Desdenada Gazette 16/05/18: Fun and Games

mexico earthquake
Cool dramatic image, but no damage was done.

News is supposed to be dark and heavy, but I’m not feeling it today. For me, the breaking news is that Mexico City was just hit by an earthquake but it was fortunately a very small one, unlike some other quakes in recent memory. As the adrenaline induced by the seismic alarms fades, it is replaced by a euphoric gratitude for life that colors my stained-glass perspective. Read on for some lighthearted and ultimately unimportant coverage of the stories of the day.

Congressional Testimony Released, Politics Is Fun

Story: Washington Post

Obligatory Trump story of the week: the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee just released thousands of pages of testimony that sheds some light on the infamous meeting between Trump Jr. and a Kremlin lawyer two years back. As usual, the info coming out probably is not as damning as impeachment-hungry liberals think it is but a little more damning than collusion-denying conservatives say it is. For the rest of us, it’s a fun peak at how ridiculous politics usually is.

Trump Jr. told congress that he told his Russian contact he would love dirt on Clinton. In his defense, who wouldn’t love dirt on their opponent? On the other hand, he probably could have chosen his words more carefully. Maybe he should have watched the Godfather a couple times before getting into politics. You don’t say “I would love it if you gave me the skeletons in Hillary’s closet so I could beat her to death with them”, you say “I believe Hillary is a worthy and honorable opponent, it would be a shame if you told me something different.” Plausible deniability, man.

The testimony also has other sources in the room confirming Jr.’s main defense: that the meeting was a failure since no useful information was shared. It’s an odd defense because the story is basically that they tried to collude with Russia but Russia let them down, so technically they’re innocent.

One of the most fun pieces of info is the sheet of notes Paul Manafort took during the meeting. They’re written in short-hand and could literally be interpreted to mean ANYTHING, so look forward to both sides coming up with elaborate Westworld-fan-theory-level explanations. My favorite lines are consecutive: “illici” followed by “active sponsors of the RNC”. Make from those what you will.

Finally, probably the only really important info: a lot of the information was collected by the investigation immediately after the meeting two years ago and only became known to the media today. Whichever team you’re rooting for, know that we’re seeing the game at a huge time delay compared to the principle players.

Internal Clock Is A Thing, Says Science

body clock cartoon image
Story: BBC

I’ve spent years tinkering with my daily schedule, trying to figure out what works best and what is easiest to follow. Lately I’ve been paying more attention to research on natural rhythms. I believe strongly in the power of habit, and for a long time I thought the key was simply doing the same thing at the same time every day. The actual timing, I thought, was arbitrary: whether you go to the gym at 7 in the morning or 7 at night, the habit will form if you’re consistent.

There’s some proof to that, but I’ve gotten good results incorporating natural rhythms into my schedule. Whether it’s placebo is up for debate, but still. It may sound like New Age mumbo-jumbo, but science has found that certain aspects of our body are on a clock. We produce testosterone in the morning and melatonin in the evening. It remains unclear how much of this clock is internal and how much is regulated by external stimulus.

This story focuses on how strongly mental illness might be linked to the internal clock. To vastly oversimplify things, a person might feel depressed if they’re body thinks they should be asleep when they’re awake. The reality of modern society is that the majority of people don’t get to set their own schedule. School, work, and other obligations set restrictions on when you can sleep, eat, exercise, and so on.

The question going forward, then, is how much does society need to change to accommodate these natural rhythms, and how much can we alter our natural rhythms with external stimuli (e.g. blue-light machines in the morning) to match society?

Hearthstone Balance Changes Shake Up the Meta

Story: IGN

This story takes the “fun and games” theme literally, and isn’t exactly news to anyone who doesn’t play Hearthstone (although apparently it’s going to be a new Olympic sport, so interest in the game may rise). I’m not as much interested in the actual changes, though, as a pattern I’ve noticed in the way people talk them.

Hearthstone is a card game and in it’s main game mode, you build your decks beforehand. The result is that each time new cards are released, the best players quickly figure out the best decks and all the other players have the power to copy them. These decks become the meta. At almost every level of play from beginner to professional you usually see the same decks being played at a given time. That’s not a flaw with the game; it’s inevitable. Still, people who play a lot complain that playing the same meta decks against the same meta decks over and over starts to feel stale.

The new balance changes aim to disrupt the most powerful decks my making their key cards a little weaker. That’s good for the health of the game since you don’t want any card to be overpowered. On the other hand, it will likely only be a week or two before the top players work out a new set of meta decks and we all follow suit.

What I’ve noticed is that people seem to be talking less about the actual power levels of the cards and more about how it will feel fun to play with fresh decks. When the game began, they made changes to cards when necessary, but not on a consistent basis. Now it basically feels guaranteed that we will see changes halfway through each expansion cycle. At first it felt like they were saying”we made a mistake” but now I get a different feeling: the cards they’re fixing weren’t necessarily broken, but they were causing the same decks to be powerful for too long. Having these consistent balance changes means each expansion cycles will have two defined metas, and we all get to play with new cards more often.

It’s an interesting way to think about game balance, and about life in general. Sometimes the point isn’t to change things to be better–sometimes the real benefit is just that there is a change. Things need to be shaken up now and then.

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A Companion in Need Is A Companion Indeed

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Continuing north, into the ominous horizon.

