With Regret, You’re Fried

13 Jul

I don’t watch a lot of television. There’s nothing on. However, my girlfriend likes to unwind by watching educational programming like Dancing On Television and Britain’s Got Television. When I’m not in the mood for much else, I snuggle in beside her and try to ignore the flickering images.

So last night I found myself watching a show called Britain’s Next Undercover Boss On Television, or something. It was the most annoying television show I’ve ever seen them show on television.

The premise is simple: the management of a company get the feeling that they’ve lost touch with the people on the shop floor. From their vantage point in the boardroom of 1 Ivory Towers they can’t communicate with the very people they rely on for water cooler refills. To rectify this, they choose a senior figure of the company, tell them not to shave for a couple of days (a cunning disguise) and then get them a temporary job in one of their shops, not telling the staff who they really are, thus allowing them to infiltrate the working class.

In last night’s thrilling episode the managing director of Southern Fried Chicken was tasked with taking on several positions in the chain’s fast food outlets to find out whether individual branches were performing to expectation.

First he went to Hitchin, where he took on a busy Saturday night shift serving chicken to drunken angry yobs, the kind of people who respond to having a camera pointed at them by getting their bums out and singing the Funky Chicken. Ha ha, how very appropriate.

During the shift he was appalled to find that chicken was being prepared in the washing-up sink. This, of course, is a health and safety hazard and could lead to food poisoning and death. However, given the state customers, I choose to believe that the staff knew exactly what they were doing.

In his second job he accompanied the branch’s manager to a local cash-and-carry where he watched the procurement of a week’s worth of chicken in non-refrigerated boxes. On returning to the shop, the boxes were plonked down on a blood-splattered kitchen floor next to the rat poison. Nice.

In yet another temporary job he was introduced to a brave young immigrant from Afghanistan, who had been forced to bravely escape the war-torn country, bravely leaving behind his pregnant wife. He had never seen his child. The managing director laughably explained that he fully understood the young refugee’s plight as he once had to go away on business and missed his little Quentin’s first steps. Oh, the humanity.

Anyway, the MD went through all this rigmarole with the intention of finding out for real what kind of operational difficulties face the people who run franchise businesses under the Southern Fried Chicken brand. He came back from his experience with his eyes opened, and began forming a plan to resolve the problems he’d seen.

Now, we should probably pause here to reflect on the nature of Southern Fried Chicken.

Southern Fried Chicken are not a major fast-food retailer as far as I’m concerned. In fact before last night I wasn’t even aware they were a chain. Their shops are run on a franchise basis with little or no consistent corporate image. They have free choice to serve whatever slop they like, bought from any old wholesaler at bargain-basement cost and quality, cooked by whatever means are available, and sold to customers for whatever price they’ll pay.

The outlets look no different, and sometimes worse, than most of the low-rent kebab shops along Rusholme’s Curry Mile in Manchester. They are a far cry from successful brands like Macdonalds, Wimpy, and the obvious comparison, Kentucky Fried Chicken.

And yet the Undercover Boss of last night’s show seems to be suffering a delusion. He talks about his business empire as if he is Ronald Macdonald himself, with this gleaming vision in his mind’e eye of pristine and spacious restaurants filled with happy families, all subscribing to the SFC corporate ethos of an enjoyable eating experience fuelled by their consistently high-quality product.

His understanding of his own business could not be further from the truth. But hey, that’s fine because now he’s worked in three shops. He’s wiped a Hitchin chav’s bum sweat off a red plastic counter top. He has a plan, right?

We come to the final act of the show, in which the managers of the shops are summoned to head office to meet the management. Oh, what a shock they’ll have when their ex-colleague is revealed to be their boss.

Except that he’s not their boss is he? He’s their business partner. That’s how a franchise works. They’re the bosses of their own business, and they negotiate a deal with this other business to obtain certain services and support in exchange for maintaining the corporate “look and feel” in their outlets. In this case the relationship seems to be tenuous at best, since head office exercises basically no control over the brand image and the store managers are left to fend for themselves. This, to me, is nothing like a boss-worker relationship.

