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Archive for November, 2011

Much of the focus of the debate on global warming has been on the level of carbon dioxide emissions. There is very good reason for this, considering how much C02 we are pumping into the atmosphere and its proven relationship with average global temperature. Yet, of course, carbon dioxide is by no means the only culprit, only the most abundant and significant contributor. Another, far more potent greenhouse gas is methane (CH4), which, depending who you listen to, is between twenty and thirty times more potent than C02. Its presence in the atmosphere is rapidly growing. Indeed, according to recent research headed by Natalia Shakhova, we might be on the brink of a tipping point, the result of a massive environmental feedback in the Arctic.

Firstly, I’d like to say something about climate change prediction models. Most climate models have focussed on the shorter term, namely, the 21st century, with few daring to venture into the 22nd or 23rd centuries and beyond to predict global atmospheric and climatic conditions. It goes without saying that such modelling is fraught with uncertainty, especially considering our relatively limited understanding of environmental feedback mechanisms. This inclines most climate models to be overly conservative in their predictions, especially in the case of sea-level rise. The IPCC’s calculations in its fourth assessment of sea-level rise, based largely on melting ice and thermal expansion of water, did not factor in dynamic processes such as calving ice-sheets and the observed acceleration of ice-loss and melting, effects which are less easy to predict and model. Their most recent figure of an 18-59cm rise in sea-level by 2100 falls short when we use a different measuring stick – average global temperature relative to sea-level.

With the planet currently trending at the highest end of greenhouse gas emission scenarios, bearing in mind the strong relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and global temperature, a more likely outcome is a sea-level rise of between 75 to 190cm. It is worth noting that a sea-level rise of one metre would be devastating for low-lying coastal regions, such as The Netherlands, Florida, Bangladesh and Shanghai to name a few. It’s all very well to argue over the numbers, which, at this stage, seem so abstract, yet their manifestation in reality would be akin to a vast global crisis, potentially making some of the most populous regions of the planet effectively uninhabitable. Humans will no doubt battle it very effectively initially, but if major cities are subjected to consistent flooding, it will be very difficult to sustain year-round economic activity and industrial output will decline, as might coastal infrastructure. It is by no means impossible that major metropolises will eventually have to be abandoned.

There is another fundamental problem with our shorter-term climate modelling. Scientists may talk of a potential sea-level rise by the end of the 21st century, but where will that leave us at the end of the 22nd century? In a warmer planet, ice-melt is not about to stop at some arbitrary date that humans see as a convenient cap for current predictions. If, as has so far been observed, the rate of melt increases as the temperature increases and sea-level rise accelerates towards a worst-case outcome by the year 2100, then what of the subsequent century? Can we expect to add a further two metres, or three perhaps? And what of the very long term?

Of course, the idea is to achieve a zero carbon global economy by the end of the 21st century. I don’t mean to be overly cynical, but the idea seems, at this stage, so utterly fanciful that it’s quite difficult to accept. Humans will, in all likelihood, continue to use fossil fuels as long as they can dig them up. Fears of peak oil have been pushed significantly back as the vast reserves trapped in tar sands have been factored in. As is discussed below, there are vast methane reserves in the Arctic. I expect this planet will be very much a going concern in the middle of the next century. When food hits the roof, we’ll clear out the remaining 82% of the Amazon and plant it all with crops. I hate to say it, but that’s a hell of a lot of good agricultural land. When Chinese capital completes its quasi-colonial infrastructural investment in Africa, the vast forested lands of the Congo basin will be developed and exploited. When the aquifers fail in China and India, they’ll desalinate the overlapping sea. Human industrial society is just beginning; it will, in all likelihood, get a great deal bigger. Inequalities will be vast, but both human and industrial resources will be fully shackled to the task with the eternal bribe of hope.

In the short term, the failure of Europe marks the beginning of a decline in European leadership. They will likely become, ultimately, an effete satellite of East Asia. Wealth and power will shift back to India and China, where it resided for the first sixteen centuries of the last two millennia. One thing is for certain, there are going to be a lot of serious hiccups along the way, for, throughout all this, we’ll be pumping out shitloads of carbon.

Presently the level of atmospheric C02 is roughly 392 parts per million (ppm), up from roughly 315 ppm in 1960. Atmospheric levels are now estimated to be at their highest for twenty million years. There is little likelihood of another ice-age occurring any time soon, put it that way.

Carbon dioxide is now increasing in the atmosphere at roughly 2ppm each year, a rate which has picked up considerably since forty years ago, when it was measured at 0.9 ppm / year. We know that during the Eocene period, a mere thirty-eight million years ago, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide sat at around 2000 parts per million and the average global temperature was roughly ten degrees warmer than today. Indeed, the Earth currently sits in a temperature trough, likely the terminal end of an extended cool period that began at the end of the Eocene, after a lengthy hot period that spanned most of the Cretaceous. The hot period peaked in the Eocene, when there was no ice at the poles and both the Arctic region and the continent of Antarctica were forested with tropical plant species and populated by dinosaurs. As Antarctica drifted south it gradually lost the warming benefits of tropical ocean currents and began to cool. Its isolation at the bottom of the planet from tropical currents might be sufficient to see it retain its ice, even during a significant rise in average global temperatures, but such is by no means clear. One thing is certain, that the poles are warming significantly faster than the tropics and the eventual loss of Antarctic ice is, if not inevitable, certainly plausible in the long term. It is worth noting that during the Eocene, sea-level was, take note, 170 METRES higher than it is today. Have a look at this map:

This is clearly a worst case-scenario, yet even should it take two thousand years to melt all the planet’s ice, it’s difficult to imagine anything equally catastrophic having occurred in the previous two thousand years of human history. The fall of the Roman Empire, the Crusades, Black Plague, genocide in South America, Depression and World War 2 look very mild by comparison. Simply put, we really do not want to return atmospheric conditions to those of the Cretaceous or Eocene, yet if humans continue to burn fossil fuels far into the future, and in the last year, our rate of output was the highest ever recorded, despite depressed global economic conditions, it is by no means impossible that we could push atmospheric carbon dioxide levels towards those seen during those epochs in the very long term. Of course, such a situation is unlikely, especially considering the disruption to industrial and economic activity that would occur should we see even one fifth of the above 170 metre rise in sea-level.

I came here to talk about methane, and the above is clearly off-topic. Yet it serves to demonstrate the degree to which climate models often limit their predictions to currently observable and measurable factors, ignoring many feedbacks that are less easy to measure accurately, sticking to methods that are sufficiently robust to make solid predictions, such as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. They also tend to tell us about the next hundred years, and not the next thousand, which is equally relevant to the future of humanity and our ability to survive and thrive in a comfortable and stable environment. Such caution is good scientific practice, yet it leaves us with predictions that are almost certainly considerably below the likely more serious consequences of global warming.

One such unpredictable feedback is methane, and methane is a hell of a problem. Pound for pound methane is roughly twenty-two times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. When we think of methane’s role in global warming, we usually consider the flatulence of cattle. Meat production generally produces roughly 80% of all agricultural emissions globally – a figure which is bound to get worse as the rapidly expanding middle class across Asia in particular demands more protein. Livestock currently contribute roughly 20% of methane output, with the rest coming from rice production, landfill sites, coal mining, and as a bi-product of decomposition, particularly from methane-producing bacteria in places such as the Amazon and Congo basins. These are the measureable outputs included in most climate models, yet what the models do not include is the steady and rapid increase in methane release across the Arctic circle.

The Arctic circle is full of methane. Most of it is locked up in permafrost soils and seabed, though the gas has long been escaping through taliks, areas of unfrozen ground surrounded by permafrost. Global warming, however, has seen the most pronounced temperature increases at the poles, with a measured 2.5 degree average increase across the Arctic. As the region warms (current rates suggest a 10 degree temperature spike by the end of the century), as less ice forms, and as ocean temperatures in the region also rise, the until recently frozen seabed, more than 750 million square miles across this vast region, has slowly, but surely, begun to melt. An area of permafrost roughly one third this size, with equally intense concentrations of methane, also exists on land, mostly in far eastern Russia. This too has, in places, begun to thaw.

