Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bark: Every cloud has a silver lining

I've just finished collating and cross-referencing all the evidence in my NQT folder, which in my currently brain-addled, fevered and achey state has taken all afternoon (albeit interspersed with a bit of Wimbledon-watching and a trip to the supermarket for food). If they judge it by weight, I don't think I have anything to worry about. Will be nice to hand it in tomorrow. I would get seriously drunk to celebrate, but that's not a good idea considering the medication I'm on right now. I guess I'll have to make do with a nice cup of caffiene-free vanilla tea and some white chocolate instead...

Bark: Tau Day

Some people clearly need better things to get worked up about. This is the kind of thing that gives Mathematicians a bad name.

Bark: Run for cover (work)

I tend not to blog about work, for patently obvious reasons, but today is an exception, because I've actually had to take a day off due to illness (only the second day I've taken off all year). Like most teachers, I tend to go to work even if I'm feeling a little peaky (which isn't often, since sharing a school with 1500+ filthy teenagers tends to give your immune system a good workout - I really don't get ill that often anymore, compared to when I worked from home), because it's a pain in the arse setting cover work. Writing cover work is more difficult than planning a normal lesson, because there are no guarantees that the lesson will be taught by a subject specialist or even a fully qualified teacher, given that most schools these days have dedicated, full-time cover supervisors (and dedicated is the right word - I think it's a far tougher job than teaching, as you have to be ready to teach anything to anyone, for a fraction of the pay of a qualified teacher).

Having to take today off is particularly galling, because I'd normally be teaching five out of six scheduled periods - which is a hell of a lot of cover work to plan and write up. It's not ideal for anyone, really, especially the cover supervisors and the technicians that have to put together new sets of resources for my lessons. Unfortunately, there's not much choice in the matter, because I'm well beyond the point of feeling peaky.

I got bitten by a tick a couple of Saturdays ago when I was visiting Virginia Woolf's writing retreat, Monk's House, (yes, I am now officially old, if it wasn't already confirmed - I'm a member of the National Trust) and I could probably place where I picked up the little bloodsucking bastard up to within about 50 feet, since there was only one piece of long grass on the site that I walked through. I went to bed on the Saturday night not noticing anything unusual, but when I woke up on the Sunday, there the little chitinous fucker was, attached to my lower left leg. Now, as a science teacher (who, ironically, was supposed to be teaching my Year 7s about parasites today), I know ticks are disease vectors and carry all sorts of horrible bacteria of the distinctly unfriendly variety, chief among them being Borrellia Burgdorferi, the cause of Lyme Disease.

Being fairly knowledgeable about ticks, I knew how to remove it safely (that is, without leaving mouthparts or even the whole head behind) and got the little bastard off, disposed of it and disinfected the site of the bite. Given that the infection rate of Lyme disease is quite low (generally ticks need to have been feeding for more than 24 hours to pass on the bacteria), evidently I was unlucky, because last Friday I started getting secondary symptoms of Lyme disease - tightness of the muscles around the bite, headaches and some muscle stiffness (which I attributed to getting a poor night's sleep and a pollen count so high it would give me a migraine anyway). Over the weekend, however, that turned into headaches, loss of concentration, muscle and joint pain and a fever, with the skin around where I'd been bitten coming out nicely (read "horribly") with a blood-red rash. It's not uncommon for symptoms to wait a couple of weeks (or even a month) before manifesting themselves (again, something I knew after reading up about Lyme disease when I'd heard it talked about on House), so on Monday I took advantage of a gap in my timetable to get in to get in to see my GP, who told me it probably was indeed Lyme disease, gave me a blood test on the spot (the results of which I should get on Friday) and prescribed me Doxycycline, a broad-spectrum antibiotic so powerful that it can be used to treat bubonic plague, MRSA and malaria.

The medicine itself has some nasty side effects, not least photosensitivity (just as well that I'm a natural sun-dodger) and instructions to not lie down for 30 minutes after taking the medicine to prevent irritation and ulceration of the gullet... It also makes me so nauseous that it's difficult to find the will to eat - and I've got two weeks of this. Though I suppose the bit that really adds insult to injury is that I've got to completely avoid alcohol while I'm taking the medicine. Great news for my liver and my waistline, maybe, but it means I can't even celebrate the end of my NQT year. I had my final assessment observation yesterday (the only reason I went into work at all - couldn't the symptoms have waited another week before really kicking in?) and it went pretty well, considering that it was a shortened lesson at the end of the day (30 minutes rather than 50, because of an early finish for the day, as our year 11s had their celebration assembly in the afternoon) and that I was running a fever and felt like crap.

Anyway, I think I've written enough for now, so I'm going to do some cover work of my own: bed covers...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Byte: Here Be Dragons

I wasn't alone this year in finding Dragon Age II a little on the disappointing side. While it had great characters and a decent enough story, the ending was anti-climactic to say the least and some was the game design was on the wrong side of lazy, with cut-and-paste dungeons galore and far too much padding in the action sequences with trash mobs. I also wasn't especially fond of the way BioWare slimmed down the RPG elements and slimmed down the talents and skills system and the inventory management - I prefer my RPGs with lots to fiddle with and customise.

