Sunday, August 24, 2014

DEFCON 1

Just a short update for now while I work on a larger post.

When I commit myself to researching an interesting topic or working on something important I have a tendency to go a little overboard. I let the subject at hand completely consume me and I end up spend much of my time contemplating it. If I allow this to go on long enough these sorts of thoughts start to take up valuable real estate in my brain until, finally, it all spills over. After that, I start having really strange dreams related to my current obsession.

I can't count all the times I've been busy angrily yelling at someone in a dream only to be interrupted by a Dalek wheeling into the room and start shouting nonsense that sounded important at the time but after I woke up I realized was just nonsense. When I spend a lot of time working on maps I often wake up the next morning remembering little else but seeing Hammer's 2-D grid plastered over everything. Well lately, I've been researching nukes.

I admit it: I have been completely enamored with nuclear weapons lately. They're horrible but are so awe-inspiring in how horrible they are. Everything about them is fascinating. Think about all the engineering that went into making them, all the scientists and all the discoveries that had to be made to make them possible. And what was the result? A weapon so powerful we've decided that they were too terrible to use. How many other times in history has that happened?

The attitude surrounding nuclear weapons is fascinating too: People are absolutely terrified by them. Nukes have become a symbol of everything wrong with the modern world, reviled and feared the world over. And it's not just us who think this way. Even alien invaders can agree: nukes are bad. Think about it, how many movies have you seen where the holier-than-thou aliens are putting humanity on trial and their argument for destroying us is always stock footage of the Castle Bravo detonation.





Well, because I've been reading so much about the ultimate symbol of Man's hubris they've started making some interesting appearances in my recent dreams.

The earliest one I can remember happened about two months ago. I was abducted by a nameless person and forced into a black sedan. We drive down a winding country road in complete silence. My abductor looks ahead with stern determination, their face an unmoving frown the whole way. I never bother to ask why this is happening.

Eventually my kidnapper either explains or I naturally determine that we're going for a camping trip near a lake. I start to look forward to this until I realize there isn't actually a lake. Instead, we drive up to an empty model home in the middle of the woods. The car speeds away as I'm left standing on the front porch with a pamphlet of the house's layout and price range. Another vague, unidentifiable person appears and starts exploring the house. I seem to think they're an old friend of mine.

Frustrated by the turn of events I go around to the back of the house and find a large ditch. It looks like a pipe was meant to go here, like a septic line. Nearby is a huge pile of glowing gravel. But it's not just any ordinary gravel, oh no. It's enriched uranium. So I get a shovel and start dumping the radioactive material into the ditch. As I pour more uranium into the hole it starts to glow brighter and I can feel a dry heat radiating from the growing pile. As I shovel more and more into the pit it starts to go critical. Eventually the gravel becomes glowing orange embers as the entire mass undergoes fission.

After that, dreams about homemade reactors or radiation were sadly few and far between. The best that could be hoped for were the ghostly images of a mushroom cloud rising on the horizon.

Then, three days ago I have another nuclear dream. I'm standing on a cliff looking at a huge metropolitan city. It's early morning and the sun is just starting to peek over the huge skyscrapers. Suddenly, an enormous black shape appears, striding over the buildings and smashing them to rubble. It's walks on three graceful, mechanical legs like a tripodal giraffe. It's body is like a giant sea mine with Hertz horn-like protrusions studding it's entire surface. A single glowing red eye sits in the middle of it's spherical body, coldly regarding the destruction it had caused.

This machine had been sent here by an alien civilization to judge the human race. If it decided we were worthy of life, maybe it would be content to destroy this one city and return to the stars. But if we displeased it, it would have no choice but to self destruct. The machine came equipped with a massive thermonuclear device implanted deep in it's core. A lithium bomb that would explode with force exceeding even the Tsar Bomba. If the machine decided our time had come, it could initiate Doomsday and crack the planet in half.

People from all over the world came to plead with it, hoping to convince it that the human race wasn't beyond redemption. School teachers, politicians, scientists, expecting mothers; all of them came with clasped hands held high, trying to reason with the tripod monster.

And then the dream went...a little stupid. Suddenly Godzilla rose out of the ocean with Mario riding on top of his head. A cascade of red mushrooms fell from the sky as they charged to attack the machine. The last thing I remember was an intense, burning and a bright light.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Abandon Ship

Believe it or not, I have mapping related news again. Holy smokes!

D.E.L.B. asked me to help him with his game mode project inspired by The Birds again. This time, he wanted me to place props in a finished, but otherwise barren map.


The idea is pretty unique too: a small military ship, like a Coast Guard cutter stranded at sea and surrounded on all sides by dirty, filthy birds that the player must defend themselves against. His only real stipulation was that the props I use be period-appropriate for the 1960's. So the decision was made to fill it's interior with as many metal pipes as it could accommodate. This actually ended up being a little more difficult than I thought it would be. Since the hallways inside the ship were shorter than Half-Life 2's standard hallways there were plenty of places where pipes stuck through the floor and risked appearing a level above or below.

