Thursday, 30 September 2010

Civilization V - Initial Thoughts

Given that it's a game that's slowly consuming my soul (even though I've only clocked up 23 hours in the last week, which is far less than some) I figured I'd post some thoughts about it on here.

The first thought is that it actually runs surprisingly well on my laptop. Sure, I'm using the lowest settings and it still runs my CPU pretty much to the limit, but I've not had any of the issues other people seem to have had. It's crashed on me a grand total of one time so far, which is far less than what some people with certain graphics cards have been reporting. I've been using the Dx9 version but I don't really have a choice because I'm on XP and it doesn't have support for Dx10 and above.

That said, my use of it hasn't been entirely bug-free (click to enlarge):
Exponential horse resources ftw.

The other thing I know a few people have complained about is that late-on in the game you have to wait ages for the AI to take its turns. I've not really experienced this that badly, but the largest map I've used so far is "small", which is the third largest out of the six options, and turns started to take a noticeable amount of time late-on in the game and I could see how it'd easily scale up to be quite a long amount of time on the large maps with lots of AI players.

I've had a few games now and I'm starting to get a decent feel for the basics and some of the more advanced options to control. I've been going for a few Steam achievements, mostly playing as different maps and civs and going for different victories, which I think is a pretty good way to get a proper feel for the game and the best style of play.

For conquest victory (wipe out all the other players), it seems pretty standard. My main thought on it in comparison to Civ II is that against decent players you almost certainly have to be relentless and focused in attacking other people. This is mostly from the perspective that I think with some resilient opponents it'll be fairly challenging to win a conquest victory before someone swoops in with a science or culture one.

The science victory (win the space race) I like, and I feel it's a fairly easy one. The thing with focusing on advancing science is that you obtain all the upgraded units and buildings more quickly than your opponents, which makes defending yourself from attack a fair bit easier because you have the superior force technologically, even if your opponent might have more units with more experience. I also don't think that unit/building production really hinders your science progress that much either, so it's not like you can't generate a fairly large army and a shitload of science at the same time (thought getting the money to support it might be a different issue).

The culture victory is reasonably straightforward. You generate culture points, these points allow you to unlock social policies which provide various benefits. If you complete enough policy trees (five, which equates to twenty-five policies) then you can build the Utopia Project wonder that'll win a cultural victory for you. It's not, in my single-game experience of it, a particularly tough one to go for, again because your military tactics don't really affect culture production that much. However, each extra city increases the social policy cost by 30%, meaning that once you've got four cities it's no longer beneficial towards victory to build more cities (ignoring other benefits that extra cities have). You can still expand by taking over enemy cities and making them puppet states, which don't have the policy cost, but I still don't really like the cultural victory path because my preferred style of play is to create a huge, sprawling empire, which basically makes it impossible. Still, if people don't mind small, heavily fortified empires then I could see why they'd go for this.

Diplomatic victory I just don't seem to understand. I could just suck at Diplomacy, but I don't know why anyone would bother going for this as it seems by a mile to be the most difficult one. You can't get it until the United Nations has been built, so by the time you can go for it, it'll be fairly late-on in the game and other people will presumably be close to other victories. The main issue with it from what I've seen is just the number of votes you need from all the other civs and city states to win it. The one game I even paid any attention to it, by the time I looked at it the majority of the city states had been wiped out, and 9 votes were required to win it with only 8 votes possible, which by my understanding meant it was impossible to win unless I went around and liberated all the city states, which would have been a pretty big effort. Plus that would mean declaring war on plenty of civs which would presumably hurt the number of votes I'd be able to get in other ways.

Still, it's a good, addicting game from what I've played so far, and I definitely feel like it's got absolutely tons more hours left in it.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Online Friends

This is a post somewhat inspired by a conversation I had yesterday, although really I've been meaning to write it for a while. It's not something I really talk about that much, though really I'd say that at least collectively people I know online are a sizeable portion of my social life. A minority in terms of meaningful conversation, but still definitely pretty big, especially when I'm not at university.

(After getting this picture I spent nearly an hour browsing random foul bachelor frog pics because they're pretty funny)

I'll admit it's seemingly a really odd thing to have an online social circle. I guess for the most part it's because I spent high school somewhere that was absolutely fucking miles away and the majority of my friends there live ages away (and in fucking awkward placed to get to with public transport) so meeting up was a bother. I'd spend most of the time either playing outside with the kids in my estate or at my computer. The other thing is that I guess most people don't have some sort of focus that they end up in communities with, so talking to people on the internet would just be at random and fairly meaningless. Plus there's the common misconception from the Daily Mail and tabloids that every person you meet online is secretly some sort of sexual pervert looking to groom and eventually rape you.

I found TetrisConcept in May '06 while trying to find out certain things about Tetris DS, and pretty much every community I've become a part of since then (except 4chan) has been a branch from that. Phydeaux linked to NSider on there, and from NSider I ended up on Outsider and NRG/Orbital, and from Outsider I ended up on TEC. With the exception of the fansubbing stuff in the last year or so, pretty much every person who I'd claim to be friendly with that I've met online can be linked back to TC through Phydeaux and NSider, which is a really odd thought. If he'd not posted that thread then I wouldn't know half the people I do now.

I can't really think what the hell I'd have done with all the time if I'd not joined TC originally. I doubt it would have affected my life too much, and I'd have still probably just pissed the time away watching TV or DVDs or reading books or something (online communities are at least free). I'd have probably gleaned something else in my life, but then I also wouldn't know half the awesome people I do now.

