Monthly Archives: June 2006

I hate Windows, part 94

It’s mid-afternoon, and I’m merrily typing away in XP when it suddenly turns into treacle, and then a huge, blue, fierce BSOD bars my way. I haven’t seen one of those in a long time. I don’t really register the alleged reason – I’m thinking about what I was doing, and feeling happy that I was in VNC and consequently nothing’s lost – before XP reboots.

And then it gets unhappier, muttering about “disk boot failure” and instructing me to insert a system disk.

Oh dear.

Um. I’m sure I had a boot disk somewhere, is that what I want? On a floppy? I can’t find it anyway. If I could find it I’m not entirely sure what incantation I would need to invoke. I’m not a Windows weenie.

Luckily, and unlike normal people who at this point would be up the proverbial without the proverbial, I’ve got a network and a Mac and I can google for information.

Meanwhile I try some percussive maintenance: give it a well-deserved thump and reboot. Ooh, it does something different; it doesn’t boot, but I get some other differently useless message. And again, something different still. A temperature/fan thing? A cable thing? I hate intermittent failures. I hate Windows.

Recovery Console. That seems to be a common thread on the net. Simply find your original XP CD… aha! Avaragado Packrat to the rescue.

Meanwhile, the PC magically boots! All the way into Windows, back to normality! For a couple of minutes anyway, and then it BSODs again. Hmm. What have I changed on the PC recently? I installed Google’s Browser Sync extension for a testdrive, and installed all the very latest Windows updates. Ah. How very suspicious.

Anyway, problem not yet solved. Boot the XP CD, choose to Recover, choose a Windows installation to log in to, type the Administrator’s password. The whatnow? I try the usual suspects. Three strikes and you reboot. I keep trying until I run out of ideas, yea even unto old Tarantella administrator passwords. I webscover that XP helpfully hides the Administrator account unless you boot into Safe Mode. The PC plays nicely and lets me do that. As expected (and already tried in the Recovery Console), there’s no passsword. I set one, reboot into Recovery Console, and it promptly rejects it.

This makes no sense whatsoever. I soon discover a site that tells me that, yes, this can happen, mad isn’t it, and points to a Microsoft download to fix the problem. A download that no longer exists: great.

I find a KB article describing the problem, in which Microsoft confesses its sins. The grandly named resolutions: create some new, bugfixed Setup disks, assuming you still live enough in the stone age to have six usable floppy disks (and a working PC that can write to them, which for me is somewhat in doubt); or install the Recovery Console on your hard disk (blah working computer blah) and then install this magic hotfix, that you have to ring up Microsoft and beg permission to download.

Yeah, like that’s gonna happen.

And that’s where I am now. The intermittent nature of the problem worries me. I might try rolling back the Windows updates tomorrow, assuming I can get it to boot, but I don’t think that will solve it. My money’s on a dodgy disk right now.

Unless the lazyweb has any better ideas…

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This blog entry was brought to you by the letter Q

Another Saturday, another West End musical in oppressive heat. This time I and my culturally sophistimacated chums went to see Avenue Q, the Tony award-winning Broadway show still technically in preview here but very polished nonetheless.

I won’t spoil it for you (Wikipedia will if you’re keen), but in brief, it’s muppets for grown-ups. Not true muppets, as those are in the loving embrace of the Muppets Holding Company, but extremely close relatives thereof.

In case you’re fretting over the mechanics of the production: the muppet operators are visible, and use the stage exactly as unmuppeted actors do. Each operator owns a couple of characters, performing all their actions and voices (there’s no attempt at ventriloquism). When two characters owned by the same operator are on stage simultaneously, another operator does the actions but the owner does the voices. It’s very well done, and you quickly focus on the characters and not the operators.

There are some human characters as supporting cast. The stand-out human is gloriously named Christmas Eve, a stereotypical OrientalAsian-American, played by the only cast member to transfer from the Broadway production.

Oh, it’s just great. Avaragado commands you to see it immediately.

Avaragado’s rating: eight fruit pastilles

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Early Camber

IMG_2468My annual trip to Camber Sands is usually on the August Bank Holiday. For various reasons, this year it’s been brought forward to the middle of June – last weekend, in fact. As I was in Covent Garden on Saturday, I went down to Camber on Sunday morning instead.

So did most of the south of England, apparently, due to the good weather. There was a three-mile queue into Camber: this long, in fact, all heading for a car park with no spaces.

I turned round, went up to the Brenzett roundabout, and took the Lydd route (which, smacks head, I should have taken in the first place). Longer, but no traffic at all and much quicker than waiting. The nice lady at the full-to-bursting car park tried to banish me henceforth, but I knew the secret handshake that let me in.

Highlights of my stay include:

  • Reverting to my usual suckiness at boules, having attained the glorious heights of third place last year.
  • Playing original Galaxians and Asteroids in the arcade’s retro corner.
  • Taking a ridiculous number of photos, some of which have turned out pretty well I think.

