The excitement!

by on Oct.19, 2009, under Miscellany, rambling

My first ever photocard driving licence arrived in the post today. I’m chuffed to bits. You may well wonder why. After all, I’ve had a licence since I was seventeen, which is long enough ago to have done my motorcycle training when it was just part 1 and part 2. So it’s not the thrill of finally being able to operate a piece of heavy machinery on the public highway.

No. I am excited because this is the first formal identification document I’ve ever had that has a photo of me with the black eye. This one, if you haven’t seen it before. My passport has the eye that nominally looks like an eye, which means I have to swap them out every time I go through airport security (although last time I flew to Ireland I forgot and neither Edinburgh nor Galway security seemed all that fussed).

OK, for everyone else this might not seem like a big deal, but it is for me. I don’t like the so-called “proper” eye. I’d rather not bother with it at all. Sadly I can’t get away with that because I still have to look professional for the day job and it’s a job involving lots of contact with the public.

Having said that, it’s amazing how many people just don’t notice at all.

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Sam reviews… Wolverine Origins

by on Oct.18, 2009, under games, Miscellany, Reviews

Wolverine: Origins, Uncaged Edition

It’s not usual for me to review a game before I’ve finished it, but I’ll make an exception today because Frood is busy with Quantum of Solace (which is just Mace Griffin with an English accent).

First of all, let’s just do the wibbly-wobbly flashback thing. Imagine everything going a bit blurry like the teleporter effect from Blake’s Seven. You still with me?

Back in 2003 Marvel and Activision released Wolverine’s Revenge to coincide with the release of the second X-Men film — a blatant bit of Wolverine publicity if ever there was one, which made Magneto’s comment to Logan (“Once again, you think it’s all about you.”) even more lulz-worthy.

As it happened, this was a great game. It really was. The stealth kills and smell-o-vision were very well done, and made sense in terms of characterisation. I really enjoyed this game until it got a bit too frenetic for fun right up at the end. As I’ve said before and probably will do again, Activision do have previous for decent games based on the Marvel universe.

The new Origins game is an 18, so immediately you can tell that there is going to be gore. And there is. Lots of it. Which is kind of groovy. I don’t know about you but I get really ticked off with slicing and dicing and people falling over like rag dolls. If I’m kicking the living shit out of something I want see evidence. This game has it in spades.

Wolverine Origins PS3 version

It is also of the button mashy school, where chaining comboes means hitting the square button three zillion times before punctuating with triangle. This is, to be fair, reasonably similar to the previous Wolverine game, so I can’t complain about that too much. I just find it difficult to keep track of how many times I’ve pressed the square button when I’m being assaulted by three mutant wendigoes the size of Methodist churches, 10 killer robots and about 50 machine gunners.

You see, this game has decided that “increased difficulty” means “send more goons in to shoot him”. I’m not a huge fan of this. Indeed, it pisses me off to the point where, several times, I have been swearing at the screen, my controller slippery with sweat and my hand cramping as I try to dodge, block, roll, counter and pull off a berserker fury all at the same time while being shot to shit by an entire army of mooks who are all yelling “He’s hurt, he’s hurt, keep up the pressure!” It’s just not fun. It’s merely frustrating.

There are some really weird gaming decisions, too, like the scene in which you have to dodge the bullets from a sniper and fight off the inevitable goons while you are looking at yourself through the sniper’s sights. WTF? It’s hard enough dealing with a squad of machine guns at the best of times, but when you can’t see half of them because there are trees between the sniper who’s trying to kill you and both you and them, it’s impossible.

Which leads me to the dodgy camera angles. The camera appears to have a mind of its own and a sense of humour akin to that of GLaDOS. Why yes, thank you, I do so enjoy trying to fight off one of the stronger bad guys while my view is entirely obstructed by the freakin’ CEILING. Or the FLOOR. When fighting the camera follows Logan around like a slavish puppy, despite the supposed right stick control, so most of the time you’re staring at his arse while some giant robot pounds on him with RPGs you can’t see until they hit you because they’re coming from off-camera. This is unfortunate, because you’re supposed to counter projectiles by hitting them back at the source.

Ah yes. Countering. Hit L2 at just the right time to enable a bullet-time segment where you can hit square and perform a special attack. But “the right time” has to be precise to the millisecond, as far as I can tell. Too soon and he merely blocks, and that’s about as exciting and helpful as a dairy cow in the dressage ring.

