Adam J Purcell

Masters of our own Domain

Masters of our own Domain

Published: 2020-01-31

Back in August 2001, some eighteen and a half years ago now, I registered the Internet domain name of Of course I first tried but found it owned by cybersquatters. I cannot remember how much they wanted for it at the time but it was at least several hundred US Dollars and more recently it was up to about $3,000!

I've kept an eye on it on and off and, unsurprisingly, nobody was interested in paying them anything like that sort of money for it. Finally, a couple of days ago, they let it lapse. Thanks to that, Staggering Stories now owns and it didn't cost any more than a brand new domain name, $51.94 USD for six years if you're curious. I was very worried that another cybersquatting company would quickly and automatically register it when it became available. I knew it was about to expire some time soon (and it's pretty murky exactly how long after they expire that .com domains become generally available, to give the previous owners time to reclaim it for cases where they'd forgotten to renew) but I didn't remember to check on it until a day or two after it became free. Luckily nobody had grabbed it in the meantime.

Personally I prefer the address. We plug it several times on every podcast, both shamelessly begging for feedback and also mention it in the outro. That final 'dot net' is part of our identity and, more than that, it just seems right - we are an Internet based thing and are in no way commercial! Nonetheless it has always niggled me that anyone accidentally going to the 'dot com' version of our address would find a dead 'for sale' sign of a webpage. Well, no more. All being well the new should point to exactly the same place as the original (and that goes for the blog, the comatose forum and any emails, too).

It's taken the best part of twenty years but I am glad I never gave into the temptation to pay the extortionate fees the underhanded cybersquatters wanted. Some domain names exchange hands for literally millions of Dollars but in reality we are all just leasing them, paying the administrators of the Top Level Domain (.com, in this case) the same few Dollars a year, no matter what people are willing to pay each other for temporary 'ownership'.

Looking Back in Leicester

Looking Back in Leicester

Published: 2020-01-27

What a weekend that was, having driven up to Leicester on Friday afternoon/evening and back home just in time for Doctor Who on Sunday (more on the latter in the next podcast!)

Saturday saw me at the Science of the Time Lords event at the National Space Centre. The guests were The Colin Baker, Paul McGann and David Bradley. That's a little down on last year where they had four Doctors but the panel with McGann and Bradley was actually a little more entertaining than the epic four Doctor one from the year before. Sadly The Colin Baker was set to do his panel on the Sunday, so I didn't get to see him other than in passing, as I didn't go for a photo or an autograph this time.

All in all it was another good event, though it was noticeably down on attendees over last year (not surprisingly perhaps) and apparently the Saturday (the only day of the weekend I did there) was the busier of the two days. As it was, I was the only one from the 'Staggering Stories team' in attendance this year and it's never quite as much fun without the others. Still, I am glad I went, even if the convention itself is getting a little formulaic with their panels - there are only so many times you want to listen to six people sitting in Daleks attempt off-the-cuff humour as wrangled by Second and Third Doctor impersonators (good as they all are).

The one advantage of travelling to Leicester on my own was that I can do my own thing, without compromise. Every cloud has a silver lining, so they say! Another perk was an upgrade of my hotel room to an 'Executive Suite', which is far less likely to happen if there's a group of you. More importantly being alone meant that I could spend most of the day at the Retro Computer Museum in Leicester on the Sunday without worrying that the others might be getting bored!

I could have spent hours, maybe days, just leafing through their incredible collection of vintage computer magazines, particularly the Atari magazines from the 1980s and early 1990s. I instantly recognised several front covers, read through a good few articles and was reminded of several companies and products through the old adverts. It was a different time, before the World Wide Web, and those magazines taught me so much back then. Without them I almost certainly wouldn't be where I am today.

The Retro Computer Museum has an even more impressive collection of old software, be that cartridges, tapes or discs. The numerous shelves are packed three or four deep in many places and you can rummage to your heart's content. Again, so many memories. Elite, Jet Set Willy, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy adventure game, the infamous ET game for the Atari 2600, I even found the hefty tome for the Atari ST desktop publishing application Calligrapher there. I spent so many hours creating roleplaying documents in that application back in what must have been the very late 1980s and into the very early 1990s (before I transitioned to Papyrus, which I didn't spot there by did find a review of it in a magazine). It was an overload of memories and nostalgia.

It's not just a library of old magazines and games, however. No, it's also full of old systems that you can not only touch but sit down and properly play about with. Old consoles, 8-bit and 16-bit computers. Tables and tables of them, ready to go. They have half a dozen PCs set up for LAN gaming, particularly Quake. Arcade cabinets that can run pretty much any arcade game that you may remember. They even have some massive 1990s arcade VR units from Virtuality. Only a few items, some especially rare and interesting artefacts, are behind glass. Otherwise this has got to be the most hands-on museum I've ever seen. It's not a massive place but it is stuffed to the gills with interesting things and, at least on the day I was there, very well attended - both by oldies such as myself looking for that nostalgia hit and probably even more 'young people' playing on the old systems.

It's very clearly a labour of love for the volunteers who run the place. Not only are they there to help people and talk through the histories but they also maintain the systems, build things like the arcade cabinets and special electronics required for the emulators. On top of that they are also playing a role in digital conservation. One particularly fascinating project they are currently working on is digitising the 1980s BBC Domesday Project, including sampling the raw analogue video streams (at a ridiculously high sampling rate) straight off of the decaying videodiscs. We're talking dozens, if not hundreds of terabytes. I just wish it wasn't an eight hour drive return trip or I'd visit there a lot more often (and maybe even get involved).

