Monday, October 31, 2011

The Books of 2012

It has been a slightly odd year for books. Thus far I have read 28 books, and with a bit of luck I should finish another 10 or so by the end of the year. This gives a grand total of 38ish. Given that I read 56 books two years ago, and 100 books last year, this seems a rather paltry total. On the other hand, since this year will include both "Les Miserables" and "War and Peace", I don't feel it's too poor a showing. (I should finish "War and Peace" next Monday at the current rate - two days on public transport significantly accelerated my progress there.)

Next year will probably be quite an odd year in many ways, and I'm rather inclined to avoid setting goals at all - I suspect it will probably be best approached with a view to taking it as it comes and just muddling through. Which means that there won't be any reading target for the year.

Which isn't to say I don't have some notion as to how it will look!

I've now reached a point where I've almost completely stopped buying RPG books, and since I tend to read them as I buy them (or, in the past, sometimes not at all), there isn't really any great stack of books waiting to be read. That said, I will need to find an opportunity to read through the "Mutants & Masterminds" rulebook, as I'm planning on running that game briefly next summer. And there will be the usual trickle of "Pathfinder" books. Otherwise, I don't expect many RPG books to appear on the list.

But for the bulk of the year, I expect to be either catching up on, or simply reading the latest novels from, various authors and series.

The most significant of these is probably the "Wheel of Time" series, originally by Robert Jordan. Since Jordan's death, this has now been taken over by Brandon Sanderson, who has been writing the final volume - although that itself has been split into a trilogy of very thick novels (don't ask me how that works!). I currently have the first of these on my to-read pile, while the second was released in paperback earlier this month. The final volume is scheduled for a hardback release at the end of next year, so I won't finish the series until 2013 at the latest.

Next on my list is the "Soldier Son" trilogy by Robin Hobb. Truth is, I didn't particularly enjoy book one of the trilogy, but did enjoy it just enough to read volume two, which was marginally better. Since I hate leaving things partially done (especially trilogies after two volumes!), I have the third volume sitting in my to-read pile. (Actually, there's a decent chance that I'll read this by the end of this year; if not, it will be the first novel I start in 2012.)

And the third and final series that I want to get caught up on is the "Black Company" series by Glen Cook. This is a series I came to fairly recently, and has the advantage of being essentially complete - the author keeps talking about writing more, but never actually seems to do so. There are a total of seven novels remaining, but these days they are only available in compiled volumes - there are therefore three books remaining. The first of these is on my to-read pile (and scheduled to be read immediately after "War and Peace"); the remaining two are waiting for 2012.

Then there are the authors and series I'm caught up on, but who should be publishing new books in the next year. In most cases, they have already published the next volume in hardback, so it's just a case of waiting for the paperback. And so, in 2012 I should read through the next novel in the "Song of Ice and Fire" series, and the "Krondor" series by Raymond E. Feist, and the next novel from Bernard Cornwell, from Conn Iggulden, and from Terry Pratchett. (The other author I follow is J.V. Jones, but apparently the fifth and final volume in her "Sword of Shadows" trilogy won't be released in hardback until 2012, so I'll need to wait for 2013 for the paperback. And, no, don't ask me how that one works, either!)

That accounts for between 20 and 25 of my books for the year, depending on how many I get through this year. The remainder of my reading for next year, if any, will probably be from The List.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Funding Education

I don't think the provision of free education in Scotland can last.

Under EU law, it is illegal for a member state to charge students from another member state higher fees than they charge their own students. What this means is that students from France, Germany, Greece, and anywhere else can apply to a Scottish university, and receive a free education. (Students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, however, are charged fees, because the law does not say that you can't charge students from a different part of the same member state higher fees. I suspect this will be successfully challenged in the EU courts - in any case, it's a moral wrong.)

Scotland cannot afford to pay for free education for the whole of Europe. Even though it is right that education should be free, there is just no way this can last. (And, if the UK government were ever to see sense, and reverse their disastrous policy of fees, the same would apply - although education should be free, I don't see how it can be.)

So, what is to be done?

I think we should take a look at the way pensions work.

In theory, what happens is that people (and employers, and government) pay contributions into a pension fund throughout their working lives. These contributions then get invested by (in theory) very clever people, where they accumulate value over time. Then, when the person retires, they gradually withdraw that money over the remainder of their lives, giving them a decent standard of living.