Incidentally, one of the branch managers didn’t remember the boss at all, even face to face when prompted “do you remember me? I worked in your shop, remember? No? Oh.”

Wait a minute. I just realised this is even stupider than I thought. If this guy is the boss, why can’t he just rock up at the shop and demand to see the state of the kitchen? I mean, if the head honcho of my employer turned up unannounced asking to see what I was working on I’d just show him. And I’d give him my opinions on it in the interest of making our product better, because I respect the company I work for and I’m not an asshat. If, on the other hand, I found out Hedhoncho San had spent a week pretending to do a code-monkey’s job while surrupticiously investigating my performance I’d think HE is the asshat.

Well anyway, whoever’s the asshat here, the fact is we find Big Boss sat opposite a bunch of branch managers. Time to unveil the grand plan. Time to find out how, based on what he’s learned, he’s going to make sweeping changes across all Southern Fried Chicken shops in the UK, improving brand image and customer satisfaction, and therefore increasing market share and profitability.

Oh, oh no, that’s not the plan.

For the guys with the poisoned chicken on the floor, an offer to match their investment in renovating their kitchen up to £10,000. Very generous, you might think, but then you remember something they said earlier about being in dire financial circumstances because of shrinking margins on burgers. Where are they going to raise £10,000? Basically they’ve been given a ten grand fine and told if they don’t sort out their hygiene problems they’ll get shut down.

Then the guy from Afghanistan shows up. How will his business be improved? By paying for him to fly to Pakistan where his wife and child now live of course. Oh, no that doesn’t improve his business at all. It’s a nice gesture though. Thanks “boss.”

For the guys working the night shift in Hitchin, they’re going to get their shop renovated to the tune of £13,000. They’ll have a nice new sign outside and a fancy counter. Their shop will be the flagship branch or, more accurately, a diamond in the chemical toilet. Good for them. They won.

They also got to see the inner sanctum of the boss’ delusion. Walking out from the bland office in which their meetting took place we see that, far from a gleaming corporate headquarters, the SFC head office appears to be in the boss’ house. We follow them down the dowdy carpeted stairs and through to the kitchen where we find that a pristine replica of the perfect Southern Fried Chicken diner has been constructed. It’s clearly the MD’s idea of heaven. For everyone else, including the visibly shocked branch managers, it’s like finally glimpsing the psychopath’s shrine to the women he kills.

So, given all the effort of traipsing around the country pretending to be one of the underclass, the boss has taken basically no steps to remedy any of the problems he found. He’s bunged some money into one of his already-successful branches and neglected to see the bigger picture. Are we to assume that these branches are the only ones that prepare chicken in the sink and cook their fries in black month-old oil?

But then perhaps £25,000 (including flights) is a small price for an unsuccessful take-away business to pay for an hour of prime-time TV.

A Shuffle And A Peck

11 Jul

You’re a pigeon in a clear plastic cage. You peck idly at the corner of your perspex prison. Nothing. For want of anything better to do, you turn and peck at the opposite corner. Nothing. Oh well. You return to your original corner, considering your options carefully, weighing up the possibilities. You decide to give it a peck.

Some seed falls from a chute embedded in one wall. Excellent, seed, your favourite. You wolf down the morsel hungrily, barely savouring its nutty flavour. That was brilliant, the way you pecked in the corner and got some seed for your trouble.

The one thing that you’d really fancy now just to top off the delicious and filling seed, the one thing that would improve your otherwise perfect life, is some more seed. So you peck again in the corner and turn expectantly to the chute.

Nothing.

You peck again in that corner, and again, becoming angry at the absence of reward. Ok, think rationally. What exactly did you do to get the seed. You pecked in this corner, yes, twice, but in between you pecked over in that other corner.

You repeat your previous course as precisely as you can. Peck, shuffle, peck, shuffle, peck… Nothing. In something approaching a rage, you turn all the way around and give the corner a pecking it’ll never forget. It’s at times like these you wish you could do something more than peck. But you can’t, you’re a crappy pigeon, crappest of the crappest of all living beings. You hang your head, depressed.

