Cookie Colleague

A few months ago, I was in a chat conversation with a colleague from support. I had helped her with a question, and then she closed off with the message that I should take a break because I worked so hard, and maybe have a snack. I thought that was a sweet thing to say. So we started chatting about snacks, which should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. We both like sweets (her favourite is tiramisu).
When my team started to have a fixed day at the office, I sometimes would bake sweets for them. The first day I brought apple pie from apples we had picked ourselves. I also made macarons, green tea cookies, and most recently chocolate sprits. But her team is scheduled for another day, so we never had any overlap. Which meant that when I brought sweets to the office, I couldn’t give her any.

But we devised a plan: I would do some of it in a container, put her name on it, and put it in the fridge at the reception. Officially, that fridge is for soft drinks to serve as refreshments to waiting visitors, not for stuff employees bring in. But when I asked the receptionist, they always let me put my little box with cookies in the fridge. So that turned into our ‘cookie dead drop’. I’d take pictures of what I had made and send them to her through chat. Then, when she was next in the office (a few days later), she would retrieve the container. All of my baking was well received!

The building with the fridge is now being renovated, so we don’t have our cookie exchange space anymore. But for last Friday we arranged to both be at the office: for her it’s her team day, and I had a meeting in the afternoon that I preferred to do face-to-face anyway.
Prior to this, we didn’t even do as much as a video chat. We communicated exclusively through text chat and anime GIFs (she likes anime as well). So we met for the first time then. I had brought chocolate sprits with me, especially for her and her team. It was a bit weird to meet, but she eagerly accepted the cookies and started distributing them. Her colleagues asked me a bit suspicious what the occasion was.

Rather than tell the whole story, I just said that Support was, of course, my favourite department! I’m not sure they believed me, but they did enjoy the cookies. Which is exactly the point!

RPGs as moral support

I don’t have much contact with former colleagues, but I do still play tabletop RPGs with the group we started back in early 2020. I’m currently running the Tales from Wilderland campaign for The One Ring for them, using first edition rules. We have players in the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Russia.

Friday, we had another session. Of course, the topic of the war in Ukraine came up. The player in Russia was born in Russia, and has the Russian nationality. But their father is Ukrainian. Their home-town is 40km from the Russian/Ukrainian border. They have extended family on both sides of the border, an absolute nightmare scenario. Understandably, they were in tears about what is happening.
They were in contact with their Ukrainian family, who were taking shelter in subway stations against bombardments. And they said they couldn’t even go out on the streets to protest against this invasion, rightly fearing they’d get arrested.

We talked about sanctions. Someone mentioned the potential of Russia being kicked out of SWIFT (that hadn’t been decided then yet), which would mean that it could get impossible for them to get their salary paid, as they are working for an international company after all. They didn’t care about that. They’d rather have put as much pressure on Putin to make him stop. If that meant not getting paid for some time, then that was a sacrifice they were willing to make.

We expressed our grief and our support, and it felt weird to start the game after that. I feel so powerless. But being able to offer moral support and distraction for a few hours is something I could do, and I think it worked.
I’m still upset about it. I mean, I’m upset about the war in a general sense, but I am upset at much more personal way about this.

Sunday Five

1. What’s your favorite candle scent?
None. I am not a big fan of things that are artificially scented. The smells are often too strong for me.

2. Do you have an artistic or crafty hobby? What is it?
I guess bookbinding counts? Haven’t really picked up a project in a long time, though. But there is still that box that needs to be made for all the Everyway cards that I got as part of the Kickstarter for the second edition.

3. What’s one weird way you save money on food?
We make a meal plan and stick to it. We shop for groceries two times per week, so we don’t go into the supermarket hungry every day. If there is an own-brand or cheaper variant of something basic, we use that. For instance, canned tomatoes are not really that much better if they’re by a well-known brand. There are a few exceptions, if we really don’t like the cheaper alternative, but it mostly works for us.
So yeah, none of these are weird, and probably common sense?

4. Do you collect anything weird or unusual?
I have a bit of a pin collection, but that’s not weird I guess.
I have a few lines of RPGs that I want all physical books of: Tales from the Loop, The One Ring and Everway. I’m sure I’m not the only one, and RPGs are not an unusual hobby anymore either.

5. Do you fear the deep ocean, or does its unknown depths excite you?
I do think I have a mild thalassophobia. I do like clownfish and other fishes fine, like many — but I’m not a big fan of the more grotesque creatures lurking in deeper waters…

I’ve seen reports that cross-posting from Dreamwidth to LiveJournal did not work anymore. My blog runs on WordPress on my own site, but I cross-post everything to my LiveJournal. I had not written an entry since I’ve seen those reports, so I did not know whether it would still work — but the entries still go up. So it’s not the API itself that was disabled — perhaps this was specifically targeted towards DW users?
Ultimately, it will hurt LJ in the long run if cross-posting is forbidden or disabled, because there would be even less reason to stick around on LJ. The lack of content on the platform is the problem, not the fact that content gets cross-posted from other sites. And having your users go to those other sites because they want that particular content does not seem like a good strategy to me.

I borrowed these books from my father, and finished reading them some time ago: Gouden Jaren (“Golden Years”) and Het Goede Leven (“The Good Life”) by Annegreet van Bergen.
Van Bergen is an economist, and in these two books she shows how every-day life in the Netherlands changed between 1950 and 2000. In that period, average wealth increased four-fold (and that’s real wealth, corrected for inflation!) — an unprecedented period of economic growth. And we all know that it hasn’t been replicated since, too…
That economic growth also had an effect on social life and technology, which in turn allowed for more economic growth etcetera. For instance, with transportation becoming cheaper (most notably things like mopeds), people could now take jobs further away from home which paid better. That meant more income, which got spent on more luxury, which made it economically feasible to invest in the production of those things, and so on. It is an interesting look at how the Netherlands developed in living memory, and how things changed.

Though it is not a subject of the book, it is also an interesting look into the lives of the baby-boomers. We know boomers to be self-absorbed and unwilling to share. How did they get this way? Well, these books tell you about their formative years, and how they established themselves socially and economically during this period. It must be completely natural for them that every decade has a much higher standard of living than the decade before — they simply haven’t experienced anything else. By the time the big economic crises hit, they were already largely insulated from the worst.
Gouden Jaren starts with an anecdote that perfectly illustrates this: at a party, the writer meets a man who is retired. He and his wife bought a large caravan and go on holidays: four weeks in summer, four weeks in winter, and they do city trips during the rest of the year. When the topic of pensions comes up, he gets really angry because his pension has not retained its full value — which was the promise of back then, but nobody under 60 has such a pension these days… Then the writer asks him whether his parents could have afforded two months of vacation each year. Turns out that, before the man went into military service, he had never been on vacation — his father rented a car for a day, and that was it. (If you can read Dutch, it’s the start of the first chapter and that’s available to read on the book page linked above.)
The writer herself is a boomer, so she doesn’t really spend a lot of time on what growing up in this period did to her or her mentality, other than to illustrate some change in daily life — but the signs on how the boomer generation became so entitled are certainly there.

I found it easy to read, written in a conversational tone. But the books made me half-envious: envious of seeing your daily life improve so much, but on the other hand I grew up with most of those improvements already in place. My teeth are much better than my parents’, because dental care really took off when I was a little kid. I profited from having all kinds of telecommunications available, etcetera. The only thing to lament is that, because of the social and economic structures in place, not everyone can profit from these things.

If you have an interest in recent Dutch history, then I certainly recommend these two books.

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.