An announcement

I’ll end the AUGUST2020CHALLENGE with an announcement. One of the reasons behind the challenge was to increase the number of good news and positive entries into this blog which has served me well in times of adversity.

In February 2021 we’ll be welcoming a new brother or sister for Tom and Lucas. After going through a miscarriage in September last year this is a most excellent turn of events and we’re all very excited to welcome the next addition to our family.

We are very much looking forward to welcoming the newest addition to our family.

Say hello to the as yet unnamed baby Smith.

Why do you blog?

Why am I here? Why have I written six hundred (half are private) different entries onto this site? Because I find writing my thoughts down to be therapeutic. Putting in to words the thoughts in my head and then being able to read them back to myself gives me a clarity which thought alone does not.

Being able to look back at previous events in my life enables me to understand the here and now far better than memory alone does. This blog has served me well. When I forgot about good times this reminds me. When the reasons for decisions is lost, a read of these pages causes them to be found.

I wrote, briefly, about my reasons for blogging here: Why I blog | Blog Boards.

You see, the one thing I have always found about having a blog is the cathartic effects of writing. Sometimes the thoughts in my head need an outlet. They need to be allowed out for a walk. Sometimes they dance across the keyboard and words appear. Writing is therapy.

And it’s helped. It really has. When the thoughts in your head get too much for you to sort out, putting those thoughts down as words on a page or a screen is really helpful; even if those words don’t get published. They can sit in drafts for days or weeks or months. They can be written in private and then deleted. It’s entirely up to the writer.

There is something pure and clean about putting words on a page. Its not easy to explain, but have you ever struggled to understand why you feel some way, why you behave some way? This helps me to understand both feelings and behaviour. Often sitting with a blank page and just letting my fingers relay thought into words has helped me to overcome terrible feelings of loss and anger. Its a release to get it out in the open rather than keeping it bottled up.

I’ve never wanted fame or notoriety. I do not expect to be a ‘famous’ blogger. Its never been in my life plans to write for my dinner. This is a hobby and an excuse to see my thoughts ‘in the flesh’ as it were.

My efforts to populate these pages have been intermittent. When I read back its interesting to see that in the past I have turned to blogging when I’m struggling with life and relationships. The purpose of this challenge is to get back into writing about the good times. Tomorrow’s post will be a HUGE good times announcement. I know I’ll still write about the bad and the ugly, but I want to be able to showcase the good also.

I also want to link in with other bloggers. Not those who write for a living but those who write for their life. I want to read your good times and your bad times, to see the struggle and successes of ordinary people going about their ordinary business. That, to me, should be the purpose of blogging. It’s a journal, a story, a timeline of life.

I’ll finish with a little plug. If you are a blogger or want to make a start on becoming one, check out Blog Boards. It’s a small community for bloggers to get help, encouragement and support with their blogs. Check it out below:

 

Reviewing the  #august2020challenge

We’re into the final stretch now. Just three posts to go to complete the #august2020challenge. Its been hard work but a lot of fun. Hard in so much as I had to think of 31 different things to write about. Hard in so much as writing everyday – even a short post – has taken time out of my day when I could have (and maybe should have) been doing other things. Fun in so much as its given my a lot of pleasure getting back into writing; into getting the creative juices flowing once more; even if it hasn’t been overly creative.

What have a I learned? First that writing can be easy. Its not necessary to write about complex subjects. Sometimes the simplest topics make for interesting reading. Second, discipline and planning. There’s been occasions where I’ve struggled to find the time to sit down and put metaphorical pen to paper but planning when I will write and what I will write has taken the edge off the project. Making sure that I give myself the opportunity to publish something has taught me its possible to juggle competing demands and still fulfil promises/requirements.

I’ve also learned there’s a danger that I can spread myself too thin. Whilst writing these posts I’ve not been paying as much attention to other projects I’m working on. The Strategy Gaming Network forums have suffered somewhat as they have not had the attention paid to them in August as I did in July. I shall rectify that in September.

I feel like I have improved my ability to self-analyse and understand me through writing these posts. I also feel as if I have improved my critique writing when covering movies and games. This will stand me in good stead with the future of Strategy Gaming Network. The ability to review something is a skill worth having. Even whilst spending all this time on writing blog posts I still managed a decent preview of a game following an interview with game developers. Go me!

https://strategygaming.net/threads/the-commission-1920.415/

Would I do this again? It’s not the first time I have embarked upon a challenge of this nature and it probably won’t be the last. The reason for the challenge was to get back into blogging. If I can keep it up, with regular posts – weekly, bi-weekly, whatever – I shouldn’t need to do something quite so intensive in the future.

