Writing For Focus

Having one of those evenings where I can’t seem to focus on anything – I’ve started to watch three different films, only to turn them off after ten minutes. I made myself an Old Fashioned, then decided I didn’t want that, and added lime, and decided that wasn’t right, and added ginger ale and lemon (and that’s ended up kind of OK, but mostly in a “this doesn’t really taste of anything specific, but it’s alcoholic and relatively pleasant” sort of way). Can’t figure out what I want to to be doing. So I’m just sort of typing into this box here, to give myself something to do, in the hope that my brain will settle out a bit.

Went to Borough Market this morning, for the first time in a while. Services like Pact and Farmdrop have kind of obviated my need to go there. Have the ingredients for a boeuf bourguignon in the fridge as a result, which I’ll chuck in the slow cooker on Monday afternoon, and have meals for a few days.

As I haven’t tired of telling people, I now work from home (hence the daytime cooking on Monday), which I find incredibly pleasing, although I have been out and socialising a lot, and I suspect the acid test will come when I have one of those weeks where I’ve got nothing at all going on in the evenings, and will therefore go a full seven days without human contact, and become reduced to even more of a grunting monster without human niceties. What I have been doing, that I’m relatively proud of, is getting up early doing 40 minutes on an exercise bike, showering and dressing, every day. I remain semi-human, at least.

I haven’t really done anything productive with my spare time in a while – no writing, no coding-for-fun. Haven’t been able to summon up the focus and/or enthusiasm. I should do something about that.

Relatively excited for the Bake Off to return next week. I sort of intend this to be the season I actually manage to watch from start to finish, rather than remembering it’s on some time in the last few weeks, and seeing the final few episodes. I might even try and blog about it, just to give me something to write about. I was about to say that I might even try and bake along (or at least, do one of the cakes the weekend after and write about that), but then I remembered that all the numbers long since wore off my oven dial, and consequently, my choices are “low”, “medium” “roughly 180” “roughly 200” and “very hot”, and the timer is knackered, and is at best an approximation to within a ten minute window. Baking at precision times and temperatures is contra-indicated.

OK, I’ve replaced the abortive Old-Fashioned-with-stuff with a rye with ginger and lemon, and that’s much more acceptable.

In related-to-nothing news: it’s not likely that many of you missed the news that Andrew won an Eisner (yes, I know, the publication he is EiC of and that has many contributors won it, not him alone, but like I care) and announced his forthcoming comics series Another Castle, all in the space of one weekend, but I don’t care. Basically, this is all brilliant news and I wanted to write it down here, so that when I come to re-read this a few years from now (and if you think I don’t read this blog back periodically, you’re mad – it’s the closest thing I have to a diary), I remember and smile. I will also note that in conversation with a mutual friend and his daughter last night, Another Castle came up, and the daughter looked very excited. And I’m buying a copy for my niece, when she’s old enough.

OK, I’ve wittered on for long enough now that I feel like I’m focusing on things again, and I’m going to go do something constructive. Like maybe write, or code. Or bake.

Pterry’s passing

In common with many of my friends, and I imagine, many people reading this, I spent a chunk of this afternoon, sitting at my desk, trying not to cry, before retreating to the toilets for a quiet moment or two.

Sir Terry Pratchett has died.

I vividly recall the first Terry Pratchett book I read, Wyrd Sisters. I was 13. Dad had tried to get me to read Pratchett, starting with the Colour of Magic, a year or so previously, and it hadn’t worked. I was a bit too young, and honestly, I didn’t get the jokes in large sections of that book, because I hadn’t read most of the material he was parodying.

But then, one night, on a whim, I picked up Wyrd Sisters. We’d done MacBeth in school a couple of months before. This made sense. (And, let’s be honest, it was a better book.) And from “Well, I can do next Tuesday” I was laughing out loud and totally hooked. It was the first proper book for grown ups that I recall having that “literally can’t put it down” experience with. I started reading it about 8:30-ish on Friday night, and I remember pinning a note on my bedroom door for Mum and Dad saying something like “I stayed up reading until 3am, sorry, please don’t wake me in the morning.” I read it all in one sitting, and then, when I woke up the next morning, I started it again. Because it was so good – better than anything else I can recall having read before it.

I read all the others in the house in the fortnight. And one or two of them were better.

