09
Jun
17

Edge cases and UK politics

I hold to the belief that Teresa May called a general election because she finally realised that Brexit was a poisoned chalice. Most of the main Leave campaigners… Johnson, Farage etc… realised that as soon as they (apparently inadvertently) won, and ran in the other direction as fast as possible rather than having anything to do with it, leaving May tasked with with pushing through a massive change that no-one actually knew how to do but basically all agreed would probably make things worse. And the blame would all fall on her. As we got closer to this moving ahead, potentially leaving her in the position of having to do some work and make some choices, something had to be done.

So… Snap election!

It was perfect. If May won, she’d have legitimacy that she didn’t have as an unelected Prime Minister. She could say that this proved, beyond doubt, that she had the support of the people. Whatever happened, it was what we all wanted, no fault of hers: you broke it, UK public, now you’re buying it.

If she lost, that would be almost as good, because then she wouldn’t have to deal with bloody Brexit anymore. She could say a few graceful words about being dissappointed, continuing to work in the background as blah blah blah, and then run away laughing, knowing that her opposition would be left in the same position she’d been in when Cameron quit: drop Brexit and be accused of being undemocratic, or continue with a self-destructive process that would leave the country powerless and poor. Heads, she win. Tails, she wins.

This morning, the election results are in. The coin landed on its edge: a hung Parliment. The Conservatives still got the most seats, but lost enough that they don’t have a majority. This means another week of backroom haggling and negotiation between the parties to decide what’s going to happen. From May’s perspective this is catastrophic, because it leaves her having to do the one thing she’s tried to avoid: make a decision.

If she works hard for the next few days, she may keep in charge as leader of a Conservative government, but two things will have changed. First, by putting in that work, she no longer has the safety net of having fallen in to her position: she fought for it, and so the blame for what happens next lies more heavily on her shoulders than before, the polar opposite of what she wanted. Second, she’s in charge of a party that clearly doesn’t have the support of the masses, with more voters wanting her out than in. One of the main columns her tenere as Prime Minister has been founded on is that she’s acted toward the goal the public said they wanted; that claim is now demonstrably false.

Her alternative is to not fight for it, probably to out-right resign. Essentially: give up, despite technically having the most seats. From her viewpoint, this would be a huge show of cowardice, and an admission that she doesn’t want to put the work in… Which, y’know, I think she doesn’t, but she doesn’t want to admit that. The idea was to fade away and leave the blame elsewhere, not scamper off with her tail between her legs. I mean, in her case it’s what I’d do, but then, I haven’t spent a run as Prime Minister where every decision seems to be based on how it makes me look.

I don’t know what’s coming next. Our last coalition government lead to this exact situation, so that’s not a thrilling prospect, which is probably why none of the parties have agreed to it. A minority government seems like a dangerous situation, where your opponents can block anything you do while you get the blame for not doing anything. I’m not sure what other options there are, and I suspect the positive vibes amongst the left from this result are largely premature.

I’m not sure how to end this post. Umm. Tell you what, why don’t you leave comments telling me how I should, and I’ll come back later and go with whatever people want the most. There’s surely no possible way that plan could backfire.

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06
Mar
17

A padlock is not a puzzle.

I’ve been getting really into Escape Rooms recently. Like, *really* into them. I’ve done about 8 in the past year, 2 of which were in the last week, and I think I’ve done enough to have a good feel for what works and what doesn’t. Those two rooms from this week bear comparison, all centered around a phrase I came up with while discussing the last one with friends…


A padlock is not a puzzle. This seems to be at the heart of the ideas of the owner of iLocked, an escape room that opened late 2016 in Nottingham, or at least that’s the impression I got from his reaction talking about other rooms. “Lots of padlocks. Lots of missing door handles, yeah? This room… is unlike any you’ve played before.” He’s right. The room the was a technological marvel compared to others that I’ve played, with sensors and motors and multiple setpieces, like nothing I’ve been in before. He points to The Mummy as the chief inspiration, and it shows.


A little earlier this week, I went with two other friends to Unescapable, a new room in Derby that, like iLocked, has not been opened long and, like iLocked, currently has only one room. We were greeted at the door by a man in his 20’s in a laboratory coat; we’d later learn that him and his co-founder are both in drama by trade, one as an actor, one as head of a local production company. We walked up past certificates and signs, all of which read “Unescapable Top Secret Time Travel Facility Escape Rooms”. The main chamber was filled with a floor-to-high-ceiling metal hexagon, with neon lights and a brushed-metal look. While we waiting for the second friend to turn up, we discussed the way they painted it, and made jokes about Doctor Who, and duct tape. Our friend arrives, and our hosts take on a more serious tone, as they explain this isn’t really an Escape Room… it’s a time travel complex. We’re about to go through their first portal.


