It’s a Saturday night, and I’m in my room at college listening to someone’s shared iTunes music (Queen), guzzling lots of water and watching the end of Groundhog Day for the fiftieth time. Let’s just say that my plans for tonight didn’t turn out quite as expected.

It’s a familiar tale to anyone who lives in college accommodation. Up until the end of the afternoon, you’re blissfully relaxing in the knowledge that you’ll be going out that night. Suddenly, all of your best laid plans are blasted apart in successive volleys as people announce that they don’t want to go out or they’re going on dates or they’re going to films you don’t want to see. At the end of this shock-and-awe conflict, you’re left shellshocked and are reduced to prowling around the corridors, bothering people in their kitchens and repeatedly revising your projections for the night downward and downward. Eventually, you get to the point where you have nothing left to do but post to your weblog and feel pathetically sorry for yourself. It’s a sad, sad state of affairs.

I make it sound worse than it really is, of course. It’s not as if I didn’t have anything to do – more than a couple of people offered decent alternatives – but what with the wind and the rain, my will was sapped away.

None of this is helped by my burning through my entire Lal-Pile of unread books. In the past three days I finished The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe and Time Out Of Joint by Philip K Dick, neither of which can be described as easily read books. Nor is it helped by my irrational insistence on not watching any of my good unwatched DVDs (a Lal-Pile of DVDs, if you will) unless I can do them proper justice, by which I mean watching them with a bunch of friends in a good environment. Anything less would be an insult to the creators of such films as Office Space, Princess Mononoke, Monsoon Wedding and a whole bunch of other stuff.

Let’s just face facts: I’m weird.

It’s Complicated, It’s Complex!

(Arrrgghhhh! Safari just crashed on me, right on the verge of finishing a long post, reconstructed below. Let no man give Apple unqualified praise now – they have erred, and they have erred greviously in allowing such a shoddy, slow, pre-beta, crash-prone piece of bug-ridden garbage such as Safari to be released to the general public. Mozilla might be a memory hog, but it never had problems with my pressing ‘undo’ in a textbox. Damn you, David Hyatt, damn you to Hades!)

Last weekend, I went over to the Mitre pub here in Oxford, walked upstairs and immediately found myself embroiled in such a charged atmosphere of political intrigue and horse trading that it would make even the most hardened BBC Today programme journalist blanch in fearful wonder. No, I hadn’t accidentally gone into a meeting of the Oxford Union (I would only ever come near them accidentally) – I’d come to the OxCon boardgame convention.

In the US and UK, boardgames are treated like a distant relative – you don’t mind spending time with them at Christmas, and you even occasionally enjoy their company, but seeing them isn’t something you’d like to do every week. Boardgames just aren’t all that popular anymore. As the highly knowledgeable BoardGameGeek FAQ succintly puts it:

“Here in America anyway, when someone says ‘boardgames,’ 99% of the population (aka, ‘non-gamers’) think of Monopoly or Scrabble, maybe Pictionary, and that’s about it. ‘Non-gamers’ think of gaming as a once-a-year event under the Christmas tree, rather than a viable way to spend an evening with a group of friends on a semi-regular basis.”

What is it that stops most people from venturing beyond the likes of Monopoly into the verdant pastures of new, beautifully designed and balanced games like The Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne? Undoubtedly the rise of more visceral forms of entertainment like computer games and TV (as it is today) must shoulder much of the blame, but I feel that ignorance and anxiety are also responsible. It really is true that most people wouldn’t be able to name more than a couple of boardgames other than Monopoly, so no wonder they aren’t playing anything else. Yet at the same time it’s unlikely that they’ve never encountered new boardgames like Settlers. The fact is, people are scared of new boardgames, especially those that contain more pieces than I have fingers. They think that they’ll be too complicated and boring.

This is demonstrably not true.

When I made it up to the boardgame convention, to meet a reader of this weblog (Chris Dickson) I felt a bit out of place. I’m not what anyone would describe as a boardgame player – in fact, I only own two ‘advanced’ boardgames, and I bought one of them at the convention. So despite everything that I’ve said here, I was a little anxious that I would, yes, find the convention a bit boring and too complicated. My fears were only deepened when I sat down at Chris’ table to watch them play a space colony boardgame that seemed to involve a plethora of complicated cards and little markers.

