Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bark: A creative educational initiative

Haiku are profound
Seventeen syllables able
To elucidate

An A-level course
With exquisite skill can be
Condensed eastern style

Thus born a grand plan
To summarise all of Physics
In a poetic form

Thinking creatively
Is a highly valued life skill
At university

Pupils find it hard
Michael Gove would not approve
My students hate writing

Monday, October 14, 2013

Bark: A faithful hound

I suppose it was inevitable.

My beloved Peugeot 406 Coupé (as seen here, under 3 inches of snow, back in 2009), which has been my faithful servant and hound for over ten years and over 141,000 miles, broke down for the third time in ten months last Tuesday. So, it was with great regret over the weekend that I decided that the Thrawnmobile (or Isabelle, as she's known to my other beloved) had to be humanely put down. Or rather, part-exchanged for something newer, more reliable and rather cheaper to run. (I was originally intending to give her a car's equivalent of a Viking burial by donating her as a training vehicle to the Fire Service, but the car dealer offered me a couple of hundred quid, so I took the offer of the part-ex instead).

So on Wednesday I'll be driving her for the final time down to Farnham, where I shall be taking possession of a rather dashing silver, 2009-plate Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec HDCi diesel. I test drove her (cars are always female, I don't know why - even in French it's 'la voiture') on Saturday, and despite having a much smaller engine than the 406's 2.2HDi, the car drives beautifully. Though at the moment, that's just a bonus, because the 406 was crippling me in terms of fuel cost, not to mention that the recurrent breakdowns were siphoning money out of my bank account uncomfortably quickly.

The Focus, on the other hand, should be at least 10mpg more efficient on my run to and from work every day, plus it's in a ridiculously low tax band (£30 a year, as opposed to £200) and because it's not as sporty as the coupé, it's a ludicrous £550 a year cheaper to insure - so I'm going to save at least £2000 in running costs over the next three years, all of which kind of makes me wonder why I didn't trade the car in sooner... Hindsight's a bitch, eh?

Anyway, I'm looking forward to getting the new car, not least because it's more practical than the coupé, which is rather important, given my latest hobby. I was lucky enough to get a small rebate on my previous mortgage (for some convoluted reason or another due to the government bailout of Northern Rock meaning we'd inadvertently been overcharged on something or other), so I decided to take the plunge and invest in a plug-in electric pottery kiln, rather presciently, while I had the money in my account before it could get gobbled up by, say, a car breakdown. These are not cheap things, so I was "pleased" that the car at least waited until after I'd bought it before cracking it's turbo pipe. The downside is that the cost of buying a new car is going to delay me being able to afford a throwing wheel for at least a few months, but having the kiln is way more important, as at least in the meantime I can hand-build stuff from clay coils or slabs. So actually having a hatchback car, rather than a saloon like the coupé, makes things way easier in terms of transporting sacks of clay and the like. I should start building and firing simple things like coil pots and slab cups over the next few weeks, as soon as I get down to Clayman in Chichester to buy the clay and glazes and the few tools I'm missing (such as clay reclaiming buckets and the like). Exciting times ahead. When I'm making stuff decent enough to brag about, I'll post pictures. (Give me a few months on that!)

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Bark: Iain [M] Banks

I wasn't expecting this when I logged into my computer an hour ago. It kind of goes without saying that every sympathy should be extended to Iain Banks and his family, as at an age of just 59, this kind of news is beyond terrible, but I'm actually quite depressed about this myself.

Over the last six months I've read no less than five of Iain Banks' novels (Transition, Stonemouth, Matter, Surface Detail and The Player of Games) and only this morning started reading The Crow Road. So you could say that he was rather rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors (right up there alongside J.G. Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut), and his Culture novels have certainly been influential in getting me to sit down and write my own 'hard' sci-fi (40,258 words of my -first?- novel so far and counting) - in fact, I'd rank Use of Weapons as easily in my top three favourite novels, arguably even at the top of the tree. But what makes news like this hard to take is not just the loss of someone as a writer, but as a person.

His statement, which you can't read on his own website, (it has understandably crashed due to the deluge of traffic at the news) is honest, brutally honest, dignified and even has some of Banks' trademark dark humour thrown in, too - if you'll forgive the pun, it's Cultured. I guess most people try to find connections to the artists whose work they admire (be they actors, writers, directors, musicians or whatever), and I suppose I identify with Banks so strongly because a) we're both Scottish, b) have the same first name, spelled properly, c) neither of us have any truck with organised religion and d) we both want to live in a massively decadent, post-money, post-scarcity techno-anarchist utopia. But it's not just that, every interview I've read or seen with Iain Banks, he just comes across as a really nice guy; intelligent, inventive, articulate and just a little bit mischievous as well. Essentially, the kind of guy I'd like to spend time in the pub with, drinking large volumes of strong continental lager while discussing life, the universe and everything. For the people who are lucky enough to know him socially, I'm sure he'll leave a larger hole behind in their lives than for those of us who simply admire his work as a writer.

