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.

Thursday 9 August 2018

Neither wholly our nor wholly not ours

Post 9 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
It's been a whole week already, and thanks to the wonders of bus rides I've more or less been able to keep up to date with my reading obligations, so it's time for yet another episodes of our 'seven year' reading project, The Great Conversation.

This 'Week':

The History of Herodotus
Book II

Everything that you ever wanted to know about the geography, history, religion and social structure of the Egyptians, as seen through the eyes of a Greek who thinks they're all crazy. What's not to love? There wasn't as many classic stories in this book, but it held together well and made for a fun read that had me repeatedly reaching for an encyclopedia to check Herodotus' facts.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Chapters VIII - X

No drama just yet, just cottage industry. It amazes me that Crusoe can apparently use his ingenuity to complete anything he sets his mind to, but can't come up with a way to build a good boat. It's been fun, but it's time for something to actually happen in this story sometime soon, methinks.

The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe

Wow. I thought that this was going to be good fun, but it was not fun at all. I'm sure there's some deep and interesting allegory that Poe was going for with this one, but if it's there I think it's fair to say that I completely missed it. This was an excellent example of I should refrain from recommending titles before I read them, as all I got out of it was a bit confused as to how it even got published in the first place. 

Letter to Menoeceus by Epicurus

Epicurus doesn't seem to me to meet the definition of Epicurean that I'm familiar with, which is a little surprising to me. I thought Epicureans were all about enjoying the finer things in life but here he seems to be advocating finding enjoyment in the exact opposite. I guess we're just going to have to read more Greek philosophy to find out.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Volume II - Book I

If you ignore the fact that this is an excerpt from a novel, then this is a perfectly passable musing on the Battle of Waterloo, the loss of national pride and the end of the First French Empire. Inside a novel, though, this is some weird junk.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
Chapters III - IV

I found keeping up with these chapters a little tricky after a year away from the characters, as I can't really remember anything about any of them apart from that scoundrel Mr. Tupman, but I think I'm back up to date again now. I'm not entirely sure that I'm 100% on top of everything that's going on, but I daresay it will all work out in the end. 


The Stats:

Twenty weeks down (I declared that prematurely last week because I got a little ahead of myself, I suppose), and we've hit more than 1000 pages of supplementary reading of classics that Mr. Adler didn't see fit to add to the Great Books of the Western World. This is largely thanks to Victor Hugo's Les Mis, which despite barely having gotten started at this point, sent him past Charles Dickens for the most-read author in the project last week. Don't worry, though, I fully expect Dickens to end up on top eventually given the cheer number of his works that we're going to end up reading.

Pages last week: 118
Pages so far: 2344

Week XXI:

We have three novels and the History on the go, and just a couple of little bits and pieces on the side this week courtesy of Dr. J. I've been thinking of condensing this part of the posts in future and just listing the readings, as there's only so many times that I can say 'I've got no idea what I'm about to read but I hope that it's good' without getting a little repetitive. Any thoughts on the topic, dear reader?

The History of Herodotus
#ggb #fiction #english #new
Book III (41 pages)

We've done the Persians and the Egyptians, I wonder where Herodotus is going to take us next. We've got no way of knowing from the chapter title, since like the rest it's just named after one of the muses, so we're going to have to just jump in and see, I suppose.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
#ggb #fiction #english #new
Chapters XI-XIII (24 pages)

Nothing new to say about Crusoe this week, so I'll just repeat what I said last time. "I feel like we're due a little bit of conflict here, as our friend has had life a little bit too easy, but somehow I feel that if that conflict is coming it's still a long way off, as he has a few more cottage industries to get off the ground yet."

Two Friends by Guy de Maupassant
#ggb #fiction #french #oneshot
(6 pages)

Guy de Maupassant has a name like a chess move, so I'm naturally predisposed to like him. I've also been quite fond of our forays into French fiction that we've taken so far, as it's a brave new world for me, so I look forward to finding out if he's the Guy for me. #punachieved (Go on, admit it, you've missed my literature puns)

Immortality by Thomas Browne
#ggb #philosophy #english #oneshot
(6 pages)

All I know of Thomas Browne is that he was relatively prolific and coined a lot of words that we still use today. I feel like that probably means that he's too clever for his own good and that this won't be any fun at all, but how bad can a six-page excerpt from a discourse on funeral rites really be?