The power-up bar in this game is rage, and Logan can accumulate rage by killing things or destroying certain items in the landscape. Once enough rage has been accumulated he has access to his superpowers of claw drill, claw cyclone, claw spin or, my personal favourite, berserker mode. He can tell which ones will give him rage because in this game smell-o-vision is a false-colour heat haze affair in which important things have certain colours. Red things are dangerous, yellow things can be destroyed for rage orbs and green things are useful in some way. Rather than the scent trails of the previous game, which made sense, and allowed you to sneak up on unseen enemies and spit them like a pig, this one has funny colours and sort of a blue breeze that indicates where you should go next. Not that you need to be told where to go next because it’s so linear you can’t even go exploring in the scenery a couple of feet from the path. No wandering about for you!

Yes, once more Activision have given us a game in which the scenery really is only scenery. This means it’s not much of a challenge to pick up the bonus items like the figurines that open up the costumes, which is presumably why you then have to complete a near-impossible bonus challenge in order to unlock said costume. Much as I’d like to unlock said costumes, I’m not sure I have the patience or the thumb stamina to fight a version of the character who has unlimited rage and all the combat reflexes of a highly trained cyborg ninja while mine has enough angry to shout at a used teabag and the reflexes of an asthmatic slug.

The gameplay is, thankfully, more varied than Ultimate Alliance 2, in that there are traps to avoid and jumping tests and the occasional puzzle. You can see where they’ve taken some hints and tips from Prince of Persia. The underlying God of War engine is also fairly obvious in the methods of dispatch for the larger, tougher enemies, especially the mutant wendigoes. These are not bad things. I like a bit of variety in my gameplay, which is why I find it so utterly bizarre and frustrating that they should have given us that and yet their combat difficulty is just throwing more and more and more things at Wolverine so he is forced to spend more time dodging and running around looking for a space to allow his healing factor to kick in before his guts spill out.

Generally the difficulty curve goes like this: start a section with a few standard grunts. Meet a whole bunch of grunts with a few of the special elite grunts who are harder to kill. Find yourself in a room with even more of them, plus some of the bastards that need a special move to kill. Fight until your hand aches. Move into a big, empty room where suddenly some new extra-difficult bad guy turns up and says “HAI!” Kill him and three more turn up and all attack at once. Swear a lot. Finally make it through that only to discover that now you’re fair game for all previous bad guys plus the new extra tough bad guys to throw down on you in vast numbers all at the same time. Rinse and repeat.

Frankly this game makes me go “GRRRRRR!” at the telly almost as much as Logan does on it. This is an adult’s game with childishly repetitive combat.

That said, you know, it’s not all bad. The feral senses could have — and should have — been done a lot better but, if you were a bad guy and had the crazy Canucklehead coming after you, would you send just one or two grunts? No. At the end of the day, if you’ve got Wolverine on your territory you send every man you have, armed to the teeth, and tell them not to stop firing until they run out of bullets or are dead.

And they will, trust me, end up dead. For while there are times when I have been reduced to screaming “FOR FUCK’S SAKE JUST DIE, WILL YOU?!” there is something deeply satisfying about going from a room full of mooks to a room full of dismembered mooks. Especially when, as occasionally happens, Logan moves in the blink of any eye from ripping some guy to shreds to answering his phone as if his mum has just called to ask if he’s coming round for dinner.

Ideally this would have had the stealth and the sneaking of the first Wolverine game combined with the potential for wholesale death and destruction on offer here. I should have been able to choose between sneaking up a scent trail for a silent claw through the gut or the incredibly useful lunge (the lunge is, at least while I’m playing, Wolverine’s primary mode of travel). As it is we have a gore-fest blender of a game with occasional challenges based mostly on being fast enough and pressing the right button at the right time. This isn’t a game you can get through without dying, frequently, unlike MUA2: it’s giving me RSI and blisters and is occasionally chuck-the-controller-at-the-telly frustrating. For all its flaws, however, it hasn’t given me the same sense of shocked betrayal that the film did.

It hasn’t, at least not yet, made me cry. Still, I suppose there’s plenty of time.

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Sam reviews… MUA2

by on Oct.03, 2009, under games, Miscellany, Reviews

I’ve got a couple of game reviews for you today. To start with, let’s take a look at Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2.

Do I need to repeat the whole Marvel Fan Girl thing? Yes? No? Tell you what, take a look at my Marvel games collection:

There are a few, yes.

Yes. There are two versions of the original Ultimate Alliance. One for PS2 and one for PS3. Guess what. I liked it. A lot.

I mean, there are some real turkeys there. The Official X-Men game at the bottom left is a pile of shite. I can’t put that any more kindly. It is dreadful. Rise of the Imperfects isn’t really any better, but it’s made by EA so I was rather dubious before I bought it.

