Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
StoryHack #6 Is Out
Read My Story in It!
Wednesday, April 1, 2020 1:53 pm
The latest issue of StoryHack is here! And it contains the second Hamlin Becker tale!

Buy it on Amazon (to give the publisher money). Review it on Amazon (to increase its rank). Read my story Due a Hanging and be amazed by my excellentivity. Go, now!

P.S. Canada speaks! A reader from Canada, in reviewing this issue of StoryHack, has this to say about my offering:
David Skinner wrote a punchy and brilliant story in Due a Hanging. Giving the reader just enough information to tug them along and explain his world, you get a strong feeling for the web of revenge closing in, and the tension of the events. A terrific example of show don't tell.
Thanks, Canada!
A Damn Fine Experience
Thoughts on Remnant: From the Ashes
Tuesday, March 31, 2020 5:06 pm
I don't really play intense video games these days. Mind you, I'm hardly a filthy casual; but I am fussy. More than that, I suppose, I've fallen somewhat into Gaming as Macramé, in that I just want to fight some things for an hour, rank up my adventure dolls, and not worry too much about campaigns and bosses and the like. Hence my recent years-long bouts of Guild Wars 2 and Warframe.

I can't even seem to play the two DLCs from Witcher 3, one of my very favorite games. I did enjoy the recent Doom but I'm not excited for Doom Eternal (mostly because the aesthetic is so unhellishly colorful and carnival-like).

Anyhow, I heard about Remnant: From the Ashes, and even though people said it was a Dark Souls clone (that is: brutal to the player), I gave it a try. 

Yes, it is very hard. It's been a while since I've been so agitated by a game. Many times I've been utterly adrenalized, until my hands afterwards were trembling. I've always been fairly adrenalized by difficult games, but given my age I suppose I am risking a cardiac event. That would be amusing, I suppose, to die literally during a boss fight, and slump in my chair as my character — no longer controlled by a living human — is finally killed, and the screen announces he is dead, and the authorities find me lifeless in front of that informative screen.
Anyhow, I just reached the point of the final boss and, frankly, I doubt I will bother. I usually don't bother with final bosses. Why should I? Whatever you earn provides progression to nowhere. The game is done.

And then I think: I can do it. From video walkthroughs it looks frustrating, but half the reason one plays a video game is simply to meet a challenge. So... I am undecided.

Besides, the game would not be utterly done. I could take all I've earned — armor, weapons, mods, traits — and restart at the beginning. Although such a New Game Plus is not uncommon, Remnant allows you to re-roll your campaign at any point. I could skip over the final boss. That is really nice.

There's a lot that's nice about Remnant. I'm not going to claim that Remnant is unique in its features, but everything really clicks. Here are a few nice things:

When you die you lose nothing to that point. Especially in a dungeon, it would be a drag to lose all the loot and xp you've been accumulating. Also, when you return to the checkpoint, your ammo and health recharges are replenished. (Consumables are not, but that's how it should be.) Repeated deaths harm your pride but not your purse.

You can return to homebase from any checkpoint, even right before a boss fight, to buy consumables and improve armor or weapons. The checkpoints are well placed, too, which is great if a dungeon or boss has worn you out and you want to quit for now.

You can change your loadout at any time. This is perhaps the most awesome feature. If you discover your loadout is inappropriate to the current challenges, you can swap out anything right there, without abandoning progress or returning to homebase. Your inventory contains everything you own. Goodness, I love this.

There is an Adventure Mode that allows you to play episodes from the game without altering your campaign progress. The game is partially procedurally generated, so it is able to generate these microcosms off to the side. If you're in the mood to play but not in the mood to fight that brutal boss, you have an alternative. Also, all the loot and xp you gain in Adventure Mode sticks with your character. It's a great way to farm. Heck, I even acquired one of the super-rare crystals to create another health recharge!

The enemy AI is predictable enough to allow you to better your skills, but not so much that it's ever boring. Enemies dodge and flank intelligently. Fights are gratifying even if — or perhaps because — I often curse the game for being a bastard.

All in all, the game is just really good. If you are into vidya and, like me, want a challenge that doesn't quite bloody your keyboard, play Remnant.

P.S. Although any given campaign contains optional and random bosses, a few bosses are fixed. I managed to solo one of the hardest, namely Ixillis. I got a Steam Achievement for that. According to Steam, only 48% of players get that achievement. Which means 52% of players stall at Ixillis. It is possible to bypass Ixillis by instigating a fight with the Undying King; but that's like trading an acid bath for an acid bath. I wonder how many of that 52% just can't continue. I empathize with them. And I laugh at their weakness.

