Monthly Archives: December 2014

Music To Code By, 2014

Previous years: 2013 2012 2011

Standard Disclaimer: I’m a fan of post rock, electronic music, and alt rock. To me, the best album ever is Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins, and my current favorite record is either 65daysofstatic’s Wild Light or BT’s These Hopeful Machines. I like to listen to albums all the way through, and I’m not really a top-40 or metal fan, somewhere in between metal and top-40 – that’s me.

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2014 has been a slow year for music. I’m hard pressed to recommend much of anything new this year, so my recommendations this year are mostly from years past. Due to the slow year, my listening habits have been all over the map in 2014, so there’s bound to be something in here that you’ve never heard of.

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Top Album Recommendations

I highly recommend the following records – they’re all solid listens all the way through, and I find that I can’t start any of these without an obsession with listening the whole way through.

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BT’s These Hopeful Machines – EDM (electronic dance music), his masterpiece in my opinion, 2+ hours of incredible highs and lows both fast and slow, all mixed perfectly into one endless soundscape of amazing.

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65daysofstatic’s Wild Light – Post-rock meets a swirling wall of synth with a never-subtle virus of glitch constantly threatening to tear it all down, both inspiring and apocalyptic all at once. Fantastic.

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The Glitch Mob’s Love Death Immortality – EDM/Glitch. Their previous album (Drink the Sea) was a regular repeat-forever on my commute to and from work a few years ago, and this latest effort is even better – if ever there was a EDM supergroup to top all EDM artists ever, they’d be hard pressed to match the glitch mob’s work.

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Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Specter at the Feast – Moody shoegaze perfection. Impressively consistent with enough variation to keep your attention – and, like all good shoegaze, it keeps moving you places without ever being front and center. It’s hard to pay attention without losing yourself in daydreams or memories while listening, and I think that’s kinda the point.

The Playlist

I hate attempting to make a playlist out of tracks when they flow much better within their respective album’s framework, but the albums playlist for these tracks is over 37 hours long, so, a hacked up playlist it is.

I joined spotify recently. If you think 65daysofstatic and/or this will destroy you and/or the glitch mob and/or matthew good and/or sigur ros and/or the paper chase is the greatest band ever, shoot me an email, let’s share playlists.

My playlist is a spotify playlist this year, it’s 45 tracks that clock in at 3 hours 48 minutes (there’s a fair bit of post rock in there..lolz):

Spotify has a couple ways to link to playlists, so here are options you may want:

Option #1: The playlist http link.

Option #2: The playlist Spotify uri.

Option #3: Search for me on Spotify with “1226261222” (no quotes), and look at my public playlists for 2014 Best Of.

Track By Track Breakdown

Not everyone is a fan of post-rock, and not all post-rock fans are fans of EDM. To that end, I’m going to utilize a “post rock warning” image throughout the track lists. For this, I’ll be using the greatest meme of all time: the post-rock raven.

Here’s an example post-rock raven image:

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When you see this meme, you’re reading about a post-rock track.

My advice to you: listen to the playlist, if a track catches your ear, read the breakdown about that track below – or, you know, just read all of this blather if you’re bored. Don’t miss the other bits about good vinyl and other music developments at the end of the post though!

Ok then, onto the track by track breakdown:

Track #1: Caspian – Hymn For The Greatest Generation

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I went on and on last year about how Caspian’s album Waking Season is the greatest album in a long while. I still agree with this synopsis, and still strongly encourage you to listen to my #1 track from last year: Gone in Bloom and Bough.

This track, Hymn For The Greatest Generation is the title track from Caspian’s EP released late last year in 2013 – the EP has been the start to my day through much of 2014, with this slow-building and bittersweet enchanting title track opening things, and a track I’ll mention later ending on a driving “I can conquer the world!” theme finishing out the short but amazing EP.

Track #2: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Lose Yourself

A nice, representative moody shoegaze track from the previously mentioned Specter at the Feast album – one of my top albums for the year.

Track #3: Led Zeppelin – Tangerine

Fun fact: The movie Almost Famous is semi-autobiographical. The director of that movie was a teenage writer for rolling stone and met his rock gods Led Zeppelin during that time. When Almost Famous was coming out, the director ran the film by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page for approval. The band nixed use of Stairway to Heaven and Kashmir, but approved 3 or 4 other songs – most of which come from the album Led Zeppelin III.

As a youngster, my father introduced me to Led Zep, stressing that Led Zep IV and Houses of the Holy were their greatest albums. I strongly agree with this synopsis, having listened to all their albums years ago. But, somehow, all these years, Led Zep III flew under my radar.

The band reissued remastered editions of their first five albums in 2014 and while I listened to Led Zep I as well, and still haven’t opened IV or Houses of the Holy yet, it was III that I could not set aside for a long period this summer. Truly a treat to listen to.

The album starts strong with the track Immigrant Song, which you’ll immediately recognize when you hear it. Upon first listen you’re prepared for more of the same from Led Zep that we heard on I and II – over the top prototype rock for the following 30 years of music, but then the album takes a turn.

The in-your-face power anthems give way to a lighter side of Zeppelin not before seen – acoustic guitars and anthems for light hearted summer days abound – with this track, Tangerine, being the prime example of that beautiful and somber final side to the album.

Another fun fact: The 2014 reissues are remastered in the opposite direction of the early 90s remasters. Where the goal of the 90s remasters was as flat and crystal clear (read: lifeless) as possible, the 2014 remasters are truer to the original mixes back in the 70s. The 2014 mixes pop with a sense of life previously missing on CD releases. Stairway in particular has had dynamics returned – if your friends and family couldn’t grok zeppelin due to the lack of life in the 90s cds, urge them to give these 2014 mixes a go.

Bonus fun fact: The 2014 remasters were released on vinyl as well, making it easier for a new generation of music nerds (read: me) to get high quality versions of these albums at an affordable price.

Track #4: Hole – Malibu

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The downside to a slow music year is nothing new to listen to, the upside? – rediscovering something you missed a long time ago. When Hole’s album Celebrity Skin was released in ’98 – it was very cool to dislike Hole, and the album. Dislike of the album is well placed I think, the title track is bland, and hard to get through. Celebrity Skin, the track, there’s something off about it – an engineered-for-the-masses grunge hit that’s a little too formulaic and yet lifeless all at the same time.

But wait!

Celebrity Skin, the Album, is pretty good – or at least it sounds that way to me in 2014. It’s a bit like Ozzy Osbourne’s Ozzmosis released around the same time – a good solid album with a who’s-who big name list of music consultants aiding in turning out something generic, but still palatable for music fans of the time.

I was seventeen when Celebrity Skin hit, and my albums that year were Adore by the Smashing Pumpkins and Mechanical Animals by Marilyn Manson. Celebrity Skin, the album, can’t hold a candle to those other two albums in my opinion, but when you’ve listened to Adore and Mechanical Animals some thousands of times as I have over the past 20 or so years – Celebrity Skin is there to be discovered.

Give it a try.

Track #5: BT – Always

Just one example of the amazing tracks on the previously mentioned These Hopeful Machines album, one of my top albums for the year. The album was released in 2011 or 2010.

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Track #6: Crosses – Prurient

I listened to this album on repeat for days on end over two months earlier this year. The Crosses album is legit – but I listened to it so much that I burned myself out on it – so I can’t tell if it’s good anymore :/.

For fans of Deftones, Crosses is a side project of the Deftones’ frontman Chino Moreno.

But wait, Deftones fans, don’t let Team Sleep color your opinion before you begin!

Chino’s an outspoken fan of Depeche Mode and a few years back another side project of his, Team Sleep, issued a downtempo album that can only be described as ‘meh’.

Crosses’ self titled debut album is the album I wanted from Team Sleep. Remember that track Digital Bath from the Deftones’ White Pony album? Remember how you wanted an album full of *that*? Good news, Crosses is probably as close as you’ll get to the digital bath album.

I feel like Crosses is a bit more digital bath than depeche mode, but Chinos vox on the album are about the same as on Team Sleep for the most part – that is, fantastic. The difference here is that the backing music has life to it on the Crosses effort.

Crosses’ self titled debut album is a love letter to the Deftones fans who heard White Pony and were hoping for White Pony forever from then on. It’s White Pony 2.0 – minus the nu-metal – perfect.

Track #7: Queens of the Stone Age – God Is On The Radio

An apology is in order. About 5 years ago my coworker Chad tried to introduce me to the QOTSA album Songs for the Deaf, and, unfortunately, I just wasn’t ready for it. At the time my musical tastes leaned heavily on heavy-handed and over-the-top emotional mope rock – I was just discovering post-rock (heavy handed over the top emotional mope/feels rock without words) and I just wasn’t ready for the pinnacle of stoner rock that songs for the deaf is.

This album. God. Like the top albums recommended for this year, I cannot start this album without finishing it – listening to songs for the deaf is an event. I’ve got to check my schedule and ensure I’ve got an hour and a half undisturbed free before I begin. Perfect for airplane rides or just on repeat forever at volume 11 while working at home.

My only gripe with the album is the ridiculous offspring-like between-the-tracks banter of mock FM radio DJ satire – to me, this crap really detracts from the super solid and amazing album.

Don’t be turned off by other, lesser, meh, not for me, QOTSA efforts – this one’s accessible and pop rock as hell, I fucking love it. Thanks Chad, and Matt.

Track #8: The Naked and Famous – To Move With Purpose

I really liked The Naked and Famous’ first album a few years back – but now I can’t listen to that album anymore because this new album, In Rolling Waves is worlds better. The entire album is a torn-love/breakup album, and it’s great – at once subdued and poignant, beautiful. Electropop alt rock music, think MGMT or Passion Pit, but good – more like a love letter to The Postal Service.

Track #9: Hole – Hit So Hard

Another track from the previously mentioned Celebrity Skin album.

Track #10: Everclear – Why I Don’t Believe In God

The only album from Everclear that I can stand – I’m clearly a fair-weather Everclear fan, and to me, So Much For The Afterglow is an album that should not be missed.

Everclear has a sound, like Oasis, or Foo Fighters, and like those bands, the second album is the one to get. If you’re heads over heals insane about the album you may enjoy the more-of-the-same-forever follow ons, but personally, I don’t.

I’m a So Much For The Afterglow/The Colour and the Shape/What’s The Story Morning Glory fan, and I’m hard pressed to enjoy anything outside the greatest hits otherwise.

Everclear kinda meh to you? That’s fair, give So Much for the Afterglow a chance – like Celebrity Skin, it’s a post-grunge alt rock love letter – generic as hell but damn if I can’t stop listening to the full album on repeat.

Track #11: BT – Forget Me

Another track from These Hopeful Machines – one of my top album recommendations for the year. Forget Me is one of my most-listened-to tracks of the year, my current favorite from BT (and that is a hard choice to make as there are many stand out tracks by him..), and a strong candidate for my personal list of top 50 songs of all time.

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Track #12: Mogwai – Remurdered

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I’m not a Mogwai fan – like Explosions in the Sky and Caspian, and several others, I’ve listened to back catalogs without interest – the post rock all starts to sound the same when Takk and () from Sigur Ros are your introductions to what post-rock can be.

Like Caspian’s latest efforts, this latest album from Mogwai (Rave Tapes) and the B-sides EP they released a month ago are worth a listen.

Rave Tapes isn’t 65daysofstatic, newer Caspian, Sigur Ros or other standard over-the-top make-you-feel melodrama (read: perfection) post-rock, it’s more in line with This Will Destroy You – great in it’s own right. But, I can’t help but thinking Mogwai wouldnt have made my list this year had some of the other post-rock bands I like released something.

Good album, easily overlooked and forgettable, chill and serene. Perfect to code to.

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Track #13: The Glitch Mob – Fly By Night Only

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A track from the previously mentioned album Love Death Immortality, one of my top recommended albums. Pure adrenaline perfectly intertwined with serene synth and glitch all at once. Ugh, so good.

Track #14: Jack White – Would You Fight For My Love?

Another artist my coworkers Chad and Dan introduced me to a handful of years ago.

I *enjoy* the white stripes, but I don’t *love* them.

