Sunday, January 29, 2012

Kermit or Yoda: There Can Be Only One!

Last time we went to the cinema, Lady Chocolat and I were treated to the trailer for "The Phantom Menace" in 3D. And I know it's a bad film. I know this. And yet, I really want to go and see it again. Grr.

However, TPM reaches cinemas on the 9th of February, and the new Muppets film hits on the 10th. And I definitely want to go see that.

But I probably can't go see both. What to do, what to do...?

Loss of Enthusiasm

For the first couple of weeks since the announcement of 5th Edition, I was actually really quite enthusiastic as to what was happening. It seemed like they were avoiding making the same mistakes again, there was a definite sense that the community was coming together, and it was all good.

This weekend was the D&D Experience convention in the States when we got our first look at what the new game might actually hold... and suddenly I find myself cold on the idea. It's starting to look like they're in the process of making a whole new bunch of mistakes.

Part of the problem is that I have some very clear ideas on how the game should be structured, and while I'm not absolutely insistent that that is the way it must be, I do have good reasons for those opinions - when they go in the exact opposite directions, it doesn't give any confidence that I'll like the destination.

Plus, they're in the difficult position that I have a game that does 90% of what I want already, in 3rd Edition. There are sufficient glaring weaknesses (and those weaknesses are sufficiently bad) for me to be interested in a new edition. But any new edition needs to be significantly better than what I have for me to consider switching. It's not enough for it to just fix the problems, if in doing so it introduces a new batch of flaws.

Shame. I was having fun looking forward to the new game, too.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sanctum, and Building a Better Adventure

Fresh from not watching "Birdsong", I instead watched the film "Sanctum" on Tuesday (and "Star Wars" yesterday, but that's not important right now). It was a good film, far better than I had expected, although not as good as "The Descent".

What particularly interested me about the film, though, was its application to D&D, and in particular to dungeon adventures.

The basic concept of a D&D adventure is pretty simple: a group of adventurers head down into a dungeon (or cave system, or ruined castle, or whatever), kill a bunch of monsters, and take their stuff. (There's more to it than that, of course, or I wouldn't still be playing after nearly 23 years, but that's the basic form.)

And, as far as the location is concerned, that's about it - it's a 'dungeon', or 'some caves', or 'a ruined castle', or 'whatever'. Basically, it's just a place, just as 'a school' is a place, 'Tesco' is a place, or 'a football stadium' is a place. That is, it's entirely mundane, a necessary setting for more important things, but largely trivial itself.

But in both "The Descent" and "Sanctum" (also the generally-poor "Vertical Limit", and indeed much of "Lord of the Rings"), there's a lot more to it than that. It's not just a location, it's an alien and hostile location, full of many dangers and snares, and that is utterly unforgiving to those who aren't prepared and/or skilled. If you mess around down there, you are going to die.

That's something I've been musing on quite a lot recently, and something I think the game is lacking in it's most recent incarnations (and perhaps all incarnations).

Several years ago, I went to visit CJ in the States, and while there I took the opportunity to head over to Arkansas to visit an old friend. While I was there, said friend's father-in-law took us out to a cave system. (Where I bought my t-shirt with frogs on.)

The experience was something of an eye-opener. It was incredibly dark. What light there was played tricks on us, such that perspectives were useless. The colours were amazing, and bizarre, and alien. It was oddly warm, and there was very little movement in the air. And there were bats.

And that was a safe dungeon-crawl. Throw in some tight tunnels, flooding water, sheer climbs, and the like, and you've already got an adventure. Heck, you don't even really need monsters!

I don't really have a fix for this. Except perhaps to note that I'm becoming increasingly convinced that D&D adventures, by default, should be set in actively hostile environments. This ties into the "Mythic Underworld" that I discussed some days ago - the characters haven't just ventured into 'some caves' - they've stepped into a realm possessed of a malign spirit that will do them harm if it can.

And all that from an okay-but-not-great film.

No Birdsong

I was rather annoyed with myself on Sunday when I realised that I'd forgotten to record the first episode of "Birdsong".

No matter, I thought, I would just catch it when it was repeated. But no such luck - apparently, it's not going to be repeated any time soon. I can watch it on iPlayer if I want (provided I don't mind the constant...

... buffering ...

... buffering ...

... buffering ...

delays while it buffers the next bit), for the next 10 days. But the BBC are too busy making sure "Eastenders" is repeated sufficiently. Never mind that "Birdsong" cost them many times as much to make.


Oh, and one more thing. I learned in the Radio Times that "Birdsong" is a set text in schools, not just English (which is entirely sensible), but also in History.

Are they insane?

Here's a handy clue: "Birdsong" is fiction. It's well-written fiction, and well-researched fiction, but it is fiction nonetheless. And, indeed, while some fictions may well be of historic significance, the reason for this is that they were written at, or close to, the time by people who were actually there.

"Birdsong" has no more place being taught in a History class than Creationism does being taught in a Science class.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A very short rant (and then a longer one)

Apparently, the majority of recipients of housing benefit* are actually already in work. This leads me to a very short rant:

If rents are such that people can be working full-time and still require housing benefit, this means that either wages are too low, or rents are too high, or (most likely) both.

(That was the very short rant. And now, here's a slightly longer one...)

