Everything Old Is New Again

Which is to say, I got a new laptop that is virtually indistinguishable from my old laptop, it arrived today, and I am writing this blogpost on it. There is literally no difference in the experience, in that I am looking at the same external monitor, and using the same bluetooth keyboard. But the laptop itself has double the RAM, and a decent processor bump, and is running very snappily.

Actually the biggest observable difference is that I’m using the new machine as an excuse to switch browsers and have installed Firefox, replacing Opera and Chrome. We’ll see how long it lasts, although I have to say I like it so far.

In lockdown related news: Ocado have switched how they’re managing delivery slot allocation, and we haven’t had a slot available in over a fortnight now. We’ve had one delivery from a New Covent Garden Market grocers who are now doing veg boxes, and a Sainsburys order is due on Saturday. This is trivial nonsense, but it’s sort of reflective of life these days. There’s this huge, scary, hard-to-comprehend-it’s-so-massive thing going on Out There, but day to day, nothing important at all happens, so major life events consist of the shopping.

Well, I say that – I saw my first humans-who-aren’t-Miranda in months at the weekend, now that we’re allowed to meet up one-on-one with people not in our household outdoors. It was, of course, lovely. It helps that the weather was pretty damn good, too.

(Although we’ve already tipped into the “it’s too hot” part of the year, and it’s basically disgustingly hot and sticky in the flat.)

What scares me about all this – aside from job worries, worries about the broader economy, and the prospect of someone near and dear to me catching this – is general fear that this will not end, in the same sort of way that Terrorism never went away after 9/11. The idea that lockdown will be eased, but never actually go away. That life we remain more or less reduced to online gaming and phone calls, and the biggest excitment to be had will be which supermarket is delivery the groceries this week.

I mean, there are other things happening that provide little blips of dopamine. We’re watching the so-far-superb final season of She-Ra one episode at at time, which I think means we’ll watch the final episode this time next week. I expect to be a wreck. But more broadly, there’s something a little bit The Machine Stops about our current existence, and it’s the not really knowing when or how we get to whatever will be “normal” in the future, that is becoming increasingly hard. And the longer this goes on, the weirder “normal” becomes likely to be.

You’d never know that I felt like I was in a better mood than this time last week, would you?

Feeling It Again

The last few days have been rough. I can’t concentrate on anything, I can’t seem to sustain a good mood, and all my fears and worries are magnified. It doesn’t help that quite a few of them are (or at least seem to me to be) in fact, pretty reasonable. This isn’t a good time to work for a company that relies heavily on on airport travel, for example. (Not exclusively, and we can get by for now, but somewhere in the background, I’m very aware both that there is a ticking clock tied to things picking up again, and that the timeline for “things picking up” is likely to be quite long.)

My major achievement this week has been defeating the Tyrant Nook’s vile debt bondage, leaving me free to concentrate on the aesthetics of my island. And speculate on the Stalk Market, and with half a million bells sunk in turnips, you can bet I’m tracking it closely. (This is a paragraph that will only make sense to Animal Crossing players, and I’ll enjoy finding out if I still understand it when I read it back in a few year’s time.)

The government “relaxed” the lockdown at the weekend. The instruction “Stay at Home” has been replaced with “Stay Alert” in a way that is confusing, stupid, meaningless, and a moderately transparent attempt to start creating a narrative that shifts the responsibility for anyone that dies during this pandemic back onto a public who were not “Alert” enough, as opposed to a government who did not manage the crisis well enough. Everyone who can is still to stay at home. Except for people who have to work (this now includes people with non-essential jobs that cannot be done from home). Who must do so safely. Exactly what that means is not clearly defined, and it’s all a mess.

We’re both still working from home, because we’re fortunate. But I’m definitely feeling a toll from the ongoing situation now – not so much the having to stay at home, but more in the fear-for-what-the-future-brings way. And sadly, I do not know what to do to shift that, other than move into the future, one day at a time.

Here’s hoping for a happier update next week.

Shackled By Debt

I’m late on writing this week’s post up. This is largely the fault of what happened at the weekend. All told, we’re still doing pretty well, and in fact, a really nice thing happened that has more or less caused me to forget we can’t leave the house because I haven’t wanted to. You see, a number of my friends had a whip-round for my birthday, and, as a belated gift, got me a Nintendo Switch.

I am, needless to say, very touched.

