The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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6:17pm on Thursday, 27th April, 2017:

Safe Place


I spotted this sign on campus yesterday:

I'm pretty sure some of those letters overlap in meaning. I'm also pretty sure that some of the prospective students who'll see the sign won't know what all the letters mean anyway, even ones that apply to them. I'm less sure that the LGBTQIA acronym is up to date, as I've seen PK added to it on more than one occasion.

This is the problem with labelling. You start off trying to highlight a group with an issue, then you need to extend the label to another group with a similar issue, then you get people who are uncomfortable with an overarching label and you have to keep both labels as part of the umbrella term, then more groups with related issues come along, then you get a proliferation of groups each with a similar-but-not-identical issue, all reluctant to allow a single term to subsume their identity because of the fight they had to get recognised in the first place. Then some groups don't like being associated with other groups, and before you know it the point of making the label in the first place has been lost. It's the fragmentation of the left, but transferred to identity politics.

If that Q were an N, you could get TABLING with those letters in Scrabble.


3:56pm on Wednesday, 26th April, 2017:



Yesterday, the Labour Brexit secretaryKeir Starmer, gave a speech about Labour's Brexit policy. One of the key points he made was that parliament should be given a vote on whether or not to accept any deal agreed between the UK and the EU.

OK, fair enough. However, what happens if parliament doesn't accept the deal?

Well, this is where I'm unclear (despite the fact that his speech used the word "clear" seven times). The Conservatives make no bones about it: if parliament doesn't accept the deal, then we'll leave the EU with the hardest of hard Brexits. What's Labour's perspective, though?

When questioned about it on the Today programme yesterday, Starmer seemed to suggest that we'd stay in the EU and continue negotiating for a better deal. This sounds reasonable, but I see three problems with it.

Firstly, we may not be able to stay in the EU anyway, now that Article 50 has been triggered. There doesn't appear to be anything in the treaties for untriggering Article 50. If we can't untrigger it, we'll have to leave regardless of what Labour wants. If we can untrigger it, well then there's nothing to stop the government of the day from untriggering it then immediately retriggering it in order to get another 2 years of negotiation. They could continue this indefinitely. The EU is alert to such a possibility and is trying to find a way to allow an untriggering only with the support of the other EU members; this will probably involve getting a compliant Court of Justice to rule in favour of that suggestion. However, this is exactly the kind of rule-bending that put a lot of people off the EU in the first place.

Secondly, if the EU knows that offering a rubbish deal will result in the UK's remaining a member, it'll offer a rubbish deal. Why wouldn't it?

Thirdly, this is a way for all those MPs who don't want to leave the EU (which is the majority) to vote to remain. They simply vote down the bill and then we don't leave. In other words, it's a way for the MPs to overrule the referendum result. That is not going to play well anywhere in the UK except London and (if they don't think it could happen in a second Indyref) Scotland.

As I said, I don't actually know what Labour's policy is in this area. Would a defeat of the "meaningful vote" entail a hard Brexit or a Bremain? If Starmer really is aiming for an accept-or-remain vote for parliament on the final deal, well that may impress some party strategists who will see it as an oh-so-clever way of confounding the voters but it's going to be seen through for the perfidy it is.

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of raising the political consciousness of voters is that they become politically conscious.


8:50pm on Tuesday, 25th April, 2017:

A Pound


I got my first new pound coin today, bimetallic with 12 sides.

I'm not as impressed with these as I thought I'd be. The old pound coins felt as if they were worth a pound, but these don't.

Also, I can't get the supposed hologram to show "£1" if held in the right light.

Hmm, maybe it's a forgery?


5:19pm on Monday, 24th April, 2017:



Woohoo! My wife is away on a business trip to America: I won't be woken up by a 6:10am alarm clock for four whole days!


11:59am on Sunday, 23rd April, 2017:



Hmm, I bought these cards because of the aces. Nevertheless, I think it's bad form for the seller on eBay not to mention that they'd had some home surgery performed on them...


1:33pm on Saturday, 22nd April, 2017:



If my wife wrote newspaper weather reports.


11:42am on Friday, 21st April, 2017:

Exciting Times


Well, the games group at Essex University has just been struck by a metaphorical earthquake.

As with all earthquakes, it began with a small tremor.

Last year, the European Research Council awarded a number of €2.5m Advanced Research Grants to best-in-class academics to do with pretty well what they wanted. These are highly prestigious — see the press release for the one Espen Aarseth received. At Essex University, one such grant was awarded to Professor Massimo Poesio, who is the Director of Research in our department (formally known as the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, or CSEE). Officially, I have an eighth share of this grant myself, because Massimo's interests are in using games to acquire data on language use: when he applied for the Advanced Research Grant he added me as a second investigator. Really, though, it's all his work, I'm just a passenger.

So far, this is great news for Massimo (and good news for me, too, as I may be able to finance another trip for myself to Project Horseshoe this year out of it).

