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This is my third (fourth?) iteration of blogging. Previous attempts were always focused around cultivating a display of expertise in some particular topic (software, guitars, etc.) But over time, it just turned into work, so I always ended up shutting them down in the end.

But after awhile I realized I had things I wanted to write about, regardless of whether or not anyone really wants to read about it or not. I just felt like saying something again.

So here I am in my late forties, rapidly losing my ability give a shit about what anyone thinks of my interests and hobbies, giving this blogging thing another go. The difference this time is that I don’t have an agenda. Hell, I don’t even really have a topic of focus other than things that are most closely associated with my current obsessions: cars, music and board-games.

Me pushing my hot-hatch around a track for giggles

The car thing started out innocently enough a few years ago. A friend made an offhand remark that he had gotten into Formula 1 racing. I always thought I could get into that too, if only I knew a little more. Two hours and several beers later he laid the whole sport out for me.

The next day I watched my first F1 race and was hit like a bolt of lightning: WHERE HAS THIS BEEN ALL OF MY LIFE?? Watching F1 races led to watching to rally. Which led to taking driving classes at Dirtfish, which led to getting my own car and learning to drive it on the track at high speeds. So yeah, somehow I became a “car guy” when I least suspected it.

Rock and roll!

I’ve written about guitars before, with my abortive attempt at making a business around guitar lessons. I’ve learned that such entrepreneurial pursuits aren’t really my bag (which why I’ll be a working stiff until I retire), but I do love playing the instrument and getting better at it—even after 30+ years of playing.

Twilight Imperium 4 ed — feel the heft, feel the nerdery

I have loved board-games since I was a kid. I remember playing D&D with my gang of neighborhood games during its peak in the 80s. Not long after we discovered Squad Leader and I’ve been a game-nerd ever since.

These days, we are living in the so-called “golden age of board-games”, where the sheer quality and quantity of games has reached an all-time high. My wife will be the first to tell you that we have too many games. I say bollocks—not possible.

Board-games has led to other pursuits in nearby areas such as a return to RPGs and, geekiest of all, miniature painting. It wasn’t until I returned to these hobbies that I realized how much I missed them.

So that’s how we ended up here, hopefully having something to say without it feeling like a chore—back to blogging.

Diving Into Sim-Racing

As our new COVID-19-dictated existence blurs one day into the next, I see the HPDE schedule melting away in 2020. With some luck, we’ll all be fortunate to return to some level of “normalcy” before the end of the year and if we’re really lucky, the track-day nerds like me will actually get safely hoon around our local courses. Until then, it looks like we’ll have to bide our time.

So it comes at no surprise that I, like approximately 99.9999% of all other track-junkies, have taken to sim-racing as way to get their fix. As a “tech-guy” and general nerd, sim-racing seems like a natural fit for me. But I have always cast a wary sideways glance at sim-racing. As a relatively new HPDE-driver, I was always concerned that playing something too “gamey” would reinforce bad habits and make me both slower and less safe on the real track. It also looked like yet-another money-pit for me to get sucked into. Sure, the cost of a sim-rig is a fraction of actual track-days, but did I really need both in my life?

Well, the short answer is “yes”. With no track-days going on, I figured anything was better than nothing, and the more I looked into sim-racing the more it looked like it could not only be a lot of fun, but also extremely rewarding as a learning opportunity.

The Stone-Soup Approach

I don’t know if I would have gone all-in if I hadn’t, by chance, inherited a racing-wheel setup through a relative of mine. I figured that not having to spend $300-500 bucks on a wheel meant I could dip my toe into this pool pretty easily. However, my best intentions were waylaid by a variety of technical hurdles and what I hoped would be a gentle easing into the waters of sim-racing turned into a head

I quickly learned that being a “Mac guy” is a bit of desert island when it comes to gaming and particularly for racing games. I figured if I was going to get into this, I was going to do it right so after some research I concluded that Assetto Corsa and perhaps later, iRacing, were going to be my sims of choice. This meant I was going to have to deal with Windows.

I have one of those oddball trash-can Mac Pros from 2013 that I use heavily for music and video stuff. I figured if it was up to the task for media-work, I could probably dual-boot it via Bootcamp. Alas, my poor SSD was already bulging at the seams so my first task was to swap that for a new 1TB SSD.

The Mac Pro, aka “The Cylon Diaper-Genie”

The brain-swap worked surprisingly well and the next order of business was to get Bootcamp on there. Unfortunately, due to compatibility issues with some of my music-production hardware, I can’t yet upgrade to the latest MacOS. This led to three days of fruitless attempts to repartition the Mac Pro in an attempt to get Windows installed on it. In the end, I never did get it to work.