(Now, it's worth noting that this system has been utterly broken by various forms of idiocy. People haven't been investing enough, those investments have been in truly hideous places, and the government has had a nasty habit of stealing the money that should have paid for tomorrow's pensions in order to pay for the budget of today. However, the principle at work is sound.)

In theory, then, a similar mechanism could be adopted to pay for education:
  1. At birth, the government should set aside a fund for each child, as Labour actually did with the "Child Trust Funds" idea.

  2. Over the next several years, a portion of National Insurance (or general taxation) income should likewise be taken and invested in these same funds.

  3. Over the 16-18 years that the child is growing and attending school, therefore, a nice little pot of money should be growing, invested in their name.

  4. When the student leaves school and proceeds on to university, college, an apprenticeship, or whatever other studies/training they do (including education abroad, if that is what they choose to do), the money that has been invested in their name is used to pay the fees for their education. (The money in the pot can only be spent on education of various sorts.)

  5. When the person reaches the age of 25, any money that remains unspent is re-absorbed into the general pot, and invested for the next generation of students.

  6. Universities (and colleges, and apprenticeships, and so on) should charge fees, at a level set by the government. That level should be set so that the 'Educational Fund' available to the average student is sufficient to pay for at least five years of further education, counted from the time at which it is needed.

  7. When people (under the age of 25) enter the country as permanent residents, whether from EU member states, as immigrants, or as asylum seekers, they should immediately be assigned their own 'Educational Fund', which would start to grow, from £0, as indicated in points 1-3. This would then probably pay for part of a training course, meets our obligations under EU law, but doesn't require us to fund free education for all-comers.

  8. It is likely that we should also bring in various educational grants as well, providing some sort of cost-of-living help for students from poorer backgrounds, to enable successful asylum seekers to afford an appropriate education, and so on.

And that's it. That way, universities (and other training facilities) are able to charge the fees that they say they need to in order to survive, our young people don't have to pay massive fees or take on huge debts, the system is properly funded, and we meet our obligations under EU law.

The major weakness in the system, of course, comes if the money indicated in points 1-3 is in fact not invested, but rather is used in the short term for tax breaks or to balance the budget - as has happened with pensions. Sadly, I don't know how to solve the problem of people!

Work is Obsolete

Back in the day, the shows that predicted the future would generally present to us a vision of the future where people would have to work for only a few hours, a few days a week.

What they neglected to tell us was that this future was no dream of a more leisurely society; it is in fact a nightmare. The fundamental problem: no company is going to pay people to not work. The model presented therefore only worked if the people who were then working for companies owned a share in that company, so that when the company automated the process, and they no longer needed to work, they would still benefit from the prosperity of the company. This was not the case, it is not the case now.

We now live in a world much like that described. In a great many industries, automation has rendered a lot of workers unnecessary. When cars are manufactured, there are still people involved in designing the cars, there are people involved in tooling up the robots to build the cars, and there are people involved in testing the cars. But what there are not are large numbers of people on an assembly line building cars - instead, you have a few people monitoring the robots as they do that.

In other jobs, the work is exported to countries where it can be done more cheaply.

And so, where are unskilled and semi-skilled people supposed to work? Tesco? McDonalds? Or are they supposed to remain permanently unemployed, and live off the state?

The problems with all three 'solutions' is money. The wages offered by the employers listed are pretty low, meaning that actually living on that income is difficult to impossible. Likewise, subsisting on benefits is no way to live long-term.

But the state can't afford to vastly increase the level of unemployment benefits. On the contrary, we really need to get that bill down, because we already can't afford it.

And make no mistake - if Tesco or McDonalds were required to pay their employees much more, they would promptly respond by automating those jobs and getting rid of the staff. In fact, this is already happening - in Tesco, witness the rise of self-service checkouts; in McDonalds, the cook processes are now so carefully specified that a robot could easily do them. The only reason things like shelf-stacking and cooking in McDonalds isn't automated is that it is still (just barely) cheaper to pay a kid minumum wage to do it.

(Likewise, the only reason Nike employ large numbers of people in sweatshops in Asia is that doing so is cheaper than automating the process. If they were forced to pay those workers UK-level, or even US-level, wages for their work, they would get rid of those jobs entirely, and automate the process instead.)

