Monday, 21 September 2009

25 years of Elite.

The BBC website has a page dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the computer game Elite.

This game, created by Ian Bell and David Braben in 1984, has to be one of the best games ever. In it, you play the captain of a Cobra Mark-III spacecraft, flying around space either trading or fighting. The 3D-wireframe graphics were very advanced for the time, and had a definite wow! factor. A novella, 'The Dark Wheel', was released with the BBC version by science fiction author Robert Holdstock - this was virtually unheard of for a computer game.

The game was revolutionary in several aspects - most games before Elite were heavily scripted, with linear game flows. Instead, Elite was open-ended. You could fly around the star systems of eight massive galaxies, either trading or shooting other ships. There were various upgrades that you could buy for your ship, including items such as fuel scoops or the near-obligatory docking computer. All of this was fitted into just 32kB on the BBC B. It was a superb feat of programming by Braben and Bell.

Unlike most games of the time there was no score - instead, the aim was to become 'Elite'. Initially you started off as 'Harmless'. As you destroyed other ships, your ranking would grow, through 'Mostly harmless' (a reference to the Hitchhiker's Guide the the Galaxy, perhaps?), to dangerous, and then finally Elite.

I dread to think how many hours that I have spent playing the game. I became Elite on the BBC Master 128, and also on the superb Archimedes version, ArcElite. Over the years I must have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours have been spent pretending that I am some superb space-trading pirate.

It very much got me into programming - I remember programming spinning wire-framed 3D objects, initially in BBC Basic and later 6502 assembler. It also gave my imagination a spur - my friend, Jamie, and myself would pretend to be spacemen whilst it loaded off tape. I doubt any children would do such a thing nowadays, if only because most games now load almost instantaneously.

Last year ┼×encan and I attended a meal celebrating the 30th anniversary of Acorn. It was good to see so many old faces, including some people that I had not seen for many years. David Braben was there, and he gave an impromptu demonstration of docking on a BBC B that had been put on display. It is a sign of the almost mystical aura around the game that he had a large crowd around him as he did it.

If you wish to give it a go, have a look at Oolite, which is heavily based upon the original game. I deliberately do not have it installed to avoid wastage of too much time.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Utter madness

The Times has an article that claims the Government is considering changes to the civil law so that, in the case of a traffic accident, the person who drives the more powerful vehicle is seen as being the guilty party. It is then up to them to prove otherwise. This has mainly been introduce with respect to cyclists on the road.

According to the article, the reason for this bizarre proposed change is:
The move, intended to encourage greater take-up of environmentally friendly modes of transport ...
I am a walker, and I also do some cycling (as the weather was nice we both cycled to the Hiltingbury fair today). As such, I have got a great deal of experience on all of the main forms of road transport. My over-simplified summary of what I have see: There are terrible cyclists, pedestrians and drivers on the road. However, there are also thousands of brilliant ones as well. In this area of North Baddesley, children on those small-wheeled bikes ride on and off the pavement, sometimes jumping off the kerb into the path of traffic. Then again, there is also some interesting driving exhibited as well, from the minor infractions (failure to indicate) to the serious (exceeding the speed limit).

Unfortunately, at times I am guilty of all of these (as are most drivers, probably). It is so easy to let your speed creep up to 35 MPH in a 30 MPH zone, or just run a light that is changing to red as you are a few yards away. However, I see a difference between occasional, accidental incidents such as these and the people who routinely drive badly.

This proposed change is vastly unfair. My dad (a pensioner) driving his Range Rover will be judged guilty by default in any collision against a boy racer in souped-up hatch. The assumption that the size of your engine has a relationship to the cause of an accident is, frankly, a vast over-simplification. I drive a 1.4-litre automatic Honda Jazz, so am hardly a boy racer ;-)

There is also the question of how people will take advantage of this. There is a scam where some drivers brake suddenly and heavily at junctions, causing the car behind to crash into the back of them. They then claim that they are injured, and get very large compensation awards from the insurance of the driver of the rear car. This was because the assumption by insurance companies was that, in the case of a read-end shunt, it was the fault of the driver of the rear car. This fraud was so widespread that insurance companies were considering changing this assumption. I can see this new change giving fraudsters a whole new area to exploit.

I think the main reason that I dislike this proposed change to the law is that it confuses two issues. The first is nominally a 'green' issue - that more powerful cars cause more pollution. The second is the responsibility for an accident. Since there is no causal connection between the two things, then it is wrong to make a connection.

There is a connection between the power of the vehicle and the damage that can be done by it. But since you can be driving a powerful car perfectly safely and still have an accident that is not your fault, under this change you will have to prove that it was not your fault. Quite simply, this is not right.