Of the people I've originally met online (not counting CamDC because they don't count), I've met up in real life by my count with eight of them, and to my knowledge at least I've yet to be raped, assaulted, killed, eaten, or any of the other weird things that can apparently happen when you meet people over the internet. In chronological order I would make it to be: Edo, Lardarse/pineapple, muf, Lordstar, KevinDDR, Amnesia, Deniax and Alex. If I've forgotten someone I'm really sorry D:

In particular the long weekend this time last year with muf and his family was awesome, and in terms of basic costs like transport and accommodation and stuff was a really cheap holiday for the amount of awesome (mostly because accommodation was free lol; thanks for that muf) and it was a great few days. While I'm being somewhat sappy I'll also say that muf's friends were awesome too - Roel, Tony and Ewoud, you guys are ace and I thank you so much for the talking in English all the time and the continuous buying of drinks. I know md agrees with me on this as well from when he was there :P

I think it's weird how much Facebook in particular has opened everything up, and Skype as well to a lesser extent. There's still the vast amount of anonymity and non-disclosure of personal information on forums and the like, but now there's a second, far more personal level available on Facebook. It used to be that you'd know someone's screen handle, and really that was all you could be too certain about unless you went to extra effort or met up with them. Now Facebook exists and it's far easier for people to share more personal and interesting things while still maintaining a filter on who exactly gets to see it. It's also a bit of a pain in the ass because I suck at keeping tags on which screen-name is which real name :P

It's still a bit of a weird thing to have, at least among the sort of people I mix with "in real life" but I think it'll probably be less so as more people grow up with the spread of the internet. It's not like it really cuts into my social life with people I see in person either. Sure, you can't have quite the same level of contact with someone over the internet, but really communicating via IRC or MSN isn't that different to talking face to face in the long run. People can put on a persona online, but I've found that at least when you're talking privately with them most people end up similar enough to how they are face-to-face. I wouldn't go for an online girlfriend (in the sense of her living miles away and only being able to communicate online), but that's a bit of a different kettle of fish.

In some ways a really crazy thought is just how long I've known some of these people. I've actually known the vast majority of the people I'm particularly friendly with online since before I was at university, which means that I've known them longer than the likes of Nick, Alex, Chris, Peter and everyone else I know in Cambridge, which is a slightly weird thing to contemplate really.


Sunday, 26 September 2010

"I'll tell you what, this crack is really more-ish."

So, taking possible the best chance I have of utterly wrecking my degree, sleep cycle and general social life and sanity for the next few months, I bought Civilization V.

It's addictive as fuck. In a strangely different way to Football Manager, which is probably the only other game series aside from Tetris and Civ that I've invested weeks and months of my life into. Football Manager has this quite unsettling ability to take over your mind even when you're not playing it. It's addictive in the sense that when I'm not playing FM, I want to be playing FM.

Civ V is different. I don't get obsessive cravings that I must play it, but once I [i]am[/i] playing it, it just has this insane ability to warp time and consume hours and hours. I look at my watch, see it's 1:30am and I think "OK just one more turn." and the next thing I know it's fucking 4am. FM usually has at least fairly occasional moments of "right, fuck this shit" after a defeat, and they can send me to bed. Civ V doesn't, and it's even worse because so much is going on and the game is in a perpetual state of something being about to happen. It's just a huge overlapping sequence of "oh I'll just finish this bit" events.

It's a pretty nice game, and it actually runs fairly well on my laptop (which apparently isn't the case for plenty of people who get regular crashes even on better specs). The last game I played in the series was Civ II: Test of Time, which was released about ten years ago, so things have changed pretty significantly still then and I'm still getting used to it. At the very least I like how they've made combat far more tactical, because you can't just stack units. It used to be you could just combine units on top of each other and move them around as a single huge all-destroying entity. Now your units interfere with the positioning and movements of others, and the likes of terrain matter far more, and it's all far more tactical than simply having the biggest most powerful army win all the time.

It's not consuming my entire life (for example, I'm writing this when I could be playing it instead) but it is eating up most of my evenings and causing me to go to bed stupidly late. And when I go to bed and close my eyes I can see hexagonal patterns :\

Also, amusing comic, linked to me by I think Meroigo:

 I like the second or two it takes most people to get the joke.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Liverpool FC: Five Games In

This is something of a riposte to the Scum I've had to put up with today, and also the media reporting the statistic that apparently this is Liverpool's worst ever start to a Premiership season (so since 1992) after five games.

Now I can't really argue with that statistic if it's true, which I assume it is, but I think it's also fair to point out that we've probably not had a more difficult opening five games to a Premiership season either. We're currently 15th, and I can't claim it's been a fantastic start, but if we were much higher up the table from the games we've played then I'd genuinely be retaining hope that maybe we could go for a title challenge rather than just a top four finish.

When you break the fixtures down, we've really not dropped many points that you'd expect a team merely aiming for a top four finish to be picking up. Drawing with Arsenal at home is an acceptable result - they're currently second in the table. Sure, a win would be better, and we nearly did win, but a draw isn't horrible. Losing to both Man City and Man Utd away is six points dropped, but ultimately not six points you'd be expected to take. If we win the games at Anfield, which isn't that far out of the question, then it's no ground lost. Neither of those two games were pretty high up my list of expected points hauls for the season, and there's no shame in having lost points there.

The same goes for drawing with Birmingham away. They've now not lost in the league at St Andrews for 17 consecutive matches, so the fact that we only scraped a point there isn't too damning a statistic. It's a game that beforehand we might have wanted to win, but if they keep up that sort of home form then I can't see many other teams picking up three points there either. And then the other fixture so far this season was West Brom at home, and we won it, so no real complaints there. We've been doing pretty well in Europe as well, so it's not like things are going sour all over the place.

The fact is that, being realistic, Liverpool would probably be happy with cutting our losses under new management and hopefully getting back into the top four, which is going to be tough this season, but by no means is impossible. By any means, it's not something that can be ruled out just because our first five games haven't put us up at the top end of the table, and given what those fixtures were I don't think it's overly optimistic to still think it's possible to finish in the top four.

Where we finish by the end of the season won't be dictated by how many points we picked up against the teams at the sharp end of the table. The bulk of the points you get, and crucially the points you can truly claim to have lost, are those against teams in the bottom half, and they're the sort of fixtures that really matter. If, in another five games, we're still in a similar position, then I'll start worrying, because our next five games are the ones we need to get a decent points haul from: Sunderland (H), Blackpool (H), Everton (A), Blackburn (H), Bolton (A). Aside from the derby, which tends to be a more unpredictable fixture, I'd expect us to be taking 3 points from these games. Really, if we don't come out of these five games with at least 10 points, ideally 12 or 13, then it can be seen as signs that maybe a top four finish is unlikely this season.

The thing is that it seems so tight and competitive this season that it's really hard to predict anything. The results are all over the place. The only prediction I'd feel comfortable making at this point in the season is that Chelsea are likely to take the title.

