Saturday, 29 May 2010

Bluebells 2010

Went on our annual pilgrimage to the Micheldever bluebells this past weekend. Our usual haunt had actually passed its prime by a week or so, but we found a fantastic wood a short distance further up the A33. It's one that we've spotted while driving passed before, but have never bothered stopping to check it out. However, henceforth it'll probably be our first port of call. As well as being visually arresting, the woods there were full of the fragrance of bluebells. Not quite as distinctive as something like lavender, but still pretty heady.


Anyway, a full set of photographs (normal and fisheyed) uploaded here.


Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Duck count

Last Friday we had 7 (first brood) and 4 (third brood) ducklings in the quad. Over the weekend the latter appear to have been thinned to a single chick, who's now sitting uneasily next to an adult male who might not have his/her best interests at heart. The members of the first brood continue to grow ...

No sign of any seagull chicks yet, and no hint of any further depredation by the seagull adults on the ducklings. Maybe they just wait until we're not looking?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Don't give up the day job

Further to my earlier posting, I've (semi-)carefully sifted and GIMPed the output from last Saturday's alternative career as a wedding photographer ...


A further selected subset of the results can be found here.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Future Imperfect

Writing about apocalypse seems to be all the rage for me at the moment. First, in literary form; then, in the resurgence of the Tory party; now in the shape of (another birthday present) the videogame Fallout 3. Those who don't care for the latter medium can probably stop reading right about now ...

This time around, the devastation takes place in a retro-futurist America in which cultural evolution came to a juddering halt in the 1950s, but where technological evolution continued apace until 2077, at which point global thermonuclear war with an Alaska-invading Red China brought this also to a standstill. The year is now 2277, the location is a devastated Washington D.C., and the player character is a so-called Vault Dweller, an inhabitant of one of the many multi-generational nuclear shelters built before the bombs went flying.

Fallout 3 begins somewhat unusually, with the player character's birth in Vault 101,[1] an event that causes the death of his (or her)[2] scientist mother. This leaves the upbringing of the player in the hands his[3] father, James, who serves in the Vault as its medical doctor. This childhood permits the player a degree of flexibility to craft a personality as they fast-forward through "growing up", but it is brought to a calamitous end when James abruptly departs from Vault 101 leaving a trail of chaos and bodies. Forced by these events to similarly flee, and desperate to know why James is on the run, the player must affect a daring escape out into the Capital Wasteland.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-34-28-54 Emerging from Vault 101 into Washington D.C., and dazzled by the first-ever glimpse of natural sunlight, the player enters a ruined world at once both unrecognisable and familiar. While a distant and scarred Washington Monument makes a connection with our world, the Capital Wasteland, living up to its name, now more closely resembles a blasted and rocky desert, bereft of trees and, at first sight, any living thing. Unfortunately, this appearance of lifelessness quickly evaporates as the player is assaulted by various mutated animals, including giant-sized scorpions, mole rats and ants. Fortunately, the ragtag settlement of Megaton is close to hand, and the player gets an introduction to civilisation, post-apocalypse style. Megaton is one of a handful of sizeable refuges in the Wasteland, and is home to around 20 interactive NPCs (plus a number of "fillers" who greet the player and pad out the place). These include, among many others, Sheriff Simms, the local lawman; Moira, a storekeeping science buff who fancies herself a writer; Moriarty, owner of Megaton's bar-cum-brothel; and Cromwell, the leader of a cult that venerates the unexploded bomb that gives Megaton its name.

Fallout3 2010-04-29 22-20-58-83 Conversations with these and other characters allow the player to gradually uncover James' next destination, but also afford a number of ancillary tasks that the player can undertake to win cash or kudos. In Fallout 3, "cash" means the replacement currency of Nuka-Cola bottle-tops, caps, while the less tangible gains in respect or trust contribute toward a karma rating that affects how NPCs perceive and interact with the player.[3b] These various tasks range from the simple, such as fixing Megaton's leaky water system, to complex, multi-stage endeavours, such as assisting Moira with her Wasteland Survival Guide. Tasks such as the latter one get the player out of Megaton and into surrounding areas where further discoveries can take place.

Fallout3 2010-05-01 07-24-21-91 Chief among such discoveries is that the Wasteland contains other horrors beyond mutated animals. While Megaton's residents might seem gruff and a little unwelcoming to strangers, the Wasteland is also home to gangs of Raiders whose hostility to the player makes visits to Megaton feel like the return of the prodigal son (or daughter!). More organised, but better-armed and just as violent, are the Talon Company mercenaries, who are on a special lookout for do-gooders in the Wasteland that upset their paymasters.[4] But at least they're still fully human. D.C.'s labyrinthine tunnel systems are home to the ghouls, the long-lived victims of radiation poisoning that has driven them feral. More significantly, the main ruins of downtown D.C. are patrolled by the Super Mutants, former humans transformed by a biological weapon into violent, genderless giants. These are searching the city for something, but have a particular taste for human flesh, and are more than a match for anyone but the well-armed.

