Friday, 31 December 2010

Happy New Year...

Fireworks 93

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Berneray Years

House sold, furniture in house sold, other items left on the island and in South Uist recompensed. That just leaves the Isle of Berneray website and the associated domain names, which am in the process of offloading to one of the community groups, then I'm done with the logistics of living and owning a house on the island. It won't be the last time I own a house somewhere rural; I've also inherited one in the last few years, but have an eye on somewhere that's, if anything, more rural than the Outer Hebrides, a few years down the line. But a place with more trees.

But leaving a place doesn't sever everything. I'm left with a stack of memories and experiences, some good friends which, due to the wonders of the InterWebz I'm in contact with, and what has turned out to be a massive archive of my four and a half years of living on a 3 mile by 2 mile island.

Flicking through boxes of the archive was a good reminder of lots of things, but I'm going to need several weeks to go through it all, and some kind of methodology. What I've got includes:

  • Between 1,000 and 1,500 press cuttings (heck, and a lot of those are entertaining and/or not the kind of thing you'd read in a mainland newspaper).
  • Several hundred pictures, in digital and print form.
  • Several file boxes full of random and/or bizarre stuff. Seriously random and seriously bizarre.
  • Minutes of meetings, which are a lot more entertaining than you may think.
  • Emails. Good grief; 16,079(!) of them in my Berneray and Outer Hebrides folders. I'm surprised I ever got out of the house.
  • Several audio recordings, including a ceilidh, people gossiping at a meeting, seals, more gossiping, an infamous tourist (I'd forgotten about her, but suspect no landlady ever will), and the nice policeman from Lochmaddy.
  • About 11 hours of video footage, taken with a video camera with an awesome zoom-in lens that I had for my last year then. This meant I could sit on top of Borve Hill and video (nearly) anything or anyone moving elsewhere on the island. Viewing some of this, it does show that Berneray is quite an industrious place.

I've no clear idea yet of what to do with this stuff. It does represent nearly half a decade of life in an interesting, and oft-misunderstood place, that also oddly reminded me of the village and area I grew up in. For now, I'm recataloguing the ephemera, backing up the digital stuff and putting it into the storage unit. Something for another day (or month) to go through.

It's strange looking back with a detached perspective on Berneray. The island had changed, evolved, as places do before we moved there (in the 1990s with the causeway connection) and while we there (with the introduction of sort-of broadband to a few places). It's arguably the Internet that has changed the place the most of late. In 2004 there was hardly anything, apart from all the Prince-Charles-as-visitor stuff, about Berneray online. Now there's a ton of stuff; many thousands of web pages, sites, pictures, videos, stories and anecdotes, added online with many e.g. tourists and visitors writing about, or reviewing, the island, services and residents.

The population didn't change much overall, though the demographics did (in the last few months, the school generation who grew up have left for mainland colleges and further afield, Australia in one case). The future looks unclear (as it always does), with the dire state of island council finances making savage cuts to schools and transport links seemingly inevitable, and an array of other factors such as rising sea levels and cuts in fishing quotas not helping.

Oh, and also in the archive, I discovered the reason I moved to Berneray and the Outer Hebrides. I'd managed to forget somehow, but it was a reminder that very soon I have to make a return trip back to Scalpay, off Harris. More on that another time. But to finish, here's a picture of part of Berneray in the February 2008 snow which I took from the side of Borve Hill:

Borve and North Uist

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Bostin translation and other #birminghamremakes

Twitter is often beautiful in throwing up one of those silly tags which leads to a lot of people being creative. Back in the summer one such tag was #birminghamremakes - film or TV titles with a tweak here and there to fit in the name of a Birmingham location. As a few pedants lacking in humour pointed out, some of the places were outside Birmingham, being elsewhere in the West Midlands, but whatever.

Humour is a subjective thing, but out of the many submissions piling onto twitter late afternoon, here's some of my favourites, with links back to the original tweets. These range from the genius, to the cringeworthy. If you have no familiarity with Birmingham or the West Midlands, you won't get any of these; best to move on...

Bostin Powers

Snow Hill and the Severn Dwarves

Quinton of Solace

Total Rednal

Debbie does Darlaston

The Good, the Bad and the Dudley

We Will Alum Rock You

Duddeston, where's my car?

