All entries for September 2010

September 17, 2010

Why I care: The Pope

Anyone following me on Twitter or Facebook today may have seen me be rather uncomplimentary towards the Pope, and this whole visit. Some people think I’m taking it too seriously, that we should just live and let live and I shouldn’t be acting like a Dawkins militant atheist. Well sod that. This does matter. I’m even prepared to risk sounding like Lily Allen when I say that the open arms with which we’re welcoming the Pope to our shores is really not okay. And apathy and a lack of opinion and live and let live claims from friends that I otherwise have intellectual and moral respect for are not okay either.

This fucking matters.

The child-abuse thing is awful. But it’s a cheap shot and it’s a flimsy argument. One I made myself in a recent blog. Things happened. Awful things. But we don’t know how involved the current Pope was and things are happening to try and sort it. It’s too slow, too late and not enough but it’s something. There’s action. You go up to the Pope today and he won’t tell you that child abuse is okay.

Homophobia. It’s awful, it’s bigoted and it’s institutionalised. I can’t imagine how gay people must feel seeing their country venerate someone who thinks their entire life is a sin. But bigots exist. They just don’t like people who are different. And we can fight against that where we find it but we find it in a hell of a lot of places. It’s an uphill struggle.

But then there’s AIDS in Africa. Ben Goldacre covers the facts and the scale in heart-wrenching detail. The headline: 2 million deaths a year. A huge chunk of which could be prevented if people weren’t told that using condoms will send them to hell. Keep that in mind while you consider this.

Most developed nations, most huge multi-nationals, most religions, are in some way democratic. If we really don’t like something our government does, we have the mechanism to vote them out of power. Religions are generally fractured, with different holy-men reigning over different regions and different denominations. Those that make unpopular decisions see their followers wane and disperse to different flavours of the same religion. Big companies are run by a board of directors but they answer to share-holders who can number in their thousands and can oust them with enough votes.

This is all good, it means there are checks and balances. It also means change, real change, is slow. Things have to be done gradually else the backlash can destroy any chance of them being done at all. The price we pay for democracy.

For the Catholic Church, uniquely, this is not so. One man rules. His is the divine word of God and cannot be questioned. You don’t get fired from being Pope. You answer to no-one. You don’t get ousted. It’s a job for life and the only way out is death. That may well make him the most powerful man on the planet.

You see, the Pope could turn around tomorrow and decree that condoms were now permitted by God to fight the greater evil that is AIDS and save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in a second. All he has to do is say it. There is no down-side. It doesn’t encourage people to have sex; trust me, if a 6% chance of catching AIDS doesn’t stop people shagging, nothing will. It wouldn’t even be that controversial, Catholicism is one of the few religions that still oppose condoms. Even the fundamentalist Muslims are in conflict over the issue. And if there is a fallout, so what? It was the word of God and you don’t question it.

Millions of lives, present and future, could be saved in an instant. And not only does the Pope not act, he even goes out of his way to make it clear that condoms are a sin when he gets the chance. How? Why? This isn’t a toss-up like the Iraq War, where thousands will die if we do but thousands may die if we don’t. There is no downside. You lose what? I’m sorry but but if you want to preach abstinence, fine, but the threat of catching AIDS is not a fucking weapon in your arsenal. Jesus didn’t hold his people at gunpoint while he preached.

And yet the Pope does nothing.

One fucking sentence out of his mouth and a few million people in Africa live instead of die. He’s not directly responsible for what’s happening. But he could accomplish so much by doing so little, and yet he doesn’t. The way I see it, that makes him culpable. Enabling child abuse is bad. But at least he doesn’t still openly call it okay. Enabling what could ultimately be genocide? Well you can make your own mind up on that.

But if you honestly think the answer is spending 12 million quid (when the country is broke) on having him turn up to give a couple of speeches is the answer then you’re fucking retarded.

That’s why this fucking matters to me and why the whole thing makes me really, really angry. And it’s why it should make you angry too. And if it doesn’t then honestly, there’s something wrong with you.

It’s not okay. His inaction is not okay. Us welcoming him to our country is not okay. And us shrugging our shoulders and saying “well it’s just religious politics bollocks” is not okay either.

Care. Give a damn. Join the chorus of people mocking him either on the internet or protesting this for real. Let the world know that we do not approve and we expect, nay, demand more if he wants to be venerated like he expects.


September 12, 2010

Why the Pope is probably evil

I’m not a fan of politicians. Generally they’ll act in their own interests or the interests of a small group they represent. Protecting themselves and their political party/government is the overriding motivation, doing the right thing being only secondary.