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
#non_gbww #fiction #french
Volume II - Books II & III (28 pages)

Can we have a little story, here, Mr. Hugo, please? I understand that you're being paid by the word and all, but this is all getting a little silly.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
#non_gbww #fiction #english
Chapters V & VI (13 pages)

Dickens also has the distinct feeling of being paid by the chapter at the moment, but as long as his asides that don't move the story on continue to have decent jokes I'm alright with it. It's possible that there's an actual plot-line coming along to sweep our heroes along sometime, but then again, maybe it's already happening and I've just missed it. That would be very Pickwickian of me, I think.


I hope you enjoy reading along, or at least a little reading of your own this week.

Through History with the Monday Quiz in Exile: The 1480's

Post 8 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
It's Wednesday, and that means that it's time for yet another episode of our famous* Monday history quiz. This week we're focused on the 1480's. I hope you'll take a couple of minutes to take a stab at the quiz and leave your answers below. If you want to check your answers from last week, please click the button below.

Those brave enough to post their attempts last week did very well. John got the best individual score with seven points, but Adam successfully identified the emperor and Ale recognised an angel, so overall the team managed nine. 

 Let's see if we can do even better in the 1480's

1. This Portugese map must be from after 1488. Why?
2. Also in 1480, Ivan III finally ejected which group of people, who'd been ruling over the Rus for more than two centuries?
3. 1480 saw the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, famously home to papal conclaves as well as Michelangelo's Creation of Adam. But why's it called the Sistine Chapel?
4. The Citadel of Qaitbay, a fortress and mosque in an important strategic location, was completed in 1480. It was built on the ruins of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but which one?
5. One of the most famous cases of missing persons ever known, the 'Princes in the Tower' occurred in 1483. But wait, which princes? And which tower?
6. 1487 saw the introduction in Munich of the Reinheitsgebot, a law that has remained virtually unchanged to this day. What does the Reinheitsgebot impose regulations on?
7. This is Cenobio de Valerón, an ancient granary of the Gaunches, who were conquered by the Spanish in 1483. In which island group might you find it?
8. The 1480s also saw the first publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, a bestselling book that would go on to be highly influential throughout Europe for two hundred years, despite being roundly condemned as theologically and ethically unsound when released. What's the Malleus all about?
9. The first documented cases of red spots, delerium and gangenous flesh leading to death occurred during the War of Grenada in 1489. Which disease, that Charles Nicolle was given the 1928 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering was transmitted by lice, was the likely culprit?
10. The A-Ma temple, dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu, was constructed in 1488. It is thought that this temple gives it's name (via Portugese) to the modern name of which peninsula?

Don't forget to leave your answers below. No guess goes unappreciated.

*Fame not included.

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Blaugust: One Week Retrospective

Post 7 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
So we're a week into this daily posting thing yet again, about as far as we managed before completely giving up the ghost last year, so I thought it might be worthwhile checking in on our plans for the month and doing a quick health check.

Have a settled routine
This one took a big hit over the weekend with the mahjong tournament pretty much completely nixing any kind of routine, not just over the weekend but also into the start of this one. I'm yet to find my flow yet (as demonstrated by the fact that I'm writing my Tuesday blog post at 2am on Wednesday morning), so overall, this goal is a complete disaster and I'm going to have to be wiser in finding effective writing time without it getting in the way of my other obligations in the coming weeks, especially as I also have to fit in moving house somehow.

Take Mrs. Owl along for the ride
The boss has been reading the blog and says that she's enjoyed it, so this one gets a pass mark for now. I do hope to be able to lift that mark by sharing some adventures with her to make some posts later in the month, but at the moment the full extent of planning them is contained in this sentence.

Let projects die when I get sick of them
The month hasn't really been going long enough to have abandoned any projects yet, but yesterday's gaming post was brought toward to replace the homily that proved to be too difficult to write. The whole point of programming in a weekly homily was supposed to practice both writing homilies and openly sharing my faith here, so the fact that I failed at the first hurdle is a little discouraging, but I knew that would likely be the most difficult part of my weekly programme, so I'll keep it for now and try a little harder to apply myself next Monday.