Fallout3 2010-05-02 07-40-42-77 However, not everyone in the Wasteland is an enemy (at least, not at first). The remains of the US government, the Enclave, appears not to be, and has roving Sputnik-styled robots which can help the player fight Wasteland wildlife. The Enclave is led by President Eden, a charismatic presence on the airwaves of the Wasteland, fond of using fireside chats to bolster the spirits of survivors. More evident on the ground are the Brotherhood of Steel, a remnant of the US Army now tasked with the search for pre-war technology in order that civilisation can be rebuilt. Fortunately for the player, on reaching D.C. the Brotherhood put its quest for technology onto the back-burner, and instead has prioritised the safety of the desperate Wastelanders there. And some of the people, and not-people, that you encounter on your travels will even accompany you for some of your journey.

Fallout3 2010-04-29 22-20-36-91 Dealing with, or combating, all of these factions and enemies is inevitable in the player's quest to track down James. Deals are done via conversation trees that allow the player to variously uncover information, forge alliances or insult and cajole NPCs. The player's skill at bartering, as well as knowledge of science, medicine or weapons, can open up otherwise unavailable response options in conversations, with the result that interactions with NPCs can be extremely valuable. Given the range of characters that dwell in Fallout 3, conversations range similarly widely, with some business-like, others amusing and others poignant. A particularly memorable encounter is with the pint-sized Mayor MacCready, the leader of a colony of children, for whom no sentence (or clause of a sentence) is complete without profanity.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-22-24-29 On the other hand, should conversation fail (assuming that it's an option at all - most Wasteland denizens shoot first), there are a large number of more violent ways to handle aggressive NPCs. An unequipped player can begin with fists, with brass knuckles an advisable upgrade; melee weapons are the first proper rung up the ladder; then there are conventional weapons, such as pistols, shotguns and automatic machine guns; more lethal military hardware, such as RPGs, flamethrowers and gattling miniguns; a diverse array of science fiction technologies, including lasers, plasma cannons and alien ray guns; and there are even weapons that the player can manufacture from odds and ends found in the ruins. My favourite among the latter is the so-called railway rifle, a nice combo made from a steam gauge and pressure cooker, that fires railway spikes and toots like a steam train. These, and other weapons, are crucial if the player is to successfully negotiate the Wasteland in one piece. Use is typically point-and-shoot, though less dexterous players can get a leg-up by using an in-game system called VATS. This is part of the wrist-mounted computer that the player carries, and it gives one or two opportunities to exploit computer-enhanced targeting of particular portions of a foe's anatomy. It is dependent on player skill with weapons but, if successful, rewards with a slow-motion replay of tactical hits. Gruesome, but amusing.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-39-39-67 Anyway, returning to the storyline ... As the events of Fallout 3 gradually unfurl, it's clear that there's a lot more at stake than the disappearance of the player's "Dear Old Dad". A long-mothballed plan for the future of the Wasteland is awake again, but competing factions want it to either achieve radically different ends, or to fail completely. The life of a single Vault Dweller is not necessarily all that important set against these grand schemes but, as remarked by another famous NPC, "the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world". And by following the path of James and his plans to their ultimate fruition, the player can very much take on this role.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-24-43-93 Whew! That was a lot to write, and it still only barely scratches the surface of this game - I didn't even get around to saying that Fallout 3 is a FPS[5] with an eminently tolerable garnish of RPG elements. Anyway, by way of an early summary, Fallout 3 is quite simply the best game that I've played in years. Now, admittedly, I only play about 4 or 5 games each year (so there has been some improvement from my teenage years), but I like to think that I don't pick them up at random, such that those I do play are already drawn from the upper quartile. But, even given this, I'd still comfortably place Fallout 3 among the best I've ever played; easily up with the likes of Damocles, Half-Life 2 and GTA: San Andreas (the Crème de la Crème de la Crème).