The title of today’s post is at least related to the content: we will be talking more about the Companions. So that’s progress. On the other hand, the topic isn’t actually relevant to where I am in my current play through; it was another session without anything clear to latch on to, so I’m drawing on previous adventures.

Guess you can’t eat your relevance and have it too.

This post lays the groundwork for another recurring format. I have Emotional Divinity posts which draw emotional lessons from the Divines, and Quest Accepted posts which use video game quests as a framework for real-life goals. I’m going to attempt to draw similar lessons from the major factions in Skyrim, beginning with the Companions.

The Traditions of Ysgramor

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Ambushed by some cultist for no discernible reason.

When I broke down the Companions before, I noted what separates them from other similar warrior factions. The first clue to their nature can be found in the revelation that they accept the curse of lycanthropy. Their nature is also expressed more subtly, yet more fully, in the organization’s structure.

Groups like Vigil of Stendarr, the Stormcloaks, and the Silver Hand have very specific goals. They employ violence as a means to an end, and are prepared to lay down their arms once victory is achieved. The Companions’ only mission statement is to carry on the warlike traditions of the hero Ysgramor. They are mercenaries; violence is their 9 to 5. Both their willingness to give in to their bestial natures and their mercenary structure suggest that to the Companions, battle is simply a way of life.

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Apparently it was part of some Daedric initiation rite.

Traditions are powerful in Skyrim, as in life. They have a way of moving us like few incentives can. Countless millions participate in Christmas all over the world every year, even though nobody enforces the tradition or serves as the holiday’s leader or organizer. Traditions can be good or bad, and it is important to be conscientious about which traditions you participate in.

This applies doubly to the traditions you create for yourself. Although maybe tradition isn’t quite the right word.

A Warrior’s Habits

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I’ll just take a moment to read this AGH! DRAGON!!

The power inherent in habits rivals the very power of the thu’um. Most people never realize how fully their lives are governed by habit. When asked why we do something a certain way, we are flummoxed. It’s just the way it’s done, there’s no other way to do it. At least we’ve never considered there might be another way to do it. It’s always easier to identify flawed logic in others, and you’ve probably had this experience: a friend constantly complains about a situation under their control, but when you urge them to make a change, they resist and start explaining why it has to be that way.

You wonder how they could be so blind to the fact they’re causing their own misery. Meanwhile, they’re wondering the same thing about you. Don’t take offense; cognitive dissonance is a tricky demon and we all have these blind spots. Admitting you’re habits aren’t working as a huge step.

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Like literally from nowhere.

Once you identify flawed habits, though, it’s still a lot of work to solve them. Our brain is wired to survive, not to thrive. If you have done one thing a million times and have not died, it’s better to keep doing that thing, rather than doing something else that is way more productive. This Companions series will provide a framework for overcoming this weakness and living like a true warrior.

Welcome to Jorrvaskr

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Alright, north we go.

Each successive post will guide you through changing or adopting a specific type of habit. For now, you can take your seat in the mead hall and complete a simple exercise.

Take a journal, or just a spare piece of paper, and jot down whatever habits you already know are part of your life. They might be good habits, like going for a run every morning, or bad habits, like eating a donut each night before bed.

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And a little bit west, then north some more.

Try to identify specific patterns in your habits. Do you eat junk food once a day at a given time, or do you binge at random intervals throughout the week? Do you take time to do yoga during the week, but always let it slip on the weekends?

For now, the goal is simply to become aware of the unconscious habits that drive your life.

We’ll build on this framework soon, but first, another edition of Diabolical Logic is headed our way….

Desdenada Gazette 09/05/18: Failure to Launch

There are two kinds of rockets, and only one of them is the vehicle for nuclear holocaust.

On Monday’s Real Talk, I talked about starting an openly biased news column. Today I carry out that threat, I mean, promise. This is a highly experimental concept and the format is subject to change, but for this first issue of the Desdenada Gazette I’ll give my stained glass perspective on three stories that caught my eye today. They were selected fairly randomly, but happen to be connected by a sort of theme: rockets and aircraft. Yay, destiny!

North Korea Frees Americans, Trump Takes Credit

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Story: Washington Post

 

What better way to christen my new column than to jump right into some of the most controversial and delicate politics of the day? Joking aside, the point of this experiment is to give unfiltered, gleefully biased takes, so I warn you: if you strongly like OR strongly dislike Trump my takes are going to wind you up.

First off, I’m glad these men are free and get to go home. That’s a good thing that happened. Full stop. New thought.

I’ve been fascinated by Trump’s relationship with the North Korea situation since the beginning, and it’s only gotten more interesting. This is mostly because most of the people I know and most of the communities I’m involved with swing pretty liberal (it’s not my fault, I went to university in Vancouver). Watching their reactions to each twist and turn has been a crash course in cognitive dissonance.

This story is a small step in what will surely be among one of the most historic events in my lifetime: the end of the Korean War. Under other circumstances, I imagine this would be THE story, but I feel like I’m seeing more coverage of how much credit Trump should get. Partisanship is nothing new, but in the age of social media it’s at least louder, if not actually stronger.

