Monday, 13 September 2010

Very, very quiet

I've been away from the blog for a while. First of all I went to a larp event (The Gathering) that totally shook the world's foundations for my character, meaning that despite the system officially having no down-time, the forums have been full of chatter, further roleplay and general frothing about the events. Outside of work that pretty much filled an entire week and it's not over yet.

After that, I went to Wales, and spent a pleasant week near Whitesands beach, where phone coverage is very poor and the internet doesn't want to pour through my iphone.

I'm back as of late yesterday night, and planning to try to posts out more regularly in future.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Event running

As I mentioned previously, having noted that Barcamp London is coming around again, I decided to get a little more involved this time and attended one of the recent meetings. It was an interesting experience. I hope to stay involved although I'm not being awfully useful to the team at the moment as the major focus is on earning sponsorship for the event.

And that's what's actually so interesting to me. To date, the events I have helped to run have varied from small scale personal parties, through large parties to raise the profile of a cause at a convention, up to conventions themselves. The biggest of these was Eastercon in 2009. What most people imagine when I talk about a science fiction convention is a hall full of people listening to William Shatner and queueing up for his autograph, and while that's a valid understanding to hold, there are more kinds of conventions in existence. The ones I frequent and have had a hand in organising are a rather different beast. Ask around the community and you'll find many people talking about the difference between an entry ticket and a membership. Eastercon encourages its attendees to see themselves as members, to be a part of the whole, to offer their own expertise and ideas and to be more than a passive consumer. These events are run on a relatively small budget, drawn largely from selling the memberships. The guests are not big name TV stars, but there is a big focus on the literary and the big name guests will generally be authors, some of whom attend the convention outside of their invitations to be guests of honour.

The budget is never fixed, a committee can never be sure what they will have to spend, they can only estimate based on how many they expect are yet to sign up. However, the money is assumed to a degree, and allocated to modest costs while hard negotiating is done to get a decent hotel deal that usually involves a certain amount of required bar spend, and filled hotel rooms in order for heavily discounted or free meeting space.

With that all taken as known, the main work of the committee is to work on the programme, to find the volunteers, to slot everyone into a vast grid to try to get a nice balance of programme streams that don't clash horribly with one another, and to make contact to get the people on the panels or giving the talks ready to perform. It's all fairly informal, but the programme is a major headscratch.

That's where Barcamps differ from conventions massively. The convention is closer to the traditional conference, however the conference has a more professional air, while the barcamp has the same cameraderie of a convention. While a con expects to find much of the membership visiting the bar regularly, Barcamps have no such thing, but may offer drinks and encourage the attendees to visit a nearby pub.

The meeting I attended was looking closely at the venue for the first time, and that was almost exactly like the hotel visits I've been on in the past. The people leading things scratch their heads and try to view the room from various angles, working out how they best fit together for their varied purposes and envisioning the partition walls pulled back. But instead of a hotel with some awkward and eager to please hotel staff leading the tour, we had a university building and a knowledgable faculty member enthusing about how it could all work.

It's intriguing to be in early and seeing behind the scenes, but I'm at a bit of a loss for suitable sponsors to approach directly myself. Unfortunately I'm unlikely to be able to make the next meeting, so I'm hoping to find some other way to make myself useful, and am keeping my eyes open for more of the differences and similarities and wondering if there are lessons to be learned in either direction.

Monday, 26 July 2010


I played a new game this weekend, it's called Cathederal. A quick search around the internet informs me that the game first came out in the 70s and upon opening up the game I suspect my copy is about that old. It came from a car boot sale, you see. While the 'retailer' asked for the princely sum of 10p, as i took it and one other game from a vast pile of the usual fare (Monopoly, Go For Broke and so on) I felt guilty and paid them a whole 50p for the two.

This is my second bit of good fortune in my quest to acquire a strategy game hoard. The first one was a copy of Hive, seemingly brand new and unused, unearthed in a charity shop and sold to me for £1.50.

They're similar in style - two players, counter based strategy, but Cathederal is confined to a board and plays, my opponent tells me, similarly to Go, while Hive is a little less restrained. Being new, though, Hive didn't come with the interesting artefacts that Cathederal did. I now own what appears to be a school seating plan for a group meal from the decade I was born.

Hive is available to play online. Cathederal, however, suggests IRC and chess form notation for playing at distance. I think I'll stick with the in-person version. Meanwhile we're wondering how well Hive would play out as a three player, and wondering how to build a new set of pieces.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Playing with brains - a write up

As I mentioned previously, I went along to a talk entitled Playing with Brains on Monday evening. It was given by Peter McOwan, Professor of Computer Science at Queen Mary, University of London. I guess it was very much a lecture for the ley person but I found it very interesting and for a fleeting moment considered taking up studying part time. I won't, though, I simply don't have enough spare time and I know my motivation would slip. All the same, I will look out for more events run by the same people.