If you lived through the 1980s-1990s microcomputer revolution then I'm sure you'll also get a lot out of a visit to the Retro Computer Museum in Leicester. I highly recommend it. I must now get to the slightly closer The Museum of Computing in Swindon, to see how it compares. We need more places like this.

I didn't take many photos but here are a few: Retro Computer Museum, January 2020

Gunslinger Getaways

Gunslinger Getaways

Published: 2020-01-13

The year 2020 is upon us, fast leaving Christmas and New Year in the rear view mirror.

What a busy time it has been. Bleary eyed back to work after getting used to waking up about three hours later. Then there's the big news of Doctor Who finally being back on our screens. As I write this we've seen the first three episodes, namely Spyfall parts one and two, and Orphan 55. They deserve another blog entry on their own, so I'll save that for another day.

Additional holidays/short breaks are in the process of being arranged. I am firmly of the belief that you need such things to look forward to or the daily and weekly routines of normal life will quickly grind you down. To that end, in a couple of weeks, I shall be spending the weekend in Leicester. The National Space Centre up there is hosting Science of the Time Lords and my current plan is to go along to that on the Saturday and then on the Sunday pay a visit to the Retro Computer Museum.

Further off, something to look forward to in the autumn, is a visit to New York. The flights and the Airbnb are all booked and paid for. Now we just need to work out what we're going to do out there but there's plenty of time for that.

Another form of getaway has been happening on and off since the Christmas break, namely computer games. In particular I have been drawn into the Wild West thanks to Red Dead Redemption 2 on the PC. Yes, for a change I have temporarily put aside the virtual reality headsets for something a little less intense - as immersive as VR is, it is also surprisingly draining and the full roomscale set up means a lot of upheaval for my living room. It is good to be able to jump into a more 'traditional' game without those drawbacks from time to time.

The great thing about Red Dead Redemption 2 is the open world nature of it. You can jump on your horse and ride pretty much anywhere you want to on the game's very large map. Go up north into the mountains and you'll find yourself trudging through the snow or go south into the open plains, with all manner of wildlife to be seen around you. You can forage for crafting supplies like herbs or hunt animals for hides and meat. The vast countryside can be searched for fossils, rare animals, abandoned settlements and even hidden treasure (you will occasionally come across a treasure map). Then you could mosey on into town to sell your goods and maybe head into the Sheriff's office and take at look at the wanted posters, before heading back out to hunt down a wanted criminal.

From time to time you might venture back into your own encampment, shared with a motley crew of people on the fringes of the rapidly expanding civilisation. They may want you to join them on quests, ask you to fetch them things from the world or in some way forward the main plot. That main plot is surprisingly rich, though I am deliberately trying to drag it out by avoiding triggering it, where I can! We also have a rival gang, the despicable O'Driscolls. They shoot at us on sight. A group of them ambushed my character by a bridge a few days back. They were no match for me, of course! A couple of days later I got to repay them when I came across a group of six O'Driscolls camping out in the wilderness. The first they knew of me was a well thrown stick of dynamite smacking down into the middle of their encampment. Turns out that our deadly enemies are a good source of loot!

Though the scripted quests are great it is often the unscripted happenings that are the most memorable. This game is full of AI systems and procedurally generated events. The aforementioned time I wiped out an encampment of O'Driscolls is an example, as is the time I was set upon (and killed!) by a pack of wolves. Another time I found someone by the side of the road asking for help, only for it to be a trap - their attempt to rob me only ended up robbing them of life. Then there are the times when things go horribly wrong - like that time I accidentally pointed a gun in someone's face when I had intended to talk to them (all too easily done with the buttons in question) and they, understandably, attacked me. That poor NPC didn't survive my blundered attempt at discussion! Or that time I took a mountain road corner at full gallop and misjudged it. The ragdoll physics of my character and his horse both independently bouncing off rocks all the way down was not so much horrific as outright hilarious.

If you want a walk on the wild side then there's nothing stopping you from robbing passers by, banks, shops, stage coaches or even entire trains. How about stealing a wagon (potentially at high speed by jumping from your horse) and mowing down random strangers in the street with it? All manner of mayhem is open to you, so long as you don't mind the reputation hit and the inevitable posse of lawmen coming at you (or at the very least a sizeable bounty on your head). Personally I am avoiding such interest from the law right now as I have plenty to keep me occupied but I may relax that in time!

Virtual reality it may not be but on my ultrawide monitor you can imagine it's a Spaghetti Western in CinemaScope and how can it not be fun to be the star of one of those?

Of Jumanji and Jedi

Of Jumanji and Jedi

Published: 2019-12-29

What a busy time it is at the cinema this Christmas! Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is either the second, third or fourth film in the series, depending on how you want to count them (the Robin Williams Jumanji from 1995, arguably Zathura: A Space Adventure form 2005, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle from 2017 and Jumanji: The Next Level from this very year). Then there's the little known film called Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which is either the second, third, ninth or eleventh film (depending on if you're one of those revisionists who has blocked out The Last Jedi from 2017, if you want to count it only within the current trilogy, accept it as Episode IX or want to also add in Rogue One and Solo). Busy and confusing, all at the same time it would seem!