But as you do you notice a fresh pile of seed. When did that appear? You enjoy the snack while thinking back to your actions. Aha, that’s it. You pecked, shuffled, pecked, but you turned right when you shuffled. That must be it: turning left doesn’t work.

Peck, shuffle to the right, peck. Seed!

About twenty minutes of pecking and spinning later, during which you have become increasingly dizzy and frantic as seed distribution has been hit and miss at best, you hear a raised human voice from close outside your cage. You can understand what it says because you’re a fictional pigeon in a blog I wrote.

“Skinner, you’d better get in here, another of your pigeons has gone mental.” Through the glass you can make out the white-coated form of one of your captors. Another man, who you presume to be Skinner, blusters into the room.

“Ah, it’s as I expected,” you hear him say. “Subject sixteen has resisted well but they all go like this in the end.”

Back to reality. You can stop being a pigeon.

The experiment I’m referring to above is called Skinner’s Box. It attempts to explain superstition and ritual by putting the dumbest people alive into a box and randomly feeding them seed. Pigeons, sorry, not people.

The idea is simple: put a bird in a box and feed it at random intervals. The stupid little idiot will think that it somehow earned the food through its actions, and attempt to repeat what it just did in the expectation of more food. Sometimes, through blind chance, its repetition will earn it a snack. Sometimes it won’t.

The inevitable result is a crazy bird in a box acting the goat, going through increasingly complex sequences of lunatic behaviour, firmly believing that in doing so it can influence the action of an entirely random system.

People do the same thing. Derren Brown even made a TV show of it. Expose people to an essentially random universe in which they have the capacity to feel rewarded by events beyond their control and they will inevitably construct elaborate rituals around those rewards. In doing so they appear to have become utterly irrational and deluded, although their architecture and music can be quite beautiful.

So what led the poor guy in the park to his ritual? I see him occasionally on days when I go to work early, in the small green space off Leith Walk in Edinburgh. He always wears the same baggy clothes, which were once colourful but which have faded to a dusty grey. He always carries a tennis racket, on which he continually bounces a red ball made of foam. While doing so, he walks briskly between two large trees, back and forth, over and over. At each tree he touches each foot against the bark, left first then right, somewhere near the base. Then, before he moves to repeat his ritual, he glances skyward with his mouth wide open. Perhaps he’s waiting for his gift of seed to fall.

Faster, Higher, Stranger

7 Jul

Those of you with a long memory will recall that a few days ago I wrote a blog in which I educated, some would say lied to you, about the history of video games. This piqued my interest, and I went on to do some research into the history of games in general and how to lie about it specifically.

It might come as a surprise to some that the first games actually predate video games by a number of years. In fact they predate the video. The nature of these early games will come as no surprise however.

Consider the recent trend towards physical action video games. I’m referring to such titles as Wii Fit on the Wii, Zumba on the Zum, and Tiger Woods’ Pro Arm Flailing Simulator, multiple platforms. These titles hark back to the very origins of gaming itself, that pursuit of physical prowess in its purest form: the Olympics.

Now, some of you will be a bit confused at this point. The Olympics are going to be in London in 2012. They haven’t happened yet. Oh no, not relativity and paradoxes again. Well unfurrow your brow, and read on.

The Olympics as we now know them are actually only the Modern Olympics. The Olympics in general can be divided into two unequal halves, with the other half being called the Ancient Olympics. No prizes for guessing which came first. But it was the Ancient Olympics.

These original Games were invented by a messenger in Ancient Greece when, on the eve of battle, he ran the 26 miles back to his house because he thought he’d left the gas on. He stopped only once on the way, to buy a packet of peanuts and a Mars Bar from the 24-hour garage, and completed the distance in what was then a record time of eight hours twelve minutes. On arriving home he immediately regurgitated his mid-run snacks due to the exertion, and thus invented the Marathon.

