Sunday, 19 March 2017

The One Pound Coin: A Tumescent Duet

So. Farewell then, the £1 coin. You aren't quite dead yet, but we are all waiting for you to die, just like Kirk Douglas and The Queen. There is even a date: 15 October 2017. That is when the £1 coin ceases to represent a fraction of Britain's economy and instead becomes just a meaningless, weighty lump of golden metal.

But aren't coins just lumps of metal anyway? It's only because the Bank of England says that they're worth something, and we believe them, that coins are valuable. Without legitimacy the £1 coin only has value as scrap metal or as a collectable. The metal is worth about five pence; uncirculated £1 coins from 1983 sell for about £10, or twice that for shiny proof coins, but will future generations will care about the £1 coin? People collect old coins because they have meaning; they evoke an age. My suspicion is that the £1 coin will remind future coin collectors of the Austin Minimetro and Steve Davis, neither of which command the same kind of respect as HMS Dreadnought or Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western Railway.

As an investment the £1 coin's more-than-tenfold rise in value has beaten stocks and shares, at least in theory. In practice it would be difficult to sell a million pristine 1983 £1 coins in a reasonable timescale. Furthermore you have to factor in storage costs. One million £1 coins would weigh roughly the same as a Harrier Jump Jet, and would be harder to move from place to place. Also, have you heard the internet rumours about Kirk Douglas? There are several of them, and they're not nice.

I am old enough to remember when the £1 coin was new. For me the £1 note will always be something that came in commemorative packs. Apart from the golden colour, the weight was the first thing that struck me about the new coin. There is an old maxim that if you want to make a small thing seem valuable you need to make it heavy, and at a weight of 9.5g the £1 was unusually heavy for something so small. In 1983 only the 50p and the 10p were heavier.

The £1 was introduced in part because the 10p was too big and heavy for the purchasing power it represented. Ten pounds' worth of 10p pieces weighed over a kilogram, and although British people in the 1970s were used to a hard life of heavy manual work, the new men and women of the 1980s were bred for a service economy; the coming wave was svelte, androgynous, more likely to use plastic to pay for cocktails than old-fashioned physical currency. The 1980s was a stylish decade and it made sense to have smaller, less stodgy-looking coins.

In my mind the £1 is inextricably linked to three things. Firstly Peter Davison as Doctor Who; secondly the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher, and thirdly the twenty pence piece, which was introduced the year before. The 20p was the Royal Mint's first postmodern coin. It was a miniature copy of the modernist 50p; it was the Thatcher government's first salvo against Ted Heath's pro-European New Pence. In 1982 the 20p was fresh and new. The 1/2p, 1p, and 2p coins had been introduced in 1971 as part of the move to decimalisation, but looked and felt much older; the 5p and 10p coins dated from the 1800s, when they had originally been the shilling and the florin respectively. An entirely new 50p had been introduced in 1969, but although the design was distinctive the coin was never very popular. I remember that our village only had one 50p coin, and you had to ask the local shopkeeper to look at it - but only after he had washed your bottom, which seemed normal at the time but now strikes me as strange, because he did it even if you hadn't been to the toilet. I didn't own a 50p piece until I was eighteen years old. I gave it to a girl, who said "thanks", and I remember feeling disappointed and angry that she didn't do anything. I wonder where that coin is now.

The 20p piece was, like Channel 4, both state-of-the-art and controversial, but it was quickly embraced as part of Britain's cultural fabric. It is now hard to imagine life without it. Other things the Thatcher government introduced in 1982 were synthesisers, microwave ovens, Prestel, and also calculator wristwatches and video recorders. All of these things were fantastic but it was the £1 coin of 1983 that took back the Falkland Islands and put the Great back into Great Britain. If the 20p was a playful commentary on coin design the £1 was no joke. A small, heavy, golden coin that had useful purchasing power and was produced in large enough quantities so that everybody could have one, provided that they voted for the Tories and not nasty old Labour who wanted to take away your pound coins and give them to lesbians, boo hiss. In just three years there were more £1 coins in circulation than 50p pieces, despite the larger coin's 14-year head start. The 50p was Laserdisc; the £1 was DVD.

Shortly after the £1 was introduced Britain won a general election, vanquishing batty old Michael Foot and the trendy new SDP. I like to imagine Margaret Thatcher filling her handbag with £1 coins and battering the opposition to death, which would be entirely in character and not inconceivable given that Denis Thatcher was a millionaire. In my opinion the coin hasn't dated. It is my favourite of all the coins. The slimmed-down 5p and 10p have their charms, but on a practical level they don't buy very much. The copper coins feel like something from the distant past, when life was cheap and everything was dirty, and I cannot accept the £2 coin. Its bimetallic design is an impressive technological feat, but the coin just seemed to appear. No-one consulted me. If it had captured the public's imagination there might now be Two Pound Shops, and a McDonalds hamburger would be £1.99, but in practice no-one seems to have cared for it. Now that the £5 note has had a high-tech makeover the £2 coin feels doubly pointless.