So I decided to return to Dragon Age: Origins and finish my playthrough as a rogue (I previously completed it with a mage - a class that ends up being ridiculously overpowered at the end of the game - as mages should be!). My rogue is a human noble, which I basically picked because I want to be King (AND IN THE GAME!) - what can I say? Queen Anora is a cutie. Even though it's kind of like kicking a puppy while its looking up at you lovingly, the completist in me led me to exile Alistair after the Landsmeet and conscript Loghain into the Grey Wardens, simply for the irony value.

I took some slightly different routes on my play through - I sided with the clearly deranged Branka in the Anvil of the Void quest, which was a particularly tough battle, since Shale defected over to support Caridin, so I had to fight the battle with an incomplete party. Though at least the pragmatic pay-off was be that I had a squad of ridiculously tough golems to help take on the Archdemon at the finale in Denerim.

I suppose the thing I really prefer in Dragon Age: Origins compared to Dragon Age II is that the combat is much more tactical and requires careful management, even on low difficulty settings. The advanced tactics settings (provided you configure them correctly) do streamline the combat to some degree (purists can turn them off, naturally), but combat with bosses and multiple mobs can quickly get away from you if you don't keep a close eye on the health of all your characters. The other curious thing about Dragon Age is that the best party configuration isn't Warrior-heavy (unlike Baldur's Gate, say). Two mages is practically compulsory at all times (one for DPS and another for DPS/healing), with a warrior acting as a tank and a rogue acting as ranged DPS or back-stabby DPS from stealth, along with the obligatory trap-finding and locked chest opening duties. The story in Origins is also a heck of a lot more multi-layered than in Dragon Age II, though perhaps some of the characters aren't quite so well defined in Origins as they are in the sequel. The other really impressive thing in Origins is that (appropriately) all of the different origin stories for the protagonist are interesting and worth playing, with characters you meet at the beginning of the game coming back for cameos later. Some are more significant than others (especially Jowan, from the Mage origin story).

Dragon Age: Origins, in my opinion, is by far the superior RPG of the two games, both in terms of storytelling and RPG mechanics, and while it might lack some of the immediacy of the Mass Effects or the more formal fantasy setting of something like Baldur's Gate 2, it certainly makes up for it in terms of depth and execution. Here's hoping that the seemingly inevitable Dragon Age III will be more like Origins than Dragon Age II... but somehow, given the direction Bioware have been moving in lately, I doubt it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Byte: I have a need...

... a Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit.

I picked up NFS:HP about a month ago, when it was on sale for around £23 in HMV, after having my interest in the game piqued by playing it a few times on the demo pod at the GAME in Guildford, but it's only really in the last week or so that I've really started devoting a bit of play time to it. Oh man, do I regret that, because it's a terribly sexy and shiny racing game.

This shouldn't be too much of a surprise, given that it comes from the Criterion stable; home to the Burnout series - of which Burnout 3: Takedown has to rate as one of my favourite racing games ever, particularly in the wonderfully brutal multiplayer modes.

Hot Pursuit's twist is that you get to play the game from the perspective of both sides of the law - as a cop and a law-breaking street racer. The physics of the car handling modelling is spot on for an arcade racer, striking a good balance between being realistic enough to allow for proper power-sliding or drifting around corners, yet not so twitchy that the handling model will throw you off the track at the merest mistake. You're also given gadgets, such as EMPs or spike strips to help you evade capture or take down suspects - with the Seacrest Police Department missions also giving you the option of setting up road blocks or calling in helicopter support.

The game is also well balanced and the difficulty in single player mode is nicely pitched to allow a novice to progress yet still challenge a more experienced player in order to earn gold medal in each event. Interestingly, I've enjoyed the law enforcement missions more than the racer missions, perhaps because they are slightly more challenging in the win and penalty conditions. The mission and track design is solid, if perhaps a bit too familiar to Burnout 3 veterans. The gadgets do certainly liven up the missions, but broadly speaking, Hot Pursuit refines rather than innnovates.

Not that this is to say that this is necessarily a bad thing: while the game doesn't really try to introduce new game mechanics to the genre, the whole game is executed brilliantly. The only things I would criticise are the loading times, which are slightly on the tardy side and the ear-bleed soundtrack that seems de rigeur for Need For Speed games. Though given that I grew to actually quite like some of the tracks on the Need For Speed: Underground soundtrack, I live in hope that some of the tunes in Hot Pursuit might grow on me. Maybe in a year or two...