Sure, Chelsea haven't had a tough fixture so far, but they've still won five games out of five. And they've not just won those games, they've utterly dominated them. It's one thing to have the standard "well they're not playing well but they're still picking up three points, and that's what you need to do to win the title", but it's a totally different thing when they're just hammering sides without even seeming to break out of a canter. Arsenal drew with Sunderland yesterday, Manchester United have thrown away two goal leads in their last three matches (although they rescued it against us, the bastards), Man City are erratic as hell and Spurs are looking pretty poor. On the other hand Chelsea have five wins in five, and currently stand four points clear at the top with a goal difference of +20, which is twice what Arsenal have as the team with the second-best goal difference.

If they can keep up this sort of form, Chelsea will take the title without a problem. It doesn't matter how you perform in the games against the other title challengers if you're taking six points off pretty much every other team in the division. Sure, you can win titles against your rivals, but really you lose titles by not getting three points from games you should be winning, and at the moment Chelsea are just tearing through those sorts of games. And they're not just securing the wins, they're ruthlessly executing whichever team they happen to be playing against. Whilst Arsenal and Man Utd have been shaky at times, there's not been a single point this season where Chelsea looked like they might not easily win whatever match they're playing in, and I think that is the sort of form that'll win them the league this season.

As a mostly random aside, I was linked to this picture by Nicola (HarmoNicks) yesterday:

She didn't link it to me specifically, it was just that we were talking about football on IRC and she linked to it as a demonstration of how far her football knowledge extends (it was on a hentai site). I, however, instantly recognised it was Anfield in the background and found it confusing and hilarious. I don't really understand the picture, nor do I understand why the background is mirrored, because the two stands there are The Kop (right) and Main Stand (left), and they're the other way around in reality. But yeah, it confused and amused me so I've put it on here, and if anyone knows what the picture is from I'd be interested just for lulz.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Improving The UK Elections

This isn't so much about the voting reform referendum - I'll probably write something up on that a bit closer to the time. This is a slightly different issue that I have with pretty much all democratic voting systems in the world, and it's best expressed by a line from NOFX's The Idiots Are Taking Over:
there's no point for democracy when ignorance is celebrated
political scientists get the same one vote as some Arkansas inbred
majority rule, don't work in mental institutions
sometimes the smallest softest voice carries the grand biggest solutions
The fundamental issue I have with democracy is that (near enough) anyone can vote, regardless of their reasons for voting or whether they know the slightest fucking thing about politics and current affairs.

Firstly I'll defend what is probably a slightly controversial stance by saying that I still believe that everyone fundamentally should have the right to vote, but I think that there also should be allowances for people to lose that right if they essentially don't deserve it. And I'm not saying this from the point of view that all people whose views disagree with mine are politically ignorant. I know quite a few people who have near-opposite opinions to me on issues, but I can still reflect the fact that they follow the news and have at least done some groundwork on which to base their political opinions, and those people are fine.

No, my main issue, and what I believe is an absolutely huge problem for political systems, are people who really don't have a fucking clue about anything but still turn up, stick a cross next to a name, and have their vote counted just the same as someone who reads the news every morning, and from various sources to get a balanced opinion on things. The people who show up to vote because they think it's something they should do, rather than the people who show up to vote because they actually have someone they want to put their vote behind. The people who vote because shows like Big Brother and X Factor have gotten them into this whole voting for shit idea.

My understanding of the election system in Australia is that everyone is legally required to vote unless there's some reason why they can't, which for me is possibly the worst system ever. Sure, it'll perhaps get a few more people interested in politics, but the majority will still not give a fuck, and people voting pretty much at random utterly defeats the whole damn reason for holding a democratic ballot.

Personally I don't think high voter turn-outs are a good thing, because they almost certainly represent nothing more than a greater number of dangerous, uninformed, random votes than they do a higher interest in politics. I don't think steps should be made to make voting any easier either. You can send postal votes if you live in the middle of fucking nowhere, or you have a ballot station that you're generally given pretty good notice of the whereabouts for. If you can't fucking be bothered to go vote, then clearly you don't value your own vote that much, so really I don't see a reason why the political system should either, and especially don't see why they should take steps to make sure it still gets counted.

Now I will appreciate how filtering out people who don't know jack about politics from being able to vote in the current election is massively easier said than done, but that doesn't mean I can't talk hypothetically, or that it's impossible to accomplish.

For example, there could be a simple multiple choice test each election for eligibility to vote. The questions wouldn't have to be difficult, and it shouldn't be anything that people would feel they'd have to revise for or anything, but I would say that if people don't know that Nick Clegg is the current deputy prime minister, then they really don't deserve their say in the political forum. And really, I don't see how anyone could honestly dispute that.

You can talk in ideals, and how beautiful it is that every single citizen gets a vote, and I would say that's a load of fucking bollocks. This isn't something to be all dreamy and idealistic about. This is an election to decide who runs the country, it's something that massively shapes the future of the country and can significantly affect millions of lives. You don't put that sort of shit into the hands of country bumpkins, and people who genuinely think that reading The Sun or Hello! every week is fulfilling their social obligation to keep up with politics and current affairs.

The biggest argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter - Winston Churchill

The only real stumbling block in this idea is to keep things fair, and most importantly to make sure whatever questions are asked do not put any noticeable bias onto a specific political party. For example, asking who the likely Foreign Secretary candidate would be if the Liberal Democrats ever got into power is probably something your average reasonably-informed voter would not know unless they were a Lib Dem supporter, in which case you're loading the question. However, if they're kept pretty damn simple then it's hard to really bias it like that, because the whole point would be that anyone with a real clue about politics would easily answer them.

Obviously this would something exploitable to rig elections, but I think if a government is going to go that far to stay in power then we're a bit fucked anyway. It could be independently regulated, it could work, it could make the elections a damn sight more representative of the people who actually give a toss about politics, which really is how things should be. If you wanted to know whether the Large Hadron Collider is likely to destroy the world, you'd ask physicists who are experts in the field, not random people you find on the street (unless you work in the media, apparently), because you want to find out the real popular opinion which is most likely to be correct, not a shitload of random fucking guesses from people who don't have a bloody clue about the subject but still most likely 'reckon' something.

I feel it's also worth noting that I'm massively against public jury service for pretty much the same reason. If I ever go to court then I want people who have the ability to come to a logical conclusion based on reasonable evidence, not morons who quite possibly won't take it seriously, and who could easily be swayed by lawyers and prejudices rather than by actual factual information. If it's a complicated case, I want some people who are fucking experts on the subject to decide whether I'm guilty, not some randomly selected group of potentially very stupid people (well, unless I actually am guilty, in which case morons plx).

