Instead Of Blogging…

Things I’ve been doing instead of blogging, this last month, include:

  • Code Week: hacking Three Rings code in a converted hay loft of a Derbyshire farm, as mentioned on the Three Rings blog.
  • Hoghton Tower: as is traditional at this time of year (see blog posts from 2010, 2009, 2005, 2003, for example), went to Preston for the Hoghton Tower concert and fireworks display, accompanied by Ruth, and my sister’s 22nd birthday. My other sister has more to say about it.
  • Family Picnic: Joining Ruth and JTA at Ruth’s annual family picnic, among her billions of second-cousins and third-aunts.
  • New Earthwarming: Having a mini housewarming on New Earth, where I live with Ruth, JTA, and Paul. A surprising number of people came from surprisingly far away, and it was fascinating to see some really interesting networking being done by a mixture of local people (from our various different “circles” down here) and distant guests.
  • Bodleian Staff Summer Party: Yet another reason to love my new employer! The drinks and the hog roast (well, roast vegetable sandwiches and falafel wraps for me, but still delicious) would have won me over by themselves. The band was just a bonus. The ice cream van that turned up and started dispensing free 99s: that was all just icing on the already-fabulous cake.
  • TeachMeet: Giving a 2-minute nanopresentation at the first Oxford Libraries TeachMeet, entitled Your Password Sucks. A copy of my presentation (now with annotations to make up for the fact that you can’t hear me talking over it) has been uploaded to the website.
  • New Earth Games Night: Like Geek Night, but with folks local to us, here, some of whom might have been put off by being called “Geeks”, in that strange way that people sometimes do. Also, hanging out with the Oxford On Board folks, who do similar things on Monday nights in the pub nearest my office.
  • Meeting Oxford Nightline: Oxford University’s Nightline is just about the only Nightline in the British Isles to not be using Three Rings, and they’re right on my doorstep, so I’ve been meeting up with some of their folks in order to try to work out why. Maybe, some day, I’ll actually understand the answer to that question.
  • Alton Towers & Camping: Ruth and I decided to celebrate the 4th anniversary of us getting together with a trip to Alton Towers, where their new ride, Thirteen, is really quite good (but don’t read up on it: it’s best enjoyed spoiler-free!), and a camping trip in the Lake District, with an exhausting but fulfilling trek to the summit of Glaramara.
Setting up camp at Stonethwaite.

That’s quite a lot of stuff, even aside from the usual work/volunteering/etc. stuff that goes on in my life, so it’s little wonder that I’ve neglected to blog about it all. Of course, there’s a guilt-inspired downside to this approach, and that’s that one feels compelled to not blog about anything else until finishing writing about the first neglected thing, and so the problem snowballs.

So this quick summary, above? That’s sort-of a declaration of blogger-bankruptcy on these topics, so I can finally stop thinking “Hmm, can’t blog about X until I’ve written about Code Week!”

Alton Towers

Went to Alton Towers on Friday for the first time in years, along with Ruth, Annie, JTA, and his sister Harriet. Highlights include:

Actually wandering around the towers, as opposed to just spending time on the rollercoasters. Who knew there was a ruin in the middle of the theme park (yes, I know, we all knew, but who actually bothered to look before now).

Getting straight to the front of every single queue. I’ll tell you what; if you ever go to a busy theme park, take a friend in a wheelchair. It doesn’t actually matter whether or not there’s any reason for them to be in a wheelchair (so long as they’re able to move around enough to get in and out of rides), because – at Alton Towers, at least – they didn’t even bother to look at the medical notes we’d brought; they just had bits of paper to sign and then we all got “helper” armbands.

And you know what’s great about those armbands? They mean you can wheel your friend in through the exit of pretty much any ride you like, and skip the queue. With busy rides like Nemesis (still perhaps the best-designed rollercoaster I’ve ever been on, overall) and Air, it’ll save you hours of your day to never have to queue, and it’s a lot cheaper than buying those controversial “queue jump” passes. I suppose that’s probably how we found the free time to tour the towers.