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-29-51-71 Much like these earlier titles, Fallout 3's success can largely be traced to the effort that its developers have put into world-building. By this I include the surface detail of the game world (graphics, sound), but Fallout 3's lie most with the varied NPCs, the meticulously imagined future and a satisfyingly convoluted plot (the latter of which is helped, for this particular player, by its science fiction trappings). Some of these aspects are doubtless inherited from earlier entries in the Fallout series, but as far as I can judge from a not-played-them perspective, this most recent incarnation seems a genuine quantum leap both technically and in loving-attention-to-detail.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-44-19-63 Furthermore, Fallout 3 is simply a vast, vast game. The playing area is city-sized and, though largely destroyed, is still chock full of buildings, tunnels and other structures to explore (of which, the copy-and-paste tool has been used much more sparingly than in certain other titles). There are a huge number of distinct characters to meet, many of whom have unique tasks they'd like the player to help them with (including some that the player is liable to object to).[6] Fusing so many places with so many people, and mixing in a wide range of weapons, skills and enemies, creates an ocean of possibilities which feels fresh far past the point when other games would be exhausted and wilting. What's more, since players can either focus on the fairly linear central plot, or go native and completely explore the Wasteland (as I did), it should appeal both to those who like their games short and contained and those who like full body immersion.

Fallout3 2010-05-02 07-21-54-53 It's also, frankly, a lot of fun to play. While I've previously noted that combat isn't quite up to the standard of Half-Life 2, this is made up for by clever non-violent solutions and a great stealth mechanic that even allows you to slip live grenades into the trouser pockets of oblivious foes. These alternative strategies, coupled to a range of weapons that permit, among other permutations, swordplay, incineration, poisoning, mine-laying, the use of teddy bears as projectile weapons, and even battlefield-nuking, make for an extremely diverse problem-solving portfolio, one that offsets all of my early qualms.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-35-52-79 The styling of the game deserves a definite mention as well. Much as with seafloor-set BioShock, the game makes great use of 1950s-era iconography. In spite of their nuclear engines, the cars are lifted straight from the tailfin era; city buildings are decorated with clean, art deco lines and metallic figureheads; meanwhile, out in the suburbs, clapperboard houses sit in neat lines, separated by white picket fences. This aesthetic is also woven through the retro-futurist history that underpins Fallout 3. Though functioning up until 2077, the pre-war society is portrayed as an unchanged carbon copy of 1950s Americana, with anti-communist paranoia, apple pie and nuclear family stereotypes very much in place, just with more (atomic-powered) mod-cons. Of particular note is Fallout 3's soundtrack of jazz, swing and big band songs. At first, these seemed a somewhat fitting but odd accompaniment to the 1950s feel, but I quickly came to find them integral to the whole experience. It's a sentence that I never thought I'd write, but it's hard to overestimate the joys of engaging Super Mutants to the sound of a big band's encouraging trumpeting. But the soundtrack is equally effective with more mournful love songs that, appropriately, evoke a lost, past world.[7]

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-32-36-44 On this latter note, although I'm describing a game, something that would conventionally be viewed as a simple, fun diversion, Fallout 3 does occasionally strike more profound notes. While its future irradiated world does contain staples of 1950s B-movies, such as the giant arthropods, it is also woven through with small human stories that speak of loss, anguish and desperation, but also hope, perseverance and love. Some of these are told to the player directly by characters encountered along the way, some are picked up from the various audio recordings and written notes scattered across the Wasteland, and some are presented more subtly in the traces left behind by the long-dead. My favourite of these was from a holotape that I picked up early on from a ruined hotel. It was from a father to his daughter and told of a deal gone wrong that left him mortally wounded and bereft at leaving her to the horrors of the Wasteland. Much later, when working with a treasure hunter called Sydney, I heard about her abandonment as a child by her good-for-nothing father, only to realise that the tape that I had heard was recorded for her, and that her bitterness towards him was completely misplaced. I can't think of any other games I've played that even try to strike these sort of chords.

Fallout3 2010-04-29 22-15-26-04 One criticism I could make is that the game's vastness drew me away from the central plot for many (many) hours. As I've already noted this is a huge plus point, but it did have the result that, when I finally returned to searching for my Dear Old Dad, I was then sufficiently experienced (both in character stats and in personal skills) that I made mincemeat of enemies who should probably have been returning the favour. While some of the nastier foes (you know who you are Deathclaws) still caused havoc, especially if they caught me off-guard, most of the Wasteland inhabitants that routinely hammered me early on proved little match for my new shotgun-'n'-sniping skills. Worse, when the true villains of the piece finally played their hand,[8] they struggled to put a dent in my now-estimable armoured hide. Through steady upgrading of my verbal skills, I was even sufficiently silver-tongued to be able to persuade their leaders, at two crucial moments, that violence was not the answer.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-19-50-74 In passing, a curious omission from Fallout 3 is any kind of romantic subplot for the player character. Other titles, notably GTA IV and Mass Effect, involve the player in entanglements that flow "naturally" from the adult situations that those games present. While similar situations abound in Fallout 3, the game doesn't allow for any attachments beyond the professional. There were a few NPCs along the way who seemed to like my player character for more than my Wasteland survival skills, and I was even able to precipitate a marriage in my travels (of which I even attended the wedding!), but the game "keeps it clean" on this count. I can't exactly say that I minded, but it seems a odd thing to skip in a game that otherwise maintains a consistently adult tone.