Don't bite off too much
In one way, I've failed miserably at this, as despite there being no need or pressure to post every day, I've been pushing myself to do so. That said, I've been more willing to compromise and put up half-baked posts (like this one) instead of my planned content when it's become clear that I didn't have the time or motivation for bigger projects. Maybe I'm learning after all.

Have a varied calendar of regular features
Having an irregular week has not helped with the regular features, but there's the bones of something workable at the moment. The Wednesday quiz got a little audience participation and has a clear plan for me to work towards. The Thursday Conversation is a big time commitment each week, but provided that I can get the reading done is always a lot of fun. The Friday crossword was a bit of an accidental addition but was a surprise hit, so at the moment I'm thinking of making it a regular feature too. The rest of the calendar definitely needs fleshing out, though.

Interact with a community of other bloggers
I've gotten a little behind on the blogroll this week, but I've tried to keep participation in the discord channel going and have had time for commenting on a few blogs over the week. I hope to dedicate a little more time to this too, but I'm going to need to develop a system and maybe cull which blogs I actually plan to read or I'm going to drown in Blaugustinian ink.

Include more pictures!
There's no picture for this post, so there's still work to be done for this one. Maybe I need to source more ties...

Tuesday 7 August 2018

Counting to 74

Post 6 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
I recently came across this nice little set of coloured counters on Etsy during one of my occasional prospecting missions looking for interesting bits of gaming paraphernalia. This is a dangerous habit to get into, but slightly less dangerous to my wallet than trawling actual boardgame sites as long as I stay away from the vintage mahjong sets, so I let myself get away with it every now and then. These little guys drew my eye for three reasons.

The first is that they're obviously handmade and imperfect, and I've always been attracted to that sort of thing. Each has their own flaws which give them character and stories, this one has an overly large head, this one seems to have had a run in with the teeth of a small child, this one seems to have lost part of its base. They're in the sort of condition that my boss would call 'very East Oxford'. 

The second reason is that there's a little bit of a puzzle because they come in an odd set. There are eighteen each of the yellow and green pieces, and nineteen of the red and blue ones. Presumably there were once even numbers of each of the colours, but if so, how many are missing?

The only game that I can think of that would nineteen pieces per player would be Halma, a game invented in the 1880's that has largely been superseded by its successor, Chinese Checkers (it's neither Chinese, nor Checkers, discuss), though the original apparently retains some fans in Europe. I learnt the game of Chinese Checkers at daycare as a small child, where I was regularly crushed by a wizened chain-smoking grandmother who spoke little or no English, and as even then I disliked losing intensely I have never really liked it, and retain an inability to identify and take advantage of the jumping patterns in similar games to this day.

If you're familiar with Chinese Checkers, then thinking of Halma as a four-handed version of that played on an oversized chessboard is pretty accurate. It has the same jumping movement (though in 8 directions rather than 6), the same lack of captures, and the same goal of filling your opponent's home base with your pieces. In literature from the early 20th century, Halma is synonymous with boredom and time-wasting, and given that we're talking about a game-consuming public that thought that Monopoly was a rollicking good time, it's fair to say that if sitting down to a game of this it's best to lay on provisions.
Image copyright
Sure enough, a little Googling reveals that there's a Gibson and Sons version of Halma from the 1950's with very similar pieces, but while it had 19 of two colours, it only had 13 of the others, since the four-player version is usually played with reduced numbers in order to attempt to reduce playing time. Still, it seems reasonable to assume that these were originally a Halma set, potentially from another publisher, since copyright on games was a bit of a different beast back then. 

That feeds directly into my third reason for purchasing these pieces, but since it definitely deserves a post of its own, so I'll leave the discussion there for now. At the moment I have 74 pawns of four different colours that I could do with finding a use for, so if you have any suggestions for games that I could play with them, particularly if they're games that don't have a reputation for putting their players to sleep, do let me know below. If you have an alternative theory for the provenance of the pieces, I'd love to hear about that too!

Sunday 5 August 2018

Riichi Out

Post 5 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
Just a short post today, as I am absolutely bushed from the weekend's adventures, but I thought it might be nice to revisit my tournament goals and sum up how we went.