Honestly, a benefits cap per family is a good thing. And placing the cap at the average household earnings is, if anything, overly generous. But it doesn't work in isolation if (as is the case) people who need to live in London for their jobs cannot afford to live in London without those benefits.

(In fact, I'm inclined to think that there should be no such thing as housing benefit. Instead, those who aren't working, for whatever reason, should be given a much higher general benefit (and expected to live on that), while wages and rents/mortgages should be placed so that those in work don't need benefits to top up. As things stand, the government is essentially subsidising lots of landlords who are charging too-high rents.)

* Or whatever it's actually called.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


I twisted my neck this morning, and now it hurts. Not the best possible start to the day.

Still, things are actually a lot better now than they have been. The honeymoon is booked and paid for (as mentioned previously). There was a small issue with getting one of their special offers, but it turned out to be a communications problem, and is now resolved. (But you did not want to be around me on Saturday morning while that problem was ongoing. My poor cactus had to suffer some spectacularly bad language.)

I confirmed last night that the bag on my bagpipes is indeed burst, this being the eighth (or more) time this has happened. The band have been trying out a new bag design, but it's obviously not suitable for my use. I'm not sure why. Anyway, although this may seem like a bad thing, it is actually rather a relief, since it explains the problems I was having last week.

The day invitations for the wedding are now written (with one exception), and should be going out very soon. This leaves the evening invitations as the largest outstanding task, and then there are a bunch of details that need locked down. But, suddenly, it looks like things are coming together, and I may actually be able to enjoy the next 80ish days.

My D&D campaign "The Eberron Code" is on hiatus until after the wedding. I rather miss playing, although I knew I didn't have time to run it during these months. This does give me some time to marshall my thoughts for the next section of the campaign. Additionally, I have a one-off game coming up next month: "Star Wars: Through a Glass Darkly". That should be fun.

The Saturday game hasn't resumed since Christmas. All being well, we'll be meeting up on Saturday, although this is looking increasingly unlikely. I'm still estimating two more sessions between now and the start of April.

In order to reach 999 posts by the 11th of April, I will need to write two posts a day, pretty much every day. This seems extremely unlikely. Surely I don't have enough nonsense to talk about between now and then?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Awesome! or Ridiculous!

For Christmas I got a copy of the Haynes Technical Manual for the "Millennium Falcon", and I honestly can't decide if this is awesome or ridiculous. On the one hand, it's a technical manual for an entirely fictional spaceship. On the other hand, it's perhaps the single greatest thing since they released the original Transformers series on DVD. (Because Optimus Prime trumps even Star Wars...)

Anyway, I've since read it. It was fun.

#5: "Millennium Falcon Owner's Workshop Manual", by Ryder Windham, Chris Reiff, and Chris Trevas


Well, the honeymoon is booked. As the title of this post implies, we're off to Mexico for two weeks. Hopefully, it should be a good (and especially relaxing) time. Huzzah!

I did have a small bone to pick with First Choice, though. While booking on their site, it declared we could pay a low deposit of only £150 per person. This was excellent - with all the bills coming up, being able to stagger the payments was a big plus.

Until we got past that screen, and discovered that the balance needed to be paid by today! I must admit to being at something of a loss on the benefits of this - how does it benefit me to pay a low deposit on Wednesday, when I then have to pay the rest of the money four days later? Surely, on that timescale I either have the money or I don't, so might as well just pay everything all at once?

But other than that, everything's great. Now we just need to get ourselves down to Manchester to catch our plane out...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Cuts Get Personal

I find the concept of the leap second quite interesting. It's a small adjustment, similar to the extra day in a leap year, used to adjust the time, as calculated by watching the sun rise, so it matches the time, calculated using an atomic measure.

Apparently, there's a discussion underway about abolishing the leap second entirely. The US (amongst others) want this done because every time there's a leap second they have to adjust the clocks on all their radio masts and the like. (Presumably, the assumption is that they're exactly and entirely accurate otherwise... perhaps someone should have spoken to an engineer before bringing that one up.)

Honestly, it really doesn't matter all that much. A second here or there? Who cares? Apparently, in about 550 years, the drift between the two will be about an hour, but that's far enough away that we'll have moved to the stars by then anyway. Or, more likely, wiped ourselves out. Either way, only the atomic time will matter.


The next leap second is scheduled to occur on the 30th of June.

Clearly, this must be stopped! The government are trying to steal part of my birthday!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lego Star Wars, Puzzles, and Game Styles

Since getting the Playstation 3, I've used it for playing music files, for playing DVDs and Blu-rays. Oh, and we've even used it for playing a game. Once.

The game in question is "Lego Star Wars 3: The Clone Wars", which may potentially tell you something about me, since it's a game aimed at kids. Doesn't matter - I really enjoy all the Lego games. The truth is, I find most modern games really frustrating. Over time, they've added more and more to the interfaces used, so that playing the games becomes ever harder, and you need hundreds of hours of practice to become halfway decent... and I don't have hundreds of hours to dedicate to something like that (not to mention the risk of addiction, which for me is very real). Lego Star Wars is nice and simple, and I can just about handle it.

But one of the fascinating things about playing this game is the different approaches that LC and I take to the game. She likes racing through the levels, completing the 'story' part of the game fairly quickly, and calling it done. Me, I quite like taking my time, seeing the sights, and maybe completing some of the other challenges in the game.

