Jstris Custom Skin – subDude

I’ve always enjoyed Tetris, and over the years across various platforms I’ve gotten fairly respectable at it. I have a distinct memory of being roughly five years old, my older cousins playing Tetris on an NES, and refusing to let me join because I was “too young”. I wonder sometimes if I initially took it up out of spite in response. As various consoles and cartridges came and went I’ve had a lot of incarnations of Tetris, and then several years ago, when Facebook was a mecca of bullshitty browser-based micro-transactional time-gated friend-harassing casual games, I found Tetris Online, Inc’s Tetris Friends. In what seemed like a fairly short period of time, I hit that point where, like the tragic man too good at fighting game to enjoy playing against friends but not good enough to play competitively, everyone I knew refused to play with me anymore. I do my best to be a gracious winner, but in a few weeks’ time I was down to doing 40 line sprints in about 1:15 (at the turn of the century that would’ve been a world-record time, but by 2009 your world-class players were down to 25-30 seconds with custom clients) and once the novelty of watching my replays wore off (a friend once came over and asked me to play a game in person, so they could watch my hands – I felt a little bit flattered and a little bit like a sideshow attraction), it understandably made me an unappealing opponent. I wish I’d thought to screencap my records back then – I think my very best time was 0:58 – but I foolishly assumed Tetris Friends would be around forever. I do remember on the global leaderboards, though, I was in the top 1% – probably because players any more serious than me were busy with Lockjaw and later NullpoMino, although I didn’t know anything about those at the time. Tetris Friends’ successor, Tetris Battle, never really managed to hold my attention, and when Tetris Friends was removed from Facebook in 2012 I stopped playing.

I’m sure in the interim I’ve played a game here and there on my venerable old Gameboy Advance, but I’ve discovered that, like a lot of games, I really prefer playing Tetris with a computer keyboard. In October of 2019, in the mood for a PC version of Tetris, I wondered what had happened to Tetris Friends. I was disappointed to find out Tetris Online, Inc had ceased all operations just a few months before – Tetris Friends had been permanently shuttered. In looking for a replacement, I discovered Jstris, a browser-based unofficial Tetris client built in Javascript and HTML5. It’s my first client with things like customizable auto-repeat, it’s snappy and lightweight, and it has a very active community (including some gotdam eight-handed six-fingered speed-junkie radioactive spider mutants especially talented players with 16-second sprint times). Over the last few months I’ve been whittling my times down again – I’m usually right around 1:30 now, but I’ve managed to get a few 2-second-per-line games. I think I’m about as fast as I’m going to get without taking the time to really perfect my finesse and movement strategy – but I’ll be honest, I don’t know that I’ve got the desire and discipline to do that. I’m not certain professional-level competitive Tetris is exactly what I want to dedicate my life to. But even with only my enthusiast-level skills, I feel like I’ve been reaping some benefits from the recent rekindling of interest.

A concept that’s entered the collective awareness by way of Buddhist philosophy is the xinyuan, or “monkey mind”. The idea that there is a part of our consciousness that is restless, flighty. It swings from one thing to another the way a monkey swings through branches. It chatters endlessly, distracting us from more meaningful thought. Buddhist wisdom teaches that to be at peace you’ve got to learn to train this mind-monkey – not cage it, that just makes the chattering worse – but guide it. Meditation is giving the monkey something shiny to focus on, assigning it a task to do, so that it stops aimlessly hopping from one trivial thing to another. Or at least that’s how I understand it – you want a monk, go to Tibet.

I became aware of the mind-monkey in conjunction with learning about mindfulness. It may be unconventional, but returning to Tetris now after having practiced mindfulness meditation over the last few years makes me realize that a game of Tetris often feels very similar to a meditative state. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, I’m not the only one. At least one study would seem to corroborate that Tetris has a stress-relieving effect, and it may even be an effective method for managing the symptoms of PTSD.

