Reasons to stop smoking and Star Wars

My list of reasons to stop smoking that I wrote and then barely look at:

  1. Live longer
  2. Don’t give cancer to loved ones
  3. Be around long enough to look after loved ones in their old age
  4. Be more fit
  5. Smell/Taste things
  6. Go places without worrying if I’m going to be able to smoke
  7. Save money
  8. Stop coughing
  9. Do audio/video stuff without coughing/wheezing down the mic
  10. Teeth
  11. Fingers
  12. Better circulation (my feet are constantly cold and I’m wondering if it’s because I smoke)

But like I said I haven’t looked at this list much since I put it up on my wall. It’s a decent motivational list but actually day-to-day you don’t consider these things. You’re just looking for ways to distract yourself. I find I can’t concentrate on very much at all and I’m sleeping all the time. I slept for 14 hours yesterday. I don’t know if this is my body adjusting to life without the stimulative effect of high doses of nicotine or a result of low mood brought about by chemical readjustment but it’s not normal, is it? I just feel completely out of it at the moment. And a motivational list can’t change your mood – it just reminds you why you’re bothering in the first place.

But I’ve gone from a 40 a day habit to just a few cigarettes when I occasionally lapse. It’s definitely progress. And the routine of a cigarette break every half an hour is gradually breaking down. I find I don’t think about it as much. Doesn’t stop you feeling like crap though. I can’t bring myself to write or do anything creative via the interwebs. Can’t even see the point of playing computer games at the moment. Just seems like a massive waste of time. Really waiting for these feelings to pass whilst struggling on.

And Star Wars. I love Star Wars but I find myself put off these great imaginative franchises because of the obsessive interest fans show in them. I’m following the progress of the new films and getting excited about them but when I see the excessive amount of thought and emotion people put into their fandom it really puts me off. I almost don’t want to call myself a fan. I’m a person who likes good stories told well. For god’s sake, they’re just stories. Do we really need another making of documentary? Another interview with Carrie Fisher? Another celebration of the art of Star Wars?

I’m a cynic and I’m glad about it.

 

THIS Podcast 2

PodcastIconRik talks to Mat – a musician, actor and brother – about “why?”. Also in this episode: maritime phrases, trying to play games when there’s girlfriends and playstation know-it-alls.

Without text this is just white space so the post looks uneven. White space, white space, white space, white space. Looking forward to the day when an enterprising company produces a CMS that reflects the live site. Or when the internet works intuitively. Yeah right, like that’s going to happen any time soon!

Download MP3 Podcast RSS iTunes

Links to some of the stuff mentioned in the show:

Mat’s YouTube

The Distance

Bionic Legs (TED Talks)

Baby Metal

Music by Mark Petrie and used under license from the artist

Building a Fence and The Elder Scrolls Online

IMAG0001Well, after complaining about the various jobs that needed doing around the place I spent all day yesterday building a gate. So, I can sort of do things when I put my mind to it. I think one of the main barriers to this sort of stuff is having the right tools. I need a better drill for a start! But at least it works. The point of this particular bit of DIY is to keep Baloo the barking barbarian away from the front fence. He was harassing neighbours. Now I can leave the back door open for him to come and go.

And in other news. I bought The Elder Scrolls Online and I’m enjoying it – but only after spending a couple of hours messing around with config files and trying to get the screen to stop freezing every ten seconds. I still maintain it’s crazy that triple A titles like this require the user to troubleshoot before they will work. See here and here

Despite this I think the game is great. It’s very pretty and the world is definitely Elderscrollsian. I’m not sure what all the Elder Scrolls fans I’ve spoken to are complaining about. You can’t expect an MMO to have as much interactivity in the environment as a single player game and I feel the compromises they’ve made in order for the series to go massive work very well. Currently I’m enjoying wandering around and looking at stuff. Exploring the various environments. I think my guy is going to be a woodworker (given that his RL alter ego has just built a gate!) and I’ve also made him slightly overweight so he’s even more like me!

