Thursday, February 25, 2010

Libraries are now officially made of magic.

So I went to my local library to get some books (well, graphic novels, but same difference). There I discovered that they had updated it, so instead of a desk, there was a self check out machine. Used to such gadgets, I placed my books on the table in front of me, selected check out, and waved my library card (which was well hidden in my wallet, as it always manages to be). I reached for the first book, preparing to scan it... when the machine scanned them anyway! OK, yes, theres some chip in the spine or something that makes it work, but to my mind, thats basically magic.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Brown's a bully?

So the media have taken this one and ran with it. Some woman from a charity has claimed that certain people have claimed that Brown is a bully.

Now, this charity.. is certainly a little dodgy, and barely seems a real organisation. Even if it is real, the notion that appearing in the news is a good way to deal with the situation is just obviously false, which puts in to question the motives of the woman who brought it forwards.

Even if all this is true, does it matter? The news is making a big deal of it, in a matter that, to be honest, feels more than a little wrong, but is it surprising that Brown might have bullied someone? He's the prime minister, the ruler of the country, its, perhaps, not surprising that he has qualities similar to that of a bully's.

Bear in mind that the structure of politics in this country encourages bullying. Party's have whips who's entire job is to bully party members into voting with their leader! Thats what parties need to do to push forward their agendas, and that is just accepted. Is this culture wrong? Perhaps, perhaps this isn't the way a country should be governed, but the notion that Brown is some unique tyrant in this is absurd. Politicians are not going to be very nice people, mugging for the camera aside, and I'm not sure picking out one person is a very sensible or fair thing to do. We all know Brown needs to go, but is this really the issue to pick at?

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Scientists say"

Ben Goldacre of bad science has constantly pointed out this rather major failing in science reporting. The news seems to think a story has been told if an argument from authority has been made. i.e. "a scientist said this was extremely unlikely".

This is bad, bad science. If a scientist is making a scientific announcement, then they have reasoning behind what they are saying, reasoning that anyone should be able to verify, given enough time. If they do not, then they should no more be listened to than Prince Charles does. By using "scientist says" you are underlining this idea of scientists as untouchable people in lab coats who conduct hidden magic rituals. They don't, usually. They publish, they produce results and arguments, which can be looked at and assessed.

I understand one can't explain the whole science, but usually there is a basic argument that can be made.

Take a report on the news on homeopathy.

"One part of a hundred is taken out, and mixed with water, and this process is repeated many times. Scientists say that this means its just water".

Well... they don't say it. Its just a bloody fact. If you distill something multiple times, you will begin to run out of particles of that substance. There exists homeopathic remedies which have been distilled 24 times. Or more than Avagadro's constant, the number of particles in a mole. In other words, once you've distilled 24 times, then theres only a 60% chance of there being a single original molecule left in the water. This page provides a table given the relative substances- at only 8 distillations we have the acceptable amount of arsenic in drinking water.

This is a factual argument. Its just the case that if you dilute something enough, all that remains is water. It may be magical water, but there is absolutely no mechanism that would transfer the properties we know of. If it were true that this happened, we'd all be in an extreme amount of trouble, as water is being diluted all the time with hundreds of substances...

The point of this is not entirely to rant about homeopathy, but to underline that its not hard to make these arguments. There is no controversy here, this is not some obscure scientific discovery, this is basic fact, that I could demonstrate with numerous experiments. If you dilute a substance enough you'll no longer have that substance anymore. Theres no need to say "scientists say" as if theres some kind of confusion here. There just isn't.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Lost Season 5 (will obviously contain spoilers)

I will start with the positive. Since towards the end of the third season, Lost really notched up a gear. By creating a strong plot, and a time limit to tell it in, this forced the writers to stop being quite so self indulgent, and made Lost action packed television. Yes, there is still crazy nonsense, but it is mostly internally consistent nonsense now. There will never be a real reason why the numbers are important, but the fact that they ARE important is enough.

So, now to the issues. Season 5 started with a central conflict which was resolved relatively quickly. Several of the cast were zipping about in time, seeing the island in its past, until finally getting stuck in the 1970s. This device was used brilliantly, with Daniel Faraday explaining the kind of time travel we were existing in (its impossible to change things), and gave us some lovely snapshots of the island in the past. Sadly, the final conflict.. sucked.

While Locke(?)'s quest to kill Jacob was generally excellent and a lot of fun (seeing Ben confused was wonderful), the other plot line just didn't work. Faraday had come back, with a plan to change the future, so the plane never crashed. This would wipe out all the bad (and good) stuff that had happened over the last few seasons.

