Tuesday, August 4, 2020

But Regardless, You're Mine

I spent all morning writing my Promptapalooza post. I know it's not due for two weeks but I like to get these things done ahead of time.

That means I don't quite have the mental energy for another post today but I also don't want to skip. So here's a thing I wanted to do but probably wouldn't have, otherwise. It shouldn't take long.

Remember when I was talking out loud to myself about how I was or wasn't going to buy some or all of the multiple versions of Lana Del Rey's first spoken-word album-cum-poetry collection, Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass? Well, the day came when it appeared on Audible and I thought abut it a bit and then I signed up for the free trial through Amazon Prime.

It was a bit of a rigmarole. They could make it a lot easier if they're trying to persuade people. Anyway, I got there. I tagged Violet to my account then cancelled because the last thing I wanted to do was forget and end up paying after all.

Audible kindly reminded me I was cancelling with an unused credit still in hand so I went back and looked for something else. The reason I don't have an Audible account in the first place and don't want one is because I've listened to about three audiobooks in thirty years. We have amazing speech radio where I live. Who needs to listen to actors reading books out loud? Or, worse, authors?

I hate to leave money on the table, though, so I took a Robert B. Parker triple which seemed like the best bang. The only audiobook I actually own, physical copy, is a Spenser double-header, although since it's on cassette I might as well toss it. Plus listening to the guy reading it doing Susan Silverman in falsetto is an experience I don't care to repeat.

So I thought I was done. I cancelled again and Audible didn't take that too well, either. They offered me a third credit for another title to get me to stay. Given the offer and the sub each only give you two, that's a substantial bribe. Didn't take it. I hit cancel for the third time and this time it stuck.

That was that, I thought. Then, a couple of days later, I got an email.

Yeah, still not buying. Reminds me of when I tried to cancel AOL and ended up keeping it for free for over a year. They just wouldn't say "Get lost, pal. See if we care". Which, frankly, is the only response I'd respect.

As for Lana's album, which is what I'm going to call it, because that's what it is, here are some reviews:

"The audiobook version of the singer’s forthcoming 30-poem hardback is a mixed bag – some are full of honest self-reflection, others are self-indulgent and mundane" - Martin Chilton - The Independent

"Lana Del Rey's poetry debut – sometimes cliche, always solipsistic: Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, released as an audiobook this week and in print in September, is a reminder of the singer’s strengths and shortcomings" - Yara Rodrigues Fowler - The Guardian

"She pulls off these musings and observations brilliantly, creating a new offshoot of the very specific world she’s created" - Rhian Daly - NME

"Lana Del Rey’s Audiobook Grapples With the Absurdity of Pop Star Poetry" - Sam Sodomsky - Pitchfork

"Lana Del Rey’s spoken word poetry album triumphs as a transcendent dreamscape" - Taila Lee - The Daily Californian

They're all fair reviews, from the lukewarms to the raves. As Pitchfork points out, the very concept of a book of poetry from a pop singer is a dodgy proposition. I was impressed by how seriously all the reviewers took it. The world really has changed.

I bloody loved it. Of course I did. Of course I do. Partly it's her superb reading voice. I could, as they say, listen to her read the phone directory. If we had such things any more.

It's also Jack Antonoff's wonderful arrangements. Without those Violet would be more of a book, less of an album, true, but it would also be much less of a miracle.

And all the reviewers are right. It's far from perfect. Some of the poems don't work. There's considerably more than I'd prefer to hear of the poet telling us she's a poet and how important poetry is to her.

But most of it is just wonderful. She creates worlds to lose yourself in. There's nothing to be done but listen when Lana recites. Background listening this is not.

Unless you're Mermaid Motel, that is. In which case you're busy visualizing. I'm not one hundred per cent MM nailed it on the first swing with her interpretation of LA Who Am I To Love You? one of the album's incontravertible highlights but close enough. A little on the nose, maybe, but so are some of the poems, although not this one. I hope the Mermaid does some more. I'm sure she will.

As for Lana, she's already talking about a second collection and there's a Lana del Rey album proper due out in a couple of months. Violet is already being talked up as maybe her first Grammy - for Spoken Word.

They all count, right?

Monday, August 3, 2020

Big Blue Diamonds : EverQuest

There's no question that EverQuest is currently my main MMORPG. How weird is that?

I seem to have hit a sweet spot. The last time this happened was probably when I discovered Jewel of Atiki, a strangely-named but delightful zone from the 2007's The Buried Sea. That was four years ago, when I was doing my Lesson and my Hot Zone daily for xp, then keeping myself busy farming plat to pay for armor upgrades in the Bazaar.

That seems to be what works for me because I'm doing it again and loving it. Just as it did back in my days in the Jewel, it helps enormously that I'm hunting in the light, sunny, open zones of 2011's Veil of Alaris. It seems like a delightful expansion, not least when compared to the oppressive, claustrophobic gloom of the inexplicably-preferred House of Thule, through which all re-starters and Heroic characters are funnelled. So glad to be out of that miserable hole at last.

As I posted a few days ago, the mage dinged 106 and I re-subbed her account. As I also explained, I was waiting for that specific level because that's when you can equip Conflagrant armor. In my particular case, Arch Convoker's Conflagrant, the variant intended specifically for the Magician class.

I was dreading hunting sharks when Franklin Teek gave me the task but it turns out there are loads of them right next to the docks, including this huge named.
It's not cheap but it is affordable. By watching the prices in the Bazaar carefully I've managed to upgrade ten slots. That leaves eleven to go, not counting ammo and power source.

I haven't been keeping a count of the exact cost but I must have spent somewhere around a quarter of a million platinum so far. I raided my Beastlord's piggy bank for 50k and bought a bag of platinum worth 13k with some loyalty tokens but mostly I've been farming grey mobs in much older zones.

Money flows in quite comfortably from the xp-level content I'm doing but when it comes to cash drops, EQ has a quirk I think is probably unusual in the genre. I can't speak for current content, which I haven't seen, but in pretty much every expansion from... well, thinking about it, from the original, base game, the standard moneymakers remain the same: gems.

Diamonds sell to a vendor for 190 platinum. Blue diamonds sell for 238pp. Various other gems sell for somewhere around the same amount. The main change between expansions seems to be not so much what gems drop as how often, although even that isn't consistent.

