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August 29th, 2002


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12:59 am - You learn something new every day
1. I would bet good money at short odds that there will seldom be a web site which covers its topic quite so definitively as http://www.airlinemeals.net/ . (I say "seldom" because there is, of course, http://www.ukgameshows.com/ - even though these days I have almost nothing to do with it.) People go on flights, take pictures of the meals they are served and post these pictures with descriptions. The airline food company Servisair liked it so much that they invited the site's maintainers to visit the plant where the meals are packed and gave them the grand tour. As the old woodstain adverts nearly used to go, "it does what it says on the URL" - though, I suppose, technically, http://www.airlinemealpictures.net/ would have been even more descriptive still. (Maybe it had gone already - after all, why do you think they're using .net instead of .com?) I always strangely look forward to the food on an airline trip, not least to see just how bad it will be. Maybe I just have low standards, but it's normally actually quite decent.

I have been to the USA on six occasions. Based on those transatlantic flights alone, here are my airline rankings:

1. Virgin Atlantic The highlight of Virgin's service was a late snack that consisted of a tortilla wrap filled with greek salad. Ever since then, I've liked tortilla wraps, greek salad and specifically olives. The alternative - a rustic bun with tuna salad, looked particularly nice too.

2. Delta Always go for the chicken on a transatlantic flight - it's a safe option. It'll be a little rubbery, more often than not, but usually cooked through and reasonably savoury. Delta nick second place because they have the nicest desserts - normally chocolate-and-fruit confections. They also serve little bags of pretzels instead of peanuts (too many people allergic to peanuts these days, apparently) which hit the spot.

3. Air Canada I can remember their food being acceptably decent, but the portion sizes quite small. It was only really by happy accident that I had a choice of main courses, though, on a full flight. Unique plus point: I was travelling on a turboprop of theirs on an Easter Monday and "the Easter Bunny" (a flight attendant, sadly wearing no rabbit paraphernalia) came and handed out Cadbury's chocolate to all.

4. American Airlines Granted, this was a good five years ago, so I'm not sure whether the criticism is still valid or not, but I had some issues with the temperature they served the food at. A non-food-related complaint is that they charged $5 for the hire of earphones, too. Watch me hold a grudge...

5. TWA Summer of '87, I was eleven, the food was terrible, bordering on inedible. Not sorry in the least to see them go.

2. I have mentioned ambitions of mine to travel round the world in the past. However, there's travelling round the world and then there's travelling round the world. Today, at 5:10pm New Zealand time, John Bougen and his cousin James Irving set off on a journey to visit all 193 of the world's nations as quickly as possible. They expect to do the journey in less than 160 days, spending over 400 hours in the air - and, they admit, over 450 hours waiting at the airports for the flights to take off. They'll be writing two books about the journey, set to benefit Save The Children. It's a fantastic project - read more about it at their web site. Especially amusing is the picture of their twenty-metre-long air ticket.

The complications are tremendous: some of the central African countries will be especially hard to tick off (it's hard to get visas for Sudan, Libya, North Korea and Somalia - I dare say they'll have a job convincing some of the other Middle East nations to let them in on a journey which also takes in Israel). Apparently visiting Afghanistan will be less dangerous than visiting Liberia or the Congo. If they miss a flight, then it may well throw off the rest of their itinerary altogether - especially for countries where the primitive air service only permits rare flights out. It's a tremendously ambitious set of records to break and I think we'll see more people doing this sort of journey in the future - 160 days feels very beatable to me; however, it's a rich man's hobby - about NZD 400,000 (GBP 125,000) rather than the cost of a railcard plus Metropolitan extensions. It's sort of the Tube Challenge writ large on a global scale. (Mmm-mmm, now there's a thought...)

There's always the question of "what defines a nation". The Guinness Book of Records boffins have gone for the 189 members of the United Nations, plus East Timor, Switzerland, Taiwan and Vatican City. I cheekily add: wot no Norrath? Wot no Sealand?

Good on them, I say. I shall follow their progress around the globe with interest. (I'm tempted to go and give them high-fives when they touch down in the UK if I can find some excuse to visit London...)