Fallout3 2010-05-02 07-47-10-49 Anyway, time to wrap this monstrously long post up. By way of summary: if you like complex and detailed games that stretch your trigger finger, your moral judgement and your desire to see just what's over the next blasted hill, no game is finer. The only downside is that I'm now going to be judging all future titles against this high watermark. However, I do still have to play through all of Fallout 3's extra downloadable content before then ...

[1] This is a pretty jarring start to the game. I'm usually attendant at the many deaths of my player characters, but being present for their births as well is fairly unusual. The last time it happened, I had to bite my way through the chest wall of an unfortunate NPC.

[2] One of Fallout 3's (many) nice touches is that the player can shape their player character in a number of different ways, including gender. Although this can impact on later interactions with other characters (though only along heterosexual "norms"), the choice of the Lone Wanderer's gender is fairly marginal, since Fallout 3 operates a praise-worthy equality programme in which male and female characters are equal before the Game Engine.

[3] While I could keep writing "his (or her)" or even "her (or his)" in this post, I'm going to stick to "his" here both to keep the text straightforward (if chauvinist), and because I actually played as an ugly male character. I looked so much better in Mass Effect.

[3b] By the end of my travels, I had amassed a veritable fortune of 25,000 caps which, jangling in my pockets, one would expect to have seriously decreased my stealth score. Fortunately, like ammunition and stimpacks, Fallout 3 permits the collection of unlimited quantities of caps with no consequences. Regarding karma, and similarly to Mass Effect, my actions in Fallout 3 left me a Messiah by the end. But while I sometimes felt that I was consciously buffing my public persona in Mass Effect by coldly choosing the "best" option, here things felt a lot more organic, and that I got my rating from doing what came naturally to me. Certainly, Fallout 3 provides so many opportunities to change karma that one's rating is an aggregate of a large number of events, so better reflects one's (virtual) actions. Anyway, can I help it that I'm practically a saint?

[4] Should the player instead behave immorally, a posse of enforcers hired by Wastelanders plays a similar role. Being a good boy, the only time that I've seen these was after I shot a Wasteland trader by accident (mistook him for a Raider m'lord), only to find the posse waiting outside his shop for me to appear.

[5] Though you can play it in third-person if you're insane you prefer.

[6] Of which a prime example is the player's interactions with the slavers who operate across the Wasteland. Not that I needed even a moment's thought to know whose side I was on.

[7] Courtesy of The Vault website, I've downloaded the best of these to my trusty iPod.

[8] I say "villains", but the player is perfectly free to side with them, so who's to say that they're the bad guys? I mean, would it really be such a bad thing to use a biological weapon to cleanse the Wasteland of all but the purest of human stock?

More pictures from my "holiday" in the Wasteland available here.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Last Plane From Scotland

Another weekend, another wedding. This time something more of a hike all of the way up to Scotland - of which more later.

My family this time: the marriage of brother S to his girlfriend G. The wedding took place close to his workplace in St. Athernase Church in the small Fife town of Leuchars, while the reception was held in a rather nice hotel, Letham Grange, much closer to our hometown. As the wedding was planned and executed in something of a hurry, I was a little worried beforehand about how it would all turn out. But needlessly as it happens, since both the wedding and the reception worked out really well.

The service was a little terse, but that's generally my experience of Scottish weddings to date. The church itself was a bit of a gem, and I'm a little peeved I didn't have time to give a proper once over with our camera. The reception afterwards was also a little quick on the ceremonial sections (though I reckon it's better to err on the side of brevity when it comes to wedding speeches), but the party afterwards was a lot of fun, and the venue was great. Brother D was certainly something of a revelation on the dancefloor.

Photographs to follow at some point soon. Not least since I was the unofficial (and unpaid!) photographer. Hopefully I'll be able to scramble something together from the numerous shots I've taken.

In passing, and as alluded to by the subject of this post, we had a bit of a close run-in with some Icelandic ash on the way back. Because of the wedding's rather short notice, we had to do the whole thing by plane in just two days. By virtue of a few delays on a tight timeline, the journey up was a bit of an exciting race to the church, but it was nothing compared to our journey back.

Over drinks last night at the reception, one of our fellow guests happened to mention that Ireland was becoming affected again by ash clouds blowing in from the west. Though we were initially panicked by this, a quick check of Ceefax later on suggested that today was going to be fine for mainland UK, so we calmed down a bit.

