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Constable Peter Grant

When one of your favourite authors mentions she thoroughly enjoyed a book she just read, then I find it’s worth taking a peek at it.

With the Kindle version of Rivers of London at just £1.99 I couldn’t resist. So onto my new paperwhite it went. I got hooked very quickly and finished the book in one sitting. I loved it enough that I’ve now also finished the two sequels which were equally as good.

The books are basically an urban fantasy. The premise is a simple one. Take one freshly minted police constable, a very good author (who has written for TV including the likes of Doctor Who), twist one piece of reality (magic is real!) and you end up with a great story (actually three, and hopefully many more).

“So magic is real,” I said. “Which makes you a… what?”
“A wizard.”
“Like Harry Potter?”
Nightingale sighed. “No”, he said, “not like Harry Potter.”
“In what way?”
“I’m not a fictional character,” said Nightingale.

There is wry humour all over the place, and this is hardly the best example, although I have to admit it rather tickled me and I actually laughed out loud when I read it.

Along with the wry humour, the fact that it’s set in London and I get the chance to recognise a number of the locations there’s also the simple fact that it just feels so right.

The science geek in me was hooked beyond redemption when our hero first entered his new headquarters…

[…] and I knew his name before I saw the plinth, which read:
Nature and nature’s law lay hid in night;
God said ‘Let Newton be’ and all was light.

Nightingale was waiting for me by the statue.
“Welcome to the Folly,” he said, “the official home of English magic since 1775.”
“And your patron saint is Sir Isaac Newton?” I asked.
Nighingale grinned. “He was our founder, and the first man to systemise the practice of magic.”
“I was taught he invented modern science,” I said.
“He did both,” said Nightingale. “That’s the nature of genius.”

One of the things I’ve always had trouble with in modern fantasy novels (and many more “classical” fantasy books) is the blatant disregard for common sense when dealing with the magic of their world (c.f. Harry Potter). Some stories are strong enough to get away with it, but it can still be jarring. This book isn’t like that.

One of the things I really like about these books (other than a great fast moving plot, witty and wry humour, great characters and excellent descriptions) is that Ben Aaronovitch writes Peter in a way I can so easily identify with. When he starts playing with magic his first questions amount to WTF? How is this possible? Laws of Thermodynamics anyone? He then promptly starts applying the scientific method (Hi again Sir Isaac!) to what he’s learning. A small sub-theme that runs through all three books so far and while it adds only a little to the plot does a lot to make the world and the protagonist believable.

As I’m also a great fan of Harry Dresden, it’s very hard to not make comparisons. In many ways I think Ben Aaronovitch is a much more skilled author than Jim Butcher, yet both write books that are extremely entertaining and above all fun to read. The same first person narrative; a hero who is a detective (Detective Constable vs. Private Eye); in a modern urban setting (London vs Chicago) the wry humour in the story telling (although Butcher does stray towards slapstick on occasion), fun characters, enjoyable story and a fast pace.

I like them both but I think I felt much more quickly at home and immersed in the world Aaronovitch spins than I was in Butcher’s world. Perhaps because I could more easily identify with the places, culture and slang of London and the Met. than with Chicago.

Setting things in London though gives Aaranovitch a big advantage over Butcher, I feel. There’s a lot more stuff to draw on for your back story and plots in a city that’s been settled since 43 C.E. as opposed to a city only settled in 1770.

In any case… cannot wait for the next book in both series.

Common Get-ScriptDirectory in Powershell doesn’t always work

This function has been written dozens of times, in dozens of places, by dozens of bloggers, but I keep finding myself looking for it, so I thought I’d make myself a note. But I also discovered that there’s a problem with it.

If you’re writing a script in a module, it’s easy to use $PsScriptRoot  to get the current script path. For others situations there’s:

This function, and ones like it, appear in loads of blog posts, and it generally solves the problem, but it doesn’t always work, though, as it contains a flaw.

The problem is  -Scope 1. The this switch tells the script to look at the parent scope. This works as long as you have the Get-ScriptDirectory function at the top level of your script and you call it from that top level.

Here’s an example script demonstrating the problem:

Invoked as: PS> ./invoctest.ps1you get:

In Script (scope 1): []
In Script (scope 0): [F:tempinvoctest.ps1]
In Script (scope script): [F:tempinvoctest.ps1]
In t() (scope 1): [F:tempinvoctest.ps1]
in q()
In t() (scope 1): []
In t2() (scope script): [F:tempinvoctest.ps1]
in q2()
In t2() (scope script): [F:tempinvoctest.ps1]

Notice how when the call to t() is nested inside q() the function breaks, and you get nothing. The reason is that -Scope 1 is no longer looking at the script scope, but looking at the scope inside function t(). You’d need to have -Scope 2 if the function t() is invoked from inside q(). The higher the nesting level the higher the value to give to -Scope. 

