I’m a sucker for a map

Die Zehn

Die Zehn (Photo credit: gringer)

During a particularly boring day during my two long years in a mundane job, I happened to sit next door to a colleague who was idly doodling in his sketchbook. It was obviously a map of some kind of underground complex with passageways and doors. When I asked him about it, he immediately clammed up and it took some persistent cajoling to get him to explain what it was.

“It’s for a game” he said curtly.

“What sort of game?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.

“I can’t explain – if you really must know, you’ll have to come and play.”

So I did – and boy, am I glad I did. The game was Dungeons and Dragons and the first thing handed to me was a sheet of paper. On one side was a picture of a medieval figure complete with armour and sword. The other side was jam-packed with statistics. The second thing handed to me was a handful of polyhedral dice.

As I studied the character sheet, struggling to make head nor tail of all the statistics, my new friend told me not to worry about it and drew my attention to the table where he drew a map of an inn. He asked me where I wanted to be. Something in his tone told me that something was about to happen, so I chose to stand over by the window. He told me that the other patrons were looking at me strangely, so reluctantly, I took my place at a table.

A D&D game session in progress

A D&D game session in progress (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It wasn’t long before a wolf came bursting through the wall and I became locked in mortal combat rolling dice like fury. The whole evening zipped by and at the end, I was desperate to play again. That evening was nearly a quarter of a century ago and yet I remember it in vivid detail. I have played role-playing games ever since.

I like every aspect of them. I love discovering new worlds and exploring amazing stories. The fact that many of these experiences play out over long campaigns of play make them an immensely satisfying experience. The things I like most though, are the maps. I am a very visual person and I find a map transports me to where the action is. Without a map, I struggle to take in what’s happening. I have a great collection of maps I’ve built up over the years and I’m always reluctant to throw them away.

So, am I still in touch with the friend that introduced me to the hobby. No, unfortunately, he was put away for attempted murder but that’s another story. I will always owe a debt to him for all the new worlds he introduced me to.


My WordPress annual report…

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 9,800 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 16 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

How does London work?

London, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden

London, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of us who travel around London, it’s easy to take the transport system for granted. Although the city above is a labyrinth of winding streets that seems to make no sense whatsoever, the London Underground is an easy to understand schematic which gets you to exactly where you want to go without fuss.

We managed to get down to London for the day during the Christmas holidays. Carefully avoiding the shopping areas which were jam-packed with consumer induced zombieism, we made our way to Covent Garden for a drink. We needed something to do next and the London Transport Museum had the virtue of sharing the same location, so in we went.

Unlike the cities of the United States, London wasn’t laid out in a nice grid network and unlike cities like Paris, there was no grand plan for London. There was no central body in charge of planning for much of the development of the capital. The City grew like a living creature to accommodate the needs of the rapidly growing population. Predictably, this led to absolute traffic chaos.

There were many suggestions for solving the traffic problems including double-decked streets and charging people for using the streets. These ideas were dismissed as preposterous at the time and yet we have flyovers and congestion charging today. Eventually, the city looked underground for the solution and the tube network was born.

Initially, tunnels were constructed using the “cut and cover” method. Basically, digging a massive trench and then plastering over it to make good. If this sounds disruptive, it was absolutely devastating in the reality of densely packed London. There is a very good model in the museum to give you an idea of exactly how much devastation was involved. Because of the way that London had evolved, there were no plans of what lay below and accidents were common.

Diagram of Brunel's tunnelling shield and Tham...

Diagram of Brunel’s tunnelling shield and Thames Tunnel construction (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There simply had to be a better way, and there was, thanks to a British invention, the tunnelling shield. Effectively a giant cookie cutter that gets pushed forward on rams as the men inside dig out the clay. It doesn’t sound that clever today, but this was in the days of Queen Victoria and it had never been done before. Pretty much every tunnel since has been dug in exactly the same way.

The real genius in London’s transit network came not from their construction, groundbreaking (sorry) though it was, but from a map. Traditional cartographer’s struggled to capture the simplicity of the network, wedded as they were to geographical accuracy.

A man by the name of MacDonald Gill came up with the idea of spacing all the stations out evenly and using straight lines to link stations. Unshackled from the bounds of geography, the new map could show the entire network in a simple and easy to understand form. Another invention that was so successful, every transit map produced since owes something to the original simple design.

Her Majesty in 3D

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Au...

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth realms) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

British history has to be among the richest in the world. There’s murder, betrayal and revolution (and that’s just Henry the 8th. Quite how my history teacher at school managed to bore me to tears about it is beyond me. She could take the most fascinating events in British History and reduce them to a boring monotonous drone. As a teenager, some pretty exciting stuff fought for my attention, so it was no surprise that I switched off during her lessons.