However, as we approached Edinburgh Airport we were very conscious of the absence of planes taking off and landing and, sure enough, when we arrived a lengthening list of cancelled departures was developing. Our flight wasn't one of them, although it was significantly delayed, and as time wore on, became one of the few surviving intra-UK flights. To the point where other flights before and afterwards were cancelled, and we were nervously awaiting a similar fate for it.

Then, just as we expected to hear the axe finally falling on our much-delayed ride home, it was announced that the flight captain had plotted a route around and over the ash clouds and was ready to go. At the time of our departure, ours was the last UK flight on the board labelled "Boarding" instead of "Cancelled" or the ominous "Please wait".

Anyway, while I complained at the time about all of the over-dramatic media coverage of the ash cancellations last month, and the whining of some stranded holidaymakers (hey - no-one died!), the shoe was very much on the other foot today. So, while we did ultimately get back today with only a 90 minute delay, those dispiriting hours in the airport this afternoon did give me a helpful empathy-adjusting experience.

Thursday, 13 May 2010


A more prolonged period of observation finds that the two surviving broods have memberships of 7 (older brood) and 4 (younger brood) chicks. So the older brood is doing better than I thought.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

My excellent predictive skill

Prior to last week's election, I confidently predicted that either a Tory minority or a LibLab coalition would be the result, and specifically excluded a Tory-LibDem coalition because of rhetoric from the former party and presumed unease from the latter. Anyway, how wrong was I? The very case that I completely precluded has come to pass, and we have a Blue-Yellow government as of late last night.

While it's not the government that I wanted (to say the least), and while it's true to say that I would draw no small quantity of pleasure from the rabid rightwing of the Tories repeatedly jabbing the self-destruct button, I'm hoping that they are able to make some of a go of it. Already elements of the media are slavering at the thought (nay, hope) that the UK's first coalition government in my adult lifetime will quickly come unstuck in a morass of recrimination. In part because it offends their dream of a government of rightwing purity, but also, no doubt, because such a fate would easily fill no shortage of column inches.

So though progressive politics have taken something of a rest for the moment (your mileage may vary), I still hope that things work out with our new arrangement, at least for a good while. Both because some good may come of the LibDems being in power (after a fashion), and because I'd like coalition politics to work well enough to give a two finger salute to both cynics and, more importantly, the likes of the Daily Hate.

It's a gull-eat-duck world

Although I've been told time and time again that the seagulls are probably eating the ducklings in the quad, I've never seen it happen (or even nearly happen), and so have discounted this loss term from the quad duck equation. In fact, the ducks don't seen fazed in the least by the much larger gulls that occasionally swoop down into the quad. So I've assumed these lacks in both observational evidence and avian fear mean that the gulls don't partake of the ducks.

Until now!

A few minutes ago we clocked a gull on the library roof with a dead duckling. We didn't see the nefarious deed itself, so it's possible that we saw an act of scavenging rather than predation. Certainly, duck-on-duck murder has been spotted in the quad before, so the gull could well have been on clean-up detail. Anyway, after a few minutes of manhandling its prey, the gull managed to "reshape" it sufficiently for down-in-one consumption. Impressive and alarming.

On the subject of the ducks, an update on their dwindling numbers.

By last week, the three broods hatched in the quad had been reduced to two. One of the first two broods appears to have been entirely wiped out, with the two remaining ones exhibiting quite differently sized chicks - reflecting their hatching time.

At the start of this week, both broods had about 7 ducklings each. However, since then numbers have fallen slightly such that the older brood now has 5 ducklings, while the younger brood has thinned to 4. These numbers include the recent predation/scavenging event.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Blue dawn

We awoke to the news that, first of all, the "final" (we're still not quite there yet) results have largely conformed to the what the exit poll said at 10pm last night. So it's great that we stayed up a further 6 and a half hours till 4:30am. We didn't even get the results from the Southampton seats in doing so.

Anyway, the upshot seems to be a sub-majority showing for the Tories, but with them pretty close to being able to cobble together some sort of minority government. Not so any potential Labour-LibDem coalition - even bandying together won't get them there, and it's not as if both sides are particularly keen on that idea in the first place. However, since incumbents have first dibs on trying to create a Frankenstein's coalition from the scattered smaller parties, Labour hasn't given up just yet. Although it really probably should, and it's yet possible that saner heads will prevail and the Tories will be deferred to.