3. You lot aren't keeping me on my toes. Last time, I said... "I'm not expecting EasyGo to do anything dramatic until at least after the practical completion of their merger, or for bmibaby to jump out to a third hub in the next year or so." After that, I looked at bmibaby's site and it turns out that the had already said that they're looking for third base already. Whoops.

So the prospect of low-cost air travel for the Dickson becomes a possibility once again. There was a piece on BBC local news about Teesside Airport a couple of months ago, which suggested that negotiations were underway for bmibaby to base some of their flights there. I was really quite dubious about this announcement at the time - it seemed to be the sort of cart-before-the-horse meddling with no potential advantage and only potential disadvantage. (This was shortly before bmibaby announced their second base, which turned out not to be MME after all - Cardiff instead.) Indeed, I believe the BBC local news team have a fairly pro-Newcastle agenda, with a cavalier attitude to anything which might benefit Teesside (and, by extension, not so much benefit Newcastle). If we assume that bmibaby's negotiations were legit, which seems likely, it's possible that MME and the other airports which were being considered for second base should still be worth considering for third base. I guess the crucial deal is what sort of deal the airports are able to cut bmibaby, which we will probably never know.

The other major issue is where would stand to give bmibaby most passengers. Scotland looks fairly poorly served for low-cost air travel; Ryanair serve Stansted, Dublin, Brussels, Paris, Oslo and (forty-four-miles-from) Frankfurt from Prestwick, Easyjet serve Belfast from GLA and EDI but that's about it. I'd have thought it fairly likely that Ryanair will expand their Prestwick services some day, but there's probably still the market for some low-cost service at GLA or (more likely) EDI. Other than that, everywhere further north-east in England than EMA (East Midlands - effectively, Loughborough) is pretty poorly served apart from (Easy)Go's single Newcastle-Stansted route. (There's also Easyjet's hub at Liverpool John Lennon, so I'm specifying north-east.) Newcastle, Teesside and Leeds-Bradford all look like possibilities, so only time will tell. (Maybe Leeds-Bradford isn't far enough north of Liverpool to be unique, though bmibaby were prepared to tangle with Go directly at EMA and may well not care about doing this sort of thing a second time.) On the whole, I still stick by Easyjet in 2004 and add "from Newcastle" to that prediction; heck, if I'm hoping for it to be wrong, I want it to be *really* wrong...

4. I've been waiting for something like this online world timetable to exist for some time. Fascinating stuff. I've always felt that one of the things that the Internet should permit is "bigger" championships, with hundreds, thousands or even millions of games playing, but it hasn't quite worked out that way. (Granted, Lineage in South Korea has 10^5s - 10^6s of players at any one time, but that's not the sort of thing to generate a single winner.) There probably comes some point beyond which it becomes worthwhile people to significantly explore cheating for the potential fame and fortune that can be generated. Probably a million people have played, say, Spades at Yahoo! Games, but the Yahoo! Spades champion isn't regarded as a one-in-a-million celebrity.

Before I got onto the Internet, I loved the idea of games like Multi-User Dungeons, offering an experience that couldn't be touched anywhere else. Indeed, one of my friends from his street got quite heavily into MUDs in the year he went to university while I worked for British Steel and I was hugely impressed by what he had to say about them. Naturally, when I got to university, I spent time trying them out and was very disappointed by what they offered. MUD proponents will doubtless say "You were just trying the wrong ones, man!" and I'm sure that there probably is the right MUD, MUSH, MOO or somesuch for me out there somewhere. Indeed, perhaps I ought to take up something like Ultima Online and spend my time online there all day. However, the actual product doesn't seem to match up to the immense potential and I can't immediately put my finger on the reason why other than the perpetual vague dissatisfaction with human nature.

