Tag: waffle

189

Those games that you can always come back to...

I've been mucking about with computers for the best part of 25 years now, and in that time I've spent a fair amount of hours playing computer and video games. In fact, as my earlier post about Steam will show, I've got quite a lot of games kicking around on my home PC - most of which I've never played, mind.

But, in that 25 years, I've come across a few games that have made such an impression on me that I can always go back and play them some more. For two of those games, I'd long moaned about how no-one had ever bothered to make a worthy sequel to them, but in recent years those two worthy sequels have materialised and I now have both the old and the new to play with, which spells bad news for my spare time.

Here's a bit of a write up about some of them, starting with...

Frontier: Elite 2 (and Elite: Dangerous)

I kind of missed the boat with the original Elite. It was released in 1984 when I was just a toddler, and until I took ownership of an Amiga A1200 I didn't really have any of the machines that it was available for, and by the time I'd got an A1200, it's sequel was released.

Right from the intro movie, I was hooked:

I loved the sense of freedom that the game provided, and even though strictly speaking there wasn't any "point" to the game (apart from gaining ELITE status, which could only be done by destroying a ridiculous number of AI ships, so I never bothered trying) I never got bored of just flying around soaking up the universe.

I still think that it was an incredible achievement - David Braben squeezed an entire universe into under 500 kilobytes of disk space. True, much of it was procedurally generated, but the core systems were all hand-built and there was of course graphics and audio to be included in that size as well. I imagine this web page probably doesn't fit into 500 kilobytes of disk space!

I always chose the "recommended start position" at Sirocco Station, on the surface of Merlin in the Ross 154 system. My first action would be to buy some hydrogen fuel and some animal meat, and then jet off into the big black (or rather, the big blue in Frontier's case) and hyperjump to Barnard's Star, where I would dock at Boston Base (an Orbis starport that orbited Birminghamworld, if I remember rightly) and sell the animal meat. I can never remember what I took back to Ross 154 - I want to say Robots or Computers, but I think they may have been too expensive to buy at this stage, so it might have been Farm Machinery.

Either way, I went back and forth between the two stations until I'd raised enough to move over to Sol (where Earth is, non-spacey people!) and do more trading around there before getting in with the Federal Military.

Eventually I'd get cash rich enough to upgrade my Eagle Long Range Fighter to a Viper Defence Craft and then I'd go and kick some space pirate arse. Although usually what happened was that I would get my non-pirate arse handed to me on a plate and I'd have to start over.

Over the years I've most likely spent thousands of hours playing this game, and it's one of the ones I always wanted a worthy sequel to. Frontier: First Encounters came out in 1996 but I never had it as I wasn't a PC owner at the time, and it was a buggy mess anyway.

Over time, rumours started that David Braben and his company Frontier Developments were working on a new sequel, the much vaunted Elite 4. Nothing ever came to fruition though, until a few years ago when Elite: Dangerous appeared on Kickstarter and made an absolute fortune. I put quite a bit of money into it myself, and the game came out last year to a mixed reception. I enjoy playing it, and still do occasionally, but at the moment it lacks some of the features that made Frontier so special - namely planetary landings and passenger transport missions, but the former is coming to the game very soon.

And it looks so, so pretty...

UFO: Enemy Unknown

The spiritual successor to Laser Squad by the Gollop Brothers, UFO: Enemy Unknown (or X-COM: UFO Defense as it was known in the States) was a turn-based strategy game centred around the story of an alien invasion of Earth.

I'd played turn based strategy games before (including Laser Squad, and the good-but-not-quite-as-good-as-UFO Sabre Team) but none of them really "gripped" me in the way that UFO did.

I think it was the combination of base and resource management and the actual turn based battles themselves, it made it feel like a deeper game (and it was only really in the mid 2000s, when I got involved with the UFOpaedia, that I became aware of just how deep the game actually was)

Here's the intro:

The best part about UFO was that it was completely and utterly unrelenting. In most games back then, and even more so today, you were punished for failure - but the difficulty level in UFO (even on the easiest setting) was such that you could expect to lose your soldiers constantly, and for the most part it didn't matter - in fact, in many cases you found yourself recruiting soldiers specifically to be used as cannon fodder.

In most games, the difficulty curve starts off very easy and, as you learn the ropes, the difficulty increases until you get to the Big Bad Boss. This was basically reversed in UFO - at the start of the game, you were outnumbered, outarmoured, outgunned and outclassed in pretty much every way. You are facing off against an unknown enemy force and you know literally nothing about them or their capabilities. As the game progresses, your research scientists discover more about the aliens and their weapons and you develop effective methods for fighting them.

At this point, the game normally throws harder aliens at you with new capabilities, but as time goes on and your scientists produce more and more kit, your job gets easier as you can fight back with alien weaponry. By the time you reach the "endgame", you should have almost no trouble at all taking on the aliens.

This is another game that I've logged a stupid number of hours on. Sure, it has a dated user interface and graphics (although I love the "manga" style, personally) but in terms of gameplay, atmosphere and sheer outright difficulty, nothing has ever come close for me.

And, as with Frontier, this game has been crying out for a decent sequel for a long time. Many, many game developers have tried and most have failed. It was only in 2012 when Firaxis Games announced that they were working on a new game - XCOM: Enemy Unknown - that I sat up and took notice.

The 2012 game (which has recently had a sequel announced, creatively titled XCOM 2) changed some elements of the original, which I remember being quite aggrieved about at the time, but those negative thoughts faded away as soon as I played the demo. It was near perfect, and a bang-on reimagining of the original game. I seem to remember writing a review of XCOM back when it was released, too.