P.P.S. Huh. I beat the final boss in one go. Yes, I have heard it was nerfed a bit since all those videos of frustrating play were made a few months ago. But in fairness to me, I really did build up a solid character with good weapons and traits, and I have gotten good at the game. Only 33% of Steam players have defeated that boss. So I'm pleased. (I got a neat shotgun, too, which you can just see in my character portrait at the start of this post. When it's charged it briefly banishes enemies to the void [for some nice CC] and returns them damaged. Neat.)

The Animals Agree With Me
Your Ideology Is Showing, Dear
Wednesday, February 19, 2020 2:34 pm
Warning: Contains rhetorical employment of naughty words.

A scientist should be clear-eyed. Unfortunately, a human cannot interpret without bias. Especially nowadays, when ideologies demand things contrary to common sense, not a few scientists skew what they see to advance what they want.

I saw a lecture on YouTube in which a scientist, rather preciously, winked and nudged at the audience as he talked, expecting us to discover, in his animals stories, the usual current-year shibboleths: that homosexuality is not unnatural and that females are just better than males. 

First, giraffes. What is the point of that ridiculous neck? Why, male giraffes use it to thwock each other, as with great and flexible clubs. But here's the twist. When males fight they become — ahem — tumescent. When one male wins he sodomizes the other. Since male and female giraffes do not live together, ninety-four percent of a male giraffe's genital experiences are with another male. Sex, our scientist slyly says, is not only for reproduction.

Wink wink; nudge nudge. Gay is good. The giraffes agree!

Silly scientist. He infers a slapfight in a bathhouse and a coda of passionate man-luv. What has actually happened, of course, is that the victorious giraffe is humiliating the loser. He is treating the loser as a female. "Take that, motherfucker." It may be a kind of sexual release, but it is not a sexual act. There is no gay. There is only an assertion of dominance. Indeed, it affirms the natural male-female paradigm of sex.

Second, dolphins. It seems the greatest goal of modern science is to diminish mankind; and one favorite tactic is to point out that man is not the only maker of tools. Why, look at that orangutan, who spearfishes with a denuded branch! Yeah, yeah. I get your point. Call me when an orangutan lands on the Moon.

But fair enough, a very few animals do make tools. Consider one community of bottle-nosed dolphins. They have taken to encasing their snouts in sponges. Why? Because, when foraging and feeding, these dolpins are attacked on the snouts by crabs. The sponges are an armor contrived from the environment. A tool, as it were. Intriguingly, this trick is taught to little dolphins, and has become generational knowledge.

Among the females, that is. Only the female dolphins wear this armor. Only the females learn to use it. I can't imagine why this is sex-specific, our scientist slyly says, trying to solicit giggles about the dum-dum males.

Wink wink; nudge nudge. Girls are bright; boys are dull. The dolphins agree!

Or perhaps: Girls are sissies; boys are tough. "Ow, ow, my nose!" "Look, girlfriend, use this sponge!" "Ooh, ooh! That's so much nicer!" Meanwhile the male dolphins don't give a shit. They're males. So what if some crab scratches you up? And why would any male mimic a female? "Dude, you're wearing a sponge! What are you, a fag?" And don't think the females would be any less dismissive of a male so weak that he can't even face the world.

Or, sure, okay, males are simply dull-witted. That's how they got to the Moon.

Yes, in the end, I am saying the animals agree with me. And yes, my ideology is showing, too. But my ideology begins in nature. You can judge whether I am clear-eyed or not.

Close to the Heart
On the Occasion of Neil Peart's Death
Thursday, February 6, 2020 3:26 pm
While it is not unreasonable to wonder about the life of an artist — or even to admire an artist's everyday conduct — I am of the mind that the artist does not matter (beyond his getting the proper credit and payment). To be sure, his life is relevant insofar as it clarifies his work; but other than that...

Most artists are scum. Beethoven was a bitter bastard. Shostakovich was a pathetic collaborator. As men, neither merits celebration. Celebrity for artists should be rejected. Go ahead and admire Haydn because he was kind, pious, and hard-working; then pity and decry him because he was adulterous; but remember that there were many kind, pious, hard-working, and adulterous men in the world. It was not Haydn's life that distinguished him; and it is not his life that should concern us. 

Which is all to say, that callous as it may sound, the death of Neil Peart does not move me at all. And I say that as a guy who has loved Rush since the release of A Farewell to Kings.

In 1977 I was a kid working in a bagel shop, mixing and baking bagels. We were allowed to work with the radio on. I actually remember one of the times I heard Closer to the Heart, which was in rotation then. I can see the fluorescent light, the white walls, and the chrome trim on the portable. And I remember being enchanted by the bells in this rocking song. It was percussion quite distinctive. I had no idea who was striking those bells. But it didn't matter. I was only glad he had thought to do it.