It’s in that context that I can look at the actions of the Catholic Church over the whole child-rape thing and understand them. I get why the Church, and our current Pope in his old job in particular, opted to cover it up. It was the most politically expedient option. Obviously that’s not okay, not for any organisation, and one that basis itself on handing down moral instruction should be held to even higher standards. But it’s understandable. Deep down, when we all feign shock at the fact that the Church covered it up, a voice in our head is going “of course they did, they wanted to avoid a scandal”. It was a political move. Placing politics above what was morally right. Utterly reprehensible, but comprehendible in that context.

But something has been bugging me lately.

The cat is out of the bag now, the scandal exposed, we all know it happened, the cover-up failed. So what now? From a perspective of political expediency, one should publicly admit the mistake, apologise, fire a few people as scape-goats and promise to support the victims and do better in the future. That also happens to mostly be the right thing to do in this case, but that doesn’t matter. It’s also the correct move politically. Doing so moves on the debate. You admit you made an error and then those opposing you can no longer directly attack you on that issue “I said it was a mistake, I apologise, but it’s done now, what more can I do?” There are few answers to that that don’t involve moving on to a different topic entirely. “It’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission” is a fundamental rule of the political play-book. When something goes wrong you apologise and say you’ll try and stop it ever happening again and slowly the debate is recast and anyone still attacking you for it makes themselves look like a bully and you look like the victim.

Which is why it’s weird that the Pope hasn’t done this. He hasn’t taken the politically expedient path, and that’s scary. See, the cover-up is understandable if you accept the idea that he’s a politician. But his failure to apologise makes it clear that he isn’t. Which therefore means that he covered-up the whole thing because he thought it was the right thing to do.

Just stop and think about that for a minute and the true horror it implies.

From an atheist point of view, this is easy to reconcile. The Pope is wrong in the head and is unable to differentiate right from wrong. He’s no different to any other sociopathic criminal.

The interesting thing is how this must appear to other Christians. Generally most churches tolerate the Catholics as the slightly wacky cousins who wear funny hats and think they’re actually drinking the blood of Christ at communion. But essentially they believe the same things, more or less. The problem is, Catholics believe the Pope has a direct connection to God. Most Christians also believe you can have a personal connection to God. Thing is, many Christians, especially the more evangelical groups, believe the Devil and demons are real too. If you think you have a personal connection with God, and that connection is telling you something that is at odds with a given church’s teachings, the church is less likely to tell you you’re imagining things, and more to say that you’re actually talking to the devil or a demon, and you have to ignore it. Your prayers got the wrong number and you have to be strong and try calling again and hope you God picks up instead this time.

Extrapolating that, and assuming that a fair, just, Christian god would never want child-abuse covered up, the only conclusion is that the Pope is talking to the Devil. Which makes all Catholics devil-worshippers. Given this shocking revelation, I’m not sure why there isn’t also an evangelical Christian anti-Pope march going on, where they’re letting the world know that he’s a servant of Lucifer. But then, I guess that wouldn’t be politically expedient.


The Oblivion Diaries Part 0 – Introduction

Somewhere along the way, I fell down the rabbit hole. The point of this series of articles was originally meant to be two-fold. First a diary of playing through a heavily modified version of Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Secondly, to document the mods I used and offer a guide on installing the same ones so that other people could play the same thing.
View from outside the Sewers

The thing about Oblivion is that it’s hugely modifiable. I remember when I first played it around four years ago, the first thing I did was install a very early user-made mod that ‘fixed’ the interface. The game had been released on 360 and PC at the same time, but the interface was scaled for people playing it on the sofa. Not for someone with their head about 40cms from the screen.

Since that time a whole host of mods have been created, numbering in their thousands, so before I start this diary, I am going to list out the ones I’m using. I’m not, however, going to explain how to get them all working together. See, the original plan had been to choose a small number of specific mods and play just with those, but the problem is that the more you read about the mods available, more and more catch your eye and before you know it you’re down the rabbit hole with around 100 installed. You’ve searched out compatibility patches to make everything work together, learned how to use BAIN to make installing easier, got your head around a bashed patch and started pyffi-ing your meshes to improve performance. See, the thing is, if you just want to use a few mods with Oblivion, it’s a piece of cake. But you never do. You start seeing more and mods that you’d like to try and things snowball. And then making them work together gets quite difficult. If you really do want to try it for yourself all I can do is suggest this site.