This challenge has rekindled my love for blogging. Its got me back into the zone when it comes to writing things down. This blog was always and only ever for me but its good to have picked up a few more blog follows along the way. The blogging community is a wonderful thing to be a part of. Happy to be moving in the right direction with my involvement.

Best,

Al.

What phone do you have?

I’ve had an iPhone for the last ten years since the 4 was released in 2010. Always enjoyed Apple’s simple and intuitive interface and never felt the need to look elsewhere. The only drawback of the iPhone is how bloody expensive they are. I was paying over £80 a month on my last contract. So when I got a notification that I was eligible to upgrade I decided to look elsewhere – and prove I’m not the Apple fanboy people once thought I was!

Enter the Oppo Find X2 Pro. 

I’m no luddite but I don’t grasp the technicalities of mobile devices. I like having new, shiny toys but the:

  • 6.7-inch OLED 120Hz display
  • 48-megapixel main camera
  • 32-megapixel selfie camera
  • Snapdragon 865
  • 4260mAh battery
  • 512GB storage
  • 12GB RAM

doesn’t mean a great deal to me.

I wanted a good camera as I love taking photos and a decent battery life. The rest is neither here nor there so I’m certain many other devices – including the latest iPhone – would have suited my needs perfectly, but there is something quite gorgeous about this phone. As expected the camera is superb and easily the match of similar priced devices. When I think back to what my first digital camera was like, this is far, far, superior. The colours really pop and the detail is incredible.

The screen is massive and looks amazing watching HD movies. I read something about upscaling from 30fps to 60fps when streaming on Netflix and Youtube. It also has built in stereo speakers and sounds great with or without headphones. I’ve also never had a phone which charges so quickly. Before going to work and having the phone on 12% battery, I plugged it in and inside 30 minutes it was sitting on 92%. The 512 gb storage will come in really handy with my propensity to photograph pretty much everything and anything.

I’m very pleased with my choice. One of my friends is also very pleased with my choice and has ordered the same device. What phone do you use?

 

The greatest game of all time

At the battle of Yavin
Rebel terrorists, aided by
spies and traitors within the
Empire, struck a cowardly
blow at the new symbol of
Imperial power… The Death Star!
Darth Vader brought swift justice
to the Rebels by destroying their
main base on Hoth. The pitiful
remnants of the Alliance have
now scattered to the Outer Rim.
In the days ahead, the Emperor
will call upon the Imperial Navy
to eradicate the last vestiges
of rebellion and restore law
and order to the galaxy!

Always wanted to be a part of the Star Wars universe and fight for the forces of law and order against the rebellion? In Lucasarts 1994 flight sim TIE Fighter, you will get your chance.

It would have been around ’94 or ’95 that I was introduced to TIE Fighter by a friend. In my post about my Top three movies I discussed my affinity for the Empire:

The Empire Strikes Back appeals to me in many respects because I always loved the ethos and aesthetic of the Galactic Empire. I always – and in no way secretly – cheer for the bad guy. This perhaps speaks volumes about my character!

Being able to jump into the seat of the iconic TIE Fighter and blast away at X-Wings, A-Wings and Y-Wings was a dream come true.

It’s important to note this is a simulator and not an arcade-action game. Using a joystick and the full keyboard there is a hugely steep learning curve when you first start playing TIE Fighter. Its not a game you can just pick up and play. There are training missions and tutorials to assist you in understanding the controls; they really should be mandatory. Without them you’ll have a tough time understanding what you need to do to use a TIE in anger against traitors and rebels. To give you some idea of the complexity, this is the keyboard reference card.

Point and shoot, it is not.

TIE Fighter runs alongside the events of Empire Strikes Back, starting in the aftermath of the Battle of Yavin (when the first Death Star was destroyed). You play as a new recruit, green and inexperienced TIE Fighter pilot and your first mission objective is fairly underwhelming; inspect freighters passing through the sector to check for rebels fleeing from Hoth. You soon learn that you’re a small part of a larger effort, a small cog in a giant imperial war machine. From small beginnings flying the basic TIE Fighter with laser cannons and nothing much between you and the void, you quickly advance onto more powerful ships with advanced technology such as shields and hyperdrives. In total there are seven different ships to fly from the Fighter, Interceptor and Bomber basic models to the TIE Advanced and super-sleek TIE Defender. Throw in Gunships and Missile Boats and you have a veritable arsenal to unleash against the enemies of the empire.