As it was, after Chris was kind enough to answer my questions and I watched for twenty minutes, I pretty much had all of the rules figured out. This was without actually reading the rule book. This means that anyone reading this would be able to pick it up just as quickly. Similarly, when the game finished and we started a new game of The Settlers of Catan, I knew exactly what I was doing within ten minutes (of course, I still lost).

The point is not that all of these ‘advanced’ boardgames (in the sense that they are a bit more complicated than Monopoly) have simple rules. They’re not always simple. But the rules of the good ones are always straightforward and logical, and they make sense.

Of course, the real reason why people play these games has nothing to do with the rules, it’s to do with the fact that they’re a lot of fun. In fact, the reasons why they are fun are almost identical to the reasons why they’re not like games like Monopoly.

Firstly, they reward skill, not luck. You could be the best player of Monopoly in the world (not that that’d be difficult) and you could still very easily lose. That’s not fun.

Secondly, they involve you actually talking to your friends about the game. Many of these advanced games require interaction between players, for trading and bargaining of some sort, and that’s where the real fun comes from in boardgames.

The third and final reason is that they invariably don’t involve direct competition between players. The majority of players find this sort of thing uncomfortable and occasionally upsetting, for good reason, so in advanced games while there is still enough competition to make things exciting, there’s also an element of co-operation. A side-effect of this is that in the best-designed games, it’s literally impossible to be knocked out of the game and have to sit the rest of it out on the sidelines – all of the players will play to the end, and they’ll have a stake in the final result even if they don’t have a realistic chance of winning.

The new and popular advanced games like Settlers, Carcassonne and Puerto Rico are in a completely different class to what most people think of boardgames. They’re incredibly rich experiences that offer many more possibilities than just hoping that your next roll will be a six. I don’t mean to denigrate Monopoly that much – I know that it can be a fun game – but let’s face it, it’s not that game that’s fun, it’s the company. That’s the reason why boardgame players beat on it so much to the extent that a recent review of Settlers said:

“…They liked the game enough that they are going to buy it. Another family that doesn’t have to play Monopoly anymore, the world feels at peace.”

Have a look at the top 10 games at BoardGameGeek. See if any of them sound interesting to you, and take a chance, buy one of them and introduce it to your friends; that’s what I’m going to do. I promise that it’ll be more fun than seeing that distant relative once a year.

(Coming soon: a review of The Settlers of Catan…)

Let it Snow!

The snow has finally arrived in Oxford in force, accompanied by dramatic peals of thunder and lightning! From what I can see – which is very little, because the snowfall is very thick – the flakes are pretty large and sticky and I should imagine that if this keeps up for a few hours we’ll have several inches of snow in short order. It’s all very exciting, apart from the fact that I have to cycle home in this weather after my lecture which starts in about ten minutes.

The Pile of Doom

If you wander into the home of a book-lover, you will find books everywhere, arranged neatly on shelves, lying on tables, sitting behind the toilet and stacked beside the bed. These are the books that have been read, and they enjoy a happy and fulfilled existence.

There is a darker side to life in this home. If you look closer, into the shadowed corners and dusty shelf tops, you will encounter piles of pristine books that have not known the touch of man. They lurk and glower malevolantly in the darkness, terrorising their owners whenever they walk past and instilling a dreadful horror if they so much as think about buying another new book. Their menace has been with us throughout the ages, and even the gods themselves are fearful of them, speaking only in hurried whispers. With every new addition to their ranks in a home, they grow in power exponentially, even to the point of total mastery over their owner’s life – and death.

These are the unread books, and they are known as the Lal-Pile.

Up until very recently, I had quite a large Lal Pile in my room, at least in my standards; I had almost ten new books that I’d bought over the course of the past month or so that I hadn’t read. Unread books give me a sense of real guilt whenever I look at them or walk around a bookshop, as if I am somehow slighting them by constantly ignoring them or buying new ones. It wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t very good, but I try to make a habit of only buying books that I am reasonably sure that I’ll enjoy, so that doesn’t work.

Anyway, lately I found myself with some free time so I set to work on reducing the Lal Pile. In short order, I read Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling, The Prestige by Christopher Priest, Reality Dust by Stephen Baxter and I’m making my way through The Fifth Head of Cerebus by Gene Wolfe. All four are decent reads. Holy Fire is a typically good Sterling novel that conveys how profounding different humans will be in the future, and how the alienation between generations will only grow as people continue to live longer and longer.

