Mum has been very ill recently; happily, she has kicked her breathing difficulties almost completely and apparently the crisis is over, though traces of the infection linger on. Mum is mentally strong, but physically weak; like Wells' Martians, it will probably be a completely ordinary, unpredictable and unpreventable infection that carries Mum away some day. Happily, we don't think it'll be this one.
1. Thoughts on faith: while I reject organised religion, I do uncertainly pray to a benign monodeity whose existence owes a great deal to Pascal's Wager. I do regard myself as having been Christian in the past; additionally, I identify that I considered myself to have become less happy and less lucky when I turned my back on the religion, but these were (and are) small prices to pay for not supporting a faith that I felt I could not support. Thinking about faith and prayer further, I suspect that the action of prayer or meditation - no matter whether to a conventional deity, an unconventional deity, many deities, or even to entities not traditionally considered divine at all - gives many people extra subconscious confidence, and this subconscious confidence manifests itself in fashions which can be interpreted as happiness and good luck. At least, that's my theory... and I'll come quietly, officer. (As klepsydra would say!)
As a side note, the secondary school which came top of at least one of the most recent set of UK schools' league tables was a Muslim faith school. The 2001 UK census revealed that 3.1% of people in England declared themselves to be Muslim, but 14.6% of people in England declared themselves to have no religion. Could there not be such a thing as an atheist faith school, to cater to families bringing their children up in an atheist environment? There might well still be statutory religious education, but it could take a legitimately detached viewpoint. Additionally, there would still be citizenship lessons, but they might take an overtly humanist philosophical basis. Perhaps the school choir would sing something other than hymns, too. (I'm thinking Sunscreen for some reason, though it would be more of a chant than a "sing"...)
2. Mrs. Coulter, you're looking for kisspeptin. Now please leave those poor kids alone.
3. The WPC off-season is getting better organised than ever, with the Puzzle Ratings site (with a blog syndicated at puzzleratings) seeming to be the hub. The French and Indian national qualification tests are online - very good they look, too, for anyone who either has their eye on 2005 qualification or who just likes logic puzzles. Anyway, the results from PQRST round 12 are out - and top of a strong 214-entrant field is Luke Pebody from the UK. Luke would have been in at least one of the last two UK teams had it not been for theatre commitments, so the UK puzzle fraternity really, really ought to tap him up now. I note that Luke pipped one (four-time World Puzzle Champion) Wei-Hwa Huang in both the 1992 and 1993 International Mathematical Olympiads, so perhaps it might be possible to sell him on it that way. More of that later, though.
4. Am rather disappointed to hear this extremely cautious advice that blogging is a "paedophile's dream". I recognise there are some sociopaths out there, but I feel that so long as the young take proper precautions about real-life encounters and personal information then I see no reason for panic.
5. Am also rather disappointed by the methodology behind Olympic funding decisions; Olympic medals are very difficult achievements indeed, so I feel the UK may be setting requirements extremely high by aiming only to fund Olympic medalists. Given how small the UK is and how widely spread our sporting pedigree is, I think the goals of "top eight" in the Olympics, let alone "top five" by a spurious count involving the Paralymics and much more are unrealistically optimistic. Oh well.
6. I said at the start of the year that 2004 was probably my second best year ever, behind 1992. Allow me a little nostalgia as to why 1992 was so good.
Academically, it was probably my single peak year, culminating in application to and acceptance by Oxford University to read mathematics. Furthermore, it was the year in which I did the bulk of the work for my A-levels, which resulted in the single best set of results I ever received. However, not all the successful academic work was strictly curricular.
(Idly, sir_gareth, I note that there was a brief point in 1991 when you were considering going on to do A-level Further Mathematics. You dodged a bullet there, my friend...!)
Mathematically, our school submitted teams into a local team quiz. I actually suspect more of you will be familiar with the existence of a maths team than not, though at the time it felt extremely alien. A team of three pre-university students from a school answered four rounds of mixed team and individual questions against an opposing team - normally freely, occasionally as a race. It was unusual for a 16-year-old (Lower Sixth Form) to be on the team, with 17- and 18- year olds from the Upper Sixth more usual, but I sat in the "easy questions" seat for the 1991-2 team. We won our round-robin group of four teams, then three knockout rounds against other group winners, to take the whole competition!
In fact, the first match was the closest of all six; I answered the first question (to do with the area of an annulus?) more quickly than it was read out, needlessly fast, and this inspired my opposite number to rush just as needlessly quickly with his first question and answer incorrectly. I took my time to check my answer to every single question after that. :-) I acted as captain and middle seat for the 1992-3 team, but we won the first game convincingly and got hammered second time out.