What I love most about TIE Fighter is the immersion into the Star Wars universe. I had never known anything like it before. Characters such as Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine from the movies crop up frequently; you can even fly a mission with the Dark Lord of the Sith. But the main OH MY GOD appearance was that of Vice Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn made his first appearance in the 1991 Timothy Zahn novel Heir to the Empire. He is a badass military genius who takes command of the Imperial Navy after the events of Return of the Jedi where he is Grand Admiral Thrawn. In TIE Fighter he the overall commander of the fleet you are a part of for most of the game. This inclusion of Expanded Universe characters shoved TIE Fighter into my consciousness. It felt like you were truly a part of the Imperial Navy. There was no sympathy for the rebels. In TIE Fighter, the heroic Rebel Alliance is the enemy.

TIE Fighter has so many features to explore you can spend hours and hours playing around on the concourse before finally starting your first mission.

Here there is a training simulator – the first step for a novice pilot, a combat trainer where you can take part in simulated (simulations inside simulations!) combat missions, a tech room where you can check out the technical specifications of both Imperial and enemy craft, and the film room where you can watch back recordings of previous engagements. So much to do before finally embarking on your first mission.

That first battle can be over incredibly quickly if you’re not careful. TIEs are fragile craft and it only takes a few stray laser shots before you’re either dead or floating in space. You have to choose your targets carefully and work as part of a team in order to bring down larger enemy ships. If you stick at it you’ll soon become a master pilot; the best the Imperial Navy has to offer, and late game the missions increase in complexity and difficulty. Engaging fast, manoeuvrable A-Wing fighters with a TIE Advanced is one of the best experiences in the game – a true dog fight. Taking down large capital ships with rockets and bombs dropped from an unshielded, slow and sluggish TIE Bomber, wonderfully exciting.

As you progress the game charts your progress. It is a statisticians dream. You will get stats on number of kills, shots on target, craft lost. You will be promoted all the way up to General and, if you can complete bonus and secret missions, be inducted into the Secret Order of the Empire. Completing a mission and missing an objective is excruciating. It’s so tempting to go back and play it again to hit all the objectives to advance outside of the battles.

TIE Fighter occupied me for months in the nineties and, in researching this post, I’ve ordered a new joystick to be able to play as the forces of the Empire once again…

“This Rebel stronghold has no hope of escape. Commence the attack!”

On this day II

Timehop is an app you plug your social media accounts into and each day it gives you back your posts from that day in the past.

This morning a quote popped up from 7 years ago.


“You cannot live when you are untouchable. Life is vulnerability.” – Édouard Boubat.

What was I doing 7 years ago – or feeling – which made this relevant? I wish I could remember. Is it still relevant now?

For a long time I was a closed book. Often described as or accused of being cold, hard, harsh. Much of this goes back to ancient times. I’ve written much about my Dad and how he impacted my ability to form ‘normal’ relationships. If you don’t feel you cannot be hurt. It took me many years to drop my walls and allow people in. It took me decades to be comfortable with giving someone the keys to my heart. Years to trust someone, to love and be loved in return.

Seven years ago was the first time I was truly happy and comfortable living with someone and loving someone. And trusting them to love me right back. The good and the bad. Sadly I lost that person, but I didn’t lose me.

When Clare died I hurt. It was a physical pain and I despised that feeling as much as I embraced it. That pain meant I felt something. That anguish at loss meant there was hope.

Tennyson said, ‘tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,’ and there is truth in those words which I didn’t want to accept when I loved and lost Clare.

I learned so much from her during our time together. She made me a better person. She taught me to be more accepting of my faults, more accepting of the faults of others. More capable of loving someone and more capable of accepting someone might love me.

Those lessons are as relevant now, seven years later, as they were back then, and perhaps this echo from the past serves as a timely reminder. I’m home with my family. With a woman I love and who inexplicably loves me. Through good times and bad times we have stuck together. There’s been challenges we have overcome and I’m sure there will be many more in the future. I’m not untouchable like I once was. I’m vulnerable and through that vulnerability I’ve found a life worth living. 

