Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Sir Ian Blair

Time to get political again.

The man's clearly a moron, and the de menezes affair has put the seal on my opinion. t's hard to ignore the catalogue of errors coming from the Commissioner and his inner circle. He is presiding over a Force that manages through a series of errors that - whilst individually they might be understandable - add up to a situation where an innocent man lost his life AND got called a terrorist suspect in a press conference.

The man should go.

And that's before you consider his stirling efforts to block the POolice Complaints Commision's report.

While I'm on the subject, let's get shot of the Home Secretary too. Jacqui Smith has come out in defence of Sir Ian Blair, saying to her opposite number "You and I will never face the challenge of making split second decisions in life and death policing operations." Erm, excuse me. Exactly which of Sir Ian's decisions are split-second? As far as I can tell, although he's eager to trumpet what he sees as successes, or to criticise other Forces when they manage to arrest terror suspects without shooting them, they're not exactly "split second" are they? The blunders in the De Menezes shooting were caused by a variety of factors - and I believe that much of the root cause is the policies and atmosphere created from the very top. Fact was, some sort of accident was almost inevitable that July, with Sir Ian sending as many of them out there with guns, ready to jump at shadows. Split-second how, exactly?

Another lefty weighed in with this pearl: "Policing and politics make for a volatile mix." Might be worth his considering where both of those words originally stemmed from (I thought that despite their eagerness to close them, most politicians had a grammarschool - or public school - background, and could be relied upon to know a bit of Ancient Greek). The simple fact is that politics is how the citizens decides how it is to be governed and ruled. The Police are a body appointed by the citizens to oversee those rules - they cannot enforce anything without the goodwill and support of the citizens. It ought to go without saying that questions of politics should lie at the very heart of how we are to be policed. Especially when one is considering the Police's own policies. Do we not have a right - nay, a duty - to get "political" when things are done in our names of which we strongly disapprove?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Johnny-5's alive (and made of plastic)

I've managed to spend the evening playing with the new Lego Mindstorms NXT robotics kit (OK, Lauren thinks that she was helping too). I thought that there might be an explosion from Jan at the sight of the new stuff, but she knows I've got loads of the old Mindstorms kit released 7 or 8 years ago, and she can't tell the difference between old and new (so she hasn't twigged that this is all new gear).

Although I owned the old Lego Robotics Invention System (two sets; the second one having been bought very cheaply in a PC World sell-off), I never managed to get a great deal built or programmed. The old software was VERY basic, but I've got absolutely zero programming in my background, and all of the homebrew alternative programming methods were WAY beyond me. And the basic programming software combined with the basic motors meant that it barely made it out of the box.

The new NXT kit is a different kettle of fish. Firstly it employs a very modern method of pinning everything together (after over 35 years of playing with lego, I'd got a handle on building stuff out of bricks and plates by aligning the studs; the NXT kit uses a newer "studless" construction technique that has me right back at square one trying to figure out even the most basic ways to build anything.

Secondly, the motors are VERY different too. The old Mindstorms kit came with two small and blocky motors that were pretty similar to the motors in the Technic line that Lego had been making for about 25 years; the new motors are HUGE in comparison, they're an odd shape with no studs at all (that "studless construction" again, chaps), but are true stepper motors so they know how far and how fast they rotate (unlike the old motors, where you either had to buy some extra, expensive rotation sensors, or you guessed and hoped for the best).

And thirdly there's the new software. The old set had a truly ghastly command structure, which managed to be both basic, restrictive AND confusing. The new programming suite is graphically-based once again, but manages to be much more comprehensive whilst at the same time being much more intuitive and straightforward. Lego themselves have realised that by embracing an adult fan community, and actively supporting the homebrew firmware and programming languages, they will sell more sets. So having released as much of the internal code as open source stuff as possible, there are already quite a few different programming languages out there based on stuff like Java and C. Like I say, I can't program much more than the ubiquitous two lines of Basic on a WHSmiths' display Spectrum, but I know that this sort of stuff is important to some people. Lego also involved some of that community to actually help develop the current kit, so the included programming suite is much more functional than the old one. Gripes? Just a couple in the ergonomics stakes at the moment. I'd like to be able to zoom in and out of the program area with the mouse wheel (or at all; the software doesn't support ANY zooming, and even a moderately-sized program can span several pages), and it only seems to support one-button mice (a sop to the Mac crowd no doubt, who couldn't run the old software at all; but it's a nuisance not being able to cut & paste stuff using just a right-click).

The new kit seems to contain fewer parts. The old set contained 700-odd parts, but that count included a fair few utterly useles decorative parts (bat wings, anyone?). The new kit contains just over 500, and it does feel like there is less to build with than the old kit. That is also down to the way everything is assembled - the old kit, brick connected to brick; now every piece has to be pinned to another with a couple of axles or pegs; and those pegs push the piece count higher. There are also some odd ommisions - no differential gearbox, for example. And the packaging feels cheap, cheap, cheap (not only was the old RIS box and printed manual impressively sturdy stuff, the NXT kit is decidedly not; it's possibly the poorest packaging for any Lego set I've ever seen. But having not bought much Lego over the last ten years, perhaps ALL the packaging and printed instructions are of this low quality now).

