During our most recent trip to Japan, in 2019, we visited the Kanda shrine — it was on our way to the sake association’s tasting center 😉
Next to the shrine was a building with a ‘cultural space’: a cafe, a shop and an event space, clearly associated with the shrine. It was quite new — apparently the Kanda shrine featured in the anime Love Live!, and being relatively close to Akihabara, I’m guessing it gets its fair amount of ‘pilgrims’ which must have put quite a chunk of cash in the shrine’s coffers. If this is the result, then that’s not bad at all!
We browsed through the shop for a bit, and I bought the book ‘Shinto from an international perspective’ by Satoshi Yamaguchi. It’s a dual-language book: pages to the left are in English, pages to the right are in Japanese. The writer is an ordained Shinto priest and worked in Geneva — so his perspective is indeed more international than many other shinto priests.
It’s an interesting read, but shallow. It does not really spend a lot of time on the foundational shinto myths, but it does do a good job of explaining the history and the various changes it underwent as a result of various social and political changes in Japan. Some things in the history of shrines we visited, puzzled me — and with this increased understanding, I’m more able to get the nuances.

If you’re interested in the subject, then it’s a very good starting point.

So I ended up with three computers on my desk: my old desktop, the new Raspberry Pi 4 machine, and my work laptop. I had a little KVM switch that allowed me to switch a VGA and two USB devices (keyboard and mouse, obviously) with two machines. Which meant that if I wanted to use the third machine, I had to re-configure the whole cable mess on my desk. Not ideal if I want to switch quickly. And I use two monitors, so even if I had a KVM switch that did three machines, I’d have to get one that supports three machines too. Those do exist, but they are frightfully expensive!
But the monitors I use have three inputs each: one VGA and two HDMI inputs. So I could have each monitor hooked up to all three machines at the same time, and I could just select the right input on the monitor — or rely on the auto-input-select if there’s only one machine running — without having to mess with the cables. That made my life quite a bit better!

I also replaced my two-way KVM switch with a four-way USB switch with four ports, the Aten US424. It acts as a USB hub, and it has (just like the KVM switch, which was also by Aten) a small button that allows you to switch between the four connected computers. At first I used it un-powered so it was powered by the USB port of the machine it was connected to. This turned out to be a problem when using my USB headset and the webcam: those just shut down after a bit. So that meant I had to connect those directly to the machine, which meant that I had to re-plug the headset and webcam every time I switched from work laptop to personal desktop for a video call, for example for an online RPG session. It works, but it’s not ideal.
But there is also a mini USB port to provide USB power available on the US424, and I’ve since scrounged up a cable with the correct plug. Connected to a USB powerplug, it provides power to the switch, making it now a powered USB hub — and the headset and webcam don’t shut down anymore. Very convenient!

But this all meant that my desk was quite full: two monitors on their stand, a work laptop with its docking station and various bits and bobs. And the monitors were not high enough to be fully ergonomic. I had been looking at monitor desk-mounts for a bit — we have ’em at the office, and it’s really convenient to be able to set the right position. However, they can get pricey too, especially for two monitors and a full range of motion. But this week, I saw one that got reasonably good reviews that was on sale — only twenty euros, and even if it wouldn’t fit my situation, that wouldn’t break the bank. So I ordered it and yesterday I set to reconfiguring my desk.

Starting state of my desk. Lots of stuff lying around that maybe shouldn’t be on there?

Empty and cleaned.

First stage: the two holders built up and connected to the desk.

Getting the monitors off their foot was a bit of a hassle, but after a bit of fiddling with that and with connecting the mounting brackets on the back, the two monitors are now on the holders.

Each monitor has four cables connected to it: one power, one VGA and two HDMI. I didn’t think that would fit inside the cable guidance… things… that came with the deskmount, so I used tie wraps to keep ’em together. There’s enough slack that I can still move the monitors around.

Done. On the left is my work laptop, the power brick I use with it and the docking station. I put one monitor stand back, so that I could hide the USB hub and the cables underneath it — and so I had something to put my little micro-brick model of the Kamakura Daibutsu on. The little nine-key macropad left of the keyboard is programmed to send keyboard shortcuts to Microsoft Teams, using AutoHotKey. It’s very convenient during work meetings to be able to (un)mute and hang up quickly without using the mouse.

