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Today is very exciting. I hear you ask: is it because of the Liverpool Derby? The Day of the Doctor? The Xbox One release? 1D Day?*
No. Today is when I get to try out my new server, which will be replacing Constantia and which will basically be running my entire life. For the last five years this has been very ably managed by a Koolu box (actually an FIC built Ion A603 with an AMD Geode LX processor) running Ubuntu 8.04. It’s served beautifully all this time and never let me down. Sadly, Ubuntu 8.04 drifted out of its LTS support cycle earlier this year and the hardware combination isn’t usable with newer versions of Ubuntu. It’s taken me ages to choose a worthy successor given my demanding requirements (very small, passively cooled, low power, silent, good Linux and software compatibility, etc.). Finally I settled on an Aleutia T1 Fanless PC.
Hence my excitement. It's not the highest specced device in the world, but it runs at 10 Watts, is fanless, with supported chipsets. It arrived yesterday and I’ve not yet even turned it on. Actually getting it to the stage where it can replace my existing server wholesale is going to take a lot of configuration and data transfer between the two, but that’ll all be part of the fun challenge.
In my small world, this is a big event, which could very well end in disaster. If this is my last ever post, you’ll know why.
* (The Liverpool what? A little. Waiting for SteamBoxen. Please save me!)
Over the years I've collected a lot of screenshots of the various games I've played. Still, the games that have captured the essence of adventure and exploration most consistently for me over a long period of time are those from the Tomb Raider series.
The thing they've consistently managed to get right throughout the series is the sense of scale needed to pull the adventure forwards. Surprisingly evocative vistas and large internal cavernous rooms (captured using clever cinematic long-shots) are balanced against intricate mazes with hidden alcoves. The large scale of the vistas offers the promise of future adventure; the claustrophobic corridors achieve the sense of exploration.
On top of this, there have even been some beautiful weather effects (contrast the atmospheric storm at Dr Willard's Scottish castle against the bright burning sunlight of the Coastal Ruins in Alexandria).
The Tomb Raider Reboot didn't disappoint. To celebrate this (it's a small, private celebration to which only me and the Internet have been invited) below are a selection of some of the more powerful screenshots captured during my playthrough of the game.
No one other than me will care about this, but I've finally completed the full complement of Tomb Raider games. It's been a long slog, over 10 years in the passing. It doesn't help that they continue to make things harder by releasing new games every so often.
Perhaps surprisingly, but fittingly, the last game that I managed to complete wasn't the latest Tomb Raider reboot, but instead was Unfinished Business, where Lara returns to the Atlantean Hive from Tomb Raider 1. To be fair, I'd already completed this, but had taken the shortcut to skip the Atlantean Stronghold level. I've now done it properly.
Although there are lots of Tomb Raider games I've not played, most of them are mobile, Gameboy or Xbox exclusives which I don't imagine I'll ever get to have access to. I like to think of them as not being canon! Here's the full list of conquered games.
Unfinished Business and Shadow of the Cat.
Tomb Raider II: Starring Lara Croft.
Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft.
The Golden Mask.
Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation.
Tomb Raider: The Lost Artefact.
Tomb Raider Chronicles.
Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness.
Tomb Raider Legend.
Tomb Raider Anniversary.
Tomb Raider Underworld.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.
Tomb Raider (reboot).
From all of these, the standout levels are the Venice Level from Tomb Raider II, and (ironically, given the bad reviews) the Louvre level from Angel of Darkness. I loved leaping around those roofs. The latest Tomb Raider was a great game and worked really well as a fresh approach. Still, Edge had it spot on when they said it was a reversal of the formula: from precise platforming and loose shooting to loose platforming and precise shooting. I'd rather have precise platforming and no shooting myself. In spite of this it was a great game and it would be a lie to say I didn't enjoy it a lot.
Thankfully Tomb Raider is a bit like Doctor Who. There's more than enough non-canon material to fill a lifetime, so I have absolutely no plans to stop here. Even the original block-based adventures have their place in modern gaming as rare examples of games worth playing on a laptop without the need for a mouse (it's a dubious accolade I admit). With a bit of luck they'll continue to release great games in the future.
Below are a few more images taken from my final foray into the original world of Lara Croft: Unfinished Business.
A while ago I traded my first Bitcoins, and now the purchased product has arrived, all the way from Switzerland. What did I buy with my Bitcoins? Well, a Bitcoin of course! Except this one is a Cacasius physical Bitcoin. It’s an interesting idea: create a physical coin that contains the private key to access an "actual" (virtual!) Bitcoin. The private key is printed on the coin under an opaque tamper-proof cover, so that anyone can easily ensure that the coin is worth the valid amount by checking the seal. Consequently it can be passed between people like a normal coin. With a real coin if you want the government to make good on its promise to pay the bearer you’re out of luck. With this coin, to redeem the amount just pull off the cover to reveal the key. In practice you’d never want to do this, and the virtual Bitcoin you’d get wouldn’t necessarily be worth any more (or less) than the government’s promise, but it’s still a neat idea.