On the other hand, in terms of the premium-cost items in the box, it scores over the old set. The old set had two motors, with no way to count how many times they had turned; the new set has three stepper motors with in-built rotation sensors (so that's about £40-worth of more stuff than the old set straight off). Although there is one less touch sensor (the cheapest and most straightforward sensor in the old lineup), the new kit includes more variety of sensors - not only is there the touch sensor and the light sensor, there's a new sound sensor and best of all an ultrasonic sensor; with the old setup, you either bought an expensive third-party add-on, or you bodged one yourself using components bought off the internet. Added to which, the new programming suite caters for these additional sensors out of the box.

The long and the short of these improvements is that not only have I built two or three robots tonight (OK, all based on the same chassis, and all straight off the included Lego instructions, but hey, it's a start), I managed to work my way through all the simple programming exercises for the first robot myself, ahead of being shown what to do by the Lego software. I even managed to get the robot to behave in the ways that Lauren dictated ("He's got to move forwards, say hello, beep, then spin on the spot" sort of thing). Finally I had it running around the lounge, bouncing off the walls with it saying "ouch" each time before changing direction. The main thing that I learned was that our lounge floor is REALLY filthy, and needs a jolly good sweeping as soon as we can remember where the microfibre mop head is hiding.

Can't wait for my Bluetooth dongle to turn up from Ebuyer. The only major pain with the Mindstorms NXT kit is having to plug the programmable brick into the PC's USB port every time I want to upload a new program. And given that everything is a matter of programming, testing, rewriting the program, testing again, and repeating the whole cycle over and over (usually about 6 times to actually get everything to work well), the socket on the programmable brick wasn't going to last forever. but when I have the dongle, I should be able to send the code straight from the PC to the brick wherever it is in the house.

Just one more gripe. The NXT kit uses cables that are not compatible with the old style of motors and sensors (although conversion cables are available). Fine, I completely understand the methodology - the new sensors and motors need more separate strands as they pass different types of data to the programmable brick. but Lego are also introducing a new line of motors this year (in some Technic sets, and later into their trains), with a new wiring system that's not compatible with either the old wiring OR the new NXT wiring. And the latter incomatability is just daft.

Right - off to program the thing to try and herd Lauren round the lounge now!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

What IS the point??

It seems like our politicians, Police Officers, Councils and ACPO ask for some new power or legislation to restrict the way that people behave (the old rules of society, where you behaved properly because that was what you OUGHT to do having gone the way of the dodo some time back.

But what exactly is the point of them crying out for new laws and powers when they can't - or won't - use the ones that they already have?

Take fireworks, for example. No, please, take them. As far away from here as possible. And keep them away for 364 days of the year, if you wouldn't mind.

Now we had a new Fireworks Act in 2003, closely followed by some Regulations in 2004 (the Act was a pretty bland affair; the real meat and bones of our fireworks rules are in the Regs). One of those rules - fairly widely publicized at the time, oddly enough - was a new late night limit on firework noise. It was simple. Not after 11pm, except on a few particular dates, including - not so oddly, this time - the 5th of November.

Well, it's not the 5th of November yet. But it is after 11pm here. Well after. And once again, it sounds like downtown Beruit.

Enforcement action in evidence? Don't be so silly.

Perhaps it only works if we all carry ID cards?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

More pictures as and when I take them

Right, I've posted enough pictures of baby Shula for now. I'll keep updating my Picasa web page (because it's the easiest way to share them with family and friends), but I need to find something new to blog about.

Meanwhile, my photo albums can be seen here:

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A few more pictures now we're at home

Here are a few pictures of Shula in our lounge, lying in a chair that vibrates (when the battery isn't flat, that is). Jury's out as to whether she finds it soothing or not.

Sleeptime now. Instead of using either the cot (because that's in the nursery along the landing, and I'm not running backwards and forwards at 2am having cracked my arm doing just that a few months ago) or the moses basket (because we've forgotten who we lent it to), we've bought another gadget.

this one is called an Amby Nature's Nest - apparently they are THE thing for your baby to sleep in if you're in Australia, being in widespread use in maternity wards and hospitals over there (I trust that my man in New Zealand can confirm if it's an Antipodean thing, just unique to the Aussies, or a load of marketting guff).

It's a sort of hammock-meets-sling, attached to the frame by a big spring, so any shuffling in the night is converted into a gentle rocking motion. The hammock has mesh sides for good ventilation, baby sleeps with its feet at the bottom and it's almost impossible to shuffle further down - or up - without great effort, and the way the sling gently curves around baby is meant to mimmick being back in the womb. So babies are supposed to go to sleep more quickly, and sleep more soundly, than on a conventional flat mattress. I'm not aware of any studies that put it in a better or worse light than conventional sleeping arrangements so far as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, but anecdotal evidence is that babies are more placid in a Nest than in any other sort of bed.

Oh, and they are eye-wateringly expensive. Still, it seems to be giving her a peaceful night's sleep (which should translate into a peaceful night's sleep for me, so well worth the money).