Some of the photos will seem odd unless you understand what you’re looking at. Compare with visits from previous years…

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England v Chicago

I love coincidences. Like booking months in advance to see a 3pm performance of Chicago in the West End only for England’s first match at the World Cup finals to be scheduled to start at 2pm on the same day. Yes, coincidences, I love ’em.

Lynda, Louise, Andy and I trained from Cambridge, Chef trained from High Wycombe, and we met outside Covent Garden tube just after 1pm. It felt more like Rome than London due to the heat, but a Rome invaded by England supporters. After an air-conditioned toasted panini we found a pub yards from the Cambridge Theatre so we could watch the first half. I’d predicted 1-1, but the early England goal was a worrying development: early goal for leads to cockiness leads to two goals against. I think it was Yoda who said that.

With ten minutes before curtain up the half-time whistle went and we dashed out to take our seats. Louise’s dad was primed to text her any footie developments.

We had an excellent view from the back of the stalls. But the heat was stifling, and Lynda – suffering from an early morning late night – had trouble staying awake during the first act, despite the talent on display. Andy failed to heckle Bonnie Langford, playing Roxie Hart, for her crimes against humanity in Doctor Who. A fat man last seen as one of the cast of the sitnocom Bread played Roxie’s husband Amos. Some pseudo-Sacha Distel garlicked up the role of Billy Flynn. Someone ejected from X-Factor by the great British public played Mama. There were lots of jazz hands.

At half-time in the show, Louise confirmed the full-time score in the football. Shame there hadn’t been more England goals – we’d speculated that we’d be able to hear cheers from outside, or someone in the theatre audience would find out and gesticulate wildly, or maybe even the cast would insert the news somehow – newspaper headlines feature more than once in the show. Still, 1-0 will do.

I was familiar with the musical numbers, the film having played in my presence (I wasn’t paying much attention to it) and having watched the excellent Channel 4 show Musicality (the winners played the major roles in Chicago in the West End, for one night only, and very good they were too). I think there must have been an American sitting not too far away, as someone kept yelling “Yeah!” after each number as us Brits applauded politely.

It was a polished performance: no slip-ups and technically very good (I am, of course, an expert in these matters). Since I find it hard to remember lyrics at all, I’m full of admiration for those who can sing “Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes they both/Oh yes, they both/Oh yes, they both reached for/The gun, the gun, the gun, the gun/Oh yes, they both reached for the gun/for the gun” while dancing, in time with everyone else.

Avaragado’s rating: peppered ragout

We stayed in Covent Garden for a pint at the Nag’s Head, met up with Sarah and Ades who were up from Bath for the day, and went for another pint at The Cove, nicely tucked away above a pasty shop with a view of the alleged entertainment badgering tourists below. Then to Fire and Stone, a posh pizza restaurant. None of yer Margheritas here: you get pizzas named after cities, such as the (may as well follow the theme) Chicago or Byron Bay. Occasionally non-intuitive ingredients, but very tasty.

Avaragado’s rating: bombay mix

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Adventure

I first played what were then called adventure games in 1981, on a TRS-80. (/me performs subtraction and weeps.) I’m sure I played the original Adventure, as I knew all about magical words like plugh and xyzzy, and how to deal with snakes using caged birds. It’s all come in extremely handy in my adult life.

My brother and I also played Mystery Fun House and Pyramid of Doom, both by Scott Adams (not the Dilbert one). You won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve still got the original cassettes somewhere. (Hmm. I’ve just googled and found a “memorial” site for Adventure International, Scott Adams’s company. Oh dear, I think I might have to spend some time there. Later.)

In 1982, I got (a) spots and (b) a Spectrum, quite possibly in that order. By the end of that year/early 1983 a friend and I decided to write our own adventure game for that machine, sell it, make pots of cash, and retire at 16. It was all the rage in those days. Naturally enough, since we were still at school, we decided to set the game in a school. More specifically, our school. We called the game The School.

The Hobbit was already in shops and our game was never going to be as good as that, but it could certainly be better than some of the other rubbish available at the time. (I have a vague recollection that Artic’s series “Adventure A” to “Adventure D”, as well as having the worst names of all time, were pretty bad.)

My friend created the map based on our school’s geography, and added puzzles and characters. We scandalously included some of our teachers, with their real names. All we had to do was write it.

So I did, in between homework, the usual distractions, and moving sixty miles up the A1 to a different school entirely to make new friends (hi, Scotty!).

I dread to think how bad that code must have been. No, that’s unfair. It was written in Basic and undoubtedly spaghetti, but I learned a huge amount – simple tricks like speed and memory optimisations making use of bizarre Spectrumisms, more complex refactorings, and moving some of the heavy lifting to assembler.

It was, finally, done. There were some graphics. There was a decent parser. There were puzzles. You could win the game.