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

General Life & Fansubbing Crap

I had a streak of posting every day last week, and I'll probably have another streak of meaningful posts over the next few days, but I've not done a personal life update thing for a while, so sorry guys, it's a LiveJournal type blog entry. So to make up for that, some lulz from YouTube:

The cycling plan isn't going so well, mostly because it's September and the weather is either wet or it's windy as fuck. Rain I can tolerate, but I really don't like cycling in the wind. I also tend to use back roads over fields, so if it seems a bit breezy around my house it's generally blowing a gale once I get out over the moss. The thing with cycling in windy conditions is that it just saps my strength, and most of all it means my average speed is massively slow in a way I can't just factor out of my records. I can record the route and repeat it and see improvement over time, but wind destroys that for the most part.

I've now got a crapload of books from the MET reading list, so I'm slowly working through them now. My Liverpool shirt also finally arrived, in time for the Manchester United v Liverpool game on Sunday. I'm not overly confident about our chances, but United have hardly been stellar over the last couple of weeks, so I'm not writing it off as a definite loss either. I really hope we win, because if we do it'll be a highlight of the season no question. It really is one of those games where the result will affect my mood for pretty much the entire rest of the week.

It's about a year (I think it's a few days shy) since I was in Eindhoven with muf, which means it's about a year since I joined the Frostii staff, which is pretty weird, because it doesn't really feel that long. That said, when I count up the series I've done, it does seem like quite a lot. I should make a spreadsheet and actually tally up the episodes that I've worked on.

I also joined Saizen fansubs last week, because I was somewhat personally sought after (or at least, that's how I understand it, and it's how my ego prefers it to be...) to do some work for them. They actually have a ton of vacancies, mostly for QC positions. The series I really wanted to work on was Slam Dunk, because I'd heard it was good, and in the 20 episodes I've watched to catch up with where they're currently at, it is good. It's a bit like a cross between GTO and Hajime no Ippo, two of my favourite series, but with basketball.

It's also sort of funny that I join Saizen and realise I already know pretty much everyone on the staff because they all either work for Frostii or I've already come across them on joint projects and stuff :P

Also, on the topic of fansub stuff, the Musashi movie is nearly finished on the typesetting side, which means it should be released fairly soon. It's been a bitch, but there's definitely light visible at the end of the tunnel now.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Qur'an Burnings... Or Not?

So it's been announced in the last few hours that the planned event on Saturday, September 11th, to hold a mass burning of copies of the sacred Islamic text, the Qur'an, has been cancelled. Which is probably a very good step for the safety of American people in the immediate future, because they were getting some pretty angry responses in the Middle East, and pretty much everyone everywhere, regardless of faith, could agree it was a pretty stupid idea in current times.

The thing is, I see what they were getting at. If people can support the Islamic community centre near Ground Zero on the grounds that America is a free country and people should be allowed to do what they like within reason, even if masses of people object to it, then by the exact same reasoning burning the Qur'an, an act which is gravely offensive to Muslim people, is a perfectly valid thing to do as well. I get that, and I agree that Americans have the right to burn it if they want to. That said, I still reckon it's a fucking stupid thing to do.

The Ground Zero Islamic centre has hardly been met with pacifistic protests and responses from the American people. When you've got things like the attempted murder of a NYC taxi driver for being Muslim, then it's fairly clear things are verging on boiling over. Now this is just for building a community centre. I can understand how people could see that as being disrespectful and would be offended, but ultimately it's not an act that's blatantly intending to offend people. The discussion leading to the planned construction of the community centre did not start off along the lines of "Hey, how can we really piss off bigoted American Christians?" while I find it hard to believe that the Qur'an burning is anything other than a direct attempt to anger Islamic people.

If plans for an Islamic community centre can lead to attempted murders and other attacks on Muslim people in New York, is it not fairly logical to suggest that a direct attack on Islam through burning their sacred texts would not cause far, far more trouble? Just as some people in America seem to hold the belief that those who caused 9/11 represent all Islamic people, there will be those in the Middle East who hold the belief that those people burning the Qur'an represent the entire American people. Even if they don't, they'll still have Al-Qaeda telling them so.

The claimed context of the burning was that it was sending a message to Islam extremist leaders, but even if that's the real intention of the people who have organised it, it doesn't seem to be the intention of plenty of people who have jumped on the bandwagon. I mean, when you're seeing things like this...'s hard to really try and claim that most people are using this as anything other than an opportunity to indulge in some good ol' fashioned racial hatred and throw two fingers up in the face of Islam.

A community centre at least has some sort of future benefits for the Islamic people who will presumably use it. A book burning really isn't going to do much good to make up for the absolutely huge amounts of trouble it'd cause. Sure, American people have the right to burn them, but just because you can do something doesn't mean it's a good idea and that you should do it.

The real problem is that there's been media hype now, and the ball has been set rolling, and even if the originators have decided to cancel the event, there's still almost certainly going to be completely fucktarded people out there who will go through with it anyway, will record it, and the videos will be all over the news both in the West and the Middle East by Sunday morning. Personally I wouldn't actually mind if every single person who participates in a Qur'an burning is killed, but I doubt the anger and retaliation is going to be that well-aimed, and it'll most likely be innocent civilians who have nothing to do with it, and troops currently stationed in the Middle East that are going to have to face any consequences.

I also wonder if all of these retarded radical Christians claiming that all Islam strives for is the downfall of Christianity and Western civilisation aren't just of that opinion because that's exactly what they want for Islam and the Middle East. At best it's just pot calling the kettle black.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Getting into Riichi Mahjong

I know quite a few people now (well, err... five) who have talked about wanting to get into Riichi Mahjong, usually because they watched Saki or Akagi and that piqued their interest. So this post is sort of for them, just because it's easier to make one blog post than to explain things individually, but also I guess this is useful to anyone else wanting to start playing mahjong. Plus I'll hopefully be having to explain things to the new members of the Cambridge Riichi Mahjong soc next term, so this should be decent practice for that.

Most people's idea of mahjong is actually the solitaire version, played on a computer, but the proper version of mahjong is completely different. It's played with the same tiles, but has four players, and the closest equivalent western game to it would probably be Gin Rummy or in a very loose sense, Poker.