Heres why this plan sucked:
It obviously won't work. The notion that the writers are going to spend their final season with the previous 5 erased is just absurd. If they do, I'll just be very angry. So in other words, the viewer certainly wants it to fail. We have no emotional attachment to the characters goals, because we're almost certainly opposed to them.
Worse yet, the characters clearly wouldn't want to do it. While Jack, and indeed Daniel, wanting to do it made perfect sense, the other characters very reasonably did not, which meant the writers had to somehow bludgeon in a reason for all the characters to come together.
This led to Juliette acting like a lunatic, with her motivation changing every 5 seconds. She came out as pathetically weak- shes been with Sawyer, happily, for three years, but when Kate come backs, because Sawyer looks at her for a minute, Juliette decides their love isn't meant to be. Sigh writers, just sigh.

So yeah. Now I haven't seen 6 yet, and I don't want to be spoiled, but if they've erased everything that happened I'll be both astonished and really, really fucked off.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

RSS feed

Did you know I had an RSS feed? Apparently I do. Its here

WFRP:Shallya's Light, a big long essay, discussing combat and adventures

I have finished running my very first WFRP campaign. So, thoughts and feelings?

This campaign lasted a long time in genesis. I was actually going to run it the previous academic year, but ran out of time and decided to delay. It went through a lot of iterations, initially starting as a mystery with the high priest of Shallya being the villain, and trying to delay the players as long as possible by sending them on pointless quests, and against her enemies. Sadly the betrayal by leader theme was a bit of a common one for wfrp, and I decided that as a twist it wouldn't be terribly good.

I needed a way to link my adventurers to several ideas I had- intrigue in the noble quarters, dealing with criminals, a rogue group of Shallyans. Initially the quest could have been more open, and possibly should have been, but I was attached to some of the ideas and needed something to tie them together.

A macguffin was an obvious choice. To my mind adventures can be crafted in several ways-

A mystery that requires revelation. This will involve the players interrogating the enemy, trying to get to the heart of some plot. Its often a bit more open for the players, and can be awesome. It requires a lot of effort for the gm, however- the mystery cannot be too obvious or the players will feel no succour at having solved it, but if its too hard the players will stall, which is absolutely no fun.

A quest for a macguffin. This is actually fairly broad. The macguffin doesn't have to be one thing, and is great at driving plot. The quest for it can actually be as open or as railroaded as one would like.

So the book, leading to the grail, was crafted. By having several factions interested in it- the rogue Shallyans for obvious reasons, the criminals for financial, and Tzeentch mainly to lure the players to it, this neatly pulled all the threads together, and encouraged the players to follow through. The natural lead meant I didn't have to railroad too much. The mercenaries following the players was the most major part of railroading, and I could arguably have just had the book taken from the players, but its a classic trope to have the heroes get the macguffin only to lose it minutes later (I suspect this campaign was unconciously and sometimes very consiously inspired by Indiana Jones).

There were some issues I had with my design here. I rushed too many sessions. I had a point I wanted to get the players to get to, and made things too easy for them to get there- this was notable in the noble's quarters, which really could have lasted a little longer. The final combat with the Tzeentch could have been a bit better also, with a couple more cultists to help the leader. If I'd been more relaxed about where the players needed to get to I think it would have made for better sessions. Combat is something I had a big issue with. It needs to be set up carefully to be interesting. The best examples were the attack on a gang, where there were multiple antagonists at different points, and different approaches for the players, and the final combat. Many of the other combats just didn't work, however. WFRP is not a terribly exciting combat system, and making them interesting is hard work.

The combats that didn't work where generally against one type of enemy with an objective to engage in close combat with the players. This is a fairly dull objective, and denies player choice- no matter what the players do they're probably going to be all in combat within a few rounds, and be stuck in the cycle of aim and attack that combat ends up as.

To improve combats, one either needs- multiple enemies with different types of attacks, at the most simple this can just be ranged and melee. The terrain should be interesting enough to present tactical choices to the players- cover for them or the enemy to use, items that might be used to disrupt the enemy, high and low ground. I think if the enemy is just going to be melee, ideally they might have interesting objectives. The fight against the beastmen would have been a lot more interesting if their principle goal had been to kill the weakened shallyan, which would have made a reasonable amount of sense anyway (the nurgle cultists had persuaded beastmen to attack). This would have forced both the enemies and players to fight differently, and added tension- while the players were never going to lose the fight, they might have lost the sister, making some portions of the rest of the campaign harder.

I need to think more about combat in rpgs- often they're an after thought, but in systems that don't give many combat options one really needs to work hard to make sure that combat remains exciting.

The final session went pretty well. The players were given lots of choice as to what do in the city. I possibly shouldn't have given them the hint about Beatrix, but the way the conversation was going I was worried they wouldn't think to enlist other npcs help. The remaining possible support was the palace, which was about to be assaulted by a great unclean one, and Morris, who would have been an interesting source of help. I shouldn't have attacked the players with the nurglings, as it was an utterly pointless distraction, but I felt i needed to demonstrate the desperate state of the city.