The Prestige was a highly compelling read about a feud between two magician performers spanning generations that contains themes familiar to readers of Priest’s other novels – the idea of opposing and identical forces and characters, and the uncertainty of whether we know what we’re being told in the story is ‘true’. I find it incredible that much of Priest’s work is not readily available in the UK any more given its quality and also the fact that he’s won a whole raft of awards, such as the World Fantasy Award (for The Prestige) and the Arthur C Clarke Award. I had to get my copy of The Prestige shipped over from the US.

Tutorials &c.

So many things have happened in the past week! A final success at badminton, boardgame tournaments, computational neuroscience, strange and wonderful things happening on the next planet out, lots of good new books, and tutorials. I will deal with them all in time, but first, tutorials.

One of the distinguishing features of Oxbridge is the tutorial system, in which each undergraduate student will attend a few one-hour tutorials every week. In most tutorials, the attention of the tutor (usually a fellow or postgrad) is only divided between three or at most four students, and so they can spend a very intensive hour discussing the topics covered in that particular course. It’s thought that tutorials (they’re called supervisions at Cambridge) are one of the principal ways in which Oxbridge provides a ‘superior’ education to those found in other universities.

Whether or not tutorials are as good as they’re made out to be is a difficult question that depends on a number of factors, such as the skill of the tutor, the commitment of the students and so on. The reason I’ve brought the subject up is not to talk about their value – it’s because I’ve been asked to give a set of tutorials by my department.

It turns out that there are only two people in the department who know anything about phototransduction (the process in which photons hitting the retina are converted into information), and I am one of them. The other person, who knows a vast amount more about the subject that I ever will, is not able to give tutorials on the subject so I’ve agreed to give it a go. Despite what many of my friends fear, I really do believe that I can do a job at helping and teaching people. I’ve spent a rather large part of my life doing things that involve helping people understand difficult concepts and retain new facts so I hope I have something useful to offer undergraduates. Oh, and I do know how phototransduction works – thankfully, it is a rather logical subject to explain, if not fully understood.

The thought of giving tutorials to undergraduates in the very near future is a chilling yet simultaneously intriguing prospect. Chilling, because it means that these students will be partly relying on me to help them do well at their exams, which is no small responsibility. Intriguing, because they are finalist students (scientists and medics) and as such, there is a very distinct possibility that at least some of them will be older than me. Of course, it’s not unheard of for tutors to be younger than their students, and it certainly isn’t unusual for new graduates to be giving tutorials – I know a couple of friends in Cambridge who are in my year group and are already giving tutorials, albeit not to finalists.

The Law of Averages

Today started out well. I had a very interesting introductory lecture on computational neuroscience, and when I cycled back to college afterwards, I discovered that a whole bunch of stuff I’d ordered over the Internet had arrived, including my new TV.

Now, the TV weighs about 25kg, and the walk back home is about half a mile. In comparison, when I go to the gym I normally lift about 30kg – at most – when I do bicep curls. You’d have thought I would have taken this into consideration when I decided to carry back home on my own; I certainly did when I was halfway there and my arms were on the verge of falling off and shrivelling into lifeless piles of dust on the ground (a bit like when the Witch-King of Angmar dies in Return of the King).

Anyway, I finally got it home and then immediately had to go back to college to meet up with people for a league game of badminton. By the time I got to the sports centre after seeing them, my arms were doing OK and luckily it was my left arm that had gotten the worst of it. So things were looking up, especially when I saw a girl I liked from college* would also be playing that day.

(*It is worth noting that, like every human with a Y chromosome, I see girls that I like approximately every day. Therefore, to construe me saying ‘I saw a girl I liked’ as being some kind of undying dedication of affection for said girl would be a misunderstanding of the most fundamental order.)

Then it started to go wrong. I was playing a doubles game, the second out of four that our college would be doing that day. To say it went badly would be an understatement.

Let me make a brief digression here, to illustrate the game. I’m occasionally asked what I think of the BBC comedy ‘The Office’. I’ve watched The Office a couple of times and while I can see why it’s such a hit, I personally cannot stand watching the thing because it makes it cringe so badly I’m either forced to turn it off, or if that’s not an option, simply leave the room. When I think back to how my game today went, it’s worse than then I’m watching The Office.