The first one I remember being released after this binge was Small Gods. Dad brought it on a family camping holiday to France – the new Pratchett book. I’m not sure he got to read it that holiday. I certainly read it three or four times.

I remember standing a long queue (with my Dad) to get Lords and Ladies signed. The first time I ever met an author.

When we got the internet in, the first usenet group I ever read, ever posted to, was alt.fan.pratchett. Once, he even replied to a post I’d made. (I forget what the post was. I remember the feeling of “Terry Pratchett replied to me! In tones that suggested he didn’t think I was a total idiot!”.)

I very literally grew up reading Terry Pratchett. Reading, and re-reading and re-reading. Of all the authors I read in my teens, he’s probably the only one who commands the same level of esteem from me now that he did then, and well, much more. I’ve come to understand the depth of warmth and insight and yes, just a bit of anger, that is in his work more and more as time has passed and I’ve grown up.

I’m not one hundred percent sure I know how to cope with a world where there’s only one more Terry Pratchett novel left to read for the first time.

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” – Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad.

There are a lot of people that were (and will be) shaped by his stories. Into, I suspect, better people.

I can only hope that the outpouring of tributes is a comfort to his family.

Absolutely Not Weeknotes

For a start, they’re so very 2013. For another thing, the last time I did them, I kept them up for about a fortnight. But in keep with my general resolution to document what I’ve been up to a bit better, just for the sake of remembering it all in years to come, a brief round of boring you all with What I Done Did This Week:

  • Went to see a weird theatre piece in the Waterloo tunnels, about the old Necropolis railway, and about our modern relationship with death. Combination of a guided walk and a theatre bit, it was hard to tell what was actual history, and what was made up because it made for good theatre. Annoyingly the bit I found most interesting/amusing – the source of a pub name – is one of things I haven’t been able to substantiate.
  • The Six Nations has started back up, and I had folk round to watch Saturday’s matches. Teenage me is spinning in his grave – I had fun watching sport. A few rounds of board games thereafter, including a few hands of my newly-purchased Skulls and Roses, which I am filing along with Perudo as a good game for a whisky and cigars type evening.
  • Went to Dishoom for the first time, for Stu and Andrea’s birthday meal. Really lovely night out, both for the company and the food. Had never thought to associate curry with being comfort food before, but the general tenor of several of the dishes is absolutely the sort of thing I would want a big bowl of when I’m unwell.

The week ahead holds fun with TfL APIs at work, which I’m quite looking forward to, a couple of lots of gaming, and I want to start some more “serious” research for a pseudo-historical game I want to start later in the year, sent in the wake of the Albigensian Crusades.

2015: Station Identification


My name is Alasdair Watson. I live in London, where I work down the Internet Mines, and play story-games of various types. Sometimes I write. I also take photos, and occasionally cook. I am a nerd-of-all-trades.

This blog is largely a collection of stuff I want to remember, relating to technology, programming, and stuff that might be reference material for some kind of terrible fiction. Sometimes, I use it to have opinions in public.

I don’t imagine any of that will come as a terrible shock to any of you who are reading this, but I thought this was a good time of year to remind myself what it’s for, and post a photo.

Not Saying Anything About Gamergate

If you have no idea what Gamergate it, then skip this, and move on. You’ll be happier.

I’ve not been saying anything about Gamergate, in large part because I can’t imagine anyone actually gives a toss what I think about it, and because I would imagine anyone who knows me, or who has been reading along for even a short length of time, can probably guess what I think of those malign little bags of rancid fuck.

But then I read Felicia Day’s post the other day, and I thought, well, perhaps on some level, it’s important that I say at least something. If not to anyone else, than at least to me. Gamergate is such a stupid thing to feel the need to make sure I’ve stood up and been counted as against – because it’s so evidently disgusting that I feel everyone should be against it, in the same way I feel that everyone should, y’know, breathe – but in the light of posts like Ms. Day’s, I sort of feel like it might be useful (in whatever trivial sense) for people to stand up and say “Fuck them”. To maybe redress the balance just slightly. Not in a “not all gamers” way – just in a way that says that their attempts to create a climate of fear will not work.

Of course I have very little to fear. I’m a straight white male. But I sort of feel like I should try and do something, however small, to ensure that gaming does not become the kind of place that these vile shitweasels want it to be.