What is particularly excellent about the Lego games is that they support both approaches. There are a few puzzles that you need to solve to complete the various levels, but these are fairly simple. Then there are more advanced puzzles you need to solve to unlock some of the other objectives in the level - these are often much more complex. And then there's one higher level of puzzle, used to unlock the little "Easter Eggs" hidden throughout the game that aren't part of any formal objective.

Basically, you can invest as much into the game as you want, and it will support you. I find that excellent.

(That my thoughts have also been straying towards the issues involved in creating a really good RPG adventure is not entirely incidental...)

Clean Slate

Last night I finished my fourth book of the year, the Pathfinder "GameMastery Guide", which was a surprisingly excellent book about designing adventures, building worlds, and the like. I was impressed - I had expected basically the same stuff that every "second DM's guide" has given us since 2nd Edition's "Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide" (which is still to be beaten, in my opinion). But this one genuinely did provide a different take on quite a lot of the material, which was nice.

But I don't really want to talk about that, but rather about what it represents.

See, at the start of the year I had three outstanding tasks. I was mid-way through "Great Expecations", mid-way through the "GameMastery Guide", and in the midst of writing "The Goblin Bride", that 4th Edition adventure I mentioned a while back. Three tasks away from hitting a 'clean slate' for the year.

Well, I finished "Great Expectations" some time ago. And, with the announcement of 5th Edition the writing task fell by the wayside (no longer serving any point). And so, last night, I completed the third and final task that was outstanding from the start of the year. Huzzah!

Of course, I immediately move forward with another set of outstanding tasks. The cleaning has fallen behind (by a whole day!), there is a new stack of books to read, there are seven things sitting on the Sky+ box waiting to be watched, and of course there is the wedding to plan.

Still, at least I can start on 2012 now...

#4: "Pathfinder: GameMastery Guide", from Paizo Publishing

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tales of the Bankrupted Future

And, since I'm on the topic of settings for storytelling, I'll just note in passing that my other setting (which is suited more for short stories than RPGs) is titled "Tales of the Bankrupted Future". As the name implies, it is set in a future gone to ruin, where the endgame of our current madnesses are played out.

As was noted to me once before, the Cyberpunk writers of old weren't really writing about the future, they were writing about the (then) present. The same applies here, if I ever actually put pen to paper that is.

Three World-Building Concepts

I'm working on a new fantasy setting. At the moment, I'm not sure whether to use it for role-playing campaigns (possibly in the upcoming D&D 5th Edition), or as a setting for short stories. Perhaps both. Anyway, the banner under which I'm working is "Life Under the Wheel", which makes perfect sense if you know what "The Wheel" is, though I'm keen not to reveal that detail too soon.

At the heart of the setting are three world-building concepts, each of which I lifted from somewhere else. But that's fine - it's the way the concepts are put together, rather than the concepts themselves, which would make the setting unique.

Points of Light

The first of the concepts was first named, as far as I'm aware, in the run up to the release of D&D 4th Edition. The concept itself is pretty simple: civilisation is threatened on all sides, and all that remain are isolated pockets - a "Point of Light" if you will. Of course, whether or not they are truly 'light', or indeed 'civilised' is an open question!

This concept should be familiar from pretty much any post-apocalyptic story. The world has fallen into ruin, and all that remains are the few survivors.

The World Malevolent

One of the differences between the "Lord of the Rings" films and the books surrounds what happens on the mount of Caradhras. In the films, the way is blocked by Saruman, who is controlling the weather. He and Gandalf contest wills, and Gandalf is beaten; the Fellowship must turn back. In the books, it is the mountain itself that opposes their way.

Similarly, in Fangorn Forest, it is noted that the trees are old and angry. They actively try to do harm to those who venture within.

That is the concept of the World Malevolent. Nature is not a passive, neutral thing. Nor, indeed, is it "red in tooth and claw", but ultimately just operating on instinct. Instead, the world itself has turned against man, perhaps as vengeance for our many wrongs...

The Mythic Underworld

And thirdly, and finally, we have the mythic underworld. One of the key features of "Dungeons & Dragons" are, of course, the dungeons. For a long time (decades in fact), there has been a move in adventure design to a very 'realistic' style of dungeon design - the monsters need places to store food and water, they have societies and comprehensible aims. And the dungeons themselves are, broadly speaking, just buildings.

Not so in the model of the Mythic Underworld. Instead, the dungeons represent a gateway to some other, and as such are a realm where the laws of our reality don't really apply. As with the World Malevolent, the dungeons are not just a neutral location; they actively conspire against man, and seek to destroy his works. A foul cancer gnaws at the world, and the dungeons are the vector by which it spreads.

And so, there it is. Those are the three concepts that are sitting at the heart of my setting. Now all I need to do is write it. Or not.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Does anyone know...

Does anyone know a good way to remove congealed vegetable oil from a worktop?

My fryer spilled over the last-but-one time I used it, and the spill congealed into a horrible sticky mess. All efforts to remove it have, thus far, proven unsuccessful. Even Cillit Bang failed to shift it.

I did discover on Friday that if the fryer overflows again, the hot oil seems to act as a really good solvent. However, I'm reluctant to go down that route, as it seems fraught with the distinct possibility of burning Falkirk down...


I'm feeling a bit (well, very) stressed at the moment.

The wedding preparations are reaching a point where we've either got, or are about to have, a lot of tasks that need done fairly urgently. And there's not going to be any more time available for doing all these things. Plus, all the bills are going to come due close to the same time, so money's something of a worry, too.

