How Acorns Is Better Than Your 401k

Retirement plans. The thing we must all have, yet is simultaneously the least enticing notion in existence.  Who, besides those in commercials, sits eagerly around the dinner table discussing their 401k last quarter earnings.  “Oh honey, it looks like the market is up today, I think that’ll really boost my retirement per year!” said no one ever.  It is, however, something that deserves genuine thought.  Even so, how we will survive financially past our 60s is something that receives less thought than how many drivers pulled out in front of us recently.  Or how much we hate the busy work that’s shoveled onto us every day by that incompetent and undeserving rat bastard of a boss.

That’s because retirement is an intangible.  It’s just a concept: something far off in the future that doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with today.  So that’s where the idea of taking money out of your paycheck before you really have a chance to notice it comes in.  No sane individual is going to willingly choose to fork over $100 of their hard-earned money per period just so you can be better off down the road, right?  We just aren’t wired that way.  I speak for everyone, it’s okay.

What if I were to say there’s another option; something that’s less abstract and more…sexy?  A way of saving that is both as potent as your 401k or 403b but also as real as seeing your saving’s account next to your checking each day.  There’s an app called Acorns.  It downloads like all those other apps, installs, lets you sign up and processes your information.  It’s rudimentary, Bob!  Sure, sure, but what does it do?

How Does Acorns Let Me Save For The Future?

Little by little, like digging out your cell wall with a spoon.  I joke, I joke.  Retirement isn’t anything like prison, I swear!  Acorns does a nifty (but also rather common) thing of connecting to your bank account.  Being the introspective detective that I am, I was concerned about handing out that information.  I checked the Better Business Bureau (fat lot of good they ever do, but hey, worth a try), reader reviews and also any whiff or hint of a scam from editorials online.  All things considered, Reddit has proven to be a lie detector in many ways.  People may lie or be polite about controversy in-person but on-line is certain a difference maker.

After my rigorous review of Acorns’ credibility, I felt confident that handing over my digits wouldn’t be a mistake.  Acorns makes the promise that whenever you, being the credit card hero that you are, pull out your shiny magic rectangle to pay for things, each transaction will effectively be rounded up to the nearest dollar.  The extra expenditure will then be pooled into Acorns to be invested into a modestly aggressive stock market portfolio.

If you spent $23.67 on groceries at your local supermarket, Acorns will then snag that excess $0.33 with the intent that you’ll never feel the hurt by missing $0.33.  The truth of the matter is that it doesn’t quite work as smoothly as all that.  You won’t see a grocery bill of $24.00 if that’s what you were hoping.  I like those clean, round, sexy number too, but that’s not how Acorns likes to play ball.  The app waits until you hit a $5.00 threshold before transferring anything out of your account.  While I would prefer to see those round numbers instead of a $5.00 app withdrawal, I’ll deal with it.  Might be that one day they’re able to make that dreamy number of $24.00 a reality. A man can dream.

Does Acorns Earn Money Faster Than My 401k?

That depends, bucko.  Acorns works by rounding up your purchases, so if you only purchase one item per week, no, your totals won’t come anywhere close to what your 401k is producing.  If you’re like me and swipe your card anywhere between one and five times per day, then you might see some decent returns.  Let’s do some math.  Grab your ruler and compass, please.

Let’s say I use my debit card five times per day, for an average rounding-up of $0.33.  That’s a decent average because how many items do you know sit at $19.25 versus $19.97? You can tell your wife it was basically $15.00 regardless, and retailers know that.  So yeah, $0.33 x 5 = $1.65.  $1.65 per day for a year equals $602.25.  Say you threw in a couple one-time payments and then did the $5.00 a month auto-transfer.  Three one-time payments of $25.00 plus another $60.00 from the auto-transfers brings us to a grand total of $737.25.

What Kind of Returns Can I Expect With Acorns?

*Brings back out my ledger* Yes, yes, I see, I see.  $737.25 scheduled against a modest one percent return is $7.37.  That’s about the bare minimum that you can expect on a cautious total.  Markets aren’t all run by stable geniuses (genii?), so things fluctuate a bit.  The more you put in, the more you’ll get out.  I do both 401k, automatic emergency fund withdrawal, and Acorns, so it’s nice to be able to see them side-by-side.  401ks can work before-tax or after-tax but the only real difference is if you’ll be paying the taxes now or later.  It’s taxes like income, whereas Acorns is just you putting your money into a savings account after you’ve paid your run-of-the-mill-horrorfest of income tax.

Yeah, it’s essentially a savings account that can earn you decent cash.  It sneakily saves money right under your nose and it startlingly easy to keep tabs on.  There’s a flipping widget you can put on your your iPhone or Android mobile phone.  The widget shows you the ups and downs of the daily stock market and also how much money you’ve made today.

Will I Still Have Access to My Money?

