Update On The Weekend

It occurred to me last night, as I was thrashing Jimmy at Wii Sports Tennis and Boxing last night, before we whipped out Golden Axe for some proper old-school co-op beat-’em-up fun, that I hadn’t yet made a blog post to follow up the one I made before the weekend. So, here it is.


I’ve had my hair cut. This wouldn’t necessarily be so notable if it wasn’t for the fact that I haven’t done so in… oooh, about 8 years? Maybe more? I woke up on Saturday morning and decided to change it from reaching to my bum to barely reaching my shoulders.

Dan - Shorter Hair


It’s taking some getting used to. Whenever I pull a shirt on I still instinctively reach behind my head to pull my hair out from it, and I’m cautious of sitting on it when sitting down.

DanceSoc and Troma Night

Saturday night’s DanceSoc event – Diversion – was great. Beth, Claire and I – along with Jimmy, who came with an open mind but left once he realised that drinking wasn’t solving the problem of him not liking the music – drank excessively and danced wildly. Perhaps indicative of my dancing, at least two separate people tried to buy ecstasy from me (WTF?). It was surprisingly busy in The Bay (both upstairs and downstairs), possibly a result of exam week ending, which helped create a great atmosphere.

Meanwhile, I gather from the discussion on Paul‘s blog, Troma Night failed to kick off. Less good.

Gorillamania 1

Sunday night was the Gorilla Monsoon comedy night, at which I was the first act. The turnout was reasonable, albeit late and seemingly about half made-up of people I know: particular thanks are due to the people who went out of their way to lend me their support – Heather, who looked quite unwell and probably should have stayed in bed, and Gareth and Penny, who zipped over from Cardiff just in time – but a big thank you to everybody who came really!

In the end, though, I disappointed myself a little. The audience laughed at the right places, and groaned at the right places, and the whole segment about bumblebees went down a storm, but I was far too nervous to perform as well as I could have: I forgot a few key gags, on at least one occasion I needed to consult my “panic card” (a 12-line reminder of my show, written on the back of a business card and hidden behind the amplifier), which is usually only there for reassurance, and I generally know that I could have done better. It was good, but it wasn’t great, but I know exactly where I went wrong and what I need to do to fix it.

The comedians from Cardiff were fabulous, too. Of particular note was my favourite of Clint Edwards’ jokes, which I applauded but which nobody else seemed to have got (it relies on knowledge of police issue firearms to be as funny as it could be, which is a brave thing for a comedian to rely upon). Not only did this trio’s skills lead to an entertaining night, but it’s also valuable networking: a little more practice down the line, and I might find myself with an opportunity to perform in Cardiff with them. Win.

The Parcel Mystery

I realise that I never really answered questions asked of me about Matt‘s strange parcel, which arrived the other day. The Guinness glasses box turned out to contain Tesco cookies! A big thank you is due to Matt, there, then. Oh, and Paul – we’ve still got your carton of juice: come drink it at some point.

Right; that’ll do for the updates for now.

Plans For The Weekend

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Abnibbers and Troma Knights: I present to you… some of this weekend’s events.

Friday Night: Post-Exam Curry

Have you had exams this week? Well, sucks to be you. But it’s all over now – come out with us for a curry and we’ll pretend it never happened. Paul‘s behind this one, but if you’re looking for synchronisation so you don’t arrive when we’re done eating, it’s me you’ll want to call. I can’t send texts at the moment, so give me a bell if you’re coming along. Yum.

Update: 8pm, Spice of Bengal. See you there!

Saturday Night: Troma Night and DanceSoc

Troma Night this week will be held at Bryn’s Place (i.e. where Paul lives). It kicks off, however, at 8pm at the Arts Centre, where the classic "Gremlins" is showing.

Why is Paul hosting this week? ‘Cos Claire and I (accompanied by Beth and Jimmy) are at Diversion at The Bay. Which you can come to if you prefer. Up to you. They’ll both be fun nights: one will have a horde of rampaging monsters with a dehydration problem, and the other will involve watching Gremlins.

Sunday Night: Gorilla Monsoon

And I’m sure I don’t need to remind you about Gorilla Monsoon which is on at the Coopers Arms at 8pm on Sunday night. I’ll be your supporting act, and there’s three funny-sounding comics coming all the way from… well, Cardiff… to please and tease you.

Now you can’t say I didn’t tell you.

Diplomacy, Parcels, and WW2 RTS Games

What have I been up to of late? Well, as you ask…


Ruth‘s game of Diplomacy got off to a fine start, and the backstabbing began soon afterwards. I’m not so keen on the engine, for reasons I’ll discuss later. Here’s how the map looks right now.