You could look at the call stack, if you wanted to, but my script above already includes the answer. You need to use the “script” option for -Scope. That will ensure you always get the correct invocation variable.

This even works when the script is dot-sourced, or run in a debugger, like in PowerGUI.
The corrected function is therefore:



Ban On Mutilation A Bad Thing?

A court in Cologne has recently ruled that circumcising boys for purely religious reasons is an assault and violation of that child’s (that person’s) right to self determination and control over what happens to their own body.

The response from the religious groups that practice this has been predictably savage. The Jewish groups in Germany have been making comparisons to the holocaust; a subject understandably of extreme sensitivity in Germany.

In contrast medical and secular groups have welcomed the ruling.

The head of the UK secular medical council, in an open letter (PDF) to Chancellor Merkel has said:

Despite calls for condemnation of the ruling, especially from Jewish and Muslim organisations, we, and the Royal Dutch Medical Association believe the practice to be potentially harmful. More importantly, this ruling correctly places the welfare of vulnerable children above the unrestrained expression of adult beliefs.

Not all Jews are opposed to this (from Reuters):

“The majority of the world does not circumcise because of an instinctive awareness of the harm, analogous to cutting off any other healthy body part,” it said in a statement entitled “The German Circumcision Ruling: What about the harm to the child?”

“It” in this case being U.S.-based Jewish Circumcision Resource Centre.

Yet,  according to Merkel though, it “makes Germany a laughing stock”.

I disagree, it makes Germany a leader.

As someone who, as an adult, has been circumcised for purely medical reasons I can speak from a level of experience that is denied all those boys of religious parents. It’s painful (very) and while I can confirm that there’s no impairment and that I can function perfectly well without my foreskin, there is a difference and it’s one that I notice.

There are perfectly valid medical reasons for doing a circumcision, for example Phimosis or, in those countries where AIDS is rampant, to reduce chances of infection.

If a new religious group were to come about, and as part of it’s rituals, just as circumcision is part of Jewish ritual, they required all infants to have an ear cut off, would  we object?

I’d like to think that most people would disagree. You don’t need your ears, you can function perfectly well without them. There will be a slight decrease in functionality, but no more so than for a circumcision. Of course there might be some more cosmetic issues, but just as circumcision is out of sight in your pants, your missing ear can be hidden by long hair; and why not wear it with pride as it’s the symbol of your faith?

You’re not allowed to beat your child, to cause it physical harm, even if (like infant circumcision) they won’t remember the pain when they are older. Unlike a beating, where the black eyes heal and the broken arms mend, circumcision is permanent. Why is it that society objects (strongly) to parents beating their children even just once, but yet has no objection to circumcising them? If you did to an adult, without his consent, what Jewish parents do to their infant boys, without their consent, they’d be looking at assault charges and prison sentences.

If you have trouble seeing that comparison (and I’m disappointed if you don’t see it), then consider that there is a reason most parents don’t allow their kids to get tattoos, earrings and piercings until they reach a certain age; if I remember correctly my sister was somewhere around 10 before she was allowed to have her ears pierced. These are changes that permanently affect their body and they are decisions that need to be made with care and conscious choice. Why can’t we just let religious circumcision join that group?

Judaism already has it’s coming of age ceremony for boys, the Bar Mitzvah, generally at age 13. Why not make circumcision a part of that? He can do his reading from the Torah, have his party, then get circumcised to show his allegiance to his faith. Wouldn’t that make it more meaningful as well, a conscious choice to join the faith, instead of being forced into it at birth without a choice?

It seems that at least one German paediatrician seems to think this is the better approach. Circumcision has always been an ethical problem for conscientious doctors who are required, by their Hippocratic oath to, “first do no harm”.

For me it’s a simple case of justice. There is no justice in imposing your views, especially forcefully as with an operation, on those who are incapable of defending themselves and raising objections. Given their claim to be the moral champions of society, I find it rather ironic that it’s the religious groups that are fighting to retain the rights to what is fundamentally a highly immoral ritual.

Taking Powershell with you

I’m a huge fan of the command line. There’s nothing you cannot do from the command line in Linux; in Windows, things were a lot harder. For too long Microsoft focused on GUI and neglected the command line. (This is still noticeable where the terminal window on windows is concerned, which is still decades behind Linux. I’ve used Console2 for ages, but I just discovered Scott Henselman’s blog and he suggested ConEmu and I’m giving that try now. Looks very good.)

