- Travelling from Darlington to London on this good offer.
- Staying with Michael Colao and his wife from Friday 16th January to Monday 19th January. Their house would be acting as base for a British cell helping a worldwide team, with a Boston focus, in the 25th annual MIT Mystery Hunt. I had first met Michael at ManorCon 2002, precisely 52 weeks before Nimbus - 2003, when I was running a Treasure Hunt game there. My Treasure Hunt was less than a million miles away from an attempt to produce a game akin to the MIT Hunt, but something like 0.2% of the size - it could be completed by a team of five in about 1½-2 hours instead of a team of 70-100 in about 2½-3 days. Michael had attended MIT in the mid-'90s and was a veteran of Hunts, so very pleased to see that they had reached Manorcon. We struck up a fast friendship and have remained in touch, in a puzzle context, ever since.
Michael's wife, Morag, is a research librarian, which she does while studying her third undergraduate degree, this one in archaeology. (Her other two are in radically different subjects. This qualifies her for "polymath" by any reasonable definition.) They live in a mews house in a fantastic W1 location about four minutes walk from Baker Street station. Their house has three floors, but only five rooms; the top two floors have bathroom and bedroom, the lower floor a combination lounge/dining room/kitchen. It's a remarkable house in a fantastic location - truly aspirational. While it is bogus to judge people based on their occupations, Michael does some sort of advanced black belt ninja-fu for an investment bank. In one context, he is Head of Computer Forensics; in another, he is Data Protection Co-ordinator; in a third, he is the rightmost - rightmore? - of the two Xanders from Buffy.
(Incidentally, I note that he is such an accomplished live role-player that he gets to do it in a starring role at business conferences - see 16.20 item at the end of the schedule. That's "a bit good" to the point of "doesn't happen by accident".)
The two other people who came to the UK base were Nick Gardner, three-year veteran of the World Puzzle Championship, and a man who started and finished blogging long before I ever did, and Pete Card, a long-time gamer, writer and fan. (Dare I say "board game BNF"?) Michael offered his house as base because London is a good location, because Michael has two computers and because he was planning to take part from home anyway. (ericklendl was going to come down for at least some of the time, but he was ill, so spared us his germs.)
- Going out on Friday night to a Turkish restaurant for the first time. We ate kebabs after a starter of olives, salad and thin bread with unfamiliar dips (three of hummus, taramasalata, falafel and tahini - can't remember which). It was a fine meal in excellent company; indeed, I often felt rather left behind as not only the youngest but clearly the least brilliant person there. (Pete and Morag extensively discussed archaeology for much of the weekend.) On the downside, I managed to get a blob of seemingly freshly-chewed gum on the top of my shoe.
- Bargain Singapore Noodles from the Waitrose fresh takeaway food counter: down from £1.19/100g to 17p/100g. Six-sevenths off!
- Waking up before 6am, having planned to leave the house at 7am, but taking so long to get ready that I don't get to the top of Baker Street tube station until 7:32am, and still getting to Victoria Coach Station, picking up my coach tickets and boarding the coach by 8am. As this involves delving Baker Street to its depths, two tube journeys and what is normally a 10-minute walk even without a dragging big heavy case, this was most remarkable.
- Getting to Reading, meeting alhewison for the first time and visiting the University of Reading. I don't suppose I'm breaking any state secrets - no, I'm not - if I suggest that the first UK Harry Potter conference, Accio 2005, is planned to be held at the University of Reading from July 29th to 31st, 2005. Everyone knows just how wonderful The Witching Hour will be, with the absolute A-team in charge and muggins here putting on quite a show for Quidditch. (More of that another day.) Nevertheless, I can also speak highly of the University of Reading as a venue for Accio 2005; it has gorgeous lecture theatres. alhewison was great company and many exciting plans were laid.
- The EasyEverything internet café of legend permitting you to pay £3 for unlimited Internet access for 24 hours. I had a 3½ hour session one day and a 2 hour session the next; that wasn't really enough to let me catch up with 4 days of Flist and emergency e-mail triage.
However, the nice thing that happened is that lots of people on my Friends list suddenly had a rash of pleasant things, lucky breaks and general good karma catch up with them. It was tremendously reassuring that good things really do happen to good people from time to time. This was a very pleasant realisation to make and set an extremely pleasant tone for the second half of the trip.