It’s not an effect I’ve noticed consistently with any other video game. It’s different than the immersive nature of a really engrossing game – that makes you almost oblivious to your surroundings, it takes you out of your own body and mind to an extent. In contrast, with this “Tetris-induced meditation” (medi-tet-ion?) you’re very much still present, but occupied. I mentioned when I wrote about my Soundscape mod for World of Warcraft that the repetitive nature of grinding or farming trivial content could approach something nigh-meditative at times, but I think in a game like that there’s too many distractions for it to happen often. Which, don’t get me wrong, isn’t a bad thing – it’d be boring otherwise, and games are entertainment, not some metaphysical practice or neurochemical aid. But that’s maybe part of the magic of Tetris – the gameplay is repetitive in concept, but endlessly variable. It requires continual, rapid-fire, split-second flashes of problem-solving but these happen so quickly (at least once you’re at a point you’re doing multiple piece placements per second) it feels almost reflexive. As someone that experiences it regularly, that meditative experience feels like something to do with the perpetual state of not-quite-conscious thought. Or at least that’s my guess; you want a neuroscientist, go to University of California at Irvine’s Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior in 1991 where Richard Haier scanned the brains of Tetris players and found out Tetris whips up all kinds of neat neurojuju – it may even make you smarter.

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Faster Than Light

There are some games, especially those with online multiplayer, where being involved at a specific point in time is an important part of the experience. Sometimes it’s engineered that way – most MMOs have seasons or expansions where older content is regularly removed or otherwise deprecated. Others it’s by virtue of the community – while I’ve heard Pokemon Go still has an active playerbase and has made significant technical and gameplay improvements since launch, there’s no way now to recapture the magic of Summer 2016 unless you were there.

In most cases, though, gaming-on-a-lag has more benefits than downsides. Besides the fiscal advantages outlined in the relevant XKCD, there’s also a bit of Darwinism in place. In some ways it’s the “Never Preorder” argument carried to its logical conclusion – a few days after launch you’ll know whether or not a game met pre-release expectations, but in a few years you’ll also know whether or not it has staying power and replayability. And you’ll know if the developer is committed to supporting it long-term.

For the record, I’m not really a strict adherent to the “No Preorders Ever” philosophy. I do prefer transparency about what I’m actually paying for, though. When I bought Minecraft back in 2010, I liked that there was a stable, free (albeit limited) version that I could play to my heart’s content (there still is, actually), and while if I wanted the latest features of InfDev I had to pay, I liked that it was obvious what I was getting was a work-in-progress from an indie dev with no promises as to project milestones. The deal was I paid a reduced price to play the unfinished version, and in return for being an early adopter, I’d have access to the final version when – and if – it ever released. I’m a lot more content to pay ten dollars for something I know is a gamble than sixty bucks for something that’s marketed as a finished product, but isn’t one. Similarly, Faster Than Light pinged my radar back in 2012 for having a Kickstarter with a low buy-in and the option to participate in the beta. Like any Kickstarter, there were no guarantees, but they were honest about what you were getting in return for your money. However, while I love sci-fi and roguelikes, I’ve never been very proficient at real-time strategy games. Watching me play Starcraft is like watching a chimpanzee play the piano. I kept an eye on it, though; it was well-received at launch, and I was impressed with the developers’ level of commitment. They released an expansion (Advanced Edition) two years later at no additional charge, and they were still actively supporting the game with updates and patches as recently as 2018. While from a business practices standpoint I found that to be exemplary, I still wasn’t sure the game was going to be for me.

In the twilight zone of meaningless time between Christmas and New Year’s last year, Faster Than Light went on sale for free. Wrapping up the 2010’s, many people were calling it one of the best games of the decade, and at that price I had nothing to lose. I claimed my copy and eagerly set out across the galaxy.

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Keep Saturn in Saturnalia

I have sort of a universalist view on Christmas. I was raised in a household with stockings hung by the chimney with care, but these days I spend the holidays more with the family I chose than the one I was born into, and my friends’ holiday traditions run the gamut. So I have warm memories of evergreen trees and candy canes, but the season, for me, isn’t really about any particular religious associations anymore. I love that so many different cultures choose this time of year to reflect and celebrate. I love that so many of our traditions – like feasting and gift-giving and wassailing (that’s your word of the day) – keep outliving the belief systems they get associated with. The “War on Christmas” crowd should breathe a sigh of relief – history would suggest that Christmas will go on long after even Christianity ends (although that may be exactly what they’re afraid of). If humanity makes it another ten thousand years, precedent says that regardless of what (if any) spiritual philosophies are en vogue, we’ll still be getting together with loved ones to eat, drink, and be merry sometime around the homeworld’s winter solstice. And that’s what I celebrate now – time with the people I love, another trip around the sun on this weird little rock with the rest of the earthlings. Remembering to be grateful for those I’ve lost and looking forward to another year with those who remain. It’s the season I find it easiest to embrace my shared humanity with everyone, everywhere; differences seem so much smaller during this time of intercultural revelry. Peace on earth and goodwill towards men, indeed. At least as long as I don’t have to go to the mall.