I think the infamous “Rocket Man” phase of this narrative encapsulates it well. Many people I knew were experiencing various levels of gleeful, vindictive terror. To some extent, they believed Trump’s tactics might result in a nuclear holocaust and the agonizing death of themselves and their loved ones. The only idea more horrifying was that Trump might actually know what he was doing. That a reality TV star might be able to use twitter threats to solve a situation none of the great leaders of our time have been able to solve. Whether consciously or not, they had to cling to the belief that death was inevitable, because the only hope lay in Trump’s success.

Now Trump is succeeding. Let me clarify: I’m not claiming that Trump actually solved the North Korean situation. Personally, I think Kim Jong-Un’s sudden change of heart comes down to the fact that a hydrogen bomb accidentally went off in his nuclear processing plant, annihilating his only leverage. The point is, Trump said he was going to bring Kim to the table, he stuck to his guns when people questioned his topics, and Kim came to the table. It may not be fair, but the default assumption now is that Trump solved the problem, and the burden of proof is on those who want to show that he didn’t. Not to say it cam’t be done, but it’s an uphill battle.

Is that the battle liberals should be fighting right now? Does it feel unfair to give Trump a Nobel Prize? Sure (although when you study the history of the prize and realize its creation was part of a Machiavellian move by a country that wanted to gain political and cultural relevance, it does lose some of its weight). Is that more important than the fact we might be able to get help to the oppressed and starving population of North Korea? I don’t think so.

Take it from someone who grew up with three siblings: sometimes the best approach is to let people take credit for everything and just move on.

Mexico Attempts to Build Awesome Airport, Future President Intervenes

Story: Bloomberg

Our next story is a little closer to home for me. Literally: I live about 20 minutes from Mexico City’s current airport. For those who haven’t heard, the government is constructing a new airport just outside the city, set to be completed in 2020. When finished, it will be the biggest and most advanced airport in North America.

International readers (read: gringos) will probably be surprised by that. Mexico definitely has an unfounded stereotype for being behind the times and having terrible quality of life. Having spent a decade in the States and a decade in Canada before moving here, Mexico is easily my favorite place to live, but that could the topic of a whole other post. The point is that we’re constructing a world-class airport which will give a huge boost to the economy and attract foreign business. It will also be an international symbol of Mexican innovation and success, which is a pretty shallow reason for wanting it built, but I admit it plays into my viewpoint.

Unfortunately, our presidential frontrunner, the populist communist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, wants to scrap it. We’ve basically known for months that AMLO’s victory is guaranteed, which doesn’t bode well for the new airport. In case you don’t follow Mexican politics, AMLO is batshit. In the last debate, one of the other candidates insisted on bringing back the Medieval practices of chopping of thieves’ hands, and AMLO still came off as by far the crazy one.

The thing is that Mexico goes by the popular vote system that all my liberal gringo friends suddenly want the States to use. That means the entire presidential race is based on appealing to Estado de Mexico, a small state surrounding Mexico City. With a population of over 16 million, this tiny rural area has half the population of Canada, 10% of the total population of Mexico, twice the population of Mexico City, and more people than the 10 lowest-population Mexican states combined.

The system is problematic for a number of reasons. For example, ethnic minorities like the Maya and Nahuatl are concentrated in low-population states like Oaxaca and Campeche, so they essentially have no voice. Cartel-ravaged states like Sonora and Chihuahua are also low-population. One of AMLO’s popular propositions has been to cut back on the war with Narcos. Residents of Estado de Mexico benefit from spending less money protecting the northern states, and said northern states don’t really get a say, either.

Let’s get back to our main story, though. Estado de Mexico is a poor state, and lies in stark contrast to its rich neighbor, Mexico City. Many residents of Estado de Mexico have never been on a plane before. Scrapping the project plays well there because, as AMLO claims, the new airport will only benefit the rich, and the budget to build it should be spent on projects that benefit the poor.

It’s definitely a conflict of interest for me, since I would definitely use the new airport. That said, I think AMLO is oversimplifying it. Even if only middle to upper class citizens actually use it, the benefits of a project like this trickle down to everyone. What’s good for the economy, what’s good for business, and what’s good for foreign investment, is good for everyone.

Not to throw too much shade at Estado de Mexico, but I think this is a decision being made out of spite. AMLO hasn’t really made it clear how he would use the extra money, not to mention reversing the project now will cost a large portion of what it took to build in the first place. Sometimes it feels people are more interested in other people not getting something than what they themselves might get out of the deal.

This leads directly into our next story.

SpaceX Continues to Be Awesome, Nobody Can Stop Them

Story: The Verge

This post is already longer than intended so I’ll keep this final story short and sweet. If you’re not excited about SpaceX’s increasingly reusable, increasingly cost-effective spacecraft, you should be.

The applications go way beyond putting people on Mars, although that is of course one goal. I’m particularly excited about travel. A rocket that blasts straight up, hangs in orbit while the Earth rotates beneath it, then falls back down and lands could make the trip from California to China in about twenty minutes.

That’s exciting, except maybe if you’re poor. Traveling like this will definitely cost a premium–at first. Most of us will still be standing in line in airport security while smug billionaires jaunt across the world in the time it takes us find our luggage. If governments decide to support or invest in this technology, it might be hard for the common man to swallow.

Don’t fall into this trap. Like I discussed in the last story, you’d only be hurting yourself by protesting these developments. Although Elon Musk has shown he is willing to take a hit to his own finances to complete his projects, technology iterates far faster when it makes a profit. The sooner billionaires can buy tickets for these rocket jumps, the sooner corporations will dedicate resources to making them more affordable, the sooner millionaires, then hundred-thousandaires, then everyone will be able to afford these trips.

