Scratch

A few weeks ago, William told me he wanted to make his own computer game. So I installed Scratch on his laptop and told him to see what he could do. It turns out he can do quite a lot.

Scratch is a visual programming language. While it has all the features you would expect, the programming itself is done by dragging and dropping blocks rather than typing text. This makes for a very intuitive interface which allows you to get up to speed very quickly. Well, William did.

After a couple of pointers from me about loops and variables, he was off and now has a working game in which teleporting monkey has to collect various objects.

He then discovered that there is an online editor and a collection of tutorials and, after two weeks, he’s probably a better Scratch programmer than I will ever be. If he carries on like this, it’s not going to be long before he has a better handle on event-driven programming than I do.

As someone who makes a living as a developer, I’m not sure whether I should be proud or embarrassed.

Either way, Scratch itself is proving a very effective way of enabling kids to not only build their own applications, but also understand the underlying principles. The visual interface allows them to focus on developing applications, rather than having to worry about syntax, and the development environment provides instant feedback which encourages them to try things out and see what happens.

I am very impressed.

Dungeon Mayhem

Dungeon Mayhem is another D&D inspired game, this time a card game in which four players battle to the death.

Each player picks one of the four characters and takes the appropriate character deck. They then shuffle the deck and draw three cards and the game is ready to start.

Each turn, a player draws one more card and then plays a card. The cards can be used to attack, defend, recover health, get more cards or uses a special power (each character has their own special powers). Defensive cards stay in play until they’re destroyed, all other played cards are discarded and it’s the next players turn.

Normally you only play one card per turn, but some cards let you play additional cards, which can be useful. And if you run out of cards, you draw two more and keep going.

The last player standing wins the game.

Dungeon Mayhem is a really simple game. It’s quick to set up, it’s easy to understand and each game is over very quickly. And, because the games tend to be over quickly, being knocked out isn’t much of an issue because the next game will start very shortly. What we tend to find, in fact, is that everyone bar the winner will be knocked out in the last couple of turns.

The game can be played by two to four players and we have found that the four-player version works really well, providing scope to watch which players are looking strongest and react accordingly. Playing with two players is less challenging — both players tend to simply blast each other and whoever went first invariably wins.

This is a fun and fast game and a very portable one. The only problem for us — as a family of five — is that only four people can play at a time. Maybe I should look into the expansion.

Inheritor

Inheritor is the third novel in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series and follows on directly from Invader, the second book. The series is broken up into trilogies, so Inheritor also represents the end of the first trilogy, and what an ending it is.

Six months have passed since the reappearance of the starship Phoenix — the same ship which brought a colony of humans to the hostile environment of alien atevi nearly two hundred years ago. During these six months, the atevi have reconfigured their fledgling space program in a bid to take their place in the heavens alongside humans. But the return of the Phoenix has added a frighteningly powerful third party to an already volatile situation, polarizing both human and atevi political factions, and making the possibility of all-out planetary war an even more likely threat.

As with the previous novels, everything centres on Bren Cameron, the human representative to the atevi who now finds himself having to face three ways between the atevi, the planet-bound human population and the crew of the returned starship which has sent down two representatives to the planet — one to the atevi and one to the human population.

Cameron then finds himself trying to deal with both atevi politics, an overwhelmedh spacefarer who has never stepped foot on a planet and a human government whose conservative and populist elements are deliberately seeking to undermine him. And if he gets it wrong, war is looking like a very real possibility.

What makes this novel, as well as the previous novels in the series really stand out for me is the sheer alienness of the atevi. Their politics, culture and society are all non-human in ways that are often opaque and which consistently defy human expectations. This is emphasised by C.J. Cherryh’s consistent refusal to provide any point of view other than that of the main character. What Bren Cameron knows, the reader knows and — importantly — what he doesn’t know, neither do we.

This allows for a novel packed with plot threads and conspiracies working within conspiracies, all hinted at but never clarified. And it all comes together spectacularly in the final few chapters.

The more I read of the Foreigner series, the more I want to read.

Guns of Navarone

The song, Guns of Navarone was originally an instrumental single recorded by The Skatalites back in 1961 for the film of the same name.

Being the age I am, however, it is probably unsurprising that I first encountered this song when The Specials covered it back in the 1980s. I loved the song then, and it still makes me bounce today.

I recently discovered that Jazz Jamaica also have a cover of Guns of Navarone, proving beyond all doubt that great songs never die.

Eased and extended

Since Belgium went into second lockdown at the end of October, I have been saying that I don’t expect the country to emerge this time around until 2021. Looking at what is being said, it’s quite clear that the government is very wary of a repeat of the summer where the country started to ease the restrictions and was hit by a massive spike in infections.