A sad day. I think I need to listen to something beautiful now.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bark: A week to forget

The last seven days have been pretty horrible, all in all. I'll be glad to see the back of them. Firstly, I broke down on the way to work with a knackered clutch, which steadily evolved into a knackered clutch, knackered engine flywheel and a leaking radiator, which will set me back to the discordant tune of nearly £1300. As if that wasn't bad enough, because the garage weren't able to get a new radiator in stock before the weekend, I've had to hire a car for an extra three days, setting me back nearly another £150, and just to top things off, my car needs taxing and MOT'ing before the end of the month, so that's another £107, because I only can afford 6 month's tax, thanks to that bombshell landing on my finances, and it might be wise to stagger the outgoings of my car tax and MOT by six month so this kind of thing doesn't happen again.

It was also my 37th birthday on Sunday, but that mostly passed me by, because I've spent about 65 of the last 72 hours asleep in bed, trying to get rid of the throat and chest infection I picked up on Friday night during my supervision of two hours's whole school detention (just the way you want to start your birthday weekend!), so I didn't even get to celebrate that, either. Nary a phone call or an email from my family, either (not that I was in any condition to answer it, but still!), so not a terribly great week. My whole month's salary has gone out of the door as swiftly as it came in, my birthday was a total write off and my lungs still feel like they're staging some kind of coup-de-etat against my other internal organs. I don't rate my chances of getting into work tomorrow.

Still, mustn't grumble, hey?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bark: OUCH

I got some bad news on the car this evening. When the mechanics stripped the engine to get to the clutch to replace it, they discovered that the flywheel that connects the clutch mechanism to the engine itself had started to fracture and disintegrate, meaning that it had to be replaced as well as the standard clutch kit. Not only that, it appears that I have a (minor, so far) radiator leak, and that might need replacing as well - which could lumber me with a repair bill in the ballpark of £1000 - just what you need in the month after Christmas, particularly when I also have to MOT and tax the car. So while it might have been a well-timed catastrophe yesterday, it has turned out to be a much more expensive one than I'd feared.

Still, I've been trying to find a silver lining. If there is one, it's this: my liver will be relieved, because with a repair bill that size, I'm not going to be able to afford to drink for the next few months... Who'd own a car, eh?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bark: Serendipity

