Plans for 2018

Here is a selection of miscellaneous plans I have for the coming year.

Write more
Every week, I intend to write… something. It may be a blog post (for this or one of my other blogs), but it may also be something for Dawn, something for work, or even…

Ten Little Stick Men
I’m part way through writing a children’s book, though it will be entirely unsuitable for anyone under the age of ten… twelve, maybe…
I’ll post it up when it’s done, as it’s unlikely to ever see publication (for reasons that will be apparent if you read it).

Magnetic hour glass
I saw one of these in Waterstones – ferrous “sand” and a magnet in the base, so that it produces a cool little sculpture as it falls. However, I wasn’t about to pay £20 for something I figured I could make myself for about £3. I’ll post my success or failure once I’ve made some progress on it.

Python Pandas
I’ve been enjoying learning Python over the last year, but if I want to translate it into anything remotely connected to my work, I need to start using it for data analysis and such like. I’ve heard good things about Pandas, but I’m open to other suggestions.

Deadlands Cypher System conversion
I’ve just about talked my Thursday group around to giving this a try, so there’s going to be a big push in the first part of this year to get the details ironed out. Expect a post at some point, with at least an overview of the basic conversion principles.

I have made two batches of mead over the last 18 months or so… I’m going to try and find something else I can brew with largely the same equipment. Alternatively, if I can find enough sloes, I may just make a few litres of sloe gin… because who doesn’t need that?

The usual
Naturally, I’m going to read more, eat less, exercise more, use my phone less and make absolutely no change to the number of countries I invade this year… I actually think I judged that about right in 2017.

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Great British Bake-On

Like millions of others, I am mourning the loss of Great Britsh Bake-Off to Channel 4. I’ll probably watch the first episode out of curiosity, when it finally rolls round, but I can’t imagine it will be anywhere near as good as the BBC series.
Anyway, in order to fill the void, I have decided that this year I will hold my own Great British Bake-On… more specifically, for those of you who have failed to notice the obvious pun, a Great British Bacon.
For ten weeks, starting from mid-August, I am going to try different recipes involving bacon. I am hoping that I can cover some classics and some more experimental dishes (I’ve always felt that cheese scones could be improved).
Why am I announcing this now? Well, I’m always up for a challenge, so if anyone would like to suggest some themed weeks for me to try and come up with a recipe for, please add ideas in the comments.

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Business card advent calendar – midyear update

Ok, so I’m almost halfway through the year, slightly over halfway to advent, and slightly less than halfway through my advent calendar. However, I’ve found my rhythm, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be all done by the time the first of December arrives.

First update… I abandoned the idea of making little scenes in each cube. This was for two reasons; a lack of time and a lack of scenes. I could probably have found the time by abandoning some other projects, but I simply couldn’t come up with twenty four distinct moments in the Christmas story, without resorting to unnecessary details (the wise men pack for their trip, the shepherds argue over which sheep to give Jesus, etc…)
Fortunately, the cube structure is really quite strong, so I think it will support daily chocolates without too much difficulty.

Now, onto progress pictures…
Here you can see how the cubes structure is coming together:

These show how the cladding will look:

I cut the cards for the cladding myself, so I could get some Christmassy colours. This wasn’t too much of a pain… if you were looking to make one of these calendars on the cheap, you could cut all your cards yourself, though there are substantially more cards needed for the cubes than the cladding.

Anyway, expect a final update towards the end of the year, when I’ll show the full calendar, as well as the numbers for the front.

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Bullet Journalling – a two journal variation

[Note: This post assumes you have a rough idea what Bullet Journalling involves. If not, just Google the term and you’ll find lots of great info to get you started… then come back here, obviously. :-)]

I’ve always been a list maker – things to do, things to read, etc… I used to make heavy use of Evernote for organising my lists, but I often found that it was a case of “out of sight, out of mind”, particularly when it came to my to-do list. About three months ago, I came across bullet journalling and thought I’d try it as an alternative, to see if having a physical journal would help keep me slightly more focused. Overall it has been a big success, but I have found two issues that don’t quite work for me.