I ended up arranging pipes like a carefully constructed origami sculpture, placing them according to wall thickness so nothing poked through the hull at inconvenient angles.


Of course, the map would never truly be done unless disaster struck at some point.

Disaster finally came when I noticed a small yellow button on the top deck. Remember, I didn't construct this map, I was only decorating it. So it's inner workings were a mystery to me. Well, I pressed the button...and nothing happened. I chalked it up to being an unfinished feature and went back to wandering around the boat. But as time went by I started to notice suspicious metal 'pinging' sounds coming from below deck. The lockers I had placed earlier were flying around the hallways, colliding with something I wasn't aware of. More of these little oddities started to appear.

I don't remember this being under water...

Did I really place these props crookedly like this?...

Suddenly it dawned on me: the button makes the whole boat sink. Before I knew it, the entire thing went diagonal and dove under the water...conspicuously not taking all the props with it. As it fell to the unseen bottom all the pipes and valves I had been placing remained stationary, eerily floating above the water like the ship's left-behind skeleton. These pictures you've been seeing were screenshots I took when I first learned about all this. It was so shocking I knew I just had to save it for my scrapbook.


I told D.E.L.B. what had happened. His response could basically be summed up as "Oops". Apparently the boat's self destruct device had been in development for a long time, it's just that no one bothered to tell me. Because, as always, no one ever tells me anything.

Everything ended up being alright though. All the models I used were easily converted from static props to dynamics with no errors arising. After that, it was easy to parent them to the boat entity. With that done, the pipes could be expected to go down with the ship without phasing through the walls or floors like some kind of demented ghost.

There was a persistent problem I couldn't fix though. Because the boat was a giant func_brush with it's own simulated physics, it was very difficult to place physics props without them bouncing all over the interior. Maybe it's just a quirk of the physics engine, or because so many physics calculations were being done at once; but for whatever reason, every physics prop I placed would slide around like the floors were made of ice or clip through each other and make a big mess. It was a disaster and I ended up getting rid of most of them. I have no idea if the problem could be fixed or not, I assume not. But hey, it's not my department, I'm just the interior decorator.

All in all, I actually really liked working on this map. The brush work was very well done and much like the mod itself, it's an unusual idea for a Source engine project. Apparently, the story this time around is that the player is the last sailor left alive after the ship ran aground (explaining the big gaping hole decal I was asked to place). Stressful enough on it's own, but now imagine filthy birds pecking at you.

And finally here's a giant oil drum from an unrelated project.


Yes, there's actually a keyvalue for prop gigantism. And yes, I never bothered to toy around with it until now. My failure to include giant cacti in maps until now will probably be remembered as the greatest failure of my life.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Your's Truly

Oh hey, don't mind me. I'm just holding all these bunnies is all.


I figured it was only appropriate to wait until Bunday to show you all this. Apparently there was a pet store in town with rabbits this whole time and I didn't know about it.

Seriously, take a good look at that picture because I'm almost never that happy. In fact, handing me a rabbit is probably the only sure-fire way to get me to smile for pictures. Because as we all know, there are only two things in life that will make my face jump from "mild irritation" to "slightly content" and that's Daleks. It's also bunnies.

Being around rabbits is actually pretty therapeutic for me. I'm generally a very wound up person, somewhere between George Costanza and Joe Pesci as far as levels of agitation go. But as soon as I'm in proximity to a rabbit I drift down to 'merely' normal person levels of anxiety. Dogs are too stupid and loud, if anything having one around would just make me more upset. Cats are too aloof and untrustworthy, I can't trust them and they just stress me out more. Having a pet octopus is out of the question so really, the only animal I could stand living with is a big armful of rabbits. Only then will my life be complete.

...Well okay, my life will be complete when I have that and my Dalek shell. But you know, one step at a time.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

UDILQUEST 2014

Here's a story about Udil Bronzebolt, a dwarf. I refuse to explain who he is or how he's relevant to anything here.

Unending Despair

By Tyler Baray

Green and purple lights danced across the bubbling alien landscape. Giant mushrooms grew like trees in the swampy murk. In the distance came the sound of weeping children as glowing spores floated through the fetid air. Elven blood oozed out of every crevice and dribbled down the trunks of the mushrooms. The air stank of stale sweat and passion fruit.

Udil Bronzebolt sat at the bank of a pond of gurgling blood. He quietly rocked from side to side as his twitching eyes darted all around the unfamiliar surroundings. He swatted at invisible insects, muttering lowly to himself as he watched the thick, curdling blood lap at the shoreline.

"You're talking to yourself again." A raspy voice said from his backpack.