The talk took place in a fairly small room in a pub and while it filled up slowly it ended packed, and I was surprised to find a much greater female to male ratio than I usually see at tech meetings.

Peter McOwan has a background in technology and psychology and he used the session to give an overview of current understanding of how brains work and how the knowledge can be applied to AI with liberal use of illusion and computerised examples. The first we were shown was the checkerboard illusion in which a shadow is cast over a checkerboard and the two squares upon it are marked, one we instinctively know to be a black square, the other a white one. In fact both are the same shade of grey but out brains will not accept this without demonstrative proof. McOwan points out that we are getting very good at teaching computers what is right and what is wrong, but getting computers to get things wrong in the same ways that we do remains somewhat ellusive. He explains that many of our perceptions are based on evolutionary need and repeated examples reinforcing our understanding, so in the same way that this just seems true, so too are we 'programmed' to see faces everywhere and to understand that the light source comes from above even when it doesn't. He reinforced the idea of what a face looks like according to our brains by showing the rotating mask illusion. We know that noses stick outwards and aren't sunken inwards and so that is what we are forced to see.

Much of this was stuff I was already passingly familiar with, but he also covered some history of understanding brains. I had never realised that ancient science understood brains to be containers of liquids squirted around our body, causing mixtures of cognition, imagination, emotion and memory. I was familiar with the basics of phrenology, but hadn't linked the head maps and bumps to the actual shape and mapping of brains in more modern times and they are disturbingly similar.

McOwan talked at length about how we know what we know, and how we accept that it may all be proven incorrect further down the line as we take our understanding further. One of the biggest sources of examination is what he termed "nature's experiments", that is, those who have suffered brain injury and now perceive things differently as a result. He talked in particular about a patient who cannot recognise movement, and moved on to discussion of further routes of examination that include monitoring brain blood flow using FMRI and depolarising sections of the brain to effectively turn them off. This latter work has been performed on people he knows and he reports that they talk about it being a very trippy experience, one he's reluctant to volunteer for himself. I asked him to expand on these experiments and he explained how areas of the brain that deal with speech or movement can be disabled and the "victim" finds themself unable to interact normally.

Moving on we covered further illusionary and test examples where McOwan demonstrated how the brain fills in missing details so we overlook changes between two pictures, or fill in the gaps when listening to an MP3 file. Computers, meanwhile, can spot these differences, and use them. Further, they can be "trained" or appear to learn and while they can fake many things others are more easily perceived to be broken or wrong. He talked about how computer generated images that are based on human painting styles can fool art critics, but this seemed to hold little weight to my mind. Elephants can paint pictures that people laud as great examples of artwork before they know their origins, after all. He talked about companion robots used around the world and the work he does for Lirec and touched briefly on what counts as a cyborg (a man wearing glasses has enhanced mechanical ability, after all) before time drew short and he opened the floor to questions.

Overall, it was a fascinating talk and well worth attending. It's clearly worth looking out for more from Science London.

Monday, 19 July 2010

My computing in the 80s

As the song goes, “We bought it to help with your homework!”

It was the 80s, and home computing was taking off slowly. While people marvelled at the ability to do home accouting on their TV screen rather than the 100 times faster method of scribbling in a book, kids were getting into the likes of Jet Set Willy and The Lords of Midnight. Home taping was killing, not only music, but software too, no doubt, and my school had a huge illicit trade going on with ZX Spectrum games. Our cousin had the Spectrum 48k and the 128k had come out recently too. We’d relegated his cast-off ZX81 to a cupboard somewhere as gameplay was not really an option on it. We begged and pleaded and asked repeatedly for a Spectrum of our very own. We wouldn’t just play games on it, we insisted, we’d learn programming and everything! And on Christmas day Santa delivered a computer. Excitedly we threw back the table cloth covering the tea trolley it had been mounted on and found… an Atari 800xl.

My parents, oblivous to the whys and wherefores of technology had gone into Dixons or whatever the mid 80s equivalent may have been, and been sold this machine as much better, more powerful, all around more suitable for kids. They encouraged me to type up one of the games from the old ZX81 computer magazines and see if it would load. The damn things never loaded on the machine they were meant for, I was pretty certain it was futile but they had me try anyway, “Some of the language must be the same,” they reasoned, “it might work”. Of course it didn’t.