The mummy-inspired room is called “The Mummy”, and the four of us are told about it while in iLocked’s entryway, which is covered in large images of battleships, and aliens (hints at later rooms to be opened). Our host crouches down, and starts explaining the usual basics; don’t force things, you need to communicate, you don’t need to break anything… and to make sure we understand how hard the room is going to be. “If I have to give you more than 3 hints, I don’t consider it a win. The success rate without hunts? 0%.” One of us has… let’s not give to much away… they have something padlocked onto them, and we’re ushered into the room, and told to listen to the introduction before starting.


We’re ushered into the room before the time portal. We each get an item; one of us has a backpack, one has a torch, and one (“which of you is the most responsible?”) gets the key for the plastic tub which we’ve had to put our gadgets in to, locked with a big heavy padlock. Then, we duck through the entrance… and we’re on our way, travelling through time in utter blackness. This turns out to be a first task before we emerge into the room proper. The room is decorated in a period-appropriate way, but not overdone… as we’ll eventually discover, almost everything in this room is here for a reason. I head for a box, my friends go to a table.


We find an item, and put it in a slot. After some searching, we find a hatch across the room is now open. It contains about numerous little trinkets; bracelets, imitation gems, a large necklace, a metal cylinder, some blank scrolls. We take these out, and examine them. Eventually, we find that one of the items fits in a slot. This opens a hatch across the room, which (when we find it) contains a set of trinkets. We find a hole that one fits it. This opens a hatch. This continues.


I’m still writing out the decoded message when I get called from the other room. They’ve gotten a door open. I rush to see what they’ve found… We’re supposed to wear these period-appropriate “gas masks”, but it’s hard to see in them, so we’ve taken to holding our breath while rushing through the corridor. In a strange way, this feels more in the spirit of the game than actually wearing the masks… there isn’t actually any danger, but I’m holding my breath anyway. I’m invested.


We put a stick in a slot, and the door makes a noise. It starts to move, slightly, slowly… then stops. “Do we have to push it?” We try, and it makes it sound that might be another digital effect… or may be an engine resisting. A voice comes on the radio. “You haven’t got it yet.” OK. We keep looking. We find another item, another slot. The door moves and whines again. We test, again, if it needs pushing. “I’ve already told you once, don’t force the door.” “I wasn’t forcing it”, I reply over the handset, “we just didn’t know if we’d unlocked it.” This is, it turns out, a completely automatic door… but no thought was given to how we’d know that.


The notepad that was in the backpack is increasingly handy. I need information from two rooms to solve this, and now I have them. I call the number out, and my friends rush to try it. I stay here a second, and run my hands along the bottom of the walls. Are we missing something? I have to be sure.


What I have in front of me is a good puzzle, but I can’t enjoy it. We’re all too hemmed in, too warm. My drink is in the bag I wasn’t allowed to bring with my… not that there’d be room anyway. I’m pleading for the light to be shone my way, but they’re having trouble moving their arm without hitting anyone.


I look at the puzzle in front of me. We’ve split up to find the last piece, each taking an area. We need to connect those, which means… I raise my arms in front of me… which means the piece must be this wide. I turn around, scanning the room, looking for something that works. Hang on. The box that I checked when we first came in. It can’t be… can it?


I’m sat on the floor, with one of my friends stuck with me. There are symbols across every wall, and I’ve no idea which are relevant. The one ahead kinda matches with the first room, where the others are (the second time the game forced us to split the group, albeit less physically painful than the first) , but the one behind matches the thing they think is important (but aren’t sure about). I have an object here that matches symbols to letters, they have a sheet with similar ones, but none of the symbols around me seem to properly match either. I’m hot, and thirsty, and trying not to think about my mild claustrophobia. We ask for our second clue.


I read out the piece of paper; as an office worker, I’m used to dealing with different handwriting, so I’ve been on letter duty most of the time. Something’s been stolen, the last thing we would need. As I read, my friend’s brain clicks, and he goes to grab something we’ve had from the very beginning. This is his first time doing an escape room, and he’s about to win it for us.