There are two sides to this issue, and one is the side of progress. Don’t be on the other side.

Quest Accepted: More Like Quests

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So much to do, so little time. For real: Skyrim day/night cycles are like 20 minutes.

My adventures in Skyrim lately have amounted to a bunch of miscellaneous running around (well, walking, this is the Ridiculously Slow Let’s Play, after all). I’ve been checking off Miscellaneous and stand-alone Side quests, practicing alchemy, checking in with my daughter, that sort of thing. The result is I’m left without a clear theme to latch on to, so I decided to continue with my quest discussion from last time.

Real life often feels like a bunch of running around and miscellaneous objectives. That’s the psychological appeal of video games: you always know what you’re supposed to be doing. Gamification brings this feel to real life. If you completed the exercise last time, brainstorming all the voluntary and involuntary quests you’re currently on in real life, you may feel more overwhelmed than before. That’s okay. Admitting there are too many quests in your quest log is half the battle.

The other half is redefining your quests.

Objectify Your Quests

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I stumbled upon a really cool miniquest in the mountains near Falkreath: this woman trains you and you get skill points in Archery for completing the challenges, but the challenges themselves actually made me a much better shot as a player.

Like many games, Skyrim has both quests and objectives. One quest might have five objectives, and you tick them all off to complete the quest. The distinction has a gameplay effect in some games, where you are rewarded for completing a quest but not an objective. You aren’t rewarded for completing quests in Skyrim (many quests end with rewards, but there isn’t a consistent mechanic of earning experience when a quest finishes, like in World of Warcraft). It’s just a guiding mechanism, so the difference between quests and objectives is arbitrary. Each objective could be its own quest. Conversely, long faction questlines could be a single quest with many objectives. It’s arbitrary, and yet, whether because of something innate or something drilled into us by other games, we find the distinction intuitive and appealing.

Gamification hinges on the arbitrary. Changing my rank in Running from 1 to 2 after running 5 kilometers doesn’t mean anything, but it makes me more motivated to run the next 5 kilometers. As we define our quests, we must remember it is a balancing act between arbitrary yet meaningful definitions. We want to consolidate some of our quests into objectives of a single quest if possible, but if we end up with only a few quests we never fully complete, we’ll be demoralized.

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DRAGON!!

For myself, I started at the broadest end of the spectrum, condensing my entire life into nine quests. They are as follow (along with the shorthand I use to refer to them):

  1. Achieve inner peace and happiness (Personal)
  2. Become physically strong and healthy (Health)
  3. Become mentally strong and learn many things (Learning)
  4. Build a perfect relationship with my girlfriend (Venezia)
  5. Live a life full of adventure (Adventure)
  6. Master the craft of writing (Writing)
  7. Surround myself with great friends and community (Social)
  8. Master a range of talents and passions (Talent)
  9. Enjoy the works of other creators (Entertainment)

This list is quasi-universal. I separated Writing from Talent because I spend more time on my writing than the rest of my talents combined; you may just have the Talent quest, or you might have Talent and Photography or Cooking or Rap Battle. In any case, building your own list should be a breeze using mine as reference.

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Do they just have something against Falkreath or what?

If I leave it at that, pretty much every single thing I’ll ever do in my life can be counted as an objective toward one of these quests. It’s comprehensive, but unsatisfying–these are the kinds of quests you can only really be said to have completed after you are dead. Clearly I haven’t found the ideal balance between quests and objectives yet, but I have a solid foundation.

The Balancing Act

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I’m such an absentee father….

If you already completed the quest brainstorm activity from before, you can proceed by grouping all your quests under your new list. Alternately, we can continue the top-down approach. Take each quest and break it down into its major objectives. Create as many sub-quests as you’d like if it comes easy to you, but breaking each quest into two is sufficient for now. This exercise leaves me with 18 quests.

  1. Personal: cultivate emotional health + maintain my living space
  2. Health: engage in exercise + improve diet and nutrition
  3. Learning: read a variety of books + take academic courses
  4. Venezia: create a happy present + plan for a happy future
  5. Adventure: travel the world + explore local areas
  6. Writing: write novels + perform writing exercises
  7. Social: cultivate personal friendships + build an online community
  8. Talent: Master piano + master drawing
  9. Entertainment: enjoy video games + enjoy TV and movies

I could come up with many more for some of them. For Learning I could list all the subjects I’m interested in, from biology to history. Talent could also include cooking and photography. This is enough for now, though. Let’s move on to the final step.

Define and Conquer

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Speaking of quests, mine are piling up in the North, the one part of Skyrim I haven’t visited yet.

Now, instead of thinking about these as quests, we can convert them to questlines, or even types of quests, the way Skyrim distinguishes between Main Quests, Daedric Quests, Companions Quests, and so on. To create our first quests, we’ll switch from top-down to bottom-up thinking and ask, “What’s the first major action I can take toward each goal?”