1) Carrying the journal around is not always convenient
It’s not a massive journal (A5, 250 pages, hardback), but it’s definitely not pocket sized. Most of the time, this is not a major issue, as I have my rucksack with me, so it can live in there. However, if I’m just popping out quickly or I’m going somewhere that the rucksack is inconvenient, then I’m forced to leave my journal behind. This very much defeats the point of the journal – it’s there so that I can jot down tasks or consult my calendar in the moment and not have to remember things until I get home.

2) I capture a lot of stuff that doesn’t become obsolete at the end of a year
I have very much embraced the idea of using my journal for everything – birthday lists, ideas for roleplaying campaigns, useful UNIX commands I’ve come across, books/games that have been recommended to me, etc… Although some of these may be done with by the time my journal is full, many of them will remain relevant for a considerable length of time after that. I don’t want to start a new year/journal and still have to carry the old journal around with me; I also don’t want to have to copy over 12 months of accumulated notes into a new journal each time.

With these two points in mind, I have adapted the bullet journalling principle into a two journal variation. The first journal is a small A6 one, that will generally be able to fit in my pocket. This journal just contains my future log, monthly calendars and daily journals. The second journal is A5, like my original one, though with half the number of pages. This journal contains everything else that I need – lists, ideas, commands, birthdays, etc…
Generally, I still have both with me; the big one in my rucksack and the small one in my jacket or pocket. However, if I don’t have my rucksack, I can manage with just the small one for short periods of time. The disadvantage of the small journal is that I’ll probably only get about six months out of it, but that’s not a major issue, as the only thing that will be copied to the next one is the remaining months on the future log. The larger journal will probably take much longer than a year to fill, as it won’t have any of the daily entries; when it does finally get finished, I can keep it alongside the subsequent one, as I will still be actively referring to it.

If you’re going to use this two journal approach, you should probably either start it pretty much from the beginning or wait until your current journal finishes. I had to copy over a couple of months’ worth of lists and ideas when I made the shift and I really wouldn’t want to copy any more than that.

This solution looks like it will work out fine for me, but if anyone else has their own solutions to the issues above, I’d be interested to hear in the comments.

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The Weave – A setting for the Cypher System

A while back, I brainstormed some ideas for different variations on cyphers in different settings for the Cypher System – Ideas for cyphers in different settings. This post is an expansion on one of those ideas, though it could be adapted for other systems, I’m sure. Suggestions or additions are welcome in the comments, as always.

Setting overview:
The universe is a tapestry. Whether this is proof of a divine creator or just a weird consequence of string theory is unknown and doesn’t really matter; the important thing is that time and space are constructed of carefully woven threads, known as The Weave.
A very small percentage of the population, colloquially known as Stitches, can perceive this weave and even interact with it to produce unusual effects. This is kept secret from the rest of the population; any Stitch who starts weaving magic in public is likely to be quickly silenced by the others in the community (though a couple of Stitches have made a living as professional stage magicians).
Most Stitches can only perceive the barest fragments of the Weave and maybe perform a couple of simple tricks. However, there are some who have a much greater grasp of it and who can produce truly magical effects.

Although this is a modern setting, Stitches can perform many unusual feats, so the Adept type and many of the more supernatural foci are still appropriate. All the characters are still human though, so foci such as Abides in Stone are not appropriate, and foci such as Slays Monsters will provide little benefit.
Any player wanting to play a heavily magical character should be willing to show some restraint in public or face the in-game consequences – this is something to discuss ahead of the game.

Artifacts are known as “patterns”. They are left over from the original weaving and will produce a specific effect when activated. They are still part of the weave itself, so they often appear as relatively innocuous objects. (e.g. a lighter that, when flicked, causes all glass in the vicinity to shatter; a violin that, when played, causes storm clouds to gather.)

Cyphers are known as “threads” and are loose threads in the Weave that Stitches can remove and use later to produce a one-time effect. More powerful threads could also be modelled as a broken pattern that will only work once, though they still obey the same rules as threads. (e.g. Something like the Volcanic Heart from Numenera, could be a pattern that was supposed to produce a regular fire on demand, but it’s stuck in a feedback loop, so as soon as you activate it, it will just keep generating heat until it burns itself out.)