Y’see, my experience is that Activision are the guys who know how to make good Marvel games. One of my favourite games ever is X-Men: Wolverine’s Revenge, in which the smelly, short, hairy, bad-tempered Canucklehead takes a trip up to Alkali Lake and stealth kills his way most righteously through thousands of mooks and some super villains. Apart from the end level it’s a corker of a game. The end just gets a bit button-mashy frenetic for my tastes.

The series of co-op games that started with X-Men Legends has always been top of our list for acquisition because Frood and I enjoyed the first one so much. It was our first proper co-op game in which we got to beat the crap out of things together. We’ve bought each one since then and, with every iteration, Activision has seen fit to simplify the game and introduce more characters and yet make them more similar.

X-Men Legends had very customisable characters and your choice of spending your XP was very flexible. If you decided you liked one power over another you could preferentially load that one up and ignore the one you didn’t like. You could buy points for a power. You could assign those powers to different buttons. More to the point, the unlockable extreme powers were for each character. There were different items of kit that each character could wear, affecting their abilities and their resistances. It was possible (at least for Frood) to spend almost as much time playing with character levelling as it was fighting bad guys.

Rise of Apocalypse simplified the character levelling, but not so much that we were complaining. It made it less fun but it didn’t stop that aspect of the game being worth spending time on.

The first Ultimate Alliance simplified by a whole order of magnitude. If I were being unkind I might suggest that this was a direct reflection of Jemas’s rather hubris-filled statement that the Ultimates was there to bring success where all the regular Marvel story arcs were falling into a pit of failure constructed out of what-ifs and untold stories (see the statement at the end of The Tomorrow People). Personally, having read nearly all of the Ultimate X-Men, I can’t help but note that the fifteen-year olds who started out in that grew up pretty damn fast, and feel this is unsurprising because, unless you are going to deal realistically with what happens psychologically to child-soldiers, you can’t have child killers at all. Hormonal teenagers running around snogging one minute and slaughtering baddies the next with nary a blink is entirely implausible.

What I’m trying to say is that, for me, the amount of death and destruction in the Marvel Universe, the darkness of characters like Wolverine (epitomised in the Barry Windsor Smith one-shot) and Emma Frost (femme fatale indeed) is too adult on many levels for the sort of “X-Men as teenagers reboot” that the Ultimates tried to provide to be plausible.

Which is only slightly out of context, because it seems to me that the simplification of the Ultimate Alliance games is a direct result of a rather similar attempt to appeal to a more mass or younger audience whereas the early ones were aimed at fans. This despite the fact that the younger players would probably be happier dealing with complex gameplay than a lot of us more — ahem — mature players.

Other than the irritating simplification of character levelling, the gameplay itself has become incredibly linear. Incredibly linear. Do not show me an open door if I can’t enter that room because there’s an invisible barrier of code in the way. I want scenery, not set-dressing. Given the obviously upgraded graphics — the reflections on Iron Man’s suit are glorious — why can’t we have game arenas confined by the walls rather than inevitable plot? We had that in the previous games. Why not this one? If there’s a rooftop I can see and I have a flier, I should be able to go there. While I’m at it, as we have such gorgeous reflections on Iron Man’s suit, why in the hell do the others all look like they’re made out of plasticine?

Where previous games had levels that required certain characters (Ice Man for putting out fires, or fliers for retrieving objects), we merrily hacked, slashed and slaughtered our way through this one without any real thought for character choice. It makes no difference. Gone are the individual extreme powers in favour of this ridiculous “fusion” notion. They claim more than 200 different powers, but really there are only about five, as we discovered by taking every team combination we could through the basic training simulator before we got bored seeing the same thing over and over again. Playing Wolverine and Deadpool to Frood’s Spiderman and Jean Grey (he’s missing Toad and Blade, bless him), we could either suck everyone into a pile and whale on them; get Wolverine to run around in a very homoerotic fashion holding hands with someone else; or have someone pick Wolvie up and chuck him at the bad guy. If you’ve got someone who has beamy powers, including Storm’s lightning, you can add to this a sort of laser-death ray sort of affair.

For true entertainment, though, Susan Storm putting a hamster ball force field around the Thing is worth a shot.

Gone, too, are the individual boosts provided by cunning outfits of gloves and hats and things. Instead we have three slots for team boosts, each of which provides a power like an extra 15% stamina or resistance to fire. These apply to the whole team, not individual members. Rubbish. Just rubbish. You might as well pick three you like and forget about it.