- Oyster PrePay, introducing uncertainty to your tube travel. What they tell you: it's a prepaid card which means you don't need to fiddle around with cash at tickets, it speeds your journey up, it lets you travel at 2003 rates in 2004 and considerably cheaper still at weekends. It's a good system if it works. They don't tell you that the card itself costs £3 (theoretically refundable, but probably not in a fashion at all convenient for, say, foreign visitors.) It's a good system and works properly if you do check in and out every trip. However, if you're carrying a big heavy bag and relying on the staff to let you through, it's less good. Specifically, on my first trip after getting the card, I handed the card to the staff member at Victoria and he didn't press it to the yellow circle and also didn't tell me that I needed to do so myself. Result, the card summarily got confused a journey and a half later.
As requested, I took it to an assistance desk and told them the situation. They rectified it by charging me nothing for the previous day's journey, rather than the true fare, so effectively I got a £2.30 journey for free due to my mistake and due to owning up to what had happened, which was nice. Not recommended as a general technique, though. No problems with using the card after that, other than a few "communication error 94"s, but I never had the same confidence with the system as I did with using traditional tickets. Incidentally, I read that Oyster PrePay will eventually - soon? - retrospectively buy you a Travelcard if it would have been cheaper than buying several single or return journeys, which is nice.
Nevertheless, I can't help feeling that Oyster PrePay is probably a step towards eventual extension of discriminatory pricing - for instance, rush hour journeys costing more than ones at less busy times. (Which will doubtless be implemented by the raising of general prices and the introduction of considerable off-peak discounts.) As a redistributive technique, I sympathise, even if I'm not yet sure I approve. Not really a step forward in terms of simplicity or tourist-friendliness, though.
- Staying with the_maenad at her house in North London and being introduced to the Babylon 5 CCG, accompanied by "Minbari" (Italianesque) cooking from the official cookbook. The game didn't capture the spirit of the show, but it certainly evoked it interestingly enough. Needs a few more plays to get used to the complexity of it all, though. the_maenad and Simon are wonderful, friendly hosts who have got a really good set-up that works tremendously well for them and I hope to get to know them rather better. (This was also the first time I had eaten cous-cous, which I rather liked as a form of starch.)
- Taking the_maenad's hint and visiting The Museum Of London the next day, with a history of the city. This got more to my taste the closer to the present day we came; the 1920s exhibition (free with a NUS card or similar) was particularly interesting, mainly for its politics. Shame I came a couple of weeks too early for the Connected London exhibition on telephones and telephony. Also a bonus quarter-point out of ten for a staff member with a meltingly gorgeous smile.
- Having a good walk around the Barbican Highwalk, a network of elevated walkways around central London. If you like systems in general, and the London Underground in particular, then you may well rather enjoy this as well.
- Visiting the Museum of London's smaller, newer sibling, the Museum in Docklands. Similar sort of material with a heavy Docklands emphasis. Very new at the moment and in pristine condition. Happily, it goes up to the present day, so it includes the very recent history which you and I are now starting to realise as having been history within our own lifetimes. Recommended.
- The Docklands Light Railway is a small highlight in itself, particularly for the way that some of the stations are so close to each other - Canary Wharf to West India Quay takes slightly under 50 seconds from start to stop. I would love to see a DLR train vs. 400 metre runner You Bet!-style race between the two stations, but Transport for London would never permit the public to see their train lose.
- Staying with huskyteer and addedentry in Lewisham. They have a gorgeous flat - extremely modern and beautiful. I would describe them as "young urban professionals" had that not a certain sort of loaded undertone. I always inaccurately thought of them - and many of my peers - as still living the student lifestyle up to this point, but they have graduated to a wonderful next stage in their life. It's a joy to see the two of them doing so well and I am quite jealous.
The evening I stayed with them, verlaine and bluedevi called for dinner, who were tremendous, entertaining company. (Great to get to see Matt for the first time in almost certainly over five years!) Culinary first of the day: fish massala, the first time I had had any sort of seafood curry. Worrying in theory, extremely pleasant in practice. One other thing I realised that night is that addedentry doesn't just say lots of amusing things about topics that I enjoy, he also says lots of amusing things about topics that I know nothing about. Surely this is a workable definition of someone being genuinely funny (funny ha ha, not funny peculiar) across the board?
- A gentle, recuperative, slow-down day, spent reading Lyra's Oxford as discussed, and a trip into Lewisham town centre. I spent two nights at the house of work friends of mine in Potters' Bar (far North London), gathering data about old Mind Sports Olympiad events that they hadn't had the time to sort out. I also took minutes at the inaugural meeting of the newly-reformed Potter's Bar Carnival Committee for them as a favour, which gave an interesting sideways glance at local politics.
