So for many years now I’ve been summarizing my year simply as a list of cities visited. It’s a simple, but effective, reminder of what I’ve done and where I’ve been.

I don’t really write a review of the year, but I thought I’d share some reviews of things I’ve enjoyed this year.

Books

I read 54 books this year, all on my Kindle which I continue to love. I’ve come to appreciate not just that I can carry a library with me at all times (and no longer need to have an extra suitcase just for books when going on holiday) but also the lightness of it. My fingers and wrists are dislocating so much these days holding real books would be asking for trouble.

I’m still carrying my trusty Kindle keyboard 3G which has lasted me well, other than a couple of dings to the screen, but I am very very tempted to get myself one of the new Kindle Voyages … not least because the new paperwhite technology looks really interesting.

I claim no highbrow taste in my fiction reading. I mostly read fiction for escape (and most of those 54 books were read in two weeks … my two weeks of holiday), and revel in crime fiction, scifi and fantasy. My favourite discoveries this year were:

  • Scalzi, to my chagrin, is not a writer I’d encountered before. I genuinely enjoyed Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale
  • After reading David McIver’s excellent post recommending fantasy to read I have enthusiastically read pretty much all of the Kate Daniels series that he recommended, starting with Magic Bites. It’s an action-focused romp with plenty of violence, and a very interesting re-imagining of vampires, and some fairly regular werewolves, though with an interesting reinterpretation of how they exist.
  • Not a new discovery, but the final installment of the Skulduggery Pleasant series (as misnomer, since it’s really about Valkyrie Cain), The Dying of the Light came out. I find there’s a look of really good fiction that happens to be YA. I suppose this isn’t surprising; to keep my attention when I was a teen, you needed great pacing & plot 😉
  • My favourite novel I read in 2014 was The Moment by T.C. Anderson. What started out as an AU fanfic grew into a really astounding novel. This is what I find really fascinating about fanfiction … sometimes there are outstanding writers who seem to just need to use characters almost like scaffolding, in order to tell a story. I’d love to see her develop her voice further, and am looking forward to her future work. Please note: this story definitely comes with all manner of trigger warnings; be safe, ping me if you want/need specifics.

Games

Favourite phone game was definitely Hitman Go (iOS, Android). I was very skeptical that Hitman (already one of my favourite games series ever) could translate well from live action over to turn-based, but they’ve done a brilliant job with it. It’s gorgeously designed, infuriatingly hard to get a perfect score (as in all Hitman games) and has retained many of the best features of the Hitman series: suspense, the need to understand guard movements and be stealthy, and the rewards for sometimes being bloodthirsty, and sometimes sneaking by unnoticed.

Console game of the year for me was a series I hadn’t previously played: Mass Effect. I got Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 for Xmas last year and got hours & hours of enjoyment out of them. Definitely wonderful to see the series come over to Playstation; and even made me actively consider getting an Xbox to not miss games this good in future.

TV & Movies

We have a tendency to binge watch series, to the extent that pretty much all our TV & film consumption is via box set, Netflix, iPlayer or similar now. I still rather love the experience of the cinema though, and particularly enjoy being able to get to the BFI IMAX screen easily now that we’re in London more.

TV I enjoyed this year:

  • Sons of Anarchy — I particularly enjoyed finding out that Charlie Hunnam is from Newcastle and went to school round the corner from where we used to live
  • The Good Wife — we’ve stormed through the first four seasons and are now enjoying the fifth. Seriously good telly
  • Person of Interest — I’d seen the occasional episode and wasn’t at all convinced, but after urging from our housemate Tristan we really got into it. It has an intriguing overarching storyline and a good execution of the “mission of the week” approach
  • White Collar was another light but very entertaining watch
  • I hugely enjoyed two prison dramas this year: Orange is the New Black and Wentworth. The latter was a particular delight, even though I’d never seen the original series that it reimagines, made doubly wonderful by realising that the reason the lead was so familiar was because she played a recurring role in Xena
  • I finally got to watch Breaking Bad and saw what all the (deserved) fuss was about. Another series with an incredibly dark ending that I finally got around to watching was The Shield

My favourite movie-in-cinema I saw this year was definitely Guardians of the Galaxy in all its silliness. Vin Diesel’s wooden performance was even better on a ginormous screen 😉

The “N.O.E” mission in San Andreas was really kicking my ass, until Elly suggested a great strategy: rather than trying to go overland, where you have to avoid all the trees, buildings, hills, etc whilst staying “under the radar”, just go the indirect route and fly over the sea. Much easier to stay at a lower altitude and nothing to crash into!

An interesting project request came to me today — we need to build an interactive booth. Just one (a “show piece” if you will) for the time being. Now, much as I did a lot of design for these types of systems back when I was studying HCI, I haven’t ever actually built one.

So, friends and colleagues out there in the blogosphere, I need your help! Any ideas on good software, operating system, technical config and so on for interactive booths?