Hunting underwater in this zone is amazingly pleasant, not least because of the spectacular way the water amplifies every spell effect.
When I'm out doing my daily double xp Lesson in the level 95 Hot Zone, Sarith, City of Tides, the sharks Franklin Teek insists on sending me to kill drop diamonds and blue diamonds. So did the boogymen and samhain in Fear Itself. So did the reavers in Meldrath's Majestic Mansion.

Gems are great but high-value stackable mob drops can bring in as much or more. Clockworks in all of the Meldrath-related zones from Secrets of Faydwer (also 2007 - two expansions a year back then) explode into showers of cogs and springs when you smash them and those parts sell to vendors for a lot.

I guess those count as body parts if you're a clockwork, which makes sense because mob body parts have been a vendor staple since the game started. In other MMORPGs it's often barely worth giving bag space to fur and fangs but in EQ those crazy NPCs pay top dollar for the most repulsive and objectively worthless organs. I've always wondered what they do with them, although since no NPC vendor ever leaves his spot it's a bit of a moot point what they could do.

The final consideration when deciding where to farm is what players are currently buying on Barter. Incredibly conveniently, these days you can open the Barter window wherever you are in the game and sell directly out of your bags. No more running around the mazelike corridors looking for that one guy who buys writing ink.

The streets of the city are good, safe hunting. I'd do the quests but for that I need to learn the language. All in good time.

It's nearly all tradeskill materials they want, of course, but not necessarily the obvious ones. Many older mats retain decent value but many more are utterly worthless. Also, when selling things that are new to you, you have to be careful to check what the NPCs are paying before you put your silks and ores in the hand of a reaching player. Some buyers are less than scrupulous about offering a fraction of the coin you could get from cashing out at the nearest vendor.

Gems notwithstanding, it's fair to say the more recent the expansion, the more valuable the drops. If you're focused on making the most money per minute, though, it's makes sense to go somewhere you can cut the mobs down like corn. The individual drops may be worth a little less - although unless you go back almost to the beginning of the game it will only be a little - but being able to pull and clear whole rooms in seconds more than makes up the difference.

I've been experimenting, trying to find the most profitable, fastest, least annoying, most enjoyable farm. All of those. Asking a lot, I know.

I've tried half a dozen zones in Planes of Power. A lot of older guides to making money suggest the Plane of Fire and it is indeed very good for gems, plus there are trade mats there still that sell for hundreds of plat a time. Unfortunately, it's a hideous, ugly, depressing zone. I don't really want to spend more than half an hour there.

The aptly-named Beast's Domain is the next zone along. A lovely, blue-green forest with loads of kiting space.
Few of the PoP zones have aged well. My favorite to farm is Ruins of Lxanvom, better known as the Crypt of Decay. It's also stunningly ugly but as an underground dungeon with corridors and tunnels that seems more acceptable. Also it's relatively small and very simple to navigate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's fairly popular for exactly the reasons I go there, so its not unusual to zone in to find everything already dead. Luckily the respawn rate is fairly fast and once people have cleared it they tend not to hang around for a second run. I know I don't.

All of the aforementioned Meldrath zones are good but I've done a lot of those over the years and I could do without the clanking. A nice alternative I've been trying is Bloodmoon Keep, a dungeon from the same expansion, refreshingly clockwork-free. All wereorcs, spiders and undead, that one.

I tend to farm until I run out of bag space or until I get tired, both of which clock in at around about an hour. My average for a run is somewhere close to 10,000 platinum but I'm fairly sure I can improve on that.

I probably need to, if only because I've bought up all the cheaper Conflagrant pieces now. The rest are going to run 40-50k a pop, which means I need to make about twice what I've already spent. I was very fortunate to get the chest and legs for about half the going rate, though, so who knows what bargains may turn up if I keep my eyes open?

From long experience I do know that I'll just about have had enough of farming after a couple of weeks. It's one of those activities that starts out as really good fun and ends up being a chore. For now, though, I'm still getting that thrill every time I see my balance go back up after a spending spree.

With a bit of luck I should be able to fill out all the remaining slots by the time my month's sub runs out. After that I imagine I'll be ready for a break, anyway.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Into Her Wonderworld: DCUO

Assuming we make that far, January 2021 will mark the tenth anniversary of Detective Comics Unlimited Online as literally no-one in the entire world has ever called it. Almost every MMORPG goes by an abbreviated version of its Sunday-go-to-meeting name but only DCUO has no other identity to fall back on beyond a set of initials.

And don't say "What about EVE?" I checked. The full name of the game we refer to as "EVE" is "EVE Online" and the correct, abbreviated version, which no-one really uses, is EO. Supposedly "EVE" is the name of the now-destroyed wormhole gate that linked New Eden with the Sol system, although why it was capitalized and whether or not it was an acronym, and if so what for, seems to be lost in the mists of space and time.

Hmm. I'd never noticed all that Christian religious symbolism in EVE before. There're the Sisters of EVE, too, an NPC faction that believes "the EVE gate is a gateway to heaven" That's a bit weird.

Umm... how did I get here? I was talking about something else, wasn't I? Oh, yes! DCUO.

It seems like a lot longer than a decade since I first stepped onto the streets of Metropolis. I was pretty excited for the game, being a lifelong DC comics fan.

I put in for the beta and got in, enjoyed it well enough to buy the game at launch, both for myself and Mrs. Bhagpuss. It was a subscription title then but it came under SOE's All Access umbrella, so that didn't factor.

Mrs. Bhagpuss completed the tutorial and, as far as I know, never logged in again. I spent several weeks levelling my first character to the cap, which was set at a low bar of thirty. It's still the cap today. The game uses a completely different system called "Combat Rating". I think it's based on some kind of gear score. Probably.

DCUO's progression mechanics have always been somewhat opaque to me. It's a pity. I really liked the leveling part of the game, the way it started out. If SOE had carried on developing and expanding DCUO along the same lines as all their other games I'd have carried on playing regularly, I imagine.

It only strikes me as I write this just how much of an outlier in the All Access portfolio DCUO always was. The launch roughly co-incided with the beginning of SOE's shift to a free-to-play model, but going F2P never stopped EverQuest and EQII from pumping out an expansion a year or more. DCUO has never released an expansion, not one.

