Friday, 29 July 2016

House of Suns





House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds, is epic science fiction. In fact, it doesn't get much more epic than this, with a story that encompasses a galaxy and runs over the course of many millions of years, there are few stories that dare to assume the scope of this novel.

The story follows three key protagonists, two are Shatterlings, clones belonging to the Gentian Line and who are millions of years old (thank you technology and relativistic space travel). The third is a machine person, a member of a civilization of machines that have attained consciousness. Circumstance forces them together, and the result of their encounter is a steadily spiraling chain of events that looms to enormous proportions. I won't say more on the plot, as it has many turns, but it is certainly exciting reading.

Many of the encounters, the post-human themes and imagery, and the technology, make for a setting that on one hand feels fantastic, but which manages to maintain a grounding in reality. The quote of Arthur C. Clarke's, that: "Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic." is true, but Reynolds manages to found this distant and alien future in a kernel of believability, a quintessence that permits the reader to think that such things are not mere fancy, but reasoned potential. The line between magic and possibility is blurred. The aliens, such as they are, are not aliens in the Hollywood sense, but the result of millions of years of post-human genetic and technological tinkering and evolution. The technology feels well conceived and based in science, as befitting an author who once worked on astronomy and astrophysics for the European Space Agency.

More than anything though, and a big theme in House of Suns, is the fact that while the universe is many of millions of years older, that humanity is a thousand fractured forms beyond what we are today and technology has been stretched to the point of magic (though not quite), we get the sense that our species has still not quite grown up. That we are children playing with fire. That time and an insatiable mix of our curiosities and fears has furnished us with fire of unimaginable power and ferocity, and despite the physics, the maths and technology, we are dominated ultimately by our foibles and too often ruled by our weaknesses. Humanity, for all it's power, inventiveness and technology is still immature and riddled with faults, and that this is both a weakness, and a strength.

House of Suns is not afraid to use the backdrop of a fantastic science fiction universe to pose some interesting and deep questions about the development of a species, about consciousness and about humanity. Reynolds also manages to do so in a rolling, action filled and exciting story. 

I thoroughly enjoyed House of Suns. It is an epic science fiction story, with staggering scope, that manages to maintain a strong sense of humanity through gulfs of time, space and technology. All in all a wonderful story.



Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Ready Player One

Recently I made the decision to read more. I've always loved reading, and in years gone by I would chew through novels, spending hour after hour walking new paths, exploring new worlds and experiencing new stories. In more recent years I have struggled, my job, kids, writing, my phone, all have been contributing factors in closing off those worlds to me. At the start of the year I proposed a goal of reading at least a novel every two months, something I would have found laughable in times past, but which seems now to be a more realistic goal. On and off I have persevered, I read and loved The Martian, enjoyed The Fifth Elephant, and read various favourites to my class.

One of the two books I have recently finished is Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. With a renewed interest in science fiction, this book came with a long list of recommendations and commendations.


Ready Player One is a near future science fiction story set in a dystopian world where global warming and environmental degradation have forced massed migrations, food shortages, and poverty on much of the world. It is a setting in which the interests of capitalism rule, but where an alternative reality exists in the simulated virtual reality of OASIS, a social media hub, game, commercial experience and more combined all into one. It is a pervasive and all encompassing alternate reality that many people in the world succumb to, choosing the prospect of a glorious life in the simulation over the life that faces them outside it. It is a bleak picture of the future that is touched on throughout the novel but never really explored in depth.

The story follows the protagonist Wade Watts and his OASIS alter ego Parzival as he seeks to find hidden easter eggs within OASIS and win a competition initiated by its creator. The winner of the challenge would gain control of the company that runs the simulation (and the hefty bank balance to go with it).

The story is an interesting one, the creator of OASIS, James Halliday, was obsessed with the 80s, and pop culture references and geek culture from that time dominate the story and are a fundamental aspect of solving the challenges. There is action, both in real life and in the simulation, and both Wade and Parzival have their opportunities to shine. The enemy of the scenario is a rival company using every means within the technical orbit of the 'rules' of the challenge to gain control of OASIS.

The themes or corporate greed, geek culture and dystopian motifs all rise and fall throughout the story. I enjoyed the ride, but felt that some of the core themes of the setting were brushed over, such as the toll on humanity taken by a life lived vicariously through an avatar. 

The relationships in the story were interesting, but ultimately the romance, friendships and animosities feel a little shallow. There is a hefty element of deus ex machina that comes into play toward the climax. It could be that the reason some of these elements are written as they are is because of the first person perspective of the book. However, these elements felt, for me, a touch superficial, a touch glib and detached.

