The EU is the reason we have peace?

 

A friend of mine is convinced that the European Union is the only thing that has prevented another major European war from occurring since 1945.

I disagree. For me, the long peace we have enjoyed since 1945 can be attributed to ‘democratic peace theory’. In fact, i think it has little or nothing to do with the existence of the EU. The fact is that no two democratic, capitalist nations have ever gone to war with one another, and the 1939-45 conflict put an end to any other form of government in Europe. There are numerous reasons for this, but the main ones are that capitalist democracies are less likely to view other similarly government nations as hostile, their leaders are publicly accountable to the public (and people everywhere are largely opposed to war), and finally, most such nations are reasonably prosperous and operate with complex international trade agreements, all of which might be imperilled by war. Economically and politically speaking there is therefore no reason for one such country to attack another. If you don’t believe me, try a thought experiment. Try to imagine a scenario in which Britain decides to invade France in a world where the EU does not exist. What would be the upshot of such an action?’

 

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Trident: a forking waste of money?

Trident: a forking waste of money?

I am currently on the fence about Trident. I can see the logic in the arguments against renewing such an expensive and perhaps unnecessary system, but am also sympathetic to those who point towards the rapid changeability of geo-politics, and who note that the weapons would be for use in an unknowable future.

One key point that has always interested me is whether or not Britain has the capacity to use the weapons unilaterally. This seems to me to be crucial, for if they cannot be used independently then they represent nothing more than an extension of the U.S’s nuclear deterrent, paid for by the British tax payer. Obviously much information on this subject will be hidden behind a fog of secrecy and security, but that aside: what serious evidence is there that Britain would not be able to use the missiles independently if a crisis arose?

Whenever I have brought this up in conversation, I am told that the missiles need ‘arming codes’ and that these codes can only be issued by the American President. However, a little research on my part has suggested that this is untrue. Whilst the U.S does indeed have a system of arming codes, my understanding is that the British navy rejected such a procedure for fears that the chain of command could be broken during an attack.

What other evidence is there? Well, a report by Greenpeace, which was itself cited by the 2006 Commons Defence Committee when investigating the independence of the systems, suggested that the U.S could: “cut off the technical support needed for the UK to continue to send Trident to sea.” This is often cited in the media (particularly the Guardian) as evidence that the system is beyond our ability to control, which of course sounds very alarming. But note the use of the word ‘continue.’ The report does not suggest that the American’s have a ‘kill switch’ that can disable the missiles already in our possession. Instead, it tells us that without long-term American maintenance the missiles would eventually become unusable. An important point, but not the same thing.

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Nuclear weapon safety and arming keys

My understanding, however, is that Trident uses astro-inertial navigation, and that, once launched, the missiles are capable of finding their way to their targets without the aid of satellites. If this is indeed the case, then is it not true the missiles, as they currently exist, are available for the UK government to use unilaterally?

Close attention to the language used by both sides of the debate would suggest that this is true. The UK government, for example, is keen to stress that they have ‘effective operational control’, whilst opponents of Trident often stress a ‘long-term reliance upon American goodwill’.

How to win at Gwent!

How to win at Gwent!

Show of hands: anyone else here a Gwent-a-holic?

Come on, don’t be shy.

Too cool to admit to it, eh? Or are you just worried that it looks too complicated or even boring?

Well, you’re not alone. When first I played Projekt Red’s deceptively simple card game, I wrote it off as a tedious aside. ‘Who’s going to want to learn a whole new card game whist trying to get-to-grips with these complex game mechanics?’ I scoffed.

Two weeks later, and now I spend my evenings riding around the  Northern Kingdoms scouring every tavern, shop or smithy for anyone willing to offer me a few hands! I’ll play anyone. I’ve even (God help me!) eyed-up the real life Gwent decks available on eBay.

So, for the benefit of those uninitiated, here are a few things I’ve learnt about the game that might help you out.