Hearing about this feat, his commanding officers set up a festival of sports, and named them in honour of his family, the O’Lympics.

The tradition continued throughout most of the history of civilization, with events becoming more strenuous as time went by. There were always contentious proposals to introduce innovative but, some said, improper and vulgar sports. Inertia and a strong link to the past kept athletes’ feet on the ground, except in the high-jump where leaving the ground was allowed, though frowned upon.

Things came to a head in the early twentieth century. The Olympic people, you know, who run it and that, they decided to introduce a new sport: Jumping Through Barrels. To make way for this crass pursuit the most prestigious event, the Running Home In Case You Left The Gas On, was dropped from the schedule.

In the resulting furore the entire sporting community was united in agreement: the Olympics had become a travesty, no longer worthy of the name. All further events were cancelled with immediate effect.

But sportsmen are a competitive bunch by nature. Without the release of Olympic competition the underemployed athletes became aggressive, spoiling for a fight. Many academics now believe that the end of the Ancient Olympics directly caused two world wars, better known as World War One and The Second World War One.

In the aftermath of war, in the fifties, the Modern Olympics were born. The fact that gas had now been invented saw a reinstatement of the classic Running Home In Case You Left The Gas On, but other events had a more modern flavour. The 100m, the 200m, the 400m, the 800m, the 1500m, and others that couldn’t be so easily numerically classified.

But let’s face it: the Olympics are really boring. It’s eight weeks of television nobody can watch, bookended by a couple of glorified school parades. And with the 2012 event in London it’s going to be simply insufferable for misery-gutses like me. I’m just hoping that the Mayan eschatological prophecy comes to pass before the opening ceremony.

What we really need is to liven the Games up with some really innovative new events. I know they’ve tried already with Boney Naked Women Beach Frolicking, but it didn’t really keep my attention after the first five minutes. So here are some ideas:

200m Ovulation Transportation. Athletes must carry a boiled egg along a short distance track using the implement of sports cutlery of their choice.

Dash And Crash. Athletes have to work themselves up to their peak of adrenaline-enhanced physical performance frenzy for an all-out full-tilt 100m sprint, then immediately try to go to sleep for half an hour.

15,000m Sprint. Not for the faint-hearted.

400m On 4m Track. A medium distance event run in a small circle. Minimum of twenty competitors per heat.

Ignore The Horse. Jockeys sit atop a fine and powerful stallion while it trots this way and that, doing a preposterous dance in no way in time with the awful music. Competitors will be judged on how much of a straight face they can maintain. Oh, they do this already? Moving on…

Really Long Jump. Currently the Long Jump record stands at just over six foot. I think we could smash that if we allowed a sufficient run-up. 800m would be enough.

Ok, I’m bored of this now. Time for the closing ceremony and the national anthem of every country in ascending order of length.

Balloon Buffoon Baboon

6 Jul

The internet is an experiment with an infinite number of blogger monkeys typing at random, hoping that at some point a chance combination of characters may form a cohesive essay of sufficient interest that their Twitter follower count will reach double figures.

I am not such a monkey of course. My blogging is born of a deep intellect and perspicacity, which I choose to express through the medium of factually inaccurate reviews of decades-old video games. But the rest of you bloggers: phew, what a load of poppycock.

Time will tell whether Iain Mathieson turns out to be a monkey. You may know him from the very interesting comments he regularly contributes on my posts. Well he’s just started a blog of his own, an act for which I will naturally take full credit if it turns out to be any good.

He’s chosen to write about cooking. Now, I strongly disapprove of the idea that a blog should have a subject. I think it’s important to fully exercise the blogger’s mind, to write about a wide range of topics about which the blogger has no opinion or knowledge, forcing him (or her: women can be monkeys too) to explore new domains.

But Iain claims to know something about cooking and so food shall be his muse. He has been cooking food for years, and eating food for decades, so he’s certainly done his research. I strongly disapprove of research, mainly because I already know everything and have no need for Google or, God forbid, Wikipedia. When we explore those new domans so fascinating to any writer I believe we should disregard that which has gone before. Isaac Newton said “Get out the way you giant oaf, I can’t see for your bloody shoulders.”