A much better job would be to further strengthen the application of existing driving laws in two areas:
  1. Uninsured drivers. The number of uninsured drivers has increased by 33% over the last year, up to a fifth of all drivers. It is illegal to drive without insurance, and this should be stamped down on, hard.
  2. Drug driving. This is a massive problem. From the BBC News website:
    The Department for Transport (DfT) estimates that one in five drivers or riders killed in road accidents may have an impairing drug - legal or illegal - in their system.
Additionally, I would stamp down on cyclists riding bikes on pavements on roads with a 30MPH speed limit. It is done all the time, and is dangerous for pedestrians (I have nearly been hit on several occasions). However, I would also allow cyclists to ride on the pavement in 40MPH zones or above. The traffic speeds are so much higher in these zones and the consequences of a cyclist being hit so much the greater. In my experience, the pavements are also less used. It would be the responsibility of the cyclist to ensure that they ride safely.

These are, in my opinion at least, much more important areas to be looked at before this fraudulently 'green' policy.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The unexpected consequences of doing great things

Sencan and I went to the Southampton boat show today to have a look around. I went there on my own last year, and ended up signing onto a tall ship sailing to Dublin. I think Sencan came along this year to prevent me doing the same thing again...

The show was absolutely bustling, and there was lots to see and do. It was also fairly hot, especially in the oven-like temporary exhibition halls, and we eventually left after four and a half hours because we had started wilting.

If you have never been, the show is massive. it was a bit smaller than last year's show (part of the land has been earmarked for development), but the temporary marina built into the Solent seemed as large as it had been last year, and was filled with lots of shiny boats. This in itself must be a massively complex thing to set up, yet it only lasts for the nine days of the show.

Neither of us saw much sign of the recession there - with high-end boats selling at well over a million euros, I would reckon that some money is spent during the nine days.

A small, ocean-going rowing boat was moored at the end of one jetty, and a very tanned, muscular young woman stood alongside it. She was Sarah Outen, and she had just completed a 4,000 mile, 124-day row across the Indian Ocean from Fremantle in Australia to Mauritius. In the process she broke three world records. The boat had literally only arrive back in its container the previous day, and she still appeared to be more than a little overwhelmed.

I can only sympathise. Although my walk around the coastline of the UK amounted to not even a quarter of what she has achieved, it still took me two or three months to really get back into normal life. I still had a vacant, far-away look in my eyes when I joined Frontier three months after the walk finished, and being around so many people felt strangely enclosing after a year walking the coast. Yet I had the wonderful Sam to keep me company during the walk, to be my friend and spur when I felt down. Goodness knows, she did a great job for me, and I'm not sure I ever thanked her enough.

Sam's companionship each night (and her wonderful cooking) helped me through the walk. Although she rarely walked alongside me, her care and attention made it possible for me to finish the walk. Before I set off, I told BBC Radio Cambridge that such a walk was 20% physical effort and 80% mental effort, and it is true - it is all too easy to mentally give up. Having someone there with me each night made all the difference. Then I think of Louis, who walked the coast a couple of years after me. He was eighteen when he did it, and he camped for most of the way, doing up to 30-miles a day with full kit. He had incredible mental strength, and I am in awe of him.

Yet Sarah went through so much more. She rowed on her own for four months, spending days and nights alone on the turbulent seas. There was no-one to give her a massage when her muscles were aching, and no-one to give her a hug when she was feeling down. Her own mental strength made up for that deficiency and kept her going. Talking to her proved to be a humbling experience.

During our chat I asked her what she wanted to do next. As I asked her the question her eyes flicked out into the Solent. Something tells me she may be voyaging out again sometime.

The thing is, I feel the same. I am just raring to do another walk, to go out for two or three months on my own, to explore and see the world; to push myself to my limits. I have spent much of my life being told that I cannot do things, and, now that I can, it is so tempting to do what I can. When I go to the coast (and it is not easy to avoid here in Southampton) I get this creeping urge to keep on walking, to 'do another lap', as I call it. I stare out at the breaking waves, and my mind wanders to the sights that I saw in that year. It is the same thing with television - I see places and I wish I was back there once more. Even seaside postcards in the local library can set me off; whether they depict the majestic Lulworth Cove or the beautiful, rugged Northumberland coastline.

In the sequel to her excellent book, "Two feet, Four Paws", Spud Talbot-Ponsonby says that she managed to put her walk around the coast into a handy mental container labelled 'the walk'. I have never managed that; my walk permeates through my mind and body, ready to jump out at the most inopportune moments. Yet I would not have it any other way. Like an aged general talking about famous battles, I cannot let it go.

Yet I have a beautiful, loving wife, and I just cannot bring myself to think of being without her for such a long time. Being apart from her would literally break my heart. So I get my maps out and look at Land's End to John O'Groats; the Pacific Crest Trail and the various GR routes in Europe and dream. And that is all they will be; dreams. There is a good chance that we may be blessed with children, and that would be another excellent reason to stay at home. Maybe when I'm sixty and the kids have all flown the roost I will put my walking boots on once more, lug a large pack onto my back and head out once again. It is something to look forward to.