Later, we did get the 48k, after my cousin cast that off in his next upgrade, but the trading games thing at school had died down somewhat. And it was on there that I played the followup games to the one that really impressed me beyond description on the Atari 800xl. It was the following year, on my birthday, that I was presented with a game that cost a tenner and was a rubbishy platform clone and one that had been £1.99. That game was Spellbound, the second in the Magic Knight series, and the first to use “windimation” a fantastic drop down menu system that let you interact with the game world. We’d sit and wait for hours to load up the game from the tape recorder, and never quite mastered save games, so replayed it a lot to get back to the same position. It was a brilliant game, well ahead of its time and sadly underrated alongside most of the Spectrum world of gaming.

This picture shows me holding my little sister as we all crowded around the computer that Christmas, pretending to be a bit more impressed than we actually were.

Sunday, 18 July 2010


I'm planning to head over to this event tomorrow after work:

What's in a brain? Bring yours and join us as we explore vision and perception through a series of interactive brain-bending games and experiments, and hear about some of the cutting-edge research helping us understand human and computer intelligence. Our guide, Peter McOwan, is Professor of Computer Science at Queen Mary, University of London. He'll be coming along with his extra brain.

Anyone else?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010


In my email this morning came a message:

BarCampLondon8 will be held at City University in Clerkenwell this November 13th / 14th

I'm thinking of getting more involved this year, and plan to head over to the planning session. I'm not quite sure in what capacity I'll be useful but it ought to be interesting and hopefully I'll get to know a few more of the blogger types who frequent these events.

Who goes to a larp event?

I've been away over the weekend at an event hosted by my own faction. It strikes me that people don't tend to write about the out of character logistics and how an event comes together, so I'm goin to write a few pieces intended to address that gap.

As always, I'm talking about my own personal experience. This definitely differs from system to system and probably within the system between factions to some extent as well. The events I'm talking about are the smaller ones, sanctioned by the Lorien Trust, but run by the individual factions or guilds. This one was a Harts faction event.

Around a hundred people turn up, 95-100% of these will have pre-booked as signing up on the gate is discouraged. This site was a Scout camp, hired for the weekend. Sometimes the site will be a custom purpose site, such as Stockwood towards Wales, or Candlestone which is in Wales, but usually the site is a Scout camp. The attendees break down into three types. The players, the crew, and the monsters. These people are all volunteers.

The crew are mostly the people who pull it all together. They will include some of the command team for the faction or guild running the event, people involved in creating the plot for the event, refs and marshals and a sanctioning officer. The sanctioning officer writes a report of the event to send back to the LT who have certain requirements that must be met in order for the event to run. They okay the plot, insist on having enough first aiders on site and generally give the yay or nay over whether your event can take place. If they wanted to, a sanctioning officer could close down the event halfway through. The refs are there to see that rules are properly followed, in this case that refers to the game rules. Lorien Trust is on the third iteration of its rulebook, and players are expected to know all the things within it that apply to their character, and hopefully more. The refs are there for clarification and enforcement. The marshals' job is to keep things safe, stopping combat from straying into dangerous areas, physically blocking hazards, and helping out to some extent with the rules, although they can't make declarations with the same weight as a ref. Refs and marshals take tests to gain their positions, and refs will also help out with marshal duties.

As regimented and harsh as it sounds, it's actually very informal and friendly. The only other specific crew role I can think of at the moment is that of weapons checker, although this is sometimes carried out by players. Again, nobody is a weapons checker until they've made the grade and they are tested, and their job is to examine primarily weapons, but also some costume and other kit, to ensure it's fit for purpose and meets the LT requirements for being used in the game. Old weapons wear out and can become unsafe, and some new ones are badly made or simply don't live up to the rigid requirements this particular system wants.

The next set of attendees are the players. This is the whole point of the system - to have players there to build a story around the plots that the plot team come up with. There will generally be an average of around 60 players in attendance. Each of these has built a character according to the rulebook, and they may have collected Occupational Skill Points by attending events which they have subsequently spent on improving and upgrading their basic character. I understand that two years is a fairly average lifespan for a character, but some players have characters in the system that have been going since its inception, making them something around 15 years old. A player can only have one official character in the system, although they are free to dump it whenever they want to. They play this same character at all the events they attend, although they can alter the skillset a little if they want to tweak it. The gameworld is one big set background, over which LT have the final say. Each event that takes place in this world has to slot together with all the others to some degree, so the players build up a knowledge of a huge and intricate game world by attending different events, and at a character level, different countries or lands. Every character stand the possibility of dying at one of these events, the methods for which are laid out in the rules. When a character dies they cannot return as death is a permanent end to a character. The players are there to solve problems and defend the land. Although anyone can book to turn up and play, players are asked to consider the reasons for their character to be there and the significant proportion of the players will belong to the guild or faction leading the event.