Diplomacy Map 211

I’m the red guys down at the bottom who are getting their arses kicked by the purple and brown guys. Very sweetly, JTA (leader of Russia) sent me an e-mail to apologise a little (and gloat a lot) about his recent pillaging of my lands, and congratulate me on trying to set him and Andy (Germany) against one another. It’s kind-of sweet, as I said, but really un-necessary: breaking alliances is what the game is all about.

Plus, it’s not like I didn’t see it coming. My alliance with Russia as a show from the start, but I didn’t realise that Russia planned to attack me so soon (I’d just issued attack orders against him). My mistake was that I didn’t anticipate that Germany side with Russia and backstab me. Memo to self: assassinate leader of Germany.

Sadly, the Diplomacy engine we’re using – phpDiplomacy – has a few interesting bugs that make it hard to work out who’s actually on your side. Here’s an example situation:

The problem with phpDiplomacy

The screenshot is faked, but the situation is plausible – the engine doesn’t accomodate for this. In this situation, the red player has been successfully attacked by the brown player, displacing their army (according to the message from 10:36pm). It’s not possible that the brown player did this alone, in this situation: they must have had help from at least one of – the green army in Piedmont, the green fleet in Venice, the purple army in Vienna, possibly a purple army from the region above (not shown), or perhaps even from the red fleet in Trieste (an unusual strategy, but not unheard of in some unusual circumstances, is to support the enemy against your own units).

But the engine gives no indication which this is. In this situation, the red player does not know which – green or purple – supported the attack. If the red player had alliances with the two of them, they would not know which one had betrayed them, for example. Whoops!

This could make it an interesting (or a frustrating) game. I’m certain that in the near future we’ll see players strategically helping one another perform attacks, without revealing that it was them that supported it.

A Strange Parcel

A strange parcel from Matt.

This morning, I received a strange parcel from Matt in the Hat, addressed to “Jen, Paul, Dan & Claire”. The contents, as pictured, seem to be two Guinness glasses and three cartons of organic fruit juice. I’m not sure which bits are for whom – or even why we’ve been sent this package at all – but I’m sure Matt will enlighten me soon.

Update: I’ve spoken to Matt on Jabber, and apparently the Guinness glasses box does not contain Guinness glasses. And I’m to make sure that Jen gets one of the cartons of juice.

Basically, Matt’s lost the plot. However, he still managed, through his insanity, to pick a selection of objects who’s size ratios made packing them easy.

Company of Heroes

I’ve been playing a lot of Company of Heroes these last couple of days: it’s a spectacular game. It’s been a long time since a real-time strategy game has amused me so much (since, perhaps Red Alert 2, seven years ago). It’s yet-another-world-war-2 game, as if we haven’t seen enough of them of late, but it’s a battle-level strategic game, rather than a first-person shooter, and it does a wonderful job of what it does.

Tanks roll through deformable terrain. Infantry hide in the craters your artillery has blown out. And the whole thing looks and sounds beautiful, from the hushed descent of paratroopers into a muddy field (reflections and all) to the flashes and blasts of a distant battle (complete with radio chatter, or plain old voices if you’re looking directly at the speaker). You can build sandbag walls and minefields, and blow them down just as easily. Don’t want to risk your men down a long, sniper-infested street? Steal some German artillery pieces and blow your way though the walls, then – the whole map is completely reshapable. The AI’s not to be sniffed at, either (although it’s a bit fiddly when it comes to multi-selecting and moving a group of vehicles together and they all crumple into each other when they reach a chicane, rather than taking turns).

It needs a beefy machine to do it justice, which is why I got it – to push my new gaming rig to the limits – but it’s more than just a graphics-fest: it’s also a very clever and gritty game.

So, who’s for a co-op?

Writing Comedy

And, of course, the other thing that’s been occupying my time has been writing stuff to say on Sunday’s Gorillamania event. But I’ve already said enough about that recently, so I’ll shut up and get on with some work.

A Flurry Of Comedic Activity

Wow, my previous post caused a sudden surge of comments. They’re all very sweet. Rather than answer them all individually in the form of more comments, I’ll selectively re-print them here in the form of a dialogue. Well, more like a septilogue, or something. Whatever.

Making Material

Scatman Dan (earlier): Can I produce enough original material by Sunday to make my act long enough to be worth performing?
Heather: Judging by the size of your notebook – yes. I find things always take longer than I think they will.
Scatman Dan: Yeah; but you’ve seen some of the contents of the notebook. I mean, there’s a quarter page dedicated to the investigation of whether the following joke is actually funny (spoiler: it isn’t): “Three gay guys go into a closet. One comes out.” Sheer quantity doesn’t actually make you funny in itself.
Tom Davies: [Yeah, but] don’t be afraid to try new things on an audience.
Scatman Dan: I’m not, usually, but somehow this time I feel like I should at least have something that promises to tickle them. On the other hand, there’ll be three other guys to try to promise that, so perhaps I should be a little more adventurous.