After destroying the Scion and fighting off Natla I thought my work would be done. Not so. There were many other mysteries to solve, and given my late arrival, lots of adventures to pursue in a largely random order. Finally, after completing all of the other adventures, it was time to return to the Atlantean Stronghold and destroy the mutants created by Natla once and for all. To that end, I returned with intent to ultimately destroying the remaining inner Hive.
From the top of the structure overlooking where the hive pyramid erupted from the rock I could see the far cliffs ahead, but no way to reach them. On the ground below, in the far distance, I perceived two golden doors, tempting me forwards as the best means of progress. Alas, despite my best investigatory efforts, there was no way to open the doors and although I knew I needed to ascend to reach my goal, the only way forwards was now down into the hive pyramid itself.
Working my way through the pyramid, I dispatched various terrestrial and winged mutants en route, including those showering me with deadly darts and explosive projectiles. Luckily many of them suffered from idiosyncratic perception difficulties – no doubt a result of the mutation process – that made them more likely to follow my shadow than me. Fooling them using acrobatic prowess – dangling from ledges and leaping on top of blocks – and showering them with persistent pistol fire while dodging their own deadly projectiles saw me prevail. Yet this was no easy fight through the chambers and passageways.
As I continued onwards the way became more treacherous still, with lava flows cutting off my path, dangerous precipices to be scaled over lethal spikes and watery pools containing hidden switches that bore the secrets to opening the passageways ahead. Oftentimes I saw glimpses of future dangers, obliquely viewable through the many impenetrable glass and tissue structures of which the pyramid was built. But these ominous forewarnings only drove me harder to complete my journey.
Eventually, working down and then higher again into the rocks above, I found myself overlooking the same pyramid again, but now from the opposite side, from an angle where my goal was visible. Leaping into the unknown, I dived through the darkened hole in the pyramid with only serendipity and an unwavering belief in the existence of a path forwards to trust in. My faith was rewarded, with the pool below deep enough to buffer the impact of my fall. I climbed out to find myself in the inner hive of the mutants, and able to finally finish what had been started all those years ago in the Peruvian Andes searching for the Scion.
Today I traded my very first Bitcoins. It's possibly the worst time to be buying them, given the amazing amount of publicity they've been getting recently (and the upsurge in their value that's resulted). Still, today I'm buying them for a reason rather than as an investment, so I've convinced myself that it's okay. Why the rush? I just discovered that Casascius is no longer selling physical Bitcoins to individuals. Since I'm keen to have one, the high price is just something I have to suck up. I'm looking forward to getting hold of a physical coin (even if it epitomises everything Bitcoins aren't!), and it's exciting to actual own some of the currency. The Web right now manages to make Bitcoins look a lot more daunting than they actually are, which is quite an accomplishment.
I've been really quite shocked (in a good way) at the interest that PiBot has generated. Apparently the world needs more Raspberry flavoured Lego robots, so to help anyone aspiring to own their own robot army, here's the list of parts that was used for PiBot2.
Pretty much everything came from Amazon, so most of the links are to the UK Amazon site. Apologies if you're from outside the UK or are currently boycotting Amazon for their dubious tax practices, but all of these should be readily available from lots of other places too.
The table is split into two parts. The first part covers just those bits and pieces that you're likely to need to get a Raspberry Pi up and running. If you've already got a Raspberry Pi, you probably already have all of these things. The second part covers the materials needed to get the robot working.
The total bill for this lot was around £370. However, £235 of this is the LEGO Mindstorm and £65 is for the wireless keyboard and mouse, so if you've already got these I'd say the rest is pretty reasonable. I had to try a number of wireless keyboards before finding one which didn't cause the Raspberry Pi to reset randomly though. If anyone knows of a cheaper keyboard/mouse combo that works well with the Pi, let me know and I can alter the list.
If you're building a PiBot, I hope this helps to get things underway. I'd be really interested to know how other people get on; it'd be fantastic to feature some other PiBot designs on the site!
After a frantic buying spree on Amazon and some tense anticipation each day with the post, PiBot has now been augmented (Deus Ex style) with better hardware, neater design and improved software. Meet PiBot2!. The upgrades include a much larger (7000 mAh) battery, a USB connector that doesn't cut power when riding over bumps; a mere 1m long cable (as compared to the previous 5m long version), and auto-roaming code that will explore the room without intervention (mostly!).
The cable is still a good 80cm too long, and the exploration code is simple to say the least, but it's one step further on. Using PyGame for the code means proper asynchronous keyboard input, so that human-control and auto-exploration can be switched between seamlessly. The next part of the plan is to draw objects in the PyGame window as PiBot senses them. I don't expect this to work very well, but I plan to have fun trying it!
