Category: Blog Page 1 of 6

Couch Potato to Half Marathon: Torture Isn’t Always Bad

It would be fair to say that, for most of my life, I’ve lived a somewhat sedentary lifestyle.

As a kid, physical activity was anathema to the enjoyment of my school days. I used to try every trick in the book to get out of PE lessons. Partly because I was so unfit that I just didn’t enjoy them, but mainly because I used to get mercilessly bullied by the ‘cool kids’ (and, in secondary school, one of the teachers) as a result of that poor fitness.

Eventually, I found a way to get out of PE lessons permanently. I (along with some friends) built a website for my secondary school — the first school website in the region, no less — and my IT teachers wanted us to update it, maintain it and look after it on the regular, and PE lessons provided a good time to do this. I think the PE teacher was secretly happy that I wasn’t dragging down his average times any more.

The years that have passed since leaving school have seen various aborted attempts to take up running and other sports. Apart from Taekwon-do, which I started in 2016 and am still doing, nothing stuck.

All of which is to explain why, if you’d said to me just over a year ago that I would be training to run a half-marathon in August 2024, I would have spat my drink right in your face and then laughed heartily. And yet, it’s true.

So how did this come about?

Gaming, and those things that stay with you

As people that know me will already know, I’m a gamer. These days, it has to be said, probably more of a ‘casual’ gamer than the hardcore staying-up-until-3am gamer. Age, and indeed, life, catches up with us all eventually.

As you might expect for nearly 35 years of playing video games, there have been some memories that have really impacted me in one way or another, whether it be for comedy value, poignancy, sheer terror or simply just raw enjoyment. So I thought I’d write about a few of them before April 2024 expires and I fail at my not-so-strict-goal of writing at least one post on here every month.

Grief

First of all, let me start this post by saying that I promise that not all of my posts from now on are going to be depressing!

Earlier this week, the 18th of March, was the one year anniversary of my Dad’s death. Rather like his death itself, it didn’t come completely out of nowhere, so it wasn’t a shock to the system as such. Combined with my ongoing separation from my partner of nearly ten years, however, it did get me thinking about grief, and specifically how I deal with it. I’m certainly no stranger to death or loss, but I do think that I’ve been ‘luckier’ than some in this regard.

The biggest life change of all

Well, except death I suppose.

So, this isn’t quite how I imagined my “February 2024” post to be, in the non-existent grand plan of “posts that I can write to meet my self-imposed one per month quota.”

Last Thursday, February the 8th 2024, my wife Jem and I made the decision to separate and, ultimately, divorce.

We’ve had something of a rollercoaster of a relationship in the last couple of years particularly, which has essentially magnified incompatibilities that were, strictly speaking, always present.

We both tried hard to make things work, and we’ve both done things that we shouldn’t have. I’ve learned that I have a lot of stuff stored up in my subconscious, difficulties and traumas from past relationships and other aspects of my life that I really should have put more effort into trying to deal with long before now, so that’s something I’m going to be focusing on more in 2024 and beyond.

It’s the right decision at this point for us to separate. We’re still friends, and we’re hoping that this will continue (not least because we have a lot of shared friends that neither of us particularly want to lose) and we still have a love for each other… just not the same kind of love.

I don’t know what the future holds. This isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to divorce, but it is the first time that I’ve reached the mutual decision to separate with someone that I still like, love and respect. Maybe that will make the next few months easier, or maybe it won’t.

One thing I do know though is that, despite being someone that doesn’t really go in for the whole Valentine’s Day thing, having all of these feelings, and writing this post on today of all days is proving more troublesome than I expected.

It’s been too long…

I feel like this is a post that I could have written at so many different points over the lifetime of my online presence. I really am terrible at keeping this place up to date.

Well, I’m going to be making a concerted effort throughout The Year Of Our Lord Twenty Twenty Four to change this.

If I can manage at least one post per month, I’ll be a happy bunny. Anything has to be better than leaving it to languish for over four years, right? So, what has been going on in my life since my last post, which was (looks back) on the 4th October, 2019?

Those magnificent men in their flying machines

It’s the last day of Septemblog, and I’ve failed to blog on three days out of the thirty. That’s a 10% failure rate, which is higher than I would have liked, but on the other hand it does mean that – this entry included – I have blogged for 27 days out of the last 30, which is a far higher rate of posting than I’ve ever achieved before.

I doubt I’ll keep it up, but if I can do two posts a month minimum that would be good.

But anyway

On to the actual topic of this post – flying machines, and in particular, passenger airliners.

I’ve been interested in aviation right from the age of about 5 or 6 when I vividly remember congregating in the back garden of my house with my Mum, Dad, two of my brothers, my next door neighbours, and my visiting Aunt and Uncle (and their two children) to watch Concorde fly overhead.