Lower-end estimates suggest that there is roughly 1400 gigatons of carbon locked up in the Arctic seabed. A release of merely 50 gigatons of methane would increase atmospheric methane levels twelve-fold. Presently, as Natalia Shakhova of the International Arctic Research Center, states,

“The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world’s oceans. Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap.”

Much of the methane released is being absorbed by the ocean. In the area studied, more than 80% of deep water and more than half of the surface water had methane concentrations eight times higher than normal seawater. In some areas concentrations were considerably higher, reaching up to 250 times greater than background levels in summer, and 1400 times higher in winter. In shallower water, the methane has little time to oxidise and hence more of it escapes into the atmosphere.

Offshore drilling has revealed that the seabed in the region is dangerously close to thawing. The temperature of the seafloor was measured at between -1 and -1.5 degrees celsius within three to twelve miles of the coastline. Paul Overduin, a geophysicist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), speaking to Der Spiegal, stated that:

“If the Arctic Sea ice continues to recede and the shelf becomes ice-free for extended periods, then the water in these flat areas will get much warmer.”

More research is needed into the process and its possible long-term consequences. A sustained and intense release of methane would indeed have a significant impact on global warming, but at this stage it is difficult to be certain whether or not such will occur.

Natalia Shakhova remains cautious as to whether warming in the region will result in increased gradual emissions, or sudden, large-scale and potentially catastrophic releases of methane.

“No one can say right now whether that will take years, decades or hundreds of years.”

The threat, however, is very real. Previous studies showed that just 2% of global methane came from Arctic latitudes, yet with the recent rise in output, by 2007, the global methane contribution had risen to 7%. Atmospheric methane tends to linger in the atmosphere for ten years before reacting with hydroxyl radicals and breaking down into carbon dioxide. Yet in the case of ongoing large releases, the available hydroxyl might be swamped, allowing the methane to hang around for up to fifteen years. This would be an even more significant problem should rapid methane release be ongoing. Not only would the atmosphere’s ability to break down methane be significantly compromised, but the warming effect of the lasting methane presence would trigger further warming and thus further methane release. This is a classic case of a potentially dire environmental feedback, and it might be a very long time before we see the end of such a cycle should it commence. It is especially concerning when we take into account that the pre-requisites for triggering such an event might already be in place. Irrespective of how much humans cut emissions output, which, quite simply put, in real terms, they are not doing in the slightest, the trajectory of global temperature increase based on current greenhouse gas emissions is already sufficient to thaw the Arctic seabed eventually.

Still, there are too many variables and too much uncertainty about the scale and pace of this phenomenon and, for this reason, scientists are right to be cautious. Yet, when we consider that something as potent as this is not being included in climate models on account of its unpredictability, it reminds us how conservative and cautious those models really are and how dangerous our flirtation with heating the planet really is.

It would almost be fitting for humans, as decadent, indulgent and superfluous as they are, to drown in flatulence. It would make for an amusingly sarcastic take on history, written at the consequence end of the great and unfunny fart joke that is the Anthropocene epoch. Perhaps a thousand years from now, when humans, with their cockroach-like ability to adapt and survive in almost any environment, outdone for durability only by the bacteria they seem determined to hand the planet back to, have reconstructed their societies in a more sustainable manner on higher ground, they will look back and wonder why they had their priorities so utterly wrong for so long.

ps. Again, I apologise for lack of references. If you made it this far, no doubt you can do your own research into the matter. The purpose of this article is to be thought-provoking, not comprehensively informative.  Good luck out there!

– P. Rollmops

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Downpours aplenty

So, the rainiest and coolest start to summer for years continues. Perhaps I’m mistaken, as even last year was a very wet and variable summer, yet I don’t recall such unseasonal weather since January 2000, when I returned from Cambridge for a three and half week “reality check.” Reality didn’t check out, incidentally, and I was rather pleased to be back in England in the end.

I do feel a little perverse in celebrating this weather and acknowledge that most people love sunshine and warmth. I too love sunshine and warmth, within reason, though I used to love it a whole lot more. When I first moved to the UK in September 1999, I felt a quite incredible longing for the summer on which I was missing out, one of the principal reasons for my reality check. After some time in England I began to adjust and came to realise that there is no such thing as “bad weather.” If asked to define it, however, my inclination would not be to say rain and grey skies, but unbearable heat and humidity. The cold I can do something about, and in England, it’s not even really that cold, but when it’s sticky and forty degrees and I can’t go to work nude, life sucks. So long as it isn’t hostile, and generally I find heat more hostile than cold, and so long as I can achieve a level of comfort, the weather is welcome to do its own thing.

In truth, for me, weather is all about aesthetics, mood and comfort. The wet sheen of freshness that rain brings; the cool crispness of a mild autumn or spring day; the bracing chill that presages a frost; the sheets of ice on roadside puddles; the tendrils of cold across window glass; the eternal wonder of snow; the patter of rain on a roof; the electric, bruise-hued sky of a thunderstorm; the surreal clarity of a rich blue sky, the massed clouds of a rolling weather-front… There is so much pleasure to be had from interesting weather, such a range of moods and themes to indulge, such wonderful sights to see. I could watch and listen to rain all day and not get bored; waking up to a downpour seems even more beautiful than dancing sunshine, and lately, there have been many downpours indeed.

And so, above is another collection of photographs: some heavy skies, some graffiti art, sunsets, architecture, people – the usual subjects. One of these photos I consider to be the best I’ve taken for a while, namely, that titled “Watchful”, from the sculpture by the sea exhibition. The fortunate arrangement of the figures around the great conceit of a gigantic tap was a very lucky strike indeed. Either way, you be the judge, and for now I shall sign off.

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The first time my brother really chose to acknowledge me was about two weeks after I was born. He asked my mother, “Mummy, when are we taking Benny back to the hospital?” As soon as he realised that this was not happening, the assassination attempts began. One of his earliest was a daring scheme to pull the entire kitchen table over, whilst I was reclining on top of it in a bouncinette. His next attempt was by shoving a model plane up my nose. He then tried to flush me down the toilet as we celebrated his fifth birthday in the Blue Mountains. After a while he just resorted to assaulting me when I least suspected it, hitting me over the head, or pushing me in front of a moving dog. I soon realised that this was the natural order of things, but that didn’t mean I was going to take it lying down, and after a time I learned to emulate his methods.

One afternoon I lay in wait behind the door frame at the top of the short flight of stairs leading from the kitchen to the back yard, armed with a Sesame Street bedroom slipper. As my brother came running up the stairs, I stepped in and lashed out, heel-first, and whacked him across the mouth. I hadn’t intended to hit him in the face, but being an uncoordinated four-year old, I clocked him quite by accident. I don’t think he saw Ernie and Burt coming and it was shock as well as pain that set him screaming and bawling. I was almost as stunned as he was; firstly that I had actually hurt my brother, who, despite frequent torments, I loved and admired, and secondly with the realisation that this could be two-way traffic. Matthew was so put out by this reversal of the natural order of things that he, in return, emulated my methods and dobbed me in to my mother.

The narrative of our early relationship as brothers is distorted by the strong impression left by these few violent incidents, for on the whole, we got on well and acted as co-conspirators. There’s a photo of Matthew and I in the Blue Mountains from around this time in which we have our arms around each other. I am holding my red stuffed tortoise (Mama Tort) and we both look entirely happy. That photo was taken about ten minutes before we wandered off along the slope at the back of the house to play in the garden. It was a steep slope, landscaped with little flower beds surrounded by large stones which formed simple terraces. At the bottom of the slope was a trail that marked the start of one of the local bushwalks. The temptation to roll a few of these stones down the hill was irresistible, so we prised one of the larger rocks from its place of rest and sent it off down the slope, just as a family of four walked by underneath. My brother, of course, had the good sense immediately to hide behind a shrub, but for some reason I just stood there. I watched the rock crash into the bushes, heard the cries of alarm, and stood beside the marigolds staring with my mouth open. Then a man began shouting.

“I can see you up there. I know you’re there!”

I stood stock still, in my bright pyjamas, staring now at my feet. I had no idea what to do, and Matthew’s hissing whispers of “hide, hide,” drew an entirely gormless response.