The final set of attendees are the monster team. While players pay up for their attendance, the monsters are generally subbed and may even be provided with food and drink for the duration. They also generally get first chance to use any indoor accommodation the site provides. The reason for these incentives to be in place is that most by choice will play their characters, but the monsters are an integral part of what is needed. The players need somebody to fight and interact with and the way the system works is quite similar to MMORPG games such as World of Warcraft. Our monster crew takes on the role of all the random creatures that attack would-be warriors, as well as all those non-player characters that stand around to pass on information when interacted with. Of course, when you're not run by a computer routine you have a lot more flexibility in how you can respond to the player, and the roles that the monsters play can be very intricate and detailed. Sometimes monster roles carry between events, but often they are one off characters for a single event. This weekend, for example, we defeated a vampire we've known of the existence of for some time, but have only just encountered. Meanwhile there were a number of villagers having issues we needed to solve. We're unlikely to ever see them again, but it's possible that should the plot require it we could ask that we get to chat to the Librarian from Penross because he now has an established position in the game world.

Certain areas of the site will be declared in character (IC), while places such as bunk rooms, the player camping area, the toilets and so on are out of character (OC or OOC). There will be a room or space set aside as the "monster room" where the planning is done, the monsters are briefed and given stats and get their faces painted for creature roles and/or costume for roles. Within the IC area you're expected to stay in character at all times.

That's the general breakdown of how the attendees fit into different roles, but it's worth mentioning the kind of people who turn up. I swear my mother thinks I'll outgrow it any time now, and I've had to correct her assumption that I must be, at 36, one of the oldest attendees. Mainline events allow children and so there are babies aged only a few months at the lower end of the scale. Most of the kids old enough to know what's going on love it and look forward to the larp weekends, and more than a few parents have had to explain to the school that actually, when Johnny says he spent the weekend fighting demons, he's not actually making it all up for attention. At the upper end of the scale I'm aware of a couple of players rapidly approaching their sixties, and I expect there are people I don't know who exceed that age range. There tend to be a lot of people who have been playing for years, but new people do enter the system as well, and this particular sanctioned event had a big student contingent who are fairly new to the game. Sanctioned events are often stricter on the lower end of the age range, many events are 18+ although some exceptions are made for established players.

The backgrounds are interesting. There's a strong bias towards traditional geeky pursuits so there are a lot of programmers and other IT types among us, but other professions make up surprisingly high numbers, with teaching and police work among them. Alongside these I've known shop workers, a postman, long distance drivers, admin staff, high ranking civil servants, a swimming instructor and a tree surgeon. Attending larp events expands your horizons - imaginary and otherwise!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

A Flattr Overview

Below, you can see a strange green and orange button. Well, unless you turned off JavaScript and that would be a little bit odd.

What's it for? What does it do? How should we react to this strange new phenomena?

In their own words, "Flattr is a social micropayment platform that lets you show love for the things you like". I'm not sure when it became trendy to drop the letter E from the end of words - maybe Flickr were first, maybe not, but it's some strange indication that you're engaging in the social web, I think. Flattr is a new idea that's just taking hold on the web, which allows consumers to show some appreciation for what they consume. It's not anything particularly new, social bookmarks have allowed this for some time. People are well used to tweeting content to their followers or boosting the rating of something new in Digg, all at the simple click of a button.

There's some currency in that kind of thing - the higher the profile of your content (and the profile raises with more incoming links), the more users are likely to hit your site, and the more chance there is that someone will hit the advertising that's plastered all over it. As I write, I have an average of two users hitting this blog per day, and one of them is me. It's pretty pathetic, but I'm trying to grow it slowly. There's more than the hit rate that takes off when people visit, though, there's the kudos, the warm fuzzy feeling, or as science fiction fandom calls it, the egoboo. Nice as it is, it neither pays the bills or puts food in your mouth, though, and that's where Flattr differs.

Flattr pays out. At the moment, in order to take a pay out, you have to put something in. The whole thing is in a loosely closed beta - it's easy enough to get an invite code if you want to take part, and so I've joined in to be in at the start if it takes off and maybe learn some lessons if it doesn't. So I've given over my ten Euro and I'm looking at sites that are hosting similar buttons to my own, and if I like the content I hit the button. My ten Euro fund is set, by me, to pay out to sites at a rate of two euro a month. If I click two hundred buttons then each of those sites is going to get a cent at the end of the month, if I only hit one then my whole two euro stake goes into their coffers. And, if I hit nothing at all, the money disappears and is donated to a charity. Flattr themselves take a small cut of the payments made, and everyone who gets their button clicked is a winner.