Verdict after two night's use is that it seems to work just fine, though right now we're still being woken every 2-3 hours.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Some more photos

Six hours (and a couple of feeds) later, and we're all looking a lot more normal. Lauren was allowed out of school for a visit too.

I've dug out a picture of Lauren at the same age.

They both look pretty similar (I think the Lauren photo was taken about 24-26 hours after being born). Two obvious differences stand out when looking at the old photos of Lauren: firstly she had her eyes open much wider, and in more of the photos (which accords with my recollection, of a little baby who spend the first couple of days staring at EVERYTHING); and secondly, hasn't the quality of the output from digital cameras improved? The shot of Lauren was takenon someone else's camera - my own camera of the time produced nasty, noise-ridden and low resolution shots. Like this one:

New Baby

We went to the hospital last night at 6pm, with Jan feeling fed up, full of headache and back-ache, and she was getting herself all het-up about baby, simply because the official "due date" was Sunday just gone. memo to the world - "due dates" are best guesses, not to be relied upon AT ALL. Baby will arrive when baby is ready, regardless of what some midwife with a chart says is the due date. And stressing about it when baby is "late" is a massive waste of energy.

Anyway, the trip to the hospital ended up being a 5-hour stay - being monitored, being monitored again because baby kept moving, bloot-tests, headache tablets, and more monitoring, before being sent home just after 11pm. "Not in labour yet - take two of these and see if they help with the headache".

Just after 12 midnight we were on our way back in, with Jan *sure* that she was in labour. (She's been wrong twice already this week; the staff had turned us away last Friday, and again on Monday.)

But guess what - she was right this time!

Booked in at 12.30, monitored, moved from room to room, and finally settled in the second or third delivery room about 1.30am. Jan decided to have a hot bath to see if it would help with the back-ache, as a prelude to asking to use the birthing pool. It didn't help one bit, so she decided not to bother with the pool either. Birthing ball requested and similarly discarded, as by the time they found where they'd hidden it, she was on the bed pulling on the gas & air like there was nothing else that mattered.

Waters broke sometime after 2.15am, and she started to push at 2.30. Baby Shula was born 30 minutes later at 3am on the dot. Which was actually pretty darned fast in my book, and largely fuss-free.

Shula weighed in at 7lbs 2oz. Baby was fairly quiet and tired after all the pushing and shoving, but was awake enough to start feeding about 30 minutes later.

Jan found the whole thing pretty tiring (and very painful - especially as she needed a few stitches), but she was very pleased to get through it all so quickly and with just gas & air as pain relief. She was up and about an hour or so later, and had a bath to get cleaned up (I can't remember the last time I saw so much blood, snot and tears). She was feeling perky enough to walk to the maternity ward at 6am, with baby Shula grumbling about wanting another feed.

Here are a few pictures taken at 4-5am this morning.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I'm A Fun Guy?

So fun that I spent some of this morning out in the back garden with a camera.

It appears that one of the thinks that happens when a lot of building takes place on a plot of land is that all sorts of bits and pieces get dumped in the garden prior to being covered over with the topsoil. Bits of wood and timber being pretty much top of that list. And as the wood rots, it provides an idea breeding ground for fungi.

After a couple of warmish days, and a downpour yesterday, I woke up this morning to see a fine crop of assorted mushrooms or toadstools in the back garden.

We have two main types appearing. I'm fairly sure that the predominant type are coprinus micaceus - glistening ink caps. And they either go very dark as they mature, or we have another member of the coprinus family* growing alongside them.

* there is some debate about whether all the members of the ink cap family are in fact properly calssified as coprinus, the latest DNA evidence tending to suggest that there are at least two different species that have independantly evolved the deliquescing dark gills.

If anyone is 100% sure that I'm wrong, and they know precisely what I've got in my garden, let me know. Right now, I'm about 80% sure, and the websites are 80% sure that the fungi are "edible but not exactly nice". If it turns out that they are actually poisonous, I'll need to do something about them.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Halo 3 has stolen my life

I'm sure that it's only temporary, but right now I'm rather hooked on Hal 3 - Microsoft's biggest title for the Xbox 360 games console. I'm not very good at it - certainly not against other people in online games - but it's proving to be hard to ignore.

Of course, it helps that the game has been the biggest and fastest "entertainment" package in history - it's "opening weekend" sales comfortably eclipsed any other game, but also every movie release in history too.

Other than a Halo 3 obsession (and before that, a racing game called Forza 2), my favourite games recently have all been of the traditional variety with a board. Phoenicia is - I'm told - a reworking of a much older game. I've never played its progenitor, Outpost, but I have played Phoenicia often enough in the past 3 months to know that it's very good.

And there's Duel In The dark. I know that at least one of my readers isn't normally interested in games, but this might be up his street. I'll try to make a longer blog post about it later in the week, but in essence it's a game of bluff, misdirection and reading you opponent right, with a theme of RAF bombing raids over Germany in WW2. The RAF player pre-plans his target and the route to be taken by the bomber, then uses a Mosquito to either protect the bomber and harass the German nightfighters, open a path in the ground defences, or misdirect the Germans as to the bomber's next move. The German player meanwhile lays out his ground defences once the RAF route has been planned, then uses four nightfighters to try to intercept the bomber on his way in and out of Germany, but has the added complication of managing the planes' fuel load. Each side scores victory points during the game based on how well then manage their roles. Takes about 45 minutes to play a game, so there's usually plenty of time for two players to swap roles after one game and try it from the other side's perspective. Oh, and unusually there's a very simple way to play a solo game (although this isn't as good as playing the game face-to-face).