No, I am not saying that art is more important than the man. Any man is worth more than any work of art. I've even said art itself doesn't matter (see, for example, this post). But the artist matters even less. It is rightly sad for some people that Neil Peart — friend, bandmate, husband, and father — has died. It should be sad for no one that the drummer of Rush has died.

Except, I suppose, inasmuch as one might be sad because there will never be another album by Rush. But really — if I may double-down on my tactlessness — Rush haven't made a good album since the mid-1980s.

So. There's that.

A few years ago, roundabout the release of Rush's final album, I saw a listicle of the "Top Ten" Rush albums. It was immediately apparent that the listmaker was an idiot. There were nineteen albums to choose from. He chose ten of those. More than half, in other words.

His list included Counterparts.

It did not include A Farewell to Kings.

Idiot. QED.

It was clear he was a Johnny-come-lately. His list was heavily weighted to the later albums. He had a certain taste; and the fact is, the later albums do have a certain flavor. There was a transition in Rush's music that began with 1982's Signals and finished with 1989's Presto. Some people have said that Rush were a little protean, a little reactive to the times, trying this, trying that, becoming something fresh; but really, they just stopped being good.

Oh, I kept buying their albums. It was RUSH, for God's sake! I liked the albums at the time. I was genuinely thrilled by 2002's Vapor Trails, and not only because it had been six years since the last. But you know what? None of them stayed with me. Indeed, years later, when I'd try to listen to something like Counterparts, I'd not even finish listening. It was all so meh.

I had become clear-eyed enough about the mehhing of my favorite band, that when their final album came out in 2012, I prudently sampled it on Amazon, winced, and didn't even buy it.

So what is the correct Top Ten? Well, simply enough, it's the first ten albums. The final nine are genuinely disposable. I know that this is a cruel thing to say — especially on the occasion of Neil Peart's death — but it's true. You can argue there's good songs on the final nine and I'll not throw my drink in your face; but those are from a different Rush. A Rush that I, in my sober old age, do not like.

Now, although I love their debut album, it does not include Peart, who joined Rush with the second album. Even the band marks their true foundation with Peart's arrival. There was certainly a change in tone. So we'll instead go with a Top Nine.

1. A Farewell to Kings
2. 2112
3. Moving Pictures
4. Hemispheres
5. Grace Under Pressure
6. Permanent Waves
7. Fly by Night
8. Caress of Steel
9. Signals

Depending on the day of the week and my mood, #4, #5, and #6 would be switched around. And I know there are those who probably boggle at my putting Signals below Caress of Steel, but honestly, Signals is relatively weak, Analog Kid and Subdivisions notwithstanding. Besides, this is not a list of best to worst; it's a list of descending best.

And much as I consider the final nine albums "disposable," I confess to a weird affection for 1987's Hold Your Fire. This one I can finish when I put it on. So, without granting it a place on the best list, I'll still give it an honorary #10, next to 1974's debut Rush.

I have said before that there's something misaligned about me. I'll concede that my indifference to Neil Peart's death, art versus artist aside, might just be unnatural. I don't think I was given sufficient training to mix with you humans when I was sent here from Proxima Centauri.

As it is, I still wish Neil a good place in the Heaven he disbelieved in, and meanwhile I'll enjoy the enduring work he made with Alex and Geddy. Perhaps it is suspicious that my favorite Rush is also my first Rush, but Closer to the Heart epitomizes their goodness, and it's a comfortable thing, really, that a band once so important to me remains, in its best music, close to my heart.

Some of My Best Friends Are Science
Wednesday, February 5, 2020 8:40 pm
You might suppose, after reading a fair number of my posts, that I have a hostility for science and scientists.

I don't.

However, science these days usually manifests as scientism, the idea that knowledge begins and ends in the laboratory. Moreover, scientists think that their atheism is proved by their science, when, of course, atheism is a philosophical choice. By and large I am just annoyed by the metaphysical sloppiness of modern scientists, not to mention their arrogant dismissal of God and of religion.

I am especially annoyed by convoluted absurdities — such as the multiverse — that scientists cling to because they cannot entertain theism.

Anyhow, science is good. Science is great! No, I'm not some twittering dolt who Fuckin s Science. I genuinely love science. Mankind should study every bit of Creation — and learn its every fact. The thing is, those are not the only facts; and it is Creation itself that alerts us to the facts outside it.
The Multiverse Is an Evasion
Fine Tuning Without a Tuner
Tuesday, February 4, 2020 10:22 pm
You’ve all heard the silly formulation. Given infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters in infinite time, one of those monkeys will tap out the complete works of Shakespeare. You see, improbable as that may be, the probability is not zero. Thus it must happen!

