Thursday 24 December 2015

Merry Christmas!

This has been a tricky year in many respects. My depression surged back into play, which meant my desire to do anything was sapped. So I was back on the anti-depressants - a new one this time, Sertraline. It has helped my mood, but I'm still not getting a great deal done. Exercise has been sporadic at best, and shifts at work have meant that I've missed every book club meeting at my library this year. Shifts are changing as of now, but the last meeting of the book club was, er, the last one. Inevitably.

Work has been consuming a lot of my time. I like things set and predictable (on which more in a moment), and there has been such fluidity in staffing that this has been nigh on impossible. On the one hand, it looks as though things will at last settle down. On the other, I really need to force myself out of my comfort zone and into a different job with better pay and prospects, which inevitably means more hours.

A while ago a friend recommended to me that I should get myself checked out, and the other week the assessment rolled around. I have Asperger's. It was something I had rather suspected ever since he'd suggested it, although if you'd told me it a year ago, I should have been quite sceptical. A lot of things I had assumed were sensations everyone (or a great many people) experienced are not. For instance, I presume now that most of my readers cannot imagine how incredibly, viscerally unpleasant tobacco and marijuana smell to me. Likewise, the reason I always feel too warm in surroundings comfortable to others is because I have as marked a hyposensitivity to cold as I have a hypersensitivity to odours.

While I was unsure what benefit this knowledge could have prior to the diagnosis, it has been somewhat reassuring, and suggested a few things I can do to attempt to alter my situation for the better. It's also good to know that all the time I have spent thinking other people are nuts has been subjectively right. As the doctor said, I tend to stay close to the rules, which means I am likely to be more technically correct than many others. As Hermes Conrad's superior says in Futurama "[T]echnically correct - the best kind of correct". Boom-boom! I am not forgetting that they (you?) have been subjectively right about me being crazy, mind you.

One of the particular elements of this condition that is really apparent to me is my love of detail, routine and plans. I can go "off-script", but it's unpleasant. Maybe it's like having an angry sergeant shouting in your ear while you're trying to play chess. Who knows? So moving from one routine to another is arduous. On the other hand, I know from past experience that I can make overnight changes to existing routines, which alterations I will cling to more stubbornly than an amorous puppy might cling to an embarrassed socialite's leg. So there's hope.

There is perforce a "but". The qualifier here is that I don't understand things, and I fail to grasp them in such a fundamental way that nobody can work out how to help me do them. For instance, talking to the fairer sex at a bar. I used to think there was a way to do this. I've developed the more nuanced and realistic approach that there must be an awful lot of ways to do this, what with everyone being different. However, any past success I have had in this has been a) totally fortuitous, b) fifteen years ago, and c) arguably partly based on the physique I had back then. Part of the problem may be that conversation is a tricky beast, but an equally large part is that people are often remarkably tedious.

Yes, we monomaniacs find polymaniacs as boring as they find us: football has never been, is not, and will never be in any way interesting; soap operas are markedly less fascinating than paint drying on a wall, as at least one can read a book as the paint dries, without it droning into your ears. And so on. I suppose the main difference is managing to fake interest by nodding along when people talk about Mourinho or whatever, as I have done twice this past week. On Monday, mind you, I heard a contemporary jockey's name, and thought him a seventies snooker player, so expect no more than a facade if you talk to me about such things.

In closing, I hope you've had an easier year of it than I have,* and I rather selfishly hope I get one of those easier years for myself next cycle round the sun. Merry Christmas to you all, and a Happy New Year.

* Sometimes people take such statements as "I have suffered worse than any other human! Pity me!" Don't be silly; don't take it that way.

Wednesday 11 November 2015


This post should have gone up earlier today, but something seems to have gone awry.

I picked up the Great War boardgame the other week, and have just got the BEF ready in time for 11th November. The Germans are still being painted. A few pictures are below. If you look closely, you can see I have mislaid one of the members of the HMG teams. Not too bothered, as I plan to pick up some more of these chaps. Lovely to paint, these little fellows. Setting gaming aside, this is a day to remember the loss of those who died. Wilfred Owen reminds us of the tragedy that was that Great War.

By Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Sunday 5 July 2015

From top to bottom, from bed to hilltop

I have not been posting often for a few reasons. My depression resurfaced for a while. Work became busier, and my ability to deal with that properly was impacted by the depression. I have also been working on a colossal project. When I work on large projects I have a great tendency to get them half done, then abandon them. Things are always more interesting in my head than they turn out to be in reality. I have also experienced that loss of interest in wargaming I had hitherto only read of, and regarded as inexplicable. So what you are about to see has dragged on since at least midway through May.