Again, balance is everything. Each quest should be something you can realistically achieve in the near future. “Become a New York Times bestselling author” is too far out for me, but “Self-publish my first novel” is something I hope to complete in the next month or so. On the other hand, don’t make the quest too trivial. There is some logic to rewarding yourself for taking the first trivial step, since most things never get finished only because they never get started. Still, making quests too easy makes them feel less rewarding, and makes the whole exercise less meaningful. If you want to become fluent in Spanish, then “Buy a Spanish textbook” is a good objective, but not a quest.

I won’t go through all 18 of my quests, but I will give a few examples.

  1. Health/exercise: run a half-marathon
  2. Venezia/future: become a Mexican Permanent Resident
  3. Adventure/travel: travel to Oaxaca
  4. Entertainment/games: finish my Skyrim play through
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Heading north on the 1st of Frostfall. That bodes well.

If you’re new to self-improvement or goal-setting, you might be surprised how defining these simple quests will change your life.

Real Talk 07/05/18: The Stained Glass Conspiracy

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I’m experimenting with a new theme for my Instagram. At first glance my photos appear vaguely pink, but when you look closer, nothing in the photo actually is pink. It’s a real mindmelter, is what that is. @evaricweicksel

I want to write a book titled The Stained Glass Conspiracy. It will be about monks who live in isolation, devoting their entire existence to crafting stained glass windows depicting Biblical events. Except the conspiracy is that they actually just buy the stained glass windows from a thrift shop next door, and behind the barred doors of their monastery, they really spend all day playing Hearthstone and drinking Bourbon.

That has nothing to do with what this post is about, except for a weird metaphor at the end. Instead, I’m going to talk about accepting things I’ve known to be true for a long time, and actually practicing what I preach for once.

Writing Day to Day

 

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Quality writing is usually fueled by churros.

Last Real Talk, I talked about how I was closing in on finishing and publishing my first novel. I’ve been sick the past week and my freelance jobs have been taking up a fair amount of time, but I’m still making progress. The biggest step has been acknowledging how far I still have to go and keeping my pace steady.

This close to the end, I am tempted to rush. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think, If I sit down and write for the next sixteen hours, I might finish my book today. That might be right, but it’s not the best approach. Instead, I’ve been trying to treat my writing sessions as if nothing had changed since I started the book. The goal is to be consistent, not fall into the trap of intensity followed by burnout.

I’ve been talking about lagom in my Skyrim posts, and applying it to great success in my writing. I like to think of myself as some sort of uberwriter who doesn’t need breaks, who can write for six hours at a stretch, but of course I’m far more productive when I take twelve-minute breaks here and there. These breaks are so small that the actual action of taking them is laughably easy. The only roadblock is in my mind: it feels like admitting defeat, or else I’m afraid that if I stop writing for twelve minutes I won’t be able to start again. Making decisions out of fear of how my future self will behave is an insidious trap I fall into all the time, but of course it’s far more productive to have faith in future me and do what I can to set him up for success.

Side note: I’ve started writing with music. I used to do this all the time and I think 99% of writers already know how effective this is. At some point I spontaneously regressed to a lower life form who doesn’t understand how focus works, and decided just listening to coffee shop ambiance was fine. Anyway, my meditation app, Calm, has a great library of monotonous trance music and nature ambiance, and taking advantage of it has hugely boosted my productivity. Anyone else who belongs to the 1% of the population who don’t already do this, take note.

Owning Your Lair

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Step 1. Tear it all apart.

The other topic I talked about last time was how I was searching for a new apartment. Shortly after that post I found out how much I owed in taxes. I still pay taxes as a Canadian resident even though I live in Mexico. Canada, being a pseudo-communist country, has some breathtakingly high tax rates. As an independent contractor, I pay these taxes twice–I pay as an employer and as my own employee. Altogether, it was more than I expected, and I had to reevaluate some things.

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Step 2. Put it back together.

In the end, I was only admitting what I already knew: it doesn’t make sense to look for a new apartment anytime soon. My rent is unbelievably low and I don’t pay for utilities or internet. If I stay here for the next five to ten years, I’m in a good position to save up and buy an apartment outright, and never pay rent again. But if you read the last Real Talk, you’ll remember me describing an untenable living situation. Can I live her for five more years and would the pain be worth it?

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Step 3. Maximize natural light.

Now that I’ve accepted this as my long-term home, I can. Many of the problems resulted from the idea that I would move in the near future, so I didn’t want to make any investments in the space. Since the last post, I’ve traded out my bed for a new one. Well, my “new” bed is also a very old piece of furniture, but the frame isn’t down a leg and the mattress isn’t full of broken springs. The new bed is also smaller, making my room less cramped. After moving around all the furniture I even have room to do yoga! I also moved furniture away from the window to maximize natural light, and fixed a broken curtain rod so I can actual let in said light. Finally, a new internet connection means I don’t have to burn gigabytes of data to use my computer in my room.

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Step 4. I’m still getting around to step 4.

This is also an application of lagom. I’ve been living with the expectation that a larger space would solve my problems, but that would probably have turned out to be false. If I can’t own and manage a small space, a bigger space would just be a bigger, more disorganized mess. Not having the ideal lair is no excuse to leave your lair in disorder. When I do eventually buy an apartment of my own, I hope this experience leaves me ready for it.

Desdenada Is: Stained Glass

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I don’t have any recent photos of stained glass, so check out my new haircut instead.

