Roleplaying. It’s kind of like sex. Sort of. Except it isn’t…

La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:es. La ori...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s no way anyone could get a good idea of what sex is like from reading a written description. I’m sure they could understand the mechanics of insert tab A into slot B, but I doubt they could understand the all consuming compulsion or the nuances of the experience.

I’ve never found a truly satisfying written description of roleplaying games either. The experience is very difficult to capture. It’s a bit like the childhood game “let’s pretend” with rules. Maybe it’s more like an interactive movie. But it’s not like a movie at all – because no-one knows beforehand what’s going to happen. It’s almost impossible to define.

Whatever it is – I like it.

The most satisfying way to play is in an extended campaign in which the story unfolds during many sessions over a long period. Everyone at the table contributes, but one more than the rest. Someone needs to have an idea of the general scheme of things. Preparing for such a campaign is almost all-consuming.

First you need to understand the game system you plan to use. They all have their own rules and milieu Then you need to think about the story. The best way to prepare is to immerse yourself into everything you can think of from the genre of the game you want to run; music, books, films etc.

I’ve run some really satisfying campaigns that lasted for a long time. I ran a fantasy game where all the gods were based on the periodic table (with heavy metals as the bad guys and precious metals as the good guys). Another involved the players as spirits in the afterlife investigating hauntings and releasing ghosts from the ties that bind so that they can move on.

We’ve played in World War II, the Wild West with Zombies, the nautical world of Patrick O’ Brien, the post apocalyptic world of Mad Max, the time travelling pulp world of caddish archeologists and many others.

Right now, I’m preparing a game of hard science fiction. The players will crew a starship around a far future cluster of systems, trying to make a few credits without getting blasted out of the cosmos. I’ve hungrily devoured as many science fiction novels as I can. My choice in films has driven my wife mad. I’ve filled my iPhone with Holst‘s Planets as well as a number of  favourite movie themes.

I do all this because the more you put in, the more enjoyable the campaign will be. The build up is like foreplay.


Technical Isolation

Hursley House - - 967947

Hursley House – – 967947 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you ever get a chance to visit IBM‘s Hursley Park campus, it’s well worth going. It’s a lovely mansion-house in beautiful surroundings just outside Winchester. There has been a lodge at Hursley since 1413 and the current house dates from 1724. The Heathcote family donated the house together with £5m (a figure equivalent to £116m today) to provide a hospital for US military personnel in WW1. In WW2, the house was used by Vickers to develop the Spitfire. IBM moved in during 1958 as a temporary measure and they are still there today.

The System 360 and the Winchester hard drive were developed there and IBM were granted the Queen’s award for industry for storage & CICS. Today it houses 2800 IBM employees – roughly half of which are software developers making it the biggest software lab in Europe. Altogether IBM has 59,000 employees of which roughly half are based in the USA. They are heavily into the R part of R&D with research going on into particle physics and nanotechnology among other things.

On the Hursley campus, they have an isolation lab which is a completely shielded building used to test the electromagnetic emissions of devices to ensure compliance with the plethora of regulations governing such things. They really needn’t have bothered. There is a perfectly good isolation zone on the South Coast of the UK just outside Highcliffe.

A popular retirement spot, it’s a tiny village which must be the only place in the UK where the funeral parlours outnumber the charity shops. Nothing on any wavelength passes into or out of the place which renders mobile phones completely useless. A couple of times a year, myself and some friends spend a long weekend there and bearing in mind my attachment to social networks and blogging, I find myself isolated for the whole time.

Initially, I find the experience anxious. I can’t check twitter, Facebook, yammer, wordpress or linked in. I can’t phone anyone (unless I search for some change and use the call box). I can’t look anything up on Google or check the news or how the FTSE is doing. I can’t even download the Times.

After a while though, the anxiety ceases and I feel liberated. I get used to being away from email and social networks. I even start to like the idea that I am completely out of contact with anyone. Maybe we should go there more often! Of course, on return, the first thing I find myself doing is checking my email, blog, social networks etc. but it was nice while it lasted.

I thought slavery had been abolished

Two girls protesting child labour (by calling ...

Two girls protesting child labour (by calling it child slavery) in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Contrary to popular belief, the British did not invent slavery. We certainly brought it back into fashion in the 1600s but slavery has existed in many different forms since before written records began. To be fair to us, we did our bit to bring it to an end too. Only slavery wasn’t eradicated at all and unfortunately anything up to 27 million people still exist in some sort of slavery today.

No reasonable person would agree that slavery is a good thing and yet still it exists and is widespread. No-one is openly condoning the practise, but there are shades of grey. Many people (like me) who condemn slavery will quite happily go into a shop and buy a smart phone or a tablet.

Allegations often crop up about the appalling working conditions in the factories that make such devices and yet Apple have sold 2 million of the new iPhone already. It’s not quite slavery by the purest definition of the word, but somehow it doesn’t feel quite right.

We turn a blind eye because it happens such a long way away. There are many labour laws that prevent it but if it happened in Western countries, we would be up in arms. If we were subjected to the same conditions in our workplaces, then industrial relations would be at an all time low.

I don’t think that technology companies are the only ones at fault. I would imagine that working conditions are poor in factories producing almost everything that’s on sale in our shops today. For the most part automotive manufacturers have a pretty good record, but what about all the components that go into making a car?