It's a rough situation, and it's only going to get tougher as automation becomes more powerful (we already have robot orderlies in hospitals - how long until every checkout assistant, every waiter, every flight attendant, and so on get replaced with robots?). And, of course, it's even tougher for that segment of our society who cannot readily elevate themselves from 'unskilled' to 'skilled' - and that's not to mention the likelihood that some skilled jobs are likely to become obselete with time (as with miners).

I don't really have any great point to make here, except perhaps to say this: make damn sure your kids get a good education because, unless the revolution comes, they're going to need it!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Adventures in Public Transport

My car died on me on the way to work this morning. Actually, this was really quite scary - I was pulling out into traffic at the time, when I suddenly found I had no acceleration available. Fortunately, there was nobody behind me, and I was able to reverse back out of the way of the oncoming vehicles. The consequence of this was that I was left without a car, and still needing to get into work.

And so, I was finally forced to do something I've long felt I should do, but never actually wanted to do - I used public transport to get to work.

The argument for public transport is undeniable. Man-made climate change is almost certainly a reality (I'm not 100% convinced, but definitely in the upper 90s), and even if it is not fuel prices are forever escalating. Plus, a decent public transport link stands a chance of turning the dead time spent driving into time I can spend reading, or otherwise use, at least to an extent.

And I live a mile from both a bus station and a rail station, and I work a couple of miles from an airport. One is in a medium-sized town, the other on the outskirts of Scotland's second-largest city. Surely there must be a decent public transport option?

Well, actually, no. I've investigated this before, and there is a link that is adequate for emergencies, but nothing else. It turns out to be a bit better than I thought (at least things seem to run mostly on time), but still...

The best way from home to work is by bus. There are lots of different arrangements, most requiring the use of at least two buses. The direct option is a pretty long and roundabout route, taking a bit more than an hour from getting on the bus to getting off. In theory, the indirect options are much faster... but unfortunately they require the interaction of multiple buses, which inevitably drags things out (as you get off one bus and wait for another).

The net effect is that the best route is actually to walk the mile to the bus station, get the X38, wait an hour, and then walk half a mile to the office. Unfortunately, the bus itself is extremely rattly and takes a very roundabout route (as noted previously) - the net effect was that reading was quite difficult, and I managed to get travel sick. All in all, not the best.

To their credit, the service is reasonably frequent. Between 5:30 and 6:30 (pm), there are almost 7 buses heading home. In the morning, there's a similar flurry of activity at the peak hours (which I missed this morning). So that's not too bad - I can basically travel pretty much when I would want to.

And the price is... well, the price is okay, I guess. A return ticket costs £8.10. Travelling by car probably costs about £6 each day, maybe a little more. I daresay there are cheaper tickets or passes available for folks who travel every day.

So, on two of the three counts that matter to me, the service is actually okay. I could live with the price (although it would be annoying to have to pay more), and the service is frequent enough.

But the duration of the trip is not good enough. Including the walk at each end, the journey probably takes an hour and a half. That's okay occasionally, but it's not going work on a regular basis - it would effectively mean giving up the band and the game, which is not something I'm willing to consider. It would mean extending my working day from 7:00 - 17:30 (wake up to returning home) to 6:00 - 18:30, which isn't acceptable - I refuse to live for the weekends.

So there it is. I'm actually quite glad that I was forced into taking the bus today, since it has forced me to seriously investigate the pros and cons. But it has merely confirmed what I was pretty sure of previously - that the public transport options aren't good enough to use regularly. To correct it, they will really need to put on a bus that runs from Falkirk Bus Station, along the M9 and then the A8, probably to Edinburgh Airport, and certainly to the centre of town. Basically, make the X38 an actual express service, rather than the same service as the 38 but with 'X' in front of the name!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Update on Goals

It's hard to believe that we're already nearing the end of October. It seems only yesterday that I was moaning that July was lasting forever! (Unfortunately, July was followed by two woeful months in August and September. October, by contrast, has been reasonably okay, except for one thing.)