It’s interesting how modding communities develop. I first tried to do this about two years ago, and the big thing then was getting your ‘load order’ right. See, Oblivion is fairly mod friendly, mods are packaged in to ESP files, and you can load them in any order you want. Later ones override earlier ones. Back then, the big challenge was getting the load order right, often involving compatibility patches (ie. Mod B overrides parts of Mod A, but then compatibility patch Mod C overrides very specific parts of Mod B with the bits of Mod A you want to keep). This is a thing of the past. An amazing piece of software called BOSS basically sorts everything out for you, along with helping tag things correctly to make a ‘bashed patch’ which is a sort of catch-all compatibility patch. Sort of.

While the load order issue is basically solved, the challenge that remains was working out a correct ‘install order’ for the mods. See, while the ESP files themselves can be loaded in whatever order, a lot of the resources they use will over-write the original Oblivion files, or the files of other mods. Last time I tried this, it was a nightmare, as while Oblivion Mod Manager was great at helping you install and uninstall files, it didn’t keep track of the order leading to all sorts of issues. For example, if the first mod I installed had 10 textures files, then the second had 5 texture files that replaced half of those, then when I uninstalled the second mod, the 5 replaced files from the first mod wouldn’t be returned. Another amazing utility, the BAIN part of Wrye Bash, removes any worries about this sort of thing at all, by keeping a virtual install order which you can tweak and then fix the installed files whenever you want. It’s a lovely piece of software that makes this entire thing manageable.

The second reason that I’m not going to go in to how I set this all up in detail is performance. I recently upgraded my PC. It’s an i7 920, 6gig of RAM and a Radeon 5850. It’ll run pretty much every modern game at full detail without breaking a sweat. Oblivion brings it to it’s knees. I get around 20fps outside and in cities. Some of you may blanch at that, but the fact is, most combat and actual action gameplay takes place in dungeons and other interiors where the performance is a lot better, so it’s something I can live with. It doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the best looking games ever made with a few visual mods, as the screen-shots I’ll include with this diary will attest to. But it still stutters, even running from an SSD.

So, here’s a whistle-stop tour of the main mods we’re using:

GRAPHICS
QTP3 Redimized Reduced
The most popular of the texture packs for Oblivion, makes pretty much everything more detailed and nicer looking.
Bomret Texture Pack for Shivering Isles
Same sort of thing for the expansion.
Landscape LOD Textures by Xerus
This makes the distant lands look a lot nicer.
Detailed Terrain
An improvement on the terrain in the game.
Koldorns Ayleid Ruins Textures
Specifically makes the ruins look nicer.
HiRes Oblivion Textures
None of the other texture mods affect the actual Oblivion realm itself, so this one improves that.
Brumbeks Sky Pack and Improved Sky Textures
Make the sky look nicer, both during day and night.
Really AEVWD
Stands for “Almost Everything Visible When Distant”, this makes things appear when looking in to the distance much sooner, rather than popping in as you approach them. It’s a huge performance hit, however, so I’m only using a few of the modules – the base module, which just improves the existing distant objects from the game, and the Ruins and Forts add-ins. After installing this, it won’t do anything without first running it’s friend TES4LODGen. There’s also a version for the expansion.
Better Cities
Rebuilds all the cities from the ground-up to have better and more interesting architecture, along with some neat additions.
Unique Landscapes
What Better Cities does for the cities, this does for the rest of the world. Gives each part of Cyrodill it’s own distinct feeling, making exploration a lot more interesting.
All Natural
Adds loads of new weather types, and also includes Real Lights, which attempts to use natural lighting throughout the game ie. candles and such rather than fake invisible lights – a huge performance hit but makes indoor scenes look incredible.
Enhanced Water v2.0 HDMI
Nicer looking water.
Animated Window Lighting System and Chimneys
Adds chimneys and windows that light up when it gets dark.
Rainbows in Tamriel
Rainbows after a storm.
Storms and Sound
Makes storms look and sound better.
Elven Maps
Make the maps a lot nicer. There’s another one for Shivering Isles too.
Eyecandy Variants Expansion
This improves the female body types in the game to make them look better. The odd thing about Oblivion is that every male and every female uses the exact same body type. There are millions of possible variations for faces when you’re creating a character, but other than height, weight, and muscles, you can barely change the body type. This mod actually lets you choose between a C-cup and and E-cup female body. You can guess which I went with. You can also choose the appearance of downstairs too: underwear or various shaving options. It’s kind of creepy. The mod also reworks all the original Oblivion armour to fit the new body. There’s also a seam reducer fix and some bigger textures.
Roberts Male Body
Same thing, but for men. 4 different types of body, but we went with Muscular as it’s the most compatible. Allows some choices in the downstairs area, but mostly on what underwear (if any) you want. No penis-size selection. Clearly this is sexist. Also requires another mod to rework the armour
Loading Screens Themed Replacer
Because if we’re fixing everything, may as well make the loading screens nicer. And the main menu while we’re at it.
Clocks of Cyrodiil
Better clocks! No really. This is how crazy and deep the Oblivion mod scene is. There’s a mod that makes the clocks look prettier. And read the right (in game) time. Along similar lines Book Jackets.
Oblivion Stereo Sound Overhaul
Not really graphics, but this improves the in-game sounds.