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Remember the Sabbath

Every cool riff has already been written. By Black Sabbath. Anything anyone else does is just basically ripping it off. You’re either playing it slightly different, or backwards, or faster, or slower, but they did everything already.

Rob Zombie, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, 2004

I don’t know that I’d call myself a ‘metalhead’ – I feel like as a genre it kind of lost its way in the 80s, and despite some bright spots here and there, overall it’s never really found its way back. But it would be hard to overstate the influence Black Sabbath’s first six albums had on me, both as a music enthusiast and as a musician. Seeing the original lineup live in 2004 rivaled any spiritual experience I’ve ever had.

As a teenager learning guitar, I once told an instructor my goal was to be able to put on Paranoid and play the whole album start-to-finish. That’s been at least 20 years ago, now, and if I’m being very honest, I still don’t know that I’ve reached it. I still discover inexplicably delicious bits in Tony Iommi’s guitar work, I may well spend the rest of my life unraveling it all – but I do play a mean War Pigs.

The thing about Black Sabbath is at this point it’s not even dad-rock anymore – it’s pushing grandpa territory. The eponymous LP (Black Sabbath, the album) turns fifty next year. Black Sabbath, the band, has put out nearly 20 studio albums over that span of time, and just as many live albums and compilations. While a lot of it was incredible, in my opinion, not all of it has aged well. Black Sabbath, the song, is kind of camp now – from this side of the satanic panic of the 80’s, it’s hard to remember devil-worship used to actually be scary. Volume 4 is part of the Sacred Six, but it’s definitely got some questionable choices – although admittedly I’ve never listened to it in a hot tub while doing lines of cocaine off naked women with Farrah Fawcett hair, which was apparently the artists’ intended listening environment. Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die show evidence of a band starting to lose their way, they’re not nearly as cohesive as the albums that came before. And I don’t see how the Dio era is even listenable to anyone that didn’t live through hair metal – there, I said it.

Despite all that, Black Sabbath (the band) doesn’t need me to defend them. Boomer-era nostalgia tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth these days, but even your most uber-hipster postmodernist post-punk would have a hard time dismissing the influence they’ve had – entire genres trace roots to Black Sabbath. Like Robert Johnson, so many musicians that came after credit them as an influence, it’s hard to imagine what music in the English-speaking world would’ve even been without them. Rob Zombie’s statement that every cool guitar riff was already written by Black Sabbath may not be too far off the mark; the blend of rootsy blues rock with classical and jazz influences as well as then-emerging hard rock and metal styles means their work covered a lot of ground. The endless box sets and best-ofs still go platinum and gold, and their work still gets introduced to new listeners every day, sometimes through unlikely avenues.

All that to say, there’s still a lot of people that LISTEN TO BLACK SABBATH. Their legacy is secure, and they don’t need me to curate it. But for me, personally, I wanted to take some time to think about what tracks I would point to in order to justify my esteem. I find it kind of interesting that whenever you’ve got bands with storied pasts and varied catalogues, fans frequently end up with highly personal perceptions of ‘definitive’. When I say “LISTEN TO BLACK SABBATH”, what tracks, specifically, do I mean? If someone told me they’d never heard a single Sabbath song, which ones would I be the most excited for them to hear for the first time?

It’s tempting, of course, in response, to just throw those first six albums in a playlist in their entirety. To avoid that, I decided to pick ten songs. What are the ten Black Sabbath songs everyone should hear before they die?

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My childhood exposed me to a unique blend of religious and philosophical viewpoints. My mother came from a deeply devout Southern Baptist household, but she met my father during a bit of a ‘prodigal son’ phase after she dropped out of bible college. My father probably would’ve identified as Christian if asked – he’d been to church when he was a kid, he’d said a “prayer of salvation” one time – but it wasn’t a very big part of his world view. I’d say in practical, day-to-day terms, he was really some kind of Apatheist Randian Objectivist back then, although probably neither he nor I would’ve been smart enough to know that in the dark ages before Google.