Since leaving school, the games I play mean that I have a renewed interest in history and there has never been a better time to be a history buff than today. There are some fine period dramas and some great historical documentaries to say nothing of the rich literature literally falling off the shelves.

Yesterday, in Buckingham Palace, Her Majesty made history. Every year, as she has done for 60 years, she gives her traditional Christmas address. For many British families, it is something that is intricately woven into the tapestry of Christmas. An essential part of the yuletide celebrations, life pauses at 3PM for 15 minutes to sit down with a glass of sherry and listen to what the Queen has to say.

Whilst the monarchy ceased to hold any political power, she is still a big part in Politicians’ lives. As all Prime Ministers before him, David Cameron has to go and see the Queen once a week to talk about how things are going. It all happens behind closed doors and details of any discussions are strictly confidential. I imagine there have been some pretty tense moments over the silverware during some of the more fraught political events of the past.

So, to David Cameron, seeing the Queen in 3D is a weekly event and although she remains outwardly neutral, I bet it’s at the back of his mind that he doesn’t want to do anything to incur her displeasure. After all, she retains the ability to dismiss governments should she ever consider it necessary.

I can think of many things which would benefit from being broadcast in 3D. The swooping and diving of Avatar for example, the fast paced car chases from James Bond or the sweeping vistas of scenery in a wildlife documentary from some far away land. The Palace said they wanted to do something different during the Queen’s diamond jubilee year and far be it from me as her humble subject to criticise, but I think the Queen has more than enough gravitas without such gimmicks.

A year in blogging

Nations: A Simulation Game in International Po...

Nations: A Simulation Game in International Politics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am an eternal optimist. Depending on whether you share my outlook, you will either think this is a blessing of a curse. I always tend to look on the bright side and I always think that the next 12 months will be better than the last. Even in the face of a few knocks, I tend to dust myself off, take a deep breath and carry on.

This is the year I started this blog. I already had a blog on finextra.com and an internal blog with my employer, but I set this up as a playground to write what I wanted and hopefully improve my writing skills. After 8 months, 123 blog posts, an estimated 60,000 words, 100 comments and 300 likes has it been a success?

The fact that I still love blogging is a good sign. In general, my interests tend to have a short, intensive life before they burn out in a fit of apathy. The only exception up until now was playing games which has lasted for decades. I am glad to have doubled my hobbies. In general, I spend about 6 hours a week writing blogs (and probably the same again thinking about what I’m going to write).

Although I’m probably not the best judge, I feel that my writing has improved. The style checker used to have a field day underlining my initial efforts. These days, there are fewer suggestions for improvement. Whereas I used to struggle with the dreaded passive voice, these days I now understand what it is, instinctively avoid it and I’m comfortable with where I use it – something I never thought I’d get the hang of.

WordPress is an amazing platform. The way they use game mechanics to encourage bloggers to keep going is a brilliant piece of design. I still get excited when I receive notifications. It is also an unbeatable way of finding other interesting blogs to read on a diverse set of subjects.

Everything I read about being a good writer tells me that I should read more. I’ve read more books this year than ever and it does help with both style and imagination. I’ve been careful to challenge myself with what i read as well – avoiding the usual tropes and going for books I would not have chosen before.

So what next? I would like to have a go at something a little more substantial – a novella perhaps rather than a short story. Hopefully that will be the stepping stone up to a book of some description. I would also like to have a go at getting something professionally published. Although I have dabbled this year, I will make a more concerted effort in the next 12 months.

I would like to thank all those who take the time to read my posts. To those who go further and make comments, click on the like button or share my posts with a wider audience – I appreciate it.

Have a great Christmas and here’s to a great next 12 months.

The wired world in 2013

Image representing Wired Magazine as depicted ...

Image via CrunchBase

Just finished reading a fascinating end of year publication from the “Wired” stable about what to expect in 2013. Although this publication is sometimes annoying in style and somewhat fixated on start-ups, much of the editorial is top-notch. In this special issue, there are contributions from James Dyson and Richard Branson among other innovation luminaries.

Mr Dyson is somewhat disparaging about some of the innovations under the banner of green engineering. As he rightly points out, an invention that shaves a percentage point or two off the fuel consumption of a widely used aircraft dwarfs the effect of eliminating plastic carrier bags. He predicts that more information about the origin and impact of goods and services will become available in the year to come.