The second greatest game of all time

Released on 22 Sep, 2004, Rome: Total War is the God of all strategy games. I have clocked up 600 hours on the Steam version of the game but I estimate I’ve probably played closer to 2000 hours overall since buying the original boxed game on release way back in 2004. I still remember going through a three disc install and then patching before being able to play. I remember absorbing the included campaign map whilst exchanging discs before loading up the game and starting my first campaign. Just look at this map! (click it to load a huge version)

Rome was the first Total War game to feature a 3D map and 3D units (the units in Medieval and Shogun were sprite-based). Gameplay was a combination of turn-based on the campaign map and real time battles when two armies met. The number of units available numbered in the dozens with infantry, cavalry, missile troops and siege engines all featuring. As you moved up the tech-tree the units improved. Seeing a battle line formed by hard-hitting Roman Legionnaires with archers arrayed behind them and cavalry ready to flank unsuspecting enemies was a joy to behold. The number of tactical options on the battlefield simply never got old or boring.

In Rome you play as one of three Roman families. Each has a similar unit make up with minor differences in unique units appearing later in the game. At the start you’re allied with the other families despite them being rivals. The ultimate goal is to see to it that your family rules in Rome so it’s a judgement call whether you should support the other Roman families against mutual enemies. If they grow strong the inevitable civil war will be more difficult but having their support early game is useful.

The real joy on Rome though was the option to play as one of Rome’s enemies. In total there were twenty-one factions, four Roman (including the Roman Senate) and a number of others which became playable if you destroyed them in a campaign. Many of the other factions could be unlocked by playing about with the game files and there are mods allowing you to play all including the rebel/barbarians. For me it was mighty Carthage which took prime of place. Defending against Rome as they attempted to invade Sardinia and Sicily was always a pleasure, and turning the table and invading the Italian peninsula made for some impressive adventures.

But Rome was not just battles. Each faction had a family tree featuring elite general units. These could turn the tables in a battle but also proved to be effective managers offering boosts to production as well as siring more offspring to further and strengthen the family line. Do you commit your faction leader to a battle knowing his battle prowess will be welcome against the enemy or keep him safe so that more generals can be born and grow to lead future generations? The number of times a high-ranking general being killed in battle has changed your fortunes in the game are numerous.

Diplomats could form alliances and trade deals or bribe armies to join your side, spies could gather information on enemy cities and armies or create revolt within cities, whilst assassins could kill of characters before they got to fight or could destroy key structures weakening the enemy behind the lines. There are so many different ways to play Rome that each play through was different.

Rome was the third game in the Total War series. Since then eleven more games have been released each technically superior to the previous iteration, but there is nothing like Rome. Complex yet simple enough to pick up it could take many hours to master. I have tried many of the later Total War titles but always return to Rome.

All about Tom

Today is Tom’s birthday. He’s thirteen and growing up too quick. I asked what he wanted for his birthday and he said he just wants money so he can put it towards a new Xbox since his is ‘glitching’ badly. He will get a card and it will be stuffed with cash. I think, sometimes, that all I can give to him is money. Perhaps it is a sign of his age now but he doesn’t seem interested – much – in doing anything other than playing Xbox and going out with his mates. Dad gets relegated to a supporting act; I know this and I expected this, but it still stings.

I still remember the day he was born. Mum went into surgery and left my boy and I for a few hours. I held this new life in my arms and knew that at that moment I loved him unconditionally. I promised, silently, to always love and support him and to do my very best for him. I don’t think I have kept that promise. I wish things were better between us. Due to my job and the rigours of shift work I don’t see him as often as I should. I feel guilt about that but when I do see him its often difficult to know what to say to a teenager. What do you talk about? I don’t feel like we have very much in common and I get a feeling that when we are together he can’t wait to get home again.

Tom is very attached to his mother. We went through an arduous series of meetings with CAMHS to try and understand what is going on in his head. Tom played along but wasn’t invested. I want to push him to realise his full potential but I feel it is too late and he never will. His mother is the primary influencer and, whilst I know she loves him totally I don’t feel she is the best influence on him. I want him to be an independent, adventurous, inquisitive soul but instead he’s a home bird and still essentially attached to the apron strings.

Maybe one day he will reject the status quo and venture out on his own but as I type this, on the thirteenth anniversary of his birth, he won’t even sleep over here or at a friend’s house. We tried to understand why; that was the purpose of the CAMHS meetings but it didn’t make any difference.