OK, now I need to explain something at this point before continuing. Warning: it's mainly pieced-together from hearsay so could well be entirely wrong — treat it as rumour, not as fact. So, last year Essex University increased the pay of all its female professors by three increments, to bring the average for female professors up to the average level for male professors. This was announced with much publicity, and deservedly so: it was generally received as being A Very Good Thing. However, it transpired (and this is the rumour part) that in practice most female professors were still being paid less than the male professor in the room next door, because the average was taken across the university as a whole, not across individual departments. It emerged that professors in science departments at Essex (who are overwhelmingly male) were being paid considerably less than professors in the humanities. They were also being paid considerably less than science professors in other universities.

Back to the story...

Because Massimo was in receipt of one of these super-prestigious grants, he attracted much attention. Research-led universities (such as Essex) are ranked based on how they fare in the Research Excellence Framework, a periodic review that determines how much research money universities receive. It's a positive feedback loop: the better your research, the more money you get, so the even-better your research will become. Someone in receipt of a €2.5m grant is basically a superstar and can expect to be approached by other universities who are head-hunting for talent.

As for what happened next, well to use a footballing analogy: if you have a star player who is the only member of your team to have been called up for the national squad, but his pay-packet is somewhat less than the squad's average, then you'd better give him a rise or he'll be gone the next transfer window.

Massimo was offered a position at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). This is a Russell Group university within commuting distance of Colchester. Now in the past, whenever a professor has been offered a job at a peer-or-better university, Essex has usually come back with a counter-offer. This time, inexplicably, it didn't. Massimo will therefore be starting the next academic year at QMUL.

OK, well that's a bit of a blow (especially as Massimo has the highest workload in CSEE at 155%), but although he uses games, he's basically a computational linguist. His departure would be felt by the games group, but as a tremor, rather than as an earthquake.

What happens next is the earthquake.

Massimo had to discuss his intention to leave with the Head of School, Simon Lucas. Simon is not only Head of School, he's the leader of the games group. He's excelled in both regards — he's done wonders for games at Essex. If you were thinking of setting up a games research group in a Computer Science department at another quality university, Simon would be just the person you'd want.

Queen Mary were thinking of setting up such a games group.

To cut a long story short, Queen Mary managed to poach Simon, too. Furthermore, he'll not just be establishing their games research group, he'll also be their Head of Department. He's taking other core members of the Essex games group with him, along with a bunch of PhD students and probably the Essex component of the IGGI doctoral training centre. There may be more to follow in the coming years, once a games degree has been inaugurated and once colleagues' currently-young children have grown older.

I'm really pleased for Simon, because this is a wonderful opportunity. How often do you get the chance to create your own research group in a top-20 research university? Wow! He really deserves it, and I don't begrudge him his decision to leave at all.

That said, after earthquakes you get aftershocks.

CSEE should be fine. Simon has had to step down as Head of School with immediate effect for conflict-of-interests reasons, but there are plenty of talented individuals who can step into his shoes. They may take CSEE in a different direction, they may not, but it's in good shape and has a large roster of staff; I have no concerns as to its future.

The games group, on the other hand...

When Computer Science and Electronic Engineering merged about ten years ago, Simon and I were told by the then Head of Department that the games degree was being discontinued. Simon said, "we'll see about that" and went over his head to the Dean to stop the decision from being approved. Since then, the BSc has grown in leaps and bounds, and it's now the third-highest recruiting degree scheme in CSEE (around 25% of undergraduates, I think). The subject is also recruiting well at PhD level and pulling in large games-related grants for academics.

Well, it was, anyway. Its future performance is less certain.

A games group is contingent on having members of staff able to teach it and to research it. Simon is taking the core researchers with him, leaving me as the only out-and-out games person left (and I'm not even on a research contract). We have people who can teach the modules that need to be taught, and we have people who are interested in games as a way to help their research in other areas. That's not enough to count as a research group, though. We have some excellent PhD students coming through who would be shoo-ins for junior lecturer positions in this area, but they're still a year and a half off thesis submission so it's too early for them to step into the breach. That's assuming that the vacancies left by departing games people are filled by games people, too: it may be that the new Head of School decides to strengthen or expand some other area instead. Following an earthquake, the primary concern is making sure that the buildings that are left standing aren't in in danger; reconstructing the buildings that have already fallen down is for later, and may not happen at all.

So, where does this leave me?

Well, I could go to QMUL myself if there were something there for me to teach. I could go full time at Essex and try to resurrect the games group on my own (although that would necessitate my gaining a promotion: I have the Professor title because I'm an honorary professor, but I'm employed on a Senior Lecturer contract). I could go back to industry, but to be frank there aren't many games companies who would employ someone in their late 50s despite what the law has to say about ageism — I'd have to set up my own studio. I could become an itinerant lecturer, delivering intensive two-to-four-week lecture series at different universities. I could ramp up my consultancy business, although that's never recovered to the levels it reached before the financial crisis of 2008. I could wind up unemployed.

For the moment, unless someone head-hunts me, I'll bide my time. I'll see who the new Head of School is, ascertain what this means for rebooting the games group, keep teaching and supervising, and make a decision once the dust has settled (assuming a decision isn't made for me in the meantime).

If they take away my title or make me share an office, though, I'm off for sure.


1:23pm on Thursday, 20th April, 2017:



Bah! Who needs a professional signwriter when you can do it yourself?

