8-Bit Google Maps

It’s like stepping back in time through videogaming history. And also sideways, into a parallel universe of knights and dragons.

8-bit Google Maps. At different view levels, you'll see mountainous areas (Wales is worth looking at) and sprites for cities of different sizes.

It’s like Google Maps, but in the style of retro top-down, turn-based RPGs. It’s really quite impressive: it’s presumably being generated at least semi-dynamically (as it covers the whole world), but it’s more than a little impressive. It sometimes makes mistakes with rivers – perhaps where their visibility from the air is low – but nonetheless an interesting feat from a technical perspective.

There’s “8-bit Street View”, too.

Nice one, Google. Go take a look.

Fetch Quest

Commissioned, a webcomic I’ve been reading for many years now, recently made a couple of observations on the nature of “fetch quests” in contemporary computer role-playing games. And naturally – because my brain works that way – I ended up taking this thought way beyond its natural conclusion.

Today’s children are presumably being saturated with “fetch quests” in RPGs all across the spectrum from fantasy Skyrim-a-likes over to modern-day Grand Theft Auto clones and science fiction Mass Effect-style video games. And the little devil on my left shoulder asks me how this can be manipulated for fun and profit.

A typical fetch quest, taken to an illogical extreme. It's only a matter of time until you see this in a video game.

The traditional “fetch quest” goes as follows: I’ll give you what you need (the sword that can kill the monster, the job that you need to impress your gang, the name of the star that the invasion fleet are orbiting, or whatever), in exchange for you doing a delivery for me. Either I want you to take something somewhere, or I want you to pick something up, or – in the most overused and thankfully falling out of fashion example – I want you to bring me X number of Y object… 9 shards of triforce, 5 orc skulls, $10,000, or whatever. Needless to say, about 50% of the time there’ll be some kind of challenge along the way (you need to steal the item from a locked safe, you’ll be offered a bribe to “lose” the item, or perhaps you’ll just be mobbed by ninja robots as you ride along on your hypercycle), which is probably for the best because it’s the only thing that adds fun to role-playing a postman. I wonder if being attacked by mage princes is something that real-life couriers dream about?

This really doesn’t tally with normality. When you want something in the real world, you pay for it, or you don’t get it. But somehow in computer RPGs – even ones which allegedly try to model the real world – you’ll find yourself acting as an over-armed deliveryman every ten to fifteen minutes. And who wants to be a Level 38 Dark Elf Florist and Dog Walker?

YAFQ.

So perhaps… just perhaps… this will begin to shape the future of our reality. If the children of today start to see the “fetch quest” as a perfectly normal way to introduce yourself to somebody, then maybe someday it will be socially acceptable.

I’m going to try it. The next time that somebody significantly younger than me looks impatient in the queue for the self-service checkouts at Tesco, I’m going to offer to let them go in front of me… but only if they can bring me a tin of sweetcorn! “I can’t go myself, you see,” I’ll say, “Because I need to hold my place in the queue!” A tin of sweetcorn may not be as impressive-sounding as, say, the Staff of Fire Elemental Control, but it gets the job done. And it’s one of your five-a-day, too.

Or when somebody asks me for help fixing their broken website, I’ll say “Okay, I’ll help; but you have to do something for me. Bring me the bodies of five doughnuts, to prove yourself worthy of my assistance.”

It’s going to be a big thing, I promise.

Searching For A Virgin

You just can’t rely on GMail’s “contacts” search any more. Look what it came up with:

Not a result I'd commonly associate with the word "virgin".

With apologies to those of you who won’t “get” this: the person who came up in the search results is a name that is far, far away, in my mind, from the word “virgin”.

In not-completely-unrelated news, I use a program called SwiftKey X on my phone, which uses Markov chains (as I’ve described before) to intelligently suggest word completion and entire words and phrases based on the language I naturally use. I had the software thoroughly parse my text messages, emails, and even this blog to help it learn my language patterns. And recently, while writing a text message to my housemate Paul, it suggested the following sentence as the content of my message:

I am a beautiful person.

I have no idea where it got the idea that that’s something I’m liable to say with any regularity. Except now that it’s appeared on my blog, it will. It’s all gone a little recursive.

All Noise, No Product

I’ve just come across a product called SonicNotify, and I’m wracking my brain to try to find a way to see it as a good idea. I’m struggling.