It'll be interesting to see just how closely the LibDems snuggle up to the Tories. My theory is that they'd be setting themselves up for some serious future electoral pain if they align themselves too closely. My experience of LibDem supporters, one which is probably drawn from a biased sample, is that while they don't much care for the Tories or Labour, the former are disliked much more. So if the party leadership drag them in too closely, they might find their support suffers an even greater drying up than it did last night. Of which, I think that the failure of the LibDems to get anywhere near the share of votes that the opinion polls suggested they would is one of the big stories of this election. Clearly a lot of people were either lying to the pollsters or baulked when the time came to mark a "X".

Locally, things turned out interesting in the end. Going in, our seat seemed the safer of the two Labour seats in Southampton, but by the time we went to bed last night, it was looking a lot less solid. And so it turned out, with Denham "securing" a wafer-thin 192 vote majority, down from 9302 in 2005. Meanwhile, Southampton Test managed 2413, and a smaller swing to the Tories. So we're still a red city in the almost entirely blue south-east region.


Looks like Southampton's gone off for a recount or something. We're bailing - we'll just have to find out the score in the morning. Well, later in the morning!

First hints

We're still shy of any results for Southampton, but the Beeb has just been to the count in the Civic Centre. However, while it sounds like Denham has probably held his seat, his majority has apparently been slashed from 8000 to around 100 or so. And it may yet go the other way. Anyway, there may be a recount, but whether we'll stay up for that is up for grabs ...

Pulling ahead

The Tories have just pulled ahead of Labour in terms of total seats called so far. For a while it looked like Labour might get to 100 while still being ahead of the Tories, but they finally got pipped at 98.

No sign of either Southampton seat being called yet, despite both having originally been forecast for 2:00am.


Cameron is safely re-elected with a majority larger than most successful candidates get votes. Again, no real surprises here. Unlike Brown, I note he had quite a collection of nutjob candidates standing against him.


Excellent news. Chris Huhne not only held his seat in Eastleigh, but he actually increased his majority there from about 500 to almost 4000 votes. APM will be pleased.

The results from Southampton's seats are supposedly due around about now-ish, but there's no sign yet.

Dundee East

Apparently Carnoustie is actually in the Dundee East constituency these days rather than the Angus one. I guess the boundaries have been shifted since I lived there. Either way, it was SNP-held and battling against the Tories, and has now actually been declared for the SNP again. Good news for my Mum; bad news for my Dad.

Gordon's in

That's the first (main) party leader safely back in his seat. Gordon managed a solid 29559 votes, with his nearest rival at 6550. Not really a surprise at all, since leaders tend to get safe seats, but it's one potential embarrassment dodged.

Despair sets in

C's getting despondent now. Alastair Campbell has conceded that Labour aren't going to be winning this one, and though he's viewed as a Blair lackey, there's grudging respect for him in Bryanston Towers.

I'm less sure where it's all going. Tory minority now seems more likely than Labour-LibDem coalition (my two heavily-hedged predictions the other day), but the results are still quite mixed - the Tories are taking some seats with impressive swings (often up to 10%), but they're also failing to take some others. The LibDems held onto Torbay in the southwest earlier, and a anti-Tory Unionist in Northern Ireland has just beaten the Tory Unionist candidate.


Having complained the other day about having to vote SNP in my old Scottish seat (Angus) to keep the Tories out, we've just had the stats for the seat. I hadn't realised how close it was in 2005, and apparently it's another on the Tory hit-list for Scotland. Arse.

Trickling in

After a bit of a gap, the results are beginning to trickle in now. This time mostly from Northern Ireland. Which, I note with great pleasure, has just kicked Peter Robinson, leader of the DUP, into touch. Marvellous.

There seems to be a little confusion on the Beeb as to what's happened in Brighton. The Greens (grrrr) are hoping to gain their first ever seat there, and though the count apparently hasn't yet started, someone there has called it for them and the Beeb are showing it as a Green gain. Or perhaps they're not, they now seem to have reneged on this.

Meanwhile, ITV has called about twice as many seats as the Beeb. I don't know what that's all about.

In passing ...

... (And if I can get grumpy for a moment) what I didn't really add about the Tories the other day was that the sole plank on which their success in this election rests is simply "change". Beyond that, they've got nothing. The comparison with New Labour's victory in 1997 is pretty stark. They also got in on the back of a huge popular swell for change, but they also had a stack of policies that they'd worked on for years. The closest that the Tories have this time is the so-called "Big Society", which appears to have singularly failed to capture anyone's imagination. Even "Back To Basics" was more plausible.

(The above bitterness was brought to you by my wrath spilling over having seen one too many Tory stooges on the box)

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Three down

And Labour are three seats up. But hardly surprising given that all three are in the stronghold of Sunderland. That said, the swing in the first two to the Tories was worrying large, although the final seat, which was the most Tory, had the smallest swing. So, more unextrapolatable results.