I have always associated it with the Tony Blair years; I like to imagine that Tony Blair saw a headline in the Daily Mail about alcopops, or devil dogs, or Geri Halliwell's decision to leave the Spice Girls, and decided that the best way to distract the public and win votes was to introduce a new coin immediately. It would be no more irrational than New Labour's other policy initiatives. I concede that the Latin inscription around the 2015 edition of the coin - QUATUOR MARIA VINDICO, which means "I will claim the four seas" - is however awesome.

The 1983 pound coin had a Latin inscription as well. DECUS ET TUTAMEN, which I will not translate in case it helps forgers. Sadly the simple design of the £1 has made it a target for counterfeit coin fakers, and so there will be a new coin, which is bimetallic and has twelve sides. It has a chip inside it that can track each and every coin, which raises the question of why they don't just put a chip inside the original £1 - it's thick enough - or a small battery that can make it hover or shoot out sparks or something.

Still, by October the original £1 will cease to be legal tender, which raises the question of whether there will be an orgy of low-denomination spending in the run-up to the great cut-off. The smaller coins are only legal tender up to certain amounts - £10 for the 50p piece, for example, beyond which you have to mix in some other coins - but there is no such limit with the £1 coin; will someone try to pay for a Bentley or a surplus Harrier Jump Jet with £1 coins? Time will tell.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Elite: Dangerous

Let's have a look at Elite: Dangerous, an outer space flying-about game from Britain, of all places. It's the fourth in a long-running series of space simulator games that stretches all the way back to back to 1984. Elite: Dangerous was launched in December 2014, and has gone on to sell almost two million units. At a price of £19.99 for the base game it's five pounds more expensive than the original Elite. It is available for the PC, the Macintosh, and the Xbox. It's not bad but needs some work, 75% goodbye.

A space station, one of many. Sanctuary from computer players at least. It is surprisingly easy to break one of the station's many rules, with potentially lethal consequences.

Elite and its 1991 sequel Frontier were very popular in Europe, less so internationally; the series came to an end with 1995's First Encounters, which was released in an unfinished state by a publisher that was on the verge of bankruptcy. Twenty years and a popular Kickstarter campaign later the series is BACK!, albeit that for most of the people on the internet today it has never been away, because no-one outside the UK remembers it. "I'm the only one left alive", sang Scott Walker; he could have been singing about ED, because it's the only remaining A-list franchise from Britain's 8-bit 1980s, or at least the only one that isn't a nostalgic joke.

In real life we only have a rough idea of the composition of a handful of nearby star systems. The majority of the Milky Way is a mystery to us. Elite: Dangerous tries to generate plausible star systems but occasionally goes awry, although in this case the results look fantastic.

What is Elite? What are the Elite games? What are Elite? In brief, the games resemble Wing Commander minus the storyline, or Eve Online with an emphasis on solo gameplayer rather than large-scale roleplay, or X-Wing but with freedom of movement, or No Man's Sky with gameplay. In the Elite series you are the pilot of a spaceship that you can fly around the galaxy, shooting pirates and trading commodities and exploring and mining and ferrying passengers and upgrading your ship and buying a new ship and flying into and out space stations. You can't walk about or have a drink or anything, you're stuck in your chair. Elite: Dangerous takes place in the year 3300, where they have solved the problems of pooping and going to sleep.

Earth, which is described as an Earth-Like World despite being the actual thing. In the year 3300 Earth is a tourist destination; the galaxy's corporations are all based on Mars, which has been terraformed.

Which is good because the Elite games have always been drawn across an enormous canvas. The first game squeezed over two thousand star systems into less than 32kb of memory. Never mind that the star systems all looked the same; it was the thought that counted. Elite: Dangerous takes place in a reasonably accurate simulation of the actual Milky Way galaxy, with over 400 billion star systems spanning tens of thousands of light years. You can in theory visit all of them. Bearing in mind that the game's spaceships have jump ranges of around 16-25 light years and periodically require refuelling you haven't got a hope in hell of visiting all 400 billion systems, and simply flying from one side of the Milky Way is a major achievement that takes days of real time. Nonetheless some dedicated players have journeyed to Beagle Point on the far side of the galaxy, 65,000 light years away.

Not all of the game's star systems can be visited yet - some are too far from a neighbouring star to reach - and the vast majority are boring, but only No Man's Sky has more places to visit than Elite. And even then the galaxy of No Man's Sky is an abstract thing, whereas Elite: Dangerous takes place in our Milky Way, the actual thing. The developers have even added the recently-discovered TRAPPIST system, for example, and over time perhaps the game might evolve into a digital planetarium, a la Celestia. Perhaps in a few years Elite: Dangerous might include a model of every building and human being on the Earth, including you and I, plus our computers, which will be running Elite: Dangerous, which will have a model of the entire universe, within which will be a model of ourselves playing Elite: Dangerous on simulations of computers that will in turn be running simulations of Elite: Dangerous.