But who is this Iain, if that really is his name?

Iain and I studied physics together at university, on days when he showed up. We also lived together for two years, and became firm friends in the face of adversity. We ate together every night, putting the world to rights while pushing the halls kitchen’s Hawainian (sic) Chicken around our plates disinterestedly.

After university we went our separate ways. I set off on a career programming computers, while Iain… well, here is Iain’s story.

It was early in 2001 (the year, not the film about the year) and Iain and I were bored. We were also quite inebriated, if truth be told, but I think boredom was the primary cause of our discussion turning to balloons. History doesn’t record who asked the question: “How far could a balloon fly?” But it was Iain.

Well, what do you mean by balloon? Hot air balloons can fly for miles. What about helium balloons?

“I reckon they could get as far as Gaff’s,” I said, referring to the off-license across the road beyond which we rarely travelled.

We mulled in silence for a few minutes. I think we were both hoping that that would do as an answer. But being budding scientists we couldn’t let the matter drop.

We’d design an experiment to determine how far helium balloons would travel. We would set off a balloon and see where it went.

But wait. One balloon? What happened to repeat-and-average? Ok, we’ll set off a statistically reasonable sample of balloons. Ten thousand should be sufficient.

But we couldn’t follow ten thousand balloons individually. Iain was sure he’d once seen a hundred balloons let off by a charity-a-thon on television, and although they started in a bunch it wasn’t long before their courses began to diverge in chaotic and unpredictable ways.

No, we’d need some way to find out where our balloons ended up. We would tie a postcard to each one, stamped, and addressed to our home laboratory, mission control. People finding the balloons would post them back, after writing on the card the precise Ordnance Survey grid reference where they had come across them.

No they wouldn’t. Why would they? We’d have to give them an incentive. Make it a competition. Whoever’s balloon was furthest away would win a star prize. How would they prove it? Well, ok maybe it would be a simple prize draw.

Even with that incentive, I argued, only one in ten is likely to make it back to us. Some would be lost in woods, or out to sea. And a prize draw demands a closing date, and as we physicists have shown, distance and time are not independent.

We’ll give them a year. That should cover it. And if one in ten is our expected return rate we should consider letting off a hundred thousand balloons instead.

That might be a problem, I pointed out. We live within the local airspace of Manchester Airport. We’d better ask them to shut down for a day while our rubbery danger to air traffic dissipates. They’ll be fine with that, once they understand the significance of our research.

And is it even legal for a pair of unlicensed students to buy the vast quantities of compressed helium gas we’d need? How does one even go about procuring the stuff? Iain suggested we try the 24-hour garage down the road. I would have objected but it was as sensible idea as any.

Iain then raised another issue. How would we pay for all these balloons, postcards and stamps? Well, we’re effectively distributing a lot of potential advertising material. Maybe we could get local businesses to sponsor us in return for some promotional material on the cards? I was certain Gaff’s would stump up some funding, but Iain demanded we think bigger. Our balloons were likely to reach all over the country, if not the world. Think bigger. Multinationals with huge advertising budgets. Coca-Cola?

No thanks, I’ve got this beer.

Now, most people would have put this conversation (which really happened, in my room in halls) down to us being idiots. I know I did, but Iain has taken our idea further. After graduation Iain wasted no time in forming Helium Media. It’s been a shaky start, but I still have every faith that balloon-based advertising will take off. I hope Iain will remember me when it does.

Shitting Bricks

5 Jul

Tetris is one of the best known video games ever made. Coincidentally it is also one of the worst video games ever made. To fully understand Tetris we must first examine it’s origins, back in the cold war.

Russia was on the back foot. Their missiles were only sufficient to wipe all animal and plant life from the face of the earth six times over, while the Americans had stockpiled enough munitions to do the job of mass-extinction eight times. The Reds needed a new weapon. That weapon was codenamed TETRIS (but with the R backwards to make it seem more authentic.)