Scatman Dan (earlier): How much of my previous material is acceptable for re-use?
Heather: None of it. I’d be quite disappointed if I came along and you were reverting to stuff we’ve laughed at before.
Scatman Dan: That’s what I was afraid of.
Heather: Actually, if there was a particular thing and you can work one hell of a callback, that’s ok to repeat.
Scatman Dan:
That’s a far more positive answer.
Matt In The Hat: Play it by ear. If you don’t recognise the audience or if you happen to be in the neighbourhood of one of your ‘older’ jokes then use it.
Scatman Dan: Good advice.

Scatman Dan (earlier): Is any of this stuff even funny?
Heather: Yes.
Scatman Dan: Yeah, I know. Like I said, I know this stuff is semi-irrational.

A Lonely Sense of Humour

Scatman Dan (earlier): Why do people keep trying to help me?
Heather: I keep “trying to help you” because I want to steal your reject jokes, and to palm off all my tasteless ones on to you to make funny.
Scatman Dan: Fair play (and I do appreciate your – and anybody’s – help… usually). To clarify: I don’t mind help, but sometimes I really don’t want it. I tried to explain this to Claire the other week – most of the things I end up recording or making a note of for later aren’t even remotely funny. They’re recorded because they might lead to something funny, but if I think too hard about them while they’re unfunny I never get motivated to find the joke in them again. That’s just me being odd.
Matt In The Hat: People will keep trying to help you because you’re doing stand-up comedy. Since everyone is funny at some point some people get the impression that they are an authroity on it. Some people are writers who want you to perform their material. Others are making conversation. What I always found frustrating was that somebody would tell me something that didn’t fit my style and I’d have to smile and nod. I imagine with an absurdist route you’ll be doing that a lot.
Scatman Dan: Excellently put. And you’re very right.

Scatman Dan (earlier): I have a very unusual sense of humour, which doesn’t really translate very well to anybody else. For example, here are several of the funniest things I have ever thought about: [gives three examples]
Tom Davies: I particularly like the thing about lettuce. Punning is possibly the most underappreciated of the comedy arts.
The Pacifist: I did find the lettuce thing amusing. Far too much stand-up nowadays seems to focus on satirical observations or sarcastic… it would be a pleasant change to have puns, surrealism and huge, huge tangents…
JenBanks (via IRC): Lettuce of the Alphabet is hilarious.
Scatman Dan: What do you know; I’m not the only one.

Scatman Dan (earlier): If you come along and see me on Sunday, that’s what you’ll be seeing – the patently bizarre.
Tom Davies: Don’t shy away from absurditiy (or things that Dan finds funny).
Heather: I like absurdity. I like laughing. You’ll kick ass. I’ll buy you a drink afterwards.
Scatman Dan: That’s a promising start.
Matt In The Hat: As I’m sure you know, the absurdist route can be a great one for one-liners. You mis-pronounce soemthing and then turn it into a joke or you just randomly stop in the middle of a set to throw in a one-liner.
Scatman Dan buzzes and does a little dance.

The Curious Things That People Say

Becky: Oh shit, what the smeg’s that word I use… the one were you put your head in some chick’s cleavege? You know what I mean.. now THAT was funny.
Scatman Dan: Mmm… embezzling. But is it more or less funny than The Feather Game? Y’know, sometimes I think that we’re the only people in the world who’d appreciate reverse engineering of a trifle. And I wrote an entire page on that.

Jon: Video the event. It would be nice to see.
Scatman Dan: Not sure I can manage that, but we’ll see. Or wait until I’m funnier. All of the best comedians in the world are over 30, which means I can only get better, yet.

Closing Words

Scatman Dan: That you to everybody who commented, but that there were so many comments of reassurance demonstrates that I didn’t write my previous post very well. I tried, with phrases like “the following semi-irrational concerns“, “I’d been quite frankly shitting myself, until tonight“, and “Thankfully I’ve found a cross-over”, to indicate that since last night, everything’s a lot better. Everything’s slotted into place quite nicely. Claire was revising, so I sat down with some complete strangers and a couple of pints and discussed funny things and then wrote a whole heap of material which’ll kill. Nonetheless, thank you all for your varied votes of confidence; hopefully I’ll show you I’ve earned it come the weekend.

My previous post was supposed to be uplifting, but it evidently came out kind-of bland, just like this one would if I ended it here, inconclusively.

Where Funny Meets Dan: A Little More Confident

Since the announcement that I’ll be starring at this Sunday’s Gorillamania 1, I’d been quite frankly shitting myself, until tonight. The Open Mic nights I’ve performed at previously have been a whole different ball game – after all, nobody expects anything from you at an Open Mic: they get what they’re given. I’ve been bothered in particular by the following semi-irrational concerns:

  • Can I produce enough original material by Sunday to make my act long enough to be worth performing?