Goodbye, Boo the Magic Pirate. You couldn't run and you couldn't hide. The only thing I had in my hold was DEATH.

At heart the original Elite was a 3D space combat game. The slick polygonal graphics and clever AI wowed players in 1984, but if that was all the game had to offer it would have been a flash in the pan, like Starion. The developers anticipated this by adding a simple text-based trading element and an unusually large star map, both of which gave the game an air of grandeur that set it apart from its peers. The cardboard box, poster, novella, advertising campaign etc sold the game as a premium product, giving the impression that Elite was a big deal, as indeed it was.

Throughout the rest of the 1980s no other space trading game matched it; competitors such as Psi-5 Trading Company and Federation of Free Traders felt half-baked, and until the likes of Wing Commander: Privateer and Frontier in the 1990s there were no serious attempts to top it. The irony is that just as computing power advanced to a point where breathtaking outer-space graphics were commonplace, the space combat genre died off. Conflict: Freespace and its sequel honed the genre to a peak of perfection just in time for it to be killed by the unstoppable juggernaut of the first-person shooter. Flight simulations hung on for a few years afterwards but even Microsoft's once-massive Flight Simulator came to an end, and the days when every PC gamer had a joystick and perhaps a throttle hidden in a cupboard somewhere are sadly long-gone.

Of note Elite: Dangerous is playable with a mouse and keyboard or an Xbox controller, but comes into its own with a joystick; I had one lying around from fifteen years ago. I was surprised to find that they still make joysticks.

This is Wredguia SH-V d2-1. There are many star systems; this one has my name on it.

Thrustmaster. There's a name. Elite: Dangerous begs for a joystick with lots of buttons, because it aims for a kind of invented verisimilitude. In the real future of the year 3300 space flight will be automated, but in Elite: Dangerous your ship has a tonne of controls. It's a bit like X-Wing, in that you have to balance power between your shields, thrusters, and weapons, and furthermore you have to navigate, speak with traffic control, operate the scoops, assign fire groups etc.

With a game like Elite: Dangerous the developers have to strike a balance between Top Trumps-style gameplay - where memorisation of arcane rules and the accumulation of top equipment wins the day - with pilot skill, which is a great leveller; as a player-vs-player game Elite: Dangerous leans in the former direction. You can play the game in "open" mode, which has a mixture of non-player spaceships and other human beings; you can also play it in "solo" mode, which only has non-player spaceships, albeit that you still have to be connected to the internet. You can swap between the two modes freely. The game runs in real time, which means that if you have twelve hours to complete a mission you really have twelve actual hours to complete a mission. You can't save the game; if you are blown up you are magically transported to the nearest space station, at which point your insurance lets you rebuy your ship for a reduced sum (and if you don't have enough money, you get the cheapest ship in the game for free).

Is it any good? It's not bad. Really, it's a cut-down remake of Frontier with much better combat, with the cut-out bits held back for expansion packs. There's a tonne of grinding. It loses its spark after a while albeit that the combat is fun in short bursts. There's a peculiar deep-casual dichotomy, whereby the trading aspect requires an enormous commitment of time but, if you so choose, you can skip most of that and just have short bursts of combat. The game does a poor job of explaining the mechanics; you're expected to read up on that kind of thing externally.

At top, the Eagle is a nifty light fighter that first appeared in Frontier. Daedalus Station orbiting Mercury has a 20% discount, so I picked one up as a runabout.
At bottom the Anaconda is a veteran of the original Elite, where it was a large freighter. In Elite: Dangerous it is a versatile ship that carries a fearsome arsenal.

At this point I'm going to digress a little bit, because the concept of meaningfulness is central to the appeal of the Elite games. People crave two things from video games. Firstly there is the visceral thrill of flashing lights and loud sounds. The earliest games had nothing else, they were just reaction tests. Twitch games, they were called. The continued popularity of roller coaster rides and alcohol demonstrate that human beings have not tired of cheap thrills, but some people want more than just a temporary buzz. Some people want to feel that their actions have meaning and that the world makes sense; that they are not just animals living meaningless lives on a planet that is doomed to die in a universe that is burning away its energy until all that will be left is a layer of heat and dust expanding into darkness, with no escape beyond the oblivion of drugs or dementia.

Do you remember Simon, the old electronic game? It was an electronic toy that played a pattern of lights, and you had to match the pattern; over time the pattern grew more complicated. I like to think of Simon as a video game distilled to its barest essence, with a screen consisting of just four giant pixels. There is really no conceptual difference between Simon and Call of Duty 4. Both games involve looking at a pattern of lights on a display and then reacting to this pattern in such a way that the lights change in a pleasing way. We are all just sitting in front of a box of lights, pressing buttons so that the lights change in a way that pleases us. Some games are open about this; some games try to conceal it with meaning, because some people crave meaning. Of course, there is no-one behind the curtain, just an empty chair; and on the chair is a syringe of heroin to take away the fear and a revolver with which to blow out our brains.

Do your drunk act, but hurry up - the mechanism does not know.