Maybe that's down to its secret identity as a once-rare example of a successful console MMORPG. I have a suspicion Planetside and Planetside 2 operate in something like the same fashion. I've never paid enough attention to any of them to be sure.

Whatever the reason, with the leveling game over and the future marked for instanced group play, I bowed out. But I never gave up on DCUO. I keep popping back in every few months for another look. I've made several characters on a couple of accounts and played them up through those original levels. It's still as much fun, doing that, as it ever was.

About the current game, though, I know very little. It's been a very long time since I followed the storyline (I'm guessing there is one) or understood the structure (I know it's episodic but that's about it).

Occasionally Daybreak do something with the game that catches my interest. I got myself a Lair when they added housing and I always make sure to grab any free housing items that come with the periodic release of a fresh episode. I was pretty stoked when Krypto appeared. I even joined a League, once.

While I'm there, I generally have a bit of a run through the uplevelled "Event" version of whatever the new content happens to be. They all follow the same format. It's nothing if not predictable but as far as I can judge from reading the forums, regular players seem to like it that way.

When Dimensional Ink (Still can't take that name seriously) started bigging up the latest release, Wonderverse, the marketing department seemed to be making more of it than usual. I thought it was going to be something different for once. A new approach. Well, that's literally what they were telling us:

And maybe it is all of that, if you're a regular player with the required minimum CR of 300 and access to the full, permanent version of the zone. To me, when I logged in and knocked out a few quests for various Amazons yesterday, it felt pretty similar to all the other episodes I'd played.

But I was only in the Event version. They're always busy. I imagine the problem is that once the Event ends and a new Episode rolls in, no-one goes back to the old one. The usual built-in obsolesence that leaves so many MMORPGs bloated with forgotten content no-one uses any more.

The zone itself was nice enough, attractively designed on a Greco-Roman theme. Wonderful Mediterranean skies. Gorgeous terracotta tiles. All very Greek.

It was sprawling and "open" in the sense described in the Dev Diary, meaning it wasn't instanced. It was certainly chaotic and I did indeed run into other players, some of whom helped me kill stuff and some of whom poached my quest updates. That happens every Event, though.

I was hoping for something a little more like the original Metropolis and Gotham zones the game launched with. Those are true MMORPG open-world zones; huge, complex, unrestricted. Themiscyra is more like a non-instanced outdoor dungeon, lots of alleyways and plazas that interconnect but not too much wide-open space.

I freely admit that I may be missing something. Heck, I wouldn't even be surprised to find the zone I was in isn't even the "open world" zone they're talking about at all. I get incredibly confused in DCUO most times I visit. I was just happy to find the spot where the action was without having to spend half an hour flying round and round the Watchtower, searching for the teleporter, like I usually do.

For now, I think I've seen as much of Wonderverse as I care to but I'm keeping it under advisement. If it turns out there's more to it than I've understood, I'll be back. And anyway, I'll most likely tune in to see which Big Bad pops up next time around. They do kind of have that part of the comic book schtick down pat.

Other than that, roll on the tenth anniversary. I'm excpecting something special for that one, guys!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Magic Position

It's that time of year again! Blaugust, right? Oh, wait, no, we did that already back in April, didn't we?

Belghast, Monitor of the Blogosphere, seeing the world was troubled, in need of distraction from its fears, seeking solace for its pain, brought the timelines forward so we could enjoy summer in spring. Blaugust became Blapril and the weather obediently followed his lead (or it did where I live, anyway).

The Great Re-arrangement left a yawning gap where Blaugust once was but Belghast moved swiftly, binding the tattered ties together with a new creation he named Promptapalooza. All through August denizens of the blogosphere will come together in harmony for a game of pass the post, each blogger having their say then handing on a new idea to the next.

All are encouraged to join in as and when the spirit moves them. Kinda reminds me of my childhood, sitting in the Quaker meeting room, waiting for inspiration to prompt someone to stand up, break the silence and speak. Only a lot less boring.

I was all ready to go when August began but then the starting pistol sounded on the last day of July because of course it did. I mean, Blapril began in March. What was I thinking?

It was totally my fault I missed the first day. I even have the Google docs spreadsheet with the dates (I'm up on the seventeenth). There it is in black and white

Okay, that's reeeeally tiny but trust me, it says the opening post is by Bel on the thirty-first of July.

It's okay, though. I never planned to hit every beat. That would mean either an entire month of posting about topics I didn't choose while not posting anything I normally would have posted (never going to happen) or double-posting most days for the whole of August (would fricken' finish me!) .

I plan on picking and choosing. Posting in response to the prompts that interest me or anything that sparks a reaction. Also on using the prompts shamelessly to take the strain on days when I'm out of ideas, of course!

Yesterday's prompt, "If you could change anything about one of your core fandoms, what would it be?", I most likely wouldn't have responded to anyway. I'm not sure I have any fandoms, core or otherwise. I was most definitely an active member of UK comics fandom from the late 1970s to the early '90s, to the point that people I'd never met knew who I was (yes, I know these days that applies to everyone in the entire world but it was kinda not the normal run of things back then) but since that ended I don't think I've identified as being part of any fandom as such.

I'm a fan of a lot of things but being a fan and being part of a fandom are entirely separate states of being. It's well-documented on this blog that I have very serious issues with the concept of being a "gamer". Spending your entire life playing games isn't enough to qualify for that tag in my book, or not necessarily.

To be part of a fandom you have to contribute, not just consume, but conversely, contributing doesn't predicate membership of a fandom. I self-evidently "contribute" to blogging but I don't consider blogging to be a fandom. I think of it more as a craft or a hobby.

See, this is why I wanted to avoid this particular topic. The moment I read it I knew I'd get completely tangled up in definitions long before I ever got to say anything about the substance of the question. Let's shelve that one and move on.

The topic for the first of August itself is infinitely more straightforward: "What is some popular piece of content/media that seems to be universally loved that you have never been able to understand?". Bel assigned that one to Dragonray, who addresses it with what seems to me like an eminently reasonable and well-argued rant against Game of Thrones.

I say "seems" because the problem I have here is that I've neither read nor watched Game of Thrones. Oh, I can tell you the titles of all the books because I've put them on the shelves a thousand times. I've just never bothered to open the cover and look inside.