As I continue to flesh out the Desdenada Core Values, one thing is apparent: I need to nail down a naming convention. So far the values are Ridiculously Slow, As Real As It Gets, and Stained Glass. I feel they lose something if I convert them all to the same syntax: Ridiculously Slow, Unflinchingly Real, Openly Biased. Maybe the answer is to come up with flowery metaphors for the other two, like I have for Stained Glass. Hmmm. Desdenada Is: Chilled Molasses. Canadian Winter. Yeah, I’m going to have to workshop those.

Meanwhile, you might be saying, “Wait, did he just say being openly biased is one of his core values?” Yep. Keyword, openly. Bias means letting your thoughts seep into something, so any being that thinks is, by definition, biased. That’s not necessarily bad. The key is accepting bias, learning to recognize it in the world around you, and cultivating the right kind of bias.

I’ve always loved stained glass. It’s a beautiful, underutilized art. Not only is a stained glass window beautiful in what it depicts, it also lends a certain tone to the interior of a building. The light that filters through stained glass can be warm and comforting, or perhaps create a sense of gravity and somberness. The important word here is “filter”. Stained glass doesn’t create light of a certain color. It blocks out all the unwanted colors and leaves only few chosen wavelengths.

I used to do “Hall of Heroes” posts, talking about individuals I’d designated as Heroes. I think most news is either useless filler or else exaggerated or spun beyond recognition, but I don’t think the answer is to avoid news altogether. My solution was to filter all of my news through a set of Heroes. If everyone I admire and want to emulate is talking about a story, then it’s something I’ll look into.

Initially I was hesitant to implement this solution, because I think “echo chambers” and “internet bubbles” do a lot of harm. We all create our own bubble, though. Even if you follow a lot of people who disagree with you and with each other, you’re still selecting certain sources of information. Unless you want to consume all news without worrying whether it’s real, fake, quality, or clickbait–the equivalent of staring directly into the sun–the goal should be to identify what shade of stained glass you want to build. If you have liberal views and create an echo chamber full of only other liberals, you are saying, “I value feeling like liberal views are correct more than I value hearing both sides”, and I think that’s dangerous. But if you like geek culture and follow mostly other geeks, you’re saying “I value the opinions of geeks more than the opinions of mainstream reviewers who think the movies I like are overrated”, and I think that’s fine.

I might bring back the Hall of Heroes column occasionally, although I realized when I first did them that I might as well just write a name and the rest of what I was writing could be learned with a simple google search. Instead, I’m thinking of trying out some sort of “Desdenada News” column, sharing news and editorials from my very narrow, very biased perspective. I’ve said plenty of times how I love video games and other geeky things but don’t really relate to mainstream geek culture, which means I don’t really enjoy and geeky news outlets. In the spirit of creating the product you wish you could buy, I’ll cover stories from the perspective of someone who is equally obsessed with fantasy and with real-world success–no matter how small the audience for that might be.

Quest Accepted: Back to Basics

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Closing in on the Bloodlet Throne, where a powerful vampire awaits us.

The genesis of Desdenada can be found in the clash between my two great obsessions: self-improvement and achievement in the real world, and elaborate fantasy worlds spun from whole cloth. Between these two conflicting interests lies gamification, an emerging filed that I feel nobody has really done right yet. Since my Skyrim Life Skills posts were by far my most popular posts since starting this ridiculous experiment, it seems to be an appealing concept.

Video games present an interesting dichotomy. They train players to become better, smarter, and more effective in order to accomplish increasingly difficult goals, in exchange for purely imaginary rewards. You would think veteran gamers would be among the most accomplished people in the world. If you would dedicate countless hours to earning some pixels on a screen, surely you would dedicate even more effort to working out, running a business, and satisfying a romantic partner, in exchange for the very real rewards of health, money, and love. It follows then that gamers count among the most athletic, wealthiest, and romantically fulfilled people on this earth, right?

Saying this won’t win me any points with my core audience, but in my experience, the opposite is true. I love video games, but often find it hard to relate to other people who love video games. That’s because you don’t just learn to make and achieve goals in a video game, then move on to making and achieving goals in life. Instead, you pick up a new video game, and your virtual goals become a replacement for your real goals.

As a writer, I’ve heard it said that the novel is a metaphor for life. No matter how realistic your story, it will never be as complex or broad as life. It is a condensed version where you can illuminate lessons that apply to the real thing. Well, video game goals are a condensed version of real goals. They are appealing because they are more straightforward and easier to achieve than real goals, but the tradeoff is they will never be as fulfilling.

How do we bridge the horns of this dichotomy? How do hardcore gamers become ripped millionaires with happy marriages?

Side Story Quest

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All is quiet as we descend into the keep.

I have a not-particularly-funny running joke about my disdain for the Main Story Quest in Skyrim. I prefer to make my own story, and define my character by following an alternate path than the one thrust upon me. On the other hand, I don’t find the “Miscellaneous” quests, most of which are procedurally generated through the game’s Radiant quest system, to be very satisfying. The happy middle ground is the side story quests, which are structured to have a complete story but not presented as the one main story.

Some time ago, I wrote a similar post about seeing your own goals as quests in the game of life. Part of the appeal of video games is you know whether you are doing the right thing, and even if you struggle with a game’s difficulty, you know you’re struggling in the right direction. In real life, you might find yourself struggling to make it as a writer and have lingering doubts about you’re even “supposed” to be a writer of if this is all a waste of time. It sounds unsettlingly New Age, but the solution is to do some deep soul-searching until you can clarify exactly what your real-life Quests are.