There are an absolute ton of mahjong variants, but the one I play primarily is Riichi. I actually started out on Chinese/Hong Kong mahjong, before I saw Akagi and converted over, and personally I find Riichi mahjong to be the better variant. Its got far more emphasis on skill, tactical play, and it doesn't have 'silly buggers' rules to the same level as other versions do (particularly American Mahjong).

The gameplay basics aren't particularly difficult to grasp, though to play properly the rules are pretty complex. I've made this page on the CURMS website to explain the basic concepts of how to play, and I think it's a pretty good starting point.

Because the rules are pretty complicated, and it's quite a lot to take in at once, it's far easier to learn while playing. By far the easiest way to do this is to just play in person with someone who knows what they're doing and can lead you through it, but in the absence of that, there's a flash game on Nobleflash that's a pretty good starting point to get the basics nailed down. I wouldn't recommend people play it forever because the AI isn't great, but it's in English and it allows you to take as long as you want for each move, so it's a pretty decent way to grasp the basics.

For the basics, a few tips I think beginners should bear in mind:
  • You need a yaku to win. This is, above all, the most crucial rule for people to focus on immediately. Just having four melds and a pair isn't enough to call 'ron' and win the hand in Riichi Mahjong. You need at least one yaku to do so. It might seem that there's way too many to remember, but most of them are fairly intuitive - if it looks pretty, it's usually a yaku. As a beginner, the important ones to make note of are, using the English names as they appear on that list, Reach, Pointless, No Chi (aka All Pon), Endless (aka All Simples), Dirty Ends, Bonus Tile Pon and Dirty One Suit. That's seven, and it's not too difficult to remember them and use them as a starting point while you're still learning. Be aware that plenty of people use the Japanese names for them (myself included) and the English names usually vary quite a bit as well.
  • Don't call tiles because you can. Beginners and people used to other mahjong variants end up calling far too often when they start out, and it's something to learn to control very quickly. Be patient, and be prepared to let tiles you want be discarded without you calling them, because usually it's better for you in the long run. Hands are almost always worth more if you keep them closed (ie. don't 'open' them by calling tiles), and most of the time the only tile you'll need to call will be your winning tile. You can't win every hand, and plenty of hands end without anyone winning, so there's no need to rush. Crucially, calling tiles can often leave your hand without a yaku, because some yaku are only valid closed. Plus, you can only call Reach/Riichi with a closed hand, and Riichi is always a yaku and is a good way to win with a hand that's otherwise pretty bare for yaku. Aiming for a big hand and Riichi is almost always better than just trying to rush out a shitty hand as fast as you can. Only call hands if you need to, such as if you've got a hand that's going for All Pon, or if you are purposefully going for a very quick hand.
  • Respect dora and riichi. Both are extremely good ways to make pretty massive scoring hands out of what otherwise would have been pretty crap. A couple of dora generally makes a hand worth quite a large sum of points, and riichi is always at least one more yaku and then potentially quite a few more with One Shot, Strongly Closed and Reverse Dora all possible.
  • Don't ignore defence. A crucial aspect of Riichi mahjong is that you can't win of a tile you've discarded previously, so if someone calls riichi or looks close to winning, their discards are an extremely good way to avoid dealing into their hands. Unlike some other mahjong variants, the person who discards the winning tile pays for the entire value of the hand, so dealing into someone's hand is just as bad as winning a hand is good, and many beginners really don't appreciate this fact. If you've got a hand that's shit, don't be afraid to abandon hope of winning so that you can stick to discarding safe tiles. It's much better to just abandon a 2000-point hand and wait for the next round than it is trying to force it out and dealing into a 12000-point hand in the process. 
 For people who feel fairly comfortable with the basics, and want to move onto playing real people online, I'd recommend Tenhou. It's a free browser-based flash client for playing mahjong against other people. It's entirely in Japanese, but there is quite a detailed English guide available, and once you've got the key things down it doesn't really make a difference. It can help to just make a cheat-sheet somewhere for the Japanese/Chinese numerals (you'll need them for the man suit), the winds, and also for the Japanese text for "pon", "chi", etc, so you can have it handy while you play. After a while you'll just learn them naturally, but starting out it's useful to have the reference.

You can register with Tenhou for free, and it'll track your rank and game stats for you. Once you get to 6kyu rank you have to stop using the premium client and use the economy one, but the differences are almost entirely cosmetic and it's not such a big deal.
For game type, I recommend the third one down on the right column, which is Ari, (endless/tanyao is valid open) Red, (uses red dora tiles as well) East+South. East-only games are decent if you're in a rush, but South games are what you should really be playing because luck has far less influence. If you don't like Red dora, choose the second one down. If you feel the play is a bit slow, then pick the fourth one down, which is fast-mode and you get far less time to make each move.

Of course, the most enjoyable way of playing is with other people in person, though mahjong clubs and societies are fairly sparse. For playing with friends, you'll need a set, and for people in the UK I'd recommend this one for being a decent quality set without being too expensive. Getting four people who are keen on a fairly regular basis can be a bit tricky, but there are ways of modifying the rules to play with three people. If anyone around Cambridge is interested, then I'm usually up for playing, and there's the CURMS meets on Friday evenings.

For slightly more advanced PC single-player stuff, I'd recommend Saikyo no 3D Mahjong, which can be downloaded from Rapidshare or, while stocks last, my dropbox folder. It's pretty complicated and entirely in Japanese, but if you click around a bit you can figure stuff out. It's also very customisable for rules and AI, though again, the Japanese makes it a bit tricky to work with. The options screen has been translated into English by Barticle and there's a copy here. There are also various PS2 and DS games and stuff out there, but they can be a bit more obscure, and they're almost always either solitaire mahjong or in Japanese, so probably not the best for an unskilled player without a guide.

Anyway, I hope this was at least somewhat useful as a starting point for the people concerned, and maybe it'll convince a few people to give it a try as well. It's an awesome game of luck and skill, so people should spread the word ;)

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Manufacturing Engineering Tripos

So, as most people who know me will already know, I'm switching courses next year. Sort of. I've spent the last two years doing a broad-based general engineering undergraduate course, and rather than specialising in a discipline for my third and fourth years, I'm switching tripos.