I’m enjoying doing the YouTube vids too. These are a good distraction when I’m not writing and I’ve got Fraps and Nero Video set up now so I can record and spit out a vid without too much deliberation about formatting. I’m frustrated that my computer isn’t quite up to snuff however. It’s very loud in the background and I’d like a bit more power so I can render things quicker. The thing is, do you wait until you’ve got eveything perfect or do you just plough ahead and put stuff out there? I’ve opted for the later. I think the vids are watchable  enough and will get better once I’ve got the spare cash to upgrade.

That’s that! Comment if you read this – it’s boring doing blogs without people responding.

Quitting Smoking

I’ve been puffing away at cigarettes since the age of 18. I started to impress a girl who was much cooler than me. It was a stupid thing to do and I wish I’d never started.

The longest I’ve quit for was a 2 month period last year when I replaced the cigs for electric ones. So, I know I can go without the real deal for a while. Still, the electric cigs are satisfying your body’s craving for nicotine so it’s not really quitting.

But it’s increasingly been on my mind that I need to quit for good and I’m going to go for it, starting today. I want to be fit again and to not have to break up every activity for a cigarette at some point. One good thing is that last week the doctor’s surgery rang up out of the blue and asked if I was still smoking – and would I like help quitting. It came at just the right time. So, my plan is to replace the cigs with electric ones until my appointment on Thursday – at which point I’ll try to switch to patches. Or whatever else they recommend.

I don’t mind admitting I’m going to need help with this. I admire people who can quit cold turkey but I’m not one of them. I’m hoping the smoking cessation clinic will be a real advantage. I work in health care and in my opinion the NHS is one of the greatest institutions our country has created. People grumble about it a lot but the level of dedication and commitment of NHS staff far outstrips that of private health care companies. We live in a country where there is an organisation like the NHS that actually cares whether you’re killing yourself with cigarettes.

That’s something to be proud of.

No Good

The past few days have reminded me that I’m no good at the practical things in life. First there were a few money issues we tried to solve via credit that reminded me just how far from a solid investment I am. And then problems next door with appliances that needed fixing and the fence that is falling to bits.

It’s not that I can’t do practical things when I put my mind to it. We’ll fix the fence and put the new gate on the garage and sort the money worries eventually – but it’s the fact that, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t have to deal with these things. It’s not that I’m lazy. I want to help my partner with her various RL issues but for some reason my brain sees it as a hassle. I wish I could recondition myself to see these things as interesting challenges to overcome…when we’re doing things it does help that I have someone to do them for. If I ever do anything practical what makes it worthwhile is pleasing Sue. But there’s this part of my brain that is always nagging at me. It says things like – what will fixing the fence actually achieve apart from getting people off your back? What will having money do to make life more meaningful?

I’ve never wanted those things you’re supposed to want – a house, a car, holidays somewhere hot, things to put on shelves. Material things you can point to and say, “There. There’s what I’ve achieved.” And I suppose that’s why, in the eyes of the world, I’ve achieved nothing.

I got it into my head many years ago that the point of being here was to somehow reflect on the experience of living. To say something. Or to simply put your viewpoint out there for other people to consider – so they can then compare it to their own experiences. And that’s still my focus. I suppose that’s what makes me so disinterested in so much stuff. If I can’t see how it relates to this agenda then it feels like a chore.

I’m always aware I’m probably wrong though…

Difficult Progression

So, I got up to Chapter 4 of my novel. Impressions of writing this sort of long-form fiction after such a long time? It seems a lot harder than writing plays. And obviously it’s slower. You need to get character A from a ventilation shaft to the other side of a cargo bay in a sneaky way…well, that sort of thing is taking me a couple of thousand words at times, depending upon the complexity of the action (ie; the number of gun-toting guards!) A couple of thousand words in a play could be several scenes in which many dramatic twists and turns take place. Not that what I’m writing isn’t dramatic – it’s just a different kind of dramatic. And I don’t think you can rush it. When I read it back I can tell if I’m bored, or cutting corners with the prose. I seem to be able to avoid the thing which ruined my early attempts at novel-length fiction – a tendency to try to impress and be cunning with language. I think (I hope) my current style serves the story and keeps things pacey whilst not being too by-the-numbers.