The idea was simple. Rather than build more and more nukes the canny commies would bung up the American launch silos with bricks. The bricks would be dropped into place from orbit, requiring pin-point accuracy. It was a technological challenge on a scale to rival the space-race and, to make matters worse, the only bricks available were an assortment of ill-fitting shapes and garish colours.

In order to practice, Dr. Smyslov (better known for his cameo appearance in 2001: A Space Odyssey in that scene on the space station where he was played by Reggie Perrin from Rising Damp) was asked to develop an accurate Tetris simulator. Within months, and based partly on stolen documents from a British agent called Patrick Moore, the software was complete.

It was a dramatic failure. The Russian military chiefs met to discuss the system. Nobody could get past level fifteen. The cold war was lost.

Dr. Smyslov was distraught, and was expecting to be forced into exile, but his commanding officers were too busy playing the failed “game,” as they disparagingly referred to his simulation, to notice him leaving.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union now inevitable and corruption rife in the Russian system, Smyslov saw an opportunity to strike a final blow for communism. He’d seen how those military big-wigs had been entranced by the falling blocks. Perhaps Tetris was a weapon in its own right. Certainly it couldn’t break the dominance of America’s nuclear might, but perhaps it could wilt the minds of an entire generation of western capitalist school children.

Within a year, in collaboration with certain Japanese companies sympathetic to the Soviet plight, Smyslov had flooded the market with copies of Tetris. The hardware required to play this weapon could be carried in the pockets of its willing victims and had a battery life sufficient to outlast the typical school day. As a byproduct it could also play Super Mario and Castlevania.

An investigation carried out later by Ofsted found that kids exposed to Tetris who started secondary school with a reading age of eight (the national average for eleven year olds) were leaving education before their GCSEs with a reading age of four. That’s not on average, that’s all of them.

Tetris was a runaway and dangerous success, and something had to be done. Even the Atari Lynx couldn’t break the stranglehold. That’s a joke for people who had exactly the same childhood as me.

Eventually it was good old corrupt commie greed that ended our Tetris troubles. Hardware had improved significantly since the first flickering falling blocks appeared on screens in Dr. Smyslov’s secret bunker in a volcano. The Russians hadn’t accounted for the possibility of knock-off copies of Tetris appearing, believing as they did that their block-alignment simulation was way ahead of the curve. But appear they did. Produced by the underground nerd community (nerds are a lot like Hobbits) these copies soon outstripped the original, featuring bricks that fell really really fast and some eye-shitting graphical effects all in the new super VGA resolutions.

Hoping to stem the flow, and in line with the new era of cooperation between the west and the ex-Soviet states, Smyslov hired a murder of powerful lawyers to pursue cases against anyone suspected of producing or knowingly permitting the production of a Tetris clone. In fact they went further, bringing legal action against any game developers who even dreamt the syllabus “tris.”

A backlash ensued of course. Piles of three-and-a-half inch disks containing poorly implemented puzzle games were burnt in the streets as people woke up to the truth. Tetris disappeared.

So why, oh why, did Electronic Arts choose to put it out on the iPhone? Could it be about making lots of money? Or perhaps the desire to revive a classic from the golden age of video gaming history for the pleasure of a new generation of players? Well, I don’t profess to know the answer to that sort of question. But it’s about the money.

Any nerd worth his or her (but, let’s face it: his) salt can write an implementation of Tetris better than the EA version. Even a blockheaded Bracegirdle from Hardbottle. Tetris for the iPhone goes out of its way to be awful.

For a start, there’s the jukebox feature. Ooh, it lets me listen to the music on my iPod while playing? Brilliant idea! So why when I start the game does it stop whatever music is playing and make me go through its own menu system to re-start it again? Why not just leave the music playing in the first place? What possible value does this feature add to the game? None.