One of the big home computer hits of 1979 was Star Raiders, developed by Doug Neubauer for Atari. The meat of Star Raiders was a space combat engine that used scaled sprites to create a 3D effect, but Neubauer reasoned that endless combat would be boring, so he added a subgame whereby the player had to travel between star systems, chasing after the Zylon baddies before they could destroy the player's space station. By modern standards the game is very simple, but in 1979 it was like being fucked in the eyeballs by God. I remember playing it on the Atari 2600 and feeling as if there was a whole universe inside the machine. I used to enjoy the smell of car exhausts and I once attacked a cat with a fork.

Star Raiders was an upgrade of the older, minicomputer-era Star Trek games, which had a text-based interface. In Star Trek games the player entered commands via the keyboard rather than using a joystick. With Star Raiders the basic idea mutated towards fast-paced space combat rather than naval-style torpedo salvos, but the Star Trek concept mutated in another direction as well, picking up elements of trading games.

I can't find a definitive history of trading games anywhere, but they have been around since the beginning of time. The 1973 classic 101 BASIC Computer Games (a book) includes STOCK, a stock market simulation, and FURS, a fur trading game in which you have to "trade furs with the white man". On a fundamental level trading games consist of typing numbers into a computer so that the numbers go up, which you can also do just by entering numbers into a calculator and hitting the plus key a lot, but crucially in the context of a game the numbers have meaning, and that pleases some people, even though the numbers don't really have meaning.

You can't eat numbers, for example. You can't go out into space with fractions. What if God is an equation, and it's not our universe at all? What if we're just a side-effect? One day he will turn off the experiment and we will be gone, just like that.

Elite combined the combat of Star Raiders with the trading of trading games. It was one of the giants of the 8-bit era in the United Kingdom. Beyond the slick 3D graphics and clever details its success boiled down to the fact that it felt meaningful. The trading aspect was perfunctory, the procedurally-generated planets all looked the same, the gameplay was extraordinarily repetitive, but it really felt as if you were flying your own spaceship in a futuristic galaxy, master of your fate and captain of your soul. Elite took place in a galaxy where piracy was commonplace and life was cheap. You could choose to trade illegal drugs or slaves; you could destroy passing freighters and steal their cargo. The police would attack you but the game did not punish you otherwise for being bad; the game had no moral imperative for the player to be good. It took place in a universe where there was no good or bad, only numbers, an environment incompatible with the notion of heroism.

Imagine a universe in which there is no good or bad, just actors acting according to their interests. No-one to live or die for. Above us, only sky. Elite was developed by a team of just two people, David Braben and a second person. Braben was nineteen when he developed the game, but he looked much older, with the result that he doesn't appear to have aged at the same rate as everybody else. He is now David Braben OBE. For Elite's sequel, Frontier, he famously programmed the game engine in 68000 assembly language by himself using only his thumbs; as far as I can tell he doesn't have the same kind of hands-on involvement in development any more and is essentially Elite: Dangerous' constitutional monarch. He delivers talks and sells the game to the public.

There's something quite melancholic about the Elite games from a British perspective. The internet is a white American teenage-twentysomething boy. The likes of Reddit, Imgur, Buzzfeed and so forth are exclusively written for an audience of white American teenagers, and none of them have heard of David Braben. The vast majority of the people in the Elite: Dangerous subreddit haven't heard of him, or of Elite. For them David Braben is just this guy, you know, and Elite: Dangerous is an entirely new game.

Except that it's not, really. It's basically a remake of Frontier, which came out in 1991. Elite was a space combat simulation with space accoutrements. Frontier embellished the accoutrements but sadly screwed up the space combat. Instead of having a simple flight model whereby the spaceships swooped and dived like X-Wings, David Braben decided to give Frontier accurate physics, with the result that Frontier's combat was a lot of high-speed jousting passes and the space flight was an automated process that the player was better off skipping with time advance. The result was a sequel that felt like a technical exercise more than a game. With clever use of compression and procedural generation Braben managed to squeeze a tonne of content into Frontier, but it was boring to play.

In some respects Elite: Dangerous is less ambitious than its ancestor. In Frontier you could take off from a planet's surface, fly into space, warp to another star system, and fly down to a planet all in one fluid motion, right from the start of the game. Elite: Dangerous doesn't have that. The Horizons expansion pack allows you to land on rocky moons, but not atmospheric bodies, which means that you can't land on Earth for example. Elite: Dangerous has a wide range of ships, but Frontier had more; furthermore Frontier's ships came in a wider variety of sizes, whereas Elite: Dangerous doesn't have any truly huge player-flown vessels. Some of Frontier's ships required extra crew, which is something the developers of Elite: Dangerous are still working on.