Gaming has brought me so much joy. I’ve made friends with so many people and even fallen in love with (a smaller number of) people I’ve met through gaming. All these folks are wonderful, wonderful people, and the thought that running into another gamer and thinking “are they one of the dangerous ones?” is now good sense and caution, well, it’s just incredibly saddening.

So, in so far as I have any sort of statement to make about Gamergate it’s this: I will continue to run games that strive to be open, inclusive and safe spaces, and if I falter in this from time to time, I will continue to seek correction, and strive to do better. Outside of things I have direct involvement with, I will continue to support progressive gaming projects in whatever way I can. And the very second I find out that someone I know thinks that Gamergate is in any sense in the right, they will no longer be welcome at any game I’m running, or in my house.


Just marking the date and time, really.

I always used to say I couldn’t write a novel. That I couldn’t do long-form prose. I might write comics scripts, and role playing games, and all sorts of drivel, but not a novel.

Guess what I just finished writing?

Let’s be clear: it’s a first draft, at best.

I’ve already got loads and loads of notes for things I need to re-write. And even once I’ve done that, I’d be amazed if it were publishable. For right now, it’s going in a box until christmas, in any case. I’ll come back to it in a few months, and see what, if anything, I want to do with it.

I’m aware that “have written an unpublishable novel” is hardly one of the world’s great achievements, and that there are plenty folks I know who’ve enjoyed some modest success by taking the obvious next step.

But honestly, I never thought I’d get to this one.

Next step: start writing second novel. Make it better than this one.

Although possibly not tonight.

Comixology, Amazon and Apple

Twitter is a pain in the arse, isn’t it? Someone says something you want to engage with, but you can’t really express a nuanced difference of opinion in 140 characters or less. So a lot of the “debate” I’ve seen on Twitter about Comixology’s changes has basically been people some people saying “Amazon are bad!” and others saying “No, Apple are bad, and it’s reasonable for Amazon to want to get away from them!”

(I should perhaps say that if you really don’t give two shits about how digital comics are bought and sold, you should look away now. I am obviously pretty exercised about this, and likely to go on at length, because this touches on both my profession and one of my nerdy interests.)

If you’re still here, and don’t know what I’m talking about, popular (indeed, pretty much monopolistic in real terms) digital comic merchant Comixology were purchased by Amazon a few weeks ago.

And then a couple of days ago, they announced that they were updating their applications, to change the purchase mechanism. For Android users, this just meant having to re-enter their credit card details, then business as usual. For iOs users, this meant they they could no longer make in-app purchases, and the purchasing experience has been degraded the same nigh-unusable state that Kindle purchases are on iOS – you are required to quit the reading app, use a web browser to navigate on on-line store, make your purchases, log in on the website (requiring a switch to a password manager and back again) and then make your purchases before returning to the comics app to read them. From being a one-click process, it has become a multi-stage process requiring 5 switches between 3 different apps, if you’re on iOS, while Android users still get the same simple experience.

Amazon’s reason for the change is, of course, purely commercial. They’re gambling that the sales they lose through this awful, awful user experience will be less that 30% of their iOS revenue, thereby making them a net gain, because they no longer have to pay Apple 30% of their in-app sales.

I am really, really hoping they’re wrong, and that they’ll have to re-instate the thing in a couple of months, because I think I need to stop buying comics on a point of professional principle.

On a professional level, I believe that offering one group of your users a much worse user experience than another, simply because of the device they use, is indefensible. An aside: I would be interested to see if this was challengeable under disability rights legislation. Probably not, but my objection is basically the same principle – if you are operating an on-line service, I believe you have a duty to your customers to treat them all as equally as it is possible to do. The only possible defence to this in my view is that a given user is on a device that is not capable of providing the service. This is not the case here. Amazon/Comixology are simply making it clear that they’re willing to force bad UX on some customers, simply because they don’t like the platform as much.

So what’s the other side of the argument, then? Who am I disagreeing with?

Those people who are welcoming the move are arguing that Apple are censorious, and they their 30% cut of app store revenue is inherently unreasonable, that Apple’s fixation on forcing things to be purchased through their app store is a blow against net neutrality, and in a few of the more deranged cases, arguing that anyone who says otherwise is basically a Cupertino-worshiping sheep, who has been scammed into believing that Apple should be allowed to take a 30% cut of the proceeds.