I found the novel engaging, the setting interesting and the characters likable. However, in the afterglow of finishing the book there was some element or spark that just didn't seem to fire with me. To me, Ready Player One is a good book, but is also the shadow of a great book, fallen short of the mark.





Sunday, 17 July 2016

Preparing for Infinity...


At my local club we have just kicked off a slow-grow league, playing Infinity. It's a great opportunity to get everyone at the club who's keen to learn the rules and develop their skills together. The first night of the league we had a fantastic turn-out, with 12 players turning up to take part. 

In the build up to the league I have tried to read through the rules (failed), and prepare all the bits and pieces required to play. One of my mates gave me a bunch of laser cut tokens to use, so I had to get some colour into them to make them readable on the table. I tried a variety of ways of getting the colour into the laser etching, including ink (failed), crayon (not bad), and pastel (worked well, but was messy). This was a trial and error process, but in the end I ran with using pastel rubbed over the etching with some force to apply the colour. There was a fair amount of cleaning involved, but the end result was better than any of the other systems I had tried, so I'm happy with that.

Sorting the tokens into types...

Adding some green ink with a paint brush...

Then adding the red ink...

In front of the fire in the hope the ink will dry...

It didn't dry, and when I later stacked the tokens the ink bled out all over the place. Damn capillary action!

Ink - Crayon - Pastel. Some testing to see what stands out. I was happiest with the pastel.

Washing the tokens again to remove the ink.

Sorting everything again... (Infinity has a lot of effects!)

Slowly adding the pastel through the tokens...

I am thinking of spraying the back of the tokens a white or black to help them stand out even more. We shall see.

I got some templates and silhouette markers from Jackal Designs, very nice!


All the scenarios that will be played throughout the league come from this excellent little system!


Game one for me was to pit my Yu Jing against some PanO... My Domaru was the MVP of the game, devastating a flank and allowing my Zhanshi to take and hold the central objective.
Game two, my Yu Jing came up against the Morat. Again, my Domaru was MVP. Taking the first turn, he single handedly wiped the enemy off the board.
Several blasts from a boarding shot-gun and the entire enemy force was no more. I have to admit I was rolling lucky, while my opponent was equally unlucky, but it was pretty brutal. The enemy had lost every model after the first order of the second turn... I suppose that can happen in a small points game.
One of the other tables... 
The slow-grow has kicked off with great attendance and some excellent games. I was nothing but lucky this week, and with small 100 point forces this made a big difference. Next week we'll be playing 150 points, and as the league develops and the points values of the forces grow, it should be very interesting!


Sunday, 26 June 2016

Podcasting - An Amateur Guide

Over the years I have been lucky enough to contribute to and host a variety of podcasts. My first forays were as a guest on The Dice Tower and On Board Games, where I recorded short and usually relatively surreal segments over the course of maybe 40 or 50 episodes (between them). Later I hosted a short ten episode series called Teaching Strategies I recorded with Tom Vasel (of Dice Tower fame). This led to Donald Dennis (of On Board Games) and I to kick off Games in Schools and Libraries (still going strong with Don and Stephanie), and then the Element 270 podcast - all about Spartan Games, with Peter Fontebasso and Reese Plank. Recently I've also appeared on the Inverse Genius podcast, talking about various Netflix series.

Podcasting is a time consuming hobby, but it's also a highly enjoyable one. I love listening to a range of podcasts on a variety of topics from history, to science, technology and, of course, games.

One of the questions I have been asked quite a lot is 'how do I start a podcast?' This is a question I am going to try and briefly cover in this post.

Planning:


Podcasts require planning, you need to have an idea of what you want to cover and how you want to cover it, as well of course as a solid grasp of your intended audience. 
You also want to have some solid plans about how you're going to structure your podcast. Some podcasts are free-flowing discussions, some tightly scripted and with a variety of specific segments. You need to pick a style and structure that works for you, both one that you like, one you think your audience will appreciate, and one that you can manage. The more pieces that need to be fitted together, the more time it will take, but variation can also make a podcast easier to listen to and more engaging for the listener.

Recording:


If you are recording on your own then it's between you and your microphone. If you have co-hosts or guests, then you need to work out how to get their audio as well. If your co-hosts are in the same room, then it's just a matter of getting together and hitting record (oh, and making sure your microphone settings can pick everyone up). If your co-hosts (like all of mine) live elsewhere in the country or world, then you need to manage two vital things: scheduling, and recording.