Anyway, it's long past time that I did another update on my goals for the year:
  • Super Secret Goal #3 - This is done. Thus far, I haven't annoyed Lady Chocolat enough for her to reverse her decision, which is good!
  • Blog more - This is well in hand. However, I would like to get to 999 posts by April 11th next year, just in time for Part Four, but that looks over-ambitious.
  • Lose weight. This is well in hand.
  • The band got promoted last year, which meant that our goal for 2011 was to attain promotion again. This proved to be far too ambitious, and so this goal is failed.
  • The situation with the Saturday game is now basically resolved - we're going to try to get together for as many games as possible between now and the end of March, after which we're calling it a day. We might try to get together for the occasional game after that, but it won't be a regular gathering (or attempt at the same).
  • Write something - this is in progress, although not in the manner that I expected. (Curiously, I find myself in the process of writing a D&D 4e adventure... which is odd.) Due to the nature of the writing project, I won't be able to link to it or post it here. Still, that's a goal achieved.
  • Relax more - This is done, and proved problematic. The issue was that as I relaxed, I took my eye off the ball in a number of areas, which meant that the problems in August/September were magnified by many other things going wrong at the same time. This leads to the bizarre situation that I am now working harder to keep track of everything, and yet at the same time am actually more relaxed than I was when I was allegedly relaxing!
  • On books: I'm now in the last 200 pages of "War and Peace", and should be finished that by the time Lady Chocolat returns from Kenya. I'm up-to-date on the Pathfinder books. I have, however, abandoned my read-through of the 1st Edition hardbacks, as they proved not to be terribly interesting.
  • I have now painted three out of four batches of Orks, and have put the first coat on the fourth batch. Additionally, I have painted all but one of the other figures that were waiting to be done. I need to find some time to apply varnish to several figures that are otherwise complete, need to re-undercoat the one remaining "miscellaneous" figure, and then need to actually paint that one! All being well, I should finish all of these around the end of November.
  • On the wedding preparations: These are either well in hand, or we've forgotten something important. As far as I'm aware, the biggest thing that is yet to be done is for me to book the wedding cars, which I'm intending to get done by the time LC returns.

And that's it. Three done, one failed, and six ongoing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Who do you work for, again?

Yesterday, the House of Commons were obliged to debate the question of whether or not we should have a referendum on pulling out of the EU. And, in the course of doing so, they very neatly displayed one of the major things that is wrong with politics in this country.

For the record, I'm not in favour of leaving the EU, and nor do I think having a referendum is actually a good idea, but that's another post for another day.

However, the government have put in place this ePetition system, where if people get enough electronic signatures on an issue, the HoC are required to debate it. Enough signatures were gathered, and so debate it they did. Sort of.

The thing is, what actually happened is that the three party leaders each used a "three-line whip" to instruct the various MPs on how to vote. Thus, the MPs went through the motions, had the debate, and then duly went and voted against the referendum. Done.

(As I understand it, the 'whips' work like this - each MP is issued with a schedule of the events for the day/week, including the various votes to be taken. The whips will indicate their party's position on the various measures, and then underline the issues based on how important they are. The more times something is underlined, the more important it is, with three lines being the most important. Hence, a "three line whip" means "you will vote this way, and we really, really mean it.")

And so, the net effect from yesterday is that it mattered not a jot what the people of this country want - David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and Ed Miliband have collectively decided we can't have a referendum, and that's that.

But I never voted for Dave, Nick or Ed. In fact, I was never given the opportunity to vote for any of those three. My MP is Eric Joyce. (Okay, I didn't vote for him either, but that's not the point.)

His job is to represent me, and the other people living in my constituency. His job is most definitely not to meekly accept the dictates of Ed Miliband and vote for whatever he says.

(Now, that doesn't necessarily mean he should always do what the majority of his constituents want. That's not how a representative democracy works. However, it does mean that he should represent us and our interests, regardless of what Ed may want.)

And the same is true of all the other MPs up and down the country, of all parties. Dave, Nick and Ed are not running a dictatorship.

I think this is one of the most fundamental things wrong with our democracy - the central parties have acquired too much power and do not properly represent the will of the people. And people sense this, hence the growing disillusionment with politics in this country.

I think three things need to change:
  • It needs to be written into law that an MP must maintain his or her primary residence within the boundaries of the constituency for three years prior to the election. (A grandfather clause is probably required for the incumbents, both for when this law is brought in, and also in the event of boundary change. But it should apply only to the incumbent, and only if they maintain the same primary residence.) Note that this, at a stroke, eliminates one of the worst excessive of the expenses scandal as well - the practice of 'flipping' the primary residence for tax reasons becomes impossible.

    (It does, however, create problems for MP-couples, such as Balls/Cooper or Harman/Dromey. Frankly, I have no problem with that - too many of our MPs live lives completely isolated from the real world. Anything that cuts down on that is a good thing.)