We squeezed in all of the water rides early on, because we didn’t know if it was eventually going to rain or not (it didn’t), and if it didn’t, we wanted the maximum possible amount of time to dry off afterwards. Which would have worked as a plan, if it weren’t for the fact that Harriet, Annie and I had to board the log flume at a special “maintenance” station (where they were able to park the wheelchair), and because they didn’t put our boat back into the maintenance station on our way back, we ended up going around twice (much to the confusion of Ruth and JTA, who’d just de-boated and were waiting near the bottom of the big drop at the end to see us splash down and get off ourselves).

Shweet ickwe baybey gooshes!!! Yeah. And here’s a picture of a confused-looking mummy goose. Later, we encouraged kids to throw bits of their overpriced hot dogs to the (huge) carp in the lake so we could watch them fight over it with the ducks. It’s easy to find entertainment in just about anything when all the rides are closing down for the night.

The relatively new aquarium/”Sea life centre” thingy, which actually turns out to be really, really, quite spectacularly good. They’ve got a petting zoo where you can play with hermit crabs and shrimp and things; stingrays and sharks that they have a “feeding time” for, and lots and lots of glass (including an underwater tunnel through which you can walk. Of course, being Alton Towers, they’re not going to let the fact that what you’re at is an aquarium stop them from selling you a ride photo, so they take a picture of you on the way in, as shown above. If we look confused in the picture, it’s because we didn’t know we were about to have our photo taken until literally a split second beforehand – we thought that we were being told where to stand in order to put us “out of the way” while they made provision for getting the wheelchair into the building.

And finally (simply because I didn’t get a picture – the one above is Creative Commons – thanks, alundavey!), I suppose I ought to mention the awesomeness that is the new ride, Rita – Queen Of Speed (stupid name, though). This hydraulic launch (though it looks like a LIM-launched one, and certainly uses magnetic braking: wonder why they didn’t go the whole hog…) rollercoaster really does have a fabulous feeling of acceleration: jumping from a standing start to 100km/h in barely over 2 seconds is quite spectacularly eye-watering.

Also, I think Ruth is in love with that rollercoaster. She sighs whenever I mention the name, Rita.

So, a rich, full weekend, between that and all the other bits and pieces I got up to. From tomorrow I’m up in Preston for a few days, then off up to Scotland for a week or so. I’ll blog on the move if I can.

Oakwood

It’s been a busy weekend. Aside from all the usual stuff, Claire, Beth, Jimmy, Rory, Gareth, Penny and I travelled down to Oakwood (where we met up with Andy and Sian) for a round of play at the last remaining Crystal Maze Cyberdrome and a visit to Oakwood Theme Park. I’ve uploaded some pictures to Abnib Gallery: Oakwood, and if you’ve got any photos that you took while you were there, I’d appreciate it if you’d give me copies there too! (on which note: there are people who haven’t yet uploaded their photos to the 99 Red Balloons gallery: shame on you!)

Wow; that was a link-heavy paragraph.

We started at The Crystal Maze, registering ourselves as two teams, with Beth, Sian, Rory, Penny and I in the first team (Team Moo!) and Claire, Jimmy, Gareth and Andy in the other (Team Awesome!). Each team was issued with a plastic “swipe card” which can be swiped through any of the little card readers hidden around the themed zones of the maze, causing clues to appear on a nearby screen about where you need to go to play your next game, or checking you in to a game that you’re due to play.

The games range from the cheesy to the clever. Some are computer game-style remakes of genuine Crystal Maze games (using a trackball to drag-and-drop cogs onto pegs). Some provide clever theming and interactivity for multiple players (with one, for example, climbing up a ladder to move a computerised blowpipe, and others able to see on a seperate screen which targets need to be hit). Some even involve physical activity (hopping on numbered stepping stones as your team solve riddles, swinging over a chasm to press buttons, or wriggling between a maze of hanging poles without touching any). It’s a great deal of fun, although it runs on genuinely ancient technology – an IPX network of DOS 386SX computers, each with 2MB of RAM, talking to a central server – although it’s well-built: when the machines (finally) rebooted they let us carry on exactly where we left off. Our team managed to crash two of them, causing them to completely lock up, which slowed us down in our race for crystals: we ended up with 30 seconds less in the crystal dome than our opponents, and I feel that this alone is to blame for us getting a handful less gold credits than them at the end. That and Beth had never seen The Crystal Maze before (can you believe it!) – that has to count for something.

