Virtual Reality

I’ve been on a spirited virtual reality kick for the past 3 months. My VR foray began maybe a year and a half ago with the purchase of a Playstation VR. I found some of the games to be interesting. Carolyn and I had fun with titles like Beat Saber and Super Hot. The system exhibited limitations, especially when it came to the motion controllers which were introduced during the PS3 era. The whole PSVR system is actually an amazing repurposing of discarded proprietary tech from Sony. Shortcomings revealed themselves in terms of tracking. I wasn’t a fan of movement in the worlds either. The motion controllers are joystick-less wands with buttons on them.

I was determined to get a bit more out of my PSVR before I trade it in toward a PS5 later this year, so I looked up a list of premier PSVR games and gave one of them a go. I landed on Blood and Truth: a first person action espionage game that offered visuals and mechanics well beyond what I had initially experienced on the PSVR. I was impressed. And then the motion controllers wouldn’t track. And I’d end of up being pissed. Despite these shortcomings, Blood and Truth opened my eyes to the fact that VR development had been quietly churning along, at least outside my purview, and improving vastly over the past few years.

As much as I happily drop money on awesome tech (I’m not rich people, but I’ll easily make calculations in my mind on how skipping out on meals can pay toward shiny toys, but I digress) I wasn’t going to spend $1200 on a Valve Index. When I was shopping around for VR systems, the Index was the best in terms of fidelity, but it required base stations for tracking, and I wasn’t convinced on how invested I really was in VR.

I settled on the Oculus Rift-S, which was a VR system that could plug into my gaming laptop, had decent fidelity, used inside-out tracking and didn’t require base stations. It also cost $400. I could tolerate the price tag, and it seemed like one of the more convenient options for an “all in” VR setup. It was difficult to find one to purchase online. They were sold out everywhere: a testament to the growing popularity of VR. I managed to get one with a little added premium, but 3 months later, I’m happy with my purchase.

In an unexpected turn of events, I’ve convinced my mother to buy an Oculus Quest, the PC-free version of VR. We frequently chat and play VR frisbee golf together. And to be honest, It didn’t take much convincing. She was hooked the moment I let her try the Rift-S. My dad’s first foray into VR boxing was unbelievably hilarious. I had to restrain him before he crashed through the TV, swinging at his virtual opponent. Observing the speed at which my parents adapted to using VR was astonishing for me. I’ve been nerding out on games since I was a child. We’ve never played games together. It made me realize that this tech will affect both the young and old, and it will encompass much more than niche gaming applications.

Along with catching up with Mom, I’ve been using my Oculus as part of my workout routine. I’ll pop in and do 15 – 20 minutes of shadow boxing in BoxVR. I purchased a 16lb weighted-vest that I wear and 1lb wrist wraps. These weight additions enhance my workout greatly. I’ve come to enjoy melee-based VR games like Until You Fall and Asgard’s Wrath. I’m definitely feeling a major physical workout after putting an hour into one of those games. The weights do an amazing job at heightening the sense of physicality in worlds where you are swinging swords and blocking blows with shields.

Asgard’s Wrath is a no-kidding RPG. There’s a full inventory system and side-quests. You play as the God of Animals and can possess a warrior called the Shield Maiden. In your colossal godly form, you can move huge objects out of the way for the other figurine-sized characters. You also have the ability to pick up animals and transform them into companions that will fight alongside you. I’ve played a few hours and it’s really a step above anything else I’ve played in terms of real video game mechanics and systems. Most VR games that I’ve played have had a relatively simple game loop as far as modern games go. I’m excited to see where the future of this technology leads.

In the spirit of VR, I recently read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I enjoyed the book a great deal. I’m not huge on the 80’s nostalgia factor, but I got most of the video game references and main movie and book references. I think my recent experimentation with VR tech provided analogs that helped me imagine the technology and environments being described in the book. I eagerly await the sequel to Ready Player One, which is, you guessed it: Ready Player Two, coming out in November of 2020.

I’m experimenting with VR development. I’ve dabbled with game development in the past in both the Unreal Engine and Unity, but there is something that blows me away when I create an environment in VR and can traverse around in it! More on this as I experiment more. I’ve been in touch with a VR researcher at URI and am signed up for a virtual Immerse-a-thon event coming up in late September. During this event, I will have the opportunity to work with a team to develop an educational VR or AR (Augmented Reality) app. I’m excited!