SonicNotify. You spray red noise into your audience, and their phones become infuriating. Or something.

The world is just coming to terms with spatial advertising and services that “link” to their mobile devices. I’ve quite enjoyed playing with QR codes, but there are plenty of other mechanisms enjoying some amount of exposure, such  as Bluejacking: in the early days of Bluetooth, some advertisers experimented with devices that would push out Bluetooth messages to anybody who strayed within range. Now that most Bluetooth devices capable of receiving such messages “switch off” Bluetooth after a couple of minutes, they need to be coupled with a visual medium that says, for example, “turn on Bluetooth to get our business card”, or something, which is slightly less insidious.

SonicNotify works by having a smartphone app that passively listens for high-frequency sound waves, which act as carriers to the marketing message. These messages can be broadcast at live events over existing PA systems, embedded in traditional media like radio or television, or transmitted from localised devices concealed in billboards or alongside products on shelves. Lady Gaga tried it out in a concert, in order to – I don’t know – distract her fans from actually listening to the music by giving them things to play with on their phones, instead.

Buy Doritos? I never would have thought of that on my own! Thanks, SonicNotify!

Let’s stop for a moment and think about everything that’s wrong with this idea:

  • I have to install a closed-source third-party app that runs in the background and keeps my microphone open at all times? We’ve got a name for that kind of device: a bug.
  • This app would presumably need to run the whole time, reducing battery lifespan and consuming clock cycles… and for what? So that I can see more advertisements?
  • Thinking about the technology – I’m not convinced that mobile phone microphones are well-equipped to be able to pick up ultrasonic waves with any accuracy, especially not once they’re muffled in a bag or trouser pocket. I can’t always even hear my phone ringing when it’s in my pocket, but it expects to be able to hear something “ringing” some distance away?
  • For that matter: television and radio speakers, and existing PA systems, aren’t really designed to be able to faithfully reproduce ultrasound, either. Why would they? A good entertainment system is one which sounds best at all of the frequencies that humans can hear. Anything else is useless.
  • And let’s not forget that different people have different hearing ranges. Thinking back to the controversies surrounding anti-youth alarm The Mosquito: do you really want to be surrounded by sharp, tinnitus-like noises just on the cusp of your ability to hear them?

No thank you, SonicNotify. I don’t think there’s mileage in this strange and quirky product idea.

Remembering December 2003

For the first time in over seven years, I’ve recovered a handful more of my “lost” blog posts: articles that were written prior to the great server fuck-up of July 2004.

scatmania.org in August 2003, showing off the simplistic look it had before it was deleted.

Since then, I’ve kept regular backups. A lot of the old stuff is sometimes cringeworthy (in a “did I really used to be such a dick?” way), and I’m sure that someday I’ll look back at my blog posts from today, too, and find them shockingly un-representative of me in the future. That’s the nature of getting older.

Nostalgia's awesome, which I choose to represent with this photo of me and my parents on a hilltop somewhere. You have permission to "aww".

But it’s still important to me to keep all of this stuff. My blog is an extension to my diary: the public-facing side of what’s going on in my life. I back-link furiously, especially in the nostalgia-ridden “On This Day” series of blog posts I throw out once in a while.

If you remember my blog when it used to look like this, back in the late 1990s, then you've been following me than longer than most folks have been on the Web at all.

The blog posts I’ve newly recovered are:

Andy & Sian, the adorable couple who I declared "most surprising" of the new relationships to get underway late in 2003. The pair married in 2010.

So there you go: especially for you stalkers or those of you looking for a trip down memory lane – some links to what I was up to in December 2003.

For those of you who are really on a roll, here’s some further reading from the period: Kit, on the last Troma Night of the year; a religious argument that Alec kicked off (thanks, archive.org); Liz starting her first blog; Paul applies for a hardship loan;

Douglas of Drumlanrig

This is the very definition of a first world problem. The other week, on the recommendation of my favourite whisky shop owner, I bought a bottle of particularly spectacular whisky:

A 21-year-old Miltonduff from Douglas of Drumlanrig.

In fact, it turns out to be the best whisky I’ve ever tasted. It’s moderately smoky but with a subtle caramel-like sweetness, and it’s simply beautiful. At 46% ABV, it’s no lightweight, but an ice cube (filtered water only, please) or two sets it right.