We know the solution, but the pattern makes it hard find a way to communicate that to the others. This is intentional, and would be forgivable… if I could see what they had done. As it is, no-one actually knows when it’s right or wrong. The voice on the handset keeps outright telling us; the game itself has no mechanism for it. As the last piece goes into place, the voice commands us; go back to the start, and pick up all of a certain item on the way. The room didn’t tell us this. The puzzle didn’t hint at this. We just have to do as we’re told.


“The Haribo is for you! Brain food!” We laugh, feeling elated. We’re just retrieving our gadgets from the box, and the our team-mate is trying to return the Haribo that was placed in the backpack for us to munch on. We never had time to eat them; we were too busy rushing round, finding things. The voice on the other end of this handset did an incredible job of only giving out hints when we really needed them… and staying in character the whole time. This Haribo wasn’t a treat for escaping the room. It was a treat for managing to get back to the present.


We’re exhausted, tense, and slightly stressed… none of us said anything to each other after the victory voiceover played. The first thing the host said, when he entered the room, was “well, that was a bit more than 3 hints, wasn’t it?”. We only ever asked for 2. (In fact, at one point, I was driven to placing a hand over the handset speaker in a desperate attempt to hear my friend over the sound of an unrequested “hint”.) “You missed this puzzle completely.” He says it in a tone vaguely reminiscent of a drill sergeant whose cadets got a poor time on the course. We’ve squeaked a victory, finishing at the very last second… so why are we being treated like failures?


“We call them hero moments,” says one of the faux-scientists. He’s talking about a situation where one of our group, after removing one chain from an item, realised he could slip the second chain off as well, without actually removing the padlock. A padlock is not a puzzle here; it’s an optional extra, and realising you can bypass it is a reward in itself. I’m reminded of the first room I ever did, where a member of our team bypassed several puzzles by using a magnet from one room in a puzzle later on that they weren’t meant to. The reaction from our host was surprise and delight. Our own reaction was similar.


A padlock is not a puzzle. That’s at the heart of the guy talking to us about the room. It has 7 miles on wiring, he tells us, and cost £60,000. He’s very proud of how advanced it is, how there are all these mechanisms and computer-controlled effects. I’m still wondering how the lights that come on when you put a thing in a slot relate to anything… they seem to be mostly for effect.


We’ve finished the room, and now we’re just hanging out with one of the guys (the other has gone, presumably to reset the room), talking about cosplay materials. Two photos are taken; one on an Instamatic camera, which we write our name on. He tells us we can put it anywhere on the walls we want. After some deliberation, and looking round at the 3 walls adorned with photos, our friend asks if he can put it on the bare wall behind the counter. We can.


After we left Unescapable, we crossed the road, talked about our successes, and briefly toyed with seeing if there was another escape room we could go to right away. After we left iLocked, we went to a little cafe-bar, bought some drinks, and talked for half an hour about how frustrated and borderline bitter the experience had been.

Here’s the thing. A padlock is not a puzzle… it’s one possible end to a puzzle. It’s a mechanism for gating player progression, for ensuring they’ve achieved the task you set out before they get their reward. The puzzle that lies before it, that’s what an escape room is all about. That’s where the fun is. Whether you put the code in a padlock, a keypad, or in symbols on the floor, it ultimately doesn’t matter.

With hindsight, iLocked have three major problems. The first is, to be fair, a fundamental one that gaming in all its forms struggle with; how to communicate to the player what to do. For those who don’t know anything about game design, that may seem like a weird complaint… “but isn’t figuring out what to do the point?”… But it’s the difference between the difficult in figuring out the solution to a puzzle, and figuring out what the puzzle is at all. (While it’s not directly relevant, I’d recommend watching Egoraptors Megaman video for a good demonstration of subtle player communication in action.)

The room was filled with trinkets and items and symbols in an effort to look authentic, but no thought has been put into how players are meant to differentiate the set dressing from the puzzle elements. There are basically no environmental hints to where problems are or how to solve them, to the point that at times, the host just straight-up tells you what to do because the room isn’t doing it itself. This, in fact, winds up being most of the difficulty… you’re not trying to decode a message or assemble an item, you’re just trying to figure out which item lying around is important, or what the single message you have in front of you actually means. It’s the escape room equivalent of Where’s Wally.

(One of the reasons padlocks are so widespread in escape rooms is because they’re an elegant solution to this problem. If you have 3 padlocks, you need to solve 3 puzzles. If those padlocks use keys, you need to find keys. If they have codes, you need codes, and you have an idea what type of code (“This padlock needs 4 numbers, that one has 6 letters”). So with a single explicit hint, without a push from the hosts or blinking lights or anything, now you know what you’re looking for, and what you need to do with it when you find it, just from a glance around the room. You have direction, and direction is really, really good to give someone playing your game.)