The players found their way in to the temple well, but did alert the people in the main altar room, allowing them to wait in ambush. If they'd manage to take down the cultist silently the enemy would have been caught by surprise.

The final fight was reasonably balanced. Martha was a monster, with 3 magic, two attacks a toughness of 6 and 16 wounds, but the other combatants were not as powerful. The plague bearers, despite effectively ambushing the party, lasted too long. This was partially my fault for underplaying Maria- she had more tactical options than she used. I really don't like having npcs along with the party because I forget about them and don't use them properly, but the party persuaded her to come along with reasonable logic. This was another reason to try and off her before they got to the room! Still, while it did go on too long, I think the actual combat was reasonably interesting, even if my players did manage to prove astonishingly inept throughout.

All in all my take away lessons from this campaign is to not neglect prep time for any aspect of a session, and to make sure not to rush a session unecessarily. It can almost always be split in two.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010


Bars have always baffled me. I've never been a crazy wild party animal, but I have been to a fair few clubs in my time, and even managed to be drunk enough to enjoy myself on some occasions. Clubbing, you see, I get. You have a specific purpose that evening, and that is dancing wildly in a club (and possibly hooking up with someone equally drunk as you, but that certainly was never my purpose). Pubs have an obvious purpose, of course: you get to hang out with your friends, relax, chat, and drink a healthy amount (not necessarily medically healthy, mind).

So whats the point of bars? Bars are typically rather full, and exceedingly loud. There is usually not much space to dance, and not much encouragment to do so. However, if you wish to converse with your friends, you have to pretty much shout. So instead one finds oneself drinking and not saying much. And to be honest, if it was just drinking alcohol I wanted to do, I might as well do it at home where there isn't offensively loud music and awkward lack of conversation imposed on myself.

This has genuinely always baffled me, as I know several people who actually want to go these bars. Whats the point?

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Battle for Wesnoth

Coming back to this game I couldn't quite remember why I had ever stopped playing it. Battle for wesnoth is a free turn based strategy game. It's a beautifully crafted game, with enough variety between the units to present interesting strategic choices. I've only played the single player campaign so far, and have yet to experience multiplayer, but I'd love to give it a shot.

There is a lot of intricacy to it. Each turn you can move each unit, and if you are adjacent to an enemy unit, attack. Different types of terrain penalise different types of units- horsemen are best on the plains, while dwarfs prefer the mountains, and elves are utterly lethal in the forest. There is a day night cycle throughout turns, and certain units are better at day than they are at night. Units have different kinds of attacks, ranged and melee, with different kinds of damage which effect units differently- impact damage is better against the undead, piercing damage against humans.

The campaigns are great fun, the plot weak, but the challenges interesting and sometimes extremely difficult. And therin lies the rub. Wesnoth is a game with a loyal fanbase of players who have played the game to death, and are looking for more challenge, and the creator is happy to appease them. Sadly this means that certain campaigns, even supposed novice ones, have their difficulty gradually amped up. A scenario which was already quite hard to complete has been made even harder since I last played it, which is just a nightmarish choice.

The main issue this can drive away newcomers is that its quite possible to doom ones self in early missions without realising. Units level up throughout the game, and you can recall them in later scenarios, so the game assumes that you have a back log of these units. If you don't, certain missions become practically impossible as you only have very weak level one units to fight your enemies with. The tactics then are somewhat counter intuitive- you want to let lower level units get kills as they get more experience for that (why kills give more experience is not really clear from a design perspective, as it leads to stupid behaviour), and also to preserve very carefully high level units. Also, finishing a level well usually gives a bonus in terms of your starting gold for the next mission, which sometimes you really do need. The problem with all these systems is that bad players are going to find the game get harder and harder, while good players will find it easier and easier. This is the opposite of what the game should be doing, and is a serious flaw in the game design.

That said, if you do play carefully and well, the game is rewarding- provided you realise the game is structured that way, and are prepared to replay levels or turns (the game does let you rewind at least 5 turns back, which can be a life saver if you accidentally lose important units), its a lot of fun. Its also free, so its hard to go wrong.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Disappearing buses

One of the strangest phenomona while waiting for buses are those that disappear. The electronic board gives an update of which buses will be next, and dutifilly you follow the countdown until it reaches due. And sometimes, with a depressing amount of frequency, the bus just does not turn up. No explanation, no nothing- its gone from the board, and the next bus will be coming in twenty minutes. Indeed, after one bus failed to turn up, the next one along kept stopping at places because it was too early!