Cannon Fodder

This was a bit of a controversial game at the time. The original box-art featured a red poppy, which led to a hate campaign in various British newspapers, who vilified it as an insult to war veterans and people that had died in service of the country, claiming that it glorified war.

Of course, what every single one of those newspaper editors had failed to realise, and what would have become patently obvious if they'd bothered to play the damn thing, was that Cannon Fodder was very much anti-war. Through satire, the use of visual metaphors (like the "Boot Hill", which would slowly become filled with the headstones of soldiers that had died under your command) and other small touches (like all of your soldiers having names) the game went to pretty big lengths to point out that actually, war's a bit on the crap side and that we should do all we can to avoid it, it being a senseless waste of life.

Besides all of this controversy, the game was great to play and over the course of the game you became really quite attached to your little green helmeted guys.

I don't really get much chance to play this (and its sequel from a couple of years later) any more these days as I can only really play it on an Amiga emulator and I often can't be bothered to boot it up, but it's still as good today as it was then, and I would give my left nut for a phone/tablet conversion.

A Russian company was licensed to make a sequel in 2011. It was crap. It tried desperately to retain the charm of the previous two games, but the move to 3D really didn't work, and nor did the poor attempts at keeping the same atmosphere.

It also didn't help that there was clearly a dodgy translation somewhere as lots of parts of the game (right down to its Start Menu shortcut) referred to it as Connon Fodder 3.

Still, at least the first two games are still playable. There is a game in development from someone completely unrelated to the originals that looks promising (Jarheads, by the excellently named Gareth Williams) and, should the worst come to the worst, the first game gave the world possibly the greatest video game music video to have ever existed:

149

Sometimes I wish I was an ideas man

Over the past few months, I've begun noticing more and more adverts (or promoted posts, or whatever they want to call them) on Facebook trying to sell me products that the advertisers have deemed that I need, no doubt from analysing my browsing history, the status updates that I post to Facebook, my tweets and every other digital footprint that I leave on my hike through the information superhighway.

The thing that amazes me is how (quite frankly) utterly ridiculous many of these products appear to be. I've included a few examples below. In true "don't sue me" fashion, I feel I should write a disclaimer that states that I'm sure all of the products featured below have a valid use and aren't just shameless cash grabs for unsuspecting gadgetphiles, but that they're just not for me and my opinion counts more than anything else. Natch.

Nope

Let's start with this one, shall we?

I used to have a MacBook Air, with a built in webcam. I have a laptop now, again with a built in webcam. I don't think I've ever been particularly bothered by the prospect of someone remotely switching my webcam on - let's face it, I'm just not that interesting, and out of the billion or so Internet users (probably more than that) why would someone pick little old me?

Clearly I'm something of an odd one out though, as nearly eight thousand people with more money than sense donated a grand total of just over $93,000 (NINETY THREE THOUSAND UNITED STATES DOLLARS) to "bring this project to life."

To be fair to the project creator, the lowest pledge tier was $5 and that at least got you a two-pack of Nopes.

However, as one Nope is basically just a small neodymium rare earth magnet, I can't work out why someone would buy Nope instead of just forking out a fraction of the price for a pack of 10 from Amazon.

Klokers

This project is still in the funding stage but is somehow going to be fully funded.

Watches and other timepieces have remained largely unchanged since they were invented, for all intents and purposes. Sure, the invention of the digital watch meant that people didn't need to look at analogue clock faces any more, and there have always been novelty watches available, but this is something else.

Not only is the watch itself much harder to read "at a glance" than every other timepiece ever made, but it retails for a mere 349 euros. Actually, reading the campaign page, this price doesn't seem too high as the engineering involved to make this watch work as described must be quite involved, but 349 euros will buy you all manner of watches or smartwatches.

Reading the Kickstarter page, it becomes very apparent that they are targeting hipsters and other fashionistas who would probably buy a watch like this purely to make a statement rather than as an actual functional item.

(I'm hardly one to talk about this, incidentally, in that I own an Apple Watch. But at least I bought mine to use, damnit, and to look vaguely idiotic when paying for something at a supermarket.)

"Watches to travel through time", indeed. Get bent.

The BASICS Notebook

This is another one that continually pops up in my Facebook feed, usually with a suitable clickbaity headline like "You Won't Believe The Features That This Notebook Has! It's INSANE!"

They wanted $10,000 to get the manufacturing of this notebook off the ground. They ended up with just over $383,000.

For some bloomin' paper and faux leather - not even real bloody leather! The cheapskates! $27 for one notebook. $27 for a non-refillable notebook. $27 for a notebook that boasts such incredible (sorry, "INSANE!") features as having a gap at the top for putting a pen in, like people don't have pockets.

Amazing. Simply amazing.

What next?

A portable flask made out of titanium, that ships with it's own unique insulating coat, and is designed purely for the collection and bottling of snow for the express purpose of retailing to Inuit communities?

This is why I'm not an ideas man.

And, do you know what? On reflection, I take the heading of this post back. I'm glad I'm not.

155

Range anxiety

By "range", I do of course mean "distance", not "shooting range" or "frying range" - although to be fair, I have experienced frying range anxiety from my first job working at a local chippie. That was more to do with the owner though, a large, hairy Greek man called Tony who insisted on calling me Gary no matter how many times I told him I was at best "Gaz" and at the very worst, "Gareth."