The other aspect of my mathematical endeavour was participation in the British Mathematical Olympiad, which formed part of the qualification structure for the International Mathematical Olympiad mentioned above in part three. I didn't get particularly close; the national team in the IMO has six members, and while I came in the top 100 in 1991, 1992 and 1993, 1992 was the only year in which I reached the "last 60" phase. The BMO was one of the first spheres of endeavour where I first became seriously interested and thought I might have a chance of being better-than-locally good, hence the lasting interest; Luke Pebody - as in online puzzle contest winner mentioned in 3 above - was a name I learnt from his British success at the time, and I have been interested to follow his progress ever since. I never got particularly close to being selected for the International Mathematical Olympiad team, but I always took an interest.
The list of UK IMO team members makes interesting reading: Clifford Cocks, who (according to legend) invented the RSA algorithm three years before RSA; Alan Iwi, known to Oxford newsgroup readers; Nick Wedd, who ran the British Go Association web site for years; million pound winners Alex Selby and Oliver Riordan; stray amateur 3- and 4- dans at Go and so on. (Oh, a couple of Fields medallists, too.) There ought to be some serious networking to be done, and a UK World Puzzle Championshp team drawing heavily on past IMO experience ought to stand to do a lot of damage. (A few other familiar names in the math-o-puzzle-o-geek-o-sphere from other countries crop up elsewhere on this IMO scores site, too.) It's also interesting because of how seriously it is taken, which could possibly be a model for the World Puzzle Championship and the UK team therein.
Incidentally, addedentry bought me a book about American students at the 1991 International Mathematical Olympiad. It goes out of its way to be generally accessible and consequently has slightly less meat than I would've liked. All the same, an easy-to-read overview of mathematical genius among the young and a survey of the USA's take on the IMO.
1992 was a good year for gaming and almost certainly my peak year for having local gaming friends here in Middlesbrough. While I didn't have much time for gaming, I certainly enjoyed quality if not quantity - a number of Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, of various constituencies, spluttered on and off over sundry weekends and school holidays. The downfall was that nobody really wanted to DM. I ran my fair share of the games, but always felt that our combat-heavy dungeon crashes were scratching the surface of what a tabletop RPG might have involved and so unsatisfactory, notwithstanding the fact that that was what the players seemed to want. Sometimes I wonder if, had I owned as many board games as I did a few years later, we wouldn't all have been happier playing board games instead.
It was also a good year for me when playing games by post. Now records survive of chess having been played by correspondence for over 200 years, with claims going back centuries beforehand. Other games may well have been played for just as long - probably even longer than chess if you count codebreaking, riddle-setting and collaborative story-writing. However, the early 1960s saw that the seven-player war game Diplomacy worked particularly well by post, and the concept expanded to thoughts of games that could only be sensibly played by post simply because they would be excessively unwieldy to play in person. In 1970, Rick Loomis rented time on a computer and created a "play-by-mail" game called Nuclear Destruction, widely regarded as the first of its type. Playing a game that was so complicated that a computer was required to track the action was seen as very futuristic.
These postal games grew over the 1970s and 1980s, not least with the increasing popularity of Dungeons & Dragons and similar games. In the mid-1980s, there were a variety of cheap home computers available in the UK, with TV set and cassette tape recorder substituting for monitor and disk drive. There were also many magazines devoted to such home computers; some of them took wider views of the world of gaming and discussed tabletop RPGs and even play-by-mail games. Probably 200,000-600,000 people in the UK alone would see a magazine in each month between 1985 and 1990 which discussed play-by-mail games at least in passing; quite possibly this was UK play-by-mail's finest hour.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the mass-market Daddy of all play-by-mail games was It's A Crime! offered by KJC Games in the UK and Adventures By Mail in the US. This was set in mid-1990s(!) New York City as mafia-style street gangs tussled in a turf war, with the most successful gangs becoming involved with the mob. The adverts boasted "up to 500 players in each game", unthinkably ambitious compared to computer games which were mostly single-player. The cost of play was even theoretically within the budget of computer game fans used to paying £1.99 and £2.99 for their tapes, though there was a heavy element by which taking a more active (more expensive!) position in the game led to better success. Nevertheless, it was a remarkably deep design and many thousands of game geeks of a certain age dabbled at some point in their lives. Much more about that some other day, but there was a fair bit of that in 1992, which brought a couple of Middlesbrough 16- and 17- year olds in touch with some very interesting young men.
Additionally, I started playing a particular wrestling-based role-playing game by post in 1992, at a considerably more reasonable cost, where I struck up a friendship with the only-slightly-older-than-me GM that lasted for many years; he impressed me as an example of what a sufficiently determined one of my peers could organise. I would still love to go and see him again some day, just to shoot the breeze, and ask him about the set of results he was meant to have sent out in 2001. Maybe I will, this year.