Something about Jack White music leaves me with a he-doesn’t-give-a-fuck taste in my mouth – to me, almost all of his solo and white stripes albums sound like a collection of b-sides to a really great album that he never released. I suppose that’s due to a lack of polish my cherished albums usually have – what can I say, I’m a full-album front to back listener, and Jack White’s always got something in there that’s so meh that it has a sort of an uncomfortable twist and makes for a hard listen.

I know, I get it, Jack White is avant-garde or whatever, he doesn’t subscribe to pop sensibilities and accessibility – o rly? False. Proof? Ok: Seven Nation Army. The End.

It’s as if Jack White takes himself super seriously and not seriously at all, all at the same time – perhaps that’s the point. Anyway, if you’re a white stripes fan, fair-weather or otherwise, his album this track comes from, Lazaretto, is more of the same – good, a thousand great hooks sprinkled with poignant interludes here and there with a fair helping of filler that could have hit the editing room floor.

Track #15: Garbage – Milk

Ugh. Garbage. So Good. There was a three or four month phase this year where I was listening to every album Garbage ever issued, on repeat, for days. If you’ve only heard the singles, do yourself a favor, listen to their first two albums.

Fun Fact: Butch Vig, the drummer/producer from Garbage is the same Butch Vig who produced the greatest album ever, Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins, as well as Nevermind by Nirvana, and a ton of Foo Fighters records (Don’t knock him for that though, he just tries to make them sound as good as he can..). In my opinion, Butch Vig’s super polished sound production is the reason Garbage is as good as it is.

Also, Shirley Manson’s vox – liquid velvet you cannot get enough of. God damn.

Track #16: Longwave – Sirens In The Deep Sea

Amazon recommended Longwave and 65daysofstatic to me at random years ago, and I’m glad they did.

Longwave is a now-defunct early 2000’s rock band. Fans of Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots (sorry to hear that), and Foo Fighters (sorry to hear that too) need to give Longwave’s Secrets Are Sinister a spin.

Solid album front to back.

Track #17: Matthew Good – Advertising On Police Cars (Acoustic)

Matthew Good is one of my most favorite artists ever. This version of the track comes from a ‘deluxe’ triple-disc version of his greatest hits compilation In A Coma. The ‘deluxe’/extras cd has this 5 or 6 track acoustic session of some of his songs and they sound phenomenal. I wish I could have these tracks on vinyl.

The acoustic tracks in particular sound amazing in a room with great reverb, such as my brother’s home office with one wall covered in a wooden cabinet and wood flooring. Sonic catharsis and euphoria at volume 11 – easily one of the greatest listening experiences of my entire life.

Track #18: 65daysofstatic – Safe Passage

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It is a yearly goal of mine to introduce someone to 65daysofstatic. 65 days is labeled as post-rock or glitch or EDM depending on the album you’re looking at, and this album, Wild Light is, in my opinion, just as good as the Caspian Waking Season album I so highly recommended last year. Both Wild Light and Waking Season saw very heavy full-album playthroughs throughout 2014 and I anticipate that continuing in 2015.

This track is the epitome of Wild Light, all wrapped up into 6 minutes – a subdued haunted sad piano intro with guitar tremolos teasing just out of sight. Then, all at once – heavy-handed over-the-top right-in-the-feels synth overload – still mellow somehow, until about 3:10 when the drums kick in and you realize the track is getting out of hand – it’s accelerating and turning from a grey subdued morning to one of those car-crash 90MPH hour days you experience perhaps 3 times in life – it’s spaceships on a collision course with the sun with half the machinery malfunctioning. Epic. God. Damn. Epic. I love it.

Fun Fact: 65days fans, one of the band members, Paul Wolinski, released another short solo EP under the Polinski name again, entitled Full Bleed. It’s a full free stream – but give the man some money so he’ll keep going on making the music of our lifetime. His last solo record Labyrinths was one of my top recommendations for 2012, and I feel like that record showed the direction the following 65 days record (Wild Light) took. Full Bleed is good, but different – where Wild Light and Labyrinths were heavy handed overly dramatic walls of synth, this is like a pink floyd record with sounds of everyday life leading up to a delicate melodic final piano track. I’m not surprised, all of 65’s records have always been an evolution from previous efforts, and if this where 65days is going next, I’m excited to hear it.

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Track #19: Caspian – Halls of the Summer (Lazerbeak remix)

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This track comes from the previously mentioned Hymn for the Greatest Generation EP that Caspian released late last year. This track finishes that album out and often it’s my go-to for amping myself up to conquer the world. If time will not relent for the entire EP, this track will do in a pinch. Good stuff.

Track #20: The Glitch Mob – Our Demons

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More of the same of what we’ve covered earlier in this post, from the album Love Death ImmortalityTrack #21: REM – Sad Professor

REM’s unplugged on MTV sets from 1991 and 2001 were released this year – a good listen if you’re a fan of REM, fair-weather or otherwise.

Track #22: Mike Birbiglia – The Scrambler

2014 was the year I finally listened to my buddy Tim’s advice and listened to comedy albums. I spent days listening to everything from Jim Gaffigan, Patton Oswalt, and others, but I did not expect Mike Birbiglia.

My favorite writers have always been Douglas Coupland (of Generation X / Microserfs fame) and Matthew Good (of Matthew Good Band fame), but this year I’ve got a third favorite author – and that’s Mike Birbiglia.

Like many music artists I enjoy, Birbiglia is hard to really explain or sample one track at a time – he’s a full story/full-album listen required kind of guy. He’s a standup comedian, and his very first album is just regular standup comedy, but if you work your way backward newest album to oldest, you’ll fall in love.

Birbiglia’s albums are comedian concept albums, that is, they’re one long story. He’s a master of self-deprecation and being an asshole at the same time, he’s the underdog you cant help but root for as he tells tales of his first kiss or the time he visited his girlfriend’s boyfriends’ house and tried to impress his parents in hopes she’d choose him over the other boyfriend.

His stories start off harsh – Andy Kaufmanesque in many ways (on purpose) – “I dont believe in marriage” – for example, but by the end of the story he’s enraptured your soul in such a way that his final crescendo or twist at the end brings you to tears – it’s that endearing.

Birbiglia is the perfect story teller. This comes as no surprise, as he’s apparently had 15+ years of practice, often appearing on NPR’s this american life (don’t hold that against him though, that’d be like holding the foo fighters against butch vig..) and other such shows. His performances are theatre – he builds a story and constantly revises it as the tour progresses, ending with an absolutely immaculate story every tour.

Like my other favorite authors, Mike Birbiglia is the reason I write – he is the relatable guy who makes entertaining writing filled with humor and poignant moments seem so effortless. It seems effortless, but only upon the fifth listen through do you realize the amazing amounts of effort he must invest to make a show that appears so effortless. His simplicity and self-deprecating awkwardness is at once endearing, charming, and disarming – you feel bad for the guy and then, before you realize it, you’ve learned something precious about life when all you came for was the jokes.

Birbiglia is inspiring, and genius. Some of my most favorite books and people in life have been just like this guy, and Birbiglia’s packaged the amazing experience of knowing those books or people into something anyone can experience. Incredible.

Start with the album My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, watch it on DVD or stream it on Netflix ideally first.

Track #23: Garbage – The Trick Is To Keep Breathing

Garbage. Ugh. So Good, search for “liquid velvet” earlier in this post. That. More of that.

Track #24: Everclear – Sunflowers

Another track from So Much For The Afterglow, an album mentioned previously in this post.

Track #25: Direct Hit – The World Is Ending (No one cares.)

Direct Hit’s Brainless God is an entertaining pop-punk concept album about the apocalypse if it were to happen in current suburban America. Fucking brilliant, and catchy as hell.

Track #26: Brody Dalle – Dressed In Dreams

Here we have contender #1 for over-produced generic pop alt rock album of the year. Listening to this album is a dirty-secret pleasure – there’s nothing super remarkable about it, but it has all of the signature sounds a good rock album should.

Like the previously mentioned Celebrity Skin/So Much For The Afterglow/Ozzmosis, it feels like this is kind of phoned in with help from consultants. Dalle is the lead singer from the early 2000’s pop punk band the Distillers – not a band I particularly care for, but Dalle split a record-store-day single with Garbage this year, so I looked her up and found this.

A fun listen, just don’t tell anyone you listened to it.

Track #27: Jeff Rosenstock – Hey Allison!

A preview of a forthcoming album from the lead singer of the now defunct Bomb The Music Industry!.

I highly recommend BTMI’s album Vacations – an enjoyable listen front to back, indie power-pop-punk with a sprinkle of chiptunes here and there. Feels like the Broken Social Scene of the punk rock scene, because it is – a collective of musicians having a good time and kicking out records in the mean time.

Anyway, Jeff Rosenstock – I don’t dig all of his stuff, but this track and that Vacations album are awesome.

Track #28: Shakey Graves – Dearly Departed

I ranted about this guy in previous posts. Phenomenal live. His first album was a bit lifeless, and somewhere along the way he found his way and now he’s kicking out folksy country stuff like the best of them. Good album – And The War Came – released this past fall.

Track #29: TV On The Radio – DLZ

A track I had on my 2013 list but it kept being played through 2014 on repeat, a beautiful groove that crescendos in all-out-feels-righteous-anger-style. I have not yet listened to the band’s 2014 release Seeds, but I intend to. Maybe more on that in 2015.

Track #30: Mogwai – The Lord Is Out Of Control

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Another track from the previously mentioned Rave Tapes.

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Track #31: Hole – Petals

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Another track from the previously mentioned Celebrity Skin.

Track #32: Blue October – Fear

My wife is a huge Blue October fan. Their 2003 album Foiled (with the song Hate Me) was a super strong and amazing alt rock album. But albums from the band after that languished as the lead singer worked through a bullshit divorce and addiction issues. His struggles at the time show on the albums between Foiled and this latest album Sway. If you’ve heard those in-between albums, don’t hold it against the band, Sway is a return to form, Foiled 2.0 with a bit more love and a bit less anger. Phenomenal in my opinion.

This track in particular, Fear, is the standout in my opinion. Don’t fall for the recently released terrible amateur-hour digital-drums-added re-release radio version of the song, hear this version, the original version from the album.

If you’re a Blue October fan who’s suffered the past few years through some shit albums, give Sway a try. Also consider the lead singer’s cool solo album this year, Songs from an Open Book, in which he plays solo acoustic renditions of Blue October hits and tells the stories behind the songs in the meantime.

Track #33: Garbage – You Look So Fine

Garbage. Ugh. So Good, search for “liquid velvet” earlier in this post. That. More of that.

Track #34: First Aid Kit – My Silver Lining

If you liked their previous album, The Lion’s Roar, you’ll dig this. If you like other folksy country hipster crap these days (Shakey Graves, Shovels and Rope, Edward Sharpe, Of Monsters and Men, etc), you’ll dig this.

The new album’s called Stay Gold. Great weekend afternoon music.

Track #35: Metric – Help I’m Alive (Acoustic)

A cool acoustic version of the first track that opened their album Fantasies several years ago.

I loved the acoustic versions of the Synthetica songs on the ‘deluxe’ version of that album, and I realized this year there’s a digital-release-only EP called Plug In Plug Out with these acoustic renditions of various Fantasies tracks. I really wish this EP was available on vinyl, I’m sure it’d sound fantastic – just as Fantasies and Synthetica do.

Track #36: Matthew Good – Blue Skies Over Bad Lands

Heavy-handed lyrics, with an overly dramatic long-drawn out signature Matthew Good backing track.

From my least favorite album from one of my favorite artists, White Light Rock & Roll is OK, but kinda throwaway – which makes sense, that’s kinda how he recorded it (less obsessed solo perfection, more just jamming with a band and seeing where it goes).

Anyway, I missed this track previously, it’s good, but it’s no Champions of Nothing, Near Fantastica or a dozen other such amazing anthems.

Track #37: Enigma – Return To Innocence

Earlier this year my wife and my brother in law invited me to an erasure concert.

Fun fact: Erasure is a happier version of Depeche Mode, which make sense because the main musician was actually in Depeche Mode early on.

Another fun fact: Enigma is not Erasure. And I thought we were going to see Enigma, not Erasure.

I listened to the enigma album with this famous track before the concert anyway, and I’m glad I did – great mid-nineties tribal music mixed with accessible soundscapes made for white people – predictable over-used sound clips of apollo-era astronauts included here and there.