Absofruitly!  As it functions as something akin to Paypal in terms of balances, you can send money to and fro with wild abandon.  Retirement plans usually require an early-withdrawal fee or also slap you with a loan for trying to take any of your earned money.  With Acorns, it’s your money.  Use it when you’d like.  Best thing is to let the balance grow, though.  Can’t earn mad returns with a small balance, that’s what I always say.

What Features Does Acorns Have Versus Other Apps?

Acorns has a few other nifty features that are worth mentioning:

  • Real-time analysis of future potential of account based upon someone’s algorithm
  • Found Money aka extra investments made by Acorns for spending money at certain retailers (Between 1% and 25% of money spent, typically)
  • Calculation of dividends-received for year-end tax purposes
  • Grow aka their free information services about retirement topics

That All Sounds Too Good To Be True. What Does Acorns Really Do With My Money?

Alright, you paranoid bastard, they do charge a fee for this service. One, whole, Dollar for a month.  One dollar. Uno dolore.  That’s it.  If you think about it, though, most Acorns accounts don’t make it past the $100 mark very quickly.  That means that at a 1% return-on-investment, you’d just be breaking even.  I don’t see it that way, however.  This is a service.  It saves my money into an account that simply isn’t my checking account, a little at a time.  It invests it, and pays me dividends for my investment. That’s worth a dollar, bro.  Go get you a retirement.

Why The Office Reboot Is A Terrible Idea

The Western world runs on nostalgia.  Fond, if not flawed feelings about a time gone by. Remember the first time you heard your favorite song?  Wasn’t everything different then? Simpler, even.  You were younger, full of hope, rocking out to “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails.  Okay, maybe you like a K-pop sensation instead. Sure, sure, fine.  My point is, we all yearn for how things used to be.  Back in the latter years of the 90s when I was still but a wee boy, there was a radio station called 99X.  It was cleverly 99.9FM in Central Illinois.  I’ve no idea if the station still exists, and I refuse to Google it.  Don’t tell me what to do.

99X would play a top nine countdown at nine o’clock every night.  As this was past our assigned bedtime and listening to music that was very much full of edited profanity, we kept it quiet.  As I recall, it was something to look forward to; something we could also discuss with friends at school.  ‘Twas something for my brothers and I to bond over.  What was the reality of it, though?  We were already half asleep already, listening to a radio with no subwoofer on such low volume that it was impossible to hear the lyrics.  Our necks were fastened into uncomfortable positions as we listened, and it’s quite possible that I don’t remember single damn song we heard.

How does this relate to a The Office reboot?  Take my example above of nostalgia and imagine I presently corralled my two brothers at 9pm on some bunk beds and listened eagerly for the countdown to begin.  First of all, we’re all in the 30s range now, so that’s weird.  Second, who even uses radios anymore?  Okay, I do, but that’s because my car doesn’t have an auxiliary input.  Awkward things happen when you try to force an event to occur just because you remembered it being fun.

I love The Office.  I still watch it as often as I did when it was airing.  It’s never lost its appeal, just like Seinfeld, Friends, and Cheers.  It has aged, just like those other two giants of evening television.  The references are outdated, as is the technology represented in the show.  The Office is a classic because it doesn’t try to be anything other than a show about a paper company.  The showrunners aren’t trying to sell you on anything.  There is no theme; no message you must somehow understand.  The Office is as pure as it is simple comedic gold, and that is why we cannot let a reboot happen.

Why Shouldn’t We Try to Reboot The Office?

What’s that, you say?   Stop speaking so loudly.  Anyways, loud people aside, we have ample evidence that a continuation of the series is a no good, terrible, terrible idea.  Just look at the ninth season of The Office.  The showrunners had lost Steve Carell at the end of season seven and more or less tried not to sink the series in the eight season.  The eighth season was pretty crap overall, but characters like Robert California and cameos from David Wallace really helped it from being a full-on stinker.

Then the ninth season happened.  This epic season directly began with Jim and Pam admitting that nothing new nor interesting was ever going to happen in their lives.  Pam literally told the camera, “Don’t you have all the footage you need already?  It’s only a paper company.”  This fourth wall break was obtuse and heartbreaking.  It took people out of the cozy facade of a regular paper company, and spun it around on its axis until it was something less.  A documentary of a paper company which will in turn debut these people’s as a reality series.  This realization on-screen was meant to add a layer of depth to all these Dunder Mifflin lives, but instead it stripped away the mystique that had built for eight seasons.

These Dunder Mifflin-ites of a living, breathing office went from being real people with great stories to actors and actresses in the span of the ninth season.  Things happened, drama ensued, and by the end, very little of the paper company we knew and loved was left.  Everyone had moved on to the big storyline of getting their documentary aired.  Many of the characters quit in-show to go pursue what they felt were meaningful jobs.  They left the office behind to go out and give their hard-earned characters some sort of catharsis.  I didn’t believe any of it, and for the longest time I refused to watch the last season.