I read George R.R. Martin's Hugo and Nebula award-winning SF/Horror novelette "Sandkings" back in the early 1980s and it repulsed me so viscerally I swore I'd never read another word he wrote, a promise to myself I've found no difficulty in keeping. Of course, I can't stand turgid, time-wasting 500+ page fantasy potboilers either, so that helps.

I could come up with a list as long as one of George R.R.'s dramatis personae of popular media content I've avoided because I believe I wouldn't enjoy it but what seems more interesting to me are the things that I have consumed and enjoyed, things I would consider to be merely ordinary but which have become major global phenomena and cultural juggernauts.

I used to think World of Warcraft was one of those but that was before I played it. Once I gave it a chance I didn't find it all that difficult to work out why it had become the runaway success it once was. I still think it's unoriginal and derivative in many respects but Henry Ford didn't have to invent the automobile to figure out how to put one on every driveway.

No, the super-mega hit that still puzzles the heck out of me is Harry Potter. I mean, I totally get why people like it. It's a school story with wizards. What's not to like? School stories and magic have been two staples of children's fiction since the Edwardian age.

It's not a bad version of the two tropes, either. It's accessible and relatable, the language is simple, the characters are distinctive, the plot is... well, the plot is all over the place, let's be honest, but that could be said of even my very favorite writer in the genre, Diana Wynne Jones.

The first couple of books are weak but they get better, although as they get better they get longer, which isn't better at all. If you have an author who's inexplicably outselling everything since the invention of the printing press, the last thing you're going to want to do is piss her off, so I imagine editing J.K. became something of a fine art around book three or four.

I was working at a bookshop for the entire first-print publishing run of Harry Potter. I saw it change from generic children's schedule-filler by unknown first-time author to literally the major publishing event of the year. For the last three or four titles we re-organized our entire schedules around Potter Publication Day, and by "we" I don't just mean the shop, I don't even mean the company, I mean the entire bookselling industry.

Never actually seen any of the movies...
As far as I can tell from talking to people who've worked in bookselling and publishing for a lot longer than I have, no-one had ever seen anything like it before. None of us who lived through it expect to see anything like it again.

And yet, the thing about Harry Potter is that it's very ordinary. I have read all seven books, just the once. I can't remember when I started. I think the second was already out by the time I got around to reading the first.

After that I read each of them on release. I never paid for one. We received them in such insane quantities there were always damaged or misprinted copies floating around. There wasn't much competition for those because in my shop most booksellers either wouldn't have been seen dead with a Potter or they were so gung-ho into the series they'd pre-ordered, begged to be allowed to host the inevitable midnight opening, then stayed up all night afterwards reading the damn thing.

I was unusual in that I was interested enough to want a reading copy but not so interested I was willing to pay for one. I read a lot of fiction marketed to children and young adults and to me Harry Potter was (and remains) a pretty run-of-the-mill example. It's a bit better than "meh". More like "mm'ok".

And that's it! Why would something as generic go nova the way it did? Not a clue. These things just happen, sometimes, although obviously not often.

I'm curious to see how Harry Potter lasts. We still sell a lot of Potter although I'm not sure how much we sell directly to children or teens these days. The series seems already to be moving into the category of "books I read when I was a child" that parents love to spend their children's pocket-money on. Soon it'll be on the grandparent's gift list. Once a book makes it to grannie's preferred reading status it's "a classic" and we'll never be shot of it but no-one will be excited by it ever again.

I am projecting a bit, here. All that's a few decades off. For now, J.K. Rowling is still out there, wildcarding, so anything could happen. Her adult titles haven't hit Potter sales figures but she's a very major player in crime fiction now, yet she clearly just can't leave Potter alone. And until someone takes her Twitter account away, she's likely to keep generating the kind of controversy every publisher claims to deplore, while secretly wishing their quieter, slower-selling authors could emulate.

I can take Potter and his pals or leave him but I do have to thank the streaky-haired prodigy for one thing: without Harry Potter we'd never have had Simon Snow.

If you've ever read Potter, whether you loved him or loathed him, you owe it to yourself to read Rainbow Rowell's pastiche/parody/homage. It begins in Fangirl, where the Potter-analog serves as a backdrop, then moves into full 'verse status in Carry On and Wayward Son.

The difference between the two series is the difference between Launder and Gilliat's St. Trinian's films and Lindsay Anderson's "If". Do you want to kill a couple of hours on a wet Sunday afternoon in February or fall in love with another way of being?

Buyer's choice.

All images borrowed from the interwebs. If anyone owns anything they'd prefer not to see here, please let me know and I'll shift it.

Friday, July 31, 2020


As promised last time, here's the first of an excitng new, monthly feature that's really just an old feature hacked up into smaller, more digestible chunks. Doing the quarterly round-up last time took me days. Even I was beginning to get fed up with it by the end. Always take small bites and chew properly or you're going to choke, that's my advice.

The rules are the same as before:
Full song titles used as post titles (even if altered)  - Large, Bold, Green
Quotes from lyrics used as titles (even if altered) - Large, Bold, Blue
Original titles from which quotes were drawn - Small, Italic, Bold, Green
All other music - Small, Italic, Green

That's the short version. The somewhat longer yet disappointingly no more helpful version can be found here.

Posting slowed down a little in July as I weaned myself off a daily routine that started with Blapril and didn't seem to want to stop. With Promptapalooza incoming that may not have been the best timing.

Not that I slowed down all that much. I posted twenty-six times in July and all but four of those posts had some form of song reference in the title, including this one and that aforementioned quarterly megapost, which I entitled, with no little irony,

Too Much Of A Good Thing - The Shirelles - I have a strange history with sixties girl groups. In theory they represent the sound of my childhood. One of the sounds, at least. This one, for example, came out in 1967, when I was nine years old. In fact, I have no memory whatsoever of hearing anything remotely like The Shirelles back then. My introduction to the wonderful world of three part vocal harmony co-incided almost exactly with the first intimations of punk in 1975. It was around then that I began listening, quite obsessively, to Phil Spector and discovering the wonders of 60's garage. In my circle, "punk" was as likely to mean The Monkees or The Crystals as The Ramones or The Damned. If it was fastish, upbeat and two-and a half minutes long, it qualified. That open-mindedness lasted until about the middle of '77, by which time battle lines were being drawn and I was already changing sides.