“I can see you. Don’t think you can get away with it, you little horror!”

I remained standing still, hoping that if I stayed that way for long enough they might just go away. Fortunately, I was right. After a few more reprimands, they wandered off in a huff.

I have since wondered whether my response was indicative of embarrassment, stupidity, or rather, a show of conscience. Either way, my brother might have had good reason for thinking me stupid and treating me with a measure of contempt. No wonder he was so often trying to put me out of my misery.

My brother’s first day of school was a traumatic occasion. Standing slumped with his red, leather, lunchbox-shaped suitcase, he bawled and bawled until two great stalactites of yellow snot descended from his nose and swung ponderously into space. These two lengths of mucus, one at least two inches long and the other perhaps an inch and a half, hung for long seconds – as they hang still in my mind – before being wiped away by my mother. I was scared as well, for however ambivalent my attitude was to my brother, seeing him in such a state of distress caused my soul to cry out. Or perhaps it was the selfish thought that I’d now have no one to play with.

Two years later, knowing how quickly he grew to love school, I eagerly awaited my entry to the playground and my first day was a day of joy. Kindergarten held many treats, but best of all were the excursions to local businesses. Our first port of call was Churchill’s butchery on Queen Street. I was fascinated by the cheeriness of the staff, who had that simple appeal that so many adults have for children – as grown-ups capable of physical skills and tricks. When they let us into the cold-room, however, I felt a horrible wave of repulsion come over me; not on account of the hanging carcasses and cuts of meat, but the smell. The air was full of frozen death; a not particularly unpleasant smell, but one that was cloyingly neutral; disturbing for its deceptive mildness. I’ve never since felt comfortable walking into a butcher shop and still won’t buy or handle raw meat.

Subsequent excursions to the post-office and fire-station were far more appealing and devoid of anything upsetting, which is perhaps why I don’t recall them in the slightest. Yet, for all the wonder these excursions brought, none could match the excitement of our class, along with several others, being selected to attend the gala opening of the new Angus and Robertson’s bookstore in Pitt Street.

I remember the cake best of all. It was the first thing I noticed – a vast white oblong laid out on a table before a lectern, and all about, men in suits and several television crews. My mother had been excitedly telling me how I would be on television, but I could barely grasp the concept and forgot everything before the sight of that enormous cake. My only fear was that it would prove to be, like the awful, deceitful wedding cake I’d once eaten, fruit cake dressed up as something lovely. The detail of the proceedings was lost on me and my attention was regained only when the knife pushed through the icing. All the children gasped in expectation.

At six that evening, my mother positioned my brother and I in front of the television and switched on the news. When the story finally came on, my mother’s excitement generated a high-pitched thrill within me and I bobbed up and down before the screen, giggling.

“There it is,” said my mother, and sure enough the interior of the bookstore was once again before my eyes.

I stared dumbfounded at the screen. There was the cake again, that immense, crenulated oblong, and there was that nice man in the suit who had cut the cake, he was making his speech. There were a number of children on the screen, but I could not see myself.

“Look, Benjamin, there you are,” shouted my mother. “There you are!”

I stared hard but could see nothing. I was still bubbling, but the mood was being cooled by mystification. Where on earth was I?

Then came the moment when the man cut the cake, I let out a little gasp, remembering the joy at discovering its chocolate heart. I had been standing beside the man, hadn’t I? I was one of the lucky ones, right up the front, only how come I didn’t seem to be in the shot?

“Look, there you are, darling, look!”

Now the screen showed the man smiling across the assembly and everyone clapping. I looked and looked and looked as hard as I could. But where was I?

“There you are, Benjamin, see? Right there.”

I kept looking, but I couldn’t see myself at all, not even at the very tip of my mother’s finger. The news item ended and the scene vanished from the screen and, made distraught by my full realisation of the root of the problem, I burst into tears. My shoulders heaved with soaring whimpers and I turned away, feeling ashamed.

“What’s the matter, darling? What’s the matter?”

I sobbed and spoke through a clenched throat.

“I don’t know what I look like.”

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“The games we normally call open worlds – the locked off cities and level-restricted grinding grounds – don’t compare to this. While everyone else is faffing around with how to control and restrict the player, Bethesda just put a fucking country in a box. It’s the best open world game I’ve ever played, the most liberating RPG I’ve ever played, and one of my favourite places in this or any other world.” – PC Gamer UK

 

SPOILER ALERT!

 

After such a long wait and so much anticipation, it was inevitable that the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim be prone to a dash of anti-climax. It was also inevitable that it would be subject to the usual responses – hopes and dreams either dashed or realised, depending on your outlook and the percentage of troll blood in your ancestry. Most people were expecting the game to be another masterpiece, based on the developer Bethesda’s incredible track record, but there have been all too many instances when things do not live up to the hype: Age of Conan, anyone?

Another inevitable hurdle in the game’s reception would be the way it was compared with its forerunners. As a massive fan of the immediate predecessors in the series, The Elder Scrolls III and IV, hereafter, Morrowind and Oblivion respectively, I was all too well aware of the ways in which these two games had often been pitted against each other in the realms of opinion. Most would argue that Morrowind was more cerebral, better, more complex and more realistic as a game-world, if less well realised graphically and physically, through its engine. Some people loved Morrowind and loathed Oblivion; the latter had less variation in its armour types, simplified weapon proficiencies, more generically generated interior decoration; whilst others preferred Oblivion, largely because it still matched Morrowind for scale and diversity and on account of its excellent, if now dated engine and its initially stunning appearance.

I can understand many of the specific criticisms, but, having been won over utterly by both games, I find the overall judgements difficult to understand. The pros and cons of either still amounted to an unbelievably satisfying whole. Whatever one’s individual opinion about the games, and many people, from all walks of life, have loved both dearly, there was certainly no injustice in both games winning Game of the Year among many other awards. They are, beyond the shadow of a doubt, two of the greatest open-world role-playing experiences ever created and rightly deserve their place in the pantheon. Only Bioware’s Dragon Age Origins has reached such heights in recent times; a game stronger on story, containing far superior voice-acting and, I feel, a higher standard of writing; both in dialogue and exposition, in books, scrolls, etc. But it was a game that lacked openness. The world, though big, was tiny by comparison to the vast open spaces of The Elder Scrolls games. Dragon Age Origins should be seen more as a long awaited and finally worthy successor to Baldur’s Gate 2. Both are games with closed maps, linked by area transitions, with no scope for exploration outside designated areas. The Elder Scrolls series, on the other hand, with their vast, free-flowing open landscapes, “Put a fucking country in a box,” as the PC Gamer UK review puts it.

Being thus aware of the various qualities and differences of Morrowind and Oblivion, I was prepared to be confronted by Skyrim’s differences. It was inevitable that there would be some frustrating changes, inevitable stream-lining and simplification, but also a lot of innovation, improvement and added complexity and depth in other areas. Time could only tell as to what the overall impression would be, but I knew that Bethesda were unlikely to make a substandard product, especially considering the incredible success and quality of their main interim vehicle, Fallout 3.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim starts in media res.

You, the protagonist, have been captured along with a rebel leader and a few other randoms and are being transported in a wagon to a rendez-vous with a chopping block.

It’s a nice way to set the scene, which oddly reminded me of the taxi ride into Pala at the start of Far Cry 2. Upon arrival at the fortified town where the execution is to take place, one is called forward and asked to state one’s name.

Thus begins the process of character creation. Once this is done, one is led to the block, where one’s avatar exhibits a rather disappointingly passive acceptance of fate, and kneels before the executioner.

It is at this point that a dragon turns up and, quite literally, all hell breaks loose.

http://bit.ly/DragonAttack

My first response, unfortunately, was a rather visceral disappointment with the graphics and textures of the game. The skins seemed decidedly low-res in some cases, and the textures were large and clunky when viewed up close. These reduced nicely into finer-looking detail when using a more distant zoom, yet having spent so long modding the textures in Oblivion and replacing 128 x 128 pixel skins with 2048 x 2048, for a disturbingly photorealistic finish, it felt oddly like a step back from its predecessor. I also noticed early on that the palette seemed rather wan and muted; the colours were not rich and seemed washed out in the pale light of this northernmost province of Tamriel. This all came as a bit of a shock, especially considering that when Oblivion was released it was pretty much at the pinnacle of graphical achievement; I thought Skyrim might be the game to surpass everything, looks wise. I never expected to be so disappointed that my graphics card could run it smoothly, at 40 fps, with everything maxed!