Each level takes an absolute age to load, this being because all the cut scenes are pre-loaded. This is not for your convenience, oh no. This is so, when you inadvertently reach the boundary condition at the end of a segment, the cut scene can whisk you away before you’ve finished smashing all the crates and looking for secrets. Frood and I both swore at the screen a lot over this. We haven’t got all the collectibles. Some of them we haven’t found. Some of them we couldn’t pick up because the cut scene interrupted. On one notable occasion we went from a sewer in Latveria to a boat in New York two weeks later in the space of a second. I mean. What the hell, Activision?

Seriously. WHAT THE HELL, ACTIVISION? What gaming company lets the cut scene stop the players from destroying crates?

Plus points. Let’s find some. Doesn’t take long to play through the first time? Hardly a plus point. The graphics are great. Really they are. The dialogue in-game is pretty good, and the conversations in the headquarter sections between maps are written to be pretty well in character. Spiderman and Deadpool get some great lines. The Civil/Secret War storyline is nice, in that it reflects material that has been going on in continuity, although it’s material that I mostly haven’t read because I don’t have the six-figure income needed to keep up with everything these days (mind you, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Iron Man Nick Fury sent to Latveria, at least not in the Bendis/Del’Otto version). Captain America is voiced by a guy who is apparently trying to sound like Steve Austin, and he looks quite a lot like Steve Austin, so a point for consistency there. (I’m stretching, aren’t I?)

Dammit. I really wanted to like this game. It’s number 4 in a series of games I still dig out and play sometimes. It’s an Activision Marvel game. It should have been freakin’ awesome.

But it wasn’t. The powers are meh, the fusion powers not spectacular or varied enough, the gameplay is frighteningly — I mean, frighteningly — linear. There is no going back after each segment, and if you thought you could hold off the end and make your way back there’s a cut scene waiting to abduct you. You can save and swap characters wherever you like (in the previous games you could only do this at special check points) but there’s no point because the game only saves to the start of a level and there isn’t any need to swap out characters. You don’t have the option of portalling to a previous section of map from the central hubs so you can go back solo to kick some butt and find missing collectibles while your gameplay partner is busy making dinner.

In short, MUA2 is a disappointing outing for Activision that has got me wanting to go back and play X-Men Legends again. Which is a shame, because we liked it so much and have played it through so often that our characters are now too powerful: the game can’t cope and falls over when we try to play it.


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Oh dear. #fixed

by on Sep.12, 2009, under Cycling, Miscellany

The architecture of our apartment block is such that it’s a veritable wind tunnel out there in anything more than a Force 1 on the Beaufort scale. As today is relatively still and bright I decided to wash the bikes. If it were anything other than a wind tunnel out there, I’d have been doing something much more fun.

Washing any more than two bikes at any given time is just awful. Today Shackleton (the commuter fixed-gear Il Pompino) and Peregrine (the race bike) were top of the list. Shackleton because he is out nearly every day and Peregrine because it’s the end of the season and he hasn’t had a wash since before the Galway Tri.

People accuse me of mollycoddling my bikes. So clean are they I have heard the sentiment expressed that I don’t ride them. Well, the reason I mollycoddle them is not just because I love them as much as Marek loves Mr Schitzer but because it enables me to identify maintenance issues earlier rather than later.

Which leads me to this:

Sharp teeth
For comparison

Both pictures show an EAI alloy sprocket. The top one should have 16 teeth. It has 13 teeth because three of them have snapped off. The rest of the teeth are a bit — understatement — worn. It has done 17000km, so this is not surprising. For comparison’s sake, the bottom photo shows a 17t sprocket that resides on the flip side of my hub and has been used once, to my recollection.

I confess to a bit of a stomach lurch when I saw that. Doing 160rpm down a hill is not the time for the chain to leap off and jam because there are insufficient teeth to hold it on the sprocket, and 160rpm is by no means unusual for me on my commute, especially on the way home. That could have ended in tears. Not to mention experimental use of the face as an additional ablative braking surface.

However, it didn’t, and because I mollycoddle my bikes I discovered the failure before it caused serious damage. An order has been placed with Will at HubJub and in the meantime I shall fetch Blackbird out from her spot in the corner.

Peregrine, incidentally, is now exceptionally shiny. Despite having been part of my stable for around 6 years, he continues to take my breath away. People who don’t love bicycles don’t know what they are missing.

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More Tri Chonamara photos

by on Aug.14, 2009, under Miscellany, Race reports, Triathlon

Waiting is the hardest partMy dear friend Maura has uploaded some fine photos taken at the Tri Chonamara.

