Sunday 29 March 2015

Geek Ramblings

One new thing which has struck me about Lent this year is that it is a time to seek a new vision, a direction to go for the future.

Jesus, having been affirmed by God - "You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased" - goes out into the wilderness to discover how to live out that affirmation. Likewise we, being reminded in the run-up to Easter just how much God loves us, have the opportunity in Lent to take time out to seek our response, our direction for the rest of the year, maybe longer.

This blog has changed a lot over the years. It seems to me that it has recently been tending toward geekiness, and that this is the trend to continue.

By 'geekiness' I mostly mean: enthusiasm, knowledge, enough understanding to realise that there is far more I don't know than I do, and an attitude that considers this to be wonderful news - there is always going to be more to learn!

I am a Bible geek, and I have written a lot about that. I am also a science geek: there's been a lot less about that recently; I think I should enthuse about science more in future. Also I am a computer geek: I do write a bit about that already, so I'll just see what comes up in that area.

I also love reading or hearing other geeks (by the above definition) enthuse. Not specifically in 'my' subjects, but whatever their area of expertise and geekiness may be. Enthusiasm can and should be infectious. I have rather lost track of other blogging geeks over the years; this coming year is a good time to invest some (scarce) time and (scarcer) energy in finding some more. Any suggestions in the comments below would be greatly appreciated.

What have you discovered over this Lenten period? About yourself or about this world? Are you an enthusiast? If so, what can you do with that enthusiasm? Do share below, start a conversation, "it's good to talk".

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Casablanca vs. Chocolat

Our housegroup has just finished a Lent course on Casablanca; a couple of years ago we did a similar course on the film version of Chocolat - how do they compare?

I found Casablanca to be the better film - although both are excellent - but Christ and the Chocolaterie, by Hilary Brand, is by far the better Lent course.

The film Chocolat has an obvious relevance to Lent, being the story of a young woman, Vianne Rocher, and her daughter, Anouk, opening up a chocolaterie in a small village in early-60's France - during Lent! The village has a rigid social structure and an inflexible morality hiding a range of troubles. Vianne talks to people and asks questions, gradually bringing change and freedom to the village, although not without conflict.

Casablanca is also a good Lent film: starting from exile in the wilderness and ending with sacrifice, it tells a story of love and renewal, of hope lost and found. It also has some of the most memorable dialogue in movie history, wonderful acting, and a fascinating back-story.

The trouble with A Beautiful Friendship, by Paul Kerensa and Zoe Young, is that it is essentially inward looking. There is an early link between Casablanca's wartime refugees and today's refugees:
"In 2013 the world saw more refugees than at any time since Casablanca's release."
But that is in the introduction and the rest of the course focuses relentlessly on God/Jesus in the Bible and on individual personal feelings and morality, for example:
"Have you ever felt 'abandoned at the station' like Rick? You may have felt wronged by love, by life or by God. Did you express anger or frustration to God, or are you still keeping it inside?"
There's nothing wrong with looking to Jesus in the pages of the Bible, of course, but the Christian calling is to take him out to the wider world. The Bible can be a light helping us to see, but it can also be a box for keeping Jesus safely out of the way. Likewise, our feelings are important to God, but endless self-examination is looking in the wrong direction: we are to follow Jesus as he walks his world, not sit and obsess about how we are doing.

The great thing about Christ and the Chocolaterie is its outward focus. The film's setting may be similarly confined and claustrophobic, but this Lent course's vision is very much toward our neighbourhoods.

Vianne, like Jesus, brings change to a rigid community; the mayor and much of the community resists change and growth, ultimately with violence, much like the scribes and Pharisees. The message of the course is about how we can bring healing and change, not just within ourselves but amongst family, friends and neighbours.