1) To get a net positive score for the tournament
Success! I rubberbanded back and forth around the zero mark throughout, despite a couple of games in which I felt like I should really have scored a not better than I ended up scoring. I managed to get ahead and stay ahead thanks to my two wins the last two games, which also shot my up the rankings so that I ended up in 17th place overall, just squeaking into the top 25%, which was a very pleasant surprise. One of my mahjong students (who mafe it clear by leading me all weekend that 'student' is no longer the appropriate word!) also achieved a positive score, which is an improvement for both of us, and though I'm not at all surprised considering how much better we've gotten at this game lately, I am a bit chuffed, to say the least.

2) Get one of the top ten match scores of the tournament
I did not even get close to this one. But it was always a little aspirational, so I'm not that upset about it. I was left 20,000 points shy of making the list and even my two best scores combined fell well short of the best score overall, which was a whopping 70,100, which I'm just glad I wasn't on the receiving end of. Scores like that in a zero-sum game rarely have happy stories behind them.
I did get to within a whisker of scoring the highest hand of the tournament in my third game, where I threw the winning tile just one discard before I would have drawn into a very beautiful Three Big Dragons hand. Someone did me one better and actually managed to make this hand stick today!

3) Not to end up on the chombo list
Despite a couple of moments of panic that I had perhaps made an error before calling riichi,  and a couple of flagrant etiquette breaches caused partly by nerves and partly by exhaustion, I managed to stay off of the penalty list. One of my compatriots wasn't so fortunate, having misread a tile and claimed an invalid win, but one error in the 32 games that we collectively played over the weekend isn't such a bad result.

4) For everyone to be willing to play mahjong again afterwards
I don't think anyone who turned up at this tournament went away disliking the game. It was played in good spirits and with good cheer and the love of the game can be infectious in those sorts of environments. I'm sure we'll all be around a table again some time soon, trying to take our mahjong to the next level now that we've had a snapshot of just how good some of Europe's best players can be. That said, I suspect this was probably the last big tournament for some of the gang, but we'll just wait and see how we're all feeling once the dust has died down and caught up on some sleep.

Speaking of which, I'm going to go work on that deficit now. Who knew that playing games could feel so much like hard work?

Saturday 4 August 2018

Riichi for the Sky

Post 4 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
I'm up early this morning, nursing a cup of tea in the lounge of an airbnb while the house wakes up around me. We're here in Surrey braving unfamiliar beds and hot weather to play in the UK Open Riichi Mahjong Championship.This is a pretty big deal for me, not because I expect that any of us have any chance in the tournament (we really don't!), but because it represents two major milestones.

The first is that this is the first time that I've ever travelled to play a game. It's not like the trip from Oxford to Godalming is all that far, but it's a step. I can now join my friends that go away to the riverland every year to play board games or to Melbourne to play anime fighting games. It feels like a level of commitment to a game, to be willing to spend money to travel and to stay just to lock myself in a silent room with a bunch of serious people to play a game of chance. Am I...becoming a mahjong player, not just a person that plays mahjong?

(I'd hoped to have a post up explaining riichi, for those of you that aren't familiar with it, but that hasn't happened yet, so please be patient with me. Hopefully that will happen later this week.)

The second (and more important) milestone, is that I've managed to convince four of my friends to travel with me and three of them to compete in a big scary tournament for a game that I love. In many ways it's the culmination of a long ambition to teach riichi here, a game that I was unable to play for years due to not knowing anyone else that plays. Over the last year it has become a staple of our college games night, greatly to the detriment of the diversity of games played, but excellent in establishing a dedicated group of reasonable players. These days when I sit down to play, I'm no longer teaching the game, I get to sit back and analyse my own play and actually get better, and losing is made that much more bearable by the sense of pride that I get by being outsmarted by people that I taught to play the game.

It doesn't really matter how we do in the tournament this weekend, as we're all still relatively amateur players none of us have high expectations and there's no real stakes for us when compared to the people trying to earn national ranking points to qualify for international tournaments, but I have a couple of goals.

1) To get a net positive score for the tournament.
2) Get one of the top ten match scores of the tournament.
3) Not to end up on the chombo list.
4) For everyone to be willing to play mahjong again afterwards!