It was also a good year for generally hanging out - which is only remarkable because I did not, and do not, do a great deal of hanging out - and playing lots of computer games. In 1992, the Commodore Amiga was the computer of choice, and its 3½" discs were easy to copy illegally. We got a lot of thrills from different games that year - I note that we played quite a bit of Populous II, a fair shake of Powermonger sundry stray football management games and an obscure multi-player time-sharing-computer war game called Empire. Again, all that's for another day.
At the time, there was (almost?) no consumer Internet access to the Internet in the UK, though dial-up bulletin boards offered a growing subculture. The early '90s also saw the entrance into public awareness of public domain software, shareware and freeware, terms where definitions are now redundant. In a country where there was a well-established tradition of budget software, hundreds of people decided that they could entirely legally set up their own library of public domain software, charge a small fee for duplicating disks (usually £1-£3 per disk) and run it as a small business. Imagine our gang of friends' collective surprise when we discovered that one such library was being run on our block in Middlesbrough by someone we didn't know.
The library's owner was - and is! - about four or five years older than us, and similarly impressive as an example of what can be achieved with application. (Small businesses and self-employment were exotic!) He also happened to be very good at Amiga games, share a then-prevalent common interest in wrestling and had a colourful vocabulary. This made him fascinating and a close friend. He also bought a modem and so gave us our first vicarious experiences of going online. I still remember that he downloaded an advert for one of his friends' BBSes to place on his PD library disks, only for me to spot that said friend had left the BBS' phone number off. How we laughed. Then he went online and told the sysop who had created the advert; hilarity, laced with obscenity, invariably ensued.
I kept in touch with this hugely impressive friend for several years, though he married about five years later and now has two children. (He still lives elsewhere in town, runs a very good football website; the last we heard, he runs a small business along very similar lines to his old public domain library, but dealing in video tapes of mixed martial arts ("shoot fighting").
The last gaming development which made this a glorious year for our local gang was the fact that in the town of Hartlepool, half an hour away, a centre opened up where the laser game Quasar could be played. Quasar was one of the first arena laser tag games in the UK; as the hot franchise of 1990-2, there were well over a hundred centres (possibly 200?) in the UK at their peak but the majority of them lasted for less than three years. I'm not sure how accurate this list is, but a few dozen still survive, perhaps half in major and tourist cities, half attached to bowling alleys. My suspicion that games, as game shows, can often not be measured completely in isolation, but instead only in the context in which they were experienced comes firmly to light here. Given that we were a crowd of 16- and 17- year old lads, perhaps spot in the middle of the target audience, this was a very big deal indeed at the time.
Some day I shall go into laser game brand loyalty, but not today. Suffice to say that essentially Quasar is the game later franchised in the US under the name Q-Zar, though Laser Quest and the Zone Empire family - Megazone, Ultrazone, Darkzone, etc. - are probably the world's prevalent, if not technologically superior, brands these days. Again, it's kind of irrelevant to go into lots of detail here because it's not an unreasonable cultural assumption that you've encountered the phenomenon over the years, even if you've decided never to try it. However, much as we had a local crowd to hang out, we had a nearly-local place to hang out at, too.
Even though I've spent a lot of time and energy on games of different sorts, I have always been a dilettante - never dedicated enough to attain particular proficiency in any of them. I got so far with maths, and I have got so far with puzzles. In 1992, we started to get so far at Quasar - a different so, and the peak would be in 1993, but it was definitely a great gaming love in an excellent year for gaming loves.
Lastly, I own a very small amount of music. However, hanging out with a gang, I absorbed some of their musical taste of the day. I own the grand total of one pop music mix tape compiled for me, dating from late 1992. Here's what we listened to at the time:
- Little Fluffy Clouds - The Orb, 1991
- Weather Experience - Prodigy, 1992
- New Emotion - ?
- Elephants Paw - Pans Position (or so it says here)
- It's Grim Up North - The KLF, 1991
- Wicked Love - Oceanic, 1991
- Temple Of Dreams - Messiah, 1992
- Das Boot - U96, 1991
- It's The Music - The Doobie Sisters (possibly)
- Close Your Eyes - ?
- Sesame's Treet - Smart E's, 1992
- Activ8 - Altern8, 1992
Maths, games, games, games and music. I love 1992; you were my best year ever. 2005 may well beat you yet, though.
7. The sky is definitely getting lighter, now we're half-way between solstice and equinox. (It's Pancake Day here in the UK, too!) It's starting to be early dawn, rather than pitch black, when I return home after a night shift. Here comes the sun!