The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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2:24pm on Monday, 20th October, 2014:



There were some unusual clouds over Colchester first thing this morning:

Well, unusual for Colchester. Other places probably have those spirally-looking things the whole time.


11:31am on Sunday, 19th October, 2014:



In an attempt to bring UK domain names into line with those of the rest of the world, Nominet is issuing .uk names to people who have .co.uk names. You have 5 years to claim the .uk equivalent of your .co.uk one, then they'll be made available to everyone.

As the proud owner of mud.co.uk, I am entitled to buy mud.uk, so I've done so. I could have saved myself 5 years of fees by waiting until the last moment to do it, but that would entail my remembering that I had to do it.

Now begins the task of changing every use of mud.co.uk on the mud.co.uk site to mud.uk .

Hmm, maybe I'll just change my business cards...


5:24pm on Saturday, 18th October, 2014:

Eh up


I saw this T-shirt advertised in today's Guardian:

Yes, that seems reasonable to me.


4:26pm on Friday, 17th October, 2014:

Nominative Determinism


A van just parked outside our house with the following written on the side: "Matt Black Painter and Decorator".

Bit of a narrow range if you ask me.


7:47pm on Thursday, 16th October, 2014:

Product Type


I tried to buy some typewriter ribbons today for my mother, but Staples didn't have any. I had to order them off the Internet instead.

I don't know how many of them they sell, but the kind of people who want typewriter ribbons aren't likely to be the kind of people who use the Internet, so I don't suppose they do a roaring trade.

At least I didn't have to check out the antique shops, anyway.


3:06pm on Wednesday, 15th October, 2014:



Every year around this time, I have to speak to my advisees. Well, they're called "tutees" now, and I'm their "personal tutor"; this is intended to convey a closer relationship than what is the actuality, though, as I don't meet my tutees every week and discuss their work as might happen at Oxford or Cambridge. No, I just meet them when we're forced to meet or when they have a question they need answering. In the past 5 years, only one student has had a question they needed answering and I never had another meeting with the others after the first (or, in many case, including the first).

This isn't surprising, as the main purpose of the meeting seems to be to ensure that students aren't either about to give up and go home or throw themselves out of a tower window. It is good to meet them, though, and I think it does help them settle in a bit knowing they do have some backup even if they don't use it.

In previous years, the way the tutors have been allocated to tutees is as follows: list the lecturers in alphabetical order; list the students in alphabetical order; allocate the students to the lecturer in chunks of (total number of student divided by total number of lecturers). I may be only part-time, but I still get the same number of tutees as everyone else. Anyway, the problem with this approach from my perspective is that being near the top of the alphabet I got students whose names began with A. That's a problem because surnames beginning with A are dominated by students from Arab countries (where many names begin with Al); that's a problem because the governments of those countries don't send students to the UK to study games, they send them to study Electronics or Telecommunications. I wound up getting students taking courses about which I knew nothing. I may as well have had Psychology or Literature students.

This year, though, it seems I have students who are studying games. The four I've seen so far are, anyway. What's more, two of them are female. What with current industry standards being what they are, I don't suppose they'll remain female for long — but hey, it's two more than I had last year. All four of the students seemed pretty good, and two were very switched on; the other two may switch on once they make a few more friends (Computer Science departments are not well-known for being magnets for extroverts). I'm quite pleased at what I've seen so far, though.

I have another five students to see next week. Fingers crossed I don't get people who want to study embedded systems or lasers then, either.


2:25pm on Tuesday, 14th October, 2014:

Grey Area


This new Earl Grey tea I'm trying has a rather odd flavour. Let's have a look at the ingredients.

Ahh, that'll be the flavouring, then.

This really is all the packet has to say about what's inside it. Whatever it is, it doesn't taste of Earl Grey...


7:15pm on Monday, 13th October, 2014:

Bye Bye, WildStar


I've just cancelled my subscription to WildStar.

Normally when I start an MMO, I'll play it all the way through to the level cap, so people can't accuse me of "not playing enough to get it". With WildStar, I've given up at level 26 (out of 50).

The game has a lot going for it. The world itself is engaging and utterly joyous, which is reflected in its happy, lolloping animation and quirkiness. I really liked the atmosphere. That's what I'm going to miss most about stopping playing: it had a great sense of world.