This brings me to the second issue, and I’ve hinted at this above but, long story short… the puzzles here just kinda suck. You have a string of find-the-thing-to-put-in-another-thing-to-open-a-thing to start, a basic decode next (which we inadvertently skipped), a genuinely quite good pair of physical puzzles, a… I don’t actually know with this next one, we had to do something with hands, and I’m still not surely exactly what the game wanted us to do, but apparently we did it so there you go… And another put-things-on-things puzzle with a twist around limited communication. It’s all very linear, and the puzzles tended to end not with a “Eureka!”, but rather a “Oh, uhh, OK. I guess that did something?”. For all the bluster about the difficulty of the room, we never felt taxed, just kinda lost.

The third is, I’m sorry to say, the host. He is very proud of his room… and that’s fine, it’s technologically marvellous, the setpieces are good even if the puzzles generally aren’t… but that pride is expressed as arrogance. It isn’t just that he’s done without padlocks, he thinks they’re beneath him. He’s not impressed with other escape rooms, as he’s happy to tell you, but he’s focused so much on the tech that he doesn’t seem to have considered what makes an escape room fun. This extends to his interactions with us. When we finished, still catching our breath, he could’ve applauded us for just making it across the line… and instead immediately set to tearing down our accomplishments. To him, passing the first room while bypassing that first room puzzle wasn’t an achievement, it was a failure (even though the puzzle just gave information we didn’t wind up needing).

A padlock is not a puzzle. Neither is a computer. It’s what you do with them that counts.

iLocked could go on to be great things, but while they have someone who knows the technology, they definitely need someone who knows a little more about puzzles… and, more desperately, someone who understands how to provide a good player experience. For all the effort they’ve placed on the setting of the room, they really need to put more into bringing the player into it. If I could give them one pointer here, it’s this: difficulty is not an asset in and of itself. If no-one can solve your game without your hints, that is not a good thing, let alone something to brag about. And for pete’s sake, don’t belittle your customers for solving a puzzle without needing all the hints.


Unescapable will go on to great things. It felt like one of the easier rooms I’ve visited (although that said, our time set a record for a group of our small size, so perhaps we just did very well on the day), but it was great fun. The puzzles were well thought out, and little hints to the right direction were dotted around in case you don’t see the solution up front, and they’re varied; a little code-breaking here, a little construction there, a little dexterity in the middle. The fact that alternate solutions weren’t just applauded, but actually considered and built in, is a stroke of genius. The experience just felt fun, and I never felt frustrated; even when I wasn’t sure what to do in the moment, it was a cause to consider the situation, not be annoyed by it. When we passed an obstacle, it’s because we’d understood it.

What they did exceptionally well was atmosphere, and that’s so key to a fun escape room experience. The theme starts the moment you hit the front door, something that in other rooms generally doesn’t begin until you enter the room. The hosts are likeable, bringing you into your role in the scenario rather than just dumping you in a room. The “flow” of a room is hard to get right, and here, they did… it was perfectly paced. There’s tech here too, incidentally… not as much as iLocked, sure, but used appropriately, and in ways that feel like more than just set dressing.

Both companies have a second room opening in the near future, and I’ll be booking Unescapable’s as soon as I can. As for iLocked… the owner is currently looking to hire someone to help build props for his Alien-themed room. Give him a call, if you’re interested.


iLocked is on Huntingdon Street in Nottingham, and cost £80 for the four of us (peak times). https://iamlocked.co.uk

Unescapable is on on Wardwick, Derby, and cost £60 for the three of us. https://unescapable.co.uk/

05
Dec
16

Why TNG season 3 changed to a more militaristic uniform, and how that ties into Yesterday’s Enterprise.

Twitter bod Matthew Garrett (@mjg59) asked for someone to explain the change to “more militaristic” uniforms in Next Gen Season 3, and how that relates to the episode Yesterday’s Enterprise. Always one to take comments entirely at face value, I felt it worth taking up the challenge.

For those who don’t know anything about Star Trek, the “back” button is to the top-left of your browser window. For those who need a refresher on Yesterday’s Enterprise, it involves Picard and Co coming across a space thingy from which emerges the Enterprise-C, thought destroyed over 20 years ago. As soon as this happens, reality changes. Our regular Enterprise-D ship and crew are replaced with a more militant variety… including one Lt Tasha Yar, last seen as a post-mortem hologram back in Season 1. (It’s an amazing episode, by the way, with one of the strengths being how it handles the changed crew in various subtle ways. Yar’s sudden appearance is handled as though she’s been there all along… right up until it becomes important that she hasn’t.)