Sometimes poor pay and conditions are justified by saying that conditions are poor everywhere else in that particular geography. Effectively, that is what the people who come from that region are used to, so it must be OK. I imagine the British Captains that picked up some African tradesmen and swapped them for tobacco and coffee thought something similar.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe the Western governments need to come up with a scheme whereby any goods on sale would need to display a rating which would indicate the conditions in which those goods were made. Many of the countries that contain such manufacturing centres are highly corrupt so the assessments would need to be impartially carried out. Such a scheme would cost a lot of money to implement and would almost certainly increase the cost of the goods themselves as working conditions in the factories are inevitably improved.

Somehow with the Euro crisis high on the agenda and the rising economic might of China, I suppose they have bigger fish to fry, but I hope we look back on the abolition of such working practises in the same way as we look on the abolition of the slave trade in the 1700s.

I can’t understand a word you’re saying…

Land Rover 109 lwb 1980

Land Rover 109 lwb 1980 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I see those adverts for the iPhone where they show off the speech recognition software (called Siri), I can’t help a wry smile forming on my face. I was asked to undertake a feasibility study of speech recognition software once. It was roughly 15 years ago in the Pentium era.

My boss thought that the technology would prove useful in our care control system. The elderly and the infirm wear electronic pendants and when they get into trouble, they simply press the button on the pendant. The base station under the phone wakes up and dials the control centre so that the person in trouble can be connected an operator.

Local authorities across the land had signed up for the software and it was a big success. In metropolitan areas such as Birmingham, they had pendant wearers from all kinds of ethnicities and many of them could not speak English. It was impractical to teach all the control centre operators all the different languages so they relied on interpreters which had to be called in on demand. This system was very expensive and there was an inevitable delay in getting relief to where it was needed.

If we had speech recognition built into the software, we could connect the pendant wearer directly to the right interpreter. We could also weed out all the false positives like people who pressed the button by accident. Sounds perfect – all we need is speech recognition.

I installed the Lernout & Huaspe speech recognition engine, wrote a simple little program to test out the software and plugged in my microphone. On the screen was a list of three cars. When I spoke into the Microphone, all the software had to do was work out which of the three cars I called out (what can I say – I like cars).

The first attempt went well; “Land Rover” I said carefully into the Microphone. A message popped up saying “You said Land Rover”. So far so good.

Second attempt; “Mini”. Again, a message popped up saying “You said Land Rover”. Not so good.

I tried saying “Mini” again, speaking more slowly and clearly this time, it still thought I was saying Land Rover.

I tried saying it quickly,

I varied the tone of my voice.

I tried different volume levels.

I even tried a different Microphone; “You said Land Rover”.

I thought it might just be the word “Mini”, so I tried “Jaguar”; “You said Land Rover”.

I swore at it. “You said Land Rover”.

The idea was doomed. If it couldn’t recognise me speaking clearly into a Microphone an inch away from my mouth with no background noise – it was never, ever going to work in our target environment. Most of the pendant wearers were totally deaf, so the TV would be on at maximum volume and they would never have the good grace to fall over right next door to the base station so their voice would be distorted by distance.

I went back to my boss and told him that it would never catch on.

Information overload

Big Data: water wordscape

Big Data: water wordscape (Photo credit: Marius B)

Information is the most valuable tool we have. Without reliable information, decisions can only be made on hunches. One of the main benefits of computers was that they were supposed to help us deal with information, but there are some unfortunate side effects. Partly because of our hunger for ever more power and partly because of progress in making bigger and better computers, they have steadily grown ever since they were invented in a phenomenon is widely referred to as Moore’s law.

Not only that, but devices have become cheaper and cheaper. The Sinclair Spectrum was priced at £179 at launch 30 years ago, a sum probably equivalent to double that now. That was a machine with no screen, 48K of memory and no storage. Nowadays you could have a tablet, or a phone or even a couple of netbooks all with power that would completely dwarf the humble spectrum. As computers have become more affordable, they have proliferated.

And not just consumer devices. It now makes perfect sense to use computational devices in almost every setting thanks to the cheapness and the ingenuity of the Chinese. IBM told me at impact that there are 9.5Bn connected devices in the world today growing to 20Bn in 2015. All of these devices are producing data at an alarming rate. Storage companies fall over themselves to tell you how fast this data is growing, but take it from me – it’s exponential.

The other side effect of computers is that the average human being now has the attention span of a hyperactive goldfish. Because the answer is available from Google in 0.2 nanoseconds, why would you want to read a report or a book? Twitter delivers a constant stream of news in 140 character long chunks. This means that we are no longer happy to do lots of analysis to get our answers, we want to know instantly.

So how do we make sense of this muddle?

I have always been a fan of infographics as a mechanism for presenting complex information. Ingeniously through pictures, infographics helps the reader to understand the big picture. Spatial and relative relationships are easily picked out, but detail is not. Newspapers use info graphics to great effect – especially when trying to explain concepts like exactly how much money we all owe thanks to the financial meltdown. This is a great site to see some really good examples;

Big Data was a much vaunted concept at IBM Impact too. If you want to process the huge amount of data available today, then traditional methods are just not going to work. Reading all the data into a relational database and then running a query will mean you need a huge building to house the storage, a power station to feed the computers and half a century to wait for the result. The only way to process this data is as a stream – a bit like the water coming out of a firehose. Then you need to use something called complex events processing to look for relationships between the data.

One of the most interesting concepts in dealing with the information overload is the semantic web. The idea is that computers need to make sense of all this data themselves and answer any questions we have. This is the technology behind the Siri voice response software in the latest iPhone. There is even a search engine. It’s not perfect by any means – try searching for “Who is the richest man in France” or my personal favourite “Who is the sexiest woman” 🙂 But what is interesting is how often it does get it right.

One day – the characters in Star Trek the next generation talking to their computers will look positively antiquated – and I for one can’t wait.