The reason for this (aside from my friends being very lovely), and for the subject of this post, takes a little explaining. On the very day this lockdown began in the UK, a game called Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released for the switch. It could not have been more tailor-made for this if it had tried, as it’s basically a nice, happy little game about designing a small virtual island full of happy little animals. And while it can be played solo, it is vastly improved by the fact that friends can visit one another’s islands, and generally cooperate.

Miranda has been playing it from day one, while hanging out on Discord with friends, visiting one another’s islands, and generally having a disgustingly wholesome time. Their discord chatter has been full of “I can make that for you” and “Oh, I love your outfit” and so on. A complete 180 on the normal gamer abuse one might link with Call of Duty.

For the first couple of weeks, I sort of dismissed it, in all honestly. I was very happy my friends were having fun, but I was playing City of Heroes and I was coding. But one morning about three weeks back, I thought I’d have a go myself, just to see what it was like. Only to discover that the way the game is set up, only one player per switch can be the “owner” of the island, and there is only one island per switch. So if I wanted to play, I would be a second class citizen on Miranda’s island. I posted on Facebook, lamenting this. And unknown to me, my friends sprang into action.

The Switch arrived on Sunday, and honestly, every spare waking moment since then has been spent playing, as a first class citizen on my own island.

There’s a whole other post I might get around to, on the smart game mechanics, and how the designers engineered two interlocking economies designed to drive activities with high variation and a constant sense of just- one-more-thing-before-I-switch-off, but I’ll close off by explaining that a a moderately key component of the game is the constant taking of loans to improve your living situation. The game gives you very little choice in the manner, resulting in a constant sense of debt bondage to a cheery raccoon called Tom Nook, better know in this house as “the tyrant Nook”, as in “What’re you doing tonight?” “Oh, just slaving away for the tyrant Nook”.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing, and why this post is late.

Month One

It’s been 30 days since I last went to the office. Close enough. Work is still getting done, although it won’t shock anyone to learn that a business in the travel industry might be seeing a slump in bookings right now.

My mood is better is was than this time last week. I’ve been spending my time programming, cooking, and playing City of Heroes. I got a tax rebate, and spent it on some shiny toys (a new monitor, and a some new Le Creuset). Easter came and went. Miranda made chocolate egg nests, and live streamed herself doing it, and it was frankly amazing.

It seems redundant to say I’m missing my friends and family but I am, my friends particularly. Not that I’m missing my family less, but since I live a plane flight away from all by one member of my family, this does not seem so odd with them, other than that I’m talking to them a bit more, because we’ve got the time.

I’m not the most tactile human in the world, but I am definitely missing the physical presence of my friends. Voices and faces on the other end of a computer screen are good enough, but not actually good.

In the news this week: Boris Johnson got out of hospital, but remains “recovering”. I would bet money he was a bit worse than has been reported. Overseas, as much as the UK government has fucked this up in a number of ways, nothing makes me quite so angry as Donald Trump does at the moment. He keeps on finding new lows and ways to make the situation worse.

I made a slight variation on Meera Sodha’s coriander chutney to have with dinner tonight (used peanut butter, red chillis, and swapped a tablespoon of lemon juice for lime, all just because those were what I had), and I am honestly wildly excited to eat tonight. It’s a superb condiment, and I can see it becoming an absolute staple in my house.

And on that note, I’m going to go and start making dinner.

Roasted Sweet Potato Soup

I swear, I cook things that aren’t soup. I’ve nearly got my vegan spag bol right, and I’ll write that up when I do. In the meantime, for this experiment, you will need:

  • About a kilo of sweet potato
  • About two tbs of chilli oil
  • Smoked paprika
  • One large onion
  • Three cloves of garlic
  • Two limes
  • Vegetable stock

Put your oven on to 180. Peel the sweet potato and dice it into chunks. I dunno how big, make it up yourself. You’re the one roasting them. Toss them in chilli oil and about a teaspoon of smoked paprika, and bung them in to roast. You want them to take, like 20 mins or so – you’re just trying to colour them, get the edges to caramelise a little. It’s not the end of the world if they’re not all the same level of done. If you don’t have chilli oil, use regular olive oil, and then add chilli flakes to the soup at the simmering stage.

Slice the onion and the garlic, and throw them in a stock pot with some olive oil, and fry them gently, so that they’re just colouring when the sweet potato is done.

Bung the sweet potato in the pot. Cover with stock. I used about a litre and a half, but the resulting soup was quite thin, so use an amount that’ll give you the thickness of the soup you want. You could use less, if you like thicker soup. Simmer for a bit. Zest a lime, and reserve the zest. Put the juice in the soup. Simmer more. Add the chilli flakes, if you’re using them.