Udil reached in and felt around. His hand brushed against a slimy pair of dirty socks and what felt like a fresh liver. Eventually he found what he was looking for and pulled out a human skull by the eye sockets.

"We've got ta git outta 'ere." He said as he clutched the skull close to him.

"Oh of course. That's what you said when you saw that gelatinous blob or when you got us stuck in that tar. Oh! Or the time you almost decided to feed yourself to that big gurgling thing with no skin." The skull said. "And yet you never actually manage to do what you say you'll do."

"I told ye, I jus' keep walkin'...always in one direction. But we're going in circles. These trees are playin' tricks on us...I think-"

"Shut up."

Udil unceremoniously stuffed the skull back in the sack and got up to stretch his stubby arms. From all sides came the sound of hissing swamp gas as rotting vegetation forced its way up to the surface. There was no road to guide him, no signs of civilization at all. There was only the inescapable stench of blood and the anguished cries in the distance. He took one final look around and met the gaze of a large spider-like creature with his own face. It opened it's mouth in a wide, toothy grin and flicked it's tongue at him, which ended in another, smaller head like a hairless rabbit's. It hefted it's bloated body up a mushroom and stared at him. Slowly backing away, Udil decided it was time to leave.

Mile after mile he slogged through the mud and slime. Glowing eyes watched him from the fog. As time went by and his legs started to ache he could swear he heard the screams of his old companions. Visions of the tower flitted through his mind.

There was a bright flash as the air erupted in a thunder clap. Udil fell face first in the mud as hundreds of disembodied baby hands suddenly fell from the sky.They grasped at his beard as he struggled to get back up. Horrified, he tried to scramble away. A hand fell down the collar of his tattered shirt and he started to lose it. Udil writhed and flailed his arms as he started to panic. Hundreds of baby hands silently crawled toward him, grasping at his face and trying to force his eyes open. He cried out for help as he rolled around in the mud. But the only answers were the tormented howls in the wind.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Not-So Final Frontier

One thing that's always disappointed me about science-fiction is the tendency to give alien planets a single environmental theme with little to no variation. Everywhere you go it's always "desert planet" this or "jungle planet" that. What's the likelihood of an entire world being dominated by a single geological feature?

Imagine being on the first starship to explore the cosmos. Now imagine the disappointment you'll feel once you realize every world you visit is either entirely covered in ice or populated by nothing but giant mushrooms. Sure, if you're filming a T.V. series you have more important things to worry about like budgetary constraints. And I'm sure you don't want the writing staff spending all their time working on realistic geological models or weather patterns for a planet the cast is going to spend a single episode exploring. So what's the next best compromise? Just tell the audience that it's an ocean planet or a giant insect planet and move on.

It's similar to the problem of giving aliens a single, all-encompassing culture with no variation. You can choose to explore an entire species, all their cultures, their sub-cultures, their history, myths and religions. Or you can save a lot of time and say "This is a warrior culture!", "These are telepaths!", "These are homicidal saltshakers!".

And sure, that might save you time and it might get you through the season on a reasonable schedule. But on the other hand, what really is the likelihood of an entire planet being populated by nothing but gangsters?

As is obvious to everyone (except T.V. executives), our own little Earth is an amazingly varied place, with all manner of hot springs, salt flats, hoodoos, shopping malls, mesas and swamps to explore. If alien planets are anything like what books say, why bother going to them? Why bother going to the desert planet or the ocean planet when you can stay right here on Earth and enjoy either of those features in the span of a single day, no expensive spaceship necessary?

Or better yet, go visit some features right here on Earth that are many times stranger than what most fictional planets have to offer. Places like...

Pamukkale

Meaning "cotton castle" in Turkish, Pamukkale is a hot spring found in southwestern Turkey. A prime tourist destination for the past thousand years, the hot springs are dominated by snowy white terraces of travertine, a kind of limestone formed from calcium deposits in the water. These terraces reach down the hillside like steps on an enormous staircase. All the while mineral-rich water bubbles up to the surface, heated to anywhere from 35 °C to 100 °C.


This water brings calcium carbonate up to the surface as a thick jelly. Carbon dioxide is released as a gas, which results in deposits of calcium carbonate forming around the rims of the pools. This hardens, creating travertine which goes on to make even more pools as it spills over the side. As time goes by the result is an otherworldly landscape that looks eerily man-made.


Natural terraces like these are surprisingly common all over the world, with formations found anywhere from Iran, New Zealand, Italy or Yellowstone in Wyoming. Any hot spring that forms limestone deposits stands a chance of creating them.