I use Skype when recording with my co-hosts, I've also known people who use Google Hangouts with great success, but I have never tried it. Scheduling can be a big issue, most of the people I have worked with over the years live in different time-zones, and working out a consistent time to get together and record is important.

As for actually recording the audio... there are several ways to do this, some programs exist that will record a Skype call, and some of them even split each persons voice (or call) into separate tracks. Splitting audio into individual tracks very useful when it comes to editing, if one person has a heater running in the room, a persistent cough, or a cat jumping around next to the microphone, then it's easier to remove those noises when dealing with that single person's audio track rather than a single track that includes everyone. 

When I'm recording on my Mac, I have tended to use Call Recorder - this costs money initially, but works well. The only issue is that every call aside from my own is mixed into a single track. Similar programs exist for Windows.

Another common option with regular co-hosts or guests is to have everyone record their own audio files, the various files can then be sent to the person whose job it is to put everything together. This is a great way of maintaining quality - as long as everyone is using the same settings. It also makes it easy to manage everyone's tracks. However, it is the most work.

It might sound obvious, but when you're recording you want a nice quiet environment. Cars and heaters, fans, children and cats, these are all enemies of the podcaster. Pick somewhere nice a quiet. You can make your own little recording booth using acoustic noise removal foam and whatnot, I never got that deep, but it is certainly an option.

Get a reasonable microphone. I use a Yeti Blue microphone, and I think it's great. There are lots of good microphones out there - get a reasonable one, don't use the microphone on your laptop. Headset Microphones work ok, but a desk mic is better in my opinion. Don't sit the microphone next to or behind your computer, as it can pick up the noise of the fans, and make sure the microphone is set to record the space you are in, and no-where else (eg: if it's just you and your micrphone - cardioid mode will pick what's in front of the mic, but not the sides or behind - perfect for one).

You will also want some headphones. You can expensive noise-cancelling headphones from lots of places, I just use the earbuds I got with my phone and they have worked fine.

The candles are optional... but add a certain atmosphere.

Audacity:


There are lots of different recording programs you can choose from, Garage Band is a popular one, I tend to use Audacity. Is Audacity the best? I don't know, it's the one I am familiar with and has worked well for me in the past. Audacity has some little quirks, like the fact it won't pick up your microphone unless it's plugged in before the program is opened, but it is excellent.

Make sure you head to 'Edit' and 'Preferences' to select your microphone, obvious? I did say this was an amateur's guide.

This is Audacity.

Once you have everything set up it's as simple as hitting record and recording...

Save often.

Mmm, some nice audio there.



Of course, after you record you need to edit, to edit I usually zoom the audio so the time track is in seconds, this seems to be the easiest for me to work with.

Save.


Select a piece you want deleted and hit backspace - gone! Ahh, the magic of technology. 

Editing is a pain in the neck. I despise editing with the passion of a thousand newly formed stars. Editing is, however, required. Go back through your and everyone else's audio tracks and remove or silence the excessive umms and ahhs, the long pauses, the mistakes, the pops and coughs, the time Daryl took a sip from his bottle of beer and the sniffling of Emily due to her cold. Save. If you are working with several audio tracks you need to make sure you keep everything nicely synced up as you do it. Cut 3 seconds from one track, the others need to be adjusted to accommodate this. Save.


Sometimes an audio track has a persistent background noise, an incessant buzzing noise that makes you want to bite things. Noise Removal is your friend, but be careful, it can be a fickle friend. The first thing to do with noise removal is to select a piece of the audio track that represents the background noise, and the background noise only. Do not, I repeat, do not select a piece of audio where someone is speaking. Dreadful things happens to those that do. After you have done this, go to 'Noise Removal' under 'Effects' and click 'Get Sample'.


Once the sample has been taken, get out of Noise Removal and select the entire audio track (or part affected by the buzzing noise that is clawing at your senses). Go back into Noise Removal and click 'Ok' at the bottom. You can mess with the settings, but that is for advanced people unlike myself.

Save.



Oh yes - use the Time Shift tool to slide an audio track left or right to line it up.

Save.

Leveling:


Once you have experienced the blood chilling, mind-numbing drudgery that is the editing process, and all is well with your podcast so far (save), you need to add in bumpers (if any), ads (if any), music (if any) and the intro and outro.