Blend. (I think my total simmering time was about 20 mins, just to let the flavour get to know one another and make sure the biggest chunks of the sweet potato are good and soft. Honestly, I just simmered for slightly longer than it took me to make some home-made croutons too.)

Serve finished with some of the reserved lime zest, and a squeeze of fresh lime juice in each bowl.

Checkpoint

It’s getting a bit harder. Today has been rough.

I can’t explain why today has felt rougher than other days. But I’m irritable, I’m having trouble sustaining a good mood, and apparently I’m walking around with my face tripping me.

Judging by Facebook, I’m not alone in that. I think everyone’s just a bit drained, a bit tired by the monotony, and either the lack of social contact, or the same faces 24/7. It’s odd how tiring not leaving the house can be.

I’m hoping this is a blip, and that I’ll wake up tomorrow feeling ready and raring to go, with an active plan for the day, and for getting things done, but everything today has felt that bit harder than it would normally be.

I made myself go for a long walk this afternoon, and it helped, a bit. In nothing else, I was glad to get home, and felt I’d at least earned the right to feel tired for while.

Last time I worked from home full time, my limit was almost exactly a week without in-person human contact and leaving the house before I started to climb the walls. This isn’t quite the same – last time it was like a switch flipped in my brain, and I just started to go spare until I got out of the house and got a couple of hours conversation with another human being.

This isn’t quite the same. I’m not doing my own head in, but I’m just feeling flat. In a related state of affairs: I’m desperately wishing for a garden – just small amount of outside space I could put a chair in, and sit and drink a coffee while feeling weather happen.

There’s a long weekend coming up, and if nothing else, not feeling the need to work for a few days should give me a bit of brain space to do other things, and maybe work on something that’ll cheer me up a bit.

Week 3

I quite enjoy the fact that I appear to be settling in to doing these midweek. I’m not trying to produce a summary of what’s been happening, so much as where I am.

It does, however, seem unreal that this is only week 3 of this. I last went to the office on the 16th of March, so it’s actually only really been two weeks. The outside is starting to feel like the Before Time. I just had to ask Miranda what day it was.

Stress wise, I’m doing ok. Actually, this all suits me quite well, as a lazy and slightly introverted person. It’s looking like I’ll probably speak to as many friends/have as many social commitments this week as I would normally, all without leaving the house.

I’ve gone back to an old MMORPG, and have found that having a group of friends playing along as a team, with voice chat running, is an absolutely awesome time. This is, I appreciate, not news to anyone who has ever played them seriously, but the last time I played one was about a decade ago, and we didn’t have the bandwidth for both the game and voice chat, so this is actually a new experience for me, and it’s something I’d actively like to keep up when this is over.

I’m probably going to take part in a virtual pub quiz tonight. I’ve got my regular tabletop group at least hanging out tomorrow night, and so on, and so forth. We’re all adapting. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of people I really want to see in person, but while we can’t we’re making good use of technology.

I’m very, very glad that I travelled to see my folks the weekend before all this started, because who knows when that’s going to be do-able again, given the state of the airline industry at the moment (non-existant).

Nat and I took the decision to cancel the LARP event we had planned for April (and let’s be honest, probably May, too, and who knows about June?) a few weeks back, but I had to suspend the billing for everyone today, which was an odd wrench, like handling the commercial side made it real. It’s the fact we’ve basically had to put the game in hibernation, without any idea when it will be back that’s hard. It will be back, I’m determined about that, but I have no idea when.

That all got a bit scattershot, didn’t it? That seems fitting, too. There’s very little left this days to differentiate the time, and with no pressing need to be up early or to stick to a completely rigid routine, we’re definitely drifting a little bit – I’m certainly staying up noticeably later, which is something I need to get a better handle on, I think. I also need to see if the exercise bike I stopped using (because it was acting up) can be coaxed back into life, I think. Put some routine in my days, just so that differentiate a bit.

It’ll be interesting to see how much of this transformation of society sticks afterward, given that it’s been amply demonstrated that there are a lot of people who simply don’t need to work in an office (although equally, that there as as many people who still want to).

43

Happy birthday to me. The lockdown continues, with knobs on. This means we’re not supposed to leave the house except to shop for essentials (as rarely as possible), or for medical reasons, or once a day for exercise, or to care for others. (This time last week, this was strong guidance. Now it’s an actual law, that you can be fined for breaking.)

This rather puts a spoke into any kind of birthday celebrations.