Where Windows has finally caught up is PowerShell. It’s a command line shell, scripting language and all round bad-ass tool. Unlike Linux shells, it’s fully object orientated; whereas BASH and ZSH etc all need to pass strings around, PowerShell uses real objects. This post isn’t really about evangelising PowerShell but if you’re doing any kinds of technical work on Windows, then you should be using PowerShell.
I love customising the environment I work in to make it perfect for me. The annoying thing is that I work on many different computers and it’s a pain keeping all those settings working together. A while back I came across a trick to get VIM settings synced using Dropbox (or a similar cloud file store). I set out to do the same with Powershell.
There’s really three principle things I wanted to do:
  1. Ensure all my computers use the same profile
  2. Ensure all my computers have access to the same modules
  3. Allow computer specific settings to be set easily
I was surprised at how easy it actually was. It took some tweaking to get it perfect, but here his my solution.
PowerShell keeps everything it needs in c:users<login>DocumentsWindowsPowerShell so the first thing I did was copy everything out of there into a folder in Dropbox. I used Settingspowershell.
I now needed a way to connect my actual profile, with the one powershell loads by default. This has to be as simple as possible, since it’s what I’ll need to do on any new computer and I don’t want a dozen line check-list.
Turns out, powershell is happy with a simple dot-source of my profile in the new location. So (since I have different user names at home and work) I calculate the profile location in dropbox and source it. It worked.
I then tested this on another computer and discovered an interesting issue. Dropbox of course downloads files from the ‘net and Windows immediately flags them as being downloaded. PowerShell detects this and won’t run them unless signed. (They’re remote scripts and hence a security risk). I’m therefore lowering the security permissions to allow this. (A better solution might be to remove the download flag on all of them, but there’s a lot of files once modules are included, so this will do for now.)
My profile.ps1 now looks like this:

Next was getting my modules to load. I started by trying to look at way to manipulate the path or to automatically copy the modules to the Powershell folder. This was ridiculously convoluted and there had to be an easier way. It took some searching, but I eventually came across $env:PSModulePath. Yep, the search path for modules.

I therefore mapped a drive to my modules directory and updated the modules path:

My modules all now load without any problems. Note that powershell: is a mapped drive as well.PowerTab was causing some issues, but I fixed those by moving the settings file into the AppData folder; which can be set in the first run wizard. Best solution in any case as different computers will have different things installed, and might need different settings.

That’s all working. The final thing is custom settings per computer. This was actually the easiest, especially once I’d figured out everything for the other two of my requirements and I was able to simply write it:

This looks for a file called profile_<computer>.ps1 and dot-sources it. Simple.

You may wonder about some of my strange variable naming. I tend to like things neat, and I create a whole load of variables during my profile initialisation. I therefore have a naming convention for variables I don’t need once the scripts have finished running, as a side effect of dot-sourcing a script is that the variables don’t drop out of scope.

At the end of my profile therefore I have:

and all my script variables are gone and I’m left with a very neat Powershell session that works the way I want it to, on any computer.

Reflections on Diablo III

Diablo III has been out for a while and I’ve been playing it a fair bit. I thought I’d share my own views on the game, to add to the general level of noise on the internet about it.

There is very much complimentary to say about Diablo III.

The graphics are gorgeous. The generated levels and dungeons slot together seamlessly. You do start to recognise elements, but it never becomes jarring or obvious the way it has for games in the past. There’s no “tiles” as it where, and any that exist are very large and not distracting.

The cut-scenes are gorgeous, in true Blizzard style, and put many so-called “blockbuster movies” to shame.

The story is simple and a bit clichéd, but carries you through the game fairly well, it was hardly meant to be the primary focus of the game and what there is of it is enough to keep you mildly engaged while you’re playing, at least during the first or second play through.

Unfortunately this is where we start running into the problems. There are four difficulty levels and each one is supposed to be a much harder challenge than the previous. This is certainly true, but the difference seems very artificial. The enemies get more abilities, they get more health and they do more damage. So much so that there are far too many one-shot kills and often enough you can run into a group of the more challenging “elites” or “champions” and you’re dead before you even realise it.

The challenge to beating these enemies is very artificial. I’m playing a wizard. I should do masses of damage to compensate for the fact that I have little healthy and no real armour. In the first play through you can just use your primary and secondary spells and you’re fine. In the next you need to start using all your skills, and start running away quite a bit. In the next difficulty you are running all the time with barely enough time to cast a spell. Often enough if you do stop to cast a spell the mobs catch you and you die. Beating these enemies becomes a case of simply running away and dying.

There’s no real way to beat these enemies by changing your strategy or spell selection. The mobs get to trap you and pin you into place, but there’s no real spells that allow you to do that back to them. The enemies get abilities (and more of them for each difficulty level) and some combinations are just so impossible to defeat that no matter what strategy you employ you have no real chance. Take elites with “invulnerable” minions. That’s right you cannot damage those extra mobs, but they can damage you. You also as a wizard cannot cast your ranged spells at the main mob because the shielded ones are in the way. The entire fight becomes a case of just running around and trying to sneak a spell past the invulnerable enemies. Run in the wrong direction and more enemies appear, wait a fraction of a second too long after casting a spell and you die, or get trapped by running in the wrong direction and die.. or get trapped because the enemies also have the “waller” or “jailer” ability as well. One or two hits and you’re dead. There are other ability combinations equally frustrating. It should be a challenge, it should require you to learn and plot and improvise, but there’s nothing in the game that gives you those options.