At the end (and, yes, spoilers for this quarter-century-old episode), the Enterprise-D sacrifices itself so that the Enterprise-C (with Yar going along for the ride) can get back through time, to take its place in the battle it was fated to lose, putting the timeline back on track. With the portal closed, we’re back to the standard crew, who just make a note about the brief reading of a space thingy, and (entirely unaware of what transpired) continue on their way.

Key to understanding this episode, and how it related to uniforms, is to realise that we actually have several alternate timelines. 3 of them, in total:

  • The original timeline (timeline A) is our familiar TNG setting. In this, the Enterprise-C was believed lost in 2344 during a battle with the Romulans; in fact, it had been sucked through a temporal rift, leaving the timeline. The Federation and Romulans are in an uneasy cold war, but there’s little in the way of outright hostilities. This timeline continues until 2366 [2], when a time rift is recorded…
  • Timeline B is the “alternate” timeline we see in this episode. In this one, the Enterprise-C was supposedly destroyed by the Romulans, Setting up an actual war between the two factions. The Federation is on a military footing… and it isn’t enough. In 2366, the Enterprise-C from our first timeline appears, hangs out a bit, picks up Tasha Yar, and is sent…

Well, not to timeline A. A rule of thumb for time travel is that there has to be a reality that existing before all this craziness occurred, from which the original time travel occurred. Otherwise, we’d get in an unstable time loop with no origin, and with the universe flickering between hot and cold wars. Besides, if the uniform changes are to be linked to this, we have to accept that, at some point, something changed. (There’s one more reason that I’ll get to below). So, no; they got pushed into:

  • Timeline C. In this timeline, shortly after their Enterprise-C was sucked into a temporal rift (presumably going on to cause a Timeline D… try not to worry about that…) another Enterprise-C appeared. This is the one from timeline A. This Enterprise-C has had a short time to catch it’s breath, a bit of aid from the Enterprise-D, and the addition of Tasha Yar to its ranks.

Timeline C is the timeline we definitely see from this point on. In this one, thanks to that extra help and Tasha tagging along, the Enterprise-D loses less badly. Some of the crew are taken prisoner rather than killed. We know this because, later, the Enterprise crew would come across her half-Romulan child (Sela) as an antagonist… But that’s another story.

So. Timeline A, the ship is sucked into a portal, we get a cold war. Timeline B, the ship was destroyed, we get a hot war. Timeline C, the ship comes in and out of the portal, is destroyed… and we get a cold war. At first glance, this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but at the heart of this inconsistency is the explanation for the uniforms.

See, its not the destruction of the Enterprise-C alone that prevents the war, despite what the crews think; that’s just the sacrificial lamb. What keeps the Romulans at bay… is the time travel itself. In Timeline A, they’re blasting the federation flagship to pieces, when it suddenly disappears through a weird vortex. The Romulans didn’t lose, but they don’t actually know what happened. Is this some weird federation tech? Best hang back and keep an eye on things. Timeline B shows what would have happened if the rift didn’t open; they’d rip the Enterprise a new one, and follow on by confidently going to war against the whole Federation.Timeline C is a mid-point; the vortex makes them cautious, but they still win the fight. With Tasha and others surviving, we can assume the battle wasn’t as one-sided as Timeline B, though.

Maybe, in timeline C, while the Romulans didn’t go all-out war in the way they did in timeline B, maybe they’re still a little more aggressive. I mean, sure, maybe some of their prisoners claim under interrogation that the rift was just an accident, and Romulan interrogation is pretty effective… But they can’t be too sure. Maybe the Federation has some kind of temporal pocket to let their ships vanish from battle and fix their ships, or something. Even so, they still beat the flagship, even if it was four on one. So maybe the Romulans push a little. And the Federation has to push back. Not a whole lot, not “Our next Enterprise is a warship”, just a little. Enough to take things a little bit seriously. Enough that, when Benjamin Cisco suggests building a new kind of ship purely for fightin’ Borg, they don’t suggest hugs instead. Maybe, just maybe, enough to tweak the wardrobe of their troops.