In other news, if the excitable media are anything to go by, there's a storm brewing in seats where people hadn't been able to vote in time. It seems harsh not to be able to vote, but it's also not clear why people weren't processed in time. The polls are open 15 hours, so it's hard (for me) not to think "didn't get your arse to the polling station in time, did you".

Seconds away ...

... And the Beeb (well, MORI) are estimating a hung parliament with a likely Conservative minority government on the basis of exit polling (C: 307; L: 255; LD: 59; O: 29). We're still more than an hour from the first result though, so plenty of time for endless (and groundless) extrapolation and speculation from the pundits.

P.S. Actually - possibly less than an hour. Apparently one seat is going for a record count of only 43 minutes.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Election Forecast

With only two days to go until voting begins, I thought I'd try to guess the result, declare my favoured result, and generally diss the various runners and riders. Then, after it's all over, I can see how far off the mark I was (or not, given that I'm seriously bet-hedging).

First: the result. The polls are still too variable to very confident, but some sort of minority/coalition government seems most likely to me. Stating the bleeding obvious, I reckon that the Tories will have the largest share of the popular vote, and potentially the most seats in the House, but not enough of the latter to form a majority government. Although the polls (as of this past weekend) point to the LimDems getting a greater share of the popular vote than Labour, I expect Labour to come second in terms of total number of parliamentary seats (to again state the fairly obvious). In fact, I still expect the polls to be wrong, and that the LibDems will come in a strong third place (more than enough for Clegg keep hold of the reins).

Anyway, given this "analysis", Friday morning could theoretically present four possibilities, but I reckon only two of these are halfway likely outcomes. Basically, ...
  • Tories in minority government
  • Tories in coalition government
  • Labour in minority government
  • Labour in coalition government
I'd score the Tories in coalition out because (a) I don't think that the party faithful would stand for it (the leadership has practically talked their way out of it already), and (b) I think that the LibDems would realise that such a pact would represent a Faustian pact that would come back to haunt them in the future. I'd score a Labour minority government out because the party would realise (should realise) that "change done come", and that it would be suicidal to attempt to continue to rule solo. Which of these two bet-hedgings comes to pass will depend on the exact numbers after the election, and I'll almost certainly revise my likelihood guesstimate as Thursday evening progresses.

Second: what I want. My voting record to date has been driven primarily by the need to oppose the Tories wherever possible (more on that in a minute). So, of the two results I've "forecast", I would definitely favour a Lib-Lab coalition. That said, a non-constructive part of me would definitely enjoy sniping at a Tory minority government forced to go begging to the Unionist factions of Northern Ireland (of whom, yes, there are parliamentary parties that I like even less than the Tories).

While I could go off on some progressive fantasy of either a Labour or LibDem triumph, I don't know that I'd actually favour these at this time. I definitely feel that Labour need to atone for their errors, and I'm not (quite) convinced that the LibDems are ready for government. On the latter point (and apologies to Mike), I fear that the wheels of an inexperienced LibDem government might quickly fall off and consign them to decades of marginal existence. Not something that I want to happen to the progressives forces that they (in large, but not exclusive, part) represent.

Third: the parties. Although I had thought that I wouldn't be paying a huge amount of attention this time around, I have (in part because of C) been enjoying the Beeb's coverage of the election, particularly their Campaign Show, and did I watch all three of the debates (though tended to websurf as they wore on). So I have been able to take stock on the parties to some degree, and won't simply be voting instinctively. That's my cover story at any rate.

While I voted Labour last time, and will be voting for them again this time (I'm happy to do this since my sitting MP quit the Cabinet over the Iraq War), I do still feel that they need to be held to account for some of their actions this parliament. I don't buy the line that the UK's current economic difficulties can be laid solely at the door of a global financial crisis. Some of our problems stem from foolish assumptions about corporate behaviour and regulation, and a hopelessly panglossian faith in never-ending economic growth. Having said that, I seriously doubt that the Tories would have done things much differently from the current Labour government. Sure, we might not have wound up saddled with as much debt driven by public spending, but we might well have seen even looser regulation and even greater misplaced faith in capitalism. Also, and this is something where I feel ideology has completely trumped verification, though Labour's policies have aimed to engineer a more equitable society with a narrower wealth gap, they've actually achieved the reverse. This hasn't happened overnight, and has been visible in the statistics for some time - perhaps this is something that a "correction" in their polling might help them reflect upon.