OK. Not a promising start, but I needed the HD upgrade anyway, so why not just get some more arcade-y game for the Mac and at least try the wheel out? I had previously bought Grid Autosport for my Nintendo Switch as a fun car-related distraction. I figure track-driving with those controls probably wasn’t going to ruin my behind-the-wheel skills and might even be beneficial as a way to work on vision. So I plonked down $10 for the same game on the Mac, plugged my wheel in, loaded up COTA and immediately drove straight into the wall at turn 1.

Sigh.

I do some digging and as far as I can tell, this inherited G27 wheel should be compatible with Grid. But I’ll be damned if I can get it to work. So after a day or to of contemplation I come to the conclusion that I will likely have an easier time overall if I just get a PC.

Now, I haven’t had a Windows machine in 15+ years, but there have been enough times where I needed a PC for some odd thing that maybe it was finally time to get one. I just bought an iCarSoft OBD-port tool for my Cayman and I could only update it via some janky Windows EXE I had to download. So before all things that are fun for shut-ins are sold out, I managed to snag a decent Alienware PC at the local Best Buy.

Boy howdy…nothing says new Porsche owner like assuming you can fit anything bigger than a six-pack in your sportscar. This would have fit more easily in my Fiesta.

As a long-time Mac user I was simultaneously horrified and fascinated by this new computing citizen that appeared in my office. Unlike the sleek silver and black devices from Apple, this thing looked like a robot that walked straight out of Portal. But I do my best to go into this with an open-mind, so I booted it up and dealt with Windows in earnest for the first time since Bush Jr. was in the Oval Office.

Alien-ware, indeed

I get the PC unboxed and plugged in. I get my Steam account setup. I get Assetto Corsa downloaded. I plug-in the G27 wheel, load up Spa-Francorchamps and immediately go straight off into the barriers at the La Source Hairpin. No turning again. The pedals work, the buttons work, the shifter works, but no turning. This is not really what you could call a “reasonable compromise”.

So I install and re-install various drivers over and over. I unplug and reseat all the cables. I even attempt to start disassembling the wheel to see if it has a broken sensor before I realize that, even if it does, it’s beyond my capacity to fix it. Along the way I’ve found a world of niche sim-racing forums chock full of low-res ads and even lower-res grammar and spelling.

Sidenote: the internet is both a blessing and curse when it comes to troubleshooting problems with computers. It’s very rare that a technical issue you are experiencing is totally unique to you and it’s very likely somebody out there has had the same problem. However, trolling the web for fixes to this steering wheel reminded me that most of us (including me at times) don’t actually really know how things work. So there’s this weird cargo-culting of knowledge where you find a lot of YouTube videos or forums posts I would put in the category of this-one-time-I-did-this-thing-and-the-gods-blessed-me-with-a-bountiful-harvest-so-I-keep-doing-that. Needless to say, they did not inspire confidence. If our future relies on technology, I don’t find that future particularly encouraging. Anyway…

After about a week of fighting with drivers, I gave up on the donated wheel. I’m sure someone with more electronics skills than me could figure it out, and I wasn’t interested in turning this into another project. Meanwhile, every track-junkie in the world seems to be getting into sim-racing and all I could see was shipping dates slipping as I trolled Amazon for replacement wheels. So with little hesitation, I hit the ship-the-damn-thing-to-me-now button and got myself a new Logitech G920 wheel and shifter.

My house is filling with boxes at an alarming rate…

A few days later it arrives, I plug it in, and holy smokes, it works! Look at me! I’m sim-racing!

Yes, my desk is a mess. No, I don’t drive in the follow-cam mode.

Oh…except that my office chair is meant to scoot around on wheels. So every time I turn or press the pedals (particularly the brakes) I’m scooting around in my office. Hrmmm…okay…time to go to the local hardware store, look for those cup things you put under furniture to protect hard-wood floors…hmmm…nope that doesn’t work. OK, search the internet some more and BINGO, order some locking wheels for the chair.

Presenting the Stealtho wheels

Alright, now we’re getting somewhere. I get the wheel setup, then press down the locks and this seems like it’s working. But…oh…wait…after a few laps the whole wheel-stand is seems to be slowly creeping under my desk. Oh god…I know what’s going on…

Yeah, physics. Remember Newtonian mechanics? Equal and opposing forces? All that heavy braking sitting in a chair that won’t move, means the force goes into the pedals and corner by corner, is pushing the pedals away from me. Right…this is why people get complete sim-racing setups. Hmmm…I don’t have the space for that. Think…think…think…

After some scrounging around in the garage, I find some locking straps I bought to hold fuel-jugs together in my old Focus RS for track days. I go back into the basement, get my chair and wheel setup and then loop this between the chair and wheel stand. With that locked in, the pedals and chair finally stay in place as the braking forces are now in a closed system. Now I can finally turn some laps!