But there’s a problem: on closer examination of the box and bottle, it turns out that it is, this year, one of only 421 bottles produced.

tl;dr: Find best whisky ever. Discover it’s one of only 421 bottles. #firstworldproblems

HDMI Virus, or How I Became An Old Person

So I saw this HDMI cable online:

Apparently the plastic coating around this cable helps to prevent 'virus noises', whatever those are. Red scribbles added by me.

Somehow, this triggered a transformation in me. You know how when Eric eats a banana, an amazing transformation occurs? A similar thing happened to me: this horrendously-worded advertisement turned me into an old person. I wanted to write a letter to them.

My letter... er... email to Bluemouth Interactive.

There were so many unanswered questions in my mind: what is a “virus noise” (is it a bit like the sound of somebody sneezing?)? How a polyester coating protects against them? And what kind of viruses are transmitted down video cables, anyway?

It took them five days but, fair play to them, they – despite Reddit’s expectations – wrote back.

Bluemouth's response to me. Like the other pictures, you can click it to see it in full.

Their explanation? The ‘Virus’ was transcribed from French terminology for interference. It’s not a computer virus or anything like that.

The world is full of examples of cables being over-sold, especially HDMI cables and things like “gold-plated optical cables” (do photons care about the conductivity of gold, now?).

Does anybody have enough of a familiarity with the French language to let me know if their explanation is believable?

London’s Olympic “Missile Defence”

I gather that we’re going to be deploying surface-to-air missiles in London during the Olympic Games this year. I can’t help but feel that this could be a really bad idea.

The CAA chart for VFR restricted airspace during the Olympic Games. Basically: don't fly over London without IFR.

Do we really want to shoot down an aircraft over one of the areas of highest population density in the country? Even if you know that AirBus is exclusively filled with evil, nasty terrorists, I’m not sure that raining burning aircraft onto the city is necessarily an improvement.

Furthermore, is the solution to terrorism in Britain really to put even more dangerous weapons into the affected area? Isn’t there a risk that these powerful rocket-propelled explosives could be turned against our own targets?

I’m sure that somebody must know what they’re doing. I’m just not convinced that it’s the people making the decisions.

Poly In The Media

As I mentioned in my reflections on this year’s Valentine’s Day, I was recently interviewed by a media student putting together a radio documentary as part of her Masters thesis. She’d chosen polyamory as the subject of her documentary, and I met her in a discussion on social news website Reddit. I’d originally expected that the only help I’d be able to provide would be some tips on handling the subject – and the community – sensitively and without excessive sensationalism, but it later turned out that I’d be able to be of more aid than I initially expected.

I rarely get the chance to talk to the media about polyamory. I’m happy to do so – I’m registered with the Polyamory Media Association and I’ll sometimes reply to the requests of the (sensible-sounding) journalists who reach out to the uk-poly mailing list. However, I’m often not a suitable candidate because my partner (Ruth) and her husband (JTA) aren’t so poly-activist-ey as me, and don’t really want to be interviewed or photographed or to generally put into the public eye.

Logo of the Polyamory Media Association.

I respect that. It’s actually pretty damn sensible to not want your private life paraded about in front of the world. I’ve known people who, despite taking part in a perfectly good documentary about their love lives, have faced discrimination from – for example – their neighbours, subsequently. I appreciate that, often, reporters are challenged by how hard it is to find people who are willing to talk about their non-monogamous relationships, but it turns out that there’s a pretty-good reason for that.

From my perspective, I feel like it’s my duty to stand up and say, “I’m in an ethical, consensual, non-monogamous relationship… and I’m just another normal guy!” Jokes aside about how I’m perhaps not the best spokesperson to represent a “normal guy”, this is important stuff: people practicing ethical non-monogamy face discrimination and misunderstanding primarily because society often doesn’t have a reference point from which to understand that these people are (otherwise) perfectly normal. And the sooner that we can fix that, the sooner that the world will shrug and get on with it. Gay people have been fighting a similar fight for far longer, and we’re only just getting to the point where we’re starting to see gay role models as film and television characters for whom their sexuality isn’t the defining or most-remarkable part of their identity. There’s a long way to go for all of us.

Emily: the media student who interviewed us.