Uplifting Moments

I was frustrated this morning after a Zoom meeting. We’ve all needed to make big changes on how we’ve done things since this COVID-19 thing hit. Some of us have handled change better than others. In my world, it’s been adapt or die for a long time. I know I’m being a prickly hard-ass about it, but it’s meant that I’ve been able to excel even in the hardest of times.

As a teacher, adapting during COVID-19 has meant becoming more proficient using online tools and platforms. Granted, I’m a tech guy; I use this stuff every day. Heck, I’ve even somehow convinced my mother into buying an Oculus Quest VR system so we can bowl or play frisbee golf and catch up virtually a few times a week. I get it. It’s much easier for me to jump into some of these technologies than it is for others. Here’s the thing, never in my world has it been okay for me to say, “I can’t do it.”

You find a way. If suddenly, Americans lose the ability to speak English, and we all need to speak Japanese, guess what, I’m learning how to speak Japanese. If I need to learn how to do advanced mathematics, and trust me this is the most tortuous activity I can imagine, I’d learn how to do the math. It would suck in the beginning. I would work and sweat and beat my head in. And then I’d figure it out.

I work in the non-profit world. Our resources are limited. People are performing functions that should probably be performed by twice as many staff members, but the money isn’t there, and the public needs our help. When someone can’t step up to a challenge and are not willing to find a way to push forward, they put an extraordinary amount of stress on other team members. Either do your job or step aside.

That’s where my mind was this morning. I left the meeting and jumped straight into an online ESL class (which I planned at 11 o’clock last night by the way).

Deep breath.

I promise I’m done ranting.

Class went well, and I realized I had a few messages in the Call Me Positive hopper that needed to be posted. The first message was about how someone brought flowers to their favorite teacher and how they had this tearful exchange. The next message was about someone spending the day working in their yard, enjoying the sun, and trying to keep papers from blowing away. The final message was from another ESL teacher that I know talking about a parade in Central Falls, RI and how the community has banded together in these tough times.

I felt so much better after listening to those messages and posting them up in the podcast. Call Me Positive hasn’t blown up in terms of popularity. It’s definitely made an impact though—on those that call in and on those that listen, including me. Sometimes, I can get on this downward spiral of anger. I focus too closely on one thing, and I can’t break out of it. I know I’m wasting my emotional and mental resources by focusing on what made me angry, but I can’t get out of it. Listening to those positive messages helped me break the chain. Writing this has helped as well.

I’m proud of Call Me Positive. I hope it can help others find little moments of happiness for years to come. I’ve posted the episode that helped me feel a little better below.

The Correct Way to Eat Pie and Other News From the Front

I made a strawberry-cherry pie this week; nothing extreme, just canned strawberries and cherries with a Pillsbury crust. The pie isn’t as good as grandma’s but not half-bad considering its humble roots! Anyway, before I ate my pie this evening, I sprung for the deluxe treatment and capped the pastry with slices of Colby cheese and nuked it.

The result? Deliciousness. Cheese stacked on pie might be a Wisconsin thing—one of the many home-field strategies to help Wisconsinites consume more cheese. I wouldn’t put it past state lobbyists and lawmakers. After all, the state legislature banned yellow-colored margarine in the state in 1895 to protect dairy farmers’ interests.

“It all began in 1895 when the State Legislature passed a law prohibiting the manufacture or sale of yellow-colored margarine, also called “oleo,” because it was believed to be a threat to the dairy industry. It remained illegal for almost 75 years, until margarine was finally decriminalized in 1967.”

OnMilwaukee.com – https://onmilwaukee.com/buzz/articles/wisconsin-butter-laws.html

The quoted article is a fun, short read. I’m sure I could get to the bottom of my cheesy pie mystery, but some things, such as the Bermuda Triangle or what Nessie drinks on Sundays, are best left in a mystical state. Seriously though, does anybody else eat their pie with a little cheese on top? Carolyn thinks I’m crazy! Shoot me an email. I need some backup!