The only real way to beat these fights is to have decent gear to bring your damage and armour/health up high enough to be able to take the odd hit while running around in circles. There’s no point changing your strategy, because there’s really only one strategy that works.

That’s the next problem. There’s no really good loot drops. Masses of loot drops but it’s all crap. You might get an upgrade item for one in a thousand drops. The loot is random, but it’s a bit too random; or maybe their algorithms are broken. For some reason my wizard gets a massive amount of quiver drops (which he can’t use). I’m level 58 and still wearing some rings I picked up around level 20-30 because in the 30 hours of game play since, I’ve not had a single ring drop that’s better than the two I already have.

Replaying earlier parts would be a lot more fun if you the loot that dropped could actually be an improvement, but for the most part you look at what drops and it’s stuff you might have liked 10 or even 20 levels earlier, but it’s nothing as good as what you have and certainly nothing as good as you need to beat the current hardest enemy you’re facing.

This leaves you with no real choice but to farm for gold and buy stuff from the auction house. Unfortunately there are gold sellers running rampant in the game and inflation in the auction house is out of control. An upgrade for one of my rings (just a simple magical ring with some better stats) is listed as millions of gold. According to my stats, I’ve collected 1 million gold in the 70 hours of play so far. How am I supposed to pay for items then? I’m not a student any more, I can’t play for 12 hours a day, every day.

The gameplay issues are bad enough… add to that that this game requires an always-on internet connection and the servers are collapsing under the load and there are whole evenings and weekends where you cannot even connect to play and I’m glad I got this game as part of a deal and didn’t pay for it directly.

The game is becoming more and more monotonous and, in truth, boring. Things that might keep you playing, like the thrill of getting good loot, or a great drop, isn’t there because drops are so far and few between that by the time you get one any thought or chance of excitement has long been replaced by frustration and exasperation and your only response is “about bloody time”.

Maybe Blizzard will fix it, maybe not. For a game that’s supposed to be “infinitely repayable” it’s very disappointing. There are better games out there, Torchlight, springs to mind; maybe not as polished graphically and musically, but certainly less frustrating to play.

In the scheme of things though I’ve got 70 hours of entertainment out of a game that retails for about €55, and I’ll still get more, as I play through the game with the other classes. Compare that to a cinema ticket of €11 for 2 hours of entertainment, or a football match for €60 (or a lot more) and it’s certainly good value. It just could have been so much more.

Encounters with Dutch Medicine

I’ve been in the Netherlands for a few months now and for various reasons I’ve had the need to interact with the medical entities here quite a bit.

Like everything new, it can be a bit confusing to start with and getting your head around what’s happening and what is expected can be a bit daunting.

It starts with getting health insurance. Health insurance in the Netherlands is compulsory, everyone in the country has to be insured. Insurers are not allowed to refuse you cover, nor are they allowed to require special conditions; questions someone from the UK might never have considered, but Americans are probably very used to. Most hospitals and medical establishments appear to be private, not-for-profit organisations. Wikipedia (as usual) as has more details for those interested.

A “basic” package includes essentially everything needed to keep one alive and functioning, this is covered in part by employer contributions from payroll and in part by your own contributions to insurance. Some things, like GP (Huisarts, lit. house doctor) visits are fully covered and you’ll never pay towards them. I’m sure there are others but I’ve not yet encountered them.

Prescriptions are covered by a form of co-pay scheme where you pay up to an annual amount that’s mandated by the government, this year it’s €218. That means you’ll pay the first €218 of your covered costs in a year and after that your insurance pays everything else. My insurer gives me a nice little summary bar chart of what’s left for me to pay.

You can decrease your monthly insurance costs by increasing your “eigen risico” (lit. own risk) but I was recommended not to by my employer.

In addition to the basic package the insurers will tend to then offer cover for additional services, mine for example (and I tried my best to get it removed) is cover for “alternative” medicine, like homoeopathy, but it’s in the standard package offered because people seem to like paying over the odds for water. More sensible things are mental health, dietary advice, elective surgeries, even health spas and similar things. Generally the difference between the different levels of cover is how much you have to pay before/after the insurance kicks in.

Dental is usually not covered, except it seems for children under eighteen. I know I need to visit the dentist twice a year, so I had dental insurance added. I’ve always paid a fair bit on the NHS when I went to the dentist, and the hygienist was never covered by the NHS, whereas it is covered by my insurance here. I’ve had an hygienist visit, a check-up and two fillings repaired and I’d say I’ve probably ended up paying a third or half more than I would have on the NHS (including my insurance cost). Looking at private dental costs charts in the UK I’d say prices are comparable, if possibly slightly cheaper in the Netherlands, although I’ve not done an in-depth analysis.