I was thinking that the goals would be a little more group-focused than that, but I suppose that mahjong is an individuals game after all, so I guess I'll just leave the others to do their own thing rather than setting goals for them. We'll have plenty of time to theorycraft and discuss our tournament highs and lows throughout the day after all. You can follow along on our progress on the website here today and tomorrow if you'd like to. The Brasenose Union of Riichi Mahjong Addicts (BURMA) are: Thomas Diment, Angus Fisk,  Thomas Yems, and Eric Haney (clockwise from me). Up the college!
I probably won't have a chance to post tomorrow, as I'll be either playing or recovering from playing far too much mahjong over the past two days. Don't burn down the internet without me around, alright?

Friday 3 August 2018

Friday? Thursday!

Post 3 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
My planning document, such as it is, says that Fridays are for puzzles. I'm pretty sure that at the time that I was writing it I somehow fostered fond ambitions of composing some kind of puzzle for today, but somewhat unsurprisingly, that hasn't happened.

Instead, I thought it might be fun to sit down and do the crossword live to video to fulfil my puzzle quotient for the week. It's not quite as interactive as I'd hoped, but hey, at least it's a proof of concept that OBS is more or less functioning on my laptop again, which is good news for future video plans, at least.

For me, crosswords are normally a social thing. I take pleasure out of sitting down with a cup of tea and a cryptic, but I'd prefer to be surrounded by people and spend my time shouting clues across the room. It's a great way to watch how people's minds work and where their thoughts go when you present them with ever-changing puzzles.

Crosswords always summon up the people that I've done them with over the years. The gang crowded around the big sticky table in the back corner of the Mayo Cafe, where every five-letter word had to be B-I-B-L-E, whether it fit or not. My little sister in a hot car on the way to a geocache to a backing track by Silverchair. My parents around the kitchen table, with our own individual copies and strict rules about not getting ahead of each other. Mrs. Owl's family in the lounge with the waft of roast beef in the air, where answers were very definitely put in with pencil so they can be changed over and over again. And more recently, my college family in the common room, with a limitless supply of Jaffa Cakes and a kettle constantly on the boil, some of whom have now left and who I doubt I'll ever get to face a blank grid with again.

I should warn you that this is just me doing a crossword with somewhat grainy video quality and awful audio (I recommend putting some easy-listening music on in the background if you're going to watch, to cover the underwater noises). Nothing fancy, nothing special, no big pay-off or punchline. But I had fun doing it, so I hope you enjoy cursing at my stupidity when I can't see the answers that are right in front of me. 

I should also warn you that in this video I (almost) solve the New York Times Crossword for Thursday 2nd August. If you'd prefer to do it yourself instead, you should probably do that. You can take out a subscription at

PS. Don't get too distracted by Blauging this month to pay attention to the people you love. Spend some time with good folks talking about things that matter sometimes too!

Thursday 2 August 2018

To ebb and flow darksomely

Post 2 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
It's time to pick up our conversation where we left off. Where were we, again?

If you're not familiar with my 'seven-year' reading project you can check out a little about the project on the page, on the first post, or by checking out the previous editions in the series. The idea is that I read about 100 pages of classics a week and report back, it's just that any given 'week' might take longer than that. This week has taken...just over eleven months. Don't ask what else I've been reading because I think I'd struggle to give you a straight answer.

Never mind that, though. The important thing is not how long it has taken but that we have gotten here, even if it took throwing the father of geometry from a moving bus to make it happen.


This 'Week':

Confessions of Augustine of Hippo

Ouch. Jumping back into Augustine after a few months off means getting reaquainted with this horribly archaic translation all over again. I can't help feeling that this one is always much more work than it ought to be due to the antiquated style. Theology can be confusing enough without having to wrestle with the whole sentence structure. note to self: do some research before picking a translation for a long book next time!

As we finish this book, I'm left in no doubt that it's surely not the theology that's the best bit of the Confessions. My advice, if you've not read them before and are considering it, is just to dive in at the beginning and to read the autobiographical section, which I found very human and relatable, until you get bored. For me it peaked around chapter 5 and everything was downhill from there, and the last few books really don't seem to belong at all.