But is a probability that low — even assuming it is accurate — really other than zero? The universe is quantized. It is not a continuum. There are not infinite values of anything small. There is always a gap above zero, a very real sense in which some numbers are not allowed. Not everything can happen. Ridiculously tiny probabilities are meaningless. They vanish into that gap. 

Believing that Spontaneous Shakespeare is not meaningless is part of the larger problem of getting lost in the math. Scientists do this all the time. Their equations imply something and therefore the universe must embody that implication. But an equation is itself an abstraction, a dilution, a partial representation. Its implications play out in something other than the physical universe.

Now, talk of probabilities usually brings us to the fine tuning of the universe. As you may have heard, the existence of life — meaning most especially of us — requires that the constants of the universe be just so. Tweak any constant — a jot more; a tittle less — and life cannot be at all. There’s simply no wiggle room. Every constant is perfect in its degree, and all are in perfect balance!

This would seem to be an exceedingly improbable situation.

But we have already been told that even Spontaneous Shakespeare is inevitable. So what’s the problem? Well — replies the scientist lost in his math — there is no problem, so long as we posit an infinity or two. You see, for this improbable fine-tuning to have occurred, there must have been infinite opportunities for it to do so. There must, that is, be infinite universes, most of them poorly tuned and lifeless. The equations even imply it. There must be a multiverse!

The multiverse is stupid.

The scientists envision infinite universes, each with a different possible balance of the constants. Yet all these universes still have the same slots. Never mind that the value of Constant A is X here and Y there. Why is there a Constant A at all? And why is it not always the same? There would have to be rules to ensure the existence of the constants and rules to ensure their variation — rules quite prior to the multiverse.

Likewise, space-time itself. Space-time would have to function consistently via constants that are not subject to variation — and hence are distinct from those usually evident within a universe — and indeed provide a mediating substance through which one universe can generate another universe, since both are internally subject to different physical law and cannot, strictly speaking, even interact. That is, space-time is quite prior to the multiverse.

Likewise, the laws of probability. Why should it be that "probable" and "improbable" are the way they are? Why are there not different possibilities of probable? If "probability" has only one manifestation, what, really, are the chances of that? Can I even speak of "chance" in this case? It appears there is a singular intelligible conception of "probable." More to the point, if the laws of probability demand a multiverse, then those laws must be quite prior to the multiverse.

What, then, is this prior entity that produces constants with values, facilitates multiversing, and provides the singular laws of probability? You could reasonably call it the Cosmos. Or, I guess, the Ur-Universe. But in the end all you’d have done is push the problem back a step. This sole Cosmos must be such that multiversing can and must occur — and must occur via the invariant mechanism to vary constants just so life is possible. You might even say such a Cosmos would need to be... finely tuned.

Uh oh! Looks like we need infinitely many Cosmoses!

The real issue, of course, is that he who promotes the multiverse is just afraid of God. To allow that a finely tuned universe is the only Universe is to allow that Someone tuned it. The scientist likes to pretend that he is adhering to science by falling into the math of the multiverse; but he has only made a metaphysical decision to flee the better explanation. After all, he must give no ground to theism.

Do you know that scientists initially rejected the theory of the Big Bang because it suggested fiat lux? They have embraced the Big Bang since then, but only because they could reasonably still ignore God. Perhaps they will find a better way to ignore the Tuning God than the math-besotted stupidity of infinitely proliferating universes.

The Clash of Virtues
Orienting Fiction Away From Darkness
Saturday, February 1, 2020 1:41 pm
Recently I blogged about my recipe for writing pulp action. Soon after, I came across some excellent writing advice from an author. It applies to any fiction, not only pulp; but it supports the broader agenda of avoiding nihilism.

The author says to introduce a character in a way that showcases a virtue rather than a fault. As he points out, there is a (bad) idea regnant that we are defined by our faults, and that being good is unrealistic or unrelatable. (I made a similar point years ago, though not in the context of writing.)

He further says, "Internal conflicts between good and bad qualities are boring." I'd not say boring; perhaps too commonplace. But then he says:
Show me a conflict between duty and compassion, or courage and wisdom, or love and justice.
That imperative is illuminating. Fiction requires conflict; but conflict does not require evil. Depicting a clash of virtues denies vices an equal standing, and it's a nice way to show that virtue is vigorous and not — as the modern world would tell you — merely the absence of vice.

Most importantly, the reader is given characters that elicit admiration, not pity or condescension.

Anyhow — something to keep in mind.
StoryHack #6
Stupefying Stories #22
Cirsova: Winter 2020
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