Fun fact: I love songs with over-used astronaut sound clips.

Also, Erasure is pretty awesome, if you like EDM such as Depeche Mode or BT, check erasure out. Also check out VNV Nation and Blaqk Audio while you’re at it.

Track #38: Interpol – Ancient Ways

I haven’t liked anything since their first album, but this latest effort El Pintor is listenable and enjoyable. Generic, forgettable, but hey, 2014 was a slow year.

Track #39: Garbage – So Like A Rose

Garbage. Ugh. So Good, search for “liquid velvet” earlier in this post. That. More of that.

Track #40: This Will Destroy You – Dustism

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Fun Fact: Before I saw that photo above, I had not heard of lowercase noises, I will check them out in 2015.

Anyway, This Will Destroy You’s latest – For some reason I was expecting more of their self titled effort, the melodramatic predictable post rock subtle near-silent start that builds into an anthem crescendo then back down and up again for a few more rollercoaster dips – all sprinkled with hints of electronic beats here and there.

This latest album, Another Language is not that. Gone are the over-used melodramatic post-rock swells.

TWDY insists they’re not post-rock, and where Sigur Ros went all-swells-over-the-top on their last effort, TWDY went the opposite direction with Another Language – this sounds more like Tunnel Blanket 2.0 (Tunnel Blanket was their previous album). It’s really good, and I feel strange saying its like Tunnel Blanket, because it’s not – it’s very subdued and somehow a very strange album – it leaves me with an unsettling feeling like I’m not sure what to feel or what I’m feeling at all – very strange.

Where previous efforts have been a direct punch to the feels jugular, over-the-top melodramatic heavy-handed Sigur Ros type stuff, this album is different.

This latest effort reads as a band that’s matured beyond all of the generic melodrama. This album reads as a band who’s hit their stride and yet somehow seems to be hunting for something yet to come – the album feels like the pedestrian build up in a given post rock song – except the *entire* album is that build up with no release – like foreplay for an album yet to come.

If anything, I’d compare this to Sigur Ros’ Valtari record a few years back – it’s still post-rock, but you can fall to sleep to it without being woken up every 10 minutes with some over the top driving crescendo full of catharsis.

With Another Language, I kind of think TWDY is both fucking with us and educating us while dragging us kicking and screaming into the realization that there’s more to good music than formulaic melodrama. I like it.

Track #41: Moby – When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die

I watched all of the Sopranos this year, again. I hadn’t watched it in nearly a decade. In a post-The-Wire world, the sopranos reads as pulp tv drama, a Mad Men of yesteryear – whatever/who-cares.

Still, the storytelling in the series is a bit like Game Of Thrones books – there’s a lot of get-to-know-the-characters that’s enjoyable but leaves you with the feeling that the entire series’ content could be quartered in length and be fantastic.

But, there’s a trick – the melodramatic moments just read as melodramatic and lame if that’s all there is all the time, see 24 or any other hit show ever (aside from The Wire, that show, ugh. so good.)

For melodrama moments to have maximum impact, you need the post-rock build up, the 6 seasons of formulaic sopranos ho-hum, the familiarization with the characters to the point that they’re family to you. Then the protagonist gets shot, no – not the first (or second?) time, – the third or fourth time where they have this best-of-series episode where Tony’s in the hospital and nobody’s sure if he’ll come through.

I hate hospitals. Babies are the only good thing to come from hospital stays, otherwise the best you can shoot for almost all of the time is a return to normalicy. Hospitals get a bad wrap because the hospital is where terrible things happen – maybe, just maybe some minor miracle of modern day science saves someone, but often hospital stays equate to tragedy.

This episode of the sopranos perfectly captures family tragedy, and hospitals, in the span of an hour – it is profound. The episode perfectly captures the effortless fragility, chaos and emotion one feels in the face of family emergency, all within the span of one hour.

So, yeah. Great episode, and the finale to the experience? – A montage set to this track from Moby.

I’m no Moby fan, but this track, with some 70+ hours of sopranos leading up to it, it hits you right in the feels. Tears. Everytime.

The episode in question is Join The Club, but don’t watch it without watching everything before first!!

Track #42: Garbage – Beloved Freak

Garbage. Ugh. So Good, search for “liquid velvet” earlier in this post. That. More of that.

Track #43: Inventions – Peacable Child

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Side project from one of the guys in Explosions in the Sky. I’m not a big Explosions in the Sky fan, but I dig this side project album a fair bit. Slow moving, serene at times, forgettable, but worth a listen. Not post-rock, no feels/melodramatic builds and crescendos, more easy-going electronic meanderings I’d say.

Track #44: Aaron Behrens & The Midnight Stroll – Keep On Rising

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Our second contender for dirty pleasure listening generic all-the-rock-music album of the year. This EP from Ghostland Observatory’s lead singer’s new project is good, but generic as hell. This track in particular opens all U2 sounding and then moves into a standard rock-ballad/slightly-country song I know I’ve heard before a million different ways.

This self-titled debut EP is an enjoyable listen while cleaning the house or otherwise idly ignoring the me-too generic feel to it. Aaron Behren’s vox tho. Right? Right.

Track #45: Led Zeppelin – When The Levee Breaks

The closing track to Led Zeppelin IV, one of the greatest albums of all time (which also includes Stairway to Heaven). Often these ‘greatest albums of all time’ have an epic single that makes up for the rest, this is *not* the case with Led Zep IV – I feel the album would be just as amazing without Stairway altogether, it’s just such a solid prototype for rock music done right. Fantastic.

One of the things I want from the future is for Led Zep to be less stingy about their music rights in movies, so this song can get the remaster treatment that Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower had in The Watchmen movie.

Yes, this is a 2014 remaster, but one gets the feeling that Jimmy Page is trying to remain as true as possible to the source mixes back in the day, without over-producing something in a 2010s flair like the 90s remastered misses came out – but god, this track, if ever there was a track that could use the crystal clear overdriven brick wall compression movie-version mix – I need this. Future, please deliver it. Not a full album of over-done, just this. one. track. please! When The Levee Breaks, the movie mix, let’s make this happen.

More 2014 Music Fun

Other Music related things I highly recommend:

Sonic Highways

The HBO show, not the album, or the band.

A year or two ago Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters published a neat documentary about a famous record studio called Sound City.

Sonic Highways is to Sound City as Band of Brothers is to Saving Private Ryan or From the Earth to the Moon is to Apollo 13 – that is, someone makes a great movie or documentary and realizes they can’t tell an adequate story in 3 hours – there’s more to tell!, so they go to HBO and say “hey, what if we made a miniseries on this theme and tell the more of the story?”. That’s sonic highways, the show, not the terrible album.

In the show, Grohl and his band go to different famous music studios and cities around the US and talk about recent rock history from the area – Seattle, Austin, LA, etc. Really awesome, must watch for music fans. They also record a track from the terrible album with the same name and have a annoying lame music video for the Foo Fighters at the end of each episode, but you can skip that bit.

How Music Works

A really great read for music nerds. Did you know widely-distributed recorded music didn’t exist before the phonograph? Of course you did, but have you ever thought what society and music was like in those days before a cd? Before the phonograph there was no such thing as a personal listening experience or radio – music was a shared cultural thing, everyone knew how to sing or play something, music was a family event – like a never ending disney movie I guess – thank god for the phonograph.

That’s just a small nerd-tastic profound detail of many captured in this book. The book is semi-autobiographical, about Byrne’s new wave band the whoever, and though I’m not a fan, the autobiographical bits are interesting because he captures the ‘scene’ and inner workings of the music industry with vivid detail – it doesn’t even matter if you care for his music or not.

Good Vinyl In 2014

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(above image courtesy of Steven Potter)

Vinyl is going crazy – and I’m just another hipster wannabe who’s on the bandwagon. That being said I bought some music equipment this year where I can really hear a difference between music sources, and some stuff really shines on vinyl. I’m not sure that there’s a type of music that would sound like garbage on vinyl that doesnt already sound like garbage (i.e. dubstep), but there are a lot of artists who don’t seem to ‘get it’ and the vinyl mix comes out sounding flat or over distorted or neutral at best.

So, here’s a list of vinyl releases you won’t be disappointed with (in no particular order):

  • Led Zeppelin III (2014 Remaster/Reissue)
  • Caspian – Waking Season
  • Caspian – Hymn for the Greatest Generation
  • The Naked and Famous – In Rolling Waves
  • 65daysofstatic – Wild Light
  • First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
  • Mogwai – Rave Tapes
  • Blue October – Sway
  • Hole – Celebrity Skin (2014 Remaster/Reissue)
  • Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks

There are a few albums yet from this post that I haven’t obtained on vinyl, but the This Will Destroy You vinyl sounded substandard, and several others sounded just the same as the digital mix, avoid unless you’re a super fan:

  • Smashing Pumpkins – Adore (2014 Remaster/Reissue)
  • Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Specter at the Feast
  • Oasis – Whats The Story Morning Glory? (2014 Remaster/Reissue)

Kudos

Ok, that’s “it” – 6500+ words put together over a series of evenings this holiday season. I hope you find something you enjoy.

Thanks Brian, Dan, Amanda, Jonny, Jeff, Cesa, Chad, Tim, and Matt for introducing me to many of the artists I listened to this year.

Minecraft – A Software Engineer’s Experience Part 3

You should start at the beginning: Minecraft – A Software Engineer’s Experience Part 1

I started playing Minecraft early this past August. What started as an innocent and fascinating experience in a “real world” simulator eventually took a turn. I spent about a month happy as could be with an extremely limited world view: break down the rocks, harvest the garden, live on, break some more rocks, enjoy the sunset, fish, repeat tomorrow.

Then Andy’s friends joined, right around the time I realized the Minecraft world is in actuality more like the real world than we’d care to admit: It’s a massive massive expansive world with limited resources, but more than enough resources to last several real-life lifetimes of gameplay. What’s more, the “world” we played in was shared by 5 people, rather than 6 billion, and in theory the game limits the world to about 1.4x the surface area of the earth.

Big massive world full of practically unlimited resources, all ours? Go wild. Right? Right. – Just like in real life.

During my first sheltered life of game time, I didn’t know anything more than break down the rocks, harvest the food, and perhaps watch my friend Justin build something magnificent that I could never make on my own.

So, Andy’s friends.

Andy’s friends joined our map in early September, and unlike our other friends Jon and Justin, these guys would play nonstop with every waking hour of freedom – like me. Except, Andy’s friends had played before, and their favorite play style with such experience under the belt closely mirrored mine: They wanted to do things they’d never done before but heard about – such as build a zombie farm in the sky – a so called “mob grinder”.

The theory of a mob grinder goes: The game tries to spawn monsters in a given area, but if the area is covered by water, no monsters will spawn. So, in theory, you could build a slab of concrete in the middle of the ocean, and monsters would spawn on it.

Slight problem: Monsters are dangerous, and they’ll kill you, so building a slab of concrete in the middle of the ocean is a terrible idea.

However, building a slab of concrete 100 blocks in the sky with a long controlled free-fall to another slab at the top of the ocean makes for a excellent monster-farming machine. You simply light up the slab at ocean level with torches so the game will think “Well, can’t spawn monsters here, it’s too bright”, and the game will instead decide to spawn monsters on the slab in the sky. The monsters will wander (or be forced) into the free-fall joyride machine of death, and you’ll collect the loot at the bottom.

Justin and I spent an entire real-life evening building this monstrous, ugly, hideous machine, our amazing mob grinder – just out of sight of the bay.

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Building the grinder was a fun time as a team, except when it ended in failure.

Nothing would spawn on the sky-slab.

Rage quit.

The next day, after a few internet searches and youtube videos later we learned that the game could be spawning monsters under the ocean, in caves in the same area below the ocean floor – the way around this? Build higher into the sky. Forum theory on the subject suggested that the game logic spawns monsters within a 128×128 block radius of a player, so if a player is say 150 blocks above the ocean, the game would never consider putting a monster beyond that ocean under ground.

So, we built taller. We were sure this time that we knew what we were doing, so we built a three-tiered machine with a massive 35×35 slab of concrete at the very top. That slab had water ways forcing monsters down into holes that led down to a 20×20 slab, then to a 10×10 slab, and finally into our joyride free fall chute of monster death. We built so high that we were above the in-game clouds. In game clouds would roll in and through our death machine – it was weird.