Optional rule: Common threads – The majority of threads in the weave are of a few specific types (20 types, to make it easy to randomise and have decent variation). These are by far the most common type of thread found and are well enough understood that Stitches can carry more of them safely – up to five per cypher “slot”. Each type of common thread can produce several thematic effects, based on the the type, which can be chosen with each use.
For example, a “body” thread can be woven to have an effect on an individual; either recover 4 might points, recover 4 speed points or gain 1 armor for ten minutes.
As an addition, each of these threads could have an option for a trained character. For example, a character trained in medicine could also use a “body” thread to cure a disease.

The Agency – As global, clandestine conspiracies go, The Agency is pretty benevolent. They’ve decided, probably correctly, that the world is not ready to find out that certain individuals can rewrite parts of creation. They serve two purposes; firstly as a kind of supernatural police force (earning them the nickname, The Tapestry Police), dealing with things that the regular authorities are simply not equipped to handle; secondly they help keep Stitches off the public radar. They are not generally heavy handed in their duties; the first time someone breaks the masquerade, they’ll clean it up and have a quiet word, rather than instantly disappearing the person. Obviously repeat offenders are dealt with more severely.

The Guild of Weavers – A group of the most skilled Stitches, they study the weave and see how far they can develop their skills. Any PC with the adept type will either be a member or on their watchlist. They maintain good relations with The Agency, but secretly, the upper echelons are trying to build up enough of a following to reveal themselves to the world in such a spectacular fashion that there is no covering it up.

Order of the Divine Needle – A group of religious fanatics who subscribe to the belief that God created the Weave and that altering it is blasphemy. They’ll hunt down and kill Stitches where they can find them, though occasionally they will accept converts who have sworn never to touch the Weave again.

Froggers – This is the derogatory term for a loose alliance of doomsday cults, who all want to destroy the weave and end the world. Fortunately, the Weave is pretty robust, so they’ve only ever managed to cause localised damage to it, which can be passed off as a terrorist incident or natural disaster.

The Stitch ‘n’ Bitch – An underground club that only Stitches can enter, as the owner has placed an incredibly powerful pattern on the front door; a Stitch must tie off the final thread that connects the door to the club or it will simply open into an abandoned warehouse. The club is often used as neutral ground among Stitches, as the owner comes down very hard on those who cause trouble in his establishment; even the Agency treads with caution while under his roof.

Other setting notes:
Bobbins – Patterns are easily carried, as they are physical objects. However, threads are intangible, so the way that Stitches carry them round is by temporarily tying them to a trivial item, often referred to as a bobbin. Having random threads tied to it, often causes the bobbin to act in unusual ways; a coin might always land on its edge when tossed or a d6 might change all its sides to match whatever number it just rolled. Encourage players to invent their own bobbins that tie in with their character; if a PC loses their bobbin, they can simply create a new one by tying threads to a new object.

Tapestry spiders – These extradimensional parasites live outside the Weave. Occasionally they break into reality, where they manifest as black spider-like creatures, with too many legs and too many eyes, ranging anywhere from cat-sized to horse-sized. They seem to have no real purpose in coming through to reality; they generally just attack anyone in the vicinity and then disappear back into the Weave.

Optional rule: Gunshots – If you want to keep the setting relatively gritty and low-powered, I’ve been considering a rule to make firearms a little more dangerous. If a character take damage from a firearm, they are immediately moved one level down the damage track (this only happens once, even if hit multiple times). This level of damage cannot be recovered until they receive proper medical attention (this could come from another PC, but they would need to be trained, have access to proper medical supplies and have time to do a proper job).
The thinking behind this rule is that it only makes guns marginally more lethal (to die, a character would still have to empty two out of three pools), but it does provide a decent incentive not to get shot, as you can’t just make a couple of recovery rolls and be good as new. Obviously, if you’re playing a high-powered game as Agency super-soldiers or something, there’s probably no need for this rule.

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Deadlands, poker and Python

Today I’m managing to combine multiple interests into one post; roleplaying, maths and programming. I’ve written a program that simulates poker hands, which I will post further down, but first a little background.

For the non-roleplayers; Deadlands Reloaded is a roleplaying game that is set in the Weird West and one of the mechanics involves drawing cards and attempting to make the best poker hand possible. The number of cards drawn increases as your character gains experience; a very experienced character, who has taken all the relevant advances (and is dead… don’t ask), can be drawing 14 cards to try and make a five card poker hand. Obviously, at any level, it’s good to have some idea of how likely you are to make a particular hand, given your number of cards.