By-the-numbers. There’s a phrase we all use all the time and that’s another thing I’m finding I want to challenge myself on. Finding alternatives to weary old phrases that are so familiar they’re next to meaningless in terms of evoking mood or emotion – is definitely a challenge. I’m a big fan of William Gibson but I find I don’t want to go quite that far – I want to tread a fine line (another cliche!) between finding new or alternative phraseology whilst remaining very accessible for any kind of reader. I love the density of the language in Neuromancer but I can see that it would be off-putting to some and I must admit it sometimes seems contrived.

Then I decided I’d take a break and play some games. I settled on XCOM: Enemy Within after watching a few episodes of Zemalf’s excellent series and picking up some tips. I didn’t quite feel ready to go for Impossible Ironman mode (highest difficulty, no save’s) so went for Classic Ironman instead. And I’m so glad I gave this game another go! After beating the original game on normal mode about a year ago (with saves) I gave up on any of the higher difficulty levels after getting my butt kicked every time. And I still feel that response was justified. There are faults with the game: the strategic, base building level is far too prescriptive in terms of what you need to do to get anywhere and there are serious flaws in the tactical, turn based combat (the way the game calculates line of sight is way off at times and flanking shots don’t register when everything on screen suggests they should). All this can be overcome by reading guides and watching other players but still – you shouldn’t have to do that.

Having said all that I am now loving this game. I think it might be my favourite turn based combat game – scratch that, my favourite game – of the past decade. It’s so tense in Ironman mode and on a difficulty level where the enemy AI is cleverer enough to punish every wrong move. This is something missing in so many games these days. I remember a time when games where a challenge and you had to think. XCOM is definitely that and much more. The presentation – cutscenes, music, general ambience of what’s going on – pumps you up for an epic fight against the unrelenting alien horde and when you lose – and your soldiers die – it is genuinely heartbreaking. To see these guys that you’ve pumped hours into levelling up and customizing – picking nicknames, gear and deco – to then watch them die to a fluke shot from a sectoid…it’s a strange thing. Failure is difficult to stomach but the chance of failure it’s what makes victory so thrilling.

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A specific change added with Enemy Within (among many others – mecs, gene-mods, new enemies) is an alien assault on XCOM HQ late in the game. To put this into context – it can take several days, sometimes a week, depending upon the time you have to play, to get to this stage of the game. You will generally have started to hone your strategy and have some powerful soldiers who work well as a squad. Then suddenly, you’re caught with your pants down. There is no squad select screen for this mission and your men can get thrust into combat in their basic gear if you haven’t prepeared (and beyond reading a guide there is no way to prepare for this mission). They also don’t all arrive in a unit – instead arriving as reinforcements – one or two at a time.

Playing this mission was amazing. I deliberately avoided guides so I didn’t know when it was coming or what would happen. All I knew was that the base would be attacked at some point. Once the mission began it soon became apparent I was in deep shit – with aliens pouring through breaches in the goddamn walls. I though “Surely the game won’t make you fight a mission where the odds are too much in the aliens’ favour this late in the game – with no time to prepare…” How wrong I was.

With my best mec reduced to a burning wreck and my fully skilled up, squad sighted sniper dead at the feet of a mind-controlled comrade I thought “that’s it, a week’s worth of progression wiped out in a single mission.” My only remaining team-members – a close combat assault guy and my medic – were unfortunately still mind-controlled. Then I remembered vaguely that mind-control had a turn limit. Three turns. They would return to my control and the only way to win once they did was to charge across the map and take out the two sectoid commanders with the psionic abilities that had wiped out my party. The only thing that made this possible was the fact that the medic was wearing ghost armour with one charge left and the assault guy had a single ghost grenade.