  • The selection of candidates must be done by the local party without interference from the central party. This practice of parachuting in favoured candidates to safe seats is a disgrace and must be stopped. Likewise, Labour's policy of all-women shortlists is undemocratic and unacceptable. The local party should draw up their shortlist, and then nominate their candidate. (And it must be illegal for the central party to block campaign funds for a candidate they don't like - otherwise, the central party will retain too much influence.)

    (Unfortunately, this is likely to set back the process of making parliament more diverse by several steps, as the loss of all-women shortlists reduces the number of women candidates, at least in the short term. This is extremely unfortunate. However, we can either have an undemocratically-appointed diverse parliament or we can have a democratically-elected parliament with no guarantee of any diversity. We can have one of these. I choose democracy.)

  • Within parliament, the whips must be stripped of any sanction. They can continue to indicate the preferred vote of their respective party leadership, but they should not be able to do anything about so-called rebels. Remember, MPs work for us and should be representing our interests, not those of Dave, Nick, and Ed, so who exactly are they rebelling against?

(We should also probably have some legal way of removing our MP if he ceases to represent us properly. However, in practice I suspect such a thing would be unworkable - either recalls would be so common as to prevent parliament from operating, or the required conditions would be so strong that they could never actually be used.)

That's what I think, anyway.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A New Song

This should amuse Welshy...

At band last Thursday, the Pipe Major presented us with some new music. Apparently, we'll be learning a new 'song', one more complex than the norm. Instead of all playing together, we'll be learning this in four parts, which get put together...

Yes, the band are going to be learning Pachelbel's 'Canon', or at least the rather poor approximation that is possible when you only have 9 notes available.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Okay Alex, you win

I have changed my mind on Independence.

For me, there were always two arguments against independence. The first was the matter of my family ties to England. Naturally, this argument remains unchanged.

However, the second argument was economic - I didn't see how an independent Scotland would be at all better off, especially in the current global environment. And given the nature of my job, it seemed likely that I would have to move to England to find work. While I have nothing in principle against living in England again, I didn't want to be forced into doing so.

Unfortunately, I have gradually become disillusioned with the government in Westminster to a point where the economic argument can no longer hold. George Osborne is quite clearly incompetent - although the argument for cuts was extremely strong, he's managed to implemented them in exactly the worst way possible, hurting a lot of people for no benefit, and he now clearly has no Plan B.

Meanwhile, we've had the government launch yet another interventionist war in Libya (that seems to have gone okay... but how long until the civil war?), and we've had yet another betrayal on tuition fees for students.

That in itself wouldn't be a deal-breaker, if I saw any hope on the other side of the house. But Ed Milliband is a lightweight, of no more substance than David Cameron. Worse, he's surrounded by most of the same people who were so disasterous in the last years of the Labour government. Their record on the economy was equally horrible, their record on civil liberties was nothing short of a disgrace... and don't get me started on Harriet Harman.

And, of course, it was the Labour government who took the almost unforgivable steps of first introducing tuition fees, and then adding top-up fees (this latter passed only with support of Scottish MPs, when it was properly an England-only matter). Basically, they opened the door for the current government to devastate our future.

So, given that I would rather not vote than vote for any of the Big Three parties, given that the current government have turned out to be a complete disaster, and given that the current arrangement is still the best available option of a really bad bunch, and given that I see no hope for change... the argument for independence has become overwhelming.

And frankly, England should be joining us.

(I will note, however, that I reserve the right to change my mind again, should circumstances change. In politics, making a U-turn is regarded as a bad thing. In real life, it's called rational thinking.)

#29: "Empire of Silver", by Conn Iggulden

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dear Hollywood

Next time you want to do a "Three Musketeers" movie, please could you have someone actually read the novel and then adapt that? Don't just have someone watch the old film versions and then steal the 'best bits'.

To be honest, "The Three Musketeers" is actually rather amusing in places. Other places are just stupid, and then there are bits that are worse. And it's really very noticable - the closer the film is to the novel, the better it is. The further it gets from the novel, the stupider it becomes.

But the thing that was really annoying was that they were clearly stealing large bits of the film from the Keifer Sutherland/Charlie Sheen version of the movie. Now that's also quite an enjoyable, if stupid, movie, but it's certainly no adaptation of the novel. In fact, in several places it's actually closer to "Star Wars" than anything else - to the extent that I was able to predict several parts of dialogue on my first viewing of that film.