OVERHAULS
Unoffical Oblivion Patch
Oblivion was a very buggy game. This fixes around 2000 of those bugs. There’s also an update, one for the expansion, and one for the DLC. These are hugely recommended for anyone playing through Oblivion again, or for the first time.
Oscuros Oblivion Overhaul v134b5
This is the biggy. The original Oblivion was odd, in that monsters would level up as you did, so you could go anywhere and get a fight your level. Which sounds good in theory, but also means there was rarely any challenge, and conversely once you got ridiculously powerful, so was everyone else, so there was no fun stomping on easy stuff. This changes all that, giving everything in the world set levels, making Cyrodill a much more dangerous place. Also adds a ton of new armour, weapons, dungeons and quests.
Martigan Monster Mod
This complements OOO by adding in a few tweaks of its own and a whole host of new monsters to fight.
Less Annoying Magic Experience
This reworks the magic system to be, well, less annoying. Adds in some fun new spells and boosts magic power a little, but only to bring it in-line with everything else. Gets rid of pointless spells like buffs that only last for 3 seconds.
Race Balancing Project
By the same author, reworks the existing races and adds in a bunch of new ones. I’ll be playing as a Hidden Elf, added by this mod, in these diaries.
Darnified UI
A hugely developed and tweaked version of BT Mod, the original UI mod I mentioned in the introduction.
Oblivion XP
The other oddity of the original Oblivion was the abusable and near broken levelling system. This replaces it with a traditional XP bar and rewards for killing, completing quests and so on.
OMOBS
A rebalance of all the weapons to make everything from OOO fit with the old stuff from the original Oblivion.
Deadly Reflex
Adds a new special attack key, a kick key and a dodge button. Between them you can pull off all sorts of new attacks.
Common Oblivion
Adds a load of little changes and helps other mods work together.

QUESTS – I won’t write too much about these, as I’ll detail them as we come to them in the diaries.
Frostcrag Reborn
A reworking of the Mage Tower DLC to make it a lot bigger and more fun, with a nice new dungeon.
The Aylied Steps
Solving the mystery of an ancient teleportation system
The Lost Spires
Joining the archaeology guild
Windfall
An adventure in an all-new town
Blood & Mud
A complete re-working of Bravil, turning it in to a genuine slum and hive of scum and villainy.
Cybiades
An adventure on a nearby island, recognisable from an older Eldar Scrolls game.
AFK Weye
A revamped version of Weye, the suburb outside of the Imperial City walls, with new quests.
Et in Arkay Ego
Title is in Latin so must be cool.
Kragenir’s Death Quest
A quest designed to send you in to those dungeons you might otherwise not bother with.
Hoarfrost Castle
A new castle with a dark secret.
Tears Of The Fiend
An epic story about a demon.
Thievery in the Imperial City
Missions based around stealing stuff. In Imperial City.
Integration – The Stranded Light
A collection of loosely linked quests addressing some unanswered questions.
Kvatch Rebuilt
Kvatch is destroyed early on in the main quest (spoilers!) but this mod allows you to participate in it’s rebuilding.

I’m also using a whole bunch of ‘delayers’ which stop these quests from popping up right at the start of the game, and make them appear naturally instead.