Rio Tinto

A river in southwestern Spain, the Rio Tinto has the good fortune of flowing through a region rich in precious metals. Along the Rio Tinto lies a panoply of valuable minerals like copper, gold and silver. Since 3,000 BC the region has been mined by everyone from the Phoenicians to the Greeks and Romans, spilling untold thousands and thousands of gallons of acid mine drainage into the water. This wildly irresponsible dumping of toxic waste has continued to our current day as the region is still being mined for precious minerals.


As a result, the river is full of skin-searing acid and dissolved iron that gives it a deep blood-red color.


While it would be easy to assume the acid disintegrates anything it comes in contact with, the Rio Tinto isn't completely uninhabited. Extremophilic bacteria swarm in it's water and feed on the iron and sulfide minerals trapped in it's riverbed. What's interesting is that it's been speculated that these bacteria might actually contribute to much of the acidic content in the water, meaning they actively sterilize the Rio Tinto of any lifeforms that might oppose them.

That's hot.

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the largest salt flat in the world. About the size of Manhattan Island, it is a desolate, eerie landscape; completely flat and devoid of life. The parched, cracked surface extends into the horizon in every direction. Nothing grows here. Nothing lives here.

However, the salt flat is home to small "islands" of rocky land, the remains of ancient volcanoes peeking out of the briny crust. These rare few islands are the only places where life clings to, well, life in the salt flat. Some are large enough to host a semi-permanent population, such as Isla Incahuasi.


Large cacti dot the islands of the Salar and small rabbit-like rodents called Viscacha can be found hiding in the rocks. But besides these few rocky outcrops the salt flat is virtually devoid of life. Except the cacti, practically no plant can call this place home, resulting in a pristine void of life where nothing can live, like the background of a Salvador Dali painting.


The fact that the Salar is a lifeless wasteland hasn't stopped it from becoming a tourist destination of course. Numerous hotels have sprung up on it's islands and along it's outer rim. And what are these hotels made of in the absence of wood or stone building materials? Salt of course.

Enterprising hotel owners dig up bricks of solid salt, stack them together and call it a hotel, complete with salt furniture, tables, chairs and beds. All made of salt.


What I love the most about the Salar is how utterly lifeless it is. I don't mean that sarcastically either. I would love to just wander around this barren, sterile landscape. Imagine walking across the salt flat and not seeing another living thing for miles and miles, totally alone in this surreal world of never-ending sand and blue sky.

Finally, despite it's arid appearance, the Salar has surprisingly mild weather. The average temperature is anywhere from 21 °C to 13 °C depending on the time of year. That's anywhere from 70 to 55 °F. So in review,  it's completely lifeless, almost devoid of people and so featureless it could count as a giant sensory deprivation tank and it has nice weather.

Guys, I think I finally found a place to build my dream house.

Spotted Lake

Nestled in the wilderness of British Columbia is the Spotted Lake, a body of water so salty it could only have been created by dumping a truck load of ramen flavor packets into a hole and filling it with water.

It's described as a saline endorheic alkaline lake, which means the Spotted Lake is a drainage basin that doesn't open to any other bodies of water, has a pH of 7 or more and is very very salty. It's extreme salinity and soupy texture are what causes the spots, which represent enormous quantities of minerals like magnesium sulfate and calcium floating on the surface like giant glass beads.


In fact, the Spotted Lake has some of the highest quantities of such minerals not just in Canada, nor North America, but the entire world. This is especially true in the summer months when most of the water evaporates, leaving huge pancakes of encrusted mineral deposits behind.


Of course, the lake's status as the world's largest salt bath hasn't gone unnoticed. In addition to using the mineral deposits to manufacture ammunition in World War I there were plans to build a spa at the site and exploit the water's therapeutic properties. As far as I can tell it hasn't been built yet, which might be for the best. I get the feeling the water would have the consistency of Pepto-Bismol.

Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves

German for "World of the Ice Giants", Eisriesenwelt can be found in the Alps along the Austrian border. Snaking over forty-two kilometers into the mountain, it is the largest limestone ice cave in the world.


Limestone is a kind of sedimentary rock made of crystals of calcite and carbonate which, because of it's composition, can easily be eroded by water. As water flows over the years it sculpts the limestone into beautiful, otherworldly structures known as karsts. These become features like sinkholes and caves, forming some of the most iconic geological structures in the world like the Carlsbad Caverns, Sarawak Chamber and of course Eisriesenwelt.

The ice is cooled year round, either from cold air blowing in during the winter or blowing out during the summer. As new water enters the cave it freezes, conforming to the smooth shape of the limestone, taking on breathtaking, swooping forms, some of them reaching several meters high or flowing down from the ceiling like giant frozen chandeliers. The ice and rippling limestone walls give the cave an appearance like giant sheets of flowing silk or a lava lamp that's been frozen in place.

Sadly, there's almost no pictures to prove this, since flash photography is verboten in the cave. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Seriously you guys, even though I've seen almost no pictures of it I'm pretty sure it's gorgeous.

Probably.