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.

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The Warsaw Anagrams

Warsaw Ghetto: Construction of Ghetto wall acr...

Warsaw Ghetto: Construction of Ghetto wall across Świętokrzyska street near intersection with Marszałkowska street. In the back “Magazyn Bławatny” store of Jan Tarnowski & Co. at Marszałkowska 133 street. This is not the final location of the wall on Świętokrzyska street, according to book “Getto Warszawskie” in 1941 the wall was a block farther between Zielona and Bagno streets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s sometimes difficult to comprehend the enormity of some of the stuff that happened during Word War II. The conflict itself was horrific in its scale with fighting taking place across much of the globe. Countries routinely sent dozens of aeroplanes filled to the brim with explosives across the sea to drop on population centres. But beyond the death and destruction at the front line, on the home front as we now know, something awful took place.

The Warsaw ghetto was the largest of all Jewish ghettos in Nazi occupied Europe during the war. The Nazis corralled 400,000 Jews into a tiny section of the city separated by huge barbed wire topped walls. There are various estimates as to how many of the ghetto dwellers lost their lives and how many survived. The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler tells the story of one those ghetto dwellers.

I don’t know what made me pick up this book. I played a game called Last Train Out of Warsaw, which follows a train full of Polish fleeing from the German invasion and I read a game book called Grey Ranks which portrays children of the resistance inside the ghetto walls. If you can ignore the inherent misery and despair, these games give a fascinating insight into the world of wartime Warsaw. Besides which, I fancied a change from my regular diet of science fiction.

At the start of the book, we know the protagonist is dead because he returns to Warsaw as a ghost. Once there, he relates his story to the only man who can see him and a fascinating tale unfolds. Erik is a psychologist. He can see the writing on the wall so he decides to move to the ghetto on his terms before everyone else is rounded up. He moves in with his sister and her 9-year-old son. Initially, he is resentful of the son as he has to share his bed. In time they become much closer as they come to terms with their forced confinement.

Unfortunately, just when they are getting close, Adam is murdered and Erik sets out to discover who killed him and dumped his mutilated body. Along the way he discovers things he didn’t know about Adam and other children who suffered the same fate. It is an easy read and a cracking mystery. I like the way that the essence of the Jewish culture is interwoven with the story. The odd Jewish word here and the odd reference to a Jewish custom really help to make the story authentic.

So is it miserable? Yes the despair is there, but there’s so much more. I can’t believe how much the ghetto is brought to life. There’s love, hope, ambition and people helping other people. There is smuggling, murder and suicide. There is coldness, hunger and disease. Read this if you want to know what happened and if you want to understand the pride of the people it happened to.

Artificial intelligence?

IBM Watson (Jeopardy at Carnegie Mellon) - How...

IBM Watson (Jeopardy at Carnegie Mellon) – How I saved humanity! (Photo credit: Anirudh Koul)

People remember Alan Turing  for many different reasons. He was a British mathematician who worked as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during World War 2. He also went on to become one of the pioneers of computing along with Max Newman. In 1952, Alan Turing was convicted of homosexuality. He accepted treatment with female hormones (or chemical castration) rather than go to prison and 2 years later committed suicide. In short, he was a genius who became a victim of his time. Were he born today, no-one would bat an eyelid at his homosexuality.

One of the his legacies is the Turing test. A machine could be said to be intelligent if it was indistinguishable from a human in conversation. He suggested that it would be better to come up with a learning machine (like a child’s mind) that could be taught and not something that simulates an adult mind. There is some debate as to whether a machine has ever really passed this test. I can think of a few humans who would struggle too.

Whenever I’ve seen any proffered example of artificial intelligence, I could not help but be disappointed. Today, however, I attended a very interesting session on IBM’s Watson semantic supercomputer. As supercomputers go, its $3m cost and 4TB of storage are pretty modest. Built on standard hardware and software, it resembles Turing’s child-like mind that can be taught. Indeed, before it can answer any sensible questions in a  particular domain, it needs to be fed with information. Lots of it. Even that’s not enough, Watson needs to do further research on everything it reads.

English: IBM's Watson computer, Yorktown Heigh...

English: IBM’s Watson computer, Yorktown Heights, NY (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once loaded up with information, Watson is ready for questions. The first step in being able to answer any question is to parse it into the component elements. From this, Watson can determine the type of question being asked and what sort of answer is expected. It then generates many different permutations of the question to give the greatest chance of coming up with the right answer. For each interpretation of the question, Watson searches (in parallel) its knowledge base to see what answers it can find, coming up with as many as possible.