The Bourneville Identity

Charlie and the Custard Factory

Shirley Valentine

Pearl Harbourne

Bostin' Translation

Brum and Brummer

Hall Green was my Valley

The Good, the Bad and the Oldbury

Handsworth of God

Five Ways to Leave your Lover

Top Brum

Weoley Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Three Men and a Little Ladywood

My Fair Ladywood

I Spit on your Gravelly Hill

Dudley Zoolander

The Taking of Pershore 123

Mr Smith goes to Wolverhampton

The Harborne Ultimatum

Edgbaston of Darkness

The Whole 9 Yardley

Stirchley Valentine

Jurassic Sparkhill

Bordesley Malone

The Great Train Rubery

Once Sutton a time in the West

All About Evesham (now, that *is* pushing it geographically :-) )

Lichfield of Dreams

Slade Runner

Some like it Hockley

Ladywood and the Tramp

A Longbridge too far

You've Got Mailbox

20,000 Leagues Rotunda the Sea

Pebble Mill on the Floss

A Funny Thing Happened on the way to Paradise Forum

The Darling Buds of Maypole

This is Spinal Tap & Spile

Harborne of the Dead

Lickey Hills Cop

Drag me to Solihull

The Wizard of Tiswas

Touchwood Scissorhandsworth

The Longbridge Good Friday

The Lion, Redditch and the Wardrobe

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

(Don't) choose television

When I grew up, the public library and the television set were the focal points of my life, especially in winter. Entertainment, information, excitement, escapism; they provided it both. Even well into the 1980s we had just black and white television, with a few channels and Ceefax. And when games consoles and cutting edge technology such as the Sinclair ZX81 came along, then, well, who'd need anything other than a television set for all their news, information and fun needs.

Spin just a few decades on. It was interesting to read the Techcrunch article about 800,000 US households abandoning conventional television for the web. I know where they are coming from, and it's a sensible place. This isn't as extreme as abandoning watching television programmes, merely using alternatives to the television box, set or screen and the traditional forms of television programme distribution.

That's 'television' as in the physical box in the corner, or the flatscreen bolted onto the wall. And the case for acquiring one is, personally, becoming steadily weaker. This isn't a 'luddite' move - rather, it's looking forward, rather than being chained to the problems of possessing that 'thing in the corner'. There's eight reasons which come to mind against getting a 'box'.

First, the cost. Yes, the price of the latest television set has come rapidly down. But it's still a good few hundred pounds to get even the previous wave of television technology. Then there is the TV licence: £145.50 in UK money, or around $220 per year. Then there is the cost of any extra satellite TV packages or channels over and above the cost of the basic or free service, plus any installation costs for satellite TV.

So that's many hundreds of pounds down in the first year, and several hundred for each subsequent year. As the technology changes so rapidly, depreciation means the second hand value is only a small proportion of the original cost. Compared to other methods of spending leisure time - walking, reading a book, playing on a handheld console, having a pint in the pub, listening to radio four - it's just not cost-effective.

Second, energy cost and CO2 emissions. Though television replacements, such as projectors, have an environmental impact, these are not as great as having a whopping big flatscreen TV humming away on the wall. Plus, there's the hit on your electricity bill:

And a 60-inch plasma TV can suck up more than 600 watts of power - six times what a conventional TV uses, according to the consumer groups.

Ah, the irony about watching TV ads and documentaries about global warming and climate change, on a plasma TV.

Third, having to arrange the furniture in the room around it. Ugh. I have too much 'stuff' as it is, now scattered around five countries, and with the television just comes more stuff - games consoles, satellite TV boxes, DVD players, sounds systems. Like a mutant plant, once it's established a presence somewhere it just grows. Less 'stuff' is good, not more 'stuff'.

Fourth. With the last television I spent - wasted - an absurd amount of time flicking through many dozens of channels, looking for something to watch. Or the least worst thing to watch that was bearable. Even on a busy day, there's no real time for this; too many work things, and non-work things, competing for my attention, that need to be done.

Fifth. I currently have no games console that requires a TV. But have several games consoles that don't (e.g. iPhone, Nintendo DSi XL), and the most likely one I'm getting next (the iPad) will also not require a TV.

Sixth. Just because you can watch a particular type of content on a television set now, doesn't mean you'll be able to in the future. Take the Ukraine vs England football match a few months ago. After decades of international football being available either on terrestrial and/or satellite television, this match was viewable online (or in a cinema) only. That's not great if you're a football fan and have forked out a large amount of money for your TV, licence and satellite subscription. Whither the broadcast of future sporting, cultural and entertainment events? Your guess is as good as mine.

Seventh. There's many screens already here; do I really need another one? There's several laptops, a DS, an iPhone, probably other stuff if I hunt under the bed and in cupboards. The screen on the Macbook Pro is big and shiny, and can be moved to anywhere in the apartment or on the balcony - no, anywhere in the world - with it, rather than having to face something bolted to one fixed spot on the wall.