Money worries are plaguing the band, also. We had a fantastic December, and raised a lot of money for relatively little effort, and yet... We actually made less than last December, we made much less in Oct and Nov, we have fewer paid events coming up, and we have some additional costs we didn't have last year. Plus, some of the kit we bought last year has turned out to be junk and needs replaced. We should be okay, but it's worrying.

And, at work, I've reached a task that is simple in theory, and would be simple in practice if I actually understood the code I'm modifying. Unfortunately, the guy who does understand it is away until next month, and I need to get it done by then.

And it really doesn't help that people keep having a go at me for being stressed, or telling me to calm down. I'm stressed out for a reason. Telling me to calm down, while that underlying reason remains, just stresses me out still further!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Referendum Woes

I find myself more than a little infuriated at all the politicking that has broken out over the Independence Referendum. Prior to the election, all three unionist parties were adamant that the people of Scotland shouldn't be given the right to choose. Then, just as the SNP win a majority, suddenly they're all in favour of an immediate referendum?

This is the most important political decision that voters in Scotland will make, ever*. It is really important that it be done right - we should have the debate, have the arguments, have a lengthy period for sober reflection, and then determine the settled will of the people. This bickering over timing, because of the fashions of the hour, is not only undignified, but it shows a disrespect to the electorate.

* There are two possible exceptions - it's just about possible there may be an in-or-out referendum on the EU, and it's also just about possible that there may be one on the formal dissolution of the individual nation states in favour of an EU superstate. I don't think either is likely.

Here's what should be done:

- The referendum should be held in 2014. That's what the SNP campaigned for, and that's the only timing any party campaigned for. Moreover, having won the victory the SNP should be entitled to set the timing. This also gives us plenty of time to have the required debates and come to a settled conclusion. It's the right time.

- The referendum should include all the options. At the very least, it should include Independence, Demo Max and the Status Quo. There may yet be more options that haven't been considered - if there are any, they should also be included. (That said, don't weigh it down with trivial adjustments - there shouldn't be a "Devo Max, but without X Y and Z", for instance!) Whether this takes the form of multiple questions or a single question with multiple choices is irrelevant - people can handle both!

- The vote should not be given to 16 and 17 year olds. They don't get to vote in General Elections and they don't get to vote in Holyrood elections; they shouldn't get the vote here. (That said, there is a wider debate to be had about the "ages at which you can do things". It is insane that you can be a parent and/or join the army, but can't vote or take a drink. It is actually wrong that you can be required to pay taxes but can't vote. But that's a wider argument to be had separately - unless this gets properly rationalised by the time of the election, they shouldn't vote - there should be no exception from the norm for this one vote.)

- The vote should be overseen by an impartial body. It doesn't matter if that's the UK body or the Scottish equivalent - they're both impartial, and there's no concept of "one being more impartial than the other".

And that's it. The other parties are right to have a robust "No" campaign. The SNP, in turn, will have a robust "Yes" campaign. I expect the debates will be fierce. But that's the way it should be. Bitter arguments about whether Scotland get to have their say, and the terms and conditions thereof, are just wrong. We're the electorate - let us have our say!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

More on PIP implants

The scandal of the fault fake breasts rumbles on. I must admit, I find myself incredibly concerned by it all - that a private company would so casually endanger the lives of so many is quite scary. And while the operation in question is mostly a matter of choice (some might say vanity), that doesn't in any way mitigate this - the women involved still had a right not to have their lives put at risk.

I still don't understand why there's so much hassle in getting this sorted out. As far as I can see, it should be pretty straightforward:

If the clinic that performed the surgery is still around, then any woman who has had the PIP implants should be free to have them removed (and, if desired, replaced) free of charge. There should be no debate over this, and no questions over whether or not there is thought to be any danger. At its most basic, they've been sold faulty goods, a recall should be underway, and so they should be contacting their supplier. And, as I noted before, those suppliers have to carry hefty insurances in case something goes wrong; something has gone wrong, and it's time to act.

The key exception to this is the case where there is an urgent threat to the health of women affected. Because arranging the required surgery privately will take time, the NHS will need to step in to remove the offending implants. It may (or may not) be appropriate for the NHS to also arrange replacements - that's a medical decision I'm not equipped to make, though my inclination would be "not". In any event, there should also be a mechanism for the NHS to get appropriate compensation from those same clinics for cleaning up their mess.

In the case where the clinics are not still around, it falls to the NHS to pick up the pieces. And here, my feeling is that the women affected should be able to have the implants removed if desired. Again, it may or may not be appropriate for them to also have the implants replaced. (In this case, there might be an argument for requiring proof of an actual danger before proceeding... but in general I'm a believer in preventative medicine, which suggests going ahead.)

As I noted in my previous post, if there is any hassle dealing with the clinics, there should be legal recourse to compel them to do the right thing. In cases where the clinics have disappeared, there should be recourse against the shareholders.

Finally, we need to tighten up the regulations to ensure that something like this cannot happen again. Further, we need to track down all those involved in making the switch (from the guy who actually did it, all the way up the chain to the guy who first made the call). They need to be found, prosecuted, and punished to the fullest extent of the law.