Rebooting The Office Will Be Worse Than Retrying The OJ Verdict

Since season nine ran out of ideas for funny office-born pranks, and went along with an arbitrarily more meaningful script, I can definitely tell you what will happen in a season 10.  Three or four of the original cast will come back on as full-timers.  Guys like Steven Carell and Rainn Wilson will not, I suspect.  They know that leaving their characters In Memoraium is the kindest thing they can do.  Who else here was upset at Luke Skywalker’s role in these recent movies?  I think an older Dwight Schrute would have all the earmarks of an unbelievable character.  If Michael Scott were to return, it would only be as a cameo, like he did at the end of the ninth season.  He knew the risk of coming back and associating himself with the final act of The Office.  He did it anyway, and kept his lines short and in-keeping with his character.  That’s the only way to do it.

They could have a whole new cast and crew and try that out, but I see it ending in failure. In the end, every episode would be judged against the original series instead of assuming an identity of its own. In another way, just like we will never have a Kiefer Sutherland led 24 (that’s an good) or a Hugh Laurie run House, we will never see another Steven Carell as Michael Scott again.

As sad as I am to know that, I also know that seasons one through seven of The Office are the greatest depiction of a paper company that will ever be.  I sincerely hope that our children and their children will still look at Michael Scott trying to sign up for a Verizon five friends-and-family plan and wonder why he couldn’t even get Jan to sign on. Michael is a sad, hopeful, if not nostalgic fellow and that’s how it should stay.  Let it be.  NBC, I beg you.  On my hands and knees.  Don’t do it.  Please.

 

Microtransactions, Loot Crates and More in SMT Liberation Dx2

**Updated 8/10/2018: see below

Is Dx2 a True Shin Megami Tensei Experience?

That remains to be seen. Even so…finally an SMT on our Android and Apple little handheld wizard devices, and no it’s not a Devil Survivor port.  For so many years we’ve been playing Tensei on the first Nintendo Entertainment System, Playstation 2, and most recently on 3DS with SMT IV: Apocalypse.  My favorite Tensei is SMT:III:Nocturne on the PS2.  It was tough, but not as annoying as other SMT offshoots like Digital Devil Saga.  Ever fight the Demi-Fiend in DDS?  That’s how you learn to truly hate life.

While I had played Strange Journey and Devil Survivor on the original DS, I wasn’t sure there could be a mobile phone port worthy of the series.  Then, many years alter, in June of 2018  a ray of hope entered my tragic and also amazing life.  Before I could get truly excited, I had to remember that Sega had purchased Atlus years ago and this was to be Sega’s first attempt at developing a Tensei title.  Most certainly sketchy.  I had all the trust in the world due to my most recent adventures in Atlus’ domain with its amazing and personality-laden Persona 5.  I loved that game, from the first minute to the last.  Could SMT Liberation Dx2 even possibly compare, or is it just some Gacha game?

loot crates in dx2
My party against Yoma Apsaras

 

 

Is Shin Megami Tensei: Liberation Dx2 the Next Generation?

Amazingly, we do find ourselves in the next generation.  No longer is a game simply its base price tag.  A game may cost you $60 up-front, as it has been for over a decade, but that is not the last they will likely see of your credit card numbers.  Out there, you’ll find many a “credit card hero” shamelessly swiping their digits to earn boons within their game of choice.  There’s a mobile RPG named Guild of Heroes that my wife plays pretty religiously.  She doesn’t spend any money on it, yet it’s not for lack of trying on the game’s part.  Logging in, logging out, moving from one zone to the next.  The game always, always, always has to remind her that she could be progressing faster if she paid more.  Psychologically, they pit you against other players in a faux-friend-rivals type setup.  Your friends gain X power levels and then you feel compelled to reach their pace, even if it costs you your soul.  Guild of Heroes wants you to know this simple fact: “If you swipe $50 on your credit card with us, you’ll achieve more in that decision that you would playing normally for six months.”

Is Dx2 Just a Bunch of Lotteries and Loot Boxes?

There are loot boxes, to be sure.  The summoning portal uses gems to summon a random demon from three-star to five-star.  There are also lotteries, but rather the kind where there is no entrance fee and most players are winners.  I looked at the prices of gems and other reagents, and honestly with maybe four hours of in-game effort, you could easily eclipse even a payment of $30.  What you get for your money is trivial in comparison, since what you can do in-game is so plentiful.  Sega hands you riches honestly.  Just by showing up, or by playing the game.  Learning its facets.  I get so many free gifts that I lose track.  That’s a good problem to have.  Also….wait for it….

You do not need to spend a penny on this game. For any reason.