I was thinking about this topic because of where Aemilian is in my play through. After receiving an offer of land in exchange for service from the Jarl of Falkreath, I decided to make Falkreath my home. After getting settled in, I met the old jarl, who was deposed due to his Stormcloak sympathies. He told me about an empty grave in the cemetery, which had belonged to one of his ancestors, now a powerful vampire. He sent me to kill the vampire, and in the process, my faithful housecarl Rayya was slain. Now Aemilian has a reason to hate vampires–which is handy, because the game’s Dawnguard expansion is all about vampires. I already have the quest to start that story, but until now I had no reason for Aemilian to pursue that quest. When I do begin the expansion, the quests will have more weight and completing them will be much more fulfilling.

We should strive to give our real-life quests the same weight.

Gamify Your Goals

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But not for long.

The Skyrim Life Skills were an attempt to gamify micro elements of your life, so you felt rewarded for reading a book or going for a run. The Quest Log is a macro kind of gamification. If your life is a game, what are the win conditions? How do you know if you’re making progress?

Unlike in Skyrim, we get to define our own Main Story Quest. For me, it’s my quest to be a writer. When I first wrote about this idea, I took a top-down approach: first define your Main quest, than your Faction quests, Side quests, and Miscellaneous quests. Of course, those are questions people spend lifetimes trying to answer, so maybe there’s a better way.

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The resistance is fierce, and I only survive thanks to my beast blood.

Get a journal to serve as your Quest Log, and write down all of your Quests without worrying about identifying what kind of quest they are. A Quest is any goal you put effort toward completing, whether because you want to or you have to. Becoming a published author is a quest, but so is paying rent. At this stage, it’s mostly an information-gathering exercise. You might be surprised to learn where most of your effort goes. It also allows you to think about where you would prefer that effort to go. If you ever have free time in your schedule, open your quest log and decide which quest you would like to pursue.

Quest Logs Real and Imagined

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The dust settles, and I realize to my horror that Rayya didn’t make it.

Let’s take a brief example from my real and virtual life. Right now, Aemilian’s quest log contains the Main Story Quest of fulfilling his destiny as the Dragonborn and saving the world, the Faction quest of fighting for the Companions, and various Side and Miscellaneous quests.

Yet I could write a very different quest log for Aemilian. His Main Story Quest as far as I’m concerned is still becoming an alchemist. When I play him, I’m more motivated by the chance to find rare herbs and experiment with new mixtures than by whatever shenanigans Alduin is getting up to. Other important quests include settling and building a home and family in Falkreath, and avenging Rayya’s death by slaying vampires whenever they cross my path. I also have the quest to serve Kynareth and Hircine whenever possible. For that reason, I am motivated to continue the Companions storyline more because of my personal, made-up “Hircine” quest than because of the real in-game questline.

In real life I have the quests of becoming a writer, of being a good boyfriend, of traveling more, and of being healthy and getting in shape. These can be broken down into more specific, actionable quests: publishing a novel, celebrating monthly anniversaries, taking a trip to Europe, and running a marathon. Then I have less glamorous quests: keep on top of my finances, which includes working and keeping track of my spending. Keep my room clean and take out the trash on a regular basis.

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She will be remembered.

Having a long list of non-glamorous, obligatory quests can be demoralizing, but once you have them all laid out in front of you, you will realize many of them are objectives of the same quest. Because one of my top-priority quests is being with my girlfriend Venezia, I moved to Mexico with her when her Canadian Study Visa expired. Now I have to work a variety of freelance jobs to pay my bills while I live here. When I’m not motivated to work these side jobs, I remind myself that I am actually working on completing my “be a good boyfriend” quest.

The first step to bridging the gap between gamers who excel in-game and gamers who excel in life is making sure we have real-life goals that motivate us. So the question is:

What’s in your quest log?

Words of Power: Equilibrium, Fika

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The Nordic fika, traditionally enjoyed with a sweet roll and a tankard of Honningbrew Mead.

Some time ago, we learned our first word of power: lagom, a Swedish word that roughly translates to “not too much and not too little”. Meditating on this word is like using the Slow Time shout in Skyrim. Anyone with a mindfulness practice can tell you time is not only relative but counterintuitive. When you’re so busy there is literally not enough time in the day to get everything done, speeding up makes the problem worse. Somehow, slowing down, even taking a break from the rush altogether, causes time to expand.

Today we’re going to focus on taking a break. The Swedish word fika roughly means break, but connotes a short break from work, traditionally enjoyed with coffee and a small treat. It sounds like a guilty pleasure, but taking a fika might make you more productive.

Let’s check in with Aemilian as he takes a fika of his own.

From Sky to Sea

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Through the woods, up a mountain, into a cave…

Since High Hrothgar, Aemilian had begun to acclimate to the altitude and the cold, but he was by no means immune to them. When his boots landed on stone steps carved into the side of the mountain, blanketed by snow, he realized he’d arrived at Ancient’s Ascent. Peering up at a pair of stone pillars in an ancient Nordic style, he knew he had found the dragon’s lair.

The dragon at Falkreath had almost been the end of him. Now, at the bidding of his jarl, Siddgeir, he’d agreed to hunt another dragon. Not only did he not have the city’s guards fighting alongside him, but his breathing was shallow and his fingers half-frozen as he reached for Antler’s Bite. Any fool could see this fight would likely be his last.