Claire points out a lit button to Gareth, in the dome

The dome itself is about the size of a medium-to-large family tent, and is more like just the top half of the real dome in it’s shape. Around the walls illuminated buttons flicker on and off, and the aim is to press them when they are on and not when they are off. Ocassionally, all the lights will turn off, and the players have to find the two small illuminated buttons near the floor and press them simultaneously to make the game continue, which provides some variety. It’s a great, furious, leap-around end to the activity, and it – like the rest of the experience – was a lot more fun than I expected.

Claire in the dome

Certificates in hand, we made a move 200 yards up the road to Oakwood Theme Park. The park is small and economical, as theme parks go, but it’s size isn’t a huge disadvantage, as it means that there’s actually time to do everything you might want to (perhaps a few things twice) without running around or putting excessive effort into planning a careful route. We rode the minature railway into the heart of the park, and, as everybody got their bearings, Penny, Gareth and I decided to ride Vertigo, a 135-foot tall skycoaster (i.e. a giant swing).

Vertigo being winched up

A crane pulled up the harness (into which the three of us were strapped – like a giant sleeping bag with Gareth in the middle), and, after it reached the top, staff on the ground counted down… 3… 2… 1. I pulled the “ripcord”, a toggle by my right-hand side, and we dropped.

The first couple of seconds are a lot like parachuting, in my experience: a sudden shock of falling, followed by deceleration as the swing (or the parachute) begins to take effect. There’s the immediate shock of the rapidly-approaching and oh-so-near ground, but apart from that, it’s a very similar feeling. Then the swing begins, and there’s a sensation of moving very quickly and very close to the ground. We unliked our arms and (perhaps with the exception of Penny, who gripped her harness tightly for some time) reached out in a Superman-like pose, and soared back up into the air. Elementary physics dictated that we’d swing almost as high again, but it still surprised me, and suddenly falling “backwards”, back towards my feet, was quite a remarkable change and only added to the buzz of the flight.

The rest of the park was good, too. Megafobia is a fast, aggressive wooden rollercoaster with a great deal of difference in the experience of sitting at the front or the back of the train. Speed (or, as we called it, The Phallus, owing to it’s unusual shape) is a fun little vertical-drop coaster with a loop and a barrel roll: it’s a little short, and the queue a little long (for some reason, they were only operating one of the four trains they had available) – it’s well-worth fighting for a place at the front, though, as the view is significantly better. The water slides (on which you ride a plastic boat that skims like a stone accross water), the Treetops mini-coaster, “The Bounce,” and the pirate ship all add to the “thrill rides” selection of the park, which had always previously seemed to me to be a bit “too kiddy.” Even the pedal boats were fun, after a fashion – assuming you ignore the pain Jimmy and I had of repeatedly pumping your knees into your chest in a too-small, too-hard seat, right after a cheeseburger lunch.

Rory at the Crystal Maze experience

And then there’s Hydro. It only opened in the afternoon, which was a pity, because we could have been using that time to dry out… Hydro is the wettest “wet ride” I’ve ever been on. They really are not kidding when they warn you to leave behind your water-damagable valuables at the station. A 100-foot drop in a wide boat right into a spash pool kicks up an enormous wave that does an excellent job of soaking every single person on the boat. As if the experience of the ride weren’t enough, we then took the time to stand on the bridge over the spash pool, bracing ourselves against the railing, to “catch the wave” – a blast of foam that pours accross the bridge every time the ride goes around.

So: a good day out was had by all, I feel. Please do upload your pictures from the day, because I’d love to see them. I gather Rory might be making another one of his short DVDs: if so, we’ll show it at the beginning of next week’s Troma Night.

See also: video of the Crystal Dome.