"The Three Musketeers" is a great novel, one of the best I've read. (I'm not so fond of the sequel, though!) And it probably is ripe for a proper remake - although the Michael York version is pretty definitive, it is also very old, and now largely forgotten. So a new adaptation could be good, without the need for lots of invention by inferior writers.

Still, I did enjoy the bit in Versailles. Firstly because it reinforced the notion of the "Versailles Triangle", but also because the film is set in the reign of Louis XIII, and Versailles was build by his son, Louis XIV.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Ah, the Incompetent Man

We're three episodes into "Terra Nova" now. I'm giving it six before I decide whether to stick with it or not. Thus far, the signs do not look good. The first episode was quite good, the second less good, and the third worse. It seems they've spent their entire budget on (fairly poor) CGI dinosaurs, leaving them nothing for script, cast or any of the other things that would make the show good.

But the third episode also featured a scene that really got on my nerves.

The two main characters in the show are a husband and wife team. As per standard TV rules, the wife is a hyper-intelligent driven career woman/perfect mother. The husband is a cop. Now, meaning no disrespect to cops, that pairing of 'superwoman' with 'ordinary guy' is pretty overdone, and frankly annoying as hell.

Still, I suppose it wasn't too bad. In that first episode they did establish that he really wasn't any ordinary cop, as he broke out of one max-security facility and then broke into another, all within the first twenty minutes of the show. So, fair enough, I guess.

Anyway, 'ordinary guy' is fair enough. Nothing wrong with 'ordinary guy'. Just as long as they don't make him incompetent...

So, we get to the third episode, where the superwoman wife has to work late at night, leaving her husband to cook dinner and look after their three kids.

Can you guess where this is going?

Yep, sure enough, he proved to be incompetent. This guy who can effortlessly break out of, and then into, max-security facilities found himself bamboozled by the impossible task of cooking dinner for four while handling the needs of three kids. Apparently, he is trained in the use of a frying pan, but only as a means of defence against cartoon creatures.

In the end, his (again, hyper-smart) daughter took pity on his panicked state, and cooked dinner for the family.

Actually, come to think of it, I'm not sure which is the more offensive lesson there: "men are incompetent", or "women, despite whatever skills or intelligence you have, your place is in the kitchen - because men can't".

Either way, it's pathetic.

No, you don't need more information

Whenever the powers that be ask the people what they need to solve some vast an unsolveable problem, the top answer that always comes back is "we need more information".

How do we cut down on teenage pregnancy? Kids need better sex education to give them the information they need to make informed choices.

How do we cut down on obesity? Parents need more information about what goes into products, so they can make informed choices.

No. Rubbish.

People in the UK in 2011 have easier access to more and better information than at any previous time in history. Kids today know more about sex than Casanova and Lucrezia Borgia combined. Parents need only look at the packaging of food to gain a wealth of information about what is in it - all the ingredients are listed and there's a breakdown of calorific and nutrition information. And if there's anything you don't know, Google makes every question an easy question.

"We don't have enough information," is an excuse, and it just is not true.

The issue with teenage pregnancy is not that kids don't know they shouldn't be having unprotected sex. They know, but when the time comes they choose to take the risk rather than not have sex at all. Or they just don't think at all. Or whatever. It's not that they don't know, it's that they don't think.

For the overwhelming majority of people, the solution to obesity is simply a matter of "eat less, move more". That's it. There is no magic bullet, there's no special combination of foods that will do the job better. (And where there are foods we should eat more or less, that's well known too - nobody can reasonably claim not to know about "5 a day".)

These are hard problems to fix, either because there's no simple solution or because the simple solution requires time, dedication and discipline (and, frankly, is really quite painful).

But "we don't have enough information" is a lie, and it's a lie that is told to avoid taking responsibility for actually dealing with the problem.

Twitter Woes

I have next to no time whatsoever for Twitter. Frankly, I consider it a medium fit only for rabble-rousing, inanity, and fawning over celebrities.

Even Twitter's great 'success' is really nothing of the sort: Stephen Fry was able to get action taken about an injustice that was about to be perpetrated, but not because it was an injustice but because he is Stephen Fry. The storm that was kicked up was not from people who had been aware of the issue and took action. In the best case, it was from people who didn't know about it, learned about it, and then took action. In the more common case, it was from people who didn't care to know about the issue until Stephen Fry told them, then they (maybe) learned about it, and took action. But in the distressingly common case, it was taken by people who didn't know or care about the issue, but who took action because Stephen Fry told them to. Had a random Joe Bloggs twittered about the same thing, there would be absolutely no chance of action being taken unless some celebrity just happened to learn about it and re-tweet, and that applies regardless of the rights or wrongs of the issue at hand.