My next response was that the characters felt a little flat. Not, thankfully, as pre-generated and soulless as the speakers of Oblivion, but still, not anything like as dynamic, passionate and emotionally engaging as those in Dragon-Age Origins. I had, ever since hearing Max von Sydow’s voice-over in the trailer, been expecting a game replete with very theatrical, naturalistic and emotive voice-work, yet the NPCs in Skyrim seemed to have a slightly false pitch in their voices. They sounded like actors, reading, whereas the voice artists of Dragon Age Origins were thrillingly human.

My next minor issue with the game arose in the process of character creation. I only have myself to blame, both for not reading the manual or checking the on-screen menus as closely as possible, yet when called forward and asked to state my name to the executioner’s scribe, I chose my race and name, and totally failed to notice the full range of other character generation options across the top of the screen. I had expected more prompting, as both Morrowind and Oblivion had guided one through character creation more closely and in a more staggered fashion. Naively, I assumed, as had been the case in Oblivion, that first I would be asked my name and later asked further details, such as class, appearance etc. Not so! Shoot me.

Indeed, I had to play the opening a second time in order to realise that this was, in fact THE moment when one created one’s character entirely, and that the absence of a choice of class or profession, was, indeed, real. There are no classes in Skyrim. It’s as simple as that. One’s starting skills are determined purely by race, and skills advancement happens according either to skill use, training with trainers or by finding tomes that teach skill increases. The rate of advance can, however, be effected by a particular blessing, say an enchantment from a moonstone, like the sign of the warrior, for example. This seemed rather annoying, as I had always enjoyed designing custom classes and selecting skills appropriate to my desired build. Still, I was willing to give it a go, and the perks trees now attached to each skill, which look suspiciously familiar to the feats and enhancements of MMOs like World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons Online, acted in the stead of class and profession. Either way, as much as we all loathe tutorials in games, the absence of more explicit guidance at the point of character generation seems like an oversight in a game so long, involved and complex. I wonder how many others might click through and be stuck with a generic head and body set?

My initial impression of the interface was not exactly positive. It had the stench of console about it and, whilst generally smooth-running, it has some awful glitches in it that will take a patch or two to iron out. I had a lot of trouble with the loot-all R button, causing a CTD on many occasions. It was often difficult to scroll from one item or category to the next, as the mouse would not always highlight the desired option. Patches ought to fix this, so it’s unlikely to remain an issue. Yet I was surprised that something so fundamental, structurally, had not been ironed out completely. Ideally, a new user interface mod will remove all the console-like elements altogether and replace it with a more PC friendly UI.

Having said all this, I was keeping a very open mind. Dragon Age Origins had initially looked disappointing to me, again on account of chunky textures and OTT armours and weapons, which too often had a plastic or rubbery sheen and seemed to lack real, physical weight. Yet I grew to love that game quite unreservedly because of its many other amazing qualities. Indeed, in time, the look of Dragon Age Origins won me over as well. It moved well, the colours were rich and intense, it had just enough epic landscapes and vistas, the interface, was, I felt, quite beautiful, and, oh, the soundtrack was great. At times, a tad bombastic, but on the whole, it was entrancing and reeked of adventure!

The default volume setting for Skyrim’s music is a mere 70% of max, possibly less, and at first I found myself wondering, where is the music? As a massive fan of the soundtracks of Morrowind and Oblivion (Indeed, they are on my iPod!) I was looking forward to hearing Bethesda’s latest efforts on this front. Once I’d adjusted the volume and could hear things perfectly well, I was very impressed. The soundtrack is extremely unobtrusive. It is beautiful, cold and spacious, like the best efforts of twentieth-century minimalism. It is both haunting and lulling and segues almost effortlessly between disquieting and soothing the player. Where appropriate it comes on all epic and grandiose, yet most of the time it acts to create a mood and emotional space that fits the windblown, icy landscape. It is a very impressive soundtrack indeed, and one of the many things which come together to make Skyrim one of the greatest gaming experiences ever.

And the simple fact of the matter is, initial concerns aside, Skyrim really is an astonishingly beautiful and amazing game. The world is not only massive, but it is endlessly interesting and engrossing. There are, yes, a lot of snow-covered mountains, which risk giving it a very samey feel across the board, yet there are sufficient sunlit river valleys, stretches of coastline, marshes, swamps, glades, dales, caves, grottos, lakes, ancient ruins, forts, bandit camps, farmsteads, villages, towns, and, of course, great and beautiful cities to give the game a feeling of intense variety. It is surprisingly surprising, and one of the major improvements on both Oblivion and Morrowind is the diversity of the caves and forts one can enter. In Oblivion these locations, the old mines, forts and Ayleid ruins, tended to repeat the same types of interiors and encounters, though in a wide variety of lay-outs. Such locations in Skyrim, so far as I can tell after a relatively short playing experience, but also based on anecdotal evidence from other players, seem to be far more original and varied in their design and content. As one reviewer stated, Skyrim is also the best Indiana Jones game ever made.

After playing for a few hours, when I realised just how smoothly my avatar moved, how freely everything flowed, how vast and open the range of choices were to me, the initial reaction to the game’s appearance fell away and I saw it for the masterpiece that it is. So much effort has been put into this, and it shows. Yes, Bethesda pushed hard to meet their 11 / 11 / 11 deadline, but then, almost all new releases are at least slightly buggy these days, and if the designers don’t sort it out, the players will. Of course, we, the paying public should not be expected to beta-test games, but with something on the scale and complexity of Skyrim, a few issues here and there are inevitable. Nothing, as yet, has proven game-breaking, but then, I’ve clocked up a mere twenty-four hours and explored about one fiftieth of the map available to me, in which time I’ve accepted far more quests and undertakings than I have completed.

The game really does look beautiful. The landscapes are breath-taking, the cities fill one with a sense of awe and the mountains are a source of tireless eye-candy. Skyrim takes after its predecessors in many ways. Both Morrowind and Oblivion chose to focus on a particular province of the continent of Tamriel, Morrowind and Cyrodiil respectively, and Skyrim is named after the province it depicts; the northernmost, mountainous home of the Nords. We are thus treated to a lot of unashamedly Norse-themed architecture, clothing and local culture, which gives the world a rich cultural uniformity. The other races and people are all represented here again, though it took me a long time to find a Khajiit or Argonian! These two races look absolutely magnificent, particularly in the faces; though the feline Khajiit fur could certainly use a texture upgrade.

Like its predecessors, Skyrim also offers a main plot to give the player an overall sense of purpose, yet the game-world is so vast and the hundreds, if not thousands of often lengthy and fully-realised side-quests make it possible to play the game for literally hundreds of hours, without ever actually furthering this plot one jot. Indeed, on my second run-through of Oblivion, I entirely ignored the main plot entirely and engaged instead with all the other subplots, along with new quests and diversions made available by the vast community of dedicated modders.

Rarely will two playing experiences be the same. Comparing notes with a colleague at work, I learned that he is playing an Argonian (lizard-man) thief. So far, he has not furthered the central plot by a single step, but has instead joined The Companions and Dark Brotherhood and has been running quests for these two groups. The Companions are a group of do-gooding mercenaries who replace the fighters’ guilds of previous games, whilst the Dark Brotherhood return once again as a group of Daedra-worshipping assassins. There are further groups one can join in the game, each spawning a long, long list of often very lengthy and involved quests, right around the world of Skyrim.

The main plot itself offers real variation. The province of Skyrim, long ruled by the empire founded by Tiber Septim, has recently rebelled under a Nordic king and is in the thick of a civil war. The player can choose to support the rebellion of Ulfric Greycloak, or side with the Empire. In a sense, this a subplot to the principal plot whereby dragons are coming back to life and harassing the province of Skyrim; whilst the civil war rages, the province is weakened and some suspect a plot by the Thalmor, a group of evil elves, to take advantage of the situation.