More info here:

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Nobody here but us chickens?

Gosh. A long post on the Expo, and not one comment. Did my prolonged absence drive away my last remaining reader after all?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

UK Games Expo, June 2007

OK, there have been no posts from me for three months, now two come along at once! For a couple of weekends this summer, I've been busy demonstrating Heroscape for MB Games. We've done the first UK Games Expo, held in Birmingham on the 2nd and 3rd of June, the Cast Are Dice in Stoke in August, and Beer & Prezels in Burton.

I'd heard that some local chaps were interested in trying to do a "British Essen". It's more properly called "Spiel", but referred to as "Essen" by every gamer in the western hemisphere; it's an annual games show in Germany held each October. It gets about 150,000 visitors over 4 days, and fills an exhibition comlex that is used to hold things like motor shows. Essen has a mix of big publishers, small publishers, retailers and second-hand dealers, all trying to get the public to look at, play, and ultimately buy their games. Fantastic event, and this year's will be the first one that I have missed in a decade.

Anyway, the call had gone out last November to people who where interested in helping out, traders and publishers who wanted space, etc. At that stage nobody knew what sort of event the UK Expo would be, how big or how much involvement they would have from the games industry.

I've been hooked on Heroscape for a couple of years now, and had taken a few sets along to local conventions to show it off, play demonstration and participation games, learning all the while about how best to show the game off (I wasn't a complete beginner at this; for the last 3 or 4 Essens, I have helped out on the Warfrog stand explaining their games to interested foreigners, and Martin's games are much more complicated than Heroscape). So I knew some of what worked, and some of what didn't, and when the Expo organisers said that there would be space for demonstration and partcipation games, I volunteered.

By the time Easter rolled around, it was clear that the Expo was going to be the biggest boardgames event in the UK; a lot of small publishers and traders had booked space, publicity materials had been prepared and sent out, and things were gearing up nicely.

The organisers held a sort of "preview" event at Birmingham's central Library about six weeks before the Expo, and I volunteered for that too. On the day, I found myself up on the top floor, in something of a backwater with some historical miniatures games, while the main event consisted of family games on the first floor. Not a problem, though - I took along two Master Sets, a blue background sheet, knocked up some flyers of my own advertising our presence at the Expo, and set up the Wellspring of Obsession map.

It was pretty well received, with about ten people sitting down to be shown the game (and about 40 flyers being handed out). How well did it work? I showed the game to one chap, who came back wityh his mates a few minutes later - "You've got to try this!" They all enjoyed it - how much was clear when they came over to my table 6 weeks later at the Expo - between them, they had bought FOURTEEN Master Sets between them!

A handy "prequel" event, that - it showed me that there were still some areas where I could improve on my presentation and make the game easier for new players to pick up. So over the next six weeks, I planned, prepared materials, ordered some extra bits and pieces to set off the presentation (including some excellent water mats, custom made by a US-based Heroscape fan), and I was all set.

The table was set up on Friday night. It took me and my helper, David, about two hours to put it together. I was frequently asked "How many sets?", so with hindsight I should have included this info on the flyers I was handing out (though I did remember to give and Hasbro both a plug). The short answer is "Nine Master Sets." The longer answer is that I needed nine sets for all the water and crinkly bits, but in fact my 9 sets fill two large cardboard boxes in my games room and I only took one of those boxes to the Expo. So I only actually need half of the pieces from those nine sets to get the map built.

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There was a definate idea behind this map. Firstly, I wanted it to make good use of the 6' by 6' table available to me. Secondly, it had to look stunning, and show off the flexibility of the Heroscape terrain system. Thirdly, I really wanted to play several simultaneous games on the one map (I've tried 4-player games with new players, and I'd rather stick pencils up my nose than go through that again). Fourthly, it needed to include water and elevation, but no levels higher than 10 (to avoid the need to explain the 2-dice height advantage rule, that I still don't really understand myself), and not have too many really big climbs or falls (it's possible to find places on the map where a figure can't climb or would take damage when falling, but they are "off the beaten track" - so that's two other slightly fiddly rules that can be skipped from the explaination). Finally it had to be made from Master Set terrain only, and be played with Master Set figures - this is all that is readily available in the UK, and I really didn't want to have to say to the public "Yeah, I ordered all the really cool stuff from America" - they had to be shown things that are actually in the shops here.

Of course, HasbroUK being what they are, they've since told people that they are discontinuing Heroscape in the UK altogether; I can only hope that this information is inaccurate, as the Expo showed me that people were very interested in the game. Perhaps the UK will follow in the footsteps of Australia, where recently Wizards of the Coast (a Hasbro subsidiary) has announced their commitment to making all the expansion sets available, through local speciality games shops.