Both of these recent entries to their respective franchises are nothing short of great. Neither are groundbreaking or take any real risks but instead give people what the producers think they want. For the most part they are correct and I enjoyed them both immensely.

Spoilers from here on out.

Let's start with Jumanji: The Next Level as it was both out first and is probably quicker and easier to talk about. It takes the wonderful premise and cast from Welcome to the Jungle and effectively just rehashes the whole thing. That sounds bad but actually they do more than enough to keep it fresh by bringing in a couple of new characters and having the existing characters play different avatars for the majority of the film. The one exception being that Karen Gillan remains as Martha playing Ruby Roundhouse (though she does get a brief moment to be inhabited by a male player, as it were). Jack Black's Professor Oberon is no longer a teenage girl but instead playing 'Fridge', the other veteran of the primary four characters. This effectively makes Gillan and Black the main characters of the film this time, as the old hands. Kevin Hart and Dwayne 'the Dibbley' Johnson take the bulk of the comedy and emotional arc as two old friends, new to the game, who squabble and need to make up.

As the name suggests The Next Level is, like a computer game sequel, taking the basics of the previous and providing a new villain, quest and locales. Great set pieces, fun characters and, probably most importantly, it's funny (which seems not to be a given in Hollywood comedies anymore). If you enjoyed the previous film (and how could you not?) then this is a sure fire hit, too. Enjoy the wild ride!

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker had an altogether tougher mission, it needed to put behind it any controversy (for right or wrong) of the previous film (or two, if you include Solo) and provide closure not only to the current trilogy but to the Skywalker trilogy of trilogies as a whole. That's a 'big ask' as they say in Hollwoodland. For my money it did give sufficient closure and was as fitting an end as could reasonably be expected given the characters (and actors) they had to play with.

Star Wars is a film series that has been with me pretty much my entire life. I was three, going on four, when it first hit general release in the UK. I had a big (but not quite complete) set of the Palitoy/Kenner Star Wars figures and ships. It was a massive part of my childhood, before Doctor Who started to take over around 1983, particularly after Return of the Jedi. Star Wars never really went away and was especially rekindled by the West End Games roleplaying game and the original Timothy Zahn trilogy of Thrawn books in the early 90s, perhaps not coincidentally after Doctor Who disappeared from our screens. The Star Wars prequels were okay but were pretty neutral in my personal appreciation of the Galaxy far, far away. The sequels were better but can never replicate the effect that Star Wars of the late 70s/early 80s had on my young mind. Nonetheless the conclusion of the saga that I grew up with must have some deep meaning to me? I'm not sure it has, perhaps because it doesn't actually feel like the end of anything. The stories will continue, though maybe not with anyone named Skywalker but then I was always more interested in the world, the technology and, frankly, the bad guys than I ever was in Luke or Leia. I remember being upset that they killed off Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi (yes, there are some spoilers somewhere in here!) but I feel no upset or mourning for the franchise or anything/anyone in it this time.

The Rise of Skywalker was, for me, a very good film. I liked the redemption of Ben Solo, it felt earned in a way that Vader's never did. I was impressed by how well they managed to integrate Leia into the story, considering their wise decision not to attempt another CGI version of her. Lando's inclusion was distinctly less well done, almost a box ticking exercise of having an original trilogy main actor there as the screenwriters or life itself had killed off the other characters and/or actors (save for C-3P0's Anthony Daniels, of course). I was a tad disappointed by Hux's treatment in the film, I'd hoped he'd get some kind of even limited victory, though Richard E Grant was superb as his effective replacement.

Former emperor Palpatine's return was well handled, I thought. The retconning of him having been the mastermind behind this trilogy basically means that these nine films should be called the Palpatine saga rather than the Skywalker saga, I feel, especially with the slightly left-field revelation of Rey Palpatine. Though I have nothing against The Last Jedi, I do wish J.J. Abrams had overseen the entire trilogy, in the hope that these plot points could have been better seeded in (not that the original trilogy was great at that, either!) The prequel trilogy is the only one that doesn't feel completely made up as they went along.

The McGuffin searches in the first half of the film - get the dagger to get the wayfinder to get to the hidden Sith world - were a newish addition to the cinematic side of the franchise (not counting the Death Star plans in Rogue One) but I am unconvinced that was a great use of the limited screen time, though I don't know what would have been better, so I cannot really complain! This first half also has the fake out of two deaths, Chewie and C-3P0 (a kind of death) which to me shows how they were struggling with that half of the film.

The Podcast Treadmill

The Podcast Treadmill

Published: 2019-12-17

A few days ago the Christmas episode of the Staggering Stories podcast was unleashed on the world. We had a lot of fun recording it, as ever. Perhaps even a little more fun than usual, thanks to the games and the general festive feeling.

As with any podcast, the recording isn't the first stage (that's watching or listening to whatever we're going to talk about and then writing the news) but it is the most fun, what really makes it worthwhile for us (that and the kind and insightful feedback, of course).

For those interested in the technical details of the recording, the basics are as follows. Yes, we are all in the same room for the recording. If we have a secret sauce it's that, knowing each other for decades (for the most part) and getting all of those non-verbal cues and the general group dynamic that's hard to get remotely, even with only slightly laggy video! Tech-wise things are much simpler now than in the early days (as documented in Podcasting Setup) as now there is no recording computer but instead a standalone device in the form of a 6 mic input Zoom H6. The mics are the same Shure PG48 XLR ones with mic stands, as in our original setup (not counting the very first podcast).