Broken English - Marianne Faithful -Broken English is a great album. If it doesn't sound quite as sharp thirty years on that's only because time rounds the edges of all things. Back in 1979 it was about as smooth as a mouthful of broken glass, which is what Marianne sounded like she was singing through on half the tracks, particularly the jaw-droppingly NFSW Why'd Ya Do It? Plenty of people tried to re-invent themselves when the new wave looked like it might wash their careers straight down the drain but few made such a convincing job of it as she did. And she kept on doing it, too.

So Stick Around - Benny and the Jets - Elton John - Ah, Elton. What an enigma. One of the strangest megastars you could wish for. A singer-songwriter who doesn't write any of his own lyrics. A flamboyant peacock who looks like a small-town accountant. A self-obsessed self-publicist who's also open, honest and endearing. And the songs. My god, the songs. Benny and the Jets is unsinkable, indestructible, relentless. And I love relentlessness. Also much harder to sing than you might imagine, as evidenced by Elton's assault on the falsetto line in the Soul Train clip above. Could be why there aren't many good covers out there, either, but there are a few. The Beastie Boys ft. Biz Markie is a particular favorite of mine. Biz Markie's having no truck with the tricky bits, that's for sure. The song about the song, Benny and the Jetts by TV Girl is even better, although why they added the extra "t" is anyone's guess.

Tested By Research - Death or Glory - The Clash -  July turned out to be something of a conventional month when it came to picks. Mainstream, even. Entirely unintentional, but even I can't be self-consciously obscure all the time. The Clash weren't exactly mainstream when I saw them do one of the best live shows I've ever seen on the ill-fated White Riot tour but they very, very much are now. It's almost unbearably ironic to see the band that once howled "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones" become the archetypal heritage act but it happens to the best, I guess. Not that it was long in coming. As this swaggering, sing-along stormer suggests, they were already preparing for stadium stardom as early as 1979.

Defiant Pose - The Cortinas -  I wouldn't be quite as cynical as to suggest the Cortinas' title refers to their contemporaries, the Clash, although it is tempting to make the connection. There's a more tangible link between the two bands, though. When I was crammed into a basement club the size of my mother's front room with a hundred or so sweating, swearing, pogoing teenagers, yelling along to Fascist Dictator and Television Families, I would have headbutted anyone daft enough to suggest one of the acned adolescents on stage was going to end up in the already legendary Clash, but somehow guitarist Nick Sheppard did. For about five minutes. Local heroes, the Cortinas were the first real punk band I ever saw, falling out of a van like cartoon clowns at the Ashton Court Festival in the summer of '76. They never really got out of punk's second division and their one album sounds like it was recorded by a different band entirely but they gave good live while they lasted.

Summer ForeverSeth And Summer Forever - Babygirl -  Much though I loved the original punk thrash at the time, it was what lay behind the doors it battered down that came to mean much more to me. Such a sweet sequence from Subway Sect to Babygirl. These days it feels like the continuum it always must have been.

"It’s so surreal and polychrome
The way it comes and then it runs and never lets you know
Head over heels
Just take the wheel and take me home"

Take The Cash - Wreckless Eric - I'm a little bit worried about Wreckless. He contracted covid19 earlier in the year, recovered, then had a heart attack, trying to get back to normal too quickly. He posted a couple of lengthy, detailed, beautifully-written pieces about it but the last one was a couple of months back and its bloated comment thread is rife with spam. Never a good sign.

This Year, Next Year, Sometime, Never - The Honeycombs  - I wouldn't click that link if I were you. When I wrote the post, I came up with the title first, vaguely remembering I'd heard a song called something along those lines. When I'd finished it I searched the web and found several similar titles, only I'd never heard any of the songs before and quite honestly I'd be more than happy never to hear any of them again. Still, as a matter of record, here are the two exact matches, The Joe Meek-produced horror above and this forgettable instrumental by Mick & Kate Stannard. I plead ignorance.

The Impossible Dream - SAHB - We seem to have hit a bit of a musical low point in the show, I'm afraid, even though I love the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. If "love" is the right word. Maybe "fear". Alex was very possibly the scariest live performer I've ever seen, as this video clip attests. He for sure had the scariest audience. I didn't dare look left or right the first time I went to see him, for fear I'd catch someone's eye and their fist would be the last thing I'd see. I never really rated his assault on this over-dramatic show tune, though. It seemed already too arch to sustain the irony he seemed to expect it to support. Then again, it could have been worse. He could have taken it seriously, like Jimbob and Fruitbat...

Change My Gamma - Bring It Down To Earth - Ultramagnetic MCs - Phew! That's better! Some real music at last.

Every Convenience - Don't Worry About The Government - Talking Heads - And now we're cooking! As I said last time we did this, I've been on a bit of a Talking Heads rediscovery tour of late. This was always one of my very favorites. I know all the words by heart, which is almost unheard-of. I have such a terrible memory for lyrics I sometimes had to take a crib sheet on stage when I performed. There's a great version from a 1978 edition of the Old Grey Whistle Test but the Shine Children's Choir just nail it. That's the pace the damn song needs! And even David Byrne can't dance like that!

All The Trees Of The Fields Will Clap Their Hands - Sufjan Stevens -  How can a song that starts with "If I am alive this time next year" be so insanely calming to listen to? There's a comment on the YouTube thread that just says "I listened to this on loop for a nine hour car ride and didn't get tired of it." Neither would I.

Restless In Tyria - Restless - Cold War Kids - There's a little serendipity in this one. I'd just started on Season Three of Lucifer when I was writing this post but I hadn't yet reached the episode where this plays over a very emotional scene towards the end. I called the post "Restless in Tyria" as some kind of pointless half-nod to Eyeless in Gaza, a book which, naturally, I have never read. Then I went looking for songs called "Restless". There are a few of those, including some by bands I like - The Bangles, maybe, or New Order.  The New Order one's really good, actually. Let's have that , too, why not?