Here's another shot of our setup from above. You'll notice that I had printed up flyers (we handed out about a hundred; again, with hindsight it would have been good to get one put in each of the 1200+ goody bags handed to visitors as they arrived at the Expo). We also had laminated rules summary sheets (not that anyone needed them, Heroscape is very straightforward), a banner wrapped around one edge of the table, my dice towers, and pre-selected armies laminated as one card.

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The idea behind having pre-selected armies was to help new players get straight into playing the game. Although one of the key strategies in Heroscape is choosing an army of units that work well together (or ones that work well against the units chosen by your opponent), it is much, much easier to hand a complete army to a player and explain his strengths and weaknesses. I've tried the game out on new players having them choose units that "look cool", but it still takes a while to add up all the points.

I'd copied and laminated about two dozen armies made up from Master Set units, and I'd definately do it this way again in future, as it significantly reduces the startup time and complexity at a demo game like this. However, I did make one error - I'd originally planned a quite different map, where Mimring and Grimnak would have been severely hampered, so the armies had been made up without them. Due to the change of map, they would have worked fine, and might have added a bit of extra variety - though it did mean that I could skip explaining about how two-space figures move. So they were on display all day, but never got used.

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Alan How (one of Britain's most influential games journalists, and a buyer of far too many new games) came over to the table. I've known Alan for about a decade (my first Essen trip was in a minibus with Alan and others), and he knew of - and lightly mocked - my Heroscape obsession. He then admitted that he'd bought a couple of sets himself, but had never played. Ha, a challenge! "Sit there Alan, and I'll teach you the game." He enjoyed it.

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Alan was by no means unique. With the recent price cuts in Heroscape here in the UK, I found several people who had bought the game (sometimes just for the terrain) and had never played. I did my best to remedy the situation in every case.

Some games going on:

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You'll have spotted my dice towers in some of the shots, although by Sunday I had abandoned their use (at Beer & Pretzels back in May, the towers were in danger of getting more serious enquiries than the game!).

I also abandoned the use of the "X" marker - although it's an important part of the tactics, allowing players to bluff and misdirect their opponents, for the target audience at the Expo it was a distraction - I simply explained that there were a number of rules like drafting and the "X" that I had omitted but made the full game even better.

Me teaching the game.

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One of the three prize winners.

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Hasbro UK had kindly donated three Master Sets to be used as prizes (as well as providing two MB Games T-shirts). I was a little disappointed though that Hasbro UK had never contacted me about the Expo despite my efforts to open a dialogue with them via a number of channels. I know that they aren't interested in marketing direct to the public (though how the Hasbro webshop fits with this philosophy I don't know), but these events do have an effect. Quite apart from the MINIMUM 14 sets sold as a result of my library visit, having over a thousand people see the big Heroscape setup can't help but boost the game's recognition factor - and consumers prove over and over that they like to buy products that they recognise (otherwise advertising would be a waste of time). A moot point, though, if the UK is not going to be receiving any more Heroscape.

At the Expo, I was the closest thing that there was to an "official" Hasbro presence, which was a real shame (and somewhat frustrating - they had sent the T-shirt & games to the Expo organisers, but didn't do anything else - for all they knew, I could have been some nutcase with bad teeth and a surly attitude who could have done no good at all). Hasbro Germany take up a reasonable slice of floorspace at Essen each year - why not do the same at the Expo?

They weren't the only big names to stay away - there was no Wizards of the Coast (OK, technically part of Hasbro too), no Ravensburger (though they are better known for puzzles instead of games here), and no Games Workshop either. Shame on you, guys, and hopefully you will all be there next year. Wizkids showed up though.

Finally, a pic of me with my partner, Jan. I couldn't have made it through the whole weekend without her - she did a fair chunk of the demonstrations and explanations (indeed, I'd almost lost my voice by Saturday evening, so without her help there might not have been any Heroscape on Sunday). It helps that she shares my love of Heroscape.

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Monday, September 3, 2007

Okay, then, if I must ...

My reader* has delivered a gentle reminder that this blog has not been updated in a while. Well, in my defence I did say that it would only ever be an occasionaly thing, when the fancy takes me.

* unlike Terry Wogan's single "listener", I genuinely believe that I have only the one reader.

So to rectify the situation, here's a brief summary of what I've been doing this week. Or at least the interesting part of the week when I wasn't working for a living.

Lauren wanted a climbing frame for her birthday (which was at the start of August). Now I'm not the sort of chap to wander down to Argos with fifty pounds in my pocket for some tubular steel rubbish, when a few hours' research on the 'net will allow me to spend a whole order of magnitude more.

Very quickly, it seemed that wooden was the way to go. Especially in the "spend unfeasibly large amounts of money" stakes - if you're insistent upon emptying the bank account really quickly there can be no better route. Of course, I justified it to myself on the grounds that we'd not really had much of a family holiday this summer, and a good quality climbing frame would be used by not only Lauren but sprog number 2 (due at the start of October).

After looking at a great many climbing frames (far more than can possibly be healthy), I decided on a Jungle Gym Cabin with optional Monkey Bars (from which two swings can be hung) and a Rock Module (a sort of climbing wall for tots).

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I bought it from - based mostly on the fact that they had everything in stock, answered my emails promptly, and looked to be bona fide experts on the subject of climbing frames.