That fun bit of recording is followed by the most laborious part, the edit. I've edited the majority of the past 330 podcast episodes in their entirety. Siobhan Gallichan edited the first few, Karen has edited perhaps a quarter of the others, which has always been a very welcome respite to say the least! More recently we've been splitting the edit, usually with Karen doing roughly the first half and myself the second half and final assembly.

For the sake of simplicity I'll explain what's involved in cases where it's a solo edit by myself. We record (with very few exceptions) on a Monday night. That usually results in a pre-edit audio file of between 1.5 to 2 hours (strictly speaking one mono audio file per mic, up to six, all in perfect sync). Tuesday and Wednesday evenings are devoted to editing (3-4 hours of work a night), resulting in 20-30 minutes of edited material a night. I quickly discovered that three nights of editing in a row made me very unhappy, so Thursday nights I take off (usually a cinema night) and return to it on Friday. Hopefully that will see the main edit finished, though often without the outtakes at that stage. Another 3-4 hours on Saturday will see the outtakes trimmed down (any candidate bit is chucked into another audio project during the main edit and then that's separately trimmed at the end), plus a final automated levelating of the voice tracks, the downmix from multi-track 48kHz to stereo 32kHz MP3, the segment timings gathered, links gathered, web pages written, the graphical ident created and announcements written. Generally this is finished on Saturday afternoon, with the podcast set to publish automatically at 9am on Sunday.

Back to an editing evening, why do I only manage to get 20-30 minutes of material finished in 3-4 hours? So many little ums, ars, pauses, sentences that fizzle out, a multitude of "as I say"s and similar. Then nearly every piece of dialogue needs to be manually sound level adjusted (we're all terrible at keeping our sound levels anything like, well, level - one minute nearly whispering and the next shouting!) If the speaker is too quiet then the final automated 'levelating' will bring up the tracks of everyone, so it will amplify background breathing, shuffling and the like of the non-speakers. In those frequent cases where we're speaking over one another, I try to adjust the volumes of the speakers to put the 'most important' of them as the loudest, slightly dropping the failed interruptions or interjected remark so they are still there but aren't drowning out the primary voice of the moment. It's a lot of work!

Burnout is a very real risk with my ridiculous attempts at perfection (an impossible dream, I know), especially when doing these every fortnight. Basically half of my life is devoted to the podcast and some editing nights I really cannot face it but just have to force myself anyway. The problem is my contingency time is limited, especially if I am going to be busy on a Saturday or an editing weeknight. Those are particularly tough weeks with very late nights.

It's a lot more work than I am sure most people realise. Is it worth it? Every two weeks another podcast will come along, so are they a bit throwaway? Maybe but to me these are almost historical documents, a snapshot of our thoughts and a record of a fun evening. I want to honour those good times and hope to share them in the strongest way I can. The best that I can do in the time that I have.

Fortunately this burden is shared but it's not something I'd wish on anyone (though I'd never refuse an offer of help!)

Updates, updates, updates

Updates, updates, updates

Published: 2019-12-06

A decision on the Los Angeles to San Francisco journey, some additional thoughts on the whole house extension idea and some news on the car situation.

The decision has been made and a ticket booked for the LA to San Fran journey. I was debating if I should take the quicker and cheaper option of a plane journey or go the whole hog and take the reputedly scenic train trip up the coast. The train was potentially half the ~$130 plane fare cost (including hold luggage) or, if I went for a 'roomette' then actually more at $201. I went expensive but scenic. It was one of those things that I would probably have regretted if I took the quicker and easier aeroplane route. I won't be lacking time sitting on a plane during the entire trip as it is in any event. Yes, this way I am stuck on a train with strangers for eleven or more hours but I will have my own room (with bed) to retreat to. I am not looking forward to the dining car experience, being on a table with up to three people I don't know and having to try to make 'small talk'. Hopefully a price worth paying overall.

Talking of paying for my own space, I have already booked my flight into LA and the return flight from San Francisco. So called 'Economy Delight', after Virgin Atlantic split their basic economy class into three - Light, Classic and Delight. On top of that is their Premium Economy and Upper Class. It's all very confusing. The others are flying Economy Light, the most inexpensive but they do have to pay £45 each way for hold luggage and cannot choose their seats until they get to the airport. Economy Classic gets you one 'free' checked baggage and you can choose your seat ahead of time. The oddly named Economy Delight gets you that plus an extra three inches (I don't know why it's not metric by now) of leg room, plus priority boarding. It cost me a bit more but mostly air miles and I've already booked my aisle row seats. Will it be worth it over Economy Classic? Time will tell.

That's all well and good but I must admit to being stupidly (and it probably is stupid) tempted to upgrade all the way to Upper Class for the way home. Unlike the flight to LA this will be overnight. I can never sleep on planes, mostly (I think) due to being sat up and generally cramped. What if I could have a bed, would that help? With Upper Class that's what you get. Well, it's more of a chair that folds totally flat but perhaps it will help? Also I would get access to the Upper Class Lounge at SFO airport and given I need to be out of the hotel by 11am and the flight isn't until 5pm, a few hours in there would certainly be more comfortable than out in the main departures cattle holding. I should even be able to get a table with power and Internet to finish off the podcast that is due out the next morning. As I say, very tempting but at just over £2,000 perhaps a wasteful use of funds?