  1. Build your deck! I really can’t emphasis this enough. Winning at higher levels of Gwent often means having the best cards on the table. If your cards are rubbish, you will loose. And the only way to get hold of good cards is to win them competitively from NPCs. (Ok, you can buy some good cards – such as scorch – from merchants and pub landlords). But mostly you are going to have to play a lot of matches and build up an impressive hand.
  2. Complete the Gwent missions as soon as possible. I left it until quite late in the game to start building my Gwent deck, and as a result lost the opportunity to gain quite a few unique cards. Remember the Bloody Baron you encounter a few hours into the game? (Spoiler alert!) Well, don’t make my mistake and leave it until it’s too late to try and win his unique card. By the time I realised I wanted his card, the Robert Baratheon wanna-be was swinging in the breeze at the end of a rope!
  3. At the start of each game the computer randomly selects 10 cards from your deck of 22 and this makes up your opening hand. Early on in the game this will probably end up including quite a few rubbish cards (see point 1) along with the good ones. As your deck gets bigger, however, you can reduce the chances of drawing useless cards by shrinking the size of your starting deck. Remember, you only need 22 cards to play, so if you have 30 cards in your Northern realms deck and ten of them suck, then be sure to eliminate the eight worst cards from the drawing process before the match begins.
  4. Be prepared to loose a round. Gwent is the best of three, remember, so you don’t need to win every round. And tactically speaking, loosing a round can sometimes be the easiest path to victory. If you three cards into a game against a Monsters deck and the NPC has already played  three infantry cards that draw in outside assistance then consider conceding the point. Do the maths. I’f he’s already scored 40 points and you’re only at 14, how many cards are you going to have to lay to chase a win? If the number is too high (you need cards left other to play another two rounds, don’t forget), then resign save your best cards for a later stage.
  5. Speaking of saving cards: buy or win as many scorch, decoy and spy cards as you can! These cards are game changes. No, seriously. That front rank of chained monsters with a high score your NPC opponent has smugly laid before you? A scorch card might be able to wipe them out. Those three cards you laid in the game above that are wasted if you resign the round? Well, if you have decoy cards then you can claim the highest cards back. And spies? Well, spies are arguably one of the most useful cards you can have. For each spy you lay you draw two extra cards for you deck. (The downside being that the spy usually has a points value which is added to your opponents score.) Lay every spy you can, because in Gwent the more cards you have the more points you will score, and the more points you score the more likely you are to win.
  6. Decoy enemy spies. If you have a few decoys in your deck, it’s often a good idea to pick up any spy cards laid by your opponent so that you can chuck them right back at him and even up the card numbers. I’ve played games in which both the NCP and I have 2-3 spies each and a number of decoys, and these spy cards have ended up trading hands several times. By doing this you can end up with 12, 13, even 14 cards in your hand! Very handy.

 

Happy Gwenting!

In its Prime? Amazon’s one day delivery service

In its Prime? Amazon’s one day delivery service

I’ve had Amazon Prime for a year now. Am I going to renew my membership? Yes, I think I am.

Here’s why:

  • I hate going round the shops at the best of time, but in November and December I have a rule: I only venture into a shopping centre if it’s an emergency. If a fuse has blown and I absolutely need it fixed that day, fine I’ll make a lightening raid upon a hardware store. If I’ve just noticed a hole in my shoe and I have a big interview tomorrow, then yeah, I run the gauntlet of the shoe shops. But that’s about it. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, I’m not going anywhere near a high street that’s festooned with lights, tinsel, and that’s filled with the warbling’s of Slade or George Michael ‘simply wishing me a wonderful Christmas time’. Prime saves me from this nightmare. It’s an absolute sanity-saved at Christmas time!
  • Prime costs £79 a year. The more you use it the better the value. I use Amazon quite a lot, so when all is said and done, I pay less than a pound for each item delivered. Where else can you get 24-hour delivery for under a pound? Nowhere that I know of.
  • Prime Moveis really isn’t that bad. Sure, the catalogue doesn’t match up to the one on Netflix, but the 1080 quality through the PS3 or PS4 is good, streaming load times have improved a lot since I first started using the service in 2013 (no long Friday night buffering sessions), and 4K will be along some time in 2016. The one-day delivery alone provides me with good value for money, so to have a catalogue of streamable films and TV shows to watch for virtually no money at all just sweetens the deals.

Having said all that, Prime isn’t all roses.

  • Amazon use a bewildering number of couriers. One of these couriers allows you to track your package down the last few minutes via Google maps. The rest, however, simply give you a delivery window the size of a day. I’ve had parcels arrive at nine in the morning, and I’ve had other turn up at eight in the evening. If there’s something you need and the delivery is on a Saturday, it can be a real nuisance to have to wait in all day just for a deliveryman. Also, some of the couriers are more reliable than others. I’ve had a few of my one-day delivery items arrive three days later.
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Woo! I’m a delivery boy!
  • Prime movies might be thrown in for free (or at least it seems that way to me), but the range of movies isn’t really that great. Several times I’ve bookmarked a film to watch later only to discover that Amazon have stopped showing it. Rabble, rabble rabble! Why not just keep building the library, Amazon? Why rotate them away? Because it’s not just recently release that this happens to. Decades old TV shows vanish over night, and so do films from the 70s and 80s. The bigger your library the more customers you would attract, no?

The Nintendo NX

The Nintendo NX

Dear Nintendo,

Let’s face it: the Wii U has been a disaster! Your previous worst-selling console, the GameCube, sold just under 22 million units in its lifetime. Whilst the Wii U, by contrast, has managed just half that in it’s almost three years on this planet. Yup, sales figures for the Wii U as of this summer (2015) stand at just 10 million – on a par with of the 10 million Dreamcasts sold by Sega right before the company went belly up.