(Incidentally, this failure, in itself, is not an argument against privatisation in the NHS. The argument against privatisation in the NHS is that it's an incredibly stupid idea. But this is a failure of regulation, and could have hit the NHS just as it has private clinics. Indeed, given that not all such surgeries are cosmetic, it is possible that there are some women who have received the offending PIP implants on the NHS.)

#3: "Loving Against the Odds", by Rob Parsons

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Two Thoughts From Yesterday

The third part of "Great Expectations" was no better than the first two. In fact, it was considerably worse. And the ending just doesn't bear thinking about. (The next paragraph contains spoilers for the series and the novel. If you don't want to know, feel free to skip to the paragraph beyond, which will be spoiler free.)

Now, here's the thing: Pip does not love Estella. He does not even know Estella. He is in love with the idea of Estella, and that really is no basis for them being happy together. The mega-happy ending of the TV adaptation is completely wrong. Dickens understood this, hence the notion that they would "remain friends apart".

The other major thing that happened yesterday was that Wizards of the Coast announced that they are developing a 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and are having an open playtest of the rules as they develop. Their stated goal is to reunify the fanbase, which was badly fractured as a result of 4th Edition.

I was a bit surprised, not by the announcement, but rather in that I thought I would be more excited. Instead, there was just the relief that a long-awaited announcement had finally come.

I wish WotC well in this endeavour. But I am hopeful rather than confident. I suspect that the goals they have set themselves are simply too large for them to succeed - the very things that people liked about 3rd Edition (and its descendant, Pathfinder) are the very things that many 4th Edition fans don't like. I don't see how they can satisfy both groups, and I fear that in trying to compromise they will fail to satisfy anyone.

A shame, really. I really did used to love that game.

Monday, January 09, 2012


In a slightly unfortunate coincidence of timing, I had just started "Great Expectations" when I heard about the BBC adaptation. As there was significant hype surrounding it, I made sure to record the three parts, but didn't start watching until after I had completed the novel. I therefore watched the first part on Saturday night, and the second yesterday morning. I should find time to watch the third part today.

Sadly, it does not live up to the hype.

The first part was actually okay. There were a couple of the characters that were 'off', with Joe being the most significant - and given that his character is absolutely central to the story, that was a problem. There were a few scenes that were moved around, including one that had its tone entirely changed. And, there was a slightly bizarre change to the contents of the pie (mutton instead of pork). Honestly, I wouldn't have noticed had it not been brought to my attention... but having had that done, it's very strange.

But the second part was mince. Very, very poor. The changes to the characters continued to cascade, rendering much of the core of the story unintelligible. The dialogue just didn't work in several places. Characters who should have been friendly were instead indifferent, while characters who should have been unfriendly were instead monstrous. And the scene in the brothel was almost unforgivable.

The third part should be an interesting experience, but I'm not hoping for much. The damage done to the story is too deep.

The thing is, this is very well made, from a technical point of view. The production is absolutely glorious, and the cast is mostly good (Gillian Anderson is the wrong person for Miss Havesham, but her performance is otherwise fine). And for someone who hasn't read the book, or read it a long time ago but not terribly closely, I guess it's close enough.

But having just read the novel, watching the TV version is really quite jarring. Overall, a poor effort.

Sunday, January 08, 2012


I don't know why, but this year's "Celebrity Big Brother" fills me with an inexplicable rage. I mean, the anger should have been directed at it last year, when Channel 5 resurrected a deservedly-dead show.

(Actually, it would be a much better show if it truly was undead. Imagine, a zombie attack on the house. Imagine the hilarity as the zombies become increasingly desperate in their hunt for brains...)

Anyway, I think my big issue with the show this year is the nature of the 'stars'. Of the women, four are described as 'glamour' models, while one is only famous for being the other woman to have an affair with Ryan Giggs. (And, shockingly, hers is the more unpleasant story, despite Imogen Thomas being yet another 'glamour' model.) And another is a woman who had a brief career in the soaps, but is mostly known for "Loose Women", the worst show on the entirety of TV.

I don't suppose the men are any better. But, with the exception of Madsen and Cocozza, my immediate response is 'who?', even after I've read their bios. At least I know what a 'glamour' model is (porn star, albeit in the softest end of that spectrum). But for most of the men, is that a band? A TV show? Some sort of hat?

Honestly, though, it's the coverage that gets to me. I don't agree with super-injunctions, but Ryan Giggs was right to want to avoid publicity for this mess. Mrs Giggs has no business seeking to trade on her ill-gotten 'fame', and her 'need' to rehabilitate her reputation is as nothing to allowing the families involved to heal - which requires her staying out of the limelight. And don't get me started on the spectacle of Imogen Thomas attacking her on Twitter, as if she were somehow the wronged woman in all of this...

There is a very small group of celebrities that I don't merely dislike, but actively detest. Celebrity Big Brother seems to have managed to collect most of them together in one place this year. And shameful as it is, I can't help but wish that Michael Madsen would have a flashback to his "Reservoir Dogs" persona...

(Edit: No, I don't watch CBB, although I might watch either the Zombie or Reservoir Dogs versions. Nor do I really seek out news on the subject. But somehow gossip about the show has become 'news', so when I'm driving around listening to the radio, I tend to pick up just enough about the show to get a taste of the annoyance.)

Oh no!

I discovered last night that one of my posts was only a draft, and had been superseded by the 'real' version of the post. Therefore, I had to delete it, and so reduce the post count on the blog.


