Saturday, 1 September 2018

A Farewell to Blaugs

As another Blaugust finishes up, the staff here at the Leaflocker bid it a fond farewell. It hasn't been the most successful incarnation of our annual blogging festival by any measure, but as I said at the start of the month, there were a number of reasons why this August was unlikely to be a great blogging month, so I don't feel like I've let myself down given the hand that I was dealt this time around.

As I write, I am surrounded by overstuffed cardboard boxes and plastic bags, as we're halfway through moving our accumulated junk from our home of three years into a student flat for the next little while. The coming two days will likely be spent scrubbing the old place to try and remove the thin layer of grime that has formed there due to our long-maintained lackadaisical cleaning routine, but I'm not sure I'm really looking forward to living somewhere where someone else empties the bins again.

I might not have hit my goal of regular posting throughout the month or of in-depth engagement with many other bloggers that I'd hoped for, but all in all I'm pleased with what I was able to produce, the connections that I've forged and the discussions that I've been part of over the month, and for once at the completion of the month I feel able to continue posting two or three times a week: a feeling which, if justified, will undoubtedly make this one of my most successful Blaugusts after all.

I might not have gotten very good at this blogging thing, but much like the New York Times Crossword, I'm keen to keep giving it the old college try until I finally work out what I'm doing. I hope that along the way I can help to give you something interesting to think about now and then if you'll do me the favour of sticking around for a while.

Talk to you next time,

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Now You Turn Corners

Hello friends, grab yourselves a cup of something delicious, and let's sit down together to do the crossword, shall we? 

Today's NYT was a bit of a challenge and I got a little bit stuck in the middle, but once I finally worked out what was going on everything fell into place.

Through History with the Monday Quiz in Exile: The 1490's

It's been a fortnight, and that means that it's time for the latest installment of our weekly quiz feature here at the Leaflocker. This week we're looking at the 1490's a decade that was kind of a big deal for Europeans in the exploration game, so we're confident that there's some answers to some of these questions lurking in your head this week. Share them with us in the comments below.

Last week was a very hard quiz indeed, not that that stopped John, who somehow managed to eke out 7 points, and was only bettered by the M Cats superior knowledge of Bavarian legislature.

1) There's a famous poem that our Usonian readers will undoubtedly have had thrust at them at some point in their schooling and that has been passed through the joys of Hollywood to the rest of us. I'd say that it's not a particularly good poem, but perhaps as a doggerelist myself I shouldn't be casting stones? Anyway, what year was immortalised in the poem whose opening couplet finishes with "....Columbus sailed the ocean blue"?

2) After sailing the ocean blue for a while, the star of that poem established an ill-fated European colony on the island he discovered and named Hispaniola. The colonists fought among themselves over the riches of the island, and were then killed by the Taíno natives, who Columbus had described in his journal as "without arms and very cowardly". In modern times, which two nations share the island?

3) Just a few years after Columbus was claiming to have discovered a sea route to India, having missed by a narrow margin of some 18,000 kilometers, which Portugese explorer, having sailed around the southern tip of Africa, first successfully managed the feat?

4) On his travels, he stopped in at many cities of the Kilwa sultanate based in modern-day Tanzania, which after a 500 years as an important trading confederation would soon enter a rapid decline in the face of growing European intervention. Kilwa's wide influence led to the spread of which trade language, the most commonly spoken African tongue today?

5) In 1492, Martin Behaim, a cartographer from Nuremberg who'd been working for the Portugese, created a vellum map that he called the 'Erdapfel', which is represented above. The Erdapfel is now housed in the German National Museum where work to digitise it has been underway since 2011. What makes this map special?

6) Somewhere between India and the Caribbean, the Hồng Đức Era was ending with the death of the fourth Lê emperor. Over the course of nearly four decades on the throne he promulgated a new code of laws, encouraged the spread of Confucianism and pursued a number of wars, most notably capturing Champa capital and annexing most of Cham territory to become a new southern province, where many Cham still live as a minority group today. Where were the Lê enthroned?

7) While the Portugese were busy exploring finding new places to try to spread Christianity, their Spanish neighbours were doing the same at home. In 1492 when the Catholic monarchs gave an ultimatum for Jews in Spain to leave or convert, who sent their navy to collect the Jews and bring them to a new home?

8) On 7th of February 1497, Shrove Tuesday, followers of friar Girolama Savonarola, de facto ruler of Florence, destroyed thousands of sculptures, paintings, books, musical instruments, mirrors or anything that they considered could lead to temptation, including many precious and irreplaceable works of art. How is this event (which gives its name to a fabulous flop of a movie made in 1990 which gives me an excuse to post yet another picture of a young Tom Hanks) commonly known?

9) Meanwhile in England, Henry Tudor spent most of the 1490's fighting off a series of small but dangerous challenges to his reign by Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury, the son of Edward IV, and who raised support and/or armies in Burgundy, then France, then Ireland, then Burgundy again, then York, then Scotland and finally among the nobles of which perennially rebellious English duchy before finally being captured and hanged in 1499?