No doubt the players chosen path will result in a very different journey through these central storylines; or, indeed, no progressing of the story whatsoever. After all, in a world where one can murder, pick-pocket, break into and rob pretty well every single NPC in the game, there are many other ways to entertain oneself. One can buy horses and property, decorate one’s house, acquire companions, and, I’ve heard it said, even marry in game. As with Morrowind and Oblivion, it is possible to pick up pretty well any of the millions of objects in the game; fruit, vegetables, cutlery; baskets, tableware, cooking pots, books (all of which can be read), scrolls, quills, inkpots, armour, weapons, clothing, jewellery… Just don’t get caught if it doesn’t belong to you. If you carry a pick-axe around with you, it’s possible to extract ores from seams and deposits in the mountains, caves or mines of Skyrim, smelt the ores, then use the refined metals to improve items. Indeed, one could focus entirely on crafting, alchemy, smithing, cooking, tanning and enchanting if one so desired; the pursuit of recipes and materials would, in itself, make a very satisfying game.

So, perhaps inevitably, once I’d gotten out there and really started running around looking at things, the game pulled me in like a black hole. When, after seemingly hours of climbing hostile, stunningly beautiful snowy mountains, skidding down snow drifts, crossing misty, sunlit streams, I caught my first sight of the ocean to the north, I felt tears welling in my eyes at the sheer beauty of the view. What followed is what makes these games so utterly unique.

I walked down to the water at sunset, noticing that my avatar, the latest incarnation of Bethanie Brinsett, here dual-wielding shock spells, with a bitey Orcish sword as a side-arm, was tired, on account of the intensity of the frowns on her forehead. It was seven in the evening and, whilst it was not essentially necessary, I decided to look for a place to sleep. Further along the coast I spied a shipwreck, lying on its side on the beach. I made my way along the sand, staying close to the water and keeping an eye out for mudcrabs, all the while admiring the beautiful sunset.

Just as I reached the wreck, a dragon, randomly thrown into the mix, flew overhead and began swooping on some Tuskers – large, bloated crosses between a walrus, an elephant seal, and the maw of oblivion. Soon after its first sweep, the dragon spotted me. Not yet aware of the relative ease with which one can take down a dragon using combat tactics, I decided to take cover. I sprinted to the wrecked ship, jumped up onto the deck and pushed my way through the tilted door into the cabins. Once inside, it seemed I was safe from the dragon’s attack, yet what exactly lay inside the ship?

I spent the next fifteen minutes cautiously exploring the cabins and the hold. It was a big, cargo-carrying longship, now populated by oversized mudcrabs, including one of the most massive and savage ever encountered. Indeed, it brought to mind and gave credence to that all too common insult from Oblivion, often shouted by enemies: “I’ve fought mudcrabs more fearsome than you!” I worked my way through, electrocuting all the crabs – they were hostile, after all – then, after looting the hold, especially pleased to find some salt piles (an important reagent in cooking food, one of many new elements in the game) and other rare reagents and ingredients, I made my way to the angled bunks and slept until 0430AM.

Feeling fully rested, frowns now gone, I snuck out of the ship just before dawn, the sky already beginning to lighten. The coastline looked more beautiful than ever; the stars still visible in the wan pre-dawn twilight. Over the mountains, dark clouds gathered and the threat of snow was evident.

Fortunately, the dragon had long since cleared off, leaving a bunch of dead tuskers on the beach. I jumped down from the ship, looted their tusks and began my journey again, turning back inland through the wetlands that seemed to dominate this region of coastline. It wasn’t long before I caught my first sight of the city of Solitude on the horizon. Built atop a vast natural arch of rock, the town’s solid stone structures were perched high above a river that flowed beneath the arch. The sight was, once again, breath-takingly epic. With the pale sunlight glinting from the pools of water around me, the city of Solitude and its mountain backdrop, hung like a fantastic vision through the haze. I forded the river and began my approach…

Such experiences give games like Skyrim their enormously immersive quality. The touches of detail are often nothing short of delightful. In another instance, when raiding a fort occupied by bandits, having snuck in and assassinated the poor sod sitting by the fire in the front room, I heard a number of voices coming from nearby. Wearing headphones and marvelling continually at how accurate the directional properties of the in-game sounds were, I could hear everything perfectly clearly. There were three voices, and two were talking about other jobs they were planning, whilst the other chap was moaning about a girl who’d said she’d wait for him, but didn’t. I listened for a while to their conversations, baffled as to where on earth the voices were coming from. The room just off the entrance proved to be empty, and the voices were not carrying down the flight of stairs. It was then that I walked past the fire-place again and realised the voices were in fact coming down the chimney from a room directly above!

It is difficult to articulate the inner rejoicing that comes at moments such as these and, all I can say is, full marks to Bethesda for such exquisite touches, which proliferate throughout their products. So far, so utterly great. Skyrim will almost certainly take its place among the greats of gaming history, and may ultimately find itself elevated to the top of the list. It is nothing less than a masterpiece; a vast and painstakingly detailed work that, alongside its predecessors, and, indeed, its rivals, especially Bioware’s games such as Baldur’s Gate 2, Mass Effect and Dragon Age Origins, makes an increasingly strong case for the acceptance of computer games as one of the highest forms of artistic expression and story-telling, alongside literature and cinema. Skyrim is certainly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

 

 

It is worth mentioning that these screenshots appear quite static and, the surfaces somewhat flatter. The overall effect, including flickering shadows, shifting light sources, swaying foliage, dynamic weather, clashing weapons, sizzling magic, buzzing insects, rushing rivers, pounding falls, hammered anvils, snorting horses, huffing smelters, turning pages, pots and pans, clashes and bashes, singing birds and, indeed, singing bards, cannot be reproduced here.

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Heat and Rain

I always have a bit of a hard time with summer. As much as I like the idea of it, the reality is often long periods of total and utter discomfort. I guess I can’t do much about the fact that humidity is my kryptonite. Recently the weather gave us a taste of summer, and whilst the temperatures registered were only in the low thirties, the stifling humidity made it especially unpleasant. Some are well equipped to deal with warm weather, but the sudden heat seemed to discomfort just about everyone.

What a pleasure it was, therefore, when the storm broke on Monday afternoon, and, indeed, again, more vigorously, on Tuesday. The city is far nicer in the rain, and fun to photograph. The silver and black reflections on the wet surfaces give a stark cleanness that it otherwise lacks. The silhouettes are huddled or posing with umbrellas, and many people run across open spaces, offering instant drama. The cars for once become allies on account of their headlights, which cast great shadows or backlight passers-by. It was nice to be out shooting in the rain, and out walking in it full stop.

Dixon Street, Chinatown, seems to have had markets at night of late. I’m honestly not sure what their schedule is or whether it will happen again at all, but they’re worth a look and have a great buzz of activity around them. Should you chance upon them, you will find plenty of the usual unwanted trinkets and baubles, but also a good deal of grilled, barbecued and wok-fried dishes on offer. Besides the many stalls down the length of the mall, many of the shops remain open late, selling more crap you don’t need, but also, for example, excellent pork buns!

And otherwise, I’ve been trekking around the good old inner west. It has its troubled pockets and many eyesores, but it’s a cracking place filled with great beauty and some rather robust, industrial architecture. The ever-harried stretch of Parramatta Road between Sydney University and Leichhardt can hardly be called attractive, yet it certainly has something going for it; the bite of reality, perhaps.

And so, enough talk! More photos from the last week…

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Having been working in the city for the last three and a half years, first on Castlereagh Street and, since last October, George Street, I’ve developed something of a love-hate relationship with the place. It is, in its own way, rather ugly at times; crowded, noisy, busy and dotted with blackened gum. Along Pitt Street, the monorail sits like stitches on a sore, old wound; its pylons covered with grime and the ill-fitting papier maché of advertisements. In other places, the smog-darkened concrete, the dusty marble cladding, the spattered glass of the many tired, generic buildings, looms above the pavement. There are places where the skyline is boxy and dull, where contrasting architectural ambitions sit like class warfare writ large. There are places where aesthetics have not had a look in; where the roller-doors and security grills guard the crooked shopfronts that wear their clashing colours like bad fashion.