Below are a few screenshots of the new PyBot, along with the code in its latest state.
from pygame.locals import *
from nxt.sensor import *
from nxt.motor import *
from time import sleep
def input(events, state):
for event in events:
if event.type == QUIT:
state = 0
if event.type == KEYDOWN:
if event.key == K_q:
state = 0
elif event.key == K_w:
both.turn(100, 360, False)
elif event.key == K_s:
both.turn(-100, 360, False)
elif event.key == K_a:
leftboth.turn(100, 90, False)
elif event.key == K_d:
rightboth.turn(100, 90, False)
elif event.key == K_f:
head.turn(30, 45, False)
elif event.key == K_r:
state = explore(state)
if state == 1:
state = 2
elif state == 2:
state = 1
if Ultrasonic(brick, PORT_2).get_sample() < 20:
both.turn(-100, 360, False)
leftboth.turn(100, 360, False)
if state == 2:
window = pygame.display.set_mode((400, 400))
fpsClock = pygame.time.Clock()
brick = nxt.locator.find_one_brick()
left = Motor(brick, PORT_B)
right = Motor(brick, PORT_C)
both = nxt.SynchronizedMotors(left, right, 0)
leftboth = nxt.SynchronizedMotors(left, right, 100)
rightboth = nxt.SynchronizedMotors(right, left, 100)
head = Motor(brick, PORT_A)
state = 1
while (state > 0):
state = input(pygame.event.get(), state)
state = update(state)
Inspired by the amazing things the Boreatton Scouts group are doing with their Raspberry Pis, as well as a conversation with David Lamb and Andrew Attwood – two colleagues of mine at LJMU – I thought it was about time I actually tried to use my Pi for something other than recompiling existing software. I'm not a hardware person. Not at all. But I do have a Lego Mindstorms NXT robot which has always had far more potential than I've ever had the energy to extract from it.
But after reading about how it's possible to control the NXT brick with Python using nxt-python, and with David pointing out how manifestly great it would be to get the first year undergraduates learning programming using it, I couldn't resist giving it a go.
It turned out to be surprisingly easy. The hard parts? First was getting the Pi to discover the NXT brick over USB. The instructions for this aren't too great, but in fact it turned out to be as simple as copying the NXT MAC address into the PyUSB configuration file. Second was getting the Pi, battery pack and 5 metres (yes, you read that right) of USB lead to balance on top of the robot!
I'm not exactly sure why I bought such a huge lead given I knew it would all end up on top of the robot, but that's planning for you!
The result really is as crazy and great as I'd hoped. I wrote a 50 line python programme to read key presses and drive the robot appropriately – right, left, forward and back – and nxt-python does all of the hard work. The keyboard is wireless, attached to the Raspberry Pi using a micro dongle. The USB lead connects the Pi with the NXT brick. The Raspberry Pi is powered by a USB phone charger. The monitor lead and ethernet aren't needed when the machine's running, which means the robot/pi combination is entirely self-contained and can be controlled using the wireless keyboard.
It was also possible to read data from the sensors, allowing the robot to drive itself entirely autonomously around the room avoiding objects and generally exploring. The next step is to collect more input about the distance it's travelled so that it can be mapped on to a virtual room on the Raspberry Pi and build a picture of the world.
Here's a video of Joanna controlling the Heath-Robinson contraption as well some photos showing all of the different parts balanced on top of one another.
The wonderful thing about all of this is that although it requires a huge amount of effort and insight to get each of the individual pieces working, none of the effort was mine. Pulling the pieces together is really straightforward, building on so much clever work by so many people. It's got to the stage where you can grab a phone charger, some Lego, a £35 PC the size of a credit card, a wireless keyboard, an entirely open source software stack, 5m of USB cable and a Sunday afternoon and end up with a complete robot you can programme directly in Python. Brilliant.
The Web used to be like the Wild West: lawless and anarchic, yet at the same time inspirational and free. But frontiers get pushed back, and beasts get tamed. Today the Web is a far 'safer' place, with much of the control ceded to governments and corporations. One of the happier casualties of this appears to be spam, which through a combination of law and technology, is now a far less aggressive problem than it was back then.
Since the start of this site, I've always used a public email address that was separate from the private email address I gave to people personally. The reason was to reduce spam, and also because companies couldn't be trusted to use my email address responsibly. Today the amount of spam I receive, even on the public address, is bearable and companies are much more likely to actually comply with the data protection laws preventing distribution of contact details. As a result, I've decided to finally move over to using just a single, simple, email address. The plan is to make my life easier and have fewer addresses to deal with. Whenever I write out my name on official forms it's always hard to fit it into the space provided. Finally I can now avoid having the same problem with my email address as well!