- They also had digital cable TV, so I took it as a good chance to view channels that I don't normally get to see. Isn't Challenge ?'s daytime line-up very heavily dependent on FremantleMedia shows, and why was a standalone episode of Bruce's Price Is Right rather better than I had remembered it being? All little bonuses, though it was surprising that out of perhaps 50-100 channels I don't normally watch, I was only interested in two - the aforementioned Challenge ? and...
- price-drop.tv! This is a remarkable take on the traditional TV shopping channel - specifically, all the lots are sold by a form of Dutch auction. Each "price drop" starts off with a specified number of identical units of some commodity for sale. The price starts at a "guide price" (an Actual Retail Price or similar) and then drops over time at a varying rate. (Occasionally a horn hoots and a price-plunge cuts several minutes out of the descent at the dull initial stage before people have started buying.) When you think the price is a fair one for the item on sale, you signal an intent to purchase. Meanwhile, the TV show has a salesperson promoting the item on offer as if it were the Holy Grail. Eventually, the final item in the lot will be sold, the camera extreme-close-ups on the host's face and the Voice of God declares PRICE-LOCK.
At this point, the host goes through a little script with remarkably little deviation; no matter where you dropped in (i.e., what price you opted to buy the item at), Everyone Pays The Lowest Price (i.e., the price at which the final item in the lot was sold). The first five buyers also go through to the First Five Prize Draw as reward for buying early when the price was relatively high and not guaranteed to fall as far as it did. The whole procedure takes about 8 to 10 minutes; different sales folk take shifts of 2 or 3 hours and the sales go on for 17 hours a day. Star salesman is Greg Scott, a warm-
downup man for Richard Whiteley's gags on Countdown, who is a cross between Chris Evans and a Sad Clown version of the late Rod Roddy. He entertains with a particularly stylish combination of hand gestures and amiable bullshit. Could this be where the TV equivalents of the local independent radio DJ get their big break these days?
It's a very neat system, with far more game involved than your usual shopping channel, plus hooks like the names of buyers scrolling along the bottom of the screen and receiving shouts-out from the host. However, bear in mind that it is my firm opinion (considered, though based on no hard evidence whatsoever) that the merchandise sold on the channel is likely to be overstock bought at ridiculously low prices. The guide prices quoted seem to be illusory, typically being three to seven times the price for which the items are sold. (Indeed, it's possible that price-drop.tv have a minimum price at which they're hoping to sell, and any price they achieve in excess of that is pure abnormal profit.) On top of that, there's a £1 charge per call and a swingeing P&P charge of £6.95, even on the small items.
There will be genuine bargains on price-drop.tv - indeed, the system relies on the supply-and-demand curve whereby people won't buy unless they think they've got a bargain by their definition - but most people will find them few and far between. I am told that the price drops even took place on Christmas Day, but the audiences were so small that the prices were unusually low. One to bear in mind, but several times as much fun as your standard shopping channel. And, hey, sister channel bid-up.tv keeps Peter Simon in a job, which has got to be a good thing!
- Travelled into London, crossed country, caught a coach from London Victoria to Oxford. Unfortunately I had forgotten just how lunatic trying to leave London on a Friday afternoon really is; the journey from Victoria to Hillingdon took 80 minutes alone, with the total time to Oxford being 2 hours 25, about 50% longer than you would plan for. Never mind.
- This seems as good a point to tell you that over the period of a week, I ate lunch at McDonalds four times. Each time, I used a "buy one Big Mac, get one free" voucher. Two Big Macs is at least one more than anyone needs, but I reasoned that I was having neither fries nor a carbonated drink. Two UK Big Macs works out at a little under 1,000 calories, so about the same as a regular Extra Value Meal. (I accompanied the burgers with bottled water and a banana.) Not a diet I would recommend, but it was mostly just to get the short-time-limit tickets used up. (I would be interested in "better" meals containing about 1,000 calories, costing no more than £1.99. I do not regard "a dozen apples" as a better meal.) I would like it to be noted that after the week on holiday and the subsequent cold, I am down to about 188-189 pounds naked body weight, which is as light as I have been since about late 1997. Thank you, McDonalds! Er, hang on...
- Arrived in Oxford only just within the later end of my time estimates and caught up with foreverdirt about two minutes later. To use a fab new word, Katy is touch-positive, which means that she evidently has the very endearing habit of greeting people who she has never met before with a great big hug. Hurrah!