The one thing I do not blame is the weather. It has only recently taken a turn for the worse. The kitchen has an aga. Agas put out heat all the time. Heat rises. My bedroom is situated above the kitchen. Since many readers are American, I should explain that not only are traditional British houses not designed to be cool, nor do they have air conditioning. Even when I was thin, I burned hot, so to speak, and now I am fat, and my workspace is warmer still, lethargy is almost inevitable.

To business. I had slept for decades on the same mattress, a simple foam affair. For many months sleep was possible only in bursts of a few hours at a time, and waking up meant attempting to dislodge my shoulder from its odd desire to implant itself in my neck. I saved money. I bought a new mattress. The shoulder is less naughty now, though I suspect the only true solution is to lose a few stone (fourteen pounds to the stone, Americans. 454g to the pound, Metric-users). Some would suggest lying on my back, not my side, but I had to do that in 2011 after my appendix was removed, and I assure such attentive people that it is impractical advice. This left me with a piece of foam sufficient to cover a Kingsize bed.

On  its own, the foam is far too soft for any purposes. So I affixed it to a 4' by 2' by 18mm piece of chipboard, adding multiple layers, each about 5" thick, until I had a towering monstrosity, which I am only able to move with difficulty. It is not the weight, but the bulk and my desire not to bash it as I move it, that makes me concerned for its mobility. I tracked a marker across the beast to remind myself where to cut, then with Stanley knife and carving knife set to work. I applied a layer of papier-mâché to the foam, and allowed it to dry. I then hacked out a few more areas to make the surfaces less regular. I did this after applying the papery cover as it was - perversely - easier to cut through that and the foam rather than just the foam. I replaced the missing papery bits, then applied sand. There followed a layer of filler.

Then came a brown undercoat. I went over some missing areas a few days later, and I have just now applied two successively lighter drybrushes of creamy-brown and cream to the edifice. A lot of little things are still to come, but perhaps they may come more quickly if I write and post this now.

Thursday 18 June 2015

Two centuries after the battle

It has unavoidably been a while since my last post. More on that at some future date. For now in the darkening evening, I just wanted to share a few images of Waterloo. Photographer Sam Faulkner has been photographing re-enactors with the aim of giving some idea of what the soldiery of the nations would have looked like after the battle. Here is the link. As well as that, a more traditional image of part of the battle that day, Scotland Forever! In Memoriam.

Saturday 4 April 2015

Pseudo-nostalgiafest: Sliders

Last year I fancied a bit of pseudo-nostalgia, and started buying up DVDs of Sliders. If you never saw that show, the premise is that a brainy chap (with remarkably large biceps for someone whose main activity is supposed to be lifting a calculator) invents a device which allows him to travel between worlds. He accidentally gets sucked into a parallel world along with his professor, his co-worker, who has a crush on him, and a down-on-his-luck singer. They keep trying to get home, and fail because that way the show keeps going. Each world they get to is different in some (usually really implausible) way. It's a scream.

The backstory to this particular episode is that the team slid onto a world about to be wiped out - by wandering quasars transiting the solar system, if memory serves - and while there the Professor was murdered by a baddie, Colonel Roger Daltrey from The Who, or perhaps the Professor had some fatal illness and was doomed to die anyway.Anyway, said miscreant fled, having sucked out bits of many other people's brains to sustain himself - yes! - and the team recruited local military officer Kari Wuhrer to help them track him down and stop him. He keeps one step ahead of them, and they get caught up in other adventures. Watching these episodes together produces a lot of comedy, as the writing teams on different episodes either didn't communicate or nobody cared. That was one of the last episodes I watched when I was younger, presumably because I went off to uni shortly afterward, and had no TV. Today's students are doubtless aghast or amused at such a notion.

In the previous episode the evil colonel had persuaded some locals to protect him, and they had captured Kari Wuhrer. First the poor dear was tied up in her underwear, and then she was clothed in some sort of One Million Years BC bikini. My brother and I, in between laughing and feeling sorry for the actress (we are complicated people, clearly), theorised that this might have been an attempt to revive flagging ratings. In this episode she ambled about in denim shorts and an abbreviated t-shirt which exposed her midriff. On the other hand, she did get to beat up the stereotypical foul-mouthed chap who gave her lip.

In the previous episode Quinn Mallory, the aforementioned inventor of the technology, had emphasised the importance of the team sticking together unless it was absolutely necessary that they split up, as they need the magic (ahem, scientific) world-hopping device he carries to move between worlds. In this episode the team have split up so that he and the singer can have a holiday in this world's super-Mexico. Essential stuff, you'll surely agree.