On that subject, I am getting cold feet over the house extension idea. Of the two quotes I have so far, one was for £41,688 and the other £45,180. The lower quote doesn't include a few bits that the other does, most notably the bi-fold patio doors. Neither includes the extra expenses for additional kitchen cupboards and working tops. I expect the final cost to in reality exceed £50k. Great though it'd be to have a games room and an additional shower room, are they really worth that much to me? The lack of interest in games evenings of late doesn't help the cause. Right now these are rooms that would get little use. Would I be better spending that money on travelling and generally having fun? Okay, that won't add value to the property but that value will only be realised if (when?) I ever sell. Second thoughts are very much settling in. Given it's nearly Christmas, it's not the time to start a building project anyway, so perhaps I should let it ruminate a little.

The car conundrum continues. It has been months since I originally spoke to the Kia dealership to put down my fully refundable deposit for the new Soul EV, with it's ~280 mile all electric range. Out of nowhere I received an email from them saying that the new cars will start to arrive for customers somewhere in the April-May range. The lease on my current car ends sometime in July, so May would be better for me. Still my mind hasn't been made up on if I go for this new car or look for a second hand clone of my current car. The idea of travelling around Europe by car is certainly compelling but I'd only do that with a car that'll comfortably do over 200 miles, with contingency. Is that reason enough for the new car? If so, maybe I also need to sort out that potential Irish passport but that's a thought for another day and to see what comes of the election!

The Maclunkeyan

The Maclunkeyan

Published: 2019-12-02

So, the bounty hunter of the moment, Dyn Jarren, AKA The Mandalorian. I don't believe he's been named on screen as of yet, though Pedro Pascal has rather freely name dropped his character in interviews. Not hearing his name certainly adds to the mysterious nature of the character. It makes it that bit easier to allow your childhood fantasy of putting yourself in their place. I am impressed that, four episodes of eight in so far, they haven't shown his face either. That feels true to what I imagined the character, or at least what I imagined of Boba Fett during my childhood (and indeed my old Star Wars roleplaying game bounty hunter character, who also never removed his helmet). Let's all pretend the Fett stuff in the prequels never happened as that total demystified the character of Boba Fett. Not that I am expecting them to never to show the Mandalorian's face but it will be earned.

Of course all of this talk of The Mandalorian is entirely hearsay. For reasons that can only make sense to Disney, they have chosen not to launch Disney+ in all the major territories at once, or even just all the English speaking ones. It launched in Canada, the United States and, rather curiously, the Netherlands. A week later they added Australia, New Zealand and Puerto Rico. That was all in November 2019. In the UK we won't be able to give them our money until a few hours before April 2020. Given the damaged state of the Star Wars brand (for right or wrong) and the almost universal praise and general reigniting of the love that this series has generated, it already seems foolish not to have launched it everywhere before Rise of the Skywalker. That's not even taking into account that they are retraining the disenfranchised to obtain episodes through less than legal means, exactly what the likes of Netflix were making redundant.

Fortunately with everyone talking about it, there isn't a need to actually obtain the episodes in an underhand way to known everything about it. Vicarious viewing is a real thing in the Internet age! What I know about it has me very impressed. Favreau has said something along the lines of writing it felt like taking his old toys out of their box and playing with them. Others have said that it feels like a big budget (around $5M per episode, I hear) fan film and I don't think they mean that in derisory way. This is certainly the sort of Star Wars that I would want to make. Favreau, along with Dave Filoni and co, has really captured that simple childish wish fulfilment that is at the centre of Star Wars, at least for me and probably most others who grew up with the original trilogy in the 70s and into the 80s.

The series feels like a western, which for my money (eventually!) is absolutely the correct tone and influence for a Star Wars bounty hunter series. Others have noted the inspirations taken from Japanese samurai films, which were themselves inspired by American westerns. There's a lot of cross pollination going on here. There have been minor complaints that the series is taking Star Wars trappings and transplanting them elsewhere in the world just for added Star Wars flavour. Such things might be the Jawas and their sandcrawler on a world that isn't Tatooine or the more general cases of another desert or frozen world. Personally I'm okay with that, these inhospitable worlds are the places you'll less likely to find much civilisation (as it called for) and do we really know for sure that Jawas, for example, originated on Tatooine rather than spread to it and similar worlds from elsewhere? It's not like there seems to be much of an ecosystem to support the evolution of the Jawas on these worlds.

Little in jokes and references are also aplenty, such as that powerful forked gun Dyn Jarren owns is from Fett's original appearance in the Holiday Special, the mention of Life Day and even the infamous 'ice cream maker' (now named a camtono) from The Empire Strikes Back. There are many more besides, including quite a few from the modern animated series that I haven't spotted.

I have tried to avoid spoilers in here, given that most of the world cannot see it and may be desperately trying to avoid spoilers until they can (good luck!) but I cannot end without mentioning, if only obliquely, the character that appears at the end of the first episode. I am impressed that they have used what appears to me to be a lot of practical effects and where CGI has been used you usually cannot tell the difference. They are clearly trying to keep that original trilogy aesthetic (prior to the Special Editions!) where they simply didn't have CGI. I, for one, certainly appreciate that.