Notes: I’m willing to consider anything, but of course open source is always a winner. The ability to design kickass user interaction is a must, but I’m not particularly beholden to touchscreen vs mouse-driven, for instance. Any ideas, please share in the comments, whether it’s something to go for or something to shy away from!

You know how TV ads always seem to be louder than the programmes they intersperse? I’m sure that the advertisers believe that this will draw our attention to them, but I think the real impact is really not as good for them.

If you were watching your show at the right volume, the ads are then too loud. So you immediately grab the remote and quiet it down … whilst it’s in your hand you might as well flick channels, right? Net, you’re not too likely to watch those ads.

Even if you don’t change channel and decide instead to go make a cup of tea or something, you can rely on the ads to be louder than the programme. So, when you hear the telly go quiet from the kitchen, you know to come back. Net, the “make the ads louder” strategy just makes it more likely that the viewers won’t watch at all.

I think this is what’s called emergent behaviour by game theorists…




Elly Leaning Back Against the Pull of the Kites

Originally uploaded by meriwilliams.

Back at the beginning of July, Elly’s company had a corporate fun day, where a bunch of beach activities were organised by Northern Freestyle at Beadnell beach.

Although I was initially apprehensive (not least at being confronted with an entire group of designers & architects!), the whole day turned out to be absolutely fabulous. There was great food, including a sizzling pig, and good company.

The really amazing part was taking part in the activities though. There were sandkarts and buggies and things, but the real fun was the powerkiting. There were instructors on hand who showed us how to work them and we were soon doing loop-de-loops and figures of eight and things. It was so much fun that we’re seriously considering joining the Northumberland Power Kite Club … just as soon as the wedding is paid for and we can buy ourselves some kit 😉

Everyone else is getting better but I’m still rather ill. The worst is being not so ill that I have to stay in bed all day, but not well enough to manage to concentrate for more than a few minutes. So I’m terminally bored and unable to get any work done. Since the others are all better, I also have no opponents to play Risk or Monopoly with and I think I’ve exhausted my Flash games repertoire for now.

So I decided to try find a computer version of Risk, for Linux. So far I’ve come up with the following:

  • TEG — this appears to be risk-like and I’ve managed to install it, but unfortunately the help files won’t display, there doesn’t seem to be an online copy and I can’t figure out how to start a local (vs AI) game
  • There’s also a Java version JTeg, but I evidently have too old/new a version of Java on my system as it won’t start properly
  • Wordog looks interesting but again I can’t get it to play and don’t have the concentration span needed to RTFM
  • XFRisk I have managed to get running, but it isn’t particularly happy for some reason … it won’t start games properly even when the AI players are fired up etc. Possibly some sort of incompatibility with my version of X or something

So essentially I’ve had no luck but I’ve amused myself trying for the past few hours and maybe have a project to do when I eventually get some free time — a PyRisk implementation! In the meantime, Any suggestions welcome! I am off to watch crap Sat night telly for now tho.

Playing Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance on the PS2 this weekend (which, incidentally, is rather good) I was thinking about save points. Or rather, the different save game mechanics one finds across the various genres and particular games.

One the one hand you have the free-for-all version: you can save as many times as you like, whenever you like and with no penalties for doing so. The Kings Quest series had this approach, which was often necessary as for tricky bits you needed to save all the time!

Then you have “save whenever you like, but it saves your status not your position”. Devil May Cry takes this approach — during a mission you can save whenever you like, but if you restore to that save, then you start again at the mission outset, but with all the possessions, money, etc you had when you saved. Thus it’s only useful to save once per mission, unless you find something really cool. This also plays off against the fact that you are penalised for saving a lot, in the Devil Ranking.

There is also the rather heinous mechanic of “save on exit”, as Elly has just reminded me. Diablo took this ill-advised approach — all it meant was that one exited and restarted a lot in order to replicate the save anytime functionality one wanted.

Lastly you have the approach that both Final Fantasy X and Baldur’s Gate take: “you save when we tell you you can save”. This usually akes the form of save points of some description — in FFX it is a glowing sphere, in Baldur’s Gate a podium with a book perched on top.

This last used to annoy me a lot — surely I know when I want to save and should be allowed to? Surely making me redo a load of easy gameplay before I get back to that difficult bit I keep screwing up to try again is just going to annoy me? Today, however, my mind has been changed on the subject. Save points are good, but only if they are designed well. In Baldur’s Gate, the frequency of save points increases around difficult tasks — with the bonus that because it’s consistent, you know that you need to save when you are presented with a save point.

Equally, there’s a work around to allow you to save whenever you want (but at a cost) — you can “recall” to get back to the centre of operations and there is a save point there. The cost is a recall potion, so this deters you from doing so too often. The combination of the two means that the save points are a good balance between peace-of-mind and challenge. And far less annoying than in most other games I have encountered them. Kudos to the level designers!