Distance anxiety, then

Oh yes, sorry - got a bit sidetracked. Which is sort of apt for the topic of this post.

A lot is said about electric vehicles and "range anxiety" - i.e. being worried that you will not have enough battery power left to reach your destination.

Because EVs are (currently, at least) far more limited in terms of their potential range, there's no denying that not being sure about your state of charge can be something of a concern.

However, the number of public charging points dotted around the place should make this more or less a thing of the past, and I had my first real taste of this today.

The day started with me doing the school run, with Jem. I've never done the school run before, so it was nice to get out and do so. However, it did mean using up about 10 miles of precious range before I'd even started my journey to work (18 miles.)

I then had an appointment after work in Newport to see an osteomyologist about my back problem (which is still giving me a ton of pain, annoyingly) so that took off another 16 miles.

Now, ordinarily at this point, I would have just gone home (about 13-15 miles from Newport I think) and all would have been fine, but on this occasion I had to pop back to Shrewsbury to do some shopping for my Mum, so that knocked another 16 miles off (for a total of approx. 60 miles) and still left me 18 miles from home.

In theory, it would have been fine - the range meter was showing 24 miles left, but I'm not that used to the car yet so I didn't want to risk running out of electrons on the way up Harley Bank near Much Wenlock (steep hills will kill the range of an EV, and Harley Bank has a 12% incline)

I therefore hatched a plan - I would do my Mum's shopping at ASDA instead of Morrisons, and take advantage of the fast charger they have on their car park to top up while I was shopping (and, to maximise charging time, Jem and I decided to nip further up the road to Nando's for a bite to eat)

I am the Chargemaster!

The public charger at ASDA Shrewsbury is operated by Chargemaster, and users can either register to receive an RFID card used to open the sockets, or they can pop in to the store and ask to borrow one of their cards for a £10 refundable deposit.

Unfortunately for me, this took a bit longer than planned as the woman behind the counter at ASDA had no idea what I was talking about and had to call a colleague to come and get the card for me, but all was well in the end and they even waived the £10 deposit as I only had a card on me rather than cash.

There are two charging posts, each with a 3kW and 7kW charger on board - fortunately I specified the 6.6kW charging option for the LEAF when I bought it, so could take advantage of the faster charge. I'd remembered to leave my Type 2 charging cable in the boot so I was able to hook it all up for an hour and a bit while we did the shopping and had our quickie-chickie.

Success!

Upon returning to the car (and having returned the RFID card back to the customer services desk in store) I switched the car on and found it had gone from 21% charged to 55% and that I now had an effective range of 52 miles - more than enough to get home!

Conclusion

I can understand why people get anxious about range with their EVs, although I didn't worry too much - even if the charger at ASDA had been out of service I would have risked it and probably just ended up getting a taxi back the rest of the way if I'd run out of juice.

I had to rearrange my plans for the evening slightly to fit in around using the charger, but it actually all worked out quite well in the end and very probably saved time - had I had the range to spare in the first place, I may have ended up spending ages driving around deciding on a place to eat!

Next time, I think I'll push the car a bit more and see if I can find out just how far I can push it before it stops.


33

"Let off some Steam, Bennett!"

Points to anyone who recognises the quote, which bears only a tangential relationship with the topic of today's post.

So, what is it? Is the topic movies? Movie quotes? Arnold Schwarzenegger? The family featured most heavily in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?

No - it's Steam. And by that, I mean the digital software distribution platform, not the gaseous form of H2O.

Why would you write about that?

Well, truth be told, I'm running out of ideas a bit - it's day 16 of Septemblog, I've written more posts on here so far this month than I have done for the past two years - I'm basically clutching at more straw than Worzel Gummidge in the throes of sexual ecstasy (with Mrs. Gummidge, obv.)

Still, someone mentioned Steam, and it made me think about how many games I have on my Steam account, and how many of them I've actually played. So, let's get into statistics...

"Games, games! Everywhere I go - games! This is what my lifetime of achievement has been reduced to."

Again, points to anyone who recognises the quote.

I joined Steam on November 20th, 2004, so I'm coming up to my 11th Steamiversary. Apparently I was a relatively early adopter, as Steam's initial release was in September 2003.

The first game that I bought through the platform was most likely Half-Life 2, and this would tally up with my registration date, as the game was released on November 16th. According to mysteamgauge, where I'm getting these stats from, I've played 0.64 hours of Half-Life 2, which isn't right as I've completed that game and it took me a damn sight longer than just over half an hour!

swyd2015The last game that I bought was Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015: Do You Still Shower With Your Dad? - a delightfully silly game written by one of the guys from the Making Games Megathread on the SomethingAwful forums. It's also a game with a surprising amount of depth - and a not-entirely unsurprising amount of dong. I've played 0.1 hours of this, but I should really play a lot more as it's quite enjoyable.

The game that I've played the most of is Far Cry 3, logging a total of 237.19 hours. I can definitely believe that, I spent far too long playing that game, completing every objective and raiding every outpost. Tremendously good fun.

Next up is XCOM: Enemy Unknown at a surprisingly-low 44.39 hours. I'm not sure that's correct, as I feel like I've spent weeks playing that - but I could be getting it confused with the original UFO: Enemy Unknown (X-COM: UFO Defense for you Americans). The sequel to this, the imaginatively titled XCOM 2 (not sure if the subtitle is Enemy Known or not) comes out in February 2016, and I can't bloody wait.