I’m not sure for how long it will stay this empty — but there is much more space for cats to sit, which is definitely a big plus! I used this setup to play an online RPG session, and it worked quite nicely. I’m thinking of adding a little ring light or something like that next to the webcam, so that I’m a bit better visible during video calls.

My interest in the Dark Souls video game franchise is well documented on this blog — I once even was interviewed for a leading Dutch newspaper about it. So of course I have an interest in replicating that kind of feel in a tabletop RPG. When I wrote an RPG in 24 hours, I produced Miasma, a Japanese-themed take on the concept of undead traveling through the ruins of a corrupted capital in order to fulfill their destiny.
For Miasma, my design hinged on adversaries telegraphing their attacks, and tactical grid movement. The system was diceless — just like in the videogame, not luck but planning and commitment would be the main deciding factors in a fight. Just like there is very little luck involved in the videogame: if there was, then it would be impossible to do consistent hitless runs. It works in theory, but it is slow and cumbersome.

There are more games with the express goal to emulate the video game. Jason Tocci has created a few, based on various (rules-lite) RPG systems. I GM’ed two sessions of Exhumed, but that fell flat because of a lack of narrative thrust on my part and the underlying system. Most RPG systems regard monsters as bags of hitpoints, and it becomes a series of dice rolls to see who is victorious — and that’s just not what Dark Souls feels like to me.

Now, there is an official Dark Souls tabletop RPG in preparation — whether it is an original work or a translation of the Japanese official tabletop RPG is unknown at this time. But the discussion came up on Twitter about what systems or games would be suited to run a ‘Souls-like’ game in. And someone pointed out a setting book for Dungeon World, which is a D&D-like fantasy game using the Apocalypse World Engine. Normally Dungeon World would emulate dungeon-crawling high fantasy games, but of course you can change some of the Moves and add other details to the character options to change its tone completely. Which they did.
The Cold Ruins of Lastlife is one of three ‘Chaos Worlds’, which are settings for Dungeon World to emulate certain types of media. I bought the PDF because I was curious, and all I can say is that it works really well. Perhaps not quite in the way I want a soulslike RPG to be, but there are some really inspired ideas in there.
Dungeon World does not have a combat system as such. Yes, everyone has hitpoints, but everything is left to fictional positioning. There are no rules for turn orders, and characters can try to do any crazy stunt they want to. And while it may be very obvious to everyone else, I had a bit of an epiphany: you don’t need to carefully model all the ways that monsters attack in Dark Souls and make a system out of that — you can just leave it to the GM. Make a list of common attack patterns and trust the GM to come up with an exciting fight. Add a few Moves for the characters to use to give them an edge under certain circumstances, and off you go.

Not like I needed inspiration for another RPG writing project, but it’s an interesting thought.

NYE dinner

After our experiences with the Christmas dinners, we thought it would be fun to get some kind of culinary take-away for today as well. There is a local Facebook group that collects information about restaurants doing delivery or take-out, and I trawled through that in order to find something suitable. One poster advertised a ‘Tunisian box’ with all kinds of Tunisian dishes to nibble on, and that seemed like a fun thing to eat.
However, this person only had a presence on Facebook and Instagram, and ordering was done through a messenger app. They were not very responsive — my request to pay by bank in advance was read but not acted on.
So when it was time to collect the box, we didn’t know what to expect. The address we were given was also a normal house, not a restaurant or professional kitchen — so we theorized it was a hobby cook. And indeed, the whole operation was very… amateurish. I was the third in line, and a single stressed-out man was running back and forth to finish the last dishes and to assemble everything in the boxes. He said that he had been busy cooking since five in the morning, which I fully believe. I had to wait over 20 minutes for our box because of the lack of coordination and preparation. Good thing I had the money cash on hand, because I don’t think I could have paid by bank transfer like I wanted to, and nobody checked my name either.

But the food was very good — and there was a lot!