Once you have insurance things are actually fairly simple. I haven’t handed cash or debit-card over to anyone at all since I was here. Even in the UK you are expected to pay for prescription charges up front (unless exempted); not so in the Netherlands. Once they have my insurance details everything goes via the insurer, so I pay nothing at the counter, not at the doctor, pharmacy (for prescriptions) nor at the dentist; which makes a nice change from the UK where I had to hand over cash/card all the time, even for NHS stuff.

Finding a doctor was fairly simple as well. There’s a nice website where you just type in your postcode and all the doctors, dentists, etc. in your area listed with contact details and ratings (there don’t seem to be too many of those yet, so probably not that reliable).

I found my doctor by looking them up there, then going to their website and signing up as a new patient. As it happened my health took a turn for the worse shortly after and I then phoned them up. The answer machine had an option for English, which is nice, and I was able to make an urgent appointment for the next morning (none of this” phone before 0900h for a same day appointment” I had at my UK doctor). My first appointment actually lasted 45 minutes, much longer than usual, but I never felt rushed, which is also a nice change from my UK GP experiences. I consider both my UK and Dutch surgeries comparable as they are both GP collectives (can’t think of a better term right now) where you have multiple GPs working out of a single surgery and sharing the load. Unlike my UK surgery though, the Dutch one assigned me a doctor and will do everything they can to make sure I always get “my” doctor. In the UK this was merely a formality and they gave me whatever doctor they felt like for the appointment, unless I specifically asked for one by name.

The doctors all speak excellent English so I had no problems talking to them, the doctors’ assistants (I might be doing them a disservice, but they seem more like receptionists to me) are a different matter, none of them seem to speak English, so that can be a bit interesting at times as I try out my slowly improving Dutch on them.

Things were sorted out for me pretty quickly. Blood tests done the next day, results and medication to deal with what was found. Interestingly doctors here won’t sign you off work, not even recommend if you should go in or not; that’s up to you and your company’s doctor (who I have yet to speak to, not sure my company even has one).

Medication I got from the in-house pharmacy and again I had to hand over no money, it all goes direct to my insurer. If the medication isn’t covered, then it’s added to my “own risk” and/or I get a bill. The only time I was required to pay for medication was for something that’s commonly abused and the insurance just flatly refuses to pay for; an understandable attitude.

Unlike the UK, every prescription you get from your doctor is, seemingly, a repeat prescription. That is, once you’ve been given medication once by your doctor, you can keep going back to the pharmacist for more; at least that’s how my doctor explained it to me; I’ve yet try it out. This might explain why the insurer refused to pay even for a prescription medication.

Talking of medication, one thing that’s different is the level of restrictions on medication. Things I used to buy in the supermarket in the UK are prescription only over here. Cocodamol (paracetamol and codeine) for example. Even things like the cetrizine antihistamine is only available in packs of seven from the pharmacy, whereas I could buy it in packs of thirty from the pharmacy in the UK. Getting the prescriptions is not difficult, just need to ask the doctor. Dosages are also slightly different, my painkiller here in Netherlands is stronger now; 500mg/10mg (paracetamol/codeine) instead of 500mg/8mg that I used to get in the UK. One thing this means is that, once my “own risk” is used up, I won’t be paying for these medications any more for the remainder of the year; whereas the NHS would never have paid for these.

Keeping track of my insurance is easy as well. My insurer provides a nice website, which I log into using the government required “DigiD“, which is also used for things like my taxes (a federated security model, for those that are interested). Once in I can see everything that has gone through the insurer (see left, vergoed = reimbursed), how much is covered, what isn’t, what’s left of my “own risk” (see above) and an itemised breakdown, (see below).

Dentist, GP and pharmacy.

All in all, my experience with Dutch healthcare as been pretty favourable. As I’m required to pay for it now I’m actually pretty pleased with the way things are organised and presented to me, in many ways it’s actually more convenient than what I was used to under the NHS. In some ways I’m actually much happier here than I was in the UK, but I’m not sure if that’s a systemic difference, or because of the doctors’ offices I happened to have chosen in each country.

Star Wars the Old Republic

I’ve been playing this a fair bit in the last few days and I thought I’d share my impressions of it.

World of Warcraft much?

The truth of the matter is that there really isn’t that much about Star Wars the Old Republic to distinguish it from World of Warcraft. Clearly the aim has been to actually make the games as similar, from a view of mechanics and controls, as they could.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. WoW has been around for more than half a decade and is still going strong, so copying something that successful can’t be all bad. It also means that SWOTR clearly has in mind WoW players as it’s target demographic.