  • How much of my previous material is acceptable for re-use, considering that a number of people in the (paying) audience will have seen some of it before?

  • Is any of this stuff even funny?

  • Why do people keep trying to help me? Am I doing that badly?

A lot of this problem comes from the fact that I have a very unusual sense of humour, which doesn’t really translate very well to anybody else. For example, here are several of the funniest things I have ever thought about:

  • Planting lettuces in fields in a formation such that, viewed from the air, they would spell out words. I would call them the "Lettuce of the Alphabet."

  • Inventing a ray that disassembles trifles into their constituent ingredients: custard, jelly, etc – if you crank up the power you can even reverse engineer the custard back to eggs and sugar, for example, or back to a chicken, or back to an egg, or back to a chicken. No, of course it wouldn’t work on cakes.

  • How useful letterboxes are, because it’s very difficult to push a newspaper – especially one of the extra thick Sunday papers – through a solid wooden door.

These are genuinely some of the funniest things I’ve ever thought about. The first of them had me laughing out loud, at random intervals, for several days, and still makes me smile. But I understand that these things aren’t actually funny… at least: by the consensus of the so called "normal" people who unfortunately make up the typical comedy club audience, even in Aberystwyth.

It’s sometimes difficult for me to "get" the jokes that normal people seem to appreciate, except for the crude ones, because the childish part of me (and almost every man, I think) is still amused by rude words. Sometimes I wonder if I’m laughing too hard at a particularly mainstream comedian, to compensate for my deeper misunderstanding of which bit was the punchline. Sometimes I wonder if I think too hard about the whole thing.

Thankfully I’ve found a cross-over where the circles of funny things and things only Dan thinks are funny cross over, and it’s an area called absurdity. If you’ve heard me recite poetry inspired by teapots, or talk about famous people’s birthday parties, you’ve seen what I mean. If you’ve seen me laugh out loud while bombing during a piece of genuine political satire, you know what happens when I try too hard. If you’ve seen a crazy woman do a set in The Angel all about Crab Apple Surfing, you’ve seen what happens when absurdity goes too far (I found that quite charming and with great potential, if a little unrefined, by the audience weren’t impressed, and she saw it). So; absurdity it is. If you come along and see me on Sunday, that’s what you’ll be seeing – the patently bizarre. If it works, great: I’ve got plenty more where that came from. If not, then you’ll see me at a lot more Open Mic nights until I learn to tell a real joke. Either way: it’s a learning experience, and that’s what I’m looking for.

My mum once said, of my youngest sister (who has a very similar, bizarre, sense of humour), she "laughs at the funniest things." That line, in itself, is perhaps the best joke I have ever heard. And I’m not kidding.

Characteristically JonA

I got to work this morning and joined the #rockmonkey IRC channel. My IRC client said:

* Now talking in #RockMonkey

Well, that’s nice to know: subscribing to the channel worked.

* Topic is ‘Morning, homos.’

That’s an unusual topic…

* Topic set by JonA on Monday Jan 22 08:39 am

…and it didn’t really need to tell me that. I mean; who other than JonA would have set that topic?

Having A System That Works Against You

I have a system, and if you’ve watched me leave the house, you’ll have seen me implement it: my strange little “tap my pelvis four times” dance is actually a sophisticated check that I’ve got everything I need. Whenever I go out, I like to double-check that I’ve got with me my wallet, keys, mobile phone, and change, and this helps to ensure it. My change goes in my back left pocket, and I know it’s there because of the jangling sound it makes. I’ve left the house before and felt like I must have forgotten something because I only had a single coin, before realising why. In my back right pocket go my keys: the RFID keyfob and large keyring I use gives them a distinctive shape, and tapping them to ensure they’re there seems a little overkill when I should be able to feel that they’re there anyway, but it’s a useful reminder of a habit. My wallet goes in my front left pocket, and my phone goes in my front right, screen facing outwards.

That’s a pretty unusual configuration, I’m aware – many men keep their wallets in their back pockets, keep their phones’ screens facing inwards (to protect them) and so on, but there is a system. I’m right handed, and as a result I find it easiest to rifle through my wallet for notes, cards etc. using my right hand, holding it with my left, so the wallet goes on my left-hand side. It’s also rather big and chunky – I carry a lot of cards and stuff in it – and keeping it in by back pocket would make it difficult to sit down in places where I’d want to keep it in my pocket – like at bus stops, for instance. Having put this first lot of money on the left, I keep my change on the same side. It just feels right: in addition, the weight of my wallet plus change is approximately equal to the weight of my keys plus phone, which makes me feel balanced.