The box itself, with all the dishes. It was too much to eat in one go, so we divided it up in three ‘courses’.

There were two types of couscous: one was a bit sweet with stewed beef, the other was a bit more spicy with chicken. We made our first course with these.

For our second course, we had the two vegetable stews with the incredibly fluffy bread. These were nicely spicy and went really well with the bread.

And finally the various tajines — which are usually stews, but in Tunisia apparently they are more like quiches? All were delicious too, and such variety.

Certainly very tasty, and it was more than enough for us two — we had gotten oliebollen, but we’re too full to eat any. But I’m not sure I’ll ever order from him again, because the apparent lack of planning doesn’t inspire me with confidence…

Last Friday Five of 2021

1) What was the biggest thing that happened to you in 2021?
Playtesting my cyberpunk RPG scenario International Waters with two groups (one veteran players, one newbies) that gave me lots of good (and positive) feedback was really fun. And it resonated with buyers: it is my bestseller to date.

2) Where was the most exciting place you went?
We didn’t go that many places. I guess the annual vacation trip to Texel was the highlight — also because new rules concerning vaccination and indoor seating went into effect when we were there.

3) Who helped you the most this year?
Klik, of course.

4) What’s your favorite new thing you bought?
I think it must be my Raspberry Pi 4, which I use as a low-power desktop machine. Though getting a permanent contract was nice too 🙂

5) What was your most memorable entry?
I don’t think most of my entries are that memorable. I seldom want to make a sweeping statement, nor have there been any earth-shattering developments in my life this year. My life has been slow, steady and boring.

The Netherlands has been slowly closing again, after everything was opened too early and, predictably, cases rose again. The complete mismanagement of the pandemic by the Dutch government is breathtaking, in a bad way. But that’s not what this entry is about — it is about what happened as a result. With restaurants now closed in the week leading up to Christmas, it’s a heavy hit for a sector that has already had more than its fair share of problems these past two years. Some restaurants had already prepared for an ‘at home Christmas menu’, and others were able to pivot towards that, so not all was lost.
Friday afternoon, we drove into the city center to collect a meal from Bistro Bar Ivory, the ‘younger cousin’ of the Ivory restaurant, which is one of the best restaurants in Nijmegen. We had gotten ‘at home’ meals from them before, and I’m on their mailing list, so we checked out the menu and decided to order — along with a ‘half wine arrangement’.

Getting the wine arrangement in sealed plastic bags is quite… something. We should have gotten straws to go with it, as some kind of adult capri sun… We cut a corner from the bags and poured into small wine glasses. It was good we had each half a glass per course. This was the first time in… months?… that we had alcohol, and it hit us hard! Delicious wines though, that went very well with the courses.

Each course was packaged as a DIY project, and there were clear descriptions on what to do to finish up the course and how to plate it.

The first course was smoked duck breast filet with pumpkin, beets and apple

Then we had the garlic soup with small cubes of beef stew meat. It was not as garlic-y as I had expected, but it had just the right amount.

The main course was ‘veal cheek’. Super tender, with finely chopped hazelnuts and a great sauce. So good.

Dessert was various kinds of mousses, which we drowned in the caramel sauce that came with it.

On Christmas Day, we visited Klik’s mother (her sister was there too) and had dinner there.
But today we were at home, and we had ordered a meal box from Mr Smith, which was new to us.

Collecting the meal went super-smooth, and it came in an attractive box.

The starters were various small bits and pieces, which you could not choose. So we made sure to put most of the fish on Klik’s plate, and most of the meat things on mine.

We divided the main course in two. This is a vegetable pie, stir-fried vegetables and mushroom ragout. Normally you’d serve ragout with some pastry thing or with rice, but this was just the ragout — so we added a piece of knackebrod. It was delicious, with lots of tasty mushrooms.

Second round of the main course were small potatoes with rosemary, game stew and wild boar. Not as ‘gamey’ as we had feared, it had a very well-rounded taste.

Dessert was a piece of brownie pie, apple crumble, tiramisu and some kind of mango yoghurt-cream. Can’t really go wrong with that.