To be honest, I don’t mind. I needed to go to out to get Miranda’s contact lenses, so I added a shopping trip to that, and bought an expensive bottle of proper champagne, because the shops were nearly out of the cheap stuff. (I also bought one of the last half-dozen bottles of red wine in the shop. This crisis is revealing a lot about the nation’s drinking priorities – there was plenty of white left.)

Tonight, we will order takeaway and drink champagne. I’ve had plenty of worse birthdays on a purely personal scale. (Although on a global scale, probably not, which is a sobering thing to think about. Thank goodness for the wine.)

I’ve baked banana bread, and some scones, with variable success. (The banana bread is great. The scones taste ok, if perhaps a little singed at the edges, but they totally failed to rise.)

The company I work for has taken advantage of government schemes to help with this situation, and put all but a skeleton staff on 80% pay, but asked them not to work (because there’s very little work for them to do for various reasons). I’m in the skeleton team, but I’ve got a few days off right now, which means I’m noodling about with my own coding projects, so it doesn’t honestly feel a lot different, other than the freedom to get up and bake scones just because.

Miranda, working in comms for a large university, is having a bit of a time of it, as students are not unreasonably asking questions like “we’ve paid you quite a lot of money, what about the things you owe us like a degree show?” (It’s an arts university, and the degree show is how many of them get work afterward, so they care quite a lot.) Sadly, everyone is figuring things out one day at a time, and no-one knows what the answers are yet, which is making for a bit of a rough ride for those telling the students “we’re figuring it out and will let you know”, because displacement stress is clearly very real, and the students can (try to) control this in a way they can’t the rest of what’s going on. Plus, as a much larger org, moving very suddenly to remote working, the internal comms overhead to keep everyone moving in the same direction is much higher.

But we’ve both got computer games and telly to keep us occupied in the evenings, and things are, on the whole, going pretty well for us personally, a week and a bit in. We’re both thinking a lot about friends and strangers who are much less fortunate.

Housebound

I came to the decision a while back that I ought to use this thing to write more. Not a regular journal, but to take a little time to use it to mark interesting or unusual things that happen.

I resisted doing that for a long time, because the world does not need my hot takes on anything, but it’s also true the the world is understandably not interested. I ceased to be the top search result for my own name a few years back, there being other Alasdair Watsons who have something mildly of note about them.

These days the most common visitor to this blog is me, trying to look up something I’ve forgotten, but am reasonably sure I made a note of a few years back. So I’m fine with writing things up just for my own future benefit.

Right now, it seems unlikely that any of us will forget the Spring of 2020, but I wonder if I’ll be saying the same thing a few years from now. “When was that mad time when we were all stuck at home, and people were panic buying everything and shanking one another for bog roll in the supermarkets? Was it 2020, or 2021? What did we do?”

So, a short record of an unexpected turn of events, that has Miranda working upstairs, and me working in the living room, and almost everyone we know not leaving the house except for important things. A state of affairs we expect to last for the forseeable future – weeks, certainly, and possibly months.

This is all a virus science has designated COVID-19, one of a family called coronaviruses. (I take the time to write that out because it’s already winding up my inner pedant that people are referring to “the coronavirus”, to the point that Miranda has been told not to use the term COVID-19 on her work social media, because people misunderstand what it is.) It’s a highly contagious fucker, and for 90% of people who catch it, the virus results in a cough, and a fever. A flu, but not the end of the world. But for between something like 1-5% of people who catch it, it requires hospitalisation and serious help to recover. The elderly, the infirm, and those with underlying respiratory conditions are “at risk”.

Hilariously, this includes me, on the grounds of asthma. That would honestly be funny, if I didn’t know plenty of folk with more serious asthma than I or with other health issues, who are legitimately at risk.

The solution to this is, at present, “social distancing”. This means working from home for anyone who can (which is most of my friends, with our computer-based office jobs) and no going out to pubs, gyms, restaurants, cinemas, or anything fun. Schools are closed to all but the children of keyworkers from the end of this week, and it’s impossible they won’t re-open this side of the academic year. No human contact outside the household that is not absolutely necessary, is the idea. It may yet become more draconian than that, with all non-essential shops shut, and only supermarkets and chemists open.

This outbreak started in China, about three months ago. It’s taken them until this week, and a near total shutdown to get the spread under control, and the rest of the world is now following suit with lockdowns. So it’s not actually mad to say it could feasibly be June before we’re all allowed out halfway normally again.