By reaching for my keys with my right, I’m able to use my (obviously more agile) right hand to identify the key I need by touch, usually before I’ve brought the ring round into eyesight, which is a simple efficiency improvement over putting them on the left. I’d honestly prefer it if the RFID sensors in my office building were bum-high, so that I could open doors with my arse and spend even less time fiddling with keys. Perhaps I can persuade the building management that the sensors are too high to be accessible to people in wheelchairs, and get them to lower them. I’m sure that my bottom is at a different height to that of other people, but I don’t care: that can jump or crouch or whatever – I’m the one who came up with the arse-key idea anyway.

As far as protecting the screen of my phone by facing it inwards; my mobile phones get quite a beating at the best of times, and they tend not to last long enough to be at risk of screen breakage. If I had a touch screen device, I might treat it somewhat differently, but this will do for now. It also affords me a couple of benefits: firstly, the lighting up of the screen when the phone rings can be seen through my trousers, which means that even in loud environments, odds are good that somebody will notice that my phone is ringing, and, hopefully, I’ll correctly interpret their pointing at my crotch as meaning that somebody is trying to get in touch with me, and not that – for example – a snake has climbed my leg and is about to bite off my right testicle. Another benefit is that, with a little practice, I’ve learned to be able to press the “reject call” button through a jeans pocket: ignoring people without even looking at the screen.

Perhaps this behaviour seems a little OCD; well, maybe so, and maybe I’ve hammed it up a little bit here anyway, but it works very well for me. Except when it doesn’t.

This morning, I went downstairs and put three of my four items in my pockets. I’d just woken from a dream in which I was left-handed, and as a result, I ended up sleepily putting my things into the pockets on the wrong side (don’t ask how I ended up doing that: instead, ask about the time I dreamt in four-dimensional space – that’s a better story). Realising that I’d not put my phone in my pocket, and wondering where I’d put it, I picked up the landline handset and dialed my number. I heard the phone ring from near the coffee table, so I hung up and started rummaging around there. No sign of it. So I pick up the landline again and dial again: now it sounds like it’s to the right of the coffee table: maybe it’s on the dining table, under some of Claire‘s revision or something? I hang up and look. No sign of it…

Eventually I found it. It was in my pocket. The missing item was not my phone but my wallet, which was still on my desk.

I need a phone that doesn’t feel like a wallet in my pocket.

Game Theory Applied

A friend of mine recently posted the the following conundrum to his blog:

I found the deck of cards from a board game called scrupples (it poses you a dilemma and your opponents guess how you would respond) and I thought up another one completely off the top of my head:

"You and two other people are temp workers in a large corporation hired for one month to do some simple, repetitive data entry. One of your co-workers over-hears the boss say that the temps are very good and that they are going through the work so quickly they’ll probably let one of them go. Your co-worker suggests to you that all three of you go slow from now on. What do you do?"

I found the application of game theory to this question more interesting than the ethical implications it posed, so I wrote a long comment in reply to it. Then, realising that the comment was so long that it probably deserved it’s own blog post, I wrote this.

I recommend that you come up with your own answer to Matt’s question before you read my post.

Ah yeah; I’ve played that game. It’s far more fun when you start making up your own.

Now, on to your question – it’s more complex that it immediately appears – at first it’s a simple question of ethics: go slower to keep your job or keep doing a good job for a one-in-three chance of losing it. Based on that, even, it’s not so simple a question, and my answer would depend on how much I wanted to keep the job, which depends on factors like how much I needed the money, etc.

But it’s not that simple; thanks to a little application of game theory, because it turns out that if you do make the decision to slow down, but your two co-workers, faced with the same decision, speed up, then it’s probably going to be you that they let go, on account of you being the least productive of the three. Assuming that all three temps are equally capable of thinking through this logic and do not communicate with each other any further, I would anticipate that all three would work even harder in an effort to impress. After all, if you’re the one who’s deliberately slow, you have a 1-in-3 chance of being fired, but if you’re deliberately fast, you have a 1-in-3 at worst (in the situation that everybody goes fast, assuming that all three are equally competent workers).

Of course, this is a somewhat sterile view of the world: in the end, there are other major factors that can’t be accounted for in simple probabilistic terms: it’s unlikely that all three temps are equally proficient, or that they all want the job badly enough to put in the same level of extra effort, or that they don’t trust each other enough to form a meaningful "slow conspiracy." There’s lots of factors that game theory doesn’t take into account here: but nonetheless, it seems to work: I’ll pick a related example.

There is a party game I’ve taken part in a few times in which a team of individuals is charged with the task of slowly lowering a long thin pole to the ground without any individual member losing contact with it. The players are stood in a staggered pair of lines, facing one another, with the stick held between them at about nipple-height. Each player supports the stick with exactly one finger. Then, as a team, they have to lower the stick to the ground, without anybody losing contact with the stick. This makes a conflict of rules:

  1. each individual wants to be touching the stick (from underneath), but
  2. the team wants the stick to go down.