A couple more prints have arrived from Shapeways and once again I'm really pleased with the results. The first was a bit of an experimental print for a number of reasons. It's another 3D Celtic knot, but this time I tried it with much thinner threads, right down to the minimum of 0.7mm thickness recommended by Shapeways. I get the feeling this recommendation is intended for walls, so I'd feared the threads wouldn't be strong enough to hold together. In fact, the final result is perfectly sturdy and the threads seem quite robust. Second, I tried the polished version of the "white strong and flexible" material (which is apparently a kind of nylon). The polishing process involves shaking the model with lots of tiny polishing balls, so again I'd feared this might affect the models strength. And again, it seems my fears were unfounded. Finally, I generated the model to have gaps where the threads cross over, the hope being it would be printed in four separate pieces. Unfortunately I apparently didn't give enough clearance, and some of the threads fuse at these intersections. Nonetheless, some of them are still loose, and the result is really great. I may try it again with a bit more of a gap next time though.
The second knot is a proper 2D Celtic knot. The idea is that this is generated from the same seed as the 3D knot, making it in some sense the 'same' knot. That's not really true, but until I figure out what's really meant by 'the same', this is as close as I can think of. I was pleased to find that, since they're both printed with the same dimensions, resting the 2D version on one of the faces of the 3D knot, they align nicely and really look like one is an extruded version of the other.
Once again, printing out these knots has provided some really nice results, leaving the biggest problem the question of what to print next.
Yesterday I received another print from Shapeways. It's my first metal creation using a clever printing process that takes a 3D model as input and creates a completely formed bronze object as output.
Perhaps unsurprisingly it's another 3D Celtic knot. Once again, in spite of the dubious model I provided, the result is just brilliant. It's a real chunk of metal that looks like it's been hewn and polished into a complex shape through hours of craftsmanship. It did take hours of work of course, but in reality it was largely done using completely routine machine production techniques. Here's a shot of the result.
We all have dreams about the things we want to do when we're grown up, like becoming pop stars, train drivers, footballers or whatever. As we grow older we find we have to shed some of these hopes. There comes a point when the realisation sets in that perhaps there are people better suited to fighting dragons. Having spent practically all my life working with either maths or computers, I'd pretty much given up hope of ever doing something that actually produced physical results. It sounds like a strange dream, but the prospect of being able to create something tangible has always seemed exciting.
It's surprising then to find a path of entirely abstract ideas can lead so naturally into a process of creating physical constructs. This is the solution 3D printing offers. It allows people to turn abstract ideas into physical form, without ever having to leave the comfort of a computer screen. No need to get your hands dirty.
Of course, the physical infrastructure needed to get to this point is phenomenal (electricity, Internet, banking, etc.). Someone had to build it and huge numbers of people are still needed to maintain it. But as far as I'm concerned, sitting behind a computer screen, it's still an utterly seamless and physically effortless process. Only thought required.
You can download the 3D model for this, or buy a physical artefact, direct from the Shapeways website.
In case you're interested to know more about my recent 3D printing experience, I've put together some more words and pictures. Feel free to take a look. Alternatively, there's also a link in case you want to print a copy of the Celtic knot yourself. That's right, you really can print your own. Still doesn't seem right.
Today I received my first ever 3D print. It's a 3D Celtic Knot which was generated by some code I put together while Joanna and I were in Tuscany a couple of weeks back. The model was sent off to a company called Shapeways in the Netherlands, and today I received the final printed object. The technology that allows you to print 3D objects is just phenomenal, both in terms of how clever it is, and the astonish potential it promises. It really does provide the opportunity to create just about anything, turning the wildest imaginings into reality.
I was pretty nervous getting it out of its box as I really wasn't sure how well it would come out, but in fact I'm astonished at how clean the printing is and how sturdy the object is. I hope to put together the full story of my 3D printing experience, from theory to reality, tomorrow.
One of the things I love about the idea of 3D printing, is that it really seems as close as we can get right now to the Star Trek replicator way of doing things. That might seem like an irrelevance - just a nerdy reaction - but I see it as a real vision of how things will change in the future. I find the shift from small-scale-bespoke, through mass-production, to mass-bespoke just a little exhilarating to be lucky enough to experience.
At work I use Outlook, since the University uses MS Exchange and the nature of collaboration tools is that you have to use what other people are using. However, for some time now I've also been syncing this with a Google Calendar so that I can also make some of the details available on this site. Google provides a free syncing tool, but this had various limitations, such as only being able to sync one calendar, making it no good for what I wanted. The solution was to use a piece of software called SyncMyCal. For the record, this is a great piece of software that does a straightforward task very well. Once it's properly configured, it's the kind of software that works best if you don't notice it again, which is exactly how things were until recently. It was well worth the asking price.
So, this worked great for ages, until half a year or so ago the University started upgrading the Exchange servers, and I upgraded my machine to Outlook 2010. SyncMyCal was only compatible with Outlook 2003.
My solution at the time was to continue running OUtlook 2003 with SyncMyCal on a separate machine. This kind of worked, but had problems. The machine would get turned off and I wouldn't notice, or it would reboot after an automatic update leaving Outlook asleep on the hard drive. My Google calendar was only updated intermittently. Nobody really cared, except for me, since it increased the disorder in my world and kept me locked in to running an old machine just for the sake of syncing.
Until yesterday that is. On the offchance I checked the SyncMyCal site yesterday and found they'd finally released an Outlook 2010 version of their tool. Yay!