As soon as the mind-control broke they stealthed and charged – managing to gun down the commanders and playing cat and mouse with a sectopod on one health until they could take a decent shot.

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This was literally the most fun I’ve had in a game in years and it was all due to the fact that the chance of defeat was very real. Of course, I’ve since learned that there are several easy strategies to beat this mission but man am I glad I didn’t use them!

If you’ve given up on XCOM because of the insane difficulty on higher levels I’d urge you to give it another shot. Watch some guides. There are ways to win that aren’t immediately obvious but once you’ve got your head around them the game really starts to shine. And Ironman is a must!

2014. Begin.

Well, only twelve months since my last blog post. At this rate if I live till I’m 80 I’ll only have another 44 blog posts to go before I’m dead. Better make this one count then…

Not that I was idle in 2013, honest. The year started with notification that I’d got a play on as part of 24:7. This is Manchester’s premier festival for new writing and something I’ve been trying to pull off for years. Having been selected at least once though I can at least draw some conclusions: a) it’s just fluke whether you get selected since the play they picked I’d sent them before and b) throwing shit at walls sometimes pays off since I sent them 3 plays instead of 1. It’s the same thing with the BBC. They say don’t send us the same thing twice but really you just need to wait a couple of years until people have forgotten. Or there’s a different bunch of staff in place!

Does that sound cynical? Maybe on the surface but here’s the thing – a piece of work doesn’t stop being good just because nobody notices it the first time. If cynicism is the only way to counter short-sighted policies like “don’t send us the same piece twice” then so be it. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of putting the play on (you can click on the Temper page above if you’re interested) except to say that afterwards I felt like I really shouldn’t have been obsessing about getting something accepted for so many years. It was all a bit of an anticlimax and I really didn’t enjoy the “festival” part of the festival. I don’t write in order to go to parties.

After that I really just felt like doing something completely different so I filmed myself playing Minecraft. It’s a good way to switch off from the arty stuff for a while but it does tend to turn playing games into work. It was the same thing when I was doing the Aartan Away podcast. It just became a chore. So, I’m conflicted about the relative merits of doing Let’s Plays on YouTube.  I do tend to be watching a lot of them though – and other stuff – like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9HS48vx1NQ Just a bunch of people playing D&D over Skype but I find myself listening to hours and hours of it. I think it’s because they’re real people doing what they enjoy. The average Joe or Jill on the street never used to have the kind of platform that’s available through sites like YouTube and I’m constantly surprised by what people come up with. I like the fact it’s someone’s raw, unfiltered opinion, or a piece of entertainment they’ve produced (even if the production values are laughably low sometimes – like mine!)  “Terrestrial” channels seem so predictable by comparison. I’d rather watch Sips from the Yogscast in a race for the wool than David Jason in a new episode of Open All Hours. I’m sure someone somewhere is wondering how they might reboot Morecambe and Wise as we speak.

If I learnt anything last year it’s that I’d lost sight of something very important. I’d started doing things that I thought other people expected, or doing things for cynical reasons (write this thing because it has a better chance of going somewhere than this other thing). It sneaked up on me. But now I’ve recognised it I’ve got a chance to remedy it. To get back to why I started writing in the first place – that is – to write things I want to read. I don’t care any more if any of it gets produced. All that matters is whether it engages me as a reader.

So, what’s happening right now? Well, I’ve written a radio script that I’ve shipped off to The BBC and I’ve started on a novel. It’s a return to an idea I had a long time ago but I’ve updated it. If I get to the end it will be the first time I’ve done that since university.

As always, I’m going to try and use this blog more. We’ll see how that goes! Here’s a title I did for the novel many moons ago – why the hell I copyrighted it do not know. Photoshop ftw x

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