Unless you want the highest of the highest summons.  There are talks of those becoming attainable for all, however.  In the normal course of play, you will gain demons at an exponentially high rate, macca, magnetite, aether, rubies, sapphires and all the other fifty-million currencies there are going on in Dx2.  In many ways, Sega quite literally showers you with items, bonus items, gems, and everything you’d need to craft absurdly strong demons.  Everything is right there, at your fingertips.  You just have to open your grimy little hand and take it. I prefer the wait-and-see method to lay eyes upon the ultimate prizes of the best six-star summons.  For the meantime, I’ll continue along with my five-star Thor and four-star Prometheus.  I can handle you, no problem.

On the topic of micro transactions, in an interview with Destructoid, Yamada Riichiro had a few comments to make on their monetization methods.

Destructoid: What type of free-to-play elements or microtransactions can players expect to come across and did you look to other games on how to implement them?

Mr. Riichiro: As it’s a F2P there are, of course, monetization elements. However, regarding the in-app purchases, we see them as just time shortening elements. Although this RPG title was developed in Japan, we are not using the usual format of F2P Japanese titles.

Is Dx2 a Gacha Game?

If you’d like it to be. So what we have here are elements of console-type RPG made for mobile with elements of the ever-pervasive Gacha genre of micro transactions.  As Mr. Riichiro would say, it’s a time-shortening feature.  You can and may use real-world money to bet your luck to find your masterpiece demons.  In a separate article, the developer mentioned that nearly everything in the entire game; all the demons, all the brands and unlocks would be available to someone who has not paid anything at all.  Only the highest of the highest level summons require any level of monetary commitment.

While the game itself is in its first month, it’s important for us to watch closely to see if Sega is planning to ditch their current strategy. For now, it really does work.  I can play the entire game, for free and never even have to face that annoying, inner temptation to shovel my hard-earned dollars toward another online product.  I’m proud to say that Shin Megami Tensei: Liberation Dx2 comes out with a resounding “huzzah” from me.  It’s equal parts fun and time consuming, while also adding in challenges and bonus events to keep my hooked for months to come.  Happy hunting, everyone!

**Update

** After another solid few weeks of grinding through Atlus’ newest Shin Megami Tensei, I am happy to report that it is still Gacha-free.  Microtransations are still entirely unnecessary.  Impractical too.  So much can be achieved in this game just by playing it.  You’ll have a team of base 4-stars upgraded to 5-stars without much effort.  You’ll be working your way through Brands of Sin to equip and enhance your demons, as well as Strange Signal to awaken them.  You’ll have evolved your lowly 3-stars into 5-stars within weeks of playing it.

All of that without having to spend a dime. 

I’ve spent dozens of hours playing PvP and surfing through the Aura Gate.  My current rank this week is 1648 with a team of Teal Ose, Orange Prometheus, Purple Odin, and finally Teal Anubis.  I was, at one point this week, ranked 337 in America.  That’s not too bad for someone who isn’t paying to get ahead.

From what I have read on various forums, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll get anything good, even if you were to invest $500.  There’s just no way of knowing what kind of demon you’ll pull in when you decide to try the lottery.  In this way, regular players like myself and credit card heroes are on nearly even footing.  

I have chances to try to lottery, as the premium currencies present themselves through normal gameplay, but my chance of getting a 5-star badass like Susano-o is the same as theirs.  Plus, it’s more rewarding to get those high-level baddies through your own power.  It’s been a fun ride so far and I look forward to where the developers lead this great addition to the SMT universe.

The Bible Stories Your Pastor Doesn’t Want You to Read

As a small, yet important preface, I must say that I was once a flourishing Christian. Taught Sunday school, did vacation bible schools and their high school equivalents.  I was a member of the church in every sense of the world.  Choir, teaching flag football, ministering to children and at times trying to find a place that made sense for me.

In the midst of all this, I started reading through the Old Testament.  I knew the Jesus, the God of the New Testament, but who was the God of the Israelites? The God of the Flood?  The God of controversy.  Part of me was excited to find out some new things about the cosmic being to which I was offering my words and actions to, and yet there was the other part that was extremely terrified of what I might uncover.

So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. 21 Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

But the people said nothing.

22 Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”

Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”

25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.

Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down.31 Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” 32 With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs[a] of seed.33 He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”

34 “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.

“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. 35 The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.

36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be knowntoday that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.

39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”

40 Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.

If you read through that, then you’ll be either laughing or crying, there is no middle ground.  Elijah won in a clear-cut battle between Baal and our God.  Pastors stop at verse 39.  Verse 40 is, “Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal.  Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.”

That’s hardcore.  Not only do you win and shame your enemy, but now you must herd them to a separate location and then not just execute them, but slaughter them!  That last part is too iffy to make it into sermons, but it’s an important part of God and his prophets.  Mercy is to be shown not for your enemies, but for the downtrodden and weak.

Elishah And The Bears

 

For our next story, Elishah is Elijah’s son and traveling from town to town to make a name for himself as a traveling prophet.  His path was waylaid due to some unruly children.  Take a look.