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We built the machine, cut a hole in the wall on top of the machine, saw monsters spawning and raced down to see them splatter atop our harvesting zone, below the joyride.

It worked! We e-high fived, and collected our loot. We quickly christened our machine the ‘gun powder machine’ because creepers falling down the joyride would give us an endless supply of gun powder items when they went splat.

We started working on a sign for the gun powder machine when minutes later, the machine stopped working, again.

It stopped working because our players were more than 128 blocks from the slab-in-the-sky. So we went back to the top, idled for a while and got dinner – we came back and went to the bottom to collect riches, only to discover the only riches there were from monsters that had just recently followed us down the ladders (though they took the much faster joyride/splat route).

Our math was bad again – loot only stays spawned if a user is within some 128 blocks of the loot, so we had built ourselves a catch-22 machine, for the machine to work, two players would need to stand by – one in the sky, one at the bottom of the joyride, and waste their time waiting on things to happen.

After that disaster, I rage quit the game for half a week – it was the first serious investment of time that led to failure. What was I doing wasting my free time playing failure simulation games that made me mad? Screw that game.

Meanwhile Andy’s friends, true captains of industry and all things automated, had joined the game and by the next time I logged on they had a working “Iron farm” – which is a “mob grinder” for these monsters called “Iron Golems” that only spawn with very narrow criteria – not only had they crafted a working mob grinder, but part of the mob grinder involved a collection of villager people in a box. The villager-in-the-box ensured where the iron golem spawning zone was, and also kept interested zombies and monsters from killing the villagers.

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So not only was there a working iron farm, but there was a box of villagers that constantly attracted zombie monsters at ground level toward a big pit that then led the zombies down a water way to a holding area where one could use a sword to kill the zombies for easy experience.

I had semi-rage quit, and I think Justin had too, two days earlier. But, when we came back, Andy’s friends had lapped us, twice, with a two-for-one double decker mob grinder that was fun for all ages – churning out an endless supply of both iron and zombies for the taking.

Around this same time, Justin, the artist, decided he would make a huge amazing temple to a fictitious god he called “Ahl” – he’d need tons of stone to do this – and having my first big set back with the failed grinder, I was happy to tear down the failed grinder and mine for a while for Justin’s dream home. He’d build, I’d dig.

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Things were accelerating.

I had joined a world of pristine beauty, with a few holes in walls 5 blocks deep with an occasional door guarding an entrance. At the time, in the beginning, the world’s population of four was bickering about the spoils farmed from 20 pigs and cows without sharing them around.

Now, one real-life month later, we had an ugly machine that did nothing, and another that provided safe zombie ‘farming’ and unlimited iron for faster-digging and faster-fighting iron tools – not to mention iron armor.

A real-life week later, Andy’s friends had built a “trading village”, which is an elaborate huge area walled off and lit very brightly to prevent zombies.

Inside these walls they had built some god-defying machine that tricked the game logic into spawning baby villagers endlessly – this three story high contraption would constantly spawn villagers because the game was trying to get them to do something but a certain circumstance prevented the game from fulfilling its wish, so five minutes later it started again and an endless supply of villagers would generate.

Suddenly, Jason’s greatest hits of fuck ups, the non-working mob grinder and the previously mentioned sheeptopia ghost town were a distant memory. Like Iron, Villagers were no longer a precious resource. They were an animal, in a cage, not unlike our cows and sheep.

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Problem was, too many villagers would spawn and the game would slow down, so what does one do with an infinite regenerating resource in abundance?

The first time I saw this machine I was reminded of one of the most terrible moments of my privileged life – the time I visited the holocaust museum in Washington DC. If you haven’t been, you need to go.

If ever you have an inkling of a thought that humanity is anything other than a godless collection of depravity that from time to time will invent some new previously unthought of terrible evil low, you need to go to that museum.

If ever you think there is a kind and benevolent god, or many gods, and humanity is that kind god’s greatest creation, you need to visit the holocaust museum.

If there is a god, he or she is not kind.

The museum has this tiny scale model of a gas chamber from one of the real camps, the model is terrifying. It’s about 10 feet wide and 3 feet deep, and a about 100 scale model humans fit within an 8 inch square. The model is truly terrifying to behold. For my entire life I had always naively and innocently pictured these world war 2 horror stories as some bank of showers to put perhaps 20 people to death at a time – they weren’t – the scale model shown in DC could have fit 1,000 people at a time with ease.

Six million seems like a large number, some factoid for the history test, until you see just a fraction of reality in tiny scale:

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Anyway. The trader’s village baby creation machine reminded me of the holocaust in a bad way, and this caused me to start thinking a bit deeper about the meaning of our existence.

Are we destined to create brave new world like machines that create children without mothers, with some terrible secondary machine to deal with the excess of a bumper crop? Are we as humans ultimately a resource not unlike common iron ore in the ground? Dust to dust? It’s what plants crave?

The holocaust machine set me to thinking about real life outside of Minecraft.

I had not before in my life ever truly cared to understand how we got from zero to today – the future.

Never had I really given much thought to how incredible it is that so much *stuff* is so easily consumable and usable in modern society – and the sheer complexity and man-lifetimes of work behind these products and advances is astounding when you stop to think about it. For more on that matter, read this.

The game sparked a personal interest in life before the 1980s. I downloaded a book about the edison/tesla/westinghouse electrical rollout and wars of the early 20th century. The book detailed how at the time, American cities ran on gas-powered lamps – a common household chore was to clean the soot and muck out of the inside of the house’s lamps, and bonus: everyone had headaches almost all the time from the gas smell in their claustrophobic living rooms with the gas lamps running.

A hundred years ago there was no such thing as a record album of music. A hundred years ago music was something experienced as a group, and almost everyone knew how to play or sing.

A hundred years ago you did not go to a fancy restaurant downtown, because the streets were covered with horse shit. There were entire industries of workers working to move millions of pounds of manure from New York City streets every night of the year.

This was all just one hundred years ago, never mind a thousand years ago, or 2,000 years pre-roman empire with their world-changing water aqueducts.

The sheer complexity and enormity of many millions of lifetimes of industry is astounding – it is no wonder that younger generations born into a world with google and wikipedia often fail to find a reason to want to try – there’s just so much *stuff* – it’s overwhelming.

Around the time of the holocaust machine, Andy found an ‘automated chicken cooking machine’ recipe online – that is, a series of Minecraft blocks arranged in such a way that some chickens laid eggs, the eggs fell down to become chicks, and when the chicks matured they’d automatically be cooked and stored in a chest for later retrieval. Here was another machine not unlike actual horrors in our waking life, perfectly acceptable machines of industry that lowers the price of chicken and feeds the human race to a greater degree as the years of engineered efficiencies mount.

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It was at this time that Andy also found a schematic for an auto furnace – that is, a furnace that you could prepare fuel and things to cook for, and it would automatically cook those things and deposit them in a chest for you.

In no time, I took Andy’s auto furnace concept to its logical horrible conclusion: a seven-way auto furnace that constantly consumed hundreds of buckets of lava to turn my second, improved “glass factory” into a real life honest-to-unkind-god factory.

I’d spend 5 minutes above ground with a diamond-level shovel enchanted with a magic spell to go fast and fill my 27×64 inventory full of sand in the middle of this desert in the middle of nowhere – then I’d climb underground, collect lava from a nearby lava lake, feed the machines, and go fishing in a manmade pond (not unlike most lakes in my home state) near by that was just big enough to “trick” the game into thinking this 3-block deep body of water deep underground should have fish in it.

Things were still accelerating, except our rate of acceleration was getting out of control.

Justin taught me about the ‘nether’. The nether was this other world area you can warp to using a specially built portal – every block in the nether mapped directly to eight blocks in the “real” (non nether) world. Justin told me a story about how he and Jon had previously built massive cities of buildings, interconnected by a nether highway.

I set out to do the same.

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I first built a couple of portals between our bay and the dark and scary redwoods – a 20 block walk in the nether covered 160 of ocean and put us on solid ground. I then used my easy-to-make-thanks-iron-farm iron armor to protect me from monster attacks and I leveled a large section of the redwoods. Today, there is a massive plain leading into redwoods, and if the game would draw far enough, we would see Andy’s mesa area from our bay. No longer a dark and scary forest, the front visible areas of the redwoods now remind us of something out of bambi, a nice meadow leading into something that grows more treacherous slowly.

I then set out to build more.

I built a nether highway portal to Andy’s mesa area, with the iron farm and what not.

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And a long while later, my nether highway reached all the way out to Justin’s temple that he had built near Jon’s old ‘house on the hill’ in the mountains. No longer would someone have to appreciate the enormity or beauty of the natural minecraft world, much like the real world, we could just walk a few blocks through the subway at a 8block-for-1block speed down a bland grey hallway and be at the mountains in 5 minutes rather than 30.

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Then Justin went on a random adventure 5000 blocks to the east.

Then in half an evening I connected three villages he found during the trek to the nether highway – no need to see THAT beautiful trip again, just walk the bleak grey highway.

5000 blocks was a long way though, so we put in minecart tracks, and now we could travel from the bay to the mountains through nether minetracks inside of two minutes, down from the original 30 – only 2 minutes. Nevermind how bleak and boring the grey subways are, you only have to spend two minutes in them now!

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At the end of the madness, my true glass factory was a moments jog from the iron farm where most of our players were constantly toiling on ever more fantastic machines.

Justin built his temple, I built my nether highway, then we were bored.

A few days later, Justin and Andy and I were recounting the crazy modern self-sufficient world we’ve all built. We were telling Jon, a hermit previously mentioned in previous posts, and he’s intrigued.

Recall that Jon was previously living atop a mountain, then I joked about burning his house down, so he moved to some secret place a thousand miles away.

Jon’s curiosity at our machines got the best of him, and like a fool, he came out of hiding, and told us his coordinates.

We build him a nether highway hook up in the blink of an eye – he then comes and looks around for half an hour, and moves again, almost instantly.

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He builds a little hut for me as thanks for the nether hookup, and another hut he had promised Justin for helping him move and keep his secret a secret, and leaves.

We never saw him again.

From time to time he would taunt us with screenshots of so-called “Jontopia” – a wholly separate and different civilization comprised of a population of one. But he’d never give us his coordinates, because, in his opinion, our civilization and ease of Minecraft life “fucked everything up”.

“Whatever”, we thought, “his loss.”

Another player, our friend Nick, played from time to time too – sporadically. He too was a self-proclaimed luddite. We constantly offered him a free hookup to the utopian blight we were so quickly putting together, and for some strange reason, he always declined.

Justin and I were bored, and done. We’d done it all.

There was no point in mining more ore, besides Justin had played this game on and off through several huge maps many times several years before with differing sets of friend – he was done. I was too.

Then we yet again came up with another scheme, a non-holocaust-style safe village incredible in scope and size. Justin had told me in a previous Minecraft map in creative mode (unlimited resources / god mode) he and his friends had dug a massive hole 40 blocks deep – this sounded like a fun challenge to me, so again we were back at it. Just like his temple before, there I was, digging out a ton of stone underground, and he was toiling above ground building massive castle-like walls around this village full of villagers.

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I built a massive 64 block long x 30 block wide underground farm that housed every type of farmable plant or nether plant known to man, and Justin built the walls protecting the village. I helped complete the walls and he built the beautiful turrets at the corners of the walls. I spent some time fertilizing an area of tulip flowers and he spent some time building more homes for our little utopia village to expand into.

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Out of boredom I went on a short trip North and tripped into a ‘Jungle’ biome, which is the only place you can tame a cat.

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The entire time we’d played the game, Justin had gone 5000 blocks in one direction, and I had once gone ten thousand in another – all in search of a Jungle biome – which, of course, all along, was just in our backyard in the other direction.

I was so excited to go catch some cats and show them to my wife – the world’s most crazy cat lady.

I tried my hand at building something beautiful like Justin could build, and yet again found that everything I touched had a great view from the inside, but looked like a giant mistake on the outside.

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In the end I bred some 20+ cats of all three varieties and threw in the towel.

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At the time, Andy and his friends had finished their work, their crowning final achievement? A snowball machine. Some steampunk looking monstrous intertangle of blocks of all sorts that automatically made snow balls and deposited them into chests. They were bored, and done.