OTHER TWEAKS
LowTriPolyGrass
Makes the grass look a bit worse. Grass is a huge performance hit and doesn’t look that great in my opinion (more like shrubs, than grass) so I use the version of this that makes it shorter and less resource intensive.
Persuasion Overhaul
Makes the persuasion less of a minigame and more a matter of judging personality.
Legendary Abilities
Along with Elys Uncapper lets you take skills to 200 and level up to 100.
Dude Wheres My Horse
Tells you where your horse is. As I get lost.
ChaseCameraMod
Stops the 3rd person camera making me feel motion-sick.
Auto Book Placer
Lets me line-up books nicely on the bookshelf.
Quiet Feet MAX
Animals don’t make walking noises, which helps fix some of the stutter which is down to the crappy soundcard support.
Streamline
Using it for it’s more reliable AutoSave function, and for fogging out things in the distance to reduce pop-in but still keep the view distance decent.
Bag of Holding
As I’m a pack-rat.
SM Plugin Refurbish
Delays the start of the DLC until a sensible time, rather than them all popping up at once.
Optimised Distant Land MAX
Optimised meshes to increase performance.
Keychain
Makes key management easier.
No More Annoying Messages Lite version
Removes the “Loading area” message.
Stealth Overhaul Redux
Tweaks the stealth system.
Super Hotkeys
Better hotkeys.
Menu Escape
Keyboard shortcuts in menus.
Map Marker Overhaul
More flexible map markers.
Universal Silent Voice
Not all mods have voice acting. This stops the text going past in seconds without mod-makers having to provide empty MP3 files for every line of dialogue.
Oblivion Stutter Remover
Helps stop the game from stuttering as much.
Oblivion Script Extender
Without which half of these mods wouldn’t work.

So there we go. In the first part proper, we’ll have a brief look at why I chose Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul, Martigan Monster Mod and Oblivion XP, have a closer look at what they do, and look at how that impacts the game. Then we’ll look at the character I created and watch her take her first few steps.


September 02, 2010

On festival behaviour

A Saturday afternoon in July, the Obelisk Arena, Latitude Festival’s main stage. Frank Turner is belting out one hell of a set, and about halfway through two teenage girls come barging through the crowd. Now I’m a grouchy enough human being that I’m not beyond getting annoyed at that sort of behavior in some circumstances. But these weren’t two drunken louts trying to elbow their way to a better view when the band start playing a single that they know the words two. Rather, two girls, likely at their first festival, dancing around and yelling out the words to Back in the Day (a fairly obscure track by any measure) like it could very well be their last. They were having the time of their lives and you just can’t resent that.

Except apparently, you can. About five minutes later a middle-aged woman in front of us turns around and with a look of barely concealed disgust, tells them to stop bumping in to her.

It’s this odd phenomenon at festivals: get to the barrier early in the day to have the best spot for the headliner later on. Sure, it happens at all gigs – support acts are forever playing to often disinterested fans of the headlining band. But it’s kind of accepted. The vast majority of people at your regular gig haven’t paid to see the support. Festivals are different though. The numbers are inverted. The majority of people watching a band at any one time will be there to watch that band. They’ll range from dedicated fans to those who just turned up as they liked the name or the description in the programme. But they’re all interested in watching the band. The super-hardcore fans of the headline act, that get there six hours early to get a great spot, are in the minority.

I’ve been a part of that minority twice. At my very first festival, Guildford Festival 2001, I stood at the barrier for about four hours to see James headline. And at my first Glastonbury in 2003 I spent about seven hours at the Pyramid stage to get a good spot for REM. But in both those circumstances, I got in to the spirit of things. I jived along with some 50-somethings to The Saw Doctors at Guildford and at Glastonbury I rocked out to Suede and Mogwai, and tapped my feet and applauded politely for David Gray. Because it’s polite to the bands on stage, but frankly, it’s also more fun.

So back to Frank Turner, an ex-hardcore-punk frontman, singing a song about how punk rock changed his life, and how the ethos behind it is “in the words of every song I sing” and a woman is complaining about getting jostled by people having fun. This isn’t incidentally, an age thing. Also next to me and getting caught up in all this is another older woman with her young daughter, and they’re bouncing around shouting all the words at each other. They don’t care.

But that girl that got told off, she had wisdom and a sense of mischief beyond her years. As the set grew to a close, Frank got everyone singing along to Photosynthesis, and in a stroke of brilliance the girl simply leans forwards and yells the words in to the woman’s ear: “And I won’t sit down, and I won’t shut up, and most of all, I will not grow up.”

Beautiful.

She made the point of this who piece far more clearly and succinctly than I have in all my ramblings, but my point is, that if you find yourself at a festival waiting through bands you don’t know to get a good spot for one you do, get in to the spirit of things. Enjoy it.

The girls left the crowd after Frank Turner, and I lost track of the woman when the whole crowd started heaving to and fro when James, the next band on, bought out the festival anthems. After that I left to go watch something in the Caberet tent, so I never got to see how that lady reacted to the mini-riot that Crystal Castles started in the crowd. I’m not sure she’d have lasted through to Belle and Sebastian.


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