Yet there are also places where aesthetics have won out. Viewed from the Botanic Gardens, the skyline is certainly something to behold. Tall and impressively weightless, the more thoughtful and picturesque designs of architects like Renzo Piano give the city a distinctly timeless modernity. The clean sheen of the newly renovated Pitt Street Mall is a congenial oasis amidst the traffic-huddled streets. The open view of St Mary’s across Hyde Park is genuinely grandiose; the trees and fountains of this expanse, the pool of reflection, the long avenues under the canopy, all offer respite. The Art Gallery, the Gardens and Domain are arguably outside the CBD, yet so close as to have a very intrinsic relationship with it and give direct refuge from it.

Inside, behind the facades, beneath the pavements, countless holes in the wall offer a range of snacks and diversions. In these places in particular, the Asian-ification of Sydney moves apace. From Town Hall down to Railway Square, and even beyond, from Elizabeth Street down to Sussex Street, the dominance of Asian shops and business is very apparent. A whole range of new Korean and Japanese restaurants have opened in the last few years; along with ever more shops selling foreign groceries, Asian fashions, accessories and trinkets. The expansion of Chinatown might be commercially driven, yet it is also a cultural phenomenon that reflects the growth of one of the few true communities that inhabit the CDB. Personally, I see it as a great improvement. The new life downtown is not only far better than the empty wasteland of two decades ago, it has made the slummy end of the city centre truly exotic.

There is also a powerfully vibrant energy to the city. The old, carpeted pubs that hang on the corners from Park Street down to Central; the Windsor, the Criterion, the Coronation, the Edinburgh Castle, The Sir John Young, The Century Tavern, Stratton’s Hotel, all these places fill in the late afternoons and spill their noise and patrons onto the streets. It all seems, at times, rather cheap and tawdry; very lowest common denominator, tasteless and with little attention to detail, yet the pubs, the take-aways, the convenience stores, the internet dens, the gaming parlours, the multiplex, the discount fashion shops, the bubble tea and Ramen joints, the hairdressers and dry-cleaners, all give this end of town an exciting buzz.

The city does indeed make an interesting subject, and every day, when I get off the bus at Town Hall, it feels like being right in the middle of the mayhem. The buskers, homeless people, charity fundraisers, shoppers, students, suits, service staff, all mill about, busily doing either something or nothing. It’s oddly thrilling, if rather disappointingly unattractive. Still, such is life!

These photos, of course, don’t necessarily reflect all mentioned above. They are mostly taken downtown, but there are also some from Newtown and Glebe, and a couple from a very good Hallowe’en party. But still, I had to write something! Enjoy.

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“Give me back my broken night, my mirrored room, my secret life, it’s lonely here, there’s no one left to torture.” – Leonard Cohen, The Future

On the 19th of June, 2009, I flew out from Sydney to Singapore to visit my girlfriend’s (S.) family for her mother’s birthday. It was the first leg of a five-week tour of South East Asia, taking in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and beyond, should time, money and will allow. In the preceding weeks, I had been doing nothing whatsoever but playing Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) all night and dragging my sorry ass to work the next day. Not an overly onerous burden, considering I was working part-time as an ESL teacher, yet, when I came to board the flight, I was physically and mentally exhausted.

Being someone who has enjoyed a boom-bust cycle of personal discipline over the years, ranging between some quite emphatic extremes, I figured the trip was a good opportunity to put some distance between myself and the game that had, for the last two months in particular, swallowed up my life. I was, in truth, in the grip of a full-scale, hardcore addiction. I could think of nothing other than levelling my characters, working the auction house and teaming up with equally afflicted, yet entertaining and very companionable individuals the world over, to hack, slash and magic our way through hordes of enemies. I was sleeping roughly three to four hours a day and staying awake by drinking enough coffee to blow the head off a rhinoceros. The trip to Asia would be a chance to rest and heal, and to break away from the clawing cravings and heavy withdrawal I suffered whenever I was not logged into DDO.

That, at least, was the idea. However, as soon as I arrived in Singapore and logged into a local unsecured wireless network, I began to wonder how on earth I could stomach five weeks without even so much as the auction house. What, really, was the point of the internet after all? It was all very well reading the news, researching intended destinations, updating Facebook and sending the occasional e-mail, but it lacked the more direct interactivity of a gaming interface. Then I got curious. Travelling with just a carry-on sized day pack as I have always done, but having, as ever, found room for a laptop, in this case, my EEE PC, I began to wonder if this mini PC could handle running DDO. After all, it had roughly the same specs as my previous, considerably larger laptop on which I had initially played the game when in Cambridge two years before. There was only one way to find out, and, in one of those fateful and, I suppose I should say, regrettable moments, I went to the DDO website and set in train a download of the game, which was still being offered on a trial basis.

It took me a couple of days in various locations, on various wireless connections which I managed to snake, before the download and installation of the game was completed. In the meantime, I did my second best to be sociable and hold my end up in various family situations. I’ve always been rather crap at knowing where to put myself when surrounded by other people’s families, especially where children are involved, as I seem to lack the skill to talk to them. I hung around and made conversation, was polite and even jovial at times, yet I felt a strong inclination to retreat, whenever possible, to the privacy of whatever bed I was sleeping on at the time and surf the net. That is, of course, when not sightseeing or participating in some group activity such as dinner or lunch. I certainly did retire early a few times where I might have been social for longer, though this had as much to do with my shyness around people as it did with my internet addiction. I know that S. wasn’t exactly happy with me because I didn’t make enough of an effort socially, and she could detect my mental distraction, but I was out of sorts in more ways than one, and the colossal gaming withdrawals didn’t help. I was finding it very difficult to concentrate or shift my mind away from the narrative of the game.

When the time came to fly out from Singapore to Cambodia, I felt greatly relieved, largely because I knew that once there, the location and events would occupy both my time and mind and I would not have time to hunker down and watch the game files download. Anyone who is prone to watching downloads tick along, staring at bit-torrent data-rate graphs or hanging on every small creep of an installation bar, waiting for those satisfying forward thrusts, will know what I’m talking about. Visiting Angkor Wat was going to be a buzz and if that didn’t drag me out of my torpor and turn my mind back to its love of history, ancient societies and foreign cultures, then there was no hope for me whatsoever. After all, I did have a PhD in history.

The good news was that our flight to Siem Reap had this effect. Once on the ground and in the taxi with Panha (pronounced Pun-yah), who was to become our driver for the next five days, I was dragged back into the real world by the contrasts of Cambodia. Siem Reap was dusty and alarmingly poor, for the majority of the locals anyway. The tourists, who brought money and work opportunities, but also drove the local prices far higher than any Cambodian could afford, had the luxury of staying in nice hotels for next to nothing. There were all manner of services to cater for tourists, and not much of a local middle class to enjoy them. The tourists even had their own street, which I dubbed Tourist Street, where everything was comparatively clean, modern and freshly painted.

We stayed in a cheap but very nice hotel on a less touristy, muddy road, with a lean-to brothel opposite and men selling sun-dried chilli snails from old carts. Siem Reap seemed ostensibly to be a peaceful and functional place, but with the Global Economic Crisis kicking in, most of the locals dependent on tourist dollars were suffering, with follow-on effects for the rest of the very poor population. Panha dropped us off at the hotel and we negotiated a price with him for the next few days. Once we’d checked in and showered, we went straight back out and he drove us to Angkor Wat itself, where we had breakfast in a café, watching the temple through a haze of dust and orange sunlight.

It was the first of several very long, hot and exhausting but rewarding days, and it was always a relief to return to the hotel to eat and refresh. The hotel had advertised wireless internet, though when I tried to access it on our first evening, I found that the signal did not reach as far as our room. I moved into the reception area where it was usable, but very slow, only really suitable for checking Hotmail and Facebook. I was annoyed about this, but let it go, knowing that I was, after all, in Cambodia, where internet access was not my top priority. Still, when on day two, they offered us the chance to move to a room at the front of the hotel, near reception, we took it.

I shan’t here describe the many pleasures of the sightseeing we did with Panha over the next few days, suffice to say that we visited most of the major temples and spent hours wandering through them.