Elisha Is Jeered

23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

Short and sweet, isn’t it?  Maulings are always succinct, I’ve heard.  These children were just being children.  Taunting, laughing, picking apart the flaws of adults.  That’s what we do, right?  Well, Elishah said he’d had enough.  He asked for two beast ass bears to handily dispatch forty-two children.  Even in comparison with the mass shootings that have occurred in the last year.  I think Elishah’s is the most cold-blooded.  That’s really saying something too.  Petty, petty prophet.

 

The Golden Calf

Everyone who has any biblical knowledge knows about the golden calf incident.  Moses is up on mount Sinai talking to Him and Moses’ brother Aaron starts a merry bad of reluctant hedonists.  Sounds just so common, when put that way.  So here’s what happened:

 

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’

“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the Lordrelented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.

17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.”

18 Moses replied:

“It is not the sound of victory,
    it is not the sound of defeat;
    it is the sound of singing that I hear.”

19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing,his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder,scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.

21 He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?”

22 “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.

27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”

30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”

31 So Moses went back to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the bookyou have written.”

33 The Lord replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.”

35 And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.

Shameful Biblical Treachery

Moses went up there with pure thoughts.  He wanted to find out the will of GOD, but what happened was his own flesh and blood brother betrayed him and all of his ideals.  In Verse 9, that’s God wanting to destroy humanity.  Humanity!  Pressing the reset button on your N64 has never been so easy.  It was Moses himself that talked the all-high God out of his psychopathic path.

Only….some should die.  Definitely some, though, right?  Now gather ye around ye Levites.  Kill your mother, your brother, your children in the name of the LORD and you will be rewarded.  This experiment has gotten so far fucked up that we need a reset button.  Good luck!

Even after the Levites killed three thousand in one night, and the blessing of the Lord was upon them, God was intent to reward everyone with a plague in remembrance of Aaron’s golden calf.

These are just a few of the wild and crazy stories that every God-fearing Christian should take into account.  If this particular deity were still to be in existence, would He just your life as nothing more than idol after idol?

 

More stories to come.  Be sure of it.

Gender Equality in Furies of Calderon

Man and woman historically have had defined roles in a society.  Breadwinner, housemaker, and the like. Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher takes these common notions and discards them entirely.  ‘Tis refreshing, really.  Furies has the stink of an average medieval high fantasy novel at first brush, but yet comes damn near close to a Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones type epic near the end.  As the song lyrics go, “times are a-changing” and in Furies that’s very much the truth.

In the first several dozen pages it’s confusing who the main protagonist is.  Isana, Bernard, Tavi and Amari all take turns being point-of-view characters.  What defines a main character, even?  Is it winning, or likability or something as cliche as plot armor.  George R.R. Martin believes that even main characters must die, but that’s hardly the norm.  Jim Butcher prefers his MCs alive.  Nothing wrong with that.  It’s really hard to invest readers in something if their favorite characters keep dying.   For purposes of the this article, main characters are really defined as who gets the most screen-time.  Who gets the spotlight the most.  Can a person be the hero of the tale if he only gets ten pages out of three hundred?

The main characters are as follow: Tavi, a young boy.  Amara, a relatively young girl.  Isana, a relatively old woman with a young complexion.  Bernard, a middle-aged man.  Finally, Fidelius, an older man.  Butcher is careful not to reveal or dwell upon ages too often, except in the case of Tavi, a fifteen year-old boy.  None of the other characters have their ages made explicit.  This is a good thing, though.  What’s important is whether or not each sex was considered equally viable, not necessarily age.

In this case, there are two sides to the coin of this story.  On the one side, Isana is seen as a mature, intricate, capable stand-in for Bernard when things go awry.  The key phrase there is stand-in.  In the Codex Alera universe, women are not steadholders.  That’s a man thing.  Giving commands, taking care of the people, that’s in a man’s job.  Women are more followers, helpers, healers, that sort of thing.  Not every character agrees with this assessment, and there you have Amara.  She’s a headstrong, if not naive, Cursor which is a messenger-sometimes-spy for the Crown.  Her duties are manyfold and never does she rely upon her gender or sex to get the job done.  Whether it’s spying on the enemy or helping an ally, she doesn’t even take her gender into account.  Amara willing enters battle at her own risk, placing her body and mind in harm’s way to save the day.

It is oft-mentioned that other characters see this Amara as somewhat of a counter-flow figure.  She regularly overrules, humiliates, and defeats men without giving it a lot of reflection.  She doesn’t really see herself as the breakout character that she is.

That leads us to the darker side of this coin.  Chivalry, machoism, whatever you’d like to call it.  Men do strong thing.  Women do sensitive thing.  Bernard is stuck in his ways.  He thinks he must protect his sister Isana, or Amara whenever she’s vulnerable.  While it’s undeniably a noble intention, it’s also misguided.  Isana and Amara show time and time again that they can take care of themselves.  Butcher portrays both Bernard and his nephew Tavi as archetypical men.  During a fury-storm which, if you can imagine, is a magical thunderstorm fraught with monsters and madness, Amara finds herself injured and exhausted; unable to continue.  Tavi is then seen as her protector.  He’s someone that, even though he has inadequacies of his own, is able to provide instinctual awareness enough to help out his fellow woman.