We proceeded to Hollywood Cocktails on Walton Street, being joined a very few minutes later by malachan, who proceeded to do the dutiful thing and replace our stream of impenetrably hardcore (sort of) mathematical gags with far more sensible and accessible fandom and general discussion. Hollywood Cocktails was rather more tame and pleasant than I had feared, with a good selection of non-alcoholic cocktails; I chose the Dandy, which is a cross between a smoothie and a slush puppy yet seems to utilise enough real fruit (mostly blackberries) to just about count as one of your five fruit'n'veg portions of the day. (Its thickness also has the pleasant side-effect that you really can make less than half of one drink last about 45 minutes without feeling too cheap about it.) Time spent in the company of Cyg and Katy is always happy.
foreverdirt retreated to a tutorial, but malachan accompanied me to the Starbucks cafe within Borders where I met the lovely bopeepsheep and smallclanger, later being joined by the equally lovely imc. We had a different sort of geeky discussion, but still very geeky and deeply satisfying. Heck, we discussed USENET, which I hadn't discussed for a very long time and which I have hardly touched since, well, probably getting onto LiveJournal and the rise of Yahoo! Groups. A quick Google Groups suggested I posted fewer than 20 times in all of 2003, which is remarkable. (I'd love a Finnish-to-English translation of this post, though - particularly the quoted part, obviously - if anyone can provide one.)
Next on the line-up was the 100-metre trek to Laser Quest for the annual pilgrimage at the start of the OxCon games convention weekend with the old boys at the OU Diplomacy Society. Having played at Laser Quest Oxford since probably 1996 (and the Megazone which preceded it in 1995) for the first time, the equipment was really showing its age - about five battery swaps, gun swaps, cable changes and so forth couldn't give me a system which would stay up for more than thirty seconds, so for the first time I requested a refund. (And got one.) There's a change of management there; the centre is undergoing reasonably major reconstruction, with the lobby being remodelled. All the arcade games had been removed (wah, no Prop Cycle!) and had been replaced with a very large hang-on-tight bucking bronco. The bucking bronco was atop a large inflatable surface, but the constant noise of the air pumps inflating to provide a gentle fall seemed to risk contravening health and safety regulations to me. I wouldn't've wanted to work with that noise.
After that, zorac joined the 16-strong curry party to Uddin's on Walton Street (next to Hollywood Cocktails, as it happens). The food was broadly pretty good, but the service was as slow as we remembered it being. I may well have had a chat aloo followed by a chicken biryani and I suspect I had room left at the end to help over-orderers with theirs. Eventually we'll get the message and pick a different Walton Street curry-house. The meal took about 3-3¼ hours, all told, leaving us at a slightly awkward situation afterwards - a little earlier than most people would have wanted to call it a night, but not so early that there was time for us to descend on a venue en masse for a decent-length game session. In the end, we split into several parties, including one headed to the pub. I was staying with zorac that night and returned to his place to call it an early night.
- Oh no, I am reminded that we went to St. Anne's JCR and played DungeonQuest instead after the curry. My first character was chronically wounded by a vampire on the first turn, and my second character went into the catacombs and took a dozen turns to emerge. Ooh... nasty. Someone actually escaped with one double armful of dragon's treasure, which was fairly impressive.
- OK, this has turned into a fairly comprehensive write-up of the second weekend, but it was all one long highlight.
- Oh, and I lost the present-participle highlight identification scheme about 3,000 words back. Heh. Past tense
- Got up on Saturday morning and had a reasonably quick bath. I have discussed zorac's long bath before; perhaps, on further thought, it's not quite as long as remind it, just the back end is almost straight up rather than the more frequently-found taper, which changes your washing position. On Saturday morning, Mark very kindly demonstrated Rez on the PS2, which was as gorgeous-looking, gorgeous-sounding and, yes, synaesthetically all-round beautiful-looking as you would have expected from the (limited) hype. (You're right, j4!) The night before, he had shown just how darn nifty Warblade looks on a PC which happens to have some serious gaming beef. Mark is a tremendously kind host and a really good friend to enjoy sharing time with, but it doesn't hurt in the least that he has darn cool toys. *grin* It's fun to introduce him to different friends and new ways to have fun in return. (That could be interpreted really dodgily, but the truth is - sadly - no more exciting than introducing him to board games and people he'd enjoy.)
Saturday saw the Diplomacy tournament at OxCon, so for non-Diplomacy players like me, it was the "play lots of non-Diplomacy games" day. Main game of the day was Outpost, an out-of-print early-'90s spacefaring position-development minor classic auction/bookkeeping game. Buy and staff factories which will produce useful things, that let you buy useful things which let you break the rules in different ways and produce different types of things even more quickly. It's a satisfying, absorbing game rather than an exciting one, but it has little focuses within the game to provide satisfying and different short-term, medium-term and long-term planning goals. The criticism of "multi-player solitaire" and/or "little interaction between players" is a reasonable one, but not one which spoils my enjoyment too much.