Note that I’m wearing the Speedo Aquasocket goggles in this shot. I have already reviewed those and have no reason to change my opinion. Not only are they a great fit and a great lens colour, they survived being kicked several times in the melee without being knocked off or leaking even a little bit.

For the rest of the set, click here.

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The levellers – #lbp

by on Aug.08, 2009, under gaming, Geekery, Miscellany

Little Big Planet may look like a game for kiddies, but I can assure you that grown-ups play it too, and are just as fond of mucking about with their sackpeople. No, that is not a euphemism.

Frood (AKA Alibarbarella) and I have played the story levels all the way through and a great many of the community levels, and here’s my short guide for level-makers to creating enjoyable levels that will result in these two picky customers giving you five stars and a heart.

#1 – Single player vs. co-op
And all for one!
You might think that this shouldn’t need to be said, but it does. If your level doesn’t work very well when more than one sackperson is on the field, say so in the description. It doesn’t mean we won’t play it — we’ll switch off one of the controllers and one of us will watch the other one play. The levels that play themselves are good examples. If two of you embark on one of those, a helpful NPC reminds you to switch off one of the controllers.

If your level is designed to work for co-op that’s fantastic. We love co-op games. Levels we can play together are the levels that keep us coming back for more. LBP is, after all, also a social game. That said, if you need more than one player to complete your level, you should say so. If your level can be played by two or more but you’re better off approaching the obstacles one at a time, it’s helpful if you explain that, too.

Remember that co-op sackpeople don’t like being separated. If your obstacles cover a lot of space, make sure that all players can complete each one together, otherwise there will be much peeping and someone will end up piffing.

#2 Storytelling
The best levels have an economy such as would be found in a short story (I’ll talk more about telling stories with levels in a later post). There’s no point putting in a hellishly fiendish obstacle if the sackpeople can just go around it, and sticking a few points balls at the top isn’t incentive enough to waste valuable lives making the attempt unless you’re trying to ace the level.

Frankly, life’s too short.

We liked this oneA really neat sticker (especially one that becomes a switch trigger later) might induce me to tackle an obstacle that’s not vital to completing the level, but I don’t get a kick out of grabbing everything there is to grab. Not everyone does. If I reach the end and it says I’ve only managed to find 64% of the items, that doesn’t necessarily make me unhappy or want to play it again. A good story, with well thought-out obstacles — that makes me want to play it again.

Check out Innocent Cows… That’s a great level, and we’ve played it a few times. Note that it took two months of work and hand-drawn artwork. Good levels don’t come easily.

#3 Gremlins
If you haven’t heard of beta testing, then you’re doing it wrong.

Sackpeople are like hamsters, or octopuses. When you want them to go through a gap they’ll stubbornly refuse and hop to either side of it like it’s the fourth wall. When you don’t want them to go through a gap, they’ll be straight through there and nothing you can do will stop them. Then they’ll get stuck.

You need to use a glitch to get this costumeThey also break things. The players out there will take your level and turn it into so much useless junk, if you haven’t built it robustly. There’s very little worse in Little Big Planet land than getting halfway through a level and discovering you’ve broken it. A pretty typical flaw is when a level generates a vehicle as a one-off, it somehow gets broken or lost (sackpeople also let go when you least expect it) and then you can’t finish the level because the vehicle was necessary to get to the next area.

In addition, we don’t like it when we find ourselves behind the scenes, looking at the winches and pulleys, and can’t get out again.

In short, don’t give us a level we can break. That makes for sad, angry sackpeople.

#4 Number of lives
Sackperson acrobaticsThere’s something to be said for the infinite lives portals. A couple of community levels out there (I can’t look them up because Frood is hogging the machine for level building right now) are designed to be one trap after another. Relax, it tells you. You will die. It’s fine. You have infinite lives. Sit back and enjoy.

And we did.

Running out of lives halfway through a level and having to start again might be part of the fun for some — I own more than one version of R-Type, I get it, I really do — but personally I prefer not having to go all the way back and start again. If you’ve got a particularly tricky bit in your level, in which it’s necessary to get it right to within a hair’s breadth, or learn a complex pattern, consider using a double portal, at the very least. I don’t mind dying, but I don’t like getting frustrated. Gaming is supposed to be fun.Sad Sackmunky Are Sad

On the other hand, there are tags for “tricky” and “frustrating”, so if you like killing sackpeople go right ahead. It’s just that we’ll probably skip it.