The name says one thing, the sign says another...


1:32pm on Wednesday, 19th April, 2017:



This is a keyring advertising EDF, the French energy company.

Now they have to know that even with the cute eyeballs on it, it looks like a turd. That being the case, they must have calculated that the gains they make publicity-wise from the humour value are greater than the losses they make from being associated with faecal matter.

It's incredible to think that it was someone's job to make that decision.


4:37pm on Tuesday, 18th April, 2017:

New Games


I read More New Games recently. This is the follow-up to The New Games Book, which I had anyway.

The New Games movement was active in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was all about using games to bring people together, beginning as it did in the counterculture capital of the world, San Francisco. Its motto ("Play hard, play fair, nobody hurt") summed up its philosophy: play should be physical, simple, adaptable, require little or no equipment and be non-exclusive. Challenge was important, and although competition could deliver that challenge, the view was that playing is what's important, not winning or losing.

The games that grew out of (or were discovered by) the movement were of the kind you might find in school playgrounds. Some of them are actual schoolyard games, such as British Buldog; others would go down well at a children's party, although these are games primarily intended for adults.

After reading a hundred or more sets of rules, it's clear that a good many New Games are variations on the same few themes. That doesn't mean they're not fun to play, though.

New Games don't have much of a profile now; it's really only game designers who are interested in them (because, hey, they're games!). The movement began to decline for a number of reasons, in part because the hippie-era value system that gave birth to it lost its appeal, but also because people may indeed have played hard and played fair, but they nevertheless got hurt — and sued for damages.

I first heard of New Games when they were coming to prominence. I used to subscribe to postal games zines, and there were some mentions of the movement there. My view was in line with the consensus: these may be fun for an afternoon, but you're not going to want to play them regularly. Yes, it's great if 10,000 people gather in a park to play New Games, but it's only ever going to be a transient event like a carnival; the games that gamers play together have more substance to them, so you keep coming back.

Put another way, every weekend for maybe ten years my dad, my brother and I used to play board games — sometimes two or three in a session. I can't imagine we'd ever have included any New Games in our repertoire.

The thing is, New Games are games-as-experiences. Now I don't mind games-as-experiences, but experiences are necessarily brief. If you know that you have a quarter of an hour for a game before doing something else, then a game-as-experience is really going to hit the spot. However, no-one is going to play a game-as-experience every evening for two to four hours instead of watching TV. Rollercoasters are experiences, but if you ride one 14 times in a row without getting off (as I have), you soon learn that the experience loses its lustre.

This is one of the things that concerns me about virtual reality. So much work on VR games is about an experience, but how long is that going to last? Yes, it could well be exciting and exhilerating, but only occasionally. If VR games were more about the games than the interface, they might do better. It was like this with the Wii: developers couldn't get past the fact that it had motion detectors in it, so every Wii game was about waving around parts of your anatomy. For the Kinect, it was even worse. Just because you have a fancy interface, you don't have to make the game be about the interface. VR could bring a lot to games, if we can get over the games-as-experience barrier. 3D movies no longer play to the interface by sticking things out of the screen at you or attacking you with bees; they're just like regular movies but enhanced by 3D. Perhaps VR can mature, too?

Oh well.

Let's have a big hand for New Games, all the same.


5:29pm on Monday, 17th April, 2017:



This statue for sale in one of the local garden centres looks like Johnny out of Witcher III.

That still doesn't make it something I'd want in my garden, unless I had a need to frighten small children.


12:18pm on Sunday, 16th April, 2017:



Mmm, Easter, a wonderful excuse to eat chocolate moulded into the shape of eggs.

I feel sorry for my mother, though. She'll be sitting at home all on her own with no Easter chocolate.

That's because I gave her it on Tuesday.


1:45pm on Saturday, 15th April, 2017:

Double Take


This letter in today's Guardian caught my eye.

There, but for a typographical error, am I.


12:39pm on Friday, 14th April, 2017:

Eurovision Vision


I have to say, I'm uncomfortable with how the Eurovision Broadcasting Union has handled the spat between Russia and Ukraine.

The Eurovision Song Contest this year is in Ukraine. The performer of the Russian entry has been barred from entering Ukraine because she has visited Crimea since its annexation by Russia in 2014, and Ukraine has a law banning anyone from the Ukraine who has entered Crimea via Russia.

This isn't right. The deal should be that if a country is unable to accept all entries from all competing countries, it shouldn't hold the contest. The contest should be moved somewhere else where there isn't a problem. These things do take time to organise, but they can be reorganised within three months — especially if the host country is otherwise going to arrest a contestant upon arrival.

The competition rules need to be changed swiftly, so this kind of thing doesn't happen again. What next? Spain doesn't let the UK participate because our entry has visited Gibraltar? Portugal doesn't let Spain participate because Spain's entry has visited Olivença? Russia doesn't let anyone participate because it has laws against homosexuality?


11:12am on Thursday, 13th April, 2017:



I'm not one to excuse violence, but it's hard to imagine that anyone might think that putting a poster saying "Mobile Phones Cracked Screens Repaired Here" behind a glass door wouldn't lead to this result.


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Copyright © 2017 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).