During this game, Adrian Hon turned up; Adrian is a postgraduate studying fascinating subjects like consciousness with the wherewithal and capacity to follow his interests like investigating what we can learn about Mars exploration through simulation and the famous Cloudmakers/A,I. co-operative game. He also produces a fascinating tripartite weblog, which distributes its articles to mssv_massive, mssv_middling or mssv_tiny depending on length. Happily, Adrian enjoyed his time at OxCon, learning several new games and finding good company in which to play them.
Also played on Saturday: Media Mogul prototype, which is set to make quite an impact in the tournament gaming scene later in the year and deserves to do so as an entertaining set of mechanics (though I do hope that they can fine-tune it to perfection before the world sees it), a sample teaching game of The Settlers of Catan, the lesser-known two-card turbo version of The Chairman's Game designed to accelerate reaching the silly, creative parts, plus the annual Fifteen-to-One quiz. Dave Percik, a really kind, generous, lovely guy, has been setting one Fifteen-to-One Quiz per convention for six years now. We all remember the year when he set a quiz so hard that the entire semi-circle of fifteen were defeated by their first first round question; this year, he erred on the easy side, and the 19 contestants were only whittled down after a long first round to a 9-player final. Despite the accessibility, I still went out 8th (so finished 12th, which might be charitably described as "undistinguished"). Fun quiz, though.
Saturday's curry trip was to the Kashmir Halal on Cowley Road (just past the first sex shop - about 30 yards further up from the substantially larger, but considerably less good, Moonlight Tandoori). It coped admirably with our party of about 16-17, serving us much more attentively than Uddin's had the day before. Recommendations for the Chicken Tandoori Soup starter and a Banana Lassi drink that I've seen nowhere else. Admittedly the latter is not a million miles from a banana-rosewater-and-yoghurt milkshake, but one which does indeed "bring me to the yard". Note that it's an unlicensed venue, so if this matters to you, bring your own booze. I'm minded to suggest this is my favourite Indian restaurant in Oxford, but not cheap; I put £17 in for poppadom, starter, main course, nan bread, rice and lassi. Strongly recommended, though.
After that, I went to Abingdon to stay with Phil and Sarah Hannay, my sixth different host in seven nights. Phil and Sarah are a lovely couple who had a wonderful Pagan wedding a couple of years back and who occasionally host weekends for a dozen gamers or so. (I have two of those to write up here at some point.) Just time for a quick ice-hockey-themed card game, Phantoms Of The Ice, before calling it a night and crashing on their futon.
- Sunday: got up, went into town, played in the The Settlers of Catan tournament. I organised this from '97 to 2002, and the guy who won for my last two years has taken over since then. As last year, I played a reasonably sound basic game; as last year, I decided against buying a single development card all day; as last year, I failed to win a single game out of five; as last year, (I think) I finished top in the tournament of all the players who failed to win a single game - so just below half-way. Well, at least I'm consistent. (My five results were finishes on 9, 8, 8, 7 and 6 VPs - the 9 was annoying, being a game aborted early because two of my opponents were slow and forced it into the time limit.) Good fun, but nothing special. Incidentally, with 40 players involved in 50 games, this was clearly the largest one-day Settlers tournament I've heard of - and very well run, too.
Sunday's DipSoc meal was the subject of great debate. While the hard lads agitated for a third curry and some of the young kids controversially proposed pizza (grief, man, there's a time and a place!). Happily a middle ground was found and we ended up going to Wok 23 for Chinese. We shared vegetarian spring rolls and the deep-fried beancurd with salt, pepper and chilli as a starter; my main course was beef chow mein with extra vegetables and sauce. Both very good. Those two together, plus Chinese tea, came to about a tenner - one of Oxford's best restaurant bargains, so long as you can manage the rather sharp incline of the stairs. Happily, there was a substantial amount of singing in our table of six. Can't remember what, other than that we did manage to drive all the other patrons out of the restaurant. *looks innocent*
- Slept overnight on Sunday in Abingdon, got up on Monday morning, showered, packed for the last time, went to Oxford and caught up with foreverdirt one more time. I introduced her to the joys of Oxford's canal - or, more specifically, the rather nice canalside walk taking you around Pullman's Jericho - and in return, she showed me one of her Yes, Minister episodes. A very pleasant morning and an excellent way to round off a varied and successful holiday. The journey home (coach from Oxford to Victoria, one more Oyster prepay tube to King's Cross, train journeys from King's Cross to Darlington and Darlington to Middlesbrough) was very gentle and allowed me to finish off my third book of the trip.
- Ten nights, 700 miles, six beds. Easy, really...
Happy Friday 12bth!