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The kit arrives in a series of brightly packaged boxes (containing accessories, nuts, bolts, drill bits and instructions), the slide, and a whole lot of wood. Although the wood was already pressure-treated (to stand up to the rigours of being outside 24/7), we decided to paint everything before - or sometimes during - assembly. Partly to give it extra longevity, partly to make it blend in with our fence, and mostly because it looks good.

The main tower is supposed to take two people two days to assemble. Well, we spent all of the Bank Holiday weekend building it and then some - Friday evening, all day Saturday (starting at 9am, an ungodly hour for a weekend), all day Sunday, much of Monday, several hours during the week of an evening, and some of a second Saturday.

But Lauren thinks that the results are well worth it. Free Image Hosting by Free Image Hosting by Free Image Hosting by Free Image Hosting by Free Image Hosting by Free Image Hosting by
post scriptum: the next camera that I buy simply MUST have some guidelines in the viewfinder. I seem to have real trouble keeping the horizon horizontal :(

Thursday, May 17, 2007

UK Games Expo

OK, in an attempt to kick some life into the UK boardgames industry, two chaps have organised the first UK Games Expo on the 2nd and 3rd of June. That's just a fortnight away.

I've mentioned before that I'll be there, running a demonstration and particiption game of Heroscape.

I've seen too many wargames shows where someone's idea of a "demonstration" game was to have lots of pretty things for the public to look at, but get too close to the action and they'd just growl at you. Almost as bad are the "participation" games where you have to give up three hours of your day to play something ill-thought out, untested, and where the organiser just tells you exactly what to do turn-by-turn anyway.

Thankfully Heroscape lends itself to both the people who want to just look, and the people who want to get stuck in but can only spare an hour.

Now I've been taking Heroscape to several local cons and events over the last 12 months, including Beer & Pretzels last week, and the reaction has always been very positive. In the meantime, I think I've managed to pick up a few ideas and avoid a few pitfalls in ways to get people to play and enjoy the game in the confines of a public event. I know for a fact that my efforts have managed to sell more than a few games (though you're never going to empty all the local Argos stores on the back of one public event).

Anyway, my preparation for the Expo is largely done (though I'd love Hasbro to wake up and contact me about the event, given that it is their product I'm showing off). I've accumulated a rather daft NINE sets of Heroscape, and designed a map that will allow several games to be played at once (as well as providing what I hope is something of a "wow" factor). Various bits and bobs have been purchased or prepared to make the whole thing look as porfessional as possible, because professional-looking is often approachable in the minds of the public - I've seen how they react at Europe's biggest games show (Essen, 150,000 attendees, which usually includes me trying to demonstrate something) to organised exhibitors, and how the same public shuffle past anyone who looks like a clueless amateur.

The centrepiece to make Heroscape look good will be the map itself. As I say, nine sets have gone into this; all the necessary pieces are all boxed up in my games room, to help with a smooth setup on the day, and there are just a couple of small details to iron out (one being how we're going to allocate the copies that Hasbro have promised to send as prizes).

Anyway, here's the map:

Although I had a last-minute idea of getting some new dice towers together and trying to sell a few at the Expo, that's not going to happen. I contacted three firms that do acrylic cutting for a quote at the start of the week, and so far none have got back to me with numbers, let alone enough detail to put me in a position to place an order for the components. I'm still hoping to make some more, but there won't be any for sale at the Expo.

Open Letter to David Cameron

I was going to blog about boardgames, but I think that this is rather more important.

Dave - I hope you don't mind my calling you Dave, it seems like everyone else does), I simply must take issue with your latest policy change.

Had I been a party member, I would be cancelling my membership (it seems like every time that I have got close to signing up over the last 20 years, the Conservative Party has gone ahead and doone something stupid to push me away again). Had you announced this policy change a fortnight ago, you wouldn't have received my vote in the local elections.

Of what do I speak? Your new stance on selective education and grammar schools in particular.

I think that I would be categorised as "middle class"; University-educated, professional career et cetera. And a product of the grammar school system (at a time when it was under fierce attack from Labour-run local councils). Although my parents can never agree as to which "class" they belong to, one of my grandfathers was a postman, the other a milkman; as the first member of the family to go to University, the first to obtain a degree, the first to achieve a professional position, I might be considered an example of social mobility at work.

Now perhaps that might have been achieved if I had not gone to a state-funded grammar school. But going to such a school guaranteed that it was probable, and not merely possible.

One of the striking features of the school that I attended was that it is exactly the sort of institution that permits - nay, encourages - eductional opportunities for all. It is non-fee paying. It is located in the inner city of a large metropolitan area. It has a very wide cross-section of pupils from all different backgrounds. To illustrate the last point, I was considered "posh" at school because my family owned their own home in the right part of the city.

Yet you want to throw this away, in favour of promoting a model of education that isn't working despite it's place at the heart of the Labour Government's education policy.

You're crackers.

If there is a problem that too many of the "middle classes" are able to shoehorn their offspring into selective grammar schools, then it is a problem that can and should be tackled by promoting the aspirations of the less well-off; it should be done by providing them with the positive assistance that you fear the middle classes can buy for their children, by providing the extra tuition and extra-currular activities (that you fear weigh so heavily in favour of the worng sort of people getting into the schools) at inner city junior schools, by targetting funding and assistance at the level where it is most likely to promote a commitment to educational achievement and success. You don't solve the perceived problem by doing away with the schools themselves.