Emily – the media student who came over to interview me – was friendly, approachable, and had clearly done her homework. Having spoken online or by telephone to journalists and authors who’ve not had a clue about what they were talking about, this was pretty refreshing. She also took care to outline the basis for her project, and the fact that it was primarily for her degree, and wouldn’t be adapted for broadcast without coming back and getting the permission of everybody involved.

I’m not sure which of these points “made the difference”, but Ruth (and later, JTA) surprised me be being keen to join in, sitting down with Emily and I over a bottle of wine and a big fluffy microphone and chatting quite frankly about what does and doesn’t work for us, what it all means, how to “make it work”, and so on. I was delighted to see how much our answers – even those to questions that we hadn’t anticipated or hadn’t really talked about between ourselves, before – aligned with one another, and how much compatibility clearly exists in our respective ideas and ideals.

I was particularly proud of Ruth. Despite having been dropped into this at virtually no notice, and having not previously read up on “how to talk to the media about polyamory” nor engaged in similar interviews before, she gave some wonderfully considered and concise soundbites that I’m sure will add a lot of weight and value to the final cut. Me? I keep an eye on things (thanks, Polyamory In The News) and go out of my way to look for opportunities to practice talking to people about my lifestyle choice. But even without that background, Ruth was a shining example of “how to do it”: the kind of poly spokesperson that I wish that we had more of.

I hope that Emily manages to find more people to interview and gets everything that she needs to make her project a success: she’s got a quiet tact that’s refreshing in polyamory journalism. Plus, she’s a genuinely nice person: after she took an interest in the board games collection on New Earth, we made sure to offer an open invite for her to come back for a games night sometime. Hell: maybe there’s another documentary in there, somewhere.

The Tampon Gun

This picture’s been floating around the Internet lately. I’m sure that the guy in the picture thinks he’s original, but we totally beat him to it. Back in about 2003.

The Tampon Gun

The difference is, though, that when some friends and I were messing around with about a thousand applicator tampons that had reached their use-by date, we went one step further. We sellotaped laser pointers to the barrels of our guns, and had a laser-guided tampon battle in the car park.

It turns out that laser sights don’t actually improve the accuracy of tampon blowguns. As a weapon, they’re worse than useless,  of course – tampons have actually been used to save people from blood loss after a bullet wound. But still, it made for a more fun – if sillier – afternoon than would have been had by just throwing the damn things away, even if we did then have to spend quite a lot of time picking them all up and binning them anyway.

Ashes to Ashes (The Funeral of Peter Huntley)

Friday was the day of my dad’s funeral. If you’ve just tuned in, you might like to see my blog post about his death, and a second article about the things that have been hardest, so far, in its aftermath. I’m not inclined to say too much, so I’ll be brief and let pictures, and a video, tell the story. As usual, you’ll find that you can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

A convoy of buses arrive to deliver attendees to the funeral.

A remarkable number of people turned up to mark my dad’s passing on this sad occasion. I was genuinely surprised to see how many lives he’d touched (and to hear about a great many more from people who couldn’t make it). About 350 people struggled to fit in to the cramped crematorium, and many had to stand outside where – thankfully – there were repeater speakers.

The buses with digital display boards, provided by Stagecoach, had been reprogrammed to show my dad’s name and years of life.

My sisters and I were determined that this event would be a celebration of our father’s life. So rather than focusing on his tragic and premature death, we made every effort to commemorate his achievements and reinforce the lessons that we can all learn from his time with us. In a similar vein, we’d told everybody that we had the chance to that there was no need to wear black for this funeral: that people should wear what’s appropriate to them for their personal act of mourning and remembrance.

In memory of my dad, I wore his old-style bus driver’s license badge, as well as wearing both socks and sandals together, as he often would.

We’d hired a former minister, Ken Howles, to provide a (thoroughly secular, under threat of non-payment!) framework for the service, but we “rolled our own” so far as possible. Seven individual tributes and eulogies were given by people representing different aspects of my dad’s life: from my mother, from his partner, from the friend with whom he was walking on the day he died, from the managing directors of the company he founded and the company he last worked for, from the chief executive of the charity he was fundraising for, and – finally – from me.