We might look for something similar for New Year’s Eve, because we really enjoy having a restaurant dinner at home.

I’ve been watching Crest of the Stars, a series from 1999 — 22 years old. Back then, the infrastructure for fansubs was a lot less developed than now (bittorrent was only invented in 2001), and so you had to really hunt for stuff. I never got around to collecting and watching the series.
It’s kinda weird to watch such an older series. The aspect ratio is 4:3, because it was before the rise of the widescreen televisions, Of course there was no HD anyway — so watching the series on my large TV gives the whole thing a ‘soft focus’ because the pixels just aren’t there and the TV gives its best effort.
And the storytelling is so much slower than we are used to these days. Thirty second pans, long silences in dialogues, etcetera. Heck, it even takes a full episode before the two main characters even meet each other!

In the series, mankind has settled all across space. Half have been conquered by the Abh Humankind Empire. The Abh are an offshoot of humanity — basically a group of bioroids who were optimised for space exploration who overthrew their masters and decided that the best way to ensure peace was to make sure nobody but them could own spaceships. They organised themselves along feudal lines.
The two main characters are Lafiel, an Abh princess, and Jinto, a Terran whose father surrendered their planet in exchange for becoming Abh nobility. Jinto is, therefore, a Count — but he has never seen an Abh before when the series starts when he ships out to attend an Abh military academy. Lafiel is a pilot trainee aboard the patrol vessel that will bring Jinto to his destination, but the two of them get caught up in the start of a war between the Abh empire and a coalition of the other human blocs.

I found this review very interesting, because it calls out the colonialist attitudes of the series. The reviewer has a point, but also misses several, I think. There are some important differences: for instance, the Abh do not come down to the planets they conquer (when Jinto and Lafiel crash-land, it is actually Lafiel’s first time on a planet!), and they do not seem to be overly concerned with the day-to-day dealing of the planets they hold. Most terrans never see an Abh in their entire life, which does not suggest to me that the Abh had a large part to play in planetary politics. I also don’t see evidence of their conquests being motivated by a desire to extract a specific resource — the mere fact that a planet is inhabited by humans means that they want to conquer it, not because there’s oil or something that they need.
And while the Abh describe themselves as noble, most of the Abh that are presented in the series act like little children, not equipped to deal with any kind of disagreement or setback. When they are stranded, Lafiel is absolutely helpless without Jinto. The commander of the attack fleet is stubborn and insults his underlings, the commander of the patrol fleet is impulsive and reckless. None are particularly noble in their pursuits — they just do what is expected of them.

There are absolutely colonialist themes in the series, but I don’t think it’s colonialist propaganda like the review states. Rather, it emphasizes how the Abh are detached from the every-day life of their subjects, and how that detachment makes them incapable of empathy with their terran subjects.

I don’t recall who wrote it, but a quote I read on Twitter said that every game is like a spreadsheet: there’s numbers and relationships between those numbers. And the goal of any game is to get certain numbers high (score, HPs, XPs) while keeping other numbers low (damage, etc). To do this, you have a few number cells you can manipulate that then influence all the other numbers in complex ways.
Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists: Ateliers of the New World takes this to heart: some interfaces in the game actually look as a spreadsheet! It’s a town-management sim in the Ateliers franchise, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019. In the Atelier games, you play an alchemist (invariably a girl in a frilly dress with a squeaky voice) who needs to solve various problems by gathering ingredients, synthesizing new items and defeating monsters. There’s always a time limit, so you have to make choices on what to spend your precious time on.
It is not different in this game: you get 100 turns to turn a little hamlet into a bustling city.