Fortunately, I get to blog about it, thus restoring the post count. This time.

#2: "Pathfinder: Bestiary 3", by Paizo Publishing

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Men and Shopping

Right, brace yourself for a rant.

Yesterday morning (and afternoon), Lady Chocolat and I set up our wedding list. This involved trailing around a store looking at many many items, selecting some, and scanning them with a handheld device. It was not fun.

Now, LC and I have a standing joke about shopping not being allowed to last more than "one hour and seven minutes". That is actually a reference to a study that was done that showed that men get progressively more uncomfortable doing shopping, with the average tolerance being about 1:07. I'm not sure what the methodology here was, but there's certainly some truth in their findings (if not the number itself); certainly, as we moved into the third hour of looking at stuff, I was getting rather tetchy.

Now, here's the thing: I do not inherently dislike shopping. Further, I understand that it's often necessary, and also that sometimes a shopping task may well take a fairly long time. That's all fair enough. But, at the same time, I do not find shopping pleasurable. At best, it is a necessary task, much like doing the laundry, or washing the car.

It's also worth considering that, like most people who work, I have limited free time, and that time is valuable. And, of course, not all free time is equally valuable - longer blocks are worth more than a snatched minute. And the most valuable time of all is Saturday morning and afternoon. This is where I have both the combination of the most free time and the most energy to do something with it.

This should, perhaps go some way to explaining why giving up that time for a necessary task, rather than something more enjoyable, meets with a certain resistance. And when we cross over from 'spending' time doing that task to 'wasting' time doing that task, the frustration readily builds.

(Where the 'tolerance' thing from the study done comes in is that there is no outlet for that frustration. You just have to endure. But swallowing that frustration, and continuing to do so, gets really quite difficult.)

The problem is not actually one of going around picking things. It's not even particularly an issue of having to assess lots of options before making a decision (at least in my case). That's fair enough - it's important to get the right things.

The problem, by and large, is other people, which is generally compounded by the stores themselves. Basically, the whole thing seems deliberately designed to eat your life, all in the name of selling you things that you only sort-of want.

The problem with other people is not that they're individually being unreasonable. People walk at different rates. Mothers, by and large, have to take time looking after their children. The guy at the checkout is not unreasonable to want to pay by cash, nor to count out the exact change. None of this is unreasonable, or a valid cause for complaint, or a big issue.

The problem is the cumulative effect of all these reasonable delays is utterly unreasonable. When you get stuck behind a mother with pushchair for the five hundredth time, she is no more unreasonable than the first one... but you still want to scream. It's a tiny little frustration, but it's on top of a million other tiny little frustrations, with absolutely no let-out.

And then there are the stores. These have been very carefully designed to have some quick paths through the store, to take you quickly to the department you want, plus an awful lot of slow paths to force you to take your time in that department. That's actually quite a fascinating subject - and some bright spark was paid an obscene amount of money to very carefully research and design it.

Except that in reality, once you reach Saturday afternoon, the 'quick' paths are clogged with huge numbers of people all fighting through the rush. They come to a virtual standstill. And so, you're forced to take the marginally quicker 'slow' paths, dodge around the stands at great speed (and risk to life and limb), all to save half a second from your day but, much more importantly, to save another tiny fraction of your soul from dying. Because if this goes on much longer, you are going to snap.

Then there's the question of staffing levels in the stores. Especially in these times of austerity, stores want to employ the minimum number of people, and that means that they will always have as few assistants on hand as they can get away with, as few people on the tills, and as many away doing other, more productive things. By and large, they manage to do this pretty efficiently. And they're actually quite flexible, so they draft in more people as they need them.

But it does mean that queues are a fact of life in stores, more now than before, and that means waiting, when you're already frazzled. But, worse, it means that sometimes things go wrong. And so, you get the guy a the top of the queue who absolutely must be trading in old games for credit, complete with forms to fill out and a call to the manager. That's fine, since they'll just put another guy on. Oh, wait, the woman who was second is making a complaint, and also needs to speak to the manager. Yay! And so the queue stands still for several minutes, while the blood pressure rises, the frustration grows... and you're stuck.

The "one hour and seven minutes" thing is a joke. But the principle behind it is not a joke. There really is a limit to how long I can stand being stuck shopping. And the more people there are around, and the hotter it gets, the shorter that limit becomes.

There's a lot here that sounds like hyperbole: "eat your life", "want to scream", etc. It is not hyperbole; it really was that bad. I was in considerable discomfort, and by the end I couldn't give the job the attention it required, because I really was fighting back the urge to explode in rage. And once it was finally over, and we got home, we both collapsed in a heap and did nothing meaningful for the rest of the day. That job basically destroyed our entire Saturday, which is a really bitter pill to swallow.

So, I'm sorry I was tetchy. Honestly, I am. And I'm glad that the task is basically done. But it was still a fightful ordeal.

The First Book of 2012

This afternoon, I finished "Great Expectations", my first book of 2012. According to the back cover, this is regarded as Dickens' finest novel. Sadly, I can't agree; it was good, but I preferred "Tale of Two Cities", which remains the best novel I have ever read.

Still, it was a very good book indeed, although I didn't think either of the two endings was terribly strong. I felt it could have done with another hundred pages or so to tie things up more neatly.