Part of the problem is, I did my walk when I was thirty. I did the most amazing thing I will ever do when I was relatively young. Sarah will have the same problem. Most people wait until retirement and then do something like Land's End to John O'Groats or a sail around the world; something that they have dreamt of for all of their life. I know that there just has to be another challenge awaiting for me out there, and it has to be bigger than the one I did previously. So I dream. And there is no harm in dreaming... Is there?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Art galleries

Recently there has been a great deal of discussion about plans for Southampton Council to sell two pieces of artwork for £5 million in order to fund a new museum dedicated to the Titanic. These proposals are very controversial, and are provoking a great deal of discussion in the local area.

My question is simple: What is the point of council art galleries? Every council from the Orkneys to Cornwall will have their own art collections, with galleries dedicated to displaying them to the public (although sometimes only a small proportion of the available artwork is displayed). They also employ curators and general staff to care for the artwork - hardly a core business for a council.

Art galleries are undoubtedly necessary, in the same way that museums or parks are. I would say the aim of such galleries is to educate the local population in art and to embrace the imagination of the viewer. Yet one of my abiding memories from going to the Derby City Council art gallery as a child was one of staleness. You would go back six months' later and see exactly the same exhibits. It was, frankly, a turn-off.

My proposal is simple: The central Government slowly buys all artwork held by councils and puts them into the national collection. In return, the national collection produces a large number of coherent exhibitions - for instance exhibitions of paintings by Turner, Lowry or Monet. These can then be 'loaned out' to council galleries who are part of the scheme. These exhibitions could be large or small, or could focus on periods rather than individual painters. They could be tailored to an individual area - for instance, 'East Anglia in the 1800's'. Such an exhibition could display many paintings that are currently held in many different collections.

What local art galleries need is a regular churn of exhibits, where things change every few months, causing both publicity (e.g. 'come and see the exhibition of Joseph Wright paintings; in the art gallery until the end of October!') and interest for the public. This will hopefully cause people to visit them more regularly, as there will often be something new to see.

As they would be part of complete exhibitions, the context and information on each painting could be presented in a much more holistic manner. It also means that councils can stop doing something that is certainly not a core job for them - acquiring and maintaining artworks - and instead concentrate on something that should be their core job - bringing artworks to the people.

If an area has an indelible link with a particular painter - say Suffolk for Constable, Lowry for Liverpool or Wright for Derby - then permanent displays can be made for them, as long as individual paintings within can be re-loaned temporarily to form other exhibitions. For instance, there might be a temporary 'Lowry' travelling exhibition, using items in-store in Liverpool along with some of the gems of his work.

It has an advantage for the national collection as well. At the moment the national collection has far more pieces that it can possibly display. It also loans many pieces out to other galleries around the country. Instead of loaning individual pieces out on demand, it will make entire, contextualised exhibitions that can tour the country. There will still be many pieces in store, but hopefully it will give them many more opportunities to be displayed.

Will this happen? I guess not. There are many practical considerations, with cost possibly being the most pressing. Space would also be a problem - art galleries around the country would differ in size, and an exhibition that was ideally-sized for a larger one would be too small for another. Yet, despite these (and other) problems, anything that gets more people to visit the galleries would be worthwhile.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


I have just finished reading a complete set of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. And what a read they were! A series of great stories, well told by a master story-teller. I had read a couple of the stories when I was a teenager, but I freely admit that I had not appreciated them - my mind was more tuned towards stories of derring-do. Since then, my mind had been polluted by the varying standards of the TV and film adaptations (I am awaiting with apprehension Guy Ritchie's latest film, Sherlock Holmes, which I have the most tremendous fears for).

It was therefore with joy that I reacquainted myself with the series. They really are superb, and well deserve their reputation. It was a long read - 1,400 pages of small type in a large book - but it was well worth the perseverance. Very few, if any, of the collection of stories were disappointing.

The stories and writing led me to consider several things. Amongst these was the way that the English language has changed over the last hundred years. A while back I was chatting to someone about dialogue attributions, and I said that it always amused me when I saw 'ejaculated' used as an attribution in old texts. He had never seen it, and I had to admit that I could not recall where I had last seen it.

Well, the 'Sherlock Holmes' series of books are filled with them. Here are some examples that caused me to snigger:
  • "What on earth does this mean?" I ejaculated ...
  • "Not the Countess of Morcar's blue carbuncle!" I ejaculated.
  • "It was a confession," I ejaculated.
  • "My dear Holmes!" I ejaculated.
  • "Joseph!" ejaculated Phelps.
The problem is that the verb has two meanings. The first is, well, the one used commonly nowadays. The other is to utter something suddenly. Both of these come from the same historical root; to eject suddenly.

Obviously such usage of the verb was perfectly normal at the time, but it would be thought odd to write any of the above nowadays, Indeed, it probably could not even be safely used in a historical piece set in that period.

Of course, it should be used. So I say freely ejaculate when you write! Ejaculate from the rooftops! Ejaculation is good!

Or, on a more sexual note: "Oh God, I'm coming!" he ejaculated...

Yes, you can see the problem.

On a more sensible note, if you wish to read Sherlock Holmes' books and you do not want them in dead-tree form, I suggest going to the 'Project Gutenburg' website and downloading them.

Also, whilst writing this piece I found a good website on Sherlock Holmes - the Sherlock of Peoria website.