It’s therefore fantastically easy to get into the game if you’re a seasoned WoW player. While there’s some tweaking in the class categories, SWOTR clearly lists each class by its role: Tank, Healer, DPS.
The mix can seem a bit odd though. I started out with a Jedi Consular and specialised into Shadow. Depending on talents (and the talent tree mechanics are intimiatly familiar with how WoW works) this means I’m either a rogue (DPS) or a tank. If I’d taken the alternate specialisation, I’d have been a healer.

Party size is 4, not 5 though.

The WoW similarities don’t end with the talent tree. The layout of the UI is very similar, the keyboard mappings are almost identical. Want to clear the UI and take a screenshot? ‘Alt-z’, ‘Prt Scrn’; same as WoW. Even flourishing and/or sheathing your weapon is the same key, ‘z’. There was no problem at all slipping from WoW into SWOTR. Chances are if I want to do something, I just do it the way I did it in WoW and it works.

So what is different? You get companions in the world. So even if you play it as single player you’ll still have a second party member. I have four companions at the moment; only one of whom is allowed to be in party at any time. The others I can send on missions of their own. This is how the crafting system works, and it’s one I much prefer over the WoW mechanic. If I want to make stuff, or find resources, I send my idle crew members off to do it, while I continue adventuring. I even have the option of sending my current companion off to sell al the grey items in my inventory so.

Your companions have their own quests, although they’ve been pretty uninspiring so far, and you can gain their affection by making choices in conversations they approve of, and as their affection grows as do their skills.

You get your own spaceship to fly around in and go from zone to zone (or rather planet to planet) and you even get to do space missions. These are very arcade like and very easy for anyone with the slighest experience at those types of games, but make a great diversion and are good fun in their own right.
The next big difference is the story and the universe. It’s Star Wars, and more specifically Knights of the Old Republic. If you know those games you’ll know this world. It’s set 300 years later, but there are many nods to the existing lore. One of the early planets you go to is Taris, the world that was destroyed in KOTOR and you run around the wreck of the Endar Spire, the ship that was blown apart around you as the first action in KOTOR. You get to find out what happened to the under city dwellers and their quest for their paradise.
Most of the worlds known from Star Wars are there, and many from the KOTOR universe as well. You’ll encounter the names of old characters, worlds and events. Lots of familiar worlds, sometimes surprisingly, yet still realistically, different in ways that are plausible given the 2000 year difference between SWTOR and the films. Alderaan is locked in a downright nasty civil war that could easily explain why it became pacifist.

And that brings me to what SWOTR does best; Story. Fully voiced quest givers, not reams of text. Paying attention to what’s said is actually important. While the quests do tend to the usual kill or go-fetch style, they do require you to make choices and those choices have consequences. Perhaps not on the world as a whole, but certainly on your relationship to the world. Do you take the easy route and kill the engine room crew to save the ship, or take the harder route and try to save everyone. Do you take the expedient route and kill the traitor, or take him prisoner, or even offer him the chance at redemption. What you do affects how stories move on (albeit not as significantly as a single player game might) and they affect your alignment with the force. Dark or Light. Some decisions really are quite evil and reflect the universe accuratly. The self-deprecating humour and irreverence of WoW are missing; but that’d hardly have fit in the SWTOR universe.

Now I arrive at what I see as the flaw with SWOTR. It’s a single player game running on MMORPG servers. The world is huge, the graphics great (albeit with some annoying glitches), mechanics are good and easy to get to grips with and the story is invovled and, if not always compelling, it’s certainly entertaining.
There’s no real need for this game to be an online RPG. For the money they could have made a couple of single-player games and done them extremely well; could have done so much more, since they’d not needed to preserve the world for the next player. Instead it’s an online game that for the most part I’m playing as a single player game. So what happens when the story runs out?

It’s not likely to happen soon. I’m approaching the middle of level 30 and there’s no sign of my class story running dry at the moment, and there are 3 other classes and stories for me to try out and then another 4 on the Empire’s side. I suspect though replay value will possibly be more frustrating than the first play, since there’s so much that will simply have to be repeated.

The game will be fun for quite some time yet, but I suspect endgame will be the big hurdle. Unless bioware/ea come out with frequent and regular story updates I can see myself giving up on this game fairly quickly.

I’m driven by story, but what’s new, by finding out what happens next. It’s why I love each new WoW patch, but then grow a bit jaded with it and withdraw from it once I’ve seen the new stuff. If I wanted to keep doing the same things over and over, I’d get a job on an assembly line.

Moving to the Netherlands – First Steps

This post also know as: Dancing with Bureaucracy.

Given how long this has been in the planning (over half a year) it’s rather strange to be thinking of what’s happened today as first steps. In truth though, it’s the first really concrete stuff that’s happened since I signed the employment contract.

I’ve now moved out from the sphere of potentia, where I could look longingly (albeit with some dread) at the path still to travel, but was unable to actually put a foot on that path and start moving forward. A journey filled with inane, and seemingly insane, bureaucracy, helpful people and some cultural differences.