Done done. We all were.

This was Jon’s perfect moment to say “I told you so” – our immaculate civilization had outdone itself, everything was too easy, our only option left was to start over again, brand new.

In playing the game I noticed we all had very distinct playing styles.

Justin is an extremely talented artist in real life, so it should come as no surprise that in the video game his aspirations usually leaned toward making something beautiful – something that looked better than any of the rest of us could ever make.

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Andy and his friends do I don’t know what in real life, but for example Andy was happy as could be mining *forever*. Literally the entire time that guy played the game he was mining. We used a third party tool to create a google-maps like view of our world, and there were only two man-made objects visible from space – Justin’s huge temple, and Andy’s expansive mining tunnels.

Jon didn’t play all that much, and when he did, he just fished.

I was so fascinated by the game because in the video game I could make a bed, or a table or a boat – things I could not do in real life. Jon had played several times before, and besides, he can make tables and stuff in real life, so minecraft to him is a bit like a toy computer language is to me – interesting, but probably lame to some degree.

When my wife says “Stop playing that game and make something in real life.”, I cry inside, because I can’t.

When Jon’s wife says the same, Jon doesn’t cry, he’s a craftsman at heart and builds whatever the hell he wants, beautifully, in real life.

Finally, me.

I’m a software engineer by day and over the years I’ve worked on projects both tiny and massive in scale. Most if not all of my career has been like an ongoing repeating game of Minecraft – I set out to accomplish something, accomplish it, get bored, move on.

I’ve hopped around from company to company a few times in my career thus far, sometimes by choice, other times not – but each time, no matter how dire the culture or impossible the goal – I am excited all over again to do something different, to solve some more problems and make something better than I’ve ever made before.

My real-world skills do not translate into being an excellent call of duty twitch-style-precision game player, nor do they translate into an ability to build something beautiful:

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My skills and interests do however translate into the game’s machinery.

Every machine that Andy and his friends found or built, I had to know how they worked, every efficiency they had discovered over thousands of hours of game time was tucked into my memory.

Andy built a chicken farm near the iron farm, so I built a chicken farm twice as large near the skeleton farm – and then I proceeded to feed the chickens until some 500 chickens were running around in the top pen – the game would make glitchy nonstop clicking sounds as it attempted to keep with the occasional cluck sound per chicken – I made a chicken farm that would feed the world forever.

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The next time I visited the farm, the chickens had been cut down to less than 100 – a good choice, the clicking sound stopped.

Andy taught me about the auto furnace and I almost immediately thought about this huge expanse of desert (read: sand resources) we found on our google-map of our world. I nethered it up, built the 7-way auto furnace and almost instantly demolished several picturesque sand dunes, turning them into glass.

I mined and mined and mined 40 levels deep under Justin’s massive castle village, just, more or less, to prove that I could. I was hell bent for several days on end to keep hunting the jungle for cats until I could show my wife all three types, and so on.

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The software engineer in me bled through into the game, just as it does in real life outside of work. I tackled problems with great enthusiasm, and often thought of second or third ways to better solve the problem over again. My wife is forever frustrated at my consistent attempts at finding the ideal furniture arrangement in our home – no configuration is forever, and there’s always something better.

When I got bored in the video game, I’d leave everything behind, go out into the wilderness for a second, third, or fourth time, naked as the day I had spawned – with nothing, and start again, building something from nothing. If that’s not the story of my career, I don’t know what is.

Before I signed off for good I went to our nether highway’s ‘warehouse’. The warehouse was a giant room of storage chests, free stuff for anyone who needed it – as well as one box per player with their name labeled above it. Jon was probably the only one who might log into the game ever again, and that bastard had still been in full hermit mode and sworn off the nether forever. He was still just happy to virtual-fish once in a while, so that was what he did.

I did not know where Jon was, but I knew he’d sworn off the nether forever, so I went over to his specially marked chest and placed a little circle of princess-pink carpet around his box, for Jon, our little luddite hermit princess.

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Weeks later our mutual friend Nathan told me he had been playing Minecraft, I told him to jump on our server and I’d give him a tour of everything. The tour was extremely fast paced, and made good use of our no-time-to-travel nether highway. The tour lasted over two hours in length.

Toward the end of the tour, I led Nathan to my glass house on the plains that once were beautiful redwoods. We exited the nether portal, opened the door, and I stopped cold – laughing in real life.

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There, in the middle of my house’s entry way, was a patch of princess-pink carpet.

Some oddball luddite hermit had taken a trip on the nether highway, and I knew exactly who.

Some fool who for weeks after we were bored and done was still enjoying the game, making progress all alone on his own, without a care in the world. Fishing all the time.

Thanks Jon, you told me so. You were right all along.

The very last day I played, putting the finishing touches on a massive minecart track between the castle village and my “Amanda’s house of cats”, our friend Nick logged on again.

Like Jon, Nick had expressed adamant distaste for the idea of the nether highway. He too had been working on something of his own here and there, and no matter how often we offered to help or said we wanted to see his work, he’d say no.

For the millionth time I offered Nick a nether hookup, expecting no response yet again. He refused, but something strange then happened. He offered for me to come look at his secret getaway.

There were rules – I could only come by boat, no nether highway tricks near his area, and I was not allowed to tell anyone else the coordinates. As I gathered my supplies, he asked if I could bring something to make a bright light – I suggested nether brick, a brick that you can light on fire and it burns eternally. He said that would do and I said I’d be on my way shortly.

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That last day I played I’d been thinking a lot about how strangely Minecraft resembles our real, true, world. It was not surprising to see Justin’s beautiful temple, or hear that Jon the craftsmen could give a fuck about virtual tables and boats. Just as in the real world, a civilization had risen to a certain technological point, and collapsed at that bittersweet moment when every carefree utopia turns into a dire dystopia of boredom and unrest.

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But, unlike in the real world – playing with others was more exciting to me than playing alone. I had purchased a Playstation Vita and had played a fair bit on that, but the Vita always left something to be desired – no friends of mine had a Vita, so there was nobody to show or share triumph with, every triumph on the Vita was just a personal lame triumph nobody else would ever enjoy – and for some strange reason, this bothered me, deeply.

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I take great pride in being a cowboy/lone-wolf/self-sufficient/delusionist. An introvert at heart, I’ve spent this entire day writing about 10K+ words about a virtual world that only exists in my friends and I’s heads – and I’ve been doing this to escape a rather wonderful but kind of fucked up right now every day life.

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As an introvert, I quickly feel over stressed and worn out in the presence of others, and I’ve often worked remotely these past few years. This year in particular I worked from home four days of the week, every week, until around the time Nick asked me to come see what he was building.

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Around the time Nick invited me to his virtual surprise, the year started winding down and other engineers on our team started traveling less, meaning I could work with them in the office more often. I did not want to do that – I was more efficient at home, building bleak real world nether portal highways to nowhere that meant nothing – rather than seeing the countryside or enjoying a bit of fishing like princess-pink Jon.

Anyway, Nick invited me over, and I set out on the way. He was due North of the original spawn island.

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It was bittersweet coming back to the original spawn island. Every player had started here, naked, and afraid. Each and every players started this way, completely alone on an island far too small to sustain life at all. Every player, right out of the gate needed to surmount an impossible body of water before they could even begin.

When you died, if something had happened to the last bed you slept in, you’d respawn back at spawn island rather than in your home where your bed had been. Naturally, when this happened, some monster had just killed us and the game shot us a thousand blocks away to spawn isle – far from everything we were just now carrying around – items and loot we had spent real life time obtaining. Several of us were infuriated to learn our stuff would despawn some thousands of blocks away from us faster than we could build a boat and travel home – so, naturally, we nethered up spawn island.

I took a light jog down the bleak nether highway and portaled out to our more-efficient and now forever safe and easy spawn island.

No longer would one experience fear, dread, or anxiety if their bed blew up. Brand new players would never even know what life was like so many thousands of Minecraft days ago – indeed, our civilization had nicely wrapped up most if not all aspects of life itself in a nice and comfortable world of automation – the lot of us were free to retire and fish all the time like Jon, except instead of enjoying our work, we simply checked out and quit the moment our empire was realized.

I was thinking these bittersweet thoughts that last time on spawn island, on my way to whatever it was Nick had been secretly toiling about on from time to time. I got in my boat and started heading north. The sun was setting, and as I approached his area it began to rain.

As I drew closer I saw a massive grey building that looked not unlike something as beautiful as Justin would make. It was a cylindrical grey column of stone, with glass on top – Nick had built a light house, all alone, on his own – but without someone else, he could not actually light it up.

Nick never logged the hours that Andy and I did – he was much more like Jon in that he was rarely online. Unlike Jon though, he didn’t have to keep escaping technological progress to find harmony. Here he was, just another day on a rocky shore, finishing his master work – a light house, a solitary beacon in the pouring rain.

I gave nick the nether brick and watched him as he put the finishing touches on his masterpiece and for a moment I felt as if I were with a famous artist, watching the final realization of something magnificent.

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I rode out in my boat to take a look, still in the rain. As I looked back to shore at Nick’s magnificent light house – I knew this would truly be the last “playing the game” moment I’d have in this Minecraft world, and like Jon with his fishing, I took it all in, soaking in one of those very rare moments where you know you’re forming a lifelong memory and you’re living it just then.

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Nick’s lighthouse was beautiful, and a testament to his resourcefulness without the blight and easy hand of iron farms and infinite food.

In that beautiful moment I realized that all along what had made the game for me was not digging out stones, or building things, or digging out more stones, or making ever more terrible machinations – what had made the game special was the time spent with my friends, enabling them to realize their visions with some efficiency they would not have had without me – the software engineer who delights in automation and tooling in real life was at his happiest when helping someone with some tool.

It seemed foreign at the time, but after nearly a year of working in self-imposed solitary confinement, telecommuting from home, I realized that though we may be capable of horrific, terrible things; at the end of the day we still need one another, flaws and all.

Without each other we are nothing. Without each other we are Jason flying on a business trip to the middle of nowhere away from friends and family amidst family emergency, playing Minecraft on the Sony Vita, accomplishing incredible virtual triumphs all for naught, accomplishing something we’ll never share with anyone.

I recently realized that life is more than efficiency. Don’t forget to take some time to fish – with your friends.

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Music: Matthew Good – In a Coma (deluxe edition with the acoustic tracks, naturally.)

Minecraft – A Software Engineer’s Experience Part 2

First, you should probably read Minecraft – A Software Engineer’s Experience Part 1.

August of this past year is a blur to me – a month remembered in terms of Minecraft. I spent the entire month enthralled with the possibilities the open-ended game allowed, playing most evenings and weekends, habitually.

Early on in the game my friends who played with me told me that I needed food to survive. They did this shortly after they had ridded our world of food, slaughtering all of the animals on the island and cooking the resulting meat for their own food stores.

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Minecraft emulates the real world with incredible detail in a number of ways, and one of those ways is in spawning an animal every once in a good long while. Two animals can breed to create a baby, and a player can encourage this by feeding the parents.

Feed a cow a bit of wheat, he’ll display love bubbles animating above his head – if he finds another cow, they’ll make a baby. Harvest the cows and you’ll have food to survive, as well as leather to make armor or books or a variety of other things.

A common tactic in the game is to build a fence around a large area, lure a number of animals into the pen and breed them like mad.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Problem is, the infinite-food-supply theory depends on your teammates not killing off all of the animals.

Fortunately, there are other food sources – grass begets wheat begets bread which is fuel for you character to live on for another day.

So, we weren’t all dead, but we could have been had the grass not been an option – or if, perhaps, my jokester teammates harvested all grass on the island and threw the resulting seeds into a pit of lava.

For a little while, I was wondering if this was what my teammates had done – I was already angry about the lack of animals and their carelessness, and a clear-cut conspiracy was forming in my mind while on my first hunt for grass seeds. A short while later I had a farm of wheat going, had some virtual food, and much like real life food – I started to feel better and hate my teammates less.

With food under control I came up with a variety of things to do, and did those things. I was happy in my little island world for an entire real-life month just subsisting on stone-age technology – some bread, a pickaxe, and a sword. I mined for hours and hours, not knowing what I was doing. All I knew was it was pretty hard to find coal, and I needed coal for torches (light) and furnaces. I also needed some other rare elements, iron, and diamond – resources spread throughout the game with distribution algorithms not too far off from real world distributions of these elements.