The result is that now my calendars are syncing normally, the version on this site is telling the truth, rather than some partial version of it, and the world - for me at least - has become a little more ordered!
It's been a long time since I wrote anything in this plog, but I guess some things just warrant waking up from a slumber. What's the big new? Well, I've just completed the latest Tomb Raider game. Actually, scratch that as it's not a Tomb Raider game, it's the latest Lara Croft game: The Guardian of Light. It's a lot different from previous instalments in the series, in that rather than being third-person following Lara, it's third-person bird's-eye-view 'isometric'. I don't think it's true isometric because they left some perspective in, but you get the idea. It was an enjoyable game (I finished pretty quickly for me, which says something), but compared to the previous ones I found it easier to forget that I was playing as Lara Croft. The puzzles were good, and ironically I thought the combat was much better than in the 3D-view games. It's just a shame that there wasn't more dialogue and story elements to keep the game grounded in the Tomb Raider world.
Anyway, I'm glad I played it, and that the series is continuing with the same energy. I had to finish it after all, just to keep up my Tomb Raider completion rate. Eventually I still plan to go back and complete Unfinished Business (I only have The Hive to do, but it really is still unfinished business); I console myself with the fact that this was really an add-on for the original game.
Joanna's been asking to have a baby red dragon for a present for every birthday and Christmas for several years now. With the release of the Pleo, it finally looked like it might be possible to fulfil her wish. The result of my attempt to do this is Sparky the Dragon.
Finally, after what feels like an æon, I've managed to complete Tomb Raider 1. It feels like it's taken some Herculean effort (not that I'd know!) after nearly 12 years, and for me is something to celebrate. To most people it won't sound like a big deal at all, but the real reason it feels like such an achievement is that this actually means I've now finished all of the Tomb Raider games. All eight of them. I can finally say that I've scaled the Tomb Raider mountain.
It seems kind of odd to have finished the first game last, but when it was released I wasn't really interested in playing it (even though I loved computer games and remember being mesmerised watching my house mate Alex complete it at the time). Rather strangely I didn't start playing the games until thoroughly enjoying playing through Angel of Darkness. Apparently I was the only person who did enjoy it, but it got me hooked and I moved on to the others.
After completing Legend I didn't think I'd ever play the first game (I thought it'd feel too much like playing it twice) and so would never finish them all, but eventually that human-collector-instinct got the better of me and I had to give it a go. It was well worth it, in spite of its venerable age.
So, I'm glad I can revel in the fact I've completed them all, at least until they release Underworld, which I'm nonetheless looking forward to. In the meantime, I've not yet played all of the extra Gold levels, so there's still work to be done. And for the record, maybe Angel of Darkness was my favourite, although Chronicles was the best of the vintage games and I loved the Venice level in Tomb Raider 2 as well.
Every time the season changes my journey to work becomes far more enjoyable. It seems to happen so quickly. One day the trees are green and suffering the end-of-summer storms, the next day the air is still and crisp, and the world has turned a golden orange colour. Yesterday evening on my journey home there was a deep mist. The halo of the lights and the glowing golden trees made things feel just a bit magical.
I've decided that Liverpool is a beautiful place at this time of year. I'm sure this is true of everywhere else too, but It's only recently that I remember noticing such vibrant changes in the seasons. I was wondering why this might be, and then I realised. When we lived in Pall Mall there were basically no plants or trees on my way to work. A total absence of nature. Thinking about it, that's really strange, and it makes me realise how important it is to live where there is more than just concrete. It's also true that the relative harshness of the climate here (being a northern port city), compared to other places I've lived, is quite bracing. And also just a little annoying when you have to cycle somewhere!
I've just finished the game Thief - Deadly Shadows. It's a great game, full of dark atmosphere. Like many of the games I enjoy most, it's always the atmosphere that makes the game immersive and enjoyable. What I particularly enjoy about Thief, is that it reminds me of wandering around the docks in Liverpool at dusk. With all of the industrial architecture and crumbling infrastructure it's a scary place, but with the continuously working industry -- container ships arriving all through the night -- it also feels alive with a kind of eternal energy. Whilst I enjoy visiting the docks I basically get too fearful to stay there when it gets really dark. Entirely psychological fear I'm sure. That's the beauty of Thief. You can do things you'd never dream of doing in real life, with some of the same fear, but without the consequences. The pictures are of the game and a couple of photos of Liverpool Docks I took trying to overcome my fear one summer evening!
I felt rubbish this morning, but my day was saved by a beautiful piece of music. So much of the time, music seems to be in the background. It's so rare that you hear a song that's so powerful that you can't help but give in to its effect on your emotions. There's a track called "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life," and every so often, I can understand it. Ironically, this track doesn't hold much power, but it has its truth nonetheless.
The music I heard today was called "With Every HeartBeat" by Kleerup and Robyn. It stopped me in my tracks and I swear I stopped breathing for the 4 minutes the track played.