Instead of the standard engineering stuff, I'll instead be on the Manufacturing Engineering Tripos, commonly abbreviated to MET (which then has the backronym of 'Management and Engineering Tripos). In short, it's basically a course that focuses far more on management, industrial processes and product design, manufacture and marketing. It's a shift from the more mathematical and pure side of engineering to the more practical, real-world business side. It's accredited by IMechE, and I'll still get the same BA (to later be a cantab MA) and MEng at the end of it. It is in a different department though, and rather than being in the Engineering department it's in the fancy new Alan Reece building in West Cambridge:

The disadvantage of that being that instead of a two minute walk from Downing I've now got a forty minute walk, or a five to ten minute cycle.

MET is generally regarded by engineers as a "sell-out" option for the first two years, because it's choosing to drop out of hardcore pure engineering to go do soft management stuff and make a ton of money doing lesser work. Jokingly I'll say that I'm doing it so I can be lazy and because I don't mind becoming The Man and making a fuckload of cash. I'd be lying if I didn't say that it was appealing, but it's not the primary reason I'm doing it.

Mostly I just think it'll be a more enjoyable course. If I'm doing design projects, labs, presentations and industrial visits rather than maths, maths and a bit more maths, then I genuinely don't see how it can't be better. The Integrated Design Project last year did, at times, make me want to choke a bitch, but in reflection it was fairly enjoyable, and it would have gone a lot better if I'd done things a bit differently, and if a couple of my project team members didn't do a few things which were retarded and screwed stuff up (not that I'd shift the blame entirely on them).

I'm sure the introductory lectures for MET were designed to be extremely interesting and engaging, and that was half the point, but I still really enjoyed them, and I found the topics they covered to just be far more interesting than the sort of crap we get in Structures, Electrical Circuits and the like. Plus they're grounded in real-world concepts again. Half of the reason I did engineering in the first place rather than pure physics or maths is because engineering sticks to real-world problems and solutions, and tends to avoid theoretical and less tangible concepts because they have no use or application. Except advanced engineering moves into concepts that aren't so intuitive and easily visualised and/or explained. MET takes me back towards that again, and that's what I like doing.

The other aspect is that I just think it'll be a course that I lend myself better to. I've gotten high 2.1 results for the last two years, so it's not like I'm anywhere near under-performing on my current course, but I think the skillset for MET is just far more suited to me than what I'm doing now.

Plus MET students get free tea and coffee, and free cake on Fridays, and I'm all about free cake (inb4 the cake is a lie).

I splashed out a bit today on Amazon and bought a load of books that are on the reading list they gave us a couple of months ago. So far I've only read two off the list, one of which, The Goal, by EM Goldratt and J Cox, was an absolutely fantastic book. It's essentially a book that teaches and explains important philosophies and principles to successful management, but it's written in a first person narrative and is quite a compelling story.

I'm still not entirely sure what I'll do when I leave. My guess is that I'll continue on the standard sell-out route and go into consultancy or some sort of technical management role. Really, I don't know, and I probably won't until next year when I'll have probably talked to a few graduates and I'll be starting to look for jobs myself. I might do a PhD, but I doubt it. As much as it'd be awesome to remain a student and not get a job, I think it'll be pretty dull, and from MET at least the only area of expertise I think might be interesting is industrial photonics (that's high-powered lasers and stuff in laymen's terms). I don't want to seem like a Bill O'Neill fanboy, but it does seem to involve quite a lot of pretty cool shit, though I'm sure the actual technical stuff is complicated and difficult as hell.

Above anything, the prospect of a new course is exciting. It's almost like being back before starting my first year, where I have a mixture of excitement and nervousness, having a rough idea of what thing should be like but at the same time not entirely knowing what to expect. I really can't wait for term to start.

Monday, 6 September 2010

"God Definitely Does Not Exist, You Fucking Retards" - Stephen Hawking (apparently)

So there's been plenty of furore over the last weekend about a new book which Stephen Hawking has co-authored, called The Grand Design, which stated that a God is not required to create the universe. The media have jumped on this, and stirred up a shitstorm of anger amongst religious fundamentalists and other militant religious types who lurk on the internet and spread their close-minded, ignorant views (oh hey I'm almost one of them).

The first thing that really pisses me off about this is the way the media have transformed this. Or if not the media, then the people reading the articles. Fuck the fact that the book is almost certainly extremely thorough and scientific. What they've basically done is skipped the entire book and gone straight to the punchline, and taken it very much out of context.
"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."
The really, really crucial part that everyone seems to have fucking missed is the last sentence. What he says is "It is not necessary to invoke God...", not "God doesn't/can't exist". This book is not Hawking's equivalent of The God Delusion, it's a book attempting to explain how the origins of the universe can have come about, specifically without some sort of creator. Above all, and really above all, he basically says that it is the laws of physics that have moulded and sculpted the universe, not a God. He doesn't rule out any sort of deity presumably controlling the laws of physics. His argument is that the fact we are the perfect distance away from the Sun has nothing to do with God, but is instead just a byproduct of physical constants.

And really, I'm not going to comment much more on the book itself. I've not read it. Pretty much fucking nobody has, because it doesn't come out until Tuesday. And even if it was already out, I seriously doubt that most of the dumbass comments on the internet will have been written by people who have read it.

Because that's the second thing that has really pissed me off: the comments. And there's a fucking ton of them. The FOX News article has over one thousand comments, the vast majority of which are absolutely fucking retarded (I will take a moment to note that the article itself, despite being FOX, is actually reasonably sensible for their standards). Same for the ones on the previously-linked Reuters article. And not all the stupidity is from the pro-God faction either (though the majority definitely is). It's just like people feel compelled to shove their ignorant self-obsessed opinions out there upon other people (again, I'm aware of the irony of saying this in a blog post).

See, I'm not going to take this book as something which triumphs my atheist views. Ultimately because it doesn't - at no point does the book rule out the concept of a God existing. That's just a misconception. However, I will take my opportunity to point out the completely fucking retarded nature of various people making comments on it.