Hang on, you might think, didn't we have this ability several years ago with tip jars and paypal buttons? Well, yes, you did, but in those cases it's not instant and you have to think over what you're prepared to pay and there's no real feedback. Flattr is flattery that can be displayed, it's currency in BOTH senses of the term.

I'm less than convinced by paywalls. If a newspaper wants me to pay a gatekeeper to come in and visit before I know what I'll encounter within, then I'm going to wander off to an alternative. What if once I'm in there I actively dislike what I find? Refunds seem unlikely. But Flattr allows work to survive on merit, it lets me show my appreciation and hand over my teeny tiny micropayment. But if I've paid at the start of the month already and my money is already going somewhere good (the charity option) then diverting some of that payment towards something cool makes me feel better than a simple leecher, taking what is provided and giving back little.

The site is an admitted beta, and until there are a lot of people using it it's not going to gain the critical mass it needs, so it's all a bit experimental. At its heart, though, is someone who looked after PirateBay for some time, someone who knows his tech and probably has the nouse to see this through. If so, it'll be kinda cool to say I was there at the start.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Back to the Future

I remember seeing Back to the Future for the first time. I was thirteen and stuck for what to get my best friend for Christmas. I told her that rather than a present, I'd pay for us to go to the cinema. Secretly I was really keen to see The Goonies, but she watched an episode of Film 85 and was keen to see Back to the Future. Since it was her day out, I complied and loved the movie. I had major reservations at first. It looked like a film about older kids, how was I meant to relate to them? But when I realised they needed to be that age for the romance stuff and the whole car-driving thing to be going on I relaxed some more and got really wrapped up in it. I collected all the stickers in the Panini sticker album, practised drawing the movie poster and generally just really enjoyed it.

I did have some outstanding reservations when Back to the Future II came out, though. The futuristic times seemed to be set too soon for all the massive cultural changes they were showing - the crazy 3D movie posters, the hover boards and so on, and of course I was proven right. The sequels, as often, were inferior anyway.

But I still love the first movie. I was amused and fooled by the meme that spread around the internet, popping up on the likes of Facebook and Twitter (where I first encountered it) saying that July 5th 2010 was the day that Doc Emett Brown had set the machine for when he wanted to travel 25 years into the future. It made me feel a little old, and also nostalgic.

It turns out it was all a hoax. Somebody had photoshopped a screenshot of the time machine controls and spread the rumour around, but at no point in the movie does anyone set the controls for 2010. And yet... it could so easily have been true, and still it's all wrong. I've no idea what the sequel movies use as their setting years any more, I'll have to rewatch my box set, but their future had no internet, no ubiquitous mobile phones, and a distinct lack of worldwide friendships. I'll keep this in favour of the hover board and ill gotten betting riches, any day.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Everybody knows what you do

Another import from the old, dead blog, this time from last May.

On the internet nobody knows you're a dog. So goes the old adage. The thing is, it doesn't matter. What sets apart online activity from everyday activity is that if you do nothing you might as well not be there. You're not even a part of the scenery, effectively you are absent. It is by your actions that you're recognised and lurkers don't really count for an awful lot.

The internet is a meritocracy: actions draw attention. It's not necessarily clear what actions will have what consequences, and in the case of things that go viral it can be baffling, but internet celebrity is unfailingly driven by action, whether it be running a conference, pretending to be a Jedi in front of a movie camera, or contributing considered thoughts to something like the Microformats community. And so what if you're a dog, or a cat? Fame could still fall at your feet. Go on, tell me you don't know Ceiling Cat.

In my larping life I am a dog*. Well, sort of, I'm actually a beastkin:

Believed by some to be the closest kin of Humans. Beastkin are intelligent animaloid creatures who draw their ancestry from many of the wild animals of Erdreja. Commonly tribal in nature, and intensely close knit, these differing races are also incredibly diverse.

And there's something similar going on there. It's the actions that matter, not what costume you're wearing or what race you're from. Players take on characters but the game works because there's collaboration, teamwork, leaders and followers. We're not rocking the world, we go home and forget about it at the weekend, but we play alongside people whose names we might not learn for years. In the same way you might not know the real name of somebody online, it's largely irrelevant because you are judged entirely on your actions.

My little beastie just got made vaguely important as a conduit between her faction and the Healer's guild. In terms of moving and shaking the world it's no big deal, but then neither is having the top rated Youtube video for half an hour - still makes the creator mildly proud.