I presume, by the way, that when you point to perceived problems in the schools' intake, you are excluding all the fee-paying grammar schools. Because although the Conservative Party has had some very able leaders to have come from modest backgrounds, helped along by the grammar school system, I understand that your own educational experiences were somewhat different. You are, are you not, a product of a school system that is completely closed to the less well-off, that has for decades (if not centuries) been seen as positively reinforcing barriers to social mobility.

In fact, by not encouraging state-run grammar schools you are destined to pile injustice on top of injustice in the educational system. Parents with the means - and the drive - to influence their offspring's choice of secondary school can easily side-step the failing inner city schools by moving house - something that the housing market has reflected for many years. You don't "fix" that by denying the less well-off entry into the best schools, schools where it is ability and not wealth or catchment area which determines who can attend and who cannot.

Instead, tackle WHY some families don't put their children forward for such places; look at providing the means for the child to achieve DESPITE parental antipathy. Because for the United Kingdom to succeed in this century it will need to get the very best from its citizens, promoting ability and hard work. The grammar school system has always done that.

As it is, you may be right to identify a problem (though it is not one I recognise from my own experiences); your solution is to throw the baby out with the bath water, when it would be far more efficient to just shake the water up a bit.

If I get a response, I will post it here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

After this weekend's Beer & Pretzels (which I'll blog about later this week), I've thought about sorte=ing out another batch of dice towers. They were getting more attention than anything else at the weekend. So, I've put some enquiries out to see if anyone can supply and cut the components at a decent price. If anyone wants one, drop me a line.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A total lack of activity?

OK, so it's been over a month since my last post, so both of my readers have probably got bored and wandered off now.

It's hard to remember all the completely inconsequential stuff I've done recently. A fair bit of Ebay activity (because I've set myself the task of selling stuff before buying new any new toys this year; so far it's worked well). Some gaming. Nothing exciting.

"Some gaming" started with Baycon at the start of the month, at the close of which I came home with the bits to playtest a new board game. As it's not my project, it's also not my place to talk about it, butthe game is heading for a commercial release later this year or early next. I really enjoy it, but the gamers up at Spirit Games in Burton (where I go most Wednesday evenings to play a game or two) have started backing away when I put the box on the table. The good news is that the game - and the rulebook - are almost finished now, with just some final polish needed on both. Then it's off to the publishers, for them to arrange artwork and components.

I also managed to wheedle myself a copy of Risk Express - one of the first in the UK. Now I know that it's been released in Germany, but Hasbro UK don't have the best record when it comes to picking up games published by Hasbro in the US or Europe. Hopefully the Risk name will ensure that not only will they import the game, but that it will be on the shelves in Argos, WH Smiths et cetera. It's a good little dice game - much more appealing than something like Yahtzee. Risk Express reminds me a lot of another great dice game published a couple of years ago, called Pickomino. Unfortunately the long distribution chain (with everyone taking a cut) meant that whilst it could be bought in Germany for about a fiver, in the UK it was very hard to track down (specialist games shops only) and sold for £20! If Risk Express sells at the same price point as Yahtzee, you're looking at a very reasonable £8 for a more substantial game.

As well as spending time helping out with the rulebook for the playtest game, the other thing that has occupied my spare time this month has been Heroscape, and particularly planning and preparing for the first UK Games Expo. I'll blog something about Heroscape (with pictures) after the Expo itself; for now, it's enough to know that it is probably my favourite game of all time (and I've played more of them than is than my fair share).

The Games Expo is going to be held in Birmingham in three weeks' time, on the 2nd-3rd of June.

The UK boardgames scene is quite small at the moment - maybe a dozen or so specialist shops, very few quality boardgames in the High Street, and a few events that usually pull in 100-200 people. That compares poorly to Germany, where good quality boardgames can sell tens of thousands of copies, and a big hit will clear half a million in a year (Settlers of Catan is the best-known German boardgame export - they's sold 11 million Catan-based games, and there's now a version available for download on the Xbox 360). Germany's main boardgame event is the annual Spiel fair in Essen - for 4 days, the industry takes over an area the size of a Motor Show at the Essen exhibition centre, and approximately 150,000 visitors go through the doors.

The Expo is an attempt to bring a smimilar sort of event to the UK. What has made Spiel so good in the past is the mixture of publishers, inventors, retailers and members of the public who attend. Events in the UK always appeal to a certain sort of person (usually someone who is carrying a few extra pounds, sports a beard or a ponytail, and thinks that cardboard counters are cool); Spiel is very different, with an emphasis on family games and participation. Of coure, it's easy to see why there's been so much success on the continent when you see how much better the games actually are; a quick flick through the Argos catalogue reveals that here in the UK the mass-market games publishers have little to shout about. But there's been a growing appreciation of what can be achieved by new publishers and distributors, and they've been bullied into coming to Birmingham next month to show off their wares. Hopefully the very low entry price will encourage lots of bored families to take a look at what is on offer.