Dream Children by Charles Lamb
(3 pages)

Wow. Lamb is just fantastic, isn't he? Do yourself a favour and read this, it's extremely short and it's just a charming exercise in wistfulness with a real punch at the end. What a joy.

Elements by Euclid
Book X(i)

Nah, I give up. I've been struggling with him for a while, but I've finally decided that Euclid is either not for me or just requires more interpretation than I'm able to put in. I got through the designated reading foe the week, but it's was close, and from here I'm throwing in the towel on this work and adding a new 'abandoned' category to my booklist.

The History of Herodotus
Book I

I can already tell that I am going to have a ball with my friend Herodotus. These chapters are full of the stories of characters whose names are familiar from folklore and from games of 7 Wonders, but who I've never properly encountered before: Croesus, Tomyris, Solon... There's a reason that these are stories that have lasted. Herodotus'  earnestness at assuring the reader that he's done the research and that these stories are all as true as he can make them is very endearing too. All in all, those 50-odd pages disappeared in of an eye.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Chapters V-VII

Crusoe has been on the island about as long as I've been reading about him being on the island, at this point. In parts I feel very jealous of his life of no obligations to anyone and feel compelled to go crash myself on some forgotten island somewhere, but then I recall that not only is Robinson Crusoe stranded on a surprisingly fertile and diverse island, he also has to work pretty hard. Since my favourite activity is sitting on a comfy couch nursing a cup of tea maybe that sort of life isn't for me after all.


The Stats:

After 20 'weeks' of reading and about 170,000 words consumed since August 2014, we're running at about 10% of the speed that I originally planned to get this project done in. Still, at this rate I'll be more or less finished by the time I reach a century in age, so all is well.

Pages last week: 136
Pages so far: 2226


Week XIX:

The reading list now has a great big Euclid-sized hole in it, and with Augustine done as well you might be forgiven for thinking that we were going to have a little time off from the Greeks for a while. It's not to be, however, as joining Herodotus we have a little bit of Epicurus, as well as a smattering of Poe, which is always fun. If you were thinking of reading along with me a little this week, you should pick the Poe. We also have a number of novels this week, as we read chapters from Defoe, Hugo and Dickens.

The History of Herodotus
#ggb #fiction #english #new
Book II (46 pages)

Very excited for this after last week's readings. While it's not necessarily an easy read and comes in yet another enormous chunk, if last time is any accurate measure this is going to a a lot of fun, and might even be vaguely educational, which is always nice.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
#ggb #fiction #english #new
Chapters VIII - X (22 pages)

I feel like we're due a little bit of conflict here, as our friend has had life a little bit too easy, but somehow I feel that if that conflict is coming it's still a long way off, as he has a few more cottage industries to get off the ground yet.

The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe
#ggb #fiction #english #oneshot
(4 pages)

I've read a reasonable about of Poe's short stories in the past, so I've probably read this one, but if that's the case then it's not one that lodges in the memory-banks. Hopefully I'll be able to go into this with fresh eyes and just be carried away by Poe's mastery of mood.

Letter to Menoeceus by Epicurus
#ggb #philosophy #greek #oneshot
(3 pages)

Something tells me that the Epicureans aren't my jam quite as much as the stoics are, but there's only one way to find out. I have no idea what we're getting ourselves into, here, but anyone who has an entire branch of philosophy named after him has to be worth a couple of minutes of reading.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
#non_gbww #fiction #french
Volume II - Book I (30 pages)

We come at last to the infamous Waterloo section of the book, the part that stops so many people from reading this classic and the first part that is mercilessly culled in any abridged version of the story, as it has nothing at all to do with the events of the tale. That said, I've heard that it's considered one of the first and most important French sources on the battle of Waterloo, so let's try to appreciate it for what it is and not get caught up in modern ideas like advancing the plot.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
#non_gbww #fiction #english
Chapters III - IV (13 pages)

I remember thinking that Pickwick was a bit of fun last time we picked this one up, but all that I can recall now is that it seemed to involve a bunch of gentlemen playing jokes on each other and ignoring the consequences of their actions. Still, I'm always up for a little Dickens, especially when he's feeling playful, so let's have a go.


I hope you've gotten a chance to engage with one of our little texts in the last week, but even if you haven't, why not take this chance to let me know what you've been reading?