My friends’ initial carelessness with the animal resources on the island sent me down an conservative environmental path of thought for a while after the food situation was taken care of. In fact, that act of wasting resources in many ways framed the way I interacted with the game for the entire first month I played it – clearly resources were limited, I thought.

I spent a lot of time just gathering stacks and stacks of wood (always being careful to replant the trees afterward), and digging up as much coal and iron and diamond as I could find.

I was an engineer in this Minecraft world, whereas my friends were a real life artist with his life work self-evident in the amazing beautiful things he builds in the game, and a real-life craftsmen who can build things in real life that I could only build in Minecraft. My primary concern, inspired by the experience with resource limitations earlier in the game, was to play resource manager – I would mine and mine and mine, and give resources to my buddies so they could build cool things.

At a certain point in my digging, I started wondering how many game hours I would go before all of the coal was gone. How many blocks of goal does the game have? A few thousand? Probably only a few thousand, right?

Because of this reasoning, I was careful to save my stash of resources and always be sure I used them for a good cause – because the resources would one day run out, and then we’d be stuck in a normal RTS end-game in a world barren of fruit.

Somewhere deep underground, while aimlessly digging around for more whatever, I had a realization based on a memory.

I remembered how when I was younger, my friend and I had thought it would be funny to use the game Pikmin as a manager testing tool – something to gain insight into how a person’s personality would affect their management responsibilities and their employees. If only the companies we worked for would screen out managers hell bent on productivity at any cost, etc.

While digging out yet another 64 stack of stone, far undergound, I mused to myself, “Politicians should have to play this game, that’ll teach them!” – what better way to teach the world about limited resources and ecological ruin than to throw them into a simplistic mini-world simulator on a world where my jerk friends Jon and Justin have greedily killed off all the livestock? Perfect.

Toward the end of August, I was growing bored. I had been on the server nonstop for most of 20+ evenings, and my friends had been on here and there. I felt many times as if I was working alone, and I just ran out of things to try – there were other things to try, I just felt alone and bored – what was the point anymore?

That last weekend of August, my friend Justin joined the game and he asked me if I’d like to go see Jon’s mountain hut, far far away. I said sure, and he told me to prepare with several boats and wait until morning, because the boat trip would take a full 15 minute day to travel *most* of the way. We waited until morning and set out.

Again, like at the very beginning of the game, I followed Justin in a boat toward something much bigger than I expected.

We traveled for what felt like hours, following the coast of this huge desert area called a ‘mesa’ biome. Sure enough, the sun set just before we made it to our “almost there” stopping point.

The distance we traveled by boat impressed me, deeply. For an entire month I had pre-supposed the entire world was perhaps 1000 blocks or 2000 blocks in length on a side, but we had traveled nearly twice that in one day.

During the night, while waiting for day, I told Justin all of this. He laughed, and said: “No way man, the game has a theoretical limitation of 1.4 times the surface area of the Earth.”

Mind blown.

All this time I had foolishly taken the simple 8 bit style indie graphics and experience with every game ever made before including big MMOs to mean there was a certain limitation to the game and we were just playing on a big randomly generated block of land – this was untrue. The game’s worlds are proceduraly generated as you discover them – a player nears a 1000×1000 block that’s never been seen before, and the game generates that ‘new area’ on the fly, seamlessly fitting into the 1000×1000 blocks around it.

The worlds of minecraft are so large that you don’t have a map with an “island” and a “mesa” – you have a world with mountains, frozen forests, dark forests full of redwoods, intimidatingly huge oceans, deserts, mesa’s full of clay, open fields, hills, swamps, and more. Each so-called “biome” seemlessly jigsaws into another in such incredibly subtle but amazing ways that you never even think about it, it just looks like “the real world”.

The next morning, we make a half-days travel on foot (about 250 blocks) through some mountains – the first I’ve seen in the game, to Jon’s hut on top of the hill. At the time this was a simple set of four walls and a bed on top of the largest mountain Justin and Jon had ever seen in the game. You could turn your game’s graphics levels up to maximum depth drawing and see for what seemed like miles – mountains in one direction, ocean in another, and unending forest another – it was incredible.

Coincidentally, right around the time we were going to Jon’s hut on the hill, Jon joined the game for the first time I’d ever seen him in-game. He and Justin had played a little while before I joined – they had started our Bay island, and then, they went on a trip. The trip left them in these mountains, and Jon setup a hut and quit for a month.

Justin and I were in Jon’s hut, with a nice wood floor, and I had a bucket of lava in my inventory. I saw that Jon had joined the game, and quickly mused on the chat that “I think we should give Jon a housewarming gift, literally – I have a bucket of lava here in my inventory hang on a sec-”

At precisely the moment I said that, I met Jon’s character in the game for the first time.

“Oh. Hi.”

By the end of that evening of gaming, Jon had reduced his hilltop house to a solitary bed on a mountain top and moved somewhere secret.

Was it something I said?

We spent that game-night in Justin’s so-called summer getaway – a little hut at ground level below a magnificent mountain that had a lava flow coming out the side. His little summer getaway had a single door and faced a little stream. We fished for a while, but fishing that way was claustrophobic. A moment later, we took a minute with our pickaxes and expanded the house to have plenty of room for two to fish safely – adding a little jaunt around the corner of the stream to the house.

It was at this point that Justin suggested we head back to the bay – another day’s boat ride seeing the mesa that I’d already seen. We had crafted compasses in hand, and knew the coordinates of the bay, so I suggested that instead we try to make it back on foot. Home was over 2500 blocks away and making it home on foot would be a perilous journey we most likely would not survive.

Naturally, Justin was excited about the idea of adventure with potential death, so we started work.

We mined some coal and wood, fished a bit, and stocked up for our trip.

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Our trip took us 5 game days, or about an hour and a half of real-life time, and throughout the trip I grew ever more impressed without truly how massive and expansive the game is. Traveling 5 blocks a second on water on a boat everything feels a bit smaller – like looking at cars from an airplane window, but your sense of scale is wrong – so it takes a truly long boat trip or flight to really appreciate how big this world really is.

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As we traveled along we saw the tallest trees I’d ever seen, mini grand canyons, and forests that went for miles. We traveled by day and dug in each night, keeping ourselves safe from monsters.

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On our second day home we nicked the corner of the massive mesa we had skirted with our boats on the way to the mountains. As night approached, we climbed to the top of this mesa hill and dug in, taking in a magnificent sunset looking out on this cove that was a stark contrast of life and death – a land mass of desert barren of life unceremoniously holding back a beautiful bay full of fish and life. As we watched, we saw monsters in the distance spawn before our eyes and we were happy to be safe at the top of the hill.

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Justin had seen it all before and played the game a million times longer than I had, so he generously spent that night fortifying ourselves from the monsters better while I sat there completely useless, taking in the view, and mocking him while I did it.

The next day we set out and quickly found a small town of villagers the game had generated. Villagers will trade you some item for some resource. There are some items you can only get from villagers without a ton of effort, so villages are an exciting find and extremely valuable.

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Justin was excited about the village, and I was excited about the fields full sheep of sheep around the village. I named the village sheeptopia. We spent a full day without travel, just roaming around the village and harvesting wool from the sheep. We spent the evening in the village, fending off monsters. The next morning, we marked the village’s coordinates on our shared google document recording such information, and went onward home.

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Three game-days later we were home, we took the last stretch by boat and found our way back to the very first spawn point I had spawned on a real-life month ago.

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We went to bed and quit the game for the evening.

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I went to bed in both real and virtual life that evening feeling conflicted.

I had just witnessed the true natural beauty of the minecraft simulation of the world – untouched by the human virus, unsculpted and strip-mined by the human touch.

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I had thus far always preferred trying to leave as much of the natural world the same as before, because my limited skill set would never allow me to recreate the world looking as perfect as it had before I ruined it.

My friend Justin, the artist, may very well have been able to sculpt a convincing hillside atop a huge strip mined hole, but this was beyond my abilities – so I was careful.

When I looked at the hillside with my home, I wanted to see a little jut of glass for my entry way, and nothing more. I did not want to see a row of utilitarian stone boxes like a scourge of industry spreading like a rash across the hillside – I wanted to, if at all possible, leave everything as it was or better.

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The natural beauty I had seen on our 5 game day trip back across the world impressed me – it was so beautiful and amazing. We had crossed a thousand procedurally generated lands that melted into each other in such a way that was a close match to true-life nature. I took this all in as we traveled, and enjoyed the simple and yet majestic beauty of the lands we were traversing.

At the end of it all, signed off for the night, ten minutes into real-life bed, the human virus in me awoke. I wanted to see that beauty again, forever. I wanted to *own* some of that beauty.

That night I decided to move my inventory to that same mesa cove overlooking the harsh death vs life simulation and setup a new shop, a new gaudy mansion all my own.

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I spent days of game time gutting the insides of that hill – with an aggressive ferocity I had not harbored before. This previously beautiful place was now mine to “improve”, and I wrecked it with abandon.

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When was all was said and done – I loved the inside caves of the hill, but walking around outside always reminded me of how pretty the place looked before I arrived, like this:

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During that trip with Justin I had seen such beauty, something like a god’s work, and in prime human fashion, I had decided within the span of an hour that I deserved to ruin it, I deserved to be god too.

I also realized making politicians play Minecraft would be a bad idea. They should play the PS3 version, that version is limited to less than 1000 blocks a side – the PC version we were playing had damn near infinite resources, more than we could mine in our entire real-world lifetimes.

And, what do you do when you encounter a supply of something that will last greater than your real-life lifetime? You waste it like it’s going out of style, as fast as possible.

Long gone were my concerns of resource preservation. I no longer cared about precious animals and precious landscapes – I could always take my riches and spoils, and use them to upgrade to another place I had not yet ruined.

Case and point: My very first night back on that mesa, I couldn’t quite make it to the mesa, but I did make it to sheeptopia.

Justin warned me never to sleep in a village at night, because monsters spawn near players and will come eat the villagers.

Jason being Jason, I didn’t listen.

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Within a few moments Justin’s chat log was endlessly repeating, every few seconds:

“Jason was killed by a Zombie”
“Jason was eaten by a Spider”
“Jason was killed by a Zombie.”
“Jason was killed by a Creeper”
[Jason]: Fuck
“Jason was killed by a Skeleton”
“Jason was eaten by a Spider”
“Jason was killed by a Zombie.”
[Jason]: FUCK!!!

And so on.

Ten minutes later, the most beautiful Minecraft morning on memory dawned and the Sun came up into the sky, causing the hordes of zombies to magically alight in fire and die.

When all was said and done, sheeptopia, the village, was no more – a ghost town stood where once a small village of villagers lived and happily traded goods with us. While I was failing to fight the monsters of the night, those very same monsters killed every last villager in the village.

My greed and carelessness, not unlike my friends’ slaughtering of the bay livestock, had permanently killed off the village.

Ironically, those friends of mine who I was so mad at for being so greedy, those live stock they killed off – they did eventually respawn in the bay, albeit very slowly. The villagers though, they never respawned again – what I had so callously and foolishly done was indeed permanent.

I had been so angry at my jerk friends, so judgemental of their careless ways – then I took a trip and saw amazingly beautiful things, and then I took that experience and decided to turn into a monster I had been decrying all along. From PETA Activist to “Oh well, there’s so much land now, who gives a fuck, it’ll outlast my attention span.” in one short real-life evening.

I had turned into the monster I was so mad about from the beginning. I had yet again proven the rule.

“If you hate something, don’t you do it too?”

I was on my way toward becoming a captain of industry, a major part of a disease slowly spreading across our Minecraft map.

Fuck the environment, let’s get rich. Right? Right.

Continued here: Minecraft – A Software Engineer’s Experience Part 3

Music: 65daysofstatic – Wild Light

Minecraft – A Software Engineer’s Experience Part 1

After years of pestering, my friend Justin convinced me to try Minecraft one evening this past summer. That was early in August. Thanks to Justin, I do not remember August, September, or October of 2014 in terms of real life – I remember these months of my life in terms of Minecraft.