Incidentally, I played the board game Taj Mahal online at Gamebox Online today. It was... okay. The interface, despite being attractively and cleverly designed, was a pain to use and so the overall experience wasn't nearly as good as at my weekly sessions FTF. Even the fact that the other players were good company couldn't much make up for it. (Maybe when we all have broadband connections and webcams, we can all videoconference while we play? That would probably cheer things up a bit, even though the fellow gamers wouldn't necessarily be works of art to look at.) I am a little reluctant likewise to try out BrettSpielWelt, despite the fact that it is nearly universally regarded as by far the best online-German-board-game site and the fact that I know more than a dozen people who play there already. Sometimes the state of the art somehow just isn't quite good enough.

One of the biggest games I ever played was the famous play-by-mail (postal) game "It's A Crime!", famous for being played by (theoretically) 500 players per game. Probably 200 games of it have taken place worldwide over the years, with probably thirty or forty thousand (not a hundred thousand!) distinct humans having played the game, albeit briefly, at some point or another. Not world-shattering numbers, but not small fry especially for this sort of thing. The game was much criticised for its dubious theme (street gangs in New York City, which now seems passé; how appropriate for a game written in the early '80s and set in the mid '90s which we are now discussing in the '00s) and for the extent to which people who spent most time, effort and most importantly money on the game stood the best chance. Time and effort are fair enough, though money is less justifiable from the player's perspective. I'm not going to make any wild claims about it being the best game ever, but it was certainly really good in its own way.

Have we seen five-hundred player games spring up in the same style on the Internet? Well... not really. The old dichotomy applies. The Internet, in most people's eyes, is about getting things for free, but it takes time and effort to organise a good game - usually enough time and effort to require the game not to be free. Given that the Internet is so large and there are so many cool things on it fighting for your attention, we have unfortunately tended to end up with lots of people playing very many small games rather than fewer bigger ones. For someone interested in how the world of games at large is going to develop over time, this is somehow slightly sad.

However, in a discussion on Slashdot, people pointed to this thread on the G4 TV channel's message board. G4 is a TV channel about video games; a long-awaited concept, now let's see if they can make it stick. (I would hope that a channel about video games might spare a little cheap programming time for the world of non-video games; in practice, not gonna happen.) However, G4 are suggesting that they might integrate a relatively large turn-based game, played by their viewers, with their channel's programming in some fashion. Now there's a type of game show that hasn't been tried before! I imagine that it'll be a tricky concept to pull off in practice - and, yes, I have pointed the most talented PBM game developer, who can do design, implement and maintain sort of thing simultaneously while standing on his head in the channel's direction. The potential is tremendous; again, I feel/fear it will end up unfulfilled, but will be looking out for developments keenly. The world's first really good million-player game awaits!

5. A young man named Demis Hassabis is justly famous among a small circle for winning very many competitions at the first five Mind Sports Olympiads. He also runs his own software company. However, he prioritised the needs of his software company ahead of his need to appear at MSO 6 and so currently his mind sport stock is relatively low. ;-) (I'm sure he's devastated!) He remains a fascinating guy - and, happily, very personable - and there's an excellent interview with him in the Cyprus Sunday Mail which might go down soon at any point. Another one to watch, a potential world-changer.

6. Ooh, this is a biggie. Courtesy of a link from alanj's LJ, ten tips for this here bloggin'/journalin'/gafflin' thang. It's a challenging article, posing views that people who write LJs might benefit from considering. Of course, I'm not convinced it's all good advice; indeed, much of the challenge of life comes from sorting out the good advice from the bad. However, it's well worth a read and some thought. Here are my responses.

1. Write for a reason. Eek, this reminds me of the episode from "Red Dwarf" where the characters are asked, "justify your existence". I'm writing this LJ because:

  • Giving good tips is an inherently good thing to do.

  • Giving good tips may encourage other people to return better ones which I may enjoy.

  • I haven't yet found anyone who writes about quite the same things that I do.

  • Other people may tell me about people who write about some of the same things that I do.

  • My writing might encourage other people to write themselves.

  • My writing might encourage other people to write interesting articles which I may enjoy.

  • My writing might encourage other people to point me in the direction of interesting articles which I had not yet already found.

  • My writing encourages me to think hard about my points of view.

  • I find a lot of the writing I do to be cathartic.

  • I believe, or at least hope, that writing more (even if just in this LJ) will improve the quality of my writing.