(if you can’t view the YouTube video above, or if you want to share it with others, you can also view it on YouTube)

The contrast between the different tributes was stark and staggering, reflecting the huge variety in the different facets of my father’s life. From guerrilla gardening to trainspotting, lessons learned to tyres pulled, we collectively painted a picture of the spectrum of my dad’s life. The tributes given were, in order:

  • My mother, Doreen (watch), who talked about their adventures together as young adults and the roots of his career in transport
  • His partner, Jenny (watch), who shared the experiences they’d had together, and mourned for those that they would not
  • His friend, John (watch), who let us in on the things that they’d talked about during my dad’s final hours
  • Adrian, the managing director of the company my dad founded (watch), on his success in the world of transport consultancy, and working with him
  • A break in the middle to watch a video of my dad singing karaoke
A picture of the “Celebration of Life” order of service that we distributed at the funeral. Click on the picture to download the original (which includes a list of some of the charities my dad supported) as a PDF.


  • Kevin, the managing director of Go North-East (watch), on the subject of my dad’s recent career and influence on British transport
  • Gary, chief executive of TransAid (watch), announced the future creation of the Peter Huntley Fundraising Award, and thanked my dad and his supporters on behalf of the dozens of charities my dad helped
  • And finally, me (watch), contrasting all of the above by talking about what my dad was like as a father and a friend, and the lessons we can learn from him

If you can’t watch YouTube where you are, you can also read the full text of my personal eulogy here.

JTA serves butter pie, mushy peas, and hotpot – classic Lancashire comfort foods – to guests at the wake.

Afterwards, we held a wake at Grimsargh Village Hall which, on account of the sheer number of bus industry attendees, rapidly became a micro-conference for the public transport sector! It was great to have the chance to chat to so many people who’d worked with my dad in so many different contexts.

Mourners gather near the (convenient!) bar at Grimsargh Village Hall. I’ve decided: all wakes should have a bar.

Between hot food provided by a local caterer, cold savories courtesy of Jenny’s daugher Eppie, and a copious quantity of cakes baked by Ruth, there was an incredible superfluity of food. These two, plus JTA, Paul, and Eppie’s boyfriend James, provided a spectacular level of “behind-the-scenes” magic, keeping everything running smoothly and ensuring that everything happened as and when it was supposed to.

Among other things, Ruth baked biscuits in the shape of buses, decorated in the colours of the different routes that my dad rebranded during his time at Go North-East.

We set up a “memory book”, in which people could write their recollections of my dad. I haven’t had time to read much of it yet, but one of them stands out already to me as a concise and simple explanation of what we achieved at the crematorium that day. It reads:

“Great funeral, Peter. Sorry that you missed it.”

It was certainly a great send-off for a man who did so much for so many people. Thank you so much to everybody who made it such a success, and to everybody who, in the meantime, has donated to TransAid via my dad’s JustGiving page (or by giving us cash or cheques at or after the funeral). You’re helping his memory live on, for everybody: thank you.

My dad didn’t teach me to drive. But he did teach me to read a bus timetable. Thanks, dad. I love you.

Little Things

It’s all about the little things.

My dad died almost a fortnight ago when he lost his footing during a climb in the Lake District, and – since then – it’s felt like I’ve been involuntarily transplanted out of my life and into somebody else’s. I’ve only been in and out of work, and I’m glad to have done that: it’s added a semblance of normality to my routine. But most of my “new life” seems to consist of picking up the pieces of the jigsaw of my dad’s affairs and piecing them together into a meaningful picture.

An endless outpouring of sympathy cards adorn shelf after shelf in my dad’s house.

The big stuff is easy. Or, at least, it’s easy thanks to the support of my sisters and my mum. The big stuff isn’t small, of course, and it takes a significant effort to make sure it’s handled correctly: arranging a funeral and a wake, pouring over the mountains of paperwork in my dad’s files, and discussing what’s to ultimately be done with his house… those are all big things.

But the small things: they’re tough. The little things that sneak up on you when you least expect it. Last night, Becky and I were watching television when an advertisement came on.

We were both trying to work out what it was an advertisement for – perhaps some kind of holiday company? – as we watched a scene of a family (father, mother, and two teenage daughters) packing their bags and moving them into the hallway. The kids squeezed past their dad on the stairs and hugged their mother: “It won’t be the same, without dad,” said one.

The commercial was for life insurance, and it pulled a Sixth Sense (spoiler: Bruce Willis is dead the entire time) on us – the girls’ father wasn’t there at all.

That we happened to see that advertisement was a little thing, in the scale of things. But it’s the little things that are the hard ones.

Funeral’s tomorrow. I’d better finish writing this eulogy.