There is self-reflection, too, but often as a step along the way to changing how we can help others.
"'If you lived in this village, you understood what was expected of you, you knew your place in the scheme of things.' In the film, who controls and who allows themselves to be controlled? ... In the film, how do those who refuse to be intimidated demonstrate their defiance? Are there other useful ways you have learned to stand up to bullies?"
Brand too uses the Bible extensively throughout the course, in parallel with the film. In the context of John 8:1-11, the woman caught in adultery, she asks (after some preamble):
"How have you reacted when someone you knew admitted his or her failure or weakness to you? Has it strengthened or weakened your relationship? Has it strengthened or weakened your respect for him or her?"
Note the openness of her questions: they are designed to encourage us to think about people and about meaning, not just to have right or wrong answers.

Not that A Beautiful Friendship is a bad Lent course, far from it. Compared with much housegroup material available it is well written, works hard, asks reasonable questions, and has some interesting exercises for participants to do. I am a member of another Lent group this year, which is essentially listening to talking heads then wittering: roughly par for the (Lent) course in my experience. Kerensa'a book is far more than that.

But, for any Lent group which wants to have relevance for those outside the circle of committed church-goers, 'the usual suspects', Christ and the Chocolaterie is by far the better course. It also includes recipes for a chocolate feast!

A final quote:
"Do you spend enough time having fun with others? When was the last time you had a good laugh? Does your church community as a whole spend enough time doing social things (whether formal organised activities or informal ones)?"

Sunday 22 March 2015

Fathomless Riches by Richard Coles

Richard Coles' account of his journey from pop stardom with the Communards, and left-wing gay activism, to priesthood is fascinating and highly readable, although it ends rather abruptly, I feel.

One of the fascinations of the book is Coles' sideways take on religion and what is important. At one stage he says:
"I realised, too, that I was one of very few people in the Church of England to have gone to a Solemn High Mass at St Alban's Holborn and there experienced a classic Protestant conversion."
In many ways the book is like the classic Protestant conversion story: "I was the wickedest of sinners but now I'm saved!" Except that the standard Evangelical tale is of salvation from drink, drugs, women, crime, whatever. Coles tells of plenty of drugs and sex (gay), but that isn't his repentance story. His story is about being saved from self-centredness and hardness of heart. It's about treating people in an appalling way and coming to regret it. That is the sin from which he has been saved by Jesus:
"And then it was as if iron bands, constricting my chest, broke and fell away and I could breathe; and a shutter was flung open, and light flooded in and I could see. And I wept and wept."
For Coles it is people and how you treat them which matters, not issues of sexual morality.

A few months ago Richard Coles and Tim Minchin wrote a pair of articles for The Big Issue about faith and Christianity. Coles' article was about people and read as a simple and heartfelt call for care and respect, which he saw religion, at its best, as being able to provide. Minchin's article, on the other hand, was about ideas and read as bright and shiny and clever ... and ultimately shallow.

The other fascinating element of the book, for me, was his insider's view of the gay, left-wing activism of the late seventies and eighties. This overlaps with a film recently out on DVD, Pride, which tells of the unlikely alliance between miners and gay activists during the Thatcher-provoked miners' strike of 1984-5. I haven't seen that film yet, although I plan to, but Coles references it as he talks about LGSM - Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners - and the unlikely cross-cultural bonds they formed with the South Wales mining communities.

There is also a lot in the book about The Communards, of course, Coles' and Jimmy Somerville's highly successful, but short-lived, pop partnership. Interesting, because well told, but not really my preferred style of music, to say the least.

There is also a fair amount about the process of actually becoming a priest, then the book suddenly halts directly after his ordination. Nothing about being a priest, nor about how his calling and his sexuality work together. Maybe he is thinking about a volume 2, or maybe he just wanted the book to do what it says on the cover: How I Went From Pop To Pulpit.

Either way his penultimate paragraph is wonderfully evocative of what the Church of England is and how it works:
"I looked into people's faces, faces that had seen me at my best and my worst, at my most vulnerable and my most triumphant, at my sleaziest and my finest, and we went to the church hall for tea and cakes and speeches and presents and I ducked out for a moment and went into church, the new curate on his new patch, for the first time."