  • I have already come into contact with some interesting and agreeable people who I wouldn't have done if I hadn't started writing this LJ. I look forward to getting to know them better.

  • I believe I will continue to come into contact with more interesting and agreeable people in the future as a consequence of writing this LJ.

  • I enjoy writing and I hope that other people enjoy reading my writing.

  • I love it, love it, love it when people reply to what I write, be it as a LJ comment, as e-mail or even over the phone.

There. That'll do for now.

The points that the article makes about honesty are particularly good and it's pleasant to see someone actually write them out. It's good to see even the basics covered and formalised.

2. Write often. I must admit that my style of tending to store up a number of small points for a longer entry is rather an affectation. In the aforementioned spirit of honesty, I'll admit that a part of it is a desire to build up a reputation for having "something for everyone" and that I'm not confident enough in the worth or interest of the individual pieces as smaller, separate items. There is also considerable vanity in that I prefer seeing a small number of entries, each of which has attracted a reasonably high number of comments, rather than a larger number of entries, many of which do not attract comments. There's also a feeling that I don't want to "take over" anyone's Friends view by posting too often, or too much outside the <lj-cut>. I may mix my style up a little more in the future.

3. Write tight. Now that's not really me, is it? Definitely somewhere that I can seek to improve. Loading up nouns with multiple adjectives is fun, though! (To be honest, I probably need to spend more effort on writing accurately and correctly.)

4. Make good friends. Some have criticised this article for being mostly "common sense" and this applies relatively strongly here. I do believe that "common sense" is quite frequently rarer than it should be and think that there's nothing wrong with articles which explicitly state the unwritten rules.

5. Make good enemies. Now this is a part which I agree with less strongly than the others, but this may be due to my adverse perception of the thickness of people's skins. (I hate crossing lines which should not be crossed and treading on toes; indeed, I feel that I did a couple of days ago - no, the specifics will remain private - and am still feeling a little bad about it, contributing to a general slight down on LJ recently.) lambertman and I tease each other a lot, but that's because it's safe and we're on teasing terms. I've posted a few cheeky things in reply to calliaume recently, too...

6. Let the story unfold. Tricky, very tricky, but the sign of a cut above. After all, I did say (and I do still believe) that a large part of maintaining a LJ is performance art... I am trying this to a certain extent; whether my efforts are successful or not are not for me to say.

7. Stand up, speak out. Another high ideal. While I accept their point, I think it only applies to a limited extent. (There, self-reference!)

8. Be sexy. Cough, splutter. In my view, blogs and journals can work both with and without; I am not prepared to be particularly intimate with my readership at the moment. (Not that I necessarily rule out increased intimacy later; after all, there is the "Friends-only" tag.) The interface between this eighth point and the "don't forget that your mother might read it some day" section of point one rather presupposes a certain sort of relationship with one's mother. As a token gesture, I shall point you to a tale about an Australian MP working in a brothel. Now that's what I call a Liberal MP. (Good on him!)

9. Use your archives. A oood point, well made. The LiveJournal infrastructure does contribute towards this, but there is more to be done here.

10. Relax! Yes, this looks inherently sensible and it rather contradicts with my self-imposed "performance art" viewpoint. Sometimes things can't just be assumed to be common sense after all!

A very interesting article, all told. I'm not convinced all the advice is accurate (this "make good enemies" lark needs particularly careful thought) but it's nice to have some well-reasoned science to apply to a creative art.

Lastly, still time to submit an entry for the vocabulary game. The deadline is the end of the month, British Summer Time, so you only have 71 hours to go!

(7 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:lambertman
Date:August 28th, 2002 09:11 pm (UTC)
(Link)
6. 2. Lest we forget, you Limey Brit (<--- lookie, there's that teasing again!), it was you that said I shouldn't lock away my random, short thoughts on Some Other Journal Service, but to share them with the whole lot of LJ. Why are you shorter thoughts any weaker or less deserving than mine? :)

6. 5. It's too easy to make enemies on LJ, mainly because by its very existence, it attracts a fair number of users who are overly sensitive and emotional, and feel quite justfied in creating a very uncomfortable situation whenever they may feel wronged...no matter how out of your way you may have gone to spare such feelings. (Not hypothetical, surprise.)
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:August 29th, 2002 04:19 am (UTC)
(Link)
6.2) Very good question. Don't have a quick answer to this. I'm not sure that saving short thoughts up for a "ten"-at-a-time splurge is necessarily the right answer, either. Conclusion: don't know, guv.