I didn't, however, like the interface. It was finicky and I couldn't tell what things did what. Some world items were just there as furniture and others were really important. There were also things that were really important to other people but not to me, so when I tried to interact with them I couldn't do anything. At the HUD level, my bag was hard to organise, my skills annoyingly hard to swap between, and when things didn't work it tended to tell you that they didn't work but not why they didn't work. Text on the map would overwrite itself, the quest log went out of its way to show me quests I'd picked up a while back that I wasn't intending to do .. bleah ! I could go on, but as a general rule any MMO that when you want to log off makes you hit three separate buttons each saying "exit" on three separate screens has issues, and WildStar does just that.

There were other things I didn't like, too...

Combat is all about dodging telegraphs. These aren't traditional telegraphs where you get a circle or a circle segment or a rectangle that slowly fills up and you have to move out of the way or suffer the consequences. No, these are multiple telegraphs that appear all over the place, flicking their harm and safety areas in an instant, with little opportunity to get away. You basically have to eat them, interrupt them or learn the pattern for every type of mob so you can pre-empt them. It's not a fun core mechanic. Some times, you can't even tell which mob is producing which telegraph, they're so chaotic. Now this does play into the game's overall design aesthetic of controlled off-the-wallness, but until you've learned where not to stand you get slammed, and once you do learn it's a doddle. Either way, it's unsatisfactory.

Oh, and there are stuns. In a normal MMO, getting stunned is a pain because you can't act. I was quite pleased when I read about WildStar's approach, in which you get to break the stun yourself. I was less pleased by what happens in practice. You get stunned, it takes a split second to realise it, then you have to look at the diagram on the screen and read which key it is you have to press to break the stun. It's one you have your finger near, but to me my fingers aren't on WASD, they're on forward, rotate left, backward, rotate right. I actually have to read the S as an S and then type it in order to escape. This does not give me a feeling of empowerment.

The economy: I was broke for ages. I didn't have enough money for repairs, let alone for buying gear upgrades. The world was awash with vendors, all trying to sell me things I couldn't afford. Crafting was useless to me: by the time I'd accumulated enough components to make something, I was too high a level for it to be worth using. Now I knew there was something wrong, because when the fee for getting reincarnated in situ after a death is more than 10 times what you have in total it rather implies that. I sold stuff to vendors but got little back. It was only when I discovered that the auction house was an NPC, standing around among a bunch of other nondescript NPCs with click-me functionalities, that I could sell stuff for meaningful money. I got a hoverboard for faster transportation. Yay! I didn't have enough for anything else worth having, though. I'm sure that if I'd read the right craft guides or experiemented in the beta I could have made a mint, but I like to come at new MMOs straight. It wasn't at all obvious what I should be making, who would buy it, nor what parts I would need to make it. So, I made some clothes; I took them to pieces for the parts so I could make some more clothes; I repeated until I ran out of cloth; I took apart drops from mobs or quests to make more cloth. Eventually, I couldn't make any more clothes because the cloth I was getting from dismantling the items I found was too high-level for my skills, but I didn't have enough money to buy lower-level cloth to level my clothes-making skill up. When I tried to sell the higher-level cloth, no-one wanted it. It was as if I was the only lo-level tailor around. For my other skill, I made some components that were useful for buffing items with the right slot on them, but I only ever saw two such items (from group quests) and no-one else seemed to be in any great need of them either.

I do have to say, though, I really liked the way that the auction house allowed buy orders as well as sell orders. I moaned about the fact that WoW didn't have it the whole time I played that game, so I was very pleased to find that WildStar does. On the design side, WildStar does so many things right where other MMOs do it wrong; I just wish the interface was cleaner so I could tell what the blazes they were...

One of the new ideas in WildStar involves letting players choose from a number of paths based on the Player Types theory developed by some guy named Bartle. Sadly, they didn't ask Bartle about it, otherwise he would have told them that actually they were pandering almost entirely to achievers (although the socialiser path was a clever idea for those who like a healing vibe). For my character, I chose the explorer path as that involved grabbing lore boxes called datacubes. I was aware that this would involve tedious jumping puzzles (because apparently there's a belief among developers that there's nothing explorers like more than tedious jumping puzzles), but as it happens I'm actually good at tedious jumping puzzles. What I didn't realise was that some of these datacubes were in areas that you can't realistically get to unless you're in a group. I don't know where the idea that explorers like to group came from, but it meant some of these datacubes were inaccessible until, I suppose, explorers get to high enough a level that they can solo low-level group content. What's that? Why didn't I find a group? Because it was so hard to find a group that on several occasions I levelled up twice while waiting, that's why. If I did get a group, the quest was worth nothing to me and the blue gear I received was worse than what I'd picked up at random from a higher-level mob.