Totals

I have a total of 213 games on my Steam account, which - had I paid full price for all of them - would have been at least $3,500. However, Steam Summer/Christmas sales and Humble Bundles have meant I could acquire many of these on the cheap.

Of those 213 games, I have played approximately 85. That's actually quite high, I wasn't expecting it to be that much.

The total install size of all of my Steam games is a whopping 987.8 GB. But about 985 GB of that is Grand Theft Auto V.

Conclusions

I have too much money, and not enough time. A bit like Walter White.

29

For all intensive purposes

L PlateNo, this isn't going to be a post about commonly mispronounced sayings and phrases, although that may form the basis of a future post - I suppose that depends on whether I could care less or not.

This post was inspired by this post that I came across today on Catherine's blog, and I thought driving lessons and tests would make a good topic for today's waffle.

Son, we can do this the easy way or the hard way

It was 2002. I was 19, and I figured now was the time to learn to drive. Up until now, the only exposure I'd had to driving was playing the Gran Turismo series on the PlayStation, and driving my brother's Vauxhall Cavalier around the car park at Morrisons at the age of 15 - during which I vividly remember exclaiming, "This is nothing like Gran Turismo! How can they call it the 'Real Driving Simulator'?! Beggars belief."

So I did some research and decided that, as I would be leaving college imminently and that a driving licence would help me find a job, doing an intensive driving course would be the way forward. I figured it would be easier to get it all done and dusted, rather than protract it out longer than needed. BSM (the British School of Motoring) were offering 30 hour intensive courses, with the driving test at the end, and I dutifully signed up.

The 30 hour lesson programme basically took place over the course of 5 days, but as the test was on the afternoon of the 5th day, with a two hour lesson beforehand, I basically had to cram in 28 hours of driving lessons over 4 days.

At the end of it, my instructor (Neville Blake, not sure if he's still teaching!) was happy that I was test-ready and packed me off to the Driving Test Centre in Shrewsbury.

It didn't go terribly well.

17 minors, 2 serious faults, 1 dangerous fault and a partridge in a pear tree

For context, if there's anyone reading who doesn't know how the UK driving test works, you are tested on a huge variety of driving tasks - it's widely regarded as one of the hardest driving tests in the developed world.

If you make a mistake, that's a minor fault. You are allowed to make up to 15 minor faults in your test and still pass, although if you repeat the same mistake too many times that can fail you.

There are also serious faults and dangerous faults, and just one of either of these is an automatic, instant fail.

The partridge in the pear tree is by-the-by.

I can't remember what all of my minor faults were for, but I know I got at least three for "undue hesitation", as I remember being a bit annoyed at being marked down for being too cautious, thinking that extra caution was a good thing. Of course, since then I've come to realise that good driving is not only about being safe and making progress, but also not impeding others who also want to make progress.

I've also forgotten one of my serious faults. The other one, however, is really annoying. I was driving down a narrow-ish road lined with parked cars, in a residential area. My speed was appropriate for the conditions, that much I am sure, but all of a sudden a small kid (is there any other kind?) rode out into the road on a little pushbike, shooting out from behind a hedgerow in his garden.

There was no way I could have predicted it - I couldn't see movement under the hedge in the same way you'd be able to with a parked car - but I remembered my training and instinctively went to perform an emergency stop.

Unfortunately, I felt the brake pedal move away from underneath my foot as I went to stomp on it - the examiner had got there first. Again, if the examiner has to take physical action, it's an instant fail. I was a bit aggrieved by this, as my reactions as a learner driver are bound to be a little bit slower than a seasoned professional, but never mind - the other faults meant I would have failed regardless, even if I'd completed the stop without help.

The dangerous fault was for pulling out of a (very short) slip road on to a dual carriageway and (apparently) causing a HGV to slow down to accommodate my manoeuvre. The fact I don't remember even seeing the HGV is more worrying, so I'll let that one slide.

So, what went wrong?

I was test ready. I felt ready. I knew the theory (I scored 35/35 on the theory test, although as that's mostly just common sense I'm not sure how people don't) and I could perform manoeuvres to perfection - even the parallel park, which I'm terrible at nowadays on account of hardly ever having to do it.

I think the problem I had was that I simply did not have enough "on the road" experience. 30 hours of non-stop learning would tire anyone out regardless of the subject matter, so it's hardly a surprise that I clearly didn't take enough in.

One of the first things my instructor said to me was that he wasn't teaching me to drive, he was basically teaching me to pass the driving test, because you never stop learning how to drive. And he was right.

I stopped learning to drive after my test, until the spring of 2004 when I resumed lessons - one a week, this time with Geoff Young (who I think is still teaching, I see him about occasionally) and with lots of private practice in between to build up my "road hours."

It turns out that there are a huge number of variables and scenarios that you will encounter when out on the road that learning to drive in such a short space of time just cannot prepare you for.

I passed my second driving test in August 2004, with just 4 minor faults this time. Interestingly, during this test, we came upon a "fresh" accident on a dual carriageway, and my examiner - to his credit - advised me on how best to deal with the obstruction as if he was my instructor, not my examiner.

TL;DR

My advice to anyone looking to learn to drive is, put simply:

  1. Don't do an intensive course unless you're 100% sure it's right for you
  2. Get in lots of private practice
  3. Do your research, and choose a driving instructor that you get on well with (this guy comes thoroughly recommended if you're in the Shropshire region)
  4. Don't be disheartened if things don't go as planned - as said above, you never stop learning so don't worry too much
  5. Once you've passed, look into things like PassPlus or even Advanced Driving courses

And finally, enjoy yourself! Driving offers you unprecedented freedom to go and do whatever you want, it's worth the effort.

