickly like a beautiful firework. And Anakin – Anakin is a beast. When Anakin comes running at you, you feel exactly like a Battle Droid would at that sight. Oh no…

I think for me at least, the future for Shatterpoint is bright. I am even more excited for the game now that I’ve played it. I wanted to share my experiences for those of you who haven’t had a chance yet, and start a discussion of the overall experience for others.

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a man that is standing in the dark

Gaming

WooCommerce and Captcha – Why You Need One

Hi there. This is a quick post that I hope will show up in search engines to spare others the suffering I’ve had to deal with recently. You need a captcha plugin or something like it on your WooCommerce sites. If you don’t have some barriers, a bot will take advantage of your site and use it for carding attacks.

What is a carding attack? That is when a hacker or other nefarious type person buys a list of credit cards on the Dark Web (or whatever) and uses a website like yours to test those cards to see which ones are still compromised. They like websites with small purchases that are likely to go unnoticed- so RPG publishers selling $1 PDFs are a popular target, I have learned.

A carding attack will take this list and generate hundreds or thousands of fraudulent orders on your store. Most will fail, but some will succeed and need to be canceled and refunded or you risk your merchant account.

So why a captcha? Captchas typically stop these bots pretty well – we use Cloudflare TurnStile to decent effect. We require human confirmation at checkout, and this saves us a lot of trouble.

I don’t really like blogging about my day job – I have huge imposter syndrome about what I do and I am terrified that someone more knowledgeable than me will come along and call me a fraud. But it’s a huge part of my life so I need to start blogging about it more often. We’ll see if I can get over this hangup.

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person using laptop computers

WordPress

Our Bird Balconies

One of the few highlights of our lives during the pandemic around here was when a pair of house finches made a nest on our front porch and raised babies. We watched them go from eggs to fledglings, and we really wouldn’t mind having a chance to do that again.

Since the pandemic, finches have tried to make nests on our porch atop the pillars that hold up the roof several times, but the locations are a bit cramped and small. Some attempts have fallen out entirely. Sarah and I decided to put our heads together and solve the problem for them, or at least make things a little easier.

Sarah took measurements and drew me some plans (get-you-a-woman-who-can-draw-architectural-plans.meme). I took her draing into TinkerCAD to create a 3D design. TinkerCAD is about the simplest CAD program out there, but They’re crude, but they get the job done – I really need to learn a proper CAD application this year.

I fired them off in white PETG on the printer – normally I print in PLA because it doesn’t matter if my stuff is outdoor safe, but these needed to stand up to the elements a bit better. We printed two of them and this past weekend, mounted them.

A picture of one of our bird balconies installed atop a pillar under our porch

It remains to be seen if they will attempt to make use of them, but really it wasn’t too much time to create, so either way, I’m happy with the results.

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red and brown bird on gray rock

Personal Life, Wildlife

Money-based Thought Experiment

I had trouble sleeping the other night because I was filled with a question I couldn’t precisely answer.  That question was simple:  what do I want right now?

I had spent the day unhappy and unsettled, and I wasn’t sure why.  Weekends lately are harder for me than work days because I am given more time to contemplate these things, and I don’t have easy answers.  As I tossed and turned, I began asking myself these questions.

  • What would you do if someone handed you $10 right now?
  • What would you do if someone handed you $100 right now?
  • What would you do if someone handed you $1,000 right now?
  • What would you do if someone handed you $10,000 right now?
  • What would you do if someone handed you $100,000 right now?
  • What would you do if someone handed you $1,000,000 right now?
  • What would you do if someone handed you $10,000,000 right now?
  • What would you do if someone handed you $100,000,000 right now?

The purpose of this experiment is to help us understand where we sit economically and also to free ourselves from the constraints of concerns about finances when trying to understand our true desires. 

Meeting our basic needs consume much of our time and energy (a varying amount depending on your socioeconomic level), so finding the question above that pegs where you stop meeting needs and start thinking about wants is a useful one.  

It helped me to consider these questions. The answers don’t so much matter as much as how you feel as you consider them.

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April Fools Pranks are Not Good Marketing Strategy

I get it. Working in marketing can be boring as hell; tried and true works, but we all want to innovate and stretch our legs sometimes. The temptation to write a goofy April Fools joke is strong. But do not give into this temptation, I say, the Slayer of Fun Things and Goofy Ideas.

I think it’s a terrible strategy that is pretty much lose-lose 90% of the time. Internet veterans are tired of dishonesty, even when the point is humor. The best you can hope for is a chuckle. The typical response is mostly a groan and an eye-roll. And what if you do pull one over on some of your customers? Which, no matter how ridiculous you think you’re being, you’re going to do?

Then you made a customer feel like a fool. That’s the point, right? Well, there’s a chance that they’ll take it in good stride. It might also leave them with a bad taste in their mouth in regards to your business. That’s what I hear they call an unforced error in sportsball. It’s hard enough to earn customer respect and trust in this era – it’s not a currency worth burning for some chuckles.

There is an exception to this rule which is an April Fools joke that you follow through on. An example of this was the Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon game. Announce a silly product and actually release it? That is the one way that I think takes advantage of the whole fauxliday (fail-i-day?) and turns it into an actual marketing advantage.

The rest is just too played out or exhausting to contemplate. No matter how bored we are with writing yet another opt-in marketing newsletter.

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black flat screen computer monitor

Commentary

RPGs are the Cheapest Form of Gaming Entertainment

I was annoyed earlier today about yet another board game that aims to recreate the tabletop RPG experience without being an RPG, and I didn’t understand why people want a watered down RPG experience when they can get the real thing just as easily (possibly easier, financially, as I’ll explain in a bit). I complained about this to some gamer friends on Discord, and they pointed out a blind spot for me.

As one person said, “don’t discount your experience.” They outlined the following points that were well taken.

  • You need DM who is willing to run games.
  • You need to have the time to run a full 3-4 hour session (shorter games are possible but this is the sweet spot in my experience)
  • You need friends near you to pull together a group.
    • They need to have the time for 3-4 hour sessions.
  • Not everyone has the experience to just pick up and play RPGs some people find the whole idea intimidating. I’ve been playing almost 40 years. It’s easy for me. Not everyone.

I had forgotten rule #2, which is “I am not the target audience for all things.” I forget what Rule #1 is, probably don’t talk about fight club.

I went on to argue that, despite these things, penny for hours spent, RPGs are about the cheapest form of entertainment. I can run an RPG with a pencil, a few sheets of paper, and dice. Sure, you might want some books too if you want to get all rules-y, but the basics are things that a lot of people already have. They may not have polyhedral dice, but I guarantee they have a copy of fucking Monopoly knocking around in a closet somewhere. You and most everyone has the basic materials needed to run an RPG in their home.

They just don’t know how to get started, and the opportunity costs can be high, as said above.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that Gen Z and Millenials have caused an explosion of popularity for RPGs, given this economic advantage. Video games are great, but AAA titles cost $60 to $70 now, and you’ll run out of material in, what, a month at most? If you buy three core D&D rule books for around $100, that gives you the materials you need for about, and I’m roughly estimating here, 45 years of entertainment. Provided you can satisfy the requirements above.

Enjoy your board game RPGs, though. I am not here to tell anyone how to have fun. Me, I think I’ll stick with the full RPG experience most of the time, but I’m now much more aware of my grognard privilege.

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green and black dice on brown wooden table

Gaming