#5 Descriptions
Use these wisely, young sackperson! You can get away with almost anything if you explain it up front. There will be players out there who will enjoy whatever fiendish tricks you have to offer, so make your description count! For every player who wants to bring three friends there’s another who likes having levels all to himself. For every player who likes infinite lives there are more who like the challenge of having to do a level over and over to get it right. The important thing is to give us levels that work and are fun to play. If a description covers the important facts then we can choose the ones we are more likely to find enjoyable and you are more likely to get hearted.

All together

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I’m sure they’ve got it all wrong

by on May.30, 2009, under Miscellany

I gave up smoking a few weeks ago.

I know, I know. Right now you are motorboating like a stunned goldfish. “Say WHAT? But you’re one of these triathlon nutcases! You refuse to eat additives! You won’t even mix protein and carbohydrate, FFS! How could someone as obsessed with what you put into your body as you are possibly SMOKE?!”

I’m not going to justify my vices. They’re vices.

Put it this way: I like to exercise discretion over what toxins I allow to enter my body. I believe that everyone has the right and capacity to choose whether or not to poison themselves. I’m not going to turn into one of the evangelical anti-smoking types who won’t even permit a whiff of tar and nicotine to pass her sensitive nostrils. I still drink, after all. I support the legalisation of drugs. On the other hand, I reserve the right to get narked about having to breathe the pollution pumped out by motor vehicles and find it somewhat redundant to ban smoking in train stations when you still have to breathe the PM10s pumped out by the diesel locomotives. Even when I was a smoker I wouldn’t inflict my smoke on someone who didn’t smoke (if we had non-smokers round for a visit I’d go outside for my fag). Your body is your temple, and you get to decide what sort of temple that is. Mine is architecturally sound, demanding in upkeep, very well maintained and rather grubby.

I quit by the simple method of not buying baccy any more. I am a firm believer in the effectiveness of zero resource provision. If you want to stop eating so many crisps or bacon butties, don’t buy crisps and bacon. It’s not hard. It’s much easier not to hand over your money than it is to pull out your wallet. I confess I’d probably have had a harder time if baccy was available at the checkout the way sweeties and magazines are, but it’s not. You have to go to the kiosk and ask someone for it. That’s takes effort.

I strongly feel that giving up anything is much easier if you make it less effort not to have it. If it’s made a “big deal”, something that you do as a New Year’s resolution, or have anniversaries that you celebrate, it’s a hurdle to overcome or, worse, still part of your life. Giving up smoking isn’t something to celebrate simply because celebration turns it into a massive thing and we find massive things harder to do than little things. Giving up should be made as little a thing as possible.

I’m not saying that it is a little thing, not for everyone. I have certain advantages that I’m not going to discuss in detail, but suffice to say I have a non-addictive personality. I realise that for a lot of people giving up smoking is a big deal, and very hard, and I’m not here to belittle their achievements. What I’m suggesting is that, from a psychological point of view, turning it into a big deal in the first place is counter-productive. It should be made as small as possible, so that it seems easier. Small portions are easier to swallow than big ones, after all.

Telly adverts tell us that we need willpower plus substitute chemicals. The commercials for some nicotine replacement products are frankly terrifying. The thought of having to deal with hallucinations of giant cigarettes and little old ladies bearing offensive frozen chickens would put me right off the idea of giving up. I stick a patch on my arm and I’m assaulted by giant imaginary fags in the middle of the night? Fuck that. I’d rather keep my sanity.

Everywhere they look smokers are told that giving up is so hard that they need the support of the NHS and drugs and a variety of other things, and “requires willpower” is in the fine print at the bottom of the page.

I really think this is completely arse about tit. I don’t think it even requires that much willpower. What it requires is that you stop spending money on this particular toxin. What it requires is that you don’t walk up to the kiosk and ask the faintly disapproving man behind the counter to provide you with 25g of Cutter’s Choice and a packet of silver Rizlas before handing over an ailing cephalopod (six quid) and hoping for change.

The television campaigns make out like you need to make an effort. I quit by not making an effort any more.

Part of me wonders why the Government is making quitting into such a big deal that people need to go to support groups and take “therapeutic nicotine”. They are being told that they are embarking on something really difficult. Telling someone that what they are doing is really hard is not the way to encourage positive thinking. Positive thinking is the most valuable tool in success at anything.

I’m not making a big deal out of it. I can’t even remember when exactly I stopped. That, I think, is the best way to tackle this. I’m not putting money in the pockets of the replacement nicotine manufacturers, whose adverts, I would remind the honourable reader, are not there to aid your health but to earn them profit. I’m not obsessing over it. I’ve got through the grumpy stage by treating it as PMT and am currently working out how to deal with not having an appetite suppressant any more because I don’t want to put on weight. Other than that, it’s no biggie, and that’ll be the thing that keeps me off the fags.