It was remarkable experience, despite the thirty-seven degree heat and hundred percent humidity. I was especially out of sorts with the weather, but inspired by the overgrown ruins and hungry to get good photographs. On the latter score, it turned out to be more hit than miss,  partly because I was so hot and bothered that it was difficult to concentrate, but also on account of problems with haze and glare, which were exacerbated by my cost-cutting purchase of a cheap UV filter. Still, we saw everything we had come to see, along with plenty of other extras courtesy of Panha’s local knowledge.

On the fourth day we decided to take a break from the temples and Panha drove us to the floating village of Chong Khneash on the edge of Lake Tonle Sap. This long collection of houseboats and barges along the river mouth left us filled with wonder and despair; both for their remarkable way of life, and their almost complete lack of facilities and services.

I took a lot of photographs, but shooting these truly dirt-poor people felt almost pornographic, and I still feel guilty about how little we tipped the two guys who took us up the river. We had paid for tickets and thought the boat operators received some of this money, but only found out later that the company selling the tickets kept all the money and the boatmen lived solely on tips.

Spending so many days immersed in ancient ruins, and, indeed, modern ones, it was inevitable that I should crave a game of Civilization at the end of the day. This not being an option (I had already tested Civilization IV on the EEE PC and whilst it ran on minimum specs, it was too frustrating to be worth the effort) and, with the internet now available in our new room, albeit, at the pace of a sun-dried chilli snail, I used the hours at the end of the day to complete the installation of Dungeons & Dragons Online. It was only on our final evening, as we prepared to leave, that I at last had the opportunity to see if it would actually run.

I fired it up and was surprised to see that it did indeed run, albeit jerkily, with the sound off, and all the graphics turned down to minimum. I would also only be able to play it solo, as the computer could not handle rendering too many toons on screen at once. The cooling fan was already whirring and whistling at the highest pitch. It was hardly ideal, and I soon thought about abandoning it altogether. Yet, rather than doing so, partly fuelled by a passion to experiment with different character builds, I created a character called Byronne of the Sword Coast in honour of my favourite campaign world, The Forgotten Realms. It was another fateful moment: I had the chance to walk away, to give up in the face of such graphical retardation, yet, rather than giving up and uninstalling the game, Byronne was to become our fourth travel companion, much to the detriment of the rest of the journey. If you’re wondering who number three was, well, it was Bilby 1.0, of course.

When we arrived in Hoi An in Vietnam the following day, I discovered, much to my displeasure, that there was no internet connection in the hotel. Again, I knew it was not exactly the end of the world, and probably to be expected, but I did feel a deep sense of disappointment. I should probably point out at this stage that I have been, on and off, rather spoiled for internet since having had broadband at Cambridge from 1999. Indeed, it was then that I first really started to use the internet on an everyday basis, having previously been a here and there hotmailer. Despite using an old Pentium 1 or some equally dire rig back then, the cable connection was extremely fast, for the whole town had been wired up. After four years of this, I just assumed this was how the internet was for everybody. Even at the British School at Rome in 2003 we had a relatively fast internet connection, despite being attached to the Vatican’s server. This naturally prompted me to download as much porn as possible, partly for my own depraved entertainment requirements, and partly to see if they would hit me with the cosiddetto Inquisition Virus, about which we often joked.

When I returned to Australia at the end of 2003 to discover the joys of dial-up, I nearly died of shock. How people could be living in such backward circumstances in what was ostensibly a modern country, if a little intellectually and technologically retarded, was beyond me. For the next couple of years I struggled, before returning to England to find the entire country wired up to broadband and many cafés and pubs offering free wireless internet. I found this to be the case across much of Europe as well, even enjoying free, fast wireless internet at the airport in Bratislava, of all places. If poor old Slovakia could get its shit together in 2006, why on Earth couldn’t Australia, or Vietnam for that matter in 2008?

Only at the best of times does patience become me. With the stifling, coffin heat knocking me for six, alongside the frustration of nagging DDO withdrawals, I found an outlet for my agitation in the hotel swimming pool. Fortunately, there was much to see and do and, despite some tensions between S. and myself, we found Hoi An to be a very beautiful place. It was when we arrived in Hanoi, after visiting Hue, that the trouble started.

Hanoi is a pretty incredible place. It was wonderfully chaotic, dirty, run-down, ramshackle, and hung with the most captivating electrical wiring. Countless wires ran from each pole, stretching across and along the streets to a plethora of fuse boxes. In some places the electrical wires hung down to street level and had to be ducked under to access the pavement.

There were cables lying unattached on the ground, cables dangling precariously from junctions, cables crawling through tree-tops like a spawning of snakes. Everything seemed shabby and neglected. The state of the buildings in the old quarter was a sorry sight, some with no rooves, some with tarpaulins across the front, most in dire need of repair and paint, yet it was all very beautiful in the eyes of someone who loves decay and ruin. It was also crazily busy with constant traffic and activity.

The first night we arrived in Hanoi marked a terrible turning point in our journey. As we stepped off the coach that evening to be surrounded by taxi drivers, whom we tried initially to ignore as we had a map and planned to walk to our hotel, S. , in dodging our would-be chauffeurs, stepped awkwardly and went down hard on her ankle. Two minutes later, we found ourselves sitting on the edge of a building coming to terms with the fact that her ankle was in fact quite badly hurt and that she would not be able to walk. I was highly annoyed, not with her, but with the circumstances, as I had been determined to avoid taking a ride and was instead, looking forward to walking to the hotel. I have never liked depending on anyone when I travel, especially not people who thrust themselves in my face. Ultimately, despite my having told the drivers to clear off because they were hanging around like seagulls, too obviously gleeful that S. could not walk, we had no choice but to take a taxi to our hotel. It was when the taxi dropped us off on the wrong street and we were left standing there with absolutely no idea where we were and S. unable to move, that my frustration overwhelmed me. I’ve had only a few such moments in my life, but the end result is a sort of Tourettes supernova, wherein I scream “Fucken cunts! Fucken cunts! Cunts!” at the top of my voice for a minute or two. I did so, and having vented, stood like a prat, wondering what in hell to do next.

The sad upshot of all this was that, despite being an expression of my frustration and anger at finding ourselves in these circumstances, after a long and unbearably humid day, it inevitably seemed to S. as though it were partly directed at her. I think she was both shocked and deeply hurt, and understandably so. When I become angry, it takes me a while to achieve equilibrium and wasn’t until we finally made it to our hotel room, via a rickshaw driver, that I got around to apologising. It was an apology which, I think, was ultimately insufficient to assuage the bad taste left by my brain flip. I was also deeply ashamed of myself, having travelled alone for so long and in so many places and having dealt with difficult situations with far greater panache. In rather childish manner, having an audience was all that was needed for me to vent. It was, no less, a tanty of the worst sort, and was in no way dignified by my failure to throw myself on the ground and writhe.

It didn’t help matters that, over the next five days, finding myself with an internet connection in the hotel room at last, I spent much of the time when we weren’t sightseeing, playing DDO. Instead of giving my attention to S. and attempting to make amends through good behaviour and general sweetness, I was instead running an extremely low-res Byronne of the Sword Coast through low-level quests in Stormreach harbour, on the easiest difficulty level, collecting collectables and putting them up for auction.

I lay there at night, long after S. had gone to sleep, beating living hell out of kobolds and making packets of virtual cash from selling Deadly Feverblanch. Admittedly, we weren’t used to spending a lot of time together, but my detachment only made things more awkward. The fact was, however, that I was in the full grip of an addiction and, as is so often the case, almost all other concerns were completely eclipsed.

The trip to Halong Bay, where we spent a rainy night on a junk, proved to be something of a tonic. Kayaking around the limestone karsts, and, indeed, through a low, flat hole in one to a secluded bay, was a lot of fun, as was bombing from the top of the boat.