Anyway, having finished the book, I can now start watching the recent BBC adaptation, which I saved over the Christmas break. I've heard mixed reviews, so it will be interesting to find out for myself.

#1: "Great Expectations", by Charles Dickens (a book from The List)

Friday, January 06, 2012

Dear Terry...

Last night I tapped and unwrapped the first of my Christmas chocolate oranges, and I must admit to being rather disappointed, for three reasons:

1) The orange seems decidedly smaller than last year.

2) The segments are extremely prone to collapse. What good is "tap and unwrap", if the result is a pile of chocolate dust?

But, mostly,

3) The chocolate really didn't taste very chocolate-y. It was all very bland and unsatisfying.

Fortunately, the German regular orange that I ate immediately thereafter was considerably better. Please pass my thanks on to the German Santa when next you see him!

Mug Anecdotes

I have many mugs. Some might say I have a plethora of mugs, although I tend to prefer the word 'myriad'. At least one person might say I have too many mugs, but that depends on the definition of 'too many'.

In truth, most of these mugs has a story behind it, a tale of where I got it, and under what circumstances. Some others are defined by the purpose to which they are put.

On my most recent adventure, while returning from Stuttgart, I picked up a mug in the airport in Amsterdam, signifying that it is from Holland. (I don't, at present, have a mug from Germany; I didn't really think that one through.) Similarly, I have a mug from Rome with the Colliseum on it, a mug from Barcelona with some Guadi architecture, and a mug from Portugal with a big cock on it. (No, really...) And at least three mugs from France, one of which is my default mug.

Conversely, there's the Transformers mug that is only used for hot chocolate. And Lady Chocolat's mug which has a pirate ninja on it, which only she uses. Then there's the Frog mug, which is used for measuring rice, for reasons that should be obvious. Recently, I've also added a mug specifically for use at work, which is rather usefully marked with the company name.

(You do know I meant a cockerel, didn't you?)

It's worth noting that I don't collect mugs. Please don't take the above as license to buy me endless mugs as souvenirs whenver you travel - I'd much rather you instead spent the money on enjoying your holiday more.

What I collect are adventures. The mugs are merely the physical manifestation of those adventures. They're like the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, but for software engineering rather than archaeology.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Taking Down the Decoration

Although it's not quite traditional, I am in the habit of taking down the Christmas decoration just before leaving the house for the final time on the 31st of December. This therefore symbolises the passing of the year, and the entry to a new year with a clean slate. Plus, it's quick and easy to do so.

You'll note that I said decoration, singular.

For the past several years, since I moved out of home actually, it has been my approach that I have a single decoration at Christmas. This is just enough to set the festive scene, without requiring any significant amount of effort or planning. Since I'm the only person who lives there, and since I very seldom have guests, this was entirely sufficient, I thought. (I also display those few Christmas cards I receive appropriately, from whenever I receive them until the 31st.)

Lady Chocolat has made it clear that this approach to Christmas is not going to survive the wedding. And my initial compromise position, that we could perhaps have a decoration each was met with a Look. (I thought it was entirely reasonable, to be honest. I mean, that represents an increase in festive cheer by a full 100%, which is quite a lot, really.)

In truth, though, I'm not even remotely bothered by the proliferation of decorations. I'm not actually anti-decoration at all, and nor do I object to festive cheer.

What I object to, and this ties in somewhat to the previous post, is when something that should bring pleasure and joy (in this case Christmas) becomes so bound up in all manner of things that you 'must' do that it all becomes extremely stressful and loses its meaning. Especially if you're only doing these things out of some misplaced sense that you have to do them, and double especially if the only person who is aware of what you've done is yourself.

Basically, I don't like make-work tasks.

If you want to put up loads of decorations, if you enjoy having those decorations, and if you feel they add to the season, then more power to you. Have fun with that. But if, instead, it's actually a job you hate doing, and you only do it "because it's Christmas" and because you've always done it... you're doing it wrong. Trust me, there isn't a minimum number of decorations required for it to be Christmas. Santa doesn't give marks out of ten for tinsel arrangements.

You may now proceed to call me Scrooge in the comments.

The Good China

I'm going to be a little presumptious here, and talk about wedding gifts. Specifically, the notion of "the good china".

Simply put, I don't subscribe to the notion of keeping things for "best" or for "company", or whatever else. The problem is that after the stuff gets put aside, you then spend a significant amount of effort debating about whether to bring it out because so-and-so is coming around. Is this set of guests the ones that are important enough to warrant the good china? And if so, why them and not the people you had round last week?

The longer you wait before bringing out the good china, the greater the importance that becomes attached to it in your mind. Leave it long enough, and the good china becomes an almost mystical artifact, an heirloom of your kingdom, and to be treated with the utmost reverence.

Which means that when you finally do bring out the good china, presumably because the Queen has decided to pop round, you then get to spend the entire time terrified that it might get damaged.

In effect, what should have been a great blessing, and a source of joy and pleasure, instead becomes a source of stress and division, and then a terrifying ordeal.

I exaggerate, of course. But only somewhat.

My approach is the opposite - that these things are intended to give joy, and that they do that by being put to their intended use. That way, you can be reminded of the wonderful gift that your friend/relative/random stranger has given you. And when, as is sadly inevitable, it gets damaged/lost/worn out, well, at least you have the memories of having used the item well and properly. And not kept it carefully kept it "for best" for several years, finally brought it out of storage, and then dropped it at an inopportune time.