The outfit change in Season 3? It was because the entire reality changed. For the first two seasons of Next Gen, we were in the touchy-feely timeline A. For Season 3, we were in the ever-so-slightly grimmer Timeline C, and we’d stay in this new timeline for the rest of Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager. Yesterday’s Enterprise wasn’t a simple “what if” tale that wound up being called back to in a couple of seasons… It’s a core episode explaining the fundamental shift in the reality we’d unknowingly been switched to 14 episodes prior. We’d been watching the post-shenanigans timeline the whole season.

We’ll never know what happened to our original Timeline A crew, going through a slightly simpler universe without Sela. Like the Timeline B crew, at best we can say that perhaps they were there for season 7’s Parallels. But whatever happened, and wherever their journey took them… their outfits were rubbish.

1) Of course, the real explanation is that time travel is just a setup for the plot for this excellent episode, and we’re not meant to worry too much about it. That isn’t going to stop me from hypothesising wildly in an attempt to make it make sense.
2) If you’re wondering why they see the rift in Timeline A; they don’t. We never see Timeline A. Depending on if you read this at the end, or jumped down here as soon as you saw the footnote marker, this may be mindblowing or mundane.
09
Nov
16

Clinton Trumped by bad press

Welp; here we go again.

The last few UK elections included Nigel Farage, leader of a small party (the UK Independence Party, or UKIP) pushing a right-wing platform based around closed borders, blaming all our problems on people that didn’t fit his image of “British”, and proposing solutions based on eliminating them. The press and social media came out in force against him, calling his rhetoric hateful and misguided.

He was, relative to the party size (in a system dominated by two parties) a relatively huge success. His party reached a height of over 200 elected councillors, and even won control of Thanet council.

2015. The UK is having a referendum on whether to leave the EU. The “Leave” campaign (prominently featuring Farage) centers around statements and implications of financial pressures caused by the EU, including driving a large bus around claiming that £350 million a day was given to the EU, and how that money could be better spent on the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). The “Stay” campaign focused on how wrong the “Leave” campaign was; the claims were wrong, the benefits ignored, the plans none-existent.

Leave won, by a very small margin. Mere hours later, Nigel Farage sat on breakfast television and, when questioned about whether this meant that £350m would be redirected to the NHS, claimed the bus had been a mistake. Over the coming days, the Leave campaign would downplay or retract many of their most prominent claims about the benefits of leaving the EU. Most of the figureheads of the movement turned out to not want to be in charge of actually doing it. David Cameron, a UK Prime Minister who (whilst part of the “Stay” campaign) had also been key in moving the country to the more right-wing standing that the “Leave” movement grew from, resigned. Teresa May stepped up, and has spent the time since fighting to be allowed to start a process that increasingly few people actually want.

2016. Donald Trump is running for President. He’s going to make the Mexicans build a wall between their countries; it’s not clear how. He’s sells himself as a businessman by nature, and has 6 bankrupted businesses under his belt. He was recorded bragging about sexually assaulting a woman and, when this recording was made public, dismissed it as “locker room talk”. He’s going on trial in December, due to allegations of raping a 13 year old girl, one of two cases he’s facing. He is, in many ways, the worst presidential candidate possible, with the combination of the lingering legal matters, the fierce disrespect of women and minorities, a history of over-promising and under-performing.

He built a campaign much as Nigel Farage did, by talking of closed borders and solving problems by removing anyone that doesn’t fit his definition of “American”. It’s 07:52 (GMT) on the 9th of November, 2016. Donald Trump is the President-Elect of the United States of America.

His main opponent in this was Hillary Clinton. I know three things about Hillary Clinton: first, she would have been (and may still one day be) the first female President of the USA. Second, she used a private email server from home; this was alleged to be illegal, but after numerous FBI investigations, no charges were brought. Third, some people don’t like her.

See, when you have half the people talking about how great the person is, and the other half talking about how terrible they are, the problem is everyone’s talking about them, nothing and no-one else. The last UK election, the referendum, and now the US Election have been dominated by stories about how bad one side is, to the point little gets heard about how good the other side is. I’ve heard more about Clinton from Trump supporters than any other source.

This seems to be common across many Western democratic actions recently; One side rises up with claims about making things great again, and how dangerous terrorists are, and how much money we spend on people who don’t work hard, and if only we could just get rid of the immigrants, everything would be better. The other side spends their energy pulling them down, talking about how great things are, how overestimated the terrorists threats are (and how right-wing movements actually help their opponents), how much money is brought into the economy by having wealthfare systems, and how immigration is an important part of what makes our system work, and they never, ever, actually get around to talking about their policies. They let their opponent frame the discussion, shouting into a spotlight that’s forever on someone else.

The left relies on people doing the research. The right relies on people not doing so. The results are unsurprising.