What to do, what to do. I feel as if his development is being restricted by his attachment to his Mum. He plays up for her and she panders to him. I won’t and I think that is perhaps one of the reasons why he doesn’t like to stay here. Children need structure and routine. His routine revolves around his bedroom, his Xbox, and staying up until 3am before sleeping all morning and getting up in the afternoon. This whole coronavirus lockdown situation hasn’t helped as it played right into his hands. When he was required to stay in that suited him perfectly. I’d like him doing sports and clubs and activities which don’t consist of playing GTA V until the early hours.

I have to take some responsibility for the situation. When I left his Mum I caused this mess and I have never been able to fix it despite my attempts to do so. I believe we both want the best for him but neither of us can provide it. She lacks the strength to go against his wishes and I lack any influence to push him down a better path.

The future is uncertain but fills me with worry. What on earth should I do about Tom?

Social Media

On 30th December 2019 I posted the following message on Instagram along with a photo of my children and I.

“Happy New Year to all. I’m taking 2020 off social media (here and Facebook). See you in 2021”

I haven’t made it to the end of 2020 without returning to social media, but I have given it a good run. Almost eight months in the wilderness has been revelatory.

I wrote before about life through a social media lense. About how we’re all so glued to a small screen that we miss the big world around us:

Standing there with my boy’s arms around my neck just watching the display I realised that this is what is important. It’s not about what we can commit to electronic memory to be forgotten as soon as it’s happened, it’s about what we can feel and remember. What we can share with those people who matter to us.

So next time you experience something. Next time there is an event. Put away your phone. Hold those who matter to you close, and simply enjoy the sensation of sharing a time and place. You’ll get more from that act of intimacy than you ever will from your Instagram picture or your tweet.

The self-imposed ban gave me an opportunity to reassess what is important in life. These are the things I’ve learned:

Do not judge your popularity by your friends list. Many social media ‘friends’ are just numbers on a screen. True friends will remain true even if they cannot click ‘like’ on your Facebook post.

Do not compare yourself to Instagram ‘models’. For every selfie that makes it onto Instagram a hundred are rejected. People only let you see what you want them to see. If you compare your just woke up bed hair to the thrice-filtered selfie on the small screen you’ll never realise just how beautiful you are.

There is no such thing as a perfect family. For every wonderful day trip there’s five days of domestic chores and workplace boredom.

People are brave from behind their keyboards. Happy to threaten and abuse when anonymous; cowardly in person.

Life is not a popularity contest. Better to have five true pals than a legion of fair weather friends.

Twitter is not life. You’re beautiful regardless of what Instagram tells you. Facebook is irrelevant. You are not your follower count.

Your proudest moment

There are a few obvious milestones in life which people will typically think of as their proudest moment. The birth of a child, for example. Or that child graduating from university. Mine are both too young. These are things which stand out as obvious proud moments and when I sat looking at this prompt I got to thinking. Should I be proud of a birth? My efforts were small compared to the efforts of Mum. She carried baby for nine months and nurtured life. She went through labour whilst I stood and watched feeling foolish. Is that something I should be proud of? Billions upon billions of men have become dads. Proud? Perhaps. Proudest moment? Greatest achievement? Perhaps not.

I considered whether my decision to join the police and my acceptance into ‘The Job’ would be my proudest moment. Of course I was proud! Thousands applied when I did and only 26 were successful. That is an achievement to be proud of for sure but it is just the start of a career which could be stellar or mediocre. Thus far I feel like I fall into the latter and are yet to realise my full potential.

There is one event which stands out for me and it is simple and singular. Personal between me and one other.

One day walking through the town centre doing some shopping; performing general, ordinary day-to-day activities I was approached be a man. He said,

“Excuse me, I am sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to shake your hand and say thank you. You see, you probably don’t recognise me but I recognised you straight away. Six months ago you came to my house when I was having a tough time. You sat with me and you spoke to me and you made me feel like I had something to live for. I wanted to end my life that day but you made me stop and consider. Thanks to you I am still here. I cannot thank you enough and I just wanted you to know.”

At that he thrust his hand out and I shook it – bewildered – and he walked away. I didn’t even get an chance to reply before he was lost in the crowds. I never saw him again. It took me some time to remember the day he was talking about but eventually I did and I was able to put a face to a name. I never chased it up. I left him to get on with his life. I appreciated his kind gesture as he appreciated my intervention.

You see, we do things in life that have an impact. My time with this man meant he was still living. He was still alive. Even if I go to my deathbed having never achieved anything in my life and in my career I will always know that once upon a time, through words and kindness, I saved a life.