What happens? The stick moves up. The effect is magical to watch, because if you’ve got over about six people none of them "feels" like they’re part of the "moving up" process, but it’s still happening. Everybody blames everybody else. In actual fact, each person is re-asserting their position against the stick (by moving their finger up in response to it moving away from them) so as to meet rule 1. And all it takes is a little involuntary vibration (easy done, when you’re supporting part of a long stick on one finger) to kick the process off. It’s a good team-building activity, and it’s great to spectate, too.

Transplanted to your hypothetical (?) situation, the height of the stick represents the speed of work of the fastest worked. Game theory predicts that you will all want the best for yourself, ultimately, and so the rules are as follows:

  1. each individual wants to be touching the stick (i.e. wants to be the fastest worker), but
  2. the team wants to the stick to go down (i.e. work speed in general becomes slower).

Therein lies the basis of my prediction. What do you think?

Black Sheep

We have to get this film for Troma Night: Black Sheep. It looks stupid enough to rival Isolation (angry mutant livestock!), which some of you saw last Halloween, but at least it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. See the trailer:

In other news: good luck to everybody who’s doing exams this week.

Troma Night CLXI – Tonight

CHANGE OF PLANS: All of the tickets for Pan’s Labyrinth are sold out. For those that didn’t get a ticket in time and for those that weren’t coming to Pan’s Labyrinth anyway, Troma Night now starts as usual at The Cottage at 8pm. Tell anybody who might not know.

Tonight is the 161st Troma Night (based on liberal estimation and basic guesswork), and it’s a somewhat unusual one. The plan is as follows:

  • 8:00 pm – start at the Arts Centre for the stunning-looking Pan’s Labyrinth. Yes, this means that we won’t be ordering pizza at 8pm: instead, I suggest that people either (A) eat beforehand or (B) have a snack beforehand to keep them going, and we’ll order pizza later. I suspect I’ll be doing option B.
  • 10:20 pm – return to The Cottage, order pizza for anybody who’s hungry, and watch something else. I propose an MST3K, or perhaps one of the B-movies Jimmy provided some weeks back, because I anticipate that something silly, bad, and/or funny will be quite welcome after the psychological thriller than Pan’s Labyrinth is likely to be, but I’m open to suggestions and I’m happy to do things democratically.

If there’s anybody who doesn’t want to come along to Pan’s Labyrinth but does want to come for the rest, let me know and I can give you a bell when we leave the cinema, so you can meet us in a timely fashion. But really, you should come.

The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Well, that’s Twilight Princess for the Wii finished. And quite a spectacular game it was too. Highlights [warning: spoilers] include:

  • Predictably Zelda: many of the best elements of Zelda games gone by made it into Twilight Princess, so much so that the predictability of some of the plot elements will make accomplished players groan, such as the "you must collect 3 parts of this, scattered throughout the land," "you must restore power to the Master Sword," and the "if you’ve just got a new weapon, you’ll need it to escape the room you found it in and to beat the boss of the dungeon you’re in right now" cliches.

  • Replay value: having finished it, there are still several things I’d like to go back and do again, do better, or actually do. Disappointingly, by comparison to Wind Waker, there is no option to save progress having defeated the final boss and carry on playing: instead, I’ll have to use my just-pre-boss save game as a springboard to explore the things I didn’t get a chance to do earlier, which feels somehow incomplete, but nonetheless I’m looking forward to trying out a few extra things.

  • Music: yes, it’s a Zelda game. There’s not so much emphasis on musical puzzles as there was in, say, Ocarina, but there’s still some (mostly related to transforming into a wolf and howling at stones, which gets to be just about challenging enough to keep you amused, by the end of the game). As usual, the soundtrack is stunning.

  • Imaginatively-designed bosses: some of the monsters you’ll fight are particularly interesting. A whole selection of varied fight scenes litter the game: jousting against a monster on a boar’s back across a flaming bridge; tripping over a balrog-like beast by strategically grabbing the chains around it’s ankles so that you can reach it’s face; and swinging around – Spiderman-style – from towers in order to gain altitude on a dragon are three of my favourites, but there are plenty more great fight scenes.