Eighth. Moving home and/or house. I've had to do this one too many times in the last few years, and televisions are a pain. On the one hand they are big and heavy. On the other, they still need to be treated carefully due to the screen. And selling a television on eBay - have you worked out the postage cost for a laugh?

In Evesham I used to walk by one row of terraced houses in Hampton; for some reason, most didn't have curtains or blinds. And in an evening, every living room would be lit with the glow of the same tv programme, from a television set in the same place in the room. There was something creepy and unsettling, conformist, pig in a cage, rat in a box, about this. Is this what life is about, watching the same banal 'reality' tv programme as your neighbours on either side, at the same time, on your weekend evening? And is that what I'm supposed to be doing as a middle age English bloke.

No thank you.

Why does the television set in particular encourage this kind of behaviour, but other types of device on which television can be watched on do not? When Strickly Come Ballroom X Factor Star or whatever it is comes on, why doesn't everyone with a laptop, mobile phone that's tv enabled or other device stop what they are doing and all watch this - whereas, based on my (admittedly ropey and unscientific) empirical evidence, everyone with a television set does?

So I'll stay non-conformist (how sad that the height of being a rebel nowadays is deliberately not owning a HD television), even though people sometimes look at me with suspicion ("Is he a communist?") or sadness ("Oh, business must be bad for him lately.") or mirth ("Loser! You can't watch Jedward live!" - oh, how ironic is that thought). Just because I don't have a television doesn't make me a hippy luddite. For example, Aleks Krotoski, who presented Virtual Revolution and writes for the Guardian on technology doesn't have a television and she's more connected and clued up than, well, just about anyone.

And even though non-conformism results in lots of letters from the TV licence detection people (they said they would call round to check, but never did), and possibly a TV detection van sitting outside. Though it's unclear whether they ever worked or not, or even were real, and I'm curious about how they'd work with an apartment block of over 100 units.


Getting an alternative to the television - maybe, for playing video games and DVDs on a large screen, I might go for a projector at some point with an enhanced sound system, into which one can plug in a games console, DVD player, and other bits and bobs. This one, for example, sells at less than 500 pounds, has good reviews, and produces a picture that's comparable to professional home cinema screens. Yes, Wii Fit games and like would look rather splendid on that (characters as tall as you are in life?). Though this would mean more 'stuff' again. Le sigh.

For actual TV programmes there's the magnificent BBC iPlayer (so long as you can wait an hour or so until after the live broadcast of the programme - hardly an onerous thing), as well as equivalents for Channel Four (though of inferior picture quality) and Channel Five (not much on there, but Paul Merton's trips around countries were good). I prefer watching TV this way anyway, as it's like TV; start and stop it when you want. I can also buy content off iTunes, which is sometimes cheap purchasing by episode, though sometimes expensive e.g. £8 for one premium episode of Family Guy - maybe not. And yes, the BBC still gets some money from me, in DVD sets and downloaded content from the aforementioned iTunes, so I'm not putting Jonathan Ross et al out of a job. No objection to paying the BBC a fair price, but despite having socialist leanings (Americans, you may hiss and boo now), the 'one size fits all' model of the TV license looks increasingly lame.

So, no television set for me. Anyway, time to listen to The Archers now.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

What are games really teaching us?

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited (by no less than Aleks Krotoski) to be a panellist at the What Are Games Really Teaching Us? evening at the Dana Centre in London, funded by Nintendo. The Guardian advertised it beforehand, which gave the opportunity for a few of their readers to comment with their opinions.

Boxing game

As Aleks is the direct cause of two of my career changes in the last decade, and as it sounded fun, I accepted. This was an odd event for me; I'm used to the academic arena, standing up there and warbling away while subjecting the audience to an increasingly risque batch of Keynote slides (if academics are unexpectedly exposed to naked flesh, they tend not to remember whether your presentation was any good or not - fact).

However here, the evening was split between playing a selection of Wii games, and taking questions on how and whether games taught us "stuff", either implicitly or explicitly. After floundering a bit at first (the other two speakers had some informal but prepared notes, whereas I had a napkin with the ironic "Do not headbutt anyone who mentions violence in games" written on it), and helped by the free beers that Tobin acquired for the speakers, I just started to say the first things that came into my head, which seemed to work. Hopefully.


More professionally, Pat Kane (one of the other speakers and - get this - one half of Hue and Cry) spoke eloquently about several wider reference points regarding games in teaching. He pointed out that games and gaming were as essential to sleep (too right: much of our daily routines are made of play and challenges), and made a lot of socio-economic and political points about games and how they make other scenarios and worlds possible in the mind of the player. Methinks I'm going to purchase his book The Play Ethic: A Manifesto For a Different Way of Living and read a little further on this.