Other News From the Front

The PCVI Summer Writing Seminar begins tomorrow. I’m feeling confident. This evening, I reviewed our reading for this week and moved Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” to the optional section. I don’t want to overwhelm students. Ann Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” moved to the top of the list for mandatory reading. Her short essay is funny and will hopefully give students confidence and energy to get words on the page. They’ll need it.

I’m kicking them out of the nest day one and demanding they bring back a story draft by our next meeting based on something they witness out in the wild. This exercise, called “I Am a Camera,” is pulled from our text, The Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante. I want students to get points on the board early in terms of finishing a draft. I’m sure the experience will be terrifying for some students, but once they reckon with the fact they’re surrounded by narrative arcs and intriguing characters, well, it might be all they need from me. The rest will be heaps of cheese.

Delicious, melted cheese.

The PCVI Summer Writing Seminar is an awesome learning experience for me, in terms of both instructional design and my writing. It feels good to perform little tweaks on this hotrod of a class—take a steel brush to the spark plugs here, grease a spring there. I hope it doesn’t explode upon takeoff!

Ted Chiang Put My Brain Into a Freaking Time Loop!

I’m currently reading Exhalation by Ted Chiang. I’ll write a more detailed impression of the book after I’ve finished it, but I need to share this little anecdote. The first story in the book, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” deals with the mind-bending concept of an alchemist’s gate which allows a person to travel 20 years into the future by passing through one side and travel 20 years into the past by passing through the other side. There are no Back to the Future rules here. You can say hello to your past or future self. You can interact with them in any way you’d like. No problem. As long as the gate is available, you can pass back through to your time.

Simple right?

You cannot alter the past or change the future. You can only observe it in greater detail. When you look at your past or future in greater detail, you might witness the fact that you’ve already traveled back and altered the past and the present you lived was a precursor to you traveling back to the past…and…Ted Chiang somehow makes this madness work.

I read “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” late at night and napped a bit on the couch, and holy crap, my brain was in overdrive trying to figure out the weird time travel logic seeds Ted Chiang had sewn. Talk about strange dreams! What an absolute master!

Tomorrow Factory

I finished the short story collection Tomorrow Factory by Rich Larson today. It was an excellent read with stories of varying lengths and subject matter. The story “An Evening with Severyn Grimes” brought me to this collection. I read it in Forever Magazine last week. Mr. Larson was generous enough to include a short background segment for each story. One of the inspirations for “Severyn Grimes” was the show Altered Carbon on Netflix. He nailed it. Altered Carbon came to mind immediately. Like the show, his story is violent, sexy, and cool cranked up to 11.

Here are a few stories in the collection I especially enjoyed:

“Meshed” – Ultra-talented basketball kid is being recruited by Nike and has to make a decision of whether to have a surgical sensory recording interface installed in his body or not. The interface allows others to see and feel like he does. The thing is, his family has a history with meshes and his father will not let his son take such an impactful decision lightly.

“Ghost Girl” – Young albino girl is living in a scrapyard in Burundi. An agent is sent to extract her to safety. Albino parts go for a high price on the black market and armed mercs are inbound. Good thing the girl is protected by an AI controlled, bear-sized mech. Or is it AI controlled?

“Capricorn” – Space prison, cryo-lockup, shivs, drug chemist, escape attempt, and murderous med-bot. Inspired by the game Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Yeah, freaking awesome!

Tomorrow Factory was an engaging read start to finish. I will definitely be on the lookout for Rich Larson in the future!

A New “Problem”

The PCVI Summer Writing Seminar is set to begin this upcoming Wednesday. I’m excited. I have a new “problem.” For the first time when I’ve run a workshop or event, the demand is way more than capacity! The impending budget crisis in Rhode Island and possibility for less funding has caused me to modify components of the course, particularly the What Cheer Writer’s Club co-working membership. This is now one month for the students instead of two. Reducing co-working time gives us a little wiggle room in terms of the budget and has allowed us to add a few more additional students. We’re up to fifteen students with one more in the wings. We promised to serve ten to twelve students in the original plan.

This is great news, but I need to be careful not to over enroll and lose the ability to provide a meaningful experience. If I hadn’t meticulously planned this thing, I would be more concerned. My largest consideration is that I can provide feedback on student work in a timely matter.