Life is funny sometimes. I can often be heard remarking to my students that the universe is a cold, dark, uncaring and pitiless place, but occasionally, a chain of events can occur, purely by happenstance and beyond your conscious control, that solves a problem you knew you had, but didn't know how to solve. Such a chain of events occurred to me in the last 24 hours or so. I had one major problem to solve this week. How on Earth was I supposed to get my car into the garage for the MOT it needs so I can purchase a new tax disk before the end of the month, yet still get the 15 miles or so from my house to my place of work and back again - preferably without requiring horrific three hour journeys via public transport, or equally horrific 5.30am starts to get a lift with the only colleague I have who lives in my general area. I was pondering this conundrum last night when I received a text message. It wasn't anything exciting, like a message from a long lost cousin saying I'd come into a vast inheritance or anything like that. No, it was Virgin Mobile nagging me that I only had two quid's worth of airtime left on my phone. I duly doffed my wallet, and topped up my balance by £20, which as it would turn out this morning, was crucial. After I'd finished planning my lessons for the next day, I went to bed and continued to wonder, just how the heck was I going to solve my problem and avoid the DVLA threatening to crush my car for not being able to MOT and tax my car in time. I woke up this morning, full of enthusiasm for the day ahead (that is, dog-tired and stressed - the standard state of being for a secondary school teacher) and climbed into the car, ready to face the ice-caked roads for another awe-inspiring trip to work. The universe, however, had other ideas. I opted to take the main roads, rather than the less busy shortcut I usually take, simply because I didn't want to run my car into a tree by skidding off an untreated road covered in ice, which again, turned out to be a good decision, as it meant spending nearly half an hour in stop-start traffic, trying to negotiate all the roundabouts and busy intersections that I normally bypass. What this meant was that by the time I met the usual queues of traffic at the M3 turnoff roundabout between Lightwater and Chobham, the clutch in my car was begging for mercy, and promptly died before receiving any. This sounds bad. And, indeed, it is. At the time, 7.35am, in the middle of rush hour traffic on one of the busiest roads in the local area, breaking down with a broken clutch could best be described as a catastrophe, and an expensive one at that. Particularly since the world and his wife, and their pet dogs and fish had also decided to break down in the cold weather at this precise point in time, meaning that it took me 25 minutes of waiting on hold to get through to the AA for them to send a rescue party. So it was just as well that I'd topped up my airtime balance the night before, because I would have run out of credit halfway through the time on hold if I hadn't. Also, thanks to the beauty of having recently upgraded to a smartphone (the cheap but rather awesome Samsung Galaxy Ace), I was able to alert my school that I wouldn't be in and email instructions for what cover work needed to be done, which wasn't that much, because even though I have a full timetable today, only three of my six groups needed covering, as one group was off-timetable anyway, the sixth formers are more than capable of fending for themselves and I was team-teaching another session that wouldn't require cover, so it wouldn't inconvenience people at school so much. Having sorted all that out while I waited for the AA patrol, I was able to redirect my attention to the car. Now, clutch failure is pretty serious - a bit of a showstopper, in fact. Knowing that the only option was to have my car towed to a garage, I decided to give my usual garage a call in the hope that they could double-book the car in to do the MOT at the same time, which they were able to do. I also knew that thanks to my top tier AA Gold membership, I get to have a courtesy car for 72 hours, thanks to the AA and Enterprise, which neatly sorts out my transport problem when the car is in the garage being fixed and MOT'ed. As usual, it took hours for the car to get to the garage, me to get to the car hire place and then to scoot off into the icy hinterlands of Surrey to collect my hire car and return to civilisation, but all's well that ends well. I have transport while my car is in the garage, and I should get it back, fully MOT'ed before the DVLA will start sending me threatening noises about unpaid car tax bills and crushed cars. As catastrophes go, this one was definitely fortuitously-timed and while it will no doubt prove an expensive one, at least I get paid next week, and it's not going to be my car I'm going to crash if the ice all gets too much later in the week. So here's to the universe's lateral thinking and problem solving skills - every cloud does have a silver lining... And after all, 134,221 miles isn't bad for one clutch, is it?

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Bark/Byte: That was the year that was...

Other than the fact I only made seven blog posts (which was pretty pathetic, frankly) 2012 was a fairly awesome year. I had a good year professionally, I moved house from a one bedroom shoebox to a lovely 3 bed semi that required practically no DIY at all, other than a lick or two of paint, I found out that I'm a reasonably talented at using a pottery throwing wheel (more on that hopefully later this year - Fleur has promised to buy me one for my birthday at the end of the month), I wrote an original film script for Script Frenzy, also wrote half of a novella and it was also a pretty decent year for books, films and videogames, too.

It was, though, epically busy, hence my seeming retirement from the internet, other than the odd Google Plus post. I'm going to try and make a bit more time for blogging this year, as I do miss writing something other than lesson plans, tests and schemes of learning. So I'm going to try to post something meaningful here at least once a week. I'm also aiming to write a page of a film script every day as well - a target that's certain to be missed, but even if I only manage a page once every three days, I should still have a workable film script by the end of the year. I'm also going to try and finish off my novella this year, too. So 2013 should be a more creative year than 2012, but probably no less busy.

Normally at this time of the year, I blog about the top 5 or top 10 videogames of the year, but this year, I think I'll widen the parameters a bit to include my favourite books and films. Note that these will be my favourites that I played/read/watched in 2012 - which means that they might not have been released or published in 2012 - it's just the year in which I experienced them, as a consumer of entertainment media, if such a thing exists - but I can't think of a more elegant term right now, so it will have to do.

Videogame of the Year:
Still Skyrim. Yes, I know it came out in November 2011, but if my Steam playing statistics are to be believed, the 415 hours I've got logged in the most picturesque province of Tamriel are testament to the fact that no other game released in the last 12 months touches it, or even comes close, in terms of spectacle, story or depth. Which is pretty damning of the videogames industry, really, but nothing released in 2012 grabbed my attention and held it for as long as Skyrim has done. I haven't even done that much with the Dawnguard or Hearthfire expansions yet, and there's the Dragonborn expansion to come in another couple of months. Part of the reason for the game's longevity in my psyche was down to the amazing amount of mods and tweaks available through the Steam Workshop, though recently I've had to tone back on the mods, because it was making the game a bit ridiculous - though I've kept a lot of the more lore-friendly mods, because they do improve on the vanilla game quite a bit - espeically in terms of the UI. I can see myself still playing Skyrim for a long time to come - it's really a game that keeps on giving.