Later I listed to "Be Mine," also by Robyn. It's another beautiful, if equally tragic, track. When you're not feeling too great they're utterly self indulgent. And beautiful. And somehow helpful.
I went for a walk around the neighbourhood this evening. It's amazing how warm it is. The air is completely still and although it's not been sunny all day, the air is hot but not humid. It's a very unusual combination for around here at this time of year. It's especially surprising that it's so warm in the evening. It's now nearly 10pm and I have the windows fully open as I sit in my study. The temperature in here is the same as it is outside and it feels just perfect. Like a mediterranean evening.
So I went for a walk because it's wonderfully warm and I'd not yet been outside today, but mostly because I find the industrial area that we live in to be utterly mesmerising at night. The huge great industrial storage drums and buildings. They sit, looking both alive and silent at night like sleeping giants. Some of them have glistening lights whereas others are just dark looming silhouettes against the night sky. We're near the docks, which is an important part of the magic, because it feels like a space port or space station. Technological, but also grimy and real.
I didn't feel safe walking around the neighbourhood. There were few people around and I was on my own. There was some noise because the only people around at 9:30pm on a Saturday evening in this part of town are kids. Kids are intimidating and I walked past a couple of gangs of kids, which felt a bit uncomfortable. But they didn't actually cause any trouble at all. Just walked straight past.
We don't live in what could be called a nice part of town, although I find it okay. So I wonder whether it really is a dangerous or scary place to be. I'm sure almost all of the fear I experienced was self inflicted. I suppose by definition all of fear is self inflicted, but what I mean is that it's almost certainly entirely unnecessary. But in spite of reminding myself this I couldn't get it out of my mind. I wonder whether there really is something to fear? Lots of people say that it's a modern phenomenon, but I'm sure walking around industrial areas has always been scary. "Everyday do something that scares you." This is so important. It wasn't the reason for my walk, and I hope over the next few months the weather is such that I can do it more often. Part of the reason for doing scary things is realising that there's no need for the fear. I'm not entirely convinced just yet, but I'm glad I had the walk nonetheless.
A couple of days ago, on the 27th February in fact (the day before St. David's day) I suddently noticed hundreds of daffodils had appeared in the grassy patches that line my journey in to work. It felt like they'd just appeared overnight. I don't know if this is a reflection of what actually happened, or of my not noticing them earlier, but it was a very uplifting realisation. At the time, I put it down to my enjoyment of Spring as a season. After all, my birthday tends to fall in Spring so it's bound to enthuse me a bit! On further thought though, I realised that I feel uplifted at every change in the season. The onset of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter are all exciting times. Perhaps it's the possibility of renewal, the chance for a change? Whatever it is, I'm hoping the optimism of the new season brings positive effects.
It wasn't until after writing up that last post about birds in computer games that I discovered - whilst search for suitable screenshots on the Web - that the birds in Broken Sword Angel of Darkness were actually intended as a clue in the game. Not quite as incidental as I'd imagined! It just goes to show how much thought has often gone into such things.
Over the years, I have to admit, I've played a fair few computer games. A common theme that runs through many games is that of 'struggle'. You take on the role of an - often reluctant - hero, struggling against some alien or mystical aggressor so as to fulfil your destiny and, coincidentally, complete the game.
Another common theme that I've noticed is that many computer games like to include incidental aesthetic features. Bushes that move with the wind, birds that fly away in reaction to some movement, the changing light as the sun moves through the sky. These all add to the atmosphere of the game, immersing the player and increasing the feeling that the environment is real. It's touches like these that I find particularly beautiful in computer games; things that aren't necessary, but which nonetheless add depth. Half-life 2, Broken Sword Angel of Death, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Tomb Raider Legend and Prince of Persia the Two Thrones are games with these kinds of incidental effects that immediately spring to mind.
However, whenever I notice such things - usually as a result of me disturbing some quietly perched birds - it also has another effect, serving to highlight the disparity between the tumultuous struggle inherent to the gameplay and the unchanging indifference of the world it inhabits.
Why are evil overlord alien races or mystical enemies never interested in subjugating or annihilating the bird population? Why are they only interested in the humans? Why is it that they are happy to share their world with the birds, but not with the humans? There might be all manner of pain and suffering, battling, fighting and enslaving going on - massive gun battles and destruction - yet the birds just seem to go about their business oblivious to the disaster going on around them. It's not just the birds either. It's pretty much all of the other animals: fish, lizards, insects and so on. All of nature in fact.
Okay, perhaps I'm reading too much into what is really just an incidental addition to a game. But I think it's an interesting metaphor for everyday life. It's easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of stress and work that can consume our daily lives, whilst at the same time the world goes on, oblivious and unaffected. The stress and work is often entirely of our own making.
You can extend this further to more serious matters too. I'm lucky to never have experienced wartime in any real sense (although Britain seems to have been at war with at least one country for as long as I can remember; it's testament to the aggressive nature of our democracy that this always seems to be happening somewhere else). But even during the most horrendous times, nature carries on, the weather changes and animals continue their lives indifferent to the human follies around them. It's somehow reassuring.