I haven't talked about the graphics and sound, have I? Elite: Dangerous has a clean, slightly plastic graphic style; the space visuals are functional but the game doesn't have a distinctive visual language, unlike for example The Long Dark or Pulsar: Lost Colony. The sound design is however terrific. Each of the spaceships has a distinctive aural signature. The police Viper makes a throaty roar that smells of petrol, the Asp Explorer sounds like a propellor plane, the cockpits creak when you apply boost as if they were wooden ships. Even planets and empty space have a distinctive noise. The soundtrack is low-key but effective and the game even plays The Blue Danube when you turn on the docking computer. What little voice acting the game has is decent, although I have the impression they only had two voice actors, a man and a woman.

The NPCs have pictures; in Frontier the NPCs looked like plastic dolls wearing stupid hats, in Elite: Dangerous they look like extras from an Albert Pyun film. As with Frontier the non-Caucasian characters are just Caucasians with a different colour palette, which looks odd.

Elite: Dangerous suffers from forced attempts to make simple things feel meaningful. In the original, mining was a simple matter of shooting asteroids and collecting the fragments. You needed a special laser and a cargo scoop, but the special laser did double-duty as the best weapon in the game - it had a slow rate of fire but was very powerful - and the cargo scoop could also be used to gather fuel. In Elite: Dangerous the process is much more complicated. You have to shoot asteroids until fragments break off, at which point you have to collect the fragments, either manually or with special drones. The fragments are deposited into your refinery, which has a number of hoppers. Each fragment has a certain percentage of metal or space rock, and when you have collected enough fragments to make a tonne of material it is deposited in your hold.

However each hopper can only store one type of material, so if you collect more materials than you have free hoppers you have to jettison the excess. There is a second type of special drone that boosts the output of an asteroid, and you can only carry a certain amount of drones. Mining feels complicated in an arbitrary way, and in my experience it's just not worth the hassle.

The galaxy map is fiddly but you get the hang of it, although it still needs work. The transitions between the map and normal space are crude. While I'm picking holes, the 32-bit version of the game feels stable but the 64-bit version hung frequently.

Exploration suffers from a similar attempt to make a simple process more complicated and thus more meaningful. When you encounter a planet for the first time you can scan it for a small reward; if you venture out into the galaxy you can encounter planets that no-one else has scanned, in which case the game records your name against it. It's not enough just to encounter the planet, however, you have to scan it with a special device which takes up one of your spaceship's utility slots. It's less fiddly than mining but it still feels like unnecessary complication.

Along similar lines the situation with bounties includes a confusing system of timers, legacy fines, and dormant bounties, which adds nothing to the gameplay except confusion, misery, heartache, wrath, tears, hatred, lingering scars, and painful sores on the knuckles of my toes. Passenger-ferrying missions are relatively straightforward - you buy a passenger compartment and then fly the passenger where they want to go - but are buggy, occasionally failing immediately but leaving you with passengers that you can't get rid of without removing modules from your ship. Off the top of my head Frontier had a similar bug, which makes me wonder if Elite: Dangerous reuses some of Frontier's code (surely not).

While I'm in a grouchy mood, the transitions between spaceflight and the star map feel unpolished; the decision to put so many star bases near the other star in a binary star system, thus forcing the player to fly for ten minutes or more - over an hour, in the case of Proxima Centauri - was a bad decision; in fact the game goes out of its way to be frustrating at times, forcing the player to fly around suns and space stations in order to reach the destination.

Ultimately the biggest problem is the grinding nature of the game. The only real gameplay goals are visiting interesting systems and building up your spaceship, but there are only a limited quantity of each, and in order to upgrade your ship you have to carry freight or special cargo back and forth for literally days before you can afford things. As a veteran of the original Elite and of Frontier as well I have a head start over new players, but even so it took a couple of weeks of playing before I could afford to kit out the Anaconda featured in some of these screenshots to an acceptable level of performance.

One of the aims of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was the destruction of the four "olds". Old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas. This was necessary for China to advance, and nowadays China is the world's leading economy. The high-rise cities of modern China look nothing like China of just twenty years ago. For the most part the changes have been positive, and if the buildings have to be torn down and remade every few years, what does it matter? An economy is a living thing, not a fossil. Elite had the tedious grind of trading so that the game would not feel insubstantial, but that was 1984. The developers had no other options and expectations were lower. Massively multiplayer games still have grinding, but they also have team interaction and trophies and collectables and subgames and so forth to make the grinding less onerous. Elite: Dangerous doesn't have that yet. It feels like a terrific single-player game from the pre-internet era beamed into the modern age.

The ships divide into three strands. Some are general-purpose; some are traders; some are fighters. The Vulture is a dedicated combat ship, one of the best in game, perhaps the best in terms of expenditure-to-results.

Furthermore it lacks imagination. Beyond trading there are quests, but they essentially consist of ferrying objects or data from one place to another, or blowing up certain ships, or collecting canisters. It adds nothing substantial to the gameplay of Frontier. It would be nice to participate in large-scale assaults on space stations, for example, or save colonists from asteroid bombardment, or build your own personal prefabricated hangar on an alien world - or even lay claim to one of the billions of planets or moons in the galaxy and fund a space station or city - or have battles inside enormous alien structures, or race through dense planetary rings as part of a series of challenges, etc etc. Beyond the idea of setting most of the combat inside planetary rings - which solves the problem of space combat being a lot of tight turns in empty space - Elite: Dangerous feels devoid of genuine innovation, as if the developers had been given the brief of translating Frontier as best they could, without adding anything.