The first thing to explain is that without a BSN (burgerservicenummer, lit. citizen service number), nothing happens. The BSN is what the Americans would call a social security number. It’s like a national insurance number but more so. You cannot get anything done without one.

To get a BSN, you need to register with the local council. To register with the local council you need an address. To get an address you need to buy/rent a flat. To buy/rent a flat you need to pay for it and hence you need a Dutch bank account. To get a bank account you need… wait for it… a BSN. Oops.

As usual most bureaucracies can be circumvented if you know how to play the game.

My story starts at 9am in gloomy, damp dawn light outside what will be my new flat. Enter the man from the makelaar (lit. Broker, in my case more accurately an estate/letting agent). When I signed the contract for my flat this morning he had (without any prompting from me) kindly brought a third copy of the contract along which both he and I signed in addition to the others. This contract has no legal force whatsoever, since he’s not entitled to sign it, but it means I have a counter signed contract ready to show the authorities to get my BSN; while waiting for the proper contract to make the round trip to the owner company and back. In the event, I didn’t need it; at least not yet. It was a nice extra thing of him to do and much appreciated. He’s also arranging for a contractor to give me an estimate for flooring/painting my flat. His fee well earned, I have to say, despite some irritation at them not getting the key in time. The fee wasn’t much different from that in the UK, yet the guy was friendlier and more helpful than any of the agents I’ve had to deal with in the UK in the past.

Signed contract in hand, I head into town to get my BSN. I really need it now. I have to pay my rent. They don’t take cards, Barclays Bank rather unhelpfully won’t transfer money internationally to a third-party account and so I need a Dutch account… fast. There’s maybe 4 working days to get this done.

I head into the International Centre in the Stadhuis (Town Hall) where they promptly offer me coffee and tea and then tell me that it turns out I cannot get an appointment to register until sometime late in January. Everyone that said I could just walk in and do it was wrong. Problem. Oh and that birth certificate, my original, almost as old as me, isn’t worth a damn. They won’t accept a document older than 6 months.

After describing my dilemma he nods in understanding; he’s heard it all before. Out of earshot of his colleauge he tells me “I’m a civil servant, so I’m not allowed to give commercial advice. So I cannot tell you that the Amro bank just down the road has an international desk and as long a you go in there, keep saying you’re an expat and refuse to speak any Dutch they’ll open an account without a BSN.”

I get an appointment to register (different office) for a couple of weeks’ time, turns out they had just two spare slots right after new year, which worked out great for me.  I get a copy of the appointment details in case the bank wants some proof.

Turns out it was just as simple as my helpful civil servant said. I walk into the bank, which looks more like the front offices of what I picture a rich law firm to be than any UK bank I’ve ever been in; quite similar to my experiences in Germany and Switzerland though. As usual everyone speaks English and I’m once again offered a drink. The address on my new flat contract is enough to open an account. All the documents are provided in both English and Dutch, although it’s carefully pointed out that only the Dutch ones have legal force, and I’m shown a quick introduction to the internet banking site, also totally in English. Knowing I’ll need to move money internationally I make sure I get the IBAN and BIC codes for my account. The bank charges me €2.70 per month for the service and I don’t get interest on the current account (as if the 0.05% I get in the UK qualifies as interest).

I discover that there’s actually online IBAN/BIC calculators to work these things out for free. I know from the Barclays website they charge an extra £7 fee if you don’t have them. Suddenly sounds a lot like extortion.

I swing by the British Embassy on the way to the office to sort out my birth certificate where I’m told they don’t do helpful stuff and I need to talk to the Consulate-General in Amsterdam.

At the office the first thing I do is phone up Barclays to move some money. Once I’m past the Indian call-centre operator with her mediocre grasp of English (worse than most of the Dutch people I spoke to today, who don’t even work in a call centre for an English company), I get a pleasantly helpful northern chap who fairly quickly sorts out the transfer. £15 charge. Starkly in contrast to what the man at the Amro told me earlier that they move money anywhere in Europe for free. I’m starting to think the holy grail of “free” banking in the UK is looking more like the Monty Python version, and not worth the pursuit. This one transfer, that would have been free if going from NL to UK, cost me as much as half a years banking in the Netherlands. I’m hardly a “usual” customer, admittedly, but still.

Next call is to the Consulate General in Amsterdam. They say, yes, I do need a new birth ceritficate issued and I need it legalised, it needs an apostille stamp. After much haggling about the best way to get this quickly, which at one point had me travelling in person to the Consulate-General in Stuttgart where my birth was registered, the best bet was to call General Registrar Office in the UK.

After a futile conversation with an automated phone system I finally get to talk to a real human and he’s immediately helpful. Clearly deals with this type of stuff a lot. Also turns out that I’m quite lucky at needing only 6 months. He says in France it’s 3 months and they want a birth certificate for everything!