Sunday 8 March 2015

Dragon Age Inquisition Review

A couple of months ago I posted an initial impression of the computer role-playing game Dragon Age: Inquisition. I have since given the game quite a thorough going over, so here is my full review:-

Summary - 8/10

There is a decent game in here, with the usual Bioware strength in storytelling and characters, buried under a morass of dull side-quests and brain-dead combat.

Graphics – 7/10

These are highly detailed and look good on screenshots. Visual ‘realism’ doesn’t hang together as well when playing the game, and oddities and inconsistencies stand out against the more detailed and ‘realistic’ basic graphics.

There are a number of different areas in the DAI world, each with their own area style, which gives a good sense of environmental variety. Unfortunately blurring and mistiness spoil what should be the more dramatic vistas.

Facial detail is erratic: they seem to have gone to a lot of trouble with irises, yet the whites of the eyes often turn strangely pink/red during conversations and cutscenes. Hair quality is generally poor – on medium graphics quality it is very poor – and facial hair is worse.

Many character animations are poor. Female characters tend to stoop during conversations, Cassandra in particular looks as if she suffers from permanent stomach cramps. Meanwhile a female human Inquisitor stands with arms held away from her body like a penguin, whilst Cullen minces across the room to the War Table. These are all animations we see a lot.

There is a lot of clipping goes on: hair clipping ears, Solas’ thumbs clip his clothes in conversation, arms sometimes clip bodies, and so on. This is disappointing in a modern high-budget game.

Sound & Music – 9/10

Sound effects are clear but hardly noticeable, which suggests they are done well. Basically things make the noises you expect them to.

Generally speaking, background music and ambient sounds are present but fairly minimal: they are there at the usual places but you don’t really notice them much.

The main character is voiced, with only two choices of voice for a given character type (British accent or US accent, for me). The main NPC characters are well voiced, with many old characters making a welcome return from earlier episodes. Minor characters are generally well-voiced too, although the dodgy French accent of those from Orlais becomes wearing after a while.

There is a really excellent musical interlude at (what I assume to be) the ending of the first chapter. It creates a genuinely moving and memorable moment. There are other moments where the music becomes more intense as the action or the drama does, with great effect.

There is a singer in the main tavern, singing a variety of songs (a far better variety of far better songs than Skyrim, say). I know the songs are good because I downloaded several of them separately. Unfortunately, in-game the sound in the taverns is poor, so you can’t really appreciate them (sadly unlike Skyrim where the tavern songs are positively obtrusive).

Ambient speech (the random comments made by people as you pass) varies from good to excellent. It frequently reflects actions you have taken: for example in the case of an early quest you get small family groups whose comments originally reflect adults claiming not to be hungry to encourage children to eat what little there is, which changes to comments about there being plenty for everyone “thanks to the inquisition”.

World Areas – 8/10

Dragon Age Inquisition is NOT open world, in spite of rumours to the contrary. It is the standard arrangement for such games of an overview map (accessible from a War Table or from the World Map) allowing movement between discreet game areas. Annoyingly, sometimes you need to use the War Table to get to an area, sometimes you have to use the World Map, and sometimes you can use either.

These game areas are big, far larger than anything in earlier Dragon Age episodes. As mentioned earlier they have a good variety of visual and auditory styles.

Extensive use is made of the environment to channel where the player can and cannot go, often extremely irritatingly. Extensive ranges of ten-foot high cliffs, which the game mechanics prevent you from going up, are as frustrating as they are geologically implausible.

Some of the environments have a range of difficulty levels within the same area; presumably the idea is that you have a reason to come back later. In the Hinterlands, for example, which is the first area you get to explore, there is a tunnel leading to an area where you can see a dragon in the distance. This dragon flies around for a bit then toasts your party if you hang around. That makes sense to me.

What doesn’t make sense in the same area is that different fade rifts – ‘tears’ through which demons come, which you are able to close once the demons are defeated – have very different difficulty levels, yet (as far as I can see) no visible difference between easy and hard. So the only warning you get that a particular rift is too hard for your party level is the ease with which the demons wipe you out.