In some respect the developers have embraced current trends. Elite: Dangerous has a number of DLC options, which range from the ridiculous (£5 for a custom paint job, £7 for a cosmetic set of go-faster spoilers) to the iffy-but-probably-necessary (£19.99 for Horizons, which is a mass of patches). But flying through even the popular parts of space feels very lonely, and beyond interdicting and shooting down other players there is very little opportunity for interaction or teamwork. There is a multiplayer-only close quarters arena, but it's not popular enough to sustain an infrastructure, and unlike Unreal Tournament and its peers the space combat of Elite: Dangerous isn't viscerally exciting enough to compensate for the lack of meaning when shorn of the trading and exploration.

"Carlos Spicyweiner"

In summary Elite: Dangerous is a terrific translation of Frontier that fixes that game's dreadful space combat, but adds very little of genuine substance, which is disappointing given that Frontier is a quarter of a century old. On the one hand Elite: Dangerous has a modest budget and a very small development team, and on the same hand it is still in development, but on the other hand what if the upcoming Star Citizen is more engaging? Elite has a certain amount of nostalgia appeal for a tiny number of ageing British people, but that's not enough to fund an A-list title. It will be interesting to see how things pan out.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Building Inspector

He showed me an illustration of a teacup and asked me what I thought it was. "It's a penis-holder", I told him. "Or a penis-cover. Men put it on their penises to keep them warm. Penis, singular."

It was a teacup. I wasn't in the mood for this kind of rubbish. Over the years the council had sent several inspectors to our premises to make sure we were complying with their rules and I was starting to lose my rag. "It's a teacup."

The inspector seemed surprisingly chipper. He was a very intense man. "Well that's the point. For you - for you - this is a penis-holder; for most people it's a teacup, but how do we know that? What makes it a teacup?" to which I replied that it was obviously a teacup. The design was made to hold hot liquid such as tea, but it was too fancy for e.g. engine oil or hydraulic fluid, ergo if we’re being generous it was a hot beverage holder, and as this was Britain it was a teacup. It couldn't be a penis-holder because it would fall off, unless it was held on with straps, which were not apparent in the illustration thus suggesting that they didn't exist and therefore it was a teacup.

After some minutes of this banter he cut to the chase. The council had been going through their records. They had been asked by the government to audit their property portfolio, but there was a problem. The architectural firm that designed our office building had long since gone bust, and the council’s records had been mislaid. Our building no longer had meaning, so the council had appointed a building inspector to determine its nature. And here he was.

"Have you ever heard of hermeneutics?", the inspector asked me. "Hermeneutics is the scientific art", and he stressed those words, "the scientific art of determining the meaning of a text through careful consideration of the historical context. Not just texts. All things. When I say text I mean everything that has meaning, or rather latent meaning, which means everything. The clothes on your back have meaning beyond their physical form. This chair." There was a pause. "The arrangement of the chairs, even." He leaned forward. "We are all wafts of dust in the cosmic wind."

He explained that he had been asked to perform a hermeneutical analysis of our building in order to determine its true function. "For you and your employees," he said, "it is an office building, with office workers and photocopiers. But you are not professionals", to which I replied that in fact I was a professional, I had a degree. He apologised. "But you are, at least on a philosophical level, not trained in the art of contextual analysis". Given that our company paid the rent I felt that we had a jolly good right to define the context of our working environment, but nonetheless he produced documentation from the council which, to my dismay, showed that they would accept his recommendations in the event no suitable counter-argument was presented at a board meeting scheduled for next month.

And so the building inspector embarked on a series of tests. He measured each of the rooms. He showed me his laptop, on which he had created a three-dimensional model of the building complete with little models of all the employees. "There's even a little model of me", he said, pointing to a stick figure standing at the apex of an imaginary pyramid one hundred feet above the roof of the building. "The pyramid represents my field of view", he explained. "I am simultaneously an observer of, and a participant in... and a commentator..." he said, as he fiddled with the laptop's trackpad, "simultaneously a chronicler of the ongoing construction of the ongoing construction of the dominant critical framework." The laptop had illuminated buttons that could make smiley faces appear on the screen. Every fibre of my being urged me to press one of the buttons, but I suspected he would accuse me of assault, or obstruction, so I refrained.

Mid-way through the month he had refined his model. The building was now a series of separate rooms linked together with double-ended arrows. To complicate things one of the receptionists had got married and moved away, so we had moved the reception desk around, which upset the building inspector. He forbade us from moving any more furniture and so for two weeks I took great pleasure in shifting the bins slightly before I left for the night just to mess with his mind. On my own initiative I produced a small file of press clippings which demonstrated that the building was a former technical college that had been built in 1965 but then sold off when the college merged with a local university in 1983, at which point our firm had moved in. He explained that he had not been hired to analyse press clippings; that was not his field. It appeared that the council hadn't bothered trying to contact the architects, even though two of the partners were still alive, because their intentions were irrelevant. To all further objections the inspector accused me of being originalist - "one of them" as he put it - which was apparently a bad thing.