In other words, this was a case where two wrongs just happened to make a right.

Unfortunately, I have just inherited the role of webmaster for the pipe band, and one of the key duties that this entails is maintaining the Twitter feed, so I'm stuck. I guess I have no choice but to regularly inform the world that I had a sandwich for lunch, or something.

Or at least, that's the plan. In order to confirm that I've taken over the account, I need to log in. But I can't log in because I'm not registered. And I can't register because I have an account associated with my email address already! I can't confirm that the band's account is now associated with my email address, because the band's account is now associated with my email address.

And all this for a service that I really don't want to use!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Redecorating the Fortress of Solitude

It's fair to say that the standard of the decoration in the flat is somewhat basic. Other than a couple of paintings hung in the kitchen and one in the spare bedroom, the walls are generally painted a plain and neutral colour. And that suits me fine; I don't exactly spend my time staring at the walls.

However, over the last few months I've had to face the prospect that this is going to change. After all, fair's fair; once Lady Chocolat lives there, she does indeed have a right to redecorate. Within reason, of course.

It's that "within reason" that's important. What does it mean? Well, in list form:

  • No spending money, since we don't have any.
  • No potpourri.
  • No cushions.
  • No potpourri.
  • Whatever other entirely unreasonable and arbitrary things I think up next.

But other than that, and provided nothing actually changes, it's all good.

Oh yeah, and we will redo the bathroom, just as soon as we can. "Barely adequate" is about the right description there.

(There are many obvious disadvantages to LC being in Kenya for the next month. One of the few advantages is that I can quietly negotiate the new status quo without risk. Tee hee!)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tyranny of the To-do List

Lady Chocolat is currently in Kenya, in what represents possibly the single worst wrong turn in the whole history of bad directions. Apparently, it's likely to take her some six weeks to find her way home.

In the meantime, I have a little quiet time to catch up with a little light reading. And other tasks.

Actually, LC has left me with a list of things that need to be done, some with more urgency than others. Much of this is wedding-related, and fairly unimportant. We dealt with almost all of the big issues before she left, leaving the booking of the wedding cars as the biggest remaining task undone.

I have finally dared to venture into a hairdressers and made an appointment to get my hair cut. Frankly, I'm dreading Friday.

I have finished Volume Two of "War and Peace", which is good. At this point I am taking a short break to read Conn Iggulden's latest novel, "Empire of Silver", which is a great read thus far. And then I'll get back to the third and final volume of WaP.

The third batch of Orks is proceeding apace. This weekend I finished applying the shading and highlights to the flesh, and started on the major blocks of colour in their clothing. This batch should be finished in a couple of weeks, and then I can start on the final batch. I'm now very stronly leaning towards stopping painting again once these figures are all finished - I'm not enjoying these last batches as much as the previous ones.

A couple of months back I rather foolishly agreed to do some writing for an online project. I'm not sure that project is going anywhere, as a couple of people have already dropped out, but in any event it is my intention to finish my part of it, and then quietly drop off the radar there. It seemed a good idea at the time, but has turned out to be just another diversion I don't really need.

And the next thing that I'll probably need to tackle is the task of updating the band's website. Our previous lead drummer set up the site, and did a good job of maintaining it, but with his leaving it makes sense for us to bring the maintenance in-house, which of course means me doing it. (Although we'll be discussing that at the committee meeting tomorrow - there's a possibility we'll instead decide to contract with him to continue maintaining the site.)

I'm sure I was supposed to have some free time around about now?

How (not) to write a good mystery adventure

The group for the Saturday game managed to actually get together this week. We had The Talk at which it was discussed that as of April the group is essentially done. We discussed possibly ways forward, but I don't think anything will come of it.

Anyway, that's by the way.

The game on Saturday wasn't great. Our characters were agents of the Inquisition, seeking out signs of heresy on a far-flung outpost of the Empire. So, we arrived, made our introductions, and started investigating the strange goings-on.

The investigations didn't go well. We spent several hours absolutely convinced we were missing something desperately important, because there seemed to be absolutely no connection between events. There was a sense that we urgently needed to put the mystery together... and absolutely no clues as to how we should do that.