The reason I vividly remember that event so well was because I was completely unprepared for the sound that Concorde would make when it broke the sound barrier directly over our house, and I literally wet my pants with fear. Not proud of it, but there you go.

It was a few years later at the age of 10 that I took a flight for the first time, and the intense feeling of acceleration when the plane started the take-off procedure was amazing – although somewhat muted by my adulthood and having been lucky enough to drive some ludicrously fast cars.

Look how far we have come

It amazes me that the human race has been able to develop powered flight, and not only that, but to such a degree that we can take an aircraft like the Boeing 747-400, which (at maximum take-off weight) clocks in at nearly 400,000 kilograms, and not only get that into the air but keep it there long enough to travel to the other side of the world. To put that into some kind of perspective, when Orville and Wilbur Wright developed the world’s first powered, manned flying machine, the Wright Flyer I, it weighed only 274 kilograms and stayed in the air for under a minute for all of it’s first few flights.

It is this amazement that fuels my morbid fascination with aircraft accidents and aviation disasters.

Flying is of course, statistically, the safest form of transport, with by far the lowest number of fatalities per passenger mile. But the flipside to this is that, when something goes wrong, it tends to go wrong big.

Bizarrely I always find myself reading about aviation disasters the night before I have to catch a plane myself, and the "worst" instance of this was shortly before the holiday I took to Tenerife in 2010. Up until that point I’d been blissfully unaware of the 1977 Tenerife airport disaster, which remains the single largest aviation disaster (by number of fatalities, and excluding deliberate action such as the September 11 attacks)

In this particular case, a catalogue of human errors compounded by bad weather conditions resulted in one aircraft attempting to take off while another aircraft was taxiing across the runway. They collided, and 583 people lost their lives. A lasting legacy of this incident is that the language used by air crew and air traffic controllers changed significantly in an attempt to prevent repeat incidents – part of the problem in Tenerife was that the air crew on one plane thought they’d received permission to take off from the tower when in actual fact they’d been told to hold – patchy radio communications meant they essentially just heard the words "take off" and assumed all was clear.

Nowadays, the words "take off" are only said to give clearance. At all other times, "take off" is referred to as "departure."

It’s these little changes that occur that contribute to air travel’s safety record. Sure, things go wrong, and as above they tend to go wrong in a big way, but we learn from our mistakes and push onwards, as humans are so good at doing.

Back to Concorde

Some news came out recently that a group of aviation enthusiasts (and Concorde fans) had clubbed together and raised $120 million (or £120 million, can’t remember) in a bid to return Speedbird to the skies – all Concorde airframes were grounded in 2003, after a decidedly rocky start to the 21st Century with the 2000 Air France crash (the only crash Concorde ever had) and the "relaunch" flights taking place on the morning of September 11, 2001.

I personally can’t see it happening (Airbus withdrew support and maintenance agreements for the type around 2003 and I can’t see them being particularly keen to start it up again) but it would be nice to think that it could happen.

I was able to sit on board Concorde in 2008 on a holiday to Barbados – it wasn’t flying, obviously, it was stationed at the air museum at Barbados’ Grantley Adams International Airport.

My overriding impression of the plane was that it was much smaller inside than I’d imagined. There is only room for four-abreast seating (with the gangway down the middle) and headroom is much less than on other airliners, simply because the plane itself is so thin.

A truly incredible piece of engineering, and it’s a shame that we’re unlikely to see further developments in supersonic air travel any time soon – there’s not an awful lot of money in it, there never was (Concorde never really turned a profit for the two operating airlines, although British Airways apparently managed to make it profitable towards the end of it’s operational life) and from an airline’s perspective, there are more money-making opportunities on longer flights with more people than on a supersonic flight that lasts half the time.

“The chances of anything coming from Mars…”

"…are a million-to-one," he said.

Yes, it’s my second post this month with a direct quote from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds in the heading. But, you know what? I don’t care. Today has been an odd day for me, with lots of apparently accidental yet strangely coincidental goings on.

Firstly, on my way into work this morning I realised that I was listening to Jeff Wayne’s 2012 release of War of the Worlds, which I’ve previously derided on this very blog. I started it playing last night on my journey home, the goal being to finally listen to it all the way through and decide once and for all if it can hold a candle to the Richard Burton version.

I had to pick up Kit, my good friend, colleague and extreme BeEx lurker this morning as we often carpool into the office, me picking him up as my journey into work takes me past his house.

With Kit in the car, I told him about NASA’s rumoured (and, it appears, actual) announcement today about them discovering evidence of actual liquid water on Mars, which is some pretty damned big news and presumably leads to all sorts of questions about whether there is actually life on Mars still (even at just a microbial level.)

I then asked Kit what he’d done over the weekend, and he informed me that he’d been to the cinema to watch a Cineworld Unlimited special screening of Matt Damon’s new film, The Martian.