First one, which was on the Reuters article but has been deleted:
"Really feel sorry 4 this bloke, no wonder he is so ill, no faith!"
Yeah, of course, because religious people never get sick. What God decided to do was to gift Stephen Hawking a brilliant mind which has managed to figure out aspects of physics and the physical universe which were completely beyond the comprehension of all other physicists. He did that, but then gave him a crippling illness that would paralyse him for life. Now, I'm not going to suggest that Lou Gehrig's disease isn't a horrible infliction to have, but I would say that despite it, Sir Stephen Hawking has had a far more renowned and distinguished life than your average God-fearing trailer trash. If God is trying to punish him as a person for not believing in God, then he's sure going about it in a pretty rubbish way.

I mean, have you featured on The Simpsons?

No, I didn't fucking think so either.

This is also totally ignoring the fact that Stephen Hawking is himself something of a living miracle, given the standard life expectancy for someone diagnosed with ALS is three to five years, and he was diagnosed nearly fifty years ago now. He's the medical equivalent of someone living to be hundreds of years old, which would hardly suggest God is conspiring against him.

Another one from the Reuters article, and there are a ton of these ones:
And who wrote the “Laws of Physics”?
Most of these ones are annoying for the fact that they're bang on the mark, they just fucking don't realise it because of the way the article has been interpreted. There are so many of these comments, and while the one I've quoted isn't that bad, so many of them are so fucking smug, like it's something that Hawking hasn't considered and it's their ultimate counter-argument. He's specifically worded what he's said to allow for the fact that it's possible a God created the laws of physics. There is a specific quote from him that addresses this:
"The universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws."
It's like yeah, nice one people, you're managing to point out an aspect of this that's already perfectly well grasped, just not in the spin that the media have decided to take on this, because "Stephen Hawking says there is no God" makes for a far more compelling headline. It's like sure, I'd give kudos for understanding what's being said, but at the same time I can't, because the whole reason you're making the sodding comment is exactly because you don't understand what's being said.

Then there are other comments, which are far more classic creationist bullshit:
If you throw some bricks and cement together and leave them for a million years will you get a house? NO.

But we should believe that the beautiful complex universe and our planet just the right distance from the sun and with an unusually large moon that contributes to the earths stable spin, otherwise we would wobble like a spinning top. Not to mention the perfect recycling system the earth came together from nothing!
Now, like I've said, I've not read the book, but I'm fairly sure this sort of argument is exactly what's addressed in it. These sorts of comments wouldn't leave me in despair (ZETSUBOUSHITA) quite so much if I knew that the people making them would read and understand the book when it's released, but I just really can't see that happening. It's hugely unlikely that they'll read it, and even if they do it's mostly likely fairly high-level shit (as in, the sort of thing I'd struggle to comprehend properly the first time reading it), and I doubt their dismal high-school science knowledge would be enough to get them through it.

Beyond all things these comments annoy me just because they're so fucking repetitive and ignorant of the concepts of the Big Bang and evolution. They're horribly flawed generalisations of extremely complex scientific theories. Absolutely anything sounds retarded when you condense it and deliberately belittle it to that sort of level. When you describe the Creationist origin of the universe as "some all-knowing all-powerful magic dude who has always existed and one day got bored and just waved his hand and created absolutely everything from nothing and will get really angry if the billions of tiny people he made don't accept he exists" then it also can sounds pretty fucking retarded.

And ignoring everything else wrong about that argument, it doesn't even fucking solve the problem. The fact is that the solution of God creating the universe just creates a new issue of "Who/what created God?", and given an omniscient, omnipotent supreme being is a little bit further beyond our comprehension than the universe, the question of the creation of this supreme being, capable of creating the universe, must have a far more difficult solution than the creation of the universe itself. Ultimately it generates a 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?' situation (it translates as "who guards the guards?" for people who didn't already know, or who went to a school which was free and therefore didn't teach Latin) whereby the only solution that really fits with a supreme being creator is an infinite string of creators, each one more powerful than the underling which it created, that stretched back to the beginning of time. Which is also retarded.

There are so many comments on so many different sources, and I can't really put all the retarded ones down here, because this post would just keep going and going and the comments would be appearing faster than I could ridicule them. I've even tried to just stay clear of some of the more idiotic and rage-inducing arguments, because there's some seriously dumbass stuff being said, and then equally lame retorts (because nothing supports Creationists more than people who are just as dumb and can't beat them in an argument). So I'll end this here.

But yeah, I will read this book when it comes out. And I'll read it not because I have an interest in the existence of God (or lack of) but because hopefully it'll contain some quite interesting theories and points about the universe, how its formation worked, and because ultimately it is a physics book and not just the brain-dump of some old professor presenting his opinions on theology, or attempting to disprove God, as some media headlines would have you believe.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

One Month Off

I have a tendency to use song titles as the titles for my blog posts, but it's always nice when they fit completely and don't require some sort of shoehorning. It's pretty much one month exactly until I'll be back in Cambridge and the workload will start again, nad until then I've got pretty much nothing I need to do, so for the first time in a while can spend my time doing fuck-all without the niggly feeling that I should be revising or getting work experience sorted or any of the other crap I've had for the last year or so.

Firstly, a comic from the new but quite funny Hipster Hitler, which I've failed to resize properly to take the image borders into account, but fuck it, it'll do:

So in this month off I've not really got anything planned. Which means if people can come up with plans that involve me I'll be pretty keen for them. If anyone wants to come down and see the sights of Liverpool and (god forbid) Manchester then I'd be happy to put them up for a few days and show them around.

I'm going to see Muse this evening at the Lancashire County Cricket Ground at Old Trafford, and it feels weird because I'm not stupidly excited about it. Usually this is something I'd have been looking forward to for weeks, if not months, and yet I'd almost forgotten about it until a week or two ago. I think part of this is just because their new album is pretty crap, and though they're still probably the greatest live band in the world, I know deep down the show won't be as good as it could be if they just stuck to their older stuff. The rest of it I think is just that it's the week after Reading, and my "shit I'm doing in the future" list has been completely dominated by the festival for the last few weeks and even the Muse gig has just sort of been shoved to one side and forgotten about.
Either way, it should be a pretty good gig, and though I'm a little ill right now I'm expecting to enjoy it a fair bit.