Now, I know that that’s not going to happen to you, Your handhelds are still selling like hot cakes, and I have no doubt that you can and will roll again in the console market. In fact, rumours are already circulating about your NX. Will it be a hand-held-console hybrid? What kind of controller system will they opt for? Perhaps you’ll let us know sooner than we think.

I want the NX to be a success; I’ve owned seven Nintendo consoles in my life (including hand-helds) and I’d be heartbroken if you went down the tubes in the face of tablet gaming competition and a string of failed home consoles. I don’t want to be stuck in a bare choice between Sony and Microsoft, and I don’t want all my gaming on the go to be freemium- garbage upon non-dedicated device. So, at absolutely no cost whatsoever, here are three tips to help ensure that the NX is not a disaster.

  • Please stop releasing consoles with previous-generation specifications! I realise processor speeds, amounts of RAM and other technical specifications matter to a very limited number of consumers, but even a five year old can see the night and day difference in graphics between a PlayStation 4 game and a game on the Wii U! So please sort it out. After all, it’s only the last few consoles you’ve released that have been tech sloths. When the N64 came out, it blew everything else away with its capabilities. It was (and still is) superior to the original PlayStation (there, I’ve said it!)
  • Why not release a console with some launch titles that fans might actually want? How long did we have to wait for a Mario or Mario Kart game on the Wii U? Months. Years even. And how about a Zelda title? Well, we’re umm, still waiting, aren’t we? I know you don’t release software until you’ve got it right, and that is a highly commendable trait in an industry increasingly full of buggy code and endless patches, but strong launch titles sell consoles. Release the NX with a Mario game and a Zelda title on hand and watch the NX fly off the shelves! Now imagine that those games come with next gen quality graphics (see point one), and you’re almost home.
  • For the love of God, please stop fixating on quirky controllers! You’re obsessed and it’s not healthy. Yes, the Wii was a the third best-selling console of all time, and yes, a large part of that was down to the ‘wand’s’ appeal to gamers of all ages, but most other consoles do just fine with functional classic thumb-sticks and buttons. The failure of the Wii U is, in my opinion, at least partly down to that bizarre dinner tray controller you lumbered us with. What were you thinking? Did you even do consumer testing on that one?

 

So there it is: make a bleeding-edge, high spec console (just like you always used to) that at least competes, with if not betters the competition, and launch it with a blistering line up of Nintendo software titles. Package all that with a simple to use and functional controller and I pretty much guarantee you’ll do a hell of a lot better than you have with the U. Maybe not quite 1980s better, but you can’t keep going on like this!

Best wishes for the future,

A fan

 

Quiet Carriages on a Commuter Train? There’s no such thing.

You’ve all been there: the carriage is packed, and with no hope of getting a seat, you prepare to write off yet another commute into work. So long productivity, hello forty-five minutes of staring at the same grey scenery whilst adopting the ‘feet flat, legs wide, hands gripping nearby headrest, goodness I hope the train doesn’t lurch and send me thrusting into the face of that man at crotch level’ stance of the regular British train user. You could read? But you know where that leads: printed words plus motion equals a morning feeling as if you just stepped off the deck George Clooney’s swordfishing boat in A Perfect Storm. (I commiserate, I really do). So what to do on your journey into work? Ah yes. You reach for your pocket, you reach for an audio book or a podcast, you reach for some music, for a little private space away from the clamour, you close your eyes and prepare to drift away…

Only – there is a problem.

No headphones or music allowed: this is a ‘quiet carriage’.

Not that you would know it. The only thing even vaguely competing with the whir and clack of the train’s powerful engine is the incessant chatter and crisp munching of your fellow passengers. This is no sleepy noonday crawler; it is a London commuter: a circus of shirts and skirts, of 90s looking ‘power laptops’ and of buzz-word round-table meeting speak, all guffed about the carriage on waves of mint-fresh mouthwash breath. Peace and quiet? You would find more solace standing in a ring of teenage girls at the front row of a Justin Beiber concert.

So what now? Abide by the rules and etiquettes (deeply ingrained and reasonable as they are), or, try to make the journey a little more bearable? You did not, after all, choose to stand in a quiet carriage. All the other carriages were full. And it’s not like this is an isolated incident. It is, what, the third time this week?

Slowly, inevitably, boredom wins out. Out come the noise-cancelling headphones. Oh, you’ve no intention of plugging them in. You just want to use them like earplugs. And that’s not unreasonable, is it? I mean, the purpose of ‘quiet carriages’ is to reduce noise. And in no discernable way can you be accused of adding to the sum total of noise going on from one end of the carriage to the other.

And yet, barely a minute passes before, out of the corner of your sleep-filled eye, you become aware that a person in a nearby seat is calling to you, gesticulating to get your attention. Smiling, you pluck the bungs from your ears and lean in, already dreading the inevitable.