That first night, I purchased the game, joined his server, and spawned alone on a tiny island in a massive ocean. The island about 10 feet deep and 100 feet long. There was a tree, and a bunch of light tan and green 8 bit blocks to walk around on. I was surrounded on all sides by an ocean comprised of cubes of water. One tree, some sand, some grass, some dirt, and an incomprehensible stretch of water without any other bit of land in sight.

My initial thought? This game sucks.

A moment later my friend Justin’s character came to my little island in a boat he had made out of some wood. He told me to right click on the tree’s trunk. I did this and my fist punched it a few times, causing that block of the tree’s trunk to pop out and float on the ground as a little block I could pick up.

He then told me to chop the entire tree down. I did. He told me to put the tree pieces into a item-building area in my inventory screen in a certain way. I did. That created a “crafting table”. Justin then told me to put the crafting table down, right click on it, and build a boat with my remaining wood. I did.

Next Justin instructed me to build a second boat, because boat mechanics in minecraft are infuriating – if your boat touches even a bit of land at a speed of greater than zero, the boat explodes and you helplessly drown in almost all instances.

My thought at this point? This game sucks.

We build boats, jump into them and Justin says “Follow me”. What I didn’t know then was that the journey Justin was inviting me on would be one of incredible self discovery and enjoyment. What I did not know then was the incredible depth of the game I had just labeled “sucks”.

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We travel across the water, chasing a square sun setting in the west. “The sun does this every fifteen minutes”, Justin says. “We’re safe tonight, because we’re out on water, but you need to dig in somewhere safe for night once we hit land – because monsters that will kill you spawn at night.”

I thought, “Monsters, got it. Whatever. Looks like a kids game so far.”

Albeit, a very pretty kids game:

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We chase the setting sun for five minutes and then I see it, an unassuming but well-lit house atop a hill, built from scratch like a 3d version of pixel art built pixel by pixel – our friend Jon’s house – the beacon of civilization and safety for all new players on the map.

We had arrived at ‘the bay’ – a medium sized body of water tucked into the corner of a much larger island. An island large enough for a beginner to get lost on. Justin leads me to his house near Jon’s – a weird hybrid of existing natural game-generated environmental beauty with a short unassuming roofed deck cut into the wall, again – well lit. We wait until morning, Justin tells me to go find a place and dig in.

All I need to do, he says, is find a wall somewhere, use my fist to break some blocks out of the wall, then build a door out of some tree wood to block the entrance. “Don’t forget about the door!”, he says. The door keeps monsters out.

Hole. Door. Got it. Whatever.

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Justin log’s off, it’s his dinner time.

I’m still highly skeptical.

I do what he says, I dig a hole in a wall looking out on a sandy beach and water, put up a door, and start breaking down other blocks. A few minutes later I have a lot of blocks of dirt and rock in my inventory and I want to carry more, so I google “Minecraft store items” and come across the incredible, amazing, Minecraft wiki.

That wiki, and what would happen next, was my undoing – in both the video game, and real life.

The wiki told me I could make a treasure chest out of 8 pieces of wood, and I could make two chests, place them side by side and make a bigger chest that holds more stuff. I knew how to build a new crafting table, so I built that, built the chests, put my stuff in the chest and looked at the wiki a bit more.

I was alone on the server, it was nearing night, and the wiki said I could make a bed and “sleep” in the bed for 15 second to turn night into day. I went out into the night, like a fool, disregarding my friends advice about monsters in the dark. I sought some sheep to harvest wool from. My friend was the fool though, I killed three sheep without problem and didn’t see any monsters at all!

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The trick was, sun sets, and a few minutes later monsters start spawning until dawn. Had I known that and been less of a skeptical jackass, I wouldn’t have left the door way to my hole open behind me in the night. Had I paid attention to Justin’s advice about monsters and the importance of a door, I probably would have kept the door within sight and googled how to make a sword rather than a chest for items first. But, being who I am, I did none of those well-advised things I should have done – and I learned the hard way.

I walked into my hole, left the door open behind me, looked away from the door toward my crafting table, starting putting the blocks in place to build a bed when suddenly I heard a fizzling sound like a fuse on a firecracker. Two seconds later a monster called a ‘creeper’ exploded right next to me like TNT. He blew my hole into a much bigger hole on the side of the mountain, and killed me instantly.

“You are dead. Respawn?”

Wait, what? I had a few days worth of stuff in that chest! Did that monster blow up my chest too?! Justin had said items disappear after ten minutes if they’re not in a chest. Perhaps the chest explodes like a piñata and my stuff is laying around? If so I only had ten minutes to get back. I panicked.

About twenty real-life minutes later I was very literally on the edge of panic and tears – not only had my stuff probably despawned completely, but I could not find my hole – I was lost. Me, the beginner, on this island that was just big enough for a beginner to get lost. I wasn’t lost lost, but I lost my “home”. An hour or two of effort, gone – just, gone.

I was lost, alone, and infuriated. Nothing drives me more than the chance to get even and make things right (I harbor a severely unrealistic sense of justice..), so I was determined that though I may quit this stupid sucky game, I would at least find that hole I had dug before I rage quit.

I never found the hole. Instead, I found addiction.

A real-life hour, or what felt like a year, later, Justin rejoins the game.

“Dude, I lost my hole. Like, I can’t find it. This green monster exploded and I just gave up and dug a new one. I figured out how to make glass though, this game is crazy!”

Justin led me to my original hole near the beach, an embarrassingly easy distance away. The hole was exactly as expected – a much larger hole blown up by this green ‘creeper’ TNT monster from hell, all of my hard work gone, only the crafting table in the corner remained.

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While Justin was offline I had self-taught myself some tricks, dug a new hole, put up a glass wall, which required making a furnace from 8 stone, sticking coal in the fuel part and sand blocks in the cook part, and waiting on the sand to cook into glass.

By the time he had logged back in, my boiling rage at losing my original home had faded into a budding addiction. I was learning to shape the minecraft world as a sculptor would shape a statue. Although I am not a very good sculptor:

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An hour later I was digging a massive hallway in a random direction and Justin screams “STOP!!!” on the chat – he can see my nametag hazily floating in the distance, through the back wall of his house. He digs my direction a few blocks and sees this insanely large hallway I was aimlessly mining. He looks around, tells me where I am. He pauses, looks some more, says the hallway is cool, and now our houses are connected.

I tell Justin that I keep dying because my health keeps draining, he tells me I need to get some food – go kill some more sheep or pigs. I can’t find any on the small island we sjare, because my two friends, Justin and Jon, went around and killed all of the animals not long ago for their own stash of sustenance, so I was screwed until the game would spawn more animals.

Rage quit.

A real-life day later I log on and Justin has prettied up the place – there’s artwork hanging on the walls of the hallway between our houses. Justin’s friend Andy has joined the game and while I’m mid-rant about no food being available, Andy tells me I can go right click on grass and get seeds from the grass, use a hoe to till a soil block near water, and put the seed in the ground with a click. Five minutes later – a wheat stalk is ready for harvest.

Three wheat stalks together on the crafting table = bread. Bread = a good substitute for meat when your fellow players have completely ruined the ecosystem by killing every last animal. Fortunately they can’t kick a bunch of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the game, so I’ll always be able to grow some wheat. At least there’s that.

I instantly kick into Jason-the-engineer mode, automating my way out of worrying about food – I build a massive farm. Not understanding that I can build a bucket to transfer water blocks, I take soil blocks and build a massive deck of dirt block block out into the sea near my house. I make a farm big enough to harvest 64×3 wheat stalks, and fill an inventory slot with 64 bread (enough to last for several real-life evenings of game play).

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Four real-life days after the Monday I started playing the game, my wife and I go to lunch – abnormal for us because we work far apart from each other and she has a short lunch break typically. Today is kind of an exception though, she’s off early, and she hasn’t seen me since Monday (when I started playing Minecraft).

“How are you doing?” – She asks, happy to visit with a long lost friend.

“I’m sorry I’ve been playing the game so much, but, Amanda, this game is like no other game I’ve ever played, I’m having fun in a video game more than I have in countless years, can I tell you a story?”

It should be mentioned that my wife has immaculate patience and kindness, she allows me to go on.

I explode with a cheerful recounting of my last few days of playing the game, occasionally choking up as I recount some of the incredible emotions the game has made me feel for the first time in a very long while.

My childhood was full of fear. I’m a worrier at heart, as are my parents. As a kid, my parents were constantly threatening to kick me out of the nest for the slightest wrong (a marilyn manson cd, for example), and that didn’t help matters. I was born a ‘little grandpa’, as my wife puts it, and I learned the meaning and comfort of safety and security far too late in life.

I endured college under a constant cloud, the cloud being the story my parents had tricked me into believing: “If you do not graduate college, you will not enjoy life, and if you get bad grades, we won’t pay for college and you’ll never make it or be happy.” There was always one of these stories, “If you don’t do something I say you must do, you will be sorry.” – for better, and for worse, I always trusted and believed these stories.

I was so worried about these stories that when school was nearly finished I saved every last penny of my last college summer job’s money in anticipation of graduating without a job and being heartlessly kicked from home.

In retrospect, with hindsight, the stories change as history march forward – now, 10 years later, firmly on my own two feet with solid financial safety (read: no chance I’d ever need to go back to my parents..), our parents predictably assure us that they never would have actually left us ‘on the street’. Our memories disagree and we’ve agreed to disagree.

I graduated college, and fortunately I found a decent paying job. For about two years I saved as much money as I could to build the fabled “1 year living expenses in case you’re on your own” nest egg. Hint: Nobody does that, unless they’re scared worriers like me.

Say what you will about threatening parents, but mine inadvertently tricked me into being a very cautious person financially, and my life is extremely comfortable thanks mostly to good fortune and a little bit due to financial responsibility.

For about a decade of my life from 15 or so to 27, I lived my life in fear. Consistent fear and anxiety over not being able to pay the electricity bill and being unable to cut it in this big bad world that my parents were so adamant was out to get me and would offer no help.

Life, of course, is more complex than a single emotion – I had an extremely privileged and fortunate upbringing, and in truth I never wanted for anything that was a necessity. Still, being the ungrateful little shit that I am, I obsessed and worried about this real life fear of failure. The fear affected my life and development in profound ways. The cloud of fear and worry had such an affect on me that in retrospect I regret many thousands of missed beautiful moments I skipped over or missed with my obsession on responsibility and justice – so many moments missed because I couldn’t see beyond fear…

I wouldn’t go on rollercoasters – I already feared enough, why ‘enjoy the exhilaration of fear’?

I would never go on random camping excursions with just a backback – Why take a chance where you could be afraid or hurt or lost?

I would never watch horror films or play scary video games – I fear enough in real life, why bother?

And so on.

Roll back a few years before the drama, back in the days before parents turned the corner from “you are our son, we’ll always be here for you” to “you need to grow up or else”. Coincidentally, they turned this corner around the same time I became an insufferable rebellious little shit.. funny how that works.

There’s always more to the story, remember that.

Before “grow up or else”, in the halcyon days of childhood, my friend down the street had a computer in his room – with one rule and only one rule – we weren’t allowed to play violent video games. Naturally, the rebellious asshole from up the street (that’s me..) obtained a copy of id softwares seminal 3d first person shooter horror game Quake. We installed the game, and had a blast.

There was a problem with Quake though – it’d be safer to play in the evening after parents were asleep so we would not get caught, but the game was so damn scary that we didn’t *want* to play it at night. The game gave my friend and I real-life nightmares. So, we only played it in the day.

We were so filled with fear for the game of the crazy horrific monsters therein that we’d rather risk punishment and losing the game than play it at night.

That is the last time I remember be afraid of a video game.

The last time I remember before Minecraft.

Back in the present, at lunch with my wife, I recount how Justin taught me to dig down to just the right level for mining diamonds, iron ore, and coal for more efficient and longer lasting tools. How I happened upon a series of lavafalls (a water fall made of lava) deep underground in an expansive cavern, and how I made a house full of glass protecting me from the lava.

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I told my wife how I learned the lava blocks could be used in a furnace like coal, so I had created 30+ iron buckets and found an underground lake of lava for an infinite supply of coal to make “the glass factory” – a bank of 25 furnaces powered by lava kicking out glass far faster than I could ever use it.