Oh the hacking…

So this won’t win any awards for elegance, but it does work. I have been able to turn some laps without my setup drifting around on me. With a relatively stable environment in place, now it’s time to focus on my driving and see how to get better.

The Plan

Because it’s me, I’m trying to go into this whole sim-racing thing with some kind of plan. I figure learning how this all works is going to happen in phases, so the goal is to make steady progress but not biting off so much in a single chunk that it gets discouraging. I think this how it’s going to play out:

  • Start with a low-powered car on a familiar track. For me it will be a MX-5 Cup car at The Ridge
  • Turn 100 laps with this setup without any hardcore data-analysis. Just develop a feel for the setup
  • Turn another 50-100 laps with actual data analysis (more on this later)
  • Start racing the computer in actual sim-races. I expect to be dead-last when I start out at this, but would like to “graduate” to mid-pack after a few races
  • Start racing against some real opponents. Expect a similar back-to-middle progression
  • Pick a new car (maybe a Cayman?) and start all over
  • Maybe start iRacing?

With all of that, I finally have a working setup in place. Yes, I could certainly throw more money at this with a better seating setup, or go triple-monitors or even VR. But for now, I’m simply going to turn some laps and try to get better at this thing. Oh, and I’ll try not to forget to have some fun while I’m at it.

Tabletop Simulator—A Self-Quarantine God-Send

I’m fast approaching middle-age like I approach freeway on-ramps—both happen at high speed and involve some discomfort in the organs. Like most folks my age, we usually stumble onto some “great discovery” only to find that just about everyone else seems to already know about it. So I know that I am not unearthing anything new in discovering the joys of Tabletop Simulator, especially during these usual times of social-distancing and self-quarantine. However, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if legions of boardgames nerds like myself have also just recently discovered it as a way to get their boardgames-fix.

At first glance Tabletop Simulator (herein referred to as “TTS”) doesn’t appear to have a ton of DLC. Fortunately what they do have is pretty good. I recently played a round of The Captain is Dead which played pretty much like the physical board-game. It seemed useful but limited until I discovered there was more in the so-called “workshops”, and here is where the real magic of TTS lies.

If you go diving into the workshops you can find mods for just about any game you can imagine. This past December my brother-in-law brought over his copy of the Kickstarter juggernaut, Nemesis, to play over the holidays. I fell in love with the game and have tried to find a copy in vain since then. But the game is impossible to find anywhere in stores and only available online from price-gougers. Pfft. No thanks.

The sea of virtual colors pretty much matches the real-life experience

One quick search in the TTS workshops yielded a highly-rated hit for Nemesis. Note that these mods are all community-created and supported. As far as I know, this workshop isn’t officially supported by Awaken Realms, but it’s a damn fine one. The game-piece assets looks top-notch and pretty much like the real game. My one beef is the 2D version of the miniatures, but that is a very very small gripe.

The actual game-play was pretty much a note-for-note simulation of the real thing. The mod even included a scanned copy of the rules and all of the quick-reference charts. While I’m happy to support publishers, I’m quite content to play Nemesis on TTS for now.

The game-board is one thing, but I also want some interactivity in the game. Honestly, half the fun of board-games is getting in a room (virtual or otherwise) to BS, talk smack and generally joke around. TTS does support some level in-game audio, but we eschewed that in favor of using Discord. Discord has its own UI/UX issues, but it does work well for audio once you get it set up. That said, it’s completely separate from playing the game. If you want to use any other system (Skype, Zoom, Slack, FaceTime, etc.) you can absolutely do so.

TTS proved its worth in spades this weekend by allowing a group of us to play our giant Twilight Imperium game that was scheduled over four months ago. Without TTS we would have just had to cancel, forgoing the crunchy/nerdy goodness we all desperately need these days.

If the Nemesis mod was good, the TI mod was outstanding (aside from a few oddball issues). This appears to be one of the most popular workshops and clearly has had a lot of love and attention put into it. It also appears to be the the de facto way people play online, even going so far as to host entire tournaments with it.

Keep in mind that TTS is primarily a physics-engine with some scriptability. By and large, the games in TTS don’t enforce any rules. It’s simply a simulation of a real table. So you’re (mostly) free to pickup and move/flip/destroy/shuffle whatever you like. In a handful of cases one of us would drop an item off of the table accidentally, falling into the “Infinite Pit of Despair”. Eventually some components would re-appear in the middle of the board, but some were simply lost to undetectable dark-matter. What we lost in productivity we gained in comic gold, so at least there was that.