As I have previously written, I remain unimpressed with individual robots at the current level of technology. As James McLurkin (a renowned roboticist) points out – they are best at tasks which are dangerous, dirty or dull. When you get a large number of robots together though, they become a lot more interesting. The technology for “swarming robots” is already there and searching for an application and maybe 2013 is their year.

Optical networking (or li-fi) will come to the fore for short-range communication. Nanotechnology will reach the point of self replication. An unbelievable 200 million people will use the internet for the very first time and radar will become much more widespread. The technology will be used for everything from measuring blood pressure to providing images of internal organs without harmful radiation.

Need Wired Magazine 13.07

Need Wired Magazine 13.07 (Photo credit: Browserd (Pedro Rebelo))

Innovation has typically radiated from richer economies outwards, but Ravi Ramamurti (a distinguished professor of international business) believes that we are reaching the point where innovations are starting to flow the other way. Poorer economies through necessity have much more of an idea of efficiency. Third world countries are teaching their richer counterparts (who by far have a greater need) how to perform low-cost medical procedures for example.

Education will become free, lab grown organs may become a reality and the world will start to recover from its economic malaise. Will we finally see the much vaunted Apple TV? – who knows, but they certainly need a big success. A huge amount of their net value comes from products invented in the last 5 years and many people are starting to lose faith due to the mishaps since Jobs left this mortal coil.

All in all – a fascinating publication and if only 10% of their predictions come true, it’s going to be an exciting year!

Don’t worry, it will be better in the morning (hopefully).

English: toilet wc

English: toilet wc (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is there anything worse than a child who is ill? It has to be among the most heartbreaking things in the world. It’s bad enough when you suffer yourself. It’s doubly bad when you have to watch someone else suffering. When it’s a small child, it pulls at your heartstrings.

There are, of course, degrees of suffering and poor baby Maisie only had a tummy bug last night. Even so, it was a fraught and traumatic 24 hours. Because she was feeling under the weather and looking for comfort food, everything she craved was a bad idea; chocolate, sweets and barbecue beef hoola-hoops are not really the order of the day. Calpol is a wonder drug and it took the edge off for a while but after a while it returned with a vengeance.

She was absolutely shattered and unfortunately, her body decided at regular intervals that everything inside her needed to come out somehow. It doesn’t take too much of that process for the body to become completely dehydrated. The best way to remedy this is to drink rehydration salts, but they are an acquired taste and she had absolutely no inclination for acquisition last night.

When your body purges like that, certain parts of your anatomy become sore through overuse and she started to cry every time she went. There is a certain helplessness when you look on with a burning desire to make everything better (which is normally within your power) but this time, there is simply nothing you can do. Maisie alternated between wanting you to cuddle her and pushing you away saying she wanted to be left alone.

She is back with Mummy now and hopefully on the road to recovery.

On the plus side – I taught her to say bum gravy.

A snarling trail of traffic that stops every now and then for a spot of tetris

Air pollution is high in Indian cities.

Air pollution is high in Indian cities. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Out in Chennai this week visiting the troops. The thing that always amazes me about this place is the traffic. It is quite unlike anywhere in the Western world. The first time your car pulls out into moving traffic (and seemingly certain death), somehow it all happens without collision.

At some point, the driver will probably perform a U-turn to face the opposite direction. You look on in abject terror at the oncoming traffic first from one direction and then the other, but somehow, it just nonchalantly happens.

At first the cacophony of car horns, some melodious, some are so loud they sound like ships coming out of harbor and some so tinny that they wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a 1976 Ford Anglia. But there seems to be a system, one beep for coming through and two beeps for thanks.

Occasionally, the huge, monstrous trail of traffic comes to an obstruction such as a set of traffic lights at which point they jockey for position like some bizarre life-size game of tetris. Then they come to a complete halt and fall blissfully silent as they wait for the traffic lights to kickstart the mayhem all over again.

Motorcyclists with absolutely no regard for their own personal safety lunge for perilously narrowing gaps between a dirty great lorry and a bus and they swoop through appearing completely unruffled on the other side. Sometimes the motorcycles will have pillion passengers, sometimes one of them will be carrying a baby.

They nominally drive on the left, but it seems to be optional as tuk-tuks, bicycles, pedestrians, buses, cows and lorries sometimes choose to go against the flow and make their merry way against the traffic.

Every fibre of your being tells you that all this shouldn’t work. In the West, we have rules and 99% of people follow them and yet we still have crashes. Somehow, the chaos seems to work and I’ve yet to see a collision. I saw the aftermath of one a few years ago, but considering the sheer amount of vehicles – it’s amazing that there aren’t more.