What happens to these buses? Are they abducted? Did they even exist in the first place, or was the timetable just taunting me. We wouldn't except such a thing from the rail service. Trains rarely get completely canceled, and if they do, its with apologys and explanation, rather than a numb little display that just makes them go away.

What is most frustrating about this tendency is usually it is possible to walk most places in Southampton, but it will take a little longer if you need to be somewhere. So you get the bus to go a little faster, which makes it more than a little absurd when instead of waiting three minutes you are forced to wait twenty three.

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Monday, February 08, 2010

Secret moans of the unimpressed

is the name of the livejournal blog that exists purely so that I can comment on other livejournal accounts... Thats a far better title than this blog!

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Alternative vote

So Gordon Brown is having a death bed conversion to alternative voting. The timing is, of course, hilarious, and rather implies that GB's principles depends on whether those principles will make it easier for his party to be elected, but the system? Pretty solid.

It is exceedingly tiresome to live in a constituency where one's vote matters very little, but many British people have this experience. Unless you live in a swing seat, your vote counts very little to the politicians of this country, and even then you'll probably have to tactical vote. The alternative vote does something to alleviate the problem of wasted vote, and pretty much annihalates the issue of tactical voting.

Want to vote lib dem but want labour our? Well put lib dem first, conservative second. If everyone else shares your viewpoint then the lib dems may surge forth, if they don't, well the vote won't be wasted, as it will still go to a party opposed to Labour. Incidentally, if one really only wants to vote for just one party, one can, the additional preferences are only optional.

Its not a perfect fix, I'd prefer something much more proportional, but its a step in the right direction. It certainly won't lead to coalition governments or weakening the constituency link. One can certainly argue that Gordon Brown is the wrong person to be affecting this change, but I believe that its difficult to argue that the change is a good one.

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Friday, February 05, 2010


One of my least favourite parts about marking (and I have very few favourite parts), is discovering plagiarism. It of course needs to be reported, and then the individuals will be disciplined, and depending on the level, expunged from the degree. Plagiarism at this level really can ruin you for the rest of your life. While my part in the process is fortunately small, its still quite a heavy burden to carry.

The most depressing part is that typically the plagiarists in question will have essentially worked together too much, producing near identical solutions. The individuals in question will probably be a little desperate, which means that despite cheating, they won't get a very good mark. Thats a sad way to jeopardise one's entire life career.

One does wonder if the individuals who do such things really weigh the gravity of the situation, whether they are so utterly desperate that they do not believe they can acheive even a passing mark without resorting to cheating.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Roleplaying theory

This is an interesting read, and has given me some ideas. I've never run a sand box game, but have recently been growing a desire to do so. This article reads true for me, and I may well end up applying it.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Another reason to quit smoking?

I have a mind blank on things to blog on today, so I give you news that apparently a cigarette... exploded in a mans hands in Indonesia. The mind boggles

"We are communicating with the police and still waiting on the forensic laboratory tests," Iwan Sulistyo told the Jakarta Globe.

"We do not put any strange materials in the cigarettes, so we think that this is a weird case. This is the first time for us."

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Arkham Asylum

This is a terrific game. I always enjoy a licenced game that makes me feel like the character: I took great joy in swinging round New York as Spiderman, and I take a great deal of joy in beating up criminals as batman.

The game is a rather neatly made combination of action, stealth and platforming. When fighting enemies, there are two versions. When the criminals are unarmed you simply get amoungst them and demolish them. The combat system is simple and mostly intuitive, with your main moves being to either attack or counter, and is a joy to watch. Batman is mortal, however, and if his opponents are holding guns he'd be a fool to assault them head on.

So he doesn't. Instead you sneak around, taking out the criminals one by one. As each criminal goes down the remainder become more fearful, and even easier to take out. I'm not a massive fan of stealth games, but this is just a great experience.

These are the basic experiences of the game, but the creators go to great lengths to mix things up. You encounter new enemies wielding different weapons who demand different tactics, and each stealth encounter will yield new challenges. A long the way there are some delightfully inventful moments: Scarecrow messing with your head, meaning you experience the envirnonment in totally different ways, Ivy transforming the entire island, the enjoyable challenges set by the Riddler.

The plot is great fun- its very comic book like, in that the threats are magical and strange, but have weight. The joker is creating monsters, but leaving corpses as he does so. Lives are at stake, and the Joker is delightfully psychotic.

Flaws? Well the context sensitive control system doesn't always work: sometimes the same button does the opposite thing depending on the situation, which can be more than a little counter-intuitive. Also, the death screen is frustrating. I really don't want the game to mock me when I mess up, especially a game like this, where repeating certain sections is inevitable. Still, very few that spring to mind, and all are very forgivable. It is rather short, but aren't all games these days?

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