They worked really hard at trying to find a balance for how to raise me, while still trying to navigate what they believed, as well as find compromises on what kind of lifestyle we’d have as a family. I’m grateful that I had parents that were willing to make that kind of effort. But it did lead to some pretty unusual circumstances at times. Dad’s outlaw biker friends taking over our living room, throwing darts, and listening to Alice Cooper records on a Saturday night; then Mom getting me up the next day to go to Sunday School. Mom dropping me off at my Montessori kindergarten in the morning, Dad picking me up in the afternoon in his 60’s Dodge with a roach in the ashtray (I need to ask him sometime about that car – I think it was a Coronet, but he sold it when I was still pretty young, and I don’t really remember).

As I got older, my mother started exploring the charismatic movement, even though that put her at odds with her parents that, like most Southern Baptists, trended more towards cessationism. So even just within Christianity, I got exposed to a lot of opposing views on the nature of god and his relationship to humanity.

For my own part, once I was old enough to start wanting to make my own decisions about what I believed, I explored a lot of different avenues. I took a year of seminary classes. I read a lot of Classical Greek and 17th and 18th-century German philosophers. I had brief Tzu phases, both Sun and Lao. I was a LaVeyan Satanist for a while. At different times I’ve described myself as an atheist, an agnostic, or a Deist. I’ve argued on the internet both in support of, and in rebuttal to, the Epicurian paradox. I got ordained as a Unitarian Universalist. I joined a megachurch and played guitar in the worship band for a couple of years. I’ve been saged, baptized (dunked and sprinkled), anointed with oil, cleansed, and had my tarot read. I’ve been to enough different communions to have brand preferences about wafers. I may have memories of a past life. I’ve spoken in tongues, I’ve laid on hands, and I’ve handled snakes (although that last one wasn’t a religious thing, I just like snakes). I know the difference between a pentacle and a pentagram, but I’ve doodled both.

These days my stances don’t swing quite so wildly anymore. My pendulum has settled somewhere around the middle of the Dawkins scale, although it doesn’t really have an option to perfectly describe where I’m at (“Most of the time I feel like there’s some kind of god or gods, but I acknowledge there’s no rational evidence to support that”). The only thing I believe “beyond a shadow of a doubt”, as the Baptists used to say, is that nobody knows for sure if the divine exists or what (if anything) happens after we die, and anybody that claims to is trying to sell you something. And while I find lofty speculations about metaphysics and the supernatural fascinating, what I feel like is a lot more important are the tenets we live our everyday lives by.

Self-proclaimed comedian Steve Harvey had a lot of people rightfully annoyed at him a few years ago over his statement that you can’t trust an atheist because they don’t have any basis for morality (he actually said “Where’s his moral barometer? It’s nowhere.”, and I think the hilarity of the phrase ‘moral barometer’ had as much to do with the viral spread of that clip as the associated outrage did). I don’t want to veer off too much into discussing why he’s wrong – other people have done it a lot better – but, if you’re not going to take any supposed holy book or sacred text as.. well, gospel, you do have to decide for yourself what morality means – what do you base your ‘moral barometer’ on? Where do you look for meaning if you feel there’s a good chance life, the universe, and everything is just a happy accident and no one exists on purpose? Secular humanism is a big one, there’s some great stuff there, kind of the modern outcropping of some of the best ideas by those German philosophers I was talking about earlier. I like Utilitarianism a lot, as well. But after all the religious texts and philosophical works I’ve read in my lifetime, there’s one maxim I hold above all others when it comes to my personal sense of morality and the meaning of life.

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Doom RPG

Everything with a screen should run Doom.

Statement offered without qualification or disclaimer. On December 23rd, 1997, Christmas came early, as John Carmack released the source code for the original Doom engine, free for non-commercial use. The game assets (textures, sprites, levels) weren’t released into the public domain, but paired with a free-to-distribute copy of the shareware .WAD file, you can legally port the engine and play the first episode of Doom on any device your heart so desires. I feel strongly that should be every device on which it’s even remotely feasible to do so. I’m not alone – in the last 20-or-so years, besides the obvious choices like iPods and Nintendo DSes, ingenious individuals have made Doom run on printers, digital cameras, thermostats, ATM machines, toasters* – it’s truly a great time to be alive.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal /

The “It runs Doom” demi-meme is well documented in other places, and I’m not looking to rehash all that, but I think it’s important to establish why, in 2007, it was so important to me that my Samsung SCH-A930 clamshell phone ran Doom (because A: everything with a screen should run Doom, and B: it had a screen).

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