Of course, if it is to succeed, the Expo needs to follow the German model in getting people to actually sit down and play games (rather than following the wargames show tradition, of having people wander around, looking at all the pretty displays). It is only by engaging with the public, by showing them what they have been missing when they first see something like Settlers Of Catan, that things can move on from year after year of Monopoly re-issues, Connect 4 and Risk.

To that end, I volunteered a while back to host a game of Heroscape. Now it's something of an exception - a game designed for the mass market, that is readily available in the UK (OK, it's absent from the current Argos catalogue, but it was in the 2005 and 2006 Autumn/Winter books), which is actually a very good game. How do I define very good? Well, it needs to have lots of meaningful decisions, some (but not too much) luck, lots of interaction between the players, and plenty of variety (in any given game of Monopoly there are probably 5 important decisions made; in a game of Heroscape, you probably make 5 every turn).

In terms of having a participation game for the public, it is important that the game looks good, that it be relatively simple to explain, it should look somewhat familiar, and it must look fun. Heroscape ticks all the boxes - and it's visual appeal is particularly high. We tried it out on the public a couple of times last year, have largely ironed out the kinks in the way in which we explain the game and get people playing, and the reaction has been universally positive (it helps that although the game is simple enough for children, there's enough depth for adults to sink their teeth into).

So I've been planning and thinking about how to show Heroscape to people at the Expo - we had a small trial run at the Birmingham Central Library the week before last I think what we've got planned should be good fun, as well as having a certain "wow" factor. It's a shame that its left to individuals to publicise good games when they come along, though - Hasbro in the USA has marketed Heroscape much more aggressively, as a result of which it is widely available - and pretty popular.

If you're in Birmingham on the 2nd or the 3rd, do make sure that you pop by and say hi. I'll be the looney next to a table full of robots, vikings, paratroopers and samurai, trying to stop the dragons and elves from taking over the world.

I'll make sure that I do a proper blog post - with pictures - when we're done.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

We're all going to the zoo tomorrow.

OK, it was actually yesterday. Hey, maybe it's a British thing, but I find that places like zoos, DIY stores and lawnmower museums have an almost irresistable pull on a Bank Holiday weekend. And it's hard to resist when you have a family to entertain and a new lens to play with.

Twycross Zoo is one of those places I went to as a child. Not much has changed - except that they don't do chimps' tea parties, the enclosures are all modern, and the prices exhorbitant. OK, so everything's changed except the location, which is about 25 minutes away.

So me, my D40, and my new 70-300VR went to the zoo yesterday (on the pretext of it being a family day out. The deal was I keep my little girl well supplied with ice creams, and she doesn't tell everyone that Daddy spent the whole day taking photos).

I really enjoyed using the 70-300VR. In an ideal world, it'd be a couple of stops faster, would cost half the price and weigh a third as much, but for wandering around the zoo it did just fine. Actually, if I could change just one thing about it it would be to have it focus closer. I shot about 200 pictures, got maybe 20 "keepers". Most of the best shots were around 200-250mm, but occasionally I used shorter or longer focal lengths. I'm sure that everyone has their own idea of an "ideal" zoo lens, but this worked well for me.

Most of the pictures were taken through glass (actually scratched, mucky perspex, but it's quicker to say "glass"), and some of them have suffered from colour-casts, reflections and a general lack of punch. The sun was strong and the sky clear, and trying to get the sun and the subject and the enclosure windows all in the right place was somewhat tricky (hence the harsh lighting). These are a few of the good ones. No PP, just straight from the camera. (They look a touch "washed out" on my PC monitor, but look fine on my CRT. Neither of which has been calibrated.)

Meerkats on guard:

These guys looked real old - I just forgot to check exactly how old. The giant tortoise:

Bonobos, our closest living relative.

The orang utans were what made the zoo worth the price of admission. The gorillas were just lazing about in the sun (and the photos were pretty poor). The chimps shouted and screamed a bit, but were clearly taking the weekend off like everyone else. The bonobos were pretty active, unlike their chimp cousins. But the stars of the day were the orangs.

The group consisted of an elderly female, two younger females and a baby. The two younger apes spent most of the afternoon squabbling over a sheet that had been hung over a tree to make a hammock. They tipped each other out of the hammock several times before it fell down. Then one of them grabbed the sheet, headed up the tree, and slung the hammock over the branch again. Quite smart, I thought. At one point it did look to get a bit nasty between them, but the old girl strode over and quelled any trouble with a glance.


The youngest was about two years old. At times, quite needy, clinging onto one of the adults. At others, quite adventurous. Sensible enough to stay out of the bickering over the hammock.

Apparently they're going to be wiped out in just a handful of years. Mostly due to our obsession with palm oil (and particularly its use in bio-deisel). Bio-deisel has got to be the single biggest con of our time. Save the planet by chopping down rainforest, to plant a cash crop that gets burned so that some moddle-class morons in their Chelsea tractors can feel good that they're not using deisel pumped from the desert. And still our politicians talk about bio-deisel like it's a good thing.

I swear, this little chap shows more sense (and does a lot less damage) than either our Government or those ghastly 4x4 drivers.