10) While we're vaguely on the the topic,  in 1494 James IV of Scotland ordered 380 litres of what, the first record of production in the country? Today, the Scottish industry exports this volume every 15 seconds.

Happy quizzing! Remember, those that fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it, and all those long sea voyages aren't good for you.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

I Only Know Catch-22

What better way to climb up onto the blogging bandwagon than with yet another crossword video. If you enjoy writhing in pain as other people fail miserably to do the crossword, then you're going to love the next fifty minutes. If that doesn't describe you, I hope that this little effort will get the creative juices flowing again and that this little post will have some new friends soon.

This video contains eventual spoilers for the Friday 17th August NYT Crossword.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Zero Week

Well, this week has been pretty much a write-off, and not just with respect to the series of unfinished and unwritten drafts blog posts. After being sick at the end of last week, followed by putting a brave face on it on the weekend, I have crashed hard and barely managed my minimum working obligations, and have instead been stuck in a seemingly endless lethargic cycle of napping all day, logging in and out of various video games and streaming services, staring at walls and boiling kettles and then forgetting about them.

Thankfully, this isn't a very common experience for me, I haven't had a week like this since the depths of last winter, and more thankfully, this has been a week in which I've been able to wallow rather than having to force myself out of this feeling, something that inevitably leads to me crashing again soon. I'm also relatively sure that I'm on the up, which is just as well, as my flexible free time is about to run out and catapult me back into the land of the living whether I like it or not.

While I've been in my own little world, I have been well looked-after, though. Mrs. Owl has been very understanding and I've been feeling very supported by a number of generous and loving friends, who've provided hugs, brownies, wine, encouraging words and prompts to get out of bed when I've needed them.

When I'm in moods like this I'm not able to engage with new things, so I've been taking refuge in some old favourites.

XCOM: Long War
X-COM, along with Civ II, Cannon Fodder, Pipe Dream, Theme Hospital, Worms and Command and Conquer, was one of the games that I played over and over again on the old family 386.  Its sound effects of distant screams, footsteps on metal and alien voices are as much the soundtrack of my childhood as the greatest hits of Creedence Clearwater Revival or the songs of the Sound of Music. I've spent many a happy afternoon with the remake as well, and back when my laptop Nero was new and able to do things like record graphics I used to have a regular video series playing through it. I've been firing this one up and playing through a mission between naptimes a LOT during the last week. With my recent development of Laser Weapons I'm currently experiencing a short period of easier missions before the aliens ramp up their development to catch me up again, which is a welcome relief, as even on the lower difficulties, this game is kinda hard.

Hot Fuzz
I introduced Mrs. Owl to this one the other night, as she'd somehow managed to never have seen it before. I think she had a lot of fun, but it was mostly due to her laughing at my failed attempts to supress my maniacal giggling than from her own amusement at the film. Still, it passed high enough muster that she's willing to risk another of the Cornetto Trilogy, and since World's End is on Netflix here in the UK and neither of us have seen that, I guess I have that to look forward to sometime soon.

Lupin III
When it comes to brainlessness it's hard to go past the animation, and since I started watching anime after being roped into running one too many conventions, Lupin has been one of those shows that I have some to count on for reliably mindless shenanigans. The current series featuring the philandering master thief and his buddies is on Crunchyroll at the moment and it's a surprisingly good time, so I've also been hitting it pretty hard, though I have a bad habit of falling asleep in the middle of episodes and needing to rewatch them to work out what's going on.

The Intern
I do like me a warm fuzzy when I'm feeling a little down, though I'm not sure what to call this type of film. It's not exactly a Rom-Com since the protagonists aren't romantically linked, and the terms Mom-Com and chick flick have some seriously dubious leanings. Anyways, this is a cute little film mostly because Robert de Niro and Anne Hathaway are good times. I'm pretty sure it's best not to think to hard about any of the things that happen on the themes that it's hamfistedly throwing around, but since I'm not up for thinking right now this is exactly the kind of comfort food that I could do with, and I enjoyed sharing this one with Mrs. Owl too. Sometimes that fact that she never had a television as a child so almost everything is new to her is a great joy to be a part of.

I haven't been doing a lot of reading this week (hence the lack of a weekly literature review and pun-vehicle today), but I have been leaning on the Book of Job quite a bit, as whenever I'm feeling miserable I generally find that if nothing else, Job has a lot better reasons to be miserable than me. Don't get me wrong, I'm not feeling persecuted or tested, because of my sinfulness of lack thereof, just really tired and weepy all the time, but the back and forth in Job usually helps me ground and get perspective on those feelings in the context of my life as a believer, and this time around is no different. Note to self: Jemimah and Keziah may feel somewhat dated, but Keren-Happuch is a terrible name for a daughter.