27

Turning over a new Leaf

As I mentioned in one of my posts just the other day, I've been driving for 11 years now - I passed my test in August 2004. Since that time, I've gone through cars like most people go through underpants - 22 of them to be precise - pretty much two a year.

I started out with fairly small and slow cars, as would befit a newly qualified driver, and slowly progressed through to 500bhp monsters like the V10-powered BMW M5.

My tastes over the last few years have been for Vee-engined BMWs in general, to be honest - primarily V10 and V8 gas guzzlers, to be precise. The two V10 M5s would regularly achieve such heady heights of 12 miles per gallon - which, at today's petrol price (£1.07 per litre), with my current work commute (18 miles each way) would see me spending a whopping £14.57 per day to get to work and back - assuming 20 work days per month, that's nearly £300 a month - and that's just for my work mileage, not even taking into account other journeys.

My last BMW, a 750i, which I sold on Friday night, got around 22mpg on average, so that's better but is still £7.95 per day.

Plus of course, there was tax to consider - £505 per year for the BMW. Plus servicing and maintenance/repairs costs, which could have potentially been a wallet-killer on an older BMW - I once had to pay near enough £3,000 for a clutch and flywheel replacement on my first M5.

On top of all that, there's the money to pay for the car in the first place. In other words, owning these damn cars hasn't been cheap.

Something had to change.

Why don't you make like a tree, and leaf?

So, it was with some excitement and also nervousness that I approached my local Nissan dealer a month and a bit ago and enquired about loaning one of their Nissan LEAF electric vehicles for a four day test drive.

I'd been following the development of electric vehicles with much interest over the last few years, a pal of mine up in Scotland* has long been a proponent of EVs, and often posted on Be Excellent To Each Other about his latest custom projects, but they never really appealed - probably because of the Clarksonist tripe often spouted about them.

However, the media coverage of the Tesla Roadster and Model S, and the frequent musings of Red Dwarf and Scrapheap Challenge star Robert Llewellyn, another strong advocate of EVs, made me sit up and pay attention.

Anyway, Greenhous Nissan in Telford were more than happy to loan me a LEAF for a few days. It ended up being a 48 hour test drive as they unexpectedly sold the demo car and had to have it back for preparation, but my experiences over the 48 hours convinced me that EVs are the future, and I paid a visit to the dealership the week after handing the car back and placed an order for my own LEAF.

I picked it up yesterday, and here it is, resplendent in the free Flame Red paint, because I was too much of a cheapskate to pay extra for metallic paint and the only other option would have been white - and cars don't look good in white unless they're also covered in Castrol livery!

leaf

So, let's cover off a few of the questions that are often raised about electric vehicles - and again, as with my Eggheads appearance, I've been asked quite a few questions, so here they are in roughly the order in which I've been asked them the most:

Q. Electric? Have you gone mad? I thought you were supposed to be a "petrolhead" - the clue's in the name!

A. Yes, it's fully electric, and no I haven't gone mad. As for being a petrolhead - I would argue that a petrolhead is someone who has an interest in cars in general, so that hasn't changed. There's no denying that the LEAF is interesting, and besides, I'm keeping the Celica.

Q. How far will it go on a single charge?

A. Official figures are 120 miles (on the New European Driving Cycle) but these figures are always a bit out of whack. Real-world usage by others suggest a realistic maximum of around 85-90 miles depending on driving style, weather conditions, outside temperature etc.

Q. That's hardly anything!

A. Well, not compared to most petrol/diesel cars, no. But the LEAF will be fine for 95% of my day to day driving, and if I do need to make any longer journeys, then a number of options are open to me:

  • Use the Celica
  • Use Jem's Honda Jazz
  • Rent a car
  • Borrow a car from Nissan themselves, they have a programme setup for this
  • Go in the LEAF, but plan the journey to include recharges

To be fair, I'd probably take one of the first two options simply for convenience - but they're all viable.

Q. How long does it take to recharge?

A. That depends on the charger, and of course how full the battery is already. From 0% to 80% would take around 11 hours on a 3-pin domestic plug socket, or around 4 hours on a dedicated home charger, or 20-30 minutes on a rapid charger.

I'm having a home charging unit installed tomorrow (at a greatly reduced cost, as the Government provide grants for doing so) and Ecotricity have a growing network of rapid chargers installed at most motorway service stations, so a quick 20 minute stop off every hour and a half isn't too much of a problem.

Plus there are loads of publically accessible charging points dotted all around the UK - see Zap Map for proof!

 

Q. It's not the best looking car, is it?

A. It's alright - the arse end is a bit challenging, but I quite like the look of it.

Q. What's it like to drive?

A. At first, quite odd. It's almost completely silent, it is incredibly smooth and vibration-free. Even at speed there's almost no wind noise and the ride quality is incredible. After taking my 48 hour test drive I got back into the BMW and starting the engine felt positively neolithic with it's loud burbling and vibrations - and I like the sound of V8s!

Q. How much money is this going to save you?

A. In terms of the cost of paying for the car, it's about as much as I was paying for the BMW, but the LEAF is brand new. Consequently, it comes with a full manufacturer's warranty so I don't have to worry about paying for repairs. Maintenance is virtually non-existent thanks to there being almost no moving parts and fluids, so servicing costs are minimal. It costs me nothing in VED (road tax) as EVs are exempt, and even my insurance is cheaper.