For each of the possible answers, Watson goes on the hunt for evidence, both for and against. Based on this evidence, obviously incorrect answers are discarded and the remainder scored based on the quality and reliability of the evidence. Finally, Watson uses the experience it as gained in the past in answering similar questions to gauge the value of the different types of evidence and comes up with a final confidence rating for each answer and ranks them accordingly. The process is very similar to that used by Doctor Gregory House in the hit TV program. You write-up all the possible answers and cross them out as the evidence goes against them.

The first outing for Watson was to win the TV quiz game Jeopardy against two former champions. IBM admit that this was little more than a bit of fun and a publicity exercise. Watson is now being geared up for much more serious applications such as medical research and diagnosis support. The applications for such technology are legion and the team freely admit that there are far more valid use cases than they have the time to exploit right now.

For the first time in my life, I am genuinely inspired by an example of artificial intelligence and I will follow Watson’s progress with interest.

A helping hand

Noir

Noir (Photo credit: Ontario Wanderer)

He stepped down from the train onto the snow encrusted platform, impeccably coiffured and dressed in expensive Italian clothes. The steam from the engine swirled around him, mingling with the surrounding mist. He stood waiting for the other passengers to clear as the train noisily forced its way out of the station. Unlike the other passengers, if he felt the cold, he gave no outward sign.

Surveying the single platform, he marked the Soviet propaganda posters and the taped up windows. His gaze fell upon a vagrant sleeping on a bench under a pile of untidy newspapers. He took slow deliberate steps across the platform and sat down next to the supine figure.

“You don’t smell any better” the man announced as he removed his wide rimmed hat.

The vagrant sat up sending the newspapers sliding to the ground. “All part of the act old chum, all part of the act – how long has it been?” he replied as he scratched his unshaven chin.

“A hundred years – same as last time Jim” the man said as he pulled out a cigarette case.

“Doesn’t time fly Captain.” the vagrant said as he took one of the offered cigarettes.

The Captain tried and failed to bring his lighter to life. “Technical problems sir?” Jim asked cheekily, chuckling at his own joke whilst pulling out a box of matches from somewhere. The man smiled in reply, taking a big drag of the cigarette before blowing out a series of perfectly formed smoke rings.

“How are things going?” Jim asked – genuinely curious.

For the first time, the Captain looked at his companion, “Not good. Sometimes I wonder about this planet. Do you know they haven’t even got nuclear power yet?”

“I see – well behind schedule. What are we going to do?” Jim said, concern lacing his voice.

The Captain stubbed out his cigarette in the snow whilst blowing out a long jet of smoke. “Nothing else for it, we’re going to have to give them a helping hand.”

It took a while for Jim to take it in. “Oh. Who’s it going to be this time?”

“It’s either you or me this time Jim, you or me. I’m feeling generous… and… tired. Let’s toss a coin. Don’t worry, I never win.”

He reached inside his coat, pulling out a silver coin. “Heads or tails Jim?”

“Tails” barely audible.

The coin span through the air before settling in the snow at their feet. They looked down in tandem before sitting slowly back. Wordlessly, the Captain handed Jim his briefcase and then a pistol.

“So long Jim.”

Jim didn’t respond as the Captain stood up and walked slowly down the platform. He’d barely taken 10 paces before a single gunshot pierced the otherwise still night air. He froze for a moment as a single tear dribbled down his cheek, before resuming his walk into the mist.

Whatever happened to my treasured possessions?

 

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. ...

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. Title page. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Owing to a recent rodent induced flood (don’t ask), we have had cause to reassess the value of lots our belongings in the Bailey household. Many items have slid down the treasured possession scale from “don’t throw away under any circumstances” to “discardable tat” with frightening speed. Thanks to the household insurance, almost everything can be replaced. What surprised me was how distinctly unattached I felt to all of my possessions – they’re just easily replaceable things.

It never used to be that way. When I was growing up, everything I owned was almost sacred. I had a massive collection of plastic soldiers which I played with endlessly. Rain, wind or shine, I would be out in the garden digging bunkers and conducting world war across the lawn. I was obsessed by World War II and I had a big boxful of Commando comics which I read over and over.

Whilst these were important to me at the time, they paled into insignificance compared to two hard backed books.

The first was a ladybird book called “In the train with Uncle Mac”. I don’t know where it came from and it was well-worn by the time it came into my possession. It was the story of a journey on a steam train with a kindly uncle. I read the book incessantly. So much so, that it started to fall to bits. As a young boy, I liked all kinds of machines, but especially trains. Time after time, mum had to perform running repairs with Sellotape just to keep it in one piece. By the time she finished, there was more Sellotape than book.