There is a great need out there for this type of programming. The enrollment numbers for this class prove that. We had $260 earmarked for paid and online advertising to promote the class. We didn’t use a cent of that money. It was all organic networking. It’s difficult for me to turn someone away from this class. I know how powerful and healing writing about personal experiences can be.

I’ll be conducting final checks on week one materials tomorrow and reviewing readings for the week.

Forever Magazine

I read some fantastic Sci-Fi stories while I was out in Wisconsin. I subscribed to Forever Magazine, which is a “best of” monthly mag edited by Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine. None of the stories that I read in the July edition of Forever came from Clarkesworld. The stories truly are a “best of” curated by a fan and respected editor of science fiction.

I have been digging back into Clarkesworld over the past month. The magazine strikes a good balance between literary, sci-fi, and length. Stories are customarily 30 – 40 pages on my Kindle or smart phone. I appreciate The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, but I’ve found the stories to be exceedingly long at times, and enjoy gobbling up stories in a single bite if possible. But hey, I’ve freed up valuable time with this whole no social media thing, so I might find myself seeking longer stories again.

My favorite from this month’s issue of Forever was “An Evening with Severyn Grimes” by Rich Larson. Two words: cyberpunk awesomeness. This story had me gripped. The few brief moments where I actually yanked my eyes from the page (and those were to take sips of my coffee), I found myself saying, “This is freaking awesome!” Mr. Larson’s story had a tight plot, described fascinating technologies that made sense and weren’t too abstract, and shit, was just cool as hell.

I see Rich Larson has a story collection called Tomorrow Factory….

Little Fishes

Carolyn and I recently returned from a week in Wisconsin. It was a low-key trip filled with a much needed visit with family and a breather from our swamped schedules back in Providence.

Amid our time wrangling my two WWE Superstar nephews (6 and 2) back in Wisconsin, Carolyn and I took a peek at our favorite fresh water dive spot, Devil’s Lake. The lake has a max depth of about 60 feet. We tend to stick to shallower water, usually around 10 – 15 feet. Visibility is good at that depth…and…we get to play with our fish friends! We remembered to bring our underwater camera with us to capture the charming game that we play. Devil’s Lake is flanked by breathtaking bluffs of quartzite that boulder all the way below the surface of the water. This creates excellent habitat opportunities for fish and sets up an opportunity for divers to interact with fish.

In the video that I’ve included, you’ll see how several small mouthed bass rush us as soon as we enter the water. The fish are excited to see divers because we have the ability to lift rocks for them, thus revealing tasty snacks like smaller fish and crayfish. Devil’s Lake is a dive spot, but it isn’t a huge diving destination. There used to be a dive shop across the street when I was growing up. That has since closed and was torn down at some point. The nearest place to fill tanks is Madison, which is at least a 45 minute drive.

Despite having divers in the water intermittently, the fish do not hesitate to come up to you and demand that you lift rocks for them as soon as you enter the water. They follow you along the shore as you swim like little puppies yapping for treats! The behavior of the fish in this lake has changed the way I think about the intelligence of fish. I always assumed that fish merely responded to basic stimuli. I figured these were “dumb” creatures. I’m not proposing small mouthed bass are using tools or building an underwater kingdom to someday surmount human civilization, but hey, watch the video, these guys know what they’re doing!

Devil’s Lake July 2020

Choices About Social Media

I remember the exhilarating experience of choosing my first email address, a Hotmail address, and thinking, “Wow, I’m truly connected to the world.” I still believe in the power of the internet. I love that my projects can exist online, and people from around the world can access them. I love that I can learn about projects and information that some person or group of people have compiled and tumble down a rabbit hole and get lost in their worlds.

I’ve been thinking about social media lately. A few weeks ago, Carolyn and I traveled out to a remote part of Vermont for a long weekend to stay in a cabin. The natural beauty of the place was marvelous. We were flanked by two low mountains and thick green forest and a creek that pitched and carved it’s way through slate, creating breathtaking gullies and waterfalls. Back at the cabin, if we wanted light, the best option was to light a pair of kerosene lanterns. If we needed the toilet, our only option was the outhouse. There was no internet. There was no cell phone reception.