It's interesting to note how being anonymous isn't necessarily a barrier to make social bonds and being promoted by your peers. Game worlds, online, and real life. How different are they, really?

Larp beastkin

*No I am not a furry.

Is the iPhone the end?

One of the things I've always though an important feature of blogs is linking outwards to other content. The name itself came originally from "web log" which to me suggests you're meant to be logging things elsewhere on the web, not solely creating your own content. With that in mind I'm making a conscious effort to share some of the things I come across whilst "surfing".

First case, this intriguing post about the iPhone. It postulates the way that the mobile phone has pretty much reached its pinnacle. With an excellent screen it's not really worth upgrading, this device knows where you are, which way you're facing and lets you take a picture of it. Sure, the article says, battery life has room for improvement, as do things like signal reliability, but in terms of what the device offers we're there. When everyone else catches up and the niggles are ironed out there's nowhere to go from here, there's nothing the hand held can't do these days that it would be logical for it to do. I have to admit, the case is very well made. Have a look and see if you agree.

Meanwhile, I'm still sitting around waiting to see what sort of offer T-Mobile will have on the iPhone 4. Get your fingers out, T-mobile.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Reflections on Social Media Camp 2009

Last year I went to Social Media Camp in April, and I wrote the bulk of this post directly thereafter. I was inspired to start up a blog but I was unfocused and didn't really have anything in particular that I wanted to write about. I also caught a very nasty illness which in retrospect I think was swine 'flu and the whole blogging thing never really took off. I'm going to kill off that quickly aborted attempt, but I'm importing the things that are worth saving, and this is one of them:

I've had Neil Crosby on various social media friends lists for a long time since way back when some of my Red Dwarf fan friends got friendly with the Buffy and Angel side of fandom, and although we've met in person a couple of times, we don't know each other well. All the same, when I saw him mention Social Media Camp on Twitter I thought it worth a look and immediately signed up for tickets which turned out to be in very short supply.

Social Media Camp is in the tradition of bar camps, which are get togethers for geeks, where a conference is effectively arranged on the spot once everyone is through the door. The BBC has sponsored a couple, and there have been various others that have looked interesting but I have a very full calendar when you divide it into the time I spend on conventions, larp and general socialising fare such as parties. I've never been available when the interesting things were happening until now.

Once signed up, nerves set in a tad. I knew I was meant to volunteer or present, but at all the conferences and work based talks I've been to, the person on the stage really knows their stuff, and has well prepared slides. So the whole idea of presenting didn't appeal, but neither did the idea of reneging on the deal. Right up until the night before I was considering pulling out, but in the end I turned up, Tweeting on the way to the effect that I was mildly nervous.

The venue was easy to find, and a great host to the event, but my vague idea of volunteering to help out melted away as I came in and was pointed at the badges, told it was a DIY affair, and directed downstairs for coffee (which I mostly don't drink). People were gathering and doing the meet and greet thing and I felt out of place, and sat myself down wondering how early it would be reasonable to run away back home.

And then people started to actually talk to me. Terence had already replied to my Tweet, noticing it via the hashtag of #smclondon, and told me to discard the nerves, it would be fine. Kat joined in with him, enthusing about how it would be fine to talk, don't be nervous, and just throw myself into it and enjoy. I signed up for the photographic scavenger hunt and relaxed.

In the end I wound up attending a talk in each slot, and even presenting one, entirely off the cuff, in a later slot. It was barely on topic, being about live action roleplay, but it was something I felt confident enough to describe and it seemed suitably geeky, if not quite linked to the "media" side of social media, and the handful of people who came to listen seemed to be engaged.

The venue was great, the talks were interesting, the food was lavish and free drinks abounded. Everyone I encountered was friendly and enthusiastic and perhaps the most uncomfortable experience was during one of the discussions where the younger members were put on the spot and confronted by people demanding to know "So what pisses you off? How do you feel about people marketing to you? How should we be doing it?" and so on. Sure, they put themselves on the spot and invited it, but it felt uncomfortably confrontational to me. The highlight talk for me was Terence Eden's talk about working with porn, although I'd expected something a little different from the description, somehow I'd expected it to be more about how porn dominates the internet and how no social media site or application can escape it, and how best to deal with that fact. But it was fascinating and well presented.

It was interesting to note that I seemed to inhabit an overlapping but different social media network corner, and some of the things I mentioned such as audioboo were exotic and barely known to others, while they had shared knowledge of blogs I was unaware of. I like that narrow overlap, though, it invites a wider range of conversation and sharing.