We can’t do much about traditional media. They will always focus on the loudest, most interesting, most controversial candidates, and so (good or bad) they’re who will get stuck in the minds of the readers. Social media is us; we *can* work on that, and our tactics have to change. We have to stop devoting our attention on the low-hanging hateful fruit. It’s easy to point at the Farage’s and Trump’s of the world and say “don’t vote for them, they’re bad”, but it’s still shining the spotlight on them. It doesn’t work. The much harder job is to pull the spotlight over to the people we see as good, and say why. We need to yank that spotlight over, and keep it on the people who can help.

In about 4 years time, we’ll be back on this. It’s possible, even likely, there will be an upswing of left-wing motion, after 4 years of Trump in the US and of May in the UK. When that comes up, find your candidate, and focus on raising them up, not dragging their opponent down. Better policies mean nothing if no-one hears them.

16
May
16

4D

September 3rd

Free day today, wooo! I met up with Jan and Greg and they showed me round; doesn’t look like there’s much to do here. 3 weeks until my phone contract comes up at least, then I can get a new one. I’ve got my eye on this little thing, it’s basically like my old one except it fits in the little satchel pocket on my bag, and it doesn’t have a screen that’s all cracked up.

What else, what else… Oh, someone had set a fire in a bin, looked like it had gotten pretty big. I just took some pictures, I’ll put them up later; they’ve pretty much put it out now though. OK, I know, just a burnt-up bin, but apparently it’s big news around here. Anyway, we need to catch the bus; talk to you later!

 

September 4th

Hey dad, sorry I didn’t write sooner, it’s been a bit crazy here! I met up with Jan and Dave yesterday, they were going to take me to see the sights, but the bus got stopped going into town. I overheard someone say that gas main burst or something and a fire had started in the middle of town, so they basically locked it all off, and then that meant traffic was messed up coming “home”. What a waste of a day! From what I saw, I bet they’re only just getting it under control.

I was going to send a message then, but I couldn’t get a signal on this busted piece of crap. Hopefully I can have a look for a replacement soon, my contract’s up in a few weeks! Anyway, it’s past midnight and I don’t want you thinking I’m staying up too later. Be safe, talk later!

 

September 5th

So if you didn’t see on the news, this place is just lame. It was bad enough when I was going to have to move away and be in the sticks, but now I can’t get a signal worth a damn. Probably because, y’know, half blew up! I was finally going to get to see some of this dump, but thanks to this I’ve been stuck at home.

I shouldn’t be so flippant, I guess, apparently a bunch of people got hurt, and they’re only just managing to put it out? I dunno, whatever. It sucks. At least we have cable here? Anyway, talk to you later.

 

September 6th

I can’t believe I’m finally through. First things, I’m OK, I wasn’t in town when it happened. Do you even know? No-one’s been able to get a signal, but the media have been around way longer the 4G, they must have gotten news out, right? Just in case, here’s what I know; about a week ago, the town blew the eff up, and the whole place has been on fire ever since. The national guard have been dumping gallons of water from a plane trying to get it under control, and it didn’t seem to be helping until today.

Jan’s staying with me at the moment. She’s a wreck. I should probably tell you about it when I see you in person. Listen, call me as soon as you can, I could really do with hearing your voice. Be safe.

 

September 8th

Oh God, dad. Listen, I’m safe, but…. Fuck. I don’t know where to begin. The whole fucking town is gone. I don’t know what happened, there was just this huge boom, and then fire everywhere. It’s been burning ever since. I hadn’t got much food in yet, and the water was fucked up, but the neighbours have been looking after me. We had to tape up the windows when the wind started blowing our way, because of all the ash. I keep thinking about the people, dad. I can’t stop crying. We don’t know what happened. Please, if you can, come and get me. I just need to leave.

 

September 10th

Hey dad. Just to let you know, I’ll be home about 4. Hey, did you hear about Merlistone on the news? The fires are almost out now. I can’t believe I was going to move there, talk about a lucky escape! Anyway, see you later, love you!

03
Jul
14

Nuances in English, volume… 1?

I saw a sign outside Greggs today. It was an invitation to try their sandwiches which, it claims, are “new and improved”. Huh. Really? I’m not sure that’s possible. (Well, kinda, and I’ll get to that… But I think they mean the impossible variant.)

“New” means, well, new. It implies starting from scratch, a beginning point, cessation of continuation. These are not the sandwiches you’re used to, these are new. “Improved”, on the other hand, is a temporal comparative. They are better now than they used to be: these are the same sandwiches you’re used to, but they have improved.