It may seem a little odd, but it's this that I'm reminded of when I disturb a flock of birds in a computer game.
I've really fallen in love with small games (maybe "become addicted to" would be more honest!). Most games are so huge and cinematic that you can't really pick them up for a quick game and put them down again. Sometimes you want something with epic production values, but just at the moment I'm enjoying a games that's epic in a totally different way: The Odyssey: Winds of Athena is a small game based on Homer's epic poem. It's sort of puzzle based, but mostly it requires dexterity, creating currents in the water and wind with the mouse to blow Odysseus's boats to safety. At the same time as providing fun and frustrating gameplay, it also charts its way through the classic story, which is enjoyable in itself.
It isn't expensive, and I for one reckon I'd spend a lot more overall buying several games of this size and price than on fewer of the more costly variety. This is certainly what's happened over the last couple of weeks (last weekend I bought Gumboy's Crazy Adventures; another great game).
To be fair, it could be that the reason I find these kinds of games more appealing is because they tend to be 2D and puzzle oriented, with quirky rather than realistic game mechanics. This is the kind of game I grew up with before 3D games became the norm. Nevertheless, there's no denying that they're fun to play, and much better if you just want to have a quick break between doing other things, so I'm indebted to the Out of Eight PC Game Reviews site for introducing it to me.
One of the big attractions of computer games for me is the brilliant use of graphics that they routinely incorporate, and I often think that they're one of the best ways (both as a medium and as a commercially viable proposition) to be able to create beautiful things. However, in spite of this it's not often that I am totally awestruck by the beauty and atmosphere of a game. There are only two recent games that I can think of that have had what I consider to be a quite profound beauty. The first is Samorost, or more accurately, Samorost 2 which I discovered first, created by Amanita Design. The second, which I only stumbled across over the weekend in spite of the fact that it's a good few months old, is called Gumboy Crazy Adventures, by Cinemax. You'd not expect something with a title that includes the words gum and crazy to inspire beautiful imagery, but it has the same magical, whimsical, and fantastical atmosphere that I found so beautiful in Samorost. Although the graphics and sound - which form a major part of the beauty - are similar between the two games, the gameplay differs greatly between them. Luckily, they're also both great fun to play. Both Cinemax and Amanita Design are based in the Czech Republic. The combination of eerie sound and music, incomprehensible speech, and graphics that integrate real rustic objects is very unusual to me, and I wonder if it's something that's grown out of traditional East European art. Given how much I seem to enjoy it, this is something I probably ought to look into more deeply.
It's a strange phenomenon, finding yourself with nowhere to call home. This is the situation I find myself in this evening. This is not the same as having nowhere to live, the tragedy and unpleasantness of which the word 'strange' doesn't even begin to capture. On the contrary, it is ironically the fact that - as of today - I technically have two flats to live in that I find I don't have anywhere to sleep. One flat is practically empty, save for a rather lonely bed that belongs to our landlord. The other flat is packed full of our possessions, all laboriously moved over the last few days, and all carefully concealed in easily transportable (but not easily accessible) boxes. So the choice is between an empty, cold flat where the few remaining contents are easily accessible but offer little in the way of comfort, or a congested, cold flat packed full of practically everything you could wish for, none of which can be effectively used.
I'm not complaining mind. The circumstance represents a small part of a much larger journey and is at any rate entirely of my own making. Even if none of this were the case, it would be churlish to claim that this is a bad situation, when there are so many deeper levels of being worse off that people suffer.
It is a strange journey nonetheless, both in circumstance and emotional effect. We've decided where we're going to stay tonight. There really was only one choice, even if it's not very practical. When you're on a journey, the only choice, after all, is to move forwards.
Whenever I visit a company's website or watch a company presentation, it often strikes me how utterly irrelevant to the content the images used are. The pictures invariably portray exceptionally happy people in bright sunshine doing fun things. Sometimes, if a designer really exceeds expectations, there might be a stock image of someone using a computer for a technology site say, but often they won't even have bothered to do this. I understand why happy people sell products, but it just saddens me that so little effort appears to have gone in to finding relevant images. Maybe I just don't understand? Take for example the Sun JDK download site. It'll probably be gone by tomorrow, but take a look at the capture of the site that I just took. As I say, maybe I'm missing the point, but what's the connection between migrating projects between IDEs and some kids climbing a tree? I'm inclined to think it's even quite irresponsible. Climbing trees requires full attention. You wouldn't want to try migrating projects up a tree: it'd be dangerous! The sad thing is that it's got to the point where I hardly even notice the artwork anymore. It's just a fleeting wash of colour that passes through my consciousness. This is a real shame, because the pictures themselves are often very good and a lot of effort was probably put in to them. What's more, I'm sure a designer could have some real fun working out some pithy connection between the picture and the content. Surely there must be some exciting and relevant pictures that could go with JBuilder migration? How hard can it be...