I wrapped it all up into a nice package for a games company to review: instructions (proto-tech author, you see) with a full solution, including map. It was ISTR a complete 48K memory dump to cassette, for which I wrote a saver/loader in assembler. It used almost all of those bytes, too. Not enough to show a picture of Wayne Rooney’s metatarsal these days.

I sent it off to a few publishers – Melbourne House, who published The Hobbit, was top of the list. Naturally everyone turned it down.

Simply put, expectations had moved on – The Hobbit had raised the bar too much for poor old me. And the game was just too hard for anyone except me and my friend to play. (I mean, does nobody know what a hammer cage is? Apparently not!)

I stopped writing adventure games, shortly before the rest of the world did. Instead I helped my Maths teacher earn money from kiddie pirates instead. (I wrote Microdrive 1, entirely in assembler, and hacked a gazillion games for him so he could sell photocopied sheets explaining how to copy them onto Microdrive.) The other teachers envied his flash car. I was once accused (by another pupil) of being his son, after he gave me a lift into school one morning. He paid me a pittance. More like slave labour really.

Oh, this seems to have turned into a poorly researched chapter of my autobiography. That seems a little premature. Why did I start this nonsense?

Oh yes. Adventure games. Except today they go by the fancier moniker “interactive fiction”. And to write them, you just download Inform 7 and start scribbling characters, locations, objects and plot at it. Literally: you type things like “The hammer cage is east of the sports field” and it creates two spatially related locations for you.

It’s a brilliant idea: things pop into existence when you mention them. And it’s a user interface that fits. You’re still writing a program, of course, but the high-level language you’re using sure ain’t Basic.

On the one hand, bah, kids today etc. But I say this while surreptitiously downloading it and wondering where my design for The School might be…

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Paul Merton’s impro chums

Months ago Louise organised tickets for Paul Merton’s improvised comedy show, at the Corn Exchange for one night only. If you remember Whose Line is it Anyway?, it was like that but with more swearing and without Clive Anderson. Attending were myself, Louise, Chris, Melanie, Andy Heckford and Chef.

Alongside Paul Merton on stage were Steve Steen, Jim Sweeney, Richard Vranch-at-the-piano, Lee Simpson and Suki Webster. Older viewers may remember Steve Steen and Jim Sweeney from CBTV, back before Children’s ITV was called Children’s ITV. Due to MS Jim’s now in a wheelchair; if you think wheelchair-related comedy was thus out-of-bounds you’ve been in America too long. If you’ve never heard of Lee Simpson or Suki Webster, welcome to our little club.

We had the usual games: shouting out of theatre styles, inclusion of random objects in the plot, and similar japes. They must hear the same old things every time.

At half-time the audience were invited to scribble scenarios on bits of paper and submit them to the bucket of fate, to be extracted at random for most of the second half. I think we came up with nine or ten ideas. Staggeringly, four of them were picked out (three of mine, one of Chris’s). Two ideas became one-gag sketches: Victorian swingers party (Merton: “I’ve just had a threesome: Isambard, Kingdom and Brunel”), and After the London Olympics (Vranch: “I now declare this stadium… ready” – yeah, too easy, I know). Two were beefier: When octopuses go bad, and the very last one, which you won’t be surprised to learn was Chris’s suggestion, Lobster with a big cock finds Nemo.

I was pleased with the audience reaction to my suggestions, but when Paul Merton read out Chris’s idea it brought the house down.

Our ideas were much better than most of the others – “Star Trek on Mars”, I mean, for god’s sake. And there’s only one possible gag for “Narcoleptic meeting”, and that’s been done a thousand times already. As an exercise for the reader, guess the sketch resulting from the idea “a toothpick” (it’s very short).

Extremely good fun overall.

Avaragado’s rating: mushroom biryani

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Wherein Avaragado namedrops Stan Lee yet again

X-Men 3 has had some poor reviews apparently – I haven’t read them, since they tend to reveal too much plot for my liking. I hate being spoiled, especially the most important plot point: where and when my very good friend Stan Lee will make his cameo appearance.

I always wanted to be Cyclops. Or Iceman. Or Angel. I wasn’t fussy. At a pinch any kind of sensible mutant powers would have done, but I would probably have ended up with the uncanny ability to read a book quickly or something similarly tedious. Yeah, Professor X, let’s simulate that in the Danger Room.

The film I predictably enjoyed. Being unspoiled I was surprised by one or two plot points, which always raises my opinion of a film. You don’t expect (nor did we experience) too much acting in this sort of film, even with such luvvies as Patty Stewart and Ianny McKellen. (Bless dear old Serena: in the last few years he’s played Richard III, Gandalf, Magneto, a guest role in Coronation Street, and Widow Twankey. What a CV.)

Sadly I forgot that I’d read about a sooper-sekrit post-credits final scene, so trooped out along with everyone else right after the not-so-sooper-sekrit pre-credits final scene faded to black. Google for it if you’re interested.

And no, I wouldn’t take the cure.

Avaragado’s rating: three chocolate digestives

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