It was never that big a deal in the first place. And who goes to any effort over something that’s no big deal?

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Truth in television?

by on Mar.20, 2009, under Miscellany

You know, while I’m at it, the whole concept of “reality TV” is a lie. It’s an outright fabrication. It implies some sort of connection with reality, and there is no such thing. We already have a word for real life shown on TV: it’s called the documentary.

Every single one of these so-called reality TV shows is scripted and the participants manipulated for the purposes of entertainment; if such crass, unintelligent melodrama can even be described as entertainment. These programmes are no more than the tabloid newspapers of television: soap opera dressed up as having some form of social commentary, when they are about as far from social commentary as Belgium is from Bolivia. The only information we can derive from such codswallop is the sad state of what passes for mass entertainment these days. They teach us nothing about ourselves as a social species apart from the willingness of the populous to see other people put in ridiculous situations designed to provoke emotional stress with the footage edited to highlight the conflict arising from the way the programme makers have constructed the shows to bring out the worst in people.

I wouldn’t call for a ban on reality TV, but it should be called something else. Utter trash would get my vote.

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It’s statistically nonsensical

by on Mar.20, 2009, under Miscellany

There are many labels people use to describe themselves that I don’t, and while some people might feel justified in accusing me of refusing to take a stand in order to have an easy life, the simple fact is that I detest defining myself by anything so rigid as a label.

I’m not monogamous: I’m picky. I’m not a triathlete: I happen to do triathlon. I’m not an environmentalist: I understand that this is a closed system and think that Malthus might have had a point.

My sexuality is no one’s business but mine and those with whom I’m intimate, thankyouverymuch.

So I don’t consider myself a feminist. Whether someone has tits or a dick is not top of my list of defining characteristics. Intelligence, wit, humour, tolerance, education — even diction — are all much higher on my list of factors to consider when it comes to deciding whether I like someone or not and wish to spend more time in his company (and that’s the grammatically correct third person neutral, not a Freudian slip); and I don’t make blanket decisions about whether women can do a job just as well as men can, never mind better.

There will always be some women who can do any given job better than most men. There will always be some men who can do any given job better than most women. You try telling a female Chinese powerlifter that girls are always weaker than men. Then run away.

True, there are biological differences that mean in some fields of endeavour women will almost always fail to beat a man in straight competition given an equal degree of training and similar degrees of natural talent. 100m sprint, for instance. Deadlift. Equally there are some things women are physically better able to do than men. Ultra endurance, for example, favours the female physiology over the male.

My point is, basically, that given the distribution of talent, skill and ability in the population, I think it’s ludicrous to make generalisations such as “women are just as good as men, if not better”. I would prefer the statement “any individual woman selected at random from a standard distribution of population has an equal chance of showing ability to perform a given task as any individual man selected at random from the same standard distribution of population, unless said task involves physical biological processes found predominantly in one of the sexes.”

Problem is, that doesn’t really trip off the tongue. What it means is that I believe, all things being equal, you’re just as likely to find a girl who can do a great job as you are a bloke. Not more or less likely: just as likely. The crucial difference between this and the feminist message I have seen most often stated is the probability factor. Because women have an equal likelihood to men of being crap at something, as well.

All this preamble brings me to last night’s going-to-bed-after-this-cup-of-tea-is-there-anything-on-telly-for-five-minutes?

When Women Rule The World takes ten men and eight women and dumps them on a desert island where the girls have to wear ludicrous costumes and the men have to do what they are told.

In this new series Steve Jones presents the ultimate gender experiment. Ten men and eight women on an island with only one law – women rule, men obey. Find out how the men cope with being the weaker sex, how the women deal with holding all the power and how both sexes cope with the backstabbing, bitching and infighting which runs riot.

With a £30,000 prize up for grabs, the men have a lot to lose if they stand up to the women. And with one man sacrificed to the sea at the end of every show, there’s even more to lose. In a village rocked by everything from strikes to arguments to all-out physical violence, anything can happen. Both the men and the women have to learn a lot about themselves in the process, because in this show it’s all about the journey.

So who will win the £30,000? Can the women keep control? Can the men accept the women’s rule? And can women really rule the world? Find out, in When Women Rule The World…

It’s fucking insulting to both sides.

Let’s just look at the use of the word “experiment”. For it to be an experiment there has to be a hypothesis and a null hypothesis. From the description of the programme their hypothesis is that women are just as capable of being in charge as men, which means their null hypothesis, the one that describes the accepted status quo and must be disproven, is that women are incapable of being in charge of men.