Combat – 6/10

The basic combat mechanic/strategy seems to be that you hold down the fire button and press special move buttons as they become active. Attacks auto-target – sometimes to the target you are clicking over, sometimes not – and many special moves automatically jump to the selected target. It really is that mindless.

If you want to move yourself (eg to get a rogue behind an enemy ready for a backstab) and you haven’t got a special move to do it for you, then combat is very cumbersome, at least in normal mode. Similarly if you want to choose your own target(s). You can do it, using a combination of pausing and right-clicking, but the game works against you.

If you want to have your characters working together tactically, the game really works against you. NPCs retarget really quickly, and if you pause then swap characters it promptly unpauses and carries on combat.

There is a tactical combat mode which is supposed to help those who want a more thoughtful approach to combat. Unfortunately it is completely broken. It is meant to give you a top-down view of the battlefield on which you can issue orders to all your characters. The trouble is that, even in the open air, the camera is far too low, so you cannot see most of the battlefield. In principle you can move the camera around, but this is clunky on the flat, and the camera gets blocked or trapped by changes in elevation. In tunnels or enclosed spaces you cannot see anything useful at all.

Skill trees and AI options are dumbed down; even something is simple as issuing a command for all characters to 'hold' is ineffective as often as not.

Main Quest & Story – 9/10

The main storyline has parallels with that of Dragon Age Origins: the world is threatened with destruction, but before you save it you have to deal with loads of people who reckon this is a good time to focus on killing one another.

The story gameplay is mostly linear; the main option is whether you seek support from the mages or from the templars. Each has its own separate quest/area to gain that side’s support; the others form the main opponents in a later major battle.

It’s a well-balanced story, I think, with suitably major battles along the way and a satisfyingly epic ending. I like the use of an epilogue to highlight the consequences of some of the decisions you make along the way; although by and large I wasn’t that invested in most of those decisions or consequences.

The big problem with the main storyline is that it is spaced out by a need to gain ‘power’ in order to progress, and to level up your characters so they are strong enough for the next story area. You do this by going out into the various different areas on the War Table and World Map, and performing various tasks there: some meaningful and engaging, many not. Eventually you become ready to take on the next challenge and can re-engage with the story again. Since the storyline quests are flagged up as being terribly urgent when you first hear about them, these delays are quite immersion-breaking.

There appears to be a major storyline cop-out concerning Morrigan and her son (spoiler warning here, kind-of). At the end of Dragon Age Origins her pregnancy is left as a major hanging plotline, apparently heralding great mysteries to come. If you start with DAI’s default backstory, she wasn’t even pregnant, so there is no son. If you set up your own backstory then you can make it so that she does have a son, but it all seems to be a damp squib. Things are left open as to possible consequences in later episodes, but in DAI this non-event is a real disappointment.

Side Quests – 7/10

Each area has its own fairly major quest, and some have quests directly relating to the story quest and/or quests relating to one of the followers. These quests are often quite engaging. There are also various activities aimed at building up power, typically by closing fade rifts and claiming key points for the Inquisition.

In addition the main areas are all smothered in trivial quests. Some of these are the traditional ‘fetch’ quests: go from A to B to collect something, or talk to someone, then go back to A, possibly via C. Standard filler for cRPGs when the writers run out of ideas.

But the worst are the ‘collect’ quests. There are multi-area quests which want you to collect a hundred and odd ‘shards’ to unlock a series of doors, or sixty mosaic pieces, making up five mosaics, and so on. Probably the most annoying of these is a bottle collection quest which insists on triggering a ‘hidden object nearby’ indicator which is normally used for things which are important, so you can’t even just ignore that one. There is also a stack of such quests within each area: collect various minerals or herbs; collect locks to build prisons; collect intestines of creatures killed by dragons; and so on.

Follower quests are obtained by talking to the follower/advisor characters; presumably only if they don’t dislike you. The early quests often seem a bit trivial but as you go through the quest series it can become more engaging and even moving. Romanceable characters have additional quests to advance the romance.