This is all to say, dear reader, that hopefully normal Blaugust service will be beginning again around here some time soon. I hope you'll forgive me for falling off the bandwagon a little this week and hang about until then.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Riiching New Heights

Post 11 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
As is becoming my habit this Blaugust, this post ended up being almost, but not quite entirely unlike the post that I set out to write.

It's hard for me to believe that just this time last week I was in Surrey for the UK Riichi Mahjong Championships, and the thing that I can most emphatically say that I learnt there is that there are many players here in Europe that are drastically and unattainably better at the game than I am. This isn't a surprise, exactly, I'm not accustomed to being the best at anything in my life and mahjong is one of very casual hobbies rather than a thing that I devote a lot of time to, but the sheer gulf between us was pretty intimidating. And the best European players feel that gulf and more between their best play and that of the Japanese players, who play at a level that I can't hope to comprehend, let alone emulate.

I don't think this gulf is due simply to experience. Riichi isn't big enough in the west to support the range of strategy books, training tools and quality players that can help you get dramatically better. But experience definitely counts for something, and as I play with more skilled opponents more regularly, partially through playing more regularly online through tenhou, and partially because my students are fast becoming stronger players in their own right, I've noticed a number of ways where I'd like to improve my play, which I'm listing here in the vain hope that I'll remember them in the heat of battle and actually follow my own advice.

If you've never played mahjong, first let me congratulate you for braving to read down this far in what is almost certainly going to be a pretty inaccessible post. I'm sorry to say it, but this post just isn't FOR you. If you'd be interested in some kind of video introduction to the game or something, do let me know and I'll try to oblige, there are lots out there but I am yet to find one that I really like in order to recommend it. In the mean time, I give you full permission to skip the rest of the post. Not that you need my permission or anything, but whatever.

Anyway, some ways to improve:

Give up when your hand is dead
At the tournament it was clear that I was doing a much better job of playing defensively and not throwing losing tiles when I was trying to do that. However, I am definitely still chasing hands for too long even after it's evident that they're not going anywhere and leaving off playing defensively for too long. I need to develop some kind of metric for when I should and shouldn't push that is a little bit more sophisticated than my current system.
Keep honours and terminals longer
I identified this one I while ago, but I still tend to throw the honour tiles, particularly single dragons, much earlier than I ought to, and finding that it regularly comes back to bite me when I waste turn after painful turn then throwing precious tiles that I can't keep because they'll put me in furiten.

Think more about safe tiles
One of the reasons that I ought to keep those loose honours and terminals some of the time is that they often end up either being safe tiles, in which case they're worth keeping until I need safety, or they end up being danger tiles that I shouldn't throw under any circumstances. Spending more time thinking about the long-term value of dead tiles (often but not always loose honours and terminals) as safety throws later rather than quickly discarding since they're not useful to my hand has got to help me out.

Don't be scared of more complex weights
I have this compulsion to throw the fourth tile in a run in preference to a lone tile elsewhere that often greatly reduces the flexibility of my hands for fear of placing myself in furiten. I'm unlikely to spend time practicing and memorising good and bad weight shapes like I'd probably have to if I actually wanted to get good at this, so for now I just want to resolve to keep close tiles in preference to loners and inside weights for a while and see if it helps.

Care about the number of tiles, not the types.
I've come to realise that I'm overly reliant on two-tile weights. I sacrifice speed and sometimes even points to be waiting on two different types of tile to win on. However, I need to start trying weigh these decisions more with respect to the number of actual available tiles there are, not just how many types. Too often lately I've been on a "two-tile weight" that was literally that, two or three individual tiles, when I could have more easily been waiting on a single type of tile with a higher chance of coming out in reality. This is tricky, as it requires paying more attention to other players' discards than I currently do, but I suppose I should be doing that more anyway.

Stop declaring riichi when you don't have to
Declaring riichi is a great tool to get a lot of points quickly, the game is called riichi mahjong after all. That said, though, there are plenty of situations where the wise course is to take a smaller potential gain in order to stay safer. I'm getting better at identifying these situations when I'm in the lead, but when it comes to close fights where every point count, I have been finding that the drain of a thousand points here and there in riichi sticks is costing me more often than it should. I need to see these situations before they arise and work a little harder to build hands that aren't going to require me to riichi in order to go out.

If I can do those, maybe I'll get better. Maybe I'll realise that I preferred the way that I play at the moment, too, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see. If nothing else, spending a little more time thinking about the nuances of the game that I enjoy so much can't hurt me, as long as I restrain myself from talking about it everywhere I go. So, anyone for some riichi?

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Friday and my Mind

Post 10 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
Well, that happened. In my slightly feverish state yesterday I completely forgot to press the 'Publish' button so this one's coming to you late.

It's Friday again, and around here apparently Friday means recording myself attempting to finish the New York Times Crossword, so if that's your jam, grab yourself a cup of tea and have a good time laughing at my flailing. Obviously this contains spoilers for the Thursday crossword.

PS. ICE-T. I get it, I get it. In my head, Tracey is a girl's name.