Butcher strives to show Tavi as a young man.  Someone who can help those who are weary and helpless.  If this at all seems overdone, it is therefore blunted by his sensitive nature.  Tavi is shown as a young man full of emotion.  Rage, despair, kindness, love, passion, everything that could possibly round out a blossoming young hero.  He’s equal parts masculine and feminine, and it works.

The same can be said for Amara.  When both Tavi and Amara are in-scene together, it’s rather difficult to put one in charge of the other.  It’s not usually one following the other.  I find that rather touching, really, as people aren’t boiled down to stereotypes.  A man is not the product of his gender, but rather the measure of his own heart.  The product of his hand.  What has he wrought into this world?

Even Fidelius, the book’s resident senior, is not phased by his apprentice Amara’s strong will nor strong action.  In his own way, he encourages her to fight in both body and spirit.  I feel like Jim Butcher has envisioned both sex groups of the Codex Alera universe to be generally equal.  A man may be First Lord, but it could as easily be a woman.  And may will, further in the series.  As capable as the men are pictured, they are as equally flawed as well.  These women are not seen as trophies, companions, or sex-toys and that is much appreciated.  While there are those villains in this adventure that would see woman as will-stripped slaves, this is not the prevailing narrative.  In Codex Alera, men and women are as equal as is possible. Women can outrank men at fighting, and men can outrank women in emotional depth; as it should be.

The Difficulty of Choice in Divinity Original Sin 2

When searching for your next role-playing game, what do you look for first? While you’re looking high and low for a game with a compelling story, fluid combat and excellent customization, difficulty is sure to rear its slightly annoying-looking head. Somewhere deep inside you ask: “Is this game going to kick my pimply white behind?”  It’s a fair question, and one that I ask before beginning a new adventure myself.  What makes a game difficult, I wonder.  Is it enemies with high health pools or multiple splitting paths with some leading to doom and others salvation?  Let’s take Dark Souls for instance.  There was a recent remake, so it should be top of mind.  Dark Souls plopped you into a world of shifting shadows, bleak enemies and very, very little narrative.  Sure, the enemies themselves were difficult at times, but it was actually the general lack of direction that did me in initially.

Some games just…insert you into a living, breathing universe and metaphorically say, “have fun!”  If I were a game developer, I’d be very much concerned about the level of spoon-feeding going on in a typical session.  In this world of glowing map-markers and linear story-telling, it’s a damned rarity for a game to present choices to the player.  The difference between Divinity Original Sin 2 (or its predecessor) and say…Trails of Cold Steel 1/2/3 is the difference between riding a roller coaster and building, designing and putting into action one yourself.  It’s really that stark a contrast.  While I absolutely love the Trails in the Sky / Trails of Cold Steel series, I know it for what it is.  It’s an elaborate ride that you can choose how much and how in-depth you’d like to experience.  If it’s not your bag of bones, cup o’ tea or whatnot, then you simply get off the ride and pick something else.  The developers know this and have crafted a wonderful world for you.  If there’s someone out there that dislikes the Legend of Heroes series, then I really want nothing to do with them.  Come on, how can you not like that?!  Anyway…

Who Likes Roller Coasters? The People Who Matter.

Divinity doesn’t roll like that.  Right at the beginning, it’s all business, sure.  Make your character, watch a cut scene with a vague story, and then you’re in a place.  There’s a very, very short tutorial that essentially makes sure you are intelligent enough to use a real world can opener.  Then it says, okay, do whatever you’d like.  Other game series have toyed with similar concepts.  The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (and its sixteen re-releases) give you a short dungeon experience and then set you free in the world.  There’s a key difference between Skyrim and DivinitySkyrim is a theme park of roller coasters.  It’s tempting to see the plethora of concept and assume that that in itself is a form of difficulty.  The only substantive question I ever found myself asking in an Elder Scrolls game is, “Where do I want to start first?”

Like box art…only on your PC screen.

In Divinity, however, after the initial dungeon-y experience of the ship level, you’re simply set free upon a beach that lies adjacent to a fort and its prison.  The game does not tell you where to go, who to talk to, nor if there are any consequences to doing so.  It does not tell you how to spend your attribute points, talent points, socket your skills or anything substantial to your mission.  Your overall goal is to escape the prison ghetto, but that leaves you with several more questions that may or may not have answers.  Why should I leave the ghetto?  What lies beyond?  What’s even in here?  Who are these people?