Ultimately, what I'm trying to get at is this: If you should find yourself giving us a nice gift, and you later find that we are busily using said gift, rather than laying it aside "for best", please don't be offended. It is not that we don't value and esteem you and your generous gift to us. On the contrary, it is precisely because we do.

Oh, for goodness sake!

Michele Bachmann has not failed in her bid to be President of the United States due to some horrific sexist agenda. Sarah Palin did not fail in her not-quite-bid to be President of the United States due to some horrific sexist agenda.

They failed because they were lousy candidates.

In all seriousness, Obama has turned out to be a huge let down as president. He's there for the beating, and if the Republicans put forward a decent candidate, they would win. But if Palin and Bachmann are representative of the quality of Republican candidates, Obama might as well not bother campaigning; his opponents will do the job for him.

(Incidentally, that's not to say that there aren't horrific sexist agendas at work. But Bachmann and Palin aren't good evidence of them, since there are so many non-sexist reasons for rejecting them as candidates.)

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Sleeping Beauty

Forgot to post this before Christmas...

The ballet of the year was "Sleeping Beauty". It was okay, a bit better than last year's effort, and perhaps on a par with the squirrels of the year before.

However, there was one thing that I could really have managed without: a couple of the female dancers seemed to be little more the skin stretched over bone.

Now, in fairness, it is just about possible that they were just naturally thin. But it really didn't look that way, and they really didn't look healthy. It most definitely looked to me like eating disorders were at work (or, since we're insisting that eating disorders are actually diseases, perhaps they were simply following an unhealthy diet).

It is possible that those involved in ballet will say that such thing dancers are a necessity. After all, they have to perform all manner of lifts that require significant strength, and the less the dancers weigh the easier those lifts are to perform. Indeed, some of the lifts may simply be impossible with dancers of a more normal weight.

But, on the other hand, if an art form requires a significant proportion of practitioners risk their health in order to perform, perhaps it is time for that art form to go the same way as the castrati.

Roar of the Monomyth

Lady Chocolat and I watched "The Lion King" yesterday. This may well have been the first time I've seen it since it was in the cinema (the first time); it is certainly the first time for quite some time. It was also considerably better than I remembered.

Of course, the story of "The Lion King" isn't at all original. There are bits of "Hamlet" in there, and there are more than a few similarities with "Star Wars" as well (son of Darth Vader grows up in exile, is taught by some bizarre mystic, and then goes to fight the evil empire and bring balance to the For, er, Pride Lands). And, of course, there's "Kimba, the White Lion"...

That's not very surprising. After all, there are apparently only seven stories in the whole of literature. (Incidentally, one of which is "American Pie". Be afraid. Be very afraid.) And, moreover, "The Lion King" seems to map pretty closely to what Joseph Campbell termed the 'Monomyth' in his book, "Hero With a Thousand Faces".

In said book, Campbell studies a large number of mythic tales throughout history, and finds a great deal of similarity in the structure of those tales. Indeed, he identifies certain key stages in the journey, events which crop up again and again in these stories.

And so, "Lord of the Rings" has much in common with "Star Wars", which shares a great deal with "The Matrix", which mirrors "The Lion King". Plus, usefully, it's almost exactly the same pattern that is built into the career of every D&D character ever. (What? How else did you figure I knew this stuff?)

Campbell's conclusion was that the reason this story resonates so well with people (especially men) was to do with an expression of Jung's notion of the Collective Unconscious - we've told those stories so often that they're now just part of our cultural gestalt. Or something.

Tolkien's explanation of the same was the notion of 'sub-creation' - that as created works, Man has been imprinted with universal truth by God, and cannot help but express that truth in his own stories. This also has the convenient effect of explaining the similarities between various religions.

Sadly, my own explanation for this is rather simpler. The stages of the hero's journey as found in the monomyth also crop up in another place, and it happens to be in an experience that every single adult on the planet shares. Specifically, it is the story, over and over, of a child growing up.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

100 Days

On the 12th of April this year, exactly 100 days from today, Part Four begins. On that day, I will be married. Huzzah!

Right on cue, last night I had a particularly bizarre dream, about a ninja attack on our wedding day. Obviously, this is an expression of my anxiety about the wedding. (Not about getting married to LC, you understand, but rather the organisation of the day itself.)

Anyway, in the dream I was wearing a suit, so it clearly wasn't a realistic dream...

When Boobs Go Bad

At the tail end of last year, I was of course horrified at the story of the faulty breast implants. Apparently, some supplier had switched from the approved silicone compound to a slightly different industrial compound. The health risks appear to be fairly minor, but I daresay they're pretty horrifying for the women involved, who will no doubt be keen to have the implants removed and/or replaced as soon as possible.

One thing I don't understand, though, is why it is expected that the NHS will be picking up the bill for this. The clinics that performed the operations are, ultimately, responsible for checking their suppliers. They also carry insurance to protect themselves in case of a botched surgery. This most certainly counts.

It would seem to me, therefore, that it should be a matter for these private businesses to be arranging to correct their mistake. If they are at all slow in doing so, the full force of the law should be applied in making them fulfil their obligations.

Oh, and then we should be going after the company who supplied the faulty implants as well.

(Questions over whether it is actually healthy for so many women to seek such an enhancement in the first place is a question for another time.)