You can’t have both. Doesn’t work that way. You could say they’re “new and better” or something, “our tastiest sandwiches ever!”, but you can’t say you’ve improved something that you’re also saying you only just made!

I said above that there is one possible explanation, and that is that their sandwich range comprises of a mixture of the two… Some of their sandwiches are new, and some are improved. In this case, the sentence is linguistically valid… But also misleading, as the range as a whole is neither entirely new, nor entirely improved.

In conclusion, I think too much about advertising language.

02
Jul
14

What is digital zoom anyway?

You know, as a tech person, I spend a decent amount of time trying to explain tech concepts to none-tech people. Out of every concept I’ve tried to explain, probably the most complicated are the concepts of resolution, and digital zoom.

Part of the problem, I think, is a general unawareness that the two are related. People get that cameras take pictures using megapixels, and that more megapixels are good. But that’s just a number… they don’t really know what that *is*. Shop for a monitor, and they want to buy something big, no idea what resolution is. And the difference between optical and digital zoom, oh man. It should be simple! It really should! But it isn’t!

But you know, I think I’ve got it. I finally figured out the way to explain all this stuff. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’m going to use words as a metaphor for pictures. So here we go.

Let’s say you have a picture. Pretend that there is one page of one book that describes that picture. A low megapixel picture might just be something like “Bob goes to the shop”. There just isn’t much detail there. You can move the book closer to your face, read it again more closely, but it’s still only going to say “Bob goes to the shop”. There just isn’t any more detail there.

Taking the same picture in a megapixel, the page may instead read something like this: “Bob left his house to go to the shops. He was wearing his best shoes, and a merry smile, despite the rain pouring onto his unprotected head. He walked down the road, towards his local Tesco”. Now, it’s the same situation as before, you just have more detail, more information. It take up more room, but you’re getting more out of it.

Now, let’s take a picture at the same, high megapixel setting, but using optical zoom. “Bob was wearing his best shoes. Bright red, with thick soles, it was clear from how shiny they were that they were new, but they seem to fit very comfortably, despite the laces being tied just a little too tightly.” See, you’re getting plenty of detail, but now it’s focused on one part of the image. Things you wouldn’t have known with a wide shot you can now see, but you also can’t see the wider pictures. You can see Bob’s shoes, but not his suit.

Let’s try the same thing, but using digital zoom instead of optical. Now, the page will read like this:

“Bob was wearing his best shoes.”

What you’ve done here is cut away most of the image, and made what’s left bigger, but you haven’t added detail to match. The result is that you now have no extra information, but you’ve also lost all the rest of the picture. To put it another way, you now have something with only the detail of that original, low-megapixel picture , but taking up as much as space as the high-megapixel picture, and only showing as much as the optical zoomed image. Digital zoom is, essentially, a combination of the worst parts of all the others we’ve picked so far.

So now we’ve been talking about cameras… But what about monitors? What about resolution in terms of actually seeing things?

Let’s go back to that high-megapixel description above, and say that that is one screen of information on a middle-sized, middle-resolution monitor. “Bob left his house to go to the shops. He was wearing his best shoes, and a merry smile, despite the rain pouring onto his unprotected head. He walked down the road, towards his local Tesco”. You can see a decent amount. It’s fine.

If we switch to a larger monitor, with the same resolution, what do you think we get?

“Bob left his house to go to the shops. He was wearing his best shoes, and a merry smile, despite the rain pouring onto his unprotected head. He walked down the road, towards his local Tesco”.

Yep, it’s that large type again, but this time we haven’t lost any information. This is like having the same information written on a bigger book. You can see it easier, but you’re not actually seeing anything more. The same amount of writing is on each page, it’s just in larger, friendlier letters

Finally, if you increase the resolution, that’s like writing more and more onto the page. <Insert excruciatingly detailed depiction of Bob’s journey to the shop here.> The page hasn’t gotten any bigger, but there’s more writing on it. If you have good eyesight, that’s great, much more efficient! If you haven’t, well, there’s an easy solution… When you buy a monitor that has a higher resolution, make sure it’s also physically larger. The increased resolution lets you fit more on screen… and the larger monitor makes it all bigger and easier to read. Win-win.

Now, just to tie it all together, remember that megapixels are just a way of measuring resolution. In the same way that a high-megapixel camera is taking pictures that have more information in, a monitor with a high resolution is showing more information on screen. And that is my terribly interesting explanation for how cameras and monitors work.




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