Then there’s the menu system itself, which takes forever to do anything. Sure it’s got nice spinning fading transitions, but this just wastes my time. It takes five seconds to pause and unpause the game. This should be basically instantaneous if your game isn’t going to make me hurl my phone out of the train window in disgust.

Trifling issues, surely. These problems can be ignored because the developers put all their efforts into what matters – the gameplay. Nope, wrong. They haven’t even got the rules right. Oh, sorry, I mean the rule.

Brick falls, move brick, brick lands, next brick. That’s it, the rule of Tetris. But in the EA implementation you can carry on moving and rotating the bricks AFTER they land. What the..? This makes the game so trivially easy that I completed it.

Yes you heard me, I completed Tetris. Or at least, I completed this broken version of Tetris. Before a recent update it was only possible to get 150 lines before being rewarded with a message saying “well done.” I know I was doing well, that’s why my game wasn’t over, you idiot. Don’t just arbitrarily end my supposed enjoyment. Tetris carries on getting faster until you lose. This isn’t even Tetris.

They updated the game so it carries on indefinitely. Much better now… Oh, but in doing that they seem to have killed the frame rate. Now any expert Tetris player, like me, will know that at higher levels success is all about timing. The bricks fall so fast that you need to start moving them into place the split second they appear. Not only does the updated Tetris jerk occasionally, the actual rate of play fluctuates too, making gameplay basically impossible.

Now come on EA, developers have known to divorce their game loop’s update rate from the system clock for decades. Are you doing this on purpose? To make me angry? Just me? I hardly know why I play this rubbish for two hours a day, every day. At least it stops me blogging.

Somewhere a retired Russian academic is laughing at me.

Moore’s Lore

4 Jul

Back to blogging on trains this week. Before I get stuck in with the usual nonsense I feel I owe you, dear reader, an explanation. In return you owe me your loyalty and a sandwich.

I’ve been playing Tetris for the last six weeks. That’s the long and short of it. I feel that, after some thirty-odd hours watching those coloured blocks fall silently, repeatedly, dejectedly into place I’m finally ready to write a review of this classic game.

That’ll be tomorrow. For now, let’s take a moment to briefly reflect on the unlikely history of video games.

Most people think video games were invented in the early nineties by the “Gamesmaster,” celebrity xylophonist and monacler Patrick Moore, but nothing could be further from the truth. No, Patrick Moore invented video games in the 1940s.

Moore was a weak and sickly child, who spent many long hours blankly staring into space. Unlike the hulking form he would take on in later life, the young Patrick was undernourished and undersized, with pallid skin and wet eyes that seemed to live independent lives.

Little wonder then that when he arrived at the offices of the RAF recruiters he had precious little chance of convincingly lying about his age. He was nine years old, but so desperate to serve his country. War was brewing.

Moore had chosen the RAF because of his interest in the stars. He thought that flying high above the clouds would bring him closer to the heavens. But his commanding officers saw another possibility for him. They were unconvinced by his claims of adulthood, but they would let his voice soar. This slip of a lad earned his place as lead soloist in the regimental choir.

Two years later he was to sing in front of the King at some kind of posh do or other, I don’t know, like a ball or something. Maybe the regiment had managed to shoot down a plane, or they’d won at rugby that year. Does it matter?

All I’m saying is it was a big important do, and it was going to be recorded and put out on the wireless. Patrick Moore was to sing the big finale, Onward Christian Soldiers.

Maybe it was someone’s birthday. Yeah, Churchill’s fucking birthday. That’ll do.

The night before the performance: disaster! Moore’s voice began to break. He cried, alone in the barracks, trying to hit a top G while clutching his own testicles and those of Ridgely, his bunkmate, who plays no further part in this tale.

He told nobody, hoping that all would be well the following evening. But, in front of the ears of royalty, when he went for that final delicate tone, Patrick Moore emitted instead only a high-pitched and rapidly-varying squeal.

There was uproar in the banqueting hall, and a technical glitch was blamed. Moore was dishonourably discharged and the recording was shoved deep down in the military archives where it would remain untouched for forty years.