The best part though is that to "refuel" I just have to plug it into my house, and I'll end up paying around 2p per mile - meaning that my daily commute will cost me, at most, just 75p or so per day.

Q. Coming from a 7-series BMW, this must be like driving a Lada by comparison, right?

A. Not at all. It has just as many mod-cons as the 750i, and even some more on top. A BOSE sound system with Bluetooth audio capabilities and iPod/USB playback (not even the 750i had those!), heated seats, a heated steering wheel, reversing cameras (and even an "All Round View" camera which shows you your entire surroundings:

leaf_camera

(picture from the teslamotorsclub.com forums)

Plus, of course, I can plug the car into the house to charge and have it set to warm itself up for me in the mornings so that by the time I get into it to go to work, it's already nice and toasty warm - it'll even turn the heated steering wheel on for me for 15 minutes before departure if it's cold enough.

Q. It's not really that environmentally friendly though, is it? I mean, the electricity is still being generated by coal!

A. Well, I'm not doing this for the environment (although it is a side benefit) - but consider that most internal combustion engines are, at most, approx. 20% efficient - i.e. for every litre of fuel they use, only 20% of the energy released goes towards moving the car. Electric vehicles are closer to 65% efficient - so even though fossil fuels are still being burned to power them, you're getting more for less - and of course, as more green energy sources are used, electric vehicles become greener without needing to change anything on the car.

Q. Yeah, but if everyone drove electric vehicles, the National Grid would crumble under the strain!

A. Not really. It takes a huge amount of energy to refine crude oil into petrol and other fuels. If everyone switched to EVs, we wouldn't need to refine as much oil so that energy usage would be brought right down, making more capacity for EV charging!

You're a convert, then?

Yeah, pretty much. The technology can only get better, battery life (and therefore range) can only increase - it's an exciting time to get in on the ground floor.

Hell, my lease on the LEAF lasts for two years and then I have to hand the car back (or buy it I suppose, but that won't make much sense as technology will have likely moved on by then) - so in theory I may have even saved enough in fuel costs etc. that I'll be able to switch it for a Tesla Model S...

* hello, kalmar!


19

No-one would have believed...

...that in the first years of the 2010s, a new version of Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of War of the Worlds would be created that is inferior to the 1978 original in pretty much every way.

The original album - featuring the dulcet tones of the late Richard Burton as the Journalist, is my favourite album of all time, so the release of a new version in 2012 replacing Richard Burton with Taken star Liam Neeson raised my eyebrows.

Don't get me wrong, I like Liam. He was great in Schindler's List, Taken (although the less said about the sequels the better) and, to be honest, pretty much every film he's ever been in.

But I just couldn't picture him (or hear him, whatever the right term should be) as the Journalist.

Being a bit of a fanboy for Jeff Wayne's most famous work (I even went to the O2 Arena in 2009 for the 30th Anniversary tour, which was at the time touted as being the last tour they would do - only for them to do another tour the year after) I have listened to the 2012 release and I just cannot find anything to like about it.

Wayne explores the characters a bit deeper than in the original, which I suppose can be considered a positive. But, for me, the revised audio (including the frankly odd addition of some "dubstep" style elements) just doesn't really work and dates the album even more.

My main beef with it though, is that Liam Neeson just does not have the right voice for the role - he almost sounds like he's phoning in a lot of his lines, there's no gravitas to them. Richard Burton's slow, methodical recital of the lines, with emphasis in all the right places, makes for a far more engaging experience.

One of the best examples of the differences, for me at least, is in the track Dead London. Compare the dialogue in the original against the new version below - start at 3:00 if the embed doesn't automatically forward you to that point.

Dead London (1978, Richard Burton)

Dead London (2012, Liam Neeson)

Neeson's enunciation and general timing is all off, for me, and a general lack of 'feeling' in what is being said. Burton's speech and the pregnant pauses between certain words adds a whole other level of emphasis that really drives home the emotion in what the character is feeling.

It also doesn't help that there are weird echoes applied to the end of many sentences in the new version.

Perhaps it's just because I'm so used to Richard Burton's voice that I can't get on with it - please comment below with your preferred version, it would be good to find out if it's just me being overly picky.

18

Those wonderful moments

I just had a ludicrously silly conversation with Jem that ended in her doubled over in laughter and me silently feeling very pleased with myself for causing it, especially with such inane rubbish.

I'll attempt to transcribe the conversation here, but take this as fair warning - you really did have to be there, it won't be anywhere near as funny writtten out.

It all started with Jem sniffing my armpit (don't ask) and informing me that I smelt good. The conversation then went as follows:

G: I always smell good. [in French accent] It's all thanks to Pong de Light Guard*

J: *laughs*

G: [after thinking that "Pong de" sounds a bit like "Pomme de", and again spoken in a French accent] I'm working on my next fragrance, it smells like potato. I call it "Pong de terre."

J: *laughter* You're a 'nana.

G: [French] Ah, non, that fragrance isn't ready yet. "Pong de peel."

J: *laughter* Oh dear.

G: I should really have gone with "Paco Banane" for that one.

J: *guttural moans*

G: [back to French] I think you'd also really enjoy my pea-flavoured fragrance, "Petits Pong."

J: OK, that's enough now.

G: Or my bean-themed product, "Pong tout."

J: Please stop.

Sometimes, it's the little moments that really make you appreciate the person you're with.

* Not sure why I said "Light Guard" instead of "Right Guard" here, but in the interests of accuracy I've not bothered to correct it.