It’s not that we lost badly; we ended up losing 15-7. It’s that we should have won easily, and that we – and I personally – made so many trivial and simple mistakes that it probably comes out as the worst game I’ve played for a long, long time. Oh, and the fact that the nice girl was watching this throughout did not help matters.

As it was, the college ended up winning the match on points, so it was all fine in that respect. I suppose it was about time that my luck averaged out.

Between Heaven and Earth

About every month I visit Cambridge for the weekend to see friends and usually play lots of Counterstrike. It’s always a whirlwind visit because I try to meet up with as many people as possible during the two and a half days I’m there; on Saturday I think I overloaded on tea and hot chocolate (but not coffee, of course) because I have three different ‘coffee’ meetings. Even then, I hardly get to see even half of the people I want to but it’s still enormous fun.

The frequent visits and the fact that I lived there for three years means that I’m constantly mixing up Cambridge and Oxford in my speech. It only takes a few hours in Cambridge before I starting thinking it’s home again. That’s not to say that I’m not enjoying Oxford; to be honest, I’m very happy that I still like both cities so much.

Since visiting a bunch of my friends around the country, I’ve come to the somewhat depressing conclusion that I am the only person left who is still living in college halls (or dorms). Everyone else is living in shared houses. While halls have some advantages, such as being moderately affordable, central and putting you close to lots of friends, they are also intensely irritating. Imagine, if you will, having someone bang on your door at 9am, and then barge inside (despite it being locked) to shout at you for the kitchen being in a non-perfect state. Our cleaners have been known to do this on occasion, and there are plenty of other little annoyances that follow from living in accommodation where you are merely tolerated, like some particularly ugly endangered species of insect. The fact that we pay rent and are graduates seems to be entirely forgotten.

It’s not that bad, of course. If it was, then I would’ve moved out already. As it is, the annoyances merely serve to provide a low level of background irritation, rather like the noise I get from the coaches that drive past my window every seven minutes.

So I’m looking for a place to live next year in Oxford where I’ll be able to have a lounge, clean the kitchen when I want and not have my Internet usage monitored. Such a place seems like heaven to me right now, which is partly why I enjoy getting out of Oxford and visiting friends.

(Oh, and another thing – one unfortunate side-effect of keeping this weblog is that people have begun to accost me and demand why I don’t visit them when I travel to some city where they live. To which I respond: why don’t you get off your lazy asses and visit me in Oxford, eh? Then we’ll talk… nah, I love you all really).

Work and hair

My first chemicals arrived today! It may come as a surprise to many, but it isn’t the case (not entirely, anyway) that I just hang around in Oxford waiting for interesting things to happen – occasionally I do some real research. In preparation for an experiment on the mouse visual system, I’ve ordered a bunch of chemicals, radioactive tracers, film and nuclear emulsion over the past few days; it’s all very exciting, especially because they all cost ridiculous amounts of money. They might as well be hand-crafted by hundred year old monks on some remote Himalayan mountaintop for seven years – it’d probably turn out cheaper (although I suspect they wouldn’t work, unless they had a multimillion dollar biochemicals facility. Then again, stranger things have happened).

The robot scientist developed at the University of Wales is an interesting little thing. I’ve been thinking about the logistics of programming a similar thing for investigating the properties of the visual system. Obviously it couldn’t be closed loop, but there’s an awful lot that can be automated in the experimental process, and can benefit from the increased analytical precision that computers can offer. To be honest, I’m quite surprised that these kinds of experiments (and things like fMRI) aren’t much more automated than they currently are, especially since many of the researchers involved have extensive programming experience. Looks like I’ll be learning more MatLab then…

An exchange on the Culture list about The Return of the King (not involving me):

1: “…Also, Aragorn finally sort of washes his hair…that was the plot thread I was most eager to see tied up.”

2: “I found that incredibly disconcerting when it happened. Almost scarier than the whole flaming eye unstoppable evil thing. If you know what I mean.”

1: “Agreed. Although it was still kinda flat and lank, to ease the transition as it were.”

Tsk. Girls, eh?

Ares Express Issue 1

Ares Express – I’ve just finished writing the first issue of a new weekly newsletter at New Mars that will highlight the best threads and discussion in the forums, as well as links to Mars news across the Internet. I’m hoping that the bulk of subsequent issues will consist of submissions from forum members.