I could have gone with any of them but my eye was drawn to Cold War Kids. I'd not heard the of them before but it's a half-decent name, so I figured maybe they'd be half-decent, too. I listened to the song, which was nice enough, if not really my kind of thing. I'm never sure what that style is called. I just know I hear a lot of it in soundtracks. Directors seem to like it because it yearns. When I made the Lucifer connection that sealed the deal but it wasn't until I reached the episode where it features that I was certain I'd made the right choice. Would have been a bit late by then to find out I hadn't, I guess.

Get A Job - The Silhouettes - That girl group sound we were talking about earlier grew out of fifties doo-wop. If I don't remember The Shirelles I'm hardly likely to remember The Silhouettes, for whom this was a hit in the year I was born. And yet I do know this song. I can't remember where I first heard it. Maybe it was on the soundtrack to some movie or maybe John Peel played it. He loved him some doo-wop. And so do I. In moderation. It seemed almost impossibly ancient to me, when Sha Na Na were making a career out of reviving the sound. I imagine that was kind of what they were counting on, yet everything they were playing must have been barely a decade old. It'd be like someone today dressing up and singing the hits of... 2010. Is anyone doing that?

Always The Same - Legends -What an unironically appropriate title. I always thought the Marychain coud use a female singer.

I'm In A Film Of Personal Soundtrack - Nag Nag Nag - Art Brut - Perfect syntax. I was so happy when I ran across this, looking for songs with the word "soundtrack" in the lyrics. I do wish I'd seen Art Brut, back in their pomp. They may think they're generational but they're just universal.

August, I'll See You Soon - Rilo Kiley - Not my favorite Rilo Kiley tune (not keen on those drums) but the perfect title for the post.

Action, Time And Vision - Alternative TV -  I have a niggling feeling I've used this one before. I should have checked. I usually do. I must have been in a hurry. ATV were one of those bands that manages to define a scene and stand outside of it at the same time. Those are the ones that matter, by and large. And the ones that last.

It's Elemental - Elemental - Tears for Fears - They may well be the most famous and successful band ever to come out of the city where I've lived for the last thirty years but to the best of my knowledge, I have never owned anything by Tears For Fears. Nor wanted to.

More Than One Membership - In Or Out - Ani DiFranco - Bit of an anthem. or so I gather. Ani DiFranco's one of those performers I feel I must have known about forever and yet I seem never to have actually listened to. Obviously, I should have. Reminds me of Brenda Kahn, who I really like, even if no-one else does.

On The Rise - Bad Moon Rising - Creedence Clearwater Revival - I've definitely used this one before. Last time it turned up I led with a rambunctious cover by The La La Love Me's. This time I'm quoting a different lyric, though, so that's okay. Every busker and bar band in the world does a version of this and they all thought it would be an original idea to put their unique take on YouTube, which makes finding any genuinely interesting version something of a challenge. Most interpretations seem to emphasize the jolly jug band stomp but there are a few that go the other route, like this swampwater surge by Craw NeQuent or the pull-out slow burner above by La Maurette ft. Kevin Johnson, which goes hard on the horror in more ways than one.

I guess I'd better think twice before I use Bad Moon Rising again but unfortunately it's one of those songs with lyrics that lend themselves to post titles and it happens to be one I can remember easily. Unfortunately, it seems, so can everyone who ever picked up a guitar. Or a ukele.

Mainstream - Lloyd Cole and the Commotions - Let's end on a high note. The highest. If we're talking quotable lyrics I guess I could just stick to Lloyd, Lana and Lou and forget about the rest. Also, I think this is the first time I've linked the title of the portmanteau post in the portmanteau post itself. Kinda neat.

That's all for this month. Come back around the beginning of September  and we'll do this all over again. I'll try and make it a bit more eclectic next time. No promises!

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

On The Rise: GW2

The latest instalment of Guild Wars 2's Icebrood Saga went live yesterday, around about teatime, my time. I was at home (aren't I always, these days?) so I could have played it right away. A few years back I'd have been waiting in game, eagerly watching for the update message so I could log out, grab the patch and get back in as fast as possible to pick up where we'd left off last time.

Long, long time since I've felt like that. Instead I carried on playing EverQuest. I guess in some ways that could be considered quite encouraging for ArenaNet. I'm sure they'd be pretty chuffed to have a few thousand players left in 2033 who still prefer grinding out progress in their game as it reaches the age EQ is now rather than jump onto something new in a game that's a dozen years their junior.

And maybe they will, because against all the odds GW2 is improving. I really didn't think it would happen but I can't deny it now it has. For whatever reason, the death spiral the game seemed to be locked in has been broken. For the fifth consecutive episode (counting the Prelude) the Icebrood Saga gives solid entertainment.

I do like a ley line. And they work, too. I tried them.
So far I've only done the storyline part. It took me about as long as usual. I didn't time it - always a sign I'm having fun - but I think I started before two o' clock this afternoon and I finished just after five pm, so about three hours. Pretty much on par.

I'd love to go into details but there's not a huge amount I could say without throwing out spoilers right and left. It's a very "story" episode with a lot of talking and more than one "revelation" or "surprise" or "plot twist" or whatever you'd like to call it.

I'm of the opinion that even mentioning a story has a plot twist is a spoiler in itself so I'm not going any farther than that. I'll just say that whatever it is that I'm not talking about I definitely didn't see it coming, that I did go "Wow! That just happened?" at least once and that anything unexpected that may have taken place made one hell of a lot more sense than that time Aurene ate Joko.

Yes, and I bet it won the Snaff Prize, didn't it?

Yes, we have taken a step up. I'm not making any great claims. It may be only the step that leads from gibberish to generic but at least we're heading in the right direction. And as generic fantasy storylines go I've seen plenty that were less interesting, less imaginative and less amusing than this one.

I did find it amusing. I don't think I laughed out loud at any point, more a wry smile, but I'm fairly sure there were a couple of times when I would have lol'd, if we'd only had voice acting in play. Once again the pandemic has silenced our cast of grumbling, huffing, growling misfits and I'm now prepared to say that I definitely miss the vocals.

The narrative itself is far from humorous, it has to be admitted; the usual dire forebodings of existential doom, peppered about with violence, betrayal and malefice. Whoever's wielding the pen, though, has their tongue quite firmly tucked. I look forward to hearing the irony and the sarcasm as ladled out by practiced actors.

The Commander loses patience with being asked to present his credentials, yet again.
Given the name of the episode, Jormag Rising, it's not much of a spoiler to reveal the titular character makes an eventual appearance. Or, at least, some of them does. The old head-through-the-wall trick. Seen that one before.