The only other stuff I've really got for the next month is writing entries into this blog (which is more than some other blog writers seem to be doing :P) and fansub work. I've taken a foray into typesetting and working in After Effects recently, and it's fairly fun. Most of all I just like how I can feel myself developing and getting better at using it. I was cranking out signs yesterday that would have taken me ages to get through and perfect, and I was producing them in minutes. There's been a bit of a bitch in that we discovered yesterday that the raw we've got has a 1.33:1 pixel ratio, and we've been working with it under the assumption it had square pixels, so we've now got to fix all the signs we've done so far so that they won't look stretched in the final release. It's not a huge amount of effort in After Effects, but given there's like 20 signs done it's still a fair bit of time even if it's just a 30 second job for each one.

Frostii are still looking for translators, and it's a pain in the ass to find them. Mostly it's because every fucking group under the sun seems to want translators right now, and it's really not helped by tons of shitty no-name groups filling up all the listings as well. I don't mind the idea of people starting groups, but I swear half the people looking for translators are basically people who have no experience doing fansubbing, but reckon they can start up their own group and do it themselves if they can just get someone to translate the Japanese for them.

Half the problem is that translation is the one thing that you can't just learn in a few weeks. Timing, encoding, typesetting, even editing to an extent are all things you can learn how to do. It takes a bit of experience before you can do them particularly well, but ultimately they're learnable skills. Translating spoken Japanese into English takes several years of language courses and preferably living in Japan, so just being eager to learn how to do it so you can be in a fansub group doesn't really cut it whatsoever. It also doesn't help that you get people applying who really seem to underestimate the depth of Japanese knowledge required. Just because you've done night classes for a year and know some words doesn't mean that you know anywhere near enough - I know a fair bit of Japanese and I know I'm still absolutely fucking miles away. Even people like Meroigo who have been studying Japanese intensively and live in Japan aren't fluent enough (by his own admittance). If you can't watch anime fairly comfortably without subtitles, then it's a fairly good indication that you're not fluent enough in Japanese. It's not hard.

But yeah, looking forward to this month, because I always enjoy spending days lazing around doing what I want. The lyrics to Thank God it's Monday by NOFX are extremely relevant.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

So, I've made the decision that I'm going to exercise and get fit and all that shit. I love these sorts of "Yeah I'm going to lose weight/get fit/get stacked" things, because they're almost always doomed to failure, but hey, it can't hurt me trying right?

I figure the main reasons these sorts of things fail is because they're either retarded or overly ambitious, or both, so I'm aiming to avoid both of those. Avoiding it being retarded by picking something I find reasonably enjoyable, and avoiding it being overly ambitious by, well, not really setting ambitious targets.

As anyone who actually knows me will be aware of, I'm not the most athletic of people. I tend to like pretty unhealthy foods, and I tend to have something of an aversion to proper exercise. I'm not fat or overweight (quite the opposite), but I'm definitely not athletic. Mostly I blame the fact that I'm pretty small, and most sports favour tall, lanky people. I used to at least have decent stamina, when it came to long-distance running, but I've definitely lost that now.
I was decent at Orienteering which, I'll be the first to admit, is probably the nerdiest form of sport you can get before it stops being a sport and just becomes a game or hobby. Even then I was only really good because not many people who are actually good at running tend to do it, and because I could read a map well enough to make up for my lack of ability at the running part.

Basically, I hate running. I don't mind it when it's for a sport, but when I'm just running for exercise then I find it so ridiculously fucking tedious. It's painful, it's dull and I just don't take any joy in doing it, so I don't.

On the other hand, I quite like cycling, so that's how I'm going to get fit. I have Runkeeper to help me, and I'll try and cycle regularly. Because really, above all, to make an exercise plan work you need one of either two things. You need to either really, really want to achieve whatever goal you've set, or you need to be doing something that you enjoy. Otherwise it'll never succeed and you'll quit halfway through.

Little and often helps too. For a while I was doing sit-ups and stomach crunches on a daily basis to get something of a six-pack, and it does work. It probably helped that I don't have any fat on my stomach, so don't need much effort to get muscle to show through, but it still works. Just take ten minutes every day or every other day to do 50 or 100 of each, and build it up as you get more proficient at it, and keep it up for a few months and voilĂ . It's not hard to do, and it's not hard to stick to if you can put those five or ten minutes into a daily routine, like when you get up, or before/after you shower, or before you go to bed. If you can properly commit to it, then it's not that hard.

My first target for this get-fit cycling thing is basically to cover 100 miles during September. Really, that's not a hard target whatsoever, and the only reason I'm setting it so low is because of the weather. I was originally going to set it at 50 miles a week (so about 200 over the course of the month), under the justification that 50 miles a week is basically three 15-20 mile rides a week, which is easily doable. The main issue is finding three days a week when it's not raining, given it's September and I live in the North-West. So hopefully if I just go out cycling whenever the weather is good enough I'll clock up the miles that way and easily go over 100 miles in total.

The weather wouldn't be an issue if I used an exercise bike, because I could be indoors, but I think that would rule out the absolutely key advantage that going out on a bike ride has for me over any other form of exercise: I can't quit. If I'm out running and it gets hard, I walk. If I'm in a gym and it gets hard, I can just stop. As I proved last week, when I'm out on a 20-mile cycle ride and it gets hard, I don't have a fucking choice. I'm miles from home, I can't just walk, I can't just stop, ultimately I have absolutely no option other than to keep going, which is hugely important, because I'd easily just stop otherwise.

I went out last week on a cycle ride, specifically this one, and I fucking died halfway round. I'd set off too quickly, I'd not factored in that I was riding into a headwind for a large portion of it, nor had I factored in the hill around 15 miles in, which is what totally killed me. Halfway up that slope my legs completely died and I had absolutely no fucking choice other than to push through the pain until I got home. It massacred my average speed from about 16mph to 14mph overall, and I cut it from the planned 24 mile route to 20 miles, but ultimately I still had to finish because I still had to get home. My legs were totally wrecked for 24 hours, but I at least got the distance done.

So, keeping up my plan of doing an hour or two cycling whenever the weather is nice, hopefully I'll get myself fairly fit, and I'll also hopefully keep this up at university. Who knows, if I really keep going I might splash out and buy myself a proper road bike instead of the modified hybrid road/mountain bike thing I've currently got. Runkeeper helps, because it gives me stats and shit, and I'm a sucker for that sort of thing. I'm fairly sure my current distances and times are laughable for anyone who actually does serious exercise and cycles, but I'd like to think that if I can keep this up for a few months then that'll no longer be the case. Also, if anyone has any tips, then I'll greatly appreciate them.