25

Driving me up the wall

As regular followers of this blog will know, I love cars and I love driving. The feeling of freedom, of being able to go and do whatever I want in any part of the country (provided I have enough fuel and money to get there of course) coupled with the sheer fun of some roads is very addictive.

But, of course, as with all good things, there are many bad things that balance things out. So, this post is about some of my pet peeves on the road - some of them to do with other people's driving skills, and some other niggles and thoughts!

Poster-children for the Carphone Warehouse

carphone

This seems to be something of a pandemic at the moment. When I'm out driving, or even when I'm walking through town, I will regularly see drivers take their eyes off the road and glance down at their lap - clearly with some sort of phone or other mobile device tucked down there that they're texting on or something like that. I see this in all ages, but there's a definite bias towards younger drivers - which is even more frightening as arguably they are the exact group of people that should be concentrating more.

Studies have regularly shown that the dangers of driving while using a mobile phone or other handheld device are very real. Unfortunately, it seems that the rampant cuts to police budgets (as well as an apparent indifference amongst many officers) means that the semi-recently introduced laws surrounding the use of hand-held devices in a car just aren't being enforced, and people are obviously starting to wise up to that fact.

When you confront people about this, if you don't get a torrent of abuse hurled back at you, they usually try and defend themselves with logic like, "it was only a short message" or "I had to call to let them know I was going to be late back", neither of which are really good excuses. Some people like to state that it's "no worse than talking to a passenger in the car", which is clearly rubbish of course as passengers can work out when to shut the hell up based on road conditions or the body language of the driver.

Now, despite all my ranting here, I can't plead complete innocence myself. I sometimes get my phone out of my pocket while driving, but it's almost always to move it somewhere else so that I can use it as a sat-nav, or to make my leg more comfortable. I've certainly never had a phone call while holding the device, that's what Bluetooth was invented for - although I'm even starting to turn myself off those calls, as it very clearly affects my concentration on the road ahead.

Touch screens in cars

Many modern cars now include some form of "infotainment" system in the dashboard, often containing a satellite navigation unit, stereo controls, car settings menus etc.

However, a rather disturbing trend is for many of them to not have physical buttons to operate them, but instead to use entirely touch-based input. This is a retrograde step for one simple reason - physical buttons can be memorised and their position "felt" without looking. With touch screens, you don't get any of this physical feedback so you need to look at the screen to work out what button you're about to press, which seems very dangerous!

tesla_model_s_interior

The most extreme example of this in recent times is, in my opinion, the Tesla Model S - the interior of which is pictured above. A truly groundbreaking car in many respects - I think it's the first production full-electric vehicle capable of going 200 miles on a single charge, and it's certainly the first production EV to be able to sprint from 0-60mph in under 3 seconds.

But look at the size of that touch screen on the centre console. Sure, it might look impressive, but are you seriously telling me that this won't be a distraction!

Tailgaters

tailgating

A nice quick rant, this. I really hate people that glue themselves to my arse. I get this a surprising amount, especially in the Celica, which - looking as it does - probably goads people into thinking they can get me to race them.

Sod off, I'm not interested, and if you'd like to climb out of my rectal passage at the same time, then that'd do me just fine.

My usual method of dealing with this problem is simply to gradually slow down until they overtake - I'd rather have an idiot in front of me where I can keep an eye on them, than behind me where I can't.

The "M6 TOLL CLEAR" sign

m6toll

Regular travellers on the M40/M42 will be familiar with the sign that gives an update of the level of congestion on the M6 Toll. Which is to say, that it almost always seems to say "M6 TOLL CLEAR" and nothing else.

I don't particularly have a problem with that, per se, but it would to my mind be far more useful for it to tell me how congested the M6 is, so that I can decide whether to use the toll road or not.

I've been reliably informed that in actual fact, the sign does warn of congestion on the M6 too, and that if the sign simply says "M6 TOLL CLEAR" then the main M6 is fairly clear too. But it still rubs me up the wrong way.

The "how dare you overtake" club

road_rage

I've been driving for over 10 years now, and (touch wood) in all of that time I've never had a speeding ticket and never had an accident. Actually, that last bit isn't strictly true, I was involved in an accident last year but it wasn't my fault and there wasn't anything I could have done to prevent it short of physically not being there, so I don't count that.

I (usually) drive a fairly powerful car that is capable of overtaking most things with little fuss.

So it really grinds my gears when the person I'm overtaking takes umbrage at my manoeuvre and then proceeds to speed up - sometimes before I've completed the overtake - and shake their fists at me.

Perhaps if they weren't going at 40mph in a 60mph limit in clear conditions, I wouldn't have overtaken.

But the real pet peeve for me is when oncoming cars flash their lights at me after I've completed an overtake, as if to say "Watch out, you bloody maniac!" - nearly every time this happens, there's a good 4-5 second gap between me pulling back on to my own side of the road and them going past me. I do recall one time when I cut it a little close, but in my defence the oncoming car was clearly travelling way in excess of the speed limit - something which only became obvious as they got closer to me.

And finally...

crap_parking

People that don't seem to be able to park in a single space in a car park. They have to straddle the lines, because they're inconsiderate prats.

Or they park ludicrously close to the white lines so that I have to climb out of my own car via the sunroof. Although to be fair, in some of these cases it's quite possible that they had to park like that because of other prats who have subsequently driven off.


24

Kinetic Impatient Defenceless Symbiotes

At least, I assume that's what KIDS are.