Oh, so why didn't I join a guild? I never saw a single invite. I guess I could have spammed "looking for guild", but if a guild's not proactive about recruiting then it's either full or on the way out...

At the purely practical level, I found the game very tough to play. The quests were on the whole too difficult for me. Why? Well, I'd made the mistake of speccing myself as a healer in the hope that this would get me into groups. That didn't work out, because at low levels you don't really need healers for groups and as I rose in levels I could have been a self-healing tank and still not found anyone with whom to group, people just weren't forming them. Anyway, what it meant was that I'd spent skill points on healing abilities that were of little use in solo play. I had to change to more of a ranged DPS and do quests two or more levels lower than my own (easier, but the XP gains are much reduced so progress is slower). As for quests, well there were some fun chains, and refreshingly many were quite charming and original in their narrative. I did find doing them in the right order a challenge, though: as with Rift, I came across some quests that only really would have made sense if I hadn't already done later ones.

All the above complaints are par for the course, though. I find similar things in most MMOs, so although it looks as if I'm slagging off WildStar, actually I rather like it. It's pretty well a modern take on WoW circa 2004, so is harder-core than most MMOs and it has appealing self-consistency. I looked forward to my play sessions. Why, then, have I decided to cancel my subscription?

There are two reasons.

The first reason is that when you die and resurrect, the resurrection device says something to you mocking your demise. This is not what you want to hear. It gets old very quickly. Normally, player-level complaints don't get to me as I look at things as a designer; this is why I'd have been fine playing despite the other annoyances that I mention above. This particular feature, however, was too much. It's bad enough being killed through no fault of your own, but having your nose rubbed in it repeatedly and repetitively is a jaw-dropping misreading of the player experience.

The other reason I decided to stop was that I had an instanced quest to do. Now I'd actually liked the earlier instanced quests I'd done, even though it wasn't always apparent what I was supposed to do in them and it usually took several attempts because they were hard for someone specced as a healer. This instanced quest, however... It told me that it had automatically adjusted its difficulty level to take account of my level and the level of the rest of my party (if I'd brought anyone in with me, which I hadn't). I couldn't get past the first trash mob. It beat me to a pulp every time. Now in a normal quest, I'd have gone away bruised, levelled up, come back and tried again when I was in a better position to win. That wasn't going to happen here, though, because whenever I levelled up, so would the instance and so would the mob. I would never be able to beat that mob. I'd have to restart as a new character and spec as a heavy DPS or tank not to get stomped into the ground.

I loathe dynamic difficulty adjustment. I don't want the MMO deciding for me what is or isn't a challenging experience. I don't want to have to game the AI to get past it. That's not gaming, that's meta-gaming. That's not immersion, that's immersion-busting.

No no no!

So that's why I cancelled. Sorry, WildStar, I did like almost all of you, but what you said with your design there was just too much.

Bye bye.


3:01pm on Sunday, 12th October, 2014:

Capturing the Centre


Here's how the UK's main political parties are trying to woo voters with their statements on immigration:

Labour: "We're as racist as you are."
Conservatives: "You're as racist as we are."
Liberal Democrats: "Some of our best friends are racist."
SNP: "We're racist in a particularly Scottish way."
Greens: "We're going to let more racists into Britain"
UKIP: "The rest of the world is racist against Britain."

Hmm, I may be being a little cynical there.


12:14pm on Sunday, 12th October, 2014:

Pole Hole


Last weekend, the wooden fence post that the gate to our back garden latches onto sheared off at ground level. It looks as if it as caused by water damage.

I spent an hour this morning trying to get the remainder of the post out of its concrete housing, but to no avail. It must be about a foot deep and I managed to get down maybe three inches:

The problem is that the wood is all soggy and flexible, so I can't get any purchase on it. I screwed a six-inch screw into it and when I pulled on it it just slid out. I tried to drill it out, but all the wood fibres are running upwards and they just move when drilled, they don't come out. Worse, horrible ooze the colour of Caramac rises up out of the holes if I drill too deeply (as in, more than about six inches). I managed to get down as far as I did by using a cold chisel to separate the wood from the concrete then hammering it into the side of the wood to lever it out. This isn't going to work for much longer, though, because I won't be able to get the angle.

I can see three kinds of tool that might get it out:
1) A monster corkscrew, with maybe a two-inch diameter.
2) One of those circular tools people use for making boreholes in soil.
3) Something like a screwdriver but with movable flanges on the side that will go down smoothly then bite into the wood when pulled back out.