What is new is Jormag's pronoun of choice. In the coda, a debriefing with Aurene at her lair in the Eye of the North, the ice dragon is referred to consistently and exclusively as "they". Whether this is new practice I'm not sure but I can't recall the Norn referring to their arch-nemesis in like fashion.

I was sufficiently curious about this to google it. Jormag has, it seems, tentatively been identified as non-binary for some time. There's a lengthy discussion on the subject on the GW2 wiki. If there was any doubt, I'd say this episode firmly puts it to rest.

Technically this is a spoiler. Good luck working out how.
Of course, as the discussion also suggests, "It's unclear whether Elder Dragons even have sex or gender identity at all." I'm not sure how far assigning pronouns to such enigmatic, fictional entities progresses the culture but I thought it was a nice touch, all the same.

As for the gameplay, I won't repeat myself (much) from what I said about all the previous episodes of the Saga, save to say that this one managed to find my sweet spot even more surely. The difference between the set piece fights in the Icebrood Saga and those in the previous two or three seasons of the Living Story reminds me of that between a pillow fight and being beaten to death with an iron bar. Personally, I'd go with the pillows. Pillow fights are fun.

There is, naturally, a new map or, I should say, the second half of last episode's new map, Drizzlewood Coast. I haven't explored it beyond the minimal amount required by the story but it looks as good as we've come to expect.

Rytlock says what we're all thinking. Again.
It includes another map-wide meta intended to emulate the World vs World experience without any of that distasteful PvP nonsense. I haven't tried it yet but the last one wasn't at all bad so I look forward to joining a squad and following a tag at some point. Although since I do, in fact, play and enjoy the actual WvW experience, which remains lively, I'm not sure I'll be doing it more than once or twice.

All in all, then, another successful and enjoyable episode. It's very pleasing to be able to say nice things about the game I've played for all these years. Not before time. Just makes me wish the third expansion was less than a couple of years away.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

More Than One Membership : EverQuest

In retrospect it seems like a strange decision but I'll say up front I'm very glad I made it. There I was in the Guild Lobby, looking at my raid-buffed pet, feeling like it was a waste to dismiss him just because he was a few levels off his game and I had a better option waiting on the bench. I mean, in the context of conservation of resources, one outgrown pet with a few replaceable buffs scarcely signifies. If I canned him, who'd care?

Well, I would, apparently. Last time I got to this point I'd been able to pocket the pet, pop out the new one and carry on. It miffed me that I couldn't do it again. I still had the old-old one, even though I really didn't want him any more, but the problem was, I couldn't call him to tell him his services were no longer required without first sacking the new-old pet that I wanted to keep because the game wouldn't let me have two pets at once even for that nano-second of transition. So, until I got past that impasse, I couldn't summon the new-new pet, the one I was actually going to use unless I was willing to destroy the one standing next to me.

Catch 22 and then some.

Here's how it breaks down. You might need to take notes. The ability to pack a pet away for a rainy day is an Alternative Advancement ability (henceforth referred to as an "AA"). The specific AA in question is called Companion's Suspension and it comes in eight grades. I had seven of them, which meant I could suspend a pet with full buffs then log out and still have it available to recall at some future time, most likely during some dire emergency my active pet had failed to contain.

I could then summon a second pet to have with me in the world. What I couldn't do was swap the suspended pet for the active pet. To do that I needed to spend that final point. (Actually, from memory I think it cost five points for the final grade).

I had the points. I had over two hundred and fifty, unspent, just waiting to be assigned. Unfortunately, assigning AA points is one of the key perks of All Access Membership.

As a free player in EverQuest, each of your characters is capped at 250AA points. To give that some context, filling out all the AAs available to a single character costs tens of thousands of points. I've heard it said, more than once, that an end-game player, particularly a melee class, should expect to spend over 30,000 AA points to become viable in capped content.

As a "Silver" account, a type of account that no longer exists but to which I was fortunate enough to be grandfathered in, I'm entitled to a thousand AA points per character. Since accounts that unsubscribe also get to keep whatever AAs they bought before they cancelled, my counter read something like 4900/1000.

I didn't grind those out, or not all of them. Another huge benefit of membership is something called Auto-Grant. It's a feature on a toggle. If you switch it on, every time that character levels the game will automagically grant whatever AA points as a character of that level "should" have and also spend them on the appropriate AAs.

That carries on until the character reaches the level cap from a specified previous expansion that runs a fair way behind the current one. Currently it's 2015's The Broken Mirror, for which the level cap was 105. All of which is fine and dandy and a great benefit for subscribers but I just wanted to spend one frickin' point! Okay, five points, but let's not split hairs.

So I sat around and thought about it for a while longer. Did I seriously want to subscribe for a month just to buy one grade of one AA, just so I could swap out two pets, just so I could keep a bunch of buffs, buffs I could most likely replace by letting the game idle in the background for a few hours while I played something else? Is that the action of a rational adult?

Maybe there was another way. I have a lot of Daybreak Cash, after all. Could I maybe buy some kind of extension to my AA cap on the Marketplace? That way I at least wouldn't be spending real money.

I looked in the store. There was indeed something there that looked like it might do the job. I'd tell you what it was called but I didn't take a screenshot and now I can't see it any more. (Can you guess why? There's a clue there, somewhere). Whatever it was, it cost 250DBC, it applied per character (not per account) and it increased the cap on AAs by one hundred.

It didn't look like such a great deal but I wasn't bothered about that. What concerned me was whether it would work. Reading the small print I was pretty sure it wouldn't. What I reckoned it would do would be to change my cap of 1000 points to a cap of 1100. Since I was already the best part of four thousand points over my cap anyway, what good would that do me?

Still, I had all that DBC just sitting there and I was curious to see if I was right. Curious enough to pay 250DBC to find out? You betcha! And guess what? I was right!

So that was 250DBC down the imaginary drain and there I was, back where I started. I had another think.

I've been incredibly impressed with the speed of levelling via Overseer quests. Sticking at them diligently, I've been making a guaranteed ten per cent of a level a day, for weeks. If I get critical successes, and especially if there's a server xp bonus, that can go to fifteen per cent or even twenty. By contrast, if I can get one per cent of a level in an hour's hunting I think things are going pretty well.