You play as the titular Nelke, a young aristocrat who came to the hamlet of Westwald to search for a legendary alchemy artefact, the Granzweit tree. And for some reason, all kinds of alchemists from all kinds of different worlds are drawn to Westwald, and they end up helping you.
Each turn consists of two phases. In the weekday phase, you manage your town: you can build new facilities (like ateliers for alchemists, shops to sell the items they produce to get funds, gardens and farms for raw ingredients, buildings with special effects, etc); and you can assign characters from your roster to work in a field or building and give them orders on what to produce. In the holiday phase, you can visit characters in order to raise their XP or friendship level; you can starts special research projects if all the requirements are met (often a certain number of a specific item, the alchemists involved have to be in your village of course, and sometimes there is also a requirement for a minimum friendship level). Another thing you can do is to ‘investigate’, which means assembling a group and walk along a route to collect items and battle monsters in turn-based battles. If you make it to the end of a route, you can assign characters to gather the materials that are present on that route during the weekday — and of course you need those materials for your alchemical recipes. The holiday phase has a clock count-down, and once it’s empty, the day is over and you have to get back to work…
Your father, the lord of the land, gives you orders (build your town to X number of people, earn Y amount of money by selling items etc), that you need to achieve within a certain number of turns. If you fail such a task, the game ends: your father recalls you back to the capital, and that’s it. But if that happens, you can create a special type of save file that allows you to start the game over with bonuses: characters gain XP faster, friendship levels increase faster, etc. So failing makes subsequent playthroughs easier, which is a brilliant design concept: even if you’re not so good, you can still make it to the end if you want to spend the time on it.

So basically it’s an excuse to assemble all of the characters of all the Atelier games in some kind of mash-up. And instead of the usual Atelier gameplay, it’s a pretty hardcore town management sim. The aforementioned spreadsheet is part of the interface: you can get an overview of all the items/ingredients in the game, how much of it you get each turn (gathering, growing or alchemical synthesis) and how much you consume (through sales or alchemical synthesis). You obviously want to balance this sheet for a smooth running of your town!
I quickly turned off the voice track (which only exists in Japanese), because I was getting tired of the squeaky voices that are so typical of Japanese ‘moe’ games and anime. And most of the dialog is pretty inconsequential anyway — something about one alchemist being fanatical about carrots and another hating them, etc. I ended up skipping most of that too after a while, but if you’re a hardcore Atelier fan, then of course you want to get to the very end of your favourite alchemists’ story-line.

On my third try, I completed the game. Unfortunately, I did not get the ‘best ending’, because I had not expected that to hinge on a single combat encounter — all of your careful town management doesn’t really factor in there, which felt bad. So for now I’m done with the game — I might pick it up again later, but by the end I was really looking forward to seeing the ending and play something else for a while.
The game got mixed reviews and mediocre scores, and that is certainly for a reason. But if you like town management sims and/or the Atelier games, then maybe it’s your cup of tea anyway. I had fun with it, after I started ignoring/skipping the parts that irritated me.

I had heard good things about the new Dune movie, but I didn’t think I’d have the stamina to sit through a movie that’s almost three hours! But earlier this month, my father turned 81, and he wanted to go see the new James Bond movie — which is of comparable length. My mom asked me to take him, because she is not a Bond fan at all. I agreed: it would be fun to do something one-on-one with my dad, and it would get him out of the house.
However, logistically there were some challenges: he is almost blind — so would he be able to see anything meaningful? And with the length of the movie, we wanted to get an afternoon showing, so as to not make things too late. And since he can’t walk all that well, we also needed to find a cinema close to a parking spot. The Vue cinema in Eindhoven satisfied all the criteria, so that’s where we went.
Of course, we had to present our proof of vaccination, which is a QR code that, when scanned with the accompanying app, shows your initials and birthmonth. Very few places actually check these (so you could use someone else’s code), but here they asked for an ID so they could match this info. The lady scanning our phones saw that my father walked with two walking sticks and had some trouble moving around when searching for his ID, and she asked if we would rather use the elevator to go upstairs (where the screens are). Of course we would: the alternative was an escalator, which is kinda scary when you have to step onto it when you don’t see that well… But since the elevator was roped off because it was not part of the walking route, we needed some help to get there.
The lady simply closed the entrance and walked with us towards the elevator. Maybe that’s a small thing for her to do, but it meant a lot to us that she was willing to let other customer wait until we were on our way up. Later that week, I used the complaint form to give her a compliment for that — and her boss waved it off as “of course we do that for our customers!” but it was clear they were really happy to receive such a compliment.