Finally, I want to say a word or several about the staggered release strategy. Netflix has rather defined the streaming release model of dumping an entire season in one fell swoop. That's great for bingeing over a weekend and when you cannot wait for the next episode you just don't have to. Disney+ are taking a more traditional approach of releasing an episode a week (give or take a couple of exceptions towards the beginning and end of the run). That does have the benefit of everyone getting time to digest (and produce copious reviews and discussions) for each episode, in step with everyone else. Much as I want to binge and almost hate to say that waiting is superior, in this case I think it is. Four more episodes to go and I am very much looking forward to hearing all about them but let's not rush for it to be over.

California Pondering

California Pondering

Published: 2019-11-29

Planning is well underway for the next holiday, or perhaps I should say 'vacation' as it will be in the United States. No, let's stick with holiday!

It will be a two city break, starting with a week in Los Angeles and then just under a week in somewhere new for me - San Francisco. The LA part was prompted by an annual Doctor Who convention that we've been to twice before, the first time back in 2011 and then again in 2013. Gallifrey One, or Gally as it's generally known, had gotten too big, too noisy. Much as we enjoyed it, we vowed not to return. Then the lesser spotted Christopher Eccleston was announced as a guest for 2020 and, almost without thinking, we all jumped at the chance to face those crowds again, seven years after the last time.

Given the brutal eight hour time difference between home and LA, I really didn't want to fly in just for the convention, as we did in 2013. Even in 2011 we had scheduled the convention weekend as the first days of our LA holiday, then doing the touristy stuff for the week after. That was a mistake. Jetlag meant we were waking up at 3am and being unable to keep our eyes open by 8pm. That's no fun for a convention known for its nightlife! This time the holiday part comes first, so hopefully we shall experience a bit more of the convention, even if it means we'll be at LA tourist spots by dawn!

Sadly I was unable to persuade any of the others to stay on after the convention, they are flying back the next day. I do like to visit new places and it seemed a shame to fly eight timezones and only visit LA, again. Another Californian city I've always wanted to see is San Francisco, so that's what I am doing. We're all flying out of Heathrow together but as they fly home I will travel north. I have still to decide on if I will take the Amtrak Coast Starlight train or take a considerably shorter flight.

The flight is a little over one and a half hours but add in the faffage at the airports either end (check-in, security, waiting to board, boarding, waiting to taxi, waiting to get off the plane, waiting for luggage, etc) then realistically it's more like four hours. On the other hand the train is about eleven hours and that's not counting waiting to leave or any (apparently not unusual) delays on the line. The one-a-day train should arrive in Oakland at around 9:30pm and then it's another three quarters of an hour on a local train or bus to San Francisco city centre. A little late to be dragging my luggage around the streets to the hotel. Then there's the fact that I'll be stuck on a train with total strangers for the majority of a waking day, even forced to share a table at dinner with some of them. I could get a sleeper 'roomette' for the non-overnight trip, to get a little respite from the other passengers, though it would cost a fair bit more than the roughly $130 for a flight.

On the face of it the train doesn't have much going for it. That's until you take into account some reputedly stunning scenery along the Californian coast. It's so tempting just for those views. If I had a travelling companion or two then it would be a 'no brainer' as they say over there. As it is I am still torn. Train or plane..?

Doctor Who: The Edge of Time Itself

Doctor Who: The Edge of Time Itself

Published: 2019-11-26

There's a new(ish) VR game on the block and it's one of those rare beasts - a Doctor Who game! It sports the rather generic sounding name of Doctor Who: The Edge of Time.

I've been playing this on my HTC Vive, which offers full 'room scale' virtual reality, i.e. you can not only look around you, crouch and jump but you can also walk around, at least within the roughly 2.5m by 2.5m area I have to work with. When you need to go farther within the game you can either teleport a short distance or use your handheld controllers to glide about within the game world. I prefer teleport as it doesn't make me feel motion sick.

This is all besides the point. What about finally having a Doctor Who VR game? It's not the most incredible game ever but it does have quite a few wonderful moments. The best of those is every time you stand outside the TARDIS looking in. Being stereoscopic 3D everything you see has a real sense of depth. You can see it is computer graphics of course but you are inside them and you quickly accept the world around you as real. Never is that more impressive than when you can see just how impossibly large the inside of the TARDIS is, when outside looking in you can see that the police box is so much smaller. You can lean around the side of the police box, still being able to see inside (the perspectives changing as they would in real life) but also seeing where the back of the outside box starts. It doesn't get old. The writers of Doctor Who need to experience this because the companions only ever mention it once and then forget about it. That's not how it would be.

Other highlights include Jodie Whittaker's voice work. Sadly it's all scripted so you cannot have a conversation with her but this is the next best thing. Then there's the locations and naturally you travel to a few places in the TARDIS. This game quickly get genuinely scary is almost every location. You don't know scary until you've experienced it in VR and this game likes to put the frighteners on. I won't spoil too much but I will say that if you find Blink unsettling then prepare to be a character in it - it's terrifying! Even the Daleks will get the heart pumping. This has shades of a psychological horror and it's a wonder companions aren't traumatised for life.

The downsides are the duration of the game. Not rushing through it I completed the game in what must have been about four hours. At its core it is a puzzle game. Nothing wrong with that, in fact it's probably a perfect fit for Doctor Who. Some of the puzzles aren't the greatest, however. This isn't Portal, it's not puzzles first, flavour second. It's definitely the other way around, as it should be, so it's hard to complain too much.