The best of the rest:
Borderlands 2 is definitely my favourite new release of 2012. It's bright, bold, brash and bonkers. And brilliant. And it also gave me an excuse to call my students "minions", which they absolutely love.
Terraria was also a game I had a lot of fun with this year. Initially it looks kinda mindless, clinking away with your pickaxe as you dig your way through the world (literally!), but it's another game with hidden depths and masses of complexity hidden behind the retro graphics. And the fact it's playable on a netbook is just a bonus.
Diablo III and Mists of Pandaria both deserve mentions, because 2012 was a fairly big year for Blizzard, at least in terms of releases. I sank a lot of time into Diablo III, co-oping with buddy Phil, which was infinitely preferable to playing it solo, as (despite the polish) the game and story itself weren't terribly inspiring. As for WoW, it's still my MMORPG of choice, even after all these years, but bizzarely I've put less time into it this year post-release of Mists of Pandaria than I did before the expansion came out. And I actually quite like the Pandas... I guess being involved with the beta actually took the edge off the novelty of it for me. But I will, inevitably, go back to it.
XCOM - Enemy Unknown was one release I was hoping wouldn't disappoint this year, and I think, on the whole, delivered according to expectations. It's not without flaws - I think the maximum squad size of six is too small (a concession to consoleland, I fear) and the game has the bad habit of isolating your soldiers and then throwing six enemies at them, so it's got a few game balancing issues, but I did enjoy the reimagining. Damningly though, I still think I'd prefer the original if I could only play one of them, and I wouldn't put that down to nostalgia.

Surprise Package of the Year:
While it pains me to admit it, being a die-hard "Han shot first" Star Wars fan, Star Trek Online is way better than Star Wars: The Old Republic. I tried to love The Old Republic, but I can't do it. It's dull as hell in PvE and I don't have the time or patience to get into the PvP. I also don't like the aesthetics very much and I absolutely hate the fact that as a Jedi character you're able to get spanked resoundingly by common or garden street trash. That Jedi characters are zero fun to play at all is more than enough reason for me to bin my subscription. It's just not worth it.
Star Trek Online, on the other hand, is free to play, totally nails the aesthetic look of the ships and universe, and actually makes good use of MMO-style combat mechanics. The space battles are really well done (almost on a par with Star Trek: Bridge Commander - an old favourite of mine) and the ground combat is passably more fun than in The Old Republic. The group PvE events are awesome and you can grind them to get the dilithium you need to buy extra ships, without having to pay real cash for them - the only truly intrusive "pay to win" feature has to be the lock boxes, which you have to pay a quid a throw to open. I have about 30 of them stashed away in my bank, and there's no way I'm spending 30 quid to open a few boxes on the off chance I might get a new ship. FUCK, and, indeed, THAT. You can get master keys on the exchange (the STO equivalent of the auction house) for 1.2 million energy credits apiece, but that is a lot of game time. Other than that, I've been really impressed with it, and have levelled up to Commander, unlocking the Klingon campaign, which is massively more challenging than the Federation one, as the starter ships are fragile as hell - though it is nice that you jump in straight at level 20. Though, to be honest, I think I'll stick with my slinky redheaded Vulcan Science Officer. She's way cuter...

Book of the Year:
Without doubt, A Game of Thrones. All of them. Last year I ploughed through the lot in about four months. I can't wait for the next one, but I am not happy about what dear George has done to Jon Snow. There will be a reckoning, Mr Martin...

Films of the Year:
I didn't get around to seeing Skyfall yet, as I don't particularly like going to the cinema anymore - it's an age thing - they just pump up the soundtrack so loud these days that it's physically painful. I'll just grab the DVD instead and watch it in the comfort of my own home. Similarly, I didn't go out to see my other favourite films at the cinema either, and this year they have a distinct superhero flavour. The Dark Knight Rises, Avengers Assemble and X-Men: First Class were all suitably brilliant: well-scripted, well-acted and well-shot pretty much in equal measure, and I think I may now have a new favourite actor. I've seen Michael Fassbender in a couple of things now, and he's awesome. I'm doubly looking forward to finally getting around watching Prometheus (which I picked up on DVD but haven't watched yet), because he's in that too.

As for 2013, I can't say there are many things, be they books, games or films, that I'm particularly looking out for or forward to. Though that might be a good thing - if I don't keep up with the hype, I'm a lot less likely to be disappointed. Though that said, there is one thing I am waiting quite eagerly for, and that's the new Star Trek film. The trailer looks delicious.