Skyrim answers each of those questions with, “It doesn’t matter.  They’re NPCs, bro. They’re going to want you to do something and once you do it, it’s done.  It won’t affect anyone or anything else in your experience.”  Divinity’s take is to give you ultimate choice to talk to whomever you’d like, skip quests, kill everyone, steal everything, promise false things, trick people in conversation, and dies glorious and/or horrifying deaths.

Larian studies enjoys surprising you more than anything.  You have absolutely no idea how two spells are going to react to each other or if/how your abilities will affect your enemy.  You don’t even know if your enemy is actually an enemy, or if you’re the fucking bad guy.  Morality is subjective, combat is subjective, everything is left to your choice.  Who would you like to do battle with, and how?  Who would you like to strike deals with?  Who would you like to ignore altogether and scrounge together your own idea of how to progress?

My friend and I played this co-operatively for maybe six hours the first day. We absolutely managed to make asses out of ourselves more than a dozen times.  Accidentally stealing and getting murdered by whomever we transgressed against or saying the wrong thing in dialogue and ending up with a quest like being locked shut from our reach.

Oh Boy, An Arena

One particularly hilarious episode was when we went down below the ghetto to fight in the arena.  You remember the arena in Oblivion, right?  Fight some random enemies and become a victor. You could do it at level one and got decent loot.  Of course you do.  Yeah, Divinity doesn’t go quite like that.  Sure, you fight a group of maybe five bad guys.  It’s not…easy. I admit. Doable at level two, though.  Use your head, figure it out.  That’s what I thought anyway.

After we emerged the victors, the woman who offered us the fight in the first place offered one more addendum.  “There can only be one One.”  The fuck does that mean?  Oh no, really? I felt like Missy Elliot, flipping it down, reversing and the like.

With our health pools that we ended the first fight, it was now a two-on-two team deathmatch between myself and my friend.  We both knew from the first Original Sin, that dying was a hugely bad idea in any fight,  which meant we were both stunned as to how to progress.  Do we want to kill each other’s players?  What if we have to waste our limited resources resurrecting the fallen?  Is this some sort of perverted permadeath thing that there’s no coming back from?

Oh….look at that shading and water ripplies…

You can only know once you do it.  I won, of course, as I was playing a summoner/ice mage and a cleric versus a tanky dwarf and an elemental ranger.  They were low on health at the start, and I buried them in ice and fire quickly enough.  What ended up happening is that we were all resurrected for free with full health back at the beginning of the arena and I was given phat loots.  He was shunned and told never to return.  I was “The One” and it felt good.  Being as Skyrim is a single player game, you can’t ever really have that kind of experience.  You’re always told from each NPC that you’re the savior of everywhere from Indiana to Narnia and that becomes ever more boring as you mow down dragons and demons alike.  When nothing can stand in your path and even the mightiest beasties fall silent to your sword, you must know there is an inherent problem.  When in life has being put on a pedestal before earning it ever worked out?  When did that ever feel good.  No, seriously. Think about it.  Skyrim is that creepy dude who tells he he loves you on the second date, offers to marry you on the third.  No one likes that.

So Much Uncertainty

Divinity is able to give meaning to accomplishment through difficulty and uncertainty.  I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and unlike a book, movie or average video game, I have a good hand in shaping what this world becomes.  Depending on which companions you pick, which items you steal, which people you slay, different things happen.  Things!  It’s no mere illusion of choice, either.  Dragon Age was one of my favorite game series of all time, but it offered two sides to a coin at every juncture.  Side with the good guys or the bad guys. At the end of the second game, the devs adroitly decided that no matter what choices you made, you’ll have to fight both the good guys and the bad guys.  What a waste, I mean, it’s been what seven years and I’m still mad about that.  Let’s spend forty hours giving the player all these tough choices and then at the end send them through the fucking garbage disposal and shrug our shoulders.

Divinity Original Sin 2 does so many things right.  It obscures the consequences of your actions long enough for you to completely make a mess of things.  By the time you realize how vital is was for you to save that girl in that cave, it’s already been sixty some odd hours and now you’re hosed.  Or maybe you built your characters wrong and you absolutely cannot beat one of the boss fights.  That’s what happened to me on my maiden run-through of the first Original Sin. I could not beat that damned four-elemental penultimate boss fight.  So much rage.  So much rage.

I remember every bit of Divinity: Original Sin because it was difficult.  I screwed so many things up and had to sit there in my impotent rage. Original Sin 2 brings back that same maddening frustration.  Larian Studios’ message to all players is as such, “Learn from your successes and your failures or else you’re going to leave empty-handed.  If you can’t handle that, then there’s always Skyrim :P” If I wanted to be an all-knowing, all-seeing omnipotent wizard, sure, I’d play that instead.  No, I want to be challenged.  I want to make mistakes.  I want to see something truly spectacular happen in front of my eyes.  I want to use my pet pal ability to talk to a fucking exploding sheep so I can learn about a curse that threatens the entirety of a region.  And then get blown up.  Fuck.