Hot Pursuit does lack the car pimping aspects of Underground (which I really enjoyed fiddling with), but at least there are plenty of cars to unlock that give the missions some good replay value. The game's also terribly good looking, the handling model is responsive and not too twitchy for my old and increasingly flabby reflexes and the bite-sized chunks of gaming (single missions last between three and six minutes) make it incredibly moreish - it's a game that on the perilous side of addictive and it's very hard to put that controller down once you've picked it up.
I've really been enjoying it - it's definitely the best arcade street racer I've played in a couple of years.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Byte: Assistant Professor

I've been meaning to write about the latest World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm, for quite a while now. Earlier today, my druid finally hit the new level cap. I almost feel a little like I cheated, given that my last level and a half of experience up to level 85 was gained almost entirely by levelling up the almost entirely superfluous secondary skill, Archeology.

I say 'entirely superfluous', but there is a certain satisfaction to flying from one corner of the world to another, digging up artefacts and fossils - and it's not like it's a shortcut compared to questing - getting the NINE MILLION XP to level up from 84 to 85 still took me a good twelve hours of playing time over the course of a couple of weeks, though you could argue that it's the no-brainer alternative to conventional questing.

I do have to admit that one of the reasons that I chose to level my character this way was that I wanted to save the majority of the Cataclysm quests until I had hit the level cap, so that I could basically rake in a massive amount of money to fund my alternate characters. My original plan was to use the money to get Sharéth her Riding skill mastery, but it wasn't necessary in the end, given that I made a shed-load of money selling Heavy Knothide Leather in the auction house, while I was pursuing Outland-vintage reputation quests in Coilfang Reservoir for the Cenarion Expedition and doing dailies on Netherwing Ledge to finally get my Onyx Netherwing Drake - a flying mount that I'd been nerd-lusting over for a good five years... After nearly three weeks's worth of daily quests, I finally earned the reputation to get it, and it was worth every second of time invested. Perhaps even more so than the hours spent in Coilfang grinding the rep (and the 1600 gold) to get my Cenarion War Hippogryph. So far, so 2006, you might think - but I've always taken the long-term view, with regard to playing WoW. Now that I'm at the new level cap, some of the Wrath of the Lich King instances are on the table now for soloing - such as The Nexus and Utgarde Keep, which will help out my two main alts immensely (Level 75 Hunter and Level 70 Mage, respectively).

World of Warcraft may be an easy target these days for the "cool" gaming hardcore, but in my mind it still stands up as an outstanding piece of game design and interactive entertainment. Whatever its technical flaws, and even what some might call an iterative design philosophy (of incremental improvement, rather than revolutionary steps forward), I can't see myself stopping playing it anytime soon.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Bark/Byte: Sweeping away the tumbleweed

As my first full year as a qualified pedagogic facilitator draws to a close, I'm starting to feel the need to scratch the writing itch again. And now that I'm getting much more efficient at my job, I'm actually starting to be able to make the time to do it.

Unfortunately, regular games reviewing or feature writing is kind of out of the question (since it's just too time consuming), but I am gradually finding some time to re-start work on a couple of short stories (one sci-fi, one fantasy) that I've had on the go for over a year now. I'm concentrating on the fantasy one first (given that I'm in a fantasy mood, thanks to The Witcher 2 and my ongoing relationship with the worlds of Azeroth and Outland). I'm setting myself a target of trying to write at least a hundred words a day until the first draft is finished (at which point I can have it mercilessly picked apart by some of my closest confidants who know the odd thing or five about writing). It's a fairly modest target, you might think, but my greatest problem as a writer is that rather than just bashing down new words, I continually go back and revise and revise what I've already writing, rather than just finishing the story. This goes a long way to explaining why despite having lots of ideas for short stories (and even novels), to date I've not finished a single one. So those one hundred words a day need to be *new* words. I think I'm about a third to half way through the fantasy story so far (weighing in at around 17,000 words so far), so getting finished by the end of the year is a bit of a tall order. Though at least I do have the summer holiday in which to get some serious writing done.

Since I've never been one to really concentrate on one thing at a time, I've also got another non-fiction project on the go - a kind of gaming autobiography. I've only got a skeleton of the book ready so far - I know what games I want to write about, I've just got to sit down and actually bash out the text. Between the two of them, I've got enough writing to keep me busy for probably another year, but I do want to start blogging more regularly again - I really miss taking the time out just to reflect and keep a record of what's been going on and what I've found interesting. I'm not really interested in setting up a Twitter account - I'm not nearly vain enough to believe that the entire world needs to know what I think, as I think it, in 140 character brain dumps. If I'm going to write about something, I want it to have been really considered and thought about - knee-jerk or off the cuff responses to things just tend to get you in trouble anyway.

I'm also not falling into the "social" trap of Facebook, either - for me that's always seemed like an excuse to "keep up" with people without actually interacting with them socially. I guess I'm just old fashioned that way (though I've also got other, professional, reasons for steering well clear of it, too). Incidentally, I saw The Social Network a week or two back - brilliant film - and how ironic that probably the greatest social networking tool of the digital age was invented by someone so utterly socially dysfunctional... but I digress.

So I'm going to stick with the blog for now and try and update rather more regularly than I have over the last year or two. I'll blog later about the new PC and what I've been playing on it. Surprisingly, it's not all just about World of Warcraft...