TTS is deep enough that it rewards those who take the time to learn the controls. As is true with all computer-related things, the hotkeys are your friends. Learning the keys to quickly save and shift camera views, shuffle decks, draw cards and so on really speeds up the experience and helps reduce the level of indirection you feel when playing a boardgames via a simulator. The core application has plenty of controls and the workshops themselves (particularly the “scripted” ones) offer plenty of additional tools and shortcuts.

This discovery has been an absolute god-send for me during the period of self-imposed lockdown. There are plenty of other great ways to plays games online with friends, but you can’t find a first-class way to play the game of your choice, take a look at Tabletop Simulator.

Dead of Winter

$25 for a “used” copy that has never actually been played? Yes please.

I was in Portland recently and found this little gem at Cloud Cap Games. My brother in law (who is a certified horror-movie expert) thought I might like this and we tried one of the expanded versions last fall at SHUX.

My game collection is getting a little unwieldy and it’s definitely time to thin the herd a bit, but I couldn’t resist this one. I mean, $25 for this little gem in near-mint condition? How could I pass that up?

I’m not really a horror fan per se. I’ve never watched The Walking Dead and mostly sort of dabble in the genre. But I do love me some horror games, especially ones with delicious mix of cooperative play tinged with betrayal and hidden agendas.

Last year I picked up a copy of Who Goes There?, which is based on the book of the same name that inspired The Thing. It’s a game with a lot of mechanics, but does a pretty good job of capturing the cooperative/paranoia that pervades the novella and Carpenter film.

Dead of Winter has more straightforward mechanics than Who Goes There? and also has this intriguing “crossroads” card mechanism that promises to keep the game highly replayable. I haven’t gotten it out on the table yet, but am very eager to. Stay tuned…

Back to Pedalboards

A few years ago I made a tectonic-sized shift away from the classic guitar-pedals-amp setup and bought a Kemper profiling amp. It turned out to be one of the best gear purchases I’ve ever made and it continues to delight me every time I play it. It has worked particularly well both for recording and when I play with a classic-rock cover band where I really like to recreate the original sounds as much as possible.

But in the past year or so I’ve started playing more jazz. At first I took on the self-imposed constraint of playing with a complete straight-up setup: guitar into amp (okay, there was a volume pedal in there).

This worked pretty well for a while as it really made me focus on getting as much expression as I could with a very small toolbox. But now that experiment has run its course and I wanted to dabble with a broader sonic spectrum. Since I’m no jazz traditionalist I have no problem with busting out a super-strat and some pedals while still playing something people might recognize as being akin to jazz.

To that end, I decided it was time to build a pedal board again. This time, rather than just being a rag-tag collection of whatever orphaned pedals I could get my hands on, I wanted to put together a purpose-built pedal board. I don’t need this to do everything—in many ways I still want to embrace the constraints of a limited set of options. But I do want to have more than just one sound.

So I started by thinking about what I wanted and after some noodling it came down to this:

  • Some kind of over driver, for a little “funk” a la John Scofield
  • Some kind of modern, fusion-y distortion (not the brown sound)
  • Some kind of chorus to go between Andy Summers shimmer and the Scofield “gargling gnome”
  • Some kind of delay/echo
  • Some kind of compression

After some poking around, I settled on a Nux Cerberus multi-effects unit, which covers the first four items. I was originally looking at the Tech 21 Fly Rigs as I really liked the form-factor, but stumbled across the Cerberus. So I ordered one (with the comfort of free returns) and upon arrival took an immediate liking to it.

The only thing I was missing was a compressor pedal. So I went down to my local guitar store and spent about an hour noodling around with about five different compressors, finally settling on the Keely, which had the best over all sound and range.

Throw in an actual board to mount the pedals and a minimal amount of George El connectors and cable and voilà — a brand new pedal board!

Flipping jazz the bird with lots of LEDs

I was able to just fit these pedals on the board. The EQ pedal was one I had lying around and is really only meant as small tweak to adjust for different rooms that amp controls don’t adequately handle.

Unlike the Kemper, I don’t have any pre-programmed patches. I basically use the Cerberus in “manual mode”, treating each section like a normal pedal with knob-tweaking as necessary. The net-result is exactly what I was looking for: an expansion of the sonic palate in a compact form.

I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received. At one point in the first rehearsal I used this in one of the sax players said, “whoah, Mike Stern is in the house!” Luckily, another member of the group emailed me the next day commenting on how much he liked the new sound. Man, you can’t beat that.