Fuck that.

Picture showing how ludicrous the girls look.It’s not helped by their selection of contestants. Some of the guys might get off on the idea but at least one or two are being egged on into displaying macho chauvinism and stereotypical alpha-male behaviour (right down to one of them describing himself as an alpha male!). The girls range from some bitchy, petulant, whiny-ass “queen” to a holistic therapist Newage type who does nothing but praise, describes herself as “soft” and gets upset when she has to choose which of the men she doesn’t want to stay any more.

This isn’t a social experiment about gender roles. It’s a half-assed Amazonian fantasy re-enactment, but the girls they’ve picked would make Amazons ashamed to call themselves women. They have no leadership skills, no management skills, no diplomacy skills and, lacking all of those, no capacity to beat the crap out of the blokes. They have been dumped there as a putative kratocracy: they are anything but.

Given the right skill set, talent and teamwork, a group of women is just as capable of despotism as any group of men. But these women do not have the skills or talent and they definitely do not have the teamwork. What they have is the ability to look good in a bikini.

This is not a social experiment: it’s telly. And that means the only qualifications they sought were that the girls were gorgeous and the males wanted the cash. The men didn’t even have to be particularly attractive: merely avaricious.

I can’t work out whether I’m insulted more by the premise of the show or by the fact that they are calling it an experiment. I think it’s the latter. If they didn’t call it a social experiment but were truthful about what it is — car crash TV — then I could shrug and let them get on with it. If they want to be crass and insulting about sexual stereotyping because their producers have run out of good ideas, then fine. But they called it an experiment. Which would imply that everyone knows women are the weaker sex.

What, have we slipped back in time to the Victorian era?

Oh, and you’ll note that there’s no mention of a prize for the girls. So what do they get out of it? Are they supposed to be satisfied with a nice beach holiday and being bitchy to a bunch of men?

I’d like to see a programme something like this, but I’d like to see one in which a group of competent, confident, strong women who work together and know what they are doing was put in charge of a group of misogynistic males. Hypothesis: exposure to women who show strength and capability will have a positive effect in removing stereotypical sexual prejudices. Null hypothesis: too much shite TV has indoctrinated some sections of the population beyond all help and we should probably just shoot them and the makers of said TV.

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Even I have my limits

by on Mar.20, 2009, under Miscellany

CACI International is a US-based defence contractor. From August 2003 until the early autumn of 2005 it was contracted to provide “interrogation services” for the US Army at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. While CACI staff were employed as interrogators at Abu Ghraib, prisoners were humiliated and tortured there by US military police. Photographs of the abuse shocked the world and led to the conviction of a number of low-ranking US soldiers by courts martial.

CACI denies any responsibility for the abuse that was photographed and denies some other allegations of abuse. But it is trying to block lawsuits brought against it by former Abu Ghraib prisoners by claiming “official immunity”.

CACI staff interrogated people held without charge or trial at Abu Ghraib. Prisoners they questioned were deprived of human rights guaranteed in international norms. The “rules of engagement” at Abu Ghraib permitted sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation and intimidation by dogs.

The next Scottish census will be run by CACI Ltd. CACI Ltd has been given an £18.5 million contract for key information technology work and other services for the 2011 Scottish Census. CACI Ltd is a wholly owned subsidiary of CACI International. That means that all the money it makes belongs to CACI International. But CACI International remains beyond the reach of Scottish and British law.

A REHEARSAL for the census will be held on 29 March 2009 in the west of Edinburgh and in Lewis and Harris. Participation in the rehearsal is optional.

The Scottish Government says it “understands the views” of people who have written to it about the contract. It says it has set up a new “contract structure” to “distance” CACI from personal data collected by the census. But it refuses to cancel the contract.

I personally find it unacceptable that Scottish taxpayers are being asked to support a company that has been involved in human rights abuses and, more importantly in my mind, is trying to use its status as a military contractor to shirk accountability. However you feel about the necessity of ignoring human rights for the greater good, and that’s a point of view I can understand even if I don’t necessarily agree with it, if such actions are required and needed then the perpetrator should have the balls to stand up and defend his actions rather than hiding behind some label of “official immunity” like a spunkless coward.

It isn’t too late for the Scottish Government to cancel the contract.

If you feel similarly about this issue, here is what you could do:

 1. Sign the online petition
 2. REFUSE to take any part in the census rehearsal being held on 29 March 2009

You can read all about it here, although I’ve mostly copied and pasted from that webpage.

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