Their plane having been overbooked, they are now unable to get back to the girls in time, and are attempting to persuade a lady with a private flight to let them aboard when suddenly the local police arrive, guns blazing. They get onto the plane, and it turns out that the pretty lady is a scientist, bringing back rare snakes for scientific research to prevent Alzheimer's or something. Snakes On A Plane! Unluckily, a stray police bullet blew off the lock of one of the boxes, and the snake escapes, slaying the pilot, causing the light aircraft to crash-land. They all survive unharmed, although the male snake is now loose somewhere. Quinn and Rembrandt/Remi (the singer) agree to carry the box containing the other snake for the scientist. Small pretty women can't carry large boxes. To be honest, that's a big snake, so the two men should be a bit whiny, but if that were my first complaint, it would be a bit late.

The girls rent an aeroplane, knee its misogynistic mechanic-cum-owner in the lower half of his body when he suggests they "pay" him for fuel, and fly south toward our pair of men. They land at a tiny airfield, locate a handsome fellow called Carlos, who later turns out to be a psychotic criminal waiting for the lady scientist (who is no scientist!) to land. He sends them ahead to the truck, kills and partially dismembers her would-be accomplice, and then leaps into the truck to lead them on.

The two men and the not-scientist accidentally wander onto a criminal druglord's territory. In this world tobacco is illegal, and TEA agents (if you don't laugh at this, you are not British. Frankly, how Americans could keep a straight face is beyond me) were killed storming such a compound just the other week. The male snake handily slays their pursuers, and Remi begins to divine its implausible status. This is a psychic snake, and subsequently we learn it can command or control other snakes. The trio hole up in a snake-infested mansion, where they keep being surprised by snakes. It's a bit like going to pet your dog, and then screaming that a canine is running toward you.

The psychotic Carlos has by now been so odd that the ladies have knocked him out, not left him with vengeful townsfolk, not tied him up, taken him with them, and left him unguarded in the back of the truck. Whichever world Kari Wuhrer is from, their officer training system needs improving. He breaks loose and pulls a gun on them. The villainess lays the blame on the team in a sensible and craven attempt to save her life from the nutter. Fortunately, at this point the psychic male snake causes the other snakes to knock down a door. The snakes just lie there, demonstrating their utter failure to commit to the Craft. The villain is squashed by the male snake, the villainess flees, but the snakes crash her truck, and the team leap to the next world. It's initially clear that Quinn is helping the lady For Science! but then Remi complains, and apparently we're supposed to understand Quinn wants to have sex with the villainess. Conversely, Officer Incompetent wants Carlos for sex, but then realises he's a bad egg, and hits him on the back of the noggin. Disjointed is probably the best summary of this bizarrely bad (and therefore amusingly good!) episode.

Monday 16 February 2015

Odd Omissions in Education

The identities of the following have all been obscured.

First, the gentleman who was under the impression that DNA was a recent invention, therefore surely it's impossible for there to be a DNA link between someone living and someone dead. Oddly, he was a fairly young person, so one might have assumed he would be conversant with such recent instances as Neanderthal DNA and Richard III. As they say in America, when you assume, you make an ass out of "u" and me.

Second, the married lady in her forties who was asked to juice an orange for an elderly acquaintance. She looked alarmed at this, but a while later returned from the kitchen, saying she had done so. Later on the elderly lady popped into the kitchen and found things were not as she had hoped. Following a conversation with the younger lady the next day, it became apparent she had used a potato peeler to get the skin off, then attempted to crush the orange with her bare hands. A soggy heap of orange flesh sat on a plate.

Finally, there's an entertaining TV show on these days called Gotham. For those of you who have missed it, it's a rambling, weird and thoroughly divisive show which sets out to tell the story of Batman's city before there was a Batman. Viewers are divided into those who, like me, think it's enjoyable - in my case it's largely because of the mixture of camp and seriousness - and viewers who think it's dreadful - seemingly because it's so camp. The show has a grimy, worn feel, and the cars are deliberately big old things, which has led some younger viewers to believe (and declare online) that the show is set in the '70s. The characters have and use mobile telephones.

I hope this brought a smile to your face.

Monday 2 February 2015

Imperial Governor: What's a little treachery and slaughter between friends?

One of the most enjoyable games I have ever played is an old boardgame from 1979, Imperial Governor. In the words of the introduction to the rules, "Each player takes the part of one of the emergent or declining nations in the Mediterranean in the last three centuries before Christ[,] and his objective is to become the predominant power, using honest force of arms, augmented by threats, subterfuge and general skullduggery." The game itself is only half the story, as a great game with poor players is no fun. I first uncovered this game in the '90s, when I found it left behind by my uncle, and I tried to play it, only to find nobody was interested at all. It languished, as it needs a minimum of three players. There's a two-player variant covering the Peloponnesian Wars, but I never got into that.