“This is a quiet carriage, you aren’t allowed to wear headphones in here.”

You blush; the person’s voice is loud enough for all those in the vicinity to hear. “I’m terribly sorry, but it was just so noisy.”

“Well you are hardly helping. I can hear your music from here!”

The unconnected end of your headphone jack slips from your pocket without so much as a phone or MP3 player in sight.

“I wasn’t listening to any music, I use the headphones as ear plugs to block out the noise.”

The person sits back, lips puckering like a sea anemone pocked with a stick. The word liar is etched into every crease of their forty-something brow. Not that you blame them. You wouldn’t believe it either. Yet there it is.

Awkward silence falls. Perhaps the only silence you will get that entire journey.

Now don’t get me wrong, I support quiet carriages. After all, what reasonable person could object to the setting aside of a small portion of each for those who do not wish to be disturbed by the half-muted thud of other people’s music and the constant one-sided chatter of mobile phone speak? Certainly not I, keen as I am on quiet spaces, and fastidious as I am about the observance and respect for common courtesies. (If it were up to me, Britain would be littered with ‘quiet zones’. There would be ‘quite enforcement officers’ in every library. Sorry, I mean to say, ‘in every Facebook checking waystation come DVD rental store’). But the reality of Britain’s woefully underfunded and ludicrously over burdened railway network is that quiet carriages on commuter trains are an unfair nonsense. When boarding a rush-hour train, one seldom has a choice about where to sit or stand. There is no freedom to select a quiet carriage as a preference over a ‘noisy’ carriage, and the nature of the trains – busy, packed, filled with people who are already on their third espresso of the morning – means that these ‘quiet carriages’ are seldom the havens they were designed to be. When the lady in my tale leaned forward to rebuke me for breaking the rules (which was a reasonable thing to do), I suspect that what she was really doing was expressing her own frustrations at being able unable to move away from the coffee-slurping gent to her right and the pinstripe suite slumped opposite – a man whose bourdon snores were probably tripping alarms in the seismology stations of the San Fernando Valley. Being unable to do anything about these perfectly ‘legal’ irritations, she directed her ire against me. Well, I sympathise. I really do. And what’s more I apologise. I broke the rules. But given that I couldn’t possibly have been accused of making any noise, (even if my headphones had been plugged into something, mine are of sufficient quality to prevent noise leaking out into the environment) wouldn’t it have been kinder to leave me in peace? I know not everybody owns such a pair of headphones. (Yes, I’m looking at you, users of stock Apple ear buds: they leak worse than Julian Assange high on sodium penthanol at a kiss-and-tell party). But in a carriage where noise is so ubiquitous, why torture the many for the sins of the thoughtless few?

Save the quiet carriages for the sleepy lunchtime trains. Abandon them on the commuter trains. They leave those of us seeking genuine solitude with nowhere to hide.

Once upon a time in a world called Albion

Once upon a time in a world called Albion

Open-world RPGs have grown in ambition so much since 2004, so on the eve of it’s tenth birthday, how does Molyneux’s much vaunted Fable game look in 2014?

Well, pretty darn good, actually! The graphics have had an almost complete overhaul, the lighting is much more subtle and nuanced, and Elfman’s magical score (one of the best ever produced for a video game in my opinion) definitely has more depth to it when compared to the original, somewhat tinny tracks that used to come out of the Xbox.

The game itself has improved menu system and noticeably faster load times. It is, in many ways, a much more polished, much less buggy (oh dear Lord, the game freezes in the original!) much dandier version of its original, beautiful self.

But does it live up to my fond memories of the original? Well, yes and no. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I adored the original Fable game. I played it through at least a half-dozen times, bought the soundtrack and waited with baited-breath for every further instalment in the franchise that Lionhead threw my way over the following years. I was lucky in that I missed the pre-release hype and therefore, unlike many disgruntled gamers, didn’t feel a sense of disappointment at what the game could and couldn’t do compared to what Molyneux had claimed it would be able to do (let us no forget acorn-gate). I went into it blind, and then staggered about with my eyes wide and wet with wonder.

Fable Anniversary is, in many ways, exactly what I had hoped it would be. It’s the original game that I love only better. And yet…and yet it feels as if something is missing, and I think I know what it is….

It’s me. I’ve changed. The game’s the same, but my expectations aren’t. In the decade that has passed, I’ve come to expect more from my PRGs. It’s as simple as that. What used to thrill and delight (oh my, there’s so much open space!) now feels a little confined. What used to seem ground breaking (oh wow, you can actually make moral decisions!) now seems standard practice.

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The vast open world of Fable

I very much enjoyed stepping out in the world of Albion once more and Fable will always have a place in my heart, but I can’t help wondering if some things are better left in the memory. If anyone wants me, I’ll be lost listening to Danny Elfman’s soundtrack….