Only in VR can a bigger box fit inside a smaller one and you can experience that as if real. Assuming you have a suitable setup and you like Doctor Who then this is a must. If not and you know someone with a HTC Vive, an Oculus Rift, a Valve Index or whatever else is compatible then badger them to get Doctor Who: The Edge of Time and let you have a go. It's the closest you can (so far) get to travelling in the TARDIS.

Packages of Delay

Packages of Delay

Published: 2019-11-20

Two deliveries today, both of which should have arrived yesterday. That doesn't matter too much for the Staggering Stories Christmas cards (hopefully we'll get those signed on Sunday) but the lack of the new graphics card yesterday evening was unfortunate.

Yesterevening we had a mini-gathering. Mainly it was to buy flights to Los Angeles for the Gallifrey One convention in February (more on that in upcoming posts) but also to have a play on the new Doctor Who VR game The Edge of Time. Technically my venerable old graphics card, an Nvidia GTX 970, was below minimum spec (apparently an Nvidia GTX 1050Ti or better is required, thanks to its new VR friendly Simultaneous Multi-Projection tech). Nonetheless my old card did okay in the circumstances but I had put in a rush order the day before for a shiny new Nvidia RTX 2070 Super. Next day delivery was stated, just in time for yesterday evening's gaming. It finally appeared today, a day too late. Thanks Amazon. Still, I look forward to installing that and playing a bit more of The Edge of Time. More on that game in a future post, too.

As for the Christmas cards, those haven't turned out too badly. The 'photoshoot' (if we can even call it that) was very hastily thrown together at the end of our last podcast recording session. The lighting is particularly poor. Still, these are cards that we are sending out to interested listeners for nothing (mostly funded by myself and custom printed cards aren't cheap even when bought in 'bulk' of about 100) so hopefully we won't have too many complaints! Each year I vow to arrange this earlier but it always ends up as a last minute thing. Nevertheless it's a fun picture that I hope people will enjoy seeing on their festive mantelpiece. Next year I hope to commission an artist again, as we did last year, but that requires timely planning... Could someone remind me in August, please?

Podcast 238

Podcast 238

Published: 2019-11-15

Back when I restarted this blog, only a couple of weeks ago or so now, I expressed a desire to expand upon or clarify some of my ideas. Podcast 238 (which should, by the end of the weekend, end up at Staggering Stories Podcast 238) perhaps didn't have the meatiest of topics but I shall put down some of my thoughts, if only for future me (I find it fascinating to read my 2005 thoughts on the Eccleston era as it happened, for example).

Let's start with the 1987 film, Robocop. It was not my first viewing, though it has been a long time and even then only once or twice before. I was surprised how incomplete it felt. It just ended, with basically no epilogue or coda. The villain falls to his death, potentially killing an innocent or two who happen to be at the bottom of the skyscraper. The end. Robocop has, despite his slaughtering, regained something of his humanity. I expected him to then attempt to contact his family and progress in that way. Clearly I am thinking of the sequel and/or the remake from a few years ago.

For a film full of satire and social commentary it seemed to me that they were playing Robocop himself, Murphy, as an entirely unironic unstoppable, uncompromising killing machine. The Judge Dredd influence is palpable (now that I am much more familiar with Dredd than I was in the 1990s or whenever I first saw Robocop). Dredd also inhabits a distopian future of satire and social commentary but there they make no bones that Dredd is an anti-hero, in a world devoid of truly heroic characters. Robocop is treated like a superhero, like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner - one day something happens to him to bestow strength and power, no longer to be put upon. Robocop is that with an added dose of the Terminator or Rambo. He feels like the ultimate American gun toting fantasy. It perhaps shouldn't be a surprise that he later became a childrens' character in cartoons! It will be interesting to see where they take this proto-Cyberman character in the sequel. My vague recollection is that much more time was spent on what it was like to be that cyborg-as-property. The first film needed more of that.

As for Doctor Who: The Time Monster... I don't know that I have much to add. This was the first time I'd ever seen it, oddly. I don't think I was missing much. Not a stellar Jon Pertwee story, though it was absolutely typical of the era - the Master, some scientific research gone either awry or (as in this case) used for evil. An establishment figure enthralled to the villain. Lots of boring looking lab and office sets. Pertwee was rarely showing any flair, warmth or really any interesting character traits here, sadly. When he's on form he can be great but he often feels like he's just going through the motions, at least so it seems to me. The Time Monster is not totally without merit or fun, however. Benton gets to do a fair bit, including falling for the oldest trick in the book. Speaking of which, Delgado is on fine form, as ever. The titular monster looks ridiculous in action but I was always intrigued by it since seeing a photo in the Radio Times 20th anniversary special. Another story crossed off the list and my nine year old self's imagination slightly let down by the reality of the monster!

Next time on the Staggering Stories podcast... His Dark Materials episode 1-4 on BBC One, the BFI event for the now delayed Doctor Who Season 26 Blu-ray boxset and just maybe a review of the new Doctor Who VR game - The Edge of Time.

Rear Expansion

Rear Expansion

Published: 2019-11-06

As I write this I have lived in my current home for just over twenty years. I bought the house on the 3rd of September 1999 and moved in exactly a month later, after a total redecoration, on the 3rd of October 1999.

Over those twenty years I've replaced the old single glazed windows and doors, all of the radiators and the boiler, had a new bathroom put in and recently a new kitchen, had solar panels and home battery storage fitted, plus an electric car charging point, of course.