One month later we met in the council boardroom. The inspector presented his findings, but I had done some preparation of my own. It seemed that the inspector was not a popular figure. He had attempted to apply hermeneutical analysis to the council staff, arguing that although the chairman thought of himself as an experienced executive, and had indeed worked for twenty years as a council chairman, he was instead cut out to be an Alpine farmer, driving cattle to and from mountain tops. The chairman had taken this as a jab at his weight and they had not seen eye-to-eye since then. Furthermore the inspector's qualification were suspect. He had a degree, but it was in podiatry. He had spent several years treating foot diseases, but after staring at hundreds of infected toenails he had had an epiphany which led to his abrupt career change. Nonetheless the council were bound by law to at least conduct the inspection, albeit that they were not compelled to abide by his findings, and therein lay a glimmer of hope.

During the presentation the inspector revealed that he had had yet another insight. Buildings were not homogeneous, he explained, they were instead vessels that housed a spectrum of meaning that pivoted through time. Thus our building was not a creation of bricks and mortar, it was a contextual gradient. He declared that the lower floors were in future to be room for prayer, and that the upper floors were to gradually merge from office space into a public swimming area, which would over the course of the next twelve years become a smelting furnace. The lower floors would, over a longer period of time, transition from prayer room to a place where expectant mothers could gather and swap tales of the moon. He suggested that the pool could be lined with carbon fibre-impregnated ceramic so that it would not melt. Seventy-five years hence the library would become a historical record of a library, with imaginary books and a staff of actors paid to act out the roles of library assistants.

This was of course not on. It sounded very dangerous, besides which there was no longer any space for our office. Luckily I had spent several years working for one of those internet companies that had been fashionable a decade or so ago, so I knew a thing or two about convincing rubbish. I presented my defence.

"I put it to the board", I said, "that although your inspector's analysis has merit, it is excessively skeuomorphic and fails to account for the internet of things", which was true on both counts. "The examples he gives, of the swimming pool and the grain silo - the suspension bridge as well - they are backwards-thinking legacy artefacts. Within a few years the building will be thoroughly embedded in the cloud, at which point its physical form will be meaningless. It will instead be a hot-swappable processing node in a giant hive mind." I was warming to this.

"In my view the traditional roles envisaged by your inspector are architecturally heteronormative. It is not the place of la humanidad to metaphorically assign genders to the structures with which we cohabit this planet. To unpack frankly, it is up to the structures themselves to define their meaning". As I said all this I pulled up some slides that had diagrams of buildings linked together ephemerally with wi-fi rays. They were also linked to passing cars, an airliner, and some little stick figures holding mobile phones. The headline read DEVICE MASHING.

"This slide illustrates what I'm talking about. In the very near future, entities - and that includes buildings, and people, but I'm talking about buildings - will occupy a metasynchronous space where cloud-enabled devices can define their own context. Cloudizens, I call them. Citizens of the Cloud, and in my view citizenship of this new realm is not the sole preserve of the white man, or of men, or even people". I glanced at the building inspector, who was at this point fiddling with a pen. He had a grim expression on his face; I imagined terrible visions of rotting toes dancing in his mind.

"However our office has not yet reached critical mass. In order to achieve singularity we need to scrum the power of big data into a cloudy singularity, and we won't be able to do that if half of the building is a bloody swimming pool. To sum up, although the inspector proposes a transformational framework that ostensibly reflects the hermeneutical exactitude of the building in question, he is mistakenly imposing an objectivist framework rather than harnessing the latent emergent power of the building's consciousness. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, not sufficiently woke".

The board convened to consider their findings, and that was the last I heard of them, and the building inspector.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4: "Good-sized, heavily-ribbed, and rubberized"

What is there to say about the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4? Back in 1993, when the lens was new, Popular Photography concluded that it was naff wide open but splendid when stopped down. They used that very word, splendid. They went on to write that it was more than a delicious, tasty crunch, and that Mr Stewart had told them this. They used some other words as well, see for yourself:

Nothing has changed since 1993. Ducks still cannot count. The 50mm f/1.4 remains on sale and is just as it ever was; lots of photographers who use Canon gear have a 50mm f/1.4 lurking in a cupboard for a rainy day. They never use it, but it's there. When digital SLRs became affordable the 50mm took on a second wind as a portrait lens, because on an APS-C camera it becomes an 80mm. For the images in this post I stuck it onto an EOS 50e, an old film SLR which has eye-controlled focus. The 50e was a contemporary of the 50mm f/1.4, and it's interesting to ponder Canon's industrial design, which is all over the place; the 50e's combination of black plastic and fake metal was a short-lived design idea that didn't work. The 50mm f/1.4 is "third generation EOS", the spitting image of the 28mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8, and 100mm f/2, which were released within a few years of each other.