6.5) I would argue that they aren't really "good enemies" - the sort of people to get into a good-natured extended debate with. Perhaps the article's choice of the world "enemies" conjures up some inappropriate mental images in people's minds.
[User Picture]
From:bateleur
Date:August 29th, 2002 02:07 am (UTC)

Big Games

(Link)
Yep, I definitely agree with you that the lack of very large free games on the internet is a sad thing.

On the other hand, having been involved in the technical side of producing a large (if not-so-free) game, I also agree with much of your reasoning as to why there aren't such games.

But the other reason is: relatively little thought has been devoted (to my knowledge) to the design of games in which players devote radically different amounts of effort. Most massively multiplayer games heavily punish the less committed, causing them to drop out and/or be even less committed. This is a Bad Thing.
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:August 29th, 2002 04:25 am (UTC)

Re: Big Games

(Link)
I'm trying to remember whether I should know what the large game you were involved with was or not... :-) (I seem to recall you and/or Matt Marcus being involved in a "crossover of all worlds" concept game, but I don't think that was the one we're referring to here.)

You're right about the "some players make more effort than others" aspect of things too. Mo's online games (which I don't play and can't really justify not having played) seem to cope with this well, but I'm sure that there have to be other approaches which will work as well.
[User Picture]
From:bateleur
Date:August 29th, 2002 08:36 am (UTC)

Re: Big Games

(Link)
The game in question was Corporation (Digital Mind Games).

In theory the game supported less active players. In practice, however, they were completely doomed (IMO).
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:August 29th, 2002 08:53 am (UTC)

Re: Big Games

(Link)
Ah. Maybe Mo's games don't have the answer in practice after all. :-) I don't know how much input, if any, you had in the design of Corp, but I would have thought that with sufficient trial and error, between Mo, you and other people you respect, you should be able to sort it out.

(I also believe that the big games which do exist will generally have a lot of brains of extremely high calibre and good taste working on them already and that they genuinely are trying their hardest and best for their game. They tend to get very little respect from a demanding, vocal and whiny player base who are not prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to people who have to resort to trial and error - but the designers/operators' hearts are definitely in the right place.)

Another thought that struck me is that, rightly or wrongly, I perceive that the "concentration of attention span" about the film industry these days is getting ever more and more tightly packed on a gently decreasing number of films at any one time. Why is this not happening with Internet games? (Or is it the case that it really is happening, with the famous MMORPGs and the famous FPSs, RTSs and so forth, and that I'm not seeing what really exists?)
[User Picture]
From:bateleur
Date:August 29th, 2002 01:05 pm (UTC)

Re: Big Games

(Link)
I have much respect for Mo's skills, but some aspects of a game are easier to tweak than others. The basic problem was simple: There were only 400 buildings in a city of a variety of different values. Players would virtually never sell buildings, because there was very little reason to do so (any building can be made profitable with a little effort). Accordingly, there was a race on to buy buildings. With, say, 10 active players in a city (and there could be more than twice that it theory) there would be a significant gap between the suitability of the best building and the 10th best building. The profit differential from this gap would mean that when players were rich enough to buy their second building, the player who was first before would probably be first again. If you missed a day of play, you might well have missed your only chance on a key building.

It got worse in the later game because to build a skyscraper you need to own all four buildings on one block. Sure, you can try to trade for them, but it's going to be an order or magnitude cheaper to just buy all four from NPCs. The more active players (by now also much richer) have much better odds of doing this.

In the end, none of this was design failure. The problems all stemmed from the fact that financial pressures didn't allow for a decently long playtesting phase. Hopefully Mo's latest venture (Red Emperor) won't suffer from this problem - definitely worth keeping an eye on.

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