  • Controls: the Wii release of the game makes great use of the unusual Wii controllers: typically, the nunchuck "stick", in the player’s left hand, is used to move around (or look around, in some modes), and the right-hand "Wiimote"  is swung in order to move Link’s sword, or aimed at the screen either as a cursor (for choosing weapons and items from the inventory, options in the menu, etc.) or as a crosshair (for firing the bow and arrow, for instance). There’s a great variety of clever special moves to be learned, and while the swordfighting can be a little cumbersome at first, the learning curve is shallow enough. Later on, you’ll be flicking the Wiimote and the nunchuck in unison to perform advanced moves – rolling around your enemy to strike them from behind, knocking them off balance with your shield, and Link’s signature "spin attack," for example. The bait fishing puzzle is a little simplistic, but the lure fishing (which you’ll discover far later in the game), which makes use of both controllers – one as the rod, and one as the reel – is a satisfying example of the kinds of things that Wii developers will be giving us plenty of in the near future.

Stuff that wasn’t so great:

  • Fighting one particular boss involves swimming around in 3D space while avoiding the tentacles of a huge aquatic beast. Now that’s all fine and a great idea for a boss, but it feels somewhat clunky in implementation: it’s hard to see where the tentacles are and if you’re in range of them, as they seem to suddenly "jump" around without fluid animation.

  • Like all the recent Zelda games, Twilight Princess has an extended "tutorial" period, which gradually opens up into the full game, but Twilight’s feels longer than it needs to be, and it feels a little like it’s holding your hand for a bit too long. This could simply be because it’s been released on a new console which Nintendo are hoping will attract new players to videogaming, and they wanted to reduce the initial complexity of the game, of course, but nonetheless: by adding more small mini-quests in the early part of the game – things that experienced players could to in order to feel like they’re in control of their own destiny, and not just following instructions from the other characters – would have been nice. I remember playing a little Morrowind on the PC, and being pleased to find that on my way to the first destination of my quest, I was able to wander off course and help (or hurt) numerous other characters in the game world, getting back "on track" whenever it suited me. I know that’s not what Zelda’s aiming for, but even Wind Waker felt more like it was open-ended and free, even early on (although having a boat and an entire ocean of islands ahead of you will have been a major factor in that). Just a minor rant, of course.

Total playtime for me was about 43 hours, but I’ve left a few stones unturned. In any case, a highly satisfying game and very recommendable. If you own a Wii but don’t own Twilight Princess, get it. If you don’t own a Wii, consider getting one to play Twilight Princess.

The Decline And Fall Of The British University

Here’s one for the academics amongst you: an article by a Mark Tarver entitled Why I Am Not A Professor OR The Decline And Fall Of The British University. Without having had the decades in academia that the author has had, it’s hard for me to easily agree with him. However; I suspect he’s right. As a student of Computer Science from 1999 to 2004, I’d always felt like the standards bar must be lower than it was perhaps ten years earlier: particularly toward the end of my degree, I found myself repeatedly frustrated by the ongoing changes in the way that the discipline was being taught: rather than students learning valuable and interesting technical knowledge, they’re increasingly taught what they need to know to pass exams. Moreover, since the return and now the expansion of tuition fees, students feel that they are paying for a service: if a student is given a bad mark, they can potentially argue that this is because of bad teaching, and demand their “money back.” While this of course has not happened (as far as I know), the balance of power has in this way shifted: the power no longer lies with the knowledge, but with the money. Underpaid junior lecturers struggle to write “quotas” of papers and artificially inflate numbers to “pass” as many students as possible in order to impress their capitalist employers and ensure the continuation of their career for another year.

At this point, I started ranting and theorising.

Sad as it is, it’s actually those institutions that make the most of their right to charge so-called “top up fees” – in the absence of the government making changes to fix the failing higher education system – that stand the best chance of surviving. While it’s unfortunate that we need the annual league tables – accountability is important, of course – I’d predict that universities will become more and more “two tiered”, with the “expensive” first-class universitites surpassing the “cheaper” second-class ones in terms of teaching quality and research done. The idea of a “budget” degree will become a real possibility within the next five years.

Where does this put us? Well; it’s problematic because it’s self-sustaining: the better universities will get the most money, which will help ensure that they stay the best. Similar problems have been seen in the NHS. Worse than that, the standard of education will be lowered in order to accomodate for the rich but stupid (in the premium institutions, which cannot attract students in bulk and are resigned to taking anybody who can afford to pay) and the poor masses (in the budget universities, where it is necessary to process large numbers of students of very variable intellectual quality in bulk – like a production line for gowns and scrolls) until it’s almost unworthwhile having the universities at all.