Yet, when a day later, we flew out of Vietnam and arrived in Bangkok, it was time to talk again about where things were going. I tried to apologise further for my behaviour overall, only now realising just how awkward I had made our time together, but the greatest impressions are always left by deeds and not words. The fact was that I could not get the desire to play DDO out of my head and it had completely skewed my sense of priority. I had, on the whole, been irritable, restless, bored and frustrated, despite the many awesome experiences we enjoyed. I do hold the heat and humidity to account to some degree, as humidity has always been my kryptonite, but there was no excuse for not being more consistently nice to S. She knew it, and I knew it, and when she flew back to Australia after a couple of days in Bangkok, as had always been planned, I had a lot of soul-searching to do.

I was, however, also entirely free to game! That night I changed hotels in Bangkok to ensure I had an internet connection, booked a flight to Chiang Mai, went out and got some dinner, then bunkered down with my computer. It was the first time I had had internet access for a couple of days and I now found myself slapped in the face. The trial period had expired and I could not get into the game without an active account. In order to start the trial, I had been forced to create a new account with a different e-mail address, as for some reason they would not allow me to log in with my active account. Simple, I thought, I just need to pay and have the account upgraded to full status and all will be well. This should have been simple enough, but as they were, at that time, still selling the game at retail outlets, the only way to activate the account was, in effect, to buy a copy and insert the serial number.

I was filled with despair, for I had been hoping to indulge myself throughout the rest of my trip after long days of sightseeing and photography. The following day I set off into Bangkok, wondering where on earth I might find a computer game store. I’d done some research on the internet and lined up a couple of shopping malls with games shops, but once downtown and in the thick of it, I found the shops mostly sold console games and next to nothing for PCs. What were the chances, I wondered, of finding DDO here in Bangkok? I tried to remember if I’d run with any Thais in game, but could only recall Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean gamers. I asked one of the chaps in a shop and he directed me to another shopping mall, two block s away, but once I got outside, I had no real way to orient and my map was inadequate to the task, so I wandered about ineffectually for some time. I was about to give up altogether and pursue other missions, when I finally spotted this huge shopping centre across a footbridge.

I hurried on in to find myself in a veritable warren of commerce. This place had dispensed entirely with the spacious, luxurious shoppig experience, and gone instead for cramming as much as humanly possible into the space. And the space was massive. The building contained level upon level of countless tiny shops, counters and hole in the wall outlets. Different levels seemed to be dedicated to different products – one was electronics, another was mobile phones, and another seemed entirely dedicated to computer games. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, and went to town flipping through thousands of games in plastic folders, no doubt illegal copies produced locally or in China. I was having no luck, however, and noticed that none of the games sold in these shops were MMOs. No doubt because there is no getting around registering online, and thus the need for a unique serial number. I pushed on with my quest through the forest of shops, and finally, after almost an hour, found what appeared to be the only honest retailer, who sold games in original boxes. It would be an understatement to say I was astonished when I spotted Dungeons & Dragons Online sitting on the shelf.

Back at the hotel, I went straight to the website and tried to insert the serial number and update the account. Yet there was another hitch. The account would not accept my credit card and gave me an error message. When I searched online to find discussions of said message in forums, I soon learned that the problem was caused by my attempting to use an Australian credit/debit card, with an account I’d registered to Australia, whilst in a foreign country. It was clear immediately that the only option was to get someone in Australia to log in for me. But who could I trust with this task, who would be available, and just how sad would I look when the purpose of the task became clear?

I turned the Facebook instant messaging service on (I loathe its intrusiveness and leave it off at all times) and got busy contacting friends. I first tried a work colleague, Chris, then another friend, until finally I manage to rouse my old buddy Demitri to take care of it for me. This had all taken several anxious hours where my frustration at being so close and yet so far was building all the while. In the end, already frustrated from not having been running for a month, I went downstairs to thrash it out in the hotel pool.

Finally, around ten PM that evening, Demitri had sorted things for me and I was free to log back in. When I ran Byronne of the Sword Coast across to the mailbox to collect the fruits of my previous labours, I felt like a junkie shooting up after a long, long wait. It was a case of goodbye Bangkok, hello Stormreach.

When I arrived in Chiang Mai two days later, I found I had booked a very appealing old hotel room with polished wooden floors and a vast, built-in wooden bed. It was a large room on the top floor which opened onto a wide balcony with a table and chairs on it. The view across town to the mountains was stunning, especially at dawn and sunset, and over the next few days I was to spend a lot of time out on the balcony taking photographs.

Already somewhat disappointed with my attitude throughout the holiday, and realising that the only way to avoid further regret was to make sure I used my time wisely, I signed up for a couple of excursions on my first two days. On the first day I visited a Hmong village, up a dodgy road through the forested hills in heavy fog, then visited a gorgeous Buddhist temple on top of a mountain. That evening I attended a banquet with traditional Thai dancers as entertainment.

On the second day I went on a longer journey to an elephant “school” where I rode one of these magnificent beasts.

At the end of each day I would lie down in bed, armed with milk and cookies, and farm the hell out of quests for collectables. I was very content here in Chiang Mai and had no intention of going anywhere in a hurry, despite the clock ticking before my flight back to Australia out of Singapore. I took things easy on day 3 and wandered around town, but when it started to rain, I had every excuse to return to the hotel and game. It was on day four in Chiang Mai that the sickness really set in. I was attempting to book a flight to head elsewhere in Thailand, when the internet crashed. I contacted reception to get them to sort it, going down there in person to encourage them as politely as possible, for the staff at the hotel were lovely, but there was no progress whatsoever. I paced about my room, cursing and shaking my fists at this horrible twist of fate. Give me internet! Come on! But there was no progress whatsoever and, whilst the signal remained strong and I was connected, there was no internet in the pipe.

My frustration grew over the next four hours, until I knew the only solution was to take matters into my own hands. They had reset the internet on at reception, so I figured the problem must lie with the local wireless router on my level. I had already had a cursory look about the place for it, but hadn’t seen it anywhere. After wandering about with my EEE PC, however, testing signal strength to get some idea of the router’s location, I finally found it in a cleaning cupboard. I restarted the little bastard and, hey presto! the internet was back on.

Having gotten so used to the internet over the last few days, I was flooded with relief when I regained access. And, just as a desperately thirsty man drinks insatiably when he finds water, I booked the ticket then plunged straight into an orgy of gaming. With my flight back to Hong Kong via Bangkok not leaving for another two days, I thought about the many options before me in Chiang Mai, but ultimately, spent most of the time gaming. Be it on the bed with milk and cookies, or out on that wonderfully spacious balcony, I was a happy man. I swam in the hotel pool in the morning, ate a hearty breakfast, then went back to bed to game. I made sure I took a trip around town each day, venturing to some very interesting places like the local, non-touristy markets and taking a lot of photographs of workers.

Yet, after two or three hours, in need of another shower, I would buy a carton of milk and two packets of cookies then head back to the hotel room. I always planned only to stay a while before going out again, but this didn’t exactly transpire. What baffles me is how, in retrospect, it all seems rather foolish, whilst I recall at the time being extremely happy. I loved that hotel room, I loved Chiang Mai, and I loved every bit of what I was doing there.

When I finally returned to Sydney after five and a half weeks away, having spent the final week in Hong Kong and Singapore, it wasn’t long before I had the chance to log in at last on my desktop and give Byronne of the Sword Coast a proper run for his money. How big he looked, how magnificently detailed, and how wonderfully rich he was after all my efforts! I now had two paid accounts on Dungeons & Dragons Online and, it soon turned out, one less girlfriend. I was in a state of emotional flux, both caring and not caring in equal measure, and I did what any hardcore gamer would do in such circumstances. I went out, spent some of my last few dollars on a big fat bag of weed and settled in for a total lock-down for the next few days. Editing the photographs could wait, for there was much ado in the city of Stormreach.

Inevitably, those days would stretch into weeks and the weeks into months. Far from putting any distance between myself and my obsession, I had managed instead to become even more deeply immersed in the game. With no one other than myself for company and not especially interested in anything other than reading the New Scientist and going to the cinema, there was little that could distract me from gaming. I was now free to give the bulk of my time to DDO. Bring it on!

ps. This was first posted in April 2011, then taken down some months later. I wasn’t comfortable with the content and thought it reflected poorly on my character, but in retrospect, I’d prefer to have it out there as it stands, as it belongs with the other pieces in the series.

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