These points aren’t without merit.

I am honestly not sure that a 30% cut of in app purchases in entirely merited. I think a 30% of the actual app sales is OK, I’m less sure about in-app purchases.

But taking a second to look at the numbers, one gets a different story. The best set I could find are about a year old, but I don’t think much has happened to massively disrupt the picture they paint, which is that excluding their own apps (which are both extremely popular, and relatively expensive, and skew the numbers quite significantly), Apple make about 1-2% profit margin on the App Store and iTunes.

So they take a 30% revenue cut, but most of that is eaten by operating costs, because it’s not cheap to run a system that complex. And as it turns out the actual margins they make are pretty small. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem unreasonable greedy to me.

Those figures don’t break in-app purchases out as separate figures, but I imagine they’re the same – I don’t imagine the hosting costs for Apple to mechanically enable in-app purchases are any different from those of apps. So the margins will presumably be similar.

I do not believe the app store is a blow against net neutrality, and anyone arguing that it is is fundamentally misunderstanding and misrepresenting net neutrality in a harmful way and ought to stop. Net Neutrality is about technical-level bandwidth and traffic routing, and if you want a term to suggest that you consider walled gardens to be harmful (a position I agree with) please find another one.

I don’t think Apple have built a walled garden in iOS, and the way I think we can tell they haven’t is because Amazon can do this with Comixology. They haven’t prevented anyone from re-implementing purchasing on iOS, all they’ve said is that if you want to do it in a user-friendly way, using the technology that they’ve built, consuming computing resources that they supply, you have to cut them in, to the tune that enables them to make a 1-2% profit.

Yes, you could argue that Apple have implemented their platform in a way that makes it hard to re-implement purchasing, but I honestly believe (based on conversations with serious iOS developers) that this is largely done in the name of user security. As in, the complexity is a feature of design decisions based on building a more secure, stable and responsive platform, not a deliberate decision to make things harder for other people. I won’t deny it’s to Apple’s benefit, but I think that’s a happy (from Apple’s point of view) side-effect of their real focus.

Last one, then: Apple are censorious.

True. Simply flat out true. Apple have made some determinations about what they’re willing to sell through their stores, and they won’t sell material they believe is in contravention of that. And some good works have fallen foul of it, particularly via Comixology, funnily enough. They’re not truly censorious, in that they don’t stop anything being produced or distributed, they just won’t take any part in the distribution of anything they don’t like, and what they don’t like is a pretty wide definition of “porn”.

I can’t say Apple don’t have the right to do that, but it irks me that they use it. It would, perhaps, irk me less if they were consistent, but Apple’s content reviewers are notoriously fickle and inconsistent. Personally, I’d like to see an 18+ option added to their stores, but I do understand why that might not be high on the priority list. (Largely: it would almost certainly massively spike traffic/server loads as people started selling porn via iTunes *and* would come with a lot of “protect the kids” hassles. Basically: internet porn is, ironically, almost all downside for anyone whose core internet business isn’t porn.)

But yes, Apple have opted to be censorious in what they accept into their stores. It is annoying, if understandable, and I wish very much they did it better.

About all I can say is that, to their credit Comixology are not attempting to paint this as an attempt to get round the evil censors. Because it isn’t that, but I can understand why people might be relieved that getting round them is a pleasing side effect.

There is a last argument being advanced, that not having to pay Apple will get the creators a larger cut of the monies, and that’s good. I wouldn’t presume to argue with the idea that paying creators more is good, but Amazon are notoriously bad, over the long term, for publishers and creators, because they employ utterly shitty tactics to drive prices down. I am not convinced that a win for creators today is a net long-term gain.

I just don’t think it’s worth treating one section of your user base worse than another. It offends my professional instincts. And my personal ones, come to that. It is expressly saying “our users are nothing more than profit centres that are to be milked as hard as possible, and who will jump through as many hoops as we demand of them”. It is contemptuous.

And I’m probably not buying comics again in the near future.


Sensible Precautions

I occasionally get asked about things like backups and passwords, and generally how to make one’s digital life a bit safer/easier, and I’ve been trying to write a reference blog post about this sort of thing for months, but it keeps running away with me. What follows is my opinion on the most sensible things one can do to make one’s digital life better.