If the audio track was all recorded through the same microphone - ie: it was you, or you and some friends, then you probably don't need to level it. If, however, the audio is several people via Skype, or one person was particularly shy, or a microphone somewhere was turned down, then you should level the audio. Leveling is basically evening out the sound, making the quiet bits louder and the loud bits quieter so the gentle listener doesn't turn the podcast up when soft-spoken-Sven is on only to have his ear-drums perforated when Loud-Laughing-Larry starts to guffaw. 

I use a program called Levelator, which I think is no longer supported. But there are plenty of options out there that you can find with some google-fu.


If you planning to level the audio, do so before you add in any music. To level with the Levelator you need to export your edited track/s as a .wav file. Once done you can drag and drop the file onto the Levelator, which will do its thing and leave you with a second track with the added '.output' to the file name. 



Import the .output file back into Audacity, and now add any music and whatnot as required.


Again - use the Time Shift to make everything line up nicely. Once that is done, export the file as an .mp3, add any tags you feel are required (I always use the tags, as it's an easy way to track episodes on my player).

You have a prospective podcast episode!


Hosting:


Now to upload it to your host, where it will be listened by your million adoring fans.

Ah yes, hosting. A podcast host is a web service that hosts your audio files. There are lots to choose from, Soundcloud, Podomatic, Podbean... Generally they will all cost money, and in return provide you with a hosting service and RSS feed, and usually an upload limit of some sort. I used Libsyn with the Element 270 podcast, and it worked fine. For $15USD per month I had an upload limit of 250MB per month. Seems enough, but generally every minute of your show = 1MB, if you do two to three long episodes in a month, you can easily hit that limit. Pick a host that fits your budget and your intended schedule.

Once you have your host you have an RSS feed which you can plug into iTunes or any other reputable podcatcher! Well done!

Phew. If you have managed to read to the end of that congratulations, you deserve some sort of medal or award. However, having spent all my hard-earned money on microphones and hosting services, you are going to have to use your imagination.

In any case - that is the quick and dirty amateur's guide to doing a podcast thingy, I hope it is helpful to someone!





Friday, 17 June 2016

Yu Jing Army...

I am adding this blog post here purely as a reference point. I sat down to put together an army list recently, and realised I had managed to forget what a vast majority of the various miniatures in my Yu Jing force are. Being the clever forward planner that I am, I had also thrown out all the packaging, which includes lovely labels for everything, meaning I had no point of reference but to scroll through various online retailers until I found pictures of all the boxes.

There are few times in a person's life when the inexorable march of time passes and each beating moment is felt keenly, like a blow, another minute gone; such a visceral experience was had tonight in the above described activity.

What follows here is a simple series of images showing the various boxes that make up my Yu Jing force. I post it in the full knowledge that I will forget the names of all these miniatures again. To prevent me ever having to go through the laborious first world torture of scrolling through google images again I plant this flag here:
















On the upside, the magnets seem to be working well. In some cases too well I think...






Monday, 6 June 2016

Enduring Pain with Patience...

I'm doubling down on first world problems this week at the Castle. With school reports to finish, chapters for the Infinity RPG to edit, and the usual morass of child-born debris to tidy, a game I have been looking forward to for a long time finally arrives.

Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar, by designers Volko and Andrew Ruhnke is set in the turbulent period after Caesar's military campaigns, while Gaul was yet to be fully subdued. 1-4 players find themselves representing either the might of the Roman Empire, or as leader of one of the Gallic powers, seeking to satisfy the individual victory conditions of the Belgic, Arverni, or Aedui tribes.

Falling Sky is a COIN game, which stands for COunter INsurgency, a set of interlocking mechanisms designed and implemented first in Andean Abyss, a game about the complex battle for control of Columbia.

The game system strives to bring in a variety of thematic aspects, from the military through to propaganda, politics, economics and more. By all reports it is a cleverly designed game engine, and has seen implementation in a range of different games. Falling Sky is the first of the series to step into ancient history.

This is a game that is about much more than pushing soldiers around in a map, and is one of the things that really drew me to it. Managing the politics and economics of the period at the same time as marauding Germanic tribes, alliances and other bits and pieces breathes a whole and complex flavour into playing a game set in the period. I am very much looking forward to getting it to the table.

However, for now at least, all I can confine myself to is ogling the bits...

Nice heavy box, the usual high quality from GMT.

Rules of Play... there is also a Playbook



Lots of player aides, some for during a normal game, some are bots to use if you play the game solo...

It couldn't be a GMT game without at least one counter sheet!



Lots of nice colourful wooden bits...

Vi victa vis... or until I can get a few more things done perhaps Appetitus rationi pareat is more appropriate. 


Very nice map...

Suitable reading material on the side-table...

And this, of course...