It was only at this point that I realised the connecting thread between all of these things, and it struck me as a little odd that we’d spoken about three things related to Mars without even picking up on it, all within the first 20 minutes of the day.

As if that wasn’t enough, I was hit in the face by a chocolate bar wrapper flying up into the air while I was out walking on my lunch break. Yes, it was a Mars wrapper.

There also seemed to be a frankly ridiculous number of Bruno Mars and Olly Murs songs playing on the Spotify playlist at the office today. OK, so Olly Murs is a bit of a tenuous link, but still.

What can it all mean?

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:

“No lists”, he said

I screwed up and didn’t blog yesterday, so that’s two days out of the 30 that I’ve failed so far. Still, like the previous time, my excuse was simply that I didn’t have an awful lot of time in which to blog, and my back being screwy is still causing me no end of grief.

So get off my case, mang.

Anyway, I now have to blog for today and – to be honest – I’m starting to run out of ideas. Never mind though, Jem has given me a great idea for a blog post and despite it going against one of my own pre-determined rules at the start ("No listicles") it’ll do in a pinch.

"Enough already, what’s the topic?" I hear you cry.

Awesome Jem

Yeah, basically, this is just going to be a list of things that I like and love about Jem, and how she’s made a difference to my life in the 18 months or so that we’ve been seeing each other.

Jem did this for me once, in a private e-mail, telling me how awesome I was. She came up with over 200 different items (although some were basically duplicates) – I doubt I’ll get anywhere near that, but let’s see…

Go!

  1. She does the same job I do, which means finally I can talk/rant to someone about things work related and they understand.
  2. She possesses a decent amount of intelligence.
  3. And knows how to use it.
  4. She looks great in most dresses.
  5. She knows her own mind (most of the time) and is as stubborn as I am.
  6. She’s a good cook.
  7. She’s a great driver, despite only having a licence for a few years.
  8. She is interested in many of the same things I am.
  9. She does not object to me doing things that I want to do, even when they don’t involve her.
  10. She doesn’t mind me referring to her as "she."
  11. She looks great out of most dresses.
  12. She puts up with my car-changing habit.
  13. And my other bad habits.
  14. She’s a fast typer, although not as fast as me – natch.
  15. She makes an effort with my family and friends.
  16. She has a varied taste in films and TV, despite not really watching that much of it prior to being with me.
  17. She appreciates history.
  18. And art.
  19. And architecture, especially gothic.
  20. She isn’t afraid to tell me when I’m being unreasonable.
  21. She doesn’t mind having the mickey taken out of her.
  22. And also doesn’t have any problems taking the mickey out of me.
  23. The way her hair sort of "curls" around her ears is dangerously cute.
  24. She has a terrific smile.
  25. Which, in the words of Semisonic, she reserves only for me.
  26. She reads books.
  27. She has more books than DVDs.
  28. She has more Terry Pratchett books than DVDs (although, full disclosure – I’ve never read a Terry Pratchett book despite it being on my "to do" list for ever)
  29. She has a sense of humour that is very similar to my own (although we do disagree on some things, notably Big Train)
  30. She humours me when I tell bad jokes and Dad jokes.
  31. And also when I’m trying to dazzle her with a new card trick that I’ve learned.
  32. She’s a great mother (although not to me, obv)
  33. She’s actually managing to turn me into someone who is happy to be around kids.
  34. She has a childish streak to rival my own.
  35. Sometimes she can be as mad as a box of frogs.
  36. She is (for the most part) good with money, which is good as I’m bloody terrible with it.
  37. She looks great in my shirts, even better than she does in dresses.
  38. She works hard to keep herself in shape and keep fit, and is always looking to improve herself.
  39. She loves her cats.
  40. And mine.
  41. She had no concerns about me moving in with her and pushing my way into her life and home.
  42. She doesn’t think my Celica is silly or "chavvy."
  43. She makes a damn good cup of coffee.
  44. She is sympathetic to my plight when I’m suffering with my bad back.
  45. She is very strong willed (again, for the most part) and once she sets her sight on something will strive to achieve it.
  46. Her extroversion brings out a little bit of my extroversion when we’re with other people.
  47. She boycotts Nestlé products (I don’t because I don’t have scruples, but I don’t particularly like the company or its business practices)
  48. She managed to make a list like this that was 200+ strong and all about me.
  49. She has overcome hardships that I can’t even begin to comprehend and has managed to make something of her life and raise two well-rounded (so far, at least) small children.
  50. She has a fantastic arse.

I’m going to stop there as it’s a nice round number (kind of like the subject of point 50) but in theory I could have gone on – I don’t think I’d get up to the lofty heights of 200, but nevertheless, there’s a lot to like about her.

Cheers, love.

(someone pass the sickbags – Ed)

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.

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