The young lad, distraught, turned first to the glockenspiel and then on down the slippery slope to harder stuff. By his eighteenth birthday he was already on the xylophone.

Cut to the early eighties. The audio tapes of Moore’s screech finally saw the light of day. Unlabelled and unexplained, it took months for a team of mathematicians to unravel their meaning. They reverse engineered a machine that could “read” the sounds, converting the noise to a machine language which, when represented correctly on a high resolution cathode-ray display, revealed at last Moore’s message.

That message, of course, was Chuckie Egg on the BBC Micro.

Freedom!

13 May

This intelligence report comes from deep inside enemy territory. There is no longer time for secrecy. This is an open letter to the people of my homeland, a warning of what is to come, and a call to arms.

For centuries we have supported our neighbours in this inhospitable land, civilizing its people with generous economic and technological gifts. Now it seems the Scotch are about to turn on their benevolent betters.

Despite our efforts to keep them divided they have now come together under a common leader and cause. You may have seen the news. In recent polls the Scotch elected a government of Scotchmen. Nationalist sentiments have been bubbling under the surface of the lochs of this land, and now they have boiled over. We must be cautious lest we get scalded.

One man has arisen as the leader of these rebels. Alex Salmond stands proud, sword held aloft, his big girl’s skirt flapping in the wind, making rabble-rousing speeches. His people adore him, devote themselves to him.

But I suspect darker forces at work. I have seen with my own eyes the unholy army gathering. Across the rolling landscape north of Gretna a stench rises. The stench of sweat, of horses, of chainmail clammy with the filth of a ten day march. And worse, the stench of oily blood, of burnt human flesh, of sacrifice.

The leaders of this army are disfigured creatures, misshapen hulks. Some say they are grown in pits, a cross between elves and goblin men. Others say they’re from Inverness. Whatever their origin, they are unnatural beings of pure hatred who strike fear into the hearts of any who stand before them.

Salmond himself is a puppet made to dance by a more potent force. Rumours abound of a new darkness. I have travelled far to discover the truth, and it is enough to chill the blood.

During the Second World War (also known as World War The Second) the Nazis undertook a secret programme of experiments. Hitler had become obsessed with the occult, and had ordered his brightest scientists to create a new breed of human. They would mix flesh with steel to create a living biomechanical vessel into which they would bind the spirits of ancient warriors. The Übersoldat.

Obviously it didn’t work, and we had to pop over to mainland Europe and give them what for. But now it would seem that a new player has entered the game. It’s a development which may prove to be our undoing and, worse, one for which I can’t help but feel partly responsible.

The ancient Celtic god of technology, Ceilidh, has been freed from his prison at Manchester university, and he’s super pissed. By which I mean he’s pissed on Tennants Super.

We were wrong to pledge our support for this creature. We were wrong about Mike James. We called him a monster for imprisoning a proud and decent deity, never realising that he was our guardian, our last defence against the darkness. Now Ceilidh is free, and has fled north, where he has completed the Nazis’ work.

There are fields Neo, endless fields, where men are no longer born. We are gro… no wait, I’m thinking of something else.

I never wanted this to happen. When I moved to Scotland I had hoped to find excitement, not terror. I left my old life behind. I had a little money, and a van full of things, and I’d hoped to become a trader, or a fighter, or a pirate. Or a software engineer for a successful medical imaging company.

And now I stand at the frontier of a war that may see the lush green countryside of my homeland overrun with possessed mechanical Glaswegians, and who wants that? It’ll be worse than the bloody Moomins.

Invasion is imminent. Only the elite will survive. My life is forefeit. A snarling ginger sea surrounds me. This will be the last message of my resistance.

But listen to me, my brothers, for there is yet one last hope. This war can’t be waged with conventional weapons. We need to fight fire with fire, chips with chips. We need a digital weapon. We need David Braben. Weaponise the Raspberry Pi. Take that computer-on-a-stick and whip Ceilidh’s ass.

At least that’s what I assume Braveheart is about, I haven’t seen it.