£67 later my birth certificate has been requested. £20 for the apostille stamp and the rest on a rush service and special delivery so that I get the thing in time for my registration appointment. Luckily my employer will cover this cost. The cheapest you can do this is around £32; I pity the UK expats living in France.

It’s now basically lunch time. I have a flat. I have a bank account. I have an appointment to be registered. I should hopefully have a birth certificate in time for that, and when the money has finished flowing through the ether I can pay my rent.

It’s taken a couple of months/weeks of preparation, mostly the first step of finding a place to live and getting that sorted, but in half a day I’m a big chunk of the way closer to actually living and working the the Netherlands.

Britain and the EU

It’s all come to a head in the last couple of days. I’m personally calling it “Cameron’s EU Fiasco” in my own head.

Cameron looks like a diplomatic incompetent. Nick Clegg looks like marginalised, out-of-the-loop hanger on (although he has finally started to get a backbone), and Britain looks like a self-serving jerk that puts the economic interests of the fat-cat bankers that caused the entire mess ahead of the welfare of an entire continent. Only the UK’s finance industry and businesses  aren’t too happy either. Even the FT and the Economist, hardly bastions of pro-Europeans and left of centre liberals aren’t impressed with Cameron.

I’m disappointed all round and angry at almost everyone. I have to say, I’m most disappointed though with the LibDems and Nick Clegg. It’s been building for a while, but this is almost the final straw. The coalition was there for us to save the country from the self-destructive excesses of the loony Tory right. We’re not doing too well.

As to the situation with Britain and the EU, well here’s my take on the situation (reprinted from a comment I left elsewhere)

The founding members of the EU created their vision on the premise that they wanted to stop the self-destructive cycle that most recently devastated the continent barely a decade earlier. Britain, still dreaming forlornly of rebuilding its empire at the time, thought it was doomed to fail. Eventually economics and pressure from business forced the politicians to join, despite never really approving of the whole concept.

Der Spiegel called Britain’s membership of the EU a misunderstanding. Europe was in it for security, safety and peace. The economic benefits were a much appreciated bonus. The UK, it seems to me is the implication, was just in it for the money.

It’s no surprise then that eventually Britain would be cut out, as it was never really in, and never really subscribed to the vision. It’s no wonder then that the tone of almost all German newspapers this weekend has been one, almost, of relief that the “Störenfried” (troublemaker) and “Bremser” (brakesman) of Europe has finally been sidelined and the EU can get on with shaping its vision.

Coupled with what’s seen by many on the continent as the UK’s favouring of American low-tax, cut-throat style capitalism instead of European high-tax social welfare; and breaking ranks with Europe to have it’s love-in conspiracy with Bush to illegally invade Iraq, it isn’t that surprising that the head of the German conservative (CSU) delegation to the European parliament, Markus Ferber, was quoted in the Stern as saying:

«Großbritannien muss sich entscheiden, ob es weiterhin als 27. Mitgliedstaat der Europäischen Union seine Zukunft selbst gestalten, oder lieber als 51. Bundesstaat der USA Befehle aus Washington empfangen will.» 

“Great Britain must decide if it wants, as 27th member state of the EU, to continue to shape its own future, or would prefer to be the 51st state of the US and take it’s orders from Washington.”

Britain wants the economic benefits that are a side-effect of the political dream. It’s no wonder then that Britain is seen as nothing but a troublemaker by those chasing their vision. In turn those with the vision are seen as dangerous, misguided and foolish by a country that cares only for its economic self-interest. It’s the clash of the idealists and dreamers with the pragmatists and profiteerers.

Much as the EU is good for Britain, the question that’s been bothering me more of late is whether Britain is good for the EU.

Die Zeit, seems to be thinking along these lines as well and is running a two part opinion piece.

The first part makes the point that the UK is nothing but a troublemaker and Europe can happily do without them. Noting that Britain’s deficit is worse than that of the Greeks and that instead of closer ties to its equally afflicted compatriots in Europe it’s actually distancing itself. The EU doesn’t need the permanent nay-sayers.

The second part suggests that actually, the UK is what Europe needs. It needs the quarrelsome and troublemaking Brits to keep Europe from becoming complacent and full of itself. The Euro-crisis has removed all the political issues that have been bothering Europe for ages and brought it all down to one thing: Money. Despite the recent trend to demonise the City, the British know a lot about money. It argues that Britain is very burdensome /troublesome, but it wants a Europe that’s free and open to the world and that’s the ideal Europe and worth every effort.

I’m not sure that’s right; it’s not worth every effort. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and move on. I’d love the UK to be a big part of Europe, an active and supportive member. Until though the British establishment, and its voters, decide to be more constructive and conciliatory instead of simply negative and troublesome, Europe might well be better of without the UK to hold it back.