As already noted above, for me the Tories serve largely as an impetus to vote. Against them. Growing up with Thatcher cast a long (without end so far) shadow over my opinion of them. But by the time that the election campaign started, Cameron's makeover of the party had definitely smoothed off some of the cut-glass edges. While I was still fired up to vote against them, I had convinced myself that the tide was high for the Tories, and their seeming lack of fatally objectionable soundbites made them a shoe-in for the election. They'd even pretty successfully weathered class-war assertions about Cameron's toff roots. But as the campaign has rolled on it's become increasingly obvious that any change that appears in the party is pretty skin deep. Furthermore, as well as running on empty policy-wise, they just cannot stop themselves, even in an election year, from scoring own-goals like their proposed inheritance tax cut (even if it's not as inflammatory as opponents make out). In a way, it's strangely reassuring that the Tories are incapable of deep-down change, and that they'll always come back to protecting certain core interests. It's also darkly funny to hear the Tories championing the so-called "Big Society" when those with a memory stretching back to the 1980s are unlikely to forget that "there is no such thing as society". This seems no more than a cynical, and cheapskate, attempt to palm off services to unaccountable charities and churches eager to expand their empires. Somewhat like the Republicans in the US (although nowhere near as poisonously crazy), the Tories still seem split between economic conservatism and a social conservatism that make uneasy bedfellows. This story over the weekend, in particular, neatly summarised this aspect for me. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

About the only thing everyone seems able to agree on in this election is that the LibDems have been something of an unexpected revelation. Going into the race, they seemed destined for their traditional third place finish, but Clegg's performance in the first debate seems to have kicked them into high gear. Personally, I thought he finished only slightly better off than the other two leaders, but The Press Has Spoken, and who am I to disagree? For me, their big selling point this time around was having been less bullish about the economy prior to its unravelling (or, at least, having one prominent member of the party being less bullish). That put them in a better place than the other two parties for me, but I can't say that I've heard much more beyond this that's enhanced my faith in them. True, I'm with them on their progressive stuff, but perhaps because they haven't had to change much during the campaign I've not been especially inspired. I am keen that something happens to shake up the moribund electoral system, and this election may be the one that gives them enough of an edge to achieve this, but none of their other policies jumped out and grabbed me. Scrapping Trident, sure, but I didn't feel that Clegg's "fairness" was appreciably superior to Brown's "fairness". Although Clegg does have the advantage of not have let the wealth gap grow. I guess, overall, I want the LibDems to do well, but, treacherously, I don't want them to inadvertently give the Tories an "in". So much for my ideals.

Of the smaller parties, only the various nationalist enclaves and the Greens have made much of a dent on me. The nationalists (at least so far as one can judge from their infrequent TV appearances) seem focussed on getting some sort of hung parliament so that they can hold a gun to the head of the resulting minority government. Hardly the most constructive of viewpoints, but I'm not exactly "philosophically aligned" with their divide-and-rule plans for the UK. Of course, when I lived in Scotland I actually had to vote SNP in my local seat to keep it Tory-free, but I'm pleased to be out of that.

The Greens, as ever, pose something of a dilemma for me. On the one hand, I am "philosophically aligned" with their (ostensible) core beliefs. For straightforward ecological reasons, I'm good with environmental protection and sustainability. But it's perhaps because of this theoretical similarity that I remain otherwise quite hostile towards the Greens. Much like other environmental advocacy groups, they are happy to use science when it suits them (e.g. climate change), but dispense with it in favour of green theology whenever it doesn't (e.g. nuclear energy). That said, they've gotten smart enough to realise that dismissals of nuclear energy have to be phrased in economic terms rather than faux-environmental ones. Which makes their 1970s socialism on economic matters seem all the more strange. I don't think that socialised economies are necessarily any better than properly regulated market economies when it comes to environmentalism, but the Greens appear to still have this as an article of faith. All of which makes them largely unelectable. Which, given the importance of environmental protection, makes them something of an impediment rather than a help. So long as the general public associates environmentalism with old school economics and a fuzzy love for trees, the Greens strike me as dangerous. As Garrett Hardin once said of pesticide-zealots, "[w]ith friends like these the environment needs no enemies".

P.S. Further to the above, I've just watched a rather barn-storming speech by Brown to a gathering of party workers in Manchester. While he got in some nice pot-shots at the expense of the Tories, the highlight was a rather extended period in which he listed, at some length, a list of Labour's achievements since 1997. What was interesting to me was how many of these I'd forgotten about, and how many I take for granted now. Maybe there's life in the old dog yet?

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Fisheyed sunset

Another stab at a subject I've tackled many times before, but this time with fixed exposure, high frequency (5 seconds) and a fisheye lens ...

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Rain Stopped Play

Another stab at a fisheye time lapse ...