I need to always have some task, some guiding star, driving my day-to-to to be happy. I suppose this is true for most humans. We need an objective. For me, that’s the next class that I’m planning, or perhaps a story idea that I’m working on, or a website or a project that I’m thinking about. And as I get older, and work on these projects, I’m able to reflect and prioritize in ways that I haven’t been able to previously. What matters? What makes me happy? In Vermont, sitting on a porch in front of a fire next to Carolyn, I was happy. I noticed something peculiar while we were in Vermont though.

Especially during the first days, I found myself instinctually grabbing for my phone, turning it on, and checking for updates that weren’t there. This faded over the course of the weekend, but upon further thought and discussion with Carolyn, I came to the troubling conclusion that I have an addiction to social media. It got me thinking about my information diet and the ways that I want to spend my time.

My personal posts are quite infrequent. I use messenger with a few friends, primarily with the guys from the Red Eye Report. 99% of my social media usage is me looking at memes and posting stuff on the Red Eye Report’s Facebook. I make a lot of posts though. As I write this, I feel a tug to pick up my phone. And here’s the question that I’ve been mulling over, is it really worth it? Does social media truly bring value to my life?

The answer is no. It’s actually detracting from my life. I’ve somehow been duped into thinking that social media is the only way to communicate with others in this digital age. This is entirely false. It has changed my expectations for what a personal relationship is and how communication should work. There’s an intricate web of social media standards and etiquette which I must follow. And all of this is actually weakening social bonds between me and those that I truly care about. Don’t even get me started on the threat that social media is posing to American democracy and the mental health of people around the world.

It’s time to take action.

If I have an update that I want to share, a picture, a story about a project that I’m working on, I can A) send it via text, email, or heaven forbid a piece of hand-written correspondence to a specific person or B) I can put it up on this blog. If someone wishes to contact me, they can send me an email, write me a letter, or call my phone.

No more hits of dopamine when I get a like on a post or picture on Facebook. No more time spent scrolling my feed. I’m cleaning up my information diet. I nearly drank myself into an early grave. There were times when I was younger that I smoked cigarettes. I experimented with other drugs. I know what it feels like to cut out addictive substances. Those deep feelings of want and desire, gnawing at your bones and stewing deep in your gut…just take a puff, take a drink you deserve it…I’m feeling those right now about social media. That’s scary. That tells me that my social media habits have just as much of a grip on me as alcohol or tobacco once did.

Day 1. Here we go.

Inner Harsh Has a New Home

The plot of yesterday followed a familiar winding and twisted plot arc for me. My day started with an update regarding the PCVI Summer Writing Seminar, where I stated that I was going to scan documents for the class website. That task was completed by 11 pm last night. I didn’t have 12 hours of scanning to complete, maybe more like 2 max. After I made my blog post, I decided to make a few changes on this website, one thing led to another, and several hours of tweaking later, I ended up with an entirely new look for the site. I’ve messed around with CSS a little before in the past, but I took a much deeper dive yesterday! This is good though, I can put it down as valuable experience for the upcoming PVDVETS.org site. I have a much better handle on customization for the site, especially using GeneratePress. I’m a big fan of the WordPress template.

Anyway, I could on for hours about this, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty of in the weeds website stuff to talk about in the coming months. After customizing the site heavily, and really tweaking the look with shadows and some neat visual effects, I thought to myself, “What does Inner Harsh look like on innerharsh.com?” Quick answer, terrible. At this point and where that particular project is in terms of new content, it makes more sense for me to bring it over to lucaspralle.com. Plus, it’s been cumbersome for me to tell students to go to innerharsh.com to read my stories.

It only took a few hours to get everything over. And wow, it is so much more readable! I might actually sunset innerharsh.com. I’m still thinking about that one. I’m also debating whether I want to bring wormisland.com over into this archive. That project is just as much Napoleon’s as it is mine. A part of me likes to think there are old Worm Island promotional posters hanging in dark corners in Suzhou, China with the old website listed. Sunsetting the wormisland.com URL would break that little easter egg. I’m sure they could find it with a search, but who knows what they would come up with on a search in China!