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I told her how every night I’d go to real-life bed satisfied with accomplishing some goal in Minecraft, only to think of something the very next morning that I *must* do before I call it quits. One day it was ‘I must build an underground railway between the bay and Andy’s distant mesa’. Another day, it was ‘I must take some lava blocks, dig a hole in my house, put the lava at the bottom of the hole, put a glass floor over the hole and have a bed in my home above a pool of lava.’ ‘I must figure out some way to easily kill and harvest loot from the monsters coming from the ‘zombie spawner’ near my house – those monsters give me free armor and swords!’ .. ‘I must make a fishing dock way out on the water to safely fish without worry of monsters coming by.’

And so on.

At the end of my story, with my wife half asleep over our lunch, I tell her about fear in Minecraft. I remind her of my financial fears when I was younger and how lucky we are and I am that I’ve outgrown and been fortunate enough to live without that fear for a little while. I tell her about how when I was a boy, a friend and I were so scared of a video game that we’d rather lose the game if caught than play it in the dark.

I tell my wife how I don’t remember fearing anything in a video game for a very long while, until the night before, in Minecraft. Until, the redwoods.

As video-game-time in minecraft wore on, my house turned into something a bit more impressive. I found some diamond, I had an impressive bank of furnaces running ‘the glass factory’, and I was on the verge of finishing the game – I had done what I wanted to do.

For whatever reason, as my last act in the game, after about two weeks of playing, I decided to extend my fishing pier. One last go-out-with-a-bang big impressive accomplishment – a pier that goes out so far that you couldn’t even see the end of it from the house.

I started building the pier, happily plugging along, when I noticed across the way, in the distance, there was another island. A very dark island with massive trees. The trees were what the game called ‘dark oaks’, but what I called ‘the redwoods’.

Each tree’s trunk was 2×2, one redwood trunk was 4x as much wood as another tree, and they were super tall. Where other trees could be axed down while standing on ground, axing a full redwood down would require building an intricate series of ‘steps’ up into the tree’s trunk as you axed your way upward.

By this time, several days into the video game, Justin had taught me that dark = monsters. Even in the day time, a dark room or dark forest would be dark enough (light level 7 or something) for the game to spawn a monster. To prevent the game from spawning a monster, a player places torches around on the ground or walls to light the area up.

I knew about torches, so I stocked up on my way over to the mysterious redwood island with a new goal in mind. I was going to chop down a redwood and start a forest of them on our bay island.

I boated over to the ominous island, dark as night at the height of day, and stood on the shore. I explored a little, perhaps 30 blocks (30 feet) into the forest – and I discovered there were so many trees that my torches would run out far before I could light the area well enough to prevent monsters.

At that point, I had a choice to make – would I haul tail back to our safe bay island, or try to make for some spoils anyway and get the hell out?

Naturally, I went for it.

I chopped down two full redwoods without any bother from any monsters at all. I was extremely careful to stay out in the very small lighted area of the shore and do my work. I took my wood, and my redwood ‘sapling’ (a tree you can replant) that fell from the tree, and headed toward my boat.

Deja vu. My back turned to the forest, my life bar starts draining and my screen is jumping erratically. Somewhere in my mind I’m immediately subconsciously replaying that first moment a creeper blew my little house to hell. I’m mentally paralyzed and unable to act. I’m being hit by arrows. I finally manage to look behind myself and turn just in time to see three bow-and-arrow skeletons and two zombies gun me down.

I gasped in real life. My heart was racing, and for the first time in perhaps 20 years, I was frightened by a video game – I had so much time and emotional investment in the video game that the game had started having emotional responses beyond a the norm of addiction and conquest – and it was amazing. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I was responding to a video game with such enrapture as I had once a million years ago, as a child playing quake in the day light.

For days and days on end, my real-life waking life was consumed by the game. Every day I had a “one final thing I’ll do then I’m done”, then it’d be every other day, then it’d be every week. Then I’d get bored, store all my inventory safely, and run out in some random direction naked as the day I first spawned on the tiny island, with nothing, and start again.

This series of posts will recount some of those stories, but more importantly it will finish out with a series of self-discoveries and real life discoveries I would not have had without this incredible game entering my life. Thank you, Justin.

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Please do read on, we haven’t even start talking about building machines.

Continued here: Minecraft – A Software Engineer’s Experience Part 2

Music: Caspian – Waking Season, and Hymn for the Greatest Generation.

Pikmin – The Video Game Interview Question

For the past decade and a half, Pikmin has been my most favorite game of all time.

As a software engineer with an affinity for automation, tooling, and efficiency – Pikmin struck a chord with me like no other game had before. Pikmin is a unique twist on real time strategy games (such as the command and conquer series, warcraft, or starcraft), where resource gathering equates to winning the game. That is, Pikmin is an RTS without a strong battle tactics mechanic.

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Instead of becoming the greatest war general, Pikmin simply encourages you to gather enough resources to move forward while using time wisely. What sets Pikmin apart from many other video games in the genre is that the game has concurrent goals. It is complex enough to allow multi-tasking on an impressive scale. Whereas a typical RTS would have a singular goal (gather some ore, build some tanks, crush the enemy), Pikmin’s goals are distributed – you need to collect X pieces of a ship, and pieces can be collected in paralell, with one team of Pikmin working on a task blocking one goal while another team works towards another.

In Pikmin, instead of a god-like overview of the entire world, you are a tiny spaceman who can only manipulate the resources within your field of view. You are effectively limited to doing only what one person can do in real life – one thing at a time in the place where you are. Instead of clicking a map 2 miles away to assign a new directive to some tank, the strategy to Pikmin becomes efficiently subdividing your army of Pikmin into concurrent tasks – with the occasionally infuriating limitation of only being one person.

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Your little spaceman only moves so quickly, and he’s purposely weak, as are your pikmin. There are monsters both small and large throughout the game; walls to break down; bridges to build; heavy items to move back to camp; and more – and one pikmin or one spaceman is effectively useless on their own in almost all cases. No monsters can be defeated with the spaceman alone, and breaking down a ‘beginner’ (soft) wall would take the spaceman or a single pikmin half an hour to break down, never mind walls made of stone that your spaceman cannot damage at all.

Put simply, your protagonist is not a one man team, and a spaceman behaving as a one man team will lose the game.

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To beat the game, your spaceman needs to task 30 pikmin to breaking down that wall, so it falls in two minutes rather than thirty. To beat the game more quickly, your spaceman needs to assign one team to breaking a wall, while another is set to build a bridge, while a third under your direct control attacks some monsters to bring home spoils from monsters to create more pikmin.

Further strategy ensues when you’re given three different types of soldiers later in the game; red pikmin are strong fighters and can walk in fire; blue can walk in water but are quite weak; and yellow can jump high and carry ‘bomb rocks’ (for stone walls). If you’re familiar with the early 90s blizzard game The Lost Vikings, or perhaps Lemmings, Pikmin is those two games blended together – on steroids.

The game employs a day/night mechanic where each “day” of game time is only 15 minutes of time, and any pikmin left scattered around the level at the end of the day are eaten. So, accomplishing multi-day/multi-hour achievements takes planning and strategy. The game gives you a generous 30 days (7.5 real-life hours) to beat the game – my greatest record was 19 days (4.75 hours), this after dozens of times through the game, but record holders have beaten the game in 9 days (2.25 hours).

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As a younger me, Pikmin appealed beyond other games because it allowed me, a software engineer (read: a person who enjoys solving puzzles), the opportunity to solve a well-understood puzzle with enough complexity built in for many possible solutions to exist. The game provided a clear goal, simple to understand tools to get the job done, a scope, and a generous timeline – a dream software project if I’ve ever heard of one.

I distinctly remember building my own hobby software projects while in college and looking forward to such dream projects in my dream career to come – “Man, working in software is going to be like playing Pikmin all day every day!”

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How adorable youthful naivety and ambition can be. Right? Right.

Real life software projects are like any other project anywhere ever, limitations abound. There’s always one or more of the following: not enough time, too little budget, inexperienced teams, unknown scope or requirements, surprises, political land mines, and more. Sorry to say, the dream software project is a dream.

Back in my college days, while playing the game with my friend Greg (my 6th or 7th play through, his second or third perhaps), we were talking about the philosophical aspects of what made the game so addicting to us. Whereas many ‘core gamers’ dismissed the game as a childrens version of an RTS war game, we were hopelessly enamored with the game’s charm and subtle complexity.

During our discussion that evening it occurred to me that the video game Pikmin would make for an excellent psychological evaluation for real-life managers. Think about it – the game is essentially a management simulator – you are one person with limited power on your own, but with effective management skills you can accomplish amazing goals you could not have accomplished on your own.

My youthful idea for the management test worked like this: Have the manager play through the game once, and watch them play.

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The first time through the game, the player is simply discovering the rules and boundaries, the scope of what he or she is up against.

During this discovery phase of the game, much can be learned about how a player approaches new challenges that he or she may have little interest in achieving. Does the player dismiss the game due to a lack of interest? Does the player enjoy themselves despite a lack of interest? Does the player regard her little pikmin employees as a breathing animal to protect and nurture, or as a disposable means toward the ultimate goal? How does the player react the first time they walk a red pikmin into a pool of water, do stand by and watch the pikmin slowly drown during that generous ten seconds they have to rescue the pikmin with a single button tap? Do they panic? Do they even try to save it?

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Further – the pikmin are not robots, they mimic real life humans in a surprisingly and infuriatingly real way – that is, occasionally these little minions have a mind of their own and decide they want to do something else.

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What better way to test a candidate’s cool than place a video game in his hands that he can’t truly control? Perfect.

Later in the game, with experience under their belt, the games entire scope and toolset has been revealed – but, there are 20 pieces to collect and only 15 game days left – the player must multitask, or die. A prodigy player may already be multitasking from the beginning, but a mere mortal will likely get to day 27 with 9 pieces remaining, which provides potential for another psychological insight – as the time pressure cooker ramps up, how does the player behave?

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Suppose a player has a final piece left to collect, and they’re leading a team of 10 red pikmin (who drown and water) joined with 90 blue pikmin (who do not drown). The player discovers the final piece simply needs to dragged across the water to the home base – but time is closing in. Does the player take a few seconds to subdivide their team and leave the red pikmin safely in shore, or do they not? What does it mean when the player chooses one way or another? Is goal greater than the journey, or the other way ’round?

In college, as a young idealist with a myopic tunnel-vision non-empathetic world view of career, I thought pikmin would be the perfect test to find the most efficient and effective team leaders – which to me was very narrowly defined as a person who would gain maximum efficiency from his team. Back then, my ideal manager would have been a manager who would focus on and appreciate one of my personal strengths (naturally, right?) as an employee – clever efficiency. I am very happy that *good* real life managers are not so one-dimensional.

Fortunately real-life managers are multi-dimensional humans with differing personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. While one person may prioritize efficiency and adore employee’s such as myself, another may prioritize bulletproof quality, while still another may prioritize workplace culture. Indeed, an effective management team is, like all effective teams, a mixture of personalities – the whip cracker, and the cat-hearder; the single-minded goal seeker and the multi-tasking generalist; etc.

Pikmin makes for a great personality test because it mirrors real life in a simplistic, but beautiful, way. In many respects the game is a more entertaining and interactive larger version of Conway’s Game of Life. The game enforces limitations that drives many players mad (“The 30 day limit is stupid! I can’t win!”), it effectively requires the player to make choices and learn – it brings out the best and worst of players in very short order, all while presenting itself as a cute and cuddly “RTS game for children”. Incredible.

Perhaps a video game such as pikmin would provide an effective or fun way to screen or learn about candidate’s personality with a little more depth than “Tell me about your greatest success?”, or “What’s your greatest weakness?”. If I ever rule the world, or a small multi-national company (don’t worry, this won’t happen, I enjoy living life and video games.), I’d at least give the pikmin test a try.

Pikmin was first published in 2001 on the Nintendo Gamecube (amazon link), it was updated and re-released on the Nintendo Wii (amazon link). There are a number of sequels and spin-offs, I’ve documented some of those previously on this blog here.

Note that some of the screenshots shown in the post are from sequels rather than the original game. IMO the sequels are good, amazing even, but nothing compares to the original masterpiece.

Music: BT – These Hopeful Machines