For the non-mathematicians; these odds are actually pretty hard to calculate. The probabilities of getting each hand with just five cards are well known; anyone with a solid grasp of probability can grind out the numbers. However if you’re drawing a lot more cards, this is very difficult. For example, calculating the odds of getting two pairs from 12 cards is reasonably easy, but you’ve got to subtract the odds that you also have a straight (because that would override the two pair). Even that is not as simple as calculating the odds of a straight; specifically you’ve got to calculate the odds of getting a straight in a hand that also has two pairs. I’m sure this is not technically impossible, but it’s a lot of hassle, particularly as you have to do it separately for every hand size… and then add wildcard jokers on top.

So, at this point, the mathematician part of my brain switched off and the statistical programmer part of my brain switched on. I might not be able to calculate the exact odds, but simulating a few thousand hands would give me a pretty reasonable idea.
Now, it should be noted that, while I’ve been intending to learn Python for years, I’ve only actually been learning it for a couple of weeks. This program involved a lot of Googling and is probably not as efficient as it could be. However, I’m pretty confident that it at least works correctly (though if anyone spots any weird edge cases with the jokers, do let me know).
The program below (Dropbox link, as I can’t embed it here directly), when submitted, will ask for three pieces of information:
1) The number of hands you want to simulate – I’ve been running about 10,000 at a time, as that seems like a good balance between run time and statistical robustness.
2) The number of cards to draw – it suggests 5-14, as that is the maximum number a Deadlands character will realistically draw, but you can enter 54 and get a royal flush every time if you really want.
3) Whether the red joker is allowed – high level characters in Deadlands can use the red joker as a wildcard without blowing themselves up… and not blowing up is always preferable.

Feel free to use this program in whatever way you want, though if you post it anywhere else online, do me the courtesy of crediting me.
If any more experienced Python programmers want to suggest code improvements, I’m all ears. In particular, does anyone know if I really need to make the variables global to pass them from function to function? It seems inelegant, but I couldn’t get it to work otherwise.

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Alexa, write me a blog post

I have had an Amazon Dot for around six months now, which I think is enough time to jot down a few thoughts on how it’s performing.

I went for the Dot, rather than the Echo, because I personally thought that the extra cost of the Echo was not worth it, purely for a built in speaker. I’m sure it’s handy if you’re short on plug sockets or space, but I’ve had the Dot plugged into some cheap speakers and had no issues with the setup at all.

First, let me be clear that the Echo has not revolutionised my life. There is nothing that it does, that I could not have done through other means. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s useless and I do appreciate some of its functions.

Timers – One of Alexa’s most trivial functions, but it’s the one I use most. Our Dot is in the kitchen and it is very convenient to be able to just say, “Alexa, set a timer for ten minutes.”

Music – I have Amazon Prime, so Alexa can tap into my music library pretty easily. Fundamentally, it’s no better than just plugging my iPhone in, with the Amazon Music app, but the voice controls are convenient.

Shopping list – Again trivial, but saying, “Alexa, add baking powder to my shopping list,” is fairly convenient when baking.

Weather – Alexa is not bad with her weather predictions and saves finding my phone, just to see what the day will be like.

These are the only functions that I use with any regularity, but I’d argue that it was just about worth the price for these various conveniences. I know that it also integrates with certain smart home devices and such like – someone who could make use of those functions might get even more from it.

It should be noted that the Dot is not without its faults. Despite the fancy sounding microphone array, it does occasionally fail to pick up your commands. My wife has more trouble than me with this, which I think is down to our commands styles; she calls to it like a child (“Alexa?”), while I tend to shout at it like a dog (“Alexa!”)
The voice recognition is pretty decent most of the time; it has most trouble with music, when requesting unusual artist names and such like, which is perhaps to be expected.

Overall, I’m pretty happy that I got it – it’s not ludicrously expensive and it’s a fun little gadget. Right now, as already stated, it is not doing anything revolutionary. However, I suspect that this could be the first step towards a futuristic automated home and I, for one, would like to ease into our new home-controlling overlords.

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