When I dinged 106, though, that changed. Overseer xp per quest dropped by about half. That's clearly intentional. At 106 a character is becoming very viable for groups (albeit as a junior partner) in something approximating current content and Daybreak are very canny about protecting the integrity of the population bubble.

That said, even at five to ten per cent a day rather than ten to twenty, Overseer quests are an excellent addition to solo levelling rates. It does make the prospect of hunting more attractive than it might have been, though. But not as attractive as the prospect of grinding AAXP!

Where it takes days, or more likely weeks, of soloing to grind one level in the hundreds, AAs take no more than a few minutes. Killing comfortable, safe, light blue mobs in a Hot Zone nets five to seven per cent of an AA point per kill. I can rack up a couple of AAs in an hour that way. And quests reward several AAs at a go.

And how do I know that? It's obvious, isn't it? I subbed, didn't I? Yes, on my second account, because my main account is already frickin' subbed, isn't it? Because I play EverQuest II on that one! If I could only stop and start again...

Ah, I'm just play-acting. I'm fine with subbing two accounts for a while. And it's cheaper than I expected. When I went to check how much it would be for a single month the on-screen information said $14.99. With the pound sterling currently tanking in preparation for the UK's grim walk into the north Atlantic's cold and lonely embrace next January, $14.99 is worth £11.63 but, much like our own dear government, Daybreak don't seem to have caught up to economic reality. They're still charging UK customers just £8.99.

Which I happily paid. I'm subbed until late August, which should give me plenty of time to grind some AA points. I made more than twenty yesterday. I also spent most of what I had banked, which may have been a mistake, because when I zoned Auto-Grant kicked in and the game funded me at least as many again. If I'd not just bought a bunch of AAs, I'd most likely have been given those, too.

Even with a few minor errors of judgment it's feeling like a very good decision. I was decorating the kitchen last week and I spent more than the cost of a month's sub on a tin of wax to seal the surfaces. I know which I'm going to get the most pleasure from, that's for sure. You have to keep these things in perspective. Although I do like my wax...

With the added incentive of being able to see my xp (okay, my AAxp) move without the aid of an electron microscope, I spent most of yesterday hunting. I travelled to a bunch of zones I'd never even seen before, found a great spot with good light and plenty of space, killed a bunch of new-to-me mobs and had a great time.

Money well spent, I think. Now I just have to make some in-game money so I can upgrade all my gear and kill things even faster for even more AAXP so I can kill things faster still....

I could be at this a while.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Always Read The Instructions: EverQuest

Before I even begin I need to make a correction to yesterday's post. When I claimed with (unfortunate) confidence that "I'd already researched pet focus items for my new level" and found that "there were none. No tradeable ones, at least. No affordable tradeable ones", it transpires I was talking through my hat.

It's true, I had done my research. I just hadn't done it thoroughly enough. I'd checked several usually reliable guides, ones I've been using for years, ones I've always found to be accurate. Sadly, I fell into the trap of assuming they'd been updated to include the most recent information. As any MMORPG player ought to know, that's never a safe assumption to make.

The excellent EQMagicians has a comprehensive list of pet focus items that, at first glance, appears to be entirely up to date. I mean, it includes items that focus pets all the way up to level 120, five levels above the current cap. If you look more closely, however, you'll see a clue buried in the body of the text that suggests all is not as it seems: "As of the (final) Call of the Forsaken expansion..."

The Call of the Forsaken expansion is very far from being the "final" anything. It actually came out seven years ago. The reason the effects on the focuses on the list go so much higher than the then-cap of 100 is that they come from what was top-end group content, endgame questlines and raids - in 2013!

If you look at the level required to equip them, rather than what level pets they affect, you'll see it tops out at 101. Whoever was running EQMagicians back then clearly intended to carry on into the following expansion, The Darkened Sea, with its raised cap of 105, because they added entries for focus items with the next two numbered effects. Those have a Required level to equip of 101.

And that was where they stopped. Like so many legacy resources for so many MMORPGs, the information sits there, looking pristine but rusting at the core. And rust spreads.

Allakhazam, still the most reliable information source for EverQuest, doesn't have a focus list of its own. Instead it links to the EQMagician page and also to a discussion thread at Necrotalk.com, a forum for people who play Necromancers in EQ (what else did you expect?).

Since I'm playing a mage I didn't think to click that link. If I had, I'd have discovered that the Enhanced Minion line goes way beyond EQMagician's ceiling of XXIII. All the way to XXX in fact, as Allakhazam knows full well.

All of which amply demonstrates that half-assed research is worse than no research at all. I could have dug the truth out - if I'd just kept digging. Instead I stopped with the surface barely scraped.

All of this began to become clear to me only by chance. I was standing in the Guild Lobby, fiddling around with the search function on the Bazaar window. I'd been trying to decide which pieces of Conflagrant armor to buy first when it occured to me for some reason I can't quite recall, even though it was less than twenty-four hours ago, to remove the qualifier "armor" from the search.

In EverQuest the term "armor" tends to refer to what are known as the "visible" slots. The ones where what you equip shows up not just on your paper doll but on your in-game character as seen by everyone else. Unlike more modern games, jewellery and accessories aren't visible in EQ, so when I took that limiter out, a whole load of earrings, belts, rings and so on popped up.

And one of the earrings was called a Summoner's Conflagrant Earring. In Norrath, "summoner" is a synonym for "pet class". A magician is a summoner. Clue!

I examined the earring and sure enough, there it was in hyperlink purple: Enhanced Minion XVIII. A quick run to the actual Bazaar itself and there I was, forty thousand platinum pieces lighter and the proud - if somewhat red-faced - possessor of a pet focus item fit for my exalted level of one hundred and six.

The moral of this cautionary tale is that you can't always believe everything you read, especially if you don't take the trouble to read it properly. It also means I've gone on so long about my mistake that I probably ought to leave the real second part of the story for next time.

Not that it's much of a story. It's mostly about how I wasted a small amount of imaginary money and then saved a small amount of real money, doing something I was fairly sure I'd never do again. Still, it's something to post about, isn't it?

Just don't hold your breath or anything. I wouldn't want to over-sell it. And I don't give refunds.
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