The second was a similarly sized hard backed book with a plain dark red cover. It had no dust cover and at some point in its life, it had been in the wrong place during some decorating and white paint flecked the front of the book. It was presented to me by my uncle Martin. I could tell by the solemnity of the way he gave me the book that he was handing over a precious heirloom. It was a copy of a Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

With gravity, he told me that the book I held in my hands was his favourite story ever. He then read it to me. I can’t say that it converted me to being a Charles Dickens fan, but the moment possessed a certain magic all the same.

I feel guilty that I no longer have either of these books and for the life of me, I have no idea what happened to them. I could buy another copy of both these books to replace the ones that I’ve lost over the years, but somehow it just wouldn’t be the same.

 

Sometimes, open warfare breaks out in the office

The theatre of war

The theatre of war

All things considered, our office is a mellow place. There is seldom a crossed word and it is a rare occasion indeed when voices are raised (and even then, it never lasts for long). Every now and then though, the office is home to a pitched battle and I feel that I am somewhat responsible.

You see, as well as a first class office for the technology division of the market leading banking software house, the facilities are also tailor-made for the odd war-game.

The scenario underway in these photos is the very first battle in the Pacific War, the invasion of Malaya by Japanese forces. The night before the fearsome attack on Pearl Harbour, just after midnight, Japanese forces descended on the coast near Kota Bharu.

It doesn't look good for the British

It doesn’t look good for the British

Luckily for the British (or more accurately Indian) army, the seas were very rough and many Japanese soldiers drowned. Despite these losses, the Japanese fielded a formidable force. In defence, the British relied on a network of pillboxes, minefields and an appropriated 18 pounder gun.

Our game focussed on one spot of beach defended by the 3rd / 17th Dogras under the command of Captain Nawin Chandra. Unfortunately, just like in real life, the battle did not end well for the British and victory lay in the hands of the Japanese.

It was to be the beginning of a long and bloody campaign that spanned the Pacific and unfortunately, many more battles were lost before the tide turned.

Next time, we’re off to the Russian front!

A brief history of warfare

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 44th week, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over time, the human race has devoted a lot of energy to finding creative new ways to hurt or kill each other. Back in the dragging women back to the cave by their hair days, sticks and stones were the order of the day. Plentiful and easily fashioned, these devices would do the job but it would be messy and time consuming. Not only that, but if both of you are similarly armed, regardless of the victor, it’s highly likely you will both be hurting afterwards. Sooner or later, one bright caveman realised that if you took a very small, sharp stone and attached it to a stick, it could be thrown some distance with accuracy. Once the spear had been invented, cavemen no longer had to fight at such close quarters.

Sharpened flints were all well and good, but they were a bit crude. When metals were discovered, weapons could be much more strong and finely constructed. The sword became the order of the day. Some of them were sharp and some of them were heavy, but they were all effective. In response to this, metalworkers developed armour and shields. In order to breech the armour, bows and arrows and crossbows came about. Nothing struck fear into the heart of a warrior in plate mail armour than a crossbowman.

For a time, occupiers built castles which were a hardy defence to most of the weapons of the day. With the advent of gunpowder and cannons, the balance of power changed yet again. The walls could be easily breached and deadly missiles could rain down into the interior of the castle. Muskets and rifles reduced the skill level required of the average foot soldier and increased his range.

During world war I, there were a number of advancements. Aeroplanes were used for reconnaissance and later for bombing missions. Once the bombers became enough of a nuisance, fighters were developed. The most famous of which being Baron von Richthofen in his glorious red Fokker DR1 triplane. Trench warfare was the order of the day. The only way to advance was to assemble a large number of men and go “over the top”. With the advent of the machine gun, such tactics were stopped in their tracks. A well aimed machine gun operated by a handful of men could take out hundreds of soldiers. In order to counter this, the tank was developed. Because it was bulletproof and had caterpillar tracks, the tank could advance with impunity.

By the time world war II started, aircraft could fly much further and could carry a lot more. It is hard to believe now, but at times during world war II, it was routine for London and Berlin, both European capital cities, to have many tons of high explosives dropped on them on a nightly basis. When you think that the slightest innocent casualty in a war today causes an outcry, it’s a sobering thought. With the advent of the V1 and V2 rockets, missile technology was well and truly here to stay. When the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan, the scene was set for the cold war.

Fast forward to the first gulf war and the tales of cruise missiles flying down streets and navigating through towns were absolutely mesmerising. By the time we got to the second gulf war, laser guided missiles meant that explosives could be delivered with pinpoint accuracy. With all this technology, sometimes the most effective weapons are the most simple and Improvised Explosive Devices (or IEDs) have been used to murderous effect by the Taliban in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Weapons get more sophisticated by the day. Bullets can now go round corners and there is enough destructive power in the world’s nuclear arsenal to lay waste to our wonderful planet several times over. It is no wonder that Albert Einstein said that he had no idea what weapons would be used in world war III, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.