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…through an ice tunnel, past the trolls…

Hardening his heart, his mind sinking into a grim place beyond emotion, he turned back to make sure Rayya was prepared to finish the hunt. He froze there, his mouth falling open, as he looked past Rayya and took in the view.

“Would you look at that.”

Rayya followed his gaze and he heard her gasp when she saw it, too. From their perch they saw half of Skyrim unfold before them. The stony, broken reach to the west, the Throat of the World rising up to the east. Standing at the edge of the sky, they could see all the way down to the northern sea, and all the rolling fields in between.

Aemilian left Antler’s Bite where it hung and for a time, all thoughts of battle and death faded away. For a time he simply was, and let Skyrim be before him.

The Busy Trap

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Even a full-time dragonslayer should take a fika now and then.

It’s been said that anyone who is consistently busy is either bad at time management or needs to reorder their priorities. Not that you shouldn’t fill your time with productive and meaningful tasks. The point is never be “too busy” for something. If your friend invites you to lunch and you’re too busy to go, then either a) you’re lying and you just didn’t want to go, which is fair, or b) you do want to go, but have created a life where you choose to do something you don’t want to do instead of something you want to do. That’s a problem.

Of course you don’t always have the freedom to define your schedule, and a job that makes you too busy is usually better than being unemployed. As an ideal, though, you shouldn’t want to be busy. In Western society, we idolize busy people and think it makes us better to be too busy for things, but this is removing your own agency. I want to write, and I want to spend a lot of time writing. But if I plan to write at a given time and somebody invites me out at that time, I’m not “too busy” to go out, I’m making a choice to write.

Whether we work on the clock or for ourselves, we can fall into a similar productivity trap. It feels good to push ourselves to work harder and take less breaks, because it feels like we’re getting more done, even if we’re not. Now, this is a tricky one, because I know a lot of writers and other creative types who have trouble getting down to work in the first place. If you only write for twenty minutes a day, you are not working too hard, this section is not for you, ignore it.

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DRAGON!!

Since this blog comes out of my own self-improvement efforts, the fika is another instance of practicing what I don’t yet preach. At a cost. I’ve built a pretty solid habit of getting stuff done in the morning: I try to wake up before 5, meditate, journal, make breakfast, do yoga, go to the gym or to the park to run, read a little, write this blog, then get down to writing. The first half of my day is more or less on lock.

The second half of my day is anything from a little challenged to totally hopeless. Some days I write from noon all the way until 6, but if I stop writing at any point I find it extremely difficult to start writing again–or do anything else productive for that matter, and I usually end up playing Hearthstone or Skyrim the rest of the day.

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I mean I knew the dragon would be here but it’s tradition at this point.

Once I realized this was my pattern I, as usual, did the opposite of what I should have done. I tried to write for as long as possible without taking a break or suffering any interruptions. If I can only go until I stop, then I can’t let myself stop. Not only does this drain my energy and focus, it also puts me in a bad state of mind whenever I do sit down to write, knowing it’s going to be a slog.

I’m experimenting now with adding little breaks to my writing time, and I think I’ll end up writing a lot more overall. Instead of trying to write for four hours and burning out at three, I can write for six hours if I make sure to take regular breaks.

Taking a Fika

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Whose idea was it to play on Legendary difficulty?

There is a physical act associated with this word, but even when you cannot perform the act, you can still reflect on the meaning.

If you want to physically implement fikas into your day, I’m experimenting with what studies have found to be the “ideal schedule”: 52 minutes of work followed by a 17-minute break. Who knows if this is actually ideal, but it works for me. 52 minutes flies by when you’re engaged in your work, and by the end of the short break I’m ready to get back to it. For obvious reasons, if your breaks are this frequent, I would refrain from having a coffee and a cinnamon roll on every one of them. Including small treats during a fika or two does have a great effect, though.

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Safe to say we’re both regretting this right now.

Fika is more than the act itself. There’s a reason it is the second word in our “shout”. In Skyrim, you cannot use only the second or third word of a thu’um. The words build on one another, in order.

Lagom is balance, and I’ve discussed before how balance really always breaks down to time. Maybe that’s just because I’m human, and time is the human frame of reference for everything. When you apply lagom in your shopping, you’re freeing up time by not having to earn more money. When you apply lagom to your health, you’re gaining time by living longer.

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Pretty rough day at work.

In Western society, time-savers are a hot topic because of our drive to get so much done. Freeing up time just to spend it doing nothing feels inherently wrong. Yet filling time just for the sake of it is self-defeating.

Even if you don’t have the option to take a break, you can get away with closing your eyes and taking a ten-second mental break in almost any line of work (fighter pilots, ignore this, please). First, meditate on lagom, and on how you can bring balance to your life by adjusting how much time you spend on given activities. Then meditate on fika, reflecting on the purpose of that time. Are you freeing up time so you can fill it with more work? What are you working toward? Almost any answer you give can be traced back to a desire to earn more time doing what you love. You are working to retire, or to start your own business, or to support your family.

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I did earn a word of power, though.

With that in mind, can you take a few ten-minute time slots out of your day and start enjoying what you love right now–or just enjoying life by doing nothing for a moment?