Step One: Get a Mac.

Yeah, I know. They’re very expensive, and most people feel that a much cheaper Windows machine is, in some sense, better value. I disagree.

The ease of use of a Mac – the automation of backups, the lack of need to worry overly-much about viruses, and the overall better standard of the software, pays for itself in man-hours spent doing useful things instead of fighting with the operating system and doing tedious maintenance jobs.

More than that: you’ll probably find it has a much longer lifespan that any PC you’ve owned. I’m still using a Mac I bought in 2005 – not as my main computer, but I use it daily, and it’s working just fine. The laptop I’m writing on now, is three years old, but is showing no signs of age. I know plenty of people using five-year-old Macs who have no complaints about them. I don’t think I know many people who are 100% happy with their five-year-old PCs.

All that said: I’ve no interest in arguing with people who disagree, I’m just saying that in my professional opinion, the single thing you can do that will most improve your digital life, making it safer and easier, is to save up the money, and get a Mac. But if you disagree, well, the rest of this guide should still work for you. Basically: as long as you’re using a computer that you’re actively happy using, then you’re using the right computer for you.

Step Two: Backups

Buy as large an external hard drive as you can afford. Plug it in.

If you’ve got a Mac, Time Machine will offer itself up – set it up, and away you go.

If you’ve got anything else: get an account with Crashplan and install their software. They offer a version that does free local backups – so all you need to do is buy an external hard drive, plug it in, and set it up, and it’ll keep a local copy of everything you need.

If you can afford it, I also strongly suggest getting a paid account with them (on both Mac and Windows) and using their internet backups as well. That way, if you’re burgled, and your hard drive stolen, or your house catches fire, or something like that, then while you might have lost all sort of things, you won’t have lost your data.

Step Three: Passwords

If you heed no other advice in this post (and I know there are perfectly valid reasons not to) heed this: get a password manager. Get 1Password or Lastpass.

There are only two passwords in your life you should be able to remember and type by hand: your log on password for your computer, and a second password that unlocks your password manager. Everything else should be 20 or more random characters, mixing numbers, letters and punctuation, held in a password manager. If you can remember and type your gmail password, or your amazon password or your facebook or twitter password, it’s not secure enough. And if you’re using the same password for more than one website, it’s definitely not secure enough.

Step Four: Anti-Virus

Install Sophos. Honestly: I’ve been using a Mac for long enough that my anti-virus recommendations may be hopelessly out of date. I mostly rely on the fact that Mac viruses are few and far between, and that I never open unexpected email attachments to keep me virus free. But back when I was using Windows based systems, Sophos was far and away the best one I found.

That’s really pretty much it. There’s other things I could recommend – browser extensions to do improving privacy and security, but the big ones are really: use a good backup system and a password manager.

I hope that lot is useful to someone.

Looking Back/Looking Ahead

I’ve been trying to write a year in review.

I can’t seem to do it without whinging.

So let’s do this quickly, like pulling a sticky-plaster off. 2013: Professionally stressful, personally awful, my pleasure in my hobbies is more or less gone, and I’m in therapy.

On the bright side, (and it is a very, very bright side), my niece arrived and becomes more adorable every time I see her.

My heartfelt thanks to everyone who has made a really rubbish year that bit more bearable.

2014: All the usual plans: write more, take more photos, exercise more. A few others that I’ll talk about when I’m ready to, which may be this year, or may be a few years away yet. All I’m really hoping for for 2014 is that I’ll be happier at the end of it.

Which is what I wish for all of you, too. I hope your 2013 was excellent, or at least better than mine, but much more importantly: I hope your 2014 is better.

Let Me Tell You About My Character…

I bet half of you just rolled your eyes in recognition, didn’t you?

For the benefit of the other half: as we all know, one of the things nerds do best is attempt to look down on other nerds. Whatever nerdy hobby we’ve got, there’s a group with another hobby who are worse. Or there’s a sub-group within our hobby that give the rest of us a bad name. They’re the ones that when we finally confess to someone that we have this nerdy hobby, we say “But it’s OK, I’m not like the other people with my hobby who do X”.