There was a review of the current measures on Friday, utterly unsurprisingly, the current lockdown measures have been extended until mid-January.

There is, however, some easing of the current measures with non-essential shops being allowed to open from Tuesday. Restrictions still apply and shoppers are expected to quickly pick up their non-essential essentials and leave. For us, this means that broken bootlaces can finally be replaced. Museums will also be allowed to re-open, and swimming pools, oddly enough. But not cinemas.

Hairdressers also remain closed. I have threatened to cut my own hair already, and am coming close to going through with it.

And, with Christmas fast approaching, the number of social contacts remains the same and absolutely will not change, according to Federal Health Minister, Frank Vandenbroucke:

The decision for Christmas period is final. We want to offer people clarity even if this isn’t pleasant. It is better to be certain where you are heading, and we absolutely wish to avoid giving people false promises.

We’ve already reconciled ourselves that we won’t be visiting elderly grandparents in either France or the UK this year, and I do see the sense of this. Disappointing as it is, you can’t negotiate with a virus and a seasonal lifting of restrictions is a bit silly, to say the least.

All of this does, of course, mean no Christmas film and no Wonder Woman this year.

And we’ll be having a quiet Christmas at home.

And I really need a haircut.

Optimism

The worldwide release dates for Wonder Woman 1984 are out, according to which the film will open in Belgium on 16th December. Which came as something of a surprise to me as Belgium is currently in lockdown until 13th, at least.

I know this is being reviewed tomorrow, and that cinema chains are pushing to be allowed to open again, but I don’t seriously think that this is going to happen.

Cinenews has a more realistic date of 23rd December but even this assumes that the lockdown will end this year. I’m far from convinced that this will happen, but if it does we will at least have a Christmas film to look forward to.

And there’s a trailer, which does look good.

One way or another, I’m sure we will be seeing this.

Back to work

Those of you who have been following this blog for the past few months may remember that, back in April, I was asked to reduce my working time to four days a week. As of this week, I am now back to working five days a week.

I’m not sure how I feel about this.

On one hand, the additional income will be nice — especially in the aftermath of Christmas. We’re not going anywhere or seeing anyone, but presents still need to be bought and shipped.

On the other hand, I have become quite used to having my Fridays free. One day a week, on my own, has given me plenty of opportunity to actually get get quite a few things done.

On the third hand, I’m not the first to go back to full time working, and not opening my laptop on Monday to discover I am a(nother) day behind on a whole bunch of requests will reduce some of the pressure I’ve been feeling for the past few weeks.

I don’t have a fourth hand.

On balance, it’s probably a good thing although I can’t help feeling that, if everyone went down to working four days a week, we would all be a lot happier.

And I’m still working from home, so all is not lost.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man

Several years ago I was talking to someone about strange films and happened to mention Tetsuo. Obviously, he asked me what it was about and I had to admit that I wasn’t entirely certain.

Having watched the film a few times since, I have come to the conclusion that, while the actual narrative is very simple — if rather strange — the visual style of the film is such that it sends your mind in all kinds of weird directions.

All this is my excuse for cribbing the synopsis from the IMDb:

A businessman accidentally kills The Metal Fetishist, who gets his revenge by slowly turning the man into a grotesque hybrid of flesh and rusty metal.

Yep. This is a film about a Japanese salaryman turning into metal. And with a synopsis like that, it should come as no surprise that the film itself is a unique mix of horror, science-fiction and surrealism. Mainly horror, but it’s the surrealism that really makes this film stand out.

Shot in black and white to emphasise the starkness of the metal, this really is a visually inventive film and one that makes heavy and effective use of stop motion animation. In fact, it’s a lot more animated than I remembered, yet the animation fits well with the like action to create an alternative, and rather disturbing reality.

Whether Tetsuo is an unnerving exploration of the dehumanising effect of industrialisation, or simply a young and innovative director pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved is a question for the viewer and a reflection of what the audience brings to the film. But it is a film that is as unnervingly effective now as it was when it was made 30 years ago.

I’m not sure I would go as far to say this is an enjoyable film, but it is a very effective one, and one that stays with you long after you’ve seen it.

WindowSwap

There are times when really simple ideas can be truly wonderful. WindowSwap is one such idea.

Let’s face it. We are all stuck indoors.
And it’s going to be a while till we travel again.

Window Swap is here to fill that deep void in our wanderlust hearts by allowing us to look through someone else’s window, somewhere in the world, for a while.

A place on the internet where all we travel hungry fools share our ‘window views’ to help each other feel a little bit better till we can (responsibly) explore our beautiful planet again.

It literally is a collection of ten minute videos looking out of other people’s windows. It’s every bit as mundane as you’d expect, and absolutely fascinating.