The star begins with black tapes, and early closing.

Eye-controlled focus was a Canon thing from the 1990s. It appeared in a handful of film SLRs but was abandoned in the digital era and has never been brought back. The idea is that you pick autofocus points in the viewfinder by looking at them. The system works surprisingly well - albeit that the EOS 50e only has three autofocus points - but the basic concept is awkward because sometimes you want to look at the whole frame, not just the little part that you are focusing on. It's disconcerting, viz the following image, where the focus is slightly wrong because I stopped looking at the correct spot:

Canon's 50mm EOS lens range has always had a schizophrenic quality. Back in 1987 the 50mm f/1.8 was part of the first batch of EOS lenses. It was bundled with the very first EOS cameras as a kit but was also available separately for $70-80 or so, which made it the cheapest lens in the range. Two years later Canon launched the 50mm f/1.0, which remains to this day the fastest autofocus lens ever made. At a price just shy of $3,000 it was one of the most expensive EOS lenses, beaten only by some of the exotic telephotos and top late silent actress Marion Davies. In between the two lenses was a huge gulf which, presumably, Canon felt was covered by zooms.

In 1990 Canon replaced the 50mm f/1.8 with the cheaper, plastic-bodied 50mm f/1.8 MkII, which is still on sale today. The 50mm f/1.4 didn't come along until 1993, five years into the EOS' system's lifespan.

At some point in the 1990s or early 2000s the 50mm f/1.0 was forgotten about. It was replaced in 2007 by the 50mm f/1.2, which is also still on sale today as Canon's top 50mm lens. The 50mm f/1.8 MkII was joined in the mid-2010s by the pancake-sized, not-actually-50mm 40mm f/2.8 STM and the normal-sized, actually-50mm 50mm f/1.8 STM, which use a silent stepless focusing system optimised for video. Canon also sells a 50mm t/1.3 cinema lens, which is apparently similar to the 50mm f/1.2 but in a tougher body, with external teeth for manual focusing gear. To confuse matters Yongnuo, a Chinese company more famous for its cheap, decent-quality flash units, makes an clone of the 50mm f/1.8, which apparently isn't quite as good but is slightly cheaper.

The high-end lenses use Canon's once-novel, now-standard ultrasonic focusing system; the 50mm f/1.4 uses a variation of this called micro-USM which is apparently slower and more fragile than the ring-type USM used in Canon's more expensive lenses. Compared to my 70-200mm f/2.8 IS the 50mm f/1.4's focusing "feel" is less smooth, although it's a massive step up from the 50mm f/1.8. In particular the f/1.4's manual focus ring feels like plastic moving on plastic.

The 50mm f/1.4 poses a conundrum. The f/1.8 is a lot like your childhood hopes and dreams. It is a fragile plastic toy, weak and easily crushed, but its heart is true and its image quality is surprisingly good, which just makes its inevitable demise all the more tragic. There's something romantic about alcoholism. It's not dirty, like drugs. Ernest Hemingway liked a drink and so did Hunter S Thompson, and it didn't do them any harm, albeit that they both blew their own heads off when the pain became too much. All the drink in the world didn't save them. Were they strong? Were they weak? What about us?

The 50mm f/1.4 is tougher than the f/1.8, and the image quality and particularly bokeh are better, but not $150 better. The 50mm f/1.2 is expensive and overshadowed by the 85mm f/1.2, which is one of Canon's best lenses. Which one are you going to buy? Are you ever going to use it? Why not buy a 24-70mm f/2.8 and use that instead?

To complicate matters further the last few years has seen a wave of 50mm lenses from other manufacturers, notably Carl Zeiss and Sigma, that are often better-made and optically superior to the 50mm f/1.4, albeit that the Zeiss designs are manual focus. Which one will you buy? Or will you put your hopes and dreams to one side, save the money, and put it to better use? If you ever find an answer please tell me. Write it in the stars so that we may all know.

For all its slightly-underwhelming reputation the 50mm f/1.4 is a good performer, but as Popular Photography pointed out accurate focusing at f/1.4 is hella difficult. Here are a trio of shots - they're 100% crops from the centre of the full image, taken at f/1.4, f/1.8, and f/8:

I focused on the 11 in the clock face. Somewhere in China a man or woman was paid a pittance to make that robot toy. They had hopes and dreams as well. What happened to them? They learned to accept their fate and hang on, "with quiet desperation", until the sweet release of death. What about us. The camera was on a tripod and I refocused manually each time. This was taken near the close focus distance, at which range the depth of field was minuscule. Wide open there's quite obvious vignetting, which seems to affect autoexposure slightly; there's also purple fringing on highlights, and furthermore if you look at the background it's slightly green, which is a consequence of "bokeh fringing". Nonetheless sharpness at f/1.4 is fine, if the focusing is correct.

At f/8 it is, like every other 50mm lens, terrific.

And that's the 50mm f/1.4. You probably already have one, or you don't!