Dresden Files – From Storm Front to Skin Game, a Series Retrospective

It should be mentioned right away that it is rare for me to make it through an entire book series in any reasonable amount of time.  Inevitably, I get bored, and when I get bored, I move on.  Such is the plight of the all-empowered consumer of the 21st century.  There are millions and millions of different sources of content for us humans to enjoy, and it takes a special kind of writer to make a book series that is worth reading from start to finish.

Jim Butcher has done exactly that.  His first book Storm Front came to us in the wily and unimportant year of 2000.  I wasn’t actually introduced to this series until 2015 when a coworker begged me to read Storm Front.  I was taken aback by Butcher’s quick paced yet easy to follow style.  They’re very clearly adventure novels, as you’ll come to understand.  Protagonist Harry Dresden is Chicago’s only ‘Professional Wizard.’  Listed in the phone books, even.  In many ways he’s a supernatural private detective, taking on jobs for the police, fairy queens, fallen angels, and fellow wizards often enough.  Harry is often stuck with the ‘it’s always something’ literary technique.  Conflict drives a story, and Butcher knows this.  No one would want to read a book about Harry sitting at home, sipping coffee and petting his thirty pound cat Mister.  Well….I shouldn’t say no one.

Butcher knows that things need to happen in order for more things to happen.  Some plot lines are more interesting than others, sadly.  I won’t spoil anything, but Ghost Story struggled from a lack of direction as well as a dearth of meaningful decisions.  Butcher learned his lesson on that, though, as Cold Days that followed was full of important decisions, epic conflict, and mystery.

There is always a mystery to be solved in these books, and for those of us that want to use our minds when reading, the world of Dresden Files delivers every single time.  There were times when I didn’t know who the villain was for the entire book until the last few pages.  It’s not usually cut and dry, evil vs. good, light side vs. dark.  One of Harry Dresden’s most hated enemies is a man of considerable stature in the criminal world.  He has been responsible, directly or indirectly, for some of the more heinous crimes in recent history.  And yet, Harry is forced to work with, for, or begrudgingly alongside this man dozens of times.  There are even a few solitary snippets to be had where this man is seen to be doing something wrong for a good reason.  Stealing a cure to save a child.  Something like that.

Harry has a healthy (and sometimes unhealthy) amount of inner monologue on display.  He is clearly at odds with himself over many past, present, and future decisions.  Above all else, he’s very much a human.  Full of fears, doubts, suspicions, failures, hopes and desires.  These books don’t play the philosophy or psychology cards, yet they are so very much full of such concepts.  It’s just more subtle than most.  Harry has an ability that is unique to wizards in this particular universe.  He can attempt a soulgaze of another entity.  It amounts to looking into the other person, thing, or creature’s eyes and maintaining eye contact.  There’s only a brief window in which to drop out of a soulgaze. Once you’re in, though, it’s quite the ride.  Dresden Files goes from a action-on-the-run mystery thriller to something more.  For those few brief instants, you’re directly transported into a sort of…abstraction, usually in the form of an elaborate metaphor that captures the essence of the person Harry is gazing into. (For those people in the comments: Harry is not the only one who can Soulgaze. Reread my words)

In one particular soulgaze, Harry finds himself seeing a young associate of his in a sort of crossroads in front of several mirrors.  She, herself, is barely old enough to have made any lasting decisions, and is standing still, ready to take that plunge into one of those mirrors.  Each mirror holds a possibility of her future self.  One is happy, working on a farm somewhere in Missouri.  Another is sitting at home with her family, looking quite bored, but secretly working magics upon them.  The most pressing of them is the form of a ragged witch-like creature who is emanating waves of evil and treachery.

The thing about soulgazes is that they’re two-way.  She saw just as much of him and he did of her.  Butcher never tells us exactly what they see, but it’s almost always not good, even terrifying to some.  Being given insight into the people around Harry is just as important as gaining insight into his own mind.

Butcher is careful not to divulge too much, too quickly, lest we may become bored with our flawed hero.  In the dozen or more years that these books cover, Harry changes quite a bit.  Some of his own doing, some not.  We are very much the product of the company we keep, so it’s heartening that his allies are some of the most interesting side characters I’ve ever witness.

There’s Michael the Holy Knight of the Cross, a man of faith and abilities who provides a sharp contrast with Harry’s more…nonreligious perspective.  Then there’s Lieutenant Karrin Murphy, of the Chicago Police.  She works dozens of cases alongside Harry and becomes a much-needed confidant and back-up in times of peril.  In the words of Sanya, “Small, yet fierce.”

All of these characters come together to make for an ensemble cast that gives other fantasy novels a run for their money.  Add in the complex nature of the forces that be in his world, and the compelling, usually morally gray conflicts that arise, you have yourself one of the finest book series we’re like to see.  I’m now headed onto his Codex Alera book series.  I’ll see you soon.