At length, we found the heretic and dealt with him, but we did this via the cunning expedient of just waiting around until things got out of control, and then just mopping up.

It turned out that we hadn't carefully avoided all the clues that would have helped us solve the mystery sooner. It turned out that there was no pattern to events, and that it was just a bunch of stuff that happened. And, to be honest, we caught the bad guy more because we were just itching to cause some trouble, rather than because he actually hame himself away.

Still, success!

The key problem here is in the way the adventure was written (it was a pre-gen adventure, so not the GM's fault). And the crux of the problem lies in one of the key differences between fiction and a game.

When Sherlock Holmes investigates as crime, he walks into the room, finds all the clues that the author wants him to find, comes to the conclusions the author wants him to come to, goes to the next location, and repeat... Because the author controls everything, he knows both who committed the murder, why and how, but he also controls all of Holmes' thought processes, the steps of his investigation, and so on. Moreover, he can give Holmes as many or as few clues as needed, include red herrings or irrelevancies, or whatever else, safe in the knowledge that Holmes can just jump to whatever conclusion is needed, no matter how flimsy the evidence was.

In an RPG, this just isn't the case. There's no guarantee that the PCs will even look for the clues, much less that they'll look for them in the right place. Even if they do think to look where clues are to be found, there's no guarantee that the dice will be kind enough for them to actually find the clues.

Even once the PCs have found clues, it is by no means certain that they will have all the information they need to work things out. And there's no guarantee that the players will come to the conclusions that were expected, especially given the penchant of players for latching on to irrelevant details, and especially if there is a red herring in their somewhere.

Unfortunately, while most adventure writers realise these crucial differences between fiction and games, they tend not to be very good at adapting for them. Too often, adventures can become stuck because a single vital clue is missed, or because the author expects the players to follow a particular chain just as Holmes would, or because the author decided to be clever and put a false trail in the adventure.

I don't have a lot more to add here, not least because most people who read this blog have little interest in writing mystery adventures for RPGs (but also because most of what I know I've lifted from the work of other people on the subject). Still, here are some handy rules of thunb:

  • Make clues easy to find. Generally, if the PCs look in the right place, they should find the clues.
  • Have a number of 'floating clues' - if the PCs just generally investigate, or "ask around" or whatever, let the roll, and on a success give them a clue.
  • Give at least three clues for each conclusion you want to PCs to reach. This assumes they'll miss one, not realise the significance of a second, but finally 'get it' on the third.
  • Don't build your mystery as a chain of events for characters to follow. But then, that should really be true of every adventure!
  • Don't include red herrings. The PCs will find their own irrelevant details to obsess over, will come to all sorts of wrong conclusions, and will generally do this bit for you. There's no need to muddy the waters further.
  • Provide some sort of 'escape hatch' for the GM to use for those cases where things just go horribly wrong. Otherwise, the players are likely to get really bored once they find they simply can't solve the puzzle.

And that's pretty much that.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Cutting Precisely the Wrong Amount

The UK has major economic problems. That's not exactly news. We have a very large and growing debt, with ever-growing interest payments that need to be made. We also have a very nasty deficit - we're collectively spending more money than we're bringing in.

So, those bright sparks in the government have hit on a solution. They've decided that the way to improve things is to cut everything in sight. Every department will take a cut, loads of jobs will be cut, services will be cut. That way, we'll spend less money, and everything will be well.

Well, fair enough, I suppose. Of course, it will be absolutely awful for people who rely on those departments, and jobs, and services, but the truth is that we just can't afford them. And if it fixes the long-term problem...

Well, except...

It turns out that the cuts aren't reducing the debt, which we knew, but they aren't even reducing the deficit. All they done is reduced the rate at which the deficit is increasing. The problem is getting worse, just slightly more slowly than before. (We're still heading over a cliff, and can't steer away. Rather than actually use the brakes, they've just eased off on the accelerator a bit.)

In other words, our oh-so-wonderful government has managed to hit on precisely the wrong level of cuts to impose. They've managed to make life much harder for a great many people, without actually doing anything to fix the problems.


Either cut enough to actually fix the problem or, if that is judged too painful (since people do, after all have to live here), then cut nothing and just content yourselves with whatever minor efficiency savings you can make.

But cutting just enough to really hurt people, and make them really hate you, without actually doing anything to fix the problem? That's utter madness.

#28: "Pathfinder: Night of Frozen Shadows", by Greg A. Vaughan