At the moment, Miranda and I pop to the shops once a day, doing our best to maintain a distance of 1 meter from all other humans. (This is apparently not possible in Tooting, judging by the number of times people barged in to me.)

The shops contain almost nothing. Our shopping list today amounted to milk, flour and yeast. We got the milk. And some wine, because there’s nothing else to do but drink in the evenings.

OK, that’s not true – we have more telly than god – but still. People are panic buying everything. It’s kind of mad. I’m actually contemplating getting up early tomorrow, just to see what the supermarkets look like at 8am, because they’re empty at lunch.

I’d more or less stopped doing a “weekly shop”. I’d gotten used to keeping a few days ingredients, and store-cupboard staples in the house, and basically just buying what I needed, when I needed it. That option has temporarily vanished. Now, I’m sort of wandering about dazedly, seeing what’s there, and thinking of things to do with it.

We’re in no danger of not getting food at the moment. This would have to worsen several steps (and it might, but probably not, judging from other countries) before that was a problem. But we’re definitely having trouble getting pasta. And rice. And flour. And anything that the supermarkets get delivered on a less-than-daily basis.

Personally, I reckon it’ll be the back end of next week before this becomes “the new normal”, and the panic-buying stops. After that, well, who knows? The economic cost of this is going to be staggering, and who knows what the world will look like in a year’s time….

Fire Hazard

A slightly sad post. Fire Hazard Games is shutting up shop, and I wanted to make my own permanent record of my time making games with them. I’ve worked for them in fits and starts since 2015, and honestly, I’m more gutted about the fact I won’t be doing so again that I have been about some of the full-time jobs I’ve been made redundant from.

It was Douglas that got me involved, in 2015 as part of their Shadows over Shoreditch game – they needed an MC, and their standards at that time amounted to “Loud voice, doesn’t mind making a bit of a tit of himself, can learn most of a script and improv the rest”, and I just about managed that. Their standards have improved since then, and they now hire professional actors for that kind of work, but I absolutely loved what they were doing from the first moment I got involved.

It’d be very easy to call my involvement with them bittersweet, because it was while crewing Shadows in 2015 that Douglas suffered his accident. Absolutely nothing to do with Fire Hazard, just a sad coincidence, and if I’d never worked for Fire Hazard again, it would 100% have been that bittersweet thing I looked back on.

But I’ve worked on five or six of their games since, over the years. I’m never going to forget wandering around the Russia Dock Woodland at night in a giant Cthulu mask, barely able to see, but able to scare the bejesus out of the players, for Shadows over Southwark, the more ambitious sequel game they did the following year. (The costume was quite a lot scarier coming at you in a darkened wood, I assure you…)

I did my longest continuous stretch of crewing on their game called Undercover, and after starting out in the simplest role, I think I played just about every part it was possible to play over many weekend, and was stage managing or MCing it more weekends than not at one point in it’s run. It was a superb bit of game design, that managed to involve a lot of direct player-vs-player competition that nonetheless could never really get mean spirited or confrontational, and I’d always wished it would run again one day.

Plus it involved one of the crew standing in Leicester Square in a giant bird costume. What’s not to love?

My own involvement tailed off a bit over the years – having a permanent day job meant that a lot of the games they produced didn’t run at times I could work on them, so I didn’t audition to join in. And let’s be honest: by that point, they did not need my dubious abilities in any case. But I loved doing what I could, when I could.

I’m doing a few nights of stage managing for them yet, on Jekyll and Hyde, arguably their most immersive and narratively ambitious effort to date – not a lot, just enough to be involved, and cover when their more regular stage managers might not be free. I’m very pleased I am, because it’s going to be their last show, and I’m glad to be able to say I was involved in it, and I’ve made a special point of booking to attend the last night of the run as a player. (Tickets are still available for most of the nights. Book. You won’t regret it.)

I’ve met amazing friends through it, I’ve had a huge amount of fun, and it’s had a huge impact on my thinking about how to use technology in games, and in how I approach running my own live games company. I’m sad that I’m not going to have their standard to measure up to in the future. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t already thinking about producing my own variations on some of their tech for my own games, if I can, but it’s the way they approached empowering their crew (come to that: paying their crew – they were the first live-games company that I encountered that did that) that has made me determined to try to live up to the example they set.

I can’t thank, Gwyn, Amy, Michelle, Tony, Ziz, Sofia, and all the many other people I worked with, or who played the games we were making, for all the fun and games over the last 4 and a bit years. It’s been brilliant, and I’ll miss it terribly.