Replayability – 7/10

There are basically two main routes through the storyline, and a player would typically only do a proportion of the character quests in one run-through, along with a single romance quest (out of eight). If the combat worked properly there would also be a number of different class and race options.

In practice, I have played through it once when I explored the available areas and got the hang of how to play the game reasonably efficiently and without too much frustration. I then went through a second time in hard mode choosing the alternate options and a very different romance (Sera rather than Cassandra). I started a third run-through to try a few different things but got bored part way through. The trouble is that whilst there is a lot of content in the game, too much of it is basically dull and/or repetitive.

The greatest problem for long term replayability is the lack of any modding tools. The game cries out for interesting quests to fill out the vast areas full of nothing much interesting, and the combat needs a total makeover. Not to mention more cosmetic mods such as decent hair, and a greater variety of customisation options.


Dragon Age Inquisition is an initially good-looking game, which ultimately disappoints. Whilst it is far better than Dragon Age II, it has none of the originality and replayability which made Dragon Age: Origins great.

Sunday 1 March 2015

Fair Trade Hope

We're currently in the middle of Fairtrade Fortnight. At St John's Church this morning we showed the full version of the Fairtrade Foundation's film showing the difference that Fair Trade makes in people's lives. To the right is the short version; for the longer version click here.

The Anglican lectionary takes no notice of such things: it just ploughs on with an excerpt from the Noah story and a section from Mark's Gospel where Jesus starts to set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, and warns his followers that suffering is part of their journey.

I think the link between the two is hope. In Old Testament times, following Noah, the rainbow was God's sign of hope to the people of the world. In New Testament times, and all the way through to today, it is Jesus' followers - all of us - who are called to be God's sign of hope to a struggling world.

We are called to be a sign of hope when we go through hardship and suffering, by our trust in God through Jesus even when things are very, very difficult. We are also called to be a sign of hope in our ordinary daily lives, in the things which we value and in the choices which we make. Including our shopping choices, of course

The Fairtrade Foundation's films are very good at showing the practical differences which the extra income from selling Fair Trade goods makes to the daily lives of the poorest communities. But I also think it illustrates how meeting basic needs gives space for hope and for making plans for a better future.

The Big Issue magazine has the motto that it is "a hand up not a handout". It aims to support vendors in their struggles to escape poverty and all that goes with it, by helping them to work their way into a better situation. The same concept underlies Fairtrade and other trade-related groups and campaigns, seeking fair "Trade not Aid". The idea is to provide the poorest communities with a fair income for their wares, allowing them to work their way to a better life.

The Fairtrade foundation do a wonderful job ... as far as they go. They work with primary producers: the growers and agricultural labourers. As far as I know, they don't do anything to move the higher value aspects of trade away from wealthy countries and into poorer ones. Things like processing, packaging, marketing and distribution. The 'added value' areas where the bulk of the money paid by the consumer goes.

A couple of years back I was disappointed to see Good African Coffee - which is processed in Uganda - disappear from Waitrose, although I was pleased - if surprised - to find that I could buy it in Tesco. After Tesco's recent turbulent times it looks as though they are cutting back on their product range, though, as there was no sign of Good African Coffee when I went looking this week. Maybe they can't pay the vast sums which Tesco are said to demand for a visible shelf position.

Looking at their website I get the impression that Good African Coffee are running out of steam. But I do hope they they have been pioneers of a process which will see fairer trade overall between rich and poor nations. Fair trade in primary agricultural and mineral production, but also fairer trade in processing, distributing and marketing of products.

In many ways the reality of that depends upon us, the consumers. If we use our spending power to encourage fair trade, to bring hope rather than exploitation, to provide a hand up rather than just responding to appeals for a handout, then we can change the lives of so many for the better.

Wouldn't that be a useful change to make over your Lent 2015?

Edit:  Oops. It turns out that it was part of the Abraham story rather than Noah in this week's lectionary. No wonder people looked confused when I talked about rainbows this morning!