In my second year of university I began dating a girl, and although that didn't last, the friendships I made as a result have done. In my third year, we would settle ourselves down at the big kitchen table in our rented student house, and spend days playing the game, convening between lectures, classroom prep and essays. Halcyon days! Of course, one gets older, and people move apart, and work gets in the way. So with all the problems, we had not played a game in perhaps over a decade, but when I managed to arrange a visit by two of my old friends to get some games in, we fell quickly back into the old ways, and had a lovely time.

The game permits a maximum of six players, but with only three we played Scenario F: The Successors of Alexander, which features Pontus, Parthia and Aegyptus as player countries, and excludes large portions of the map to the west. We used the accelerated start rules to speed things up, meaning we all started with a couple of provinces. I took Aegyptus with the island provinces of Crete and Rhodes. Chris, who had come from South Wales for the game, took Pontus, and had Buthynia and Cilicia. Lastly, Peter, who had come all the way from Eire, took Parthia, and had the province of Armenia at the beginning. One's home country needs no garrison, but each province demands one legion or squadron token sit in it for the owning player to keep receiving the income (the black number within the yellow circle on the maps).

Chris and I are conservative players, while Peter is bold. Funnily enough, both strategies work well in the game, provided one secures enough provinces at the game's start. Before anything else, one draws a Fates Card, which can bring wondrous or terrible or middling news. At the start of the game Pontus was struck by serious bad luck, weakening her forces just as Parthia launched a spoiling attack on her, while securing the province of Palestine to the south. Aegyptus secured the island of Cyprus, and set to taking Cyrenaica, then Achaea and Macedonia. Pontus was laid so low by the run of bad cards that we considered restarting, but Chris manfully insisted on fighting on. In this game there can be no loser, and he was quite right to do so. Taking ship for Bosporus, he reconstituted his forces, dispatching troops to the provinces north and west of Macedonia, and into Armenia. Parthia, which had overrun most of Asia Minor by this point, and amassed a large army to take Byzantium, was stymied by Aegyptus deploying large numbers of troops to oppose her.

At this point, it is worth mentioning that the rules, though fun, are so full of holes you could use them as a cheesegrater. Even a decade after we last played the game, we were still encountering odd situations which we had to house-rule around. For instance, the game specifies that a player deprived of his home country can still draw on an income of five talents each turn until he recovers it. But when Chris of Pontus struck down through Armenia, we gradually ended up in the odd position of Peter of Parthia possessing Pontus, Chris' home country, while Chris of Pontus held Peter's Parthia. We decided that the kings would now move to the new country, but the rules themselves are silent. A case of inter arma silent leges, perhaps! Peter, formerly of Parthia, and now of Pontus, seeing it was impossible to push through Byzantium, and that if he retired to retake Parthia, my Egyptians would pursue him, took a third route. Sneakily amassing a fleet at the harbour of Miletos in the province of Pergamum, he dived southward, took Crete, then moved on Cyrenaica. I laboriously pursued, hampered both by the need to raise forces to defend Achaea from the naval armada, and by the fact that Chris of Pontus, who had taken Parthia to the east, had also secured several provinces north and west of Macedonia, and amassed a large force to deny me control of Macedonia.

At this point I had the very good luck of Chris' province of Bosporus revolting, while I was able to knock out his armies in the region of Macedonia, which Peter had been paying to keep up, as I had no money to fight both of them at once. Then I had the misfortune of capturing some of Peter's commanders as he took Cyrenaica. On the face of it, capturing an enemy is good news, as the player must pay a ransom (half his income for generals, three quarters for his king) even before paying his troops, so a well-timed capture can really muck up an enemy's plans. However, once the ransom is paid, he gets to stipulate where in the captor's empire the hostages are released. Worse, Peter's king, bereft of his home country, was allowed to raise troops on whichever hex he occupied. So Peter opted for a point of release in the west, captured one of my generals, and overran some of my provinces. Chris, meanwhile, struck down through the desert of Palestine, trying to get some protection money out of me. I ineffectually flailed back, but was getting nowhere.

That was about the end of things. It was a great game, and we could see what would happen next. First, Peter had been in the ascendant, then I, and now I was about to sink as Chris' star rose! We played a few games of Star Fleet: A Call To Arms, as well, which was a grand little diversion. Imperial Governor is great, but one does need to break off from it every so often. So we went for several walks, including a trip to a local bird preserve, where we got very lost, the others nearly losing their shoes as we all misread a map. Then on leaving we managed to fumble the simple act of talking to the charming and pretty young lady who was manning the office. She made the mistake of assuming we could do small talk, and I made the mistake of assuming that a question should be answered with the truth. So when she asked what we were doing later, I said we were going to Sainsbury's. Nothing confuses me more than small talk. Anyway, the gaming was a great success. The only alteration we will make next time is to aim for a warmer time of year. The attic, where we played the SF: ACTA, was by no means warm!
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