Houses are money pits but then the value of my place has at least trebled since I bought it (though the value of all homes have gone up by a similar amount, so I've not really gained anything unless I move into a cardboard box!) That makes moving to a bigger place prohibitively expensive but there is another upgrade that I can do to my place - an extension.

My back garden is quite small (this being a 1985-1986 built house) and, for me, something of a waste of space. I've spent considerably more time out there cutting the grass and otherwise maintaining the garden than actually making use of it. I would, however, make use of an extended kitchen (reshaped into a galley style kitchen), a downstairs shower room and a games room.

I am hoping the cost would be somewhere between £35k and £45k. So far, despite having had two out of three potential builders over to look at the place, I've not had any kind of quote or even a rough indication. If it's going to be more than about £50k then I'll probably think again. A conservatory instead? Wouldn't give me an extra shower, which my four bedroom place would really benefit from, especially when I have two or three friends staying. I also hear horror stories about keeping conservatories warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Then there's their shortish life of 20-30 years, making them a liability after a couple of decades. Not so keen on that idea.

We'll have to see what the various companies come back with for the extension. The chattier of the two chaps to take a look did mention an expected works duration of about twenty weeks! That doesn't make it sound like it'll be cheap and it will be a big disruption for nearly half a year. Ouch.

Car Conundrums

Car Conundrums

Published: 2019-11-04

Electric cars are my thing. I've been driving pure electric for almost five and a half years now. Four years in a first generation (24kWh) Nissan LEAF and nearly one and a half years in a Kia Soul EV (30kWh). If I can at all help it, I'd never go back to an old fashioned combustion car.

Good for me and all that. So what? Well, I have just over six months before my current lease expires. What's my next car? I may or may not be able to extend my lease. If I can it will almost certainly include a significant price hike as the residual value in a two year old car is considerably better than that on a three or four year old one, especially given the new longer range cars that are starting to appear.

I do have a deposit down on the next generation Kia Soul EV. My current one has a rough range of 130-140 miles. The new one is literally double that (officially 280, I believe). Sounds great but I've recently found myself wondering if I actually need that. I can drive to Cambridge without recharging en route. Cardiff is one (20-30 minute) midpoint stop, which is actually welcome on such a long journey. How about I try to buy this car or an identical one and keep it a few more years?

The original plan was to outright buy the next car as a long term keeper. That's the only way I can really justify to myself the cost of a new longer range EV (about £34k in this case). With a 7 year warranty that would be about £5k a year or just over £400 a month (assuming zero value at the end, which shouldn't be the case!) Hardly cheap motoring, even if the 'fuel' should cost me peanuts, especially in the summer thanks to my solar panels.

A second hand version of my current car is apparently going for about £16k right now. That's still with 5 years warranty left. With a whole slew of longer range EVs due on the market in mid to late 2020, due to EU emissions, perhaps I should buy something like my current car and keep that a few years. In three or four years the EV market should look a lot different, hopefully with more reasonably priced cars. But what about the new features such as partial self driving, heads up display, longer range and so forth?

The new and shiny calls but perhaps I should resist this time?

Unlimited Cinema, Limited Films?

Unlimited Cinema, Limited Films?

Published: 2019-11-01

Is it just me or has this been a particularly poor year for cinema? I pay the recently inflated price of £18.40 a month for 'unlimited' cinema, where I can see as many films as I like for that one fixed monthly price (upgrade fees are added to tickets for their digital IMAX screen, the 270° ScreenX, 4DX, non-film screenings such as stageplays, etc.) Given that a regular screening now appears to cost £12.90, watching two films a month makes the Unlimited card pay for itself. That's based on their prices but what's it worth to me?

This year I have been struggling to find motivation to go to the cinema. The more I go the better value for money the Unlimited card becomes but my time is more precious than ever. How many of the films that I've sat through this year were really worth my time? This year more than any previous (and I have been an Unlimited member since July 2012, coming up to 7.5 years now) on many weeks I've struggled to see any films in the listings that I've wanted to see. Looking back on the year there were a few highlights but not as many as I would expect. Has cinema generally become bland or am I just a bit burnt out? A bit of both perhaps?

Whatever the case, I am seriously considering cancelling my Unlimited card in January, after I've had my fill of Rise of the Skywalker and Jumanji: The Next Level. It would be quite a change, for so many years now I've been spending an evening at the cinema every week (give or take), it is part of my routine.

Return of the Blog

Return of the Blog

Published: 2019-10-25

It's been a while now, in part because I did not want to pollute the Staggering Stories Blog with my own personal entries, as I used to back when the podcast was young (actually even before it started). I do want to put my thoughts down somewhere, so let's do it here, on my own website.

The podcast is great fun but often not the best way to get my thoughts and opinions out in a coherent fashion - there's just too much back and forth and tangenting going on there. I wouldn't have it any other way, the Staggering Stories podcast is supposed to be us just chatting and having fun. That does mean that I often find myself wanting to sit down a give a more considered review or take on whatever we've been discussing. Hopefully those will, occasionally, end up here.

Also I worry about relying on Facebook for my own personal history. What have I been watching, reading, playing or otherwise doing? A lot of that goes on Facebook. It's not private and nor will anything here be. Facebook is more about the now. If you want to see what you were doing three months ago or what your fast take was on a particular thing, well good luck finding it!

My first task - somehow integrate the Nextcloud instance I am using to write this with my website. How hard can it be?