And for RPG nerds, it’s the people who bang on for hours about their favourite character, and how cool he or she was. And there’s the GM-subtype, who doesn’t want to tell you about their character – they want to tell you about their game. They want to talk about the villain’s terrible schemes, or the ways the players threw them for a loop, and just couldn’t solve the puzzle, or any one of a number of things that are really quite boring to people who weren’t there.

I’m presenting a deliberately negative view here, of course. My point was that among gaming nerds, people who want to talk at length about their game have a bad rep. It’s not totally unreasonable, but actually, there are times and places where it is appropriate to talk about your character, or the events in your game. There’s even a term for it: “froth”. But even the term itself is, of course, drawing paralells with madness, with foaming at the mouth. It’s a way of saying “we know we’re being unnacceptable nerdy, but it’s fun, so we don’t care.” And I’m totally OK with that, but the term itself buys into the idea that talking about these things is somehow a bit socially unacceptable.

Which brings me to my problem – I can’t find any RPG blogs that I want to read.

There are, at least as far as I can see, three broad kinds of RPG blog article.

  1. The “tips for running a game” article. These tend to be geared around prep, ways to accomplish common taks, or organise information, or ways to manage people’s expectations and interactions around the game. Things like “How to spot a problem player.” or “How to come up with a game for a group where half the players enjoy talking, and half enjoying rolling dice.” Honestly, they tend to be focused on gaming styles and systems I don’t really enjoy, like D&D, and the more numbers-based games, and, without wishing to sound self-aggrandising, I’ve been playing these games for 20 years. I’m kind of past the need for these basics.
  2. The “game design” article. These tend to be full of theory about play styles, about how you create game systems and rules that support certain kinds of game play, and so on. They’re often quite technical. I find these more interesting than the first type of article, and I do want to read them from time to time, but they’re not all I want.
  3. What I might call the “culture of gaming” article. Talking about why people game, about their meta-game goals, about ways to, for example, deal with sexism, or explore certain ideas, character types and roles within the context of roleplaying.

What I can’t find, anywhere, is writing exploring the narrative craft of roleplaying. I can find articles on how game systems can be made to support certain kinds of narrative goal, so that, for example instead of a system mechanic around how difficult a task is to accomplish, it is intead based around how important that task is to the story, or around how the character feels about the task, and so on.

What I can’t find are articles about articles about theme, mood, imagery (in more than very, very general terms, and mostly on the level of “playing appropriate music can help set a mood”, which is so superficial it hurts), story beats, the interaction of plot and character, reincorporation, narrative emphasis, how to construct plot twists, and so on. And it’s these articles that I want to read.

I think there are two reasons for the lack of them. The first is that they’re almost impossible to write without getting all “let me tell you about my game” (or “let me tell you about this totally fictitious game”, I guess, but the two are so similar as makes no difference), and the second is that for some reason “story” is often regarded as an emergent property of roleplaying games.

What I mean by that is that there is the vague sense that the way the games work is that the GM concocts what essentially amount to a series of roleplaying challenges (whether they be “roll the dice in order to defeat the obstacle”, “talk to the right NPCs in such a way to get information to solve the puzzle” or “the character must chose between their true love and their only chance to return to their home planet” type stuff) and then the players play through them in-character, in in the combination of the two, Story happens. There’s a sense that the players and the GM are equally responsible for the holy Story, and therefore cannot possibly talk about it individually, as they both control different aspects of it.

If a GM talks about narrative devices they employ, it’s often seen as tantamount to confessing that their game is “on rails” – that is, the players have very little opportunity to affect the outcome of events, and this of course, is seen as a great sin, and the sign of a bad game, because it’s somehow not collaborative enough, and that somehow it’s contrary to the spirit of roleplaying for the Story to me anything other than an emergent property of the game.

Which is all a very long winded way of saying: anyone know of any good blogs discussing narrative devices as part of roleplaying games? I’m looking for a level more complex than simply pointing out that “you can try doing flashback sessions” or “you can use repeating imagery”. I actively want to hear tales of “I tried doing a flashback episode, and it really worked/didn’t work, and here’s why, and what I’d do differently next time” or “I structure my narrative so that there were N possibilities for an outcome, each with a different emotional resonance, and the players tried to go for N+1, and it would have been shit, so here’s what I did” type stuff. Suff about pacing, and building from session to chapter to arc that goes beyond the perfunctory, you know?