I don’t think I could ever drive in this environment. Being driven is stressful enough, but I do hold a sneaky admiration for those that do. One day, all these roads will end up as sanitized as those in the Western world and a big part of what makes India different will be lost.

Daisywheels, golfballs, thermals and lasers

From wikipedia commons.

From wikipedia commons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If anyone ever had a Sinclair Spectrum, they probably remember the little ZX printer designed to be plugged into the back. Designed like an electric toilet roll dispenser, it used a roll of silver thermal paper. Inside, little pins literally burned into the thermal paper to leave behind (sort of) recognisable print. The poor thing used to get tired and slow down towards the end of a large print job and you almost ended up feeling sorry for it.

If the print was difficult to read when first produced, the fading over time meant that it was totally unreadable after a few days. Those in the know used to spray their printouts with hairspray to extend their longevity.

When I started work, there was one printer to rule them all. A dirty great big behemoth of a printer connected to the mainframe. Almost all processing happened overnight because it cost less and any output from that processing went not to a screen, but onto paper; tons of it. I don’t know how these printers used to work, but they were lightning fast and the paper was warm with a distinctive smell. All the screens in the building were dumb terminals so there was no concept of local printers.

As and when PCs started to appear, people wanted to print things which meant they needed a printer. The first such devices were dot matrix printers. Brutally mechanical affairs, they used a print head made up of a matrix of hammers which formed the print by bashing through an ink soaked ribbon onto the paper. If that sounds noisy and slow, they were. Each agonising line of print sounded like a mini machine gun.

The print quality was awful and if your printer happened to be more than 12 months old, the pins had a nasty habit of getting misaligned which made the text barely readable.

Daisywheel printers had a radial print head with characters on the end of spokes. When these struck the paper through the ribbon, a whole character came out. Golf ball printers worked the same way, only the characters were all stuck onto a small ball. These cut down on the noise and the print quality improved enormously, but they were limited to a single font.

Nowadays with inkjet and laser printers coupled with ever more sophisticated software, there is almost no limit to what can be printed at low cost, but they are restricted to two dimensional paper.

With 3D printing, which is widely used in industry, layers of material are laid down according to a digital blueprint in order to construct a physical object. Suddenly, almost anything can be manufactured one piece at a time if you have the right kit. The printers are tumbling in price, so it won’t be long before there are no limits on what you can create in your own home.

In the navy

Age of Sail

Age of Sail (Photo credit: Mark Faviell Photos)

Have you ever been taken aback? Do you know where the phrase comes from? Has anyone ever told you to get cracking? Have you ever struggled to make head nor tail of something?

English is one of the most pervasively spoken languages in the world. As a dialect developed in an island nation, it’s no great surprise that much of the phraseology comes from a life on the ocean waves. I managed to pick up a lexicon of nautical slang during our recent visit to Portsmouth and I’ve chuckled ever since!

The phrase “taken aback” comes from the age of sail where the wind fills your sails in completely the wrong direction. The phrase “get cracking” refers to the noise made when a sailing ship hoists more sails and the wind fills them making that characteristic “crack”. Naval signallers would typically respond with “can’t make head nor tail of it” when they received a garbled transmission.

The origin of some phrases is fairly obvious when you think about it. If something “takes the wind out of your sails”, you’re not going to make much progress. If you are expecting trouble, it makes sense to “batten down the hatches”. It certainly did if you were on a sailing ship heading into a storm.

Sometimes it takes a while to “get up to speed” on something – again, an expression from the age of sail. Often it takes a while until you “know the ropes”. Once you do, you can “fathom” things out. A fathom is a nautical measure of 6 feet of depth which quite literally referred to the amount a man could grasp.

In nautical terms, everything above decks is commonly referred to as “all above board”. This has come to mean that everything’s open and nothing’s hidden. If it weren’t, you could be forgiven for not “touching it with a bargepole”. But if it had a “clean bill of health”, you would be happy. A bill of health was the report filed by the medical officer on the physical condition of a sailor.

You might think this is a load of “codswallop”. Wallop was a name for beer. In 1875, Hiram Codd came up with a process for bottling carbonated water. Before long, sailors came up for the derogatory term of codswallop as a description of this very poor substitute for the beer they were used to.

I think my favourite nautical term has to be to “get your own back” which refers to the lavatory arrangements on submarines. Essentially, there is a tank into which whatever a sailor produces is deposited. Once the sailor has finished, the contents are flushed out to sea with air pressure.

Unfortunately, there is a top valve on the tank which can, either through incompetence of the sailor or through sabotage, can result in the tank contents coming inboard onto the poor sailor – hence the expression!