Well, that's the last of the colossi dealt with. It's another great game, but I think the story is even more ambiguous than Ico. There's definitely a link between the two games, and maybe that's the part that makes the most sense, but the meaning of the game -- if there is one -- is a little less clear. It might require a bit more thought tonight, and that's no bad thing. I've never played a game, and don't know of any either, that are anything like Shadow of the Colossus. This isn't true for Ico, although perhaps that's because all of the similar games follow rather than precede it. Nonetheless, it's impressive to find such a great and original game as Shadow of the Colossus.
Not a great deal of success doing more today than yesterday, it has to be said! I did manage to dispose of a further 9 colossi or so. I've now reached 13 of them, which means there should be only 3 more to go. Not quite an achievement, but it is a very good game. It'll be a shame when it's finished.
I didn't really achieve a great deal today. Got up relatively early. Helped Tom to transport his parents' budgie, started playing Shadow of the Colossus, listened to the radio a bit. But that really is about it. That's pretty bad really. I'll have to try to achieve a bit more tomorrow. Having said that, yesterday was quite busy (and we even got to have a nice Indian takeaway), so I did need the break. The real problem, though, is deciding exactly what I should really be doing. I have plenty of things that I want to do, but many of them involve starting up new projects, and I'm not sure I'm ready to start getting into something too deeply whilst I still have so many half finished things to do. I should probably get down and finish a few things off properly.
11 Aug 2006 : Tidying up some important tasks (end of the week)#
I managed to meet with Bo today about forums and Content Management Systems for the WARP. It was a useful discussion. There've also been a couple of things that I needed to do that have been playing on my mind for a while now. I had to suggest some changes to the Chinacom Security Symposium programme, and the reorganisation was actually a surprisingly tricky thing to get right. I also had to write an important email to foster some collaboration with another organisation on some of the work that we're doing. I've finally got around to tackling these tasks, and both of them are now done. Quite a relief. It sounds really stupid, but things really begin to weigh on my mind after a bit. Of course I do have a number of other things that I still need to do -- this is a universal constant -- but these are manageable, and hopefully I will now feel a bit more free to get engrossed in some of the programming work that I've been needing (and hoping) to do recently.
Just as a quick addendum to the previous entry, whilst playing Ico it surprised me how similar many of the game elements were to the first 3D Prince of Persia - The Sands of Time. Of course, Ico predates The Sands of Time, and when Sands of Time was released, I think Ico had only been a critical but not popular success in the UK (I don't know about Canada, where Sands of Time was developed, though). At any rate, it does look like Sands of Time has taken many good ideas from Ico: the idea of protecting someone else, gradually falling in love with her, the way the camera movement when you enter a new area gives a clue as to where you should go, the general gameplay characteristics combining architectural puzzles with intermittent fighting, the need to use both characters to solve puzzles. There seem like a whole host of similarities. To some extent, Sands of Time could be seen as a more mainstream Ico (the fighting is much more involved in the Prince of Persia title, for example), and it certainly has interesting new elements of its own too (such as the ability to rewind time). None of this reuse of ideas is a bad thing of course, but it does perhaps highlight how Ico is a game that has left an important legacy. The gaming world is better for it. It might also explain why they are both such great games, probably two of my favourite. The use of two characters (only one of which you control) to solve puzzles is part of what makes both games great and also, I believe, why the Sands of Time is so much more fulfilling than its two sequels.
11 Aug 2006 : Ico (possible spoilers if you've not played it)#
I just finished ico the game this evening. It was really quite sublime in many ways. There seems to be a lot of confusion about what it all means and what actually happens in the game. As far as I can tell, it seems to be an allegory on coming of age and the importance of mutual help. Ico is a misunderstood miscreant. Yorda's mother is protective of her, and not ready to believe that she is able to survive on her own. This may be true, but what we grow to understand is that whilst Yorda is able to reform Ico, so Ico can also help Yorda to grow independent of her mother. The result is that by helping each other, they are able to survive on their own, against Yorda's mother's wishes. As with anything like this, the beauty is as much in the enigma as in the truth, but that's my interpretation.
Today I read a couple of papers. They were J. Riordan and B. Schneier, "Environmental Key Generation towards Clueless Agents" and G. Vigna, "Protecting Mobile Agents through Tracing". I've also been reviewing a paper, and working out the Security Track timetable for Chinacom this year. Neither of these last two tasks are finished yet, though.
I spent many hours yesterday writing reviews for Chinacom in to the middle of the night. It was a shame, because Joanna has just been offered a new job and we were supposed to be celebrating. Today the result has been that I just can't seem to get motivated. I'm going to have to try harder at being motivated.
Well, this is going to be a bit of a test, and I'll see how it goes. I'm not big on keeping a diary, but I figure it may be useful to keep some notes about things on a daily basis. You never know, I may even get the hang of it (yeah, right!). Anyway, this is just getting the ball rolling. I guess time will tell how it pans out.