The other speaker, the game designer Sophie Blakemore, made pertinent points about the use of violent games, and how American and British gamers used different terminology when describing how they played games. I chipped in with some comments about how virtual worlds are used for more serious purposes e.g. training, simulation and roleplay, and the emergence of location-based gaming. It was disappointing - and puzzling - to note that only one member of the audience had participated in Geocaching (much more about this in future postings), especially as this is such a popular pastime.

Games pile

Some of the audience mused and were sceptical about the value of games in learning (breaking the oft-broken rule that if you can't figure out how X is useful to you, that doesn't mean that other people cannot find it useful), though most of the comments were open-minded. Actually this was a much better audience than many academic debates on games and learning I've attended over the years. Maybe it's because the audience were more willing; maybe because games are more acceptable to the general public than they have been, even a few years ago; maybe it's because academia tends to attract vocal people who's attitude is "Can't work, won't work" to anything they aren't funded to do. Who knows; maybe it's healthier to do more public, and less academic, debates such as these.

Dan Bowman blogged the event, as did Ian Hughes (one of the Second Life mafia there), while Joanne Jacobs live blogged it.


Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Nintendo DSi XL: first impressions

Ah, it's here, on launch day.

I've owned many Nintendo (and non-Nintendo) games consoles before; ownership peaked at 14 games consoles. But I haven't bought a console of any kind on launch day for several years, and my last Nintendo handheld was several iterations ago, so I'm unfamiliar with the DSi family. Until today, when my Nintendo DSi XL arrived. Here's the promotional trailer / advert for it:


There's several things intriguing me about the DSi XL (btw Nintendo - really need a shorter and snappier name for it):

  • The outward facing camera. Can take pictures, and upload them (?) and put them on an SD card. Hmmm. Interesting.

  • The SD card means you can put media e.g. music tracks off your PC, and play them through your console.

  • There's a web browser built in.

  • Ebook reading is a significant selling point, making use of both (larger) screens, and with the first app containing "100 classic books".

  • Wifi connection. Splendid. The booklet says I can upload pictures - specifically - straight to Facebook (so I'm assuming Twitpic and Flickr as well?).

  • The pre-loaded software. It comes with an iteration of Brain Training, and a dictionary, built in. Now bearing in mind that some of the most popular digital games are those bundled in for free with PCs (solitaire, minesweeper), and that the work of Consolarium in Scotland has shown that Brain Training can significantly improve maths and concentration, will this result in an otherwise puzzling rise of national math capability over the next few years? Hope so.

  • 3D gaming, possibly. Without silly glasses. With the use of the camera at the front, which can watch you, it's possible to do 3D gaming. Is this cool, or what?:


How about making the device location-sensitive? Why? Because with GPS and 3D capabilities, location-based gaming becomes a possibility? And location-based augmented reality, especially with a camera looking outwards and another one looking back at you? That would also be possible, tho' the hardware only has wifi; unlike a mobile such as an iPhone, there's no network coverage.

So is GPS possible? Yes; one company in China has developed a GPS system that uses 2D and fake-3D Google maps on the previous iteration of the DS:

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="GPS on the Nintendo DS"]GPS on the Nintendo DS[/caption]

Ah, so much potential in one little box. Or, not so little - the XL does feel noticeably larger than the DSi. Anyway, let's not get too far ahead.

Out of the box and turned on. Those screens are a good bit bigger than on previous models. However - the screen resolution is going to be a problem for some people. It's basically the DSi screen, but stretched; no extra pixels. So text on the non-gaming screens can look blocky. The Apple iPhone and the PSP have a big win over the DSi XL on this point.

Other first impressions:

  • For a console that seems to be designed for casual or even non-gamers, and non-teccie people, setting up a wifi connection isn't as straightforward as it perhaps should be. I eventually figured it out, but others may not.

  • The camera picture quality is quite good. As is - crucially - the quality of the graphics in the one game I've downloaded so far, Rayman.

  • The extra stylus (fat plastic pen), instructions, packaging, gives the impression that this is marketed at perhaps older demographics with limited gaming or technical experience. That's in addition to the larger screens.

  • Doing things online is reliable, but slow. The version of Opera makes for cumbersome use of social networking sites such as twitter, though I did manage to send out a tweet without any problems except speed.

  • The sound is noticeably better than on any other Nintendo handheld, and stereo sound is clearly audible.

  • The six language dictionary which comes pre-loaded allows you to type in words - but also to write them (hand recognition, which works quite well) and take a picture with the camera for automatic word/letter detection (mixed results).

I get the feeling there are various little tricks and things hidden away which will become apparent over time. That's for another day.