It was a really good day and I definitely intend to sign up for more things along those lines in future, where my calendar and finances allow. Kudos to Vero for pulling it all together.



Larp characters

My friend, Anthony, put together a number of short YouTube videos that cover the way that a few things work in our system. Below is the one in which he describes a character card. He's taken to filming early of a morning before things get going at the event and this video touches on a few things.

- The rules and the honour system we're bound by
- What's on the character card
- The concept of groups
- A little of what his skillset means

To be honest, some of what he says is probably quite confusing for someone completely new to it, but it's a nice basic introduction and well worth a watch.

Friday, 2 July 2010

What is larp?

Ask old enough players and they'll tell you larp is an abomination and we should be referring to lrp. Ask others and they'll talk about "larps" as plural items. It's both, neither and all these things depending who you ask.

Larp stands for Live Action Role Play. Older players don't bother to mention the Action part, after all, everything is action once it's live, whether it's the action of chatting or hitting someone with a fake sword.

For most people with a fleeting interest, the closest thing to larp is a computer game such as World of Warcraft, but it's different in a lot of ways. Some also deny familiarity with such games, so it's easier to ground the description in non-computer terms. A lot of larpers talk about "cross country pantomime" because it is, indeed, done cross country in scout camps and large fields and there's a high degree of costuming involved. Personally I don't like the description much because it suggests more of a scripted engagement.

For me, the best description is that it's something like a crossover between a paintball game and a murder mystery evening. Larp involves taking on a character and engaging in a story. Some might say it's not a very good story because everyone in it thinks that they're the main character and the start and ending are not as well defined as your typical script would have. While it's a freeform engagement, it's played within some very specific rules and these rules differ from system to system. There is somebody in charge to make sure it all holds together and plot is introduced that may not be player driven, but the point is that the players take an active role and become someone else in a different world, be it a post-apocalyptic version of this one or some faux medieval mythology setting.

It is difficult to generalise beyond this because the systems do have significant differences, and while some think it's similar to re-enactment it's usually got some very different aspects. For one thing, most larp takes place in a made up setting and the outcome may be directed but it isn't usually enforced. My understanding of re-enactment is that those taking part take on specific roles and play out some event where the final outcome is pre-determined according to historical records. Similarly, re-enactment involves recreating a time gone by with close attention to detail and some level of eschewing day to day modern comforts. In larp you're expected to fit in, but the rules regarding costume are more lax. While re-enactors use real or very realistic weapons to do battle, larp involves using specialised equipment, generally made of foam and latex which is crafted to look realistic and designed to be able to do very little harm.

Most of the time when I write about larping I'm going to be referring to the system I play most, which is Lorien Trust, but I've tried to make this introduction more generic, short as it is. I will try to cover more than just LT when I write, but most of what I know from outside my system is stuff I picked up on the internet or chatting to friends, I'm no expert within my own system, I know much less about others.

Thursday, 1 July 2010


Back in January I met a man named Steve who had a website and he told me that it was doing very, very poorly in the search engine stakes and since I was a web developer, perhaps I could help him improve things. Somebody told him his site was invisible but he didn't know what that meant.

I looked at the website. It was quite nicely designed and comprised about forty pages. Every one of them was an image. There were no alt tags on these images, but each page had a list of meta tag keywords encompassing random words from the pages. I charged a modest fee and rebuilt the site to look almost identical but actually be indexable. I explained that users reliant on screen readers couldn't see anything of their website, and neither could website crawlers. Nobody could turn up the font size easily and it was nigh impossible to edit the text of the site.

It's been a month or so since I launched the site, it's a treasure hunts business that Steve runs and the site still doesn't show up on the first page of Google if you search for "treasure hunts london" but it does better if you try "treasure hunts adult".

Meanwhile a visit to my mum had her ask me to set up a site for her, too. This time the requirement was that it be easy to update by somebody with no knowledge of HTML or real experience of doing anything editorial. I went down the easy route of using Google's sites. At least, I thought it was an easy route - I didn't think it was a particularly easy interface to get to grips with and it was pretty restrictive in some ways but eventually I handed over the site for her to start updating with lovely information about chickens (yup, she's retired to the country to raise chickens for fun and profit). "Why can't I search for it?" she asked.

Of course, she could search for it, she just couldn't find it when she did. While I've built the first site and worked on the other with the idea of having structured pages full of the right sort of information for the topics, they're islands in the middle of the web that nobody knows about. I've encouraged both site owners to try to arrange links into their pages so they get some level of recognition and I know that the dark art of search engine optimisation has ways and means of cheating and pushing sites to the top but I advise people against that. What's the point? You want interested parties to land at your site because it's got a good reputation and you want to maintain that. Cheat and the cheat method will just get cut off eventually.