I've long held the opinion that, when it comes to children, I don't want any. I've never been particularly keen on them, probably mainly because I didn't really "get" them and consequently always felt really awkward around them.

My complete lack of desire to procreate destroyed two of my previous relationships, so it was with much trepidation that I embarked on my relationship with Jem, who - as some of you will know - has two children from her previous relationship.

If I went back in time a few years and told my past self that in The Year Of Our Lord 2015 I would be living with two children and my partner, I'm fairly sure that past self would have scoffed and then probably tried to have my current self sectioned or something like that, but there you go - I guess things change.

For my part, I realised immediately after meeting Jem that everything about her was just... right, and as she appeared to feel the same way about me, I didn't think it justifiable to effectively stop our chances of mutual happiness just because her vagina had expunged a couple of mini-humans.

Speaking of those two, here they are, in a photo that I took of them at the weekend while they were running around playing at being superheroes. Oliver, on the left, was "Superman" (in a cape that for reasons unknown reminds me of the rocket from Button Moon) and Isabel was "Superlady, Queen of the Strawberries."

supercapes

I've been living with Jem for just over a couple of months now, and although admittedly the kids weren't here for a lot of that time (during the summer holidays, they spend most of the week with their Dad and the weekends with us) I'm quite surprised by how quickly I've become accustomed to having the little ankle-biters around.

Dare I say it, I'm even becoming attached to them!

I suppose it helps enormously that they seem to like me and are apparently keen to spend time with Jem and I, so that's good - it could have been very different I suppose, had they taken umbrage at my appearance on the scene.

I'm also definitely softening up as a result of the exposure to little people. I can genuinely see why (some) parents talk endlessly about their "little cherubs" and take any opportunity they can to whip a photo out of their purse/wallet to show anyone that will listen.

One of the things that I like most about Izzy and Olly is that they respond very well to being spoken to like adults - if that makes sense. I've always hated it when people do the whole "baby talk" thing ("cootchie-cootchie-coo" and all that rubbish) even though with other people's kids I've found myself doing that almost without thinking. With these two, I can have a reasonably adult conversation with them and they will be able to respond back - they're also of sound mind enough to ask me to explain something if they don't understand what I'm rabbiting on about, which is refreshing.

Jem is a trooper too, and puts up with what is possibly the worst part of parenting - the temper tantrums. I don't quite feel "ready" to become a proper "stepdad" to them as it were, and would feel really awkward disciplining the kids - they're not mine to discipline, after all - so Jem has to deal with that side of things.

She's clearly nuts though, as a couple of weeks ago Jem asked me to babysit for her on the Sunday morning while she went to Ellesmere to compete in a 10K race. To say I was terrified is something of an understatement...

What's the worst that could happen?

Well, quite.

Jem had primed the kids already, telling them that I'd be looking after them and that they had to be good. Yeah, like that'd work.

I figured, with Jem's agreement and blessing, that I could just shove a film on for them and they'd sit there and watch that. They love the Despicable Me films (as do most kids I imagine) so I put on Despicable Me 2* and left them to it.

Regrettably, this didn't work quite as well as I'd hoped - probably because they'd only just watched the film the previous weekend, so they got bored fairly quickly and started running around the house doing their own thing. Which, you know, I don't have a problem with, but I was just a bit overwhelmed having to try and keep track of what they were doing.

So, I suggested we take a walk to the nearby park and they could have a play on the play area. They were very keen on this idea, so I dutifully got them into their shoes and coats, asked them if they needed the loo (both gave a resounding "Noooo!") and then we set off.

Upon arrival at the park, the kids had a bit of a play on some of the play equipment and then decided to start making cakes for their imaginary family that they'd just created on the spot - which is another thing I like about these two. I guess this is the same for most children, but their imaginations are incredible - I don't ever remember being as creative or imaginative when I was a child.

At some point, I heard a rather loud trickling sound and realised, to my horror, that Olly had had an accident and pee'd himself - not really his fault, he's currently potty training and can still sometimes get a bit overexcited. I didn't have much of a clue what to do, but figured I had two choices:

  1. Walk back home and get him changed into some fresh clothes
  2. Let him carry on rolling about in the grass etc. in the knowledge that he'd soon dry off (it was quite warm outside)

I chose number two. Jem later told me she would have gone for number one, and in hindsight I probably should have, but we'd pretty much only just got there so walking back home straight away seemed like a bit of a waste.

At least Olly hadn't also chosen a number two for his accident - I've never had to deal with anything like that before and the concept still frightens me a little! It's not even just kids either, I'm not hugely fond of dealing with that kind of thing in any shape or form - I used to have to let my Mum clean up the dog poop from the back garden when I was growing up etc.

Oh globbits!Other than that, the rest of the morning passed by without incident - I even made the kids some lunch, how very adult of me! I then sat them down in front of The Trap Door until Jem got home.

The most interesting thing for me was that, even though I was terrified of this responsibility, I actually enjoyed it. I never thought I'd see myself type that, but I genuinely did. It's really quite nice to be part of a family, and even though they're not my kids, I do hope that I can become an intrinsic part of the family unit as time goes on.

* As a side note, one thing I've learned since starting to see Jem is that kids, when put in front of a film or TV show, will somehow manage to identify the one line in the dialogue that will annoy the hell out of any adults nearby when repeated ad infinitum, and then proceed to do just that. In the case of Despicable Me 2, this honour goes to this simple line, which is forever etched into my conscious (and probably subconscious too, by now): "LIPSTICK TAAAAAA-SERRRRRRRR!!!"