It’s not all doom and gloom: unlike the author of the article I linked to, I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Like all things, there’s a delicate balance, and it can be restored by managing either end of the scale (in the economic model I’ll go on to describe, this is similar to the Pareto optimal of neoclassical economic theory: however, you don’t need to think about economics to understand and disagree with it, as I’m sure many of you will). As I see it, there are two ways – and it’s inevitable that at least one will occur, eventually – for the British higher education system to get “fixed.” The first is, of course, for the government to see it’s mistake (and the mistakes of the governments before it) and reinstate the value of the degree. Free or cheap education based on ability is a simple and effective way to manage higher education: every school leaver with sufficient grades can get a university place, for free, with a traditional difficulty level of teaching imposed in the first year (assessed and league-tabled annually, to ensure accountability, of course), but if they fail (without significant reason, such as severe illness), they are required to pay for some or all of the education to stay on the course. It makes no difference to the university which of these is opted for, because they get the same money from the government, so the only reason a university would want to raise grades excessively would be to keep on more students, which would of course affect their overall rating as an institution, providing balance. I’m very much in favour of the idea that everybody should be entitled to as much education in a single field as they’re academically capable of, of the highest quality available, as cheaply (to them) as it can be provided.

Of course, that’s a somewhat contraversial opinion, and won’t win anybody enough votes in the current political climate. But there’s a second option which I haven’t yet seen touted by anybody else: when it becomes broken enough, it’ll fix itself. Like some academic model of the gaia hypothesis, the forces acting on the academic system will eventually come into balance, and then snap back to something more stable. How can this happen? Through the power of capitalism! What we’re seeing in the academic sector is very similar to what we saw in the national rail network some years ago (a bad example; this is still maturing) and in power and telephone companies – privitisation. The fundamental difference between today’s universities and those of our parents – apart from the lowering of the intellectual bar, especially regarding entry conditions; and the expansion of  the sphere of arts subjects – is that today’s university departments are required to generate much of their own funding and to compete with each other and their counterparts in other universities for research money and students. The aging academics who run these departments, educated in the sixties and seventies, don’t (typically) have a great grasp on modern business practice, but they’ll learn it (or be replaced by those who do) as their departments become more like companies, something we’re seeing happening already. Then, at some indeterminate point in the future, a university will get smart enough to try to improve the customer experience. Like every other consumer product, education will be treated like a marketplace commodity, and different departments in different institutions will begin to compete on the factors of value: price, and quality. While it could be argued that these are relevant factors today when acting as a consumer to the university system, it will become even more so one in tomorrow’s higher education world.

What I’d like to see, in this situation, would be an increase in perceieved value of a higher quality degree, but with sufficient “stock” to provide for a large minority of students. If this is the case, as an economist would probably agree, the other institutions would have to compete on quality to stay in the race. It’ll be a long and very difficult process, particularly if the universities are still as large and slow-moving beasts as they are today, but it’ll happen eventually, just as it’s happened in other fields (when was the last time you saw somebody buy a mobile phone without a camera, or a portable music player that wasn’t digital?).

There’s always the risk that value will be added in other ways than improving the quality of education provided, like it has in some other fields. I certainly don’t look forward to the day when I see degrees offered with “extras” like free Sky or AOL subscriptions or cheaper phone calls than your regular provider… but I do, confusingly, look forward to the idea that one day my degree may be made less valuable by an increasing standard of education.

Plans For The Weekend

For those of you that were wondering, here are some of the plans for the weekend:

Saturday (Tonight) – Troma Night

Tonight, 8pm, at The Cottage. We’ll be watching Airplane, some dodgy Mystery Science Theater 3000, and Airplane II. Both Airplane movies in one night: surely, I can’t mean it? Yes, indeed I do. And don’t call me Shirley.

Sunday – Scholars Puz Quiz Night

We still need somebody to volunteer to be the Bringing Up The Rear team captain this week. Last time we played, we sucked remarkably little (I blame Heather), and didn’t make too many stupid mistakes. Come join our puz quiz team and help make fools of us all.

Monday – My Birthday / Mini-Geek Night

It’s my birthday on Monday. 26 isn’t a special age, so I thought I’d mark the occasion with drinks at The Cottage. Plus; as Claire‘s recently received a package which looks and sounds a lot like it might be a board game, I’m guessing that a Geek Night in the evening is a cool idea, too. If you’re free, come along for silly board game related fun. And I promise I won’t let Claire drink lots of vodka and then try to throw everybody out of a lifeboat this time.

That’s the Abnib update.

It Couldn’t Be You

Following up on my Lottery Winners Counter JavaScript toy, and on Andy‘s recent blog post about trying to rig the lottery using statistics, I decided to write a new software toy to help demonstrate exactly how impossible it is to do as he suggests and guarantee a profit through the strategic purchase of large numbers of lottery tickets. Even at it’s most statistically optimistic, using obscene rounding (i.e. 49.999% is "unlikely", 50.001% is "likely"), you stand to lose over £2M every time you play. Try out my calculator now.

If that’s not in itself enough to convince you, have a look through this stunning Times article on why  "our national gamble stinks". It compares the National Lottery to casinos, which have a significantly higher payout rate, and argues that if you’re doing it for the charities, you should just give one a quid – they get to claim 28p gift aid that way too.

Just my £13.9M worth.