So it's kind of ironic that I've decided not to try overly hard to promote this blog in the first instance. It's partly down to me not wanting to crow about it (hell, it's just a blog, anyone can wibble at length and many - but not all - do it better than me) and partly because I want to make sure I can keep up the updates before I chase a readership. I'm waiting to see who lands here first, how long it takes and where they come from. Maybe I'll crack and start pointing and shouting about it after a while, but at the moment I'm just peering at the log files now and then.

Should you care to look at the sites mentioned, they're here:
Chick O' Lin Poultry
Bigfoot Treasure Hunts

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

iPhone vs iPad

I want an iPhone. I don't want an iPad.

Until the advent of the iPhone I'd largely given up on Apple computers. As a kid I had the standard issue ZX Spectrum for a while, and the first time I did any real desktop publishing it was on an Atari, but my first forays into the world of the internet and the World Wide Web happened on a Mac, a Performa 475 that needed a software update in order to handle floating point numbers. It served me well, that old machine, for several years and when I started working life I borrowed a Mac that was used most of the time by the staff designer and whose hours were pretty much the opposite of mine. Eventually both our hours increased and a new machine had to be found. I was introduced to the PC and learned how useful a right mouse button could be. I never really looked back. That was at the time of Windows 95 and MacOS 7.5 and my path diverged so far from the Mac that when, years later, I came to be checking web pages on Safari I found it really difficult to remember the little differences and hit the top left rather than the top right for window maximisation and the likes.

I adopted Smartphones as soon as they were about. I had a Nokia 7110 but rather than rely on the WAP browser (although I used it regularly) I had it hooked up to my Palmpilot via IR ports for web browsing on the train, and when the all-in-one Treo 600 came along it worked like a dream. The Treo served me well for years, via a couple of upgrades but stopped being my friend when they adopted Windows Mobile. I am really pretty platform agnostic so long as the device does what I want it to well enough. Well enough in the case of a phone does not include crashing the phone software while the rest of the device remains unaware so that on reboot I discover 2 days worth of calls and texts...

Thus I came to own an iPhone 3G. I had to use the first version at work for a while on a project, and it was a pretty nifty device although it took me a long while to get used to not having a keypad in the normal sense. Now I'd really rather not be without it, for all its foibles.

The iPhone 4, though, that fixes many of them. The poor camera, the battery life, the improved spatial awareness. I want them all, I will have one. I just have to figure out how and when - they're sold out everywhere and I don't have the kind of money they cost right now, especially since buying out of my contract will cost me either 90 quid or six months.

The iPad, though? I just don't get it. I keep being told how it's a revolutionary device and it's not trying to be a laptop, but as far as I can tell, short of the multi-touch screen, it is matched in every respect by netbooks and laptops. I like proper input devices, I like the way that USB devices can just plug into computers, and I like how a laptop's software is not ringfenced - I can roll my own applications and nobody has to approve them (assuming I were capable). I keep being told about how you can use the iPad as a laptop if you want, you just need to buy a dock. Okay... but my laptop which cost me under three hundred quid came with one built in! I don't have to carry it around in two pieces and assemble it for use. I've only seen one iPad in the flesh. It was being cradled by a man on a train who sat next to me and checked his email. I checked my email, too. My device then slipped into my pocket and I really don't understand what he gained, if anything, by working on an iPad rather than an iPhone.

I guess I ought to be glad I don't desire one. There are enough things I do want that I can't afford, without wanting more.

As for the computers, at work I'm back on a Mac and I struggle with it. I use a PC by preference. I think this loses me geek cred, but I don't really need the Mac lifestyle. I still loathe the Windows 7 advertising campaign, though. What a load of rubbish.

Welcome to Geekeration

Hello. This is a blog about geekery. All the strange hobbies that used to be shunned are now celebrated, and the world is hungry for the next techie toy.

I am unashamedly me and I don't shy away from admitting to my passions. From a solid love of science fiction with Red Dwarf at its heart through my teen years and beyond, to a minor obsession with Little Shop of Horrors and a recent discovery of live roleplay, I've found fun throughout life for a long time whilst finding my working life has gone down an odd combination of media and tech.

I'm not new to writing online, I've written and continue to update a journal elsewhere, but I've always maintained that my online journal is a place for personal musing and chatting with my friends. A blog is more of a shout to the world, a place for more targeted writing, a little soapbox to stand on and shout to an audience.

Hello audience.