The movie itself was (very) long, but there was a break in between so I could go to the toilet and get a drink refill. And I wasn’t bored a single second — it didn’t feel like three hours! I’m not going to spoil anything about the movie, other than wonder who will be the main person in the next Bond movie. It was a very satisfying end.

So emboldened by my success with the Bond movie, I proposed to Klik to go see the new Dune movie. Which we did last Sunday, in an afternoon showing.

Spoiler Inside: Dune, old and new

The showing turned out to be without break, but there was so much going on that we didn’t even have time to check a watch! We were a bit disoriented when we emerged from the viewing, though…

My desktop machine, which I (used to) run 24/7, is powered by an Intel i5 CPU and has several harddisks. The power supply is rated for 300W — obviously the machine is mostly idle, but there is a constant power draw, even when idling. I was wondering if I could do something about that, and perhaps downsize. After all, all I’m doing on that machine is a bit of browsing and writing, nothing that requires the power of an i5.
And then I noticed several articles pointing out that the latest model of the Raspberry Pi, the 4B model, which comes with up to 8GB of RAM, should be powerful enough for those kinds of computing needs. It has very modest power needs, so I was intrigued and did some further research.
It turns out that there are quite a few cases for the Pi 4B to turn it into a desktop machine, but not all of those were readily available — chip shortages and the global logistics tangle means that there is little supply. But I found a Dutch webshop that carried the Argon ONE M.2 case, which suits my needs. It’s a neat aerodynamic design with some cool features. Foremost is the support for M2 SSD drives: you can just plug those into a special adapter board that converts the M2 interface to USB3, and a ‘dongle’ hooks it up to the Pi. It’s also convenient that a little extra board converts the Pi 4’s mini HDMI sockets into full-size HDMI ports — saves me from having to buy new cables to hook it up to my monitors. The only drawback is that the micro SD card slot is not accessible within the case, so if you want to swap that out, you need to completely open up the case to do so. But since you want to boot off the SSD, that’s not too much of a problem, since you’ll be using the Pi without any SD card!
The extra power draw of the SSD does mean that you need a larger power supply than the Pi normally needs. Based on this guide I bought a 3.5A power supply to power the whole thing. I had to order from three separate webshops, because none had all the things I needed in stock, but all three packages came in on the same day, so that wasn’t too bad!

It took me a while to set it up, because I kept trying to do something that turned out to not work. In the end, I used this guide from Ubuntu to put Ubuntu on the machine (because it’s what I use on all my machines, so I’m used to its particular quirks). Everything went smoothly, but I just could not get the system on the SD card (which you set up at first run) transferred to the SSD so that the Pi could boot into an Ubuntu instance that had already been set up. I followed a few different guides, but it just didn’t work out.
So I just followed the whole guide (I had already done everything up to and including ‘USB Boot’), and just downloaded the Pi Imager onto the SD card and imaged the Ubuntu Pi image onto the SSD. Then remove the SD card, and boot into the now pristine Ubuntu install on the SSD. Yes, you have to set up everything twice, but it’s not that bad — certainly faster than spending two evenings on procedures that turned out to not work!

The machine is kind of underpowered: if you visit heavy websites, it takes a while for the page to load, and multitasking is not that fast. But writing this post is fine: it’s just me typing into a web form, after all — and that’s not a heavy draw on computing power. I now have a full desktop machine (with two screens!) running on under 17W — that’s pretty good. The case itself gets toasty, as it acts as a heatsink, but it’s not that bad.
One drawback that I have discovered is that some applications are not available for the architecture of the Pi — PCs and laptops use the amd64 architecture, but the Pi uses an ARM chip. That’s not a big problem if the source of the application is available — then you’d just recompile it for the ARM platform. But if that package is provided on a closed-source basis, then you’re out of luck if there is no package for ARM available. For me, the big one in that category is the Discord desktop app — usually I use Discord through a browser tab, but when I’m playing an RPG over Discord, then I want push-to-talk available — and you need the desktop app for that. So for RPG sessions I see myself turning on the ‘old’ desktop for the foreseeable future…