Dynamite would also perhaps work.


11:27am on Saturday, 11th October, 2014:

Most Important


From today's Guardian:

So, the strong showing of UKIP in the two bye-elections this week has got the establishment running scared. They're trying to get their heads round what's happening, and adjust their policies to take the wind out of UKIP's sails. Looking at the above survey results, though, you'd have no idea that UKIP had any kind of appeal to voters. Another survey on the same page of the newspaper shows that where UKIP is ahead in policy (on immigration and Europe) it's only marginally ahead of Labour and the Conservatives. Elsewhere, it's way, way behind.

When you do research and what you research isn't borne out by reality, it's a sign you're doing something wrong. What the establishment (and I include the Guardian as a member of this) is doing wrong is not asking the right questions. The best response they can come up with is that the main parties "need to reconnect with voters". They might even have picked that up in the above survey if they'd had as an issue "none of the mainstream political parties get it". They still wouldn't get it, though.

What UKIP (and, in Scotland, the SNP) is tapping into is a sense of injustice and outrage felt by the ordinary people of the UK at how society is working and how they're being governed. You can't change that by "reconnecting" with voters: you can only change it by changing how society is working and how they're being governed. Making snarky remarks about each other's politicians and party conferences only shows how small your circle is.

The media is no different. Last week on the Today programme, there was an interview with Ed Davey (the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Energy) in which Mishal Husain kept trying to get him to say that the Lib Dems were about to make a U-turn over allowing Gatwick to have a second runway. Davey's view was that their policy was based on emissions targets and new technology meant that Gatwick may be able to meet them (although Heathrow won't). The policy hadn't changed, but the consequence of the policy had. Nevertheless, Husain kept on at him trying to get him to accept the phrase "U-turn", as if this were some major admission. Ordinary people change their minds the whole time. Why shouldn't governments? It wasn't as if the Lib Dems were changing their minds anyway — in fact, it was more of change of mind when later that day the Lib Dem conference rejected the proposal to allow Gatwick to bid for a second runway, because that was changing their policy.

Nigel Farage changes his mind an awful lot. He says something and if it sticks he goes with it; if it doesn't, he drops it. It's hard to tell what he stands for because he himself doesn't know what he stands for. All that's certain is that he doesn't stand for the same stuff that the mainstream parties stand for; this is what seems to be attracting voters.

I'm rather depressed by this. On the one hand, I share the view that the country is becoming less and less equitable and that people are being dominated by elites. On the other hand, I don't want the country run by the random-number generator that is UKIP.

Oh well. The mainstream parties don't understand the problem, but then neither does UKIP. I think the SNP probably does now, but is itself too establishment to do much about it. Whatever, it'll be interesting to see what happens in the general election next year, even if it probably won't change a damned thing whoever wins.


1:33pm on Friday, 10th October, 2014:

Students Today


This is written on a whiteboard in a corridor in the Mathematics department:

Bah, when I was an undergraduate, the letter L in that wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes.

Students today...


5:27pm on Thursday, 9th October, 2014:

Hard Choice


Hmm, so should I buy the 70g Cadbury's Fruit and Nut for 95p or the 120g Cadbury's Fruit and Nut for £1?

If only all decisions were so easy...


10:57am on Wednesday, 8th October, 2014:

Insect Inside


Lurking somewhere in our car is a crane fly, otherwise known as a daddy-longlegs. It's been there a couple of days and is completely harmless, but nevertheless it has a capacity to startle by suddenly appearing from nowhere to fly around my face.

I know Australians are used to having spiders the size of a 10-year-old's hand inhabiting their vehicles, but that doesn't make me want to remove this crane fly any less...


3:18pm on Tuesday, 7th October, 2014:

Thai the Knot


My eldest niece, Marie, is getting married sometime in November in Thailand. She's marrying a man from Bristol who works there as a teacher at a boarding school, and will be emigrating there herself.

That's all I know on the subject. I don't think it's a great deal more than Marie knows herself, so I can't complain.

Unfortunately, I have two weeks of teaching-morning-and-afternoon-every-day in November so won't be able to head out there for the wedding. Nor do I have time to work on my wife to persuade her that I have to go somewhere exotic purely out of duty. Damn.

Hmm, given the choice of anywhere in the world, where would my preference for a location to attend a family wedding be? Nowhere in particular actually springs to mind.


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